Putting our Heads Together

Putting our Heads Together
I don't think he sees me

Sunday, May 22, 2016


Don Quixote de la Mancha
would never tilt at these towers
that dwarf Dutch ancestors.
No cloth laced wooden blades
at which to take aim,
just edged steel, spinning swords
splitting wind in twain,
separating energy from air.
Arms atop spires
the color of sun bleached bone
scattered in sparse dry grasses.
Inorganic crosses arms wide,
spinning hypnotically,
enthralling witnesses and martyrs,
as cattle and pronghorn
worship, heads bowed,


Sunday, May 8, 2016


Sometimes the triggers are subtle: a smell, a song, a sound.  I will be sitting there and think of my mom and want to share that moment with her, then realize that the only way to do that now is through prayer.  But there are days, moments, that hit like a sledgehammer.  Mother’s Day this year snuck up on me as I focused on the joy of my wife, mother of our children, and on our eldest daughter, mother of our incredible grandson.  Probably I had subconsciously pushed the sadness to the side, to save for later, to feel in a private moment.  Two days ago, as Jean-Marie and I flew back from a conference that I attended, I realized it was Friday May 6th and Mother’s Day was only two days off – which would make it May 8th this year.  That was when the sledgehammer fell and I fought off tears, May 8th Mom would have been 82. 

I have never been a good enough son to remember Mom’s birthday with any reliable accuracy for much of my life (my wife Jean-Marie improved my memory in that regard substantially!).  I am truly terrible with dates in general.  I have trouble remembering my sister Laura’s birth date, and that of my little brother Greg.  Ginny’s birthday is hard to forget since it is on Independence Day, and my older brother Chris only takes me a little math to work out (he is one year, one month, and one week my elder).  Mom’s birthday I always linked with Mother’s Day.  When Mother’s Day approached, I would buy a card and a gift and use them for both – I’d like to think that Mom admired the practicality of it, but that is only my guilt tossing a coin into the wishing well.  This year I can give her no card, no gift. No two-for-one phone call.  The only gift lying about is for me, the blessing of having her for 53 years, the gift of the memories that lie in her wake.

It is Sunday today, and I close my eyes and I can smell the cooking of breakfast.  As a family, we fell into a ritual of watching Award Theater on TBS on Sunday mornings eating homemade Egg McMuffins. Mom made these using egg rings in her electric skillet for maximum authenticity.  Dad of course dubbed these “Egg McMommies,” they were better than anything made by McDonalds.  One Saturday night, I had been over at my best friend’s house hanging out and watching TV.  It was getting late and I needed to get home, but Summer of ’42 came on and Ben and I had to watch (what teenage boy wouldn’t?!?).  So I spent the night forgetting to call home.  When I got up the next morning seeing it was almost 9, I hustled out the door and ran home (I was a runner then and ran everywhere, and Ben only lived a mile away).  As I came in the door that particular Sunday while the family was amassed in the den in front of the TV, Mom said to me that my breakfast was almost ready.  “Mom, I fell asleep last night at Ben’s.  I’m just coming home.” I said this maybe hoping for punishment to ease my guilt at not having called.  “Oh, I thought you were just out for a run.”  She knew I was safe, and she trusted me.

I sit here and listen to the early silence of the house, and I can hear Mom laugh.  Mom loved to laugh and she was good at it.  I loved to make her laugh.  She would get a silly smile on her face that I could see even over the phone, and if the moment were good, with eyes squinting she would double over just a bit.  It was not a raucous laugh, but one submerged in her chest constrained a bit by politeness perhaps, but it was genuine and fun as all getout to watch.  My brother Greg does a good imitation of her laugh, maybe I will call him today.  Laughter is the best medicine, especially when dispensed by Mom.

I set my memories free to run through the grass of every sports field I had touched while growing up, and I cannot find a one where Mom was not in the bleachers cheering.  Football from Pee Wee to Varsity, home or out-of-town games, I see her bundled against the weather and smiling.  Basketball games in gymnasiums with the high pitched screams of teenagers echoing off concrete block walls, there was my mom sitting in the sheet metal stands.  Every track meet, even the ones where the coaches had put away their stop watches in the gathering dusk before I finished the two mile race (during my slower days), Mom would be there encouraging me through my final laps on a cinder track.

Mom, I miss you, I love you.  Today I can say through the tears as I write, “Happy birthday, and happy Mother’s Day,” not because there is any happiness in your absence, but because even in the sadness, I can see your smile and that makes me smile.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Romancing the Rails

Trains captivate.  They are the haunting mournful cry in the night, the horn that seems to call through the darkness for no reason, yet touches our souls.  They enthrall us when we are young, we curse them at grade crossing when we are older, we long for them and their mythical destinations through all our lives.

When I was young, my grandmother would travel to see us every Christmas by rail (that is before air travel became more common place).  The family would go to the station nearest to our home in Orangeburg, SC, to await her arrival.  I would look towards the far distance with anticipation that never resulted in disappointment.  The locomotive and the cars in its care would first appear as a pinpoint that quickly grew in size and intensity until it finally arrived, a thing of power and noise and iron carrying my grandmother.  From the gleaming stainless steel coach, my Nanny would emerge into our arms and cries of joy to be taken home with us.  When Christmas time was exhausted along with the adults, we would return to the station to see Nanny off to her home in Ridgefield, CT.  She would climb aboard as I would ache at her leaving, and watch the train depart.  Her pilgrimage to us being enacted in reverse.  The engine that had brought her to us now took her from us, and we would watch as long as we could.  The cars moving down the rails, further from view, getting smaller and smaller as the parallel rails grew closer and closer, until in the distance rails merged, the train disappeared, and the horizon claimed all.

In my young mind, it was at the point in that far distance when all was lost beyond the limits of my sight that Ridgefield existed.  The train appeared from that event horizon and returned to it.  That was all the proof I needed to draw my maps, to know that distance was not measured in steps or miles, but in the reach of railroad tracks and train whistles.

The fate of being born early enough to witness the miracle of passenger rail service, being born early enough to learn from my mother that I once rode a train with my tiny feet in her face in some cramped compartment crowded with my parents and we their children on an adventure to the Yankee filled north had left an indelible mark on me.  Perhaps that memory hung in some primal part of my brain when I attended Clemson as a Mechanical Engineering student and stumbled into a research assistantship with Dr. Harry Law who was at the time a leading railroad researcher.  That tingle of rail travel helping me to see not just the science in what I was working on, but the magic as well.

It has been a path that has lead me around the world and into scientific intricacies that have enthralled me for the past thirty years.  I have been researcher, supplier, and consultant in this industry and loved every minute of it.  Before my wife’s retirement from her successful floral design business, I would happily tell people when asked what we did that my wife played with flowers and I played with trains.  As adults, what professions could be more childlike.

This week I am at another rail conference in my career and presenting soon on the latest project to occupy my time and efforts.  Such moments never fail to bring me back to what brought me to this industry in the first place.  I can’t help but think of my late grandmother, of the rails that brought her to us and sent her home.  I cannot help but think of the call of train horns in the night as special to me as the sound of owls that haunted the pines.  My career continues as a romance that combines my love of math, physics, and the iron highway.  It’s not rocket science, but it is very cool.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016


I don’t know what
struck him,
but he stopped
and turned to me.
“Don’t let the bastards get you.”
Soft, serious words.
“What?” Not understanding.
“Don’t let the bastards get you.”
Each word solid, firm.
“What bastards, Dad?”
“You know…the bastards!”
The end, final, frustrated.
Taking his hand, sinewed
from years of sailing,
and veiny with age,
noting how dark his
skin was against mine.
I think,
he will always be more
Arab than I, always
tied to a heritage I
know little of.

We resume our endless loops
through the Alzheimer’s unit.
Returning to song,
old habit for our voices.
Songs he sung to his children,
and I in turn to mine.
Gilbert and Sullivan
come to Greenville –
one afternoon only.
Our songs neither soft nor subtle;
unaware of those listening.
Lost in our own little world.
One little world
of many there.
We sing together of
pirates and orphans,
modern major generals and nocturnal stealth.
One song following another as
one foot follows the other.

Walking had been Dad’s
way of late – so Mom said.
More compulsion than exercise,
some unknown impetus
that had made him thin
since the last time I saw him.
So on this visit home,
I walked with Dad
to be by his side,
to know this incarnation
of his ever devolving self.
I sang with him
how I wished I had
sung with him
when he was
strong and whole,
and adulthood was my
aspiration and not avocation.
That walk and those songs
for me were acts of
love and regret.
My hand clinging to his,
not wanting to lose
what was left.
Knowing I already had.

It would be the last time
intimacy could be
shared between us.
When next I sang to
Dad, it would be softly,
at his death bed,
when he was twisted
by Alzheimers,
and feverish to be shed of it.
So I took with me
from our walk and song
the only thing I could -
his final vague and personal
message to me.
And in all the years between,
I have honored my father’s
wishes as a son should.
I have kept my
weather eye out, and
the bastards have yet
to get me, Dad.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Circular Logic

When I was a little guy, I thought of growing up, what it meant to be an adult.  It was not as deep as it sounds.  I probably imagined super hero would be one of my career choices.  On the list of things that would come with adulthood was driving (were I denied the power of flight), a bigger bed (mine was just fine, but Mom and Dad had a big bed, so I thought it was a perk), and a house (though I couldn’t see why I would ever leave my Mom and Dad, and my brothers and sisters).

In order to earn those trappings of adulthood, I thought there was something that I needed to be able to do as soon as I could, and that was writing right.  I didn’t think they would let you be an adult until you could write like my father - with a fountain pen and in cursive.  I was sure in due course I would be bequeathed a fountain pen, but I knew the cursive part would be up to me.  Oddly, I never believed cursive would be something I was taught.  I am unsure why, maybe I conceived it to be an organic process, that once block print was mastered, Darwin would do his part and I would either naturally begin writing in script or I would go the way of the dinosaurs.  Now dinosaurs are undeniably cool, but their extinction was not to be emulated.  So I set about practicing in earnest to help evolution along.  I used paper and crayon to write notes, passages of meaning and weight.  Each line the same, a string of connected loops, a spiral across the page.  I could not read what I wrote, but knew whatever I put down on paper in this fashion could be read and understood by those more highly developed than I.

Well, I’m settling into my mid-fifties and I finally have a fountain pen that I used to draft this blog in script in my journal.  Darwin has smiled upon me – yet I am a dinosaur.  A very few years ago, I saw a news item of a teen who had taken the stand in a trial.  She was asked to read a note that had been entered into evidence.  She looked at the note and said she could not read cursive.  Just last month, I was with my grandson.  He was helping me with a project and I wrote some instructions for him.  He looked at the sheet of paper, and asked me if I could print it out because he was not that good at reading cursive.  Schools aren’t pushing cursive any more.

As with other social ills, I blame the computer, the tablet, the cell phone.  We have circled back to a time when learning typing in high school was a necessary skill if you had any hopes of entering the business world.  Typing is being taught again (now at a younger age), only it is called “keyboarding.”  Now everything is written and read in 12 point Times New Roman block print or something equivalent.  The handwriting in my journals will become the new hieroglyphs sooner rather than later.  People will open them and tilt their head squinting and see not collected letters forming words and sentences and paragraphs, but a string of connected loops, a spiral across the page.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Eastern Wisdom

Late afternoon clouds, low
moving over Pikes Peak as faux mist.
Weak translucent shade
pulled over the proud peak’s silhouette,
a massive wall rising from the prairie,
both gateway and barrier to the West.
The low cover a pale disguise
seeking to evoke the Appalachians,
eastern grandfather of the Rockies.
Where mist is the white hair of old age,
draped across shoulders
that have born the weight of war
and across eyes that have seen
the birth of a nation and
subsequent hemorrhage and healing.
Wearied by it all, yet patient with its people.
The Rockies represent a different world
of coarse courtesies and jagged prose.
Whose stark and rugged good looks
bow before the grace of eastern beauty.
Whose brashness has little to teach,
and much to learn
From the wisdom of the East.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

The Death of the Son of Santini

Last night, Pat Conroy died from pancreatic cancer, and I sit today in shadow.  I have cried some and simply sat to feel about the edges of the void.  The biggest part of that void being the recent loss of my mother, it’s boundaries brittle and tender to the touch.  Now Pat Conroy’s loss has left those tenuous edges ragged and torn.  And so I sit here at my keyboard, fingering the jagged tear wondering if I can draw the blood of spirit to cleanse this wound, to help me find the flow of words to say goodbye.

Before I chose to step on the writer’s path, reading had already chosen my pantheon of gods to follow.  It is comprised of a small damaged group of fearless authors with Pat Conroy at its head.  What granted this high post to Pat Conroy was not just his gift of language, but that he was the antithesis of a god.  He did not seek tribute and supplicants.  Each book he wrote was in turn an offering on the altar to the congregation, his readers.  He was not granting forgiveness, but seeking it.  He saw his hurt and anger and weaknesses as demons that might be exorcised through lyrical incantation and exposure to daylight.

The son of Santini was in his own way a fighter pilot like his old man.  Only Pat’s plane was literature, his armaments his words, and his wars were racism, sexism, bigotry, giving voice where voice was demanded.  He helped to pave the way for women at his Alma mater The Military College of South Carolina, he stood in protest against the Confederate Flag at the South Carolina State House, and he took the time and effort to lovingly teach black children on the isolated South Carolina Island of Daufuskie when the school board and society wanted nothing more than for them to just disappear.

It seemed to me from reading Pat’s books, that the primary architects of his disastrous childhood and pain-filled adulthood were both his mother and his father.  I think most of the books he wrote were attempts at forgiveness (of himself and them), and attempts at healing the deep wounds to his spirit.  With his last book, The Death of Santini, I believe he had finally achieved that, limping sweat covered across an ill-defined finish line, if not at peace at least in some kind of equilibrium.

In simple terms Pat, your writing always made me want to write.  Your words stirred me in ways I would never have expected combinations of letters to be capable of.  Thank you for not shying away from the world.  I miss you, goodbye.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Summoning the Moon

Midnight in frigid air
With the shaggy silhouettes of trees
Standing guard over the moment
The eastern horizon
Discerned only as a darker line in the dark

No moon amid the stars
Only a low tantalizing glow at the edge
Just a little leg to make the pulse race
In this hour between days

Experts calling for snow
As echoed by the chill
A storm heavy and deep
To imprison the world
Within soft thick walls of white

I already knew weather was afoot
The moon had told me on recent eves
Softly ringed above
Whispering to the sailor in me

Tell me more, tell me tonight
Reaching out with these thoughts
To the sacred orb
As smoke rings sent from my pipe
Try to entice her from hiding

Giving into the witching hour
As if I were the stuff of magic
As if my tongue
Held some aboriginal incantation
Rather than wish and fiction

Thus the moon remained coyly
Behind the earth
As my pipe died out
And I relented to the hour and the cold

Because the Spirits always see
Recognizing those weak in conviction
Leaving them to wander in their folly

Monday, January 18, 2016

Dismasted, My Mother's Passing

I once had a sailboat, it was my favorite sailboat actually.  She was a 23-foot Hunter that I named JMS Handal after my wife.  I was out in high winds on Lake Pueblo with a friend of mine.  We were having an exhilarating time with the sails full and the boat seeming to fly.  All of a sudden, a whipping jib sheet on the windward side caught a cotter wire for a clevis pin to one of the side stays.  The wire was pulled free, the pin fell out, and my mast broke in half.  In a heartbeat, the boat was no longer heeling, she was simply floating along and the heart racing ride had been replaced with a stillness, an emptiness in the wake of a catastrophic event.  I wanted mayhem, I needed it, my mast was broken, my guidance gone.  My energy and reaction instincts, my adrenaline were at their peaks and I had nothing to do, no task to undertake that didn’t have the luxury of being performed slowly and methodically.

This morning I found out that my mother had just peacefully passed.  A personal catastrophe that has left me in the violent calm once again.  Buffeted and rocked by waves of weighty emptiness in the wake of my mother’s passing.  While the world about still turned at its normal lethargic pace.  My wife and I hug and kiss and cry, it is mainly what we have to do while we tie up what loose ends we have at home before traveling South.

I ache to do something, anything, but I am 2000 miles away and have been for decades.  My sisters and my brothers are back home taking care of the things that must be taken care of, and I am 2000 miles away.  I am glad that they are there together and mom is not alone.  I am glad they are there together, rocks for each other, and no one of them is alone.  I just can’t stand the calm here when the world should be as upside down as it feels.

Our mom was the quiet rock of us.  Her personal mantra being that she didn’t want to cause us any trouble, and she never did.  I wish she had, she was worth trouble.  Her life was one of self-sacrifice for her family, and this has never gone unnoticed.  It was also one in which she embraced her blessings, gave her love unconditionally, and bore one of the defining smiles of my life.  I just think such a woman and such a life deserves some noise and upheaval, some scrambling to make things sea worthy if only to be able to limp back to port.  But mom leaves us as she led us, with things to do with as little trouble as she could make it, a calm not before the storm, but in spite of it.  This calm is acute and disquieting, there are other winds to keep my sails filled, but she was one of my world’s trade winds, and how do you replace that?

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Performance Anxiety

Life is full of disappointments and I have never wanted to be one of them.  It’s not easy going from day to day worrying that you may disappoint your boss by not going the extra mile on every project, or fearing that your wife will think less of you if you squeeze the middle of the toothpaste tube or leave your underwear lying around on the floor, or that your children will turn away from you in shame if you don’t know how to help them with a particular math problem or their geography homework.  Now my chronic insecurities have found a new and frightening place to nest.  I am afraid to disappoint my phone.

Some time in the last week, I was exploring the features of my Samsung Galaxy 6S Active.  (perhaps that was my first mistake, accepting ownership of a phone named after an impossibly vast celestial structure…who could live up to anything with Galaxy in its name?!?).  Anyway, I was pressing buttons, checking out apps, opening folders, windows, gateways and suddenly this screen popped up that offered some incredible features that my tactile compunction disorder could not resist.  It was built around personal health.  There was a widget to check my pulse (a little too high) and even one to check blood O2 absorption (SpO2 – 95%)!  I remember thinking that my phone rocks.  Well somewhere in all that touching, probing, pushing, and pressing, I must have triggered some action that lead my phone to the mistaken belief that I wanted my activity to be tracked.  You would think any phone smart enough to be able to do all the things this phone can do would be smart enough to know if I wanted my activity tracked, that I would hire a private detective.

So now, when I check my phone (which is frequently - another compulsion I am not proud of) there is a running update.  Not an update of my activity level, but my phone’s subjective assessment of my activity level.  I will wake up my idle phone and on the greeting screen will be a messages like Activity goal not met yet, You have walked less than yesterday, and Are you going to eat the rest of your dessert.  Activity goal?  When did I set an activity goal?  If I had knowingly done such a thing, I would have low-balled it to provide the false sense of security I am accustomed to.

The first part of this week I was in Washington DC on business.  The narrow scope of my visit left me a little time to explore.  I spent part of one day walking around, looking in bookstores, and riding the subway various places (in my old age I find myself turning into a train dork).  At the end of that day, I was checking my phone (once again!) and the message on the screen read Congratulations! You have exceeded your goal.  This is your best day yet!  Are you going to finish your dessert?  I made the last part up, but the rest was true.  You would think after getting such an encouraging and life affirming pat on the back from my phone, I would be happy.  I would be shouting to the world, or at least doing some jumping jacks to exceed my phone’s expectations by a wee bit more, but noooooooo.  I felt guilt and pressure.  Now those days of not achieving my goal (actually failing to achieve my phone’s goals for me) and the messages of stark disapproval flashing across my screen came flooding back to me.  I didn’t want to see those again.  Not because I was now motivated to regain the athletic form of my youth, or that I wanted to achieve some annual resolution of a healthier lifestyle, but because I didn’t want to disappoint my phone.

This makes me insecure about my insecurities.  I have now reached a new low, a whole new classification of phobia that makes me beholden to an inanimate object.  I feel like William Shatner stuck in that diner on the Twilight Zone, unable to leave or act unless the fortune telling machine in his booth granted him approval.  Now I am worrying if my phone somehow knows I am writing about it and plotting some Machiavellian revenge by adding on to the goals that it already has for me, some double secret activity probation.  I mean it’s a machine, and it’s connected, and I am writing this on a machine, and it’s connected too.  Of course my phone knows!  Of course my computer is sharing information!  All those electronic bastards know each other!