May 11, 2012

The Process of Publishing One's Work

In some ways, I should be the last one to be giving advice to other writers on publishing anything. My qualifications on the subject of writing come mostly from my having taught English for thirty-five years and a creative writing class that I designed and taught for twenty-five years. Each spring my students published a sixty-page anthology of their best writing for which the school twice received recognition for the book's high quality by The American Association of Teachers of English. Those books are still the results of which I remain most proud from my career in the classroom.

My own first book, ALL MY LAZY RIVERS, an Indiana Childhood, was published in January of 2010 in Baltimore. It is still available in paperback and on Kindle at, but most of the profits go to the publisher, as I receive only 8% for the first seven years. My second book, COME ON, FLUFFY, THIS AIN'T NO BALLET, a Novel on Coming of Age, is a Kindle book on Amazon and yield's 70% profit for me, far more generous than the contract with my first publisher, but the limitation is that the work is an eBook, which can exclude readers of traditional hard copies of books. This may be a conundrum for a writer, who wants his or her friends and family, who are uninitiated into the world of eBooks, to read the work. There is also the choice of self-publishing, but that is another story, one that somehow lacks the luster and dignity of having a traditional publisher seek one's work with monetary compensation (however small) and a willingness to market one's book.

My third book, COME SEPTEMBER, Journey of a High School Teacher is now waiting for a home out there in the publishing world, a huge, scary place, especially for relatively unknown writers like me. For better or worse, most of the serious publishers are still in New York City, that bastion of companies like Random House. Of course, sending unsolicited manuscripts to those places is simply not done, unless you happen to be John Grisham, Anne Rice, or Stephen King, so it is necessary to procure an agent, who will represent your work and help to create a pitch to interest a publisher in buying the book through some kind of contract. Most of the respected literary agencies receive at least a thousand queries per month from all over the country and overseas. At times it seems that unknown writers now need an agent in order to find an agent, even to begin communication on any level with a publishing house.

I suspect that some of those large literary agencies have staffs of weary readers, highly trained in the art of spotting just the right hook in a query letter in order for further info to be requested from the author. I often wonder how many queries with great potential are placed on the proverbial conveyor belt, racing thousands of letters and even manuscripts toward some great figurative incinerator. The very hugeness of agencies and their efforts to hurry through all those e-mails and snail mails from hopeful authors is a bit staggering, and I also imagine that agents and their underlings grow jaded by the end of each day in dealing with what must be quite a lot of garbage with which they are expected to deal politely, if at all. “Oh, no! Not another of these.” is a message, perhaps not even spoken aloud, that may dominate life in a literary agency, but sheer volume must be the single greatest annoyance and enemy of those poor readers, and ultimately of writers, who want so much to be appreciated.

Realistic determination on the part of the author is a prerequisite. He must believe deeply in his own work and be willing to do his homework in finding comparable work by already “successful” writers. Freshness is certainly important, but agents seem to be most interested in what will sell. It is very important to know the agencies and their criteria and to know what they're looking for. Read carefully the bio of each agent to find his or her special interest, like thriller, memoir, cookbook, historical fiction, etc.

I've read about successful writers, who knew they had something special in their own work but something not necessarily recognized by literary agents. One example is Kathryn Stockett, author of the wildly popular book, THE HELP, which soon also became a popular film. Ms. Stockett counted forty-five rejections in a row after which she didn't keep careful track any more, but estimates that there were at least sixty rejection letters in a row for her book. Think of all those incinerators containing the ashes of her query letters and sample chapters. This has inspired me in the sense that so far, as of May 8, 2012, I have sent fifty-four query letters and in some cases with sample chapters, when requested and have received fourteen rejection letters, all very polite but mostly very impersonal notes sent also to zillions of other hungry writers. Only one of those actually named my book and gave me encouragement to keep going with it. Such is the experience any unknown author without entree can expect in attempting to find an agent, let alone a publisher. Some agents tell you to expect a response in six months, so it is necessary to send simultaneous queries to many agencies, especially if you're my age (sixty-six) and want to get through the actual publication process of your book some time before your eightieth birthday.

There are also people who simply must write, not for money or fame, but for the joy of expression for its own sake and perhaps for the satisfaction of sharing their thoughts, and sentiments. Blogs are perfect venues for that kind of writing, and in essence, if you’re writing a blog, you’re “published,” because you’ve a readership, even if only one other person.

My comments here cannot be considered sour grapes just yet. The process is not over for me until I've sent out well over a hundred query letters and there is no hope of finding an agent and publisher. Right now I still feel that I'm “in the game.” Maybe when I turn eighty and have not yet published COME SEPTEMBER, I may get back to you on my blog or with a sky writer to say that I'm feeling a bit sour about the whole thing. Only time will tell. The challenge is enormous in the quest to be published, but so are the rewards.


May 2, 2012

Drivers Ed, Summer of 1962

When summer came, I took the Driver’s Ed course at Dad’s request, mainly because he was concerned about insurance rates, and at least a “B” in the class would mean more dollars in his wallet if I were going to be driving his car. Though the classrooms at Gavit High were still not air-conditioned, and the rooms were all stifling, the actual driving portion of the class was enjoyable, not just because the 1962 Pontiac we drove was air-conditioned, but because we were actually driving. Mr. Batcomb, our instructor, was an irascible baseball coach with a flat top haircut, and a nose that in profile resembled a huge peninsula jutting out from what seemed some undiscovered country. A nervous, insecure, and very impatient man, Mr. Batcomb was an almost comical choice to teach such a class. Except for his ample nose, he reminded me of the young Bob Newhart, who was a popular new comedian at the time, apologetic only in the most sarcastic ways. As a baseball coach, Mr. Batcomb believed that any boy not active enough in sports to be on some varsity team was worthless and should simply be set adrift on an ice floe somewhere up north, never to be heard from again. In dealing with me, even on my best days, he always had a “Hrumph” in his attitude, an attitude that he made no attempt to conceal. If his class had been a Monopoly game, my report card would surely have said, “Do not pass go. Do not pass my class. Do not collect $200.”

There were three other sophomores in the car besides me. The student driving at any time would always have Mr. Batcomb sitting next to him while the other three students would be in the back seat observing, judging, and sometimes snickering. In order to avoid possible law suits, I will use only the first names of my Driver’s Ed cohorts, Greg, Sharon and Louise. It should be remembered here that all our very lives were in the hands of whoever was at the wheel, and that the only way at times to avoid reaching critical mass was to close your eyes and plug your ears, unless of course you were driving. The most valuable thing I learned in Driver’s Ed was that if you have a CAUTION, STUDENT DRIVER sign on top of your car, you own the road. Other vehicles just move out of the way, pulling over onto road shoulders, lawns, sidewalks, anywhere, to escape.

Gail and Darlene Desento became Driver’s Ed legends the second week, Gail plowing through some trash cans in an alley, where her instructor had evidently and mistakenly hoped to practice while avoiding any actual cars or traffic. Her twin Darlene managed to top her sister the third week by scraping the passenger side of the car on a pump station while pulling in to get gas.

In our car Greg, who looked like Ichabod Crane, always had to move the seat back when he drove so that Sharon, Louise and I ended up chewing on our knees, which weren’t that far from the car’s interior roof by then. Greg received a “B” in driving skills at the end of the course because of his tendency to tail gate. Mr. Batcomb told him it wasn’t necessary to count the hairs on the head of the driver in front of us, but Greg insisted evidently on being a real stickler for detail. Louise always had to use a cushion in order to boost her height beyond that of a toddler. The contrast between her and Greg was comical, because Greg was so tall, that if he ever fell down, he’d be out of town, and Louise was short enough to play a Munchkin in any possible remake of THE WIZARD OF OZ.

The less said about my driving, especially my parallel parking, the better, but I must say something about Sharon, who was a nervous girl anyway, even when not driving, who would two years down the road become one of those screaming maniacs at the mere mention in homeroom of the Beatles. Just the name “Paul” would make her pass out, so it’s easy to imagine the kind of driver she turned out to be. The first omen about her skill at the wheel of a car was when she was asked on her first day to prepare for take-off. She buckled her seat belt, adjusted her seat, started the engine, and then leaned over to look through the center of the windshield, narrowing her eyes, which we in the back seat could see in the rear view mirror. When asked by Mr. Batcomb what she was doing, Sharon answered that she was getting a good view of the hood ornament. When asked why, she replied, “Well, how else can I aim the car?” Greg looked at me, his Adam’s apple moving so far up, that it disappeared, and his face tightening to the point that his ears moved back and flattened against the sides of is head, his eyes the size of saucers.

The final week of the course, we were expected to drive on the expressway, observing speed limits and other driving musts, like staying in our own lane. As Sharon buckled up, we tightened our seat belts too, the way we might be secured in our roller coaster seats at the county fair grounds. All went well until we reached the expressway, where Sharon needed to blend into the flow of other cars. The speed limit was sixty-five, which Sharon was following, but when she hit a pot hole, the car swerved just enough for her to lose control and then panic instantly. Letting go of the steering wheel and covering her face with both hands, she began whimpering, “Oh no, I’m gonna get an ‘F.’” No one was driving the car, which was hurling itself down the expressway at sixty-five miles per hour. Meanwhile, Mr. Batcomb lunged for the steering wheel to keep us in our lane, as Louise screamed, “To hell with your damned ‘F.’ We’re gonna be killed!” Needless to say, Sharon did, in fact, receive an “F” in the skills part of the course, even though for the written portion she received an “A.” Years later at our twentieth year class reunion, I saw Sharon again, and her husband had taken away her driving privileges by then.

We all survived the class with 
our lives, but there was one more test of our mettle, which the powers that be imposed upon us. The class was shown two films called, “The Last Prom” and “Signal 30,” which were intended to scare the living daylights out of anyone who had the slightest fragment of careless intention for driving left in his or her psyche. These films were in color and showed without apology or any attempt to reduce horror, the aftermaths of actual auto accidents. There were severed limbs, heads, people halfway through windshields, a trucker, who had hit another semi, his load of metal pipes having become deadly missiles and having gone right through his head and face like huge spears. These are the only details I can relate, because well before the end of the second movie, I had to leave the room in a cold sweat, despite the heat of the day. I’ve often wondered how effective those films were in terrifying those other teens into being more cautious drivers. In fact, having watched most of the films myself, I’m surprised that I was ever persuaded or motivated again even to get into a car, let alone to drive one.

(Excerpt from John's second book, COME ON, FLUFFY, THIS AIN'T NO BALLET, a Novel on Coming of Age)

April 27, 2012


I've been retired now for eight years but remember that in 2004 I was worried about whether I had saved enough and invested enough to make it into "old age," which, by the way, keeps leaping about ten years beyond where I am at any given moment. It turned out that I had no financial worries and needed instead to concern myself with how I would spend my time in the most productive and entertaining ways. My alarm clock became a physical anachronism whose digital dial began to glow on my night table in a much friendlier way than it had during all those years that I had to get up at five every weekday morning.
The hobbies of painting in oils, playing piano, reading, cooking, gardening, and travel were all wonderful ways to pass time in meaningful ways, but it has been writing that has given me the most pleasure and pride over those eight years. One of the greatest fears that people have is that they will not be able to fill all that "free time" in fulfilling ways, but I believe if there's a secret to having a good retirement, it may be to try new things, have creative outlets, and simply not to worry about not doing what others think is necessary in being "free." Nobody said that you have to win a Nobel Prize, climb Mount Everest, or save a third-world country by yourself. It's really about following your heart and not being afraid to take a different path once in a while.  Make new friends, and nurture your old friendships.

Being a responsible citizen in terms of going to a traditional job for eight to ten hours a day for forty years is wonderful, but retirement changes that ethos by allowing more choices and liberty to make your life mean whatever you want it to mean on a daily basis. You aren't locked into anything. Hedonism becomes only one of many possibilities after retirement, and no guilt should weigh you down, even for a moment about all those doors you want to open. One of my favorite anonymous quotations is, "Life is filled with doors we haven't opened, and rooms we can't go back to." Have no regrets.

I'm not sure that anyone has captured in a more amusing or meaningful way the significance of retirement than the poet, David Wright, whose poem for his friend on this topic I'd like to share:

Lines on Retirement, after Reading Lear

by David Wright
for Richard Pacholski

Avoid storms. And retirement parties.

You can’t trust the sweetnesses your friends will

offer, when they really want your office,

which they’ll redecorate. Beware the still

untested pension plan. Keep your keys. Ask

for more troops than you think you’ll need. Listen

more to fools and less to colleagues. Love your

youngest child the most, regardless. Back to

storms: dress warm, take a friend, don’t eat the grass,

don’t stand near tall trees, and keep the yelling

down—the winds won’t listen, and no one will

see you in the dark. It’s too hard to hear

you over all the thunder. But you’re not

Lear, except that we can’t stop you from what

you’ve planned to do. In the end, no one leaves

the stage in character—we never see

the feather, the mirror held to our lips.

So don’t wait for skies to crack with sun. Feel

the storm’s sweet sting invade you to the skin,

the strange, sore comforts of the wind. Embrace

your children’s ragged praise and that of friends.

Go ahead, take it off, take it all off.

Run naked into tempests. Weave flowers

into your hair. Bellow at cataracts.

If you dare, scream at the gods. Babble as

if you thought words could save. Drink rain like cold

beer. So much better than making theories.

We’d all come with you, laughing, if we could.

April 19, 2012

You Tube Adaptations of Chapters from my First Two Books

My cousin Cathy Weber and her husband Felix did these video adaptations of chapters from my first two books.   Those two people are wickedly talented. 

Have a look at the results:

1. YouTube promo....My First Crush ...from ALL MY LAZY RIVERS, an Indiana Childhood

2. YouTube promo.....Twisted Easter Book or Revenge of the Baskets...from ALL MY LAZY RIVERS

3. from COME ON, FLUFFY, THIS AIN'T NO BALLET, a Novel on Coming of Age

4. And finally, from Chapter 5 of COME ON, FLUFFY:


April 13, 2012

Local Literary Allusions

Morning Duds
Yesterday morning while taking my West Highland White Terrier Dudley for his morning walk through our neighborhood, an electric garage door opened, followed by a car pulling into the garage as my neighbor waved to me. After I waved back and her garage door began to close, Duds and I continued around the circular sidewalk of the cul-de-sac only to be surprised again, this time by a man’s voice yelling, “Stella! Stella! Get back here, Stella!” The sound of his voice took me back to A STREET CAR NAMED DESIRE and Stanley Kowalski’s insistent utterance that his wife should come to him. Instead, this was the husband of the woman who had pulled into their garage. He was shouting at their miniature black poodle, who was en route to meet my Dudley, her long ebony ears flying behind her, in the most romantic way, like something out of the movie, LOVE STORY, and when she reached us, she and Duds nuzzled each other in a sweet little reunion as though they had been separated for years.

Meanwhile, my neighbor reached us with abject apologies for Stella’s undignified and miscreant behavior. Relieved that he had arrived before what could have been an “interracial” incident, I chatted briefly with him as he swept up Stella in his arms and walked away. The look on Dudley’s face was one of sadness at having been separated yet again from Stella, whose little face looked over the shoulder of her departing master at Duds as if to say, “Don’t worry, I’ll get out the door again the first chance I get. Meet me at the corner tomorrow morning at seven.”

That’s why our otherwise quiet neighborhood can sound like a Tennessee Williams stage production at odd hours, when we hear a man’s voice crying, “Stella! Stella!” However, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

April 7, 2012


This is a sample from Chapter 30 of my new book, COME SEPTEMBER, the Journey of a High School Teacher. Some of the book is very serious, and some is humorous. Occasionally the two moods simply merge through satire.  You may take this commentary from Chapter 30 for whatever it's worth, but I hope you'll enjoy it and laugh.  JB

Chapter 30 Blame It on Count Chocula

By the 1990’s, whining had become one of America’s chief pastimes. Even while grocery shopping, I was unceasingly annoyed by the more and more familiar sound of childish whimpering in places like the cereal aisle, where a kid would moan demands, like “Awww, Mommy, I want this cereal, pleeease!”

“No,” would come the first response. “Chocolate Rasberry Sugar Bombs are not good for you.”

“Awwww, that’s not fair, Mommy!” was often the comeback, which would usually only prolong the debate until the mother would at last give in by saying, “Oh, all right, but only for small portions. I don’t want to pay for any dental implants until you’re at least twelve.”

These collective grocery store experiences became, over time, the basis of my theory that many of our social ills can be traced back to the cereal aisles of grocery stores across the country, among all those hundreds of brands of tooth-rotting breakfast fare, with colorful and humorous logos on the boxes, reinforced on Saturday morning television commercials, mesmerizing children into believing that all that sugar was as vital as the air they breathed.

Finally, it was almost as though these children from all across America had banded together at secret meeting sites, when their parents thought their kids were really playing on monkey bars, riding their bikes, or skate boarding. This facade covered the fact that the kids were actually meeting to share their new national message of, “WHINING WORKS!” Playgrounds everywhere became convention centers to spread the word that, not only could grocery store griping and sniveling bring results, but such intense complaining could also bring rewards in other sectors of society. Thus, whining made its way into public schools, where its effect on scholastic standards may still be seen in the demands placed upon classes of our public schools, which I believe sometime during the past twenty years managed to merge with the entertainment industry.

Another result of this huge bellyaching business has been that certain teachers across the land have banded together in a counter-movement, the crux of which is that homework requirements should remain stringent, and that all teachers for all grades in public schools must join together in building a mass immunity to the lamentations of those students, who have honed complaining down to an art form, which has seeped into factories, courthouses, the auto and garment industries, food production, and to every other conveyor belt, literal and figurative, that produces shoddiness as its chief product, rather than standing up to the laziness of moaning shirkers of duty in living up to higher, albeit more difficult, expectation.

The more I encountered the tired old phrase from my students of “That’s not fair,” the more I became resolved to live up to a teacher headline I longed to see on the front pages of newspapers across the country, TEACHERS FIGHT BACK WITH MASS WHINING OF THEIR OWN! Of course, that story never actually hit the news stands, but its significance became my focus in the attempt to help squelch the national whining fest, that had already been going on for years.

I began practicing an irritatingly nasal tone of voice in my use of important whining terminology as in, “Awww, you guys can read all twenty pages in one night. Breaking them up into little baby assignments would just be silly, and that’s not fair!” If students persisted, I would plug my ears with my forefingers and walk around the classroom singing, “Alouette.” After a while, perhaps to avoid the torture of my increasingly professional whining skills, they stopped arguing and just did the assignments. This technique was far more successful than my earlier one, which was doubling an assignment (with an attempted straight face) and then cutting it in half to make it seem they were getting away with something. That method was not only devious, but my acting was never quite good enough to pull it off, because apparently, despite my best efforts, there always remained the hint of a smirk on my face and just enough inauthenticity in my voice, that even the slowest kid in the class was on to me.

So, the next time you want to know what’s wrong with America, in terms of our shrinking standards of quality, go to your nearest super market, get a shopping cart, and mosey on over to the cereal aisle, that wonderland of sugar-impregnated breakfast vittles with about as much nutritional value as bubblegum, and observe the children there and the interaction with their parents, the outcome of which will almost assuredly be a mother caving in to her child’s demand for a marshmallow cereal with soda pop overtones, in order to avoid the screeching, high-pitched and embarrassing hint of abuse that might carry over into the soup and condiments aisle. This, dear friends, is really the source of all irrational and unmerited sense of entitlement in our country, the only remedy to which may be a good dose of homework. If all else fails, then just blame everything on Count Chocula and that awful sugar rush our kids have come to require.

April 1, 2012


 These recipes came originally from Laura Calder, a French chef, who delights in the joys of French food, especially from country recipes. She can be seen on the Food Channel on FRENCH FOOD AT HOME. Her style is at once splendid and comfortable. Included here are two photos of the results of my partner Jim's having prepared the dishes. He added the mushrooms to the original recipe for the tart . JB

Savoury Swiss Chard Tart

6- 8 servings
1 tabelspoon oil
2 shallots, minced
1 clove garlic, minced
4 ounces bacon cut into lardons (very small strips)
1 and 1/2 pounds Swiss Chard, ribs removed
i cup chopped mushrooms ( Shitake or Portabello)
3 eggs
1 cup creme fraiche or heavy cream and sour cream combined
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
4 ounces of Gruyere or smoked cheddar, grated
Handful raisins
Handful toasted pine nuts
1 deep tart shell, pre-baked in a 9-inch springform pan..or a frozen deep dish pie dough, thawed

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.
Heat the oil in a saute pan and fry the shallots until soft and translucent. Ad the garlic and saute for one minute more. Remove to a plate. In the same pan, fry the bacon until the fat has rendered and the lardons are crispy. Remove to the plate with shallots. Divide the chard leaves from the ribs. Chop the ribs quite small and shred the leaves. First fry the ribs in bacon fat until tender. Then add chard leaves to pan, cover and wilt for three minutes.
Beat the eggs with the creme fraiche, and season with salt and pepper.
In a large bowl, toss the shallots, bacon, chard stems and leaves, cheese, raisins, and pine nuts, to combine evenly. Taste, and season. Fill the tart shell with the vegetable mixture, and pour the cream mixture over this. Bake until the tart has set, about 30 minutes. Remove the tart from oven, and cool. Serve at room temperature.


Slow-Baked Honey Wine Pears

4-8 servings
4 Bosc pears or eight Anjou pears
1 bottle dry red wine
1/2 cup honey

Preheat oven to 250 degrees F.
Peel the pears from top to bottom, leaving the stem intact, and lay them in an oven-proof dish just large enough to hold them. Bring the wine and honey to a boil, cover the pears with the liquid, and transfer to the oven. Bake until tender, 4 to 5 hours, turning now and again to create even color.
Gently remove the pears to a serving bowl with a slotted spoon. Boil the liquid rapidly until reduced to syrup, about 20 minutes. Pour the syrup over the pears and reserve at room temperature for several hours, or cover and refrigerate until about an hour before serving.
Option: Serve with dollop of whipped cream sweetened with a little sugar and a dash of Cognac

March 25, 2012

The Pitfalls of Obsessive Competition...

This is a sample chapter from my second book, COME ON, FLUFFY, THIS AIN'T NO BALLET, a Novel on Coming of Age.  In the chapter, I remember my brother's intense need to be highly competitive and what result it brought one summer evening in the early 1960's.

Chapter 7 Boardwalk and Park Place

My younger brother David had an extremely competitive nature bordering on psychotic. I’m not talking just about games like baseball, football, chess, checkers, and races either. Competition to David meant that everything was a contest. No matter how insignificant the matter was to anyone else, Davy had to “win.” It was common while we were growing up to hear him say things like, “Hey, I can finish my oatmeal first!” My sister and I would look calmly at each other and then at our brother, not attempting in any way to compete with him but just to watch him snarf down his hot oatmeal and then grin at us as though he had just received a gold medal in some Olympic event and was waiting for phtographers to begin press coverage. Other common challenges came in the form of, “I’ll race you up the stairs!” or ”I can button my shirt first.” or “Let’s see who can hold his breath the longest.” During those sessions our sister Connie and I would only pretend to hold our breath until David’s blue face smiled in a kind of outrageous delight over us after his drawing in a huge amount of air, like a deep-sea diver rising to the surface after many minutes under water. Connie and I would always exchange knowing glances and smile faintly in quiet acknowledgement of our
brother’s idiocy.

None of us ever knew what had caused David’s obsession with winning. Even money didn’t mean as much to him as coming out on top in any competition, no matter how inane. Nothing else on earth seemed as important to him as being able to say what he believed were the most important words anyone could utter, “I won.” His attitude about beating us at games like canasta and Monopoly made our playing against him far more interesting, as it was so much fun to witness when he occasionally found himself losing. His transformation was from Dr. Jekyll to Mr. Hyde. His eyes would begin to blink faster, lips tighten, and his fists clench until the knuckles whitened. Connie and I would delight in goading him on to levels of anxiety and rage usually reserved for Tasmanian Devils, people standing for hours in line only to discover there are no more tickets, or middle school teachers finding out they’ve been assigned lunchtime cafeteria duty.

Unfortunately, Davy’s obsession with competition never carried over into his school work. He didn’t consider things like algebra and English tests worthy of his usually intense effort at being the best. Apparently getting the highest grade in the class on a quiz or exam was not nearly as glorious as finishing first a big bowl of ice cream, despite the inevitable headache and eyes the size of pizzas that were parts of winning that competition. Dad said more than once that had David’s spirit for winning ever been applied to his school work, he would have ended up being a senior professor at Harvard, Yale, Dartmouth, or Stanford, where he might also have made his mark in some walnut-paneled faculty lounge during any whiskey chugging contests that might have been held there to ease some of the teaching tension of higher education.

Connie and I share a favorite recollection of David’s indomitable appetite for winning. It all began when I arrived home from school one Friday afternoon in June, sitting on a living room sofa, ready to kick off my shoes and watch The Three Stooges on TV, while listening to mom talk on the phone. I heard only half the converstion, but what was being said on the other end became clearer as my mother repeated some of the caller’s comments and questions. It quickly became obvious about whom the conversation was.

He threw WHAT in the cafeteria?” By then I was all ears, as Mom continued.

And it hit Mr. Patterson’s sport coat lapel? I’m so very sorry. You know that kind of cream filling from cupcakes can come right out with some soda water and a fine brush.”

That was all I needed in order to piece together what had happened that day during lunch in the school cafeteria, but there was one more exchange over the phone that crowned the whole situation with something extra special.

Yes, I understand. Three detentions seem quite fair, but I must tell you that he will also be punished at home. That’s right. He will be grounded for
the entire weekend.”

All right, I was pleased. I admit it, but that doesn’t mean I was vindictive about David’s weekend incarceration. It just seemed fair that after his getting away with pretending to do homework, neglecting his part in cleaning the room we shared, and his general arrogance over previous weeks, he would now be facing the balance sheet in some way. Of course being grounded for a whole weekend meant only one thing to him. Marathon Monopoly! When Connie found out about David’s being grounded, she tried not to seem too happy, but her doing a little jig around the living room gave her away.

Meanwhile, the last week of school was looming before us as we looked forward to the freedom of summer vacation afterward. Even though David was grounded for the weekend, Dad expected him to help me with our yard duties, which included mowing and trimming the front and back lawns. Because it had rained the day before, the still-moist grass clippings were much heavier than usual. We were out of lawn bags, so David and I stuffed all the clippings into a large empty trash can, David jumping down on each load and maximizing the density of all that grass. When we finished, the yard looked great, but the trash can was so packed, that it would have made a terrific science project. The promo at the science fair might have been, “How much grass can be put into a twenty-gallon container?” Science project or not, I think we found the answer that day. The can was so dense with grass clippings we had stuffed into it, that its weight made the can immovable. I remembered Mr. Gilbert, our science teacher, talking about “star matter” so dense that even a teaspoon of it would sink to the center of our planet. Yes, now I understood how such a thing might be possible. It appeared that the can of grass clippings, even if it didn’t sink to the earth’s core, would be a permanent part of our yard’s landscape.

That Saturday evening after dinner, the marathon of Monopoly games began with David insisting upon being banker and using the race car as his token. I was the top hat, and Connie was the Scottish Terrier. All the years we played the game, that tradition had prevailed. We played into the wee hours of Sunday morning, breaking finally only for church and lunch, which the family ate in the kitchen so as not to disturb the Monopoly board still on the dining room table from the unfinished game of the night before. Having played until three in the moring and been awakened for church at seven, we knew at this point the only thing keeping us awake was each one’s determination to win the championship before bed on Sunday night. After dinner, as Mom and Dad watched an episode of a TV show called, “One Step Beyond,” David, Connie and I resumed our game, the third one in our marathon, which Connie won, making the series a perfect tie, each of us having taken one game. David hated that. The final game didn’t begin until eight that Sunday evening, and David was on the verge of hysteria in his desire to win the game and take the championship.

At ten o’clock Mom and Dad were going to bed, and Dad told us not to stay up too late, because there was school the next morning. He also reminded David and me that the trash can filled with grass clippings had to be taken to the front curb for garbage pick-up the next morning. We decided to do that unpleasant chore at the end of the last Monoply game. Two more hours passed as we approached the end of that final game, one which I seemed to be winning, as David grew more and more anxious. He stared at my deeds to Boardwalk and Park Place with covetous and bloodshot eyes, while the old Linden clock in our dining room ticked toward one A.M..

Suddenly, due probably to fatigue and the knowledge that there would be school the next morning, my brain experienced its last hurrah for the day in a brilliant coup of negotiation with David. His eyes widened, as on Christmas mornings, when I told him he could have my deeds to Boardwalk and Park Place if he would make sure the big can of grass clippings got to the front of the house before bed. After David took an oath, witnessed by Connie, to take the clippings around front, I handed over to him the two valuable deeds and their little red hotels. Then the game came to a quick conclusion as David ran away with enough rent money from his swanky properties to bankrupt Connie and me. By then we were all three yawning, but to make sure that David upheld his part of our bargain, Connie and I accompanied him to the trash can, which he managed after several minutes of sheer determination to move in tiny rolling motions, inch by inch down the long driveway to the little brick paved area on the street parkway in front of our house. As the can wouldn’t roll easily over grass toward the bricked area, David put his arms around it, his knees bent in a lifting position. His whole body moved upward in a strained but useless effort to budge the huge container. Then he fell backward, rolling on the grass and onto the sidewalk in deep and agonized grunts of physical pain. Through clenched teeth in what might well have been taken as the voice of a dieing man, David’s final half-grunted message was, “But....I won the championship!” Connie and I looked at each other under the street lamp post just smiling and shaking our heads.

David was finally able to get up very slowly, limping triumphantly into the house behind us, like a wounded soldier in line for his Purple Heart. The last thing I saw before turning out the lights in the dining room was the Monopoly board with all its pieces exactly as we had left them along with David’s final “Chance” card which read, “Do not pass Go. Do not collect $200.”

March 18, 2012


I don't know why I have become so utterly fascinated by the television shows, HOARDERS and DOOMSDAY PREPPERS. I can say only that as someone who is mildly OCD in terms of caring for my own home, I see the hoarders and “preppers” almost as creatures from another world altogether. There is something so obsessive and unworldly about their fears, that I look at them the way folks used to look at exhibits of freaks in old traveling carnival shows of the 19th Century.

I ask myself how it is possible for anyone to allow his or her home to become a nest of contagion through sheer piles of trash, often covered in vermin, not wanting to discard any of it. That seeming lack of awareness of one's environment builds over time, not just in a week or two and reminds me of an eight-hundred-pound man looking into a mirror suddenly one morning to say, “Gee, I've really let myself go!” The cause, as far as I can determine from the experts, who so sensitively and judiciously deal with the hoarders, is a tragic loss, so often the trigger for the hoarding behavior, a behavior that the hoarders themselves often refer to with unintended humor as “collecting” or “accumulating.” They become so terrified of losing anyone or anything again, that they hold on to every bottle cap, rubber band, and empty toilet paper roll with the false hope that the item will serve some purpose later on for a “craft project.” In the end, it's all about control. In losing a loved one, there is a sense that the world is falling apart, and there can be a terrible need to hold on to something that is left in some wildly irrational grip on whatever is in one's environment, even if it's an old band-aid or a dead cat.

I love the episodes in which the hoarders begin to see why they have been accumulating irrationally and actually change in ways that get them back their dignity and joy in living. The before-and-after shots of those homes are gratifying to watch and leave the viewer with a sense of hope for hoarders, whose lives seemed so hopeless earlier in each program.

The other sense of gratification I get from each episode I watch is that after turning off the television set, I can look around my own house to feel content that, even if there is a coffee cup on an end table, or a cereal bowl in the sink, I have no feeling of being overpowered in any way by something and can easily remedy any feeling of being untidy. My house always looks especially good after watching one of those TV episodes.

There are three million hoarders in the United States, according to the statistics given on the show, and there are also three million “doomsday preppers.” Unlike the show HOARDERS, the DOOMSDAY PREPPERS program doesn't attempt to change the behavior of the preppers, perhaps because their fears and obsessive behaviors don't affect other people in the same ways, and there is no sense that the result of their cause will be the spread of dangerous disease through nests of rats or unsanitary conditions. No, the obsessions of the preppers have some other level of dignity and safety. In fact, safety is the main idea, a need to feel safe in a world in which these people feel horribly threatened by a coming, even if only imagined, holocaust, doomsday, or Armageddon of some kind.

The irony of their behavior for me is that they spend every waking moment in preparation for something unspeakably horrendous in order to achieve a sense of safety and inner peace. In fact, it seems that they live in constant fear, just like the hoarders, of losing what they have, often passing this sense of terror on to their children. It strikes me as a dilemma based upon sacrificing the joy of this life in preparation for the next one. It seems almost like preparing to live in a hell they feel is inevitable. I wonder too, what kind of life a destroyed world would offer, that would make one spend all his time preparing to live in it. Finally, both programs show us people, who have an almost pathological need to be in control in a world which they feel is taking from them or is going to take from them something precious. Perhaps what is precious for them has already been lost, that sense of joy, peace, and gratitude for who and what are here right now, but whatever the reason, I suppose people have to find their own level of inner tranquility, as long as it doesn't infringe upon that of others. I am at once sympathetic with the hoarders and preppers, while being awed by their somewhat twisted devotion.