Happy Birthday, Mom!

My mom is 80 today!

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My mother gave me many gifts in the day-to-day life of raising my younger sister and me, and for me most of them involve the things that I still consider important: literature, comedy, performance. I’m grateful that I get to share with my mom our appreciation of various comedians and shows; she remains someone about whom I think if she laughs at a joke it is a funny joke.

By age ten, I knew Freddie Prinze (every kid in that era did) and Saturday Night Live, but also the complete recorded works of Mickey Katz and Allen Sherman. It was a good range of comedians that she exposed me to.

The stories that I learned about her childhood I learned from others, not from her, which came from an innate humility on her part (one does not talk about oneself, as that shows an unbecoming pride … man, have I failed that standard!) and the fact that it seems to have been a uniquely painful childhood. Her aunt Rose told me long ago that before she was ten years of age my mom used to translate the day’s newspaper into Yiddish for her own grandmother, who did not read English. Whenever I’ve asked my mom about this, she demurs with a laugh and the statement, “I guess it’s true if she said so.”

She wanted to become an educator, and because she did not, I guess anecdotes like that represent an unfulfilled promise in her mind. However, for my sister and me, my mom was an educator.
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Henry Aaron: 1934–2021

A personal memory of the all-time great.

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Henry Aaron, the greatest baseball player in history, died this morning at the age of 86. Because he played in an era in which baseball was a part of what it felt like to be an American, his impact on the sport extended far beyond baseball. America needed Hank Aaron (and Willie Mays and so many others) in ways that it still has not started to appreciate.

In baseball, his statistics will always be eye-popping: if one removes his 755 home runs from his hit total, he still had more than 3000 hits. That is only the beginning of his importance in baseball history. I caught a glimpse once of how he carried himself as a person, which for me has long represented some of the reasons he could have that impact on American society far beyond his baseball card stats. I’ll tell that brief story below.

On April 8, 1974, Aaron hit the 715th home run of his career in Atlanta in the fourth inning of a game against the Los Angeles Dodgers. He was a member of the Atlanta Braves and had been for two decades. His 715th homer broke a record for career home runs that had been set when Babe Ruth hit his final home run in 1935. (Aaron’s final record of 755 homers stood until 2007.)
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A Year in the Rearview Mirror

They say eyes clear with age,
As dew clarifies air
To sharpen evenings,
As if time put an edge
Round the last shape of things
To show them there;
The many-levelled trees,
The long soft tides of grass
Wincing away, the gold
Wind-ridden waves – all these,
They say, come back to focus
As we grow old.
—Philip Larkin, “Long Sight in Age,”
The Complete Poems

* * * *
For me, the year that is about to end started inauspiciously. Two friends verbally included me in plans to attend a New Year’s Eve sober party that night, and each one forgot me, their promise, or the party. Perhaps each one forgot those things in that order, but by midnight the details were superfluous as were any apologies.

At a brunch the next day, all three of us were there, but no apologies were offered anyway. Perhaps that sums up everyone’s 2020 as we ring it out in gatherings smaller than last year’s parties or even alone (tonight makes a few consecutive years alone for your correspondent): “No apologies were offered anyway.”

The year that is about to open for business will not immediately offer new emotions or news that will change one’s day-to-day life, of course. The collective desire for tomorrow morning to bring something that we can only give ourselves—peace and togetherness—dominates the online conversations that I witness. The year we just experienced together in our collective aloneness, well, many people want to feel what it feels like to let something go; they want January 1 and the promise that that date represents to carry us away from this painful season.

We say that we are ready for something new, but it is likely that some of us said that very same thing last January 1, and something new is indeed what I experienced in 2020, again and again. This is true for many of us.
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The View From Fifty-Two

Because the past has a script, we think it is easier there.

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In an informal survey that I have conducted my entire life, there are no popular songs about the experience of life at fifty-two years of age, which is too bad because today I am fifty-two.

Fifty-two is of course the same number as a full deck of cards, which is something that I had not noticed until it was pointed out to me, I am ashamed to tell you. Thus: not a full deck here.

I relate to certain lines in some songs a bit more closely than I may want to admit (Leonard Cohen’s “Tower of Song” has the pithy, “I ache in the places I used to play,” for instance), but what is fifty-two? There is no answer to that any more than there is to the same question about the round-number ages, about which society deems it okay to be dramatic and sing songs about the significance of one’s body and the number of revolutions around our star it has made.
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30 Years with the Magnificent Glass Pelican

Perhaps the radar that the Magnificent Glass Pelican has flown under for many years had never been turned on. We escaped detection for so long because no one was looking.

My association with the longest-running unknown radio campus comedy show dates back to around this date in 1990. Before I met my friends (now lifelong friends), several had written skits and started to record them in a home recording studio.

One day, the friend with the recording studio (and the home!) asked to play me some of those tapes. I was a graduate student who had just started to study English Lit. and he had just finished his degree and was now an instructor in the English department. This was at SUNY (State University of New York) New Paltz.

I had just experienced a non-triumphant summer in which two college friends and I attracted enough attention to one of our theatrical productions to earn a negative review in the local daily newspaper. Compared to some, that made me an impresario.
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Ten Years

It’s a long list. Each day for the last 3653 days, someone has said or written something directly to me or merely within earshot that served to guide me through one more day sober. One more sober day. I have thanked some members of that list in person, but some others are individuals whom I met once and they guided me through that day and then moved on. It’s a long list.

The individuals who have offered their wisdom more than once, some have become friends. Others have died, some have moved away. Not to go all “In My Life” on you.

I do not claim to remember every morsel of wisdom that I credit as that day’s bit of help for me because I am not Proust and I am not a diarist and many days I would not know wisdom even if it was offered to me wrapped in a box and labelled “Wisdom for Mark.” (Everyone loves presents!) My life as a sober member of society is proof enough for me that help has been offered and accepted each day for what is now, as of today, ten continuous years of sobriety.
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Pandemic Diary: #NamingTheLost

Two days after my father, William Robert (Bob) Aldrich died of COVID-19 (May 10) in Hyannis, Massachusetts, I was a participant in an online video meeting. Just before it was my turn to speak, something caught my eye: a cardinal, small but rich red in color, alighted on the Rose of Sharon bush beside my window.

Not many birds choose to visit this bush; it is crowded with thin branches and it is smack against the side of the house here. Also, the flowers are not in bloom yet; when they are, the bees will comprise approximately ninety-eight percent of the bush’s visitors rather than birds: through the day, the sound of bumblebee collisions with the window next to the Rose of Sharon punctuates my day.

The red of the cardinal caught my eye, because red always does, and birds are somewhat rare on that exact spot and cardinals rarer still (this was the first time). I mentioned it as I spoke, mostly to make a joke about the fact that the previous speaker’s cat had leapt into her camera frame. (Her cat had chased this bird to me, was the quip. I’m a dad joke waiting to become a father.) Someone all but said that the cardinal was my dad; I do not remember if the thought was that a bird’s visit is spiritual or a cardinal’s visit is.

Red cardinals are the males of the northern cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis); my dad was male, of course, but his hair was red when his hair had color. Red so noteworthy that his nickname in his hometown was “Red.” My friend had no way to know this.

I do not believe in a spiritual world, but sometimes it can almost seem (even to me) that the spirit world wants my attention. I do believe in a spiritual life in that I believe the only point to life is love; perhaps that is not “spiritual,” perhaps it is.
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Pandemic Diary: Just a Box of Rain

I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.
Whisper of running streams, and winter lightning.
The wild thyme unseen and the wild strawberry.
The laughter in the garden, echoed ecstasy
Not lost, but requiring, pointing to the agony
Of death and birth.
—T. S. Eliot, “East Coker,”
Four Quartets

* * * *
One day, he decided to read the pages that I’d left next to my typewriter. I was a literature major in graduate school, and I had just pounded out some pages about “The Waste Land” for a summer T. S. Eliot seminar. “I don’t understand anything you wrote, but it sounds like you know what you’re taking about,” my dad said with a chuckle.

My dad had a pretty good chuckle, just so you know. Chuckles are difficult to rank because they receive little attention in the universe of laughs, but they are worth a note. My dad’s chuckle was never one that claimed he knew more than the person with whom he was speaking, or more than anyone else, for that matter. It was an honest assessment of how amused he was at the moment, which I realize now was one way that told us his full-bodied laughter was true and truly felt.

I did not appreciate my dad’s chuckle that summer day so long ago, though. “The poetry of T. S. Eliot is more important than a laugh,” I am certain I thought. (I was insufferable, I assure you. My insufferable self, so convinced of his own importance, still is around here somewhere, but does not show up often.) Well, Eliot’s poems have plenty of laughs and chuckles available, as I now know, and I also know now that my dad’s message to me was a sort of baffled pride in a son so different from and yet so similar to him.

As I have grown older, I have come to appreciate Eliot’s volume Four Quartets and its deeply considered meditations on time, man’s role in the cosmos, eternity, and the permanent immanence of eternity in any possible moment, never at any individual’s bidding. With my father’s death from COVID-19 on Sunday, May 10, those themes become that much more important to me, and since he chuckled at my Eliot paper (“your report” he called it), perhaps a start with Eliot (“East Coker” opens with “In my beginning is my end”) today would have earned a chuckle from him.
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