Discover Prompts – Day 24: Elixir

Today is April 24 and I am official caughtup with Discover Prompts. Today’s word is “elixir.”

Life without Indiana Jones would be less worth living. There are few movies that enthralled and inspired me as much as Raiders of the Lost Ark. Absolutely brilliant. Adventure, intrigue, back-stabbing, and an ultimate fight between good and evil. Spielberg and Lucas together? Unbeatable.

Of course, the 2nd installment was not good at all – The Temple of Doom practically doomed the franchise Hey, you can’t hit the high note every time.

But back again for Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade putting Harrison Ford and Sean Connery together and we’re once again in the land of brilliance.

I got a black German Shepherd when I was starting college. Her dame’s name was Duchess and her Sire’s name was Navajo. They were fierce guard dogs out in the Mojave desert in Baker, California. So on her official papers, I called her “Indian Princess,” which was convenient because I was determined to call her “Indy” no matter what.

So in the 3rd movie when Sean Connery says, “Indiana, we called the dog Indy,” I pointed at the screen and cried out “ahhh! that’s perfect! It’s the dog’s name. That’s MY dog’s name!” It was like I had a gift of prophecy, several years before the actual movie. It made my dog all the more special, verifying her connection to the great movie franchise.

What does this have to do with elixir? In my mind, the Knights of the Round Table have the old paper feel of mythology, dusty and ornate like a carven statue in the desert marking an ancient tomb.

We had a family friend who contributed salads to our multi-family picnics. She brought ambrosia, a white whipped cream concoction with pineapple chunks and mandarin oranges, coconut, and graapes and maraschino cherries, which I didn’t like and picked out.

I had learned about “ambrosia” in mythology class – the elixir of the gods. Whoever ate the ambrosia at the feasts of the gods would be granted immortality.

Somewhere in my mind, ambrosia, family picnics and the Knights of the Round Table got all mixed up, stirred up in a stiff whipped cream just like the salad, and the word “elixir” summons all of those ideas at once.

It’s a great word, reminiscent of fancy green or maroon bottles without labels but with stopper tops that old pharmaceuticals or thick syrupy liquors are stored in. The word “elixir” flows off the tongue like dribbled honey, its sound sweet and succulent.

Elixir of the gods – that sounds better than bourbon or scotch or vodka or rum or gin or tequila. “Ambrosia” has the same pattern of sound as “elixir” with the stress on the second syllable.

The closest I can come to elixir for drink is Absinthe, with its connotations of hallucinations and wormwood poisoning.

Don’t trust the old knight in the cave who offers you an elixir to cure your ailments, for he’s tricky.

Remember, choose wisely.

Discover Prompts: Day 23 – Note

Today is April 24. One more catch-up prompt and I’m caught up! This entry is for the word “note.”

Today’s the day you start a diary. Take note of how you’re feeling. As Natalie Goldberg says in her book, Writing Down the Bones, “We are important and our lives are important, magnificent really, and their details are worthy to be recorded. This is how writers must think, this is how we must sit down with pen in hand. Remember: magnificent, really.

On October 31, 2018, I started writing a memoir. I was in a cigar bar and the words started spilling out. A structure spoke to me, a scene came to my head like the opening of a movie. And I wrote and wrote, and I’ve been working on the memoir ever see, except for a 6-month layoff from Aug 2019 – Jan 2020. I’m about 200 pages in, a new structure has evolved, and I think it could be an important work of literature, not just my clunky little memoir about my clunky little life.

At the time I started, I was still teaching freshman English at Southern Connecticut State University and at Norwalk Community College. Both assignments really sucked. I had an awful commute and a worse director at Norwalk CC, who was no help and one of the most arrogant people I have ever worked with, condescending to students and colleagues alike. The students were not ready for college and the curriculum was laid out in military fashion (surprise – the director had been a military man), completely inflexible and aimed at not helping students improve but exposing what they lacked.

At Southern, I had a hostile student, a veteran who went off the deep-end. Three straight days she had confrontations with me in front of other students, until she blew up. I had to put a desk between me and her. Another student in the class took video because the student was out of control. Two classmates tried to calm her down and walk her away. All of it led to the Student Conduct office, meetings with the Freshman director and Chair of the department and so on. But the student was cleared to return to class, despite that I felt unsafe in my work place. I went to HR and gave a statement. Neither the Student Conduct office nor HR every followed up. The dean’s office said the student could not be kicked out of class because – she had paid for it. I was shocked. So if you pay, you can get away with bad behavior that impacts the rest of the students in the class. Absurd.

That was the end of the line for me. I waited 6 months for a response from administration, and finally wrote them a letter. They never addressed the fact that they didn’t follow up with me. I had a contract to teach one more class, which I did. Then I quit. I quit a 25-year adjunct college teaching career, a total of 33-years in higher education. I would not be a part of that problem.

Those situations led to panic attacks, vertigo, a lot of symptoms that seemed physical. But once the semester was over, I got a complete medical workup and everything came out fine. In short, it was anxiety. Which brings me back to my memoir.

My memoir is about my brother – a hippie turned conservation fundamentalist preacher who then suffered from major depressive disorder and after many suicide attempts and a 13-year struggle, killed himself. We were practically twins, except for our 10-year age gap (I’m younger). So when he got sick, I got worried about when it was my time. It doesn’t work that way. But that’s not the whole story.

I set out to be a writer, but I’ve been constantly interrupted by the people in my lives who have mental illness. My brother, who was followed by two of his children who also committed suicide. And then there’s my 2nd wife, diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder, but her psychiatrist and her counselor never told her – nor me (yay HIPPA!). Imagine having a serious medical condition and your doctor keeping it from you for 5 years. That’s what happened. And then my sister going off the deep end and stealing from the estate after my parents died. It was a decade of loss, continuous loss. Jobs, financial security, everything wiped down the drain.

Until finally, all I have is what I can write.

A 33-year career in higher education, respectable jobs and a 25-year English teaching career – and it took me 6 months to find a Starbucks job! Something is wrong in the state of Denmark and California and Connecticut and these United States of America.

So now I work on my memoir and wonder about my next paying gig.

I know how to write. I studied The Waste Land in school, trained under a professor – who also committed suicide – who was well-regarded internationally for his work. Eliot’s poem serves as the metaphorical structure for my memoir. It fits perfectly, uncannily so.

But it’s not my personal story I’m interested in telling so much as making art from it.

The note at the top of this entry reminded me of Natalie Goldberg’s book. I’ve read a dozen books on writing memoir and many memoirs as well while working on my own. I was a writing professor, so I know how to write. But it’s working through the emotions, almost reliving these events that have slowed my writing to a crawl, that and finding time to blog and write articles for Medium and work and have a life, too.

I won’t start a diary today. I write so much every day that it’s already a record of my life. I need to keep better records of my daily work. But what I’m reminded about is that my story matters. The story must be told. I must tell the story.

And in doing so, I must hit all the right notes. Will you read it?

Discover Prompts – Day 22: Tempo

Today is April 24, the day after Shakespeare’s birth and death days. I’m almost caught up with Discover Prompts! This entry is for day 22, the word “tempo.”

I see a theme, musical notes in my life and across these prompts. I also studied Latin in college and grad school.

Tempo – time, the rate at which a passage of music is played.

Tempo flies when having fun.

I have to work really hard to keep accurate time when playing the piano. A metronome helps, but not much. My fingers don’t want to do follow along.

I don’t dance either, not well, so not at all. I think there is truth to the idea of rhythm and old white guys. Got none.

But I can study tempo, and time, and with attention, I can write sentences that speed along with a grace of a galloping gazelle or I make my sentence stop short, bouncing with a quick trot, clippity-clop, like a horse slowing from a run.

The writers who best captured the rhythms of language that emphasized what they were writing about were both musical in their way. Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man is imbued with music, mostly jazz. The rhythms and cadences of his words mimic the jazz melodies he listened to while writing the book.

The other writer was Robert Penn Warren, a poet, who wrote the magnificent novel All the King’s Men. I read this novel as extra credit in graduate school. It’s big and long and difficult and dense and completely enthralling. At the opening, a car is speeding along the asphalt, and the tempo of the sentences matches the speed of the car as it goes over bumps and travels along.

I think a lot about time, which, of course, is related to tempo. But I think mostly about running out of time, about getting a late start, which is a worry, a rumination, which doesn’t help at all.

The metronome keeps tocking along. Relentless.

Tock tock tock tock tock . . . .

Discover Prompts – Day 21 – Instrument

Today is April 24, the day after Shakespeare’s birth and death day. I’m still catching up – so close – with Discover Prompts. For day 21, the word is Instrument.

In the previous post, you learned that I play the piano and that it’s one of the great joys of my life. I’m not very good, but I can read and I can practice until I can make a passable show at it, for my ears. I still play with far too many errors to really play for anyone, even people I’m very close to They’ll be polite, but I really don’t play well. But once I had another instrument in my house – a saxophone.

I’ve been married twice before. Wife #2 thrived on music. She loved Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street band, especially Clarence Clemons and his saxophone. After we bought a money-pit house in Kansas, we were quite poor. Springsteen was making his way through the U.S. on The Rising tour and stopping in Kansas City, so I scrapped together enough to get tickets and just enough more to buy souvenirs at the show. We barely had anything for the toll roads to get there.

Our seats were alllll the way in the back of the stadium against the wall, the furthest possible from the stage that you could get. And no one was sitting around us The arena was only 3/4 full at most. While I was off buying surprise souvenirs, I came back to find some strange men talking to my wife. They said they were with the band and wished to move us closer to the stage. It sounded……hokey, unreal. But we moved and got good seats about 10 rows from the stage on the left. People down front were smoking pot. My wife had developed one of her famous stress headaches, but the pot smell wafting in the air cured it.

It was a magical concert, not quite the 4-hour legendary concerts of his youth, but it was longer than most concerts I had ever been to.

Inspired by the events, I decided to rent a saxophone for my wife for Christmas and pay for lessons. We were really struggling financially, but I made some changes to the budget to accommodate the rental and the lessons. We already had an electric piano, and there was no reason she couldn’t learn to play an instrument if she wanted.

I was so excited. I told my family about it, and they were thrilled with the idea as well. Music was a part of our lives. Christmas came and my wife was overjoyed to the point of tears. She didn’t really know what to make of it. I had arranged for some starting lessons, and the guy was an old jazz musician who went over the basic with her.

My wife told her dad about the saxophone. She had recently borrowed money from him because of our financial straits, and I didn’t know about that. He scolded her. “How do you have money for saxophone lessons but can’t pay your bills?” She was devastated, but he held great sway over her and often interfered with her pursuits of happiness.

I tried to help her learn, since I could read music, but she got frustrated at my help. So I back off and let her deal with it on her own. Within a month, with tears in her eyes, she took the saxophone back. It was one of the saddest pre-divorce days in my life.

She had always dreamed of playing the saxophone. And she gave up on this dream for good.

Discover Prompts – Day 20 – Music

I’ll be caught up today with Discover Prompts. Root canal interruption but no excuses. Today is April 24, the day after Shakespeare’s birth and death days.

Sometimes I write just to write, which is what prompts are good for. But this has got to be the least inspired piece of writing. Forgive me, dear readers.

Music – Where to start? Music means so much to so many people. I know people for whom music must be playing at all times, for whom music is placed on a loop and listened to unconsciously, who listen to music to get them through tough times, through break-ups, who go to clubs to move their bodies to a beat. Music has never been that way for me.

When I was growing up, our house was filled with music. My dad played the piano every day. He was a great player, but not a polished player. He could play anything. He would hear it once, fiddle with the melody and then he’d find a bass to accompany it and he’d have it for the rest of his life. My mom made sure that my dad always had a piano. So we all took lessons.

I took lessons longer than most but I don’t play as well because I never practiced. I went through periods when I practiced. But I don’t play well. Right now, I don’t even have a piano. The last piano I had was an electric console but I sold it because it wasn’t right for my apartment. That was 5 years ago. And right now, I’m itching to get another piano.

My dad could play any instrument handed to him. We had a variety of instruments in our house – castenets, bongo drums, sticks, a zither, guitar, ukulele, recorder. But it was the piano we all gravitated toward, fought over. Whenever one kid wanted to practice, there was a fight for the piano.

In school, we had music lessons in 5th grade, instruments in class, and we learned songs and had choir for assemblies and christmas concerts. I definitely have good associations with music and many stories involving music. I really can’t tell you why I don’t listen to more music these days.

I listened to and played a lot of classical music. I still like to listen, especially Vladimir Horowitz – anything really. I studied Beethoven, but I love Mozart and Chopin, and Rachmaninoff, Debussey, and on and on. Of course, I spent my teenage years listening to classic rock, except it wasn’t classic then – I was a little late for the Beatles but they were always all over the airwaves. The 1970s superbands were part of my adolescence, with the Eagles and the Beach Boys right near the top, and of course Journey, and Queen, and Foreigner, and later U2. I came to the Grunge movement late – turned off the radio for grad school. But I love Nirvana and then there’s Madonna – my fav.

But I don’t know why I don’t turn music on more regularly. The girlfriend listens to podcasts so there’s not much music coming from her either.

I had two traumatic experiences with music. When I was 7, I had my first recital. My piano teacher was a larger lady, more than 300 lbs. I went to her funeral and they buried her in a piano case. She came to the house and sat in a small chair – we had chairs not a piano bench, and she taught all of us to read music well, but she didn’t teach us to keep time well at all. For my first recital, I was playing the first part of Fur Elise, by heart. It was one page long. I had memorized it and practiced and practiced. It’s one of the few pieces that I can still play today. But on that day, the gremlins were at work.

The recital was in a bank with marble floors and a great echo. I had to dress up and wear a tie and nice shirt. Everyone was dressed fancy and chairs were set up all over the bank lobby. There were quite a few kids playing that day. When it was my turn, I gave my music to my teacher and sat down and played. I did well, except I blanked out at the last line. I stopped. I couldn’t remember how to pick up again. I had to ask for my music and looked at it and remembered and finished the last line. We went out for ice cream afterwards, but I was inconsolable. It was quite embarrassing.

I missed the day between elementary school and jr high school when instruments were assigned, so all through Jr. High school and High School, I didn’t get to play in band or orchestra, even though compared to many of my peers, I was quite advanced in piano since I started taking lessons at age 4.

But I was friends with many of the band geeks. In high school, a classmate who played the viola asked me to accompany her for a competition. She gave me a long and complicated piece of music by Mozart (I was used to playing Beethoven), and we only had 3 weeks to practice. Every time I tried to get together with her to practice, she was too busy..

I worked on that piece diligently, working with my piano teacher who lived across the street in his studio with his two big black Steinways side by side. For my part, I had the intro, about 1 page of music. Then we had 12 other pages and then back through the first 4. Our recital was at a busy school for a music competition. My entire family showed up and no one showed up for Carolyn whose competition it was.

I started playing. I screwed it up so badly that when it was time for her to come in, she didn’t know where I was and scowled at me and told me I needed to start over. So I started again. We made it through, although I did a horrible job. My family applauded wildly. What was most embarrassing is that the judge at the competition gave me an impromptu piano lesson on playing thirds together to make sure both notes played at the same time – evidently that grated on his nerves.

Despite all, playing the piano is the second greatest stress relief I have in my life, beyond sailing. I can’t wait to get a piano again.

Discover Prompts: Day 19 – Three

This is April 23, Shakespeare’s birth and death day. I’m playing catch-up with Discover Prompts in April. For Day 19, the word is Three.

I’m excited about the word “three.” Recently, the girlfriend and I celebrated our 4th anniversary. But for our third anniversary, I wrote her a poem Only a few days before, we brought home a 10-week old Dachshund that we named Herman. We two had become three!

Here’s the poem:

We Are Three!

We are three,
I and you
That’s you and me
Now three.
Not one, not two,
But three!
And with Hen-er-ry,
(That’s Herman,
Which doesn’t rhyme),
Oh, but he climbs
And whines and cries
And is divine
And makes us three
Like Peter, Paul, and Mar-y,
Or the trinity,
Or infinity.
That’s prime,
So divine,
Is three.

Now we are three,
In time,
In years.
Not more,
Certainly not four.
But there will be more
When we can be four,
But for now let us be,
You and me,
What we are,
Which is three.

Three cheers!
Hip hip hooray!

For now we are three
You and me.

And I love thee.

For now
And all eternity.

Happy Anniversary!

Love me, Lee
or Vinnie!

(P.S. Hey! That’s me!
And with you
We are three!)

Discover Prompts: Day 18 – New

It’s April 23, Shakespeare’s birth and death days. I’m still a bit behind on Discover Prompts. Here’s an entry for Day 18 – New.

Every day, I grow more self-conscious about getting older. My skin is changing. My hair is thinning. My paunch is expanding, though it’s not big by most standards, big for me as a skinny guy. My eyes are worsening. And yet, inside, I still feel like a teenager. I still have stamina, good health, excitement in my bones to try new things.

“Old” and “new” – rivals, antonyms, though “young” could be a more exact antonym for old.

When I write, I always try for a new perspective, a way to see the world with fresh language. I’m a believer in the adage, “there’s nothing new under the sun.” It’s the treatment we give a subject that is new. I’m not a firm believer in that adage anymore. There are new things in the world. When I was younger, we didn’t have cell phones, or the internet, microwave ovens, or Kindles. There weren’t golden doodles, or designer cats, or reality television shows. I guess it depends on when you date such things from. The ideas for such things existed long before the physical manifestations of them stepped onto the world stage.

Everything old is new again. Ah the internet, such a treacherous beast. I’ve found this phrase attributed to the song writer Peter Allen and to Stephen King. Finding the etymological source of this phrase is tricky. But sometimes it’s the import of the phrase rather than its source that we must trust.

The first, the original, the source isn’t always the best, the everlasting, the fount of all knowledge. Old ideas are remade, become new, take on new life, new purposes, new goals, new prominence.

The peak of a mountain erodes, leaving an egg-shaped rock near the top. As its roots weaken, the egg falls and comes to rest in a new place. The original peak now has a new top. The original egg now holds a position of prominence in a new location. It is still the peak, though. If it has any lasting quality, it will remain the peak until it erodes into a fine dust, tossed into the upper atmosphere and blown through all the galaxy by the winds of space. Until then……… what once was, remains. What remains is ever new with each rise of the sun.

Discover Prompts: Day 17 – Distance

Today is April 23, Shakespeare’s birth and death days. I’m still catching up on Discover Prompts: Day 17 – Distance.

A couple days ago, I saw the word “distance” in Discover Prompts and immediately thought of the book, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner by Alan Sillitoe. I was working on a Ph.D. long ago and running into problems. My dissertation chair suggested the book to me. I don’t remember if I read it then, but at some other time I did read it. My mind travels back to that book occasionally. As I remember, the philosophy is to keep going, one step in front of the other. It’s lonely work, but it’s work that’s worth it.

I’ve never been much of a runner, but I understand stamina and taking a step, and another, and another. It seems that that’s all I’ve ever done. But then a chasm will appear. The path will end at a cliff, or a crack in the earth. I look down and it’s black, a long deep crevice. If I had been running, I would have missed it, would have run right into the hole, still churning my legs as I was propelled by the force of gravity down down down, still running, with my little jogging shorts and thin wicking t-shirt, and brightly accented running shoes. Or could I have, like a cartoon, run through the air and made it to the other side? The distance to the other side doesn’t seem that far, but it’s not jumpible. It’s impassable, a word so close to impossible. Some paths aren’t meant to be finished.

If I have any qualms at all about my writing, it’s achieving the necessary distance from real world events to be able to write about it. It’s been 15 years since the major events of the memoir I’m working on, 10 years for some of it, and 5 years for the rest, as if every 5 years, another impassable crevice stretches the crust of the earth, like a fresh hot cookie being pulled apart. I admire Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking so much, her ability to effectively obtain objective distance in the wake of unspeakable emotional pain. But then, she wrote the book, so it’s not unspeakable.

Come hell or high water, or impassable cracks in the earth’s crust, I will finish this memoir.

Discover Prompts: Day 16: Slow

Hello. This is April 23, Shakespeare’s Birth and Death days. I’m still a bit behind on Discover Prompts for April, but I’ll be caught up tomorrow. Root canals have a way of interrupting the daily flow. I make no excuses. Just the facts.

All my life, I’ve been a fast mover. I was very skinny most of my life, a bean pole. I had a high metabolism. I walked fast, faster than most. I hiked even faster. People in my family couldn’t really keep up with me, nor did they try. I jiggled my legs, always bouncing them on the balls of my feet, nervously. But I wasn’t nervous and I didn’t have ADHD or anything like that. I was on the go.

Recently, on hikes in the woods during this pandemic with the girlfriend and my Dachshund, Herman, I’ve noticed that I’ve lost a step. I go at it more slowly than ever. I’ve lost a step. But I prefer to go slow now. I can crank up the speed if need be, but I miss so much. My glasses fog up, my vision blurs, as if I’m in a race car.

When I slow, I can see things more clearly. I can see the trees sway and stop to listen to them creak. I can quiet my footsteps to listen to a bird twitter in the distance. I can catch a critter in the undergrowth. The other day I saw chipmunks playing in the dead leaves, coming out for spring.

The gf and I are matched well as far as speed, though she walks faster than I do. I’ve not met many people who do. She’s also a great deal younger so she doesn’t quite have that “stop and smell the roses” perspective that I’m developing. For her, there will be time.

Before our walk on the trails of Westwoods in Guilford the other day, we stepped across the road to look at the Canadian geese lying in the plowed fields along Bishops Pond, we saw a turtle crossing the road. It was about the size of my hand with a smooth black shell, yellow stripes on its neck and some red dots on its head. As we approached to take a picture, it slowed and pulled into its shell a bit and then stopped. It was almost across the road. We pulled back and held our breaths, cheering for it under our breaths to move forward to get off the roadway so as not to get hit by a car. By our measures, it was a slow-mover. By its own, it was probably racing across the road. I don’t think of turtles as especially fast, but then, I’m not a turtle myself.

Most days now I feel as if I’m racing toward the finish line. The days go by fast, and I don’t get enough done. That’s what comes of starting late. By night, I have done work. Some of it may last. Others will not. As always, it’s all work in progress. And yet, at some point, I have to call it done. The slow accretion of details, of form and substance, has to be called done so I can move on to the next task. There is still so much to do.

Right now, I’ll take it slow, pace myself, see the details I missed before, the red dots on a turtle’s head, the alertness of the geese in the field, their invisible radius always turned on, the striped chipmunks playing tag in the dead leaves. The sprint for the finish lay yet ahead.

Discover Prompts: Day 15 – Scent

Today is Earth Day, April 22. I’m still catching up on Discover Prompts for April. Day 15 prompt is the word “scent.”

I’ve never really had a stronger sniffer. I can smell okay, but it just wasn’t overpowering. For a long time, I smoked and I grew up in a smoke-filled house, so that dulled my sense of smell. It’s been 15 years since I’ve quit smoking, so if I were to regain some sense of smell, I would have noticed by now. I’m intrigued that people are losing their senses of smell with the novel coronavirus.

My little Dachshund, Herman, almost 1 1/2 years old, has a strong nose. I had some recent tooth problems. He likes to look at my mouth and almost put his nose inside. He sniffed out the problem with my tooth long before I had to make an emergency appointment for a root canal.

In graduate school, I wrote a long treatise on the word “nose,” following all the metaphorical and sexual suggestiveness of phrases and characters throughout a wide-variety of material. Scent obviously played a strong role in the idea of “nose.”

But when I think of scent, I think of two movies – A Scent of a Woman, in which Al Pacino won an Oscar, not one of my favorite movies but a memorable role for a remarkable actor. And i also think of the movie, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, a less well-known movie but one that sticks with me like a fly on stink. If you haven’t seen Perfume, put it on your short list. It’s set in 18th-century Paris among the competitive business of perfumery shops. An orphan with an extraordinary sense of smell seeks out scents. As he grows up, he becomes obsessed with the scent of a woman. And he does everything he can to capture that scent. The colors of the film are muted but also bright and alive when the scents are described. It’s almost as if the colors are used to heighten our awareness of what smells we’d be encountering in the world of the film.

I usually have a good nose for news and movies, so sniff out this scent on your local streaming service and sit down for a scentsational treat.