Sometimes Believing is Not Seeing

For most of my life it irritated the hell out of me to hear someone say I looked like my father. I just couldn’ see it, especially by the time I reached my twenties. He had this gigantic hooked nose; he had serious hair loss; he was 50-75 pounds overweight. End of story, right?

Then, somehow for the first time last night, I saw side by side the two pictures I’ve included here. On the left (circa 1971) is yours truly at about 25. On the right is my father (circa 1940) at about 25.

My first thought was that now, in 2008, I’d be much more likely to put on the suit the old man wore to the photographer’s studio in 1940 than those snappy, disco-ready threads I affected for my photo op in 1971.

My second thought was how striking the resemblance is between us—although he was clearly better looking than I. To get the pictures ready to display here, I used Photoshop to convert both images to the same sepia tone. That was partly to make it easy to conduct an apples-to-apples comparison of the faces. The more pressing reason, as you might suppose, was to suppress the colors in the pictures of me.

Yeah, that tie is white. Sepia won’t do anything to hide that. What you probably can’t deduce from the sepia, however is that the stripes on my jacket are gold and white. The shirt is what is now called “rich maroon.” Worse, the shiny polyester from which the shirt was made had roses woven in. I have no idea what I wore for pants with this rig—orange and lime checks, for all I know. I do suspect, however, that the pants were bell bottoms. This was also the period when I wore “earth shoes,” the ones with the negative heels.

Anyway, it was probably the difference in styles that blinded me to how much I did look like the old man. There was also the fact that the picture of me was taken at a time when my father and i didn’t have much to say to each other. The circumstances of that make another story which, with any luck at all, I will never get around to telling here. The point is that I believed I did not look like him and therefore could not see that the old “physog” is pretty similar on the two of us.

Looking at the photos together last night, Marge agreed that the resemblance was strong, although, she tenderly opined, “you look more hapless.”

Thanks for your input, my treasure.

Provide, Provide Me Shelter

Oh a storm is threat’ning my very life today.
If I don’t get some shelter,
Oh yeah, I’m gonna fade away.

Gimme, gimme shelter or I’m gonna fade away.

—Mick Jagger/Keith Richards

No memory of having starred
Atones for later disregard,
Or keeps the end from being hard.

Better to go down dignified
With boughten friendship at your side
Than none at all. Provide, provide!

—Robert Frost

Take care of me, Mick Jagger pleads. Take care of yourself, Robert Frost replies. Which voice resonates more compellingly? Which voice is more like your voice right now?

I never was much of a Stones fan (in the ’60s you couldn’t really be a Stones fan and a Beatles fan) but in Gimme Shelter Mick Jagger sang for me anyway. Marge and I had parents—people who took care of us without even making us ask.

In June of 1969, we marked our first wedding anniversary. It promised to be a melancholy affair. I was in the first year of a four-year hitch in the Air Force and was stationed at Pease Air Force Base, New Hampshire. On June 15, we had been in New Hampshire about a month. Marge had found a job welding filaments on the assembly line of a Sylvania plant and we were living in a tiny and cheerless apartment about two miles from the base.

We were together, but life seemed pretty grim all the same. We had no money and almost no furniture. When we tried to prepare an anniversary dinner, all we had was the top layer of our wedding cake (carefully kept frozen for a year), a package of frozen peas, and two cans of Narragansett beer. We laughed about it without much real mirth.

Then, unannounced, my mother and father arrived, bringing a celebration in the back of their pickup truck—the table and chairs that Marge’s parents had given us, a hibachi, four nice steaks, some potatoes to bake, a salad, a bottle of wine, and an anniversary card with $100 in it.

These days we mostly have to take care of ourselves, but loving people have taught us nice ways to do that.

Divorce in Haste – Repent at Leisure

I was a lawyer for fourteen years. I had been in practice for about eight years when “Susan” walked into my law office because she wanted a divorce. She told me she and her husband had already agreed on most of the details of a settlement and were hiring lawyers now to make the divorce happen as quickly and smoothly as possible. She had even brought a check as a retainer.

Susan’s husband was being represented by a lawyer I’ll call “Bill.” His office was in a neighboring town, and my experience with him had been that he was a straight shooter and easy to work with. A case like this seemed almost too good to be true.

Everything went like clockwork. I filed the complaint, Bill filed his client’s answer, and we set about the task of putting the things Susan and her husband had already agreed to into proper legal form. By the time the “cooling off” period specified by Maine divorce law had run, we were ready to take the agreement to court and finalize the divorce. In those days, an uncontested divorce with a signed settlement agreement could be completed with a hearing that rarely lasted more than ten minutes. Maine divorce lawyers had developed a short set of questions that allowed a plaintiff’s testimony to establish everything the judge needed to hear in order to grant a divorce and incorporate the signed settlement agreement into the judgment.

Bill and I went to court with Susan. I asked the standard questions, Susan gave the standard answers, and the hearing was over in record time. We gave the judge the proposed divorce judgment we had prepared together. The judge agreed to sign the judgment, and just like that the divorce hearing was all over except for pushing the paper.

Susan paid the balance of my fee and was on her way. Back in my office, I closed her file and deposited her check. I thought no more about her until she showed up in my office again about three years later.

“I’m getting married again,” she said happily, “but they tell me I need an attested copy of the divorce judgment in order to get my marriage license.”

And the problem?

“Well, I went to the court, but they can’t seem to find the divorce judgment,” she said.

I pulled out Susan’s file and was surprised to see that I didn’t have a copy of the judgment either. It still seemed like a small problem. “I’ll go over there tomorrow,” I said, “Probably the person you spoke to didn’t know where to look. I’ll take care of this for you.”

The next morning, I was in the clerk’s office. I explained the situation to a deputy clerk whom I knew fairly well and who had been helpful in the past. She dropped what she had been doing and went straight to work to locate Susan’s divorce judgment. Before long, however, it became clear that the situation was more complicated than I had thought.

“It’s not just that I can’t find the judgment,” the deputy clerk explained, “I can’t find the case file at all. All I have here is a docket sheet that says the complaint and answer were filed. Beyond that, there is absolutely nothing. The docket doesn’t even say there was a hearing.”

Back in the office, I called Bill. “Remember that smooth divorce we did about three years ago? Do you have a copy of the judgment in your file?” Bill said he’d call me back, and in a few minutes he did.

“I don’t have the judgment,” he said. “I don’t get it.”

The next day, Bill and I went to the clerk’s office together. The deputy clerk made another search with the same result. “I’m concerned,” she said, “that the docket sheet doesn’t mention the hearing. Are you guys sure there was a hearing?”

We were sure. Bill looked in his file and said, “Yes, the case was heard by Judge ‘Smith.'”

“Great,” I said, “we’ll contact Judge Smith and ask him to sign a new order.” I was thinking of a little thing in law called nunc pro tunc, literally now for then. Get a new order signed now and fix a problem from back then.

“No, you won’t,” said the clerk.

“Isn’t he on the bench any more?” I asked.

“He’s dead,” said the clerk, adding, “Hmmm, here’s a note. Looks like Judge Smith took the file home with him and never brought it back.”

Great. No divorce judgment. No judge. No way ever to find the original court file. This wasn’t looking good at all.

I called Bill again. “Look,” I said, “we’ll just have to do the divorce over again. Call up your client, and let’s get the ball rolling.”

“We’re not going to do that,” said Bill. “My client is already remarried. I don’t know how he did it, but he did. Any court order that says he is still married to Susan now turns him into a bigamist and turns me into a lawyer facing a huge malpractice claim. There has to be another way out of this.”

I began to imagine a scene in which I had to tell Susan that she was still married to her ex- and was going to stay married to him, even though he didn’t know he was still married to her. Yikes.

We were in the same foxhole, Bill and I, and we began to brainstorm. Finally we figured out that if we could get another judge to sign an order with the date of the original hearing we’d be out of the woods. The plan smelled a little like fraud, but it was the best we could do.

We went back to the clerk’s office and, working out of our own files, supplied copies of everything the original court file had held. The clerk put everything in a new folder, with the old docket number on it. With the new court file in hand, we set out to find a judge. There were two requirements: it had to be judge who had been on the bench when the divorce was heard three years before, and it had to be a judge who would do business with us now.

After a couple of false starts, we found our man. Judge “Jones” listened to us as we explained what had happened and why we were making such an extraordinary request. When we were done talking, he just looked at us for a minute, then said, “Neither of you noticed that you didn’t get a judgment in the mail? Nobody had any questions about that?” He shook his head. “You boys are in a hell of a mess here. If either one of you was my laywer, I’d want your head on a pole right about now.”

“Yes, Judge. We know, Judge. That’s why we’ve come to you.” I’m pretty sure I was smiling too hard.

Judge Jones thought for another minute, then reached into the reconstructed file we had held out to him and pulled out the reconstructed order. “I’m a goddam fool to get involved in this, but people who think they’re divorced ought to be divorced.” He signed the order, then looked up at us. “And I’ll tell you another thing, boys. If I go down over this, you dumb sons of bitches are coming with me!”

“Yes, Judge. Thank you, Judge. Thank you!” Bill and I were practically genuflecting as we left Judge Jones’s chambers and headed back to the clerk’s office. I couldn’t look the clerk in the eye as I requested an attested copy of the divorce judgment. Bill wanted one, too.

On the phone with Susan later, I tried to be noncommittal. “Sometimes things get lost over there,” I said, “but I have what you need right here.”

“Wonderful,” she said, “How much do I owe you?”

I blanched. “No charge,” I said, “Think of it as a wedding present.”

Susan remarried. Her ex- stayed remarried. No one got sued.

Judge Jones has since passed away, but I remember him as just about the wisest and kindest judge I ever knew. Thanks again, Judge Jones.

How Small Can Vindication Be and Still Feel Like Vindication?


Yesterday I would have had a different answer to the question I pose today. Now, however, after a bit of recreational clicking around the Web, I have a different idea of size and significance. To paraphrase Dr. Seuss, a victory’s a victory no matter how small.

How small am I talking about here? Grab your electron microscopes and follow me, boys and girls. We’re going to be working on a sub-atomic scale.

Back Story

One long ago summer I took a graduate course on the poetry of T.S. Eliot, W.B. Yeats and, I think, Wallace Stevens. In accordance with the syllabus, Eliot was up first. We read the heavy hitters—The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, The Waste Land, and so forth—but the reading also included a poem called Sweeney Among the Nightingales. I hadn’t read it before,1 and I couldn’t make a lot of sense of it.

The editor of the anthology we were using, however, had anticipated such difficulties. The poems were heavily annotated. A note at the end of Sweeney informed me that Sweeney is murdered in the poem.


I plowed through the poem several more times, but I just didn’t get it. Class discussion turned to the significance of Sweeney’s murder, and erudition blazed around the room. But I didn’t get it. Finally, in desperation, I raised my hand and said, “You have to help me here. I just can’t see where the murder happens in the poem.”

The class fell silent. The professor scanned every face in the room, then asked, “Does anyone want to comment on that question?” It turned out no one did. My question went unanswered, and class discussion resumed.

By the time the class ended, I knew I was an idiot. I had asked a question so phenomenally stupid that no one had had any idea where to begin to answer it. I was stung with humiliation and never asked the question again, although I never figured out the answer on my own. Years passed, and I stopped thinking about it.

Snarky Fast Forward

Today has been cold, gray and rainy in these parts. It is April, and to my mind the weather should be springlike. There is still a foot or more of snow in my backyard. I actually took a picture of it out the window. I had planned to post that picture here, in a bald attempt to gain the sympathy of readers in warmer climes.

Then T.S. Eliott came into my mind. “April is the cruelest month…” and all that. What, I wondered, was Eliot actually referring to with that image?

I Googled the question and found myself picking through densely argued scholarship intent on telling me way more than I wanted to know. Then I saw the word “Sweeney” in the middle of a paragraph, and the old question came back to me. “There’s too much stuff to read about The Waste Land here,” I thought, “but maybe I can finally learn where Sweeney dies.”

I narrowed the Google search to Sweeney, and a handful of sources came up. Before I knew it, I was reading these words: “As America’s leading Eliotist, Grover Smith, tells us, though, ‘nobody murders Sweeney’…”

The relief, the self-satisfaction, the outright vindication that I felt reading those words is surely out of proportion. You couldn’t tell me where he was murdered, you miserable poseurs, because he didn’t die!

He. Didn’t. Die.

Yes, I have my answer, but by any measure, it’s 30 years too late. There is nevertheless something to be learned from this. The concreteness of thought that led me to ask “Where?” was probably what later turned me away from literary studies and led me first (unhappily) to the law, then (enthusiastically) to computers and the Internet.

And I just feel so damn much better about Sweeney.

1Note to those about to begin graduate literary studies. In grad school you are never reading anything for the first time. You are always and only re-reading things. It’s an institutionalized lie that grad students and their professors tell to each other and that all conspire to believe.

Four Minus One Equals Zero

l. to r., Joe (tenor), Pete (lead), Bill (bass), Dave (baritone)

4 – 1 = 0. The equation is quartet math. With a quartet you have to have all four parts. If even one part is missing, you have nothing.

I’ve been singing with these guys since 1997 when a local high school chose The Music Man as their annual musical production. The director tried valiantly to recruit four high school boys to be the barbershop quartet the show requires, but she had no luck. Finally, she turned to parents, and Joe, Bill, Dave and I stepped forward. I knew the other guys already since we all sing in the same church choir.

As I understand it, the director said something to the kids in the show to the effect that they should be grateful that parents were willing to support their production. The kids responded by giving us our name: The Grateful Dads. In the picture here, I’m the beardless one.

I have said many times (and meant it every time) that quartet singing is more fun than a person probably should be allowed to have. My vocal range is what is called second tenor. In quartet terms this turns out to be lead—I get to sing the melody almost all the time!

In the beginning we stuck to traditional barbershop. It wasn’t long, however, before Dave got the itch to write arrangements for us. With Dave’s arrangements, we began branching into doo-wop (aging white guys singing the music of young black guys of 50 years ago). Then came Elvis. Then came the Beatles. One of our doo-wop numbers is Gene Chandler’s classic Duke of Earl. As lead, I get to do all that swooping falsetto business at the end.

When my daughter Elizabeth first heard us sing the number, I wanted to know her opinion of the performance. She thought for a moment and said, “It would be worth the price of admission for me just to hear my own father make a noise like a little girl on a roller coaster.”

On the Whiteness of My Legs

A foot of snow still blankets most of our back yard, but I find myself already thinking about the spring ritual of opening the pool. I knew nothing about swimming pools when we moved into this house in 1996, but I had to learn fast. Here is the most accurate definition I know:

swimming pool n., a hole in the ground which you must repeatedly fill with money.

You can take a lot of that money out of the equation by doing your own pool work, and that is what I have learned to do. The summer sun is very, very bright in our back yard. And it’s hot out there. As the weather warms, I will probably find myself whining repeatedly about what a pain in the backside the pool is.

Our back yard is a great place to have a pool, however, and that’s probably why we’ve kept it going through the years. Without the pool, that back yard would be pretty much useless. And so I have learned the job of pool boy.

Yet the law of unintended consequences has dogged my pool maintenance efforts from the start. It’s my legs, you see, and the tiresome remarks about their color I am called upon to endure. It’s hot in the back yard. I wear shorts when I’m working on the pool and a bathing suit on those rare occasions when I actually step into the pool. When I’m in the back yard in the summer, people can see my legs.

Yeah, my legs are white. What do you want from me, people? I’m a white dude, OK? I talk like a white dude, I dress like a white dude, I look like a white dude. White man has white legs! Who knew? Hold page one above the fold!

The bleached and bloodless hue of my legs nonetheless draws repeated comment. And it’s not just family members and close friends. Several summers ago, I caught an African-American woman of my acquaintance staring at my poor, pallid limbs. Like a fool, I felt the need to confront her about it.

“Georgia,” I said, “why are you staring at my legs?”

“Don’t seem like even a white man need to be that white!” she replied, placidly.

Eine Schwarzwaldenfahrt

A little lowly Hermitage it was,
Downe in a dale, hard by a forests side,
Far from resort of people, that did pas
In travell to and froe…

—Edmund Spenser

Well, it wasn’t really a hermitage, and it wasn’t located in the Black Forest. But it was our own little world, and we did walk a lot.

The North Campus Quadrangle, a/k/a The Jungle, at the University of Connecticut was where I lived when I was a college freshman more than 40 years ago. I was going to be a musician in those days, but as it turned out, I was at the wrong school studying the wrong instrument (bassoon). I fell in with a group of bright but undisciplined guys, and we mostly devoted the year to beer and late nights.

The “hermitage” where we gathered was a smoky burger joint called The Campus Restaurant. The music we listened to in The Jungle was earnest and edgy: Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Phil Ochs. The Campus, however, had an unforgettably eclectic jukebox, and it was there that we learned of Horst Jankowski and his one American hit, the lilting instrumental A Walk in the Black Forest (Eine Schwarzwaldenfahrt). No matter how broke we were, one of us could always scrape up a dime for Horst. I hadn’t heard—or thought of—the song in decades, but recently something reminded me of it. I did a quick search on one of the peer-to-peer networks, and before I knew it, the mp3 was sitting on my hard drive.

I played the song expecting to experience the sense of ironic superiority it gave me in 1964. What happened instead was that all of the faces and names from that long ago year came flooding back. On my birthday in the summer of 1965—after the year in The Jungle was over—four of my Connecticut friends rode the bus to Maine for a weekend. The birthday gift they brought me was a 45 rpm record of A Walk in the Black Forest. I never saw any of them again, although one of them telephoned me out of the blue about 15 years ago.

Google informs me that Horst Jankowski died in 1998, but he lives in memory.