Two of the selections here, "I Don't Do B and E's", and Laundry Bag, Pipe Bomb", are from the book, "Papa, Did We Break It?"
(Which you should buy: http://bellowphone.com/writings.html)

The rest are stories that I add and change up in no particular order, so check back now and then, and scroll around. Leave a comment, for cryin' out loud.

Besides the poems and the obvious parodies, all the experiences that I relate here happened just as I tell them, as near as I can remember.

Hugging the Bowl

    I've been hugging a toilet bowl, on and off, for two days. No, I haven't been sick, or drinking.
    Let's say your toilet was leaking underneath; it was dripping through the floor and making a puddle in your basement, and you wanted to fix it. You would have to disconnect things, take off the tank, unbolt the contraption from the floor, and at some point you would have to lift it up to move it off the spot. Have you ever tried to lift a toilet bowl? It's damned awkward, actually: you have to sort of hug it. Now you're getting the idea.
    When you're putting it back again, having settled it carefully on its wax seal after getting the wobbling bolts to go through their little holes without falling over underneath, you also don't want to over-tighten the nuts because the porcelain is very brittle. I knew this, but even so, as I was carefully snugging down the nuts the first time, I felt a sickening feeling as I turned the wrench; a sudden slackness. It wasn't the porcelain cracking: it was the flange on the ancient cast iron pipe underneath, crumbling away. The bolt was free as a bird.
    I was strangely calm. Well, I did swear a blue streak, with a rising note of hysteria in my voice that was a little frightening, but if there's no one there to hear you, did you actually make a sound? But then I thought, I can take a piece of steel bar stock, and with a hacksaw and files, I can make a flange to fit under what's left of the broken cast iron rim of the pipe. So that's what I did, and it worked; it took me about 2 hours. But I must mention: in the meanwhile, since you've lifted and moved the toilet away from its place, there is the dreadful menacing 4 inch hole in the floor; the pipe that goes straight down into the netherworld of the septic tank far below. This hole was just inviting me, for instance, to fumble and drop a tool down it; never to be seen again, or something worse. Your instinct bids you to cover that hole, so I did; I cut a plastic cover out of an old piece of tupperware, and I used it to seal the hideous hole while I was working on the broken flange.
    Now, before I relate how I came to install the toilet bowl not one more time, but two more times, I will mention another good reason for keeping the pipe covered while you are working: septage flies. These interesting creatures actually live in the fetid subterranean darkness of the septic tank, flying around above the liquid in the underground chamber, and communicating with the outside world via the vent pipe on the house roof. And you thought you had a bad job. Perhaps you can understand that I didn't want any of these little denizens of the dark to visit me in my world. And in fact, as I worked, I would occasionally see one of these small flies flying around under the cover for a few moments, perhaps contemplating the wondrous light that he could see through the translucent plastic.
    When I was done making the new flange, I reformed the squashed wax seal around the hole in the bottom of the toilet, buttering it around with a putty knife, like frosting a cake. When I was satisfied that the wax ring was well formed and would seat properly, I carefully lowered the toilet bowl down over the hole for the second time, getting the bolts to go through their holes without knocking them over. It took a couple of tries, but I got it done, and I felt the satisfying "give" of the wax spreading out and sealing the joint. A perfect job, and I would be very careful tightening down the nuts this time. But something was nagging at the back of my mind. Think carefully, I told myself; is everything shipshape? It ought to be, but think...
    NO! That's right; maybe you guessed it: the tupperware cover was still in its place down under there! Not as perfect a job as I could have wished. One more time, I get to bend my back to this fascinating job, and hug the toilet bowl. Off it comes again, and although it's too late now to make a long story short, I finally made an end of it, and as of this writing, there's no more puddle under the pipes in the basement.


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Grammar Test

When I was in grade school, we would get questions like the following:

- Correct the error(s) in the following sentence -
"Jack seen Fred fix them cars hisself."

    I would always think, who would possibly get these questions wrong?  Everyone knows where Fred ain't smart enough to fix no car by hisself!

Enlightening Storm

    We got caught in the most furious tropical downpour ever seen by man, while wedged amongst a slowly surging crowd of several hundred thousand bedraggled people along the Boston Esplanade on July 3rd.
    This was following an abbreviated but impressive fireworks display over the Charles River.
While the last booms were still echoing across the water, the PA system had advised us of the imminent arrival of violent thunderstorm activity, and they ordered an immediate evacuation of the area. The entire crowd surged into motion, but the timing was cut a little too close. As the storm-front swept down, a scream and a swirling disturbance propagated swiftly through the close-packed crowd; the solid wall of wind and water slamming towards and then into us.
    We were all instantly drenched, if not knocked sideways; everyone, though somewhat alarmed and uncomfortable in the soaking press of bodies, remained calm and considerate, favoring those with small children, and acting kindly towards each other as we slowly made our way to the shelter of awnings, cafes and T-stations.
    Despite the discomfort, I wouldn't have missed it; drowned rats we all were, but no harm done, and it was a fine illustration of how well people can behave under stress.


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Seadog

    "Ahoy the boat, there!" I called from the dock. "We wouldn't have shipped aboard of ye, if we had known ye were pirates!"
    From amidships of the docked schooner, a burly sailor looked up, with an alarmed look crossing his face. Guilty, is it? thought I, having meant no offense at all. "The Jolly Roger, there." I called, pointing to the black pirate flag with it's leering skull-and-crossbones, which was prominently draped over the side of the craft. The flag made a nice embellishment to the polished mahogany of the gunwale, and I was just being friendly. Right! he remembered, smiling back.

    Lauren and I were vacationing in Otterland (Maine) where we didn't see any otters this time, or any porpoises either. Neither did we swim with the muskrats, which is bound to catch on as an eco-tourist attraction anytime soon. But we did ship for crewmen aboard a very handsome windjammer out of Camden Harbor; at least I did, and Lauren went as a mere passenger. It was a two-masted wooden schooner, and after clearing the harbor, the captain cut the engine and hoisted sails. He asked if there were any volunteers to haul on the halliards, and I jumped up and spit on me hands, running over to the indicated rope. A tall burly foc's'l hand cast a squint at me, and said, "I'll haul high, and you haul low." (I came up to about his middle.)
    I replied, "That'll work," which made him laugh. Then it was "One, two, HAUL! One, two, HAUL!" Then Belay! That was his job, taking deft turns around a wooden cleat as I hung on with all my minuscule weight, against the suspended gaff-boom high overhead. So I earned a glass of bosun's grog, but it turns out they made me pay for it anyway. Well, well, it could be mutiny now, but mum's the word.
    I've always wanted to go crew aboard an old-fashioned sailing ship, and this is the closest I've gotten. This was a an all-wood boat, 86 feet long, built in 1976; mostly traditional save for the motor, and the shrouds which were steel cable, tarred like rope. Although the shrouds were a modern material, they were secured in the traditional way to the chain-plates, with wooden dead-eyes rove with lanyards, to tighten them down. The running rigging was rope (manila?) with wooden sheave-blocks. The masts were lofty timbers, chafed from years of service, but well maintained and polished. There were no topmasts shipped for this voyage, but I noticed some long spars stowed nearby on the dock. This was an ocean-going boat, narrow and fast; just the kind of boat a smuggler would use, but he would save her best paces for when it really mattered; he wouldn't waste them on the pleasure of a gaggle of clumsy landlubbers. This boat was named the Appledore, and she had voyaged around the world when she was built, back in 1976.
    I read a scathing review of the Appledore by one passenger from 2 years ago, and he lambasted the crew for a bunch of lazy drunken swabs who were no seamen, and who motored around with the ill-trimmed sails flapping idly. "She's known as a slug," spewed the disgusted reviewer. "If you want to feel the surge and power of moving under sail, skip this one."
    It is almost certain that the voyage under review had been with a different captain and crew than we had. Our crew (only two, plus captain) jumped right hearty, kept the sails trimmed taut, and got as much speed as the moderate breeze would allow; perhaps 4 or 5 knots, and they only used the motor in the becalmed and crowded harbor. The three hour voyage was within the Gulf of Maine the whole time of course, with many islands looming on the horizon to block the true ocean swells, but I still found it pretty exciting for my first voyage.
    The crew did their best to be entertaining, while instructing us how to behave. They pointed out the ship's booms, which are so named because that's the sound they make when they hit your head if you are not seated when it's time to come about. "Stand by…" begins the command, at which point we sit. Go figure.
    The fore- and main-sails are gaff-rigged, which means that they have a smaller upward-pointing spar at the top, called the gaff, which allows a larger area of sail to be spread. I wanted to know all about this, and the different parts of the rigging, and the fife-rails with their belaying pins, and such, but the crew didn't tell us any of it, or much else about the ship or seamanship. Instead, they preferred to limit their remarks to pointing out the landmarks on shore where famous people had lived, and how much those houses had cost. That's not what I shipped aboard a sailing vessel for, so I ignored the spiel and went forward to make my own observations, as far as I was able. In spite of that minor defect in the program, I greatly enjoyed the cruise.
    The burly crewman pointed out an ocean-going kayak, and told us that he and his shipmates generally referred to them as speed-bumps. And around went the other crewman, taking drink orders. It was good fun, as far as it went.
    As we approached the dock on our way back in, the two crewmen (one of them was actually a big strapping woman, which was interesting; she was strong as an ox, agile in the rigging, and quite fetching as well) dowsed and furled the two triangular head-sails and the large main- and fore-sails, in a very brisk and seamanlike manner, which gained them an enthusiastic round of applause from us passengers. Shiver me timbers, now I feel slightly salted, at least.


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Mystery Fish

    Nobody could figure out where the sardines were coming from. They just kept appearing, as if an evil sorcerer were at work.
    I was living in a house with a group of people, and we shared a communal pantry.  A lot of people came and went in that house, and it wasn't always clear who bought what.      
    One day, a great stash of sardines appeared in the food closet; there were about 20 cans of them. Nobody claimed responsibility for having bought them, and it was strange to see so many. I shrugged my shoulders along with everyone else.
    So a couple of cans of the fish were sampled by several people. My friend Gene was the first. His nose wrinkled as he opened the can; he had a doubtful look on his face as he peered at the contents, but he cautiously tried a bite.
    "These sardines are spoiled!" he pronounced, and he just left the remainder on the table for someone else to deal with.
    Another person tried opening a new can, with much the same results. It soon became clear that none of the cans were any better; the fish was unpalatable. So the several opened cans got discarded; a stinking mess in the garbage can.
    But in the pantry, there remained the large and mysterious stacks of unopened cans. About 20 of them sat around on the shelf for a few weeks. In spite of all the hungry mouths around that house, no one had anything further to do with those sardines. 
    The question eventually arose of what to do with the stacks of cans; nobody seemed to own them and certainly no one wanted them. I hate to see food get wasted, but we finally agreed that they would just have to be thrown out. This was done with little fanfare, and the mystery was soon forgotten.
    But a few days later, what a commotion ensued when an even greater mountain of cans of the same dismal stuff appeared back in the cabinet! Everyone became greatly excited, and questions were flying back and forth.
    "Who is bringing this stuff? Was it a friend of yours?"
    "Is it a well-wisher, or an evil doer?"
    "Can we just waste this food?"
    "Even the cat won't eat it. I tried giving him some."
    Without much more discussion, the pile of cans went out in the garbage a second time; this time I watched it go. I even saw when the garbage truck came and picked it up. As I watched the truck trundling off, I was grinning a secret smile that nobody noticed.
    Several days after this, the mystery took on sinister proportions, when, incredibly, there was a third appearance of Manna from Hell in our food pantry; the biggest pile of cans so far: about 50 of them.
    This was truly a profound study in human perplexity. The people were buzzing around like a hive of stirred-up bees. 
    "They're here again! This is incredibly strange!"
    "This is freaking me out."
    "We should start locking the front door."
     The only problem this time was, as hard as I tried, I couldn't keep a straight face. I was cracking up, and suddenly all eyes were on me.
    "Solomon, what do you know about this?!"
    The high drama was completely spoiled; I had cracked under the pressure. Yes, I was the culprit;
I myself had been the unwilling recipient of a "gift" of several cases of very old sardines, which had been purchased by a traveling friend from a cannery several years previously. As the aging fish were becoming inedible, she had begged me to take it all, in hopes I would find some use for it.
Well, I told her I'd see what I could do.

More Allen Stuff

    I've been observing the interesting behavior of my friend Allen, since we were small boys more than 60 years ago.
        When we were 9 or 10 years old, our family was over at his family's house for dinner. Just as Allen was sitting down at the table, his younger brother Gene pulled his chair away, and Allen landed with a thump on the floor. He immediately flew into a shouting rage, sitting there on the linoleum, and his mother Charlotte drew him up onto his feet and gave Gene a sharp reprimand. Then she tried to soothe Allen. He was raving in anger, and nothing she could do would stop him, so she finally just grabbed a dishtowel, balled it up and stuffed it into his mouth. She pointed, "Go to your room!"
    Without a pause, Allen continued to shout a remarkably fluent stream of invective at Gene and the world in general, but now his raving was in a strangely muffled howl through the dishrag. He toddled angrily but obediently out the door and down the hall, still flailing his arms and shouting through the gag. I thought it was very peculiar that it didn't occur to him to pull the rag out of his mouth.
    The noise receded and abruptly stopped, with the slamming of his door. Charlotte shook her head with a helpless but amused grin, "That's my boy!"

    On the kitchen wall, there was an office phone for the family's landscaping business. This phone was right next to the house phone, and the two looked identical, but their rings were different to distinguish incoming calls. It occurred to my wicked mind one time to switch the receivers on their hooks. The switch wasn't obvious to look at, because the long cords hung down side by side. It seemed like a harmless prank, and then I forgot about it. A few days later I was there again, and I noticed that the receivers had been put right, so I switched them again.
    A few minutes later, I was in the next room and I heard a phone ringing. Allen picked up, and I could hear him saying, "Hello… hello…?" Then, to my mortification, he became furious, and began swearing. "The #&*#-ing phone is &#%-ed up AGAIN!! NOTHING ever works around here!!" He slammed down the phone in a fury.
    There was another person in the kitchen with Allen, and I could hear him trying to calm things down. "It's all right," the friend was saying. "The phone's not broken. See? Someone just switched the receivers here."
    "Is that all it was?!" Allen shouted, cursing some more. "What kind of IDIOT would keep switching the receivers?! How can we run a *#%-ing business?!"
    I slunk away, quite abashed. Of course, the business caller on the line would have been able to hear Allen cursing and shouting, because before Allen hung up again, the live receiver was sitting right there on the other phone's hook. I'll be tortured in hell for this stunt, or sooner, if Allen ever reads this.

    Allen nourishes a myth about me, that I will eat anything. This is actually not true at all; I'm very particular about what I eat. The myth began because of an event one day when he came over with our friend Brady, to visit me in my workshop. Earlier that day, I had been eating a peanut butter sandwich, and I had put the half eaten sandwich on a plate near the table saw. Then I did some cutting with the saw, which of course throws up some dust.
    When the guys came to my shop a little later, I spied the half-eaten sandwich on the plate. I picked it up, blew off the harmless sawdust and resumed eating it. Then I noticed Brady's reaction; he was green with disgust. His impression was that I had found some ancient moldy food in a corner and had begun carelessly devouring it, after having blown off the accumulated filth. The next day, Brady and Allen excitedly related this story to others, with some interesting embellishments, and thus the myth was born. Whenever Allen would introduce me to someone, he would be sure to tell them, "Solomon will eat anything!"  So I would encourage him, saying, it's no big deal.
    Allen conceived of a dare; he thought he could stump me by proposing that I eat a tuna fish ice-cream sundae. If I ate it, he would pay for it. That didn't sound so bad to me; it was really no challenge to say, "Sure!"
    Accordingly, we went out with some friends to an ice-cream parlor. When the waitress asked me for my order, I said, "I'll have a chocolate banana split, with a scoop of raspberry, a scoop of tuna fish salad, and a scoop of... um..."
    The waitress interrupted me, before I could say, "vanilla"; she completely ruined my comic timing.
    "Tuna fish?!" she frowned at me.
    "Yes. Tuna fish, and... um... a scoop of vanilla."
    "You're not serious!?"
    "Yes, I am."
    The waitress refused to go along with it, and after a little more discussion, she ended up bringing over the manager. The manager listened to the case, and finally responded by saying,
    "If she brings it, you're going to have to eat it!"
    "No he won't." Allen broke in, excitedly. "No he won't. He'll just have to pay for it."
    So the manager gave the nod, and the waitress clamped her mouth tight, and wrote down the order, obscurely annoyed.
    Everyone was eagerly watching as the tuna fish sundae was brought out and set before me. By this time, the entire restaurant was alerted, and watching me with rapt attention. I had made sure that I was good and hungry before we went out, and to tell the truth, the sundae didn't taste bad. I've tasted better combinations, but there was nothing disgusting about it, and I ate it up.
    But somehow, to Allen this was all very remarkable, and he gladly paid for the sundae. This event gave them all something to talk about for a while, and the myth remained intact, with no very great effort on my part.

    Allen's wife affectionately refers to him by the title I gave him once: the "waddling encyclopedia".
In some ways Allen is a lot smarter than me, but, as with all enduring friendships, there's a balance there.

Primitive Powder

Originally published in Muzzle Blasts, March, 2007  -- 

    I made a very exciting discovery while poking around in the basement of an abandoned house. The house was an antique colonial from around 1810; it was nominally owned by the Park Service, but in fact it had been unoccupied and unattended for many years. The ancient place was in a state of disrepair; and the fieldstone foundation had a crumbling hole on one side. I felt it was only my civic duty to make a tour of inspection of the historic building, and so I contorted my way through the badger-hole in the foundation wall, and I entered the dank earthy basement. What I found among the rough stones of the inside wall, gave me a shiver of excitement.
    No, it wasn't a brittle leather sack stuffed with gold coins, that gleamed when you rubbed them with your sleeve. That's what I was hoping to find, of course, but it must have been too cleverly hidden. Also, I didn't even find an alcove that held a moldering oaken chest, bound with iron bands and a hand-forged padlock, filled with minted silver.
    None of that, but what I did find, in the cracks between the stones, was an encrustation of powdery  grayish-white material; with here and there some translucent brownish crystals. I found it more where there was mortar between the stones, and not as much where the stones had been laid dry. Examining the powdery deposits in the beam of my pocket-light, I thought, "Can this stuff be saltpeter?"
    I had some sketchy notions of how saltpeter had been obtained in colonial days, for its use in the manufacture of gunpowder; the king's men would periodically rove through the countryside, breaking open stone walls to collect the saltpeter that accumulates inside them. I also remembered Poe's story, "A Cask of Amontillado," in which two men are deep within the catacombs of an old European city, and one man mentions the white webwork of "nitre" which they could see encrusting the damp stone walls. Nitre is the ancient name for saltpeter, or potassium nitrate. I thought it was a pretty good possibility that that's what I had just found. Gold would have been better, but this was interesting too.
     So, I crawled back out of the hole, and I returned with some jars for collecting samples. I collected about 1/2 cup of the crystalline powder from between the stones, and then I headed back to my lab for some experiments.
     To refine the samples, I put a stainless steel pot on the stove with about a quart of water, and added the powdery material. I boiled and stirred for a few minutes to dissolve out the soluble salts, let the sediment settle, and then filtered the liquid through a coffee filter. Then I put the clear liquid back into the pot, and boiled it away, which took about fifteen minutes. I was left with a brownish white crystalline residue in the bottom of the pot. This would be the saltpeter, if that's what it was. I scraped the stuff out of the pot with a wooden spatula, and I ended up with about a teaspoonful of the brownish powder.
    The easiest way I had to find out if the material was in fact saltpeter, was to go ahead and try to make gunpowder with it. If the material was something else, the worst that would happen is, I'd waste my time making mixed dirt.
    First I made some charcoal. Using a propane burner, I heated chunks of willow wood in a covered clay crucible, monitoring the crucible until it stopped off-gassing, then keeping it sealed until everything cooled. The third ingredient of gunpowder is sulfur, and for this I had to cheat and use store-bought from a lab supply, because I don't know of any natural deposits of sulfur in my location.
     After grinding the ingredients separately in a mortar and pestle, I weighed them out in the correct proportions, mixed in a few drops of water, and ground the resulting paste in the mortar. Then I spread the black paste on a sheet of glass and left it to dry in the sun for a few hours. When the paste was dry, I lightly crunched it up into granules, about the consistency of very coarse salt. I ended up with about 6 1/2 grams of finished powder. This is about one hundred grains, in firearm parlance; enough for a musket-load, with some left over for priming.
    Now came the moment of truth. I put a small amount of this stuff on a metal dish, applied a flame, and Foomph! It flashed up! It wasn't as fast as commercial power, but it actually worked!
    In commercial production, the ingredients of gunpowder are milled together for several hours, always being kept moistened to prevent accidental ignition. I milled my batch for only a few minutes, but it performed well enough for proof-of-concept. The samples I had collected  in the old basement probably contained a combination of sodium nitrate and potassium nitrate, because my powder burned with a softer, yellower flame than ordinary powder: a sign of sodium.
     For my final experiment I wanted to load up my big .68 caliber flintlock pistol to try out the powder, but I didn't have enough powder left for a proper load in that. So I used a .45 cal. caplock pistol, which would work better with a smaller charge, although I would have preferred the flint ignition. I loaded the pistol with about 25 grains, a little under 2 grams, of my concoction, (most of what I had left), then wrapped a .44 lead ball in a greased cotton patch, rammed it down over the charge, and placed a percussion cap onto the nipple.
    With the loaded pistol on half-cock, I carried a couple of phone books outside, and propped them against a stump. Then I presented the piece, brought the hammer to full cock, and squeezed the trigger. When I felt that pistol kick and heard the boom, I was quite pleased; I had made functional gunpowder from found materials! I felt I was one step closer in kinship to the ancient ways of our colonial forbears, whose self-sufficiency and resourcefulness I have always admired.


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New Doors

    My friend Dave called me to do some work on the cabinets in his kitchen; he had some new doors that needed mounting and whatnot. I put a few tools in a box and headed over.
    After showing me everything, Dave started right in with the kibitzing; he was worried that the wood was hard, and he thought my screws might crack it if I didn't drill the right size pilot holes. "These are new doors." he reminded me.
    I told him, "Dave, I have every size drill from a human hair, up to two inches, and that's not counting the hole saws. I think I'll find something that will work for the pilot holes."
    "But how will you line the holes up, to get the doors on straight?" he wanted to know. "They have to look good."
    "Oh! You're right; that is a good point," I agreed. "I guess I'll have to measure stuff."
     "No, I'm serious; I mean, how will you do it?"
     "I'll clamp the doors to the brackets, and mark the locations of the holes very carefully,"
I reassured him. "You don't have to worry about it."
     "I don't know about using clamps," he told me doubtfully. "Do you have a type of clamp that won't damage the doors?" This was starting to get on my nerves.
    "I'll pad the clamps, of course. And I'm not going to do this job unless you go into a different room while I'm working."
    So Dave went into the other room with his laptop, to watch ebay and see how his paintings were selling. Back in the kitchen, I fumbled a clamp, and it made a noise. "Are you OK?" shouted Dave from the living room. "How's it going?"
    "Don't talk to me, or I'm leaving," I shouted back.
    "OK. I'm just checking." Dave subsided back to swearing at the computer, where the ebay people were certainly underbidding his goods, the morons. "Those bastards," I heard him muttering angrily.
    I kept working as silently as I could, although the pivoting arms of the corner cabinet were puzzling me. They had a motion that I wasn't familiar with; I couldn't get the clamps to fit, and I wasn't sure how I was going to locate the screw holes. Dave's radar picked up on the silence. "Can I do anything to help?" he called a few moments later.
    Now he's finally got me rattled; I can't figure this out. "I can't do it!" I admitted. "I'm going home; you'll have to get someone else; there must be a template or something that they use."
     Dave instantly came pattering into the room, full of concern. "You can't figure it out?" he asked. Yes, he had known all along, it would be too tough. "It's OK," he told me. "We tried." Nothing ever works right; Dave knew that much. "I'll have to hire a cabinetmaker," he concluded, with a deep sigh. "It'll be expensive. I'll call Ted."
     Ted! I worked for Ted sometimes, too. He's a brilliant cabinetmaker, a mentor to me in that line. I could picture Ted coming into Dave's kitchen, and looking at my unfinished job. Ted would be shaking his head sadly, and he would be thinking, "Leonard, Leonard…  " That image was too much for me. By gum! I suddenly decided. Ted's right! I can do this!     
    I picked up my measuring tape and my square, and I went back to the problem, this time with determination. But now Dave was not so easy to convince. Disaster is always right around the corner in Dave's world. "No, Len. We tried, OK? I don't want you to screw it up. You don't have to do it."
    "I'm fine. I'm OK now. Go back in the other room and check your computer. I think they're really screwing you on ebay."
    "No, Len. You'll mess it up. These are new doors. You know how expensive these cabinets were?"
    I finally persuaded Dave to go away, though he was now extremely uneasy. "What could go wrong?" I shouted cheerfully. That didn't help. I went ahead with my measuring and marked the holes, confident at this point that I had them correct. From the other room, I heard Dave explode with a string of expletives in his Brooklyn accent; apparently, things on ebay had just taken an ugly turn. I began drilling the holes. I knew Dave could hear the sound of my drill, and I could feel him wincing.
    "What if you put the holes in the wrong place?" he began wailing.
    "I'll patch it up, don't worry!"  I kept drilling.
    "No! Those are expensive doors!"
    "What do they say again?" I called with demonic glee, "Measure once and cut twice? Oh, damn!"
I went on, "I cut this same board three times, and it's still too short!"
    "What board? What are you talking about?" Dave is hardly ever in the mood to laugh, and this certainly wasn't one of those times. "What do you mean, 'cut the board' ?"  He came running into the room.
    "Never mind." I had screwed the mounting brackets onto the doors, nice and snug, and now I wrangled the doors into position in the corner cabinet, then I screwed the pivoting arms onto the brackets. Now came the moment of truth! I swung the doors closed, and they lined up perfectly.
    "Cut the board three times and it's still too short!" I cackled, way more relieved than I cared to admit to Dave. "Still too short; get it?" No he didn't get it, but it didn't matter.
    "You did it!" he said. "They're perfect! How did you figure it out?" For one moment in Dave's life, all the stress was forgotten. "How did you do it?"
    "I have no idea," I told him.


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Current Optical Theory

    It is well known that one cannot see as well at night, as one can during the day. What follows is a theory which may help to understand this phenomenon.
    During the day, the optical beams emitted from the eye pass easily through the rarified aether, and upon reverberation back into the eye, an image is formed. However, as nightfall begins, there is a cascading descent of myriads of darktons (this is, literally, the fall of night). These descending particles being dense, they render the aether into a viscous medium which inhibits the passage of eye-beams. Ergo, one's vision becomes less keen at night.
    The fall of darktons slows and stops by midnight, and the particles are gradually absorbed by the ground and and other objects (this accounts for why it is impossible to see through a rock). The rising of the sun, with its powerful rays, completes the dissolving and absorption of the remaining darktons, and one's eye-beams can once more penetrate through the aether without impediment.


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Jan's Psychotic Plants

     I lived for a few years in a group house with seven other people, in Cambridge, MA.
My housemate Jan, an older woman, had her room next to mine on the third floor of the old Victorian. I loved to spend time with Jan in her room; the place was filled with life; caged birds and a dog, and a luxurious profusion of tropical plants everywhere. I often watered Jan's plants for her when she was away, and I took care of the birds.
    It happened that I had some friends visiting overnight one time, when Jan was to be away, and she offered us the use of her room. I agreed with Jan that I would sleep in her room, and that I would let my friends use my own room for the night. Jan seemed pleased with this arrangement, and I was too; I felt that it would be an interesting experience, to sleep in a jungle among all those plants. I felt a slight, momentary uneasiness about the idea, but I dismissed the feeling.
    As it turns out, my night in Jan's place was filled with hellish nightmares: the plants were gruesome and hostile; they bent over the bed in my tortured visions, writhing and emanating a demonic energy; they were jealous of my intrusion, commanding me get out of that place, or die.
    First light the next morning didn't come too soon. I took the hint, and I got out of there. Before anybody else woke up, I spent a groggy morning drinking coffee and letting the unpleasant reverberations slowly dissipate.
    I never told Jan that I had had such a dreadful night in her bed. She was my friend: a very sweet person, and we got along well. I never perceived any sort of negative energy from her, so the whole thing was strange and a bit embarrassing; and that's why I never mentioned it to her.
    Some time after that, I had another friend visiting. Again Jan was going to be away, and she offered the use of her room for the night. I had no wish to try the previous experiment again myself, but I thought there was no reason not to let my visiting friend Allen use the room. Allen is a plant person; his avocation is cultivating rare plants, and I felt that he would be delighted in the variety and profusion of plants to be found in Jan's "jungle". Physically, Jan's room was also the nicest one in the house; a very elegant room filled with arched windows, air and light. So I decided I wouldn't mention to Allen about the peculiar reaction I had experienced when I slept there. Perhaps a shadow of a doubt entered my mind about letting Allen try it, but I'll have to admit, I was curious to see how he would like the room.
    Strangely enough, Allen was not amused. When I met him in the hall the next morning, to my complete amazement, he looked shattered and wild-eyed. "That was the worst night I've ever spent; I hardly slept at all!" he exclaimed accusingly. "I was having horrible nightmares all night!"
    After that, I became really curious to know what Jan would make of all this, but still I thought it best never to mention it to her. And I never did.



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Mind Trestle

    "Now, you have to do it again. Walk back across."
    "What? I have to do it again?"
    "Yes; this time with your other side facing the abyss. just to make sure you didn't miss something important."
    "Oh, G-d, look how far it is; I can't do it."
    "Yes you can."

   Whose voice is this, calling me "you"?  And whose voice is it, answering "I"?  Conversations with oneself are mysterious. I fixed my concentration on the walkway that I had just traversed; the outside edge of a RR trestle, with a 25 foot plunge to the river just inches from where my feet would be moving.
    "Yes, I can," I answered myself. I started walking back across.
    The foot-wide ledge along the outside of the tracks was not a highwire, but it was high enough to cause me great anxiety. It was also high enough to kill me if I stumbled and fell. The rusty iron edges of the trestle abutment were just under the water, 25 feet below me.
    Of course, a foot-wide path is not physically hard to walk, but if one edge of it is a potentially fatal drop, then a misstep seems much more likely. In fact, the empty space seems to exert a mystical sideways pull, making a faltering step seem more probable.
    Why not walk down the middle of the trestle between the tracks? The spaces between the ties gave a view straight down to the water, but that wouldn't be so bad. But this was one of those times when I got the urge to probe my limits, to try to overcome my fears, so as I had been strolling along the tracks and arrived at the trestle, it had occurred to me that I was going to make myself walk the edge, just to prove that I could.
    But the contradiction about walking such a path is that the danger must be completely ignored, even while it is acknowledged. The artist Dali described "the exquisite anguish of the empty void." This is what attracts me to, and at the same time repels me from, heights. This "exquisite anguish" is the very thing that I cannot allow myself to appreciate, if I am to successfully negotiate this walk before me.
    So that is what I did; I ignored it completely, as I walked the 100 feet of the trestle, along the outside of the rails just inches from the edge. The spaces between the ties along the edge were filled with blocks of wood, making the walkway a flat, though uneven surface. As I walked along it, I thought of nothing but carefully placing my feet with each step, until I was safely across. Only then did I allow myself to look back and contemplate what I had just traversed.
    But after making the walk, to my dismay it occurred to me that I was going to make myself do it again, back the other way. Maybe it would be possible, I was thinking, to "unlearn" the irrational vertigo that attacks me in such places; to allow myself more freedom to enjoy the expansive vista, instead of shrinking from it.
    No; I discovered that that would not be possible. It was not any easier the second time; once again I had to clamp on the mental "blinders", as I carefully traversed the ledge. I concentrated on each step, and thought of nothing else. 
    But I did it; I didn't faint, stumble, or get sucked wildly sideways by a mystic force. It was all over, sooner than I expected, and I stepped with relief onto the solid ground.


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A Surprising Visit

    Years ago, I was sleeping at the home of a friend, in the historic Colonial harbor town of Marblehead, MA. On this night, I had a vivid dream.
    I dreamed that I woke up in the bed, where I was actually still lying on my back, asleep. In my dream, I heard some people outside the bedroom door, and I turned my head to see the door open, and admit a man who walked briskly toward the bed. As he strode towards me, I was aware of every detail of his clothes and person: the square shape of his face, his short bristly salt-and pepper beard, his strong frame in a loose blue sweatshirt and canvas pants, the clear impression that he was a seafaring man.
    In three steps he was at the bedside, leaning down with his face inclined towards mine, and I thought, "He's going to kiss me!" I recoiled, startling in the bed, and at that point he saw me clearly, and he recoiled backwards as well, straightening up with an astonished look on his face. In that moment with our eyes fixed on each other, my eyes flew open in reality, and I came abruptly awake.
    Now fully awake, I found that I was still looking at the man; his eyes were wide in dismay and confusion. I was thinking, "I'm awake. How can I still be looking at him?" I watched, unmoving, as his frozen image slowly faded away and disappeared.
    I lay in quiet amazement for a few more moments. My friend, in whose home I mentioned that I was sleeping, was in fact lying next to me in the bed; her name was Nancy. I turned over and looked at Nancy, assuming that she would also be wide awake at this point, since I had physically startled, and probably cried out "Hey!" just moments before. But she was sound asleep. So I didn't disturb her, and after awhile I fell back to sleep myself.
    The first thing next morning, I told Nancy about my experience. She listened to my description with grave attention, and she said, "That sounds like my Bestefar; [Norwegian for] my Grandfather. He passed away years ago, but he comes to check on me from time to time." I felt a little mortified as she told me this; we weren't married, and the man had not been pleased to see a stranger in his granddaughter's bed. "We have a family tradition that he comes to visit us now and then, to make sure I'm all right," she went on. "I would normally be sleeping on that side of the bed."
    Later, Nancy showed me a picture of her Bestefar. He was dressed exactly as I had seen him, he had the same square face, but no beard. "He grew a beard and wore it later in life, after this picture was taken," she told me. "He was a sailor all his life."


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Unexpected Vacation

     This morning, coming sleepily down to the kitchen in my pajamas, anticipating nothing but my first cuppa coffee, I turned on the hot water in the sink, only to have the faucet handle shear completely off in my hand, blasting a steaming geyser of water onto the ceiling and beyond. It was a beautiful living replica of the famous Old Faithful.
     Surprise! is a pale way to describe my reaction; I instantly dashed down to the basement to shut off the house water, coming back up to a dripping steaming mess. Then amongst the dripping waters I poured myself a cuppa hot coffee (thoughtfully provided by Lauren before she left), and I contemplated my next move. I won't get to practice music this morning apparently, but on the bright side, it had actually been quite a lovely sight; like suddenly being transported on vacation to Yellowstone Park.



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Green Side Up

    That was the joke, when I worked for a lawn crew one summer at Leisure Village. (We called it Seizure Village.) Besides cutting grass, we installed sod for new lawns, and to relieve the tedium we would shout, "Green side up!"  to each other, as we rolled out the sod.
    We were also in charge of maintaining existing lawns, and the way we zipped around on those big Gravely tractor-mowers, we would sometimes give ourselves more work installing fresh sod, because in an instant, you could scalp a nice patch of grass right down to the gravel. And being kids, we might tend to laugh like idiots if we would do that. However, the homeowners didn't see it our way; they were neurotic about their lawns, and competitive with their neighbors about the slightest wisp of crabgrass or heaven forbid a dandelion. They would get furious if we left the least little irregularity, let alone a huge black patch of dirt where grass used to be.
    So, knowing that, you might assume that if the front end of one of these big mowing machines, where the exposed edges of the massive knives whirled just inches behind the open cowl, if this machine were to crash into a prize rose bush in full bloom, completely shattering and mulching the trunk and spreading shredded roses everywhere, this would no doubt cause some dismay to the property owner.
    Here's the way it happened, and the way I narrowly avoided getting seriously maimed. My friend John Brady was driving the big Gravely that day, and towing the sweeper behind him. We had to leave the lawn looking like an immaculate green carpet, so naturally we had to sweep up the unsightly clippings left by our mowers. That day I was operating the trimmer, just an ordinary gasoline push mower, to trim around the bushes.
    In the middle of the lawn of this one house, there was a garden which contained the magnificent rosebush in bloom; the pride and joy of the resident, as we had been warned. I was trimming the bushes next to this garden, and now there were fresh clippings on a section of the lawn where Brady had already mowed and swept. As he came around the house for his next pass, I motioned with hand signals, over the roar of the tractor, that he should make one more pass through here, so his sweeper could clean up my fresh clippings. Brady didn't understand what I meant and motioned to me that he had already mowed there, and he continued on his path around the outside of the garden. As he approached I kept signaling: "No, this way, this way- go through here."
    At the last second, too late, he panicked and heaved the big machine over, to try to go the way I was motioning. Unfortunately, his maneuver swung the machine directly towards me, and in that split-second I leaped up and sideways. I'm not exaggerating to say that the huge cutting maw of the machine chopped past where my feet had just been, while I was still in the air. In any case, there was a loud rending crash, the roar of the machine was suddenly choked off, and I looked back to see the tractor hanging at a forty-five degree angle on top of the wrecked rosebush, and Brady hanging over the handlebars amidst a swirling dust cloud. My impression was that Brady's eyes were actually rolling around and around like in a cartoon. In any case, he had a most unusual shattered look, worse even than the rosebush; his panting mouth hung slackly open, his eyes were staring and he looked demented. Having just narrowly escaped getting my feet chopped off, I probably had an odd look myself, but all I could think of was how funny Brady looked hunched over the ruin, and I began to laugh uncontrollably.
    As I doubled up in my fit of laughter, Brady continued to stare blankly right through me, completely in shock; but gradually his eyes focused, and finally a grin spread across his face. We had just averted what could have been a much more serious disaster, and presently, he too was laughing uproariously. So there we were, cracked up like our wits were astray, as our supervisor came around the corner to find out what all the commotion was about. He froze for a moment at what he saw; his icy look taking in the situation. This quickly put a chill upon our hilarity.
    The only thing he said was, "Get the hell out of here before Parker sees you." Parker was the big boss. So we slunk away quickly, to occupy ourselves somewhere else. Our long-suffering supervisor presumably made some story to Parker, and Parker presumably made some sort of restitution to the homeowner. What it was, we never found out, nor did we ever ask.
    Amazingly enough, Brady and I weren't fired, but I don't think we shouted "Green side up!" so much, for a while.


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Suds

    I got voted "Did Most To the School" by my high school senior class, with a corresponding picture in the yearbook. Toms River High School, class of '69.
    This title was awarded to me in part because of a prank I had pulled, in which I had poured a quart of bubble bath into the courtyard fountain. I can't remember what gave me the idea to do this, but I bought the large bottle of bubble bath the previous night, poured it all into a wide-mouth jar (to ensure a quick deployment when the time came), and I carried the jar to school under my coat the next morning. Ducking out of lunch period early, I dashed to my locker, then I contrived to walk briskly through the school's outdoor courtyard when no one else was there, dumping the scented goop into the gurgling basin of the fountain.
    In a short time, the fountain was foaming up beautifully, and when classes changed after the next period, there was a minor riot outside as students frolicked and threw the billowing foam at each other. Due to these unplanned revels in the fine spring sunshine, many students ended up being late for next period's classes. Not me, though. Mum's the word. Although I did manage to be "passing through" after the following period, and I noticed sadly that the foam seemed to be slumping a bit. Even so, the event created something of a buzz that day.
    I had a confidant or two, (or three; I would not make a very good intelligence agent) and I suppose that one of them must have been blabbing, because towards the end of the day, some fink who should not have known anything, ratted me out to Mr. Smith (Earth science and Biology teacher). Mr. Smith himself, with the help of his Earth Science class, was the one who had lovingly designed, built and maintained the fountain project. So Mr. Smith came storming into my last-period class in front of my astonished teacher and classmates, and hauled me down to the office, to be judged and sentenced by our stern principal Mr. Donald.
    My [fitting] punishment ended up being that I had to stay after school, and bail out the fountain with a paper cup.
    This I did, under the baleful glare of Mr. Smith, carrying each cupful of suds a long walk out to the woods behind the school. Eventually, he relented and brought me buckets, mops, squeegees and sponges, to do a proper workmanlike job of the cleanup.

    So when graduation time came on, I got the nod for the previously mentioned distinction, according to vote. (My lovely confederate in the photo, Patti, never gave me any specific reason for why she got voted to share our title, just that she was "sometimes rowdy". Apparently she would make a better intelligence agent than me.) The yearbook staff let us know that they wanted to take a photo, and I got the idea for the set-up that you see in the above shot. I made the "detonator" out of a shoebox, painted black. Not quite visible in the photo, the detonator cable is going under the door, which bears the title, "John Donald, Principal". The old bulldog had a good sense of humor.
    One more thing: notice in the second sentence of this story, the phrase "in part" because of a prank..  Yes, but that would be a whole other story.



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Road Band

A reminiscence from earlier days-

    The big Indian lunged at me, with a sudden wild swipe which would certainly have laid me flat like a busted reed, if it had connected. I am hardly built for such swipes, but fortunately I am built for speed, and I twisted backwards and away as the maddened lurch missed me by a whisker. As is usual in such cases with me, I then broke into hysterical, adrenaline-fueled laughter, which did nothing to soothe the savage breast of my antagonist. He fairly roared, and hurled himself after me, but his game was fled and he knew it; I was too quick for him. After a halfhearted lumbering attempt to catch me, he gave it up; his baleful glare being the worst damage he was able to do.
     Still grinning like an ape, but keeping out of the hostile perimeter, I resumed carrying the heavy amps and other band equipment off the bar stage, and out to our truck. The evening was over, and my band mates and I were roadies as well as being the main attraction. And in that part of Idaho in the 70's, drunk Indians, not to mention drunk cowboys, were just part of the territory for a road band.
    There was a large reservation out in the lava desert near by, Blackfoot and Shoshone, and everything around that was the wide open ranch country of the real Out West. On a Saturday night, the towns would see a large influx of men with nothing on their mind but to find a little excitement. Our job was to keep them dancing, and keep them drinking, and to remind them, don't forget to tip your waitress. And don't throw bottles at the band. Southern Idaho was a wild enough place for a kid from back East, just out of college, and it seemed like more fun than being a music teacher.
     This particular encounter with the drunk Indian was nothing; the hulking fellow had been trying to pick a fight with our lead guitar player, Kevin, for no other reason than that Kevin was a big man; this wasn't unusual. Kevin was trying to ignore him, but when the fellow resorted to shoving, I stepped in. I came up behind the man, reached up and tapped him on the shoulder and began circling my fists like an English pugilist, all the while chanting, "C'mon, c'mon!"  My intention was joking; I was half his size, and just trying to make him laugh and leave Kevin alone. But to my surprise, he exploded with rage and lunged at me. Yikes!  But no harm done, luckily, and he did forget all about Kevin. He kept his eye on me for the rest of the time we were loading out; each time I passed near him, he would swing his head around drunkenly, and make a feint or two to keep me alert, but he wasn't really mad anymore.
     This was one of many towns that we played in our circuit; bars were numerous and bands were few in those days. On a Saturday night in some of those places, driving on the sidewalk was not just a metaphor. At least once I actually did see a car bump up onto the curb, narrowly miss a building, and then reel off swerving back onto the road and away.
    A bar band in Pocatello in the early 70's didn't have to worry about much besides keeping the tempo upbeat, once the people started to dance. If you tried to play a slow ballad at the wrong moment during the evening, the people could get ugly in a real hurry. One night, early in the evening when the people had all left their tables and were just starting to get sweaty and rowdy, I decided that I was in the mood to play a slow number that we had just learned. My bandmates assured me that this was the wrong time for it; we needed to play another dance number, but for some stupid reason I insisted. About half a minute into the song as I was crooning, the people were standing and glaring at us with increasing hostility. We cut that nonsense very short and went back to what they wanted; boogie-tempo. Kevin gave me a significant look. I was learning who was making who dance, here.
    Our lifestyle was interesting, for awhile. We were a four piece country-rock band, working full-time. When we really got cooking on a night, and all the bodies on the dance floor would be moving frenetically to our rhythm, I would reflect that there were worse ways to be making a living. Here we were, getting paid for doing what we would probably have been doing anyway, right about then. The four of us shared a house in Pocatello; one hundred bucks a month split 4 ways, and the living was easy. When we weren't working, we were always practicing, and there were always people coming over to hang out at the house to listen, to party, to eat whatever food we had, to leave their empty beer cans lying around. I was the house maid (as well as playing 2nd-lead guitar, as we called it), and I was always trying to keep the house in a condition something like what a civilized creature would live in. When I grumbled about it, everybody would always protest, "Lenny, we'll help you clean the place up! Relax. We'll help you tomorrow." Uh-huh.
    There were some hard cases that would hang at our house, when we weren't away on the road. There was one guy that we called Klauser, who looked like he shouldn't still be breathing. He was a generous fellow, and would always offer to share whatever he had going, for instance the case of morphine ampoules he had just lifted from a hospital. I was a little too straight at the time to fully appreciate this sort of generosity, but the other guys didn't mind it. One night I bought a mess of beets, turnips, spinach, celery, potatoes, and I cooked a huge pot of vegetable soup. Klauser gratefully accepted his steaming bowl of broth and vegetables, with a kind of awe and reverence. I don't think he had seen something like that since he had been a child, if even then.
     One night, Fleetwood Mac came to Pocatello, to play in the somethingDome at the local college. They were kicking off a nationwide tour in our little backwater town, and it was a really big event for the town. A great many people went, and since it was a night off for our band, we went too. I was excited that I would get to see Christine McVie, who I thought was very fine. The other girl-member of the band, Stevie Nicks, was actually drunk during the concert. She disrespected the audience; she didn't seem to care about the show, just because we were hayseeds or hicks or something. During the show, she kept leaning drunkenly on my love Christy, who shrugged her off several times, and at one point gave her a very angry look right on stage. It was clear that it was important to Christy to do a good show even if we were just ignorant cowboys, and I loved her even more for it.
    My friends and I didn't pay to get in to the concert; we just walked in during the long set of encores. And it has to be admitted that we had all had a few drinks ourselves that night. For my part, I stood transfixed by the sight of beautiful Christy McVie, consummate musician and singer, live right in front of me. As they were taking their bows after the last song, I just started walking towards her, as the crowd was dispersing. I was only half-conscious of climbing over a barricade as I moved forward towards the stage. I only had eyes for her; I wanted to speak to her, touch her hand.
     As I dream-walked toward the stage, I suddenly felt myself become airborne. Literally. I was up in the air and moving sideways, my legs paddling the void like a turtle's when you pick it up by the shell. It was a very curious sensation. A giant security guard had come up behind me and lifted me as you would a child, and set me back down on the other side of the barricade with my legs still moving. So I just kept them moving in the direction he put me down, towards my laughing friends hooting and shouting at me. Christy never even glanced my way.
     So the boys and I lived at our house, and we rocked the little bars in town for three or six weeks, and then we traveled on our circuit, through great expanses of panoramic mountain scenery to different towns, to rock the little bars in those places.
    In two years of driving around Idaho, I did see some interesting things. Our bass player, Kuta, was a local boy, and he knew the parents of Evel Kneivel, the stuntman. Kuta showed us their hometown once, and the parents' little grocery store, Kneivel's. We drove out to an awesome stretch of the Snake River Canyon, at the spot where Evel had tried to jump his bike over the canyon for his last big public stunt. For that stunt, the bike was rocket assisted up a ramp; as Evel launched off the ramp into the canyon, he blacked out, which caused him to release a safety lever that triggered an emergency parachute. He sailed over and into the gorge, and smacked into the far wall as he swung down on the parachute, breaking a few bones as usual.
    Awesome canyon views, and then we were off to Sugar City to play for another week in another local bar; another five nights of boogie-woogie all night long. As most boys in a band do, we had big dreams at first. Kevin and I had been best friends since 4th grade back in New Jersey, and we had had visions of glory since we were boys. Al Hat our drummer was also an old NJ friend, and we had often discussed the logistics of getting rich and famous. But in reality, our present routine had gotten monotonous. We were always getting to another town much like the last one, staying at motels or campgrounds for a weekend, a week, or two weeks, and then we would be off again, down the long road to the next place. Not much pressure; not much satisfaction either.
     I started to miss my home. I would think of my old grandparents and my mom, still living near where the big farmhouse used to be, back in New Jersey. For how much longer, would they still be there?
    So much for the glamour of rock and roll; I was lonely. We had had a few shining moments now and then, but it was going nowhere. So at last, having a few hundred of my frugal dollars in the bank, the fruits of my brief rock and roll career, I changed them to traveler's checks, and told my mates of my decision to leave. We knew that had been coming.
    I gave my dear little Volkswagen bug a careful tune-up, changed the oil, and packed my guitar and few belongings into it. Then I pointed East, and was gone.



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Luck 'o the Green


    A leetle google-eyed pilgrim, an American Green Tree Frog,  jumped out of a bunch of kale I had put in the sink to prepare for dinner. The kale had been in our fridge for three days, and who knows how many days had passed since it was picked, stored and shipped from its origin in Florida, to arrive at our store here in the frozen Northeast?
    The teeny green, golden-eyed hopper, as big as the end of my finger, looked healthy and was quite active, in spite of what must have been the awkward accommodations of his trip. I first saw him hopping along the counter behind the kitchen sink, and to begin with I was completely dumbfounded. Then I thought of the kale I had just finished washing and chopping up.
    I cornered the little critter and got him to climb onto my hand, with his little splayed sticky-toes, and he sat for a moment and then leaped onto my face. Why, I take that as friendly!
    It was a frigid snowy winter night here in Massachusetts, and the usual flying and crawling critters, suitable for frog food, were all socked in until spring. I could leave a banana on the counter for two weeks at this season, and no fruit flies would appear. So where do I get anything to feed a tiny frog, in winter? He is counting on me now, even though that was surely not his original plan.
    I dangled a scrap of chicken on a toothpick, and made it twitch enticingly like a bug within striking distance of my unexpected dinner guest. The frog continued to look stonily into space, meditating on who knows what profundities. He didn't seem much impressed by me, anyway.
    I clapped the frog into a little glass terrarium I had, misted him with some water, and then thought about what to do. The first thing was, wash the kale again, anyway.
   
Eating kale:
    Crunch crunch, crunch crunch, >squish<
    "Say... I wonder what that was?"
    No, thankfully, that didn't happen.

    But how do I feed the frog? I remembered one cold winter a few years ago, I had been looking for something in the back shed and I turned over a wheelbarrow. Inside the wheelbarrow, I had found a number of adult mosquitoes clinging motionless to the underside of the metal. They winter over under such shelters, moving very slightly if they are touched.
    Mosquitoes would be a perfect size for the frog, so I suited up now, and took a flashlight out there to see what I could find. It actually didn't take me long to find several mosquitoes in a similar situation as before, under a plastic bucket. I picked them off with a tweezers and plopped them into a plastic box and brought them inside. They were moving around within a few minutes of warming up, and before they started to fly, I dumped them into the frog's terrarium. One landed and was twitching right in front of the frog. He ignored it. Presently, I had a nice screened terrarium filled with buzzing flying mosquitoes, in my living room. The frog might not have been hungry, but the mosquitoes certainly seemed to be. I really hoped the frog was appreciating all this, but after a few hours the mosquitoes seemed to have all died, stuck to the moist glass inside, and I hadn't seen the frog eat any of them.




Two weeks later:
    Bruno the castaway tree frog is doing well, eating two little crickets a day. I've set his terrarium up with a nice pool, a bed of live moss, a branched frond of spruce to climb, and an electric warming rock from the pet store. This same pet store provides little crickets that are conveniently bite-size for the frog. When I dump in a couple of crickets, the fierce predator looses no time in pouncing on his prey, with a lunge that is almost too swift for the eye to follow. I got the crickets the day following my discovery of the frog, but he didn't eat until two days after that. However, he is now settled in and doing fine. He dug himself a cozy hutch among the damp moss, and I see his golden eyes peering out.
    When I first set up the cage with the pool, I never saw him go near the water. He's a tree frog, but frogs like water. I thought that maybe he didn't know the pool was there, and I mentioned to my son Jake that maybe I should put the frog into the pool, so that he would know it was there.
     Jake replied, "Papa, suppose you were staying in a really nice hotel with a pool. How would you like it if the housekeeper came and grabbed you and threw you into the pool, in case you didn't know it was there?"  Good point. Anyway, a few days later, I saw the frog climbing out of the water, seemingly content.
    But the sad thing about Bruno the Leetle Google-Eyed Tree Frog, is that he will never get married and have a family, unless Bruno is a she, in which case, she never will. Because there's only one of him/her. But considering where he might have landed, he's one lucky frog to have landed in my kitchen.

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You can watch a short video of Bruno catching a cricket:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f5MBwn14zR4



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Wing and a Prayer

    A year and a half ago, I broke my leg. It's not that uncommon for people to do it, but in my case, it was fairly humiliating as well as being a major ouchie; my last words before the accident were,
"What could go wrong?"
    One bad thing about slipping sideways while demonstrating an extreme cornering maneuver
on your bicycle, even with all the skill that lots of practicing will give you, and the thrill of being on the performance edge and having no fear, is that now, after one simple minor mistake, now you will have fear and will always have fear, instead of the feeling of exhilaration and invulnerability you used to have when you were riding. I used to like to see how tightly and efficiently I could take certain corners. The idea was to maximize the distance I would coast without pedaling after the turn, so I could gauge how well I had taken the corner, compared to my previous attempts. At 60 years old, I suppose it was inevitable that I would screw up eventually.
    Well, I wiped out while giving a triumphant demonstration on one of my practice courses, while my wife was watching. Then I was on my back, aware that things in my hip area were not in their usual places. I figured by the feel of things, that I had dislocated my hip joint, and I pushed my leg back into place as well as I could.
    "Should I call 911?" asked my slightly horrified wife.
    "Call 911," I told Lauren. That's the first time I've ever said that, but I had a good reason. I had tried to move my leg, and it had just flopped over; a really bad feeling to experience.
    Lying helpless on my back, staying as motionless as I could manage; ambulance coming, being shifted from stretchers, to gurneys, receiving rooms, down long cold corridors to x-ray rooms.
    "No," I was finally told by a nurse, who had a sympathetic smile, "No, you're not going home tonight. You better forget about that idea."  Where I was going, was surgery; which finally happened about 30 hours after the accident.
    The good surgeon went in there, bound up and trussed my snapped thigh bone using metal rods and cords, and at last I was put in a recovery ward. I found myself among old people who had broken their hip doing things like turning around a little too fast when the phone rang, and losing their balance. Well, these are my people now, and it turns out that my body breaks just the same as theirs did.
    But soon I found out that the accident cases weren't the predominant thing in this place; most of these people were here because they had come in for elective surgery; they were not emergency cases, they were people who had made plans to be here. Consequently, the place was set up like some grotesque vacation resort.
    I've got to give the staff credit for trying to keep the mood cheerful for people in pain, but the social worker assigned to my case might at least have read my chart, before she gently chided me one morning, saying they had not seen me much in the social room at their scheduled activities. Well, what I knew and she didn't know, is that I had been in survival mode for the past several days; not really in a partying mood at all. Having to use a walker to painfully make my way to the bathroom, hadn't been in my wildest imaginings a week ago. Biking, running, doing my comedy shows (which I had to cancel), hopping, juggling: these were the things I had planned.
    Two weeks I was in the ward: needles at 6:30 in the morning; no privacy; loud voices perpetually discussing medical issues; TV's playing everywhere; a stoic attempt at cheerfulness on my part. On the morning of my discharge the social worker bustled in, and gave me a pen with a big pom-pom on the end of it, and a parti-colored guest book to sign, and she brightly asked me, "Had I enjoyed my stay?"
    This was an unexpected question. Considering that this had been the most grueling two-week-long nightmare of my entire life; that I was eternally grateful that I was finally leaving here and going back to my home; the answer would have to be: not that much.
    But I replied, "I'm truly grateful for the compassion and skill of all the wonderful staff here. I couldn't have made it without their care." Her face fell a little, in confusion; she left the book with me and bustled out. I read some of the entries in the guest book; they were all very upbeat, and I wrote something like, "Keep up the good work!" Then I laid the pom-pom down on the ribbon-bedecked book, and got ready to leave.

    I got back on the bike in a little over two months, before I could walk very well yet. I had just gotten off crutches and I could hobble for short distances with a cane. I really missed biking, so I tried it, carefully, and I found I could go a few miles the first time out. It really felt great, though I couldn't push much with the injured leg, and I didn't do any extreme cornering (ha ha). I felt like I was flying.
Flying slowly, with the immediate possibility of crashing and burning, but still, back in the saddle again.


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You Break It, I Buy It

    For $2, how can you pass up a vintage West German chiming mantel clock, even if it's busted?
    I was at a yard sale, and this handsome wood-case brass clock caught my eye, with its
"$2, Needs Work" sticker. I thought, it's the rare clock that can stump me for long, and the problem is usually something so simple that I often feel guilty for keeping someone's once-treasured timepiece, after I've gotten it running again. Especially if the whole job takes me only 20 minutes.
    As I was giving the man my 2 bucks for the clock, I happened to mention my experience that the trouble was usually something easy to find and correct. My big mouth: the man's eyes lit up with a wild, wistful hope, and he said, "Do you really think you can fix it?"
    Nutz; I wanted this clock, but the thing obviously meant a lot to him; I began to feel that I wasn't going to be able to keep it, if I could get it repaired. The man went on to tell me it had been a wedding present from his mother, many years ago. "Eventually it started running slower and slower," he told me, "and I thought that if I kept winding it harder, I could fix that." I listened to all this with a sinking feeling, for several reasons; this clock has been abused, and I'm still going to have to fix it, and I really can't keep it. When I mentioned the usual necessity for periodic cleaning, as well as oiling to keep a clock running well, the man was surprised.
    "I didn't know that," he told me with interest.
    Well, for starters, I could see that the clock needed more than just a cleaning. The mainspring had let go and come down with a violent run, and the clock couldn't be wound anymore; it just went "kek, kek, kek" when you turned the key. I didn't press for details of how that had occurred, because the man had already given me a pretty good idea, and he didn't feel good about it. I gave him the two dollars, and I took the machine home to operate.
    The first thing I did was to remove the brass works from the wooden case, and then I disengaged all the chiming works from the main clockwork. I opened the mainspring drum, and I found that the end of the spring had been bent so it couldn't hook onto the shaft anymore. I re-formed the spring around a mandrel, and get it to hook up again, but then I found that the ratchet that's supposed to keep the spring from unwinding, was also bent. I fixed that too, and now I could wind the clock. But before I did, I reached in with some little tiny paint brushes and solvent, and I cleaned all the gunk from every pivot point and all the gears and pinions; then, using a toothpick I put a tiny dot of clock oil on each spot that requires it. Just the right size drop will stay put with surface tension, and it will keep the end of the shaft (the pivot) lubricated. Too much oil, too big a drop, will end up giving you less oil, because the drop will run and the oil will drain off. And you don't want oil running here and there, collecting dust and gunk that can eventually stop the gears.
    So all this took me only an hour or two, and now I was ready to see how the clock would run. The machine ticked weakly, then stopped. I got it to run for a few more minutes, feebly, and then it wouldn't run any more at all. Now it was obvious that serious surgery was going to be required, but what was the problem?  I put the clock on the shelf for a few days, pondering these questions. Eventually, two things occurred to me: 1. I was resolved that this was not my clock, and I wanted to return it in working condition. 2. It was going to be a big job. 
    I've tinkered with a number of clocks, but one thing I had had never done yet is to separate the two plates that hold all the gears. Once you do that, you could end up with a mare's nest of chaos and confusion. All the numerous shafts and gears will teeter and fall this way and that, and to get it all back together, every teeny shaft has to be lined up with its tiny hole in the opposite plate, all at once. How is that possible? But unless I was going to give up, I was going to have to take the plunge, and hope that Yoda would show up in a vision or something.
    I went ahead and unscrewed the vital nuts, and then I separated the plates: the dreaded plates. Clicketty-ticketty: there went all the little wheels; now there was no turning back. I extracted the escapement mechanism; this is the delicate back-and-forth piece that makes the clock go tick-tock. I needed to remove only that piece, so I could run the gear train around and find out which part was not running free.
     It turns out that it really wasn't as hard to reassemble everything as I had feared. You just work your way from one side to the other, carefully guiding each shaft into its hole, while gently squeezing the plates together just enough to keep the ones in place that are there already. I got everything back together after removing the escapement mechanism, and now I could analyze the gear train.
    It didn't take me long to find the trouble, and it was serious. When the mainspring had sprung loose, it had kicked back so hard that it bent one of the gear shafts. Once I found it, it was obvious. The bent shaft had turned as far as it could when I was first trying to get the clock to run, and then the shaft had reached the jamming point and would turn no more.
    So I removed the bent shaft from the works, and I fixed it. I made a bending and truing jig with a square block of aluminum accurately drilled to hold the wheel, and an aluminum bar, also drilled, to use for a lever. Using the block and lever I carefully straightened the shaft, levering it little by little until the shaft would turn in its hole with no wobbling of its gear. Then I reassembled all the gears back into the plates, and the whole train ran beautifully with no binding at all.
    Then I put back the escapement assembly, and got all the other parts reassembled into the clock and adjusted; then I wound the mainspring just a little. The clock started to run, ticking cheerfully. It was now so well cleaned and efficient, that the balance wheel wouldn't stay still, no matter how carefully I tried to stop it; it would start itself again, ticking with a solid quiet murmur like a beating heart.
    I also cleaned and adjusted the chime and strike mechanism, and it all ran properly, chiming on the quarter, striking the appropriate hour, and keeping excellent time. The whole job was a full day's work, plus a little more.
    As of this writing, the clock has been running for three days (it's a 31 day clock) and it's running as accurately as can be. I've hardly had to adjust the balance wheel at all. (The wheel has an ingenious mechanism for doing that: a pair of weights on the wheel moves in or out, adjusting the speed of oscillation the way a ballerina will make herself spin faster by pulling her arms in closer to her sides.)
    But, also as of this writing, I have not returned the clock. The man has no idea that I even mean to. But when I bought his clock a week ago, one of the last things he said to me was, "Do you think you will be able to fix it?"
    I did think so. But will I be able to return it?



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Piano Man

    I accompanied my friend John to his afternoon gig playing piano in the elegant lobby of the Red Lion Inn at Stockbridge.
    For three hours I sat and listened with great enjoyment, as he played through his endlessly varied repertoire of jazz, ragtime and classical pieces. I love John's playing. But the patrons filed past without a sideways glance: the full-length mink coats, the impeccable Italian suits, being ushered to their places at tables accoutered for the cream of American privilege.
    John played on, and after he finished his last set, he shut the piano and went off to the bathroom. Then I sidled over and gingerly sat down on the gleaming bench, opened the piano, and hesitantly began to play a rendition of my one Scott Joplin piece, Maple Leaf Rag. I was eager to try out the beautiful Steinway instrument, but I felt awkward to touch it in that place, after John's creative and masterful playing. 
    So as a result of my reticence- fear, actually- my playing was lukewarm at best, and in the second movement of the piece I lost my place altogether. In a controlled panic, I faked along dismally for a few bars, and when I managed to find my way again, my only thought was to conclude as gracefully as possible and get out of there. Which I did, finishing with a conclusive phrase, in what would ordinarily be the middle of my arrangement. I never felt the music at all; just embarrassment.
    After I was done and had shut the cover of the piano, John returned, and we were chatting as we put on our coats to leave. A lady came over to us from an adjacent sitting room around the corner, and she walked up to me, ignoring John completely. She said to me, "I loved your Scott Joplin."
I never blinked, but I thanked her, and she walked on.
    Probably, the lady had just arrived, and hadn't been there when John was playing, but it was still pretty funny. The master plays his heart out for three hours and is pretty much ignored, and then this bum sneaks in and plays a hideously stumbling rendition of one-half of a piece, and then the bum gets the glory. 



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Two Show Stories

A Nice Tip -

    A young boy was watching me set up before a show, and his conversation was somewhat rude: skeptical and confrontative: 
    "What is this for?" "A kid I know can do that!" "Why do you have horns?"
    I was nice to him, although busy, and I told him that he would see how everything works, once the show started; not to worry.
    So I played the show, and afterward the boy was completely changed. He came politely up to me and asked, "Do people ever give you money after you play?" I explained to the boy that when somebody decides that he wants me to do a show, he'll talk to me beforehand, and we'll make an agreement of what I'll get paid to come and do it. 
    The boy said, "That's not what I meant. I mean, do the people who watch you ever give you money after they see it?" I said no, not really. He said he wanted to give me some money, and he solemnly presented me with a nickel.
    I accepted the nickel, and I put it in my pocket with sincere thanks.

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Rescue -

    This happened before another show, a very large summer school show. I had finished getting my stuff set up and ready on the stage, and I was pacing back and forth in an empty hallway behind the performing hall, waiting till it was time to go in. I could hear the hectic noise from inside, where the teachers were wrangling all the kids into their places; there were over a thousand young boys from two parochial schools, and maybe 150 staff and teachers, all men. So as I was pacing back and forth out in the hallway, I saw a little boy huddled against the wall by himself, crying. I went over to him and asked what was wrong, why wasn't he inside?
    He said, "I lost my ticket." The tickets didn't cost anything, but all the kids had been given one, for some reason of keeping the event organized.
    The boy was trying to put a brave face on it, but he was clearly in deep distress, and he had snuck away out of the line somehow. I said, "Come on, I think we can get you in."
    I brought him inside and found a teacher in the hubbub, and explained matters, and asked if this boy could be let in without his ticket. The teacher said, "Of course," and he took the boy and went off with him to find his class.
    I performed the show, and it was fun in its way, but it was one of the really challenging situations; the kids started storming the stage more than once, grabbing props and stuff, and all the teachers had to run among them shouting and trying to restore order. This was summer school, with discipline a bit less rigorous than regular session, but it was still a bit shocking. I never let it rattle me, but I kept everything happy and upbeat, and pretended that this happens all the time. I guess, for these people it does; they're used to it. (Earlier, when I had been negotiating the show over the phone, the teacher had commented that they could stop the show at any point if I needed it, so they could discipline the kids. These comments puzzled me, and caused me some uneasiness. Why would he be telling me that?) As it turns out, everything went better than they expected, and the teachers were thanking me profusely after the show. 
     But as for that little boy that I found in the hallway, I never even asked his name, or found out where he ended up sitting; in the hurry of spirits before the show, I neglected to do that. I'm not even sure the boy was aware, at the time, that I was "the guy".
    Well, I hope he liked the show. I did feel a real bond for him; he reminded me exactly of the sort of thing I might have done when I was his age.


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I Don't Do B and E's -chasing down a midnight burglar

         I once made a man cry. He was a big tough guy, a punk, and he was on a crime spree. At first glance, he was not the sort you could picture breaking down and blubbering like a baby. 
         I was in my thirties at the time, living in the city, and I spotted this man out my window at about 2:00 in the morning. He was moving like a ghost in the shadows between the buildings. Burglaries were common around where we lived; as a matter of fact, our house had been burglarized just the week before. Fortunately, that job had been interrupted in the very act, by one of our housemates returning home late at night, and scaring off the intruder. We had found all my tools piled in boxes by the back door, ready to go.
         You can imagine what I felt seeing that: "Sure, take whatever you want; it's all free!"  I was working as a cabinetmaker at the time, and these tools were my livelihood. Plus, I had been collecting tools since I was a boy, and this was a very personal violation to me.
         So, just a week after this event, I saw a suspicious character sneaking between the houses across the street at two in the morning, and I became furious; my heart instantly began pounding with adrenaline.  I was wearing only shorts, a T-shirt and slippers, but I had no time even to grab a jacket. I slipped silently out the front door into the cold darkness, in pursuit of the pale figure which had slipped out of sight around the corner.
         I followed him down the block, keeping within the shadows myself, as I watched him darting into alleys and inspecting locked windows. I had no thought except to keep him in sight, and maybe to dash back to my house to call the cops if  I saw him enter a building.  
         This was the situation as we reached the end of the street, and he crossed the brightly lit but deserted intersection. I saw him crouch down and examine the lock of a bicycle which was chained to a lamppost. I had no way to stay concealed at this point if I still wanted to follow him, and without really thinking about what I was doing, I strode across the street right towards him and said, "Nice bike."
         As I approached him he stood up and fixed me with an intense and venomous look of hatred. He seemed suddenly to tower over me, his eyes an ugly red and his body tense like a coiled snake. The first thing he said was, "If you called the cops on me, I'm going to beat the **** out of you while they watch."
         I started talking fast. I told him to relax; I didn't call the cops, but I couldn't let him do what I saw him doing. He kept calling me "you little toad" and telling me how stupid I was and how little I understood my danger. I told him to stop calling me "little toad"; I told him I understood what I was doing, and that I was just trying to stop a crime, because this was my neighborhood.
         We went back and forth in this way for a while. We were both still quite heated, although the dangerous intensity had relaxed a little. I wanted to get through to him somehow, and I began to spin a little yarn. I didn't want him to know where I lived, so I didn't tell him that we had been broken into just last week. So I made up a story, telling him I was an auto mechanic. I told him my shop had been broken into, and that all my equipment had been stolen. I said I was now completely busted; I worked hard all my life and now I can't even pay my rent. It was the best I could come up with on the spur of the moment.
        "How do you feel about that?" I asked the man. 
         "I don't give a **** about that", was the man's response." It was your fault for leaving the door unlocked." 
         "I didn't leave the door unlocked,"  I said.  "The guy broke the door in."
          "I don't do B and E's" the man told me.  I told him it doesn't matter if you do breaking and entering, you're still a thief and you're hurting innocent people. Doesn't that matter at all to you? 
          It didn't matter to him. Nothing seemed to matter to him. I was running out of things to say, when the man suddenly got quite emotional and blurted out, "I don't care about anyone but myself. Myself, and my mother."
         So I asked him, "Well then, what would you do if you came home someday and you find that your mother has been hurt? Some punk knocked her down, cut her purse and ran away with it. All her money gone, and she got hurt when she fell down. How would you feel about that?"
         "I would kill the **** who did it.  I would kill him."  he told me passionately, the red light burning in his eyes again.
         "No you wouldn't,"  I told him. "The thing is, you never find the guy. By the time you find your mother hurt, it's already three hours since she was attacked, and you never find the guy who did it. Now, how do you feel?  How do you feel, knowing that there are people out there who don't care about you or anything, as long as they get what they want?"
         It was at this point that the man started crying. He just literally broke down in great heaving sobs, telling me he would be good some day, he was just too angry, he was so sorry but he would be good some day. 
         All of a sudden, reaction set in with me as well. I started shivering. I looked up and realized it was getting  light out. The man was sobbing and calling out after me,  but there was nothing more I could do. I was freezing there in my shorts in the cold light of dawn, and I ran home.




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