In One Ear and Out the Other


A waitress at a nice restaurant my wife and I like to frequent said, “No Problem,” after I thanked her for topping off our water glasses. I asked her, “what would be a problem?” She just stared at me.

I asked her, “If freshening my water isn’t a problem, would sending back my meal be a problem?”

We hadn’t been served yet, so that only confused her more. My wife interrupted and told her I was just being funny. Perhaps I was, but this waitress gave less forethought to her words then a parrot does. I know she was just using a common and well excepted version of you’re welcome, her heart was in the right place, but in this scenario, that remark does not mean the same thing as “you-are-welcome.” Left on its own, the implication is no problem this time, and even left unspoken it still rings in my ear the same way fucked rings in my ear every time I hear a newscaster or politician use the acronym SNAFU.

As a fiction writer, I work with innuendos and inferences all the time, they are the salt and pepper of suspense. But the older I get the less tolerance I have for them in real life. When that answer cropped up again a few weeks later, my wife and I agreed to just keep score. Now, rather than reprimand or ridicule, I just reduced my tip by one-percent every time they say it. We’ve saved some money, but more than that it’s taught me which waiters and waitresses not to ask for when we return. I want to be their patron, you see, not their problem.

That isn’t my only vernacular pet peeve. Another is when a stranger asks, How Are You, by way of introduction. This is the most common salutation of all, almost silent in fact, but it sounds like an invasion of privacy coming from a telemarketer or car salesman. I started having fun with these people years ago, by answering, “Sitting up and taking solids now. Thanks for asking… How are you?” Fully half just answer, “Fine,” and go right into their spiel. They don’t hear my initial comment any more than they hear their own first words. Makes me wonder what else they’re not going to hear. Another smartass answer I like is, “Unless you are my doctor or my life insurance agent, that’s none of your business!” That one they usually hear, but they still just go right into their pitch.

Another un-favorite is, Unbelievable, and it’s raising to the top of the list fast. With current events being where they are, what with real and phake news getting equal time it seems, this comment is cropping up with alarming regularity. The next time someone tells you something is unbelievable, take them for their word – don’t believe them! Instead, interrupt with, “Wait! Why do you want to tell me something you yourself don’t believe? That’s just a waste of my time, and it doubles the time you’ll waste on it.”

There are others that itch. Here are my un-favorite, irritable, ambiguous comments, and how they ring in my ear.

“No problem.” (server) Be careful what you ask for.

“How are you?” (stranger) What are you selling? 

“Unbelievable.” (casual acquaintance) Are you a fool?

“Let me think about it.” (spouse or S.O.) No. And don’t ask again.

“You never know,” or, “It’s hard to say.” (boss) Oh, you know alright, you’re just not telling me.

Any double-negative, like; “I don’t know that it’s not true.” (politician) It’s a lie, and they know it.

Finally, the most eye-rolling statement of all, “Congratulations!” (stranger) You want my money.

What are yours, and how do they ring in your ear?

Have You Read…?

I belong to a book club that usually reads fiction, and I’ve read a lot of good stories that I would never have otherwise: Circling the Sun by Paula McLain, Empire Rising by Rick Campbell and Istanbul Passage by Joseph Kanon, to name a few. But most of the time I prefer nonfiction, books like Hillbilly Elegy by J. D. Vance, I Am Nujood, Age 10 and Divorced by Nujood Ali with Delphine Minoui and My Promised Land by Ari Shavit.

So, when I came across the book, Cure: A Journey Into the Science of Mind Over Body by Jo Marchant*, I wasn’t confident that this was the right book club to bring it to. I suggested it anyway because I was so impressed with its ideas. The group agreed, and we discussed it last week at our monthly luncheon at Paesano’s in Ann Arbor.

Everyone was very taken with the fact that there is a scientific basis for believing that “our thoughts, emotions, and beliefs can ease pain, heal wounds, fend off infection and heart disease and even slow the progression of AIDS and some cancers.”**

One of the things that impressed all of us was the idea that if you take a pill that’s a placebo, even knowing it’s a placebo, you may improve. This just seems counter-intuitive. But, it’s true.

Another idea was the importance of distraction. When burn patients have their dressings changed, it’s extremely painful. And their dressings have to be changed every day. This is a nightmare scenario.

But, if that same patient puts on virtual reality goggles and plays a computer game called “Snow World” in an ice cold environment, the patient’s pain score goes DOWN by 35%. That, plus the 40% pain reduction the patient gets from medication, makes changing the dressings each day manageable.

Cure also talks about the importance of social connections. Studies show that besides feeling good after spending an afternoon with friends, people who frequently socialize also live longer.

Now, the mind, even in the best of circumstances, can’t heal everything or make you well if you have cancer or a broken arm and refuse to get treatment. What it can do is improve your mood, make your medical care more effective and help you to enjoy what you do have.

There are many other helpful ideas in Cure. So if I’ve excited your curiosity, I hope you check out the book. I think you’ll be glad you did.

*Cure: A Journey Into the Science of Mind Over Body by Jo Marchant, Crown Publishers, New York, 2016.

**From the inside cover of Cure.

Coffee Shop Chronicles: On staying and leaving,

Cherry Hill, NJ
October 2002

I’m shaking from hitting the curb as I pulled in.

I don’t see any damage, but I’m uncontrollably jittery.  It’s a good thing I brought my journal tonight.  My mocha Frappuccino will just add caffeine to my jitters, but the journal, well, that’s relaxing.  I hope.

It’s an older journal, and I’m looking for something writing related.  A passage caught my eye this morning, notes from my belly dancing article for U. S. 1. It draws my mind back to the interview.

Kim, my instructor, says, “I learned that I want to stay there.”

She’s talking about her time in Turkey. “It was more of a style and a feel that I learned,” she continued, discussing her dancing techniques. “Turkish feels very funky, earthy, aggressive.”

Movement draws my attention. The two chess guys have left my table, so I pop over, freeing myself from Mr. Wobbles here.  I’m closer to the windows now.  It’s suddenly dark outside, the dark of a storm approaching.  Trees are stretching their branches in that helpless way, reaching to stop the storm, knowing they can’t.  They’re victim to the tosses of storm winds.

I continue reading my notes and transcription.  I might as well because I can’t find what I’m looking for. 

“It confirmed a lot of things I’ve learned over the years,” Kim says.

“You learn things and you’re not really sure what their roots are.”

I spread out with room to spare and reread the U. S. 1 Philly nightlife article.  I still adore the twists and turns of the language.  I don’t like the attitude of the writer–she comes across as too know-it-all in-your-face–but the language is alive.  “Rolling sushi with ‘frightening perfection'” is still my favorite.

Her vibrant language makes you want to keep reading to discover what she’ll describe next, and how.  This is how you write Show Don’t Tell: “J. Crew crowd and martini meat market.”  Her typing tongue makes some of my Singles articles pale in language comparison.  But it also inspires me to write outside the box, to stretch, to compare and to create.

Back to my journal.  What did Kim say next?  How good was my article with the material I collected?

“I learned and loved it and wondered later, ‘where does it come from, why does it feel like this, what does it mean?’”she says, “so it brought these things home and I got my answers.”

My fiancé–oh, I just love the sound of that– just called to share warm fuzziness.  He’s on his way up for the weekend, and he was thinking how he’ll only be doing this drive for a few more months–155 days, to be exact.  Then I’ll be in Delaware.  That made him think of the box and shopping bag of my stuff upstairs.  I take a symbolic “something” every time I drive down to spend the weekend.  He said he realized soon all my stuff will be in his house.  Our house.  We did a simultaneous awwwwww. Together.

He’s an adorable man.  We are going to have a great life together.

10:15pm.  I’ll be kicked out soon.  That’s okay—I’m done for the night.

Let Me EntertainYou

My husband asked what I was writing about this month. After I answered him, I could tell that he wasn’t impressed—probably not even slightly interested—with my subject. “Finding iPhones,” I said. He smirked, and I knew he was thinking: boring. So, I gently reminded him that “I’m a writer. If I do my job well, then the story won’t be boring.”

But after finishing the piece, I worried that Greg was right. Doubt had crept into my writing process like it does just about every month. I lose the ability to discern whether my personal essays and memoirs will spur smiles, indifference, or yawns.

I’m a practical person. I know that none of my writing will ever be perfect, that’s just not possible. So at the very least, I aim to entertain. Then I revise as much as possible before having to part with my little darlings—my painstakingly crafted articles. Pushing deadlines and my editor’s patience, I eventually let go and watch my little ones fly. This month, after three long days of trying to improve my article and after going off on tangents into unrelated topics, I realized that even I was disinterested with what I had written.

Friend and fellow Deadwood Writer, Diana Hirsch, says “blogging is supposed to be fun.” The first time she said it to me was when I was struggling to transform my jumbled thoughts into a structured idea that wouldn’t put readers to sleep. She may have presumed I wasn’t enjoying the creative process, but that wasn’t the case. I can . . . and do . . . sit for hours writing, because I like most everything about it.

Introspectively, I analyze relationships and reflect on life. I savor the peace and quiet of researching and indulge in sipping coffee throughout the day. I thrive on the challenge of organizing my material into something clever and orderly; of shaping stories, revising them over and over. And—just like I adore holding a book and flipping pages—I love printing my finished articles so I can pass them between my fingers too. I lay the pages out, scan them for errors, and dot them with red ink where needed. I’m sorry for the trees I murder. But there is something wonderful about the feel of crisp paper with knife-like edges; the sight of black ink being constrained by white, one-inch margins; and the sound of pages clicking in place as I line them perfectly on top of one another and then bring them together with a swift tap or two against the surface of my desk—prepping them for stapling in their upper-left corners.

My little darlings are unlike other writers’ self-indulgent brats—superfluous material, screaming to be cut out from the current body of work and saved for a more befitting purpose. My babies comprise the entire article in its imperfect yet finished form. They are born from each letter and every punctuation mark I type and handcraft with love for you.

Dear readers, you are the driving force behind my efforts to raise good children. I want you to find something encouraging or useful in what I write. If I can entertain you or make you smile at some point, I’m ecstatic, but I’m about as far from Gypsy Rose Lee as one can be. I’m not a natural showgirl or a well-known author. I’m a writer battling against mediocrity in my blogs.

Palumbo, Fred, photographer. [Gypsy Rose Lee, full-length portrait, seated at a typewriter, facing slightly right/ World Telegram & Sun photo by Fred Palumbo]. 1956. Image. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, (Accessed January 06, 2017.)

Many of Hollywood’s leading ladies have stepped onstage to sing the lyrics to the iconic “Let Me Entertain You.” The song was inspired by Gypsy Rose Lee’s popularity as a burlesque dancer. This is how I like to remember her: as an author.

Because you’re important to me, I’m not going to succumb to the pressure of a due date, the one thing about writing I don’t like. Deadlines stress college students, journalists, businessmen and writers of all kinds—in this case, me—who could use just a little more time to finish respective projects. Merriam-Webster hints at the origin of “deadline” with this dreadful definition: “a line drawn within or around a prison that a prisoner passes at the risk of being shot.”

Imagine: A prisoner, whose only chance for escape involves crossing a line that’s being guarded by expert shooters. He knows that crossing that line will most likely result in his death. He frets. He schemes. He hopes. He commits, knowing there is no turning back. No return; no surrender. There is no undoing what he’s about to do. At best, he’ll succeed and live a long life on the run. But doubt creeps in as he faces the fact that his attempt at freedom—at crossing the deadline—will probably result in death.

This month, I hope you’re relieved to find out that you don’t get to read a boring account of the iPhone I stumbled upon while Christmas shopping . . .  just because I have a deadline. I’m preserving any good impression you may have of me by killing my darlings.


Photo credit: Palumbo, Fred, photographer. [Gypsy Rose Lee, full-length portrait, seated at a typewriter, facing slightly right/ World Telegram & Sun photo by Fred Palumbo]. 1956. Image. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, (Accessed January 06, 2017.)


Summer Camp – Part Two


Still on two week National Guard duty at Phelps Collins Air Base in the 1960’s, I was a lowly Airman Second Class manning our medical infirmary late at night. Sometime after ten o’clock, with the outside floodlight casting a harsh glare over the parking lot, several cars pulled up. Anyone arriving that late could only mean trouble, and I wasn’t due to be relieved for hours. A flight-line officer stepped inside, somehow looking a little sheepish.


I stood and saluted. “Yes, sir; what can I do for you?” He seemed hesitant and stood leaning against the door frame, appearing disconcerted instead of seeking care. Then it struck me. He was, in fact, drunk as a skunk.


“Hmm. Is a doctor in, Airman Reed? We have someone outside who damaged himself.” “Damaged himself”? Was this “officer-talk” or perhaps something more serious like a self-inflicted wound? What was going on? He arranged a lopsided grin and continued, “Ya see, he was ridin’ his motorcycle through the barracks”.  He stopped, trying to think of another way of saying it, but gave up. “He hit a bunk-bed and crashed.” He stopped again, to see if the story was registering, but thought better of it.


I stared at him, dumbstruck, amused. Was this what officers did with their free time? I was curious but could only blurt, “Through the barracks? A bunkbed? Crashed.” Should I write any of this in the log book so it could be reviewed later? “So how fast was he going? Is he hurt? How badly? Is anyone else hurt? Who else have you notified?” was all I could get out.


A second officer appeared, adding, “Yeah, ya see, the bike fell over on him after he hit a wall after he hit the bunk bed, an’ he’s not feelin’ too good. Nah, nobody else got hurt. Too much.” They both stood there like I might make it all better.


“OK, but if he’s out in the parking lot, you better bring him in here. I’ll wake Doc Cooper and start making out an accident report.”


“Accident report? What accident report? Is that really necessary?” They took a few steps, realizing the entire incident was about to be officially recorded. I could only suppose upper command normally took a dim view of drunken motorcycle riding through barracks resulting in crashes and injuries. He and his pal hadn’t had time to come up with a better story, so I left them to ponder.


After rousing our doctor, I returned to find Captain Motorcycle supported by both arms and one good leg in the anteroom. The remaining limb was oddly twisted. He lay on the couch, moaning, while more officers arrived, milling about, trying to maintain solemn faces. Doc Cooper arrived, yawning and scratching, accompanied by Senior Master Sergeant Joe Polak.


After a brief examination of the offending leg, Doc observed “Well son, you’ve got a broken leg and a torn rib cartilage.” Everyone seemed surprised at the news, as if anticipating a different verdict. How could this be? In the harsh light of an overhead light bulb, the evening was suddenly less fun. “This man has to be taken to Wurtsmith. I don’t have the facilities here. You might as well start the paperwork.”


Wurtsmith United States Air Force Base in Oscoda, Michigan, fifty miles south, had one of the few military hospitals in Michigan. Since the accident occurred while this officer was on active duty, it was about to become a lot more official than a National Guard infirmary could handle. The same thought suddenly occurred to our inebriated Captain Motorcycle.


“But I can’t have a broken leg.” he wailed. “I have to be at work next week. I’m only an insurance salesman,” he protested. “My boss’ll never unner stan’.”


Doc Cooper was all business. “Look, young man. No matter how much you argue, you still have a broken leg. It needs X-rays and proper setting.”  He turned to me. “Put him in the blue ambulance, the Pontiac.” He thought for a minute. “They won’t let anyone onto the base unless the driver, at least, is in uniform, with active duty orders.”


Joe glanced at me. “Reed’s the only guy here who still has a copy of his orders and wearing a uniform at this time of night. Guess who gets to drive to Oscoda?”


Doc said, “He can’t sit in the passenger seat.  He has to ride on his back in the stretcher with one of his friends up front with you driving. Here’s the paperwork and my number here. I’m going to bed. Have fun and report back in the morning.” 


I went out and backed the ambulance around to the infirmary door to pick up our new passenger. Captain Motorcycle’s buddies picked him up, still protesting, maneuvering him into the parking lot. We opened the back of the ambulance, extracted a complicated chrome-plated stretcher, and unfolded it before spreading a clean sheet over it. His friends helped strap him down and it took four of us to maneuver him inside and more time to latch it in place so it wouldn’t roll around once we began moving.


It was now after eleven and we were ready to start. I had a massive headache and it was an hour drive south on a northern Michigan two-lane blacktop, not to mention all the paperwork I might face. Remaining well-wishers crowded around, and I started the engine. One of Captain Motorcycle’s less-inebriated friends said he would ride with us.


Then a small voice was heard. “Hey, fellas. Let me outta here. I gotta pee.”  I shut the engine off and got out. Everybody helped unlatched the stretcher and get him outside. It was going to be difficult un-strapping him, getting him back into the infirmary restroom, and then reverse the entire process. After some discussion, it was decided to carry him around a corner of the building, still strapped in the stretcher, lean him against the infirmary wall and tilt him forward to do his business.


One of his friends thoughtfully observed, “One of us has to unzip him and get it out so he can go. Who’s going to do it?”


There was a moment’s silence before another piped up, “Look, I’m his best friend, so I’ll unzip him, but there’s no way I’m doing anything else down there. I’m not that good a friend.”


Captain Motorcycle spoke up. “Guys, I can’ hold it mush longer. Get a han’ free an’ I’ll take care of it. But, hurry up!”


Everybody inspected the night-time sky and parking lot gravel for a few minutes, before reassembling patient and stretcher in the ambulance. I drove toward Alpena, hurtling down U.S. 23 a little over the speed limit with the roof-mounted red light turned off, since it would only add to the evening to be stopped by a curious Michigan State Policeman.  


Captain Motorcycle had sunk into silence, and I knew his officer-friend was working desperately to come up with a story for Wurtsmith. There wasn’t much traffic and we flew down through Black River and Alcona approaching Harrisville. Everything was going to plan except officer-passenger wanted to turn on the flashing red emergency light and siren every once in a while to see what it was like.


That was before he spotted a distant late-night roadside tavern with all its lights on. He turned around and asked, “Hey, Buck. You wan’ some more beer? This might be the las’ one for a while.” With an affirmative grunt, I was ordered to pull over and wait in the ambulance while he returned with a six pack. Before I was back on the road, they were opening and downing as many as they could.


Soon nearing Wurtsmith’s entrance, I was offered one of the last cans, but politely declined, thinking at least one of us should be sober. Especially myself, the driver, since I assumed the United States Air Force looked even less kindly than Michigan State Police upon inebriated ambulance drivers. The Air Policeman manning the entrance couldn’t believe what he was seeing, but my active duty orders were accepted and we found our way to the base hospital. After finally depositing two drunk and one damaged officer long after midnight, I realized Summer Camp was over for Captain Motorcycle-Insurance Salesman, and I had a long drive back to Phelps Collins with only a six-pack of empty Miller cans for company.