Saturday, March 10, 2018


Back in the day, barbershops used to be run by grumpy old men in pale blue smocks and signet rings, and not by top-knotted hipsters in $100 flannel shirts. One thing you’d be sure to find, among the ashtrays and the paneling and the copies of Playboy hidden under the Sports Illustrateds, was a tall glass container filled with a blue liquid, in which a number of combs would be soaking like little black plastic embryos in the laboratory of a hygiene-obsessed mad scientist. It was called Barbicide. Today, as I walked through town, the Town Hall clock was chiming the nine o’clock hour at 9:06, as it does. A hole in the clouds opened up and revealed a patch of blue sky, so suddenly that it actually startled me. It’s been so grey and dreary for so many days that an unexpected patch of clear blue sky was almost a shock to the system, albeit a pleasant one. The writer in me always likes to think about moments like those while they are happening, dreaming up ways of describing what I am seeing so that the reader can see what I see. Describing colors is hard. I mean, how do you describe yellow, or make the reader visualize the exact shade of red that you’re thinking of? So I looked up at that island of blue in the midst of a sea of clouds the color of grimy snow, and tried to think of how I would describe it. I’ve used up all the low-hanging fruit already when it comes to blue references: faded denim, Tiffany gift boxes, the newly opened eyes of a kitten. I thought of comparing it to the blue of the Virgin’s robes in a medieval fresco, but that would be 100% derivative of Christopher Moore’s “Sacre Bleu”. The only other thing I could think of as I stared into that blotch of glorious blue, was Barbicide. At that moment I began to feel like a jeweler who has been handed an uncut stone, say a 3-carat Burmese ruby with a huge flaw which renders it unusable. Such wasted potential. But how do you use a Barbicide reference in any readable way? “The sky revealed a brilliant patch of Barbicide blue?” No, it sounds way too toxic, or else like a crime of some kind. “The clouds parted, and the sky showed itself in a defiant blue the color of that blue liquid at the barbershop with the combs in it.” No- just, no. “I saw the patch of blue sky, and immediately I was transported to the smells of shaving cream and Winstons, to out-of-date calendars and baseball on the TV set.” No, just sounds like I’m having an acid flashback. So, I guess I’ll just take that 3-carat ruby and stick it up on the shelf for now. Pretty but useless.

Friday, February 9, 2018


Today I visited one of the saddest places on Earth. I’ve been there once or twice before, and every time I am struck by the melancholy which hangs in the air the way Spanish moss hangs from the branches of old oaks. Most people in Provincetown have no idea that it is even there.
Starting in 1801, Provincetown was afflicted by a number of smallpox epidemics. Around 1848, a “Pest House” was built outside of town to contain and isolate people stricken by the disease, across what is now Route 6 in the woods of the National Seashore. Between 1855 and 1873, around 14 people died and were buried there in numbered and nameless graves. It’s not the sort of place you might stumble across as you walk the trails in the forest. You have to know it’s there and how to find it. It’s quite a way off the beaten path, overgrown with catbriar and patrolled by armies of mosquitos and horseflies in the summer months.
You will see the cellar hole of the Pest House, a place so decrepit and miserable that by the 1870s, nurses could not be found who were willing to stay in it. And not far away, a tidy row of small limestone grave markers, carved only with numbers. 
No. 5 
No. 9
No. 10
Only three or four of the small markers remain intact, others broken or consumed by the underbrush.
Forgotten people, forgotten lives, in this sad, hushed forgotten corner of the woods.
And the mind whirls with thought, with questions. Who were these people? What were their days and nights like: cast out, banished to this lonely place, wondering if they will live to see another sunrise, left to die alone.
I try to absolve the town and its people. They did what they did from fear, from a need for self-preservation, not out of malice or hatred. But then I wonder why- who decided that these people should lose their names, that 22 year-old Antone Domingo should be diminished forever, known only to the world
as No. 6?

I couldn’t escape the parallels, between this world of a century and a half ago and my own. People shunned and feared and despised because they got sick. Lives, full ordinary lives built out of work and sex and Christmases and mistakes and first kisses, ending alone and untouched. Beautiful bodies made ugly. A two-inch by four-inch limestone stake, a three-foot by six-foot panel in a quilt.

There are places in the world which are haunted, not by poltergeists or restless spirits, but by regret and sadness and the memory of how unkind one human being can be to another. I imagine that there are ruins of camps in Poland where joy dissipates like morning mist. I felt it at Ground Zero in New York, back when it was just a big hole in the ground filled with the anguish of an entire nation, a palpable, almost sacred sorrow. And here, in a small, unmarked, unbounded area in the middle of the woods, I felt the despair of someone who slept for the first night in a strange bed in a frightening and isolated house. There was a moment in that person’s life when they realized they had been put where they had been put to be forgotten. And for at least 14 people, a moment when they knew that they would never go home again.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

We walked far enough that the only footprints in the day-old snow were pawprints. Eventually even they disappeared.
The trunks of trees and the branches of thorn bushes threw grey-blue shadows, the austere color of a gun that has never been fired. The morning sun, still tethered low to the horizon, turned stalwart blades of grass into a thousand little sundials, faithfully witnessing the passing of another day on Earth. 
For anyone who took the time to look, the snow could be a field of stars, or diamonds, or the sequined train of the Ice Queen's gown.
The kind of beauty, I thought, that can never be touched


Today I stood at the top of a hill and watched the snow fall around me from left to right. The wind, which blew from all directions wasn't wind, but a sound effect. And I felt like Shakespeare's Prospero.

Friday, January 26, 2018

Walking among the stones and monuments of graves where no one has laid flowers in a hundred years. An urn. A weeping angel. A lamb. A sleeping child. I do the math in my head. 26 years old. 86. 2 months. My age. I try to read the stories, distilled to names and dates, chiseled into crumbling granite and slate. The man who remarried, the second wife, the second chance. The spinster daughter. The war. I try to imagine their world. A world where they had a king. A world where they had slavery. Reading books by kerosene lantern. Cold, cold winters and storms with no warning. Hot summers and long, homespun dresses. I see a headstone with a beginning and no end, an unfinished account. 1881- . What happened? Where did he go? Lost at sea? Died in prison? Took his last breath somewhere where no one knew that he already had a spot reserved where he could spend eternity. Buried his wife at 40 and then just moved on. I pause and read the words, the brief lines lifted from Psalms, from poems, from the Book of Common Prayer. Some grieving wife, or son or brother, or mom or dad, through contemplation and tears that I can only speculate about, decided that these were the words which this soul should carry with it forever. The tiny grave of an infant, on the very furthest edge of the cemetery. Our Baby. Why there, on the edge? No money? No baptism? A little soul in Limbo, even now, after all this time? How absurd. I consider the memento mori: skulls with wings. Remember, Man, that thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return. And it doesn’t make me feel sad or scared. It makes me glad to be there, to read the names and do the math, and remember the people that no one brings flowers for. Because one day, no matter how kind or cruel I am during my lifetime, my own long story will be abridged- a name, some dates, an epitaph. Will anyone hear me as they walk by, calling out from a silent stone? Speak my name! Remember me! I was here! I lived!


I often say that people who walk dogs are like the Post Office. Wind, rain, snow or sunshine, we’re out there, no matter what. In fact, there are a number of days in any year when it’s so inhospitable that the only people that are out and about are people who are walking their dogs. We wave and nod to one another behind hoods and scarves, strain to juggle a leash and a useless, upturned umbrella, and struggle to pick up poop in the midst of a blinding snowstorm or a torrential downpour. Like it or not, we realize that with any dog, there is a minimum amount of Dog Energy which must be burned up every single day, and failure to do so can only end in dire circumstances. And believe me, after more than 20 years of dog ownership on Cape Cod, I have been out in just about every kind of weather imaginable, with the possible exceptions of a tornado or a plague of frogs.
And so it was today. Nothing catastrophic, just a cold, wet winter day. The kind of day which, were it not for the dogs, would have been spent entirely indoors, warm and dry, with a bathrobe, hot beverages, and lots of foods containing sugar.
But like every other day, we pulled on the long johns and the blue jeans, the multiple sweatshirts and the gloves and the jacket and everything else, grabbed the leash and went out to walk the dog.
And today, in some small way, I am glad that I sometimes have to do things that I don’t really want to do, because today I not only went for a dog walk, but for a few minutes I was transported.
We walked over to the far side of Route 6, to the woods where I could let the dog off his leash to let him run around like a maniac for a while. (See previous remarks regarding Dog Energy.) We walked along a little-used corner of the bike trails near Bennett Pond, an area which doesn’t see much traffic at the height of Season, much less at this time of year. A thick carpet of fallen pine needles the color of old leather books covered most of the paved path, and that in turn was almost entirely covered by a thin layer of wet, slushy snow. The overall effect was that of a hastily frosted cake. There were no footprints in the snow at all, save mine and the dog’s, not even those of rabbits or squirrels and that was the first thing I noticed.
The weather had chased all the birds away except for the occasional hungry gull, so the only sound was the persistent typewriter rhythm of the rain. The patches of sky which were visible through the sparse, impotent winter canopy were devoid of color, a kind of grey-white which was nearly indistinguishable from the wet snow on the ground.
At times I thought of Sherwood Forest.
At other times I thought of Narnia.
After a while we stopped and turned around, and as we made our way home the mossy side of all the trees was facing us, so that they seemed clad in a flimsy, decaying armor of pale verdigris. At one point, I noticed that on one side of the path were all scrub pines, their skinny trunks bare but still green at the very top. On the other side were all beech and birch and other deciduous varieties, branches gnarled and exposed as they reached toward the sunlight. I imagined for a moment that I was walking between two mighty tree armies frozen in time as they stared one another down, waiting for the trumpet call to begin the battle, wooden swords against wooden shields.
Then I thought that they weren’t even frozen in time, it’s just that trees move so much slower than we do.
The branches of the two warring armies arched harmoniously and touched fingers above the path where I was walking, which made me feel as if I were approaching a grand country house, but the ghostly green-grey of the world around me and the sad silhouettes of the sleeping trees let me know that if there were a house around the bend, it was more likely either a ruin or a mirage.
Following your own footprints can only get you to one place though, so eventually we found ourselves right back where we started. The sound of traffic overtook the absence of birdsong. The wet snow became wet sand that kept getting stuck in the bottom of my shoe.

Sunday, May 14, 2017


It’s not easy for someone like me to sit down and write something about Mom. I mean, think about it: “Mother.” That’s the kind of prompt that has writers like Hemingway and Gertrude Stein grabbing bottles of absinthe and penning 400-page volumes stuffed full of words like “remembrance” and “lavender-scented.” I’ve been thinking about it all morning long, always vaguely aware of the thunder of distant hoofbeats, plagued by the Four Horsemen of Literature (which coincidentally also happen to be the Four Horsemen of Madness): Memory, Gratitude, Regret and Love. Before I knew it I had a 400-page volume of my own going inside my head.
So I decided to simplify, to pare it down to just one thing. One memory, one moment.
We were living on Buckingham Road at the time. I’m not sure exactly how old I was, but I was still in grade school so I figure I was about 9 or so. I was asleep, in my room at the top of the stairs. I was dreaming about popcorn. Masses of popcorn being popped all around me, just sort of materializing from thin air. I woke up, and I realized why I had been having such an odd dream: I could still hear that sound, that strange, rapid-fire popping noise. It was coming from downstairs. I got out of bed, opened my bedroom door and went down to see what it was.
And there was Mom. She was sitting at the dining room table, which we normally only used on Easter and Thanksgiving and when Dad was writing out the bills every month. She had a stack of white paper, a Chesterfield burning in the ashtray, and she was pounding away at the old Remington typewriter which Dad must have pulled out from the crawlspace for her. She was writing, and I could tell right away that she was totally in the “zone.”
That’s it. That’s the memory.
So why do you suppose that this particular memory, which isn’t even so much a memory as a moment in time, almost a tableau, stands out in my mind; why has it stayed with me over my entire lifetime; and why, when I think about my mother, do I remember her typing a room full of popcorn when I was 9 years old? Because I knew even then that what I was seeing was my Mom, happy. And not the kind of happiness that depends on another person, not the happiness of a wedding day or a firstborn. It was the happiness that is felt by someone who is doing something that only they can do, someone who is saying something that only they can say, even if it’s only for an hour or two between folding the laundry and another doctor’s appointment.
I don’t even think my mom knew I was standing there that day. But of all the lessons in life that my mother taught me, I learned at least two of them in those few brief moments. One of them was “tell your story.” No matter what it is, no matter even who wants to hear it- make your husband dig out the Remington and then start typing until you’ve reached “The End.”
The other lesson was that sometimes the best present we can give to anyone is actually our own happiness.
Thanks, Mom. I hope in some way that I am returning the gift.