Sunday, November 29, 2015

the thrilling sound of puffing cranberries

Every Thanksgiving week I think about my holiday pie. I can't eat cranberries anymore because of a medication I take. I have been thinking about making my cranberry pear pie. I like the way memories can float about, like the smells coming from a kitchen readying a holiday feast.

It is a simple recipe. A bag of fresh cranberries (usually a pound) and less than one cup of real maple syrup and a bunch of beautiful pears. Prebake the pie crust slightly. Peel and slice the pears. If you are baking this pie with a child, let the child eat all the pear slices s/he wishes to eat. Layer the fruit artistically. And use a lattice top. It is a very beautiful pie. The red cranberries shine like rubies nestled in the pears. The red peeks through the lattice crust nicely. Serve with unsweetened whipped cream. Let the child taste a fresh cranberry too, if they wish. Explain the word pucker afterwards.

The recipe is not really what I was thinking about. I was thinking about the real reason I love to make this pie.

You put the maple syrup in a saucepan with the cranberries. The actual recipe calls for two cups of maple syrup but one of the reasons I like this pie is that it is not too sweet. Cut way down on the maple syrup and you really taste fruit. Cranberries are tart so they need the syrup but use as little as possible.

Heat the syrup and cranberries gently, slowly. Here is the  reason I used to make this pie: as the cranberries warm up and start to both cook and absorb the maple syrup, they make a very soft puffing sound.

Oh my gosh, I love the sound of the cranberries puffing. I love to do this with a child. I love to enjoy the hushed anticipation as we listen for the first puff. While waiting, this is a good time to kiss the child on top of the head a few times.

As soon as the cranberries start puffing, you have to quickly pull the saucepan from the heat. The thrill does not last long, the puffing is only a few seconds and the sounds very soft. Yet it is a very fine experience. There is a temptation to keep the cranberries on too long in the hope that you will get to hear another mild puffing sound but you must resist. Resolve to make this pie again soon.

Then you layer the cooked berries, the pears and bake, not too long, just long enough to meld the flavors, to lightly bake the pears.

Friday, November 27, 2015


I am rarely out of doors after dark in the summertime. I don't know if there are fireflies in Northern California. In my old, Chicago South Side neighborhood, where I grew up, there were lots of fireflies. Being allowed to stay up late enough to see them was a very meaningful thrill.

I grew up in a real neighborhood, a real community. Almost everyone who lived on my block and the immediately adjacent blocks, which comprised my childhood universe, belonged to our Catholic parish. Most households had lots of kids. The households with no children still at home were still mostly Catholic. Me and my childhood pals, we sorta thought everyone on our block belonged, somehow, to us. We knew something about everyone that lived near us, even if all we 'knew' was, for example, that they didn't like the sound of children or they insisted that the paper boy get their newspaper on the top step, not out on the stoop.

The houses were brick bungalows. After the long ago famous Chicago fire (Mrs. O'Leary's cow kicked over a gas lantern that started a fire that burned much of the city to the ground), all homes in Chicago had to be brick. Pre-WWII bungalows. Built-in woodwork throughout. Sprawling atatics, cavernous basements. And front stoops. All the house had front stoops. Not just steps but stoops. Alongside the steps, all the houses had broad cement pads where all us kids clustered, talking, talking, talking our lives away. And watching. On my front stoop, which was the largest one on the block. Me and my brothers were very proud of this fact, because there was enough room for just about every kid to have a seat. . . and our father was warm and welcoming of all the kids. Some of the parents didn't like having ten or twenty kids, gaggled on their stoops. My mom didn't like the kid crowds but my dad loved it. And in those days, in our gray-flannel-suit era, fathers were in charge. Fathers always overruled mothers.

Another important aspect of our great, best front porch was that our porch came out in front of the house. Lots of the porches were on the side. If you sat on, for example, the Montags front porch, next door to mine, you couldn't see up and down the street because the porch was tucked back. Our porch, the largest, the highest, allowed a view of every single house, up and down, both directions, both sides of the street. In order to avoid our detection, neighbors had to use their back doors. But nobody did. Everyone came in and out the front. We always knew who was home and who wasn't. Well, technically, there were a very few households that came and went from our block off the ally but these were people with no children, people who did not interact with us kids. People who didn't matter.

It was a garden of Eden, the block I grew up on. To me, as a child.  Our block was particularly blessed, at least from my narcissistic, childhood perspective. There were more kids on my block, close to my age, than on any other block for, well, for what I perceived to be miles. In practice, the blocks immediately adjacent to the 5800 South block of Albany Avenue had many fewer kids than my block. 5800 South Albany Avenue was a kind of heaven.

I lived on the west side of Albany Avenue. On the northwest corner of my block, on my side of the street was a pre-WWII apartment building, the old-fashioned kind of apartment building with large apartment homes. Full living rooms, full dining rooms, large kitchens, pantries, maids rooms and three or four bedrooms. Vaguely, we kids pitied the renters, believing that people who didn't have their own yards were meaningfully deprived. The McGowans lived in an apartment on our corner. They had six kids. I don't remember a Mrs. McGowan but there must have been one. Johnny McGowan and Mary McGowan were close in age to me. Mr. McGowan was much loved by all of us. He would play baseball with kids, in the ally, for hours and hours.

Mr. McGowan insisted that the girls be allowed to play. Boys were always trying to keep me out of their games because I could not hit the ball or catch the ball or run bases fast enough to score any runs. Mr. McGowan always insisted that I get to play anyway. And, bless him, he made real efforts to coach me, to help me improve. Often, he would wrap himself around me, when it was my turn at bat, 'showing' me how to bat. Then he would hit one hard, past all the boys playing outfield, hitting it so far that I could have crawled around all the bases and scored my run before the boys could throw the ball to the catcher.

I loved Mr. McGowan. The day he was able to buy a house for his large family, leaving the rented apartment home behind, was a tragedy for me. I think I stopped playing baseball right around that time. Without Mr. McGowan's insistence, I never got picked. Some of this discrmination was rooted in my asshole brother Chuck. Chuck, a year older than me, was born an asshole bully. One of his abiding focusses in childhood was being mean to me and our little brother Joe. Yes, Joe was younger than me, eleven months younger. Me and Joe? We're Irish twins, born less than a year apart. We could pass for twins, me and Joe. We look very much alike. Joe turned out to be bigger and stronger than Chuck so gradually Chuck stopped bullying him because Joe could take him. Also, Joe often defended me, fighting with Chuck on my behalf. There were lots of nice boys on that block and most of them defended me with Chuck at one point of another. Chuck was an indiscriminate asshole, bullying everyone, but he picked on me the most. Why? Cause I was always there, living with him because we were stuck with each other. Where was I going? Fireflies?!

I was going to describe the serendipitous lineup of kids on my block.

On the northwest corner, was the McGowan family. Johnny and Mary about my age.
Next to the McGowans, in the first house on the west side of our street, was the Montags.

The Montags had three kids, eventually. When they first moved in, it was Bill and Peenie Montag. Peenie was the mom. Her given name was Darlene but somehow she had acquired the nickname Peenie. My mom hated Peenie. She despised Mrs. Montag and she considered her nickname to be pornographic. How, my mother would grouse pretentiously, could a grown woman, a mother no less, allow people to call her such a disgusting name? I had no idea why 'Peenie' was a disgusting name. I asked a few times, wishing to understand my mother's umbrage but mom would never explain it to me. With hindsight, I imagine that 'Peenie' sounded, to my mom, like penis?

Alls I knew was I loved Mrs. Montag.

The Montags moved in after us. Until the Mohtags, alls I had was boy neighbors. Then Bill and Peenie moved in with their kids, Tommy and Tammy. Soon, Peenie gave birth to Tina. Tina Montag was born the same week as my brother Tom. Tammy and I became instant best friends and we stayed best friends until my family moved out of the neighborhood when I was fourteen. This move broke my heart. My whole life might have shaked out very differently if I had been allowed to be an adolescent living in the 5800 block of Albany, if I had been allowed to retain the magical circle of the kids I grew up with. Even now, after all these years, I still think high school would have been a whole lot better if I had been able to stay friends with Tammy, Patrick Snooks, Bucky Cywinski, Frankie Vacco, Nancy and Ellen Schmudka, Tammy and Marlene Tellerico, Mary and Patty Danaher. Etcetera. I think friendships change when kids move from grammar school to h.s. and I know my friendships with these kids would have shifted. I know it is an illusion to think my adolescence would have been better if I had stayed on that block.

I begged my parents not to move. The move made little sense. We had a huge house with six bedrooms. When mom and dad signed the sales contract, they didn't know they were expecting my baby sister. Later, mom would say that if she had known she was pregnant, she wouldn't have moved. The move made no sense. We moved into a tiny rambler with three tiny bedrooms, no basement, no attic, no yard. Even without my sister's unanticipated addition, the new house was too small for five kids. Mom was lining up her life to leave my dad. She was trying to control outcome. Or something. Another factor, prolly: our old neighborhood, Albany Avenue, was blue collar. The new neighborhood was white collar, more upscale. Mom was trying to keep up with the Joneses? Or something? Fuck the Jones. Later mom would say that I probably never would have gone to college if we had stayed in the old neighborhood, that Tammy Montag and Nancy Schmudka's bad influence would have dragged me down. This was preposterous. I was a fucking genius all through school. There was never any possibility that I would not have gone to college. If nothing else, I understood that college, with dorm life, was my escape.

Tammy and Nancy did not go to college. Mom got that part right. I don't know what happened to Nancy, except I heard she got married at age 18, which appalled me. She was probably pregnant, eh? Tammy got a job as a secretary in the Sears Tower. I envied her what I imagined was an awesomely glamorous life. She had to take two separate elevators to get to her perch at work. Rode one elevator to like the 40th floor and then switched to another elevator to get to, like floor 83. doesn't that sound glam? The time Tammy told me about the elevators, that's the last time I ever saw her. I loved Tammy, especially because she kept in touch with me, not the other way around. I have tried to find her since but women change their names.

Where was I going? Fireflies.

The McGowans, then the Montags. Then the Fitzpatricks. Next house, had a widow and a college-aged son when we moved in. Mrs. Farski and her son Allen. Mrs. Farski used to pay me to weed her flower garden. They were nice enough neighbors but I couldn't help feeling regret that Allen was so old. I prayed for girls to move in, which they finally did but not until I was in about the fifth grade. Then the Smudkas moved in. Ellen, one year older than me, Nancy, my age, Debbie, one year younger than me and then Ned. Ned was one of those echo babies. The Schmudka's thought they were done with babies and then surprise.

Next to the Farski/Scmucka house was a two-flat. Two-flat is Chicago speak for a duplex, two apartment homes stacked one on top of the other. The bottom flat was inhabited by the owners, Mr. and Mrs. Sigurdson and their also-grown son Ole. Ole was in high school when my family moved to this block. Right away I set to regretting that Ole was so old. I used to imagine that having a friend named Ole would be very wonderful. Even now, I love that name. Ole, too bad I never got to know ya.

Mr. and Mrs. Sigurdson was standoffish, they did not participate in our neighborhood life, although they did go to church every Sunday. They sent Ole to public schools, which was rare and sitgmatized in our crowd. We always felt sorry for the publics, believing, perhaps because the nuns told us so, that public school teachers did not love or care about their students, not, at least, like the nuns loved us.

The Sigurdson's rented their second-story flat to the Snooks. Throughout my childhood, it was an established fact that there really was a Mr. Snooks and that Mrs. Snooks was still married to him. Divorce in our Catholic universe was foreign and unreal. The 'story' was that Mr. Snooks was in prison. I am pretty sure this was true. I heard, a few years after my family had forced me to move away, that Mr. Snooks got out of prison and took his place at his wife's wide. Also, Patrick Snooks, who was my age and my first best friend, once swore me to secrecy and told me that it was true, that his father was in prison. I never, not ever, told anyone about this disclosure until this moment.

Mrs. Snooks was nice enough. Being a single mom is always hard but in those days, it would have been even harder. She didn't fit into the grown up world, which was all couples. And she didn't date. She never had a job outside the home so she must have had some income. Relatives? We never saw relatives visit the Snooks. We never saw anyone come or go into their lives except each other. Patrick and his three sisters. I don't remember the girls' names.

Patrick confided in me that he hated my brother Chuck and that he thought Chuck was mean to me and he, Patrick, thought it was a crime for a guy to treat his little sister badly. He told me I could come over and play in his yard anytime I wanted, to get away from Chuck. Five-year-old tiny Patrick. He was always very petite, one of the smallest boys, always, I was always attracted to fine, tiny males. . . my first big crush, on a tiny, petite, bird-like boy named Norbert Putlack . . . gee, do I dare use his real name? How many Norbert Putlacks might there be in this world? and if I use these guys' real names on this obscure blog will, like, they ever know? I think it would be okay. I loved Patrick Snooks and Norbert Putlack. I still do.

I spent lots of time wondering what crime Mr. Snooks might have committed, to get sent away for so long. I decided it would have been something like embezzlement. I always imagined Mr. Snooks to be a gentleman like Patrick always was.

Patrick introduced me to his landlords, the Sigurdsons, informing them that I was his friend, even though I was a girl, and if they saw me come into the yard, it was okay, I belonged.

Next to the Snooks' was, drum roll please, Bucky Cywinski. Mr. and Mrs. Cywinski. Plus Bucky had an older brother, away at college or maybe in the military. Not a player in our world. Bucky was congenitally shy and his parents must have been also. I don't recall ever hearing Mr. and Mrs. Cywinski speak. I don't recall ever being in their presence. Me and Tammy speculated for countless hours on whether or not the Cywinskis ever left their home. They used the back door, of this we knew for certain. No one ever used their front door, not even Bucky. He came from around back, coming through the gangway between his house and the two-flat.

Bucky's real name was Richard. That's a beautiful name, don't you think, Richard Cywinski. I met Bucky when he was five years old. He was always Bucky. I don't remember if he had bucked teeth when I met him. I don't think he did, though. I think he didn't get very very bucked teeth until his second set of teeth grew in. This is something else Tammy and I speculated on with serious deliberation. We believed that he got the nickname Bucky long before he grew bucked teeth. We believed, with a sense of reverence and awe for the great mysteries that is the universe, that a kid named Richard could get a nickname like Bucky and then, only then, grow bucked teeth. Almost mesmerized by the potential magic, we wondered, over and over, and over and over, if his nickname had cast a spell, dooming Bucky to bucked teeth.

Another thing we speculated on, ad nauseum was his parents unwillingness to invest in orthodontia. Were they cheap? Were they poor? Didn't they love Bucky?

Bucky was one of those kids who, like, never talks. He was always around, always involved in group games. In my old block, we played team games endlessly. Baseball, basketball, sure. But we also invented games. Plus we played things like red rover and simon says, out in the street, blocking traffic a lot and getting yelled at for blocking traffic and then blocking it again. Sometimes we painted game boards on the street, made up games and rules. The painted game boards were inspired by hopscotch. One day, as Tammy and I chalked a boring game of hopscotch I had a vision: if we went out on the street, we could chalk the largest game of hopscotch ever. Soon we were playing imaginative role-playing games, with dungeons and penalty boxes, castles and crystal balls, soothsayers. All painted out on the street.

The painted-on-the-street board games was, I humbly submit, my idea. And it was a brilliant stroke. Until that moment (gee, Nancy hadn't moved in yet, it was still me and Tammy and boys boys boys, boys dominating all the game playing, boys shunting us girls to the side), the boys called all the shots. Suddenly, we had come up with something that boys wanted in on but that the boys didn't control because I made up all the rules. I shared credit, fully, with Tammy but it was all me.

One of the many reasons Tammy made a great best friend, for me, anyway, was because she was secure about my smarts. Other girls, as they infiltrated my best-friendship with Tammy, they sometimes competed in the smarts department with me. Tammy? She loved me unconditionally and placidly accepted that I was the brains in our partnership. And I was.

Does this stuff sound egotistical? I am not sure that it is. All us kids went to school together. We all knew who was in the high reading group and who was in the slow reading group. Bucky? He was a brainiac. Patrick? Not. These things made no difference to us, back on our block.

We had a sweet thing going, on that block. Back on our block, the kids on our block were all deeply appreciated and accepted. We gave each other unconditional love, I think.

Being a brainiac was hard on me. My brother Chuck used to beat the crap out of me for no reason but if I got better grades them him, for example, that would be a reason. Chuck wanted to be the best, the leader, the top of everything and he sure as shit didn't want no girl showing him up, especially his sister, which was the worst kind of girl to Chuck. Me. He despised me.

It was an important blessing for me to have a best friend who didn't mind that I was smart. Tammy and me? We made such a good team. It was a healing balm for me to be loved unconditionally by Tammy and it was a healing balm for her to be loved unconditionally by me. Cause off our block? At school? Tammy was one of the dumb kids. Back on the block, she was perfect. My best friend and perfect.

Me and Tammy, Patrick and Bucky. For a few years, the four of us lived in a happy cocoon. We were proud that there were four kids all the same age on our block. And wasn't it wonderful that our houses were all close together? The house in the middle, where the Smudka's eventually moved in, that was the only thing that separated the perfect line of four kids, all the same age.

Across the street, on the other side, were more kids. Keep in mind that at the beginning, when the four of us first bonded, we were all about four years old. We weren't allowed to cross the street. So, at the beginning, when we melded our deep bonds, the kids on the other side of the street might as well have been on the other side of the moon.

Then, as we grew, our horizons expanded. Plus new families came along.

When Nancy Smucka moved in, the same age as us, we were thrilled. Then there were five houses in a row with kids all the same age. Nancy came in, I think, the 5th or 6th grade. She had siblings. Her older sister Ellen, one year older, became a particularly good friend of mine. Nancy, not as much. Nancy was one of those kids that needed to be the center of attention. If I were parenting her, I think I would have understood this need for attention. As a playmate, it rankled. The four of us kids-all-the-same age had been sleepily proceeding through our childhood, me acknowledged as the smartest -- smartest in school smarts, Tammy as the sweetest, Patrick as the funniest and Bucky as the quietest. We moved, the four of us, like I imagine geese fly in formation, aligned, content, at peace.

Like a meteor crashing into a flower garden, Nancy arrived.

We had problems before Nancy.

I have, thus far, focussed on the 5800 block, on the west side of the street.

In the 5700 block, across 57th street and then on the other side of Albany (if you are keeping track, this required crossing two streets to get to this other side), were the Danaher's.

In my early days on Albany, as I stated above, the Danaher's might as well have been on the other side of the moon. When I was four, five and six years old, I was not allowed to cross the street. Not to mention I didn't need to cross the street. I had everything I needed on my side of things. I had my best girlfriend, I had Patrick and Bucky and I had my brother Joe who, in a pinch, was also good company.

I probably would have lived out my grammar school years ignoring the Danaher girls if I had been left to make my own playmate choices.

My mom became obsessed with breaking me and Tammy up. She despised Peenie Montag. Mom said Mrs. Montag was white trash. Mom said Mr. Montag, Bill, was a drunk. She was right about that, by the way. Mr. Montag was, most definitely, an alcoholic. And in a superficial way, Mrs. Montag probably was a little trashy. Peenie ratted her hair and she wore tight clothes and lots of clangy jewelry. And high heels. Hanging around the house, fixing lunch for her kids, Mrs. Montag would be gussied up, by my mom's standards, lots of makeup, blue eye shadow, clacky earrings and bracelets, tight capri pants, tight blouses.

Mom said Tammy wasn't smart enough, that Tammy was dumb. And mom said there was something wrong with Tammy, but she never came right out and said what.

Now, only with hindsight, I can tell you that Tammy was epileptic. At the time, alls I knew was that Tammy had spells. Mrs. Montag had sat me down and explained to me that sometimes Tammy had spells and if she ever had one when she was with me, I should get a grown up immediately. Tammy never had a spell in front of me but, of course, I kept an eye out.

Nobody used the word epileptic. When I was in my thirties, perhaps even later, I asked my mom if Tammy had been an epileptic and mom answered matter-of-factly that yes, she had been. That explained a lot.

I just remembered something that really got my mom going. This is the incident that got my mom to start dragging me over to play with Mary and Patty Danaher. Mary was the same age as me, Patty one year younger. Patty, by the way, was okay. Me and Tammy liked her just fine. We were always happy to spend time with Patty. But in our culture, it was not completely acceptable to play with kids one year younger than you. Perhaps on a different street, in another neighborhood, it would be harmless to play with a little girl one year younger than you but in our situation?!! It was so unnecessary. We had plenty of kids the right age, the same age.

Besides, even though we were willing to accept Patty on those occasions when mom forced playdates with the Danahers upon me, we resisted choking down Mary.

Mary was a bitch. That's right, at age six, she was already a troublemaker. I did not use words like 'bitch' in those days. I guess I would have called her a brat, spoiled, a troublemaker. Mary was not happy unless all the children in her orbit were paying attention to her and, mostly, she seemed to prefer negative attention. She liked to quarrel. She lived for disagreement.

Tammy and I had been sailing through our childhood like mindless cows in a pretty meadow, content to be near each other and, thus, not alone, simply 'being' together. We could, I am still convinced, integrated Patty into our lives. But not Mary.

Mary wanted me to pick her to be her best friend, which meant that I had to fire Tammy. She wanted me to say "You aren't my best friend, Tammy, Mary is." And then, as soon as I would capitulate to Mary's demand, then, or so it seemed to me and Tammy, then she would decide that she wanted to be best friends with Tammy. Then she would go to work to get Tammy to decalre herself to be Mary's best friend and for Tammy to similarly reject me.

Back and forth. This became our social life, fighting with Mary over who was best friends with who.

Patty, perhaps already wise to her sister, dropped out of the competition. She moved down her block, to the Barretts. She became best friends with Eileen Barrett and made a life for herself free of Mary.

Tammy and I would have loved to do the same thing, to carve out a life free of Mary. And, I still believe this, if we have been free to do so, we would have.

My mom interfered. Mom insisted that Mary was a better playmate for me. In the privacy of our home, my mom rat-a-tat-tatted negativity about my beloved Tammy, filling my head with all kinds of thoughts that had never occurred to me. I, simply, loved Tammy.

I am like this to this day. I love people like an idiot. I just love them. It doesn't take much for me to love someone. Usually, I will catch a glimpse of something about another being, maybe I will notice that they wear plaid pants and then, whoosh, I am in love with them. If I am feeling good about myself, I pretty much love everyone I look at, much like newborns love everyone they see. We humans are programmed to be this way.

I am not perfect. I am not the single most imperfect human alive on the planet at this moment in time. I admit it. I am imperfect. But mostly I am kind and good, loving.

Back when I was little and loving Tammy as my best friend? I was just about perfectly loving.

Now I did live with some challenges to my loving nature. We all live with challenge to our true nature, which is to be loving, am I right?

I had my brother Chuck. I didn't just have the constant negativity of my brother Chuck (I wonder, as I have many times, what the fuck happened to Chuck to make him the way he was? something must have happened, although it could have been a past life, we can't know these things). Having a bully for a brother was a great challenge. Even more challenging, for me, anyway, was the way my parents would never intervene, how my parents seemed to allow Chuck to do whatever he wanted. I had an insight, when I was very young, like two years old, perhaps younger, that as the first born, my brother Chuck had received some special, irrevocable status from my parents. With this special status, in my parents' eyes, Chuck could do nothing wrong. He was their golden, magical miracle: their first, precious, dazzling, mesmerizing, awesome miracle, a baby. Later, much later, I also realized that Chuck got extra credit because he came with a penis. Somewhere along the way, I realized that my parents would not have treated me with the same kind of ecstatiac reverence they bestowed on Chuck even if I had been the first child. The fact that he was a boy made him more special than me.

Thank goddess my next brother, Joe, was okay. When Joe was a baby, my mom found a poem about a boy named Joe that went something like this: dear little Joe, kind little Joe, he's the best little boy that you will ever know". That poem summed up my dear little brother Joe. Joe was everything Chuck was not. He was the best little boy I ever knew. Him, first. Later, Patrick and Bucky were all right also, although my brother Joe was much more intensely kind to me, being my brother and all.

But Chuck? Chuck?!!! Yuck.

Me and Tammy speculated, now and again, that whatever was wrong with Chuck had also infected Mary. Mary was also a first born. Maybe being first born came with some kind of curse? You know how kids turn things over in their minds, trying to make sense of the world they find themselves in. Tammy and I knew we had a good thing going when it was just the two of us. Bring other people into the equation, and trouble.

Tammy had siblings of her own. Her brother Tom was older than my older brother Chuck. Chuck was one year older than me and Tammy. I think Tommy Montag was three years older than me and Tammy. Tom Montag was enough older than us that our worlds did not really collide. Tom and Tammy had some sibling boundary issues. We weren't allowed to go into Tom's room. Sometimes Tom kicked us out of the Montag yard or basement because he required it for him and his friends. But Tom never beat Tammy up. And Tom never said a mean word to me. Not like Chuck. Chuck recited verbal abuse at me nonstop when there were no adults within earshot and sometimes even when adults were present. And he was verbally abusive towards Tammy, too. Yes, Tammy had her issues with her brother Tom but she and I saw, clearly, that Tom Montag was not as awful as Chuck Fitz.


Somewhere in the magic of dark, hot summer nights on my old block, when my dad was around and allowing us to stay outside after dark, an important reason to stay out late, until it got really dark, was to see the fireflies. You can't see them until it's really dark. We punched holes in old canning jars and tried to catch as many as we could. Then we would feed them the next day, waiting for the next onset of darkness, to see if the fireflies in our jars would light up in the jar. They would light up in the jar, if they were still alive.

I keep thinking that it was my imagination, all those fireflies. How did my urban South Side get so many fireflies? It seems like fireflies would not thrive in the city. There were, as a contrasting example, not many birds in my old neighborhood. When we took summer vacations out of the city, to relatives living on farms in Indiana or living in Mitchell, South Dakota (where my grandparents lived, where I was born), it was an annual miracle of summer that we would hear songbirds and crickets. I never heard a cricket in my old neighborhood so how did the fireflies happen to thrive there?

I don't know how they happened to thrive. I only know that they did.

There was a street lamp in front of my house, which made it harder to see the fireflies. We would go down the block, down by Bucky's, to catch fireflies. Mostly, we stayed away from Bucky's house cause his folks were so standoffish and we tried to respect their quietness out of respect for Bucky. We kept quiet when we were chasing fireflies. We actually negotiated this with Bucky, getting his permission to be in his yard, catching, so to speak, his fireflies.

Just to give you an idea how young we were: Bucky's house was three houses down from mine. Standing in his front yard, holding my jar, watching for fireflies, reaching into the night to snatch one as it lit up, I had a sensation of being very far from home, far and at slight risk, to be so far from my home in the night.

As I recall these scenes, I feel the dusty sweat on my face, arms and legs. I feel the summer heat wafting off the sidewalk, cooling down from the noonday sun but, still, baking. The darkness itself was a kind of coolness, the absence of the sun cooling. I would see kids dodging and bobbing, up and down the block, grown ups sitting on stoops, keeping an eye on, probably, their children but also, perhaps, an eye on their neighbors. Folks of all ages taking in their world, winding down their day.

We kids got the idea that you could make gold from the firefly tail, from the little bit that lit up. How did this work? We did not know but we really wanted to make gold. I was already an avid reader, devouring fairy tales, which are full of tales of spinning simple things, such as hay, into gold. I wanted to believe in magic. I still do. I tried to catch enough fireflies to form a ring. Tammy and I talked about this project a lot, probably all one summer. We tried a few times. Then one evening, we banded with Patrick and Bucky. We would catch a whole lot of fireflies, rub the tail-stuff onto my left ringfinger. We assumed it would work best if we used the wedding ring finger. We agreed that if a gold ring did appear on my finger, that I would sell the ring and share the profits equally with the three other kids.

We killed a lot of fireflies that night, enthusiastically slathering the tiny bits of smooshed firefly onto my ringfinger.

There was no gold. None of us ever brought the failure up. And we stopped chattering about turning firefly light into gold. It was a big disapointment to me. I so totally wanted some magic. Sure, I knew there was no such thing as Santa Claus and I knew there was no tooth fairy or tooth mouse. I knew that magic was not real. But, gosh, wouldn't it have been wonderful if I had woken the next day and found a gold ring on my finger? Afterwards, for a long time, I enjoyed imagining telling Tammy and the guys, look, look, it's true, look, there is a gold ring. And I enjoyed pretending, silently, to myself, that I got lots of money for the ring and we all bought lots of great presents for ourselves with the gold. And then we made ring after ring.

Fireflies. I love them.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

a thanksgiving poem

A Thanksgiving prayer by Adam Zagajewski. His poem “Try to Praise the Mutilated World,” was published in The New Yorker after 9/11:
Try to praise the mutilated world.
Remember June’s long days,
and wild strawberries, drops of rosé wine.
The nettles that methodically overgrow
the abandoned homesteads of exiles.
You must praise the mutilated world.
You watched the stylish yachts and ships;
one of them had a long trip ahead of it,
while salty oblivion awaited others.
You’ve seen the refugees going nowhere,
you’ve heard the executioners sing joyfully.
You should praise the mutilated world.
Remember the moments when we were together
in a white room and the curtain fluttered.
Return in thought to the concert where music flared.
You gathered acorns in the park in autumn
and leaves eddied over the earth’s scars.
Praise the mutilated world
and the gray feather a thrush lost,
and the gentle light that strays and vanishes
and returns.

(translated by Clare Cavanaugh)

Monday, November 23, 2015

be still until

This came from a FB page called StoryPeople by Brian Andreas

And this reminds me of a beloved Wendell Berry poem:
Willing to die
you give up your will
be still
moved by what moves all else
you move

Wednesday, November 18, 2015