FERMENTING IN THE FADING LIGHT

In my life’s story, from newspaper reporter, then television reporter, to full-time writer — is there something to be learned in that journey —  through fading light — from the scientific process of fermentation?

Fermentation is defined by Mirriam-Webster as an enzymatically controlled transformation of an organic compound.

I love the idea of transformation. But all I knew about fermentation, prior to getting an assignment to write about it,  was that you can’t have a good beer or wine without it.

So — fermenting in the fading light. When I refer to “fading light” I have in mind a coming birthday and the relentless march of time. Aging, like fermentation — occurring sometimes in darkness, sometimes in light — is an equally relentless natural process. I  “brewed up”  that particular metaphor because in recent years, I’d been assigned writing projects dealing with fermentation and related technical subjects for M.I.T.. I made some money, too; enough to stay afloat in retirement, along with the help of some income from radio work.

It was fun and enlightening being a non-scientific person learning about obscure but important areas of modern technology.  For instance: have you ever heard of  tribology? It’s the study of wear-and-tear affecting, among many other things, engine parts and contact lenses. Tribology, fermentation technology, design thinking, machine learning — I was having a field day reading and writing about such things, mostly for in-house MIT organs, and on at least one occasion for an outside technical journal.

Then, on account of human and economic processes, this free-lance employment evaporated. I’d been working as an independent contractor, i.e., writer,  for a former television producer/colleague who’d begun her own public relations company. MIT was a client. She was good enough to throw paying assignments my way. But her client-related priorities had, of necessity, shifted away from writing jobs toward the non-verbal side of PR campaigns. I was disappointed, but grateful for the work while it had lasted — and for the fascinating subject matter. But I was also suddenly without a fortuitous and accidental source of income.

And I was back thinking about myself as just a writer —  a “creative” writer. I’d been blessed to win awards for my broadcast writing during a four-decade career. Those were fact-based, incident-based “news” stories. Now, I’m trying to write “story” stories. “Once-upon-a-time” stories. Some of them, through a process of creative fermentation, have been good enough, in my mind, to submit to outside literary journals. They were rejected — but that’s all part of the creative process. It’s one of those labors of love — but a labor no less. I don’t always love it. No writer does. Quotes abound among writers about the challenges of the daily grind of filling the blank page. But, as mom said, use what talents  you possess….”

Only rarely is there any money to be made in most writing work, much less creative writing. Not that we shouldn’t try.  The late Pulitzer-winning, TIME magazine theater critic William A. Henry III claimed to believe that only a fool writes for anything but money.  He and I were colleagues at the Boston Globe when he was the Yale-educated, 20-year-old newsroom wunderkind and I was a glorified copy boy.  He wrote pure, confident, grammatically flawless simple as well as compound sentence. But his light faded suddenly when he died of a heart attack in a London hotel at the age of 44.

For writers, time is of the essence. We cannot always wait for the fermentation process to begin before we put pen to paper or finger to keyboard.

Stephen King, to cite one famous example, makes lots of money. But I truly don’t think money was ever his motive in setting out on a writing career. He is to be admired for his seemingly obsessive and prolific pursuit of multiple story lines. Sure, he makes money as his books sell and get made into movies and TV series. But I believe he is simply driven to tell stories, and is lucky enough to love writing  in the wildly popular genre of horror. And, though I’ve read little of his work, I get the sense that he never lets the perfect be the enemy of the good. He’s prolific because he’s not in search of the mot juste. He just lets his imagination fly onto the page. (Extending the fermentation metaphor, I sense that he sells many narrative bottles of wine and lager before their time — and millions eagerly drink them down, just fine with the taste.)

Summing up, I would like to remain a television or documentary performer in some fashion while I still have a voice, on-camera skills and an abiding love of the world of the media and the people who labor in it. Perhaps I could make a little money that way. I need the money. But I’m primarily a writer. I don’t write RETIRED on my tax forms. I write — WRITER.

So, wish me luck.

POSTSCRIPT: Here’s an excerpt — a quick sample — of something that appeared in an MIT news release a few years back encouraging people to enroll in a course on Fermentation Technology. It was being offered in the Institute’s Professional Education division, an extensive and popular post-graduate curriculum of on-line or on-campus courses for technology professionals seeking to get up to date on new developments in their industry. Did I write it? I think I wrote some or most of it, or fashioned it out of existing course catalogue material, sometimes admittedly lifting whole phrases. This was safer than adjusting words and risk changing the precise technological meaning some tech-savvy catgalogue writer had crafted before me.

It reads:

LEARNING FROM NATURE

“If you’re going to borrow ideas from nature, the first step is to understand how nature works.”

That laboratory rule-of-thumb has guided MIT Chemical Engineering Professor Dr.Kristala Jones Prather in her groundbreaking work on bacteria.           Dr. Jones Prather will be one of your instructors if you sign up for the MIT Professional Education short program, Fermentation Technology

Dr Prather Jones will be a principle lecturer in the course being offered July 29-August 2 on the MIT campus.

CLICK HERE TO REGISTER. THE DEADLINE IS (DATE)

 

SOME THINGS YOU STAND TO LEARN:

What are the clinical implications of bioprocesses?

          What is the biological basis for industrial fermentations and cell cultures?

          What are the economics of bioprocess simulation?

  • You’ll examine bioractor operations in bacterial and mammalian cell systems.

         The aim of the course is to review fundamentals and provide an up-to-date account of current knowledge in biological and biochemical technology. The lectures will emphasize the place and perspectives on biological systems with industrial practices.

More than half of the lectures are currently working in industry or have industrial experience.

WHO SHOULD ATTEND?

The course is intended for engineers, biologists, chemists, microbiologists and biochemists who are interested in the areas of biological systems in prokaryotic and eukaryotic hosts. If you are generally familiar with general aspects of modern biology, genetics, biochemical engineering and biochemistry and have a general knowledge of mathematics, this might be the course for you.

 

Professionals who’ve previously taken this long-running course say it’s given them real-world tools for dealing with day-to-day challenges in their workplaces:

          “Í’s a great overview of fermentation theories incorporating all aspects from research down to manufacturing functions.”

–Associate Scientists, Glaxosmithkline Biological, North America

“The instructors provided a broad range of experience both in industry and academia. They went beyond the curriculum and provided real-world examples.”

–Sales Operations Manager, Finesse Solutions

          “This course allows me to ask better questions when I develop automation control solutions for my manufacturing science counterparts.”

          —Automation Engineer, Genentech

 

SEE YOU IN CLASS!

 

 

OF MAGIC LANTERNS…

A man who climbs a mountain to see the sunrise sees something quite different from that which is shown in a magic lantern to a man sitting in an arm-chair.  — G.K. Chesterton.

Gilbert Keith (G.K.) Chesterton was offering up a luminous metaphor when he wrote those words. Believe it or not, he was writing about broadcasting.  Chesterton died in 1936, during the adolescence of radio and long before television. But in this case he seems obviously to be writing about the emerging capability of broadcasters to reproduce visual images on a universal scale, hence the reference to a magic lantern.

Chesterton’s life bridged Victorian and modern times. In his experience, a “magic lantern” was an image projector that — and I did not know this — dated all the way back to the 17th Century as a source of entertainment. It originally projected hand-painted slides through a light source, probably a candle. Ultimately, as time went on, it could project photographic images with the help of an electric light source. That could include things like, well….sunsets. (Chesterton’s contemporary Oscar Wilde said we did not value sunsets because we cannot pay for them. Check your cable bill this month and see how much you’re paying  for sports, news, entertainment — and maybe a few sunsets.)

Grand as were Chesterton’s many paradoxical insights on many subject, he seemed, for the duration of this short essay —  and the duration of his relatively brief 62-year life — to be casting a  cold eye on this new broadcast technology, seeing it as an unworthy and potentially duplicitous substitute for the real world. He feared it would make us lazy; inclined to settle for the mock reality over reality itself — among other evils. To his mind, that would probably include the mass propagation of audal and visual dross, trivia, lies, and other garbage on line, and on big and small screens. Chesterton, Catholic apologist and Victorian curmudgeon, was foretelling our wired future.

Paradoxically, Chesterton seems elsewhere in the course of the same short and obscure essay to acknowledge the undeniable mass social function of the coming mass media. I sense, however, that he might have wanted that function limited to letting us know when we’re about to have a bomb dropped on our heads. In the years after his death, many bombs would be dropped on many heads, or be planted in backpacks. I was two blocks from the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing and I definitely heard the bombs with my own unaided ears. But only my colleagues the videographers made it possible for me and millions, after the fact, to see and hear the explosions and their horrible aftermath by means of the prostheses known as cameras, microphones and TV. We may not have wanted to see or hear them.

Beyond sunrises and sunsets, we would all, in our lifetimes, be seeing “movie pictures” of things we were not certain we wanted to see, the World Trade Center attacks, for instance. But there’s no turning back the clock — or turning off the camera. Feel free to turn off the TV. But if you’re sitting in a Fifth Avenue bar/restaurant, you may find yourself encircled with flat screens instantly replaying, in living color and sometimes with sound,  things that very recently happened everywhere, from Afghanistan to Gillette Stadium. I guarantee on nightly news, you’ll see lots of cellphone video of the undesirable. Cell phones — now we all have the entire virtual world in the palm of our hands — good, bad, ugly.

Speaking of Fifth Avenue, I’ll always remember the time walking down  “America’s Street” sometime back in the 70s and seeing a guy sitting under an inverted cardboard box with the equivalent of a TV screen cut out of the front of it. His face was in “the screen” and he was talking to passersby on the busy sidewalk, as if he were on TV. Wonderfully crazy people, God bless them, stand on sidewalks and chatter all the time to people, especially in a place like New York City.  This guy must have figured he’d command more attention if he looked like one of those corporate oracles known as “broadcasters” — especially “news” broadcasters —  than if he were merely standing there in his ragged street clothes holding forth on matters he deemed important. Call it, thinking inside the box. ( An added anecdote to this anecdote is that, immediately after taking note of this boxed broadcaster, I looked up to see, about five paces away,  Tom Wolfe approaching from the other direction, gently easing into a refined but appreciative smile at the sight of this bit of performance art. (And how did I know it was Tom Wolfe? Well, I’d seen him in many a “magic lantern” — unmistakable in a double-breasted, yellow pinstriped suit and distinctive hoary coiffure. The modern media have made it possible for us to recognize and even believe we know people we may never see or really know. But I know I saw Tom Wolfe, and I’ll bet the “boxed man” was glad to see him, in all his trademark sartorial splendor, perhaps hoping he had Wolfe’s consequential attention.

As for Chesterton and broadcasting: In 1931, The BBC invited him to give a series of radio talks. It’s been noted that he accepted “tentatively,” but, beginning in 1932, gave forty talks a year. Some scratchy recordings have been preserved by the mass technological means Chesterton foretold and may be heard somewhere on that trash barge of the internet.

I think, had he been born at another time, old G.K. could not have resisted the allure and undeniable power of the coming “magic lantern” that is television.

LOT 46, LATE OCTOBER

I am living in a pink place. It’s made of tin and vinyl. The palms out front have nasty little needles under the graceful tropical postcard billow of drooping fronds. There are minuscule ants in the bathroom. Could larger ones, perhaps enormous ones, be far away?

I am startled when I see that Nikolai Gogol, a ghost, and a thin man have wandered in through the Florida room to console me, knowing I am disoriented by the 94-degree October heat and feeling lost.  Last time I met Gogol, I was reading “The Overcoat.” Too bad I never finished it. (Hell, it’s short! What’s my problem? )For a moment I’m thinking I’m having a dream, or that Gogol is  a pop-up and I need to delete him. I laugh when I tell him that and I apologize. He just laughs, too, one of those Russian laughs.  His ghost has an enormous moustache but doesn’t have much to say.

“Come away with us,” Gogol say to me in Russian and I find out the thin man is his interpreter. He translates for me. He has a nice voice. “We’re heading towards the Obukhov Bridge,” Gogol says through the thin man.

“Stay a while, please,” I say. “You and the ghost and you, too,” I say, pointing to the interpreter. (He is so very thin, and so pale. I’m hope he’s using sunscreen.  I’m thinking to myself: I don’t like it here and maybe I should go away with these folks. But it’s almost Halloween, I’m new in this mobile home park and there will be kids coming Trick-or-Treating and I don’t want to disappoint them. I could have the ghost hand them their little Snickers bars. (I don’t know if the ghost speaks English. The interpreter could handle that, in case the kids want to chat. I mean, how often to they get to see a real ghost with a huge moustache?  The moms and dads would be impressed, too. They’d say, ‘there’s a really neat guy in Lot 46 who’s got a Russian ghost staying with him. With a big moustache, no less.’)

While I’m thinking all this, there’s a knock at the back door to the little back yard. I open it and it’s Scott Fitzgerald, looking very hot in a very nice gaberdine jacket.  He’s loosened his tie a bit. I’m wondering, did he jump the fence? Is he pulling some kind of Gatsby on me? If so, that’s fine, that’s totally okay and very amusing. He sits down in the parlor next to Gogol and the ghost. I get the sense they’ve met before, somewhere. Maybe in some library, I’m thinking. Gogol introduces Scott to the ghost.  Scott extends his hand, then everybody laughs, including me. Ever shake hands with a ghost? (This may be that day for me.)

Scott is fanning himself, though I’ve turned the overhead fan on. “So we beat on,” he says with a sigh, sort of out of nowhere, “boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

I appreciate him saying that. What a nice thought! The day is hot. A torrid, sultry fall day that in another colder clime tilting toward winter would be called Indian Summer. That’s where I want to be — sort of like where these folks are from, or where Scott is from — Minnesota. Or New England, where I’m from. Cold country, though not as cold as Russia. Here, it’s just another day in Paradise Island or Island in the Sun or whatever they call this place. And it’s a hot one, too. I like the idea of going to Obukov Bridge, or of being in a boat with Scott,  both of us just deciding not to  row against the current; just letting ourselves go backwards — into the past. And I’m thinking I’m going to like the past much better than the present.

So, I’m happy with this little assemblage that’s come to see me and cheer me up after my terrible afternoon in traffic, searching for a Publix Supermarket and wheeling up and down the aisles looking for bread crumbs and grated cheese.

“I hope you’ll all stay for dinner,” I say. “I’m having fried chicken. Then, if you like, we can go down to the pool. The women are playing pinochle later on. Any of you play pinochle?”  (I hope they can’t tell I’m losing my mind. It may already be gone. )

With that, they all politely declined, and say they’ve got to be going. I shake every hand, including the ghost’s and the four of them depart through the Florida room, past the palms and out to the rows of tin houses, probably headed for Obukhov Bridge. I want to be polite and shout out if any of them needs the bathroom — until I remember the ants. I think I saw a roach in there, too.

I want to go with them, actually. I’m just not a Florida person after all.  It’s blindingly sunny out there from a bright sub-tropical sun and there are mountainous Florida clouds overhead. But I watch as the Gogol/Fitzgerald party is abruptly swallowed up in a sudden darkness when they’re barely twenty yards down Caribbean Way. Poof!

So, I say to myself, I guess I’ll shore this fragment against my ruins. That’s a little something I learned to do reading “The Waste Land.” Shore little bits and pieces — old fragments — against my broken up old ruins. And I’m realizing why April IS the cruelest month — and here I am where it’s always April, except when it’s July, like today.

Then, feeling pretty alone without Gogol and Scott and the gang, I just decide to be grateful and recite a little Shakespeare to myself and pretend it came  from my just-departed guests:

Your gentle hands lend us, and take our hearts. 

That’s from All’s Well That Ends Well. Yet another fragment to shore against my ruins.

Shantith. Shantith. Shantith

How’s that for ending well?

Exeunt omnes

FINIS

“GOOD”FRIDAY THOUGHTS FOR ANY FRIDAY, INSPIRED BY GOOD DOCTORS

I will ignore all the news, political and social, as I sit quietly on this Friday morning (10/25/19) writing in my 19 Cent Notebook in my corner of my tin house in Lot 46 in Largo, Florida. News is noise, especially when it blasts into every corner from the flat-screened amplifier that is my Panasonic TV.  It is silent now; just a big black tabula rasa. I might turn it on for the World Series tonight.

I browse in my personal library — half of which I purged, half saved — and come upon that  wonderful and renowned Harvard child psychologist Dr. Robert Coles and his Harvard Diary. He is still, so far as I know, living and hopefully writing among us here on earth. I should write him a fan letter.  I should do it quickly, because he was born in 1929, which means he’s 90. Dear God, he might feel ready to go Home. Or maybe, God knows, he still has work to do.

I’ll do some of his work for him this morning by propagating some of his thoughts about a writer we both admire. That would be another doctor-turned award-winning novelist and Catholic convert: Walker Percy who went home to God in the spring of 1990.  Percy — Doctor Percy, we’ll call him just this one time, for he prescribed wonderful remedies through his writing — was Louisiana-born and chose to remain there unpretentiously and obscurely all his life, specifically in the city (or town) of Covington, which he called, “the perfect non-place for me.”

In Dr. Coles book, Walker Percy: An American Search, he writes that Percy “saw the emptiness, the shallowness abroad in the land; he saw the ‘quiet desperation,’ if not the noisy despair. He saw the confusion, covered by hustle or bustle or faddish commitments, one after the other. He pronounced himself lost, said that to acknowledge so was at least a first, and thoroughly necessary, step. Those who are lost and don’t know it are in even greater danger. And, like anyone lost, he was not only seeking a way back (seeking to find himself), but he was also upset, anxious, angry. ”

Dr. Coles notes that the 19th Century Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard was among Percy’s intellectual forebears. The books I “purged” before my recent move included my paperback copy of Percy’s novel, The Moviegoer, winner of the 1962 National Book Award. I’d already read it more than once, beginning in high school, puzzling each time, admittedly, over its more intellectual content,  being as I was — and always will be — a lightweight reader of  some heavyweight scribes. The novel’s translated epigraph comes from Kierkegaard’s book, Sickness Unto Death. I repeat it here: The specific character of despair is precisely this: it is unaware of being despair.

In other words, as Coles gathers from Percy, we often go to the multiplex or mall or otherwise busily or amusingly occupy ourselves, unaware that we are just distracting ourselves from the reality of our faithless emptiness, selfishness and hopelessness.

At this point I must note — making an evangelizing “plug” for my cradle faith and the faith of my spiritual forebears — that Percy, sometime after tuberculosis forced him out of his medical vocation and before becoming a writer, became, as I noted, a Catholic. (He’d been raised, I believe, a rock-ribbed Presbyterian.)  And while he was always clearly an intellectual, it was the quiet witness and example of a Catholic college roommate that began his journey into the Church — that and, of course, grace.

In an essay entitled, “Why Are You A Catholic?”, Percy gives many intellectual reasons for the choice. But, he adds that, when the question was put to him more or less directly, he usually replied, “what else is there?” That must have come as a jolt to his interlocutors, inciting them to laugh dismissively and walk away, or ponder the notion that something so seemingly paltry as religion might offer propositions even a man with Percy’s great mind could find persuasive.

So how does a writer who repeatedly found himself diagnosing the world’s and his own despair square that experience with the tenets of something so easily caricatured and dismissed (in Percy’s words) as “red candles and beads and priest in a box”?

Well, here’s some of what he had to say about that:

…people no longer understand themselves, as they understood themselves for some fifteen hundred years, as ensouled creatures under God, born to trouble, and whose salvation  depends upon the entrance of God into history as Jesus Christ.

It is post-modern because the Age of Enlightenment with its vision of man as a rational creature, naturally good and part of the cosmos, which itself is understandable by natural science — this age has also ended. It ended with the catastrophes of the twentieth century. 

The present age is demented. It is possessed by a sense of dislocation, a lost of personal identity, an alternating sentimentality and rage which , in an individual patient, could be characterized as dementia.

As I mentioned, Percy died in 1990. I submit that the last twenty years have more than confirmed his diagnosis. We have seen a revolt even against biology, with souls whose sense of dislocation has driven them to try to climb out of their own skins and into another gender. (I guess I’m lucky my sense of dislocation has only prompted me to change geographic states, for better or worse; it is the “geographic cure” a late, lamented spiritual mentor warned me against as a teenager.) As evidence of our rage — political and social —  just go to the Twittersphere. Sentimental thinking, meanwhile, infects even the most harsh and violent cinematic and literary modern narratives and social movements, giving evidence of a universe governed by feelings and emotions, not to mention a child’s willful need to have what it wants when it wants it. Dr. Coles, the compassionate child psychologist, author of Children in Crisis, has certainly seen the recalcitrant child in all of us.

In his 1982 essay, “The Psychiatric Stations of the Cross,” Coles tells of a young medical student dying of cancer, visited by a Catholic priest, who instead of speaking to the patient of gospel truths, commenced a relentless psychological inquiry, asking how the patient was “feeling” and how were his “spirits”? How was he “managing?” (Herein, find evidence that even alleged “physicians of the soul,” including generations of poorly-formed Catholic priests, have contributed to our malaise.) Coles, who visited the patient/doctor after the priest, found him in a rage. He’d wanted to the priest to talk to him about Heaven, Hell and Redemption.

Coles acknowledges the priest was likely just being discreet and well-meaning. ( I can’t find it in my heart to be too tough on him.) But once upon a time ( in those lost generations of faith over which Walker Percy performed a funeral oration), an evangelical fervor and fire in the priest’s soul would have overridden discretion and his need to recite only some “psychological” Stations of the Cross. Especially if the priest knew the patient was Catholic, or, at least Christian, as was this patient. Even non-believers might want to hear more than psychological banalities at the hour of their deaths. How, asks Coles — as, I believe, Walker Percy would ask — did psychiatry gain so much moral authority, even among the clergy?

The priest was about to leave the dying medical student’s bedside when the student asked him at least to read to him from The Lord’s Book. Obligingly, the doctor opened the Bible (let’s hope he had it with him) and read from the page that happened to be there: Psalm 69.

And there is the Good News, in which Coles found an act of grace, as would Walker Percy had he known of the incident. For Psalm 69 reads, “Save me, O God; for the waters are come into my soul. I sink in deep mire, where there is no standing: I am come into deprivation, where the flood overflow me.”

Let’s meditate on that, along with Dr. Robert Coles whom I pray is still with us at this hour just as faith tells me Walker Percy is sharing the moment with us and with his God, as I finish here on this Good Friday Out of Season — in this autumn of the world’s unending anguish.

 

 

 

 

 

DIM (SUNSHINE) SUM (FORTUNE)

There is still a faint smudge of soy sauce on it, the tiny strip of paper that bore my fortune, formerly nestled in the shell of one of those barely edible cookies with the cardboard texture. I don’t recall the date I got it, but it would have been some time late in the summer of 1979. I’d finished my meal at Yung & Yees on Church Street in the heart of Harvard Square, after which I cracked open one of those coiled-up wafer that arrives unfailingly with the bill  — an enduring novelty of Chinese eateries.

Ah, The fortune cookie! Mine read: YOU ARE HEADED FOR A LAND OF SUNSHINE.

Well, well.

I’m about to tell you why that little missive from out of Y & Y’s kitchen aligned so coincidentally with one of my life’s major changes. It made for a remarkably poignant moment for this otherwise thoroughly orthodox non-believer in any kind of fortune-telling.

Surely you’ve cracked open a few fortune cookies of your own; been bemused by the content.  Those “fortunes,” for generations now, have been bland aphorism or trite faux-Confucian Words of Wisdom ( i.e. “a labor of love is a labor indeed”). I got one not long ago that was a variation on the philosopher Descartes’s famous nostrum, “cogito, ergo sum.” Reading like a translation from the Chinese, it said, “I think and that is all that I am.”  Who knew the poisonous legacy of Age of Enlightenment would turn up in fortune cookies?

It’s occurred to me that mass producers of fortune cookies took the measure of our litigious, post-religious age of fragile psyches and rampant superstition.  They decided against dispensing even seemingly harmless life forecasts. The better to avoid  lawsuits by troubled souls who take their fortunes far too seriously, e.g., “you will soon find true love and happiness.” The disappointed-in-love might do something truly UNfortunate to themselves or others, God help us.  I’d wager a few palm-readers or mediums have been hauled into court or faced death threats.

Of course, fortune cookies in those Chinese emporia go with the beaded curtains and plastic kitsch. Crack it open, read the fortune, smile, eat the fragments (maybe) and leave the fortune for the busboy.

I forget whether it was lunch or dinner for me that day at Yung & Yee’s. I had things on my mind. I was 32, unattached and holding a Boston University graduate degree in Broadcast Journalism. I was at the end of a memorable, if unremunerative career as a newspaper reporter. I’d been five years in a rent-controlled studio apartment north of The Square and was due for a rent increase. I’d been waiting for word on my effort to secure a television job — it would be my first commercial television job — in Florida. I knew Florida only from postcards, supermarket citrus product and those long-ago bus advertisements inviting us to ‘come on down.’ And, indeed, I’d ‘gone on down’ for the first time the previous May to visit a former Cambridge roommate. I’d been enchanted by the florid, sub-tropical American life among gentle Atlantic breezes along Biscayne Bay, the lively, trendy neighborhoods of Coconut Grove and the colorful Cuba-celebrating streets of Little Havana. A Miami television reporter was not immediately within reach for a beginner in TV news. I’d have to work first in a smaller TV market. So I’d gone looking for work during that short stay and reached out to people at the CBS-affiliate with the whimsical call letters WINK-TV across the state in Fort Myers. I’d been told to stop by for an interview. Accordingly, I rented a little Chevrolet compact, driven west across the wild, watery “river of grass” known as the Everglades and met with an avuncular and endearing retired Pittsburgh sportscaster named Tom Bender (Lord rest his soul). He was then the acting news director at WINK. I’d shown him my video resume reel and gotten a favorable reaction.  He gave me hope of possible employment. So I was waiting for word….

I was still waiting on that summer day in ’79 when I  cracked open my fortune cookie. There it was:  YOU ARE HEADED FOR A LAND OF SUNSHINE.

Days later, word came: I’d been hired by WINK on Florida’s west coast, aka, A LAND OF SUNSHINE. My commercial TV career began there in stark humidity and some sunshine. It was the culmination of a drive south pulling a Uhaul trailer with my non-air conditioned ’75 Dodge Dart. I was stalled briefly at a motel in Savannah by Hurricane David, a relatively minor storm that gave me a chance to ponder the coming changes in my life. My first day on the job at WINK was September 10, 1979. Florida was a bit of culture shock. I’d half-expected that.

Much has transpired in my life, many reversals of fortune and some blessings — best among them, a son — since that first time in The Land of Sunshine. I’d work there again — twice at WTSP-TV in Tampa/St. Petersburg. Tampa Bay’s 10, as they are known.

And now, in semi-retirement, here’s the unsettling and mysterious and surprising part: I’m back to Florida — for the third time, lock, stock and barrel — for financial and other personal or ultimately, and frankly, uncertain reasons, having surrendered a beautiful townhouse in Lancaster, MA that I miss terribly, along with life in Central Mass where I was in fairly easy reach of my old Boston and vicinity stomping grounds for wakes (sadly) and for impromptu reunions with childhood friends from Dorchester.  Not that there aren’t many Boston natives and old friends here in Florida. Some days it seems the State House golden dome is right above the palm trees. But there were all those new friends from the past two decades in Clinton and Lancaster, MA, and the guys on early Saturday mornings at Lou’s Diner…. And I’m living, at the moment, in a mobile home in central, hot, swarming Pinellas County. The mobile home is — pink.

No, I’m not at all sure what I’m doing here this time. I suppose it’s a long story, as if this story isn’t already long enough. Ultimately, I think I’ll be back in the cold and sleet and high prices and fraught  New England politics  — for a final chapter. For now, I’m back in the standardized, sun-baked, palm tree – accented land of six-lane traffic. Oh, yes, there’s far more here than that, and much that is wonderful and beautiful, most especially including old friends and colleagues  from my old Florida days. And the Gulf beaches.

But some wild restlessness, some outsized fear of dwindling funds probably drove me here this time. What retiree hasn’t been battered about by such fears? That’s part of it, anyway.  As I said, it’s all rather uncertain. Sheer — fearful unrest. And homesickness, so recently after leaving home.

Home is where the garbage is, said the rat. Along with baggage, we acquire a lot of garbage in our lives.

But I spared that little old strip of paper — that fortune —  the fate of Yung & Yee’s garbage pale.  It’s yellowing under plastic, reminding me that what’s truly elusive in this life is that true Land of Sunshine. I’m still looking….

 

A SEPTEMBER SONG

This September day — September 23 — will always be a sad day of remembrance for my family. But before I get to the reason for that, some thoughts about the meaning of any September day….

Near the end of my career — it’s appropriate, given my subject matter here, that it would come near the end — I did a piece about the month of September, its resonances, it’s moods, its bittersweet positioning in our lives as a bridge between seasons. (Now, if you just chanced into this site like an early autumn leaf twirling down randomly in someone’s yard, I should tell  you that I was a television reporter in my working life. The “piece” I refer to was a “story” or, in TV new parlance, a “package”. And while it is rare that a news reporter is allowed a fill up a big patch of valuable time with a “package” full of personal ruminations, I was so indulged by my managers, for which I remain grateful.)

For one thing, September has obviously seeped into multiple songwriters’ subconscious, because, as  you may have noticed, there have been so many songs written about this month — more, it sometimes seems, than April, May or June whose crocuses and rosebuds have long supported the themes of re-birth, young love and the seasonal charm of Paris. (True, in T.S. Eliot’s “waste land” April is the cruelest month, but that lives on as a jolting and nicely executed act of poetic inversion.)

People sing of Autumn in New York and Autumn in Vermont, when the leaves are gold and beautiful. But in September, while the leaves begin to turn, summer breezes and summer temperatures seem to prolong, confuse and taunt us with a lingering sense of the vacation season just past — even as the flowers whither, the summer clothes and beach chairs get put away and the jackets come out for the first chilly days —  and darkness comes earlier and earlier.

Therefore, the songwriter’s mood at the onset of this month, inescapably, might be somber. In my “piece”, speaking of pieces, I rolled in pieces of the familiar September songs — “September in the Rain”, “September Morn”, “September of my Years” as my photographer gathered shots of me wandering  meditatively through Boston Common in a trench coat. I hoped for him, on that September day, it would be a happy diversion from a videographer’s usual round of car wrecks, train wrecks, politicians, criminals, criminal politicians, political train wrecks…etc.. The daily junk of every season. I believe he enjoyed the break — especially when I got a bunch of children from Boston Children’s Theater dancing to Earth,Wind & Fire’s “September”, a bouncy bit of musical funk I’ve always liked — conveying, as it does a less lachrymose spirit for the first month of autumn.

The most famous of the September songs is “September Song”.  Kurt Weill wrote it and a wonderful Berklee College of Music professor named Jimmy ( who’s last name I will insert here whenever I locate or remember it) sat at the piano and explored the mood-adjusting chord shifts for me, from hope to sadness. The lyrics follow those shifts:

But it’s a long, long while
From May to December
And the days grow short
When you reach September

The lyrics takes us forward. We pause, as does the melody. We look back, we look around….

And the days turn to gold
As they grow few
September, November…

Pause. Memories, both harsh and tender, rush in.

And so do they rush in for my extended family on this day of September grief:

That’s because my sister Anne died of pancreatic cancer three years ago, September 23, 2016.  I got the phone call  as I sat waiting in a lawyer’s lobby — waiting to sign papers to buy the townhouse where I sit writing now. It was a September moment — sorrow, not unexpected, at the precise moment I’d found a plateau safe from a torrent of tormented circumstances….

My life had been unsettled for several months following my end-of-2015 retirement. Thanksgiving weekend, 2015, having bid my 17-year workplace goodbye, I’d driven nervously through nights of rain to Florida where the prospect of some sustaining work for extra money awaited me — or so I thought. Extra cash would be necessary, I thought, to make retirement possible. But I sold a mobile home there and drove back when those prospects didn’t pan out. I stayed three months at my friend Diane’s cousin’s house west of Boston, where there was another prospect for free-lance journalism or broadcast work. In Massachusetts, I assumed I’d absolutely have to work to make ends meet. Ultimately I wound up driving back to Florida — to Diane’s son’s little white beach house in the Florida Panhandle. This unexpected retreat became necessary when it was plain we were staying longer in someone else’s house than etiquette and two rambunctious dogs would allow, and when it was also plain work wouldn’t be coming my way any time soon in my home state.

What followed, briefly, was a period of peace and refuge facing the Gulf of Mexico among migrating Monarch butterflies — until a hurricane temporarily forced an evacuation inland to Greater Atlanta and the home of one of Diane’s other sons.  When the storm passed, we returned to the beach house, relieved to find it still  standing, though the waterfront road was completely gone.

All this while Diane was skillfully working to secure a beautiful townhouse back in Massachusetts, one town over from where I’d lived before retirement. Ultimately, that led to yet another drive north — and that moment sitting in the lawyer’s office, waiting to close on this, my current home — at least for a few more days.

I recall, after that September 23, 2016 closing, walking out into downtown Worcester, Mass. The September day was a mild day of muted sunlight. The air was absolutely still. No breeze, no city noises. It was peaceful. My sister, after a brief but intense illness, had died quietly among her husband and children — back down in Florida. She, too, was at peace. My return to Florida had allowed me to visit her one last time. I last heard her voice over the phone while sitting outside a little store in the Panhandle. She was serene, resigned. She would have been 78  that December….

As they grow few
September, November…

Now, once again, I’m moving. Don’t ask why. Finances, yes. Sitting surrounded by half-filled boxes, preparing for the movers on Thursday,  I am wondering, has a September restlessness nested permanently in my soul? Why am again uprooting myself? Why am I leaving this beautiful place? I’ll pray about that, just as I prayed before making this decision — a decision to return to Florida where the Septembers are intensely humid in my memory ( l lived and worked there a full ten years in my career). But while I was able to do free-lance work here, that work has completely dried up. I was lucky to this point. In Florida, I think I can get by with little or no extra work. I’ll see….

But I know this. I know I’ll be back among old television colleagues and Florida friends and relatives who’ve relocated there — and that finally, I’ll be able to visit my sister’s grave in Sarasota. And visit with my still-grieving brother-in-law.

And these few golden days
I’d spend with you
These golden days I’d spend with you

And that, for now, is my particular September Song.

 

ON BEING OURSELVES

Best be yourself, imperial, plain, and true. — Robert Browning.

Really? Robert Browning, whom I admire, would likely have rued the day he helped spawn the current age of the Imperial Self.

Leaving aside the poet for the moment, I stand at this hour on the conjoined shoulders of two delightful contemporary writers, Heather Wilhelm and Derek Thompson, neither of whom are particularly well-known. Heather, in this case, was writing recently in The National Review, Derek in The Atlantic. Each in their turn set out to skewer the “Be Yourself” culture being propagated on coffee mugs, t-shirts and bumper stickers.

Let me, at the outset, ask this question: would any of us have encouraged Jeffrey Epstein to “be himself”? It appears, in the end, even Jeffrey was glad to take leave of himself.  Or, touching lightly on theology here, it seems Jeffrey, alone in his jail cell, feared the consequences of actions committed by the “Jeffrey” he had become which, I submit, was very different from the Jeffrey God intended him to be. And my Baltimore Catechism tells me there’s ultimately no escaping the consequence of bad deeds freely done by ourselves, be it our good self or our bad self. Of course, divine mercy may work differently than the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. But in the sweet by-and-by, I suspect no lawyer can help the perversely self-ish.

You might be a determinist or some rigid iteration of Calvinist and believe we are doomed by a capricious deity to be either wretched or blessed “selves”. I can see the Army drill sergeant standing over the recalcitrant basic training trainee he – or she — is about to send to the stockade for conduct unbecoming a soldier. “Our slogan, trainee, is ‘be all that you can be”, whereupon the trainee answers, “this is all I can be, sergeant, take it or leave it.”

Heather Wilhelm was moved to her meditation on the culture of “self” (that’s the name of a magazine, too, right?) by the “dictum-spouting screen” at her New Age dentist’s office, “relentlessly instructing me to be myself, no matter what.” Why? Well, as best Heather can figure out, because “everyone else is doing it, too.” Who’d have thought Emerson’s 19th Century celebration of self-reliance would devolve into the modern plague of Groupthink?

Derek Thompson, meanwhile, writing on The Atlantic’s website, was examining the cultural implications of online dating in which “anybody who feels obligated to select the ingredients of a perfect life from an infinite menu of options may feel lost in the infinitude.” (I’d be tempted to begin my online dating appeal by quoting that Emily Dickenson poem: “I’m nobody, who are you? Are you nobody, too?”)

“Gone are the days,” writes Thompson, “when young generations inherited religions and occupations and life paths from their parents as if they were unalterable strands of DNA.”

Well, I hope they’re not gone, even though, in our relativistic culture, we are apparently all free to invent our own “truths”  and our own “selves.” Herein, of course, lies the big problem. Was Jeff Epstein following his own truth? Just being himself? DNA: Do Not Ask.

Ms. Wilhelm, meanwhile, has helpfully catalogued some “be yourself” exhortations from the lips, blogs and tweets of our pop culture favorites. Lady Gaga, for instance, tells us, “don’t you ever let a soul in the world tell you that you can’t be exactly who you are.”  Or Taylor Swift: “If they don’t like you being yourself, be yourself even more.” (As they used to say of the mechanical rabbit at the Wonderland dog track, “there goes Swiftie…”)

Oscar Wilde’s dictum is Heather’s favorite. Mine, too: “Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken.” She also likes the t-shirt that says, “Always be yourself. Unless you’re a jerk. Then, be someone else.”

I’ll buy that.