Sunday Dinner essay published

I’ve been away for a long time, as I’ve been preoccupied with work-related video projects. But I wanted to mention that one of my essays, Sunday Dinner, has been published in the online magazine The Cook’s Cook. In the story I reflect on spending Sunday afternoons at my maternal grandmother’s house in Rome, New York.

Here’s a photo of my grandmother, Amelia.

My late grandmother, Amelia DiClemente.

And you can read the essay here.

 

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Ten Years Without Dad

My father passed away from lung cancer at the age of 64 ten years ago today. In that time I’ve become a husband and a father. And while I know he would have enjoyed celebrating those life changes with me, it’s in the mundane, everyday moments that I miss my father most.

My late father, Francis DiClemente Sr.

I wish I could pick up the phone, call him and talk to him about the surface topics of conversation that most fathers and sons banter about—news, sports and the weather. I wish I could have coffee with him while watching him read the newspaper or pick his lottery numbers while sitting in the cramped kitchen of my grandmother’s small brick house in Rome, New York (now owned by someone else).

Dad, side angle.

I don’t have any profound words to offer about my dad today. I just want to honor his memory and tell him how much I miss him.

Over the years, I’ve written a few poems about my father. Here are a few:

The Galliano Club

From street-level sunlight to cavernous darkness,
then down a few steps and you enter The Galliano Club.
Cigar smoke wafts in the air above a cramped poker table.
Scoopy, Fat Pat and Jules are stationed there,
along with Dominic, who monitors it all,
pacing pensively with fingers clasped behind his back.

A pool of red wine spilled on the glossy cherry wood bar,
matches the hue of blood splattered on the bathroom wall.
A cracked crucifix and an Italian flag loom above,
as luck is coaxed into the club with a roll of dice and a sign of the cross.

Pepperoni and provolone are piled high for Tony’s boys,
who man the five phone lines and scrawl point spreads
on thick yellow legal pads.
Bocce balls collide as profanity whirls about . . .
and in between tosses, players brag about cooking calamari.

Each Sunday, after St. John’s noon Mass,
my father strolls across East Dominick Street and places his bets,
catapulting his hopes on the shoulder pads of
Bears, Bills, Packers and Giants.
His teams never cover and he’s grown accustomed to losing . . .
as everything in Rome, New York exacts a toll,
paid in working class weariness and three feet of snow.

But once inside The Galliano, he feels right at home,
recalling his heritage, playing cards with his friends.
And here he’s no longer alone, as all have stories of chronic defeat.
Blown parlays, slashed pensions and wives sleeping around,
constitute the cries of small-town men
who have long given up on their out-of-reach dreams.

For now, they savor the moment—
a winning over/under ticket, a sip of Sambuca
and Sunday afternoons shared in a place all their own.

Outskirts of Intimacy (Flutter Press, 2010)

Open Heart

My father was born
with a hole in his heart,
and although repaired,
nothing in his life,
ever filled it up.
The defect remained,
despite the surgeon’s work—
a void, a place I could never touch.

Outskirts of Intimacy (Flutter Press, 2010)

Dad in the kitchen. Photo by Francis DiClemente.

Death Mask

Assume the death mask,
Put on your final face
Like those insolent characters
In that Twilight Zone episode—you know the one,
With their cruel faces contorted and fixed there for all time’s sake.

My father wore his death mask.
He kept it on even though I arrived after his passing
On that soft warm August evening.
I’ll never forget the way he looked,
With his mouth agape, eyes vacant, cheeks sunken,
Body withered and shriveled,
Curled up in the fetal position on his soiled deathbed
In my grandmother’s sweltering death house.

I allowed myself to look at him for just a moment.
I then turned around and left him alone in his small bedroom.
I did this for my benefit, since I wanted to remember him
As a father and a man and not as a corpse in a locked-up state.
This is because the death mask grips its lonely victim
And sucks out the life and extinguishes the person.

I shuffled into the living room,
Rejoining the Hospice nurse and the neighbors who came
Across the street to comfort my grandmother and express remorse.
And my grandmother—
Still acting as host despite the occasion and the heat—
Asked me to make a pot of coffee for her guests.
The neighbors sat on the old, out-of-style couches and chairs
In my grandmother’s ranch home off Turin Road in north Rome.
They conversed in hushed tones and sipped coffee
While we waited for the workers from the funeral parlor
To drive up to the house and wheel away my father.

Outskirts of Intimacy (Flutter Press, 2010)

Dad in his chair. It’s out of focus, but I love how he looks directly at the camera. Photo by Francis DiClemente.

St. Peter’s Cemetery

I extend a hand to touch an angel trapped in marble.
Its face is cool and damp, like the earth beneath the slab.
I pose a question to my deceased father,
Knowing the answer will elude me.
For his remains are not buried in this cemetery,
But instead rest on a shelf in my sister’s suburban Ohio house.

Outskirts of Intimacy (Flutter Press, 2010)

Vestiges

My parents are gone.
They walk the earth no more,
both succumbing to lung cancer,
both cremated and turned to ash.

With each passing year,
their images become more turbid in my mind,
as if their faces are shielded
by expanding gray-black clouds.
I try to retain what I remember—
my father’s deep-set, dark eyes and aquiline nose,
my mother’s small head bowed in thought or prayer
while smoking a cigarette in the kitchen.

I search for their eyes
in the constellations of the night sky.
I listen for their voices in the wind.
Is that Rite Aid plastic bag snapping in the breeze
the voice of my father whispering,
letting me know he’s still around . . .
somewhere . . . over there?
Does the squawking crow
perched in the leafless maple tree
carry the voice of my mother,
admonishing me for wearing a stained sweater?

Resorting to a dangerous habit,
I use people and objects as “stand-ins”
for my mother and father,
seeking in these replacements
some aspect of my parents’ identities.

A sloping, two-story duplex with cracked green paint
embodies the spirit of my father saddled with debt,
playing the lottery, hoping for one big payoff.
I want to climb up the porch steps and ring the doorbell,
if only to discover who resides there.

In a grocery store aisle on a Saturday night
I spot an older woman
standing in front of a row of Duncan Hines cake mixes.
With her short frame, dark hair, and glasses,
she casts a similar appearance to my mother.
She is scanning the labels,
perhaps looking for a new flavor,
maybe Apple Caramel, Red Velvet, or Lemon Supreme,
just something different to bake
as a surprise for her husband.
A feeling strikes me and
I wish to claim her as my “fill-in” mother.
I long to reach out to this stranger in the store,
fighting the compulsion
to place a hand on her shoulder
and tell her how much I miss her.

I fear that if my parents disappear
from my consciousness,
then I too will become invisible.
And the reality of a finite lifespan sets in,
as I calculate how many years I have left.
But I realize I am torturing myself
with this twisted personification game.
I must remember my parents are dead
and possess no spark of the living.
And I can no longer enslave them in my mind,
or try to resurrect them in other earthly forms.
I have to let them go.
I have to dismiss the need for physical ties,
while holding on to the memories they left behind.

And so on the night I see the woman
in the grocery store aisle,
I do not speak to her,
and she does not notice me lurking nearby.
But as I walk away from her,
I cannot resist the impulse to turn around
and look at her one last time—
just to make sure
my mother’s “double” is still standing there.
I want her to lift her head and smile at me,
but she never diverts her eyes
from the boxes of cake mixes lining the shelf.

Sidewalk Stories (Kelsay Books, 2017)

The Out of State Game

It’s the height of the summer travel season, and I have been on the road often lately, traveling to New York City for video shoots.

And since my colleague Bob prefers to drive our Dodge Caravan, I am free to sit in the passenger seat and pass the time by playing the Out of State Game—one I am sure many other people play.

It goes like this: I scan the traffic in search of out of state license plates, and when I spot one I ask myself a series of questions: Could I live there? Would I be willing to pack up and move there? What would my life be like if I went there?

I guess it boils down to just four words that could determine your level of happiness: Here or There? Stay or Go?

This sense of longing to migrate somewhere else is the subject of a short poem in my new collection Sidewalk Stories.

Elsewhere

Elsewhere—a state of mind:
Reno or Raleigh,
Topeka or Tacoma,
an imaginary vacation
from my current geographic position.

Elsewhere—another place to be,
an alternate zip code.
Elsewhere—when shall I go?
To where shall I roam?
Elsewhere—I’m eager
to embark on the journey,
but the target city is unknown.
Elsewhere is calling—is beckoning,
and I’ve already left home.

In reality I don’t need road trips to ponder these thoughts. I play the Out of State Game every day while walking through the parking lot of my apartment complex, which is home to many college students who come from faraway places.

Some of the states represented include Washington, Oregon, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland and Indiana.

But there is one plate that always thrills me and sparks my imagination. A white metal background with reddish-orange cursive lettering. California. California. California.

When I see a California plate, I rekindle the dream of relocating to Los Angeles, trying to carve out a living in the film or entertainment business. I consider if I could survive the freeways, earthquakes, wildfires, mudslides, crime and high cost of living.

My fascination with California can be traced to my love of John Steinbeck novels and LA-based film noir movies from the 1940s, e.g. The Big Sleep and Double Indemnity.

But the allure of California also stirs memories tinctured with regret, as I think back more than 20 years, to the time after I completed my master’s degree in film and video from American University. In the summer of 1993 I returned to my hometown of Rome, New York, to finish my thesis.

Afterwards I went to work for the City of Rome in the recreation department, doing odd jobs like refereeing adult league volleyball games and teaching an after-school woodworking class. And in the spring and summer of 1994 I served as an administrative aide to the mayor. However, the funding for the temporary job ended in the fall of 1994, and I had decided that I would take about $2,500 in savings, pack up my used gray Chevette and head to Hollywood, hoping to launch my career as a production assistant or entry-level staff member.

My mother rejected that idea, and in the course of an afternoon she and my sister talked me into embarking on an alternate, “safer” plan of moving to Venice, Florida, on the Gulf Coast, where I could stay with a friend of my Aunt Theresa and pursue employment down there.

My Aunt T. is a Roman Catholic nun, and her best friend, the late Father Charlie, a Redemptorist priest, had an extra bedroom in the condo provided for him by the Diocese of Venice. My mom and sister thought that with my endocrine-related health problems, residing in a stable environment near Aunt T. would be preferable to living alone on the West Coast. I folded and scrapped the idea of going to California.

At the time the entertainment industry was burgeoning in the Orlando area, located more than two hours away from Venice, and I was hopeful I could get a job there. But full-time opportunities were scant and when my savings started to drip away, I took a low-paying feature reporter/editor position at the Venice Gondolier newspaper, swinging my career in a different direction, one toward journalism—a path that would bring me to stops in Ohio and Arizona but never to California.

So now when I see a California plate, all I can do is wonder how things could have turned out if I had mustered the courage and gambled on a life in California. Would I now be an accomplished producer, director or studio head? Or would I have ended up impoverished?

I bemoan that I didn’t take the risk when I was young, and while I am not too old to move somewhere else, it’s seems unlikely to happen. But I try to chase away the regret because it serves no purpose and has no place in the 2017 version of my life.

I must accept the decisions I made without wasting time punishing myself by reflecting on what might have been. That’s easy to say, but hard to do because I can’t stop my eyes from seeking out Golden State plates on the streets of Syracuse.

Posted Notice

This coffee-stained, handwritten message was tacked up outside of the Dunkin’ Donuts on South Crouse Avenue. I had turned toward a wall filled with placards, looking at advertisements for apartment complexes and Syracuse-area concert notices. Then I saw the scrap of paper; the question posed by the writer of this note made me examine my conscious. Do I care about the homeless in CNY? Answer: yes, sort of. What am I doing about it? Not a whole lot.

Posted outside Dunkin’ Donuts. Photo by Francis DiClemente.

And this makes me wonder whether a financial contribution to the Rescue Mission or the Salvation Army would make much difference. Would it really help someone?

I always feel like I am being scammed when panhandlers ask me for money when I’m walking in downtown Syracuse or in the Marshall Street area near Syracuse University. I get the sense my money will be used for drugs, alcohol or cigarettes. Sometimes I politely tell the person I have no change. Other times, if I am in a hurry, I’ll just put my head down, avoid eye contact and walk briskly past the person. But as a Christian I feel guilty for rejecting someone who is asking for help. I know Christ would not snub the person, and a passage from the Gospel of Matthew instructs us to be charitable to those in need:

Matthew 25:40 (New International Version):

“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’”

But I also understand spare change will not solve our city’s and our nation’s homeless crisis. Unfortunately, there are no easy answers to the problem. Maybe the first step is to recognize the homeless exist and maybe try to treat them with dignity. Maybe that’s what the writer had in mind when he or she posted the missive.

One of the poems in my new collection Sidewalk Stories explores the issues of mental illness and homelessness. I’m sharing it here because it seems relevant; yet in reading it again, I realize the poem is pointless because it raises questions without offering solutions—in short, a lot of words but no action.

Crazy

Where do those with mental illness go?
What worlds do they navigate in their minds?
Are they able to restrain their thoughts?
Can they find a place of rest in society?
To exist without hurting themselves
Or someone else?

Go downtown in any decent-sized city,
And witness for yourself the ghost people—
The mumblers, the droolers, and loiterers.
They are fragile, cold, broke, and alone,
Dressed in tattered clothes caked with dirt.
The men wear shaggy beards
And flimsy baseball caps
Topping their matted hair.
You see them pacing at bus stops,
Begging for change outside Starbucks,
And sprawled out in city parks,
With their pushcarts and
Garbage bags filled with empty
Soda cans and plastic bottles.

I force myself to observe
The unbalanced people out in public.
I refuse to look away.
I am not gawking.
I am not a voyeur who finds humor
Or pleasure in studying the deranged.
But I do want to remember
The way they look,
To record their facial expressions
When they say things like: “Go away,”
“Stop touching me,” and
“I will devour your children.”

Whose problem is this?
It’s a dilemma with no easy solution.
And I wonder, just where do we start?
How did we begin the process
Of trying to restore the street people?
Are we obligated as human beings
To care a little bit?
To notice the other life forms
Walking toward us?
Instead of quickening the pace,
Looking at the ground, turning away.

Of course there is an element of fear in us,
A desire not to be attacked
By the crazy people.
This instinct is natural and correct.
But what do we owe our fellow citizens
Who have no intention of harming anyone?
And what do we demand of ourselves
When we see others
Who are suffering a few feet away?
Look, I know it’s not your problem,
And it’s not mine either.
But it does exist and these souls
Are not going anywhere.
We can’t avoid them,
Or force them out of our cities.
So is there anything we can do,
Anything at all to make things better?
And can we at least take a moment
To think about it,
Before dismissing the idea,
And being on our way?

Poetry Book Sidewalk Stories Published

I am busy at work on the revisions to my stage play Beyond the Glass (see previous post), but I wanted to share some good news.

I’m excited to announce that my full-length poetry book Sidewalk Stories, a collection of free-verse narrative and philosophical poems, has been published by Kelsay Books, an indie publisher based in California.

Cover art by Donatas1205 (via Shutterstock)

Some of the story poems are autobiographical; other works are fictional, including some that imagine the inner life of animals. The reflective poems explore the universal themes of gratitude, romance, self-esteem, family, illness, advancing age and death.

Here are the blurbs from the back of the book:

What poet and songwriter Rob McKuen created during the turbulent late ’60s and ’70s in San Francisco with his book Stanyan Street and Other Sorrows, Francis DiClemente has accomplished in Sidewalk Stories. With the backdrop of the gritty streets of Syracuse, New York, DiClemente manages to create a poetic canvas and find beauty in the midst of the harsh realities of life in upstate New York.

—Joanne Storkan, screenwriter and film producer (Honest Engine Films)

Sidewalk Stories is an inspired collection of meditations and personal vignettes, vividly capturing the range of human experience. Francis DiClemente channels his inner Charles Bukowski to present an unflinching look at youth and encroaching middle age. Amidst unprepossessing urban decay, we meet a cast of characters whose stories of regret and missed opportunity are probably as much DiClemente’s as they are their own. That some of them manage to remain sanguine about the future—and their mortality—is part of DiClemente’s charm as a storyteller. These poems leap off the page and onto the sidewalks of our imagination.

—Rob Enslin, author/journalist

In Sidewalk Stories, poet Francis DiClemente invites us to be his companion on an intimate journey. We walk with him on gritty sidewalks, observe through his eyes the plight and the beauty of the beings with whom we share the world. An old woman, a blind man, a little girl twirling, even a rabbit and an overturned turtle are viewed with deep compassion. Here is a poet who doesn’t just look; he sees. And his vision is no less unflinching when he brings us with him into his own life.

But don’t worry. Though many of DiClemente’s poems are infused with a sense of loneliness, they also convey a stronger sense of courage and endurance. And watch for the irrepressible whimsy and humor as, for example, a cowboy lassos a star, and when the poet rants about the tyranny of poetry. With each poem in this collection, DiClemente will take you deep inside a thoughtful man, and then, deeper inside yourself.

—Kathleen Kramer, playwright and poet; author of the poetry collections Boiled Potato Blues and Planting Wild Grapes

And here are a few excerpts from the collection:

Stooped

An old woman hunched over,
looking down at the sidewalk,
adjusting her knit hat.
She limps forward,
shuffling along,
riddled with pain.
Her face reveals
the hurt she endures.
She receives no aid,
no intercession
from human or heaven.
I pass her on the sidewalk,
and I say a quick prayer
that her suffering wanes.
It may not do any good,
but I send the thought aloft
and hope someone is listening.
The woman crosses the street
and fades out of sight.
I then hear an inner voice say,
“You were there,
you could have helped her.”

Hard Shell

What goes through the mind of a turtle
When it’s sprawled on its back and can’t roll over?
Does it panic as its legs squirm in the air?
Does it stick out its tongue and try to scream for help?
Does it curse its maker as it writhes on the asphalt,
With the sun scorching its belly?
How long does it wait before giving up and accepting fate?

No. This turtle does not think.
It lacks the capacity to reason.
Instincts fire as it battles to survive:
“Get off your shell. Roll over. On your feet.”
It rocks from side to side as it labors to turn over.
It strains, twists, and kicks … but fails.

And no one will intervene—
There’s no Tom Sawyer kid with a hickory stick,
Skipping along and flipping the turtle over.
No semi truck rumbles down the road,
Stirring up a blast of air and setting the turtle upright.

It struggles alone, refusing to quit
As it attempts to conquer physics.
The turtle keeps working
Until the sun desiccates its flesh,
And it releases a final breath—
A low croak that goes unheard along the deserted road.
The turtle is gone and no one witnessed the fight.

Ode to Thomas Wolfe

A pebble, a brook, a passageway
to time flowing in reverse,
a mirrored labyrinth reflecting
memories of adolescence.
A path leading back
to the days of my youth,
from whence I came,
to where I am,
brimming with a hunger—
a gnawing restlessness
that never wanes.

Landscape

Beauty abounds.
Just look around
and you will see—
a quivering leaf,
a patch of grass,
billowing clouds,
and a slash of light
beneath the bridge.
It’s not a bad world, really—
we just need
to train our eyes
to gaze with wonder,
and marvel at the
transcendental pageantry.
It’s there before you.
But you must zoom out,
zoom out
and refocus the image.
There. Hold it.
Do you see it now?

Rise

To find peace
One must
Unravel the self,
Let it fall away,
Drop to the floor.
Unencumbered by
This anchor weight,
The man or woman
Who pursues
Spiritual freedom
Discovers the
Ability to soar.

The book is available in print only and sold on Amazon.

Beyond the Glass Premieres in Las Vegas

My full-length stage play Beyond the Glass, inspired by the Edward Hopper painting Nighthawks, premiered last weekend at the Las Vegas Little Theatre. As the winner of its ninth annual New Works Competition, the LVLT has produced the play in the theater’s black box space.

Images by Courtney Sheets and the Las Vegas Little Theatre.

The show closes on May 14, and I am going out to Las Vegas this weekend to see it. Prior to the production, the play had staged readings in Toronto and Chicago. Here is the synopsis for the work:

In Beyond the Glass, one of the diner’s customers, Ray, wrestles with an existence he abhors but cannot alter. Ray feels trapped inside the urban coffee shop, but he cannot leave, since there is no door. The character Ed then reveals that he once lived on the outside as the artist Edward Hopper and had painted the diner scene. Ray plots to escape, but his plans are thwarted by the restrictions of the space and the realization that he is a figure locked in a painting.

Images by Courtney Sheets and the Las Vegas Little Theatre.

As excited as I am about having my first play produced—with real sets, real costumes, and real actors speaking the words I wrote on the page—my greatest joy is that I finished the piece. The project proved to me the importance of persistence when it comes to the creative process.

Images by Courtney Sheets and the Las Vegas Little Theatre.

I started writing the play in the mid-1990s, but I struggled with the plot. None of the versions I wrote worked because I tried to make it so Ray could leave the diner. I thought about what would happen to him in the outside world, where he would go, how he would survive, etc. He ended up coming out of the painting and “falling” onto the floor in one of the gallery spaces at the Art Institute of Chicago. Security guards chased him and then he roamed the streets of the city, hiding out while the investigation into his disappearance from the painting continued. I even questioned whether his painted surface would wash away if it became exposed to rain. The whole idea seemed artificial and forced to me; I became blocked, and then I gave up and decided to shelve the script around 2006.

Images by Courtney Sheets and the Las Vegas Little Theatre.

But a couple of years ago, a question tickled my brain: What would happen if Ray could never leave the diner, if he found out he would remain stuck inside for all of eternity? How would he react? What would he do? That was my breakthrough, and the drama of the play laid itself out for me in a simple and direct fashion. I’m not sure if the story works in its current form, but I’ll be observing the play with the intention of revising the script after I return from Las Vegas.

Gender Uncertainty

It’s been awhile since I’ve had a chance to blog, as I’ve been working on my long-term nonfiction project. But I wanted to share an interaction I had with someone recently. It sprang out of a recent visit to the grocery store:

The young cashier in the checkout line at Price Chopper scans my Chobani yogurt cups, Clif bars, single packs of tuna fish, produce, and other items. As the products move down the conveyer belt and the scanner beeps continuously, I study the physical features of the cashier, noticing that the person seems to straddle the line between male and female.

The cashier’s name tag begins with the letter T., and an older woman with blond hair and glasses stands next to him, training him. The young cashier wears earrings and a red polo shirt with a Price Chopper patch over his chest, and his distinguishing characteristics are large breast tissue, short, spiky black hair with bristly sideburns, and a soft, pink face with stubble on the cheeks and upper lip.

As I watch T. work, I keep wondering: Is he a woman transitioning to man, a man transitioning to a female, or a teenager with a hormonal imbalance or another endocrine condition?

If I had to guess I would say the person is a woman transitioning to a male, but uncertainty remains.

It seems obvious, whatever the case, that he/she wants to escape his or her present state of being. In this age of heightened awareness about the LGBT community, with new pronouns used to describe human beings, I don’t know the proper way to refer to the young person who stands across from me.

Yet I recognize the person’s humanity, no matter which way he or she leans.

And I feel sympathy for this individual. I hope he/she does not get ridiculed or feel shame about his/her gender dysphoria. I hope the person has a significant other to share life’s burdens with, someone to lean on while the transitioning completes.

I am empathetic because of my own experience with gender neutrality, during my college years in the late 1980s and early ’90s when the same uncertainty followed me, as my high-pitched voice, epicene features, and body lacking sufficient testosterone made people question whether I was a he or a she, a man or a woman. During this period self-hatred simmered inside me when people would make the mistake of calling me “mam.”

Later that night, when I pull into my apartment parking lot, accompanied by my wife, Pam, and our one-year-old son, Colin, I ask Pam if she has any thoughts about the clerk, if she thinks he’s a guy or a girl.

She says the person’s appearance is intentional, that he’s created a certain look because he’s gay. But she is still not certain about the gender. However, while we get out of the car, she says, “He was very good—very good customer service.” I guess that’s true. And I realize we can’t alter our looks, but our behavior and our job performance are gender neutral and within our ability to control.

And what I’ve learned from my nearly 50 years on this earth is that you have to deal with each individual at face value, person to person, and let all the identifying characteristics—age, gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation—fall away. I try to approach each person as a blank slate, a vessel for the spirit inside.

And not to pull God into this blog, but as a Christian, I strive (but often fail) to view each person through the eyes of Christ—looking at him or her with compassion and love—seeing everything disappear except the beauty and the value of the person’s humanity.

And I’m thankful for this divine lesson reinforced to me in a grocery store checkout aisle.

Book Selection

Have you ever gone into a store with the intention of buying one thing but end up selecting another? You want a black belt, but you decide the brown leather one looks and feels better encircling your waist? Or you crave pancakes, but when the waitress comes around, you order a Denver omelet with home fries and wheat toast?

This happens to me frequently when I go to the library in search of a particular book. I write down the call number and head off in the direction of its location. But when I roam through the rows of the repository, my attention gets diverted, I discover a different book, and I choose that one instead.

Here’s an example. On a recent Sunday afternoon I climbed the steps of Carnegie Library at Syracuse University, walked through the grand Reading Room, filled with students studying, and went into the upper level stacks in search of a nonfiction book, The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression by Andrew Solomon (with a call number in the range of RC537).

I had scribbled the call number on a scrap of paper, and perhaps serendipity led me in a different direction because I went to the wrong row, as I had transposed the call number in my head. I started scanning the shelves in the area of RC357, and there, amid a plethora of books about amnesia and other medical problems, a title jumped out at me and seized my attention. Its name: Be Glad You’re Neurotic.

Be Glad You’re Neurotic by Louis E. Bisch, M.D., Ph.D.

Be Glad You’re Neurotic by Louis E. Bisch, M.D., Ph.D.

“Wow, was this battered blue and gray hardcover placed in this exact spot just for my eyes?” I wondered. “Am I the intended audience?”

I grabbed it and flipped through the book, and my cursory glance indicated it offered some self-help advice, which, with all of my odd predilections, proclivities, and obsessive-compulsive tendencies, I am willing to accept.

Be Glad You’re Neurotic was written by Louis E. Bisch, M.D., Ph.D., and published in 1936 by Whittlesey House, a division of the McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc. Its earliest library check-out date was January 6, 1965; and the last stamp is dated October 7, 1997.

I’m hoping the book will do me some good. A sentence in the preface reads, “Neurotic states are more common than the common cold.”

And some of the chapter headings inspire me and make me feel better about myself. Chapter I: I’m a Neurotic Myself and Delighted. Chapter II: To Be Normal Is Nothing to Brag About. And Chapter IV: Your Neurotic Development Was Inevitable.

I haven’t read any further yet, and that’s because I have a stack of books I am still waiting to tackle; currently I have five books checked out from the library, while also reading two others via Kindle.

Books waiting to be read.

Books waiting to be read.

And this experience at the library made me realize two things. One—how sad it is that I’ll never have the time to read all of the books I want to. Many titles on my “to-read” list will remain unread. I consider it a metaphor for how there are certain things in life you’ll never achieve or get to do. My dream trip to Ireland and Italy—well, keep dreaming.

The second revelation is that I’m fed up with always seeking out the next book instead of thoroughly enjoying the one I’m currently reading. As a voracious reader, this book lust is a real problem for me. All it takes is a New York Times review or an interview with an author on Fresh Air with Terry Gross to set me off in search of the title in question. My Amazon “wish list” has hundreds of books sitting in the queue.

So after I plow through the pile of books sitting on top of my bedroom dresser, I will try to limit myself to reading only one novel and one nonfiction book at a time—a two-book limit. But I am not sure if I will be successful. I don’t know if I can stop myself from going to the library before I finish reading them both. And I still need to check out a copy of The Noonday Demon.

Farewell My Beloved Peacoat

My worn and tattered peacoat has finally been retired after more than eight years of service in the harsh winters of Central New York. The Joseph Abboud garment—purchased online for about $80 from JCPenney or Target—now rests at the bottom of an outdoor clothing donation box. With my wardrobe dominated by old jeans and khakis and dark sweaters purchased at thrift stores, the peacoat had given me a modicum of style, a hint of fashion. It was the only decent item in my closet.

My peacoat, ready to be retired.

I had planned to wear the peacoat the rest of the winter, hoping to make it last until Easter. I had been wearing a waterproof raincoat over the peacoat in an effort to protect the peacoat’s battered exterior. It was a laborious process to put on my hoodie, put on my peacoat, and then slip on the raincoat. It seemed like a waste of time for me to go to the gym every day during my lunch hour. I thought I could get just as good a workout if I stayed inside and did ten repetitions of putting on my boots, winter hat, and my three layers of coats.

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But a friend gave me a gift—a brand new, thigh-length winter coat—so it didn’t make much sense to keep using the peacoat. But that didn’t make saying goodbye an easier; even though the peacoat’s pockets and lining were ripped and the buttons ready to fall off at any moment, it still felt good wrapped around my shoulders.

The heavyweight wool fabric provided density and comfort against the cold, and I loved the classic American look that signaled masculinity. In fact, whenever I adjusted the collar, I fantasized that I was James Dean or Jack Kerouac roaming through the back alleys of Manhattan in the 1950s.

Photo credit: Dennis Stock/Magnum

Photo credit: Dennis Stock/Magnum

Perhaps I should not have gotten so attached to a coat, an inanimate object. But I reminisce about what I experienced while wearing the coat. I wore the coat while working in New York City. I wore the coat while taking a trip westbound aboard Amtrak’s Lake Shore Limited, en route to Toledo, Ohio, to visit my sister. I wore the coat when I visited my parents in Rome, New York, at Christmas in the years before my mother passed away. And I wore the coat while going on numerous walks with my wife, Pam, and my infant son, Colin.

Of course I know a coat is just a coat, nothing more. But I am sentimental because this one helped me to endure the upstate New York winters, making the months between Thanksgiving and Easter a little more bearable.

Here’s a poem I wrote about the coat:

Change of Seasons (The Peacoat Poem)

The first day of October
and temperatures dip
into the low 40s.
A feeling of utter gloom
as I reach into the shadows
of the hall closet and retrieve
my worn, black peacoat.
And so begins another
six months of winter
in Central New York.

I should be used to it by now,
but I can’t reconcile with this weather.
And my peacoat will not return
to the closet until after Easter.
So until spring arrives,
I will continue to grumble
about the cold,
while making sure
to button up my coat
before I step outside
to face the elements.