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.

img_0072b

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.

Thomas Wolfe: You Can’t Go Home Again

I recently finished reading Thomas Wolfe’s paperweight of a book You Can’t Go Home Again.

The autobiographical novel, published in 1940, two years after Wolfe’s death in 1938, gets bogged down with scenes that could have been edited out with no loss of narrative structure.

Photo by Carl Van Vechten; the Carl Van Vechten Photographs Collection at the Library of Congress

Photo of Thomas Wolfe by Carl Van Vechten; the Carl Van Vechten Photographs Collection at the Library of Congress

However, I enjoyed embarking on a journey of self-discovery with the protagonist, a lonely young writer named George Webber, who pens a famous novel about his hometown, Libya Hill (a fictional setting that could be considered a stand-in for Wolfe’s native Asheville, North Carolina), and then is reviled by his friends and neighbors because the book uncovers the dark secrets of the town.

And although I found myself skipping over sections of the book—descriptions and digressions that slowed down the story—Wolfe’s lyrical voice and ability to construct stunning passages of prose can make a reader stop skimming pages and pay attention to each sentence.

Here are some beautiful paragraphs where Wolfe seemed to capture some central truths about life and humanity.

“So, then, to every man his chance—to every man, regardless of his birth, his shining, golden opportunity—to every man the right to live, to work, to be himself, and to become whatever thing his manhood and his vision can combine to make him—this, seeker, is the promise of America.”

Thomas Wolfe Memorial Angel, Asheville, NC (Photo by Francis DiClemente)

Thomas Wolfe Memorial Angel, Asheville, NC (Photo by Francis DiClemente)

“For four years George Webber lived and wrote in Brooklyn, and during all this time his life was about as solitary as any that a modern man can know. Loneliness, far from being a rare and curious circumstance, is and always has been the central and inevitable experience of every man. Not only has this been true of the greatest poets, as evidenced by the huge unhappiness of their published grief, but now it seemed to George to apply with equal force to all the nameless ciphers who swarmed about him in the streets.”

Thomas Wolfe Memorial Angel Quote (Photo by Francis DiClemente)

Thomas Wolfe Memorial Angel Quote (Photo by Francis DiClemente)

“All things belonging to the earth will never change—the leaf, the blade, the flower, the wind that cries and sleeps and wakes again, the trees whose stiff arms clash and tremble in the dark, and the dust of lovers long since buried in the earth … they go back into the earth that lasts forever. Only the earth endures, but it endures forever.”

Thomas Wolfe's mother's boardinghouse in Asheville, NC. It's now called the Thomas Wolfe Memorial (Photo by Francis DiClemente)

Thomas Wolfe’s mother’s boardinghouse in Asheville, NC. It’s now called the Thomas Wolfe Memorial. (Photo by Francis DiClemente)

“You can’t go back home to your family, back home to your childhood, back home to romantic love, back home to a young man’s dreams of glory and of fame … back home to the father you have lost and have been looking for, back home to someone who can help you, save you, ease the burden for you, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time—back home to the escapes of Time and Memory.”

Wolfe, Thomas. You Can’t Go Home Again. New York: Scribner (A Division of Simon and Schuster, Inc.), 2011 (first published in 1940). Print.

Metal on the Side of the Road: A Photo Essay

I just wanted to share a link to a photo essay I have published in PRIVATE, an online photography magazine. The piece is entitled Metal on the Side of the Road.

And here are two additional photos from the project that were not included in the essay.

Metal debris on the side of the road in Otsego County, New York. Photos by Francis DiClemente

Metal debris on the side of the road in Otsego County, New York. Photos by Francis DiClemente.

 

Remembering My Father On His Birthday

Today marks the birthday of my late father, Francis DiClemente Sr., who passed away from lung cancer at the age of 64 in August of 2007. He was a quiet man who led a solitary life.

My late father, Francis DiClemente Sr.

My late father, Francis DiClemente Sr. Photo by Francis DiClemente.

He put in 32 years at the Sears Roebuck store in Rome, New York, before the company decided to close it in the early 1990s. He rose to the ranks of a sales manager after starting his employment in his late teens, and he served in all departments: electronics, home improvement, heating and cooling, paints and even the automotive center.

The Sears store in Rome in 1993. Photo by John Clifford/Daily Sentinel.

The Sears store in Rome in 1993. Photo by John Clifford/Daily Sentinel.

One of my childhood thrills was visiting him at the store after school, as we would descend a flight of stairs into a warehouse in the basement—filled with washers and dryers, lawnmowers, rolls of carpet and other merchandise. We would go into the break room, and he would buy me a soda from the glass vending machine—usually Nehi grape, root beer or Dr. Pepper—and then pour a cup of coffee for himself. We’d sit and talk at a little round table covered with the latest edition of the Utica Observer-Dispatch or the Rome Daily Sentinel newspaper.

Things I recall about him:

His lupine face with dark, searching eyes, bushy eyebrows and thick, black hair.

Being a devoted player of the New York Lottery. He scored some jackpots on occasion, including one that totaled more than a thousand dollars. But the scant prizes could never make up for what he spent on a daily basis.

After he died, I went through his room to clean out things, and I discovered innumerable losing lottery tickets stuffed inside one of his dresser drawers. I couldn’t understand why he would save tickets that held zero value. Was he trying to run the numbers through some elaborate mathematical system in order to calculate a winning combination, some key to unlock the mystery of how to beat the odds?

Being a habitual gambler with a penchant for playing football parlays. But his real joy came from betting the horses at the local OTB, sharing camaraderie with other men infected with the same urges, all of them standing around scribbling in the margins of the Daily Racing Form.

After the Sears store closed, he took a low-paying sales job at a carpet store. He complained about the crumbling upstate New York economy and grumbled about his bad luck, repeating the phrase, “I can never catch a break.” Even so, he endured his situation and became a valued employee at the store—one who was highly regarded for treating customers well and giving them deals whenever he could.

When he was diagnosed with cancer, the doctor told him he could try chemotherapy, but it would only give him a slim chance of living slightly longer. He decided against the treatment, noting, “What’s the point?” And so in February of 2007, he stoically accepted his fate, knowing he had only about six to nine months left to live.

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

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

I had recently relocated to central New York from Arizona, and I was fortunate enough to spend a lot of time with him before he passed.

He lived with his mother, my grandmother Amelia, a stooped, red-haired woman who had coddled my father from the early days of his youth. He clung to her as the anchor of his life, which contributed to the demise of my parents’ marriage and also affected our relationship.

My late grandmother, Amelia DiClemente.

My late grandmother, Amelia DiClemente. Photo by Francis DiClemente.

I don’t fault my grandmother because I don’t think she could have helped herself when it came to trying to protect my dad. He had been born with a hole in his heart, and the life-threatening condition worsened as he grew. He was a short, frail and underweight boy who was mocked by other kids about his size, labeled as a “shrimp.”

In the late 1950s, my grandparents took my father to Minneapolis, where pioneering heart surgeon C. Walton Lillehei repaired the ventricular septal defect in a seven-and-a-half-hour operation at the University of Minnesota Heart Hospital.

Renowned heart surgeon C. Walton Lillehei. Photo credit: University of Minnesota.

Renowned heart surgeon C. Walton Lillehei. Photo credit: University of Minnesota.

And Dad was proud to have been among the first batch of patients to survive open-heart surgery in the U.S. Whenever he told the story to someone, he would lift up his shirt and show off the long scar snaking down the middle of his chest.

As the months passed in the spring and early summer of 2007, he became weaker and weaker as the cancer ate away at his body, leaving him looking like a shriveled scarecrow.

He had always eschewed desserts and when offered them, would say, “No. I hate sweets.” But as his time on earth elapsed, he went all out when it came to food—eating Klondike bars, Little Debbie snacks, Hostess cupcakes and other junk food. His philosophy was “Why not?”

Although he had Medicaid, Dad left behind a staggering amount of unpaid medical bills. But what troubles me more, what I have been unable to reconcile, is how he ran up thousands of dollars in debt in the last few months of his life, the largest chunk coming from ATM cash withdrawals using my grandmother’s credit card.

I was never able to pin down how he spent the money. He made no large purchases of electronics or home furnishings. I assumed he used the money to gamble; but in some way I wish he had supported a mistress or a family he never told us about, or that he gave away the cash to charities. Instead, I am only left with unanswerable questions. I helped him to file for bankruptcy, but in an ironic turn to the story, he died before a decision was reached in the case.

Dad, side angle.

Dad, side angle. Photo by Francis DiClemente.

I remember a funny conversation I had with him one afternoon while we sat in the living room of my grandmother’s small ranch house in north Rome. Sunlight poured through a large bay window, past the partially opened silk curtains. Outside I could see a clear sky and trees burgeoning with leaves—a bright, saturated landscape of blue and green.

I sat in a corner of the room and he sat in a forest-green recliner covered with worn upholstery.

“What’s the name of the angel of death?” he asked me.

I was surprised by the question, and I said, “I think he’s just called the angel of death.”

“No, he has another name,” he said.

And after a few seconds it came to me. “The Grim Reaper.”

“That’s right, that’s it,” he said.

“Why do you want to know?” I asked. “Did you see him in a dream or something?

“No, but I want to know his name when he comes.”

I could go on and on about my dad, but that’s the strongest memory I have of him in his waning days.

Dad in the kitchen. Photo by Francis DiClemente.

Dad in the kitchen. Photo by Francis DiClemente.

And I don’t normally use this space to write about my family, but I felt compelled to pay tribute to a man who left no significant contribution to humanity (as judged by the world’s standards)—he never earned prestigious academic honors, never published a book, never ran a company or made enough money in his lifetime to buy a retirement home in Florida.

Instead, he toiled away in obscurity and mediocrity as a working-class person. My sister and I received no inheritance, save a small insurance policy that paid out after his death. And his shy, aloof nature created a buffer with other people, a barrier to forming deep relationships (except with a few close friends).

Fabric of my Father, a collage I made comprised of objects from his life. Photo by Francis DiClemente.

Fabric of my Father, a collage I made comprised of objects from his life. Photo by Francis DiClemente.

Yet in reviewing his life, I know his kindness, work ethic and willingness to help others set an example for me that I have tried to uphold. And the debts he accrued do not cancel out those qualities.

The one word I keep coming back to is decency. My father was a good and decent man. That may not be cause for celebration in our society. But it’s enough to fill me with pride, and I hope to carry on his values as I carry on his name.

Anniversary Day

Gratitude fills me on this day, Dec. 12, as I recall an important moment from my life.

Thirty-two years ago this morning, on Dec. 12, 1984, surgeons at SUNY Upstate Medical Center in Syracuse (now named Upstate University Hospital) pried open my skull and pulled out a large tumor that had swallowed my pituitary gland, stunting my growth and delaying my maturation during my teenage years.

Upstate University Hospital (Photo by Francis DiClemente)

Upstate University Hospital (Photo by Francis DiClemente)

Although it was benign, the position of the tumor, a craniopharyngioma located near the optic nerve, meant it could have caused a loss of vision if left untreated. But the surgeons plucked out most of the tumor in a successful eight-hour operation.

The damage to the pituitary gland left me with two lifelong diseases—panhypopituitarism (a deficiency of all of the hormones the pituitary gland produces) and central diabetes insipidus (a condition caused by a lack of the hormone vasopressin, producing the symptoms of excessive urination and extreme thirst).

Still, despite the need for heavy doses of prescription drugs and constant management and monitoring of my health, more than three decades later I am happy to report my last MRI showed I am tumor free. My vision remains intact, with the exception of reaching the age where I require progressive lenses and reading glasses.

Doctors had to perform two follow-up, through-the-nose surgeries, along with a round of Gamma Knife radiosurgery, in order to achieve the positive results. And I know the slow-growth tumor could make a return appearance a few years from now.

My medical ID necklace

My medical ID necklace

But for today I am free of its tentacles.

Today I am thankful for being alive, knowing things could have turned out differently. One error from a surgeon 32 years ago could have meant diminished mental capacity or motor function, or even worse, blindness. Any number of factors could have changed the outcome.

Instead I am nearly 50 now and married to a wonderful woman. And we have a beautiful young son, a nine-month-old tyrant named Colin Joe.

I believe the prayers my family hurled at heaven on Dec. 12, 1984, had something to do with helping me survive the delicate operation. On this feast day of Our Lady of Guadalupe, I can’t help thinking that the petitions my aunt, Sister Carmella DeCosty, made to the Blessed Mother that day were answered. And in this season of blessings and gratitude, I will take a moment to say my own prayer of thanksgiving.

Our Lady of Guadalupe

Our Lady of Guadalupe

Two Great Ladies of Verse

I finished reading two books recently by two female poets from the past. I had always wanted to read something by the 20th century writer Dorothy Parker, so I took out The Portable Dorothy Parker from the library. At the same time, I was reading Poems by Emily Dickinson, Three Series, Complete using the Kindle app on my iPad mini.

Parker, a member of the famed Algonquin Round Table, a group of writers who met at the Algonquin Hotel in New York City in the 1920s, was noted for her acerbic wit, cosmopolitan-themed short stories that rely on dialogue to carry the plot and poetry punctuated by both humor and pathos.

Dorothy Parker

Dorothy Parker

The Portable Dorothy Parker serves as a good introduction to the author’s work, as it contains a mix of poems, short stories, book reviews and theater criticism. The stories feel dated to the time period Parker lived, but two stories, Big Blonde and A Telephone Call, are worth checking out.

I also felt a pang of sadness when reading this line in Parker’s New York Times obituary: “Miss Parker left no survivors.” No human survivors—but she did leave behind a lot of written material to explore.

The Portable Dorothy Parker

The Portable Dorothy Parker

In both collections, Parker and Dickinson give us little gems in verse form focusing on weighty themes like life, death and love, along with observations on a myriad of other subjects.

These brief poems—gleaming verbal diamonds—carry an authentic voice and pack emotional truth, and both women knew how to play with language in such a way as to delight readers.

I picked through both volumes and selected some short poems worth sharing. They can be consumed in small bites, such as while riding public transportation or waiting in the grocery store checkout aisle.

From The Portable Dorothy Parker:

The Small Hours

No more my little song comes back;
And now of nights I lay
My head on down, to watch the black
And wait the unfailing gray.

Oh, sad are winter nights, and slow;
And sad’s a song that’s dumb;
And sad it is to lie and know
Another dawn will come.

Godspeed

Oh, seek, my love, your newer way;
I’ll not be left in sorrow.
So long as I have yesterday,
Go take your damned tomorrow!

The Thin Edge

With you, my heart is quiet here,
And all my thoughts are cool as rain.
I sit and let the shifting year
Go by before the windowpane,
And reach my hand to yours, my dear . . .
I wonder what it’s like in Spain.

Experience

Some men break your heart in two,
Some men fawn and flatter,
Some men never look at you;
And that cleans up the matter.

My Own

Then let them point my every tear,
And let them mock and moan;
Another week, another year,
And I’ll be with my own

Who slumber now by night and day
In fields of level brown;
Whose hearts within their breasts were clay
Before they laid them down.

Two-Volume Novel

The sun’s gone dim, and
The moon’s turned black;
For I loved him, and
He didn’t love back.

Rhyme Against Living

If wild my breast and sore my pride,
I bask in dreams of suicide;
If cool my heart and high my head,
I think, “How lucky are the dead!”

News Item

Men seldom make passes
At girls who wear glasses.

And lastly, the following is one of my all-time favorite poems (right up there with Paul Laurence Dunbar’s We Wear the Mask and Richard Cory by Edwin Arlington Robinson), and Parker’s piece could be considered a companion poem or a bookend to Langston Hughes’ Suicide’s Note.

Resumé

Razors pain you;
Rivers are damp;
Acids stain you;
And drugs cause cramp.
Guns aren’t lawful;
Nooses give;
Gas smells awful;
You might as well live.

Parker, Dorothy. The Portable Dorothy Parker (Revised and Enlarged Edition). New York: Penguin Books, 1976. Print.

Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson

And here are the selections from Poems by Emily Dickinson, Three Series, Complete:

The Mystery of Pain

Pain has an element of blank;
It cannot recollect
When it began, or if there were
A day when it was not.

It has no future but itself,
Its infinite realms contain
Its past, enlightened to perceive
New periods of pain.

With a Flower

I hide myself within my flower,
That wearing on your breast,
You, unsuspecting, wear me too—
And angels know the rest.

I hide myself within my flower,
That, fading from your vase,
You, unsuspecting, feel for me
Almost a loneliness.

I’m Nobody! Who are you?

I’m nobody! Who are you?
Are you nobody, too?
Then there’s a pair of us—don’t tell!
They’d banish us, you know.

How dreary to be somebody!
How public, like a frog
To tell your name the livelong day
To an admiring bog!

Simplicity

How happy is the little stone
That rambles in the road alone,
And doesn’t care about careers,
And exigencies never fears;
Whose coat of elemental brown
A passing universe put on;
And independent as the sun,
Associates or glows alone,
Fulfilling absolute decree
In casual simplicity.

A Word

A word is dead
When it is said,
Some say.
I say it just
Begins to live
That day.

The Inevitable

While I was fearing it, it came,
But came with less of fear,
Because that fearing it so long
Had almost made it dear.
There is a fitting a dismay,
A fitting a despair.
’Tis harder knowing it is due,
Than knowing it is here.
The trying on the utmost,
The morning it is new,
Is terribler than wearing it
A whole existence through.

Lost Faith

To lose one’s faith surpasses
The loss of an estate,
Because estates can be
Replenished, — faith cannot.

Inherited with life,
Belief but once can be;
Annihilate a single clause,
And Being’s beggary.

A Book

There is no frigate like a book
To take us lands away,
Nor any coursers like a page
Of prancing poetry.
This traverse may the poorest take
Without oppress of toll;
How frugal is the chariot
That bears a human soul!

Love

Love is anterior to life,
Posterior to death,
Initial of creation, and
The exponent of breath.

Dickinson, Emily. Poems by Emily Dickinson, Three Series, Complete. Kindle Edition.