Jack Friday, March 30th, 2012

Posted on: March 30th, 2012 by admin 11 Comments

I’m walking across the kitchen when I hear it on TV. The captain of a JetBlue airplane freaks out mid-flight, his co-pilot forces him out of the cockpit, and in the main cabin some passengers pin him to the floor as he yells, “Say your prayers! Say your prayers!”

Usually, I can walk by CNN without listening. But this day I’m imagining myself on the plane, and I’m angry at this captain, outraged by this freak who put a lot of lives in danger.

I’ve been on an airplane a couple times lately, on JetBlue, heading to Florida to visit my father, age 71. Nearly 50 years ago he was a student at Cornell Medical School in New York City when, like this pilot, he had a complete nervous breakdown. For a year he took up residence on a leafy campus in suburban Boston, a patient at the famous McLean Psychiatric Hospital. Schizophrenia was the diagnosis, and it devastated his parents and younger brother and sister.

Things would start to seem normal again, for a little while. In the late 60s he enrolled in a Master’s program in psychology at Boston College. He became a therapist, a marriage counselor, an administer of IQ tests, a psychologist who counseled people to quit smoking, overeating, drinking, and taking drugs. He met and married my mother, and they had my older brother. Everyone who ever knew him has told me he was bright, athletic, charming. But in the early 70s, when I was a toddler, he just completely disappeared.

I was 28 when I went to meet him for the first time in 2000. By then we knew he’d been living all those years in Florida. I got to know him a little over meals between his shifts as a fish cutter at Publix Supermarket and his night job working security at an embalming school. When I flew home I felt like I’d gained something. Not a father, exactly, but a kind of friend, one to whom I was related by blood.

But I never liked the way he’d rush me off the phone when I asked questions about him. I was disappointed the year he agreed to come to Boston for Christmas only to back out last minute, after we purchased the plane tickets. When my wife and I were thinking about starting a family I wanted to see his records at McLean. I wanted to know the genetics. I wrote him a letter. No response.

When he called me this past February it seemed he needed help. For the first time in 10 years I flew down to see him. My wife came too.

“If you want to have a relationship with your father,” my wife said after that week in Florida. “You better do it now.”

It wasn’t the missing front teeth. Or the fact that his place was like a kennel, where a Siberian Husky was never allowed outside, not even to relieve itself. More disturbing was the labored breath, the face that went bright brick red whenever he got up and moved. It’s the way he picked up his worn black sneakers soon as he set them down, like he was walking on broken glass.

Today I sit in my office looking at his picture. We don’t really look alike. But sometimes he reminds me of my brother, who died several years ago, and I cannot help but love him for that. And I can see how naked he is right now, like anyone who shows up broken in this world, like anyone who shows up as a freak in our society. I hope the family of the JetBlue captain can accept that life might never be the same. I want to tell them to hang in there, just as I’d like to hang in there, too. Because we all have to take care of our own.


Writing Notes, Seeing Spaz Thursday, October 13th, 2011

Posted on: October 13th, 2011 by admin 4 Comments

Sometimes in writing you can turn up some blind spots. I’m thinking of the kind of writing you do in essays and in notebooks and journals. By blind spots I mean the things we repeat in life over and over either because we don’t realize them or don’t want to. Writing about yourself won’t make you a better person (see The Journals of John Cheever), but determination on top of self-awareness — that can help.

I’m thinking about this because I’m meeting my new writing students tonight. Through our local adult ed. program I’m teaching a class called “Creative Non-fiction.” It could also be called “Writing Personal Essays” or “Memoir Writing.” It’s all storytelling and in storytelling there’s always conflict. In this kind of storytelling the conflict often comes right from the writer. I’ve been in workshops like this before. You could also call them, “Getting Personal.”

But I’ve never been the instructor. Actually, I’ve never taught anything before. So I’m thinking about all this on this rainy morning in Newburyport.

I’ve been thinking about it for a while, actually. Last Thursday night, I was so amped to get this class started I showed up at the high school a full week too soon.

So there I was, a spaz. Not the first time, not the last. I could’ve brushed this awkward moment right out the car window on my way home that night. Forgotten it all together. Who would’ve known? Except that I wanted to write about it in the morning, and in the morning I thought it was funny.

And, writing about it, I knew there was no reason to be nervous. Sure, I’ve never done any teaching before. But these students have chosen to be with me, to talk about something we all want to do well — and that’s something we have in common. And so here we go.

* image by Drew Coffman (Creative Commons)


Zaftig Hippy Girl Friday, September 23rd, 2011

Posted on: September 23rd, 2011 by admin 1 Comment


I saw the word zaftig in a book this week and had to look it up.

Zaftig adj. 1. Full-bosomed. 2. Having a full, shapely figure.

It helps to remember a new word if you use it in a sentence, right?

Being a slow learner, I get to use it twice here, in this memory of my summer:

In Girdwood, Alaska, the stand-up bass player is closing his eyes. Flanked by two band mates with acoustic guitars, he’s thrumming a solo. A few people have actually found a way to dance to it. One, a woman with a blue flowery headband in her dirty blond hair, is sort of a siren in this small crowd, dancing in a maroon halter that cuts away at her hips. But past her, through an opening of people, a zaftig hippy girl moves a hula hoop in a rhythm that could raise a cobra from a basket.

You know it’s a good festival when the adults get to blur the lines. A man has gotten his face painted. Some women are shaking hulas. A couple women in their 70s — they might’ve taken a tour bus here — are waltzing around with some young dirt merchants, hand-in-cookie-jar looks on their faces.

If there’s an advanced class for hula hooping, the zaftig hippy girl can teach it. A little later, we linger for a moment, watching her, the hips orbiting widely, metronomically. Then she eases the hoop on a slow climb up her body, and worms her back and neck into an arch. On one tattooed arm the hula goes overhead, a wobbly pizza dough aloft, mirroring the warped-record motion of her hips. She sees us — and me there, not part of the crunchy groove tribe at all, but an interloper with a camera and a Fred Perry jacket (or a Steve Perry jacket, as my wife calls it) — and she just closes her eyes again. You see someone without inhibition and you want to applaud, especially when you watch a smile spread across her face.

Zaftig, now I think the word is mine.


Rebirth Friday, September 9th, 2011

Posted on: September 9th, 2011 by admin 132 Comments

Some documentaries go like this: a person is interviewed and, over a span of years, they’re interviewed again and again. You see the person change: their attitude, outlook, and circumstances. If you watch long enough you see the impact of decisions they’ve made. You watch them age.

It’s intimate.

It’s why, years ago, I watched all of Michael Apted’s ground-breaking Up series. I felt a kinship with his subjects and I only wish I could watch them all grow old again, for the first time.

A couple weeks ago, I read about Rebirth, a new documentary that uses the same follow-up approach. It’s based on interviews with five people whose lives were shattered on 9/11. There’s a woman who lost her fiancé, a boy who lost his mother, a man who lost his brother, another one who lost a friend, and a woman who was severely burned.

The interviews took place every year, usually on the anniversary of 9/11.

Last week in Boston I saw a public screening of Rebirth. There is no narration, and for an hour and forty minutes I was engrossed, listening to the subjects talk about the last 10 years. For stretches I forgot that this film had anything to do with 9/11. It made me think of what comes after loss, and it shows, five times over, the power of recovery.

Rebirth premiers on Showtime on Sunday, September 11, at 9 p.m. EST and will be available On Demand.


Who Is Ned Overend? Friday, September 2nd, 2011

Posted on: September 2nd, 2011 by admin 4 Comments

I try to look for opportunities in my writing assignments. Often, it’s a matter of creating them. Writing about Mt. Washington for a resort magazine last week, it struck me that I could call Ned Overend.

Who is Ned Overend?

He’s an athlete who has intrigued me for a long time. In magazines he’s often described as a mountain biking legend. In the last couple of weeks I have been furthering his legend — as a cyclist — bringing him up with all friends who ride.

He’s the guy who won the Mt. Washington Hillclimb a couple weeks ago — on his 56th-fricken-birthday.

“I get that question all the time,” he says, on the phone in Colorado. “I’m not sure why I can perform this well at 56.”

His job situation is unique though, he says. His work for Specialized, developing and marketing products, gives him time to train and to focus on racing. Also, he doesn’t mind the suffering that comes with intense training.

That’s no surprise given that, in the outdoor sports universe, he’s achieved force-of-nature status.

It is interesting, though, that he emphasizes prudence. As you get older, your body can’t recover as fast. Going without rest, he says, only invites injury.

“I don’t over-train,” says Overend, whose father actually died of a heart attack at age 56. “I’m constantly reading coaching information. You know — working on core, working on nutrition, working on cross-training, trying to increase my strength, and [trying] not [to] get injured from the amount of intense training I’m doing.”

It isn’t the first time I’ve heard this information. And, as I ice the plantar fasciitis in my left foot — a common overuse injury — it seems I can’t hear it enough.

* Photos by Dennis Coughlin