Wednesday, December 30, 2020

2020 Hindsight


I didn’t expect a pandemic. Even if I had, I have always proudly believed that we are an exceptional country, and I didn’t expect America to fare so poorly.

My family and I coped well. Tasia works from home; her requirement to go into the office once a week fell by the wayside. I’m retired from my government career, so I don’t have to go out. Our pay, pension, annuity, and social security benefits appear in our bank account at regular intervals, like magic. We’re both introverts and found it easy to stay in with each other and our son, Shane.

Poor Shane finished his B.S. in Chemistry in the early spring, and actually got a lab job in the early days of the pandemic when millions of others were losing their work. Sadly, it didn’t last, and I feel sorry for him, a recent grad stuck in the house for months with his parents. I think he’s being considerate of us, and doesn’t go out much or take chances that might kill us, but what sort of life is that for a young single man?

Our daughter, Molly, lives near Austin, Texas, in a county that's done well with Corona. Her young man, Tex, proposed and they've set a date for 2021 at the Driscoll. I'm raising funds for a wedding.

I stopped going to the gym around March 15, and what little muscle I had has melted away. Today, I’m ten or eleven pounds lighter than I was this time in 2019. It’s not just the loss of muscle from not working out—I suffered a mild attack of pancreatitis in July, stopped drinking (again), and really lost weight then.

Though I’m shocked about the loss of muscle, I’m happy about losing weight—I look better, feel better, my pants fit better, and even my balance has improved. I’ve been out there running, about three miles a day, about five days a week. The weather has had its usual ups and downs, but it was good enough that a snowstorm the week before Christmas was the first time I missed two days in a row during the pandemic. This has been my most consistent streak in the last 30 years. (Been a runner since ’78.)    

We live in the ‘burbs, and I can roll out to run without a mask—early in the hot weather, around mid-day since November. After the first couple weeks I realized I didn’t need to pass within six feet of anyone. Traffic is light, and if other peds approach, it’s easy to cross the street.

I had a physical in August, a bad tooth pulled, a blood draw, and a skin-cancer checkup with my dermatologist in the fall. I’m frequently stiff. My lower back used to hurt occasionally. Now it hurts more regularly. But all in all, I feel well, just old.

I was 72 a couple days ago, just after Christmas.

I stopped going to my classes at Johns Hopkins for Old Farts (JHOF) around March 15. After closing a couple weeks, JHOF resumed via Zoom, and I finished the spring semester without much enthusiasm. I had no camera on my mojo box, so I had to borrow Tasia’s laptop. I acquired a webcam, and reluctantly returned to school for fall semester, but things picked up. Zoom classes were more enjoyable. In fact, with all the isolation, I think school was a good discipline. I needed to get upright and sit at the computer six to eight hours a week (I cut a few classes 😊).  

I was developing a short story, “The Purple Journal,” early in the year. I had shared a bad, early version with my writers’ critique group in 2019, and after getting their feedback, I felt I did a great job revising it. I’m up to 21 rejections now.

I finished a first draft of my third novel, The Fall of the Hotel Biarritz. It’s basically an action story, a little over the top, in the manner of “The Gutting of Coffignal,” “The Big Knockover,” or Cotton Comes to Harlem. I decided to see if it was good enough to get the support of an agent, and it did—I signed with the Lawrence Jordan Agency. Lawrence seemed to genuinely enjoy reading my draft and had some ideas for turning Biarritz into the start of a swell career for me. Having flopped around like a flounder in my approach so far, I welcome his help. I was hoping my swell career might be further along by now, but I don’t think Lawrence has pitched the book yet.

Somewhere in here, I fired my writers’ critique group. They were good, but, man, the pandemic doesn’t make things easy—especially social interaction.

Lawrence Jordan put the idea in my head to try my hand at a thriller. I thought of making a baby-steps transition from what I write now to thriller, and I wrote “Friends of Durruti,” a “men’s-action-adventure,” suitable for True or Argosy. Unfortunately True folded in 1974 and Argosy in '78. “Durruti” is a prequel of sorts, Frank Swiver’s first investigation, a risky venture which he undertook in 1937 at the front in the Spanish Civil War. It’s a bit of an espionage story and a historical fiction, in which Frank crosses paths with Soviet General Kléber and his NKVD commissar Alexandr Orlov.

“Friends of Durruti” is the first work I’ve tried to push out without benefit of review of a writers’ critique group. Working with such a group though is not merely a matter of accepting a bunch of suggested edits—it’s about learning how others perceive your work, and how to read, edit, and revise accordingly. I’ve tried to apply what I’ve learned in my groups the last eight years.

Three rejections for “Durruti” so far. Which means I haven’t had a sale this year.

We expected Molly and Tex up here in Md. for Christmas. Prior to Christmas, Molly tested negative; Tex tested positive. Like so many others, they didn't travel, and like so many, we spent a quiet Christmas without loved ones. But Molly and Tex (really Mike) are both all right now, thank goodness. We missed you, Molly and Mike.


I’ve read more than usual during the plague. I’m a slow reader, so even more than usual isn't a great deal. But this year I benefited from Audible and recorded books. Usually I get a paperback and read along with the recording, but not always. I finally read The Magus, by John Fowles, which I’ve struggled to finish for years. The Magus, and Blood on Snow, by Jo Nesbo, were so well-written and so well-read that I didn’t need to follow along. I listened on my walks. (Patti Smith read Blood on Snow in a lower-East-Side deadpan that was perfect.)

I read The Girl in the Green Raincoat, by Laura Lippman, The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey, The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest by William Shakespeare, a graphic novel version of The Great Gatsby, and The Case of the Careless Kitten by Erle Stanley Gardner. The Daughter of Time had no pace and went on for an epoch. The Shakespeare was disappointing, but Gatsby was great, and my introduction to Perry Mason was fun. My second reading of Cotton Comes to Harlem in early December was a bit of a revelation. Chester Himes was better than I remembered.

I read along with the Audible versions of Died in the Wool by Ngaio Marsh, The Safety Net by Andrea Camilleri, and The Snow Was Dirty by Georges Simenon. I could do a whole blog post about Dirty Snow, . . . and maybe I shall, in 2021.

Happy New Year! Here’s to better days ahead.

Friday, December 4, 2020

The Shrinkage of Anthony Bilge


Author’s note: Today’s post is not about writing. I just felt like telling this story that has been with me for 54 years . . .

I attended two schools that required students to pass the Red Cross Junior Life Saving Test to graduate. Yet here I am, not only a high school grad but also a Bachelor of Arts and a non-swimmer.

I’d say I slipped between some cracks at college. During freshman orientation, they gathered us all at the pool and told us to jump in, one-at-a-time, and they would assess our skills.

“I can’t swim,” I said to Coach Raymond. “If I jump in, you’ll have to haul me out.”

“Well, we don’t want to do that,” he said. “Just remember to sign up for a swimming class during the next two years.”

I made a note of it, but my follow-up was not so good. Still no one checked to see if I’d met the requirement when commencement came along. Those were perilous times. Four students at Kent State, 15 miles away from our campus, had just been killed four weeks earlier by the Ohio National Guard, and I don’t think anyone cared whether some long-haired freak like me could swim.

High school though, had been a different story. They kept track of things, and in the spring of my senior year, my gym period was in the pool.

Though my memory is foggy and I’ve been unable to verify this, I have a very strong recollection that the school closed the pool and “natatorium” to students of one gender when the opposite gender had swim class. The boys swam without suits. (It was supposed to be the same for the girls, but I don’t know.) Although this seems bizarre now, when I was seventeen and less experienced, it seemed perfectly normal. After all, the school doesn’t want to launder and pass out shared suits, and kids didn’t want to carry a used, wet swimsuit back to English class or stuff it in their lunch bags.

Apparently, some schools the custom was "clothed females, naked men."

Ours was a posh suburb, and our school had a successful swim team. The swimming coach was devoted to the team, but despised us non-swimming schlubs. Coach Barleycorn would toss us a water polo ball and say, “Get in the pool and have fun.” Then he’d retreat to his office, and to the bottle of gin he allegedly kept in his desk drawer, rather than helping us with our buoyancy

Now the school system and my suburb had been very white 12 years earlier when I started my education. The first black kid entered my elementary school when I was in sixth grade. Six years later when I was a senior, we were more diverse, but not much. I’d guess by 1966, the year of my graduation, Shaker Heights was less than five percent black. But of the 25 or 30 senior boys who couldn’t swim, it seemed at least half were black. Side note: I’d been showering with the guys after gym class since fifth grade, and these black fellows were among the first uncircumcised cocks I'd ever seen, the suburb at that time being about 70% Jewish.

I was a bit of an outsider at my school, a very blue-collar gentile amidst the upscale Jews, and I often felt the victim of bullying. I was terrified not only of the water, but of the other kids in the class, especially two black non-swimmers, Bass and Bilge. They were known (to kids like me) as poor students and troublemakers. Bass and Bilge sensed my awkwardness and were quick to tease and pick on me using our unsupervised class time to keep me uncomfortable. I did not learn to swim.

But due to the lack of interest shown by Coach Barleycorn, neither did anyone else. June rolled around and we were still shivering naked on the pool apron or splashing spastically in the shallow end for 45 minutes each week. Long about the end of May, it so happened that maintenance had started painting the ceiling of the natatorium, and there was a scaffold next to the high diving board at the deep end. Coach Barleycorn made an appearance with a class roster on a clipboard and a ten-foot pole. He said, “OK girls, climb up on that scaffold, walk out on the board, and jump into the pool. You'll be fine. I’ll be right here to fish you out with this pole, and I'll mark that you passed the Red Cross test.”

It could have been worse—they could have hung a rope from the scaffold and made us climb that, (rope-climbing had been my first major gym class trauma)—but at least there was a ladder to the top of the scaffold. I climbed the ladder. The connection between “scaffold” and “execution” was clear to me. I took a deep breath and sprang feet first into the air, eyes closed. I enjoyed the feeling of free-fall—my stomach flipped, like on a roller-coaster. I had some confidence that underwater, I would begin to rise, to bob up like a cork, and when my head broke the surface I breathed again and opened my eyes. Coach Barleycorn’s ten-foot pole was within easy reach.

There was nothing left to do. I was graduating. Academic finals were a cinch compared to this ordeal. So I relaxed and watched the others. The last was Anthony Bilge. He climbed up there on the 30-foot high scaffold and began to tremble. Details are lost on a near-sighted young boy who did not have his glasses in the pool, but I recall his taut hamstrings, and his slender glutes as he hunched over at the waist. Bilge was scared stiff. “Jump, Tony,” shouted his friend Bass.

He bent down and steadied himself on the scaffolding. “C’mon, kid. Jump,” yelled Coach Barleycorn. “I’ll pull you out.” Bilge clutched the diving board and started to cry. I could hear the sobs from thirty feet below. It was uncommon for a senior boy to cry openly in school from fear or terror. Bilge’s career as a bully was finished.   

I felt vindicated. There were things Bass and Bilge could do in gym that I couldn’t, but at least I didn’t stand naked on the diving board high above my peers, crying.

Bilge was not in my social circle. I never knew if he graduated, though I assume they accommodated him somehow. I didn’t care. He no longer could terrorize me.