Hair

I’m naturally hairy. My chest, back, arms, legs, and unmentionable areas of my body are thick with hair. And the hair on my head is longer now than it’s been in many years. That’s due to the lockdown. I haven’t been to a barber since February. I’m reminded of men’s hairstyles thirty or forty years ago when shoulder-length hair was the vogue. I’m looking like I did back then, except that these days my hair and beard are white.

I’m able to trim my mustache, beard, and sideburns. Granted, I’m not very good at it, and the results look sloppy. It doesn’t matter much, because when I go out, that part of me is covered with a mask. But I can do nothing with all that hair on my head. It festoons over my ears and the back of my neck like an out-of-control waterfall.

I wince when I look in the mirror and see what resembles a street bum with wild and wooly hair. I’m beckoned back to 1967 when the musical Hair was a hit. Here are the words of the song at its center:

She asks me why, I’m just a hairy guy
I’m hairy noon and night, hair that’s a fright
I’m hairy high and low, don’t ask me why, Don’t know
It’s not for lack of bread, like the Grateful Dead

Darlin’, give me a head with hair, long beautiful hair
Shining, gleaming, steaming, flaxen, waxen
Give me down to there hair, shoulder length or longer
Here, baby, there, momma, everywhere, daddy, daddy
Hair, hair, hair, hair, hair, hair, hair, hair
Flow it, show it, long as God can grow it, my hair

Let it fly in the breeze and get caught in the trees
Give a home to the fleas in my hair
A home for fleas, (yeah) a hive to bees, (yeah) a nest for birds
There ain’t no words for the beauty, the splendor, the wonder of my
Hair, hair, hair, hair, hair, hair, hair, hair

Coming to Terms (3)

The last story in the collection titled Coming to Terms is “Snow and Ashes.” It takes place in the same house that was the setting for my novel Secretocracy. The real house, where I lived during my penury, is on Holly Street, NW, in Washington, D.C.

The story is about a young man who is dying of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, ALS—Lou Gehrig’s disease. He inherited the house from his father and eventually leaves it to one of his renters, a man who is taking care of him and has earned his trust. The one proviso is that the new owner must continue to make rooms available to men in need.

I stopped writing short stories when novels became the dominant form in my output. But the stories often formed the basis for the longer works. So often a story idea first expressed briefly demands a fuller investigation. So often the foundation tale becomes the full structure.

Coming to Terms (2)

Many of the stories in Coming to Terms deal with disruption of families. They were written when my family was coming apart and reflect my despair.

One, called “Fuchsias,” tells of a man’s decision to leave his wife because it’s so obvious that she doesn’t care about him. That was my story. As related elsewhere in this blog, it was becoming blatantly obvious to me that my wife cared nothing for me. After the fall of Saigon, when I was at my lowest ebb, she refused to come to me and left me on my own. The fuchsias of the title refer to the favorite of my flowers in those days. When I was growing up in northern California, fuchsias were everywhere because the climate—never too hot—favored them. But the summer heat of Maryland meant I had to work hard to shelter my fuchsias. In my mind, they became the symbol of the marriage. At the end of the story, the man destroys the fuchsias he has worked so hard to nurture.

Another story, “Wolf Rock,” relates the camping trip of a father and his two adult sons. One son is doing the fine, the other is in trouble. The troubled son’s wife has left him and taken the children with her. He insists on being an artist (he’s a musician) even though he’s not making any money and they are deep in debt. Told from the point of view of the boy’s father, the story ends when the protagonist refuses to bail his son out financially yet again. It’s time for the boy to face his responsibilities.

“Christmas in Hong Kong” is about an old man, Ferdie, and his daughter, Mattie. Ferdie’s wife insists that he apologize for kicking the dog that bit his grandson. Ferdie comes to understand that his wife cares more about their standing in the neighborhood than she does about the welfare of the family or her grandchild. He proposes to Mattie that he take her to Hong Kong for Christmas, a fulfillment of one of her fantasies. His wife will not be invited to join them.

In reading these stories today, I am struck by how much they reflected the dilemmas I faced in my younger years. I’ve noted several times in this blog that my fiction is based on real events. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised to discover that these stories reflect my own life decisions.

Coming to Terms

My sixth and newest book, Coming to Terms, will be published this month by Adelaide Books of New York. It is, like all my fiction, based on real experiences of real people. The collection of ten stories is centered on the idea of finding a way to go on living despite the obstacles life throws in one’s path. The Foreword reads as follows:

Coming to Terms tells the stories of men and women confronted with pain as a consequence of love and hate, goodness and evil. Each finds a way to go on living, however imperfectly.

“All these tales come from my life, as a husband, father, soldier, and caregiver to the dying. Each major character is drawn from people I have known. My hope is that you and I, both, can learn from the choices these people have made.”

All the stories resulted, in one way or another, from my years in Vietnam. Some are set there, but others are drawn from the actions of people I knew during my Vietnam years, from my time taking care of patients during the AIDS crisis, or my seven years working with the dying in a hospice. I got into that work to help me cope with my insufferable memories of combat. I learned that when I was focused on someone in need, my unbearable memories faded into the background.

One of the stories, “Trip Wires,” was the basis of my later novel, Last of the Annamese. It tells the story of how Ben Griffith died in Vietnam. In the novel, Ben’s father, Chuck, a retired Marine officer, returns to Vietnam in 1974 to work in intelligence. He’s determined to help win the war so that his son’s death won’t have been in vain. When he learns that Ben didn’t die in combat but was murdered by another soldier, his purpose for being in Vietnam and, ultimately, for living through the fall of Saigon, is gone.

But the novel doesn’t tell the reader the circumstances of Ben’s death. Only the short story does.

More tomorrow.

Pause in Blog Posts

As regular readers may have noticed, I haven’t been posting to this blog every day during the past week. The reasons are several.

First, nothing is happening in my life. I am forced to spend all my time alone, away from friends and family, due to the pandemic lockdown. I go out once a week to buy groceries, wearing a mask and keeping six feet away from all other human beings.

All my presentations and readings and book promotion events have been postponed indefinitely. I’ve ordered a webcam so that I can hold gatherings virtually, but it’s delivery has been delayed by the lockdown.

Second, I have finally succeeded in getting myself going to work on one of the novels I had sketched out, Josh at the Door. The story is drawn from my relationship with my partner, Su, who died at the end of March. For three months, I have struggled to get words on paper amidst my grieving over her loss. Now at last the story is starting to flow. That’s taking up time that otherwise would have been spent on blog posts. Writing a novel is a fulltime job.

Third, I have a new novel out, titled Secretocracy, and I have been trying unsuccessfully to promote the book remotely. And this month, my new collection of short stories, called Coming to Terms, will be published. I’ll have to redouble my efforts.

But I’ve learned that a pandemic lockdown kills book sales. I would have expected that Secretocracy, with its focus on the Trump administration, would be selling better than any of my earlier books, particularly with new scandals breaking daily. I’ve heard nothing from the publisher, Adelaide Books. My assumption is that sales are all but dormant—although I learned yesterday that The Palette and the Page bookstore in Elkton did sell one copy of Secretocracy.

So I ask my readers to be patient with me. I’ll write new blog posts as often as I can.

“There It Is”

In my review of Mark Treanor’s  A Quiet Cadence (http://www.washingtonindependentreviewofbooks.com/bookreview/a-quiet-cadence-a-novel), I cited Treanor’s use of the sentence, “There it is.” Those of us on the battlefield in Vietnam used that sentence to express our despair over a meaningless war that we didn’t know how to win.

When I reviewed Treanor’s book, my unspeakable memories of grisly deaths on the battlefield came back in full force. Thanks to his explicit descriptions, I remembered with renewed vividness the men killed by my side in ways so brutal that for years I suppressed the memories until they emerged to haunt me in flashbacks, nightmares, panic attacks, irrational rages, and depression. Those reactions, I eventually learned, are all symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Injury (PTSI), the mental disorder that unbearable experience inflicts on the soul.

The men I was with were really boys. The average age of a troop on the battlefield was nineteen. I knew these guys in a way only possible when men fight side by side. I lived with them—slept beside them on the ground, sat in the dirt next to them eating C-rations, used their latrines, and went into combat by their side. When they were killed, what was left of them, often not much, was shoveled into a body bag to be shipped home for burial.

It was from these young men that I learned the sentence, “there it is.” It meant, that’s the way this war is, and there’s nothing we can do about it. We can’t change it. We have to live—or die—with it.

I spent thirteen years of my life in and out of Vietnam giving all I had to win the war. We lost. And I’m left with excruciating memories. There it is.

The Webcam

I’ve now been isolated for almost four months, thanks to the covid-19 pandemic. My long-time partner, Su, died at the end of March, and, of necessity, I have been grieving alone. I can’t spend time with my friends or children. I can’t do presentations and readings. I can’t attend meetings of the weekly Men’s Forum and the American Legion. I’m on my own.

At the invitation of friends, I did do one virtual offering of my fall of Saigon presentation, but I had no webcam, so all that viewers could see was the slides that I use. The results felt good to me. I decided that way for me to get through this time of quarantine was to do more remote presentations. So I ordered a webcam online.

Once it arrives, I can remotely do my three standard presentations—the fall of Saigon, the 1967 battle of Dak To in Vietnam’s western highlands, and living with Post-Traumatic Stress Injury (PTSI)—and I can do readings from my new books—Secretocracy, published in March and Coming to Terms, due out in July. I’ve already received an invitation to do readings and to play my magnificent Steinway. I look forward to both. I’ll contact major booksellers in the Washington-Baltimore area and propose that I do virtual promotional presentations for my new books.

But the date of arrival of the webcam is still uncertain. Apparently its delivery has been delayed by the pandemic lockdown. I’m still waiting.

The irony is palpable. Here I am sequestered from my readers, and now I’m prevented from reaching out to them virtually by the same lockdown that stops me from being with them in person.

I’m a loner by nature, but this is too much.

Hospice

My partner, Su, died in the local hospice at the end of March. My empty life as a result and my respect for the people who cared for Su inspired me to volunteer to work in the hospice with dying people.

It won’t be a new experience for me. During the AIDS crisis, I took care of gay men dying of AIDS. When the crisis ebbed, I worked with the homeless, then for seven years I volunteered in the hospice looking after the dying. I did that work, in part, because I knew that few Americans were willing to spend time with those near death. I was less a caregiver than a companion to those who had little time left to live. I was astonished to discover that we Americans avoid the subject of death and are afraid of being with those near death. So the hospice never has enough volunteers.

In my earlier years of working in a hospice, I don’t recall ever having any training. That has changed. I’m currently undergoing virtual training, thanks to the pandemic lockdown, offered on the internet. Much of it has to do with facing the existence of death at a conscious level. I was surprised at how uncomfortable that made me.

I won’t begin my volunteer work until after the lockdown is over, but I should finish the training within the week. As I progress, I’ll record here my reactions and feelings. This is beginning to feel like a major step.

The Steinway (3)

My daughter urged me to try the pianos and decide which one I liked best. The prospect of playing all those pianos excited me, and I set to work. I found one that thrilled me with the beauty of its sound. I tried others but kept coming back to that one. I realized that this was the instrument I had played in the lounge and fallen in love with.

That piano now sits in my living room. Susan had brought me there to select my favorite which she then proceeded to buy for me.

I had the piano appraised. It’s price, new, was $85,000.

I learned later where Susan got the money to buy that piano. It came from her share of her mother’s estate. The house I had bought for our family in Crofton, Maryland, was the only thing of value my ex-wife still had at the time of her death—she had long since gone through my savings she acquired during the divorce. It was a lovely large home at the end of a cul-de-sac on an oversized wooded lot that backed onto the Crofton golf course. The big yard gave the children plenty of safe space to play in. During our years in that house, I had worked hard to improve it. The result was an increase of its value.

As I learned later, after I left the marriage, my ex-wife neglected the house. When the time came for the children to sell it, its value had declined due to disrepair. They sold it as-is because none of the four of them had the time or money to restore it.

Susan used her share of the money she from the sale of the house to buy me the Steinway. She’s never told me why, but I think I’ve figured it out.

At the time of the divorce, one of my four children sided with her mother. The others, Susan included, were either neutral or sided with me. I speculate that when Susan found out that her mother had arranged for her sister to be brought into the courtroom just as I took the witness stand and I refused to testify against her mother, she was angry. My conclusion is that Susan used her share of her mother’s estate to buy me the Steinway as a way of evening the imbalance.

The end result is that I own the most beautiful grand piano I have ever played.

The Steinway (2)

Continuing the story of how I came to own my beautiful Steinway.

Long after my divorce, I learned that my wife had arranged for one of my children to be present during my testimony. She believed, correctly, that I would not level severe criticisms against her with one of her children listening. The end result was that I lost everything. My wife was awarded all our property, and I had to pay alimony. I was destitute. I was reduced to living in a rented attic in a joint house with five other men.

In the years after the divorce, I gradually regained financial equilibrium. Then my ex-wife died suddenly. I was free of the onerous alimony.

Meanwhile, my oldest daughter, Susan, now an adult, and I subscribed to the ballet series at the Kennedy Center every year. Often, before the performance, we would visit the opera house lounge. We would arrive early in the evening before the hired pianist was on duty. I’ve never been able to resist a playing a piano sitting idle and waiting for attention, so I asked if I could try the Steinway grand that was in the lounge.

Over the years, I tried a number of different pianos. One I played enthralled me. It had the most beautiful sound I had ever encountered. I played it before each of the performances that season. The next season, it was gone—replaced by another piano.

More years passed. One day, my daughter’s husband called me and asked me to come to their house right away. I explained that I was in jeans and a tee-shirt and would have to bathe and dress. No, he said, come as you are. He gave no explanation.

Alarmed, I hurried to their place. As soon as I arrived, they told me to get in their car. We were going somewhere. No explanation of where.

We drove into Washington, D.C., and I remarked that we were getting close to the Kennedy Center. Once there, my daughter and her husband escorted me through the stage entrance to the Eisenhower Theater. The theater’s stage was filled with Steinway grand pianos. I learned that the Kennedy Center was replacing its pianos and was selling off the old ones.

More tomorrow.