This Thing Called Courage

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Merry Christmas Everyone!


I'M FALLING ASLEEP AT THE SWITCH here as my mother would say, but want to at least wish everyone a joyous and wonderful holiday, and the best of everything in 2007. Tomorrow my family is gathering at the home of my nephew Christian in Atkinson, NH, for our Christmas celebration. So I've been doing a lot of wrapping tonight, and also baked my semi-famous Gruyere and Scallion Biscuits, as I was requested to-- a command performance.

I think so often of the joy and wonder that would seize me almost by the throat at this time of year when I was a child-- I still get occaisonal flashes of that, fortunately enough-- and tonight I am wondering if my joy and wonder was like your joy and wonder. Of course the whole idea of Santa coming would trigger it, as well as the moment itself when we would wake up Christmas Morning, and it still being dark, and rushed out to the 'parlor' to find a strew of gifts under the tree-- but other things, little things, funny things, would trigger this breathtaking feeling as well. We were coming back from 'Town' one evening (Boston-- there were no suburban malls then) and we were driving through Watertown. As we came up to an intersection, I spied, from the back seat, someone's home, all decorated for the season-- with nothing but blue lights, the old fashioned, big bulbed kind. I had never seen the like of it, and it literally took my breath away. Every other set of lights I had seen were white, or multi-colored-- or that old-fashioned ('50's-'60's) orange. But here was blue! Hiding as much as it was revealing and somehow numinous.

And then there was the night my parents were one street over at a Christmas Party. My older sisters were babysitting me and Bobby, the latter one year older than me. We were expected to go to bed at a certain hour, but when the time came we flat-out refused. We were far too 'excikalick,' as we called it in my family. Peggy and Maureen tried every trick in the book, to no avail. Finally, we were sitting at the kitchen table, and the front doorbell rang. Peggy rose up from the table and with solmen voice intoned, "I bet that's Santa and he's probably going to be furious that you're not in bed." Bobby and I looked at each other with utter horror and terror as Peggy went down the hall to answer the door. "No Santa, they're not in bed yet," we could hear her say once she'd opened the door. "I tried but they wouldn't go. Yes, I'll ask them again." When she came back to the kitchen we could barely make a sound. "He said he'll come back in ten minutes, but if you're not in bed, he's going to keep going," Peggy reported. Well, you never saw two recalcitrant boys hustle off to bed faster. To this day, I don't know how they made the front doorbell ring...

Very frequently, our mother would hide presents for us, here and there over the weeks as she did her shopping-- and then forget where she had stashed them. (It was vital that she did that, for, anytime she would leave the house when we were still at home, Bobby and I would go on 'raids' as we called them, looking everywhere for the stash.) I can remember coming home from some family event a few days after Christmas, and there on the kitchen table were two shining orange Tonka dump trucks, one for me, and one for Bobby. We were flabbergasted! How did they get there? Who put them there? Why three days after Christmas? Our bewilderment and pleasure knew no bounds. No mother disavowed any knowledge, but finally surmised that Santa must have forgotten to bring them the first time round, on Christmas Eve. The idea that Santa had come back to our house a few days after Christmas, while we were all out, was staggering and a little bit frightening.

And then there were the Christmas plays that our school would put on every year, each classroom presenting some differnt tableaux. To be up so late at night, and to hear one's breath leave you at the moment the heavy maroon curtain lifted and there were, seemingly, thousands of people out there in the audience, ready and waiting to be entertained. And the anticipation! "I don't think I'm going to make it this year," I said to my mother one year, two weeks before Christmas. It just didn't seem possible that I could wait, the excitement and anticipation were that overwhelming. We would set up the manger scene in the fireplace, with giant pine branches behind the stable and one shining candle somehow arranged back there-- that was the star. The whole cast was assembled, but Baby Jesus in his tiny bed of hay wouldn't appear until Christmas Morning, and this miraculous appearence he somehow managed himself, my parents disavowing any knowledge of how he-- or a plastic rendition thereof-- would get there. But alas! One year my Mom apparently forgot where she had hidden him, and he was several days late in appearing-- I can't remember now exactly how she explained that one.

When one thinks of the Spirit of Christmas, I suppose we mean a feeling of goodwill, benevolence, warmth towards humanity, a sense that, despite the many ills that besmirch this world, this is still a beautiful place, being guided by a Spirit of love and care. Bobby and I used to ask each other when we were very young, "Do you have the Christmas Spirit yet?" Sometimes the answer would be yes; sometimes no. To me it's not just that feeling of benevolence; there must be a dash of wonder, a belief in the miraculous, thrown into the heady mix as well. It still finds me occasionally, as it did earlier this evening, when I got out of the car after doing a few last-minute errands, and was carrying my bundles into the house, Fionn the Dog in tow. I stopped for a moment, and peered through the woods out back behind my house. It was very quiet and dark. From somewhere out in those woods, one single blue light was shining back at me.

Monday, December 04, 2006

A Short Play by My Friend Tom O'Leary

Hi All,
We just had our first little snowfall in New England this am-- just a dusting really-- but it's much more seasonal than the warm and vapid weather we had last week, which felt rather errie after a while. Thanks to all who came to my Calamus Books reading Friday night-- a wonderful great and a great time. A special nod of gratitude to the Heath Contingent, who drove three hours through the rain to attend, all the way from Western Massachusetts. Your support is truly inspiring.

Below is a short play that was sent to me by my friend Tom O'Leary, a writer living out in Los Angeles. I enjoyed it so much, I thought I would share it here, and Tom has kindly given his permission for me to do so.

COLD CALLING A short play by Tom O'Leary
LIGHTS UP STAGE RIGHT ON: A small cramped studio apartment. Stacks of magazines and newspapers are piled everywhere. But neatly. A day bed Left. A round kitchen table Center.
MARTIN KRATCHMAN, 77, sits at the kitchen table dozing.
The phone RINGS.
Martin opens his eyes but does not move.
The phone RINGS again
MARTIN'S OUTGOING MESSAGE
At the beep you know what to do or you're a moron and I shouldn't want a message from you anyway.
The CLICKING sound of a hang up.
MARTIN
Coward.
Martin gets up with effort and walks to the refrigerator.
From on top of the refrigerator Martin gathers a multitude of pill bottles. Martin walks back to the kitchen table and drops the pill bottles in a heap in the middle of the table.
Martin walks slowly to a kitchen cabinet and retrieves an expensive bottle of red wine. Martin sets the bottle of wine next to the pills on the kitchen table.
The phone RINGS.
Martin sits in front of the phone. He stares at.
Martin answers the phone.
Martin
Yes?
LIGHTS UP STAGE LEFT on RONNIE SWANSON, 24. Ronnie has on a pressed shirt and tie. He sits up straight.
Ronnie
Hello?
MARTIN
Yes?

RONNIE
Is this Mr. Martin Kratchman?
MARTIN
What?
RONNIE
Is this Mr. Martin Kratchman?
MARTIN
What do you want?
RONNIE
I'm calling from Bank of America.
Martin gets up slowly, walks to a drawer and looks for a corkscrew.
RONNIE
Mr. Martin Kratchman? Hello? Is this a bad time? If this is a bad time I totally understand. If I'm disturbing you. If I'm calling too late. Or you're watching your favorite television program. Hello?
Martin takes the corkscrew to the table. Martin uncorks the bottle.
RONNIE
Hello? Mr. Martin Kratchman?
MARTIN
Are you trained to say the full name every time?
RONNIE
Yes, sir.
MARTIN
It's damned annoying. People call me Martin.
RONNIE
If this is not a good time---
MARTIN
No time like the present.
RONNIE
If you're in the middle of something---
MARTIN
How old are you?
RONNIE
24.
MARTIN
Where are you?
RONNIE
Euclid, Ohio. On Lake Erie.
MARTIN
Must be damned late there.
RONNIE
It's four minutes to midnight.
MARTIn
Ah, so the Euclid cold callers call California at four minutes to midnight. Makes sense.
RONNIE
I'd be happy to call back at a better time.
MARTIN
Can you perhaps tell me when that will be?
Martin pours a glass of wine. He smells the wine and savors the smell.
RONNIE
I beg your pardon.
MARTIN
I wouldn't go promising a better time unless you can deliver on your promise.
RONNIE
I meant earlier in the evening.
MARTIN
You presume my early evenings are better than later?
RONNIE
Mr. Martin Kratch---I mean, Martin, I am calling from Bank of America. As you may have read in literature we have recently sent to you, we are offering an insurance policy against unemployment.
Martin goes to a drawer and retrieves a gun. Martin puts the gun on the kitchen table next to the pills.
MARTIN
What's the weather in Euclid?
RONNIE
It's warm for this time of year. That's what the morning news said.
MARTIN
You cold call at midnight and you're up for the morning news?
RONNIE
I teach during the day.
MARTIN
When do you sleep?
RONNIE
I . . . manage. Martin, as I mentioned, our new policy against unemployment can and would be a lifesaver in times of stress or tribulation.
MARTIN
Whoever wrote your copy should be shot. Tribulation is a word that was buried with Steinbeck.
RONNIE
The Pearl is a favorite book of mine.
Martin looks at the gun.
RONNIE
Also, To Kill A Mockingbird.
Martin opens the barrel of the gun and looks at it.
RONNIE
Also, The Great Gatsby.
MARTIN
Reading is one of the true dependable pleasures.
RONNIE
Yes, sir.
MARTIN
How long you been cold calling?
RONNIE
Three weeks.
MARTIN
You don't talk fast enough.
RONNIE
With this insurance policy---
MARTIN
Faster.
RONNIE
(faster)
---you are eligible to receive---
MARTIN
Faster.
RONNIE
(faster)
---six months mortgage or rent payment---
MARTIN
Too fast. You want to honor the words you're saying. No matter how poorly they were written.
Martin takes a very healthy swig of wine.
MARTIN
24. I'm guessing 5 foot 9. 170 pounds. Trim. But you have to watch the pizza. You played sports in high school. The non-competitive competitive kind. Cross-Country. Track.
RoNNIE
No, sir.
MARTIN
Why not?
RONNIE
Weak knees. My family has a history.
MARTIN
My family has a history of weak hearts. My family has a history of medical bills with astronomical numbers that add up to more astronomical numbers.

RONNIE
Sir, Martin, I would like to call at another time.
MARTIN
Does it say my age?
RONNIE
Excuse me?
MARTIN
In your computer.
RONNIE
Not on this screen.
MARTIN
I'm 27.
RONNIE
Really?
MARTIN
I have a cold or my voice would be as youthful as yours.
RONNIE
Martin. Sir.
MARTIN
What is your name?
RONNIE
Ronnie.
MARTIN
24 year-old Ronnie and 27 year-old Martin. If I happened to be in Euclid on Lake Erie I would buy you a beer. At a local beer joint. Sawdust on the floor. Loud rock music on the jukebox.
Martin takes a pill with wine, savoring the flavor.
RONNIE
About our policy, Martin. I could re-send the information.
MARTIN
I'd rather you didn’t.
RONNIE
You sound tired, Martin, if you don't mind my saying so.

MARTIN
I don't mind you saying anything, Ronnie in Euclid on Lake Erie.
Martin looks off.
MARTIN
I'm not tired. I'm resigned.
Martin takes another pill.
MARTIN
When you drive through Euclid on your way to school or your night job of cold calling strangers, do you see the old people, Ronnie? Do you notice them? Are they on your radar?
RONNIE
I think so.
MARTIN
It's my experience, even though I'm holding steady at 27, that most people in this country at this time do not see people over 50. The people who hit 50, the unlucky sons-of-bitches, are invisible. Doesn't seem fair to me. We notice old trees. Old buildings. We notice Lake Erie and it's way over 50. But people. People are invisible.
RONNIE
Martin, sir, I should be typing something here. I'm sorry.
MARTIN
Sign me up.
RONNIE
Really?
MARTIN
Sure, why not?
RONNIE
There is a six-month trial period.
MARTIN
Sign me up for 100 years.
RONNIE
Sir, if you aren't serious---
MARTIN
I'm very serious, Ronnie. I told you. I'm seriously resigned.
Martin takes another pill.
RONNIE
Are you well, Martin?
MARTIN
That depends on who you ask.
RONNIE
Do you need help in some way?
MARTIN
We all need help in some way.
Martin pauses and thinks about whether to be honest with Ronnie about what Martin is doing. Instead, Martin drinks a swig of wine.
Martin opens all of the pill bottles and pours the pills in the center of the table, like a child would if they were playing.
MaRTIN
I'm glad you called, Ronnie. I'm glad to hear your melodious youthful voice. I really am.
RoNNIE
You aren't making fun, are you?
MARTIN
Not in a million years. No.
RONNIE
If I could believe one person tonight enjoyed hearing from me, it would be a relief.
MARTIN
Relief is yours. I very much enjoy hearing from you tonight. That is said from the heart. A weak heart. But so it goes.
Ronnie leans back in his chair.
RONNIE
A beer together would be nice, Martin, but I don't drink beer.

MARTIN
Religion?
RONNIE
Stomach.
MARTIN
Wine?
RONNIE
Very carefully.
MARTIN
At the moment, Ronnie, I am very uncarefully drinking a glass of the best Cabernet that France has to offer. I raise a glass to you.
Martin raises his glass.
RONNIE
You mentioned your heart, Martin, is wine allowed?
MARTIN
It's not only allowed, it's encouraged. Have you been out of Ohio?
RONNIE
Yes, sir.
MARTIN
Junior year trip to Washington, DC doesn't count.
RONNIE
I've been to Pittsburgh. And Toronto, Canada.
MARTIN
Good for you. Promise me you'll visit New York City within three years. Paris before you're 30.
RONNIE
I have accumulated school loans, which might rival your medical bills.


MARTIN
I pray that is not so. Living depends on seeing. Vision comes from surrounding yourself with new sights and sounds and experiences. Surprise yourself continuously, Ronnie. Please.
A small red light blinks at Ronnie’s desk. Ronnie sits up straight. The red light goes off.
RONNIE
The monthly fee for this wonderful insurance policy is $4.95.
MARTIN
Is there someone in your life, Ronnie?
RONNIE
I shouldn't be discussing things not related to this policy.
MARTIN
Find a person who you can laugh out loud with. Physical gymnastics are great but verbal gymnastics win the day every time.
RONNIE
I haven't had much time for my private life of late.
MARTIN
Make time.
RONNIE
I appreciate your good will, Martin.
MARTIN
Time seems luxurious at 24. Bountiful. It is not, Ronnie. Time is a finite thing. Use it well. That would be the insurance policy to sell: using time wisely.
Martin takes a pill. Drinks. Looks at the gun.
RONNIE
Do you have someone special, Martin?

MARTIN
No. Did. 37 years. Dead 6 months. Died just to keep from taking care of me.
RONNIE
You said you were 27.
MARTIN
I will be. Soon. I'll be 27 and 38 and 12 and 4 and 90. Soon.
RONNIE
Martin, is there something I can do to help you?
MARTIN
Yes. You can keep talking.
RONNIE
This is the first conversation I've had with a potential customer that was a real conversation.
MARTIN
Your calling me means everything in the world. You are a comfort. I do not say that lightly.
RONNIE
Martin, perhaps I could look up a number for an organization that could help you.
MARTIN
You're all the help I need.
RONNIE
I'm a little worried about you, Martin.
MARTIN
Not to worry, Ronnie. I'm in my nine-bedroom apartment in Beverly Hills. The moon is full. I'm 27. Life is sublime.
RONNIE
I would love to see California. Perhaps we could have a beer. Or you could. I could have wine.
MARTIN
That would be heaven, Ronnie.
Absolutely.
RONNIE
Paris, unfortunately, is out of the realm of dreaming at the moment.
MARTIN
Never! You will get to Paris before you are 30! Promise me, Ronnie! Promise me! Make an oath!
RONNIE
Yes, sir, Martin. I promise you.
MARTIN
When you walk through the Jardin des Tuleries or down the Champs Elysees or stand in front of the Mona Lisa, think of dear old Martin in California. Think of me, Ronnie, and chuckle.
RONNIE
I would.
MARTIN
You will. Great things have happened when strangers connect. Great things. And sometimes connections with strangers are the only connections we have.
Martin takes more pills, drinks.
The red light next to Ronnie blinks.
RONNIE
I should go, Martin. I'm sorry.
MARTIN
It has been a pleasure, Ronnie.
RONNIE
Yes, Martin. It has.
MARTIN
Say hello to Lake Erie for me.
RONNIE
Could I call someone for you? Someone to talk to?
MARTIN
I've talked to someone, Ronnie. It's been the most enchanting time I've spent in many a night. Guaranteed.

RONNIE
I truly wish you the best, Martin. You have been very kind.
MARTIN
Teach your school children the joy of reading, Ronnie. And get to New York and Paris.
RONNIE
And laugh with a person I love.
MARTIN
Ronnie, remember, I want you to sign me up for your insurance policy for 100 years. Are you listening?
RONNIE
Yes, sir.
MARTIN
Good night, Ronnie.
RONNIE
Good night, Martin. Be well.
Martin stands. He sways. Martin steadies himself.
Ronnie dials another phone number.
RONNIE
Hello. Is Miss Lu Ann Smith there, please?
Martin takes a long luxurious swig of wine.
Martin picks up the gun.
Martin walks slowly to the bathroom and closes the door.
RONNIE
Might I leave a message for Miss Lu Ann Smith? This is Ronald calling from Bank of America. We sent some vital information regarding an insurance policy.
A GUNSHOT is heard.
RONNIE
Excuse me. I am very sorry to have bothered you. Thank you for your time.
Ronnie sits up straight. Ronnie dials another number.
The phone in Martin's apartment RINGS.
AGAIN.
MARTIN'S OUTGOING MESSAGE
At the beep you know what to do or you're a moron and I shouldn't want a message from you anyway.
RONNIE
Martin? Hello? It’s Ronnie. I just wanted to tell you that this will be my last night here. I don't like bothering strangers, even when they're as kind as you. But thank you for your kindness, Martin. I wish you well. I hope you are listening. Good night.
Ronnie dials another number.
RoNNIE
Hello, May I speak to Mr. Stephen Johnston, please? My name is Ronald and I am calling from Bank of America.
Lights fade.
End of play.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Hope for the Future


I love stories like this-- it gives one hope for the future. Several years ago I feel in love with manatees, the wonderfully odd aquatic mammals that, for the most part, make Florida their home. And that of course is a problem. Florida, not among our most enlightend states when it comes to ecology and the environment, has over 1,000,000 licensed recreational boats. The manatees, especially as the water temp cools, must move to warmer waters, or they will perish. They seek out the natural thermal springs once located all over the state. Along the way, they are frequently hit and injured, often seriously and often fatally, by people driving too fast in their boats. They are also suffering from loss of habitat. As a result I joined the Save-the-Manatee Club, a non-profit that advocates for these beautiful creatures, who seemingly have evolved from elephants. They are totally defenseless, initiate play with humans, speak ina sophisticated sonar language similar to dolphins-- and need our help.

I've had the pelasure of seeing these beauties in the wild while visiting Florida. I get the Club's email newsletter every month when it comes out, and this latest iussue features a really heartwarming story, attached below. And it turns out he's a Bay Stater!!!

Meet A Member: Brandon Fitzpatrick He's the Manatee Man

Brandon Fitzpatrick AKA the Manatee Man. (Photo courtesy of Debbie Fitzpatrick.)

If you were cruising the residential neighborhoods of northern Massachusetts this summer, you may have bought a refreshing Manatee Lemon Tea from an enterprising young man at a roadside stand. And if you did, you no doubt learned something about endangered manatees at the same time. Meet Brandon Fitzpatrick AKA "the Manatee Man."
Brandon just turned nine years old, but he has already been dubbed “the boy with a manatee mission” by a local paper. For the last two summers, he has set up a lemonade and snack stand and set out to educate area residents about manatees. Assisted by his brother Brian, he sells homemade goods, candy, lemonade, and iced tea at his annual Save the Manatee fundraiser.
Brother Brian (left) assists at the snack stand and Brandon takes charge of educating visitors about manatees. (Photo courtesy of Debbie Fitzpatrick.)
“Last summer, Brandon raised a little over $82,” said Brandon’s mom, Debbie. “This year, it was a two-day event. Brian manned the cash register while Brandon spent time educating everyone about his beloved manatees. At the end of the second day this year, they discovered they had collected $143. After his picture appeared in the local paper, another $57 in donations came in, so Brandon was proud to send Save the Manatee Club $200.”
An extraordinary part of Brandon’s outdoor snack stand is the educational display on manatees. He has created a large storyboard with both real photos of manatees and pictures he has drawn that show how manatees can get injured or killed by discarded fishing hooks and line, boat collisions, and other hazards. And Brandon actively educates the stand visitors, pointing out manatee facts and teaching others how to help protect the endangered animals.
Brandon points out some interesting facts about endangered manatees to his customers. (Courtesy of Chinappi Photography.)
“Brandon first fell in love with manatees when he was six years old,” says Debbie. “We made a trip to Ft. Pierce, Florida, and his grandparents took him to the Manatee Observation & Education Center there. We’ve been back to visit each year for the last three years and have spent hours at the Center soaking up every fact and hoping to catch a glimpse of a manatee. He hasn’t had any luck yet, so one of his greatest hopes is to see a manatee in the wild some day.”
Brandon’s third grade teacher, Mrs. Marjorie Conlon, was so impressed with his knowledge and enthusiasm for manatees that she nicknamed him the Manatee Man. “He would stand up and give us lessons on the dangers that the manatee faced each day,” says Mrs. Conlon. “Due to his enthusiasm, we all brought in a dollar and joined Save the Manatee Club. We have painted a mural in our room of a baby manatee and its mother.””Brandon has the curiosity and knowledge to become a great biologist someday,” added Mrs. Conlon. "I am very proud of his individuality and thoughtfulness. My class and I have learned a great deal about manatees and their habitats due to a spark from a young boy named Brandon Fitzpatrick, the Manatee Man.”
(Courtesy of Chinappi Photography.)