Tears, idle tears, I know full well their use

OK, so I’m showing off, quoting Tennyson in the title of this essay — the latest intended for a small-press project, started (ironically enough) before my recent health issues: a collection of literary essays on the subjects of mortality and memories titled ‘Man Has Premonition of Own Death, the headline on a 1920s newspaper article about an ancestor’s surreal and terrible demise.

Anyway, here’s the latest essay:


It’s a trait I inherited from my late father. I well up with tears when George Bailey’s brother shows up at the end of ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ — and it happens every time, and even though I’ve seen that movie a hundred times, Zuzu’s damned petals still make my lip quiver.

Worse, really dumb and embarrassing things can make me emotional — like once I stumbled upon a TV show called ‘Undercover Boss’ and the CEO of some fast-food chain gave some well-deserving employee a new car, $25,000 and a family vacation, and I nearly bawled and blubbered like some operatic Italian clown.

Today, though, was different. After emergency surgery several months ago, followed by another medical crisis nearly two weeks ago, I resumed treatments this morning – still confident, feeling fine, but bloated, practically bald, and wary about the effects of this latest round of therapy. A very caring and sweet nurse asked me about my latest ‘adventure’ — and I filled up with tears, couldn’t talk for 10 seconds, and accepted a tissue.

I suppose it’s a good thing to acknowledge. Being sick doesn’t just suck — it’s also sad, and something to think about, and significant, so it would be weird and unnatural to not get emotional about it once in a while.
And I’m fine now: watching some TV and reading some old essays by Annie Dillard, catching myself daydreaming about trips I’d like to make (to Alaska, to my grandparents’ village in Italy – and for yet another writing residency at a beloved artists’ colony in the foothills of the Blue Ridge mountains) – and hoping someone comes along and gives me $25,000 and a vacation and a new car…and a handful of Kleenex, because…well, there’s that thing about me and Zuzu’s petals….





The glory that was grease?

I’ve been recuperating and relaxing for the past four days, staying with my mother, and I’ve been letting her pamper me – including cooking meals – as I regain my strength and energy.

So one day she’s making grilled cheese sandwiches on this really old looking flat skillet and says “Your grandfather used to make grilled cheese on this.”

What?! Grandpa Nash! My grandpa died 51 years ago. That’s one old goddamned skillet. That’s a hell of a lot of grilled cheese sandwiches. I want that griddle someday!

Wait! There’s more! The next night, Mom was boiling something for dinner. When she was done, and had washed out the pot, she held it up and said, “This pot is more than 60 years old. I bought it when I got engaged.”

My mother is still using a cooking pot that she bought years before I was born! I want that skillet and I want that pot!

I guess there’s no point to this, other than some vague notion that the big and expensive and spacious skillet given to me by my daughter a few months ago is a great skillet, but it now seems like some sort of poseur, some kind of upstart, a kitchen utensil that may never, to really stretch this and allude to one of those fancy old English poets, acquire the glory of my Mom’s old cooking pot nor gain the grandeur of my grandpa’s old skillet.

Give me a head with hair…

OK, this will date me, but I’ll point out that I was just a 13-year-old from Yonkers in my first year at Fordham Preparatory School and, being from Yonkers, I may have been totally out of my element among the boys from Scarsdale and Larchmont and Bronxville, but I was cooler than them all, and somehow found my way very quickly to the Fordham University Bookstore on that campus in The Bronx and bought the first record albums I’d ever owned: Let It Bleed by the Rolling Stones, Magical Mystery Tour by The Beatles, and the album by Neil Young and Crazy Horse with “Down by The River” and “Cowgirl in the Sand.”

Yes, very cool for a 13-year-old – but I have to confess the identity of the very first record album I purchased at that university bookstore: the original cast recording of the musical “Hair!” I can’t explain why, so don’t ask.

In any event, hair – not the album, the thing that used to be on top of my head – is much on my mind these days. So much so that I’m inspired to spew this poem that badly echoes the Beat poets of San Francisco (I’ve been reading Richard Brautigan lately), Asian poetry, and the prayer poems of my great friend Robert Lax:

Run my/Hand/Over/My head/I am holding/Handful/Of hair.

Chemotherapy, as the doctor promised, does that and did that. I’ve still got some left, but most of the hair is gone from the top of my head, all within the last two weeks, and who knows if I’ll keep any of the rest.

I know it will grow back. And I like the NY Yankees cap I’ve taken to wearing. But I’ve always taken great and vain pleasure from looking in a mirror and knowing that I’ve never gone bald and only in the past few years acquired a touch of grey. It’s a family trait on my mother’s side of the family – the Nash and Crooks side. My Grandpa Nash still had hair on his head when he died, and his son, my Uncle Elwood, had a full head of hair into his late 70s; my mother’s, her other brother – Uncle Ken – likewise kept his hair. And I’ve been so happy with that family inheritance.

There are other things I could write about my hair. How it once cascaded down to my shoulders – and how one time a guy in college saw me from behind, sitting in a chair, and thought I was a “chick.” I could write about fights I had with my father over the length of my hair – it was a threat to him, I understand now, both in terms of American society at the time and his whole image of himself as a second-generation Italian-American “man of the house.” And I could go back a few years before that, when my father would take me to the barbershop of his cousin Carlo, a hell of a nice guy and one terrible barber.

Or I could just end this by saying that, in my own way, I am pondering my vanity…and mourning my hair…and avoiding mirrors, at least for now.

Boys of summer

Indeed. That’s me, at right, with my cousins Craig (left) and Gary. I think we were probably high-school seniors or freshmen in college. It was taken on a lake in upstate New York – we were out on the water with our Uncle Elwood on his small cabin cruiser.

Uncle Elwood was the older brother of my mother and her older sister Charlotte. Aunt Charlotte, who I adored, lived on a farm in upstate New York’s Mohawk River Valley region, where I spent many wonderful days all through my childhood and adolescence; it was my own personal “Fresh Air Fund” escape from Yonkers, plus it was home to Aunt Charlotte’s two boys, Gary and Craig, who were exactly my age…(and many a tale of adventure do the three of us tell, and at least some of the tales are true!)

Unfortunately, geography makes our visits infrequent. Gary’s been in Arizona for years, and Craig’s in Texas. But there’s still that deep family bond of blood and memories. Both cousins have recently showered me with messages of encouragement and love as I’ve dealt with my recent health crisis. Craig sent me this photo this morning.

So, thanks, Craig. And a tip of the hat to Uncle Elwood on this Memorial Day – a truly colorful character, “Unk” was a World War II veteran and a Purple Heart recipient, having lost a leg after being wounded by shrapnel during combat in Europe.

Here’s an appropriate song: Don Henley’s “The End of the Innocence,” performed by Bruce Hornsby, Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Browne, Shawn Colvin, et al. It’s certainly a song about bygone days. And it’s a song about America, very appropriate in this dark age of hatred and bigotry and violence on this Memorial Day.


Chemical reactions

As i sit here connected to two intravenous lines, I’m drinking mediocre coffee, looking around and listening to a group of strangers — some way too talkative, some snoozing, some clearly as preoccupied as I am, some looking quite robust, some looking like ( as we used to say in Yonkers) crap warmed over — who are receiving treatments like me, and then a friend’s message arrives: ‘Wishing you good thoughts on your first day of chemo. It won’t be as bad as you anticipate.’

So far, she’s right. After two hours I feel a little sleepy, although that may be just because I didn’t sleep much last night.

The main thing is that I would prefer some privacy and some quiet and my daughter’s company, but the six or seven others in this room — patients and a few talkative visitors — are yakking and socializing like they’re at one of the koffee klatch gatherings that I’ve heard my Grandma Nash used to have in the 1940s.

I’m reminded of the title of one of Raymond Carver’s collections of short stories: Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?

Grandma Nash died in 1945 of stomach cancer. My mother was 11 when her mother died; so I, born 10 years later when my Mom was 21, never met my maternal grandmother… but I think about her a lot.

Anna Crooks Nash was, by all accounts, a lively and likeable woman who liked to keep up with the latest fashions and cultural passions (like the mah jongg craze that swept America back then) but was also a loving mother whose death 71 years ago left her daughter, alive and healthy at 83, still remembering her mother with great tenderness and sadness even after all these years.

Last night I spoke on the phone with my mother and gave her an update, telling her about the chemo therapy I would begin today.

As we got off the phone, my mother blurted out ‘I love you!’

My family, at least in my experience, has never been an ”I love you!’ kind of family; I’ve always felt like we all know we feel it but don’t feel like we need to say it.

But that unanticipated ‘I love you!’ was good to hear last night. Clearly a lot of Grandma Nash lives on in my mother, who is her mother’s daughter.

In orbit…



Every year on this day I think of this song:

P.S. I took this photo several years ago on a hilltop outside of Amherst at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts.



Learning to say ‘Amen!’


I’ve spent a total of five weeks in the San Francisco area during the last year, and I’ve managed to visit the city itself only four or five times. Briefly put, I’ve only glimpsed the city; I haven’t really seen it.

I’ve seen — or sensed — some of the problems people have with what venerable journalist Herb Caen called Baghdad-by-the-Bay. Most of all, it’s too expensive to live there — real-estate values are beyond the reach of even the relatively affluent, thanks in large part to the dot-com companies like Google and Apple. What’s more, the San Francisco celebrated in Scott MacKenzie’s song is long-gone — if it ever really existed….George Harrison of The Beatles took one look at the Haight  and got the hell out of there, and after one glorious summer the place became a hellhole filled with homeless, strung-out teens with wilted flowers in their hair.

But, still, there’s something about San Francisco and California. I’ve joined the other tourists and taken a ride on the city’s famed cable cars, all the while humming the Rice-A-Roni theme song. I’ve walked along the waterfront, looking out at Alcatraz or up at the suspension bridge to Oakland. I’ve stood  on the steps where Mario Savio jump-started the Free Speech movement in Berkeley — although I’ve seen Berkeley’s bums, young and old, who are but a sad echo of the old counter-culture. I’ve crossed the Golden Gate and visited John Muir’s redwoods. I’ve sipped coffee at a café in North Beach. I’ve huddled with the ghosts of the Beats in the poetry section upstairs at City Lights. I’ve looked out at the Pacific — and, while I can’t explain the difference, I have no doubt that there’s something very non-Atlantic about the Pacific.

I’ve driven along the coastal highway to Big Sur. I’ve never seen any place so beautiful in my entire life, and I found myself wishing I could travel back forty years and have a fling with beautiful Joni Mitchell, or travel back fifty years and get drunk with Jack Kerouac, or travel back sixty years and talk about Rimbaud and Celine and Anais Nin with Henry Miller, or travel back more than eighty years and spend idle hours sloshing through the tidal flats at Monterey with John Steinbeck — and witnessing the awful oppression of the farm workers at Salinas.

I think what it amounts to is that I’ve seen enough of San Francisco and the California coast to know that at the very least I’d like to see more. And I certainly will. I didn’t leave my heart in San Francisco — but I did leave a little piece of it. After all, how could I ever forget — and how could I ever be unchanged after reading it — the quote at the entrance to the Henry Miller Memorial Library in the town of Big Sur: “It was here in Big Sur I first learned to say Amen!”