A Fearful Undertaking

The Unraveling

I was loosening a knot for this essay about a certain fear I had in my childhood—and before I knew it, the whole undertaking began unraveling in a confusion of ideas . My inner critic in charge of tailoring got into the act right away. I’ve assigned that role to my grandfather, Meyer, my mom’s Pa who I didn’t really know but who was a professional tailor in Minsk, Belarus, and later, Amherst, Mass. He only has one line—“Mistake!”—but I refer to it constantly.. 

I had lots of fears as a kid. There were the night noises of the house “settling,” which kept me awake until I heard the milkman’s truck at last, coming up the street. There was the imperious full moon ruling the night, daring me to meet its alien gaze. Then there was the fear that had the strongest hold over me. It reminds me now of the kid’s spooky line in the movie “The Sixth Sense.” Not that I could claim to “see dead people.” But I could admit to something just as bad. The kid me was scared of people who had disabilities.

Two people immediately come to mind. The first was a blind man who panhandled on Atlantic Avenue in downtown Stamford, near the YMCA, the site of my Saturday morning swimming lessons (another dread). The blind man was a tall, grinning guy who did not hide his blindness behind dark glasses, but openly stared with raw scary eyes. I think I was aware that I was rejecting him for being conspicuously different. And if I’m not piling on, I think I also felt embarrassed by the little-kid weakness that my fear revealed. Mainly, though, I compare it to meeting the moon’s scary gaze.

The second person I think of was a girl I didn’t know. I was nine or ten; she might have been eleven or twelve. There was a nighttime school event going on, a concert of some kind. She walked ahead of me in the dimly-lit corridor—the familiar turned unfamiliar—and I could see that she walked with metal braces on her legs, and metal crutches. I knew that probably meant she had polio.  I kept my distance while watching her halting progress. Overtaking her would have been a kind of self-announcement. I preferred anonymity. The truth of it was, I was scared of her. As if her bad luck might be contagious, and any acknowledgement from me would be much too complicated to take on.

I was scared of a wider swath of humanity than those two, but for whatever reason, they have  come to stand for all the other people I shrank from, people with missing fingers, missing legs, people who spoke or moved with difficulty, people with Down Syndrome, people with tremors or “shaking palsy,” as it was called by Doctor Parkinson, people with a bent-over posture or faltering steps, and those who apparently had no talent for dressing and other grooming skills. I see myself in that passing parade, too, of course, both the adult me with Parkinson’s and the kid me who would probably have dreaded an encounter with that adult, even without knowing the Twilight Zoney episode (“You’re ME?”) he’s been written into.

What’s the Dif?

Still unraveling. I was warned, wasn’t I, about taking on this old vulnerability long past its retrieve-by date? (Mistake!) I hear you, Pa, but how could I pass up the irony of this kid (me) who is afraid of people with disabilities, growing up to be a disabled person himself? Opportunity? I should say! I’m learning a ton about fear, and anapirophobia in particular. (That’s the scientific name for fear of the disabled, though ableism is in wider use nowadays.) By whichever name, it is a common phobia, a fact I initially took some comfort in, on behalf of my kid self—and any seeds of unease that may have migrated into my older age.  At least I wasn’t alone in my scary opinion. 

Hold the phone. What refuge could there be in sharing the wider circulation of a misinformed, fearful point of view, even with the intention of changing it, or at least disavowing it? More beneficial, would it not be, to learn from the disabled themselves? No brain required.  Ask Google “Why are some people afraid of the disabled?” and you will find a blunt and revealing set of answers from a writer named Mary Ruiz on the forum site Quora. Here’s a sample (They refers to the fearful ones and We/us to the disabled).

They think we might be contagious.

We remind them of their vulnerability.

The “Ick factor”—-our condition arouses disgust in some people.

They are curious about what we “have,” but are afraid to ask.

Anything that isn’t “normal” arouses panic in some people.

The “uncanny valley” effect: We seem human, but not quite.

They might be expected to accommodate or help us at times, and don’t want to.

I could be wrong, but I’m guessing that we the disabled (I claim a seat on that bus) are not afraid of our own disabilities, not in the same otherworldly way. We do feel lots of other things about them, like frustration, self-pity, or disgust. Whereas the fear others may feel toward us can’t help but be instructive in reverse: Isn’t a paralyzing fear of the disabled itself a form of disability? How are we different? (choose who you mean by we) and what difference does it make? 

Handicapping Fear

I want to go back to the girl in the corridor. She’s stuck in my memory, and I still don’t get why she has resided there so long. Why was I scared? Isn’t fear supposedly a response to danger? What was the danger from a young girl with leg braces and crutches? Something’s missing, a plausible explanation. A throwback to a shabbier time when a disabled person was seen as a potential hazard to the health and well-being of the whole village? Fear, I’m thinking, may be a case of mistaken identity.


It might help to review a few suspects for the mysterious horror that stalks the village. First slide:

1. Mortal Terror: a. k. a. Clear and Present Danger. Actual grizzly bear, great white shark, forest fire, wanted murderer, etc. NOTE: Unambiguously real. Do not attempt to test the solidity of the forest fire, assassin, or shark by trying to poke your hand through it. Next. 

2. Chimeras and Phantoms. a. k. a. The Stuff that Dreams are Made of; bogeyman, bogeywoman, werewolf, monster, zombie, etc. Imagination-dependent; may be organized into superstitions. Next.

3. “Fear Itself”,  a.k.a. “The Only Thing We Have to Fear”  Appropriately it places the responsibility for the fear with the fearer, but discourages engagement with the cause of fear. In fact, uses fear as a weapon against itself. No possibility of rapport!. And finally…

4. Vulnerability: a.k.a. free-floating fear, looking for a need to attach itself to, such as proof of unreadiness, insufficiency, failure, exposure as an impostor, or making a “MIstake!”


Yep, sounds like Vulnerability fits the bill. It removes a layer of mystery from why I was scared of that girl in the corridor.  Because my little kid self was pincushion-vulnerable to mistakes and flaws? Because I was afraid not of myself, but for myself? This is when I lean on the largesse of “free-floating fear.” It’s a safe generalization that kIds are uniquely vulnerable—when they’re not feel\ing fearless and flawless.  

  Mistake!

There’s an old family story featuring my mom’s Pa, whom I employed, way back in paragraph one, as my designated find-faulter (“Mistake!”) for any sloppy tailoring in this essay—he being a master tailor and all. It’s really just a short anecdote, but so often referred to, that it has gained a modest immortality. I got it from my Mom, the primary source. She was in her teens in the recollection, and serious about classical piano, taking lessons and practicing diligently. She described this scene where she was going over a piano piece and her Pa was in the next room, listening. And she recounted how, whenever she missed a note, there would come from the other room her dad’s gruff correction. “Mistake.” And again: “Mistake.”And inevitably another “Mistake.” And so on. I thought I heard a hint, in her telling, of an old resentment, mostly subsumed by the ironic context of childhood. But I also recognized that the story was a little present for us, all wrapped up in family legacy. Intentionally or not she was giving us something to use, and I’m tempted to use it now, beyond just this citation—to make a case for a hand-me-down culture of mistakism, a negative giving tree: unknown judgmental Russian Jewish forebears to fault-finding grandfather to (f-f) mother to (f-f) me….  

But I’m still vague on what this perfectionist tradition has to do with my fear of the girl in the corridor. I mean, I’m happy to speculate that the disabled others reminded me of what I was afraid of in myself—falling short, not measuring up, getting the wrong answer. It’s definitely my free-floating vulnerability, then and now. But that’s not apt to be a well-selling linkage, connecting wrong answers with wrong posture, broken mobility, absent vision, impaired walking, the listing and listless alike.

I should recruit another family member to present on my behalf. My dad was the director of Public Relations for the New York Heart Association. If he would be willing to bare his chest, you’d see a wicked-looking scar crossing left to right and extending to his back, where the surgeon opened him up for his first heart operation in the 1950s. It was successful, but not permanently. You can compare his before-and-after facial expressions—haggard then weary-but-relieved—to a battle frieze. Perhaps there’s a more convincing link between my shock at that incision scar and my fear of other handicaps.  Or maybe the tremors of remorse lie along a different path.

Take the M Path

RU ready for some encouraging conclusions? (Isn’t forced participation fun?) I’m happy to say that I conquered most of my childhood. (Too good a typo not to keep) Childhood fears, that is!  I’m no longer bothered by night noises. Possibly they went away after the milkman stopped making deliveries. Or else they were displaced by a gang of Parkinson’s hallucinations. Auditory ones: the sound of footsteps making an impression on the stairs. The interesting thing about these PD noises is that they have a shallow fear imprint. Which means they’re strangely tolerable, or tolerably strange. Equivalent to a bird in the attic that eventually finds its way out.

The full-moon fear ends well, too. I’m not sure how old I was, maybe in my twenties, but one night, with the aid of binoculars, I discerned a pair of characters in the dark patches on the bright disc. One was a figure I called the Ragman. He stood in profile, bending low with a bundle or a bindle on his back. He was facing a little dog of the poodle variety that I dubbed the Pooch. They had been up there all along. It was easy to imagine them in some affable conversation, describing their lunar adventures. This was a distinct improvement over the eerie so-and-so who used to outstare me. That character was gone.

Cancelling a fear gets more complicated when one has a writerly attachment (or is it bondage?) to one’s past. However, with the aid of my fault-finding grandfather (represented by the bassoon), I found a key alibi (mistakism, a genetic trait) which led to a unified theory about fear and me: I call it Mistaken Identity  and Identifying with Mistakes. So far, the science journals have been unanimous.

Seriously, fear as mistaken identity is the goods. Take this so-called fear of the disabled, for example. Isn’t it possible that I wasn’t keeping away from the disabled girl because I was afraid of her? Instead, I was afraid of her because I was keeping away. We create barriers from our own self-doubts, and then justify the barriers at the expense of the conspicuously vulnerable. Is that fair?

Neither is it fair asserting metaphoric equivalences between the disabled and our private anxieties, like human errors, They’re not us. We’re us. 

I wanted to end this great unraveling somewhere else suggested by the title of this section,Take the M Path—not some Mystery Route, nor an alternative to taking the A Train, but an invitation to bring my inner empath along. Assuming I have one to bring. They’re shy, the inner ones. Like inner tubes, only different 

This calls for a Postlude, in the form of an empathic Q and A.

How well do you read yourself?

Not bad, with my reading glasses.

How do you feel about this essay? 

Probably too long, and undisciplined as an overdue haircut, but it seemed to carve out a necessity for itself.Or maybe just for its elf, Elfy, whom I was determined to get in!

Anything else you wanted to get in? Now’s your chance.

Well,more about empathy. Specifically,self-empathy. We need to get better at reading ourselves—that’s why I asked.So we’re not confusing our own limitations with fears we think we feel. And maybe do feel but for other reasons

Not including Mortal Terrors, like bears, sharks, and forest fires.

Right. I was going to say “Obviously,” but it seemed borderline insulting.

Appreciate the empathy. One last thing I want to get in. The opportunity, the necessity, to empathize with my Parkinson’s self. Couple of examples. The small stuff. The mistakes! A plethora of them. Knowing, to choose one example, that I’m always going to miss the wastebasket when I toss a wad of paper at it. Always. I just am. (Do I rage or go gently into that mean basket? Always.)

And also the big picture, self-acceptance, which is the larger context of the small stuff, accommodating your peccadilloes, getting reacquainted with your lore, and recognizing when the unraveling has stopped. So you can publish this cookie and read a book at long last!

.

Ho, Hum

I think it was in the 1970s that I became aware of how few people were whistling recreationally anymore. Like zero. Where were all the whistled tunes, anthems, or theme songs  from popular ads? Another vanished relic of my boyhood, I sadly concluded. Later on, after the roofers and sheetrock installers brought whistling back from the brink, I realized that my worries had been misspent on the wrong relic. The endangered species wasn’t whistling. It was—and still is—humming.

It’s possible that the survival of humming depends on one woman from the nation of Uganda. To protect her identity, I will refer to her as Sofia. By a lucky coincidence, Sofia has been visiting my home as a Parkinson’s caregiver the past few weeks. Listening to her melodies (some familiar and others elusive) lofting softly from the kitchen has got me thinking seriously about this underappreciated musical style.

Humming is valuable for what it isn’t as well as for what it is. It isn’t the daring moment of a non-roofer’s whistled performance; nor is it the public audition of a full song which seems to be inviting a response from passers-by, either for the song or for the singer. Instead, humming is meant to be a private offering, shared but not required, courting no judgment, yet as modestly fulfilling as an aria in the shower.

Another thing humming isn’t — it’s not restricted to air vibrating through compressed lips. Freed from the eternal hmmmmm, humming is able to explore a variety of vocal riffs, skat, and faux or placeholder lyrics. Am I suggesting that roaming the soundscape  of dum be diddly skittle-i-day qualifies as humming? I am. And if shooby-dooby-do is legit, what about crooning the actual lyrics —”Strangers in the night exchanging glances…” ? Surely the song in full violates the rule of hum! Sofia would disagree. All lyrics, few, or none. are welcome in her songbook

 So if any lyric can be hummed, from the cosmic drone of Om to “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall,” what is it that defines a hum as a hum? Listening to Sofia, I think three qualities entitle the hummer to claim a hum as humworthy. The first two are volume and tone. Too loud clashes with the private impulse that originally summoned the hum. Too soft might keep a casual listener (if there is one) from sharing the experience. But what determines that sweet modulation is probably the third quality, which I alluded to with “the private impulse that summoned the hum.” That is: Intention!

So, why hum? To accompany yourself—to keep yourself company. To sip a tune, enough to savor the flavor, more if you feel like it, but be mindful that amping up can take you into the performance zone. Humming’s low-key approach resists self-consciousness. If it pleases others, why then, win-win, but as demonstrated by Sofia, the main purpose of humming is to serve the hummer. How? By providing what I call SCU, or stress-canceling uplift. 

Okay, I may have oversold it with that made-up acronym. The truth is, as might be clear from my rambling fanfare, I’m not a hummer myself!  I think there was a time when I dabbled in it. But all it takes is one true believer to be an influencer. So I honor Sofia for her example. And I chose this disguised title—HO, Hum!—to encourage myself and also to acknowledge the inertia that lies in my way. I ask myself, Do you even know what tune to practice? My snappy reply, No,but if you fake a few bars, I can hum it.

The Duck That Withstood

As a kid I had a picture book called Stories that Never Grow Old. One of the stories I remember was about Shingebiss, a duck who lived in the northern Great Lakes. I’ve since read other versions of the Ojibwe tale, all describing the epic contest between Shingebiss (usually shown as a merganser) and the North Wind, who is trying to prove that the one who rules this realm is Winter Maker, not a nervy little duck. Instead it’s Shingebiss who prevails.

I want to be listening at night

to a long-lost radio show

called “Stories that send up sparks”

while I’m bundled under blankets

and a blizzard rages outside.

The tale that’s on the radio

has traveled from the Ojibway 

on the shores of Lake Superior.

It tells of Shingebiss, a hardy

merganser with a ragged crest.

The shrieking outside my window melds 

with the roar of Winter Maker,

the one who holds sway over all that move

except for the sawbill Shingebiss.

He alone withstands the onslaught

of the North Wind’s killing blasts—heaping snow 

to hemlock height; coating drifts with ice;

blocking the bird in an underlake trap;

and entering the home of Shingebiss 

to extinguish the fire in his hearth.

But Winter Maker does not succeed.

The North Wind finds no fear

in Shingebiss, who sees them all as equals.

not enemies. With that they huff and leave,

and the radio’s theme blends with my dream:


Do not forget this duck.

Making Room for the Elephant

Deep in the pars compacta of the substantia nigra, something was killing the dopaminergic neurons. But what? Brady Kinesia knew, but Brady wasn’t talking…

I followed the trail back to my first blog, Old Hatch’s Almanac. Had I overlooked a clue? Yes! There it was! An entry entitled “Visiting My Secrets,” from 2010. I read on. “What’s inside…          

What’s inside stays inside—most of the time. The body’s interior goings-on are as mysterious to me as the fine print in a pharmaceutical ad, or the coded workings of a computer. But sometimes messages surface, indicating that the norm has changed.   

Indeed it had. Something was going on. A tentativeness in my left side. A flat affect calling the tune, flatly. Later I would remember older clues—unique smells for my nose only: in particular, one of marinara sauce. A calling card, left unsigned?

But it was the tale told by my left hand that my GP wanted me to share with an old-school neurologist he knew. The left hand didn’t seem to be as quick on the uptake as the right one. For instance, after setting down a bottle of seltzer on the table, lefty didn’t seem to know it could let go of the bottle. It was sort of sweetly befuddled. At the keyboard, it tended to lie on the left-hand keys, occasionally triggering unwanted commands, while righty moved way the hell to left of center to take charge of most of the letter keys. Then there were these periods of artisanal slowness, especially in the kitchen when Carol was zipping around getting dinner ready. I’ve always been on the largo side—the dreamy kid, the distracted ambler—but this was not the result of distraction, more of disinclination. 

The doctor looked me over and had me do a number of movement tests (touching my nose with eyes closed, flying out my fingers on command, etc). Then he said, a bit circumspectly,“What you’re describing is similar to the stories told by people who have Parkinson’s disease.” Five months later, I came back to see him with the same stories. This time he was more certain than before that I was one of those people.  

Carol and I walked from the hospital into a world bereft of sparkle, the status of a left-open bottle of seltzer. “At least we have a name for it now,” I said, bleakly. The name we now had for it didn’t inspire rapport. “Disease” seemed to carry germs. And who was this Parkinson dude reaching across the centuries? How had his disease become mine?

The average age when people are diagnosed with Parkinson’s is sixty, which was exactly my age at the time. I was unsure how to feel as a new member of this statistical club—in good company with Michael J. Fox and millions of other chosen ones or pissed off that I had stepped in it, or that it took twenty years before my brain got around to letting me know about this invasion. Until the official diagnosis, there seemed to be a code of silence, possibly fueled by the brain’s reluctance to spill bad news about itself and possibly by my own reluctance to listen. 

Long after the diagnosis, making room for Parkinson’s remains a slow process made slower by a condition that does not encourage haste. You have it, they said. And I believed them. But at the same time, it’s like taking in a house guest you don’t know, who, rumor has it, is a distant cousin of yours. You change the sheets, make up the guest room, you can hear it snoring, and it doesn’t put the milk away. But it’s not going to leave, despite the hints you drop about it visiting some other cousin. And gradually, you accept the fact that this bizarre guest is you, or at least yours. Which means maybe it’s not so bizarre, because you’re not so bizarre. Not to yourself.

Complicating the task of making room for your “cousin” is the task of telling people about the so-called elephant in the room. Good luck keeping your pachyderm cousin a secret. Good luck scooching over on the sofa to make room for an African tusker who siphons up all the popcorn. You might have an easier time if Jumbo were a little ceramic elephant you keep on the mantlepiece.

Or better yet, forget the elephant. Lose the cousin. Slow-walk breaking the news to the barber. The important thing, I remind myself, is you making room for that non-metaphorical condition you met in the diagnosis. It’s the least you can do for yourself as you accommodate the ironies and vicissitudes of the post-diagnostic zone, which begins with the next post. But before I go further with this riverboat cruise, I should confess what must have been obvious so far: I don’t know a mushroom from a ballroom when it comes to characterizing anyone else’s unique Parkinson’s. However, that admission doesn’t disqualify me from bloviating with confidence about my own Parkinson’s —thanks to NERD, the Non-Einsteinian Relativity Disclaimer—to wit: Every Parkie is an unimpeachable expert on their own PD experience. 

No, sir, this is not a real riverboat cruise. Yes, ma’am, I’m afraid it is “just another metaphor.”  Sorry, sir; no refunds. Nice try.

The Right Man

I’d rather be solving crossword puzzles 
all the ding-dong day
than bang my head against this page 
to find what I have to say.

But the day rings with declarations
of song sparrows filling the air
so I’ll ask the question of myself:
Have you anything to declare?

To declare something definitive about yourself might be easier for a bird than for a writer. In the essay before this one, I recalled a slogan on an Amstel beer coaster that illustrates the blunt confidence of the declarative sentence—Dit is de man. Dit is z’n bier.  

You might say I was borrowing some verbal “Dutch courage” to help me define my experience of Parkinson’s Disease. I even looked up the Dutch word for “disease” to make it sound more authentic —This is the man. Dit is z’n ziekte.  

But the words refused to be anything but a slogan on a beer coaster. I came to realize that I had chosen the wrong Dutch man. The right one was flesh-and-blood, not a character in an ad. He actually had Parkinson’s and exhibited some of the contradictions and confusions that I would shortly become familiar with.

I first encountered the right man about ten years ago at a symposium on Parkinson’s Disease in Boston. On a brief video I watched a gent in his fifties making his way down a corridor. It might have been the first time I’d observed someone with an array of parkinsonian symptoms. He had an uncontrolled tremor in both hands and an unreliable gait that took him from an inability to move his feet to a sudden burst of small stutter-steps. A caregiver walked beside him, extending her leg as a target for him to step over, giving his brain an alternative to getting stuck. This was my possible future.

A second video followed. It showed the same man doing what is second nature to much of the Dutch population—cycling. And this was proudly z’n fiets—his bicycle. After a helping boost, the right man pushed off into the mostly empty parking lot and just short of the roadway he executed a smooth U-turn and pedaled back with no awkwardness, having convincingly declared his ease in the saddle.

When I first saw the biking Dutchman, I admired him as a peer: I was master of my own ten-speed, a used Univega. But when I couldn’t maintain my balance anymore—three rides, three falls—I had no choice but to trade those tired wheels for a walker and an exercycle. Now it’s the pride of his declaration I admire. I also salute him for introducing me to the trials and triumphs that are both part of Parkinson’s. 

I also think I’ve found an answer to “Have you anything to declare?” at least where Parkinson’s is concerned.  I’ll borrow the song sparrow’s catchy jingle and the example of the right man and declare my willingness to look for the ease hiding inside the disease.

Dit is z’n ziekte

Why write? I’m at one of those crossroads where I need to consult the map. ( I don’t mean a literal map.) I know there are plenty of unsatisfactory answers to that question. Such as: I’ve got to do something. It’s what I do. People expect me to write and I need to reassure them—or satisfy myself—that I’m not losing it. And least convincing, practice makes perfect.  Better answers: It’s a means to an end. It keeps my brain engaged. Well-meaning “Reading Rainbow”-type answers: I can go anywhere; imagine things, create characters, explore topics more deeply than just thinking about them. Like answering “Why write?” 

Then there’s “Why write about a difficult, fraught, confusing thing?” Like Parkinson’s Disease, which I have, and feel obligated to write about. And which seems to be bending my word-finding skills into twisted bamboozles. Maybe I should reframe the question: Why write about mysterious things? That’s more inviting. And for mysterious reasons, it brings to mind the Amstel beer coaster.

I like to invoke the Amstel beer coaster, or in particular, the Dutch slogan on it. It’s a good touchstone when you need help in sorting out who or what you are. I first saw the coaster on a table in Amsterdam. On the left side of the disk is a guy in silhouette, possibly meant to mimic James Bond, who was then in vogue. On the right side is the Amstel beer logo. And across the top is the message: Dit is de man. Dit is z’n bier. Understated and succinct.You don’t even need help translating it into English, but it sounds better in Dutch. Especially the magical “z’n.” When you’re a man of mystery, simultaneously revealing and concealing yourself, it’s wise to be cryptic. 

We all need a slogan like that: a blunt affirmation with just a hint of irony from some spokesperson speaking for the masses. This is not “the most interesting man in the world” of another beer brand. The Dutch man doesn’t care whether we emulate his choice or not. Nor does he have any traits to share. He could be anyone inside his inky incognito. No help from him, nor should there be. This is my inventory. So, who am I?

      

I’m a writer. I’m a Jew. I’m a night owl. I’m even a man of mystery—to myself. And for the past twelve years, I have taken on another, still ill-fitting, identity. To say it in Dutch: Dit is de man. Dit is z’n ziekte. 

The problem is—for the writer, at least—I’m not especially comfortable making big-ticket declarations about myself. It makes me sound as if I’m bragging or pity-fishing, or both. Ten million people on the planet have Parkinson’s disease, each with their own unique variation. I speak for one.

To learn to be that one, and to own z’n ziekte, his disease, is why to write about difficult and mysterious things.  

A Summons

Sometimes it’s a matter of finding the right metaphor. How about this one: a summons is served. If you open the door to the knock or doorbell, you have officially accepted it. Maybe it’s a subpoena duces tecum, to flash a little Latin. “You must bring with you” such and such a document on such and such a day. And to improve the fantasy, to put a little horseradish on the gefilte fish, I hire Three Constables of Boston to serve the summons, which they did for real in the 1930s from an office downtown on School Street. It was a family business owned by Michael W. Ober, my grandfather, with the help of a son or two—let’s say my dad, Emil, and his brother Harold, my namesake, who had Hodgkin’s Disease and died too young for us to meet, unfortunately.

A summons to do what? Well, for starters, to finish this essay I’m presently writing, the first of a series. It’s had many previous titles and guiding metaphors—Micrographia, Befriending the Monster, Unfolding the Plight, and now A Summons. But its purpose is basically the same: to fulfill my obligation as a writer, impressed on me by family, friends, and myself, “to Write a series of short essays, or ‘huts,’ beginning with this one, to observe, describe, and unpack the Neurological Condition of mine which was diagnosed in  2009 as Parkinson’s Disease, aka Parkinson’s, aka PD, aka, for reasons to be made clearer or muddier, The Plight. 

So I answered the persistent knocking at the door. I enfolded the imagined constabulary of Obers in a warm hug—a reception I guessed they were not used to as experienced process-servers. And of course I sat down, creakily, on my front porch to compare notes with my dad. In this serving-a-summons scenario, he was 22, but only outwardly. He knew his life story, including the progress of his heart condition, two surgeries, six years apart, and he knew his death at age 48 from heart disease; “That would be a hell of a summons,” I daresaid. He smiled slightly.“Anyway,” I hurried on, “this Plight has been hard for me to write about directly, for some reason. When I do write about it, I dodge behind metaphors, humor—I call it ridiculopathy—arid various yakkety-yak distractions like this one. Sometimes I lose sight of what the metaphors represent. Meanwhile, I keep compiling these long lists of PD topics to explore, only I keep not writing them.”

I asked him how he was able to write so prolifically about his heart disease, which began with a bout of rheumatic fever at age 15, but I knew the answer—work. Meaning both his work ethic, honed at Boston Latin School and Harvard, and his long-time job as PR director of the New York Heart Association. “Work,” or its units, ergs, were prominent on my list of topics. I was erg-deficient, which impacted writing, exercise, reading, going outside. Don’t get me started, I said, but I meant just the opposite: do get me started.

I left him with a piece of advice we were both familiar with, but maybe it was a universal truth: Stay engaged. We agreed to stay in touch. And knowing our mutual appreciation for a pun, even a bad one, he countered with, A con’s table is never listless. 

Time to enlist!

Summoners

Note: The following poem has a prose echo—a short essay titled “A Summons.” It uses the same firm of constables that appears here. Both the essay and the poem share themes of health and family in slightly different ways.  I am grateful to Michael W. Ober and his son, Emil H. Ober (my grandfather and dad, respectively) for not cease-and-desisting me from reprinting the ode about Barrister Brown. The essay “A Summons” is or will be posted separately.

My dad was a word guy.

He could summon the ablest words necessary 

to charm, inform, and perform.

Words trusted him

the way I like to pretend that words like me,

only him they loved.

He died before we could compare notes 

on coaxing tophats from rabbits

or collaborate 

on folderol and whimsy.

He left when I was finding out

how much fun words could be.

But he left some exhibits for inspiration

like the poem he wrote at twenty

to drum up business for his dad,

a constable or summons server

in Boston during the Depression.

Did his ode persuade any lawyers?

Don’t know. I hope so.

An Ode to Attorneys all over Towne

Re. the Embarrassed Barrister Brown

Barrister Brown, he stood in court—

Clamoring “Contract!”  shouting “Tort!”

And legal expressions of every sort.

His client’s ear he filled with cheer;

The opposition chilled with fear.

And fellow lawyers hushed with awe

Murm’ring “That man knows his law.”

One day Brown felt especially chipper

As he opened his brief-case by drawing the zipper.

He smiled at the judge in his courtly manner,

The court acknowledged by rapping its hammer

Stating, “Start now as soon as you can, sir.”

“I wish a continuance,” Brown had to answer.

“One witness is absent, another is late,

A third my Constable couldn’t locate.”

The courtroom hushed, his Honor frowned.

The complexion of Brown had notice’bly browned.

The judge fumed, “Man, are you drunk or sober?

Your Constable ought to have been Michael Ober!

When he serves a summons, the witness knows better

Than not to obey it down to its last letter.

You’ll find all your cases as easy as fun

If you heed this new statute I call Section One:

‘When Constabulary duty’s to be done,

It’s Michael W. Ober or a son.’

You can get Mike Ober without half tryin’

On Capitol O Two Seven Niyn’.”

The poem was printed in an erudite typeface

on a cream-hued card 

in a debossed rectangular frame.

Its adspeak

was tongue in cheek.

And in the spaces between the words

I could hear my moon-faced grandfather guffawing,

see Emil, my dad, allowing himself a pleased grin

as he collated copies with another brother,

maybe Harold, my namesake.

I would want them to know

I recognized the pitch:

competence, wit,

and unmistakably, love,

son to father, 

words to son.

Two Selfies

Creative Writing

This poem stinks!
this poem thinks,
all on a Saturday night.
See how it’s sabotaging itself
with stupid lines like that?

Where is Poet?
He left the room
to have a smoke in the writers’ lounge
letting us go to the doggerels,
unsupervised,
running amok,
tagging in chalk:
“By Squeaky the Squawk!” 

So feel free to curse!                                                
Pranks outrank 
blank verse!
it’s rhyme without reason,
It’s Carney without Gleason!
Who’s Carney?

I know! It’s like penning a sonnet
with liverwurst on it!
Seriously. Without Gleason
The Honeymooners wouldn’t have lasted one season.
Who’s Gleason?

Shit!
Poet’s back!
Quick, hide those
blue limericks!
Erase
the extra syllables
in the haiku!
Quell
That smelly villanelle!

Hang on.
Poet’s gassed.
Yeah! He’s so deep in clover 
he won’t even notice
that his couplet runneth over.

Ow! Good one!
Yeah, who penned that?
I did.

Wait. 
You did?
He did?

I kid.

the words’ shape-up

Seeking work,
the words assemble
in the morning chill,
stamping their dew-soaked Rhino boots,
gulping coffee from styrene cups.
One cold word begins to sing: “Oats, peas, beans, and barley grow!”
All the other words join in, “Can you or I or anyone know
how oats, peas, beans, and barley grow?

At last the hirer steps out of the trailer.
He bellows through a bullhorn,
”I need six words with a knack for narrative poems!”
A few aspirants shamble off, muttering. 
The hirer consults his clipboard.
“I need shape-shifters! All I can get. Anyone?” 
Nine words step forward. “Metaphors be with you,” one salutes.  
“A comic. Just don’t forget,” the hirer says,
This is no metaphor!
So be sure your joists rhyme with your hoists!”
He looks around. “Fear of heights?” 
The words respond: “We’ll work nights!”

And off they go, swinging their lunchpails,
heading for the wharves like the seventeen dwarves,
intoning the shape-up song:

Remember, dream, amuse—
bad news!
Consider, compare, and choose…
you lose!
Survey, expect, orate—
P’tooey!
And never punch over your weight! 
 Ka-blooey!

(Repeat)

Auguring Well

This essay was supposed to be two separate essays. Each one revolved around a word. But the revolving grew tiresome. Maybe the words were too weighty for forward momentum. They were both long, suffixed nouns, frankly political. I know that not every essay can achieve the velocity necessary to escape its own gravity. (Sentences like that one don’t help matters.) Still, I felt that I, the writer, had let the essays down. Both had started out full of that can-do “Yankee doodly dum.” Now they were begging for a dime’s worth of my attention.

Then January 6th happened, and I recognized in that chaos the unmistakable presence of both of my sidelined words, which I will now reveal to be hatriotism and inauguration  Clearly, both words belonged in the same essay and so they shall be.  This despite the fact that they did not appear to get along and seemed destined for further conflict. Unless that was exactly why they should hang together.

Hatriotism wasn’t in any standard dictionary I knew of. It arrived in my vocabulary under strange circumstances. I was watching the news one night in the summer of 2020. It was the usual mix of malicious vigilantes in Kenosha, Wisconsin and other unexpected war zones. I was thinking about all those freelance militiamen who brandished their so-called  love of country as an enabling weapon. I muttered “patriotism” in scorn and it came out as “hatriotism.”

Had I coined that? Apparently so! But it proved a hard word to own. I wasn’t sure I trusted my fitness to wield an accidental word that led with hate and morphed into patriotism. In any case,  Google soon put the kibosh on my claim to the word or its cognates, hatriotic and hatriot. Hatriot turned out to be an American  thrash metal band—I was new to the genre—that was responsible for such songs as “Organic Remains,” “Ethereal Nightmare,” and a personal favorite, “Superkillafragsadisticactsaresoatrocious.”  There was also a British band, Deformation of Man,with a song called “Hatriotic.” It was funny  to think that these dabblers in the dark had experienced  the same eureka! moment as mine.  Google makes strange badfellows. 

For the bands, each word was most likely a prop, a vaudevillian kick in the arse. For me, it was a genuine counter-weapon: a pun that you could wield to rename a foe. Its sliver of irony didn’t blunt its attack; it added confusion: You say you’re a patriot. I say you’re a hatriot. A patriot is guided by pride and inclusion.  A hatriot’s cause is to exclude and repel. Sirrah, I declare you a fraud! (All that bold intention from one slip of the tongue? I needed some reinforcement.)

I got plenty of help from  a 2019 Guardian article by Samuel G. Freedman which begins: “There’s an old word for Trump’s brand of nationalism: ‘hatriotism.’ The term perfectly describes people who cloak toxic intolerance in patriotism. Let’s bring it back.”  

I learned about Gerald L. K. Smith, the racist, antisemitic founder of the America First party in 1943, whose adherents were referred to in the press as “hatriots.” Further research  roped in Walter Winchell, the Daily Beast, and a certain thrash metal band, after which Freedman asked, “Why should the right have all the weaponized words (feminazi, libtard, snowflake)?” Why indeed? Happy to join the struggle, Sam.

But I had another word family to reckon with: inaugural, inaugurate, and inauguration. The noun of the trio was the one accorded the maximum respect, befitting a coronation, investiture, or other polysyllabic initiations.  For me, the word evoked a frigid January day in 1961with JFK, LBJ, and Ike wearing tophats, as I recall, and the poet Robert Frost unable to read in the snowglare the poem he had written for the occasion and resorting to reciting another poem from memory. 

It’s interesting how the changing face of America can reflect and be reflected by its inaugural poet. 2021 gave us Amanda Gorman, age 22, whose style is physical, emotional, and hip-hop. Meanwhile, history, changing or not, provided a backdrop—a pandemic and an attempted coup— that called for “the better angels of our nature” as Lincoln had appealed to the disunited Union in his first inaugural address. That was one hundred years before JFK’s urge that we ask ourselves what we can do for our country. Now, an added sixty years on,  the ask seemed more relevant than ever.

We were used to dealing with a biological virus. Perhaps the ritual of the 2021 inauguration could armor us against this hatriotic virus, or at least afford us another chance to ask our country what we could do to help it. Speak to us, Jack and Abe. We are coping with another civil war pitting patriots against  hatriots, some of them brandishing the same battle flags as before. Or am I overestimating the herd immunity of my metaphors? 

I admit my idea of  inauguration therapy didn’t seem likely to work, what with rumors of another incursion of hatriots on the 20th, the day Joe Biden assumed the presidency. Somehow, healing was not implied by the presence of 25,000 National Guard troops and seven-foot fences topped with coils of razor wire. Instead, would underplaying make a difference? Light soothes the dark. At dusk on the 19th, a display of four hundred white light boxes along the Reflecting Pool in the National Mall paid tribute to our fellow Americans, then numbering 400,000, who had died of Covid-19. (Spurn not your masks, you who are not as immortal as you think.) Against those rows of light—echoed in the white-lit Capitol Building and ghostly Abe Lincoln at opposite ends of the Mall—even the army of Guardsmen, melting into the dark, was recast as a protective night watch.

W e were all protecting the inauguration, whether  we knew it or not. We were assuming an identity often invoked by others who claimed to know how we felt about any cause. We were the American People. We watched Joe and Kamala take their oaths of office, listened to Joe’s speech, and took in a virtual American gala that was pitched between an affectionate arm-squeeze and a vaccination. Being spectators was a familiar vantage for these US r us events. We knew “America”as a crazy quilt of anthems, sacred documents, founding fathers, re-enactments, and icons seen through airplane windows, Ken Burns films, and TV broadcast sign-offs. There was also a venerable American tradition of con men, bunko artists, humbugs, and false prophets. But I don’t think hatriotism was trending until the Make America Great Again hat riots of 2016 and who can forget Trump’s vision of “American carnage” at his inauguration in January, 2017.

What about the post-noon elation that was bound to follow the forced exile of the Wizard of Ooze? It was there, but so was the trepidation borne of four years of daily unease topped by an armed insurrection more scary for being amateurish and improvised. We needed another day.

I don’t remember much about the 21st, except that it was a Thursday. I have always liked Thursday, a mature weekday, steward of Thanksgiving, with a superior line-up of TV shows going back to Cheers, Seinfeld, and Friends. I also liked it because it lent itself to a favorite bit of wordplay called a charade in which you can divide a sentence or phrase in two different ways. In this case, the redivision spelled out a good-or-maybe-not-so-good omen: UNCLE ARTHUR’S DAY FOR TUNES or UNCLEAR THURSDAY FORTUNES. If you wrote them on two slips of paper and blindly drew one from a hat, you would have a simple augury. When something “augurs well” or “augurs ill,” it foretells an outcome that in ancient Rome was determined by a reader of signs—known as an augur.

It is no coincidence that augur lives inside inaugural, inaugurate, and inauguration. In Roman times and in our own, installing a leader required more than defending the integrity of ballots. It meant finding reassurance in reliable sources, including our own senses. Consulting my inner augur on the morning of Thursday the 21st, I found it solidly favoring Uncle Arthur and his tunes.  No interference from hatriots that I could see. I trusted this feeling; it was homemade, different from the televised events I participated in the day before as a spectator. I could claim this feeling. It was inaugural, an adjective that could be conferred and owned. I felt vaguely liberated, tentatively democratic. In fact it made sense that in the land of E Pluribus Unum, the many would share the entitlement of the one. 

The question is, if we’re participating in the inauguration personally, don’t we also have a responsibility to the auguring? Isn’t  it up to us, We the People, to influence whether the American weather vane augurs well or ill? Isn’t patriotism properly  a participatory pact? Ask not me. Ask the better nature of our angels.