Those of you who have been reading me, here and elsewhere, for any length of time, know that I battle my tendency to sink low when something happens in my life that leaves me feeling lost and alone, even for a short time. During the past few years, several of my good friends, and one of my brothers, have died, leaving me to hope — but also wonder — if in some form, if in some way, I’ll once again be able to feel their friendship, not just today inside my heart, but also spirit-to-spirit, whatever shape, sound and size that ineffable reality might be. I miss those friends. I miss the warm, funny, silly, serious, sad and outrageous times we shared. Family and friendship really are the most valuable gems we can acquire in life. I have been fortunate to have shared parts of my life with many friends. Good people, all. I get to say those things and mean them now that I’m old, quite soon to be officially old in terms of certain of the USA’s societal rules. As well, in my oldest foggiest moments, while engaged in a conversation with a young person, I can say and mean things such as “Yes, but you have your whole life ahead of you.” The person whom I love most in this world scolds me whenever I talk like that. This morning, I told her my legs ached and my back hurt, and I felt old. She answered, “You need to get out of bed, take some Tylenol and get a move on, before I apply a pillow to your noggin.” I got up. She drove me here. Here is sitting inside this coffee shop in Arroyo Grande, CA, writing this longwinded, never get to the point, but always astute essay. The photographs featured with this article will show you what a pretty place this is. Now, I’m no genius, far from it, but for all my brutish mistakes in life, still, I remain a man of average intelligence (however that hoo ha concept of intelligence is these days defined by the high and mighty intellijudges who sit on the high intellicourts that in turn rule and devise academia-mania IQ tests.) When I was a working stiff, I had to pretend that I gave credence to such tests. I didn’t, but objecting out loud to such nonsense caused me further trouble. And during my younger years, I was loud, clear and articulate. I am physically a small man, so words quick became my weapon of choice. Several of my superiors throughout the years modified my divinely inspired name to include the epithet Firebrand. If I still hesitate, out of a worn-out sense of pride, to admit to the title Firebrand, I will admit that I was oftentimes a wise ass. Of course, in later years, Harvard Professor Howard Gardner designed a new outline of sorts to describe what he felt certain were seven kinds of intelligence. Apparently the Prof wasn’t initially so certain that he wouldn’t allow later high-class intellectual pedigrees to modify his outline. Sorta like the first ten ammendments to the USA’s constitution, followed by seventeen more, although one such amendment nixed another. I’m rusty where my Catholic theology is concerned, but I don’t think God allowed for any ammendments to his tablets of commandments. Correct me if I’m mistaken. Yes, I said mistaken, because we Sicilians are never wrong. Anyway, the expert academicians now list for us at least nine types of intelligence. I suppose there’s a lot of good thought involved in all that elitist rigmarole, but after thirty-seven years in the trenches, I still wouldn’t dare to try to define the concept of smarts. Feels too much like judging a human being based on my own definitions, or on someone else’s PhD thesis’ conclusions, when in truth each person owns the right to define his or her own smarts. *** And how in the woo woo did I manage to lead off with that mini-rant? It’s all the fault of a long ago friend with whom I recently reconnected. My writing drags, winds and curls into itself, whereas what my friend writes entertains his audience. I chuckle when I’m reading his work. I need that universal medicine, laughter, as much as the next person. I consider this friend from my distant past to be a master writer and entertainer for many reasons, not the least of which is that he just lets go with honesty and respect intact. I’m not the only one of his readers to say so. But I won’t here mention his name, because he claims to be shy about praise, and I believe him. I knew him many decades ago as a kind, insightful, comical and gentle man. If memory serves me at all well in my old age, then this friend of mine was, even way back then, a wee bit timid. Except . . . yes, except when he was acting as a teacher to young people. There and then he acted as a confident and relaxed master. I know this because I witnessed many of his performances. In some ways this long prologue (the word prologue holds more dignity than the term please get to the point nonsense) does indeed relate to the title of this article. See, as I thought about curling back up under the blankets, fetal style this morning, those deaths of friends, one of whom was just mentioned to me yesterday by the friend and writer I allude to here, along with the aches, pains and advanced-age associated physical limitations, left me feeling self-righteous about entertaining self-pity. And although my pretty partner booted my egotistical butt enough to encourage me to rise from the almost dead, once outside, where morning clouds let go to reveal afternoon sunshine, I felt obligated by a sense of honesty to admit that old or not, that having suffered loss or not, that with further loss and suffering to come included, this old world is indeed full of wonder. For all that I may feel is wrong with this world, and I do grow sad and sometimes angry by how mean we human beings can be to each other, there is plenty that is right with this world. I’ve just now tipped the one thousand word mark; nothing new for me there, but I’ll here on out try to limit the final paragraphs, to speak of just one right thing, one world wonder that I discovered in just the past few days. Let the photos associated with this article represent a few more bits of beauty I enjoyed today. About my friend, the talented, honest and humorous blogger. As I already mentioned, I knew him decades ago. He was a good man then, and from his writing and his photographs I now know that in spite of a long, dedicated but difficult career helping others in need, this guy hasn’t lost one bit of what was always good about him. And as justice sometimes does play itself out, this writer friend, I now discover, met and married a smart, pretty and talented woman. Together they share a son and two sweet grandchildren. That’s just perfect. That’s plenty enough to leave me with a smile today. This world is full of a lot of realities, some more sad than others. But whenever I discover a set of world wonders, I celebrate each and every one of them. Ciao, AVT
First, an introduction. No! Please, I always skip those parts!
The logo that tops this article is one I created a long time ago, as in back before my hair turned gray and my gait began to falter. I still own the domain name it displays.
Last year a stranger wrote and offered to buy this piece of Internet real estate from me. I think he was in the business of selling coffee. Our conversation was polite, maybe even warm. I told him that what few readers I have associate me with the SpilledBeans.com moniker.
What I chose not to say, but what is even more centered on the truth, is that I want to hold close this frivolous bit of my history on the Web. Call me nostalgic. Go ahead. I won’t mind. I’m old enough to admit that looking backward has become a habit that feels comfortable, painful and wise, all at the same time. It’s a habit I don’t want to break.
These days I use my full name as my geek-bound domain address. Somewhere along that line we imagine as “somewhere along the line,” I followed a tech guru’s advice to tie my online presence together with a digital ribbon named Anthony V. Toscano (and please don’t forget the “V.”). It’s likely a good idea to do so, maybe even a necessary one. If I want to be found, that is. And I want to be found, because I want to be read.
Need I say that times have changed since I began to spill the beans online? Of course not. SpilledBeans.com was a place to keep my online journal. Some of you Social Media friends, neighbors, relatives and strangers who post photos of your recent travels, your class schedules and five-megapixel-pictures of the kitties who sit on your keyboards might know that online journals were the precursors to BLOGS. And no matter what Wikipedia tells you, the word BLOG did not originally stand for Web Log; it stood for Biographical Log, as in online journal.
Today I find myself mired inside a different kind of geek advice, a set of well-intended, born-of-experience RULES for blogging.
I’m old, but I’m technologically proficient. I know a lot about designing websites, coding and the like. The most important thing I know about today’s technologies, however, is that there’s always someone “out there” who knows more than I know.
I’m old, but I like to stay current.
So I’m taking a course about How To Blog (the right way, I suppose). About discovering and marketing one’s writer’s brand. It’s so far been a good course. My classmates are eager, friendly and supportive. The instructor is an expert with a solid national reputation.
Still, I resist. I don’t want to be a brand. I’ll never sell a book, because although I am a talented writer, what I write is not publishable in today’s market. That’s not self-pity talking; it’s rather self-analysis.
I’ve long believed that the day soon will come when readers will refuse to pay for what other people write. Fact is, yon teens, Social Media, and the Internet before it, has granted anyone and everyone who owns a keyboard — or a touch screen, or a smart phone, or a . . . — and the desire to do so, the right to claim the title Writer.
That’s the reason that most times — although not always — I post stories, scenes and poems to this website, rather than BLOG POSTS.
I’m a writer, not a brand.
I began this bloggy article by mentioning SpilledBeans.com. Eleven years ago, I posted the following story to that website. Call me nostalgic for digging it out of a file drawer and re-posting it here today. Go ahead. I won’t mind. This is a habit I don’t want to break.
“My god is wonder,” said my friend to me. “What’s not to worship in that?”
“You’re right,” I thought. “Thank you, friend. You’re right.”
Late this afternoon, I visited an antique shop. The trash-turned-treasure kind of shop that I prefer. The arrangement of trinkets haphazard, the dominant aroma that of old books and cozy attics, the lighting dim and the window panes dusty.
Whenever I enter such a place, I feel somehow replenished, as if somewhere I just might own a soul.
As I move myself from sunlight to shadow, I realize that once again I’m looking backward, and that looking backward can quick become a dangerous habit.
The psycho-therapeutic gurus warn a man that he can go blind if he looks too far back or crawls too deep inside.
But, still, in the end and nonetheless, looking toward the past while standing inside a present moment is a paradox that I enjoy.
I insist that the psycho-therapeutic gurus, on this point at least, are just plain wrong. Nostalgia isn’t bad for you. Nostalgia just is. When I was a kid, a loaf of bread cost twenty-three cents at Gill’s Delicatessen, and that’s a sweet thought, and I was a sweet kid.
I strolled past the trays of costume jewelry, fiddled with a few science fiction paperbacks from the Golden Age, and then knelt before several cardboard boxes filled with tattered magazines. I was searching for an image that might suit my frame of mind, a picture or a photograph that I could scan, crop and slip between the threads of my next story.
Inside the third box I found her. Down deep and toward the back, under a tall stack of comic books that once cost twelve cents and today cost just as many dollars.
She’s a sexy young girl, dressed up to look like Santa’s urge to procreate. Long legs curved and curled, one knee touched delicate against the other, two thighs soft and warm enough to tempt a man to kiss the lock on heaven’s gate. A calendar girl whose flirtatious smile reveals even more than her outfit leaves to a hungry man’s imagination.
I suppose that I fell in love with her. If I am to be honest, then I can’t deny that I went looking for love, and so of course I found her. I think it’s true that a man finds love whenever and wherever he looks for it.
Please spare me your speeches about potbellied men who smoke rank cigars and sell baby-doll images for the sake of a sweaty buck. Because my Santa girl whispered in my ear. And who am I not to listen to a pretty girl’s whisper?
She told me that she’d been sitting there inside her dusty bin for quite a few years, yawning and stretching and smiling and waiting for me to pull her out, just so she could teach me a lesson about the playful side of humanity, a side and a shade that I so rudely overlook whenever I dive down deep into envy and resentment.
“Have fun once in a while, you old curmudgeon,” she whispered. “Next time you step into your pulpit, wear your Santa suit and wink at your parishioners. One of them just might wink back.”
But I could hardly hear my calendar girl’s voice, because behind me the shop’s one employee — a middle-aged woman with bottle-dyed hair, meow-meow eyeglasses and a name tag that read Hilda — began talking to me. Incessantly. No matter that I looked the other way. No matter that I found myself busy with love. No matter that I leaned toward the lock on heaven’s gate. This loquacious lady told me all about her past adventures as a school bus driver. She began with Chapter Two, wherein Hilda wounds herself in the line of duty.
I don’t think it was my manly presence that inspired Hilda’s soliloquy. After all, I’m just not that manly since my hair turned gray and my vision turned inward. No, I don’t think it was me. Not at all. I’m sure that the nostalgic customer before me heard Chapter One, wherein Hilda passes her driver’s test and dons her seductive uniform.
“I held on tight to the lever and I tried with all my might to yank the doors closed,” she said, “but the wind that day yanked back so hard that my spine has never been the same.”
“Yes,” I said. “The wind in these parts can be fierce at times.” Not my best line, I admit, but I was trying to concentrate on Santa’s urge to procreate, and I wanted Hilda to be quiet.
“But do you think the bastards I worked for understood the pain I suffered?” she said.
“No, the bastards never understand,” I said.
“They never thought I’d amount to much, because I was the only woman in the bus barn back then,” she said. Her voice began to curl and match the snarled curve of her eyeglasses.
“But I surprised them,” she said. “I won a trophy at the school bus rodeo.”
To this I said nothing, although inside I felt myself falling fast and hard toward unconditional surrender. I decided to carry my calendar girl to the register, to purchase her and later in the evening to wink and whisper with her, in the privacy of my den. I moved up close to the glass-topped counter. Hilda sat on an antique chair behind the cash drawer. She finished Chapter Two and immediately began to sing me Chapter Three, wherein Hilda seeks revenge and discovers justice.
I looked into the blue eyes behind her meow-meow lenses, and at that moment I decided to listen. Somehow I understood, perhaps by the lines in her face, that Hilda was just as much a character, with just as fine a story to whisper in my ear, as was my calendar girl. If I tilted my head at just the right angle, and adjusted my vision a few degrees forward in time, then I’d be bound to find the god that I was after.
I laid nostalgia on the counter top. Hilda rang her up and slipped her into a paper bag.
“The trophy was shaped like a steering wheel with wings,” she said. “You know, the wings pointed out and up.” Hilda’s fingers traced the shape of wings before my eyes.
“Those wings gave me a perfect idea,” she said.
“You must have worked hard to earn that trophy,” I said.
“Yes, I did.”
I watched the sadness inside Hilda’s eyes. Perhaps she saw the same in mine.
“I worked hard, but the bastards never appreciated me,” she said. “So you know what I did? I handed that trophy to my boss. I aimed its wings at his face. And I told him to sit on it.”
“Ouch,” I said.
The visitor follows a worn, slate path around and about a local park, and there he encounters a couple of lovers sitting on a wooden bench. At first, he hesitates and thinks to turn around and away from what he assumes must be one of their private moments together. But the couple beckons him closer and begs the visitor to forgive them their inability to move.
“We lean on this cane for eternity,” they whisper as one voice to him.
“My cap no longer smells of perspiration, and my lover’s shawl fails to flutter when the breeze runs through this place,” the still man says to their visitor. “We long ago grew as quiet as the oak tree that lives behind us, although we own no memories of when our changes first began to occur.”
“I don’t mean to pry,” he thinks out loud. “But might you tell me how it feels to be old?”
“You might tell us the same if you were willing to admit to us and to yourself that age is but one vague factor when it comes to growing old.”
“I see that your wife’s purse sits idle beside her. What of the valuables it contains?”
“Take the purse if you want it. It’s as empty as we are full.”
“Your poetry sounds a maudlin note, old man. I suppose you mean to say that the two of you are filled with love, whereas your wife’s purse . . .”
“You may leave us now if our rhythm and our rhyme displeases you. The choice is always yours to make.”
But the visitor stays. He takes a few steps forward, turns his body leftward, bends himself at the hips and knees, and sits beside the two lovers. There he waits to become a part of them.
Inside his mind he sees the shack. Unpainted, except for the blue, salty tones the ocean winds have washed into the clapboard walls. Stuff, reads the crooked sign above the shack’s door. The air smells like old fish. The old building leans toward the coastline, like a tree bent on finding water. Netting serves as a curtain against the inside of the hut’s only window. A jumble of nameless objects crowds the porch, a colorless urn, a splintered two-by-four, thick and knotted rope meant for the bow of a dying sailboat.
As he stares, he wonders if all the late-night arguments were necessary, or if they were perhaps unavoidable. The shoving insistence that love could be forced into clarity of definition. I’m right and I’m wrong and I’m guilty of all the sins you accuse me of committing. Romance back then, at the time of our beginning, back before our changes occurred and we were forced to sit still on this bench, back then romance was sex, yes the smell of perspiration mixed with that of blood and waste. And now? Now romance is the vision we share of this clapboard shack, of the stuff we’ll leave behind for the next couple to care about. Take the purse if you want it; just please leave the rhythm and the rhyme.
When he realizes the danger of discovery that the old shack must contain within, he turns and leaves in order that he might survive his life for at least one more day. He trips and stumbles over cracked and crushed cement, circles round the shack and behind himself he finds the boat, the same boat that always drifts inside his dreams. Moored, yet knocking loose against the wooden dock, no rope strong enough to hold her steady, no sail to catch the breeze. His stomach turns against itself, a sour taste invades his mouth, his sense of balance falters.
She was tender and I was callous to her needs. We set our boat to rocking, let her drift, then overturn for lack of courage. Must lovers always quarrel before they either drown themselves beneath the weight of inexorable fatigue, or sit down quiet and still on a park bench hidden from the havoc of a self-defeating war?
The visitor falls, face-down in the mire, and there he falls again to sleep. When he awakes, he has forgotten time. The mud that covers him feels refreshing, and the floating boat has disappeared. Salt water ripples like a lake and laps against the shore. The visitor feels hungry, and so he reaches out and wraps one of his arms around the couple’s shoulders. If wars are to be won, tempers are to be tamed, sailboats are to be moored and shacks are to be painted; then he will simply watch as he savors the shadows beneath the oak tree that lives behind them.