Archive for November, 2008

Little Old Farmhouse

In the winter of 1945-’46, 32-year-old Herbert R. Peterson returned home from the war. Home was the sleepy, central coast of New Jersey. Home was a small, whitewashed house on Clayton Avenue. Home was his wife, Ida Mae.

After the war, all was well with the world.

Soon Ida’s pregnant sister, Laura, and her five children were rescued from illness and poverty of the slums of Baltimore by the grace of Herbert. When George was born it was obvious that the house on Clayton Avenue was too small.

The Herflickers owned property in Toms River. Herbert’s sister, Hazel, married one of the Herflickers. Herbert (now Uncle Herb) entered into contract with the Herflickers. Herbert bought a 40-year-old farmhouse on a half-acre of land on Cedar Grove Road. Uncle Herb, Aunt Ida, Laura and the children moved into the old farmhouse.

Laura would tell the children, “I may be your mother, but you listen to Aunt Ida”. Everyone listened to Aunt Ida, or felt the love of a wooden spoon on the bare spot just below where your shorts ended. Or, if Aunt Ida was in a particularly perky mood, you’d get a headshot from the spoon.

That old farmhouse on Cedar Grove Road became the hub of many worlds. If you were a teenage boy living in Toms River in the 1950s, Aunt Ida and Uncle Herb’s house was the place to be. Not only were there four boys to hang with and Charlie Tiffany next door and cars to race in the back (if Aunt Ida didn’t catch you), there were two beautiful sisters, Shirley and Helen. The neighborhood boys, I’m told, would shimmy up a tree on the northeast edge of the property and peak through Helen’s window. This was a popular event every afternoon when she came home from school and changed out of her good clothes. All that and Aunt Ida would feed you.

Aunt Ida’s family would come up from Baltimore and stay at the house on Cedar Grove Road while they vacationed on the Jersey Shore’s pristine white beaches. Uncle Herb’s family would tear the engines out of cars in the garage. The garage was the old barn. Uncle Herb and one of the boys (Eddie) converted it into a garage.

Brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, friends would all gravitate to the old farmhouse on Cedar Grove Road. Who could ask for anything more?

Mickey met Helen at the old farmhouse on Cedar Grove Road. I don’t know if Mickey was one of the tree-climbing boys. My guess is that he was. Mickey and Helen fell in love.

One dark evening, Helen quietly left that house and didn’t return. Mickey and Helen eloped. About a year later she gave birth to a beautiful baby boy. The boy apparently had a large head, which was difficult for Helen to — umm — pass. The trauma laid her up for weeks. Thank God that Helen and the boy had Shirley, Helen’s younger sister. Shirley fell madly in love with the boy. And the boy madly in love with Shirley. (I have it on good authority that they’re still madly in love and though Shirley has two boys of her own still calls Helen’s boy her first-born.)

Fast-forward seven years; Helen and Mickey have been divorced three years. Helen and the children were living in Union City when she didn’t come home one night. The boy was left on the street with his 4-year-old sister. After a couple of foster homes, the children moved in with Mickey. But that didn’t last long. Circumstances weren’t quite right and life got complicated.

Re-enter Uncle Herb, Aunt Ida and the old farmhouse on Cedar Grove Road. The judge asked Aunt Ida, “What if the mother comes back and tries to take the children?” “I’ll break her fucking neck” is the answer that has survived legend.

Aunt Ida and Uncle Herb became the legal guardians to Helen and Mickey’s children. And there, in the old farmhouse on Cedar Grove Road, Uncle Herb and Aunt Ida raised two more children. All the while, the old farmhouse maintained as the hub of a large extended family. So large, in fact, that Helen’s boy often couldn’t tell you how he was related to one visitor or another. Just that they are “part of my family”.

Fast-forward again. Uncle Herb gently died in his sleep a year and a half before Aunt Ida breathed her last in January 2002. Holding her hands were Shirley and the boy’s wife, Sandi.

Herbert Raymond Peterson and Ida Mae Peterson’s will directed Shirley’s husband, Jeff to sell the old farmhouse on Cedar Grove Road. (Jeff, I have on good authority, had shimmied up that tree to see Helen in her undergarments). The proceeds of the sale would be distributed among the six original children

My mother is one of those children, Helen. Uncle Herb and Aunt Ida are my Nan and Pop.

And Sandi and I  bought the little old farmhouse on Cedar Grove Road. Three more children are being raised there. And, in the wonderful spirit of Uncle Herb and Aunt Ida, the little old farmhouse on Cedar Grove Road is once again glowing with love, family and friends.

:::

If you haven’t realized already, Jeffrey in yesterday’s story is the Jeff (aka Uncle Jeff) in today’s story. Aunt Ida, of course, is my Nan.

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving. This has our family’s greatest holiday. Christmas was dwarfed by it. Everyone came to the little old farmhouse, and Nan fed them a Feast For the Ages.

Many of the original Thanksgiving gang has passed: Nan, Pop, Uncle Ray, my mom, Aunt Marie. Others in the family have moved away: Uncle Johnny, Tommy, Lisa, Suzanne, Amy, Uncle George (kinda), Christopher, Patrick. The late comers are all gone or drifted after Nan and Pop died: Aunt Marie, Dwayne, the Tiffnays, the Herflickers. Even my sister only shows up every other year — her husband’s family demanding the odd year.

So it was left to my wife and Aunt Shirley. They’ve kept the tradition alive. The Thanksgiving feast has gotten smaller and smaller over the years. This year I feared it might only be me, my wife, and our three children, and Aunt Shirley and Uncle Jeff at the Great Feast.

How wrong I was. The little old farmhouse will host 29 people this year. Perhaps its biggest Thanksgiving ever.

Not only is my family coming, my wife’s family is too. We will be wall-to-wall packed with family and love and stories. There will be four — count ‘em — four turkeys! Uncle Jeff will have a new audience for his stories.

Nan would love this. This is what she lived her life doing — making sure people, family had a place to get together and celebrate each other. Thanksgiving being the perfect occasion to do it.

Thank you, Nan. Thank you, Pop. Thank you, Little Old Farmhouse.

Short Fiction

I’ve republished a piece of short fiction that I had up on JimFormation many years ago. Still, it might be new to you:

God and Country

Johnny’s Dead

“Johnny’s dead,” said Jeffrey.

“We’re all dead,” said Eddie. Eddie was right. Eddie was always right. He stared to cry. He wasn’t crying because his brother had just died. He was crying because he knew that, as the youngest, he’d be elected to tell Aunt Ida.

All the kids in the neighborhood knew Ida Mae Peterson as Aunt Ida. Aunt Ida was the matriarch and Supreme Potentate of an extended family that included her widowed sister and her sister’s six children. “I may be your mother,” her sister once warned the children, “but you listen to Aunt Ida.”

Heaven, Hell, and Earth shook when Aunt Ida spoke, which was often. She ran a tight household and no one wanted to be on the business end of her wrath — that business end usually coming in the form of a head-shot with a wooden spoon.

The never-spoken, open, dirty-little secret about Aunt Ida was that she had a burning love for everyone, particularly the children. Perhaps that’s why they all listened to her. They didn’t fear her punishment; they feared that she’d revoke her love. Hers was that type of love that, if polished, vaulted much more mundane folk into Sainthood.

It is this stern-faced love that was the mortar of a home that became the hub of many worlds. In the late 1950s her home, and the field and woods behind it, became the place where the neighborhood teenage boys gathered and did the things that teenage boys did. One of the things that teenage boys did very well was drool over the two teenage girls that lived under her roof but that, as they say, is a different story.

This story is about boys, Johnny’s death by arrow, and those unfortunate enough to have lived through it.

Johnny was one of Aunt Ida’s sister’s kids. He, his brothers Raymond and Eddie, Charles Tiffnay from next door, Jeffrey Wilson and his good buddy Charles Godfrey, and a couple other hangers-on coalesced at the house one late afternoon in the spring of 1959. They brought with them their bows and arrows and silly-wonder.

Soon a ruckus of only a boy’s sort evolved. “Not here,” Aunt Ida yelled through the kitchen window. “Out in the field!”

With their heads slung low, the gaggle of boys dragged to the field. Charles Godfrey, the most forward looking of the boys, shot an arrow straight into the air. It disappeared into the dusking sky and then reappeared a moment before it THWAATTED into the grassy ground at his feet.

Jeffrey followed, for Jeffrey always followed Charles Godfrey. TWANG, FSSS, silence and the arrow disappeared. THWAAT! Oh, their hearts jumped with glee.

“This is the neatest thing ever,” laughed Johnny. It was at least the neatest thing that day. “How about we all shoot our arrows in the air and see whose comes down last!”

The boys cheered and prepared their bows. “Everybody ready? 1-2-3, NOW!” And, as one, they let loose their arrows. TWANG, TWANG, TWANG, TWANG, TWANG! FSSSSSSSSSssssssssssss. silence.

THWAAT! THWAAT! THWAAT! THWAAT!

Oh, they laughed. All but Johnny who was still looking skyward with delight. “Mine’s still up there,” he smiled. “Wow!”

The boys looked up and then at Johnny. His neck was stretched, his eyes desperately searched the deep blue, and there was an arrow sticking smack-dab out of the center of his forehead. Somehow his arrow landed right in his head. Somehow he didn’t feel it. Somehow he didn’t even see it now. Somehow …

“Oh. Shit,” said Charles Tiffnay.

No one breathed. Except Johnny. “Whaat?” he asked and laughed in that silly way that’s somewhere between delight and fright. He knew something was wrong.

He’d brought his head down to look at his friends. The boys all looked at Johnny, wide-eyed, but no one made a sound. The arrow didn’t move. It was stuck in his head. Sticking straight out of his head. Doubtless lodged deep in his brain.

The hangers-on had already scattered, leaving the core boys alone. In the dark. In the middle of the field. Eddie crying and dead Johnny among them.

No one remembers who told Aunt Ida or even what happened after. Surely hell ensued. Bows and arrows were certainly confiscated. And someone took a wooden spoon off the side of the head, probably Johnny, because that’s how Aunt Ida rewarded stupidity.

Yes, Johnny survived. He’s probably told this story a hundred times to his sons.

I heard it from Uncle Jeff. Uncle Jeff, aka Jeffrey, married my mom’s sister. My mom was one of Aunt Ida’s sister’s girls.

Aunt Ida’s sister is my Grandma; Aunt Ida is my Nan.

Nan raised me.

And this story is part of me.

:::

Postscript: Uncle Jeff is coming to my house on Thursday for Thanksgiving. He is the family mythologist and has a hundred of these stories. This is my favorite and I do him little justice in the retelling.

Uncle Jeff learned his story-telling craft from one of the old masters, Jean Shepherd. You might know Mr. Shepherd as the author and narrator of A Christmas Story ["You'll shoot your eye out, kid"].  In the ’50′s and ’60s, Shepherd had a radio show on WOR in New York. Jeff made sure he was in the car when Shepherd’s show was on.

Listening to Uncle Jeff tell a story is like being in the backseat of a ’58 Plymouth going around the block one more time just to hear the end of the show.

I hope he tells this story at Thanksgiving dinner.

:::

I wrote a little bit more about the house here: The Little Old Farmhouse.

Stretch, Dream, Fall

My arms are too short to reach my goals.

My imagination outshines my abilities.

My aim is true; my arrows are bent.

I see in the morning but am blind by evening.

I fill my mouth with more than I can swallow.

My dreams are sweet; my nightmares true.

On land, I stumble; but in the water I am beautiful.

The ittibittiness

I’ve been given the assignment of writing something about my daughter for her high school yearbook — she’s graduating this year. A photograph of her as a baby will accompany the essay. I have 200 words. Here’s what I just wrote:

She was so small. One of the smallest people we ever knew. She weighed just under six-and-a-half pounds. And she was ours.

We were young when we met her, in our mid-20s. She didn’t say much at first. Just looked around and strained to make out the blur that was this bright, loud world.

We had to hold her opposite of the way you’d hold most babies. She didn’t like the chest-to-chest kind of snuggle hold; at least not when there were things to see. She wanted to face the world, not turn her back to it.

She was so small that she was lost in the car seat that took her home. So small in our hands. Smaller still in our arms. We called her the ittibittiness. Still do from time-to-time. She smiles when she hears it. And she’s our baby again.

When we got home we placed her on the couch between us. She was sleeping. We looked at each other and asked, “What next?”

18 years of “what-nexts” have brought us here. The ittibittiness is graduating high school. We are very proud of you.

We love you.

What next?

Mom & Dad

196 words.

The First Draft Of Anything Is Shit

“Dad, tell me how to write this,” my daughter [high school senior] often says to me.

“What are you trying to say?” I ask her.

She tells me.

I say, “Write that.”

“But that doesn’t sound like I wrote it.”

That’s a problem a lot of us have. We need our writing to sound like, well, writing.

The prose must sound prosy to be taken seriously. A conversational approach to the written word will never do. “Talk on the page” is not writing. We need grander words in our work! More phrases (and parenthetical remarks) in our reports! We must be taken seriously!

Phooey.

What I advise my daughter is to: (1) Say what you mean and (2) use plain English.

And if you don’t know what you mean, free-write.

Free-writing is the act of just flowing. It’s the improvisational jazz of literature. Just talk on the page and tell me everything you know, think you know, would like to know, and have heard about your subject. Get it all out. Everything. The rule, the only rule, is to keep your fingers moving. Get as much stuff on the page as you can.

Most of it is going to be crap. The real writing comes from digging through all that crap and finding the diamond. Find enough diamonds and polish them up, and you’ll probably have a nice essay or report at the end of it all.

:::

I wrote these personal Rules of Writing on writing about 10 years ago. I’ve been carrying them around in my head ever since:

  1. Writing is rewriting;
  2. Try to keep out the stuff that readers tend to skip;
  3. Read what you’ve written out load. If you don’t say, “Blech!” you’ve probably done a good job. (Edit what you’ve written until you stop saying “Blech” — see Rule #1);
  4. Don’t try to explain everything. As in music, the notes you don’t play are as important as the notes you do play;
  5. Show, don’t tell;
  6. Details. Details. Details. But not so many as to violate Rule #2;
  7. Don’t confuse facts with Truth;
  8. Readers want to come away knowing the author a little better;
  9. Readers want to come away knowing themselves a little better;
  10. Write to a specific audience;
  11. The best audience is you;
  12. If you want to write, write!

Oh. And writers should read too. I just didn’t want to make a 13th rule — 13 being such a rude number.

:::

In the interest of transparency, it was Ernest Hemingway that said, “The first draft of anything is shit.”

Life and Death

The other day, I published a bit about having lunch with a dead guy. It is a true story, but I think a little explanation is probably due.

When I was a kid, I worked in the local hospital. I was friendly with the guy who ran the hospital morgue. I ate lunch at his desk a couple of times per week. His desk was in the corner of the morgue. Bodies on the tables was not unusual.

One afternoon I walked in and there was a guy in his mid-30s on one of the tables. He was on his back, naked. His legs were slightly bent; heels were raised above the table. His arms didn’t touch his sides and, like his legs, appeared to float motionless, effortless in the air.

“Suicide,” my buddy said, pointing to a small, perfectly round hole in the short hairs of the man’s temple. The smallest trickle of blood had slid out of the hole.

“Shot himself. Small caliber,” he continued. “The bullet went in and bounced around inside his skull and scrambled-egged his brain. Look, no exit wound.”

I was surprised by my internal reaction. I was mad at the guy on the table. “What the fuck did you do?” I asked in my head. “What were you thinking? Do you see where this got you? No where. It’s useless, absolutely useless. What a waste. A disgrace. Look at you now, you’re nothing.”

Nothing.

Pause.

The moment before you pull the trigger must be the loneliest moment. I cannot imagine the sheer and utter hopelessness. The overwhelming despair and confusion.

BANG!

I worked with a guy who once told me that his life wasn’t worth living. That there was no impact he could make in the world. He was nothing more than a grain of sand being dropped in a vast ocean.

I thought of the story of the boy who walked down the beach throwing clams back into the ocean. “What are you doing,” asked a passing man.

“I’m saving clams,” the boy answered.

“Look at this beach. It’s littered with clams. You can’t possibly throw them all in. You can’t make a difference.”

The boy picked up another clam and, without pause, he threw it into the ocean. “I made a difference to that one.”

In a way, that’s how I live my life. One clam at a time.

It’s the advice I gave my co-worker. Sure, there is badness and ugliness in the World. And I realize that, in a big sense, few of us will make a difference. That if any of us disappeared today the World wouldn’t notice. It wouldn’t miss us.

But maybe we should forget about the Big Picture, and reach down, and pick up a clam.

Weekly JimShorts for 2008-11-22

  • I have successfully imported my of Kings and Carnies posts to JimFormation. I worried that it was going to be difficult. Hardly. #
  • This morning’s nonsequitor from my 4-year-old: “Do you want to hold my Furby? 25 cents.” 25 cents?! “It’s a magic Furby.” #
  • Watch this with the sound on or don’t watch it at all: http://www.todaysbigthing.com/2008/11/12 #
  • Here’s the plan: Allow gay marriages with the caveat that we don’t have to spend as much on wedding gifts. Deal? #
  • It’s only 3 o’clock. I feel like it’s 100 o’clock. #
  • Tesla Roadster: 100% electric. 0 – 60 in 3.9 seconds. 244 miles per charge. http://www.teslamotors.com/ #
  • Should I or shouldn’t I adopt this puppy: http://www.flickr.com/photos/jimformation/3040193210/in/photostream/? #
  • This is the same puppy from my wife’s Flickr photostream: http://www.flickr.com/photos/skepole/3039293221/ … hmm … #
  • People will sometimes ask if I like hockey. I always answer, “No. I’m an Islander’s fan.” @abigvictory can use it if you like. #
  • How does Doug Weight play hockey with a walker? And how hard is it for him to skate without tripping over his long white beard? #
  • I’ll procrastinate later. #
  • Money can’t buy you happiness, but I wouldn’t mind being known as the meloncholy guy who drives the Viper. #
  • All those who believe in psychokinesis raise my hand. #
  • Something in my house just fell and kept falling. Like a bookshelf being knocked over. I can’t find it. I’m the only one awake. Outside? Hm. #
  • People think Hitler had a lot of balls. Nope. Just one: #### #
  • I once went to sexual harassment seminar, half way through I leaned toward the woman I went with and said, “I think they’re against it.” #
  • My brain has been discounted 20%. I wonder why: #### #
  • Do you know that they never found John Denver’s head? #
  • If you were born before 1970 & near NY, this’ll scare the crap out of you, everyone else will shrug shoulders: http://tinyurl.com/666pbl #
  • Wall St is going broke. Car manufacturers are going Chapter 11. People are losing jobs. My boss just gave over 500 people raises. #
  • The web is slow this evening. I don’t mean my service is poor; I mean the independent content providers that I read aren’t providing content #
  • You people are going to make me troll Digg and Reddit aren’t you? Forget about it. I’m going to feed the dog and then play a video game. #
  • I’ll provide some content to the internet later. Who wants to read about how the Pope and the Devil are in cahoots? #
  • The 4-year-old reports that he knows how to buy gas, “You say, ‘$25 regular.’ He says something. You say, ‘Yes, thank you.’” #
  • Tomorrow morning, I will decide if I’m going to play golf. The temperature will be 24°F. The woman next to me will be 98.6°F. Do the math. #
  • According to Google Analytics visitors to JimFormation.com have increased 58,500%. That’s a lot of percents. #
  • I still don’t know what a “Twilight” is. But for a couple months I thought that Paris Hilton was an upscale place to stay in France. #
  • Hey ladies, which of you thinks Sean Connery is sexy? #### #
  • The Number of the Beast is 616, not 666. We’ve been looking for the wrong guy. (http://tinyurl.com/328uue) #
  • If “Twilight” is “True Blood” for teenagers, then what is “True Blood”? #

Weekly Address #002

What a Turkey

Moments after Sarah Palin gave a turkey amnesty, she went outside and gave an interview. It doesn’t matter what the interview is about, it doesn’t matter if you have the sound on or not, you’re only job is this:

Realize that this was a public relations gimmick.
The gimmick was to pardon a Thanksgiving Turkey.
And then watch the guy in the background.

(Write your own joke here.)