Friday, January 24, 2020

My Mother and the Wolves

Friday poem: My mother grew up in a forest in Eastern Poland.  She could hear wolves howling in the winter, and she listened to her mother's stories and warnings and passed them on to me.  This is a poem from my Echoes book about the stories my grandmother told my mom.

My Mother and the Wolves

In their log house in the forests
west of Lvov, my grandmother
told my mother tales in the winter
to pry her thoughts from the sound
of trees splitting with the cold,
exploding with a crack like that
of her father's double-barreled shotgun

A cat, she would say, can't be trusted.
It comes in the short spring night
and sleeps on the priest's chest
watching his adam's apple
as if it were some mouse hidden
under a blanket of stubbled skin
and then striking its sudden claws
through his skin into cartilage

And what of the wolves, she'd ask,
the nine wolves that in the winter's
grey stone dawn would smash
their bones against the door,
hammering like hungry seals
until the door splinters and the baby
is got at – even from the cradle
even from its precious sleep?

And listen, my mother's mother
would whisper then, there are men
as bad as wolves that no door
– no matter how solid the oak –
will keep out.

So trust in Jesus,
in the world of clouds far beyond
the frozen forests of this frozen world

Do this always, and fear the greedy hens.

Thursday, January 23, 2020

No WiFi!

No WiFi!

It was one of those things.  My WiFi was working perfectly.  I was watching a YouTube on my TV of a yoga instructor named Adrienne showing me how I could do yoga without ever leaving my chair.  I was totally involved, following Adrienne’s every move. My bottom sat comfortably on the seat, my feet were excellently planted on the floor, and my upper torso was twisted like a rag doll as I breathed slowly and evenly.  It was the perfect yoga moment.

And then it wasn’t.

The image of Adrienne on the screen suddenly froze.  You know what I mean. She was no longer leading me to yoga heaven.

I somehow managed to untangle myself from my yoga pose and get to my WiFi router and my TV set.  I did all the stuff I was expected to do. I unplugged the router and replugged it after 20 seconds, and when that didn’t work I did it again, and when that didn’t work, I called my WiFi and cable provider and set up an appointment for them to send a service provider.

I felt pretty good about the whole thing except for one thing.  I didn’t have WiFi.

I’m a retired guy and a writer, so I spend a lot of time online, writing or checking facts for my stories or writing to other writers to complain about this or that or just checking in with my Facebook friends, and suddenly I didn’t have any WiFi.

What do you do without WiFI?

It reminded me of those old days, those days before TV and even before we got our first phone.  And it reminded me also of those days when the technology we had simply stopped working.

I remembered that bad winter when we were living in a small town in rural Illinois, and there was an ice storm that brought down all the electric lines in town, and we didn’t have any electricity for a week.   We had no lights, no stove, no TV, no heat. We lived like people in a cave. We’d go to sleep as soon as it got dark and woke as soon as it got light, and during the day, we sat around playing cards and reading books and drinking vodka on the rocks until the vodka gave out.

It was like that — sort of — without WiFi last night.  We couldn’t do our email or Facebook or play our online games or checkout our favorite online sites.

So what did we do?  First, we played a board game with our daughter and granddaughter that we had been putting off for a couple years.  Second, we made a crazily elaborate dinner that was way too scrumptious. And third, we read the books that we had been putting off for months.  I finally opened and finished The Ministry of Adrian, a terrific horror thriller by Duane Ratswander that I’ve been meaning to finish for a month.  It was all a wonderful change of pace to be living for one day without WiFi.

And then we went to bed at 8 pm.


This is my latest column for Chicago’s Polish Daily News.  Please consider leaving a comment at the newspaper’s online site.  It will encourage the paper to keep me around yakking about this and that.


Saturday, January 4, 2020

Stop the Presses

Stop the Presses!

True Confessions for some reason is selling for less than half price on Amazon.  That’s $5.33 a copy with free shipping!

True Confessions is my book of prose and poems about my life from the time I was a hippie in the 1960s to an old retired guy with a cane spending too much time on Facebook.

I write about my friends and my life in Charleston, Illinois, Peoria, bowling green, KY, Valdosta, GA, and Lynchburg, VA.


You can’t go wrong!

If I wasn’t sitting on 2O copies of the book, I’d be buying it too.

Monday, December 30, 2019

Christmas Letter 2019

Christmas Letter, 2019

Dear Friends,
For a long time, I wrote a Christmas Letter every year telling my friends and family members what my wife Linda and my daughter Lillian and my granddaughter Luciana were up to. I talked about the good things and those things that weren’t so good. It was a way of keeping in touch with all those scattered friends and family members that we had all over the country, from Seattle, Washington, to Tallahassee, Florida, to Austin, TX, to Fairfield, Connecticut, to Chicago, IL.
I was just reading through all those old letters and wondering why I stopped writing them. They weren’t hard to write, letters to family and friends never are. You just find a pen and a sheet of paper, or an iPad, and go for it. So why did I stop writing them? The last one I wrote was in 2013. That was six years ago. There have been plenty of Christmases since then, so how come I didn’t write those Christmas letters. It wasn’t like we weren’t getting them from other folks.
Just before I sat down to write this Christmas Letter, I asked my wife Linda if she remembers why I stopped writing these letters. She looked at me and shook her head and said, “You never liked writing them.” Her answer surprised me. Reading through all those old Christmas Letters, I kept thinking how much joy there was in my writing and in the things I was writing about, the vacations we were taking, the happy and evolving lives of my wife and my daughter and my granddaughter, and the books I was writing. Not everything of course was joyful, things like my mom’s death and my heart attack, but still these were things I wrote about that needed to be shared.
I just don’t know why I stopped writing Christmas Letters? Maybe it was some kind of Ebenezer Scrooge virus that took over me, made me want to say Bah Humbug to all that Christmas stuff, including the Christmas Letter. I don’t know. That just doesn’t sound like me.
I may not know why I stopped writing those Christmas Letters, but what I do know is that I am going to write a Christmas Letter this year, and this is it:

Dear Family and Friends,
Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to you all.
It’s been quite a year, full of wonderful things and things I’d rather forget.
Let me get the bad stuff out of the way first. I’ve had some crazy health issues this year. (If you’re following me on Facebook, you can move on to the next paragraph.) I came down with a tick-borne disease called Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever. For three months, I had a fever that came and went, headaches and nausea, body pain that was with me day and night, and a loss of appetite that saw me drop 20 pounds in a couple weeks. Three months of super antibiotics helped clear the disease out of my body. But that’s not all the bad news. While I was fighting this, my left knee started giving me trouble, and I ended up getting surgery. But that’s not all the bad news. The knee isn’t healing. I have an undiagnosable problem in my left leg that has caused it to swell up, from top to bottom. The doctors have run all kinds of exams and tests and have no idea what the problem is. I walk and sit in pain constantly, and despite this I was able to finish the next novel in my Hank and Marvin mystery series. It’s called Little Altar Boys, and it’s about priests gone back in a Polish-American parish on Chicago’s near northwest side.
Now that the bad news is out of the way, you’re probably asking yourself where’s the good news?
Here is the best news: Linda and Lillian and Luciana and I have all moved into together. For years, we’ve lived near each other, but this spring we decided to consolidate households. We bought a gorgeous house in Lynchburg that is the prettiest house we’ve ever lived in. It’s in the woods with a beautiful layout, plenty of room, visiting deer, and a hot tub. But that’s not the best part. The best part is that Linda and I can see our daughter and granddaughter every day, from early morning to late at night.
And what are we all doing?
Luciana continues to be interested in a whole bunch of different things. She had a great time at 4H Camp this year, and she continues to practice piano and ballet. This winter she’s appearing in Central Virginia Ballet’s production of The Nutcracker. For the first time, she’s one of the Chinese dancers!
Lillian is still enjoying her time as an Assistant Principal at EC Glass. She loves the challenge and the friendships she’s made with the students, faculty, and administrators.
Linda is recovering from the move that got us into this great house. She was the driving force that packed up and organized and unpacked and reorganized all the stuff that our household and Lillian’s contained. A large part of the recovery involves her just hanging out in this new house and staring out the beautiful windows at the deer and trees and hillsides.
We’ve also taken some time off to do some traveling. In June, the four of us went to London for a couple weeks. This was Luciana’s first time abroad, and London was the perfect place. She especially loved Hampton Court and the Victoria and Albert Museum. But that’s not the only trip she’s taken. She and her mom and their friends the Friedmans did a cruise to Bermuda, and this Christmas, Linda, Lillian, Lucian, and I are going to do our traditional Christmas cruise to the Bahamas.
And Linda and Lillian and Luciana and I are all looking forward to the new year. We are hoping that Tony and Mabel, Linda’s 95-year-old parents, decide to move into our terrace apartment. We’ve been rehabbing one of the terrace rooms for them, and it’s just about ready.
But there’s plenty of room, so if you want to stop by for a few days, we’d all love to have you.
Until then, Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays.
This Christmas letter was published in the Polish Daily News of Chicago. It also appears online. If you’d like to add a comment, just follow the link below. And thanks for doing so.

Thursday, November 28, 2019

My Mom and Thanksgiving

Here’s my latest column for the Dziennik Zwiazkowy.  As always feel free to drop a comment at the paper at the link below.


My mom loved Thanksgiving.  She loved getting up early Thanksgiving morning and stuffing the turkey and putting it in the oven and basting it over and over again.  She always said that it reminded her of when she was a girl back in Poland before the war.  She came from a big family — a mom and dad and 8 brothers and sisters — and every meal was a production that would take hours of loving labor.

And every meal would bring the family together.  I think that’s what she loved most about Thanksgiving.  The way it brought family together.

When we first came to America, of course, we had no family here. It was just my mom and dad and my sister and me.  We had no one else to share Thanksgiving Dinner with.  My dad came from a small family, but only his brother survived the war, and he went back to Poland after he was freed from the slave labor camps.  My mom was from a big family, but her story was similar.  Of her 8 brothers and sisters, only 3 survived the war.  And of those 3, one was sent to Siberia by the Russians at the end of the war and died there.

This all changed as my sister and I got older and we started our own families.  The small family Thanksgiving Dinner of 4 got bigger and bigger.

Soon my sister was bringing her husband and her three daughters to my parents’ house for Thanksgiving, and then I was bringing my wife and daughter to my parents for Thanksgiving.

I remember how much my parents loved those enormous family dinners.  But it wasn’t ever about the food.  It was about watching the little kids crawling around and laughing and playing with their dolls.  It was about sitting with my sister’s husband and hearing him complain year after year about how badly the Chicago Bears were doing that year.  It was about listening to my sister talk about how her in-laws were doing with their new place in the suburbs after a lifetime of living near the corner of California and Division.  It was about my wife Linda talking to my mom about what her Thanksgiving Dinners were like in Brooklyn when she was a kid and about my mom nodding and smiling the happiest, biggest smile ever.

It was all about family coming together and being the loving family we all need.


Monday, October 21, 2019

Olga Tokarczuk and the Nobel Prize for Literature

Here’s my latest column for the Chicago Dziennik Zwiazkowy, the oldest Polish newspaper in America. Whether you like what I say or hate it, feel free to leave a comment on the paper’s website, linked below. The website is popular both in this country and in Poland and wherever Poles live.
When I woke up yesterday morning, the first thing I saw on my iPad was a news note from one of the online news services that Polish novelist Olga Tokarczuk had just won the Nobel Prize for Literature along with Austrian novelist Peter Handke.

Despite my 71-year old bum knees, I leapt immediately out of bed. I was so excited and happy when I saw Olga Tokarczuk’s name and the word Nobel. Although I have not read much of her fiction, what I have read I have found to be absolutely engrossing and imaginative and inspiring.

Hearing that she won the Nobel Prize for Literature reminded me of when I heard that Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz won the prize. His winning in 1980 pretty much changed my life. Up to that point, I was a Polish immigrant who wanted nothing to do with Poland or Polish-American culture. In college and in grad school, I worked on my BA, MA, and finally my PhD in American Literature, and the last thing I wanted to think about was the poets and novelists and writers of Poland. Poland was that Old World on the other side of a dark and expansive ocean, and as far as I was concerned it should just stay there.

That all changed when Milosz won the Nobel Prize and I started reading his books of poems and essays. He showed me a Poland I had never seen before, a Poland that inspired me to read its history, re-learn its language, meet its people, and even be one of its people – if only as a tourist. For the first time, as I read Milosz’s writings, I felt I wanted to be as Polish as I could be.

So when I heard that Olga Tokarczuk had won the prize, I felt again much of what I felt when Milosz won the prize. Not only did I again feel reconnected to Poland, I thought that there were readers in the Polish Diaspora who would have the opportunity to connect with Poland the way I did when Milosz won.

And I’m sure that there are such readers, reconnecting with Poland through the voice of Olga Tokarczuk, but there are other voices, many other voices, that are trying to silence Tokarczuk, drown her virtues as a writer, and turn everyone away from the gifts she has.

Almost immediately after discovering Tokarczuk had won the Nobel Prize, I went online to see what social media was making of this great honor given to her. What I found was not what I expected to find.

On one of the popular Facebook pages devoted to Poland, people were calling her a “bitch,” a “cunt,” a “traitor,” and an “idiot.” They were saying she wasn’t even Polish, that in fact she was an anti-Polish Ukrainian. They were also condemning her for being anti-Catholic, pro-Semitic, pro-LGBTQ, a man-slamming feminist, and a Nazi – interestingly — all at the same time. In fact, one of the frequent images of Tokarczuk I saw at this social media site and other social media sites was of her standing with a group of people at a modern art exhibit in front of what looks like a painting of a cross being transformed into a swastika.
or me, one of the interesting things about this onslaught of attacks on Olga Tokarczuk is that no one, I must repeat, NO ONE, has said a single word about what she has written. The accusations and attacks are there, but there is nothing in all of the social media sites I’ve gone to that indicates that anyone making these accusations has read even one of her novels or other writings. One commentator in fact says he refuses to read anything by Tokarczuk because of what other people are saying about her on social media.

So, what should you and I do faced with this deluge of negative accusations and insinuations against Olga Tokarczuk?

The answer is simple. We read her books.

I plan to read her novel Flight next, and after that The Books of Jacob, when the English translation appears in the near future. I may even re-read her novel Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead.

Join me in discovering your own sense of what Olga Tokarczuk is up to.