The downside of close attention

A personal goal at work the last few years has been to become less reactive, less surprised, to take events in stride, to let the water roll off my wet duck back. With occasional exceptions, this approach has been helpful. When an exception does happen, I find I’m meta-surprised: surprised about the surprise.

So, it was nice consolation recently to read last year’s New Yorker profile of mentalist Derren Brown – a professional surpriser of audiences and (most awesomely) a subsequent explainer of those surprises to those audiences – and find even he’s still working through similar issues. After writing a book on Stoicism, he felt initially prepared when a seven-year relationship ended:

“The breakup was relatively amicable and light and easy,” Brown said. “And I remember feeling quite proud that I’d dealt with it all extremely well.” A few months later, though, when a guy he’d met on Tinder broke things off, Brown, as he put it, “totally went to pieces.”

For a long time, he remained puzzled by his reaction. “I fell apart over the little breakup that followed the big breakup, totally out of proportion to what it was—a decidedly un-Stoic response,” he said. “But I’ve thought about it since, and it makes sense. It’s the bit that takes you by surprise when you’ve dealt with this thing over here and put all your attention on that, and then something else sneaks in from the outside.”

‘And if you need company for the long, lonely miles, try these’

I loved this post from Boyhowdy of Cover Lay Down about taking care of his aging and ailing father. The short essay is quiet and powerful, and of course the selections of songs he suggests for such roads in life are perfect.

Here are a couple of my favorite covers from the list, for obvious biases, and I’ll stream equivalents from YouTube to avoid stealing the blog’s bandwidth:

‘Plain Plate of Noodles’

It would be difficult to write a song that captures my childhood food life more than this one. Efforts from my parents and various significant others eventually worked. These days I eat everything. Even, when fatherhood demands it, my lifelong enemy, peanut butter. But for many years I was the boy in this song. And I still like a plain plate of noodles with a little bit of butter, and lots and lots of cheese.

I’ve always loved this picture of our dog (and loved this dog)

From two years ago and change, before the baby arrived and later the bookstore closed, when Shadow was a bookstore dog.

He remains deeply soulful.


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There’s not a lot of money in the used book business but we love what we do and we get by. We’re grateful to our neighbors and our customers (especially when they are one & the same) for buying just enough books to have kept us here another year. 📚We’re proud to be a part of a community that strives to be healthy, whole and honest. Not everyone gets to be a part of that. And it turns out that it can be fragile. For the month of October, we will be giving away 20% of our income — half to the Capitol Hill Community Foundation & half to hurricane relief in Puerto Rico, to a community where we’ve never been — but where it might do some good. (Pictured: Shadow, a rescue dog adopted from Puerto Rico in July 🇵🇷, now a part-time staff member at Riverby.) #puertorico #bookstagram #usedbookstore #thehillishome #capitolhilldc

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Two obituaries of note

I don’t blog obituaries as much as I used to. The L.A. Times really had me going for a while. They can be such art! But then the Times fell off. But now the Times is back! But now I have less time to find their and others’ best obit work.

So, let me explain about these two.

First, there was a man in our neighborhood who used to walk two beautiful huskies. The manes, the eyes, the discipline, these dogs were like heroes.

Our dog, Shadow, whose only dream is to run to every other dog he sees, as fast as he can, with as much happiness barking out as he can, he is a different kind of dog. Love trumps discipline. When he would see these two beautiful huskies, he would break out in barking, straining at the leash, growling for escaping, making a fool of himself and his people. The huskies’ person, meanwhile, he would say something that neither Lori nor I could ever make out over Shadow’s frenzy.

“It’s no problem”? “Your dog is crazy”? Which one?

We stopped seeing the owner and his dogs last winter and soon after were sad to learned the owner had passed away. I was glad to see his obituary mentioned his love for his amazing dogs. I didn’t know what had happened to the two of them until recently. According to another neighbor, they went to a relative in Texas.

I hope they’re happy and still proud.

The second obituary was from 16 years ago. The publication of the late John McNamara’s “The Capital of Basketball: A History of DC Area High School Hoops” made me think of my seventh- and eighth-grade basketball coach, Bo Wright. He ran a city rec league that nurtured tons of talent, and I imagine he’s mentioned somewhere in McNamara’s book – or lurking somewhere near the margins.

Bo asked for hustle from his players and gave us all kinds of encouragement and praise in return, and he made sure we went as a team to church (and McDonald’s afterward) once or twice as season. He loved his wife Doris and UNC basketball so much. He died in 2003. I had no idea about much of what his obit mentioned.

“In 1944, Mr. Wright joined the D.C. Department of Recreation, where he spent the next 36 years teaching woodshop, macrame and sports at city playgrounds and community centers. He organized and ran weekly bowling programs for severely disabled children at the old Military Road School, volunteered with the city’s Special Olympics and helped form the Retarded Citizens Group, which he directed for 24 years until his retirement in 1980.”

A quick update on baby names

(A sad, terrible update.)

Last I checked the numbers, in May 2017, the Social Security Administration’s baby name data reported Patrick had fallen to 170th among boys, the name’s worst showing ever (or at least since 1900 when the data became semi-reliable).

Things have only gotten worse. The 2017 was not much more troubling, 171st place, but the name fell off a cliff in 2018, to 189th. The 18-position drop was the name’s largest ever. So sad. Is there no floor? No foundation under this house?

Boy names more popular than Patrick in 2018 included Richard, Zayden, Dean, Elliott, Rhett, Jasper, Maddox, Rowan, Bentley, Leonardo, and… Maverick (#73).

I regret to inform you that in 2018 we didn’t even name our own boy Patrick. I had a perfectly good chance to begin the comeback, and I blew it. I’m sorry.

(We did, however, hit two of the decade’s trends.)

Poems in a time of seasonal change

It has been a long time, hasn’t it?

But here we are.

Keeping up a train of published thoughts or even collected inspirations alongside a baby-turned-toddler and a job turns out to be not so easy.

But in free moments, those not given to sleep or TV escapes, I still read. Not thinking as cohesively as one might like – I can’t remember for what seasonal change I originally wrote the title of this post (May?) – but the trade-off has good. “Time is the school in which we learn,” writes Delmore Schwartz in his poem below. “Time is the fire in which we burn.” John Ashbery says the poem features “above all an apprehension of the whirling universe in the mundane décor of a municipal park.”

And here we are.

What Kind of Times Are These” by Adrienne Rich. “I won’t tell you where the place is, the dark mesh of the woods / meeting the unmarked strip of light— / ghost-ridden crossroads, leafmold paradise: / I know already who wants to buy it, sell it, make it disappear.”

Calmly We Walk through This April’s Day” by Delmore Schwartz. “Each minute bursts in the burning room, / The great globe reels in the solar fire, / Spinning the trivial and unique away. / (How all things flash! How all things flare!) ”

They Sit Together on the Porch” by Wendell Berry. “Their supper done with, they have washed and dried / The dishes–only two plates now, two glasses, / Two knives, two forks, two spoons–small work for two.”

Related, this Jason Isbell song:

spring song” by Lucille Clifton. “the green of Jesus / is breaking the ground / and the sweet / smell of delicious Jesus / is opening the house and….”

in the end it was all flowers” by friend Malaka Gharib. “in the end it was all flowers: / the arrhythmia / moles and scars / wrinkles and white hair / veins and callouses….”

Turning Forty” by Kevin Griffith. “The major countries—mind and heart—have / called a truce for now. If this planet had a ruler, / no one remembers him well. All / decisions are made by committee.”

What I Would Give” by Rafael Campo. “I’d like to give them my astonishment / at sudden rainfall like the whole world weeping, / and how ridiculously gently it / slicked down my hair; I’d like to give them that, / the joy I felt while staring in your eyes….”

Ode to Marbles” by Max Mendelsohn. “I love the sound of marbles / scattered on the worn wooden floor, / like children running away in a game of hide-and-seek.”

“On being told my poetry was found in a broken photo-copier” by Malcolm Guite:

Extinction of Silence” by A.E Stallings. “That it was shy when alive goes without saying. / We know it vanished at the sound of voices / Or footsteps.”

Blue Elvis” by Faith Shearin. “I listened / to the sound of southern women’s voices / expressing disbelief; they said I swan / and I pictured something rippling / and solitary….”

First Love” by Stephen Rybicki. “But who sat in the drawing room / Sipping tea from white china / Without me—and sketched / A vision of you from memory?”

Semicolons” by Zubair Ahmed. “Forget me: my truth. / My masterpiece is / my nonexistence. / Sunrise: unbreakable dawn. / I open your book. / It has no pages.”

The Kindness of Others” by Cathy Song. “Those of the small flame, / who feed off envy and grow old quickly, / live out their lives / hungry….”

An obit for an obit writer

If you’ve been reading this blog for a long time, you know I’m a fan of a good obituary. Last month, Washington Post obituary writer Adam Bernstein wrote an obituary for Jim Nicholson, the heralded obituary writer for the Philadelphia Daily News. Nicholson’s speciality was obituaries for the common citizen.

A sister-in-law of one Lou ­Koreck, a writ server, conjured a most unusual memory to convey his personality.

“I had unfortu­nately burned up my cat Smokey in the dryer,” she told Mr. Nicholson. “Lou gave me a book, ‘101 Uses for a Dead Cat.’ You loved him and, at the same time, you wanted to strangle him.”

One of Mr. Nicholson’s finest obits was a 1993 ode to a man named Christopher Kelly. “Society today,” he wrote, “does not assign extraordinary attributes to a 35-year-old heavy-equipment mechanic who is living with his parents and whose possessions do not appear to much exceed a Miller Light and a pack of Marlboros on the bar before him, a union card in his pocket and a friend on either side.”

Another, in 1988, was for a 64-year-old construction worker named Thomas Robinson but universally known as Moose Neck. His brother was quoted as saying, “He was interested in going around asking people, ‘Have you got a dollar?’ I’m not going to tell you a lie. Moose was a drinker. He’d go around and ask people for money, and they’d give him anything he wanted. Everybody fell in love with him.”

Poems for right now, with its rain and previews of warmth

A favorite gift from Lori this Christmas was Tracy K. Smith’s American Journal: Fifty Poems for Our Time, a vibrant collection of work from living American poets. Smith, the U.S. poet laureate, succeeds at making the book difficult to stop reading. I devoured the pages in two sittings, with a day’s interruption for sleep, work and baby. Each poem makes you wonder what the next poem is going to bring.

Here are five I couldn’t get off my mind.

Second Estrangement” by Aracelis Girmay. “Please raise your hand, / whomever else of you / has been a child, / lost, in a market / or a mall, without / knowing it at first, following / a stranger, accidentally / thinking he is yours….”

Charlottesville Nocturne” by Charles Wright. “The late September night is a train of thought, a wound / That doesn’t bleed, dead grass that’s still green, / No off-shoots, no elegance, / the late September night….”

Heart/mind” by Laura Kasischke. “A bear batting at a beehive, how / clumsy the mind / always was with the heart. Wanting / what it wanted.”

Object Permanence” by Nicole Sealey. “We wake as if surprised the other is still there, / each petting the sheet to be sure. / How have we managed our way / to this bed—beholden to heat like dawn / indebted to light.”

For the Last American Buffalo” by Steve Scafidi. “Because words dazzle in the dizzy light of things / and the soul is like an animal–hunted and slow– / this buffalo walks through me every night as if I was / some kind of prairie….”

Check out the book!

And speaking of poetry books, thanks to friend Becky (L) for giving me Grady Chambers’ North American Stadiums poems. The collection was the first book I finished (four months) after the baby’s arrival. Contrary to my initial belief (and hope), all the poems aren’t about literal stadiums (and I love literal stadiums). The range is better than that, and baseball still gets a starring role from time to time.

Two of my favorites from the book are thankfully online:

“The Life.” “And we bowled in a basement alley; and we got loaded / and sober and saw the wind carry a leaf / like a hand, stem down, brown palm open / and twirling like a waiter carrying a tray / brimming with champagne flutes….”

“Forbes Field, Pittsburgh, 1966.” “Anyone can tell it’s hopeless: early July, jackhammer heat, / Pittsburgh down two in the tenth—even the diehards / in the bleachers are heading for the exits….”

So, the rally begins. Check out that book as well! Meanwhile, here are more favorites from my feeds this fall-into-winter-into-spring period.

Annunciation” by Marie Howe, via friend Becky (H). “Even if I don’t see it again—nor ever feel it / I know it is—and that if once it hailed me / it ever does—”

August Morning” by Albert Garcia. “I wander from room to room / like a man in a museum: / wife, children, books, flowers, / melon. Such still air.”

First Thanksgiving” by Sharon Olds. “Those nights, I fed her to sleep, / week after week, the moon rising, / and setting, and waxing—whirling, over the months, / in a slow blur, around our planet.”

Duty” by Natasha Trethewey. “When he tells the story now / he’s at the center of it, / everyone else in the house / falling into the backdrop—”

Stay away from the bike lane” by Ronald Dudley. “I see so many people mad in the bike lane. / So many people think they bad in the bike lane.”

Encounter” by Czeslaw Milosz. “That was long ago. Today neither of them is alive, / Not the hare, nor the man who made the gesture.”

A Letter in October” by Ted Kooser. “I woke, / and at the waiting window found / the curtains open to my open face; / beyond me, darkness.”

If Feeling Isn’t In It” by John Brehm. “They don’t try to impress you with how serious / or sensitive they are. They just feel everything / full blast. Everything is off the charts / with them.”

My Therapist Wants to Know about My Relationship to Work” by Tiana Clark. “So many journals, unbroken white spines, / waiting. Did you hear that new new? / I start to text back. Ellipsis, then I forget. / I balk. I lazy the bed. I wallow when I write.”

The Loneliness of the Military Historian” by Margaret Atwood. “Confess: it’s my profession / that alarms you. / This is why few people ask me to dinner, / though Lord knows I don’t go out of my way to be scary.”

Rhymes for a Watertower” by Christian Wiman. “A town so flat a grave’s a hill, / A dusk the color of beer. / A row of schooldesks shadows fill, / A row of houses near.”

Grieving” by David Dragone. “Sometimes, the grieving heart / Turns away from what could heal it. / You wait out the long winter / Opposing spring’s green faith / The way every sun-starved vine in the world / Turns beclouded by shadows / Bittering wine.”

Late February” by Ted Kooser. “Through the heaviest drifts / rise autumn’s fallen / bicycles, small carnivals / of paint and chrome, / the Octopus / and Tilt-A-Whirl / beginning to turn / in the sun. Now children, / stiffened by winter / and dressed, somehow, / like old men, mutter / and bend to the work / of building dams.”

Why I Can’t Cook for Your Self-Centered Architect Cousin” by Beth Ann Fennelly. “Because to me a dinner table’s like a bed— / without love it’s all appetite and stains. Let’s buy / take-out for your cousin, or other pizza—his toppings— / but I can’t lift a spatula to serve him what I am.”

Sinkholes” by Joyce Carol Oates.

Last, cheers for the neighbors who’ve recently put a poetry box in their front yard, which I passed on a rainy day. The first poem is “The Peace of Wild Things” by Wendell Berry. “When despair for the world grows in me / and I wake in the night at the least sound / in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be, / I go and lie down where the wood drake / rests in his beauty on the water….”