A Fisheye View On Life and Loss

Things to do this weekend:

1)    Mow lawn

2)    Grocery shop

3)    Scoop eyeball out of fish tank

Yeah, some weekend chores are more interesting than others. This past weekend was a doozey. The seeds were sown on Thursday when I got a frantic call from my wife. My 4-year-old son decided to expand his knowledge of sea creatures by climbing on top of his dresser and sticking his hands into his fish tank. He pulled out a bunch of the underwater plants, a bubbling treasure chest, and whole lot of water. The sole occupant of the tank, a bug-eyed goldfish we call “Mr. Fish,” was still in the tank, but he did not escape my son’s aquatic explorations unscathed.

one eyed fish
This isn’t Mr. Fish, but another goldfish with a similar eye injury.

“It looks like Mr. Fish lost an eye,” my wife said. I asked her to repeat herself. She did, at a louder, slightly more panicked volume. “The fish has only got one eye!”

One Eyed Wonder

When I got home that night I found out she wasn’t kidding. Mr. Fish had indeed lost one of his eyes. It was floating around at the bottom of the tank like a little black marble among the colorful stones. Other than the missing eye, Mr. Fish seemed in pretty good health. He’d cruise through the tank, fixing me with his one bulging black eye, then he’d turn and give me a good look at the deep, empty socket where his other eye used to be. The effect was disturbing, ghastly. It gave me the willies.

I can only speculate on what happened between Rocco and Mr. Fish. Maybe Roc tried to remove him from the tank and somehow knocked his eye out. More than likely, Mr. Fish was hit by one of the items by son was pulling out of the tank and that’s how the eye got ejected. Either way, Mr. Fish’s new, lopsided gaze seemed accusatory. “It was YOUR monstrous offspring that did this to me! YOU!”

So over the weekend I fished the errant eyeball out of the tank with a spaghetti strainer (novice aquarium keepers, we don’t even have a proper fish net) and I gave it a suitable burial (in the serene aquatic fields of La Commode). I tidied up the tank, added clean water, and changed the filter. Mr. Fish looked content in his freshly cleaned tank.

fish w no eyes
Another fishy victim of eye disfigurement.

A Scaly Survivor Swims On

In fact, he looked so content, that I began to admire Mr. Fish. He had suffered an extreme physical trauma, yet here he was, just days later, carrying on as if nothing had ever happened, placidly cruising his tank. From his viewpoint, half his world had suddenly disappeared. But he didn’t let it bother him. He was a warrior, a survivor. He faced an inexplicable accident and its devastating effects with a grace and dignity I can only dream of.

I get stuck in traffic and I feel like having a meltdown. My two-year-old daughter knocked over a display holding approximately 300 Tic Tac containers in the grocery store the other day, and the embarrassment and frustration of the situation nearly reduced me to tears. Sure, Mr. Fish has a lot less responsibilities than me; his job is to eat, poop and look cute (he can still eat and poop). But responsibilities aside, I couldn’t help but feel that Mr. Fish was teaching me a lesson about accepting life’s changes, no matter how unexpected or unwanted, and simply going with the flow.

So, life goes on for both Mr. Fish and myself. The lawn got mowed and the grocery shopping got done, too.

Spaghetti dinner, anyone?


Originally published in Wayne TODAY, September 2006 

Cutting Costs and Alienating People With New Jersey Governor Chris Christie

christie on letterman
NJ Governor Chris Christie munches a donut on Late Night with David Letterman, because watching fat people eat unhealthy food is funny.

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is a hard man to love.

Since taking the state’s top office in January, Christie has managed to tick off state workers at all levels. His “tough-love” budget cuts and ultra-conservative fiscal approach has raised the ire of teachers, school employees, public servants, police officers and elected officials, including some within his own party.

Ticking people off isn’t necessarily a bad thing. State spending was out of control and the new guv promised to reign in the budget. You can’t cut spending without upsetting someone. The difference here is that Christie seems to have upset everyone.

Personal Politics

All politics is local, personal. Your opinions are formed by how government affects you, your family, and your lifestyle. So when Christie’s reduction in school funding threatened my sister’s teaching job in South Jersey and the jobs of the classroom aides in my son’s special ed class, I jumped on the Christie-hater bandwagon.

We’ve seen this cut-from-the-bottom act before in both the government and private sector. Workers on the bottom of the pay scale lose wages and benefits, “money-men” don’t lose a dime, and the budget never gets balanced. To clean up an old adage, “fecal matter rolls downhill” and all too often employees in the foothills find themselves with the dirty end of the stick.

But like a crazed monkey, Governor Christie is flinging feces everywhere, and Jerseyans of every socio-economic class are feeling the effects. (Feel free to make a “900-pound gorilla” joke here at Christie’s expense…as a fellow fat man I can’t go there.) In a rare show of political might, Christie is actually rolling feces uphill, and those at top of the ladder are getting dirty, too.

Christie aggravated school administrators by proposing a salary cap for superintendents based on the size of the districts they serve. Under Christie’s proposal, the maximum salary for a superintendent in a K-8 district would be $120,000, and districts with student populations up to 10,000 would be capped at $175,000. Supers overseeing bigger school districts would be eligible for a bigger salary. According to the state, NJ would save $9.8 million a year by enacting a salary cap for superintendents.

Costello Cashes Out

One of the more recent victims of Christie’s financial belt-tightening is West Milford Police Chief Paul Costello, who announced a quickie retirement the first of the month in order to preserve his six-figure benefits package. Governor Christie is pushing legislation that caps compensation for accrued sick time at $15,000 and impacts retirement benefits for state employees working without a contract. If the legislation is approved, Costello could lose part of his annual $100,000 retirement benefits as well as a hefty check for his unused sick time. To avoid being caught by the proposed legislation, Costello opted to quickly retire on August 1.

Chief Costello deserves every penny of his retirement/benefits package. He served the Borough of West Milford for 36 years, also serving as president of the Passaic County Police Chiefs Association. He’s a great police officer and it’s a shame to see him go.

But it’s hard to feel sorry for him. Retired at age 57, with a hefty pension and lifetime benefits, former Chief Costello has more security than many of his peers.

Chris Christie shouts
Chris Christie’s budget cuts and salary caps have angered employees in all branches of state government … but wouldn’t it be funny if I Photoshopped a big, drippy ice cream cone into the Governor’s hand in this photo?

What’s Your Job Worth?

The same can be said for the school superintendents who earn well over six figures. Shouldn’t teachers who educate children be paid as much, if not more, than administrators who manage them? After all, Yankee manager Joe Girardi earns $2.5 million per year while his star player, Alex Rodriguez, earns more than ten times that. Giaradi is a fine manager, worth every penny, but Rodriguez hits homers that win ballgames and bring in fans. He’s paid big bucks because he’s got “the skillz that pay the bills.”  I’m not sure why superintendents, principals, business managers and other school administrators make so much more than the teachers and classroom aides who do the actual hands-on work of educating children.

This disparity in pay scale isn’t a New Jersey problem; it’s a global one. How much you earn should relate to a) the difficulty/danger of the job, b) how much specialized training or education you need to do the job, c) your ability to do the job well, and d) experience/length of employment.

But that’s not the case in the real world. What people earn doesn’t always make sense based on what they do. To paraphrase another old adage, “there are too many chiefs and not enough Indians.” The government and private sector alike are rife with overpaid administrative paper-pushers. Governor Christie recognizes this and is trying to bring these bloated salaries back down to earth.

But, while Christie is making a difference as the Garden State’s 55th Governor, he’s not making many friends. For better or for worse, don’t expect to see him around for a second term.


Originally published in Wayne TODAY, August 2010

Hungry Bears Drop By For A Backyard Picnic

bear in trash
Un-bear-able behavior —One man’s trash is another bear’s lunch!

I took our dogs out around 10 pm recently when our Chihuahua started barking her head off. She stared at a spot beyond our fence, near the garage cans. I couldn’t see anything…just shifting black shadows against a black background.

And then I saw a dim patch of tan fur.

I grabbed the Chihuahua under one arm, and our Jack Russell/dachshund mix under the other (no easy feat since she’s rather rotund).

“Let’s get inside,” I said to my wife. “I think we’ve got a bear.”

Bear With It

This wasn’t the first time bears have visited. Two years ago I put my garbage out on a Monday night and awoke Tuesday morning to overturned cans and trash strewn all over the street. Last year, they went after our bird feeders, crushing one, and swatting another from its hook. I found it 20 feet away in the middle of our yard.

But this was the first time we’d actually seen bear in action. I got my flashlight and shined it out the window. There was a bear roughly the size of a Rottweiler climbing over our fence. Momma was already in our back yard, standing next to an overturned garbage can. She was huge, 600 pounds at least. She looked at my flashlight beam, but wasn’t the least intimidated. She calmly went back to eating our Chinese leftovers; tan snout poking around in a square white container of fried rice.

We’d never had bears inside our fence before (as far as we knew), and it was a bit unsettling. Momma was big.

“They must be starving,” my wife noted.

“Should I chase them away?” I asked. It seemed a little late to be banging pots and pans. Plus, I had a feeling these bears wouldn’t scare easily (not as easily as I would, at least).

“Let them eat,” my wife said. “They’ll go away when they’re finished.”

“Should I call the police?” I asked.

My wife looked at me like I should be wearing a pink muumuu and bunny slippers.

“Let them eat.”

Grin And Bear It

So for the next hour the bears had a leisurely picnic in our back yard. They tore open another bag and started in on my wife’s ziti. It was awesome the week before, and apparently the bears found it still pretty tasty. Junior sprawled out on its belly, head inside our garbage can, while Big Momma stood a few feet away.

Eventually I looked out and saw that Junior was gone. Momma was still there, but after a few minutes she stood, put her paws against the trunk of a tree, and started climbing up. I could only imagine the strength it took to haul her big butt up that tree. It was an amazing sight, breathtakingly beautiful and pee-your-pants scary all at once.

bear trash
Yeah, that’s gonna be a fun clean-up.

Insert Stupid Bear Pun Here

I checked back an hour later and didn’t see any sign of bears, other than a bunch of torn trash bags and several broken fence pickets.

I was about to go get the dogs when I heard a growl come from the dark tree branches above me. It was deep, resonant, and somewhat metallic, like a corrugated garage door being thrown open, or an engine block dragged across a concrete floor. I ran back inside.

“I think they’re still out there! Up in the tree!” I said to my wife.

“So we’ll put the dogs on leashes and take them in the front yard,” she said.

“Should I, like…bring a baseball bat?”

“Don’t be scared,” my wife said. “Our Chihuahua will protect you.”

She’s funny, my wife.

Hope she keeps her sense of humor when she’s cleaning up the yard tomorrow.


Originally published in Wayne TODAY, November 2011

What’s For Dinner? Baked Cell Phone and Steamed Dad

My son’s name is Rocco, but Conan the Destroyer would be more apt. The boy has an appetite for destruction, and he’s always hungry.

Rocco’s autism is a factor in his destructive behavior. He often uses items in inappropriate ways, like raiding my wallet and using the credit cards in an origami display (the plastic card in the cable box folds nicely, too!) or making a concoction of cinnamon and onion powder over the toaster (which makes for funky waffles.) Autism accounts for some of these behaviors, but I think even if Rocco were a typical kid he’d have a destructive streak. He likes to see how things are put together…and how they come apart.

Demolition Man

Electronics are a Rocco favorite. He toasted a not-so-Toughbook and destroyed several iPods. Wireless phones are a constant terror target. I knew trouble was brewing the afternoon I called my wife’s phone and Rocco answered. He was laughing wildly and I heard water running in the background.

My son thought it was funny bringing Mommy’s cell phone in the shower. What a sense of humor on that kid!

“Buddy?” I said. “Hey, Roc! Give Mommy the phone.”

He laughed and hung up. I called back but got no answer. I sent a text.

‘Roc’s got your phone. Not a toy!’

No reply…until I got home that night.

“Bad news,” my wife said, shortly after I walked through the front door. “Want it now?”

I didn’t, but my six-year-old daughter spilled the beans anyway.

“Rocco took Mommy’s phone in the shower,” she said. “Now it doesn’t work.”

This was bad news. Mom’s phone was a re-activated older model, because her new phone broke under “unknown circumstances.” The old flip phone had a cracked front screen, surrounded by mysterious teeth marks, but otherwise worked fine.

Until today.

Soggy, No Service

Now the phone was a soggy mess, the tiny space behind the screen filled with water, a lifeless aquarium.

“Did you put it in rice?” I asked. This wasn’t our first wireless phone to take a swim. We’d rescued submersed phones before by tossing them in a bag of rice, which absorbs the moisture.

“We don’t have any rice.”

What now? A hair dryer? That would be loud, tedious work. I am a self-proclaimed “Daddy Who Fixes Things,” and I try hard to live up to the title. But this was a tough fix.

phone in oven
Baked phones — call it delish!

“Maybe we could put it in the oven, bake it at, say, 100 degrees?” I suggested.

It was worth a try. We removed the battery and baked the phone for a few hours. We tried the phone later and the screen powered up, misted with internal condensation. The buttons still weren’t working, so we turned off the oven and left the phone in there overnight.

My wife tried it the next morning. The phone powered up and she ran through the menus, gave it a test run.

“Wow. Everything works,” she smiled. “You’re my hero.”

I felt like one, too. It’s not every man who can resurrect a drowned cell phone from a watery grave. Only a Daddy Who Fixes Things.

“There’s a new text message,” my wife said, clicking it open. “Yes, Rocco’s got my phone…no, it’s not a toy…”


Originally published in  Wayne TODAY Newspapers, September 2010.

Not all cell phone baking projects turn out well.

Nancy Grace. Ghoul. Monster. Homewrecker.

This helmet-haired monster is destroying my marriage, the same way she ruins the lives of so many of her “guests.

There are lots of things that can hurt a marriage; financial problems, infidelity, differences in religion, differences in parenting, differences of opinion.

In our house one of the biggest marital strains is another woman; a woman who comes into our home every night at ten o’clock.

Her name is Nancy Grace.

Nancy Grace has a “true crime show” on CNN / Headline News. My wife loves the Nancy Grace show and watches her most every night.

I feel physically ill whenever I see Nancy Grace. I have a similar reaction to Sarah Jessica Parker and Hillary Clinton. There’s something about the look, sound, and mannerisms of these women that makes me twitch.

But Nancy Grace holds a special place of disgust in my heart because she passes her show off as “journalism” when it’s really “info-tainment” at best, in same league as Maury Pauvich. Her show is loud; there are usually three to five “info boxes” and text crawls on screen at any given time, filled with lurid lines like, “Husband Murders Pregnant Wife?” “Child Buried Alive” and “Tot Mom Posts Racy Web Photos.”

Nancy Grace loves the gory details of crimes; she seems to revel in them, even though she’ll act indignant and shocked as she repeats them over and over again. I flipped out one night last summer as she was reviewing the details of the Caylee Anthony murder case. She must have asked the question, “Is there soft tissue on the duct tape? Is there soft tissue on the duct tape?” fifty times, in that sharp Southern twang of hers. Doesn’t she realize that “soft tissue” she keeps harping about were once the lips of a little girl? Can’t she just chill out about it?

“She’s a ghoul,” I tell my wife. “All she does is talk about dead kids, dwelling on the details of their murders. It’s sick.”

“She’s a champion for victims’ rights,” my wife disagrees. “Her fiancé was murdered when she was young and that drove her to become a prosecutor. She’s worked extensively with abused women and children.”

“Didn’t she badger a guest into killing herself?” I ask.

“That woman killed herself because she was guilty!” my wife screams. “That (expletive) killed her own kid and Nancy Grace called her on it!”

In 2006, Grace interviewed 21 year-old Melinda Duckett; Duckett’s two-year-old son had gone missing two weeks prior. Grace hammered Duckett with questions about her son’s disappearance and Duckett gave vague, confused, and elusive answers. The next day Melinda Duckett killed herself. That didn’t stop Nancy Grace from airing her interview with Duckett that evening. During the interview one of those ever-present info boxes appeared on screen; “SINCE SHOW TAPING BODY OF MELINDA DUCKETT FOUND AT GRANDPARENTS’ HOME.”

Nancy nip slip
Nancy Grace’s finest TV moment — accidentally exposing her saucer-sized areola on “Dancing With The Stars.

If Nancy Grace was searching for a murder suspect that night she didn’t have to look any further than her own dressing room mirror. (Grace has since settled with the Duckett family over Melinda’s death.)

“Nancy Grace is a (expletive)!” I shout, pointing out how she portrayed the Duke Lacrosse players as rapists for weeks on her show (they were later cleared of all charges) and the way she callously prodded kidnapping victim Elizabeth Smart for details of her harrowing encounter.

“No she’s not!” my wife counters, pointing out the number of child abusers she’s exposed on her show and helped put behind bars as a prosecutor. “Maybe you’re a (expletive)!”

It gets pretty ugly sometimes. I know that my wife is probably right; both about Nancy Grace being a champion for victims rights and about me being a (expletive).  Even though Nancy Grace likes to glorify the gory details of tragedy maybe she has an overall positive effect on society by shining a spotlight on heinous crimes and keeping it there.

It’s her delivery that rubs me the wrong way. It’s funny, when I hear Howard Stern or Larry David yelling and screaming about something it usually makes me laugh. But when I hear Nancy Grace (and Hillary Clinton) ranting it gives me a headache.  To me, all four people are part of the entertainment industry. It’s when you start thinking of these people as something other than performers that you run into problems, like considering Nancy Grace a reliable news source, or thinking that Hillary Clinton is actually representing your interests in government.

Evidently I’m not alone in my distaste for Ms. Grace; do an Internet search and along with Nancy Grace’s CNN profile page you’ll find links to web sites like nancygracemustdie.com and a Facebook page for Nancy Grace Sucks Fat Balls. Sometimes when I’m at work I’ll surf over to these sites and giggle, file away a laugh for later that night. I’ll need it when the beast is loose in my home again, with her helmet hair and Southern drawl and endless drone, “Is there soft tissue on the duct tape? Is there soft tissue on the duct tape?”

Sometimes you have to work to keep a marriage happy. Other times you just have to laugh it off.


Originally published in Wayne TODAY, November 2009

Publishing’s Future: Toss the Bookshelf, Keep the Books

Ereaders offer thousands of advantages over print books. But books are still pretty damn cool …

 Books are beautiful.

Their construction is so basic — paper, ink, glue, and cardboard. But each is a doorway into another time and space, alternate dimensions both real and imagined.

It doesn’t matter if you’re reading true crime, historical fiction, or a cookbook; all are woven from the fabric of the human condition. Books are a reflection of us, who we are, where we’ve come from, and where we might be headed. Books offer a double whammy of knowledge and enlightenment coupled with escapism and fun, simultaneously invigorating and relaxing.

Childhood Friends, Adult Companions

Books have been my friends and teachers since childhood. I loved cracking open a new book when I was a kid (still do). The smell and feel of crisp pages beneath my fingers felt like opening a treasure chest. I borrowed from the library often, and learned to appreciate the beauty of well-thumbed books, too. The ghosts of old dog-ears, the depth of the creases in the spine, and the occasional handwritten note in the margin told the story of all the people who had touched — and been touched — by this book. Who else had feasted upon this tome, and how did their mind digest its contents?

Once upon a time, before the modern printing press (itself a dinosaur now facing extinction), books were rare, precious commodities. They still are and always will be. Because books are the ideas and the words used to express those ideas, not the ink and paper they’re delivered on. Books are created in the heart and mind of the author, and live in the hearts and minds of readers. The bound stack of pages with writing on them is merely a transfer method. There are other ways to read a book now.

Dime Paperbacks Gone Digital

Digital books, ebooks, are the new “dime paperbacks,” cheap and easy to distribute. Traditional publishing houses need to either embrace this new technology or face extinction. You don’t have to look any further than the nearest abandoned Borders to see the future of print publishing.

Publishers should sell print editions that come with free/discounted links to ebook and audiobook formats. Print-on-demand technology allows authors to sell reasonably priced print editions — even signed editions — to fans that want to put something on their bookshelves. These new technologies are changing — in fact, have changed — the face of the publishing industry.

In the 1990s, the rise of digital music formats — and sites like Napster — caught the record companies off-guard. Sony, BMI and the other biggies were reluctant to say goodbye to the $18 CD, but eventually settled on a $9.99 iTunes download. Similarly, book publishers need to bid farewell to the $30 hardcover, and embrace a lower priced ebook format.

History may repeat in another way. Musical artists learned a decade ago they really didn’t need the support of giant record companies to connect with fans. They could do it themselves with You Tube, Facebook, and Twitter (Justin Bieber, anyone?) Authors may discover the same thing, finding an audience for their work without needing the support and approval of a handful of big New York publishers.

Good-Bye, Books … Hello, Books!

I learned to separate a book from its content when I became a book buyer. I’d read paperbacks because they were inexpensive, and easy to transport. It wasn’t a tragedy if I left one on the bus, or dropped it in the bathtub. If I read something I really enjoyed, I’d seek it out in hardcover, or — back when I could afford it (i.e. pre-kids) — in a signed, limited edition. Over the years I amassed a sizeable collection.

But I donated most of my books to the local library last year when we relocated/remodeled. I figure I’ll replace my favorite books with digital editions over time, much like I have done with my music collection.

But I miss my books, the fading covers and yellowing pages. My wife tells me to stop whining, there’s less on the shelves to gather dust, and I suppose she’s right. (Isn’t she always?) I already read all the books I was donating, consumed their contents, and if I want a refresher, I can find what I need on the Internet.

Still, I miss my books


Originally published in Wayne TODAY, October 2011

Uncourteous Interruptus, or Why Kayne West Is Still A Dick

kanye west interrupts
Kayne Knows Best — Mr. West interrupts Taylor Swift’s VMA acceptance speech.

The world used to be a more civilized, more respectful, more courteous place. Now, extreme displays of public rudeness are becoming commonplace and an icy aloofness toward your fellow man has become the norm.

The Age of the Asshole

Need examples? You don’t have to look far. Joe Wilson, a Republican Congressman from South Carolina flipped out during President Obama’s Congressional address in September 2009. Wilson got red in the face, pointing his finger and shouting “You lie!” when Obama said that current health care reform measures would not provide government-subsidized benefits to illegal immigrants. Both political parties were quick to condem Wilson’s outburst, and Wilson was quick to apologize. He simply forgot for a moment that it’s rude to heckle the president of the United States.

Rapper, record-producer, fashion-designer, and all-around jerk Kanye West upped the rudeness ante during the MTV Video music awards when he jumped on stage during Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech. Kanye questioned the 19-year-old country singer’s victory and extolled the virtues of Beyonce Knowles’ video. Beyonce showed the class Kanye lacked later that night when she won an award and she invited Taylor Swift back to finish her acceptance speech.

Kanye West Goes South

Kanye West has a long history of antisocial behavior. When he failed to win a MTV Europe award in 2006 he jumped on stage, grabbed the mike from the winner and explained how his video should have won because it had Pamela Anderson in it and cost $1 million.  The following year he complained that MTV opened the show with Britney Spears instead of him because he was black. He left that night infuriated that he didn’t win any Moonman trophies, vowing never to return.  Unfortunately he broke that promise and returned this year, drunk and disorderly.

Oh, and don’t forget another classic Kanye moment: during a post-Katrina charity benefit Kanye departed from scripted topics like disaster relief and rebuilding efforts to go on a rambling political diatribe that concluded with the nonsensical generality,  “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.

congressman joe wilson
“You lie! You lie!” — Congressman Joe Wilson flips out during President Obama’s speech.

Role Models For Rudeness

Are these the role models of modern society? You’re not surprised when a hip-hop thug or a rock star acts outrageous, but we should expect better of elected officials. But, as the old saying goes, you can put a monkey in a dress (or in Joe Wilson’s charcoal suit and power tie) but it’s still a monkey in a dress.

It would be easy to blame this decline in manners on the increased pace of modern life. Everything moves so fast now, there just isn’t time for pleasantries like there used to be. But in truth, modern technology makes it even easier to be well-mannered and courteous – no need to buy, write and mail Thank You notes when a one-line “Thanks!” email or text message will do.

Courtesy Loses To Frustration

I think the decline in manners has to do with a heighten sense of frustration that has fallen over our nation. The economy stinks, times are hard, and, most importantly, people don’t feel like anybody is listening to their complaints and cries for help.  And if nobody is listening to you, you start to shout and interrupt. You get rude.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the recent town hall meetings on health care reform that have taken place around the country.  People are worried and frustrated so they start to push and shove. Even meetings that didn’t result in physical altercations got loud and had an air of tension about them. This is rudeness borne of frustration. I suppose Kanye West and Joe Wilson can use the same excuse. But Wilson needs to respect the rules of order that governing bodies run by and the rules of polite society they people live by.

And Kanye West just needs to get a clue…or, better yet, just get lost.


Originally published in Wayne TODAY, September 2009.

My Awkward Brush with Greatness: Meeting Kurt Vonnegut

Kurt Vonnegut looked like this the day I met him, except he wore glasses and wasn’t smoking … but that’s only because we were in an elevator.

There was an old guy wandering around the lobby of the office building where I work. He looked vaguely familiar, but I didn’t place him until the desk clerk called his name.

“Hey…aren’t you Kurt Vonnegut?”

It was Kurt Vonnegut. He looked the same as he did on the back cover of my copy of Slaughterhouse Five. Only older, with wilder hair.  The desk guy shook his hand. I did, too.

Cat’s Cradle is one of my all-time favorites,” I said. I wasn’t lying.

A moment later the elevator doors opened, and we both got on. I was alone in an elevator with one of my literary idols. I felt lightheaded, giddy, and nervous.

“Doing an interview with NPR today?” I asked. National Public Radio has its studios on the seventh floor of our building. In the past, I’ve run into other celebs on their way to NPR. A few years back I shared an elevator with Paul McCartney and his supermodel wife, Heather Mills. That time the elevator had been crowded, and the ride short, so I didn’t say anything. But I wasn’t going to let this opportunity slip away.

“I hope so,” Vonnegut said. “That’s what they tell me.”

An awkward pause followed. I kept staring at Vonnegut, and I think it made him uncomfortable. He looked away, and I stared at the numbers on the elevator panel. I knew I had roughly another minute before we reached the NPR floor. I cleared my throat and spoke.

“I do some fiction writing myself,” I said.

vonnegut in BTS
Vonnegut landed a tough gig writing a Vonnegut term paper for Rodney Dangerfield in Back to School. “Vonnegut! I’m gonna stop payment on your check! Fuck me? Kurt, read my lips — fuck you! Next time I’ll call Robert Ludlum!”

“Yeah? What do you write?” Vonnegut asked.

Science fiction. Mostly horror.”

“You sell it?”

The question surprised me. Evidently Vonnegut judges writers the same way publishers do. If their stuff doesn’t sell, it must not be very good.

“I’ve sold a couple of things,” I said. “Small press stuff.”

The most I’ve been paid for a piece of fiction is fifty bucks. I won first place in a short story contest once. The prize was a plaque and ten copies of the magazine.  The magazine went belly-up after issue #2.

“Good for you,” Vonnegut said, “Keep at it.”

I had time to share one more thought.

“Writing,” I said, “is sort of a solitary profession, don’t you think?”

Editors or collaborators may make suggestions, but the bulk of all writing is done by one person, working alone, with only their thoughts and a computer keyboard for company. Sometimes it’s a very difficult, very lonely job.

Vonnegut laughed nervously, but he looked right at me. There was a kind of sadness in his eyes. And something else, too; something that looked like fear.

The elevator doors slid open. We had reached his floor.

“Stick with paperbacks,” Vonnegut said as he stepped out. “I’m into paperbacks now. That’s all anyone ever reads these days.”

I have no idea what Kurt Vonnegut was talking about. Maybe he was urging me to seek paperback publishers for my science fiction tales. Maybe he was encouraging me to read more paperback novels. Maybe he was answering a question someone else had asked him hours before. I don’t know.

Instead of asking for clarification, I shouted, “Thanks!” as the elevator doors slid closed. Kurt Vonnegut was gone, and I was alone again, pondering just what the 82-year-old author might have meant, and hoping against hope that if I ever make it to 82, I’ll still be publishing…and getting paid.

– 30 –

Originally published in Wayne TODAY, September 2005