Tag Archives: Creative Nonfiction Writing

WHAT’S YOUR STORY? JACKETS

JACKETS

by Steve Goldfinger

Kafka might have put it this way:  One day, in his thirteenth year, Stephen Goldfinger looked into the mirror and saw he was a scorpion.

I was a Scorpion all right, with an upper case “S,” a member of our Brooklyn softball team. The incredible jacket reflected in my mirror was made of dark purple felt, and the word SCORPION was emblazoned in white on the back.  It had a six-inch image of a white scorpion with Steve written below it on the front.  And when it was turned inside out–mirabile dictu! Behold the purple lettering and SCORPION image now on white satin!

I never did know where the name came from.  The only other scorpions in Brooklyn were in the insectarium at the zoo.  My remembrance is that Brooklyn’s indigenous wild life consisted primarily of sparrows, squirrels, cockroaches, and ants.  It wasn’t until later that I learned that the image on the jacket wasn’t really a scorpion at all.  The guy we bought them from couldn’t find a suitable picture of a scorpion and went with a cut-out of a crab instead.

We had after-school matches with such teams as the Navajos, the Stallions, the Dukes, the Knights, and a few others.  Most were played on the cement softball field of the Avenue X park.  Routinely assigned to right field and ninth in the batting order, I was not a very good player.

But I loved my Scorpion jacket.  I wore it in all kinds of weather and to all occasions.  Told it would not look that great against the backdrop of Princeton’s ivy-covered towers, I finally left it at home when I went to college.  Mostly  because it was looking fairly smudged and seedy.

I couldn’t find it when I returned home that winter.  My mother had given it to our weekly house cleaner.  His name was Marion though she sometimes referred to him, not without affection, as the schvartza.

Now hanging in my closet is a jacket of a different sort–a Princeton reunion jacket.  Each class has its own distinctive one to put on while carrying on at reunion time.  Designed by a class member and purchased the year  after graduation, there only commonality is their garish displays of orange and black, often out-screaming circus frippery.  I remember being told, in 1956, that my $45 purchase would be different–a sedate evening jacket, silk-lined and suitable for fine dining, theater, ocean cruises, and the like.

When it arrived, I was aghast.  Before me was a beautifully cut dinner jacket, its soft white exterior studded with vertical lines of tiny running orange tigers alternating with lines of ’56es.

It still hangs in my closet. Someday, my kids will have to get rid of it. Just how, I don’t know. They may burn it or bury it or frame it. But give it away?  Who would ever wear it?

Frequent BOLLI Matters writer Steve Goldfinger

Since joining BOLLI two years ago, after a long career in medicine, Steve has been exploring his artistic side.  He has been active in both the Writers Guild and CAST (Creativity in Acting, Storytelling, and Theatre) as well as the Book Group.  

AUGUST LINES FROM LYDIA: IMRE’S LEAP OF FAITH

IMRE’S LEAP OF FAITH

by Lydia Bogar

Buda–the city on the hill–and Pest–the open flat land across the Danube–were joined by five bridges.

Imre was a soldier in the Hungarian Army, the only one of Stefan and Elizabeth’s three sons still in the country. Watching and feeling the frozen pellets of snow blowing across the river, he was thinking of his younger brothers who were now in America’s Army.  Could Frigyes, age 38, and Sandor, age 33, be out there with the Allies on the eastern flank of his magnificent city? Could they be having a hot meal?  Real food prepared by the soldiers in the Red Army?

Last week, the nurses in the underground told him that the Russians had conscripted dozens of Romanians who were camped under the bridges and in the derelict school on Margaret Island. Only half of the Margaret Bridge remained standing.  The bombs were out there.  Always out there. There were no lights on the bridge or on the island, or in the shattered city of Pest.  Only smudges of fog and shadow, pearl-like puffs, drifted across his line of vision.

He thought of his sister, only a year younger than he, now a wife and mother, 40 years of age and living in a place called Massachusetts. Would he ever see this village called Worcester? Would he ever meet any of his three young nephews?

His stomach growled in contempt of the frozen strips of meat and the dirty water in his cup.  There was stale bread, mostly frosted with mold, eaten in spite of warnings from the Captain.  Melted snow washed down the wretched food, if you could even call it that. Wretched is the only suitable word for the strips of meat, cut from the frozen carcasses of two cavalry horses found at the bottom of Gellert Hill. Rumors swirled around the fallen timber that his comrades used as a dining table.

The fragrant memories of his mother’s kitchen did not satisfy the ache deep in his belly, nor did the visualization of his village. He was a professional photographer but nothing in his current view called for the permanence of a photograph. Perhaps when he found his paper and pens, he would draw the Vagysala dinner table with Gomba Leves (mushroom soup) Borju Porkolot (veal stew) and Dios Torta (walnut cake). Today, his village seemed a million miles away.

Communication was nearly impossible at this point in the war, but he prayed for his family daily–especially for his parents who had returned from America only a handful of years before.

I can only imagine this was my uncle’s prayer as he vanished from the face of the earth on that Christmas Eve, 1944.

BOLLI Matters co-editor and feature writer Lydia Bogar

Our own “Renaissance Woman,” Lydia has done everything from teaching English to doing volunteer emergency service.  She says she “hails from Woosta–educated at BOLLI.”

WHAT’S ON YOUR MIND? THE MICRO-STORM

THE MICRO-STORM

by Dennis Greene

Safe inside our well-constructed home sand surrounded by an amazing network of electronic communication systems, we generally feel protected from those forces of nature that threatened and terrified our forbears.  Even when we hear about earthquakes, cyclones, or tidal waves somewhere else, and we feel some level of concern and sympathy, we don’t feel the gut-wrenching fear of those who came before us and knew nature better than we do.  But every once in a while, Mother Nature gives us a little nudge to remind us that she is watching us and can, with a gesture, wipe out our secure little nests at any time.

About six weeks ago, I got such a nudge.  After leaving BOLLI at noon, I rushed to the golf course to get in a quick nine.  The weather was sunny and warm, but there was a chance of some thunderstorm activity in late afternoon.  I spent a pleasant two hours strolling the fairways at Nehoiden and then headed home for a nap.  By 4:30, I was fast asleep next to an open window, oblivious to the world. I had given no thought to the approach of a violent “micro storm.”

At 5:15, I was startled into consciousness by a soaking wall of water driven through my window by violent wind.  I was in bed, facing the window, and as my eyes popped open, I heard an explosion and saw a bright flash of white light surrounded by a red penumbra. It looked like a bomb exploding right outside my window, and there was no interval between the boom and the flash.

The house shook, but since I saw no other damage, and our lights remained on, I rolled over to the dry side of the bed and tried to continue my nap.  It didn’t last long. Eileen yelled from downstairs that we had no internet or television service, all our phones were dead, and a message on her cell phone indicated that some isolated areas were experiencing severe micro-storms. I guess we were one of those isolated areas.

Hours later, I learned from a message on my cell phone that the “outage” in our neighborhood lasted for forty minutes, but service had been restored.  Many hours after that, at 3:15 a.m., I reached Comcast to let them know that the outage continued at my house. They confirmed that our house had no service and offered to send a technician, but since they had numerous other calls, the earliest available service would be no sooner than Thursday afternoon. For the next two days, our household was barely functional.  I couldn’t use the internet or read emails, and I missed the Celtics playoff game. On Thursday evening, after a very responsive young technician worked at our house for almost two hours, we learned from him that our modem, three tv control boxes, and all our telephones had been rendered inoperable.  When he returned on Friday morning to replace the modem and control boxes, we discovered that our new 55” smart TV and our Apple Airport router had also been fried. The next day, we began the daunting task of replacing the five telephones, beginning the warrantee process with Costco for our TV, and trying to reconnect all our devices and printers to our home network. The disruption seemed interminable, but after four frustrating weeks we were finally reconnected and back to normal.  But we are now much more aware of how subject we are to nature’s whims.

This is a warning to all of you to retain some of that primeval fear you were born with and to respect Mother Nature. She has her eyes on each of us and can hurl devastation upon you before you can blink.

BOLLI Matters feature writer Dennis Greene

Dennis spent five years as an engineer and then forty as a lawyer–and sixty as a pop culture geek and junkie.  He’s been writing blog articles for BOLLI Matters in quite a variety of genres:  science fiction, movie and video picks, creative nonfiction, and memoir.  And now, he’s even taken on the weather!

 

 

How I Learned to be a Racist by Lois Biener

HOW I LEARNED TO BE A RACIST

By Lois Biener

I parked my car with my dog inside in the small lot behind Peet’s Coffee to run in for some beans.  Leaving the car, I noticed three black men hanging out, probably on a smoke break from their work in the attached building.  I double-checked to make sure my car was locked.  As I walked around to the front door, I chastised myself for my automatic response.  I rarely lock my car.  Why did I do that?

Lessons in racism started early.  I grew up in a neighborhood that was not only racially segregated, it was 60 to 70% Jewish.  I could tell my mother was much happier when I played with the Jewish kids than with the few non-Jews.  No explicit reason was given, but the subtle message of invidious group distinctions was delivered.

The only black person I knew in my early years was Willie Mae who cleaned our house and took care of me after school.  I was very fond of her, as she was of me.  My parents referred to her as “the schvartze,” but not in her presence.  Her daughter, Gweny, was my age, and Willie Mae brought her to our house now and then.  Being invited to Gweny’s 5th birthday party caused my parents great consternation.  I really wanted to go, although I can’t remember if I actually did.  They told me that her home was in a dirty and dangerous neighborhood and that I wouldn’t be comfortable there.  I recall Willie Mae expressing resentment to me about the attitudes white people had toward her.  I felt torn in my loyalties to her and to my parents.

My father, a small-time criminal lawyer, dealt primarily with “colored” people who got in trouble for numbers running and other petty crimes.  Although he was proud to have their respect and appreciation, I had many opportunities to hear about their terrible living conditions and people referred to as “dumb shines,” but at least not “niggers.”

Until high school, I had few opportunities to see or relate to black people.  My high-school was about 50% black and 50% Jewish.  Most of the black kids were tracked into vocational courses, so I didn’t become friendly with many of them.  The one area where race seemed irrelevant was choir.  This was a 3-day a week commitment with frequent concerts in and out of school, often at churches during Christmas, much to my parents’ dismay.  I loved being in the choir, and I had the experience of participating with excellent African-American singers.  I remember anticipating with pleasure the place in the program where a wonderful soprano would perform a solo aria from Handel’s Messiah.

I can’t remember when I first started to actively reject the notion that black people were inherently “less than.”  The civil rights movement of the 60’s occurred when I was an undergraduate, and all the media attention to the injustice in the south was certainly an important factor.  Graduate school in the late 60’s and 70’s and all the political movements of that time led me to intellectually reject racism.   Alice Walker, Zora Neale Hurston, and other writers of the black experience were important contributors to my growing understanding and empathy.  The more recent sickening repetition of the killing of black men by white policeman has been a tipping point in sparking my motivation to be more proactive.

Now I’m trying to deal with the unconscious reactions that led me to go back and lock my car door in the Peet’s parking lot or the avoidance of eye-contact when passing black men on the street.   Rooting out this behavior takes conscious effort.  It is important to bring into awareness the subtle perceptual biases that many of us white people have internalized over our lifetimes so that the source of those biases can be examined.

Riding the train from NYC last week, friends and I were looking for facing seats.  I found one six-seater occupied by a young black man.  I looked at him, smiled, and sat down.  I’m trying.  We all must do much more.

BOLLI Member Lois Biener

A social scientist by “trade,” Lois enjoys her time at BOLLI, sings with two different groups, throws pots,  spends quality time with her daughter and grandson, and  relishes planning the next trip with her husband.

JULY “BOOK NOOK” : A LITERARY MEMORY FROM ABBY PINARD

THE BOOK THAT MATTERED

Brooklyn Public Library

by Abby Pinard

When I turned 13, in the mid-1950s, having long since exhausted the children’s section of the Brooklyn Public Library, I was finally granted an adult card. Oh, the wonders that were now available to me! Not just the books but the soaring, sunlit space, the hush, and the certainty that important grown-up people were doing important grown-up reading there.

Early on, I read a book called (I thought) A Small Rain. I remember no other single book from that time, but that one stuck with me. There was a scene in which a young girl who plays the piano is asked if she plays well. “Yes,” she says. I was thrilled and appalled! Who could be so immodest? I played the piano, pretty well for 13, but I would never have said so! I was a gawky, nerdy, shy kid, and boasting — or even believing I had anything to boast about — just wasn’t in my repertoire.

Over the years, the book would periodically penetrate my consciousness, and I would think that I should re-read it to figure out why it had been important to me. Was it just that one scene? I had a vague sense that the girl was growing up in New York City but that her city was very unlike mine, and I didn’t remember anything else about her. I couldn’t remember the author’s name, but I clearly remembered that the physical space in which I’d found the book was in the section for authors from J-M. We were a long way from the Internet, and although any librarian could’ve helped me, life intervened; there were lots more books to read, and I never tried to identify the book.

Until twenty or so years ago when I read an article about Madeleine L’Engle that mentioned her first book. The title varied from my recollection only by the difference between “a” and “the,” and her name fit alphabetically. When I read a synopsis, I was certain I had found it, and I bought the book. I re-read it closely but had no clear insight as to why it was meaningful to the 13-year-old me. It’s a coming-of-age story, originally published in 1945, featuring the lonely daughter of mostly absent parents. Maybe I was as shocked by the sixteen-year-old’s relationships with grown men as I was by her immodesty, or perhaps I was fascinated by the glamorous bohemianism of her life in Greenwich Village and Paris. Or maybe it was just that one scene that was so startling that I never forgot it.

The Small Rain sits on a shelf where I can see it from where I now sit. I no longer think it has anything to tell me about who I was at 13, but I may read it once more just to be sure.

BOLLI Matters “Book Nook” Feature Writer, Abby Pinard

A lifelong book nut, Abby retired from a forty-year computer software career and ticked an item off her bucket list by going to work in a bookstore.  A native New Yorker, she moved to Boston to be among her people:  family and Red Sox fans.  A music lover, crossword puzzler, baseball fan, and political junkie, she flunked Halloween costumes but can debug her daughter’s wifi.

 

 

CREATIVE NONFICTION FROM ELAINE PITOCHELLI: HUMOR & PATHOS

HUMOR & PATHOS: ROBIN WILLIAMS REMEMBERED

By Elaine Pitochelli

The year was 1978. Jimmy Carter was President of the United States. The first test tube baby was born. Cult leader Jim Jones told nine hundred members of his church to commit suicide. Girls were playing with Barbie Dolls and Easy Bake Ovens. Boys were playing with the Simon game and hot wheels.

And in his comedic persona of Mork from Ork, Robin Williams exploded on the scene.

In our household, television viewing was reserved for a couple of evening family shows, during which we let Williams, that comic genius, into our home and our lives. He first appeared on the show, Happy Days, and then sequed into the memorable Mork and Mindy.

I enjoyed the show very much, but Williams’ persona puzzled me. This enigmatic soul of comedy poked at my inner places. I needed to look deeper at him.  I felt the need to study him. How could he keep up this crazy, oddball act? How could he keep up this raving wildness?  I worried about him, which seemed odd to me. For God’s sake. I didn’t know the man personally.

Yet, on some essential level, I did know him.  His depression, his mania, his genius was there for anyone to see—anyone, that is, who dared to, anyone who had lived with the same proclivities. I can’t let him go without a tribute to his gifts.

Mork is gone, and so is the planet Ork.  So are Peter Pan and Hook.
Gone are the Happy Feet that rocked and zoomed across the frozen tundra.
Gone is The Fisher King whose craziness bore pins into our eyes and icy shards thick from the frozen wasteland into our hearts.
Gone is Mrs. Doubtfire who absorbed a child’s tears in her vast bosom.                                                                                                                             Gone is the booming voice that awakened Vietnam and promised relief from travails.                                                                                                    Gone is Patch Adams restoring rosy cheeks to ashen children whose souls would soon be winging their way to heaven.
Gone is Jacob the Liar who gave solace, grace, and laughter to a tiny girl destined for the Nazi ovens.
Gone are those eyes of bottomless sadness, the depth of the deepest desert sands.

What’s left is a man whose own soul cried while he gave sustenance to millions with insane laughter and fathomless tears.
What’s left are our memories and yearnings to restore to his heart and soul that which he gave to ours.
What’s left is the knowledge that his pain couldn’t be healed.
What’s left is his profound imagination and creativity, someone who brought his emotions to soaring heights and allowed us unbridled laughter and play in Humor and Pathos.

BOLLI member and writer Elaine Pitochelli

 

Elaine considers reading her passion and inspiration. Writing is her muse, the creative influence in her Being.  Her family is her All.

 

 

 

 

CREATIVE NONFICTION WRITING FROM JEAN CARR: RAPT WATCHING

            RAPT WATCHING            

 by Jean Carr               

It started when I lived in New Jersey in the 1980s.  Driving along paved highways, a flicker of movement would catch my eye.  Looking up, I would see a bird, huge wings fully spread, dark red bands inking the white feathers . . . soaring.   As it flew, it crossed back and forth above the road.   Was it hungry and looking for something to swoop down on?   Why did it seem to hang out there?   All I knew was that seeing it lifted my heart.  I envied the bird’s freedom, its independence, its view of the world below.  I found it hard to keep driving at high speed while trying to keep the bird in sight.

After some research, I discovered that the birds I most often saw were red-tailed hawks.  As raptors, hawks seize and eat rodents, birds, and other small animals. Many people see them as nuisances and even somehow evil. Chicken farmers or pheasant hunters, interested in protecting their animals, shoot and poison hawks and other raptors.  But the hawk is part of a healthy food chain and feeds mostly on mammals and insects that are either harmful to the environment or too weak to survive.

But now I wanted to see a hawk up close.  I went to meet Len Soucy who ran the Raptor Trust, adjoining the Great Swamp Wildlife Refuge.  Len’s lifelong project to rehabilitate wild birds began in the 1960s when he found, on his doorstep, a hawk suffering from a gunshot.  Over the years, Len took in increasing numbers of raptors and other injured birds, eventually hiring staff and building medical and educational facilities.  By 2016, the Trust annually took in over 5600 birds and released 2300 of them to the wild. Those who could not be released live on Trust property and continue to educate and delight people of all ages.

Len was someone who would understand that, every time I drove on a highway,  I kept an eye out for my talisman, who gave me good luck for my journey.  As we sat down to talk, a volunteer walked over with a red-tail on her fist.  “How does the hawk hover so long, seldom flapping its wings?” I asked him.

“Hawks use rising air currents called thermals to stay aloft,” he said. “Thermals form on sunny days over paved roads and near hills. Riding a thermal, a hawk doesn’t need to move its wings very much.”

“So, is it looking for prey as it soars?” I asked.

“Nope,” answered Len. “Red-tailed hawks hunt by sitting in a tree and jumping down on a mouse.  If the hawk saw one from 5000 feet, which he probably could, do you think he could get down in time to catch the mouse?”

Not giving up, I asked, “Then why does he soar like that?”  Len responded immediately, “It must feel good to be able to do that; hell, that’s what I’d do if I could just hang out and look down from up there—why not?”

BOLLI member, writer, and raptor watcher Jean Carr

As a wordsmith, Jean used her love of language to pursue two careers – as an editor and then an attorney.  While still doing some consulting to help nonprofits, she’s mostly retired to enjoy family and friends, hiking, writing, genealogical research, and travel.  Nature gives her solace and inspires her to learn.