One of the things I like about reading on a Kindle is you can download a sample from the Kindle store or Amazon. How about The Summer Proposal by Vi Keeland? With a name like Vi, it would have to be good. (Wait, Vi’s a guy? I thought Vi was short for Viola, the only Vi I ever knew, Viola Hendricks.)

Samples are cool, samples are convenient, but when you download a sample from the Kindle store, certain parts of your Kindle don’t work. You can’t insert a bookmark. You can’t search, which is a feature I love and, because I am inattentive and read at night, as a prelude to sleep, is a feature I often need. (Wait a minute, who’s this Howard guy they’re talking about now?) And you can’t highlight and save text. Like this, from Under Majordomo Minor, by Patrick Dewitt:

“Wishing is a pastime for disappointment” and “Compromise is a plague of sorts.”

Or this from Kevin Phillips’ Nothing to See Here:

“They wore seersucker, like they were racist lawyers from the forties. I hated them. They seemed like children but they already looked like middle-aged men. I called them Mint Julep Boys, like they missed the Old South because, even if there was horrible racism, it was worth it if it meant that they could be important by default.”

This morning I’m reading Mary Miller’s “The Last Days of California,” the free Kindle sample. And true to form, I need to backtrack. I missed something. Elise is pregnant? Can’t search for the word pregnant. Can’t search without doofusly swiping backward 23 times, squinting at the device, looking for “pregnant.”  

Mary Miller is both funny and perceptive. I’d also like to highlight a few nuggets of text. Here’s a nugget from Carmiel Banasky’s The Suicide of Claire Bishop: “I’m not interested in objective Truth with a capital T. I’m talking about truth, subjective and hairy.“ Hairy truth. I sure love that, though I don’t want to touch it. Highlight saves these AND enables me to copy and paste sometime in the future (see above). In sample mode, nope, can’t do that.

It’s like going to Burt Watson Chevrolet and taking a car for a test drive. Sorry, the radio won’t work unless you buy the car. Sorry, you can’t put this car in reverse until you take out a loan and buy the car.

I can read a sample of a book in a store. There aren’t many of those left, and, party to their passage to extinction, I mourn their loss. At Schuler Books in Okemos, where I go with my wife to buy (mostly) children’s books, I wander around and pick up books. I like the feel of a new book, an actual book, in my hands.  But the chairs are not easy chairs, they’re moderately difficult chairs, and I need to put my feet up. I like to read samples lying in bed, in the dark, or in my comfy chair at 5:00 a.m., with coffee. 

The sample sold me on Mary Miller. I bought/downloaded the whole book at the bargain price of $9.99.  I would give you one example of a highlight, of how funny and perceptive Mary Miller is, but I had to plug in my Kindle to charge it. True, you don’t have to charge an actual book.  But this is an inconvenience I have made my peace with (or if you prefer, with which I have made my peace).  If you prefer the latter, something tells me you will never convert to a Kindle. 

Face It

There’s six of us, Marilyn and Sherrie and Tizi, Rob and Bob and me. It’s New Year’s Eve. We’ve talked about the virus and vaccine and testing, about flights canceled and where we think our kids might be tonight. We’ve opened wine and taken pictures in front of the Christmas tree, first the boys, then the girls. It’s three years since we stayed up until midnight. A couple New Years Eves ago Bob and I faked a drunk pic. Later tonight, at the table, we will raise our glasses to toast Tizi and her squash and sweet potato soup.

“‘Vellutata,’ they call a soup like this in Italy.”

“It’s so velvety.”

“That’s what it means, velutata.  Do you taste the thyme?”

“Thyme reminds me of the Guess Who. No time! No time!” 

“So guys, my sister’s walking with a cane now.”

“Yes, the broken hip.”

“When was that?”

“It’s been a month.”

“I was outside this morning. We have to be careful. Snow on ice. It’s easy to fall.”

“How old is your sister?”


“Is that an actual nutmeg? A nut of nutmeg?”

“Grind a little into your soup. And try a couple drops of this sherry.”

“My brother knows a guy who fell in his kitchen, hit his head, and died. Tizi’s sister’s husband’s cousin fell in the bathroom. Slipped on some water on the floor. He was in the hospital for a week. I’m careful coming down the stairs now. I used to pull a t-shirt on, pull it over my head while I was coming down the stairs in the morning. In the dark.” 

“How old? The dead guy.”


“I wondered how long it would take, before all this old people talk started.”

“We’re old!”

“We’re not old!”

“Look mom, no hands. I’m walking down the stairs with a shirt pulled over my head. I don’t do that anymore. And I count the steps.”

“We’ll never make it to midnight tonight.”

“Shut up.”

“Always count the steps.”

“We don’t even try anymore.”

“I just can’t drink the way I used to. Does my hair look thinner?”

“I’ve been constipated for three days.”

What? Around the table, a moment of silence. The silence lengthens. Whoever said this had gall. Had balls. Whoever said this might as well have said they had VD. Under the Christmas tree the wheels on the train squeak as it makes its transit around the tree. A wine bottle gurgles through a pour. Years past we would hear the TV in the other room, Dick Clark commenting on the crowd at Times Square. Dick is no more.


“Sorry,” they say. “Too much information.”

Continue reading “Face It”

Then March On

A couple days ago I was surprised by a John Phillip Sousa march. It was a drippy Sunday morning around 7:00 a.m. I was driving to the local Kroger to buy a half gallon of milk. When I switched on the radio in the car, there it was, this irresistibly jaunty piece of music. I don’t love a march, and my spirits were not particularly low that morning, but this sunny, optimistic music, the latest installment of 90.9 FM’s weekly Sousa Alarm, took me by surprise and awoke something in me, taking me back in time, to high school and marching band. 

When I got to Kroger, I sat in the parking lot, listening through to the end of the recording. Inside the store, I felt a kind of after-march jubilance. I marched through produce, past paper products and frozen foods, and into dairy, thinking about the football field, about the band and the uniform.

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Don’t Worry About the Key

I’m not supposed to hear this. I’m not even supposed to be awake at this hour.

It’s 3:00 a.m. Lying beside me, gently asleep, my wife is making a whistling sound. She inhales, then exhales, and there it is: a soft, clear whistle, with each exhaled breath.

So it’s true. When I was a kid, in pretend sleep my brother and I would make whistling sounds, mimicking what we had seen and heard on television, in cartoons.  This is the first time I’ve actually heard her–or anyone–whistle in their sleep. Sometimes she’ll wake herself up, elbow me, and ask, “Was I snoring?” And I’ll say no, of course not. “Please wake me up if I snore,” she’ll say. I promise her I will.  We’ve never talked about a whistle. I didn’t think we needed to. 

I lie there, transfixed, careful not to disturb her. This is possibly the most wonderful thing that’s ever happened. I don’t want to stop her.  What I want to do is slide out of bed and go downstairs to the piano.   

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Good Egg

You had to wonder if Fred got anything out of The Great Gatsby. This was 10th grade English at Freeland High School. This was Fred Conway, a kid everyone made fun of, a kid who was brutally picked on and mocked by guys (of course it was guys) for talking slow, for not being very smart. Today boys like Fred, when they’ve had enough abuse, bring a gun to school and go all Colombine. But there was kind of a serenity about Fred. He would look on, nod his head, and smile. In Miss Erdmann’s class he sat in the back of the room, over by the window. 

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Cats, Rats, and Donuts

The sign, an improvised advertisement, takes me by surprise. Cash for cats. 

It’s a Saturday afternoon in November. The sky is a smudge. I’m driving north on Old South Telegraph Road, past a Home Depot, past a UHaul and a long-term storage facility, past a place where you can get your crashed car fixed. At one time there was a party rental outfit on this stretch of road: tables and chairs, dishes and glasses and flatware, tents and dance floors. Now closed. Not a lot of partying going on these days. 

At the stoplight where Old South Telegraph meets New South, I notice the makeshift sign, written in black marker on a white placard, “Cash for Cats.”  

I accelerate through the intersection, cross the bridge over Millpond Creek, wondering, Did I really see that? Was there a cat collection center? A booth with a drive-through window where you can pawn your Persian or Calico for cold hard cash, money to help pay for that UHaul or storage space or to get your fender fixed?  Has it come to that?

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The Scream in My Heart

Chimps are funny.

When I was a kid there was a television commercial for Red Rose Tea. Four chimps, dressed in plaid jackets and black slacks, playing swing music at a club called The Savory Ritz. On stage there was piano chimp, trombone chimp, and string bass and drummer chimp.  Also, in the foreground, lady and gentleman chimp swing dancing. How could they resist? Man, that chimp band could swing. In the last seconds of the commercial, piano chimp channels Louis Prima, leaning into a bistro microphone and chanting, Red Rose Tea! Red Rose Tea!  

It was a great commercial. What made it great was the stressed syllables. Red rose tea (rest). Red rose tea (rest). Red rose tea (rest). Those stressed syllables were hammers. The message was pounded into your brain. What great pounding.

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Hey, Freddie

The first summer I worked on the construction crew, my foreman’s name was Fred. He was a big guy, a Ukrainian. “The Ukrainians,” he would say, “are a proud people.” Fred wore bib overalls and a billcap. He kept a pencil in one bib pocket, a pack of Kools in the other. In moments of stress he tweezed a cigarette out of the pack with thumb and forefinger, lit it, and complained about his ulcer. He never ate lunch. He was a Vietnam vet and bragged once in a while about shooting men over there. In another life, one in which there had been no war and no draft, he probably would have gone to college and become an engineer. 

“Your first lesson on this job,” he said, “is don’t get killed by the crane.”

This was residential construction. We poured basement walls in future subdivisions, three or four basements a day. It was production work. The crane hooked and swung eight-foot and twelve-foot panels from a trailer bed parked up on the road into a hole where we set the panels along a footing. On the back of the crane was a half-ton counterweight. Some of the tools we used were kept in a deep box on the crane platform. “Tell Joe you’re going in the toolbox for a sledge hammer,” Fred said. “If he doesn’t know you’re there and swings the crane around, that counterweight will rip your head off.”

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Just Sayin’


I just got off the phone with the ophthalmologist’s office. The complicated objective was to make not one but two appointments, on the same day. According to my iPhone’s recent calls record, the call lasted 10 minutes. In that time period, the person I talked to said “OK” 25 times. (That’s an estimate, a conservative one.)

It’s no biggie. It was actually kind of funny. Especially the OK followed by a long guttural hyphen, a throat clearing dot dot dot. But, OK, it got kind of annoying. I was almost, but not quite, like, OK OK OK, enough of that.

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The woman in the next bed kept calling to her husband, “Fred! Oh, Fred!”

And Fred said, “Okay, honey. Try to breathe now. Short breaths. Like this. Remember?” He pursed his lips and demonstrated.  

“Ohmygod, Fred!”

“Breathe, honey.”

I looked at my wife, she looked at me.  She and Fred’s wife were in the on-deck circle, in one of the labor rooms at Beaumont Hospital, just down the hall from the delivery room. Fred’s wife was approaching the ninth inning, dealing with some major contractions. 

It was all quite a surprise. 

We were having our first baby. No one had told me there would be another couple in the room with us. I’d seen birthing dramas on television, which usually involved a lot of screaming, and two or three professional people gathered around the bed encouraging the mother, and an ashen-faced, freaked-out dad, the potted plant in the room. We had done the Lamaze class a few months before, graduating with honors. One of the ideas in the Lamaze approach was: the father gets involved. And now, this was it. I expected to feel my wife’s fingernails sinking into my palm soon, when I started to coach her on her breathing.

Continue reading “Arrival”