For months after his beloved died, there was a heat inside Rob’s chest as if a nugget of polonium were leaking radiation. Rob consulted Lyle, his doctor and a friend, who diagnosed, half in earnest, heartburn. Grief unexpressed. It was obviously true, but how, Rob wondered, do you express that kind of grief short of wailing day and night curbside? You cannot. It sat compressed inside his chest and it would have to be released. The energy to wail was spent. It had been nearly a year.

Bit by bit he got rid of the reminders, until in one last putsch, garbage bags stuffed with clothes went out the door to Goodwill, including a good portion of his own. He wanted to start over. He understood that was a good sign. He kept a few things, mostly fluffy oversize socks, nice to pad around in on rainy nights, handkerchiefs, some decorative pins, an expensive coat that was his gift to his beloved.

He had to make peace with what he had known all along: that there is no afterlife, no visitations, no messages, no communication from beyond. No hooey.

He didn’t dream of his beloved. He thought that too might be a good sign. Most of his dreams were problem-solving; the connection between him and his beloved had no loose ends, no needs left raw and untended. Of course they had their moments of irritation and pique, but the understanding was unquestioned: they were to be together to the end. The end? A diagnosis and death a half-year later. Time that went by in a blinding flash.

Perhaps by having it named, the heat in his chest subsided, forgotten for longer and longer periods of time. The socks, which would last a lifetime, lost their significance. They became mere socks. He never wore the coat.

But he started to dream of his beloved, variations of the same dream in which his beloved is not dead but instead has moved back to convalesce with family in Detroit. Rob waits his return but is met by ever-increasing silence until there is no contact. His beloved does not call nor answer the phone. That theme is repeated in different settings. Some mornings he doesn’t remember any of the dream’s details but knows, from the bitterness in his mouth, that he had the dream again. Lately the dream has added a chapter: Rob is at the Detroit airport and he makes a call, and his beloved speaks to him in a disinterested, flat tone, and the wail inside Rob arises like sulfur, and he wakes up.

One day he notices with shame how slovenly he has become. His beloved had kept the house immaculate, and Rob had come to value orderliness too. Now soiled clothes littered every surface, the detritus on the kitchen floor was archeological. He set himself the goal of cleaning the kitchen, knowing he would flag if he faced the whole house and the garage. It all had to be done. While he was working he was beset by the potentially defeating thought, But who am I doing this for? The one who will not answer my calls.

If he was able to suppress oceanic wails, he could suppress this thought, and he did. He continued cleaning, trying to milk the satisfaction he actually felt as layers of grime disappeared.

On the windowsill in the dining nook, behind an assortment of knickknacks he discovered something he mistook for dried blood before he identified it: a begonia leaf that his beloved had snitched from a plant in the conservatory. “What will you do with a leaf?” Rob asked.

I’m going to root it.”

A leaf? Rob kept his skepticism hidden. It was the harrowing time when all manifestations of life were clutched with a superstitious fervor. They found a plastic cup with a slit on the top for a straw and inserted the stem of the leaf into the full cup of water. They put the cup on the windowsill and forgot it.

The leaf lay flat, exhausted on the plastic lid. It had been more than a year and surely the water had evaporated and the leaf had dried up. But the color signified otherwise, and Rob touched it, finding the flesh tender. He took off the lid. The cup was as full as the day they had filled it. For a brief, appalling moment he manufactured a fable about a ghostly visitor doing the watering. An obvious explanation was available: Maria, the cleaning woman who used to come every few months and never dusted the knickknacks, would have filled it. She didn’t want to be a cleaning person. She wanted to be a gardener.

More surprising than the full cup, a mop of white roots dangled from the leaf stem. Without hesitating Rob found potting soil and dribbled some into the cup until the roots were covered. Once the soil was saturated, after some indecision, he discarded the lid and punched holes in the bottom of the cup to let the water drain down the sink. He wasn’t sure what the shock of such a big environmental change might do the plant. The plant was no longer a leaf.

He put the cup back of the shelf and watched and waited. If new growth came, where would it come from?


This time I will not get lost. In my notebook I write: BLUE PLASTIC past 51, red walls, Meditel, broken down fountain, turn right, big street Charia El Alou, Pharmacia Cherqi. But of course I get lost the first turn I take in the maze of the medina. I am staying on Rue Sabat-el Isfi. Zakia pointed out the sign embedded in the wall when she led me to my lodging and I wrote that down too, but as far as I know, that was the only such sign on the entire street which may be long or may be short, may be bent or may be straight. Even if I knew how to use my phone I couldn’t ask her help. She doesn’t speak English or French, and I no Arabic.

I give up. I will have to walk and walk until I stumble upon that sign, or the BLUE PLASTIC past 51, whatever that means. I have time. It is hours before sunset. Where do I have to be? Nowhere.

Oh what luck. There it is, the little sign. But now I can’t figure out which door is the right one. I walk up and down the narrow street–it’s it’s not a street, it’s a narrow passageway with street cats, women in hijabs, the occasional reckless scooter–looking for a hint of familiarity. I inspect the front locks to see if there’s an affinity to my peculiar key. There are no numbers. Rue Sabat-el Isfi is not long. Periodically I emerge at one end or the other and the bookseller and the cactus seller wonder what my problem is. Finally, mid-street I ask a skinny old man in a nearby pocket-size grocery. “Connais Zakia?” Is that correct?  Why can’t I learn decent French? He is baffled.

Zakia. Connaissez-vous Zakia? Zakia?”

Comprehension sparks and he points to the door left of my shoulder. Now I remember.  There were two doors side by side. Why didn’t I see it before?  Mine is the left.

Home. Why did I ever leave? The question every traveler asks in certain moments.


That’s what left after Pie Day, spotted and bruised and bug-tunneled in the veg bin of the fridge. Lily, John and I made three pies and a couple of tartlets. At their wedding in June I recited a composition (such a dignified word) predicting that in a few years with John at the helm of the processor our crusts would be the envy of town. I was wrong only in time frame: he made the crusts and showed me what I have been doing wrong for years: adding too much water. I was so vigilant about not overworking the crust I over hydrated them. Hence leather.

I was delighted to get home from Africa to find there were enough apples remaining on the tree to satisfy both real and imaginary appetites. The imagined scarcity. What with rats (I surmise) squirrels (definitely) and blue jays (sometimes five at once on the roof) my worries weren’t totally unfounded. I picked all but a few. The veg bin was loaded.

Now I am down to the lowest, borderline appalling layer. I pull out the paring knife. There are enough of these deplorable ones with enough salvageable bits to make a nice gift for neighbors Janet and KC, who forsake the pie with its glutenous crust. (Oh what they are missing.)

The act of salvage brings to mind my mother who one summer, having a bountiful apricot harvest for a change (almost every year the blossoms froze), cut up each apricot, discarding the worm that was in almost all, and made an apricot butter. It was one of the best things ever.


As the old sing, so twitter the young…

                             1668 painting by Jan Steen

I’m working on a book: A Beginner’s Guide to Fear. It’s a portrait of a class of eight students confronting their fear of deep water, based on the classes I teach and the students I’ve had. Fear. We get great helpings of it sluiced through our devices, mine being a computer which opens to the New York Times website. We watch, or read about a Republican convention in which fear is the foremost, the only, motivator aside from power. It works, even for us bleeding heart liberals. We turn away awash in fear. Fear of Trump and those people, some of whom are my relatives, and yours too.

Fear. It’s a construction, a built-up thing. In the water there are ways to deconstruct it. Slow down. Feel your body. On land, I suppose, you could say the same. Sit still. Meditate. The thing that makes my teaching easier than what a shrink does is the water itself. It offers a balm of sensation, and, according to a recent Times column, submerging up to your heart increases blood flow to the brain by as much as fourteen percent. That’s why I’m so smart and so mellow.

Right. I often find myself stuck in the perennial codger mind-set: what’s the damn world coming to? Everyone walking around hands and noses glued to the stupid phones, cafes full of zombies, lanes jammed with black SUV’s. No doubt there’s a big component of fear in my dyspepsia. The good shrink might ask, are you afraid of being displaced by the young, in the same way the Trumpistas are afraid of being displaced by the Other?

Never mind. I’m going to the pool and jumping in.



My timing is bad again, arriving just when the neighbor’s cleaning lady has the blower out and is air-blasting the steps and front sidewalk. Last time I gave her the nastiest look in my gallery and when she had finally turned the damn thing off, I told her how I hated it. “You’re wearing a mask,” I said. “What about me and everybody who walks down the street?

I turn it off,” she said.

Yeah, and the dust magically disappears. And you are wearing ear plugs. And everyone else goes deaf.”

My whining fell on deaf ears. Nor did my dirty look do much good. Nonetheless, I reprise it today. Dirty Look. She waves, turns off the machine, takes off her mask.

Hi, you’re back. I’m cleaning up the leaves.”

I see that. Why don’t you use a broom? I hate that damn thing.”

He wants me to use it,” she says pointing upstairs.

I try a new tactic. Be nice. Introduce myself. Her name is Bianca. In true San Francisco fashion, our conversation soon turns to real estate. “Where do you live,” she asks. I tell her. “With your wife?”

No. I live alone.”

No wife?”

I’m gay.”

Really? You don’t have no partner or nothing?”

Nope. He died.”

Oh sorry. You don’t get another?”

Why do you ask? Do you want to marry me?”

Sure. We can get married.”

A few more minutes of blow-hell and she wraps up the cord. She looks over at me raking leaves from the beds onto the sidewalk which the wind blithely tumbles over to the pristine expanses of blown heaven. “You don’t look gay,” she says.

Well there you are.”

Finished with her job, she bids me have a good day. From the middle of the street on the way to her car she yells, “Don’t forget. We’re going to get married.”


At the last minute I remembered the tie. How could I almost have forgotten?

I remembered the official forms.

I remembered to remind the soon-to-be-newlyweds to bring the marriage license.

I remembered the papers containing the rubrics of the ceremony.

I remembered the poem I wrote.

I remembered the new blue coat and the white shirt.

I remembered to take the directions to the Panama Hotel.

I remembered to bring buckets to put the flowers in.

I got the flowers at the flower market, with Lisa and Eli’s help.

I remembered the phone charger.

I remembered shampoo, conditioner, and (just in case) my swim suit and goggles.

I remembered not to drink too much wine at the rehearsal dinner.

Dressing for the service it hit me,

I forgot my pants.


There is a mistaken notion current among my friends that I have no taste in clothes. The truth is, I have good taste but I wear anything and never throw anything away. And the other truth is when I do break down and go shopping, I buy the first thing I see that’s halfway acceptable just to get out of the store. It’s almost always wrong, wrong size, wrong color. Pleats? Please.

Having been invited to be the celebrant at Lily and John’s wedding, I decided to upgrade the wedding casual look of my wardrobe. Matthew, one of the aforementioned friends, volunteered to chaperone me on the condition that I really give it the necessary time and not bolt after a half hour. He likes to shop. I nodded in agreement.

We meet downtown and go to Nordstrom Rack and then the Saks near Fifth. I try on at least forty jackets and quite a few are okay, and at last settle on a blue one with subtle checked patterning.  Saks is having a sale and so I get a pair of pants at no extra cost. I buy a shirt, all white, no sweat. What about a tie? I have ties at home I never wear, good enough, but hey, why not go all the way? The saleswoman and Matthew pick out a couple, a purplish one, a blue one, then I see a coppery one with shimmery blue undertones. “How about this one?” I say, and both Matthew and the saleswoman concur: that’s it!

After arranging for some alterations, I take my haul to the register. The woman rings it up. Not bad at all. I scribble my signature on the receipt. Oh wait, she forgot to add the tie and asks for my card again. The tie: $124. Matthew sees me blanch, and wonders if I’m going to bail on it, but I put my signature on this piece of paper too.

(Later Matthew tells me it’s a Versace. I told you I have good taste.)

I’m fried, eager to get outside. There will be no new shoes. My black ones are perfectly pedestrian and perfectly acceptable, or will be with some new laces.

Walgreen’s has laces. But what length do I want? I estimate. I am aware that there’s a good chance I will guess wrong. What I don’t expect, and what I discover at home, is I bought brown laces.

Oh well. When I polish the shoes, I rub some polish on the laces and you can’t really tell. Well, barely. If anyone is looking at my shoes and not my Versace tie, I’m returning it and getting my money back.