One huge bit of disinformation that’s been kicking around for generations is that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Several of my colleagues living on Boston’s Beacon Hill spent a vast amount of time talking this up and getting sick on weird concoctions that made them ill, and then when they recovered, they would beat their chests and exclaim that they were invincible. The leader of this cult of stupidity was a guy named Tom Armstrong. He was a latecomer to the merry crew at the Folkie flop house we called the Palace. And he was not a good influence on the others.

At this point, I was no longer in regular residence because I was in the Navy. For the time being, I was stationed in Newport, Rhode Island, and it was convenient to shift into civvies, catch a bus to Boston, and pretend to be a civilian for a while. Serving in hospitals had given me a chance to observe the adverse effects of toxic materials on the human body, so I tried to establish a position directly opposite that of Tom, stating that harsh and poisonous substances might not kill you right away, but over the long haul they did their damage.
Talking to a wall might have done more good. Instead, every Thursday, there was the cocktail of the week. And the following day, there were satisfied groans about how bad it had been.

Finally, one morning, I pulled into the bus station near Park Square and hopped off a red-eye express to find Tom waiting for me. “Come on, John’s very sick!” I was hustled into a car, and we careened toward Beacon Hill while a panicked Tom laid out the previous night’s events.

The cocktail had included a generous dose of Nux Vomita*. Now just as it sounds, this substance is a powerful and dangerous product derived from the seeds of the tree, sometimes referred to as the strychnine tree because of the poison strychnine it contains. Nux Vomita is not something to play around with. I don’t believe it has been on the USP Materia Medica since the 1930s. It is rumored to have finished Alexander the Great and many others. I asked Tom what had persuaded him to include this in his Thursday concoction, and he replied with a smile, “It’s supposed to give you impressive Woodies.” “So you poisoned everyone for the sake of an extra hard boner? What sort of a fuckin’ idiot are you?” His reply was a snide “Well, it worked for me.”
We arrived in time to see John hauled away by an Ambulance. His girlfriend, a nurse at the nearby Mass General Hospital, had come over and found John nearly comatose in a pool of vomit and called for help. She had brief nasty words for all of us but singled out Tom for a blistering rebuke that left the rest of us in awe of her ability to peel paint off a post with only her tongue.
The Thursday night club continued for about another year until Tom was diagnosed with liver disease. This chilled the enthusiasm for poisonous cocktails and demonstrated that did not kill you immediately could kill you just a bit down the way and not make you stronger.

*Inspiration for this post was stirred by another blogger using a picture of some ancient medications, including Nux Vomita. The photo stirred up memories of an incident close to the one I’ve fictionalized here. Thanks, Doc!

White Horse Circle

This is a Flashback Friday post from the days a few years ago when we were under a Covid lockdown:

Most of us have events that echo through the corridors of our lives. Thirty, forty, and fifty years later, it remains like a rhythm track beating at an intersection from a car seven cars ahead. You can’t make out the song, but you hear the beat. I have that sort of track inside me, and it emerged briefly to thump into action this morning as I emerged from the house into the downpour to go to the store, out of quarantine.
It was 1960, something. I was standing in the pouring rain in Hamilton Township, New Jersey, at the White Horse traffic circle. It was me, my soaked clothes, and a guitar. The guitar had some extra clothes wrapped inside the case to keep the guitar dry. I was praying for a ride.
Out of the night appeared a large black sedan full of African American Church ladies. I heard one of them holler out to me, “Hurry in, there’s room for one more if we squeeze!” and squeeze we did to Philadelphia.
They grilled me: did my mother know where I was? What was I doing in the middle of nowhere New Jersey in a storm like this? It went on, but in such loving terms that I soon broke down in tears. Out it came my life’s current romantic, financial, and existential crises off the rails.
Then a quiet voice asked: “May we pray for you?” and pray they did all through the dark wet night from White Horse Circle on NJ 226 to North Philly. Letting me out where I could catch a train, I was told: “You’ve gotten prayed over good. Don’t forget; God loves you.”

OK, it wasn’t my tradition. I’m a Methodist escapee from a Catholic upbringing. But the rhythm, the memory kept returning, and I am in that car with those ladies praying for me. And, as I said, it’s like a powerful rhythm track. I can’t hear the words, but I feel the powerful beat. I am so grateful to those ladies; they prayed over me so well that all these years later, It’s still there.

Thank You.


Amplitude is a bit more than it might seem. Amplitude in loudness turns a folksingers ballad into a booming, unappealing wave of noise. But, on the other hand, too little amplitude in sincerity leaves an emotional appeal devoid of conviction.
Getting it right, measuring the correct volume, sincerity of appeal, or conviction is much of what life is about. We talk of people over or underplaying their hands, things being too coarse or delicate, too bright or subdued.
In short, amplitude is critical to turning debacles into successes or vice versa. Yet, as important as this seems, we spend little time teaching how subtlety and control effect success, and so many go through life persistently loud or overly quiet.


The wily jungle cat stops by the pool for a refreshing sip of water. Her quicksilver reflexes are finely tuned. Danger will not catch her unaware. Here in the valley, the soft light of morning seems to promise an infinite moment of peace…but there is a thrashing in the brush. Is it the vaunted JubJub bird? Perhaps the wily garter snake or a delicious froglet?

No. It’s her noisy brother, the Hound. Can’t I have any peace?

Still no help on my site issues from the “happiness” “engineers” of Word Press – two oxymorons in a peapod; maybe they’ll fix things for Christmas?


I was parked on a stool at the Harvard Gardens when the kid came in. Evie, the waitress, pointed me out to him. He wandered over, picked up some beer nuts from my bowl, and whispered, “You’re a finder, and I need to find Tulia.” I squinched up, looked away, and said, ” I think there’s a Trulia, but I never heard of Tulia. I focused on the bubbles in the glass. “Look it up on a map. I don’t give directions.”

After ordering beers for us, he mentioned that he knew there wasn’t a Tulia, but he needed to find it. Shit, I let him buy me a beer, and now I’m listening to him spout about some place in NJ that doesn’t exist. Why me? Because I’ve been to Tulia and a dozen other off-the-map shithole towns you’ve never heard of. I usually try not ever to find them again.
Places like Tulia tend to look, act, smell, and work like any other place; just don’t try to find them on the map. Maybe they’d been there at one time, but they slipped off the edge at some point. Kids grew up, married, and died in places like Tulia. They worked in the mill, diner, or carwash. They went to the local schools and had never been to the state capital.

“You don’t want to go there. It’s dull, boring; you can drive through it in five minutes.” He looked at me, ” I’m from Tulia, and I want to go home.”
“Kid, you escape one of the dullest places in the lower forty-eight, and you want to return to work in the diner?” I knew there was more, and he soon said, “It’s about my girl.” Now he had my attention.

So let me tell you a bit about the spots that land off the map. There is always something a bit off about them. Roads run around in loops, so it’s hard to leave. History has slightly different twists. Odd things happen, or people are a bit weird. There are one or two of these places I’d love to revisit but know I’ll never find. Like North American Brigadoons, they are lost along faded-out bits of the Interstate system. One of those was Tulia. I’d spent over a week playing every night in a small coffeehouse, enjoying being lionized by folks who’d never been as far away as Trenton and who imagined New York City as twice as glamorous as it could ever be. Okay, it was the girls. One in particular. So when he said it was about his girl, I knew I’d try to help him. A sentimental sucker I’ve never been, but some things you never forget. I hadn’t meant to leave Tulia forever; I’d just ventured out for a fast run to Philly but found that I couldn’t get back.
” I can’t promise we’ll find it.”

You can’t leave bright in the morning for a place like Tulia. So you go in the evening, a backpack full, guitar in hand, and hat on head. Don’t worry about the route; that won’t matter if you hit it right. It depends on the rides. You won’t accept just any ride. If he’s heading for Philly, turn it down. Take it if he offers to let you off at the Black Horse rotary; take it. That rotary is a departure point for the obscure.

We hit the rotary at midnight, walked to the third exit, and started walking. I figured the kid was from there, and he’d be my compass; I wouldn’t have to decrypt any excess clues or distractions. I’d just let him be my guide back. Finally, around four AM, the right turnout appeared. It even had a sign – Entering Tulia, population 4,682. Perhaps the number was numerologically significant in some ancient Babylonian math, I wouldn’t know, but it struck me that this was strangely precise. Then the number seemed to glow, and I swore it changed, but my eyes were on the lights of a diner that appeared on the right-hand side. Breakfast.

I recalled the waitress and the cook from my last visit. She wobbled on her legs, and it was a wonder she didn’t spill my coffee. The cook hummed loudly along with the radio and chuckled, just as he had the last time. The kid was greeted by friends and hugged by the petite blonde who had missed him. I wandered out into a foggy early morning and sat on the edge of the old concrete planter, amazed that I’d returned. I was tuning my guitar when a battered old Ford pulled up, and out of it stepped Roxanne. I smiled, she smiled, and I said, ” Honey, I’ve missed you so much.” Roxanne hauled back with that big old purse and belted me a good one in the face. “Wes Carson, you lying, no good SOB…”

It was about 8 AM when I woke up in the alley behind the Harvard Gardens. My jaw ached, and my shirt had a bloodstain from where a buckle on the bag had caught my lip. Damn, that woman never forgets and never forgives.


When you think that everything is going well, you get surprised.
In this case, oriental bittersweet popping up in the woodland garden area behind my house. When we moved in, this area was so overgrown with it that the realtors never realized that the woods behind the house were part of a wildlife sanctuary. Only weeks after, as I took to clearing the yard, did the sanctuary signs appear. The following spring, I spent months clearing as many roots and vines as possible. But it still shows up periodically.

Failure to go out and get it rooted out will result in what happened to a neighbor a few years ago. He failed to pull a few errant sprouts because he liked the “pretty vine” in the fall. This conceit proved asinine when two years later, there was more than a surfeit of bittersweet covering the back of his lot. He was flummoxed when chemical controls seemed to be shrugged off by the vines and dismayed when I showed him my yard and suggested that hand pulling was more effective…for several years to get it under control. He left the problem for the next person who brought the property.

So for numerous years, I’ve rarely found any bittersweet shoots. The ones I’ve seen are probably from seeds dropped in bird feces and brought in from my neighbors’ property by chipmunks. In a way, it speaks to the success of my work in the area. A few hours of weeding will set things right, and I can relax, watch the waterfall and enjoy the flowers.

No word from the “happiness” engineers on my issues yet by switching to Firefox as a browser I was able to add a featured image, but I can’t do pingbacks, categories. I had to rebuild tags one by one. WP is too damn big for its own good, and has no clue what it’s own programs are doing.

New Garden Beds

If things change quickly, it never hurts to have a plan B, C, or D. Arthritis is creeping up on me, and while I still have most of my regular garden beds, I am experimenting this year with an elevated series of wooden beds. I only have to spot water, weeding is amazingly easy without stooping, and it offers my wife an easy access kitchen garden.
I’ve fabricated hoops over the beds for putting up remay and greenhouse plastic for extended-season gardening.
For those familiar with the Catalan custom of Caganer, you’ll notice last year’s figure at work fertilizing the garden. I’d suggest this as a worthwhile plan for many other politicians rather than plotting skullduggery at the public expense.

Get to work, Donald; there are copious amounts of fertilizer left.


I was living in a little rathole on the backside of Boston’s Beacon Hill. Its principal amenity was a solitary window looking out onto the street. It was cheap, and after a few beers, you stopped paying attention to the upstairs neighbors alternately screwing or fighting.

If the above description sounds a bit over the top, I assure you that I leave out details you’d prefer not to know. Besides, I spent as little time in the “studio apartment” as I could, most of the rest of it on the street, in local coffeehouses, bars, donut shops, and friends’ homes.

In my mind, I still see the view down the street that afternoon, the long view towards the base of the hill and the river beyond; my friend Chuck was overflowing describing to me the variety, type, and quality of the compositions he’d be able to write after he married his young lady; a minor Rothschild heir. I’d met Carla once. Briefly. Chuck tried to keep her away from his scrubby friends on the “Hill.” It was a goal I was sympathetic towards, knowing exactly how forlorn a bunch we were. But Carla was fussing over Chuck’s rumpled appearance and unbrushed hair. She was taking him to a haberdashery for a nice suit. Something Carla could present him to Mommy and Daddy in. She was sure that he’d clean up nicely.

Trust me; I felt happy for Chuck. All his friends assumed that Carla would “make something” of Chuck. And we all knew that you couldn’t sit in the coffeehouse all afternoon for the rest of your life scribbling our sonatas that you never finished. He’d wind up as a mid-level executive in Daddy’s company, drive home to an upper-tier suburb, play with the kids, sit in the study, and try to compose for an hour every night. Carla would eventually grow bored with the routine; he’d no longer be the exciting rebel she married. 

What happened then was the subject of our group’s conversations when Chuck was not around. Depending on who was painting the canvas of Chuck’s future, Carla would leave him, take the kids and return to mummsie and dadums, or Chuck would, in a herculean effort, produce a grand opus and become an acclaimed composer of elevator music—the variations on themes repeated over and over. Depending on how silly, how drunk, or how despairing we felt, this could roll on for hours.

We were jealous, Chuck had found a way out, and we exercised this petty spite like sticking pins in a fetish doll to create pain.

The wedding came, and we were, of course, not invited. So Chuck disappeared, never to be seen again, and we moved on to other activities, and some of us even left the well-worn ruts we had worn into the streets of Beacon Hill.

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