The Bar none

Daily writing prompt
Describe your dream chocolate bar.

I haven’t been a fan of the big famous brand of chocolate bar from Pennsylvania for a long time. A friend who lived in the town where they are made described the mounds of raw product piled around like some other vaguely brown product. His descriptive violence to a childhood favorite put me off the brand as surely as having a warm cholate bar smeared all over my face.
Yes, you’ll say, the purist loves dark chocolate with a mandatory percentage of Cacao in it, produced in the Andes by small farmers/growers. No Lindt balls in the foil package for you! You can’t reconcile the mass-produced with your elevated tastes.

For me, a little shop in a nearby coastal town produces the best orange-hazelnut chocolate bar. When I visit, I find my steps going in that direction. Made locally, I have no clue about percentages of Cacao, fat, or whatever—just the crunch of nuts, that taste of chocolate, and the hint of oranges.
Guilty pleasures, you are the one.

The Right Way, the Wrong Way and…

I had two bosses in an operating room I worked in. Sophia had a poster on her office wall of a turtle reminding you that the turtle only made progress when it stuck its neck out. On the other hand, Betty had a little cubby hole office with a poster of two vultures sitting on a tree in the desert. One bird looks at the other and states, ” Wait for something to die? Hell, I’m going to go kill something!”

The posters neatly summed up the two supervisors’ attitudes and offered hints about managing complaints, issues, and problems within the department. Even the chief of anesthesia walked carefully around Betty, preferring to deal, if possible, with Sophia. I, of course, mostly worked with Betty.

Betty was a coastal brat from Maine and knew I could tell the difference between literal and littoral, being another coastal brat from a Merchant Marine family. She was also a former Navy nurse, and being I was former Navy, we worked OK as a pair. I put on my best petty officer routine for her, did things the “Navy Way,” and life was easy.

Now, please understand no recruiter would ever seek me out to re-up. I was not the regular Navy type. But I could play-act it during work hours to get through the day. Just as long as I wasn’t going home in uniform, eating on the mess decks, or deploying for six months. I was OK.

A few other folks in the OR got querulous of me and accused me of sucking up. I just offered to show them how to run a buffer, properly swab with a mop, wear dress blues with panache, and act serious while receiving a series of ludicrous commands from a snotty ensign. Now, mind you, it was the last that got me in trouble while enlisted. I had difficulty keeping a straight face.

My colleagues in the OR were not amused.

I guess everything could have gone on as they were, but the day came when things started changing. It was a long case, and my back ached. Now stretching to arch your back while holding retractors in a patient’s abdomen must be done carefully, but Betty gave me a soft massage to help with the tension. After the case, she came over and helped me remove my gown, and I could have sworn that her hands lingered a bit on my neck.

Walking into the lounge, I noticed snickers, grins, and laughter hidden behind hands. My friend Marilyn asked with a grin if Betty’s backrub had been up to Navy standards. A few people cracked up at this. Later over a few beers, my friends told me that there had been a betting pool to see when Betty made her move. She’d mentioned to Sophia that I was “cute and respectful.” Being cute and respectful might make it for Betty, but I was not interested in snap inspections or early lights out with a former Navy Luitenant Commander as a girlfriend. 

Over the next couple of weeks, it became clear my friends had the right of it. Betty had me in mind for the position of Mr. Betty. There was no circumspect way to get around it. When frustrated, she had a volcanic temperament, and I had set up the entire situation by giving her what she wanted the way she wanted it. Betty was talented, brilliant, beautiful, and totally willful. The first three traits were very tempting in a mate, but the last was scary. My over-active imagination could envision the sorts of Navy-style “non-judicial punishment” she might dish out if I incurred her wrath. I wasn’t that type of guy.

Ultimately, I handled it like a true sailor; I jumped ship. I found another job, gave my notice quietly to Sophia, and slipped my moorings one afternoon.

From a distance, I kept tabs on Betty. She married another former Navy guy, a retired chief petty officer who worked in hospital administration. She had kids, moved to the Tidewater area of Virginia near a Naval base, and seemed to live a happily Regular Navy-style life ever after.

To those who might think I missed out on the love of my life, I’d like to share a bit of Naval wisdom with you. Regarding life in the Navy, we used to say there was “The right way, the wrong way, and then there was the Navy Way.”

I’ve said my piece.


Daily writing prompt
List three books that have had an impact on you. Why?

Among the things I like to do when visiting friends’ homes is to find a bit of time to browse their library shelves and see what they collect. You can learn much about interests, manias, and their life by browsing their bookshelves. Life is about more than one, two, or three books that have influenced you. Those books did their job in leading you onward to other titles. Here is a brief tour of my library.
I don’t have the typical sort of home library. Mine is a series of symbiotic collections. I am a carver of maritime themes, eagles, quarterboards, transom banners, and anything marine for a boat or ship. So the two largest collections are maritime and woodwork/carving. These two collections intergrade and work together.

If my library were in one room, it would have to be large. But I have to keep things in different locations. A friend commented that I could not possibly read all of them. And in truth, all were not there to be read in their entirety but are reference works.
These days, many reference libraries I once used have strange hours and are far away. So it pays to have my material at hand. If I am working on a small vessel built on the Clyde, I have one or two texts I can refer to as a start. It’s the same thing for a ship built in Bath, Maine.
I have books on Maritime art to look up work by Jacobson, Butterworth, or the Bard Brothers. Sometimes one rendition of a vessel is not enough. I used about five works for reference while working on a portrait of the Cunarder Servia.
Is the library comprehensive? Nope. It is far from complete at about 250 maritime texts of various sorts. There are big holes, and thankfully for the holes, there is the internet and used book dealers. So despite the construction manuals for building T2 class vessels, I have almost nothing on the Union Steamship company or their ships.
The carving collection is similar to the maritime collection but much smaller. There are standard texts on technique, books by artists I admire, and books on carving styles I like but don’t do. I weeded this collection heavily a few years ago because my interests had shifted, and I would not return to some of the styles I had carved years ago—the weeding left room for new titles as interests develop.

My third collection is a general library of material ranging from gardening to history, some anthropological texts, and anything else you might imagine.
The anthropological materials are a sorry remainder of when I worked as an anthropologist, and my library was almost solely oriented to topics that touched on my work in applied anthropology. Over the years, as I shifted to other work and interests, that collection shrank until there were a handful of volumes written by former professors and a few favorite works.

Somewhere buried in my library are the three books that greatly influenced me, but they were the seed that resulted in my library and are now part of its heart.


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!


I always think it best to start with the disclaimers. I am not now nor ever associated with any intelligence agency. Like most of my ilk, Folkies, I believe intelligence and government agency represents a tactless oxymoron.

That said, my friend and I were fixers, scroungers, and locators in a small way. We were not operating a racket. We were always running a little “commotion.” It was how we avoided gainful employment. We were careful to be just this side of legal and had a good sense of how far we could go and stayed to that line. But we always looked out for things that appeared to be out of place.
So there was a bit of trepidation when Brother Isaac pulled into our booth at the Harvard Gardens one evening.
Brother Isaac should not have been there. He was part of the Church of Revealed Disciples. They showed up once a month on a Saturday morning to attempt to lead our roommate John, to salvation. The rest of us inhabiting the exclusive Grove Street digs were never bothered, which was strange.
Brother Isaac sat down, grabbed the John by the arm, almost spilling a beer, and just said: “Johnnie, it’s all over. Won’t be seeing you again. Keep your nose out of bad snuff.” with that off, rode Brother Isaac into the sunset, and it was the last we heard of the Church of the Revealed Disciples. My friend sat there with a bemused expression. I figured it was none of my business and just sipped my beer.

Over the next year or so, I learned more about my friends. Both of them tasted intelligence operations at some point in their military years. I had pieced that together from things unsaid, said, people met, and uncommonly odd bits of knowledge. Their long-term association, our Folkie Flop House on Boston’s Beacon Hill, our forms of making a living, and our endless traveling habits all said Folkie. But, it did not add up. Pieces were missing from the puzzle, and what I could put together seemed nonsense. That something covert had or was going on became my operating theory about the bits of Theatre of the Absurd that was our lifestyle in those days.

The years passed. Our friend John, has become a conservative shock jock on the radio, my friend dies in an avoidable car accident in Baltimore, and I have begun to morph into a staid anthropologist. Then I went to grad school.
I began drinking with George, a former marine. Who, after taking in enough bourbon to float the ark, started talking about the Church of Revealed Disciples one night. The Church was a cover used by Naval Intelligence for a long-term operation. Not being as sloshed as he was, I coyly asked, ” So, how’s Brother Isaac doing these days?” Suddenly, not quite so high, outshoots: “Who’s Brother Isaac?” I replied, “You know – Church of the Revealed Disciples.” He claimed to have never heard of it, but he kept looking hard and deep at me for the remainder of the night. I tried a shot in the dark – “Have you heard from Mike the Vike recently?” I thought he’d explode – ” Jesu Christi!”
I smiled. The Vike had been another of the continual threads of life on Beacon Hill. The Vike was always in supply, always on the move, and never who he seemed to be. I was trying to dovetail bits and pieces that had troubled me, and I was surprised at how well they all fit.
Over the next few days, I spiced life up by dropping hints in George’s presence that implied I knew more than I did. His paranoia grew, but we became fast-drinking buddies. I recognized others in my anthropology department as former intelligence operatives through him. Being an anthropologist was a plus for employment at certain agencies operating abroad.

But nobody made me. I was an enigma, and George, one night in a DC hotel, pulled a little pearl-handled .32 and point-blank asked me whose dog I was. I flippantly answered, “The DARs.” * Not long after this, George passed out, and I secured the thirty-two where he wouldn’t find it and went back to my room. Our friendship was at an end. And my tiny brush with intelligence agencies and their operatives ended. I thought.

Life slipped into high gear after grad school. I eventually worked only a few miles from the old digs on Beacon Hill, but the cognitive distance was enormous. I rarely thought of John or my friend, Brother Isaac, strange churches that were fronts.

Eventually, I wandered into working for the federal government.
And that’s where it gets funny again. I was a GS-12 programming officer. I did not need classified information, but they required a clearance. I dutifully complied with the request for data, but the inquiries always came back unanswered. What was wrong with me? And I answered that, in truth, there was nothing. That was not wholly true. During my time in the Navy, I’d had a high-security clearance. Not because I was so essential a person but because the work my squadron was doing was, and presumably still is, sensitive. They would not grant me confidential clearance because my top secret was still operational. This item pissed off the local hierarchy. If a secret document came into the agency, a lowly GS-12 would be the only one allowed to read it.

Thinking about this, I realized that the evening in a DC hotel was explainable. Somebody had run my file and discovered I was a total cipher with an impressive clearance. To people of a certain mindset in intelligence agencies, that raised flags. Not only was I an anthropologist ( almost a requirement in those days for certain types of operatives), but I was also a pretty bland sort. Not James
Bond. Whose dog, indeed?

Everyone I’ve written about in this is dead. Convenient. So we’ll never be able to check it out, but if you are out there, don’t ask about the Church of the Revealed Disciples, and whatever you do, don’t get involved with Brother Isaac.

*Daughters of the American Revolution


Creatively, talking to people visiting your shop is the opposite of being left alone. You get questioned, you respond, and in responding, you see the schooner you are carving in a new light. Something pops out that you now see needs fixing, and an idea occurs for the next project. The stimulation of the company can be a real boost to your creative energy.

By contrast, being alone allows a deep dive into your actions. For example, the current project is on wood that was improperly dried at the sawyers. A crack has developed late in the carving process, and it’s too late to abandon the work. How can you incorporate the damage, or can you ignore the annoyance?

97 words about clockwork

I mistrust the clockwork approach our society has to race and ethnicity. Some people say, “I’m colorblind,” while quietly wondering if you’re not Spanish but Hispanic. But, then, there are the official post-racial, post-ethnic mutterings of liberality and modern sensibility.
The clockwork operates so mechanically and on a track that they are schooled not to ask the question they most want to know, “Who are your people?”
Most of us are no more than two generations away from being on someone’s shit list for immigration. Time covers many indiscretions. No one remembers Grandpa was considered a parasite.

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.


Being an active Folkie in the 1960s, I get asked if I was at Woodstock occasionally. For the record, I categorically deny ever having been anywhere near Woodstock during that festival. Asking this question is like asking your average Roman citizen alive in 44 BC if they were present when the big guy got offed by his “friends.” No, I was busy picking up my second-best toga from the laundry.”
People who see history through a pinpoint hole make me jittery. They seem to lack the ability to see the bigger narrative. In my case, I was on my way traveling across Canada, a journey that was much more transformational than a drug-addled concert in the mud could have been.
In short, any time a significant event occurs, other contemporaneous and essential events ( if only to you) are also happening. People like to focus on single important events because it helps them create watersheds, moments when history appears to shift into new patterns.

Even if the events are watersheds, the most important stuff happens downstream, affecting individual lives or the further flow of events. History is flow, not a punctuation.

My trip to Canada resulted in an extended stay in Ottawa and contact with people who influenced me greatly as a woodcarver and human. The events of that time continue to affect my life to this day.
I’m on a grand adventure to the future. Excelsior!


Daily writing prompt
What jobs have you had?

Jobs? It’s not the job. It’s what you make of it. Afterward. How you process the work-life. How you find the amusement, worth, distaste, hidden value, or transferable skills; that’s what it’s about beyond putting in your time and taking home your pay.
Some of the jobs I’ve had do not appear on any resume of mine or CV. But I learned loads from all of them. This proves a rule that some of the essential lessons from a work-life never get credited to your work history.
I’ve been a folksinger, a Fraternal Brother of the Road( road bum), and been in the Navy. Afterward, I worked in operating rooms as a surgical technician.

After leaving grad school, I worked as an applied anthropologist for about fifteen and a half years. After that, I worked at UPS and ran a small business as a marine woodcarver.

There is nothing I’ve done, and what I’ve listed is only a fragment of what I’ve done that I disparage or am ashamed of. I can talk to a Teamster as a brother, speak intelligently about surgical technique with a surgeon, and turn on a dime into a social scientist.

I’ve found that sometimes it takes a deep dive to find something to take away from a job, but pearls are not easy to find for a reason.

Being a writer helps. You are always looking for something to write about, and yourself is an excellent place to start digging for material.

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