Joseph E Bird

Let's talk about reading, writing and the arts.


April 2016

The end.

“Few things linger longer or become more indwelling than that feeling of both completion and emptiness when a great book ends. That the book accompanies the reader forever from that day forward is part of literature’s profligate generosity.”

Pat Conroy, from My Reading Life


desk b&w grain for web

One brick.
Just a few more.

Forty years ago.
Graphite lines
on vellum
give shape.
Buildings begin
with a stroke
of my pencil.

Turn off.
Just a few more.

Forty years now.
Wisdom guides
the architect
and builders
so kids
can play
in school.

Just a few more.

copyright joseph e bird, 2016



Rocket Science

I grew up in the space age, when we (the collective we of our country) were racing the Russians to be first in everything space-related. Who would be the first in space, the first to orbit the earth, and the big one, the first to land on the moon. The space program dominated the imagination of kids my age.

That’s why, in the spirit of Robert Goddard, we wanted to build our own rockets. Not the hobby store, pre-made rocket kits, but completely-from-scratch missiles, including our own home-made rocket fuel.

Now keep in mind, this was the before the world turned so sinister. Experimenting with explosive materials in the backyard wasn’t anything the FBI would have been concerned with. And there was no Department of Homeland Security. So with a little research, we learned how to make a gunpowder-like mixture that would serve as the solid fuel for our rockets. Then we stuffed the mix into paper-towel tubes wrapped in aluminum foil that would serve as the booster. Most of our rockets barely moved, but the failures were spectacular.

One of my rocket-building buddies was James. Without him, none of this would have happened. I mentioned in a previous post that I was no Sheldon Cooper. James was.

In those days, every kid had a chemistry set, but most of us had no idea what we were doing. James did. And he supplemented his set with real scientific equipment like flasks and beakers and test tubes from Preiser Scientific, the local supplier of such goods. You can’t walk in and buy stuff like that now. They would assume the worst and notify local law enforcement. James even had a gas-fired Bunsen burner. He was so serious about his science, his parents trusted that he wouldn’t burn down the house.  I was in awe of his mind.

At some point James moved away. I always wondered about him. Recently, my sister found his sister, and she told us that James works in the computer industry and sends satellites into space.

That’s just perfect.

Then there was Pat. I became friends with him a few years after James had moved. Pat was nothing like James. He was spontaneous, loud, and uninhibited. Physically, he was big and strong. I was skinny, shy, and timid. Ours was a friendship based on geography. He lived up the street and we would walk to and from school together, then hang out until dinner time.

We were leaving school one day and for some reason, an older student decided he didn’t like me and made some kind of derogatory comment. My normal reaction would have been to keep quiet and try to walk away. But Pat was with me. I was emboldened. Pat would have my back. So I shot my mouth off to the bully. As it turns out, Pat wanted no part of this particular confrontation. The bully took me by the shirt collar, just like in the movies, and pulled back his fist to let me have it. Just before he was going to pummel me, my Latin teacher looked out from the second story window and asked the bully what was going on. “Just playing around,” he said as he put his arm around my shoulder like we were the best of buds. Saved by my Latin teacher. That says a lot.

Pat got into trouble now and then. He once rode his bicycle down Elm Street (ridiculously steep) without any brakes. Barefoot. Turns out he couldn’t stop himself like he thought he could and he ran into the concrete wall at the bottom of the hill. He was lucky he wasn’t killed. He managed to hobble home with bloody, broken toes. He didn’t always make the best decisions.

Eventually, Pat and his family moved away.

A year or so ago I ran into someone who knows him. Apparently, Pat has also enjoyed a career in the space industry working for NASA.

So, like, wow.

It would be really good to talk to James and Pat some day, though I probably never will. That’s kind of how life works.  But there’s this to take home and ponder:

Sometimes things turn out exactly how you think they should.
Sometimes they don’t.
Sometimes people change.
Pretty interesting concept, don’t you think?

Many goods.

Our high school band was full of amazing musicians, many who are still playing in bands locally. It was the time when Chicago (the band) was still cool and playing album-oriented, blues and jazz-influenced rock. Some of the guys in our marching band formed their own group called Chite (not sure of the spelling) and developed their own language. “Many goods” was one of their catch phrases.

This crazy clip from NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert reminded me of the old days. Enjoy Mucca Pazza.  Many goods, as they would say.

Real life.

From Amos Mallard. I told you he had a story to tell.


I married early. I knew it would be her because of how we were with each other, conspiratorial and effortless. She sat on my knee at a party and kissed me near an open window and there, framed by billowing curtains, we decided to be together. I don’t remember all of that time. I was happy. Rented suit, top hat and wedding gown, a week in Sicily we couldn’t afford and then married life. I wanted to be an artist but I’d stopped believing art was useful and I wasn’t much of a painter. I worked as a photographer for a time but it made me bitter because I wanted to tell stories not photograph children and weddings. She wanted me to just pick something and do it, but I couldn’t. So I walked up and down Bennetts Hill until one of the agencies took pity on me and sent me to a Health Centre; a depressing one storey building clad in pitched lumber in a deprived part of the city.

I sat at the reception desk behind reinforced glass, opening a slot to take medical notes or give vitamin drops. Mothers brought their children for vaccinations and annual check-ups, few of them spoke English. I spoke to the mothers from Burkina Faso in broken French and used the few Urdu words I’d been taught with everyone else. The children were wild and ragged, failing on every developmental test we administered. Some of them were hopeless cases with addict parents who’d arrive agitated and ferocious. We never turned them away. We didn’t know if we’d see the child again that year. The Health Visitors spent most of their time visiting homes and checking that children were being cared for properly. They brought back sad reports or disease and violence. Sometimes they’d share funny stories of what they’d seen, but mostly it was sad.

My shifts were mundane, hours of boredom punctuated by little bursts of chaos – patients falling through the doors begging for methadone or medication for their toothache.  I sat opposite the reception desk of a Doctors surgery we shared the building with. I’d watch the three receptionists working and they’d watch me. We didn’t speak very often, separated by glass as we were, but occasionally we’d make eye contact. They had it worse than I did, a steady stream of people; colds, fevers, rashes, back pain, chest pain, pain when standing, pain when sitting. They ran their desk with merciless efficiency. They had to. I was much softer, trying to help every lost cause, having my hand patted by relieved mothers who I had promised to intercede for. I suppose I was a bit of an anomaly, young, compassionate and uncorrupted.

The women I worked with were beautiful in a way one only appreciates with age and hindsight. There was Jen, tall with indolent eyes who moved softly about the office, composed as a Hellenic statue and more beautiful. Lina with skin like honey, wide hipped and embracing, laughing all the time, superstitious, effortlessly maternal. Eve, athletic, dark, fierce to strangers but gentle with those she knew, she laughed loudly at my dirty jokes and I’d hear her laughing hours later, repeating the punch line to herself. And Jean. Jean was older than the rest, sinewy from years of cycling. Savagely intelligent. She knew everything and everyone and I tried to pry her stories from her but she would never fully share them. I knew she’d travelled, spoke different languages, I knew she was here because she chose to be and that she was devoted to people. I think she liked me because she saw some of her son in me. Jean was pragmatic. She didn’t mind me reading novels when there was nothing to do and she protected me from the agency, telling them I was needed, that I should receive more money. I still see Jean, cycling or swimming. She is frail, softened by age, I don’t know if she has retired. I can’t imagine her sitting in a chair.

I fell in love with all of these women. I saw how they worked, how they loved, how weary they became fighting their war against hopelessness, a war they couldn’t win but had to fight every day. I loved them for that and they loved me back I think, understanding that I wasn’t supposed to be there and that I wouldn’t stay. They saw that I was gentle with people who needed gentleness and they took me for one of their own.

I remember one of the final days I worked at the Health Centre. I was holding a new-born, just days old. The mother handed her to me and I stroked the downy black hair across her forehead, lulling her to sleep. A car screeched to a halt outside the doors and a frantic looking girl burst in to the centre. I handed the baby back to the mother and tried to ask the girl her what was wrong. She dragged me out to the car and pointed at her grandmother who slumped in the passenger seat, breathing shallow raspy breaths. A heart attack. There was movement around me, panic, but all I could hear were those shallow rasping breaths. I picked the woman up and carried her in to the Doctors office. She was light in my arms, fragile as a bird, the silk of her sari draped loosely about her skeletal frame. As I paused at his office door the woman breathed her last, a long exhalation. The Doctor tried CPR but she was gone. She died in my arms.

That was the closest I had been to death. The finality and simplicity of it surprised me, she was alive one moment and dead the next, life had escaped her and what I held in my arms was nothing, dust, a shell. I washed my hands after everything settled down. I wasn’t sure why. The mother and her baby were still at the desk waiting for me.

It would be too grand to look back and say I saw the worst and best of people while I worked there, but I am different because of the Health Centre. Behind my reinforced glass I watched parts of the journey of life and death; the joy of birth, the exuberance of youth, the struggle of age, the inevitability of death. I watched these little vignettes from my window and I took in as much as I could. I felt trapped at the time, by the low pay, by a job I felt was beneath me, by my pretensions which told me I should be doing something more worthwhile. I still feel that way. I’m discontent and restless.

I went running on Sunday morning, a steady ten miles around the city. Its research for me, I like to get up early so I can stare at the city without anyone else around. I took a detour past the Health Centre. It’s been demolished, replaced with a modern looking church iced in blinding white plaster. I wasn’t sad; it was an ugly and dilapidated building.

If you live in a city long enough you’ll see parts of your history erased. But if you remember those places, you’ll remember who you were while you were there. That’s important. We all need to remember who we were to understand who we are, and who we might become.

Hold fast. AM.

A story in song.

A story is told.  A song is sung.

Darrell Scott on Mountain Stage.

The weak story.

I’m editing my novel, A Prayer for Rain.

I had a great set of beta readers who all have given me excellent feedback. Thank you, betas. Their comments have made me think and I’ll share some of my thoughts on their thoughts in upcoming posts. Just in case you’re having trouble sleeping at night.

I came across an excerpt from Story Fix, by Larry Brooks. He said this:

“Not every story idea is worth pursuing, even in the skilled hands of the world’s finest authors, and not every story written by a well-intentioned, even skilled, writer should be published.”

Sobering advice for the would-be writer. Before we just jump in and start slinging ink (or arranging electrons), we need to evaluate the entire story idea. I hope to learn that skill from Brooks’ book.


Hopeful Voice

Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova from the movie “Once.”  Nice, soothing music.

Sometimes we need that.

Hairbrained Ideas

schedule for web

This is going to be a little embarrassing.

The image above is a schedule I made for myself when I was very young. I’m thinking junior-high age but I’m not sure. I obviously had a lot on my plate back then. And a lot of ambition. Since then I’ve at least learned to draw a straight line.

After I got home from school, I gave myself some time to rest. A half hour. Then some hoops. I guess I was health-conscious even back then. Home in time for supper, then help with the dishes. An hour and a half for homework. I tried to be a good student.

Practice Instruments. I was in the band. A trumpet player. I was probably working on “Flight of the Bumblebee” for band auditions. Seriously. But no, I never learned it and was never better than third chair. I was probably practicing the guitar, too, working on the same three chords I still play today. Hey there Little Red Riding Hood… Only some of you will get that reference.

And then at 9:00, the magic happened.

I’ve always been an unrealistic dreamer and I had so much I wanted to do, I carved out time every night to work on what my mother called hairbrained ideas, as is in What hairbrained idea are working on now? It wasn’t how it sounds. She really was encouraging.  But heck, at one point I wanted to make my own laser. This was decades before you could go to a dollar store and buy a laser pointer. And I wasn’t the Sheldon Cooper type. There was no way I’d ever make a laser. I made snow skis once, complete with old belts screwed to boards to serve as bindings. Then there was the space trip I took in our basement. Another story for another day. If nothing else, I was good for a laugh around the dinner table.

These days my hairbrained ideas are only slightly more sophisticated. I thought if I really tried, I could learn “Classical Gas” on the guitar. I thought I could teach myself Chinese, but after 90 lessons, I can barely order a cup of tea. Then there’s this whole writing thing.

Four finished novels; none published.

The schedule is still on the door of my childhood home where my father lives. I mentioned it to him today and he didn’t realize it was still there.  (I wonder if he remembers the time I covered the ceiling of my room with aluminum foil?)

I still work by schedules and have pretty good self-discipline. And I’ll always be that unrealistic dreamer. I’ll always have hairbrained ideas.

I’ve got a concept for my fifth novel. Dreams die hard.

P.S.  If you look closely, you’ll see different handwriting in the time slots.  Call Susie.  A girlfriend added that years after I posted the original schedule. It speaks to the challenge of living in the real world, where schedules and plans are sometimes pure folly.



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