Joseph E Bird

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



as they may believe again

The night was falling down from the east and the darkness that passed over them came in a sudden breath of cold and stillness and passed on. As if the darkness had a soul itself that was the sun’s assassin hurrying to the west as once men did believe, as they may believe again.

Cormac McCarthy, from The Crossing

the year was 1968

A little more than 50 years ago, the USS Pueblo was commandeered by North Korea. One man died. The remaining crew of 82 was held captive for 11 months. The ship’s skipper, Commander Lloyd Bucher, was tortured, both physically and mentally, and threatened with death. When the crew was finally released, Bucher faced a military trial for giving up the ship without a fight. To this day, the Pueblo is held by North Korea.

The trial of Bucher captivated the nation, and as we do today, people took sides, for or against. It was 1968. The modern feminist movement was just beginning. My mother was 38 years old and dedicated to raising her three kids. Her sensibilities were typical of those of her generation. She was never going to be on the cover of Life magazine with Gloria Steinem. Yet she was moved by the story of Bucher, moved by his humanity. So much so that she felt compelled to write about it, to come to the defense of the so-called stronger man. Some of her thoughts may not resonate with the 21st century woman, but there is a truth that she expresses that is timeless. It is this:

The world is a better place when we’re not afraid to show compassion.

Commander Bucher, commander of the Pueblo, has finished his testimony about the capture of his ill-fated ship and I, for one, am glad. If ever a man had strong convictions that he had performed his duty to the best of his ability, it is him. When the Court of Inquiry first began putting him on the witness stand, I was so outraged that I wanted to wire the President to stop this seemingly inhuman treatment of Bucher. I was stopped by the announcement from the Commander’s lawyer that he knew this was military procedure and he did not feel that the court was being unduly cruel.

The point of relating this story is that once again my emotions had to be stifled. My compassion had to remain bottled up because I had, in effect, been asked to believe that a man can “take it”, no matter what, just because he is a man.

Women are supposed to be the weaker sex and I am glad that there are a few of us who glory in this title.

The men of the court are to be pitied as much as Commander Bucher because surely every one of them has had some misgivings about some of the questions put to the Commander. They had to do their job. They had to follow the rules, no matter how much their hearts were touched. They had to listen objectively as this man related in public how much he loved his wife and called her name when he thought he was going to die.

I’m glad to be a woman. I can cry without being called weak. I can make mistakes and know that people can excuse some of them because, after all, I’m a woman.

I do not understand the laws of the sea. I do not pretend to know many things. But there’s one thing I do know. I saw a real man in the form of Commander Bucher.

Men, as a rule, pretend that they cannot understand why a woman cries when the Star Spangled Banner is played. Or why she cries when she receives an unexpected gift. But I suspect they really know and have the same feelings, but because they are men, they are supposed to shrug their shoulders at any show of emotion.

The best Christmas I ever had was when I was twelve years old. My mother took me and my brother to the photographer’s studio and all three of us had our pictures made for our father. Christmas morning, when he opened the pictures he was so overcome with the simplicity of the gifts, so overcome with the love he knew we had for him, that he shed tears of joy and love. He offered no apologies for his show of emotion and I was proud of my daddy.

I am certain that most men are sympathetic to Commander Bucher because he has shown that it is not a crime to give vent to emotions through tears.

I do not advocate a nation of hysterical men, but I do say that a mark of a true man is his ability to show compassion for his fellow man.

Yes, I am glad to be a woman.

copyright 1968, gloria clatworthy bird

city mud

The cold bites and the wind blows hard and he pulls his gray wool coat together at the front and his eyes water and the sidewalk is a moving blur and the city is alive, as it always is, with people, now just huddling masses, their faces down and wrapped in scarves, silently pulsing along on the wet concrete, and the only sound he hears is rush of air past his ears.

Two more blocks.

Snow is pushed up against the buildings and mounded at the curbs making the path he shares narrow, and though no one in the city walks slowly, on days without snow there are those with the energy of youth, and dreams unsullied and they walk with intent and dart and dodge and walk the curb for a few steps like a walker on a tightrope with no fear or hesitation because they can and tomorrow is for losers. But on this day, it isn’t so.

He’s on the wrong side, next to the street, and he begins to angle toward the buildings, stutter-stepping behind a man in a dark coat, though he’s not really sure if it’s a man. Another moving bundle sidesteps around him and he imagines it is a woman with no real reason to think that other than instinct. Not that it matters. The sidewalk is anonymous.

There are three steps up to the door, a grandfathered anachronism in a world where all are equal and everything is for everybody. One day the owners of Brewsters will be sued and because there is no practical means of providing a ramp, they’ll go out of business and move to Jersey and start all over again. He grabs the wet rail with his gloved hand, thinking for a moment that he’s wearing his dress gloves, and pulls himself up to the first step, then the second, before pushing open the door at the top.

He blinks, clearing the tears from his eyes, and he inhales deeply, relieved to have escaped the outdoors. He takes off his gloves and stuffs them in the pocket of his coat. He runs his fingers over his hair, tamping down the strands that he knows are wandering, as they have started to do as of late, even after he has adopted a more conservative style more suited to a man his age. Not that he is old. Far from it. But his rakish twenties are far behind him and middle age is on a distant horizon because it’s not really a function of life span divided by two, but closer to a traditional retirement age, which is at least twenty years off.

The line is short. In fact, there is only one person in front of him, hidden under a polyester parka, and as he/she moves to the left, the barista confirms his order without even asking and two minutes later he is putting on his gloves and pulling open the door. The wind again assaults him and he is walking, trying to keep his coat closed as coffee sloshes out of the drinking slot and onto his calfskin gloves. He takes the coffee in his other hand and slings the coffee from his glove and then wipes it on his coat.

He turns left at the next block and crosses the street and the buildings block the wind, at least most of it, and it’s no longer strafing his face but now seems to come from random directions as it’s buffeted in the man-made canyons of office towers and condominiums. Another block and he reaches his building.

He takes off his gloves while juggling his coffee, which he has yet to even sip. Gloves in the pocket, he reaches inside his coat for his proximity card. Inside the elevator, he touches the reader with his card and pushes the button for the fortieth floor. The elevator is crowded, shoulder to shoulder, but it might as well be empty.

The meeting will start in twenty minutes, just enough time to hang his coat in his closet and check his emails, then on to the conference room. He’s the first one there.

“Good morning, Breece.”

Anthony, his assistant. He returns the greeting. Anthony places a copy of the summary documents at every place at the table.

Anthony stops, points to Breece’s feet.

“You’ve got a little mud on your shoes.” Anthony goes to the sink at the bar and wets a paper napkin and hands it to Breece.

It’s not much, just a dark brown smear, but it stands out against the burgundy leather of his Edward Greens.


Where would he have tracked through mud?

Not really mud, of course. City mud. Just ordinary grime. Dirt. Grit washed down from the buildings. Decomposed crumbs from the food carts. Spilled coffee. Pigeon droppings. Rat feces. A disgusting layer of dregs that wash away with every heavy rain, but when it snows, there is no cleansing, and then a sprinkling of salt, and the dirt turns to a chocolate batter and sticks to everything it touches, even a thousand dollar pair of shoes.

Boots. That’s what he ought to be wearing. Not polished leather with brass eyelets and buckles. Boots like his grandfather’s. Scratched and worn, mismatched laces. They were always covered with a thin dusting of light brown soil, but in the spring, when his grandfather would walk behind the Gravely and till the garden for the first time, moist earth would gather in clumps on the soles. Young Breece would follow behind, breathing in the rich aroma of life in the ground that had been buried under the long, cold winter months. Earthworms wiggled and squirmed, not at all pleased that their slumber had been disturbed. Breece would look for the biggest ones, pull them from the newly formed clods and drop them into the soil-filled coffee can where they would later be sacrificed to the small-mouth in the Coal River.

He wore sneakers back then and didn’t care about dirt or mud or anything else on his shoes or under his fingernails or the ever-present dark stain on the knees of his jeans. He was always digging through the earth or building a dam across the creek at the bottom of the holler and breaking apart the claystone in search of fossils or playing games of full-contact tackle football in the vacant lot behind the junior high school.

It was best when it was muddy, as it usually was in late October, just after the leaves had changed. And it was cool but not cold and they had played on the field so much that the grass was worn and the least little bit of rain made puddles, and a good tackle was when you brought down the kid with the ball and you slid another five yards after hitting the ground. You weren’t really playing tackle football if you were clean, and it was understood that you had to let the mud dry in thick cakes and then knock it off only after your parents yelled at you and then sprayed you off in the back yard with a garden hose.

Mud. Beautiful, glorious, thick, West Virginia mud.

And then the explosion at the plant. Five men were killed, including his father.

Shortly after, he and his mother moved to Connecticut. She remarried. He went to prep school. His grandfather died of cancer. They went back for the funeral, but didn’t even spend the night. There was no family left.

After prep school, it was on to Princeton for his undergraduate degree, then Harvard Business School. Then New York City.

He wipes the smear from his shoe and looks at the brown stain on the napkin. Anthony has left the room. He raises the napkin to his nose and breathes in, hoping to get a sniff, a hint, of what he has forgotten, what he remembers, what his sterile, well-kept life has sheltered him from all these years.


He looks at his manicured hands, the clean, crisp fingernails so short that he couldn’t get mud underneath if he tried.

Anthony has re-entered the room, along with a gaggle of similar well-bred elites ready to negotiate the deal that will ultimately enable them to buy expensive shoes and live in upscale apartments and summer on the island and hire a gardener to mow the lawn and trim the trees and dig the soil and plant the shrubs and let the gardener’s fingernails be the ones marred by years of honest toil and the richness of all that is basic and good and pure.

Breece looks out the window. Glass towers as far as he can see. Somewhere beyond are mountains and valleys and rich, fertile soil. Real dirt. Real mud. Real life.

He folds the napkin and puts it in the inside pocket of his suit.

This story is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events or locales is entirely coincidental.

copyright 2019, joseph e bird

rich man’s frug

Meet my new unhealthy obsession, Suzanne Charny. She’s the dancer with the gloves.

She’s so aloof, so cool. And her hands in those gloves are mesmerizing. These days she’s an artist. Well, she always was. She’s simply changed media.

This is from the musical, Sweet Charity. Bob Fosse was the choreographer. It’s so much fun to watch. The dancing starts in a couple of minutes, after Shirley MacClaine gets settled in.

And when you try the walk – and make no mistake, you will try the walk – you’ll see how hard it is to keep your arms straight down while you’re leaning back. They make it look so easy.


coffee shop behavior

As I’ve documented many times, I’m prone to the occasional social faux pas in food service establishments. I think Meagan Briggs wrote the following piece just for me.

Thanks, Meagan.

A Starbucks Script: as told by baristas


garbage in, garbage out

It’s not like you asked for all that junk.

You know, all that useless stuff that’s cluttering up your garage or your basement.

It didn’t start out that way. At one time, it was an organized collection of useful items, things that you might be able to use some day. Maybe some of that’s still there, but there’s no denying you’ve got shelves full of junk.

And now when you walk into the garage, where at one time you envisioned a woordworking shop, or the basement, which was going to be the place where your hobbies came to life, you’re filled with dread. You know that your once-cherished workrooms are wasted and probably will be forever. Because you’ve allowed too much junk to enter, and you’re never going to be able to get rid of it all.

It’s the same thing with people.

Why is the world such a mess?

It begins with us. It’s been happening for so long, we no longer recognize the junk of the world. It’s in the television shows and movies we watch, the books we read, the social media posts, the screaming and yelling that masquerades as free speech. And we take it in, one piece at a time until our lives are overflowing with useless clutter. No, it’s worse than that. Unlike the junk in the garage, the garbage in our lives affects everything we do.

Instead, maybe this:

whatever is true,
whatever is noble,
whatever is right,
whatever is pure,
whatever is lovely,
whatever is admirable.
if anything is excellent or praiseworthy,
think about such things.

find a way

If it is important to you, you will find a way.
If not, you will find an excuse.

— Ryan Blair

Our Fathers


Most are not leaders of nations.
Most are not creators of wealth.
Most are not icons of art.
Their names will not be written in the annals of history.

But without them, we would be nothing.

Their fathers worked with pride as pipe-fitters and welders and electricians.
Their fathers mined coal and dug ditches and toiled with dignity.
They did what was necessary to provide food and shelter and clothes.
They did what was necessary to provide hope for a better tomorrow.

Tomorrow came, and it was better,
and the sons and daughters of the fathers went to school
and became teachers and writers and lawyers and engineers.
They became fathers and mothers themselves
and likewise provided for their families.

They did all of this without the need for attention,
without the need for adulation,
without the need for self-aggrandizement.

Fathers persevere and sacrifice.
They do what needs to be done.
They are good and honorable.

No, not all fathers.
Some abandon.
Some abuse.
Some give up.

It’s not about gender roles.
Sometimes the mother is the father.
Sometimes she is both.

It’s not about being the breadwinner.
It’s about being strong for the family.
It’s about providing direction to those who wander
and encouragement to those who strive.

Now they rest,
their work less strenuous,
their lives less demanding,
and they sit quietly,
content to let others lead.

They have lived simply.
They have lived nobly.
They have given their all.
They are our fathers.

copyright 2019, joseph e bird


The First Day of Winter

On the first day of winter he awoke and stood at his window and looked out on his fields wet with rain. It had taken him longer this year to clean the banks and hillsides. He no longer went at tasks to finish them in one day. Now he worked as time and strength allowed […]

via The First Day of Winter — Home Economics

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