Lost, but making record time.
Lost, but making record time.

Perhaps that is too personal for you to become involved with it? But we all have our own imprint of what constitutes home. When I wanted to work this idea into something which in a caring but uncompromising way would be meaningful to somebody else, it became this poem.


No One Recognizes Robert

Mitchum in Vietnam


“I always thought I could do better.

But  you don’t  get to  do better. If

you’re lucky,  you get to do more.”

—Robert Mitchum, People Weekly


I spotted him  wandering among

the rubber trees. Scheduled for

ten a.m., he didn’t show and we—

who had volunteered, from hand-

clearing roads through brush, to

don clean fatigues and have this

guy who hadn’t been in a film in

years help us feel better about

our being there—decided to slip

away for an early lunch.


And  there  he  was, by  himself,

looking lost, behind the sagging

mess hall tent—a tough guy, but

neither broad nor tall. I stepped

out, around back, and sauntered

up to say, “Hello,” thinking even

then, wasn’t Vietnam a curious

choice for either of us”? “Why,

so little fanfare?” I asked. He just

slowly shook his head.


People died that year. I neither

shot nor saved them. I sweated,

slept, swore and  stank, drinking

bottles of warm beer, pretended

to some  greater cause, but like

Mitchum, we all were lost with

no idea  why  the  fuck  we were

there. That was it. Caked in mud

we dreamt of home, and living to

be here…living to get here.


When the  plane  touched  down

our  hearts leapt  and  we began

to cry, only to be met with spit by

protesters who  thought we were

Robert Mitchum-World War Two

GIs. I didn’t hate them, but I do all

of you who went about your lives

who will only know once or twice

what we felt every minute of that

goddamn year.


To not play a  banjo all night long

when my son was born, applaud

my daughter, off-Broadway, in a

play or say good-bye to my mom.

Thirty years have passed. Robert

Mitchum, the war and my youth

are forever gone. Except, in that

time I have kept  my sacred vow,

never to salute that stupid Stars

and Stripes again.


OK, OK, I’ll admit that some stories belong to other people and that the best ones are those the audience can relate to, but we could go in circles if those were the only two criteria. Let me throw in a third characteristic of a meaningful story: It has direction. Now in the next piece, that’s rather subtle. It’s more of a sense of awareness that things aren’t always what they seem, but in the two following that I push the envelope by envisioning what would happen if the imagined became real.  Plot is a verb. Here’s what I mean.  

 How I Became an Olympic Coach

              It had been more than ten years since I’d participated in my last race. Now here I was at the Badger State Games in Madison. I had just turned 60.

                 I knew I was in trouble as soon as I looked around. First of all, everyone had on real running gear. Second, they were stretching and doing little warm up sprints. I was used to “fun runs” where before the event everybody pretty much just stood there and joked with each other. Another thing, this was a 10 kilometer run and though I had done a bit of running every night for the last week I had never made it up to that distance, or half that distance, or one forth that distance. 

                 I was counting on adrenaline and age. My theory was that the older runners would be, well, older—get tired, need little breaks along the way.

                 I won’t relive the entire drawn-out ordeal. There were a few children and people in wheelchairs who finished after me. But the biggest surprise was when they posted the finishes by age group. It seems that running is something like Darwin’s Theory of Evolution. The weak and the slow die off. The resultant, over- sixty, sinewy, set-a-good-pace-and-stick-with-it types were proof of the survival of the fittest. And me? Of that group I was dead last. What I needed, I realized at that moment, was a Gueroult. Not a guru, but an Ed Gueroult, the only kid on the high school, freshman cross-country team who was worse than me.

                 I had shown up for a meeting announced on the high school PA system the first week in school, not exactly knowing what cross-country was. It sounded exotic, like we’d be going from New York to San Francisco. I was surprised that there were only a small number who came to this initial gathering.  It was a cozy group and since as a new freshman I didn’t know a single student at this all boy’s school, for the first time, I felt comfortable. It was almost as if, after days of wandering around from class to class lost, I’d found a home. The coach was a graduate student whose glasses made him look like a young Dave Garoway. He talked in generalities but with a lot of enthusiasm. Later we all trudged over to the gym to get lockers. At that point I turned to one of the friendlier looking older classman and asked, “What is it we actually do, when we’re playing cross-country?” He said, “We run our brains out, asshole!”

 *                              *                              *

             I don’t know why Lieutenant Lauren Hagen had such a bad attitude (maybe it was his name “Lauren”). He had been a PE major in college and now every time an athletic intramural event came along he was pegged as coach and organizer.  There did seem to be a lot of these at Fort Riley, which is smack in the middle of Kansas where there was little to do. But isn’t that why he took PE in school?  Anyway he bellyached enough to the battalion commander that when the next athletic activity presented itself—preparing division athletes for the Olympic trials—someone looked through the personnel records and there I was, a high school cross-county star. (I’ll admit I’d exaggerated my lowly running experiences a bit when signing up for the army—maybe I thought I’d be chosen as a messenger to run secret information behind enemy lines.)

                 We had two weeks—Tuesday through Friday afternoons. When I arrived there were athletes all around the track area doing those same little sprints and warm up stretches I was to later see with trepidation at the Badger State Games. For some reason only seven potential Olympians were assigned to me. Well, I had a book on track events under my arm from Lt. Hagen and was ready to go. The first problem was that three of the people hadn’t shown up. I called their units and was told by three different, rude individuals, that each was “not going to be released from duty for such nonsense.” Nonsense? This was the World Olympics. But I supposed they were busy polishing forty-year-old Army vehicles in case we ever fought World War II again.

            The second problem was that Private Polk, a huge black guy sitting in a small two door Chevy, wouldn’t get out of his car. “Let me take a bit of time,” he said in a very slow black voice, “to prepare myself ‘mentally’ for this event.” My third problem was the javelin thrower (boy, you don’t get any more Olympian than that, do you?). He came up to me, javelin at his side and explained that: a) he was an Irish citizen—Why was he in the US Army in Kansas?—and b) he already knew everything he needed to know about javelin throwing, he just wanted the opportunity to practice on his own. Well, I hadn’t found “javelin” in the index at the back of the track book yet, so I agreed that, for the time being, this might be a pretty good idea. The other two listened to my “let’s win a gold medal” pep talk and jogged slowly around the track one time. That was the end of day one, except, Polk did wave at me from his car when practice was over.

              The second day I was pretty much out of the picture. It seems I had failed to register my men “per instructions” and had to beg a sergeant for over an hour to bend the rules. Polk was still sitting in his car like a huge toad stuffed into a jar. The javelin guy was skipping and dancing around in circles without a javelin and there was no sign of the other two team members from the day before. Only Polk was there the next day, smoking away in his Chevy. I begged him to at least get out. He painstakingly explained to me why shot put was not like other events. “You need weight, which I got,” he said to me in what I thought was a condescending tone, “and plenty of rest, which I don’t got.” He continued, “This infantry shit just wears me out.  So, ‘Coach,’ just leave me be.  I’ll come through for you, just you wait and see.” Like I had much choice. But he had called me “coach.”

                 No one showed up Friday. I checked back for practice Tuesday and it was the same story. I missed Polk’s wink and a wave, but decided my coaching career was over. Imagine my surprise a couple of weeks later when I heard that Polk had made the Olympic team. And guess who actually ended up getting an Olympic medal that year? Not Polk. I don’t know what ever happened with him, but the Irish guy with the javelin. I saw him on a television news program one night. He didn’t mention my coaching, but Lt. Hagen did. He told everyone in the battalion newsletter, “See what happens if we get people to contribute in areas where they have talent and ability.” I smiled to myself as I read the article and decided, I’d let the record speak for itself.





Old Hippie
Old Hippie

Where I’ve Lived

It’s like with that poem, “The Handout” we all believe there is some key to life’s mystery just beyond our grasp. We’d like to believe this truth is universal, applicable to everyone equally, but maybe it isn’t. Perhaps each of us has our own secret theater in our imagination showing films we create especially to fit only us. 


The Movie Version 

In the movie version of my life

everything beneath the surface

makes sense. A porn star plays

my wife, and, oh yes, my black

and white Mustang is fiery red.


And while we might not share the same movies, we do all have a need for them, no matter what form they take. And the sharing of them? Ah, the sharing of them…


At the Poetry Reading

This is a poem I wrote, have written? No wrote

about a time  when my car and I  were stuck in

an automatic  car  wash—the  kind  where you

drive in between rails and a huge upside down

metal  horseshoe  with rotating  shower heads

passes  back and forth  around your car.  Well,

here’s how it  goes.  This is  the start.  Ready?

My soul felt  grimy  that  dusty  afternoon.” No,

make it “that dusty summer afternoon,”  “grimy

as the  rocker  panels of my  1997  convertible

coupe. I inserted  quarters,  thirty-two  of them

and drove along the designated tracks when…

Excuse me,  whoever  has a  cell phone  that’s

ringing, I wonder if you’d turn it off? Thank you.

Where was I?…Hmmm?  No, could that be my

cell phone? How embarrassing.  Hold that car-

wash  image  and we’ll  get to  the suds  in just

a minute. …You know, it might be just as quick

to answer this, I can’t seem to turn the thing off.

“Hello?” It’s my wife. “No, listen, I can’t talk now.

I’m  in the middle  of a  poetry  reading.  I’ll call

you back.Yes, I love you too.” OK, where were


Again?  What  does  that woman want?  Just a

second please.  Think suds.  Suds, suds, suds.

Com’on,  everybody, “suds,  suds, suds.”  Very

nice.“I am reading a poem  at a poetry reading

Yes  now.”…Ha, ha, can’t  live  with them, can’t

live without them. I mean cell phones, of course,

not women. “Suddenly I was blinded in a vortex

of  cotton  foam,  a blizzard  of white gobs  that

wouldn’t stop…” …Oh, for godsake, I can’t take

this? …“What, what, what?…I’m on stage right

this minute. No, it’s the one about the car wash.

Well, I like the stupid repetition,…it’s…cathartic.

No, I don’t know. Now good-bye.” She’s asking

about a Beatle’s song. …OK…Let’s finish, shall

we?  “Suds, suds, suds.  Suds, suds, suds.  All

you need are  suds,  all you need are suds.  All

you need are suds,suds, suds are all you need.”

Join in with me, OK?: “Suds, suds, suds.  Suds,

suds, suds.All you need are suds. All you need

are  suds.  All you  need  are suds,  suds, suds

are all  you  need. All  you  need  are  suds  (all

together  now).  All you need  are suds  (every-

body). All  you need  are suds, suds,  suds  are

all you need.


Where I’ve Lived

 On the occasion of my daughter’s moving back to Ann Arbor, Michigan, where she was born, I got to thinking about places where I’d lived. I don’t mean physically as much as imaginatively and emotionally. 

            As a small child in Chicago my favorite room, especially on rainy days, was the attic in my parents’ brown-brick bungalow (at 5923 North Hermitage—the word “hermitage” itself, meaning residence). There were low, slanted rafters and, on the floor, planking that reached almost to the sides of the room…but not quite. Amidst the cardboard boxes and makeshift racks for hanging clothes stored in plastic bags, I’d play with my set of wooden blocks. There were actually three sets of various sizes that once belonged to my older brother and sister. I’d build forts and highways or roofless castles with secret rooms. The “soldiers” and toy cars I had were equally unmatched proportionately. A figure might be four inches tall and a “Matchbox” auto less that one inch long—but it didn’t matter. Sometimes in the summer I’d take the cars and soldiers to play outside in the jungle of my mother’s rose garden—she didn’t seem to care.  But the best place was under the dangling light bulb in the attic on a rainy afternoon where no one saw or could disturb my own little world.

            I didn’t have a room of my own until my sister went off to college. Mostly I slept on the other side of the attic—the finished side—with my brother. Years later I took over the TV room downstairs; he had moved to my college-bound sister’s room next door. I didn’t want a bed to mess up the arrangement of my room—which I fancied to be like the library of a world explorer’s club—so I continued to sleep upstairs, but now with my father in my brother’s old bed.  My father slept up in the attic because he didn’t want to disturb my mother. He’d paint pictures in the basement until late at night and turn in after she was asleep. He also liked to listen to the radio before drifting off, leaving it on all night. I don’t think she particularity appreciated that. I know I didn’t.

            Meanwhile, back at the explorer’s club library (I had some cheap prints of old maps on the wall) I nailed up a dartboard I had purchased with my allowance.  It really looked great and my brother, Ed, and I envisioned playing a nightly game of darts whenever he took a break from his law school studies. I’ll never forget how upset I was when a stray dart stuck in the knotty pine wall the first time after missing the target. I thought, “Well maybe I can fill the hole and stain it and no one will know the difference.” About three weeks later there were at least 2,000 holes in the wall, in the upholstered chair under the dartboard, in my dresser next to it, even in the frame of an old mirror I had on top of the dresser. The room was a dart-disaster. 

            But here’s the best part. My brother, at times, could be somewhat mean-spirited in word and deed. He liked to spoil a birthday by telling me beforehand what my parents had bought me as a surprise, or he’d say things like, “Dad loves me, he hates you.” Well one day he made me very angry about something.  I was fuming in my room wildly throwing darts when I noticed that I could unscrew the metal tip from the front of the plastic dart.         

            A few seconds later I burst into his room, slamming the door open against the wall. He was seated in an overstuffed easy chair, smoking a pipe, and had a board balanced across the arms of the chair with all his law books and papers on it. I appeared in the door frame, like Anthony Perkins in Psycho, but instead of a knife I had a handful of darts. 

            “I’ve had it with you!” I screamed and began hurling them one by one at him.  The first one missed but he knocked over his big ashtray trying to duck. Then he lunged up from the chair and board, books and papers filled the air.

A dart bounced off his forehead. He stopped, not comprehending what was going on, so I quickly sent two or three more at the same bull’s-eye. He reached over and picked up a pointless dart and started laughing. I would have too, but I was already halfway out the door.

            Later I took the dartboard down and hung a huge floor-to-ceiling, 45-star American flag over the dart-cratered wall. 


                        *                       *                       *

            Ten years later I found myself in Vietnam. Not that I didn’t live in apartments, dorms and barracks between my childhood and being in the war.  But the truth is, I didn’t really.  Oh, my body was there, but I myself lived in the books I read and the books I imagined writing.

            The First Medical Battalion Headquarters and I had arrived in Vietnam in full battle gear on military planes leaving Fort Riley, Kansas in the middle of the night. After being stationed about twenty miles north of Saigon for five months, three of us who were tired of living in tents that were hot, smelly and blew over in the rain decided to pool our money, buy lumber and build a house. We thought that if we were going to do this we needed to have it finished before the monsoon season began. None of us knew anything about building, but remember I had my experience with blocks as a child up in the attic. I drew up a rough plan, we borrowed an Army truck and driver and after a half hour of searching through nearby small villages, bought a bunch of lumber. It cost us about 120 bucks each.

            We’ve all heard stories of barn raisings. You get food and beer, invite the neighbors and, after a half-day or so of good-natured work, there is your completed structure.  We bought a keg of beer from the officer’s mess, bribed the cooks to prepare a feast of pizza and deep-fried cheese, passed the word, and, sure enough, everyone came.  I should explain in fairness to those attending that day that Bill Ross was a big talker and Martin Sweeney, my other partner, a big drinker. Everyone came. Everyone ate and drank and had a good time sitting on the lumber. Then everyone left. We rested up for three weeks after that fiasco until I couldn’t stand hearing Ross’s stories over and over again so I decided to start building myself. I don’t know if we bought bad lumber or if it got harder sitting on the ground, but it was like rock. I had to use a chainsaw to cut it and a baby sledgehammer to drive nails through it.

            This was an unlikely design for the jungle—about 12 feet wide and 30 feet long. The roof was like an “A” frame except there were five-foot high side walls over which the roof hung about 3 feet. The tops of these walls were two-foot high screen the full length of the building. Though you couldn’t see out because of the overhang, the rain wouldn’t blow in. The front third was our lounge area and the back two-thirds, where we had our three cots. 

           After a week, I, with a little help from Sweeney and a little less from Ross, had the frame completed.  We were just in the process of starting to nail corrugated aluminum sheets over the roof structure when we got the news. The battalion commander wanted the construction stopped because (remember we were in the middle of a w.a.r.) it might be “unsafe.”

            The Corps of Engineers were called in and it was decided that it was, not only safe, but over-built and would “withstand just about anything.” So we completed the building and moved in. I had finally realized my childhood dream of living in a house, which I had designed and built myself.

            Sweeney was a psychologist.  After a few beers he often would say with a smirk in his quasi-professional tone, “There are only two kinds of people, the `livers’ and the `non-livers.’” By this I suppose he meant there are those who enjoy themselves and make the best of a situation—like building a house in the jungle—and the “non-livers”—people who go through life following orders like zombies and living in tents. But we were a medical unit in the middle of Vietnam. Everyday people were literally “non-livers.” They were the wounded and dying or those who came to us already dead to be sent home. No, there were only “the living” and “the dead” and as I stood in the doorway of our metal covered framed house and watched torrential rains sweeps across the fields, I thanked God I was still among the living.




Settled things make for explanations not for good stories. Instead, these are more often situations or people or memories that are troubling, things we want to work out and understand for ourselves and invite others along for the ride. It’s kind of a game we play with ourselves. This piece is based on an exercise from a book in college psychology.


                                    The Game of Without Within


John Lehman, John Lehman, John Lehman, John Lehman, John Lehman, John Lehman, John Lehman, John Lehman, John Lehman, John Lehman.


Sit down in the middle of  a quiet place,

one with  little  furnishings  is preferred.

Spend a few  minutes in silence, know-

ing that you’re both going to speak and 

to hear. Listen for the slightest  sounds.

Prepare for your  peacefulness  to end.


Say your own name out loud. Articulate

it distinctly and then repeat it insistently

as if  hailing another who’s away in the

distance  who can’t  see you, on a boat 

or in a foggy field. You’re calling some-

one who’s  remote in a mysterious way.


Lengthen  vowels  and  stress syllables,

exaggerate.Continue the calling of your

name, twenty, thirty times until you start

to get the feeling that you, yourself, are

being  called.  Keep calling.  Yes, this is

your voice but it is also something more. 


It’s you who are  calling, you don’t know

for whom.  It’s you who are being called,

but you don’t know from where.The one

who’s calling  is the  same,  and yet not

the same as the one who is called. Feel

the strangeness of this so familiar name.


Only other  people  call you this.  Go on

do it  more.  The goal  is to produce the

slight,  but  not  necessarily  unpleasant,

sense of  unease,  when  self  becomes

unstuck from self.  To escape and close

the breach,  simply say,  “Here I come!”


John Lehman, John Lehman, John Lehman, John Lehman, John Lehman. (pause) Here I come.


John goes to the desk, sits and turns on the gooseneck lamp. He types a few words on the old typewriter then pulls out the sheet to check what he apparently has been working on. He reads the title and the piece:


The Girl Who Washed Her Hands


Let me see, it was a few years after college. I got a teaching certificate and found myself with a position as an English teacher in a poor high school in Michigan. Most of the kids had no interest in classes, but I did have one student who was not only cute but very bright. My ex-wife and I even got to know her parents. They were old-fashioned radicals from the forties, and this was a very conservative, fundamentalist area.

            Mary also had an older sister, Jeannie. She was smart too, but psychologically troubled even at that young age. These were happy times for me. My wife and I had our first house, a little bungalow a block or so from the lake. The first years of teaching were demanding, but summers were free. Then it was back to full days of classes, and evenings and weekends correcting papers.

            Anyhow, one day this student’s mother stopped at the school late in the afternoon. (slow) She was a small woman with very short, cropped brown hair—a head like a coconut. She asked to come into my classroom and she shut the door behind her. I had no idea what this was about, but I pulled a couple of student desks around so they faced each other and motioned for her to sit down. Without further introduction, she said, (John leans forward in a whisper) “I have a terrible, family secret to tell you.”

            And what was her secret?

            I don’t know. She bent forward in the desk toward me, speaking in hushed tones. So much so that I couldn’t understand what she was saying. You’ve done that, haven’t you? In order to be polite, pretend to hear or be interested in something inaudible someone says to you?

Later, I thought, perhaps, she’d said she was suicidal or that she had been molested by her father.  But at the time my first reaction was that this didn’t have anything to do with the girls. My next one was, why is this woman telling this secret to me?”

            Jeannie had a weird boyfriend but she received good grades and graduated to go on to college.  Mary blossomed, too.  She was a straight `A’ student, a top vocalist, had poems published in literary magazines–and remember she was only a high school student—starred in school plays, was an active environmental organizer, etc., etc.  But no boyfriends!  Even though she had naturally blonde hair and a wonderful smile. A wonderful, seductive smile. Boys were intimidated by her because she was so far beyond anyone else her age in accomplishments. And I’ll admit, to me she was more like an interesting peer than a student. But at that time I didn’t allow myself to think if it was anything other than that.

            Senior year, Mary suddenly gave up everything for religion. Some kind of charismatic Christianity. She was living like a Bible-story virgin who’d delivered herself over entirely to God. She got a full scholarship to the University of Chicago to study theology and that was the last I saw of her until three years ago. She was eighteen when I was her teacher and now many years later, she was thirty-six.  Of course I was old enough to be her father, but when she telephoned I was still trying to come to terms with my separation, and to hear this warm, familiar voice…well, I was very pleased.

I forgot to say that I’d heard she had had a nervous breakdown that first year at the University. A student who was a photographer for the yearbook—I was the advisor—had a brother who worked in a mental institution. Mary was taken there after the breakdown. (slower) The brother said she couldn’t stop washing her hands. Two hundred, three hundred times a day she would wash her hands. The other thing I learned, and I don’t remember how, was that Frank was not really the girls’ father. He had married the mother when she’d already had the two young children.

            Can we re-create ourselves like motivational books and tapes lead us to believe?  Or is it fate? Are we doomed to always repeat the past in some superficially different form?

            Whether the past is a treasure worth reclaiming or some kind of stigma that marks us and turns ordinary things we do into penance, it’s always there, isn’t it? And sometimes it surfaces as unexpectedly as a phone call. A phone call in the middle of the night from Chicago.

            Mary called out of nowhere late one night. She had found my name through an Internet search. I’d just come home and hadn’t even had time to turn on the lights and there, over the receiver, was her voice in the dark, coming out of the past.

I pictured those thin white arms and animated hands, her full mouth and wavy blonde hair. I could almost smell Lake Michigan and feel the trudge of walking barefoot in the sand of the lakeshore dunes. It had been almost twenty years since my first wife and I’d packed up the kids and left Michigan for a new life in Wisconsin. A life of frustration and financial hardship that had ultimately driven us apart. But now, in the sound of Mary’s voice, there was promise bubbling up like an underground spring.

            Mary and I talked for an hour and a half. Her parents, Elsie and Frank, had died five years earlier within months of each other. Her sister, Jeannie, had not married her boyfriend but a rather conservative businessman. She’d been on medication for depression, but last summer decided not to take her drugs anymore. Like Virginia Wolfe, one night she walked out into Duck Lake until she drowned. Now Mary Briggs—`Briggs’ was her married name—was alone except for her husband of a year. He too had left her but then he’d come back, she said, providing she agreed to “certain conditions.”

            Anyway, she wanted to see me…had to see me. She wondered if that would be possible. As it turned out, I needed to schedule a business trip to Chicago within the next two weeks. I told her I would call the following day after I’d pinned down a date.

            But something was strange right from the start.

            When I called her the following night, she said, “Hello.” I gave my name, but then as I started to talk about what day I’d be in Chicago, without saying a further word, she hung up.

            I called again thinking that I might have dialed the wrong number, but the same thing happened a second time.

            She phoned the next morning with absolutely no explanation for what had occurred the night before, telling me that she’d be overjoyed to meet with me. We set up a time and place, though when I hung up the phone, I had a vaguely unsettled feeling.

            I arrived in the Old Town section of Chicago—where we had arranged to meet—about an hour early. I thought I’d have trouble finding parking, but as it turned out there was a spot just behind the restaurant. It was a warm late- afternoon in June and I sat at a table outside.

            I have to admit I did have a few beers while I waited. I’d grown up in Chicago and the afternoon was awash with memories. As a kid I’d taken the el to this part of town and explored its shops and coffee houses. During my college breaks I’d hit one or more of the clubs to catch folk music acts and sometimes get a little intoxicated. And now, here I was again, at this new stage in my life.

            The meeting lasted less than a minute. What I remember most is mumbling some excuse, then walking, almost at a run, through the restaurant, past the kitchen and out the door to my car parked in back.

I was sitting at that outdoor table looking down the street when I heard a voice. It came from the sidewalk behind my back. It said, “Mr. Lehman?”

            I turned slowly not knowing what to expect. It had been many years since I’d last seen Mary but I still half thought she’d look the same. She stood in front of the setting sun and I was blinded by it at first. I could only make out the shape of her body and her golden hair. The blonde around her head glowed like a rim of sun around the moon in a solar eclipse.

When Mary came forward—as she bent down toward me out of that halo of sun—I saw that it was not the sweet face I’d remembered, but the shriveled face of her mother’s coconut head…


…and from its pressed lips came a whisper. It said, “…I want my secret back.”


With this last sentence John turns off the table light again leaving the room in complete darkness.




Another reason we hesitate to share stories is that they may seem too personal for listeners to become involved with it? Had I identified Mary’s secret in this story, it might the ending might have been less interesting. It’s like with that poem, “The Handout” we all believe there is some key to life’s mystery just beyond our grasp. We’d like to believe this truth is universal, applicable to everyone equally, but maybe it isn’t. Perhaps each of us has our own secret theater in our imagination showing films we create especially to fit only us.



Today I’m beginning a new presentation. I originally gave this in Milwuakee three years ago. I think it still says a lot about writing and story telling. I hope you enjoy it. Let me know if you do. – John

A Brief History of My Tattoo

Thirteen Things I Never Told Anyone Before


The Handout

Each of you should have received a handout.

There were some problems and there are more

people here than expected, so if you don’t have

a handout, please look on with your neighbor.

The handout lists the twelve things you must

know in order to achieve success. Without these

I’m afraid you’ll have pretty rough going, and

ultimately will fail. But here are the simple rules,

a list of resources and the practical timeline you

need, all clearly spelled out for you to succeed.

If neither you nor your neighbor has the handout,

ordinarily I’d say raise your hand and I would

give you one. But, I’m sorry, I just don’t have any

additional handouts—that’s what I’ve been trying

to explain. I know that may not seem fair, but

this is something addressed at great length in point

seven of the handout. In fact all your questions

are answered by the handout. Success would be

yours if you had a handout. Life would be easy

if you had a handout. If only you had a handout,

happiness would be guaranteed.


The Perfect Crime

I’d always thought it would be my son and I doing things together, but it is my daughter and I who are alike. Sometimes too much alike. After she graduated from NYU in theater she got a job as an understudy for an off-Broadway play, “The Perfect Crime.” She did this for two years. Unfortunately, the lead female—the only woman in the production and the one who had written the play—prided herself on seldom missing a performance. My daughter rarely got to go on before a live audience. Eventually Pam quit and then suffered the usual problem of actors in New York: trying to get roles. So she decided to come back home to the Midwest and attend graduate school in education. After being accepted to the University of Wisconsin she didn’t much attend classes. Instead she formed her own theater company with the intent of putting on an original play—if Wisconsin couldn’t go to New York, then she’d bring New York to Wisconsin.

“Pop,” she said, “you have to audition for this play. There’s a part in it that would be perfect for you.”

I’m not much of an actor but agreed to try out. I thought it would support her effort and give us a chance, as adults, to work on something together. I did the audition and she turned me down.

I admit I had chosen an unusual vehicle to show off my talent, or lack of talent. My monologue was of a soul leaving a recently deceased body. The words were those of Martin Luther King, Jr. but given a different, dramatic emphasis:

“Free at Last”—relief. “Free at last!”—glee. “Thank God Almighty…” —uncertainty“…I’m free at last—dread.

Perhaps she thought I was making fun of her audition process. Part of the try-out was for her to work with the actor, giving direction to get more out of the person’s chosen lines. How much direction can you give a disembodied soul? And no matter what she said all I was capable of was a sort of silent screen version of relief, glee, uncertainty and dread.

I wanted the production to be successful, and it was, but there was always this small part of me—a teeny part—that resented being excluded, especially when she confided in me about problems she was having with the actors she picked—not learning their lines, being late for rehearsals, etc. I would never have done that, I told myself, as I listened with sympathy— “sympathy.”

 Then the last performance of the last week of the show, something strange happened. One of the actors, a young college girl, left the stage after her early scene and went out the back door of the theater. She left the play and the theater in the middle of the show—the one unforgivable theatrical crime. The other actors improvised as best they could around this void, and when the final curtain came down people applauded as other audiences had.

But I sometimes think about this girl.

She had had all the direction and stress she could take. So she just packed up and left. And, somehow I felt…

Well I could picture her walking down the dark alley to her car, and perhaps saying to herself,  “Free at last. Free at last! Thank God Almighty, I’m free at last.”

Thanks for being here this evening. I have subtitled this performance, “Thirteen Things I’ve Never Told Anyone Before.” And you might ask, “Why hasn’t he told them?” Well, one reason is, in the case of this last episode it was my story to tell. But in a way I made it my own by asking my daughter to direct my telling of it at the Cornerstone Theater in Milwaukee where this first was performed. How’s that for irony. But I wanted to see what would happen. For in reality most story ideas won’t be things that we already know and have settled. Settled things make for explanations not for good stories. Instead, these are more often situations or people or memories that are troubling, things we want to work out and understand for ourselves and invite others along for the ride. It’s kind of a game we play with ourselves.


Promises to keep...
Promises to keep...

He died on January 28th, 1963, near midnight, losing consciousness soon after a blood clot reached his lungs. A great and long life had come quietly to an end. America had lost a poet of astounding grace and wisdom. He was not a monster or malcontent as some biographers have tried to depict him. While hardly a saint, Frost was a passionate, headstrong man who believed deeply that, despite a life of personal tragedy, poetry never let him down. And poetry can mean the same to us.


Poetry is a way of living, not just a way to communicate the experiences we have had. Frost believed that for our own survival we need to throw ourselves into it with energy, abandon and trust. We will be rewarded accordingly. That, more than any particular Frost poem, as great as it may be, is the richness of his gift to us.


(John, with passion.)




When I see birches bend to left and right

Across the lines of straighter darker trees,

I like to think some boy’s been swinging them.

But swinging doesn’t bend them down to stay

As ice storms do. Often you must have seen them

Loaded with ice a sunny winter morning

After a rain. They click upon themselves

As the breeze rises, and turn many colored

As the stir cracks and crazes their enamel.

Soon the sun’s warmth makes them shed crystal shells

Shattering and avalanching on the snow crust—

Such heaps of broken glass to sweep away

You’d think the inner dome of heaven had fallen.

They are dragged to the withered bracken by the load,

And they seem not to break; though once they are bowed

So low for long, they never right themselves;

You may see their trunks arching in the woods

Years afterwards, trailing their leaves on the ground

Like girls on hands and knees that throw their hair

Before them over their heads to dry in the sun.

But I was going to say when Truth broke in

With all her matter of fact about the ice storm,

I should prefer to have some boy bend them

As he went out and in to fetch the cows—

Some boy too far from town to learn baseball,

Whose only play was what he found himself,

Summer or winter, and could play alone.

One by one he subdued his father’s trees

By riding them down over and over again

Until he took the stiffness out of them,

And not one but hung limp, not one was left

For him to conquer. He learned all there was

To learn about not launching out too soon

And so not carrying the tree away

Clear to the ground. He always kept his poise

To the top branches, climbing carefully

With the same pains you use to fill a cup

Up to the brim, and even above the brim.

Then he flung outward, feet first, with a swish,

Kicking his way down through the air to the ground.

So was I once myself a swinger of birches.

As so I dream of going back to be.

It’s when I’m weary of considerations,

And life is too much like a pathless wood

Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs

Broken across it, and one eye is weeping

From a twig’s having lashed across it open.

I’d like to get away from earth awhile

And then come back to it and begin over.

May no fate willfully misunderstand me

And half grant what I wish and snatch me away

Not to return. Earth’s the right place for love:

I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.

I’d like to go by climbing a birch tree,

And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk

Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more,

But dipped its top and set me down again.

That would be good both going and coming back.

One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.


(The lights slowly fade to black.)