JJ in the 21st Century: (1989) JJ and Lila and the Shaky Promise of Spring

There was a man across the street, too old for college, too young to be old, playing hymns on a trumpet. One foot was up on his trumpet case, which was emblazoned (branded?) with a white cross. He faced the road, playing for the cars rather than people on foot. No virtuoso, he let the spirit move him, playing loud and proud.

“Why would someone do that,” JJ asked.

“He believes what he believes,” Lila said.

“But what does he believe?”

“That college is sin? That sinning is part of college?”

“I feel like sinning right now.”

She looked at him looking at her and smiled. “Later. We’ll sin together.”

“Then we’ll hear an orchestra.”

They sat on a bench, drinking hot chocolate from the dairy bar. A fickle day in early Spring, clouds and sun, cool and warm, snow finally melted, no leaves, no flowers yet, sand and mud everywhere. A time of year with possibilities and promise, yet stained with the gritty sediment of the barren winter just passed, a winter that would come again. JJ’s time to shine.

“Do you ever think about us?”

“JJ, why do you want to go there?”

He looked at the grass, knowing she didn’t care to delve into the meanings and the worry. And she definitely didn’t want to hear about his jealousy.

“What’s that guy’s name? The one you’re writing the play with?”

An exaggerated sigh. “His name’s Evan. And we don’t ever work on the play. We just fuck and talk about you.”

“I knew it,” JJ said and smiled a smile that didn’t reach his eyes or heart. He knew she was joking. He wanted to believe she was teasing him. But, the fact that she would tease him at all…

“Can I be in the play?”

Lila sighed. She thought she loved this guy. They’d been together four months and it was real and deep, not like with other guys, who were just surface bullshit and image and posturing and watching sports. JJ didn’t even have a TV. “I get all my entertainment right up here,” he liked to say with a crooked smile, pointing at his head. That was the problem, though. He spent too much time up in that head, weaving problems and seeing patterns that didn’t exist. She knew she brought some light, some lightness of being, to him. But it was a struggle sometimes.

“You can’t be in the play, JJ. And I don’t want to be with anyone but you. Don’t ask again or you’ll get nothing tonight. No orchestra, no banjo, no nothing.”

JJ smiled. “I like it when you’re bossy.” Then he frowned. “What does that say about me?”

“JJ, I mean it…”

“Kidding!” He laughed and got up, pulling her up with him. They walked down the hill, away from the road, away from the trumpeter. The sound followed them down the hill. Onward Christian Soldiers was replaced by Ode to Joy and, on cue, a warm sun came out from behind the clouds. All seasons in a day here in New England. JJ took Lila’s hand and they walked into what comes next.


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Thank You, Putin


Two recurring dream segments I had growing up, one just returned last week.  Both are culminations of zany and menacing pursuit dreams, with me fleeing through forest, farm, and city.  The reasons never mattered as much as the absurd settings and hazy foes. Some of these from my life, some from history, some from the news, some from fantasy.  The chase always ended at one of two places, never both.

The first place, from my earliest dreams, has me hurrying along the edge of a newly plowed field. There is a man with a hoe and a brimmed hat working in the field, silhouetted black against a blue sky. I am in the trees, watching him, and I know what’s about to happen.  The man is working the hoe, ignoring me, until the moment he rises up and the hoe is a rifle.  He raises the gun, shoots me in the leg, and I stumble off, the chase resuming.  I usually wake soon after.  He always shoots me in the leg and I always know he’s going to do it.

But, this is not the dream segment that came back last week.

That dream segment has me running again. Same fleeting places, real and imagined. Same undefined foes. But, this time I end up on a balcony overlooking Red Square in Moscow.  Naturally, there is an NFL game going on down there where the Red Army used to march for review.  (Will probably march again.)  The Dallas Cowboys are always playing.  Don’t ask me if the quarterback was Tony Romo, Troy Aikman, or Roger Staubach.  The crowd roars and I stand where Stalin stood, where Putin stands, and watch America’s Team play forever.  I had this dream last week for the first time in maybe 30 years.  I am a child of two cataclysms of the 20th century, the Cold War and the Dallas Cowboys.

Thank you, Putin. 

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Nespresso Gran Maestria Espresso Machine, $699.95

Dear Dave is a series in which I address poor reviews of pricey consumer goods in the advice column tradition of Dear Abby or Dear Sugar.  Aren’t most online reviews a cry for help, anyway?



Dear Dave,

Wanted to love the machine, but did not last.

I was in love. Everything I wanted in a single-serve machine. I looked forward to my morning cups of delight. Then little things started happening. The heating element on the side would work sometimes, but not every time. Not a big deal. But then it stopped taking the capsules. I would put one in, attempt to start, and it would do nothing. I would have to turn it off, turn back on again, raise the top, (then dig the capsule out) and put it back in. So sad.

Decaffeinated, Portland, OR

Dear Decaffeinated,

Many people spend their entire lives avoiding an inescapable fact about relationships, chasing an illusion into middle age and beyond.  There is a honeymoon period to new relationships!  It’s all hot, rich, and strong at the beginning.  Perfect crema on a wonderful body.  And, the energy!  Then it starts to feel like a dark grind, with an aftertaste.  That perfectly roasted espresso leaves us with the jitters and lying awake at night thinking that something’s wrong with the machine.  We try to buy time, ignoring the intermittent failure of the “heating element”.  It’s no big deal, we tell ourselves.  But, Decaffeinated, did you not bring this upon yourself?  What’s with the capsules?  Do you really think you could medicate your partner into being exactly what you want?  People are not single-serve machines, put on Earth for your exclusive pleasure!  Little things can and will happen, but we don’t start noticing until the honeymoon is over.  Then we must all come to terms with the coffee breath, the jack-hammer leg twitch, the inane caffeinated babble.  You can’t just turn people on and off!  If you can’t adjust to a nice sustaining mug from Mr. or Mrs. Coffee in the morning, then you are doomed to try and replicate that espresso surge for the rest of your life, eventually casting that Gran Maestria onto the growing pile of other disappointing “machines”.  So sad.




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JJ in the 21st Century: (1989) JJ and Lila Meet at College

He first saw her across a smoke-filled dorm room.  She danced (swayed) to Eric Clapton.  They all swayed since there was no room to dance in a 12×12 double.  Who the hell could dance to Eric Clapton, anyway?  That smooth urbane angry broken-hearted Slow-hand.  “Going through your whole life miserable.  That’s no good,” thought JJ.

“Do you like her,” Brent yelled in JJ’s ear.

“Who is she?”

“Lila.  My sister.”

“What the hell is she doing here?”

“She’s checking up on me,” Brent said.  Then he fell away into the crush.  Brent was alright.  Kind of lost, smoked too much weed, missed a lot of classes.  But ok.  His sister, if she was his sister, was dancing to Cocaine with her arms above her head, her shirt hiked up a bit, showing some creamy skin and the hint of pink underwear peeking above her jeans.  JJ’s stomach did a little leap.  The glimpses, that was the thing.  Tantalizing.  He started burrowing into the crowd, towards her.

“Brent says you’re his sister.”

“Who wants to know?”

“I’m JJ,” he said and put out his hand.

Lila looked at it as if he were offering a trout.  “Let’s dance,” she said and put her arms around his neck.

“Do people still do that?”

“I do,” she said and they swayed and sweated and tried to dance to Steve Miller and the Stones.

Later, in the quiet of the stairwell.  “So, why are you here?”

“To check up on Brent,” she said.  “He’s kind of fucked up.”

“We know.  But we love him.”

“Oh, he’s lovable all right.  But that won’t last.”

They sat on the stairs, smoking Marlboros, the rumble of weekend parties and the occasional echoing cackle or shout from the floors above.

“So, you’re some kind of guardian angel?  You take care of people?”

“I worry.  I want to help,” she said and drew on the cigarette.  “We all need to help each other.”

“So, you’re a hippy.”

“Besides, I like to meet new people.”

“I’m new,” he said.  “And I need help.”

She smiled.  “Not now, you don’t.  Maybe some day.”

JJ took a half pint of Jim Beam from his pocket and took a hit.  “You want some.”

She took it and had her own little swig.  “Fire water,” she said.

“More like dirt water,” he said.  He put it back into his back pocket shifting awkwardly forward.  As he did so, Lila put her hand on the back of his head, fingers twining into his hair.  He turned and reached for her and they kissed, all Jim Beam fumes and the excitement of new lips and a whole new thing.

And, that’s how it began.


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Caso Wine Cellar, $379.95

Dear Dave is a series in which I address poor reviews of pricey consumer goods in the advice column tradition of Dear Abby or Dear Sugar.  Aren’t most online reviews a cry for help, anyway?


Dear Dave,

Terrible wine refrigerator – Beware!

I received this as a gift. What a terrible gift. If only the person who had given it to me had read other reviews of the Caso wine cellar – which are uniformly bad.
I couldn’t believe it when I attempted to put my wine into the refrigerator and discovered that most of my bottles DO NOT FIT. Somehow this is designed to hold only slim bottles.
Aside from the fact that this is totally useless because it can’t hold most of my wine bottles, the construction is shabby (the drawers are made of very cheap wood and cheaply glued together) and it’s very loud.
Avoid this wine refrigerator. It is complete junk.


Phoenix, AZ

Dear Joe,

You can waste a lot of time trying to make it work with the wrong person when it clearly DOES NOT FIT. I think (hope!) you’re talking about romantic compatibility here and not the actual physical insertion of your  bottle.  I’ll assume you’re not that crude.  Though, I must say that your complaints about her shabby appearance and loudness reveal a deep level of self-deception.  You received this Caso (Cassandra? Cassie? Casey?) as a gift?  C’mon!  I’m going to tell it like it is, Joe.  You ignored the warning signs and went for it, didn’t you?  Then you got burned and you’re trying to blame someone else.  Look back on your history with “wine refrigerators”.  How many times have you been attracted to loud and shabby construction, women barely glued together, then regretted it soon after?  What does that say about you?  Why do you not heed the bad reviews and warning signs?  Sometimes, the writing on the bathroom wall IS true.  Next time you’re in the bar checking out that blonde with the tramp stamp (from 2003!) complaining loudly about her ex getting the Nissan, say to yourself, “I know how this will end.  I’ll be the next ex and I’m better than that.”

Are you better than that, Joe?  It’s really up to you.  But, you might start by shopping in better establishments.  And, please stop referring to other human beings as “junk”.  After all, we all feel shabby and cheap sometimes.  Including you, Joe.  (By the way, Coors 40s aren’t wine bottles.)




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JJ in the 21st Century: They Descend to a Meeting


They entered the side door of St. Timothy’s, where stairs went up to the nave and down to the basement.  They descended.

“Am I supposed to stay,” Lila asked.

“You’re not leaving, either way,” JJ said.

People were milling, talking, hugging, clapping each other on the shoulder, remembering names, welcoming newcomers.  It all made JJ queasy.  The hale, hearty and healthy men.  The determined, cheerful, and dignified women.  It was horrible.  There were some sullen folk on the periphery and that’s where JJ intended to set up shop.  A huge jolly guy stepped up to them, blocking the way to the back.  “Welcome to the Plug in the Jug Group,” he said.  “I’m Big Red.”

“Jason,” JJ murmured and allowed his hand to be devoured by Big Red’s big calloused paw.  “This is Lila.”

“Terrific,” Big Red said.  “There’s some seats right down front.”

“I think we’ll stay back here.”

Big Red nodded.  “Keep that escape route open, then.  OK.  But, if I was you.  I’d sit down front to hear better.”  Then he winked at Lila and moved on to the next pigeon.

“We’re going down front,” Lila said.

“Lila, people will see us!”

“Let me get this straight, you’ll stagger to the bank, through the lobby with a shopping bag for your cash.  Then scurry out, making a scene.  But you’re afraid to be seen by some strangers trying to get sober?”

“Pretty much.”  The fact was, he had been down this path before.  Sitting near the exit didn’t only provide a physical escape route.  It also reduced the number of people who actually observed his intention to get better.  It left an opening, a gap in his commitment, just in case the program actually started to take hold.  He was afraid it might really work.

“Let’s go,” she said and took his hand.  It was all a blur to JJ as a white noise pressure rose in his head.  They sat in the front row, knees practically against the podium.  The meeting started and the chairperson said, “This is an open meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous.  All are welcome.  Is there anybody new or visiting who would like to identify themselves by first name only?”

JJ felt the old crossroads feeling.  He had been here and many other places before and had not allowed himself to make the hard turn home.  “No fuckin way,” he thought.  “No fuckin…”

“JJ, put your hand up,” Lila whispered.

“No fuckin way,” JJ said.

It was quiet as the chairperson surveyed the room for a moment.  “OK.  Then let’s…”

“My name’s Big Red and I’m an alcoholic.”

The chorus: “Hi Big Red.”  And there were some murmurs.

“Now don’t everyone get their panties all twisted up.  I didn’t drink or nothing.  And I usually don’t do this.  But, I just wanted to welcome the two newcomers down in the front row.”

JJ fought back nausea and panic.  They were now all aware of his presence amongst them.  The chairperson leaned forward over the podium.  “You don’t have to say anything,” she whispered.  “Red can be difficult sometimes.”

But Lila, his one-woman support network, his opinionated and star-crossed lover said in a clear, unembarrassed voice, “My name’s Lila and I’m visiting the group.”

The chorus:  “Hi Lila!”

And, just like that, there was no way out.  “I’m Jason and I’m an alcoholic,” he said.

They thundered, “Hi Jason!”  And then they clapped because he was so obviously hollow and raw and, freely or not, he had crossed some hurdle they all recognized as imperative to getting this thing.  They clapped, then stopped, and the meeting went on.


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JJ in the 21st Century: Lila, Determined

Lila knocked on the door but no one came.  She banged, listened, and could barely hear a mechanical hum or whine coming from inside so she just opened the door and went into the farmhouse kitchen.  A panic or dread, a sudden fear, rose up from her gut and she remembered a recent dream about something like this.  In the dream, she passed through a door and someone was dead on the floor of a kitchen.

She found him in the upstairs bathroom drying money with a hair dryer.  There were 100s spread out on the bath mat and JJ was drying them, sweeping the hair dryer back and forth.  There was a soggy heap of 100s still in the tub.  JJ was crouching in a pair of gym shorts and his pale back was to the door so Lila could just watch and take it all in.

“What are you doing?”

JJ turned off the hairdryer and looked at her.  “Drying money,” he said.  “I started to take a shower but forgot about the money bath.”

“Money bath?”

“Yeah, that’s why I went to the bank.  I didn’t have enough to fill the tub.”

“Are you drinking?”

“I was,” he said.  “I’m not now.”


“Earlier, but not now.  Listen, I’m ready to stop.  I have to stop.”

“What are you going to do about it?”

“You’re going to drive me to AA.”

“Where’s your car?”

“There was an incident.  Listen, thanks for coming but you gotta bring me tonight, before I change my mind.”

There was something almost childlike in his earnest delivery.  Like, “The tooth fairy won’t come if you don’t put it under the pillow.”  He seemed detached from what he was saying, but serious, like he didn’t want to talk about the gaunt and crazy shell of a man in the same room.  He just needed to go.  And she was his ride.

“I can do this,” she thought and hope rose in her.  “Keep your expectations low,” she thought, recalling her Al-anon friend, Maria.  “Like Death Valley low.”

“OK,” she said.  “How long ‘til the meeting?”

“Two hours,” he said.  “Help me dry this money.”

She took a deep breath.  “Leave the money, JJ.  Get dressed and we’re going.  We’ll get something to eat and then we’re going to the meeting.  I’m going downstairs now.  Clean up and then we’re going.”

JJ stared and took his own deep breath as she clomped down the stairs, on a mission.  “This won’t be easy,” he said and scooped up the soggy 100s in the tub, put them in the sink, and started the shower again.

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