With the help of Margaret Osburn’s Deepdene Writers’ Group, I’ve recently been working on the first draft of what I hope will be the third play in a trilogy. It’s called “Kitty.” The first play in the series, “Cecil Virginia, 1964,” was produced by the Baltimore Playwrights’ Festival in 1985. (Click City Paper 8/30/85 review, above). The second play, featuring Kitty’s violent husband and his male friends, titled “Joe Pete,” was produced by the BPF in August, 1999, some fourteen years after the first one. As of this date, it’s been over 16 years since play number two appeared on a local stage. Assuming I manage to finish the third play in a year or two—and assuming I’m lucky enough to have it produced—I’ll have proved that in addition to my many other theatrical limitations, I’m one very slow writer of dialogue.
“I haven’t talked about love. Or about happiness. I’ve talked about becoming—or remaining—the person who can be happy a lot of the time, without thinking that being happy is what it’s all about. It’s not. It’s about becoming the largest, most inclusive, most responsive person you can be.”
Susan Sontag, 2003 Vassar College Comm.
(Click image to enlarge.)
By Susan Middaugh
Our trip to California in July of 2016 began many months before that with some friendly negotiating.
“Where would you like to go?” I asked Jasmine.
“Los Angeles,” my granddaughter replied.
“No,” I said. “There’s very little to see and I’d have to rent a car. How about an inter-generational trip with Road Scholar or Sierra Club? I’m open as to the destination. “
“I’d rather it was just the two of us,” Jasmine said. “How about San Francisco?”
“Great, “ I said. In retrospect, this exchange – setting limits, honest communication — was to become a harbinger for our trip.
While I made our travel reservations, Jasmine agreed to draw up a list of places she wanted to visit. At the top of her must-see’s were Alcatraz, Chinatown, and a local burger chain called the In and Out.
Based on advice from travel editors at the Washington Post, we stayed at a B&B near Chinatown that was around the corner from the Powell Street cable car line. Among its attractions were a continental breakfast, afternoon tea, and Pip, the resident cat. Pip also proved to be a catalyst for our connecting with other people. Over tea and cookies that first day, we met an Asian woman who lived in Nob Hill and visited Pip regularly. Could she recommend a Chinese restaurant in the neighborhood? The Golden Dragon, she said. With directions from a helpful nail salon, we finally found the place. And when we did, Jasmine liked the fried rice and I the stir fry beef and cashews.
The B&B’s small dining room and its policy for shared tables also made it easy for us to talk with other tourists (many of them from overseas), a highlight of our trip. Among them was a young woman from Japan, on a four-day excursion to the city by the bay, who planned to do yoga in Golden Gate Park and a British couple who expressed regret about the Brexit vote and were appalled by the content, divisiveness and tone of our national election.
The manager of the B&B, originally from France, was also full of information about what buses to take, about Thai, Italian and Indonesian restaurants within walking distance (we liked the Italian one best) and which neighborhoods to avoid for reasons of personal safety.
Typical tourists in our choice of destinations, we walked across the Golden Gate Bridge on a cool windy day, visited a fortune cookie factory, bought chocolate in Ghirardelli Square and enjoyed a one-man band who fished for donations from the crowd that gathered to listen to him play on Fisherman’s Wharf.
There were also some unexpected (aren’t they always?) surprises: a church with an outdoor labyrinth, a post office in Chinatown where all of the clerks spoke Chinese and three commercial ships docked at a finger pier near the Embarcadero that were open for boarding. My Golden Eagle pass from the National Park Service enabled us to explore the three vessels for free and to learn their history.
Of course, we walked everywhere – down the crookedest street, up to Coit Tower, in search of cable cars and the ferry to Alcatraz. I’m not good at reading maps. Fortunately, Jasmine – with the help of her phone – is. We only got lost once and it was she who found our way. “The Rock” was her favorite destination. She had learned about the former prison at school and knew more about it than I – about the attempted escapes and the infamous inmates. We enjoyed touring the gardens that the prisoners had maintained and learning about the warden and corrections officer’s children who long ago had traveled to the mainland every day by ferry to attend school.
My favorite? The botanical garden which featured 12 grand pianos that anyone could play for up to 15 minutes. After listening to one impromptu concert by an Asian woman, we asked the pianist what had inspired her. She explained that her father had written the piece in 1981. She was playing his composition in tribute to his memory.
Downtime was also part of our trip. We waited – to ride the cable cars (at least 45 minutes each trip), for the ferryboat to Alcatraz and for the planetarium show to begin at the California Academy of Sciences. We waited for our food at the burger joint and at other restaurants that seemed to attract every parent and child within 50 miles. San Francisco in July was definitely fun, the weather was pleasantly cool (50s and 60s), but it was also an exercise in patience.
At one point, though, my usual calm crumbled. It wasn’t the city. It was Jasmine’s ever present phone which she tapped and clicked everywhere we went. At first I hesitated about saying anything. After all, we were on vacation. The problem, I told myself, was generational. I have a very basic cell phone, which I use infrequently. Jasmine was doing what other kids her age do every day of their lives. Still I felt excluded. Finally I told her that. Jasmine was very apologetic. She wasn’t texting, she said, she was taking pictures. Then how about sharing them with me? I said. We can talk about them. So we reached a compromise. Jasmine agreed to keep her phone in her pocket during meals. From then on, we got along fine, the occasional silence included.
At the end of the trip, when I asked her what she had learned about herself, Jasmine said, “I don’t like walking.” I laughed.
And what did she learn about me? “You have more energy than I do.”
Jasmine is 14. I am 69. That will change of course, but I hope we will always enjoy one another’s company.
Copyright © 2016 Susan Middaugh.
Susan Middaugh’s work has appeared in the Christian Science Monitor, the Baltimore Sun and on the website New-Works.org. Susan is also a playwright with short and full length works produced in the United States, Canada and England. The One Act Play Depot in Canada has published her short play, Such Good Neighbors. Several of her personal essays have appeared on this blog.
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A Bat Tale from Poe and Me
“It was night, and the rain fell; and falling, it was rain, but, having fallen, it was blood.”
Well, not exactly, but I hope I now have your attention.
On a mid-August night this year, August 15, 2016, in fact, a fierce and sudden thunderstorm broke loose as I drove the four blocks home from the Giant food market, my thirteen-year-old Chevy wincing under squalls of violent wind and heavy rain. I parked outside my home and waited in dread: was death more certain if I sat in my car (under an 80 year old sycamore whose branches sometimes fall in storms) or if I ran into the house (across my porch, whose ornamental iron fencing was sure to attract a lightning bolt)?
So, yes, “there are moments when, even to the sober eye of Reason, the world of our sad Humanity may assume the semblance of a Hell.”  In this particular hellish moment, I decided to make a run for it, from car to porch in the driving rain, as my heart beat wildly—and, I hoped, not for the last few times. Fingers clutching my house key, my body shaking at the encircling bolts of lightning and claps of thunder, battered by a strong wind from the north, I unlocked the heavy oaken door. And was blown inside.
As I entered, I felt a spooky, indeed ungodly, flutter of wind above and around me. Scenes of Young Frankenstein (Marty Feldman’s Igor, in particular) flitted through my mind, but I put those aside. Enter I did and happy I was, finally safe in my sturdy little home. I put away the groceries and, after that, enjoyed an extended phone talk with my daughter-in-law. I then turned off the large lamp, leaving on only a small one, and turned on the television, wanting to find Rachel Maddow defending all things good and right, a beacon of hope on this stormy night. As I did, a flutter appeared at the very edge of my vision, indeed at its outermost edge. Was there a large black moth in the room, or did I just imagine it? Or was it something else? Was there something—or was there nothing? Stay with me here, reader. “Nervous — very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad?”
Within the space of no more than ten seconds, I saw that flutter turn into a broadly winged creature: a bat! (So that was the spooky movement I’d felt above me as I’d entered the house! The flimsy creature was blown inside, as was I, both victims of an evil storm.) It fluttered near, then disappeared, then fluttered back again, and disappeared again, into the unlit back rooms of the house. “Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there, wondering, fearing/Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before,“ so I grabbed a large broom and opened the front door, because I’d heard that was the way to purge one’s home of bats. But it was not to be. Once I even thought the accursed creature had left, so I closed and bolted the door, only to find it dipping and soaring around me a few seconds later. I was becoming quite agitated, and even may have cried out: “Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my door!” But predictably, “quoth the raven, bat, ‘Nevermore.’ “ 
Surely a call to my sister in California would help, I thought (because “the ingenious man person is often remarkably incapable of analysis” ), so I dialed her up and told her my story. Alas! Its telling was interrupted by my repeated shrieks, as the bat looped around me, its trumpery and deplorable self constantly mocking me. At times I could even hear a humiliating chuckle emanate from its mouth. All this and more I bore that despicable night. “The thousand insults of Fortunato the bat I had borne as best I could, but when he ventured upon insult I swore revenge.”  I decided it was time to call out the cavalry: I would call 911! So I said good night to my sister. This next call would surely save me: Nine. One. One.
Me: “There’s a bat in my house and I can’t get it out. Could you send firemen out to remove it?” Visions of First Responders courageously rushing to my doorstep, bringing survival for me and death for the monstrous creature, filled my deteriorating mind; I could almost “Hear the loud alarum bells/Brazen bells!/ What a tale of terror, now, their turbulency tells!”
911 Operator: “Firemen? Absolutely not. They don’t do that. I’ll send out a police officer.” (?) And she did. Not one but two. It was 10:30 p.m. by now, close to the end of their shift, and evidently, though I live in Baltimore, they had time on their hands. We talked and joked; I offered them coffee; we even looked for the bat sometimes, but never did we see it. Their visit was a nice relief, but pointless—except that one of them suggested I call City Animal Control the next day, because they were closed at that time. (I would learn later that Animal Control was on duty 24/7 and should have been sent to my house that night by the 911 Operator.)
That was all on Monday. On Tuesday I called Animal Control. A nice man showed up, rather quickly, bearing a large net and an air of confidence, but the bat was in full hiding mode. Yet it flaunted to me its continued existence by leaving its “droppings” for the next two nights (yes, they look like mouse droppings). I slept uneasily each night, and the stress started to mount. Friends kept me company; some brought me nets and hats to wear, others (tall ones) came to search for the bat in the higher regions of my cupboards and windows. But little did it help and shockingly, “I grew, day by day, more moody, more irritable, more regardless of the feelings of others. I suffered myself to use intemperate language.”  (This was not me!) On Wednesday, the Baltimore City Health Department (alerted by Animal Control) called to say I must run, not walk, to the nearest hospital E.R. to start a series of rabies shots, for “you’ve been living with a bat for three days!” My own primary care physician also insisted—and so, reluctantly, I started the shots. It was the week from hell, as I rotated trips to the hospital with trips home, where I donned a large-brimmed hat and clutched wooden tennis rackets (all hurriedly acquired at Goodwill—see accompanying photo). Verily it must be said that increasingly “I became insane, with long intervals of horrible sanity.” 
Friends helped a great deal, in fact two of them insisted I not sleep at home and invited me to stay with them, which I did. But, sadly, once I overheard one saying to the other: “I was cautious in what I said before the young lady; for I could not be sure that she was sane; and in fact, there was a certain restless brilliancy about her eyes which half led me to imagine she was not.” (I told myself this “restless brilliancy” might be blamed on the rabies shots, but even I doubted that.) Things got worse as the universe began to conspire against me and for the bat. Whenever I turned on the t.v., there were bat movies on the screen. Whenever I answered the phone, friends and relatives reported unending stories of bats: bats in washing machines in Pittsburgh; bat bites in bedrooms in Baltimore and apartments in Texas; bat infestations in colonial homes in Connecticut; a bat birth in a bath tub in Belfast, Maine. Bat. Bat. Bat.
It was all becoming too much, so that “then there stole into my fancy, like a rich musical note, the thought of what sweet rest there must be in the grave.” I have been able to reject that thought so far, ever hopeful that truth and goodness still exist (cf., Rachel Maddow), even in the midst of the 2016 American presidential campaign, wherein I have seen a Creature infinitely worse than any bat. It is now mid-October, and the bat has never been spotted again. Assuredly, I will find its dried-out corpse some day behind a major appliance or in a corner of my moldy cellar, next to the case of Amontillado. Gradually, hope and confidence have re-emerged in me, for I remind myself that “all that we see or seem is but a dream within a dream,” but dream or not, Hillary will crush The Donald.
And as “literature is the most noble of professions . . . and there is no seducing me from the path,” I hope you’ve enjoyed this bat tale wrought by a four-handed monster: Poe and me.
 Edgar Allan Poe, “Silence – A Fable”  Poe, “The Premature Burial”  Poe, “The Tell-Tale Heart”  Poe, “The Raven”  Poe, “The Raven”  Poe, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”  Poe, “The Cask of Amontillado”  Poe, “The Bells”  Poe, “The Black Cat”  Poe, Letter to G.W. Eveleth, 1848  Poe, “The System of Dr. Tarr and Prof. Fether”  Bats are excellent for the environment, but not in my house!  Poe, “The Pit and the Pendulum”  Poe, “A Dream within a Dream” (poem)  Poe, Letter to F.W. Thomas, 1849
Copyright © 2016 Jo-Ann Pilardi.
Jo-Ann Pilardi is retired from Towson University where she taught Philosophy and Women’s Studies for 38 years. A working-class Italian from Pittsburgh, she moved to Baltimore in 1969 and was active in women’s movement groups through the 1970s. Currently, she teaches for TU’s Osher Institute, reads and writes, gardens, travels, and studies jazz piano.
The Physics of Pumpkins
By Florence Newman
Copyright © 2016, Florence Newman
By Catherine Bruce
Copyright © 2016 Catherine Bruce.
By Florence Newman
My twenty-five-year-old nephew James, who lives in Olympia, Washington, had never been to nearby Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge, so while I was visiting him in August, we drove out to walk the Estuary Trail and see what there was to see. Part of the refuge had previously been a farm: Farmer Brown (yes, really) had drained the land for cultivation by building dikes to keep out the waters of Puget Sound. In 2009, the dikes were torn down, allowing the brackish water to seep back in and creating a variety of natural habitats.
As we walked the out-and-back trail, we passed through grassland, marsh, and finally a barren waste of mud and shallow pools, punctuated by dead trees, their branches bone white and stretched sideways and skyward, like half-sunk skeletons imploring aid. James said the scene reminded him of a World War I battlefield. I had been thinking of Tolkien’s Mordor or the Dead Marshes, which were said to have been inspired by the author’s experience in the Great War, so we were on the same page, sort of. The last, long portion of the trail was a boardwalk supported by pilings out over the muck, and along it were interpretive placards, picturing and describing the different bird species we’d be likely to spot around us. With my aging vision, I wasn’t seeing much of anything, except for some distant grey blots that could have been geese.
At lunch earlier, James and I had been talking about Pokémon Go, the online game that is all the rage, where players use their smartphones to view and “capture” virtual creatures that pop up in assorted locations chosen by the game’s programmers, often local landmarks or public buildings. On a whim, I said, “I wonder if there are any Pokémon out here.” “I’ll check,” said James, pulling out his phone. After a few seconds, he smiled. “You know that placard back there, the one about the ducks? Well, there was a Flibbertigibbet sitting on it” (he didn’t say Flibbertigibbet, of course, but one of those equally silly made-up names given to the range of Pokémon characters). Maybe the Pokémon Go phenomenon is a good thing, if it gets people—especially young people—off their duffs and into the great outdoors. Still, the game makes unreal beings appear in places they don’t actually exist. That’s assuming one has the right equipment—a smartphone—to see them. Why hunt for something that isn’t there?
Towards the end of the boardwalk, little rivulets of tidewater from the Sound began to meander among the muddy plateaus, and the boardwalk itself curved closer to a spruce-covered shore, before ending in an octagonal pavilion looking out toward Puget Sound. Our surroundings started to seem less of a dead zone and more of a living realm, with ducks that paddled amid the moving glitter of sunlit streams and with a Great Blue Heron (finally a bird I could identify!) stalking minnows in the shoals, its shoulders hunched about its head in that way that always reminds me of Richard Nixon.
The pavilion had more interpretive placards explaining what could be seen in each direction and a big metal telescope affixed to the floor and meant to rotate, although it did so grudgingly and only within a limited range. For me, the device merely made blurry images blurrier. I was embarrassed to admit to James how few kinds of birds I could see, here in the beating heart of the wildlife sanctuary: with his keen young eyes he was no doubt taking in all those terns and teals that the placards told us were out there.
We were still at the gazebo, me squinting hopelessly first one way and then the other, when a group of guys approached down the boardwalk. There were four of them, middle-age men dressed in greens and browns—one of them in a khaki kilt, of all things, showing his hairy legs—and they were strapped and belted with gear, satchels and leather sheaths and binoculars. Best of all, however, they were carrying tripods that, when unfolded, turned out to be telescopes. Birdwatchers! They were truly Serious Birders, as became obvious as they immediately began ticking off the names of species as they sighted them—“Caspian terns on the left,” “A pair of dunlins,” “Sandpipers, mostly Western, but a few Leasts”—all in a casual, matter-of-fact tone (Serious Birders apparently don’t squeal and and jump up and down when they identify a specimen, at least not in the presence of other Serious Birders). I still wasn’t seeing much, but now I had a better idea of where to look.
One of the birdwatchers, the bearded one, mentioned an abandoned eagles’ nest on the forested shore. I must have blurted out, “Oh! Where?,” because the next minute he was pointing out which spruce and which side and which branch. When I remained oblivious, he trained his telescope on the nest and had me look through the scope at the ragged platform of interlaced sticks and tree limbs balanced high up in the spruce. The birder informed me sagely that the young eagles had fledged and flown some weeks earlier, and ( just to prove I wasn’t a complete idiot) I ventured a comment about the two bald eagles (George and Martha) that frequent our property on the Chesapeake Bay. Soon another of the men was showing James through his telescope an osprey perched on a stump at the edge of the Sound. Afterwards, I got my chance, standing on my tippy-toes so that he wouldn’t have to lower the scope to my child-like height. As I did so, I noticed a cell phone attached over the telescope’s lens, allowing him to take digital photos of what appeared, capturing proof that he’d really seen a bird when he added its name to his Serious Birder’s Life List.
Another party was making its way out the boardwalk toward the pavilion, this one including some actual children, so I suggested to James that it was probably time for us to be heading home. As we put the broad expanse of the estuary behind us—terns, teals, dunlins, osprey and all—I considered how lucky we were that those knowledgeable and generous birdwatchers had come along when they did. Another thought struck me: There could be real beings—in this case, real birds—existing in a particular place but not immediately apparent unless one has the right equipment—a functional telescope—to see them. What to call this phenomenon? Reverse Pokémon Go, maybe.
Florence Newman is professor emerita at Towson University, where she taught in the English Department for 27 years. A specialist in Middle English literature, she has published and delivered conference papers on Chaucer, the Gawain-Poet, and medieval women writers. She grew up in Blacksburg, Va., reading books in her parents’ library and eating strawberries from her grandfather’s garden. She currently lives with her husband in Towson, Md., escapes occasionally to their farm on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, and travels farther afield when time, energy, and finances permit.