“The Reading” – Improptu Poem

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“It’s like we’re on

a train,” someone says.

There is four feet

of thin worn carpet

in the northernmost aisle

of this narrow bookstore

Where the local poet,

A published, prolific professor,

Prepares a Power Point

presentation prior to performing.

~Those P’s wrote themselves~

In this single aisle,

A woman has collected

seven seats, six stools

to serve as satisfactory

sitting options squarely secured

~Those S’s were stretches~

for the incoming anonymous

manifest of friends, colleagues

who conduct themselves like

strangers or companions on

a metropolitan commute or

lengthy return to relatives

whom they see less

and less each year.

We’re trained from youth

to be still, civil,

engineered from our childhood

to be polite. Always.

As the bookshop’s car

fills with late arrivals,

We shed our layers

and peel away ourselves

To become more comfortable.

And those who arrive

before the poet’s departure

from real life realize

that they are suddenly

seatless. They’ll see less

with coats draped over

their arms like towels

or plain white bedsheets

that danced in backyards

of our grandparents’ youth.

Prologue to This Journey

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*Note: I’m moving the material from my Google Pages Blog to this blog. It turns out that it’s senseless to attempt to maintain two types of blogs.

February 20, 2018

I’m struggling already with the best way to start.  This is the exact issue I discuss with my students and their writing assignments.  “Don’t worry about how it begins yet,” I say. “Write the body first.” That might be useful for formal academic writing, but this is not exactly that style of prose.  No. I’ll be posting a lot about teaching, I’m sure, but this blog is meant to be about my decision to begin a doctoral program at the age of forty-two.

So, here’s the background that I feel is relevant.  No names have been changed, as far as you know. I finished my bachelor’s in December of 1998 and began teaching in a public school in August of the following year.  For a couple years, that was my life. I got married somewhere in the middle, but that’s for another discussion. I began a master’s degree in 2001 or 2002 and eventually finished in December of 2007.  Near the end of my coursework, I took a class on American drama with [unnamed professor]. He was one of the best instructors I ever had, but one evening–I think prior to our two-hour discussion and evaluation of A Streetcar Named Desire–he answered a classmate’s inquiry about her consideration of applying for a Ph. D.

“Why the hell would anyone want to get their Ph. D. in literature these days?” he scoffed.  

Scoffed.  Yes. He was a scoffer.  

I can never know if his voice inflection was meant to be advisory, sarcastic, or some confusing combination.  I will tell you, famous reader, that I took it to my aortic pump.

Mentally, I shut down the notion of a doctoral program around that time of my life.  I was inching toward completing the master’s, anticipating a meager raise, and was set–at 28 or 29–to do the same job at the same school for the next thirty to forty years.

The question I ask myself now is, “Why the hell would I not seek out a Ph. D. in literature?”

You may be reading this and you can hear my voice in it.  You know me, and you know how much I truly loved Shakamak, even though, like any school or job, it had its flaws.  But my time was done there. I taught for seventeen years, and I cannot continue typing without reminding myself and informing you that they were the school that chose me.  They started my career.

 

[Activity 2] “The Hell is This?”

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The following is just Steps 1 and 2 from the previous writing activity. We did this in my graduate fiction writing workshop this week (Jan. 16, 2019).  Here’s what I came up with in my 5 minutes:


Shiny. That’s what drew me close. And as I approached it, my own image enlarged – me walking, reaching toward my own outstretched hand. Two gaping depths at the top. My investigative fingers soon found sharp metal strips along the inside. I withdrew them and peered in to discover thick metal rods–one in each slot, parallel to the tabletop.  Carefully, I dip my fingers in again to learn that each rod is bouncy. I turn the reflective round box and find a black spindle encircled with miniature lines and symbols.  Finally, I see a lever on the side’s center, which I learn enables me to lower the metal rods inside to a locked position.

Story Construction Idea

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Here’s something that came up just yesterday in my Creative Writing class.

  1. create a list of 12-15 objects found around the house (no humans or animals, preferably)
  2. choose one and write for five minutes describing the object as if you’ve never seen it before.
  3. Create a list of themes from books, stories, poems, movies, and TV shows that appeal to you  (e.g. love conquers all, coming-of-age, good over evil; empathy; challenges of prejudice, etc.)
  4. Now, brainstorm a potential plot by beginning with a theme and including the chosen object for #2 as a symbol

Example:

household item – mousetrap

theme – value of integrity

Plot idea – a nervous boy wants to try out for the HS football team but knows he’s likely to be bullied by bigger, stronger kids.  After being victimized, he places a bunch of mousetraps throughout the locker room to get back at them.

options—the plan fails but he’s not found out;  the plan fails and he’s eventually caught; the play succeeds but the other boys don’t change; the plan succeeds but the boy is caught and expelled for bullying/attacking his classmates…

I don’t know…but it’s something, right?

 

Being Photographed (Flash Nonfiction)

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In the mid-1980s, my grandmother encouraged my brother and mother to accompany her to her church service each Sunday morning, and my older brother and I stretched our imaginations wider than ever in constructing a reason for us not to attend, especially once we both reached double-digit ages. In the fall, the church would invited families to have a portrait taken for the upcoming year’s membership book. For normal families, dressing up on a random Tuesday night and driving to church for a photograph is more than likely a relatively simple feat. My brother and I, however, were unfamiliar with that level of normalcy.

I can remember waiting in line from the middle of the building to where the photographer had set up camp in a partitioned-off segment of a rec room on the west side of the church. This room was usually reserved for adult Bible study meetings (which my mom attended, I’m now convinced, strictly to award herself sixty full minutes of being free from her sons’ constant irritations) and the annual Christmas tree decoration stations led by adult members of the church who had accumulated a seemingly endless amount of pipe cleaners and cotton balls. Any other time, the partition boards were squeezed off to the sides, leaving only long metal coat racks that lined the perimeter of the room. Anyway, while in line, my brother became restless after about seventeen seconds, so, contrary to our mother and grandmother’s wishes to “shush” or “just be still”, he filled the void by creating reasons to make me laugh. No specific joke or comment comes to mind, but I want to say the range varied from an unknown member’s loud outfit or obscene use of perfume to corny puns that a lot of nine-year-olds think are hilarious (e.g. “Steve, I don’t think that jacket suits him.”)  These jokes would build and build as we eased closer to the threshold of the makeshift studio. The photographer was always a bespectacled man who by the time we reached him had begun sweating, draped his blazer over a chair, and kept over-smiling, apparently to negate the stress of his job. Simple instructions such as “Face to the left” or “Chin up” were far more than I could handle by that point as well. Any reference to turning my cheeks forced my brother to remind me that the shaky photographer meant the ones on my face. What should have been about a hundred seconds of standing and smiling toward the camera became nine or ten minutes of me struggling to compose myself and my mother silently developing innovative methods to beat the hell out of us on the walk back to the car. Every year for about half a decade, she rightfully announced it was the last year we were doing pictures.

Last month, in the middle of a stuffy mall, my own family spent two solid hours from the moment we joined the Santa line to when the apathetic teen handed over our incredibly overpriced photograph. I’ll never not think about the church photos when we take professional pictures, and I’m sure if my mom is reading this that she’ll smile and say something about paybacks.

[Activity 1] “Snoopy and Maker’s”

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Every year the faceless family south of us erected over-sized inflatable holiday decorations, killing perfectly good grass and lowering property values in our entire ZIP code, Dad would say. Mom’d say let ’em be and Jeremy always announced that this would be the year he’d puncture and steal them in the night. I’d never invite boys over until well into spring when only a yellow patch of land proved they’d been stored in their backyard shed. Dad would drink Maker’s more each time a boy held out his shaky hand to introduce himself the way Mom had taught him only seconds earlier in our narrow kitchen that always seemed to have a burned-out bulb.

When our twins were old enough to get wide-eyed at electric decorations, they’d gawk at the twenty-foot Snoopy snow globe next door, but Frank would just ride the brakes and hum along with Deano. The year Jeremy got released on Christmas Eve, he pulled Frank aside to tell him jail was better than marriage while the girls dressed Ken in Barbie’s outfits and Mom hovered over them with a bit lip as she struggled to open another bottle of Maker’s.

[This was inspired by George Saunders’ “The Sticks”, a flash fiction piece we discussed on Jan. 9, 2019 in my graduate fiction writing workshop class.]

“Plenty Daddies”: Parenting in Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones

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In a novel where the looming devastation of Hurricane Katrina serves as only a backdrop to the story, Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones addresses a bevy of congealing themes while simultaneously targeting specific audiences.  Though the central teenage character’s pregnancy serves as the main arc of the entire plot, the most significant character in the novel has been dead for a number of years.  Salvage the Bones addresses the impact of the loss of a mother, which can be analyzed through two distinct situations: the fallout at the basketball tryout and Esch’s own resolution of what is best for her baby.  This void reemphasizes the cornerstone of Hortense Spillers’ conclusion in “Mama’s Baby; Papa’s Maybe”–that Black women are far more responsible for the trajectory of American civilization than that for which they are credited.  

Randall, the eldest Batiste child, has developed his skills in basketball over the years and is on the brink of becoming eligible to attend a lucrative basketball camp.  This is symbolic of his potential to contribute to the family in the way a traditional parent might. Without a mother around to complement the care their father has provided, Randall, Skeetah, and Esch have each played a maternal role for Junior, the youngest, since his birth.  During one of the most chaotic scenes of the entire novel, however, Randall’s dreams are immediately shredded due to an outburst between Skeetah and a rival dog owner named Rico. These chief dog owners have clearly different opinions of who should retain any of the litter and when any pups can be dispersed.  While Skeetah appears to have a deeper understanding of the developmental phases of newborn puppies, he also fabricates information about the pups and omits the pup he wants the most when he’s itemizing the living ones for Rico.  Though this may appear to be a selfish act, Ward is characterizing Skeetah as the best possible parent for these pups.

Skeetah’s pride and immaturity–traits that perhaps a mother would have monitored and corrected throughout adolescence–led to the impromptu fistfight which, in turn, resulted in Randall’s dismissal from the tryout.  Ward indirectly suggests here that, had his mother been one of the parents who was in attendance that afternoon, perhaps this spout between Skeetah and Rico would have either been stifled. Though their mother’s existence is only mentioned through Esch’s memories, any reader can conclude that she would not have tolerated such behavior in general–and certainly not on a crucial day as this was.

Additionally, the fact that the narrator’s mother passed after giving birth to Junior is an obvious parallel to Esch’s own insecurities about the fate of the baby she learns she will be having early in the book. As the only remaining female on ‘The Pit’, Esch has taken on more responsibilities, notably of feeding and caring for the only younger brother she has. Interestingly, Ward does not portray her promiscuity in an overtly critical manner, a choice that progressively diminishes the long-standing stigma of young women engaging in sexual activity prior to being betrothed.  Throughout the novel, Esch is weighing the potential outcomes of revealing her pregnancy to her family and the baby’s father. While Ward portrays Manny as someone who has sex appeal, she also uses him to exemplify the predatory sex-driven male whose selfish desires will always outweigh the needs of others. When juxtaposed beside much more honorary men in her life like Big Henry, Esch does not settle, predicting that including Manny in her child’s life will only limit that child’s development. Specifically, the culminating moment occurs when Big Henry asks Esch for the father’s identity but is told “[i]t don’t have a daddy” (254). Big Henry lives up to his moniker by expressing to the frightened young mother-to-be “This baby got plenty of daddies” (255).  Ward shows here that a love is what raises children, not necessarily humans. This progressive notion of a woman and her child being better off without a biological parent as a parental figure has roots in all feminism–especially Black feminism.

These two scenes–Randall’s failed attempt to earn a basketball camp scholarship and Esch’s final decision to keep the baby and not include Manny as the part of the baby’s life–parallel the constant theme of the role a parent that echo the tenets of recent Black literary movements and positions.

 

Subconsciously Selfish: Motherhood in Part One of Nella Larsen’s ‘Passing’ (1929)

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In an era that was bursting with independent thought and expression, at least one Harlem Renaissance author designed a story that balances the past and present for women of African descent who have immersed themselves into white culture and are cultivating a new lifestyle in the process.  For a novel so rich in exposing racial inequalities and the personal hardships of women whose core identity has become buried due to social pressures, Nella Larsen’s Passing–specifically, the details also exhibits how some African-American women in the early twentieth century were selfishly shedding a notably natural, maternal bond with their own children and redirecting their attention to advancing their own social status and reputation.  

Throughout the novel, Irene and Clare exchange a series of perspectives on their lives, their pasts, and their outlooks.  Interestingly, however, their children are commonly mentioned only as afterthoughts during these talks. The theme of selfishness presents itself just before a previous meeting between the two main characters is detailed.  In the opening flashback of this first encounter after twelve years, Irene is trying to gather some gifts she’d promised to get for her two sons while she was in Chicago and they were at summer camp. This detail doesn’t need to be unpacked too deeply because children being sent to camp is not necessarily a selfish act on the mother’s part.  What is bizarre and revealing about this moment in the story is how Irene, after failing to find her son a specific book, witnesses a stranger who “toppled over and became an inert crumpled head on the scorching cement” (1083). While not everyone is trained to address the needs of someone who might have fainted from heat exhaustion, Irene reveals a lot about herself by simply walking on and seeking out a tea to help her relax.  After taking a second cup of tea on the roof of the Drayton, she eventually remembers her unfulfilled promise to her son and compares his desire for a specific drawing-book to her husband’s desire for “invariably [wanting] something that was difficult or impossible to get” (1083). Irene is clearly burdened by her son’s wishes, which shows a disconnect between mother and son that was not commonly exhibited in the works of female authors prior to Larsen.  

Once Irene and Clare reunite in the flashback, their conversation focuses on the past at first.  This information clearly adds depth to the relationship between the two characters, but there is one notable absence from their initial exchange: neither one thinks to ask the other about their own family right away.  Conversation styles differ among all people and within all eras; however, it seems rather unnatural for each woman to offer information about their children so deep into their conversation. In fact, Larsen’s own description of Irene’s references to her son are mixed within a slew of other life events.  The reader is left wondering if Larsen herself believes children to be just as insignificant as her own character does.

Specifically, Irene displays a gaudy amount of selfishness shortly after sharing her life over the last twelve years with Clare.  Even though “Clare drank it all in,” Irene does not reciprocate by politely asking about her old friend’s family and life; in fact, she “had a very definite unwillingness to do so” (1088).  Before Irene departs, however, Clare has the opportunity to wedge her daughter’s name into the conversation, though she is forced to use the ten-year-old as incentive for a second meeting with Irene (1089).  During their second, even shorter, encounter, Clare mentions her daughter again, though the daughter is away at a lake with other children. This anecdote continues the unprecedented theme of detached motherhood.  Other critics might suggest that there is a clear parallel between the adult women characters consciously allowing their children to build their sense of independence while subconsciously struggling with their own, which is a challenge for all parents regardless of role or gender.  However, I posit that these women have never truly be invested in their children’s lives or success. Lacking within the descriptions of either woman is a longing to be reunited with their children. Neither one loses track of their busy social schedules because they are deep in reminiscence about holding their babies, nursing them, or teaching them anything.  The children–really, their absence–emerges as a symbol of each woman’s selfishness. Here, Larsen is signaling a significant change of motherhood in the black community by presenting characters of higher social status.

Before the end of part one, the final, damning encounter that summarizes this apathy toward children involves a guest of Clare’s named Gertrude Martin.  These women all knew one another from their youth, and they are sharing experiences about “passing”. The seemingly harmless exchange about gender preference for their newborns catapults rather unexpectedly after Gertrude mentions that her husband had wanted a girl.  Clare, drink in hand, states to the group that she’s “afraid” to have any more children because she “nearly died of terror the whole nine months before Margery was born for fear that [the baby] might be dark” (1096). Unlike before, this single line demands to be unpacked.  

Gertrude and Clare, the two women who have “passed” into the white mainstream of American, support one another’s thoughts about how frightful it is to bring a baby into the world because, as “passers”, there is an apparent risk of the child’s skin tone being dark. This fear of the child being dark-complected is an obvious reference to the overt challenges for blacks that they have heard about, witnessed, and projected for the future.  Embedded within that, however, is a stunning amount of shame that was not found in the literature from earlier women writers of African descent. Notably, Irene counters this shame by announcing to the group, “One of my boys is dark” (1097). To sidestep any tension, Clare says that “coloured people…are too silly about some things” and switches the focus to “deserters like [her]” and a former associate named Claude Jones (1097).

This redirection suggests that Clare is well aware of how women within the black community have varying opinions on the future of their race.  It seems, however, that the dominating theme among this novel is that children who enter the world as dark have will have a lifetime filled with strain and disappointment, which is incredibly heartbreaking, yet believable at the same time.

Tom and Thom’s Christmas Songs and Stories – A Review (Dec. 2018)

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Thirty-seven years ago, First Presbyterian Theater Managing Artistic Director Thom Hofrichter met Tom Didier when they performed Of Mice and Men at the Fort Wayne Civic Theater.  These two friends are now currently starring in an original performance that combines their talent and creativity as they, along with local pianist Tommy Saul, deliver a holiday-themed series of songs, stories, and surprises that celebrate the season.

Didier is a Fort Wayne theater regular with several appearances at the Civic Theatre under his belt, but this is his First Presbyterian Theater debut. Fort Wayne native Saul graduated from Bishop Luers High School and has amassed an impressive  résumé that includes being the resident music director for Three Rivers Music Theatre. Director Hofrichter is completing his 22nd year in his role with the FPT this month. Regular FPT theatergoers are no doubt familiar with Hofricther’s distinct delivery, humor, and directorial standards, and this performance does not disappoint.

.   With festive decorations as a backdrop, the “Tom, Thom, and Tommy Show” is split into two distinct acts, which Hofrichter identifies in his director’s notes as the secular and the spiritual, respectively. The opening series of passages provides a delightful soundtrack of popular songs and stories that audience members are sure to recognize. While Saul remains fixed at the keyboard, Didier and Hofrichter perform solos and duets with engaging renditions of classics such as “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”  On his own, Didier stretches from crooner to rocker with exuberant versions of yuletide tunes such as “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” and “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.” Hofrichter intercedes the tunes with dramatic readings from classic Christmas tales by Charles Dickens and Clement Clarke Moore, the author of “The Night Before Christmas.” One of the most stirring portions of the opening act is a mixed-genre interpretation of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” which features Didier and Hofricter offering character-driven vignettes that connect with the theme of the classic song. This was a lovely segue into the second act due to its personal approach.  As the saying goes, this part alone is worth the price of admission by itself.

Hofrichter also notes in the program–and emphasizes to the audience prior to the brief intermission–that the second act is devoted to the heralded “true meaning of Christmas.”  Through poignant slivers of significant verses from the Bible, Hofrichter and Didier bookend the stage with spoken-word and musical companionship to the story of the birth of Christ.  Magically weaved into the original script is a connectivity of this beautiful theme to all viewers, regardless of their individual religious foundation. In other words, there is a distinct sense of humanity embedded in the second act.

Throughout the entire performance, viewers are likely to recall personal memories of the holiday season and reflect on the significance of those memories. The value of attending a review such as this has the same majestic power as all theater has: the opportunity to connect the performance to our own lives. Perhaps in the same was as Ebenezer Scrooge was, we are afforded the opportunity to view our pasts and re-experience those joyous innocent days of childhood when we first learned about the holiday.  With a balanced series of playful, heartbreaking, and spiritual songs and stories, this review is the perfect holiday season experience for audiences of all ages.

Nanowrimo – Warm-up Day 9

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Tues. 10/23 Day 9 – 900 words two or three “super-short” stories (I have 3 separate stories below)

The flyswatter was in the kitchen, hanging on a hook he thought he’d put there for oven mitts–hot pads, his wife called them.  The book he was reading in his lap was for graduate school, but this fly in the room could care less if Tommy’s paper was done on time.   Swoosh. Land. Fly near face. Scatter toward TV. Read a paragraph. It’s back. On page 62. The book is over two hundred pages long and the fly hates it almost as much as Tommy does.  Getting up, retrieving the death device, seemed like it would interrupt his reading flow even more. Then, Tommy considered if he was hungry. If he’s hungry, he won’t be able to concentrate on the book.  He’ll read a few pages, swat the fly away again, come across a word like ‘souffle’ or ‘tapioca’ or ‘whisky’ and think of reasons he should probably just get up and go to the kitchen. Get the damn flyswatter.  End this fucker’s life. Pour two fingers of Jameson. Try to get through this atrocious, pretentious novel. A dog barks outside. He thinks it’s Jasper, their mutt, but then he remembers that he had to bury Jasper two springs ago while his wife Dana cried in the bathroom over their divorce papers.  

—-

Barney ordered his coffee and didn’t move out of the way for the next customer.  He just stood there, staring at a picture he’d been sent on his phone. The cashier talked over his shoulder, assuming he’d click back into humandom and move the fuck over.  He didn’t. The woman behind him was kind and almost too polite to make the person behind her upset that this is not what society has become, is it? Minor acts of civility and manners fall off each day–today from this jackhole who’s too busy looking at his five-inch screen with hair screaming out from under a baseball cap.  The second customer takes the longest possible path to avoid Barney and waits patiently near the area underneath the large Pick-Up/App Orders Here sign.

But no one but Barney knows what the picture is.  No one cares either. Even if he explained. It was her calf.  It was Lindsey’s calf, surrounded by gray bed sheets that he remembered buying for his sister Marie.  Of course, when Lindsey didn’t come home, he assumed she’d stay with someone. She’d stopped texting at eleven or so, and he went to sleep.  But the fact that she ended up at his adopted sister’s apartment across town made him wonder for the next forty years if his lesbian sister screwed his wife and proudly sent him evidence of it while he stood, waiting dumbly for his white chocolate latte with skim milk.

—-

So my neighbor knocked on my door seconds after I settled a fight between my two children that began when one of them threw spaghetti noodles at the other’s face.  Gina, collected as always, discussed appropriate behavior with them in her authoritative voice while I stuffed meatball after meatball in my mouth so I wouldn’t blow up.  She doesn’t like it when I yell at them; she thinks it sends them the wrong message about maturity. Instead of saying or doing anything, I just washed the one-inch think, canned-sauce-slathered meat spheres down with a Michelob Ultra, a beer my wife thinks will help me lose weight.

I answered the door and Dave, my neighbor of ten years and friend of five months, stood there with his hands linked together.  He wore a plaid shirt that was tucked into pleated tan pants. He’d probably just arrived home from his job at the high school my kids were destined to attend.  “Hey, Rick,” he said as I pushed open the squeaky screen door. I eased out after he backed up a step. “Didn’t interrupt dinner, did I?”

“Just finishing.  What’s up?”

“Catch that Mets game?”

He always did this.  He always begins a serious concern by getting me to think about sports or my motorcycle or something nice my wife did out in the lawn.  It’s a great technique to prepare someone for bad news, don’t get me wrong. I’ve done it at work for as long as I can remember. It’s a little insulting, however, because I know exactly what he’s doing, and he knows I know it.  

“Yeah.  Close one.  That closer may not have a job next week though.”

He agreed.  “Listen, I wanted you to know something.  I know you don’t have Facebook anymore, right?”  I nodded. “Somebody in the neighborhood group said something that I thought you should be aware of.”

“What, another complaint about kids walking in the grass?  Trash getting picked up too late?”

He chucked, nervously.  “No, not this time. Someone said something about how sad it was that people didn’t put out their flags on holidays anymore.”  Without realizing it, he glanced to my left to where the owners before us had placed a slot for flags to be displayed. They’d even left one carefully placed in the garage along with a note about the rules of flag flying.

I just sighed.  I wanted another beer at that moment.  He knew I wasn’t going to change anything about what I believed or how I chose not to put a flag out while every other house on the cul-de-sac did so, ceremonially.  I could tell he didn’t want to tell me, but he thought I should know.

“Well, thanks for telling me.  I hope you and Carla have a good night.”

“You too, buddy,” he said.  “Go Mets!”

“Go Mets,” I said, as I stepped inside and closed the door.