Summer Reading Inspiration

Digging through some totes in my living room, I found this archival evidence of my early obsession with books.

Library reading certificate, 1976.

During America’s Bicentennial year of 1976, my mother had enrolled me in a summer reading program at Jervis Public Library in my hometown of Rome, New York. The librarian had divided the group into two teams—the Cincinnati Reds and the New York Yankees—and we competed against each other for the most books read over the course of the summer. I can’t remember which side I was on, but the librarian was prescient, because Cincinnati would meet New York in the World Series later that year, with the Reds sweeping the Yankees to win the title.

I wish I had a list of the eighteen books I had read during the summer of ’76, as I would like to revisit some of them now.

As for this summer’s reading list, I am starting off with these selections.

The Beauty of Dusk: On Vision Lost and Found, a memoir by Frank Bruni.

Frank Bruni book cover.

Jack Kerouac: Collected Poems, published by Library of America, and The Closers by Michael Connelly.

Jack Kerouac: Collected Poems, published by Library of America.

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Father’s Day Poems

For Father’s Day, I thought I would post some pieces honoring my father, the late Francis DiClemente Sr., and my stepfather, the late William Ruane.

The first poem is a fictitious, but the father character was inspired by my dad.

Father’s Day Forgotten

Daddy and Christi parted ways at a bus depot
In the early morning hours.
No big scene, just a kiss on the cheek,
Then she turned around and was gone for good—
Hopping aboard the Trailways bus headed westbound for Chicago.
And she never looked back.

Daddy went home to his beer bottle and sofa seat,
And he drew the living room curtains on the rest of the world,
Letting those four eggshell walls close in and swallow him up,
Wasting away in three empty rooms and a bath.

And the memories can’t replace his lost daughter and wife.
So he tries not to remember his mistakes
Or how he drove them away.
Instead he recalls Halloween pumpkins glowing on the front porch,
Training wheels moving along the uneven sidewalk,
Little hands reaching for bigger ones in the park,
And serving Saltine crackers and milk
To chase away the goblins that haunted
Dreams in the middle of the night.

Now Christi has a life of her own,
And she lets the answering machine catch
Daddy’s Sunday afternoon phone call.
She never picks up and rarely calls back.
So Daddy returns to the green couch
Pockmarked with cigarette burns.
He closes his eyes, opens the door to his memory vault
And watches the pictures play in slow-motion.
He rewinds again and again without noticing the film has faded
And the little girl has stepped out of the frame.

Dad in the kitchen. Photo by Francis DiClemente.

Open Heart

My father was born
with a hole in his heart,
and although repaired,
nothing in his life
ever filled it up.
The defect remained,
despite the surgeon’s work—
a void, a place I could never touch.

The Galliano Club

From street-level sunlight to cavernous darkness,
then down a few steps and you enter The Galliano Club.
Cigar smoke wafts in the air above a cramped poker table.
Scoopy, Fat Pat and Jules are stationed there,
along with Dominic, who monitors the game,
pacing with fingers clasped behind his back.

A pool of red wine spilled on the glossy cherry wood bar,
matches the hue of blood splattered on the bathroom wall.
A cracked crucifix and an Italian flag hang above,
as luck is coaxed into the club with a roll of dice
and a sign of the cross.

Pepperoni and provolone are piled high for Tony’s boys,
who man the five phone lines
and scrawl point spreads on yellow legal pads.
Bocce balls collide as profanity whirls about . . .
and in between tosses, players brag about
cooking calamari (pronounced “calamad”).

Each Sunday during football season, after St. John’s noon Mass,
my father strolls across East Dominick Street and places his bets,
catapulting his hopes on the shoulder pads of
Bears, Bills, Packers and Giants.
His teams never cover and he’s grown accustomed to losing . . .
as everything in Rome, New York, exacts a toll,
paid in working class weariness and three feet of snow.

But once inside The Galliano, he feels right at home,
recalling his heritage, playing cards with his friends.
And here he’s no longer alone,
as all have stories of chronic defeat.
Blown parlays, slashed pensions and wives sleeping around,
constitute the cries of small-town men
who have long given up on their out-of-reach dreams.

For now, they savor the moment—
a winning over/under ticket, a sip of Sambuca
and Sunday afternoons shared in a place all their own.

Dad, side angle. Photo by Francis DiClemente.

Death Mask

Assume the death mask,
put on your final face
like those insolent characters
in that Twilight Zone episode—you know the one,
with their cruel faces contorted and fixed there for all time’s sake.

My father wore his death mask.
He kept it on even though I arrived after his passing
on that soft, warm August evening.
I’ll never forget the way he looked,
with his mouth agape, eyes vacant, cheeks sunken,
body withered and shriveled,
curled up in the fetal position on his soiled deathbed
in my grandmother’s sweltering death house.

I allowed myself to look at him for just a moment.
I then turned around and left him alone in his small bedroom.
I did this for my benefit, since I wanted to remember him
as a father and a man and not as a corpse in a locked-up state.
This is because the death mask grips its lonely victim
and sucks out the life and extinguishes the person.

I shuffled into the living room,
rejoining the Hospice nurse and the neighbors who came
across the street to comfort my grandmother and express remorse.
And Grandma, still acting as host despite the occasion and the heat,
asked me to make a pot of coffee for her guests.
The neighbors sat on the old, out-of-style couches and chairs
in my grandmother’s ranch home.
They conversed in hushed tones and sipped coffee
while we waited for the workers from the funeral parlor
to drive up to the house and wheel away my father.

St. Peter’s Cemetery

I extend a hand to touch an angel trapped in marble.
Its face is cool and damp, like the earth beneath the slab.
I pose a question to my deceased father,
Knowing the answer will elude me.
For his remains are not buried in this cemetery,
But instead rest on a shelf in my sister’s suburban Ohio house.

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I never called Bill “Dad,” but I considered him a second father instead of a stepfather. He played an instrumental role in my adult formation. Here are two works about him.

Weekend in Albany

Night—diminished faith now fights for restoration,
aided by rosary beads pressed between the gnarled fingers
of the retired Sisters of the Academy of Holy Names.
And silent petitions are mouthed
in an air-conditioned hospital chapel,
as Sister Carmella—my Aunt Theresa—
storms the gates of heaven for healing intervention,
sending out special pleas to Our Lady of Perpetual Help.

Inside the surgical Intensive Care Unit,
fluorescent lights reveal my stepfather Bill’s post-op image.
The sight of his figure catches me unprepared—
glassy eyes, belly stained with iodine,
an incision running down the sternum,
and a ventilator forcing air into his smoker’s lungs.
Mom stays close to his bed,
afraid to look away or leave the room.
Her small body trembles and
displays the effects of chemotherapy’s wrath,
evident in hollow cheeks
and in the absence of her black hair.

Unbearable heat conquers the Capital District,
and Mom finally crumbles when our used Chevy Blazer
hisses and groans and stalls along New Scotland Avenue.
She sits down on the roadside curb, dejected.
Her tears cannot be held in any longer . . . they gush forth
as she holds a cigarette and sips a lukewarm cup of coffee.
Almost in slow motion,
a few drops fall toward her Styrofoam cup.
I reach out to catch them,
but they slip through my outstretched fingers.

And after two days in Albany, my sister and I
must leave our mother to return home to Toledo.
On the flight back, in a plane high above
the patchwork of northwest Ohio’s farms and fields,
streaks of pink and lavender compose the sunset’s palette.
And I realize all I can do is pray;
I’m left to trust faith in this family crisis.
I ask God to hasten Bill’s recovery,
while giving Mom the strength to abide.

I lean against the window as the plane touches down in Toledo.
I close my eyes and consider if my prayers
are just wishes directed toward the clouds.
No matter, I tell myself, pray despite a lack of trust.
And so I do. I focus my thoughts on my stepfather
breathing without a ventilator and being moved out of the ICU.

Bill getting a haircut from George, a barber in Rome, New York. Photo by Francis DiClemente.

This essay was published in Star 82 Review several years ago.

Man in the Chair

It is late in the afternoon on a fall or winter day, and I am visiting my mother and stepfather at their home in Rome, New York. They are sitting in their family room watching TV; if I had to guess, I’d say the show is Judge Judy, Criminal Minds or NCIS.

My stepfather, Bill, who owns his own contracting business, is reclining in his favorite chair, wearing a work-stained hoodie and sipping a cup of coffee. I walk into the room and sidle up to him. I put my hand on the bald crown of his head, which has a fringe of brownish-gray hair on the sides, and I feel the warmth emanating from his skull. Often when I do this, Bill will say, “God, your hand is freezing.” But he does not say anything, and I leave my hand on top of his head and take a glance at the television screen while darkness gathers outside the windows.

A sick realization makes me shudder. I pull my hand away because I recognize in the moment that the head of this man I love could, in a matter of seconds, be crushed with a baseball bat or cracked open with an ax blade. Blood could splatter against the walls, and he would slump over in the chair, inert.

And I think this not because I am homicidal or possess a desire to kill my stepfather. Quite the opposite. Fear sets in because I realize the man sitting in the chair, with a beating heart, functioning brain and sense of humor, could be gone in an instant. He could be animated in one moment and his breath snuffed out in the next.

Most likely my stepfather will not be killed by a blow to the head or a tree crashing through the house. A heart attack, stroke or cancer will probably get him in the end. And while I already know this, I pause and allow this knowledge to sink in, so I will appreciate him better.

A year or two after this dark afternoon, my mother would lose her battle with cancer. And her death would remind me that we do not live life all at once. It’s not one big project we need to complete by a deadline or a trip to Europe you have planned for years.

Instead, we experience life in small doses, tiny beads of time on a string. And it helps to recognize them, to acknowledge you are present and alive even in the most mundane circumstances—while you are talking with co-workers in the parking lot before heading home for the day, running errands, doing laundry, baking a chocolate cake, tossing a football with friends, reading to your kids at bedtime. These are subplots that drive our stories forward. They are not exciting. They are not memorable. But they are part of our existence, and we must value them before they and we are gone.

So, after I pull my hand away from Bill’s head, I decide to sit on the couch next to my mother. She hates when people talk during a program because it distracts her, so I look at the screen even though I am not interested in the show, and I do not say a word. But during a commercial break, she mutes the sound with the remote control, and Bill and I converse about something. And I can’t remember the topic we discussed, and it doesn’t really matter.

What I remember is three family members spending an evening together.

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Public Art in Progress

While walking to work today, I saw Los Angeles-based artist Jonas Never working on his basketball-themed mural in downtown Syracuse.

Basketball mural in progress. Photo by Francis DiClemente. Art by Jonas Never.

I think the piece will be great when it’s complete. However, seeing all that beautiful white space made me wish for a combo mural—half basketball and half Warhol screen print or Pollock splatter painting.

Mural in progress. Photo by Francis DiClemente. Art by Jonas Never.

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Paperback Mysteries

Books are recyclable works of art that have transference of ownership. And I love making discoveries in the pages of used paperbacks—books that have been discarded from public libraries, purchased at garage sales, or pulled from bargain bins.

Case in point: my gently used copy of the novel Body and Soul by Frank Conroy. The bildungsroman tells the story of musical wunderkind Claude Rawlings, starting from his childhood in New York City in the 1940s. The late Conroy, who had served as director of the Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa, is known for penning the influential memoir Stop-Time.

Body and Soul by Frank Conroy.

I read Body and Soul several years ago when residing in Phoenix, Arizona. I bought my current copy on Amazon. And stuffed between the pages, I found vestiges left behind by the previous owners—a bookmark and two notes. The first note is dated Oct. 13 (year not included). It’s from CB and addressed to Kristen: “Here’s the book about the piano protege I mentioned in Balto.”

The second note is written on a piece of red paper cut into the shape of a fish. It’s addressed to Rosa from Adam. “Awesome job this week! Keep up the good work. Thanks for listening so well. Have a great year + hope to see you again.”

Multiple scenarios run through my head. I’d like to know more about the people who touched the book I now grasp. I’m curious about the relationships between Kristen and CB and Rosa and Adam. Is Kristen a musician and is “Balto” short for “Baltimore?” Was Adam a teacher and Rosa his student?

I know my questions will go unanswered and the paperback mysteries will remain unsolved. But on the bright side, I still have Conroy’s story to explore.

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Spring Snow: The Last Hurrah

My son Colin stomping in the snow while waiting for the bus. Photo by Francis DiClemente.

A few inches of heavy, lake-effect snow fell over central New York Tuesday morning. Despite the late April occurrence, I didn’t fret the spring storm. I felt invigorated walking to work, as the temperatures hovered near thirty, and I did not need to brush off the car or contend with clogged traffic.

Here are some photos I captured along the way.

Plants covered with snow. Photo by Francis DiClemente.

Park bench covered by snow. Photo by Francis DiClemente.

Tree branches covered with snow. Photo by Francis DiClemente.

Statue in Firefighter’s Memorial Park in Syracuse. Photo by Francis DiClemente.

And I’ll end with a poem that will be relevant when warmer temperatures return and spring kicks into high gear.

Winter Away

While I loathe the
wind, cold and snow
winter imparts,

I’m always sad
when spring comes
and the chill
in the air departs.

With winter leaving,
it’s like I’m losing
a friend at the end
of the season.

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Attitude of Gratitude

This month marks the 25th anniversary of an incident that forever shaped my outlook on life. And it seems fitting to repost this essay in the middle of Holy Week, a time for reflection, faith, and gratitude for Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. The piece was previously published on Medium. I added some photos I took while residing in Toledo, Ohio, during the late 1990s.

##

My arms and legs stopped working on a gray April day in 1997. I was lying on the carpet in the hallway of my sister’s second-floor condominium in Toledo, Ohio, staring up at the eggshell-colored ceiling, unable to move.

I was living with my sister at the time and working at a news/talk radio station in the city. On that Saturday I was alone in the house, as my sister, Lisa, had left to run errands and attend a couple of social events. I had stayed behind, watching an early season Detroit Tigers game on television and doing some laundry.

Over the course of the day I became weaker and weaker; I fell several times but was able to get on my feet again — until late in the afternoon when I could no longer move my arms or legs.

St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Toledo, Ohio. Photo by Francis DiClemente.

I felt relieved when I heard my sister’s keys jangling as she opened the door. She was startled when she walked into the kitchen and saw me sprawled out in the hallway. “What are you doing on the floor?” she asked.

After I explained what had happened, she picked up the phone to dial 911. I asked her not to call, to wait and see if I could recover on my own. “No, you can’t move,” she said.

“I’m calling the ambulance.”

Paramedics came and took me away, carrying the stretcher down the stairs to the parking lot. They measured my vitals and asked me questions about my medical history. I should have been frightened by my unexplained weakness, but oddly I wasn’t. I knew I hadn’t suffered a head or spinal cord injury; I also hadn’t lost consciousness. I suspected a chemical imbalance had caused my paralysis.

The ambulance pulled out of the condo parking lot and sped down the road, and I remember looking out the back window and watching dark tree limbs and streetlights pass by as we made our way to the hospital.

Trees in Toledo. Photo by Francis DiClemente.

When we arrived, a male ER doctor with dark hair, a mustache and a swarthy complexion examined me. An EKG and head CT both came back normal. I still couldn’t stand up, and the doctor kept looking at me and rubbing his chin, appearing flummoxed by my condition. But he soon discovered the cause, as blood tests revealed extremely low potassium levels. The doctor order an IV potassium drip, and my arms and legs rebounded a short time later. I was still weak but could now move my limbs. I lifted my legs from the bed and raised my arms overhead, comforted that my limbs no longer felt like dead weight.

I was admitted to the hospital, as the doctors sought to determine the underlying condition that had caused the potassium levels to drop; they also wanted to rule out any neuromuscular disorders.

The following day a male doctor with a beard performed a test using electrodes to measure electrical activity in my muscles. My endocrinologist also visited me in the hospital and did some medical research on my condition. He later diagnosed me with hypokalemic periodic paralysis, a genetic disorder that he said was unrelated to my hypopituitarism, which I had been diagnosed with at age 15 after having surgery to remove a pituitary tumor.

I stayed in the hospital for about a week while the staff continued to monitor my heart rhythm and electrolyte levels. A physical therapist also worked with me to do some exercises to rebuild muscle strength.

I was discharged on a bright spring day. Stepping outside and heading to my sister’s car parked in front of the hospital, my legs did not fold under me; I realized they could now support my bodyweight. And I rejoiced in being able to walk forward, to execute the simple motion of putting one foot in front of the other. No one had to carry me to the car.

And I took stock of my life in that instant and counted my blessings. My family cared about me, I had a place to live and a full-time job with health coverage (although my radio salary was low at the time).

More importantly, I had survived my medical ordeal with just a couple of instructions to follow — to modify my diet and take daily potassium supplements to compensate for my condition. I did not need surgery, and I was grateful that the outcome had not been a more serious disease like multiple sclerosis or ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease).

This theme has echoed throughout my life. I have faced numerous health crises, and after each one I have reevaluated and recalibrated my priorities.

Since my initial brain tumor was excised at age 15, I’ve had two follow-up surgeries to remove remnants, along with two rounds of Gamma Knife radiosurgery with a goal of preventing regrowth. Today I am not tumor free — the craniopharyngioma still resides in my head, affecting my vision. But for now, the doctors are observing the tumor and have decided no surgery or radiation is needed.

In waking up from my both my second surgery in 1988 and my third in 2011, I remember the dim glow of fluorescent lights overhead and the sound of beeping machines in the surgical intensive care units. In both cases, in the instant when I came back to consciousness, my head felt woozy and everything appeared fuzzy; it was as if gobs of Vaseline had been smeared across both eyelids and I couldn’t see clearly.

A nurse or doctor would stand over me and ask me a series of questions. “What’s your name?” “Do you know where you are?” “Can you tell me the date?” “Who is the President of the United States?”

And in being able to respond verbally and answer the questions correctly, I would realize I had survived the surgery with my health seemingly intact; my brain worked and I could speak and form sentences. And in my post-surgical haze I would feel an overwhelming sense of gratitude.

Toledo warehouse. Photo by Francis DiClemente.

But here’s the problem. Each time after leaving the hospital, I could not sustain that feeling of gratitude beyond a few days. I would get caught up again in the daily struggles of life, and my “attitude of gratitude” would slip away.

I am now aware of this flaw in me. I recognize that in the pursuit of a better job, a bigger house, a newer car and a richer bank account, I forget to be thankful for the essentials I’ve been given — oxygen to breathe, clean drinking water, food in the fridge, safe shelter, a loving family and the ability to walk, talk, and think. I forget how easily these things can be taken away.

I need to preserve in my mind the freeing power of gratitude, because gratitude puts the focus on being thankful for what you already have, and sharing some of it, as opposed to seeking what you lack.

I need to stop looking around and asking myself, “What else?” or “What more?” Instead, I must try to be content with my life as it is, at this very moment, and be able to say, “This is plenty. This is more than enough.”

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Back to the Blog

It’s been too long since my last entry. I’ve been busy with work, family, creative side projects and a recent bout with a stomach flu (now resolved).

Winter has given way to spring-like weather in Central New York, although I’m not hauling my winter coat to the dry cleaner just yet.

And I wanted to return to the blog because today I made some interesting visual discoveries that I wanted to share. I left my cubicle at the office this afternoon to join one of my colleagues on a B-roll video shoot at Shaffer Art Building on the campus of Syracuse University. Some College of Visual and Performing Arts’ students were working on a professional film shoot for a project written and directed by a VPA professor.

While I stood in the hallway, I took notice of my surroundings and captured these images.

Light hitting wall. Photo by Francis DiClemente.

Steenbeck. Photo by Francis DiClemente.

I was so excited to see this Steenbeck editing machine. It made me think of Martin Scorsese’s longtime editor, Thelma Schoonmaker. I’m sure she edited some projects on a Steenbeck. I actually used one when I was a graduate film student at American University in the early 1990s. The machinery is now a dinosaur in a non-linear, Adobe Premiere/Avid/Final Cut world.

The next two images were terse, profound statements that I consider poetry. The words made me stop, pay attention and ponder their meaning. I wish I had the author’s name to give proper credit and supreme praise.

Selfishness and Loneliness. Photo by Francis DiClemente.

Pray to be Loved. Photo by Francis DiClemente.

 

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