All posts by jpagetta

Pizza Dolce

It’s Time to Make the Easter Pies

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Pizza Dolce

I imagine there are not many people out there whose former boyfriends or girlfriends send them food in the mail. At least the kind that’s not laced with poison. I’m one of the lucky ones. For many years, my ex-girlfriend, Teresa, whom I dated through most of my early 20s, would send me slices of her Aunt Anita’s famous Easter Pies in the spring. Pizzagaina or Pizza Rustica as it’s called in different areas of southern Italy, is a savory pie that often includes ricotta, basket or farmer’s cheese, sopressata and prosciutto. It’s a Italian-Catholic traditional way to celebrate the risen Lord and the end of Lenten fasting. And then there is Pizza Dolce, or sweet pie, which is basically a citrusy Italian cheesecake. I grew up eating both every year, though we often purchased them from a bakery in our Jersey City Heights neighborhood. Teresa guessed correctly that these Italian specialties would be hard to find when I moved to Nashville, Tennessee. Taking pity on me, and perhaps worried I’d lose touch with my upbringing, she mailed them to me. She’d freeze them and pack them in dry ice, and I would keep a close eye on the tracking number to make sure they didn’t sit at the post office or on my porch too long after being delivered.

At some point, ten years or so years into the exercise, Teresa realized it was better to teach a man to fish than to give him a fish — or perhaps she just got tired of the whole icing and packing rigmarole — and decided to send me Aunt Anita’s recipes. In order for the tradition to survive, I would have to carry it on myself. It would join many of other culinary traditions I grew up with that I continue to keep alive. The paste e fagiole and escarole and bean soups, the broccoli rabe, the eggplant parmigiana, the Sicilian-style baked ziti, the lentils on New Year’s Day, the fish on Christmas Eve, and most recently, the zeppole di San Giuseppe on St. Joseph’s Day (which I had to start making after the one restaurant in Nashville that made them closed).

The Easter Pies were on another level, though. The recipes seemed sacred, scanned from the original typed copies. The fact that Teresa waited so long to give them to me only further added intrigue.  

I also needed to buy a Kitchenaid mixer. Fortunately, my friend Will had an old one he was willing to part with that required just a few small repairs at a local machine shop. I was in business.

The first year I made the pies, I was living alone in an apartment, terribly ill with a sinus infection. Too sick to even leave the apartment, but determined to make the pies, perhaps needing to make the pies, two friends came to my rescue by shopping for everything I needed, which included an additional 9” x 13” Pyrex pan because I only owned one. I wasn’t sure who was going to eat the massive pies other than me and my mother, but that was the size the recipes called for, and I wasn’t going to mess with Aunt Anita’s measurements.

It took me the whole day — the preciseness of baking is not my forte — but I was successful. I had made the traditional Easter Pies. That was seven years ago, and I’ve been making them ever since. Much has happened in that time. I’m married and have children now. I’ve made a few adjustments to Aunt Anita’s recipe to account for a smaller round pie, because, as it turns out, I’m the only one who seems to love these things. I’m hoping my daughters, as they get older, come around to them.

We are now a few weeks before Easter as I write this. There is always a moment when I question the wisdom of making them. The meat and cheese gets expensive. The process and the measurements are tedious. The kitchen is going to be a mess for an entire day. Half of each of them usually winds up in the freezer. I’m reminded, however, of this passage from the great Baltimore writer, Rafael Alvarez, from his collection of short stories, Basilio Boullosa Stars in the Fountain of Highlandtown:

“Tradition, Basilio’s grandfather often said, is nothing more than hard work and planning. The calendar is not a line, but a loop and you could not trust something as important as tradition … to chance.”

And so, to quote another writer named Bob Dylan, “I guess it must be up to me.”

Tradition matters. It matters to Aunt Anita, who makes these pies every year, and to Teresa, even if she broke the tradition of mailing me the frozen ones. By doing so and sending me the recipe, she was one only acting within the bigger tradition. It matters to my wife, Keri, who’s embraced the tradition while helping build new ones. And to my daughters, who may carry them all forward one day.

It’s time to make the Easter Pies.

Me and Jeter in 2014

In Memoriam: Jeter (1999-2019)

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Me and Jeter in 2014
Me and Jeter in 2014

It’s not hard to know where to begin with Jeter. I know the exact date. October 26, 1999. It was game three of the World Series between the New York Yankees and the Atlanta Braves. That morning, a co-worker of mine came into the office and said she had found a kitten underneath a refrigerator box behind her house. She had put him in a carrier and took him with her to the office in case someone might be interested in him. I went down with her to the parking garage, and there in her minivan was this tiny, flea-infested grey kitten. “I’ll take him,” I said. After work, with him in my car, I stopped at a pet shop to get flea shampoo. I took him to my apartment on Belmont Blvd. in Nashville and gave him a flea bath in the kitchen sink. He was miserable, and after I dried him, he ran under the bed. But it wasn’t long before he came back out and let me sit him on my lap. Together we watched the game on a little 3” portable TV that I set up on a music stand in the entryway of the apartment, which doubled as the living room.

In honor of the Yankees victory, I decided to name my new buddy after the team’s star shortstop, Derek Jeter. He would be Jeter, a.k.a. Jeets and sometimes Jeter Mosquitor.

Like his namesake, Jeter had a long and storied career. He was only about 8-weeks old when I brought him home that day, and he lived until he was almost 19 ½, passing away on Friday, February 8. He lived a long and extraordinary life, one that was marred by upheaval and near-tragedy almost from the beginning. My girlfriend and I moved the next year from that apartment on Belmont Blvd into a guest house in Green Hills. The following Thanksgiving, while I was visiting family back in New Jersey, she called me, frantic. While she was moving some things around, a metal shelf had fallen on Jeter’s tail. She rushed him to the emergency room but the doctors weren’t sure they could save the tail. I drove back to Nashville immediately. By the time I arrived, rigor mortis was already setting in. He’d have to lose half his tail. And so he did, and he was fine, even if everyone who ever met him immediately asked what happened to his tail.

Jeter c. 2000
Jeter c. 2000

More change came. My girlfriend moved out and I lived in a couple more apartments. A feline sister named Bobbie Girl arrived, who was sweet in her own way and went on to live for 15 years. I got married and moved into a house in East Nashville, and then a house in Brentwood. It was in the latter that he honed his hunting skills as an indoor and outdoor cat. It will appall wildlife and bird enthusiasts, but he spent years carrying all kinds of animals into the house in his mouth: moles, mice, bunnies, snakes, frogs, birds. Often times, I could get him to drop the prey and set it free with minimal damage being done. Other times it would be too late and I’d come home to blood and various parts of an animal all over the house. When he wasn’t hunting and killing things, he was sweet; the classic lap cat. He could wrap his paws around your neck and hug you. He kissed your nose if you asked him. And he loved sucking on your ear lobes, which sounds weird, but I think was the result of him not properly being weaned as a kitten. It was hard not to give in and give him the opportunity, even for a few minutes, when you see it that way. It’s a habit he never lost, even in his last days. Another habit he never lost was trying to steal sips of my bedside water, and pawing at me at night until I pet him to sleep.

One time, I came home to the realization that my marriage of 10 years had fallen apart. It was back to me and Jeter and Bobbie Girl and a series of apartments for the next few years, thus ending his indoor/outdoor ways. In retrospect, that likely extended his life. Animals are resilient, yet sometimes I wonder how Jeter and Bobbie Girl managed to handle those tumultuous years after my divorce. But I guess they had me. I was the constant. Like I had them. As tough as those years were, they were oddly good for us. We probably spent more time hanging out with each other—without someone else being there—than ever before. I have a disproportionate amount of selfies of me and Jeter from that time. Bobbie Girl couldn’t sit still that long.

Jeter c. 2013
Jeter c. 2013

I met my wife Keri in 2013, and in 2014, we married and moved to Donelson. Jeter and Bobbie Girl would have to get used to someone else in their lives again (and a dog), but Keri immediately loved them and they her. The house got emptier when Bobbie Girl died suddenly from cancer in 2015. It would soon get bigger with the arrival in the summer of 2016 of our twin girls. In the spring of that year, Jeter developed a serious urinary tract infection that required surgery if he were going to survive. He was already almost 17 years-old, and even him surviving the surgery was risky. I remember sitting in the consultation room with the doctor at the emergency clinic when he described the procedure, which in addition to the risk, would cost thousands of dollars I didn’t have. I don’t know what exactly was going through my head. I know I was worried about the money. But that’s not what came out. What I said, through my chest heaving and tears streaming down my face, was that my wife was pregnant, and we were expecting twins, and “he has to meet them.” That was all. He has to meet them. Do whatever you have to do. It’s important to me that he meet them.

I think we had been through so much together, broken relationships, failed marriages, multiple apartments and houses, not to mention just about every other life event (the death of my father, my mother’s dementia), that he needed to join me for the most important thing to ever happen to me: becoming a father. He needed to see this thing through with me. He needed to meet my daughters.

And he did, and then some. He went on to live almost three years after that. He was there when they came home as 4 lb premature babies, and there during all those late night feedings, and the colic and the screaming. But then the laughter and the joy and soon the petting and the hugging. He was already getting old and couldn’t get around as well, but my daughters loved feeding him and petting him gently on his head. Sometimes they would sit next to him and say, “Jeter’s my buddy, Jeter’s my boy.”

And he was. My buddy became their buddy. It doesn’t get any better than that. And to think, I wanted him to meet them.

The Art of Thanksgiving

The Art of Thanksgiving Traditions

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The Art of Thanksgiving

“The art of thanksgiving is thanksliving. It is gratitude in action. It is applying Albert Schwietzer’s philosophy: “In gratitude for your own good fortune, you must render in return some sacrifice of your life for other life.” – Wilferd A. Peterson, The Art of Thanksgiving

This year on Thanksgiving, as family and friends gather around our dining table, we’ll continue a tradition started two years ago, even if we never actually finished it when we started it. I’ll explain. Early in the meal, after the antipasto — our only Italian contribution to the otherwise American meal — and before the turkey, green bean casserole and other classic dishes, we will read Wilferd A. Peterson’s essay, “The Art of Thanksgiving.” It comes from an anthology of Peterson’s essays on the art of a number of things — travelling, laughter, thinking, friendship, leadership, etc. — that were originally published in This Week Magazine in the late 50s and early 60s. The Art of Living includes an introduction by This Week Magazine editor and publisher William I. Nichols that notes that the magazine, and Peterson’s essays, regularly reached 14 million families each week. “Never has a feature drawn such warm and instant response,” writes Nichols. It’s not surprising. The essays are an instant source of wisdom and inspiration. They certainly inspired me two years ago, 55 years after they were published, when I decided to take my thrift store copy off the shelf to use like an invocation before the Thanksgiving meal.

We had a full house that holiday. With the table leaf installed, some guests were practically in the living room, while other were stuck at the corners. Everything was as I liked it. I stood up to begin the reading.

“The art of thanksgiving is thanksliving,” I declared. “It is gratitude in action.” I looked up to gauge the attention of the audience. My mother, at the other end of the table, had her head on her plate. She was passed out. “Uh, Joe,” my friend Robert said, who was seated next to her. There were gasps. My first frightening thought was that my mother had died right there at the table. On Thanksgiving. But I put the book down and with Robert’s help quickly revived her and got her to the couch while someone else dialed 911.

Once the initial shock wore off, I wasn’t entirely worried. My mother and I had been sparring for the last week or so about her taking her medication, and I was certain that making her take her medication that morning when I brought her to my house, coupled with the late start of the meal (we always start eating two hours after we say we’re going to) was a bad combination.

The first responders were from our local fire house. They checked her vitals and recommended she be taken to the hospital. I followed in the car. Thanksgiving continued without me; my wife now managing the hosting duties on her own. I’m told someone continued reading “The Art of Thanksgiving” after I left, but I don’t believe it. I can’t imagine anyone waiting any longer to eat.

My mother was fine, but still wound up staying in the hospital through the entire holiday weekend. When I called her senior facility to tell them she was in the hospital, they informed me that they wouldn’t accept her release back to the facility unless she had a psychological evaluation. She had been acting out lately, they said, lashing out at staff and other residents and making false accusations. It seemed she hadn’t been taking her medication for longer than I realized. This also explained why when my wife, Keri, told her to take meds she said, “YOU take the pills, you ugly fuck.”

We were in a bind. I knew with the holiday weekend, it might be awhile before we could get the evaluation, but I also knew that my mother was very good at manipulating these kinds of situations. She’d likely pass the evaluation, be released, but continue to refuse to take her medication. The situation would get worse. At least I knew that in the hospital, if administered by a doctor, she’d agree to the take the meds. At some point, though, she was going to have to be discharged. What then?

I thought of Wilferd A. Peterson and “The Art of Thanksgiving.”

No, I didn’t. That wouldn’t make any sense. If you recall, I never actually finished it. My mother passed out after the second sentence. But if I did think of him, this would have been the ideal part of this essay to mention it.

I didn’t think of anything, really, except getting my mother out of the hospital and back on her medication. And maybe if my pumpkin pie had turned out alright. No one had mentioned it to me.

By Monday, after enlisting the support of the hospital doctors and nurses, my mother’s psychologist and the head nurse at the senior facility, my mother was released. She would no longer have any control over her own medication. It would be administered to her, regardless of her displeasure at having a nurse knock on her door every morning. It was the only way they’d agree to have her back. And the only way I could be certain she was getting the treatment she needed. She’d also have to agree to not lash out at anyone anymore. I knew with dementia and a mood disorder, her word was not her bond, but it was worth a shot. The pumpkin pie turned out alright, too, so I made another one so my mother could enjoy it the following weekend.

By the summer of 2017, a bit more than six months after the Thanksgiving event, and more than ten years of living with me in Nashville, my sister and I arranged to move my mother back to New Jersey to a facility better suited to her needs.That next Thanksgiving, I read through all of “The Art of Thanksgiving” without incident. We considered reenacting the scene from the previous year, with someone playing the role of my mother and others playing the firemen, just to make it interesting. We imagined that the event would eventually become a bit of weird folklore in our family, and that years from now, after my wife and I are long gone, our daughters would host these crazy Thanksgiving dinners with their families and friends that involved elaborate play acting and fire fighter costumes. The story, of course, would become more ridiculous and fantastical over time, until no one remembered what it represented anymore. All that would be left is laughter.

Wilferd A. Peterson’s essay, “The Art of Laughter,” would be the perfect accompaniment. “Meet the challenge of life with the art of laughter,” he wrote.

Happy Thanksgiving.

the chair

The Chair (A Prose Poem)

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the chair

The Chair

We’re going. It’s 12 o’clock.
“Wait here until we come to get you. Here on this chair.”
The lone chair is in a long hallway in front of double doors that people walk in and out of; doctors and nurses and who knows who. I can only distinguish the maintenance people, with their bright yellow warning triangles, mopping the floor with deliberate figure eights, the tiles a symphony.

Saint Gerard is in my pocket.
He’s been there for days, the patron saint of expectant mothers, and today, expectant fathers.
You can do that. He doesn’t mind.
I hold my hand over my pocket, on top of the scrubs that cover me head to toe, and say a prayer. Somebody emerges from the double doors. Not for me.

I’m still waiting.
Three days ago I was waiting, but not like this.
The birth of my daughters was imminent, but not like this.
The safety of my wife not in question. The health of my daughters not in question.
None of it, in question.

So now I sit, on a chair, outside double doors that lead to a room where my wife and my daughters, my family, wait until they are ready.
For the doctors to be ready.
For everyone to be ready.
But not for me to be ready.
I’m ready when they’re ready.
I’m ready.

(Written as part of a class taught by Maria Browning at The Porch Writer’s Collective on what poetry can teach prose.)

Honey and Ham Sandwich

Honey and a Ham Sandwich | Chapter 16

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Honey and Ham Sandwich

Remembering the comforts of a grandmother’s love

If I’m ever in the unfortunate position of having to choose my last meal, I will choose a ham sandwich on lightly-toasted Pepperidge Farm bread and a cup of tea with milk and sugar. This is what I ate for lunch with my grandmother most afternoons when I was in grammar school. I went to St. Nicholas in the Heights section of Jersey City. The school was only a few blocks away from the house where we lived–my mom, dad, brother and sister on the top floor; my grandmother and grandfather on the first floor. My grandfather died when I was eight, right around the age when I started walking to and from school myself.

Read the rest at Chapter16.org.

Thank You For Your Song

Thank You For Your Song | Chapter 16 | Companion Playlist and Links

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Thank You For Your Song

I’m proud to have a new essay, titled “Thank You For Your Song,” published in Chapter 16, the venerable literary magazine of Humanities Tennessee edited by Margaret Renkl. The essay asks the question, “What do we owe the writers who get us through our darkest days?” It’s about gratitude, and my own efforts, somewhat flawed, to thank those artists and musicians chapter16logowhose music has served me and provided solace during tough times. As an appendix of sorts to the essay, I’ve pulled together here a Spotify playlist of some of the songs and artists I mention in the article, a collection of links to their sites, and a video from a few years ago that explains the whole silly Springsteen/eggplant thing. My hope is that you’ll click over to read the essay, and then return here to do some listening and further exploring. Perhaps you have your own list of songs and artists, and it will inspire you create your own playlists and write your own essays of thanks.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Spotify Playlist: I’ve chosen two songs each from the artists I mention, along with a track each from Bob Dylan and Patti Smith for good measure.

Artists:

James Maddock

John Gorka

Billy Squier

Queen

Bruce Springsteen

Nicole Atkins

Patti Smith

Bob Dylan

Video:

‘Plants Like Us: The Night I Met Bruce Springsteen: A bit of digital storytelling that my friend Will Pedigo helped me with a few years ago, shot entirely on a Flip Camera (remember those?). The date of the show is wrong. It was actually 2002. But the ridiculousness remains.

 

The Only Poem

The Only Poem on My Wall Was a Leonard Cohen Poem

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The Only Poem

In a second floor apartment in a non-descript building on a street in the Heights section of Jersey City, on a wall likely hidden under coats of paint, is “The Only Poem” by Leonard Cohen. That is its title. “The Only Poem.” I know it’s there—unless, of course, the building has been knocked down or gutted—because I painted it. It was big, maybe three feet wide and five feet tall. I painted it with a small watercolor paintbrush and blue wall paint, starting at about 2 a.m. and finishing about 6 a.m.

It was the mid-nineties, I was in my mid-twenties, and that apartment was the first place I rented on my own. The rent was $450 a month. On the night I painted the poem, I was months into a serious bout of depression, deeper than I had ever experienced before. It was the kind of depression that we know well today. At work, and out socially with friends, I could be jovial and positive. No one would suspect I had depression. But alone, I struggled deeply. Unable to get myself out of bed, I saw no future for myself. I was overwhelmed by hopelessness and fear, and calmed only by the thought that no longer being alive might be the only way to make the pain go away. On the night I painted the poem, the depression had seized me like never before. I started to consider how I might acquire a gun. I wondered what pills might be best. I worried about who might find me and what might happen to my cats.

I don’t know what moved in me, but in the middle of that night, I grabbed my copy of Leonard’s song and poetry collection, Stranger Music. I flipped through looking for something, anything, to tide me over and get me through the night. And there it was. “The Only Poem.”

This is the only poem
I can read
I am the only one
can write it
I didn’t kill myself
when things went wrong
I didn’t turn
to drugs or teaching
I tried to sleep
but when I couldn’t sleep
I learned to write
I learned to write
what might be read
on nights like this
by one like me

The poem spoke directly to me. Leonard had maybe been in the same exact place, and this was his letter to those who would follow him to that place. He learned to write, what might be read, on nights like this, by one like him. I needed that poem with me all the time. Every night. So I  got up, found a small brush, and opened up one of the cans of paint I had used to paint the apartment doors and trim. It was painstakingly slow with the small brush. It took me all through the night and into the morning. And when it was finished, it was crooked and the lines weren’t exactly written in the way Leonard has intended. But it was there, in the sunlight coming through the blinds. For hours, I was not hopeless. I did not think about ending my life. I thought about the poem, and I thought about writing.

Of course, you cannot write yourself out of serious clinical depression. That requires professional help and often medication. And with a reprieve, I soon took steps to find a doctor who diagnosed me and got me the help I needed. The depression would return, in cycles in the years ahead, and fortunately, I always knew when I could no longer keep it at bay and needed to seek help.

But that poem certainly helped. It’s not hyperbole to say it saved my life. I’m thankful to it to this day. And thankful to Leonard, who’s since never been that far from me. I have a tattoo of the cover of his album, The Future, on my arm—a hummingbird lifting a heart free from its binds. And for a decade I carried in my wallet a copy of a passage from his book, Beautiful Losers, about what it means to be a saint. I only stopped carrying it because it disintegrated from being taken out and put back and read so much.

I have a photograph of the painting of the poem, and last night, after hearing of Leonard’s death, I sent it my dear friend of 30 years, Kevin, who moved into that apartment after I moved out. He decided to keep the poem up for awhile, even if it was a little weird to his guests. It was certainly a conversation piece. It was he who mentioned that it might still be there, under many coats of paint. His exact words were that, “The Poem still lives under coats of paint.” Lives. I liked that and suggested it was poetic all on its own.

There’s an oft quoted lyric from Leonard’s song, “Anthem,” from the album, The Future: “There is a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in.” He might be right. Maybe there’s a poem behind everything, too.

I’ll miss knowing Leonard walks among us. But I know he’s still here.

Jim Ridley | In Remembrance and Gratitude

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I would not be where I am today if it weren’t for Jim Ridley, the editor and long-time film critic of the Nashville Scene, who died today at age 50. He gave me a boost when I needed it, that I’ve carried with me for years.

I first got to know Jim in 2006, when I came on board as publicist for both Nashville Public Television and the Nashville Film Festival. It was a time of transition for me, as I was leaving the music business and just getting my feet wet as a publicist. He was one of the first people I had lunch with as I made my way around town meeting with journalists and other PR folks. He was already a fan and supporter of both NPT and NaFF, so I didn’t need to convince him of either’s value and newsworthiness. What I needed to do was convince him that I valued them as much as he did. That’s a tricky thing. I already had the job, but if I didn’t have Jim’s respect, I might as well go home. Fortunately for me, I truly loved public television and film, and I relished getting the opportunity to talk about and promote work that I admired and thought had significance. On top of that, I loved Nashville. I think Jim saw all that and gave me his blessing.

It was usually a given that Jim would dedicate a cover to the Film Festival every April, so again, I didn’t need to pitch him much. There’s a lot of pitching that goes on in publicity, but most good PR folks know the most important part of the job is delivering — on promises, information, interviews, statistics, screeners, promo shots and more. I made it my mission to deliver for Jim. Between January and April, while writing press releases and working with 200 other publicists who had films in the festival, and pitching and talking with every other TV, online, radio and print outlets in Nashville and the region (and a few key national places), I was constantly communicating with Jim, setting up interviews, getting him synopses of films, driving over stacks of DVDs to the Scene’s offices and finding film stills for him to use in the paper. One of my favorite times came in late February / early March when Brian Gordon and then Brian Owens would sit with Jim and give him the scoop on what to expect at the upcoming festival. It was thrilling to just be in the room, watching Jim get excited over some film I had never heard of by a director whose work I was going to quickly have to get acquainted with. It was a mini contemporary film master class every year. When the festival arrived, I’d cherish every opportunity to chat with Jim in the lobby of the theater or outside on the concourse, talking about whatever films we had seen.

A few years later in 2009, after the Festival celebrated its 40th Anniversary, then executive director Sallie Mayne asked me if I was going to the Scene’s “Best of” Party. I didn’t get an invitation, and hadn’t planned on it, but a few hours later, on my drive home, she called me again, and insisted I turn the car around and drive to the Parthenon in Centennial Park. She assured me I didn’t need an invitation. I arrived to hugs and cheers and congratulations. I was named the “The Best PR Guy” in Nashville. The paragraph that accompanied my selection was written by Jim. I couldn’t believe it. Other publicists will understand that things like that don’t happen to us. Unless you’re of a member of the PRSA (of which I was not), you don’t win things. Writers and producers and videographers win Emmy Awards; actors and screenwriters and directors win Film Festival awards. We publicists are behind-the-scenes people, and we like it that way. But there it was, all that hard work for the past four years, recognized.

Jim gave me one of his famous hugs when I found him at the party, but he refused to accept any gratitude for what he had done. It was all me and well deserved, he insisted. What Jim had done for me, with that one designation, has been immeasurable. Both organizations that I served were proud to have me working for them, but the recognition provided a little extra security and authority. I worked hard and believed I was good at what I did, but here was proof that maybe I really was. It raised my profile in the community. I was asked to sit on a number of panels about publicity and the arts, and invited to speak to students studying PR. One intern, who herself went on to work in PR, even put on her resume that she interned with the Best PR Guy in Nashville. All of it made me work even harder to live up to Jim’s endorsement.

Through it all, Jim and I had become friends too, sitting down over sandwiches at Savarino’s, talking about film and collectively mourning good friends from the restaurant that passed on. Becoming friends made it hard when things would happen and I’d have to take on a hardline/spokesman role for one of the organizations I represented. There were a few times that someone abruptly left one of the organizations I represented, and Jim called me to find out what happened. I would give him our statement and say that was all I could say on the matter. It was a difficult thing to do. I felt like an asshole, but it was the thing I was paid to do. Jim would continue to dig, because that was his job and he was very good at it, and I would continue to deflect, because that was my job. I never got the sense that Jim saw it any other way than two people doing their jobs.

In addition to motivating me as a publicist, Jim also made me a better writer. Twice he published an essay I wrote in the Nashville Scene, one a reflection on the 10th Anniversary of 9/11, and one a personal account of taking care of my mother while she struggles with a mood disorder and early onset dementia. The latter was a particularly difficult piece to write and share, but Jim, as an editor, brought out the best in me. When the story was published to coincide with Mother’s Day, I received dozens of emails and messages from people I had never met who empathized with me and shared their own stories.

While I am no longer a publicist, at least not in the traditional sense, I have no doubt that Jim’s encouragement and support of my work not only made me better at what I did, but contributed to my being offered new opportunities. Being able to put “Best PR Guy” on your resume is not a bad thing. Just ask my old intern. One of the few things I brought from my old office at NPT to my new office at the Community Foundation is a framed copy of that Nashville Scene “Best of” piece. I look at it every day to remind myself of what’s possible when you really care about something and work hard. It’s also an invitation to pay it forward, and encourage others to be their best.

I continue to write and occasionally get published, encouraged by editors like Jim that my reflections matter. Reflections like this one, that I had hoped Jim would get to read and be embarrassed by when he woke up from his coma. Sadly, that didn’t happen. And so I share it now for the rest of us, in hopes we all live by Jim’s boundless enthusiasm, selfless example and supportive spirit.

Who Do You Never See? A Christmas Story

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[Listen to a reading of this story by Joe and Keri Pagetta above, or on SOUNDCLOUD]

[If you enjoyed this story, and I hope you do, please consider donating what you can to the Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge and Sevierville Emergency Response Fund at The Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee. Grants from the Fund will be made to support the affected communities and nonprofits that are helping victims address their ongoing needs.]

WHO DO YOU NEVER SEE? A CHRISTMAS STORY

“Who do you never see?”

The woman sounded like she was from New Jersey and had been smoking for 40 years. But we were in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, standing in front of a window display of nativities.

“Who do you never see?” She asked again, leading our eyes toward one particular set.

“Give up? The little drummer boy. There he is.”

She was right. My wife and I had never seen the Little Drummer Boy in a nativity.

“A lot of people don’t really know the story of the LDB, as we like to call him. But he was there.”

At that very moment, snow started to fall. The streets of Gatlinburg, usually heavy with tourists, were suddenly empty. Night descended, and above us a single star rose into the sky and shined as bright as a full moon. The nativity before us came alive, as if we were watching one of the animated stop-motion classic TV specials from the 1960s.

You’ve heard that there was no room in the inn. 

It was a disembodied voice from above us, but we knew it was the smoking lady from New Jersey, her voice now tender and clear.

And you know that Mary and Joseph had to go to the stable in the back.

That is all correct. But did you know that the LDB lived in that Inn? His parents owned it. He helped with the garbage and changed the sheets and did a variety of odd jobs. With his small allowance, he purchased a set of drums and several percussive instruments, and would often practice late into the night, playing Jewish hymns he had learned in the temple. He’d sometimes attempt them in complex time signatures.

He was at the front desk when Mary and Joseph arrived, and helped them with their bags back to the stable. Joseph tipped him a few bronze coins and asked him to come back in an hour to check on them. The boy noticed that Mary was with child and offered to return with more sheets and extra straw for the pillows.

When the boy returned, Mary was breathing heavily and appeared to be in pain.

“She has gone into labor,” Joseph told him. ‘We’re now counting the beats in between her contractions.’

‘I think I can help,” said the LDB, and he ran back to the Inn. When he returned, he carried with him a small jembe.

“I can play, and she can breathe along with my beat. It might comfort her and help you to count.” And so the LDB play his heart out, slowly first and then faster, using all the rhythmic skills he had learned in practice, to not only to guide Mary in her breathing and Joseph in this counting, but also to entertain.

“I’ve heard that it is good for babies to listen to music while still in the womb,” Mary said at one point. “But it’s even better when they’re out!” The three of them all laughed, the LDB never missing a beat.

Miles away, kings who had been following a star to greet the family and their newborn son, heard the drumming. They had begun to doubt their navigation, and were considering turning back. They took the distant rhythmic sounds as yet another sign that they were headed in the right direction, for what else should signal the arrival of the Lord but music!

By the time the kings arrived, the Christ child had been born and lay in a manger, surrounded by Mary and Joseph, the animals that were in the stable, and the LDB, who now sat exhausted, but proud, on his jembe.

“What child is this?” asked one of the kings

“This is Jesus,” said Mary. “The king of kings.”

“Of course. But what child is this?” gesturing to the boy sitting atop his drum.

“This,” said Joseph, putting his hand on the boy’s shoulder. “This … is our little drummer boy. The birth of our son has brought joy to the world tonight. By playing his best for Jesus, the Little Drummer Boy has brought rhythm to the world for us all to share.”

With that, he asked the LDB to play some more, to entertain their new guests. He played through the night and into the morning, as more guests arrived to greet the newborn King.

Pa-rum-pumpum could be heard for miles.

“Who do you never see?” The voice startled us. It was the smoking lady from New Jersey, right back where she was before. It was day time again, and crowds of tourists reappeared behind us. The snow had stopped, leaving only a chill and the smell of barbecue in the air. The nativity before us, once again, became a collection of inanimate objects.

“The Little Drummer Boy,” I responded.

 “That’s right! This is only Nativity that has him.”

“We’ll take it!” 

“You sure? There’s a lot of other ones inside you might want to look at.”

“Yes, we’re sure. We’ll take this one, too. The one in the window if you don’t mind.”

“All right. Give me a minute and I’ll wrap it up for you.”

The smoking lady from New Jersey went back inside the store and my wife and I looked at each other.

“Who do you never see?”

END

[Listen to a reading of this story by Joe and Keri Pagetta above, or on SOUNDCLOUD]

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In Memoriam: Bobbie Girl (2000-2015)

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Table Shadows

Bobbie Girl wasn’t originally supposed to be mine. She belonged to an ex-girlfriend who had left her at my apartment while she was sorting things out at her new place. When she came back months later to claim her, it was too late. I had fallen in love with Bobbie Girl and wasn’t giving her up. This was 2000, she was only a few months old, and I was living in a one bedroom apartment off West End Ave. I already lived with a cat, one-year-old Jeter, and he wasn’t too keen on having her live with us. But they learned to tolerate each other. This eventually meant separate food and water bowls and litter boxes, but that was fine by me. It worked. Years later when she started gaining weight and he suffered from frequent urinary tract infections, I had to put them both on a different prescription diet, when meant standing over their bowls every time they ate and making sure they didn’t switch places. They could be sneaky about it, and usually Jeter was the instigator. This wasn’t always practical, what with making coffee and getting dressed and running out of the house in the morning, but it worked. I eventually gave up on keeping the food separate a gave them both a mix. That worked too, for a long time, until it didn’t anymore. A few weeks ago, Bobbie Girl started eating less and less, until last week when she couldn’t eat anymore. She had cancer and there was nothing we could do but make her comfortable. And then she was gone.

Bobbie Girl, circa 2000
Bobbie Girl, circa 2000

Bobbie Girl was different than Jeter. While he loves physical affection and cuddling and hugging, she was always a bit standoffish. She hated being picked up and suffered from petting-induced aggression. Or rather, I suffered from the aggression. This is an actual thing. You can look it up. Some cats don’t like being pet, or sit somewhere on the spectrum of not-liking-to-be-pet. She might be sitting with you, purring, enjoying your strokes, and all of sudden she’d snap and bite you on the hand or arm and run away. It was the craziest thing, and it went on for awhile until I asked my vet about it. From that point on, I learned the signs. When I pet her, I kept an eye on her ears to see if they were bending back, and her tail to see if it was starting to snap back and forth. If that was happening, I eased off. When she calmed down, I commenced petting. There was a lot of that with her. Getting to know her and how best to live with her. You can’t really mold cats into how you want them to be. You have to love them for who they are. When you do that, they love you back. I got to love her, and she me, for 15 years.

While she may have asked me for a separate litter box, or to pay attention to her warning signs so she wouldn’t be forced to bite me, or to excuse her for clawing at the couch and occasionally peeing on my suitcase when I returned from a trip, these were small things compared to what I asked of her. Besides, I could always put a cover on the couch or remember not to leave my suitcase on the floor. Loving her was adapting to her.

She did the same for me. In the 15 years we were together, much happened. I was married and divorced and remarried. In the three-year span before marrying my wife Keri, I moved Bobbie Girl and Jeter four times, from to house to house to apartment to house. Each time, they were frazzled and scared and annoyed. I could always pick Jeter up and hug him and tell him was going to be OK. But Bobbie Girl … for her, it was harder. I had to wait until she was ready and came to me. That was in some ways more painful.

Bobbie Girl Oxford American
It was in those years after my divorce, though, when it was just the three of us living together, that we learned the most about each other. I learned I was terribly allergic to cats (which explained my years of “allergy-induced” asthma) and they learned that the bedroom was suddenly a cat-free zone (except on nights prior to sheet washing, when I would declare cat amnesty and let them in). I started getting allergy shots. They waited until 6 a.m to claw at the bedroom door and wake me up. Again, we both adapted.

Mornings were special. They’d sit on the table with me, inside or out, and just hang out while I drank coffee and read whatever I was reading. I have lots of photos of this time, mostly because I found it impossibly sweet, the three of us enjoying the paper. Jeter was always close, getting in my way; Bobbie Girl always out of reach, rolling on her back to let me know how happy and comfortable she was being close enough (and not being touched too much).

She mellowed over the last couple of years, while growing even more beautiful. Her petting-induced aggression was almost non-existent. And she even let me pick her up. No hugging, mind you, but plenty of holding. Until that last day. She let me and my wife hug on her as much as we wanted. It was her final gift, I believe. One more act of her adapting for us.

Us adapting to life without her won’t be as easy.

Table, paper 2

Table, Book, 2