Superman and me at Scarborough Beach

As published in the Providence Sunday Journal, June 19, 2022. Above, my dad with my older brother Rob, left, and me at Scarborough Beach in 1961.

I envy them as they pass my house pulling red wagons with toddlers in tow: the new dads.

That was me 27 years ago when we moved to the neighborhood. Back when we had three children under age 5. Back when I was Superman.

My kids were all giggles and wide eyes when I spun a basketball on my index finger. They clapped when I made a kite soar against the cloudless sky at our Block Island rental. And if thunder cracked like gunshots during a summer storm, they climbed into my arms. I assured them the heavens would calm.

But when a fall gashed my younger son Evan’s hand in our backyard, his blood was my Kryptonite. I was Everyman, not Superman, face ashen and skin coated in sweat. 

My kids saw me as Everyman on other occasions, too, like when I cursed the drivers who cut me off on Route 95 and sometimes snapped at our dog and, achingly, when I was putting Evan to bed one night.

I don’t recall what prompted his question, but it startled me.

“Do you miss your dad?” he asked with an innocence that belongs only to children. My father died three months after Evan was born. The last time I had seen him, Dad had handed me the bill for his recent, long-overdue doctor’s visit.

“Yes, I do,” I said. Evan’s eyes asked me for more.

“You know what I think?” I said, my Everyman voice quavering. “My father’s alive every time we talk about him. Maybe that’s what heaven is.”

My 5-year-old set me straight. “You don’t really go to heaven,” he said matter-of-factly. “You’re buried. Heaven’s where you go in your head.”

I have often considered the shocking wisdom of my son’s words that night, and I’m thinking of them now.

In my head, I see my dad in black-and-white glossies from family photo albums: as a Marine Corps officer getting his commission, as a dean of students at Brown, smoking a cigarette and looking like George Peppard. 

I see him calmly whisking fourth-grade me to the emergency room at Roger Williams Hospital after I gashed my head on the corner of a coffee table while horsing around with my older brother.

And in a less-than-heavenly reverie, I see him 20 years later in his two-room apartment on Waterman Avenue in North Providence, writing a letter that recently came into my possession. It’s to his brother in New Hampshire. 

In his elegant hand, my dad notes that he “finally got an underpaying, paralyzingly dull job, low wages, no benefits, but thank God a check every week.” He reports he has emphysema and flashes his sharp wit: “The diagnostician wants to run a series of tests. I asked if he were paying.” He closes with reassurances: “I write only to inform not alarm you. You see, with you out there and the boys back here, I have a lot going for me.”

Now in my head, I go to another heaven – to Dad and me in the water at Scarborough Beach on a bright October day. I am 7 years old and feel the strong tug of the undertow as a rising wave approaches. My father is beside me, lean and athletic.

As the wave curls and begins to break, I dive to ride it, arms reaching for the shore. But the water pounds me and I am upended in the churning tumult until, yanking me upward by my wrists, Dad plucks me from the ocean chaos.

We stand in the white sea foam laughing, Superman and me.

Free autographs were a sign of the times

As published in the Providence Sunday Journal, May 15, 2022. Illustration by Emma Walsh.

Getting the autograph of your favorite professional baseball or basketball player in 1968 cost you six cents – the price of a first-class postage stamp. 

As a young fan, I made treks to the mailbox on the corner of Smith Street and River Avenue in Providence with a sealed white envelope in my hand and the cloying taste of stamp glue still in my mouth. The mailbox swallowed my letter, and all I could do was wait.

In that pre-digital, pre-email world, through the marvel of the postal service, my handwritten letters would, at least in theory, reach Mickey Mantle of the New York Yankees and Sam Jones of the Boston Celtics. Each would see, after my effusive two-sentence declaration of his athletic greatness, that I was asking for his autograph. 

For weeks, I checked our mailbox at home. Finally, an envelope with my name on it arrived, postmarked New York, and I carefully slid out my treasure: a glossy black-and-white photo of Mickey Mantle with his signature on it. Two days later, there was another envelope, postmarked Boston, and now I had Sam Jones’s autograph, too.

Sounds quaint, for sure, especially when you consider what a big business sports memorabilia has become. By 2021, it was estimated to be a $15 billion industry annually and growing fast.

Autographed photos like the free ones I was sent as an 8-year-old are the second most popular item in the memorabilia market, topped only by autographed jerseys. And today’s John Hancocks don’t come cheap. Athletes now command handsome fees for attending signing events and charge $20, $50, $100, or more for a quick swipe of their pen.

And then there’s this: a Mike Trout baseball card bearing the three-time MVP’s signature was recently discovered in an attic in New Hampshire. Its value hovers around $10,000 – a grand slam for the woman who found it.

Back in my childhood bedroom, I noticed a difference between the two signed photos that I had thumbtacked to my bulletin board. Mickey Mantle’s autograph was printed, not written; when I rubbed over the letters with my thumb, they didn’t smudge. The Sam Jones autograph had been scribed by hand: the photo of him in his white Celtics uniform was debossed ever so slightly by the markings of a ball-point pen.

Something else made Jones’s autograph stand out. In addition to his signature, there was a message for me: “With kind regards to John.”

Had Sam written those words himself?

All this came back to me last New Year’s Eve upon seeing reports of Jones’s death at age 88. Just two months earlier, he had been named to the NBA’s 75th Anniversary Team with the likes of better-known superstars such as Wilt Chamberlain, Larry Bird, Michael Jordan, and LeBron James.

A tribute in the Boston Globe celebrated the quiet and gracious man who, after retiring in 1969 as a 10-time NBA champion, became a substitute teacher for 30 years in Montgomery County, Maryland. When students asked what brought him back to middle school after reaching the heights of basketball glory, Jones said he always wanted to be a teacher and, besides, he was too old to guard those young bucks in the NBA now.

According to the Globe piece, a student learned of Mr. Jones’s exceptional bona fides on the day class pictures were handed out. He asked his favorite substitute to sign one of his photos. 

I smiled as I read of the Celtic great complying with the star-struck student’s request – just as, I am all but certain, he had responded to mine.

Pie in the sky, Guccis in the window

As published in the The Providence Sunday Journal, April 17, 2022.

One week into my first job as a copywriter, I heard my mother’s skepticism as we stood by the cash register in her store on Federal Hill.

“It’s pie in the sky,” she said, referring to the advertising profession. “Do you really want to do that?”

It was too soon to tell. But getting paid to dream up headlines and write copy all day was a step up from busing tables at the Turk’s Head Club downtown, which had been my previous gig.

Still, I understood Mom’s wariness about Madison Avenue. Atwells Avenue was more to her liking.

Her father, Vincent, owned the iconic baby clothes store standing at the corner of Atwells and Acorn Street. And just two blocks east, past the sparkling fountain recently constructed in DePasquale Plaza, she had opened her own store – a teen and junior fashion boutique for women.

There was nothing “pie in the sky” about how my grandfather and mother made money. They purchased clothing and accessories from wholesalers and marked the items up “keystone” or double their cost. They had an eye for fashion, a flair for merchandising, and a gift for sales persuasion. Their stores thrived.

In the early 1980s, one accessory in my mother’s store surpassed all others in popularity. Even I recognized the double-G logo and signature red-and-green band of the famed Gucci brand. So what if the handbags were knockoffs?

Decades later, I found the movie “House of Gucci,” starring Lady Gaga and Adam Driver, wildly entertaining. Not surprisingly, one scene in particular made me lean forward: Gaga’s character, Patrizia Reggiani, takes issue with the counterfeit Gucci bags that are being sold in Manhattan, saying they are “junk.” But Driver, portraying her husband, the doomed Gucci heir, waves her off. “As far as fakes go, they’re pretty good,” he says with a smile. “I’d buy them.”

That’s what hundreds of shoppers did at my mother’s store. So, to help meet the ongoing demand, I took personal days from my ad-agency job two or three times a year to accompany Mom on buying trips to New York City.

We’d hustle into cavernous (and pre-rehab) Union Station, sending resident pigeons to the rafters before catching an early Amtrak train to the Big Apple. From Penn Station, we’d hike uptown to the garment district where my mother would barter for the best prices on blouses, skirts, denim jackets, and, yes, Gucci knockoffs.

We’d grab lunch at a sidewalk hot dog stand and, if necessary, buy cheap umbrellas from one of the street vendors who seemed to magically appear with the first drops of rain.

And when the day’s buying was done, we’d duck into a bar for cocktails and appetizers, then doze on the train ride back to Providence. Once home, we’d recount our adventures over dinner at Camille’s.

The goods arrived in Providence several days later, and we prepared them for sale. With the Gucci knockoffs, that meant stuffing the bags with crumpled newspaper, looping price tags around their handles, and positioning them strategically in the showcase window.

One day, my mother surprised me: “I’m thinking of running a small ad in the Journal’s Style section,” she said.

The one-column-by-three-inch ad an art director colleague and I created featured a pen-and-ink handbag illustration with a simple headline promise: “Lookalikes for less!”

It wasn’t pie in the sky as much as truth in advertising, and the fake Guccis flew out the door.

My ‘lonely’ roundabout journey to 100 columns

As published in the Providence Sunday Journal, March 20, 2022. Illustration by Emma Walsh.

I stared at the list of names thumbtacked to the English department bulletin board and felt my stomach churn. My name wasn’t on it. Intermediate Fiction Writing would be convening that spring semester without me.

The professor’s scant notations in the margins of the typed writing sample I’d submitted hardly made it to page two. Should I knock on his door to find out why? Possibly ask for advice?

No way. I was afraid he’d say what I was already hearing in my head. I walked back to my dorm room and cracked open a beer. And that was the end of my creative writing days at Brown University.

But a different kind of writing beckoned.

Senior year, I landed an internship as a copywriter at an ad agency. Which turned into a job. Which turned into a career.

After I was hired, my sister-in-law gave me a framed cartoon from the New Yorker that sits on a shelf by my desk to this day. A woman in a bar is looking skeptically at a hipster guy. “Copywriting is too ‘writing,’” he insists.

It is and it isn’t.

It is, because copywriters, like all writers, wrestle with words to express ideas, make meaning, and connect with readers.

And it isn’t, because copywriters sign their work with their client’s name. It’s ghostwriting, and I’m fine with that. I’ve discovered I like the cloak of anonymity that writing for clients affords me.

For four decades, I’ve ghosted for banks and global corporations and even – wait for it – a casket wholesaler. Every day I exercise my writing muscles in service of my clients, like a basketball player practicing free throws in service of his or her team. A Macintosh computer is my gym.

Ten years ago, my friend Elizabeth asked if I’d like to contribute a piece to her local online news platform. I could write whatever I wanted, she said. I heard myself say “No, thanks” reflexively, perhaps summoning the ghost of my writing-class rejection at Brown.

And then my next-door neighbor died. I wrote a remembrance, and Elizabeth published it – a eulogy that recalled Dick’s annual Christmas morning visits with our family: “With his presents, white beard, and easy laugh, he was our belated Santa.” 

My work in the Macintosh gym paid off; I found the words to express my heartfelt feelings for my friend.

A dozen or so pieces followed. One recounted the kindness of my second-grade teacher; another described a fallen backyard fence and my children leaving home.

The more columns I wrote, the more comfortable I got with my byline. It was Dick’s last gift to me.

A lovely family moved into Dick’s old house. They may have been sent by angels because Harold, the dad, was a former copy editor at the New Yorker. After helping me fine-tune several of my pieces, he suggested I send one to Ed Achorn, then the Editorial Pages Editor of the Providence Journal.

Four months later I did – a Christmas Eve story about my grandfather’s baby clothes store on Federal Hill. It was my first column in the Journal. This one is my 100th

Writing is a solitary act.

The irony is, I write to not be alone. And when I hear from people, sharing their stories after reading mine, it’s a wondrous communion. 

To Elizabeth and Harold and Ed, for their encouragement and support, and to you, for reading, I offer what Alice Walker calls the best prayer anyone could say: “Thank you.”

Following in my children’s Converse footsteps

As published in the Providence Sunday Journal, February 20, 2022.

Who was Chuck Taylor anyway?

I didn’t have a clue, but his name was on the sneakers I coveted as a kid. Converse Chuck Taylors – “Cons” or “Chucks” for short – were worn by 80% of college and professional basketball players in the 1960s. Wilt Chamberlain scored 100 points wearing them one night.

In 1968, I was an 8-year-old working on my behind-the-back dribble at Kennedy Recreation Center in Providence. Would a pair of Chucks up my game? I was counting on it.

Turns out Chuck Taylor was a journeyman semi-pro basketball player from the Midwest who suited up for a string of teams in the 1920s, including the Columbus Commercials and, presciently, the Akron Firestone Non-Skids. Legend has it, he walked into the Converse factory in Malden, Massachusetts one day complaining of sore feet. He also had an idea or two about how the company could improve its recently introduced basketball shoe.

Taylor must have been a better salesman than set shooter because by 1932, canvas Converse high-top sneakers bore a patch with his signature. Chuck Taylor All-Stars had arrived.

When I first set foot in the Kennedy Rec gym, I was wearing a pair of sneakers my mother had bought for me at Grants department store. Their plastic soles were hard as ice, and I skated across Kennedy’s blond hardwood floor every time I tried to come to a stop. After begging my father for a pair of Cons, he took me downtown to Geller’s on Washington Street. I walked out wearing a pair of Coaches – a Converse sneaker similar to Chucks, but three dollars cheaper. It was a step in the right direction.

When I did finally lace up my first pair of Chucks as a freshman point guard at La Salle, Converse’s foothold on the basketball shoe market was beginning to wane. Adidas, Puma, and Nike were making inroads, and by my senior year, I was one of only a few players on our team still wearing the iconic canvas high-tops. My favorite Converse tagline – “Limousines for the feet” – may have been a copywriting masterpiece, but it stretched credulity when I compared my sweat-stained kicks to a fancy pair of leather Nikes or Pumas. Chucks as basketball shoes were now less like limousines and more like Model Ts.

Converse upped its game in the 1980s with the introduction of its own leather basketball shoes, the Pro and the Weapon. The company also snared endorsements by Larry Bird and Magic Johnson who, in addition to skyrocketing their sport’s popularity as they faced off in three epic NBA Finals, hawked the Converse brand in television and print advertisements.

And what about Chucks? Did they fade away like the two-handed set shot and underhand free throw? Far from it, thanks to an embrace from counterculture music icons ranging from the Ramones and the Sex Pistols to Joan Jett and Kurt Cobain. Cons were classic, affordable, and cool, and their street chic endures to this day. Just ask Vice President Kamala Harris, who proclaims, “It’s either Chucks or heels. Always has been!”

Closer to home, I praised my daughter’s fashion sense when she walked into our kitchen one day wearing a pair of light-blue Chucks. And my son Evan recently returned from Los Angeles sporting black high-top Cons.

I’d like to think my kids are following in my footsteps, but I know better. As I lace up my first new pair of Chucks in almost 40 years – to wear to the office and rock invisibly during Zoom meetings – I realize I’m following in theirs.

Making sense of my dog’s senses

As published in the Providence Sunday Journal, January 16, 2022. Above, Rhody shortly after we rescued her.

Three gunshots pierce the early morning quiet and hit my dog, Rhody, in a place I can’t see.

It’s duck-hunting season down on Greenwich Cove. For about 60 days, random pops are the neighborhood’s alarm clock. And now Rhody, ears back and tail down, is shaking in the corner of my bedroom.

Don’t let her name fool you. She’s from Georgia, not Rhode Island, trucked here as a puppy with dozens of other strays and dropped off at Petco on Quaker Lane in Warwick for one of their raucous Saturday adoption events. When she burrowed into my daughter’s lap amid the clamor, we knew we had to take her.

Rhody’s sleek black coat is punctuated by two white dots on the top of her head. If she were an insect, antennae would rise from those dots, and we considered naming her Radar because of them. Like most dogs, her hearing is acute – four times as sensitive as mine, I’ve learned – and she cowers at the rumble of thunder, the howl of a windstorm, and the whoosh of an Amtrak train barreling through our town. The Fourth of July is a nightmare.

And yet there is something different about how the gunshots trigger her. Even when they are muffled by a blanket of fog at dawn, they can leave her panting and scurrying to our basement. That’s the thing about rescue dogs: They come to us with a past all their own, mysterious and inscrutable.

Rhody’s sense of smell is as impressive as her hearing. I marvel when she raises her nose at the sight of another dog more than a hundred feet away during our walks around Academy Field.

“Got your sniffer going, huh?” I say to her.

Dogs have as many as 300 million olfactory receptors in their noses compared to a mere six million for humans. And the part of their brains that decodes smells is proportionally 40 times greater than ours. 

Even more remarkable is the anatomy of the canine snout. While the human nose uses the same airways to breathe and smell, a dog has one for respiration and one for olfaction. And the pathway dedicated to sensing scents has accomplished astonishing feats. One drug-sniffing dog detected a plastic container stuffed with 35 pounds of marijuana submerged in a gas tank filled with gasoline. A cancer-sniffing dog kept nuzzling a patient in a spot that doctors had pronounced to be cancer-free; a subsequent biopsy revealed melanoma in a small fraction of the cells.

During duck-hunting season, I play music in the early morning in an attempt to drown out the random gunshot pops, but Rhody’s quivering exposes my folly. Wrapping her in a soft blanket seems to help in the same way it soothed our children years ago when they were babies. We have yet to invest in a so-called “thundershirt” or anxiety vest that the American Kennel Club recommends, but we aren’t ruling it out.

This past Fourth of July, the good doctors at Hill & Harbour Veterinary Center provided medication that allowed Rhody to ride out the evening fireworks with less panting and more sleep. Summer lightning storms are less predictable, though, and when one rolls through, chances are we’ll find her under a table or curled up in a corner.

Two more gunshots from the cove send Rhody to the basement. I make a note to call the vet for more medication while taking a small measure of comfort knowing the best prescription is already on the way: duck-hunting season ends on January 23.

Christmas ornaments celebrate family history

As published in the Providence Sunday Journal, December 19, 2021. Above, a gingerbread man ornament made by Juliana Walsh.

They are the presents before the presents: the ornaments my family unwraps each year, one by one, to hang on our Christmas tree.

Some of them date back to B.C.: Before Children. That’s when my wife, Deb, and I threw raucous Christmas parties with one stipulation for entry: guests had to bring an ornament for our tree. 

We were in our mid-20s then, so naughty baubles mixed with nice ones. When our firstborn arrived four years later, the zonked-out Santas and badly behaving elves had to go.

Miraculously, several ornaments from those wild nights survive, and others have become keepsakes since. Every December we unearth them from the basement and peel back their tissue-paper wrappings with anticipation and delight.

So how did the whole tree-decorating custom come about?

Many credit German religious reformer Martin Luther with starting the Christmas tree tradition in the 1500s, and those first trees were decorated with candles, apples, and pastries. Three hundred years later, a German glassblower named Hans Greiner, perhaps unable to afford fancy edibles, decorated his Christmas tree with fruit- and nut-shaped pieces he created in his studio. In England, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, a native German, picked up on Greiner’s practice. And when dime-store magnate Frank Winfield Woolworth introduced glass adornments to his stores in the 1880s, the tree-decorating tradition went mainstream in the United States. 

On our tree, mass-produced ornaments – striped balls, clear icicles, gleaming snowflakes – hang side by side with one-of-a-kind treasures. 

A starfish plucked from Scarborough Beach and tethered to a red ribbon makes me think of the good friend who brought it to our first tree-decorating party decades ago. A colander spoon given by another good friend celebrates Deb’s ingenious cooking skills. A shoelace connecting a Guinness coaster, an Irish pound note, and a pack of shamrock seeds recalls my days in Dublin as a college student. 

There are nods to our children’s school-band instruments: a tiny Fender Stratocaster, a seahorse-sized saxophone, and a baby trumpet. A pacifier brings a chorus of laughter: As a toddler, our son Evan usually had one “bippie” in his mouth and another in his hand. The honor of hanging this childhood relic is always reserved for him.

Our son Peter’s first-grade school photo, mounted on a napkin and framed by Popsicle sticks, returns to the tree each year despite a bit of wear and tear, and all the more precious because of it.

And then there’s the light-brown gingerbread man my daughter, Juliana, made in pre-school – a masterpiece of construction paper and crayon, with three red buttons, two red eyes, and a sweet smile evoking the wonder and innocence of childhood.

We have feathered friends in our tree – partridges, penguins, and doves, and also a gold-crested Larry Bird figurine ready to launch a three-pointer in his green Celtics uniform. He is one of our many sports-themed ornaments.

For years we topped our tree with a beautiful papier-mâché angel, recalling the announcement of Jesus’s birth to the shepherds in the fields of Bethlehem. Alas, the fragile spirit in her flowing blue-and-white robe plummeted to the floor one evening and broke a wing. A Scotch-tape cast provided a temporary fix, but a Christmas or two later, we decided to ground her permanently after years of angelic service.

What were we going to top our tree with now?

I don’t remember much discussion. And I don’t know how the decision was made. But I do recall climbing up a rickety wooden ladder and, with the help of some picture-hanging wire, attaching Larry Bird to our Christmas tree’s uppermost reach.  

He had elevated his game yet again and has been the star atop our tree ever since.

Portrait of an invisible boy

John Walsh as a third-grader at Robert F. Kennedy School. As published in The Providence Sunday Journal, November 21, 2021.

It didn’t make sense.

Less than a year after my parents had built a brand-new house in Narragansett, they sold it and moved our family back to Providence. 

I returned to my old elementary school in Elmhurst, and things were different. After Robert Kennedy’s assassination, the name of the school had been changed to honor him, and a two-story addition now housed four new classrooms and a sparkling gymnasium.

Things were different at home, too. Seven months after we moved back to Providence, my dad moved out. It unleashed a riot of emotions in me, but I betrayed none of them. The next day, I sat in Miss Murphy’s third-grade class with an acute awareness: despite the tumult I felt in my stomach, I looked exactly the same as I did the week before. No one knew my parents were splitting up, and I was determined to keep it that way.

The sparkling new Kennedy gym served as an after-school rec center, which was run by a no-nonsense basketball coach named Armand. One day, he asked me my name.

“Oh, you’re Donald’s son,” he said.

As a fourth-grader the following fall, I made the Kennedy team. Armand told us we would practice three days a week, from 3:30 to 5:30.

“Three-thirty means you should be here at 3:15,” he added.

The gym may have been new, but Armand was decidedly old school. He smoked Lucky Strikes and inked precise plays on sheets of white paper clenched by a clipboard. When I threw a “lollipop pass” at our team’s first practice, his reproach was thunderous.

Incongruously, we all called our fearsome coach by his first name, which could be comical. Given my Rhode Island accent, I thought “Armand” was spelled “Almond” – like an Almond Joy candy bar.

I soon discovered I felt no joy at his rigorous two-hour practices. So I skipped one. And then another. And the next time I set foot in the Kennedy gym, Armand’s voice found me instantly.

“Walsh!”

He strode past me in his low-cut white Chuck Taylors, pointing to the door I had just walked through. I followed him into the hallway.

“Where have you been?” Armand said. The disappointment in his voice stung.

I couldn’t tell him that on one day I had opted to play touch football on Rankin Avenue with my friends Chris and Billy and George. Or that on the other I had gone to my cousin Tommy’s house. I especially couldn’t tell him I didn’t actually want to play organized basketball, at least not yet. In Armand’s commanding presence, I couldn’t say a thing.

“What’s wrong, son?” he said. I felt shame rising up in me, similar to when I lied to a friend about why my dad’s maroon Chevelle was seldom in our driveway anymore.

As I turned away to hide my tears, Armand’s voice broke the hallway silence. It was soft and confidential.

“I know things have been tough for you at home,” he said. It wasn’t why I had skipped practice, but Armand’s words touched a part of me that I wanted to hide from the world.

“It’s OK,” he said as I wiped my eyes. “Come try out for the team again next year.”

I did, and played on Armand’s Kennedy squads until I reached high school – likely more than 100 games and 250 practices.

What I remember most about it all isn’t a thrilling win or a heartbreaking loss. What has stayed with me for more than 50 years is Armand’s kindness that day in the hallway, before I ever donned a blue-and-gold Kennedy uniform.

Thanks to him, the boy I had tried so hard to make invisible had been seen.

Believe it or not, many superstitions endure

As published in The Providence Sunday Journal, October 17, 2021.

Pop genius Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” topped the Billboard Hot 100 on Jan. 27, 1973. That’s not surprising. The song’s funky groove and exuberant horns are irresistible. Wonder’s lyrics hook us too, tapping into our fascination with the supernatural.

In the chorus, Wonder sings that “superstition ain’t the way,” and he’s surely right. Yet, superstitious practices endure, whether we believe in them or not.

Merriam-Webster defines superstition as “a belief or practice resulting from ignorance, fear of the unknown, trust in magic or chance, or a false conception of causation.”

Have you ever knocked on wood to ward off bad luck? One theory says this common practice is rooted in the pagan belief that good spirits live in trees. By rapping on wood, you summon the help of the good spirit within.

Do you avoid walking under ladders? If so, you are being influenced by an early Christian belief that the triangle formed by a leaning ladder represents the Holy Trinity. When you walk under the ladder, you break the Trinity and invite the devil in.

Many of us say “God bless you” when someone sneezes. That connects the person doing the blessing to several superstitions. One is that the heart stops beating during a sneeze, and a request for divine intercession helps restore cardiac function. Another: sneezing is the body’s response to an invading malevolent spirit; “God bless you” serves as a shield against the invisible demon.

In Rome during the plague of 590 AD, Pope Gregory I commanded people to say “God bless you” to anyone who sneezed, as sneezing was believed to be an early sign of infection. While the plague eventually abated, the custom of saying “God bless you” prevails to this day.

Athletes are an especially superstitious bunch. Tennis pro Rafael Nadal never steps on court lines before or after points, while Serena Williams wears the same pair of unwashed socks in tournaments as long as she keeps winning. NASCAR drivers won’t shave on race day. And Tom Brady donned the same pair of shoulder pads for 25 years, reconditioned annually, before upgrading last season. Leave it to Tom to flout superstition and still be named Super Bowl MVP.

I was sitting in the bleachers at Fenway Park on the night of Sept. 2, 2001, when Yankee pitcher Mike Mussina was one strike away from a perfect game. I may have crossed my fingers, hoping to witness history – only 16 perfect games had been pitched to date. And then Carl Everett hit a bloop single. Someone at Fenway must have violated baseball’s most sacrosanct superstition: never mention a no-hitter or perfect game while it is in progress.

Superstition twists the wishes that we extend to stage performers. We tell them to “break a leg” because, the story goes, saying “good luck” will bring them just the opposite.

Many cultures consider the number 13 to be bad luck. Some cite the betrayer Judas as the 13th guest at the Last Supper; others note the traditional 13 steps to a hangman’s gallows.

I can’t prove that pessimistic associations with the number 13 are justified, but I do have this: As a junior in high school, I wore number 13 on my away-game basketball jersey. Our team had a so-so year. I switched to number 30 the following season and we went 19 and 4.

In 1921, my maternal grandparents got married on superstition’s high holiday: Halloween. Their union spawned an extended Italian family, into whose lively and loving embrace I entered almost 40 years later. I was the 12th of Vincent and Etta’s 13 grandchildren.

I would tell you how happy and successful the 13th grandchild is, but I don’t want to jinx my younger brother.

Thoughts on aging from runners, writers, and priests

As published in The Providence Sunday Journal, September 19, 2021.

I walk my dog, Rhody, up Peirce Street on a quiet Sunday morning as the sun floats above the horizon like an orange crystal ball. We round the corner at the granite steeple of St. Luke’s Church and are greeted by the sound of a runner’s slow, steady gait. A balding, bespectacled man approaches, wearing a sweat-darkened gray t-shirt and Nikes that seem two sizes too big. As he clomps closer, I catch his eye to say hello, but his words beat mine:

“Don’t get old!” he huffs as he lumbers past. 

The man’s admonition amuses me. Do I have any choice? Rhody pulls me onward, unleashing a dull, familiar ache in my shoulder.

In “As You Like It,” Shakespeare delineates the seven ages of man, from “mewling” infant in a nurse’s arms to the “second childishness” of old age, “sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.” Sheesh.

Other writers opine on aging more positively. There are these heartening words from Colombian author Gabriel Garcia Marquez: “Our inner lives are eternal, which is to say that our spirits remain as youthful and vigorous as when we were in full bloom.”

William Butler Yeats, also less despairing than Shakespeare, is nonetheless wistful: “How far away the stars seem, and how far is our first kiss, and ah, how old my heart!” I remember my first kiss: fifth grade, 50 years ago, a furtive moment in a garage on Whitford Avenue in Providence, bubblegum sweet. My heart was racing.

Rhody and I continue up Church Street, passing the walled graveyard that sits behind St. Luke’s and then the playground beyond the church parking lot where young children are laughing.

Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw observes that “youth is wasted on the young.” The Who’s Pete Townshend shoots back: “I hope I die before I get old.”

Another Irish writer, Oscar Wilde, declares “With age comes wisdom,” adding, in typical pithy fashion, “But sometimes age comes alone.”

Cheryl Strayed is grateful: “You will come to know things that can only be known with the wisdom of age and the grace of years. Most of those things will have to do with forgiveness.”

My black rescue dog is three years old. That’s 28 in human years, according to the American Kennel Club. The organization has fine-tuned its age calculation methodology from the “one dog year equals seven human years” dictum that I grew up with. It now tallies more years for a canine’s early life and fewer as a dog ages. According to the latest guidance, if we’re both lucky, Rhody and I will be the same age sometime around 2029.

My furry sidekick looks like she’s smiling as she takes in the morning air, untroubled by times past or times to come. Rhody lives in the present.

In “I Remember Nothing,” Nora Ephron tends toward the fatalistic: “Everybody dies. There’s nothing you can do about it. Whether or not you eat six almonds a day. Whether or not you believe in God.”

Every Ash Wednesday, at the St. Luke’s altar rail, the faithful kneel with foreheads raised as a priest intones, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Forty-six days later, Easter offers the hope of a different ending.

I wrestle with the Resurrection story even as I am guided by the enduring teachings of the Old and New Testaments. 

I do, however, find comfort in the words of Vladimir Nabokov, who invokes the “durable pigments” of painters and “prophetic sonnets” of writers in describing an antidote to human transience: “the refuge of art.”

Immortality may be elusive, but 405 years after his death, Shakespeare lives. 

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