True Stories

We will light the house with 500 candles to welcome in the New Millennium!

My Invitation to our Millennium party

We covered every surface in our living room, dining room and kitchen with hundreds of burning candles on December 31st, 1999, trying to provide enough light to overcome the widely feared and hyped Y2K problems, falsely predicted to wreak havoc on personal, digital and financial worlds. 

We had a dozen clocks synchronized in the dining room, proudly led by a gold plated, loudly ticking, ornate clock festooned with angels and cherubs from the Dutch 19th century, ready to herald in the New Millenium. The candles put out a surprising amount of heat and we soon had to open all of the doors and windows to cool the house down and replenish the flame burned oxygen. Midnight exploded with loud, festive clock bells and alarms, champagne corks, toasts and fireworks in the back yard.

Check your bed for scorpions.

This bit of arachnid-phobic advice was given to me upon check in at Maho Bay – an eco-resort on the isle of Saint John in the Virgin Islands where my new wife and I were about to begin our honeymoon, a few days after getting married in Saratoga, California. We had flown from Puerto Rico to Saint John the previous day as the only passengers on an eight seat, puddle jumper, twin engine plane. I sat next to the pilot who told me that he was a little hung over from a party the previous evening.

We arrived in Saint John on July 3rd. The next day was July 4th, the American Virgin Island’s Independence day which they had adapted into Carnival day. The island was full of masked, carousing people, drinking copious quantities of rum, singing, dancing in the streets and eating conch fritters. Reggae bands were driving through town, playing on the back of flat bed trucks. Many celebrants were teetering on very tall stilts, dancing in a long parade through the town, singing, shouting and loudly cracking bullwhips above everyone’s heads. It was a very festive, if slightly menacing welcome to the island. It was their local version of Mardi Gras.

After a celebratory drink of rum mixed with guava and coconut cream, we ate our first conch fritters and slowly made our way to Maho Bay, where we were warned to check our beds for scorpions before laying down. It turned out to be good advice, as I found one nestled between the sheets the next afternoon. Scorpions typically are ground-dwelling, tree-living, rock or sand-loving, but this one clearly craved the higher thread count fabric of a honeymoon suite for its afternoon nap.

Saint John Carnival • Mocko Jumbie

As an individual, he couldn’t hold a candle to Al Capone’s fingernail when it comes to being a human being. If you was trying to give him something, he’d try to steal it from you first.

Caroll Stowe was a machinist, truck driver, wagonmaster, horseman, storyteller and writer and was a truly unique individual. He grew up on a small family farm in Colrain, Massachusetts. For many years he cut our summer hay fields in very rural Heath, Massachusetts, keeping the fields clear so they would not revert back into forests. After a day of cutting he would always come into the house where he knew he would be offered a beer in a houseful of friends ready to hear one or usually many of his stories dating from the depression era up to the present day. He would regularly turn down offers of a Bud or Coors and ask if we had maybe another kind of beer, often settling on Harpoon IPA. He wrote a column based on his extraordinary life for the local paper and his stories were later collected into a book. 

He wore bib overalls and spoke incredibly loudly with a broad Massachusetts accent. His heroes were Winn Warner, a local logger who owned and operated a small sawmill and Howard Thompson, who was our neighbor and a dairy farmer, who was a kind man and a bit of a prankster. Caroll held these two up as paragons of virtue with impeccable character in contrast to his description of this less worthy individual who would first try to steal something that you were attempting to give to him.

Caroll was also the uncle of the magician and illusionist Penn Jilette who grew up in nearby Greenfield Massachusetts, where his father was a prison guard. It was a town that Jilette had no nostalgia for in later life, and was one of the reasons that he settled in Las Vegas, 3,000 miles away, where he and his magician partner Teller have been regularly performing at the Rio Hotel theater since 2001.

Ap Capone mugshot

Look at that big fat naked man! 

Tomales Bay and Mount Tamalpias • Photo by MMB

I was taking a sunrise walk through the tiny town of Dillon Beach on the shores of Tomales Bay in September of 1962 with my cousin Prill, when we saw a large naked man open the curtains of his living room and stand framed by the drapes, a startling and unwelcome entrance onto the stage of the new day for two eleven year old children walking by. 

The previous day we had eaten lunch in Chinatown on my first day ever in San Francisco at the Golden Dragon Cafe in a private booth with curtains, something that seemed very exotic to me at the time. Years later the Golden Dragon would be the site of a Chinese gang shoot out involving a dispute between the Wah Ching and the Joe Boys which would leave five patrons dead. Fortunately we were able to eat our fried rice, chow Mein, won tons and tea smoked duck in peace.

After the older fat man exited, stage right, behind his curtains, Prill and I walked on down to the shores of Tomales bay and found a huge bleeding great white shark on the beach, caught, shot multiple times, killed and towed in by fishermen. Dillon Beach is at the mouth of long and narrow Tomales Bay and great white sharks congregate there where the bay meets the ocean to harvest breakfasts, lunches and dinners of fresh seafood, swept into the bay and out to sea twice daily by the tides. It is a treacherous navigational area for small boats. A friend ran his large catamaran into a shoal there, damaging one of the hulls and forcing postponement of his sailing voyage across the Pacific to the Marshall Islands for weeks until he could make the necessary repairs.

Great White Shark

I’d rather have two birds in the bush than to have this bird in my hand.


I was sitting on my back porch, enjoying a sunny April day with my cat James Brown purring contentedly on my lap when he suddenly hammered out at the air and struck a humming bird as it was flying by. I caught it in my hand as it fell down where it died of a broken neck moments later, nestled between my palms. It was incredibly warm and seemed unbelievably small and fragile for such a quick, vibrant, flying creature. Much of the visual volume of a hummingbird is in its frenetic, whirring, whirling wings.

Both my brother Peter and my friend Rob were able to catch hummingbirds in their hands that came in through open doors and couldn’t find their way out of the house without a helping hand. Both birds were successfully returned to outdoor life unharmed, unlike the unfortunate fly-by victim of James Brown, the lightning fast, feline avian assassin.

Feline avian assassin

Hogamus Higamous, Man is Polygamous, Higamous Hogamus, Woman is Monogamous.

I first heard this phrase declared by Tom Hause, a Resident Assistant graduate student studying Russian Political history, at my dorm at Stanford my freshman year.  The psychologist William James is reputed to have written down these rhymes while experimenting with the psychoactive gas nitrous oxide, commonly known as laughing gas. While experiencing a reverie James became convinced that he had developed a profound insight into the laws of the universe. The next day when he examined the paper on which he scrawled his precious wisdom he read this bit of doggerel: Hogamous, Higamous, Man is Polygamous, Higamous, Hogamous, Woman is Monagamous. He was somewhat disappointed, although it is difficult to see why. There is probably more easily understandable truth in this verse than in many of his more philosophical writings.

William James

He is an extrovert who does not like people. She is an extrovert who likes people. She is an introvert who does not like people. He is an introvert who likes people.

I was at a music festival on the edge of Yosemite National Park enjoying cocktail hour at our campsite when my wife’s family began describing their personalities and their personal likes and dislikes in the pantheon of the human race as we were discussing the Myer’s-Briggs psychological personality test.

The Myers–Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) is an introspective self-report questionnaire indicating differing psychological preferences in how people perceive the world and make decisions. The underlying assumption of the MBTI is that we all have specific preferences in the way we construe our experiences, and these preferences underlie our interests, needs, values, motivations and life paths. 

My friend Marcia’s father, a Stanford phschologist, had acquired the publishing rights to the test. His company, The Consulting Psychologist’s Press, had hired me to do some graphic design work to generate even more useage and sales. They called it “the world’s most widely used personality assessment,” with as many as two million test assessments administered annually.

It was interesting to hear the very accurate psychological self evaluations of my wife and her siblings. Like one of her siblings. I am an introvet who likes most people, though I have a hard time with stupid people, seditious people, ignorant people, conservative people, Republicans and their willingness to indulge malicious, democracy-endangering lies, self righteous religious nut jobs, people for whom “Good Enough” is good enough, cruel people, people who do not understand and appreciate science, art, literature, poetry, music and the beauty and wonder of the world, people who embrace the phenomenon of cancel culture and people who believe that cultural cross pollination and cultural appropriation is a moral thought crime. Sharing ideas is how is how art, culture and civilization change, improve and thrive – Other than that, I love and appreciate almost everyone.

Myers-Briggs personality types

His father came and stole him from school and took him to Florida!

My friend Robbie, who I knew as a summer pal in rural western Massachusetts, suddenly disappeared from my life, and all I ever knew about how or why he disappeared was that his father somehow stole him. He was the first child of divorce that I knew in the late 1950’s, when divorce was something you only heard about from whispering adults or on strange, scarey television shows. He was abducted by his father late one afternoon from his school in Boston and was taken to Florida. I never saw him again.


Oh Wow! Oh Wow! Oh Wow! Oh Wow!

Those were the sounds my heart was making as I was laying on an examination table with a well lubricated science wand pushed very firmly into my chest during an amplified electro-cardiogram reading. Half a dozen electrodes were taped to me, picking up the whooshing, pumping sounds of life loudly coursing through my veins and arteries. My heart seemed impressed with its performance and was verbally applauding itself over and over.

My heart, beating for you

Here it is! You’ll be able to see now!

I was bending over a stream at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, near the Coorado River, looking for a hard plastic contact lens that Karen had just lost in the water as she was rinsing it to insert it into her eye in the morning just after breakfast. The current had dislodged it from her fingers. She had no glasses and no replacement lenses with her and we had just hiked 10 miles down the steep and rugged Bright Angel Trail the previous day to the bottom of the canyon, where we intended to camp for several days. Knowing I had to go fishing for a tiny, clear plastic circular dot in a bubbling stream, I knelt down and concentrated with all of my mental energy and visual acuity. After a couple of minutes of serious attentiveness and tunnel vision I saw something glinting back up at me from the shimmering liquid, and reached down into the water and retrieved the contact lens from where it was caught between two small rocks. As it was already fully rinsed, Karen was able to insert it into her eye and restore her 20/20 vision.

We spent a couple of days hiking, lounging and exploring by the mighty Colorado, both able to see the scenic grandeur and stunning goelogic history written into the rocks surrounding us. We awoke the next morning and found that it had snowed in the upper parts of the trail, almost a vertical mile above where we were camping. We hiked half way up and found the campground at Indian Gardens covered with deep snow. We spent the night on the concrete floor of a bathroom, cold and uncomfortable, but at least we were dry and out of the snow, and hiked up to the rim of the canyon the next day.

Grand Canyon and Colorado River • Photo by MMB

Here are your Green Stamps!

Green Stamps

When I first drove across the United States in the summer of 1962, there were no strip malls, chain restaurants and very little fast food culture in America. Much of our travel on that first cross country trip was on two lane blacktop roads, intersecting with a much more interesting, diverse and regionally cultured America. I often had a short stack of pancakes, a glass of orange juice and a piece of ham for breakfast for .50 to .75 cents. 

My father at the time was writing a satirical column for “Christianity and Crisis” magazine entitled “Saint Heriticus,” and as I was the keeper of the travel journal, he asked me to write down the names of all of the “Trading Stamp” varieties that were available across the country. Trading stamps were small paper stamps given to customers in large paper sheets by merchants in store allegiance programs that predated the modern digital loyalty cards and discount codes. 

They were mostly available at gas stations, grocery stores, and department stores and there were many different brands and varieties available across the country. My mother collected Green Stamps, and we had redeemed thousands of them for sporting goods and kitchen cook ware. They came in endless sheets and you had to lick them and paste them into multi paged books before bringing them into stores stocked with prizes to redeem them. I wrote down the names of all of the varieties of  Trading Stamps for my father as satiric ammunition for a future column that he intended to write when he discovered that a church in Florida was giving parishioners trading stamps in return for attending church services. 

Apple is so insignificant in the computer world that it’s not even a platform anymore.

Apple Headquarters • 2020

I was being chided for being an Apple user in my early computing life, as at the time in the 1980’s, it was the only platform that was optimized for and used by artists and the graphics industry. My friend was an IT guru in the academic world and was firmly embedded in the PC world and was scornful of those who were not. 

This morning in the summer of 2020,  Apple was valued at 2 trillion dollars and IPhones, iPads and iPods seem to be only inches away from any person’s fingertips any day, anytime, anywhere in the world now, so perhaps Apple has finally become a viable and innovative computing, communications, entertainment and information platform.

If you don’t give me your God damn car keys right now, I will fight you. I will fight you right now! I guarantee you, it will go to fists! it will go to fists!

We were in the Tree Fort late one night in the spring of 1968 when a very drunk Wayne started yelling these threats at his friend Eric. The Tree Fort was a huge, multi story, rambling tree house, built over several summers in an enormous oak tree in Frank’s backyard on a hilltop above the Stanford campus. Frank’s father taught at the Stanford medical school and was a doctor at the Stanford Hospital. George Schultz, the future US Secretary of State under Ronald Reagan and a member of the Stanford’s arch conservative Hoover Institution lived nearby. 

The Tree Fort was a classic teen age den of iniquity – The nightmare stuff of parent’s dreams. Frank’s mother was a vodka enthusiast and his parent’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy regarding the hulking structure in their backyard guaranteed zero oversight and total anonymity to the crowds of young people who showed up there every weekend night for a couple of years. Occasionally when the noise became too loud, Frank’s father would blow a musical warning on his trumpet to let Frank know that the party volume was excessive.

The Tree Fort had several levels. The entry door was at the bottom of the first floor, about 20 feet above the ground. The route up was a crude stairway built with random width strips of 2” x 4” boards nailed onto the rough bark of the tree. Several drunken people would eventually fall to the ground attempting to climb or descend the mighty oak. A Ground Fort was later built with several rooms, which lessened the danger of falls. Furniture to furnish some of the three large rooms of the Ground Fort was stolen from nearby fraternity buildings. 

Alcohol was the drug of choice for most of the denizens of the Tree Fort. There was always beer,  sometimes plastic bottles of vodka or sloe gin, purchased with fake IDs or stolen from nearby Stanford professor’s garage refrigerators. Some degenerates liked to drink bottles of Romilar cough syrup or swallow the interior contents of  Wyamine nasal inhalers, which at the time contained mephentermine, a stimulant. The worst offenders sometimes sniffed glue or gasoline, and some of them went to an early grave because of those bad choices. The Forts were finally taken down after parental complaints to the police and arrests for drunken driving.

I was more interested in clarity and expanded perception and did not spend much time there – only enough to know that it was not really my scene. My girlfriend and I considered alcohol to be the mind numbing drug of older, prior generations and never drank. Her father was an Englishman and a Stanford professor of astro physics who studied the properties of plasma in outer space. His concern when he found us in bed together in her room was that she cover herself up with a blanket so she wouldn’t catch a cold, a down to earth attitude that I could not have agreed with any more.

Tree house in France

It is better to light a Camel than to curse the Sahara!

Camel logo

This twist on the age old saying “It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness” came from my friend, the poet and writer, David Brennan, back when he was a smoker. I first met David when we hired him to help us dismantle a 3 story, 19th century barn in western Massachusetts and transport it up a mountain to be rebuilt and repurposed as a vacation home for a photographer. David had a wry wit and a sardonic sense of humor, an ironic twinkle in his eyes and a way with words, as befits a poet.

One of my favorite aspects of New York City life when I was a child was seeing the Camel Cigarettes billboard in Times Square which featured the enormous face of a man with a fedora blowing endless perfect smoke rings, made of steam. Camels were the world’s first packaged cigarettes and in their first year 425 million packs were sold. That’s a lot of smoke rings and lung cancer! I always loved the artwork on the front of the package of a camel standing in the desert with palm trees and two pyramids. That image, seeing Lawrence of Arabia seven times and hearing the song Marrakech Express, eventually inspired me travel to Morocco, where we saw camel auctions.

Camel billboard • Times Square, 1950’s • New York