Category Archives: Gray Matter

The Porcine Pendant

A non-native but well rooted Vashon Islander and long-time friend sent us an extraordinary and unexpected gift last Christmas.

Cliff had previously bestowed on us a small tin of “Last Supper Dinner Mints” with a miniature resemblance of da Vinci’s famous painting on the lid, and, on another occasion, an Edgar Allen Poe hanging car freshener, which actually worked. To receive another marvelous oddity from him was not a generic surprise, but we couldn’t wait to see the specific.

Cliff is known for his large, generous heart and Yoda-like wisdom, his endearingly oddball humor, and his nearly astounding ability to discern the perfect weird gift.

Retrieving the thick Washington-postmarked envelope from the mailbox, Pamela and I were already smiling in anticipation of whatever it might contain. We imagined Cliff had been again to a certain favorite shop in Seattle, purveyor of a plethora of eclectic, humorous eccentricities. I slit the envelope open, and a slender cardboard sleeve slipped out. It was about the size of a fat pocket comb, but noticeably weightier. On it, a sticker proclaiming “Vashon Pharmacy” revealed that the source this time had not required Cliff a water passage to reach it. Evidently the Puget Sound cultural phenomenon had spread, and Vashon Island residents now support the oddity trade.

I drew the object from its sleeve, and stared at it, realizing what it was: a Christmas tree ornament. An artistic, creative, hugely funny, Christmas tree ornament. I was awed by the perfect genius of it. There in my hand was a five-inch long, red, silver, and black, stylized but identifiable, metallic strip of bacon. Through a small metal eye attached to one end a seasonally colored loop of string passed, to expedite evergreen hanging. Bacon with bling!

You know you have a good and understanding friend when you can thank him for his quirky generosity and tell him your intent to immediately re-gift the object, both in the same message. I assured Cliff that our giving the bacon to our daughter’s family would double the joy he’d already conferred.

You see, our son-in-law and our grandson are both serious, lifelong bacon-o-philes. Their love for the salty, smoked-and-cured delicacy runs very deep—deeper, even, than their common love for anything chocolate, vanilla bean ice cream, and pepperoni pizza. Pamela and I were certain Wes and Caden, especially, would receive the ornament with even greater awe and wonder than we did. Melissa, our daughter, might roll her eyes, but our urge to hang it on their Christmas tree was irresistible.

So, on Christmas Eve the bacon ornament passed to future generations. Wes was most admiring and appreciative. Caden declared it “cool” and went back to his new digital game, yet another Mario variation. Melissa not only did not roll her eyes, but emitted the most enthusiastic gratitude of the three. Three-year-old Kylie knows both bacon and Christmas trees, but didn’t make the connection. She smelled the shiny ornament and turned away in disinterest. Princess dolls are way more important.

But a tradition has begun. The nearly numinous bacon strip was hung in a place of high honor on their fir, and pointed out to visitors. Already, it has the aura of an heirloom.

Thank you, Cliff!


Coming of Rain

A Short Story

In the pre-Andean foothills above San Isabel, midsummer’s dawn banishes what little coolness it takes each morning all night to earn. Heat and humidity build to a smothering swamp by midday. In early afternoon even the breezes siesta, and a patina of sweat forms on everything.

Most afternoons, the aging señora spends three or four hours in her suite in the hacienda. Her household staff, vineyard workers, gardeners, and grooms are freed to take their meals, sigh, and rest. For some, however, these are lesser reasons to anticipate the interlude. For Pablo and Carlota, it is their time.

Pablo washes himself after the morning hours spent tending malbec vines. As almost every afternoon, he walks through the laundry and enters the linen room inside it. Sometimes Carlota is already there, but today he’s arrived first. He slips off his shoes, slides them under the cot with his foot, and folds his pantalones on the straight-back chair. He stands at the linen room’s small window, his back to the door, removing his shirt. The window frames a massive mango tree. The room glows white, redolent of clean cotton.

Hearing the door he turns as Carlota peeks in, enters, and locks the door behind her. She is already hastily shedding her pechera, the formal maid’s uniform la señora insists she wear on duty. Pablo’s breath quickens. Despite the heat, he shivers when Carlota smiles at him with her whole body. He holds her flashing gaze. Her softness melts against his chest. Their contact ignites the wildfire they share, and it engulfs them again.

A drumfire of thunder echoes from the hills. San Isabel waits, hoping rain will come soon to bring sweet release from the imprisoning heat. January days always hold the prayer of an afternoon shower, but often the possibility dissolves as clouds rush east to dissipate over the plains, leaving behind flaccid air and but a tease of rain. Today, though, a thunderstorm amasses beyond the mountain and moves down, soothing the parched sky in its path. Locals know this one is big enough to boom and blow, burst and soak. Anticipation tingles through the village.

Carlota and Pedro listen to the storm’s quickening breath, and each other’s. Their bodies engage in a practiced dance on the cot’s damp sheets.

The storm sweeps over the hacienda, its winds making the house shiver. Booming thunderclaps come close together. Pablo is glad Carlota need not be quiet today. To the tempest’s urgent rhythm, their taut, wet skins slide against each other.

The storm’s intensity crests in a finale of electrical discharges and rippling thunder. The hacienda, and the cot, shudder. Outside, first large drops announce the downpour. San Isabel sighs, and the rains come.

Brad Now

I posted “Brad,” a chapter from Gift of Seeds, a few days ago. The tractor ride I described in it took place almost sixty years ago.

Yesterday, Brad phoned.

After my uncle Everett died in 1960, my grandmother leased her fields to other farmers, and my uncle’s right hand man had to find work elsewhere. The last time I saw Brad was at my uncle’s funeral. He stood off to one side with his wife, Ivory. I hardly recognized him in a suit and without a sweat-stained cap.

After Gift of Seeds was published, my sister gave me the address and I sent an email to Everett’s daughter, my cousin Mary Ann, in Milford, Delaware. I wrote her about the book and the people she knew who appear in it, including her father and our Grandma Stayton. Months later I received an email from Mary Ann’s adult daughter, Stephanie. The email address I’d used is actually hers. Seems Mary Ann isn’t much on email “but she’d love to talk,” her daughter wrote back, and gave me the phone number.

We talked. We scarcely knew each other as children. Now, more than half a century later, we had our first conversation. The next day she called me, and we talked some more. I was lucky to remember half the people she was bringing me up to date on.

“Bedie died, must be ten years ago now, and Herbie’s long gone. Janet lives somewhere in Arizona; I’ll get you her address. Aunt May and Uncle Tom’s farm was sold off in parcels, I don’t know whatever became of Martha or Dickie; Clint and Jane live right next door; we tore down grandma’s old barn last year; the only thing left standing of the farm buildings is the milk house; and Doug—remember Doug?—he lives over to Frederica; my husband Sam’s mom, Mother Day, lives with us. She stills drives to bingo in town at the senior center. A while before Stephanie was born I had a miscarriage, but the year grandma passed, I had my hysterectomy, and Aunt Zena died too; it was a bad year…”

A dust devil of details later, Mary Ann said, “Brad lives right here in Milford. I run into him once in a while.”

“Do you have his address?” I asked.

Mary Ann looked up “Bradie Worthy” in the phone book. I heard her flipping pages. She gave me his information right then. The next morning I mailed Brad a letter with a copy of Gift of Seeds, intending to wait a week and then call him.

He called me first. My cousin had given him my number. My smarter-than-me phone already knew the call was from an unknown number in Milford, but only I knew it had to be Brad.

“Jack? That you?”

His voice touched a gossamer wisp of memory, but this was an older, rural-sounding man, articulate, his tone gravelly but distantly familiar. He knew me by Jack, my childhood nickname.

“Brad!” I exclaimed.

“Yes it is! I got your book. Thank you! Thank you. I’ve never been so surprised.”

“Nobody ever wrote such nice things about me. Brings me back to a finer time, a happy time… Your grandma and your uncle were good people, and real good to me…”

We exchanged memories about family and friends, past and present.

“I read other stories in your book and liked them, but I keep going back to ‘Brad’ and reading it again. I’m still just soaking it up.”

I had thanked Brad in my letter to him, saying the meaning and importance of that long-ago time have stayed with me and influenced how I’ve seen the world ever since.

“Please accept this Gift of Seeds with my profound gratitude for the positive, formative part you played in my upbringing,” I inscribed in the book I sent him.

After a short silence, Brad said, softly, “I had no idea, no idea… no idea at all…”

I could almost see him slowly shaking his gray-haired head in time with the words he dropped one by one into the phone. From a deep well, a lifetime of feelings rose. His voice trembled. I teared up, too.

We’d both had no idea, until now.

A Book Worth Reading

I went to hear Héctor Tobar speak at University of California, Riverside last month and bought a copy of his novel, The Barbarian Nurseries, which he kindly signed with “a big abrazo.”

Having just read the book, I realize how big that abrazo was and is. Tobar gathered a whole lot of what I love about Southern California and about Mexico in a strong, broad embrace and hugged it (and me) long and masterfully, unwinding a loving, lingering tale.

Lady Pamela and I have been fortunate to travel fairly extensively, and thirty or so years ago spent enough time in a language school in Cuernavaca, Mexico to coax my high school Spanish to a reasonably conversational level. We lived with the Arillo family, who became lifelong friends. They had little need of English, living an hour over the mountains south of Mexico City, and my longing to communicate more deeply with them was impetus to aprender más su idioma. Eric Crocker, a closer friend, was a Uruguayan-born bi-cultural American who lived his final years with his wife on a beach north of Acapulco. I do not have raices latinos myself, other than honorary, but I feel as deep a kinship.

In The Barbarian Nurseries Héctor Tobar pulled me into the contradictions and paradoxes playing out in the hearts and minds and actions of his richly conceived and developed characters. His writing deserves all the accolades he receives, which are many. Reading Tobar is a big abrazo!

Sweet Memory

Invented in Coney Island, New York, in 1912, Bonomo’s Turkish Taffy was a staple in one of the basic food groups of my childhood. It went off the market after sixty years, but the original-formula taffy was brought back in 2010. I just learned this in a throwback candy store in Old Town Temecula, California. A girl of five or six passed between me and the glass display counter with a partially unwrapped, familiar-looking candy bar in her hand and a halo of pale brown around her lips. Before the visual impression even registered, the unmistakable perfume of chocolate Bonomo’s reached my nose. So characteristically cloying and wonderfully redolent of secret ingredients, I didn’t have to taste it to know what it was. The olfactory intrusion brought back a complete multimedia memory, recollected for the first time since I was a little kid in Levittown, New York.

I was flat on my back on a warm asphalt street with Susan Weiss on top of me, holding me down. We were both in the third grade, but Susan had already grown larger, stronger, heavier. She sat on my legs and held my arms down with hers, pinning my scrawny T-shirted body helplessly to the pavement. I could do nothing to prevent little blonde Ellen from sneaking up and kissing me on the right cheek, her lips sticky with chocolate Bonomo’s Turkish Taffy. At age eight, being kissed by a girl is not something most boys welcome, or would admit if they did. When we were teenagers, Ellen and I tried it again without the bondage or Bonomo’s, and it was much better. Six decades later, we’re still friends.

This morning I am soaking in my back deck hot tub, and in the growing light from beyond Mount San Jacinto. Being perched on the eastern slope of an inland hill allows a long view of the arriving day. I muse about memory. If just a scent—or a sight, sound, touch, taste—can “bring it all back,” where was it? Back from where? Was it here all along, masquerading as past but just reposing in a timeless magnetic field, waiting to be activated by a waft of taffy? They say our brains have mapable neurological pathways, but the memories reached thereby are ethereal.

John Clinton Gray
March 8, 2013

An adapted excerpt from Gift of Seeds by John Clinton Gray

Shades of Gray

“Are you the real John Gray?”

I get asked that by a lot of people. I always assure them I am. I add that my wife is not from Venus; she’s from Iowa.

I have the second-most common first name and the sixty-ninth most common surname in America. An Internet search for “John Gray” turns up at least 76,000 results. Even Googling my whole name, John Clinton Gray, turns up matches. Wikipedia thinks the most famous one was born in1843: a John Clinton Gray who served as a New York Court of Appeals judge from 1888 until 1913. Then pneumonia got him.

I was named after both my grandfathers. Had I been born last week I might be called Noah Mason Gray or Jacob Justin Gray, so to me, my more traditional monikers are just fine. I’ve worn them a long time, after all. They’re well broken in, comfortable. “John” derives from a Hebrew root meaning “God is gracious” and “Clinton” refers to a “town on a hill” in Old English. It’s amazing, but I actually live in a town on a hill, and if it weren’t for the grace of God I probably wouldn’t be here. So, I think my prescient parents got my name just right.

Except, well… there are so many of us…

John Grays alive today include a television news anchor in Albany, New York; a mayor of Greenland, Arkansas; a Canadian ice hockey player; an English cricketer; and a fugitive from the law in Trinidad, Texas.

In addition to the judge, among dead John Grays are an English poet and priest; the first practitioner of homeopathy in the United States; an Aussie rules footballer; a U.S. Civil War Medal of Honor recipient; the founder of Gray’s School of Art in Aberdeen, Scotland; and the first president of Ford Motor Company. There was also a chemistry professor at the U.S. Naval Academy, my grandfather.

Hey, it could be worse. The most common male name in the country is James Smith. Search that, and up come 460,000 results. So, being one of 76,000 isn’t that bad. After all, I am the real one.

John Clinton Gray
February 4, 2013

To The Last Bite

I lost a life-long friend yesterday. For over 50 years I knew him intimately, but not by name. The dentist called him Number Fifteen, one of my four 12-year molars and a veteran of mastications too many to mention. It was sad to see this loyal buddy go; we shared roots, after all. For over 5 decades he knew everything I ever ate or drank and most of anything else I did with my mouth. We were that close.

Number 15’s demise wasn’t unanticipated. More than 25 years ago, a dentist now long-retired, first told me the molar’s days were numbered. “It’s just a question of when,” he advised. Over the years, two other dentists, six highly professional hygienists, and one expensive periodontist all pronounced similar sentences. Number Fifteen’s days were indeed numbered, but it turned out to be a pretty big number.

Alas, yesterday—nearly ten thousand days and some thirty thousand meals later, not to mention innumerable snacks and sticks of gum—it came time for Number Fifteen to give up the ghost. I could have said “bite the dust,” but that would be insensitive. He can’t bite anything now. Toward the end I wished Number Fifteen were less sensitive himself. You see, he’d reached the point where he couldn’t take the cold anymore, and the pressure of everyday work had gradually worn his nerves raw. Worst of all, he was losing his grip on my left maxillary bone.

After examining x-rays, my current long-time dentist shook his head slowly and tsked a little behind his sterile mask. “It won’t be long now,” he said, more to the molar than to me. This doctor has presided over many dental deaths in his career, but I could feel his sadness and resignation at losing another. Or maybe he was mourning the loss of the nice little income stream he’d derived from Number Fifteen. For years that molar had received more attention and special treatment than all his 31 brothers combined. He was high maintenance for sure. And in his final weeks Number Fifteen could, without warning, emit sudden, silent, cranial-splitting screams right in the middle of otherwise enjoyable repasts.

We were beyond the point of heroic measures. I reclined in the dentist’s chair, numbing, awaiting the final deed. I was grateful the pain in my head and in my wallet would both be over. If the tooth be known, Number Fifteen’s pockets were deeper than mine.

Winter Solstice 2012

A Light Look at a Dark Day

Twice a year we arrive at a solstice. It’s an astronomical term, which is not to mean that it’s an extraordinarily big word. It’s pretty average-sized as far as words go, but I think it has extraordinary meaning.

(1) Either of the two times a year when the sun is at its greatest distance from the celestial equator: about June 21, when the sun reaches its northernmost point on the celestial sphere, or about December 21, when it reaches its southernmost point.
(2) A furthest or culminating point; a turning point.

Solstice springs from compound roots, the most apparent being sol, or sun. The -stice part of solstice comes from a root meaning “to make stand still.”

North of the equator we’ve been having just a bit less sunlight time every day since last June. Reaching the solstice, our days now start becoming gradually longer over the next six months, until we again reach the longest day, the summer solstice, in June. The days stop growing, then begin to shrink again; the cycle repeats.

At each solstice, the days stop getting longer or shorter, and reverse. The sun seems to stand still for an instant, and then the daily duration of sunlight slowly changes. The shift is only a few minutes per day, and it can take weeks to really notice much of a difference. But solstice perfectly defines the culminating phenomenon. It’s the moment the sun appears to stand still.

We all have our own solstices too, though probably not twice a year at perfectly regular intervals. These are times of change, when something that was, is no longer. Milestone events are solstices. What was before—high school student, for example—ends, and graduate begins. The pregnancy is over; you’re a parent. Like a swinging pendulum, motion in one direction ceases just before going in another. What was going on concludes, and now it’s something else. Solstice. The actual point of shift may be obvious—you’re a mom now!—or subtle: “How did I get this old?”

Every solstice, whether summer’s or winter’s start or personal turning point, may remind us of life’s cyclical rhythms. From the pulse of our hearts to our sun’s speeding around the Milky Way’s center, from subatomic particles to systems of galaxies, you and I are part of it all. Maybe all too often our oh-so-important personal lives distract us from this grandeur, but then along comes a solstice, our sun stands still for an instant, and we remember.

—John Clinton Gray
December 20, 2012

Veggies On My Mind

I’m omnivorous with girth as proof, and a gourmand of the garden. Is there a vegetable I cannot stomach?

veggies2 Give me artichokes and arugula, asparagus, beets, and beans of all kinds. I love bok choy and broccoli, and brussel sprouts (yes, even brussel sprouts), cabbage, carrots, and cauliflower. I delight in collards, and eggplant; peas, kale, leeks, and parsnips.


Give me every squash, and spinach, and yams. I’m happy with them all…  But, alas, there is one vegetable the very thought of which makes my throat constrict, my intestines roil and stomach convulse.


It’s okra. Disguised in flavorful batter and deep fried in garlic doesn’t count. You can get most anything past your palate with the right accompaniments, but straight boiled okra… The very word, let alone the vegetable, starts that bowel curdling retch. It’s the texture, the hairiness, the gelatinous interior, the seeds, the fibrous husk… Yuck, and double yuck! Even the most otherwise wonderful Southern dishes can’t hide it.

okra2 There. I’ve confessed. It’s okra, cursed okra…