Dialogue/711. One.

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I wore a t-shirt this morning from an organization which has zero tolerance for snares in the wild; Painted Dog Conservation. I drove to 711. A few men always gather near the coffee counter to talk; it is a routine. Their trucks idle outside and they wear camouflage clothing even when they’re just headed to the store. Ironically, they really do blend in here, especially near the shelves of chips and the display of Virginia Tech paraphernalia.

One of the two noticed my shirt. I was not part of this conversation; just the catalyst:

“Yeah I gotta get rid of my snares.”

“Ain’t using them?”

“Nah. They’re not good. They snap the legs right off the turkey and the damn things get far enough to die where I can’t find them.”

“Sheeeet.”

“Yeah.”

“Dang.”

“Uhuh.”

“I saw me some snares got grippers electronically hooked up to know how much to grab to hold them without snapping off the best part.”

“I heard of them. I sure did, down at that show in Richmond.”

“That’s where I saw ’em. They got a device will text me when the snare snaps.”

“Sheeet.”

“Yeah.”

“Ain’t cheap I’m betting you.”

“Forty or so.”

“Ain’t bad. I’ll have to get some.”

They sipped their coffee. One asked how I was doing and that he liked my shirt. I honestly think he believed the shirt promotes snares. Though to be fair, it has a lot of words on it.

Him to the other guy:

“You ready for deer?”

“Almost. I needs me new collars for the dogs. Something with better range so I can track them right to the kill. I shot me one last year made it a mile before he collapsed. Damn dog collars were out of range and I had to hike out there looking. It was pouring out, like today.”

“Sheeet.”

“Yeah.”

“Dang.”

“Uhuh.”

“Can’t wait to go huntin.”

“Yeah, me too.”

I opened the door to leave and I wished them a good day.

“Yeah, you too. See ya out there, brother!” one said. I walked to my car eating my vegetarian egg roll.

SNARES CAN KILL *ANY* ANIMAL/WILDLIFE | Animal articles, Wildlife  protection, Animal stories

So We Beat On, Boats Against The Current

It’s the middle of September, kids are back in school, I’m well into teaching the second essay of the semester and reminded everyone of the Fall break; along the docks in Deltaville, some folks are already taking their boats out of the water while I met one couple from Germany who are already scouting marinas to pull in for the winter. Football is underway, baseball is winding down, and I received the annual European Deli Christmas catalogue filled with beautiful tins loaded with German chocolates. Autumn arrives in ten days, and to mark the change, at least for me here along the river, most of the osprey have already left for South America, I’ve seen a couple of eagles return, and last night a few flocks of geese arrived, settling in the duck pond since the corn and soybean have yet to be harvested.

I can relate to Jay Gatsby: “Summer is almost gone. Makes you want to reach out and hold it back.” I used to resist leaving summer with all my mental energy I could summon. I often thought I should, at the first sign of a falling leaf, hightail it to Monserrat or St. Croix.

The irony of my life is I have thrived on change and various experiences for four decades, and yet I don’t really do well at all with change, in particular, seasonal. Spring into Summer isn’t so bad since there’s something about Summer that calls to me. I like listening to baseball on the radio, swimming in the ocean while I can hear kids calling to each other, playing games, and music drifting down from beach blankets, salt water, waves. Winter to Spring is beautiful; I start thinking about planting here at Aerie, flowers and vegetables; I look forward to the buds and new growth, the return of so much wildlife. Dead of Winter, however, the post-holiday time, can be a bear. Fall is an odd combination of perfect weather and scenery which I’ve always loved, especially when I lived in New England and western New York, but it carries the slow erosion of life, the increased layers of clothes make me realize I need to “protect” myself against nature instead of experience her. I am not a fan of Autumn almost as much as I love it.

Also, my fourth quarter has started. I wish that I could slow the whole thing down.

It was dusk, the western sky almost purple in its last moment of a long day, and I could hear the geese before they came into sight over the trees, a few dozen of them. I stood still watching them pass directly above then bank to the northeast ever so slightly when they saw the unplowed field, and I could see them settle beyond the eastern tree line to a pond which runs a ways along the river. Yes, it is autumn. Soon the field will be harvested and they will settle there, hundreds of them, sometimes thousands.

And yet, as a college professor for thirty some odd years, this is the time of beginnings, of starting over and “having another shot at it.” Everything takes on a tinge of newness, from young students with wide eyes wondering where their next class is, to throwing out last semester’s lessons that didn’t work well and replacing them with new ideas, new approaches. I just completed the final page proofs of a book that comes out in Spring, which will help pull me through winter with anticipation and excitement. The seasons’ relevance is directly tied to our lives and how we live them. I could see the geese and realize it won’t be long before I don’t need to mow the lawn or weed, before the dormant trees allow me to see more sky, and the bugs, well, the bugs are simply gone, thank God.

That’s called “spin,” by the way. I’ve mastered the art of spin.

So let’s be blunt. I love autumn, but I’ve grown weary of the passing of time, or, better said, how I spend the passing of time. I was good at it during my second quarter, and to a lesser degree, the third quarter. So with one quarter left and having the experience of 244 seasons, I’ve changed my game plan. I’m not resisting the change as much as riding it like the geese who catch a draft from the west and glide for miles to the pond, not pushing back once, not needing to push back even one time.

If things aren’t going well, whether from this crazy world we’re renting for a while or from some internal misfire, I remember Neil Diamond: “I’ve been this way before and I’m sure to be this way again.” And I remember my plans to travel and experience: Ohio. Florida. Utah. Russia again. Perhaps Prague.

And most notably, the river, right here, where the water is still warm but not for long, and if we push out and paddle upstream into some of the inlets, we can see the changing wildlife, the flocks of starlings and the rafts of ducks most common once summer’s lease has expired.

And when it sometimes becomes a bit too much to bear, I’ll remember the words of Nick Calloway: “There’ll be other summers.”

Catching Up

Taxi Driver by Martin Scorsese (1976) | SP Film Journal

The first time I went away by myself, other than a few extended trips with a high school friend of mine to Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and camping in the mountains, was my freshman year at college. That was a ten-hour drive from my home, so returning on a weekend was simply out of the question. This was a time when communication by today’s standards was archaic. We had no cell phones, no computers, no answering machines if we even had a regular phone, which I didn’t. Mine was a payphone at the end of the dorm hallway which I shared with ninety, often drunk guys. So even if someone did try to reach me, one of us on the floor would not only have to hear it ring, but we’d have to muster up the energy to walk down the hall and answer it. Doing so then entailed learning who the person was calling for, walking to that person’s door, banging until they answered as you yelled “Bob! Phone!” and then return to bed without letting the caller know if the person was even home. So no “message” would be left.

We wrote letters, on paper, with stamps and envelopes, and walked them to the post office on campus. But with papers to write, parties to attend, basketball games, and hikes along the river, letter-writing was not a priority. Instead, when we went away to school, we went away. Gone, out of their lives. See you in someday.

I arrived that first year in August and returned to Virginia Beach in November, and during that time away, while I often called my father at his office due to his toll-free line, and my mother much less often due to my lack of ability to plug the payphone with quarters, I didn’t talk to a single high school friend in any way for three solid months.

But when I got home. Oh, wow, when I returned home that first Thanksgiving weekend, I headed to my friend Mike’s house, and our friends Dave and Michele and Kathy and Patti all came over, and we sat out back or went to Pizza Hut and we talked. We told stories and talked and laughed so hard I can still picture us sitting there like it happened last week.

We had so much to catch up on. I told them about college, about the hills of western New York, about my roommate and floormates and others I met and became close to. I told them about apple picking in Albion, New York with a friend, or about how two other friends and I drove to the Billy Joel concert in Buffalo and got lost on the way back. I had an endless bag of stories to share with them, and they caught me up on life there. Dave was married, Michele had her first son, another was still out in Nashville and another in nursing school.

We all looked different than four months earlier. Older somehow, despite the probable lack of change. But even just a little bit of maturity came from the slightest change. We met new people, added new dimensions to our personality and experiences. I was hitchhiking to Niagara Falls, Jonmark was doing well in Nashville, Mike was doing traffic and news for a local television station. We had stories to tell that we would never have had to share if we all stayed a part of each other’s lives on a daily basis. What’s more, other people entered our prose. When you break off completely and start anew elsewhere, you learn new ways—it truly is that simple. I’m not suggesting that one doesn’t mature and learn and grow without leaving. But one point is indisputable: I had no idea what any of them had been up to, no clue. And they couldn’t possibly conceive of what I’d been doing. And there was no device save the US Postal Service to keep us informed.

So it became so easy to get caught up in catching up.

And when I returned to college, the same thing happened. It had only been a week since I left for Thanksgiving, but upon return, I could not wait to see my new friends, those I was literally living with, ate with three meals a day, walked home with at three am, cried with. The few days away from them felt longer than the time away from those friends from high school I’d known for some years. Something was different. All those changes that had scared me to death before leaving turned out to be the best thing for me, and none of them would have been as significant had they occurred while still holding the hands of friends through some WIFI way of living.

Fast forward.

During my first few years teaching college in the early nineties, I’d walk down the hallway toward class and could hear the students talking, multiple conversations overlapping about the weekend, about plans, majors, transfers, food, concerts, about life, all of it. New friends mostly, evolving into new relationships, new ways of thinking. I’ve seen strangers become partners become parents. And after a long college break, it took ten minutes to quiet down the room, everyone catching up, seemingly happier to be back then to have gone home to begin with.

But that eroded; slowly at first, and then with discouraging speed. When I approach a room for class these days, it might as well be empty for the silence. It’s easy to think it is, until I turn in the door and see twenty-three students sitting silently, staring at their phone, texting the same friends they’ve been texting since seventh grade, not knowing even the names of those next to them, one of whom might be their significant other, or a friend with similar interests, or someone with familiar plans and hopes. They don’t seem to even care.

They’ve never learned the art of missing someone, the value of silence, the strength that comes from a complete lack of ability to communicate. The time spent in their own thoughts, without music, without social media, without letting go for a period of time without knowing what happens, has slipped away. College students remain knee deep in high school conversations well into their collegiate years, and it leaves them all with a much more provincial perspective.

I have a friend who isn’t on Facebook or Instagram or Twitter or, really, anything virtual. But every once in a while, she’ll email or call, even text, and we’ll talk. About our kids, about where we’ve been and what we’re working on. About the health of relatives and the times we thought of each other because of a familiar restaurant, or place we shared. It feels good, so good, to catch up. I honestly do not believe we’d be as close if we talked all the time. Or, perhaps a better way of expressing this is this: our time together is all quality because we have taken the time to appreciate each other.

There was a time we were all prodigal children, and those we loved embraced our return from that unreachable place we went to, be it away at school or another state. And we learned how love can survive such incommunicado. I once went twenty-two years without talking to someone and then spent two straight days catching up. And honestly, I don’t think I would have appreciated her half as much had we never lost touch. It helps to let go, to follow different paths, and not be tethered by technology, and then find each other again and find out how friendship has little to do with constant communication.

And more, during those times I was somewhere else–Arizona, Massachusetts, abroad, and had no means of reaching someone, I discovered more about myself than I ever would have by holding on.

I hope to see you soon.

Keep in touch.

Drop me a line.

How have you been?

So, what happened?

I have missed you.

These simple phrases have brought me such growth, such love, and such peace, they remind me that the strongest connections come after letting go.

Twenty Years Ago

One astute student in my college comp course raised her hand and asked, “Professor? What was it like before 911?” Her inquiry startled me since in the two decades since that Tuesday morning, not one of my thousands of students has ever asked.

I teach freshmen and sophomores in their late teens. Some are in the military, some are parents, a few are married, most have jobs, some play NCAA sports, some have known great loss, others have traveled extensively while sitting next to them are peers who never made it past the county line—adults, all of them. Yet all of them have one thing in common: None of them was yet born on September 11th, 2001.

“What was it like?”

I was born in 1960, almost twenty years after Pearl Harbor. And while I have studied the depression, read many books both fiction and historical about the twenties and the thirties, seen movies, listened to my parents, my teachers, I have always had some undercurrent of certainty that none of those cultural references rendered for me what made life different before the bombings.

But I could tell my student truly wished to understand. I knew no single phrase would suffice, and the barrage of examples such as the differences in traveling through airports and across borders before and after seems to come up short. The only truism I could muster was the most difficult to convey: That all of us back then, before, had absolute confidence in the fact that as Americans we could decide for ourselves what life would be like, for us and for this nation, and after 911 that seemed to disappear.

“But the contrast,” I told her and the now-attentive class, “isn’t in believing one way of life and then not being able to believe in it anymore when we were all suddenly thrown into a world where people fly planes into our neighbors’ office spaces. Prior to 911, the idea of others infiltrating our ability to choose our own destiny simply wasn’t in our vocabulary to begin with. So it isn’t as simple as saying we believed in a different way of life; it just was a way of life, undefinable and without comparison. We were above and beyond all possibilities of attacks to the point where it wasn’t yet part of our lexicon; it simply did not yet exist. Even to say “Thank God that stuff doesn’t happen here” was nothing short of ridiculous. We lived our lives separate from the rest of the world, including Europe, and no one actually even thought about it. 911 forced us to understand the way of life we had lost by imposing upon us a new way of living.”

Jihad was not a well-known word. Terrorism was not an experienced event except in a few small cases, and even then, the largest terrorist event we watched unfold in Oklahoma City was carried out by Americans. The Saudi’s were “friends,” Afghanistan was Russia’s problem, Gitmo was a movie plot by Aaron Sorkin. Travel worries focused on mechanical errors not maniacal extremists; being an American abroad meant you’d at least be given the shadow of the doubt when things went wrong. So much so, in fact, that traveling abroad felt relatively safe, let alone traveling to New York or DC. If your plane was hijacked, you just assumed you’d be heading with the bad buys to some Caribbean Island.

Before 911 there was no Homeland Security, and airline captains might regularly wander about the cabin. Before then, the World Trade Centers were not nearly as profound as they are today; before 911 it’s not that we thought of ourselves as untouchable by extremists; it just wasn’t relevant at all. Our biggest foray into the Middle East was the Gulf War, where we lost a total of 219 American lives, and thirty-five of them were from friendly fire. So as tragic as those loses remain, that was for the entire Desert Storm event. And after the World Trade Center bombings of 1993 which took three lives, those who discussed the issue at all simply figured that the terrorists had taken their best shot, failed, and went home.

Before 911 we talked about the promise and hope for what’s next. In that world before fear of extremists with demented minds for a troubled cause, we spoke of peace treaties, not waterboarding; of trade policies, not cave-dwelling terrorists.

My student almost seemed to understand. I knew I could never get her to comprehend the atmosphere of before, the lightness in the air, the different kind of stress, softer. I could tell her how driving to Canada simply meant having your license and answering a few questions. And going to Mexico and back was rarely met with more than a wave and a glace at my license. I could have told her I used to walk my parents right to the gate when they traveled somewhere by plane, and it wasn’t unusual to help them board with their stuff, so long as I was off the plane before they took off. It all seemed so trivial, in retrospect.

So instead, I told her this: I was sitting in my office while my class did group work. It was a Tuesday morning, the sky dark blue, and a worker came by telling everyone to put on the televisions in the classrooms. Together we watched the second plane hit, the first tower fall, then the second, and we left. This is a military area, and many of the students had family who would deploy in the following days. We didn’t know just how widespread the attack had been, so my officemate and I walked across campus in silence, suddenly aware of the irrelevance of grading papers, of discussing Virginia Wolfe. And we drove home and played with our children; children just a few years older than my students today.

“For a little while,” I said, “we all were totally unified, and we all appreciated the small things in life again.

“And you don’t, anymore?” she asked. “Have you gotten used to a world where they might do it again?”

I looked at her and knew she’d probably get an A in the class. “No. I haven’t,” I told her. “But I do spend a lot more time going for walks, watching sunrises. Does that answer your initial question?

“Yes,” she responded. “Yes, it does.”  

Diamond in the Night

I woke up at three a.m., wide awake, caffeinated awake. I lay still for a moment deciding whether or not to get up when I realized I couldn’t get up. My limbs felt detached, and those that remained felt shredded, like some internal razor slowly ran against the muscular grain. I don’t know why, but my mind was wide awake, and my body was unresponsive. I’m not sure even if I had to use the bathroom if I’d have been able to gather the forces to get up. I sighed and thought, well, whatever, I can change the sheets in the morning.

Then it became a challenge. I felt like that roach in Kafka’s story, or an old college roommate from freshman year who would tell me at five a.m. when I was leaving to do a radio show, that he’d be up soon, and I’d come back at noon and he hadn’t moved. But Steve simply drank himself to paralysis; my dark-of-night stagnancy is psychological. My brain has finally figured out I’ve been stuck in neutral for three years or so and it has finally decided to metaphorically do me in so as to build up some appreciation for my normal ability to, you know, stand.

But I couldn’t. I looked through the skylight and noted enough light to know the moon must be out. I should be looking at the light from the sun, not the moon, I thought. I divined my head to turn toward the clock. 3:15, or as my generation likes to call it, “Amityville Horror Time,” when the sounds of ghosts woke James Brolin up, it was always, always 3:15, the time of the original murders in his house.

I thought of Neil Diamond. What’s that song? I wondered. I hummed it a while and realized, “Holly Holy.” “Call the sun in the dead of the night and that sun’s gonna rise in the sky,” I said quietly. Hmmm. Neil was an optimist, to be certain. But so was I once, and so I can be again. If I could just get out of neutral here, I’d be fine. “Call the sun in the dead of the night and that sun’s gonna rise in the sky!” I said again, quietly.

Hmmm.

“SUN!” I said, in a normal voice, peering out the skylight waiting for some stream of light, some miracle of nature to occur at that moment. Then with more vigor, the energy of an ex-Brooklyn cantor, I called “SUN!!” as I looked through the skylight.

Michael’s door swung open, and I heard him spring across the hallway (as I was once able to do) and careen into the wall, calling “Yes??? Dad??? You okay??”

“Oh, sorry! I’m sorry, I was…singing. Go back to bed. Sorry about that”

“Okay great,” he replied.

I remember his age, I thought. This was bedtime back then. Not halftime.

Used to be I could stay up or get up and do anything, often more than I could do in the day—coming to life in the dead of night has always energized me, make things feel possible, made bad decisions as irrelevant as the past in which they dwell. But, idle, I stared at the fan spinning above me; I envied its pace. Well, “used to be’s don’t count anymore they just lay on the floor til we sweep them away.” Sigh.

Once, a colleague and I lived in an apartment on the Gulf of Finland for three weeks while teaching in St Petersburg, Russia. Our first night there, at about three, probably 3:15 am, someone started banging on the door. We lived on the fourth floor, and he was screaming in Russian, which neither of us spoke. Both hands, banging away, yelling. I caught a few words: Cazule—asshole. Yeb Vas—fuck you. Suka—bitch. I asked Joe if the one who owned the apartment we were borrowing might have been this maniac’s ex-girlfriend. “How the hell should I know?” he said. Yes. Good point.

I called upon the few words I knew: “Kto ty? Kto ty????” Who are you? The man was quiet a moment and then screamed louder, banging louder.

Joe asked, “What did you say?”

“I asked who he is?”

“What did he say?”

“I DON’T KNOW!” I said.

“Oh Great! Now he thinks his girlfriend has some GUY in here!”

We called Russian colleagues—yes, at 3:20 am. I held the phone to the door as Georgina listened, then told me she couldn’t hear a thing. Apartment doors in the north along the gulf are notoriously thick, and double-lined, to keep out the cold.

After a while he left, and he never returned that I recall. But it woke me up. I need that; I need Michael to bang the crap out of my door while I’m asleep and then I’ll spring to life.

There was another time.

Same colleague. We were teaching in Bodo, Norway, at a graduate school and lived in a four bedroom two story cabin on a fjord about thirty minutes north of the town. There was nothing up there but a narrow, snow covered road running north further into the arctic and the fjord on the other side of that road. The cabin sat at the bottom of a hill accessed only by a snow covered path running straight up toward some peaks. To the north was another house owned by a fisherman named Magnus who rowed out at 4:30 every morning to catch cod, mostly for its liver.

But our host had shut down the bathroom for environmental reasons and insisted we use the outhouse about fifty feet behind the back door. The first night after traveling about thirty-five hours, I woke at 1 a.m. and sat on the edge of the bed needing badly to use the facilities. I sat about thirty minutes wondering if I could hold it in until we got to the university the next day. It was as black out as night can get, and minus something below zero. After a while I realized that since we were there for three weeks I could not possibly avoid the outhouse in the middle of the night, so I went downstairs, painstakingly put on a dozen layers of clothes and socks and then finally boots, gloves, a hat, a parka, and churned through the knee-deep snow to the outhouse and pulled the handle.

Locked.

“I’ll be right out!” Joe called. So I went back inside and waited, and when he came in I went out, finished, and came out of the outhouse and returned to the back porch.

Joe laughed. “I sat upstairs for a half hour wondering if I could wait until we got to the college.” I told him the same. And then we both agreed that the negative Kelvin temperatures outside had woken us up. So we decided to go for a walk.

We trekked the path up the mountain for about a half hour until we reached a break in the trees and off to the north, past a lake just a stone throws away, green bands of aurora borealis bounced like cotton sheets blowing in the wind, bounced and painted the sky, making us want to duck, making us want to reach out and grab one and ride it to the water. We stood in awe, Kelley green bands of northern light made the present as clarified and immediate as I had ever experienced until then, since then.

They are silent of course, so we were startled by the sound of a cracking stick further up the path, and we looked to see a solitary moose, taller than both of us, meandering across the path, pausing to look at us, then look north as if to say, “Do you see that? Isn’t that the coolest?” and then he kept walking, gone.

We returned to the cabin, said goodnight and returned to our own rooms, warm, satisfied, and wide awake.

There were other times, of course. A reoccurring dream I used to have in the eighties, always woke me at two a.m. or so. In Tucson when my roommate and I would set the alarm and head to the mountains to look for javelinas and watch the sunrise.

But now, almost twice as old as that Sonoran summer, I’m staring at a ceiling fan wondering who took my skeleton. It isn’t strength—I’m probably stronger now and have much more endurance than during those lazy days of Mexican Kahlua and burritos. It isn’t purpose—I always have something to do, from working on the property to writing to reading papers to going for hikes to take pictures. Always something.

No.

So I thought about that and how the same voices insisting I should just go back to sleep, that this is part of aging, and that this is what happens when chemistry forgets to have a conversation with ambition, those voices need to be shouted down by the voices that know there’s more than one way of growing old. I took a deep breath to make sure I could take a deep breath and thought of the Russian dude banging the door and wondered what woke him up at 3 in the morning to head to his girlfriend’s house and wake the dead, assuming that scenario is accurate. Love? The inability to live without having said what he wanted to say? Something deep inside? Vodka? All of the above?

I thought of the moose. He was like a brother for a brief moment. “Oh hey. Bob. Joe. What’s up?” and gone. I want to be that moose. Metaphorically, of course. A metaphoric moose shall we say.

Neil came back. “Touch a man who can’t walk upright and that lame man he’s gonna fly.” I laid back, humming.

Sometimes I think about the fact that at every moment someone is living out every moment of a day. It’s someone’s sunrise, someone’s work time, someone’s lunchtime, someone’s happy hour, and with due respect to Alan Jackson and JB, it really is whatever o’clock somewhere. So it might be three am, but sometimes at that hour I think about London, and people having their tea and crumpets. Heading toward the lory. It motivates me. I think about those I know out west who at that hour might just be getting home, feeding the cats, headed to bed.    

The witching hours of night have brought out many demons, highlighting what’s gone wrong, underlying unresolved issues. And I laid here wondering if that reality is my own fault. I mean, if I just got up and ignored those lecherous voices, maybe I could steer the mental dialogue for a change.

Because, truly, this can’t be it. This horizontal fog. This can’t be

Where I am

What I am

What I believe in.

Good morning. If you’re reading this at 3:15 am, either give me a call or get the hell out of the house, now.

Watch: Incredible time-lapse video of NORTHERN LIGHTS from SPACE will blow  you away | Trending News,The Indian Express

The Philosophy Application: Question Six

10 schools of philosophy and why you should know them - Big Think

I applied recently to take graduate courses in Philosophy; I thought it might explain the inexplicable, or at least help me realize the greatest minds in human history haven’t got a clue either. It’s clear that depression and anxiety do not filter through the subconscious to the surface because people find the world too sad; it is because they find it too miraculous, overwhelmingly beautiful and vast and unconquerable in a dozen lifetimes, making the average 9-5 seem pointless.

So, philosophy. For fun, of course.

Application question option six (there were eight options):

What are your thoughts about our place as humans in this world in this time? Keep your answer brief.

Answer:

We don’t live then die; we don’t exist and then not. No. We find ourselves dying on a daily basis. In reality, and with respect to The Garden and other such origin theories, we start complete and lose a little as we go, like that small bozzetti of the Visitation by Tagliapietra that started as a block of terra cotta clay and ended with Elizabeth and Mary, both with child. We blow through our teens until we’re twenty when we know we’ll live forever. At thirty we think we’ll die so we open the Book of Hours to the “Office of the Dead” at night when we’re alone to prepare ourselves for the hereafter and do our best to rise above it. At least that’s the assumption.

So we leave our marks: carve our names, write our memoirs, sign the canvas, pee on trees. We look for spices and find new worlds, we avoid persecution and found religion, we speak our minds and lose our heads, we say what’s right and get left behind. We find out fast that Orwell knew in a “time of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act.” We teach such a small portion of information it’s barely noticeable—but leave out that amount and life crumbles, falls, and can’t be found. It’s about proof. Of course it’s about proof. Proof of first cause, proof of the passing of time, proof we were here at all, so we take pictures to show, to recall, and to immortalize; but we can’t remember faces since we forget to write it down. Slowly, we lose our energy, our memory, our courage, our determination, our purpose, our identity, our drive, our car keys. We vow—to ourselves, to each other, to the boss, to our parents, to our children, to our God, we vow to do better next time. This breeds confidence. Cockiness. Attitude. So we take vows of chastity, of obedience, of poverty, marriage. We vow to improve, get even, avenge. But all the while we stand on the dock and mock our hesitation while foot soldiers garrison themselves and face death for an eggshell. 

Of course we start slow. Always have. One channel, then two, off the air by 11:30 to the sound of fuzz, a long annoying beep, a circle with an x across the white noise screen until six am when the flag flies and the National Anthem plays and the new broadcasting day begins. This taught us patience. It lessoned us in anticipation and quiet. But we pick up a few more channels, we add public broadcasting, we add some locals, then some nationals, then the sky cracks open and we spit out hundreds of possibilities from porn to pygmies on the Discovery channel which tricks us into believing we haven’t yet turned over every stone, and we find ourselves suddenly obsessed with speed and convenience, as if we wonder “how the hell did we do so well and get so far without the speed and convenience of computers, of drive throughs, of touchless cards and curbside pick-up.” We forget so easily.

We avoid topics which indicate endings, so we euphemize the crap out of everything. “He passed.” “We have to let you go.” “I need more space.” Even death, especially death, has been metaphored to, well, death. But still we dig up the bones to point to the obvious: that we’re not the first, not the last and not here long. We get dumped at sea, mummified, burned at the stake. Been going on forever and since we pass through only once in this present form, we direct our energies toward fleeting moments of hyper-existence. But the universal truth is everyone, how shall we say it, everyone will die. Some drink the poison, some lose their heads, some get trampled at coronations, millions die in battle, hundreds of thousands of hunger, many of disease, some assassinated, a couple crucified, some of old age, as if they walked there by foot.

This scares us. So we pray. We say the rosary, go to mass, thank God for the bounty. We eat what’s on the plate because some are starving somewhere else and we keep our mouths closed as we eat and hope no one quotes Isaiah Chapter 49 Verse 10 proclaiming “they will not hunger or thirst, for he who has compassion on them will lead them” and we pick up our forks and swallow the damn peas. We follow St Mark’s quill to the Lion of the Tribe of Judah and hope He’ll help us through. Just in case, though, we pick up the toys because some kids must go without. We keep our lives neat for those who have no life. We want it to look perfect. We want to look right. We want to always look just right. We buy mirrors that don’t reflect what we really believe—that it’s all too much, and our goal is to balance two opposing thoughts: We want to experience it all but can’t, so why bother experiencing any of it at all? What was the point of us? Yeah, that question. Talk about proof.

We make mistakes, call the wrong number, bounce a check, steal a pen and run down the stairs; we speed, we waste food, we waste time, we worry more about our waist than the serving size of rice in a village. They eat grain, millet, rice, wheat, ground in a bowl in the sun, they wait at the well for the women to haul the camel-skin bags and pour them into buckets, they wait at the truck for relief, they wait in line for bread, they wait for the allies to break the blockade, they wait for the sentence, they wait for the end. But they keep going. They haven’t yet learned about convenience and speed. They haven’t yet heard about bounty.

They hike across deserts and seek something else; the were lost, they were just boys who became soldiers. That was their point, apparently. Apparently, that was their purpose. They were Francis Bok who escaped a shed in Sudan, they were Socrates drinking an avoidable cup. Maybe they were born in Brooklyn not Baghdad, they went to school and ate custard. They played little league and went to summer camp where the local villagers put on a show at night near a fire; they moved to the suburbs and got a new car, they shot off fireworks and fired at pop bottles; they ate barbequed burgers and corn on the cob, boxes of clams and played with a little red Spalding ball. They swam in ponds, they hiked the hills and bought postcards; they stayed too long, it passed so fast, what year was that? Who is that in the picture? How did that song go? When did we own that Oldsmobile? Where did we get that painting? We forget to write it down, we’ll remember. We make the mistake of assuming we have total recall. But the books remind us it was some leak somewhere, some crack, some fractured moment that finds us on a couch covered in plastic talking about anniversaries instead of a mat in Mali talking about the dust, wondering about the rain. Such randomness pushes a compromised moody mind toward the abyss, through no fault of anyone’s. But we can’t find fault without proof. So we endure.

Still.

We like to laugh. For fun, of course, but just as much for survival, to blanket our fears, to extinguish our anxiety, to take away the hurt. It hurts anyway so we laugh and hope Buddha’s Vinaya was wrong when it called for ancient monks in India to go to confession for such an offense as laughing. But we laugh. We tickle, we entice, we ridicule, we play the clown, the fool. We work the mirror and tell jokes into mock mics to an imaginary crowd and wait for the laughter to subside before emerging at school or the office or the party to make others laugh, the ultimate in now, the definitive value of absolute present. Why did the chicken cross the road? A man walks into a bar. It’s Nietzsche’s need to call every truth false which was not accompanied by at least one laugh. We laugh and nothing hurts, no one is going to die. We laugh and we must stop eating, talking, drinking, even moving because it is time to laugh, and no one worries when someone laughs. No one is plotting damage or pouring hemlock.

But contrarily and diametrically true is that no one is studying philosophy or English or history because we’re terrified—the ones who are down, depressed, the ones who are accused of “thinking too much” or are called “too melancholic” or “never easily satisfied,” are terrified– not at the sadness of life, the pointlessness of it all–but the grandness, the exquisiteness, the incomprehensible awe of it all, and the slow erosion of patience, the almost indistinguishable drift of simplicity. We are petrified that no one, no one, absolutely no one will understand. It is all too simple. Imagine, apparently it is simply too simple.

Have you ever sat and had dried fish on a rock in the sun, a cup of water from some clear-running stream? Do so and then you will agree with Lord Byron’s decree that he loves not man less but nature more. And I’ve wondered: With such a catalogue of rapturous places to be and explore and exist, who really ever needed the “Dialogues” anyway?

Please.

I wish to study philosophy because I’m looking for proof of something I can’t put my finger on; I need verification of something I have never heard of.

Do I need to buy the textbook?

Confused Student" Baby One-Piece by Reethes | Redbubble
answers

The Literary Journey of The Iron Scar

cover photo by Michael Kunzinger/Cover design by Jacqui Davis

The actual journey took about a month in 2013. We left Williamsburg, Virginia, by train to New York, spent precious and never-enough time with my late dear friend Fr. Patrick Brennen Fitzgerald, and laughed all night with my cousin Roy and his wife Patty, two of my favorite people. We ate our way through Manhattan, and the next day flew to St. Petersburg where we boarded the famous trans-Siberian railway. Actual travel time on the train was about a week, but we disembarked for exploration several times, ending about three weeks later in Vladivostok.

I knew from the inception this was a writing project, and my son, Michael, was along to take thousands of photographs. They would be our primary souvenir, of course, and used to trigger memories and tell stories. But they would also go on to be used in solo art shows he displayed as well as for use in a myriad of articles for print and online journals. The book has a healthy selection of Michael’s photographs.

While the text has just over a dozen chapters, various versions have been printed in different combinations of content, style, format, and with or without artwork. Usually with. I knew I didn’t have the authority or expertise to write historically or with any accurate social commentary about Russia or the rail, and others had already done so with more skill than I could have anyway, including one of my favorites, Ian Frazier (Travels in Siberia). David Green, too, of NPR, wrote specifically about the ride in Midnight in Siberia. I had no intention of duplicating these men.

Being the son of a father who was almost ninety years old at the time, and the father of a son who was about to venture out into his own life at the time, I found myself deep in the narrative of middle-age, of letting go, of contemplating what’s next, and of trying to balance planning ahead with my natural tendency toward spontaneity.

So to include my father on the journey, the early stories were framed as letters to my father from the dining car of the railway. I like them; I like personal approaches to writing so long as the reader recognizes herself in the piece as much as the characters on the train. This was going along swimmingly and a handful of journals published the pieces with this format.

Then I went to Ireland and participated in a workshop with the deeply talented Jacki Lyden and Elizabeth Rosner. It was Liz who casually asked when reading a story of mine about floods along the Amur River, “Why the hell is this a letter? Who would possibly, during a once-in-a-century flood sit in a dining car and write a letter?”

Damn. She’s good.

So I took all the pieces published that way and rewrote in standard narrative form and discovered how much more I can do that way, and still include my father in the content without the reader mirroring Liz’s sentiment.

So I republished them all, some in various forms including other essays wrapped into them and some abbreviated and some much longer than other versions. In fact, a few anecdotes ended up in nearly all the stories published. In the end, there are about fifteen chapters rewritten and combined nineteen different ways published in twenty-one magazines and journals. But that’s not the book. The book is not a collection of essays, and I never intended it to be published as such. The Iron Scar is a narrative, one long story from New York to Vladivostok, covering more than ten thousand miles, seventeen times zones, and about two hundred pages.

I must, however, give thanks to those publishers who found something worth sharing in my stories.

Including:

The Maine Review   “On the Occasion of that Inevitable Conversation with my Son”              

Kestrel: A Journal of Literature and Art “Tracks” “Checkmate” “Off-Track”

A View from This Wilderness  

Blue Planet Journal

Warfare Journal  

Ilanot Review       

Connotation Press         

Olive Press “Dissidents”

Foliate Oak Journal      

World War Two History Magazine “Meanwhile in Leningrad”

Columbia Journal   “Tiger, Taiga”

Southern Humanities Review  “Leningrad Story”

Nowhere Magazine   “Exiles and Dissidents”              

Litterateur Magazine

Wanderlust Journal      

All Nations Press           

Silver Birch Press

Foreign Literary Journal               

Adirondack Literary Review

The Alabama Literary Review  (December 2021)         

The Virginian Pilot “It’s Not Their Fault”

My last book, A Third Place: Notes in Nature, was published by Kim Davis of Madville Press in Lake Dallas, Texas. She did a beautiful job and I enjoyed working with her and her team. An editor at a significant publishing house in New York read several of the pieces above and asked to see a more complete manuscript, which I promptly sent to her. Her editorial staff enjoyed the work, loved that it is more about fathers and sons and moving on than it is about Russia or Siberia or trains, but the marketing department said they simply cannot market this book—it is much too niche, and it isn’t worth it unless I had a reach like Frazier or Green. I don’t. I can’t even reach them.

I knew I would be in great hands at Madville, and Kim had shown interest in it before, so I signed a contract. I actually don’t think it has a niche audience, and I believe it can, with the proper marketing and publicity, touch anyone who is a parent, has an aging parent, wonders what the hell to do with their lives.

But for me, this book is a diary, a journal, a remembrance of a time when my son and I rode the railway across two continents one summer, on a journey that continues still.

The Iron Scar: A Father and Son in Siberia is scheduled for release in April 2022.

At the station in Vladivostok

Plastic People of the Universe

How Dangerous is Ocean Plastic? Insights From Global Experts on the  Greatest Threat to Marine Wildlife - Ocean Conservancy

When I walked out of Wegman’s in Rochester, New York, last week, a man and his two sons walked in with four large garbage bags filled with cans and bottles; each bag had roughly eighty or so in them. Inside the store are large machines into which they were about to dump the bags and receive five cents for each can or bottle. That’s about $20. And I don’t know they didn’t have more in their truck. Everyone in the area saves them or finds them, hauls them to the local market and recycles them and has enough money to buy some groceries or gas. Perhaps this man brought the boys for ice cream since it was ninety degrees out and he had an extra twenty.

I love this. I am disappointed this wasn’t available when I was in college just to the southeast of there. Nowadays in that town, the local Topps Market has the same setup, but back when I was in school, on any given morning the garbage bins in my dorm were overflowing with beer bottles and cans. Since I was always awake hours before my dormmates and knowing well the intake capabilities of the others and the party-reputation of the university, I’m confident I could have funded my education. Why why why why why doesn’t every single state do this?

But this blog is about nature, so let’s get right to it:

Last year this country threw away 1 million tons—TONS—of aluminum cans and packaging, and about thirty-six billion cans landed in landfills. That’s enough to—this is insane—that’s enough to completely rebuild the entire commercial air fleet four times over. Let that hang there for a moment.

A can in the ocean has a longer life expectancy than a human, about eighty to one hundred years. And during that entire time it releases toxic agents into the water that kill fish and damage the environment enough to alter migration patterns, infect our food, and poison the larger sea animals that accidently ingest these cans tossed by lazy ass, howl at the moon stupid people who can’t simply drop them in a recycling bin. Or better yet if they live in such a state, collect the cans and make some money.

This is Coors fault.

They introduced the aluminum can in 1959. Tin cans date back to about 1810, patented by Peter Durand, and those also last a century in the ocean, and can quickly disease and kill sea life both through ingestion and physical disabling, which is common with sea turtles and sea bird life. Off of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, to the south of here, had Orville or Wilber celebrated that first flight with a tin can filled with Stillhouse Moonshine, and tossed that empty container into the waters off the Outer Banks, it could still be there.

And that’s just cans. Plastic bottles win for demonstrating to aliens who land here in 2525 that we are one selfish species. If I walk to the river tonight drinking a bottle of Dasani and when I get there, throw it as far as I can into the Rappahannock, if it first doesn’t get caught in the mouth of a dolphin or cut the fin of a stingray, it will still be there when those ET’s land on Parrot Island and wade to shore five hundred years from now.

Wade? Ha! They will be able to simply walk across the trash since our human race throws into the ocean every single year enough plastic to make 800 billion—EIGHT HUNDRED BILLION—bottles. Every year. And that’s just the ocean bound bottles; that doesn’t include the thirty-five billion bottles in landfills every year.

Okay—I did the math for you. If those were bottles and I got my son to put them all in bags and bring them to the machine at Wegman’s in Rochester, he’d walk out with $40 BILLION dollars.

Gone. Trashed. Forty Billion Dollars tossed into the surf every single year, just in plastic.

Stop it. Please, on behalf of all humans who think about posterity, about beauty, about the breaching of whales and the graceful rise of a dolphin or the glide of the osprey, cormorants and gulls; on behalf of those of us who understand the toxins being released which destroy the oxygen and compromise the very balance of nature, please, use a reusable bottle. How hard is it? You can even get one with your name on it, or a picture of your favorite Muppet.

When I was still in single digits, Earth Day started, and I remember walking with my class on the property at East Lake Elementary School picking up trash. And it was the sixties, so we already had peace and love and nature and all that on our minds from the songs and signs of the times, so honestly, we thought we were going to grow up and live in a trash-free world of peace.

Not so much.

This place is a toilet. People throw trash out of windows because it’s going to destroy their very soul to drop it in a can at the next gas station or when they get home. People can’t possibly carry canvas bags into Wegmans to shop! “I gotta carry stuff OUT of the store; you want me to carry stuff IN as well! Hell no!”

The planet is having a hard time breathing, and it is absolutely our fault, and karma being what it is, we’re going to pay the price for it. Now, we also can cure this pandemic. It doesn’t take a group effort; no one needs to subscribe to any agency or get a vaccine. Just stop throwing your crap out the window. Use a reusable bag to carry groceries and a reusable bottle to drink out of. That’s it.

Feel free to recycle this blog post to those you know, I mean you absolutely know, are still carrying food to the car in plastic bags.

The osprey thank you.

Osprey Identification, All About Birds, Cornell Lab of Ornithology

From Somewhere Deep Within

I sat on the end of the pier on the top edge of the United States with my legs dangling above the calm waters as gulls dived and fed in the Great Lake Ontario. No wind, the lake like glass, a faint haze from the smoke of the western fires, and Canada the next landfall north about sixty miles.

Contemplation time.

Of all my travels only three times have I stood near one of the Great Five. Erie, at a friends’ wedding in Angola, New York, Michigan, at a reading in Chicago, and now, here, staring out at just before seven am as the sun rises and I instinctively look out for dolphin or pelicans, conditioned by life on the bay and the ocean. It takes me several walks to the water to remember I’m likely not to see any in a lake.

Such vastness! It seems “lake” can’t possibly be the right word; even Great Lake seems insufficient, though it does sum it up. “Is that a lake?” “No, no. It’s a Great Lake.” Yes.

I’ve stared across valleys in my life, distant mountain ranges from the Rockies to the Pyrenees, and their majesty has a humbling effect. But they still seem attainable; I can merely, as John Muir suggested, throw a loaf of bread in a backpack, hop the fence and head out. But the inconceivable crossing of such waters suggests limitations. Even crossing it by boat can be conceived as an act of madness when the weather shifts and the waves become mountains in their own right. Such waters have taken down vessels. Think Edmund Fitzgerald on Great Lake Superior (the double modifier here is nice—“great” and “superior” for extra measure).

There’s something about staring out across the reach and knowing we can only dream about the crossing.

And I have dreamed about it. From the Great South Bay to the Atlantic, I’ve dreamed of hearing the rigging against the mast, even longed for the boredom of the doldrums, leaning against the cabin, reading a book, waiting for a breeze. I like the juxtaposition of aloneness and vastness.

But this isn’t about water or sailing or the call of some distant reach.

I met a man who is a certified genius in electronics. I won’t here detail some of his accomplishments in the sports-technology world because I couldn’t even begin to comprehend them at the time, but it is downright astonishing. He has a significant track record, nearly one hundred people working for him, and is speaking in savant fashion about a subject matter which for me is an entirely different language, a completely different alphabet.

But I did recognize and was swept up by one element of this nice man that I’ve only experienced a few select times in my life: Passion.

I do not mean a love of his work or an obsessive dedication to his ideas, though those exist. I mean a complete absorption of his life, of what he is doing with his life, of how he has completely discovered his purpose for existence and is fulfilling that purpose. It was as close to witnessing some form of nirvana, albeit with something I didn’t understand and have no use for. The thing is, that passion clearly spilled over into his love of life itself. He is an inspiration to be around, to listen to.

He leaves. I sleep. I get up and walk to the end of the pier out back and dangle my legs above Lake Ontario, kicking my feet toward Canada and watch the sun join me; gulls dive, and the water is still, like glass, like a mirror.

Where’s your passion, Bob? I wonder, not in some inferior way or even a self-doubting way. Just in a sweeping wide-open perspective of the surface of my life kind of way. What part of my life moves me to such energy and dedication that I’m all in, body, heart, soul?

Family, of course, when time stands still and there is no need to remember or plan, but simply to be absorbed in the presence of love, and laughter, and being together while we can still be together, passion coming from knowing it won’t last. For me, nature, where something similar happens, and I know I’m where I am most comfortable. But even in those circumstances, that’s not what I’m talking about. I mean the engulfing awareness, the absolute presence of mind to know, to instinctively understand “yes, this is why I’m here, for this.”

Well, like I said, I’ve only experienced it a few times, even among most people I know who love what they do for a living and dedicate themselves to their craft. It is one of the elements we discuss in my Giants of the Arts course. It takes a slew of ingredients to reach such a level of awareness, let alone recognition, to be in the ranks of such greatness for whatever the genre. Talent, luck, internal motivation, timing, knowledge of the form, experience, sometimes money, sometimes connections, and on and on, and most often if you take one or two of the ingredients out, “greatness” becomes “good enough.” But one indisputable element which cannot be compromised is passion. Absolute passion. Van Gogh passion. Hemingway passion. This man I met is an artist. He works in technology instead of oils or octaves or words, but a true artist, nonetheless.

When I was young my father gave me a book about Robin Lee Graham, who at sixteen years old sailed around the world alone for five years. His passion extended beyond his knowledge of and dedication to the art of sailing; it bled into life itself, the way he talked to people, about people, his efforts to be immersed in the cultures he met along the way, the love of his life he also met along the way—in all things his passion extended, and I wonder if it wasn’t sailing that he was passionate about, but life, and sailing was simply the effect of his passion, the outlet, like must of Bach’s works, or sports technology for this gentleman. I’m confident if he knew vacuum cleaners instead of sports technology, he’d have explained the capabilities of that to us with equal enthusiasm.

I knew someone like that once when I was young and it rubbed off on me for a while, but eventually it ebbed; and when that happens it is easy to wonder if one gets caught up in someone else’s passion and that’s all, or if that energy pulls out of you something dormant, waiting for the spring of an idea, a direction, a material manifestation of such love and drive.

I can’t articulate my need at the end of the pier to be out on one of the sailboats, headed toward Ontario, or the Keys, or even the Chesapeake. It’s the same way I feel at airports looking for my gate, or in some foreign city where I am absolutely present, no thoughts of before or next, but present. I wonder, then, if my passion is to remain in the moment, to be present, without stress or anxiety, without regret or anticipation, but now. Like talking to a friend for hours about life; like listening to the excitement in your children’s voices when they talk about their lives.

Like the calm waters of a Great Lake on a warm morning.

Like a carpet of stars across the northern sky.

Or the sound of water lapping at the sand. As it always has. As it always will.

May be an image of ocean

There Will Come Soft Rains

May be an image of nature and sky

One of the common denominators among depressed artists in history is their love of nature. Perhaps it is the consistency, or the lack of mistakes made, the lack of letting people down, the absence of disappointing others–all feelings found among those who bend toward depression. It is often thought that those feelings lead to depression, but the opposite is exactly true.

So why nature?

Because…

There Will Come Soft Rains

by Sara Teasdale

There will come soft rains and the smell of the ground,
And swallows calling with their shimmering sound;

And frogs in the pools singing at night,
And wild-plum trees in tremulous white;

Robins will wear their feathery fire
Whistling their whims on a low fence-wire;

And not one will know of the war, not one
Will care at last when it is done.

Not one would mind, neither bird nor tree,
if mankind perished utterly;

And Spring herself, when she woke at dawn,
Would scarcely know that we were gone.