Nearly every evening this time of year just before dusk bends to night, in those moments after twilight when I have to let my eyes adjust to the lack of light, a few hundred geese land in the pond, some on the river, and a few in the field nearby.

I can hear them for quite some time before they actually fly into sight from beyond the trees to the west. The air is so clear now that I can hear them honking in groups, joining in like a chorus which starts with just a few voices and adds another rafter until they reach some crescendo. At first it might be only a flight of a dozen or so based upon the muted sound from the distance. But over the course of five minutes or ten I hear another group, then another, and more. They fly in a “V” to be able to see each other clearly for protection and create just a little draft, but the closer they come to landing, the faster the formation falls apart.

Eventually the first group is already in the pond when the last group crests the bare branches of the oaks and hundreds settle into the field or onto the river. One time some years ago a bit earlier in the evening thousands of geese, no kidding—thousands—landed on the plowed cornfield just down river. Their honking continued for an hour that night, and just as the sounds of these geese slowly softens and, finally, quiets, so did theirs so that from my porch I could tell they had all landed safely.

But every single time a while after the large group arrives, two or three geese come in late, alone, as if they stopped at another farm over near the bay and had to regroup and find their flock.

I don’t want to disturb them, but I always want to watch. So when I walk along the river at that hour and the skin on my face is tight from the cold, and my nose runs a little, and the muscles in my back are also tight from the cold, I keep my hands thrust into the pockets of my coat and walk along the soft shoulder of the tiny dead-end street so that my feet make no noise. I can usually get to the narrow strip of sand at the river from where I can see both it and the pond, but not the field so well. Their call increases in a burst of warnings to the rest that I’m around. It quiets quickly though as I remain absolutely still and sit on the cold rip rap running along the river and blend into the rocks and am no longer a threat.

On winter nights the water is almost always calm, a slow methodic lap at the rocks and sand. The sky is all stars with no unnatural lights for more than twenty miles in any direction except from the scattered farmhouses or buoys; the sky is a carpet of constellations.

It isn’t by chance my Canada friends find respite here. They need grass for food, they need water, and they need to be able to see great distances to anticipate danger. That’s why they’re here on the edge of the bay with open fields and ponds. It also explains why they love airports and golf courses. The abundance of geese isn’t an accident either; they travel in gangs, often the younger geese are forced into the gang, so that traveling is safer and they can better dominate areas like this.

But their coolest trait is their honk. They keep that up as a form of encouragement so the lead geese will maintain their speed and not give out so easily. Basically, the ones in the back are telling the ones up front to “Go! Go! Go! Go!” and move their asses. And when the lead gets tired, she moves to the back and gets to badger the others for a while. And they do this their whole lives—about twenty-seven years.

And just after twilight when dusk is making its brief appearance, and the water is like a mirror, the call of the geese from well across the treetops is musical, somehow eternal. When this land was unbroken, Canada geese called to each other, rushing for the open fields and waterways, settling down here. Powhatan heard geese here as did Pocahontas, and John Smith, and Washington just to the north at his birthplace on the Potomac, and Jefferson not far from there. Through the centuries the flyway from the St. Lawrence down across the Adirondacks and Catskills to the Susquehanna south into Virginia to the mouths of these five fair rivers spilling into the Chesapeake has been their home.

And they love dusk, just before dark, as it is the best time of day for them to recalibrate their internal magnetic compass to cross continents; to come here year after year.

But this isn’t about geese.

The peace in such sounds late on a winter’s evening definitely touches my soul, settles me somehow beyond my ability to explain. I sit and blend into the rocks and watch the geese in the water, and I contemplate their distance from the central regions of Ontario and Quebec, across Hudson Bay. My entire life I’ve been drawn to migration, to some sense of movement from one place to another, particularly the seeming randomness of such order. They know where they are going every time, and yet they move south without boundaries, schedules, or maps.

I am drawn to that lack of boundaries, an absence of schedules. And I’ve never been much for maps. In my days at home and my days traveling as far north as these geese and as far south as the osprey who will be returning from the tropics soon, I take great issue with some sedentary lifestyle. I am older now, of course, and a bit more tired. I think more about gardens than marketplaces, more about my porch than some hotel balcony. But I’m not settled yet. No. In fact, I just might be less settled than I’ve been in decades. I like the consistency of this migration; the predictable return, surrounded by friends, a quiet night.

I still have some dreams simmering which require wings. Was it Austria? Monterrey? Wasn’t it the Netherlands or Ireland again? Maybe it was just a drive to see my beautiful siblings or my flock of cousins, to spend time laughing, sharing stories, saying we need to do this again before moving on.

I suppose all dreams are migratory, both in hopeful destinations and their transience with the changes in our responsibilities and circumstances. I’ve lived many of my dreams, but we always have some out there in the field, picking up a sliver of light at the end of the day. At times I even take flight, abandon my flock and push off for a while. But I look forward to coming home to settle into some sense of domesticity, which I can accommodate briefly at best, because eventually I think about the dreams of my youth as I fly toward my twilight years. Those dormant–not dying–dreams call to me to “Go Go Go Go” as my life moves further along, pushing at the edges of dusk.

And now as night falls completely I walk back to the house and always a few more geese find their way to the flock long after dark. Only once did I experience the return to the sky of so many all at once. I was walking from the river to the house past the field where hundreds that evening had settled, and either something or me or the ground disturbed them, or it was simply time to move on, but in great waves they took off, honking. I heard them calling, waves of them into the sky, honking, great waves of honking geese calling ahead to the ones already in flight, as those behind fell in line and they swept from horizon to horizon blocking out the moon and headed out over the trees running down the bay, and I stood and watched them until the last.

It is one of my most beautiful memories.

Then everything was silent and I found myself, much like I do now, oddly alone, like a young man left on the sand while his friends all pushed off to sea to head for distant lands.

“But don’t think too badly of one who’s left holding sand.

It’s just another dreamer dreaming about everyman,”


To Finish: (13 century) from Latin finire; “to limit”

“To set bounds,” the definition continues.

I watched a hawk sweep down and pulverize a dove. The hawk perched on an oak branch and the dove, distracted by the wind and some seed on the lawn, stopped paying attention. It happens. The hawk isn’t fast as much as he is silent, just a simple cliff dive, stepping off the branch, and, wings out, sweeps in with perfect form with his claws out front to grab the dove at the neck. A sudden puff of feathers busts into the air, and the raptor is gone. So is the dove.

This time the dove simply stood on the grass. She had been facing the direction of the hawk and when she turned around the hawk dropped into action. The dove seemed to hunch down like she knew what was about to happen. Gone.

Sometimes the natural instinct to survive is not as strong as simple resignation.

When I was in high school some friends and I went to the beach on the bay. At some point one friend and I decided to swim out to the end of a very long pier. We made it past the end, but we were exhausted and ended up helping each other back, each of us taking a turn at holding the other until we were at the breakers and could ride in. She and I just collapsed on the beach, spent. It isn’t like we weren’t in shape. We had stamina; we just swam too far out. I stood on the beach and wondered how much more we would have had to swim before we had to give up? If we had been another hundred feet would it have been too far? Or would we have found the strength and determination to push it.

I mean, did we collapse on the beach because we couldn’t go another yard or because we didn’t have to?

I wonder how often I’ve given up because I thought I found the shore when the truth was I could have probably held out for more, pushed it a bit, opted to swim a bit further.

It’s cold today, but sunny, and the hawk is around—I can hear him, though the doves are feeding on the porch rail where it is safe and out of sight. Earlier out on the river, an osprey just back from warmer waters found food for their new offspring, and the cormorants have returned. Sometimes some river dolphins swim under the Rappahannock Bridge, but not yet this season. I like it here. I find peace here. I think mostly though I like the area because of the water and the sand. Ironically, the first time I was in this area was exactly ten years before I bought the land to build the house. Just across the river is The Tides Inn, a quiet resort right on the Rappahannock. For my parents’ thirty-fifth wedding anniversary, my father invited us all to stay at the Inn. It was an excellent time, and we went for a river cruise on the Miss Anne, a riverboat which went under the bridge along the south shore and returned to the Inn along the north shore, turning around at the mouth of the river into the Chesapeake. I had no clue then we passed close enough to my eventual home to be able to cast a line to shore and pull us in.

Thirty-six years later and I’m watching osprey out across the same bridge feeding their young, while hawks stand watch in oak trees waiting for doves to stand still.

I was born a moving target; I’m not sure I ever learned when the right time is to collapse on the beach. The hawks have, for the most part, missed me up until now. Even when I do settle down it is usually to look at a map. Ironically, since I moved into this house I have traveled more than I ever dreamed I would—Russia, Prague, Amsterdam, Spain, France, Norway, and plenty of states. And at night in the darkness we use the telescope to travel through the heavens out across the waters and find planets and meteors.

When I was in college a friend had a poster on his wall promoting Nike. It was a long shot of a winding road through open country with one solitary runner, and the tag line said, “There is no finish line.” I like that. If we didn’t know when to stop I wonder how often we would keep moving. I’m not an advocate of indecision, but I’m a staunch opponent of settling for something when there’s still more options for the ones willing to wander a bit more. It is, to be sure, a delicate balance.

Certainly I get tired as I move forward, especially on the days when I’m not sure where I’m going or how long it will take to get there. But when I think about that swim to the end of the pier and back, I don’t often recall the collapse on the sand; I remember how quiet and peaceful it was taking turns helping each other back to shore. It was hard to tell if we were helping each other or saving ourselves. I do recall quite clearly, however, that it wasn’t long after we had rested that we headed back out, a little bit further that time.

The journey doesn’t necessarily end because we found a safe place to rest.

Rambling Man

It’s windy on the bay, and the current could carry a sloop eighty miles south to the mouth in less than half the time then when under normal sail. It’s choppy, with three feet waves and whitecaps, and even here at the shore waves pound the riprap in regular intervals and the spray is salty and piercing.

A bank of clouds hangs seemingly on top of the Eastern Shore twenty miles east; dark clouds, stretching from the horizon up and high enough to block the sun even now at nearly ten a.m.

It’s not normal out there.

At the convenience store a waterman said he wasn’t going out and another said he just got back. The first asked what made him chance such conditions when the oysters and rockfish will be there tomorrow and the second said, “I’m a waterman. And I know what I’m doing.” He wasn’t taking a shot at the first; he quickly commented on it would have been more prudent to wait.

But he didn’t wait.

It’s a tough call, sometimes, isn’t it? When do you wait? When do you step up and watch a bit, see how the tide rolls? Half of it is confidence, half of it is experience, half instinct, half willingness to fail and embarrass yourself. But maybe sometimes success only comes when you’re willing to put in four halves instead of the standard two.

This is true in all things. Anyone can go the distance; just keep your head down and don’t die. Or, as John Denver noted, “Growing isn’t hard to do; just stand against the wall.” So what is the next part that drives watermen into rough seas when even the oysters are quite literally bedded down?

Van Gogh said, “Those of us who live; why don’t we live more?” Took me a long time and a lot of leaning on others to understand this. Partly because when I was young—twenties mostly—I was the second waterman. I headed to places somewhere beyond reason, driven by something other than rational thought. But after a while you get tired, as if you saved up all the failures and missteps to use all at once at sixty-years old.

Or maybe I just slipped into some more comfortable clothes a la waterman number one, which, really, is only a half-step from going back to bed, though he certainly is the more practical one. We find out just how ordinary we are when ration takes over, we recognize our lack of good judgement, our extreme ways when you either have to hit it right or you end up begging for mercy for needing help yet again. There is no middle ground for the second waterman. Yeah, it may be safer tomorrow, he might think; but I might die tonight.

How do you know when the odds are against you?

Something shifted in me this past month. Something significant.

For five years I’ve been Waterman One. This after a lifetime of not only not leaning on others or contemplating consequences but moving forward with innate confidence. But we all learn at different times. We all grow up eventually and recognize our mortality, our faith or lack thereof, our true passions, our fears; when the completed file is piled higher than the “to do” stack.

It is the question which haunts all artists, all of us, who work in a field where hesitancy and self-questioning mean obscurity. How do I know I’m not just wasting my time?

Van Gogh didn’t hold a paying job for the last ten years of his life. He ate paint. He drank turpentine. He had syphilis, was bi-polar, manic depressant, had epilepsy before there was medicine for it, cut off the lower half of his left ear in a fit of rage and nearly died, was hated by painters and dealers, lived with a prostitute and frequented others, drank steadily, and even his own brother– a leading dealer of the time–couldn’t sell his work and suggested he do something else. Today his works sell for between 80-100 Million dollars each and he is considered one of the most influential artists in history.

“One must work and dare if one really wants to live.”

I have no idea how much time is left for me. Almost no one does.


Life certainly does not have to be in the extremes, but it should also not be a constant state of hesitancy simply because nothing has gone right.

It’s the “get back on the horse” thing.

It’s the “like riding a bike” thing.

Yesterday a friend of mine said she has some very specific regrets in her life. Then she quickly noted what we all say when we say that; how, no, no regrets; “it is what it is” and “I made the right choices at the time” and “everything happens how it does for a reason.”

I waited just long enough for her to believe I agreed, then said, “No. That’s bullshit.”

Laughter followed by a quiet, almost a whisper, “I know.”

Because regrets help us recognize where we didn’t trust ourselves and maybe should have; they help us see some semblance of truth in our life instead of some veneer to justify our actions. I have no problems with regrets; they teach us not to live out the definition of insanity. They help us to step up to the plate because last time we didn’t bother and now we’re sorry. It is, plainly, how we learn from mistakes.

Did Waterman Two regret going out? Did Waterman One regret staying ashore? Maybe both, maybe neither. But I bet most of us wish we were Waterman Two.

Thoreau wrote that, “To regret deeply is to live afresh.”

I don’t have enough space even on this infinite space of pages to list my regrets just in the past five years, let alone my life. I should have gone to Austria; I should have gone to Monterrey, I should have stayed in New England, I should have driven right by, I should have stopped.

Whatever. But knowing some of those truths has made it easier to stand up next time for what I should have done last time. Of course. Or to keep silent longer. Or to say something.

You know what? It’s always windy out there, and calm days these days are few and far between. Hoist the mainsail and ride it out.

And what if you knew

A full moon is hanging through the winter branches of the oak trees on the far east side of the property, and clear across the sky, Mars is lingering behind Jupiter with Venus shadowing the big planet. It’s as if they should hold their breath before sinking below the earth’s surface.  

It’s a clear night, cool but not cold, and Orion is ablaze with its blue headlights on in the upper right corner. It looks like a comet ripping open the Hunter’s bow. I stare that way a while half expecting to see the belt suddenly spin in a circle like the old Orion Pictures logo. It doesn’t.

The sky saved me again tonight.

Earlier a friend of mine asked, “So what would you do?” It’s a real question, a serious one few of us decidedly consider more than during a passing whim of light conversation.

What would you do if you knew you had less than a year to live?

Read that again and take it seriously.

I’m sure the romantic in us would like to burn out a la Tim McGraw’s “Live Like You Were Dying.” Skydiving, Rocky Mountain Climbing. But it’s not likely.

The bills are debilitating, and the energy is fried. People we love live all over the country these days, and you probably don’t want everyone coming to you as if every single day is last rites. Plus they have to work, tend to their own days and nights.

The answer is probably not too varied from the answer we already have while hoping and expecting to have several dozen years left: See those you love as much as possible, work if you can to pay bills and not leave a mess behind for others to deal with, maybe travel if you can.

What will you do in those months before you “close the door behind you”?

First, I’m certain I’ll be keenly aware of all the projects I started writing or planned to write but didn’t get to. I’ll remember that I wanted to become more serious about playing guitar. I’ll remember that I was going to make next year’s garden the best one ever, and plant fig trees, and get a dog. I was going to go back to the Camino with Michael and train across Canada. A friend of mine and I were going to go to the Netherlands. We were going to do a European River cruise.

I was going to restain the house.

But those long-range plans will all be suddenly moot. I suppose that the best we can hope for is we get to the end of our dreams before the end of our days.

Still, I’m pretty sure what I would want to do. I’d get up early and sit at the bay and watch the sunrises whether it was sunny or not. Something I do on a regular basis anyway, but I’d do it more. And more still.

And I’d go to the river with my son and watch the sunset, skip stones, feed the gulls. We’d talk about art and music, about movies and travel. And we’d note all the colors in the sky as the sun disappeared up the Rappahannock.

I’d invite friends over, sit on the porch on a warm summer evening, have a few drinks, some music in the background, and talk about the baseball game, talk about what people we know are doing, about Molly’s new book or Rick’s new essays. We’d laugh about that time we….and we’d get quiet when someone mentions next Christmas. We’d change the subject to how beautiful it is out.

“And when the morning light comes streaming in

We’ll get up and do it again.


I won’t look at photo albums from the Island, or watch videos from when my son was small; God no, no videos. I won’t talk about any more seasons, no. Just this one.

I will talk about my dad, About Cole. I’ll tell funny stories about Dave and Bobbie, about Rachel and Trish.

I’ll speak of how I never could get the African story right, knowing that the truth of that time would be coming with me. And then I’ll finally tell everyone about something else, something beautiful, something still nearly completely mine.

What would you do if you knew?

I’d call everyone I love, but not to say goodbye or even to tell them. I’d just say I felt like saying hi, catching up. And we would, and we’d laugh, and we’d say we have got to get together, that it’s been too long, and not to let another five years go by. Then I’d call the next person, then the next.

I’d remind myself that the truth is I’ve already lived completely out loud and nearly always on my terms, and it has been enough for a half-dozen lives. No kidding. I’d keep telling myself that. Because it’s true. What a journey it’s been so far.

Okay, the superstitious Irish side of me is thinking even posting this blog is a bad idea. But the ballsy New Yorker in me is thinking to lay it all out there right now, because you never know, like Eddie who at 11:45 pm one December 15th was talking to a coworker, and at 11:52 pm he was dead on the street, a car hit him. He never saw it coming.

He had no idea. We have no idea.  

And there’s the thing: Knowing allows you to rewrite the ending how you want your character to finish this story. But not knowing allows you to exit completely unaware of what didn’t get done without having to face the fact that most things didn’t get done simply because you simply didn’t bother to do them. No mysteries to unravel, no excuses and fallacies to face—just reality—you just didn’t bother to do them.

Life happens that way. So does death. Knowing roughly when you’re going to die forces you to face knowing how much you didn’t live at all to begin with.

Maybe tomorrow morning that can be different. Another sunrise, or the first; another phone call to an old friend to thank him or apologize or to just say hi. Another glass of cider on the porch listening to the Mets, talking about that time we….talking about that time we didn’t…and maybe a sunset, most certainly a sunset.

Maybe tomorrow the lines won’t bother me, the rude clerk at the convenience store won’t bother me. Perhaps by lunch time I’ll realize that sitting on the deck at the café working on that editorial for the paper is refreshing and satisfying. Or that talking to students about potential, about the hope of what comes later, about the swiftness of now and the thinness of life, is more projection than it is lecture. And I’ll feel good about it. And they’ll look forward to another class. So will I.

And I’ll come home, and again, at least one more time again, get out the telescope and watch how Venus is tucked away, shy. And we’ll stare toward that blue blaze on the upper right corner of Orion, and understand that life is expanding, faster and faster, running out into the distance, and only those who are told they’ve got a limited amount of time left on this planet seem to understand what that means.

And the stars won’t seem so far away anymore.

Bob I Am

Instant Replay

I remember Lou Alcindor. When I was young, I had a hand-held radio style device by Mattel, called Instant Replay. You put a disc in its side and highlights played from different athletes’ lives. It came with a handful of discs from all the major sports. I loved that thing, and I remember hearing highlights from Lou Alcindor’s early days, his pre-Karem Abdul-Jabbar days.

It played a disc featuring Cassius Clay.

This was the same year LeRoi Jones changed his name. About fifteen years after Malcom Little changed his the first time, and three years after he switched it a second to el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz.  

And, of course, I remember listening to

Personally, I remember Robert, but that was a long time ago. Some family still call me that, and that is fine because it would be weird if they didn’t. So when someone calls me that I assume they are family. Or someone from the neighborhood on the Island. But sometimes someone I don’t know will call me Robert for some fracked up reason since they’re not family and I introduce myself as Bob. I don’t get that. If someone told me their name was Bill, I can’t imagine saying. Well, William, it is nice to meet you. That’s rude. He said his name was Bill.

I’m Bob.

Not Lou. Not Cassius. Not LeRoi. Not even Prince. Just Bob.

Names change. Sometimes for religious reasons, sometimes for marriage or divorce or some identity crisis. Sometimes someone wants to disappear into the masses. I wonder if Martin Sheen’s sister calls him Ramon. Certainly he is Martin now. But his daughter and two elder sons use Estevez while his third son uses Sheen. I read that John Denver’s adopted kids use Denver while his biological daughter Jessie Belle uses Deutschendorf, her father’s real last name. No offense meant to Jessie, but I’d have gone with Denver.

Crazy, but President Gerald Ford’s real name was Leslie King, while Bill Clinton’s real last name is Blythe. The Fourth.

The first name recorded on a document is Kushim.

In elementary school, we learned to write by printing our names on those loose leaf sheets of paper that had lines to keep your penmanship straight, and dotted lines to know where the top of the lower-case letters should reach. My friend Chris Smith on Euclid Avenue didn’t have a problem. But I had to print it all out, and living where I did didn’t make it easier:

R O B E R T  S T E P H E N  K U N Z I N G E R

200 E A S T  L A K E  A V E N U E

M A S S A P E Q U A  P A R K, N E W  Y O R K

For God’s sake, I was seven.

I think I ran next door from the school to our house to plead with my mom to let me change my last name to a letter. “I can be K! I can be Z! Whatever!”

Last names didn’t really begin in the west until the later part of the Middle Ages, about the late 11th century, though the first known European last name is from my ancestral home, County Galway, Ireland, in 916. I do not believe O’Cleirigh is a relative, but since the subsequent variations include O’Cleary and O’Leary, they might be ancestors of my friend Will O’Leary. I shall ask Himself when I get the chance. Surnames, however, not surprisingly, are thousands of years older than that in China, used, logically, to separate people with the same first names. The last names typically were some variation of “son of” or “from the land of.”

I wish we still did that. I could be Bob of Deltaville. Or Bob of the Great River. Or Robert of Brooklyn. Not as melodic as Leonardo de Vinci or Francis of Assisi.

What I like about my name is if you google me, the first seven hundred entries are actually about me.  I Googled my friend Tom Williams once and I found a reference to him six hours later.

I spoke to a woman recently who told me I say my last name different every time I say it. Do you have any idea how self-conscious that made me? Now my tongue hurts from repeating the damn nine letters for an hour to see what she meant. Kunzinger KUNzinger KunZINGer. KunzingER. I had a Social Studies teacher in high school who when calling roll would say KUNNNNNNNZinger. I had a prof at college who would insert an “r” for no good reason at all and called me Kurnzinger. Other variations followed me through life, some not worth repeating. But I have come to like my last name. The people I know with the same name are people I’m insanely proud of, whom I enjoy being associated with.

I hope I never do anything to bring shame to the name. It is our identity, my link to Lohr en Mein, Germany, to Bay Ridge, to glassmakers and butchers, organ builders and accountants. Snow White

A stockbroker.

A photographer.

A student recently asked how I pronounce my name. I told her, “The same way it sounds.” “OH! She said, thank you Professor K.”

Robert lives on Long Island. Bob lives on a river and writes books. Bobby is hiking the trails on a retreat in western New York. We are a multiplicity of identities, a collage of personas. Sometimes Bob would like to take a train up to see Robert, tell him to take it easy, to not be in a rush to do anything. Sometimes I miss Bobby—his innocence and hope, his lack of inhibitions and his willingness to embarrass himself.

I spent the past five years finding my footing, making drastic changes—some by choice and others by circumstance, and the truth is you can change your name a thousand times and never change at all. Change must be deeper than the alphabet; integrity and self-worth are tied to actions, not labels.

Done Too Soon

It’s forty-five degrees and rainy today. Two days ago it was eighty-four and sunny. I think snow is in the forecast this week; that, or triple digits. I can’t keep track. Nor do I care that much. It’s weather; I like weather. Whether it is collar up, teary-eyed, runny-nose, bone-vibrating cold; or sweat on the tip of my nose, prickly heat, brow-dripping, sun-burning hot. Either. I’m good. Middle ground works best for being most benign, of course; those New England type, low-humidity seventies with the air-clarity of New York’s Southern Tier, the colors of the Sonoran Desert, and the salty-scented wind of the coast. Everyone loves autumn or spring weather. “Pleasant” they say. Mostly because it doesn’t hit you in the face.

I don’t mind a little headbanging with the elements.

Anyway, it’s raining now. So I’m inside, physically, mentally, psychologically. Like a grocery-store lobster, like a termite, like Kenneth Graham’s Mole, like the malted part of a malted milk ball. That’s me—I’m inside today. I will go for a walk to the river, stroll up Pintail Road past the pond to the dock; I’ll abandon the warm here at Aerie, finish first my cup of hot chai latte, all steamy and frothy.

I have a game I play when things seem down, dark, or otherwise non-descript and boring. It’s actually quite effective: I imagine I’m already dead.

I imagine I found out that time is short—a feat not difficult to imagine these days as several people I care for very deeply no longer have to imagine this; it is real. But I force myself to imagine hearing the news, the disbelief followed by denial and then anger. Then somewhere before acceptance I imagine the rain.

I remember the streak of wet up my back when I was a kid on the island riding my bike after a summer shower. Or the choppy Great South Bay splashing at my knees when Eddie and I would walk along the rocks of Heckscher. I remember Spain, the Camino back from Finisterre to Santiago, and that day it poured the entire time, and a fog settled ahead of us, and we were soaked, but we were so alive, finding small medieval chapels where we stood under the overhang and listened to the far-reaching quiet of Galicia. We found an albergue and changed clothes and walked to a pub and played foosball and had some local brew.

The rain was a visceral reminder we were alive, right then, a drop-by-drop pronouncement of existence. Rain doesn’t reach the interior walls of anyone’s sarcophagus. It is solely for us, for those here, those of us still alive and aware.

And then I imagine the sun.

I remember the heat while hiking Sabino near Tucson, deep pools of mountain water to dive into after my body was dripping with sweat from heat. Or the cold, the uniquely-desert-borne cold feel of my skin when I turned under a cliff into shade and the dry air dropped twenty degrees. Once, in Senegal, in the southwestern Sahara, I fell asleep on a cot in the yard of a house in a small village, and the heat woke me up. I went to the porch and the thermometer in the shade read one hundred and ten. I can remember my shoulders, the tingling sensation when I lightly rubbed my palm across my skin. It caused shivers to run down my spine.

Alive. Absolute clarity.

So, really, so I’ve stoped bitching about the rain, or the cold, or the heat.

Or about anything really. I am alive.

I’m at my desk and above me rain is pelting the skylight tonight. Out the window the deep woods are misty, and I can’t hear any of the normal wrens or even crows. Just the sound of rain and the distant rumble of tires out on 33 more than a mile away. If this clears out before bed, I’ll go out and look at the planets and the stars with the telescope and deep-space binoculars and it will be cold, upper thirties cold, and at first I’ll move from foot to foot, bouncing to keep warm, until some sort of numbness settles in, and I’ll breathe hard on purpose to watch my breath, and my neck will feel wet and cold, and I’ll remember this part of the night as much as I’ll remember spotting Vega or Alpha Centauri. What contrasts! The billions of years ago presence of stars and the immediate dripping reminder of the right now.

How often are we aware of our existence? I mean, how often are we conscious of the beauty and sensation of our life? We go through motions, we dress so we can’t feel the warmth or the cold but who doesn’t love the cold feel of our bare feet on the grass at twilight? We eat so we feel the nothingness of not being hungry, but to fast once in a while is to cleanse our minds of the monotony of food. We don’t connect to others because we find something familiar in the airgap lives we lead in a world where whatever is most convenient works best and connections back to those we knew is so much easier than reaching out to those who just might be in our lives moving forward.

But back to the rain,

my God the rain slaps us, and this is what makes our lives on this earth unique. In the distant unfathomable reaches of eternity both behind us and yet to come is a nothingness and never ever againness that stretches without end, in a state of seemingly complete unexisting. But here, now, we shiver, we sweat, we stretch ourselves to shake off the stiffness, and we wipe our eyes, throw some cold water on our faces, shake off the drowsiness, and live.

Because now is all there is left. As one dear friend of mine recently commented about “passing”: “Then I’ll close the door behind me.” This is it. Make no mistake, this is it,

and still people avoid the cold, avoid the rain, the sleet and snow, the blazing sun, but those extremes make us aware of the present. Humanity’s most vulnerable trait in shunning the passing of time is its apparent need to remain numb as much as possible. Meanwhile, if we tolerate the rain we can see droplets of life on the beautiful flowers outside, shake the wet from our hair, catch some drops of life on our tongue.

Am I being a bit mystical? A little too “earthy”? Damn right. But just how much time being alive have we lost by blaming weather? The atmosphere can be most inconvenient, it seems. Breathe in. Breathe out.

Move on.

“I hate the rain,” some say. “I hate the heat” some say. Sure there are legitimate reasons to abstain from constant weather-beating. Asthma, sensitive skin, and other issues.

But no one should ever miss the experience of the sound of rain on a lake. The blinking away of snow from your eyes. The vertical streak of sweat down your back on a hot day. No one should veer around the puddles. Let that water rip up your back and even the back of your head. Honestly, you can change clothes and dry off, put on warm clothes when you get back inside.

We are dying, my friends. Some soon, some not so soon. So let’s go for a walk in the rain. You and me. Let’s stand on the lawn when it snows. We can sit on a bench in a park when the sun is so strong we will feel it in our veins. Because at some point, whether we are ready or not, we will wish for one more rainfall. We will pray for another soft blanket of snow. We will trade the best of our days for one more season, whatever season it may be.

The weather is the closest we come to recognizing the immediate. And the rain says, quite softly most of the time, “Come. Fill up your senses.”

Truly. There will come a time when we understand that all of it–the lashing of rain and the drifts of endless snow–will be behind us, whether we wish it to be or not.

Jesus Christ, Fanny Brice
Wolfie Mozart and Humphrey Bogart
And Genghis Khan
And on to H. G. Wells

Ho Chi Minh, Gunga Din
Henry Luce and John Wilkes Booth
And Alexanders King and Graham Bell

Ramar Krishna, Mama Whistler
Patrice Lumumba and Russ Colombo
Karl and Chico Marx
Albert Camus

E.A. Poe, Henri Rousseau
Sholom Aleichem and Caryl Chessman
Alan Freed and Buster Keaton too

And each one there
Has one thing to share:

They have sweat beneath the same sun
Looked up in wonder at the same moon
And wept when it was all done
For bein’ done too soon
For bein’ done too soon

–Neil Diamond “Done too Soon”

The Book List

Tim O’Brien The Things They Carried.

Tim Seibles One Turn Around the Sun

Ernest Hemingway Old Man and the Sea

Bohumil Hrabal Too Loud a Solitude

Carlos Fuentes Old Gringo

Ernie Pyle Brave Men

Roberto Bolano A Little Lumpen Novelita

E.B. White Here is New York

Frederick Douglass Narrative

Robin Lee Graham Dove


When I was in college a professor asked us to list ten books we loved so he could explain what he figured out about us from the list. Except for the minor detail that I wasn’t sure I had even read ten books, I thought it an interesting assignment. I remembered this a few years ago when I heard of a professor who claimed he could tell the IQ of a student by looking in his backpack. I thought about doing that assignment with my students at the last college where I worked full-time, but I think instead of being able to tell their IQ I’d be predicting the length of their jail time. 

My book list in college included Stephen King, Woody Guthrie, Robin Lee Graham, Woodward and Bernstein, and most likely Dr. Seuss because I was a wise-ass. I don’t remember much of the professor’s analysis except what was clear to anyone, I liked adventure and bent toward non-fiction.

I am doing this with my students next week, but to be fair I decided to redo my own list now that I have actually passed the ten-book mark. The ten books above are what I consider the most influential or memorable or re-readable books I can recall. I didn’t head to my bookshelves to come up with them; I simply put my head back and thought about books.

Some observations:

  • I still like adventure and have a bend toward non-fiction.
  • Five of the books are non-fiction though O’Brien is thinly disguised fiction (Read If I Die in a Combat Zone for reference)
  • Seven of the books are pretty short
  • None were written by women despite some heavy influence from women in my writing, including Alice Walker, Frances Harper, and Virginia Woolf.
  • Three were not written in English.
  • Seven do not take place in the United States, though The Things They Carried is debatable since much of it does but much of it doesn’t. So six and a half.
  • Five of the authors are also known as essay writers.
  • Seven somehow wrapped themselves into the narrative.

Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried is simply one of the greatest books of the 20th century, and while it takes place in Vietnam, it is not about Vietnam anymore than Tim Seible’s One Turn Around the Sun is about astronomy. In O’Brien’s book, along with Hemingway, Hrabal, White, Douglass, and to a lesser degree Pyle, the author either writes directly to the reader or involves the reader in some way.

Seibles’ book is about his parents and age. In fact, the passing of time is a common theme for Hrabal, O’Brien, Guthrie, and Pyle. I have heard Tim read from the book long before it was published, have talked to him many hours over lunch about our parents and time and age, and admire his diction and phrasing perhaps more than that of any writer I know. He is a giant in the poetry world and this book is his best. Read it from start to finish; don’t jump around. People pick up poetry books and read them like they’re Russell Stover boxes of chocolates. Stop. There is an arc in there, and it should be read that way.  

I love how Old Man and the Sea is about an old man at sea whose pride is simply too strong to let the damn marlin go and focus on the smaller fish around him. And then when I read it again it was really about pride in general and who we are and what we learn as we mature. And then when I read it a third time I realized the entire story is the Passion of the Christ. I like how Hemingway never lost his journalistic tightness and how he uses repetition as an art form. Also, the book is really short and I generally run out of steam at about 100 pages. When he wrote, “It was an hour before the first shark showed up” just a dozen pages from the end, I was already hoping the boat would sink.

Susan Sontag once said Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal is one of the finest writers she has ever read and Too Loud a Solitude is one of the finest books. I’m with her on that. It took me several reads to understand how this crazy-ass little book is a compact version of all the greatest philosophies in history, and the “compact”ness of it is a metaphoric spin from the lead character who compacts trash. It is funny as hell and poignant. To top it all off it happens to be parallel in so many ways to The Things They Carried that I could teach a seminar in those two books. As an aside I should say that Tim told me once he focused on Czech language and literature for a while and that Hrabal was a favorite. Go figure. Read both books and you’ll see what I mean.

When I was at Penn State, I spent a lot of time reading all of Fuentes’ work. He seems so much like Hemingway and uses a classic narrative structure. I read his work more because of his locales than the story, and also I was trying to fine tune my Spanish, but Old Gringo is my favorite. If anyone likes Hemingway, he or she will like Fuentes. Read it in English, though.

Ernie Pyle’s work was introduced to me by Professor Pete Barrecchia at St. Bonaventure. Since then I have not met a journalist who was not at least somewhat influenced by Pyle. He is, to be certain, above all other war journalists before or since, and Hemingway once said if Pyle had not been killed at the end of World War Two, it is unlikely anyone would know of what Hemingway wrote after that. Google “Ernie Pyle Normandy” and read his piece about walking the beach at Normandy. It is easy to see how Hem and O’Brien both took much away from this great journalist, particularly O’Brien.

A few months ago, Tim Seibles gave me a copy of Bolano’s book and I read it start to finish without stopping; a nearly impossible feat for me except it isn’t that long. I had given him a copy of Too Loud a Solitude and he said that crazy-ass book reminded him of this one and when I was through we laughed about how neither of us could explain to anyone what the hell it is about, but it simply keeps you from start to finish. It sent me to the rest of Bolano’s work. I still can’t explain what happens but I love how it happens. Bolano is a writer’s writer in that he is an artist in his work instead of simply a storyteller.

I was listening to “Selected Shorts” some years ago, already familiar with EB White’s excellent essay work outside of his famous grammar book, and I heard someone reading “Here is New York.” It stands alone for work that is less “about” New York than it is about the state of “being” in New York. If I were born earlier I think I’d like to have been EB White. It is absolutely one of the finest essays ever written about the spirit of place—something I am very drawn toward. Plus, you know, it’s about New York.

I love Douglass’ writing style—very journalistic in approach—and his description is honest and raw, made more revealing by his first-person experience. But there is something else that makes this one of my favorite all time books and Douglass my greatest American hero—his Character. Frederick Douglass is an inspiration not only for his accomplishments against the greatest odds in an evil system, but for his mostly firm moral compass through it all. He is simply a tremendous example. The Narrative of Frederick Douglass should be required reading in every single school.

Graham’s book was simultaneously published with a young adult version called The Boy Who Sailed Around the World Alone, one of the first books my father ever gave me for Christmas. Indeed, the first. This book’s influence, for me, has nothing to do with his writing. It is about sailing, seeing the world, writing about it, and taking that money to go see more of the world. It very well might be the most influential book in my life as far as my motivation is concerned. Years ago I lost the copy my father gave me, but a month ago my son and I were in a local shop and there was a copy. Reading it still stirs something in me I cannot explain.

These are not the most influential writers for me as a writer—that is a different list, though there is some crossover. To the point—O’Brien, Hemingway, Pyle, and Hrabel make both lists, but the rest do not. These four for one reason or another “inform” how I write—sometimes by outright theft. The other two writers who influenced me as a writer are first Aaron Sorkin, who I think is simply one of the finest writers working today, though he is wholly a screenwriter and playwright, but that makes him a master of dialogue. And finally Jackson Browne. His early emotionally-driven work sets tone for me better than any writer I know. Obviously, part of it is hearing a minor key come in for something like “Sky Blue and Black” or the musical phrasing of “For a Dancer.” As I get older, poetry for its diction has become more important, and I’m still trying to find the patience to be meticulous in that regard. But for tone, the music of Browne or Van Morrison or just the right rendition of Pachelbel’s “Canon in D” can light fire under my work way faster than the classic writers. Often even faster than caffeine.

I have read many books beyond this list, including a stack my son gives me saying, “This seemed like a book you’d like.” He has already read more books than I have in my life. I am not sure why I have an aversion to reading; I think it is because I try to spend as little time as possible reading about what other people have done and spend that time doing something. When my colleagues in the writing world get together and talk about our peers and what they’re doing, I generally slide out of the conversation and find someone who wants to talk about something more relevant to me, say like goats or the beach. Part of it is I hate talking about writing; but the larger issue is simply I do not read that much. I write or I do things.

So when I do come across a book that takes me in and takes over my mind for a while, I want everyone to read it. When they finish reading all my books of course. It shouldn’t take long; they’re short.

What books influenced you?

Peace Out Rage

shenandoah (photo by j varley)

A friend of mine is a Franciscan priest who remains calm no matter what happens.

We are not alike.

He is compassionate, understanding, patient, and saint-like. He is perfect for his job and does it 24/7; that is, he is one of those rare souls that couldn’t be anything but some sort of man of God. If he gets stuck in traffic, for instance, he keeps it all in perspective. If someone cuts him off, his response remains, “They really must be in a hurry. I hope they’re careful.” Or, “Wow, God bless them and watch over them, they really must be anxious about some appointment.” His is a peaceful soul.

This contrasts directly with my “Use a frigging turn signal, butthead!” approach. When entering a tunnel and the traffic decelerates from sixty to forty, the good Father cares: “Oh, thank our Lord they are all being careful going into this tunnel. It really must be frightening to so many people.” I handle it with my own style: “It’s a tunnel. IT IS A TUNNEL! It is not a brick wall! The Road did NOT shrink! It’s a damn TUNNEL!”

We obviously address frustration differently, which makes me wonder how we ended up this way. Would Monastery-Bob and Professor-priest keep their temperaments in tack? If I lived on a mountain in prayer would I be less likely to want to kill the cashier for not being able to multi-task?

I was like him once, my friend the peaceful priest.

When we met during college we talked a long time about peace and where it comes from. To search for peace in the world is a fruitless act. Even if we find it, it can disappear with war, with stress, with distractions and interruptions. It is like turning to others to find what you want to do with your life; it must come from within. And peace, too, must be a spring, not a shower. I always liked that thought.

I once went to Father’s room and found dozens of people drinking beer and laughing as they told stories about their lives. Afterwards, I said I had a great time and found it strange that I could feel so lost among friends on one day and on another feel so connected and centered. He said, “Bobby—tonight you brought the peace with you.”

Man, he made it sound so simple: Bring the peace with you.

So when some dirtbag student of mine called me an asshole in class, I thought of Father, and how it is never the situation but how we handle it. I could picture him with his wide smile and deep laugh and huge hands on my shoulders telling me I’m going to be just fine. I brought the dirtbag into the division office and sat the little bastard’s ass in a chair while I filled out a withdrawal form. Before I could finish the paperwork, however, and before he stopped crying, I decided to give this “peace” thing a shot.

“Are you scared?” He looked at me. “College, I mean, the assignments? Are you worried?”

“I suppose,” he said, calming down.


It took him a long time to answer something other than the moronic, I don’t know. “I’m not a good student. I was never good at school.”

“You get confused?”

“Yeah,” he said, nodding, knowing I hit on his fear.

“Yeah,” I said. “A lot of people do. I know I did. What you might try doing is stepping back a bit. Sit to the side and watch everything from a distance for awhile—get some perspective. Instead of calling me an asshole, ask me some questions.”

“Right,” he said, with not just a little indignation.

Bring the peace, Bob. Bring the peace.

“Sometimes we need to see things from a different point of view.”

He was quiet a long time and I believed I got through to him, and I wondered what he pictured as I recalled sitting in Father’s room listening to stories of scared and lost students like myself still trying to get a handle on our place in the world.

“Wow, thanks for your psycho-babble bullshit, Dude,” he said.

I took a breath, thought of Father, and told the little prick to get out of my site. It’s a gift, really, knowing one’s place in the world.

I headed home thinking about peace and frustration, fear and anxiety. He’s where he should be, this former student of mine. He’s out in the real world where he can seek out only those challenges he knows he can conquer. He is part of the masses that only face what they’re not afraid of.

Bringing peace to an otherwise hostile environment is a difficult task. Maybe that’s why I, too, often avoid the challenge and wander down country roads, watch the water ebb and flow rather than rub elbows with anxiety. It’s why I don’t drive during rush hour, avoid fast food restaurants and box store checkout lines.

Yes. Let there be peace and let it begin with me, Bob the Asshole. I’m going for a walk and I’m bringing my peace with me.

Cool Change

It’s raining. The sky is deep grey, like it’s never going to clear. A steady breeze is pushing down the river, and out on the bay a fog has settled. No one is out in the village, not at the IGA, not at the convenience store. A worker stood smoking a cigarette under the overhang and said, “Ain’t no one been here today. A few for gas is all. Beer for the game. Quiet.” I bought a coffee and left the change on the counter so he could stay outside and finish his Marlboro Red. “You watching the game, tonight?” he asked when I came out and sat on the bags of logs.

“Some. Michael’s headed to a violin concert by a touring musician down at the episcopal church on 17, so I might head over to the 606 to catch the second half.” The 606 is a pub run by some guys from Australia who also have an Irish pub attached to it, though that part—The Quay—is hardly ever open. Next month it will be, obviously.

“Good food.”

“Yes, and Fosters.”

He took a drag and snubbed out the butt in the ashtray on top of the huge cement garbage can. “I better start wings and pizza. Gonna be a rush on wings and pizza soon.”

“I’m just going to have one draft and head home and eat there.”

He nodded. “Philly gonna win.”


“Don’t talk to me about KC’s defense. This is going to be all Philly.”

I sipped my coffee.

“You don’t care do you?” he asked.

“Not really, no. Go Bills!” We laughed.

“This rain ain’t never letting up. I think it supposed to do this all night.”

I looked out at the Exxon sign. $3.25 a gallon for regular. A white truck pulled in and parked next to the kerosene pump. He pulled out a blue can and put it on the ground.

“Yeah, it’s pretty steady.”

“Don’t it bother you? All this rain? It’s starting to bother me.”

“Not really, no.”

He held the door open for Bubba, who said hello, commented on the weather, asked how Michael’s doing, and went in to pay. I sat thinking about Sundays, the pace, the slow erosion of hours. I thought of Sundays in my childhood when it rained and I’d lay on the floor and read or watch football or an old black and white western. I almost felt like the aroma of pot roast should drift out of some kitchen. Onions.

I thought about the book.

Yesterday at a local shop, Nauti Nell’s, Michael and I stopped to see if they had any books he liked. The shop has stationary, enough nautical equipment to build several sea-going crafts, candles, Old Bay seasoned peanuts, and more, and one of the finest book collections—mostly used—about the Chesapeake, and sailing in general, anywhere.

I’ve told this part before: Growing up, my dad would give each of us a book for Christmas. He shopped for them himself and picked up books which he believed met our personality. I still have almost all of them—James Herriot’s All Things Great and Small series, A Walk Across America, Bound for Glory, and more. But the first one and the one that had the most impressionable impact on my way of thinking was Robin Lee Graham’s The Boy Who Sailed Around the World Alone; the young adult version of his bestseller Dove.

Through the years of moving, packing and ditching things, selling and losing things, I lost that one. The irony is that was the one book that I specifically remember waking me up, making be think of something beyond my tight little world.

Yesterday I turned a corner inside Nells, and there it was, same publishing year, same hardback everything. I opened it slowly half-expecting to see “Merry Christ Robert, Love Dad, 1974” scribbled inside.

Five bucks. I didn’t even have my wallet, so I dug the change out of a canvas bag in my car. Then last night I read it again for the first time since Gerald Ford was president.

I do have the adult version, Dove. In the mid-90’s, not long after Michael was born, I acquired a 26’ Columbia sloop—identical to Graham’s boat. I worked on it most of my free time, and bought a copy of the book for inspiration. When Michael was three he’d come with me and sit in the cabin playing with his Legos as I worked on the deck and the rigging. I didn’t plan to sail around the world, of course. But I did think about circumnavigating the Chesapeake. If it had been slightly bigger and a little less leaky, I could envision myself sailing it to Florida, across to the gulf and up the southern coast.

It was my very first dream that I recall with such specificness and with such clarity. Previous ambitions involved some sort of magical realism, like when I wanted to build a rocket and fly to space, or when I wanted to design and build a car that could also go in water and on snow. Early on I set myself up for failure.

But the boat was different. Even in my early teens it was real. We lived at the water on Long Island’s south shore, and I was around boats all the time, albeit other people’s boats. And Graham’s YA book had lots of pictures and details of how he came up with the plan and saw it through.

My boat sank in Broad Bay in Virginia Beach. The police called me at Aerie and asked, “Did you own a 26’ Columbia?” Honestly, they used past tense.

Michael was not happy about the loss of his Legos still in the cabin.

Bubba came out of the store. “$6.35 a gallon for kerosene. Geeeeeez. You’d think with all the marinas and boats and users in this town it would be cheaper!”

This seventy-something-year-old man has sailed quite far from here, as have most of the people in this small village. It is what they do. “Deltaville: Sailing Capital of the Chesapeake” the sign says when you enter town from 33 to this place, the very end of the road before hitting the Bay. “Deltaville: A Drinking Town with a Boating Problem,” says it all, and the fact there are three times more boats than people here.

I thought of Joshua Slocum, the first American to circumnavigate the world, and my favorite, Laura Dekker, now the youngest person to do so. And of course, Graham, who lives in Montana now, fifty years after returning from his five-year journey.  

It’s nice to have dreams, to find some old ones literally on some shelf somewhere. To pick them up and blow off the dust and remember that ancient and very real spark, the one that helped you turn some corner toward adulthood.

I drove to the bay and walked in the rain on the docks at Stingray Marina, noticing the sloops, a couple of Ketches, one conveniently called, “Bob’s Your Uncle.” I thought of the Morgan Out Island down at the slip in Wilmington, the one with charts of the intercoastal. “Begin Again,” it’s called.

Do we move on from our youthful dreams because they’re not practical or because we don’t know what to do next? When are we simply too old?

It would take real gumption to chuck it all and take off, open it up wing on wing and glide past all the excuses and hesitations. But “not just ordinary gumption,” as Paul Thoreau once wrote, “But three in the morning gumption.”

And who’s got that?

100 Words A Day

In my writing class today, we talked about not simply the “need” to be succinct in descriptions and, well, most prose, but the beauty as well. I reminded them we’ve all heard songs that say exactly what we feel but could never express.

They knew what I meant.

So I had them write about one feeling. “You’re in a small town, high school age, maybe a bit older, no jobs to be found, no future, but it’s where you’re from. Factories closing, and all you do is hang out on street corners or someone’s garage drinking. How do you feel? Do this in less than 100 words.”

The responses an hour later were decent, but only because we all knew what everybody else meant from discussions. “Good writing like good music doesn’t come with the artist to “explain” themselves,” I said and we laughed.

I mocked, “Hello, Professor Kunzinger, I just finished your book about Siberia, can you come here and explain everything you meant so we’re on the same page?”

With a little prodding, a few students read their work. One talked about being able to predict the next twenty years nearly hour by hour. I liked that idea. Another used a string of drowning similes.

I wrote this on the board:

“It’s a deathtrap. It’s a suicide rap. We’ve got to get out while we’re young.”

Fifteen words. “Fifteen words! And Springsteen nails it.”

Do that, I told them, and you’ll get an A.

I gave more examples from Seibles to Frost to Dylan to Dylan Thomas. A.E. Housman. Gwendolyn Brooks.

I went for a walk afterwards, trying to shake “Born to Run.”

A friend of mine called and we talked about life and food and weather and hair. Then she told me her daughter-in-law gave her a website address where my friend will answer writing prompts about her life. “What was it like growing up where you did?” “What did you and your mom do together?” “Your Dad?” Your grandmother?” “What did you want to be when you grew up?” “Did you have any dreams?” “What did you play with?” “Tell me about your best friend when you were little.” And more. And she is to load whatever pictures she can, or her son and daughter in law can, and the web company will put it all together in a book for her granddaughter.

I almost cried. “I LOVE this!” I told her.


“If I sent you a journal with those questions would you do it?”


“Excuse me?”



“Probably not.”

“Exactly, but you’re at the computer every day, and this will take ten or fifteen minutes.”

“That’s for sure,” she said. “They give very little space for each response. I have to be quite succinct.”

I told her about the death trap, about the suicide rap.

“This is why I’m calling you.”

“I feel so special now.”

“You know what I mean. How can I be short in my answers but say a lot.”

“Don’t try and write everything. If you asked how my weekend was, what would I say?”

“Same thing you always say: “Fine,  you?” We laughed.

“Exactly! Because you’re asking me to sum up in probably a few minutes at best before you need to get off the phone the previous seventy-two hours! That’s just a mean question and few people anywhere answer anything other than ‘fine, you?’”

“But if I said, “Fine, went for a walk, did some work, watched…Oh, I almost forgot! Saturday night about midnight I heard a noise in the woods, so I put on the spotlights and…”

“Oh I’d have loved it if you had something interesting like that even once!”

“Exactly! Write about midnight, not about the weekend. Don’t write about your mother, write about one trip you took with her. Write about one thing you did with her. What expression did she use that you remember? That’s writing.”

“What toy did you play with when you were growing up?”

“Oh, you know what? I forget, but I’m forgetting a lot these days.”

“Wow. See?”

“Okay so this is really why I called. Now I’m going to do it.”

“I wish I had something like that from my grandparents. Hell, my own parents. How cool if they had that. The highlights, the best memories, of their lives. Nothing sweeping like Facebook or vague like pictures alone, but moments. Quick 100 word memories.”

I think she was going to start right after we hung up. I thought about it the rest of the day, how I really wish everyone I knew had done so. I know so little about my paternal grandmother, and while I’ve heard my parents stories their whole lives, how cool for my son to have books like that of their youth.

“You should do one too, Bob,” she said.

“I think he’s got enough of my stories written down to sustain him. Too many!”

She was quiet awhile, then said, “Bob, I know for certain there are some stories you haven’t told him.”

I was in my office thinking about how to describe my father’s laugh in less than 100 words, or my mother’s sense of humor. The way my grandmother would always look out the window. The way a friend of mine would always hold his nose when he laughed, and another wanted to be but never became a dancer.

I want to tell him about a cow I heard one morning, about what really caused me to finally grow up.

There’s too much and not enough time. There’s the problem: the problem isn’t that we have such lengthy stories to tell; it’s that life is too succinct. And we barrel through it with hardly any time at all to remember how beautiful it is.