The Damn Palalam

It’s yellow outside. The green leaves are yellow, and tips of the leaves of grass; the cars are yellow, the porch, the tables scattered around the property here at Aerie, and there’s a small film of yellow on the water in the birdbaths. On the skylight above my head here at my desk is a powdering of yellow that makes the sky look more sunset than midday, and even the squirrel on the porch roof outside my window, sitting there looking in at me as I eat some freshly made bread (not yellow) which he surely can smell, is yellow.

And a cardinal in the apple tree, he’s yellow, like a Dutch home first painted red and then someone decided to paint over it. Not quite speckled but, yeah, speckled.

I thought perhaps the rainier winter and the cooler spring made conditions right for a higher pollen count, and that’s true, but it also turns out the standby fall guy for all problems in nature—Global Warming—is mostly to blame. Longer springs, more rain (at least here) means my world will look like Charles Schulz’s Woodstock for some time to come.

I wash my face a lot. I hose things down, and I hope for rain, which as it turns out it is about to, heavy, most of the evening. The irony? The rain will aid the trees and grass and flowers in their growth and when the precip slips by the pollen wagons will once again circle for their next coating.

I know. I live in the woods—a lot of woods, filled with countless trees, and there are paths lined with flowers, benches next to azaleas, and those two blooming apple trees, or what I’ve come to call the squirrels’ pantry. All of it creates, displays, and spreads pollen. What is one to expect out here? It’s my own fault, really.

****

Pollen is a Sanskrit word, originally, coming from “palalam,” which means “ground seeds.” It was first used as a botany reference in the 1700’s, and it is said that John Bartram, American botanist, horticulturist, and explorer from the mid-18th century, was the first known person to attribute a sneezing fit to the yellow menace.

And today, I continue the sternutation, tissues in hand. But other than living on a forty-one-foot Morgan Out Island sailboat, I wouldn’t have it any other way; pollen is the tradeoff. Maybe that is why my favorite color is yellow. Sure there’s the sun, goldfinches, and lemon pound cake, but there is also the indirect beauty of yellow—nature awakening, shaking off her birthing powder, the transition of trees and the work of the bees. When I walk to the river, I hose down my face first, put some tissues in my pocket, and head out into the clouds and fog of this amber ambience.

In a month or so after the yellow turns to dusk, I’ll sit on the porch, a low hum of bees nearby, a cloud of gnats above the lawn somewhere, the subtle smell of saltwater, and the thin sound of music coming from a neighbor in the distance who always plays music I love. I’ll lay in the hammock and stare into the canopy of oaks and maples, unable to see the sky so clearly anymore, and then I’ll walk in the cool grass to find my flip flops, saunter out of the shade where the sun on my neck is one of the finest feelings I know, and I’ll walk to the river in the quiet of a country day. My mind wanders out onto the river, or up the bay, and I think of projects I’m working on while the same indigo bunting sits on a wire down the road. I’ll wade into the cool river about knee deep and just watch the gulls and osprey move out toward Parrot Island and back. It is as close to whole as I’ve known, out in nature, as I’ve been most of my life.

Entry fee? Wander for a few weeks blurry eyes and sniffling through a cloud of yellow dust like the stuff that put Dorothy et.al to sleep outside Oz. It is so dangerously beautiful.

This is what coats my writing, has always colored my music; it is as natural to me as the sounds of city streets or the crack of a baseball bat, the sound of the ball slapping into the catcher’s mitt, or the murmur of the crowd and the occasional call of the man selling hotdogs was to my “Father of Brooklyn”; the sounds that surround us, the clouds of life around us, complete us somehow.

For me, yeah, nature at any cost. Go figure. My complete bio is deceiving: it says I was born in Brooklyn; but that’s about where any city reference ends, nearly immediately, in fact. For the rest of this six/tenth of a century, I’ve always been a boy from the country.

Covered in that frigging pollen.

Be ready for pollen season - Las Vegas Sun Newspaper

We Adapt

ARNOŠT LUSTIG - Winton Film
Milos and Arnost

Three years ago—my God, three years ago—I packed up my office at a college where I had worked for nearly three decades, and I brought everything home. This week back then I sat in the small room at the college scouring stacks of books I’d collected and I decided which ones to leave on a table somewhere for students to take, which ones to give to certain people, and which ones to bring home to pull out from time to time as I make my transition into a new way of life (I’m still transitioning, btw). The work of my late friend Arnost Lustig was a keeper; he is as strong a writer as he was a person. I also found my notes and thesis from Penn State where one half of my master’s there was a study of adaptation of the arts. As I flipped through my work that spring day, on my radio the news anchor announced the death of Czech film director Milos Forman. It was April 13th, 2018.

But suddenly it was March of 2000.

I stood in the gates of the small fortress next to the Terezin Ghetto north of Prague. I had traveled there from Charles University with my colleague from American University, Arnost. It was a significant place to be with him. Arnost had been interned there with his family during World War Two, from when he was about fourteen to seventeen, shortly before being sent to Auschwitz, and a few years before he wrote himself into literary history with more than a dozen bestsellers, some made into movies. I’ve written about the burly author before for Ilanot Journal in the work, “I Knew Two Men.”

But this isn’t about him; it’s about Milos.

On that particular day Arnost needed to talk to his good friend who wanted to make a movie based upon Arnost’s book The Unloved. Milos had already made beautiful movies like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Man on the Moon, Heartburn, and others including my favorite, Amadeus. At some point on that cool afternoon between conversations about the horrific ghetto museum of Terezin and the prison for anti-Nazi protesters, the Small Fortress, I ended up having a conversation with Milos about adaptation. Arnost had told him that was the subject matter for my lectures at the university.

“So we agree then,” he said to me. He was much younger than Arnost but with the same controlling conversational style. 

“Yes,” I said, “Of course. It is always frustrating when people say how much more they like the book; or do any form of comparison at all. They are completely separate art forms.”

“Exactly!” he said, gesturing with his fist. We talked further about our common concern on the subject of movies based upon a novel or play, and we reiterated the inability of people to see movies and books they are based upon as separate. Yet we also agreed on the difficult task of expecting anything else of the average person at a movie on a Saturday afternoon.

Eventually, of course, the talk turned to his work.

He asked, so I answered. “I’ve taught both “Cuckoo’s Nest” as well as Amadeus, and I did read Kesey’s book as well as Shaffer’s play, which I first saw when I was in college.”

“Well?”

“Both times you nailed it. From Kesey’s novel you kept the major themes which worked and consolidated what needed to be. In Amadeus you made music the central theme of the movie instead of the ridiculous “mystery” between Mozart and Salieri. I still enjoy watching both films and teaching them. Oh, and Amadeus has the best cut in movies, when Mozart is in bed and Salieri finally hands him the completed “Requiem,” and Mozart says, “Okay, from the beginning,” and we hear an entire orchestra for the first time as his wife’s horse and carriage come into view. Love that scene.”

Milos indicated it was hard to miss with Mozart’s material and the brilliant film editors, but I appealed. He was a great director.

Then he mentioned Ragtime.

When I was young my father bought me E.L Doctorow’s book. I loved it and read if several times. I loved how it swept across decades and included some major historical figures such as Houdini. But I never could picture it as a movie; even if one could save the major themes, it simply is too complicated to pull off as a traditional narrative with the proper conflicts clarified. Then I saw the movie and I didn’t like it all that much. I even watched it again after I learned a few things about adaptation at Penn State, and it still, for me, didn’t work. I tried to leave behind my memory of the book and focused solely on the new art form, trying the best I could to not include the literature in my analysis. 

“What about Ragtime?” Milos asked. “That took me a long time to get made.” Then he whispered, “I think Unloved might take longer, if I get to make it at all.”

I thought about saying, “Boy, that was really some casting they did for ‘Cuckoo’s Nest,’ wasn’t it? But I could tell he was enjoying our conversation. I looked at his Czech copy of The Unloved in his hands. It was bookmarked and folded and noted in dozens of places. He clearly learned the book as if it were his own, like his films each became his own, not Kesey’s or Shaffer’s and definitely not Doctorow’s. 

“It seemed too complicated to capture,” I said. “Ragtime.”

“Yes,” he agreed, reflectively. “The themes never did translate very well. Or at least the way I wanted them to.”

I was feeling ballsy now: “It seemed more of a vehicle for Cagney seeing as it was his last film.”

“You’re probably right. He got more attention than the film. Will you discuss these films tomorrow in your class?”

“No. I’m moving on to Hrabal’s Closely Watched Trains.” He smiled. Milos was a fan and close friend of Hrabal’s. The Prague art community is not very big. He told me stories of the two of them from year’s earlier, and standing there with Prague’s bestselling author, its celebrated director, in a museum which was once the prison/home of the man ten feet to my right, was all surreal.

I told him I was going to talk about how the adaptation of Hrabal’s book into Jiri Menzel’s academy award winning film meant unearthing what essential elements must make the transition and which ones very specifically needed to be left behind.

Arnost returned, always sharp, always ready for what’s next. I stared at this man’s eyes and thought about how much he went through. The Nazi’s disrupted his life, caged him for three years as a workhorse, forced him to build a railroad from Terezin to the mainline on the way to Auschwitz, killed his family, and still he escaped and went on to not only live his life, but live it fully as a writer. He knew what to take with him after the war and he knew what to never address again. It is not easy, adapting, saving the best of what exists, our strengths, and leaving behind the weaknesses, the parts we wish we could do over given the chance.

In my office, I packed the last of the books, turned off the radio and thought of Milos, and Arnost, and change, and I left the college. That’s it. I just left. I didn’t throw a water fountain through some bars and escape across a field, and I didn’t end up in an asylum as the Patron Saint of Mediocrity. No, I simply packed my belongings and brought them home. Three years later and I’m still learning this, to adapt, to leave behind what I no longer have a use for and carry on with what gives me life, the themes that hopefully make me a dynamic character in my own story.

A story which needs a new context, one in which it is clear what needs to come along for the rest of the pilgrimage and what needs to be left behind.  I hope the new version works out.

RIP Milos. Honestly, I liked the books better. Sorry.

Part of Terezin Ghetto and the Small Fortress, where Arnost lived for three years, and subject of his celebrated works.

For the Record: Life First, then Art

When I was in fourth grade I wrote a book called “Flight” about two boys who travel through the Milky Way. They talked about what they saw along the way, and they seemed in no worry for want—if they got hungry they had plenty of Milky Ways and Mars bars to eat, and one of the two had stuffed his pockets with “Now and Laters” for that long stretch between Mars and Jupiter. I write all this in past tense since I have no idea what happened to it. I can picture the construction paper cover, and I typed it on a small manual typewriter I also used to write letters to my friend Charlie in the old neighborhood.

We had just moved to a new area surrounded by two waterways: the Great South Bay and the Connetquot River. We had also just watched Neil Armstrong walk on the moon and I was obsessed with space travel. I had a brown jacket with patches on it and memorized all the astronauts and their flight assignments. All of it. I was also enthralled by writing. So naturally, I wrote about space travel.

When I got sick, my mother made me a small desk from a folding tray with a placemat on it, and I used it in the den and would carry it to my room, my first room I had without my brother, so I was able to leave my “manuscript” out all the time. This was fourth grade and I had pneumonia so missed a chunk of school, which allowed plenty of writing time. That small folding-tray table desk got a lot of use.

I also typed a poem about Christmas. I don’t have that anymore either, but I still remember some of it:

Christmas is coming, it’s coming soon

But not that soon since it’s not yet June

So I’ll sit here and watch the moon

With all my Christmas plans in ruins.

Kind of dark. I was ten. And I recall the “s” at the end of “ruins” bothered me. But, man, I wrote it at my own desk. How cool was that? 

I’m sixty years old and a writer now (thanks Tim O. for the line), and I’m sitting in my home at my desk looking out at acres of oak trees with bare branches. The area is surrounded by the Chesapeake Bay in one direction and the Rappahannock River in another. A little while ago a hawk was on one of the branches, no doubt looking down and sizing up the doves and cardinals at the feeders and birdbaths on the front lawn. It is absolutely peaceful here with osprey and deer. The closest town is four miles away and even that is little more than a bank, a convenience store, a hardware store, and a vet. The busiest of them all is the vet, not just for dogs and cats but the myriad farm animals nearby, particularly horses. I know nothing of horses despite having more of them as neighbors than I do people. But I know Alice Walker was right when she wrote, “Horses make a landscape look more beautiful.”

But right now I’m at this desk, which is not unfamiliar as it belonged to my parents since I was young. They purchased it when we moved to a new house. And now it is mine, and I sit behind it looking out at the oaks; scatterings of notes cover the desktop.

It is impossible to predict where the best place to write might be. The manuscript I’m editing now comes from letters I wrote at a booth in the dining car crossing Russia. The car was mostly empty so I was always able to sit with my papers spread about, a cup of tea, or, later in the morning, a beer or two, and work away while outside the glass-plate window birch forests dominated the hemisphere. Years before that I once did a great deal of writing in a bar, and these days for the most part I work well in my mind. I have a friend who writes poetry in coffeeshops or museums, and another who writes in her “writing room” looking out at the quaint houses on the beautiful street in her small town.

For me, the writing occurs when I walk, or when I’m driving, and disjointed, seemingly irrelevant events slam together in my mind. I might have spent time with family, and then went for a walk along the bay, and later had something to eat with a friend, and somewhere in the following days my caffeinated mind wanders between these events, amazed at the connections between stories of ancestry followed by the persistent pounding of waves, followed by the complete absorption in the enjoyment of the passing of time. And as the hours pass the connections become more obvious, the balance between childhood memories shared with my siblings now that we’re all AARP members, and how time can often tease us with occasional flutters in our linear perception. Between old stories of younger days and the eternal ebb and flow of tides as I walk on the beach, and the suspension of all measure when talking to a friend, the writing begins, the mostly futile attempts to capture something of this passing. And now this desk is the caldron in which those ingredients simmer.

I don’t ever remember seeing my father or mother sit at this desk. In fact, despite the passing of more than forty years with it in the family, I might just be the first person to actually sit at it and do work. It had always been primarily aesthetic by location and, as a practicality, a storage area for their important papers. And I am positive no computer has ever been atop it as mine is now. Everything is repurposed eventually.

Even us.

I’m happy with my new work area, though I still like writing at the oyster shack or the café by the bay. I added this to my possessions at the same time I’m getting rid of so many, many things. I’m selling most of my art, giving away parts of my past, and thinning out my souvenirs. I’m sure part of it is my post-pilgrimage epiphany that our most precious possessions are the moments spent along the way; the backyard games on the Island with my brother and sister, the dinners with my parents, laughing and crying with friends at college, and of course, the love and loss and heartaches along the way since. I don’t need souvenirs of Tuesday nights when Dad and I drank Scotch, or early morning conversations with my mom at the breakfast table. Nor do I need “things” from the past two and a half decades—the hours of evening conversations with my son, our shared cabin on a train to the other side of the world, and our month-long journey side by side on the Camino. Come on, what possible souvenir comes close? Oh, I have pictures of all these times, of course, and I cherish them and look at them often. But I have never been able to find a trinket worth keeping.  

But I can sit at this desk and write stories about the journey. And these small stories, while irrelevant to others, are my possessions. Like some glance at the curio cabinet, I sit at this desk and open a file and write about memories. Like how Dad and I used to watch the Super Bowl together every year at his house. We’d have wings and shrimp my mother would put out, and drink beer—a side-step from the Scotch since football calls for beer—and talk about the players and the missed opportunities. We laughed at commercials but never watched the half-time show. Dad didn’t care and I would rather talk to him.

And in the bottom right drawer of this desk which I’ll probably always refer to as “my parents’ desk,” are rough drafts about teaching, about ancestry, and about Africa. Souvenirs fall short of experience; we know that. Words come closer but they remain little more than some form of shorthand to remind us of the complete narrative. Even pictures for all their emotional tugs remain stagnant, moments more than memories. No, the only true way to enjoy the memories is to make them, to push away from my parents’ desk and go.  Writing comes close, for me anyway, like writing music might for my friends Jonmark or Doug, or painting might for Mikel; but I’m more than a little confident they’d all agree that even their best work can leave them shaking their heads, thinking, “No, no. Not exactly.”

No, life must come first; art is the imitator. Many years ago when Facebook was new my niece Erin updated her status to read: “I’m too busy out living my life to post about it on Facebook.” I never forgot that. I’m grateful to sit at my parents’ desk to do my writing, but their much more treasured gift to me was my desire to live life to begin with, to have something to write about.

So I sit down and gather my thoughts, put on some old Jackson Browne, and tie together seemingly irrelevant happenings, sometimes discovering the serendipity in the world. And later in the evening my son will call up and ask if I want to join him outside to use the telescope and gaze at constellations out across the bay.  So I’ll save the document, push away from the desk, head outside and find Mars above the horizon, and in some small way live out our own version of some story somewhere about two young boys traveling through the Milky Way.

White Out

George Floyd murals pop up around the world, from Syria to Los Angeles |  Dazed

for George Floyd:

by Bob Kunzinger

I drive speeds to make color disappear and cops
never pull me over. Buy me drinks
and turn me loose at three am;
they never notice. Never catch me. Blow hard
into some tube—I’ve seen it,
haven’t been asked, ever. I loiter
in malls, linger too long outside
some convenience store; play music loud
along the strip, midnight, trying to hook up
with some woman

both of us hold up traffic. Officers
never suggest we move along, never notice
my brake lights are out– all they see is white
and polished chrome. Old women walk ahead
home from the grocery relaxed, worry-free.

Clerks at night don’t eyeball me up aisles
I can pump then pay
I can try it on
I can move through the mob, wander

unsupervised. Understand how unimaginable to question me
when I ask for change without buying a blessed thing.
I am armed with my ancestry; I am a card-carrying Caucasian. I am
unnoticeable on 95 North; this marks me as Everyman.

If someone asks me for the time, she asks
“that man,” Not “that white man.” I have never been “othered.”    
                                          

White is a given. I am never modified.
I am hardly ever described at all.
I have always been allowed to make eye contact. I could         
                                               

always curse and complain. If I say “I know what it’s like,” I am                                                

most likely lying. If I say “I can’t breathe,” I am given oxygen.

Odd Student Question #285

Five death rituals to give you a new view on funerals | New Scientist
Caskets on a Cliff in China

Today a student who arrived to the United States from a Pacific Island stopped to ask me this: “Professor, I’m working on the essay and just have a question. In America, how do families decide what to do with a deceased love one? I mean, how do you decide what to do with the corpse?”

My first thought, of course, was, “What the hell was the assignment I gave them???” But I do remember contemplating this before for a writing project of my own.

“Well,” I told him, “for starters part of it depends upon one’s faith, part on one’s finances, and part on circumstance, like disease for instance. But, practically speaking, how we are buried is nearly always tied to how we live.”

I remembered my research:

Arlington Cemetery and most other military cemeteries command a respect for those interned there. They remain privileged for men and women who sacrificed so much, often everything, for their country. On foreign soil stand some cemeteries for soldiers who could not come home from war. Where we are buried or where our ashes are spread is indeed linked directly to how we lived our lives.

According to the most recent information from the National Funeral Directors Association, our country is nearly perfectly split between burial and cremation. Just a few years ago burials stayed steady at about seventy-two percent, but the projection claims cremations will bury burials more than two to one in just a few years. Cost is the primary factor. While a funeral with a burial averages about $7500, a cremation can cost less than $2000. The low end gets even lower in mountain states and the high end skyrockets in coastal areas. “Location! Location! Location!” is the call for real estate whether above or below the surface.

I’m not sure where I want to go when I go. Maybe that’s why I write so much; so that the body becomes redundant. If we live well, death might just be irrelevant, though that sounds like the rationalization of a tired mind.

I could be buried in Madagascar. There, every once in a while, the people dig up their ancestors’ bones and dance around with them to music at a party, and then re-bury them when they’re done. Who wouldn’t want to crash that party? Some ancient Chinese dynasties believed coffins should be closer to heaven to get there faster so they hung them from cliffs. One practice I’m not so keen about is strangulation. It seems in old-time Fiji, the loved ones of the deceased, including sons, would be killed as well so death wasn’t such a lonely event. This is still practiced in some areas, but luckily not in the Commonwealth of Virginia.

I don’t often think about my own eternal, motionless resting place and where I wish to spend the future of all futures. In fact, hardly at all except when students, whose assignment turned out to be, “What subject do you love to talk about at dinner with your family?” ask, and I know quickly I don’t want to dine with these people. As for our mortal coil, It seems eternity doesn’t start until life stops, and I at least get the choice right now of where I get to hang out later; it is like making reservations. Do I want to go back to Brooklyn? I see no reason. A cemetery in Virginia somewhere seems convenient. I am very attached to the small town where I went to college in western New York and there is a beautiful cemetery there, but that’s not convenient at all. The options are incredible. One can, with the right connections, be blasted into space, splattered on the moon, or buried at sea. Become a great statesman or writer and be buried at Westminster Cathedral. Run for and win the presidency and be buried at your own library in your own State in the room next to the replica of the Oval Office. Become a seminarian, then a priest, a bishop, cardinal and eventually the Pope, and be buried in St. Peter’s where sainthood is not out of the question.

I could be cremated and have my ashes spread in a place of much significance. Maybe my relatives can shake my soot out the window of a Cessna above the Great South Bay. Better still, a colleague can buy some rolling papers and divvy me up among my students and let everyone smoke me. Small smoke rings can rise like empty words until the wind carries me away. If my family would foot the bill, I’d like one of those stone mausoleums with stained glass windows and candles for people to light, but it seems not just slightly pretentious. This would stand in direct contrast to my former office mate who told me he wanted to be cremated and his ashes flushed down a toilet at a rest stop on the New Jersey Turnpike.

I like the idea of spreading my ashes aimlessly about some deep waterway or, better still, along a footpath in Spain where my own Camino can continue and continue and continue. And then, like Whitman, “If you want me again look for me under your boot soles.”

Maybe I’ll simply go away. Relatives can scan maps years later and speculate, point at Spain or Mexico and say, “Yes, there. He is probably there. Perhaps,” and their imaginations can skip to distant, romantic places. And like Virgil’s personified “Death,” I can twitch their ears and whisper, “Live…live now…I’m coming.”

It’s About Balance, That’s All

If I could take only one memory with me when I move into an age of forgetting, it would be walks to the river, my son on my shoulders, the sun on my back, those moments. Or the times we went swimming when he was four. Or maybe the sound of house wrens just before dawn, or the whippoorwills just after dusk. I’d like to take that feeling of an open fire on my face and the cool night on my back. Or the sound of my father’s voice telling me to sleep well. Or my mother’s laugh, the way she takes a long breath. I’d like to forget all the times I got angry, all the times I was critical, all the times I didn’t listen, the myriad moments of arrogance, of immaturity, and replace them with the memories of all the times I listened to the sound of rain on the canvas awning at our home when I was a child.

I know I’ll want to remember one more time the foghorns on the Great South Bay drifting through the air, the sound of my friends’ voices as we hiked through the woods, headed toward wherever. I take it the grand design allows we forget the minutia as we age, but I’ll salvage what I can. I like remembering the way my son laughed uncontrollably when he was two and I chased him across a field. Or the jazz band that played at halftime during the basketball games at my college, or the sound of the train late at night coming in over the hills out toward Salamanca, the tracks just a block away.

Sometimes now when I am out for a walk, I stand at the water and wonder where everyone is. And I look up the coast and imagine my childhood friends—save one who left too soon—the rest now adults, sitting with their families, reading the paper, watching a movie, most likely long ago forgetting what we did when we were young. But I’m glad they’re there, just a few decades away, somehow still part of some shared history.

Or later. New England. Like the time I got home early from vacation and the kitten had shredded all the New Year’s Eve decorations I had put up, and a friend of mine stood in the kitchen crying with a bag of new decorations in her hand (the cat was nowhere to be found).

Or the time in the old house near that farm when we heard the cow so early that morning. The sound of the “moo,” a car start, drive off, and we laughed a long time picturing the cow rushing off to work somewhere. I remember that, and I remember the phone call a few months later. Of course. I have made it here now to who I am now because of both, and with both I am able to be honest about who I am. The extreme emotions of our lives are ironically very much the same, really.

I celebrate memory; I embrace melancholy. Too many medicines move us to the middle; doctors are terrified of the extremes. But the extremes are what we remember—good and bad. This is not to say I don’t spend the majority of my time planning and moving forward to what’s next. It is just that in the early morning, before the sun has had her say, before I am about to walk into the realm of a thousand voices and the movement of life, I like to remember that it’s been a good ride so far, despite the moments of pain, the now seemingly fleeting difficult moments. LIke that bolt that went into my son’s head, and the way he handled it like a trooper while the doctor’s tended to me, while I tried not to faint.

It’s been a ride, I must say. It’s been one hell of a ride so far. And fast. So damn fast.

The length of a lifetime from the beginning looks nothing at all like the brevity of that life from the end, like standing on a diving board terrified to leap, knowing you have to anyway for all the others lined up behind you waiting to have their chance. It’s your turn so you jump despite the fear of how far it is to the water, but when you “rise again and laughingly dash with your hair,” you look up at where you started and think, that wasn’t so far at all.

No, it isn’t far at all. Which is why while planning ahead I also like to find a friend, pour a drink, sit quietly for a while, then say, “Hey, do you remember that time…”

and then, quickly, find a map, make plans, block off some time—fall maybe, perhaps winter—and find something to do together later so we can remember when again. And again.  

Sometimes at 3 am

Where to See the Stars that Light Up Florida's Night Sky

It’s just after three in the morning and from outside this bedroom window I can hear the waves of the Gulf of Mexico methodically pounding the sand just fifty feet away. The weather must be changing for me to hear such waves. But it is March, and the “waters of March” are known for their changes; the very physical embodiment of “in like a lion, out like a lamb.” Still, such sounds seem more lioness than sheepish at this hour.

I suppose everything does.

The things that need to be done, projects to finish—or at least get beyond the just getting started state, practical matters to figure out and promptly address, the very foundations of life to re-solidify, ghosts to talk to and attempt to quiet down for now—you know the ones; they show up at three am, sometimes in the dreams that wake us, sometimes in a powerful memory played out in some cosmic Déjà vu, and sometimes in the mist that rises from pounding waves, waking you up and reminding you of everything that didn’t go well, everyone who lost faith in you, everything that normally settles to the back of your memory, stirred by the pounding, brought to the front by that rhythmic pounding.

The other morning I was in a different part of Florida getting ready for some work I had to do, and I turned on the television. One of those dreaded televangelists was wandering about the stage in front of thousands of people, and the tinge of his voice, the tight suit, the open collar, the plastered smile, the false tan, the nodding of the audience to his every, well-timed shift of tone, sent me looking for the remote to switch to something else, anything else, but before I found it he said something to the effect of, “Don’t carry the weight of what happened before! Let it go! Let go of how the last place you worked treated you that sent you running! Let go of the mistakes you made—stop deciding they were mistakes simply because things didn’t go the way you had hoped! Let go of your guilt for becoming dependent on others when you had no desire or intention to do so but found yourself there nonetheless! Let it go! For whatever reason, this is where you find yourself! For whatever others may think of how you got here, here is where you are! It is time to turn toward what’s next!”

Then I accidently kicked the remote which had dropped on the floor. Only then. I sat on the edge of the bed, turned off the television, and thought of Richard Simmons. Thirty-seven years ago that was essentially what he told all of us who were tasked with the job of motivating others to turn their lives around, and it worked, and I believed it, and it always worked for me, always.

Well, almost always. It doesn’t work well at three am when the ghosts rise from the pounding waves and settle on everything, and you wake up moist and lay staring at the ceiling, each wave a situation not handled well, each wave a wrong turn, some seemingly self-inflicted failure. William Styron called it the “Darkness Visible,” that depression that can’t be defined, but is ever present, like something you keep meaning to do but can’t remember what it was, just sitting there at the front of your mind, and only you know what’s bothering you, but even you can’t define it.

But if you spend enough time listening to those waves they can become deafening, overwhelmingly deafening. But eventually they can sound exactly—I mean exactly—like the waves that crash on the same sand at six am when the sun is slipping up over the trees behind you, and everything seems right with the world. And you’re able to put to bed those old thoughts and remember what it is you were trying to do anyway. But one should not have to wait until dawn to see some hint of light through the darkness.

Here’s the thing: There is the big picture; that is, where do I fit in in this massive world where eventually all things pass, and there is the detail in the small box in the corner, which is clear and points us toward something specific to focus on. And some people only see the big picture as the reason to find so much of life pointless to begin with, or they only see the small detail as that proverbial drop of water in a Gulf of pounding waves—what possible difference can one small contribution ever, I mean ever, make?

No middle ground for those people. As fellow Islander Billy Joel once pointed out: It’s either sadness or euphoria.

There are questions, though, right? Did events in the past cause this wake-up call, not the waves? Or did some state of mind which often remains undefinable and undiagnosed cause the events of the past to replay with every damned crash of a wave? (Simmons-training translation: Do you eat the junk food because you are depressed or are you depressed because you keep eating junk food?” Well, both perhaps)

So, one might simply go back to bed knowing that the truth is in the morning the sun will glint off the mist from the pounding waves and everything that symbolizes darkness in the soul suddenly symbolizes hope, or one might decide to redefine that metaphoric wave-pounding by walking out the back door, wandering down the grass to the sand, and stand at the water’s edge, stare up at a carpet of stars spreading all the way to the Mexican coast across the Gulf, and listen intently to the waves, each time noting what went well, each time feeling the brilliant slamming of a wave and thinking of a new idea to see through, an old accomplishment that brought good things, each wave in the imposing darkness becomes the putting away of those who don’t understand but never bothered to ask, of those who pushed back without cause, of those who doubt, knowing for certain that there is no bigger doubter than you. Until eventually each wave that wakes you up at three am reminds you of what’s possible. That’s how to chase away the ghosts.

So that’s what that tv guy said. Or at least that’s what I heard, something about making the choices to let go of what is unhealthy, including people, and hold tight to what is empowering, especially people, especially yourself.

Sometimes you only need your eyes to adjust a bit in order to see the darkness in a whole new light.

May be an image of sky and ocean

That Was Me

Flipping baseball cards on a summer day. The boys in my neighborhood did  this when we were kids. Us girls ju… | Childhood toys, Childhood memories, Baseball  cards

A million years ago I flipped baseball cards with friends on the sidewalk outside our home in Massapequa Park. I’d sit on the cement in my dungarees and Wildcats little league t-shirt with a stack of Topps cards in my left hand, ready with one in my right hand between thumb and index finger, hoping to take the stack on the ground between us. The older cards were limp and ripped in places, but the new ones were stiff, still dusty from the hard stick of gum that came with them.

I’d turn over a rookie Tom Seaver or a Cleon Jones, not knowing then that I held several thousand dollars in my left hand, and since at some point the following year I had the entire 1969 New York Mets squad, tens of thousands of dollars. I only knew I wanted to kick some baseball card-flipping butt before I had to head back inside for dinner. We were about to move further out on the Island, to a new house out near the Great South Bay, and who knew when I’d have another chance to do this.

Life was about flipping cards. Ask anyone who was nine back then—they’ll back me up on this.

Everything was easy. Well, for me. But on the other side of the planet the Vietnam War was in full swing, my uncle on his way over, a friend’s brother on the next street was not coming back. And just upstate, music fans would gather in a month at Max Yeager’s farm, while just fifty miles away in the city, the Mets were in last place for the last time, heading in a matter of months to a miraculous championship. Hippies walked down Main Street, the Beatles were together and going strong, Nixon was reelected, and Steve Bezos just turned five.

Above us, just about the time I lost the Seaver card, Apollo Ten was orbiting the moon, doing surveillance for their successors, Apollo Eleven, just a few months later. Funny, now it occurs to me up until that point I lived in a world where we still had never walked on the moon. I wonder what we compared tasks to before we could say, “We can land a man on the moon but we can’t make a toaster that cooks evenly.” Maybe an atomic bomb reference, or the sound barrier.

In any case, I didn’t yet know any of this, except the Apollo mission, didn’t care about Tricky Dick, preferred the Birds to the Beatles anyway, and baseball was the universe. I was eight, for God’s sake. My voice hadn’t yet changed.

Yeah, seriously; a million years ago.

That was back when my friends had no last names. They were simply Charlie and David and Chris and Tommy, and the Little Read Haired Girl (seriously, just like Charlie Brown) who I think was Kathleen. We had a pool and block parties and barbeques, there were blackouts and everyone came out into the twilight evening, my friends and I chasing each other, the adults standing around in the cooling summer air, talking about how, “Over in Amityville they still have lights, and a few houses on Euclid, but they’re out down on Park Avenue, and all the way down East Lake.”

Lights. No Lights. Whatever. I was eight.

My cousins lived too far away to ever think about visiting on a whim—a good thirty or forty miles, and the ice cream man would come, and the television was a big black and white console on which my sister would watch Gunsmoke and Bonanza and my brother would watch Star Trek and the Olympics from Mexico City and I’d watch cartoons or Andy Griffith. And baseball when it wasn’t blacked out to local viewers because the game over in Shea hadn’t sold out.

And at night after the Late Shows ended, if I was still awake in bed and one of my parents had fallen asleep on the couch, I could hear a man’s voice declare, “That is the end of our broadcast day,” and the screen would get fuzzy with a low buzzing noise all night. Didn’t matter which of the five available channels was on, they went off the air.

The friends I have now, back then, were all over the place. Rick was probably about to leave high school and hitchhike across the country, Tim was playing high school football in Philadelphia; the other Tim was a lieutenant humping his way through the marshes of Vietnam, and Sean was learning from his father upstate the value of giving, of volunteering. And my friends back then, now, well, who knows? I think about them when I pass through Kennedy Airport or the rare times I’m on the Island and stop in a store, wondering if I just walked by or stood in line behind someone that at one time a million years ago was my absolute best friend; the one I’d know forever. It was so easy then. When you’re eight you’re simply always going to be eight—no discussion. Your parents will always be there, your siblings will always wake up early with you on Christmas morning to exchange gifts before you head down to the living room to see what is under the tree, and baseball card-flipping is more important than religion.

Sometimes I have to try hard to make myself realize that that eight-year-old was me. That it wasn’t some kid I saw in a movie or read about, or a child someone told me about. That was me, legs crossed on the cracked cement sidewalk on East Lake Avenue, the same me that sits now near the river and listens to the approaching flock of geese, watches the descending sun, feels the faint brush of something familiar, like a song I once knew or a memory of someone that was kind to me. The same me that barreled across Siberia with my own son, who is now twenty years older than I was back then.

It’s late, and I’m tired. I have some writing to finish for readings next week, and a few deadlines looming, and I walked out on the porch and listened to the cold night, the clear, star-filled night, the late-winter, early spring night that is colder than it should be here on the bay. A friend of mine believes in reincarnation, believes we come back as, well, some other living form, whether another human like the Dalai Lama does, or as an orangutan, but as something. I’d be okay with reincarnation, but I want to come back as me. I want to do this again, make those mistakes again, fall in love again, have my heart broken by the same girl again, play golf with my father and brother, receive care packages from my sister when I was at school, move into those dorms again, play tennis again. Hurt and give and cry again, until it hurts again.

If we agree eighty years is about a life, anything more than that is a bonus—overtime, if you will, which I absolutely plan on participating in, then I’m now entering the fourth quarter. Games have been won or lost in the fourth quarter. Some of the greatest plays in history were made in this part of the game.

The Mets didn’t turn a losing season into a streak of winning now universally called miraculous until the late third and fourth quarters.

It’s not over yet. And it just might be that the best resource I have to face whatever comes next on this pilgrimage is that eight year old boy somewhere inside of me who could flip baseball cards with the best of them.

Ya Gotta Believe. By Jay Horwitz | by New York Mets | Mets Insider Blog

Not Everything is As it Appears

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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 flew into action. The dove seemed to hunch down like she knew what was about to happen. Gone.

I wondered if she just gave in, like she’d had enough. Sometimes the natural instinct to survive is not as strong as simple resignation. I get like that.

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 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 wonder when it is that people decide to give up? I wonder 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 is 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 I noticed the osprey have returned from South America and found food for their offspring, and the cormorants have returned too. Sometimes some river dolphins swim under the Rappahannock Bridge, but not yet this season. 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, and we followed 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 we passed close enough to my eventual home to be able to cast a line to shore and pull us in.

Thirty-one years later I’m watching osprey feeding their young out across the same bridge, 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 was the right time to collapse on the beach. The hawks have for the most part missed me up until now. 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. We often joke about one of the meteors ripping through the atmosphere and hitting us in the back of the head while we’re facing the other way. Raptor, rapture? Whatever. Done. But not done.

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, and like chemistry or psychology, or passion, finding that line between “Keep going, it’s worth it,” and “You know what? Fuck it,” is not an easy call for everyone. Sometimes you need someone to help you over the reach; sometimes when you’re ready to give up, a quick turn back and a “Hang in there,” is all it takes.

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, and I’m doing my best to move past the silent judgements and thinly disguised treading of water. 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 for just the two of us, taking turns helping each other, sorry we tried yet, honestly, not sorry we tried. It was hard to tell if we were helping each other or saving ourselves.

Well, the truth is, all we can do is help each other. It’s the only way to save ourselves.

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

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Last Name First

name/nām/ noun

  1. A word or set of words by which a person, animal, place, or thing is known, addressed, or referred to.

Growing up I was called “Robert.” Part of that is because my mother’s youngest brother was with us very often and he is Bob, or Bobby. But when we moved to Virginia and I entered tenth grade, I reestablished my identity as a Bob while at school. It had no effect on my family who continued to (and continue to) call me Robert, though when referencing me to non-family members, I’m a Bob. Once, a girl in high school I had a crush on called the house and my mother answered. My friend asked to talk to Bob and my mother said, “I’m sorry there is no one here by that name,” and hung up. UGH! Apparently, my friend called the next guy on her list because she never called back. Some months later she admitted, “I called you once to see if you wanted to go out somewhere, but I must have had the wrong number.”

(a note to young readers: if you are trying to figure out why my mother would answer a phone call for me, Google, “Antique phone customs.”)

Now I’m not thrilled when anyone anywhere calls me Robert, though it’s no big deal. Except my family, who when they call me Bob it seems totally wrong, like the Man who Never Was.

Crazy how identity is such a deeply-rooted motivator for our life, yet so often hinges on a name. Quixotic. Kafkaesque. Jeffersonian.

Boblike.

I wish we could still use one name like in Greek times: Plato! Aristotle! Or names associated with location: Francis of Assisi, Lawrence of Arabia.

Bob of Brooklyn.

Even ethnicity in this country is often shrouded by a last name. Kunzinger has all the markings of a deeply German background, and it is true that my great-great grandfather hailed from Lohr en Main, in Bavaria, Germany, where he and three of his brothers left for the United States in the 1850s. But according to the latest update of my DNA, I’m barely 11 percent German, with almost 50 percent going to my Irish roots. So O’Kunzinger is more appropriate but most likely quite offensive to my Galway ancestors. England/Scotland comes in second followed by Italian and French. So, with apologies to Philip Kunzinger of Lohr, my last name is a poor indicator as to my roots.  

At the university, Professor is likely, though at my previous college of employment, “Dude” was not unusual. The professor moniker is a burden, however, since while I think I’m a decent teacher of art and writing and humanities, I’m still apt to think of “Professor” as the scholar in a tweed coat with world-renowned expertise, who is referenced in journals and instead of watching Late Night reads papers in bed. I know these people; I’m not these people, though I play one on Zoom.

Then two new students approached me the other day after class and said, “We Googled you.” They told me that at first they saw some articles and information about where I had worked before, but then said they changed “Robert” to “Bob” and a slew of pages came up with all writing references and links. I told them that “Kunzinger” makes it inevitable that anything about Bob Kunzinger would not be likely to mix with other people, but if I were Bob Smith, they probably never would have found me; I’m nobody, really, except someone with a very uncommon name. Still, they said they ordered books so there’s that.

For a long time when I met someone through my parents, I’d introduce myself as “Robert” so not to contradict what they might have said, and that was usually correct. So now when I hear Robert I think of “young” me, adolescent me, no need to figure it out yet me. When I hear Bob I think of writer me, traveling me. But I also think of restless me, unsettled me, still looking for peace me. Robert goes back so far I can’t help but feel quieted when I hear it—from certain people. It was a good youth, where serenity wasn’t difficult to find during those Robert years.

“Dad” has a category all of its own, though a completely different set of mental wanderings than say “Daddy,” which tends to conjure up twenty-five-year old memories instead of the oysters we had last week.

So what goes on the headstone? Each of them is correct for different reasons, and I think it would cost too much to put them all on there. Perhaps “Dude” is the correct one, which implies just everyman, anyone—no one in particular.

It’s raining today, and the ground is saturated, the marsh exceptionally high, and the river, though still, rising. I come to the water to clear my head of the nonsense and worries, of the anxiety and depressive ways of life, and I am settled by the lack of labels here, the absence of naming things. I know the names of the wildlife here, but they don’t, and that thought brings me great peace; they simply are, and that is enough for them, so it’s enough for me out here.

For a long time I wondered if our names were for us or just for other people to make accounting easier—separate us from the simple “Hey You” confusion. It helps with mail delivery and paychecks, with grades in school and publications you spent a long time working on. For instance, I do not put my name on drafts no one will see but me.

The truth is, I feel more mature when I hear “Bob,” more ambitious and accomplished. And I must admit hearing “Professor” makes me more likely to give a well-thought-out response over someone calling me “Dude.” But names and labels and titles and degrees only serve us to exist with others in a regulated society where fitting in is necessary to maintain a place of our own, both physically and metaphorically. But out here where the river meets the bay, and the winds sometimes bring a chill from the northwest, and the osprey return to chase away the eagles for the season, I often forget who I am to begin with, and what was troubling me. Out here, where I have a complete sense of, well, what..?

Peace, I guess. Serenity, maybe. But “serenity is a long time coming to me, and I don’t believe that I know what it means anymore.”