unreceptive art


People make fun of my cell phone, excuse me, Blackberry, for being so small (forget the fact we used to make fun on any phone larger than a credit card while today we strap laptops to our hip) and its outdated features. Still, I’m sure if used correctly I could run NORAD. I just make calls, check email, and text people. Sometimes I take pictures.

I was confident when I first owned a phone which resembled Captain Kirk’s transponder that I’d not forget some basic etiquette rules, the most obvious being to look at people when they talk to me. But I’ve been teaching college long enough to know the generation which occupies the seats today have never not known cell phones, so eye contact was never really an issue; they just don’t.

I also know how addicting technology can be so I decided to update my cell phone policy for my course outlines. I never had to do that when I first taught. Students sat and the closest they came to distraction was with each other, or the weather outside, or sleep. You remember–non-device diversions. Today, we live in a world where we need to put up signs to tell people not to throw garbage out the window. We are so mentally preoccupied that we actually need a law requiring posted signs to remind workers to wash their hands after they wipe their butts. And now we need policies to suggest to students they actually pay attention to the professor. So at some point the collective collegiate community found it necessary to establish guidelines for technology. I created my first phone policy from various college handbooks and it read something like this: 

Cell Phone Policy During Class Hours: (early 2000’s version)

Cell phones or other electronic devices are prohibited from use in the classroom unless the professor or a recognized counselor approves such use. Neither should students disrupt the class by leaving to respond to a call.

How pleasant. I thought it made me sound affable, maybe even approachable in a distant sort of way.

I had a student once sit in the second row and lean down behind the student in front of her to talk so I wouldn’t notice. I noticed. One student answered his phone during class and talked in a regular voice to someone from work. When I stopped teaching to protest, he put his hand up, covered the mouthpiece and said, “Excuse me but I’m a master chief.” That was the last day he ever attended one of my classes. One student politely excused herself to talk on her phone outside the class, which is fine, until she was just two feet outside the room and told her boyfriend in a not so quiet manner, “I’m in class you dipshit! Oh that’s right, you’re too stupid to read the schedule I put on the fridge! I should have put it on my sister’s ass where you would’ve seen it!” True story. While I pointed out she should have left the building to answer that one, I excused her for originality.

Some students read their texts and tell me they’re taking notes. They’re not and I know that because their excited expressions don’t align with my desperately boring discussions. Some tell me they’re checking the time. One guy actually admitted he was playing a game because he was bored. I asked which game and he said “Sonic the Hedgehog.” I told him my son used to play that game and he looked up all excited like we had made some connection; when he made eye contact he saw how much we hadn’t.

It’s irritating. Not because I don’t understand; I do, I really do. I can multitask; I can totally listen to a lecture while scanning my phone to see what emails came through and who is texting me. In fact I might even argue it is a good thing since it teaches students the reality of multiple people talking to you at the same time at just about any workplace. And if it’s done discreetly, it really doesn’t disrupt the class. I’ve sat through more than a few faculty meetings during which I wanted to text colleagues across the room, “If I were the man I were five years ago I’d take a flamethrower to this place!”

But most students miss the point. They don’t get how disrespectful it is. They’re more like the master chief, or, worse since their sense of entitlement wasn’t earned but instead  nurtured, they simply don’t understand why they can’t do exactly what they want when they want to. Therefore, at some point a stricter notation seemed necessary. So as technology advanced, so did my cell phone policy.

Again, I updated the outline:

Policy Update Concerning the Use of Cell Phones During Class: (2010 version)

Put away the damn phone you miserable no good dirtbag! What makes you think you’re so important that whoever calls or texts you needs an answer immediately because your thought is so essential to civilization that it can’t wait ninety minutes? If it’s that big of an emergency they should call 911. If it’s not you can wait until I’m done talking and by the way while I am talking look at me and not at your phone because that is how vertical homo sapiens are supposed to act! Essential? Bullshit. Shove your ego aside and accept the fact you’re talking to your girlfriend or on Facebook or checking updates or seeing the score. Here’s the score: Shut the fuck up or put the phone somewhere so far removed you’ll have too fart to answer it!

Faculty senate refused to approve that one.

When I was in college we talked face to face. Today I get to class early and absolutely no one is communicating with each other. It wasn’t too many years ago when the class was alive and people learned about each other, shared stories and made futures together. Now most maintain an umbilical to friends at home or from high school, preferring “facetime” before class. Ironic, actually. It’s not hard to find the advantages to the pre-tech days when we spent more time around picnic tables or fires talking to each other, never being interrupted or excusing ourselves. We were present, one hundred percent, and between the money we saved and the time we spent driving to a friend’s house, or the convening on the corner at night beneath a street-light to have a conversation, we savored friendships, never deleted each other’s final thoughts.

Perhaps advantages exist I haven’t begun to fathom. Maybe lifelong friendships can be continued which in my day faded, some friends forgotten by distance and silence. Sometimes when I see a young woman laughing at her phone, messaging back to someone she has known since seventh grade where they might meet that night, I’m sorry I lost touch with parts of my youth, and it makes me want to reach for my phone and do a quick search of the names of old friends. With that in mind, I knew despite my age and decades teaching, it was time to update my technology policy one more time to accommodate a changing generation:

Policy Update Concerning the Use of Cell Phones During Class: (Today’s draft)

When using your cell phone during class, do not plan to type texts or emails, but use the time for reading incoming messages, as that is less disruptive. If you have a backlight turned “on,” please turn it off during movies so you can read the text but the illumination doesn’t distract from the film. The west side of campus is Sprint and T-Mobile friendly; however, the east side of campus is best for Verizon users. All of this is questionable during storms, of course. Please refrain from verbal and even facial reactions to incoming texts while I am lecturing, and perhaps read only the good messages, and not from someone you are fighting with as that might also disrupt the class. If you do find the need to call or text someone back, please do so during “group work” where the interruption is less noticeable. In the event your battery should die or you chose to use data which might drain the device during class, I will provide power strips at various locations in the class for more efficiency. If you have any questions, please consult the cell phone technician now located at the entrance to each building on campus.






June 18th, 1975

Heckscher State Park, Long Island


I’m cleaning closets and donating clothes and other items I no longer need. Some are just old collectibles in boxes shoved beneath beds and in the attic. If I could fit junk in the crawl space under the house I probably would. I have too much stuff. Soon, most of it will be gone, but it isn’t easy deciding what to keep. I can easily make a case for retaining every item. Sometimes it is comforting to pull out an old trinket and tell stories about what happened. I have an ashtray from a resort in Palm Springs from when I was fifteen, but I can’t mention it without my mother reminding me how I wandered alone for hours in rattlesnake country in the San Jacinto Mountains. I’m keeping that one. There are postcards and paperweights from family vacations and solo trips out west. Most of it is going. I can remember what happened without a cheap plastic prompt. And if I can’t remember then the item is a waste of space.

But last night I came to what I call the “Long Island Box.”

At fourteen years old we moved from my childhood home on the Island to Virginia—that was over half a century ago; so far in my past I am closer to ninety than I am to then. And so much has happened since those days to make those first fourteen years little more than a title page; at best a brief introduction to the rest of my life. In fact, it seems that boy might easily be someone else save one particular item: the baseball my friends signed and gave me when I moved. On the rare days I pick it up it connects us across time and distance. I can look at the ball as proof I actually knew those people, and if I were to go back to Long Island, I’d almost expect to see them in their youth. Memories trick us into thinking of some places as special when, in fact, it is usually a particular time we relish. The truth is, when I hold the ball I don’t want to go back to New York; I want to go back to 1975.

When we were young we played baseball; we listened to music; we hiked the woods of Heckscher State Park; we skated across the Connetquat River and waded well into the Great South Bay. We hopped the fence of the Bayard Cutting Arboretum and camped out and kept secrets; we built forts and fought over stupid things. We came of age during the Vietnam War, and music was part of our blood. Now as if to symbolize all those days, I have the baseball. The names have not faded even while most of the faces have, though I certainly can conjure up the idea of who they all were. Over the years I’ve been back to New York, but never saw those friends again. Still, when I return I say I’m going “back” to New York, not “up,” as if New York will always be a time more than a place.

When those friends gave me the ball that last day, I wanted to stay in that town and finish growing up with Steve and Todd, Eddie and Paul, Janet and Lisa and Essie and Norman and Mike. So the ball remains my sole possession from life before the fall. I have wondered if we had stayed would I have pursued my burning desire to play baseball, or would the music and restlessness that eventually took over my life catch up with me anyway. Smack dab in the middle of my youth, in a small idealistic town, in a time when my friends and I were pushing the limits and planning our exit strategy, I got traded to another existence five states away. I have no regrets at all, but I have the baseball, and it teases me toward the proverbial road not taken.

Now I’m thinning out my collections of books and art, pawning off possessions and boxing up souvenirs. I have no emotional connection to many of these things other than the people I met along the way. But now I also have my own books and journals for when the memory fades. The further through life I paddle, the more I’m interested in what I can enjoy at the time, not stow away like pirate booty. How many times do we buy things while traveling, bring them home and display them, and eventually replace them with new souvenirs? Even if I do take the items out and look at them or show people, the significance eventually ebbs. I have stories and memories, and sometimes I have a longing to return, but I quickly realize that an object is not a memory, it is a symbol, a window through which we can watch our youth. I can hold the ball and see us in Steve’s backyard, yelling as we ran the bases, and I can still smell the marsh near the river that time we found an old shack for duck hunters and carved our names in the walls. The ball is proof I was there and it all happened. Souvenirs play an important role in moving on. They keep us from carrying the guilt of complete abandonment. Once in awhile I pick up the ball and can hear their voices calling across the yard, across the years.

Sometimes I get this crazy idea that we’re all going to meet at a pub, probably on the Island, and hug and laugh and drink and tell stories of then. It will be across the river in Oakdale, on the water, and we’ll get tables on the deck. Eddie and I will make fun of Todd for the way he used to follow us through the marshes and kept cursing whenever he stepped in the mud. Steve will talk about baseball and the terrifying afternoon I hit a fly ball right at the sliding glass door on the back of his house. We’ll both remember at the same time how we used to see who could hit the ball over the roof, and then we’d retrieve it from the street and see who could throw the ball the farthest. And right at that moment I’ll pull the ball out of my pocket and show them how bad their signatures were when we were young, and we’ll laugh and pass it around, but in the presence of these people the ball will suddenly seem irrelevant. We’ll break into a chorus of the Zombies “Time of the Season” like we used to while walking to the deli. Then we’ll order more wings and beers and someone will inevitably have to leave early because of family obligations. Still, for a few short hours we’ll gather and maybe convince the bartender to play some early seventies music like the Beatles “Let it Be” album. And Todd and I will tell everyone how we were sitting in his room listening to the radio when the story came through that they broke up. It will get quiet and someone, probably Janet, will say she has to leave, so we’ll all stand in the parking lot and shake hands, and hug, and say we must do it again. They will drive off but I’ll wait, because that’s how I see this going down. I’ll stand there four decades after seeing them last and wonder how it is possible to live this long and still remember details. I’ll be glad I went back, but I’ll remind myself I really must move on and simplify my life, so I’ll turn toward the river and wonder just how far I can still throw a ball.

We didn’t drift apart; we grew up. The ball will go back in the closet, and my friends will go back to their faraway towns scattered from Long Island to Florida. All of us probably keep neat houses with boxes stowed behind stairs just beyond reach. Even this house I’m organizing and which I built twenty years ago is little more than a hotel to occupy as long as possible before I check out and others make themselves at home. Maybe someone will find my baseball behind a cabinet, and the names will be worn off when the kids here take it outside and toss it around. Anyway, it’s a ball; it’s probably how it is meant to be used.


(photo of the Great South Bay at Heckscher State Park)

Sitting In

I sit in my green writing chair my father gave me years ago and look past my books and paintings into the wilderness which surrounds my home. The birds could not find food in the morning’s snow so a slow spread of seed across the porch rails brought nature as close as possible without opening the windows. House wrens, warblers, robins, cardinals, downy woodpeckers and others all winged in from the apple trees to the rail, grabbed some seeds or stood and ate them there. Next to the porch is a larger than me thorn bush covered in red leaves which the birds use for hiding. They popped in and out from the bush to the porch and back to grab more of the only food around. Eventually they all work their way back to the woods by dodging from tree to tree like soldiers moving forward on a night raid. The thorn bush first, of course, followed by a quick flight to the first holly. From there the apple trees, despite their dormant branches, are fine for resting because of the snowy limbs. The last leg is a short one to more holly at the edge of the woods. Once there they seem to pause, look back as if they are wondering if they had enough, or if they forgot anything, and then they disappear into the high branches of dense forest. Later they’ll return.

I have found two ways to experience nature. First by moving through her: Sunday drives, evening strolls, afternoon hikes, morning runs, and any average commute. We take in what we can, view the variety of colors in spring and the fall foliage. But I’ve driven the route to work enough times in two decades to really not see it at all anymore. Are the trees taller? I assume they must be, but a change cannot be noticed by one who watches it grow. I cross three bridges along the way and two of them have been rebuilt since I started. Still, my mind is elsewhere when nature simply rests there sixty-five miles an hour slower than me. We can’t always be aware of nature; I understand this. But I’m not fully sure I know what it is that distracts me to begin with. There are other means to move through nature: A few years ago my son and I trained across the vast empire of eastern Russia, across the Steppes and hills of Siberia, and to the pacific coast. Along the way we saw thousands of acres of birch forests and hundreds of small, curious shacks all painted royal blue. I could never drive across Siberia, so the train would have to do, but the journey left me with more questions than answers. Who works out there? Are the dilapidated gulags we passed empty or just in ruins? What kinds of wildlife did we pass, mostly at night, just beyond the trees away from the tracks? Surely a grizzly or two stood and watched us roll along.

As if extremes exemplified my existence, the following summer we walked the medieval pilgrimage route from southern France to Santiago, Spain, on the Camino de Santiago. The Camino is five hundred miles long, and at just about three miles an hour or so means every Basque slug, meseta insect and Galacian fly could be personally experienced and known by name. We watched the colors of the sky change and stood still every few kilometers to take in the vistas, drink some coffee, and walk the rocky paths again. To drive that distance takes roughly eight hours. It took us five weeks. One sees more when moving slowly. It is simple physics. But in the end we are still moving through.

Which leads me to way number two to experience nature: Sit still.

I took pictures of birds outside my window, and then I put down the camera and watched. They tilt their heads when they eat, as if they can’t see the food unless their eyes face down. Most varieties get along well, but the chickadees are little bastards. They’ll chase away or dare anyone, squirrels included. Yellow warblers are neurotic and Cardinals look pissed off though I think they really just want to be left alone, like old writers.

I can’t remember the last time I simply stared at the bare brown branches against the gray sky. Somehow the white snow on dark green holly leaves brought the yard to life. I have lived here for twenty years but it seems I never before sat and stared at trees, at birds’ wings just inches away, at the patches of green grass surrounded by a dusting of snow. Even walking across the yard would have chased away these observations as quickly as the birds would have scattered into their hiding spots. As if my Siberian questions needed the balance of answers, I looked about the yard and witnessed more in an hour than I had for three weeks on the rails. Usually it is in Spring that we pay attention to the trees, when bare branches give way to buds, which give way to new life. Or in the autumn when we calculate our driving times on Sunday afternoons for when the leaves will be at their “peak.”

Today I sat perfectly still, doused in the narration-free documentary playing out before me, and discovered something phenomenal: Trees are always at their peak.

They stand strong like church steeples. The thick brown branches reach up, shirts off, muscles taut, every bone exposed, wrestling, bent at the elbows, visible like some skeleton x-ray against a low, gray sky, or a deep dark blue sky, or a snowy dirty white sky, and these trees don’t balk, they don’t flinch. They dare every aspect of deep winter weather. The wind moves through unnoticed, and snow catches crevices and freezes further growth for months. What wonder it is to watch their stern and steady rise, proof of decades, sometimes centuries, dug in for winter, standing guard in forests and backyards, unable for a while to block the sun, bare enough for us to listen at night to the geese. Starlings settle on naked limbs, thousands of starlings like leaves land, rest awhile, then leave, the trees once again alone waiting out winter, as if to say they’ll let winter leave when they’re damn well ready.

I used to think time went by so fast. I remember my dad sitting on the porch in our backyard watching birds outside the screened-in porch. He was a relatively quiet man but loved to watch the birds. One time he and my mom watched a pair of cardinals teach their young one to fly. They watched it fail a few times until it finally took to the air, making it to the nearest branch, not far from the porch. I never had time for that when I lived there. I wonder if my parents, maybe like the cardinals themselves, were both thrilled to see me leave the nest but sad at how fast I found my wings. Now I sit in his chair watching a robin work through the seed on the rail, and I realize it isn’t time that moves too fast—it’s me.birds from my chair 017