You Had to Be There


Time reference: It’s late Friday night while I’m writing this and the years are swirling around inside my head right now. I’m in my study in my dad’s old easy chair, where I often sit at night to write, and it is quiet this late. My brother and sister-in-law are battening down in their house south of Houston as Hurricane Harvey approaches; my sister is with our mom in Virginia Beach as all sorts of changes keep forcing new ways of thinking.

A few weeks past I found an old cassette tape I forgot I had. You see, thirty-five years ago I got through college (emotionally) with the help of my best friend—an old 12 string Takamine guitar. I played in my dorm. I played at a nursing home, at a few local pubs, and in the campus café where once every two months or so the musicians on campus would gather and play for a packed house. As those few, short years passed it became more and more fun, and of all the activities I did during those four years, those coffeehouses with fellow musicians were easily some of the most memorable. The stories I have from those gigs could fill a hundred pages and just thinking of a few of them while sitting here gives me goose bumps and makes me all at once feel very young, ready for the world, and very old and tired. That was so long ago yet I can hear every note, the sound of the crowd, the lights above the stage, the odd backdrop of an Olympic size swimming pool behind the curtains and glass, and some anecdotes I could never properly capture in a blog. For me, it is the ultimate “you had to be there” situation.

A lot of musicians came and went those years but one in particular stood out; Mike was a resident director who played guitar. We played a lot of music together. He and I once drove to Rochester to buy a piano and bring it back in a van, and we talked the entire time, stopping at Letchworth State Park to rest and watch the waterfalls and talk about dreams and hopes and fears. We stood at the scenic overview and talked about music and the passing of time. We talked about Walt Whitman and Thoreau. On another occasion we went to an International Coffeehouse competition. Out of a hundred or so participants Mike and I both made the final five and he won. What a time that was. After my junior year he took a new job somewhere else, but senior year the college had him back to perform a coffeehouse by himself. He was a mixture of James Taylor and Paul Simon. The café filled to capacity again and he played. The night was all Mike and a room filled with friends who we knew we would know the rest of our lives. Of course, that wasn’t the case. A few of us remained close, a few others I’ve been back in touch with and it has enriched my life with the only thing that matters in the end, the love of friends. Still, I don’t know what happened to Mike.

But I found this tape of that night at the café when he returned to campus, and I burned a cd from it, and now I’m sitting here in my study in my dad’s old easy chair listening to where I was and who I was thirty-five years ago.

Does anyone pull out the wedding video twenty years later and reminisce? Does anyone peruse old tapes of childhood birthdays? Perhaps. I generally don’t. I watched a video of Michael when he was five riding his bike around the property yelling gleeful things, while on the porch you can see my dad, my uncle and aunt, all laughing and talking with the energy of the ages. Quickly I was sorry I pulled the tapes out—maybe my memory is still sharp enough to hear their voices without any aid, or maybe I’m too melancholic to drown in the sentiment of “back then.” I like looking ahead, I really do.

But sometimes it is okay to look back carefully, because as Jackson Browne depressingly points out, “There’s still something there for me.” It can’t be a bad thing to get a glimpse of the good parts of the past.

At the café all those years ago, I know I sat next to my friends Maria and Jennifer, and Sean and Debbie were at a table on the other side of the stage. The entire resident staff was there with a case of beer. I recognize a lot of the voices on the tape from the crowd as they called out. It is odd to find proof of a different version of myself. Photographs are too static, and video is too animated and distracting as we comment on clothes or hairstyles or the lack of lines on our faces. But just audio, an old tape on which my voice is the same as it is now, is like standing outside of twenty-two again and overhearing who I thought I was. Do people that young today still dream like that? As a professor I have stared at twenty-two for twenty-eight years now and I don’t see the spark and raw ambition I remember when I was young. Maybe, but a lot of what we did back then was the result of a rare combination of passion and lack of distraction. For the most part technology was not in our lives so we were more a part of each others’. Or maybe it’s Mike’s choice of songs, or maybe it is just this easy chair, but something was different then; we actually believed in the craziest part of ourselves.

I am closer now to ninety-years-old than I am to that night.

Most of what he played was original, but one song, playing right now, is a Peter Yarrow song, and in the refrain Mike sings “Must have been the wrong rainbow, because I don’t see any pot of gold. All I see is a man too old to start again.”

Okay, so tonight this can go two ways: I can drown in the used-to-be’s of that energy in our innocent youth. Or I can get up tomorrow and smile and know parts of who I was back then are still here, a bit more weathered and a little more tired, but here just the same.

I wasn’t very good. Oh my God we made so many mistakes. But what I was excellent at back then was not being afraid to embarrass myself in pursuit of a passion. We laid it all out there for better or worse, mostly worse, and said, “This is who I am and what I’m feeling right now.” I was so anxious, every single time. So was Mike. But we kept doing it because that comes with the territory. If you’re going to be in the arts, whether music or writing, visual arts or the art of being human, you have to step in your own direction despite the urge of those around you to push you back in line. So we played and we weren’t afraid of making mistakes.

And people kept showing up.

I suppose that even at twenty-two I was simply more terrified of falling into a rut, following anyone into anything. I was going to be the Greater Fool, the “other” one, the guy who wasn’t afraid to embarrass himself in an effort to pursue a dream. I guess I got distracted after all. It is good to listen to then and remember me.

So now I am sitting here in my late father’s easy chair wondering how my mother is doing with so many changes and how my brother is doing with the weather down near Galveston. I’m thinking about my adult son and the miles he has already logged in pursuit of his own dreams. He is older now than I am in this tape I’m listening to. Yet I am as far from sad or melancholy as can be. Because I’m still here, I’m still doing coffeehouses but instead of music I’m telling stories in which I tend to write things which say, “This is who I am and what I’m feeling right now.” It seems the more things change, the more they stay the same. It might be nearly four decades later, but I’m still embarrassing myself in pursuit of an art, which is, for any artist, a way of exposing the soul. Back then I wanted anyone to listen. Now, I write for myself, and if an audience finds something worthy in the words, that’s a bonus. I’m just doing what my soul tells me to do, just like I did at twenty-two.

As Whitman pointed out: “The powerful play goes on and you might contribute a verse.”



Darkness Visible


Apparently there’s a solar eclipse this week. Unless you’ve been living in the dark you’re aware of it already, and how to protect yourself, and where to have the best view, and the history and lore and horror stories along with the science. Here on the bay we will be able to view about 86% of a total eclipse. That’s pretty good. It’s going to be one for the history books.

Speaking of which:

On August 21st Nat Turner killed fifty-five people in a slave revolt which caused panic among slaveholders everywhere. It has to be an entirely new level of tragic irony that 186 years later tension between those who wish to eliminate all remnants of the repulsive system of enslavement and those who wish to preserve the traditions of the south still throws a shadow on this land.

Casey struck out on August 21st.

The “Mona Lisa” was stolen, which is, by the way, the only reason the very small and somewhat unimpressive painting is so famous.

Emmett Till walked into Money, Mississippi, a week before he was murdered on one of the darkest days of the fifties.

In 1959 Hawaii became a State, and in 1968 the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia to end the Prague Spring casting a shadow on the light of creativity and freedom emerging from Bohemia.

Oh, and in 2017 a total eclipse of the sun could be spotted across the United States.

I’ve been walking along the river at sunset for more than twenty years now and they never get old, the way the sun tries like hell not to touch the horizon. And then the way it does, particularly on partly cloudy nights when the sky turns colors and the sun streams out from the edges of clouds. I try and watch the sunset nightly, and the sunrise as often as possible. I try and love the science of nature on a daily basis.

But this arc of the eclipse crossing the country couldn’t come at a better time. It will be like a moment of silence, where everyone along the path will stand outside in our goofy looking glasses and think about the crazy reality that because the sun is 400 times larger than the moon yet 400 times farther away, they both appear to be the same size. So we will watch the clock then go outside and mark time by the crossing of one in front of the other. It won’t last long, and later I’ll walk along the river again and wait for that same sun to settle down.

Maybe that moment of silence in the shadow of the moon when people are talking to each other about science, sharing stories of time and place, talking about the next time or the last time, will briefly take our minds off of the turmoil and terror that has cast its own shadow on the United States. Jeez, look at us: racism is rampant, hatred, brutality, murder, threat of nuclear war, the decline of the protection of nature, the fear of refugees fleeing conflict and starvation, the fear of each other, the fear of fear itself. Flint. Charlottesville. Chicago. The border wall. Transgender issues. Bannon. Spicer. DJT. Raging fires. The Paris Accord. North Korea. Syria.

Seriously, our beloved nation has been in some dark shadows for a while now, and it just might be this brief total eclipse is the brightest spot in quite some time.

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Along Mill Creek


We canoed yesterday up the Rappahannock to a small tributary where we paddled up to the low-tide flats and eventually to a small swampy area near a farm. Along the way abundant osprey moved from branches to docks and back while several gulls stood their ground on pilings closer to the river. By the time we worked our way back to the Rappahannock the current had increased so that we paddled much harder to gain less distance. In fact, we stayed against the strong current all the way back toward the bay.

We didn’t take pictures; in fact, all we brought was water and peanut butter sandwiches. I didn’t even bring a phone. If we capsized or otherwise tumbled into the water, nothing would be lost. It was very freeing, and relaxing of course. We spent a good part of the morning drifting past large embankments with old houses set back.  Each has an extensive dock reaching to the channel, and some homes are so hidden by trees it was only the sun hitting the windows that made me realize a house was on the hill at all. Further along, the shrinking creek moved toward corn and soybean fields, so we turned around and worked against the rising tide. At one point a tern plummeted into the water exactly in front of us stealing away with a small croaker.

We’ve paddled along these small creeks and the wide Rap right at the mouth of the Bay for twenty years now. Sometimes we bring food and something to drink and we’ll rest on the beaches of one of the islands and have lunch then collect sea-worn oyster and scallop shells. When I was in high school we had a canoe and explored the shores of the Lynnhaven River in Virginia Beach years before development turned the area into more of a city. Back then I’d often bring a book to read and let myself drift in an inlet. Sometimes a fish would jump and slap the side of the aluminum boat. Those waters and these, about seventy-five nautical miles apart, are fantastically similar in their vistas, tides, and even their life; both are a source of oysters, crabs, and small fish. In both cases it was a short distance from the inlet to the Chesapeake, and in both cases I preferred not to bring anything along—no phones, no music, and often very little conversation.

These days, however, I’m not bringing along so much more than ever. Today we left behind the weight of negative thought from the media. I left behind the comments of politicians, the commentary of news hawks, the criticism of the swarming public. I consciously left behind fears of nuclear war and domestic terrorism.

I opted out of bringing along enrollment numbers at the college, my to-do list around the house, and any concerns I have had about food. I just pushed off and paddled back. I love the art of canoeing. The very nature of moving through the water demands I sweep the engulfing waters behind me in order to move forward. In fact, the river and bay have enough information already to occupy my continuing curiosity about time. Just a few miles to the south of nearby Stingray Point is an underwater crater near Gwynn’s Island in Mathews County where some long-ago meteor helped form the east coast. And throughout the Bay and River are reefs of shipwrecks hundreds of years old, lost during storms while exploring the wilds of these now domesticated shores. Out there we are constantly reminded of the fragility of time and the futile pursuit of hurtful, damaging, misplaced energy.

I can clear my head while out on the river. I can remind myself that nature is the best example of how if all is ever lost, one of our strongest traits is the ability to start again. It helps in times like these to know that no matter how bad things might seem, we can adjust our course, and if we tack correctly, we can even move with grace against the current problems.

This morning we saw a man at a boat slip, alone, returning his small fishing boat to the trailer behind his truck. It took him just minutes and then he was off. He hadn’t caught anything, but he waved with the pleasure of a man who had just completely let go of whatever might have weighed him down. I was never a fisherman, but right then I knew I would be good at it since catching anything is not really required. I would do as well as Thoreau, who wrote, “Many men go fishing all their lives without knowing it is not fish they are after.”

I am not trying to hide; I am not paddling away from anything. I am moving into the permanence which is nature as I did forty years ago, as I hope to do for years to come. It doesn’t ridicule; it doesn’t pass judgement. It doesn’t change the rules or tease or taunt. And while it can be brutal, it is brutally honest. And when I again navigate those waters and can deliberately move through the day, I will be, like Thoreau, ready to return to civilization.


3:30 pm


If life happened in a day, and Einstein is horrifically more accurate than we would like, then let’s make a 6 am sunrise birth and place death around a 9pm sunset. I’ve always preferred summers for the extended daylight hours.

And if we break a life of ninety years (I’m an optimist) into a day, we live about six years an hour, or a year every ten minutes. Goes fast doesn’t it? In fact, my clock reads 3:30 pm. School’s out, lunch has been made, eaten, and cleaned up, and the morning hours are so long ago I barely recall them anymore.

If life happened in a day, we’d make sure we didn’t miss much, no matter the weather or how tired we are. We’d call our closest companions and ask them to join us—we’d go through this together. It is too bad we can’t do this again, we’d admit. I don’t want to miss any of it, we’d say, suddenly aware of how fast time goes by, how many moments we let slip away. In fact, just talking about the fleeting morning might make us miss those hours of the day’s youth when discovery is ripe and exploration is new. Those hours of life when no one but us has yet discovered the forest out back, the rapids in the creek down the road, or the view from the bent branches of a birch.

Looking back at my own day, around 10 am I lived in Massachusetts in a yellow house next to a reservoir. It was a quaint village surrounded by a larger town, and across the street was a small post office and an antique store. Just up the winding road was an apple orchard where I bought bags of apples and where my neighbor the postmaster would buy me an apple pie for shoveling her driveway. I loved then, and I often talk about how I wish it was 10am again, and I again was leaving work to head to the mountain to hike to the summit to see kettles of hawks.

Just an hour later, I was gone, living in a different latitude and finding myself finding myself once again. Love was easier than it should be and shorter than I had hoped, and the lessons learned so late in the morning stole my energy for a while. Exhaustion isn’t always because of age; sometimes it is momentum. But time passes. I’d give the next six hours to have a few minutes back, but we can’t. We must look forward. If I spend too much time regretting what happened at 11 this morning I’ll blow right through the afternoon without noticing the way the light of the sun can bring everything to life.

At noon I walked to the river with my son on my shoulders, and we laughed our way through the early afternooon, hiking through woods and eventually continents. It was just about three this afternoon we trained across Siberia, and ten minutes later hiked across Spain. If my clock battery broke between three and four, I’d consider myself a lucky man.

What a day it has been so far. I can’t recall a single hour of my life I’d not do again. From sunrise on I’ve had a great time trying to stay one clip in front of the bend, with golden moments I couldn’t have scripted myself. Maybe that’s why the day seems so fast—I’m really having a great time.

Did you ever stop and just recall a moment from years ago like it had just happened, just now? I mean so that you can taste the meal and smell where you were, feel it, so real like it just happened, just now, but it didn’t. That happened to me today, over and over and over, and now it is 3:30, and it is happening again. Thank God happy hour is so close; I need a drink.

Tonight, from 6 to 9, I’m going to take my time and do the best I can.

What time is it in your world?

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Humanity Can Use Some Editing



Now scientists can “edit” genes in a human embryo to prevent a disease. As a writer and a professor of writing I stand strongly behind any form of editing. It is, after all, an attempt to make something better either by adding clarity, eliminating awkwardness, or, in this case, correcting errors. It is difficult to find fault with this.

I know the arguments.

Gene manipulation of any sort can lead to “designer” babies. Sure, parents with money will be able to not only eliminate disease but order up some character traits not already fine-tuned in the sperm. Those without the means will suffer the process of natural selection and have to be satisfied with what God offered up. Further, the embryo-envy group will insist that this could lead us into dangerous territory including cloning, or possibly creating a robot-like race.

Slow down. There are regulatory speed-bumps still to overcome. In the meantime, if we can scrape the cancer out of a kid why would we not want to? And when someone suggests it really should be “God’s will” how the baby comes out, I get frustrated, pissed off, and down right angry. All of my reactions are traits that could have been removed with one more run through of gene-check when I was born. But how can anyone not become infuriated? It is God’s will that children be born with cancer? Cerebal Palsy? Cystic Fibrosis? Seriously? That’s sick. How (in God’s name) do these people not know it possibly was God’s will to enable scientists to finally have this moment, where in some lab somewhere someone sat back, looked up and stared straight ahead, blinked, and said, softly to herself, “Praise God. We did it”? Under the acutely pretentious mentality that it was “God’s will” that misfortune remain standard, we should have no medicines, eye glasses, or deodorant. You can’t have it both ways; the same God that “allows” tragedy to befall a newborn might just have balanced His intent with a scientist’s capability to solve the problem.

If some baby has a dangling modifier or comma splice, I say have at it. Eliminate the gene that bends toward polio, Chron’s, leukemia, or blindness. Clean up the embryonic paragraph which begins with an incomplete digestive system, a fragmented spine, a misspelled heart valve. And, my dear scientists, surgeons, or managing editors—however you will be so labeled—while you’re in there, quickly skim through the frontal lobe and fine-tune the common sense. See what you can do about the math scores on SATs and the gene that enables tail-gating, stealing, lying, and pain. This little move toward disease control could be a step toward babies designed to share with others, to empathize, to help the needy and to not text and drive.

I wonder, though, if personality traits can be manipulated as easily as cancer control. If so, can we finally make a move toward understanding and compassion? Is it possible that this discovery is the end to the common trend toward gluttony and greed? These designer babies might, by design, be intolerant of hunger, might make it a crime to be homeless because of some doctor who checked the fetus galley sheets and noticed a gene which still allowed unnecessary suffering and had the presence of mind to grab a bottle of amniotic white-out.

In a world where so many have no issue with the swerve toward technology and computers that think ahead, robots with limbs not unlike our own, what is so wrong with a step toward humanity? Instead of improving machines to help us make life more convenient and comfortable, how about making the technology obsolete by improving the people?

How much embryonic manipulation will it take before hunger is no longer an issue? How many edits is it before the desire for war doesn’t even enter someone’s mind?

People must stop being suspicious of science and finally understand that the human race is dying; we are on a slow decline and have become more accustomed to crude comments than constructive conversation, indifferent toward arms buildup and troop movement, and infinitely more blasé about hope, possibility, and peace. When did we decide that disease and suffering were simply part of humanity and will never change?

Still not convinced that gene-manipulation might be worth investigating further just to understand the possibilities? Than ask yourself this: If you knew your child was going to be born with a painful disease or perhaps die at ten-years-old from cancer, and you could stop it from happening, would you?