I found an old silver key while cleaning my closet floor. I’ve been on a “get rid of it all” spree lately, especially since twenty-nine years at the college means accumulating crap beyond measure. Still, sometimes the small things stop me and take my mind on some time-loop ride.
Like this key. For years it must have escaped my glance, fallen perhaps from pants pockets or a winter coat. I can’t recall losing a key or changing locks. And anyway, it doesn’t resemble any key that I know of for the college.
Maybe it opens some old house I once lived in. Or our first apartment when we moved to the area and I started working here. That place was small but filled with potential. We’d sit for hours and talk about our yet-to-be-born son. It was on the second story near a river, and we loved the shade from the pine just off the porch and how it protected us from the mid-day heat. Still, I think this key is older. Maybe my old farm house in Pennsylvania I rented while working in Hershey where the only sound outside were cows and the occasional car. I remember once I came home to an entrance of new plants and flowers for my birthday. The plants outlasted my stay there.
No. it’s old so more likely my first house in New England where the door stuck in winter when the frame froze. I’d spend hours shoveling my steps and those of the old woman across the street who delivered mail. She brought apple pie for my efforts, or would leave one for me with Sam at the Deacon’s Bench Antique Store next to the small shack of the post office. But that key was gold and I gave them to my friends who moved right in when I moved out. If I did keep that key I never would have lost it, never.
Now I think this one some souvenir from my childhood home on Church Road, the two-story colonial where I owned my first house key though I never needed it since after playing ball or riding bikes all day along the Great South Bay or through Timber Point Golf Club, I’d run through the back door full stride and laugh the way childhood makes you laugh for no reason at all. I can see myself keeping that key, moving on with some small remnant to make me feel like I could go back if I wanted.
But no, I can’t recall now what this silver key might be for, though I’ll keep it; resist the urge to throw it away as evidence shows I clearly resisted before.
Of course. After all, it still opens doors to places I never thought I’d go again.
I’ve lived on the water most of my life. Most significantly I spent my high school and college summers on the ocean where my friends and I would bring coolers to 77th Street and sit on blankets or swim or just hang out listening to music and talking. Now I walk along the same beach every week and while I’ve changed the ocean looks the same and probably always will. When I was young I’d stare across the waves and wonder about places—Spain, Africa, Russia. Now I look across the waves and I see it differently, almost with a tinge of sadness. I have experienced those places now and the acute sense of anticipation has ebbed. Reality is never what we hope it will be, though it has been fun.
I went to college on the Allegheny River where my innocence was obvious and my courage was not lacking. I’ve been back since and see the river now more of a time from my past than a place in my life. The Allegheny River for me will always be 1980, and when I recently walked the path behind campus and looked at the shallow waters, I remembered the boy I was who had such plans. Many came to fruition, so it is not a melancholy glance, but there will always be something missing. Of course. There should be; it’s what keeps us moving forward.
I like that. Sometimes leaving something incomplete guarantees a reunion of sorts. In Russia they say, “Leave something for next time so you have a reason to return.”
And now I live near the Chesapeake, along the Rappahannock River. The water in the Chesapeake when the tide is rising and fills the Rappahannock will have an identity crisis as it moves past the mouth of the river and floods the marsh at the end of my road messing with the salinity. Still, it adapts. The water moves and swirls and flows and floods; it finds new ways to cut crevices in sand and even rocks. And the water running past my calves on a warm May afternoon might have once cut its way through limestone up river near Luray and will slap against a fishing boat out beyond the continental shelf towards Bermuda.
When I was young I fished on the Connetquat River on Long Island, only catching eels, and in winter we would skate out toward Oakdale across the water. And just a few hundred yards to the south sat the Great South Bay where I learned to comb the beach.
“I am haunted by water,” wrote Norman MacLean, and so am I.
71 percent of the earth is water. Babies are born about 78 percent water, and that drops to about 60 percent by adulthood. Of all the water in the world, only about 2.5 percent of it is fresh. And 68 percent of the fresh water is found in inaccessible ice caps and glaciers. If you’re out looking for any though, the best place to fill your canteen is Lake Baikal in Siberia, which contains about 20 percent of the world’s fresh water (the unfrozen non-glacier type, except in winter). That’s changing, obviously. In fact, right now only about 30 percent of fresh water can be found in the ground. This means of all the water in the world, only a small fraction is drinkable.
I dehydrate very easily so I am always drinking my share, and probably your share. I like water. It energizes me. I can do that. But about 1.5 million children die every year because of lack of water or having access to only low-quality water.
Water is life. Even when searching for life on other planets, it is actually water they are looking for. At the same time, water kills. My brother lives southeast of Houston, Texas, and through some combination of miracle and excellent planning on his part was not flooded by the rising waters. But too many people to count lost their homes, lost their lives. It isn’t hard to understand why the number one weather-related cause of death in the world is floods.
Michael and I hired a car and driver along with a translator in Irkutsk and headed north out of the city to the villages along Lake Baikal. It was a foggy day, the air wet but warm enough, and we walked to a dock where an older man was getting in a small boat to fish. He stood next to us describing the waters, the countless tributaries coming into the lake from the frozen north, but only one river out, the Angara, which heads south into Mongolia. Then he leaned over and told us when the water is still as it was that day, you can see a dozen meters into the water, and it isn’t unusual to see seals swimming by deep in the lake.
We were surrounded by water; clear, deep, pure fresh water. We were as far from having anything nearby as you can get. GPS doesn’t work there. Cell phones are pointless. We stepped over the edge. World history there has more blank spaces than perhaps anywhere else on the planet. For many of the residents in some remote sections of Siberia, Columbus never set sail, the Wright Brothers never took off, and Neil Armstrong is a myth. I understand why the Czars in St. Petersburg and leaders in Moscow considered exile there to be punishment enough. It simply doesn’t exist unless you are already there. To the rest of the world, the landscape is a mystery and the people are all ghosts. And we are not so much travelers as we are brief shadows in the land of the midnight sun.
A few weeks later we arrived in Vladivostok on the Sea of Japan where we were cautioned against drinking tap water. The Fukushima nuclear disaster caused by an earthquake and tsunami had occurred just two years earlier, and there was some concern the contaminated deluge might still be swirling through the Pacific. I drank beer instead.
And when we returned I made my normal, post-remote-world visit to the doctor and cardiologist, who said I needed to keep my blood pressure down, so he prescribed a diuretic to reduce the fluid in my body.
Nearly every evening in winter just before dusk bends to night, in those moments after twilight when I have to let my eyes adjust to the lack of light, a few hundred geese land in the pond, some on the river, and a few in the field nearby.
I can hear them for quite some time before they actually fly into sight from beyond the trees to the west. The air is so clear this time of year I can hear them honking in groups, joining in like a chorus which starts with just a few voices and adds another rafter until they reach some crescendo. At first it might be only a flight of a dozen or so based upon the muted sound from the distance. But over the course of five minutes or ten I hear another group, then another, and more. They fly in a “V” to be able to see each other clearly for protection and create just a little draft, but the closer they come to landing, the faster the formation falls apart.
Eventually the first group is already in the pond when the last group crests the bare branches of the oaks and hundreds settle into the field or onto the river. One time some years ago a bit earlier in the evening thousands of geese, no kidding—thousands—landed on the plowed cornfield just down river. Their honking continued for an hour that night, and just as the sounds of these geese slowly softens and, finally, quiets, so did theirs so that from my porch I could tell they had all landed safely.
But every single time awhile after the large group arrives, two or three geese come in late, alone, as if they stopped at another farm over near the bay and had to regroup and find their flock.
I don’t want to disturb them, but I always want to watch. So when I walk along the river at that hour and the skin on my face is tight from the cold, and my nose runs a little, and the muscles in my back are also tight from the cold, I keep my hands thrust into the pockets of my coat and walk along the soft shoulder of the tiny dead end street so that my feet make no noise. I can usually get to the narrow strip of sand at the river from where I can see both it and the pond, but not the field so well. Their call increases in a burst of warnings to the rest that I’m around. It quiets quickly though as I remain absolutely still and sit on the cold rip rap running along the river and blend into the rocks and am no longer a threat.
On winter nights the water is almost always calm, a slow methodic lap at the rocks and sand. The sky is all stars, and sometimes just after dark in January you can still find the center of the Milky Way in the southwest. With no unnatural lights for more than twenty-miles in any direction except from the scattered farmhouses or buoys, the sky is a carpet of constellations.
It isn’t by chance my Canada friends find respite here. They need grass for food, they need water, and they need to be able to see great distances to anticipate danger. That’s why they’re here on the edge of the bay with open fields and ponds. It also explains why they love airports and golf courses. The abundance of geese isn’t an accident either; they travel in gangs, often the younger geese are forced into the gang, so that traveling is safer and they can better dominate areas like this.
But their coolest trait is their honk. They keep that up as a form of encouragement so the lead geese will maintain their speed and not give out so easily. Basically, the ones in the back are telling the ones up front to “Go! Go! Go! Go!” and move their asses. And when the lead gets tired, she moves to the back and gets to badger the others for a while. And they do this their whole lives—about twenty-seven years.
And just after twilight when dusk is making its brief appearance, and the water is like a mirror, the call of the geese from well across the treetops is musical, somehow eternal. When this land was unbroken, Canada geese called to each other, rushing for the open fields and waterways, settling down here. Powhatan heard geese here, and John Smith, and Washington just to the north at his birthplace on the Potomac, and Jefferson not far from there. Through the centuries the flyway from the St. Lawrence down across the Adirondacks and Catskills to the Susquehanna south into Virginia to the mouths of these five fair rivers spilling into the Chesapeake has been their home.
And they love dusk, just before dark, as it is the best time of day for them to recalibrate their internal magnetic compass to cross continents; to come here year after year.
We have something in common; we’re both very migratory.
I guess that’s what also attracts me to the passing flocks of geese. The peace in such sounds late on a winter’s evening definitely touches my soul, settles me somehow beyond my ability to explain. But also I sit on the rip rap and blend into the rocks and watch them in the water and contemplate their distance from the central regions of Ontario and Quebec, across Hudson Bay. My entire life I’ve been drawn to migration, to some sense of movement from one place to another, particularly the seeming randomness of such order. They know where they are going every time, and yet they move south without boundaries, schedules, or maps.
When I was young my father bought me Robin Lee Graham’s The Boy Who Sailed Around the World Alone. It was the first book I remember inciting in me a sense of adventure, travel and exploration. The sea seemed to have no borders or barriers. Graham’s goal was circumnavigation, but his schedule was wide open. Peter Jenkins, too, in his A Walk Across America, knew where he would end up, he just didn’t know when or how; and along the way the adventure was in the places he paused for food and water, with an open view of life around him. Ironically, I like the consistency of this migration; the predictable return, surrounded by friends, a quiet night.
I suppose all dreams are migratory, both in hopeful destinations and their transience with the changes in our responsibilities and circumstances. At times I take flight, abandon my flock and push off for awhile. But I look forward to coming home to settle into some sense of domesticity, which I can accommodate briefly at best, because eventually I think about the dreams of my youth as I fly toward my twilight years. They call to me to “Go Go Go Go” as my life moves further along, pushing at the edges of dusk.
And now in winter when night falls completely I walk back to the house and always a few more geese find their way to the flock long after dark. Only once did I experience the return to the sky of so many all at once. I was walking from the river to the house past the field where hundreds that evening had settled, and either something or me or the ground disturbed them, or it was simply time to move on, but in great waves they took off, honking. I heard them calling, waves of them into the sky, honking, great waves of honking geese calling ahead to the ones already in flight, as those behind fell in line and they swept from horizon to horizon blocking out the moon and headed out over the trees running down the bay, and I stood and watched them until the last honking geese were gone.
And everything was silent and I found myself, oddly, alone, like a young man left on the sand while his friends all pushed off to sea to head for distant lands.
I think most people at some point stand still and look back at the path they took, even if just briefly, before continuing the pilgrimage. I have spent the better part of this blog questioning everything from the passing of time to the value of doubt, but this particular small and relevant-only-to-me word dump is solely a note of appreciation to remind myself how thankful I am for the ride it has been.
Next week I begin my final semester at Tidewater Community College. It’s been quite a run. During my tenure at TCC, I’ve roughly (very roughly) done the following:
1360 Credit Hours
26 Different courses
8 Years Assistant Division Chair
26 Years full time faculty
3 Years full time adjunct
12 Grants to write articles and to teach at universities in Russia, Prague, Norway, and Amsterdam
16 States for conferences and readings
4 College presidents
27 Humanities Department full-time colleagues left during my years
6 new buildings/3 redesigned
5 US Presidents/8 terms
1/2 my life.
The last time I was not full time at Tidewater, in the summer of 1992 when I was first told I had the full-time job after three years of being an adjunct, I was sitting on a bench behind the humanities building humming “The Reach” by Dan Fogelberg. My son would not be born for another six months, George H. W. Bush was in office, and we were still using DOS.
When news came of 911, I was in an office on the other side of campus. My officemate Tom Williams and I walked back understanding the sudden irrelevance of collegiate minutia. I wanted to quit.
When my father died I was teaching Creative Writing. It was a Wednesday night.
The first class I ever taught was in an auditorium in the library. There were about 25 students scattered about the room. I had arrived before anyone else and sat in one of the seats halfway up to review my notes and see the podium from their perspective. Time slipped by and I found myself surrounded by students before class, but since I was twenty-nine, I blended in and everyone talked freely about their expectations. This was clearly pre-cell phone, pre-computer, when interactive meant meeting the person next to you and technology was an overhead projector.
I listened to their comments, their jokes and anxieties. Someone a few seats away said, “I hope this guy isn’t an asshole.” When I rose to head to the podium I could hear him gulp, I honestly heard him gulp. I put my notes down and said, “I hope I’m not an asshole too. Let me know if I tend toward that way, if you would.”
I had no clue what I was going to talk about. I still thought of myself as a student with some writing skills who just hadn’t applied himself. My previous job was a bartender. Before that I worked for Richard Simmons. Before that I’d rather not talk about. Now I stood to teach College Composition One. I had no background—none, zero, no experience in any way to teach college or discuss college comp. My history of standing in front of others was limited to exercise classes and playing guitar in college. My writing experience was journalism.
Spontaneously, I said: “Everyone write 200 words about what they’re doing here.” They did. Fifteen minutes later I collected the papers and said, “If I had told you I’m only going to grade the five that really catch my attention, and the rest fail, would those have been better?” They all said yes, they would have been better. Then I added, “So if I had said the five that really catch my attention each get a thousand dollars on the spot, would they have been even better than that?” Everyone laughed and nodded and talked to me and each other and God about how they would have been excellent if that had been the case.
I was quiet a moment. I was making this up as I went. Then I said, “Okay. So you can do better; you just can’t be bothered. That’s what you just admitted to me.” Everyone was silent. “Why is it we have a tendency only to apply ourselves if we can see some immediate reward?” I tossed their papers in the trash and said, “Okay, let’s start again.”
32,000 College essays
64,000 Rough Drafts
2200 Humanities exams
1250 Student Presentations
8350 or so Lectures
200 or so Division Meetings
12 or so Student Complaints
6 or so Grade Appeals
20 or so Students dropped for Plagiarism
12 or so Students kicked out for behavior problems
There was the guy who threw a desk at me and started to cry when I caught it.
Or the Russian exchange student who stood up and started running around the room and cursing in Russian who, when I yelled at him in Russian to get out, ran out the door and out the building and never came back.
There’s the guy who plagiarized an article about 911 from the local paper and turned it in for one of my assignments not knowing I was the one who wrote the original article.
There’s the former surfer in a wheelchair who was hit by his own board and was paralyzed from the waist down, who said it saved his life, that he was on a collision course with drugs and he could finally get on with his life.
Or the girl who became known as “Spaghetti” who would randomly scream out thoughts in the middle of lectures.
One student came to my office to say he was dropping the course because I don’t like him. I said it was only the second day, that we’d never met, and I have no idea who he is, and he said, “See?” and dropped the course.
My office has 272 cinder blocks and no windows. 1 desk with three drawers. 1 file cabinet with four drawers. 3 bookshelves. 1 desktop computer. 1 refrigerator. A bunch of art.
It became my refuge on campus. It is absent windows except for two photographs my son took of windows; one in Spain from inside a pub overlooking the Atlantic, and the other in Siberia from inside the passage between train cars. Both are quite realistic and I spent many days leaning back in my chair lost in their vistas. But mostly I was able to enter my little cinderblock office, put on some music and disappear from the noise in the hallways and the classrooms. With my headphones on I could write, and write and write, recreating my time in Russia or Prague or Spain. Sometimes I’d even write about teaching, trying to explore the reason for so much failure, narrowing it down to three primary causes: the students, the teachers, and the administrators. So writing became a way to vent my anger, my confusion, and my frustration; and when that didn’t work I would write about the places I’d been to somehow get there again, using words as locomotion to transport me to, well, wherever the hell I wanted. And somewhere along the way on this collegiate journey to become a better professor, something defining happened: I became a writer.
8 Collections of Essays
6 dozen articles in journals and other publications
100’s of pages of works in progress
I’m not going to criticize this professional experience. I’m not going to negatively evaluate and assess, make notes and analyze about how things could have been different. While it is true I never had a desire to teach and I fell backwards into this career, I have had a great time and it has treated me well. I am aware more than I care to admit that I’m not a great professor. I work with great professors; people like my colleagues Robin Browder and Tom Williams and Joe Antinarella, and I even have great professors in my family, like my brother-in-law Gregory Urwin at Temple, and I am nowhere near their caliber. Their attention to detail and thoroughness of the material is beyond my attention span, or, to be frank, interest. What I have been excellent at—what I’ve mostly been best at since I’m nineteen or so—is keeping people’s attention. My attendance numbers rarely dropped, and while in the room I could make them want to be there. I was less a professor than I was an entertainer. To my credit the best material in the world is irrelevant if no one is paying attention; still, I know plenty of professors who can both keep students’ attention and communicate the necessary material. But I believe that through the years my students were for the most part better prepared for their other classes because of the lessons I passed on to them. I feel good about their ability to do excellent, focused research; their ability to structure college essays for other professors; and, hopefully, their residual ability to apply those writing skills to everyday life.
In the end I am better at writing about humanity than teaching the humanities. And I’m even better at exploring humanity. Every once in a while through those years of teaching I knew something with absolute certainty: I always could do better—I just couldn’t be bothered.
I’ll tell you what I’m really good at, I mean I have mastered this ability: wandering around the world and meeting people. I’ve had that down since I’m a kid. My father liked to point out how all my elementary school teachers—none of whom knew each other since I went to four different schools by eighth grade—all wrote on my report cards, “Robert pays too much attention to those around him.” Well, yeah. I still do.
And the truth is my life at the college is what allowed my life in the world to occur. As a result of my position I’ve been able to travel extensively and meet some unforgettable people, some who have remained friends.
And I’ve learned a few things:
The philosophy of why we learn what we do in college is often more valuable than the lessons themselves, otherwise the lessons are quickly lost.
Showing up and making mistakes is more valuable than sitting quietly and assuming you’ve got it right.
Just because a faculty member is qualified to teach a particular course doesn’t mean he or she should be teaching the course (or teaching at all for that matter).
All success must start with passion.
Grandma Moses was right: Life is what you make of it; always has been, always will be.
George Elliot was also right: It’s never too late to become who you might have been.
College is too accessible and the bar is set way too low. It should be a privilege to attend college, to be a scholar, and to earn a degree, not an expectation.
Most of my students came to college too soon after high school. Many came for all the wrong reasons.
As for me, here’s what is left of my career at the college off of Princess Anne Road in Virginia Beach:
6 Classes/3 Courses
18 Credit Hours
4 Division Meetings
Many thanks to Tidewater Community College for tolerating me since just after Reagan left office. With Jimmy Buffet appropriately playing in the background right now, I can confidently quote him: “Some of it’s magic and some of it’s tragic, but it’s been a good life all the way.”
Associate Professor of Humanities
Tidewater Community College
1700 College Crescent, Pungo 141
Virginia Beach, Virginia 23453
“If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.”