When I worked for Richard Simmons, we talked often about how the most promising members of the club–that is, the ones most likely to stick with it and go the distance–were the ones who came with what we called “a quiet resolve.” We didn’t know what drove them, and they didn’t post signs or make announcements; they didn’t have mini-celebrations along the way; they didn’t make it something separate from their life that needed to be tackled or climbed or conquered. They came in, did their thing–sometimes a little more each time–wiped off the sweat and went about their business. That is not a resolution. That is resolve. There is a difference. One is a statement, the other is way of being. 

Now it is almost New Year’s, and like a first-time marathoner, I am beginning to feel like I’m once again just going to drag my tired ass across the finish line. I don’t like feeling this way. I used to know better. For God’s sake, I used to get paid really good money to teach others about positive attitudes and tackling goals and sticking with it and determination. But I was twenty-four-years old. I use a larger font now. I listen to oldie’s stations. I read the obituaries. Yes, I’m looking forward to the New Year, of course; but first I have to look back at a few things, most obviously what didn’t work and why, and then what did work and why.

I used to wish we could design our own year with some magical date book that comes with a special pen, and we sit near the fire, pour some wine, a bowl of Cheese-it’s and start with January marking away at how the year will go. And, whoosh, it just happens. It used to feel that way, didn’t it? When we were young maybe. But now some adjustments must be applied to the idealistic neverland mentality of “New Year’s.”

It’s always taken me longer to figure things out in my life than just about anyone I’ve known. And I know perhaps way too often I have acted enthusiastically and somewhat foolishly when it might have been better to have kept things a bit quieter. But this year some of my hopes are based less upon what I want to happen and more focused on what I don’t want to happen anymore. Honestly, some ambitions can’t be verbalized or measured. It isn’t a matter of distance or self-control, or even ability. It is a question of nuance. It is also a matter of faith. Not faith in a Supreme Being, though that certainly doesn’t hurt, but faith in ourselves to be able to bare our souls, or in some cases, not expose them at all. Sometimes we stand outside in the middle of the night surrounded only by the ghosts that keep us awake to begin with, and we’re terrified at our own truths, our own brief reach across the approaching distance, and something more subtle than a resolution finally follows, something difficult to define. That’s when we understand the truth of our resolves. We begin to know, that is we come to understand, that we aren’t declaring some resolution, we are not deciding to do or not do something anymore; no, we are altering the state of how we think, how we react. It’s more about the moment than the year; more about the soul than the situation.

So thanks to lessons learned from my old boss Richard, I’m acutely aware that we don’t lose fifty pounds by losing fifty pounds. We lose fifty pounds by losing one pound, then another, then we gain a few back and then lose a few more than that, and eventually we realize we’ve made progress. So a list of resolves must be patient; it must not contain bravado or climatic moments at every turn. A good list must be tempered by experience. One of my favorite character traits revealed in The Great Gatsby is when his father, after Jay’s death, is reading the list of resolves his son wrote in the back of the book Hopalong Cassidy when just a boy. In one of them the young Jay had written, “Save $5.00 (crossed out) $3.00 per week.” We learn Jay has ambition but understands his limitations. A list must show hope without setting oneself up for discouragement. ie:  if you’re going after that green light across the bay, you need to learn to swim.

Next, a good list must not bring us down the old paths we’ve walked before aimlessly hoping to bump into something good. Nothing falls in our lap; we will not win the lottery, talent without effort is as common as corn, and the famous truism is as true as ever—the definition of insanity is doing the same thing hoping to reach different results. No, the list must be specific, take advantage of this clean slate, appreciate the challenges we still carry, blend our talents with a determined work ethic, and most of all be unabashedly honest. Too many of our resolutions are often lofty and quickly abandoned, so we must appreciate those aspects of the past which worked, which rely upon our ability to know who we are, which a good resolution will refuse to abandon. It is decidedly acceptable for a list to include, “I will continue to…” several times. Many things in life, after all, worked out fine and we should not resolve them away. So any successful list must include not only new approaches to the old failures but reliance upon tried and proven traits which keep us sane.

In the end, the attention we pay to our resolves will be the difference between making the same mistakes or making it all worthwhile. I spent thirty years teaching college, which requires not only motivational techniques, but endless resolutions on our part as professors. But now I don’t teach; not as much anyway. Luckily, I was paying attention to what I told them, and it has come time for me to apply what I preached, both as a professor and as a motivational trainer at a health club, which are dangerously similar.

But listen, Buddha said we are shaped by our thoughts; we become what we think. That is not on any list. No, it is an approach which makes resolutions redundant. And the real key comes of course from Confucius: “It does not matter how slowly you go as long as you do not stop.”



No wasting time
No more smoking or chewing
Bath every other day
Read one improving book or magazine per week
Save $5.00 [crossed out] $3.00 per week
Be better to parents

Yeah, Jay’s list is as good as any I’ve ever seen.

It just shows you.

No wasting time. Chew on that a moment.


Joyeux Noel


Well before dawn this morning, I could see some stars and what must have been a planet in the west. Something about a clear sky on Christmas has always mystified me, captivated my attention and imagination, from the simple, fun thoughts of reindeer and sleighs to the philosophical digressive pondering of First Cause, the Immaculate, and the imaginative world of proof. I love Christmas morning with its tidings and anticipatory pay-off. But even more I love earlier, alone, when the sky is a narrative, and the Author was sharp enough to leave enough room to us to fit in our own passages as we need to.  

In the east a sliver of light.

I stand and remember.

On Christmas morning before our parents were awake (or so we supposed), my siblings and I would gather, usually in my sister’s room, to exchange gifts we had bought for each other, before we headed down for the beginning of Christmas Day. It would inevitably still be dark out, and I know we’d lay awake waiting to hear each other also awake in the other room. A tap on the door. A “come in.” And we’d sit on the floor and open our presents.

At some point (like clockwork, as much an annual tradition as the Turkey or the pies), our mother would wake our father and he would exclaim, “I thought I said no one up before nine am!” and he couldn’t hide his smile to our laughter at the ludicrous suggestion we’d be up any later than five. It was always cold out during those Long Island years, and often snowy, but we weren’t going outside so it just added to the magic. Dad would be in his robe and slippers and he’d head to the living room as we gathered on the stairs and waited for him to plug in the multi-colored lights on the tree, and those on the rail, bringing to life the otherwise dark room. Mom had, of course, already organized whatever presents we would get into separate piles, and Dad would stand back and she directed us to the right area under the branches, though sometimes it was obvious if an unwrapped toy appeared, clearly already wished for by one of us. Dad would sit on the couch and watch in joy, even through the stream of “Wow, thank you Mom!” wishes continued.

It wouldn’t be long before the aromas of breakfast mixed with the onions and bell seasoning already underway for the stuffing, and eventually we’d need to get dressed, if not for church since we might have attended midnight mass, certainly for the droves of family who would soon fill the rooms. It was a beautiful way to grow up. I do not know the possible stresses, fears, and sacrifices that went on behind the scenes—that’s how good they were at it. Then, much later in the day, after everyone else had left and we had all settled into the routine of looking at our gifts again, Dad would emerge from some closet with his gifts for each of us—books he had personally picked out, bought, and wrapped. It remains one of my favorite memories of all of my memories of my dear father.

It’s in the fifties here today along the Chesapeake, and sunny. This is one of those days each year where I’ve been up so long and have done so much that it feels like it should be six hours later than it is. My sister and brother and nieces and nephew are all off in various parts of the country with their families celebrating their Christmases, all of us with some common traditions, all of us with our individual touches to the holiday. Certainly all of us fortunate enough to be celebrating Christmas, laughing and telling stories, enjoying the food, the drinks, the sounds of football or Christmas music, and even the welcome sounds of a newborn trying to stretch out his new skin. We are, to be sure, at peace today. Anyone with family today is engulfed in traditions which help balance our lives; they bring peace to our soul while providing some shared space not only with each other but with the idea of our ancestry, the hope of our posterity.

My father used to sit to the side for most of the holiday and enjoy being surrounded by his family. He’d carve the turkey, and of course disappear toward evening to get the books to give to us, but I picture him most in his chair, watching a game, laughing with us, waiting for Mom to call him to duty in the kitchen. He has moved on, and whatever there might be to know after this life of ours, well, he now knows, and that too brings me great peace.

Two deer stand nearby in the woods, cautious but not fleeing. It’s so quiet out. Absolute peace stretched out like canvas in all directions. On the water some ducks ease by.

I miss the days before society took “nearby” and “not far away” and tossed them to the strong breezes of technology and One World. In that small house around that small table when I was a child were so many relatives it is crazy to conceive how we pulled it off. But no one cared—we were together. Everyone was close enough to “drive over,” and by the time the turkey came out of the oven, a small crowd was sitting and standing and outside and in, laughing and sharing serious moments, because it was Christmas.

The sun is getting low and its getting chilly. I’m going inside again. I bought Michael a book at a local nautical shop and I need to wrap it and “surprise” him with it all these hours later in the day after the lift of Christmas has settled down. And he will be gracious enough to act surprised, just as we did with our father when he would predictably surprise us with books forty and fifty years ago.

Well, except for one time. We had all settled down and we were sitting quietly, even the television off, the games had ended, dinner was done. And my sister looked at our father and said, with a smile, “Okay, so where are our books?”

Thank God for memory. I love we are graced with memory.


Merry Christmas

Alone again, naturally


This morning I took pictures at the bay, as I usually do, and I posted one of the shots on the neighborhood Facebook page, which I tend to do about once every two or three months, when one of the shots is worth sharing beyond my friends list of family and near-family. Also when it is good enough for it not to embarrass my photographer son whom everyone in town knows. In any case, it was a good shot with just enough clouds to make the sun interesting and turn the frame into something of a narrative.

Within six hours the post had over 250 likes, loves, wows, and other various reactions, had been shared twenty-something times, and had a few dozen comments of “Beautiful!” “Awesome!” “What a shot!” etcetera. So I’m curious about something.

I don’t set my alarm; I wake by about 5:30, find my way outside and on the way to the Y stand at the water at Stingray Point, or if it is foggy I’ll wander around right here near the house at the duck pond on the Rappahannock River, and I listen. I can hear buffleheads move by, dipping under and back out, taking off together if they notice me. Gulls, too, come close, hoping for food, and then I watch them move out toward one of the boats where they might pick up some fish from the watermen. In summer, osprey move out over the river toward Windmill Point, and in winter with them having migrated south, bald eagles aren’t unusual to find across the fields. Egrets, too, and a variety of smaller birds, like kingfishers and indigo buntings.

But that’s later, around seven or so. Earlier, I walk along the small strip of sand at the bay and watch the occasional container ship miles across the water toward Tangier heading south or north, from Baltimore to Norfolk. Closer to shore oyster boats have been at it for quite some time, and here, near the sand, the water is calm most of the time, almost like glass. I can hear the water’s tiny break, the ducks’ wings.

But out on the horizon, out toward the Eastern Shore across the Chesapeake, the sun remains beneath the land working its way up through the occasional clouds and morning fog, and streaks of orange and red and something like gold glazes the edges of the morning, letting light slip through as if blinds open slowly, until the top of the sun comes up almost out of the waves, and I stand alone, and it fills me so it is as if the sun and the bay and the endless sky has swallowed my existence.

Alone. For God’s sake, by myself.

Geez, come on!

I’m not on some wilderness safari; I’m in a village with houses everywhere, stores and boatyards, everywhere. People, real people, all over the place, yet I’m alone, everyone satisfied to catch the repeats on Facebook. I love the comments and it feels good to share nature with others who can’t get outside, but I can’t be the only one who can get outside! Where the hell is everyone?

And this isn’t just for coastal residents. The sun, you know, rises in a lot of places now. Have you ever watched the sun come up over the rooftops, trees muting the streams of morning as the air slowly clears? Have you ever, even once, seen the rays of light moving down Fifth Avenue? The sun rises all day long, constantly, it is always, I mean always, rising for someone, somewhere, constantly, perpetually. Yes, each of us usually only sees it once, most of us not at all—the sun is usually up before we open the curtain. But surely, here, on the edge of the day, in all these years, I might have stood next to someone other than my son and said, quietly, “Beautiful, isn’t it?” But not. Never. I’m not kidding. Not once.

I’d love to see dozens of pictures of the sunrise over the bay, the same sunrise from dozens of perspectives, all of us standing around, alive, afterwards heading over to the café for coffee, talking about how we need to do this more often, laughing about how this just might be the highlight of the day, but at least we started out okay. The rest of the day is in the control of so many others in our lives, but those few moments, early, when the sky is not yet blue, but almost, is ours if we choose to engage in life for a few moments. This is trite, yes, but apparently not trite enough or I wouldn’t be a solitary figure on the sand, wondering if I’m the only one who noticed.

Life is brief, a moment at best; that’s why I’m out there. It all passes so fast. Come watch the best parts with me. I’ll buy you some coffee. We’ll laugh about how fast it all passes. 


Verbal Abuse


The wilderness, this afternoon, is inside. 

It started for me about twenty years ago when my son and I were at a local food store. Some five-year-old nearby called to his mother, “Hey Mama! Do we be needin’ potatoes?” To which his mother replied, “We ain’t be gottin’ no need for no potatoes.” The kid paused, looked up, and I said it sounded like they didn’t need them but that I hadn’t done the math yet.

It’s a big wide negative world we live in.

“No, I ain’t feeling bad.”

“I don’t be needin’ none of your crap.”

“Don’t be talkin’ no trash to no one.”

Double negatives not only returned to our vernacular after centuries away, it has become standard conversation. The bad grammar is not the problem, though that’s a problem. It is the vague undercurrent of negativity that surfaces in conversation and conduct. The “ain’t”s “no”s and “don’t”s run out front of people’s ramblings like offensive tackles, pushing and shoving as soon as the sentence comes off the tongue. It’s hard to avoid these grammatically-challenged people who apparently have subconsciously convinced themselves that nothing good is going to happen. Worse, something negative dominates most of their sentences, both verbal and proverbial. It’s positively shocking.

At a McDonald’s where two workers tried to fix a blender: “It don’t do nothing, do it?” At a restaurant when the hostess asked another customer where he’d like to sit: “It don’t make no difference.” At the counseling office on campus: “You mean he don’t need no developmental English?”

I had a student challenge me in class one day when I explained that how they grunted to each other in their own lives was their business, but in my classroom I expect proper language. He told me I was “arrogant and offensive” to tell students I won’t tolerate double and triple negatives, bad grammar, and defensive, resistant behavior. He agreed with my teaching methods about as much as his subjects and verbs agreed with each other.

First of all, I told him, I am definitely arrogant. Be positive about that one. I am arrogant about the abuse of our language; I am arrogant when how you talk on the streets spills into the classroom. This naturally leads me to offensive: I tell them plainly, “If anything I say offends you, you probably deserve it.”

The retort: “You think you’re better than us.”

Well, yeah. Not because my life is more valuable or more worthy absolutely not. In fact, some of the most valuable people I have known are illiterate village elders in West Africa or Mexico, migrant workers in Virginia, painters in the college halls. It’s because at any university in any collegiate situation, I try to get it right; I try and make it second nature not to belittle education and intelligence by bullying the language to a pulp. It’s insulting and childish.

A brief rant (because, no, I haven’t been ranting yet): If anyone outside our borders hears me expressing myself in one long stream of negatives, hears me ripping apart what I don’t understand, hears me make fun of what threatens me, and hears me laugh at what I can’t master, I know I’m showcasing for the world that we are the most pathetic, mindless, ignorant, illiterate jackasses on the planet. It reflects poorly on our secondary and primary education system and says to everyone simply that we are lazy. “Welcome to Moronica! Come on world, you know what da hell we meant.” Maybe we should come with subtitles.

Maybe I’m simply not a negative person—except now of course.

Truth is, I really couldn’t care less about the speech, though it is annoying. And I can easily attempt to administer editing drills that eliminate this moron-babble from their essays; what I can’t control is the rising tide of helplessness that’s the true problem. Why does anyone want the primary root idea of every thought and conversation to be a variation of “no?” What hope do people have if they go into every situation with two negatives already pulling their attitudes?

I really don’t know.

I asked my students what they hoped to accomplish after college, where they hoped to be. They hadn’t thought about it, which is normal, I suppose, but one student said, “I don’t want to think about it none. It don’t look too good out there.”

Sigh. No, it don’t.

Momentum is dead. These people feel like they’re running on ice. Was a time college students knew they could defeat anything that kept them from their goals. They believed in themselves. Their natural mental state bent toward something positive. No more. Now we’re instilled with fear—of failure, of attacks, of non-acceptance, or criticism. It is the Age of Fear, and the students have taken this time to heart. They’ve had a homeland defense attitude hammered into their psyche. They are taught to expect the worst, to anticipate failure, and to be prepared to pay the price. Negativity is not only acceptable, it is their survival gear.

A psychology lesson: Cognitive Therapy shows that when people are depressed, their thoughts are dominated by pervasive negativity; they dwell on the negatives and ignore the positives. They don’t believe they can accomplish the simplest tasks. They don’t believe anyone is interested in helping them. Highest percentage of depressed Americans? College students. They are convinced where they’re at now is as good as it’s going to get. We used to only see it in body language. The closed arms, the blank stare toward the ground. Now, this vein of depression has adopted our own language to spread its vile verbiage. Am I over-generalizing here? I don’t think so. Maybe everyone’s depressed.

Everything, after all, is negative. Iraq and Ukraine and Afghanistan pervade the American mind in little more than a stream of body counts and car-bomb updates. Hurricanes slam our shores and send us reeling into “he should have” “she should have” volleys. The news has always been negative, but now the news is on all the time, from computers, watches, television, radio, and news sites. None of it is good and it ain’t getting no better. When I tell them they are better than their attitudes, that they can achieve every single one of their goals despite being trained for twelve years to simply do what they’re told and shut up, they laugh and say, “I ain’t got no time for none of that.”

It’s all about tone and they’re tone deaf.  

They’re being fed all negative information through a wireless umbilical. And their identity is directly related to two modes: their actions and their speech.  And what is the verdict? It ain’t good.

Okay, devil’s advocate here: In their defense, however, who really cares? After all, I do know what the students are saying, or trying to say, and I understand why they have slipped into such lazy, uneducated speech.  I know the times they live in now demand this animal-like mindless reactionary talk in order to be accepted by other animal-like mindless friends.  But these people graduated from a high school in the United States. They are what we define as “educated.”  I’ve been told some of the double negatives and horrific grammar is more “dialect” than illiteracy. No. No no no. 

A real comment: “Professor Kunzinger, I don’t need no developmental English. I didn’t do bad in high school.” This is what I’m talking about: Not, “I did well in high school,” but “I didn’t do bad.” They’re defining themselves by some degree of negative measure.

They don’t understand that command of the language is not about being taught some medieval construct carried over the pond by mostly snooty, old white upper-class Englishmen. Using the language as a sword with skill and finesse allows them to outwit anyone, any age, any income. It allows them to move without being noticed from group to group to take command, to lead, to sway the argument in their favor. It is the basis of all advancement, and it acts as the sharpest tool against a dull public out to take advantage of everyone.

Too many people today believe the art of communication is simply to be understood; it has nothing to do with being respected and taken seriously. “I should be accepted for who I am, not how I speak,” I’ve been told many times.

Listen: How you speak IS who you are. You may be brilliant but prove it for God’s sake. Stop hiding the Mensa tendencies. Let’s call it “Tonal Directed Conversation.” To these people, the sound of the words is more important than their meaning. Back to the store: “I ain’t be gotten no need for no potatoes,” in tone, is crystal clear. This woman is not buying the spuds. In fact, if I did do the math, it even comes out that way. She’s got three negatives floating through that amoebae sentence; it actually spins back toward “no” in the end.  But that aside, the tone is clearer than the language. Knowing that, she might as well have been speaking Russian or Turkish. What difference does it make even if she merely grunted and scratched her armpit, so long as the tonal inference clearly shut out the potato-buying possibility? Everyone knew what she meant; it don’t make no difference. I figured that woman to have been in high school during the Reagan administration. But when Reagan told them to “Just say no,” this is so not what he meant. So now the question remains: Is it enough to know what someone means?

I’ve been teaching too long to know it wasn’t always like this. I don’t remember any (note: “any” not “no”) such verbal abuse years ago. Students could complete a coherent sentence without round-kicking the language. And when I tell my students this, they tell me I’m arrogant and offensive. Well, there they’ve got me.

The thing is, sometimes, I am also mistaken.

Here we go:

History compels me to admit maybe I don’t know nothing about what I’m saying. A little homework reveals how English ain’t so easy to master: Turns out most other languages thrive on the negative, and double negatives in fact were once wholly acceptable in English. Chaucer says of the Friar, “There was no man nowhere so virtuous”; and Shakespeare’s Viola says of her heart, “Nor never none/Shall mistress of it be, save I alone.” It’s all about emphasis. English remains, in fact, the only language that doesn’t allow double negatives. Why? Well, it simply ain’t logical. Grammarians since the Renaissance have objected to the double negative because these humanists who emerged during the age of reason demanded English conform to formal logic. They pointed out that two negatives destroy each other and make a positive. Since then, half a millennium later, this rule advocated by teachers of grammar and writing has become fundamental.

Nevertheless, all speakers of all educational backgrounds continue to use multiple negatives when they want to make a point, as when President Reagan taunted his political opponents by saying “You ain’t seen nothing yet.” That line uttered earlier by Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer was the first spoken words of cinema. And the movies ain’t changed much since.

I don’t like being wrong, however, so I called a linguist I know in Boston.

“What is the problem with ‘ain’t’?” I asked.

“Well,” my colleague said, “it first appeared in English in 1778, evolving from an earlier form an’t, which arose almost a century earlier as a contraction of are not and am not. In fact, ain’t comes from the same era that introduced ‘don’t’ and ‘won’t.’” He took what sounded like a sip of tea. “Ain’t and some of these other contractions came under criticism in the 1700s for being inelegant and low-class, even though they had actually been used by upper-class speakers. But while don’t and won’t eventually became perfectly acceptable at all levels of speech and writing, ain’t does not come from any direct word sequence, making it a “vulgarism,” that is, a term used by the lower classes.”

“Oh,” I said. “But are not contractions of any form vulgar to a true linguist?”

“No, Bob,” he said. “I do not think so. Even a linguist can not avoid using them.”

I was not clear about this so he clarified. “Distaste for the word ‘ain’t’ is still alive, Bob. Its use is still regarded as a mark of ignorance.”

“But technically then,” I argued, “these students are not wrong, they are just living in the middle ages.”

“Well, I would not say that. I believe we must accept that vulgarisms have no place in our language. The worst of these vulgarisms are the double negative and ‘ain’t. It also thrusts their mentality toward depression. With language, however, we can contract hope and the future into a vulgarism we can all live with. Emphasis should be on the meaning.”

“So you are saying that without meaning in our words we are simply grunting with accents and scratching our stupidity.”

“Exactly, Robert. Well put,” he said.

I had to disagree. “Wait, though. You’re the linguist here, but maybe the nay-sayers are correct.”

“But they could not possibly…”

“Is it not possible that tone really is more important than meaning?”

“No! That simply does not make sense.”

“That seems a bit negative.”

After he hung up on me, I thought more about it. English has evolved for a thousand years, leaving behind meaning, gaining new meaning through time. We’ve dropped words completely, changed the definition of others. In America’s early days, the Irish, the English, the Italians and the Dutch beat the crap out of English. Webster came along and fearful of a country with multiple languages each with nearly unrelated dialects, homogenized us all to the English we banter about today. But why would be believe we’re done? The language is still evolving. Maybe we’re at the start of a neo-Renaissance. While Voltaire would have taken issue with the illogical taste of double negatives, Cervantes would have loved it. The language is changing, there is no doubt about that. How we speak today is a far cry from where we were, and a faint hint of what’s to come. Truth is, you ain’t seen nothing yet.


Zero to Sixty


I was always good at math. I can still glance at a long sheet of numbers, say for Yahtzee or Scrabble, and nearly instantly tell you their sum. Counselors in school said I should consider accounting. Perhaps they were right; the problem is having a knack for calculating and solving problems doesn’t translate to the ability to handle finances. Trust me.

Life, it seems, is best seen more as ironic than literal.

The sciences were out nearly immediately. It wasn’t from lack of interest; no, in fact this very blog is the result of my deep appreciation and interest in nature, the origins of trees and the mystical solidity of space. It’s just I couldn’t hold all that information, the formulas and all. Needless to say, the sciences and me simply never had good chemistry. Four years after my brother nailed his eighth-grade science course (he would later become an actual Scientist—note the capital “S”, as a geologist), I had the same teacher at that Long Island school. He called roll that first day and got to my name. “Robert, are you Fred’s brother?” “Yes,” I replied. “Well then,” he said, “I’ll expect great things from you.” “Don’t” I answered, and he laughed.

Yes, that I could do—I could always make people laugh. Teaching afforded me that opportunity—fifteen shows weekly, register in the administration building—seating is limited. But I could never tell jokes; I was and am more of a situationally humorous person. No one pays to see that.

It’s hard figuring out what you want to be when you grow up, especially if you’re already grown. Ironically, you’d think the vantage of age and experience would make the decision easier. In retrospect, I would have been just fine at several passions had I pursued them with the vigor and confidence of successful people. I was simply always distracted by one underlying drive: I wanted to see the world, to explore and wander and experience, and that’s difficult to do sitting still. The one dominating component of whatever mental mechanism drives us to such things kept whispering, I have to go I just have to go, I can’t explain it. I know why this is true. I understand the one or two people who had such impactful influence on my vulnerable, teenage mind. But it isn’t a career, per se. There are peripheral occupations, of course: Travel industry, military, or a job where you have enough money and time to take the time to spend the money on fulfilling that desire.

Like college teaching.

Teaching then, like education itself, served more as a means to an end then a goal or objective. Along the way I think I became good at it, sure. I still love working with students’ writing and at this very minute am waiting for some to show up in my office so I can help them finish a paper about, yes—what they want to do with their chosen major and their lives. We are really enjoying this internal exploration, so much so that I am doing it with them, analyzing what I want to do with my life.

In essence, this is a rough draft of a college paper in which I discover my entire life has felt like a rough draft in need of editing.  

It helps that I’ve been staring at twenty-years-old for thirty years. It has kept me young and always thinking about what’s next instead of what was.  But even so, thinking about what was helps me now, at eight months shy of sixty, understand how I got here. Growing up I spent most of my time in nature. Long Island’s south shore state parks, the oceanfront, the rivers and marshes of Virginia, were my backyard, playground, friend. Maybe I should have pursued a career in forestry or become a waterman. Maybe. But that meant staying mostly in one place and that never worked for me.

So, writing this down helps me understand this about my past: I could never keep still, I preferred to be alone and outside, and I had a deeply-rooted though never completely understood need to express to others how outrageously beautiful our world is, and humanity, and love, and how that awareness is made more acute by the inescapable passing of time.

I couldn’t find that Major listed in the college catalog. Philosophy, perhaps, but that’s difficult to find in the want ads. The closest I can come is the arts. My friends Mikel Wintermantel and Cole Young captured on canvas what I’m talking about; and the long list of writers I know and respect often do the same, especially the poets. Writing, of course, seems most obvious for me since I like to do it and have had excellent mentors. But people don’t support the arts enough to sustain you unless you write about horror, fantasy, or sex. Maybe mystery, but I suck at making things up.

What do I want to do with my life? When I was a kid, I wanted to be a baseball player in summer and then spend winters in Florida being an ice cream man. Not only am I not kidding about that, it still sounds like the best plan. I liked Mr. Softy’s twist cones and Good Humor fudgsicles the best. I’d probably feature those on the side of my truck. The plan fell apart, however, when I didn’t make the baseball team due to my lack of ability to, well, play baseball. Tennis was my sport, but I got distracted. It was either practice tennis or ride my bike all day long and the latter felt more like I was getting somewhere. Then came my passion for Space which coincided, not coincidentally, with the late-sixties, early seventies NASA domination of our imaginations. But, you know, science, so eighty-six that one.

A student just left. He wants to be a dental hygienist. He said he loves working with people and talking with people. I suggested it would be mostly him doing the talking but he seemed okay with that. It’s odd how with each rough draft I read I wonder how I would do in that field. Most of these freshmen and sophomores want to go into business. I was born several centuries too late, it seems. Or too early.

In retrospect, evidence seems to prove that most of us in the first world live the lives we choose to live once we accept that we are the ones ultimately making the choices, no matter how much we want to blame or accuse or thank others for the situations in which we find ourselves. We did it, for better or worse, with families and finances and luck, good or bad, we made the choices—always have and we always will. Of course, there are those who can’t pull themselves up by their own bootstraps or were born into a horrific situation from which escape into a chosen life seems—and often is—nearly impossible. Well, that just makes our ability to choose our own direction more precious, more delicate and powerful, and a choice not to be taken lightly.

As we talked about in class; it’s really just about asking ourselves the right questions. There’s a science to it, though, which may be why I was always asking the wrong questions. So I told them to write about it. I assigned their semester project early on, which was in essence to discover themselves through writing, and perhaps unearth some truths about what they want to come next. I did this same assignment for years at another college and a student once came up to me and said, “My husband had you for this class about five years ago and came home and said the lecture really struck him and he wanted to quit school, that it wasn’t what he wanted after all.” I gulped. But she then told me he started his own tiling business which is now very successful, and they’ve never been happier. That’s a good story; it ends well. There are others with different endings. Always, though, endings they ultimately wrote themselves.  

Still, I like this assignment because it is personal for me and because I always knew that in the end if I kept writing about my life, that someday I’d figure out what I wanted to do with my life.

And therein lies the irony.