Passing Through

Peklo Restaurant, Prague

There is history in all men’s lives


I am not a history buff by any means, though I have toured many historical sites around the world. Some of my favorites include Sagamore Hill—Teddy Roosevelt’s home on Long Island where I first went when I was in sixth grade and the last time when my son was about the same age I was then. I have a picture of me with classmates on that porch and another of Michael near the same spot. Very Cool. Another is Monticello—Thomas Jefferson’s home. Historical sites abound here in Virginia.

In Europe and Asia, too, I’ve found myself surrounded by history. In Prague, for instance, my favorite restaurant is Peklo, which six hundred and fifty years ago was a wine cellar where King Charles IV would occasionally indulge; they make an amazing duck. And all across Russia I’ve been able to experience history from the homes of the Czars to the train stations used by soldiers during World War One and the Russo-Japanese War just before that.

But make no mistake—I sucked at history in college and high school. Still, my own sister earned a doctorate in history from Notre Dame and has written extensively about American history, including her definitive book about Arkansas Governor Winthrop Rockefeller (Agenda for Reform). Her husband, too, received his Ph.D. from there and is a leading historian at Temple University, author of countless award-winning works about military history, and it isn’t unusual to see his familiar face pop up on the history channel as commentator. Even my father knew so much about history he could have taught the subject, and at St. Ephram’s School in Brooklyn eighty years ago, he won a history award for his abilities.

Me, not so much. I am a hands-on guy fascinated by items that survived time and war and neglect. I need an object, a talisman of sorts, to bring history to life to keep my attention. The irony is I have made so many trips to Russia for the purpose of experiencing culture that I became heavily steeped in history by virtue of immersion. Russians are deeply rooted in their tragic and beautiful past. In Prague it is the same. When there, I always stay in a building built almost 700 years ago, but I have little interest in reading about those times. I like to be in the present, walk the same hallways with someone like my sister or brother-in-law to tell me what happened while I half listen and half focus on the immaculate trajectory of time, like an arrow, like a beam of light, like a falling star. Time remains relentless, and I simply prefer to lean against a wall in Prague or sit in a pew in a Spanish chapel prayed in by Charlemagne and contemplate the immediate reality that we are on the same line, standing between them and what’s next, isolating this moment. I am nobody, to be sure, but I am here, part of the conspiracy to keep those ages alive. Time can be like a relay that way. Observers grab the events of the past and pass them along to whoever’s next, and on. But while my sister and her husband are direct descendants of Herodotus, I like to consider myself the descendant of the barkeep who served up some honey mead for the evening gatherers who stood around and told stories and tried to pick up eunuchs.

History would be well served to have a bartender’s version of events. We could bypass the normal reference material like dates and plans and titles and influences, and keep track of what they really thought, their insecurities, their ambitions. Who wouldn’t want to pour another hekteus of wine and listen to Aristotle rattle on about which Sophocles play bored him to death and which sent him reeling to his corner table after intermission to contemplate the center of the universe? What tender stood by with the bottle of chianti that got Galileo hammered, relegating him to the courtyard at three am on his drunk ass with a dizzy head, and as he lay on his back he looked up at the stars and thought, “Whoa, hang on here.”

I do have one object which acts as transporter sending me back to the late 1800’s every time I hold it in my hands. It is a porcelain cup made in Russia in 1896. It is about four inches tall, white porcelain interior with blue and red markings. On the side is the seal of Czar Nicholas II and Alexandra, and “1896,” the date of his coronation. A history professor in St. Petersburg gave it to me. The “coronation cups” were made for that occasion and were to be filled with beer and passed out to the masses of commoners outside the Kremlin walls so they could celebrate along with the aristocracy. The military training field where half a million people gathered for the souvenirs of cups and various food and clothing items was already a dangerous place to walk for all the trenches and mud pits. But things quickly went south when a rumor spread that each cup had gold in it and there were not nearly enough of them to go around. A stampede ensued and left over 1700 people trampled to death. The cup became known as the “cup of sorrow,” so called by Alexandra herself, but it is more often referred to as the “cup of blood,” and this tragedy on their Coronation Day seemed a bad sign for things to come during the reign of the last Czar. I own one of only five hundred or so of the originals from that very field. When I hold the cup, my mind wonders what they were talking about before the stampede, what music were they listening to, was it an exciting time or, because of the conflicts already underway throughout the empire, was it subdued and the cup distribution simply a brief diversion. Who made the cups? For me, owning one is a way to reach through a rabbit hole and pull out some nineteenth-century reality. Though an argument can be made that it might be considered moronic to have it in my possession and I should probably sell the damn thing on Ebay.

When I hold the cup in my hands and turn it over, I wonder which guard, swarmed by people, handed it out, which peasant held it in her hands. I turn it over and realize the likelihood is that it was stepped on in the mud or smuggled away quickly by some young worker who managed to escape the tragedy. It is one thing to listen to a history lecture about the event, and something else entirely to go to the Kremlin and hear the tour guide explain the events as you look out over the parking lots and office buildings on the once barren land, and imagine the droves of Russians pushing for the gates, their comrades crushed just for the cup, this cup.

As the Raiders of the Lost Arc character, French archeologist Rene Belloch, notes, “We are simply passing through history; this is history.”

I think I’ll let the others write history. Instead, I’m heading to this small hundred and twenty five year old oyster shack I know and have a dozen Old Salts and sit in the same place oystermen sat while Teddy Roosevelt was pounding up San Juan Hill, and I’ll talk to some fisherman about changes in the tides, and how some Bay islands used to be so much larger, before the storm of ’33, and before the one in ’03, and if you paddle out to them at low tide and work your way through the mud, you can still find hundred-year-old hand crafted beams and abandoned hand-made oyster traps. When I was a child on Long Island, we would find arrowheads. The Native American culture on the Island wasn’t only learned by reading history lessons in schoolbooks; it happened as well when lying around in the sand and marshes of the south shore.

If I drink enough at the oyster shack, I might stumble out to the patch of grass on the river and fall on my back and stare up at the stars and think about Galileo and Copernicus and who else lay still in the quiet of night, the faint sound of water lapping the shore nearby, who was it that first saw Orion’s belt or the Pleiades spread out like buck shot. Then I might go back inside and sit a few stools down from the cook sitting alone in the corner, and then lean into the tender and ask, “So what’s his story?”


Those Moments, and Love


I eat almonds, wild berries, artichokes. I consume legumes, fiber, and avoid fast food. Last night, I passed on New York style Pizza, the thin kind where oil drips off a folded slice, and there’s just enough cheese to cover the sauce. You know the kind. Like Vinny’s on Seventh Avenue or that place in Queens that sells pies for half price on Wednesdays. We used to bring home the coveted white box, held hot in the passenger seat, that most unique smell filling the car, combination of crust and toppings, making everyone hungry. Then we’d pull the slices apart, glad for the way the pizza guy slammed the round blade onto the pie and spun it four times to make the slices even. Sometimes I’d order an entire small pie for myself and sit and watch the game, drinking ice cold coke.

But last night I passed on the slice my friend kindly offered. Ate instead a plate of lettuce which looked a lot like weeds I pulled from the garden and tossed onto the overturned lid of a metal can to carry into the woods, only this had oil and vinegar. You see, I’m not trying to lose weight, though I should; and I’m not trying to save my heart from heavy foods, though, there too, I really must pay more mind. What I’m trying to do is act my age. Guys like me, you see, those for whom the graph in the shape of a pie is about two-thirds colored in, we have to spread out the years a bit more, make it last.

Sometimes after a day filled with too much news and not enough hope, I feel like I’m just trying to make it to the end of life before anything bad happens to me or the world. I don’t remember feeling this way as a kid. Hell, I don’t remember feeling like this four years ago. I remember when I was little picking up garbage on Earth Day and thinking at that moment everyone in the world was picking up garbage. That applied to all aspects of my trash-free existence. If it rained it rained everywhere. Snow. Everyone on the planet on Saturday mornings watched Underdog. Of course.

So a few weeks ago I sat on the flatbed table in the doctor’s office and he listened to my heart. “You eating right?” he asked. “Sure.” “How about exercise? Are you getting enough?” “Absolutely.” “You really shouldn’t eat pizza so much you know.” “Hey, when I was in college I ate it all the time.” “You were twenty; you could eat linoleum and your body would be fine.”

I went outside into the grey morning sun and sat in the car. Most of us live roughly the same length of time, give or take a dozen years. Most of us are roughly the same height give or take, possess a relatively small variety of features like eye or hair color, have nearly identical operating systems for intake and evacuation, and suffer cold and heat, pain and comfort, desire and illness roughly the same.

So what separates us from each other I wondered as I drove off to find a Duck’s Donuts. My dad’s generation were “doers.” Survive the depression; fight the Nazi’s, build a house and raise a family. They took the punches and kept moving forward. My son’s generation waits for things to happen. They are raised in a paranoid, post 911 world where you never know when the next shoe is going to drop. Mine is the Earth Day generation. We were going to clean up the world; we stood together anti-nuke, anti-oppression, anti-war, pro-environment, pro-conservation dreamers with an absolute conviction we would be successful. We had Dylan. We had King. We had time. I suppose the environment in which we are raised has a heavy hand on the scale; the era, the latitude, the world-at-large. My era was the emergence of Earth Day, granola bars, Rocky Mountain High. I’m not sure when the hope started to erode like it has, but it has. Except for those moments when hope is like iron, like space. Those moments. You know the ones I mean…

Two dollars and fifty cents for a fucking donut. I paid the woman and took my small, custom-made lunch to an empty park and wondered why no one was outside playing. “Are you getting enough exercise?” the doctor asked. Honestly, I am, and long-distance hikes aren’t unusual for me; way more exercise than most of my twenty-something-year old students, to be sure. And, actually, I normally do eat really well.  But sometimes I wonder if the three months or so longer I’m going to live by eating right and doing Yoga is worth the amount of pleasure I must cut out of my life to get there.

I finished eating and got on the swings. Eating right? Yeah, sure I am, I thought, and moved over to the slide and slid right down to the bottom with ease, landing plump on the dirt. I put my palms down on the ground and tilted my head back and stared at an emerging sun, the clouds quickly dissipating.  Act your age, I thought, looking around. Part of me was glad I was alone in the park—made me want to climb the monkey bars. And another part of me wondered why the place wasn’t packed with senior citizens, pumping donuts into their mouths and giving the see-saw another workout. Hell, that’s what I’m going to do when more of this metaphoric graph gets filled in. It is, after all, my life. I brushed my palms against each other and the dirt smelled good, fresh, and some salty air drifted in from the Atlantic. Then all at once I felt young, but it wasn’t the swings or the slide or the monkey bars. There, right there, the dirt and the ocean’s salty air, and the sun cracking the day in half, these things, right there, the visceral life we have at our fingertips, right then I remembered is nothing short of miraculous.

Late last night and early this morning it snowed. Not much, couple of inches, but enough for the university to say stay home, and enough for my son and I to head out and walk the trails on the property. The woods here are filled with holly, and the holly are all covered in snow since there was no wind to speak of and the snowfall was light, dusty. The little out there packed under our heels to that well-known winter sound of shoes compacting snow, leaving tread marks, pulling up small chunks. I made the mistake of walking under a tall, heavily snow-laden holly, and instead of throwing a snowball at me, Michael aimed for the branches above my head, and pounds of snow fell on my head, down my neck, covered me perfectly. The cold on my neck and down my shirt on my back felt—and I don’t mean to simplify this adjective—white. That kind of cold wetness on the neck feels white. Melting white. The crisp, clear air stung at my face and my eyes watered a bit from the cold and the air and the brightness of the sun on the snow. We took pictures as proof, and cardinals passed moving from a holly to the porch rail to sift through safflower seed. This all before eight am.

That, too, felt ageless, as if fathers and sons everywhere this morning walked through the woods, and snow fell gently, and none of us anywhere had any promises to keep.

Back on that first earth day, when I was just a child, I remember thinking—or maybe someone said it, which is more likely—if people didn’t throw trash everywhere, we wouldn’t have to pick it up. Ah, prevention! How elusive you can be!

…but eventually it all makes sense, because eventually you understand that it is all about those moments; we simply don’t have enough of those moments when we love out loud; when we spend time with those we need nearby, laughing, telling stories, remembering when, watching the sun paint a lonely reach, listening to other people’s voices far off across the way laughing at some far off story only they will know. And we start a fire and open wine, and we all go for a walk, three or four separate conversations mixing, tumbling back on each other, so that we don’t know anymore which comments we are laughing about. Someone suggests ordering a pizza and everyone sits around the fire having a slice and everyone comments how it is the best pizza they’ve ever had, though they’ve had it before, but not like this, not at all like this.

Then, right then, you’re glad you listened to the doctor, glad you did your part in salvaging this magnificent planet, glad you tried, anyway, and glad you are still here. Because right then everyone everywhere is sitting around a fire, laughing, the whole clean and peaceful planet right then is sitting around telling stories and laughing, and your eyes swell at such beautiful transient thoughts.

And later, when it is quiet, and someone says there is no point in stoking the embers—it is late, or early—and someone might have already fallen asleep nearby while two others talk with more control and less style about the swiftness of time, about uncertain moments, about unrequited dreams, and it will get quiet, and the air might have a chill. And eventually, one of the two will say while the other just nods, “But look, we are here now, and who knows for how long, so let’s be here.” And right then I know, if I’m among the mix, I know for certain that I’ll look out across the distance and think of Frost:

“Earth’s the right place for love; I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.”

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The Fact of the Matter


I tell my students on their first day that the most important question professors will ask any student throughout college from the start to their PhD is, “Where did you get your information?” That’s it. That’s the whole B.O.W. (Ball of Wax, come on). If the answer to that question is vague or first person or convoluted, they fail. But if the information they provide is excavated from the works of experts, and the students make that clear every single time—every single time—they introduce a subjective thought, they will gain the respect of their readers until the students become the experts and, as a result, the source for future researchers.

“Where did you get your information?”

Okay. Tonight’s View is from the professor/j-major in me.

According to the Pew Research Center and the Washington Post’s Fact Checker Poll, the most trusted news sources are predictably partisan. The vast majority of Republicans trust Fox News for their information followed closely by conservative talk radio, while CNN takes the top for the majority of Democrats followed closely by NPR and MSNBC. Both parties found little use for the other party’s choices. Go figure.

Fine. Let’s take a look at from where they get their information, shall we?

Sean Hannity is a conservative host who discusses political topics and influences millions. His education? He dropped out of NYU and Adelphi. It was his radio experience that enabled his charismatic presence to cover for his lack of expertise in anything he discusses. In the world of Mass Communications, he is not a journalist, though he plays one on TV. If any student comes remotely near this man on a works cited page, they fail.

Rush Limbaugh was another conservative talk show host discussing political topics and influencing millions more than Hannity. His Education? He dropped out of Southeast Missouri State University. His radio experience enabled his smooth voice and sharp wit to cover for his lack of expertise in anything he discusses. Again, cite him and I’ll laugh at you in front of the whole class.

These two have absolutely no background or degrees in journalism and how to verify information properly, or political science, or any experience in either politics or journalism beyond being disc jockeys with opinions.

Here is a disturbing example: conservative radio host Mike Savage has written multiple best-selling political books supporting his commentary on his syndicated talk show, though his three degrees are in botany, medical anthropology, and nutrition. He is not a journalist, not a political scientist, and not funny.

Thom Hartmann, as well, is one the most successful progressive talk show hosts as well as a business mogul, but his degree in Electrical Engineering from Michigan State didn’t qualify him for the multiple best-selling books he has written about politics. Come on! How is it possible anyone with a brain and a concern for this country takes advice from these people? “I’m really concerned about international relations and the effects of treaties on trade and military bases around the world. I think I’ll ask a botanist.”

And these same DJs are the same people who lead the masses in knocking Main-Stream-Media. Let’s have a gander at a couple of the more popular commentators these frauds have attacked: Chris Cuomo is a lawyer who is the brother and son of NY State Governors. Megyn Kelly, most famous for being ridiculed by President-elect DJ Trump when she was the only qualified person at Fox, has a political science degree from Syracuse and a law degree from Albany. If you want to know what might have the worst effect on your future when congress changes laws, who do you consult? The engineer? Two college dropouts with no experience in either law or politics but managed to stretch a college DJ gig into a career because they have good voices? Or a lawyer with a political science degree; another lawyer whose family has been in the governor’s house for decades?

Where did you get your information? Think about this before you answer, I tell them after I rant about these examples and more. I like to also point out that there is a chasm between News and Commentary. There is, in fact, very little “news” anywhere; that is, the objective presentation of indisputable facts. The majority of airtime is dedicated to talking heads chatting about “possibilities” based upon how they “feel” about something, each (both parties) bringing with them their own prejudices, ignorance, and agendas. Before anyone talks, and long before any student attributes information to a source, I’d better know their degrees, their experience, their qualifications to be considered an “expert” whose opinion is worthy of weighing.

And another thing: there is also a difference between an expert and a participant. An expert has all the information about the bigger picture, understands the cultural and historical context, has digested and contemplated the multiple facets of the topic through education, experience, and consultation with other experts. A participant was there. Bring in the soldier who fought in Iraq for his commentary about what we should do in Iraq; bring in the businessman for his commentary on what we should do in international relations; bring in the English professor to discuss what are the best teaching methods at the college level–do any of these three, and you fail. All any of these three can tell us is how “they” would do it; none can say with expertise that they know exactly how it should be done. These three or in the mix; experts are above it all, observing and taking notes.

Thank them all for their service and give them raises, and if I ever want to know what it is like to be in Iraq, I’ll ask a participant, just as I’ll ask a college professor what it is like to teach English. But they’re not experts at all. Students need to discuss problems in military strategy in Iraq or outcome results for college compositions with the respective experts. Am I nitpicking? NO. I’m ensuring that the information provided is as indisputable as possible.

To teach at a university you must have a terminal degree in the field you teach. I teach writing, as such my undergraduate degree in journalism, as well as my terminal degree in research methods and creative writing non-fiction directly informs my instruction. This is a no-brainer. My brother-in-law, for instance, is a well accomplished tenured historian at Temple University and author of multiple definitive volumes in history. He is one of the most respected people in his field. But he can’t teach chemistry. No one no one no one at all, no one at all, anywhere—no one—questions this. And education is not the only occupation which requires employees be learned in the areas they work. To be more specific, he even specializes in particular areas of history, and while he is extremely learned in just about any subject in the field, he will be the first one to pass along a question about medieval history, for example, to someone whose expertise lies there. I am qualified on paper to teach literature, to be sure. But my “area” is writing, and colleagues send students my way who are interested in such, just as I will recommend someone else to those who wish to learn Shakespeare.

Experts are generally pretty specific.

Can you imagine an entire staff at any business or office where none of the staff has direct experience in the field? Inconceivable. Can you imagine what would happen if the people consulted for the most important decisions were not experts in research and investigation but instead radio personalities or billionaires with experience in a completely unrelated business? You get the picture.

They fail.

The Fourth Estate demands expertise. “Fair and Balanced” is an amateur attempt at a quick Brand. It makes no sense. Real news is often not fair. Real news covers the facts, the verifiable facts, the indisputable facts no matter where they lead, and if they only lead in one direction then we all head that way. That is journalism. That is fair. Fairness is found in the research to unearth the absolute facts, not in the reporting. And balance has nothing to do with results.

In my Research Methods course, we discuss the best sources and how to eliminate the false ones, how to validate the authority of the source, and how to ensure a phony source isn’t presenting itself as an authority. This is a challenge in a world where verification before publication is nearly non-existent. Then we discuss the significance of knowing how to do this. On a practical level, I tell them it’s so when they’re looking for the right company for which to work, or the best investment for their income, or the best advice on health and medical issues, they know they’re not being misguided by incomplete information from unqualified sources.

But on a more immediate level, it also helps when listening to pundits pontificate about what’s best for our country, our families, and our children. I don’t want advice from my neighbor who “also had that condition” on what medicines to give a family member. I prefer a, you know, what do you call it? Oh right, a doctor.

And yet, honestly, most people are doing just that: taking advice from people who are more qualified to grow vegetables than they are to suggest who should run our country. These fools have thrown a damp blanket over true journalism, which insists upon validation of all sources. In essence, the most popular disc jockeys in the country, they call themselves commentators, are making everything up as they go.

So how do we understand the dangerous trend in recent years to dis an individual’s outstanding qualifications for something more appealing to the eye and ear, for someone who makes up facts to suit the listeners’ desires, which leads to higher ratings, which leads to twisting rationalization so far you have to go around your elbow to get to your ass? Get ‘em while they’re young; freshmen, high school juniors, middle-schoolers. Get them then and teach them the difference between a fact and an opinion, between an opinion and a belief, between a belief and a prejudice.

Well, the fact is facts never used to be so pliable; truth came after excruciating research and triple-checked sources. Informed individuals stood down when that research showed them wrong. Trust was a given.

This much is reality: the criteria used by many people in this country to choose a president would not get them a passing grade on a research paper in my freshman composition course. Misinformation is childish. Incomplete information is embarrassing.

And inexperienced, uneducated, unqualified commentators are not journalists, they’re not advisers and they’re not looking out for our best interests. They’re simply dangerous.

“Hey, let’s ask the guy playing with his leaves who should be president”

I Dream of Rivers


At the very least there are those moments in the morning I make it to the water and watch the sun surface out on the horizon. It is a moment of extraordinary optimism, when the terrors of just a few hours earlier slip away, and I have no worries about what’s next, no concern of financial obligations and diligence to my work. The hauntingly disturbing barrage of news–issues with the government and election, the temperatures in Antarctica, the fires, the floods, the shootings, the viruses–can be shut away, even if briefly. The point is, out there, for those moments, I control the intake; I regulate the volume.

But it doesn’t last long.

The sunrise is no hypocrite, I can promise you that. It may deceive us at times, but it is there without fail, even if behind clouds. This is obvious and I might be in danger of dipping into something conspicuously trite if it wasn’t for a new thought: it is only when I am alone in nature that I can truly, and without subjectivity, face myself. In town, in the city, I am a myriad personas: The professor who is not nearly smart enough for that life. The writer who doesn’t ever have the confidence things are going well no matter the success. The father who will always wonder a million thoughts about parenthood, as all parents do. The contradictions flow like the tide, sometimes filling me with such depression, other times leaving me saturated with hope. Life isn’t always extremes, of course, but it can feel that way at three am, and I can only find balance at dawn, when I make it to the water and watch the sun surface out on the horizon and stand for a moment bathed in that sense of hope.

This morning, the glass-like bay worked as a mirror held by a child for me to face myself and challenge my seemingly quixotic existence. And I saw such sad hypocrisy:

–I want to be healthier and have been trained in proper nutrition, but I don’t eat well

–I want to be in better shape and know what needs to be done and how to do it, but I don’t do it

–I have three writing projects that need to be completed by yesterday and I know where I want the narratives to go, but I don’t work on them because I’m terrified they’ll resist

Am I the only one like this? Probably not, but it feels that way at 3 am.

But it doesn’t feel that way at dawn. So I keep going back every morning for my booster shot. This morning, the clouds and sun took turns until the sun won out, and the rays on the bay took my depression from me and cleansed it, handed it back to me and said, “Keep coming back and I’ll clean it off again.”

But this isn’t about personification or faith or depression. It’s about nature at dawn, it’s absolute adherence to something naked and pure, unblemished. Why wouldn’t everyone want to be out there instead of listening to the same filth flowing from the news? You know, I think that depresses me even more; the conspired desire to feed that unhealthy flow.

While the calm, cool face of the river might have at one time asked Langston Hughes for a kiss in his persona’s “Suicide Note,” it does the opposite for me; it says, “You are the one who stood on edge of the Great South Bay and dreamed of Russia. You are the one who swam the Allegheny River and dreamed of Africa. You are the one who stood on the Rappahannock and dreamed of Spain.” And here I stand on the Chesapeake at dawn, as the thin slice of today reveals itself between the pages of last night and this morning, and I can tune out all which troubles me and the world and focus on something larger, something with more promise. And my soul feels settled again, and I know it has grown deep like the rivers.

Somehow I have found something essential in an otherwise troubled and challenging time: peace. And all I really need is to look for it. Every. Single. Day.


20 Percent


Today I woke with an increased level of stress and not just a little downturn on my emotional swing. On my way somewhere else, I stopped at the bay and tried to let it all just dilute into the morning breeze, burn off with the rising sun; but the internal grip wouldn’t let go. We’ve all felt this way. The sun had just surfaced and spilled some red-like/orange hue across the waves all the way to the break. Watermen in their deadrises had dropped anchor hours earlier, and a light-blue mist right then began to burn off. Beautiful, yes, but apparently not stunning enough to snap me out of whatever mood I was packing this morning.

So I turned on the radio, and on cue, right then, Marley’s “Redemption Song” came on, took a hold of all that had been bothering me, and cast them off. Gone

For an artist, the work of art is most beautiful before it is created; when it remains an inspirational spark, still predominantly driven by emotion, before the intolerable pace of creation starts. A work of art is, with a bow to triteness, the pit in the stomach, the lump in the throat. It’s the need to hold back tears at the way the sun clips the tops of trees just before dusk; the way someone does something kind for a complete stranger; the way someone you love sends a note at just the right moment reminding you of who you really are. An artist stands and absorbs these events to the point of saturation, then and only then will they return to a blank page or a canvas or a guitar and try to squeeze out every drop to share it with someone else, anyone else. But it’s never right. “You should have seen how beautiful it was before I started working on it,” they might say. For an artist, the measure between experience and creation is the ultimate example of, “You had to be there.”

Like this morning. More than the sight were the sounds. Some gulls off to the south feeding on something passing by, one-foot waves breaking on the beach, “Redemption Song” filling the spaces from behind me, the low hum of a diesel engine out on the water.

John Denver once said, upon being told “Annie’s Song” was the most beautiful song he had written, “You should have been on the ski lift with me when I wrote it; all my senses were alive and full!” Exactly. That’s the problem. We almost always leave eighty percent of those senses at the top of the mountain.

One thing most art forms have in common is their absolute focus on just one of the senses. For a writer, it is sight (or hearing if the work is read aloud). For a painter, sight; a musician, hearing; a chef, taste (though they’ll insist sight as well since “presentation” is part of the plan). We have five senses all working at once on the front-end, experience part of the work, before we attempt to translate that experience into a medium. This morning just before dawn I stood with the misty taste of salt on my lips and the coolness of the morning on my skin. Some of the sand worked into my shoes and the wet grains so familiar to me slid beneath my heel. I took off my shoes, climbed the slippery rocks and let the water work under my feet. I can still taste the salt, the slight hint of something like shellfish. I can describe the physical sensation, of course; anyone can. But imagine reading about it if you’ve never been to the beach. It reads like quite the annoying experience. It is a task to funnel experience into words which will be the solo gateway into someone else’s eyes and imagination. Thank God for imagination. Even now, my memory allows me to still see and feel and hear what happened, but the reader remains, and shall remain, only in the visual world. Words alone. 

We experience the pre-creation part of the work at one hundred percent of our senses, but we must communicate that work almost always at just twenty percent. It helps if the one we share it with has been to the bay, has ridden the ski lift on a crisp, sunny Colorado afternoon, but that more or less limits the audience. How can I translate the aroma of the sea to someone who has never been? I can smell some gas from the boats nearby, but more so the fresh catch of crabs and recently-dredged oysters in traps and baskets on the decks, and at low tide the gentle smell of brackish fresh and salt water in puddles in the mud of low-tide. The burden of experience is on the artist, then, to keep adding and subtracting until the work comes as close as possible to its point of origin. Point of fact: It never really gets there.

But some come close. For me:

Robert Frost’s “Birches.” Aaron Copeland’s “Appalachian Spring.” Van Gogh’s “Café Terrace at Night.” Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List. Mary Oliver’s “Wild Geese.”

Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song.”

As for emotion, I can write about death pretty well. It is a very visceral topic, and it is nearly impossible for a reader to not feel it with all the senses, but I always feel like that’s cheating, tapping into baggage the reader brought to the work. Some writers will argue that’s exactly what we should be doing. Okay, and there is certainly value in that definition of art which includes the ability to point at something that was already hanging in the air and entice others to take another look from a new perspective. Art has always done that; highlighted the values and breakdowns of society. It is all about perspective. Common ground always benefits the artist and makes the enjoyment better for those paying attention. It is why the modernists had so much trouble being accepted. That must have depressed the hell out of them. Maybe I’m a modernist. 

Every time I return to the senses I feel like I’ve hopelessly failed, and the mood drops and even Marley at just the right moment can’t help. It passes, of course, but perhaps that’s why I find myself more with the desire to live the art—wander through a forest or along the beach; stand waist deep in the water, looking for manatees, hoping for time to slow the whole thing down; sit on rocks on the coast of Connemara, drinking wine; climb to the top of a haunted lighthouse at midnight—more of a desire to be part of the art rather than attempt in any way to reproduce it for others.

In the end my strongest desire is always to say, “Come with me. See for yourself. Meet me at the rocks just before dawn. Come see for yourself a work of art none of us can ever reproduce.”