About Face

While cleaning out my files I found the following article which incredibly ran ten years ago this week. The journal which ran it is not longer alive, but I enjoyed revisiting where life on Facebook was at for us all ten years ago. 

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About Face

This is creepy.

My cousin drank a latte while his daughter sipped hot chocolate after handing out Gatorade at a marathon. Meanwhile, Nicole notes it’s still raining in New England, but she is glad to be over the suffering of earthquakes and mud-slides in Panama. Luckily, she has support of several friends, having heard from seven within two hours to tell her she’ll be fine and offer whatever help they can provide. Brian read Ashley’s son Luke fifteen books on Friday; Luke turns two in a few days. Last week, my brother was stuck in Calgary waiting for a plane while his daughter in Denver had just run for fifty minutes. Mike worked late Tuesday but passed the time by reading a book about Organizational Behavior for a class. Judy, though forty years old, got carded at the liquor store Saturday. Christa’s mom is throwing her a graduation party this May in Michigan, Jose went shopping Saturday, and Dave’s legs are still sore from the turkey trot in Tampa. Tom wrote a poem about zombies. Jude vacationed until a few days ago and is dreading going back to work while her friend Jose deals with jetlag in Trinidad. Jerry feels stuck in a rut and is ready to move on.

I don’t know these people. I have never met most of them. I have no clue who Brian is, and while I know Ashley, I’ve not seen her in a decade; I just learned she had a son. I met Judy once, which was enough to tell me she probably should get carded more often, but Paul, my own cousin, I’ve not seen since I’m eight years old, but I can tell you he has a cold and was up late last night figuring out a new Microsoft program he wanted fixed so he can take off at lunch today to pick up some presents.
Welcome to my world. All of you. Come on in.

This Facebook phenomenon has everyone talking to each other, learning about the most intimate moments of each other’s days, reaching past the pat on someone’s back and into their friend’s lives. Conversations continue between people who’ve never met. The concept of “mutual friend” has evaporated. We all know each other. We’re just one big happy village, aren’t we?

Let’s face it, the fences have collapsed. The curtains are open, the lights are on, and the cameras are rolling. I’m watching Larry’s kids age, TJ’s friends fall in love with him, and the drunken stupor that was Nicole in Panama. I am on the receiving end of way too much information, and I’ll be the first to admit guilt to tuning in to begin with. It’s addicting, like gossip. It goes a long way in creating the illusion I know a lot of people and am involved in many lives. It helps me believe people care. It is the ultimate tool for gaining attention. Even if no one wants to know, I can tell my friends and their friends that I went to bed early last night, that I had a great bowl of spaghetti, or that I had a decent bowel movement. It’s all there in front of their faces while they sit on their collective asses really doing nothing at all.

Tom sits three feet from me in a small office; has for nearly twenty years. We’ve seen each other’s kids grow up, heard the terrors of each other’s personal lives long before our boss put computers on our desks. But recently I discovered he doesn’t like Bing Crosby, which in and of itself is understandable, but what I didn’t need to know is that his friend Amy lived in California when she was young and her mother was a telephone operator to put her dad through flight school. Turns out the crooner would call his wife collect and when the operator would say “who is calling please,” the famous couple would simply blurt out the message for the other to hear so they didn’t have to pay for the call. Amy makes it clear it is only hearsay, but what caught my attention is that his friend Anne went to school with a girl who was friends with Bing’s daughter Mary Frances, the one that starred in Dallas. By the end of the day I learned that his friend Lori wished she could invent a time machine to go back and stop Bing from recording Mele Kalikimaka. She does, however, like Bing Cherries.

This isn’t new. The archaic version of facebook was a small magazine handed out to freshmen arriving at college for the first time. This booklet of names, faces, hometowns and campus locations of peers gives its name to the cellblock that has become our online lives. The paper format helped us seek out familiar people or remember the names of new friends. It is how I knew who my roommate was before I met him. I remember seeing him in a hallway in another dorm and said, “Steve!” He turned and I introduced myself. He recognized me as well and we laughed at how we were able to do so. All I knew about him was his face and that he was from outside Syracuse. Now, there are people in Pittsburgh who know who my friends are, what I’ve been eating, who I’ve been talking to, what I test drove, when I missed work and where I’m going this weekend. A friend of my friend John spent the summer in Amsterdam where he met a young woman who is a painter from southern France who used to live in California. I’ve not seen John in three years—the others are foreign to me.

It’s all innocent fun, though, right? We mess around online with friends, connect with relatives, and update everyone about our lives, our families, and our careers.
Status update: Bob needs to lighten up.

Really? I know where people were born and the maiden names of some of their mothers. I’m not even that computer savvy and I’m already halfway to ripping off someone’s identity. The info section sways toward invasive. There is everyone’s date of birth, hometown, political and religious views. With the information listed under favorite movies, music, television shows and activities, surely I can crack a few password secret questions. I even have access to educational background and employment history. Should I really know the names of everyone’s high school, elementary school, and grammar school? What use can I possibly have for the names of what hospitals they were born in or the names of the mid-wives who delivered them? Clearly, this information is optional, but it seems most have opted in.
The benign material is harmless: Sheri’s reading Beautiful Swimmers by William Warner; Juliet is in a Race to End Cancer and Taking Steps to End Family Violence. Holly wants to keep the Arts in Public Schools, and if Mike were an ‘80’s movie, he’d be Say Anything starring John Cusack. I am a fan of Hunter Thompson and David Sedaris; organic foods, vegetarian foods, and Seinfeld. Who could possibly need this information?

Well, advertisers, for one. Obviously, they know what we read and what movies we like. But take the right quizzes and you can also feed them how much we know about American history, geography, literature, and food. My political views enabled some entrepreneur to push an Obama pin on me in the advertising bar. They know to throw an ad about David Sedaris’ new book or Hunter Thompson t-shirts on my page; they post links to Trader Joes and other vegetarian or organic markets. They know. That phrase—they know–turns my blood cold. I became a fan of acoustic guitars and am now privy to the local musician gatherings, instrument stores, and best places to buy strings.

Bob is a sucker.

We all know other sites tried to do this. MySpace, for instance. But Facebook nailed it to a fault. A quarter million new users sign up each day. It is the sixth most trafficked site in the United States with more than sixty five billion page views per month. Billion. Soon our medical data might be linked in the info bar just after our visual bookshelf. This is crazy. When Mark Zuckerberg created this social network in 2004 at Harvard, thefacebook.com was designed solely to keep students in touch with each other. It spread throughout the Ivy League community and within a year more than eight hundred colleges and universities were onboard. The network grew to more than five million users and the name changed to just facebook, bouncing the site to number two in popularity behind MySpace. My God, MySpace might be more popular, but facebook is ingenious, really. It’s a marketer’s goldmine with target audiences showing them exactly what they are willing to buy. And along with ads of products I probably want to purchase anyway, I learned Karen is back from Germany, Paul is headed to Vancouver, Jerry posted his new phone number, Anne misses her daughters who left for college, and Tim listens to Rufus Wainwright. Okay, so? Facebook is one of those clear plastic purses some women have wherein we can see everything from cash to tampons.

We now keep track of everything that happens and post it to the world. Wait—we’ve always done that: in ancient times we painted on cave walls, after that we told tales of our lives through music and other oral traditions; we learned of religion and philosophy through commissions from the Vatican and aristocrats, and the historical works of Herodotus slapped it together like a primitive dotcom. Think of the advantages of having this tool back then. The ages would be thick with information if we could trace the thoughts and motives of our predecessors:

Wolfgang had some bad pork last night.

Ludwig can’t hear a damn thing.

Socrates just sent a Boring Lecture to Plato.

Adolph just lied to Poland.

Noah became a fan of PETA.

Galileo saw some cool shit in the sky last night.

Immanuel thinks everyone is being unreasonable.

Orville is afraid of heights.

Sigmund misses his mom.

Vladimir just added The Communist Manifesto to his virtual reading list.

Christopher is geocaching for spices.

Closer to now, I’d like to know my ancestors hobbies, their reading habits, their friends. I’d have given anything to read notes by my great-grandparents on boats from Ireland and Germany. I wonder what organizations they might have joined, which groups they would have been a member of, how many times they might have clicked “become a fan.” I don’t even know what they looked like, let alone their favorite foods, fears, and fantasies. I don’t’ know where they were born, their political views, or their friends’ names. I’m sorry for that. And now it is virtually impossible to find out the minutia that made their lives unique. Four brothers crossed the Atlantic in 1854. No records of that anywhere tell me why, what dangers they overcame, or if there were five brothers at the start. Fifty years later my grandfather crashes into the family and I’ve really no idea what his hobbies were, though the pictures scattered about show him to smile often, and I hear he was quite laid back and a successful businessman, though this is all hearsay. His youngest son born a quarter of a century later lets me know stories from his childhood, revealing splinters of my background, my roots and histories. But really, I would love information about my father and his father like the information strangers know about me simply by scanning a screen.

Fred just had a new boy. Ugly little mofo.

I might run into someone after no “real life” contact for a few weeks and there’s really nothing new; we’re already in mid-conversation. What is it with our absolute need to let everyone know what we’re doing? If I don’t have anything to say, does that mean my day sucked? Am I boring? Or are we all just desperate for attention? Everyone and everything wants to be noticed. How we dress, how we keep our hair, our fashion, our car stereos, all indicate our need for recognition. Some of us even change the photo every few days just to amuse ourselves—and others.

For a while my picture was one of Rasputin. A cousin I’d not seen in decades thought it was me and commented on my long hair and beard. Well, sometimes that picture is closer to the truth of who I am than the crisp shots of my real face bookmarked somewhere by people I’ll never meet. Eventually, they might pass me in a hall and say, “Hey, I know you!”

No. They don’t. Nor do I know them. This is the Great Facebook Deception. One person on my page has friends that seem to patronize her to no end while two of us enjoy the casual banter of sarcasm on her site. It’s difficult to tell whether she is laughing at our friendly attacks or if she’s really ready to explode and we’re actually standing by with gasoline and a Zippo.

I felt bad when a comment seemed flippant instead of fun. I felt empty when another seemed trite. A few weeks ago I enjoyed a day raking leaves; I savored the cold air and the smell of autumn. But my status update made it seem like I had streaked absentmindedly into a snow bank.

I wonder what my last status update will be when the time comes for me to commit facebook suicide. I have to avoid the trite “Bob is outta here” or “Bob is signing off.” Equally predictable would be “Bob wishes everyone farewell” or “Bob’s really enjoyed this.” Something more appropriate might read, “Bob thinks this really sucked. What a waste of time” or “Bob isn’t.”

“Bob wants his life back.”

“Bob misses sitting around talking, shaking hands.”

“Bob has six hundred and eighty seven friends and has never been lonelier.”

“Bob is looking for Jack Kevorkian’s phone number.”

Facebook can’t communicate how it felt for Paul to make it to his daughter’s first communion; an update will never accurately establish for friends the fear and exhilaration of two partners, flesh and bone, in Bocas Del Toro during an earthquake. Nowhere online can words appropriately catch the sense of love felt by the mother of a two year old boy; the security of his arms around her neck can’t be translated by a word program. The feel of the flames of an open fire late at night in a small village where friends share stories of the day, of the harvest, of the distance across the desert, will never be understood through technology. In fact, it is technology’s very absence that tests the steel of relationships. With it, we have no time to miss each other or find out what has been happening since we saw each other last. Our information precedes us. Those are the times we live in today; it is virtually non-stop. Today, to retreat from the world and our friends we no longer need to wander into the woods like Thoreau; we can separate ourselves from civilization simply by switching sites, or, if we feel nervy enough, by turning off the computer.

I went four days without updating my status recently and three people wrote to find out if I was okay. No one called, of course, and certainly no one stopped by. I didn’t go on vacation or sail off across the bay. I just didn’t check my facebook page and they noticed. On the one hand it is nice to be missed, but that is the trap. We’ve created this illusion that we’re in touch with each other because this skylight lets everyone observe our lives. But who we really are remains allusive online. There are roughly two hundred such sites ranging in scope from a few dozen users to more than two hundred million. Some are business oriented, some collegiate, some adult, most social. They all reveal something about each of us, but none have yet discovered how to reveal our silence, its nuances and counterpoints. I disappear for three days and the speculation starts. In the primitive days of yore, we sat near a fire, shared some tea and listened to the expansive range of life. Each of us had a say; each of us listened. We survived on the casual updates of sporadic conversation; kind of like instant messaging, only slower and with the possible occasional facial expression or touch of a hand. We really did laugh out loud. We really could sit together without saying anything.

John Cage composed 4’33”. This brilliant work is absolute silence for the duration of that time span. What separates this from sitting around and saying nothing for four and a half minutes is his insistence on focusing; his assertion that we all spend those particular four minutes and thirty three seconds listening, really listening, to nothing at all. Our minds can’t wander because we’re focusing. When we pay attention to the soft sighs and the twitch of a muscle, we read moods and discover personalities. We can tell if she likes us, if he means what he says. We can reach deeper into the lives and histories of another person through silent observation than we can through a catalogue of status updates.

“Bob just read the worst paper of his career.”

“Tom just read a plagiarized paper.”

“Sheri is making pecan pie.”

“Paul has to pee.”

Some realize the futility of all of this and commit facebook suicide. There are hundreds of groups doing just that. They recognize the drawbacks to this invasive tool, most notably, how it sucks the life out of you. Worse, how it creates illusions. Carolyn Axtell, a senior researcher at the Institute of Work Psychology, recognizes that online sites like this don’t allow the subtleties of voice tone or body language. Phillip Hodson, a fellow at the British Association for Counseling and Psychotherapy, calls attention to the real drawbacks to facebook: this online profile allows people to build their own identity, make them feel important and involved and accepted. But it leads to significant disappointment which can be borderline dangerous when they realize “just how insignificant their online existence really is.” It’s quite a blow to the ego to find out you actually only really know about three of your eighty seven friends.

My site recently read “Bob is now friends with Mike.” I’ve known Mike since I’m fifteen years old. How presumptuous is that? Facebook subtly says to us all, “Your friendship has now started.”
Recently six people asked to be my friend. I don’t know them, though I guess somewhere along the line I’ve met them through someone I met once, maybe. We should be trying that in reality. We should be walking in the mall and be able to see someone who seems friendly and walk up and say, “Can I be your friend?”

“Will you play with me?”

I received a friend request from someone I don’t know and pushed “ignore.” I felt guilty. What if our online personalities got along? So why did I ignore him? It felt a lot like having a great conversation with a group of my real friends when some stranger stopped, listened and made comments.

“Bob yelled at a stranger in the mall today.”

But what if I’m all he’s got. What if in life, making friends is damn near impossible for him for whatever reason. How can it hurt to comment on his status updates; let him in on some good groups and fan sites? Maybe it’s all he needs to keep from going postal. Or maybe it’s the straw that’ll send this psycho-crazed freak into some college student’s online dorm room! We’re driving around town screaming about our lives with the windows down, for God’s sake. What difference does it make if I’m revealing nothing or a lot; those who know me understand.

And those who don’t?

The problem is online we wear the mask. It’s the first impression, the resume. It’s the brilliantly written cover letter of a moronic applicant. But it’s information. And we just need as much information as possible. Why? Because how we define “information” has changed. Today, it is anything and everything that is fed to us from whatever or whoever we read or see. Everyone’s got something to say, everyone’s an expert, and ironically, no one is listening. Facebook isn’t the cause of anything; it is a symptom of some chronic disease that demands we all must have our fifteen status updates of fame, and by God we’ll simply create it ourselves.

I’ve always like Snoopy, Gary Larson, Car Talk, Seinfeld, and Ladysmith Black Mambazo. What happened that I suddenly felt a need to pass along this information to my friends and their friends?

Bob is a fan of Gary Larson.

Tom is a fan of Hunter Thompson.

George is a fan of Dick Cheney.

Adam is a fan of apples.

Let’s start over. For thousands of years information passed solely through a tribal leader or elder. This person’s death usually meant the silence of volumes of history, tales, and fables. Those that survived cast forward like a child’s game of telephone where the message was often altered or even completely changed through time and distance. One long surviving chant is “mbube,” which means “lion.” This was commonly called to communicate the dangers in the forest or near the river where people washed clothes and bathed. Over the course of millennia, the call let people know when the lion was wandering or asleep, hence the South African chant “wimoweh,” made famous in the song, “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.” It’s ironic how originally communication was designed to bring attention to local dangers and prospects; today we’re calling attention to ourselves. Today we no longer gather at the well. No, now we’re all tribal leaders calling out to our village hoping people spend as much time listening as they are updating their own status.

“Bob wants to give a big shout out to all his friends in New York.”

But we’ve buried vocal nuances along with facial expressions beneath the blended ages of decades that, because of the immediacy of this medium, seem to make fresh the faces of our youth. But sometimes there are good reasons to leave people behind, to retreat into solitude where we can only understand the infinity of time by leaving behind the finality of now.

Do we really need to know what happened, what is happening and what is about to happen to dozens of people we hardly ever see, and in turn keep them updated. When are we doing anything to update about? Who the hell have we become that anyone really cares?

Really, it’s about time. I’ve connected with family and friends of course, but also friends I knew when I was a child during a different lifetime in a different world. I’ve found high school friends and college roommates. People I didn’t know too well back then I know too much about now and it turns out we have a lot in common. This is good. I communicate with college friends I knew two decades ago about colleagues I know now and relatives I’ve never met and it seems they should all somehow know each other. After awhile I forget who I knew when and which ones do or don’t know which others.
“Bob needs to rake leaves.” is followed by a comment from a colleague, which is followed by another comment from a high school friend, which is followed by another comment and on it goes, and these “friends” of mine meet each other from different states, different eras of my history, from different mindsets of the people I was to become who I am. Eventually, if I think too much about it, I’ll end up running naked into a snow bank.

Time is out of joint and the hobbies of strangers become good ideas while the habits of relatives explain why we haven’t kept in touch. Old friends I thought had fallen off the planet were simply hard to find. Here they are, right here, along with updates on their health, sleep patterns, food preferences, political affiliations, and the names of their friends. In fact, I have more virtual friends than I do real ones. And God knows I now know most of what they know. I thought I was going to reconnect with old friends when all I really have is their information. That’s all. The rest is silence.

Ed is enjoying his sole day off today.

Anna doesn’t like bluegrass.

My brother has not updated his status today. I hope he’s okay. He’s awfully quiet.

And I have no idea how my niece in Denver is doing. Her last post reads, “I am too busy living my life to update you about it on Facebook.”

 

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Generation C

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I’m a baby boomer; just made it. I showed up on the narrows in Brooklyn at the tail end of my generation, and since I have older siblings, I was heavily influenced by the ideals of that group. Had I been the oldest born, I’d still be a baby boomer but tend to lean toward what’s next, Generation X. I’m lucky I wasn’t one of them; I don’t like disco.

The Greatest Generation is that of my father’s generation, though not my mother’s; more on that shortly. The GG has its roots in the extremes of the great surplus of the roaring twenties, emerging from the dark cloud of the Lost Generation—those who survived the first war to be fought worldwide, with trench warfare, with gas, with aerial, faceless bombings, with millions dead, without a doubt a generation whose ideals and plans weren’t just compromised, they were shredded—and went on to survive the depression, lost everything, witnessed the attacks on Pearl Harbor and said “Sign me up,” then witnessed the horrors of Hitler and said, “Send me over.” They were great.

The Baby Boomers were born, obviously, after their father’s came home from war, received GI bills, mortgages, built houses in the first suburbs ever, had expendable income, saw the birth of television, the rocket age, and rock and roll. These children of heroes of World War Two were spoiled just enough by their parents who took advantage of that economic boon of the post-war years, to complain when things didn’t go their way, like equality, the draft, and ecological issues. Complain they did. Some called it protesting. Some called it revolution. Whatever, they were not silent, my elder baby boomers.  

I grabbed the tail of that one. I remember the first earth day, the Beatles when they were still together, Armstrong on the moon, the Kent State shootings, and hippies on Park Avenue in Massapequa on the Island. I was a child, but I was also the youngest child, so I was aware of things through a sister and brother six and four years older than me.

Back to Mom. My mother is eight years younger than my father. So while he was a member of the GG, old enough to fight in World War Two, my mother turned twelve a week after VE Day. She grew up with a different mindset; plus she is the oldest of her siblings, and that would place her squarely at the beginning of next instead of the end of before. But she was too old to be part of the late-fifties, early sixties revolution when the massive population of teenagers with their daddy’s extra money had extra time. She was married with two kids by then, one on the way.

Hers is the Silent Generation. They kept their nose to the grindstone, they avoided labels of “Reds” or “Commies.” Their older siblings and parents fought in the war against the very real and very visible Nazi regime; then they themselves fought on the job against the very opaque and very indeterminant Red Monster. Instead of being part of a movement, stuck between the group who proudly went to war to save the world and the group who proudly protested the war to save their souls, the Silent Generation were part of world events mostly vicariously. Oh, they busted their butt at home and on the job, and many were a major part of both fronts, but they remain ill-defined. I know this because most people have never even heard of “the Silent Generation.”

Twenty years ago this month I met two men. One was a hero of the Greatest Generation, the other a not so silent member of the Silent Generation. Jan was in his late teens when the Nazi’s invaded his beloved Prague. By the time he left his city, his mother had been tortured for three days at the small fortress near Terezine Ghetto, his father and stepmother had killed themselves, two adopted young children living with his father had been killed by the Nazis, and he escaped to Slovakia. He then rode on the undercarriage of a train from there all the way to Italy, eighteen hours. He was arrested and put in a prison camp. When someone asked what he was thinking he told them he was trying to escape to England to join the Royal Air Force to bomb the fascist bastards. They tortured him and threw him in prison. He escaped, went to England, joined the Royal Air Force, and flew many missions into Italy to bomb the fascist bastards. After the war he became part of the translation team at the Nuremberg Trials. He spent from then until the time I knew him complaining things weren’t how they used to be.  

Arnost was only a young teen when he and his family were thrown into the Terezine Ghetto for Jews. He was “technically” part of the GG, but he was born right on the edge. By the time the war was over, his father, mother, and sister had all been killed at Auschwitz, he had escaped from Dachau and in the subsequent years right through the nineties wrote more than a dozen bestsellers about being in Terezine, being in Dachau, and being in love in the time of war. He was a romantic, to be sure. An idealist. And he was anything but silent. He and Jan were very disagreeable friends.

Closer to my father’s age than my mother’s, my friend Arnost reminded me of what I would be like at that time at that age; born just in time to be part of that generation but not early enough to participate, wrapping experiences with ideals and creating stories about experience, seeking out the down and dirty pubs in the lesser parts of the city.

And so look at us now, all of us, the whole world is at war, World War Three, and we are all of us on lock down, wearing masks, keeping our distance, never knowing from where the enemy will strike—the surface of a to-go box? A door handle at the store? A gas pump? The edges of the mask itself made by someone else and mailed to you? Some of us are Arnost-like, believing we will emerge from this better and with love; others are Jan like, wishing merely to retaliate and remain pissed at the lost time. Either way, this might be the first war we are all fighting—all age groups, all generations; which is why, I suppose, that children born now, and probably for a few years, will be known as Generation C, for several reasons. It means “connected consumers” and isn’t really bound by age, though they tend to fall into the post-millennial gaggle. But it now may tend to mean Generation Covid, the socially-distanced ones, the masked ones, the hidden behind walls and barriers ones.

The Silent Ones.

Honestly, I like Boomer better. It’s not the Greatest, but it’s close.

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May 23rd, 1925

Joan Collins. Drew Carey. Rosemary Clooney. Douglas Fairbanks. Artie Shaw. And of course Nicole Jaffey, the voice of Velma on Scooby Doo.

All shared a birthday with my dad. On the 23rd,  he would have been ninety-five-years old.

King Philip the First of France and hypnotist Friedrich Mesmer. In fact, when I look at the list of people who shared Dad’s birthday, I really am mesmerized.

Franz Kline. Scatman Crothers. John Newcombe, who I once played tennis with on the courts at Timber Point on Long Island when he was out there practicing for the US Open and I was banging a few balls against a backdrop. We rallied for thirty minutes before he left. When I got home and told my Dad he seemed more excited than I was.

It is the 143rd day of the year, making Dad a Gemini, and it is World Turtle Day, of course. It is also National Taffy Day as well as World Colitis Day, causing most of the country to spend the day screwing up the lyrics to “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.” And Dad’s “Birth Flower” is Lily of the Valley, which represents “humility”; perfect for such a humble man.

Those who died on the day of dad’s birth (though not the year) include John D Rockefeller, Kit Carson and Clyde Barrow; oddly, Bonnie is not listed, though I know she shared the barrage of bullets that May 23rd.

On May 23rd Joan of Arc was captured and sold, the Netherlands declared its independence from Spain, and Captain Kidd was hanged. Ben Franklin invented the bifocals and the New York Public Library was dedicated by Taft in 1911. On Dad’s 40th birthday, “Help me Rhonda” hit number one, and on his 54th birthday “We are Family” was certified platinum. On some May 23rd or another, the first Preakness was won, Joe DiMaggio hit three home runs, and Colin Wilson rode a surfboard 294 miles. Virginia succeeded from the Union on this day just two years to the day before Stonewall Jackson took Front Royal. On May 23rd in 1883 there was the first—and only—baseball game between one armed and one legged players, and William Love broke ground on his famous canal near Lockport, New York.

Three years to the day before Dad’s birth, Walt Disney incorporated his first motion picture company, “Laugh-O-Gram Films.” And just after Dad’s 50th birthday he and I walked through Walt Disney’s park in Anaheim and felt ill at a theater-in-the-round which made flying in a jet through Niagara Falls seem real. We held the bar in front of the row where we stood, but we still wobbled out with a loss of appetite. That was a great day. And about ten years earlier he brought me to Jolly Rogers, a small amusement park in Commack, Long Island, and we enjoyed ourselves even though I was too short for some of the rides.

On his sixtieth birthday we had a surprise party in the Virginia Beach home where my siblings and I all flew in to celebrate. He thought I was going whale-watching that weekend with friends in New England where I lived and when he saw me he almost seemed disappointed: He loved—absolutely loved—the idea I was going whale watching. A few years later he and I did just that off the Virginia coast and watched a humpback breach the water. That was a great day.

On Dad’s 90th we all went to Ruth’s Chris and Dad was in his glory with his favorite soup and steak. I had scallops and my son had a lot of alcohol not realizing the “Ruth’s Chris Coffee” wasn’t so much “coffee” as it was alcohol and he really enjoyed himself—wired and drunk.

One thing is certain, we always—always—found time to enjoy the passing of time, with family, by ourselves, whenever we could. He made certain of that. I don’t need Google searches to discover significant events. My entire life is laced with significant events. Growing up it was golf with Dad and my brother at Timber Point, baseball games, and the five of us at quiet, low-lit restaurants where he warned us not to fill in on bread and crackers. In my teens I wanted to use his car so I’d drop him off at a local shopping center for him to catch a ride with a co-worker, but not before we stopped each time at Dunkin’ Donuts where he would buy me juice and a donut while he had coffee.

After Dad retired but before Mom did, he and I went out to lunch about once a week—just him and me—trying different places. I’d walk back to my office from class and he’d be outside my door asking if I was ready. I was always ready, and we’d head to some local pub.

When my son was young we’d “run into him” at the mall and he and Michael would walk ahead, discovering stores and treats, and years later I’d stop at a different shopping center where Dad liked to stretch his legs, and I walked with him, and we sat and talked. During those later years every Tuesday we had Scotch at night, and once every three weeks or so my son and I would drive down and the three of us would go out to lunch, usually at the beach and usually he had oysters and beer, but it never seemed “usual.” Sometimes my brother joined us when he was in town and then we all laughed all afternoon.

My calendar is covered with significant dates.

Like the time Dad dropped me off at college and the entire drive up we talked about family in Brooklyn when he was growing up. That was a great day. Or when I used to travel throughout the country, especially out west in Arizona, and I could call him for free at his 800 number, and he always loved to hear what I was doing and where I was headed. I don’t remember him once saying he didn’t have time to talk. Not once, though I didn’t realize it then.

Mom and Dad would come to my house and we’d sit on the porch and talk for hours. One of those time he said he had read my first book, Out of Nowhere, and added with his sharp sense of humor that he didn’t get past page 46, so I read the page and found the line “years before my own aging father was born.” We all laughed hard. We would always share books by John Grisham and talk about them, or at some point I discovered one of the last things he ever read, maybe the very last thing other than a newspaper he ever read, was my essay, “Instructions for Walking with an Old Man at the Mall,” and he said he liked it very much and that he had read it several times. We had Scotch that night. Later when I was alone it was difficult to control my emotions but I swear to you I can’t really pinpoint why.

Most of our lives were times of deep love and quiet celebration.

When my sister told him she was cancer free.

When he and my brother watched Notre Dame beat USC.

Or that last lucid conversation he and I had, that Thursday morning.

You can’t put the most important dates on a timeline; they exist in soft breezes on cool mornings on the back porch, or hazy evenings over Chivas Regal; they lie between holidays and celebrations when having a beer and a sandwich after a round of golf with Dad, my brother and my son. The important moments mark themselves in visuals of him watching golf on television, his hands folded before him, his gentle “tsk tsk” when someone missed an easy putt.

Dad carving the turkey. Dad barbequing link sausages or steaks. Dad reading the newspaper on weekend mornings. He was old school; he was part of the “greatest generation.” He was the greatest.

Happy Birthday Dad. You made every day significant.

Frederick William Kunzinger

May 23rd, 1925-October 21st, 2015

The Edge of Somewhere Else

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I think everyone has an element that completes some sort of organic cycle. For some it is fire, they need the heat, the rough texture, the friction. I need the water. I don’t know why; it is my truth. Maybe because of the pureness, the deep, cold distance across the river or the ocean, or the salty closeness of the marsh, hanging in the air like smoke and lingering in my senses like a photograph. Most likely it has something to do with movement; it rarely sits still, and I like not knowing where it is going or just how rough it is going to be, or how calm.

The wilderness has always been my reference point. When I’m near the water I have a better sense of who I am and can be at peace with what I have done. So much of my life should have been different. Some souls tell me, no, no, this is what it was supposed to be, it is fate, it is always fate, but I am not married to that idea. I’m more than well aware in retrospect of the contradictions between what should have happened and what occurred. It is a harsh truth we are all aware of at some point. For me, there are times it digs inside like an ulcer, like acid, but when I am near the wilderness, the ocean, a mountain lake or stream, nature seems to let me down easy, lets me know I’m not that far off track, and everything I thought I’d be I’m still becoming, and I find some slight hope in whatever remains.

The rest of the time, though, oh my, the rest of the time we fight battles; we fight battles by holding onto careers, keeping on top of finances, trying not to skip forward, trying hard to bounce back, quarreling too much; being silent, too much distance, feeling smothered. And there are times when I know I didn’t have the balls to be who I had hoped, and other times I can stand wherever I am and know whatever happened until now brought me to now, and now can be fine, it can be just fine. Getting lost in might-have-beens is getting easier, what with lockdowns and shut-ins, what with so many funerals, too many unanswered calls, wondering whatever happened to, whatever became of, I wonder if he ever, I wonder if she ever…all pointless pursuits, I know, yet they seep in, they saturate sometimes at three am, and you wake up soaked in a sweat.

But the water reminds me despite the scars on my face, not everyone is missing, and despite the hairline and grey streaks, not all of me is aging. I’m one of those who keeps forgetting I’m not nineteen wondering what I should do next, where I should go, how alive and exciting it will be when I get somewhere else. I’ve always been this way but it happens especially near water, near western lakes, near eastern rivers and northern sounds. Here along the bay the river runs in from the west and the water is brackish, and swirls of fresh and salty, clear and murky, create the perfect canvas, the better rough draft, the finer composition, and the spark of whatever creativity I have is both born here and returns here. It is a place to come home, always, but it is also a place that reminds me that I am on the edge of leaving; it is the coast of somewhere else, and the waves whisper the same thing they did when I was a child on the Great South Bay—follow through, for God’s sake, follow through; you already know why.

The water is rough today, a storm coming up from the south, a front moving in from the west. The laurel is in full bloom and the rain makes the trees dark green and the paths clear, and I wander from path to road to the sand and along the river toward the bay, and I swear I can keep going, chase the osprey south, call an old friend and say “Hey, let’s go. Yeah, now, why not.” Are you serious? someone might reply, and I’ll say, yes, of course. These days I have faith in a lot less people than I used to, but that’s okay. A few is all a person needs to keep some light burning at three am.

The wilderness is my polygraph, I can’t lie to myself when I’m heading toward a bend in the trail; I can’t pretend, I can’t deceive or mistake or excuse or rationalize. It is both a mirror and a window, and sometimes I stand and reflect, other times I laugh as water swirls about my thighs and I know I’m no different than the tides, and that only when I stop fighting the pull does the depression ebb, and the false hopes are tempered and the truths surface, because after all this time the water has taught me that nothing in life is really lost; the tide always turns if we wait. Age has nothing to do with it. Neither does security. It’s about honesty and chance.

Both apparent and plentiful in the wilderness, along the rivers. It’s crazy what I pick up when walking along the water. I have a friend who collects shells, beautiful, exquisite shells. I have another who collects sea glass; she has jars of all different colors. For years I walked the ocean and I’d see the same old man there walking with his metal detector collecting coins and bottle caps and key chains in the plowed sand before the tourists flood out of their rooms. He bends over with his small plastic shovel and picks up what he can, usually examining it and tossing it in a bag.

I pick up moments and turn them over; like the time I thought I’d head out west, or the moment I knew I’d fly to Europe. I lean down and pick up that bike ride to Coos Bay, the horseback ride in Ontario, the walk through Paris late one night, the talk with a stranger for hours early one morning in a dirty old cafe, and I turn them over in my hands, and lately I’ve gotten better at asking the right questions, better at knowing when not to give up, so I keep walking and pick up shards of suggestions, pieces of possibilities. Some of it I examine and toss back in the sand, but some of it I wash off to find out what it’s worth. I am reminded right away when out in a forest or along the ocean that there’s always something worth salvaging.

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May 15th, 1933

 

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Mom turns eighty-seven years old on Friday, May 15th.

I can write volumes about her life which is a true record of life in the twentieth century, or about her ethnicity which rewrote itself, or her uncanny ability to make friends with a two by four; I could write about how she’d become friends with the ladies in the bakery or the fish market or the produce section of Farm Fresh. One day I stopped by and Dad was all dressed waiting for Mom. I asked where they were going. “To a wedding,” he said. “Oh? Who’s getting married?” “The daughter of the lady who sells fish at the food store.” Of course.

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But before that, roughly fifty-five years ago:

I remember, or, better said, I can recall going to A&S’s with my mom, walking through skirts, pushing aside blouses a few racks away, my face near the metal pole waiting for her to call me out. I made her laugh, but, honestly, everyone could make her laugh; she is light, she is light as air and laughs like that too, aware of her deep breath when she’s calming down.

I remember her making Irish Soda Bread for Ethnic Food Day in second grade, and she said, “Wouldn’t you rather have German potato salad,” noting to my father how much easier it is to make. “Please Mom?” I pleaded. Of course. Yes, of course. She joked with me not long ago about that day and how if she knew then what she knows now I would have just brought a bowl of spaghetti with marinara sauce. Everyone loved the bread. 

Mom was always there. I remember in the East Islip Public Library asking the librarian a question and when she answered, I was looking down, and Mom said, “Always look in the eyes of someone talking to you.” I never didn’t again. I remember after that we went to Stanley’s Bakery for black and whites and hard rolls with butter. Non-New Yorker’s need to trust me on that one.

We went to the doctor when my lower back hurt shortly after joining the track team at Islip Terrace Junior High. Dr. Wagner said, “I’m afraid he has strained his sacroiliac,” and my mother sat quiet a second and then laughed and said, “Are you making that up? There’s something in him called a sacroiliac?” There is and I did so I dropped off the team and she bought me a tennis racket.

I remember Eddie Radtke and I hiked through Heckscher State Park and several times my foot slipped deep in the mud, and when I got home she was crouched on the floor talking to my aunt on the phone and she told her, “Irene I have to go” and hung up and asked what happened as if the mud were blood and my shoes the ousted teeth of some creature. Mom was never an outdoorsy person.

A trail ran through the woods across the street all the way along the Southern State Parkway down to a creek, and it was scary and deep when you’re eleven or twelve, but my friends and I would go there and hike and play out the roles of “Alias Smith and Jones.” The day Pete Duel died, one of the stars of the television show, I ran into the house to get my guns and Mom stopped me and said that would be in bad taste. That perhaps my friend’s and I should come there and have sandwiches and talk about our favorite episodes. We did. I remember that; I am still aware of that.

Can anyone truly grasp the lessons we learn from our mom’s who somehow manage to teach us things without doing anything more than practicing unconditional love? That’s it; that’s everything, the secret to parenting. Mom would yell oh my God, for the love of all things that are holy, she could yell if I did something stupid, which was not that unusual, and it took me years—years—to understand she was yelling at herself, not at me.

Then it got interesting.

My sister was at St Bonaventure, my brother at Notre Dame, Dad had moved to Virginia to buy the house we would eventually move to, but Mom and I stayed on the Island because it was a recession and it took more than a year to sell that house. It was just her and me, driving once a month to Virginia Beach, then back. Having fun dinners, family over a lot, and much more freedom for me as I’d explore the state park day after day, endlessly, at fourteen.

In the mornings I’d sit in the kitchen before school while she made breakfast, the radio playing a bank commercial I can still sing. “F. B. L. I. Leaves you more money for living…” and I’d walk to the bus stop with the rising sun. In the evening she’d make spaghetti, or we’d have eggs and fries, or we’d have subs from the deli out on River Road, and once a week I’d get to watch “All in the Family.”  

That last day there in the house which I consider to be where I grew up, she had to be at a lawyer’s office to close on the house, so I walked home from school on the last day of ninth grade with a friend down the street, Steve Delicati. My aunt would meet me in the driveway, and we’d head back to her house where Mom would pick me up and we’d drive the eight hours to Virginia Beach, June 18th, 1975, and it poured the whole drive.

High School.

Gap Year.

College.

Summer 1983 I decided to move to Tucson, and I packed the small, light blue Monza which used to be hers and which my parents had given me for graduation, and she stood at the door early one morning as I backed out of the driveway to head west. She waved once then closed the door. At the time I didn’t know why.

I could add more, of course. Yes, of course. Like how no matter what a conversation is about she can without missing a beat turn one of the lines into a song she remembered from her youth, and she’d sing it. Like the time my siblings and I locked her out on the roof of the house on the Island when she was washing windows, and by the time she was back inside we were all laughing. Or how our German Shepard was so terrified of her that when the dog was in my sister’s room one morning, all my mother did was whisper “Is the dog up here?” and that poor dog didn’t touch a step flying down the stairs and into the safety of the kitchen. Or how when it was time to give my dog Sandy away, a dog which won Mom’s heart, when she dropped him off at the new owner’s house, Sandy jumped up on Mom and put his paws on her shoulders and whined for her not to go, and Mom cried all the way home. I can recall several years’ worth of five thirty am talks in her condo kitchen while Dad was still sleeping, and I’d complain about problems at the college and she’d listen so well, and then she’d talk about Dad’s health and small signs she’d notice or which I had noticed the night before, and we’d compare notes. She loved him, oh my God she loved that man like a person who should be used as an example of love, for sixty-three years. And no matter how frustrated she got, that always rose to the surface, that love. And before I left for the office we’d always make sure we were laughing. Always. 

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45543138_1167797236755361_7357009606289129472_nShe loves light blue.

She loves music.

She has always worn a Miraculous Medal.

She had a life I can’t write about properly except to say she took on serious responsibility at a very young age, walked through some serious fires in her life, and always maintained a strength and intelligence and a sense of humor that set an example I can never match. She taught me how to be alive. 

But, with apologies to my beautiful mother, Joan Catherine, she has one blemish, one which scarred me for, well, I’m going to be sixty and I still remember it:

In 1974 or 75 I stayed up to watch The Poseidon Adventure on television and with just fifteen minutes left she yelled down for me to go to bed. I said, “Ma! Gene Hackman’s hanging from a pipe!!” “I don’t care it is getting late and you have school!” she called back, and so I went to bed and wouldn’t see Hackman fall into the fiery water for another fifteen years.  

Some people think their mom’s are just oh so perfect and easy to love and can tell stories about what amazing women they are and that’s fine, really, that’s fine, and I’ve tried, I really have, and she comes close, but, seriously, the Poseidon Adventure, Hackman, the freaking climax of the movie for God’s sake. Come on. There’s simply no forgiving that.

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Occupational Hazard

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I sat at the river earlier and thought about my father, about his life in the world of investment and Wall Street and downtown Manhattan; a life, I might add, I knew nothing about. Zero. I never asked him anything. It’s on my mind today because I’m working on a piece about Russia and occupations, and it occurs to me I’ve never asked anyone in Russia what he did for a living; and I do not recall anyone ever asking me, even when on the railroad thousands of miles from anywhere logical. If anyone was inquisitive, they certainly never let on. This was true as well when I taught in St. Petersburg in the nineties. Certainly at the college everyone knew, but at cafes or the market in brief conversation with people who back then wanted so desperately to try their English, no one tried the standard language-tape question, “What is your occupation?”

It is one of the first questions we ask strangers in America.

I know this: About ten percent of Russians work in agriculture and another twenty-seven percent in industry, and since there weren’t a lot of white-collar companions either on the railway or in Siberia, I’m guessing we were surrounded by mostly working-class people, even in second class. Siberia is very much a binary society. It is either city, like in Irkutsk or Vladivostok, with cafes and theaters and banks and festivals, or it is absolutely desolate, a random farmer’s shack or gutted gulag scattered through the wild landscape.

I talked to one man who had decent English when he wasn’t drinking and playing chess, and he struck me as a businessman, which would explain his command of language. Yet, he disembarked at one of the more remote stations we stopped at, apparently just to let him off. It almost seemed cruel to leave him alone since the station was a small, blue shack with no roads or paths. How does one breach that topic? “Is that his office?” “His home?” “His punishment?” Maybe it is my cold-war mentality hemorrhaging on occasion, but after nearly thirty trips to Russia, I came to accept that not asking is most appropriate, particularly since they never asked me. The older ones probably assumed from their cold-war youths that I was CIA or some left-wing leftover looking for remnants of Emma Goldman or John Reed. American tourists simply can’t be found in the remote regions of Siberia.

For my part I constantly filled in the blanks of not asking. Endless hours rolling along leads to rail-games like that. I kept thinking of Paul Simon singing, “She said the man in the Gabardine suit was a spy.” 

I remember another father and son, much younger than us, in the dining car. The man was always reading papers and I wondered if he was a professor or a writer. He was dressed well. By the time I had decided to go and introduce myself, they had already disembarked. Michael talked to the son for a bit one morning when we first saw them, but neither of them ever recovered from that linguistic bloodbath. It wouldn’t be unusual for the boy not to know his father’s profession anyway.

And today I sat and realized I never asked my father what he did for a living. I mean I knew he was a “broker,” but I never inquired about his day, about what took place. Part of me was too busy growing up or playing with friends, and part of me didn’t want to bother him after doing it all day. But those are adult responses when I wonder why I didn’t ask, and the truth is I probably simply didn’t care. He did his thing and I did mine. His thing made my thing possible but even that was too complicated to contemplate when I was ten. So we talked about baseball.

I hear so many people when recalling their youth speak of their dads in absent terms, as if the man was never there or estranged for some emotional reason, or the younger one was just too rebellious to be around all that much. But that wasn’t the case with us, thank God. We got along absolutely fine. We just didn’t talk a lot because of our circles. My circles crossed paths with friends, sometimes with siblings, often with Mom. His circles crossed paths with colleagues or Mom or neighbors, or us when on the golf course or watching a Met’s game. This was old school; this was adults being one generation and the kids being another, and between those two generations lay one of the biggest abyss’ in American history. It was no big deal, at least not in our home. But I never asked him about his day, what he did at the office all day. I’m sorry for that. I wish I had.

I suppose I had to become a parent first to understand what kind of child I was. I needed a basis of comparison that goes beyond the parent-child relationships of cousins or friends. It had to be later, years later, when I finally understood what he would have wanted me to ask, what he wished I had shown interest in, how close—or not close—we were. Turns out we were so much closer than I knew. I discovered this much too late in his life, late at night when we’d have a Scotch and talk about nothing at all, and sometimes he’d confuse me for my brother, but that was alright too. Sitting quietly like that was fine, it really was. 

Tonight I’m writing about trains. I’ve been doing so for a few years now; it seems the narrative arc keeps moving, and right now I’m finding myself as my own antagonist whose conflict lay somewhere between generations. I’m writing about my son and me on a train on the other side of the planet but can’t help but think of my father and me in a small village on the south shore of Long Island. Maybe because he’d leave early every morning for the Islip train station for the ride on the LIRR to his downtown office, and then home. I look up from my work and find myself filling in the blank spaces of my dad’s life at work, and it is empty, a well, a cavity.

I wish I had stopped him once or twice and just asked him…I don’t know what…something…about his day or what happened on the train or what the people were like. Most certainly he would have joked about it at first, made some humorous comment, but he would have found something to say. Not much, I’m sure, but something.

In later years I didn’t worry about any memories he might have had of rebelliousness on my part, or any overbearing presence on his; neither was even slightly true. No, my baggage on this ride is the idea he might have thought I was completely indifferent to his life, what he did, what it was he thought about when he’d sit on the back porch and stare out across the river. 

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Genderfication

Five years ago I published this piece on May 5th, and it quickly became the most shared and commented on essay I’ve written. Since this marks the 250th Blog post, I thought I’d repost it here. Thanks for reading:

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I had to fill out an online form for a writer’s conference and I knew all the answers about my identity but one.

Gender. You’d think this wouldn’t be such a difficult question.

Don’t get me wrong; I know I’m “male.” At least I thought so. But the form had a drop-down menu, and when I hit the little arrow to expose what I thought would be a binary choice, male or female, with a possible third entry of some form of Trans, I found these eleven options:

Male

Female

Agender

Androgynous

Bigender

Cisgender

Gender fluid

Intersex

Transsexual

Transgender

A gender not identified here

 

I had to look up some of them.

The first two along with Transgender and Transsexual all seem obvious, though one might argue that if a Male or Female does trans to the other, once the trans is done they are officially the other gender, but I’m sure the trans-aspect of life doesn’t every completely fade. Transsexual and Transgender, like Male and Female, are well established terms, one being the operation is complete, the other the “identification” is complete, but the packaging is original. For the latter Trans option, I asked myself if I identify more with the other “standard” gender—Female for me—than I do my birth gender, Male. If the answer had been yes, then I’d have checked Transgender. That was an easy one, though for some it can create problems, not the least of which is choosing a public bathroom.

Agender totally baffled me. Bigender I understood, particularly if I had been born with a mixture of gender identifiers (see Intersex below), or I never quite Transed all the way and am still walking the line between genders—bigender it is. But agender—having no gender—doesn’t make sense to me. I suppose if I simply couldn’t identify with either (as opposed to having tendencies to identify with both), I’d be absent gender—agender. But then I still feel like I would have to make some call in the matter. At the end of the day I really do have to pee, and at some point I need to commit. Bigender implies I can use either bathroom, of course. But agender leaves me hanging. I have nothing on that one.

Androgynous was easy; I am of the age to well remember “Androgynous Pat” of Saturday Night Live. In this case I am drawn toward parallels with bigender, though now I think this might better explain agender. The middle ground here gets murky. Bigenderagender, and androgynous all imply similar non-committal answers to the initial question. Still, I do not think they’re synonyms. In fact, agender and bigender might be precise opposites with the same outcome. One identifies with neither and the other both, leaving both in a holding pattern when it comes to decision making. Just writing that makes me feel uninformed, so my confusion could very likely be lack of experience and information more than lack of clarity on the part of the form. This is a writer’s conference, after all.

Cisgender is crystal clear. Cisgender is when I solidly identify with my birth gender. No freaking pink paint or rainbows in my room, Bucko. This is where the answer to the initial question is not “Male” but “you’re damn right I’m male, asshole.”

Gender fluid basically means at any given moment I can move unseen between the two dominant genders, which is very different from transgender where the move is deliberate and usually one-way. There is a breed of sandpiper here on the east coast that is gender fluid. I am not belittling people who are as well. I just don’t know of any, but I have seen the sandpipers, so relax.

Intersex is less confusing than it seems. It feels a lot like gender fluid but it turns out this is when someone is a hermaphrodite—born very clearly with both dominant gender organs apparent. I figure by the time someone is old enough to fill out a form for a writer’s conference and has to choose this option, he/she has already transitioned, or at least might probably check the bigender box, though bigender implies “identity” whereas intersex is a physical reality. It is possible to be intersex but completely identify with only one of the two, making an altogether new, hyphenated category.

What makes my mind wander, however, is gender not identified here. In coming up with that option, wouldn’t the list creators had to have at least entertained at least one other, or is that option to leave the door open for some combination not yet considered? They may have been thinking about the US Navy vet who went through an operation to become like a tiger. He grew whiskers and had a mechanical tail surgically implanted. Check transfeline if you fall into this category.

For the record, I have friends in nearly every one of these categories, and they can share a bathroom with me anytime.

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Tour of Duty

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Shortly before my son was born, a colleague asked if I wanted to teach a few courses at Saint Leo University, a college on the Little Creek Amphibious Base in Virginia Beach. Knowing I’d need the money to pay for my newborn’s cameras and coffee habit, I accepted. That was twenty-seven years ago. Since then I have taught courses about the great artists of western culture, the most influential women artists, other art courses, African American Literature, Creative Writing, Humanities, a variety of English courses, worked the writing center, and taught a course about journeys in literature and in life, about the metaphorical “road” we are on.

Saint Leo University is a catholic college in St. Petersburg, Florida, not that much different than where I went to college at Saint Bonaventure. Same size, seemingly the same traditions. Saint Leo’s, however, has in addition to its main campus near the gulf, extension campuses on military bases throughout the country. My students have been active duty and retiring military personnel whose discipline, motivation, and work ethic are unparalleled. I’ve made lifelong friends there, former students who kept in touch, and lost more than a few to the effects of wars. When I began teaching my students were commonly Vietnam Vets and active duty members just home from the first Gulf war. Post 911 brought the Post 911 Bill which pushed the enrollment higher than ever, and students came and went to Iraq, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait. It wasn’t unusual on the first day for them to come in to class and recognize someone they last saw in battle. They’d embrace and conversations bounced about the room. Class would often start late. 

I’ve become friends with SEALS, Master Chiefs, and more. Since I teach a diverse list of courses, I often had the same student four, five, or even six times. This leads to connections I never experienced elsewhere. One student sent a box of goods from McMurdo Station, Antarctica, to give to Michael, and another mailed me letters every week from Afghanistan. Too many have died, several returned with physical and psychological issues which changed the trajectories of their lives. Students with PTSD are common, and accommodations are made all the while knowing that all of these students will still surpass my expectations. A few continued their education to obtain post-graduate degrees, secured a faculty position at the college, and I have had the privilege to call them my colleagues.

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On Friday May 1, the president of Saint Leo’s announced they are closing seventeen extension campuses including all those in Virginia. Sometime in the next few months I will teach my final class there, and it will not be face to face, which is sad for me. I didn’t want this to end; no one did, including the president.

I’m going to miss being there, I really am. I’ve left other teaching jobs without a backwards glance, but walking into a room filled with students who put their lives on the line time and time again, tour after tour, has been unequivocally the most humbling experience of my career. An email today tells me I might be able to continue to teach for the college online, but even if that is true, it simply won’t be the same; not without the same-room companionship that has endured with these people. Despite their experiences in battle, or perhaps because of them, they make it a point to be attentive, respectful, and appreciative, and they value the art appreciation courses because no one, I mean no one, is more able to know why we should recognize the beauty around us. I will very much miss being part of their lives. They’ll be no less attentive via zoom lectures, but the quick glance at a familiar face, the small talk between discussions, the eruption of laughter with these quick-witted, experienced students will be blatantly absent. There is no doubt it will not be the same.

Financially, it is no secret that the pay at small, private catholic colleges is minimal. That’s not why we stay. It’s the students, it’s the staff who are always in a great mood (maybe not always), and it’s the ability to allow mature classroom conversations to digress into sessions about common fears, hopes, and a belief in an absolute morality. Understand, these women and men are frontliners; they are the ones who have seen what no person should ever see, and then they stare at Rembrandt and Degas in awe, listen to Pachelbel’s Canon and cry, read Tim O’Brien’s The Things they Carried and fall silent in appreciation that someone else out there understands. The creative writing students always volunteer to read their work, in which a common theme is their disgust at conflict, the passion for home and family. All readings are followed by a few moments of silence while everyone composes themselves. My students are of all branches of the military, though some civilians occasionally fall into the mix. One evening last semester we spent two hours in deep conversation about Hemingway’s short story “A Soldiers Home.” It was like group therapy. This all smack dab in the middle of the largest naval complex in the world. The headquarters for Seal Team Six is a chip shot from our classroom.

The traditional student who moves from high school to college doesn’t regularly come to class with what these women and men have on their backs. Here, someone might say “Professor, I’m so sorry but I’ve got to be TAD next week” (Temporary Active Duty) just before some horn player outside blows out “Colors” half way across base and everything stops—teaching, driving, walking—it all stops for thirty seconds while they wait for the flag to come down and remember those who were lost defending it, some of whom used to sit next to them laughing about a Jackson Pollock painting, saying confidently, “See you when I get back.” Usually they do, but not always.

Teaching at Saint Leo’s is riddled with empty spaces like that. I will miss the extremes of being engrossed in student presentations completed with such attention to detail that I learn far more than I did when a student, only to slide into a few moments of reflection when someone passes along word about what was in the email he just received from someone’s wife. Widow.

Just before I started my first graduate program in the eighties, someone I am close to joined the Air Force. At the time it was exciting and romantic and thrilling. I remember how engrossed I was listening to the details in every single phone call and letter about her life in training, life getting ready for whatever might come after basic training and language school. My students here, too, say they remember that fire, that sense of something coming. Now, at the tail end of thirty years with members of the military both swearing in and leaving, and closing out and heading home, there isn’t much romance at all and there is very little thrill. No. There is only life interrupted, sometimes aborted, often derailed. But still they move on, point at the screen in admiration of Van Gogh’s Irises, and the conversation moves to them talking about the types of flowers they will plant next to their homes.  They are artists, these men and women, and they know the love and the beauty we can find around us. And as trite as this is, there is no other way to say it: What they’ve left with me has been greater than anything they possibly could have learned. 

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