Last Name First

name/nām/ noun

  1. A word or set of words by which a person, animal, place, or thing is known, addressed, or referred to.

Growing up I was called “Robert.” Part of that is because my mother’s youngest brother was with us very often and he is Bob, or Bobby. But when we moved to Virginia and I entered tenth grade, I reestablished my identity as a Bob while at school. It had no effect on my family who continued to (and continue to) call me Robert, though when referencing me to non-family members, I’m a Bob. Once, a girl in high school I had a crush on called the house and my mother answered. My friend asked to talk to Bob and my mother said, “I’m sorry there is no one here by that name,” and hung up. UGH! Apparently, my friend called the next guy on her list because she never called back. Some months later she admitted, “I called you once to see if you wanted to go out somewhere, but I must have had the wrong number.”

(a note to young readers: if you are trying to figure out why my mother would answer a phone call for me, Google, “Antique phone customs.”)

Now I’m not thrilled when anyone anywhere calls me Robert, though it’s no big deal. Except my family, who when they call me Bob it seems totally wrong, like the Man who Never Was.

Crazy how identity is such a deeply-rooted motivator for our life, yet so often hinges on a name. Quixotic. Kafkaesque. Jeffersonian.


I wish we could still use one name like in Greek times: Plato! Aristotle! Or names associated with location: Francis of Assisi, Lawrence of Arabia.

Bob of Brooklyn.

Even ethnicity in this country is often shrouded by a last name. Kunzinger has all the markings of a deeply German background, and it is true that my great-great grandfather hailed from Lohr en Main, in Bavaria, Germany, where he and three of his brothers left for the United States in the 1850s. But according to the latest update of my DNA, I’m barely 11 percent German, with almost 50 percent going to my Irish roots. So O’Kunzinger is more appropriate but most likely quite offensive to my Galway ancestors. England/Scotland comes in second followed by Italian and French. So, with apologies to Philip Kunzinger of Lohr, my last name is a poor indicator as to my roots.  

At the university, Professor is likely, though at my previous college of employment, “Dude” was not unusual. The professor moniker is a burden, however, since while I think I’m a decent teacher of art and writing and humanities, I’m still apt to think of “Professor” as the scholar in a tweed coat with world-renowned expertise, who is referenced in journals and instead of watching Late Night reads papers in bed. I know these people; I’m not these people, though I play one on Zoom.

Then two new students approached me the other day after class and said, “We Googled you.” They told me that at first they saw some articles and information about where I had worked before, but then said they changed “Robert” to “Bob” and a slew of pages came up with all writing references and links. I told them that “Kunzinger” makes it inevitable that anything about Bob Kunzinger would not be likely to mix with other people, but if I were Bob Smith, they probably never would have found me; I’m nobody, really, except someone with a very uncommon name. Still, they said they ordered books so there’s that.

For a long time when I met someone through my parents, I’d introduce myself as “Robert” so not to contradict what they might have said, and that was usually correct. So now when I hear Robert I think of “young” me, adolescent me, no need to figure it out yet me. When I hear Bob I think of writer me, traveling me. But I also think of restless me, unsettled me, still looking for peace me. Robert goes back so far I can’t help but feel quieted when I hear it—from certain people. It was a good youth, where serenity wasn’t difficult to find during those Robert years.

“Dad” has a category all of its own, though a completely different set of mental wanderings than say “Daddy,” which tends to conjure up twenty-five-year old memories instead of the oysters we had last week.

So what goes on the headstone? Each of them is correct for different reasons, and I think it would cost too much to put them all on there. Perhaps “Dude” is the correct one, which implies just everyman, anyone—no one in particular.

It’s raining today, and the ground is saturated, the marsh exceptionally high, and the river, though still, rising. I come to the water to clear my head of the nonsense and worries, of the anxiety and depressive ways of life, and I am settled by the lack of labels here, the absence of naming things. I know the names of the wildlife here, but they don’t, and that thought brings me great peace; they simply are, and that is enough for them, so it’s enough for me out here.

For a long time I wondered if our names were for us or just for other people to make accounting easier—separate us from the simple “Hey You” confusion. It helps with mail delivery and paychecks, with grades in school and publications you spent a long time working on. For instance, I do not put my name on drafts no one will see but me.

The truth is, I feel more mature when I hear “Bob,” more ambitious and accomplished. And I must admit hearing “Professor” makes me more likely to give a well-thought-out response over someone calling me “Dude.” But names and labels and titles and degrees only serve us to exist with others in a regulated society where fitting in is necessary to maintain a place of our own, both physically and metaphorically. But out here where the river meets the bay, and the winds sometimes bring a chill from the northwest, and the osprey return to chase away the eagles for the season, I often forget who I am to begin with, and what was troubling me. Out here, where I have a complete sense of, well, what..?

Peace, I guess. Serenity, maybe. But “serenity is a long time coming to me, and I don’t believe that I know what it means anymore.”

A Little Too Slow

It’s raining, been raining, since, like, last March. Seems that way anyhow. It’s been okay, here, going for hikes, catching the sun no matter the temperature, sitting out near the bay or walking the trails along the Potomac an hour or so north of here. Yeah, it’s been fine.

But honestly, it would be easier without all the endless streams of information, contradictory, negative, often inflammatory, soul-killing information. The most common conversations carried out on social media and mainstream media and alternative media is what is wrong with everyone else, what rules others are not following, and some of it focuses on someone else’s lies and some of it is lying to begin with, or making personal attacks, and violating absolutely every single fallacy professors dutifully instruct students NOT to do. Then we have to explain to them why politicians, analysts, talking heads, and others are guilty of what we preach is wrong.

It is no longer the case that all the information is being evaluated closely and disseminated widely by scrutinizing professionals, and only then do various factions disagree with how to handle the information. No. Now, each party has its own source, all different from each other, all verifying (or not verifying) their own information with their own “experts” and disseminating that information to their own followers, and anyone who disagrees isn’t watching the same media-flow to begin with, like separate cultures studying separate languages with separate definitions who try to communicate and, well, can’t.

And ten years ago, even five years ago….hell, last year, I’d have allowed myself to get worked up about it and head down to the college and take advantage of my position in front of literally a captive audience and preach about the rampant hypocrisy and childish behavior. I’d have lectured about those fallacies and the need to have a complete understanding of all the information before passing judgement—and that even then you don’t have a right to do so anyway, only certified experts should do that, and I’d leave feeling satisfied even if they didn’t get it.

Now, well, I couldn’t give a rat’s ass about who’s saying what about whom and who’s lying and who’s on the prowl. I’m over it. Tired of it doesn’t begin to explain how tired of it I am. Maybe it is because I’m frustrated like everyone else. I no longer have the outlet of doing gigs which satisfied my life emotionally, financially, and professionally, but it is more than that. It is an overwhelming sense that the water has risen too high to ever again recede enough to see those placid and amicable shores. They’re gone. Just gone.

So what do we do? Learn to swim? See, I think that’s been my problem. When the waters of ridicule and childish bantering so common in the world rose higher and higher, I’ve been trying to keep up, at the very least tread water. Wow was that a bad idea.

I was at the river earlier. It is raining today, all day, a steady downpour which seems like hasn’t occurred since I was young and spent Saturdays on the couch watching old black and white westerns on television because it was too wet to go out and play. That kind of rain, where being inside is easy because being outside is simply not pleasant. It would be okay if the temperature was mild, but it is not. I know we’re lucky here not to have the ice and snow and power-outages so much of the country is currently suffering. Very lucky, indeed. But here we are, stagnant, overly complacent, and feeling submerged like never before.

Then the river, and a heron landed nearby, looked at me for a moment as if she had been dozing and only then realized, “Oh, crap, a human,” and took off for the other side of the pond. I looked out at the bay, felt the rain on my hood and my face and back, and remembered when things were, well, simpler.

Maybe not politically or socially; I really couldn’t tell you. Because back then I made conscious choices for things to be simpler. I worked, of course—always have—but I also took my time, didn’t listen to anything that brought me down if I couldn’t do anything about it anyway. I didn’t so much have my head in the sand as much as I did in the clouds, above the minutia of meaningless banter and complicated nonsense.

I’m no longer interested in confrontation, have no need for discussions about masks—literal and metaphorical—and so-called experts and excuses. We live in a world of blame without evidence, of judgement without inquiry, of ridicule without recognition how the other person might feel. We’ve lost the ability to make excuses for other people, and we long ago fell out of fashion with the idea of being brutally honest with each other, no matter the cost, in spite of the gain. Maybe that’s why love seems so lacking of late in the world, and dreams. And the softness of memory and hope.

I’ve always been aware of what’s around me, proud of the fact I can adjust to just about any situation in which I find myself—streetwise we used to call it. But truth be told, and to rip from a JT song for a second, I’m not nearly smart enough for the life I have led for the past thirty years, not fast enough for the times in which I find myself.

And the anxiety I often feel comes from trying to keep pace. That’s it. Oh how that thought today when I was standing there in the downpour, that my anxiety comes from trying to keep pace in a world that’s going too fast for its own good, ripped into my memory so powerfully it was like a hologram appeared on the surface of the river before me, as if even the heron saw those people there, the ones at a health club I used to manage. People would come up to me after a workout, crying, wanting to quit, frustrated at the pace of others in the studio, and I would tell them, “Set your own pace! This isn’t a competition; your life is not their parlor game! It is yours! Play it how you want’ then you can’t lose!”  

Well that advice turned out to be way harder than it sounded. Or, should I say, it is way easier to tell others that than to live it myself. But today, when the heron realized I was there and took off, and I realized I was there and had an overwhelming desire to take off, that simplicity, that sense of my own right to set my own pace and no longer worry about how I’ve been judged, how I’ve judged others, and let it all go, awash in the river, like the water upstream, passing me now, heading out to the bay, and further, and farther still, reset my sense of self for the first time in a long time. I have no idea how I’m going to get from here to there, but like the humanists of long ago, I’m sure the answers can be found around me, out here in nature where objectivity exists, and truth, where one cannot make excuses, one cannot blame others, and the only survival technique needed is the oldest truism in nature: keep it simple.

These Lives of Mine

I don’t remember the place in the picture above. It is in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, and I lived there for five months. While five months is a long time, in this case it was my very first five months. Still, it is in my blood. The roads of Brooklyn walked by my parents, my grandparents, my ancestry, is in me as if they picked up gravel along the gutters of Ovington Avenue and bled it with our DNA. My parents lived in the apartment building above from not long before my sister was born until shortly after my own birth roughly seven years later. She remembers it, I suppose. Some of it. I’m sorry that I never knew the place as the apartment building was filled with my Dad’s brothers and their families–and I have a lot of cousins. In fact, my cousin Stephen was born not long before me, and my mother wanted that to be my name but didn’t want two Stephen Kunzinger’s living at the same address because it would confuse the teachers. So Stephen was relegated to my middle name, and my cousin and his family moved to Elmira, hundreds of miles away, and we moved to the Island, several light years away. Upside to visiting: The Bay Ridge Bakery is on the corner. Amazing.

Massapequa Park on Long Island was your typical suburban village. The elementary school was just across that street on the left, and that house was ours, except, well, no. We moved in there sixty years ago and they either tore down the old house or renovated it so completely that only the bay window and the garage door seem familiar. Gone is the side patio with the green awning under which I loved to sit on rainy days. We built snow forts at the corner, and I once fell and slammed my head on that sidewalk. Charlie lived a few doors down. I remember this place; I really do. I remember mostly baseball and the pool in the yard. Across the street were neighbors who became life-long friends for my parents–Joe and Rose Fontana. Rose, who taught my mom to cook Italian food decades before she knew she was Italian as well, and Joe, “Baby Face” Fontana, the boxer, who wasn’t that tall but I once watched him dive from a stand still on the ground into a four foot pool. But I don’t consider this the place I grew up, even though the greatest comediennes in the business lived in Massapequa. Go ahead, look it up.

This is where I grew up. This is where I am “from” in my Facebook bio. Of course, the trees weren’t there, or at least not as big, since we planted them. It’s hard to see the house in this picture but I still know every inch of the place. I still know every street name in the beautiful village, and I’m happy to say it is one of the places in my past which is still as nice as when we lived there almost fifty years ago. This is where I’d walk every day to the deli or the post office or Timber Point Country Club or the Arboretum. But mostly it is where for six years I lived to hike the trails and beaches of Heckscher State Park with my friend Eddie. When Eddie died tragically not long ago, I had both the urge to head to Great River and the drive to never go back again.

It’s crazy, going back where we came from, where we became ourselves. Sometimes I wish I could get in the car and drive up there and somewhere along the Southern State enter a time warp to the early seventies. And Steve and I would play baseball, and my brother, sister and I would walk to the deli for heroes. And Eddie and I would talk about music. I sometimes wonder if some other young boy is in the room with the two windows in the second floor, and if he sometimes climbs out on the roof of the porch and leans against the house and thinks about the astronauts as I did. Back then it was Apollo 11; back then the internet was our imagination, and we had no device to talk to anyone except the one phone we all shared downstairs. Back then I couldn’t conceive of right now; it was never going to happen.

The irony of this house on Wolf’s Neck Trail in Virginia Beach is it really was my parents’ home for about three decades, yet mine for only three years, as I went to high school then. Still, this is where we all gathered and holds significance for being the house that my siblings and I all lived in, even if briefly, while we were all single, and returned to later enough in our lives that we all had our children, and my parents’ five grandkids all well remember playing in this house, and heading out into the yard which stretched hundreds of feet down to the Lynnhaven River. It really never looked much different than this picture, though some trees have come and gone, but that crack in the driveway has been there since 1974. Go figure.

I lived here for four years.

St. Bonaventure University in the Enchanted Mountains of western New York. I’ve lived in five states and been around the world many many times, but this is “home,” this is where I came of age and discovered that the pursuit of self is as important as the pursuit of knowledge. The people I met here are still some of my closest friends and confidants, and shall remain so for the rest of my life. I have written stories about some particular experiences at this college and about how I learned just how small the world is, about just how brief life can be, all wrapped in a place that offered us all some foundation of eternity, some sense that no matter what happens, we can come back anytime we wish to regroup and have another go at it.

Someone stole my bike, though, freshman year right in front of that building there–Deveroux Hall. Still pisses me off.

This is Tucson, Arizona. I worked in a record store and that’s it, because my memories of Tucson are of hiking the Catalina Mountains, hiking up to Bear Canyon and the Seven Falls, hiking to Mt Lemon and skiing during the day then swimming at the apartment pool that afternoon. My memories are of driving up to Kitt Peak Observatory where it was dead silent and cold in the day, or the Sonoran Desert Museum, which was actually a kind of wildlife preserve. But mostly my memory comes after my roommate Tom headed back east and my friend Renee headed back east and I headed south, to Mexico, where I finetuned my Spanish and made decent money buying blankets for practically nothing and reselling them at University of Arizona football games. And Kahlua. That too.

I include the small picture on top because for three years that was my playground–the Wachusett Reservoir in central Massachusetts, and that house on the right was my home–well, the bottom floor off to the left side. Of all the places I lived until my home now, this is the one I never should have left–not the house itself, but the village, the people, the location, the life. I love it there. I worked for Richard Simmons at the time and spent all that money traveling around New England, but mostly I walked the shores of this reservoir, out to the Old Stone Church or around to Bob’s Hotdog Truck. Across the street was the Deacon’s Bench Antiques, and up the road in Sterling was a very cool farm stand with apples and apple pies and an apple cider mill. Further still, up the road was Mt. Wachusett, where I’d hike to the summit in summer and watch kettles of hawks or look east at the Boston skyline.

I’m glad I left but I never should have left.

After a brief run on East Chocolate Avenue in Hershey, I lived here. This old house in this old village with horse farms and country roads was fine for someone in their seventies, which absolutely every single one of my neighbors was, but it is still deep in my heart for other reasons. I had the entire second floor of that house and also the attic, and it is here I lived when I attended Penn State, and it is here I lived on one of my trips to Africa, and it is here I came to understand why we decide to stay somewhere instead of moving to say, Austria, to tend bar in a castle, and where I came to understand why some people need to leave, to find out not just who they are, but who they aren’t; the need to define themselves without any lifelong influences. I stayed here too long.

But I loved that attic.

Forget the move to the beach, the winter on a beach in Sandbridge part of Virginia Beach, the apartments, the hurricanes, the car breaking down in a college parking lot where I decided to use the phone in an office and walked out with a career. No, I need to jump to Aerie:

This picture above is all Google Earth will provide. So, here’s what is under those treetops:

Aerie: Hawk or eagle nest.

I built this house, quite literally. I didn’t do the foundation or the mechanicals, but I helped stack the logs, and then after it was framed out, I built all the interior walls, the stairwell, all the doors, the floors, and the kitchen, including the cabinets, though on that point you can kind of tell I did them. That was twenty-four years ago. In fact, while I have lived more places than the pictures above represent, Michael has lived in this house since he just turned four. The house is fine, but I’m more attached to the property with its trails, and the hill which runs down past my neighbor’s farm to the river.

I’ve long wondered about two perspectives in life: That of the one who has made a home for himself in many places, but never long enough to become completely a part of any of them, and the one where one lives in one spot for his life, so that the village is in your blood, and the people you know you’ve always known and always will know. I’ve taken a little of each place with me and sometimes they don’t so much pull at my shirt, tugging me backwards, as much as they push on my back, urging me on.

This is the family homestead for me, now, and my blood is literally in the walls here, as three year old Michael can attest to as he sat on the floor in front of the fireplace eating an orange and learning a new vocabulary as I tried to fit countertops just slightly too long into a small kitchen.

But this place is also a springboard, for Ireland, for Spain, for places I haven’t even thought about yet. I like hanging out on the porch, drinking tea or wine, and watching the osprey head out toward the bay. I like spending weeks traveling no further than the village for coffee and bread. But I wouldn’t like it nearly as much without waiting in line at airports, without taking a train across some foreign land, without trying foods from third-world countries in second-world restaurants. When I’m home too long, I need to leave; when I’m gone too long, I need to get home. I miss Oakdale and the yellow house on the reservoir; and I miss the hills of Allegany, New York. I wish I could tell my younger self about where I’ve been–which places to avoid and which to stay just, well, a little bit longer anyway. I’d tell some friends in Pennsylvania how to find me later, just in case, and I’d tell Eddie not to leave work early in December of 2020.

The thing about moving is you make a lot of friends, but you leave a lot of friends, and I’m not so sure the first part is worth the second part. We live in a world now where we can remain in touch with virtually every single person we’ve ever known or have met, and therein lies the greatest problem of all–we need to miss people; I believe it is important to miss people. It teaches us the value of time, the persistence of love, and the need of us all to stand still long enough to recognize who were are.

I’d tell Dad the truth, that I didn’t want to leave Great River, when he asked what I thought about moving to Virginia Beach. It wouldn’t have made a difference, but it would have started me down a path of being honest with myself about what it is that makes a home.

These are literally just random thoughts, written just now, no rewrite at all, while I was screwing around on Google Earth, zooming in on old homesteads and moving the littler person icon to the street. Very cool, huh?

I’m not so sure. I’m really not.

Image result for earth


Image result for rainy day on the james river

I’ve written about this before, and this story occurred when I was a different person in a career I never anticipated. Last night I found a picture, and it brought this memory back like it occurred last week.

I had been teaching about three years when the president of the college called me into his conference room. It was autumn, and it rained that day so not only did the impending meeting occupy my thoughts, but the weather made everyone miserable. Fog settled heavy on the James River behind the buildings, and just the walk from the parking lot left me wet and sticky.  I sloshed into the leather seat in his spacious office. The river ran behind his rain-covered windows, the water and fog blending. The Monitor- Merrimac Bridge Tunnel appeared little more than a shadow of a river crossing. He thanked me for driving to his office and moved right to business. “Tell me truth here, Bob. Is she crazy?” 

“She” was an African American, PhD professor. Short and rather rotund, her Islamic chador shrouded her dark darting eyes. She hid in bushes some early mornings, garrisoning herself from evil attacks of campus maintenance workers and other faculty. Sometimes after class she walked home by advancing from tree to tree, looking about, scanning the parking lot for followers. We had been hired together, and when we first talked, we talked long about Africa, where I had been and where she had longed to go. I showed her a picture of a village chief, a tall thin man who in the photo is searching for a place to settle down with his prayer mat in the sub-Saharan dust. She stared at the picture a long time, and her eyes welled. “I feel like I should be there, Bob” she said. It was just a few months later she spouted profanities across the library tables to other workers, accusing them of casting a spell on her. It was another two years before the President called me in and asked me if I thought she was crazy.

“Compared to who?” I asked. I quickly qualified myself as not being able to determine anyone’s mental state. True, a professor who hid in the hedges and crouched behind trees because she thought she was being followed appeared, on the surface at least, insane. But who was I to say? In my time teaching college, I have often desired to flee to the cover of rhododendrons. “I don’t know,” I said. “She’s a great teacher though. She knows her stuff.”

“Bob, she yells across the library–yells–at other personnel–screams for them to stop following her. Last time they were just replacing light bulbs.”                                                                     

“Yes, sir, that’s true. But it’s not my call. I’m her colleague.”

I was also Assistant Division Chair at the time, and while this denoted nothing when assessing other full-time faculty–least of all their mental state– it placed me in a position where the woman in question trusted me. In fact, I was the only one she talked to most of the time, the division chair at the time simply did not get along with her. The college was being both cunningly cautious and blatantly cowardice. While I was a white, Catholic professor, we still had more in common than others. I’d spent a good deal of time in Islamic villages on two separate trips to Africa. She asked often of life there, about people, about their lives. So when she started to cower into the dark corners of campus with what can best be perceived as paranoid schizophrenia, I was the medium through whom the administration communicated.   

 “She can’t stay,” the president said.

“Okay.” I answered. At the time, I really didn’t care either way. A puddle had formed at my feet, and my sweater smelled like a dead animal in a Moroccan marketplace. He offered me coffee. 

“Bob. We’d like you to offer her three choices. One, she stays, but if the pattern continues, she will be fired. That will give us time to document more of these incidents. Two, she transfers to another campus. When people there start following her and she yells at them, that would mean it’s her, not us and we would need to let her go. Third, she can resign now, we’ll pay her contract for the rest of the year, and she leaves on good terms with recommendations.”  I thought, you are going to recommend her? To whom? But what I said was, “Wow, Dr. This is somewhat beyond me here, don’t you think?”

“You’re the only one she trusts, Bob.” Ah, so that’s how you do it, I thought. You find the one employee the victim trusts most and sic him on her. Well, in this case, the victim filled nearly every minority check box, and the legal issues lingered like the fog on the James. I asked what he wanted to happen, though I already figured that out, and said I’d talk to her. When I was leaving, I said, “You know, sir, I don’t get paid enough for this.”   He laughed. Of course, because it’s so laughable.

I sat in my office just across the hall from the victim. I wondered where the line was between being mentally stable and out in left field, thinking I should know exactly where it is since I step over it so often. All three offers seemed low and outside–academic spitballs. I’m crazy for doing this, I thought. But then more than a few college profs wander well into the outfield too often during the season.

I worked once with a professor who would walk into class the first day and exclaim, “Nearly all of you will get no better than a C,” and he was right–he failed more than three quarters of the students in every class he taught. While I was in college in New York, a priest taught a course in parapsychology. The street name of the course was “spooks.” In his youth he was an exorcist in France and had been dealing with the paranormal for fifty years. He always left the front row of every class empty in case former students or colleagues who had died might show up to sit in. Once, when the door was slightly ajar, the wind blew in and swept it all the way open and then slammed it shut. We were silent until Father quietly stated, “Oh, Larry, I’m so glad you are joining us” We laughed. He didn’t.

Before I went across the hall, I decided to consult my friend, Lianne, whose office was just around the corner and whose ethics exceeded just about anyone at the college. Her response, of course, was on the money: “Why isn’t the college getting her help? Our insurance covers psychological help; they should be helping her, Bob!” she exclaimed with complete empathy. For a few years, I’d run into Lianne in the hallway and she would shake her head and repeat, “They should have helped her, Bob.”

Lianne was in her mid-thirties at the time, one child and one on the way. We talked for some time about those choices, about working instead of going to school, about discovering life. We talked about my persistent uneasiness when standing still, about her dedication to her students and her love for teaching. “I just wish these students would really understand how necessary it is to really live life and not just follow someone else’s path!” she would say firmly. I’ll never forget going down the hall to her office after my Presentation of the Three Choices, to tell her what happened. It disturbed her on so many levels. A few years later Lianne died of cancer. She was so young.

When she died I asked myself, “Why am I doing this? What am I doing here?” Teaching is an occupation where you can tell other people how to do things you don’t actually do yourself. Most writing instructors don’t actually write. This isn’t to say that to teach psychology teachers should be fucked up (though the ones I have known for three decades certainly have had issues). Sure theorists are necessary to measure differences and calculate shifts in perspective. But I’m one who believes in understanding the swamp by walking through it. Because it is a swamp, all of it. Throw a torn magazine in the air as often as you’d like, but the pieces will never fall back into place. In the real world, “C” is average and most of us are just that. And sometimes someone really is out to get us, nudging our psyche to the margins, forcing us to duck into the hedges. Sanity sometimes hides in the fog. We look for the obvious outcasts somewhere on the playing field when the insane might be sitting next to us in the box seats.

A few days after seeing the president but before I made the Presentation of the Three Choices, I was in a faculty meeting when the drugs finally kicked in. Unfortunately, I wasn’t taking them. But the hyperactive freak throwing his glasses across the room in disagreement over some freshman composition concern calmed down and kept quiet. Thank God. Still, it woke me up. I sat staring at the wall listening in cartoon fashion to my colleagues. Their voices came out as one long whir like the nonsensical sound of Peanuts teachers. My shirt felt tight about my neck like I couldn’t breathe and I thought of a Whitman poem, “When I heard the Learned Astronomer,” wherein the student gets sick and dizzy listening to someone talk endlessly about astronomy and doesn’t feel fine until he walks out and looks up in “perfect silence at the stars.” My blood pressure rose like Icarus, and I was burning up. I feared I might crash while discussions continued about whether the research paper should be taught in freshman composition one or freshman composition two. No one wants the responsibility of turning a freshman class into a difficult class.           

Meanwhile, everyone is watching the clock.

Eventually, I left the department meeting only to be accosted by some student in the hallway wanting to know—not kidding here—if Ernest Hemingway wore green pants when he shot himself. Back at my office I found eight students waiting. None of them wanted advice on papers or suggestions on topics but wished merely to confess to me about how the humidity in their houses ruined their printers and the only person left at home to feed Grandma is a fifteen-year-old sibling who isn’t back from rehab yet. Every time my office turns into this sort of confessional, the room spins, the hallway dissolves, and I can’t breathe. So I slip outside and always waiting there, smoking, are students who never showed up for an earlier class and proceed to tell me about some car problems that didn’t get flushed out until after class was over, though they really hustled, and they deliver all this with a straight face as if I’d never been to college and didn’t blow off classes, or as if a twelve-year-old couldn’t see through their backwards, pathetic excuses.

So I keep walking, passing most with my head down, taking the long way around to my mailbox since a three minute walk can take fifteen if it’s between classes and I am spotted by students with reasons to see me other than collegiate. I’m not fast enough though and my choices are the student who wants to show me his poetry even though I told him I don’t know anything about writing poetry or the faculty member who wants to discuss textbook choices for the next semester and maybe we could do so at his house with a small party and invite all the faculty for a pot luck textbook brain session. If I hesitate too long I’ll never get to my car fast enough to get a drink before my next class, so I duck into the hedges and wait, pulling my baseball cap down over my eyes, hoping no one notices even though I know–I mean I know– I’m being followed.

(Breathe in. Breathe out. Move on)

Back at my office, I still had to make the Presentation of the Three Choices, so I knocked on her door. She had been kneeling, praying, and stood awkwardly, with my assistance and apologies. She seemed totally lucid, completely at ease, and I didn’t know if that was good or bad. She settled down and asked, “Am I going to be fired, Bob?” I told her the choices, and, unfortunately, with some tears, she asked what I thought she should do. I gave her the picture of the village chief, the one of him searching for a place to put his prayer mat, and she nodded. Part of me wanted to tell her to fight–to get a lawyer and battle this out, but I couldn’t figure out why. So I said, “You’re hiding in hedges. You’re yelling at colleagues across the library.”

“I’ll do what Allah wants me to do, Bob. But I’m not crazy.” She paused and looked at the cinderblock wall. “What would you do?” she asked.

Now whenever anyone asks me that, I always think of a student, Kevin, who I suggested sell his roofing equipment at the company he started but hated and travel. Kevin, who six months later sent me a postcard from Sydney, Australia. Back then when someone asked “What would you do?” I thought of my son because whenever someone asked a stupid or difficult to answer question, I tried to imagine how I would want the teacher to respond if it were him. I found patience and restraint this way, and just a little bit of balance, though, true–not always. Sometimes I cross the line, toss my notes into the air wondering if they’ll all come down in one piece

I thought of Kevin recently and about his postcard and realized he never came back. And this professor with her prayer mat and concrete understanding of American literature never came back either, and me too, who took over her office some years later, not long before I also left and never returned; mostly because we never do go back after we leave a place, allowing others to decide what had been wrong with us all those years, who we used to be.

One windy day in my final year of teaching at that college, I stood in class and took roll when the door swung wide open, startling students. I stared for a moment and said, “Oh Lianne, come on in,” and everyone laughed.

Except me.

And I said to myself

Even nature doesn’t have any good news lately. Snowstorms throughout the Northeast, floods in the west, roadways wiped out along the Pacific coast, wind damage from here through the southeast, and more storms coming. That’s okay; it is February and this isn’t unusual, it’s just that, you know, Covid, politics, the economy, unemployment, conspiracy theorists, maskless morons, all underlined by time just slipping slipping slipping, into the future (I don’t really need to attribute that, right?).

I’m exhausted.

Usually we can handle one or two aspects of existence slumping for a bit, but many are dealing with no less than three weak spots in their belay line. People slip, some fall, some jump. And at some point we’re going to come out of this dank period and grab hold of hope again. But it’s not feeling around the corner, is it? Well, anyway, it doesn’t feel that way to me.

So…what then?

If you were someone else, and that person came to you complaining about the way things are, down about the seeming lack of promise, deep in despair about some vague, indiscriminate sense of helplessness, and asked for advice, what would you say?

I used to do that when I was younger. If I wasn’t sure what to do, and I felt like there wasn’t anyone I could talk to about it, I’d step outside myself and ask the other me what advice I had for, well, me. It usually worked because the objective part of my psyche is way more positive than the character caught in the tangled curtains separating a lousy perspective caused by confusion about reality. The troubled side of us too often sees things in a dimmer light.

So I asked myself, “Myself, what’s the best use you could be making of your time right now?”

And Myself said, “Go to the river.” In this case, Myself sounded a lot like the medieval knight in the cave at the end of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.  

The tide is high today, well above normal, and the water choppy from the strong winds out of the west. It isn’t snowing or raining but a little of both, sometimes, looking a lot like it will pass yet not anytime soon.

Then I watched the Seabirds push against the wind, rising and falling while trying to hover against the storm much like they do when eyeing down a fish below the surface, just before they tuck back their wings and dive, but now they hang there for survival, pushing, ducking a bit then rising again, but always in the same area, always resisting the storm, pushing against it.

I pulled my collar up, tilted my head down a bit, my eyes tearing from the cold.

Then one of the gulls lifted up, well above the others, then let the left wing loose, stretched it all the way out, tilted her head to the east just slightly, turned with the wind and was gone, gliding out toward the bay, lifting up with ease, and higher, the whole time not needing to work, just heading up and out over the bay, quickly covering a distance it would take me more than a little time to travel.

What grace she had, letting go of the resistance of inevitable forces, and using what is best in her the best she should. A few minutes later another untucked her slightly frozen feathers and flew behind, just feet above the water this time without so much as a single push, like pelicans in summer along the coast, and then another, and another.

I don’t know what happened that they suddenly turned and took flight. Did they wait until the storm was strong enough to carry them afar? Did they always know they were going to head that way but waited as long as they could?

Did they give in? Tough call, when to resist and when to head home by another way, choose another path. How long did they hover believing it was always going to be like that where in the distance they could see only grey, only more grey after that?

And an egret stood at the edge of the water, oblivious, dipping her head for minnows in the unusually rough pond. And a young eagle perched alone atop a tree beyond the marshland. And two young gulls stood next to each other on the sand, facing the wind, but low, below the point that might force them to find new shelter.

They didn’t seem to mind, not really. Nor did the others. They negotiate the storms with much the same approach as they do the hot and sunny days of August.

It is snowing again, and on the news now they’re talking about congressional disagreements, about rising Covid numbers, about almost half a million deaths, about regression among schoolchildren, about lack of relief for poor and famished families, about so much most of us can do nothing about, and I find myself turning away from this storm of information, this deluge of inhumane behavior, and let the breezes lift my spirits enough to rise up and move on, away from the madness.