White Out

George Floyd murals pop up around the world, from Syria to Los Angeles |  Dazed

for George Floyd:

by Bob Kunzinger

I drive speeds to make color disappear and cops
never pull me over. Buy me drinks
and turn me loose at three am;
they never notice. Never catch me. Blow hard
into some tube—I’ve seen it,
haven’t been asked, ever. I loiter
in malls, linger too long outside
some convenience store; play music loud
along the strip, midnight, trying to hook up
with some woman

both of us hold up traffic. Officers
never suggest we move along, never notice
my brake lights are out– all they see is white
and polished chrome. Old women walk ahead
home from the grocery relaxed, worry-free.

Clerks at night don’t eyeball me up aisles
I can pump then pay
I can try it on
I can move through the mob, wander

unsupervised. Understand how unimaginable to question me
when I ask for change without buying a blessed thing.
I am armed with my ancestry; I am a card-carrying Caucasian. I am
unnoticeable on 95 North; this marks me as Everyman.

If someone asks me for the time, she asks
“that man,” Not “that white man.” I have never been “othered.”    

White is a given. I am never modified.
I am hardly ever described at all.
I have always been allowed to make eye contact. I could         

always curse and complain. If I say “I know what it’s like,” I am                                                

most likely lying. If I say “I can’t breathe,” I am given oxygen.

Odd Student Question #285

Five death rituals to give you a new view on funerals | New Scientist
Caskets on a Cliff in China

Today a student who arrived to the United States from a Pacific Island stopped to ask me this: “Professor, I’m working on the essay and just have a question. In America, how do families decide what to do with a deceased love one? I mean, how do you decide what to do with the corpse?”

My first thought, of course, was, “What the hell was the assignment I gave them???” But I do remember contemplating this before for a writing project of my own.

“Well,” I told him, “for starters part of it depends upon one’s faith, part on one’s finances, and part on circumstance, like disease for instance. But, practically speaking, how we are buried is nearly always tied to how we live.”

I remembered my research:

Arlington Cemetery and most other military cemeteries command a respect for those interned there. They remain privileged for men and women who sacrificed so much, often everything, for their country. On foreign soil stand some cemeteries for soldiers who could not come home from war. Where we are buried or where our ashes are spread is indeed linked directly to how we lived our lives.

According to the most recent information from the National Funeral Directors Association, our country is nearly perfectly split between burial and cremation. Just a few years ago burials stayed steady at about seventy-two percent, but the projection claims cremations will bury burials more than two to one in just a few years. Cost is the primary factor. While a funeral with a burial averages about $7500, a cremation can cost less than $2000. The low end gets even lower in mountain states and the high end skyrockets in coastal areas. “Location! Location! Location!” is the call for real estate whether above or below the surface.

I’m not sure where I want to go when I go. Maybe that’s why I write so much; so that the body becomes redundant. If we live well, death might just be irrelevant, though that sounds like the rationalization of a tired mind.

I could be buried in Madagascar. There, every once in a while, the people dig up their ancestors’ bones and dance around with them to music at a party, and then re-bury them when they’re done. Who wouldn’t want to crash that party? Some ancient Chinese dynasties believed coffins should be closer to heaven to get there faster so they hung them from cliffs. One practice I’m not so keen about is strangulation. It seems in old-time Fiji, the loved ones of the deceased, including sons, would be killed as well so death wasn’t such a lonely event. This is still practiced in some areas, but luckily not in the Commonwealth of Virginia.

I don’t often think about my own eternal, motionless resting place and where I wish to spend the future of all futures. In fact, hardly at all except when students, whose assignment turned out to be, “What subject do you love to talk about at dinner with your family?” ask, and I know quickly I don’t want to dine with these people. As for our mortal coil, It seems eternity doesn’t start until life stops, and I at least get the choice right now of where I get to hang out later; it is like making reservations. Do I want to go back to Brooklyn? I see no reason. A cemetery in Virginia somewhere seems convenient. I am very attached to the small town where I went to college in western New York and there is a beautiful cemetery there, but that’s not convenient at all. The options are incredible. One can, with the right connections, be blasted into space, splattered on the moon, or buried at sea. Become a great statesman or writer and be buried at Westminster Cathedral. Run for and win the presidency and be buried at your own library in your own State in the room next to the replica of the Oval Office. Become a seminarian, then a priest, a bishop, cardinal and eventually the Pope, and be buried in St. Peter’s where sainthood is not out of the question.

I could be cremated and have my ashes spread in a place of much significance. Maybe my relatives can shake my soot out the window of a Cessna above the Great South Bay. Better still, a colleague can buy some rolling papers and divvy me up among my students and let everyone smoke me. Small smoke rings can rise like empty words until the wind carries me away. If my family would foot the bill, I’d like one of those stone mausoleums with stained glass windows and candles for people to light, but it seems not just slightly pretentious. This would stand in direct contrast to my former office mate who told me he wanted to be cremated and his ashes flushed down a toilet at a rest stop on the New Jersey Turnpike.

I like the idea of spreading my ashes aimlessly about some deep waterway or, better still, along a footpath in Spain where my own Camino can continue and continue and continue. And then, like Whitman, “If you want me again look for me under your boot soles.”

Maybe I’ll simply go away. Relatives can scan maps years later and speculate, point at Spain or Mexico and say, “Yes, there. He is probably there. Perhaps,” and their imaginations can skip to distant, romantic places. And like Virgil’s personified “Death,” I can twitch their ears and whisper, “Live…live now…I’m coming.”

It’s About Balance, That’s All

If I could take only one memory with me when I move into an age of forgetting, it would be walks to the river, my son on my shoulders, the sun on my back, those moments. Or the times we went swimming when he was four. Or maybe the sound of house wrens just before dawn, or the whippoorwills just after dusk. I’d like to take that feeling of an open fire on my face and the cool night on my back. Or the sound of my father’s voice telling me to sleep well. Or my mother’s laugh, the way she takes a long breath. I’d like to forget all the times I got angry, all the times I was critical, all the times I didn’t listen, the myriad moments of arrogance, of immaturity, and replace them with the memories of all the times I listened to the sound of rain on the canvas awning at our home when I was a child.

I know I’ll want to remember one more time the foghorns on the Great South Bay drifting through the air, the sound of my friends’ voices as we hiked through the woods, headed toward wherever. I take it the grand design allows we forget the minutia as we age, but I’ll salvage what I can. I like remembering the way my son laughed uncontrollably when he was two and I chased him across a field. Or the jazz band that played at halftime during the basketball games at my college, or the sound of the train late at night coming in over the hills out toward Salamanca, the tracks just a block away.

Sometimes now when I am out for a walk, I stand at the water and wonder where everyone is. And I look up the coast and imagine my childhood friends—save one who left too soon—the rest now adults, sitting with their families, reading the paper, watching a movie, most likely long ago forgetting what we did when we were young. But I’m glad they’re there, just a few decades away, somehow still part of some shared history.

Or later. New England. Like the time I got home early from vacation and the kitten had shredded all the New Year’s Eve decorations I had put up, and a friend of mine stood in the kitchen crying with a bag of new decorations in her hand (the cat was nowhere to be found).

Or the time in the old house near that farm when we heard the cow so early that morning. The sound of the “moo,” a car start, drive off, and we laughed a long time picturing the cow rushing off to work somewhere. I remember that, and I remember the phone call a few months later. Of course. I have made it here now to who I am now because of both, and with both I am able to be honest about who I am. The extreme emotions of our lives are ironically very much the same, really.

I celebrate memory; I embrace melancholy. Too many medicines move us to the middle; doctors are terrified of the extremes. But the extremes are what we remember—good and bad. This is not to say I don’t spend the majority of my time planning and moving forward to what’s next. It is just that in the early morning, before the sun has had her say, before I am about to walk into the realm of a thousand voices and the movement of life, I like to remember that it’s been a good ride so far, despite the moments of pain, the now seemingly fleeting difficult moments. LIke that bolt that went into my son’s head, and the way he handled it like a trooper while the doctor’s tended to me, while I tried not to faint.

It’s been a ride, I must say. It’s been one hell of a ride so far. And fast. So damn fast.

The length of a lifetime from the beginning looks nothing at all like the brevity of that life from the end, like standing on a diving board terrified to leap, knowing you have to anyway for all the others lined up behind you waiting to have their chance. It’s your turn so you jump despite the fear of how far it is to the water, but when you “rise again and laughingly dash with your hair,” you look up at where you started and think, that wasn’t so far at all.

No, it isn’t far at all. Which is why while planning ahead I also like to find a friend, pour a drink, sit quietly for a while, then say, “Hey, do you remember that time…”

and then, quickly, find a map, make plans, block off some time—fall maybe, perhaps winter—and find something to do together later so we can remember when again. And again.  

Sometimes at 3 am

Where to See the Stars that Light Up Florida's Night Sky

It’s just after three in the morning and from outside this bedroom window I can hear the waves of the Gulf of Mexico methodically pounding the sand just fifty feet away. The weather must be changing for me to hear such waves. But it is March, and the “waters of March” are known for their changes; the very physical embodiment of “in like a lion, out like a lamb.” Still, such sounds seem more lioness than sheepish at this hour.

I suppose everything does.

The things that need to be done, projects to finish—or at least get beyond the just getting started state, practical matters to figure out and promptly address, the very foundations of life to re-solidify, ghosts to talk to and attempt to quiet down for now—you know the ones; they show up at three am, sometimes in the dreams that wake us, sometimes in a powerful memory played out in some cosmic Déjà vu, and sometimes in the mist that rises from pounding waves, waking you up and reminding you of everything that didn’t go well, everyone who lost faith in you, everything that normally settles to the back of your memory, stirred by the pounding, brought to the front by that rhythmic pounding.

The other morning I was in a different part of Florida getting ready for some work I had to do, and I turned on the television. One of those dreaded televangelists was wandering about the stage in front of thousands of people, and the tinge of his voice, the tight suit, the open collar, the plastered smile, the false tan, the nodding of the audience to his every, well-timed shift of tone, sent me looking for the remote to switch to something else, anything else, but before I found it he said something to the effect of, “Don’t carry the weight of what happened before! Let it go! Let go of how the last place you worked treated you that sent you running! Let go of the mistakes you made—stop deciding they were mistakes simply because things didn’t go the way you had hoped! Let go of your guilt for becoming dependent on others when you had no desire or intention to do so but found yourself there nonetheless! Let it go! For whatever reason, this is where you find yourself! For whatever others may think of how you got here, here is where you are! It is time to turn toward what’s next!”

Then I accidently kicked the remote which had dropped on the floor. Only then. I sat on the edge of the bed, turned off the television, and thought of Richard Simmons. Thirty-seven years ago that was essentially what he told all of us who were tasked with the job of motivating others to turn their lives around, and it worked, and I believed it, and it always worked for me, always.

Well, almost always. It doesn’t work well at three am when the ghosts rise from the pounding waves and settle on everything, and you wake up moist and lay staring at the ceiling, each wave a situation not handled well, each wave a wrong turn, some seemingly self-inflicted failure. William Styron called it the “Darkness Visible,” that depression that can’t be defined, but is ever present, like something you keep meaning to do but can’t remember what it was, just sitting there at the front of your mind, and only you know what’s bothering you, but even you can’t define it.

But if you spend enough time listening to those waves they can become deafening, overwhelmingly deafening. But eventually they can sound exactly—I mean exactly—like the waves that crash on the same sand at six am when the sun is slipping up over the trees behind you, and everything seems right with the world. And you’re able to put to bed those old thoughts and remember what it is you were trying to do anyway. But one should not have to wait until dawn to see some hint of light through the darkness.

Here’s the thing: There is the big picture; that is, where do I fit in in this massive world where eventually all things pass, and there is the detail in the small box in the corner, which is clear and points us toward something specific to focus on. And some people only see the big picture as the reason to find so much of life pointless to begin with, or they only see the small detail as that proverbial drop of water in a Gulf of pounding waves—what possible difference can one small contribution ever, I mean ever, make?

No middle ground for those people. As fellow Islander Billy Joel once pointed out: It’s either sadness or euphoria.

There are questions, though, right? Did events in the past cause this wake-up call, not the waves? Or did some state of mind which often remains undefinable and undiagnosed cause the events of the past to replay with every damned crash of a wave? (Simmons-training translation: Do you eat the junk food because you are depressed or are you depressed because you keep eating junk food?” Well, both perhaps)

So, one might simply go back to bed knowing that the truth is in the morning the sun will glint off the mist from the pounding waves and everything that symbolizes darkness in the soul suddenly symbolizes hope, or one might decide to redefine that metaphoric wave-pounding by walking out the back door, wandering down the grass to the sand, and stand at the water’s edge, stare up at a carpet of stars spreading all the way to the Mexican coast across the Gulf, and listen intently to the waves, each time noting what went well, each time feeling the brilliant slamming of a wave and thinking of a new idea to see through, an old accomplishment that brought good things, each wave in the imposing darkness becomes the putting away of those who don’t understand but never bothered to ask, of those who pushed back without cause, of those who doubt, knowing for certain that there is no bigger doubter than you. Until eventually each wave that wakes you up at three am reminds you of what’s possible. That’s how to chase away the ghosts.

So that’s what that tv guy said. Or at least that’s what I heard, something about making the choices to let go of what is unhealthy, including people, and hold tight to what is empowering, especially people, especially yourself.

Sometimes you only need your eyes to adjust a bit in order to see the darkness in a whole new light.

May be an image of sky and ocean

That Was Me

Flipping baseball cards on a summer day. The boys in my neighborhood did  this when we were kids. Us girls ju… | Childhood toys, Childhood memories, Baseball  cards

A million years ago I flipped baseball cards with friends on the sidewalk outside our home in Massapequa Park. I’d sit on the cement in my dungarees and Wildcats little league t-shirt with a stack of Topps cards in my left hand, ready with one in my right hand between thumb and index finger, hoping to take the stack on the ground between us. The older cards were limp and ripped in places, but the new ones were stiff, still dusty from the hard stick of gum that came with them.

I’d turn over a rookie Tom Seaver or a Cleon Jones, not knowing then that I held several thousand dollars in my left hand, and since at some point the following year I had the entire 1969 New York Mets squad, tens of thousands of dollars. I only knew I wanted to kick some baseball card-flipping butt before I had to head back inside for dinner. We were about to move further out on the Island, to a new house out near the Great South Bay, and who knew when I’d have another chance to do this.

Life was about flipping cards. Ask anyone who was nine back then—they’ll back me up on this.

Everything was easy. Well, for me. But on the other side of the planet the Vietnam War was in full swing, my uncle on his way over, a friend’s brother on the next street was not coming back. And just upstate, music fans would gather in a month at Max Yeager’s farm, while just fifty miles away in the city, the Mets were in last place for the last time, heading in a matter of months to a miraculous championship. Hippies walked down Main Street, the Beatles were together and going strong, Nixon was reelected, and Steve Bezos just turned five.

Above us, just about the time I lost the Seaver card, Apollo Ten was orbiting the moon, doing surveillance for their successors, Apollo Eleven, just a few months later. Funny, now it occurs to me up until that point I lived in a world where we still had never walked on the moon. I wonder what we compared tasks to before we could say, “We can land a man on the moon but we can’t make a toaster that cooks evenly.” Maybe an atomic bomb reference, or the sound barrier.

In any case, I didn’t yet know any of this, except the Apollo mission, didn’t care about Tricky Dick, preferred the Birds to the Beatles anyway, and baseball was the universe. I was eight, for God’s sake. My voice hadn’t yet changed.

Yeah, seriously; a million years ago.

That was back when my friends had no last names. They were simply Charlie and David and Chris and Tommy, and the Little Read Haired Girl (seriously, just like Charlie Brown) who I think was Kathleen. We had a pool and block parties and barbeques, there were blackouts and everyone came out into the twilight evening, my friends and I chasing each other, the adults standing around in the cooling summer air, talking about how, “Over in Amityville they still have lights, and a few houses on Euclid, but they’re out down on Park Avenue, and all the way down East Lake.”

Lights. No Lights. Whatever. I was eight.

My cousins lived too far away to ever think about visiting on a whim—a good thirty or forty miles, and the ice cream man would come, and the television was a big black and white console on which my sister would watch Gunsmoke and Bonanza and my brother would watch Star Trek and the Olympics from Mexico City and I’d watch cartoons or Andy Griffith. And baseball when it wasn’t blacked out to local viewers because the game over in Shea hadn’t sold out.

And at night after the Late Shows ended, if I was still awake in bed and one of my parents had fallen asleep on the couch, I could hear a man’s voice declare, “That is the end of our broadcast day,” and the screen would get fuzzy with a low buzzing noise all night. Didn’t matter which of the five available channels was on, they went off the air.

The friends I have now, back then, were all over the place. Rick was probably about to leave high school and hitchhike across the country, Tim was playing high school football in Philadelphia; the other Tim was a lieutenant humping his way through the marshes of Vietnam, and Sean was learning from his father upstate the value of giving, of volunteering. And my friends back then, now, well, who knows? I think about them when I pass through Kennedy Airport or the rare times I’m on the Island and stop in a store, wondering if I just walked by or stood in line behind someone that at one time a million years ago was my absolute best friend; the one I’d know forever. It was so easy then. When you’re eight you’re simply always going to be eight—no discussion. Your parents will always be there, your siblings will always wake up early with you on Christmas morning to exchange gifts before you head down to the living room to see what is under the tree, and baseball card-flipping is more important than religion.

Sometimes I have to try hard to make myself realize that that eight-year-old was me. That it wasn’t some kid I saw in a movie or read about, or a child someone told me about. That was me, legs crossed on the cracked cement sidewalk on East Lake Avenue, the same me that sits now near the river and listens to the approaching flock of geese, watches the descending sun, feels the faint brush of something familiar, like a song I once knew or a memory of someone that was kind to me. The same me that barreled across Siberia with my own son, who is now twenty years older than I was back then.

It’s late, and I’m tired. I have some writing to finish for readings next week, and a few deadlines looming, and I walked out on the porch and listened to the cold night, the clear, star-filled night, the late-winter, early spring night that is colder than it should be here on the bay. A friend of mine believes in reincarnation, believes we come back as, well, some other living form, whether another human like the Dalai Lama does, or as an orangutan, but as something. I’d be okay with reincarnation, but I want to come back as me. I want to do this again, make those mistakes again, fall in love again, have my heart broken by the same girl again, play golf with my father and brother, receive care packages from my sister when I was at school, move into those dorms again, play tennis again. Hurt and give and cry again, until it hurts again.

If we agree eighty years is about a life, anything more than that is a bonus—overtime, if you will, which I absolutely plan on participating in, then I’m now entering the fourth quarter. Games have been won or lost in the fourth quarter. Some of the greatest plays in history were made in this part of the game.

The Mets didn’t turn a losing season into a streak of winning now universally called miraculous until the late third and fourth quarters.

It’s not over yet. And it just might be that the best resource I have to face whatever comes next on this pilgrimage is that eight year old boy somewhere inside of me who could flip baseball cards with the best of them.

Ya Gotta Believe. By Jay Horwitz | by New York Mets | Mets Insider Blog

Not Everything is As it Appears


I watched a hawk sweep down and pulverize a dove. The hawk perched on an oak branch and the dove, distracted by the wind and some seed on the lawn, stopped paying attention. It happens. The hawk isn’t fast as much as he is silent, just a simple cliff dive, stepping off the branch, and, wings out, sweeps in with perfect form with his claws out front to grab the dove at the neck. A sudden puff of feathers busts into the air, and the raptor is gone. So is the dove.

This time the dove simply stood on the grass. She had been facing the direction of the hawk and when she turned around the hawk flew into action. The dove seemed to hunch down like she knew what was about to happen. Gone.

I wondered if she just gave in, like she’d had enough. Sometimes the natural instinct to survive is not as strong as simple resignation. I get like that.

When I was in high school some friends and I went to the beach on the bay. At some point one friend and I decided to swim out to the end of a very long pier. We made it but we were exhausted and ended up helping each other back, each of us taking a turn at holding the other until we were at the breakers and could ride in. She and I just collapsed on the beach, spent. It isn’t like we weren’t in shape. We had stamina; we just swam too far out. I wonder when it is that people decide to give up? I wonder if we had been another hundred feet would it have been too far or would we have found the strength and determination to push it.

I mean, did we collapse on the beach because we couldn’t go another yard or because we didn’t have to?

I wonder how often I’ve given up because I thought I found the shore when the truth is I could have probably held out for more, pushed it a bit, opted to swim a bit further.

It’s cold today, but sunny, and the hawk is around—I can hear him, though the doves are feeding on the porch rail where it is safe and out of sight. Earlier out on the river I noticed the osprey have returned from South America and found food for their offspring, and the cormorants have returned too. Sometimes some river dolphins swim under the Rappahannock Bridge, but not yet this season. I find peace here. I think mostly though I like the area because of the water and the sand. Ironically, the first time I was in this area was exactly ten years before I bought the land to build the house. Just across the river is The Tides Inn, a quiet resort right on the Rappahannock. For my parents’ thirty-fifth wedding anniversary, my father invited us all to stay at the Inn. It was an excellent time, and we went for a river cruise on the Miss Anne, a riverboat which went under the bridge, and we followed the south shore and returned to the Inn along the north shore, turning around at the mouth of the river into the Chesapeake. I had no clue we passed close enough to my eventual home to be able to cast a line to shore and pull us in.

Thirty-one years later I’m watching osprey feeding their young out across the same bridge, while hawks stand watch in oak trees waiting for doves to stand still.

I was born a moving target; I’m not sure I ever learned when was the right time to collapse on the beach. The hawks have for the most part missed me up until now. When I do settle down it is usually to look at a map. Ironically, since I moved into this house I have traveled more than I ever dreamed I would—Russia, Prague, Amsterdam, Spain, France, Norway, and plenty of states. And at night in the darkness we use the telescope to travel through the heavens out across the waters and find planets and meteors. We often joke about one of the meteors ripping through the atmosphere and hitting us in the back of the head while we’re facing the other way. Raptor, rapture? Whatever. Done. But not done.

When I was in college a friend had a poster on his wall promoting Nike. It was a long shot of a winding road through open country with one solitary runner, and the tag line said, “There is no finish line.” I like that. If we didn’t know when to stop I wonder how often we would keep moving. I’m not an advocate of indecision, but I’m a staunch opponent of settling for something when there’s still more options for the ones willing to wander a bit more. It is, to be sure, a delicate balance, and like chemistry or psychology, or passion, finding that line between “Keep going, it’s worth it,” and “You know what? Fuck it,” is not an easy call for everyone. Sometimes you need someone to help you over the reach; sometimes when you’re ready to give up, a quick turn back and a “Hang in there,” is all it takes.

Certainly I get tired as I move forward, especially on the days when I’m not sure where I’m going or how long it will take to get there, and I’m doing my best to move past the silent judgements and thinly disguised treading of water. But when I think about that swim to the end of the pier and back, I don’t often recall the collapse on the sand; I remember how quiet and peaceful it was for just the two of us, taking turns helping each other, sorry we tried yet, honestly, not sorry we tried. It was hard to tell if we were helping each other or saving ourselves.

Well, the truth is, all we can do is help each other. It’s the only way to save ourselves.

The journey doesn’t necessarily end because we found a safe place to rest