A Mind-Splitting Life

Mouth of the Rappahannock River - The Geology of Virginia

I have a few projects at various stages riding waves right now. The Siberian book is out of my hands, and my publisher tells me reviews will start soon, book jacket quotes are coming in, and the book will launch (drop? premiere? release?) in April. Good. I’m excited about this one; it is not a collection of essays, it is a narrative, a memoir, about a father and son sharing a wild ride through time.

The Nature Readings Project has passed muster from the legal perspective and the “staff” (Chris, Jared, Me) have finally, ten months later, started the final stages for release of the videos without anymore concern about rights and wrongs.

Old Dominion classes are fine; Muskingum class is excellent. I’m about to start the well-needed cleansing of the porch and outside walls of the house—not a small project, and certainly a wet one.

I’m knee deep into two separate new books, and I’m readdressing the structure of an old book, perhaps the first manuscript, certainly chronologically in my life experiences, still trying to get it right, still trying to figure out what I want to say to begin with. There is that, after all.

So, yeah, projects are normal. Never in my life have I worked a nine to five job, or any hours, and been done with work so that I can kick back and watch movies and forget about it until the next work week. I do kick back, a lot, and I do watch movies, a lot, but even then—especially then—I’m still on the clock. My clock. The one that is rewriting some article, thinking about a hard to pinpoint digression, glancing at edits or adding a section, restructuring, eliminating, sending out, throwing out, or just plain passing out. The dust never settles in the creative world; there is no downtime for our brains.

Even when I’m walking to the river or sitting in the morning drinking coffee and watching the dolphin pass in the bay, I’ve already clocked in, said good morning to the muses, and started working. Concentration might not be present, but awareness of the need to get things done, the internal drive to move things along, never left, not even when I was sleeping. I know this because sometimes I get up at night and wander to my desk and the papers have been shuffled, passages crossed off with “what the hell were you thinking here?” written across a paragraph, in my own handwriting.

A glass of wine helps, but I most often try to avoid that diversion. So I put on a movie or a show, something I’ve seen, something I’m familiar enough with to not need to watch but instead can listen to in the back of my mind like noise at a restaurant I can hear but don’t pay attention to, until a favorite scene comes on and I turn my attention to that for a few minutes, smile, enjoy the moment, then return from that quick but essential deep breath of a break to my work.

This is how my waking hours go. All the time. Every day, since I’m, well, for a very long time.

This doesn’t mean I can’t lay it all down like a bag of bricks and walk away. I can, and do, probably too often. But when I do, it is usually only for excellent reasons. Teaching, of course, (but even there I could claim they do so much work since I teach writing courses that I spend some of that time thinking about my own material), with friends, out for a hike with my son, sitting on a beach with a friend talking about life, talking about music or people we’ve known and lost. Yes, the best of my moments have been then, between writings, when a break from all the projects reminds me of the simple gifts of my world.

Not long ago I drove through western New York and went to lunch with two people: my cousin Annmarie, and one of my oldest and closest confidants, Liz. We sat in Geneseo, New York, at some tavern and talked about time, about DNA and how it matters more than we thought, and about friendship—true friendship—which bypasses DNA for some people and ties them together with something stronger than ancestry.

Then I drove up to spend a few days with a brother from a different mother, and we sat on a dock and talked about our kids, our parents, our expanding history and our contracting future, and it was right to do so, to spend our time that way.

I returned home and spent an afternoon with my brother (same mother) talking about everything from pizza to remodeling to the matters at hand, someone whose voice is to me as old as my own DNA. And today my son and I hiked trails we’d never been on before, and just like when we search the stars or when we catch the sunrises and sunsets, we remained without baggage or projects or issues of any sort, completely present, in the moment.

And all of these people brought me such peace.

It is such a contradiction to the contradiction that is creativity. I must be both completely present in the diction, the word choice, the sound of fingers on the keyboard and the frustrating and distracting anticipatory device that keeps telling me to hit “tab” to complete a word automatically instead of just letting me finish typing it. All of this part of the process is terribly present and real. But my mind and the prose force me to focus on future events or past happenings, sometimes decades and decades past, sometimes four hours ago, and so the process leaves me feeling as if I’m out on some body of water somewhere with two surfboards, and I’ve got one foot on each, one completely aware of the visceral contact, the other looking at the shore or looking back at the waves from which we came. It is quite the balancing act, and too much awareness of the keyboard, the diction, and I’m done; too much awareness of the events of 1980 or 2021 and the writing is done. It’s about balance.

Ah, there it is.

It is all about balance, about leaving the desk for the damp evening, the cool wet feel of my skin as fall weather comes on quickly, shaking off the words and ideas for a bit, knowing I can return later. Too much of one can destroy the other. Balance. It isn’t easy for some of us to find. We are not a smart lot, us engaged in the creative endeavors.

But back to the projects at various stages riding those waves right now, as I was going to say before Truth broke in with all of her matter-of-factness about balance (thank you Robert), I’ve got several going at once and I’m not sure if any of them will come to fruition, let alone be worthy of sharing. And as for any of them making large enough waves to make the returns worth the effort, well few writers I know play that pipe dream.

No, I’m going to clean the porch and write a book this weekend. I can’t possibly get one done without the other. And when they get the wires crossed and I’m not sure what to do? I’ll head to the river. A walk to let it all align itself and tell me my next step. Down at the river where the wide Rappahannock and the massive Chesapeake Bay battle for the same space, sometimes leaving the waters salty, sometimes clear as rainwater. But around here where watermen watch the weather when they’re on shore, one can’t possibly exist without the other.

Dialogue/711. One.

Bummer of a birthmark Hal - Gary Larson is the creator of "The Far Side"  and thousands of great cartoons … | The far side, Far side cartoons, Gary  larson cartoons

I wore a t-shirt this morning from an organization which has zero tolerance for snares in the wild; Painted Dog Conservation. I drove to 711. A few men always gather near the coffee counter to talk; it is a routine. Their trucks idle outside and they wear camouflage clothing even when they’re just headed to the store. Ironically, they really do blend in here, especially near the shelves of chips and the display of Virginia Tech paraphernalia.

One of the two noticed my shirt. I was not part of this conversation; just the catalyst:

“Yeah I gotta get rid of my snares.”

“Ain’t using them?”

“Nah. They’re not good. They snap the legs right off the turkey and the damn things get far enough to die where I can’t find them.”





“I saw me some snares got grippers electronically hooked up to know how much to grab to hold them without snapping off the best part.”

“I heard of them. I sure did, down at that show in Richmond.”

“That’s where I saw ’em. They got a device will text me when the snare snaps.”



“Ain’t cheap I’m betting you.”

“Forty or so.”

“Ain’t bad. I’ll have to get some.”

They sipped their coffee. One asked how I was doing and that he liked my shirt. I honestly think he believed the shirt promotes snares. Though to be fair, it has a lot of words on it.

Him to the other guy:

“You ready for deer?”

“Almost. I needs me new collars for the dogs. Something with better range so I can track them right to the kill. I shot me one last year made it a mile before he collapsed. Damn dog collars were out of range and I had to hike out there looking. It was pouring out, like today.”





“Can’t wait to go huntin.”

“Yeah, me too.”

I opened the door to leave and I wished them a good day.

“Yeah, you too. See ya out there, brother!” one said. I walked to my car eating my vegetarian egg roll.

SNARES CAN KILL *ANY* ANIMAL/WILDLIFE | Animal articles, Wildlife  protection, Animal stories

So We Beat On, Boats Against The Current

It’s the middle of September, kids are back in school, I’m well into teaching the second essay of the semester and reminded everyone of the Fall break; along the docks in Deltaville, some folks are already taking their boats out of the water while I met one couple from Germany who are already scouting marinas to pull in for the winter. Football is underway, baseball is winding down, and I received the annual European Deli Christmas catalogue filled with beautiful tins loaded with German chocolates. Autumn arrives in ten days, and to mark the change, at least for me here along the river, most of the osprey have already left for South America, I’ve seen a couple of eagles return, and last night a few flocks of geese arrived, settling in the duck pond since the corn and soybean have yet to be harvested.

I can relate to Jay Gatsby: “Summer is almost gone. Makes you want to reach out and hold it back.” I used to resist leaving summer with all my mental energy I could summon. I often thought I should, at the first sign of a falling leaf, hightail it to Monserrat or St. Croix.

The irony of my life is I have thrived on change and various experiences for four decades, and yet I don’t really do well at all with change, in particular, seasonal. Spring into Summer isn’t so bad since there’s something about Summer that calls to me. I like listening to baseball on the radio, swimming in the ocean while I can hear kids calling to each other, playing games, and music drifting down from beach blankets, salt water, waves. Winter to Spring is beautiful; I start thinking about planting here at Aerie, flowers and vegetables; I look forward to the buds and new growth, the return of so much wildlife. Dead of Winter, however, the post-holiday time, can be a bear. Fall is an odd combination of perfect weather and scenery which I’ve always loved, especially when I lived in New England and western New York, but it carries the slow erosion of life, the increased layers of clothes make me realize I need to “protect” myself against nature instead of experience her. I am not a fan of Autumn almost as much as I love it.

Also, my fourth quarter has started. I wish that I could slow the whole thing down.

It was dusk, the western sky almost purple in its last moment of a long day, and I could hear the geese before they came into sight over the trees, a few dozen of them. I stood still watching them pass directly above then bank to the northeast ever so slightly when they saw the unplowed field, and I could see them settle beyond the eastern tree line to a pond which runs a ways along the river. Yes, it is autumn. Soon the field will be harvested and they will settle there, hundreds of them, sometimes thousands.

And yet, as a college professor for thirty some odd years, this is the time of beginnings, of starting over and “having another shot at it.” Everything takes on a tinge of newness, from young students with wide eyes wondering where their next class is, to throwing out last semester’s lessons that didn’t work well and replacing them with new ideas, new approaches. I just completed the final page proofs of a book that comes out in Spring, which will help pull me through winter with anticipation and excitement. The seasons’ relevance is directly tied to our lives and how we live them. I could see the geese and realize it won’t be long before I don’t need to mow the lawn or weed, before the dormant trees allow me to see more sky, and the bugs, well, the bugs are simply gone, thank God.

That’s called “spin,” by the way. I’ve mastered the art of spin.

So let’s be blunt. I love autumn, but I’ve grown weary of the passing of time, or, better said, how I spend the passing of time. I was good at it during my second quarter, and to a lesser degree, the third quarter. So with one quarter left and having the experience of 244 seasons, I’ve changed my game plan. I’m not resisting the change as much as riding it like the geese who catch a draft from the west and glide for miles to the pond, not pushing back once, not needing to push back even one time.

If things aren’t going well, whether from this crazy world we’re renting for a while or from some internal misfire, I remember Neil Diamond: “I’ve been this way before and I’m sure to be this way again.” And I remember my plans to travel and experience: Ohio. Florida. Utah. Russia again. Perhaps Prague.

And most notably, the river, right here, where the water is still warm but not for long, and if we push out and paddle upstream into some of the inlets, we can see the changing wildlife, the flocks of starlings and the rafts of ducks most common once summer’s lease has expired.

And when it sometimes becomes a bit too much to bear, I’ll remember the words of Nick Calloway: “There’ll be other summers.”

Catching Up

Taxi Driver by Martin Scorsese (1976) | SP Film Journal

The first time I went away by myself, other than a few extended trips with a high school friend of mine to Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and camping in the mountains, was my freshman year at college. That was a ten-hour drive from my home, so returning on a weekend was simply out of the question. This was a time when communication by today’s standards was archaic. We had no cell phones, no computers, no answering machines if we even had a regular phone, which I didn’t. Mine was a payphone at the end of the dorm hallway which I shared with ninety, often drunk guys. So even if someone did try to reach me, one of us on the floor would not only have to hear it ring, but we’d have to muster up the energy to walk down the hall and answer it. Doing so then entailed learning who the person was calling for, walking to that person’s door, banging until they answered as you yelled “Bob! Phone!” and then return to bed without letting the caller know if the person was even home. So no “message” would be left.

We wrote letters, on paper, with stamps and envelopes, and walked them to the post office on campus. But with papers to write, parties to attend, basketball games, and hikes along the river, letter-writing was not a priority. Instead, when we went away to school, we went away. Gone, out of their lives. See you in someday.

I arrived that first year in August and returned to Virginia Beach in November, and during that time away, while I often called my father at his office due to his toll-free line, and my mother much less often due to my lack of ability to plug the payphone with quarters, I didn’t talk to a single high school friend in any way for three solid months.

But when I got home. Oh, wow, when I returned home that first Thanksgiving weekend, I headed to my friend Mike’s house, and our friends Dave and Michele and Kathy and Patti all came over, and we sat out back or went to Pizza Hut and we talked. We told stories and talked and laughed so hard I can still picture us sitting there like it happened last week.

We had so much to catch up on. I told them about college, about the hills of western New York, about my roommate and floormates and others I met and became close to. I told them about apple picking in Albion, New York with a friend, or about how two other friends and I drove to the Billy Joel concert in Buffalo and got lost on the way back. I had an endless bag of stories to share with them, and they caught me up on life there. Dave was married, Michele had her first son, another was still out in Nashville and another in nursing school.

We all looked different than four months earlier. Older somehow, despite the probable lack of change. But even just a little bit of maturity came from the slightest change. We met new people, added new dimensions to our personality and experiences. I was hitchhiking to Niagara Falls, Jonmark was doing well in Nashville, Mike was doing traffic and news for a local television station. We had stories to tell that we would never have had to share if we all stayed a part of each other’s lives on a daily basis. What’s more, other people entered our prose. When you break off completely and start anew elsewhere, you learn new ways—it truly is that simple. I’m not suggesting that one doesn’t mature and learn and grow without leaving. But one point is indisputable: I had no idea what any of them had been up to, no clue. And they couldn’t possibly conceive of what I’d been doing. And there was no device save the US Postal Service to keep us informed.

So it became so easy to get caught up in catching up.

And when I returned to college, the same thing happened. It had only been a week since I left for Thanksgiving, but upon return, I could not wait to see my new friends, those I was literally living with, ate with three meals a day, walked home with at three am, cried with. The few days away from them felt longer than the time away from those friends from high school I’d known for some years. Something was different. All those changes that had scared me to death before leaving turned out to be the best thing for me, and none of them would have been as significant had they occurred while still holding the hands of friends through some WIFI way of living.

Fast forward.

During my first few years teaching college in the early nineties, I’d walk down the hallway toward class and could hear the students talking, multiple conversations overlapping about the weekend, about plans, majors, transfers, food, concerts, about life, all of it. New friends mostly, evolving into new relationships, new ways of thinking. I’ve seen strangers become partners become parents. And after a long college break, it took ten minutes to quiet down the room, everyone catching up, seemingly happier to be back then to have gone home to begin with.

But that eroded; slowly at first, and then with discouraging speed. When I approach a room for class these days, it might as well be empty for the silence. It’s easy to think it is, until I turn in the door and see twenty-three students sitting silently, staring at their phone, texting the same friends they’ve been texting since seventh grade, not knowing even the names of those next to them, one of whom might be their significant other, or a friend with similar interests, or someone with familiar plans and hopes. They don’t seem to even care.

They’ve never learned the art of missing someone, the value of silence, the strength that comes from a complete lack of ability to communicate. The time spent in their own thoughts, without music, without social media, without letting go for a period of time without knowing what happens, has slipped away. College students remain knee deep in high school conversations well into their collegiate years, and it leaves them all with a much more provincial perspective.

I have a friend who isn’t on Facebook or Instagram or Twitter or, really, anything virtual. But every once in a while, she’ll email or call, even text, and we’ll talk. About our kids, about where we’ve been and what we’re working on. About the health of relatives and the times we thought of each other because of a familiar restaurant, or place we shared. It feels good, so good, to catch up. I honestly do not believe we’d be as close if we talked all the time. Or, perhaps a better way of expressing this is this: our time together is all quality because we have taken the time to appreciate each other.

There was a time we were all prodigal children, and those we loved embraced our return from that unreachable place we went to, be it away at school or another state. And we learned how love can survive such incommunicado. I once went twenty-two years without talking to someone and then spent two straight days catching up. And honestly, I don’t think I would have appreciated her half as much had we never lost touch. It helps to let go, to follow different paths, and not be tethered by technology, and then find each other again and find out how friendship has little to do with constant communication.

And more, during those times I was somewhere else–Arizona, Massachusetts, abroad, and had no means of reaching someone, I discovered more about myself than I ever would have by holding on.

I hope to see you soon.

Keep in touch.

Drop me a line.

How have you been?

So, what happened?

I have missed you.

These simple phrases have brought me such growth, such love, and such peace, they remind me that the strongest connections come after letting go.

Twenty Years Ago

One astute student in my college comp course raised her hand and asked, “Professor? What was it like before 911?” Her inquiry startled me since in the two decades since that Tuesday morning, not one of my thousands of students has ever asked.

I teach freshmen and sophomores in their late teens. Some are in the military, some are parents, a few are married, most have jobs, some play NCAA sports, some have known great loss, others have traveled extensively while sitting next to them are peers who never made it past the county line—adults, all of them. Yet all of them have one thing in common: None of them was yet born on September 11th, 2001.

“What was it like?”

I was born in 1960, almost twenty years after Pearl Harbor. And while I have studied the depression, read many books both fiction and historical about the twenties and the thirties, seen movies, listened to my parents, my teachers, I have always had some undercurrent of certainty that none of those cultural references rendered for me what made life different before the bombings.

But I could tell my student truly wished to understand. I knew no single phrase would suffice, and the barrage of examples such as the differences in traveling through airports and across borders before and after seems to come up short. The only truism I could muster was the most difficult to convey: That all of us back then, before, had absolute confidence in the fact that as Americans we could decide for ourselves what life would be like, for us and for this nation, and after 911 that seemed to disappear.

“But the contrast,” I told her and the now-attentive class, “isn’t in believing one way of life and then not being able to believe in it anymore when we were all suddenly thrown into a world where people fly planes into our neighbors’ office spaces. Prior to 911, the idea of others infiltrating our ability to choose our own destiny simply wasn’t in our vocabulary to begin with. So it isn’t as simple as saying we believed in a different way of life; it just was a way of life, undefinable and without comparison. We were above and beyond all possibilities of attacks to the point where it wasn’t yet part of our lexicon; it simply did not yet exist. Even to say “Thank God that stuff doesn’t happen here” was nothing short of ridiculous. We lived our lives separate from the rest of the world, including Europe, and no one actually even thought about it. 911 forced us to understand the way of life we had lost by imposing upon us a new way of living.”

Jihad was not a well-known word. Terrorism was not an experienced event except in a few small cases, and even then, the largest terrorist event we watched unfold in Oklahoma City was carried out by Americans. The Saudi’s were “friends,” Afghanistan was Russia’s problem, Gitmo was a movie plot by Aaron Sorkin. Travel worries focused on mechanical errors not maniacal extremists; being an American abroad meant you’d at least be given the shadow of the doubt when things went wrong. So much so, in fact, that traveling abroad felt relatively safe, let alone traveling to New York or DC. If your plane was hijacked, you just assumed you’d be heading with the bad buys to some Caribbean Island.

Before 911 there was no Homeland Security, and airline captains might regularly wander about the cabin. Before then, the World Trade Centers were not nearly as profound as they are today; before 911 it’s not that we thought of ourselves as untouchable by extremists; it just wasn’t relevant at all. Our biggest foray into the Middle East was the Gulf War, where we lost a total of 219 American lives, and thirty-five of them were from friendly fire. So as tragic as those loses remain, that was for the entire Desert Storm event. And after the World Trade Center bombings of 1993 which took three lives, those who discussed the issue at all simply figured that the terrorists had taken their best shot, failed, and went home.

Before 911 we talked about the promise and hope for what’s next. In that world before fear of extremists with demented minds for a troubled cause, we spoke of peace treaties, not waterboarding; of trade policies, not cave-dwelling terrorists.

My student almost seemed to understand. I knew I could never get her to comprehend the atmosphere of before, the lightness in the air, the different kind of stress, softer. I could tell her how driving to Canada simply meant having your license and answering a few questions. And going to Mexico and back was rarely met with more than a wave and a glace at my license. I could have told her I used to walk my parents right to the gate when they traveled somewhere by plane, and it wasn’t unusual to help them board with their stuff, so long as I was off the plane before they took off. It all seemed so trivial, in retrospect.

So instead, I told her this: I was sitting in my office while my class did group work. It was a Tuesday morning, the sky dark blue, and a worker came by telling everyone to put on the televisions in the classrooms. Together we watched the second plane hit, the first tower fall, then the second, and we left. This is a military area, and many of the students had family who would deploy in the following days. We didn’t know just how widespread the attack had been, so my officemate and I walked across campus in silence, suddenly aware of the irrelevance of grading papers, of discussing Virginia Wolfe. And we drove home and played with our children; children just a few years older than my students today.

“For a little while,” I said, “we all were totally unified, and we all appreciated the small things in life again.

“And you don’t, anymore?” she asked. “Have you gotten used to a world where they might do it again?”

I looked at her and knew she’d probably get an A in the class. “No. I haven’t,” I told her. “But I do spend a lot more time going for walks, watching sunrises. Does that answer your initial question?

“Yes,” she responded. “Yes, it does.”