Sixty-Two Running

The real question, I suppose, is how much of what happens to us, or better stated, how much of what happens in our lives, is the result of uncontrollable outside forces and how much do we simply let happen either out of ignorance of the situation, inability to handle the situation, or, closely related to that, some particular condition (addiction, learning disorders, etc)?

It seems understandable when students with particular disorders don’t produce as well as others, even though they might have the knowledge or ambition; this makes sense these days and we make accommodations. But where is that thin line between true inability to see something through and simple negligence? I’ve written before about my challenge on the first day to my writing students. I ask them if they thought they could write a 500 word paper about being in college and I get them all to acknowledge they can. That’s an easy one, I say. They actually have to write more than that just to get in the college, I remind them.  Okay, then, I continue. But if I read them all and the five best would receive one thousand dollars each, would they be better? Would they be among the five best? And they all sit up, excited by the false proposition, exclaiming that, yes, indeed, they would make sure theirs was among the best for a grand. I remain quiet for a bit for effect and to see if anyone realizes what I just did. “Well, look at that,” I say. “You just admitted to me and to everyone else you actually can do better, you just apparently can’t be bothered. Not unless I pay you. Then, sure, you’ll put in the effort if there’s something tangible in it for you. Stop telling me you can’t write or that you’ve done your best when you know if you focus and work like there’s more of a reward at the end of this than a grade. Because there is.”

It usually has a profound effect. I’ve turned that on myself at times when working on a project. The Siberian book, for instance, went through several growth spurts each time I reminded myself that the better the prose, the more people will read it. I’m not quite sure and never will be quite sure if it is the best I could have done—every writer’s curse. But there is a time to move on as well. Hard call, to be sure.

Shift one:

I turn sixty-two next week. Sigh. And I’ve let a few things slip past me, writing it off to depressive tendencies, side-effects of medicines, basic aging, and of course a complete indifference. That one’s a killer.

But here’s the thing: with a week out from my Grand Old Welcome into the world of Social Security Eligibility, I am seeing just how much I can do better and how much of these less than hoped for conditions truly are my new companions.

I have needed to lose weight for quite some time—not a lot, but more than enough for it to be an issue addressed by my doctor, who indicated two of my medicines could go away if I lost twenty pounds. It’s the proverbial vicious cycle: the side effects of the meds include weight gain, but if I lost the weight I wouldn’t need the meds. Sigh.

So a few weeks ago, disgusted more than usual with my condition among other things, I reminded myself that I actually used to be an expert in weight loss and exercise—true story. And I helped more than a few people lose a lot more weight than I need to lose. Tons more. I then recognized that when I’m traveling or very busy I don’t eat that much—at least not bad stuff—and I walk everywhere.

Could I do better than this or can I just not be bothered? So I stopped eating poorly (this after doing that before with several nutritional programs); I just stopped. And I started walking six and seven miles a day. Not every day but some days more. Bottom line? In the past ten days I’ve lost twelve pounds. There’s MY thousand dollars. It seems the older we get the more excuses we come up with. But I’m not doing anything any average sixty-one (for another seven days, thank you) year old can’t do. I walk. I eat right. Go figure. The weight is dropping. I’ll add more exercise again in a few pounds.

But there’s more. My life was on one trajectory for thirty years, and then it came completely off the rails (train metaphor—stop here and go order my book). I have made excuses about why it has taken so long to reinvent myself, but the truth is I just didn’t know where to start. I took shots at different ways of getting back on my feet but always in a half-hearted effort thinking things would continue to move along smoothly as they have for me since I am in my teens. Not so much.

I remembered a common response from that first day of writing classes for all those years: “Professor, I have no idea what to write about but even when I do I can’t get started. I sit and stare at the computer and just really don’t know where to begin!”

It’s a valid point. My response has several layers. First, yes, welcome to everything in life. We simply don’t know where to start, how to get going. I tell them that first of all stop trying to write about world peace or the rain forest. That’s like trying to fit a tractor trailer into a one car garage. The best writers in the world cannot take a subject the size of a room and fit it in a small box. Don’t write about the rainforest—write about one plant. Don’t write about world peace, write about one person, one event. So for me then, in essence, instead of thinking “Okay I need to reinvent myself by returning to that level I was at of senior faculty and three decades of pull behind me,” I need to walk out the front door, volunteer at the food bank one day and see what it’s like. I also remind them that the first step in writing, according to my mentor, the late Pete Barrecchia, is to “just write the fucking thing, you can fix it up later.”

And there it is. It’s Nike’s “Just do it” campaign; it’s Hemingway defying the blank page every morning before booze; it’s not thinking too much about what might go wrong and understanding if you’re going to sculpt an elephant out of a block of clay, the first step is to start whacking away at whatever doesn’t look like an elephant.

If this all seems a tad like oversimplification, you’d be right. There are times that demand a simplified look at what’s next, because sometimes what’s next is not some grand achievement but a simple subject followed by a verb.

And once you get a good verb down there’s no stopping you.

I know it seems silly for some specific date to mean anything. But we do that a lot—New Year’s resolutions, for example. Well this is mine. I saw this birthday coming for quite some time now, so I got a head start. By next week I’m planning on hitting sixty-two running.

But here’s the thing… I saw a guy on a corner last week in Virginia Beach with a “God Bless You—Help if you Can” sign. I helped the best I can. And I’ll be honest: partly because I’m a human being and to not help even in some small way seems ridiculous, partly because he was clearly a vet and I taught vets for nearly three decades and I understand the circumstances which may have found this man hoping for a few dollars at a red light. But also, I must admit, because I wonder sometimes how close we all are at times to the corner, sign in hand. How close are we to the acceptance of things we cannot change when we know, I mean we have the absolute conviction, that usually those “things” fall in the category of “change the things we can.” I may not be wise enough most of the time to recognize the difference, but at sixty-one years, eleven months, and twenty-seven days, I’ll be damned if simple acceptance is going to be my game plan for whatever comes next.

I’m going for a walk now, and I’m going to walk like someone’s holding out ten Ben Franklins at the other end.

The Past is in It’s Grave

Heckscher State Park, Great South Bay

I’m cleaning closets and donating clothes and other items I no longer need. Some are just old collectibles in boxes shoved beneath beds and in the attic. If I could fit junk in the crawl space under the house, I probably would. I have too much stuff. Soon, most of it will be gone, but it isn’t easy deciding what to keep. I can easily make a case for retaining every item. Sometimes it is comforting to pull out an old trinket and tell stories about what happened. I have an ashtray from a resort in Palm Springs from when I was fifteen, but I can’t mention it without my mother reminding me how I wandered alone for hours in rattlesnake country in the San Jacinto Mountains. I’m keeping that one. There are postcards and paperweights from family vacations and solo trips out west. Most of it is going. I can remember what happened without a cheap plastic prompt. And if I can’t remember then the item is a waste of space.

But last night I came to what I call the “Long Island Box.”

At almost fifteen years old we moved from my childhood home on the Island to Virginia—that was almost half a century ago; so far in my past I am the same number of years to 100 as I am to leaving the Island. And so much has happened since those days to make those first fourteen years little more than a title page; at best a brief introduction to the rest of my life. In fact, it seems that boy might easily be someone else save one particular item: the baseball my friends signed and gave me when I moved. On the rare days I pick it up it connects us across time and distance. I can look at the ball as proof I actually knew those people, and if I were to go back to Long Island, I’d almost expect to see them in their youth. Memories trick us into thinking of some places as special when, in fact, it is usually a particular time we relish. The truth is, when I hold the ball I don’t want to go back to New York; I want to go back to 1975.

When we were young we played baseball; we listened to music; we hiked the woods of Heckscher State Park; we skated across the Connetquot River and waded well into the Great South Bay. We hopped the fence of the Bayard Cutting Arboretum and camped out and kept secrets; we built forts and fought over stupid things. We came of age during the Vietnam War, and music was part of our blood. Now as if to symbolize all those days, I have the baseball. The names have not faded even while most of the faces have, though I certainly can conjure up the idea of who they all were. Over the years I’ve been back to New York, but never saw those friends again. Still, when I return I say I’m going “back” to New York, not “up,” as if New York will always be a time more than a place.

When those friends gave me the ball that last day, I wanted to stay in that town and finish growing up with Steve and Todd, Eddie and Paul, Janet and Lisa and Essie and Norman and Mike and Camille. So the ball remains my sole possession from life before the fall. I have wondered if my family had stayed, would I have pursued my burning desire to play baseball, or would the music and restlessness that eventually took over my life catch up with me anyway. Smack dab in the middle of my youth, in a small idealistic town, in a time when my friends and I were pushing the limits and planning our exit strategy, I got traded to another existence five states away. I have no regrets at all, but I have the baseball, and it teases me toward the proverbial road not taken. Steve and I were like Chris and Gordie in the film Stand by Me; Eddie and I spent near every single day together hiking through Heckscher, singing, teaching each other guitar. Every. Single. Day. For five years.

They all signed the ball.

Now I’m thinning out my collections of books and art, pawning off possessions and boxing up souvenirs. My emotional connection to many of these things is tied to the people I met along the way. While it is true that the further through life I paddle, the more I’m interested in what I can enjoy at the time, not stow away like pirate booty. How many times do we buy things while traveling, bring them home and display them, and eventually replace them with new souvenirs? Even if I do take the items out and look at them or show people, the significance eventually ebbs. I have stories and memories, and sometimes I have a longing to return, but I quickly realize that an object is not a memory, it is a symbol, a window through which we can watch our youth.

But this box is different. These are the remnants of when a boy literally grew up and tried like hell to hold tight to what he knew he was losing. I can hold the ball and see us in Steve’s backyard, yelling as we ran the bases, and I can still smell the marsh near the river that time we found an old shack for duck hunters and carved our names in the walls. The ball is proof I was there and it all happened. Souvenirs play an important role in moving on. They keep us from carrying the guilt of complete abandonment. Once in a while I pick up the ball and can hear their voices calling across the yard, across the years, Steve holding a sign of luck, Eddie calling for me not to go, please don’t go. And we’d say good night. Not goodbye—a small quirk of ours. Good night! We’d yell, and laugh, oh my living God we would laugh.  

I used to have this crazy dream that we would all meet at a pub, probably on the Island, and hug and laugh and drink and tell stories of then. It would be at the old Great River Inn, which I think is an Italian restaurant now, or across the river in Oakdale, on the water, and we’d get tables on the deck. Eddie and I would have made fun of Todd for the way he used to follow us through the marshes and kept cursing whenever he stepped in the mud. Steve would recall the terrifying afternoon I hit a fly ball right at the sliding glass door on the back of his house. We’ll both remember at the same time how we used to see who could hit the ball over the roof, and then we’d retrieve it from the street and see who could throw the ball the farthest. And right at that moment I’ll pull the ball out of my pocket and show them how bad their signatures were when we were young, and we’ll laugh and pass it around, but in the presence of these people the ball will suddenly seem irrelevant. We’ll break into a chorus of the Zombies “Time of the Season” like we used to while walking to the deli. Then we’ll order more wings and beers and someone will inevitably have to leave early because of family obligations. Todd will have to head home, and Camille will have to get back to the city.

But that will never happen. We lost Eddie a couple of years ago just before Christmas, and since then the desire to go back to that beautiful, timeless, idyllic hamlet has faded away. But we could have met, we should have. We could have convinced the bartender to play some early seventies music like the Beatles “Let it Be” album. And Todd and I would tell everyone how we were sitting in his room listening to the radio when the story came through that The Beatles broke up. It will get quiet and someone, probably Janet, will say she has to leave, so we’ll all stand in the parking lot and shake hands, and hug, and say we must do it again. They will drive off, but I’ll wait, because that’s how I see this going down. I’ll stand there almost five decades after seeing them last and wonder how it is possible to live this long and still remember details. I’ll be glad I went back, but I’ll remind myself I really must move on and simplify my life, so I’ll turn toward the river and wonder just how far I can still throw a ball.

Eddie and I got back in touch about five years ago and talked often. Neither of us changed when talking to each other, and it was clear we would have remained close no matter where life brought us. We didn’t drift apart; we grew up. 1975 is so far ago I can’t conceive it ever happened at all; yet I can make a case it all went down last week, and if I head down Great River Road and make a right at Church Road and follow it all the way up past Woodhaven, and stay right when I get to Leeside Drive, my dad would be outside at the barbeque, and my brother mowing the lawn. My sister would be in her room at the top of the stairs, and me, well, I’d be heading down the road to Eddie’s and we’d be walking out toward the Great South Bay for the day to see what is next.

It’s just a ball. It’s just a damn ball. It will go back in the closet, and my friends will go back to their faraway towns scattered from Long Island to Florida. All of us probably keep neat houses with boxes stowed behind stairs just beyond reach. Even this house I’m organizing and which I built twenty-five years ago is little more than a hotel to occupy as long as possible before I check out and others make themselves at home. Maybe someone will find my baseball behind a cabinet, and the names will be worn off when the kids here take it outside and toss it around. Anyway, it’s a ball; it’s how it is meant to be used.

Goodnight Eddie.

Write on. Peace out.

I suppose when I worked at the hotel when I was young, I could go home and leave work at work. It wasn’t my hotel, after all. Certainly, I’d get calls at various times since I was manager, but not often since the owner was often on site. And when I worked for Richard Simmons, it was a similar situation. As manager, I’d get calls at home if there was a significant problem, like when the other manager, Andrea, slammed her finger in a metal door and couldn’t work for several weeks. But overall, when I went home, work stayed at the studio.

This was less true as a college professor. Certainly before computers and cellphones I was able to compartmentalize my papers into office-hours work, and if I planned things well, I could get everything done for my normal eighteen teaching hours at one college, twelve more at the university, each semester. It was an insane schedule I maintained for almost three decades, including summers. But the luxury of making my own schedule, remaining primarily responsible for when things were due, allowed me to keep some sort of retentive check on everything, so, once again, when I was home, so was my mind. Sure, there were times the stack of essays followed me to my porch, sat down next to me, and would not stop babbling until I finished them. But mostly not.

Yet I have another occupation, one which chose me, therefore I cannot simply quit, lay down some sort of guidelines, and go about my business. As a writer, my mind does not clock out, ever. I have many writer friends who can do that, but I simply can’t and I’m not sure why. It might be one of several conditions, or it could be one of several medicines, or perhaps it is simply my inexplicable need to describe and highlight the miraculous beauty of life juxtaposed with the insistently rapid pace of life. But I cannot turn off my mind. I see narratives and characters, I hear stories and elements of distress, and the dynamic moments of everyday life can be overwhelming.

I actually and literally feel completely better when I’ve written something. The fact is this very blog started as an effort to relieve my mind. I know Van Gogh was like this as well, and Hemingway, and Jake the plumber at the hotel who could not rest if there was a pipe that could be fitted just a bit better, but after a solid attempt, even if he fell short, he could rest. Vincent wrote often about how his mind is eased either by absinthe or a good day of painting. My poison is nature and a few moments of trying to say something right.

But I remember fondly the days when I’d go home from the club and absolutely nothing felt undone or needed to be reworked. I could watch a football game and have some drinks with friends and never once glance at a somber face and need to make notes. That’s gone. Maybe that’s why I’m always searching for some peace of mind.

I was in a local store earlier and someone said to someone else, “No I haven’t been able to find him. I’ll call later.” That’s it. But that was enough and for the past three hours my mind has been beating the hell out of a piece I’ve been working on for far too long. This morning my son mentioned he might make biscuits today, and “process” stayed with me like a bad song that won’t leave your mind, and I either need to write things down or dive into some waves, let the cold ocean saltwater wash across me and make me present.

Nature can do that for me, more than anything else, really, make me present. A few months ago I was hiking the mountains in Utah and found myself nowhere else. Nowhere. I wasn’t writing in my mind, I wasn’t rewriting, or making notes. I was hiking. Yesterday I sat at the bay legs in the water to my calves and I watched two egrets fish for dinner. When I walked away I knew I’d spend time with them again late at night on these pages, finding that peace again on the page that I found on the bay. But at that moment, it was just me and them, kin.

I haven’t had a day off since I started working on a book about Van Gogh more than thirty years ago. Wine helps, though more often it can just fuel the flames. Lollipops certainly help. But my mind is growing tired lately. I’m always writing, even when I don’t mean to be. Still, I’ve come to terms with that. My friend Linda used to tell me, “Don’t die with the music in you.” This keeps me going. As long as I have some endless swirl of vocabulary beating at the exits of my mind, I should be fine. Maybe I never needed medicine to begin with. Just a notebook.

Painters see colors and perspective even when walking their dogs. Musicians hear that quartertone in the cardinal’s call, and writers, well, we keep indenting and backspacing, even when trying to eat a bowl of fruit loops.

That’s just how we are.