The Palm of your Hands

I won’t do the math or muster up more metaphors of clocks measured in years; I’m sixty-two. How old that is, really, is hard to say. Some days, like those this past week, I can hike miles upon miles up steep slopes in the very thin atmosphere of seven thousand feet in 100 degree weather, and no matter how many times I had to stop and scratch my last will and testament into a stone, my need to push on and finish—really, my passion to reach our destination—was never in question, and not only did I make it, I felt a new surge of energy once I did. Screw you sixty-two.

But other times pulling myself out of bed to go for a walk at sea level is akin to clawing my way through dirt and stone out of a grave. It’s not that I can’t breathe; it’s that I really don’t feel like it anymore.

When I worked at the health club in New England, one thing the owner drilled into us during long weeks of training: the vast majority of our members’ primary problem would not be weight, it would be depression or anxiety or, worst of all, apathy. The weight would be a symptom of a deeper problem more difficult to address.

I’ll never forget sitting in my small office with the owner of the club and a member who needed to lose more than one hundred pounds. She asked point blank if she looked as fat as she felt and without missing a beat he responded, “Yes, of course!”

I looked for a hole in the floor to drop through.

But then, also without missing a beat, he added, “Did you want me to lie to you? That would only help you continue to lie to yourself. But so what? It is who you are! You want to feel better about your life! Of course you want to lose the weight, but more importantly, you need to stop feeling bad about yourself! You’re beautiful, no matter how other people make you feel! You need to surround yourself with people who make you feel good about yourself! Then you will, and the weight will be easier to address.”

She cried at the truth. It’s like he knew her pain firsthand, and, of course, he did. I stopped thinking of her and started thinking of me and nearly cried right there at my truth. This was almost forty years ago. It’s still that difficult sometimes. Today is a good example; when clarity sets in.

But at some point, it’s time to stop apologizing for who you are and start being honest with yourself and, in turn, others. It’s time to stop apologizing to others because the choices you make are not the one’s they wanted you to.  

“Your first step is not into this studio with Bob,” he added. “It is to find the courage to be honest with yourself and say to everyone, ‘This is me!’ and ‘This is what I’m going to do about it. People who don’t support you are probably the cause of the problem to begin with.”

Some of us wait in hope some solution falls in our lap, but we end up with the same problems decades on.

Some of us want everyone else to be happy but end up unable to pull ourselves out of bed.

Some of us worry about what others will think and explain ourselves instead of finally saying, “You want to know what happened, ask. You want to know how I feel, ask.”

Some of us are afraid to close any doors in fear we chose the wrong ones; we “wanted it perfect but waited too long,” as lyricists Marilyn and Alan Bergman wrote.

Some are martyrs, some are indifferent, or most tragic of all, frozen in fear of shattering what little hope they still have, what little life we still have. Some of us know exactly what to do to change our lives and get back on track, whether it be as challenging as losing weight the equivalent of another human, or simply being honest with ourselves and not rationalizing away the years.

I’m sixty-two-years-old. Sort of. I’m twenty-six. Kind of.

I’m eligible for Social Security. I’m walking nearly twenty-thousand steps a day.

Sure there are legitimate problems for which simply willing them away won’t work. But at the very least we need to stop inviting the problems inside, allowing them to fester, allowing them to dictate, to decide, to die with us or tear us apart.

Certainly, age is relentless. It is persistent and patient. Not one fat second will lose an ounce on our account. My students quip, “Oh man, you’re that old!” and I’ve learned to say, “Yeah. I am. And not so long ago I was twenty-three, and I nailed it. I did twenty-three great, but nothing like I did twenty-four and thirty two and…. It’s not the age, people, it’s how you do the age.

It’s my call: I can wallow in the reality that I’ve entered the fourth quarter, or I can keep climbing, through thin air and dry lungs, keep climbing. Richard the club owner was right: nothing improves, nothing, nothing at all improves until you start to feel good about yourself.

“Tick tock, tick tock, tick tock people. Times ticking away.” Yeah, at some point, it’s time to feel good again.

4:20 pm

I have updated this piece since it was first published at 3:30 pm. Perhaps you have a few seconds:

If life happened in a day, and Einstein is horrifically more accurate than we would like, then let’s make a 6 am sunrise birth and place death around a 9pm sunset. I’ve always preferred summers for the extended daylight hours.

And if we break a life of ninety years (I’m an optimist) into a day, we live about six years an hour, or a year every ten minutes. Goes fast doesn’t it? In fact, my clock reads 4:20 pm. School’s out, lunch has been made, eaten, and cleaned up, and the morning hours are so long ago I barely recall them anymore.

If life happened in a day, we’d make sure we didn’t miss much, no matter the weather or how tired we are. We’d call our closest companions and ask them to join us—we’d go through this together. It is too bad we can’t do this again, we’d admit. I don’t want to miss any of it, we’d say, suddenly aware of how fast time goes by, how many moments we let slip away. In fact, just talking about the fleeting morning might make us miss those hours of the day’s youth when discovery is ripe and exploration is new. Those hours of life when no one but us has yet discovered the forest out back, the rapids in the creek down the road, or the view from the bent branches of a birch.

Looking back at my own day, around 10 am I lived in Massachusetts in a yellow house next to a reservoir. It was a quaint village surrounded by a larger town, and across the street was a small post office and an antique store. Just up the winding road was an apple orchard where I bought bags of apples and where my neighbor the postmaster would buy me an apple pie for shoveling her driveway. I loved then, and I often talk about how I wish it was 10am again, and I again was leaving work to head to the mountain to hike to the summit to see kettles of hawks.

Just an hour later, I was gone, living in a different latitude and finding myself finding myself once again. Love was easier than it should be and shorter than I had hoped, and the lessons learned so late in the morning stole my energy for a while. Exhaustion isn’t always because of age; sometimes it is momentum. But time passes. I’d give the next six hours to have a few minutes back, but we can’t. We must look forward. If I spend too much time regretting what happened at 11 this morning I’ll blow right through the afternoon without noticing the way the light of the sun can bring everything to life.

At noon I walked to the river with my son on my shoulders, and we laughed our way through the early afternoon, hiking through woods and eventually continents. It was just about three this afternoon we trained across Siberia, and ten minutes later hiked across Spain. If my clock battery broke between three and four, I’d consider myself a lucky man.

What a day it has been so far. I can’t recall a single hour of my life I’d not do again. From sunrise on I’ve had a great time trying to stay one clip in front of the bend, with golden moments I couldn’t have scripted myself. Maybe that’s why the day seems so fast—I’m really having a great time.

Did you ever stop and just recall a moment from years ago like it had just happened, just now? I mean so that you can taste the meal and smell where you were, feel it, so real like it just happened, just now, but it didn’t. That happened to me today, over and over and over, and now it is 4:20, and it is happening again. Thank God happy hour is so close; I need a drink.

Tonight, from 6 to 9, I’m going to take my time and do the best I can. I’m going to wander, both literally and metaphorically, until I run out of time. Want to come?

What time is it in your world?

Poshel Na Khuy, Vladimir Putin

St Nicholas Cathedral (one of the rare churches to never close during Soviet days)

Over the course of more than twenty years, I came to know the backroads and alleys of St. Petersburg, Russia. I found the coolest little cafes and late night jazz joints, made friends in shacks serving Georgian wine and shashleek—a kind of shish kabob—in a small room with low ceilings and dirt floors, the Gulf of Finland pounding at the sand outside. I returned again and again to long embraces from friends like Igor and Dima and Valentine the crazy man and brilliant artist.

I taught American culture at the college, endured endless people wanting to practice their English, celebrated Victory Day on Palace Bridge year after year, mourned the losses of people during the siege with veterans who sat telling me their stories all the while holding my arm, connecting to me through touch.

I prayed with old nuns in shrines, climbed the rubble of the ruined St Catherine of Alexandria Catholic Church with American priest Frank Sutman who raised enough money to rebuild this first Catholic Church in all of Russia back to its glory from the ruins of the storage facility it had become during the Soviet Era. I met musicians in old bars—Gypsies—and played music until the sun came up, read my own work at the famed Stray Dog Café surrounded by the ghosts of Anna Akhmatova and Joseph Brodsky.

What a time it was.

With friends I toured palace after palace, attended private concerts by quintets from the Kirov who played before dinner at the Nikolaevsky, walked the halls of the Summer Palace and wondered about the infamous Amber Room, learned every crevice of the Winter Palace and its five building complex that is the Hermitage Museum. Had drinks in the basement of the Yusopov Palace where Rasputin had drinks just before he was killed for the fifth time. Walked the grounds of Galinka Palace, the Church of Spilled Blood, St Isaacs, St Nicholas, Trinity, and more. I climbed to the top of the tower of Smolney from which St Seraphim supposedly fell the ninety feet to the ground when he was ten but landed softly and got up and ran toward canonization.

I learned where to buy vodka and where not to sip it at all. I found the best places for authentic borsch and had Beef Stroganoff at the Stroganoff Palace.

I ate at McDonalds, Pizza Hut, Kentucky Fried Chicken, and more western joints filled to the gills with Russians loving the taste of America, drinking in the swell of western culture, surrounding my friends and me trying to fit more English into their Cyrillic mouths.

We took canal rides and saw folk shows where more than a few times I was dragged on stage to dance with the Russian women and men as balalaika music filled the packed arena. I’ve seen Swan Lake at the Marinksy Theatre more than a dozen times and have seen Hamlet in Russian.

I’ve made friends with former Soviet Naval Captains, countless professors, writers, and artists. I’ve become friends with translators and more than a few vets of the Chechnya War who would have rather stayed home and continued their studies in Engineering at St Petersburg University than return with no legs, one arm, half a face blown away, leaning against the Metro Walls, cap in hand—handicapped, hopeless.

I’ve sat on the rocks of the Gulf of Finland drinking champagne during the White Nights while one of Russia’s finest flautists performed privately for us, laughing, making us cry with Tchaikovsky and Bach. I’ve sat backstage at the St Petersburg Conservatory with a dear friend who is a choreographer, and his teacher, who used to dance with Baryshnikov, and watched them practice.

We’ve had food from an Uzbekistan Restaurant, and I came to understand the plight of the refugees from Azerbaijan after the slaughter by Armenians. I’ve read at the flat of Dostoevsky with an original volume of Pushkin on the table next to me and one of Fyodor’s own manuscripts two feet away. We have wandered through the massive marketplace next door and carried home to our apartment bags of fresh vegetables and chunks of meat cut before my eyes off of a carcass.

I’ve battled with border patrol over textbooks, bribed cemetery guards to let us wander sacred grounds, sat in the cell that held Dostoevsky and other dissidents, and watched the ruble gain strength, take a beating, then recover, then fall. I’ve sat on benches with women who were survivors of the siege during the Great Patriotic War and talked about family, talked about poppyseed rolls, talked about the flowers that grow in the dirt.

I was there when they reinterned the remains of Czar Nicholas II and his family, including Anastasia and Alexi. I was there for the celebration of the 300th anniversary of the city that Peter the Great called the Window to the West.

I watched as Marlboro came to town, then Clairol and every Russian woman suddenly had bright red hair. Adidas showed up and all the men wore warmup suits. I’ve walked past too many men in cheap three piece suits holding semi-automatic rifles guarding some boss’ SUV as money exchanged hands—all cash, USD, in suitcases.

I had just turned thirty-one when Communism fell and I went to St Petersburg. The city streets were dank and barren, not a single neon sign, not a single advertisement, nothing to see or do. I toured the lab of Pavlov where dogs are still used, and I stood next to the eternal flame commemorating those lost during the siege on the Field of Mars. I met Putin. I met Ambassadors. I met Sophia, who was a young teen when the Czar was still in charge, who lost her husband and son during the siege, and who sat in the shadow of the Smolensky Shrine and told me they can take anything they want from her, but they’ll never take her faith from her again. She blessed herself in the large Orthodox way and held my arm with her ninety-something year old transparent hands. She could tell me whatever she wanted. I could talk about anything I wished. I watched this county I was raised to fear fixate on all things west, becoming a strong and welcome presence in world culture and exchange. Every person I brought returned home amazed at the life that was Russia, hoping to return, knowing they had friends there.

I’ve brought dozens of US faculty, hundreds of college students, a dozen cousins, pilots, performers, writers, and an Army General.

Now, exactly half a lifetime since my first trip, I’ve watched it all go full circle. The western influence is there and that can’t be changed, but the presence has faded away—no more McDonalds, Pizza Hut, or KFC. No more Starbucks. Open readings are tolerated only if no one, no one, absolutely no one uses the word “War” in reference to the Ukraine.

I sat by hopelessly as friends wished me well and hoped we’d someday meet again. I told them, my friends, including those now in Germany and France, a few in Norway, that I cannot wait to see them again, perhaps in New York, or Paris. Maybe Oslo. Not Russia.

I have taken a train from one end of that massive empire to the other with my son, creating memories to last all our lives, spent late nights drinking shots of vodka with Siberian businessmen. I’ve sat in the home of tour operators and laughed and became brothers with them. I have mementos on bookshelves, on walls. I’ve written three books about my times in Russia, and more than fifty articles. I’ve developed three college courses about Russian Culture and mentored more than two hundred students who received Study Abroad credit. I miss the beauty of the architecture, the beauty of the people, and the mystical way history bathes me when I walk the streets at night. I miss my friends. I miss laughing with Valentine and talking about butterflies and angels. I miss sitting alone at this one café I love and drinking tea, making notes, listening to contemporary folk music and enjoying this magical life I’ve had the chance to live that brought me more than two dozen times to a place that until I was in my thirties, I never thought I’d ever see. I miss the people very much.

But I’m not going back until Vladimir Putin is dead.




on Nevsky Prospect

Off the Chain, Origin Story

My new book comes out in November.

It is true, all of it. Some of the chronology is questionable, but the events are not, many of them documented in disturbing detail.

It’s framed like this: The professor (me) gets called into the president’s office in the fall of his second year of teaching when a parent complains about her son’s report about my use of idioms in the classroom, particularly toward him. When I arrive, the sweeping office on the James River is occupied by a half dozen vice-presidents. In an attempt to explain what happened in class that day, the story takes a ride through thirty years of anecdotes and nonsense, tragic loss and mind-bending encounters.

Excerpts of Off the Chain have appeared in more than a dozen publications, including the Chronicle of Higher Education and the journal, Psychology.

Off the Chain: One Outrageous Day in the Life of a Professor

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November 30, 2022

Paperback

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A Seasonal Man

my local market is open for the season

It’s the “Open for Season” signs on ice cream joints and t-shirt shops. It’s the tossing of the football at the surf break, the running back on the boardwalk in bare feet to buy more drinks for everyone, the smell of coconut oil, the sound of a distant whistle of a guard in red shorts standing up, cupping his mouth, waving in some kid caught in the current.

It’s the first table full of tomatoes at Merryvale Market in the village, the pick-them-yourself marigolds still growing, but the corn is ready, and the cucumbers, and someone filled a cooler with ice and containers of crabmeat. This is where I shop; this is my local store.

It’s not simply that summer has arrived, with all the normal excitement of closed schools, warm sun, surf, gardening, hot hikes in the hills, canoeing, barbeques, and breakfast on the porch. Long days, days that run well into the evening hours so that someone might say, “Geez, it’s almost nine-thirty and the sky is still light.”

Those things, of course, but it’s more than that. I’ve spent more than half of my life in tourist towns, so that the non-summer months are punctuated by a sort of abandonment. As such, it is difficult to deny like most people I’ve known who lived and worked on the strip at a beach or in a drinking town with a bad boating problem as I do now, that it is relaxing come fall, when, as Jimmy Buffett points out, “They close down the tourist traps; the kids are back in school.” The “Coast is Clear” to say the least in those months, and some hotels and restaurants are boarded up, some simply open only on weekends, and others, well, they shut down completely and something new will rise from the sand come next summer.

Locals love that; the going back home part of tourism. I spent all of high school and my summers during college working on the strip in Virginia Beach, and I quickly became absorbed in the culture, where dressing up meant putting your shirt back on to enter a store.

But I like the arrival as well. I like the crowds, the murmuring of inlanders heading to the “coast” or the “shore” or the “beach.” Summer itself has an almost “opening” date quality about it, and those of us with depressive tendencies in the winter months come back to life, find that hope again that comes from radios playing on blankets and the sound of the surf, and the Cessna pulling an ad for some local restaurant, a boat hauling some paragliders, a few jet skis, a few kids playing frisbee, a few months of never quite getting the sand out of your hair or the salt off of your lips.

When I was a child, my family would pile in the car and head to Point Lookout, Long Island, where my grandparents had a house and I can recall like it was this morning walking single file down the center of Freeport Avenue, pushing my toes into the strip of soft tar which separated the two sides of the street, and headed around the dune fence onto the beach, and cousins would come and we’d play. Or later, my dearest friend Eddie and I would wade down the beach, knee deep, in the Great South Bay at Heckscher State Park, and we’d talk of boating across the reach to Fire Island, and further, down the coast to who knows where.

And my family moved to that who knows where, and that first summer when I couldn’t drive and didn’t know a soul, I biked that boardwalk every single day, and body surfed, and hauled strangers’ suitcases to their rooms, and made peace with heat and humidity.

There’s salt in my blood, but it only seems to season my life when the “Open for Season” signs appear.

And I know I love fall, and I like the fireplace ablaze come December, and I pull out oversized sweatshirts which anyway are more comfortable than semi-saltwater wet t-shirts with sand in the armpits.

I’m fifty years past that move south, forty years from working on the strip, thirty years from becoming a father, and there’s still something about some clerk hosing down a sidewalk in one of the eastern Long Island villages, or some high school kid rolling bikes to rent out near the boardwalk, or the guy selling snow cones, that is that constant in my life.

I’m a cancer, missing the Fourth of July by hours, so I really was, as has been written, “Born in the sign of water.” And it really is there that I’m at my best.