The Convergence of Hard Truths

I walked along one of the country roads today thinking about how the stress slips away for awhile when I’m out there. It isn’t being “present” as seems to be the hip way to call “aware.” I’ve always been so in country roads throughout the world; I am rarely more in the moment than when I’m walking somewhere. But I’m also thinking about the times I’ve screwed up, the times I’ve made things work, the differences between the two which seems to be an ultrathin line as it turns out.

I’ve had a half dozen moments in the past five years I’d give anything to have back, to rethink how I approached it, how I’d do it differently. It is entirely possible—as was the case with me—to “do the right thing” in a situation yet completely fuck it up. That’s been me for a decade or so.

I’m quite tired of it. Indeed, I’ve absolutely had enough. I keep thinking of that traditional song, which I know because of James Taylor’s rendition: “If I had stopped to listen once or twice; if I had closed my mouth and opened my eyes. If I had cooled my head and warmed my heart. I’d not be on this road tonight.” Damn straight.

But here I am, nonetheless, confident I made the right decision at the time, confused as to how doing so could lead me to such places as I’ve found myself this half-decade. But I digress, which I’m apt to do from time to time. One paper once called what I do “Digressive Writing.” Okay, I like that, but it’s like trying to have a conversation with a radio, so I’ll get back to my point of the moment—the country road today.

When I was young there was a road which led from the main country road back to stables on the fringe of both a country club and a state park. My friend Eddie and I spent many days walking this road lined with tall pines. It ran behind the deli and the post office but branched off quickly so that nothing sat on either side of the road but woods. Eventually, stables, but until then the peace of nothingness, as if Eddie and I walked alone in the world, some Cormac McCarthy world but only in a good way instead of an everybody’s-probably-going-to-die way.

And we’d sing. Chapin, CCR. CSN. All the initialed ones. One time, and ever since then when I’m on a road like this, we both started singing “The Long and Winding Road,” at the same time. Instead of either of us stopping or both of us laughing, we kept singing, quietly, never looking at each other, never missing a word.

I needed that moment today and I found it right near my home, on another road which runs along the river, spotted by houses set back, but mostly road, trees, and quiet. No concerns about falling down or fucking up. No concerns about what to do next—it is next, there is no next, only a long string of both impossible and beautiful nows.

Just my feet on gravel. Some wind. A house wren, an osprey. No water as it was quite still today on the river. No neighbors, no cars, no dogs in the distance. Just my feet on the gravel or the grass and the light breeze.

And me:

Many times I’ve been alone
And many times I’ve cried
Anyway, you’ll never know
The many ways I’ve tried

I’m not sure what happened next. I was engulfed by all things that have gone wrong; I had a clarity of every path, every diversion, every digression. I stood for a long time and thought of Eddie, of the stables, of a road I used to walk in Pennsylvania and another in New England. There have always been country roads for me. I suppose even my brief time in Brooklyn after college I could consider President’s Street a country road for all of the time my mind was wandering.

When else is a person to think about things?

My brother pointed out to me that someone—Einstein, maybe?—said the definition of insanity is following the same course of action hoping to reach a different result. Geez—lock me up now. Guilty. You know why? No, me neither, and that’s the problem. Sometimes it takes the right convergence of circumstance to cut short a dangerous cycle.

Which brings me to the past week or so. This is my convergence; these are my circumstances: I was in Utah and hiked and laughed and remembered and hoped. I was in Utah and pushed myself harder than I have had to in a long time and found out I could. And the sun set across a field of salt, and that moment is forever; that moment was thirty-five years old and thirty-five years from now. So, I came home and continued to hike, albeit mercifully at sea level. And I let go of my mistakes, my bad decisions. Sure, I still have some bluffs to call, some baggage to burn, and I just hope to high heaven those around me have a little more patience while I find my way back. But I came back and hiked, and today I walked that road down past the house of the late Walter Cronkite, and all the way to the dock and the pier sticking into the Rappahannock River, and I walked to the end of the road lined with pines and let my feet dangle, let my past week just hang out there, let my soul just float out there, and knew that everything we go through, everything, even the depths of bad decisions, brings us back to this moment now, and I took a long breath, let it out, watched a boat head out to the bay, and quietly sang, Eddie’s voice up in the clouds somewhere,

The long and winding road
That leads to your door
Will never disappear
I’ve seen that road before
It always leads me here
Lead me to your door

Please: Take two minutes and seventeen seconds:

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Penance: Walking with the Infant

In 2007, I released a small, magical-realism work, Penance. It is a first-person account of nine days spent in Prague. Through the eyes of the professor, the reader explores the city, the monuments, history—both celebrated and tragic—the food, the literary life, and its famous underground arts community.

All the while, the professor carries on a conversation with Prague’s most famous relic—the Infant of Prague. Through these monologues, they explore not only this “City of a Hundred Spires,” but faith, doubt, death, war, and more.

On the 15th anniversary of its release, Penance is now expanded, including extra chapters left out of the original, and with a new introduction.

Critically acclaimed when it launched in 2007, Penance was endorsed by The Catholic Virginian, Asian Catholic, and listed by Inside the Vatican Magazine as recommended reading for anyone interested in Prague.  

Coming this November, could there be a better Christmas present than this tale of a professor and the Infant Jesus of Prague? This limited-edition book is available only by pre-order for inscribed/numbered copies. Reserve your copies today

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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

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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.  

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.