November 28th, 1985

“Mary had a little lamb

whose fleece was white as snow

and everywhere that Mary went

her lamb was sure to go”

Which in reality was a small schoolhouse in central Massachusetts where Mary Elizabeth Sawyer walked each day from her farm, followed by the lamb.

I’ll come back to this.

I worked for some time at a quaint inn in Sterling, Massachusetts. The restaurant with a small lounge and several rooms upstairs sat just near the Wachusett Reservoir, at the bottom of a hill in the village. It was owned by the Roy family, and Al Roy had studied cooking in France. His son, Mark, ran the restaurant and inn, along with his wife Patti. The staff consisted of about ten of us. Dave was a chef, Tom the bartender, Rich—a student at the time at the Culinary Institute of America—assisted Dave, and the wait staff. We were like family and shared each other’s lives.

I’d go hawk watching at the Quabbin Reservoir an hour west with Dave and his wife, and often Cathy and Stacy and others would come to my place—an old yellow house just down the shore of the reservoir a few miles past the cider mill—and sometimes after the dining room closed we’d sit around and have a drink and talk. There were funny times, like when I went out one cold winter night to put the trash out and the only other person left was Cathy who was placing the fine China plates out for the next evening’s guests, but I locked myself out. I went to the back windows of the dining room which faced the wooded hillside, standing two feet deep in snow, and knocked on the window. It scared the crap out of Cathy and the stack of plates sailed out of her arms and crashed to the floor. She screamed. I laughed. It was an accident, truly. Or when a couple from Quebec came to dinner just as the dining room closed and kept just Tom and me there for hours, well past midnight. Dave had closed up the kitchen after their meal and went home, but they still had wine and dessert. At about 1 am they left and when I opened their bill folder to see what kind of tip they left on the $40 tab for keeping us there so late, the credit card receipt showed no tip at all. I cursed loud enough for Tom to laugh and say, “No tip, huh?” and when I picked up the folder, a $100 bill was underneath.

Some tragic times as well, mostly January 28th, 1986, two months to the day after Thanksgiving, and just about a week before I moved to Pennsylvania. Most Americans will never forget this day, but it was particularly poignant for those of us in New England since Christa McAuliffe had lived just across the border in New Hampshire, and on that morning and afternoon, the inn was packed with people—many friends of Christa’s—to watch the Challenger launch on television. I was tapping a keg of Budweiser and looked up as Patti said, “Oh wow, that doesn’t seem right.”

It was completely silent, followed by cries. I can still smell the beer, hear the dishes from the kitchen, Cathy saying, “What’s going on?” and Tom behind the bar quietly repeating, “Holy Shit. Oh wow. Holy Shit.”

But today I remember a happier time there. Thanksgiving Day, 1985. We had a limited menu of Turkey, Scallops, or Prime Rib, and we were booked for all three seatings. The last guests left about 7 that night, and after we cleaned the dining room and the kitchen, we all sat around a bunch of tables pushed together and had a full meal with all three entrees, bottles of wine, pies, and stories, constant and hilarious stories. It was a beautiful time in my life and I loved where I lived, what I did, and the people I spent my time with.

But something had to change; I knew this. I did not know what needed to happen, but something else needed to be next. I had graduated from college, traveled through Mexico, lived in Tucson, managed a health club, and was happy, but stagnant, and this state of being, albeit pleasant, contradicted my very nature. It would not be long before I would turn in my notice and move to Pennsylvania, but on that Thanksgiving where a dozen misfits all sat around the table together laughing and drinking and wishing it could be like that forever but knowing it had to change—and would, for every single one of us—I got up to open another bottle of wine but instead walked out the front door to see that even more snow had accumulated on the couple of feet we already had.

I walked to the center of the village just a half block away and found a statue I’d never seen before. It was of Mary Elizabeth Sawyer’s lamb. Mary is the young girl in Sterling, Massachusetts, who had a small lamb that followed her everywhere, including school. It was a big event in the small school, and the next day a classmate of Mary’s, John Roulstone, a year older than Mary, handed her a poem he had written about the event. The poem had three stanzas—the first of which is at the top of this page.

Some years later, a poet, Sarah Hale who lived not far from there, published a small book of poems which contained a longer version of the poem, but Hale insisted it was original and based upon imaginary events. The controversy lasted for some years, well after both Mary and Hale had died. Until Henry Ford—yes, that one—investigated the incident and not only sided with Sterling’s own Mary, but purchased the schoolhouse from the village of Sterling, moved it to Sudbury, Massachusetts, and then published a book about Mary.

Back to me.

I stood at the small statue watching snow slowly cover the lamb’s wool now truly white as snow, and waited in perfect silence, listening to the quiet of rural Massachusetts. I can feel that moment today, that sense of peace braided with a sense of restlessness. I had to leave. I had to stay. Back then for people my age riding the tail of the Baby Boomer generation, the urge to “change” something usually meant going to the liquor store for boxes, filling them with books I’d never read again, tying them up with string, and moving somewhere else. Boston was out of the question—geez, an hour to the east was too far. Staying meant improving my life where I was—figuring out how to take the best of my situation and improve it, and I stood in front of Mary’s lamb and knew I didn’t know how to begin to do that. I only knew how to pack up and leave; that I was good at.

I went back in and grabbed the wine bottle and while I was opening it, Mark came in the kitchen.

“Where the hell have you been? We’re a bottle a head of you!”

“I was talking to the lamb.”

“What lamb?”

“Mary’s.”

“Ha. Oh. Well…”

“Mark, I think I’m going to have to turn in my notice, but, I don’t know, maybe January, maybe February. I need to find something else to do.”

“Oh wow, well, okay. We can talk about this later. You’re here for the holidays, though?”

“Yes, of course.”

We drank wine. I suddenly felt a little out of place, more like a visiting cousin than immediate family.

At the end of the night, everyone had left, Mark and Patti had retired upstairs, and just Cathy and I were left, she placed the dinner plates out for the next day, and I put out the trash, where I accidently locked myself out.

I moved. Cathy moved. Dave opened his own restaurant. Tom died. And the Sterling Inn fell into disrepair over the next few decades, abandoned, with vines taking over the building, the parking lot cracked and covered with weeds. Until this past fall, when someone bought it from the Roy family with the intent of restoring it to its full original glory. Same red trim; same black shutters.

That was thirty-six Thanksgivings ago. Or last year. My perspective is off today. But some memories follow us around, waiting for us to notice them.

Don’t Blame the Robo Man

Every few weeks I get a call for Robin.

No one named Robin lives here or uses my phone. I don’t even know anyone named Robin. Well, I did: a professor at a college and a colleague at a job in Pennsylvania—her name was, no kidding, Robin Masters (that’s for Magnum PI fans). But she doesn’t live here.

This has been going on for many years. At the start it was frustrating because I’d say, “I’m sorry you have the wrong number,” and hang up. I see no need for conversation, none. You have the wrong number; what else is there to say? If you dial it again and I answer, you know that it is wrong. If you dial it again and get Robin, ouila.

But the mystery of Robin has been solved. It is the Police Benevolent Society looking for money. Once I said there is no Robin here and he said, “Oh well I’ll talk to you then,” and he read his sheet of paper looking for a donation and I told him to mail me information, knowing the money is not entirely going to the police but instead to this organization that donates a small portion to them. Whatever, I hung up.

But they are persistent, to say the least, so thinking of how my Uncle Howard used to keep a blow horn near the phone for when he received these calls and would blow it right into the receiver, and how Seinfeld answers his phone by saying, “I’m busy right now, but let me have your number and I’ll call you tonight while you’re eating dinner,” I have formulated a variety of ways to answer the phone.

Sometimes, I answer in Russian or French, and they hang up. I answered in Spanish but once there was a click and some recording in Spanish tried to get me to extend my car warranty. I once wanted to actually do that because one of my cars has 400,000 miles on it, but the recording just kept playing.

Then the dude called for Robin again, and I said, “Yeah, this is Robin, what can I do for you?”

Other times:

“Holy Cow Batman! It’s the Police again!”

“Robin?? Yeah, hang on, I’ll get her…” and left the phone on the table for a while.

“Robin? Robin??!! Why would you bring up Robin!?!?! WHY WOULD YOU FUCKING CALL AND ASK FOR HER!! I JUST GOT OVER HER!!!”

“Robin’s Dead.”

It’s not their fault, really, these poor phone people; they’re just trying to do a job. I feel guilty, sometimes. Not with the ones who are trying to scam people into giving money to who people actually think is some police organization but isn’t, but some, like pollsters, who really don’t mean any harm, and can actually be beneficial to us all.

Plus, I did this once, I was a caller. I was fifteen and couldn’t legally drive yet, but I got a job in an office park across from our neighborhood in Virginia Beach making appointments for encyclopedia salesmen. It was a small, fancy office, and the front room had one desk with some well-dressed, middle-aged man and next to him a door lead to a large room with about eight desks where us callers sat and cold-called from cards we were given at the beginning of each shift. If we made an appointment we made some money, I forget how much. I was there only a few weeks and never made a single appointment.

I do remember two instances though. On one, an older gentleman answered and screamed at me for “trying to steal his dignity.” No kidding. I said, “I’m just trying to see if you want a set of encyclopedias, sir,” but he wanted to talk to my boss. I got my boss and after he hung up he said, “Don’t steal anyone’s dignity anymore,” and went back to his desk laughing.

The other was when someone called him at his desk in the outer room and I happened to be out there when I heard something like this after he said his name, which I’ve long forgotten, even when I still worked there: “Yes, that’s me. Wow, you have quite a memory, Sir. You really know your baseball. No, just five years, in Minnesota, then St. Louis.” He told me who he was but he wasn’t a New York Met so I didn’t really pay any mind. This was a time when professional athletes had jobs in the off-season because tickets to see them play were still affordable.

I believe that was my first non-raking, non-mowing, non-shoveling job, though I did my share of shoveling, I suppose.

And now we get Robo calls, Facebook ads, spam texts. I miss the real voice of someone asking if I have a few minutes, I really do. I thought about that, about how lonely these callers must be, the only job they could find, perhaps? Or extra money to pay off bills or make enough to buy food for the week. I don’t know, but I remember I took the job because we had just moved to Virginia Beach and I didn’t know a soul, and it was nice to talk to people.

So when the phone rang the other day, I answered it calmly, thinking, this time I’m going to talk to this guy, find out where he’s from. Who knows what we might have in common and we might even become friends. Hell, we might even have mutual friends—he must be calling from the area.

So I answered, ready:

“Hello, is Robin there?”

“No I’m sorry, can I help you?”

“Yes, maybe you can. I’m Dan from the Police Benevolent Society and we are trying to raise money for…”

Click.

I tried to hang in there, I really did.

Grief is Love

I Keep Trying to Catch His Eye

“Even though I have a lot going for me, I still want something more”

–Max Maisel

According to the page statistics for this blog, over the past few weeks the “unique readers” numbers have moved up from about 850 each week to around 1100. I’m happy about that, of course, but today I’m going to take advantage of that.

Please order and read this book. It will emotionally destroy you, yet it will offer a foundation of hope for the idea of love. Ivan Maisel provides a perspective on loss—in his case the loss of his twenty-one-year old son Max who took his own life—that doesn’t so much turn that loss into something positive, of course, but certainly demonstrates that with all loss, but especially the profound loss of one’s son, one can recognize just how deeply love had rooted itself.

Add to this that the book is written by one of my favorite writers. He has the unique ability to proceed as a journalist who occasionally allows a comment reflecting what the reader has to be thinking to sneak in the window of his prose. He’s that good, a man who spent his life writing about sports, which provides that edge of humor one must have to keep the subject fresh, and the insight of a journalist who has done his homework. On my list of favorite writers, which is nearly packed with journalists, Ivan Maisel has been in the top five, but this book just pushed him to the top of that list.

And yet, I am haunted by this book for how it grabbed hold of my anxiety about losing those close to me and tightened its grip. I finished the book earlier today and my chest still hurts, yet I crave more. I want to hear more about Max.

On a personal level, the book digs deep into not only my present but my past. My son was born just eleven months before Max; my son is a photographer by trade, just like Max, he is for the most part also a very quiet person and finds as much comfort in the natural world as he ever would in a room full of people. Further, Ivan’s brother-in-law, Sean, and Sean’s wife Deb are dear friends of mine whom I’ve known since we ourselves were twenty-one, and Sean can best be described as my “brother from another mother.” To connect further, I understand the concept of “missing” someone, hoping to hear good news, knowing you won’t. A couple of months after Max’s disappearance, Ivan and Meg Maisel were told of the recovery of their son; I never learned what happened to my friend, but Ivan artfully demonstrates there is still no closure in the knowledge, there is no resolution.

But I could have no connection at all; might never have met anyone in the family, not have understood what it is to have someone you care for go missing, not have a son of my own, and this work speaks to me because it is truly about each of us who loves and has lost. It is a profound work when you consider the eroding sense of “appreciation” of those we love. It is a wake up call.

I’ve read Ivan’s work for years before this tragic incident redirected his prose for this book. I’ve enjoyed his casual professionalism, his succinct yet deeply engaging style. He’s really good. But this is the first time I’ve read his work and he doesn’t make me feel like I’m reading as much as if he’s talking to me, handed me a cup of coffee or a beer, sat on the stool across the kitchen island, and poured his heart out, never making me feel uncomfortable as much as he, through his description of grief, helped me better understand love.

“Grief is Love,” someone told Ivan. That resonated with me like little has in a very long time: “Grief is Love.” It calls to mind my own losses, from dear, dear friends to my beautiful father, that in the grief we experience, and which never completely dissipates, we come to recognize just how deeply we loved someone for the contrast to be so stark, and reminds us to be glad for that.

But I Keep Trying to Catch His Eye is about Max, whose life lasted twenty-one years but whose narrative continues, like a character who slid just offstage but who remains in eyeshot of the other characters, and everything they do is the result of Max’s dynamic presence.

I am a parent, so this book sits in my throat; and I am a writer, so this book stirs up deep admiration of a colleague whom I already recognized as a master of our craft, though I’ve never met him. But I am a human who loves and cries, who has lost people close to me, and doesn’t spend nearly enough time with those who are still in my life. And this book calls to me.

Honestly, if you’ve hung in there with this blog for all this time, trust me when I say you truly must read this book. Click on the book cover now:

I Keep Trying to Catch His Eye

Moment by Moment

I stood outside for a while tonight and stared at what looked like a million stars. It made me think of Spain; in fact, I have been thinking about Spain a lot lately; thinking about how we lived our days when we were there, and wondering why we left that behind. It’s hard to explain, but lately I’ve been thinking about the Camino I was on, the one I’m on now, and why there needs to be a difference.

One evening, Michael and I spent the night above a bar in Samos, Spain, and had pulpo–octopus–for dinner. Later that night a priest invited us to a private party and we stood next to four buffet tables of pinchos and wine, and we ate and stood on the balcony drinking wine and watched swans swim by in the lake behind the cloister hissing at the setting sun. Every single day outdid the previous one. I kept waiting for that golden moment, and they kept coming. Like that following morning when we walked to a nearby field and found a chapel from the 9th century alone in the mist, and some eternal sacred silence.

We slept on yoga mats in a hallway of an old church in Logrono, Spain, with seventy other tired souls after we shared dinner and walked through the basement of the five hundred year old building. For two nights we slept in comfort in the same hotel Hemingway stayed while working on The Sun Also Rises. In some small, old chicken village we stayed in a brand new albergue, which had no business being open yet. The floors and ceilings weren’t done, it was freezing inside, and the yet-to-be-inspected bathroom was three floors down. The only bar in town was closed so the owner gave us a few beers which made up for the thick dust everywhere. We stayed near Torres del Rio above a bar with fine food and a wading pool out back to soak our blistered and swollen feet. We stayed in an old monastery a hundred yards from a church St Francis of Assisi himself asked to be built for the poor souls who were too ill in those days to make it to Santiago. In Portomarin we stayed up as long as we could because the rooms were all filled. We hung out in a small café until 1am and then walked around the misty, cooling waterfront. Then we settled on the town square with covered walkways running next to a medieval church. Against some storefront we pulled together folding chairs and wrapped ourselves in whatever we could and tried to sleep in rapidly dropping temperatures. A kid on a bike did tricks on the steps of the church until 3 am which anyway kept me amused. At 4:30 we headed west. You can see a million stars in Spain at 4:30 in the morning, and the darkness makes the silence almost visible.

In O’Cebreiro there was no room and we nearly walked out of town to camp when a man waved us toward a back door at an inn and we ended up with a beautiful private room for practically nothing at all and just outside the door were a few tables on a stone patio overlooking valleys that stretched across Galicia. In the morning the fog sat below us in those valleys, and the sun came up like we were looking at the ocean until the clouds dissolved and the sky turned blue and the green hills welcomed us.

When we first crossed the Pyrenees into Spain’s small village of Roncesvalles, we stayed next to a chapel Charlemagne used and at night we went to the basement and spent hours drinking gin and tonics and talking to the innkeeper. In the village of Zubiri in Navarra, just before Pamplona, we stayed in a new place on the fourth floor and shard a room with a couple from France. We were all quiet that night. My son took pictures from the Roman Bridge outside our window. A few days later on the eve of the feast of Saint James, patron of this pilgrimage, we stayed in a small inn run by a single mom who made dinner for us, a woman from Madrid, and two men from Germany. We shared a delicious Italian meal and drank clay pitchers of red wine and talked about the distances. We laughed in three languages and despite someone snoring most of the night we slept well enough to leave an hour after everyone else making our journey quieter and more perfect. We didn’t worry about how far we walked or where we might stay. We walked and we would find a place. Like the fly-infested villa with tremendous views, or the albergue with dogs who insisted on sleeping on our laps, or the room above the garage with a killer bar at the street; or the stone building down some slope where we met some girl from Texas and a father and son from Amsterdam. After paying at the restaurant we drank the best hard cider in Spain.

In one neighborhood as close to suburbia as we ever saw, some couple opened an albergue in their house and we got the first two of five beds, the others occupied by a salesman from Madrid, a woman from Barcelona and another from Mayorca. We all had dinner on the back porch where all the flies in Spain gathered to join us, as well as a dog named Bruno, and the sun was brilliant and we slept well. Once, we stumbled into some tiny town, another chicken village, looked like a movie set for an old western, and we slept in the bunk room with fifty other people. In the morning we picked up a few supplies at their shed they called a store, but man oh man the lemon chicken was awesome.

Everything we did was deliberate.

Everything we ate was delicious.

We were absolutely awake. We remained present for almost two months. Everyone we met enriched our lives.

It should be this way all the time. At home. Anywhere. We live in a phenomenal world for a disturbingly short period of time. It should always be this way, and love, and the way we wake in the mornings. I know the arguments, the schedules and appointments and necessary obligations. But, you know, still, it should always be this way.

It was in Spain, every single day, and when we came home we slid quietly into the old routine, stumbled back upon a world where what was and what might be constantly drown out what is, where few live in the present, where few talk to each other. Where people stand around hissing at the setting sun, passing through life quietly, hoping before they pass away that they can raise their voices and just once join in one last swan song. They wait too long. We always wait too long.

Periphery

for Trish

I have known suicide by virtue of proximity. More than just a few students, particularly military students, and seven or eight friends and acquaintances, some very close, volunteered to step off the stage; and a few others didn’t in particular “kill” themselves as much as they acted in such self-destructive ways that while officially it wasn’t suicide, their behavior certainly was. And much to the confusion of everyone who watched Loving Vincent, it is still my belief that the artist, whom I studied and have written about extensively, did himself in. And each one of them, from Bud Dwyer to Dave to Trish—dear, sweet Trish—to the rest, had trouble settling into some sort of acceptance of the way things should be for them, never depressed but never quite not; always cheerful but always marginally in denial of their chronic sadness. These people are impossible to distinguish from the rest of us until they are no longer with us and we can look back and note just how obvious it all was, their distance, their morose. They move nearly unnoticed amongst the alive. It is said that depressed people never pretend to be depressed, they pretend to not be.

We live for a while, and love, which offers some sense of purpose, I suppose, even if that purpose can often seem hazy, a murmur. And we all have moments of absolute clarity; moments in which we can see down the road and around the bend, when we understand, and know we are understood. And we all have occasions of despair, when, as Mr. Frost reminds us, “Life is too much like a pathless wood.” But so many suffer through stretches of time when hope has gradually eroded without a particular noticeable instant when we might have changed course. It is the slow slide through what seems like years watching everyone else, noticing the laughter and motion of everybody else.

Most of us spend the wide years of our lives in the middle somewhere, encouraged and discouraged in equal and fluctuating amounts in pleasantly spaced and pondered moments, and we talk about it with friends late at night on some porch drinking some drink, and we know with absolute triteness that “tomorrow will be better.” This is the crowd of humanity moving from start to finish like a march from Herald Square to Central Park in shoulder-to-shoulder pedestrian traffic on Fifth Avenue. This is and was and one can only assume will be for the vast majority of souls who have done their jobs to their best, raised families, picnicked, partied, celebrated, and vacationed, astutely playing their part in Whitman’s Powerful Play.

But there are some who rarely find themselves in that middle range of sweet and handsome middle-class, middle-aged moments—to swipe a phrase from Joni Mitchell. Yes, there are some who linger for the fat of their lives on the edges, bouncing from clarity to confusion. They can dominate and direct their desires one moment, and then the next might just as intently walk off into the wilderness never to be seen again. Either way; it’s all the same to them. Drastic extremes, opposing ambitions, if we can even call it ambition when it is not some internal drive that pushes those polar pursuits but a dramatic sense of combustion to keep themselves from what they see as the neuropathy of that middle-life spirit. They’d just as soon kill themselves one moment and the next declare their absolute passion for life and living and love. Again, they might say, either way; it’s all the same.

Van Gogh wrote of this, of his passion for life, of his hatred of suicide, and then in a letter perhaps a week later he questions the purpose of it all, the difficulties and debts, the indifference toward him and his art, and suggests not going on would be the truly humane thing to do for everyone. Then, just as abruptly, he swings back to his “lust for life.”

He wasn’t alone.

Hemingway, Virginia Woolf, Eugene O’Neil, Beethoven, Tolstoy, Keats, Tennessee Williams, Isaac Newton, Plath, Churchill, Dickens, Michelangelo, Lionel Aldridge. Brian Wilson. Not all of these people committed suicide; but all stood on that precipice, glanced into that river that asked them for a kiss.

It’s a bit unnerving how many writers are on this list. Artists in general, but it makes sense. For many artists, it was write (or paint or compose or …) or drink the hemlock, suck down that “tall gall in the small seductive vial.”

What I find most interesting about these people, and, with very few exceptions, almost all the people I’ve known or read about with what society has labeled mental illness, is how deeply and extensively they have provided us with beauty, with some form of timeless contribution to the world. Their stories, their poetry that digs deep into our souls, their color and splashes of life on canvas and sculpture. Maybe they spent their lives screaming in despair in their own way—Darkness Visible, William Styron called it. Perhaps the closer one comes to humanity through art, the further from humanity they feel, forcing them to produce even more, which is, in their way, how they reach out for someone. “I wish he had just said something,” people will say as they walk through the gallery of his work, as they thumb through pages of her sonnets, as they listen to Sonata Number Eight in C Minor. “If only they had let us know.”

Never realizing, as they read the pages, as their eyes swell at a turn of phrase, they did say something.


Sit down. Inhale. Exhale.
The gun will wait. The lake will wait.
The tall gall in the small seductive vial
will wait will wait:
will wait a week: will wait through April.
You do not have to die this certain day.
Death will abide, will pamper your postponement.
I assure you death will wait. Death has
a lot of time. Death can
attend to you tomorrow. Or next week. Death is
just down the street; is most obliging neighbor;
can meet you any moment.

You need not die today.
Stay here–through pout or pain or peskyness.
Stay here. See what the news is going to be tomorrow.

Graves grow no green that you can use.
Remember, green’s your color. You are Spring.

–Gwendolyn Brooks

Teacher’s Comments, III

(Part Three of Three)

Well, the truth is I probably should have paid closer attention to the teachers and less to the children around me in class. I didn’t know then that geometry would matter when I built my house and tried to cut hundreds of yards of tongue-and-grove planks of pine at bizarre angles to fit in the stairwell and along the hallway ceiling. I didn’t realize I’d need Intro to Spanish when I stayed with my friend Sean Cullen on Presidents Street in Brooklyn.

But I must have been staring out the window of East Lake Elementary or Timber Point Elementary or three different other schools when someone must have mentioned how to decide what to do with my life, when for years they said “follow your dreams” followed quickly by “get a job.” Is there a middle lecture during which I checked out, stared off into the sky thinking about the moon? Because I don’t remember it. There must have been some lesson in there about trying not to feel lost along the way. And did one of those teachers go over some checklist on what to do when friends die? What to do when your heart is broken? What to do when you feel hopeless and as if you’ve run out of options? Where are those lessons?

Which teacher talked about the value of every single different and misunderstood life, the significance of helping others, the strength it takes to ask others for help? Did one of them explain how to handle some punk making fun of you? Did one of them explain anything other than the ABC’s, the structure of a sentence, the history of us, how to figure out the value of X, the need to know why we need to know the value of X? Because those things I understood. When teachers told on me for paying too much attention to others around me, I wanted to ask, “What am I missing? Social Studies? Math? Penmanship? Got it, thanks! But which day will you explain to me how to tell the red-haired girl I liked her and would miss her and that throwing a frigging card at her wasn’t the best approach?” But it seemed rude. That I learned from my parents; don’t be rude. They don’t really teach that in class. Mrs. Guidice in Kindergarten probably did, but by then I’m sure I knew that. Apparently we learn everything we need to by the time we’re in kindergarten.

I’m not suggesting we shouldn’t listen to our teachers. I’m insisting the teachers need to do a way better job of giving us something valuable to listen to. Oh wait, Mrs. Kramer, third grade—her I heard, when she told me I’d never amount to anything (though to be fair, she told all the boys that—she hated boys and made that clear), when she said I was just another loser kid who would be lucky to graduate from school. This was May 1969—I was eight. No kidding—don’t pretend kids that age don’t hear and don’t remember. They do.

I can’t blame her, though. The whole system sucks: The United States is eighth in reading in the world among sixty-four countries. Eleventh in science and thirtieth in math. The decline started in the late sixties and while reading scores have improved (up from fifteenth in 2015), this country’s elementary school system has more violence than any other industrialized country in the world, so sometimes paying attention is challenging. The US is nearly at the bottom of the list in health education, sex education, history, and current events/social studies.

So it isn’t entirely the educators’ fault that they spend a good deal of their time wasting ours and we stare out the window or talk to each other about the Mets. Administration demands production, growth, and improvement at any cost. Parents spend way too much time watching reruns of some mind-numbing reality show instead of reading to their kids. And students, whoa! Students—don’t get me started. You need to put down the damn phones, laptops, and games, because you know what students? Tik Tok Tik Tok—life goes by fast, and it is about who shows up and who’s listening. So while everything else is more interesting and engaging and captivating and immediate, for three or four hours a day you can shut up and pay attention. And none of this would be an issue if parents started reading to their kids when they were still toddlers. Every study proves this, but still they don’t. Not nearly enough anyway.

Sigh. Okay, listen:

The truth is I simply wasn’t smart enough to know all that when I was ten, and the first reaction to confusion is fear, and the first response to fear is to look away. Maybe I was scared. Or maybe then and now I’ve simply never been smart enough for the life I’ve led. We do that, we mix up personality with ability, we confuse creativity with knowledge. The teachers were right: I paid too much attention to the others around me. Always have. And while I despise such rudeness in my students when they stare at the phone while I’m talking and apparently no one, I mean NO ONE, Dear GOD No One taught them to look at people who are talking to them, I’m guessing neither did I.

I had trouble focusing sometimes; still do. And it isn’t because of any learning challenge or medical condition; it’s just that I find people more interesting and engaging and, frankly, more important, than just about anything else. If you didn’t want me to pay attention to others, why did you put twenty-five ten-year-old’s in the same room together and then tell us to shut up and not pay attention to each other? And, really, no kidding, if my peers told me about the amendments to the constitution instead of the woman screaming at us to remember the amendments, I’d have remembered them. How is it teachers don’t see that? How is it possible a teacher can be in the same room with a student for one hundred and eighty days a year and clearly see he has trouble focusing, listening, caring, and not try and help other than to point out the obvious?

I know this: I was always told to just do my best. My father told me that, my mother, teachers, truly everyone. But I never really knew what my best was. It is such an obscure and vague goal to shoot for: “Your best.” I thought I did my best at tennis until I played someone better who challenged me to improve. I thought I’ve done my best most of the time and most of the time it turned out when I pushed my self again I did better, but sometimes I simply failed at the effort. It is not an easily definable figure, “Best.” Educators don’t know when to push harder and when to back off. Neither do parents. I do know students can do better. I told my students that once and said I could prove it. They laughed at me. So I told them to write two hundred words about being in college, and they did. Then I said if I gave an A for the semester to the top five papers, would they be better? Then all said they would. Then I said if I gave the top three five thousand dollars, would they do better work? Then all laughed and said “of course!” and I went silent. And after a minute I told them, “Then you always could do better, you just couldn’t be bothered. Not unless someone paid you.

They only thought they were doing their best. So did I. Everybody thinks they’re doing their best, that they’re paying attention. But couldn’t we all pay closer attention to the people around us, what hurts us, what brings us down, why are we so quiet, so distant, so sad? We could all do with a little less focus on the lessons and more attention to the examples of life around us, and love, and the undefinable completeness of now. But we’re all just a little too distracted these days, aren’t we?

Well, teachers of mine wherever you are, if I was talking when I should have been listening, if I was paying too much attention to others around me, I’m sorry. Sorry Mr. Kingston. Sorry Miss Terrill. Sorry Mom.

But somehow I learned. I got through. I even graduated. Got myself three college degrees and taught college for thirty years.

So fuck you Mrs. Kramer.

But through it all, what I got out of this life still comes from paying attention to the people around me, to the quiet, to the sound of geese at dusk and the gentle sound of water on sand on a calm summer morning. The sound of children in a park, laughing; tea poured into China cups, a baseball hitting a glove, the sound a can of tennis balls makes when you open it that first time, then that smell.

I’ve learned a lot. I’ve been privileged to have some of the best educators, and if I’ve been distracted through it all, I’m disappointed in myself for not showing them respect. But the education I treasure the most today was learning the value of telling others how much I appreciate them in my life; the value of a gentle touch that says I’m here if you need me. The value of standing still with someone and watching the sun settle down for the night.

The most valuable aspects of my life are the people and moments I always had, right from the very start, and it took me far too many years to understand that.

Why does it take so long to learn that?

Teacher’s Comments, II

(Part Two of Three)

I’d leave my office to walk the few hundred feet to a classroom and when I was still fifty feet away I could hear the overlapping conversations spilling out of the room, the students vying for audible space, the excitement and laughter and quiet discourse of a few less boisterous people; and all of them, twenty-three or twenty-eight or thirty-five, depending on the class, all of them talked to each other. No one had cell phones because there were no such things yet, and they introduced themselves or remembered each other from other classes, and as weeks went by they met for coffee or drinks, and some went out, and some even eventually got married. Everyone knew everyone else’s name. That was normal. It is where adult relationships started and the quick burst of life that was high school fades. It used to always be that way.

So when I sat in front of a class for the first time back then, I learned to listen to students before class started. In the first few days of the semester, most are shy, quiet, not willing to discuss anything to anyone in class. By mid-term, shutting them up takes scratching the board with fingernails or dropping a large text on the table. But those pre-class moments of seeming distraction were when I learned what I needed to focus on in class and sometimes outside of class. Students said things to each other during those minutes they might never purposefully say to a professor.

I learned about the best surf spots; which night clubs to avoid; which professors bored students, worked them too much, never showed up, never let them go early, gave pop quizzes, were cute, sexist, rude, arrogant, sympathetic, and menopausal. By listening to those students in the early days of my career, I overheard conversations about women’s cycles, men’s rejections, break-ups, breakdowns, hook-ups, the best places to get work, who drove to class and who rode the bus; who threw parties, who talked behind others’ backs. I learned who planned to stay just long enough to collect grant money, who couldn’t stand work or school, and who I offended with comments, who misunderstood me; who I misunderstood.

I learned which assignments students grasped, which they found simple and pointless, which they worked hard at and which they blew off. I discovered more than a few times which students plagiarized and which ones made up citations. I learned who hated me, who thought highly of me, who brownnosed me, who kissed my ass.

I listened to students’ conversations every week, and they were more alive earlier in the day. The eight o’clock classes talked about topics ranging from politics to rock. They talked about clothes, and through the years outfits considered decent to one group might not be considered remotely cool by the same age group ten years earlier. Hats swung from the front to the back and back again to the front, jeans are not as low on the butt as they were for a while, and tattoos are so common now they fade from view, and I learned to anticipate these trends and remain current in the vernacular of twenty-year-old coeds.

When students engaged each other and paid close attention to those around them in class, I learned whose brother died in Iraq, whose aunt never made it out of the South Tower, and the student whose baby was stillborn. I knew whose spouse was deployed, whose returned last weekend, and whose would never be back.

Sometimes I heard where people were from. Many moved south from New York, many were locals. Several came from Pennsylvania, like Karen Rounds, a student who knew my sarcasm and got the humor. She understood what I meant on the first explanation and smiled when someone asked a stupid question–and yes, there are such things as stupid questions. She just stared at them from behind, wondering perhaps what I wondered: What were you listening to just now? Once before class when she was talking to someone next to her, Karen told her she was from Pennsylvania, not far from where I had gone to graduate school. This led to their conversation in which she explained they had moved because her husband got stationed here before he had to ship out. Like many displaced military wives, Karen took classes and found a part-time job to keep busy. She planned to write her paper about living in Virginia far from family. I looked forward to it because of her sharp sense of detail and sarcasm; it certainly promised to be well written.

The day I received the paper I sat on my couch at home and read about her move. “I didn’t know people so close to my home state could talk so differently,” she wrote. She gave examples picked up while working at a local pub, the North Witchduck Inn. She didn’t need the job, she explained, but it kept her from feeling alone and bored during her husband’s deployment. “I got lucky,” she wrote. “Someone got fired and they hired me.” I remember her conversation she had before class one day with another student who was a server somewhere else when she said she was thinking of not taking the job after all since she was afraid she wouldn’t fit in.  And I laughed because I knew exactly what it was like to fall into a different culture.

But that very night, the fired waitress and her boyfriend returned to the Witchduck Inn and shot Karen and three others in the back of the head, execution style.

I listened too much, sometimes. I heard things I shouldn’t hear and became familiar with things I’d rather not know.

I knew about abortions, about pregnancies often before the father knew. I knew about little brothers and sisters with harsh diseases and grandparents with Alzheimer’s. I learned their ages, their birthdays, their income, and the cost of their birth control meds. I sat back and made notes on paper about what I might use for examples in my lecture, tried to steer it closer to their generation, their understanding. They were more human then, and the space between us didn’t seem so drastic, so distant. But that has faded as cell phones became apparent, then common, then simply an extension of their anatomy.

No one looks up, circulates, asks questions of each other, asks each other’s names. I had a student in the front row who had a cast on her arm for several weeks. Before class after about three months of this class three times a week, while everyone was looking down silently reading messages from their friends they’ve known since sixth grade, I asked one student next to the broken-arm woman if he knew how she broke her arm. He shook his head (no verbal answer, of course—verbal communication, according to one study by Pew and Duke University, shows that students actually communicate verbally seventy percent less than twenty years ago). So I asked him if he knew her name. No. I asked everyone if anyone knew anyone else’s name. No.

In these days, these tragically quiet and self-absorbed days, students don’t pay nearly enough attention to the people around them.  

new study blames cellphones for failing grades | NYMetroParents

Teacher’s Comments

(Part One of Three)

In November of 1967, Mrs. Flamm, my second-grade teacher, wrote on my report card, “Robert is very good in mathematics. He must learn to pay less attention to his classmates, however, and do less talking.”

One year earlier, Miss Patricia Terrell, wrote, “Robert is enthusiastic but at times he pays too much attention to other children around him.”

Four years after Miss Terrell I had Mr. Kingston at a different elementary school in another county: “Robert is a fine student but could be doing much better if he didn’t pay so much attention to the others around him.” Mr. Kingston might have talked to Mrs. Wolpert who as my fourth-grade teacher wrote, “Robert pays too much attention to those around him.”

If anyone were responsible for reporting about my life now other than me, I’d like to believe the comments would be similar, that I’ve spent my time paying attention to the people around me, talking and listening, caring more about relationships than arithmetic. I understand the importance of education, obviously—I spent exactly half of my life as a college professor. But if I learned anything in school when I was a child on the Island, I certainly don’t remember it. I liked reading. In Mr. Kingston’s class we would read short stories we chose ourselves from a table covered with boxed books, like a filing cabinet, and we’d have to read the story and answer questions. When we were done, we’re return the book to its place and if time allowed, choose another. I did well at this.

Mrs. Flamm pointed out I did well in math. Yes. Always have. In fact, I can glance at a list of numbers and almost immediately add them up. What I can’t do, however, is care much about that ability. Nor my ability to know why two elements mixed together make table salt. Or the differences between the three different types of rocks. I’ll tell you what, though; if Miss Terrell had let the red-haired girl in the next row tell me about the three different types of rocks, I’d still know the material. I listened to her. She talked about rain, and she talked about her cat who woke her up every morning because her mother sent the kitty into her room to climb on her head, and she’d wake up laughing.

We were in class together for three years, and then my family moved much further out on the Island to a different village in a different county, which might have only been twenty-five miles away, but in the mid-sixties she might as well lived in Topeka. At the end of third grade, I wrote a card to her that said, “I love You and I’ll miss you!” but for all of my “paying attention to the people around me” I didn’t have the balls to give it to her, so while she was picking up her books in the hallway that last day, I threw the card at her and kept walking. Looking back, I suppose I should have helped her pick up the books. I was eight.

But I remember that. I remember talking about music with Mark Wells, who became a musician, but I don’t remember a blessed thing about penmanship. I remember many conversations in both elementary school and junior high (young readers—I’m talking about Middle School now) about sports with Boomer Esiason (yes, that one), but I don’t remember liking or caring about P.E. I liked the visceral, the pulse of things, the sweat and anxiety and rush of it all. I liked walking blocks from home to where I wasn’t allowed to walk just to talk to my friend Chris about things I shouldn’t have been talking about, I’m sure, though I don’t remember what. I don’t remember history or Social Studies, but I liked that my sister used to quiz me every freaking night at dinner about “Who is John Mitchell?” and “Who is Spiro Agnew?” and “Who is John Ehrlichman?” I remember Watergate, but I don’t remember history. I remember every single song lyric from the brand-new Beatle’s album “Let It Be,” but I don’t remember one single writer from English class.

I simply didn’t learn very well from teachers. I listened, but only enough to pass the tests, and I spent the rest of my time making others laugh or listening to others talk. Note here that everyone else was paying too much attention to the others around them as well, and I do recall the others telling me the teacher made similar comments on their report cards, and even then I was just enough of a wiseass to wonder if the problem wasn’t us but perhaps the teacher.

One of my first classes as a college professor was Introduction to Literature, and I was teaching Hamlet. Now, I didn’t know a blessed thing about teaching literature, and I certainly only understood Hamlet because it is a fairly well written piece, to be sure, but I did study it and learned all I could about teaching it. I went into class the day they should have all had it read, or at the very least, I told them, watch a version, any version. When no one answered a single question for the first ten minutes, I closed my book and asked, “Honestly—truly, no penalties here, how many of you read or watched the play?” No one raised their hand. So I said, “Okay, everyone is absent today. Go home,” and I walked out. The dean called me into his office the next day and said in his slow, beautiful Kentucky drawl, “Bob, several students complained you counted them absent when they were there.” I told him what happened. “Well, yes, I’ve done that as well, but in this climate perhaps a better approach would be to simply give them a quiz.” He was a gentle leader, and I understood his point. So the next class, I went in and opened my book to Act One Scene One, and said, “Okay, listen. Some of you complained to my boss about what happened, and I just want you to know he talked to me. I want you to know that at this college if you speak up about what you find to be wrong, people really listen.” They seemed happy. “Okay, then, it’s honesty time again. How many of you read or watched the play?” Two people out of thirty-five raised their hands.

I closed the book, picked it up, and on my way out the door said, “You are all absent. You can complain again, or you can grow up and do the work YOU signed up for.” I went to the dean and told him what happened and that I didn’t want one single student to think that they could run like children and complain instead of doing the work, and he laughed and raised his index finger and shook it at me slowly.

“What?” I asked indignantly.

He laughed hard and kept shaking his finger. “They’ve learned, Bob. I LOVE it! They’ve learned.” He pushed his finger higher toward me. “Don’t fuck with Kunzinger.” I left. He is still a dear friend.

The following class (no one complained), I sat waiting to start class, and everyone was talking to each other, laughing, talking about the coming weekend, other classes, food, about other college things—this was pre-cell phone, and people talked to each other, interacted.

They paid close attention to the people around them in class.

And I thought about Hamlet and how, to be completely honest, I wouldn’t give a rat’s ass either. So when it was time to start class, I looked outside toward the lake and noted what a beautiful day it was, and I said, “Let’s head outside. Grab all your stuff.”

They settled down on tables and the lawn. I had their attention, maybe because it was so distracting outside, they simply had to find something to focus on, and this “stunt” might have piqued their interest.

I pointed south. “The Outer Banks are just over an hour that way. Keep going and you’d be in St Augustine by the end of the day. Keep going and this time tomorrow you could be in Key West. Lots of bars there. They’re hiring.”

They all turned and looked at me.

I pointed east. “If I were your age and worked all summer and put some money away, I’d be over there. Europe.” I moved my hand a bit. “Africa.” I turned around. “Canada. I’d see the world, I’d meet people and get jobs and spend a few years learning about life and make new, treasured, lifelong friends, and I’d come home with stories. God! What a life it can be! What an amazing chance for you to do, now, finally after almost two decades, anything you want, ANYWHERE you want! This isn’t a joke! Who has thought of things like this?” They all raised their hands. “So more of you thought of tending bar or working in a store or hiking some country road in distant lands than even read one page of Hamlet, which, ironically, out of ALL of those choices, is the one YOU landed on!” They laughed, kind of. It was more of a half-laugh/half-sigh thing.

“Guys,” I said. “What the hell are you doing here?”

I let that sit a long time. Then I stood up, swung my backpack over my shoulder, said, “See you next class,” and walked to the car, my mind contemplating a nearly identical question.

I have finally learned something about teaching after three decades: I am perhaps one of the better teachers for bad students, or, I should say, bored students, they may actually be excellent if they’d give it a shot. Because I know what it’s like to be completely distracted, to rather be talking to some little red-haired girl than listening to the teacher. Granted, I was eight and these people were nearly twenty, but I know how it feels to need to be dragged into finding relevance, pointed in the right direction, which isn’t always the standard, predictable direction.

Some years later I read aloud Frost’s “The Road not Taken” and asked them if they were sure they were on the right one. “Seriously, what do you think,” I’d ask, and that conversation would last days and days, and we’d learn about each other, and we’d carry the conversation into the hallway, out to the lake, into our lives, because the conversation that the poem ignites is so much more interesting than the stanzas on the page. And that’s the point of study anyway; that’s what sent them all back to read more Frost.


Anyway, that was my problem my entire youth, and even still. Stop talking to me about the three different types of freaking rocks. Bring me into the hills and let’s skim some stones. I guarantee you I’ll remember them the names then.

But this has nothing to do with education, or Hamlet, or, like Charlie Brown, the Little Red-haired Girl.

I stand in line at the convenience store and my neck muscles tighten when I hear some dipshit proselytizing about the lunacy conspiracies associated with vaccinations. My heart rate speeds to dangerous levels when someone at the gas station smokes and talks on his cell phone while pumping gas into a metal container in his trunk while two toddlers lean out the back window sucking on cans of coke. And some fuck in a pick up tailgates me on a road when I obviously can’t pull over or speed up, and he pushes me to either risk my own life or, if I was driving my older car, slam on the brakes and talk to him when he comes ripping through my back window. Just writing this is pissing me off and I can hear, I swear to you I can hear as clear as the sound of my fingers on this keyboard, I can hear Mr. Kingston at Timber Point Elementary saying to my parents at the teacher/parent conference, “Robert would be better off if he didn’t pay so much attention to people around him.”

Wow. Damn right Mr. K.  

A Long Time Ago From Now

I spent most of the day cleaning up the property, cutting the grass, moving furniture around the porch for a better spot to sit and do my work, and contemplating cutting back branches, and even removing one apple tree entirely. It is slowly dying and is starting to kill others in the area, so tomorrow, the diseased monster must go. I’ll plant some new ones, maybe a couple of fig trees, though their fruit most likely will only start to be enjoyed by some future generation of kids cutting through the yard on their way to the river.

But I did work today on the property and I grew tired, the elements in the air compressing my skull as they tend to do this time of year until I hosed down my head and felt better.

And tonight I sat at my new spot on the porch with an angle under the roof toward the half-moon, and in the north I could hear geese circling about the field, preparing to land, or perhaps glide another few hundred yards to the duck pond of the river. It is dusk now, and that’s when they seem to look for respite.

But the moon…

That’s Jupiter and Saturn just to the right, and clear to the west, leaving tonight’s party in a short bit, is Venus. But it’s the Milky Way I wanted to see tonight. I’ve had the chance on a few occasions in my life, but not nearly often enough could I see the heart of our galaxy from this lazy arm of ours. I’ve never seen it from here at Aerie.

It is on my mind because today I learned scientists have been tracking radio type signals coming from the very center of the galaxy. This reception is not new in and of itself, but today I listened to two scientists discuss the significant difference this time: the pulsating sounds have no pattern, do not follow a rhythmic scheme as is common and expected in pulsars and other sound-emitting bodies out there. Normally, and, well, for absolutely every time until now, the signals came like clockwork, so they could predict what and when the sound will be x moments away, like knowing the 100th number in Pi—they can see it coming because they know the pattern.

But this time, for the first time, the signal is absolutely unpredictable, not following any repetitive pattern and sounding more like a child playing with a Morse code machine than a natural phenomenon sent out by a block of ice or rock or cloud of gas.

“But it is a natural object, right? I mean, it is something like a disturbance in the transmission of a signal from something like a pulsar, perhaps interrupted by some other planetary body, correct?” asked Ira Flatow, host of NPR’s Science Friday.   

His guest was succinct: “No clue. It if is natural, no scientist has ever, anywhere, heard anything like it before. So there’s a chance it is, in fact, not natural.”

Honestly, it was hard to pay attention at that point.

I do not have a scientific mind. That sort of information simply refused to enter my brain. What I do have, however, is some sort of child-like mentality for Space and Hope. I’ve always thought of those two things as twins—Hope and Space; Hope was born first, of course, and pulled us all out into Space to get to know her better. It is hard to not listen to this information and think about another reality, another group of hopeful (for truly if they are trying to reach out as well there must be some ambition or hope out there) whatever’s reaching into Space.

Of course, Science does tell us that sound might have left the source a billion years ago and is just getting to us, sound travel being what it is. Hell, even two hundred yards from my son hitting a golf ball I see his complete swing before I hear him make contact with the ball. So whatever tried calling might not even exist anymore, which kind of throws a wet blanket on the Hope thing.

But not completely.

Somewhere at some point, just like we do here in various locations around the planet, it is possible that something is doing exactly what we are doing—sending out signals Hoping to make contact, even though the ones doing it know perfectly well even if the call is received, the return will most likely occur dozens of lifetimes from now.

Isn’t it possible that this is exactly what’s missing from this world today? The very notion of doing something now knowing you’ll never live to see the fruits of your labor. That is how humans improved through the millennia; they kept setting goals they could not reach, setting things right for some posterity to pick up the ball and keep running. But lately it seems humans are focused too close to the now, we’ve lost sight of sacrifice, of investment.

In Halberstadt, Germany, a John Cage composition, ORGAN2/ASLSP, was started on September 5, 2001 (Cage’s birthday), and his musical composition will not be completed for—no kidding—639 years. Some notes are held for years on this specially built (still building) organ, and then released. The piece will be completed on September 6th, 2640.

This might be the best example I know of in the arts to tie together the perception of art with the perception of time. The first performance of a Mozart composition must have been phenomenal to attend with Amadeus himself at the podium. But here, the very first performance of this work will still be experienced, assuming the world still exists then, six centuries from now. The art, the contribution, the love of music is exhibited in the participation in something of which we will never know or experience the results.

It is the artist’s equivalent of “The one who plants trees, knowing that he will never sit in their shade, has at least started to understand the meaning of life.”

And I sit on the porch knowing there are sounds coming from some distant place probably a billion years ago, and I will never know what they are, who sent them, or what it means. This is both exciting and dreadfully depressing.

But a billion years, or 639 years, is a mere example of what we are missing in some simpler fashion. That we don’t think enough about what’s next, even when, especially when, we’re not going to be part of it.

And this place we are part of now? Someone set it right, participated in some battle, some treaty, some deed or landgrab or labor that cultivated the soil, that cleansed the bay of toxins, that insured the air is breathable. Just as the Constitution was composed with just enough vagueness to allow generations times generations to stand upon its foundation, despite their departure from this earth merely decades after the document’s creation, we need to tend to our democracy not with “winning” as a goal, but longevity. We need to tend to this land, this beautiful, inspiring land as mere holders of a lease someone else will inherit.

Because, well, because we’re going to die, and “nothing survives but the way we live our lives.

“We all become forefathers by and by”

–Dan Fogelberg

Plant and Care for Your Oak Tree Sapling | Mr. Tree, Inc.

Nothing Good or Bad (but thinking makes it so)

Savior on the Spilled Blood

Maybe it was the cello music on NPR—Rachmaninoff piece—played by a seventeen-year-old from Ohio, accompanied by the show’s host on piano. It was moving, to say the least, and the maturity of this young man, his kindness, his gratitude for being on the show, was refreshing, especially after I had just left the local fish store where some punk seemed bothered to no end that I actually wanted to order, you know, fish. I don’t know why rude people, especially when their job is to be helpful, spike my blood pressure, make me feel lightheaded, as if I take it personally. I’ve read of others like that—van Gogh, William Styron, Keats, Churchill, Dickens—people whose reaction to injustice and simple unkindness in society pushed them to the edge of stroke. I’m sure it’s chemical; some people have trouble shrugging off some things. But I got back in the car and a high school viola player played, again with the host on piano, and a wave of peace rolled through me as if I’d suddenly been immersed in some sort of peace-fluid. This one made the viola with his dad; he is attending Stanford next year. The fish store punk should be in juvie by then.

Or maybe it was the rain. It is soft today, with deep grey skies that threaten nothing more, but certainly nothing less. But on the way home I listened to a piano player from California, sixteen, and the hairs on my arms raised at her simplicity, her mastery, and I thought of the work she must have done to make it sound so simple. “When did you start playing?” he asked, and she said ten years old.

Okay, I thought. That means if I start now, I can play like that when I’m sixty-seven. That’s cool.

Not so much. There’s the talent part.

I used to do that a lot, but not enough. I used to think if I start playing piano now, in five years I’ll….or…if I start working on that book now, by this time next year…

Well, I did, in fact, “start.” I spent the better part of my younger years “starting.” It was always “continuing” I had issues with, and most definitely “finishing” was never a close friend of mine. But “starting”? Hell, I can start damn near anything, really.

Maybe it was a combination, the cello and piano music in the background as I drove along a country road where a neighbor has been harvesting corn, and a light rain fell, and dark clouds stretched out across the bay as if they were never going to give way, and I thought about things I started but didn’t finish—tennis, guitar—or simply stopped doing at all, since the vast majority of life is never about finishing anything.

A friend with degrees in such matters says I have “Hamlet syndrome.” “I want to kill my uncle?” I asked. “No,” she said. “You want to be or not be; you want to excel or not bother.”

Flashback: Michael and I were walking through St Petersburg, Russia, and we looked up at the giant and insanely beautiful mosaic on the top of the Church of the Spilled Blood. “Seeing that makes me want to make mosaics,” I told him. “Oh great,” he said, “like those tables we see at markets.” And I said, “No, like that one; I want to make something like that for the side of a cathedral.”

All or nothing.

How quickly do we decide we can’t do something? Or, perhaps better stated, can’t excel at something? As a professor of art appreciation, and writing, I’ve explained the extremes—that some of the greatest artists in history were obsessive about getting it right or trashing the entire project. Van Gogh is a fine example; Wagner another, who threw out a cartload of compositions because they would dilute the quality of his entire catalog. DaVinci reportedly walked around for years with Mona Lisa unfinished because he was never pleased with it. But in writing I emphasize it is never finished, you have to keep going back, again, readdressing it, showing it to people, and to stop the damn “measuring.” It isn’t a competition, of course, but when we dream, ah, when we dream we dream of completeness, of something undefinably satisfying, and that can be problematic.

Well, there it is. It is a competition in the artist’s mind, between what it is and what it should be, and as Rocky says when asked to fight Apollo Creed, “No, I don’t want to be humiliated.”

Maybe it was the walk in the light rain under dark clouds, cello music still whispering in my mind, thrashers darting from bush to birdbath and back. Or it might have been that eternal sign of autumn—a field being harvested, half golden half gone, a tumultuous bay in the background. I walked along the marsh and a heron stood still in the reeds, and I thought now nature always sees things through, doesn’t stop growing and changing just because it may not be a good season. Like any artist, it does what it does for the sake of doing; there is no “goal.” It just is.

That’s what the cello player said when asked why he plays. “I like the feel of playing, of learning a new piece all the way through.” He never mentioned how well he played—that was the result of it.

Hell, even Rocky didn’t care if he won. He says that to Adrian a few days before the fight. “I don’t care if I beat Apollo, you know? I just want to go the distance.”

Finishing, for him, was winning.

So to the point of the unkindness, the rudeness, the common carelessness toward others; the spike in blood pressure at such fleeting moments that simply do not matter. Psycho friend thinks I’m afraid I’ll finish without having ever started. I laughed. “So I’m fixated on Thoreau’s ‘I don’t want to reach the point of death only to find out that I never lived’?”

“Exactly,” she said, “and you’re looking for imperfections—in your work, even in your fish store lackeys who just want to know what you want.”

“It’s okay to be pissed off he works in public service and is an asshole,” I told her.

“You’re missing the point.”

“Oh?”

“Who gives a shit?”

Sigh.

“So what the hell do I do now?” I asked, thinking of three different, half-done book projects, a three-quarters finished one-man play, a dozen essays, a brand new used twelve string guitar, and a pile of bricks in a field on my property, all waiting for some sort of perfect completion to be released from my insecurity.

“Go take a nap,” she said. “Lay in that hammock of yours and close the flaps, put some cello music on your headphones, listen to the rain on the screen, and sleep.”

Okay, but…

perchance to dream.

Permanente intercambiar guisante nike running poster there is no finish line  Fanático Senado Ernest Shackleton