Tooter Turtle

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I walked into the bar for a drink after leaving the college for the last time, the very last time; absolutely never again would I return to my place of employment after thirty years. I had parked at the bar earlier in the day knowing I would end the afternoon here. I placed my box of office belongings at my feet, all haphazardly tossed together, the remnants of what remained—some class notes, a half-finished manuscript, a biography of Wolfe, a volume of Hrabal’s Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age. Just as I ordered a coconut rum with orange/mango juice, a young woman and her shorter friend already at the bar said they wanted the same, that it sounded just fine, and it seemed the best way to celebrate their recent enrollment at the college.

The taller one raised her glass to her friend and said, “Here’s to yet another beginning!” and her friend added, “Done with four years in the Navy, now on to four years in college! Bring it on!” which is a phrase I despise for the sheer vagueness of “it,” a phrase that only by fractions beats out “Game on!” as annoying and overly bullish, but I did appreciate their vigor so I raised my glass, “Good luck” I said, and drank half my glass.  

“Do you teach at the college?”

I smiled and said, quite honestly, “No,” for the first time in six U.S. presidents. “But I used to back in what now seems like a long time ago.” These two new students who after serving in the military are still almost three times younger than me so I insisted on paying the tab to wish them well and thank them for their service when one of them politely asked if I had any advice to offer.

“No,” I responded, thinking about all I could say, all I could offer, all I could inform them of if I knew, I mean if I could even remotely be convinced that they would heed the suggestions gathered from a third a century of observations and engagements with traditional students and returning students and drop-outs and ex-cons and ex-wives and exceptionally misplaced students.

They turned to leave when the bartender refilled my glass and I said “Wait!” and I asked him to refill their glasses. They smiled and for the first time noticed the box on the floor at my feet with papers and desk objects and only then tuned in to the reality that I was on my way out, leaving the collegiate world, a world where the New Year starts in August, the collegiate world of three week breaks every four months, leaving the center ring where the main event between the timeless foes of idealism and cynicism battle it out on Tuesdays and Thursdays or Mondays and Wednesdays, leaving a world where I stared at eighteen-year-olds for thirty years, a world which never aged before my eyes

I smiled. “Advice, huh? How about I tell you one story, if you’ve got a few minutes.”

They sat on stools. I stood.

I talked: 

A student once threw a desk at me. I told him his writing lacked the depth he was capable of and he stood up and threw a desk at me. I don’t think he understood and I caught the desk, put it down and asked, quite firmly if I recall, if he had heard me. The writing lacked the depth he was capable of and he, of course, only heard “lacked,” and armed himself with furniture. Why is that? What is it about our inability to find the positive in criticism? I reminded him that he volunteered to seek my advice on his writing, he in fact paid for it, and he really shouldn’t be upset with me for offering my thoughts but upset he was, to be certain and he stormed out saying he was going to find a new professor who loved his work and then he stormed past me and out the door, a thick aroma of strong coffee behind him.

The class wondered if I was nervous and I said I was not, that I was more suspicious of the quiet one in the corner in the raincoat than the one who now has my attention, but his defenses were up just like so many students’ defenses are up ready to pounce on anyone who doesn’t say what they want to hear.

I sipped and stared at my box a long time. It was all starting to sink in. Thirty years. I try not to say what is the absolute cold hard reality of my life, that I never should have taught college, because I don’t want to hear the myriad responses from “think of all the lives you touched” to “but what opportunities it afforded you” to “but you…” and “but you…” and “but you…” but it is true. I stared at the box and thought, right then, and completely honestly, I never should have done this.  I looked at the two who suddenly seemed identical.

I continued:

I found him in the hallway and stopped him and said I simply had a few questions if he was smart enough to just answer them and then be on his way without any penalty for his previous actions. I think he was more upset that I caught the desk than from my unheeded advice, and he stood still, arms folded, eyebrows up. You answer a few questions honestly, and no matter what the answers, you are welcome to come back to class or I’ll withdraw you without penalty. He nodded.

Okay, I said, first: If I asked you to write five hundred words about yourself, about what drives you, what motivates you, what pisses you off—other than me—and what your passions are, could you do it?

I’m not writing no damn paper about…

I’m not asking you to do a thing you little punk, I said, I’m asking if that was the charge before you could you pull it off? And he looked up to the left, which is what we do when we think—up to the left to anticipate, up to the right to recall—and he said, yeah sure he could do that, of course.

So I said, okay, of course, I knew that, so second: If I said I’m going to ask everyone in the class to do the same, and the couple of people whose writing really makes me sit up and take notice I’ll give an A for the semester and I’ll help get published immediately, would you write better to be among that group of writers? And he thought again but said more definitively he absolutely would go that extra yard. His arms came down to his sides which showed me his defenses were down.

Okay, then, finally: If we actually did that assignment in class, the five hundred words about yourself, but the one person, the one piece of writing, the one work which made me wish I had written it, I’d give on the spot five grand, would your writing suddenly be better, would you put more effort into it for the five thousand dollars? And without thinking he said, yes, of course, raising his shoulders, throwing his body language into his definitive answer, and he said damn right the writing would be better, and he said he knew that for five grand he’d be able to write better than everyone else.

He nodded to himself and smiled at me, proud of himself, feeling somehow vindicated, feeling somehow throwing the desk woke me up to his wise and prophetic prose. I stared at him blankly for a long time, a long long time, and said, finally, with a sigh, There it is. I shook my head. Go home, I told him. You’re wasting my time.

He yelled at me, Wait! I told you I’d put in the best effort I could! What is your fucking problem now? Forget it, you’re out of your mind! he said and started to leave when I turned around and stepped toward him. He stopped.

I already told you the problem before you stormed out of the class. The work isn’t your problem, it’s you.

What the f…

You just said it, you just admitted it to me. You just stood here in the hallway outside a room where twenty-four students are dead silent listening to us, and you said you always could do better. You just couldn’t be bothered. Sure, if I paid you, then you’d put in the effort. But short of that, screw it. I have no room for anyone who can do better but doesn’t bother. I already told you—your writing lacks the depth you are capable of, and YOU just told ME the exact same thing. Go home. I’ve got serious students here and you’re in the way.

 

The three of us finished our drinks. They waited for me to continue. They said what a crazy dude he must have been and asked what happened to him and was the writing good and did he return to class and was I scared and all the obvious, shallow, thoughtless questions people ask when they miss the point, completely forgetting they had asked me for some advice. At first I thought how even the punk got the point, but instead I just laughed to myself and wished them well, and added, “Oh! Advice, sure. Be just what you is, not what you is not. Folks what do this has the happiest lot.” They just stared at me. 

I picked up my box and left. 

I put the box in my trunk and looked back at the college and sighed. The sun was setting and cars moved out of the campus while some drove into the parking lot, the endless cycle of registration and graduation, the comings and goings of those majoring in mediocrity, seeking their degrees in convenience, and I felt a wave of fear. I knew, I mean I knew with complete conviction, that those close to me will never understand. I stepped off a cliff, knowing at the same time it was either walk away quietly or die quietly. I still hope the ones I love understand but so many have drifted away it seems perhaps they don’t. But from that moment on, something stronger took hold. That moment was mine. Completely mine.

I graduated.

It was time to see what’s next, see if my efforts could rise up to my capabilities. I suggested once to my advanced writing class what a world it would be if everyone suddenly decided to do what they are passionate about, but did so with completely conviction. 

From the car I could see the very building I walked out of every week since the end of the Reagan administration, and felt very, very sad. I could see a twenty-nine year old, wide-eyed novice who had no business teaching but managed to pull it off; I could see my small boy at two running along the grass between buildings; I could see my father coming to meet me for lunch; I could see friends who left too soon, left this beautiful and forgiving world for good too soon, and while I knew I wasn’t ready for it to end, I also knew it had to if I was ever going to breathe on my own. I got in the car and drove to the light to make a left and head away for good, and I stared at the thirty years, the thousands of students, the ebb and flow of a career that I only used to do, and I thought to myself, with complete awareness and absolute conviction, I always could do better, I just couldn’t be bothered.

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Poetry, In a Sense

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My son and I walked the trails of a nearby state park today, miles of trails through marsh and woods along the shores of a lake which, despite the proximity to town, seemed isolated.  We were leaving when I wondered why I can never properly write about so many of our walks; even the long ones like, you know, across Spain. I wrote a short book about it but with few exceptions it never caught what I wanted to convey about spending a month with Michael in Spain, walking. I understand why, of course; I’m a non-fiction writer, not a poet. 

In fact, at a creative writing workshop I was at before we weren’t at anything at all, someone asked the standard “Where do you get your ideas from?” question. I used to say, “Trenton. I use a mail-order catalog,” but I realized that was somewhat snarky. Then I remembered a line from a poem by my good friend Tim Seibles:

Some things take root in the brain and just don’t let go

I love when someone says exactly what I’m thinking. Saves me time.

That’s how it works, though. Tim’s right. I might be out for a walk along the water, or perhaps driving somewhere, and one thought leads to another, and then just the right song comes on, or a smell—yes, sometimes it might be an aroma that makes me think of a place, and then the receptors in my head are off and running; I’m just along for the ride, somehow simply a spokesperson who never really gets the translation right. That’s the problem with writing; it is never right. If someone looks at a piece they’re working on and very comfortably suggests there is nothing more that can be done, I am weary of reading it. And as for me, I know what it was like to walk across Spain with my son, but no one else does, and no one ever will no matter how much I write about it. Memoir simply doesn’t excavate those moments they way poetry can.

Of all the writers I know it has always been the poets who can get me to sit back and say, “Yes! Exactly.” I can carry on conversations all day long about a subject and then toss it around in my head for a few days, write it out, readdress it, and pour some decent energy into it, only to turn to a few lines some poet wrote and I find the need to burn my work. I’ll do it too; I’ll sit here with a match and hold the pages while they flare up. It has a very cleansing effect.

Here’s an example: Tim and I went to lunch at this same dive joint in Norfolk we always go to, and we talked. We talked about our fathers, or about something in the news. We talked about a variety of things that good friends talk about; though, we rarely talk about writing. At some point a few years ago I mentioned my dad, about how I miss him; I know Tim gets it so I didn’t have to say much, but still, talking is always helpful. Unfortunately, my words are trite, predictable, and lazy descriptions of how missing a person feels. Of course, I know I’m not trying to compose a play; I’m just talking about my dad. Still, I want to get it right.

Then sometime later I flipped through one of Tim’s books and came across this:

Missing someone is like hearing a

name sung quietly from somewhere

behind you. Even after you know no

one is there,  you keep looking back.

Fucker. He nailed it. I could write a thousand lines about how I miss my dad, but that covers it. That’s poetry.

Anyone who listens to a lot of music knows what I mean. Some lines just say it all.

I have tried to write essays about nature, already handicapped by the vast selection of the genre from people such as Thoreau, Muir, and E.O. Wilson. In my files are dozens of starts in an attempt to finish a piece about the fall of the year, about the onset of winter. Those brain receptors often click into the passing of time, the end of things, the changes beyond our control. I wrote one “epic” diatribe that might be the most bloated piece of crap I’ve ever attempted. The only way to make it more pretentious would have been to have it translated into Latin. Then Frost does this:

So dawn goes down to day,

Nothing gold can stay

Asshole.

I prefer to sit and have a beer and talk; I like running into a friend and grabbing a bite and laughing about simple things like sports and movies. But I also like reminders of our glide across this thin layer of life.

Over the course of the past several years I found a way to handle my frustrations when I can’t find the right words to express our need to celebrate being alive. I call a friend and meet him for lunch. I head to a favorite café and have a beer and talk to strangers. Every single one of my closest friends was, at one time, a complete stranger. I walk along the water and watch the dolphins breech and disappear. I feel the coolness of morning give way to the warmth of the sun on my face.

Geez, I am surrounded by poetry.

I sat on a rock in the mountains west of Tucson and watched the sun work its way across the desert. Michael and I walked past a small sign that said “Santiago de Compostella” five hundred miles and five weeks after we left France. We watched the seals at Lake Baikal.

Poetry.

Ice in a glass. The sound of the golf ball dropping into the cup. The sound of cardinals on the porch, looking for food. Waves. A very long hug from an old, old friend when we knew there was no reason on Earth we should have lost touch. A distant fog horn, a nearby gull, a radio on a blanket on the beach, rigging against a mast, a ball hitting a mitt.

My dad’s deep “Hello.”

A name sung quietly from somewhere behind you

 

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Game Plan

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I love this story: When the first film with sound was shot, there wasn’t any dialogue—it was all music. The Jazz Singer staring Al Jolson was all music, with even some placards like those used in silent films still held up for some dialogue. But you could hear the music. But right before the very end Jolson turns from the music and looks right into the camera and says, “You ain’t seen nothing yet!”

There’s hardly any reason for that story. I just thought of it for some reason when out walking with Michael today. We walked through Belle Island State Park. We parked near the camp store just past the Belle Mansion, and walked about six miles through their trails, to the Rappahannock River, out across marshes and fields, through new-growth forest areas, back along fields of clover and Black-Eyed Susans, and to the old red barn near where we started.

We noted to each other sites the other might have missed. He pointed out the rabbit (I told him, “They seem so defenseless. It’s too bad they don’t have better defenses or camouflage. The white tail is a dead giveaway. They need something.” “Like poison spit,” he suggested. And that’s how I see rabbits now). I pointed out some herons, and while there is plenty of wildlife in the area, today we didn’t see much. Bird life (osprey, heron, cuckoos, the helpless rabbits). We talked about the day, the cumulus clouds, the deep blue sky, the breeze. We talked about art and guitars and briefly about the Camino. I recalled the time in Roncevalles, Spain, just across the Pyrenees, and how when sitting at a bar I mentioned to a local man that I hadn’t expected that previous day to be so brutally uphill. He smiled and said, “The next several days aren’t so bad at all. You’ll be fine.” The next several days were almost as brutal—the first four days, in fact, up until we were nearly in Pamplona, were the toughest days of the entire pilgrimage. On one of those days, after a long silence walking along vistas no one should ever miss, Michael said, “Maybe ‘aren’t so bad after all’ means something different to someone who lives in the Pyrenees than it does to someone who lives on a beach.”

Anyway, that crossed my mind today and made us laugh as we trekked along at a decent clip on flat land. We’ve logged some miles, him and me. When he was very young we would walk from the house to the river, and after not very far at all he’d run right in front of me, his arms out to the sides like wings, and not say a word, waiting for me to heave him onto my shoulders, which, of course, I did all the time until the time I couldn’t. But we still walked.

And Spain of course. And the hills around Lake Baikal, and dozens of miles in all the towns and cities along the way.

So when Covid settled in he pulled out some maps of the local state parks and we started exploring them all, amazed at their beauty, amazed at how no one was ever out there. We brought masks with us just in case we ran into someone but never had to get them out.

Today we laughed a lot, talked, and just admired the scenery as anyone would. I don’t know what else might have been going on in his mind—he’s twenty-seven, so I probably don’t want to know. But I know what was going on in mine; that is, I will remember very clearly many of my thoughts today while Michael was shooting pictures and I was watching the skies as we walked along grassy paths.

I turn sixty in two days.

I thought about my life, my days in Arizona, New England, Pennsylvania, abroad. My decades as a professor, my childhood, my teen years and some of the people I knew then. I thought about how some of the most important people in different stages of my life are gone, and how other friends without whom I could not survive are still a dominant part of my life and always will be, I hope. I am lucky, I am fortunate, I am aware of all the best of what I have had through these six decades, these seven hundred and twenty months, these two hundred and forty seasons.

 

I’ve heard people say they have no regrets. Ha, well I do. Plenty. I would have been kinder to people and more patient. There are two or three events in particular I wish never happened and one or two times I wish I had more balls. Some say things are meant to be; some say things happen for a reason; I know all the arguments, I really do—but for me it’s simpler than that—I should have done some things differently, it’s that simple.

But in the end, especially on a day like this, if anything would have been done differently, I might not be at this spot today, writing about this day, and that makes it all worthwhile.

I don’t have a bucket list; I never have. I like Robert Redford’s idea that “I just dropped the B and put an F and went back to bed.” I think a bucket list would be too depressing, too finite. What if I ran through it all quickly? Add to it? I’d assume it would have already had the best things in there, so that’s not going to work.

No, instead I just think about fitting things into my life based upon drive, money, and time. I want to ride my bike to the west coast (I need a bike). I want to hike the AT (I need a map). I want to hike around Ireland and train across Canada. I want to start a small writers’ retreat here at Aerie. I want to ride horses in the Rockies. On and on and on…

But the one thing I am definitely going to do is the Camino again. I wanted to do it this summer, and while it would be easy to blame it on Covid, other factors made it a non-starter before this pandemic popped up. I’ll get there. My “plan” is to do the Camino every five years until I can’t. We’ll see. I also want to camp in Oregon, go back to Mexico, see Arles, drive to Long Island.

And I suppose as long as I can walk, I can walk nearly anywhere. “Everything’s in walking distance if you have enough time,” Steven Wright tells us.

Look, I know it’s the end of the third quarter for me. I get that. But I’ve spent the better part of this game out on the field; I rarely felt like I was benched in all these years. So my plan is to get as much game time as possible in this last quarter. If I’m lucky like my father was and my mother is, I’ll get some overtime, but that’s not important; what is important is that I, as James Taylor aptly wrote, “walk on if you’re walking even if it’s an uphill climb.”

When my father was my age I was managing a health club for Richard Simmons and spending all of my money on plane tickets and gasoline. But when my mother was my age I was a brand new father; she’s still with us and mostly doing fine– since my son’s entire life ago. Today she won at cornhole by throwing four bags in a row through the hole. When I think of that, and of all the days from my son’s birth to now since she was my age, and lay them out before me, I am restless with excitement for the places I can go, the help I can be, the love I can share, the new stories—oh the new stories.

Metaphor Call Back: Just when you think it’s over, someone turns and reminds you that you ain’t seen nothing yet.

But, seriously, it’s the walking. I like the pace, I like the patience needed, the way it calms me down and makes me less anxious, less angry and uncertain. I like how a good hike lets me talk with someone and remain quiet, both. I like how I feel at the end of the walk, the hike, the climb, when I have a glass of wine or just a glass of water, and the breeze brushes my sweat and cools me off a bit, and part of me wants to sit and rest but the better part of me wants to just keep going. Just keep going.

Yeah, that’s my game plan for the fourth quarter. Just keep moving the ball downfield.

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A Zoom from this Wilderness

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I just turned in my grades for my final Saint Leo’s “The Women of Art” class and for my ODU Summer course of English composition. And I realized for the first time in a very long career, I do not know any of these people. This feels more like some clandestine operation than a college course. “I’ll leave the information in a video–we’ll call it ‘zoom’ like that kids show so no one gets suspicious–and you can private message me to set up a F2F meeting where we can chat in private.” Come on, this isn’t learning, it’s like a bad dating site. 

I miss the human touch, the handshake, the eye contact. I miss saying, “Hey there, what’s your major?” and “Where are you from?” 

Students and faculty now meet via zoom, on Blackboard, online however they can, safe from the masked masses making their way through city streets and infectious locales. Kids in kindergarten right through coeds on campuses all have settled into a new way of learning. But something essential is missing which completes a person’s education, the element not addressed in lesson plans or recorded videos or discussion boards: The before and after of it all.

Students waiting for professors to wander in from their offices make eye contact with each other, nod, build conversations from simple hellos to frustrations with the work to politics to sports. They connect over shared inside jokes and run into each other at the coffee bar, continuing their meeting on the sidewalks from building to building. Relationships begin, trust develops; multicultural, multigender, interaction ensues bringing lessons with which no lecture can possibly complete.

Depressed students make connections while the book-bound student finds friends with familiar isolating habits. Face to face learning includes interruptions and spontaneous tangents–and humor, oh the humor! So much can be recalled, so many details can reappear fresh with the association of humor, the benefit of bonding. 

Then the professor comes in and sits for a few moments gathering thoughts while the students quiet down but know hey have a few minutes, so they talk about their families, their weekends, the problems they had writing the paper, the illnesses and deaths and deployments and day to day drudgery. Professors make note of which ones tried but couldn’t do it and which ones did well without trying. They hear about issues with development or topic or incomprehensible reading material. They learn what to focus on, where to give slack and where to let someone talk back, vent, get to the point. One student says something and the professor’s pause before reacting can speak volumes, the quick smile, the side glance, the small nod of approval impossible to convey to a computer camera.

It’s not hard to spot someone with a question who is afraid to ask, notice the dip of someone’s eyebrows in confusion who otherwise would not offer a hint of hesitation. A quiet confidence comes from face to face acknowledgement.

Early in the semester conversations are reserved, focusing mostly on course work or other classes or common haunts. Later, a fist bump, a smile, or quick tap on the desk to say “Hey, cool, good to see you,” without any words at all. And toward the end, they find they are bonded by something more than assignments and group work. They experience others’ failures giving a boost of self-worth that they’re not alone in their anxiety. They take note of another’s approach, broadening their efforts and enabling success unavailable from the “Resources” page of the course platform.

Then the professor begins. A few minutes might be dedicated to addressing situations overheard before class, or passing along a question someone had after class last time that the student was afraid no one would want to listen to but the professor knew everyone needed to know.

Maybe the most important lessons we take from classes are the ones which include some sort of social awareness. We cannot mask our need for companionship; we cannot distance ourselves from what we gather by gathering. Marriages have come from such connections

This move to online learning is necessary and in the long run makes the most sense during this global pandemic I’ve decided to call Bruce. If it is going to be with us until a vaccine is available, I’ve decided to personify the bastard. But we must stop pretending online anything is the same as face to face learning, or that we can get the same results. No. too much humanity is being left offline.

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Father’s Day: Tuesdays With Fred

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On Tuesday nights my dad and I drank Scotch. Dad always liked J & B, a blend to which he probably became accustomed early on. On occasions he drank Chivas, aged just right, and a few times he had a bottle of Edradour in the house. On Tuesday nights we poured two glasses on the rocks. Routine is important and I’d get there about nine and was no sooner in the door when he’d jokingly say, “My coaster seems to be empty,” or something similar with a laugh and a welcoming smile. I’d put my things down and offer to pour, and he’d insist he was just fooling and didn’t mind at all getting our drinks, which was true. He would walk in the kitchen and I could hear the cabinet and the ice and the heavy bottle he put back in the cabinet, never leaving it on the counter for more because we never had more. He’d return steadily and slowly and hand me my glass and we’d raise them to toast and he’d say, “Well,” nodding his head politely at a loss of words, and I’d interrupt and say, “to your health,” to which he would again nod and with his deep voice reply, “and to yours.”  Then we’d watch baseball, not really talking much. It was late. He sipped his Scotch.

But I hate Scotch, so I preferred to pour. When I went in the kitchen, everything was the same but instead of Scotch in my glass I had mostly water. Dad’s eyes had faded in those last few years and he wouldn’t have noticed the lighter tint of my drink. And anyway, it wasn’t about the Scotch. We sat together a long time those Tuesday nights and he would turn once and say, “Boy this is good, isn’t it?” and I’d agree. Sometimes I felt guilty and would pour a bit more for myself as well, but usually only when it was a single malt. After a while he would head upstairs to bed. Then I’d sit alone in peace after a long day, but inevitably I’d wish he had stayed up longer even just to sit quietly. I’d promise myself that the next Tuesday while drinking Scotch I’d make more conversation, talk more about the game or about my day or anything really, since he wouldn’t have minded even turning the game off, but the following Tuesday would come and like clockwork I’d be exhausted and silent and we’d watch baseball and he would get tired and go to bed. It was always fine.

My father aged well, and sitting with him on Tuesday nights was the purest time I had during those days. I can still hear him say, with a slight laugh, “My hand feels very light,” or “Sure I’ll have a small glass,” even while my coat was still on, and sometimes I can recall it with a laugh, but other times, when I get home late and stand in the driveway on a clear, cold night, it is too real to think about.

And as odd as it may seem, it isn’t simply my father in the paternal sense that I miss; that we all understand. No, it is the small things that rip at my seams, like seeing someone eating a bowl of blueberries or a cup of she-crab soup, the sound of ice in a glass, someone jingling coins in his pocket, baseball. The sound of golf on television, the aromas of Thanksgiving Day, the opening theme music for “Law and Order,” lunch specials at boardwalk restaurants, cardinals in spring.

When Dad first retired I’d bring his toddler grandson to the mall where Dad walked in the afternoon and we’d “run into” Grandpa. I never promised either my father or my son we would meet so as not to disappoint either if we didn’t. But when we did, nothing could distract Grandpa from walking around at the apex of three generations. Dad’s smile exploded with happiness when he watched his young grandson run toward the toy store, or when we stopped for ice cream and Dad would pretend to lick some of my son’s cone. The two of them would laugh hysterically until my son offered him an actual lick, which Dad always refused with a strong, “Thank you very much.”

Once it really was an accident, meeting Dad at the mall. On that occasion my son and I walked around and discovered Dad sitting on a bench, taking a break from his walk. His face lit up, of course, when his grandson ran up to him. It was as if an ordinary day of routine was suddenly cracked wide open by this small but exciting surprise. I believe the spontaneity of unexpected meetings must have made it seem more like my own youth, when siblings and cousins and countless friends lived close by and visiting was normal and running into each other at the store was an ordinary occurrence. Dad lived for family. So sometimes seeing his grandson at the mall was a beautiful mixture of possibility and recollection.51685774_10216748550053582_4324075431826292736_n

When that did happen I would often hang back as we walked so it felt to both of them like they were alone. They discovered the stores together and Dad always allowed his grandson to pull him into the ones he wanted, namely the toy store or the bookstore. Dad bought more than a few books on those visits, and somewhere in my attic is a box of those books from those days. I thought a lot about those walks when he died almost five years ago when after the funeral we all went to a restaurant, and my now adult son ordered Scotch on the rocks. Perfect.

Perhaps if I become a grandfather, my son will take those books with him—I am sure of it. And when I sit somewhere with my own grandson on my lap to read to him, I’ll picture some inconceivable moment in the past when my father and my son laughed hard together turning the pages, and I’ll think about the passing of time and the persistence of memory. It makes me keenly aware that my father might very well have sat with my son and remembered our time when he was a young father and he’d read “Big Little Books” to me, or how every Christmas he bought each of my siblings and me a book to suit our personality and hobbies.

Someday I might sit in a comfortable chair and a golf tournament will be on. I’ll offer to get us a couple of ciders from the refrigerator, or perhaps even a good, aged Scotch. I’ll offer to pour but my son will insist I stay seated and he’ll retrieve them himself, knowing, of course and without offense, in that particular instance, it is my own father I’ll be thinking of.

          Happy Father’s Day Dad. Dear God I miss you.

Flumen: Latin, meaning River

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When I was fifteen years old, my next-door neighbor Karen and I went canoeing out on the Lynnhaven River. Neither one of us had canoed much—Karen was just twelve at the time—and while we both could swim well, it’s a pretty murky river. At the time the eastern shore of the river was all wild (now, condos, restaurants, and beautiful homes line the banks), and it wasn’t unusual to see snakes and other critters.

We were in one of the inlets surrounded by high marsh grass when Karen asked if I’d heard about the girl at Busch Gardens who was killed on the flume ride. I hadn’t. She kept turning to talk to me, rocking the aluminum Grumman canoe, and said the eight-year-old girl was alone in the front of the log—which at the time were made of real logs; it would be after this incident they replaced the logs with fiberglass ones—and a muskrat which had nuzzled down beneath the wood near her feet, proceeded to repeatedly bite her up her legs. Her screaming went unheeded since the others in the back of the log assumed she was screaming at the falls. She died on the way to the hospital. Some time later in our outing when it was quiet and we paddled along listening to the cardinals, I slid my oar under her seat and hit her legs and feet with it. She screamed and stood up, falling out into the river. It was only about two feet deep at that point so she climbed in and we went home laughing and wet.

I’m not sure whatever happened to Karen.

But I know all about the flume.

Growing up I went to Busch Gardens whenever company came to Virginia from New York to visit, or when high school or college friends and I spent the day in the park, visiting the pseudo European countries, drinking beer at the Festhaus in Germany, and riding the Loch Ness Monster. In the early ‘90s, we had a family reunion in Williamsburg where the park is located and one day the entire Kunzinger clan, which is not a small number, invaded the Old Country. My cousin Audrey and I rode the Loch Ness Monster, but just as it came out of the first loop and headed toward the cave, it stopped on a dime, at a slight angle so that Audrey in the seat next to me was just above me. We were there about fifteen minutes when we heard a few people behind us getting sick. I prayed Audrey had an iron stomach and looked across the rest of the park. It turns out I liked the roller coaster better when it wasn’t moving and I could just look out and enjoy the view.

Then about seven years later we bought season passes and Michael and I spent more than a few hours riding the Loch Ness, the Alpingeist, and other such ridiculous structures designed to kill college professors while their sons sit by laughing.

Then one year we approached the Flume. The line was long, about thirty minutes, and from the switchback corral we could see the tracks which carried the log cars to the top, followed by a quick drop into the water, then another climb, another drop and around a few bends into the sawmill, where as the log turns slowly around the far back wall, it approaches a giant saw blade which, of course, the log plummets under just before getting there, down the watery drop into the pool below, where it finally moves another fifty feet to the end. Everyone screams. Really, everyone, all the time. A sniper with a shotgun in the trees could shoot away and would never be exposed by the victim’s screams.

The worker filled the logs leaving Michael and I next for the log making its death-defying plunge at that moment. Clearly, this clerk wasn’t even born when the girl died, but I had to say something.

“Did you know about the eight-year-old girl who was bitten by a muskrat and died on this very ride?”

“I didn’t,” he said with a chuckle, thinking I was trying to terrorize my son (Michael heard the story and knew the new logs were safe), or the patrons around us. To be fair, it was working on one couple who stood nearby. “Maybe I wasn’t working when that happened. When was that?”

“1975.”

“Oh, I wasn’t born. You’re serious though?”

“Yes, the logs were wood then and, well, everyone thought her screams were out of fun.”

“Oh, I guess so,” he said. “I suppose if it happens again no one would know until the ride was over.” We both laughed, him more than me.

Our log came and the worker, Michael, me, and the two behind us all checked the front and under the seats and climbed on. It would be the first of dozens of trips on the flume for my son and me.

 

What a ride. What a way to be completely and absolutely without exception in the moment. The cool splash of the water, the grinding of the tracks and the gentle heavy bump of the log against the blue, fiberglass walls of the flume. The sawmill “blade” buzzing away at full speed, and the laughing and screaming. There is no way to ride such rides and be wondering about anything else; not food, not what to do next, not anything, not even whether you remembered to lock the car which you could almost see from that height. Just now, just the thrill of pumping adrenaline and mist.

Then the drop.

Then the walking around the park soaking wet, thinking it might be best to do all the water rides at once and then change.

 

Out on the Rappahannock in the early hours, we paddle up Mill Creek and then over near Locklies Creek, up near the Norris Bridge and across to Parrot Island where we beach the Old Towne Canoe and walk about the marsh. A century ago the island was farmed, but now there’s barely enough solid ground to walk on but for a small patch in some woods where someone built a small blind. We’ve seen beaver there, and deer, and water moccasins move about the water but they’re skittish around people and boats.

On some mornings, early, Michael in front and me in the back, we row down the river toward the Chesapeake which rolls past right here to the east. There we beach the canoe and wade the water looking for shells and oysters or clams, beachcomb for driftwood and an occasional horseshoe crab in the sand. We rarely talk, and we never scream at the top of our lungs. We take it in, absorb the moment, completely caught up by the rising sun as we settle down into a routine of discovery and peace.

It is my blood pressure medicine; my anti-depressants, my muse. I’ve made many mistakes in my life, made some wrong turns, spent more than a few remorseful hours wishing I could do some things differently, hoping beyond hope for enough time to set it all right. But not out there, not where the water pushes us along as I push backwards. The very nature of canoeing is you must push what’s in front of you out of the way and behind you in order to keep moving forward. Out on the water one believes in himself, understands what comes next and how to approach it, what to aim for, what to push out of the way.

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Once and When

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Mother Theresa. Malcolm X. Neil Armstrong. Jimi Hendrix. Pope Paul the Sixth. Lech Walesa. St. John Paul the Second. Thomas Merton. President General Eisenhower. Elvis. Pablo Picasso. Grandma Moses. Albert Schweitzer.

Wait.

Rwandan Tutsis. The Lost Boys of Sudan. Steven Biko. Pol Pot and Bosnia. Treyvon Martin. George Floyd. I shared time with these people; I stood witness to these events. These saints and sinners brushed my sleeve simply by sharing the earth during my tenure. We have a loose connection to miracles and massacres and we remain merely guests.

An old dilapidated house near my home dates to the seventeen hundreds. It sits in the middle of what was once a slave plantation. Just across the land long ago gone were the slave quarters. Today the house is covered by vines and trees; some dying themselves after a century of life. Generations of neighbors have come and gone, and generations of foliage and storms and crops have come and gone and what’s left of the house crumbles into the earth.

Some say let it crumble; some say tear it down and build a new place on the land and give it to the slaves’ descendants, many of whom still live on the same road; oppressed people either don’t move very far or never come back. Today not far from this parcel, in whose soil most certainly are the bones of stolen men and women, a battle ensues for the removal (or not) of statues of Confederate figures, many of the monuments created almost a century after the end of the Civil War. We share the earth with people who wish to defend their actions, insist on overlooking that part of their persona. I ask them, in all honesty, when they honor the man who chained up and repeatedly raped their great grandmother, where would they like them to erect the statue?  

When I walk past I am painfully aware I shared this space, separated only by time, with people who whipped men and women, others who were whipped and shackled. This isn’t a movie; it isn’t even history when you stand on the muddy lane at the end of the path and look toward the once-was porch and picture a fine-dressed overseer ordering humans to commit inhumane acts. This is where I live. We live. My friends freezing up in Buffalo and my family in Seattle all live here too; just beyond reach, a little out of time.

This world has some serious issues; always has. It is at best, though, a hotel, and every once in awhile I take a look at the register to remind myself who else stayed here. Alexander the Great, Charlemagne, Mohammed, Ivan the Terrible, Ghengas Khan, all guests just over the slope of the horizon, just beyond some small slice of linear time. On the same human trajectory as mine but before, is Geronimo, Moses, Jesus, Christ think about the gentle bend of time, the careening swerve of place that separates me from the Disciples, the Visigoths, the founding fathers. All here but just before.

Closer to now, when I look between those two rays shooting off toward my birth and my death, I can see the souls who at one time or another shared with me this spinning blue wad. Not short of miraculous, we claim the same particles of stardust, and that’s what keeps me looking around when I walk down some city street; I want to know who on earth is with me. 

With me. Not so much, I suppose. There are very few it seems with each other anymore. But for hope, we are among monsters. But for hope. 

And that hope lies in our compatriots. My swift life falls on the same graph as Richard Wright and Ernest Hemingway. And when that shack in the woods around the corner from my home was still in its prime, the walls still absorbing the shrieks of rape, the cries of bleeding men, Grandma Moses was a toddler. Grandma Moses, who painted her last work about the time I learned to swim. I was alive when someone was alive who was alive during the Civil War. No, this isn’t history. 

Carl Jung lectured during my youth, and Ty Cobb watched the same Mets players as me. When I was still cutting new teeth and outgrowing my Keds, I could have headed downtown with my Dad and possibly been on the same train as William Faulkner, ee cummings or Marilyn Monroe. I might have passed them on the street, maybe stood in line at some drug store counter with my mom and behind us because of the blending of circumstance might have been Sylvia Plath or Sam Cooke; Nat King Cole; Otis Redding. We have overlapping lives. On a Venn Diagram, we share the shaded space.

If my family had gone for a drive the summer I turned eight and stopped to get a room in Memphis instead of the Poconos, we would have heard the shot that killed King. And in ’63, I was the same age, same small height as John-John and could have stood next to him, shoulder to shoulder, to salute his father’s coffin.

Judy Garland and I watched the New York Jets in Super Bowl Three. When I was born World War One vets weren’t yet senior citizens and World War Two Vets were in their thirties. Vietnam isn’t history to me; it is my childhood, my early teens. The fall of Saigon was announced over the loud speakers at my high school.

There are empty fields save monuments and markers where soldiers died defending this land against the British, against ourselves, and they stood where I stand and watched the hazy sun rise. Same sun; same beach, same blessed Commonwealth. Don’t mistake history for “back then.” Those people just happened to check out before us. It could have been us. It is us now and it must make us wonder how we will handle this history of our posterity. It won’t be long before our lives overlap with the crying call of a newborn Einstein. Did you see that boy running at the park? That girl climbing the tree at her home? Did I just pass by some senator, some Cicero or Socrates, some St Augustine?

I find it a crime we are not incessantly aware we were preceded by the likes of ancient civilizations, but also by evil. For God’s sake, Eichmann and I had common time, Hitler was my grandfather’s age, so was Stalin.  But so was Isak Dineson and Winston Churchill. My grandfather lived into my youth, yet was born before flight, about the time of the first Ford, before radio, and before long, some sweet woman and man will find each other softly adding to who comes next.

I like knowing the people I know now, these brothers and sisters, whose overlapping lives linger just within my time frame; we share the same air, watch the same news, share the same hope. In some divine book somewhere, these people and I are on the same page. My parents, my siblings, my children, my God what grace to have shared this passage from cradle to grave.

We are caught in the middle of once and when, like strangers buying the same house decades before, like a used car, like a new hire replacing some retiree. Like standing in line. Like sour-dough starter. Like a relay race.

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Thinking at 3am about Last Weekend

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A deer walked along the road about fifty paces in front of me for about five minutes. He walked on the grass and glanced back a few times. Probably out of nervousness but I like to think it was to make sure I was still following him. I do that sometimes, pretend old friends who are gone now are still looking back to make sure I’m still here, still following.

My son and I talked across a fence to my mother. This is life for us since March when she was still eighty-six and probably until she’s eighty-eight; hopefully not. We laughed a lot and I wondered if she still writes the days we will visit on her calendar on her table. I used to update it with her once a week. I haven’t seen her calendar in three months now.

One of the two colleges where I work is closing all Virginia locations and the other has so rearranged its scheduling it still doesn’t know what it’s doing so neither do I. Maybe it’s time to get the guitar out from behind the bookshelf and find a street corner. It’s how I started, after all, and with a major birthday looming a month away, it seems only fitting that I apparently need to change my tune again.

I finished writing about Siberia this past weekend. Of the fourteen chapters in the book, twelve of them have been published in fourteen different publications, nominated for four awards, and finalists in two contests. Still, it will never convey what it was like to travel in a cabin on a train for a month with my then twenty-year-old son, laughing, meeting people, sharing the journey. I was never able to find the words to do that part justice.

In the news the fires are burning. They’re burning in Minneapolis and Tennessee. There is a meme going around social media that says something to the effect of if you are more disturbed at the looting than you are the murder of a black man by a white officer than you’ve got to get your priorities straight. That pissed me off. I hate the simplicity of it, the feeble-minded either/or nonsense of it. It hurts me in the stomach to think about that man on Mr. Floyd’s neck. It makes me sick. And—and—it makes me sad and simply ill that so many businesses, many owned by Black Americans, were burned to the ground. I have room in my despair for both tragedies. This doesn’t mean I find them equally tragic. I do find it tragic, however, that people think others can’t be mad at more than one thing, cry over more than one thing.

I wake up at three am almost every night now. I think about what’s next; I think about borders and baseball games and crowded pubs laughing with friends over oysters. I know it’s coming back; of course. It’s just that now would be good. I think about hikes again out west, about sailing again but not sinking this time, about finally seeing London.

I saved three turtles the other day on the road out front. They tried to cross from the marsh to the woods; to visit friends I suppose. I helped them across before a neighbor’s tractor might accidentally run them over.

We saw an osprey building a nest.

And a small green heron.

In the past two months Michael and I have discovered a bunch of state parks along the waterways and we’ve been exploring them all. There is no oppression out there, no concern about what’s next, no judgments or deadlines or closings or small empty boxes on a calendar that remain empty, no plans jotted down, no lunch dates, no travel dates. In the wilderness areas we have walked there are no roads and the turtles all sun themselves on logs in the swamps. There is no stress out there. There are no ghosts looking back.

This past weekend I started writing letters to everyone I love and putting them in a very safe but obvious place in case I die of Covid 19 or a rabid turtle bite. They are all different because everyone I know is different. Even I’m different. I wish I had written myself a letter when I was twenty-five and put it in a safe but obvious place to read later, to better recognize the failures I swore I thought I managed to avoid.

In less than a month I’ll be sixty. So I’ll be eighty in the same amount of time it has taken to get to now from the millennium and, honestly, that doesn’t seem so long ago.  I need to stop doing the math on that.

The last thing I did last weekend was make a list of the things I absolutely wish I had done differently in my life. It had three items on it. Still, we can only move forward so I threw it out and decided not to go back there. Sometimes you need to be on that last thread, too tired to reach out to anyone, before you find your strength. So I threw it out.

But you can’t unring the bell. I’m still awake. I thought my writing would put me right back to sleep. No. I’m going out to save some turtles. 

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Unless

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It is never going to end, you know. It started at the dawn of humanity, this hatred, this discrimination and domination and hurt, and it has never ceased. Religion, ethnicity, money, land, and on and on and on, the reasons outnumber the results, the history is longer than the desire to curb the confrontations. War, poverty, racism, the fires that simmer in the bellies of small-minded people of power suddenly blaze with that hatred and encroach, dominate, suppress; it is never going to stop, humanity for all of its accomplishments and achievements from making a fire to docking with the international space station hasn’t figured out the most basic of skills—acceptance. Compassion. Empathy. These have alluded the greatest of empires, the humblest of men, and if we haven’t done so by now what in God’s name would make anyone believe we might stumble upon it anytime soon? We were not made to get along or we would. We were not built to tolerate those different than ourselves or we would. We were not created to show unconditional love to everyone else or we would. We were created, most apparently, to kill, and while the vast majority of us do not do so, those that do cannot be converted and those that don’t cannot understand that it is like it has always been and will always be. Humanity, as far as the idealistic hope of “togetherness” goes—or even simple distant tolerance goes—is a complete and monumental failure. We are war. We are callousness. We are greed and genocide. If I was God I’d have abandoned us too.

Unless.

Unless we start early. Throw away everything we now know about education, trash the entire failed system, everywhere, and reinvent it starting with preschool to have a basis in making the students human. Teach them to be tolerant. Let education from the get-go be a place where before all else and because of all else young students discuss the beauty of our differences, the hope of our diversity, and the depth of our possibilities if and only if we do it together, share our resources both physical and intellectual. But we have to start early and we have to accept that even then it is going to fail miserably. It is that acceptance that is our hope.

Each one of us, each individual, is the only light we can count on to brighten up this dreary existence.

The inability to accept failure; the lack of humility to step back and let the other person talk, let him breath, let her let it out, is destroying every shard of hope that might be left in this shattered and suffocating world.

I have battled depression. But it is getting easier to do so since I found the cause: humanity sucks. We are not “just below the angels,” we are just above extinction, walking in the insufferable truth of us. Knowing this makes it easier.

Pay attention to the crushing of a dying man; pay attention to the manipulation of a broken system; pay attention to the narcissistic need for attention no matter the cost, take note of hypocrisy, mark the greed and indifference.

We cannot handle the advancements we have created. We are too smart for our own good.

We are much too smart for our own good. Certainly I can find kindness in an old man’s eyes, beauty in the deeds of a stranger; we all can, and we all can be them. But possibility is short of truth, and hope is an incomplete passion.

I find the grace and infinite purpose of the universe in the wildflowers in the field, in the flow and ebb of the tide, in the quiet flight of a wren. It is when on the water or on a hike in the mountains that I have no comprehension of power or hate. I can tolerate the evenings in nature. I can accept my insecurities there. And when all seems completely hopeless, I remember it is only humanity that has failed. The rest is hope.

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About Face

While cleaning out my files I found the following article which incredibly ran ten years ago this week. The journal which ran it is not longer alive, but I enjoyed revisiting where life on Facebook was at for us all ten years ago. 

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About Face

This is creepy.

My cousin drank a latte while his daughter sipped hot chocolate after handing out Gatorade at a marathon. Meanwhile, Nicole notes it’s still raining in New England, but she is glad to be over the suffering of earthquakes and mud-slides in Panama. Luckily, she has support of several friends, having heard from seven within two hours to tell her she’ll be fine and offer whatever help they can provide. Brian read Ashley’s son Luke fifteen books on Friday; Luke turns two in a few days. Last week, my brother was stuck in Calgary waiting for a plane while his daughter in Denver had just run for fifty minutes. Mike worked late Tuesday but passed the time by reading a book about Organizational Behavior for a class. Judy, though forty years old, got carded at the liquor store Saturday. Christa’s mom is throwing her a graduation party this May in Michigan, Jose went shopping Saturday, and Dave’s legs are still sore from the turkey trot in Tampa. Tom wrote a poem about zombies. Jude vacationed until a few days ago and is dreading going back to work while her friend Jose deals with jetlag in Trinidad. Jerry feels stuck in a rut and is ready to move on.

I don’t know these people. I have never met most of them. I have no clue who Brian is, and while I know Ashley, I’ve not seen her in a decade; I just learned she had a son. I met Judy once, which was enough to tell me she probably should get carded more often, but Paul, my own cousin, I’ve not seen since I’m eight years old, but I can tell you he has a cold and was up late last night figuring out a new Microsoft program he wanted fixed so he can take off at lunch today to pick up some presents.
Welcome to my world. All of you. Come on in.

This Facebook phenomenon has everyone talking to each other, learning about the most intimate moments of each other’s days, reaching past the pat on someone’s back and into their friend’s lives. Conversations continue between people who’ve never met. The concept of “mutual friend” has evaporated. We all know each other. We’re just one big happy village, aren’t we?

Let’s face it, the fences have collapsed. The curtains are open, the lights are on, and the cameras are rolling. I’m watching Larry’s kids age, TJ’s friends fall in love with him, and the drunken stupor that was Nicole in Panama. I am on the receiving end of way too much information, and I’ll be the first to admit guilt to tuning in to begin with. It’s addicting, like gossip. It goes a long way in creating the illusion I know a lot of people and am involved in many lives. It helps me believe people care. It is the ultimate tool for gaining attention. Even if no one wants to know, I can tell my friends and their friends that I went to bed early last night, that I had a great bowl of spaghetti, or that I had a decent bowel movement. It’s all there in front of their faces while they sit on their collective asses really doing nothing at all.

Tom sits three feet from me in a small office; has for nearly twenty years. We’ve seen each other’s kids grow up, heard the terrors of each other’s personal lives long before our boss put computers on our desks. But recently I discovered he doesn’t like Bing Crosby, which in and of itself is understandable, but what I didn’t need to know is that his friend Amy lived in California when she was young and her mother was a telephone operator to put her dad through flight school. Turns out the crooner would call his wife collect and when the operator would say “who is calling please,” the famous couple would simply blurt out the message for the other to hear so they didn’t have to pay for the call. Amy makes it clear it is only hearsay, but what caught my attention is that his friend Anne went to school with a girl who was friends with Bing’s daughter Mary Frances, the one that starred in Dallas. By the end of the day I learned that his friend Lori wished she could invent a time machine to go back and stop Bing from recording Mele Kalikimaka. She does, however, like Bing Cherries.

This isn’t new. The archaic version of facebook was a small magazine handed out to freshmen arriving at college for the first time. This booklet of names, faces, hometowns and campus locations of peers gives its name to the cellblock that has become our online lives. The paper format helped us seek out familiar people or remember the names of new friends. It is how I knew who my roommate was before I met him. I remember seeing him in a hallway in another dorm and said, “Steve!” He turned and I introduced myself. He recognized me as well and we laughed at how we were able to do so. All I knew about him was his face and that he was from outside Syracuse. Now, there are people in Pittsburgh who know who my friends are, what I’ve been eating, who I’ve been talking to, what I test drove, when I missed work and where I’m going this weekend. A friend of my friend John spent the summer in Amsterdam where he met a young woman who is a painter from southern France who used to live in California. I’ve not seen John in three years—the others are foreign to me.

It’s all innocent fun, though, right? We mess around online with friends, connect with relatives, and update everyone about our lives, our families, and our careers.
Status update: Bob needs to lighten up.

Really? I know where people were born and the maiden names of some of their mothers. I’m not even that computer savvy and I’m already halfway to ripping off someone’s identity. The info section sways toward invasive. There is everyone’s date of birth, hometown, political and religious views. With the information listed under favorite movies, music, television shows and activities, surely I can crack a few password secret questions. I even have access to educational background and employment history. Should I really know the names of everyone’s high school, elementary school, and grammar school? What use can I possibly have for the names of what hospitals they were born in or the names of the mid-wives who delivered them? Clearly, this information is optional, but it seems most have opted in.
The benign material is harmless: Sheri’s reading Beautiful Swimmers by William Warner; Juliet is in a Race to End Cancer and Taking Steps to End Family Violence. Holly wants to keep the Arts in Public Schools, and if Mike were an ‘80’s movie, he’d be Say Anything starring John Cusack. I am a fan of Hunter Thompson and David Sedaris; organic foods, vegetarian foods, and Seinfeld. Who could possibly need this information?

Well, advertisers, for one. Obviously, they know what we read and what movies we like. But take the right quizzes and you can also feed them how much we know about American history, geography, literature, and food. My political views enabled some entrepreneur to push an Obama pin on me in the advertising bar. They know to throw an ad about David Sedaris’ new book or Hunter Thompson t-shirts on my page; they post links to Trader Joes and other vegetarian or organic markets. They know. That phrase—they know–turns my blood cold. I became a fan of acoustic guitars and am now privy to the local musician gatherings, instrument stores, and best places to buy strings.

Bob is a sucker.

We all know other sites tried to do this. MySpace, for instance. But Facebook nailed it to a fault. A quarter million new users sign up each day. It is the sixth most trafficked site in the United States with more than sixty five billion page views per month. Billion. Soon our medical data might be linked in the info bar just after our visual bookshelf. This is crazy. When Mark Zuckerberg created this social network in 2004 at Harvard, thefacebook.com was designed solely to keep students in touch with each other. It spread throughout the Ivy League community and within a year more than eight hundred colleges and universities were onboard. The network grew to more than five million users and the name changed to just facebook, bouncing the site to number two in popularity behind MySpace. My God, MySpace might be more popular, but facebook is ingenious, really. It’s a marketer’s goldmine with target audiences showing them exactly what they are willing to buy. And along with ads of products I probably want to purchase anyway, I learned Karen is back from Germany, Paul is headed to Vancouver, Jerry posted his new phone number, Anne misses her daughters who left for college, and Tim listens to Rufus Wainwright. Okay, so? Facebook is one of those clear plastic purses some women have wherein we can see everything from cash to tampons.

We now keep track of everything that happens and post it to the world. Wait—we’ve always done that: in ancient times we painted on cave walls, after that we told tales of our lives through music and other oral traditions; we learned of religion and philosophy through commissions from the Vatican and aristocrats, and the historical works of Herodotus slapped it together like a primitive dotcom. Think of the advantages of having this tool back then. The ages would be thick with information if we could trace the thoughts and motives of our predecessors:

Wolfgang had some bad pork last night.

Ludwig can’t hear a damn thing.

Socrates just sent a Boring Lecture to Plato.

Adolph just lied to Poland.

Noah became a fan of PETA.

Galileo saw some cool shit in the sky last night.

Immanuel thinks everyone is being unreasonable.

Orville is afraid of heights.

Sigmund misses his mom.

Vladimir just added The Communist Manifesto to his virtual reading list.

Christopher is geocaching for spices.

Closer to now, I’d like to know my ancestors hobbies, their reading habits, their friends. I’d have given anything to read notes by my great-grandparents on boats from Ireland and Germany. I wonder what organizations they might have joined, which groups they would have been a member of, how many times they might have clicked “become a fan.” I don’t even know what they looked like, let alone their favorite foods, fears, and fantasies. I don’t’ know where they were born, their political views, or their friends’ names. I’m sorry for that. And now it is virtually impossible to find out the minutia that made their lives unique. Four brothers crossed the Atlantic in 1854. No records of that anywhere tell me why, what dangers they overcame, or if there were five brothers at the start. Fifty years later my grandfather crashes into the family and I’ve really no idea what his hobbies were, though the pictures scattered about show him to smile often, and I hear he was quite laid back and a successful businessman, though this is all hearsay. His youngest son born a quarter of a century later lets me know stories from his childhood, revealing splinters of my background, my roots and histories. But really, I would love information about my father and his father like the information strangers know about me simply by scanning a screen.

Fred just had a new boy. Ugly little mofo.

I might run into someone after no “real life” contact for a few weeks and there’s really nothing new; we’re already in mid-conversation. What is it with our absolute need to let everyone know what we’re doing? If I don’t have anything to say, does that mean my day sucked? Am I boring? Or are we all just desperate for attention? Everyone and everything wants to be noticed. How we dress, how we keep our hair, our fashion, our car stereos, all indicate our need for recognition. Some of us even change the photo every few days just to amuse ourselves—and others.

For a while my picture was one of Rasputin. A cousin I’d not seen in decades thought it was me and commented on my long hair and beard. Well, sometimes that picture is closer to the truth of who I am than the crisp shots of my real face bookmarked somewhere by people I’ll never meet. Eventually, they might pass me in a hall and say, “Hey, I know you!”

No. They don’t. Nor do I know them. This is the Great Facebook Deception. One person on my page has friends that seem to patronize her to no end while two of us enjoy the casual banter of sarcasm on her site. It’s difficult to tell whether she is laughing at our friendly attacks or if she’s really ready to explode and we’re actually standing by with gasoline and a Zippo.

I felt bad when a comment seemed flippant instead of fun. I felt empty when another seemed trite. A few weeks ago I enjoyed a day raking leaves; I savored the cold air and the smell of autumn. But my status update made it seem like I had streaked absentmindedly into a snow bank.

I wonder what my last status update will be when the time comes for me to commit facebook suicide. I have to avoid the trite “Bob is outta here” or “Bob is signing off.” Equally predictable would be “Bob wishes everyone farewell” or “Bob’s really enjoyed this.” Something more appropriate might read, “Bob thinks this really sucked. What a waste of time” or “Bob isn’t.”

“Bob wants his life back.”

“Bob misses sitting around talking, shaking hands.”

“Bob has six hundred and eighty seven friends and has never been lonelier.”

“Bob is looking for Jack Kevorkian’s phone number.”

Facebook can’t communicate how it felt for Paul to make it to his daughter’s first communion; an update will never accurately establish for friends the fear and exhilaration of two partners, flesh and bone, in Bocas Del Toro during an earthquake. Nowhere online can words appropriately catch the sense of love felt by the mother of a two year old boy; the security of his arms around her neck can’t be translated by a word program. The feel of the flames of an open fire late at night in a small village where friends share stories of the day, of the harvest, of the distance across the desert, will never be understood through technology. In fact, it is technology’s very absence that tests the steel of relationships. With it, we have no time to miss each other or find out what has been happening since we saw each other last. Our information precedes us. Those are the times we live in today; it is virtually non-stop. Today, to retreat from the world and our friends we no longer need to wander into the woods like Thoreau; we can separate ourselves from civilization simply by switching sites, or, if we feel nervy enough, by turning off the computer.

I went four days without updating my status recently and three people wrote to find out if I was okay. No one called, of course, and certainly no one stopped by. I didn’t go on vacation or sail off across the bay. I just didn’t check my facebook page and they noticed. On the one hand it is nice to be missed, but that is the trap. We’ve created this illusion that we’re in touch with each other because this skylight lets everyone observe our lives. But who we really are remains allusive online. There are roughly two hundred such sites ranging in scope from a few dozen users to more than two hundred million. Some are business oriented, some collegiate, some adult, most social. They all reveal something about each of us, but none have yet discovered how to reveal our silence, its nuances and counterpoints. I disappear for three days and the speculation starts. In the primitive days of yore, we sat near a fire, shared some tea and listened to the expansive range of life. Each of us had a say; each of us listened. We survived on the casual updates of sporadic conversation; kind of like instant messaging, only slower and with the possible occasional facial expression or touch of a hand. We really did laugh out loud. We really could sit together without saying anything.

John Cage composed 4’33”. This brilliant work is absolute silence for the duration of that time span. What separates this from sitting around and saying nothing for four and a half minutes is his insistence on focusing; his assertion that we all spend those particular four minutes and thirty three seconds listening, really listening, to nothing at all. Our minds can’t wander because we’re focusing. When we pay attention to the soft sighs and the twitch of a muscle, we read moods and discover personalities. We can tell if she likes us, if he means what he says. We can reach deeper into the lives and histories of another person through silent observation than we can through a catalogue of status updates.

“Bob just read the worst paper of his career.”

“Tom just read a plagiarized paper.”

“Sheri is making pecan pie.”

“Paul has to pee.”

Some realize the futility of all of this and commit facebook suicide. There are hundreds of groups doing just that. They recognize the drawbacks to this invasive tool, most notably, how it sucks the life out of you. Worse, how it creates illusions. Carolyn Axtell, a senior researcher at the Institute of Work Psychology, recognizes that online sites like this don’t allow the subtleties of voice tone or body language. Phillip Hodson, a fellow at the British Association for Counseling and Psychotherapy, calls attention to the real drawbacks to facebook: this online profile allows people to build their own identity, make them feel important and involved and accepted. But it leads to significant disappointment which can be borderline dangerous when they realize “just how insignificant their online existence really is.” It’s quite a blow to the ego to find out you actually only really know about three of your eighty seven friends.

My site recently read “Bob is now friends with Mike.” I’ve known Mike since I’m fifteen years old. How presumptuous is that? Facebook subtly says to us all, “Your friendship has now started.”
Recently six people asked to be my friend. I don’t know them, though I guess somewhere along the line I’ve met them through someone I met once, maybe. We should be trying that in reality. We should be walking in the mall and be able to see someone who seems friendly and walk up and say, “Can I be your friend?”

“Will you play with me?”

I received a friend request from someone I don’t know and pushed “ignore.” I felt guilty. What if our online personalities got along? So why did I ignore him? It felt a lot like having a great conversation with a group of my real friends when some stranger stopped, listened and made comments.

“Bob yelled at a stranger in the mall today.”

But what if I’m all he’s got. What if in life, making friends is damn near impossible for him for whatever reason. How can it hurt to comment on his status updates; let him in on some good groups and fan sites? Maybe it’s all he needs to keep from going postal. Or maybe it’s the straw that’ll send this psycho-crazed freak into some college student’s online dorm room! We’re driving around town screaming about our lives with the windows down, for God’s sake. What difference does it make if I’m revealing nothing or a lot; those who know me understand.

And those who don’t?

The problem is online we wear the mask. It’s the first impression, the resume. It’s the brilliantly written cover letter of a moronic applicant. But it’s information. And we just need as much information as possible. Why? Because how we define “information” has changed. Today, it is anything and everything that is fed to us from whatever or whoever we read or see. Everyone’s got something to say, everyone’s an expert, and ironically, no one is listening. Facebook isn’t the cause of anything; it is a symptom of some chronic disease that demands we all must have our fifteen status updates of fame, and by God we’ll simply create it ourselves.

I’ve always like Snoopy, Gary Larson, Car Talk, Seinfeld, and Ladysmith Black Mambazo. What happened that I suddenly felt a need to pass along this information to my friends and their friends?

Bob is a fan of Gary Larson.

Tom is a fan of Hunter Thompson.

George is a fan of Dick Cheney.

Adam is a fan of apples.

Let’s start over. For thousands of years information passed solely through a tribal leader or elder. This person’s death usually meant the silence of volumes of history, tales, and fables. Those that survived cast forward like a child’s game of telephone where the message was often altered or even completely changed through time and distance. One long surviving chant is “mbube,” which means “lion.” This was commonly called to communicate the dangers in the forest or near the river where people washed clothes and bathed. Over the course of millennia, the call let people know when the lion was wandering or asleep, hence the South African chant “wimoweh,” made famous in the song, “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.” It’s ironic how originally communication was designed to bring attention to local dangers and prospects; today we’re calling attention to ourselves. Today we no longer gather at the well. No, now we’re all tribal leaders calling out to our village hoping people spend as much time listening as they are updating their own status.

“Bob wants to give a big shout out to all his friends in New York.”

But we’ve buried vocal nuances along with facial expressions beneath the blended ages of decades that, because of the immediacy of this medium, seem to make fresh the faces of our youth. But sometimes there are good reasons to leave people behind, to retreat into solitude where we can only understand the infinity of time by leaving behind the finality of now.

Do we really need to know what happened, what is happening and what is about to happen to dozens of people we hardly ever see, and in turn keep them updated. When are we doing anything to update about? Who the hell have we become that anyone really cares?

Really, it’s about time. I’ve connected with family and friends of course, but also friends I knew when I was a child during a different lifetime in a different world. I’ve found high school friends and college roommates. People I didn’t know too well back then I know too much about now and it turns out we have a lot in common. This is good. I communicate with college friends I knew two decades ago about colleagues I know now and relatives I’ve never met and it seems they should all somehow know each other. After awhile I forget who I knew when and which ones do or don’t know which others.
“Bob needs to rake leaves.” is followed by a comment from a colleague, which is followed by another comment from a high school friend, which is followed by another comment and on it goes, and these “friends” of mine meet each other from different states, different eras of my history, from different mindsets of the people I was to become who I am. Eventually, if I think too much about it, I’ll end up running naked into a snow bank.

Time is out of joint and the hobbies of strangers become good ideas while the habits of relatives explain why we haven’t kept in touch. Old friends I thought had fallen off the planet were simply hard to find. Here they are, right here, along with updates on their health, sleep patterns, food preferences, political affiliations, and the names of their friends. In fact, I have more virtual friends than I do real ones. And God knows I now know most of what they know. I thought I was going to reconnect with old friends when all I really have is their information. That’s all. The rest is silence.

Ed is enjoying his sole day off today.

Anna doesn’t like bluegrass.

My brother has not updated his status today. I hope he’s okay. He’s awfully quiet.

And I have no idea how my niece in Denver is doing. Her last post reads, “I am too busy living my life to update you about it on Facebook.”

 

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