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.”

 

social-media-statistics-facebook-920x518

Generation C

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I’m a baby boomer; just made it. I showed up on the narrows in Brooklyn at the tail end of my generation, and since I have older siblings, I was heavily influenced by the ideals of that group. Had I been the oldest born, I’d still be a baby boomer but tend to lean toward what’s next, Generation X. I’m lucky I wasn’t one of them; I don’t like disco.

The Greatest Generation is that of my father’s generation, though not my mother’s; more on that shortly. The GG has its roots in the extremes of the great surplus of the roaring twenties, emerging from the dark cloud of the Lost Generation—those who survived the first war to be fought worldwide, with trench warfare, with gas, with aerial, faceless bombings, with millions dead, without a doubt a generation whose ideals and plans weren’t just compromised, they were shredded—and went on to survive the depression, lost everything, witnessed the attacks on Pearl Harbor and said “Sign me up,” then witnessed the horrors of Hitler and said, “Send me over.” They were great.

The Baby Boomers were born, obviously, after their father’s came home from war, received GI bills, mortgages, built houses in the first suburbs ever, had expendable income, saw the birth of television, the rocket age, and rock and roll. These children of heroes of World War Two were spoiled just enough by their parents who took advantage of that economic boon of the post-war years, to complain when things didn’t go their way, like equality, the draft, and ecological issues. Complain they did. Some called it protesting. Some called it revolution. Whatever, they were not silent, my elder baby boomers.  

I grabbed the tail of that one. I remember the first earth day, the Beatles when they were still together, Armstrong on the moon, the Kent State shootings, and hippies on Park Avenue in Massapequa on the Island. I was a child, but I was also the youngest child, so I was aware of things through a sister and brother six and four years older than me.

Back to Mom. My mother is eight years younger than my father. So while he was a member of the GG, old enough to fight in World War Two, my mother turned twelve a week after VE Day. She grew up with a different mindset; plus she is the oldest of her siblings, and that would place her squarely at the beginning of next instead of the end of before. But she was too old to be part of the late-fifties, early sixties revolution when the massive population of teenagers with their daddy’s extra money had extra time. She was married with two kids by then, one on the way.

Hers is the Silent Generation. They kept their nose to the grindstone, they avoided labels of “Reds” or “Commies.” Their older siblings and parents fought in the war against the very real and very visible Nazi regime; then they themselves fought on the job against the very opaque and very indeterminant Red Monster. Instead of being part of a movement, stuck between the group who proudly went to war to save the world and the group who proudly protested the war to save their souls, the Silent Generation were part of world events mostly vicariously. Oh, they busted their butt at home and on the job, and many were a major part of both fronts, but they remain ill-defined. I know this because most people have never even heard of “the Silent Generation.”

Twenty years ago this month I met two men. One was a hero of the Greatest Generation, the other a not so silent member of the Silent Generation. Jan was in his late teens when the Nazi’s invaded his beloved Prague. By the time he left his city, his mother had been tortured for three days at the small fortress near Terezine Ghetto, his father and stepmother had killed themselves, two adopted young children living with his father had been killed by the Nazis, and he escaped to Slovakia. He then rode on the undercarriage of a train from there all the way to Italy, eighteen hours. He was arrested and put in a prison camp. When someone asked what he was thinking he told them he was trying to escape to England to join the Royal Air Force to bomb the fascist bastards. They tortured him and threw him in prison. He escaped, went to England, joined the Royal Air Force, and flew many missions into Italy to bomb the fascist bastards. After the war he became part of the translation team at the Nuremberg Trials. He spent from then until the time I knew him complaining things weren’t how they used to be.  

Arnost was only a young teen when he and his family were thrown into the Terezine Ghetto for Jews. He was “technically” part of the GG, but he was born right on the edge. By the time the war was over, his father, mother, and sister had all been killed at Auschwitz, he had escaped from Dachau and in the subsequent years right through the nineties wrote more than a dozen bestsellers about being in Terezine, being in Dachau, and being in love in the time of war. He was a romantic, to be sure. An idealist. And he was anything but silent. He and Jan were very disagreeable friends.

Closer to my father’s age than my mother’s, my friend Arnost reminded me of what I would be like at that time at that age; born just in time to be part of that generation but not early enough to participate, wrapping experiences with ideals and creating stories about experience, seeking out the down and dirty pubs in the lesser parts of the city.

And so look at us now, all of us, the whole world is at war, World War Three, and we are all of us on lock down, wearing masks, keeping our distance, never knowing from where the enemy will strike—the surface of a to-go box? A door handle at the store? A gas pump? The edges of the mask itself made by someone else and mailed to you? Some of us are Arnost-like, believing we will emerge from this better and with love; others are Jan like, wishing merely to retaliate and remain pissed at the lost time. Either way, this might be the first war we are all fighting—all age groups, all generations; which is why, I suppose, that children born now, and probably for a few years, will be known as Generation C, for several reasons. It means “connected consumers” and isn’t really bound by age, though they tend to fall into the post-millennial gaggle. But it now may tend to mean Generation Covid, the socially-distanced ones, the masked ones, the hidden behind walls and barriers ones.

The Silent Ones.

Honestly, I like Boomer better. It’s not the Greatest, but it’s close.

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May 23rd, 1925

Joan Collins. Drew Carey. Rosemary Clooney. Douglas Fairbanks. Artie Shaw. And of course Nicole Jaffey, the voice of Velma on Scooby Doo.

All shared a birthday with my dad. On the 23rd,  he would have been ninety-five-years old.

King Philip the First of France and hypnotist Friedrich Mesmer. In fact, when I look at the list of people who shared Dad’s birthday, I really am mesmerized.

Franz Kline. Scatman Crothers. John Newcombe, who I once played tennis with on the courts at Timber Point on Long Island when he was out there practicing for the US Open and I was banging a few balls against a backdrop. We rallied for thirty minutes before he left. When I got home and told my Dad he seemed more excited than I was.

It is the 143rd day of the year, making Dad a Gemini, and it is World Turtle Day, of course. It is also National Taffy Day as well as World Colitis Day, causing most of the country to spend the day screwing up the lyrics to “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.” And Dad’s “Birth Flower” is Lily of the Valley, which represents “humility”; perfect for such a humble man.

Those who died on the day of dad’s birth (though not the year) include John D Rockefeller, Kit Carson and Clyde Barrow; oddly, Bonnie is not listed, though I know she shared the barrage of bullets that May 23rd.

On May 23rd Joan of Arc was captured and sold, the Netherlands declared its independence from Spain, and Captain Kidd was hanged. Ben Franklin invented the bifocals and the New York Public Library was dedicated by Taft in 1911. On Dad’s 40th birthday, “Help me Rhonda” hit number one, and on his 54th birthday “We are Family” was certified platinum. On some May 23rd or another, the first Preakness was won, Joe DiMaggio hit three home runs, and Colin Wilson rode a surfboard 294 miles. Virginia succeeded from the Union on this day just two years to the day before Stonewall Jackson took Front Royal. On May 23rd in 1883 there was the first—and only—baseball game between one armed and one legged players, and William Love broke ground on his famous canal near Lockport, New York.

Three years to the day before Dad’s birth, Walt Disney incorporated his first motion picture company, “Laugh-O-Gram Films.” And just after Dad’s 50th birthday he and I walked through Walt Disney’s park in Anaheim and felt ill at a theater-in-the-round which made flying in a jet through Niagara Falls seem real. We held the bar in front of the row where we stood, but we still wobbled out with a loss of appetite. That was a great day. And about ten years earlier he brought me to Jolly Rogers, a small amusement park in Commack, Long Island, and we enjoyed ourselves even though I was too short for some of the rides.

On his sixtieth birthday we had a surprise party in the Virginia Beach home where my siblings and I all flew in to celebrate. He thought I was going whale-watching that weekend with friends in New England where I lived and when he saw me he almost seemed disappointed: He loved—absolutely loved—the idea I was going whale watching. A few years later he and I did just that off the Virginia coast and watched a humpback breach the water. That was a great day.

On Dad’s 90th we all went to Ruth’s Chris and Dad was in his glory with his favorite soup and steak. I had scallops and my son had a lot of alcohol not realizing the “Ruth’s Chris Coffee” wasn’t so much “coffee” as it was alcohol and he really enjoyed himself—wired and drunk.

One thing is certain, we always—always—found time to enjoy the passing of time, with family, by ourselves, whenever we could. He made certain of that. I don’t need Google searches to discover significant events. My entire life is laced with significant events. Growing up it was golf with Dad and my brother at Timber Point, baseball games, and the five of us at quiet, low-lit restaurants where he warned us not to fill in on bread and crackers. In my teens I wanted to use his car so I’d drop him off at a local shopping center for him to catch a ride with a co-worker, but not before we stopped each time at Dunkin’ Donuts where he would buy me juice and a donut while he had coffee.

After Dad retired but before Mom did, he and I went out to lunch about once a week—just him and me—trying different places. I’d walk back to my office from class and he’d be outside my door asking if I was ready. I was always ready, and we’d head to some local pub.

When my son was young we’d “run into him” at the mall and he and Michael would walk ahead, discovering stores and treats, and years later I’d stop at a different shopping center where Dad liked to stretch his legs, and I walked with him, and we sat and talked. During those later years every Tuesday we had Scotch at night, and once every three weeks or so my son and I would drive down and the three of us would go out to lunch, usually at the beach and usually he had oysters and beer, but it never seemed “usual.” Sometimes my brother joined us when he was in town and then we all laughed all afternoon.

My calendar is covered with significant dates.

Like the time Dad dropped me off at college and the entire drive up we talked about family in Brooklyn when he was growing up. That was a great day. Or when I used to travel throughout the country, especially out west in Arizona, and I could call him for free at his 800 number, and he always loved to hear what I was doing and where I was headed. I don’t remember him once saying he didn’t have time to talk. Not once, though I didn’t realize it then.

Mom and Dad would come to my house and we’d sit on the porch and talk for hours. One of those time he said he had read my first book, Out of Nowhere, and added with his sharp sense of humor that he didn’t get past page 46, so I read the page and found the line “years before my own aging father was born.” We all laughed hard. We would always share books by John Grisham and talk about them, or at some point I discovered one of the last things he ever read, maybe the very last thing other than a newspaper he ever read, was my essay, “Instructions for Walking with an Old Man at the Mall,” and he said he liked it very much and that he had read it several times. We had Scotch that night. Later when I was alone it was difficult to control my emotions but I swear to you I can’t really pinpoint why.

Most of our lives were times of deep love and quiet celebration.

When my sister told him she was cancer free.

When he and my brother watched Notre Dame beat USC.

Or that last lucid conversation he and I had, that Thursday morning.

You can’t put the most important dates on a timeline; they exist in soft breezes on cool mornings on the back porch, or hazy evenings over Chivas Regal; they lie between holidays and celebrations when having a beer and a sandwich after a round of golf with Dad, my brother and my son. The important moments mark themselves in visuals of him watching golf on television, his hands folded before him, his gentle “tsk tsk” when someone missed an easy putt.

Dad carving the turkey. Dad barbequing link sausages or steaks. Dad reading the newspaper on weekend mornings. He was old school; he was part of the “greatest generation.” He was the greatest.

Happy Birthday Dad. You made every day significant.

Frederick William Kunzinger

May 23rd, 1925-October 21st, 2015

The Edge of Somewhere Else

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I think everyone has an element that completes some sort of organic cycle. For some it is fire, they need the heat, the rough texture, the friction. I need the water. I don’t know why; it is my truth. Maybe because of the pureness, the deep, cold distance across the river or the ocean, or the salty closeness of the marsh, hanging in the air like smoke and lingering in my senses like a photograph. Most likely it has something to do with movement; it rarely sits still, and I like not knowing where it is going or just how rough it is going to be, or how calm.

The wilderness has always been my reference point. When I’m near the water I have a better sense of who I am and can be at peace with what I have done. So much of my life should have been different. Some souls tell me, no, no, this is what it was supposed to be, it is fate, it is always fate, but I am not married to that idea. I’m more than well aware in retrospect of the contradictions between what should have happened and what occurred. It is a harsh truth we are all aware of at some point. For me, there are times it digs inside like an ulcer, like acid, but when I am near the wilderness, the ocean, a mountain lake or stream, nature seems to let me down easy, lets me know I’m not that far off track, and everything I thought I’d be I’m still becoming, and I find some slight hope in whatever remains.

The rest of the time, though, oh my, the rest of the time we fight battles; we fight battles by holding onto careers, keeping on top of finances, trying not to skip forward, trying hard to bounce back, quarreling too much; being silent, too much distance, feeling smothered. And there are times when I know I didn’t have the balls to be who I had hoped, and other times I can stand wherever I am and know whatever happened until now brought me to now, and now can be fine, it can be just fine. Getting lost in might-have-beens is getting easier, what with lockdowns and shut-ins, what with so many funerals, too many unanswered calls, wondering whatever happened to, whatever became of, I wonder if he ever, I wonder if she ever…all pointless pursuits, I know, yet they seep in, they saturate sometimes at three am, and you wake up soaked in a sweat.

But the water reminds me despite the scars on my face, not everyone is missing, and despite the hairline and grey streaks, not all of me is aging. I’m one of those who keeps forgetting I’m not nineteen wondering what I should do next, where I should go, how alive and exciting it will be when I get somewhere else. I’ve always been this way but it happens especially near water, near western lakes, near eastern rivers and northern sounds. Here along the bay the river runs in from the west and the water is brackish, and swirls of fresh and salty, clear and murky, create the perfect canvas, the better rough draft, the finer composition, and the spark of whatever creativity I have is both born here and returns here. It is a place to come home, always, but it is also a place that reminds me that I am on the edge of leaving; it is the coast of somewhere else, and the waves whisper the same thing they did when I was a child on the Great South Bay—follow through, for God’s sake, follow through; you already know why.

The water is rough today, a storm coming up from the south, a front moving in from the west. The laurel is in full bloom and the rain makes the trees dark green and the paths clear, and I wander from path to road to the sand and along the river toward the bay, and I swear I can keep going, chase the osprey south, call an old friend and say “Hey, let’s go. Yeah, now, why not.” Are you serious? someone might reply, and I’ll say, yes, of course. These days I have faith in a lot less people than I used to, but that’s okay. A few is all a person needs to keep some light burning at three am.

The wilderness is my polygraph, I can’t lie to myself when I’m heading toward a bend in the trail; I can’t pretend, I can’t deceive or mistake or excuse or rationalize. It is both a mirror and a window, and sometimes I stand and reflect, other times I laugh as water swirls about my thighs and I know I’m no different than the tides, and that only when I stop fighting the pull does the depression ebb, and the false hopes are tempered and the truths surface, because after all this time the water has taught me that nothing in life is really lost; the tide always turns if we wait. Age has nothing to do with it. Neither does security. It’s about honesty and chance.

Both apparent and plentiful in the wilderness, along the rivers. It’s crazy what I pick up when walking along the water. I have a friend who collects shells, beautiful, exquisite shells. I have another who collects sea glass; she has jars of all different colors. For years I walked the ocean and I’d see the same old man there walking with his metal detector collecting coins and bottle caps and key chains in the plowed sand before the tourists flood out of their rooms. He bends over with his small plastic shovel and picks up what he can, usually examining it and tossing it in a bag.

I pick up moments and turn them over; like the time I thought I’d head out west, or the moment I knew I’d fly to Europe. I lean down and pick up that bike ride to Coos Bay, the horseback ride in Ontario, the walk through Paris late one night, the talk with a stranger for hours early one morning in a dirty old cafe, and I turn them over in my hands, and lately I’ve gotten better at asking the right questions, better at knowing when not to give up, so I keep walking and pick up shards of suggestions, pieces of possibilities. Some of it I examine and toss back in the sand, but some of it I wash off to find out what it’s worth. I am reminded right away when out in a forest or along the ocean that there’s always something worth salvaging.

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