Humanity 101

Humanity is a crazy race, building irrigation systems to help grow food to feed millions while building methods to annihilate those poor souls in seconds. Maybe the greatest irony of education is the stretches of intelligence, research, and application it takes for the human mind to conceive, create, and execute weapons which can evaporate entire cities. The mechanics to build the means by which to destroy someone else wouldn’t cross the mind of an uneducated person.

Only educated people can conceive of and carry out a holocaust.

It feels tragically like no one wants to save the world anymore.

Let’s start simply: there needs to be a new requisite in schools everywhere: Humanity 101. The course could cover the benefits of helping other people, the rewards of sharing not just gains but losses as well. There could be a lesson on compassion and one on being a good Samaritan. A sociologist might talk in one session about how what happens in one section of the globe really does have an impact on the rest, and a psychologist can show the class how to balance the beauty of nature with the evil things people say and do.

A theologian could explain why there are, or at least needs to be, some absolute morals. That person might explain why the belief in postmortem consequences is what can keep evil in check, keep the horrible potential of humanity at bay. Without preaching about salvation in heaven, he or she can certainly drop in a few lectures about earthly responsibility to each other, and if the fear of God is necessary to get it done, so be it; not unlike threatening toddlers who act up with the possibility of Santa skipping their house as a result.

The potential of a little supernatural backlash is just what this world could use right now. Honestly, it seems like no one wants to save the world anymore. I fear for the absence in education of something other than the notion of “career.”

We could talk about foods of other lands. Truly, we just might have as good a chance at preventing war by knowing what our neighbors like on their pizza as understanding the treaties that keep us apart.

At a department meeting once some years ago, I raised the idea with everyone about a class like this–one section, I said. We could discuss world holiday traditions and how to say hi in twenty-five languages. We could show pictures of babies and then pictures of those same babies but older, as soldiers with guns, and with each one tell his or her name, what they do for a living when not killing people, what their favorite pizza topping is and what books do they read to their daughters and sons.

They laughed. The department chair said I needed serious help. She said I really didn’t fit in.

I guess. Whatever.

Humanity 101 could meet each week at a different person’s home, and the first fifteen minutes could be a tour of wall hangings and books and movies, and we’d learn about that person and I’d say, “We should do this 7.3 billion times!” and everyone would laugh. “How else to avoid war? How do you suggest we avoid genocide?”

I know how to quiet a room.

It just seems that maybe to save the world we need to work first on understanding it.

Maybe to save ourselves we need to work first on understanding ourselves.

I don’t know, but after thirty-plus years of leading Humanities courses I know this: We are teaching the wrong material. We are learning the wrong lessons.

Planetmates

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 stay close to home or never come back.

When I walk past I am painfully aware that 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 family on the Island and my friends on the Gulf Coast all live here too; just beyond reach, a little off the calendar.

In my time, since my arrival, I’ve breathed in and out at the same time as Mother Theresa and Malcolm X. Neil Armstrong. Jimi Hendrix. Pope Paul the Sixth. Lech Walesa. St. John Paul the Second. Thomas Merton. President Eisenhower. Elvis. Pablo Picasso. Albert Schweitzer.

Wait.

Rwandan Tutsi’s. The Lost Boys of Sudan. Steven Biko. Pol Pot and Treyvon Martin.

I did time with these people; I stood witness to these events. These saints and sinners brushed my sleeve simply by sharing the earth on my watch. We have a loose affiliation with miracles and massacres as if life wasn’t less timeless than it is; but we’re just guests here.

This world is at best 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, Genghis Khan, all guests just over the slope of the horizon, just beyond some small slice of linear measure. 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.

My swift life falls on the roll call 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.

Closer to now, when I look inside the lines of my coming and going, between those two rays shooting off from 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.

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, e.e. cumming 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 Graph, 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 dad’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 at some point before their demise they stood where I stand and watched the hazy sun rise. Same sun; same beach. 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 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? Now is the only history we know firsthand.

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 did 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 automobile, before radio, and before long some sweet woman and man will find each other softly adding to who comes next.

Like strangers buying the same house decades before and after, like seeing the list of who owned the used car, like getting a job replacing some retiree. Like standing in line. Like sour-dough starter. Like a relay race.

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 and celebrate the same wins. 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.

And you, there, reading this; we’ve shared wine and we’ve laughed together, disappeared, collided, and sat quietly and finished each others’ sighs–what are the…I mean, is it even possible to figure the odds and calculate the multitudes of humans in these millennia that I might even know your name?

Walled In Again

There is always noise these days. Always something on, and now a massive portion of the population has earbuds perpetuating the sounds. The time spent in complete silence save the sounds of nature, or even a quiet walk down a sidewalk with cars passing or people talking nearby, has diminished to a fraction of the day. There is simply always some sort of humanmade noise.

Add to that the waves emitting from cellphones always on our body somewhere, moving the space around us, the air around us, pushing or pulling the vibrations and filling the emptiness in the air around us, everywhere, and we are bathed in noise, saturated by noise, be it audible or not.

When is there room for imagination? When are we ever left alone with our own thoughts? Not filtered through music, not wrapped in anticipation of who might text or call, but space for letting our thoughts drift, our mind, uninfluenced by a claustrophobic world, wander at will.

In anticipation of the long long long anticipated launch of The Nature Readings Project, I have been watching videos all week of writers reading work about nature, and there is a common theme amongst almost all of them, from Tim O’Brien and Tim Seibles to classic recordings by Robert Frost and Wendell Berry, all reiterating a concept most famously communicated by Thoreau: nature’s greatest asset for humans is the chance to escape and regroup so we can better deal with society.

And as I approach the 500th blog here at A View, I have skimmed through the early days and discovered too that my emphasis was always on nature as a place to remind ourselves of the essentials, the basics we need, so no matter what society throws at us, we know what we can handle. More, we remember we need so much less to be happy than we might believe when suffering under the deluge of noise.

Anyway, this morning I stopped at the Point near my home before headed south to the college, and I sat and watched a pod of dolphins move by, and geese, and one lone heron. The only sounds were of the water—somewhat rough—the deep call of the heron as it moved by, and the geese encouraging each other along.  I could have stayed there all day like I used to during Covid and would record videos for my asynchronous courses, talking about the structure of an essay while watching fishing boats head out to sea.

Instead, I drove south, sat on the bridge-tunnel for an eternity, weaved through the streets of Norfolk to campus, and sat before class staring at twenty students with earbuds in and reading cellphones, moving their heads to some song, or texting away to some friend.

It is none of my business until class starts, but when class starts I have a tendency to make that my business.

“What’s her name?” I asked one student in the front row about the one next to him.

“I don’t know.”

“Does anyone here, a month into the class we meet three times a week, know anybody else’s name?” They all looked around, then at me. They didn’t, of course, but worse, they couldn’t care less.

“In the before times,” I told them, noting I didn’t mean before Covid, but before cellphones, “people were endlessly engaged with each other, talking so much I had to call out several times to get everyone to calm down to start class. Friendships were formed, relationships. They used to look in the eyes and talk to people who were now part of their future instead of looking down into their past, their friends since seventh grade in their phones.”

I told them to talk to each other and that I’d be back in fifteen minutes. No phones. No silence. Introduce themselves, ask questions.

I stood outside and listened to cars going by, some birds in an oak outside the building, two professors from the business building talking on the sidewalk. I slowed down my breathing. I thought about the bay, my river, hikes I’ve taken recently along the York River and out in Utah. Those times I stepped outside my comfort zone. My bp came down, my breathing stayed normal. My headache went away.

I appreciated the time to regroup. I really haven’t heard of people doing that anymore—regrouping. I walked back in the building relaxed, ready to talk about the tedious task of editing, hoping their minds were all a bit clearer now, relaxed. Even hopeful, I hoped.

I approached the room and could hear nothing at all. Nothing. I walked in and people quickly hid their phones, looking around, one even pretended he was finishing a conversation with the woman next to him.

“Don’t worry,” I told him. “You’re not being graded.”

I sat for a minute and imagined the waves from the devices as colors, dark red and purple, and deep yellow like on weather maps of thunderstorms, and I looked around the room and in my mind I could see nothing but the storm, a rough sea of dark colors filling the air, completely occupying every aspect of the room, and when anyone took a breathe their lungs filled with purple and yellow air.

We used to talk to each other.

We used to look at each other more. We used to laugh and tell stories, or go for a walk through fallen leaves, their sound the only music.

We were present. We remained present so that we could better handle the future when we got there.

We lived deliberately.

“Let’s talk about tone,” I said, and everyone let out a sigh of relief, as if they were terrified I was going to make them talk to each other again.

Rewrite

Writers face a task unlike most of the arts. In music you can judge how well you’re doing by simple comparison to the original song you’re trying to cover. In visual arts it isn’t unusual to see young painters in museums copying the masters, measuring their progress by their ability to replicate Van Gogh or Rembrandt. But writers have no such opportunity. We can’t simply retype a volume of Hemingway and hold it up at the end and say, “Check it out! For Whom the Bell Tolls Baby! I’m getting better every day!” No. It is a crapshoot. If we appear too much like one of our idols, we are emulating too closely. If we have too much of our own voice too quickly we are terrified and, often, ridiculed for straying from the canon.

That’s why I love small chores with immediate results. Washing the dishes is a good one. Laundry. Cleaning the porch or cleaning out the shed. Mowing might be my classic example. These are all activities I can simply do while thinking of mostly other things, then after not-too-long of a time I can stand back and see the results. I can quickly assess whether or not I did a good job and redo parts that are obviously in need of another go at it.

Not a lot of guesswork is necessary; very little, if any, subjective viewpoints. It is what it is.

I have so little of that in my life. As a writer I am naturally dealing with material which can constantly be changed based upon my mood, the time of day, my caffeine intake. Even when I decide I’ve butchered a piece into place the best I can, I rewrite it again, restructure it, dump the intro and move the conclusion. Shred it. Eventually the editor will send the usual note indicating “only small grammatical corrections from this point on,” and I’ll panic realizing that means the journal is probably going to send back the four replacement paragraphs I shot off to them at the last minute. Instead, if the piece comes out in some anthology or another journal under a different title, I’ll include the new addition then, still knowing it will never be close to finished. Some things will never be finished.

This life of mine, too, needs serious rewriting. Just when I think I’m publishable again, I tumble backwards, and one gets tired of asking for help. So we hack away again, knowing (praying?) it will be okay this time, afraid to ask others for input, afraid not to. I glance at my progress with one eye, afraid to see where I screwed up again.

Same when I write. When something does come out in print or online I like to do just one quick take on it to see if they did something strange like add words I’d never use such as “spurious” or take out words I do use, like my name. Then I’m done. To look at the material again is just a way of seeing how differently I’d write it—not necessarily better, just different.

Right after that I mow the lawn. I admire the straight lines of cut grass; grass that was long but is now short. I trim the long grass around the stones and, ouila, done. Nothing to question; it is finished until next time.

However, in the best of days my usually unorthodox approach to everything from work to parenthood to travel and writing has always raised more questions than answers. Part of it is I take a lot of chances; another part is an overwhelming need to experience the passing of time as if I’m taking a dip in the ocean. I want to be absorbed in it, saturated by it. Maybe that’s why I write to begin with; to conjure a counterpoint to the persistence that is time.

Cooking is another task which can be immediately graded. I cook seafood mostly, but I also can make an amazing omelet. I knew a sous chef named Willie at the Hotel Hershey when I worked there half a lifetime ago. Sometimes he would take a weekend off to go to see his family in Puerto Rico, or just stay home, and I’d get to spend that day making omelets to order for the guests. The trick is to let it cook awhile on one side before the flip. I got good and I still love making them. Immediate gratification. Like playing Jenga–I know instantly whether or not I did a good job.

If the temperature is too hot the egg will burn but if it is not hot enough it will not solidify well. The butter first (not spray not margarine not bacon grease butter just butter and if that bothers you go eat oatmeal), followed by any hard ingredients—peppers, shrimp, etc—and after they’ve been thoroughly sautéed, pour in the room temperature, already beaten eggs—three is perfect. Keep pushing the egg toward the middle or sides to let the uncooked egg slide under the cooked part, making for a fluffy, well distributed omelet. When the whole thing seems un-oozy, flip it with a snap of the wrist so it lands in the same spot only upside down. Cover with shredded cheese and then fold in half and let it slide in perfect placement with the half-moon side matching the curve of the plate like two ballet dancers in unison.

Then eat.

This doesn’t work in writing. The second paragraph of this piece, for instance, was originally the beginning. The one starting with, “I love small chores with immediate results.” I changed it a few seconds ago. Writing has no guideline, no recipe, no set ingredients. I wonder now why I didn’t write, “When I mow the lawn I always start near the driveway and work my way to the woods.” Or “I do the larger dishes first when I clean and the silverware last.” Both decent starts. I can also point out now that originally the omelet section was the first paragraph, but I buried it later to back off of the “process” style which can be overbearing and misleading. I also couldn’t decide whether or not to include Willie. I kept putting him in and then leaving him out thinking it irrelevant, but then I decided to leave him in because I thought it a small detail that personifies the example. And yet another part of the writer side of me is constantly saying, “Who gives a shit?” as I write. Writers must constantly strive toward uniqueness without the benefit of example which itself defines contradiction.

Thank God I like eggs.

It would be great if I could go back and rearrange a few of my own paragraphs–I’d move the trip to Austria I didn’t take to the top, and the one I did take to another foreign land I’d delete entirely. The Massachusetts section definitely needed more development, and I’m not really sure how the Arizona got in there. Some cosmic editor would circle that one with a red pen and say, “This is really interesting and I like the Diego blanket-selling character, but it doesn’t fit in the rest of the narrative.”

Too bad we couldn’t have taken all of life’s ingredients out of the cupboard and put them on the counter at the start, decide then what to leave in and what to leave out.

Still, I like not being able to see too far into the work. I like discovering where I’m going only when I get there or maybe slightly before that, and then getting lost again, trying different directions until the landscape reveals itself. Once again I rearranged just now three paragraphs in this piece. You’ll never guess which ones or where they went because by the time I hit publish I’d change them again.

I wish the cosmos could have waited until they got things right before hitting “publish.” This draft of ours, this world, is a very weak draft not nearly living up to the author’s potential.

In any case, I wonder if I live the way I do because I write, or if I write the way I do because of how I live?

I don’t always want to know what’s going to happen. Maybe what I’ve been working on for all these years will turn out to have a happy ending; or maybe some tragedy will strike and I’ll need to write myself out of a corner and make some alternative escape from the monotony of a three-decade-old narrative. Whatever. I just know that in the end, the old axiom, “Watch pot never boils,” is not true. Of course it will boil. Einstein’s theories aside, the pot on the heat is going to boil. It is one of the few predictable aspects of life we can count on. Time is selfish that way. Not one fat second will ever lose an once on my account.

And no matter how many ways I approach it in the years I have left, I am never going to be finished with this life I’ve been writing. There are just too many ways to rewrite it; and far too many people already are too accepting of their first draft. I’m simply not, not because I can be so much better than this–though I am sure that is true. But because this simply doesn’t read well at all.

I need a good copyeditor.

“I’ve been working on a rewrite, that’s right. Gonna change the ending.”

–paul simon

A Note About A View from this Wilderness

At a recent seminar I attended online about maintaining blogs and building your audience, they suggested creating “memberships”; commitments from readers with a monthly fee of some sort. I didn’t like that idea, and neither did the others attending except a top tier blogger with an audience of over 100K.

Another suggestion is advertising or support links, such as an Amazon link where if you buy something from Amazon by clicking through my page, I’d get a penny or something like that. Plus, the blog would then have ads all over it. I didn’t like that either. Neither did many others except the top tier blogger with 100K followers.

I and some of my favorite bloggers like Sarah Leamy of Wanderlust, thought a straight forward donation page would be best. This apparently is standard among bloggers everywhere. Some people who will read what is essentially the equivalent of several books a year might not mind donating $5 or $10 a year for our time and to help defray the minimal costs (website address is really the big one, and the program upgrade to keep advertising OFF the page–irony at its best). I know some very successful writers who don’t agree with the concept of a blog because it takes your energy and material away from books and articles you could be getting paid for from a large market. I disagree in that many of my blogs have lead to articles I never would have written without the weekly–often two or three times a week–dedication to A View. In fact, this blog was the impetus for my book A Third Place: Notes in Nature

I started this blog shortly after the death of my father. My first entry was about sitting in a chair of his and looking out my window at nature. From there it has grown, and A View from this Wilderness has roughly 1000 unique viewers per post, and A View is fast approaching 500 posts in the course of seven years.

So, I’ve put up a donation page in a nod to artists everywhere who produce work for the sole purpose of producing work for others.

Thanks for your consideration in donating. Total disclosure: A View is not going anywhere and will always be free, but a donation would truly help.

I have put up a donation page for those who would like to help me defray the cost of the blog. The blog will remain free to all and I hope more and more continue to follow by clicking the follow button in the bottom right corner, continue to read, and continue to share. But if anyone can donate it will be greatly appreciated. I am suggesting $10 a year (more is always welcome). This amount will only be repeated if you want it to, and no information is saved, ever. It is simply to assist in the minimal costs of the blog. Currently, A View has more than a thousand unique readers and averages more than 100 shares per blog.

Can you help? Click on the words “ABOUT A VIEW” below:

Get Out

When I played outside, I learned to interact with others, to share, to win and to lose. I learned when to fight and when to give in—in real time, not virtually, not because some program dictated by my algorithms decided I had an X percentage chance of reacting to Y.

When I went outside to hike through a park or play in a pickup baseball game or just hang out in someone’s garage, I learned to remember, I learned a multitude of actions and reactions through observations and mistakes. I learned about the human touch, about facial expressions of agreement, of ridicule, of doubt and of encouragement—another person’s eyes could tell me when they had my back and when they knew I could handle it. Another person’s stare told me when I screwed up and when I made them proud.

When I played outside I learned about silence, about the distant call of a cardinal after we’d all been yelling and laughing, and I learned the modulation of nature, its ups and downs, how a crowd of kids sounds then how they don’t and how the small ripple of a creek can bring peace to my entire being. When I was out there with a group of friends I learned to allow another’s interests to dictate the day and to be grateful when it was my turn to choose.

I learned to sit on the bench. I learned to get out of the way. I learned the possibility of my agility and strength and speed as well as their limitations. I found out I was really freaking good at tennis but sucked at baseball. I discovered through trial and error I was not interested in rocks but was in water, I was not interested in cars but was in music. But still I learned. I hung out with friends and someone else’s interests bled into my space, and I learned. I learned a little about engines, about various religions, ethnicities, foods. Certainly I could have read about these things or participated in some organized fashion through a community game of some sort about these things, but they eliminate the smell of life, the aroma of sweat that comes from contact, the drift of dry leaves in fall that comes when playing football in someone’s backyard. They don’t allow the feel of the air when I learned how much heat or cold I could tolerate, the outright tackle that did two things—knocked the wind out of me to remind me others are stronger and just might be smarter and just might have thoughts and opinions I could learn from, and it showed me just how much I could take and get up again and try one more time.

I learned everyone’s phone numbers and remembered them, their addresses. I learned the directions from one place to another by stopping to ask, by reading a map, by common sense. I learned about local places to eat by asking someone local, by asking someone to take my picture instead of taking a selfie, and in doing so learned about where the best places for just about everything might be that I could never find in a guide.

My parents sent me outside to play and I learned to interact, to live, to think in multiplicities instead of the scope of my room at home. And I hope I don’t need to suggest the health benefits, both physically and psychologically.

I am not better than anyone alive save serial killers and warmongers. I am certainly not smarter than most of the people I know and I’m definitively not smart enough for the life I have led.

But I have experience. I have a depth of experience I never imagined I’d have. And I can trace the spark of that experience to my parents sending me outside to play and I looked up and saw the sky was so much larger than the view from my window. The horizon too. The possibilities too.

I went outside and used something extraordinary—imagination. I wondered what it would be like to sail, to fly, to play at Wimbledon, to hike mountains. Yes, of course, I could read about them and did read about them and let my imagination fly just as easily, but outside it was all closer, in reach, outside where I could look across a field and know that just over the curve of the earth was Spain, Africa. Outside was different, it was big and taught me to be small instead of some master of my space, it taught me to look both ways, it taught me to duck and to stand up and look around.

Outside I learned the world doesn’t spin solely for me, that I could learn directly from others, that making mistakes was absolutely acceptable and expected, and that in the end, I’d be fine.

I’d be absolutely fine.

The percentage of people playing Little League has plummeted. The numbers joining the scouting programs has fallen. The numbers of young people involved in after-school groups has diminished. Racism has risen dramatically. Intolerance of anything other than what we know and what we believe is a cancer spreading throughout towns everywhere. Psychologists say in a Pew Research study that the likelihood of high school students to disagree with their teachers has risen to unprecedented numbers and in more than half of all cases where the parents pushed the school system, the board found in favor of the student. In eight percent of the cases the teacher was reassigned. Growth does not come from being right. It doesn’t even come from being told the truth. It comes from being told you are wrong, to learn from it, and to move on with more information than you had before.

Yet. YET. SAT scores are HALF that of forty years ago. Graduation rates are a third less and the dropout rate has doubled. Violent crime among teenagers has risen to numbers more than triple than they were during the 1960s.

More than triple than back then, when we played outside. When we went outside and found out that someone else might know more than us and if we ran home crying to our parents, they’d make us work it out between us.

Am I an old guy remembering when things were better? Of course. But I’m also a professor who during a thirty-year career has taught research and verification of information, and I’m not wrong. The numbers are clear. We were better off when we spent more time outside with others. I’m sure there is some serious Post Hoc Fallacy going on here—the factors for the decline being infinitely more complicated than the difference between going outside to interact with others and staying inside and being a virtual participant in life. But in some sweeping way, the old truism is still true: Everything I really needed to know I learned in kindergarten. I’m not suggesting we don’t read or get online or interact virtually with people. Of course not; I’m doing that right now. I’m suggesting that without daily interaction outside with no constant supervision, we will never grow; we will never discover; we will never know what we are capable of, and that might be the biggest tragedy of all.

Imagine never finding out what you are truly capable of.

I’m going outside now to sit quietly near the river and listen. Sometimes the Rappahannock River sounds exactly like the Great South Bay.

You’re never too old to go outside and play.

Fill in the Blank

First, the analogy:

People in the literary world criticize formula fiction as “less than” literary. With good reason. It is predicable, redundant, and can be decidedly boring. I’m speaking in general terms, of course. Some of those formula-based works are exciting; they keep your attention and on occasion surprise you with some plot twist toward the end.

The thing is the vast majority of written work follows a formula. And in cinema, plot-driven material is the bread and butter of film productions. Sometimes we might catch a glimpse of a work whose crisis is created by some setting, and more often these days, character-driven material has become more common—those works which receive the vast majority of nods from awards committees. But the public at large is comfortable with the tried and true; they like predictability, and they find some refuge in knowing what to expect.

Reality jump:

We graduate high school, maybe college, in some cases post-graduate work. We find a job and then a career. We raise a family, we retire, pursuing those hobbies we either only dabbled in or hoped to learn someday. It is the Great American Dream. We live the best we can, we work hard, we play hard, we relax, we watch our children move further than we did.

My great-grandfather was a butcher, his father as well, came here from Germany with his brothers, presumably to “make a better life of it” than they had in 1850’s Bavaria. My grandfather owned a successful glass company in Brooklyn, was heavily involved in the Knights of Columbus, raised six kids, had an apartment in Brooklyn and a house on Long Island. All of his offspring moved on still, and my own father excelled on Wall Street, providing for us a childhood we could not have dreamed of being better (except for that one liver and onion incident). And when things got tough in the world in the early 1970’s, Dad stepped to the plate and kept everything in spin, eventually retiring and pursuing his passion since 1969—golf. He spent another solid twenty years living his life, enjoying his children, his grandkids, and eventually toward the end, his great-grandchildren.

Textbook successful life. Formula narrative line at its best, to be certain. Dad was one of my heroes. If I could have chosen a life of the people I’ve known, I’d have chosen his.

But I’m not a patient man. I’m not close to as intelligent as my father was, and I am too easily distracted by big picture stuff—I have trouble with the minutia in life, the details he was so good at corralling into a successful career.

But I can be creative.

I am sixty-two now, ten years an AARP member and now eligible for Social Security—all the stuff in life I was convinced I’d die before ever participating in. I had a terrific career as a college professor, as a writer, and I literally built my own home and have a son who I could not be prouder of—in fact, he reminds me in so very many ways of my father.

So—here we go. What’s next?

Sidebar: My boss at Saint Leo’s for a few years was a retired military man who went on to teach college math and become the director of the Little Creek amphibious Base college offices of the university. I know him well, and his daughter is a friend, having been in every class I taught as well as traveling to Russia on a study abroad. Just about at retirement age, beyond actually, his lovely wife passed away, and his children—now grown—moved out. He did his time—he served his country and then some by assisting military in pursing degrees so they can start their own second careers. He is a beautiful man, and just when you know he earned the right in his early seventies to settle into the “what’s next” in life, he made a left turn.

He joined the Peace Corps and did a tour teaching math to children in Ghana. After that he did a six-month extension in Micronesia. He remains, for me anyway, one of the more inspiring humans I’ve known.

While I have left my career at one college, I’m still teaching, and plan to for a while, and as a writer I will never be able to retire—my mind simply won’t allow it. It is why every writer, artist, and musician, dies with a pile of “unfinished” work. It isn’t an option for us, retiring. It isn’t a hobby. It is how we breath in and out.

But what’s next? I don’t know, but I know without question what’s next cannot be an extension of what was. It doesn’t work for me; that is not where this narrative arc is going.

I don’t want some great-grandchild to blog about me and write, “He taught college and was a writer and retired at” whatever age it is I can no longer tolerate twenty-year old’s.

No. Instead, let it read, “He taught college and was a writer, but then, get this, at sixty-five years old he…”

I like the blanks in life. I like that we get to fill in those blanks ourselves. I have great admiration for the formula—and there is not a day that goes by that I don’t wish I had set myself up to spend my waning years simply enjoying the passing of time. But my chemistry simply doesn’t blend like that. I really wish it did. Instead, I’ll stop worrying about the plot or the setting and focus on my character. It needs work, but this script isn’t finished yet.

Chronology, One

Massapequa Park

We had a cat. Coco. Briefly.

And a dog, Randy. But he chewed furniture.

Dad made us all try liver and onions once and if we didn’t like it we didn’t have to eat it again. None of us ate it again.

Every Fourth of July the front lawn was packed with neighbors as my uncle shot off fireworks he picked up in the city. I remember still the way the air smelled of smoke and something like eggs.

The way every Christmas Dad would plug in the Christmas tree lights before we were allowed to go downstairs. Our “piles” of gifts, separated, wrapped. That afternoon the small dining room table was crowded with relatives. And how we sprayed fake snow through stencils on the mirror above the couch and on the squares of the bay window. Outside there was snow. Deep. And later I’d go out wrapped in wool and use a bucket to build a snow castle. And inside the Three Wise Men walked from the left side of the mirror to the right.

How Little League dominated my summer. I played for the Wildcats and wore a purple t-shirt and jeans and Keds. The way I couldn’t hit to save my life, so Dad promised me ice cream every day for a week if I got a home run. The way I got a home run.

And when six, I sweat under the hot lights of the television studio of Beachcomber Bills Television Show on WPIX in the city, and I sang “Zip a Dee Doo Dah.” I left with a Knock Hockey game and my brother and I would strap the plastic hockey sticks to our heads and hit the plastic puck around the basement. The “Superman” television show album they gave me. The joke I told on television for all of Metropolitan New York:

Me: “Why are there fences around graveyards?”

Beachcomber Bill: “Why?”

Me: Because people are DYING to get in.

The way I hit “Dying” because I thought no one would get the joke. The way no one ever again let me forget that joke.

The small turtles in the pan in the den downstairs on the shelf below the window.

Men lined up on bicycles for the block party parade. The drinks in their hands. Someone playing 78s. Andy Williams.  

The way our neighbor Joe, a boxer, bent his head when he talked. The way he could dive into the four-foot pool without using the ladder.

The way my friend Charlie and I would run from his house to mine. The deep snow of then. The long days of summer of then. Chalk on the sidewalk. Puddles at the curb. The cool grass on my back one winter afternoon when I looked into the sky and to this day I swear I saw my grandfather’s face come through the clouds.

The next day my grandmother on the couch crying. My mom telling her how my grandfather was such a good man.

The way I remember my dad was upstairs a long time.

Mom and I on a bus in town and at one of the stops was a circle of hippies with long hair and beads protesting the war. The way they looked so cool in tye-dyed shirts. The old ladies on the bus shaking their heads.

How I can still remember the names of every family in nearly every house on the block. The way when the occasional blackout hit in summer, people would stand outside at dusk and talk at the corner next to our house. “They have lights on Euclid.” “None on Massachusetts.” “It seems like all of East Lake and Philadelphia are out.”

The way I knew either Mom or Dad fell asleep watching television because I could hear the sound of static from the set when all the channels went off the air. And in the morning Dad took the train to work. And I would walk to the school next door. My brother with the white guard straps across his chest standing in the crosswalk. The way he made me stand on the side when I crossed the line walking home from first grade.

The way rain sounded on the awning on the side patio. The hedges. How even today the sound of rain on canvas makes me feel like I did when I was eight years old; somehow safe despite the occasional storms.

Then on weekends we started driving further out on the Island and would walk through empty houses, and I’d collect papers with the house layout on them. How in school that year, my third-grade teacher, who didn’t like boys, would yell at me for showing the house papers to my friends.

How I really liked a red-haired girl who was in my class since kindergarten, and I didn’t want to move. How the papers with the house layout smelled like the new houses, and I liked imagining which bedroom was mine. And how when holding the paper of the house we ended up buying, I knew even then at eight years old I’d never see the red-haired girl again so I made her a card and wrote “I love you” in it but I was afraid to give it to her so I threw it at her in the hallway that last day.

The way I knew I probably didn’t handle that very well.

How I couldn’t wait to watch that first moon-landing. And to watch the Mets on the television in our new home. The State Park, the arboretum, the Great South Bay. And I would make friends like you do when you’re nine. How Charlie and I wrote letters for a few months and then we drifted apart and where he is now I have no idea.

The way it was only twenty-two miles to our new home but it might as well have been a thousand miles. The way that even though we went back to East Lake Avenue to visit a few times, we never really went back like I thought we would.

The way that’s the way I learned we never go back. We just don’t.

These Days

I like to sit in my green writing chair my father gave me years ago and look past my books and paintings into the wilderness which surrounds my home. The first time I sat here at Aerie, it was winter, and the birds could not find food in the morning’s snow so a slow spread of seed across the porch rails brought nature as close as possible without opening the windows. House wrens, warblers, robins, cardinals, downy woodpeckers and others all winged in from the apple trees to the rail, grabbed some seeds or stood and ate them there. Next to the porch is a larger than me thorn bush covered in red leaves which the birds use for hiding. They popped in and out from the bush to the porch and back to grab more of the only food around. Eventually they all work their way back to the woods by dodging from tree to tree like soldiers moving forward on a night raid. The thorn bush first, of course, followed by a quick flight to the first holly. From there the apple trees, despite their dormant branches, are fine for resting because of the snowy limbs. The last leg is a short one to more holly at the edge of the woods. Once there they seem to pause, look back as if they are wondering if they had enough, or if they forgot anything, and then they disappear into the high branches of dense forest. Later they’ll return.

I have found two ways to experience nature. First by moving through her: Sunday drives, evening strolls, afternoon hikes, morning runs, and any average commute. We take in what we can, view the variety of colors in spring and the fall foliage. But I’ve driven the route to work enough times in two decades to really not see it at all anymore. Are the trees taller? I assume they must be, but a change cannot be noticed by one who watches it grow. I cross three bridges along the way and two of them have been rebuilt since I started. Still, my mind is elsewhere when nature simply rests there sixty-five miles an hour slower than me. We can’t always be aware of nature; I understand this. But I’m not fully sure I know what it is that distracts me to begin with. There are other means to move through nature: A few years ago my son and I trained across the vast empire of eastern Russia, across the Steppes and hills of Siberia, and to the pacific coast. Along the way we saw thousands of acres of birch forests and hundreds of small, curious shacks all painted royal blue. I could never drive across Siberia, so the train would have to do, but the journey left me with more questions than answers. Who works out there? Are the dilapidated gulags we passed empty or just in ruins? What kinds of wildlife did we pass, mostly at night, just beyond the trees away from the tracks? Surely a grizzly or two or a Siberian tiger stood and watched us roll along.

As if extremes exemplified my existence, the following summer we walked the medieval pilgrimage route from southern France to Santiago, Spain, on the Camino de Santiago. The Camino is five hundred miles long, and at just about three miles an hour or so means every Basque slug, meseta insect and Galacian fly could be personally experienced and known by name. We watched the colors of the sky change and stood still every few kilometers to take in the vistas, drink some coffee, and walk the rocky paths again. To drive that distance takes roughly eight hours. It took us five weeks. One sees more when moving slowly. It is simple physics. But in the end we are still moving through.

Which leads me to way number two to experience nature: Sit still.

I took pictures of birds outside my window, and then I put down the camera and watched. They tilt their heads when they eat, as if they can’t see the food unless their eyes face down. Most varieties get along well, but the chickadees are little bastards. They’ll chase away or dare anyone, squirrels included. Yellow warblers are neurotic and Cardinals look pissed off though I think they really just want to be left alone, like old writers.

It is strangely the same in winter. But I’ll never forget that first winter in this chair. I simply stared at the bare brown branches against the gray sky. Somehow the white snow on dark green holly leaves brought the yard to life. I have lived here for twenty-six years but it seems I never before sat and stared at trees, at birds’ wings just inches away, at the patches of green grass surrounded by a dusting of snow. Even walking across the yard would have chased away these observations as quickly as the birds would have scattered into their hiding spots. As if my Siberian questions needed the balance of answers, I looked about the yard and witnessed more in an hour than I had for three weeks on the rails. Usually it is in Spring that we pay attention to the trees, when bare branches give way to buds, which give way to new life. Or in the autumn when we calculate our driving times on Sunday afternoons for when the leaves will be at their “peak.”

I sat perfectly still, doused in the narration-free documentary playing out before me, and discovered something phenomenal: Trees are always at their peak.

They stand strong like church steeples. The thick brown branches reach up, shirts off, muscles taut, every bone exposed, wrestling, bent at the elbows, visible like some skeleton x-ray against a low, gray sky, or a deep dark blue sky, or a snowy dirty white sky, and these trees don’t balk, they don’t flinch. They dare every aspect of deep winter weather. The wind moves through unnoticed, and snow catches crevices and freezes further growth for months. What wonder it is to watch their stern and steady rise, proof of decades, sometimes centuries, dug in for winter, standing guard in forests and backyards, unable for a while to block the sun, bare enough for us to listen at night to the geese. Starlings settle on naked limbs, thousands of starlings like leaves land, rest awhile, then leave, the trees once again alone waiting out winter, as if to say they’ll let winter leave when they’re damn well ready.

I used to think time went by so fast. I remember my dad sitting on the porch in our backyard watching birds outside the screened-in porch. He was a relatively quiet man but loved to watch the birds. One time he and my mom watched a pair of cardinals teach their young one to fly. They watched it fail a few times until it finally took to the air, making it to the nearest branch, not far from the porch. I never had time for that when I lived there. I wonder if my parents, maybe like the cardinals themselves, were both thrilled to see me leave the nest but sad at how fast I found my wings. Now I sit in his chair watching a robin work through the seed on the rail, and I realize it isn’t time that moves too fast—it’s me.

I’ve Been This Way Before

It’s late. On my way home I stopped and stared across the water to a massive moon just hanging there. The other night we used deep-space binoculars to gaze up-close at its craters, the shadows and mountain ranges. But tonight my eyes adjusted to the breeze, the well-above-flood-stage tide moving across the road at the river, and out there in all her glory tonight’s moon, like it has been for everyone who has ever been on this planet, all of humanity has seen this moon, hanging there, pushing the water just slightly higher.

Life is quiet tonight. It’s when it is late like this that I feel all of life is a murmur, a whisper of sorts. Emotions flow and ebb, successes and failures too, love, misery, those brief lightning-strike moments of euphoria and the near-suicidal feelings of claustrophobia, when it seems there is simply no escape and no more help to be found, also, flows and ebbs.

In fact, time may be the only consistent aspect of life.

Time runs away from us, out there past the horizon where that eternal moon waits just above the bay. There is absolutely something comforting in water. Have you ever waded for a while beneath the surface? If not, I am not certain I can describe it. There is a suspension, where with the wave of your arms ever so gently, perhaps the kick of a foot every so often, you just float there, water all around, and the impressing power of ocean on your skin and in every pore, ever orifice, weightless, and you become the water, as if the body—which is, of course, about seventy percent water itself—remembers, and returns to its natural state, you just float in this amniotic ocean, and when you surface, the water pulls at your skin, the intense tug of the water trembles for you to return, but the air reminds you of gravity and linear time, and you move onto the sand knowing you barely escaped this time, just one more day perhaps.

And the highs return, the absolute conviction you have control over your decisions, and mental health has no say, and past mistakes have been forgiven, and you know everything you hoped would go right goes right. But if you’re around long enough—six decades perhaps—you know it’s all going to fade again. And again.

Anyway, the moon is pretty tonight, and the water high from some storm passing Bermuda and pushing the water this way.

Before I left the college earlier, I asked my students—all brand new freshman in a class designed to help them with all aspects of adjusting to college life— what they do when they feel trapped and scared, just can’t find their way, when they just want to quit one way or another. They shrugged, mostly. One mentioned music, another calling home or friends. But one young man kept looking away, and when I walked on that side of the room I could see he had been crying. I moved back toward the middle and said, “When I was a freshman at college in western New York, I didn’t fit in at all. I really didn’t. I got involved but I always felt like I was so much more immature than the others, and I was from a place no one else was from—before cell phones or computers, when calling anyone meant slamming quarters into a payphone with shaving cream all over the receiver. So I found a place, a small grotto in the woods on a hillside across from campus. Mind you, it wasn’t about the beautiful statues at all, it was simply about the peace there, the absolute quiet there that somehow flooded my body, every pore, every orifice and brought me such peace and reminded me I am no one but who I am and I will always be this way and I have nothing to apologize for. I’d sit in the grotto for hours, sometimes falling asleep, and head back to the dorm well after midnight only to find everyone still partying. But somehow it no longer bothered me, like I knew something they didn’t; as if I had discovered a part of myself they’d never be able to touch, and it got me through four years. It got me through four more decades.

Find a place, I said to the class but really to this one young man, and don’t bring your phone, don’t bring your laptop. Don’t bring your anxieties and insecurities and hesitations.

On the way home something else was truly on my mind, an anxiety that filled my every space and set my heart racing, so I pulled over at the bay and watched the moon—this beautiful, imposing, eternal moon, surface and rise from the bay, and I sat a long time until I found that peace I needed that holds me up through the ebbs of life, reminds me that no matter how easy it would be to let the water have its way, that the tide is turning.

For those who wait long enough, the tide always turns.