Trial and Error

Today worked out okay. I mean, if we could have trial runs of our days before we actually lived them, today would pass. I did a lot outside, worked on some things in here, had a decent acceptance for an essay, got ahead on another project, and listened to the rain on the skylight above my head while working; it’s better than background music. It is background music.

At the river earlier some gulls huddled together against the wind and they walked before me aimlessly up the sand before the jetty. The tide is exceptionally low and I could walk well out to the end of the rocks for my best view both up river and out across the bay.

I saw a deer near the shed. Another at the point this morning.

I stopped at 711 for a Slurpee and a man contemplated the various size hot dogs, some with extra spices and some stuffed with cheese. Another guy noticed that gas went back up but he didn’t seem to mind. Not nearly as much as the one buying kerosene at almost seven dollars a gallon. This is a boater’s world though, where there are three times more boats than people in the village, and more often than not the conversation is about diesel engines, traps, shrink wrap (yes, many boats get shrink wrapped for the winter), and a fire at one of the live-aboard marinas a few weeks ago where no one got hurt and where a friend of mine lives aboard his 27-footer and only woke because someone smashed the glass to get the fire extinguisher next to his slip.

The manager Sue said she liked the old breakfast empenadas better than the new ones. Jimmy bought his case of Bud and Lee his iced coffee. Michelle bought cigarettes and wondered what she would do after she brought her little girl to school. Curtis complained because Curtis complains.

I was awake. Not caffeine awake; new-birth awake, each sound, each comment and action I picked up and held for a moment, as if everyone else was moving just slightly behind me, like I had the edge today. I have no idea how to explain it. I was really awake. Like I could hear every rain drop, individually, hit the surface of the bay.

Some lady with two kids who screamed out every item in the candy aisle demanding she buy it for them and to which she screamed back at them before, of course, buying it for them, has got to be guilty of some sort of child abuse. Should it be legal to let your four year old eat two snickers bars and a donut with her chocolate milk at 6:30 am and then scream at her for dropping an Ipad which she brought in from the car, on the floor? All the while this woman managed to drop the F-bomb—TO HER KIDS—in every sentence, often several times per sentence. The fact she came into the store the same morning I was crack aware of everything around me is just bad luck.

So I left and went to the bay and sat there for an hour, more, sat there and thought about my brother and sister and how much I admire them, their integrity and example, and my mother and her perseverance through everything, and I mean everything. I thought about my friends like Laura and Letty who are fighting the battle of their lives, and others like Sean and Mike, the other Sean and Rick, who have more kindness and compassion than seems normal, yet is instinctive to them.

I thought about Michael, my son, who—no kidding here—is kinder and more genuine than anyone I’ve ever met, and how much he reminds me of my father in so many ways. I wondered if he has any clue that his art is masterful, and I know art.

What would I do if we could have had trial runs of our days? Which ones would I have cancelled entirely, which ones would I have made slight adjustments, and which ones would I look at and say, “Yes, good, that seems right.”

And as I watched two buffleheads land in the bay and immediately dive for breakfast, I realized I’d not change many at all.

Certainly I would have x-ed out a few: that one with that one phone conversation. Gone. And when Mike called to tell me about Dave. When I called Mike about Roberta. I would have stopped a friend of mine from getting in a taxi; told him it was a bad idea. I would have asked another friend of mine to get in a taxi; told her it was a really good idea.

But for the most part I wouldn’t change anything. It has been one hell of a ride, and even some of the seemingly bad events that others might look at and say, “Come on! How can you NOT change that?” I’d leave alone.

I’m glad I whacked my ankle.

I’m glad I got lost and ended up on this dead end road.

I’m glad I left that job.

I’m glad for the times I have struggled because they made me stronger.

I’m glad for the times I was hurt and I cried because they made me more aware.

I’m glad for the times I was rejected because they made me better at what I do.

I’m glad for the times I asked for help because it showed me the kindness of others.

I keep thinking of Alanis Morrissette: “Thank you clarity.” That was today. The most like this I’ve ever been was when we were on the Camino de Santiago from France across Spain. Today was unique, but over there this was a constant state of being, from the time we woke until the time we slept again we remained aware, in the moment, in conversation with everyone around us, listening to everyone.

Today was very Camino-like. Only I was in 711 walking down the aisles, which is a kind of pilgrimage of its own, depending upon how hungry you are.

Everyone has a story, a struggle, a dream, a disappointment. Everyone survived something that should have killed them, has been rejected, has known deep-to-the-soul pain.

And apparently everyone ends up at 711 to tell everyone else about it.

I wouldn’t change a thing about my life. I really wouldn’t.

Except that mom with the two kids; I’d kick her and her filthy mouth the f**k out of there.

You want to get in touch with every single slice of American culture? Every economic level, every race, religion, every pain-stricken and passion-filled tortured and celebratory soul? Go buy a Slurpee.

A Special Request

Letty Stone and me a few weeks ago

My friends and family, 

I have raised money before for various projects, but this is very personal and very urgent. I’m sending this to everyone and posting it at this blog which has a weekly readership of roughly 1200 people. If you are not in a position to donate, perhaps you can forward this to someone who can. 

In a nutshell, my dearest friend of 33 years ran marathons, worked out daily at 5:30 am, and is as fit as one can be. One day she called me and we laughed about how old we will be when her six month old granddaughter graduates high school. A few days later she went to the gym to workout but was slurring her words. They brought her to the hospital thinking it a stroke. It was a tumor. The operation determined it a very aggressive one, and it will win the battle. The chemo is to try and slow it down and make Letty more comfortable, but the prognosis is very poor and the battle will be unmercifully swift.

When I put this campaign online I had hoped to reach $5000 to assist with the ridiculous amount of expenses she faces. In the long run, insurance, grant programs for cancer patients, etc, will all be beneficial to her and her husband, Billy. But right now the expenses are unbearable, and this is to help with that inconceivable transition from what was to the horror that awaits. It is a tough time when life itself should mean more and have more significance than ever. This is to assist them now–right now—with the unbearable transition they are trying to negotiate to an entirely new existence. 

Every small amount helps, and what means more to her is that people want to help her, including–or perhaps especially–people she never met. Last night I told her where the campaign was at, and she was beside herself. She is grateful, and while Letty is horrible at accepting compliments or help of any kind, she humbly said thank you. I’ll be sending her the names of those who did not wish to be kept anonymous, but the truth is, I know what is needed and I’m trying to get this to another $1200. Make no mistakes, Letty is filled with gratitude just for the idea that we want to help. But it would change how they can move forward. That is not a small thing.

I know this woman!:

Letty and I worked together, and I’ve known her since–and I can confirm the day–August 16th, 1989,  and we have saved each other emotionally for three decades–long walks, late night conversations, lunches, dinners, breakfasts, long car rides talking forever about humanities, literature, philosophy, Europe, food, and nature–you can imagine the tears but more so the laughter. Not a day went by in those decades we weren’t laughing. She was born in Italy, raised by parents of Spanish and Italian origin, went to high school in Algiers, is fluent in English, Spanish, French, and Portuguese, taught French and Humanities for nearly four decades, is a humanities scholar, runs marathons, raised two beautiful children, laughs all the time, will help anyone who needs help, and loves long walks. She dresses to the nines and after some years of prodding, I got her to stop wearing high heels everywhere. She and her husband, Billy, battled health issues of his some years ago, and they survived. This is a different battle against an undefeatable enemy.

In 2005 she went with me to Russia for nine days. A few weeks ago when her daughter got married, she sent me a picture of her holding her son’s daughter, Sophia. What these donations will do is to relieve the immediate unbearable financial stress so the time is easier. It doesn’t take much when combined it adds up so fast.  

It takes some time to understand you cannot save someone, but you can bring them peace by showing how much you care. In the end that is all that matters.  

So thank you everyone, and if you can still donate, please follow one of the methods below. She returned to a week of “comfort chemo” as she calls it, yesterday and says she will not be up to much pretty quickly. This will certainly lift her spirits, which right now is literally life-saving.

You have made a difference in her life. That phrase is used often, but in this case, it is absolutely true. 

Peace, 

Bob

the links: 

Venmo: @robert-kunzinger

Zelle: kunzingerb@gmail.com

If you mail a check, make it to “Letty Stone” c/o Bob Kunzinger, PO BOx 70 Deltaville, VA 23043

Or Paypal the donation page:

https://www.paypal.com/pools/c/8QDP6wDA7n?fbclid=IwAR2IWtTagpOeMfmqYRUr7KRL6Y7XAjHR1LU05QxCCVkRmnAd2v3QcNeWKd8

Letty and Sophia

Beautiful Beautiful Boy

Today is one of those chilly, rainy Sundays I’ve always loved. There’s something immediate about them—I feel present. A mist is moving down river toward the bay and a Great Blue Heron has perched on a branch across the swamp, her head pulled down like a cold child. The air is calm and the tide high.

Like everyone else these days, I have a lot on my mind. I’m worried about a few friends, some projects I’m working on, some commitments I must stick to, some issues I’ve been dragging around for a few years. To push the tired metaphor that NPR guests cannot seem to use enough, it often feels like playing a game of Whack-a-Mole; just when one issue has been dealt with, another rises, and it goes on and on, and I feel like running away.

Instead I walk to the river dressed in seven layers and a raincoat, a hat, my hood up, hands shoved deep in my pockets. I can hear buffleheads in the fog diving under the surface, rising. Some gulls call from a nearby pier, and the diesel engine of some boat pushes it along the channel toward the bay.

Another typical rainy morning.

I remember a rainy Sunday morning forty-two years ago. Half the guys on my floor at the dorm were asleep, the other half just getting home from passing out somewhere. I had been up in Niagara all day Saturday and while the details aren’t important, it took me twelve hours to get home. I slept a few hours, noted the cold rain, and decided to walk to my friend’s painting studio under Francis Hall on the far side of the campus. It had been a seminary years earlier, and in an old library beneath the hall he set up his paintings. On the walk over I couldn’t even see the hills just behind campus across the Allegany River, and it was deafening quiet on campus. Quiet like today, misty too, and chilly like today.

I descended the stairs and could hear John Lennon’s “Double Fantasy” album; an album that artist Cole Young played non-stop for a few months that year. I was deathly tired, and Cole looked up from the canvas just briefly. “Kunzinger! Listen to this!” Then a minute later, “What the hell happened to you?”

“I walked home from Niagara Falls. Well, a good deal of it. I’m tired.”

Cole put his brush down and sat down, crossed his legs and picked up his coffee mug. “Go on.”

I told him how a friend and I hitchhiked to Niagara Falls the previous day and the hour and a half drive only took us an hour and a half—someone picked us up immediately and brought us right to a donut shop at the falls and bought us donuts and coffee. Then we ran into some other Bona people and hung out all day, and around four she said, “Bob if we leave now we can be back to the dining hall for dinner by 5:30.” Cole laughed hard because, of course, we were idiots.

“So you guys just decided you’d get a ride right away from someone who happened to be headed to this town that isn’t on the way anywhere?”

“Sure.”

“And you didn’t get a ride.”

“You’re a genius Cole.”

I told him we walked until nearly three in the morning then huddled together in the overhang of a hardware store in the small village of Machias, and after ten minutes I saw a payphone and convinced my friend to call her boyfriend, who is still a very close friend of mine despite that night, and ask if he can borrow someone’s car and come pick us up. He did. We got home. I slept, woke to the rain, walked to the studio.

“That is excellent, Kunzinger! Wow!!”

“I like your painting. What’s it called? ‘More trees somewhere’?”

He laughed. “Homage to Cole.”

“Oh but we don’t have an ego!” I quipped.

“Thomas Cole, Kunzinger.” Of course, the Hudson Valley School founder was a major influence in my friend’s craft. “Seriously! What a great night!” he said.

“I’m exhausted. That was frustrating because I KNOW that people we know passed us on Route 16!”

“But then you would have gotten home and done what? Gone to the skellar? The Club? Are you kidding?! You walked to Machias from Niagara Falls!”

“I know but…”

“Shhhh. Listen.”

Lennon played.    

“Before you cross the street, take my hand.

Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.”

Cole was a beautiful man. He died young. But that day at that moment he nodded his head in a definitive manner as if to say “if you don’t agree with me you’re too stupid to live.” “Don’t you get it?” he asked me.

I got it.

“You would have had another unmemorable night in a long stream of unmemorable nights surrounded by drunks and loud music! You’ll be talking about last night for the rest of your life!”

That was more than four decades ago.

I’ve done really well. I have. I have a beautiful place, been around the world dozens of times, written books, and laughed hard—really really hard—with friends. But I’ve been down too, scraping by, not able to pull my own weight without help, living in the extremes—life at perfection that if you died then you’d be happy with it, and life so decidedly bad that if you died right then you’d be happy with it.

But in both cases, I was not busy making other plans. I was decidedly alive. Maybe I should have been more restrained, I don’t know. I’d do a lot differently, especially in the past few years. Even now I want to call a few people up and tell them to shut up while I apologize and explain myself, but there’s no point. There’s only now and next. That’s it.

It’s raining harder now, though I’m at my desk looking out at the woods where a fog has settled with the holly, and it is beautiful.

Sure, I could sit here, get some work done, prepare some lessons for my writing class Tuesday night, maybe finish an essay I’m working on about—no kidding—weather.

But life is happening, and I want to go be a part of it. I’m not irresponsible. Well, okay, I’m sometimes not irresponsible. But sometimes when the world “is too much with me” and I feel unable to think rationally, I get the attention span of a lightning bolt and need to get outside, and walk slowly, taking it in, sitting watching the heron on the branch perched watching me, and spend hours at a walker’s pace instead of seeing it all like a drive-by.

I don’t mind the rain or the cold. It is the nothingness of life that chills me to the bone.

The painting Cole Young was just starting that night, “Homage to Cole,” hung in the second floor lobby of the South Tower of the World Trade Center, and when they came down, I called him at his studio in Brooklyn at the time, and said I had read in the New York Times about the artwork in the towers, and how his was among them.

He laughed. “Yeah!” Then he moved on quickly. “Hey Kunzinger! When are you coming up here! We can hit some studios and some bars, listen to some live guitar music. Bring yours!” he said.

“It’s not around the corner,” I told him.

“I just assumed you’d hitchhike.”

The thing about the hills behind campus was I knew they were there even though on misty Sunday mornings you couldn’t see them at all. But they were there. I’m heading out to the river, walk in the morning fog and clear my head.

Carpe Diem

More than a few people I am very close to are facing troubles–real troubles–far worse than I’ve ever had to deal with.

This is about perspective.

Today was a very good day for me. But even the worst of days is more about how I handle the situation than the situation itself. Life is swift and life is fragile, even for the healthiest, even for the youngest.

I would do a lot of things differently, especially over the course of the more recent years. But I can’t. The best I can do is start now, and keep starting. As many times as it takes.

Life is beautiful.

Much peace my friends.

If I had my life to live over …by Nadine Stair

*****************************************
If I had my life to live over,
I’d dare to make more mistakes next time.
I’d relax, I would limber up.

I would be sillier than I have been this trip.
I would take fewer things seriously.
I would take more chances.
I would climb more mountains and swim more rivers.
I would eat more ice cream and less beans.
I would perhaps have more actual troubles,
but I’d have fewer imaginary ones.

You see, I’m one of those people who live
sensibly and sanely hour after hour,
day after day.

Oh, I’ve had my moments,
And if I had it to do over again,
I’d have more of them.
In fact, I’d try to have nothing else.
Just moments, one after another,
instead of living so many years ahead of each day.
I’ve been one of those people who never goes anywhere
without a thermometer, a hot water bottle, a raincoat
and a parachute.
If I had to do it again, I would travel lighter than I have.

If I had my life to live over,
I would start barefoot earlier in the spring
and stay that way later in the fall.
I would go to more dances.
I would ride more merry-go-rounds.
I would pick more daisies.

So Far Away

When I came up here to Aerie to mark off the corners for the contractor to dig the footings for the house, my father and son both came with me. Michael was just three at the time and climbed the stacks of logs and other materials, using the brand-new shed as a fort. My father and I held opposite ends of a long measuring tape and put pre-marked sticks in the ground.

We talked about the drive up—it was a Saturday—noting how it wasn’t as bad as he thought it would be from Virginia Beach.

“This place really is centrally located,” I reminded him. “About an hour and a half to the beach, about an hour to Richmond, two fifteen to DC, and two and a half to the mountains. Plus a river and a bay.” We had a great time that day and had lunch in Deltaville before driving back across three bridges, one tunnel, and two interstates to his house.

A few weeks later I was fiddling around the property while waiting for a delivery of stones, and a neighbor walked up the long, winding driveway to introduce himself. Roland and I talked for hours about where we were from, and he filled me in on some of the local places to eat. Then he said, “You know, Bob, I don’t know if you’re aware of this, but we’re really centrally located here.”

“Yes, I know,” I said. “My father and I were just talking about that not long ago.”

He nodded and said, “Yep, the village is only three miles from here, and there’s an Exxon/711 about two miles the other way next to a bank. And if you don’t mind a really good, pretty drive when gas isn’t that high, Urbanna has some nice shops and is about fifteen miles from here. I head over there once a month or so.”

Perspective.

Here’s how I deal with the “So where do you live?” question:

When I’m in Deltaville: “Down Mill Creek toward the river and duck pond.”

When I’m in Virginia Beach: “Deltaville” (technically, “Wake,” but most people understand the much larger though still miniscule Deltaville).

When I’m in western Virginia: “Where the Rappahannock River meets the Chesapeake.”

When I’m in New York or Florida: “Virginia,” but if they’re also from Virginia, “Middlesex County, half hour northeast of Gloucester out near the Bay.”

When I’m in Europe: “the United States.” If they know the States, then I’ll add “Virginia.” Once, an annoying Russian salesman kept asking, “Where are you from specifically?” So I said, “Down the end of Mill Creek near the river.” He said he didn’t know where that was, and my friend Mike said, “Are you kidding?? Everyone else around here in the market knew exactly where that is!”

But usually, just “The States.”

I suppose if I were on the International Space Station I could say, “Down there. Now. No, wait….Now.”

This relative form of measurement works beyond geography. A dear friend of mine died at twenty-seven. Did he know that at twenty-six he was already, relatively speaking, an old man? When my father was my age he still had nearly thirty years left. More often than not I feel closer to ninety than sixty, but then I haven’t looked at my medical map in a while, so I could just be near a rest stop still as close to my thirty-year-old son’s birth as my own death.  

The farther away from a place we are, the more abstract it seems. If I look at my house from the sky, I might notice a swirl of trees with endless green all year from the pines and holly. Then a brown roof on the house at the end of a long scar through the woods to the road. But when I’m standing on the front porch, I see how badly I need to re-stain the logs, how much I have neglected the driveway turns, and how much fallen debris remains in the woods. I am more engulfed by the property and the home when I’m here, of course. It floods me, making it hard to see much else. I don’t mind—it is one of the reasons I live here.

But lately I’ve been realizing that my mind needs to be more centrally located. I can drift too close sometimes to melancholy or even bouts of depression—I don’t necessarily mind as they remind me of what a beautiful journey it has been so far and help keep people who I have loved and lost close to my heart. Likewise, being so engulfed in nature here as I am, I often find myself not too far from some state of presence—in the moment and appreciating every aspect of nature. The river and the bay are my companions, the woods too. This brings me peace and often I can come quite close to some euphoric state.

But if I move too close to one or the other for too long, or too far away, I find myself in a state of confusion and worry. Lost. My balance is thrown off and I can easily fall into the terrain of regret and sorrow, or the Oz-like, false sense of safety that comes from a mind at peace. I need both, but I would like them equally at arm’s length—close enough to find, far enough away to avoid.

When I’m here on the river for too long, I need to go. I get restless and I need to head out—see more, discover more. It is simply my DNA and I don’t know how else to explain it. Florida, Prague, Spain, the Rockies. But after being on the road a bit I almost can’t breathe right until I’m sitting on the rocks on the Rappahannock, watching the sun slide away again, listening to the geese or the osprey.

When I was young, we moved from our home in one county on the Island to another. We returned a few times to visit friends on the block, but rarely. It was so far away that it might as well have been in Topeka. Geez, it was only twenty-one miles away! When I leave my driveway now, I drive further than that just to get to the first stoplight. But back then, distance was measured in necessity, and if we didn’t have a need to go back, we didn’t.

Me, well, I always have a need to go back, even just for a little while. It’s only dangerous if you go back and stay there, unable to cut the tethers. But I’m careful enough to make sure I’m looking ahead as well, appreciating the anticipation, spying as much on hope as what was.

Therapy

I saw my therapist today. My son and I went to a local nature trail, and as we walked I mentally conversed with the crisp air and bare trees, the occasional birds, and the creeks running alongside. This is my proverbial couch, and today (as well as last week at Westmoreland State Park on the Potomac River) was my weekly session. I have always found perspective in nature, an understanding of the need to focus on now, on today, on the moment at hand, as well as a deep appreciation for the pace and tempo of time when we are in nature. With so much going on in my life, today, and every time we go for hikes or when I just wander to the river and sit on the stones to watch cars pass on the distant bridge, I manage to slip those bonds of stress and anxiety.

I have walked in nature since I’m nine years old, and I always innately managed to allow “nature’s peace to flow into me as sunshine flows into the trees,” as John Muir suggested, and I’m certain everyone out there understands this as well.

E.O. Wilson wrote that, “Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction.” I think better in nature. I mentally write and revise, I connect dots between seemingly unrelated themes. I can sit and contemplate the way geese land on the pond and suddenly recognize the relationship between them and a discussion I had about some folk song or compelling art. I don’t do this on purpose; I just walk, then I recall that piece I’m working on about the Torture Museum in Prague, and after awhile I note the patience and focus a Great Blue Heron uses in seeking out small fish in the duck pond, and, ouila, clear as a bell. I’m off and running.

I have been to churches all over the world and remain close friends with priests I’ve known since I’m nineteen, but I don’t really contemplate faith until I’m on some trail somewhere in the snow and turn around to see the valleys cut by ice millions of years ago. Even those faithless among us know that Muir was right when he wrote “the clearest way into the universe is through a forest wilderness.”

I have been going to these therapy sessions since I’m a child along the Great South Bay, and like John Burroughs, I have always gone to nature to be “soothed, healed, and have my senses put in order.” It isn’t far, this nature I’m talking about. I’ve walked down Fifth Avenue in summer at five a.m. and have known nature. The walk from my building to the parking garage at the college passes several groves of trees and a well-hidden pond where birds spend their time between their classes.

When I’m confused, anxiety-ridden, stressed, worried about meeting my goals, worried about so much I thought I’d never have to concern myself with at my age, when “the world is too much with” me, I just know what Einstein meant when he wrote, “If you look deep into nature, you will understand everything better.”

Frank Lloyd Wright said he walked in nature every day for inspiration for his day’s work. Me too, and sometimes it actually happens that way, particularly if I come home, put some appropriate music on, and brain dump my thoughts.

Just as often, however, I’m so inspired and awakened by nature that I just stay out there. The long trails become my compound sentences and the rocks at the river from which I can see both west up the Rappahannock and east across the Chesapeake become my exclamation points. In writing I avoid such sensational punctuation marks, but in nature they are virtually everywhere! The herons and the kingfishers are sensational. The snapper turtles and the stingrays, the pink clouds at dusk, the orange glow before dawn, the osprey call, the geese landing all at once with hundreds of slides into the otherwise-still water; these are nature’s equivalent of dramatic emphasis. There are simply no parentheses in nature, nothing to set off or turn into some subordinate clause. It is all subject and verb; it is always active voice.  

Life—my life—has seemed heavy at times, a ton of bricks difficult to carry but more difficult to put down. I have climbed so far already this year, and I continue one foot in front of the other, but the summit is still quite aways away, and when I’m inside—both physically and mentally—it can keep reflecting back at me, can absorb too much attention simply by virtue of perspective, like a boulder in a bathtub. But when I’m outside and the simplicity of life greets me at the door and reminds me of my priorities, and I step out into the infinite presence of earth, Rachel Carson is there too to remind me that “those who dwell among the beauties and mysteries of the earth are never alone or weary of life.”

Bizarre statistic: Those who contemplate suicide and decide to see it through at home are three times more likely to do so than those who go into nature to end their misery. Of course there are exceptions; I’ve known or have known of a few troubled souls who found their eternal peace in nature much too soon. But the vast majority of lost souls find their way home by leaving it and seeking out something larger than themselves.

We seem so damned important and certain in the confines of our offices and living rooms and our problems can appear so significant, but out along the river, out where we can stare across the reach to the distant waves, up along the ridge of some mountain where water formed caves millions of years ago and we stand in perfect silence completely in the moment, we are aware that life is nothing but now and love. Life at its core is comprised of nothing more than now and love.

Session over.

Stardust

Let’s start with this creepy little statistic: Every single day, one-hundred tons of meteorite dust coats the entire planet. You, me, the cars, buildings, everywhere, everything. It is so miniscule, of course, that we don’t even know it is happening, preferring instead to wait for the Leonid shower, or the Perseid, the Geminid, or even the Urid, to run outside and watch shooting stars every twenty or thirty seconds on a clear moonless night. Who isn’t transfixed by that? No one says, “Hey, I’m covered in microscopic meteor dust; make a wish!” But equally, who isn’t freaked out by the thought of meteor dust in their hair? On their ice cream cone?

This Earth of ours is at its core about ten thousand degrees Fahrenheit, exactly the same as the surface of the sun. Symmetry aside, one has to wonder if The Great Thermometer simply stops tracking at 10K. Also, Earth is the only planet not named for a God, and as crazy as this seems, no one knows who named it, though the etymological roots are Germanic and Old English. As for age, Scientists–the ones who know what they’re talking about because of generations of research–say the planet is about 4.5 billion years old, but humans of any sort have only been here for about 450,000 years. Some traditions and faiths call the start date around six thousand years ago. Either way, the human portion of earth hasn’t been here that long and isn’t staying long enough to wear out our welcome. It seems the earth is cleansing herself.

Since the onset of the Covid pandemic, this planet has shed about three thousand humans per day. That’s a 911 every single day. We are improving, but we are doing it on a very slippery slope. Why? Well, we’ve so adjusted for life to be “convenient” (think Smart Phone, think 5G, think online everything, think curbside, think Drive-thru, think Alexa, think Lunchables), that too many believe if some aspect of life is inconvenient, they’ll simply redefine reality to accommodate what they want, even if it chips away at Earth’s patience.

We’ve traded the rare beauty of this one-of-a-kind globe for “whatever’s easier.” The percolator becomes Mr. Coffee becomes a Keurig. It’s easier. We are completely, arguably, most definitively reliant upon the 2500 operational satellites orbiting the earth (about 6000 actually are orbiting, but more than half simply don’t work–how inconvenient). So here’s the thing: According to scientists who know what they’re talking about and constantly work on and adjust the Asteroid-Satellite Collision Probability, when a meteor or other such space object hits a satellite, the rock “vaporizes into hot, electrically charged gas that can short out circuits and damage electronics, causing the satellite to spin out of control.” Don’t worry about being hit–it’ll burn up on reentry into the planet’s atmosphere. No, that’s not the problem.

See the problem? Yes, no more satellite.

And if a large such space rock plays pinball with Space X’s system of communication, we here are earth are, as they might say on “Eureka,” simply fracked. And if one of them or a flock of them zero in on the Great Siberian Forest setting it ablaze, we are, once again, Stardust, part of the atmosphere, that naked-to-the-eye coating which exploded countless zeros away from here several billion years ago, arriving, now, on our chocolate swirl cone.

The greatest scientists in the world who know what they’re talking about have trouble wrapping their minds around this simple idea: We, Earth, are an anomaly, God’s only child. Even if you believe somewhere in the deep recesses of unthinkable distance are planets with lifeforms playing Scrabble and drinking Pinot Noir, astrophysicists like Stephen Hawking, Neil Tyson, Carl Sagan, and Brian May can’t tell you where, and they’ve looked with equipment so advanced some of it has left the solar system, some landed on moving asteroids, and some is scooping up dirt like a dog-walker in Central Park and bringing it back. Then they study it, then they tell us they still don’t know.

But they can tell us around 100 tons of meteorite dust coats the earth, and us, daily.

I walked to the river earlier. Unplugged and, to be honest, uninterested in much. The day started poorly but finished really strong, but still I felt like going for a long walk in the mountains or sitting on the sand at the gulf, quietly. Instead, here I am, more than a little content to look out at a distant bridge and watch the cars and trucks cross the mile and a half reach headed North, up toward DC, up toward New York, up, just further and further up, perhaps as far as the northern stretch of Ontario to watch the Northern Lights bounce across time. But closer, near me on the river, some bufflehead ducks surfaced and dove again. Watermen on a workboat checked traps.

See, it is information like this that makes me aware of why when a student asks me about subject-verb agreement I’m wondering why we can only see about 2000-3000 stars, not “millions” as we feel when standing at the bay on a clear, moonless night. And my frustration at knowing I have so much I want to see, so many glasses of wine to drink with friends in European pubs and small quaint villages, brings me to the brink of psychosis when someone actually screws up simple comma rules. Part of me wants to say, “Come on! This isn’t rocket science! It’s a fracking comma, for God’s sake!” but in the past few years, a stronger part of me, a more conscious part, wants to whisper, “You’re doing fine. It’s just commas–I knew what you meant. Now go outside and bathe in the miracle of meteorite dust. Buy a cone and wait for it.”

We’ve drifted too far astray from the essential, so far afield from what matters.

We’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden.

Etre en Vie




It’s New Year’s Day. Barely.

A heavy fog has settled on the Rappahannock and even out into the Chesapeake. It is calm and I can hear morning doves, some house wrens, and a few gulls calling from the docks. I like to think the fog is a cleanser, slowly sweeping through like mist to cleanse the world overnight so we can rise this morning and start fresh.

I promised someone I would get up and do something, so I went for a long walk, despite the fog. Even enhanced by this fog. I need a new start. My life could stand a decent cleansing.

I did a superb job of racking up a list of shortcomings to undo this coming year. The easy stuff includes losing the weight my doctor told me to lose and which I absolutely know how to lose but keep yo-yoing through the months. Also, to eat better. Again, I have the capability and the information to get it done, but it must be challenging enough that I still have these resolutions to make. I think you know what I mean.

That brings me to the difficult stuff: willpower, motivation, and simply getting through those tough three weeks or so where I still crave old ways while adjusting to a new way of doing things. I know after that time habits will form to achieve my goals, and old habits will be pushed out and cast aside. But I knew that fifty-two weeks ago—that’s seventeen chances of three-week periods to start again and stick with it that I simply didn’t bother. So why would now be different? What is it about this New Year that will find me a month from now well on my way to my goals, and a few months down the line having obtained them enough to enter that stage of maintenance only?

I’m getting to that. First though, I believe 2022 was a wake-up call for many people I know. Some dear friends of mine are not doing well, and the problems are beyond their control, so the rest of us must recognize that when the problem that slows us down and even compromises our lives is in our control, we should not hesitate to act. Another part of it is the peace of mind I used to love when everything was going right—physically and mentally, and while I must still pay close attention to many aspects of my life, I would like to knock this physical monster out of the way—the one I actually can take care of and was at one time an expert in doing so. It is inexcusable, to be sure.

The fog is starting to lift, and the river is like glass, like a mirror, and in the distance I can hear a flock of geese; out at the mouth of the river I can hear the diesel engine of a workboat. More geese. At the marsh two deer gently walk through the reeds. There was a time some years ago I made a resolution to spend more time in nature. I remember how hard it was adjusting my routine to make that possible, but I also remember it becoming such a part of my day that at some point I couldn’t recall not being out in nature all the time.

We choose the life we wish to live. Even if we don’t choose at all, which in itself is a choice.

To be blunt, 2022 was one of the crappiest years of my life. I’ve been fortunate to have very few of them, and when I do run into one of them, friends have always been there to help me keep perspective. But this last one, well, thank God for my friends and thank God it is gone.

But New Year’s is just another day. So sometimes it takes something more than some annual resolution to achieve the same annual goals we didn’t bother to attempt the previous annum. It takes more than some passing motivation.

ie:

Not long ago I had a conversation with someone about what I would do with my life if I knew I was dying. I sipped my coffee and thought about it and said I’d tie up loose ends and then drive to see everyone I’ve cared about—family from Long Island to Seattle, friends from Florida to Ohio, from Prague to Africa. I’d go for a long hike in the Rockies and I’d sail along the gulf coast. I told her more. She told me what she will do. It made me deeply sad, yet it also made me deeply aware of my aliveness, of my choices not everyone has.

Finally, after working the phrasing in my mind for a few minutes, I said, “I am dying. Maybe not in six to eight months, but maybe—I don’t know. Maybe thirty years.”

“Better get off your ass then,” she said. Then a very long pause. Then, “Just in case. Really, Bob,” she said from somewhere deep, like she reached as far as she could into her soul before speaking so I’d not just hear her but absorb every syllable. I’d never seen anyone push words out so hard before. “Be alive as long as you are.” We were both quiet a long time.

Sometimes you just know to be quiet.

After a while I said something to make us laugh, and we laughed for a very long time. I joked about the coffee and the overpriced croissants. Joking is my default position, and she appreciated it. Then I was quiet and added, “I’ll pick a day and get right on it. I Promise.”

Today is good. January 1st, 2023. Happy New Year my friends.

Be alive as long as you are.

It’s time to make mistakes again, it’s time to change the show.

It’s time and time and time again to find another way.

It’s time to gather forces and get out of yesterday.

–John Denver

Standing Still but Still Standing

This week marks the end of Volume Seven of this blog. Sunday, January 1, 2023, I will begin Volume Eight. It did not go where I had expected it to, though few things in my life, if anything, have gone where I thought they would. I also could not conceive that I’d still be doing this going on eight years. It proves the notion that if you just keep showing up, things happen.

When I started the blog in January of 2016, my father had just died a few months earlier, I was still senior faculty at a college in Virginia Beach, was still senior faculty at a university on the naval base, my mother still lived in a large condominium and my brother lived in Texas. None of those things are true anymore; or, the truths of those things are in the past, as most realities in our life tend to be, eventually.

I thought this site would be a simple escape into nature, and for a while it was. I wrote about geese, about the river and the bay, about the hawks and eagles here at Aerie, and about the wildlife we discovered here at night while looking at the stars. But as the weeks and months progressed, it became more about the nature of things, including and perhaps most significantly, human nature, particularly my own. I recognized a few of my many flaws, proving in some small ways to myself that “Writing to Learn” really does work, noting those times I wrote myself out of a depression or into a corner and back out again.

The changes kept coming, as they are apt to do: I left the college. I left the university (or the university left us, as it shut down because of Covid and never reopened). I lost touch with people I knew well for a very long time understanding finally that sometimes people we thought were friends were really simply colleagues with whom we shared a world. Mostly, I spent more time on the river, along the trails of the Chesapeake region. When I started this blog, President Obama was still in office. As the years moved drudgingly by, someone else came, and now President Biden holds down his temporary quarters. There was no such thing as Covid, we hardly ever used terms like quarantine, masks, social-distancing. Yet as we did, nature became more important, no longer simply a refuge, my escape, but a place to breathe without worry, a place to walk without concern.

Professionally, this blog led to a book, A Third Place: Notes in Nature. Among writers, blogs are somewhat controversial. Some believe it can distract from real writing, absorb your energy from completing more worthy works. I understand the argument. But I’ve always had several layers of writing going on at the same time. There is the serious material I know I want to send to publications, perhaps even in book form, as in the case of my current larger projects including Wait/Loss, Front Row Seat, and Curious Men. Then there is the raw material—the stuff I read in bars with the likes of Tim Seibles—stuff we generally don’t expect to be published and which certainly won’t appear here; stuff we prefer you hear when you’ve been drinking and where recording is strictly prohibited. Other work, too, got done. A reissue of a book about Van Gogh, Blessed Twilight, and The Iron Scar: A Father and Son in Siberia–this year’s book about riding the trans-Siberian railway with my son whose pictures grace the book in a gallery of several dozen of his shots.

But there is the middle work, the journaling, the reflections, the prompts, the thoughts, the spewing of anger at politicians, the rants at society for ignorance and negligence, and the confessions to those I know and those I do not know about so many of my shortcomings, failures, and misunderstandings. Many times what I thought would be a work about nature turned out to include my heart on my sleeve; yeah, I’ve exposed much in these six years and as a result some people pulled back, others gathered closer. This has certainly been a cleansing experience. Nothing wrong with that at all.

But in the end this blog is a place I simply am what I am. I do not know if I’m departing this life tomorrow or in thirty years, but when I do, I’m leaving everything I can out there, exposed. This blog has taught me, is teaching me still, to be who I must, something I wish I had learned decades ago.

It started with one reader—me. Last week the unique readership numbered almost 1500 people, averaging just around 1200 every week. I’m very pleased by that. But make no mistake: I have no illusions that I am changing people’s minds about anything, including my own. I simply found a place to express myself instead of calling you on your cell phone and doing it. You’re welcome. In the end every single blog posting from the start to the finish is for me first.

I have written about dear friends who I thought I’d spend my life with, confidants I counted on to be there and to be there for, but they moved on too soon, like Cole and Joe and Trish and Ed and Bobbie and Dave and too many more to count. I’ve written about artists who I’ve known and whose work made me feel like they knew me, even the ones who I was never fortunate enough to meet, like Vincent van Gogh and Dan Fogelberg, John Denver, Harry Chapin, Mozart, Chopin, Pachelbel, Marley, Nick Drake and so many more whose music plays while I’m typing.

I’ve written about my son. About my dad. But still, mostly about nature both human and natural, always from my perspective, never anyone else’s. The advantage of a blog is we’re like street corner preachers standing on a milk carton flapping our sentiments to the wind, and some people hang out and nod, others hang out and get pissed off, but most just walk on by. That’s fine. I’d walk by too. I’ve never had a guest blogger. I’ve never skipped a week except when traveling, and even then I believe I scheduled some writing. I’m proud of this blog. It makes me feel like I’m being constructive when I should be raking leaves.

And if I haven’t written about some people, it’s because I didn’t want to, don’t want to, and never will want to. If I’ve learned anything at all, it’s reflective of the sentiment of that Long Island philosopher William Joel, to “do what’s good for you, or you’re not good for anybody.” Something else I learned way too late in life.

But a few other things I’ve learned in these now 450 posts:

Heron get frightened easily. Geese change course if they see humans. Hawks are hyper-focused on food and if you walk by one while they’re eyeing down a squirrel, they couldn’t give a rat’s ass you’re nearby.

Standing at this river and watching rockets lift from over at Wallops Island raises the hair on the back of my neck, as does standing in the yard and seeing the stars.

Bare trees in winter are as beautiful as the colors of fall and the buds of spring.

I’m stronger than I thought I was but nowhere near as smart as people think I am. My strength is creativity not intelligence, and my true abilities lie in expression, whether through writing, photography, and at one time music. I suck at finances, am shaky with quantum physics, and I do not know how to build an erector set.

Some of my posts never made it to publication because they were too honest, too scathing, and not fair. Some never made it to publication because as soon as I finished, I thought they could do better than A View, and they have, including pieces which went on to the Washington Post, The Sun, and the Chronicle of Higher Education, among others. Other entries just sucked so I deleted them.

I learned that people prefer to laugh hard or cry exhaustively rather than the simple, boring rants or blogs about education. I learned that everyone can relate to nature, wishes they spent more time in nature, feels more relaxed in nature.

I’ve learned that I prefer to be hit over the head by someone about how they feel about things rather than some slow reveal of the truth. And I’ve discovered that time spent with people who make you feel better about yourself is all there is left in life. There is no legacy, there is no endowment more valuable than that—to spend time with people who you love and who love you and who aren’t afraid to be truthful about that, no matter what, who are able to remain quiet without worry of that quietness.

This blog will continue with its bloated pretentiousness and condescending rants, but hopefully as well, readers will be more likely to notice the sun on the bottom edge of a cloud, the call of geese or the strong woosh of an egret’s wings. Too, I hope they are encouraged to reflect more often about how swift life is, and how we all know the simple truth is when we leave this world, we’re going to wish we had been more open with others, move loving, more honest with how we feel without concern of hurting or being hurt. And we will wish we had seen more sunsets. It is that simple.

The view from this wilderness is fragile and fast, and beautiful, and it is the same view as those reading in Mumbai, in London, in Brooklyn, Cincinnati, Mexico City, and Barcelona. The View from this Wilderness is not dependent upon coordinates. I’ve learned, too, that we need to help more people without them asking, and we need to let more people know we love them without worrying about their response. The old Japanese saying remains true: “Just because the message is not received doesn’t mean it is not worth sending.”

All artists like to know that people hear and appreciate us, but that’s not why an artist paints or a writer writes.

We write to remind ourselves that we miss too many sunsets, sunrises. We walk by too many flowers just beginning to open, and too many quiet lakes. We pass by too many mornings without opening the curtains and too many evenings without stepping outside. We move too swiftly through life, worrying more about grace than gratitude, more about lofty ambitions than love. And we believe everyone else does to, and we want to say so for them.

If you’d like to follow this blog and have not yet done so, click the “follow” button in the bottom right and enter your email. You’ll always only receive blog entries; nothing else. If you’d like to make a donation to help with spreading the words through social media, please feel free to do so by

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If you’d like to respond to individual posts, please do in the notes section after each entry.

If you’d like to go for a walk, drop me a line–I’ll be outside waiting.

Those of us here at A View from this Wilderness (that’d be just me) wish everyone a Happy New Year.

“Love when you can

Cry when you have to

Be who you must

That’s a part of the plan.”

–Dan Fogelberg

Boxing Day

This piece was originally published in an independent journal and subsequently as a chapter in my book Prof: One Guy Talking.

Boxing Day

I had been teaching about three years when the president of the college called me into his conference room. It was autumn, and it rained that day so not only did the impending meeting occupy my thoughts, but the weather made everyone miserable. Fog settled heavy on the James River behind the buildings, and just the walk from the parking lot left me wet and sticky.  I sloshed into the leather seat in his spacious office. The river ran behind his windows, the water and fog blending. The Monitor- Merrimac Bridge Tunnel appeared little more than a shadow of a river crossing. The only lucid thought in my mind was knowing the professor he planned to fire wasn’t me– I would play the role of messenger. He thanked me for driving to his office and moved right to business. “Tell me truth here, Bob. Is she crazy?” 

She was an African-American, PhD professor. Short and rather rotund, her Islamic chador shrouded her dark darting eyes. She hid in bushes some early mornings, garrisoning herself from evil attacks of campus maintenance workers and other faculty. Sometimes after class she walked home by advancing from tree to tree, looking about, scanning the parking lot for followers. We had been hired together, and when we first talked we talked long about Africa, where I had been and where she had longed to go. I showed her a picture of the village chief, a tall thin man who in the photo is searching for a place to settle down with his prayer mat in the sub-Saharan dust. She stared at the picture a long time. It was just a few months later she spouted profanities across the library tables to other workers, accusing them of casting a spell on her. It was another two years before the President called me in and asked me if I thought she was crazy.

“Compared to who?” I asked. I quickly qualified myself as not being able to determine anyone’s mental state. True, a professor who hid in the hedges and crouched behind trees because she thought she was being followed appeared, on the surface at least, insane. But who was I to say? In my time teaching college, I have often desired to flee to the cover of rhododendrons. “I don’t know,” I said. “She’s a great teacher though. She knows her stuff.”

“Bob, she yells across the library–yells–at other personnel–screams for them to stop following her. Last time they were just replacing light bulbs.”                                                                     

“Yes, sir, that’s true. But it’s not my call. I’m her colleague.”

I was also Assistant Division Chair at the time, and while this denoted nothing when assessing other full-time faculty–least of all their mental state– it placed me in a position where the woman in question trusted me. In fact, I was the only one she talked to most of the time. To avoid the obvious lawsuits, the administration looked for someone she trusted and felt comfortable around to end her career. The college was being both cunningly cautious and blatantly cowardice. While I am a white, Catholic professor, we still had more in common than others. I’d traveled extensively through Islamic Africa, and we talked often of village life, and she asked about people, about their lives. So when she started to cower in the dark corners of campus with what can best be perceived as paranoid schizophrenia, I was the medium through whom the administration communicated.   

 “She can’t stay,” the president said.

“Okay.” I answered. At the time, I really didn’t care either way. A puddle had formed at my feet, and my sweater smelled like a dead animal in a Moroccan marketplace. He offered me coffee. 

“Bob. We’d like you to offer her three choices. One, she stays, but if the pattern continues, she will be fired. That will give us time to document more of these incidents. Two, she transfers to another campus. When people there start following her and she yells at them, that would mean it’s her, not us and we would need to let her go. Third, she can resign now, we’ll pay her contract for the rest of the year, and she leaves on good terms with recommendations.”  I thought, You are going to recommend her? To who? But what I said was, “Wow, Dr. This is somewhat beyond me here, don’t you think? She simply checks too many boxes for you to do it yourself, doesn’t she?”

He was quiet for a moment. “You’re the only one she trusts, Bob.” Clearly, the legal issues lingered like the fog on the James River. I asked what he wanted to happen, though I already figured that out, and said I’d talk to her.

When I was leaving I said, “You know, sir, I don’t get paid enough for this.”   He laughed. Of course, because it’s so laughable.

I sat in my office, just across the hall from the victim. I wondered where the line was between being mentally stable and out in left field, thinking I should know exactly where it is since I step over it so often. To be honest, all three offers seemed low and outside–academic spitballs. I’m crazy for doing this, I thought. But then more than a few college profs of mine wandered well into the outfield too often during the season.

One philosophy professor I had in college brought us to the campus grotto with magazines where we proceeded to rip them apart and toss them in the air. He insisted that one group of philosophers believed eventually the pieces would land in their original design. My anthropology teacher lived with aboriginal Australians in the thirties and spent each class telling stories of trips to Alice Springs, and he’d dance a small Australian dance, the music playing somewhere in the recesses of his mind.

My advisor would haul a television into class to watch the Giants play Thursday night football. He’d profess the advantages of eliminating first person from our work, and add an occasional exclamatory “Damn it, give up the running game!”

One professor I had was a priest who taught a course in parapsychology. The street name of the course was “Spooks.” In his youth he was an exorcist in France and had been dealing with the paranormal for sixty years. He always left the front row of every class empty in case former students or colleagues who had died might show up to sit in. Once, when the door was slightly ajar, the wind blew in and swept it all the way open and then slammed it shut. We were silent until Father quietly stated, “Oh, Larry, I’m so glad you are joining us” We laughed. He didn’t.

As a professor, I once worked once with a colleague who would walk into class the first day and exclaim, “Nearly all of you will get no better than a C,” and he was right–he failed more than three quarters of the students in every class he taught.

During my first year teaching, a student entered my office and complained about himself. He started a business by buying six grand worth of equipment but didn’t have the time to run it, and while he wrote excellent essays, he couldn’t get them turned in by the due dates. He apologized, saying he’d have to drop the course. After some time, he asked if I were him what I would do. I told him that wasn’t fair, that I could look back those six years to twenty-three and know so much more than I had known, but he told me that was exactly why he was asking. He charged that hadn’t I sometimes wished that at twenty-three I had talked to someone.

So I told him. “Okay, if I were your age, I’d sell it all, put three grand in a strong money market account and take the other three grand and disappear. I’d get out of the collegiate predicable setting and do what Eleanor Roosevelt recommended ‘Do one thing dangerous every day.’ I’d be gone. Africa maybe, South America definitely. I’d stay away from expensive places that are merely mirrors of our own big cities. I’d search it all. Three grand will last a long time if you do it right and you’d still come back to a good bit of money to start in a direction you are sure of.”

He left, laughing, telling me he’d love to do something like that but he wouldn’t know where to start. “You’re crazy,” he said.

A few days later a colleague asked if I knew the guy. Lianne was from the genre of professors who knew all the students’ names, where they came from and what they needed to work on. Still, she had her occasional moments of doubt.

She said “Bob, Kevin came by. He was in my developmental English class, and he seemed excited about your conversation. God, I wish someone talked to me like that back then.” Lianne was in her mid-thirties at the time, one child and one on the way. We talked for some time about those choices, about working instead of going to school, about discovering life. We talked about my persistent uneasiness when standing still, about her dedication to her students and her love for teaching. “I just wish these students would really understand how necessary it is to really live life and not just follow someone else’s path!” she would say firmly. I’ll never forget going down the hall to her office six months after that conversation to show her the postcard Kevin sent me from Sydney, Australia, with a note, simply stating, “Don’t know when I’ll be back. Thanks.” A few years later Lianne died of cancer. She was so young. The post card is still around somewhere. So, too, in some way, is Lianne.

When she died I asked myself, “Why am I doing this? What am I doing here?” Teaching is an occupation where you can tell other people how to do things you don’t actually do yourself. Most writing instructors don’t actually write. This isn’t to say that to teach psychology teachers should be disturbed (though the ones I have known for three decades certainly have had issues). Sure theorists are necessary to measure differences and calculate shifts in perspective. But I’m one who believes in understanding the swamp by walking through it. Because it is a swamp, all of it. The pieces will never fall back into place no matter how many times you toss them in the air. In the real world, “C” is average and most of us are just that. And sometimes someone really is out to get us, nudging our psyche to the margins, forcing us to duck into the hedges. Sanity sometimes hides in the fog. We look for the obvious outcasts somewhere on the playing field when the insane might be sitting next to us in the box seats.

I once taught a class about the structure of argumentative essays when a student in the front row, lit only by the glow of the overhead projector, screamed out to the quiet class, “I JUST HAD A GREAT BOWL OF SPAGHETTI!” That became consistent in her weekly rants. As she yelled to the walls, we learned about her new laptop, her broken down car (one student shivered from the thought of her behind a wheel), of her boyfriend’s (more shivering) mental problems. But then I walked across campus and saw students with bent elbows, cell phones squeezed to their ears, yelling at parents about dinnertime. Eighteen-year-old’s smoking in ten-degree weather, rocking back and forth, complained of the wind. I see educated minds quieted by medicine, illegal drugs, alcohol, and pain relievers. Students sit quietly in class safe from the brutal reality of being beaten at home. From our benign perspective we all pass judgement on what others should be doing, decisions they should make, how to best improve the path they find themselves on. One faculty member I knew put smiley faces on returned papers, graded them with crayons, and held pot luck dinners during class. A professor of mine at Penn State screamed at students every day telling us we were worthless and wasting our time, and worse, his time, because our brains were filled with immoral crap. He gets paid for that– more than I do. Crazy? Give me the hedges any day.

Once when I was still in college, a few minutes before philosophy class a friend of mine and I tore a Newsweek into pieces and then put it back together on the ground near the front desk. We scattered a few pieces about to make it seem natural, and when Dr. Kelly entered, we called him over: “Dr! Look!”

He laughed for ten minutes. “Thank you, gentlemen” he said and never addressed the subject again. It was years before I figured it out. Years.

A few days after seeing the president, I was in a faculty meeting when the drugs finally kicked in. Unfortunately, I wasn’t taking them. But the hyperactive freak throwing his glasses across the room in disagreement over some freshman composition concern calmed down and kept quiet. Thank God. Still, it woke me up. I sat staring at the wall listening in cartoon fashion to my colleagues. Their voices came out as one long whir like the nonsensical sound of teachers in Peanuts cartoons. My shirt felt tight about my neck like I couldn’t breathe, and I thought of a Whitman poem, “When I heard the Learned Astronomer,” wherein the student gets sick and dizzy listening to someone talk endlessly about astronomy and doesn’t feel fine until he walks out and looks up in “perfect silence at the stars.” My blood pressure rose like Icarus, and I was burning up. I feared I might crash while discussions continued about whether the research paper should be taught in freshman composition one or freshman composition two. No one wants the responsibility of turning a freshman class into a difficult class.

We have faculty meetings that department chairs expect us to attend. They include textbook committees to determine which ones, often costing more than the course, are most beneficial to the “stereotypical student.” Some people still believe faculty teach classes, hold office hours and go home. The entire make-up of college courses, texts, student committees, articulation agreements, transfer policies, and enrollment caps is chaired and championed by faculty. Professors meet to talk about composition courses, to discuss pedagogy, they meet to argue developmental courses and to discuss transferring students to transfer courses once they understand at least eighty percent of the material that should have been learned in fourth grade anyway. No one wants to be there but they discuss it all with enthusiasm because they believe in what they do and know that these issues, how they are handled, how they are resolved, will not only provide a sense of accomplishment beyond the classroom, will offer excellent fodder for their curriculum vitae and allow them to choose their wars instead of being assigned battles by the division chair. And they know as years go by their decisions affect the way American college students learn, how they conduct themselves, and how they will succeed after college. These meetings we attend, or blow off, tilt the tables of the American workforce.

Still, everyone is watching the clock.

Eventually, I left the department meeting only to be accosted by the Spaghetti Student in the hallway wanting to know if Ernest Hemingway wore green pants when he shot himself. Back at my office I found eight students waiting. None of them wanted advice on papers or suggestions on topics but wished merely to confess to me about how the humidity in their houses ruined their printers and the only person left at home to feed Grandma is a fifteen-year-old sibling who isn’t back from rehab yet. Every time my office turns into this sort of confessional, the room spins, the hallway dissolves, and I can’t breathe. So I slip outside and always waiting there, smoking, are students who never showed up for an earlier class and proceed to tell me about some car problems that didn’t get flushed out until after class was over, though they really hustled, and they deliver all this with a straight face as if I’d never been to college and didn’t blow off classes, or as if a twelve-year-old couldn’t see through their backwards, pathetic excuses.

So I keep walking, passing most with my head down, taking the long way around to my mailbox since a three-minute walk can take fifteen if it’s between classes and I am spotted by students with reasons to see me other than collegiate. I’m not fast enough though and my choices are the student who wants to show me his poetry even though I told him I don’t know anything about writing poetry or the faculty member who wants to discuss textbook choices for the next semester and maybe we could do so at his house with a small party and invite all the faculty for a potluck textbook brain session. If I hesitate too long, I’ll never get to my car fast enough to get a drink before my next class, so I duck into the hedges and wait, pulling my baseball cap down over my eyes, hoping no one notices even though I know–I mean I know– I’m being followed. But I’m too late and the faculty member comes close and says, “Bob, do you want to get some lunch and talk about textbooks, and all I can think of to say is, “I JUST HAD A GREAT BOWL OF SPAGHETTI!” and he leaves me alone. Finally.

Back at my office, I still had to offer the three choices to the victim, so I knocked on her door. She had been kneeling, praying, and stood awkwardly, with my assistance and apologies. She seemed totally lucid, completely at ease, and I didn’t know if that was good or bad. She settled down and asked, “Am I going to be fired, Bob?” I told her the choices, and, unfortunately, with some tears, she asked what I thought she should do. I gave her the picture of the village chief searching for a place to put his prayer mat, and she nodded. Part of me wanted to tell her to fight–to get a lawyer and battle this out, but I couldn’t figure out why. So I said, “You’re hiding in hedges. You’re yelling at colleagues across the library.”

“I’m not crazy, Bob.” She paused and looked at the cinderblock wall. “What would you do?” she asked.

Now whenever anyone asks me that, I always think of Sydney, Australia, and smile, picturing Kevin wandering down some beachfront. Sometimes when someone asked “What would you do?” I think of my son because back then whenever someone asked a stupid or difficult to answer question, I tried to imagine how I would want the teacher to respond if it were him. I found patience and restraint this way, and just a little bit of balance, though, true–not always. Sometimes I crossed the line, tossed my notes into the air wondering if they’ll all come down in one piece

I thought of Kevin recently and about his postcard and realized he never came back. And this professor with her prayer mat and concrete understanding of American literature never came back either, mostly because we never do go back after we leave a place.

A few years later I didn’t go back either. But shortly before leaving, I was teaching class one windy day when the door swung wide open, startling students. I stared for a moment and said, “Oh Lianne, come on in,” and everyone laughed.

Except me.