Veterans Day 2022

I spent twenty-eight years teaching active duty and retiring military for Saint Leo University on the Little Creek Amphibious Base here in Virginia. Some became close friends. Some fought in the Gulf War, nearly all spent time in Iraq and Afghanistan. Some never came home. Some came home altered—physically, mentally, certainly emotionally. I have stories I’ve told; I have heard stories I’ll never repeat.

No matter how exhausted I was from teaching twenty-year old community college students all day who didn’t want to learn, my energy returned when I went through the base gates and into the education building where instead of calls of “Hey Dude!” from students I heard, “Good afternoon, Professor. Glad to see you again, sir.” Instead of late papers that didn’t meet the requirements, I collected assignments days before the due date and rarely gave less than an A. I once told my concern about that to my supervisor, that I’m giving all A’s, and she replied, “Welcome to St Leo’s Little Creek Bob. These are the most disciplined and appreciative students anywhere.”

One day at the early job a student who missed almost two weeks came to me and apologized—she couldn’t find a ride and lives nearly two miles from campus. I’m not making this up. That same night a student who had missed three weeks came to apologize (even though I received a letter from her command that she could not be in class); she had been TAD for that time—Temporary Active Duty—in Kabul.

Nearly two miles from campus my ass.

Some significant people in my life are veterans, including but not nearly limited to my two Uncle Tom’s, Uncles Ed and Bob, my cousin Tom among others in the family. Tim O’Brien, Tom Montgomery, Mike Kweder, Jose Roman, Bill Mullis, and Kay Debow, whom I drove to the airport for her flight to Lackland a hundred years ago; it is one thing to know people and love them, but another thing entirely to respect them for their sacrifices which can be quite literally life or death. One of the most emotional moments for me was watching a swearing in ceremony at the airport in Pennsylvania. That’s right, they swear you in right before you get on a plane and leave. Smart. But emotional for all involved. If you’ve never heard or read the oath, it is quite something to watch someone with their hand in the air declaring their lives are no longer their own, but are to be sacrificed if need be. Wow.

We have Memorial Day to remember those who sacrificed everything for the country. Please understand that tomorrow is designed primarily for the living; it is a chance to thank those who put their lives on the line, those whom even when they come back from a warzone fine, they never come back the same.

I’d sit at the front desk before class and listen to them. The first day was always interesting, particularly in both the early ‘90s and then the early 2000’s. Someone would walk in and call out someone else’s name with excitement, and they’d embrace, having last seen each other in Kuwait or Lebanon or Baghdad. Over time I learned military lingo, which consists mostly of a long stream of acronyms. I learned to recognize rank, and I came to see the innocence behind these young—young—men and women who are all at once both skilled technicians and terrified young adults hoping for the best.

Thanks are not nearly enough.

I spent 28 years teaching an average of 220 students a year at St Leo’s. That’s almost 7000 students—all of them military. The cool part was I taught fun courses—not the required gen-ed ones. We laughed through Art History, Fine Art Studies, and Creative Writing. One can better appreciate the beauty of a Mozart symphony or a painting by Pissarro when the class presentation is delivered by a student whose job it was to determine the severity of an injured soldier. And in Creative Writing, tissue boxes were standard since I mostly taught memoir, and stories of a trip across Siberia by train pale in comparison to a run across a compound at night while a sniper is on the hillside.

One wrote of a friend who was told, I mean he was drilled, to never, ever light up a cigarette while on duty at night, but he did. Damnit, he did.

Another wrote of how much he discovered about love and what is essential in life by serving two tours in Iraq. And of course there’s Tim’s The Things They Carried, which if you have read you already know is not a war story—it is a love story.

When I see people disrespect Veterans, or, worse, ignore them completely, I think of my students and those I love and know we will never comprehend their sacrifices or the danger they faced. When I was young, I didn’t quite comprehend someone’s enlistment as anything other than leaving; it took years to understand that this kind of service is nothing short of a calling.

So thank you Veterans of the Armed Forces for your service; thank you for traveling to some of the most dangerous conflicts on the planet without question.

And thank you for coming home again.

The Length of the Light

Urbanna Oyster Festival on the hill to the river

I sat on the porch and stared at the moon just near Jupiter, and to their right, Saturn. I didn’t get the large telescope, didn’t grab the deep space binoculars. My son is at work tonight in the bustling Urbanna, Virginia, where the weekend’s Oyster Festival draws thousands and thousands of people. I have been to the annual event a dozen times or more, ate a variety of oysters and deep-fried everything, listened to live music, negotiated the flow of people from Main Street down the hill past the old Tobacco Factory to the historic waterfront, also jammed with oyster-eating tourists listening to more live music. My son is there since nine this morning, bartending and serving food at a pub in the heart of all of that. I imagine he’ll be there well into the early morning hours, a constant flow of tourists and locals and noise and more. It all happens again tomorrow.

I sat on the porch and relied solely on the naked eye to grasp the wide-angle perspective of these distant, celestial transients. A small flock of geese just passed, headed toward the pond near the river. I could hear their call for a mile or more, and then nothing. Some frogs, a light wind. In the distance out on Route 33 a truck went by, east it sounds like, though they won’t get far before reaching the bay. Acorns are falling steadily now, and near the house an oak reluctantly lets them go and I can hear some hit the canoe, some the A/C unit, some the roof.

But with that it is still peaceful, absolutely quiet. I don’t mind the bustle going on right now up-county. I have tended in several pubs and listened to patrons lose their minds over a barrage of troubles; I’ve drank in several more, and I’ve settled into the ebb and flow of crowded streets in cities throughout the world. This, though, here, has my attention, keeps my mind focused, aware of the turning of things, conscious of the circular quality of things.

And one of my companions tonight, Jupiter, makes me understand how insignificant my daily troubles actually are. There is something about true permanence that underscores the temporal state of everything else. Even our moon is a child to that mother of a planet. And me? A speck, like sand, like grain, like a drop of water.

Always like water. I started my journey on the Brooklyn Narrows, learned to breathe on the Great South Bay and the Connetquot River. I came of age on the Lynnhaven and the Atlantic, found my footing on the Allegany. I took a deep metaphorical dive into the Neva, the Vltava, and the Congo, learned to let go on the Susquehanna, and learned to slow down on the Chesapeake and the Rappahannock, right there, where geese settle in tonight, disturbing the moon’s reflection stretching all the way to Cape Charles on the Eastern Shore.

I had a day, today. Quite a day. And tonight I am being what a friend of mine would call Unapologetically Bob. It’s peaceful tonight, here in my peregrino soul, and out there at the mouth of the Rap where the still waters of the Chesapeake are tangled up with planets, and out there further still, where the light I’m seeing now left Jupiter almost an hour ago; roughly the time it takes to walk through the crowded streets of Urbanna, Virginia, this evening, surrounded by drinking watermen.

These celestial companions will be my drinking buddies tonight. I have lost touch with friends because some sadly lost touch with themselves, and I have lost touch with others because for whatever reasons they have they no longer have a need to keep in touch, but tonight I’m at peace. I’m just going to hang out tonight, unhurried, breathing well, sipping some sauvignon and thinking about the waters and watching the moon and Jupiter as if I’d never seen them before.

To Change is to be New

aerie one

I’ve not been well the past day or two. I’m feeling much better but it certainly gave me the time to rest and absorb the world around me without distraction.

It occurred to me on my porch while staring at the surrounding woods, that at some point less than one hundred years ago none of those trees were there. The land has beautiful eighty foot oaks, some maples, tall thin pines and various other hardwoods including black walnut trees, which I am told can provide the ingredient necessary in the liqueur, Wild Spiced Nocino.

The branches protect birds as diverse as red-tailed hawks, downy woodpeckers, and countless chickadees, and they are habitat to other wildlife including one flying squirrel we spotted a few years ago when his tree fell. The squirrel was fine and found a new home in a white oak.

But a hundred years ago this was just land, sandy land, edged by the running Rappahannock River and backed by equally treeless farmland. A century before that these nearby plantations provided food for the region at the expense of slavery, and some slave descendants remain, selling vegetables at food carts out on the main road, or working the bay as watermen, telling stories about how the Chesapeake is just about farmed clean every season by crabbers at the mouth or the headwaters leaving nothing left for those working the midland shoals.

This area hasn’t changed much in one hundred years.

It is like this everywhere, the coming and going of things. In Manhattan a few hundred years before the wild construction on bedrock, coyote and deer were common. It was hilly (Manhattan means land of hills), and where the United Nations stands once stood grand oaks. The Lower West side was a sandy beach, and ecologists say if left to do what it wanted, most of the upper west side would be covered in trees and vines, shrubbery and wildflowers inside twenty years.

I can’t imagine what my house would look like if left untouched. When I don’t mow the lawn for a few weeks it looks like a refuge for timber wolves.

But these trees weren’t here a century ago and I sat on my porch and wondered if there had been other trees or if this land was barren. A few hundred years ago it was used by the Powhatans as hunting grounds.

This happens to me everywhere I lived; I like to imagine what was on that spot one hundred, two hundred, a millennium earlier. The house I rented in Pennsylvania was used as a hospital during the civil war. Before that it was a farm. Now it is a Real Estate office. The maples which lined the road and shaded the living room are gone. Someone planted new ones but it will be decades before they mature. My house in Massachusetts was a fish market a century earlier. Purpose moves on with time. Maybe that’s why I’m so mesmerized by the Prague hotel I always stay at. It was the same building seven hundred years ago that it is now. But here on my porch I realize this house is the only place in my life I’ve lived for twenty-six years, and I was curious if five times that score of years ago I could sit on this spot and see right out on the water, or were there trees then as well, different ones which died or were timbered to make room for crops.

The house is made from western pine forested on land which I assume is either now empty of trees or filled with young pines waiting to become log homes. What will be left a hundred years from now? Will someone sit on this same porch and look right out toward the bay once these oaks have long fallen? I know this house, this land, is a “hotel at best” as Jackson Browne despondently points out. “We’re here as a guest.”

Wow. Wrote myself into some sad corner there. Thanks Jackson.

I know nothing is as permanent as nature, despite the constant changes. It simply isn’t going anywhere. We are. So I like to remember that a century ago farmers sat here and talked about the bounty in the soil, or talked to 19th century watermen about the changing tides. And I like to realize that a hundred years before that the nearby swampland, now home to so many osprey and egrets, was a major route for runaway slaves. They’d have been safe in these woods, if there were woods then.

I like to do that because it reminds me a hundred years from now perhaps I will have left some sort of evidence of my passing through; even if just in the cultivation of language, the farming of words.

So I sit on the porch and listen to the wind through the leaves. It is now; it is right here, now. Sometimes at night we stand in the driveway with the telescope and study Saturn, or contemplate the craters on the moon—both here long before us and in some comforting way, long after we’re gone.

In spring and fall the bay breezes bring music even Vivaldi would envy, and I’ll listen to his Four Seasons, written nearly four hundred years ago, and listen to the wind through the leaves of these majestic, young trees reaching eighty feet high, and be completely, perfectly in the moment.

Despite the warming trends, the extreme tendencies of weather, the fragile ecosystem which sustains life, nature is still the only place I have found that really doesn’t change. It never has. Ice ages and dust bowls will alter it, but eventually some seed will take root.

aerie two

Tavern on the Green, August 1984

La Caverna Restaurant, Mexico

In the summer following college graduation, my primary occupation was driving.

Not for Uber or Lyft; no taxis or any other respectable means of earning money. No, I just drove. In August that year I drove across the country to Arizona, and then on to San Diego, up to the Grand Canyon, south into Mexico and weekly trips to San Xavier Mission down Route 19.

And I ate my way around. I loved trying the local food everywhere, whether served at the fancy restaurants in cities or dusty dives in places barely registering as villages. In Nogales, Mexico, I ate weekly at La Caverna. It was the first time I ever had guacamole mixed in my salad, and sour cream, and I was hooked. In another Mexican village further south I used to knock on the door of a woman I met at La Caverna. She would make me paella for a few dollars. I’d eat on her porch next to her beagle, and she’d tell me everything I said wrong in Spanish. In Tucson I ate lunch in a park near the old mall on the southside of the city where old women sold fireplace-log sized burritos for fifty cents. Authenticity at its most mejor. For breakfast I went to Irv’s deli, transplanted from Manhattan with signed pictures on the wall from everyone from Alan Alda to Stephen Sondheim, all exclaiming, “Good luck in Tucson, Irv!! I’ll miss your bagels!” He had water flown in from New York and the bagels were as good as those in Brooklyn.

I drove to El Paso and had tacos. To New Orleans and had beignets. Back near home the following summer I had Carolina barbeque and Chesapeake Bay softshell crabs. I kept rolling, eventually to the Sterling Inn in Massachusetts where I worked when not at the health club, and where I ate bowls of New England Clam Chowder and schrod (a white fish—with the “h” it is usually haddock, and without the “h” it is usually cod), “Vineyard” style—coated with a Dijon/mayonnaise spread then breaded. Hence the need for the day job at the health club.

But along the way I spent some time at my dear friend Sean Cullen’s apartment in Brooklyn which he shared with a friend of his, Mike. I had an interview with Theatre Arts Magazine to be a staff writer—they had read a file of my work I had sent and asked to meet with me. I went to Brooklyn, parked in a friend’s driveway in Bay Ridge, and headed to Presidents Street and 4th Avenue—today a mecca of café glory—forty years ago a death wish.

The day of the interview I was flying high. I had worked hard back in Virginia and had saved money for adjusting to a move to “the city.” Sean had a PA job for some commercial and several auditions for parts, so I told him I’d see him that night for pizza at Vinny’s on 7th Avenue, and I boarded the subway at 9am for a 3pm appointment at the magazine. By 10 I was walking all over midtown, strolled into NBC and stood next to Walter Matthau on an elevator, walked to the park, and realized I still had several hours to kill when I decided to treat myself to lunch at Tavern on the Green. What a way to start my career as a writer in New York City, by eating in one of the landmarks of the Big Apple. This place was in Beaches, Ghostbusters, the Out-of-towners, Arthur, and more.

The maître d showed me to my small table near a window, just next to a table occupied by Marvin Hamlisch. I ordered a glass of wine, sipped some water, and nodded to one of my favorite composers of all time. “I love your work,” I said, quietly, then put my hand up to indicate that was all I was going to say. He thanked me earnestly and ordered a club sandwich.

My turn, and I perused the menu looking for something distinctly New York, particularly since I was starving. I knew I wouldn’t find black and white cookies on the menu, and nearly every item listed was out of my price range. I was about to order an appetizer only when I saw steak listed for $18.95. Wow, I could afford that despite it seeming pricey for a 1984 lunch, but I couldn’t order the club sandwich. Marvin just ordered it and after my nod and comment, to do so seemed too stalkish for me.

“I’ll have the steak,” I told the server, who took my menu and said, “Oh, very nice choice,” in the same manner he said it to Marv for the club. I so fit in here, I thought.    

“I will bring you a tray of spices, sir,” he said.

“That’d be fine,” I replied, noting how unique it is for the chef not to put them on himself during the cooking stage,

“And crackers,” he added.

“Of course,” I said. “Steak and crackers.”

I sipped my wine, looked out at a couple standing in the park-side entrance, at the tall buildings across the park, and the brilliant blue sky. I was disappointed I mentioned pizza to Sean since the steak was probably going to fill me up, but I’d be walking a lot, so I knew it would be fine.

The server returned with a round tray of spices and a separate tray of various style crackers, and water. He also put down a small fork—slightly bigger than a shrimp fork, but not like a salad fork. “They’re preparing the Steak Tartare now sir,” he said, and left. Looking back I think he relished the fact I had absolutely no idea what he was talking about, but at the time he was just probably doing his job. He brought Marv his sandwich with chips and an iced tea, then smiled at me. Marvin smiled at me too.

I sat quietly looking at the spices and the crackers and thought of Ponderosa Steak House, where you stand in line with a tray and pick out your meal from overhead menus. I usually got a New York Strip, baked potato, corn, and fresh bread. They’d put a plastic marker on your tray indicating “MR” for medium-rare, and we’d find a table made from fat wood and sit on the bench, and I could smell the meat grilling like I was on some Texas ranch at suppertime. I don’t once in any trip to that place or Steak and Ale or Bonanza Steak House or Links on Long Island recall crackers and spices.

Then the waiter slipped a plate of raw meat in front of me. A round, Derby-hat shaped lump of ground beef–raw, like they just sliced open the cellophane and took this pile off of the green styrofoam and flipped it onto the China plate. A sprig of parsley fell on the top. I looked at it a long time, thinking about the small chunks of raw meat my mother would let me have when she made hamburgers for a picnic, and how with each small amount she would say, “Not too much, you can get very ill from raw meat.”

This has gotta be a better grade, I thought.

I took a small pinch of one of the darker spices and some grated cheese and sprinkled it gently on the meat dome. I sat a moment looking at it, then overturned the spice tray onto the meat, feeling better, but resisting the urge to knead the spices into the meat as if making a meatloaf. I also resisted the urge to ask them to heat it up, or, you know, cook it; I’d wait.

Instead, I picked a cracker, picked up my odd fork with two prongs, and gently slid some chuck onto a saltine. I enjoyed it. A lot. But you know after a few small crackers of raw meat, it gets a bit tiresome. I chewed a bit for a while as Marvin looked over and smiled. I swallowed. “A Chorus Line is by far my favorite,” I said, then, “have you ever had the Steak Tartare here; best I’ve ever had.”

“I haven’t,” he said through a laugh as he paid his bill. I laughed, which I think he appreciated. He stood to leave and picked up his plate which still had one quarter of his club sandwich on it, and placed it on my table. Then he looked at my plate and quietly added, “They never cook it long enough for my taste,” and left. Best damn club sandwich in Manhattan.

My stomach hurt in the elevator on the way to Theatre Arts Magazine, but I think it was just in my head, plus nerves. I met a wonderful editor whose name I have long ago forgotten who said she absolutely loved my writing but wanted to talk to me about what I knew about the technical side of the theatre.

It was a very short conversation. Nothing. I insisted I could learn but she insisted she had several other interviews that day and she’d call me. I knew she wouldn’t. I stopped on the way back to Brooklyn and had a hotdog and some chocolate Italian ice, and that night Sean and I had pizza from Vinny’s.

At dinner, Sean asked how everything went in the city, and I sat quietly swallowing a thin slice of pie, where I had to bend the edges to hold it together, and some oil dripped onto the plate, and I said, “You know what? Kiss the day goodbye and point me toward tomorrow. I did what I had to do.”

Tavern on the Green
Steak Tartare

26

26 letters.

That’s it.

In the beginning. That which doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. To be or not to be—that one just six letters.  Jesus wept—seven.

I can’t write, my students say; my very own demons say when something needs to be said but I’m at a loss of words. The history of English has turned and spun back on itself, argued with endings and double negatives, trampled meaning, treasured nuances, made murderers of us all, and unearthed muses to slipknot a string of letters, tie together thoughts like popcorn for a Christmas tree, individual kernels only able to dangle dutifully due to one common thread.

I do. Rest in Peace. Go to Hell. I quit. Fuck you. I love you—7 letters.

The English language, more specifically the alphabet, was not alphabetical at first, made that way in the 1300’s on Syria’s northern coast.  Today, we slaughter its beauty with a cacophony of sounds whose aesthetic value is lost in translation while simultaneously softening hardened hearts with poetry and prose for the ages. For nearly a millennium this alphabet whose letters lay the way for understanding in multiple languages, has dictated decrees, is uttered by infants one syllable at a time until by age five they’ve mastered the twenty six consonants and vowels.  What circles of wonder are children’s faces when someone’s tongue pushes out “toy” “treat” “your mommy’s here” “your daddy’s home.”

Plato said, “Wise men talk because they have something to say, fools, because they have to say something”; Socrates said, “False words are not only evil in themselves, but they infect the soul with evil.” The sins of our fathers forever condemn us to hell but for confession, penance, and absolution.

Forgive me father for I have sinned—14 letters.

Of all the languages on the planet, English has the largest vocabulary at more than 800,000 words, all from those same 26 symbols.

There are roughly forty five thousand spoken languages in the world, about 4500 written today but almost half of them are spoken by less than a thousand people. English, though, is the most common second language on Earth—translated or original, the Magna Carter, The Declaration, The Bible, the Koran, the Torah, the tablets tossed by Moses and a death certificate are all reassembled versions of the twenty-six.

I have a dream—eight letters.

Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country—fourteen.

We the People–seven

Teeter-totter—four.

Billowy is one of only a few seven letter words whose six letters remain alphabetical. Spoon-feed is the longest, at nine letters, whose seven letters are reverse-alphabetical.

We can talk, us English. We can spin a yarn, chew the fat, beat the gums, flap the lips. We have the gift of gab, we run off with the mouth, we can spit it out, shoot the breeze, talk someone’s ears off, or just talk shop, talk turkey, talk until we’re blue in the face, be the talk of the town. We can, for certain, at just seven letters, bullshit.

We hope some symphonic phrase might come closer then the limitations of language. This is the frustration of poets, the complete sense of ineptitude of writers and lovers throughout history. To define that smile, the slight lean forward, that light through laced curtains at just that moment all those years later. But life, like language, is filled with limitations.

My point (7 letters) is that (3 letters) sometimes, despite our skills (4 letters) with the English language (6 letters), we are often left either in love (four letters) or, at just six letters, speechless.

A Wealthy Soul

I fell through the ice on a frozen lake in northern Norway in March of ‘95. It was two in the morning, twenty below, and I followed two friends across the snowy ice toward a road on the other side. I heard the ice crack and I stood still, a green band of aurora borealis bent just above us, and I stood still like Wile E. Coyote—suspended for just a moment listening to the ice crack—and thought, “oh, wow, shit,” and went through.

I landed just about ten inches below the surface on another ice shelf. I stood just deep enough for frigid water to cover and fill my boots about calf high. I waited for the next crack when Joe turned and we froze in fear of us both plunging into the lake. This wasn’t the first time I’d walked on thin ice, but previous mishaps were mostly metaphorical. I stood with icy feet; my heart pounded in my chest ready to plunge into my stomach when the ice again cracked. Nothing. Our friend John turned and laughed. “It’s day melt,” he said, ahead of us by twenty feet, already on the shore. “The surface ice melts a bit each day then freezes at night, but it’s thin. That’s what we were walking on. The second layer you landed on is probably six feet thick.” 

“Why didn’t you go through?” I asked, John was six three and not a light man. 

“I was first,” he said. “I loosened it for you.” “Why didn’t you watch where you were going?” John asked.

“I was looking at the northern lights,” I told him. He looked up and nodded, “Oh yeah,” he replied. “I didn’t notice.”

WTF?! I thought.

I sloshed to shore, took off my socks, and stood at the end of a fjord when across a field six moose stood taller than us all. I put my boots back on and watched the moose move toward us. They were bull-like, each one heavier than the three of us combined. The night was still, and the air was calm. To the north lay nothing but wilderness for a thousand miles; the Arctic Circle sat a hundred miles south. I was soaked in below zero temperatures, green bands of borealis bent above my head, the moose moved toward us, and I never felt so awake, like sleep wasn’t part of the Human idea. Awake. The northern lights lingered as if in water, as if the sky was submerged and the green bands couldn’t bend faster than the deep blue flow would allow, and we floated between. The moose moved closer. I held my breath. Two leaped just beyond our reach and bounced over the ice with absolute grace.

That moment, right then, will never go away.

I’ve been thinking about life lately, the highs of accomplishments and the stress that comes with obligations, and I looked out across the bay this morning, took a deep breathe in the chilly autumn breeze, and thought about how grateful I am for having such wealth for just about my entire life. Truth be told, I have always been wealthy.

Like the tram ride at Lake Baikal in Siberia or just about any day in Spain, the sunsets in Tucson and just about any evening at the river. We rise every morning and gaze at life around us, but how often are we awake, I mean completely and blatantly awake? Sitting here tonight I understand for all of the gives and takes of life, I’ve had the privilege to be wide wake for most of it.

I mean Alive. It doesn’t hurt to take stock of those moments from time to time to remind us when we need a slap across our attitude to snap us back to the awareness that we are always alive if we choose to be.

Like sitting on the sand at the Gulf of Mexico drinking coconut rum and laughing; standing between cars on a train ten thousand miles from home; knee deep in the Great South Bay singing Harry Chapin songs; waist deep in the Congo in the rain; that lunch with my son, my brother, and my dad at the beach; riding a motorcycle from Amsterdam to the Zuiderzee; lunch at La Caverna after buying blankets; breakfast on the dirt in Dakar; clawing my way to the Wind Cave in Utah. 

Studies tell us that most of us sleep a third of our lives and most of us work a third of our lives. And now at my age with hopefully about a third of my life left, I’d like to spend as much of what amounts to one third of that third being fully awake before the ground falls beneath my feet.

My grandparents’ attic; my mom’s laugh, salt water on my lips. My dad’s deep “very funny” response to a joke, that time I stayed with my brother at Notre Dame and we stood in the student section and watched the Irish destroy Air Force.

Pigeons at a graveyard on the Gulf of Finland. 

The way Eddie and I would hike forever through the marshes of Hechscher; sitting behind third base at Shea in ’69; hitchhiking to Niagara Falls–an hour and a half drive that took us an hour and a half to thumb up there from college, but we began our hike back at 5 pm and were still walking at 3 am. The end zone at Rich Stadium when they retired Simpson’s 32. My sister’s guitar and how I played in Steve’s basement, how I listened to Jonmark in just about every venue in Virginia Beach, how I played my way through college, that time singing and playing “Danny’s Song” with KL in the dressing room before a gig, the midnight sun in St Petersburg in June of 99.

Oysters on ice. A good slice of pizza. The smell of food grilling. A blanket of stars.

The colors of autumn outside my home in New England, the smell of cider drifting down from the mill in Sterling. Running into an old friend in a new place. 

A cow driving to work. My dog hiding beneath the bed during a storm. My son holding his too-big-for-his-arm’s bunny. The way when I returned from a month in Russia when my son was two, he grabbed his zoo book of pictures, climbed on my lap and would not let me get up. 

An email from someone I had not heard from in twenty-two years. The first green showing through the snow in spring. The leaves just past peak. The sound of waves. The sound of kids laughing. An old couple holding hands. 

The front edge of an idea. That feeling of outrageous anticipation when you decide to do something brand new. The way you one day realize who you are and that you’re okay with it. 

Pachelbel’s Canon in D. Bach’s Joy. Walking down an old street in St Augustine and hearing a guitar player singing Marley’s Redemption Song like it was Bob himself. Chasing ghosts at the old lighthouse.

And other moments:

“Yes sir, it’s a boy.” 

“He’s gone. Come back when you get this.”

“Hey…it’s me.”

I can tell you how much money I have made from working in hotels and health clubs, from teaching college and writing books, but I can never calculate the wealth of my life. Can you? Can you measure the moments on a spreadsheet? Can you figure the net value of that time you saw your dad waving to your plane from the observation deck at the airport? The value of those last lucid moments when he seemed young again? The priceless moment your son’s voice cracked and changed. That moment you realize it would have worked out just fine if given the chance. That moment you realize sometimes the most painful moments are the ones that taught you who you need to be and what you are made of.

We are alive. Now. Today. And yet people hold grudges, people don’t forgive, people don’t realize how fast it is, people don’t look up to watch life bounce across the sky.

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