Rejected

Pin by Ink and Awl on Yes. | Writing humor, Writing life, Rejection

I must start with this story:

I sent an essay to a journal and they rejected it. This is year’s ago. Their brief note suggested they enjoyed the piece but ultimately decided to pass. It was a nice note; no one died in it. About a year later I did a reading at a conference and read that very piece, completely unchanged. After the reading, the very same editor came up and asked if the piece was available, that he loved it and would like to publish it. Not only did he do so, but the work went on to be my first essay noted by Best American Essays. The same journal with two different editors went on to publish four more works of mine, with two more going on to further recognition at BAE.

My point: publishing and rejection can be completely random. It can depend upon the particular style of the journal, or a particular editor, or even the theme of one particular edition, but it can often be equally dependent upon the caffeine intake of whoever read the work, the time of day, the weather, how much it reminds the reader of an old lover, or even whether or not the Pirates won that day. Sometimes essays and poems are rejected simply because the journal already had enough pieces for that time, and other times they’re rejected with great scrutiny and long epistles explaining all the changes that could be made for whichever other journal might publish it, though that new journal may just as easily prefer the essay in its original form.

Over the course of the last week or so I was rejected three times, accepted twice, had two personal invitations by publications to send them some work, started a new book of five long-form essays called “Five,” and sent off a manuscript to an editor for consideration. So tonight after an amazing sunset over the river and cool October breezes pushing September almost completely from my consciousness, I sat back like Charlie Brown perusing his pictures of France and wondered what I have learned.

Writing has taught me, finally, to trust myself and let go of my concerns and anxiety over what others think, how others perceive my decisions. In the writing world, editors can be helpful or random, can understand what they want but not what you do, or appreciate what you do but still not want it. Some like snark, some like drama, some like biting humor and some aren’t happy unless the piece sounds like it was written by some foulmouthed hack. It is essential to study the journal, to understand its history and style, its preference for length and how free one can be with language. In fact, for an editor to suggest in the rejection letter that the writer should first study the journal before submitting is so pretentious I can only assume the editors who make such suggestions believe they are addressing freshman comp students who have never submitted before.

I once sent a piece to a place and it was rejected. A few days later, forgetting I submitted it there because my mind sometimes slips, resubmitted the same piece without changes to the same journal and they accepted it with great thanks. Random.

I don’t pay attention to the comments and suggestions from readers at journals about how to change the work. I don’t know them; I do not know their style or ability; and I may be fine with the piece as it is but need to find another journal instead. In the end, I simply need to trust myself or I will forever be second guessing myself.  

My favorite rejections are the simple ones. I received one which read, “Dear Bob, Pass. The Editors.”  Perfect. They don’t want it; got it. I understand. That one is crystal clear. I also once received what appeared to be a detailed rejection from a journal which mentioned my piece by name several times in the letter, and which truly made me feel they took their time and honestly wished to communicate with me. Then I mentioned it to a friend of mine who is a writer in Ohio, and she revealed she received the identical rejection from the same journal, only the name and title changed in the paragraphs. How do they expect us to take their thoughts seriously?

Last year I received a rejection from the journal which published five essays of mine, but which turned down this particular piece with the suggestion I study their prose style before considering submitting to them and that they expect their writers to read their journal before expecting to be published in it. First of all, the rejection of the essay didn’t bother me; after reevaluating the work I agree it needed much more polishing, and I have since done so and sent it out elsewhere and it has been published. The trouble I had with the thoughtless rejection was that editor’s inability to simply say no. I wanted to write back and say, “I took your suggestion and read old issues to get to know your prose style and, oh, hey, look! FIVE of my works are in there! Moron!” Instead I deleted it. I delete lots of rejections. I have one friend who adheres to the trend to tape the rejections to the wall and shoot for 100 rejections in a month or maybe in a year, I forget. I prefer to keep the negative crap out of my line of sight.  Besides, the implication the writer did not study the prose style of the journal is condescending. One writer/friend commented I might not recognize the editor is new and the prose style is no longer the same therefore the comment was valid, but that makes no sense. Then why in God’s name did they send me to old issues to study their style?

But it is the nature of rejection; I’m used to it, both socially and professionally. When the percentage of acceptances goes up, it is mostly because those essays have been rejected enough for me to rework them and then they all do well. It is a numbers game.

I know a writer who for a while every time a journal accepted one of his works, the journal subsequently folded.  

Another example: I have a close friend whose manuscript was at a publisher getting ready for publication when a new editor there decided it needed a LOT of changes; “very invasive editing suggestions,” my friend told me. Instead of making the changes he pulled the manuscript and sent it somewhere else which accepted it and published it as is. The work went on to be a finalist for the National Book Award. Editors and readers are like teachers: just because they’re qualified to get the job doesn’t mean they don’t suck at it.

I swear I once got a rejection from a journal I never sent anything to. It was like a “Snoopy” cartoon. I mean, I must have sent them something and simply forgot, but I could never find what I sent them, didn’t have an email in my sent file or a file in my Submittable account, and have nothing on my list of “works submitted” which I keep. Perhaps they just anticipated receiving crap from me and wanted to cut me off at the pass.

A writer’s history with a journal is irrelevant to acceptance. The new piece must stand on its own and it must be the criteria for the new reading period. But that doesn’t mean the writer started from scratch when the piece was sent. It helps to mention previous successes in a cover letter, especially if some of those successes are the result of publication in that very journal. I don’t know a single writer who doesn’t do this. But like a famous comedian taking the stage, the audience will give you a break and listen more intently for a few minutes, but if you don’t quickly start making them laugh, you’re outta there. A track record with a journal may get you read faster, but that’s about it. You still can’t suck. But neither should the journal treat any writer like he or she is a moron. Just read the damn thing and Pass or Accept.

I have no idea what my win/loss record is at this point. Better than the Mets I’m guessing, but really, I stopped keeping track. I think it’s pretty good. Mostly that’s because I do a fine job of rejecting my own work several times through scrutiny before I decide it is ready to head out on its own. I don’t believe writers should listen to the advice of anyone who criticizes the work unless the writer knows and trusts that person. I have a few I trust, very few. Of course, finding someone to criticize the work is as easy as finding a parent to praise it. In the end it is a waste of time trying to “improve” through blind criticism. You must know and understand and trust the person who makes suggestions. And this isn’t because these other people don’t have something beneficial to contribute; they very well may.

The list of famous rejections is out there; check it out. You’ve got to be one hell of an accomplished writer to make the list of famous rejections, and I don’t play at that level. Still, in my own little world I show up enough to understand the process pretty well, and I understand this most: my audience is me, I’m the first and most important editor, and only when I’m pleased does the work move along. I’m the primary reader, no one else. If someone finds something in what I do worthy of passing along to her or his readers, that’s tremendous, but if I’m not happy with the prose style, I probably won’t send it out; and if I am, I probably won’t change it for someone else I don’t even know. I write this shit for me, not you. I just hope you like it anyway.

One more thing: There’s only one thing worse than rejection and that’s completely ignoring the work or the writer. This is true in the submission world and the reading and book signing world. If you see us sitting at a table of our books, don’t walk past because you don’t plan on buying a book. Come say hi—we’re an intensely lonely bunch of people. And besides, someone else might come over if you’re standing there and that person won’t feel pressured since I’ll be talking to you.

Writers write because somewhere deep inside is a deeply-seeded need to scream, “Holy Shit! Did you SEE that??!!” but we don’t want to get arrested.

Critiquing a rejection letter | Writing humor, Writing memes, Writer humor

This River

At the end of the day we usually head to the river to take pictures of the setting sun, but often that depends upon the sky. A “blank” sky usually means we won’t get any good shots. We’ll go anyway, to stand on the sandbar just off the rocks where we can look west well up river under the Lower Rappahannock River Bridge—the Norris Bridge—up toward Urbanna; but also we can turn around in our tracks and look straight out into the Chesapeake Bay and its twenty-mile span to the Eastern Shore of Virginia.

On that same spot we stand every Fourth of July to watch fireworks from a half dozen locales: someone in White Stone just across the river, someone near Hummel Airstrip, probably at Grey’s Campground, just up river at the foot of the bridge, someone across from there which must be the Tides Inn in Irvington, someone else in Deltaville, though those are harder to view as it is down river on our bank, and the houses are in the way, and finally someone across from the Stingray, out on Windmill Point, which just might be the best place for such celebrations for its isolation yet visibility.

From this same spot we stand, as we will this week, and face across Windmill Point to the northeast and look further across the bay, across where—if we could see it—sits Tangier Island, then further still, and out there somewhere we can watch the rocket launches at Wallops Island. They have done a few during the day but mostly at night, and we see a white flash that stays lit for a few moments out across the bay, and then a red spear of fire—not the rocket, the sky is too dark to see the rocket—but the burn we can see as it rises and pushes the payload into the night sky and heads southeast until it just disappears, gone, like someone turns it off, but instead it has left the earth’s atmosphere.

We went down once to watch a launch thinking it would be the two of us but a dozen or more people showed up with binoculars and chairs and we all talked about the weather and the water conditions and the sky and what planet that is and what star that might be, and it was all friendly, some of the people, like Michael, having lived here their entire lives, and others, like me, who have made it home but will always be a “come lately.” Eventually, someone started to count and while we reach zero often a few minutes before the control tower out on Wallops does, at some point they do, and the white blast and red beam of fire commences, rises, then disappears. And we all head home, quietly.

On this strip of sand we stand when the sun is still high or earlier, when it is low in the east, and while I take pictures of the break in the clouds which turn the rays yellow or streaks of blue, Michael finds strips of color on the water, like someone laid long peels of various colored material on the water, and they float, lifting and bending with the current and the wind, and he find just the right angle of light and depth of water and picks that moment to isolate for us forever, though that moment itself with those colors and textures is gone.

Sometimes I come alone and work things out. I stood here when I left my job of thirty years which coincided with other drastic changes in my life and I watched the same sky turn royal blue and then dark blue giving way to something like crimson, and only then was I okay. And when Dad died, and long before that, when I drove home from school that Tuesday afternoon that September 11th, I got home and walked to the river and noticed out across the bay which always has jets flying north or south so far up you can’t hear them but you can see the gleam, that day there were none, and it was obvious, and I wondered here on the sand as the September water swirled around my calves if we were under attack and I had spent the last of my afternoons I ever would at the river.

It would be romantic to say I come here to write, or at least work out something I’m working on, but I don’t, not usually. Sometimes a digression will cross my mind, but more often than not I’m thinking about some old friend who I don’t hear from nearly enough, or some relative who I’d love to spend time with.

I’m rarely alone. Blue herons and white egrets and countless osprey and eagles and kingfishers and cormorants and gulls live here. Geese pass through and indigo buntings. Dolphin have made their way up into this part of the river from the bay, and quite often stingrays, which gave this area its name for the legend that while swimming in these waters, John Smith in the early sixteen hundreds was stung by a stingray. A few have washed up on the beach, hit by a boat or tangled in plastic. And a few times loggerhead turtles show up, though that’s rare and more often on the sands at the bay than here on the river.

Like anywhere else, at night the river seems smaller, people across the mile and a half wide river seem like they’re next door, and I can almost hear their conversations as they sit on their Adirondack chairs on the bluffs looking over the Rappahannock and stare out to the bay. I can see lights of cars and trucks crossing the sky-blue bridge, but I can’t hear them, not at all. In the mornings the low rumbling of the diesel engines of fishing boats head out from Mill Creek and further up to fill their hold with a catch or check the traps for the famous and delicious Chesapeake blue crab. I see these men in 711 when I’m heading out for the day and I stop to get some coffee and they’re there in fishing boots and getting their coffee, coming home for the day. These are hardworking women and men, though mostly guys, and they smell like cigarettes and raw fish and coffee, and I wonder for a moment but then know for sure that I’ve never worked that hard in my life. When I was young I went to the docks at Rudee Inlet in Virginia Beach and applied to be a deck hand on a fishing vessel but they only seemed to hire sons and sons of friends. That’s okay though, I still developed a taste for the crabs and bluefish.

Usually we stand on the sand here and just talk, my son and I, about the day, about projects we’re working on, places we’re thinking of going, but, interestingly, not often at all of places we’ve been unless it is relevant to what’s next. We’ve done okay staying in step with where we are and where we are going. We want to go back to Spain, or cross Canada, or back to St Petersburg, we talked about going to Mt Fuji with a friend and his son, and we talked about going to Brooklyn. We talk about what movies we might watch or what we read that day in the news. It is a good place to let the anxiety of life drift off with the bay breeze and just, well, just settle down a bit, let things be still for a little while, here on the river.

I’ve always lived near water. As a child it was the Connetquot River and the Great South Bay of Long Island, and in high school the Lynnhaven River and this very Chesapeake, about seventy-five nautical miles southeast. Even at college I spent most of my time walking along the Allegheny River or some weekends out at Lake Chautauqua. I know there’s science about the percentage of water we are as humans and the percentage of water on the planet and how much of it is potable and how much of it is wasted, but that’s research for someone else. I just like how it feels when it rolls past my calves. I’ve stood in rivers on four continents, and always it is the way the water pushes past my calves that I remember most, and the tug of the riverbed on the soles of my feet.

It does that, this river. It tugs at my soul.

Snared

What is wrong with trapping | The Fur-Bearers - Protecting Canadian  Wildlife since 1953

I wore a t-shirt this morning from an organization which has zero tolerance for animal snares–Painted Dog Conservation. I drove to 711. 

(Reminder: I live I very rural Virginia where wildlife and Trump signs are common)

A few men always gather near the coffee counter to talk; it is a routine. Their trucks idle outside and they wear camouflage clothing even when they’re just headed to the store. Ironically, they really do blend in here, especially near the shelves of chips and display of NASCAR paraphernalia.

One of the two noticed my shirt. I was not part of this conversation; just the catalyst:

“Yeah I gotta get rid of my snares.”

“Ain’t using them?”

“Nah. They’re not good. They snap the legs right off the turkey and the damn things get far enough to die where I can’t find them.”

“Sheeeet.”

“Yeah.”

“Dang.”

“Uhuh.”

“I saw me some snares got grippers electronically hooked up to know how much to grab to hold them without snapping off the best part.”

“I heard of them. I sure did, down at that show in Richmond.”

“That’s where I saw ’em. They got a device will text me when the snare snaps.”

“Sheeeet.”

“Yeah.”

“Dang.”

“Uhuh.”

“Ain’t cheap I’m betting you.”

“Forty or so.”

“Ain’t bad. I’ll have to get some.”

They sipped their coffee. One asked how I was doing and that he liked my shirt. I honestly think he believed the shirt promotes snares. Though to be fair, I moved through swiftly, snaking around the men not in line and not getting coffee, the ones just, well, standing.

One guy to the other guy:

“You ready for deer?”

“Almost. I needs me new collars for the dogs. Something with better range so I can track them right to the kill. I shot me one last year made it a mile before he collapsed. Damn dog collars were out of range and I had to hike out there looking. It was pouring out, like today.”

“Sheeeet.”

“Yeah.”

“Dang.”

“Uhuh.”

“Can’t wait to go huntin.”

“Yeah, me too.”

I opened the door to leave and I wished them a good day but they asked me how I liked the snares and what kind I used. Now, when I’m in situations like this I can’t help but feel uncomfortable. I don’t hunt, trap, snare, or in any way harm animals, and I don’t know if that’s because I grew up listening to folk music or because when I was young I fed a deer in Heckscher State Park, but I knew immediately I had nothing constructive to add to the conversation. Instead, I wanted to say that I understand the appeal, the up-before-the-dawn draw of it all, the crouching in nature, rain dripping down my back, or the slick leaves beneath my feet in the quiet stillness of the wilderness when a deer lights out from the brush and stares at me. I get it, but I don’t hunt, and I didn’t know how to tell them about Thoreau and the idea that “many men go fishing all their lives without knowing it’s not the fish they are after.” Instead, I wished them a good day.

“Yeah, you too. See ya out there, brother!” one said. I walked to my car drinking my coffee and eating my empenadas. If you get there early the small breakfast bites are fresh and hot, and the clerk will pick out the ones which are most plump. Three for a dollar.

Sheeeet. Yeah.

Bummer of a birthmark Hal - Gary Larson is the creator of "The Far Side"  and thousands of great cartoons … | Gary larson cartoons, Far side  cartoons, The far side

The College Experience (is not what it used to be)

College Campuses Called To Be Prepared For Meningococcal Disease | College  News

The conversation on NPR and other media outlets in respect to students missing out on a real “college experience” has focused on how Covid-19 has forced more long-distance education, zoom lectures, hybrid courses, and only the occasional face to face teaching/learning many students and faculty are familiar with and prefer.

The fear is that they’re missing out on the campus-life activities, the nighttime routine with classmates and dormmates and frat and sorority mates. There’s a severe lack of mating as a result of this pandemic and the subsequent downsizing of schools, and everyone is upset about it.

It’s true. I loved my professors when I was in college, and as a journalism major I appreciated the small group of peers I met in class and became friends with for four years, in and out of class, in and out of each other’s lives, stopping to talk when crossing campus or in the Rathskeller, packed in like sheep, bodies pressed together, beers held over our heads because there was no room in front of us, eyeglasses steamed up, music—Springsteen and Joel—blaring from the dj booth, tables packed with students playing drinking games and ordering wings and two dollar (not kidding) pitchers of beer.

We talked to each other all the time, I mean all of the time. We were in the hallways of the dorm, packed into each other’s rooms, tight around café tables with eight, nine, or ten chairs at a table for four, everyone talking at once, heading to or from classes, spending five minutes to make plans and say goodbye to people we would inevitably see that evening, or before. This went beyond friendship—we were tight, family, we lived together, ate together, showered, peed, and played together, we moved in groups and just about everyone knew just about everyone else.

So when the conversations center on students missing out on campus life, I have two thoughts—first, yeah, they are, and that is the best part of college. We spent fifteen hours a week, tops, in the classroom, and absolutely all of the rest of our time with these people, doing these things, road trips on weekends, floor parties, groups of us moving like a pack of wolves down the road, laughing and talking, crossing to the local pizza place, running into another pack of wolves where we stayed until closing, and then kept the momentum back to the dorm. Dawn came hard more than a few nights. Yeah, missing out on campus life—I get it.

Except (you had to see the “however” aspect coming, right?):

A chasm exists between the campus life of the current coed and the way it was when we were in college. This is not about being old now; this is about changes—real changes—which changed the experience of dorm life to more often match the home routine than anything new being out on their own, back when all ties to high school and parents had been cut completely until the next vacation.

Most notably, back then we had no technology. Personal computers didn’t exist yet and the only phones available to students were the pay phones—one on a floor for ninety people. If anyone called, which wasn’t likely since getting through to an actual student was always a challenge, someone would answer and be summoned to fetch the student from a room. If that person decided to do so, there was no guarantee they didn’t let the phone dangle and go back to bed, but if they decided to find the floormate, that person might not even be around. So communication was intensely limited. No cell phones existed, and the only televisions were in the lobby of the dorm, usually only on when a sporting event was on or if it was raining out. The campus lawns were crowded with people playing ball, reading, and just hanging out. We talked to each other because each other was all we had. No connection existed to friends from high school or before unless one of them happened to go to the same college. You were adults now, and everything before that was set aside for what comes next, which as it turns out was way more fun than anything that came before that.

No video games, no “online” anything. And we had more expendable money to spend on the two dollar pitchers of beer because we had no cell phone bills, no Starbucks (coffee was in the cafeteria), no laptops or desktops or computers at all to spend money on, hardly anyone had a car so we hung out or hitched to somewhere. I’m not talking about a primitive lifestyle absent of luxuries. It’s just that we were focused on each other and absolutely nothing else.

Just three vocabulary words which didn’t exist back then:

Cell phone (except for Captain Kirk but it was called a communicator)

Laptop (for this you had to go to a strip club)

Online (completely non-existent phrase…in line comes close but involves waiting more than anything else)

My point isn’t to demonstrate how old I am, or how things have changed, though I am and they have. My issue is with the “college experience” which should not involve late night texting with junior high school friends, or a room full of people (as is common in my classrooms before I arrive to start class) and NO ONE is saying a word to each other but are deeply engrossed in their phones.

I will say this about what used to be: we got to know each other, we talked and laughed and planned and grew close.

So close, in fact, that thirty-seven years out of college and those people are still my brothers and sisters, my confidants, and are the people who “can see where you are but they know where you’ve been.” This way of connecting to others was losing ground for years before the pandemic, and students today stay tethered far too long to high school ways.

The college experience as so many of us knew it died long before classes went online, and it is a shame because it was from that experience I learned how to love beyond my family, to share, to compromise and sacrifice, to confide in people.

I was on campus only a few weeks freshman year when one Friday night about two am the floor was loud with laughter and stereos and people getting to know each other, so I walked to another building where it was quiet and just a couch was there. And a guitar. I picked it up to play and a young woman walked in and told me to keep playing. Until six in the morning we played and sang songs, told stories, laughed, and others joined in so that what I was escaping in the dorm after several hours of partaking in that lifestyle, I inadvertently recreated there; and that type scene played out every night all over campus for four years. That’s college life.

That’s what they’re missing. That’s what’s missing from their lives—being on their own without calling home or old friends, not spending hours at the coffeeshop online, not holed up in some corner watching Netflix.

Two years ago a close friend of mine now who I knew forty years ago met on campus in western New York. We walked around noting how much had stayed the same and what had changed, which, visually, wasn’t a whole lot. But we both noted one major significant difference. It was mid-week around lunchtime when we walked across campus, and maybe, MAYBE, we saw a half-dozen students on what was a beautiful, clear day. During our tenure the paths and benches and lawns would be packed with people and a five-minute walk would take twenty for all the conversations you’d have along the way. We saw six students. We said something to a quiet, wandering worker who told us this was pretty normal. “Yeah, they’re all in their rooms.”

But no music flowed from the windows; no groups of guys stood in the doorway. They were all in their rooms. That’s not a college experience. It’s just not.

When this is over, I hope students move back into the dorms, wander down the hall or out into the common areas, and get to know each other without the umbilical still attached through WiFi to what they left home for to begin with. “Look around you” I’d like to tell them. “If you get to know these people now, you’ll be closer than ever when you’re sixty.”

Maybe I should text that to them.

12 photos of empty college campuses during graduation season - Business  Insider

My Three a.m. Reminder

Helen Keller Quote: “I would rather walk with a friend in the dark, than  alone in the light.” (16 wallpapers) - Quotefancy

It’s easy to swirl and drift and fade and cry and lose focus when you wake up at three am and it seems like nothing, really nothing at all, can convince you the path you are on is even remotely the correct one, and sometimes it feels like all the decisions you’ve made were just wrong, simply wrong, and there is no escape, no way to rationalize your way out of it, especially at three am, and the plans you had are hazy now, the hopes you had are in pieces, and even sleep is not helping.

Yeah, that feeling. Me too.

So I made a “Reminder Page” to help me recall and look forward to the amazing people in my life, the ones I love beyond love, the ones who keep me going, the ones when I was young, the ones who are gone, and the ones here now, the ones I will see again soon or someday, and we will laugh, because before those times in these photos, not long ago and longer ago than that, it was three am and I couldn’t sleep and no medicine, no pep talk, nothing was going to make it feel right, and look–I mean just look–at the beautiful people who met me after that for a cup of coffee, a glass of wine, and we laughed, oh my, we laughed.

and we had the time of our lives.

“For what it’s worth, it was worth all the while”

Thank you for sharing this pilgrimage with me

(it helps now if you scroll to the bottom and play Green Day and listen while looking at pictures…just saying)

The Untold Story of Dilly Dally the Dog

History - page 2
This Isn’t Dilly Dally. This is that dog from Please Don’t Eat the Daisies

I had an amazing dog—Sandy—a golden retriever/collie mix who never knew how to bark and had the attitude of Snoopy. When I’d throw a stick or a ball, he’d sit next to me and look up as if to say, “Well….now it’s over there.” We spent a lot of time at a state park in Virginia Beach and along the ocean. He’d run full speed down the sand but wouldn’t get anywhere near the water. This was right after Jaws came out and he would sit on the sand next to me, panting hard from running for an hour, and then look out at the ocean and say, “No, no way. Remember what happened to that black lab in Jaws? Gone. No.” Sandy was gentle. He would lay in the grass in the yard, and when two ducks waddled from the river to the patio, he would simply raise his head, sigh, and go back to sleep. Perhaps the scariest time happened when I was away at college. He ran out onto a frozen river and fell through the ice. Neighbors called to tell my parents that our dog was paddling in circles unable to claw back onto the surface. Thank God my brother happened to be around at the time, and he dragged the canoe over and paddled out, breaking the ice with the oar, and saved Sandy’s life.

All these decades later I still miss Sandy. He seemed more human than canine.

Scientists have discovered that the first animal we would call a dog lived about 32,000 years ago in Belgium and lived off a diet of mostly horse, musk ox, and reindeer, not as random kills but table scraps from their masters’ hunts. The dog resembled a Siberian Husky but closer to the size of an Old English Sheepdog.  They must have been man’s best friend even then since the tools and jewelry were often depicted with dogs. Paleolithic footprints of children next to paw prints indicate the whole pet thing came about 26,000 years ago when the pooch would accompany his pal on hikes in caves or on narrow mountain trails, as protection against wildlife, perhaps.

One significant difference from today’s dogs–when they died, they became food. Today we bury dogs in pet cemeteries, backyards; we cremate them and build monuments. Schnauzers mostly die from kidney disease; when Great Danes die young it’s often from intestinal diseases; Goldens and Dobermans often get cancer. Larger dogs commonly have hip or joint issues prior to death. Heart disease is common. However, freezing your ass off in a rampaging creek bed during a deluge is surprisingly unusual, but it has happened. At least once.

I knew a couple when I was at Penn State, Ricki and George, who owned a manor house on a few hundred acres in central Pennsylvania and a penthouse in New York. Whenever they went to New York they called me to watch their house and take care of their dog. I’d stay at the estate and fill the birdfeeders, answer the phone and basically be there so burglars wouldn’t bother. Mostly, I’d feed and take care of their Old English Sheep Dog, Dilly Dally. Dilly Dally was an old Old English sheepdog, about sixteen. She mostly lived in the house but had her own large digs with a heated doghouse not far from the patio. She was Ricki’s, and Ricki made no apologies for spoiling the dog she raised from a puppy. When they first asked me to watch Dilly Dally, Ricki was insistent I dedicate my full attention to her furry child. No writing while Dilly Dally was awake. No talking on the phone unless the old dog was asleep in her house. No daunting about watching movies or listening to albums while darling little Dilly Dally wanted attention. That’s what Ricki called her, “My darling little Dilly Dally.” I called her Dildo; she still came when I yelled for her. They paid me well, left me full run of the house, and their only request was I took good care of their only child. Actually, Ricki expected that; George really couldn’t care less. Ricki wanted her pampered until she returned; George simply wanted her alive.

But one November I stayed at the estate for ten days, and one night it rained. I put on a raincoat and checked on Dildo and she was comfortably asleep and dry in her heated estate house, so I returned inside. But by midnight, the temperature had dropped to the mid-thirties and the rain hit hard. I was in the brick-floored den cooking tuna kabobs on the indoor fire pit, listening to music. Eventually I noticed the torrent, and when I walked out on the covered porch and looked toward the pen, I couldn’t see Dilly Dally. I called a few times but nothing. Finally I put the raingear back on and headed to the doghouse. She wasn’t there. Dilly Dally had disappeared. Damn.

I hiked about the house in fading concentric circles, moving up the trails, in the ditch that ran along the road and then out in the road past the thousand feet drive. I headed up the trails she’d walk with me in the morning as I filled birdfeeders and checked the property for problems.  Everything flooded, the creeks ran rapid, and though it was the type of downpour one expects can’t possibly last long at that pace, this one did, for hours and hours. Rain fell like a stalled tropical storm, and I couldn’t find the geriatric Dilly Dally anywhere. At two am I called a friend to come help me look. Brian and I scoured the property in the pouring rain for another few hours. Eventually we settled back into the den, restarted the fire pit, and at about four in the morning cracked open some of George’s beer. We figured she’d show up in the morning, drenched and smelly like us. She didn’t.

Several creeks meandered through the estate property and ran full during the spring thaw and after autumn’s heavy rains. The night of the storm found the creek careening over its banks and rushing past trees and small creek bridges. I walked about at six am and pulled sticks and fallen branches off of birdhouses and birdbaths, and when I paused on a small bridge which led back to the yard near the house, I heard whimpering. The water flow made it difficult to determine from which direction the cries came, but it didn’t take long to know it was certainly the weak sounds of an animal. I focused past the prevalent pounding of water and found Dildo beneath the bridge, against the side of the creek bed, half her torso beneath the rushing icy November water.

Old English sheep dogs are heavy, particularly when the back half of one is frozen solid and sits like dead weight. I wrapped my arms around her waist-like part of her body and while she kind of pulled at the creek-bed with her front paws, I carried the rest. We fell several times and my foot kept slipping and a few times I went completely in the creek. I had to sit on the bank and slide down into the water at her head, but when I did I dislodged the poor girl’s only grip and we both dropped into the middle of the water. At that point I simply pulled Dilly Dally away from the shore and floated her down creek to a bend beyond the bridge and heaved her again by holding her hind legs and rolled her onto the soaking ground.  I picked her up from behind while she dragged herself with her front paws, and we made it to the patio and eventually inside the den where I collapsed onto the brick floor.  I moved her to the fire pit and lit a fire for us both. She shivered with some dog version of hypothermia and threw up on the bricks.

I grabbed a stack of towels from the bathroom and covered her up while drying her off. As I rubbed she licked my hands, though her eyes were little more than slivers. Dilly turned her head toward me as if to say, “Sorry. What now?” I called the vet and left a message for an emergency call back. I pet Dilly’s head and got her a biscuit but she couldn’t eat.

The phone rang as Dilly Dally rested.

“Hi Bob it’s Ricki!”

“Hi Ricki!”

“Is it too early to call? We’re at Penn Station and I wanted to call before we boarded. We need to stop at the store on the way home from the train station there. Does my girl need anything? Food? A new toy?”

“You know, probably not, Ricki.” I had about five or six hours max.

I dried Dilly Dally a bit more with a towel, but her eyes kept closing and once in awhile I would lift her hind end to make her stand but she’d just fall each time, paralyzed; the poor girl was frozen, her legs numb.

She took a deep breath and wheezed but not loud enough to be heard.

I no sooner hung up with Ricki when the phone rang and it was the vet. I told him the whole tale. He hung up to head over.

They kept a book about the care of Old English Sheepdogs on the corner shelf and I lay on my back next to Dilly and read to her. “Let’s see what it says about a frozen ass, shall we? Hmmm. Nothing. But, it does say you like to be the center of attention and if you get enough you’re friendly and loving but if you don’t you get a negative temperament and your health deteriorates.” I looked at Dildo who rolled her eyes toward me. “Says you won’t bark a warning if something is wrong, but it also says you’re extremely devoted.” She looked at me again as if to say, Well, that’s true.

“Says you’re a good herder, especially of sheep. Says you’re good with kids. Says you love to play and frolic.” I stared at the poor girl a long time and told her, “Well, you’ve got two old owners, no kids and no sheep.” She put her head down and sighed. “Yeah, sucks,” I said. Her hind had stopped shivering but when I poked her harder low down, she didn’t flinch.

The vet pulled in and after a brief examination he said he’d take her with her. “You going to be able to help her when you get to the office?” I asked as we lifted Dilly Dally into his van. “I’m not so sure, Bob” he said, discouragingly. “She’s old and this isn’t her first retreat into the creek. Does Ricki know what happened?”

“No, but she gets in later today.”

I don’t know if he said or I thought he said, “Well you killed her dog she had for almost two decades, asshole,” but that was floating in the air as he drove off.

About an hour later Dilly Dally died.

After I hung up with the vet, I walked alone filling the birdfeeders. I swear some birds seemed surprised Dilly Dally wasn’t there.  Cardinals, house wrens, finches, titmouse all flew to the feeders after I’d moved on to another. The woods were wet, still swamped from the storm, but fresh. I could see my breath and the sky was blue and clear. Earlier reports indicated snow that night, but it didn’t seem so now. I finished the trails and walked to the house.

That afternoon, the car came down the driveway. Ricki and George pulled to the far side since my car faced out closest to the house, and Ricki headed immediately to the pen area. George came to me and asked how things were going while Ricki peered into the heated doghouse. She walked toward the other side of the house near the gazebo where Dilly Dally would sometimes linger on sunny afternoons.

“George. Dilly Dally’s dead.”

“WHAT??”

“She’s at the vet.”

He spoke in a hard whisper. “What happened?”

I told him everything, after which he thought quietly then said, “Ah, you know during bad storms she always hides under that bridge.”

“That’s important information, George!” I said. “I probably should have known that.”

He touched my arm and apologized to me, which threw me, of course, since the dog died on my watch. “Bob,” he said, looking back toward Ricki, “You might want to go home now. I’ll call you tomorrow.”

Not everyone is good with dogs.

Some guy in British Columbia ventured out one morning to find his dog frozen inside a block of ice shaped like a rubber bin on his front lawn. The dog is standing looking forward, like the ice age hit him without warning. The man was arrested for animal cruelty. In Wisconsin some poor overweight Border Collie lay on a sidewalk in front of his home and froze there for several days. He was okay, but animal rescuers poured warm water on him to free him from the cement. When the owner was told what happened, he said he wondered why he hadn’t moved from the same spot for a while. He was arrested. The dog lived because he happened to be obese and the fat saved him.

Ricki called me the next week and said the vet told her Dilly dying anyway, and she would have been suffering quite soon. She said they had decided to head back to Manhattan to avoid the quiet there without her Dilly Dally but asked if I’d please stay for a few weeks to simply watch the place.

I did, and each morning I’d walk the trails to fill the feeders, and I’d stand in the morning cold and listen to the quiet, but it was simply too quiet, absent of the small shake of her collar, the click of her nails on the patio.

But that’s not the point. And the dog dying isn’t the point either.  The point is Brian. The moral is companionship and trust. I called him well past midnight and he got up, drove the half-hour in pouring rain through hilly country roads to the house and then walked about in a storm looking for a dog which not only wasn’t his, it wasn’t even mine.

I have friends like this. I know people like this, people who will not only give you the proverbial shirt off of their backs but have consistently made me want to try and be a better person. I’ve been lucky throughout my life to have friends like this.

I saw Brian recently and as soon as we met again after nearly fifteen years, it was as if I saw him the day before. True friends are like that; it’s very doglike. The real friends, the kind that know who you are and the ones to whom you can’t make excuses about anything because they know you too well—those friends—as the years go by and time rolls like water under a bridge, they’re all we have.

They’re all we need.

My close friends live too far for such a swift journey as this pilgrimage we find ourselves on. They’re 800 miles west. 300 miles north. 600 miles south. Maybe that’s why we get attached to our dogs. They’re there when we get home, waiting, panting. Sure, it’s food and a walk they’re after, but still. Their love for us is unwavering. They don’t care about what mistakes we have made; the don’t give up on us. Ever. True friends–both canine and human–keep us going.

 

Zoom notes for Research Class Lecture

Areas of expertise - Cambridge Assessment

Sean Hannity dropped out of NYU and Adelphi. It was his radio experience that enabled his charismatic presence to cover for his lack of expertise in anything he discusses. In the world of Mass Communications, he is not a journalist, though he plays one on TV. If any student comes remotely near this man or someone like him on a works cited page, you’ll fail.

Rush Limbaugh dropped out of Southeast Missouri State University. His radio experience enabled his smooth voice and sharp wit to cover for his lack of expertise in anything he discusses. Students who cite him must buy pizza for the entire class.

These two have no background or degrees in journalism or how to verify information properly, no training or education in political science, and remain little more than disc jockeys with opinions.

Mike Savage has three degrees in botany, medical anthropology, and nutrition. He is not a journalist, not a political scientist, and not someone who should be a bestselling author of multiple books about politics.

Thom Hartmann has a degree in Electrical Engineering from Michigan State despite his best-selling books about politics, for which he has no credentials.

The first and most important question any professor will ask when reading a research paper for every class throughout college is this: Where did you get your information.

Worth repeating: Where did you get your information?

There is a chasm between News and Commentary. There is, in fact, very little “news” anywhere; that is, the objective presentation of indisputable facts. The majority of airtime is dedicated to talking heads chatting about “possibilities” based upon how they “feel” about something, each (both parties) bringing with them their own prejudices, ignorance, and agendas. Before anyone talks, and long before any student attributes information to a source, you’d better make clear their degrees, their experience, and their qualifications to be considered an “expert” whose opinion is worthy of weighing.

Oh, and speaking of “experience,” there is a difference between an expert and a participant. An expert has all the information about the bigger picture, understands the cultural and historical context, has digested and contemplated the multiple facets of the topic through education, experience, and consultation with other experts. A participant was there. I have been teaching English at the college level now for more than thirty years. I am NOT an expert. I am a participant who knows how I do things and what works for me. But if you want to know the best results for various pedagogical methods, talk to an educational specialist whose research tracks such things.

To that point, to teach at a university you must have a terminal degree in the field you teach. My brother-in-law, for instance, Dr. Gregory J.W. Urwin, is a well accomplished, tenured historian at Temple University and author of multiple definitive volumes in history. He is one of the most respected people in his field. But he can’t teach chemistry. No one questions this. And education is not the only occupation which requires employees be learned in the areas they work. To be more specific, Dr. Urwin even specializes in particular areas of history, and while he is extremely learned in just about any subject in the field, he will be the first one to pass along a question about medieval history, for example, to someone whose expertise lies there. Experts are generally pretty specific. One way to tell a fraud is that person’s vagueness.

Imagine an entire staff at any business or office where none of the employees has expertise in the field. Inconceivable. Just as flawed would be an office filled with participants with various experiences all disagreeing with each other. Someone with a broad view of context is necessary to steer. That there’d be the expert.

Now try and imagine what would happen if the people consulted for the most important decisions facing our nation were not experts in research and investigation or economics or foreign relations or military strategy, but instead radio personalities. That’s how I’m reading your papers. That’s how professors will scrutinize your works cited pages. This isn’t a reality show. This is reality; there’s a difference.

Let’s be clear about how research works. You follow the ideas of multiple experts to wherever that conclusive evidence leads. “Fair and Balanced” is an amateur attempt at a quick brand. It makes no sense. Real research is often not fair. Real research covers the facts, the verifiable facts, the indisputable facts no matter where they lead, and if they only lead in one direction then we all head that way. Balance has nothing to do with results.

We will discuss the best sources and how to eliminate the false ones, how to validate the authority of the source, and how to ensure a phony source isn’t presenting itself as an authority. This is a challenge in a world where verification before publication is nearly non-existent. It helps to know what to pay attention to when pundits pontificate about what’s best for our country, our families, and our children. I don’t want advice from my neighbor who “also had that condition” on what medicines to give a family member. I prefer a doctor; more specifically, a doctor in the correct discipline.

Yet you’re attempting to do research in a time when most people are taking advice from people who are more qualified to grow vegetables than they are to suggest who should run our country..

So how do we understand the dangerous trend in recent years to ignore an individual’s outstanding qualifications for something in favor of someone more appealing to the eye and ear, for someone who makes up facts to suit the listeners’ desires, which leads to higher ratings, which leads to twisting rationalization beyond recognition? Everyone must understand the difference between a fact and an opinion, between an opinion and a belief, between a belief and a prejudice.

Well, the fact is facts never used to be so pliable; truth came after excruciating research and triple-checked sources. Informed individuals stood down when that research showed them wrong. Trust was a given. This much is reality: the criteria used by many people in this country to choose a president would not get them a passing grade on a research paper in this freshman composition course. Misinformation is childish. Incomplete information is embarrassing.

And inexperienced, uneducated, unqualified commentators are not sources, they’re not advisers and they’re not providing any valuable information at all. They are simply dangerous wannabees who didn’t have the wherewithal to do the time to earn the respect experts receive. Cite anyone who fits such a description and you’ll fail.

Let’s get some pizza.

Media Bias Ratings AllSides

A Piece of Fertile Ground

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I worked on the property today. Just a few weeks ago I cleared a brush area to the side of the very front of the driveway out near the road and mulched it, put in some sea grass looking stuff, and placed a birdbath in the middle. From the road it looks nice, and in the early mornings deer drink from the bath and a rabbit hangs out in the area. I’m glad they’re there. Another group of about six deer seems to be living along the back path somewhere. They have their own birdbath behind the patio. 

I enjoy working outside because, well, first of all it’s outside, and that just feels healthy. When I look at my life I don’t think I’ve ever spent that much time inside. Even as an adult I was more of a hunter and food gatherer than a cave-dweller. In Arizona, I was out daily hiking up into Bear Canyon or out at the Sonora Desert Museum, or of course down in Mexico. In Massachusetts it was Mt Wachusett or simply long walks around the reservoir where I hiked to Bob’s Hot Dog Truck parked near the Old Stone Church. In Pennsylvania I spent not nearly enough days in Pinchot State Park near home, and here, well, I might as well just sleep in the hammock. I’m always outside. It’s healthy.

And inexpensive. Today, for instance, I was outside for hours clearing away more brush, weeding the area, and I found some beautiful small plants in other places on the property that I’m going to transplant to the area; maybe move a bench up there and put a rain barrel I have behind the shed near the bench. I’ll clean it up and put it where the birds can find it and where I can use the rain water for the transplanted flowers.

Today’s work area was just a little further down the driveway around the next turn from the recently fixed up part. On the left where there had been brush I cleared out two “alcoves” so that now the first 150 feet of the left side of the driveway will be mostly landscaped. I have extra block stones I’m going to use for trim. It’s a good workout and I didn’t have to go to a single store except to get an ice cream sandwich. Plus no snakes during the entire process.

But it’s more than that.

The therapy value of working out there all day cannot be duplicated in anyone’s chair or even, perhaps, with a prescription. I was completely in the moment, focused almost entirely on the soil and the brush, the symmetry and the casual atmosphere I was trying to create. Even music, which is almost always playing, would not work today, not with the sky bluer than anything I’ve seen in some time, and the sun warm enough to draw quite a sweat but not scorching enough to make me think about its presence. Today was about balance; in nature, in my new landscaping project, in my mind, which has needed to be tended to for quite some time. Today I think it was a good session.

According to the health editor, Caroline, at Good Housekeeping, I accomplished more today than just trying to make the left side of the driveway look better. Apparently, I burned calories, lowered my blood pressure, absorbed enough Vitamin D to strengthen my bones, reduced stress by focusing on something other than all the aspects of life which cause me stress, which, really, is everything except working outside, and provided an immediate sense of accomplishment.

That’s a big one. So much in my life for so very long cannot be quickly calculated. Writing on the one hand affords me the ability to measure how productive I’ve been in a day, but I’m never quite sure if it sucks or not, even after publication—very often especially after publication—you see the weeds more than the tilled and manicured sections. Teaching, likewise, is equally frustrating for never quite knowing if they understand what you want them to understand. Even a little.

But outside with clippers, a bottle of water, and a shovel, and I can go to work and stand back four hours later and say, yes, look, I did that and the deer and rabbit will love it. Birds too.

I might follow the lead of a friend and put in a bee and butterfly garden, but that would take more than the resources I already have behind the shed, and my goal is repurposing. I can’t wait to do more. I have a clearing near the road—maybe 70 feet wide by about 100 feet long, that I want to put a raised pond in the middle with oyster shell paths in a cool pattern, between which will be a variety of flowers and vegetables. I’m copying that idea from a garden in Williamsburg. That might have to wait until the next pandemic. And anyway, for now I still have a few hundred more feet of driveway to contend with.

There’s another more subtle benefit. Working by myself outside combats depressive thoughts when someone like me becomes overwhelmed by the swift passing of time and the absence of friends and family—especially during these times. It says that right now, with these fleeting moments, I’m going to help something grow, surround myself with beauty, and appreciate the absorption of sun, the dirt under my nails, my toes deep in the soil (yes, flip flops). We are so very rarely in the moment in which we find ourselves, too often remembering or planning. But here, now, my walk to the other end of the driveway to spend the day playing around with nature is such an internal pilgrimage I forget the time and I lose myself out there, singing quietly David Mallett’s Garden Song:

Inch by inch, row by row
Gonna make this garden grow
Gonna mulch it deep and low
Gonna make it fertile ground

Inch by inch, row by row
Please bless these seeds I sow
Please keep them safe below
‘Til the rain comes tumbling down

Pullin’ weeds and pickin’ stones
We are made of dreams and bones
Need a place to call my own
‘Cause the time is close at hand

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The Symmetry of Sunflowers

 

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It’s just after midnight and warm and rainy out here on the bay. A soft breeze is keeping it from being unbearable, but then the humidity is rising again after a beautiful day yesterday. I can hear some frogs out toward the marsh, awakened by the rain perhaps; and a few birds calling deep in the woods; one is a whippoorwill. I was going to stretch out in my hammock in the clearing on the other side of the property through the woods but for the rain. So, instead, the porch. I keep the lights off to keep the bugs away and also so I can see better. It’s so much easier to see when the light comes from somewhere else. Here, now, I can see just fine well up the front path and through the woods to the first turn in the driveway.

Is there anything as peaceful as late night, early morning? It’s as if everyone everywhere is asleep, or quietly reading a book, nodding off. I don’t remember knowing when I was young that somewhere else on this planet it was daytime, and people were out and about doing business and having lunch and tending to their daily chores. No, when I was young and it was night people everywhere were asleep, or supposed to be asleep, but some of them like me instead sat up awake in their rooms looking out toward the star-covered sky.

When my son and I were in Portomarin, Spain, unable to find a place to stay, we slept all night on chairs in the town square. But being in a strange place with some tween doing bike tricks on the front steps of a nearby cathedral, I couldn’t sleep at all, so I walked up and down the road to keep warm. Eventually, we left around 4:30 when there were still more stars than not, and the eastern sky had not yet contemplated the dawn. We put on our flashlights when we got to the edge of town and onto the trail heading west, but we quickly discovered we could only see as far as the light’s beam, so we turned them off and saw the Milky Way, and the distant glow of what must have been Sarria, Spain, and a creek running not far from us. It is amazing how far you can see if you don’t over focus on one spot in front of you. Honestly, we wanted to stay somewhere, get a shower and a good night’s sleep, but it wasn’t in the cards that night and it turned out to be one of the more memorable evenings on the Camino.

Throughout my life I can point to many times I thought I was going one way and  because of circumstance or unexpected events, ended up on a different trajectory, and more than one time through the years I discovered I had a better perspective if I didn’t over-focus on one direction. There are quotes about this. Memes. Scripture passages. Song lyrics. Romance poems. Dirges. Limericks.

Here’s one: “When someone closes a door, God opens a window.” GOD, I hate that one. Come on. First of all, as another meme aptly points out, it’s a door, open it back up again; it’s what it does. And for a lot of people they turn from the closed door and there is no window, no, there’s just darkness and no way out, literally no way out. So, ixnay on the window metaphor. Stop letting people slam doors in your face seems to be the best solution. And if they do, open your own damn window. God helps those who help themselves.

Here’s another: “When the going gets tough, the tough gets going.” Oh fuck you. If the going gets tough, it’s time to evaluate just how much whatever it is you were after is worth the effort to begin with, because honestly, for those with passion and drive and that rare internal motivation, it is never tough going, ever. It simply is part of the way there. Ask a long distance runner if the marathon was “tough.” Yeah, it was tough if you look at the difficulty level, but that’s not in the vocabulary of a marathoner; it can’t be. On the steepest trails on the Camino, toward the start in the Pyrenees, I never thought of it as “tough” in the sense I couldn’t do it; it was just going to take longer, and I’d breathe heavier, and maybe even feel like throwing up from time to time, and once even my legs simply stopped moving, honestly would not move. But it was never “tough”; no, my exhilaration at being on the Camino with my son negated any thoughts of tough. Is that rationalization? Probably, but not at the time. At the time it was simply a new way of thinking. Or, as JT points out in one of his dirges, “All I really needed was the proper point of view.”

I might be wrong about all that. But I still believe things are only tough because of where we shine the light. I prefer to see the big picture instead of zeroing in on the difficult parts. 

Anyway, things keep changing, and out here on the porch at the very witching hour of night, it isn’t as scary as it seems, some of these unexpected changes. Sometimes I think we are too logical, use too much reason. The most miraculous moments can’t be rationalized or figured out. It’s the moments that occur when, as Bruce Springsteen points out, one plus one equals three, “that’s when the magic kicks in.” Some artists have it; a few writers, a handful of musicians. In the world of going and coming back we are raised to follow straight lines and make right turns. Even nature is symmetrical and balanced; the hexagonal symmetry of a honeycomb, the seed sequence of a sunflower (each pedal, leaf, and seed is in a sequence understood by adding together the two previous numbers of pedals, leaves, and seeds. It’s called Fibonacci Sequence); and even animals, including humans, have bilateral symmetry. Cut us down the middle and we are nearly mirror images of our then-dead selves.

(So what do you think about at one in the morning on the porch?)

Listen, we can explain nearly everything that happens in life, and when we can’t we fabricate answers to make us feel better. The open window, the other path, the something better will come, the heightened hearing of a blind person, the “he’s in a better place” response to add balance to understandable depression. But what about when the explanations are mere shadows, and rationalizations are simply ill-disguised hopes? For me, I immerse myself in the incomprehensible magic of night, the blanket of stars whose light left home a billion years ago but arrives for me tonight, now, lighting my way on whatever path I want to follow next, as if the heavens conspired before humans walked this earth to illuminate my way this very evening.

Well, not tonight. It’s raining.

But you get the point. Whatever might have been true yesterday is, for good or bad, no longer valid. Tonight it’s just me and tomorrow and whatever I decide to do with it. Out here on the porch looking out toward the bay listening to the frogs in the marsh and some whippoorwill in the woods I am the best of my ideas, with just a touch of magic left enough to see Vega pushing through some clouds. Yes, I can see so much better when the light comes from somewhere else.

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Stick Figures at Best

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Mikel Wintermantel

I am mesmerized by fine art—paintings in particular, but also sculpture. I have degrees in its appreciation, and I have been to museums throughout the world and seen some of the finest works. The Van Goghs in Amsterdam, the Hidden Treasures of the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, and the Museum of Medieval Art in Prague are among my favorites. I used to hang out in the studio of Cole Young, American Landscape artist and close friend, and I was there for part of the time when he painted a masterpiece, “Homage to Cole,” a huge work honoring one of his idols, Thomas Cole; a piece that went on to hang and eventually be destroyed in the World Trade Center. I have an artist’s photograph of the work and even in that I am blown away at the talent in transforming a flat canvas into a valley of trees.

Here in my own home I have one of his paintings and more than half dozen of my friend, Mikel Wintermantel, a Copley Master of luminescent art which, in all of my travels, stands as some of the finest I have ever seen. I am honored that one of his works graces the cover of one of my books. And the work of my own son hangs on these walls as well as private collections throughout the United States offering a view of water–an instant of the view–that no one notices until the art shows them, which forces them to never see water the same again. That’s art.

And it is crystal clear to me why I’ve always loved fine art: I can’t do it. I can’t even begin to do it. I’m strictly a stick figure guy.

Cole once said to me with his Harrison Ford smile and “lean in” attitude, “Sure you can Kunzinger! You want to paint, paint! But not yet. Draw the same thing every day for fifteen minutes for a year, get used to it, master it, and then you’ll understand and can start painting.” Okay, so I went to an art supply store and bought a good drawing pad and pencils and every day I drew for fifteen minutes. I drew my hand. After two weeks I thought it was looking pretty good. I was proud of the nuances in the hairs on the back of my hand, and the cross lines on my index finger, and the folds in the skin where the thumb does its opposing thing. I showed it to my son, who was seven at the time, and said, “pretty good, huh?” and he enthusiastically said, “Oh Daddy, yeah! That’s a great rooster!”

When I stood once in a museum and lost myself in the “Starry Night,” I let my mind explore the incomprehensible—that Vincent stood at a window in the asylum of Saint Remy and painted this scene, his hands held this canvas just about 100 years earlier at the time, and he was pleased with this one. And I’ve seen Rembrandt’s “Descent from the Cross” several dozen times at the Hermitage Museum, a few trips of which I went for the sole purpose of admiring Rembrandt’s work—that one, and the one of the face and hands of the old man, others. Knowing much about art but not having any ability to paint allows me to lose myself in its genius without analyzing the process, without exploring how “I would do it.”

The contrast for me is writing. Some of my favorite authors are creative non-fiction/memoir/essayists. But when I read the fine works of people like Dave Sedaris, Richard Preston, Jon Krakauer, or Richard Wright, I simultaneously enjoy and critique the pieces. Not in a “good” or “bad” way but in a “wow I really like how he did that…hmmmm” kind of thieving way. It can either make me feel like a complete fraud the next time I sit at the computer and attempt to translate what’s in my head onto a page of words to put the image in the reader’s head, or it can encourage me to be more bold, take chances, have more confidence if I happen to read something that I’m pretty sure I could have handled better, or at least as well in my own way. This is common for all artists when experiencing work in their own genre.

But when an artist steps outside those parameters all comparative bets are off. The mosaics of the Church of the Resurrection (Spilled Blood) in Russia are beautiful, and the sculpture room upstairs at the Chrysler Museum in Norfolk is one of the finest examples of what two hands can do when attached to the vision of an artist.

This brings me to my garden. Sigh.

My plants die a lot. Or, better said, a lot of my plants die, though a few of them die a lot. I bring them back to life with the right care but then a week will go by with scorching temperatures, I mean bone-frying heat, and they shrivel up like worms on pavement, so I tend to them and give them hope, but a week later—gone. I have marginal luck with perennials whose labels say, “Good in drought conditions.” I’m proud of the landscaping here; but it is from decades of trial and error in not me getting better at gardening but rather finding the plants that even absolute neglect can not kill. My neighbor Kevin has a beautiful vegetable garden, a friend of mine out west created a butterfly and bee garden which should be featured on some HGTV channel, and down in Williamsburg they have a public garden whose vegetables and herbs actually have been featured on HGTV. These can often frustrate me because I have tried! I swear when I walk toward the garden section of the local hardware store, plants actually feign death.

So, rather for me, nature. Nature and gardens are not the same.

When I’m walking the trails of some mountain range or along the beach running near the bay, no human is responsible for their beauty and incomparable presence. In fact, humanity is more responsible for their demise, but still they rise, overcoming eruptions, timbering, forest fires, and even scorch and burn agriculture. Nature wins, hands down. It just needs time.

A walk along the river or the marsh confirms a more divine hand at work than has ever been humanly present. Science allows the mixture of carbons and nitrates, oxygen and light, and nothing, nothing we can possibly do can come close. Anyone who might wish to replicate a forest can only be left with feelings of inadequacy.

It’s why Cole headed to the White Mountains or his own Allegheny’s; it is what draws Mikel to the shores of the river running behind town or the Finger Lakes. It brought Vincent to Provence and Thomas Cole to the Hudson Valley. All of them, all artists, painters and writers alike, can witness the perfection of nature and be in absolute awe, and then turn and say, with the humility only nature can nurture, “Let me show you what I just saw.”

 

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