May 23rd, 1925

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My calendar is covered with significant dates.

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

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

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

When my sister told him she was cancer free.

When he and my brother watched Notre Dame beat USC.

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

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

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

Happy Birthday Dad. You made every day significant.

Frederick William Kunzinger

May 23rd, 1925-October 21st, 2015

The Edge of Somewhere Else

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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May 15th, 1933

 

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Mom turns eighty-seven years old on Friday, May 15th.

I can write volumes about her life which is a true record of life in the twentieth century, or about her ethnicity which rewrote itself, or her uncanny ability to make friends with a two by four; I could write about how she’d become friends with the ladies in the bakery or the fish market or the produce section of Farm Fresh. One day I stopped by and Dad was all dressed waiting for Mom. I asked where they were going. “To a wedding,” he said. “Oh? Who’s getting married?” “The daughter of the lady who sells fish at the food store.” Of course.

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But before that, roughly fifty-five years ago:

I remember, or, better said, I can recall going to A&S’s with my mom, walking through skirts, pushing aside blouses a few racks away, my face near the metal pole waiting for her to call me out. I made her laugh, but, honestly, everyone could make her laugh; she is light, she is light as air and laughs like that too, aware of her deep breath when she’s calming down.

I remember her making Irish Soda Bread for Ethnic Food Day in second grade, and she said, “Wouldn’t you rather have German potato salad,” noting to my father how much easier it is to make. “Please Mom?” I pleaded. Of course. Yes, of course. She joked with me not long ago about that day and how if she knew then what she knows now I would have just brought a bowl of spaghetti with marinara sauce. Everyone loved the bread. 

Mom was always there. I remember in the East Islip Public Library asking the librarian a question and when she answered, I was looking down, and Mom said, “Always look in the eyes of someone talking to you.” I never didn’t again. I remember after that we went to Stanley’s Bakery for black and whites and hard rolls with butter. Non-New Yorker’s need to trust me on that one.

We went to the doctor when my lower back hurt shortly after joining the track team at Islip Terrace Junior High. Dr. Wagner said, “I’m afraid he has strained his sacroiliac,” and my mother sat quiet a second and then laughed and said, “Are you making that up? There’s something in him called a sacroiliac?” There is and I did so I dropped off the team and she bought me a tennis racket.

I remember Eddie Radtke and I hiked through Heckscher State Park and several times my foot slipped deep in the mud, and when I got home she was crouched on the floor talking to my aunt on the phone and she told her, “Irene I have to go” and hung up and asked what happened as if the mud were blood and my shoes the ousted teeth of some creature. Mom was never an outdoorsy person.

A trail ran through the woods across the street all the way along the Southern State Parkway down to a creek, and it was scary and deep when you’re eleven or twelve, but my friends and I would go there and hike and play out the roles of “Alias Smith and Jones.” The day Pete Duel died, one of the stars of the television show, I ran into the house to get my guns and Mom stopped me and said that would be in bad taste. That perhaps my friend’s and I should come there and have sandwiches and talk about our favorite episodes. We did. I remember that; I am still aware of that.

Can anyone truly grasp the lessons we learn from our mom’s who somehow manage to teach us things without doing anything more than practicing unconditional love? That’s it; that’s everything, the secret to parenting. Mom would yell oh my God, for the love of all things that are holy, she could yell if I did something stupid, which was not that unusual, and it took me years—years—to understand she was yelling at herself, not at me.

Then it got interesting.

My sister was at St Bonaventure, my brother at Notre Dame, Dad had moved to Virginia to buy the house we would eventually move to, but Mom and I stayed on the Island because it was a recession and it took more than a year to sell that house. It was just her and me, driving once a month to Virginia Beach, then back. Having fun dinners, family over a lot, and much more freedom for me as I’d explore the state park day after day, endlessly, at fourteen.

In the mornings I’d sit in the kitchen before school while she made breakfast, the radio playing a bank commercial I can still sing. “F. B. L. I. Leaves you more money for living…” and I’d walk to the bus stop with the rising sun. In the evening she’d make spaghetti, or we’d have eggs and fries, or we’d have subs from the deli out on River Road, and once a week I’d get to watch “All in the Family.”  

That last day there in the house which I consider to be where I grew up, she had to be at a lawyer’s office to close on the house, so I walked home from school on the last day of ninth grade with a friend down the street, Steve Delicati. My aunt would meet me in the driveway, and we’d head back to her house where Mom would pick me up and we’d drive the eight hours to Virginia Beach, June 18th, 1975, and it poured the whole drive.

High School.

Gap Year.

College.

Summer 1983 I decided to move to Tucson, and I packed the small, light blue Monza which used to be hers and which my parents had given me for graduation, and she stood at the door early one morning as I backed out of the driveway to head west. She waved once then closed the door. At the time I didn’t know why.

I could add more, of course. Yes, of course. Like how no matter what a conversation is about she can without missing a beat turn one of the lines into a song she remembered from her youth, and she’d sing it. Like the time my siblings and I locked her out on the roof of the house on the Island when she was washing windows, and by the time she was back inside we were all laughing. Or how our German Shepard was so terrified of her that when the dog was in my sister’s room one morning, all my mother did was whisper “Is the dog up here?” and that poor dog didn’t touch a step flying down the stairs and into the safety of the kitchen. Or how when it was time to give my dog Sandy away, a dog which won Mom’s heart, when she dropped him off at the new owner’s house, Sandy jumped up on Mom and put his paws on her shoulders and whined for her not to go, and Mom cried all the way home. I can recall several years’ worth of five thirty am talks in her condo kitchen while Dad was still sleeping, and I’d complain about problems at the college and she’d listen so well, and then she’d talk about Dad’s health and small signs she’d notice or which I had noticed the night before, and we’d compare notes. She loved him, oh my God she loved that man like a person who should be used as an example of love, for sixty-three years. And no matter how frustrated she got, that always rose to the surface, that love. And before I left for the office we’d always make sure we were laughing. Always. 

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45543138_1167797236755361_7357009606289129472_nShe loves light blue.

She loves music.

She has always worn a Miraculous Medal.

She had a life I can’t write about properly except to say she took on serious responsibility at a very young age, walked through some serious fires in her life, and always maintained a strength and intelligence and a sense of humor that set an example I can never match. She taught me how to be alive. 

But, with apologies to my beautiful mother, Joan Catherine, she has one blemish, one which scarred me for, well, I’m going to be sixty and I still remember it:

In 1974 or 75 I stayed up to watch The Poseidon Adventure on television and with just fifteen minutes left she yelled down for me to go to bed. I said, “Ma! Gene Hackman’s hanging from a pipe!!” “I don’t care it is getting late and you have school!” she called back, and so I went to bed and wouldn’t see Hackman fall into the fiery water for another fifteen years.  

Some people think their mom’s are just oh so perfect and easy to love and can tell stories about what amazing women they are and that’s fine, really, that’s fine, and I’ve tried, I really have, and she comes close, but, seriously, the Poseidon Adventure, Hackman, the freaking climax of the movie for God’s sake. Come on. There’s simply no forgiving that.

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Occupational Hazard

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I sat at the river earlier and thought about my father, about his life in the world of investment and Wall Street and downtown Manhattan; a life, I might add, I knew nothing about. Zero. I never asked him anything. It’s on my mind today because I’m working on a piece about Russia and occupations, and it occurs to me I’ve never asked anyone in Russia what he did for a living; and I do not recall anyone ever asking me, even when on the railroad thousands of miles from anywhere logical. If anyone was inquisitive, they certainly never let on. This was true as well when I taught in St. Petersburg in the nineties. Certainly at the college everyone knew, but at cafes or the market in brief conversation with people who back then wanted so desperately to try their English, no one tried the standard language-tape question, “What is your occupation?”

It is one of the first questions we ask strangers in America.

I know this: About ten percent of Russians work in agriculture and another twenty-seven percent in industry, and since there weren’t a lot of white-collar companions either on the railway or in Siberia, I’m guessing we were surrounded by mostly working-class people, even in second class. Siberia is very much a binary society. It is either city, like in Irkutsk or Vladivostok, with cafes and theaters and banks and festivals, or it is absolutely desolate, a random farmer’s shack or gutted gulag scattered through the wild landscape.

I talked to one man who had decent English when he wasn’t drinking and playing chess, and he struck me as a businessman, which would explain his command of language. Yet, he disembarked at one of the more remote stations we stopped at, apparently just to let him off. It almost seemed cruel to leave him alone since the station was a small, blue shack with no roads or paths. How does one breach that topic? “Is that his office?” “His home?” “His punishment?” Maybe it is my cold-war mentality hemorrhaging on occasion, but after nearly thirty trips to Russia, I came to accept that not asking is most appropriate, particularly since they never asked me. The older ones probably assumed from their cold-war youths that I was CIA or some left-wing leftover looking for remnants of Emma Goldman or John Reed. American tourists simply can’t be found in the remote regions of Siberia.

For my part I constantly filled in the blanks of not asking. Endless hours rolling along leads to rail-games like that. I kept thinking of Paul Simon singing, “She said the man in the Gabardine suit was a spy.” 

I remember another father and son, much younger than us, in the dining car. The man was always reading papers and I wondered if he was a professor or a writer. He was dressed well. By the time I had decided to go and introduce myself, they had already disembarked. Michael talked to the son for a bit one morning when we first saw them, but neither of them ever recovered from that linguistic bloodbath. It wouldn’t be unusual for the boy not to know his father’s profession anyway.

And today I sat and realized I never asked my father what he did for a living. I mean I knew he was a “broker,” but I never inquired about his day, about what took place. Part of me was too busy growing up or playing with friends, and part of me didn’t want to bother him after doing it all day. But those are adult responses when I wonder why I didn’t ask, and the truth is I probably simply didn’t care. He did his thing and I did mine. His thing made my thing possible but even that was too complicated to contemplate when I was ten. So we talked about baseball.

I hear so many people when recalling their youth speak of their dads in absent terms, as if the man was never there or estranged for some emotional reason, or the younger one was just too rebellious to be around all that much. But that wasn’t the case with us, thank God. We got along absolutely fine. We just didn’t talk a lot because of our circles. My circles crossed paths with friends, sometimes with siblings, often with Mom. His circles crossed paths with colleagues or Mom or neighbors, or us when on the golf course or watching a Met’s game. This was old school; this was adults being one generation and the kids being another, and between those two generations lay one of the biggest abyss’ in American history. It was no big deal, at least not in our home. But I never asked him about his day, what he did at the office all day. I’m sorry for that. I wish I had.

I suppose I had to become a parent first to understand what kind of child I was. I needed a basis of comparison that goes beyond the parent-child relationships of cousins or friends. It had to be later, years later, when I finally understood what he would have wanted me to ask, what he wished I had shown interest in, how close—or not close—we were. Turns out we were so much closer than I knew. I discovered this much too late in his life, late at night when we’d have a Scotch and talk about nothing at all, and sometimes he’d confuse me for my brother, but that was alright too. Sitting quietly like that was fine, it really was. 

Tonight I’m writing about trains. I’ve been doing so for a few years now; it seems the narrative arc keeps moving, and right now I’m finding myself as my own antagonist whose conflict lay somewhere between generations. I’m writing about my son and me on a train on the other side of the planet but can’t help but think of my father and me in a small village on the south shore of Long Island. Maybe because he’d leave early every morning for the Islip train station for the ride on the LIRR to his downtown office, and then home. I look up from my work and find myself filling in the blank spaces of my dad’s life at work, and it is empty, a well, a cavity.

I wish I had stopped him once or twice and just asked him…I don’t know what…something…about his day or what happened on the train or what the people were like. Most certainly he would have joked about it at first, made some humorous comment, but he would have found something to say. Not much, I’m sure, but something.

In later years I didn’t worry about any memories he might have had of rebelliousness on my part, or any overbearing presence on his; neither was even slightly true. No, my baggage on this ride is the idea he might have thought I was completely indifferent to his life, what he did, what it was he thought about when he’d sit on the back porch and stare out across the river. 

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Genderfication

Five years ago I published this piece on May 5th, and it quickly became the most shared and commented on essay I’ve written. Since this marks the 250th Blog post, I thought I’d repost it here. Thanks for reading:

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I had to fill out an online form for a writer’s conference and I knew all the answers about my identity but one.

Gender. You’d think this wouldn’t be such a difficult question.

Don’t get me wrong; I know I’m “male.” At least I thought so. But the form had a drop-down menu, and when I hit the little arrow to expose what I thought would be a binary choice, male or female, with a possible third entry of some form of Trans, I found these eleven options:

Male

Female

Agender

Androgynous

Bigender

Cisgender

Gender fluid

Intersex

Transsexual

Transgender

A gender not identified here

 

I had to look up some of them.

The first two along with Transgender and Transsexual all seem obvious, though one might argue that if a Male or Female does trans to the other, once the trans is done they are officially the other gender, but I’m sure the trans-aspect of life doesn’t every completely fade. Transsexual and Transgender, like Male and Female, are well established terms, one being the operation is complete, the other the “identification” is complete, but the packaging is original. For the latter Trans option, I asked myself if I identify more with the other “standard” gender—Female for me—than I do my birth gender, Male. If the answer had been yes, then I’d have checked Transgender. That was an easy one, though for some it can create problems, not the least of which is choosing a public bathroom.

Agender totally baffled me. Bigender I understood, particularly if I had been born with a mixture of gender identifiers (see Intersex below), or I never quite Transed all the way and am still walking the line between genders—bigender it is. But agender—having no gender—doesn’t make sense to me. I suppose if I simply couldn’t identify with either (as opposed to having tendencies to identify with both), I’d be absent gender—agender. But then I still feel like I would have to make some call in the matter. At the end of the day I really do have to pee, and at some point I need to commit. Bigender implies I can use either bathroom, of course. But agender leaves me hanging. I have nothing on that one.

Androgynous was easy; I am of the age to well remember “Androgynous Pat” of Saturday Night Live. In this case I am drawn toward parallels with bigender, though now I think this might better explain agender. The middle ground here gets murky. Bigenderagender, and androgynous all imply similar non-committal answers to the initial question. Still, I do not think they’re synonyms. In fact, agender and bigender might be precise opposites with the same outcome. One identifies with neither and the other both, leaving both in a holding pattern when it comes to decision making. Just writing that makes me feel uninformed, so my confusion could very likely be lack of experience and information more than lack of clarity on the part of the form. This is a writer’s conference, after all.

Cisgender is crystal clear. Cisgender is when I solidly identify with my birth gender. No freaking pink paint or rainbows in my room, Bucko. This is where the answer to the initial question is not “Male” but “you’re damn right I’m male, asshole.”

Gender fluid basically means at any given moment I can move unseen between the two dominant genders, which is very different from transgender where the move is deliberate and usually one-way. There is a breed of sandpiper here on the east coast that is gender fluid. I am not belittling people who are as well. I just don’t know of any, but I have seen the sandpipers, so relax.

Intersex is less confusing than it seems. It feels a lot like gender fluid but it turns out this is when someone is a hermaphrodite—born very clearly with both dominant gender organs apparent. I figure by the time someone is old enough to fill out a form for a writer’s conference and has to choose this option, he/she has already transitioned, or at least might probably check the bigender box, though bigender implies “identity” whereas intersex is a physical reality. It is possible to be intersex but completely identify with only one of the two, making an altogether new, hyphenated category.

What makes my mind wander, however, is gender not identified here. In coming up with that option, wouldn’t the list creators had to have at least entertained at least one other, or is that option to leave the door open for some combination not yet considered? They may have been thinking about the US Navy vet who went through an operation to become like a tiger. He grew whiskers and had a mechanical tail surgically implanted. Check transfeline if you fall into this category.

For the record, I have friends in nearly every one of these categories, and they can share a bathroom with me anytime.

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Tour of Duty

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Shortly before my son was born, a colleague asked if I wanted to teach a few courses at Saint Leo University, a college on the Little Creek Amphibious Base in Virginia Beach. Knowing I’d need the money to pay for my newborn’s cameras and coffee habit, I accepted. That was twenty-seven years ago. Since then I have taught courses about the great artists of western culture, the most influential women artists, other art courses, African American Literature, Creative Writing, Humanities, a variety of English courses, worked the writing center, and taught a course about journeys in literature and in life, about the metaphorical “road” we are on.

Saint Leo University is a catholic college in St. Petersburg, Florida, not that much different than where I went to college at Saint Bonaventure. Same size, seemingly the same traditions. Saint Leo’s, however, has in addition to its main campus near the gulf, extension campuses on military bases throughout the country. My students have been active duty and retiring military personnel whose discipline, motivation, and work ethic are unparalleled. I’ve made lifelong friends there, former students who kept in touch, and lost more than a few to the effects of wars. When I began teaching my students were commonly Vietnam Vets and active duty members just home from the first Gulf war. Post 911 brought the Post 911 Bill which pushed the enrollment higher than ever, and students came and went to Iraq, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait. It wasn’t unusual on the first day for them to come in to class and recognize someone they last saw in battle. They’d embrace and conversations bounced about the room. Class would often start late. 

I’ve become friends with SEALS, Master Chiefs, and more. Since I teach a diverse list of courses, I often had the same student four, five, or even six times. This leads to connections I never experienced elsewhere. One student sent a box of goods from McMurdo Station, Antarctica, to give to Michael, and another mailed me letters every week from Afghanistan. Too many have died, several returned with physical and psychological issues which changed the trajectories of their lives. Students with PTSD are common, and accommodations are made all the while knowing that all of these students will still surpass my expectations. A few continued their education to obtain post-graduate degrees, secured a faculty position at the college, and I have had the privilege to call them my colleagues.

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On Friday May 1, the president of Saint Leo’s announced they are closing seventeen extension campuses including all those in Virginia. Sometime in the next few months I will teach my final class there, and it will not be face to face, which is sad for me. I didn’t want this to end; no one did, including the president.

I’m going to miss being there, I really am. I’ve left other teaching jobs without a backwards glance, but walking into a room filled with students who put their lives on the line time and time again, tour after tour, has been unequivocally the most humbling experience of my career. An email today tells me I might be able to continue to teach for the college online, but even if that is true, it simply won’t be the same; not without the same-room companionship that has endured with these people. Despite their experiences in battle, or perhaps because of them, they make it a point to be attentive, respectful, and appreciative, and they value the art appreciation courses because no one, I mean no one, is more able to know why we should recognize the beauty around us. I will very much miss being part of their lives. They’ll be no less attentive via zoom lectures, but the quick glance at a familiar face, the small talk between discussions, the eruption of laughter with these quick-witted, experienced students will be blatantly absent. There is no doubt it will not be the same.

Financially, it is no secret that the pay at small, private catholic colleges is minimal. That’s not why we stay. It’s the students, it’s the staff who are always in a great mood (maybe not always), and it’s the ability to allow mature classroom conversations to digress into sessions about common fears, hopes, and a belief in an absolute morality. Understand, these women and men are frontliners; they are the ones who have seen what no person should ever see, and then they stare at Rembrandt and Degas in awe, listen to Pachelbel’s Canon and cry, read Tim O’Brien’s The Things they Carried and fall silent in appreciation that someone else out there understands. The creative writing students always volunteer to read their work, in which a common theme is their disgust at conflict, the passion for home and family. All readings are followed by a few moments of silence while everyone composes themselves. My students are of all branches of the military, though some civilians occasionally fall into the mix. One evening last semester we spent two hours in deep conversation about Hemingway’s short story “A Soldiers Home.” It was like group therapy. This all smack dab in the middle of the largest naval complex in the world. The headquarters for Seal Team Six is a chip shot from our classroom.

The traditional student who moves from high school to college doesn’t regularly come to class with what these women and men have on their backs. Here, someone might say “Professor, I’m so sorry but I’ve got to be TAD next week” (Temporary Active Duty) just before some horn player outside blows out “Colors” half way across base and everything stops—teaching, driving, walking—it all stops for thirty seconds while they wait for the flag to come down and remember those who were lost defending it, some of whom used to sit next to them laughing about a Jackson Pollock painting, saying confidently, “See you when I get back.” Usually they do, but not always.

Teaching at Saint Leo’s is riddled with empty spaces like that. I will miss the extremes of being engrossed in student presentations completed with such attention to detail that I learn far more than I did when a student, only to slide into a few moments of reflection when someone passes along word about what was in the email he just received from someone’s wife. Widow.

Just before I started my first graduate program in the eighties, someone I am close to joined the Air Force. At the time it was exciting and romantic and thrilling. I remember how engrossed I was listening to the details in every single phone call and letter about her life in training, life getting ready for whatever might come after basic training and language school. My students here, too, say they remember that fire, that sense of something coming. Now, at the tail end of thirty years with members of the military both swearing in and leaving, and closing out and heading home, there isn’t much romance at all and there is very little thrill. No. There is only life interrupted, sometimes aborted, often derailed. But still they move on, point at the screen in admiration of Van Gogh’s Irises, and the conversation moves to them talking about the types of flowers they will plant next to their homes.  They are artists, these men and women, and they know the love and the beauty we can find around us. And as trite as this is, there is no other way to say it: What they’ve left with me has been greater than anything they possibly could have learned. 

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Expense Report

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The small things add up, and I’m noticing them more now after a month not leaving this area. I haven’t had to fill the car with gas since March, and my EZpass hasn’t dropped a dime in what would have been a forty-dollar month, at least. The lack of mileage means less need for an oil change as soon. And not being on the road trying to cross the Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel has saved me more than a few anxiety attacks. The lack of the usual dash into 711 at midday for something to drink, or the vending machine at the college for a snack, is adding up.

I haven’t bought myself a dessert at Panera when I stop to pick my mother up a bear claw every once in a while, and this has saved me more than a few pounds along with whatever other crap I was eating on the road, plumped behind the wheel of the car, one hand deep in the brown bag of hot fries.

Though I do miss bringing mom the bear claw. She doesn’t care, and it wasn’t about the food as much as the absolute joy on her face of spending a little time hanging out. We’d sit and talk for an hour about nothing at all, and, honestly, that routine has continued for nearly three decades, so it’s kind of strange to not help shuffle her papers for her or bring her some groceries. Or just talk about the pictures of her great-grandchildren which creep across her Iframe. They’re getting big, all four of them.

I haven’t had to spend any money at IHOP or Village Inn or wherever Jack and I decide to have pie, or lunch, or lunch and pie, and where we talk about weather and radio and about what pisses me off this week about David Sedaris’ writing. At Ynot Pizza I get the chicken parm sandwich and soup and he gets the eggplant parm and salad and calamari and meatballs—Jack eats more than I do. I’ve known Jack for thirty years and we’ve spent every other week for several years now eating everything on the menu BUT pie.

Tim, too, and we hang out for hours talking about—and this is why we’ve remained so close for twenty years—anything but writing. Sure, it sneaks into the conversation sometimes, but mostly we talk about time, and age, and our folks, the four of whom seemed to have traveled similar destinies. Yes, we talk about them a lot. Except when we go to Texas de Brazil where gauchos carrying skewers of food like lamb and prime rib and fine cuts of pork and trays of seafood wander table to table, and then we just talk about food. Just food.

All of that seems so long ago, and none of it feels very close to our future. God knows when Mom’s place will relax the conditions enough. Her birthday’s coming up in two weeks and it won’t be spent together. Mine’s in July and that’s pretty questionable too.

The expenses of this pandemic.

I know my students have saved money not being able to eat their normal two fast-food meals a day or the three stops at Starbucks on campus, but they’ve also lost out on why they stop at the coffee shop to begin with. I’ve written extensively about that “Third Place” we all need; hell, I feel like I’ve written a book about it. But no one has that “place” anymore, those places that get in our blood and keep us alive; they’re all closed and we’re not really sure when they’ll be open again. And my students especially learn more in conversation in the student union than they do in most of their classes; at least the stuff they’re going to remember years from now.

And classes? Yes, I can teach them the material, but the nuances of facial expressions that help them know whether or not they’re on track, the quick comments from colleagues that ignite ideas or start friendships for these freshman, are paused. And the motivation has been derailed. I can teach them the material online, of course, but what is it costing them to not have that eye contact, that quick after-class quip that wakes them up. I became more prepared to teach college by working for Richard Simmons than I ever did from two grad schools. Classrooms are exercise facilities where we warm them up, motivate them, work on cognitive skills, do some group mental aerobics, and during the cool down we encourage them and set some fires. They need that; they need the one on one only found on campus. You can’t put a price on that kind of subtlety, you can’t measure the cost of dormitory companionship’s.

I’m not suggesting anything should be handled differently. I’m not a medical expert and I have no interest in listening to anyone except medical experts on when I can once again visit mom and plop a bear claw on her table and say “surprise,” because they’ve already warned me the cost of a compromised immune system. 

I’m well aware that the expenses of this virus are most difficult to measure.  

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On the Way to Somewhere Else

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The goal has always been the river. Walk along the property trails to the driveway, follow that to the road, turn left and go down the hill past the farm to the river. Twenty-four years of this. The Rappahannock River, or “the Rap,” or “the rivah,” runs from up well past Fredericksburg past the Tappahanock/Warsaw area at the upper Rap bridge, then running past the historic oyster village of Urbanna, winding wider under the lower Rappahannock Bridge near here, where it clears a mile and a half wide from Topping to White Stone, and finally out to the Chesapeake Bay with Windmill Point on the tip of the Northern Neck and Deltaville on the tip of this peninsula on the river’s south shore.

Where I stand, or walk, or stroll the sand up along Ransone’s farm and back down to the end of Mill Creek, is just a stone’s throw from the river’s mouth. Sometimes small dolphin swim out here, often stingrays, and occasionally loggerheads can be seen just below the surface, one once on the sand. The brackish water from the west collides with the slightly saltier bay water here and to the east, and wildlife converge from both habitats. Eagles are in abundance in winter, osprey in summer, heron all year long, hawks and an occasional kestrel too.   

At the river, as well, I can look across the Bay and with my camera lens or binoculars make out the cargo and container ships heading up to Baltimore or south to Portsmouth, or out to sea at the mouth of the Bay in Virginia Beach seventy nautical miles away. Sometimes at night when SpaceX launches from Wallops Island just across the bay on the other side of that ultrathin portion of the Delmarva Peninsula, we can stand here and watch the rocket’s red flames push it up and just slightly southeast until the flames are gone. Then we walk home thinking about this human-made mass of metal filled with food or supplies we just watched kick out of the atmosphere to dock with a floating office complex in space. Crazy, what we see from the beach.

That’s the river, the daily destination for sunrises, or, more likely, sunsets, part of the routine for my son and me for many, many years. So it is easy to think in terms of  “being at the river.”

But lately I’ve learned how to slow it down, pay attention to the path and what we pass along the way. The property itself is flooded with laurel and holly and dogwoods. This time of year the leaves have not fully grown so the dark trunks cut through the view and the mix of green and tan and yellow and brown bring the sky to life, and dark blue breaks all of it as the sweeping foundation on the canvas whenever I look into the top branches.

Here, piliated and downy woodpeckers, robins, titmice, mockingbirds, baby osprey and more move about the woods from feeder to bath to branches, often to the porch rail where some squirrel eats part of an apple or black walnut, neither minding the other, neither minding me. If I sit very still, hummingbirds will hover by, the beat of their wings filling the air with a buzz. Once I wore a red shirt and sat on a chair near the feeder and one hummed just inches, really, just inches from my chest.

There is so much to know along the way I wonder sometimes how much I miss on my way somewhere else. This happens as well when I drive. How many times have I headed to Florida or western New York and passed state parks, streams running along state highways, small farm stands with produce and people to talk to, to remember, to perhaps see again someday?  On just a short drive from here to the point I pass such colors and such deeply rooted history from docks to boathouses to the tragic presence of early 18th century quarters I wonder how much I miss I am not even aware of.

Maybe I don’t want to know. Perhaps with the weight of time on my shoulders I prefer to just see what I already know, spend time with those I already know, and let it all be. But the newness of an old path makes contemporary things ancient and eternal. Like hearing from a good friend who just says hi, thinking of you, or remembering when, or planning ahead, the things we pass sometimes are what we are really headed toward to begin with. The journey is internal, and there are rivers in me I’ve yet to explore, paths and wildlife and fears and insecurities I’ve yet to unearth and care for. I wonder sometimes if depression is the result of trying to reach some destination and not, when I should be better at exploring the space between now and then.

Here’s an obvious reality: We’re all headed toward the end of the end, but we know it is each moment along the way we are here for. It isn’t different in nature, nor in human nature. We are, we love, we miss, we long, we hope, we remember, we try and remember, we are reminded, we can’t recall, and eventually we stand, at some point, at the river, looking out across the reach, and it all seems so brand new. 

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Same

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Carolina wrens sing in the trees outside my bedroom, like clockwork, every morning. The sun hasn’t yet cracked the surface of the bay and I can hear them call. And mourning doves, too, near the birdbath on the front path. And this time of year in the near distance the grain drills lay down soybeans and wheat in the fields, just after dawn and then on and off all day. Just rising from the cotton sheets, my mind hasn’t adjusted to the world yet, and it remains in the cocoon of here and now and the slight chill of morning, and the faint aroma of coffee my son makes in the kitchen.

At the river the small rolling waves break on the rocks, and the young osprey call  from the nest on the other side of the marsh. My calf muscles tighten on the uphill walk home, and it feels good, as always, the taught skin, the sense of motion. Before the humidity brushes across the bay and overtakes the rising temperature, I take a deep breath and fill my lungs with the faint feel of saltwater, and it fills my senses like air, like first snow, like last light.

Bacon, eggs, and some toast at the small table on the porch, with orange juice, and I can feel the energy rise, my mind wake, and words mix with images and I resist the urge to walk again just yet and instead head to my upstairs office to make notes, scribble out some ideas and digressions for a piece, perhaps about the train ride, maybe Spain, always about life and dying, love and time and their passing. Only then, a few hours later when the sun has lost its intrigue and hangs blankly in the sky, do I meander the paths out to the road and down the hill to the river, and if the tide is heading out toward the bay, a small breeze moves in from the west. It feels later than it is, and the rest of the day comes toward me like a car ahead of me on the highway suddenly backing up, and reality seeps into the rest of my isolation, and what was not confinement, was not “staying at home,” was not anything other than my normal life being normal, is suddenly redefined, impressed upon, constricted by a new diction. I hadn’t really planned on going anywhere anyway, but now I can’t, and there is a difference.

The news bleeds all over my thoughts, my work, and my instinct is to fight the new path, but I can’t. I hear of rising numbers, of a falling economy, and I wonder when I’ll see my mother again, her safe behind several sliding glass doors and an acutely careful staff at her independent living home, hoping. Just hoping. I wonder when I’ll see colleagues, my brother moving to the area, yet, when I see him seems still indefinable. And now the small things I had forgotten about but now remember how they always lay scattered across my normal weeks, like lunch with Tim, pie with Jack, oysters with Michael, and readings, so many readings in crowded cafes leaning into each other, laughing, sharing and embracing. I had not so much forgotten as much as set aside, and that worked fine. But now, midday, when the sun is high and the sky a pale blue, barely catching my attention, and the birds have moved on , and the newness of first light fades, I remember, and I wonder, and things no longer feel…what….in my grasp, perhaps. That sense of absolute conviction that my future is my own has faded to a mere hope that things turn out okay. And once again the power of things unseen is proven.

And I recall the strength of this dichotomy, the life and death of things unseen, what doctors tell me is a microscopic serial killer, contrasted with what in my college days we learned was also invisible to the eye, faith, and that “faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen.” For many it takes one to battle the other. And so goes my mind, followed by my day, until evening.

Evening, when a whippoorwill calls as she ever has from the brush behind the patio, and I read Kevin Codd’s narrative about walking The Way in Spain, and I am reminded of those days when every single day was like the one before, yet somehow unique, and beautiful, and permanent, and how it turns out that a pilgrimage is rarely about reaching a destination and more about finding some peace inside we seem to be in search of all of our lives.

And I crawl back under my cotton sheets, cocooned, and the waning moonlight streams in the skylight, reminding me that things change, and then they’re the same again.

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Hey, HEY! Back off…

 

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As evident in the picture above, wheat does not practice social distancing. Nor do the clouds, often floating along in seeming formation, just to the side from each other, maybe whispering as they meander by. Sometimes they gather quite close in blatant violation of CDC guidelines, like this morning when storm clouds kept climbing on each other’s backs, up higher, mounting and building some black and grey tower until they cracked, and then rained, and then exploded bolts of lightning, further proving the problem of coming too close to each other, such as clouds are apt to do this time of year.

Geese ignore all instructions and fly wing on wing, honking to each other to “Close the gap! Closer! CLOSER!” as they take turns in traditional tandem fashion. Even after they land in the pond they paddle next to each other, like they’re cold, like they’re lovers. Deer too, and swallows, and starlings, so close this last group that they bend east and west in one massive stroke, like a paint brush with black acrylic swept down and back up the canvas. Bats are the same, those bats, those sociable and close-knit colony of mammals that are the supposed ironic root of this inhuman human distancing we now find ourselves learning, like a new language, reminded again and again to stand in the next circle, to wait our turn behind the line of tape on the floor, to step away from the counter, to nod not shake, wave not embrace, and as we depart to say not “good-bye” anymore, but instead, “Stay safe.” It is the new farewell. Decades from now slang dictionaries will note the root of this signature to be from the times of covid. We will never again be able to separate ourselves from these times.

It turns out horses, as well, are social animals who find separation a cause of anxiety. Ants, yes, as proven on the old tree stump in the woods behind the shed; crows, of course, which I well may murder myself for their constant gabbing early in the morning. And who hasn’t seen by now the famous photo of penguins in Antarctica, gathered by the thousands. Topping the list at the social affairs, however, are apes, gorillas, and humans, followed way too closely by dolphins. But this is disturbing: these top three social animals, all primates, are among the only ones—the ONLY one’s—who kill each other. That’s really not very social at all. I’m betting the social nature of primates is simply a bad idea and leads to, among other things, war. Genocide. Annihilation.

Humans? Honestly, I’m not sure why everyone has a problem with social distancing. To be certain, we’re not very good at being close. We push and shove on city streets because someone is too fast or too slow, and we tailgate which leads to road rage which leads to someone being “in your face.” The tediousness of rush hour, the impatience of long lines, the lack of elbow room.

And yet, sometimes we can’t get close enough. Sometimes when we find ourselves away from one another, we wish we had never parted to begin with, and we call, cry, shout to be heard across the distances of not-touching, not making eye contact. Absence makes the heart grow fonder? Out of sight out of mind? Interesting debate topic until now; now, when the verdict is in, and hearts around the world grow weak from tapping deep into their wells of fondness hoping for the call to come to crowd and gather and not ever let go again.  

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