The Chill

My freshman year at college, Parents Weekend rolled around the end of September, and since my folks lived in Virginia Beach and St. Bonaventure University is on the Southern Tier of Western New York, they were not coming; neither were those of my roommate, Steve. He hailed from Auburn, NY, but he said they were busy and he had asked them not to make the drive.

Friday evening Steve asked if I wanted to go to the Skeller. The Rathskeller was a bar under the campus dining hall, conveniently the building next to ours. A few particulars made the skeller the most popular place on campus. First, the drinking age back then was eighteen. Second, there was absolutely nothing—nothing—to do on the Southern Tier of Western New York. Third, there was (Youth: Read this twice to grasp it) no such thing as a computer available to the average person, phones were still connected to the wall, each dorm floor had one payphone to be shared by ninety drunk floormates, who were more likely to cover the earpiece with shaving cream as they were to answer the phone and find you, the dorm had one television and it was in the lobby, cable was brand new so most dorms didn’t receive more than a few channels, and pitchers in the skeller were $2.50 each.

So Steve and I went down there that Friday night. Understand, no one who went to Bonas knows exactly what the skeller looks like since it was always packed from wall to wall with students, shoulder to shoulder, with a small wooden raised, enclosed DJ booth in the back, and a bar running down the right. Tables throughout. It was always hot and walking down the stairs from outside meant taking your glasses off if you wanted to see without being steamed up. Music blared all the time—Springsteen, Joel, Stray Cats, the Clash, Lou Reed’s “Take a Walk on the Wild Side” which had its airtime nearly every two hours. If “Born to Run” came on, everyone stood up and sang, standing on chairs, screaming in unison, “ONE TWO THREE FOUR” at the exact moment. If “Piano Man” was on, the room swayed and pitchers of Genny Cream Ale slopped over their sides.

The smell of pizza, wings, and beer soaked our clothes.

Steve got a pitcher and we found a rare empty table since so many students were with their parents eating at The Castle Restaurant across the street. It was late-September cold out, with a crisp and refreshing chill in the air, and hot as hell in the underground bar.

Two women saw the empty seats at our table and asked if they could sit there. We all introduced ourselves, I got up and retrieved two more glasses from the bar, and we talked about where we were from, what dorms we lived in, our majors. Finally one of them asked if our parents were around for the weekend.

I went first. All of this had to be hollered over the music. “NO! IT’S SO FAR AND THEY WERE JUST HERE IN AUGUST, SO I WON’T SEE THEM UNTIL THANKSGIVING!!”

Both of the women’s parents would be there on Saturday. Then they asked Steve. He took a sip of beer, sighed, and said, “NO! MY PARENTS WERE KILLED IN A CAR ACCIDENT ON I-90 THE WEEK BEFORE CLASSES.”

Both women apologized profusely, moved about in their chairs for a minute, clearly uncomfortable after being quite settled in to our company, and then they said they had to leave since it would be a big day on Saturday, and they squeezed their way through the crowd toward the door.

Steve took another sip of his beer and smiled. I looked at him. “WHAT THE FUCK?!”

“THEY WERE DRINKING ALL OUR BEER!”

“I WOULD HAVE BOUGHT MORE.”

“OH!! RIGHT! WELL….SORRY!”

He was a good roommate. We got along fine that year, and while we traveled in separate circles, different interests, I don’t remember ever quarreling. He was there during some significant events in my life, and we talked about them often. Still, after that year I don’t ever remember seeing him again, even in a hallway anywhere. I never really thought about it since we did have such different interests.

Time jump thirty-four years.

A new hire at the college liked to talk. I forget her name as I left there five years ago, but I can picture her—always talking. One day in the copy room I stood quietly while she moved from subject to subject until she bounced into a few sentences about her home in Auburn, New York.

“One of my college roommates was from Auburn.” I told her his name.

They were next door neighbors their entire lives. Turns out Steve left Bonas, received a master’s from UNC-Chapel Hill, and has coached sports his entire life, currently golf at an Upstate NY community college. His son lives in Boston, and everyone is doing fine. I just had no idea.

I forgot he existed. Somewhere through the years I stopped thinking of some people from there, from then, as humans out living lives and just characters in a play that took place in the early ‘80s. I forget sometimes that out there, just over the slight curve of the earth, are those people who are now, four decades on, at the other end of our ambitions and hopes. They traveled their own narrative arcs and ended up wherever just like I did, and they, too, have memories of that time.

But when we last see someone, it is easy to think of them as “then” more than “them.” In The Big Chill, William Hurt says poignantly, “A long time ago we knew each other for a short period of time. It was easy then. I grew up.” All that is true, but these were people we lived with, day and night, shared bathrooms, showers, tragedies, and heartbreaks. Those four years were like dog years.

But look: Social media has refriended so many of us, closed that gap. I have colleagues at my job I’ve worked for five years making comments to friends I haven’t seen in forty, and conversing with childhood friends of mine who I can’t even remember. Time is out of joint and linear measure of memories is up for grabs.

And then you run into someone who knew someone who knew. This colleague spoke of Steve and I could smell the stale beer, the must of the dorm room. The cold of the hallway where all the windows to the outside were always broken. I could, just for a second, almost name every single person on the floor. Then it’s gone. But in that sudden flash of not-so-great memory, is some ghost, waving at me, awoken for a brief because I happened to look that way, and just when I realize I thought I saw something, it’s gone.

But it haunts me like a dream that wakes you up in a sweat but you can’t remember.

I stopped looking back in recent years. Still, when I do, I “look back carefully, because there’s still something there for me,” as Jackson Browne wrote. And I was wondering what that is; like going away and forgetting something you just knew you meant to bring along but can’t put your finger on it.

Thinking of that story in the Skellar brings me closer to remembering what it is that I feel like I should not have forgotten, but then it slips away.

Everyone we ever knew is out there somewhere, if they’re still with us—and even if they’re not, I suppose—living their lives well beyond the shared grey space of our Venn Graph that overlapped during the end of the Carter Administration. Now we’re senior citizens, have lived our lives, and no matter how much time we have left–hopefully a good deal–we wonder most about those we lost somewhere along the way. I wonder how many times I walked past someone I used to know so well—maybe on a city street or in some café somewhere.

Well, it really was easy back then.

Bill DeWeese

Dr. Bill C. DeWeese

1944 – 2023

I’m thinking about Bill tonight. Bill De Weese, the Division Chair in the Humanities department when I was first hired at the college in 1989. Later he would return to faculty status as a Reading instructor, and we remained close friends. Bill was the second person I ever met on campus. Eleanor, the administrative assistant, was the first, sitting behind her desk in the tiny Humanities Office (which in recent years became Letty’s office, oddly enough).

I’ve told some of this before, but some I haven’t.

My car broke down in the parking lot of the college in August of ’89 when I was returning from Chesapeake to our apartment at the oceanfront. I was in a bad mood because a job I had been promised to teach journalism to high school students was given to someone else. Then the car.

So I walked into the first building and went into the first office and asked to use the phone (Youth: there was no device available to contact anyone else without going into a building or a booth). I was on hold with AAA when Bill came out of his even smaller office and said to Eleanor, “We still need someone to teach Humanities on Wednesday nights.”

“I can do that.”

“Who are you?”

“This young man asked to use the phone. His car broke down.”

“I have a master’s degree in arts and humanities from Penn State.”

“When you’re off the phone would you come see me?”

Click.

I went home with one class, three credit hours. That night the phone rang (Youth: This is before caller’s phone numbers popped up to warn you), and it was Bill. “Baaaubb?” Understand, Bill was from Kentucky and talked very slow with a beautiful southern drawl. For thirty-something years, he started every conversation with me that way—“Baauubbb? Can you teach a few more classes starting next week?”

“Sure.”

“How about six?”

And so it was for three years as an adjunct—back before restrictions on credit hours, when I was teaching six classes every semester, including college composition, developmental English, American Lit, British Lit, all of it. Scroll back up and read my degrees. Yes, Arts and Humanities. This is critical later.

I remember one class in which I taught Hamlet. I had absolutely no training in Shakespeare, or any literature for that matter, but I really loved that play, especially the Kevin Kline stage version I had just seen, so I taught it in Intro to Literature. The day the reading was due, I asked who read it and everyone admitted they hadn’t. I stood up, told everyone they were absent, and left.

Someone complained to Bill and he called me into his office the next day.

“Baaauuubbbb? I have done that too. And I appreciate why you did it, but perhaps you can just give a quiz.”

The following class I told my students that I was aware someone complained but I didn’t know who, and I wanted them to know the Dean took it seriously and talked to me. Then I asked again who had read Hamlet. No one. I stood up, told them there were all absent, and after so many they would fail the class, and I left. I went to Bill’s office, closed the door, told him what just happened, and I said, “Bill, first of all, how I handle things in the classroom is my business and I don’t appreciate you telling me how to do things. Second, these are adults and should be treated as such and not lead to believe every time they have a complaint you will jump for them.”

Bill was quiet a minute, then smiled, then said, “Baauuubbb. I think everyone today has learned an essential lesson.” He shook his index finger slowly, then said, “Don’t fuck with Kunzinger.” He laughed hard. For thirty years when we passed in the hallway, or when he’d catch my eye from across a division meeting, he’d just shake has finger and we’d both laugh.

God, what a rare, to the bone, decent human being.

Bill died last week.

When I was hired full time, on the day the hiring committee met to make the final choices, I was home. He called and said, “Baaauubb, you’re not qualified for this job! Three years you’ve been here but you’re not qualified. You don’t have an English degree and this position is for English majors.” I told him I took English at PSU as required for the dual degree, but he insisted all the records show all HUM classes.

The following all took place in one hour:

I called the Humanities department at PSU and explained to the Dean of Graduate Studies, Louise Hoffmann, what was going on. She faxed a letter to the committee explaining that all degrees at that time in the Humanities Department at Penn State were listed as HUM, even those with focuses and majors in English.

It satisfied the committee and Bill called back one hour later to tell me I was hired full-time.

The thing is, and I told Bill this sometime later that year, I really wasn’t qualified. I had a scattering of lit courses, and absolutely no college comp courses—my specialty at the college—and I told him that I was basically teaching journalism courses as college comp, since my undergraduate degree was in journalism. Plus I was good in front of a crowd—had been for a decade—and that helped. The upside, Bill pointed out, is that Letty and I were the only two in the department who actually had Humanities degrees and could corner those classes if we wanted. It worked for me.

Still, Bill laughed hard and said, “Well maybe that’s why you’re one of the best comp teachers here!” Then added, “You know, the college will pay for your terminal degree. Why don’t you get one just in case.” So I did, with all the writing and lit courses necessary to move on, albeit fifteen years after starting there.

During those decades, Bill came to my place for Christmas Eve dinner and drinks with his partner, George, several years in a row, was at my son’s baptism and my father’s funeral.

One morning, early, I was walking across campus and saw Bill for the first time in a month and said something. He told me George had been killed by a drunk driver. The drunk hit George’s car forcing him into an oncoming semi. He was killed instantly. He stood there and cried and we went and sat on a bench for hours, talking, sitting quietly. I learned a lot about not talking from Bill.

Three times I read for the community at Bill’s retirement residence in Virginia Beach. The second time just him and I had dinner first, and while we were eating, a woman at the next table died and fell on the floor. I tried not to stare, I really did, and then paramedics came and enclosed the area with walls and the woman she was eating with finished her soup at another table.

Bill said, “I hate when people stare whenever this happens.”

“How often does this happen?!” I did not know the proper etiquette for eating while someone is dead next to you. “I am sorry I stared; I was just shocked. I want to help but the medics were here instantly.”

“Do you want a drink before you read?”

“Yes.”

A few weeks after my dad died, I was scheduled to read again about the Camino de Santiago to a group of about sixty residents of Westminster Canterbury. Bill called: “Baauub? Why don’t you bring your mother? I am sure it would do her a world of good to get out. Wally (a former colleague) will be there and we’ll all have dinner first.”

It was a beautiful night, and everyone treated Mom like they’d known her forever. A few weeks earlier at my father’s funeral, he took me to a side room and asked how I was doing, and Mom, and Michael. He said if I wanted to cancel the reading, he would understand, and I said I was still looking forward to it.

“I told Josephine about your daddy. We both cried for you. You two were so close. I remember meeting him in your office once. What a lovely man,” he said.  

Oh, Josephine: The first time I read, Bill insisted I arrive early because he wanted me to meet the new love of his life, Josephine. Several times before that night he reminded me and told me he told Josephine all about me and she really is looking forward to meeting me.

I was not sure if Josephine was a really close friend that Bill spent all of his time with or if he had moved to the heterosexual world so late in life, so I didn’t know what to expect.

He met me in the lobby, and we went to his apartment, and Josephine came running out of the bathroom.

A Yorkie. Adorable to be sure, but simply not what I was expecting, though I don’t know why, since Bill spoke of everyone in his life with such love. It was never “My mother,” but “Mother” and never “My father,” but “Daddy,” as if Bill and I had been brothers since birth.

He made me feel that way, to be sure.

RIP Brother Bill.

Ad Invicem

It’s hard to imagine the horrors taking place in Sudan, Syria, Afghanistan, and, of course, Ukraine, when the water and the occasional call of a gull drifts down the river. I try to look out and think more about the peace in northern Spain than the hunger that haunts the people in South Sudan, but only because I’ve been lucky. I mean, sometimes when the Chesapeake and I are just hanging out peacefully like this, I can be painfully aware that I wasn’t raised in Mosul; I wasn’t born in Beirut.

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

Doesn’t it feel like no one wants to save the world anymore? Yesterday at the White House State Dinner, South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol sang Don McLean’s “American Pie.” He was good, too! This was big news today. This should be irrelevant for its commonness. It should be an expectation, not an exception.

There needs to be a new requisite in schools everywhere: Humanity 101. The subtitle could be “We are here for each other.” The course could cover the benefits of helping other people, the rewards of sharing not just gains but losses as well. There could be a lesson on compassion and one on being a good Samaritan. A sociologist might talk in one session about how what happens in one section of the globe really does have an impact on the rest, and a psychologist can show the class how to balance the beauty of nature with the evil things people say and do, which would decrease after everyone took the class.

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

Honestly, it seems like everyone is resigned to some sort of slow decline. Did our parents feel this way? Well, if so, they didn’t smear it all over social media. I fear for the absence in education of something other than the notion of “career.” More connections with other people can be made by sharing a meal than college administrators give credit for.

In my last class this semester I told everyone they could bring food. They brought food. Lumpia, pizza, chips, wings, donuts (and not the cheap-ass kind either—Duck Donuts, a delicacy in southeastern Virginia). We laughed and shared stories, but we also talked about what worked in our writing and what didn’t. We connected. Is food the trick? Perhaps; I really don’t know. But I know we saw each other as humans. That works.

I told my students that seeing the between times from their age to mine, them starting careers and me finishing, I learned one lesson. One. No kidding, Uno. In the end we are here for each other. That’s it. With everything else which tugs and tears at our lives, pushes us to extremes and dehydrates our ambition, in the end we simply are here for each other.

Maybe we can solve more problems by knowing what our neighbors like on their pizza than understanding the treaties that keep us apart.

Here’s the thing:

Five years ago this week I left a job I held for thirty years. I’ve thought a lot about my career then and since then, and I know for certain one absolute:

Our education system sucks. The entire thing, all of it, from K through PhD, it sucks dogs. Complete bile.

What good amid the world are these people with their expertise in engineering, computer design, programming, business management, and more, if they are not first taught to be human? The most essential aspect of all of life, of all we get educated for to begin with, is absent from the curriculum.

It should have been the foundation of all teachings since before Plato. Such a simple, simple lesson plan: “We are here for each other first.”

Then State dinners might be closer to celebrations where leaders celebrate each other rather than merely tolerate each other.

I mean, honestly, the man nailed American Pie.

_____

This:

From Haim Ginott:

I am a survivor of a concentration camp. My eyes saw what no person should witness: gas chambers built by learned engineers. Children poisoned by educated physicians. Infants killed by trained nurses. Women and babies shot by high school and college graduates.

So, I am suspicious of education.

My request is this:  Help your children become human. Your efforts must never produce learned monsters, skilled psychopaths or educated Eichmanns. Reading, writing, and arithmetic are important only if they serve to make our children more human.

Changing Gears Again

My car has been in the shop again. Three flat tires last week. Fuel pump before that. This time transmission issues. I know it is time for a new car. I had my eye on the new Range Rover SV with all the options, but the price tag is just over $300K, so maybe something more realistic, like a 74 Pinto hatchback like my brother used to own. With brown panels. Just don’t tailgate me, please.

I’ve logged more than 1.5 million miles in my cars. Some of them were memorable. I owned an ’85 burgundy, 5-speed, fuel-injected, three-door, turbo charged Dodge Lancer. We called it the POS. It was the car I used to bring garbage to the dump, carry bricks and wood, and haul crap without caring. I kept it clean but didn’t worry if it wasn’t. We’d find driftwood and toss it in the back, sand and shells and all. We spent countless hours driving to the beach, the ice cream parlor, the auto repair shop. My son practically grew up in that car, learned music from its cassette deck, held up the felt on the falling roof so I could see where we were going. I drove him to school in that thing well into third grade.

We all remember our cars.

My first was my dad’s ’72 Nova, which wasn’t mine but I racked up the miles on it for him as good sons do. My first car I drove when I lived on my own was a 1980 light blue, Chevy Monza. That little thing and I saw the United States a few times, smuggled blankets out of Mexico and Molson’s out of Canada. We spun out down an icy hillside in Massachusetts and I ended up junking it in Pennsylvania when the engine blew out. I was driving all of a friend’s belongings from my house to her mom’s when that happened. I think that’s when I started understanding metaphor. In fact, to this day metaphor drives my writing life. It comes from cars.

My favorite was a red Jeep Cherokee five speed. I abused that car the way jeeps should be abused, and it lasted far longer than I it should have based upon how I treated it. It is the car I think of when I hear Paul Simon singing, “If more of my homes had been more like my cars, I probably wouldn’t have traveled so far.” Those were good times, windows open, radio blasting. There was the time I was stranded in the desert with a dead battery a hundred miles from a tree. Or when for several years the gas gauge on the Jeep was backwards. I had to fill it up until it read empty.

In forty years, I went from fitting everything I own in the trunk to needing a U-Haul just to go away for the weekend. Still, I can think of very few objects I’ve owned that symbolized “freedom” more than my cars. If I had it to do over, I’d gauge what I owned based upon how much fits in the trunk of my car. No more. But we can’t do it again. Maybe that’s why you can only go so far in reverse before the transmission says, “No more. Stop. Drive.”

I have experience with this:

One day when Michael was small and we were in the POS, we drove over a pothole at a sub shop parking lot. The chassis slammed hard and made a crumbling sound like folding metal. I tried to back up and it refused. A friend pushed me out and I drove home thinking whatever was wrong righted itself.

No. In fact, I couldn’t go backwards for the next eighteen months.

I learned to look for a pull through. I’d park far away at the mall, grocery stores or work. I learned to anticipate what was next so as not to corner myself, or worse, find myself with my face against the wall. I learned patience. Only three times in a year and a half I found myself trapped. The first was at Old Dominion University while working on my MFA. I arrived for a night class and the parking lot was full save one spot against a pole. I paused and asked my friend if he wanted to push me in then or push me out later.

I learned what roads I couldn’t turn down, what tight situations might be waiting, when to find a slope to roll back down, when to walk. A cop once pulled me over for pushing a yellow light. He let me go but stood and waited for me to leave first, but I had stopped in front of a sign and for the second time I couldn’t back up when I needed to. He waited. I waited. Finally, I said, “Wow Officer, my heart is still racing and I’m tired. I think I’ll sit here a minute and compose myself.” He left.

It was after the third time that I junked the car—excuse me—donated it to Good Will. I had to get it inspected and went to a shop where I know the mechanic, Tuna. Honest to God his name is Tuna. I didn’t want to tell Tuna about my inability to back up, obviously, since I refused to buy a new transmission, and I realized I was screwed when he pointed me into his one car bay with no way out but back.

In Virginia, an inspector’s first task is to scrape the old sticker off the windshield, so while he scraped I called, “Hey Tuna, it’s the last day of the month so I know you’ll be swamped and I’ve got to get to the Beach for work, go ahead and put the lights on while you’re in there.”

“Good idea, Bob!”

I called out. “Okay. Brakes? Good. Left signal? Good. Right signal? Good,” and found myself doing my own state inspection. “Reverse” No white lights lit up, of course. “Good!” We finished that part and he finished the rest, put on a new sticker and asked for ten dollars. I gave him a twenty and said, “Tuna, I need a five, four ones, three quarters, two dimes, and five pennies.”

“Sure Bob,” he said and headed to the register in the front of the shop. When the shop door slammed I got in the car, threw it in neutral, got out, heaved it over the red tire lifts onto the gravel lot, jumped on the brakes until the POS was far enough back to go forward. Tuna came out and I held my side gasping for breath. “You must be in a hurry!” he said handing me my change.

I drove off wondering what was next. Seems like back then I was always wondering what was next.

The following day I drove Michael to school. We listened to music while he held up the roof. He grabbed his bag, got out and waved as I rolled forward, moving on, and realized the truth is we rarely have a reason to go backwards anyway.

Man, my son and I had a blast in that car, listening to the “fall cassette” in the fall and the Christmas cassette in December. But it was time, and I rumbled down the road near work to Good Will.

So, this isn’t my first experience with a bad transmission, where you have to use all your energy just to move forward. Eventually we learn, one way or another, to let go of everything that we relied upon to keep going and find another way.

Maybe it’s time to find another way.

Everyman

Nearly every evening this time of year just before dusk bends to night, in those moments after twilight when I have to let my eyes adjust to the lack of light, a few hundred geese land in the pond, some on the river, and a few in the field nearby.

I can hear them for quite some time before they actually fly into sight from beyond the trees to the west. The air is so clear now that I can hear them honking in groups, joining in like a chorus which starts with just a few voices and adds another rafter until they reach some crescendo. At first it might be only a flight of a dozen or so based upon the muted sound from the distance. But over the course of five minutes or ten I hear another group, then another, and more. They fly in a “V” to be able to see each other clearly for protection and create just a little draft, but the closer they come to landing, the faster the formation falls apart.

Eventually the first group is already in the pond when the last group crests the bare branches of the oaks and hundreds settle into the field or onto the river. One time some years ago a bit earlier in the evening thousands of geese, no kidding—thousands—landed on the plowed cornfield just down river. Their honking continued for an hour that night, and just as the sounds of these geese slowly softens and, finally, quiets, so did theirs so that from my porch I could tell they had all landed safely.

But every single time a while after the large group arrives, two or three geese come in late, alone, as if they stopped at another farm over near the bay and had to regroup and find their flock.

I don’t want to disturb them, but I always want to watch. So when I walk along the river at that hour and the skin on my face is tight from the cold, and my nose runs a little, and the muscles in my back are also tight from the cold, I keep my hands thrust into the pockets of my coat and walk along the soft shoulder of the tiny dead-end street so that my feet make no noise. I can usually get to the narrow strip of sand at the river from where I can see both it and the pond, but not the field so well. Their call increases in a burst of warnings to the rest that I’m around. It quiets quickly though as I remain absolutely still and sit on the cold rip rap running along the river and blend into the rocks and am no longer a threat.

On winter nights the water is almost always calm, a slow methodic lap at the rocks and sand. The sky is all stars with no unnatural lights for more than twenty miles in any direction except from the scattered farmhouses or buoys; the sky is a carpet of constellations.

It isn’t by chance my Canada friends find respite here. They need grass for food, they need water, and they need to be able to see great distances to anticipate danger. That’s why they’re here on the edge of the bay with open fields and ponds. It also explains why they love airports and golf courses. The abundance of geese isn’t an accident either; they travel in gangs, often the younger geese are forced into the gang, so that traveling is safer and they can better dominate areas like this.

But their coolest trait is their honk. They keep that up as a form of encouragement so the lead geese will maintain their speed and not give out so easily. Basically, the ones in the back are telling the ones up front to “Go! Go! Go! Go!” and move their asses. And when the lead gets tired, she moves to the back and gets to badger the others for a while. And they do this their whole lives—about twenty-seven years.

And just after twilight when dusk is making its brief appearance, and the water is like a mirror, the call of the geese from well across the treetops is musical, somehow eternal. When this land was unbroken, Canada geese called to each other, rushing for the open fields and waterways, settling down here. Powhatan heard geese here as did Pocahontas, and John Smith, and Washington just to the north at his birthplace on the Potomac, and Jefferson not far from there. Through the centuries the flyway from the St. Lawrence down across the Adirondacks and Catskills to the Susquehanna south into Virginia to the mouths of these five fair rivers spilling into the Chesapeake has been their home.

And they love dusk, just before dark, as it is the best time of day for them to recalibrate their internal magnetic compass to cross continents; to come here year after year.

But this isn’t about geese.

The peace in such sounds late on a winter’s evening definitely touches my soul, settles me somehow beyond my ability to explain. I sit and blend into the rocks and watch the geese in the water, and I contemplate their distance from the central regions of Ontario and Quebec, across Hudson Bay. My entire life I’ve been drawn to migration, to some sense of movement from one place to another, particularly the seeming randomness of such order. They know where they are going every time, and yet they move south without boundaries, schedules, or maps.

I am drawn to that lack of boundaries, an absence of schedules. And I’ve never been much for maps. In my days at home and my days traveling as far north as these geese and as far south as the osprey who will be returning from the tropics soon, I take great issue with some sedentary lifestyle. I am older now, of course, and a bit more tired. I think more about gardens than marketplaces, more about my porch than some hotel balcony. But I’m not settled yet. No. In fact, I just might be less settled than I’ve been in decades. I like the consistency of this migration; the predictable return, surrounded by friends, a quiet night.

I still have some dreams simmering which require wings. Was it Austria? Monterrey? Wasn’t it the Netherlands or Ireland again? Maybe it was just a drive to see my beautiful siblings or my flock of cousins, to spend time laughing, sharing stories, saying we need to do this again before moving on.

I suppose all dreams are migratory, both in hopeful destinations and their transience with the changes in our responsibilities and circumstances. I’ve lived many of my dreams, but we always have some out there in the field, picking up a sliver of light at the end of the day. At times I even take flight, abandon my flock and push off for a while. But I look forward to coming home to settle into some sense of domesticity, which I can accommodate briefly at best, because eventually I think about the dreams of my youth as I fly toward my twilight years. Those dormant–not dying–dreams call to me to “Go Go Go Go” as my life moves further along, pushing at the edges of dusk.

And now as night falls completely I walk back to the house and always a few more geese find their way to the flock long after dark. Only once did I experience the return to the sky of so many all at once. I was walking from the river to the house past the field where hundreds that evening had settled, and either something or me or the ground disturbed them, or it was simply time to move on, but in great waves they took off, honking. I heard them calling, waves of them into the sky, honking, great waves of honking geese calling ahead to the ones already in flight, as those behind fell in line and they swept from horizon to horizon blocking out the moon and headed out over the trees running down the bay, and I stood and watched them until the last.

It is one of my most beautiful memories.

Then everything was silent and I found myself, much like I do now, oddly alone, like a young man left on the sand while his friends all pushed off to sea to head for distant lands.

“But don’t think too badly of one who’s left holding sand.

It’s just another dreamer dreaming about everyman,”

-jbrowne

To Finish: (13 century) from Latin finire; “to limit”

“To set bounds,” the definition continues.

I watched a hawk sweep down and pulverize a dove. The hawk perched on an oak branch and the dove, distracted by the wind and some seed on the lawn, stopped paying attention. It happens. The hawk isn’t fast as much as he is silent, just a simple cliff dive, stepping off the branch, and, wings out, sweeps in with perfect form with his claws out front to grab the dove at the neck. A sudden puff of feathers busts into the air, and the raptor is gone. So is the dove.

This time the dove simply stood on the grass. She had been facing the direction of the hawk and when she turned around the hawk dropped into action. The dove seemed to hunch down like she knew what was about to happen. Gone.

Sometimes the natural instinct to survive is not as strong as simple resignation.

When I was in high school some friends and I went to the beach on the bay. At some point one friend and I decided to swim out to the end of a very long pier. We made it past the end, but we were exhausted and ended up helping each other back, each of us taking a turn at holding the other until we were at the breakers and could ride in. She and I just collapsed on the beach, spent. It isn’t like we weren’t in shape. We had stamina; we just swam too far out. I stood on the beach and wondered how much more we would have had to swim before we had to give up? If we had been another hundred feet would it have been too far? Or would we have found the strength and determination to push it.

I mean, did we collapse on the beach because we couldn’t go another yard or because we didn’t have to?

I wonder how often I’ve given up because I thought I found the shore when the truth was I could have probably held out for more, pushed it a bit, opted to swim a bit further.

It’s cold today, but sunny, and the hawk is around—I can hear him, though the doves are feeding on the porch rail where it is safe and out of sight. Earlier out on the river, an osprey just back from warmer waters found food for their new offspring, and the cormorants have returned. Sometimes some river dolphins swim under the Rappahannock Bridge, but not yet this season. I like it here. I find peace here. I think mostly though I like the area because of the water and the sand. Ironically, the first time I was in this area was exactly ten years before I bought the land to build the house. Just across the river is The Tides Inn, a quiet resort right on the Rappahannock. For my parents’ thirty-fifth wedding anniversary, my father invited us all to stay at the Inn. It was an excellent time, and we went for a river cruise on the Miss Anne, a riverboat which went under the bridge along the south shore and returned to the Inn along the north shore, turning around at the mouth of the river into the Chesapeake. I had no clue then we passed close enough to my eventual home to be able to cast a line to shore and pull us in.

Thirty-six years later and I’m watching osprey out across the same bridge feeding their young, while hawks stand watch in oak trees waiting for doves to stand still.

I was born a moving target; I’m not sure I ever learned when the right time is to collapse on the beach. The hawks have, for the most part, missed me up until now. Even when I do settle down it is usually to look at a map. Ironically, since I moved into this house I have traveled more than I ever dreamed I would—Russia, Prague, Amsterdam, Spain, France, Norway, and plenty of states. And at night in the darkness we use the telescope to travel through the heavens out across the waters and find planets and meteors.

When I was in college a friend had a poster on his wall promoting Nike. It was a long shot of a winding road through open country with one solitary runner, and the tag line said, “There is no finish line.” I like that. If we didn’t know when to stop I wonder how often we would keep moving. I’m not an advocate of indecision, but I’m a staunch opponent of settling for something when there’s still more options for the ones willing to wander a bit more. It is, to be sure, a delicate balance.

Certainly I get tired as I move forward, especially on the days when I’m not sure where I’m going or how long it will take to get there. But when I think about that swim to the end of the pier and back, I don’t often recall the collapse on the sand; I remember how quiet and peaceful it was taking turns helping each other back to shore. It was hard to tell if we were helping each other or saving ourselves. I do recall quite clearly, however, that it wasn’t long after we had rested that we headed back out, a little bit further that time.

The journey doesn’t necessarily end because we found a safe place to rest.

And what if you knew

A full moon is hanging through the winter branches of the oak trees on the far east side of the property, and clear across the sky, Mars is lingering behind Jupiter with Venus shadowing the big planet. It’s as if they should hold their breath before sinking below the earth’s surface.  

It’s a clear night, cool but not cold, and Orion is ablaze with its blue headlights on in the upper right corner. It looks like a comet ripping open the Hunter’s bow. I stare that way a while half expecting to see the belt suddenly spin in a circle like the old Orion Pictures logo. It doesn’t.

The sky saved me again tonight.

Earlier a friend of mine asked, “So what would you do?” It’s a real question, a serious one few of us decidedly consider more than during a passing whim of light conversation.

What would you do if you knew you had less than a year to live?

Read that again and take it seriously.

I’m sure the romantic in us would like to burn out a la Tim McGraw’s “Live Like You Were Dying.” Skydiving, Rocky Mountain Climbing. But it’s not likely.

The bills are debilitating, and the energy is fried. People we love live all over the country these days, and you probably don’t want everyone coming to you as if every single day is last rites. Plus they have to work, tend to their own days and nights.

The answer is probably not too varied from the answer we already have while hoping and expecting to have several dozen years left: See those you love as much as possible, work if you can to pay bills and not leave a mess behind for others to deal with, maybe travel if you can.

What will you do in those months before you “close the door behind you”?

First, I’m certain I’ll be keenly aware of all the projects I started writing or planned to write but didn’t get to. I’ll remember that I wanted to become more serious about playing guitar. I’ll remember that I was going to make next year’s garden the best one ever, and plant fig trees, and get a dog. I was going to go back to the Camino with Michael and train across Canada. A friend of mine and I were going to go to the Netherlands. We were going to do a European River cruise.

I was going to restain the house.

But those long-range plans will all be suddenly moot. I suppose that the best we can hope for is we get to the end of our dreams before the end of our days.

Still, I’m pretty sure what I would want to do. I’d get up early and sit at the bay and watch the sunrises whether it was sunny or not. Something I do on a regular basis anyway, but I’d do it more. And more still.

And I’d go to the river with my son and watch the sunset, skip stones, feed the gulls. We’d talk about art and music, about movies and travel. And we’d note all the colors in the sky as the sun disappeared up the Rappahannock.

I’d invite friends over, sit on the porch on a warm summer evening, have a few drinks, some music in the background, and talk about the baseball game, talk about what people we know are doing, about Molly’s new book or Rick’s new essays. We’d laugh about that time we….and we’d get quiet when someone mentions next Christmas. We’d change the subject to how beautiful it is out.

“And when the morning light comes streaming in

We’ll get up and do it again.

Amen.”

I won’t look at photo albums from the Island, or watch videos from when my son was small; God no, no videos. I won’t talk about any more seasons, no. Just this one.

I will talk about my dad, About Cole. I’ll tell funny stories about Dave and Bobbie, about Rachel and Trish.

I’ll speak of how I never could get the African story right, knowing that the truth of that time would be coming with me. And then I’ll finally tell everyone about something else, something beautiful, something still nearly completely mine.

What would you do if you knew?

I’d call everyone I love, but not to say goodbye or even to tell them. I’d just say I felt like saying hi, catching up. And we would, and we’d laugh, and we’d say we have got to get together, that it’s been too long, and not to let another five years go by. Then I’d call the next person, then the next.

I’d remind myself that the truth is I’ve already lived completely out loud and nearly always on my terms, and it has been enough for a half-dozen lives. No kidding. I’d keep telling myself that. Because it’s true. What a journey it’s been so far.

Okay, the superstitious Irish side of me is thinking even posting this blog is a bad idea. But the ballsy New Yorker in me is thinking to lay it all out there right now, because you never know, like Eddie who at 11:45 pm one December 15th was talking to a coworker, and at 11:52 pm he was dead on the street, a car hit him. He never saw it coming.

He had no idea. We have no idea.  

And there’s the thing: Knowing allows you to rewrite the ending how you want your character to finish this story. But not knowing allows you to exit completely unaware of what didn’t get done without having to face the fact that most things didn’t get done simply because you simply didn’t bother to do them. No mysteries to unravel, no excuses and fallacies to face—just reality—you just didn’t bother to do them.

Life happens that way. So does death. Knowing roughly when you’re going to die forces you to face knowing how much you didn’t live at all to begin with.

Maybe tomorrow morning that can be different. Another sunrise, or the first; another phone call to an old friend to thank him or apologize or to just say hi. Another glass of cider on the porch listening to the Mets, talking about that time we….talking about that time we didn’t…and maybe a sunset, most certainly a sunset.

Maybe tomorrow the lines won’t bother me, the rude clerk at the convenience store won’t bother me. Perhaps by lunch time I’ll realize that sitting on the deck at the café working on that editorial for the paper is refreshing and satisfying. Or that talking to students about potential, about the hope of what comes later, about the swiftness of now and the thinness of life, is more projection than it is lecture. And I’ll feel good about it. And they’ll look forward to another class. So will I.

And I’ll come home, and again, at least one more time again, get out the telescope and watch how Venus is tucked away, shy. And we’ll stare toward that blue blaze on the upper right corner of Orion, and understand that life is expanding, faster and faster, running out into the distance, and only those who are told they’ve got a limited amount of time left on this planet seem to understand what that means.

And the stars won’t seem so far away anymore.

Bob I Am

Instant Replay

I remember Lou Alcindor. When I was young, I had a hand-held radio style device by Mattel, called Instant Replay. You put a disc in its side and highlights played from different athletes’ lives. It came with a handful of discs from all the major sports. I loved that thing, and I remember hearing highlights from Lou Alcindor’s early days, his pre-Karem Abdul-Jabbar days.

It played a disc featuring Cassius Clay.

This was the same year LeRoi Jones changed his name. About fifteen years after Malcom Little changed his the first time, and three years after he switched it a second to el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz.  

And, of course, I remember listening to

Personally, I remember Robert, but that was a long time ago. Some family still call me that, and that is fine because it would be weird if they didn’t. So when someone calls me that I assume they are family. Or someone from the neighborhood on the Island. But sometimes someone I don’t know will call me Robert for some fracked up reason since they’re not family and I introduce myself as Bob. I don’t get that. If someone told me their name was Bill, I can’t imagine saying. Well, William, it is nice to meet you. That’s rude. He said his name was Bill.

I’m Bob.

Not Lou. Not Cassius. Not LeRoi. Not even Prince. Just Bob.

Names change. Sometimes for religious reasons, sometimes for marriage or divorce or some identity crisis. Sometimes someone wants to disappear into the masses. I wonder if Martin Sheen’s sister calls him Ramon. Certainly he is Martin now. But his daughter and two elder sons use Estevez while his third son uses Sheen. I read that John Denver’s adopted kids use Denver while his biological daughter Jessie Belle uses Deutschendorf, her father’s real last name. No offense meant to Jessie, but I’d have gone with Denver.

Crazy, but President Gerald Ford’s real name was Leslie King, while Bill Clinton’s real last name is Blythe. The Fourth.

The first name recorded on a document is Kushim.

In elementary school, we learned to write by printing our names on those loose leaf sheets of paper that had lines to keep your penmanship straight, and dotted lines to know where the top of the lower-case letters should reach. My friend Chris Smith on Euclid Avenue didn’t have a problem. But I had to print it all out, and living where I did didn’t make it easier:

R O B E R T  S T E P H E N  K U N Z I N G E R

200 E A S T  L A K E  A V E N U E

M A S S A P E Q U A  P A R K, N E W  Y O R K

For God’s sake, I was seven.

I think I ran next door from the school to our house to plead with my mom to let me change my last name to a letter. “I can be K! I can be Z! Whatever!”

Last names didn’t really begin in the west until the later part of the Middle Ages, about the late 11th century, though the first known European last name is from my ancestral home, County Galway, Ireland, in 916. I do not believe O’Cleirigh is a relative, but since the subsequent variations include O’Cleary and O’Leary, they might be ancestors of my friend Will O’Leary. I shall ask Himself when I get the chance. Surnames, however, not surprisingly, are thousands of years older than that in China, used, logically, to separate people with the same first names. The last names typically were some variation of “son of” or “from the land of.”

I wish we still did that. I could be Bob of Deltaville. Or Bob of the Great River. Or Robert of Brooklyn. Not as melodic as Leonardo de Vinci or Francis of Assisi.

What I like about my name is if you google me, the first seven hundred entries are actually about me.  I Googled my friend Tom Williams once and I found a reference to him six hours later.

I spoke to a woman recently who told me I say my last name different every time I say it. Do you have any idea how self-conscious that made me? Now my tongue hurts from repeating the damn nine letters for an hour to see what she meant. Kunzinger KUNzinger KunZINGer. KunzingER. I had a Social Studies teacher in high school who when calling roll would say KUNNNNNNNZinger. I had a prof at college who would insert an “r” for no good reason at all and called me Kurnzinger. Other variations followed me through life, some not worth repeating. But I have come to like my last name. The people I know with the same name are people I’m insanely proud of, whom I enjoy being associated with.

I hope I never do anything to bring shame to the name. It is our identity, my link to Lohr en Mein, Germany, to Bay Ridge, to glassmakers and butchers, organ builders and accountants. Snow White

A stockbroker.

A photographer.

A student recently asked how I pronounce my name. I told her, “The same way it sounds.” “OH! She said, thank you Professor K.”

Robert lives on Long Island. Bob lives on a river and writes books. Bobby is hiking the trails on a retreat in western New York. We are a multiplicity of identities, a collage of personas. Sometimes Bob would like to take a train up to see Robert, tell him to take it easy, to not be in a rush to do anything. Sometimes I miss Bobby—his innocence and hope, his lack of inhibitions and his willingness to embarrass himself.

I spent the past five years finding my footing, making drastic changes—some by choice and others by circumstance, and the truth is you can change your name a thousand times and never change at all. Change must be deeper than the alphabet; integrity and self-worth are tied to actions, not labels.

Done Too Soon

It’s forty-five degrees and rainy today. Two days ago it was eighty-four and sunny. I think snow is in the forecast this week; that, or triple digits. I can’t keep track. Nor do I care that much. It’s weather; I like weather. Whether it is collar up, teary-eyed, runny-nose, bone-vibrating cold; or sweat on the tip of my nose, prickly heat, brow-dripping, sun-burning hot. Either. I’m good. Middle ground works best for being most benign, of course; those New England type, low-humidity seventies with the air-clarity of New York’s Southern Tier, the colors of the Sonoran Desert, and the salty-scented wind of the coast. Everyone loves autumn or spring weather. “Pleasant” they say. Mostly because it doesn’t hit you in the face.

I don’t mind a little headbanging with the elements.

Anyway, it’s raining now. So I’m inside, physically, mentally, psychologically. Like a grocery-store lobster, like a termite, like Kenneth Graham’s Mole, like the malted part of a malted milk ball. That’s me—I’m inside today. I will go for a walk to the river, stroll up Pintail Road past the pond to the dock; I’ll abandon the warm here at Aerie, finish first my cup of hot chai latte, all steamy and frothy.

I have a game I play when things seem down, dark, or otherwise non-descript and boring. It’s actually quite effective: I imagine I’m already dead.

I imagine I found out that time is short—a feat not difficult to imagine these days as several people I care for very deeply no longer have to imagine this; it is real. But I force myself to imagine hearing the news, the disbelief followed by denial and then anger. Then somewhere before acceptance I imagine the rain.

I remember the streak of wet up my back when I was a kid on the island riding my bike after a summer shower. Or the choppy Great South Bay splashing at my knees when Eddie and I would walk along the rocks of Heckscher. I remember Spain, the Camino back from Finisterre to Santiago, and that day it poured the entire time, and a fog settled ahead of us, and we were soaked, but we were so alive, finding small medieval chapels where we stood under the overhang and listened to the far-reaching quiet of Galicia. We found an albergue and changed clothes and walked to a pub and played foosball and had some local brew.

The rain was a visceral reminder we were alive, right then, a drop-by-drop pronouncement of existence. Rain doesn’t reach the interior walls of anyone’s sarcophagus. It is solely for us, for those here, those of us still alive and aware.

And then I imagine the sun.

I remember the heat while hiking Sabino near Tucson, deep pools of mountain water to dive into after my body was dripping with sweat from heat. Or the cold, the uniquely-desert-borne cold feel of my skin when I turned under a cliff into shade and the dry air dropped twenty degrees. Once, in Senegal, in the southwestern Sahara, I fell asleep on a cot in the yard of a house in a small village, and the heat woke me up. I went to the porch and the thermometer in the shade read one hundred and ten. I can remember my shoulders, the tingling sensation when I lightly rubbed my palm across my skin. It caused shivers to run down my spine.

Alive. Absolute clarity.

So, really, so I’ve stoped bitching about the rain, or the cold, or the heat.

Or about anything really. I am alive.

I’m at my desk and above me rain is pelting the skylight tonight. Out the window the deep woods are misty, and I can’t hear any of the normal wrens or even crows. Just the sound of rain and the distant rumble of tires out on 33 more than a mile away. If this clears out before bed, I’ll go out and look at the planets and the stars with the telescope and deep-space binoculars and it will be cold, upper thirties cold, and at first I’ll move from foot to foot, bouncing to keep warm, until some sort of numbness settles in, and I’ll breathe hard on purpose to watch my breath, and my neck will feel wet and cold, and I’ll remember this part of the night as much as I’ll remember spotting Vega or Alpha Centauri. What contrasts! The billions of years ago presence of stars and the immediate dripping reminder of the right now.

How often are we aware of our existence? I mean, how often are we conscious of the beauty and sensation of our life? We go through motions, we dress so we can’t feel the warmth or the cold but who doesn’t love the cold feel of our bare feet on the grass at twilight? We eat so we feel the nothingness of not being hungry, but to fast once in a while is to cleanse our minds of the monotony of food. We don’t connect to others because we find something familiar in the airgap lives we lead in a world where whatever is most convenient works best and connections back to those we knew is so much easier than reaching out to those who just might be in our lives moving forward.

But back to the rain,

my God the rain slaps us, and this is what makes our lives on this earth unique. In the distant unfathomable reaches of eternity both behind us and yet to come is a nothingness and never ever againness that stretches without end, in a state of seemingly complete unexisting. But here, now, we shiver, we sweat, we stretch ourselves to shake off the stiffness, and we wipe our eyes, throw some cold water on our faces, shake off the drowsiness, and live.

Because now is all there is left. As one dear friend of mine recently commented about “passing”: “Then I’ll close the door behind me.” This is it. Make no mistake, this is it,

and still people avoid the cold, avoid the rain, the sleet and snow, the blazing sun, but those extremes make us aware of the present. Humanity’s most vulnerable trait in shunning the passing of time is its apparent need to remain numb as much as possible. Meanwhile, if we tolerate the rain we can see droplets of life on the beautiful flowers outside, shake the wet from our hair, catch some drops of life on our tongue.

Am I being a bit mystical? A little too “earthy”? Damn right. But just how much time being alive have we lost by blaming weather? The atmosphere can be most inconvenient, it seems. Breathe in. Breathe out.

Move on.

“I hate the rain,” some say. “I hate the heat” some say. Sure there are legitimate reasons to abstain from constant weather-beating. Asthma, sensitive skin, and other issues.

But no one should ever miss the experience of the sound of rain on a lake. The blinking away of snow from your eyes. The vertical streak of sweat down your back on a hot day. No one should veer around the puddles. Let that water rip up your back and even the back of your head. Honestly, you can change clothes and dry off, put on warm clothes when you get back inside.

We are dying, my friends. Some soon, some not so soon. So let’s go for a walk in the rain. You and me. Let’s stand on the lawn when it snows. We can sit on a bench in a park when the sun is so strong we will feel it in our veins. Because at some point, whether we are ready or not, we will wish for one more rainfall. We will pray for another soft blanket of snow. We will trade the best of our days for one more season, whatever season it may be.

The weather is the closest we come to recognizing the immediate. And the rain says, quite softly most of the time, “Come. Fill up your senses.”

Truly. There will come a time when we understand that all of it–the lashing of rain and the drifts of endless snow–will be behind us, whether we wish it to be or not.

Jesus Christ, Fanny Brice
Wolfie Mozart and Humphrey Bogart
And Genghis Khan
And on to H. G. Wells

Ho Chi Minh, Gunga Din
Henry Luce and John Wilkes Booth
And Alexanders King and Graham Bell

Ramar Krishna, Mama Whistler
Patrice Lumumba and Russ Colombo
Karl and Chico Marx
Albert Camus

E.A. Poe, Henri Rousseau
Sholom Aleichem and Caryl Chessman
Alan Freed and Buster Keaton too

And each one there
Has one thing to share:


They have sweat beneath the same sun
Looked up in wonder at the same moon
And wept when it was all done
For bein’ done too soon
For bein’ done too soon

–Neil Diamond “Done too Soon”

The Book List

Tim O’Brien The Things They Carried.

Tim Seibles One Turn Around the Sun

Ernest Hemingway Old Man and the Sea

Bohumil Hrabal Too Loud a Solitude

Carlos Fuentes Old Gringo

Ernie Pyle Brave Men

Roberto Bolano A Little Lumpen Novelita

E.B. White Here is New York

Frederick Douglass Narrative

Robin Lee Graham Dove

 ——

When I was in college a professor asked us to list ten books we loved so he could explain what he figured out about us from the list. Except for the minor detail that I wasn’t sure I had even read ten books, I thought it an interesting assignment. I remembered this a few years ago when I heard of a professor who claimed he could tell the IQ of a student by looking in his backpack. I thought about doing that assignment with my students at the last college where I worked full-time, but I think instead of being able to tell their IQ I’d be predicting the length of their jail time. 

My book list in college included Stephen King, Woody Guthrie, Robin Lee Graham, Woodward and Bernstein, and most likely Dr. Seuss because I was a wise-ass. I don’t remember much of the professor’s analysis except what was clear to anyone, I liked adventure and bent toward non-fiction.

I am doing this with my students next week, but to be fair I decided to redo my own list now that I have actually passed the ten-book mark. The ten books above are what I consider the most influential or memorable or re-readable books I can recall. I didn’t head to my bookshelves to come up with them; I simply put my head back and thought about books.

Some observations:

  • I still like adventure and have a bend toward non-fiction.
  • Five of the books are non-fiction though O’Brien is thinly disguised fiction (Read If I Die in a Combat Zone for reference)
  • Seven of the books are pretty short
  • None were written by women despite some heavy influence from women in my writing, including Alice Walker, Frances Harper, and Virginia Woolf.
  • Three were not written in English.
  • Seven do not take place in the United States, though The Things They Carried is debatable since much of it does but much of it doesn’t. So six and a half.
  • Five of the authors are also known as essay writers.
  • Seven somehow wrapped themselves into the narrative.

Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried is simply one of the greatest books of the 20th century, and while it takes place in Vietnam, it is not about Vietnam anymore than Tim Seible’s One Turn Around the Sun is about astronomy. In O’Brien’s book, along with Hemingway, Hrabal, White, Douglass, and to a lesser degree Pyle, the author either writes directly to the reader or involves the reader in some way.

Seibles’ book is about his parents and age. In fact, the passing of time is a common theme for Hrabal, O’Brien, Guthrie, and Pyle. I have heard Tim read from the book long before it was published, have talked to him many hours over lunch about our parents and time and age, and admire his diction and phrasing perhaps more than that of any writer I know. He is a giant in the poetry world and this book is his best. Read it from start to finish; don’t jump around. People pick up poetry books and read them like they’re Russell Stover boxes of chocolates. Stop. There is an arc in there, and it should be read that way.  

I love how Old Man and the Sea is about an old man at sea whose pride is simply too strong to let the damn marlin go and focus on the smaller fish around him. And then when I read it again it was really about pride in general and who we are and what we learn as we mature. And then when I read it a third time I realized the entire story is the Passion of the Christ. I like how Hemingway never lost his journalistic tightness and how he uses repetition as an art form. Also, the book is really short and I generally run out of steam at about 100 pages. When he wrote, “It was an hour before the first shark showed up” just a dozen pages from the end, I was already hoping the boat would sink.

Susan Sontag once said Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal is one of the finest writers she has ever read and Too Loud a Solitude is one of the finest books. I’m with her on that. It took me several reads to understand how this crazy-ass little book is a compact version of all the greatest philosophies in history, and the “compact”ness of it is a metaphoric spin from the lead character who compacts trash. It is funny as hell and poignant. To top it all off it happens to be parallel in so many ways to The Things They Carried that I could teach a seminar in those two books. As an aside I should say that Tim told me once he focused on Czech language and literature for a while and that Hrabal was a favorite. Go figure. Read both books and you’ll see what I mean.

When I was at Penn State, I spent a lot of time reading all of Fuentes’ work. He seems so much like Hemingway and uses a classic narrative structure. I read his work more because of his locales than the story, and also I was trying to fine tune my Spanish, but Old Gringo is my favorite. If anyone likes Hemingway, he or she will like Fuentes. Read it in English, though.

Ernie Pyle’s work was introduced to me by Professor Pete Barrecchia at St. Bonaventure. Since then I have not met a journalist who was not at least somewhat influenced by Pyle. He is, to be certain, above all other war journalists before or since, and Hemingway once said if Pyle had not been killed at the end of World War Two, it is unlikely anyone would know of what Hemingway wrote after that. Google “Ernie Pyle Normandy” and read his piece about walking the beach at Normandy. It is easy to see how Hem and O’Brien both took much away from this great journalist, particularly O’Brien.

A few months ago, Tim Seibles gave me a copy of Bolano’s book and I read it start to finish without stopping; a nearly impossible feat for me except it isn’t that long. I had given him a copy of Too Loud a Solitude and he said that crazy-ass book reminded him of this one and when I was through we laughed about how neither of us could explain to anyone what the hell it is about, but it simply keeps you from start to finish. It sent me to the rest of Bolano’s work. I still can’t explain what happens but I love how it happens. Bolano is a writer’s writer in that he is an artist in his work instead of simply a storyteller.

I was listening to “Selected Shorts” some years ago, already familiar with EB White’s excellent essay work outside of his famous grammar book, and I heard someone reading “Here is New York.” It stands alone for work that is less “about” New York than it is about the state of “being” in New York. If I were born earlier I think I’d like to have been EB White. It is absolutely one of the finest essays ever written about the spirit of place—something I am very drawn toward. Plus, you know, it’s about New York.

I love Douglass’ writing style—very journalistic in approach—and his description is honest and raw, made more revealing by his first-person experience. But there is something else that makes this one of my favorite all time books and Douglass my greatest American hero—his Character. Frederick Douglass is an inspiration not only for his accomplishments against the greatest odds in an evil system, but for his mostly firm moral compass through it all. He is simply a tremendous example. The Narrative of Frederick Douglass should be required reading in every single school.

Graham’s book was simultaneously published with a young adult version called The Boy Who Sailed Around the World Alone, one of the first books my father ever gave me for Christmas. Indeed, the first. This book’s influence, for me, has nothing to do with his writing. It is about sailing, seeing the world, writing about it, and taking that money to go see more of the world. It very well might be the most influential book in my life as far as my motivation is concerned. Years ago I lost the copy my father gave me, but a month ago my son and I were in a local shop and there was a copy. Reading it still stirs something in me I cannot explain.

These are not the most influential writers for me as a writer—that is a different list, though there is some crossover. To the point—O’Brien, Hemingway, Pyle, and Hrabel make both lists, but the rest do not. These four for one reason or another “inform” how I write—sometimes by outright theft. The other two writers who influenced me as a writer are first Aaron Sorkin, who I think is simply one of the finest writers working today, though he is wholly a screenwriter and playwright, but that makes him a master of dialogue. And finally Jackson Browne. His early emotionally-driven work sets tone for me better than any writer I know. Obviously, part of it is hearing a minor key come in for something like “Sky Blue and Black” or the musical phrasing of “For a Dancer.” As I get older, poetry for its diction has become more important, and I’m still trying to find the patience to be meticulous in that regard. But for tone, the music of Browne or Van Morrison or just the right rendition of Pachelbel’s “Canon in D” can light fire under my work way faster than the classic writers. Often even faster than caffeine.

I have read many books beyond this list, including a stack my son gives me saying, “This seemed like a book you’d like.” He has already read more books than I have in my life. I am not sure why I have an aversion to reading; I think it is because I try to spend as little time as possible reading about what other people have done and spend that time doing something. When my colleagues in the writing world get together and talk about our peers and what they’re doing, I generally slide out of the conversation and find someone who wants to talk about something more relevant to me, say like goats or the beach. Part of it is I hate talking about writing; but the larger issue is simply I do not read that much. I write or I do things.

So when I do come across a book that takes me in and takes over my mind for a while, I want everyone to read it. When they finish reading all my books of course. It shouldn’t take long; they’re short.

What books influenced you?