There’s More than One Way of Growing Old

Suddenly, it’s New Year’s Day, and since I’m not really doing anything except literally watching the clock and growing older, I’m wondering how many people completely start over—I mean absolutely begin again—at sixty-one. Now seems like a good time to consider this, being the month of Janus and all, the God of Doors and All Things to Come. Plus I couldn’t sleep.

This particular contemplation of “what’s next” is not random for me. I no longer teach full time after almost three decades at one college, the other college where I had hoped to continue teaching Arts and Humanities completely shut down because of Covid, and while I do teach a few classes at yonder university, and I do have a new memoir coming out soon, it turns out the world of Readings and Gigs and Workshops has ebbed into the Coronavirus Sea.

So, I looked for some examples of others who, as Janis Ian proclaims, “Make it when they’re old, perhaps they’ve got a soul they’re not afraid to bare.” It is time, after all, to note that, as T.S. Elliot points out, “Next year’s words await another voice, and to make an end is to make a beginning.”

Well, we shall see:

Grandma Moses didn’t start painting at all until she was seventy-six.

Frank McCourt, author of Angela’s Ashes, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Critics Award, didn’t start writing until he was sixty-five.

Another writer, Laura Ingalls Wilder, started writing the Little House on the Prairie series at sixty-five.

Fauja Singh ran his first marathon at eighty-nine (luckily if I choose this path I can wait twenty-eight years before getting off of the couch).

Harland Sanders established Kentucky Fried Chicken when he was in his sixties.

And apparently Moses didn’t part the Red Sea until he was eighty years old.

And for God’s sake, Noah was six hundred years old when the waters started to rise.

Hell, I’m going back to bed.

Truthfully, it isn’t about starting over, really. We make resolutions this time of year to lose weight and exercise and save money and volunteer more, and those are common ambitions for a good reason: they’re admirable goals, apt adjustments to our otherwise well-planned life. Emerson tells us that “the purpose of life is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate and have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.” I must do all of those things, for certain. But a slight adjustment simply won’t cut it.

It isn’t enough to wonder what all of us can do, but what each of us can do, what is my particular purpose, my part in the plan? Certainly, the atmosphere isn’t exactly conducive to positive change. Maybe its Covid, or perhaps it is the endless bickering and childish spats at all levels of government–all levels of society really–that I thought would be history by the time I became an adult. Really, I seriously grew up believing my generation was the one that would clean the world, bring peace to all countries, and create a more inclusive society. I know it was innocent and naïve, of course, and I didn’t really expect some land of Oz, but I also didn’t expect this pathetic disaster we still call humanity. We are a mess; our supposed “intelligent life” turned out to have little compassion for each other, and it is stressing me out more than my meds can handle. I don’t understand why it all gets to me and brings me down. It just does. I know that “a happy soul is the best shield for a cruel world,” as Atticus wrote. But listening to the news is akin to swimming in toxins, and it has become overwhelming, drowning out whatever happiness takes root. Something has to change–if not out there, certainly in here.

It helps to have a distinct starting-over point. A few times each year—birthdays, Spring equinox, for educators the first day of classes, and New Year’s Day for us all, we can take a deep breath and make some sort of commitment to do some small part; maybe not by changing the world, but by changing ourselves. I can only speak for me.

Of course, I need to save more money, exercise more, lose a little weight, and spend more time volunteering. And I will. But I need something else. Something more personal and more essential.

The clock is ticking while I’m distracted by society’s bad energy, spending valuable time on meaningless banter. I need to get back to me and remind myself, as Dan Fogelberg sang, that “there’s more than one way of growing old.” I need to take more chances and figure out which dreams I simply refuse to allow to fade before I die. Not all of my imaginings are realistic, of course. Certainly I can narrow down the list with some rationale: I can probably toss out the Wimbledon win and playing outfield for the Mets. I’m confident the circumnavigation of the world is sliding off the list as well, as is winning an Academy Award for directing.

But I’ve noticed a few elements common in those people who achieved later in life:

They’re not afraid to fail.

They’re not afraid to embarrass themselves.

They’re not afraid to be transparent.

They’re not afraid to be ridiculed, mocked, trolled, dissed, and dismissed.

And the ones criticizing the loudest are the ones on the sidelines. Paulo Coelho writes, “Those who never take risks can only see other people’s failures.” Yes.

With that in mind it occurs to me most of my successes came in the midst of countless failures for most of my life; I have embarrassed myself in front of crowds at least since I’m nineteen, I remain pretty open about myself, and as a professor and a writer, I have suffered a steady barrage of ridicule, mockery, and dismissal.

And now it’s New Year’s, and in less than two years the planet has lost 5.5 million people from Covid alone. I’m sure a disturbingly large percentage of those lost souls never completed the dreams they had not yet grown too old to achieve. Let that thought hang here for a second.

You and I still have some dreams. And we’re still here. And in the words of Hamlet: “I do not know why yet I live to say, ‘This Things to do.'”

***

Some of us are simply mentally exhausted. Why do we get so tired? Why do we have such little faith in ourselves? Is it ignorance—we have truly no clue where to begin with some of this? Is it a fear of wasting our time? “I’m just going to gain the weight back,” people rationed when I worked for Richard Simmons. We used to tell those who wanted to quit that in everything in life we have two options: I will attempt this and do what’s necessary to succeed, or I will not bother trying because I’m likely to quit anyway or simply do not have the energy. Some succeeded, some tried but quit, and some signed on with those famous “good intentions” but didn’t bother to show up.

Which group do I want to be in when I’m older? When I am near the end of the end, what would I have been successful at if I had just, well, showed up? Today’s a fine day to think about this because more and more I’m finding myself sliding into that third group, and that must become unacceptable. “I’m too old to change now,” I’ve heard friends say. That’s fine for those who found their place, and sometimes I feel the same way. But for some, life is too short to simply run out the clock.

I’ve shared this next part before, I’ve read it to my students, I read it to the people who came to my classes at Richard’s, and I’ve memorized it. It is from Joseph Zinker at the Gestalt Institute:

If a man in the street were to pursue his self, what kind of guiding thoughts would he come up with about changing his existence? He would perhaps discover that his brain is not yet dead, that his body is not dried up, and that no matter where he is right now, he is still the creator of his own destiny. He can change this destiny by taking his one decision to change seriously, by fighting his petty resistance against change and fear, by learning more about his mind, by trying out behavior which fills his real need, by carrying out concrete acts rather than conceptualizing about them, by practicing to see and hear and touch and feel as he has never before used these senses, by creating something with his own hands without demanding perfection…We must remind ourselves, however, that no change takes place without working hard and without getting your hands dirty. There are no formulae and no books to memorize on becoming. I only know this: I exist, I am, I am here, I am becoming, I make my life and no one else makes it for me. I must face my own shortcomings, mistakes, transgressions. No one can suffer my non-being as I do, but tomorrow is another day, and I must decide to leave my bed and live again. And if I fail, I don’t have the comfort of blaming you or life or God.

It’s New Year’s Day, and we all know this year, like last, is simply unlike any we’ve had before, but for me, this year seems different, more urgent. When you think about it, if the bills are paid and your health is cooperating, the best approach is to “enjoy the passing of time.” But some of us need to also untether whatever limitations we’ve placed upon ourselves because of routine or fear or society’s expectations, and live a bit more before the living is over.

People do it all the time.

I know a man who joined the Peace Corp at seventy-five.

Another who learned French and became a translator at seventy-one.

There are barriers to these resolutions, to be certain. Pressure, stress, money, fear, and sheer exhaustion. Age; dear, persistent and unyielding age. The obstacles can seem insurmountable, but as Moliere said, “The greater the obstacle, the more glory in overcoming it.” Still, on top of this, those battling depression have to also face those internal voices telling us there’s no point, those for whom the “resolve” in resolution can be a monumental task, those for whom as a friend of mine recently noted, “no longer care if there’s a light at the end of the tunnel; I’m tired of the tunnel.” But none of us, I am not wrong about this, none of us wants to reach the point of death, as Thoreau reminds us, only to find out we never really lived at all, and, even worse, never even tried.

For me, this year’s New Year’s resolution is simple: start something worth finishing.

So,

“If you don’t lose patience
With my fumbling around
I’ll come up singing for you
Even when I’m down

I’ll come up singing.”

Happy New Year everyone.

Pin on this is cool
Fauja Singh
Still running marathons, here at 100

This Night, This Day

In the east this morning a sliver of light. I stood at the bay and remembered:

More than five decades ago on Christmas morning before our parents were awake (or so we supposed), my siblings and I would gather before we headed down for the beginning of Christmas Day, usually in my sister’s room, to exchange gifts we had bought for each other. It would inevitably still be dark out, and I know the three of us would lay awake waiting to hear each other also awake in the other room. A tap on the door. A “come in.” And we’d sit on the floor and open our presents.

At some point (like clockwork, as much an annual tradition as the turkey or the pies), our mother would wake our father and he would exclaim, “I thought I said no one up before nine am!” and he couldn’t hide his smile to our laughter at the ludicrous suggestion we’d be up any later than five. It was always cold out during those Long Island years, and often snowy, but we weren’t going outside so it just added to the magic. Dad would be in his robe and slippers, and he’d head to the living room as we gathered on the stairs and waited for him to plug in the multi-colored lights on the tree, and those on the rail, bringing to life the otherwise dark room. Mom had, of course, already organized whatever presents we would get into separate piles, and Dad would stand back as she directed us to the right area under the branches, though sometimes it was obvious if an unwrapped toy appeared, clearly already wished for by one of us. Dad would sit on the couch and watch in joy right through the stream of “Wow, thank you Mom!” wishes.

It wouldn’t be long before the aromas of breakfast mixed with the onions and bell seasoning already underway for the stuffing, and eventually we’d need to get dressed, if not for church since we might have attended midnight mass, certainly for the droves of family who would soon fill the rooms. It was a beautiful way to grow up. I do not know the possible stresses, fears, and sacrifices that went on behind the scenes—that’s how good they were at it. Then, much later in the day, after everyone else had left and we had all settled into the routine of looking at our gifts again, Dad would emerge from some closet with his gifts for each of us—books he had personally picked out, bought, and wrapped. It remains one of my favorite memories of all of my memories of my father.

***

It was in the sixties here today along the Chesapeake, and sunny, and to be honest I’m just tired. This is one of those days each year where I’ve been up so long and have done so much that it feels like it should be six hours later than it is. My mother and sister and brother and nieces and nephew and their spouses and offspring are all off in various parts of the country preparing to celebrate their Christmases, all of us with some common traditions, each of us with our individual more recent touches to the holiday. Certainly, in times of such tumultuous anxiety throughout the world, all of us remain fortunate enough to be celebrating Christmas at all, laughing and telling stories, enjoying the food, the drinks, the sounds of football or Christmas music. We are, to be sure, at peace. Anyone with family is engulfed in traditions which help balance our lives; they bring peace to our soul while providing some shared space not only with each other but with memory, the idea of ancestry, the hope for posterity.

My father used to sit to the side for most of the holiday and enjoy being surrounded by his family. He’d carve the turkey, and of course disappear toward evening to get the books to give to us, but these days I picture him most in his chair, watching a game, sipping scotch or wine or a beer, laughing with us, waiting for Mom to call him to duty in the kitchen. He has moved on, and whatever there might be to know after this life of ours, well, he now knows, and that too brings me great peace.

It’s so quiet out tonight. Absolute peace stretched out like canvas in all directions. On the water some buffleheads ease by. Still, there are moments I wish I was somewhere else; or maybe simply some “when” else. I miss the days before society took “nearby” and “not far away” and tossed them to the strong breezes of technology and zoom. In that small house around that small table when I was a child were so many relatives it is crazy to conceive how we pulled it off. But no one cared—we were together. Everyone lived close enough to “drive over,” and by the time the turkey came out of the oven, a small crowd was sitting and standing and outside and in, laughing as well as sharing serious moments, because it was Christmas and we were together, and it was going to be like that forever.

For the day anyway.

The sun is getting low and it’s getting chilly. I’m going inside again. I bought Michael a book at a local nautical shop and I need to wrap it and “surprise” him with it later in the day tomorrow after the lift of Christmas has settled down. And he will be gracious enough to act surprised, just as I did with my father when he would predictably surprise the three of us with books half a century ago.

Geez, fifty years. More.

Hold tight to those around the table tomorrow. And when you have to let go, make sure they know you didn’t want to.

Merry Christmas my friends.

The Philosophy Application: Question Six

10 schools of philosophy and why you should know them - Big Think

I applied recently to take graduate courses in Philosophy; I thought it might explain the inexplicable, or at least help me realize the greatest minds in human history haven’t got a clue either. It’s clear that depression and anxiety do not filter through the subconscious to the surface because people find the world too sad; it is because they find it too miraculous, overwhelmingly beautiful and vast and unconquerable in a dozen lifetimes, making the average 9-5 seem pointless.

So, philosophy. For fun, of course.

Application question option six (there were eight options):

What are your thoughts about our place as humans in this world in this time? Keep your answer brief.

Answer:

We don’t live then die; we don’t exist and then not. No. We find ourselves dying on a daily basis. In reality, and with respect to The Garden and other such origin theories, we start complete and lose a little as we go, like that small bozzetti of the Visitation by Tagliapietra that started as a block of terra cotta clay and ended with Elizabeth and Mary, both with child. We blow through our teens until we’re twenty when we know we’ll live forever. At thirty we think we’ll die so we open the Book of Hours to the “Office of the Dead” at night when we’re alone to prepare ourselves for the hereafter and do our best to rise above it. At least that’s the assumption.

So we leave our marks: carve our names, write our memoirs, sign the canvas, pee on trees. We look for spices and find new worlds, we avoid persecution and found religion, we speak our minds and lose our heads, we say what’s right and get left behind. We find out fast that Orwell knew in a “time of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act.” We teach such a small portion of information it’s barely noticeable—but leave out that amount and life crumbles, falls, and can’t be found. It’s about proof. Of course it’s about proof. Proof of first cause, proof of the passing of time, proof we were here at all, so we take pictures to show, to recall, and to immortalize; but we can’t remember faces since we forget to write it down. Slowly, we lose our energy, our memory, our courage, our determination, our purpose, our identity, our drive, our car keys. We vow—to ourselves, to each other, to the boss, to our parents, to our children, to our God, we vow to do better next time. This breeds confidence. Cockiness. Attitude. So we take vows of chastity, of obedience, of poverty, marriage. We vow to improve, get even, avenge. But all the while we stand on the dock and mock our hesitation while foot soldiers garrison themselves and face death for an eggshell. 

Of course we start slow. Always have. One channel, then two, off the air by 11:30 to the sound of fuzz, a long annoying beep, a circle with an x across the white noise screen until six am when the flag flies and the National Anthem plays and the new broadcasting day begins. This taught us patience. It lessoned us in anticipation and quiet. But we pick up a few more channels, we add public broadcasting, we add some locals, then some nationals, then the sky cracks open and we spit out hundreds of possibilities from porn to pygmies on the Discovery channel which tricks us into believing we haven’t yet turned over every stone, and we find ourselves suddenly obsessed with speed and convenience, as if we wonder “how the hell did we do so well and get so far without the speed and convenience of computers, of drive throughs, of touchless cards and curbside pick-up.” We forget so easily.

We avoid topics which indicate endings, so we euphemize the crap out of everything. “He passed.” “We have to let you go.” “I need more space.” Even death, especially death, has been metaphored to, well, death. But still we dig up the bones to point to the obvious: that we’re not the first, not the last and not here long. We get dumped at sea, mummified, burned at the stake. Been going on forever and since we pass through only once in this present form, we direct our energies toward fleeting moments of hyper-existence. But the universal truth is everyone, how shall we say it, everyone will die. Some drink the poison, some lose their heads, some get trampled at coronations, millions die in battle, hundreds of thousands of hunger, many of disease, some assassinated, a couple crucified, some of old age, as if they walked there by foot.

This scares us. So we pray. We say the rosary, go to mass, thank God for the bounty. We eat what’s on the plate because some are starving somewhere else and we keep our mouths closed as we eat and hope no one quotes Isaiah Chapter 49 Verse 10 proclaiming “they will not hunger or thirst, for he who has compassion on them will lead them” and we pick up our forks and swallow the damn peas. We follow St Mark’s quill to the Lion of the Tribe of Judah and hope He’ll help us through. Just in case, though, we pick up the toys because some kids must go without. We keep our lives neat for those who have no life. We want it to look perfect. We want to look right. We want to always look just right. We buy mirrors that don’t reflect what we really believe—that it’s all too much, and our goal is to balance two opposing thoughts: We want to experience it all but can’t, so why bother experiencing any of it at all? What was the point of us? Yeah, that question. Talk about proof.

We make mistakes, call the wrong number, bounce a check, steal a pen and run down the stairs; we speed, we waste food, we waste time, we worry more about our waist than the serving size of rice in a village. They eat grain, millet, rice, wheat, ground in a bowl in the sun, they wait at the well for the women to haul the camel-skin bags and pour them into buckets, they wait at the truck for relief, they wait in line for bread, they wait for the allies to break the blockade, they wait for the sentence, they wait for the end. But they keep going. They haven’t yet learned about convenience and speed. They haven’t yet heard about bounty.

They hike across deserts and seek something else; the were lost, they were just boys who became soldiers. That was their point, apparently. Apparently, that was their purpose. They were Francis Bok who escaped a shed in Sudan, they were Socrates drinking an avoidable cup. Maybe they were born in Brooklyn not Baghdad, they went to school and ate custard. They played little league and went to summer camp where the local villagers put on a show at night near a fire; they moved to the suburbs and got a new car, they shot off fireworks and fired at pop bottles; they ate barbequed burgers and corn on the cob, boxes of clams and played with a little red Spalding ball. They swam in ponds, they hiked the hills and bought postcards; they stayed too long, it passed so fast, what year was that? Who is that in the picture? How did that song go? When did we own that Oldsmobile? Where did we get that painting? We forget to write it down, we’ll remember. We make the mistake of assuming we have total recall. But the books remind us it was some leak somewhere, some crack, some fractured moment that finds us on a couch covered in plastic talking about anniversaries instead of a mat in Mali talking about the dust, wondering about the rain. Such randomness pushes a compromised moody mind toward the abyss, through no fault of anyone’s. But we can’t find fault without proof. So we endure.

Still.

We like to laugh. For fun, of course, but just as much for survival, to blanket our fears, to extinguish our anxiety, to take away the hurt. It hurts anyway so we laugh and hope Buddha’s Vinaya was wrong when it called for ancient monks in India to go to confession for such an offense as laughing. But we laugh. We tickle, we entice, we ridicule, we play the clown, the fool. We work the mirror and tell jokes into mock mics to an imaginary crowd and wait for the laughter to subside before emerging at school or the office or the party to make others laugh, the ultimate in now, the definitive value of absolute present. Why did the chicken cross the road? A man walks into a bar. It’s Nietzsche’s need to call every truth false which was not accompanied by at least one laugh. We laugh and nothing hurts, no one is going to die. We laugh and we must stop eating, talking, drinking, even moving because it is time to laugh, and no one worries when someone laughs. No one is plotting damage or pouring hemlock.

But contrarily and diametrically true is that no one is studying philosophy or English or history because we’re terrified—the ones who are down, depressed, the ones who are accused of “thinking too much” or are called “too melancholic” or “never easily satisfied,” are terrified– not at the sadness of life, the pointlessness of it all–but the grandness, the exquisiteness, the incomprehensible awe of it all, and the slow erosion of patience, the almost indistinguishable drift of simplicity. We are petrified that no one, no one, absolutely no one will understand. It is all too simple. Imagine, apparently it is simply too simple.

Have you ever sat and had dried fish on a rock in the sun, a cup of water from some clear-running stream? Do so and then you will agree with Lord Byron’s decree that he loves not man less but nature more. And I’ve wondered: With such a catalogue of rapturous places to be and explore and exist, who really ever needed the “Dialogues” anyway?

Please.

I wish to study philosophy because I’m looking for proof of something I can’t put my finger on; I need verification of something I have never heard of.

Do I need to buy the textbook?

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answers

The Five

In my creative writing classes I gave an assignment to exemplify the benefits of immediate experience over memory of a previous encounter, and of allowing all our senses to participate instead of just one.

I sent half the students into their respective bathrooms (without limitations upon identification, of course) with a pad and pen and I asked them to spend ten minutes in there and describe it. The other half of the students stayed in the classroom but did the same thing. The results of this second group were always predictable. Certainly, every one of them had been in the bathrooms multiple times through the semester, but still they almost universally remember the trite—running water, unpleasant odor, writing on the wall, mysterious missing locks on the stalls, paper towels on the floor around the garbage can.

When the first group returned, their notes were a bit more illuminating. Not just unpleasant smells but one of overwhelming cleansers; the low buzz of a fluorescent bulb, the mirrors always slightly too low on the wall, the faucet left on, the urinal still running, the clogged commode.

We experience with five senses, sometimes six if you include that sense of familiarity, of déjà vu, but we tend to remember and often only experience with one—sight. Studies show we rely upon how things “look” to recall them more than eighty percent of the time, yet the number one trigger for recall is smell. “Use ALL the senses,” I tell them. “Perhaps ‘taste’ is not so appropriate in this particular assignment, but sound is essential, obviously smell, and touch for its absence—how can you not include the desire to not touch anything?”

We spend a good deal of our lives living in the singular. One thing at a time; one sense is enough, one path in the woods. One thing problematic in this dip back to Psych 101 is how much we are missing. Sure, sometimes one is enough—but even when we eat, taste is only a fraction of the experience—the aroma draws us in and works with taste for complement, and presentation strikes first, of course. And how many of us are not crazy about a particular food because of its texture (for me, swordfish).

Shift:

This morning I sat on the rocks at the river, trying to mentally juggle too many happenings at once. The new semester starts soon—online for now—and I thought about how I had hoped for more classes but enrollment is way down, so then I thought about the project I’m working on to catalogue as many readings about nature from writers as I can and my attempts to summon interest, then about a new book project I started, kinda—okay, not so much started as stepped in that direction—and about my sharp, intensely sharp spike in anxiety and depression when the news is violent, when the rhetoric is redundant and aggravating and angry, and about a tree which fell and needs to be cut up, and about

and about…

and…

the coffee kicked in and I took a deep breath, exhaled very slowly into the chilly breeze, and reminded myself that I need to warm up to the day in much the same way we would warm up before a class at the health club. Take deep breathes through the nose, out slowly through the mouth, stretch, let all our senses work—and stretch those senses, make them limber, feel and see and touch and taste and hear all at once, not only like we are absorbing the world around us but the world around us is absorbing us.

This doesn’t work well in the city. It doesn’t even work well at home on a mat in a quiet room—we created the room by design and experience. No, nature is safe from subjective influence, it remains absent of judgement and human influence; there’s nothing out there we need to “get to” while looking around. It has a sense of eternal about it.

So I sat on the rocks and did that breathing thing, and the cold tightened the skin on my face the way cold wind does, and I could sense every touch of air across my reddened and tight neck and cheeks. On my tongue and lips that taste of salt I have known since my childhood, the marshy odor, the freshness of the Chesapeake, and the waves ripping against the rocks, lapping on the sand, breaking ten feet out in the river, the call of a gull behind me, the low distant rumble of a workboat diesel.

And then, dominantly, the view, the view which reaches deep into the immediate and blocks out all things social and political and makes us present. The deeply blue water today, the intrusively blue sky, the foam from the cold water on the sand and the white edges on the tips of the breaking waves. The small green strip of interruption that is Parrott Island a mile or so out, and the glint of sun off the window of a truck crossing the Norris Bridge in the west.

I am rarely present these days, distracted by what I hear on the radio, disturbed by the distance between where I am and where I need to be. It happens to us all. The changes in my life over the past two and a half years have been so drastic that sometimes—usually—it is hard to keep up with everything, so I turn to the constant, the familiar, to let my senses recalibrate themselves and make things right.

I like—need—order in my very unorderly life. And stepping into nature is perhaps the most reliable method of getting all my ducks in a row and feeling centered again. There’s something Thoreauvian about that, of course, and Jung is part of this equation, but for me on a much simpler and basic train of thought, it’s the undefinable persistence of beauty that brings me peace. And the innate need of us all to love. Lao Tzu was right when he insisted that “Love is of all passions the strongest, for it attacks simultaneously the head, the heart, and the senses.”

So many changes, so much turmoil, so many medications and sessions and updates and downplays that have distracted us all from what should be elemental in our lives—ourselves, and all of our senses working together. It is the cure for the soul, as Oscar Wilde once noted, as is the soul the cure for the senses.

In this new year I’ve noticed something which at once was subtle but has become too persistent to ignore—I’m stepping further away from that which doesn’t bring peace to my mind. And the one absolute I know is I never had that problem in nature.

It just makes sense.

Sir Michael the Knight

 

I’ve told this story before. michale in frog shirt

When Michael was about three or four, he used to play “Sir Michael the Knight.” Sometimes it would be on the sand in the yard of a beach house we rented one winter where we would build elaborate castles and he’d be Sir Michael and I was the dragon inevitably slain by the knight, culminating in my plunging death into the castle. Most often he occupied himself on rainy days when he would don his shield and sword and cardboard helmet and then barrel around the house. One time he ran through his grandmother’s home in Pennsylvania, cardboard sword before him, through the kitchen to the living room to the dining room and back into the kitchen, several times always calling “Sir Michael the Knight is going to slay the dragon!” or “You can’t get away from me dragon!” as he passed again, his voice fading in some Doppler effect as he disappeared into the kitchen, emerging around the corner seconds later. On one turn he was mid-sentence running into the dining room when his shoulder clipped the table and his feet flew out before him and his entire body slammed to the floor in perfect professional wrestling fashion. I jumped from the couch when I heard his head hit the ground, but he only lay there a second before he said, “Sir Michael the Knight hurts himself bad.” He got up and kept running.

He is still running. Michael turned twenty-three today.

When I was young my father brought my brother and me to play golf. We really didn’t talk about anything other than the round of golf as we played, and often we finished with hotdogs at the grill. But it was bonding time, a chance for us to be together somehow knowing just the time together was more than enough; we didn’t need long, deep conversations. I can recall those times as clearly as if they happened yesterday. In the later years Dad and I would have Scotch together every Tuesday night. I’m not a fan of Scotch but of course that wasn’t the point. We’d sit and talk about baseball or teaching or whatever movie might be on, and we’d slowly sip the single malt.

Still there was always that gap that separated his generation from mine. For my dad’s generation “dressing down” meant loosening their ties. They listened to news on the radio and more often than not for most of them the first trip out of town was World War Two. Their music came from crooners and orchestras and nearly all their relations lived relatively close.

But the generation gap between my age group and my son’s is much less evident. We listen to the same music, dress the same, share the same adventurous spirit for travel, and communicate through social media more often in one day than I might have communicated with my father at all in a month. There are differences, of course and thank God, but the gap today is more of a small ravine with a variety of bridges compared to the canyon which stood between “the Greatest Generation” and the baby boomers.

I’ve been especially privileged to spend time with Michael. It isn’t unusual to find us at a local oyster bar splitting a dozen and drinking hard cider. Together we’ve ventured to various east coast spots like Long Island and the Outer Banks of North Carolina, trained across Europe and Asia on the Trans Siberian Rail Road, and walked across Spain. We’ve been around the block together, and we’ve seen more together than most fathers and sons get to experience in a lifetime. I am constantly aware of this and deeply grateful.  

But none of those journeys compare to the pilgrimage we make to the river every evening when we’re both home to take pictures of the setting sun and we wander around in silence to listen to the water and watch the wildlife. One of us might mention a colorful cloud formation or the approach of an osprey, but mostly we take pictures and point out the peacefulness. This has been a steady routine since he was four; the picture taking started just a few years later. In the summer the sand fleas can be unbearable but we tolerate them, swatting our legs and faces determined to remain at the river a bit longer. In winter we bundle up ready for whatever wind whips down the Rappahannock toward the bay. Over these nearly two decades we must have taken thousands of pictures. I prefer to point my camera up at the ever-changing cloud formations picking up the last bit of light from the fading sun. I try not to allow anything “earthbound” into the frame, including trees or even the water. I like the fluidity of clouds, how beautiful they are ever so briefly before they dissipate. Michael aims at the surface, seeing hues and shapes that swirl and gather and disperse as fast as he can find them, capturing just the right combination of color and design before the tide takes over.

It is about perspective. When people my age get older, we are “getting older.” When a man Michael’s age gets older, he is “growing up.” Twenty three years ago today I can tell you exactly what I was doing, where I was, how I felt, what I was wearing, what I ate, and the temperature outside. That was a lifetime ago; it was moments ago. Twenty-three years ago I was someone else entirely, a character in a story. Today it is almost as if I should find Michael coming around the corner, cardboard sword pointed toward an imaginary dragon.

These days I prefer to look forward so I don’t slam into anything. I am not sure where Michael’s going next but wherever it is and for whatever reason, I am confident it is with faith, a sense of humor, and an instinctive ability to be kind to people. I am as excited as he is about what’s over the horizon.

Happy Birthday, Sir Michael.