Dawn, Like an Angel



Johnny Carson once asked George Burns if it was true that he only slept about four hours a night. Burns replied that it was, in fact, true. Carson seemed surprised and asked him, “What in the world do you do then, when you can’t sleep??” Burns shrugged and said, “I get up.”

It took me some time to appreciate the simplicity of that response, to let go of some sort of expectation that I “should be” tired or I am “supposed to be asleep right now.” I’m not tired, like this morning when I woke at four. I wasn’t groggy, I wasn’t overly occupied by imposing thoughts. So, I got up.

I headed south and then east and arrived at the oceanfront about a half hour before the sun, as if we agreed to meet for breakfast, me carrying my bottle of water, the sun pushing an awakening Atlantic before it. I checked the weather app and saw our appointment was for 6:37; I was early, though I can see the sun’s foreglow coming across the horizon, so I knew it would be on time. I walked the sand for a while.

This is so simple, I thought as I walked my way up the beach at the water’s edge. This clearly didn’t take planning, didn’t demand money or rearranging of responsibilities, and the only consideration I had was how long did I have before I needed to be somewhere else. This morning: about an hour. Experience reminds me and anticipation informs me this is likely to be the most peaceful hour of the day; it is packed with hope and possibility, like the glimmer of light just cracking the dark blue sky, the just-waning moon fading in the west, the passing dolphins and gulls and osprey and pelicans who know nothing of being “late” to anything. I am convinced that dawn has swept in and saved me more than a few times. 

These mornings remind me how often I create my own stress by not pacing myself better, by not taking a few extra moments. My son and I have risen early at home several times a month to take in the sunrise at the bay, before even the watermen have made their way out past the reach. And at night, well, at night we have seen more sunsets together in the past two decades than I can possibly count. Not one of them was redundant, not one disappointing, and never did I think I should have been doing something else.

I am not avoiding responsibility; I am pushing the edges out just a little, just a very little, to fit perspective into the fold, to allow for the purpose both coming and going to reveal itself to me.

I swear sometimes at the end of the day when we’re standing on the sand at the river and the yellow, then orange, then something like deep maroon seems to sink below the western strand, I almost hear it whisper “Thank you for noticing.”



0300 hours


I need to stop thinking about things at three in the morning. Nothing good can come of it. I’m not going to solve any problems at that hour, and, in fact, can easily take current ones and open the deepest, most vile aspects of what might only be minor inconveniences during the day.

But it is three am and I’m awake anyway, and I’m not going back to sleep now since I planned to get up at five to make an hour and a half drive before rush hour. So I’m up, and my mind races right toward a few issues which I know, I mean I’m convinced, will be just passing thoughts after breakfast. At this hour the cut on my ear is a rare form of some deadly disease, my income is dried up to nothing and I can maybe sell the wicker furniture I never use and use the money to buy spaghetti, and the bee I saw yesterday circling on the grass is an indication of one of the state’s largest hives just below the surface of the front lawn, and it’s going to cost thousands to hire an expert to move them to some other place.

I have a love/hate relationship with three am.

On the one hand in just a few minutes I’m usually conscious enough to remind myself I’m not yet fully conscious, and I can maybe understand that a weak mind prone to depression can relegate the best of who we are to some dark corner of the brain just to let the pessimistic angels have a free-for-all on the frontal lobe. On the other hand—and this might be the creative writing professor in me—dreams, whether while sleeping or only kinda sorta sleeping, often reveal some darker truths which need addressing but which get smothered by the forward motion and sun-infused, vitamin D stimulants of the day.   

But those truths—health, money, yellow-jackets—might need to be addressed and might be what wakes me up at three am to begin with.

Some people, I am told, always have complete control of their minds. I am not among them. Usually, of course, I am at the helm, even when the headwinds are seemingly unbearable and the seas seem rough. But there are times when some shadow-like mental glaucoma glazes over my mind and it simply goes where it wishes. This is the baggage carried by creative people, those who fight depression—chemical or situational—and those who didn’t get enough done on some project the rest of the world deems superficial, but which others count as essential to being able to breathe in and out.

And all of this bounces through my head while I sit here at my desk and it is now 3:35. I’ve dressed, too, and showered, and I’m going to head out early. 7/11 is not far, so caffeine-induced full consciousness is not far, clarity, the ability to put life in perspective and delegate these issues to their proper importance.

Sometimes I forget I live in the country near a river and a bay so there’s nothing but natural light at 3:45 am.

I step off the porch and am immediately taken aback by Orion, by the Pleiades, by the vast distance between stars and the immeasurable possibility that can be found in hope. There is no pharmaceutical that can replace this stimulant; no amount of caffeine can disrupt this majestic truth of night.  

I love waking at 3 am. Clearly, I pay a price; I must dive first into the dark waters, but when I brush aside the clouds of unknowing, I am awash with possibility again.


The Weather is Here


It’s windy out this afternoon, and the sky has turned grey. The bay is pounding the rocks and has become choppy enough to keep most watermen ashore. Just to the southeast about 120 nautical miles, storm surge and high tides continue to lash out at Kitty Hawk and Jockey’s Ridge, and just a few fathoms from there Hurricane Dorian has imposed her destructive ambitions along the southeast coast. This far north on the Chesapeake will be spared this time, though by this time tomorrow, the high tides combined with tropical force winds and torrential rain will make for a tense afternoon.

But this is life. This is primetime for those who live this close to the water. That’s just the way it is. For me, though, being out there, feeling the wind and rain, close to the currents as the waves come ashore, is, well, exhilarating. I’m not ignorant to the dangers—just the opposite; I’ve been around hurricanes the better part of my life. It’s just that when it is bad, but not that bad, it is good to be outside, touching life with wet hands, feeling the energy in the pounding surf.

Hang in there. I’m not out of my mind.

Van Gogh wrote, “There is peace even in the storm.” I understand that. When it rains hard, or the wind is fierce and I can hear branches snap, as long as I am safe it all simply reminds me that I am alive to experience this weather, this turn of currents, this atmospheric screwball, and I feel somehow calmer and even more alive. Of course I love the perfect weather, the calm day with low humidity and pleasant sunshine. But equally, to experience the rain on my face, getting drenched, reaching out and being a part of the earth and nature instead of it simply being something “around” me or something “outside” or on the news, floods my senses and elevates my awareness to keep everything else in perspective. For those of us who spend so much time in nature, it is the next natural digression.

So when severe weather arrives, we shift our thoughts to survival mode and pray no one gets hurt and our property is spared, and above all else that we come out of it alive. And when some system swirls off the African coast and creeps its way up the Saffir-Simpson Scale, it throws our lives into a whirlwind of measuring value and understanding perspective to “finally” discover what is essential in our lives, in our hearts. Hell, just a little rain should do the same thing, shouldn’t it?  When impending storms send everyone into “I’m just glad for what I have” mode, I understand with absolute clarity how the mundane repetition of everyday life induces coma-like observation of life around us and our place in the world, our brief and expedient place in the world.

The tragedy of life is its persistent subtlety. Days pass without notice; I forgot what day of the week it is; geez, is it Sunday already?

Life changes like the weather, and the weather is constantly changing, and so are we. The storm will pass, of course, as does time. And while it is tragically true that in the wake of this treacherous weather too many poor souls have been lost, far too many lives have been crushed, the reality of this whirlwind life we live on this spinning globe is that no one is going to survive—no one—despite the fact that how we apparently live our lives points discouragingly to the contrary. Don’t be hard on the passing storms; for some it’s the only time they even notice life at all.


The Sounds of the Day


I’ve been working at my desk all day, and for the first time since early June the temperature outside during the hottest part of the afternoon never got above 75, with a breeze coming off of the bay and the skies overcast enough to keep even the August sun from seeming strong. I had to clean up some last minute details on a project I promised would be in the mail tomorrow, however, so inside I stayed against my natural instincts. 

I opened the windows, though, which look out over a couple of acres of woods, and all day long–sometimes in the distance beyond my attention which was focused on the computer screen, but also often overtly present, literally on the sill just inches from the window screen–a variety of birds sang me through the hours. I don’t know their names, so I certainly can’t tell you which call came from which bird, but it was like sitting in a chair in an aviary, unnoticed by the occupants. A few cardinals and robins–those are easy to spot–and one last goldfinch before she heads south. They’re my favorite; yellow ones are my favorite. 

These birds surround me all the time, but they so often compete for attention with the mower or radio or work I’m doing outside which scares them anyway, or the blasts from whatever farm equipment my neighbor might be working on. Today though, with the lower temps allowing for open windows, a neighbor who is apparently away, and a soft breeze, I found such peace as I worked. It was a unique chance to work “in” nature without actually nature knowing I was there. Maybe my tapping on the keyboard sounded like pecking birds. Doubtful. Don’t care. They came and they stayed and sang to me all afternoon. 

Tomorrow I’m starting a couple of writing courses at Old Dominion University, in the city, in a nine-story building next to a boulevard, just on the other side of a four-story parking garage. I anticipate a lack of wildlife, and while birds might abound on campus, they won’t be outside my window because where I’ll be doesn’t HAVE a window. Such contrast. Earlier I received an email from the university asking if I have everything I need for the semester. 

Birds, I thought. I could use a couple of thrushes and perhaps a house wren or two. 

The truth is, I need so very little. A view of some trees or a river or bay, a soft breeze, or, lacking that, the hot sun on my neck, the call of a gull from above. I’ve not yet figured out how to do only that: write and be surrounded by nature–non-judgmental, deep-truth nature. Someday. Maybe I wouldn’t appreciate today as much as I do if I wasn’t headed toward what awaits in the city tomorrow. I’m certain that is true.

But I must learn the sounds of the birds. They bring me such peace, like the sound of a soft wind coming off of the river, or the water pushing at the shore. It reminds me of who I am, and reminds me of who I’m not when I’m elsewhere, which can be equally valuable. I think there was a time I got lost in who I wasn’t because I never took the time to discover who I am to begin with, an anchor of sorts to tug me back home. 

Okay, one just called and I know that one; it’s an osprey. They’ll be leaving soon as well, for South America, but the bald eagles will come in their stead for the winter–eagles are much more stealth. They just sit and stare out like they’re thinking of something else. I bet they have really low blood pressure. 

I’m more eagle than osprey; more cardinal than wren. 


The Interview

A Demented Edition of A View:

Last March I wandered my way from Casey Key to Tampa to Tallahassee to Alligator Point, Florida, a small hook of a peninsula which drops down off the panhandle just west of the curvy part. That’s where one of my closest friends, publisher, cohort in all things writing-conferences, and master of the blues harmonica (no kidding, he’s amazing) Rick Campbell resides with his trusty dog Jasper.

The three of us hung out on his porch and this interview, more or less, emerged, even though the actual interview part of the interview transpired through emails several weeks later. 

The Florida Review and Aquifer published it to coincide with the release of our new books from Madville Press of Texas (Thanks Kim Davis!)

Writers, for the most part, do not like talking about writing, and that goes double for me. But Rick and I have such similar sentiments about the creative side of our world, it was fun to open up just a bit. 

The following is the result. Thanks for Reading: 

The Campbell/Kunzinger Interview

Accidental Melancholy



My father just told me about Herbie Clapper. Herbie was a neighbor of my dad’s when he was young who was a pilot and would buzz the neighborhood when he was nearby. Herbie was Jewish; this was the thirties and in just a few years would be in the war. Herbie’s sister married a Jewish man from Europe who was able to come to the United States and stay. Apparently, Herbie’s father owned seven stores until the depression, but had managed to save enough money to see them through it. Herbie’s father and my grandfather got along well, Dad said, my grandfather also being a successful businessman right through the depression.

We sat in my parent’s living room at their condo and talked about travel. It’s a video my son shot from where he sat across the room; it was 2013, and Michael and I were about to leave for the trans-Siberian railway trip. Dad pointed out how the only reason his father’s generation traveled to Europe was for World War One, and before that everyone was emigrating from Europe. We talked about how my parents did get the chance to travel to Europe when my brother lived in England, and how our generation has made traveling a habit, and the next generation—my parents’ grandkids—don’t think twice about heading overseas, three of them living there for a few years.

Mom’s in the video as well, laughing and interjecting. When I said in a few more generations people will be beaming themselves around the world, she quipped, “That’s the only way you’ll get me to travel that far again!”

I just found these videos. I was looking for some information about the train for work I’m doing, and I knew Michael had taken some videos while we were there, so naturally I thought this flash drive marked “Siberia. Videos” was it. It isn’t. It’s dad. It’s the first time I have heard his voice in almost four years. I’m still shaking. Sometimes you miss someone too much to hear their voice.

After college I lived in Tucson and my roommate was a dear friend of mine from St. Bonaventure—Tom. At some point after we’d pretty much hiked the hell out of the Sonoran Desert but before I discovered the financial gains of Mexican blankets, Tom moved back east to complete his degree at Bonas and would eventually become a dentist and live on a farm in New Hampshire. We’re still close all these decades later, despite rarely hearing his voice. But back then, I had four pictures in frames. I can’t remember now who was in the pictures, but I specifically remember a conversation about why I only had four when somewhere else in the apartment was a box of hundreds of photos of friends and family. I told him the memories they bring alive for me are so strong, so real and immediate, that I couldn’t handle more than four, that they would occupy my melancholic mind too long and I was too young to look back that long. We laughed because he understood, and before he left I wrote a poem on the back of a painting I had done (the only painting I have ever done) about the four pictures. I don’t remember it, but it seems to me I haven’t changed much since then. Looking around my office here at home I have a picture of Michael and me in front of a church in Spain, another of him and me on the flume ride at Busch Gardens when he was young, one of Dad and me–a black and white–at an outdoor cafe at the beach (my favorite picture of the two of us), a picture of my parents, and one of Dad on my parents’ honeymoon, him in a canoe holding a paddle above his head and laughing, looking young and strong and full of excitement for what would become more than sixty years with the woman taking the picture.

I have others scattered about the house, but mostly I have Michael’s abstract art hanging. I like abstract art, there’s something ethereal about it, though if I’m tired I think about how much fun we have had walking the docks while he takes pictures like that. I have a problem with time; it keeps screwing with me. For instance, watching the video of Dad made me think, just briefly, I might call him tomorrow. When I was young and drove around the country, I could always call Dad at his office on his toll-free number. It was very convenient, and to this day on those rare times I spot a payphone, I think of him.


Those weren’t the videos I was looking for, so I moved a box to find the handful of files from that trip when I spotted a stack of VHS tapes I still haven’t transferred to DVD. There are a few of a colleague and me in Russia, some of us in Norway, but several of Michael when he was young. One in particular I know I’ll never watch: he’s walking around the porch when he was five and had lined up all of his dinosaurs on the rail. In the video he picks up each one, explains what it is and when it lived, and makes some witty joke. Watching that one would be suicidal for me.

I don’t think I’m the only one like this; I’m just glad I am keenly aware of my emotional limitations. Ironically, I don’t live in the past and I am not a hoarder of artifacts of my life by any means.

It’s just sometimes I really miss my dad and hearing his voice tonight was just a little too much. I’ll find those files tomorrow. Tonight, I’m going to watch the Mets instead. They’re amazing right now.


In Defense of Decorum




“If you ask me what I came here to do in this world,

I, an artist, will answer you: I am here to live out loud.”

                                  –Emile Zola


The “great experiment” that is America has been challenged many times in the last two centuries, but all those attacks, both foreign and domestic, from the Civil War to Civil Rights, desegregation to suffrage, Iran-Contra to 911, had one thing in common which enabled transcendence of such tragedies—decorum. Even when disagreements arose, those at battle remained armed with respect for each other’s love of this country and maintained dignity in the presence of world media in an effort to demonstrate that America can handle its problems without digressing to schoolyard banter and behavior, and all sides insisted upon an absolute respect of the facts.

Some pundits assure us that “the Republic will survive, don’t worry.” It used to be easy to believe this; it used to be clear that our differences as citizens did not outweigh our love of this nation, and when the powers that be respectfully followed the rule of law and accepted the common denominator of truth, while not everyone would be happy with the results, the dissenting opinions at the very least knew those results were not attained for spiteful and personal reasons.

Listen to John McCain defend former President Barack Obama’s character to a voter who despised McCain’s opponent and verbally, wrongfully, abused him. Listen to the courtesy and respect for service to our nation shared by candidates Nixon and Kennedy in their debates. Listen to just about any two candidates in political history who, while they may find great fault with their opponents’ stance and sometimes even their character, knew to remain like an adult and maintain the presence of mind to understand basic human behavior.

The absence of that decorum will be the death of this nation long before any particular amendment or Supreme Court decision. Recently, a woman in North Carolina has been celebrated by her peers for refusing to apologize for a barrage of racial slurs thrown at a minority on the street. She is not alone as citizens abuse our first amendment rights to expose their decidedly prejudiced points of view.  This has been occurring with more frequency only since such classless behavior was demonstrated by the president dating back to his candidacy. Leaders who lower themselves so far as to speak in such uneducated terms will, in turn, as German native and American businessman Michael Kuhnert points out, elevate the egos of their followers by giving them some perceived superiority over all other groups based on race, nationality, religion, and gender. This is a primary method of fascism.

The conflicts caused by this growing trend to degrade those different than the mob is not about policy, and oddly enough it isn’t even about the allegations of criminal behavior on the part of either the president or members of congress; it is entirely possible previous political leaders were just as crooked, just as underhanded. Instead, it is about creating division in this country, again, based solely upon race, religion, ethnicity, and sexual preference, and that division has ignited a war of words not grounded in any form of valid debate but rather in the banter of street gangs and enraged mobs. It isn’t solely that such rallies persist with chant such as, “Lock her up!” and “Send them back!” but that those to whom we are supposed to look up to, those who are vying for the right to lead us and our country, stand idly by, which merely encourages the crowd.

The United States position as a world leader is clearly in question. The dependence of the world on this country in the wake of World War Two is long over, and countries will find other trading partners; they will build relationships with other nations, and they will not lose a beat as they write new treaties without the involvement, let alone the leadership, of the United States. And it isn’t beyond possible that they’ll discover they’re better off without the foul-mouthed, unpredictable commentary from Washington. Once gone, reestablishing those relationships might just be meaningless for them. No foreign power brought us down; no violation of treaties, no declaration of war, no natural disaster or terrorist attack broke the spine of this nation: we did it to ourselves with our blatant and repulsive hatred of our own citizens, and by demonstrating a severe lack of class in how we relate to each other.

The leaders of this country have become the most undignified group of leaders this land has ever seen, and that will break our endurance as a great nation more than any disagreement over policy.  The poison which runs through the marrow of this nation is not political dissent, it is not historically divisive issues such as abortion or gun control, it is pure hatred; the repugnant, immature, ignorant hatred displayed by the president and members of congress for our country’s own citizens.

This, then, is an appeal to my artist friends. Despite our quiet voices in this sea of noise, it has always been the task of the artist to expose inequity, injustice, and fascist tendencies. It was Thomas Paine whose small, seditious pamphlet Common Sense instilled in the citizens of the colonies the ability to move forward. It was David Walker in the early 1800s who called upon his Black brethren to resist. It was Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience; it was Carl Sandburg; it was John Stuart Mill and Richard Wright; it was the writings of Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan.

It was—it is—the artists.

President John F. Kennedy said, “When power leads man toward arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the area of man’s concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses.”

The writer, despite his isolation, has it in his or her power to put voice to what others wish to say but cannot, but once they hear it said, they sing along with the harmony of their generation. Ginsberg wrote, “Poetry is the outlet for people to say in public what is known in private.” And the beloved Robert Frost said, “A poem begins as a lump in the throat, a sense of wrong.”

The artists of our nation must combine our talents with our grief, blend our anxiety with our refrain, and we must risk exposing truth to say in whatever way we can, with whatever genre we must, that we used to be better than this, and we will not allow the loud voices of hate drown out the insistent chant of respect.