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I’ve been teaching college for twenty-eight years now and my classes usually fill pretty quickly. But in all of that time I’ve known some truly amazing professors. I work with a woman named Robin who has been teaching college since I was in third grade, and she is excellent at it; patient, experienced, knowledgeable in every aspect of her discipline. She’s the real thing. Like my brother-in-law, Greg, whose expertise in history has earned him respect around the world.

In my own fields, writing and English and arts and humanities, I’ve listened to lectures by colleagues and was amazed at their focus and thoroughness in presenting examples. These people are good, really good. They enjoy meetings and long discussions about accreditation and textbook selection. They can sit for hours and swap ideas about incorporating technology or revamping placement tests.

I can’t. I haven’t the patience. Sometimes in the middle of a lecture I want to stop and say, “Do you all realize that you can die at any moment; that a fighter jet might crash into this room right now, and you’re spending those last moments discussing the relevance of Kafka? What the hell is wrong with you?!” I can be a joy sometimes. It reminds me of a scene from Woody Allen’s “Radio Days” in which parents bring their young son to a psychiatrist because the child won’t do his homework. The doctor asks, “Why won’t you do your homework, kid?” and the kid responds, “The sun’s going to dry up in four billion years. What’s the point?” For awhile I thought this was a fatalist position, but I’ve reconsidered. I once asked a class what their topics were for the first paper due that week. No one answered. I said I was not grading them at all on topic choice, so they could tell me the topic was creamed corn and I would not have cared, I just wanted to know. No answer. I asked twice more and they stared at me. Then I said, “What the hell are you doing here?” They were quiet so I repeated it: “What in God’s name are you doing here?”

The dean of the department called me in and asked what happened in class because someone complained. I told her I asked them two questions and they couldn’t answer either one. She said I should have perhaps phrased them differently. I asked her what the hell is she doing there. I said, “Are you seriously going to sit here and suggest how I could have rephrased a question instead of telling the student to consider doing the work?” I walked out. I tend to walk out a lot.

For years—decades—I thought my colleagues at work shouldn’t be there if they’re going to insist on treating students like children. But I have been wrong. It’s me. Maybe I shouldn’t be there.

I can keep their attention; that I’m good at. I’ve been in front of crowds since I’m nineteen-years-old, and over the years I’ve stolen some excellent late night Comedy Channel material, and I can keep them laughing, and I can make the work relevant. But that’s not teaching; that’s entertainment. While I may argue that they need to be paying attention to begin with before I can start to hope they hear the lesson, I also well know that stimulating them like that doesn’t help with retention, both in their minds and on my enrollment sheet. No, a successful professor shows how the material is relevant, essential, and hopefully interesting.

So last week I went for a walk across campus. I passed the geese in the lake, the rows of crepe myrtles which run from my office to the parking lot and the grove of trees separating campus from the highway. I walked along a path near a farmer’s market and asked myself, very seriously, “What am I doing here?”

Why are we ever where we are? It is because we like it? Or is it because we simply lost momentum? There’s a great line in You’ve Got Mail. In a scene with Meg Ryan’s voice over for an email she is writing, she contemplates how she has a good life—simple but good. And then she says, “But sometimes I wonder: Do I do what I do because I like it or because I haven’t been brave.” Every once in a while I’ll watch a scene in a movie that makes me loose concentration in the film and start thinking about my life. That’s one of those moments. Every time.

For me the real answer is somewhat Kafkaesque: I’m here because my car broke down in the parking lot in 1989 when I was passing by the college headed from another city back to the oceanfront. I went in a building to use a phone and one thing lead to another and now I have twenty-eight years under my belt. I’ve been awarded many, many grants, taught full classes in subjects as various as African-American Literature, college composition, and creative writing. I even spent some time teaching a course about the art and culture of September 11th, 2001. I’ve written articles about education for newspapers, magazines, and the Chronicle of Higher Education. I’ve been to conferences to present and to learn, and I’ve taught as a guest in colleges in Russia, Prague, Amsterdam, and Norway. What an amazing twenty-eight years. I’m grateful.

But as a kid growing up listening to Fogelberg, reading Peter Jenkin’s A Walk Across America, and hanging out with adventurous people who traveled the world, “I want to teach college comp at a local community college” doesn’t roll off my lips.

I know that the reasons I stayed make sense, are justifiable, even absolute because some degree of responsibility is expected of a young father trying to find “roots” and a place for my son to come from. It is the great American dream, created centuries ago, made personally possible for me by the efforts of my beautiful mother and father. I was “on the right track.” I had “grabbed a corporation job by the tail before I die,” as an old friend of mine once sang. This is the Great American Dream. Yes. But equally true is the reality we aren’t all built the same.

My grip isn’t nearly as tight as it used to be. It sank in staring at the Gulf of Mexico the other day that in twenty years I’ll be in the final countdown to eighty. The list of things I’ll never get to do or do again is extensive, but this week convinced me that the list of things I still plan to do is too long for such an amount of time. I cannot believe—I mean, I cannot believe I let anyone—ANYONE—distract me from what is truly essential.

I do not plan on quitting my excellent job—don’t worry Mom. But I will not be defined by it anymore.

I’m fifty-seven years old and have never lived a conventional life, and it doesn’t seem like it is going to smooth out anytime soon. I prefer sunsets to Wheel of Fortune and sunrises to Good Morning America. I have theories, of course, about why I could never settle for the 9-5 gig so many I know settled into very comfortably. Maybe we have different stresses. But if I think I won’t get to see some place I’ve dreamed of I can’t sit still. Ayers Rock, Patagonia, Arles, Singapore, Banff. I have to see these places. I have to. I can’t explain this. It is as if to not see these places, to not go meet people who live lives there, to not write about it, to not be part of it all even ever so briefly is punishment, prison, some sort of cruel joke, and the stress can be unbearable.

The brain is freaking amazing. At four-thirty in the morning I can wake with regrets that make my stomach feel ill. Regrets about things I’ve written, said, did and didn’t do, the fate of the world, the trajectory of my life, or the smallest decisions. Fast forward to mid-afternoon, add some caffeine, some Cat Stevens or just the right James Taylor song and the same material I so decided was going to be my downfall before dawn can be exactly what drives me. Same work, same brain, different times of day.

It’s our call.

How often do we worry about disappointing someone else, or an entire group of someone else’s? How long does it take the average person to understand that the only way to pass our eventual aged years is by pursuing our own reality instead of someone else’s illusions?

I can’t help think of Denis Finch Hatton’s words made famous in Out of Nowhere by Robert Redford: “I don’t want to wake up one day at the end of someone else’s life.”

Ironically, it might be just that awareness that makes me an excellent college professor; the ability to make students question their place, contemplate their path, and evaluate their own truths.

It’s just that sometimes I’d rather be the example than the preacher.

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An Amendment or Two

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I’m likely to piss off some friends with this one. But enough is enough. 

Many (not all) gun advocates do not understand the need to restrict certain weapons. They see it as an infringement on their second amendment rights; that to prohibit American citizens from buying and responsibly owning any weapon they choose—whether assault rifle, grenade launcher, or something, you know, dangerous—is to deny them the rights set down in the constitution, even if some lost souls abuse that right and commit atrocities such as in Las Vegas.

And Orlando.

And Columbine.

And Sandy Hook.

And Tucson

And Aurora

And Oak Leaf, Wisconsin

And the Washington Navy Yard

And Fort Hood

And Charleston

And Chattanooga

And…

Do I describe that correctly, gun advocates? Does that sweeping little generalization pretty much sum up the primary defense of gun ownership?

I don’t mind the belief system as much as I do the repulsive hypocrisy.

To simplify: Americans are free to practice their rights as guided by the constitution, even if an over-abuse of those rights deeply and tragically infringe upon the rights of others, including their right to life?

Okay, my turn.

You see, the amendment just before your borderline violence-inducing one is the First Amendment; the free speech one. The one that allows you to shout down gun-control advocates, the one that allows you to display clever little bumper stickers that say, “Insured by Smith and Weston” or “Stop honking; I’m reloading.” That simple amendment that the founders found to be so essential to the progress of democracy they made it number one. Yeah, that one. The one that says if we are not happy with the way the country is going we can protest, so long as it is peaceful, organized, and does not infringe upon anyone else’s rights.

I heard way too many gun advocates shooting off their mouths about NFL players taking their knee during the National Anthem to protest how the government is treating them. Too many second-amendmentizers seemed more concerned that people were not standing during the National Anthem than they were why those people were not standing. It seems these people would be pissed at their children for getting blood all over their new shirt before they found out what caused the bleeding.  Did it even cross anyone’s mind to stop and ask what the problem is? To find out if something can be done for those men to rise again and have a reason to be grateful to be born in this country.

Why didn’t it cross the minds of those naysayers to pay attention to these men on their knees in protest of the government’s inability to create a society in which all men and women are treated as equal? When you see football players on their knees during the National Anthem, instead of instantly deciding they are being disrespectful to the country and flag, or are not patriots because they didn’t fight for the country, remember that they have a different fight; their battlefield is the prejudice in the workplace, the hatred on the city streets, the racial profiling on the highways, the assumption of guilt. Their battlefield is just about everywhere they go, and they must fight daily. These people do not whine, they do not turn tail and run away, they do not attempt to stir violence or shoot up a concert or a school or a platform with a congresswoman. They take a knee so that exactly what happened happens—that people talk about it, complain about it, draw attention to it, because they are saying, despite the uphill climb since before this country began, that things can be better and they want to be a part of making it so. They insist on standing in front of the line of fire from self-declared protectors of the flag so that the rest of their race and oppressed people have a fighting chance. Many of them fought in various wars only to come home to a country that wanted nothing to do with them; many were abandoned by the V.A. And many simply are tired of being ridiculed for speaking their mind while the same ones who ridicule them are defending the rights of others to own the guns which shoot up the streets.

How dare anyone question the patriotism of anyone else simply because they don’t wear a uniform or don’t stand and cheer to Lee Greenwood. Patriotism has included from the earliest days of this nation the right to protest, to sit down at counters, to refuse to relinquish a seat, to march down Fifth Avenue in silence, to march on Washington in song, to write small little pamphlets inciting people not to violence but to action, not to rebellion but to conversation.

Nowhere nowhere, not one place in the constitution does any line indicate that anyone should sit down and shut up. And that includes taking a knee to stand for something that those with blind faith refuse to accept. Democracy was designed to change with the times by allowing protest and conversation. Yes, it also allows the possession of firearms. But in both amendments, restrictions have always applied. You can’t yell fire in a theater. You can’t commit acts of libel or slander.

And you cannot you cannot you cannot advocate the ownership of arms which are designed for the sole purpose of mass destruction.

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How to Make an Omelet

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Writers face a task unlike most of the arts. In music you can judge how well you’re doing by simple comparison to the original song you’re trying to cover. In visual arts it isn’t unusual to see young painters in museums copying the masters, measuring their progress by their ability to replicate Van Gogh or Rembrandt. But writers have no such opportunity. We can’t simply retype a volume of Hemingway and hold it up at the end and say, “Check it out! For Whom the Bell Tolls Baby! I’m getting better every day!” No. It is a crapshoot. If we appear too much like one of our idols, we are emulating too closely. If we have too much of our own voice too quickly we are terrified and, often, ridiculed for straying from the canon (in that way all the arts are the same–music in particular and writing remain siblings in this difficult balance).

That’s why I love small chores with immediate results. Washing the dishes is a good one. Laundry. Cleaning the porch or cleaning out the shed. Mowing might be my classic example. These are all activities I can simply do while thinking of mostly other things, then after not-too-long of a time I can stand back and see the results. I can quickly assess whether or not I did a good job and redo parts that are obviously in need of another go at it.

Not a lot of guesswork is necessary; very little, if any, subjective viewpoints. It is what it is.

I have so little of that in my life. As a writer I am naturally dealing with material which can constantly be changed based upon my mood, the time of day, my caffeine intake. Even when I decide I’ve butchered a piece into place the best I can, I rewrite it again, restructure it, dump the intro and move the conclusion. Shred it. Eventually the editor will send the usual note indicating “only small grammatical corrections from this point on,” and I’ll panic realizing that means the journal is probably going to send back the four replacement paragraphs I shot off to them at the last minute. Instead, if the piece comes out in some anthology or another journal under a different title, I’ll include the new addition then, still knowing it will never be close to finished. Some things will never be finished.

Still, when something does come out in print or online I like to do just one quick take on it to see if they did something strange like add words I’d never use such as “spurious” or take out words I do use, like my name. Then I’m done. To look at the material again is just a way of seeing how differently I’d write it—not necessarily better, just different.

Right after that I mow the lawn. I admire the straight lines of cut grass; grass that was long but is now short. I trim the long grass around the stones and, ouila, done. Nothing to question; it is finished until next time.

However, in the best of days my usually unorthodox approach to everything from work to parenthood to travel and writing has always raised more questions than answers. Part of it is I take a lot of chances; another part is an overwhelming need to experience the passing of time as if I’m taking a dip in the ocean. I want to be absorbed in it, saturated by it. Maybe that’s why I write to begin with; to conjure a counterpoint to the persistence that is time.

Cooking is another task which can be immediately graded. I cook seafood mostly, but I also can make an amazing omelet. I knew a sous chef named Willie at the Hotel Hershey when I worked there half a lifetime ago. Sometimes he would take a weekend off to go to see his family in Puerto Rico, or just stay home, and I’d get to spend that day making omelets to order for the guests. The trick is to let it cook awhile on one side before the flip. I got good and I still love making them. Immediate gratification. Like playing Freecell or Tumbling Towers. I know instantly whether or not I did a good job.

If the temperature is too hot the egg will burn but if it is not hot enough it will not solidify well. The butter first (not spray not margarine not bacon grease butter just butter and if that bothers you eat oatmeal), followed by any hard ingredients—peppers, shrimp, etc—and after they’ve been thoroughly sautéed, pour in the room temperature, already beaten eggs—three is perfect. Keep pushing the egg toward the middle or sides to let the uncooked egg slide under the cooked part, making for a fluffy, well distributed omelet. When the whole thing seems un-oozy, flip it with a snap of the wrist so it lands in the same spot only upside down. Cover with shredded cheese and then fold in half and let it slide in perfect placement with the half-moon side matching the curve of the plate like two ballet dancers in unison.

Then eat.

This doesn’t work in writing. The second paragraph of this piece, for instance, was originally the beginning. The one starting with, “I love small chores with immediate results.” I changed it a few seconds ago. Writing has no guideline, no recipe, no set ingredients. I wonder now why I didn’t write, “When I mow the lawn I always start near the driveway and work my way to the woods.” Or “I do the larger dishes first when I clean and the silverware last.” Both decent starts. I can also point out now that originally the omelet section was the first paragraph, but I buried it later to back off of the “process” style which can be overbearing and misleading. I also couldn’t decide whether or not to include Willie. I kept putting him in and then leaving him out thinking it irrelevant, but then I decided to leave him in because I thought it a small detail that personifies the example. And yet another part of the writer side of me is constantly saying, “Who gives a shit?” as I write. Writers must constantly strive toward uniqueness without the benefit of example which itself defines contradiction.

Thank God I love to cook. Balance is everything.

Still, I like not knowing if what I’m working on is on the right track; not being able to see too far into the work. I like discovering where I’m going only when I get there or maybe slightly before that, and then getting lost again, trying different directions until the landscape reveals itself.

I wonder if I live the way I do because I write, or if I write the way I do because of how I live?

I don’t always want to know what’s going to happen. Maybe what I’ve been working on for all these years will turn out to have a happy ending; or maybe some tragedy will strike and I’ll need to write myself out of a corner and make some alternative escape from the monotony of a three-decade-old narrative. Whatever. I just know that in the end, the old axiom, “Watch pot never boils,” is not true. Of course it will boil. Einstein’s theories aside, the pot on the heat is going to boil. It is one of the few predictable aspects of life we can count on. Time is selfish that way. Not one fat second will ever lose an once on my account.

And no matter how many ways I approach it in the years I have left, I am never going to be finished with this life I’ve been writing. There are just too many ways to rewrite it; and far too many people already are too accepting of their first draft.

A quick nod to Paul Simon: “I’ve been working on a rewrite, that’s right. Gonna change the ending. Gonna throw away the title and toss it in the trash. Every evening after midnight is time I’m spending, working on a rewrite; I’m gonna turn it into cash.”

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A Pathless Wood

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The details aren’t important, but in a nutshell: Toward the end of last week I was walking along a steep cliff and slipped. A friend of mine reached down, caught me by the fingertips, and pulled me back up. I have never felt such relief; he’ll just say he was giving me a hand.

As years pass and the events of what turned out to be one of the truly shittiest weeks of my life fade to some horrible memory, what I will always now remember instead of the stress and the lack of sleep and the uncertainty, will be this gesture. It is difficult for any of us to translate the significance of another’s actions to someone who helps us out. I’ll avoid the “butterfly effect” metaphor, and I definitely will steer clear of the pebble in the pond bit, but it is along those lines—in a good way.

This is about perspective, of course. This is about what will become important to us in retrospect.

I remember a story once about a man who went fishing with his young son. The father had a lousy time because he so wanted to catch a fish for his son, or even better help his son hook one. He was so disappointed when they drove home with nothing, silent the entire time. Some months later his son had tragically passed and when going through his things he found a diary in which the boy wrote for the entry on that day of fishing, “Spent the whole day at the lake with my dad. Best day of my life!” Sometimes we miss the point.

I wonder how often we just assume the person falling will land on a ledge somewhere and be fine? Or even more, how many times do we figure “It isn’t all that bad! Look on the bright side”? Sometimes someone trusts us at our word and, without question, hooks in and helps out. What seems like a simple kindness to someone else might be the equivalent of a second birth to the guy who can’t hang on any longer.

So with what seems like a great deal of weight lifted from my shoulders I made a list of what is truly essential. I’ll avoid references to Antoine de Saint-Exupery, I’ll by-pass the five or so predictable Hallmarkesque choices such as “family” and “health,” and I’ll swiftly move to the following:

6. Walking in nature. There is an absolute presence of timelessness there. It is as it was hundreds of years ago and will be from now, it doesn’t pass judgement, it holds no grudges, it suffers no criticism. It is as close to perfection as one can get for the passing of time. It boggles my mind how it can clear my head so easily.

7. A sense of humor. I don’t mean reacting to jokes or watching a comedy. I mean exactly the opposite: I mean being able to see something unexpectedly tragic as an opportunity and a chance, seeing something that changes as simply something new, looking at getting lost as discovery, looking at losing something as simplifying.

8. Trust. I heard someone once quote St. Bernard of Clairvoux as saying. “We must learn to make excuses for other people.” I loved that. I want to move forward trusting that the excuses others have are pleas for forgiveness or help. I want to have more humility when someone needs to rush around me on the highway. I want to look at people as having good reasons for questionable actions. I just think it is healthier to trust and lose than spend life with the bitter aftertaste of doubt.

9. Talking to strangers. Everyone I know in my life was at one time a stranger. At the start I didn’t know the names of my closest confidants. I want to sit more on boardwalk benches for just five minutes if that’s all we can spare and talk. I did that a few weeks ago and an old man on vacation from Poughkeepsie and I talked about the smell of salt water in the air.

10. Laugh. (okay, I had to throw in at least one trite, predictable choice). We need 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.

But you know what? At times I think Robert Frost was right: Life can seem like a pathless wood. Sometimes it hurts really bad anyway and you feel like a man on a cliff whose legs are about to give out. 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. I want to laugh like we did when we were young and we would tickle, entice, and play the clown or the fool. It is the ultimate in now, the definitive value of absolute present. It’s Nietzsche’s need to call every truth false which was not accompanied by at least one laugh. We laugh and nothing hurts and 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; no time when we are laughing and we enjoy the break from the cold reality of life where things fall apart. But not when we let ourselves rejoice and be glad.

Eventually, I will forget the stress and the anxiety of these days, but I will never forget the friend who chased it away. Time is going faster now than ever before. And if I can slow it down just a little bit, it would be to spend more moments laughing with good friends, drinking wine, and try and finally understand that every single morning is a second chance.

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Verbal Abuse

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I wrote this a long time ago, but with my full schedule starting Monday it seemed dreadfully appropriate now:

I suppose it started when my son and I shopped at a local food store. Some five year old near us called to his mother, “Hey Mama! Do we be needin’ potatoes?” To which his mother replied, “We ain’t be gottin’ no need for no potatoes.” The kid paused, looked up, and I said it sounded like they didn’t need them but that I hadn’t done the math yet.

It’s a big bad negative world we live in.

“No, I ain’t feeling bad.”

“I don’t be needin’ none of your shit.”

“Don’t be talkin’ no trash to no one.”

The bad grammar is not the problem, though that’s a problem. It’s the not-so-vague undercurrent of negativity which surfaces in conversation and conduct that is the true issue. The “ain’t”s, “no”s, and “don’t”s run out front of their ramblings like offensive tackles, pushing and shoving as soon as the sentence comes off the tongue. It’s hard to avoid them.

These grammatically-challenged people subconsciously convinced themselves that nothing good is going to happen. Worse, something negative precedes all of their actions, both verbal and proverbial. It’s positively shocking. Listen:

At a McDonalds where two workers tried to fix a blender: “It don’t do nothing, do it?”

At a restaurant when the hostess asked another customer where he’d like to sit: “It don’t make no difference.”

At the counseling office on campus: “You mean he don’t need no developmental English?”

No kidding.

Maybe I’m simply not a negative person—except now of course.

Truth is, I really couldn’t care less about the speech, though it is annoying. And I can easily attempt to administer editing drills that eliminate this moron-babble from their essays; what I can’t control is the rising tide of helplessness that’s the true problem. Why does anyone want the primary root idea of every thought and conversation to be a variation of “no”?

I really don’t know.

I asked my students what they hoped to accomplish after college, where they hoped to be. They hadn’t thought about it. One student said, “I don’t want to think about it. It don’t look too good out there.”

Momentum is dead. These people feel like they’re running on ice. Was a time they knew they could defeat anything that kept them from their goals. They believed in themselves. Their natural mental state bent toward something positive. No more.

Everything, after all, is negative. War pervades the American mind in little more than a stream of body counts and car-bomb updates. Hurricanes slam our shores and send us reeling into “he should have” “she should have” volleys. The news has always been negative, but now the news is on all the time, from computers, I-phones, television, radio, and newspapers. None of it is good and it ain’t getting no better. And college isn’t a hiding place either. Most students would rather pull a lower grade than have a professor look at a rough draft; students immediate reaction to any question, proposal, suggestion, or instruction is absolute defense and anxiety; if it happened before they were born, it really doesn’t have any affect on them and therefore they shouldn’t be required to learn about it. Hamlet is boring; Oedipus is stupid; statistics is tedious; bio lab is too long; developmental classes are a waste of money; introduction to lit is a waste of time; history is not relevant; philosophy has no practical application; psychology is fucked up and so are the instructors; text messages are read more than text books; face to face communication is obsolete; and when I tell them they are better than their attitudes, that they can achieve every single one of their goals despite being trained for twelve years to simply do what they’re told and shut up, they laugh and say, “I ain’t got no time for none of that.”

In their defense, however, who really cares? After all, I do know what the students are saying, or trying to say, and I understand why they have slipped into such lazy, uneducated speech. I know the times they live in now demand this mindless reactionary talk in order to be accepted by other mindless friends. But these people graduated from a high school in the United States. They are what we define as “educated” and “literate.”

“Professor Kunzinger, I ain’t had no time to finish no works cited page.”

“Mr. Kunzinger, my car don’t have no spare tire and I be stuck out here.”

“Bob, I don’t need no developmental English. I didn’t do bad in high school.” This is what I’m talking about: Not, “I did well in high school,” but “I didn’t do bad.” But they fit in. Bottom line remains—you’ve got to fit in.

These kids are so passive that sounding intelligent is of no value. They don’t understand that command of the language is not about being taught some med-evil construct carried over the pond by mostly snotty old white upper class Englishmen. Using the language as a sword with skill and finesse allows them to outwit anyone, any age, any income. It allows them to move without being noticed from group to group to take command, to lead, to sway the argument in their favor. It is the basis of all advancement, and it acts as the sharpest tool against a dull public out to take advantage of everyone.

This is real–these are actual responses:

“My dad don’t have no computer at home, and I ain’t got no time to spend in no library.”

“You ain’t going to accept my paper? But my math teacher don’t give me no time to work on no paper with all the lab shit she got us doin.”

“I don’t remember no requirement to turn in no rough draft? That ain’t what you said. Bullshit.”

“I don’t need to be hearin nuttin bout no work I gotta be doin.”

This is standard now. This is the formal reply understood by most of the students roaming the hallways. They believe the art of communication is simply to be understood; it has nothing to do with being respected and taken seriously. “I should be accepted for who I am, not how I speak,” I’ve been told many times.

Listen: How you speak IS who you are. You may be brilliant, but prove it for God’s sake. Stop hiding the Mensa tendencies.

I call it “Tonal Directed Conversation.” The literal translation of the words is not nearly as important as understanding what the person means. Back to the store: “I ain’t be gotten no need for no potatoes,” in tone, is crystal clear. This woman is not buying the spuds. In fact, if I did do the math, it even comes out that way. She’s got three negatives floating through that amoebae sentence; it actually spins back toward “no” in the end. But that aside, the tone is clearer than the language. Knowing that, she might as well have been speaking Russian or Turkish. What difference does it make even if she merely grunted and pointed, so long as the tonal inference clearly shut out the potato-buying possibility.

Everyone knew what she meant; it don’t make no difference.

I figured she had been in high school during the Reagan administration. But when Reagan told them to “Just say no,” this is so not what he meant. So now the question remains: Is it enough to know what someone means?

I’ve been teaching too long to know it wasn’t always like this. I don’t remember any (note: “any” not “no”) such verbal abuse years ago. Students could complete a coherent sentence without round-kicking the language. And when I tell my students this, they tell me I’m arrogant and offensive. Well, there they’ve got me.

The thing is, sometimes, I am also wrong.

History compels me to admit maybe I don’t know nothing about what I’m saying. A little homework reveals how English ain’t so easy to master: Turns out most other languages thrive on the negative, and double negatives in fact were once wholly acceptable in English. Chaucer says of the Friar, “There was no man nowhere so virtuous”; and Shakespeare’s Viola says of her heart, “Nor never none/Shall mistress of it be, save I alone.” It’s all about emphasis. English remains, in fact, the only major language that doesn’t allow double negatives. Why? Well, it simply ain’t logical. Grammarians since the Renaissance have objected to the double negative because these humanists who emerged during the age or reason demanded English conform to formal logic. They pointed out that two negatives destroy each other and make a positive. Since then, half a millennia later, this rule advocated by teachers of grammar and writing has become fundamental.

Nevertheless, all speakers of all educational backgrounds continue to use multiple negatives when they want to make a point, as when President Reagan taunted his political opponents by saying “You ain’t seen nothing yet.” That line uttered earlier by Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer was the first spoken words of cinema. And the movies ain’t got no better since.

I don’t like being wrong, however, so I called a linguist.

“What is the problem with ‘ain’t’?” I asked.

“Well,” he said. “It first appeared in English in 1778, evolving from an earlier form an’t, which arose almost a century earlier as a contraction of are not and am not. In fact, ain’t comes from the same era that introduced ‘don’t’ and ‘won’t.’” He took what sounded like a sip of tea. “Ain’t and some of these other contractions came under criticism in the 1700s for being inelegant and low-class, even though they had actually been used by upper-class speakers. But while don’t and won’t eventually became perfectly acceptable at all levels of speech and writing, ain’t does not come from any direct word sequence, making it a “vulgarism,” that is, a term used by the lower classes.”

He stopped talking. “Cool,” I said. “But are not contractions of any form vulgar to a true linguist?”

“No, Bob,” he said. “I do not think so. Even a linguist can not avoid using them.”

I was not clear about this so he clarified. “Distaste for the word ‘ain’t’ is still alive, Bob. Its use is still regarded as a mark of ignorance.”

“But technically then,” I argued, “these students are not wrong, they are just living in the Middle Ages.”

“Well, I would not say that. I believe we must accept that vulgarisms have no place in our language. The worst of these vulgarisms is the double negative and ‘ain’t. It also thrusts their mentality toward depression. With language, however, we can contract hope and the future into a vulgarism we can all live with. Emphasis should be on the meaning.”

“So you are saying that without meaning in our words we are simply grunting with accents and scratching our stupidity.”

“Exactly, Robert. Well put,” he said.

I had to disagree. “Wait, though. You’re the linguist here, but maybe the nay-sayers are correct.”

“But they could not possibly…”

“Isn’t it possible that tone really is more important than meaning?”

“No! That simply does not make sense.”

“That seems a bit negative?”

“Perhaps if these students understood education…”

“Well now you’re being arrogant and offensive!”

“Are you suggesting that the rudiments of the language are enough?”

“Well what difference does it make how they say it. You know what they meant?”

After he hung up I thought more about it. English has evolved for a thousand years, leaving behind meaning, gaining new meaning through time. We’ve dropped words completely, changed the definition of others. In America’s early days, the Irish, the English, the Italians and the Dutch beat the crap out of English. Webster came along and fearful of a country with multiple languages each with nearly unrelated dialects, homogenized us all to the English we banter about today. But why would be believe we’re done? The language is still evolving. Maybe we’re at the start of a neo-Renaissance. While Newton would have taken issue with the illogical taste of double negatives, Voltaire would have loved it. The language is changing, there is no doubt about that. How we speak today is a far cry from where we were, and a faint hint of what’s to come.

Truth is, you ain’t seen nothing yet.

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Dunkirk on the Bayou

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They took to helms and crossed flooded streets to rescue friends from rooftops, from windows, from roaming reptiles at river bends. They rowed and motored and sailed down interstate highways.

The catch of the day: A grandmother, some children, their friends. Pets. Strangers.

A fisherman says, “I have to do this.” His daughter nods, says, “I know” as he fires up the Evinrude. The river moves closer to his own backyard and across the street a neighbor waves him by. He passes a cop consoling a man on a white van. He passes a reporter saving an old couple from drowning. “I know,” the reporter says, “that the line between covering a flood and being covered is fluid, often difficult to navigate. It is important to remain professional,” he adds as he lifts the old man into the boat, microphone and notepad tossed to the side.

Some retired trucker sits on his roof; he can’t find his wife. “She was just here,” he tells a boater who stops to help.

Sometimes people can’t help themselves, so they help others.

The Cajun Navy deployed a fleet of flat bottom carriers captained by construction workers, Wal-Mart employees, hardware store clerks, and off-duty police. Judge Ed Emmett put out the word for anyone who had a boat to help out. He only had to ask once. These men and women moved in fast, dropped off first responders, left with bags of belongings grasped by Texans in shock. This went on for days. In some parts of Houston it continues.

How much can you fit in a 16 foot flat bottom boat? Wait: there are already other people in it, some pets, the responders, and gas cans. The waters are rising fast, and everything you’ve ever owned is now or is about to be under water. How much can you hold in your arms as the boat speeds away from the last look at the flooded eaves.

What matters most now?

My brother lives between Houston and Galveston. He let us know the waters had not reached his house and he still had power. This is most likely a combination of excellent planning when searching for a home, and luck. Either way, his house was fine so far and I walked outside relieved.

I went for a walk along the Rappahannock River toward the bay and considered my 17-foot canoe. How much could I fit? What would I grab when the Chesapeake climbed the shore and rolled through the windows? Can I box up the memories? Can I stow away the years here raising my son, dinners with my parents, mementos of my travels? My house is quite high above and away from the water so I’ve little to worry about with flooding, but I’d most certainly be cut off from getting out, and Hurricane Isabel didn’t flood so much as she ripped thirty oaks out of the ground on my property. There are still plenty of trees left standing to fall.

It’s a terrifying sound—an eighty-foot oak cracking in half in the dead of night. The sound of waves, too, which normally bring some organic sense of peace, can terrorize the tenant in a first floor flat.

Of course I don’t want anything to change. I don’t want to lose what I spent decades building. But honestly, at some point little matters more than the chance to get to higher ground. For many, choice isn’t part of the equation. And when that’s the case, I’m certain the heroes in the double-hulled boats will remember the people they saved longer than the items they lost. And those who held tight to the bow as they left behind their pictures, their journals, their children’s toys, their clothes and sense of security, their sense of place, probably understand more than any of us that no matter how hard you try and keep control over what’s going on around you, no matter how much you cling to the notion of choice, we may not be the one’s at the helm.

Sometimes the only way to be saved is by letting go.

Hurricane Irma is on the prowl, eyeing down the Leeward Islands, contemplating Puerto Rico. It isn’t clear just yet if she will settle under the keys and into the gulf, rip like Andrew did across southern Florida, or, as some projections anticipate, curve up the coast, across the Outer Banks and into the Chesapeake Bay. Luckily in Deltaville where I live boats out number people seven to one.

Life has changed for the tens of thousands of Texans now forced to start over, many with absolutely nothing at all. But when we make an accounting of what is absolutely necessary to salvage, to protect, the list is quite short. All the footage I’ve seen of people being saved and brought back to dry land in and around Houston show residents with absolutely nothing at all, grasping each other and declaring almost like a chorus, “Thank God we’re okay; oh thank God we are okay. Thank you for saving us.”

At the very least, they understand better than many what matters most.

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You Had to Be There

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Time reference: It’s late Friday night while I’m writing this and the years are swirling around inside my head right now. I’m in my study in my dad’s old easy chair, where I often sit at night to write, and it is quiet this late. My brother and sister-in-law are battening down in their house south of Houston as Hurricane Harvey approaches; my sister is with our mom in Virginia Beach as all sorts of changes keep forcing new ways of thinking.

A few weeks past I found an old cassette tape I forgot I had. You see, thirty-five years ago I got through college (emotionally) with the help of my best friend—an old 12 string Takamine guitar. I played in my dorm. I played at a nursing home, at a few local pubs, and in the campus café where once every two months or so the musicians on campus would gather and play for a packed house. As those few, short years passed it became more and more fun, and of all the activities I did during those four years, those coffeehouses with fellow musicians were easily some of the most memorable. The stories I have from those gigs could fill a hundred pages and just thinking of a few of them while sitting here gives me goose bumps and makes me all at once feel very young, ready for the world, and very old and tired. That was so long ago yet I can hear every note, the sound of the crowd, the lights above the stage, the odd backdrop of an Olympic size swimming pool behind the curtains and glass, and some anecdotes I could never properly capture in a blog. For me, it is the ultimate “you had to be there” situation.

A lot of musicians came and went those years but one in particular stood out; Mike was a resident director who played guitar. We played a lot of music together. He and I once drove to Rochester to buy a piano and bring it back in a van, and we talked the entire time, stopping at Letchworth State Park to rest and watch the waterfalls and talk about dreams and hopes and fears. We stood at the scenic overview and talked about music and the passing of time. We talked about Walt Whitman and Thoreau. On another occasion we went to an International Coffeehouse competition. Out of a hundred or so participants Mike and I both made the final five and he won. What a time that was. After my junior year he took a new job somewhere else, but senior year the college had him back to perform a coffeehouse by himself. He was a mixture of James Taylor and Paul Simon. The café filled to capacity again and he played. The night was all Mike and a room filled with friends who we knew we would know the rest of our lives. Of course, that wasn’t the case. A few of us remained close, a few others I’ve been back in touch with and it has enriched my life with the only thing that matters in the end, the love of friends. Still, I don’t know what happened to Mike.

But I found this tape of that night at the café when he returned to campus, and I burned a cd from it, and now I’m sitting here in my study in my dad’s old easy chair listening to where I was and who I was thirty-five years ago.

Does anyone pull out the wedding video twenty years later and reminisce? Does anyone peruse old tapes of childhood birthdays? Perhaps. I generally don’t. I watched a video of Michael when he was five riding his bike around the property yelling gleeful things, while on the porch you can see my dad, my uncle and aunt, all laughing and talking with the energy of the ages. Quickly I was sorry I pulled the tapes out—maybe my memory is still sharp enough to hear their voices without any aid, or maybe I’m too melancholic to drown in the sentiment of “back then.” I like looking ahead, I really do.

But sometimes it is okay to look back carefully, because as Jackson Browne depressingly points out, “There’s still something there for me.” It can’t be a bad thing to get a glimpse of the good parts of the past.

At the café all those years ago, I know I sat next to my friends Maria and Jennifer, and Sean and Debbie were at a table on the other side of the stage. The entire resident staff was there with a case of beer. I recognize a lot of the voices on the tape from the crowd as they called out. It is odd to find proof of a different version of myself. Photographs are too static, and video is too animated and distracting as we comment on clothes or hairstyles or the lack of lines on our faces. But just audio, an old tape on which my voice is the same as it is now, is like standing outside of twenty-two again and overhearing who I thought I was. Do people that young today still dream like that? As a professor I have stared at twenty-two for twenty-eight years now and I don’t see the spark and raw ambition I remember when I was young. Maybe, but a lot of what we did back then was the result of a rare combination of passion and lack of distraction. For the most part technology was not in our lives so we were more a part of each others’. Or maybe it’s Mike’s choice of songs, or maybe it is just this easy chair, but something was different then; we actually believed in the craziest part of ourselves.

I am closer now to ninety-years-old than I am to that night.

Most of what he played was original, but one song, playing right now, is a Peter Yarrow song, and in the refrain Mike sings “Must have been the wrong rainbow, because I don’t see any pot of gold. All I see is a man too old to start again.”

Okay, so tonight this can go two ways: I can drown in the used-to-be’s of that energy in our innocent youth. Or I can get up tomorrow and smile and know parts of who I was back then are still here, a bit more weathered and a little more tired, but here just the same.

I wasn’t very good. Oh my God we made so many mistakes. But what I was excellent at back then was not being afraid to embarrass myself in pursuit of a passion. We laid it all out there for better or worse, mostly worse, and said, “This is who I am and what I’m feeling right now.” I was so anxious, every single time. So was Mike. But we kept doing it because that comes with the territory. If you’re going to be in the arts, whether music or writing, visual arts or the art of being human, you have to step in your own direction despite the urge of those around you to push you back in line. So we played and we weren’t afraid of making mistakes.

And people kept showing up.

I suppose that even at twenty-two I was simply more terrified of falling into a rut, following anyone into anything. I was going to be the Greater Fool, the “other” one, the guy who wasn’t afraid to embarrass himself in an effort to pursue a dream. I guess I got distracted after all. It is good to listen to then and remember me.

So now I am sitting here in my late father’s easy chair wondering how my mother is doing with so many changes and how my brother is doing with the weather down near Galveston. I’m thinking about my adult son and the miles he has already logged in pursuit of his own dreams. He is older now than I am in this tape I’m listening to. Yet I am as far from sad or melancholy as can be. Because I’m still here, I’m still doing coffeehouses but instead of music I’m telling stories in which I tend to write things which say, “This is who I am and what I’m feeling right now.” It seems the more things change, the more they stay the same. It might be nearly four decades later, but I’m still embarrassing myself in pursuit of an art, which is, for any artist, a way of exposing the soul. Back then I wanted anyone to listen. Now, I write for myself, and if an audience finds something worthy in the words, that’s a bonus. I’m just doing what my soul tells me to do, just like I did at twenty-two.

As Whitman pointed out: “The powerful play goes on and you might contribute a verse.”

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