Gibbs’ Rule #39

butterfly

 

There was the time Renee and I stopped to have lunch at a restaurant in a Mexican village. While we were eating I noticed a woman staring at us. I figured she just appreciated seeing other Americans in the place, but she didn’t look away. A few minutes later she came to our table, laughing excitedly. She was Renee’s babysitter back in their small western New York town.

These things happen. Right place, right time.

Then there was the time two friends from high school came to one of my readings. I’d not seen them in thirty-five years, yet they stood there as if neither aged all that much. Later when we sat talking I asked if they lived on mountaintops. They both said no so I said then it doesn’t make sense, them not aging all that much.

(Physics sidebar: time goes slower the higher you are. Time is measured at sea level, so someone on top of K-2 would take longer to get all the way around. Think of a track around a football field. The person on the very outside lane [the mountain top] will take much longer and travel farther than the one on the inside lane, which is the one used for measuring. These two women from high school looked like they had been high).

Someone once told me that everyone we meet in life we pass again at least once more. At first this frightened me because the first and only time I ever saw Lee Pierce was in seventh grade when he beat the crap out of me at a bus stop because his girlfriend liked me; I don’t need that drama back in my life. But the more I thought about it, the more I wondered how true it might be. For those who don’t travel much, running into everyone twice over the course of seventy or eighty years might not be too difficult. And for those who travel often, the constant shuffling through airports and pubs increases the likelihood of multiple run-ins. I’ve been through Kennedy airport quite often. Surely at least once or twice someone I grew up with was there at the same time.

Like the time I was walking down a street in St Petersburg, Russia, when a woman I had worked with ten years earlier in Pennsylvania was standing in a restaurant banging on the window to get my attention.

We have long lists of people we’d love to see again. It’s why I like to people-watch while waiting in malls or airports or train stations. Even more fun is spotting the Doppelgangers out there, both famous and familiar. Years ago I spent time at Chapel Hill with the visual twins of Pete Rose and Penny Marshall. Then there was the time just a few years ago in Spain when a friend from college who knew I was going to be on the Camino wrote to ask if we’d light a candle for him for a health issue. Of course, so the morning of his appointment in Ohio, July 25th, we headed out for the next twenty miles of our stroll near Pamplona when John from New York joined us for the. John was the spitting image of my friend from college. His voice, his eyes, the way he laughed, his gait—all of him—was the mirror image of the one person who asked us to light a candle for him on that very day for his appointment five thousand miles away. Good timing I suppose.

I was in a food store in the late eighties when a kid ran past and knocked over a display. A very old man bent to pick up the packages and I helped. While we were crouched down I noticed his Knights of Columbus lapel pin. I said I knew of the organization and when he talked I knew he was from Brooklyn. I said my grandfather had been heavily involved in the Knights in Brooklyn but it would have been before his time, I’m sure. It wasn’t. When I told him my grandfather’s name, he responded with his ancient smile, “Ed! Ed Kunzinger! I knew him when I first joined! He was already State Deputy then!” That man was the only person I’ve ever met outside of family who knew my grandfather. That was kind of cool and, again, good timing. Thank God the kid knocked over the cookies.

Everything is timing, isn’t it?

A man in Buffalo was sitting in his recliner watching television when a jet trying to land at the airport crashed into his home and killed him. The news said he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. No he wasn’t. He was in the right place at the wrong time. The plane was in the wrong place. We do that a lot, excuse things, find cause and blame.

There are four possibilities: Right place right time, right place wrong time, wrong place right time, wrong place wrong time.

  1. You’re going to work and while waiting to turn at the stop light you look down and outside the car is a bag of cash: Right place right time.
  2. You’re going to work and while waiting at the light a plane crashes into your car. Right place wrong time.
  3. You’re going to work and get lost. When you stop for directions someone gives you a bag of cash for no reason. Wrong place right time.
  4. You’re going to work and get lost. When you stop for directions a plane crashes into where you are standing. Wrong place wrong time.

Could be luck. Could be fate. Could be distractions or even hyper-attentiveness.

The other day I stopped to buy something at a mall in Virginia Beach. It is the same mall that my father liked to walk around during his later years. It is quiet there, less crowded than others, and the floor is carpeted. Comfortable chairs and benches are nicely spaced, and since it is on my way from one college to another, I would often swing through the parking lot to look for his car. He always parked in the same area, and if it was there I would go in and find him and walk with him a while.

On Tuesday last week I walked through to get to a particular store when I spotted someone walking slowly. It made me sad, of course, remembering my walks with Dad, but the familiarity of it made me look at him as I walked by, and I knew I knew him, or knew him at some point. So I followed him to talk to him when he sat down. I’m sure security were all gathered around a monitor somewhere to figure out what this stalker was doing. I was stealth, looking in windows and stopping to tie my shoe several times. He went to a lottery machine and looked at cards, so I went to the next machine and looked at other cards. I had no idea that some of these things cost twenty bucks and the odds of winning at least twenty dollars back are pretty bad! There was one ticket that was twenty dollars and you only got to scratch one spot to win. And people buy these things!

Anyway.

He looked at his machine and I looked at mine and finally I said, “Twenty dollars. That’s crazy.”

“Yes it is.”

“Do you play at all?”

“No. Sometimes I buy the dollar ones for my grandkids, but I don’t waste money like that. I worked too hard.”

“You sound like you’re from up north”

“I am. From Brooklyn. But I’ve lived in Colorado most of my life,” he said. It figures, I thought, the mountains; he might actually be a hundred and fifteen.

“Me too! Well, Long Island, but I was born in Brooklyn.”

I introduced myself. So did he. Nothing.

“You look familiar to me.”

“Yes, you do too. Well perhaps our paths have crossed before,” he said, “back in the old country.” We both laughed. I said it was nice to meet him and he said the same and that perhaps we’d see each other again, and I sat on a bench thinking about my dad, hoping he would come around a corner and smile.

I like to think I’ll see him again, the old man, perhaps staring at a lottery machine for no other reason than to take a break while walking. And we’ll talk about what has been going on since the last time, and eventually we’ll walk to the food court and have coffee and talk about the old days, back when we always seemed to find ourselves in the right place at the right time.

 

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and I, I chose

a vew pic 6

 

I’ve been reading Frost again. He’s a good diversion.

Of course sometimes I wonder if what I’m doing is what I should be doing; I mean in the big picture. Who doesn’t? Here I am ages and ages hence and occasionally I think back with a sigh and briefly consider whether or not the “other path” really would have been just as fair. Honestly, we spend the better part of three or four decades almost entirely in one profession before we retire. I can’t possibly be the only person busting down the path full speed who would love to return from the dead five or six more times to live out all the careers I dreamed about. I’d come back as a musician for certain. Then maybe open soup kitchens everywhere. After that I’d do a spin as an architect; maybe one round as an athlete. Cooking would be cool.

Back at the start just before I graduated from Penn State while working at a bar, my brother sent me a job-listing for adjunct professors at the community college in Virginia Beach. My brand new graduate degree qualified me for English, humanities and art, so I sent my application. Still, I had already secured a position teaching journalism in the Chesapeake high schools. A few weeks earlier I had interviewed there and got the job. They just hadn’t figured out which of the schools would be mine.

When I went that August to claim my position, human resources informed me they lost my paperwork and hired someone else. After some brief words with the director which pretty much insured that they never again would consider hiring me, I drove toward our beach apartment, but a traffic jam on the interstate sent me through back roads. Just as I worked my way to the southern part of the city, my car rattled and coughed so I pulled into the first safe area I could find, and my car promptly died—in the community college parking lot.

This is pre cell phone so I walked toward a building to make a call. It was just before fall semester and few offices were staffed, but I found one with a phone and a lovely woman named Eleanor and her boss, Bill. AAA put me on hold, of course, and while I waited Bill walked from his small office to Eleanor’s desk and said in his distinct southern accent, “Eleanor! We still need someone to teach humanities on Wednesday nights!”

I had planned to get the car working and go see a friend of mine who owned a hotel on the beach and ask to work with him again. Instead, I lowered the mouthpiece and said, “I can do that.”

Bill looked at me. “Who are you?”

Eleanor explained my car situation. I added the master’s in humanities part and that I had sent an application a few months earlier on my brother’s advice. Bill asked me to come in his office when I was off the phone. I hung up. AAA could wait.

Within a week I had five courses to teach. Two years later they hired me full time. Almost three decades later I work in the same building, teaching the same courses, still staring at rooms filled with twenty-year-old people. My world has not aged, though I have. It is an odd existence to stare at twenty-one for twenty-six years. Earlier this week I taught Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken,” and today I wondered what I would have done if they didn’t need someone on Wednesday nights. Or if my car hadn’t broken down, or if they hired me to teach Journalism in Chesapeake, or if my brother hadn’t sent the ad and I hadn’t sent in my application.

So it’s my brother’s fault that I teach college. “Either/or” decisions fill our lives like trodden leaves. We constantly move forward constantly leaving “unknowns” behind, constantly believing we can “go back” and give it a go someday, and constantly delude ourselves.

I was going to be an astronaut, but I was ten at the time. Then an architect; a race car driver; a tennis pro; a musician; a hotel owner; and the list goes on. A cook, a left fielder, an ice cream man, a pilot, a performer. I am not attention deficit; I am restless. But none of those dreams pursued me with the passion that a true vocation demands. In the end, traveling the world was the only occupation that rattled my soul, but the counselors had no idea what to tell me. “You can be a travel agent,” one of them said when I was a senior in high school. “I want to travel, not send other people,” I told her sarcastically. Based upon her advice of where I should go next, she would have made a lousy travel agent.

So traveling it would be and since I liked to write, I figured majoring in journalism might afford me the opportunities to be on the go, albeit most likely war zones. “How are you going to pay for this?” a friend in college asked when I stared at maps. I told him I would find “a good paying job that gives me a lot of time off.” We laughed a while, and I graduated, and followed a series of bizarre jobs from blanket smuggling to health club management, all with the primary goal of making enough money to quit and move. Throughout my twenties I always felt like I was “just a day a way from where I ought to be,” as Jackson Browne claimed.

Then my car broke down, and now I owe my brother a boatload of thanks; teaching college has allowed me time off to travel more than I ever could have imagined. It all worked out. That’s what we say, isn’t it: “It all worked out” or “It’s fate” or “Everything turned out the way it was supposed to” or my favorite, “It is all in God’s plan.”

Back to the two diverting roads in the yellow wood: What might have happened if I didn’t throw a dart at a map senior year and hit Tucson? What if it had hit New York? What if the crazy red-headed exercise freak didn’t like me? What if I had just gone to Monterey? What if I hadn’t gone to Pennsylvania to begin with and instead tended bar in Peter Trimbacher’s 800-year-old castle in Austria? What if we had never left New York? I obviously could go on, as we all can, splitting hairs and making ourselves feel better by reminding ourselves “It is for the best” and “How grand everything turned out” and “I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Ha. I would, of course. There are certain particulars I’d totally change. You know who you are.

I like to think the Almighty allowed us to make a few choices of our own, like what to do with our lives. So a few weeks ago I traveled to a cabin in the mountains of western New York to think about it all. I met some friends there, we drank some wine, and I hiked around the snowy trails filled with diverting paths. A few days to get some perspective seemed a good idea. And here’s what I figured out; if tomorrow I had to tend bar again I’d be okay with that. My psyche bends that way most of the time anyway. Sure, sometimes I think to myself, Wow! I’m a freaking college professor; the second most respected profession on the planet behind doctors. But I quickly remind myself that is my career only because of a bad alternator. What if I had learned how to fix cars? See how things turn on a dime? What would life have been like if I had driven past the college, or straddled a chair in front of twenty high school journalism students. I think we have a habit of backing into opportunity, despite the desire and ability to “choose” our destiny. Kids have conversations with counselors about their future, which is chosen more often than not based upon what major might lead them toward the most likely employment or the highest paycheck. Sure, someone might ask them to define their “passion” before choosing a major, but why? Most teenagers haven’t yet stumbled upon their passion, or if they have it is for something that isn’t taught in college.

Traveling was the one occupation that occupied my long-range forecasts from my adolescence to adulthood. I wanted to see the world and write about it and explore and connect to civilizations outside the confines of our small town. Sometimes we get lucky and bend our careers around our lives instead of adjusting our souls to accommodate a career.

Is it possible my brother knew that if I got the job I’d see the world? It is more likely no matter what livelihood I stumbled into I would have figured out how to manipulate some frequent flier miles out of it.

Still, thanks Bro. Buen Camino.

fred and me as kids

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.

Etiquette

kafka's eyes

 

Next week I am reading for a group of senior citizens at a retirement community on the bay in Virginia Beach. I’ve done this at the same place a few times. In fact, last time just before the gig my host and I were eating dinner in the facility restaurant when halfway through the meal a woman at the next table fell out of her chair and died. Or she died and fell out of her chair. Either way, she was dead on the floor feet away, and my friend said, “Oh I hate when everyone stares! Why can’t they just do what they are doing?!”

Well, to be honest, I was one of the ones who looked perhaps longer than I should. When she first fell I jumped up but William said to sit, that the medics on staff would be there in seconds, and he was right. They came out of the kitchen faster than a cook answering a complaint. She was a small woman, at least ninety, and her demise seemed more of a prank fall then a heart attack or choking incident. It was almost as if she were already dead, but a few seconds earlier she had been talking to her friend, who I might add, was polite enough not to stare. The friend sat with her hands folded until the paramedics escorted her to a different table. It felt very much as if upon moving in everyone had been told: “If you are eating with anyone, and they die, do not help, do not get up. Wait for someone to move you to the next available table!” Even the way William immediately protested “I hate when everyone stares” implied this happens often, and people usually, rudely of course, stare. Perhaps the exertion necessary to attend dinner or a function pushes some over the mortal edge. I don’t know, but the way the medics immediately arrived with screens to surround the poor woman and everyone else returned to their meals made me believe I did not happen upon an unusual evening at ye ‘ol facility. I had the salmon and William had the prime rib. I sipped my wine and William watched me, like he was processing the information. Odd.

After the event (which continued without comments concerning the corpse and was well attended by quite jovial people) I thought about William’s expectation that no one should stare. There was a corpse closer to me than the basket of bread on my table; I stole a glance. I looked longer than I should, and while I’m sure there is some etiquette concerning corpse staring, I am equally sure no one in the room was looking at me anyway.

When I was a child, probably about eight or nine, my mother taught me two things: look at people when they talk to you, and don’t stare. This can be a fine line to walk, especially for a kid. She brought me to the library to check out books. We stood in the stacks and I asked the librarian a question and while she answered I looked at the books instead of her. My mother quickly corrected me: “Look at someone when she talks to you, Robert. Look in her eyes when she talks.” I did and clearly I never forgot that lesson. But later that day when I watched a neighbor we visited struggle her way out of her chair, my mother told me not to stare.

I was confused. Look but don’t stare. Timing is everything with etiquette. When someone is done talking, a quick glance away to disengage eye contact is necessary, unless you’re hitting on someone and the chemistry is strong, then holding the stare a bit longer allows the other person to know you were staring, blatantly staring, because you couldn’t look away from her beautiful eyes. The problem there, of course, is if you stare too long you are in danger of crossing that line to psychopath. If she does look away you have to figure out if she looked away because she is completely uninterested or because she is afraid of revealing her deep rooted passion to plow over the table at you. Hard call.

Now imagine one of you is dead. The rules change.

It seems staring isn’t the issue as much as being misunderstood. It is an art form. One thing I always admired about my father was his absolute eye contact when he talked to someone. He was not an intimidating man in the least, yet he somehow commanded respect, and I believe it was because of his eyes which so clearly let people know they could trust him, which was not a small thing for a stock broker. He looked right at you when he talked or when you talked. And he knew when to let it go. He was the master of the look-stare genre. I picked up on some of his ways, but my profession has altered my opinion about the timing of it all.

As a college professor people stare at me all the time, and when I am talking or about to talk, it truly doesn’t bother me. But often, especially on the first day of class before the lecture starts, they just sit there and stare at me. I suppose they’re sizing me up: do I look mean, aggravated, am I an easy A or a piping bastard? But as I watched the years roll past and students have come and gone, they don’t stare as much. Part of it is because they’re looking at their phones; part of it is because the latest vacuous zombie-obsessed generation doesn’t make eye contact at all.

Some people look, some stare, some have a gander, some a look-see, people peak, they glimpse, behold, gaze, and leer; they survey, observe, give the once-over, and keep watch.

Look, I am not so self-conscious that I care what people think when they scrutinize. I just prefer they get their timing down. Unless, of course, there is some cross table-plowing involved. Personally, I don’t ever want to stop staring. There is too much to see, too many faces to commit to memory. I’m glad I stared a long time at my father’s face, my grandmother’s eyes. I can recall them now without the need for photographs.

“Look at people,” my mother said. Absolutely, though she probably didn’t mean the ones on the floor at the restaurant. There are definitely flaws in the whole “look/stare” methodology, but I’m working on it.