Awake. Right. Now.

 

aurora in norway

I fell through the ice on a frozen lake in northern Norway in March of ‘95. It was two in the morning, twenty below, and I followed two friends across the snowy ice toward a road on the other side. I heard the ice crack and I stood still, a green band of aurora borealis bent just above us, and I stood still like Wile E. Coyote—suspended for just a moment listening to the ice crack—and thought, “oh, wow, shit,” and went through.

I landed just about ten inches below the surface on another ice shelf. I stood just deep enough for frigid water to cover and fill my boots about calf-high. I waited for the next crack when Joe turned and we froze in fear of us both plunging into the lake. This wasn’t the first time I’d walked on thin ice, but previous mishaps were mostly metaphorical—pissing off my parents, trying to pass a class, trying to cross borders with contraband. I stood with icy feet; my heart pounded in my chest ready to plunge into my stomach when the ice again cracked. Nothing.

Our friend John turned and laughed. “It’s day melt,” he said, ahead of us by twenty feet, already on the shore. “The surface ice melts a bit each day then freezes at night, but it’s thin. That’s what we were walking on. The second layer you landed on is probably six feet thick.”

“Why didn’t you go through?” I asked, John was six two and not a light man.

“I was first,” he said. “I loosened it for you.”

I sloshed to shore, took off my socks, and stood at the end of a fjord when across a field six moose stood taller than us all. I put my boots back on and watched the moose move toward us. They were bull-like, each one heavier than the three of us combined. The night was still, and the air was calm. To the north lay nothing but wilderness for a thousand miles; the Arctic Circle sat a hundred miles south. This was as close to sacred ground as I ever got. I was soaked in below zero temperatures, green bands of borealis bent above my head, the moose moved toward us, and I never felt so awake, like sleep wasn’t part of the Human idea, like caffeine was a tranquilizer. Awake. The northern lights lingered like they were in water, as if the the sky was submerged and the green bands couldn’t bend faster than the deep blue flow would allow, and we floated between. The moose moved closer. I held my breath. Two leaped just beyond our reach and bounced over the ice with absolute grace.

That moment, right then, will never go away.

I’ve been lucky to have had many such moments—the tram at Lake Baikal in Siberia, just about any day in Spain, the sunrise in Tucson, just about any evening at the river. We rise every morning and gaze at life around us, but how often are we awake, I mean completely and blatantly alive?

Studies tell us that most of us sleep a third of our lives and most of us work a third of our lives. And now at my age with hopefully about a third of my life left, I’d like to spend as much of what amounts to one third of that third being fully awake before the ground falls beneath my feet.

frozen lake joe and me in norway

 

 

 

b

 

 

 

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Shut Your Mouth

I cut off a lady in the parking lot at Food Lion this morning, and it reminded me of an article I wrote several years ago about obesity. Knowing Michelle Obama’s drive to eradicate obesity in children, I sent it to her. This is the First Lady’s response:

letter from michele obama

The instigation for the original article was a trip to Starbucks. Some dusty pre-teen kid in triple x clothes asked his mom for a second brownie, chocolate milk and a donut–and she obliged. The boy bulleted about Starbucks for fifteen minutes while his mom sucked down a second frappe of some sort, then he collapsed on the floor near her feet and stretched out, forcing customers to portage around him. And I wondered very simply: How is this not child abuse? How is it possible that she can get in serious trouble for giving him cigarettes but nothing can be done when she pumps pounds of sugar into his bloodstream, heart, and kidneys, likely leading to diseases including diabetes, heart disease, and kidney failure. So I wrote the article, sent it to Mrs. O who read it and subsequently wrote me back pushing her plan to eliminate junk food from schools everywhere. Good idea, I thought, but flawed.

Years ago I worked at a health club where we reminded members at the end of a vigorous one hour workout that they always have two choices: They can give in to temptation or avoid it by reminding themselves of their ultimate goals. Not easy at all, of course. But how hard is it to say, “No, Son, if you eat that you’ll be gross and you might die.” I’m guessing Starbuck’s Mom didn’t want to listen to him whine, though eventually that happened as well anyway because for fifteen minutes he complained of stomach aches.

The owner of the health club was good at helping people lose weight. The best. He had a simple trick when it came to food: Ask yourself every time you’re going to eat something, “Is this a good idea or a bad idea?” As simple-minded as that sounds, it works. The problem, of course, is getting the answer wrong. It is easy to say, “This is a good idea because if I don’t have just a little chocolate I’ll binge!” or “Seriously, I read online that eating four Snickers Bars a day actually helps.” But all things being equal the constant good-bad question can work well, especially if you allow yourself three “bad ideas” a week. That’ll give you something to look forward to, assuming you don’t use up all three during one episode of Breaking Bad.

But a bigger issue looms in this wilderness of ours which turns bad parenting into a symptom instead of a cause: Limited Vision.

Some punk in a jacked-up pickup rode my ass for three miles on a narrow country road last week. I suppose I made the situation worse when I slammed on the brakes not caring so much if he rammed my ass. That might have been wrong. Just as wrong as coming as close as he could because his mono-syllabic brain can’t handle complicated thoughts like driving and pinching some chew at the same time. I should have thought through the bad idea/good idea thing and pulled over, swallowed my right to be on the road at all, and let him race on to whatever bar awaited him. My inconvenience would have been limited, my discontent over within seconds. Instead, we played this game for three miles until we reached the four lane. To be fair I had nothing better to do anyway and going ten miles an hour allowed me to watch the birds fly from tree to tree.

But we do this all the time: We decide to address an immediate problem even if it creates a bigger problem later, and all along we ignore the underlying issue which created the initial problem to begin with. My need to get this guy off my ass by braking could have created all sorts of bad situations, not the least of which might have been a bullet in my back in this rural, gun collecting, hunters paradise we call home. Likewise, the enabler mom has created an obese child with a future of complaining, food bills, medical bills and most likely being bullied. In both cases we weren’t thinking ahead.

It happened again the other day when some Earnhardt wannabe rode my tail, but this time I pulled over and let him go and he waved as he went by. Maybe he didn’t realize how close he was. Maybe I didn’t realize he wasn’t so close. Maybe he was late for the doctors, or the airport. I have no idea, but by braking I clearly would have created more problems for both of us. It is just like deciding not to eat another brownie. It really is.

The problem with Mrs. Obama’s plan is it attacks a symptom instead of the cause. The problem isn’t healthy food versus junk food. The problem is decision making ability. Yes children should be eating better, and yes it is a good idea to limit the junk food in schools, and of course parents should do what is right instead of what just keeps the kid quiet. But the solution is for everyone to learn the downside of immediate gratification and the benefits of long-term gain, even if it means sacrifice–or pulling over, or letting the kid scream. Making the right decision doesn’t mean solving “a” problem, it means avoiding new ones as well. The solution to a problem should not create a new problem. Positive actions can have all sorts of negative results. Simply, removing the bad choices will not solve the problem in the long run.

Which is why this is actually about the lady at Food Lion this morning.

I saw a spot open up in the parking lot and shot into it from the aisle, not realizing she had been waiting for the spot from the other direction. My fault. This has happened to me before. I was about to pull back out and give an apologetic wave when she was already out of her car and banging on my trunk. I rolled my window down as she approached the side of the car still yelling. I yelled back, “Are you out of your mind?!?! You could be shot! You have no idea if I’m some psychotic killer just out of prison or what! You don’t know I don’t have a gun, a knife or a baseball bat! Get back in your car you idiot! It is a SPOT! I didn’t see you. I apologize. I’ll pull out and you can have it.”

She looked terrified. Good. It never crossed her mind to simply find another spot and let jackass me have that one. She saw the decision as “one spot and two cars.” In the meantime other cars waited behind her Mercedes, now sitting alone with the door open, fresh for some carjacker. She quickly returned to the car and drove off. I doubt she’ll do that again. Instead of seeing it as a “that spot is mine but he got it” situation, we both could have looked around at the dozens of other spots available. Likewise, Mrs. Obama should be able to place a plate of junk food and a plate of healthy food in front of junior high students and instead work on their decision-making ability.

For the record, I’m writing this at Starbucks, sucking on a chocolate chip frappe and a chocolate croissant. My suggestions are theories, folks, just theories.

brownies

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mistakes

im bob

 

My father enjoyed telling the story of how when I was young, despite going to a number of different teachers who didn’t know each other in several different elementary schools, each teacher wrote the same thing on my report card: “Robert pays too much attention to the people around him in class.” I could say I was bored. I could make a case they all kept repeating themselves and “honest to God I heard them the first time.” I could claim I was multi-tasking. But the truth is I am easily distracted. Several teachers said I needed everything repeated two times before I understood. It was Mr. Kingston in fifth grade who took me aside and said, “You’re doing fine, Robert,” for the first time. I told him I make a lot of mistakes and he said, “Compared to who?”

Compared to who? Forty-six years ago and I never forgot that, so at least I remembered something from Timber Point Elementary School. Still, I’ve packed on a plethora of mistakes since then.

A Russian nun once prayed for me for ten minutes at the Shrine of St Xenia. Then she gave me a piece of bread from the top of the sarcophagus and asked if I liked it. I wanted to say yes, I enjoyed her blessed bread, but my weak language skills kicked in and I told her, “I love you and lust for your black God.”

It is odd making mistakes in a foreign language. Oh, there’s more:

I wanted to ask a cab driver where a bathroom was but ended up saying I like to drink dark beer from a toilet.

I had already gulped what I thought was water when my esophagus discovered the burning effects of bad Vodka.

I told someone I thought was a waitress who turned out to be a prostitute what I thought was “yes I could use a few minute to think” which turned out to be “yes I’d absolutely love oral sex.”

I told a room full of students whom I needed to listen that they should all get their suitcases.

I pulled out a chair for a lady and told her to heel.

I asked for five sandwich rolls and walked out with fifty. No fish.

A friend of mine wearing his priest’s collar wanted to tell the waitress he would like some mayonnaise and ended up saying, “I love to masturbate.”

Some friends went to buy coffee. The world for sugar is “Suga” but the word for bitch is “Suka.” They returned exclaiming, “Don’t ask for sugar in your coffee in Russia, Dude; they’re assholes about it.”

I could go on but more or less by screwing up I learned to fit in, pick up the nuances of accent and syllables, which brought down prices at the flea market, brought out their best Georgian wine, and opened gates to closed graveyards and monasteries.

At the back of one church, in the rubble of what was and would eventually again be St Catherine’s Catholic Church, a woman stood looking for a priest I knew. She seemed confused and we talked a bit—slowly of course. Her mother had been the secretary of the church before the revolution seventy-five years earlier. She needed to see the father. In my weak Russian I determined the woman told me she had a huge cross to bear because of the horrors of communism for all those decades and wanted the priest to take the sins away from her, but when Fr. Frank appeared with sharper language skills than mine, his translation was somewhat more significant. She had outside with her the original cross for the church dating back hundreds of years, which her mother had taken when the Bolsheviks took control after World War One, and which her mother had buried in the yard at their dacha where it remained for seventy-five years. She thought it was time to return it.

My mistake.

Back at home and much more recently I showed my students how to present a paper using the guidelines from the Modern Language Association. I gave them copies, I presented another example on the outline, I asked them to open their books to the appropriate example in the text, and still forty percent of them did it completely wrong. Is that a mistake? Is that boredom? Distraction? Idiocy? I like to think they are overwhelmed and go home kicking themselves for doing something wrong that was so easy to get right, but I’m probably wrong. A few years ago I would have returned to a class like that and lectured them about how their priorities are screwed up; I would have told them that if they can’t get the easy stuff done they’ll never handle the challenges as they attempt to move up the collegiate ladder. I would have used the appropriate sarcasm  with a touch of professorial belittling attitude.

But last January I was driving through the Pennsylvania countryside on my way to western New York on a Sunday morning when I heard a guest on a talk show quote St. Bernard of Clairvaux who said we need to learn to make excuses for other people.

We need to learn to make excuses for other people.

To drive the point home, a few days later a friend of mine posted a video of an impatient man leaving his house one morning pissed off at everyone on his way to the coffee shop and to work. At some point someone gives him glasses. The day rewinds and he leaves his house again, but this time the glasses allow him to see other people’s reasons for their actions and the world changes.

See other people’s reasons and the world changes.

Like the student who came in late because her husband is stationed in Iraq and she got to talk to him that afternoon. The one who left early has a dying father. The one who couldn’t get the presentation correct no matter how hard he tried has never been the same since returning from war. The one who stared at me the entire class without blinking an eye, then left, only to email me later an apology, that she wasn’t concentrating, that she had just learned her cousin was shown on television in Baghdad, dead and left swinging from a bridge. I teach in a different environment here in the military rich resort of Virginia Beach. We learn to make excuses for other people.

St. Francis de Sales said, “Never confuse your mistakes with your value.”

On the other hand, sometimes we really can be lazy assed bark-at-the-moon stupid. I do it all the time. Make no mistake about that.

 

mistakes

Earth Day, etc

turtle

 

I eat almonds, wild berries, and artichokes. I consume legumes, fiber, and almost always avoid fast food. Last night, I passed on New York style Pizza, the thin kind where oil drips off a folded slice, and there’s just enough cheese to cover the sauce. You know the kind. When I was young we used to bring home the coveted white box, held hot in the passenger seat, that most unique smell, combination of crust and toppings, filling the car making everyone hungry. Then we’d pull the slices apart, glad for the way the pizza guy slammed the round blade onto the pie and spun it four times to make the slices even. In college sometimes I’d order an entire small pie for myself and sit and watch the game, drinking ice cold coke. Life is too short not to enjoy food.

Still, last night I passed on the slice my friend kindly offered. Instead I ate a plate of lettuce which looked a lot like weeds I pulled from the garden and tossed onto the overturned lid of a metal can to carry into the woods, only this had oil and vinegar. You see, I’m not trying to lose weight, though I should; and I’m not trying to save my heart from heavy foods, though, there too, I really must pay more mind. What I’m trying to do is act my age. Guys like me, you see, those for whom the graph in the shape of a pie is about two-thirds colored in, have to spread out the years a bit more, make it last, like butter on a toasted bagel.

Sometimes I feel like I’m trying to make it to the end of the day before something bad happens. I’m not a negative person, but I live in a negative world, what with the monsoon of bad news from every outlet. I don’t remember feeling this way as a kid. I remember picking up trash and thinking at that moment everyone in the world was picking up trash. That applied to all aspects of my innocent existence. My generation entered the mid-twentieth century as the younger-half of the greatest generation gap in American history with the idealistic sense we would make the world bomb free, pollution free, nuclear waste free. We were the tree-hugging, turtle-friendly, whale-watching, love-thy-enemy generation. I have great respect for naiveté and ignorance.

We “flew our fists high in the air.” But the world remained the same.

Last month I sat on the flatbed table in the doctor’s office and he listened to my heart.

“You eating right?” he asked.

“Sure.”

“How about exercise? Are you getting enough?”

“Absolutely.”

“You really shouldn’t eat pizza so much you know.”

“Hey, when I was in college I ate it all the time.”

“Yes, and now you’re at the doctor’s office being asked if you are getting enough exercise.”

I went outside into the grey morning sun and sat in the car.That conversation made me hungry. It was a beautiful day out, though, and I really thought about going for a run. With or without exercise, most of us live roughly the same length of time, give or take a dozen years. Most of us are roughly the same height give or take, possess a small variety of features like eye or hair color, have nearly identical operating systems for intake and evacuation, and suffer cold and heat, pain and comfort, desire and illness roughly the same.

So what separates us from each other? I wondered as I drove off to find a Duck’s Custom Made Donuts. My dad’s was a generation of “doers.” Survive the depression; fight the Nazi’s, build a house and raise a family. They took the punches and kept moving forward. My students’ generation waits for things to happen. Through no fault of their own, they are raised in a paranoid, post 911 world where you never know when the next shoe is going to drop, but based upon the news, reality shows, games, friends, and social media, it is going to drop.

But mine is the Earth Day generation. We were going to clean up the world; we stood together anti-nuke, anti-oppression, anti-war, pro-environment, pro-animals’ rights, pro-conservation dreamers with an absolute conviction we would be successful. We had Dylan. We had Chavez. We had time.

Two dollars and fifty cents for a friggin’ donut. This is insane. I paid the woman and took my small, custom-made lunch to an empty park and wondered why no one was outside playing. “Are you getting enough exercise?” the doctor asked. I finished eating and got on the slide. Yeah, sure I am, I thought, and slid right down to the bottom with ease then threw my trash in the can.

I think I’ll adopt a highway; get myself a yellow vest, orange garbage bags and a spear.

ADopt a highway

 

Journeywork

cup of sorrow

 

I own a porcelain cup made in Russia in 1896. It is about four inches tall, white porcelain interior with blue and red markings. On the side is the seal of Czar Nicholas II and Alexandra, and “1896,” the date of his coronation. A friend of mine in St. Petersburg gave it to me. The “coronation cups” were made for the occasion to be filled with beer and passed out to the masses of people outside the Kremlin walls so the peasants could celebrate along with the aristocracy. The military training field where half a million people gathered for the souvenirs of cups and various food and clothing items was already a dangerous place to walk for all the trenches and mud pits. But things quickly went south when a rumor spread that each cup had gold in it and there were not nearly enough of them to go around. The stampede left over 1700 people trampled to death. The cup became known as the “cup of sorrow,” so called by Alexandra herself, but it is more often referred to as the “cup of blood,” and the tragedy seemed a bad sign for things to come during the reign of the last Czar. I own one of only five hundred or so made.

As the Raiders of the Lost Arc character, French archeologist Renee Belloch, notes, “We are simply passing through history; this is history.” When I hold the cup in my hands and turn it over I wonder which guard, swarmed by people, handed it out, which peasant held it in her hands. I turn it over and realize the likelihood it was stepped on in the mud, or smuggled away quickly by some young worker who managed to escape the tragedy. It is one thing to listen to a history lecture about the event, and something else entirely to go to the Kremlin and hear the tour guide explain the events as you look out over the parking lots and office buildings on the once barren land, and imagine the droves of Russians pushing for the gates, their comrades crushed just for the cup, this cup.

I am not a history buff by any means, though I have toured many historical sites around the world. My own sister earned a doctorate in history from Notre Dame. Her husband, too, received his Ph.D. from there and is a leading historian at Temple University, author of countless award-winning works about military history, and it isn’t unusual to see his familiar face pop up on the history channel as commentator. Even my father knew so much about history he could have taught it in college, and in school he won a history award.

Me, not so much.

But I am a hands on guy fascinated by items that survived time and war and neglect. I need an object, a talisman of sorts, to bring history to life. When I hold the cup, my mind wonders what they were talking about before the stampede, what music were they listening to, was it an exciting time or, because of the conflicts already underway throughout the empire, was it subdued and the cup distribution simply a brief diversion. Who made the cups? For me, owning one is a way to reach through a rabbit hole and pull out some 19th century reality. Though I suppose it might also be considered moronic to have it in my possession and I should probably sell the damn thing on Ebay.

The irony is I have made so many trips to Russia for the purpose of experiencing culture that I became heavily steeped in history by virtue of immersion. Russians are deeply rooted in their tragic and beautiful past. In Prague it is the same. There, I stay in a building built almost 700 years ago and dine in former bomb shelters as well as a wine cellar used by Charles the IV in the 1300’s. I have no interest in reading about those times. I like to be in the present, walk the same hallways with someone like my brother-in-law to tell me what happened while I half listen and half focus on the immaculate trajectory of time, like an arrow, like a beam of light, like a falling star. Time remains relentless, and I like to hold the cup in Russia or lean against a wall in Prague, or sit in a pew in a Spanish chapel prayed in by Charlemagne and contemplate the immediate reality that we are on the same line, standing between them and what’s next, isolating this moment. I am nobody, to be sure, but I am here, part of the conspiracy to keep those ages alive. Time can be like a relay that way. Observers grab the events of the past and pass them along to whoever’s next, and on. But while my sister and her husband are direct descendants of Herodotus, I like to consider myself the descendant of the barkeep who served up some honey mead for the evening gatherers who stood around and told stories and tried to pick up eunuchs.

History would be well served to have a bartender’s version as well as a scholar’s. We could bypass the normal reference material like dates and plans and titles and influences, and keep track of what they really thought, their insecurities, their ambitions. Who wouldn’t want to pour another hekteus of wine and listen to Aristotle rattle on about which Sophocles play bored him to death and which sent him reeling to his corner table after intermission to contemplate the center of the universe? What tender stood by with the bottle of chianti that got Galileo hammered, relegating him to the courtyard at three am on his drunk ass with a dizzy head, and as he lay on his back he looked up at the stars and thought, “Whoa, hang on here.”

I think I’ll let the others write history. Instead, I’m heading to this small oyster shack I know and have a dozen Old Salts and sit in the same place oystermen sat while Teddy Roosevelt was pounding up San Juan Hill, and I’ll talk to some fisherman about changes in the tides, and how some Bay islands used to be so much larger, before the storm of ’33, and before the one in ’03, and if you paddle out to them at low tide and work your way through the mud, you can still find hundred-year-old hand crafted beams, and abandoned hand-made traps. When I was a child on Long Island, we would find arrowheads. The Native American culture on the Island wasn’t solely history lessons in school books; it was lying around in the sand and marshes of the south shore.

If I drink enough at the oyster shack, I might stumble out to the patch of grass on the river and fall on my back and stare up at the stars and think about Galileo and Copernicus and who else lay still in the quiet of night, the faint sound of water lapping the shore nearby, and watched Orion’s belt loosen, or the Pleiades spread out like buck shot. Then I might go back inside and sit a few stools down from the cook sitting alone on the corner stool, and lean toward the tender and ask, “So what’s his story?”

orion belt