There’ll be Other Summers

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About four feet to the right of this “STAY BEHIND” sign on the ground next to the tracks at the Amtrak station are the words “YELLOW LINE.”  I found it interesting that they put them so far apart. Other people were also hanging out waiting for arriving family, so the platform was busy and all I saw was “STAY BEHIND” on the ground at the train station. The natural rebel in me looked around for schedules and destinations. Suddenly I had the urge to go somewhere, anywhere. 

I was already ticking toward fantasies of travel. Train stations do that to me; whether it was the one on Long Island where trains left for Manhattan, or the rails running near my apartment at college, or the Siberian Railroad I am currently writing about and of which I have fond memories of traveling on with my son. “Everyone loves the sound of a train the distance. Everybody knows it’s true,” aptly acknowledges Paul Simon. I’m one of them.

So I stood and wondered if there is a benefit to “Stay Behind.” On an ethereal level, it is nice sometimes to let the world keep going while we step off the wheel for a while and enjoy the moment. I heard a scientist today on the radio say how the most dangerous problem afflicting humanity today is our inability to be “in the moment;” he worried we were getting too far ahead of ourselves. Maybe if we stayed behind a bit more we might avoid the supposed progress and advancement of day to day life and actually live day to day life. So many things, after all, make things more convenient, not better. We keep mixing the two up. I “stayed behind” when I built my house in the most insignificant way, which has taken on so much more meaning. You see, I never installed a dishwasher. I simply designed the kitchen wrong and didn’t leave room for one. So for twenty years now I have been washing dishes, and the truth is it takes less time to do that than to load and unload them, uses way less energy, and allows me the satisfaction of seeing something through. I live a life where the results of my efforts often aren’t obvious for years, and even then the urge to “redo” the work is strong. But when I wash dishes I can stand back a short time later and swoosh my hand and say, “Done.” Feels good, it really does. 

I could go on about other examples of where the decision to “Stay Behind,” sometimes literally and other times metaphorically, has ended in adventures, friendships, job opportunities, and various other encounters. Even now a few examples which literally changed my life come to mind. We’ve all had those moments. But that’s not what this blog is about. 

Obviously, it is about the weather. 

There is a heat index of 118 here in Virginia Beach right now, late Thursday afternoon. The un-humidified temp is about 99. Either way there is some weather going on here. I remember it being this hot without the “index” when I lived in the Sonora Desert and my dad would say, “Yes but it is a dry heat.” A dry heat–kind of like a blow-torch. 

Still, the heat doesn’t bother me. Nor the cold. In college in western New York the freezing temperatures were tempered by the dryness, and a ten degree day might warrant a mere sweater, whereas the humidity here at the beach combined with cold temps can be to-the-bone bitter. In either case, many people simply stay inside.

But I have a strange habit which makes me want to experience and absorb every degree of the extremes: I can already feel the absence of the strong sun on my shoulders or equally the cold wind on my face, my boots crushing snow on the walk. As early as mid-July I sense summer slipping into cooler temps and changing colors. And while I might claim autumn to be my favorite season, I miss summer before it has even half over. It is as if it is the only summer that ever was and ever will be again, and I want to suck the marrow out of it, drain it of every ounce by my constant participation, let my senses explode from the enormity of the very reality of feeling summer happen. 

That’s borderline psychotic, I know. 

But listen, when it is hot we want it cooler, when cold we want it warm. When it is dark we turn on lights and when it is sunny we wear sunglasses. We constantly temper reality. I have become more interested in being deeper into reality. That’s not to say I want to stare into the sun, but honestly, that really IS where the fun is. 

Jay stands on the deck looking across the Bay to the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. Nick stands next to him, the ordeal of the city behind them, and Jay says, “Summer’s almost gone. It makes you want to reach out and just hold it back,” to which Nick replies, quite non-nonchalantly, “There’ll be other summers.” Jay seems quite satisfied with the answer and thanks Nick for the insight.

My response is different. I’d have looked at Nick and said, “Yes, but I’m not done with this one yet.” What’s next people often ponder. What is down the line? Around the bend? I can’t wait to get there, they say. I can’t wait for fall, they say. Yes, that’s true. And it is coming, regardless. For now, I’m right here, and right here has always worked very well. 

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Wingspan

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I no longer like butterflies. Those miserable little hyperactive buzzards flutter around like drunk scraps of tracing paper. “Oh they’re beautiful, especially the Monarchs,” everyone says. Why? Because of their colors? Their fragility? We just like things more delicate than we are. As George Carlin famously pointed out, we eat more lobsters than bunnies because bunnies are soft and furry and lobsters look like miniature monsters. No contest. Honestly, I used to love the little beauties, butterflies. I was always intrigued that the average life span is less than a year. I watched documentaries about the monarchs’ migration from northern regions of the states to the mountains of southern Mexico. I couldn’t find my way there with a map and a guide, and these little fuckers do just fine every single year. But lately I have lost interest. They’re as disturbing to me now as the flying monkeys in “The Wizard of Oz.”

And as to the “The Wizard of Oz, ” the scariest scene is not the flying monkeys, or the balls of fire the Wicked Witch of the West throws down upon the bone-dry scarecrow. It is the hour glass filled with red sand set up in the castle room with Dorothy. Such a small scene in an irritating film still affects me half a century later. “You see that?” the witch cries to the terrified Judy Garland, “That’s how much longer you have to be alive! And it isn’t long, my sweetie. It isn’t long!” This scared the crap out of me. You mean it’s that easy, I thought, to no longer exist? Someone just flips the hourglass and the sands run out? My heart raced every time the camera focused on the depleting red grains dripping through the huge timepiece.

It didn’t help that during those years my mother watched “Days of Our Lives,” and the opening sequence was always, “Like sand through the hourglass, so go the Days of Our Lives.” Whoa! Talk about depressing. I was raised saturated in this daily dose of “you’re going to die soon.” Growing up near the beach probably didn’t help; the shifting patterns of sand symbolized to me the passing of seconds and hours and days and years. And when aunts and uncles exclaimed I had an “old soul” I thought they were ordering last rites.

So some sense of urgency festered in me from quite early on. I started attacking my ambitions like I had just three weeks left before the sand ran out. When I was young, I had an outrageous list of dreams, ambitions, or “fantasies” as most others called them. One of the first brilliant ideas was doomed for failure: My friend Todd and I had been sending up rockets; the ones with a gun-powder-filled battery shoved up their tails which we bought from a hobby shop. We were getting good at this and our imagination ran away fast. This was around 1973 and I was totally into adventure. Papillon had just come out and my mind was already bent on traveling to faraway lands. Mostly, though, I was obsessed with becoming an astronaut. I knew all their names, and I had memorized every detail I could find about rockets, their speeds, thrust, history and expectations. I had a brown cpo jacket and asked my mother to sew on an American flag and a NASA patch. When we went into stores I liked to pretend people thought I must have something to do with the space program. I played it cool, of course, holding my mom’s car keys like I just got back from the Johnson Space Center. I was twelve.

Even so, Todd and I had a plan. We were going to take apart the batteries to study how they are made, and then we would make a large one that could carry one of us, me, into the clouds. We knew we would have needed a heat shield to exit the atmosphere and return—we weren’t dumb—so we planned to use a metal garbage can. We only were going to lift a few hundred feet just to show the naysayers we earned our patches. So we slowly filled a coffee can with the gun powder from several dozen batteries bought over several months. But one night Todd left the coffee can on his patio in the rain. We didn’t have enough money to buy more batteries so we tossed the plan and played baseball. A few years later I moved away and found more pragmatic plans. I am not certain, however, if I was ever so serious or energetic as I was when I thought I was going into the clouds. To me that fantasy was simply reality’s childhood.

Back then I couldn’t possibly know that eventually the most treasured content of my bucket list would be the simplest of thoughts—plans really—like lying on the floor playing Risk and Boggle with my son and sharing a bowl of pretzels while we laughed at the anxious final seconds of each round. Or the one of walking slowly through a mall with my dad, sitting on a bench reminiscing or being quiet, sitting having Scotch on Tuesday nights. I was always excited to be able to sit and watch a baseball game on television with him, neither of us saying a word. That doesn’t sound a bit like a dream for anyone’s bucket list, but it makes it into most of ours at some point. I thought of all those small moments while standing in the doorway to his room during his last days. I’d lean against the wall and stare at the paper butterfly, the universal symbol of comfort care, on the door jam.   It’s crazy how the simple moments like time together get overshadowed by fleeting ideas like skydiving and hot air ballooning.

I’m certain at some point early on in my life while listening to “Days of Our Lives” my mind turned toward adventure. I’m equally sure that my dad had a lot to do with that. Every Christmas he bought us books and for some reason, perhaps intuition, the ones he picked for me all focused on outrageous escapades. Robin Lee Graham’s The Boy Who Sailed Around the World Alone; Peter Jenkin’s A Walk Across America, Bound for Glory about Woody Guthie, Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, and more. These were obvious influences for me, and growing up a child of the late sixties certainly added to the action. From the moment of Kennedy’s decree to reach the moon to actually reaching the moon occupied exactly my first nine years of life. Many moments in my youth lit a fire under me that still burns. This can be both exhilarating and exasperating.

Still no one ever told me I was wrong. No one ever indicated anything I suggested was a bad idea, only that it was too early, or that I was “too young.” So dreams got pushed aside, never making it to the “did that already” bucket but never really leaving the list. It took me years to realize the dreams we fill our lives with don’t necessarily play out in chronological order. I’m lucky, actually, that some chaotic appearances on my radar don’t coincide with their fruition. I learned quickly that if things don’t play out as planned to just toss them back in the bucket and let them simmer around awhile like a lottery ball.

I have only a little desire left to climb in a garbage can and light a fire under my ass, but since then biking around Ireland made the list. Or maybe I’ll just go back to Spain. And more than a few folks older than me sail the Caribbean well into their sixties. Sometimes it’s just that we take the long way. I had other bad ideas besides dying in a flaming piece of metal. There was the time my friend Tom and I were going to push a desk from Tucson to Washington, DC to point out corporate waste while people were starving to death. Even philosopher and writer Leo Buscaglia dropped us a line to wish us luck. It took us a while to realize he was being sarcastic. No good Monarch would waste his time on such nonsense, no matter how noble. Butterflies, man. Butterflies. .

Whenever my son and I would play that Boggle game, he flipped that damn hourglass with the three-minute timer and tap his finger. My anxiety level increased and my blood pressure peaked. He couldn’t know he was feeding the trauma of PTSD from some fictional witch. “In good time,” I can hear her saying. It was that threatening decree, “In good time,” that motivated me. Still, she never said “in time”; it was always, “In good time.” Exactly

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An Actual Lecture

Payphones

NOTE: I arrived at class and the conversation turned to cell phones. I wasn’t complaining (this time) or preaching (yet). But then one of the students asked in reference to cell phones if didn’t I wish I had that kind of “advantage” when I was their age.

The following is not verbatim, obviously, since ironically no one recorded it–but here is, to the best of my recollection of the past forty-eight hours, my response:

——

Advantage? Well, I’m not sure I am happy with having it now, let alone thirty-five years ago. I’ll tell you what: I walk on the beach several days a week. I walk between six and eight miles. I usually bring my phone to talk to family while out there for a few hours, but also to take pictures of the sunrise. Some of them can be spectacular. Ha! All of them can be spectacular, and I just want to share it. Sometimes I email a picture to someone, often I post them on Facebook.

Well, this morning I left my phone in the car, by accident. I was two blocks into the walk before I realized it, but I kept going. My initial reaction was, “Oh I’d better get it! What if..” and fill in that blank however you want: someone calls, someone texts, there is an emergency, a funny comment, someone wanting or expecting a response and I don’t get to do it for hours! Unreal. You see, my generation did this all the time. We could go months without talking to someone. And we certainly could make it through the day. But I am keenly aware that your generation was born with cellphones, and all you know is this increasingly tragic umbilical world.

 But listen:

What if one day you left your phone at home and went for a long walk? Would you wonder if everything is okay? Would you keep touching your pockets, looking behind you? At the very least would you wonder the time? How long, I wonder, before you turned and went home to check your texts, your messages. You’re hooked—we all are.

But what if, if, one day you just keep walking. Not many people anymore remember what it was like to have no ability to call home anytime they wanted. We looked for payphones at gas stations. And when we finished plugging it with coins for the three minutes we bought to talk, it was barely long enough to say, “Great, everything’s going great! How is everyone? Good! Okay, I’ll talk to you next week!”

Next week. Sometimes, in college far away, next month. It is in part how we grew up, and it most definitely is how we matured.

But those three minutes, then, was enough to know everyone was fine and we could focus on what was happening around us. We were fully aware of place. We kept no records. We didn’t update anyone. No texts. No tweets. No snapshots. We were that rare state of being which is slipping into the past: solely and completely in the moment.

No phone, no internet, no messages, no voice mail, no apps, no games, no kidding—just conversation with whomever you’re with or whoever happens along. If you wanted a picture of yourself at some site, or with a friend, you stopped someone walking by and asked that person to take it—we didn’t have long sticks to hold the 35mm. But that person would be friendly, and conversations would ensue, and information about local places to go could be discovered. In fact just yesterday I walked the boardwalk and saw ample opportunity for others to ask to grab a shot of them in front of the water, the Neptune Statue at 31st St, something with more perspective than the length of their arms. But we do that now—we are in such a meme world we don’t risk much beyond the length of our arms. Am I the only one who misses the long talks and laughter after not seeing someone for a few days and “catching up”?

I do understand the picture obsession more than I do the constant texting and phone calls or face time. Someone sent me a picture of herself that I took thirty years ago this very week. Two things happened. It made me miss that time and made me wish we had hundreds of more pictures of then, of the endless laughter of then, of the immeasurable hope of then. Yet it also made me realize how very much we were in that moment; too much to spend any time trying to capture that moment. We were too busy living it.

But back to that long walk: At the end of that long day if you did just keep walking, by bedtime, phoneless, you might miss your normal routine to lie on your back, phone in hand, and seek out information for a while. You can’t, though, because you’re tech-less, and you can’t imagine that you ever couldn’t, but you do. No worries, the world keeps spinning, friends are not diligently waiting to hear from you or have anything to report, and the news is not going away.

The next morning is harder still. You ache to know what happened over night about which you have no information all these hours later. Did someone text? Call? It’s killing you but you can’t go back now. You’ve walked too far. The anxiety, withdrawal, is real and stressful, and like giving up a blanket or a bottle each step seems endless, the day an eternity. You want to borrow someone’s phone. You want to just check real fast—find out everything is fine. And what if you did? Everything is fine, benign, most likely predictable and familiar. We crave the familiar and predictable; it falsely makes us feel safer. It is why we stay in bad relationships which become routine; it is why we stay in bad jobs which have no future but which we’ve mastered and manipulated.  

I know the arguments. And it must seem like I’m some old geezer saying, “Things were better when I was your age!” No, the advances in this world have made much of your lives infinitely more convenient than my world. No contest, and I am often thrilled that I can be a part of “what’s next” as we bullet toward tomorrow. But there is a price to pay—there is always a tradeoff—and as far as some technology is concerned that price is how you spend your time. Life can go by too fast to dish out that kind of time so consistently. Thirty years will pass faster than you can fathom, trust me. Don’t spend it looking down.

Here’s a test to see if your priorities are in order: Plan to travel for a week and tell everyone you know you will be out of touch the entire time—no calls, no texts, no emails, no matter what happens. Tell them you’ll check in when you’re back to make sure your loved ones are alive; otherwise, you’ll be meeting new people, finding cafes and maybe a motel where you’ll spend nights drinking wine and laughing with new friends from new places, and you’ll catch the sunrise without capturing it on camera. No one needs to know on a daily basis what’s going on; they’ll ask when you return. No one needs to be updated, see pictures, videos, receive OMG texts at every mountain and mystery along the way. They’ll ask when you get home.

You’re without your umbilical, untethered, freefalling into yourself absent of the consistent clicks and taps of that certain cell. We grow anxious when faced with our own thoughts without possible deflection, no technical tangent. But the anxiousness erodes and new conversations linger like lace curtains, sometimes lifting, often drifting down and raised only by the occasional wistful comment, and it is peaceful. You had forgotten “peaceful.” You maybe never learned just how to be full of peace.

But it isn’t so silent, is it, this peacefulness? This ironic disconnection links you to those nearby, groups you with others looking up, talking about the places you’ve been, talking about the possibilities. Talk about unplugged! Most of the time you talk about life and how far you might reach and the truth is you can’t reach out and grasp something if you’re holding anything. We do that though, we want to reach for more but not let go of what we’ve got. “If I put this down,” we say, “I might lose touch with what I know.”

Okay, lecture over. The old man is done preaching to the younger plugged in population. But listen: take a deep breath. Take a moment. Take, for instance, that time you sat by the water at the north end of the beach and a couple caught you staring at the trees near the houses and they told you of an area filled with Spanish moss over walking trails just a few miles off the beach. “Lived here for eighteen years,” you say, “And never knew that.” If you were looking down, they never would have said a thing. You know they wouldn’t. But the absence of such a small device can dial up the most spontaneous connections.

Really, you get used to this simplicity, this absence of noise, of interruption, of course you do. Find out what it is like to walk with empty hands and touch the world, what it was like to listen to nothing at all. At night those hands hold wine and bread and you hear tales of the day. We tell stories out loud, and we listen to stories and share moments, out loud, and we live, as much as possible, out loud. In this way, every single conversation is different. Every single shared sunset is different. And we come to have a sense of the senses.

And the biggest difference between your generation and mine is that you would have no possible way of knowing that the most important moments cannot, cannot, cannot be captured by the most efficient technology. Sometimes you need to be away from someone to understand just how close you can be.

Everyone you’ve ever known is at your fingertips. And you don’t even realize how that might keep you from growing.

Now turn your phones off. Let’s talk about Whitman.

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Playing the Numbers

broken phone

I accidentally did a security wipe of my phone and eliminated all my contacts, and—no—I didn’t have a backup at the time. So I got on a real computer and emailed all those I wanted reentered in my phone log. I wrote this:

“Could you please text me ‘Hi, this is _____’ so I can put your phone number back in my contact list?”

It was, I thought, a simple request.

First, my friends Robert and Molly in Ohio carried this out perfectly. From both I received a text with their names in the text. Understand, when you send a text to me, I can only see a phone number; it does not come through with your name on it unless you are already in my address book, which obviously no one is. So for the twelve people who wrote, “Here you go” or “It’s me” or “Sorry about your phone, here’s my number” or “Here ya go, let’s get beers,” some deciphering was necessary.

“Let’s get beers” was easy—Jose. It is his standard comment to me, so perhaps he wrote that on purpose knowing I’d know he’d know I knew. Someone else wrote, “So if I don’t say who I am, will you be able to figure it out?” which I figured out because we have always thought exactly alike and often complete each other’s thoughts. For a few of the texts I had to look up the area code to figure out who it might be. One of them was on Long Island, so I knew it was a cousin, but that really doesn’t narrow it down much in my family. Then the message said, “Funny I just saw someone who looks just like you and I was smiling, thinking, ‘Hey there’s my cousin’ when he clearly thought I was smiling at him and it kind of got me in trouble,” so I knew it was Lisa. My cousins, all of them, have distinct personalities.

One friend emailed his name, address, current location, plans for the weekend, apologies for my troubles, offers of assistance, and his next week’s schedule. But no phone number. No kidding. And since it was an email and not a text, I still can’t call him. No problem.

My brother, my friend Jack, and several others just replied to my email with their phone numbers, which was actually much easier and made more sense, but they also took that opportunity to tell me my Blackberry is not 21st century. Well, I suppose neither am I.

And that really is the point here.

There was a time back in the last millennium when I knew everyone’s number by heart. That was when I had no “contact list” in my phone; back when “my” phone was a fat machine on the counter used by the entire family, long before the invention of voice mail, call waiting, or answering machines. When we looked up someone’s number in a small address book enough and then dialed it (rotary), the digits tended to stick in our minds. I can recall most of my own numbers well back into my childhood, most of my friends’ from then and through my twenties, as well as work numbers and relatives’ numbers, including my grandmother’s from her apartment in Queens in the eighties. It is not age that stole my retention; it is convenience. We now live in a world where, “If we don’t have to, we don’t.” In fact I know it isn’t age because yesterday I went into one of my classes and asked fifteen twenty-year-olds if they could tell me the phone number of their best friend, and only one of them could. These are the same people who don’t take notes or rewrite notes from a peer after they’ve missed class, but instead simply take a picture of the pages and then can’t understand why they don’t understand.

I had a friend at Penn State who asked me for the date and time of something I was involved in. When I told her and asked if she wanted a pen to write it down, she said, “No, if I write it down I’ll forget it.” Exactly. Certainly, my memory is not what it used to be. Students’ names for me are nearly impossible, though to be fair that has less to do with memory than it does interest. One young lady said I don’t remember their names because I’m not trying hard enough to do so, and I said she was wrong, that I wasn’t trying at all. Ironically, I can tell you the name of every single person in my first class I taught twenty-seven years ago. Much like the phone numbers, however, I had more reason to retain them years ago than I do now.

Numbers, though, have always come easy for me. I never had trouble committing to memory zip codes, addresses, bank account numbers, as well as phone numbers, and I still can, but since obtaining what is apparently an outdated phone, I’ve made it easy to forget what is essential—the phone numbers of my loved ones. Shouldn’t those numbers be second nature?

Apparently not, so I emailed everyone. Some people didn’t respond at all, which made me realize, yeah, I don’t need them in my life either. What a great opportunity to weed out the ones I wonder why I knew to begin with. Worse, there were numbers for people for whom I don’t have emails and can’t contact them at all. I know if there is a reason to contact me they will, but something more revealing crossed my apparently feeble mind: I don’t need nearly so many people in my life. My average contact-scroll used to take awhile, and why oh why I had so many numbers is beyond me. We have information for lots of people yet we “know” so few. This turned out to be a great way to clean house.

Still, I most likely will not return to memorizing numbers, though I will attempt to retain a dozen or so of those people I can’t imagine not being able to call in an instant. What if I had to borrow someone’s phone? I’d like to remember those numbers again, or recall someone’s birthday without a Facebook prompt. The ability has less to do with age than practice, though I suppose that is true of just about everything. One response via text was, “Hey, it’s me! Shouldn’t you know my number by heart?!”

My immediate thought was, “Yes, of course.” But then I thought, “No, I shouldn’t.” What I should be doing is seeing loved ones often enough that we have no reason to call. We should be laughing together at pubs, at picnic tables, across the fence in the yard, across the room, across time. Numbers should be pointless. Memory should be irrelevant for our consistent commitment to spending time together now.

My favorite response to my email was the last text I received. It said simply, “Just put me in your contact list as ‘Tumbleweed’.” I knew exactly who it was. And then there is my mother’s cell phone, which I opted not to bother re-entering since she hasn’t turned it on in years. That is wisdom.

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