Fáilte

bike-america

The summer I turn sixty I plan to ride my bike around Ireland. At first I thought about walking around Ireland but since a friend of mine who has done this before and who I am hoping will seriously consider doing it again says biking is the way to go, biking it is. I normally don’t plan that far in advance, but I do need to study the language you know.

I also need to do my homework. My sister-in-law, who is an avid biker and has donated much of her time and youthful energy to biking long distances for charity, will be a big help for useful tips. I’ll be studying maps of small villages and large cities, history books, and catalogs of rain gear.

I have my reasons for this. One, it is pretty there. I’ve seen pictures, and my son Michael spent some time there some years ago. Also, we do have some ancestry in the old country, though “McCormick” can’t possibly be an easy lineage to trace. Still, doing so just might spice up the journey a bit. And, of course, like most dreams, this one just latched on to my thought process and won’t let go. That’s how it happens, for me anyway. Ideas for work or ideas for travel get a hold of me from somewhere inside and maneuver their way into my bloodstream until the only way to excise them is simply to follow through. They are in charge, after all. We all know that.

Still, I thought I was done with riding bikes decades ago.

When my family first moved to Virginia from New York I was just about to turn fifteen. We actually left Long Island the very day I finished ninth grade and drove the whole way south that evening in the rain. So I spent the first summer in Virginia not knowing a soul. Since I could not yet drive, I occupied myself until school started by biking everywhere. Some days I would ride along the oceanfront, through the state park, down to the southern beach near the Carolina border and home, with total distances at least once a week of around one hundred miles in a day; the other days about half that. I was bored so I biked. Other influences encouraged me to take it up a notch, and the following summer I planned to ride across the country on what was known at the time as the “Bikecentennial” path, from Williamsburg to Oregon, in 1976. That dream never occurred, of course, and a few years later during my sophomore year at college someone stole my bike so I moved on.

Jump to now: Yesterday I was in an office with a few colleagues, one of whom is much older than me. He was talking about the things he never did when he was younger, including dreams he had as late in his life as my age now. I hear this a lot from people I am surrounded by. You slow down when you get older. You can’t do the things you used to do, they often say. Those dreams died a long time ago, they say.

Left turn: I wrote a piece a few weeks ago for a journal. I’d spent a lot of time on it some years ago and it simply never worked. It takes place in two different countries and for some reason I was always married to the idea of writing it chronologically, which is already against my nature. But that idea climbed inside and locked in. I edited, added, cut—everything, and the piece simply never worked how I wanted. Great story, crappy writing. It happens. Then a few weeks ago I found it while looking for something else and while reading it over, one paragraph on page four stuck out, like the numbers at NASA in A Beautiful Mind—total illumination. I immediately realized that paragraph needed to be the beginning of the essay, so I rearranged the order of things. I sent it and they accepted and I am happy.

Not everything we do happens in the order we thought it might. Sometimes ideas need to work themselves out. Lao Tzu was right: “Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished.”

So apparently I didn’t dream in the right order. Who knew? Some of the things I dreamed of doing when I was young I’ve not gotten to yet, and other ideas I thought of and carried out immediately. Timing is everything, in relationships, in art, in dreaming. Sure, I’ll never be an astronaut, a baseball player, or an ice cream man (that one died when 711 put stores on every damn corner). But I’ve got several buckets filled with possibilities, and whenever I let go of the “it’s too late for that” mentality, the younger I feel and the more energy I have.

Maybe sometimes we give up on things because of what we believe instead of what is true.

Some dreams clearly require compromise. I’m not going to ride from Williamsburg to Coos Bay, Oregon—just not driven to do so anymore; but I will from Dublin to Galway. Nowhere in my plan did I include an ambition to break any land-speed record. I might ride at the same pace as Richard Farnsworth in The Straight Story when he rides a tractor across the country to visit his brother. But he got there, and so will I. Age is only a factor insofar as the method is concerned. Jack Nicholas once pointed out when winning the US Open in his forties that he didn’t need to be as strong as he was at eighteen, he just had to use different clubs.

I think sometimes people don’t lose the ability, they lose the will.

And for the record, I calculated the distance already. The average length from birth to death is about eighty or so. Subtract from that the fifty-six I’ve already spent, and I’m down to twenty-four, or about the time it took my son to get from birth to now. In there is work, sleep, sitting around and staring at the water, and, of course, writing. That leaves the “active” part of what’s left at about three weeks, or so it seems. I can ride that out, for sure. I’ll rest when I’m done with it all. And anyway, some dreams I had in my twenties are just now cycling back.

By the way, if anyone is interested in Ireland during the summer of 2020, start training. Ireland’s coastline is 1970 miles long. That’s about twenty days at the summer of 1975 speed. Rearrange some routes, eliminate all expectations except to enjoy myself, multiply my age and divide by eyesight, and it’s going to be a long summer, but a great summer.

Sixty is the new fifteen.

Oh, and dear naysayers: Cornelius Vanderbilt didn’t start buying railroads until he was 70; Katsusuke Yanagisawa climbed Mt Everest at 71;  Margaret Ringenberg flew around the world at 72; Bill Painter climbed Mt. Rainier at 82; and Frank Schearer was waterskiing long after he turned 100.

Maybe I should wait a few decades.

ireland

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Last Thursday in November

thanksgiving

Today I saw pictures of people celebrating Thanksgiving in various ways in various locations. My incredible sister made the full spread for her family and a friend, and I am certain she was up before six making stuffing for the turkey, the pies probably done from scratch the day before. She has an uncanny ability, as did our mother, to simultaneously make dinner as well as dessert, while cleaning them up at the same time. The ratio of the work she puts in to the time it takes to devour the fruits of her labor is completely out of whack, but I’m sure she not only doesn’t mind, she is most happy on days like this, as is our mother. On holidays she very much reminds me of her. Though the way she sits back and enjoys everyone enjoying the day is Dad all the way.

My brother, his wife, two thirds of their daughters, along with our mother and one son-in-law all went out to dinner in DC. This after driving from near Houston and stopping along the way to visit in-laws and play golf with my son and me. There are three men in the family for whom I have incalculable admiration for their kindness, ethics, and example: one is my father, one is my son, and the other without question is my brother. Plus, he was kind enough to let me win at golf, though we are both sure it was because of the clubs I used which used to be his. Today in DC I bet he is back at his daughter’s place and they’re all sitting around talking, planning whatever’s next. He, like my sister, picked up all the best traits of our mom and dad.

Yesterday we had turkey, flounder (one can’t live this close to the Chesapeake and not include seafood on any menu, usually oysters in the stuffing), and all the trimmings. I sat on the porch and listened to the Vikings/Lions game while the sun came and went in an otherwise mild day. And in the spirit of the day, I sat in complete appreciation of everything in my life, and some things not in my life at all: no suffering, no hunger, no want, no question life has been good. My scattered family were close to loved ones and I’m sure all taking a moment or two to remember Dad.

These are the moments my father lived for. Not work, not vacations, and not even golf, though some might dispute this last activity. No, hands down, my father’s life was family, especially around the holidays. He absolutely loved his children and was proud of us; he adored his five grandkids, and he could never contain his passion for his two great-grandsons. So when the holidays arrive, I miss him more than usual, which is already a lot. I have a love/hate relationship with holidays. I suppose everyone does at some point in life. It is beautiful to look ahead and see new generations experience new and old traditions for themselves, and the house is filled with laughter and football and the blending of aromas—that is the “love” part. We pass around the same old jokes and stories, and we add a notch every year with new adventures and ambitions, the faces of young family alive with promise. But sometimes I still wish my dad was inside carving the meat or talking to my brother about how Notre Dame is doing this year. So yesterday I took a moment to walk off by myself and remember.

It was my usual walk along the water and through woods that run past ponds and marshlands. It is a place of absolute peace, far from just about everything. Even the local market was closed for Thanksgiving so that if I did want something I would have had to drive fifteen miles to get it. I walked and thought about Thanksgivings when I was very young when so much of our extended family came to our house on the Island, and also in my early teens when just my paternal grandmother and aunt would celebrate this holiday with us. The day went much like how my sister’s day went this year, but in addition there would be football streaming from the living room, and dinner planned for about halftime, and wine, and the aromas of Bell seasoning or apple pie or turkey. Sometimes there would be light snow. Often just cold gray skies. When we moved south we could count on warmer, blue skies. My sister or I would slice the cranberry sauce. My dad carved. But he also spent some time in the margins, watching everyone enjoy each other. He would sometimes sit on the porch for a moment alone while everyone was inside talking, and he would sip a beer and talk to whoever came out for some quiet, which always included myself. I would catch him watching the river, or looking at the cardinals moving from tree to tree. Sometimes he was looking out, but sometimes I wondered if he was looking back.

I wonder if during those days when he stepped aside for a moment it was possible he was thinking about his beautiful childhood in Brooklyn, and his large family crowded around on holidays, his older brothers, his younger sisters, his Chesapeake Retriever. I know he wouldn’t trade the holidays we had for the world, just as none of his children would trade the ones we share with our own families. But when he stepped outside quietly and sipped his beer and looked off across the river, I like to think he was missing his father. Perhaps his childhood home on holidays was also filled with laughter and conversations and all the excitement that comes with it for a large family like his. And I wonder if back in his childhood, sometimes his dad, whom I never knew, might have sat off by himself, quietly, taking it in and enjoying his family enjoying themselves while my grandmother was making dinner, and he sometimes quietly looked out the window and thought about his youth.

It is an incredible gift to be thankful for what we have; I believe this is more rare than most of us know. But every once in a while in the mix of the young energy and the middle-life balance of planning and recalling, I like to step aside and remember why it is we do so appreciate family. It is because of Mom and Dad’s example. It is the absolute conviction that we can always count on the holidays to bring us closer to family and friends, both the ones we are surrounded by and the ones who went on ahead and are waiting, watching the cardinals move about, watching the river run.

cardinal

R.E.S.P.E.C.T.

teacher-disciplining

I had a third grade teacher on Long Island who hated boys. This was not a secret; even my mother used to complain that the woman, whose name I long ago blocked out, despised boys. She would make us sit in the corner but never the girls, would never call on us if we apparently knew the answer but always would if we apparently did not.

And I remember once she said that boys who play outside are very susceptible to spider bites and that might be dangerous since it isn’t unusual for a spider to lay eggs inside you. In fact, she said, she knew of someone who had been bitten in the cheek by a spider, and it started to itch not long after the bite. It became uncontrollable until he ripped open the bite scar with his nails and hundreds of baby spiders crawled out and down his cheek and neck, but some had already crawled into his brain and he died not long later.

We were eight years old.

This can’t be true, I remember thinking. We live in New York, not Panama. The following summer my family moved further east on the Island into a new house in a small village surrounded by an arboretum, a state park, and the Great South Bay. There were bound to be spiders. Still, I spent most of my time during those years hiking through woods, climbing trees, walking forbidden trails to mysterious creeks, and building forts in the trees behind our house. In fact, I’ve spent the better part of my life outside in nature, and I don’t think I ever had a single spider bite, let alone a colony inside my face.

But the story stuck. The following year at a new elementary school, I had better teachers who told us we could grow up to be anything we wanted, and nothing at all could stop us; absolutely nothing. Mark was going to be a musician and Norman was going to be a great athlete. I was going to play baseball. Unfortunately, I sucked. But no matter what happened, I always felt lucky. And I wasn’t afraid of spiders anyway; I just didn’t want them building canals through my dental work.

Who does this? Who so instills fear into others as to mark them for years, decades, to come? When I mention to my students that in my youth it was simply expected that we’d at the very least treat each other with respect, they laugh. They tell me in no uncertain terms that they believe they are entitled to treat each other how they see fit, and the funnier the disparaging comment, the more popular the person.

They call me old. Go figure. Students don’t have much hope in their future. Faculty doesn’t have much hope in students. The media doesn’t have much hope for our country. It goes on. And all of them attempt to outdo each other in securing the best sound bite. There are some days I long for a good arachnid attack. Still, I am an acute optimist.

— 

I remember in fifth grade at my new school, Timber Point Elementary, where we had to work things out for ourselves in the schoolyard. One kid, Steve Brady, was constantly making fun of another, Norman Esiason. Yes, him. My teacher, Mr. Kingston, was on playground duty. He asked them to settle the issue in front of everyone. He stood next to them like a ref in a boxing ring waiting for the contenders to touch gloves. They stood there silent a long time. I believe now Mr. Kingston would have been satisfied with a handshake. But Norman suggested that Steve sit with him and his friends at lunch the next day. He said he supposed they might have more in common than Steve thinks.

I never forgot that. And I’m glad, since I really don’t see it so much anymore even among adults, let alone kids. I miss the time when people who didn’t agree were still somewhat respectful of each other. Such mutual acknowledgement of separate ideas should not be found solely on the playing field. To not treat each other with respect would be at the very least un-sportsmanlike conduct.

We make fun of each other too much. We ridicule what we don’t understand or agree with. We insult what we are threatened by. We manipulate what we wish so we can win. We ignore our weaknesses and pay too close attention to those of others without stopping to say what we admire in others. We should change.

I am being overly idealistic and simplistic, I know. Please don’t make fun of me for it or slip some spiders onto my pillow. From what I have witnessed, despite the more immediate successes of questionable character, it is still the only journey that has enduring results.

Boomer Esiason

 

An Appeal to Artists in America

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“If you ask me what I came to do in this world, I, an artist, will answer you: I am here to live out loud.”       –Emile Zola

 

I moved through several stages of grief in the past twelve hours. Denial hung on a while, anger held court the longest, at about three am I woke up bargaining that it all be a dream, at five I woke up depressed, and at six I got up but instead of moving to acceptance, I back-peddled to anger again.

First, a quick note to my friends and family who happened to support our president-elect: This isn’t about policy—it can’t be since I have no idea what his policies are. It is about lack of character, lack of experience, an absence of respect and compassion. I am scared for my LGBTQ friends. I am worried for the economy. I am horrified for my grand-nephew Sitota whom his beautiful parents brought here from Ethiopia for a better life. I am thankful I do not have a daughter.

In fact, this is an appeal to my colleagues in the art community. There has rarely been a more important time for us to be writers and musicians. Our discouragement at watching this country move backwards into what many in the past few days have called that horrific term “Melting Pot” instead of forward into a multi-cultural society must be met by our abilities to give voice to our frustration.

It has always been the task of the artist to expose inequity, injustice, and fascist tendencies. It was Thomas Paine whose small seditious book Common Sense instilled in the citizens of the colonies the ability to move forward; it was David Walker who called upon his Black brethren to resist; it was Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience; it was Ida Tarbell and Carl Sandburg. It was the writings of John Stuart Mill, and Richard Wright. It was the writings of Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan.  

It was, it is, the poets.

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

Some have suggested that one voice doesn’t weigh much anymore in a world of a million sound bites. However, there has never been such a thing as a spontaneous chorus. The artist, despite his isolation, has it in his or her power to put voice to what others wish to say but cannot, but once they hear it said, sing along with the harmony of their generation. Ginsberg wrote, “Poetry is the outlet for people to say in public what is known in private.” And our own Robert Frost said, “A poem begins as a lump in the throat, a sense of wrong.”

This is an appeal, then, to the poets and to the musicians and actors and painters to combine our talents with our grief, to blend our anxiety with our refrain, to risk exposing truth.

And what do we say, exactly?

In whatever way we can, with whatever genre we can, that we can do better than this. Simply, that we are better than this.

 

“We must always take sides. neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” –Elie Wiesel

 

tortured-artist

Hey, Tomorrow

46815208-gone-to-vote-sign-on-old-green-doors

Tomorrow is November 8th, and we all know the significance of the day: it is, of course, the anniversary of the invention of the insect exterminator by William Frost in 1910. Understanding the serendipity of tomorrow’s date being the anniversary of extermination of insects, I found it equally terrifying that tomorrow is also the anniversary of Hitler’s first attempt to seize power during his failed coup in 1923 Munich at the event which became known as the “Beer Hall Putsch.”

Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow.

The Louvre Museum in Paris opened on November 8th in 1793 just a dozen years before Lewis and Clark reached the Pacific Ocean.

Appropriately enough, Ford rolled the Edsel off the line for the first time on November 8th, nine years before “Days of Our Lives” premiered.

Reagan became governor in 1966.

Let’s go back: in 392 Roman Emperor Theodosius declared Christianity the official religion, but we’ve screwed with the calendar since then so to be honest I have no clue what day that would be. I do know that Ben Franklin opened the first library in Philadelphia in 1731, and in 1789, much to the pleasure of my old friend Mike Russell, Bourbon Whiskey was first distilled from corn by Elijah Craig in Bourbon, Kentucky.

The number one type “event” whose history lands as a start date on November 8th is a battle of some sort. Go figure.

But tomorrow is irrelevant to me. There isn’t a blessed thing I can do about tomorrow more than I’ve already done by voting. The importance comes the day after. This is the significance of history; it is the measure of integrity and character; it is proof of sustainability—what happens next. The tragedy of September 11th was followed by armies of volunteers on September 12th ready to do what was necessary. December 7th was followed by a surge in enlistment and patriotism. The death of Mother Teresa was followed by canonization. It is progression. We have an uncanny ability to survey whatever happens and move forward.

It is never the situation; it is how we handle the situation.

Tomorrow I have classes all day. Some will show up, some will not. They know that if they vote instead of going to class I won’t count them absent. But there are so many things they do not know. They don’t know their individual vote counts. They don’t yet realize that one voice whether in a crowd or alone on a beach somewhere can still make waves. They have no idea that they are as much a part of the decision process as me, as the candidates’ spouses, as the candidates themselves. Tomorrow is historic no matter what happens. It is one of those days that will end up on the timelines I read to compile the above list of events.

And no matter what happens, it is important to note that on the next day, November 9th, Einstein received the Nobel Prize in 1921, that the first US pharmacy college held classes in Philadelphia, that the Atlantic Monthly was first published in 1857, the NY Symphony Orchestra played for the first time in 1858.

They played Pachelbel’s “Canon in D.”  According to one review, “I was left with hope, with a sense that no matter what else, everything is going to be okay. The audience was left in tears, and I wish to believe it from the sheer possibility.”

Ipso Facto

castillo_de_san_marcos_fort_panorama_1

Every November I pack my bags, pack the car, and leave my home near Virginia’s Historic Triangle and drive ten hours to St. Augustine, Florida, to find the no-name food shacks and art shops down side roads. I travel under the guise of a writer’s conference where I’ll be running a workshop and then reading Friday evening. But I’m here for the places where local people linger long after vacationers are in bed. I know they’re the best locales to find fine food. I’ve spent most of my life in the heart of tourist country between Williamsburg and Virginia Beach, Virginia, living on the cusp of the very first settlement in America—Jamestown.

Founded by John Smith in 1607, Jamestown has grown into a world class tourist spot, including Williamsburg and Yorktown. In fact the first landing was right up the beach from my high school and people come from all over to see the replica cross marking Smith’s arrival thirteen years before the pilgrims at Plymouth. Smith’s spot sits near First Landing State Park, the beautiful beach and wilderness area commemorating the arrival of Europeans to the mainland.

On my drive south yesterday I skirted by the Lost Colony of Roanoke Island, North Carolina, pitched to people as the origin of old-world settlements, where players act out the arrival and the subsequent mysterious disappearance of the entire population of the Island. Andy Griffith tried to learn acting here, not far from where the first child was born in America to European parents—Virginia Dare. When you grow up in the Historic Triangle and the surrounding areas, by God you know some American history.

So heading to St Augustine for me was about avoiding the tourist crap and finding the cool dives in which I thrive; the places not on Google Maps, Wikipedia, or even the Chamber of Commerce’s must-visit list.

The first time I arrived many years ago, however, I read the brochure in my hotel room.

“Saint Augustine was founded in September of 1565.”

It is America’s first European settlement, claimed forty-two years before John Smith sailed up the James, and roughly four hundred and ten years before I was taught that Jamestown was the first settlement. Somebody has been lying to me.

Certainly, in recent years, the books added “British” to the notation for Jamestown, but not when I was young. Back then, we were taught Virginia was where it started. Florida wasn’t on Johnny’s map. In fact, in my youth Disney hadn’t been there yet; Cuba had only been communist a few years, and “buying swampland” and “Florida” were synonymous thoughts. A fort? You think when I was a kid I would forget something like a freaking fort in Florida? Come on. No one told me about this. And as for Little Miss Virginia Dare, well I’m just guessing two of those sixteenth century people must have been attracted to each other and ducked out behind the walls of San Marcos decades before her dad and mom even met.

So I had to see this place, explore the tourist spots, eat in the predictable traps. Florida was no longer a conference location; I was on a journey to rewrite my education. Ten hours after leaving the Farce on the James, I rolled past the school Ray Charles attended, tacky tourist trains, the fountain of youth and other Ponce de Leon locations, and the shrine where Pedro Menendez first landed and proclaimed the territory for Spain, where a chapel was built and the first service celebrated one hundred and nine years before Bruton Parish was built near William and Mary College.

And then I turned the corner on A1A and saw San Marcos. Stark and bold like blocks of brown ice, shaved cliffs, the weight of half a millenium. It was night, and the few lights illuminating the 16th century fort rendered an ominous, subtly imposing presence. It’s the burly friend, quiet, steady, always been there and always will be. You might get around me, it says, but you’re not going through, and I’m not moving. I walked about the walls, along the bay, behind the former moats, and imagined the Old World. This whole town is a tribute to Spanish Europe, filled with people who for the most part have never seen Spain. I walked the streets and learned about the settlers, the missionaries, and the pirates.

When Menendez found this coast, he and other Spanish explorers found gold, making King Phillip the II and Spain the wealthiest nation in all of Europe. Then, with their sister Portugal, they mastered the art of slavery, thus driving their economies skyward while swallowing the people of other continents. In China the Ming Dynasty had just started its decline, Europe was engulfed in religious turmoil with schism after schism during the reformation. All while San Marcos was being built near the eventual Golf Hall of Fame.

Fifteen years before John Smith was born.

I sat on the wall overlooking the harbor that first time. I feel kind of guilty when I see this fort, though, like I want to find some Seminoles and apologize. What a history we have. Jamestown, St. Augustine, Plymouth. All of them “claiming” something for someone. I like to think that out on Roanoke Island, the inhabitants of the Lost Colony looked around one day and said, “You know, this is just wrong. Let’s get out of here.” I like to believe they surveyed their profits, the abundance that is this new world, and realized it cost them their souls.

This fort called San Marcos demonstrates one truth quite clearly: we as individuals are not here for long. If I live a life as long as my father’s, who also loved this town, I’d still not see one fifth of what these walls have seen. But I’ll still recall the words of the fort’s namesake: “For what shall it profit a man, if he should gain the whole world, and lose his soul?”

first-landing