Serendip Revisited

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One night in Norway about three a.m. I had to pee and the only place was an outhouse fifty feet behind the cabin. It was negative something and knee-deep snow, but I got dressed and headed out. I had to wait, though, because at the same time my colleague Joe had the same idea and was already in there. After we both did our thing, we were wide awake so decided to hike up a snowy service road next to the house. That night we saw moose, more stars than I knew existed, and green bands of the aurora borealis bouncing around the sky like a wind-blown towel.

I’m so glad I had to pee.

What profound beauty exists just beyond our comfort zone! What crazy-ass cool new way of starting fires awaits by opening the wrong door!

Like Vincent van Gogh, of course. About thirty years ago I did a lot of work about Vincent. His birthday is Thursday and I wanted to share one of my favorite passages from his letters to his brother Theo:

The earth has been thought to be flat. It was true, and is today, that between Paris and Arles, it is. But science has proven the world is round and nobody contradicts that nowadays. But notwithstanding all of this people persist in believing that life is flat and runs from birth to death. However, life too is probably round, and very superior in expanse and capacity to the hemisphere we know at present. For my part I know nothing of it. I feel more and more that we must not judge God on the basis of this world; it is a study that didn’t come off. What can you do in a study that has gone wrong if you are fond of the artist? You do not find much to criticize; you hold your tongue. But you have a right to ask for something better. It is only a master than can make such a muddle as this, since then we have a right to see the same creative hand get even with itself. And this life of ours, so much criticized and for such good and exalted reasons—we must not take it for anything more than it is, and go on hoping that in some other life we’ll see a better thing than this.

Depressing no doubt, and probably written on his down cycle of mania, but beautiful none the less. At first I dug into van Gogh’s life because I was fascinated by the reality that while alive he was considered not simply a failure, but an embarrassment in the art world, and yet he went on to become one of the most influential artists in history. But what I came away with was a lesson in passion and confidence, in pursuing one’s objective despite criticism and dissent. This isn’t to suggest we run blindly into a pathless wood; but there is value in internal motivation. Van Gogh only wrote letters because he wanted to tell his brother where the money loaned to him was being spent, and while explaining he digressed into philosophy. He only decided to become a painter because he got kicked out of the church where he wanted to be a preacher, fired from his uncle’s art dealership because he didn’t like the patrons’ tastes in art, and kicked out of the academy for disagreeing with the teachers. He only decided to paint because he was too much of a bastard to do anything else.

Naturally this made me think of Horace Walpole.

He was the 4th Earl of Oxford and a man of letters who read Persian fairytales in the 1700s. In his work, “The Three Princes of Serendip,” the heroes consistently make fascinating discoveries while searching for something else on a small island with the Arabic name of Sarandip, later Serendip, known now as Sri Lanka. Walpole coined the word “serendipity” to reference someone who makes a discovery while looking for something else, or in many cases, finding perfection while not looking for anything at all.

We all go looking for one thing and often find something else. It turns out the greatest proof of absolute symmetry in life is the complete randomness of it all. Alexander Fleming sneezed in a Petri dish full of bacteria and discovered penicillin. His famous quote followed: “Nature made penicillin, I just found it. One sometimes finds what one is not looking for.”

My car broke down in the college parking lot and I came in to use a phone and got a job. Changed my life. We got lost on a dead-end road which ended at a river and saw a small sign which said, “Land for sale.” Changed my life again. I went to my spam folder back in 2007 because a cousin sent me pictures I never received and suggested I check there. When I did, under her email was another from someone I was very close to twenty-three years earlier who had found a book of mine and wrote to see how I was.

What’s ironic is it isn’t always the spectacular events which redirect the flow of our existence. Going to Siberia and Spain certainly grows out of who I am and reminds me of what is important in life. But it is the small curves which surprise us into new landscapes.

Life bends and twists and folds back on itself. “You never know” might just be one of the greatest truisms of all time.

Aurora

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Scotch and Water

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It’s the 21st. I miss my dad. 

As odd as it may seem, it isn’t simply “my father” in the paternal sense that I miss; that’s an abstract we all understand.  If I tell someone I miss my father, the response is normally a generic, “Oh I bet.” or “I understand.” I am not a fan of vague comments or emotions. So it isn’t that I “miss” my dad; it is the small things that rip at my seams, like seeing someone eating a bowl of blueberries or a cup of she-crab soup, the sound of ice in a glass, someone jingling coins in his pocket, baseball. The sound of golf on television, the aromas of Thanksgiving Day, the opening theme music for “Law and Order,” lunch specials at boardwalk restaurants, cardinals in spring…

On Tuesday nights my dad and I drank Scotch. Dad always liked J & B, a blend to which he probably became accustomed early on. On occasions he drank Chivas, aged just right, and a few times he had a bottle of Edradour in the house. On Tuesday nights we poured two glasses on the rocks. Routine is important and I’d get there about nine and was no sooner in the door when he’d jokingly say, “My coaster seems to be empty,” or something similar with a laugh and a welcoming smile. I’d put my things down and offer to pour, and he’d insist he was just fooling and didn’t mind at all getting our drinks. He would walk in the kitchen and I could hear the cabinet and the ice and the heavy bottle he put back in the cabinet, never leaving it on the counter for more because we never had more. He’d return steadily and slowly and hand me my glass and we’d raise them to toast and he’d say, “Well,” nodding his head politely at a loss of words, and I’d interrupt and say, “to your health,” to which he would again nod and with his deep voice reply, “and to yours.”  Then we’d watch baseball, not really talking much. It was late and we were both usually tired. He sipped his Scotch.

But I don’t like Scotch, so I preferred to pour. When I won the politeness contest and he sat in his recliner while I went in the kitchen, everything was the same but instead of Scotch in my glass I had mostly water. Dad’s eyes had faded in those last few years and he wouldn’t have noticed the lighter tint of my drink. And anyway, it wasn’t about the Scotch. We sat together a long time those Tuesday nights and he would turn once and say, “Boy this is good, isn’t it?” and I’d agree. Sometimes I felt guilty and would pour a bit more for myself as well, but usually only when it was a single malt. After a while he would head upstairs to bed. Then I’d sit alone in peace after a long day, but inevitably I’d wake up and wish he had stayed up longer even just to sit quietly. I’d promise myself that the next Tuesday while drinking Scotch I’d make more conversation, talk more about the game or about my day or anything really, since he wouldn’t have minded even turning the game off, but the following Tuesday would come and like clockwork I’d be silent and he’d be tired and we’d watch baseball and he would go to bed. It was always fine.

My father aged well, and sitting with him on Tuesday nights was the purest time I had during those days. I can still hear him saying, “My hand feels very light,” or “Sure I’ll have a small glass,” even while my coat was still on, and sometimes I can recall it with a laugh, but other times, when I stop in at night and his chair is empty, the television off, it is too real to think about.

When Dad first retired I’d bring his toddler grandson to the mall where Dad walked in the afternoon and we’d “run into” Grandpa. I never promised either my father or my son we would meet so as not to disappoint either if we didn’t. But when we did, nothing could distract Grandpa from walking around at the apex of three generations. Dad’s smile exploded with happiness when he watched his young grandson run toward the toy store, or when we stopped for ice cream and Dad would pretend to lick some of my son’s cone. The two of them would laugh hysterically until my son offered him an actual lick, which Dad always refused with a strong, “Thank you very much.”

Once it really was an accident, meeting Dad at the mall. On that occasion my son and I walked around and discovered Dad sitting on a bench, taking a break. His face lit up, of course, when this small boy ran up to him. So did mine. I always wished that had happened more often. It was as if an ordinary day of routine was suddenly cracked wide open by this small but exciting surprise. I avoid thinking about that too much, about not doing that more.

I believe the spontaneity of unexpected meetings must have made it seem more like my own youth, when siblings and cousins and countless friends lived close by and visiting was normal, and running into each other at the store was an ordinary occurrence. Dad missed those times when relatives came by on a regular basis; he lived for family. So sometimes seeing his grandson at the mall was a beautiful mixture of possibility and recollection.

When that did happen I would often hang back as we walked so it felt to both of them like they were alone. They discovered the stores together and Dad always allowed his grandson to pull him into the ones he wanted, namely the toy store or the bookstore. Dad bought more than a few books on those visits.

Somewhere in my attic is a box of those books from those days. I am glad we kept them, though I have no intention of looking in the box. I thought of those walks when he died, about our lunches at the beach, about watching baseball and playing golf. After the funeral we all went to a restaurant, and my now adult son ordered Scotch. Perfect.

Perhaps when I become a grandfather, my son will take those books with him—I am sure of it. And when I sit somewhere with my own grandson on my lap to read to him, I’ll picture some inconceivable moment in the past when my father and my son laughed hard together turning the pages, and I’ll think about the passing of time and the persistence of memory. I’ll offer to pour a Scotch for us, and my son will insist I stay seated and he’ll retrieve them himself, knowing, of course and without offense, in that particular instance, it is my own father I’ll be thinking of.

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Do You Copy?

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Three students plagiarized papers I graded this weekend, and it reminded me of what has become a classic story around the college from some years ago.

I gave an assignment in October of 2005 asking for students to dig into their memory and write five hundred words about September 11th, 2001. I wanted them to reflect on what will remain one of the most significant days in our lives. When the attacks occurred, these students for the most part were about fifteen, so as early teens they had very guttural, organic reactions. How, I wondered, do they remember that day? I thought it was a good assignment—a specific event but a vague enough request for them to wander where they wished. One student wrote of her aunt who never made it out of the South Tower. Another wrote about her sense of horror and disbelief, which, she wrote, she could never correctly capture on paper. Several actually commented they didn’t think it affected their lives at all while others spit out what they kind of paid attention to with one ear from local television reports—about heightened security, conspiracy factors, the indescribable loss of life that spontaneously erupted on TV that morning. But one student’s piece caught my attention. He wrote, in part:

In a way, September 11 demonstrated, more than any one phrase can contain, the strength of our Constitution. The day became the beginning of a new era of the democratic process, and the definition of how we will defend our liberty, maintain our principles and remember our purpose—to stand as an example of humanity’s potential. It was Memorial Day. It was Victory Day.

I read this with amazement. No student, I thought, could possibly be that stupid. While I admired his choice, I remained baffled by his idiocy. I asked for the rough draft and received exactly what I knew I would: A similar, hand written version with some words written differently and others crossed out.

“You plagiarized this,” I said, which, understand, is rare for teachers to say. We receive copied material all the time, but nearly never have enough proof to say, directly, “You didn’t write this.”

“I didn’t plagiarize that!”

“Yeah, you did.” My small laugh, I think, pissed him off.

He continued to challenge me. Normally, plagiarized papers frustrate faculty members when they know an assignment was plagiarized—either from another student or from one of the many web sites offering papers for sale— but can’t prove it.

“Yes, you did. Tell me why I shouldn’t kick you out right now.”

“Because I didn’t plagiarize it.”

“Okay, I’ll tell you what. Go do some homework. I want you to bring me a copy of the original. If you do, I’ll let you redo the assignment without penalty.” I figured the embarrassment enough would be sufficient.

Once a student turned in a paragraph she plagiarized from our own text. Another time a student turned in a paper right out of the psychology textbook assuming I wouldn’t recognize that his in-class writing had the ability of a seventh grader and the essay he turned in was written by Freud.

I Googled  the term “college papers” and found the top ten of about 4,750,000 sites including essaytown.com, papercamp.com, duenow.com, term-paper-college.com, schoolsucks.com, chuckiii.com and, my favorite, smarttermpapers.com, where on the home page they offer “custom papers” with the following guarantee: “A 100% original document based on exact requirements given by you!” What is bothersome is their promise that “all writers hold at least a master’s degree.” But my favorite highlighted guarantee is that “all papers are plagiarism free—we use a plagiarism detection program to ensure that all texts are original.” When I tell my students that the papers are plagiarized the minute their name is placed at the top, they don’t really get it.

When students plagiarize and I know it but I can’t really prove it, I have to decide if I am to bluff and call them on it, spend time doing research to try and find the original source, or, since all writing is subjective and can be criticized, rip it to pieces anyway giving a C or D to the student who worked so hard at finding a professional piece that met my requirements. I did that once and the student, without thinking, exclaimed, “But this was in Time Magazine!”

I had a student once complain I didn’t accuse her of plagiarizing. She said she thought the work was brilliantly written and that she was convinced I would demand of her the origin of the information. Some are that good. Some papers are so moronic I pray they were plagiarized just so I don’t have to believe one of my students wrote that shit. A paper I received once had the same page printed three times. When I pointed out the mistake, he said he couldn’t think of anything else to write but knew the paper had to be 800 words so he just copied it a few times. I started to tell him that was not a good idea and he interrupted complaining of the requirements and how I am being unreasonable.

The student with the plagiarized paper returned. “Ah, did you find it?” I asked when he came in and tried to sit down without looking at me.

“No,” he said, as I knew he would.

“It’s okay. I brought a copy. Shall I read it to you?”

“No.”

“Great! Here goes:”

 “Hey, it’s from the Virginian Pilot! Well, let’s see:

“’There are still no words for September 11’ by…”

“Oh my god, Dude, should I go on?” He laughed a little at my sarcasm because he knew what came next and because, really, it’s so laughable.

“’There are still no words for September 11’ by…” I stopped and looked at him.

“You’ve got to be kidding,” I said.

He spoke quietly: “I didn’t know you wrote it.”

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Ptolemy’s Ghost

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We looked at the stars again. I don’t know their names and no matter how many times I read about them or someone explains them to me, that part of my brain simply doesn’t operate well. I know Orion because of the old Orion Motion Pictures; that’s it. It is the same part of the brain that doesn’t allow me to remember names of students or division meeting times. And the truth is, I don’t need to know any of that information. I know the faces of my students; I see hoards of faculty heading toward the same room around lunchtime and I follow them in, and I look up at the brilliant miracle of science spread out across the heavens. Who needs names?

Some nights the temperatures are freezing, but that is usually because of no haze or cloud cover so the stars are even more brilliant. With the small scope we can see the rings of Saturn and four of Jupiter’s moons. We’ve also seen Venus and Mars, and a herd of constellations that start with a P or a C, I forget. One of them is Pleiades, I know that. They are the seven sisters, which alone made me shiver and go back inside.

I do know the big dipper when I see it, and once I saw the Southern Cross a long time ago on a continent far, far away. I assume the really bright star I see often in the south is either Alpha Centauri or Vega, but I really don’t care one way or the other. I’m not going there, teaching astronomy, or trying to impress anyone at all. I did take an astronomy class in college, and on one cold night we took a powerful telescope to the hill inside the cemetery and took turns scanning the sky. When it was my turn I said, “This is out of focus; it’s all fuzzy,” to which the professor looked and exclaimed, “Holy Shit you found a nebula!”  My roommate said, “The Marvel Comics alien superhero??” The professor laughed then told me I didn’t discover one but I did point the telescope toward a fuzzy patch someone else had discovered. Cool. I’m not unromantic—I wasn’t oblivious to the idea that I was staring deep into space, across billions of years ago toward eternities from now.

I can’t wait for clear nights at home when we can see stars in the darkness across the bay or the river, but what I enjoy looking at the most is the moon. I never tire of staring at the craters, especially when it is a half-moon, which makes the craters so much easier to see than when the moon is full. Michael will point the telescope toward Saturn’s rings or Jupiter’s moons and I’ll say, “Yeah, nice, now let’s look at our moon again.” He always obliges, but I understand why it isn’t as important to him as it is me.

In the late sixties I was just another kid like so many caught up in the space race, following the Apollo missions as they came close to the moon, orbiting it, sending back images of its surface. I had a brown jacket with a NASA patch sewed on the sleeve and an American flag on the other. I knew every aspect of space travel—the speed needed to exit the earth’s gravitational pull, how the Saturn V rocket was built, the space inside, the Space outside, the purpose of each mission, and the names of every single astronaut.

I turned nine in July of ’69 and we just moved into our new home. I remember my sister sitting on the floor and I joined her as we watched Walter Cronkite dictate the actions of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin while Michael Collins orbited above them. The next evening I remember going outside and looking up at the sky, knowing they were up there and wanting more than anything to go there someday.

That dream faded, but not the spirit of the dream. Maybe because it was the first serious ambition I remember having other than wanting to be a baseball player or an ice cream man. I wanted to train at NASA and be an astronaut. Of course. It wasn’t because I liked the science—my brother is the scientist in the family. No, it was because I like the ambition of it all, the pursuit of something seemingly impossible, literally otherworldly. Even at nine it meant to me that despite the turmoil of the sixties we still kept our eye on the ball and refused to believe we could not get there. I am not sure the succeeding generations have a comparable ambition, at least not one as grand. Mars? Someday. Not yet.

So my son and I often go out and look at the stars and the full moon, and whenever I do I have hope again, despite the problems with the Russians (like in ’69), or bad race relations (like in ’69), or protests on campuses (like in ’69). It seems we have lost that spark, just a bit, and that’s okay for people like me who had that time, had that foundation of combining dreams with plans, ambitions with determination, like NASA did when I was young. But I wonder what the nine-year-old’s today turn to for that lesson of hope, that example of integrity and focus. What field do children’s fathers bring them to just before sundown to sit on lawn chairs and wait for what happens?

Humanity needs something larger than itself to shoot for. We can over-focus on tragedies and deceptions, leaving us the impression that today’s headlines are the beginning and ending of our existence. In the midst of such madness, striving toward an almost impossible ambition provides the perspective necessary to keep moving forward, to keep hope, to keep enough integrity to recognize we can do better than this. The greatest minds combined in the history of humanity have not yet figured it all out; but the pursuit itself was their purpose. We have focused too close to home for our goals, aiming merely to achieve; what a disappointing ambition.

Maybe too many people think everything’s already been discovered. I’m sure others felt like that every step of the way from the Dark Ages through the Renaissance. And for the record, it wasn’t Galileo who first mapped the moon after seeing it through his telescope. That inaccurate historical note goes to Englishman Thomas Harriot who mapped the moon in July of 1609 several months before Galileo; 360 years nearly to the day before my sister and I sat on the floor and watched Neil Armstrong step down onto the lunar surface.

Can we reach the stars someday? Hell, I can’t even name the damn things, but I’m glad someone smarter than me is mapping the way. It was U.S. astronomer and pioneer of Dark Matter, Vera Rubin, who noted the discovery of the far reaches of space more than anything else should teach us humility. We all could use a little humility these days, some reminder that we are at best merely guests here, moving through, making room for others hundreds of years from now to look up at the skies and marvel at the nebula, be amazed again at the craters on the moon.

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O’er Moor and Mountain

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I am selling my art.

I love art and have been surrounded by it most of my adult life. But I like to make left turns, and sometimes doing so means adjusting various aspects of life. And for me, now, it means selling art, making room for other things, and pursuing a much larger ambition for which, now that I analyze it, the art work was an investment to begin with. Time to climb out of this lane and onto the next level.

I teach a course at Saint Leo University called “Journey’s of the Narrative.” It is about the odysseys we find ourselves on in life, with historical as well as literary references. I loved bringing in my copy of Homer’s Odyssey, translated by Pope, to show them something other than electronic (that piece of art is not for sale). We talked about pilgrimage, about journey, about pursuits. And we also discussed trials and tribulations met along the way.

Last night we discussed “character flaw.” The conversation moved from Odysseus to Don Quixote to Santiago of Old Man and the Sea and Alie Fox of the Mosquito Coast.  Pride seems to dominate, some vanity, a little bit of delusion. I asked which character they most related to. The guys chose Santiago, mostly because of his persistence and stubbornness, plus they are mostly NAVY retirees. The women chose Louise of Thelma and Louise (no one chose Thelma, who I think was the stronger character). One woman chose Alie Fox, saying she could totally see herself chucking the “dying American way of life” and carving out a new existence in some jungle until she happily lost her mind.

I always choose Cervantes’ most famous character. I don’t mind tilting at windmills. I have no problem with self-deception. I know someday someone’s going to hold up a mirror so I can see my character flaws, but until then the quixotic ways of life have worked for me. I think my most recent dynamic moment came when I realized sometimes we establish one way of existence for the purpose of moving to another. It’s time for what’s next.

So I’m selling my art. On the one hand it is symbolic–the art work represents a professorial collection of beauty and accomplishment. On the other it is practical–I need the money to fund what’s next.

And what’s next?

I can’t say, really. No, really. I have no idea. I just know I need to climb on the donkey and work my way up whatever new hillside I come across. I saw a lot of windmills in Spain; maybe I’ll go to Spain. That seems appropriate. 

You know it can be just as stressful knowing what’s going to happen down the road as it is not knowing at all. If I back up, four years ago I had no idea the Camino de Santiago existed; since then I’ve walked it with my son, am going to again, and written several articles about the journey. It has, in fact, realigned my life in a way. Two years before that the idea of riding the Trans-Siberian Railroad was a punch line to an outdated joke, but not only did we ride the long version, my next book is about the journey (well, not really..it’s about fathers and sons kinda, or more about the journey theme again, but that’s not right either). 

Our lives are riddled with examples of left turns and roundabouts we never anticipated but later can’t fathom life without them.Richard Jones was working with tension springs when one of them fell to the ground–the slinky. George Crum was a chef in Saratoga Springs who got pissed off when a customer kept sending back her potatoes because they weren’t done enough, so he cut them really thin and fried them to a crisp. She loved them, he made them a menu item, and potato chips were born. My favorite is the Kellogg brothers who left a pot of grain boiling on the stove for way too long and the dried up mess became corn flakes. 

George Halas played outfield for the Yankees but hurt his hip. He was replaced by two new players–Sammy Vick and Babe Ruth. Halas’ injury made it possible for Ruth to get game time every day, but it also enabled Halas to start the Chicago Bears and become one of the greatest football coaches of all time.

You never know. Maybe I’ll coach football. Maybe I’ll buy a slinky. I think I left something boiling on the stove. Who knows what might happen. My car broke down in the parking lot and I got a job teaching  college. I sold some of my art collection and….

How far down the road can you see? No. This instead: Just how far down the road do you really want to see?

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On a More Serious Note

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If nothing else, I can count on nature. I have always thought that way, that if everything else were to fall apart, I can walk and watch the water ebb and flow, the changing leaves, the wildlife. It brings me peace both being there and knowing it is there, a foundation of sorts, the original “space” before the deluge of humanity. I’m okay when I am there. It is honest.

I was telling this to someone who asked what I do when I get depressed or feel hopeless.

I head outside, I said. And I really never feel hopeless because I chose a long time ago not to put my “hopes” in other people’s hands. Sure other people will determine how successful some of my life is, whether job opportunities or writing or even relationships, but “hope” I insisted, is best sought internally and not motivated by external approvals.

I’m not qualified to talk about this, I said. We were walking to the counselor’s office. It was windy but sunny and warm.

Back up:  

Langston Hughes wrote a short poem which reads:

                                                   The calm,

                                                   Cool face of the river

                                                   Asked me for a kiss.

I write that on the board for my creative writing students and inquire what they think the title is. I let them read it a few times and think about it. Titles are amazing; they can not only reveal content for the reader before the piece even begins, they can also completely change the tone and direction. In this case, the normal responses include “Swimming,” “Intimacy,” and even “Ego.”  Only a few ever come close to the poet’s intended tone.

Hughes’ title is “Suicide’s Note.” Go ahead, read it again.

It makes sense really. People contemplating suicide most likely don’t see it as violent or offensive or even hurtful, but simply a sense of peace which awaits. If death provides their only conceived escape, then no matter how violent that death is, it pales in comparison to the hurt hurled at them on a daily basis, even if that hurt is misconceived; it is real to them. It is not a matter of a “bad moment” in their minds. It will not pass, in their minds. It will only get worse, in their minds.

Gwendolyn Brooks, in her poem “To the Young Who Want to Die,” wrote:

                                                Sit down. Inhale. Exhale.

                                                The gun will wait. The lake will wait.
                                                The tall gall in the small seductive vial
                                                will wait will wait:
                                                will wait a week: will wait through April.
                                                You do not have to die this certain day.

Someone contemplating suicide might argue this.

I became interested in Vincent van Gogh when my friend Cole Young gave me his complete letters. In them, two particular contradictions caught my attention. One, van Gogh was despised by so many who knew him; critics and artists alike thought his work to be trash; he was a complete failure—but he went on to become one of the most influential and celebrated artists in history. And two, he wrote extensively to his brother about the beauty and grace and gift of being alive, yet goes on to kill himself. On the one hand he had many afflictions, including chemical imbalance, which might have led to such an ending, and further it has been suggested he didn’t kill himself at all but local teens shot him. In either case, he told his brother who was at his side in those last hours that he wanted to die; that “death is not the worst event in a painter’s life.” I was curious so I read much about depression and suicide, including William Styron’s beautiful, personal work, Darkness Visible.

I don’t know about depression as a disease, nor am I prone to it. But friends of mine certainly are, and many members of the military whom I’ve taught on the local bases certainly are.

And in some scary way some of my literary heroes have been: Hemingway most famously; Bohumil Hrabal of Prague “fell” out of a fifth story window; Tim O’Brien has written often of his depression; David Foster Wallace most recently.

This girl on campus is suicidal.

Twenty five years ago (Dear God twenty five years ago) a friend of mine killed himself. There have been others since then I’ve known who took their own lives. An adjunct friend of mine who took the wrong medicine, a former student upon returning from Iraq, some guy I knew in Pennsylvania who killed himself at a press conference. But my friend twenty-five years ago was the first.

Simply put, he wrote a note for his boss telling him he quit. Left another on his front door saying he was in the garage. He took the dog, closed the door, started the car, and died.  Since then his daughter grew up, moved on, married, and is a mother. His friends have jobs, houses, families, down time. We laugh, sit around sometimes and drink beer, listen to music, talk about old times, talk about what’s next. To us, our current “old times” came after he checked out—that much time has gone by. Now he’s the guy we used to know who buried his future in a cloud of carbon. It will always be 1992 for him. We don’t talk about him that much. In just a few years he’ll be gone longer than he was ever alive anyway. But so will us all. That’s the part he couldn’t wrap his mind around; that this life isn’t very long at all anyway.

This morning the sun seemed to come out of the ocean with such persistence and boldness I think it would have chased away the most severe of storms. I get energy from the morning; it is like a caffeine boost that rips through me until the next one. Things go wrong, things fall apart, tragedy can loom sometimes, but we keep waking up, even if sometimes we have to change the game plan. But not everyone can pull themselves up by the bootstraps; not everyone can talk themselves out of that long, dark tunnel. Whether it be situational or chemical, not everyone sees things with hope.

The girl on campus is a straight A student.

So many people are depressed these days. The country might not be going the way we want it to; jobs may not be available, bills are hard to pay, friends are hard to find, and sometimes sleeping in seems like the best solution. I don’t know if the girl on campus has a medical condition or was taught somewhere that failure was not an option (in most college suicide cases, grades are high). I do know that the suicide rate for college students is much higher than the same age group of those not in college. I think that’s because in the real world we seek out challenges we know we can meet, but in college, students are faced with so many unknown requirements and unanticipated difficulties. No one taught her one of the most essential lessons in life—that failure and success are not opposites. If her problem is situational and not chemical, I wish someone would have taught her not to define herself by external events like school and peer pressure and others’ expectations.

I’m not qualified to write about this either.

That’s why the poets. I stood once in the hospital room of one of my college mentors, Dr. Russell Jandoli. He had heart problems and at that time would recover, but while visiting we talked much about writing, of course, but also life itself. He was a man of few words. He said, “Mr. Kunzinger, leave death for the poets.”

And so I shall:

                                   You need not die today.
                                   Stay here—through pout or pain or peskyness.
                                   Stay here. See what the news is going to be tomorrow.

                                   Graves grow no green that you can use.
                                   Remember, green’s your color. You are Spring.

                                                                                       –Gwendolyn Brooks

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