Mending Wall Redux

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In Arizona thirty some odd years ago I went to a wildlife preserve called the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. It was wide open, with wildlife roaming as if visitors were on the Serengeti. No sense of cages anywhere; no sense of imprisonment or danger. You could stand at the edge of a field and know with complete certainty the lions were not going to cross the abyss and attack, no matter how badly they may have wanted to. Takes a little of the fun away, but at least it is safe.

I understand these type places have become not only common but standard; they are a means of protecting wildlife and helping save endangered species, as well as a means of educating us up close to the wildlife we otherwise would only see in movies; and they also displace the cramped and often unhealthy conditions which exist in some zoological parks around the country. Not all, but some are outdated and could benefit from the space that places like the Sonora Desert can provide.

But for me the most amazing aspect was the engineering (well, no…the most amazing aspect was the animals staring at me but unable to devour me). Engineers figured out a way to create a barrier which blended naturally into the landscape yet is impenetrable. There is no need for cages or large chain link, reinforced fences enclosing tight spaces.

No walls were needed to separate us; they figured out how to use the landscape.

I need a system like that in my classrooms.

It seems a system like that makes more sense than towering walls. Think of the applications.

But as to the natural world, I clearly remember wishing I was on the other side of the abyss. I wanted to walk around with the animals; it seemed so peaceful. I have always been drawn to animals, whether in nature, as pets, or at places like the Desert Museum. Once a friend of mine and I had a gig in Cincinnati, and we spent some time in the zoo. When we wandered through the primate caves—a tunnel system, like caves, within which were windows to watch various primates in their limited space, kind of cramped, natural habitat. At one of the windows two were having pretty aggressive sex when a group of kindergarten students came in and stood and watched. We stuck around for some of the teacher’s explanation—very informative.

On my own road which ends at a river are farms with alpacas, goats, sheep, and some horses. At one time someone even had yaks. I love the honesty and pureness of nature and animals; they simply “are.” We humans keep changing; in fact we change so much that “change” has become routine, predictable, almost expected. But in the natural world change comes in centuries, and animals’ behavior is organic and brutally honest. As Byron once wrote, “I love not man the less, but nature more.” I often feel safer in the wild among animals in their natural habitat than surrounded by humans instinctively feeling threatened in their natural habitat.

I have always preferred the other side of where I am. In college I crossed the Niagara into Canada, in Arizona, crossing into Mexico was not simply a day off but a way to wander into another culture, another existence so diametrically different from how I was raised I couldn’t help but be curious. Curiously led to immersion. Immersion led to blanket smuggling.

I have had less trouble crossing borders no matter the cost and turmoil than crossing the emotional gap between myself and other people. But once we do cross that abyss, work our way through the dangerous slopes and landslides which can keep us from trying, the landscape is welcoming and engulfing. This week in my class at the university in which we discuss the “journey” theme in writing, at about 7:45 pm I asked about their own journey, their own character flaws and trials along the way. Many of these students have served several tours in war, and others are married to someone who has. Their journeys include the horrors of war without a natural barrier to separate them from danger. After a few minutes one woman opened up about her “journey” and the unexpected turns, and then everyone else did as well and at 9:45 we still sat talking, some emotionally, about where we are, how we got here. It was humbling to sit and realize what I often thought of as “trials” on my journey pale in comparison to nearly everyone in that room.

Still, they are my trials; they are the only trials I have known and what we are made of is determined not by how we are measured against other people’s tribulations but how we handle our own. Some escape facing those difficult parts of our own narrative by running away, moving on; some have the courage and dynamic traits necessary to open up and expose the real struggle, and others still build walls.

Some isolate themselves through complete extraction from a bad situation, or avoiding any possibility of danger to begin with. It reminds me of a poster in my college dorm: it said, “A ship in the harbor is safe; but that’s not what ships were built for.”

All of the things in life worth experiencing often involve risk. Often loss. The fact is you can’t reach for new heights unless you let go of something first. And to add one additional trite example to the mix, while Frost wrote the line, “Good fences make good neighbors,” he was being ironic.

No. They don’t.

There is danger in letting down the guard, in opening up in front of strangers, in getting closer to the risks, but it is the only way to grow, the only way to understand who we are and where we go next. No journey—absolutely no journey—can possibly continue if we build walls.

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Ten Books

 

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Tim O’Brien The Things They Carried.

Tim Seibles One Turn Around the Sun

Ernest Hemingway Old Man and the Sea

Bohumil Hrabal Too Loud a Solitude

Carlos Fuentes Old Gringo

Ernie Pyle Brave Men

Roberto Bolano A Little Lumpen Novelita

E.B. White Here is New York

Frederick Douglass Narrative

Lieve Joris Mali Blues

 ——

When I was in college a professor asked us to list ten books we loved so he could explain what he figured out about us from the list. Except for the minor detail that I wasn’t sure I had even read ten books, I thought it an interesting assignment. I remembered this when I recently heard of a professor who claimed he could tell the IQ of a student by looking in his backpack. I thought about doing that assignment with my students but I think instead of being able to tell their IQ I’d be predicting the length of their jail time. 

Looking back: my book list in college included Stephen King, Woody Guthrie, Robin Lee Graham, Woodward and Bernstein, and most likely Dr. Seuss because I was a wise-ass. I don’t remember much of the professor’s analysis except what was clear to anyone, I liked adventure and bent toward non-fiction.

I thought about using this assignment with my students but decided before that could happen I needed to make my own list. Thus, the ten books above are what I consider the most influential or memorable or re-readable books I can recall. I didn’t head to my bookshelves to come up with them; I simply put my head back and thought about books.

Some observations:

  • I still like adventure and have a bend toward non-fiction.
  • Five of the books are non-fiction though O’Brien is thinly disguised fiction (Read If I Die in a Combat Zone for reference)
  • Seven of the books are pretty short
  • Only one was written by a woman despite some heavy influence from women in my writing including Alice Walker, Frances Harper, and Virginia Woolf.
  • Three were not written in English.
  • Seven do not take place in the United States, though The Things They Carried is debatable since much of it does but much of it doesn’t. So six and a half.
  • Five of the authors are also known as essay writers.
  • Seven somehow wrapped themselves into the narrative.

Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried is simply one of the greatest books of the 20th century, and while it takes place in Vietnam, it is not about Vietnam anymore than Tim Seible’s One Turn Around the Sun is about astronomy. In O’Brien’s book, along with Hemingway, Hrabal, White, Douglass, Pyle, and to a lesser degree Joris, the author either writes directly to the reader or involves the reader in some way.

Seibles’ book is about his parents and age. In fact, the passing of time is a common theme for Hrabal, O’Brien, Guthrie, and Pyle. I have heard Tim read from the book long before it was published, have talked to him many hours over lunch about our parents and time and age, and admire his diction and phrasing perhaps more than that of any writer I know. He is a giant in the poetry world and this book is his best. Read it from start to finish; don’t jump around.

I love how Old Man and the Sea is about an old man at sea whose pride is simply too strong to let the damn marlin go and focus on the smaller fish around him. And then when I read it again it was really about pride in general and who we are and what we learn as we mature. And then when I read it a third time I realized the entire story is the Passion of the Christ. I like how Hemingway never lost his journalistic tightness and how he uses repetition as an art form. Also, the book is really short and I generally run out of steam at about 100 pages. When he wrote, “It was an hour before the first shark showed up” just a dozen pages from the end, I was already hoping the boat would sink.

Susan Sontag once said Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal is one of the finest writers she has ever read and Too Loud a Solitude is one of the finest books. I’m with her on that. It took me several reads to understand how this crazy-ass little book is a compact version of all the greatest philosophies in history, and the “compact”ness of it is a metaphoric spin from the lead character who compacts trash. It is funny as hell and poignant. To top it all off it happens to be parallel in so many ways to The Things They Carried that I could teach a seminar in those two books. As an aside I should say that Tim told me once he focused on Czech language and literature for awhile. Go figure.

When I was at Penn State I spent a lot of time reading all of Fuentes’ work. He seems so much like Hemingway and uses a classic narrative structure. I read his work more because of his locales than the story, and also I was trying to fine tune my Spanish, but Old Gringo is my favorite. If anyone likes Hemingway, he or she will like Fuentes.

Ernie Pyle’s work was introduced to me by Professor Pete Barrecchia at St. Bonaventure. Since then I have not met a journalist who was not at least somewhat influenced by Pyle. He is, to be certain, above all other war journalists before or since and Hemingway once said if Pyle had not been killed at the end of World War Two, it is unlikely anyone would know of what Hemingway wrote after that. Google “Ernie Pyle Normandy” and read his piece about walking the beach at Normandy. It is easy to see how Hem and O’Brien both took much away from this great journalist, particularly O’Brien.

A few months ago, Tim Seibles gave me a copy of Bolano’s book and I read it start to finish without stopping; a nearly impossible feat for me except it isn’t that long. I had given him a copy of Too Loud a Solitude and he said that crazy-ass book reminded him of this one and when I was through we laughed about how neither of us could explain to anyone what the hell it is about, but it simply keeps you from start to finish. It sent me to the rest of Bolano’s work. I still can’t explain what happens but I love how it happens.

I was listening to “Selected Shorts” some years ago, already familiar with EB White’s excellent essay work outside of his famous grammar book, and heard someone reading “Here is New York.” It stands alone for work that is less “about” New York than it is about the state of “being” in New York. If I were born earlier I think I’d like to have been EB White.

I love Douglass’ writing style—very journalistic in approach—and his description is honest and raw, made more revealing by his first person experience. But there is something else that makes this one of my favorite all time books and Douglass my greatest American hero—his Character. Frederick Douglass is an inspiration not only for his accomplishments against the greatest odds in an evil system, but for his mostly firm moral compass through it all. He is simply a tremendous example. The Narrative of Frederick Douglass should be required reading in every single school.

Joris’ Mali Blues about a musician in Mali and his life not only in his village but as an international celebrity is captivating from the start and she walks a new line between personal experience and reporting. This is also a work of journalism. I am pleased that after majoring in J and never pursuing it as a career, my favorite writers were either journalists or at the very least have adopted that style of writing.

These are not the most influential writers for me as a writer—that is a different list, though there is some crossover. To the point—O’Brien, Hemingway, Pyle, and Hrabel make both lists, but the rest do not. These four for one reason or another “inform” how I write—sometimes by outright theft. The other two writers who influenced me as a writer are first Aaron Sorkin, who I think is simply one of the finest writers working today, though he is wholly a screenwriter and playwright, but that makes him a master of dialogue. And finally Jackson Browne. His early emotionally-driven work sets tone for me better than any writer I know. Obviously part of it is hearing a minor key come in for something like “Sky Blue and Black” or the musical phrasing of “For a Dancer.” As I get older, poetry for its diction has become more important, and I’m still trying to find the patience to be meticulous in that regard. But for tone, the music of Browne or Van Morrison or just the right rendition of Canon in D can light fire under my work way faster than the classic writers. Often even faster than caffeine.

I have read many books beyond this list, including a stack my son gives me saying “this seemed like a book you’d like.” He has already read more books than I have in my life. I am not sure why I have an aversion to reading; I think it is because I try to spend as little time as possible reading about what other people have done and spend that time doing something. When my colleagues in the writing world get together and talk about our peers and what they’re doing, I generally slide out of the conversation and find someone who wants to talk about something more relevant to me, say like goats or the beach. Part of it is I hate talking about writing; but the larger issue is simply I do not read that much. I write or I do things.

So when I do come across a book that takes me in and takes over my mind for awhile, I want everyone to read it.

When they finish reading all my books of course. It shouldn’t take long; they’re short.

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and Death said, “Live…”

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Practically speaking, how we are buried is nearly always tied to how we live.

Arlington Cemetery and most other military cemeteries command a respect for those interned there. They remain privileged for men and women who sacrificed so much, often everything, for their country. On foreign soil stand some cemeteries for soldiers who could not come home from war. Where we are buried or where our ashes are spread is indeed linked directly to how we lived our lives.

According to the most recent information from the National Funeral Directors Association, our country is nearly perfectly split between burial and cremation. Just a few years ago burials stayed steady at about seventy-two percent, but the projection claims cremations will bury burials more than two to one in just a few years. Cost is the primary factor. While a funeral with a burial averages about $7500, a cremation can cost less than $2000. The low end gets even lower in mountain states and the high end skyrockets in coastal areas. “Location! Location! Location!” is the call for real estate whether above or below the surface.

I’m not sure where I want to go when I go. Maybe that’s why I write so much; so that the body becomes redundant. If we live well, death might just be irrelevant.

I could be buried in Madagascar. There, every once in a while, the people dig up their ancestors’ bones and dance around with them to music at a party, and then re-bury them when they’re done. Some ancient Chinese dynasties believed coffins should be closer to heaven to get there faster so they hung them from cliffs. One practice I’m not so keen about is strangulation. It seems in old-time Fiji, the loved ones of the deceased, including sons, would be killed as well so death wasn’t such a lonely event. This is still practiced in some areas, but luckily not in the Commonwealth of Virginia, or legally in any part of Brooklyn.

I don’t often think about my own eternal, motionless resting place and where I wish to spend the future of all futures. In fact, hardly at all except it crossed my mind this morning when a saw a clip of “Six Feet Under.” It’s as if eternity doesn’t start until life stops, and I at least get the choice right now of where I get to hang out later; it is like making reservations. Do I want to go back to Brooklyn? I see no reason. A cemetery in Virginia somewhere seems convenient. I am very attached to the small town where I went to college in western New York and there is a beautiful cemetery there, but that’s not convenient at all. The options are incredible. One can, with the right connections, be blasted into space, splattered on the moon, or buried at sea. Become a great statesman or writer and be buried at Westminster Cathedral. Run for and win the presidency and be buried at your own library in your own State in the room next to the replica of the Oval Office. Become a seminarian, then a priest, a bishop, cardinal and eventually the Pope, and be buried in St. Peter’s where sainthood is not out of the question.

I could be cremated and have my ashes spread in a place of much significance. Maybe my relatives can shake my soot out the window of a Cessna above the Great South Bay. Better still, a colleague can buy some rolling papers and divvy me up among my students and let everyone smoke me. Small smoke rings can rise like empty words until the wind carries me away. If my family would foot the bill, I’d like one of those stone mausoleums with stained glass windows and candles for people to light, but it seems not just slightly pretentious. No, I like the idea of spreading my ashes aimlessly about some deep waterway or, better still, along a footpath in Spain where my own Camino can continue and continue. And then, like Whitman, “If you want me again look for me under your boot soles.”

Maybe I’ll simply go away. Relatives can scan maps years later and speculate, point at Spain or Mexico and say, “Yes, there. He is probably there. Perhaps,” and their imaginations can skip to distant, romantic places. And like Virgil’s personified “Death,” I can twitch their ears and whisper, “Live…live now…I’m coming.”

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Put it in Perspective

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I had the chance recently to talk about art terms with a group of elementary students at a museum. When I got to perspective and perception, a few of them seemed confused. So I told them all to put their fingers up like they are pinching something. They did. Then I said to, from their position, put their pinching fingers together to try and pop my head. They all laughed and obliged. This was fun. A few made popping noises, and a few others called out, “There I did it, I popped your head, your brains are coming out of your ears now!” We laughed a lot. I slowly walked toward one young girl but told her to keep trying to pinch my head. She smiled because as I got closer she couldn’t get her fingers wide enough until I leaned into her and she put her whole hand on my head and said, “I will need some help.”

“That,” I said, “is perspective. Things that are farther away are smaller and seem less significant than things that are close by.”

They all seemed to get it, but I gave a few more examples. “Have you ever seen a school bus way down the street and thought how small it looked?” They called “yes” like a chorus. “But when it arrives at your stop it looks like a monster, doesn’t it, it is so enormous!” I emphasized again what perspective is and we walked around and looked at paintings. I knew I’d done okay when we got to “The Angel Appearing to the Shepherds,” by Thomas Cole, and a young boy pointed out that Bethlehem in the distance was too small to hold even one lamb, let along everyone else.

I once failed a test on depth perception. I took a driver’s ed class as required in high school and one of the exams was to sit about twenty feet away from a box with a small opening. Through the opening were two vertical sticks attached to strings and you sat on a chair and attempted to line the two sticks up next to each other. This was a lesson in depth perception. I was supposed to wear glasses back then but never did, so I didn’t have them on the day we took the test. I still passed my road test and got my license the first time out, but I was glad they didn’t line up telephone poles that way. What I thought were two sticks next to each other in a box was actually two sticks over a foot apart. Oops.

My father once told me how he always had excellent depth perception. In fact when he was learning to drive he took a similar test and was instructed by the teacher to show others how he did it so they could see someone get the sticks right next to each other. I believe it too. In golf his putting was always excellent, which requires a certain amount of perception. And in his days shooting hoops he could sink free throws with some ease. On the other hand, my own son’s first driving encounter was in a golf cart when he was about ten or twelve and I let him drive and he misjudged the distance to the small metal garbage can which he promptly ran over. I was glad to start him driving on grass. I knew that way he would eventually get the hang of it. The club owners had a different perspective on that. 

That day playing golf was one of the finest. My son and I rode in one cart and my father and brother another. We laughed a lot and had a great time, and at one point I even let Michael chip a ball out of the sand for me, and he laid it up inches from the hole. Afterwards we went to the clubhouse and had lunch and I could see Dad was in his glory sitting at the table with his two sons and grandson. His face lit up anytime someone he knew came in and he got to introduce us, and even more so when someone came over to him, spotting him first. We all went back to Mom and Dad’s and talked about the day and about running over the garbage can and the people we met at lunch. I am sure there are pictures around somewhere from then, but I really don’t need them. I can see that day perfectly, like it just happened, like only a few days went by instead of my son being twenty-four now. Back then Michael wore a green polo shirt, a hat from that club, and his round glasses, which made him look a little like Harry Potter. My brother won the round, but he also drove a ball through someone’s bedroom window. It was quite a day.

That happens to me a lot, remembering things like they just happened. Like the time my Uncle Bob accidentally hit my Spalding ball into a lake when I was seven or so. We were all at a picnic and I waded into the water to get it. Or when I hit a homerun—the only one of my little league career—to win a gamble with my father to get ice cream every day for a week. I can still see him standing next to third base with the other coach laughing. I was wearing a maroon “Wildcats” t-shirt.

Or when my mother drove me to get my first pair of glasses and the ground looked all funky when walking back to the car, but it also looked so clear as if I saw the small pebbles in the tar for the first time. There is an advantage in clarity, as it turns out.

These days, my eyes are not what they used to be. I wear glasses when I drive or watch television, and lately I use reading glasses to grade papers, though not to read online work like my own essays, which might explain some rejections. In any case, while my distance eyesight has improved, my ability to see clearly things right in front of me has diminished somewhat. There are some advantages, however; most work by Matisse at the museum, for instance, is much more enjoyable.

I don’t mind so much that I sometimes lack enough perspective to understand just how far away some things are. I don’t always need life to be in order, all lined up at the proper length. Sometimes I prefer to perceive things in my own way; I like mixing it up a bit, taking a good hard look at something that is supposed to be far away but see it as if it is right here, laid out in front of me as if I can touch it, hug it. I don’t mind at all. It just means wiping my eyes from time to time. 

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A Day in the Life

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I woke today to the satisfying news that the New York Mets are in first place in the National League East. Of course, they’ve only played one game but remain undefeated to hold the top spot. This enticed the hasty-generalization side of my many fallacies to declare them World Series-ready. I watched the Mets religiously from 1969 to 1975. And now they are in first place! Bring it on.

I arrived at the college after a brief gaze at a fine sunrise across the Atlantic, a quick stop for a cup of some Mexican blend coffee, and a couple empenadas, and got a head start on reading student rough drafts. I knew the day would move well, what with the Mets and the sunrise and the coffee and all.

One thing: this week is the Lit fest at the college. I won’t digress about the pathetic lack of advertising, the scheduling of the four invited readers at lunch time each day when people are usually eating and the night students who would want to attend can’t, including my advanced writing students, or the fact when I tried to find out what room in the student center the student open mic would be (scheduled for the same time as one of the featured readers by the way) I couldn’t find a poster or email anywhere so I had to go to the college’s event page. And I won’t take up any space mentioning that when I did get to the event page I read the biography of a close friend of mine, Tim, who is reading today (at lunch) on another campus, only to see the bio had to have been several years old as it failed to mention his latest book, the fact his previous book was a finalist for the National Book Award, and failed to mention that the man is the fucking poet laureate for the State! Neglected that entirely.

But I did discover where the student reading on my campus was and decided to go because it was the only event today which also included a table of fruit, brownies, and lemonade. But wait. Another email indicated that one of the vice presidents had a q and a going on at the same time in the same building discussing issues I thought I should probably hear. Fine planning, no?

So I went to the student reading, texting my apologies to my friend the poet visiting the other campus where I knew he would have a great crowd so I didn’t mind missing to support the likely to be low-attended student reading.

There were five people. They all must have happened upon the college’s homepage. How else would they know? The moderator, a faculty member, started the event by reading someone else’s song lyrics off of her phone. I knew I did not belong there. I knew that my frustration arose from not being a part of the committee which comes under the umbrella of the International Education Department instead of something literary like, I don’t know, English, so I had no right to complain about something I am not a part of, so I finished my brownie and fruit and lemonade and left for the VP meeting.

Digression: Walt Whitman wrote a beautiful poem called, “When I heard the learned astronomer,” in which he describes being at a lecture where he literally can’t breathe, feels faint and anxious and suffocating, until he leaves and finds brilliance and peace by looking at the stars. Yes, that’s me at all meetings, all events really, where people don’t stay on task or read lyrics off of their phones.

So I sat at the VP meeting (where no food was to be found so I didn’t take my coat off) and quickly I noted the entire conversation was dominated by two faculty members offering anecdotes about students in their online courses. My mind started to wander. Out of respect for the VP who went to Alfred University just a half hour drive from St Bonaventure where I went and at the same time, I stuck it out a bit, but my mind wandered. At first I focused on some large cormorant in the lake outside and even managed to snap a pic without anyone noticing. I stared at him a long time, wishing I were home on the bay, walking along the sand and watching osprey move in and out as they built their nests. I do much better outside, I have a strong attention span for nature and paths through woods, and soft bay breezes. They can talk to me all afternoon and I won’t miss a thing.

It made me wonder, really wonder, what I was doing there to begin with. I’ve been on so many paths in my life, and I’m more than a little lucky to say most of them have been excellent experiences from health clubs to hotels to pilgrimages and train rides to bouncing in and out of so many places I can’t imagine how I have managed to stay in this place for this long, nearly thirty years. Certainly teaching college affords me time off enough to travel, and writing has enabled me to meet so many amazing people around the world, which all makes coming back to my small office on this large campus with tens of thousands of students much more easily digestible. But still, when I hear these learned professors, when I, sitting, listen to them talking about what angles to take in teaching and how to chart and graph accomplishments, how suddenly ill I become, until I need to excuse myself and go outside.

My colleague continued when I decided to leave, but as I stood I noticed the “Wall of Quotes” on the other side of the room, including large painted sayings from the likes of King, Ghandi, and others, when my eyes settled on the one closest to me.

“If you don’t know where you are going,

you might end up someplace else”

                                                    –Yogi Berra

Wow, I so ended up someplace else. There is no better way to say it. Thanks Yogi for that.

Yogi. Who managed the Mets from 1972-1975. The Mets, who are still undefeated this season.

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