May 23rd

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Joan Collins. Drew Carey. Rosemary Clooney. Douglas Fairbanks. Artie Shaw. And of course Nicole Jaffey, the voice of Velma on Scooby Doo.

All shared a birthday with my dad. Tomorrow he would have been ninety-two. 

King Philip the First of France and hypnotist Friedrich Mesmer. In fact, when I look at the list of people who shared Dad’s birthday—May 23rd—I really am mesmerized.

Franz Kline. Scatman Crothers. John Newcombe, who I once played tennis with on the courts at Timber Point on Long Island when he was out there practicing for the US Open. He showed me how to hold my racket.

It is the 143rd day of the year, making Dad a Gemini, and is World Turtle Day, which might be the coolest fact I uncovered. It is also National Taffy Day as well as World Colitis Day. And Dad’s “Birth Flower” is Lily of the Valley, which represents “humility”; perfect for such a humble man.

Those who died on the day of dad’s birth (though not the year) include John D Rockefeller, Kit Carson and Clyde Barrow; Bonnie is not listed, though I know she shared the barrage of bullets that day.

On May 23rd Joan of Arc was captured and sold, the Netherlands declared its independence from Spain, and Captain Kidd was hanged. Ben Franklin invented the bifocals and the New York Public Library was dedicated by Taft in 1911. On Dad’s 40th birthday, “Help me Rhonda” hit number one, and on his 54th birthday “We are Family” was certified platinum. On some May 23rd or another, the first Preakness was won, Joe DiMaggio hit three home runs, and Colin Wilson rode a surfboard 294 miles. Virginia succeeded from the Union on this day just two years to the day before Stonewall Jackson took Front Royal. On May 23rd in 1883 there was the first—and only—baseball game between one armed and one legged players, and William Love broke ground on his famous canal near Lockport, New York.  

And just three years to the day before Dad’s birth, Walt Disney incorporated his first motion picture company, “Laugh-O-Gram Films.” Just after Dad’s 50th birthday he and I walked through Walt Disney’s park in Anaheim and felt ill at a theater-in-the-round which made flying in a jet through Niagara Falls seem real. We held the bar in front of the row where we stood, but we still wobbled out with a loss of appetite. That was a great day. And about ten years earlier he brought me to Jolly Rogers, a small amusement park in Commack, Long Island, and we enjoyed ourselves even though I was too short for some of the rides.

On his sixtieth birthday we had a surprise party in the Virginia Beach home where my siblings and I all flew in to celebrate. He thought I was going whale-watching that weekend with friends in New England where I lived and when he saw me he almost seemed disappointed: He loved—absolutely loved—the idea I was going whale watching. A few years later he and I did just that off the Virginia coast and watched a humpback breach the water. That was a great day.

On Dad’s 90th we all went to Ruth’s Chris and Dad was in his glory with his favorite soup and steak. I had scallops and my son had a lot of alcohol not realizing the “Ruth’s Chris Coffee” wasn’t so much “coffee” as it was alcohol and he really enjoyed himself. Like we all did at that sixtieth surprise party when our mom’s brother Bob couldn’t make it so he sent a scantily clad woman to sing happy birthday. 

One thing is certain, we always—always—found time to enjoy the passing of time, with family, by ourselves, whenever we could. He made certain of that. I don’t need Google searches to discover significant events. My entire life is laced with significant events. Growing up it was golf with Dad and my brother at Timber Point, baseball games, and the five of us at quiet, low-lit restaurants where he warned us not to fill in on bread and crackers. In my teens I wanted to use his car so I’d drop him off at a local shopping center for him to catch a ride with a co-worker, but not before we stopped each time at Dunkin’ Donuts where he would buy me juice and a donut while he had coffee.

When my son was young we’d “run into him” at the mall, and years later I’d stop at a different shopping center where Dad liked to stretch his legs, and I walked with him, and we sat and talked. During those times every Tuesday we had Scotch at night, and once every three weeks or so my son and I would drive down and the three of us would go out to lunch, usually at the beach and usually he had oysters and beer, but it never seemed “usual.” Sometimes my brother joined us when he was in town and then we all laughed all afternoon.

After Dad retired but before Mom did, he and I went out to lunch about once a week—just him and me—trying different places.

My calendar is covered with significant dates.

Like the time Dad dropped me off at college and the entire drive up we talked about family in Brooklyn when he was growing up. That was a great day. Or when I used to travel throughout the country, especially out west in Arizona, and I could call him for free at his 800 number, and he always loved to hear what I was doing and where I was headed.

Or when Mom and Dad would come to my house and we’d sit on the porch. Or when he read one of my books and, with his sharp sense of humor, told me he didn’t get past page 46, so I read the page and found the line “years before my own aging father was born.” We all laughed hard. Or how we would always share books by John Grisham and talk about them, or how I discovered one of the last things he ever read, maybe the very last thing other than a newspaper he ever read was my essay, “Instructions for Walking with an Old Man at the Mall,” and he liked it. We had Scotch that night.

Or when my sister told him she was cancer free.

Or when he and my brother watched Notre Dame beat USC.

Or that last lucid conversation, that Thursday morning.

You can’t put the most important dates on a timeline; they exist in soft breezes on cool mornings or hazy evenings over Chivas Regal; they lie between holidays and celebrations when having a beer and a sandwich after a round of golf with Dad, my brother and my son. The important moments mark themselves in visuals of him watching golf on television, his hands folded before him, his gentle “tsk tsk” when someone missed an easy putt. Dad carving the turkey. Dad barbequing link sausages or steaks. Dad reading the newspaper on weekend mornings. He was old school; he was part of the “greatest generation,” and from where I stand, they earned the moniker.

Happy Birthday Dad. You made every day significant.

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Brain Dump, one (3am)

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A Brain Dump after Reading Too Much of Czech Writer Hrabal Before Bed

note: sometimes I can’t sleep and just stare at the ceiling and type, getting thoughts out so I can go  back later and see what’s there…here is one example, unedited

Some Germans took Goethe way too seriously and those with will to live should avoid Schopenhauer completely, but it doesn’t matter. We find ourselves dying on a daily basis. We start complete and lose a little as we go, like that small bozzetti of the Visitation by Tagliapietra that started as a block of terra cotta clay and ended with Elizabeth and Mary, both with child. We blow through our teens until we’re twenty when we know we’ll live forever. At thirty we think we’ll die so we open the Book of Hours to the Office of the Dead at night when we’re alone to prepare ourselves for the hereafter. We try and rise above it. At least that’s the assumption.

So we leave our marks: carve our names, write our memoirs, sign the canvas, pee on trees. We look for spices and find new worlds, we avoid persecution and found religion, we speak our minds and lose our heads, we say what’s right and get left behind. We find out fast that Orwell knew in a “time of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act.” We teach such a small portion of information it’s barely noticeable—but leave out that amount and the life crumbles, falls, and can’t be found; we take pictures to show to recall to immortalize; we can’t remember faces we forget to write it down, we lose our energy, our memory, our courage, our determination, our purpose, our identity, our drive, our car keys. We vow to do better next time. We take vows of chastity of obedience of poverty marriage vows we vow to improve get even to avenge. Instead we stand on the dock and mock our hesitation while foot soldiers garrison themselves and face death for an eggshell. 

We start slow. One channel, then two, off the air by 11:30 to the sound of fuzz, a long annoying beep a circle with an x across the white noise screen until six am when the flag flies and the National Anthem plays and the new broadcasting day begins. We pick up a few more channels, we add public broadcasting, we add some locals, then some nationals, then the sky cracks open and we spit out hundreds of possibilities from porn to pygmies on the Discovery channel which tricks us into believing we haven’t yet turned over every stone.

We dig up the bones to point to the obvious: that we’re not the first, not the last and not here long. We get dumped at sea, mummified, burned at the stake. Been going on forever. We pass through once. Some drink the poison, some lose their heads, some get trampled at coronations, millions die in battle, hundreds of thousands of hunger, many of disease, some assassinated, some crucified.

We pray. We say the rosary, go to mass, thank God for the bounty. We eat what’s on the plate because some are starving somewhere else and we keep our mouths closed as we eat and hope no one quotes Isaiah Chapter 49 Verse 10 proclaiming “they will not hunger or thirst_for he who has compassion on them will lead them” and we pick up our forks and swallow the damn peas. We follow St Mark’s quill to the Lion of the Tribe of Judah and hope He’ll help us through. Just in case, though, we pick up the toys because some kids must go without. We keep our lives neat for those who have no life. We want it to look perfect. We want to look right. We buy mirrors. We make mistakes, call the wrong number, bounce a check, steal a pen and run down stairs; we speed, we waste food, we waste time, we worry more about our waist than the serving size of rice in a village. They eat grain, millet, rice, wheat, ground in a bowl in the sun, they wait at the well for the women to haul the camel-skin bags and pour them into buckets, they wait at the truck for relief, they wait in line for bread, they wait for the allies to break the blockade, they wait for the sentence, they wait for the end. But they keep going.

They hike across deserts and seek something else, the were lost they were boys they were soldiers. They were Francos Bok who escaped a shed in Sudan, they were Socrates drinking an avoidable cup. Maybe they were born in Brooklyn not Baghdad, they went to school and ate custard. They played little league and went to summer camp where the local villagers put on a show at night near a fire; they moved to the suburbs and got a new car, they shot off fireworks and fired at pop bottles; they ate barbequed burgers and corn on the cob, boxes of clams and played with a little red Spalding ball. They swam in ponds, they hiked the hills and bought postcards; they stayed too long, it passed so fast, what year was that? Who is that in the picture? How did that song go? When did we own that Oldsmobile? Where did we get that painting? We forget to write it down, we’ll remember. We make the mistake of assuming it’ll be alright.

We like to laugh. For fun, of course, but just as much for survival, to blanket our fears, to extinguish our anxiety, to take away the hurt. It hurts anyway so we laugh and hope Buddha’s Vinaya was wrong when it called for ancient monks in India to go to confession for such an offense as laughing. But we laugh. We tickle we entice we ridicule we play the clown the fool. We work the mirror and tell jokes into mock mics to an imaginary crowd and wait for the laughter to subside before emerging at school the office the party to make others laugh, the ultimate in now, the definitive value of absolute present. Why did the chicken cross the road? A man walks into a bar. It’s Nietzsche’s need to call every truth false which was not accompanied by at least one laugh. We laugh and nothing hurts and no one is going to die. We laugh and we must stop eating, talking, drinking, even moving because it is time to laugh and no one worries when someone laughs. No one is plotting damage or pouring hemlock; no time when we are laughing and everyone lets enjoy the moment the joke the break from the cold reality of life where things fall apart but not when we let ourselves rejoice and be glad.

(then I fell back to sleep)

magtymguly pyragy sees you

Sound Off

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When I walk I don’t listen to music. I just walk and listen to whatever is out there. At home it is the small birds, osprey calls, and the river sounds; sometimes an early morning oyster boat not far from shore, and always the gulls. At the oceanfront it is the waves, of course, but also the plows moving sand around, the sweepers cleaning the boardwalk, radios, tourist chatter, children’s laughter. At the oceanfront the occasional fighter jet passes five hundred feet above heading to Oceana, and at home a Cessna, a Piper cub, or sometimes flight instructor Mike’s World War Two replica P-43 headed out over the Bay with a passenger who paid for a thirty minute tour.

A few months ago I asked my students about their listening habits. The average (way above average actually) routine is to get up and put on music, drive to school with music, at school have their ear buds in with music going except (not always “except”) when in class, and then the same the rest of the day. I asked how often they left the music off, left the buds out, and just sat and listened to life around them. They all said, “oh yeah, every day,” and one young woman in class called “bullshit” on them and an argument ensued. She won. By the end they admitted that “quiet time” simply does not exist anymore in their lives, if it ever did at all.

I remember growing up and when the television was on and we were all talking sometimes my mother would say, “Can you please be quiet I can’t even hear myself think!” Exactly.

When I walk I don’t usually like to walk with anyone. It is different when I travel and we are taking in the sights and sounds and people, but even then when we were walking all day downtime was common, and my son is a quiet person anyway. But at home I prefer to walk alone. I like to hear myself think. It is the only way I recognize my own voice.

It seems so many students are so accustomed to hearing other sounds—music, television, friends, games, teachers, parents, and on and on and on without a break even falling asleep with earbuds in—they don’t know the sound of their own voice.

I, of course, don’t mean that literally. When I walk I find my thoughts, my opinions, my rationalizations and motivations. When I walk I move from exhausted and mentally drained to calm and in perspective to hopeful with new ideas, different thoughts about old ideas; I figure out what to leave out there on the road and what to keep close for more thought. I solve problems, I talk myself out of making new problems. I remember and plan and organize and dismiss. It is a thorough cleansing of the mind. I never feel healthier than when I let my thoughts run free without bumping into earbuds on the way out, or competing with someone complaining or asking questions. I understand myself better and am able to make decisions without influence, or, more likely, make no decisions at all and just stand by and let it all be.

I have learned the sound of gulls when they circle looking for food compared to their call when confronted by something strange. I can close my eyes and know the direction of the tide and the pull of the current. I do not know most smaller bird calls—Michael has to tell me (over and over) which is which when home on the porch—but I well know the call of a hawk or osprey or eagle, especially when they teach their young to fly. It is a sight to behold, and more, it is a sound I will never forget.

There is nothing “silent” about nature. There is nothing quiet about night. On the river at night when the stars blanket the sky above the Chesapeake and up the Rappahannock, the most muffled of sounds carries across the water. It could be a car crossing the bridge, a late night fisherman dropping traps, rigging against a mast, the gentle, familiar, eternal lap of water on the sand. It always, absolutely always, seems calmer at night.

Paul Simon wrote, “Everybody loves the sound of a train in the distance; everybody knows it’s true.” Yes, across the night, when everything seems silent and the distant call of a train comes across the space between. There is life out there carrying on. Likewise on a foggy morning and the call of the fog horns on the fishing boats comes across the reach.

I wish my students would listen. How often have I said that? But I really believe if they would pay closer attention to the quiet sounds around them, the natural pace of life, they would better understand their own thoughts and recognize their own voice. Then, perhaps, they would not simply hear what I say, but would listen to what they hear. At the end of the day there is nothing I can do but what I do at the end of the day: be still and listen to the intricate and miraculous passing of time.

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Planet mates

Mother-Teresa

An old dilapidated house near my home dates to the seventeen hundreds. It sits in the middle of what was once a slave plantation. Just across the land long ago gone were the slave quarters. Today the house is covered by vines and trees; some dying themselves after a century of life. Generations of neighbors have come and gone, and generations of foliage and storms and crops have come and gone and what’s left of the house crumbles into the earth.

Some say let it crumble; some say tear it down and build a new place on the land and give it to the slaves’ descendants, many of whom still live on the same road; oppressed people either stay close to home or never come back.

When I walk past I am painfully aware that I shared this space, separated only by time, with people who whipped men and women, others who were whipped and shackled. This isn’t a movie; it isn’t even history when you stand on the muddy lane at the end of the path and look toward the once-was porch and picture a fine-dressed overseer ordering humans to commit inhumane acts. This is where I live. We live. My friends freezing up in Buffalo and my family on the Gulf Coast all live here too; just beyond reach, a little off the calendar.

Mother Theresa. Malcolm X. Neil Armstrong. Jimi Hendrix. Pope Paul the Sixth. Lech Walesa. St. John Paul the Second. Thomas Merton. President Eisenhower. Elvis. Pablo Picasso. Albert Friggin’ Schweitzer.

Wait.

Rwandan Tutsi’s. The Lost Boys of Sudan. Steven Biko. Pol Pot and Bosnia. Treyvon Martin.

I did time with these people; I stood witness to these events. These saints and sinners brushed my sleeve simply by sharing the earth on my watch. We have a loose affiliation to miracles and massacres, and still we’re just guests here.

This world is at best a hotel, and every once in awhile I take a look at the register to remind myself who else stayed here. Alexander the Great, Charlemagne, Mohammed, Ivan the Terrible, Genghis Khan, all guests just over the slope of the horizon, just beyond some small slice of linear measure. On the same human trajectory as mine but before is Geronimo, Moses, Jesus, Christ think about the gentle bend of time, the careening swerve of place that separates me from the Disciples, the Visigoths, the founding fathers. All here but just before.

My swift life falls on the same graph as Richard Wright and Ernest Hemingway. And when that shack in the woods around the corner from my home was still in its prime, the walls still absorbing the shrieks of rape, the cries of bleeding men, Grandma Moses was a toddler. Grandma Moses, who painted her last work about the time I learned to swim. I was alive when someone was alive who was alive during the Civil War.

Closer to now, when I look inside the lines of my coming and going, between those two rays shooting off from my birth and my death, I can see the souls who at one time or another shared with me this spinning blue wad. Not short of miraculous, we claim the same particles of stardust, and that’s what keeps me looking around when I walk down some city street; I want to know who else is on earth with me.

Carl Jung lectured during my youth, and Ty Cobb watched the same Mets players as me. When I was still cutting new teeth and outgrowing my Keds, I could have headed downtown with my Dad and possibly been on the same train as William Faulkner, e.e. cumming or Marilyn Monroe. I might have passed them on the street, maybe stood in line at some drug store counter with my mom and behind us because of the blending of circumstance might have been Sylvia Plath or Sam Cooke; Nat King Cole; Otis Redding. We have overlapping lives. On a circle graph, we share the shaded space.

If my family had gone for a drive the summer I turned eight and stopped to get a room in Memphis instead of the Poconos, we would have heard the shot that killed King. And in ’63, I was the same age, same small height as John-John and could have stood next to him, shoulder to shoulder, to salute his father’s coffin.

Judy Garland and I watched the New York Jets in Super Bowl Three. When I was born, World War One vets weren’t yet senior citizens and World War Two Vets were in their thirties. Vietnam isn’t history to me; it is my childhood, my early teens. The fall of Saigon was announced over the loud speakers at my high school.

There are empty fields save monuments and markers where soldiers died defending this land against the British, against ourselves, and they stood where I stand and watched the hazy sun rise. Same sun; same beach. Don’t mistake history for “back then.” Those people just happened to check out before us. It could have been us. It is us now. And it won’t be long before our lives overlap with the crying call of a newborn Einstein. Did you see that boy running at the park? That girl climbing the tree at her home? Did I just pass by some senator, some Cicero or Socrates, some St Augustine? This is the only history we know firsthand.

I find it a crime we are not incessantly aware we were preceded by the likes of ancient civilizations, but also by evil. For God’s sake, Eichmann and I had common time, Hitler was my grandfather’s age; so was Stalin.  But so was Isak Dineson and Winston Churchill. My grandfather lived into my youth, yet was born before flight, about the time of the first automobile, before radio, and before long some sweet woman and man will find each other softly adding to who comes next.

Like strangers buying the same house decades before and after, like seeing the list of who owned the used car, like getting a job replacing some retiree. Like standing in line. Like sour-dough starter. Like a relay race.

I like knowing the people I know now, these brothers and sisters, whose overlapping lives linger just within my time frame; we share the same air, watch the same news and celebrate the same wins. In some divine book somewhere, these people and I are on the same page. My parents, my siblings, my children, my God what grace to have shared this passage from cradle to grave. We don’t associate with isolation, no matter how lonely life may sometimes seem.

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