How to Make an Omelet

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Writers face a task unlike most of the arts. In music you can judge how well you’re doing by simple comparison to the original song you’re trying to cover. In visual arts it isn’t unusual to see young painters in museums copying the masters, measuring their progress by their ability to replicate Van Gogh or Rembrandt. But writers have no such opportunity. We can’t simply retype a volume of Hemingway and hold it up at the end and say, “Check it out! For Whom the Bell Tolls Baby! I’m getting better every day!” No. It is a crapshoot. If we appear too much like one of our idols, we are emulating too closely. If we have too much of our own voice too quickly we are terrified and, often, ridiculed for straying from the canon (in that way all the arts are the same–music in particular and writing remain siblings in this difficult balance).

That’s why I love small chores with immediate results. Washing the dishes is a good one. Laundry. Cleaning the porch or cleaning out the shed. Mowing might be my classic example. These are all activities I can simply do while thinking of mostly other things, then after not-too-long of a time I can stand back and see the results. I can quickly assess whether or not I did a good job and redo parts that are obviously in need of another go at it.

Not a lot of guesswork is necessary; very little, if any, subjective viewpoints. It is what it is.

I have so little of that in my life. As a writer I am naturally dealing with material which can constantly be changed based upon my mood, the time of day, my caffeine intake. Even when I decide I’ve butchered a piece into place the best I can, I rewrite it again, restructure it, dump the intro and move the conclusion. Shred it. Eventually the editor will send the usual note indicating “only small grammatical corrections from this point on,” and I’ll panic realizing that means the journal is probably going to send back the four replacement paragraphs I shot off to them at the last minute. Instead, if the piece comes out in some anthology or another journal under a different title, I’ll include the new addition then, still knowing it will never be close to finished. Some things will never be finished.

Still, when something does come out in print or online I like to do just one quick take on it to see if they did something strange like add words I’d never use such as “spurious” or take out words I do use, like my name. Then I’m done. To look at the material again is just a way of seeing how differently I’d write it—not necessarily better, just different.

Right after that I mow the lawn. I admire the straight lines of cut grass; grass that was long but is now short. I trim the long grass around the stones and, ouila, done. Nothing to question; it is finished until next time.

However, in the best of days my usually unorthodox approach to everything from work to parenthood to travel and writing has always raised more questions than answers. Part of it is I take a lot of chances; another part is an overwhelming need to experience the passing of time as if I’m taking a dip in the ocean. I want to be absorbed in it, saturated by it. Maybe that’s why I write to begin with; to conjure a counterpoint to the persistence that is time.

Cooking is another task which can be immediately graded. I cook seafood mostly, but I also can make an amazing omelet. I knew a sous chef named Willie at the Hotel Hershey when I worked there half a lifetime ago. Sometimes he would take a weekend off to go to see his family in Puerto Rico, or just stay home, and I’d get to spend that day making omelets to order for the guests. The trick is to let it cook awhile on one side before the flip. I got good and I still love making them. Immediate gratification. Like playing Freecell or Tumbling Towers. I know instantly whether or not I did a good job.

If the temperature is too hot the egg will burn but if it is not hot enough it will not solidify well. The butter first (not spray not margarine not bacon grease butter just butter and if that bothers you eat oatmeal), followed by any hard ingredients—peppers, shrimp, etc—and after they’ve been thoroughly sautéed, pour in the room temperature, already beaten eggs—three is perfect. Keep pushing the egg toward the middle or sides to let the uncooked egg slide under the cooked part, making for a fluffy, well distributed omelet. When the whole thing seems un-oozy, flip it with a snap of the wrist so it lands in the same spot only upside down. Cover with shredded cheese and then fold in half and let it slide in perfect placement with the half-moon side matching the curve of the plate like two ballet dancers in unison.

Then eat.

This doesn’t work in writing. The second paragraph of this piece, for instance, was originally the beginning. The one starting with, “I love small chores with immediate results.” I changed it a few seconds ago. Writing has no guideline, no recipe, no set ingredients. I wonder now why I didn’t write, “When I mow the lawn I always start near the driveway and work my way to the woods.” Or “I do the larger dishes first when I clean and the silverware last.” Both decent starts. I can also point out now that originally the omelet section was the first paragraph, but I buried it later to back off of the “process” style which can be overbearing and misleading. I also couldn’t decide whether or not to include Willie. I kept putting him in and then leaving him out thinking it irrelevant, but then I decided to leave him in because I thought it a small detail that personifies the example. And yet another part of the writer side of me is constantly saying, “Who gives a shit?” as I write. Writers must constantly strive toward uniqueness without the benefit of example which itself defines contradiction.

Thank God I love to cook. Balance is everything.

Still, I like not knowing if what I’m working on is on the right track; not being able to see too far into the work. I like discovering where I’m going only when I get there or maybe slightly before that, and then getting lost again, trying different directions until the landscape reveals itself.

I wonder if I live the way I do because I write, or if I write the way I do because of how I live?

I don’t always want to know what’s going to happen. Maybe what I’ve been working on for all these years will turn out to have a happy ending; or maybe some tragedy will strike and I’ll need to write myself out of a corner and make some alternative escape from the monotony of a three-decade-old narrative. Whatever. I just know that in the end, the old axiom, “Watch pot never boils,” is not true. Of course it will boil. Einstein’s theories aside, the pot on the heat is going to boil. It is one of the few predictable aspects of life we can count on. Time is selfish that way. Not one fat second will ever lose an once on my account.

And no matter how many ways I approach it in the years I have left, I am never going to be finished with this life I’ve been writing. There are just too many ways to rewrite it; and far too many people already are too accepting of their first draft.

A quick nod to Paul Simon: “I’ve been working on a rewrite, that’s right. Gonna change the ending. Gonna throw away the title and toss it in the trash. Every evening after midnight is time I’m spending, working on a rewrite; I’m gonna turn it into cash.”

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A Pathless Wood

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The details aren’t important, but in a nutshell: Toward the end of last week I was walking along a steep cliff and slipped. A friend of mine reached down, caught me by the fingertips, and pulled me back up. I have never felt such relief; he’ll just say he was giving me a hand.

As years pass and the events of what turned out to be one of the truly shittiest weeks of my life fade to some horrible memory, what I will always now remember instead of the stress and the lack of sleep and the uncertainty, will be this gesture. It is difficult for any of us to translate the significance of another’s actions to someone who helps us out. I’ll avoid the “butterfly effect” metaphor, and I definitely will steer clear of the pebble in the pond bit, but it is along those lines—in a good way.

This is about perspective, of course. This is about what will become important to us in retrospect.

I remember a story once about a man who went fishing with his young son. The father had a lousy time because he so wanted to catch a fish for his son, or even better help his son hook one. He was so disappointed when they drove home with nothing, silent the entire time. Some months later his son had tragically passed and when going through his things he found a diary in which the boy wrote for the entry on that day of fishing, “Spent the whole day at the lake with my dad. Best day of my life!” Sometimes we miss the point.

I wonder how often we just assume the person falling will land on a ledge somewhere and be fine? Or even more, how many times do we figure “It isn’t all that bad! Look on the bright side”? Sometimes someone trusts us at our word and, without question, hooks in and helps out. What seems like a simple kindness to someone else might be the equivalent of a second birth to the guy who can’t hang on any longer.

So with what seems like a great deal of weight lifted from my shoulders I made a list of what is truly essential. I’ll avoid references to Antoine de Saint-Exupery, I’ll by-pass the five or so predictable Hallmarkesque choices such as “family” and “health,” and I’ll swiftly move to the following:

6. Walking in nature. There is an absolute presence of timelessness there. It is as it was hundreds of years ago and will be from now, it doesn’t pass judgement, it holds no grudges, it suffers no criticism. It is as close to perfection as one can get for the passing of time. It boggles my mind how it can clear my head so easily.

7. A sense of humor. I don’t mean reacting to jokes or watching a comedy. I mean exactly the opposite: I mean being able to see something unexpectedly tragic as an opportunity and a chance, seeing something that changes as simply something new, looking at getting lost as discovery, looking at losing something as simplifying.

8. Trust. I heard someone once quote St. Bernard of Clairvoux as saying. “We must learn to make excuses for other people.” I loved that. I want to move forward trusting that the excuses others have are pleas for forgiveness or help. I want to have more humility when someone needs to rush around me on the highway. I want to look at people as having good reasons for questionable actions. I just think it is healthier to trust and lose than spend life with the bitter aftertaste of doubt.

9. Talking to strangers. Everyone I know in my life was at one time a stranger. At the start I didn’t know the names of my closest confidants. I want to sit more on boardwalk benches for just five minutes if that’s all we can spare and talk. I did that a few weeks ago and an old man on vacation from Poughkeepsie and I talked about the smell of salt water in the air.

10. Laugh. (okay, I had to throw in at least one trite, predictable choice). We need 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.

But you know what? At times I think Robert Frost was right: Life can seem like a pathless wood. Sometimes it hurts really bad anyway and you feel like a man on a cliff whose legs are about to give out. 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. I want to laugh like we did when we were young and we would tickle, entice, and play the clown or the fool. It is the ultimate in now, the definitive value of absolute present. 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 we enjoy the break from the cold reality of life where things fall apart. But not when we let ourselves rejoice and be glad.

Eventually, I will forget the stress and the anxiety of these days, but I will never forget the friend who chased it away. Time is going faster now than ever before. And if I can slow it down just a little bit, it would be to spend more moments laughing with good friends, drinking wine, and try and finally understand that every single morning is a second chance.

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Verbal Abuse

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I wrote this a long time ago, but with my full schedule starting Monday it seemed dreadfully appropriate now:

I suppose it started when my son and I shopped at a local food store. Some five year old near us called to his mother, “Hey Mama! Do we be needin’ potatoes?” To which his mother replied, “We ain’t be gottin’ no need for no potatoes.” The kid paused, looked up, and I said it sounded like they didn’t need them but that I hadn’t done the math yet.

It’s a big bad negative world we live in.

“No, I ain’t feeling bad.”

“I don’t be needin’ none of your shit.”

“Don’t be talkin’ no trash to no one.”

The bad grammar is not the problem, though that’s a problem. It’s the not-so-vague undercurrent of negativity which surfaces in conversation and conduct that is the true issue. The “ain’t”s, “no”s, and “don’t”s run out front of their ramblings like offensive tackles, pushing and shoving as soon as the sentence comes off the tongue. It’s hard to avoid them.

These grammatically-challenged people subconsciously convinced themselves that nothing good is going to happen. Worse, something negative precedes all of their actions, both verbal and proverbial. It’s positively shocking. Listen:

At a McDonalds where two workers tried to fix a blender: “It don’t do nothing, do it?”

At a restaurant when the hostess asked another customer where he’d like to sit: “It don’t make no difference.”

At the counseling office on campus: “You mean he don’t need no developmental English?”

No kidding.

Maybe I’m simply not a negative person—except now of course.

Truth is, I really couldn’t care less about the speech, though it is annoying. And I can easily attempt to administer editing drills that eliminate this moron-babble from their essays; what I can’t control is the rising tide of helplessness that’s the true problem. Why does anyone want the primary root idea of every thought and conversation to be a variation of “no”?

I really don’t know.

I asked my students what they hoped to accomplish after college, where they hoped to be. They hadn’t thought about it. One student said, “I don’t want to think about it. It don’t look too good out there.”

Momentum is dead. These people feel like they’re running on ice. Was a time they knew they could defeat anything that kept them from their goals. They believed in themselves. Their natural mental state bent toward something positive. No more.

Everything, after all, is negative. War pervades the American mind in little more than a stream of body counts and car-bomb updates. Hurricanes slam our shores and send us reeling into “he should have” “she should have” volleys. The news has always been negative, but now the news is on all the time, from computers, I-phones, television, radio, and newspapers. None of it is good and it ain’t getting no better. And college isn’t a hiding place either. Most students would rather pull a lower grade than have a professor look at a rough draft; students immediate reaction to any question, proposal, suggestion, or instruction is absolute defense and anxiety; if it happened before they were born, it really doesn’t have any affect on them and therefore they shouldn’t be required to learn about it. Hamlet is boring; Oedipus is stupid; statistics is tedious; bio lab is too long; developmental classes are a waste of money; introduction to lit is a waste of time; history is not relevant; philosophy has no practical application; psychology is fucked up and so are the instructors; text messages are read more than text books; face to face communication is obsolete; and when I tell them they are better than their attitudes, that they can achieve every single one of their goals despite being trained for twelve years to simply do what they’re told and shut up, they laugh and say, “I ain’t got no time for none of that.”

In their defense, however, who really cares? After all, I do know what the students are saying, or trying to say, and I understand why they have slipped into such lazy, uneducated speech. I know the times they live in now demand this mindless reactionary talk in order to be accepted by other mindless friends. But these people graduated from a high school in the United States. They are what we define as “educated” and “literate.”

“Professor Kunzinger, I ain’t had no time to finish no works cited page.”

“Mr. Kunzinger, my car don’t have no spare tire and I be stuck out here.”

“Bob, I don’t need no developmental English. I didn’t do bad in high school.” This is what I’m talking about: Not, “I did well in high school,” but “I didn’t do bad.” But they fit in. Bottom line remains—you’ve got to fit in.

These kids are so passive that sounding intelligent is of no value. They don’t understand that command of the language is not about being taught some med-evil construct carried over the pond by mostly snotty old white upper class Englishmen. Using the language as a sword with skill and finesse allows them to outwit anyone, any age, any income. It allows them to move without being noticed from group to group to take command, to lead, to sway the argument in their favor. It is the basis of all advancement, and it acts as the sharpest tool against a dull public out to take advantage of everyone.

This is real–these are actual responses:

“My dad don’t have no computer at home, and I ain’t got no time to spend in no library.”

“You ain’t going to accept my paper? But my math teacher don’t give me no time to work on no paper with all the lab shit she got us doin.”

“I don’t remember no requirement to turn in no rough draft? That ain’t what you said. Bullshit.”

“I don’t need to be hearin nuttin bout no work I gotta be doin.”

This is standard now. This is the formal reply understood by most of the students roaming the hallways. They believe the art of communication is simply to be understood; it has nothing to do with being respected and taken seriously. “I should be accepted for who I am, not how I speak,” I’ve been told many times.

Listen: How you speak IS who you are. You may be brilliant, but prove it for God’s sake. Stop hiding the Mensa tendencies.

I call it “Tonal Directed Conversation.” The literal translation of the words is not nearly as important as understanding what the person means. Back to the store: “I ain’t be gotten no need for no potatoes,” in tone, is crystal clear. This woman is not buying the spuds. In fact, if I did do the math, it even comes out that way. She’s got three negatives floating through that amoebae sentence; it actually spins back toward “no” in the end. But that aside, the tone is clearer than the language. Knowing that, she might as well have been speaking Russian or Turkish. What difference does it make even if she merely grunted and pointed, so long as the tonal inference clearly shut out the potato-buying possibility.

Everyone knew what she meant; it don’t make no difference.

I figured she had been in high school during the Reagan administration. But when Reagan told them to “Just say no,” this is so not what he meant. So now the question remains: Is it enough to know what someone means?

I’ve been teaching too long to know it wasn’t always like this. I don’t remember any (note: “any” not “no”) such verbal abuse years ago. Students could complete a coherent sentence without round-kicking the language. And when I tell my students this, they tell me I’m arrogant and offensive. Well, there they’ve got me.

The thing is, sometimes, I am also wrong.

History compels me to admit maybe I don’t know nothing about what I’m saying. A little homework reveals how English ain’t so easy to master: Turns out most other languages thrive on the negative, and double negatives in fact were once wholly acceptable in English. Chaucer says of the Friar, “There was no man nowhere so virtuous”; and Shakespeare’s Viola says of her heart, “Nor never none/Shall mistress of it be, save I alone.” It’s all about emphasis. English remains, in fact, the only major language that doesn’t allow double negatives. Why? Well, it simply ain’t logical. Grammarians since the Renaissance have objected to the double negative because these humanists who emerged during the age or reason demanded English conform to formal logic. They pointed out that two negatives destroy each other and make a positive. Since then, half a millennia later, this rule advocated by teachers of grammar and writing has become fundamental.

Nevertheless, all speakers of all educational backgrounds continue to use multiple negatives when they want to make a point, as when President Reagan taunted his political opponents by saying “You ain’t seen nothing yet.” That line uttered earlier by Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer was the first spoken words of cinema. And the movies ain’t got no better since.

I don’t like being wrong, however, so I called a linguist.

“What is the problem with ‘ain’t’?” I asked.

“Well,” he said. “It first appeared in English in 1778, evolving from an earlier form an’t, which arose almost a century earlier as a contraction of are not and am not. In fact, ain’t comes from the same era that introduced ‘don’t’ and ‘won’t.’” He took what sounded like a sip of tea. “Ain’t and some of these other contractions came under criticism in the 1700s for being inelegant and low-class, even though they had actually been used by upper-class speakers. But while don’t and won’t eventually became perfectly acceptable at all levels of speech and writing, ain’t does not come from any direct word sequence, making it a “vulgarism,” that is, a term used by the lower classes.”

He stopped talking. “Cool,” I said. “But are not contractions of any form vulgar to a true linguist?”

“No, Bob,” he said. “I do not think so. Even a linguist can not avoid using them.”

I was not clear about this so he clarified. “Distaste for the word ‘ain’t’ is still alive, Bob. Its use is still regarded as a mark of ignorance.”

“But technically then,” I argued, “these students are not wrong, they are just living in the Middle Ages.”

“Well, I would not say that. I believe we must accept that vulgarisms have no place in our language. The worst of these vulgarisms is the double negative and ‘ain’t. It also thrusts their mentality toward depression. With language, however, we can contract hope and the future into a vulgarism we can all live with. Emphasis should be on the meaning.”

“So you are saying that without meaning in our words we are simply grunting with accents and scratching our stupidity.”

“Exactly, Robert. Well put,” he said.

I had to disagree. “Wait, though. You’re the linguist here, but maybe the nay-sayers are correct.”

“But they could not possibly…”

“Isn’t it possible that tone really is more important than meaning?”

“No! That simply does not make sense.”

“That seems a bit negative?”

“Perhaps if these students understood education…”

“Well now you’re being arrogant and offensive!”

“Are you suggesting that the rudiments of the language are enough?”

“Well what difference does it make how they say it. You know what they meant?”

After he hung up I thought more about it. English has evolved for a thousand years, leaving behind meaning, gaining new meaning through time. We’ve dropped words completely, changed the definition of others. In America’s early days, the Irish, the English, the Italians and the Dutch beat the crap out of English. Webster came along and fearful of a country with multiple languages each with nearly unrelated dialects, homogenized us all to the English we banter about today. But why would be believe we’re done? The language is still evolving. Maybe we’re at the start of a neo-Renaissance. While Newton would have taken issue with the illogical taste of double negatives, Voltaire would have loved it. The language is changing, there is no doubt about that. How we speak today is a far cry from where we were, and a faint hint of what’s to come.

Truth is, you ain’t seen nothing yet.

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Dunkirk on the Bayou

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They took to helms and crossed flooded streets to rescue friends from rooftops, from windows, from roaming reptiles at river bends. They rowed and motored and sailed down interstate highways.

The catch of the day: A grandmother, some children, their friends. Pets. Strangers.

A fisherman says, “I have to do this.” His daughter nods, says, “I know” as he fires up the Evinrude. The river moves closer to his own backyard and across the street a neighbor waves him by. He passes a cop consoling a man on a white van. He passes a reporter saving an old couple from drowning. “I know,” the reporter says, “that the line between covering a flood and being covered is fluid, often difficult to navigate. It is important to remain professional,” he adds as he lifts the old man into the boat, microphone and notepad tossed to the side.

Some retired trucker sits on his roof; he can’t find his wife. “She was just here,” he tells a boater who stops to help.

Sometimes people can’t help themselves, so they help others.

The Cajun Navy deployed a fleet of flat bottom carriers captained by construction workers, Wal-Mart employees, hardware store clerks, and off-duty police. Judge Ed Emmett put out the word for anyone who had a boat to help out. He only had to ask once. These men and women moved in fast, dropped off first responders, left with bags of belongings grasped by Texans in shock. This went on for days. In some parts of Houston it continues.

How much can you fit in a 16 foot flat bottom boat? Wait: there are already other people in it, some pets, the responders, and gas cans. The waters are rising fast, and everything you’ve ever owned is now or is about to be under water. How much can you hold in your arms as the boat speeds away from the last look at the flooded eaves.

What matters most now?

My brother lives between Houston and Galveston. He let us know the waters had not reached his house and he still had power. This is most likely a combination of excellent planning when searching for a home, and luck. Either way, his house was fine so far and I walked outside relieved.

I went for a walk along the Rappahannock River toward the bay and considered my 17-foot canoe. How much could I fit? What would I grab when the Chesapeake climbed the shore and rolled through the windows? Can I box up the memories? Can I stow away the years here raising my son, dinners with my parents, mementos of my travels? My house is quite high above and away from the water so I’ve little to worry about with flooding, but I’d most certainly be cut off from getting out, and Hurricane Isabel didn’t flood so much as she ripped thirty oaks out of the ground on my property. There are still plenty of trees left standing to fall.

It’s a terrifying sound—an eighty-foot oak cracking in half in the dead of night. The sound of waves, too, which normally bring some organic sense of peace, can terrorize the tenant in a first floor flat.

Of course I don’t want anything to change. I don’t want to lose what I spent decades building. But honestly, at some point little matters more than the chance to get to higher ground. For many, choice isn’t part of the equation. And when that’s the case, I’m certain the heroes in the double-hulled boats will remember the people they saved longer than the items they lost. And those who held tight to the bow as they left behind their pictures, their journals, their children’s toys, their clothes and sense of security, their sense of place, probably understand more than any of us that no matter how hard you try and keep control over what’s going on around you, no matter how much you cling to the notion of choice, we may not be the one’s at the helm.

Sometimes the only way to be saved is by letting go.

Hurricane Irma is on the prowl, eyeing down the Leeward Islands, contemplating Puerto Rico. It isn’t clear just yet if she will settle under the keys and into the gulf, rip like Andrew did across southern Florida, or, as some projections anticipate, curve up the coast, across the Outer Banks and into the Chesapeake Bay. Luckily in Deltaville where I live boats out number people seven to one.

Life has changed for the tens of thousands of Texans now forced to start over, many with absolutely nothing at all. But when we make an accounting of what is absolutely necessary to salvage, to protect, the list is quite short. All the footage I’ve seen of people being saved and brought back to dry land in and around Houston show residents with absolutely nothing at all, grasping each other and declaring almost like a chorus, “Thank God we’re okay; oh thank God we are okay. Thank you for saving us.”

At the very least, they understand better than many what matters most.

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