Of the questions of these recurring

 

edged-path

I am slowing down, and it feels good and is about time. It is, in fact, precisely about “time.”

James Taylor was right: The secret of life is enjoying the passing of time.

Like everyone else I’ve ever known I’ve been excessively guilty of being caught up in the swirl and turmoil of life: the conflicts at work, the bills, the inundation of news, the negativity, the road rage, the “endless trains of the faithless, the cities filled with the foolish.” And I had mastered the art of adjustment. That is, I managed to dial-up my stress tolerance to accommodate increased worldly distraction and anger. In fact, the level at which I managed to maintain sanity despite the stress could have exploded the heart of a younger me. We don’t see it happening, do we? The slow dripping of tense interaction in the news and conversations makes its mark only over months and years, so that the only way to recognize how crazy it all became is to step away long enough to say, “I don’t even recognize who I’ve become.”

That was me; guilty.

My slow erosion of anger and anxiety has occurred in several stages. First, there was Spain. The pilgrimage for a month across the Pyrenees with my son at three miles an hour taught me to let go of nearly all possessions, worries, and regrets. “Simplicity” became my ambition, and I achieved it in some small way. But of course, out there, in Basque country and Galacia, it isn’t difficult, when all we had to do all day was walk, talk, meet people, stop in cafes and chapels, and let go of life. For all my worldly ambitions, I knew then I could live like that forever.

But I came home.

It didn’t take long for work issues to seep back into my psyche and anger to swell my attitude. The ridiculous often dominates our conversations and conditions, so much so that tunnel vision takes over and suddenly all that matters is one particular, otherwise irrelevant battle. We sacrifice the big picture because we get caught up in the whirlwind of small, pathetic quarrels.

I needed to let go again.

Now I spend my time working for what I need, which as it turns out isn’t nearly as much as I thought and yet seems more than I could possibly want. In the last several years I’d focus on the goal—in writing projects I simply wanted it done, in journeys I simply wanted to get there. Now, the journey itself is the pleasure—creating the work, making the trip. I stop and get out now, look around, meet people, and take it in, take control of the clock instead of being dictated by it. I’m heading to Florida next weekend—I have no idea how long it will take to get there. People ask, they say, “What is that, ten hours? Eleven?” I think yes, that sounds about right—or it might be two days. I’m not sure just yet.

You see, I’ve done the math. I’m fifty-eight-years old. In twenty years I’ll be almost eighty. Twenty years ago seems like a blink; twenty years from now feels almost fleeting. I’m not becoming regretful or melancholic or depressed; I’m really not. I’m becoming aware of the passing of time, and I enjoy the world more because of it.  

Honestly, it isn’t difficult to see what’s essential. One of my heroes is my sister. She was handed a short straw with Stage Four Ovarian Cancer, and she kicked it in the teeth. Five years remission and going strong and gaining momentum, and all with a quiet determination I’m sure she inherited from our mother. Some people “slow down” because they see the mortal exit ramp and would prefer to coast, but some people, and I count myself among them finally, slow down because we don’t want to miss anything. We want to enjoy the passing of time and not miss it by focusing on time passing.

When I was in college I once carved a pumpkin. I was on a retreat over a weekend which included Halloween, and a friend of mine and I decided it was time to carve a pumpkin, only it took us five hours. It was a huge pumpkin and slowly and methodically we approached it from all sides, making designs, slits for light, holes for depth, we became sculptors and monks, carving and contemplating. When it was done at some ridiculous a.m. we inserted a handful of candles and woke everyone. Not a single person minded—they all sat around talking about the pumpkin and suddenly we were telling stories by pumpkin light, sharing fears and hopes, out in a cabin in the woods somewhere. I remember it still, and that was two times ago the twenty years ahead of me. I had forgotten all about that pumpkin until today, sitting on my porch and slowing down my heart rate, slowing down my mind, trying to adjust the pulse of the planet around me.

I used to believe I needed to not only be a part of some race somewhere to prove to myself I am alive, but I needed to be “winning” at something, whatever that means. But now my pilgrimage has taken a different path, a new pace.

I think I am starting to master the passing of time, and it reminds me again of Whitman:

                  The friendly and flowing savage, who is he?

                  Is he waiting for civilization, or past it and mastering it?

f192fd82-b58a-4c51-b6c8-1e2609a4dd3b

Advertisements

Soon, Three Years

 

How-to-drink-scotch

When we are kids we look at our parents shirts, or their legs. Sometimes we look at their hands, especially if they’re holding ours. We notice the knuckles and the lines running under the cuffs and into ages ago. We simply don’t spend a lot of time looking up. Maybe it hurt our necks, or perhaps the brightness from the sky or the sun or the fluorescent lights in the store ceilings deflected our attention, or maybe the vague sense of repetition kept us from bending back our heads too far.

I can tell you most of the details of my father’s eyes and face in his later years. I can describe with precision the curves in his chin, the rollback of his neck, his deep eyes and his pronounced forehead bearing the lines of nearly a century. Without a glance toward a picture I know the sunspots on Dad’s face; the doctor’s mark; the slight, tight curve of his upper lip and the forward position of his reading glasses as he sat in his chair and leaned toward the light so he could read the paper.

But I don’t know much about the determined look of his younger days, when I was a toddler, and even a young man. I never noticed the intensity of his eyes when leaving for work, or the joy in his eyes watching his favorite teams win when he brought us to baseball games. I can’t describe the pain or pleasure of life when he still had life in his eyes. I didn’t pay attention.

I never asked my dad what he did for a living. I mean I know what his occupation was, but I never inquired about his day, about what took place. Part of me was too busy growing up or playing with friends, and part of me didn’t want to bother him after he had been doing it all day. But those are adult responses when I wonder why I didn’t ask, and the truth is I probably didn’t care. He did his thing and I did mine. His thing made my thing possible but even that was too complicated to contemplate. So when we talked we talked about baseball, or golf.

We got a long absolutely fine. We just didn’t talk because of our circles. My circles crossed paths with friends, sometimes with siblings, often with my mother. His circles crossed paths with colleagues, my mother (rarely at the same time as me, except for dinner and weekends), neighbors. This was old school; this was adults being one generation and the kids being another, between them one of the biggest abyss’s in American history. It was no big deal, at least not in our home. But I never asked him about his day, what he did all day.

I just figured I wouldn’t understand or if I did ask he’d give a quick, often funny response. I think you have to be a parent to understand what kind of child you were. You need a basis of comparison that goes beyond the parent-child relationships of cousins or friends. It has to be later, years later, when you understand what he would have wanted you to ask, what he wished you had shown interest in, how close—or not close—you were. Turns out we were so much closer than I knew but I never asked.

When I was a teenager, two days a week I got to keep my Dad’s car for the day. The trade off was I had to bring him to the parking lot where he met a colleague by seven thirty in the morning. He never lectured me about what I could and couldn’t do that day, where I could and couldn’t go.

We’d get to the donut shop early on purpose, and he’d have coffee and a plain donut and I’d have juice and a chocolate one, because we liked routine because routine keeps things simple and keeps things from changing too quickly. Like our routine for years at bedtime where I’d say good night and he’d say to sleep tight, and while I really never knew what that meant, to sleep tight, I couldn’t imagine going to bed without hearing him saying it. He’d tell me not to let the bed bugs bite which somehow seemed creepy but again, to not hear it meant certain devouring by whatever it was he was talking about. I can still see him in the doorway, the hallway light on. “Don’t let the bed bugs bite,” he’d say, and so they wouldn’t.

At the donut shop he’d watch the news on the television above the counter and eventually we left for the parking lot where his colleague would pull in just as we did, always. Their timing was phenomenal. He’d say to have a great day and to pick him up at five, and I’d drive off before he had a chance to walk to the other car. Maybe I was late, or maybe I was afraid someone I knew would see me, shattering the illusion it was my car and not my dad’s.

But I liked that routine. It became Scotch in his later years, like clockwork, but it was the same thing. We’d sit with the television on and know the other was there, which was in itself the purpose of the routine to begin with.

Yes, in later years on Tuesday nights we drank Scotch. Dad always like J & B, an inexpensive blend he probably first drank and therefore a taste to which he grew accustomed. On occasions he drank Chivas, and a few times he had a bottle of Edradour in the house. Routine is important and on Tuesday nights I’d get there about nine and was no sooner in the door when he’d say, jokingly, “My coaster seems to be empty,” or something similar with a laugh and a welcoming smile. I’d put my things down and say I’d get some, and he’d say he was just joking and he didn’t mind getting it at all, which he always enjoyed. 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, 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. He sipped his Scotch.

But I preferred to pour the Scotch. I hate Scotch. When I poured the Scotch and he sat in his recliner, everything was the same but instead of Scotch in my glass I would pour water. His eyes had faded in those last few years and he wouldn’t have noticed the tint of my drink. And anyway, it wasn’t about the Scotch. We sat together a long time and he would turn once and say, “Boy that is good, isn’t it?” and I’d agree. Sometimes I felt guilty and would pour some for myself as well, but usually only when it was the Chivas or Edradour or another fine single malt. It always made me tired, but he always would be the first to head upstairs to bed. Then I’d sit quietly for a while glad to be able to sit in peace, but the next day at work, or walking across a parking lot, I’d wish he had stayed up longer even just to sit quietly. I’d be sorry he went to bed and 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. But the following Tuesday would come and like clockwork I’d be exhausted and silent and he would get tired and go to bed.

He aged well, my father, and sitting with him on Tuesday nights was the purest time I had during those days. When I hear ice in a glass I can hear his voice and sometimes I can turn it into a laugh, but usually even that fades to a slow, soft sigh.

A few years after Dad retired I’d bring his toddler grandson to the mall to meet him and walk around. Nothing could distract him from walking around at the top of three generations. Dad’s smile exploded with happiness when he watched his young grandson grow more excited as we approached 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, always refused with a string of thank you’s.

Once my son and I walked around alone and then saw Dad sitting on a bench, taking a break. His face lit up, of course, when this small boy ran up to him. I always wished that had happened more often. We did meet him many times to walk the mall, but it always felt more exciting when it wasn’t something he was expecting, as if an ordinary day of routine was suddenly cracked wide open by this small but exciting surprise. I can’t think about that too much, about not doing that more.

I think the spontaneity of unexpected meetings made it more like his youth, or even mine, when siblings or cousins and countless friends lived within a few blocks of where they all grew up. Visiting was normal, and running into each other at the grocer or the hardware store, or later the mall, was an ordinary occurrence. I believe Dad missed those times, and seeing his grandson that afternoon was a beautiful mixture of possibility and recollection.

The three of us spent a lot of time walking around various locations together. The food store between our houses, the cul-de-sac at the end of Dad’s block, to the river at the back of his property where they’d hold hands and be equally thrilled by whatever nature they discovered together. Once we went to a golf extravaganza and my son and I watched Dad in his glory putting balls and swinging drivers. He told his grandson to pick out a dozen golf balls for himself as Grandpa’s treat from six or eight huge crates of various balls. Dad explained the difference between the ones which said “100” on the side and those which said “90” while his grandson dug deeper for another ball with Garfield on the side. They had separate agendas but one memorable afternoon. Golf was at the heart of many times together.

But when we met Dad at the mall, I would 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 books from those days. I am glad we kept them, but I have no idea why, and I have no intention of looking in the box. Someday, perhaps, but not soon. At some point my son will take those books with him—I am sure of it. If he has children, and I sit somewhere to read to my own grandchild, 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 remember donuts and orange juice. I’ll remember the time he took me to Jolly Rogers Amusement Park on Long Island when I was a child—just the two of us—and he let me have whatever I wanted to eat. I’ll remember the Scotch, his deep voice, the subtle laugh.
My memory is not nearly as strong as it was even not so long ago, but I’ll remember forever my son and my Dad on a putting green the last time he ever held a club in his hand. Dad sank a twenty-two-foot putt, and he didn’t smile so much as smirk, as if to say, “Of course it went in,” and then laugh out loud at the joy of the sound of the ball in the cup.

11145166_909732039093731_1191096712032760981_n

Witness

maxresdefault

 

Norton Hurd stood behind me in line at the store yesterday. He put his hand on my shoulder and asked how my son is doing. Around the village I am “Michael’s Dad.” We talked for a bit and then discussed Hurricane Florence and how it missed our waterfront community.

“We were lucky,” I said to him, and he agreed, saying he was happy for everyone in our area but worried for those in the path. Then I asked which hurricane was the worst that he had experienced in this area. He didn’t hesitate.

“That would be the one in ’33.”

That’s 1933. Norton was 17 at the time. Norton Hurd turned102 years old today.

In the 1940’s, he founded Hurd’s Hardware in Deltaville which is where I do a lot of shopping and where he goes to work every day. He studied history at Lynchburg College during the depression, and while there he played tennis, baseball, and basketball, landing in their Hall of Fame.

During World War Two he trained pilots in open-cockpit planes in Minnesota, and then traveled to Guam onboard the Wasp as one of the “Hell Razors” and was in the first group of planes to bomb Tokyo. On one flight one of his engines failed and he ditched his plane in the Pacific not far from the Wasp, and he was rescued and awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.

I offered to let him go ahead of me but he nodded and said no, he wasn’t in any hurry. Just on his way to work.

When he returned from war he figured everyone would need appliances so in 1946 he opened the store.

“You live down that road had the tavern on the pier. Chowning’s place. I used to go there when I was young but the storm destroyed that. Did you know about that place?”

I did. Back before the storm and when the steamboats still ran up the Rappahannock River from the Chesapeake, jettying out into the river from the end of the road in front of my house was a pier with a restaurant, along with other facilities.

That was the year my mother was born. FDR was president. Norton was 17, had just graduated from Syringa High School, and was headed across state to college.

The year he was born President Woodrow Wilson was trying to end World War One; Czar Nicholas the Second was still very much in power; German Zeppelins bombed Paris; Pancho Villa invaded the United States; the Cubs played their first game at Wrigley Field (then called Weegham Park); the Easter Uprising against the British occupation of Dublin; Ernest Shackleton is stuck in Antarctica; Lenin declares Imperialism is caused by Capitalism and begins his climb to the rule of Russia.

Penicillin didn’t come along until Norton was twelve.

The irony of him being a history major is that, to me, to us, he is history, he is witness to the most brutal and powerful and awe-inspiring, and sadistic century in human history. I stood in line in front of someone who was my adult-son’s age when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. I just retired from a three decade career teaching college, after spending a decade bumming around the country, and this man is almost twice my age; forty-four years older than me, and he is on his way to work.

And he is fine. Absolutely fine, running just ahead of time, outlasting countless “End of the World” events. He has patience. He has paced himself perfectly. He has all the time in the world. He missed the first flight just south of here by only thirteen years.

Some people make us stop in our tracks and realize what is important; what is essential. Norton does that every time I walk into Hurd’s Hardware and he asks if he can help me find something. One of these days I’m going to say, “Yes, actually. The meaning of life?”

Some people should live forever. He’s one of them. Some people spend their lives in such grace, such kindness toward humanity that I wish they would just keep going. Norton’s one.

There are others. People who don’t study history or make history but actually are history, colleagues of time, adding such peace to the human condition that it is cruel for them to simply no longer be.

Charles Schulz is another. Dr. Seuss. Francis of Assisi. People who not only do not bother anyone, but they dedicate their lives to making our lives simpler, more endurable, more aware. I wake up when I’m around Norton.

Pachelbel is another. Cousteau. Andre the Giant.

Sometimes the good don’t die young. Sometimes they stand as a measure to all we can be. And I’ve been studying the history of these people, and I’ve noticed one common trait: they all make people feel better about themselves and the world. They all give more than they receive.

I’m heading to Hurd’s tomorrow. I don’t know why. I’ll find something there I need.  

 

dp-pictures-a-look-back-hurricane-1933-20140703
After the “Great Hurricane of 1933”

Integrity vs. Crazytown

all-the-presidents-men-9781416527572_hr

I’m teaching two non-fiction, critical thinking, research-focused seminars at Old Dominion University. It is a favorite of mine for the convergence of creative non-fiction writing in the vein of Truman Capote or, to a lesser degree, Tom Wolfe without his fabricated presence in events, and journalism in our attempt to establish credibility through in-depth, valid research of indisputable sources.

I asked the students, all roughly nineteen-years-old and more attentive than any students I taught at other local colleges, what drove their interest in the course. The answers varied from “my advisor told me I had to take it” to “my professors in the science courses don’t like my research or writing.” One student asked what inspired me to pursue classes like that when I was in college.

Don’t you love good timing? I absolutely love excellent timing.

I told them I was sixteen-years-old as a junior in high school and required to read some books which intrigued me, including Electric Cool-aid Acid Test, In Cold Blood, and, most notably All the President’s Men about the Watergate debacle which had occurred just a few years earlier. I told them I continued that interest into college where classes like this were standard for journalism majors. And while the world was just starting to fall in love with the works of Stephen King, my writing heroes were two men in particular—Woodward and Bernstein, the Washington Post writers who brought down Nixon and his henchmen. In fact, most of the communication majors at college admired the integrity and thoroughness of these journalists—other grads like Neil Cavuto and Dan Barry taking the lead of our seasoned professors to insure nothing—absolutely nothing—can be challenged.

All the Presidents Men was published forty-four years ago, and since then not one single aspect of research or information Bob Woodward has published has been shown to be wrong. What he brings to the table in his half a century as a journalist is the indisputable reputation of being right. He doesn’t rely upon editors to check his work for accuracy—though of course they will—he does that work before it reaches their inbox. His meticulous attention to detail through the years has resulted in a trust of the information he provides. That’s what you’re shooting for, I told them. That’s what you want professors to think when they pick up your essays and research projects: “Oh, this was written by Jane Doe, I know this will be accurate and thoroughly researched.” It affects your grade, it affects your letters of recommendation, it affects your job placement.

And that’s why despite the dozen or more books about djt which have been released and scrutinized and argued in the past two years, this is the first one which terrorizes the president, his confidants, and his lawyers. This isn’t Kitty Kelley with her spurious accounts of goings-on in the lives of her subjects. This is Bob Fucking Woodward. This is the voice of everything journalism is supposed to be, and is.

In every generation, it is said, comes a writer who makes everyone pay attention. Woodward is well into his third generation of readers. Never doubt the power of an accurate story or two. 

Watch the news, I told them. Something’s about to happen.

download