Coasting

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One couple pulled and pushed a cooler, presumably filled with ice and drinks and some food, across the sand to their blanket on the beach while their kids ran on ahead, tossing their plastic pails near their umbrella and then kicked into the surf about knee high.

The lifeguard stood and whistled for someone to come closer to shore, but I couldn’t see who he was calling from where I sat on the deck of the restaurant. We took a table under the overhang to stay out of the direct sun in the nearly 100 degree heat.

From 14th Street clear to the inlet at First, this same scene played out; umbrellas and beach chairs, blankets and radios, kids in the surf, surfers further out, jet skis and parasailers beyond them. A plane passed with a banner pushing the food at Rockefellers.

Since I’m a kid, this has been my summers: the sounds of the surf, of gulls, of tourists, and of music drifting down from the boardwalk; vendors, bikers, hawkers selling key chains, teenage girls selling ice cream, and guys sweet-talking middle-aged couples into touring some time-sharing place at Fifth Street. Get a free gift they say; no obligation they say.

This has never been a vacation for me; I’ve never traveled to find a hotel at the beach, anymore than some of my New York cousins would think about taking four or five days off from work to head to the city. It is daily life, it is normal routine. Most of my friends from high school, and the vast majority of non-tourist-shop business people I know in the area, prefer winter, celebrate the departure of the crowds, the “See You in April” signs on hotel marquees, and plywood on the windows at Dairy Queen. But I’m okay with it. This is a window back and forward, my youth and my foreseeable future, and the beautiful blending of sounds, the cold drinks, the hot sun on my shoulders, the two guys tossing a football or throwing a Frisbee, the sun-worshipers stretched out in just the right direction and angle to get an even tan, the older woman reading one of the Bronte sisters, the guy listening to the baseball game, all of it remains some sort of soundtrack of my summers, and I feel at peace with it all, including for what I don’t hear.

There’s an absence of politics, an absence of any sense of argument other than the couple who forgot the towels in their hotel room and one of them has to go back—but that one plays out all summer long every summer.

This is as much America to me as the farmer in the field or the family barbecue on the Fourth of July.

I have never been able to sit on the beach and absorb the sun, however. I prefer to walk, and when I’m at the right beach, I look for shells, and when with friends I toss a Frisbee or just walk along the beach ankle deep in the water and talk. So many of my memories are along this coast.

Like the time my friend Jonmark finished a concert for some dance at the Old Cavalier Hotel, he and I walked for awhile and talked until well into the small hours. We were teenagers, both about to move away. Or when one hot summer day my friend Kathy and I swam out beyond the pier on the Bay only to swim too far, and spent the next hour or so taking turns dragging each other back to the sand. Or when Michele looked away for a second, just one lousy second, and we could no longer see her little sister Carrie anywhere, and we called and yelled and walked both ways and waded out into the Atlantic, only to see her bobbing along with her red hair down from the boardwalk eating an ice cream cone.

Or earlier. Long Island. Point Lookout, and my siblings and I would carry our towels and walk down the middle of Freeport Avenue pushing our toes into the soft strip of tar which separated the two sides of the road, all the way to the beach where we’d walk around the red sand-fence and settle down for the day.

For now though, I come back here like an astronaut between space-walks. Usually I am alone, and I walk the length of the boardwalk and just think. Sometimes about something I’m working on, other times about people I miss, and there are many of them. Usually though, this becomes the one place I am not spending too much precious time remembering or planning, but simply being, letting the five senses take over and translate my life to me through the sounds and sights of the coast. And the saltwater sits on my lips, and the smell of the salty air mixes with somebody’s sun lotion, and I dig my toes into the sand to cool them off from the blistering surface. And it feels right. It feels like I’m doing fine; as if no matter what else is not going well in my life, I’ve got this right.

And I’ve learned to see a riptide or how bad the undertow is, and I’ve learned to read the sky for an afternoon storm, and I’ve learned to let it all just be.

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Idle-izing

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I look around and see so much that needs to be done, so much I want experience, that I just get brain-lock. I still have my eyes set on walking across Spain again, maybe Siberia, leaning toward the Continental Divide Trail, definitely the Canadian Rail, and even biking to Coos Bay, Oregon, isn’t out of my peripheral vision just yet. Also, hiking around Ireland.

I want to grow a bountiful garden and I’d love to raise a goat. I have books to write and old friends and family to visit. The list goes on and on and the time does not, it simply does not. It took me decades to realize I just need to pick a direction and go, see what happens and then bounce from there. But sometimes I sit on my porch and look out at the property and end up walking along the water thinking about sailing. Or once in a while we drive around taking pictures and we end up at this abandoned building on a bluff over the river and I think how I’d love to open a pub there. It tires me thinking of it all and I can’t even write because there are so many words and I know I should just chose one to get going, but instead I sit on the porch and look out, tired, but not really.

I often wonder if seemingly lazy people aren’t unambitious as much as they are simply overwhelmed with possibility without firm decision-making skills.

Artists can be like that. Writers and musicians too. I remember a line from a song written by Alan and Marilyn Bergman: “I pity the poor one, the shy and unsure one, who wanted it perfect but waited too long.” Love that.

Idleness leads to chronic immobility, both physically and mentally. In writing classes I tell my students to just go, pick a direction and go, and it might not be the right way but I swear somewhere in paragraph three you will make a left turn into exactly where you want to be next. Or as in the words of my friend and adviser, Pete Barrecchia, “Just write the fucking thing.” And so in all things, just go. Sometimes we are afraid we might miss something if we go, or stay, or change or remain idle. That’s funny since no matter what happens we’re going to miss something. The list of things we’ll never do will always be infinitely longer than the things we attempt.

Okay, so this was all brought on because I was listening to very old James Taylor, which isn’t always a good idea. This time it reminded me, as music is apt to do, of times in my life I sat staring at so many possibilities I couldn’t focus so instead lost my direction. Some call this situation a “First World Problem.” They laugh and say to stop complaining when there are so many unfortunate souls who’d give anything to have even one of those opportunities.

No, they don’t get it. This isn’t about “appreciating position” or any sense of privilege. Indecision is a sign of depression, borne of the inability to express something inexplicable: the razor-thin line between the beauty and grace of existence and the torment in knowing we can never experience it all, and so many don’t even try. Some suicidal people don’t think about killing themselves because they don’t want to live, but because they can never live enough.

(note to readers: I’m not suicidal)

I’m getting better at simply choosing one direction and committing. I do it in my writing, my daily walks, and my mental wanderings through the vague world of “what’s next.” Tomorrow I’ll work on one specific chapter of a project and remind myself that while there were fifteen other projects I really wanted to get to, I will end the day having made significant progress on “this” one.

My idleness is not indifference, most certainly not. It is the same reaction when a server brings a tray of fifteen delicious-looking desserts and I turn them down. I don’t want to make a choice only to regret it later because “as it turns out I would have rather had the raspberry torte after all.” I need to just point to the triple-berry pie and forget the other options ever existed at all (which is, unfortunately, getting easier).

It reminds me of a method of advice we used at the club when I worked for Richard. I told people I had no intention of helping them lose 50 pounds, but I’ll be thrilled to help them lose 3 pounds this week. And it worked.

The world has more choices now than ever before, and for each nuance of life the decision-making options have increased exponentially. So if I’m sitting on the porch starting at the trees, or on the sand looking out over the bay, it isn’t idleness, it is…

Okay, well, sometimes it is idleness, but it is an idleness I have chosen, a specific quiet motionless moment which I have hand-picked to work on.

Things I No Longer Need to Remember

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Phone Numbers (programmed).

Birthdays (Facebook).

Appointments (Calendar alarm).

Medicine (Seven-day container).

Due dates (autopay);

Students’ names (though I rarely remembered them to begin with); meetings, sub-committee duties, office hours. Where I was in my notes the last time I lectured.

I don’t need to know directions anymore, or the names of the best restaurants someone told me about when I asked directions somewhere, because I have GPS, so I didn’t stop to ask directions to begin with, and the same device guides me to the five-star diners.

We are apt to forget all the minutia we remembered from friends and helpful local residents because there is an app for that now; we are programmed to forget.

The world has changed; technology has distanced us, we know this, we’ve written and talked and studied and argued this for a long time; it has made more things possible but has sidelined the braincells we flexed on an almost hourly basis, even when we simply wanted to call home.

And the people have changed, no longer asking others to take their picture in front of some monument, preferring instead the vantage of a six-feet long pole. We don’t call to make reservations, we don’t even talk to the cashier at the fast food counter, opting instead for computer screen six feet away so we don’t have to interact.

We don’t need to remember anymore how to interact.

Except in political discussions. Then we interact, argue, fight, dismiss, infuriate. Infuriate. From what I remember on the news last night, we no longer need to remember how to be gracious, understanding, kind, human. We no longer have any need to recall common courtesy, respect, accepting of differences, or be politically correct.

We can forget about what others believe in, what others worship, what others find beautiful. We can disregard the golden rule; we might have long ago forgotten the golden rule.

I started to talk about this with my students one night two years ago after the election; they just stared at me waiting for me to get to some point. I forget what one of them said that made me give up.

I brushed my hand in the air: “Forget it,” I said.

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These Things we are Capable of

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It’s a hazy day here in Virginia Beach, and unseasonably cool. Tonight in my Giants of the Arts class at Saint Leo University, we’re going to talk about Leonardo da Vinci as an example of the potential of a person. We will talk about all he did in art, in sculpture, and all he wrote in his journals about science, about the body, about the heavens. We talk about how he would have rather spent time with his friends talking and drinking wine than doing work, that it often took years to complete one project, that he always believed in all his efforts that he could have done better.

It’s a fun lecture since too many students think the only thing he ever did was the Mona Lisa and was fodder for the film, The Da Vinci Code. A few of my students, however, most of whom have been stationed all over the world at one time or another in their military service, have seen the Sistine Chapel. I prefer it when they tell each other of the artists’ accomplishments rather than it come from me.

Every once in a while, however, our discussions about art and music, about architecture and drama, digress to philosophical explorations about potential and genius. We explore just what it takes, according to a full understanding of “Giants” of the arts, the ingredients necessary to achieve. Talent is not enough since unrecognized talent is everywhere; and drive is not enough since more than a few driven individuals don’t have the talent to triumph. Timing, of course, and luck, vision of some sort, and a full understanding of your craft, along with the ability to tune out the naysayers, to ignore the uninformed out to disparage you. Oh it is quite involved and takes the full two and a half hours to explore and still come up short, but the consensus is always the same: no wonder there are only a handful of “Giants” in any given generation.

These things we are capable of, whether by the luck of birth, the grace of God, or the sheer will of hard-headed artists, is a possible proof of faith. “The Last Supper” is a miraculous painting; and more so the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. The “Pieta,” and his ideas about human anatomy.

On the way to the college I’m stopping at Harris Teeter. They have the best bread there, and I need a new notebook to make my daily lists, and that store is the only one I have found which carries this tan, college ruled, 5×8, style to which I’ve become accustomed. I’ll park near the Wells Fargo ATM to take out a twenty and when I walk toward the door I’ll look to my left toward the municipal center half a football field away, toward Building 2, toward the spirits of late former students Alex and Mary, and their nine colleagues, and one contractor just trying to get a permit, who all just moments earlier took what they didn’t know would be their last breath, missed what they didn’t know was their last chance to call home and say how much they loved someone, missed their last chance to notice what I’ll notice across the parking lot, the dozens of Carolina wrens which always seems to gather in the bushes near the crosswalk. Moments later they ceased to be.

The killer took fifty or sixty shots from his .45 caliber handgun with extra magazines. He managed to keep it somewhat quiet by equipping the gun with a suppressor. He emailed a resignation earlier in the day stating he was grateful for the job but for personal reasons he needed to give his two-week notice. So either he was not contemplating carnage when he wrote the letter, or he was trying not to draw attention to himself by simply not showing up or quitting outright. In either case, something snapped.

So here’s the thing: the shooter is just another ordinary killer in the United States. Twelve deaths by a gun? Last year there were more than 36,000, a third from intent to kill another, and two thirds by suicide–which if you take the gun out of the equation, drops the suicide success rate by three times.

And, of course, this doesn’t include the more than 100,000 injuries from guns.

I am not an expert in gun control; I’m not an expert in sociological issues, in the psychology of killers, the second amendment, the constitutional track of the laws which bring us here. I have some training in how to secure a building during an emergency by virtue of teaching college for so long, but I’m equally aware of the likelihood the shooter is most likely already in the building by the time emergency steps need to be taken. I’m not an expert on PTSD, nor am I an expert on depression, despite my deeply committed readings on the subject.

My expertise is in the arts, in the humanities, I can engage a group of adults for hours in engrossing conversation about some of the Giants of history and what they leave behind that so enabled them to be household names half a millennium later. My expertise is in showing my students what those Giants are capable of.

Oh, dear God, these things we are capable of.

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