In Defense of Decorum

 

Etiquette.

 

“If you ask me what I came here to do in this world,

I, an artist, will answer you: I am here to live out loud.”

                                  –Emile Zola

 

The “great experiment” that is America has been challenged many times in the last two centuries, but all those attacks, both foreign and domestic, from the Civil War to Civil Rights, desegregation to suffrage, Iran-Contra to 911, had one thing in common which enabled transcendence of such tragedies—decorum. Even when disagreements arose, those at battle remained armed with respect for each other’s love of this country and maintained dignity in the presence of world media in an effort to demonstrate that America can handle its problems without digressing to schoolyard banter and behavior, and all sides insisted upon an absolute respect of the facts.

Some pundits assure us that “the Republic will survive, don’t worry.” It used to be easy to believe this; it used to be clear that our differences as citizens did not outweigh our love of this nation, and when the powers that be respectfully followed the rule of law and accepted the common denominator of truth, while not everyone would be happy with the results, the dissenting opinions at the very least knew those results were not attained for spiteful and personal reasons.

Listen to John McCain defend former President Barack Obama’s character to a voter who despised McCain’s opponent and verbally, wrongfully, abused him. Listen to the courtesy and respect for service to our nation shared by candidates Nixon and Kennedy in their debates. Listen to just about any two candidates in political history who, while they may find great fault with their opponents’ stance and sometimes even their character, knew to remain like an adult and maintain the presence of mind to understand basic human behavior.

The absence of that decorum will be the death of this nation long before any particular amendment or Supreme Court decision. Recently, a woman in North Carolina has been celebrated by her peers for refusing to apologize for a barrage of racial slurs thrown at a minority on the street. She is not alone as citizens abuse our first amendment rights to expose their decidedly prejudiced points of view.  This has been occurring with more frequency only since such classless behavior was demonstrated by the president dating back to his candidacy. Leaders who lower themselves so far as to speak in such uneducated terms will, in turn, as German native and American businessman Michael Kuhnert points out, elevate the egos of their followers by giving them some perceived superiority over all other groups based on race, nationality, religion, and gender. This is a primary method of fascism.

The conflicts caused by this growing trend to degrade those different than the mob is not about policy, and oddly enough it isn’t even about the allegations of criminal behavior on the part of either the president or members of congress; it is entirely possible previous political leaders were just as crooked, just as underhanded. Instead, it is about creating division in this country, again, based solely upon race, religion, ethnicity, and sexual preference, and that division has ignited a war of words not grounded in any form of valid debate but rather in the banter of street gangs and enraged mobs. It isn’t solely that such rallies persist with chant such as, “Lock her up!” and “Send them back!” but that those to whom we are supposed to look up to, those who are vying for the right to lead us and our country, stand idly by, which merely encourages the crowd.

The United States position as a world leader is clearly in question. The dependence of the world on this country in the wake of World War Two is long over, and countries will find other trading partners; they will build relationships with other nations, and they will not lose a beat as they write new treaties without the involvement, let alone the leadership, of the United States. And it isn’t beyond possible that they’ll discover they’re better off without the foul-mouthed, unpredictable commentary from Washington. Once gone, reestablishing those relationships might just be meaningless for them. No foreign power brought us down; no violation of treaties, no declaration of war, no natural disaster or terrorist attack broke the spine of this nation: we did it to ourselves with our blatant and repulsive hatred of our own citizens, and by demonstrating a severe lack of class in how we relate to each other.

The leaders of this country have become the most undignified group of leaders this land has ever seen, and that will break our endurance as a great nation more than any disagreement over policy.  The poison which runs through the marrow of this nation is not political dissent, it is not historically divisive issues such as abortion or gun control, it is pure hatred; the repugnant, immature, ignorant hatred displayed by the president and members of congress for our country’s own citizens.

This, then, is an appeal to my artist friends. Despite our quiet voices in this sea of noise, it has always been the task of the artist to expose inequity, injustice, and fascist tendencies. It was Thomas Paine whose small, seditious pamphlet Common Sense instilled in the citizens of the colonies the ability to move forward. It was David Walker in the early 1800s who called upon his Black brethren to resist. It was Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience; it was Carl Sandburg; it was John Stuart Mill and Richard Wright; it was the writings of Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan.

It was—it is—the artists.

President John F. Kennedy said, “When power leads man toward arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the area of man’s concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses.”

The writer, despite his isolation, has it in his or her power to put voice to what others wish to say but cannot, but once they hear it said, they sing along with the harmony of their generation. Ginsberg wrote, “Poetry is the outlet for people to say in public what is known in private.” And the beloved Robert Frost said, “A poem begins as a lump in the throat, a sense of wrong.”

The artists of our nation must combine our talents with our grief, blend our anxiety with our refrain, and we must risk exposing truth to say in whatever way we can, with whatever genre we must, that we used to be better than this, and we will not allow the loud voices of hate drown out the insistent chant of respect. 

 

 

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Notes in Nature

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This is my new book inspired by the writings from this blog. This morning I received a note that the pre-order at Amazon ranks the book in the top 100 for all books about nature. Yay!

Here’s what happened: 

When my father died in the fall of 2015, my writings turned inward, and I began this weekly blog in January, 2016, to discuss the need to be alive “now,” to appreciate all that is around us “now.” and to celebrate the time we have, whether with our loved ones or alone. I followed some study of relativity and time, and the value of simplicity. 

Plus, coincidentally, the world became more stressful, and I found that the need to retreat increased with every news story. This “Thoreauvian” approach to dealing with life–stepping back from it to gather my thoughts and appreciate what is truly important, became the theme of the blog. Listening to a lot of the late Dan Fogelberg helped. Because of publicity for some of my other articles in various locations, including Blue Planet Journal and the Washington Post, the readership of this blog exploded, and it has been a pleasure to keep it up. But the weekly posts were mere outlines to what I really wanted to express, so I returned to the start and expounded upon my more personal pieces, and A Third Place was born. In it are several dozen short essays about this need, this deep need, for all of us to step back.

I honestly do not believe there has been a more important time for this. It is a very simple book–no narrative arc, no suspenseful transitions. Just characters in a dynamic world. I hope you’ll order it, and I hope you find something in these pages to inspire you to go for a walk, and hopefully call your father. 

The View from this Wilderness really is beautiful. 

But fleeting.

Thank you for reading and for ordering. Here is the Link: 

A THIRD PLACE: NOTES IN NATURE

 

It’s in my Blood, I suppose

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The Great South Bay

When you get to the end of the Southern State Parkway, the last exit before the entrance to Heckscher State Park was ours. You can take that to the west to East Islip or to the east to Great River—that’s us. There’s a fork in the road heading east, the right fork remains Timber Point Road and ran back to the stables, and the left fork which was River Road. That’s us.

The first left is Leeside Drive, then the first left on Leeside is Church Road, and we were all the way around the curve at 142. It was a beautiful, shingled, two-story colonial on about an acre of grass but a significant amount of woods in the back left to satisfy a nine-year-old whose hobby was building forts when he wasn’t playing baseball with Steve and Todd or hiking along the Great South Bay and through the woods of Heckscher with Eddie.

Like it was yesterday.

I’d ride my bike out to the bay, and in the winter when no one was playing, I’d head up the golf course cart path to the holes along the water and sit on the high green looking out toward the east, and I’d daydream, or leave my bike near a sand trap and I’d walk along the water. Early on it would still be foggy and I could hear the foghorns out on the reach. I assume it is the same. I hope it is the same.

Later in the day I’d meet Eddie and we’d hike through the paths of the park through woods and marshland, often hopping from bog to bog, once finding the abandoned and broken down beach cabana house. We knew every inch of that place, every path, many of which we named so we could meet there—“Hey, let’s meet tomorrow at the Four Corners Creek.” Yes.

It is DNA or atmosphere? I wonder as I walk along the Rappahannock and the Chesapeake (and in days past, along the Allegheny, the Susquehanna, the Rillito….) if there was something in my blood that connected me to rivers and woods, or was it simply that’s where Mom and Dad moved so that’s what I did, and I find there some sense of familiarity.

It really doesn’t matter in the end; I’m good with it.

It’s hot today, upper nineties, and humid, 80 percent or more. I’ve given up on the lawn, and I’ve moved my vegetables into the shadier areas, no longer believing that “Six hours of direct sunlight” is the same today as it was fifty years ago when those instructions appeared on plant labels.

The heat, though, has never bothered me; I like the sweat and the heat on my neck and arms, and if I don’t have sun stripes where I wear my flip flops, I’m not outside enough.

But I never thanked my dad for making this possible. The greatest gift my parents ever gave me was proximity to water, to woods, to nature and the earthly ingredients which run through my system and keep me alive; keep me tethered enough to reality to not go crazy with the world as it is.

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The Chesapeake Bay

Havana Daydreaming

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Michael and I sat at the bar at the club this afternoon talking about tomorrow, what he packed and what he has planned. He leaves for Cuba in the morning for about ten days.

He’s not inexperienced at traveling. At fifteen he spent ten days in Ireland; at twenty we trained across Siberia, and the following year we walked across Spain. He’s been around the block (well, not really because my road is on the water and we don’t really have a “block” per se—but go with the metaphor). An avid reader and researcher for all things which come into his interest parameters, he is well prepared.

But, you know, I’m the dad. So I’ve been reading articles about Cuba, its crime and tourism, and how Americans are faring with djt in office. I Google-Earthed the place where he’s staying with seven other artists for his residency, I forwarded to him several articles about the currency fraud down there, the petty crime—you know, all happy articles. At my sister’s suggestion he wrote our niece who spent a few days there. “That’s two days more than you’ve been there” I told him. He knows several people who have been there and talks to them regularly, and his Spanish is pretty decent, though I suggested he learn the phrase, “Please don’t speak so fast.”

This morning at the Y while on the treadmill, I thought long about the past couple of decades—more—and all we’ve been through, and I tried to figure out from where he got this drive to wander the world and see as much as he can. Particularly as an artist to catch it in his own way. Anyone who knows my son will back me up when I say he is the kindest person you will ever meet, patient and very quiet. He immerses himself in whatever he is involved in, and is generally more ready for what comes his way than I ever was. Perhaps it is his generation, I thought. They’re clearly more savvy with technology to figure out what needs to be done to get where they want to go.

The son of close friends of mine climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro. When the young man’s father told me of the plans, I reminded him that at his son’s age he took off for a summer to cycle around Ireland, followed by cycling around the United States. Another friend’s daughter is right now on the meseta of the Camino de Santiago, alone, bearing the heat and distance, having the time of her life. When my friend was his daughter’s age he was driving into Mexican villages and hiking past rattlesnakes in the Sonoran Desert.

How easily we forget.

My niece is shuffling off to New Zealand for a year, and doing so with the grace and confidence of a New Yorker popping over to Jersey for the day. This is how small the world is now; as a result, this is how neurotic parents have become, reaching for the anti-anxiety meds while at the same time trying to show our children it is no big deal, we absolutely know they’ll be safe, and see you when you get back. Gulp.

So we had a going away drink at the club and talked about Cuba, about his readiness, of which he was vague and quiet, though he talked with an air of someone who had triple-checked his list and truly was ready. I told him he only needed to put up with my questioning another few hours and then he’d be on his way to Miami to the “Cuba-Ready” desk, and on to Havana. At that exact time tomorrow he’ll be landing in Havana.

I’m excited for him. We watched some golf, talked to the pro, had a drink and some odd flat-pretzel mix, and I thought to myself, twenty-six years old. Unbelievable what our children’s generation is doing.

Twenty-six.

My plane landed in Dakar in the late afternoon, and I had no idea if my friend to whom I had written that I’d be coming even received my mail, let alone crossed Senegal to meet me.  Well, she had and she did, and that night when she went back to stay at the Peace Corps house I checked into a hotel near the ocean and listened to the blending of French and Wolof and Pulaar drifting up from the courtyard outside my room. I ended up going for a walk and passed shops open late where music filtered through the streets and everyone, I mean absolutely everyone, stared at me. I went back to my room after midnight and lay on the bed with the smell of the salt air coming from the Atlantic.

I was terrified. I was twenty-six. It was the first day of a long trip that included just three weeks in eastern Senegal, a return to Dakar, and then some time drifting down through the continent, alone. It was exciting; it was stupid. I was alive, truly alive, and nothing about my life would be the same.

I was just a few months older than Michael is now. That was my job then—to terrorize my parents by following my songlines into God knows where, and it is my son’s job now. He does it well, by the way. A few days ago a friend asked me if I was more nervous about Michael headed to Cuba for nine days or to Ireland in October for a month. That was no contest:

“Ireland,” I said.

“Really?” he said, thinking the opposite would be more likely.

“Absolutely. I was just in Ireland for nine days and the roads suck there—people die! They drive like maniacs and the hedges come right to the edge of the road—I know! I walked them! Give me a good communist regime for nine days anytime.”

I know this for certain about him going: If he didn’t, he’d regret it forever.

Geez, the regrets: I never worked in a castle in Austria, never rode to Coos Bay, Oregon. I never went horseback-riding in the Rockies, and I never made it out to Monterrey.

I never canoed the length of the Chesapeake Bay, and I never…

and I never…

The list of ambitions we wanted to do and didn’t could fill volumes. Perhaps that is what makes the few times we get the chance to actually go so much more memorable. I have no complaints about my life, and I’m pretty confident neither does my son, so far.

“So you’re going there to take pictures?” I asked him when he told me he was going.

“Yes.”

“Well, son,” I said, looking around his work room in the house where all of his photographs and canvases lean against the walls. “You take abstract photos. Of water.”

“Yes.”

“Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy for you. But, can’t you take those pictures here along the Bay—I mean, they’re abstract. It’s water, for God’s sake. Just tell everyone it is Cuban water and you can save a lot of money.”

He laughed. “I’ll take a few of my Cuban neighbors, and maybe some colorful buildings.”

“Ah, well then of course.” I was joking, naturally, but it wasn’t until today when leaving the club that I knew he was ready to go and that he would do it right, he would do it his way.

“Honestly, I have no agenda at all for when I’m there. I’ll play it by ear,” he told me.

Perfect. I mean, really, what kind of damn-fool amateur traveler would say such a thing?!

Vaya con Dios mi hijo.

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This is about humanity. Enough.

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Where Do The Children Play
                                    –Cat Stevens
Well I think it’s fine, building jumbo planes
Or taking a ride on a cosmic train
Switch on summer from a slot machine
Yes, get what you want to if you want
Cause you can get anything
I know we’ve come a long way
We’re changing day to day
But tell me, where do the children play?
Well you roll on roads over fresh green grass
For your lorry loads pumping petrol gas
And you make them long, and you make them tough
But they just go on and on, and it seems that you can’t get off
Oh, I know we’ve come a long way
We’re changing day to day
But tell me, where do the children play?
Well you’ve cracked the sky, scrapers fill the air
But will you keep on building higher
‘Til there’s no more room up there?
Will you make us laugh, will you make us cry?
Will you tell us when to live, will you tell us when to die?
I know we’ve come a long way
We’re changing day to day
But tell me, where do the children play?

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