Zero to Sixty

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I was always good at math. I can still glance at a long sheet of numbers, say for Yahtzee or Scrabble, and nearly instantly tell you their sum. Counselors in school said I should consider accounting. Perhaps they were right; the problem is having a knack for calculating and solving problems doesn’t translate to the ability to handle finances. Trust me.

Life, it seems, is best seen more as ironic than literal.

The sciences were out nearly immediately. It wasn’t from lack of interest; no, in fact this very blog is the result of my deep appreciation and interest in nature, the origins of trees and the mystical solidity of space. It’s just I couldn’t hold all that information, the formulas and all. Needless to say, the sciences and me simply never had good chemistry. Four years after my brother nailed his eighth-grade science course (he would later become an actual Scientist—note the capital “S”, as a geologist), I had the same teacher at that Long Island school. He called roll that first day and got to my name. “Robert, are you Fred’s brother?” “Yes,” I replied. “Well then,” he said, “I’ll expect great things from you.” “Don’t” I answered, and he laughed.

Yes, that I could do—I could always make people laugh. Teaching afforded me that opportunity—fifteen shows weekly, register in the administration building—seating is limited. But I could never tell jokes; I was and am more of a situationally humorous person. No one pays to see that.

It’s hard figuring out what you want to be when you grow up, especially if you’re already grown. Ironically, you’d think the vantage of age and experience would make the decision easier. In retrospect, I would have been just fine at several passions had I pursued them with the vigor and confidence of successful people. I was simply always distracted by one underlying drive: I wanted to see the world, to explore and wander and experience, and that’s difficult to do sitting still. The one dominating component of whatever mental mechanism drives us to such things kept whispering, I have to go I just have to go, I can’t explain it. I know why this is true. I understand the one or two people who had such impactful influence on my vulnerable, teenage mind. But it isn’t a career, per se. There are peripheral occupations, of course: Travel industry, military, or a job where you have enough money and time to take the time to spend the money on fulfilling that desire.

Like college teaching.

Teaching then, like education itself, served more as a means to an end then a goal or objective. Along the way I think I became good at it, sure. I still love working with students’ writing and at this very minute am waiting for some to show up in my office so I can help them finish a paper about, yes—what they want to do with their chosen major and their lives. We are really enjoying this internal exploration, so much so that I am doing it with them, analyzing what I want to do with my life.

In essence, this is a rough draft of a college paper in which I discover my entire life has felt like a rough draft in need of editing.  

It helps that I’ve been staring at twenty-years-old for thirty years. It has kept me young and always thinking about what’s next instead of what was.  But even so, thinking about what was helps me now, at eight months shy of sixty, understand how I got here. Growing up I spent most of my time in nature. Long Island’s south shore state parks, the oceanfront, the rivers and marshes of Virginia, were my backyard, playground, friend. Maybe I should have pursued a career in forestry or become a waterman. Maybe. But that meant staying mostly in one place and that never worked for me.

So, writing this down helps me understand this about my past: I could never keep still, I preferred to be alone and outside, and I had a deeply-rooted though never completely understood need to express to others how outrageously beautiful our world is, and humanity, and love, and how that awareness is made more acute by the inescapable passing of time.

I couldn’t find that Major listed in the college catalog. Philosophy, perhaps, but that’s difficult to find in the want ads. The closest I can come is the arts. My friends Mikel Wintermantel and Cole Young captured on canvas what I’m talking about; and the long list of writers I know and respect often do the same, especially the poets. Writing, of course, seems most obvious for me since I like to do it and have had excellent mentors. But people don’t support the arts enough to sustain you unless you write about horror, fantasy, or sex. Maybe mystery, but I suck at making things up.

What do I want to do with my life? When I was a kid, I wanted to be a baseball player in summer and then spend winters in Florida being an ice cream man. Not only am I not kidding about that, it still sounds like the best plan. I liked Mr. Softy’s twist cones and Good Humor fudgsicles the best. I’d probably feature those on the side of my truck. The plan fell apart, however, when I didn’t make the baseball team due to my lack of ability to, well, play baseball. Tennis was my sport, but I got distracted. It was either practice tennis or ride my bike all day long and the latter felt more like I was getting somewhere. Then came my passion for Space which coincided, not coincidentally, with the late-sixties, early seventies NASA domination of our imaginations. But, you know, science, so eighty-six that one.

A student just left. He wants to be a dental hygienist. He said he loves working with people and talking with people. I suggested it would be mostly him doing the talking but he seemed okay with that. It’s odd how with each rough draft I read I wonder how I would do in that field. Most of these freshmen and sophomores want to go into business. I was born several centuries too late, it seems. Or too early.

In retrospect, evidence seems to prove that most of us in the first world live the lives we choose to live once we accept that we are the ones ultimately making the choices, no matter how much we want to blame or accuse or thank others for the situations in which we find ourselves. We did it, for better or worse, with families and finances and luck, good or bad, we made the choices—always have and we always will. Of course, there are those who can’t pull themselves up by their own bootstraps or were born into a horrific situation from which escape into a chosen life seems—and often is—nearly impossible. Well, that just makes our ability to choose our own direction more precious, more delicate and powerful, and a choice not to be taken lightly.

As we talked about in class; it’s really just about asking ourselves the right questions. There’s a science to it, though, which may be why I was always asking the wrong questions. So I told them to write about it. I assigned their semester project early on, which was in essence to discover themselves through writing, and perhaps unearth some truths about what they want to come next. I did this same assignment for years at another college and a student once came up to me and said, “My husband had you for this class about five years ago and came home and said the lecture really struck him and he wanted to quit school, that it wasn’t what he wanted after all.” I gulped. But she then told me he started his own tiling business which is now very successful, and they’ve never been happier. That’s a good story; it ends well. There are others with different endings. Always, though, endings they ultimately wrote themselves.  

Still, I like this assignment because it is personal for me and because I always knew that in the end if I kept writing about my life, that someday I’d figure out what I wanted to do with my life.

And therein lies the irony.

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No Reservations

This essay was originally published in the limited edition work, Out of the Way. It is forthcoming in an anthology of spiritual travel writings out of London. It is a cold, almost-winter morning here on the Bay and this piece is one of my favorites for so many reasons, not the least of which is how it helps me recall the warm days in Spain.

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We had callouses, bandaged sores and bloodied toenails. My feet grew an entire size and I lost fifteen pounds despite the rich diet and daily dose of delicious Spanish wine. We climbed mountain trails made of nothing but rocks and descended slopes so steep blood blisters formed daily. Best damn summer of my life.

On our first night in the Pyrenees we slept next to a chapel Charlemagne used in the ninth century, and we spent a few hours drinking gin and tonics and talking to the innkeeper. We talked about America and Spain, about pilgrimage and gin. We talked about talking and about being quiet. He didn’t speak English but had been to Arizona, and we laughed about the endless days of sunshine and the long stretch of desert-like paths across the heart of Spain. A few days later in the village of Zubiri in Navarra, just before Pamplona, we found a place to stay on the fourth floor on an old house and shared a room with a couple from France. My son took pictures from the third century Roman Bridge outside. Another night we stayed in a small inn run by a single mom who made dinner for five of us—a woman from Madrid, Michael and me, and two men from Germany. It was a delicious Italian meal and we drank clay pitchers of red wine and talked about the distances we had yet to walk. We laughed in three languages and despite someone snoring most of the night we slept well enough to leave an hour after everyone else making our journey quieter and more personal. We didn’t worry about how far we walked or where we might stay. We walked and we would find a place. Like the fly-infested villa with tremendous views, or the albergue with dogs who insisted on sleeping in our laps, or the room above the garage with a killer bar at the street; or the stone building down some slope where we met some girl from Texas and a father and son from Amsterdam and we drank the best cider in Spain.

We spent one night above a pub in Samos and had pulpo–octopus–for dinner. That night a priest invited us to a private party and we stood next to four buffet tables of tapas and wine, and we ate and stood on the balcony and watched swans swim by in the lake behind the cloister, hissing at the setting sun. Every single day outdid the previous one. I kept waiting for that golden moment, and they kept coming. Like that following morning when we walked to a nearby field and stood in the sacred silence of a chapel from the ninth century.

We slept on yoga mats in a hallway of an old church in Logrono with seventy other tired souls after we shared dinner and walked through passages in the five-hundred-year old basement. For two nights we slept in comfort in the same hotel Hemingway stayed while working on The Sun Also Rises. In some small chicken village we stayed in a brand new albergue which had no business being open. The floors and ceilings weren’t done, it was freezing inside, and the yet-to-be-inspected bathroom was three floors down. The only bar in town was closed so the owner gave us a few beers to wash down the thick dust everywhere. We stayed near Torres del Rio above a tavern with fine food and a wading pool out back to soak our blistered and swollen feet. We slept in an old monastery a hundred yards from a church St Francis of Assisi himself asked to be built. In Portomarin we had no place to stay at all so we stayed up as long as we could. We hung out in a small café until one am and then walked around the misty, cool waterfront. Then we settled on the town square with covered walkways running next to a medieval church. We pulled together folding chairs and wrapped ourselves in whatever we could and tried to sleep in rapidly dropping temperatures. A kid on a bike did tricks on the cathedral steps until three am which anyway kept me amused. At four-thirty we got out our flashlights and headed west. You can see a million stars in Spain at that hour of the morning, and the darkness makes the silence almost visible.

We walked from the silence of the Pyrenees through the plains and the western mountains of Galicia where the sole sound is often walking sticks hitting the path every few seconds, or the occasional gentle whoosh of the windmills. Some walk with headphones and listen to music. Some carry on constant conversation with companions, and we all stop every once in a while to adjust a backpack or drink water from scattered wells. We see wild horses and stop in cafes converted from garages.

This is life for forty days.

At the mountaintop village of O’Cebreiro there were no rooms left and we nearly walked out of town to camp when a man waved us toward a back door of an inn and we ended up with a beautiful private room for practically nothing at all, and just outside the door were a few tables on a stone patio overlooking valleys that stretched across Galicia. In the morning the fog sat below and when the sun came up the fog dissolved, the sky turned blue, and the green hills welcomed us west.

I noticed a slight change in my daily routine compared to home: at home I wonder how far something is, how long it might take to arrive. I might even know before I left what I planned to do when I got back. But on the Camino the plan is simply to continue. At home every time I start something new, I demand tangible answers with definitive outcomes. But on the path each day I discover not that there aren’t any questions, but that the answers have become irrelevant.

Eventually we map out something deeper and less tangible than the well-marked trails across Spain: we learn to navigate the journey inward, the “inscape” as Thomas Merton called it. You realize home is dictated by others’ plans, others’ deadlines, others’ habits and expectations, and at home after a while you come to wonder just whose journey you are on. But here, despite thousands of other pilgrims on the same path, ours is unique, it has never before been trodden, and each decision remains pure and honest. The sameness which becomes our lives at home erodes on the Camino to the certainty that each step makes sense.

In a suburban neighborhood outside Santiago we put our packs on two of five beds, the others occupied by a salesman from Madrid, a woman from Barcelona and another from Mayorca. We all had dinner on the back porch where all the flies in Spain gathered to join us, as well as a bulldog named Brutus, and the sun was brilliant and we slept well. A few nights earlier we stumbled into some tiny town, another chicken village which looked like a movie set for an old western, and we slept in the bunk room with fifty other people and picked up a few supplies at their shed they called a store, but man the lemon chicken we had for dinner was perfect.

Back home information is instant and artificial stimulation has become completely natural, daily demands of meetings and traffic and phone calls and explanations and disappointments and arguments and the constant hum of civilization permeate our most private thoughts. On the Camino we travel to unexplored depths as centuries come and go with each village and vineyard, and we walk through villages past chapels used by Charlemagne, saints and kings, Cervantes and Queen Isabella and St. Francis of Assisi. It is a complete abandonment of routine, despite the daily routine. It is an absolute participation in simplicity, and discussions gravitate toward the purest of ambitions, the most sacred truths; truths left untapped at home.

When we finished we wanted to do it again. And therein is the road not taken: To live a life you would, in a heartbeat, live again.

It is the rare phenomenon of immeasurable time, aware of every single step; each one like words of a prayer, like an absolution, like perfect syntax, like absolute meter. We can’t add or eliminate a single syllable; each step is essential and immediate and timeless.

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Winter Green

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It’s raining today, and the leaves are past their peak. A coastal storm is moving up just to the east pushing the tides long onto the land while winds often gust to thirty miles an hour. Geese keep calling as they land in the field, and a combine crawled down the road later in the season than normal. Winter is coming, and once again it took me by surprise. It’s not that I’m not paying attention or am distracted; it’s that I simply am not crazy about cold weather, even here in Virginia, and I must block it out until it literally slaps me in the face, bitter at my bold, unheeded rejection.

Still, I hibernate more on days like this, and it becomes kind of a forced workday. I welcome any weather that ties me to my desk and reminds me how much I can get done when I can’t get anything else done. I have two manuscripts completed and looking for a home and a pile of unorganized, unedited, unstructured, and unbelievably tiresome papers on the desk (and the shelf and the floor and in my bag) that is well on its way to being the third manuscript that will hope for a home in the coming year.

I just heard a branch fall, which must have been a huge branch since the woods are deep and I’m inside a log home which generally suppresses the sounds of most falling objects. It’s hard to concentrate when something falls.

I don’t remember noticing or caring about the cold when I was a kid. Long Island winters could be brutal, and I certainly do recall enough snow to make forts and benches and have plowed piles on the side of the road to surpass the height of the tallest neighbor. Somewhere is a picture of me and my friend Charlie in a storm–we were about eight years old, and we’re bundled up, faces included, and the entire frame is white with snow. Blizzards were an expected occurrence in the sixties, and still we wrapped ourselves in winterwear and walked around our houses, thigh deep in snowdrifts, sitting in snow, falling into it, throwing it, eating it, laughing and playing in it until the late-afternoon sun gave the glisten a blue hue, something mystical and deep, like we were in Canada or Siberia, and we stayed out there until we simply couldn’t stand it anymore, then went inside to bathe, put on warm pajamas, have some hot chocolate, and feel the tight, red, chill of winter on our skin well into the evening. And I don’t ever remember caring about the cold.

Now, well, now I walk out into temperatures in the forties with a windchill of thirty-something and I’m ready to crawl back into bed under four or five blankets. For a long time I thought it might be age; I’ve long noticed how old people pack their belongings into car trunks and drive south by October. Or maybe I’ve just so adjusted to flip flops and shorts, sea water lapping at my calves all summer, the hot sun on my shoulders and face, that I simply can’t get acclimated to the cold any longer. Perhaps it is this cold along the Chesapeake; a damp, chill-to-the-bone, wet cold that pierces my nervous system like acupuncture. At least where I lived in western New York and central Massachusetts, the dry winters allow sweaters to suffice and the cold air wakes you up more than eats away the top two layers of skin. 

All that is partially true. But there’s something else.

Charlie’s not here to build a fort. My brother’s not here for a snowball fight. My dad’s not inside, warm, watching football, waiting for us to come inside. My son grew up here in Virginia, and while we have fun memories of the few days of winter we experienced each year, except for brief visits up north, he never experienced not seeing grass for six straight months, never putting on the skates and gliding across the river when the ice is thick, falling on his butt and feeling the wet through a half-dozen layers.

No. Winter is a northern memory; a childhood experience. Maybe If I were walking the cold streets of New York I’d appreciate it more; looking in store windows, turning my collar to the beautiful cold that can be Fifth Avenue in December. Or maybe a football game should be where I go when it is cold; like we did when the Bills were home, and we’d ride the bus up from college and huddle against the winds off of Lake Erie ripping into Rich Stadium.

No. The Bay is for summer; for osprey and oystermen heading across the reach in the early morning; for balmy breezes and salty air.

Yet when a light snow falls and the house looks more like a postcard from Norman Rockwell than the Unabomber’s cabin, and the cardinals quick from holly to pine, I settle into the season a bit more, sit and watch football, warm, and wait for Michael to come home.

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Eavesdropping

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Before classes I sit at the desk and listen to students’ conversations. This isn’t on purpose; that is, I don’t take notes. But I like to arrive early and relax, which coincides with those students who also take their seats before class to unwind and catch up with new friends.

For the most part they are more awake earlier in the day. The eight o’clock classes talk about topics ranging from politics to rock. They talk about clothes, and through the years what outfits they consider cool have changed drastically. Hats have come back to the front, jeans are not as low on the butt, but cleavage is certainly more common. Piercing as an art form rivals tattoos, which have simply become like clothing.

Over the years I’ve learned of the student whose brother died in Iraq, the aunt who never made it out of the South Tower, and the student whose baby was stillborn. I know whose spouse is deployed, whose returned last weekend, and whose won’t be back. Sometimes the conversations are carried out on cell phones and I only hear one-side. Often it is amusing, sometimes embarrassing, and most of the time I try not to listen but people are louder than ever and the space is small.

Sometimes I hear where people are from. Many moved south from New York, many are locals. Several came from Pennsylvania, like Karen, a student who knew my sarcasm and got the humor. She understood what I meant on the first explanation and smiled when someone asked a stupid question. Once, she told a student she was from Pennsylvania, not far from where I had gone to graduate school. Her husband got stationed here. Like many displaced military wives, Karen took classes and found a part-time job to keep busy. She planned to write her cause and effect paper about living in Virginia far from family. I looked forward to it, and because of her sharp sense of detail and sarcasm, it certainly promised to be well written.

The day I received the paper I sat on my couch and read about her move. “I didn’t know people so close to my home state could talk so differently,” she wrote. She gave examples picked up while working at a local pub, the North Witchduck Inn. She didn’t need the job, she explained, but it kept her from feeling alone and bored. “I got lucky,” she wrote. “Someone got fired and they hired me.”

She wrote well. But that night, the fired waitress and her boyfriend returned to the Witchduck Inn and shot Karen and three others in the back of the head, execution style. I held onto that paper for quite some time not understanding what to do with it.

I listen too much, sometimes. I hear things I shouldn’t hear. I know about abortions, about pregnancies, a few times before the father knew. I know about little brothers and sisters with harsh diseases and grandparents with Alzheimer’s. I learn their ages, their birthdays, their income and the cost of their cell phone bills. I sit back and try and understand what’s on their mind when I’m staring at them ready to lecture, and I try to steer it closer to their generation, their understanding.

Sometimes I pick up patterns, rituals. Early in the semester conversations focus on course content or choice of professors. Some students complain each morning about spouses or children or parents, others start the week with weekend horror stories. Some students prefer instead to talk outside, smoke.

Some students drink Starbucks in class, talk on cell phones and complain about the work load. I hear their complaints, their excuses.

Still, sometimes what I hear heralds respect. One spoke of her father’s Alzheimer’s, her sick kids, yet her paper is practically flawless and turned in on time. One talked about losing a job, how he is behind in rent and rides the bus, but that’s okay because on the bus, he said, he edits one more time and gets the paper done. Behind him some teed off twenty-year-old talks trash about my teaching, about the course. “I ain’t got no need for no damn required English class,” he said.

 “This course isn’t required,” I quietly tell him. His name is Mark. Before he objects I add, “Nothing here is required. You’re not a child. You don’t have to stay; you don’t have to pass. You don’t have to do jack. Go find a job, travel, join the military. Your options are endless but instead you sit here complaining. You can make a sign and sit on the highway begging for money. You can leave and tend bar in Tahiti. Nothing here is ever required. Nothing. If you don’t want to be here, leave. It really is that simple.”  

Mark wore light blue boxer shorts. I knew this because his size seventy-four jeans fell past the crack of his size twenty-seven butt. His sunglasses reflected overhead lights. He had floppy blond hair, a dark tan, and a seventh-grade mentality. When I asked the class when Jack Kennedy was shot, Mark said, “1865” but he wasn’t trying to be funny. A week later while drinking his second Red Bull he complained about the cost of gas. A week after that I heard him talk about his new surfboard. That was the week I asked for his paper and he told me to fuck off.

“You know I can hear you right?” I said. He stayed quiet. I could see in his face he immediately wanted to suck his words back inside.

“I didn’t know what to write about,” he said.

I stared at him a bit, then said, “How about brain injury,” Everyone laughed because they thought I was joking. “I heard you say before class a few weeks ago a friend of yours was in a car accident.”

“Yeah, so?”

“How is he?”

“Okay I guess.”

I told him if he wanted to stay in my class, he should write the research paper that was due, and perhaps he could focus on brain injuries.

“Are you free at two today?” I was going to give a talk to the staff of a rehabilitation center for brain injured patients. He hesitated a second and said he’d be there.

I occasionally talked to volunteers and patients about attitude and staying motivated. One patient, Dave, had been a 4.0 student at the University of Richmond when a car hit him on his bicycle. Now he has no motor skills and the mentality of an eight-year-old. A woman, Marti, taught high school Math in east L.A. till someone slammed her in the head with a two by four and now it takes a week for her to write one paragraph to her daughter in Texas. Another woman, Michelle, was in a car accident and a piece of dashboard sent her brain retention and motor skills reeling back to pre-school.

Mark and I met and walked in. The rec room was filled and a volunteer welcomed us to say hello to everyone. Before I spoke to the staff, Mark and I both talked for an hour with patients I’d never met as well as a few that I remembered from last time, including the student from Richmond.

Dave tried to tell us he’d been wanting to walk, but his mother told him not to try, that he would only get discouraged and might hurt himself falling. He cried, as he did last time when he told me the same thing. “Bob” he said, with long drawn out emphasis. “I’ve got nothing else to look forward to.” This took Dave at least a minute to say. Mark’s eyes swelled just a little.

Afterwards we sat while the staff worked with volunteers. We listened to their conversations, their ambitions. I didn’t hear much complaining, none actually, and that made my eyes swell—not for them as much as for my students, and for me, for every single time I bitched about something challenging.  

Right before we had planned to leave we overheard a guidance counselor, Gary, talk to a first time volunteer. Mark and I stayed silent. “Listen, Ann,” Gary said. “What separates them from you or me?” he asked her quietly, nodding toward the patients. Mark shifted his eyes from the ground to the counselor ten feet away and listened, his hands in his pockets. The counselor waited a moment, then said, “About three seconds. A missed stoplight. A phone call that held you up. A broken alarm clock. Three seconds.”

We walked outside and before Mark got in his car he apologized for not trying harder; and I did too, for losing patience, with him, with myself. Sometimes we just need to stay silent and listen to what the universe is trying to say to us.

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The Quick Brown Fox

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26 letters.

That’s it.

In the beginning. That which doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. To be or not to be—that one just six different letters.  Jesus wept—two words of nine characters made from only seven letters. But, man, pretty powerful when placed in the right position, no?

What power comes from the concise and clear ordering of just 26 letters!

I can’t write, my students say; my grandmother said; my very own demons say when something needs to be said but I’m at a loss of words. The history of English has turned and spun back on itself, argued with endings and double negatives, trampled meaning, treasured nuances, made murderers of us all, and unearthed muses to slipknot a string of letters, tie together thoughts like popcorn for a Christmas tree, individual kernels only able to dangle dutifully due to one common thread.

I do. Rest in Peace. Go to Hell. I quit. Fuck you. I love you—that last, most dangerous combo comes in at just 7 letters.

The English language, more specifically the alphabet, was not alphabetical at first, made that way in the 1300’s on Syria’s northern coast.  Today, we slaughter its beauty with a cacophony of sounds whose aesthetic value is lost in translation while simultaneously softening hardened hearts with poetry and prose for the ages. For nearly a millennium this alphabet whose letters lay the way for understanding in multiple languages, has dictated decrees, is uttered by infants one syllable at a time until by age five they’ve mastered the twenty six consonants and vowels.  What circles of wonder are children’s faces when someone’s tongue pushes out “toy” “treat” “your mommy’s here” “your daddy’s home.”

Plato said “Wise men talk because they have something to say, fools, because they have to say something”; Socrates said “false words are not only evil in themselves, but they infect the soul with evil.” The sins of our fathers forever condemn us to hell but for confession, penance, and absolution.

Forgive me father for I have sinned—29 characters but just 14 letters.

Of all the languages on the planet, English has the largest vocabulary at more than 800,000 words, all from those same 26 symbols.

There are roughly 45,000 spoken languages in the world, about 4500 written today, but almost half of them are spoken by less than a thousand people. English, though, is the most common second language on Earth—translated or original, the Magna Carter, The Declaration, The Bible, the Koran, the Torah, the tablets tossed by Moses and a death certificate are all reassembled versions of the same twenty-six triggers.

I have a dream—eight letters.

Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country—fourteen.

We the People–seven

Teeter-totter—four.

Billowy is one of only a few seven letter words whose six letters remain alphabetical. Spoon-feed is the longest, at nine letters, whose seven letters are reverse-alphabetical.

We can talk, us English. We can spin a yarn, chew the fat, beat the gums, flap the lips. We have the gift of gab, we run off with the mouth, we can spit it out, shoot the breeze, talk someone’s ears off, or just talk shop, talk turkey, talk until we’re blue in the face, be the talk of the town. We can, for certain, at just seven letters, bullshit.

My point (7 letters) is that (3 letters) sometimes, despite our skills (4 letters) with the English language (6 letters), we are often left, at just six letters, speechless.

Like in the hospital that day.

I had aged three decades, you not one day. The light lingered through a dangling blue curtain and bathed your face, your hair, your cry, and when you breathed, you gasped hard, jerked backwards, and then you were fine, and there, for the first time, I knew I knew nothing about language; that Shakespeare, Keats, Wordsworth, would be worth nothing to me had they been muses in my mind feeding me phrases to capture what I saw when I saw you.  There are no words. No language has been invented to allow me enough expression that others can read how I felt, how every day suddenly had been renewed, every hope, every single possibility, the innocence, the honesty, the complete aliveness where no life had been. No. It has never, can never be captured with twenty six times twenty six letters.

Perhaps some symphonic phrase might come closer than the limitations of language. This is the frustration of poets, the complete sense of ineptitude of writers. To define that first breath, the slight lean forward, that light through a blue curtain at just that moment. Language, for all of its potential, can impose such limitations.

I said hello. And nothing ever again would be bathed in silence.

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In Memory of my Father

 

The following essay first appeared in Kestrel: A Journal of Literature and Art, as well as my collection of short works, Fragments, and a few other publications. It was the last piece of my writing I am aware my father read. He died four years ago this evening. 

 

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Instructions for Walking with an Old Man at the Mall

First of all, he’s walking, you’re joining him. Don’t stop if he doesn’t. Don’t keep walking if he doesn’t. You are a shadow, an imitation.

Stand on his side where he can better hear you. If he can’t, repeat yourself as if for the first time, no matter how many times. Never say “never mind.” When he tells you something, you have never heard that story before, even if you can repeat it word for word. When he tells you about the baseball games with his Dad seventy years earlier, they are new stories, and your response must sound genuine. When he tells you about the time he went swimming at camp with his friends, and how when they went to retrieve their clothes from under a boat they found a snake, be amazed again, ask what happened. Laugh again since he will laugh.

When he pauses in front of a store, don’t question it. At that moment, allow his sole purpose in pausing is to look at whatever item is in that display. He might mention how he used to own that tool, those pants. Let him know you remember; do not make a big deal that he remembered. He needs you to know he didn’t stop “to rest”—he stopped to look at the display. When he says he could use that new suit, a new pair of shoes, or a new whatever is new, agree. If he happens to stop in front of Frederick’s of Hollywood, there’s no need to joke; it will only emphasize he couldn’t get past a place he would never stop with his son. This time he simply couldn’t continue. Talk instead about his grandkids. Talk about the rain. Do not talk about old times. There’s no need to recall the time he drove you to the airport for a flight to college and you saw him hours later waving to you onboard the plane. Avoid bringing up the time just the two of you spent the day at Shea Stadium when you were a child. Instead, ask about the Mets and if he happened to catch the game last week. You know he did. Let him tell you about it.

When he seems tired but doesn’t want you to keep stopping, stop to fix your shoe, to read a sign; look for a bench and suggest you sit and talk. He’ll ask about your son; he’ll ask about work. Have something to say other than “fine, Dad.”

Do not look at your watch. Do not check your phone; most definitely do not check your phone. Leave both in the car. Do not indicate in any way he is keeping you from anything. No other time is relevant anymore. But you will grow tired and restless. If he senses this, he will insist you leave. He will say he knows you have a lot going on, and he’ll say he’ll see you later, and he’ll do whatever he can to make you feel he is completely fine with it. Stay anyway. Then sit a bit longer. Do not ask about the doctors; the walk is to forget about the doctors. Do not quiz him on medicine or schedules. He is out for a walk, you joined him, it is something about which he will tell others—that he went for a walk at the mall and his son was there and joined him. Do not let his story end with “but he had to go.”

When he can’t remember where he parked his car, ask if he parked in the usual area. He did. Sit down for a few minutes. It will come to him. There’s no need to ask probing questions like “which stores” or “what street” he was near. Just sit a while. He’ll remember. You’re not in a rush.

When you leave the mall be near him as he steps from the curb, but do not help. He will be fragile and unstable. The step from curb to parking lot is a leap; he used to do it with you on his shoulders and two others running out front. Let him step down on his own but be ready. He bruises easily and a simple scrape is a trip to the doctor. Have the patience he had when your childhood curbs seemed like the cliffs of Dover.

Don’t say “I guess I’d better get going.” Don’t make plans. Don’t make any comment to indicate he did well or that it was a “good walk.” He didn’t do well and it wasn’t a good walk. He’s older now. He’s slower now, but he knows this. Really, once the walk is done, the time spent together always seems to have passed faster than we recall. He knows this as well.

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        –I miss you Dad

Ten Books of Note

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Last week was the Old Dominion University Literature Festival. I spent some time discussing with my writing students how what they read when they were younger informs who they are now.

Then I gave them my list:

 

Tim O’Brien The Things They Carried.

Tim Seibles One Turn Around the Sun

Ernest Hemingway Old Man and the Sea

Bohumil Hrabal Too Loud a Solitude

Carlos Fuentes Old Gringo

Ernie Pyle Brave Men

Roberto Bolano A Little Lumpen Novelita

E.B. White Here is New York

Frederick Douglass Narrative

Lieve Joris Mali Blues

 ——

When I was in college a professor asked us to list ten books we loved so he could explain what he figured out about us from the list. Except for the minor detail that I wasn’t sure I had even read ten books, I thought it an interesting assignment.

The above list is from my perspective as an adult. But looking back my book list in college included Stephen King, Woody Guthrie, Robin Lee Graham, Woodward and Bernstein, and most likely Mark Twain’s personal narratives. I don’t remember much of the professor’s analysis except what was clear to anyone, I liked adventure and bent toward non-fiction.

When I decided to use this assignment with my students, I knew that I needed to make my own list. Thus, the ten books above are what I consider the most influential or memorable or re-readable books I can recall. I didn’t head to my bookshelves to come up with them; I simply put my head back and thought about books.

I ask my students to list “observations” of their compilation. Some observations of my own list:

  • I still like adventure and have a bend toward non-fiction.
  • Five of the books are non-fiction though O’Brien is thinly disguised fiction (Read If I Die in a Combat Zone for reference)
  • Seven of the books are pretty short
  • Only one was written by a woman despite some heavy influence from women in my writing including Alice Walker, Frances Harper, and Virginia Woolf.
  • Three were not written in English.
  • Seven do not take place in the United States, though The Things They Carriedis debatable since much of it does but much of it doesn’t. So six and a half.
  • Five of the authors are also known as essay writers.
  • Seven somehow wrapped themselves into the narrative.

 

Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried is simply one of the greatest books of the 20th century, and while it takes place in Vietnam, it is not about Vietnam anymore than Tim Seible’s One Turn Around the Sun is about astronomy. In O’Brien’s book, along with Hemingway, Hrabal, White, Douglass, Pyle, and to a lesser degree Joris, the author either writes directly to the reader or involves the reader in some way.

Seibles’ book is about his parents and age. In fact, the passing of time is a common theme for Hrabal, O’Brien, Guthrie, and Pyle. I heard Tim Seibles read from the book long before it was published, have talked to him many hours over lunch about our parents and time and age, and admire his diction and phrasing perhaps more than that of any writer I know. He is a giant in the poetry world and this book is his best. Read it from start to finish; don’t jump around. Too many people think that because poems or essays are short and seemingly unrelated, they can flip around for pieces to read. Well, that’s true—but don’t. Please read the stuff in order. There is, in fact, order.

I love how Old Man and the Sea is about an old man at sea whose pride is simply too strong to let the damn marlin go and focus on the smaller fish around him. And then when I read it again it was really about pride in general and who we are and what we learn as we mature. And then when I read it a third time I realized the entire story is the Passion of the Christ. I like how Hemingway never lost his journalistic tightness and how he uses repetition as an art form. Also, the book is really short and I generally run out of steam at about 100 pages. When he wrote, “It was an hour before the first shark showed up” just a dozen pages from the end, I was already hoping the boat would sink.

Susan Sontag once said Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal is one of the finest writers she has ever read and Too Loud a Solitude is one of the finest books. I’m with her on that. It took me several reads to understand how this crazy-ass little book is a compact version of all the greatest philosophies in history, and the “compact”ness of it is a metaphoric spin from the lead character who compacts trash. It is funny as hell and poignant. To top it all off it happens to be parallel in so many ways to The Things They Carried that I could teach a seminar in those two books. As an aside I should say that Tim told me once he focused on Czech language and literature for awhile, years before he wrote The Things They Carried. Go figure.

When I was at Penn State I spent a lot of time reading all of Fuentes’ work. He seems so much like Hemingway and uses a classic narrative structure. I read his work more because of his locales than the story, and also I was trying to fine tune my Spanish, but Old Gringo is my favorite. If anyone likes Hemingway, he or she will like Fuentes.

Ernie Pyle’s work was introduced to me by Professor Pete Barrecchia at St. Bonaventure. Since then I have not met a journalist who was not at least somewhat influenced by Pyle. He is, to be certain, above all other war journalists before or since and Hemingway once said if Pyle had not been killed at the end of World War Two, it is unlikely anyone would know of what Hemingway wrote after that. Google “Ernie Pyle Normandy” and read his piece about walking the beach at Normandy. It is easy to see how Hem and O’Brien both took much away from this great journalist, particularly O’Brien.

Last year, Tim Seibles gave me a copy of Bolano’s book and I read it start to finish without stopping; a nearly impossible feat for me except it isn’t that long. I had given him a copy of Too Loud a Solitude and he said that crazy-ass book reminded him of this one and when I was through we laughed about how neither of us could explain to anyone what the hell it is about, but it simply keeps you from start to finish. It sent me to the rest of Bolano’s work. I still can’t explain what happens but I love how it happens.

I was already familiar with EB White’s excellent essay work outside of his famous grammar book when I tuned into “Selected Shorts” and heard someone reading “Here is New York.” It stands alone for work that is less “about” New York than it is about the state of “being” in New York. If I were born earlier, I think I’d like to have been EB White.

I love Douglass’ writing style—very journalistic in approach—and his description is honest and raw, made more revealing by his first person experience. But there is something else that makes this one of my favorite all time books and Douglass my greatest American hero—his Character. Frederick Douglass is an inspiration not only for his accomplishments against the greatest odds in an evil system, but for his mostly firm moral compass through it all. He is simply a tremendous example. The Narrative of Frederick Douglass should be required reading in every single school.

Joris’ Mali Blues about a musician in Mali and his life not only in his village but as an international celebrity is captivating from the start and she walks a new line between personal experience and reporting. This is also a work of journalism. I am pleased that after majoring in J and never pursuing it as a career, my favorite writers were either journalists or at the very least have adopted that style of writing.

These are not the most influential writers for me as a writer—that is a different list, though there is some crossover. To the point—O’Brien, Hemingway, Pyle, and Hrabel make both lists, but the rest do not. These four for one reason or another “inform” how I write—sometimes by outright theft. The other two writers who influenced me as a writer are first Aaron Sorkin, who I think is simply one of the finest writers working today, though he is wholly a screenwriter and playwright, but that makes him a master of dialogue. And finally Jackson Browne. His early emotionally-driven work sets tone for me better than any writer I know. Obviously part of it is hearing a minor key come in for something like “Sky Blue and Black” or the musical phrasing of “For a Dancer.” As I get older, poetry for its diction has become more important, and I’m still trying to find the patience to be meticulous in that regard. But for tone, the music of Browne or Van Morrison or just the right rendition of Canon in D can light fire under my work way faster than the classic writers. Often even faster than caffeine.

I have read many books beyond this list, including a stack my son keeps adding to saying “this seemed like a book you’d like.” He has already read more books than I have in my life. I am not sure why I have an aversion to reading; I think it is because I try to spend as little time as possible reading about what other people have done and spend that time doing something. It could also have something to do with the tens of thousands of student essays I’ve read in the past thirty years. When my colleagues in the writing world get together and talk about our peers work and what they’re doing, I generally slide out of the conversation and find someone who wants to talk about something more relevant to me, say like goats or the beach. Part of it is I hate talking about writing; but the larger issue is simply I do not read that much. I write or I do things. So when I do come across a book that takes me in and takes over my mind for a while, I want everyone to read it.

After they finish reading all my books, of course, which shouldn’t take long; they’re short (the books, not the readers, I think).

What about you? What makes your list?

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