Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The Joy of "Doing Nothing"

I have always had a problem with people who seem proud of the fact that "they can't sit still." Or, rather, I feel bad for them that they think it is a virtue to not be able to relax; to, as Whitman sort of put it, loaf and invite their souls. I can see how someone who "can't sit still" might accomplish more than me, in terms of material gain and the like. But, I can accomplish quite a bit, at least by my own standards, sitting still.

Sir Frederick Leighton, 1895
I have heard others talk about their fear of retiring. (A fear, I fear, I might never have to face.) They worry that they won't know what to do with themselves; that they will be bored. I am incapable of being bored, as long as there is a world to observe and a way to record those observations; as long as there is music to make and beauty to appreciate.

Just yesterday, my family went on an excursion without me.

In the morning, I read Margaret Atwood (whose stuff I need to read more of) and drank coffee. After awhile, I napped. After my nap, I worked on my next novel for an hour or two, then I took the dog for a two hour excursion in to the woods. After that excursion, I swam in the pond among the curious trout and the fickle turtles. After the pond, I showered and practiced my Carulli on the guitar. (Not at the same time. The shower is bad for a guitar.) After the guitar, I went out onto the pond in a kayak and watched the sun dropping behind the tree line. I came in and had dinner with my son (who had also stayed behind) and we went out into the back with our gloves and had a catch.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Kayak Meditation

Not ten minutes ago, I was on the water, sometimes paddling, sometimes drifting in the grey of a rainy morning; sometimes with eyes open and sometimes with eyes closed. With eyes closed, it feels like you're floating. Because you are, I suppose. But floating feels like transcending.

I tried to shut off the noise in my head, but that's hard. I tried to shut off the music, but that's kind of impossible. Still, with one's eyes closed, drifting forward and being held up by the bosom of a wide pond and cooled by a rainy breeze, the sense of peace works its way in to lubricate the mechanics of thought. It's an oil change for a brain like mine. Yours, too?

Mare's Pond, sans me, as it was before
and will be, after I go. 
Last night, I walked a long road lined with scrub pines and looked out upon by the occasional quiet house. The silence was dotted with the click of my dog's paws on asphalt which turned into gravel and then faded into a dirt path. But it was dusk, and the dirt path ran into a wildlife conservation of some seventy acres. Neither my dog nor I had the guts to go into it with night falling and facing the chance of meeting up with disgruntled coyotes (coyotes that are active at night and who, according to local Cape Cod science, are getting to be wolf-sized).

We walked back in the falling darkness. Most houses we saw were quiet. Some buzzed happily with families celebrating each other near fire pits or on horseshoe pitches. Some waved. Some looked vaguely suspicious of this visitor and his big, white dog.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Faith Helps

I have often said that I don't pretend to understand the God in whom I believe. But I do believe (if not under the all-too-narrow constraints of some of my fellow believers). In my mind, pretending to understand a Force so much superior to myself is actually an insult to that Force.

I think I have seen signs (not images of Jesus on toast, but more profound feelings and conclusions) that God is up there...

Could I be wrong? Sure. I don't think I am, but...I'm not the God I believe in; therefore, I am imperfect.

Some friends of mine, over the years, have believed very deeply in the healing powers of certain stones and crystals. Maybe that is a step more logical than belief in God. I don't know. But I admit, it seems "unscientific" to me. Let's say, I am an agnostic when it comes to that stuff.

But here's the thing: we need faith in something. If a person wears a crystal around his neck and thinks it makes his shoulder pain go away, the result is positive. Maybe the stone did it; maybe belief helped the body. This is nothing new. But it is good for people, right?

Some will say that it is a fostering of ignorance to encourage this sort of thing. Maybe. But maybe ignorance is a lot like innocence and maybe the world needs a little more wide-eyed wonder.

This doesn't mean we stop going to doctors or that we stop applying logic to our quest for understanding, even in matters of spirituality, but that we should open our eyes to the possibility that we might benefit by the touch of the intangible and, yes, even the unprovable.

My faith wavers, as it does with anyone else who has a mind. But I teach my kids a belief in God. It is a good thing for a child to believe he is being watched over; it is a good thing for a child to be able to pray. If I am right, prayer amounts to a helping hand from above; if I am wrong, it is, at the very least, good catharsis over the growing up years. Some day, they can draw their own conclusions as to whether Dad was right or wrong.

Well, I know one thing: when I was doing battle with cancer, I, on one particular day, felt like I was reaching the end of my strength (emotionally). I went upstairs and I lay on the bed and I started just talking to God -- out loud, mind you. After about an hour of this, I got up and went downstairs to the family. My strength was back and, eventually, my body won.

Why? Who cares. Faith helps.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The Poor Man's Sting Speaks

It occurs to me that my life is full of miniature representations of dreams that I have had. It is as if I have taken the things I have always wished for and placed them around me, like knickknacks.

Not me.
First, I am a poor man's Sting. (Well, maybe a destitute man's Sting.) I don't say this to compare talent levels, but to show that where he is a former English teacher who worked in clubs as a musician and went on to become one of the most famous popular musicians of all time, I, too, am a bookish fellow who became a teacher of literature and who remaines a very active musician (of whom few have heard). A result of his having been one of my musical and lyrical heroes? Partly.

As a teenager, I wanted to be John Williams (the film/orchestral composer) but that hasn't happened; though, I did score a full-length independent film. So, I, you know, have done it, at least.

No word on an Oscar yet.

Monday, July 21, 2014

An Evening with Grandma and Grandpa (A Parable)

The year: 2044. (This is important.)

The kitchen, as grandparents' kitchens are wont to be, is scented of chocolate chips and sweet oven-crispness. Grandma is wobbling about in her apron, cleaning up the crumbs and spills of young bakers. Grandpa sits at the table with said bakers, ages seven and nine. Grandpa looks tired, his chin in his hands, his elbows on the table.

"F#$%ing, A, Grandpa," says the seven-year-old. "These f#$@ing cookies are bangin'. Grandma," she yells over her shoulder, "you can bake your f#$@ing a#$ off, b#@ch!" 

Grandma sighs. "Thank you, dear." She drops a glass that shatters in the sink.

The nine-year-old grandson gets up and goes to the sink. "Sh#@! Are you alright, Grandma?"

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

I Know Not "Seems"

For years, I have heard people say that "confidence is sexy."

But, like, confidence, itself, right? Not confidence that one is sexy... 

Like...a professional who trusts in his or her instinct; who enters a room and sort of gets looked to as the leader; who walks upright and who isn't afraid to take responsibility or to speak out. This person can be sexy as a result of his or her sense of personal command or confidence. But, not the person who brags about his or her physical perfection in either words or selfie...

You know? 

To me, anyway, there is nothing less sexy than someone who thinks she is. (Insert your favorite pronoun/s here...ayam what ayam...)

I follow a local radio show on Twitter and they have "selfie Monday" -- which might just make me stop following them. Almost every selfie (that gets retweeted, anyway) is of a girl who makes extra sure to get all the best bits in the shot. Each girl has a manufactured smoulder on her face.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Weeping Over Indiana Jones: On the Young Hearts of Wannabe Knights

In Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, there is a scene near the end in which, when the whole place is crumbling, the knight who was the guardian of the Holy Grail salutes Indy through the falling debris and dust.

I wept when I saw that scene in the theater in 1989. I like that. I was 21.

I could list a whole bunch of other films, books, poems and works of art that made me get all emotional. (I do that.) To me, it is the highest effect art can have: to move someone to tears, to chills or to laughter. No, I'm not a fan of empty sentimentality; I am a seeker of the sublime. The sublime can only exist when the wind of intellect blows through the aeolian harp of emotion. (I know -- I'm getting all Coleridgean.)

Anyway, if I listed those works that "moved" me, some would be no surprise: "Afternoon of a Faun," by Debussy; The Pines of Rome, by Respighi; Miller's The Crucible and Death of a Salesman; Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea; Ravel's Mother Goose suite... I could do this all day.

But...Indiana Jones?

Friday, July 11, 2014

Ladies and Gentlemen: The Courtesy of Control?

I rode the train for many years into Camden, to Rutgers, for most of my undergraduate work and for all of my graduate work. Sometime, I would be on crowded rush-hour trains and sometimes not so crowded. But the rush hour trains provided the same challenges: proximity and social graces.

For a week I have been as I previously mentioned, riding that same train, but to the end of the line in Philadelphia. The same challenges exist. People are boxed in and they are close to each other and they glance around nervously. Or, they poke their heads into books or newspapers to avoid talking; some people shut themselves off with ear buds, listening to music. 

It was the same in the late eighties and early nineties, except the tunes were on CD Walkmans and no one had an e-reader. But there is a level of uncertainty now, on one level, that didn't exist then. 

Even as late as the nineties, it seemed to me it was a given that a man would give up his seat for a woman, if she was standing and holding the seat handles. Now, it seems less like a loss of "manners" than a guessing game.

A few days ago, a college student, a few rows in front of me, offered his seat to an older woman. She graciously accepted and sat down with a sigh.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

White, Middle Class and Middle-Aged

Hi. My name is Chris. And by some accident of fate and genetics, I was born a white male, into a world that gives us more breaks than it gives to many others.

This week, I fell into an unusual routine, as I alluded to in my last piece. I have been riding a crowded commuter train, into Philadelphia, to teach a writing course at The University of the Arts. This means walking through stations, standing on both crowded and semi-deserted platforms, and sitting next to strangers.

Looking around me, I am realizing that being white, middle aged and middle class is a pretty helpful thing, in terms of other people's perceptions of me, in a world where perceptions are filtered through so many presuppositions. I'm safe in a way that, say, African American guys never are. Prejudice can lead to hard fate for, especially, young men of color, as Brent Staples once pointed out in his brilliant essay, "Black Men and Public Space."

If I walk onto a train platform and a white woman and I are the only two there, she will look at me and probably think: "Well, he's over forty; he is dressed okay so he has at least a job; he is carrying an academic-looking brief case and" -- sadly, this may often be true -- "he is white."

She's not likely to panic, like this young, white woman in Staples's piece:

Monday, July 7, 2014

The High Speed Line

Broad Street: 1909
I used to take the train from the station right across from my parents' house, into Camden, to Rutgers, where I was studying literature and creative writing during both my undergrad and graduate years. I would stand on the platform and I could always see our house -- the one I grew up in -- looking benignly back at me with its friendly window eyes. Our familiar family cars would sleep, then, in the driveway, like curled up cats. Maybe corny; definitely true.

Today, I stood on that platform again. This time, I had left from my own house, some distance away. This time, the windows of my old house looked different and they looked differently -- the old friendly eyes had been changed out for new, more angular, more slick and glassy ones. And the new cars of the strangers who walk through my old bedroom; my old living room; my old kitchen...these new cars, they stand on tiptoe on hard tires on the newly blackened drive -- new cats, ready to spring.

Today, I was boarding the same train, but all the way into Philadelphia, not to study writing, but to teach it, in a building in the shadow of William Penn, to young writers who took the train as I had so long ago: to learn.

Still: I teach; they learn; I teach; I learn; they teach, I learn -- and the train runs over the same rails it ran over decades ago, carrying passengers with big dreams into big cities including one who never outgrew big dreaming.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

A Bad Father: What's It Take?

I know this is not new ground for me, but I continue to get a kick out of the emerging spiritus mundi in which we prance around deeply pleased with our highly evolved common sense and our tie to the scientific over the intuitive or to (God forbid) the principals of faith in anything we can't see.

For all of this, we remain, as I put it recently in a Facebook post, the most wish-upon-a-star, fantasy land dwelling generation in the history of the planet. We're afraid to say things that we think are true if they should lean toward anything that has been labeled either politically incorrect or just plain against the aggressive Tweet, post and blog-supported parameters for current morality.

Yet, we commonly disregard empirical evidence or circumstantial proof and we bypass logic altogether to make statements that we wish were true as if simply stating them as fact is going to make them factual.

"You can be anything you want to be." That is a lie. A complete fabrication based on the desire to encourage kids to work hard and to instill confidence in them.  It would be nice, but it is a lie. It is a good thing I didn't put everything I had into becoming a professional baseball player, because I simply don't have the talent.

You get the picture and I'll bet you can generate a whole host of statements like this.