Riding the wave (Happy part 1)

I have traveled to the ocean off and on all my life. Whether to Jones Beach while visiting my grandparents on Long Island, or Popham Beach in Maine with my immediate family, later on my own—the beach—the ocean really—has had a call for me. Whenever I visited, I would be in the waves for hours, even when the water was frigid. I would exit with chattering teeth—b-b-b-b-b-ut I’m not cold, Mom.

When I was 11, I started sailing with my father. We took lessons together and practiced on a lake. He kept a boat on the Chesapeake Bay, which was rarely choppy. In my thirties, I joined him on the ocean—home again.

Now I live near the mountains, far enough from the ocean that my friends worry I will miss it. How can you move so far away—from minutes to hours—from the breaking waves? I know a secret. I haven’t. I live in the shadow of ancient waves.

The crust of the earth floats slowly, steadily on the surface of the planet. Mountains are sudden swells where the crust crashes into crust, lifting like three mile high following seas. The break is not here or there—the way you know where and when waves break best along a beach—it rises across hundreds of miles all at once, rapidly—in geological time—and subsiding only when erosion carries the soil and rocks back down the swell—the same way the foam at the crest of a wave slides away to one side or the other of the watery passenger.

How can you tell? Nothing is moving? The earth is solid. It seems that way, yes. Yet in time, over time, over more time than humans can recognize with their eyes and ears and hands built for moments on the savanna—the world is more fluid than solid, and it races. Deep time, geologists call it.

Deep time? Not thousands of years—a blink. Millions begin to register. Billions of years. I once had my students hold one hundred feet of rope, and marked the history of the planet on it. Those who held on to human historical events: Lucy, the Pyramids, the Great Wall of China, the Renaissance, man walking on the moon—could barely wrap a finger around the rope they were crowded so close. Our Western Mountains—the Rockies—and Eastern Mountains—were flung apart, but well after our continent had formed.

Deep time. I stand near the mountain as still as I can be, and wait, my feet apart, on a board as long and wide as a county. Here it comes. I can feel it.

Catching fireflies

Where does sadness, the inexorable seriousness in my writing originate? My friends would tell you that I am puckish in real life—if anything, a bit too unrestrained. Why doesn’t that same sense of things stripe my writing? Why do I seem stuck hitting the same damn dour note?

It’s time to disagree with giants. Tolstoy was wrong about families. Families are not all happy the same way, or only so if one only considers the end result. Families, and individuals, are unhappy in a million different ways; happy families share the same infinite array. And how many different ways are individuals happy compared with the list of universal sadnesses?

I will take it a step further. Unhappiness, sadness, if you will, seems, if not a baseline, then a certainty. Life takes its strange course, and we know that bad things will happen. Tragedies wait between buildings like muddy tigers, who, if they do not gore us, they will leave us an awful mess. And they come with a punctuality that challenges the trains in Germany.

Happiness seems more random, more baffling, more ephemeral. Like a firefly, reach for it quickly, and the breeze your hand makes sends it out of your grasp—it takes a gentle practice to catch a firefly.

What makes me happy? That too may be the rub. Everything in small measures. A decent parking space. The blue outline of the mountains to the west. The concept of deep time. A good crossword puzzle. The ping of my phone when an email arrives. My list is so long and so specific, that it must be boring to you. “That makes you happy!” comes the general snort, “That never makes me happy.” The writer who seeks connection writes about happiness at his own risk.

Even that—the response of disdain to good news—is more general, probably more shared than, say, my appreciation for Kevin Appier’s distinctive and delightful delivery. “You’re writing about baseball? Fie!” Like I said.

So damn the torpedoes. Here comes happiness—some common, some that will be an gentle education. Catch it like the firefly.


I packed my suitcase and drove out of Philadelphia. Whether that was yesterday or twenty-five years ago, I am not sure. There is so much to do, so many cities to visit, all those people waiting. I lose track of time. Before I have barely begun, I am completely exhausted. I have to stop. I ask the manager at the motor hotel for a quiet room, and flop into bed. I set the alarm clock for morning.

I must have made a mistake, because it goes off before I fall asleep. I turn it off and try again.

The phone on the bedside table rings. It’s still dark out.

“Get up!”

I mumble into the phone. I am still tired. Please, I am not ready to get up.

“No! you must get up now. There have been complaints. You are sleeping too long. Everyone is waiting. Get up!”

I put the phone down, letting the buzz of voice fill the space under the bed. I try to remember the name of the hotel, so I do not make the same mistake again, but I can’t even remember the name of the city in which I have stopped, and under the white ceiling of the hotel room I fall back to sleep once again.

A loud banging on the door wakes me. I wrap the thin hotel blanket around my shoulders and swing open the heavy grey metal door. The night manager, the one who gave me the room, and several other men stand in the dark hallway outside the door. Deep rings sag under their eyes, wrinkles bend the fabric of their suits.

“You must get up!” the manager implores. “These men are waiting.”

“Damn right!” a heavy man shouts. He wears what must have been, not so very long ago, a handsome blue suit. “Nothing is happening, and it’s all your fault. You can’t sleep forever! We’ve got things to do!”

The other men gather behind him, showing their support. They all look too tired to speak for themselves. The hotel manager stands on one side of the doorway, the businessmen on the other.

“Bother someone else’s dreams!” I try to shout, but all I do is yawn loudly. I wave them away, then close the door and chain it shut, and take sheets and pillows from the bed, making a small nest in the bathtub. I close the bathroom door and turn on the ventilation fan to drown out the noise of the pounding and shouting, and fall asleep between the pink tiles and mirror of the hotel bath.

When I finally wake, I am stiff, but rested. I brush my teeth and wash my face, and walk into the room to change. The manager sits in a folding chair. Firemen—thick booted and heavy coated—sit in the two chairs that came with the room, their heads back, but dreadfully awake. A policeman sits on the floor poking at the shine of his shoes. Men and women near him, almost asleep, curl up together in the unmistakable fashion of lovers, but dressed and chaste. The blue suited businessman lies alone on the bare bed; his head is propped up on a briefcase pillow.

“Are you up?” asks the manager.

I raise my arms to demonstrate the obvious.

“Thank God,” mutters the businessman, and he leads the others out of the room, past the door—separated from its hinges and propped up against the wall—and into the slowly lightening hallway. Outside I hear the sounds of engines starting, and a city whirring to life.

The sun rises above the trees while I change my clothes and repack my suitcase. The maid waves to me on my way out. She smiles. She looks rested too. In the car I open the road atlas and check my itinerary. For each city circled in red there are pages of names. I don’t think that I will finish today.

Cynicism and Hope

I re-read Joyce Carol Oates’ story “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been” (http://brainstorm-services.com/wcu-2005/pdf/oates.pdf) for “homework” last night. It’s wonderful but horrible. It is a story of nascent sexuality blossoming into horror. The main character draws the attention of something like the devil—a human devil. It is Flannery O’Connor territory—minor sins, or none at all, punished with absolute and random finality.

I know why I haven’t taught it much before.

I can see the darkness—and take up arms against it. How can one not see it in this time—in any time—in every time. It is a terrible thing to see and know. And too easy to slouch into a raw kind of cynicism. That is the safe havens of scoundrels.

Let me pause on that for a moment. Cynicism is the safe haven of scoundrels. There is no time for cynicism—espousing the essential corruption is a cheap holiday in other people’s misery. And a retreat to a false high ground: because I can cast aspersion I am better than the lot, even if I am corrupt. No. Thank. You.

Whether or not we are corrupt, there is something in us that calls to hope and connection. “But we are animals!” a friend proclaims, “Our genes emerge from the savannah and the jungle. We can be nothing more.” And so scientific fatalism opens the door to nothing. Instead of Homo sapiens we are Homo inertians—unable to escape the gravity of our deeper history.

And yet we build, and not every tool—Kubrick’s 2001 aside—is a refinement of a club. Certainly Kubrick’s 2001 won’t help one win a war, or woo, unless, of course, the object of desire is imbued with an essential and unmitigated nerdiness. Nonetheless, even without some mysterious aid, we grow. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon enough, and we find our way to each other.


landscape-1435262834-cotswolds-homeI recently swapped the nicknames that we give our kids with a friend. We had both, surprisingly and strangely, settled on “Bug.” I’m not sure that our daughters will appreciate that longer into their lives, but for now, it will do.

The first time I met her, my younger daughter bounded across the room shouting, “Baba”—Chinese for father—and into my arms. I was a goner. The names I am called matter.  When my daughter calls me, “Daddy,” it stamps me in a more definite way–not just as a father, but as her “daddy.” Sometimes when she is in a softer mood, she will call me “Papa,” and I know to take a gentler stance. She will sit next to me in the car, and say, in that drawn out imploring way, “Da-a-a-addy,” to which I volley, “Dau-au-au-aughter.”

Years of being called “Doctor”—which is more reliably shortened to “Doc,” by my students—has turned me from a reluctant, begrudging authority, to a genial, self-effacing curator of knowledge. A “doc,” in the rural veterinary or GP sense. But I still feel a mild shudder, because of my first “Doctor”—“Doctor Groton,” who taught Latin at my high school, and had an imposing, almost menacing presence. Besides, which of my friends with similar degrees who teach in college would ever sidle up to the honorific with less than irony?

Even more powerful are the words we use around someone. I tell my daughter with almost casual splendor, “I love you.” To which she responds, “I love you too.” Recently she has started initiating these exchanges, “I love you daddy,” which is followed before breath is drawn with “I love you too, daughter,” or “I love you too, bug.”

Giving something the imprimatur of “love” is easy, perhaps too easy. Perhaps I should gird on cynicism and protect myself a little more than I do.  Instead, when I feel the connection, which reveals all the connections in the universe (“every atom as good belonging to me belongs to you”), I find love to be the easiest, truest response.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAnd I do know the other side. I know how easy it is to let upset slide into hate. And I know that once uttered—by an adult, not by a child, because children must experiment with all words and all emotions—it breaks the bonds in a nearly irrevocable way. I have said it, out loud—either in the perpetual external conversation I have with the world or directly the object of scorn—and the immediate thrill is followed by a deep remorse as the tendrils that connected me to another person wither immediately into dried spiked vines, like the hedges of multiflora rosa that grew brown and foreboding in winter. All that was planted must be uprooted. Maybe something can be saved, some sprig, somewhere.

And because love is, well, love, there is fertile soil. The assurance and reassurance that I give and receive from my daughter spreads new life, almost instantaneously. My bug is a pollinator and the fruits are plenty–the golden apples of the sun, the silver apples of the moon.


A Sonnet

“I wander” starts the simple song. I know

The rhythm, how to walk, but not the way.

I watch as others scatter on the road

Each scramble nine directions hurriedly.

An open bag of wind unspools my will,

Spins me into schools, houses, sheets, and arms—

Not one’s a home, but they will do until

I steer out of miles and into hours.

The course charted with whys—uncertain winds—

Comes clear in shadow dreams and memories—

To a sea of grass lapping autumn woods,

And last night’s dress hung until morning.

You whisper, “No more wandering for you.

This is your home. This all you have to do.”

Magic Words

I wrote this years and years ago. Later, I sat down on a stone wall in a tony neighborhood in Baltimore to wait for a bus, thinking about nothing other than the weather—it was a late spring, the sky was all but cloudless—when I realized that the stones were swarming with ants. I quickly stood up, and brushed many, too many, off my pants. I knew what I had done. I laughed, and started walking.


I fall asleep on a park bench. What a long day it’s been. I wake up to a dull itch all over my body. I think, this is what I get for falling asleep on a bench. I scratch at my side, and in my hand: ants. Everywhere ants. I am being eaten by ants. I can’t get up; they’ve already done with most of my legs. I am going to be eaten away by ants.

As they chew at me I think, why couldn’t something have taken me whole, all at once? But there are no whales swimming between the buildings, waiting to swallow Jonah. No bengal tigers, orange striped, royal, ready to leap from office doors and dispatch me in one great kill.

No. I’m being eaten by ants. They take one pincer-full at a time. There must be millions of them, and as many other kinds of insects under the bench absorbing the flow of blood. I look up and down the street, hoping no one has noticed. Who but a fool would be eaten by ants?

I feel a tap on my shoulder. “Aren’t you?” she asks, “I’ve been dying to meet you.” She’s beautiful. Of course she’s beautiful; I’m being eaten by ants. She tells me how much she has looked forward to meeting me. “Why thank you,” I say. Please don’t notice, please don’t notice, please go away.

Then a man in a suit. “There you are, if you could just sign the contract, the advance money will be wired to your account.” My account? Advance money? I’m afraid to sign. Do I still have hands? I would look, but what would I see? Ants, ants, everywhere ants.

Packing again

I am unpacking and repacking old boxes. I have no fantasy that I will throw away old essays or my notes from Joyce and Woolf classes. But there are things I threw into boxes as deadlines approached, and now, when I look at them, nothing. I have whole boxes of emotional and intellectual cul de sacs.

Some of it is technological detritus. Phone cords? Old phone earphones? Some are records from past lives. A checkbook from Pittsburgh? A W-2 from Binghamton? There are kindnesses. A condolence card from my father’s funeral. There is a sweat stained baseball cap from a beer festival. Short ceramic candlestick holders and half burned candles. Another hank of phone cord.

There are more ringing memories. As she was moving from her home of forty years, my mother sent two packages of photos and records from my youth that include a hand made report card in which I earned hand-made A’s in subjects no school ever taught and a photo of the Varsity Swim Team with a dour me in a letter sweater. Other things. Almost twenty years ago, I set aside a bag of Philadelphia Inquirers containing my father’s obituary. A windup nun that shoots sparks as she walks patrols the corner of a now empty box.

These will all make the move, except, this time, I will reopen each box when I settle into my next home. I will spend time going through some of the boxes with my daughter, just to share strange pictures of her father and family, odd toys, and other remnants of my goofier life. Other boxes I will map out—actually going back over notes and essays.

And then, of course, there are the dozens of notebooks containing scraps of thought, dreams of beginnings of stories, hints of recipes, names collected and noted in lectures. As I was packing, I noticed a phone number on an otherwise blank page. There is no name, no feathery reference, just a number. Some mysteries will remain mysteries, and they will travel with me, just as surely as certainty will.