A World To See

You don’t remember, could you,
When this was luxury –
How can you come to feel a time
You never lived to see –

You do not know the several ways
That common made one king,
Nor how we terraforming bugs
Keep changing

Everything


We took family vacations when I was a child; different places every year. We saw cities, and national parks, and stayed in a lot of inexpensive hotels and motels. This was not all that uncommon in the decades immediately before the 1973 OPEC oil embargo, as automobile travel was cheap.

My family was a little unusual for the length of our trips, which were typically two weeks, and occasionally as long as three. Both of my parents were from large families, so we had relatives seemingly everywhere; in addition, they had made friends in the locations where my father had been stationed, and we sometimes visited them.

Cities I remember us visiting include Kansas City, Minneapolis, Cleveland, Nashville, Atlanta, St. Louis, San Antonio, New Orleans, Pittsburgh, Washington (D.C.), and St. Augustine. We attended the Hemisfair in 1968 (in San Antonio). We stayed on a farm owned by some friends of my parents in New Jersey. We visited my grandmother in Rochester, NY, several times. We saw the Smokey Mountains and Mammoth Cave. I remember seeing Niagara Falls several times.

We never did, however, see Rock City. We saw the signs a lot, though.

For many of the trips we took, there were three of us kids in the car, along with my mom and dad. They typically split us up by having my brother sit in the front passenger seat with the map to ‘navigate’.

Apparently, we fought and argued a lot, and this made the time go easier.

In addition, my sister had motion sickness, so she would take Dramamine and sleep most of the way.

My parents were from a generation that believed that travel broadened the mind. It was good to see as much of the country (and the world) as we could afford, because it got us out of the narrow view of our little town and concerns as being all there was.

What you never know as a parent is how children will react to the things you introduce them to. We stopped to stay overnight in a motel once near Huntsville, Alabama, that had a pool with a waterslide, and that was, for years, our (we kids’) favorite place we ever visited.


A lot of things that bored me as a child have fascinated me since. I remember being bored looking at scenery out car windows during these long trips as a child; now, I love to do it. I could say the same thing about Handel’s Messiah (hated it as a kid), the opera (I thought I was going to die when I was thirteen), and even art museums. So, just because your kids dislike something you want them to appreciate doesn’t mean they always will.

We sometimes sang or played games in the car to pass time (so far as I can remember, we never turned on the radio, even once). Singing was tough, because my father wanted us to be like a professional singing group. This is not a figure of speech: we went around to different places as a family and sang, publically. I never liked performing – not even a little — although I liked singing.

The games were of the “find license plates from as many states as possible”, “find all the letters of the alphabet, in order, off of signs”, or “auto bingo” variety, with the last one being an actual game with little cards we each would get and close little red windows over the pictures of things we spotted as we went.

Auto Bingo, in all its glory.

After I turned thirteen, it was just my parents and me on these trips, as both my brother and sister had grown up and moved out. I tried reading in the car on a few of those trips, but that didn’t work very well for me.

By that time, the cost of gasoline was quite a bit higher, so our trips had gotten scaled back. In fact, the year I turned thirteen, I spent the entire summer at Interlochen International Arts & Music Camp in Interlochen, Michigan; what my parents did that summer I couldn’t say.

Probably enjoyed the peace and quiet, I would imagine.


My parents traveled even more once I left home; traveling internationally for as long as their health and finances allowed it.

They went to Spain, Italy, Australia, New Zealand, the UK, Israel, Turkey, Mexico, and Southern Argentina, I believe. They took the Trans-Canadian railroad, and did a couples cruise in and by Alaska.


About ten years after my father died, my mother, then around eighty-four, got a boyfriend (a “gentleman friend”, she called him). He and his late wife had also traveled all over the world – they were both ex-Navy – and he had a world map in his apartment of every place they’d ever visited or lived. It was quite impressive.

He even talked my mom into going with him on a cruise to Hawaii, which apparently was a disaster. “When you can’t even stand right on solid ground, a ship is no place to be,” my mom said, laughing.

When you see a person who is older than you are – maybe seventy, or eighty, or (like my mother-in-law) ninety – realize how much change they have seen their world go through. Even for those who constantly seek new worlds to explore, new things to learn, the pace and magnitude of change has to be something like overwhelming, at times.

And also remember, while they are seeing the world you know, you never saw the world they knew. We can read about it, but we can’t ever feel it, not like those who lived through it can.

So enjoy the chance to hear about it while it is still available to you.

The Death Before Death

We are all born with a need to be useful.

It may not seem like it, sometimes. We get tired, or feel put upon, or maybe feel the need to focus on ourselves.

But, ultimately, we all strive, from a young age, to grow the scope of our powers: and by our teens we want those powers to matter. To others.

It might be a select few, or a faceless many. But we want what we can do to matter to them.

So what happens is, given whatever circumstances we are handed, we work to build ourselves into the best form of what we want to be. We go to work, wherever that may be, continuing to try to grow our powers. We get good at what we do: as workers, as parents, as lovers. We get good at almost everything.

Except noticing the calendar.

Because one day we look up and realize: we’re not really needed anymore. Because time, that greatest of thieves, has stolen our usefulness.

Healthy people find new ways to be useful. But others struggle, having spent their whole life developing one set of skills, unable to adapt.

And it feels like being lost: a whole new land where you don’t speak the language.

And it feels like grief: to be mourning the absence of a person you never thought you’d be separated from.

And it feels like death: to have outlived one’s purpose.

The death before death.


I walk out on the aging bridge,
The train tracks left here long ago:
I’m gazing out across the ridge
Out where nobody cares to go

For once, the builders, young and strong
Erected this to stand all stress,
But never thought, in not too long,
It would outlive its

Usefulness

Other People’s Feelings

For somebody who writes a lot about feelings, I don’t really understand much about my own.

I know I have them. That’s a start.

Part of the problem, I think, is that feelings act as a sort of prism on the world. Things happen ‘out there’, but we always experience them having passed through the prism of our own feelings. It can be hard to see our own feelings clearly, because they are part of our observing mechanism.

For that reason, I often like to focus on other people’s feelings: they can be easier to see clearly. The difficult part, of course, is that other people rarely share their full feelings: close friends may, in the rare times and places they feel both impelled to, and comfortable with, sharing them. So we are usually called upon to use a type of imagination: how would we feel in their place?

Below are three separate examples, about three different people.


I.

She has one, and she’d like another,
But the magic just won’t come,
And all the ways she knows to do it
They cannot afford.

How do you explain to people –
What words do you use to say —
How one perfect child
Isn’t enough?

She knows she should be grateful, but
Her shower has known far more water
Than the nozzle supplies,
And heard sounds that
There are no human words for.


II.

For sixty years, he worked with teenage girls
Who, like him, knew the struggle of addiction:
But when, at eighty-two, he finally stopped,
He realized, it had been them keeping him alive

And not the other way around


III.

Who is this boy, this youngest child of mine,
Who reacts so strongly to the smallest word?
“It isn’t all-or-nothing” we always say,
But, to him, such language is absurd,

For there is right and wrong and nothing else:
Critique to him is poison, fire, burn –
But how will he know when to change his course
When he just cannot, cannot, will not

Learn?


“Try to understand before you criticize.” This is almost certainly the main principle I got from my years of studying philosophy.

Because often, once you understand, the desire to criticize goes away.

A Japanese Garden

“This kind of garden is called a ‘Japanese garden’,” my father said to me.

“Why?”

“It’s how it’s laid out, the materials that are used. The bridges, the running water. It’s beautiful, and feels kind of… timeless.”

“And they first did these in Japan?”

“This exact style, yes. The basic idea started in China, I believe, but it changed a lot over the years.”

I was nine years old, and my father was a sort of one man Wikipedia.

“Do you like it?” he asked me.

“I do. I love all these colors.”

“It takes a lot of work to tend a place like this. The people here must work at it all year long.”

I had to ponder that. The concept of things requiring work was one I was having a hard time coming to grips with.


I’m in an art class. We are working with what were called ‘pastels’. I’m trying to sketch out a version of the gardens my family had visited two years prior.

“What are you working on?” Mrs. Gadsden asked me.

“It’s a Japanese garden.”

She stared at it intently. “Those are beautiful places. We lived in Japan for a year, not too long after the war.”

“You were in the war?”

“My husband had been, and he was stationed there immediately after. I didn’t come until he’d already been there over a year.”

“My parents lived there, too, but it was maybe 15 years ago, before I was born.”

“Are you having problems with the bridge?” She then showed me how to look at the perspective of something more or less perpendicular to the viewer. I started using what she had showed me, and she nodded, moving off to my classmate Laura (who was the best artist in class by far.)

I took the drawing home a few days later, and showed my father.

“I don’t think the colors are quite right,” he said, peering over the top of his glasses. “The perspective on the levels is off. The bridge looks good, though.”

I was eleven years old, and my father’s complete inability to lie, even to encourage a kid, was like a punch in the stomach.

I threw the picture away.


My father passed away in January of 2005. My mother died in December of 2018. Her ashes were interred in a sort of memorial garden in the retirement community she lived in the last 12 years of her life.

It’s in the form of a Japanese garden.


“How old were you when you wanted to be an artist?” my wife asked me at dinner last night. We have gone out on a date on Thursday nights for almost the entire nineteen plus years we’ve been married.

“Oh, maybe ages 8 to 11. But I sucked at it. I could see color, but I never could get shapes or textures or anything.”

“You were just a kid!”

“I was in classes with other kids who were a lot better. I just stick to coloring these days. It’s a lot of fun, and it fills up those 6 spare minutes I have every day.”

“Your dad was an artist. Did it bother him that none of you followed in his footsteps?”

“He was a pilot, too; I think it bothered him more that none of followed in those particular footsteps. My dad was not a mean guy, but he was incapable of being anything but honest: if you were off-key, or couldn’t paint, or anything else, he would point it out. When I brought home artwork, it could be painful.”

“So you just… quit?”

“No, I switched to music, where I did have some natural aptitude. And, you know, kids… I went through phases of wanting to be a lot of different things.”

“Like an auctioneer?”

I laughed. “I didn’t remember telling you that, but yes.”

“How could I forget that? That’s a very unusual thing for a child to want to be.”


It’s eleven o’clock at night, and we are laying in bed. Her phone rings.

“It’s my mom,” she says. “I’ll take it in the other room.”

“Tell her I said ‘hi’,” I say, rolling over to get ready to sleep.


The garden’s always there
To visit, in my mind —
But where the pathway leads
I never seem to find –

Beneath an ancient bridge I see
A flowing crystal stream:
These jumbled thoughts, a garden fair
That turns into

A dream

Granddaughter

Because she wanted to know what standing in the back hatch area of my car felt like…

They are getting ready to leave, and she clings to me like she never wants to let go.

She is only two years old.

I am “grandpa” to her, her four year-old brother and six year-old cousin. Last night, in the two and one-half hours after I got home, she said my name roughly 450 times. With the state of her current diction, most of the time I am “gam-paw”.

I’ll miss these days when they are gone.

One of the things I dread is they day she realizes we aren’t really related. That “Granddaddy” across town is her actual blood relative. That I am just her mother’s stepfather.

My wife looks at me like I’m crazy when I bring this up. Actually, she looks at me like I’m crazy a lot. “She loves you,” she says. “None of that will matter to her, or to any of them.”

‘Yeah,’ I think. ‘Easy for you to say.’

Being a stepparent is a thing you never really get over. I have a stepdaughter who works for the same company I do. I almost always refer to her as “my daughter”. She refers to me as her “stepdad”.

I think that captures the asymmetry of step-parenting pretty well. She’s 31 years old, and how we look at the relationship is subtly but intrinsically different; a difference so subtle that neither she, nor her sisters, nor her mother can see it.

“What makes you think they will care?” my wife asks me.

“Well, for starters, advertisements for Ancestry.com are everywhere these days. Show me one where anyone is looking up stepparents. To fully-grown children, stepparents are like the domestic help of the modern age. They may look back on them fondly, but they are secondary characters.”

“Tcch. Ridiculous,” she says.

‘Sigh,’ I think, ‘Maybe so.’

After all, I have pretty strong memories of my grandmother, even though she lived a thousand miles away and we only visited her like four times before she passed. (All of my other grandparents died before I was born.)

My grandmother, as I remember her, was as wide as she was tall. She had orange hair that looked like she might have colored it with shoe polish. And she smelled like the face powder that collected in the cracks on her face.

I still remember how she smelled.

She was very sweet to kids. I really loved her. Relatives are very important us as children, and as adults.

My wife breaks in on my thoughts. “Technically, she [my granddaughter] isn’t related to you, either. Does that change how you feel about her?”

“Of course not.”

“Then it won’t change how they feel about you, either.”

No, I suppose not.


‘Love’ is a word of action,
It’s more than blood or skin
Or any other type of thing
We get invested in.

‘Love’ is a thing immortal,
And we’d best not forget it –
To give love where and when we can,
And cherish when

We get it

.. What We Already Know

In a lonely wood, along a creek,
I stand in the cold and the quiet comes
To carry me places I need to be
In the tangle of soul that I find myself,
At the end of a growing week.

As the water flows, I must as well:
From the calling cold to the distant sea,
The known and unknown of what’s meant to be –
As I stand in the edge of the shadow and light
On a separate page of the book from you,
On a separate page of the book.


Sometimes, it’s the poet’s job to point out things that we already know.

  • That we are not meant to be surrounded constantly by noise.
  • That we all need time and space to think and to feel.
  • That, with life, we all know how the story ends; only insignificant details vary.
  • That whatever we face, we are largely alone: everyone has a separate walk to walk.

It’s also the poet’s job – sometimes – to try to help with all these things.

  • To provide a place of beauty and quiet.
  • To (hopefully) aid in feeling and thinking.
  • To help us remember that we are all in the same boat in terms of our mortality.
  • To remind us that everyone we meet has their own burdens to bear.

This is just one possible view of poetry: many people write with almost the exact opposite purpose in mind:

  • To disrupt, jar, and shake the reader into feeling or thinking.
  • To move us away from comfortable patterns of thought.
  • The show us realities we don’t normally come into contact with: realities about people who live totally different lives.
  • To move us to action.

Oddly enough, I see these two diametrically opposed approaches to poetry as having a lot in common:

  • To better enable us to think and feel.
  • To get us to think about things we might not otherwise.
  • To increase the sphere of our empathy.

Poetry can be almost anything that is (a) verbal; and (b) not prose. For many people, poetry exists primarily as spoken; for others, it is designed for reading.

One of the oddities of poetry is that, unlike prose fiction, more people seem to like to write poetry than to read it. Historically, this was not the case. In the days before electronic recording, the more naturally memorable nature of poetry made it a far more popular genre.

Poems can be memorable vehicles for stories, however. This particular poem, by Edward Arlington Robinson, came up in an online conversation the other day:

Whenever Richard Cory went down town,
We people on the pavement looked at him:
He was a gentleman from sole to crown,
Clean favored, and imperially slim.

And he was always quietly arrayed,
And he was always human when he talked;
But still he fluttered pulses when he said,
“Good-morning,” and he glittered when he walked.

And he was rich—yes, richer than a king—
And admirably schooled in every grace:
In fine, we thought that he was everything
To make us wish that we were in his place.

So on we worked, and waited for the light,
And went without the meat, and cursed the bread;
And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
Went home and put a bullet through his head.

We read that in high school and I’ve never forgotten it. As stories go, it’s striking; in terms of emotional impact, it hits its target.


During this month, I’m writing “poetic essays” which is a fancy way of saying, an essay with a poem attached. Given how much easier it is for me to write poetry than essays, it is a type of crutch.

But hey, if it is the only way you can walk, you use one.

What’s Wrong In The Light

“What’s wrong in the light is wrong in the dark.”


He was a little on the overweight side, but always wore perfectly tailored suits that hid it. He was professional and soft-spoken in meetings, had a ready smile for everybody, and would always take a minute for somebody who had a problem or needed advice. I can remember being that person, still new at the company, standing in his office while he listened to me asking questions about contracts, and rules, and company organization. Behind his desk, as he listened, were various 8X10 photos of his wife and two children: she was beautiful, with long curly hair she’d passed on to their children, twins, a boy and a girl, who appeared to be about twelve.

Not long after, I heard in passing from a woman I worked with, who had won the company pairs golf tournament two years in a row playing with him, that she wouldn’t play with him anymore.

“Why not?” I asked.

“Because he constantly hits on me,” she said, blandly. “Maybe it’s trying to compensate or something for being overweight.”

“Really? That surprises me. I’ve never seen him do anything like that.”

“Why would you?” she asked, laughing. “He doesn’t do it while people are looking.”


It turned out, it was a pattern. He hit on virtually every woman he met, at work or outside. And some took him up on his offers. At any given point of time I knew him, he had at least one mistress, it turned out. He got fired from work once the pattern as it relates to work (and some set of details I never knew) were uncovered.

His wife left him.


We (as a society, or family) set up punishments to discourage people from wrongdoing, as fear of the punishment is supposed to serve as a deterrent.

However, even the smallest children figure it out: we don’t get punished for wrongdoing, we get punished when we are caught wrongdoing.

So, many people learn a pattern of behavior that varies wildly based on whether or not they think anybody is looking.


Anonymity is like alcohol: it feels good, but too much of it is not your friend. There are expressions in many languages for the type of courage people get from intoxication: similarly, terms have sprung into use in recent years describing the faux-courage of people hiding behind Internet anonymity.

However, with anonymity, it’s not impaired judgment, but absence of fear of retribution that is the culprit.

Being in a crowd can induce the same feeling of anonymity: mobs feed off of this energy. When it feels like no one can see you, anything feels okay.

But what’s wrong in the light is wrong in the dark.


How critical the talisman
Of that regard we keep
For what is right and good and true:
What’s beautiful and deep –

But all too often, we let go.
It’s more than slips, or botching:
The things we do when we don’t think
That anybody’s

Watching