The Union Army wants me. I’m not fit for battle. Past a reasonable age of recruitment. Never shot a gun except in summer camp as a child when I sent BB’s toward their mark on a little outdoor firing range at Camp Eagle Feather. Have marginal camping skills at best. And my loyalties would be deeply suspect due to family history.
The man in the replica blue uniform fresh from a battle reenactment in northern Virginia doesn’t know my great great grandfather on my mother’s side fought for the South. He just notices my quirky interest in the scene and hands me his card. “We’re always looking for new recruits,” he says.
If you are looking for Civil War sites and battle re-enactments, moving to Virginia is a great idea. The state is chock full of well documented battle sites. A strange impulse compelled me to come to Fort Ward in Alexandria. I wanted to witness something spectacular. I wanted to understand what it felt like to be at war. The guns blazing in the fog of war, the horrible dying and all of that.
I’m in limbo. Moving. Not yet moved. Leaving. Not yet gone. In the serene and maddening in-between. An outer space of no-particular-place-to-go and a life-about-to-start in a new place. We’re smack dab in the middle of a move from New York City to northern Virginia on the outskirts of Washington, D.C. The One Train has not left the station. But. It’s definitely in transit.
The differences between suburban northern Virginia and living Downtown in New York City are vast and mind-blowing. It was liberating when we moved to New York City to shed our car. No more paying for gas. I’d left the monotony of driving behind. The subway would take me anywhere I wanted to go. And I truly loved riding it. I was pretty sure me riding the subway would single-handedly save the environment. But that was two years and a thousand subway rides ago.
Although I’ve come to enjoy writing and reading poetry, I cringed when a vagabond poet panhandler unleashed his wayward verse on the 4 Train. I also don’t miss the stench of urine the swept up as a fragrant backwash to departing R trains on the platform while waiting for the D train to Brooklyn. I’ve scanned the empty tracks in vain waiting for subways and peered toward the distant horizon for an elusive crosstown bus on 42nd Street.
After feeling trapped, stymied and stalled on the island of Manhattan, I like being able to drive around again on my own schedule anywhere I please anytime I want.
Stuff is in the way. It’s your stuff. My stuff. We have too much stuff. Let’s get rid of all our stuff. And just be. We’ll almost be naked without our stuff. But in a really pure way. New people in a new place with no stuff in the way.
Not the car. I didn’t mean the car. We’re going to need the car. Now that we’re leaving New York City and moving to Virginia, we’re going to need the car. I walked a mile from our hotel room to the Metro station one day to go into D.C., and I felt like a weird vagrant. I saw five other people on the sidewalk, total. When I got to New York City two years ago, I thought, how liberating. I don’t need a car. I didn’t. But then not having a car makes you odd and helpless when you live in the suburbs. Growing up on the outskirts of Salisbury, North Carolina, I knew a guy who rode his bike to work. We all knew he had lost his driver’s license after several DUI convictions. It wasn’t a lifestyle choice to pedal down the shoulder of the highway like that with cars flying past. So, we’ll keep the car.
We can’t really ditch our smartphones. No, we’ll need those too. How will anyone reach us? Maybe we can eliminate a few apps. That would be something. Our computers. We’ll need those, of course. We’ll need a Kindle for reading books. Because we’re keeping the kindle we can get rid of all the books. Only, I like the books. I have a sentimental attachment to many books. Even ones I’ll never read again. So, not those.
Let’s get rid of the televisions. They take up a lot of space, and they get in the way of meaningful conversation. Well. It’s possible I might want to see how badly my fantasy football team is doing. So, we could keep one television for that purpose only. Oh. And to watch “Game of Thrones.” But if we just have one television there might come a time when you want to watch something I don’t want to watch. So, we’ll keep two televisions. But that’s it. Our teenage son Avery can look at the wall in his room. Make shadow puppets using his hands. Unless, he starts bothering us when we’re trying to watch something good. So, maybe we’ll let him keep his television.
I’d get rid of the radios, but I really like “This American Life” and “Wait Wait Don’t Tell me.” So, we’ll keep those. I need four radios because I move around from room to room doing important things, and I don’t want to miss what is being said on the radio when I leave one room and go to another. There’s really only one big radio and three smaller ones in decreasing sizes. So, it’s not like I have some sort of radio hording problem or anything, as you’ve sometimes hinted.
Avery said the other day we have far too many large spoons in the silverware drawer. And he’s right. Totally on the money. Who wants to use a large spoon when you’re eating cereal or yogurt? The spoon barely fits in your mouth. It’s awkward.
So. We’ll throw out about half of the large spoons. Eliminate some apps. Fantastic. We’re paring it all down to basically nothing. This is going great. It’s just going to be us communing without the distraction of the large spoons and Angry Birds, sharing our essential selves in a spiritual oneness that will make other couples blush to witness. Nirvana.
Shot on a shoe-string budget, a conglomeration of old home movies newly converted to a DVD format and shown on the large-screen television in the upstairs living room of my father-in-law’s home in Wilmington, North Carolina this summer showed promise. The collection of 8 mm film languished for decades in a storage unit before restoration in its new format. We hoped for the discovery of a hidden gem.
We had just finished viewing a stunning documentary about a Chicago nanny and masterful street photographer who left boxes of undeveloped negatives behind. Vivian Maier’s never-before-seen negatives were developed and later shown in museums across the world. Maybe my father-in-law’s raw footage stitched together in a haphazard manner would reveal the mysteries of a lost world and eventually make the rounds at a little known festival of home movies where it could be awarded obscure prizes acknowledging his unheralded mastery of the medium.
I had high hopes, but the collection of movies reveal some technical deficiencies. The sound quality could have been better. That’s the gentlest way I can think to say that these home movies were all shot without sound. People talk throughout the movies. You can see their lips moving. Perhaps music is playing in the background since some scenes contain dancing. But those of us sprawled across the living room could hear nothing.
Is it too much to ask for my father-in-law to have hired a professional sound crew with a large boom mike to record events and later set the whole shebang to a rousing score to highlight the joy of the lives he recorded? A decent Foley artist could have added sound effects at appropriate moments. A sound track of early 70’s hits would have spiced things up. Maybe some Cat Stevens. I’m just saying.
My father-in-law tells great stories of his early life. But I have to say that a compelling narrative structure was lacking in his films. A baby, my wife, is seen crawling in one snippet of film. She scoots back and forth across the carpet as if about to launch herself forward. In another snippet, she is walking. In a third snippet, she is in diapers again and back to scooting. Where’s the continuity? Are we to believe she regressed?
But the genius of my father-in-law as a director is that he is not content to hew to mundane film-making traditions. Interspersed among the predictable compilation of Christmases, raucous house parties and birthday parties are seemingly random shots of my father-in-law playing golf with his old fraternity buddies in their snappy golf hats. Inserted in the middle of all these snippets is a short Keystone Cops movie.
My father-in-law obviously used these otherwise seemingly random images of old slapstick and amateur golf outings to make a statement that life is simply a series of random events. We pretend a sort of nominal control over them like golfers aiming for an elusive hole. But we are often crowded into a car with too many other people feeling ridiculous while caught in a stalled vehicle with a locomotive bearing down on us.
Whatever the artistic merits of the film, it was touching to watch people I’d seen only many decades after their starring roles in the films with decades stripped away from their lives. Some were even restored to life through the magic of film. My wife’s grandmother who I knew late in her life as a vivacious Steel Magnolia from Texas in her twilight years shone as brightly on film as she had in her later years. My wife’s aunt Su Su who was lost to us about five years ago reappeared sprightly and slender looking on film, resembling the 60’s supermodel Twiggy. I got an introduction to my mother-in-law’s father, who I never met in life, as a short happy man fishing in a river.
In the end, we are all just shadows on the wall. Our hour comes and goes. We are preserved in photos and video long past our own expiration dates. Our smiles outlast our selves. It’s nice to look back and see the bright ghosts alive again for the camera. And glimpse our younger selves unwrapping Christmas paper, blowing out birthday candles and mugging like stars in a Hollywood production as we dance to music only we can hear.
All your Beautiful Thoughts get lost. No. Don’t apologize or fret about it. It’s not your fault. You misplace some like a set of car keys or reading glasses. They were here a minute ago. You absently dismiss others on your way to work because you haven’t a moment to spare. You meant to mention your truly beautiful thoughts to someone sometime. Considered jotting them down. Maybe if you had a pencil when you thought of something beautiful and a tiny pad that fit in your back pocket. Then again. The notion of sharing your absolutely beautiful thoughts seems a bit much, really. Your beautiful thoughts are beautiful to you. But who actually wants to hear them? You catch yourself thinking maybe they’re not beautiful to anyone else but you. So, your beautiful thoughts pass through you. Make the air shimmer around you for a moment. And finally disappear like an extinct animal from a forgotten time.
Except when they don’t.
Out of all the magical places in the world like Stonehenge or Easter Island, the most magical place I know is a tidy lunchroom in the sub level of a particular senior center in Harlem where a certain poetry group meets on Thursday afternoons. All together, there were never a braver band of poets in the land. Their beautiful thoughts don’t get lost behind the cushions of the sofa, swept under the rug during a vigorous spring cleaning or shushed to death by librarians. They’re passed around the table. Shared aloud and celebrated as they should be.
Can you haiku? Why shouldn’t you? We do.
Summertime Sea World
Swimming in the sea like a whale
Feel the cool water
Summertime is great
Humid, hot and hazy days
Cool breezy nights are the best
Longer days, short nights
Summer Public Service Announcements by Harvey
Hot weather has come
Summer is finally here
I feel hot with sweat
Heat is upon us
Humidity dries us
I need more water
Please don’t run fast
you will need more water
Please take a rest soon
Hot sizzling sidewalk
fries the soles of my flip-flops
Shoes sunny side up.
Fire hydrant open
Giant water blossom shoots
petals on children
Hot, more soda, comedy.
I want to go back
Dancing on the solstice sun
oh joys of summer
Winter chilled bones stiff
Spring fought, spluttered, whined and wailed
Yet summer is here.
Mermaid Parade calls
Ocean welcomes summer home
Green sequins glitter
By Alicia and Ken
Transformed into a shadow
By the solstice sun
We bob like corks in the sea. Forever and forever. Time passes slower between waves as a single deranged seagull circles overhead. So. Maybe only an hour passes. The pier is in the distance to the left – a long finger poking into the ocean. Grizzled fishermen with poles and lines stand sweating in the sun along the rails. The most grizzled fishermen with faces withered by the sun and burnt brown arms are arranged at the end of the pier as always, trying to pull in big fish with confidence and high test fishing line. You can’t make out a single fisherman from where we bob and rise. But I feel them over there. My wife Robyn steps on a fish. What kind of fish was it? I ask. I don’t know, she says. What kind of fish did it feel like? I ask. She can’t tell. It felt fishy. I bet it felt slimy, says my 16-year-old son Avery. We all bob gently. The swells are mostly low and manageable. A few rogue waves threaten to wash over our heads, but they don’t.
This was our beach once. A place we were sunburnt and sand-coated. Freckles formed here. Primitive sandcastles erected. Messages scrawled in the sand. Shells meticulously gathered. The shells sat in a big, sandy plastic bag on a counter. We should make an art project from those shells, we told ourselves. But we never did. We shook sand from our hair after we finished burying each other in the sand. Fine grains flew everywhere. We tasted gritty bits of sand in our mouths and spit them out. We blasted each other with ice cold water from garden hoses and stood in outdoor showers to come clean again. But this is not our beach anymore. Now we are visitors.
I had a dumpster-diving artist friend once who was roughly 7-feet tall and laughed harder than anyone I’ve ever known. She gave herself over to mirth, committed to it in a way that is rare and fine. It was contagious, and I would often start laughing hysterically at the jokes we made. This was back in the days I lived in Chapel Hill, NC. When I walked through her house and looked at all the beautiful things she made out of compact discs and broken appliances, she would point at this or that object and note the object’s humble origins as trash. Recycling at its finest. In addition to being an artist, she taught an art class. One day, she asked me to model for her.
I thought that was hilarious. No, Jane said. For real. In the nude? I asked. No, fully clothed, she replied. Then I couldn’t possibly, I said. We laughed like idiots for a long time. I may have rolled on the floor. I did that back then sometimes. I don’t know why I don’t roll on the floor laughing anymore. It’s great. Everyone should. Then she explained she was serious. And I would be paid money to do it.
In those days, I ate a lot of peanut butter sandwiches for lunch. I sold a ton of old books I had collected through the years to a local used bookstore in exchange for a few bucks to buy a hamburger. I was not an artist like my friend Jane, but I nearly had the starving part down. Well, I was on thin rations, let’s say. So, I said sure.
Being a model for an art class is not as glamorous as you might think. You sit on a stool. Very still. And maintain whatever expression you have settled into the moment the session began. You nose itches immediately. Then you think you might develop a nervous tic in your left cheek. Your butt starts to get sore from sitting. You desperately want a glass of water. You want to laugh at the ridiculousness of other people looking very earnestly at you and taking in all your contours. You look at your 7-foot-tall artist friend moving around the room peering over shoulders, and you want to start laughing even more. But you manage not to do any of that. About five and a half years of your life pass as you sit. Then another season – a long winter – goes by. Then it’s over.
The room is filled with images of you. It’s kind of mesmerizing. It’s like looking in a fun house mirror, except the mirrors are all a little different. Your features all reflected in various ways in the eyes of the artists and their particular mediums. There I was in charcoal. In paint. Maybe twenty easels of me. I can be quite critical of how I look, but the artists’ eyes and hands seemed more generous. It was really a healthy thing.
You have to forgive yourself for not looking perfect. Just get over it. Let it go. My first month in Manhattan, I walked around struck by the youth and beauty around me. How am I ever going to fit in here? I thought. All these perfect people marching past me on the way to their perfect jobs. I belong in an uglier town. I would never say that the Pittsburgh area, where I once lived, is full of ugly people. But I think it just has a rougher blue-collar quality to it where less beautiful people might be more appreciated. So, I thought, maybe I should be living in Pittsburgh instead.
You can’t let New York City intimidate you like that. If you are feeling particularly ugly, tell yourself you have a ton of character that more than makes up for the ugly. You probably do. And it probably does. That’s what I told myself. I have a ton of character. I even believed it.
Over time, it was easy to see that not everyone in New York City looked like they came off a conveyer belt of perfect youthful attractiveness. People who were capable of embracing their own imperfect bodies at any of the nude or near-nude events held in New York City surely demonstrated that. New Yorkers love to get naked. They might have let it hang out at the recent Clothing Optional Bike Ride in Brooklyn or the Naked Subway Day. An artist was doing nude body painting in Times Square one weekend. Or they could dress up like a mermaid in the Mermaid Parade at Coney Island last weekend where many a mermaid went topless down the boardwalk.
Some mermaids were older than you might expect a mermaid to be. It’s impossible to know the average life expectancy of a mermaid. But if you had an expectation of only 18- to 25-year-old mermaids being allowed in the parade or a state of half-nudity being relegated to a certain age group, you’d be wrong. Some of the mermaids were generously proportioned. My friend Alicia said she heard some men booing these mermaids from where she watched. I heard none of that. The men had come to the parade hoping to see half-nude young models parading past, but they got a true mix of body types.
I love that the mermaids and mermen embraced their bodies in whatever state they were, whatever age or dimension their bodies took. I found that truly beautiful.