All Things Must Pass

1292298931417.1He took an electrician’s correspondence course through the mail, thinking that qualified him to help build a custom home we had built for us years ago. Unbelievably, that seemed to satisfy the contractor. Some weeks later I held the ladder while he installed a large chandelier at the foyer of the split level home, meaning the ceiling was 15 feet above us.

I heard a large electrical pop, and my father crashed down and landed on his back. Lying there, still clutching the screwdriver, he opened his eyes and whispered “don’t tell your mother.”

He loved to tell us that his first job, when he was six-years old, was shuttling dirty money for a bookie in an old cigar box. And though his mother was a good Catholic, she condoned the work. It helped feed the family.

He delivered newspapers before he could read. One of his clients was the town judge, who would take my father on his knee and read the news to him after he’d delivered the paper.

He joined the Air Force in 1956 and was assigned to Air Defense Command. In 1967 he was sent to Pleiku Airbase, South Vietnam, where he spent a year with the 1st Air Commandos (Special Operations). He was awarded the Bronze Star Medal there, and was selected as an evaluator for a Pacific Air Forces stan/eval team. Those of you with an Air Force background know the prestige related with that position. All told, he had an astounding seven devices on his Vietnam Service Medal.

In later life he became a safety compliance officer and risk manager for the state of Arizona. Governor Bruce Babbitt requested he develop safety legislation for carnival rides. Later, he was hired by K&K Insurance Group to provide Risk Management assessments for large-scale sporting venues like the Super Bowl, the Preakness Stakes, and his own personal favorite, the Kentucky Derby. He became one of America’s foremost authorities on safety issues related to the largest roller coasters in the country, such as Goliath, at Magic Mountain.

When you met him he wanted to learn everything he could about you. If you were a plumber, or a mechanic, or a stock broker, he was fascinated with all aspects of your work and life. Most times, people felt compelled to tell him their life’s stories.

He was a man of constant curiosity.

Last night, at just about 9 pm, my father passed away. This morning, aside from the insistence of songbirds, my step-mother and I (as well as the brothers and sisters melded from their marriage) will begin the task of planning a celebration of his life. We may not get it exactly right, given the magnitude of the man, but I don’t doubt he’ll be satisfied with whatever we come up with. I’ll propose a toast at some point, and we’ll all clink our glasses toward that end.

But just now, this morning after, all I have is this raw sense of sorrow that began minutes after he left us. George Harrison reminds us that all things must pass. Yet I’m pressed between the notion that he’s with us and not with us at all, like a thin sweet scent that wafts past your nostrils that you know but can’t quite place. He’s shrinking already, and I am trying desperately to learn how to miss him.



James Nation Fenwick

Life tends to conspire against you, I’m learning, when you’re in your 50s. At precisely that moment in your life when you’re finally supposed to be wise, and only a little wrinkly still, strange things begin to happen. In my case, that strange thing has been family illness and loss.

My father has a rare neurological disease called Multiple System Atrophy (MSA). The best description I’ve seen of the disease asks you to imagine having Multiple Sclerosis, Lou Gehrig’s Disease, and Parkinson’s, all at once. Today, after several year’s of decline, he entered a Hospice facility in the Phoenix area. For those of you who know about Hospice, their goal will be to keep him comfortable. He doesn’t have much time left, but what time he’s had has been awfully damn good.

What he does have, however, is the famously strange Fenwick sense of humor. About a week ago I climbed into bed with him and patted his chest to comfort him. He stayed still, staring at me and breathing with difficulty. He was calm, but had had a bad night and we wanted him to rest. Calm, in his case, was a good thing. Laying there with him, I told old stories, another Fenwick habit, and he seemed to find comfort in the telling. When I’d exhausted those, the two of us kept quiet. Aside from the gentle thump of my hand against his chest, there was no other noise.

I said, finally, “Dad, you know it’s okay to go, right?”

He stared at me, inspecting my face. We kept quiet for a while longer, until I whispered, “No really, it’s okay.” With a slow and deliberate force, my father took in a mighty, raspy breath, and suddenly I was afraid. What if he’d decided I was right, that he’d come to the conclusion that taking one last breath before passing was a fair idea prior to waltzing out of this world and into whichever comes next.

I opened my eyes wide, frightened. “No!” I said. “I didn’t mean now!”

And my father, the man from whom I gained this strange and wonderful sense of humor, my familial pride, and even my looks, let loose a grin and a small laugh. That Fenwick humor, that element of “gotcha,” was perfect, or at least as perfectly Fenwick-like as ever. It shone with a burst, and faded just as fast. To me it was beautiful. I’d say he thought so as well. He laughed, after all.

We can’t know the future, and I don’t ask for prayers. It would be kind, though, if you could think of him for a moment. He’s a fine man, someone I believe most of you might have enjoyed getting to know, if you don’t already.



To the Upstate Wilds of New York

Tomorrow I fly, headed for the tiny burgh of Nichols, New York, where my daughter’s family lives, including my three-year old granddaughter. A second granddaughter is due in a few months so I’m taking this “quiet-before-the-storm” time to visit. They live on a large piece of land near the Susquehanna River and in the woods. I’d like to use up some of the area’s blessed stillness to write while I’m there, but we’ll see.

I have numerous projects in the works, primarily the poem-a-day challenge for April. In the first 15 days I’ve managed to write five, which sounds abysmal if you’re counting. I’m not. Each morning’s prompt either immediately inspires me or doesn’t, and if it’s the latter I simply don’t force it. New York state’s quiet openness will no doubt add some inspiration.

I’m also determined to finish my review of J.P. Reese’s wonderful chapbook, Dead Letters, and wouldn’t mind writing a few schmaltzy blog posts about the region while I’m there. I’ve been there several times, and have visited many of the tiny towns that dot the upstate landscape. It will be nice to slow down, nicer still to have a few conversations with the three-year old. Her philosophy’s much less complicated than mine.

Last night there was a “blood moon” eclipse. This morning one of my friends writes that the event carried some amount of bad karma. I’m not sure I can agree, but I won’t argue either. I recall that the last time I was in Nichols, my daughter and I were driving east toward Binghamton just as the moon rose right in front of us. Through the earth’s atmosphere it appeared three times larger than it does when overhead, and we marveled over and over at the thing. Karma being what it is (or isn’t), the moon has always been kind to me. I’m off to see one of my children, and the moon seems to like that. Enough so that for a moment it turned red.

If I don’t write while I’m away I either don’t have an internet connection (we should all be so lucky every now and then) or the moon and I are having some all-important conversation again. Either way, it all seems like good karma to me.

Or not.



He’s Got This

I don’t normally write about politics directly, primarily because long ago I realized we’re mostly convinced our politics are proper. Two friends discussing whether one’s Catholic service is better than the others Episcopal service will always be friendlier than two friends with opposing political views. As I think of it, political argument between American friends, as opposed to religious argument, is much more fraught with landmines.

The other day I posted a link to Facebook related to events in Ukraine. I did this to provide vital information for my American friends on current events in the Crimea. Considering it was written by a westerner, the article came quite close to properly explaining the extremely intricate problems between Russia and Ukraine, and I thought my friends would be interested. Yet the first comment to the link was this: “Don’t worry, he’s got this.”

The comment, written by a conservative friend, obviously referred (derogatorily) to President Obama. And all I could think was: why would someone inject American political argument, seemingly thoughtlessly, into a subject that demands us to learn, rather quickly, how the issues in Ukraine came to fruition? So the comment was non sequitur, a fairly unfeeling jab thrown at our president. It had nothing to do with the situation in Ukraine. It seemed loosely callous.

This is why I’m not a fan of meaningful debate via Social Media. Communication requires words and body language, but Facebook only contains one of those elements. Online, you edit your argument, you make it tricky, clever. But we forget: without the face-to-face, the body language, something strange occurs where we think we can get away with any comment we want, especially the non sequitur. In five words, my friend indicated to others that she has little regard for Ukraine other than to indicate her belief that our president’s inept. It’s what’s between her words that matters most, the parenthetical.

I know this person isn’t callous or mean-spirited. I know she’s bright, and that she knows a lot about the former-Soviet Union. But without the face-to-face she inadvertently injected something into a dialogue that doesn’t belong, something I doubt she’d ever do in a roomful of Americans discussing the Ukrainian situation in a meaningful way.

While I’m at it, there’s also that peculiar sort who seems to think one can get away with any comment if it’s followed by an emoticon. They’ll write: “At least the president recognizes he’s a socialist, huh?” Then they produce a winky face. The resultant message is masked, couched in the wink. Actually, it becomes hyper-vile, an incorrect mixture of winky face and meanness. It’s schizophrenic, confusing.

Listen, if you want to be bitchy, be bitchy. Just don’t be a bitch about it. While we’re all scoring our imaginary political points, Ukraine, a country most of us know nothing about, is burning, as are numerous other countries.

I’d like to suggest we stick our politics in a bottom drawer for a minute to discuss the issues. You know, like big kids. I’d really like to. But reality gets in the way: we Americans draw our conclusions up front, with little understanding – or much regard – for the complexities that surround them. You can’t imagine how complex the Ukraine problem is, but contributing to the conversation with political pricks is contributing nothing at all.

But don’t worry. Because we’re able to whittle it down to five words these days, well under the maximum 140-character limit related to tweets. And really, how sad is that? ;-)



Scott Edward Anderson’s ‘Fallow Field’

Years ago, while talking about Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick” with one of my English professors, he related that he’d once asked a friend to read the great novel. The friend did, and after a week or so my professor asked him what he thought. His friend paused, then finally answered simply: “The guy,” he said of Melville, “really knew his whales!”

A great answer, and I was reminded of it in the middle of Scott Edward Anderson’s wonderful new collection of poetry, Fallow Field (Aldrich Press), so alive with song birds, deer, and remote latitudes that I’m convinced Anderson is as in-tune with the romantic notion as any poet writing today. “This guy,” my college professor’s friend might have said, “really knows his nature!”

Anderson, a former Concordia Fellow at the Millay Colony, has been perfecting nature poems for some time (a few poems here were originally published 20 years ago). The secret here, it seems to me, is that Anderson melds nature with the modern world, tying contemporary ideas neatly within the poems and thereby making them wholly modern. “Confusing Fall Warblers,” for example, is a series of questions that begins with mention of a legendary country musician:

Was it Hank Williams
she called the Nashville warbler,
or was it the black-throated blue?

Was it Wilson’s warbler
she heard in the bog up north
chattering chi chi chi chi chi chet chet?

and ends with a sublime and beautiful question: “And tell me, tell me truly, / was it only / that sad country song / playing on the car radio / that made her cry?” The poem, as loaded as it is with “Yellow-throat or orange-crowned” birds, includes an epigraph taken from the great George Jones: “They changed your name from Brown to Jones, and mine from Brown to Blue…”

Anderson slides as easily into nature as the deer in early morning, or wasps and warblers (he gracefully spells out bird songs inside the poems), and just as easily into the state and status of human desire: “He texts her from across the table. / It’s the 3rd word that will stop her, / target of all his desire. / He smiles / as the emoticon returns to her face.

Anderson’s poetry’s been well placed, published first in such journals as The American Poetry Review, The Alaska Quarterly, The Cortland Review, and numerous others. He’s the recipient of the Nebraska Review Award and the Aldrich Emerging Poets Award. He’s extremely active in green technologies, and is a frequent guest on national broadcasts as an expert in the field. So he’s not just a fine poet, he’s devoted his life to the earth and preserving it. Scott Edward Anderson lives the poetry he writes.

For me, the beauty of Fallow Field comes at it’s conclusion, in the long poem “The Postlude, or How I Became a Poet.” In it, Anderson does two things simultaneously: he defines his relationship with nature (the epigraph reads: What dwelling shall receive me? … The earth is all before me. — Wordsworth, “The Prelude”), and gives credit to the woman from his childhood who taught him to do so, Gladys Taylor. The poem, just as the book, delves into all the delights of nature, and we’re allowed to watch as a boy is mentored in the beauty that surrounds him. The parenthetical in the poem is this: nature’s right there, your job is to notice it.

This is a book every poetry aficionado should pay attention to, one that celebrates nature at a time when many contemporary poets seem to have set their sights on how disjointed life is in the 21st century. And therein lies the beauty of Fallow Field: it assures us there’s almost nothing disjointed about life once we get away from the suburbs and cities and find a quiet field in which we can sit still and listen. Scott Edward Anderson assures us, by way of his collection, that if we do we might just fall for all the warblers.

And after all, why shouldn’t we?