Category Archives: Nature

Like Water

My friend and publisher Craig Smith asked of me a task.

This is not a strange task, given I am studying massage and working in the medical field. It was not an unreasonable request, given the same. That it came over a Fuller’s ESB (Extra Special Bitter) at a local pub was a bit out of the ordinary but if I discounted that which came at uncommon moments and from non-ordinary directions, my life would be rather empty.

He asked me to work on his mom.

Without going into detail, his mom is old. Yes, that is rather a meaningless word. Old means something different at ten than it does at twenty. Vastly different at thirty than it does at fifty. I am forty-three and I consider her old. This is fully because she acts old. I have, in fact, no idea how many years she has been walking the Earth. I do know, however many years that is, discounting her infancy and the last few years, that number of would be minus a bit over three. She rarely ventures from bed and, then, with great difficulty.

He wants me to do massage for her. Her lower back is stiff and painful straight across. She has little flexibility and movement. Far too much time immobile has left her atrophied and less likely to become mobile each day.

She can’t get onto a massage table. A massage chair would be a difficulty. I suggested I was not the person for the job. Perhaps someone experienced in geriatric massage?

A few days later I asked a therapist who teaches at a local massage school. Ron is familiar with my work: I have given him massages in the past and we have had discussion on method, practice and philosophy.

I asked him about working on Craig’s mom. I suggested a few salient suggestions regarding technique or set-up. He did not disappoint me.

He suggested bringing in a straight-back chair and having her sit on that, the wrong way, with a pillow in front of her. Good idea. That would allow me to get to what I needed and still leave her feeling secure. It would be more familiar than a massage chair and easier to get into.

I went on to say I said I didn’t think I was the right person for the job.

I was quite surprised at the answer. He countered me with what, to me, is a compliment.

“You are exactly the person for the job. You are gentle and the energy flows through you. You are perfect for it. You’re probably just what she needs.”

Really? Gentle?

My touch is rather deep, but broad. It is slow and, I suppose, I can see that, though not light, being sensed as gentle.

But energy?

I said I never felt the energy flow and then, it occurred to me, what an idiotic thing that was to say. One only feels what one resists. A wire only notices the energy when there is resistance. A hose only notices the water when there is a block.

After all, if you notice your eye seeing, there is a problem. If you notice your breathing all the time, feel the air in and out, there is a problem. If you can feel your heart stomping in your chest, see a doctor. When things work right, they are invisible. When the country is run well, the emperor is never seen. So the Tao teaches us. So nature shows us. That which works as it should is not noticed, has no resistance. That which resists is worn.

I think that is why I never trusted the energy workers who shook and quaked and moaned when working. And I never figured the more hot the hands of a worker the better the work. In a way, that heat is a sign of resistance just like a cord with too much power for the gauge. It’s a sign of resistance.

So, I resisted the compliment, of course. But I was countered again, later, by another. Jennifer, my friend of marvelous intuitive power, trusted fully, implicitly and wholly, tells me the truth without hesitation or reservation. When she speaks, I believe. Jennifer agreed instantly. Agreed as though I should have known this all along.

So, I guess I’m the guy.

And why am I always the last to know? I guess I just never notice.


Posted by on July 24, 2008 in Nature, philosophy, Religion


Kayak Book

The date is May 17th, a Thursday, and it is my planning period and lunch. I have no need to plan anything and it is quite too soon for lunch. In a middle school, lunch can range anytime from ten-thirty to twelve-thirty. It is a quarter to eleven and that is far too early.

I also have only a week left of school; hence, the lack of need to plan. Other teachers are planning already for next year, looking at recruitment, collecting materials, packing up what they have to be stored for the next year. They’ve been doing this for weeks.

Me, I had opened up my desk drawers and filing cabinets for the students to take what they liked, yanked wide my closet doors for students to take what they chose. My books, academic, scholastic and otherwise: given away. Papers: given away. Posters: given away. Rulers, staplers, pens, hole punches, clips: all given away. My plan book with my year’s lessons and projects, nearly everything, all gone to students. The little that remained: left for the teachers to scrounge. I had to scrounge at the beginning for the year. The day before the start of school my room was ransacked for furniture, supplies and books. I had to enlist students to help me find tables and desks from the trash. So the students can have what they like and the teachers can do what they will, what they do best: thieve. I have no need of any of it. As of next week, I am no longer teaching. I am done. I have had enough.

All but my writing program. That, I kept neatly organized in a binder. My principal asked to have it. I laughed, quietly, subtly but visibly enough he asked what seemed amusing. After all, I was let go for being more a writer than a test trainer, more a teacher than a techie. “You’re a genius,” he said, “but you’re not duplicatable. Neither is what you do. We can’t afford that.” I suggested he could purchase the program or hire me to teach as a consultant but, no, he would not be left the fruit of five years’ labour and two decades experience.

So I have little to pack but a portfolio and a few papers. I have finals to give and grade – pass them out, pick them up and run them through a machine. I have students for whom I must enter grades and, averaged, their final grade will not look like the letter grade on their report card. Students, eighth graders, who published essays, poetry, journalism, won contests, accomplished works of beauty and artistry but whose ability simply cannot be expressed in the final the administration mandates must be multiple choice and look very much a mock state assessment. No score will go down but several will be much higher than the numbers alone might dictate.

As a matter of fact, some of those final grades can be entered even before the test. As I start, I remember to turn my phone on, as I do during my planning periods. It chimes and I hear the signal that tells me I have voice mail.

The call is from Witney. I left him a message about kayaks some days earlier. I have been interested in kayaking and canoeing ever since I went on a rather surreal canoe adventure down north Florida’s Santa Fe River with an entire Hebrew school student body. The result was a blues song called “Jews in Canoes” and a love for quietly paddling calm waterways.

Jews in Canoes

(chorus 1)
Jews in Canoes
Bad News
Jews in Canoes
Bad News
You’ll always get the blues with
Jews in Canoes.

(chorus 2)
Jews in Canoes,
Bad News.
Jews in Canoes
You’re gonna sing the blues.
You’re always gonna lose with
Jews in Canoes.

Went or a trip
with my daughter’s class mates
from her Hebrew school
I couldn’t guess my fate
We set out on the river
at the outpost site
oh my lord
I had such a fright.

We were set in the water
barely two feet deep
There were thirteen canoes
in our Hebrew fleet
one paddler in the front
and one in the rear
rocking the boat
both trying to steer.

chorus 2

Then we got it straight
headed down the stream
twelve canoes
from a very bad dream
When I heard a little chuckle
on the bank from an otter
when our fleet was jam
from one bank to the other.

Well I floated down the river
as easy as can be
Then I make the mistake
of looking next to me
out on a river
one hundred feet wide
a canoe from the blue
hit me in the side.

Shema Yisroel,
Adonai Elohenu.
Adonai echad.

chorus 2

Now we’re out ahead
just my daughter and me
I look around
at the scenery
Here comes a canoe
with a mother and a child
next thing I know
we’re a canoe pile.

When we reach the end
our destination in sight
I hang back
to avoid the flight
canoes left and right
my chances are slim
next thing I know
I’m hangin off a tree limb.

chorus 2

I get off the limb
and walk to my boat.
Barely ‘nough water
to keep it afloat.
Canoes all around
ahead and behind
paddling to the beach
like they was all blind.

Out on the grass
sitting in the sun.
licking my wounds
kinda glad we’re done.
Then my daughter tell me something
leaves me cold with fright
“Our next canoe trip, Daddy, it’s at night.”

chorus 1

Jews in Canoes,
Bad news.
Jews in Canoes,
You’re gonna sing the blues.
You’re always gonna lose
You’re gonna pay your dues
You always get the blues with
Jews in Canoes.

I had asked him, in an email and phone message, if there was such a thing as a stable kayak or if I had to look for a canoe. I further wanted to know if he had a line on one that was affordable on my schoolteacher’s salary, which meant I was looking for someone who had a perfectly usable boat and wanted to pay me to take if off his or her hands.

I return the call.

I ask my question.

There is no such thing as a simple answer to any question asked Witney. This is not because he doesn’t want to answer a question in a simple way but because he wants to be sure the answer is right and complete to the best of his ability. It requires patience. Sometimes it also requires coffee and, often, strong drink.

What do I want? To paddle easily along Goat Creek, Horse Creek. To get some exercise, see the manatees. To cross the brackish shallow sound of the Indian River, eight-mile wide, until I reach that quarter-mile spit of land that keeps it from the Atlantic Ocean. To be alone on the water.

How about a johnboat? No. I want to see where I’m going. He doesn’t blame me.

I ask if a canoe is more stable and the answer is, “It depends.” This doesn’t surprise me. Some have flat bottoms, some are meant for the sea, some for rough water. What about a kayak? Same deal. Some actually ride a bit under the water, some are for racing, for smooth water, for the sea, for whitewater. For me?

This is why I called. He will take it apart, find exactly what is what and, together, we will find the answer. I might take a month, but we will find it.

A month. Little do I know.

Don’t kayaks roll? Sure, he tells me. People actually roll them on purpose. Not me. Not me.

I don’t swim. I am perhaps a poor candidate for kayaking or, for that matter, water sports in general.

It is not for lack of trying. I hear I could, if I would just try hard enough. That’s what people tell me. They say, but they don’t know.

I have taken classes. Chicken of the Sea classes from the Red Cross. Adult Beginner classes from the Red Cross. Classes designed for little kiddies from, again, the Red Cross. I once swam about ten feet. It was an accomplishment. Then I panicked and flailed and reached for the comfort of feet on solid surface.

My wife tried teaching me. She was a certified lifeguard and tells me she never felt in danger in the water until she tried to teach me to swim. She says I almost drowned her. Almost doesn’t count, right?

I took a swim class in community college. My instructor was a tall, solid, chiseled figure of an ex-marine drill sergeant. He told me I would learn because he could teach anyone. Has never failed. He, himself, was a difficult case – being all muscle, he explained, he sunk immediately. Yet he learned.

I, on the other hand, overweight, fluffy, was in no danger of sinking. He was sure. I was never so happy to be fat.

Like a rock. Like a brick. Like an enthusiastic member of the Pharoah’s army chasing the Israelites, I went down. Oh, Mary, did I sink.

Sergeant Swim signed my drop card.

And now I want to kayak.

Not as strange as it may sound, he tells me. A kayak will work. Some have keels and flat bottoms. They are stable, don’t roll, smooth. The deal is I should come down and try one and see. Good idea.

What price are we talking about? How much?

Don’t worry about that. He has a better idea. Witney wants to build one for me. The cost will be materials. What can I do? I don’t do power tools. It’s the old story about the one-eyed epileptic with the chainsaw. If you don’t know the story, just use your imagination. Does it end well?

I once owned a jigsaw and a circular saw. I owned other tools as well. I once had my thumb nearly removed simply in the process of starting a lawnmower. I came home from a trip to discover my wife and my father had gotten together and sold my tools. They love me.

So I won’t be helping build. Oh, I could hold something while it dried if it wasn’t an important piece and we could afford having it call of the first chance it got. If that isn’t a problem, then I can do it.

No. He has a better idea. Watch. Just watch. Watch and write. Record the process. Chronicle building from beginning to end. He has a lead on a publisher. He gets to build, I get a kayak, we get a book. Everyone is happy.

Has he read my essays? “New reporting” some call it. Creative nonfiction. Not technical writing. It will be chronicled. Every bit. Each delay, mis-measurement, discussions. All of it. All of it surrounding the building of this kayak. It must be more than measuring and cutting, gluing and painting, if any of those are even part of the process. I’d want people to see the event in its entirety. He understands, he says. I wonder.

Let’s make a date to come down to Ft. Lauderdale, to make the two hour drive. I know I’ll have to do this a few times and this will not be built in one or two days.

First, we must get me into a kayak. We make a date. It’s set. Early June.

My second book is out. The Phoenix and the Dragon hits the shelves – there are launches, readings, performances. The date for the building approaches and I figure, since I’m going to be down there, why not set up a reading or two, a workshop. I’m making the trip anyway and the first time down is for kayaking, not building.

It is the second week of June. I look at my ringing phone and it is Valerie. I hear Witney in the background. They live next door to each other in a duplex. They share a wall and a child. They also shared about ten years together. But there were some basic philosophies and proclivities they did not share and now, they get along well enough but a marriage is no longer one of the things they share. In the past, yes, but not today. Not tomorrow. I know them both. I met them in church.

He wants to know if I am sure. Should he order the plans? What plans? Weren’t we going to check out the stable kayak first? Wasn’t I supposed to get into one before we decided to build a boat from scratch? I have never been in a kayak.

Don’t worry about it. Don’t worry? He is telling me, from the background, not to give it a second thought. Val says she took one for a ride, built, by Witney from the same plans we are going to use. She and her daughter and it was smooth, non-tippy, non-rolling, stable. Val would not tell me this if it weren’t true. I’m pretty sure she prefers me alive to be her partner in crime, camping, contradancing, singing showtunes in front of gay bars – all difficult to do after drowning.

Sure. Order the plans.

Don’t worry.


I have waited ‘til mid-day as the early February morning is cool. It has been eight months since the idea of building a kayak was suggested to me, since I was offered to build one, write about it, take it home, author the book.

Mine is orange. The company, Pelican, based in Quebec, calls this material RamX resin. It seems rather indestructible. It is extruded and multi-layered and all sorts of other terms that means it floats and does not fall apart. I was told this by the company secretary with a quiet, musical French accent in a soft velvet voice, so I know it’s true.

It is not wood. I did not build it. I’m writing about it anyway. I’m quite happy.

This is the third time I have been out in it. Me, who doesn’t swim, out on the expanse upon which I am comfortable and in which I am not. And it is glorious.

Within ten feet of the slip, down which I carried my small boat between craft larger by far than mine, the world had changed. Within ten feet the manatees are floating alongside me. I paddle. I am but slowly getting the hang of paddling and, at times, I am a bit overzealous, but when the manatees are alongside, I stop. One of us belongs here and it is my place to be still.

Within five minutes I have passed through Turkey Creek, past the Palm Bay Marina where I paddled in and out between parked boats just for the practice of it, and under the bridge on which the thousands of cars a day buzz on US1 over the creek. And there is the Indian River.

Immediately I hear the spray of a dolphin beside me. I register the sound, understand what it is just in time to turn and see the water shooting from the blowhole of a dolphin well within arm’s reach. Thrusting water high and in my direction. Without expelling water, the dolphin would drown and expel water it does. A muscular flap opens and other muscles push with such force the water leaves the beast at slightly over one hundred miles an hour. Plenty of speed so that it lands, less than gently, on me.
I am glistening with water from the spouting dolphin. One, two, three, more swim along as I slowly skid toward Castaway Point. In the water and out, jumping up, wetting me down. Surfacing next to me and disappearing again, again, again.

I pass the point on either side and the water opens in front of me. To the left, in the distance, North, up the river, I can see the Melbourne Causeway misted gray faint by the bay air. To the right, the nearest bridge is thirty miles downriver at Sebastian. Aside from the scant beach behind me, the nearest land is two miles away, over this river that, more properly, is a sound, a brackish bay. Indialantic is a quarter-mile-wide spit and all that separates me, this river, from the Atlantic Ocean. I am headed there.

Once there, I’ll beach, take my shoes and wallet from the ziplock bag (terribly unreliable, I’m told. Get a drybag.) and walk a block to the cafés. I’ll sit and have coffee. Stroll to the ocean.

In the meantime, here I am. The boats race by, longitudinally, as I cross. Each larger than I and each given the right of way. Wakes come and I learn to meet them head on, the water rising before me, above me, under me, behind me, before me.

I am delighted to find myself not becoming seasick.

From upriver, sliding toward me, is a barge. Perhaps this is coming from Cape Canaveral. From the distance it appears massive and grows as it approaches. I backpaddle.

I had not thought of backpaddling before. I imagine it is the same as paddling frontward but just the opposite direction and, of course, the kayak stops. I drift as the barge is pushed south toward me, Sebastian Inlet and the ocean.

Drifting. This kayak is tiny, even by kayak standards. It is small and cheap. Nine feet and four inches. A kayak to sit in, float in, paddle in but not race in.

I bought it for one hundred and forty dollars. A few years old, it sold for about three hundred new. Bottom end.

Stable. Very stable. I needed that. It isn’t long so it won’t be spun much by the wind. But it also takes work to keep it going where I want it to. It does not track well.

Track. That is a word I learned recently while teaching myself about my little boat via Internet searches for explanatory material, tutorials, instructional videos and glossaries. Track means to go straight. This kayak doesn’t.

It tends to drift. Actually more what feels like a skid. If I paddle straight it goes straight, paddling one side, the other, the other, the other, with correction here or there. But if I stop or paddle a bit more strongly to one side, the skid is obvious and anything but minor.

And I don’t care. Paddling is exercise and all I wanted was to be out on the water.

I did try to find a skeg for it. That is another word I picked up recently. A skeg is a non-movable rudderish device to keep a kayak from skidding. It helps it track. Mine is, I discovered, not designed to take a skeg. The Ms. with the velvet voice told me so. No problem.

At times, when there is a current and I am paddling toward the dock or one side of a fork in the waterway, the kayak pointing slightly in the direction of the current, my head, facing the point I’m aiming for, the kayak moves slightly forward and slightly sideways, skidding in a way that tosses my senses a bit, my body facing in one direction while it moves in another.

What a kayak this size does have going for it, however, is more important than what it does not. It fits in my truck with no problem. I pick it up and carry it with no difficulties. From home to slip with no stress and all ease. It feels as stable as a floor and, at its size, I can turn with almost no space needed. It can nearly spin in place.

Spinning in place is what I’m doing now as I wait for the barge to pass. The closer it gets the more clear it is to me how thin lines between safety and danger are, between good sense and opening oneself up to the universe saying, “I’m here. You’ll take me if you want. It doesn’t matter. My stuff was part of the world before I was born, I did not come into the world, I grew from it, I am not separate from it and I shall go back into it when all is done. And now, I lay myself out on it, onto myself, and trust it will be OK.”

My small self, this small boat, the water beneath me, surrounding me, the barge. And, still a half-mile away, coffee.

June, and I am ready to build a boat. School has been out two weeks and I have been two weeks gainfully unemployed. As planned, it is time for a short trip south and my first writing assignment since leaving college. And this one should prove much more satisfying. It should certainly be more fun. Time to build a kayak.

On an early Saturday morning, I head south in plenty of time to arrive by eleven-thirty and put in a full afternoon of building. It should take a few days I’m told. Four or five. Two weekends.

I arrive at eleven-thirty, as planned, knock on the door and find Valerie on the phone. Witney is not here. His car is not here. Where is he? On the other end of the phone. She hands it to me. Can I help him pick up something?

I don’t drive much in South Florida. Drive in and drive out. After I arrive in Broward County, I tend to get carted around. But there is building to do and that requires materials and I have a truck. That leaves me with the toting.

I assume we are going to pick up kayak parts. Raw materials for boat building. We are picking up wood; plywood, two by fours, posts. From Witney’s description of the materials, this is either a super-long or monstrously heavy kayak we are building and I ask, eager to learn, about his choice of materials. No kayak parts, these. This is wood for a table. There will be no kayak building today. We are building a table. I don’t know why we are building a table. Do tables float?

Katarina, the age-six daughter of Valerie and Witney, who spells her name with a “C” but which I stubbornly refuse to and replace with a “K” on the sole concept her name rhymes with Tsarina and, therefore, should be spelled appropriately, laughs. She knows why we are building a table and wants to tell me. I want to hear it from Witney.

The table is to build the kayak on.

One would have thought this might have been done before, but I do want to chronicle the entire experience of building, start to finish, so, sure, why not.

The plan was to build the boat using common woodworking tools one might find in a home workshop. Well, the plan was, originally, to get into a kayak first and see if it worked for me, but I’m not mentioning that. Now, instead, we’re talking old-time carpentry. No production tools. No professional woodworking shop with specialized devices. A home-build at home, in a yard, using what Witney had called “primitive” tools. On this he was adamant.

But he was adamant about this at eleven-thirty the previous night. He was adamant about this in a conversation with Valerie, not me. I knew nothing about this. And so, at eleven-thirty the previous night he decided at eleven-thirty today we would be building a table.

“Where do I meet you?”

I am given directions and five minutes later I am back in the truck, in Ft. Lauderdale, Valerie beside me to ensure I don’t become hopelessly lost.

I just missed Tina, she tells me. She had come over to give her Valerie’s other daughter, now eighteen, a driving lesson. Valerie still attends the church, the Unitarian Universalist Church of Ft. Lauderdale, where, over most of the last decade, she and Witney were well known. Witney has not been there in over three years. He was, at one point, a Sunday school teacher in the teen program. So was I. I frequently return for guest appearance, readings, to take part in poetry workshops or services. I am greeted warmly, joyfully each time. Returning to the UU, for Witney, would be a much less welcoming event. Tina, complicit in Witney’s lack of welcomed status, was in the teen program as well. But not as a teacher.

Tina is now twenty.

Just before we arrive at the woodshop Val receives a call from Witney. No need to head to the woodshop after all. We’ll receive another call, with a new timeframe, in five minutes. In my bones, I feel the doubt growing. The look on Val’s face tells me I should have known better. We head back to her house.

A third call. A third-person, intermediary, go-between conversation about timing with me the only person not on a phone. The table is to have one straight edge and, apparently, this must be built at the woodshop. It is to be built first, then an edge cut of to make it straight, then transported to his mom’s house. I am to tote the table. We will then start the building.

He says he wants to have this done before, “but,” he says through Val, “you know how things go. With Witney, yes I do and all too well. I have attempted projects before with him – overly bright, overly eager, underly reliable with no developed sense of time. Do not wait for him to start ordering dinner.

He’ll call, yet again, in a few minutes and let us know when to meet him there. I don’t expect that call anytime soon. My day, suddenly, is much more open.

I was hopeful. I’m not sure why. The angels of my better nature must have been having a particularly good day.

A few minutes prior, before Witney called, I spoke with my parents. Certainly, there is time for lunch. No, there is no rush. Yes, I have plans. No, there is plenty of time. Trust me, there is absolutely no rush.

I am free until eight tonight when I’m giving a reading at the Chocolate Moose in Davie, twenty-five traffic-free minutes from her house. When we had woodworking plans, Valerie has asked we get home by seven, thus giving us enough time to shower, eat and get to the venue. My sense of logic is sure I heard the suggested time incorrectly but my experience tell me I heard what I heard. This would account for Valerie’s unparalleled ability to be late to her own parties. I suggest six would make much more sense. At least it does to me. We’ll see where exactly between those times we end up.

I am waiting for my parents to arrive for lunch. The plan was for them, already out of the house, to meet me at Val’s and for us to drive the few further blocks to Lester’s, a large chrome and brilliant white diner. An hour passes. More. More still as my blood sugar hits a Black Friday low and they arrive. As I head out the door Val suggests a title for this book, for this day: How Long Will it Take?

Once in, once my mother, in her wheelchair, is trundled into the open, external elevator to rise in the world the height of one short flight of stairs, once we have fought the crowds, we find a seat with sufficient room and look through the menu. I find little here sufficiently healthy, succulent or intriguing to draw my interest and resign myself to something I am sure is going to kill me. I watch my parents eat things which I am sure will kill them as well. Another hour passes. Another. We leave and I find myself back at Valerie’s at about three-thirty. I have one thought at this moment: Witney is going to pay for this. He will pay and pay and pay. But, behind this, a voice reminds me I should have known better. I did know better and ill-advised hope to this moment led.

It is four-thirty. And then five. Five-eleven. The phone rings and it is Witney. He is calling Valerie’s phone, not mine, to ask for my schedule. She tells him I have plans this evening, at eight, and am expected to be reading at that time. It’s my stage for the night. I should be there.

Can we move a kayak-building table after? After? Eleven-thirty at night, through Fort Lauderdale, with a table in the back of my pick up? No. I shake my head. I enunciate as clearly as possible so Val, talking to Witney, still insisting on using an intermediary, can see me, clearly, decisively stating there is no way I will be toting a table of unknown size around unfamiliar streets on a Fort Lauderdale Saturday night. I say it loudly, so Witney can hear me.

All the while, phone crooked in her neck, Valerie is cooking and one brief scent makes the question of missing dinner to move the table now easily answered by Hell No. Val is cooking real food and I know, from this point on, I’m hers for the evening. I am being plied with food and all she wants in return is time, laughter and shared bottle of port. I don’t need to be waiting for something that won’t be happening when time with my friend is happening right now.

A truck goes by playing, in bells, a song I remember from my childhood and I know what it means: ice cream on wheels. I grab Katarina and we each get an Italian ice.
On the lid of the Italian ice, as I had hoped, as I remembered, I find a small wooden spoon. Wide at both ends, tapered in the middle – a shape very much a double kayak paddle – and I am thinking this is as close as I’m going to get to paddling anything anytime soon.

“I should have prioritized” is what he says when he walks, late, into the house. It is six-fifty three. Dinner is over. Let’s move the table, I suggest, recognizing the mistake as the words leave my lips.

We jump into my truck. It is an industrial area. Warehouses. Here is a clamp factory. There a sailmaker. Then, the nautical shop and the massive specialty production woodworking shop within. Seafarer Marine.

The shop is stacked high with posts and pillars. In vertical slats five feet high capped with horizontal slots, up to the ceiling, there is exotic wood after exotic wood in solid sheets and plywoods, varying thicknesses from veneer thin to inch thick. There are rolls of wood. Slats and pieces. Some of these in the most beautiful patterns, glorious colors and amazing grains I have ever seen and could never have imagined. Was my kayak to be made of these?

But we are here for a table and it is a few minutes after seven. I see none. No table here. I am leaning against a trough, about twelve feet long, three feet high and just as wide.
“Funny that,” Witney says. I found the table all on my own. The bed of my truck is barely six feet long.

Witney shows me around.


“Four sheets of four millimeter okoumé.”

“And why don’t we get this from Home Depot?”

“Because they don’t have it.” He says this very mater of factly.

“And why not use plywood? Regular plywood?”

“You mean why not just use plywood from Home Depot?”

“Yup. What’s wrong with plywood?”

“Well, your Jo Average plywood you might get from Home Depot or your local lumber store that doesn’t specialize is made to pretty much stay flat and look pretty on both sides but it generally is not waterproof, which is not a huge concern for this because it is going to be covered with epoxy but it is not guaranteed to have totally filled cores. The cores are not guaranteed to be high quality.”

“So there are spaces inside? Sometimes voids or the plies don’t quite meet?”

“Right. There will often be a line where two pieces of the core material don’t meet when you bend the wood, because you make a kayak by forcing wood to bend in the shape of a kayak. You take a piece of plywood and force it to curve to follow the hull. What happens is you get a kink if you have a void in the core.”

“So the plywood this place has is of a different quality.”

“Right. Marine plywood. It is certified to a British standard called BS1088 that basically says it is going to be high quality faces, it’s going to be the same material faces and cores, not just whatever you happen to have laying around in the cores and the cores are going to be contiguous and free of voids.”

“You said something about Russian birch?”

“Yup. And wenge, an African hardwood with a gorgeous light relief in the grain.”

And the okoumé is actually a light mahogany? What about the clear fir?”

“Yes. A light mahogany. The clear fir is a dimensional lumber we are planning on cutting into long thin strips to make the sheer clamps out of. We’re also going to make the cockpit carlands, which are the cockpit equivalent of sheer clamps. They’re the part that goes between the visible combing and the deck and they’re up on the inside.”

“Now, what is this about the hatch you were saying? You asked about that and I have no idea how to answer.”

“Well, it is possible to fit a hatch in either the fore of aft deck or both, accessing the normally sealed off compartments fore and aft. On my larger Mill Creek two-person kayak I chose not to put hatches in because the deck is so pretty just the way it is. On my longer, thinner, single kayak, which has a much smaller cockpit area, there will be a hatch fore and aft. The aft cargo hatch will be quite large and the forward hatch will be of a moderate size.”

“What would you suggest for me?”

“Well, it all depends on its intended use. If it’s day trips, no. If it is limited over-nighting, no.”
“I don’t intend on taking it out over days at a time.”

“Then make it pretty.”

“OK, then there is room in the cockpit for a bottle of water and such?”

“Oh yes. Much. The cockpit is large enough for a camera, a bag, lunch. Use a dry bag. Those are usually made of PVC that has a roll-down top that clips back on itself and keeps things from getting wet.”

“Or a ziplock bag?”

“Notoriously unreliable. Get a drybag at any kayak store. Any outdoor store.”

“So you know this guy named Kayak Jeff and before you take a boat out you bring it to him for a blessing?”

“Well, not so much ‘a’ blessing as ‘his’ blessing.”

“And you brought your first one to him and he gave a blessing to your hull?”

“Well, in the most kayak way. Basically, I am building a slightly modified long skinny single. And he is a very experience kayaker who is also a certified instructor and he runs a kayak store called, appropriately, Kayak Jeff and he came over last night to my mom’s where all this is being built and looked over the shape of the hull and the curvature of the bottom and said ‘This is good.’ That’s the blessing.”

“So I want to know I’m not going to play twirly-games in the water.”

“Oh, this boat will spin very well.”

“Not on its longitudinal axis?”

No, on the vertical axis. As far as longitudinal… OK, if you have a center point and you try to rotate the point, it’s very easy. If you make that point low on the arm, center or not, and you try to rotate that arm, it’s very difficult. It has resistance to turning.

“You’re describing a fulcrum. I’m not sure how that applies to this. You’d think having a fulcrum would make turning easier.”

“Well, actually, I’m describing center of gravity. What I’m saying is if you put the friction at the ends of the arm, what you are effectively doing with a boat hull of this shape is your center of rotation is the center line of the boat. It is very low because you are sitting low in the hull. You are actually sitting on the lower hull. And the deeper the boat goes, up to a certain point, the greater its resistance to turning. Of course, once you go so low the entire boat is covered by water, there is no more resistance to turning.”

“But I wish to not cover the entire boat with water. I want to be clear on that. I don’t want to build a submarine.”

“Do not gain a lot of weight.”


On Sunday the plan is to start early. How about eight? Eight isn’t too early to start building a kayak. That is the plan. I have it in my PDA.

Witney tells me he has a kayak class tomorrow. How to roll and recover. Tomorrow? The plan was to build a kayak. He signed up for this class three weeks ago. There is nothing I can say in the face of this temporal absurdity.

He knew. Never told me. I didn’t know, but, really, really, I should have known better.

The reading comes and goes. We stop for coffee on Las Olas, walk, talk, laugh and make up names for the kayak book. The Kayak that Almost Was. How Long Will It Take? Sunk: The Story of Not Building a Kayak. Building with Witney and Other Myths and Fancies.

It’s late and a two-hour ride home. I could stay overnight, but my own bed is so close and, despite Val’s objections and worry, I head north on I-95.

I should have known better.


It is the last week in January. Plans again. Plans to travel to Ft. Lauderdale and build a kayak. Everything will be ready. For some reason, I am skeptical.

I am headed south on I-95 on this bright Friday afternoon. My phone rings and it is Witney. There is no wood. Specifically, no quarter-inch okoumé. None. Anywhere. Not in Florida. Not in the US.

I am not surprised. I am not upset. I am not worried. I tell him so. I don’t tell him I’m going to keep heading south anyway. I had made other plans. People to see, things to do. It’s Val’s birthday party. I’m having dinner with my daughter. At no point during this trip had I an illusion I was actually going to build a kayak. I don’t tell him this, of course. I also don’t tell him I have a kayak waiting for me at home. It’s orange. The dolphins seem to like it. I know I do.

And who wants to read about kayaks anyway?


Posted by on April 27, 2008 in Books, Nature, Writing


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We are driving out of Charlestown, WV. It is nearing four in the afternoon and my son and I have spent our day walking through the city. I have been walking. My son has been dragging. Sometimes a sinker, sometimes an anchor but never a balloon. Never a kite.

This is, on a Saturday, an amazingly vibrant small city. There is a literacy festival at the library, jammed bookstores all over, a chili festival along the waterfront, kids playing in public fountains as though they were waterparks. Families stroll slowly through the June early afternoon along the streets and riverfront. We have walked downtown, the capitol complex, seen The Mountain Stage, the Museum of Art and Folk Art. Everywhere people. From this small city I had not anticipated such a density of activity. I’d never had expected to see such life.

No more than I would have expected to see the dollies. So many people, for lack of working legs, pushing themselves along by gloved fists against the pavement. Some lack legs so fully I am reminded, uncharitably I admit, of a cartoon I had seen many years ago of a crowd of legless bayou frogs, all pushing themselves on dollies, with one asking another what he wanted for dinner. “Frog legs.”

We see so many fist-driven four-wheelers that, after the first few, we feel the need to take tally. Seventeen – after we started to count. We move twelve miles through this city in six hours, despite a lack of our dollies all our own, and have been having a wondrous day. At least I have been. My son – my son, at 14, is having his own experience.

We are ready to head out. Our target is Ohio, Gallipolis specifically, and our goal is to get there before dark with enough time, this Summer evening, to find a room and stroll the town before the sun sets. Gallipolis, for no good reason other than someone having told me it was close enough to our destination – P.S.G., Pagan Spirit Gathering – that we can stay overnight and drive an easy pace the twenty miles to the Wisteria gate by nine. Time enough to ride behind the Amish buggies and enjoy the experience and the word patience need never come to mind.

We drive west along I64, out of Charleston, crossing the river over humming tangles of black-girdered bridges looking for I35 – the closest way across the Ohio, the easiest way to Gallipolis.

My son is mapmaster. This has not worked as well as I might have liked. I had thought map reading might be genetic. The only genetic tendency expressing itself at the moment is that towards frustration.

I glance over and look quickly at the map, unfolded on my son’s lap, as I drive. Taking another quick look away from the road I see his frown, his furrowed forehead, eyes turned toward at each other. The highway numbers are upside down. So are the names of the cities. Perhaps there are one or two other genetic tendencies expressing themselves we shall have to look into upon our return home.

I have been reading maps nearly as long as I have been reading words. I am fascinated by them. Where do the roads go, where do they start? I liked my late nights to extend far into the early morning tracing routs from origin to end. When our family took trips, I was in charge of the map, navigating from the front passenger seat. Exactly where my son is now.

We have a year old Rand McNally atlas, purchased not many months ago. I prefer actual maps to printed directions. Mapquest and Google can only go so far. What if we wish to change routs, see what we can see, drive where we might? What an interesting name. Look, there is a cave just ahead. See, there is a gorge down that road. Off we go. With an atlas I can find my way back again, back to the beaten track from off, back on the path and on to our destination. No loss. All gain.

We find our way, road upon road, I-64, I-35, headed toward the Ohio River, to cross into the state of that same name. As we approach the Silver Bridge at Point Pleasant there appears to be something missing: the bridge. There is no bridge. Now, there is the pitted rampart to the river edge, battered pillars from the water surface, confused us to the end of the road. What was, is not.

We pull over, parallel to the Ohio and perpendicular to where we had every reason to expect a bridge entrance which would continued onto a bridge.

The map. It shows a bridge. The land begs to differ. The water – a clear expanse bridge-free to the Ohio bank. Do not mistake the map for the territory.

We ask. The bridge fell down. Recently? No. 1967. Have you ever heard of the Mothman? Seen the movie? No. The one time it might have done me some good to have paid attention to popular culture.

A bridge, off the Earth thirty-five years, still on the map. If you can’t trust Rand McNally, who can you trust?

We travel further south, a half hour more distant of our evening’s destination, to where another bridge is shown, fully ready for that to be gone as well but gone it was not. It exists, as the map shows, and over the Ohio we go. Once on the other side, we follow the river again and Gallipolis is near.

It is small, sparse, quiet. We drive past the fringe Wal-Marts and K-marts, pass by the motels on the outskirts and plunge into the town itself. That is our goal: to find a room where we can park the car and spend the evening walking to dinner, walking to the shops, walking, walking, walking and no driving need be done. My goal. My son’s goal fixed firmly on tomorrow morning. That the youth exist in the here and now and age dwells in the past and future is cliché, not axiom.

We find one hotel. Just one that fits our bill. Just one in town. The William Ann. We could not happier. Older, quaint, friendly and directly in the middle of the town. We put our bags and baskets in the paneled room and set out for a walk.

Dinner comes from a small local grocery store we stroll past. We are stunned by the contents. It is appointed very much as one would expect a small grocery in the inner-city: no fresh vegetables, a deli counter of prepared animal or creamed products, a surprising amount of space devoted to chips and breads, sodas and snacks. We purchase some sandwiches and two apples well past their prime and eat as we walk into the town commons.

In the middle of the commons, on the southern side, the side closest to, within a stone’s toss of, the Ohio River, is a statue that commemorates the bringing of yellow fever to the town and the fifty-seven killed when the disease made landfall in 1878, brought by the doctor who was on that south-destined barge specifically to treat the disease already being carried by those on board; people looking for a new, better life downstream. An agent of mercy, he boarded it upstream so the victims would not need to disembark for treatment or supplies and risk infecting others. Until all aboard were well, only he would have the infrequent necessary contact with the off-barge world.

The rudder arm broke and the ship drifted ashore at Gallipolis. So did the flavivirus.

A four sided post about five feet high, each side is inscribed. One side tells us it is in memory of the yellow fever victims, another has the fifty-seven names on it, yet another lists the barge crew and another side tells us who bestowed the memorial upon the town. Atop the post is the rudder arm. That I know of, this is the world’s sole memorial to viral hemorrhagic fever.

The Scioto Company ran an ad in Paris attracting middle-class French to America with cheap Ohio land. They bought the deeds, sold their goods, and made the long voyage to America and into Midwest. They found nothing. No homesteads. Worthless deeds. It was 1790 and they petitioned President Washington for land. They got it in The French Grant. On the Banks of the Ohio River. Gallipolis. City of the Gauls.

The town failed to thrive. Mining did not quite take off, agriculture was a plan that came to little in an area more swamp than soil.

In 1818, a few families from Wales set sail from Liverpool to Baltimore and traveled by horse and cart to Pittsburg. Tired of the trials of over-land travel, they opted to trust themselves to the Ohio River, counting on it to take them the rest of the way to Paddy’s Run – a frontier town near Cincinnati.

The barge would abruptly, constantly, run aground on the shifting sandbars of the river. The men would jump out onto the dissipating sand and often require rescuing.

The journey taking longer than anticipated, and needing to reprovision, the water-borne pioneers set ashore in Gallipolis, a settlement then with fewer than one thousand people and barely hanging on.

Everyone got off the barge for a night on dry land. Fresh and full, they would shove off again the next morning.

The stories run two ways. Townsfolk got the bright idea the Welsh provided an immediate increase in the population, workforce and gene pool and, like it or not, would be staying in Gallipolis.

The other story is the Welsh women, tired of the river, fatigued from life with no home, weary of seeing their husbands and sons risk their lives, conspired to make Gallipolis their final destination.

Either way, the next morning, the barge was gone. All that was left ashore was a bit of rope.

And five new families.

It is dusk and the summer light is fading. Alek is asking for food again. We walk back toward The William Ann and to the malt shop across the street. It seems everyone is here. The outside is packed and, from a distance, the crowd hides the glass walls but, as we approach, we see through the people, through the panes, the inside is packed as well. We enter and get in line.

He has a milkshake and fries. We linger and he eats. The end of his long day. We go back to the hotel but I am not done. I want to walk some more. As he watches TV, I set out again.

There is music in the dark. I walk parallel the river. There is a wedding and the music is heard blocks away as a party is held under canopies beside a church. I walk on, walk by, music fading. The street ends and I come upon the bank of the Ohio.

I had passed slips and docks but they did not draw. The bank, though: the bank, the natural boundary, does.

It is a slope. Grassy and steep in the dark, I am drawn to the bank, to the brink where land ends and water begins. Through the trees.

There, in an opening between the trees. Steps down through the thick. It opens out. I enter a field of stars before the watery black.

Grass, trees. Fireflies. More than I have seen in, perhaps, all my childhood years together. All my adult life since. Flittering light, bright movements of starlight on wing. Filling the grass, trees, bushes, hovering over the ambiguous bank.

And there is a swing. To the right, hanging from a tree, next to the river, a smooth board on two knotted ropes. I sit, rock, glide. I am a body in motion, surrounded by light.


Posted by on October 10, 2007 in Family, History, Nature, Travel


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On My Walk this Morning, about Forty Minutes

First half of my walk, away from my home.

“I haven’t seen him in days. I just hear the dogs.”

“We need a unit on Bianca.”

“Danny, it was great.”

“It was just like the bar. Miss that place. Most of them are dead now. Nut’in but friendly faces.”

“You ain’t said you loved me. You ain’t never said you loved me.”

“A child of god. I am a man, what else am I supposed to do? We have the owner of Suntrust kneeling every Sunday in front of that altar.”

Back home again.


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Posted by on August 24, 2007 in Culture, Nature, philosophy


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A Blatant, Unabashed Attempt to Convince Cool People to Move to Palm Bay, Florida

I recently spent a few days in Asheville, North Carolina. I had a chance to stay there on my way up from Florida to Ohio, stopping here and there to do an open mic, a booksigning or wax poetic to the gathered masses. I had the luxury of staying with friends who could show me all the better sights of a city I had been through many times but had never had a chance to explore. I was anxious, excited and nearly salivating over my good fortune and impending visit.

Each time through Asheville, we thought of moving. Every single time. Once, after a summer visit when the temperature never ventured above eighty degrees, after my wife remarked how downtown was like a small Philadelphia, I started looking for a teaching assignment there. I was told, over and over, the only way to get one was to know someone on the inside and then wait for a teacher to retire or, more likely considering how little teachers get paid in North Carolina, die. If I didn’t want to wait for a teacher to die on his own, I could actively create the vacancy. That has actually happened there. Either way, it didn’t seem a good career move.

Ashville is an oasis of liberal thought and action in a sea of social conservatism. Billy Graham was close by. Frequently one would find Falwell too. (Where he is now is a matter of debate.) One would also find the Earthhaven Ecovillage. Amid the many communes one cannot help but notice the many survivalist, neo-nationalist and right-wing religious orthodoxist groups. A friendly mix.

This time, there was something different. Coming into town from the south, about four in the afternoon, we sat on Interstate 26 nearly an hour to move fewer than ten miles. In Asheville? In Asheville.

Apparently I would have greater time to enjoy the pleasantly curving, gently sloping, tree-shaded streets as I would be spending quite a bit of time on them sitting still.

On a Friday evening, at the circular park central to downtown, across, on one side, from Malaprops, one of the most lauded independent booksellers in the US, and, on the other, a store devoted to Tibetan and Buddhist art and artifacts, I had the opportunity to attend a drum circle.

I had attended these in many towns but none were like this. At Fort Lauderdale’s South Beach one would find a dozen drummers, half a dozen belly dancers and, perhaps, nearly one hundred people. Not bad for a county population of 1.5 million. In Gainesville, Florida, college town and home to U of F, the community plaza might have two dozen drummers, a few dozen dancers and two hundred or so attendees. Not bad for a county population of 240 thousand. Of course, during the summer, you can hear a pin drop. I actually did this. Stood in the Gainesville Downtown Plaza and dropped a pin. Clank.

But Asheville is another story. The population of the county is slightly over 222 thousand. The downtown common, concave, deep, ringed by combination steps and seats, wide and inviting and green at the center, was full. Fitting another person in would have taken a pry bar or tackle and hoist.

I stopped counting the drummers at fifty. Dancers I stopped counting at one hundred. This did not begin to account for the number of people there sitting, talking, moving, swaying, singing and enjoying themselves in the summer night while, elsewhere downtown, a stage was set with constant live music while residents shopped at stalls along the plaza. People milled on the streets, at outdoor cafes, on benches. No part of downtown was not full of life.

Palm Bay, on the other hand. Palm Bay. We’ll discuss Palm Bay later.

Back to Asheville. Amid the hippies and hipsters one passes downtown, one must also deal with one of the largest per capita homeless populations in the United States. While I watched the drummers, while I walked downtown, I was accosted, and I use that word in its literal sense, multiple times by people cursing me because I did not give them money. Street musicians in New York and Philly and New Orleans play and if you toss them coins, well and good. In Asheville, if you don’t toss them a coin, expect the music to stop and the epithets to begin. That is the best you can hope for. You might find yourself with a new companion whom you have to pay to repel.

At charity events I often talk or read poetry to patrons until they pay me, pay the charity, to have me leave them alone. It works beautifully. But patrons expect to have their pockets lightened at charity events and I bath. This is very different than what I encountered in Asheville.

I asked about it. My Asheville friends told me one of the state institutions was nearby. When being mentally ill was, shall we say ‘decriminalised,’ the patrons of that state’s institutions were let out with no place to go. Asheville was where many ended up. Many. It seemed like all of them. With a mild climate and the blessing of proximity as well as tourism, Asheville seemed a natural choice even for those non compos mentis.

Perhaps this is not the cause of the relatively high crime in Asheville, but it can’t have helped. Asheville’s rate for violent and non-violent crime is quite a bit above the national average. And, still people move there in increasingly alarming numbers.

The Asheville Citizen-Times ran an editorial cartoon that depicted a company specializing in tours of Asheville dedicated to showing tourists all the places tourists ought not see if one hopes for repeat business and word-of-mouth advertising. It starts off on Merriman Street. I have walked alone in Liberty City, I’ve worked in Overtown and lived in the inner city of Detroit but I won’t walk alone on Merriman. I’m nuts but not quite that nuts.

The message is plain: The tour is to convince us Asheville is terrible. Horrible. Contemptible at nearly every level. “You don’t want to move here. Move someplace else. Someplace nice. Really. We truly care about you and your happiness so move to Florida instead.”

So, if you were planning a move to Asheville, if you were in contemplation of a relocation, here is an idea: move to Palm Bay instead.

Don’t think South Florida. The population here is remarkably different, diverse, from all around the world, but English speaking, able and willing to work together to make new projects happen, happen now, happen smoothly and still preserve the natural glory that is the place we live. The environment for creativity is accepting and open.

The environment as a whole is much different than South Florida as well. Not like any other part of Florida, the temperature never gets too high as the ocean air travels over the Indian River and brings a constant pleasant breeze. Nearly never into the forties in the winter nights, barely out of the eighties in the height of summer days and always cooling at with the evening, you will find the desire to sit outside watching the manatees and dolphins a real distraction. But you can handle it, right?

Of course there is one other distraction that is an accepted part of life here. Once every other month or so, nearly the entire population gathers outside, sometimes during the day, sometimes at night, to watch the bright exclamation point of fire leap into the sky as NASA launches a shuttle or satellite. Everybody looks up and the whole world seems to pause for a while. Work stops and everyone understands.

What else do you get? Homes. Your pick, as a matter of fact. So many are standing empty, built just before and during the spike in purchases and high real estate prices that you can have your pick and nearly name your price. A new one? No problem. Land? Sure. Condo? You got it. By the ocean? Absolutely. On the river? Of course. Commune? We have ’em. Want to start a new one? Go for it.

Looking to start a farm? You have people ready and willing to buy the produce of your labour. Make it organic and you’ll never have to sit behind a desk again unless that’s where you are comfy counting cash.

You see, we need cool people. We have drummers, dancers, artists and writers but we need more. We need that growth in the arts and creative elements of the population that will make creativity and a colorful life not only acceptable but an expected, welcomed part of the everyday here in Brevard County. And You can help make that happen.

Sure, we have drumming. We even meet downtown to drum and dance but the park is small, semi-circular at the point of a flatiron where two streets converge to form a ‘Y’ but there is little room. The drummers and dancers spill onto the street. Of course, this is in downtown Melbourne, just on the outside fringe of Palm Bay.

With more people like you, more people who would have moved to Asheville before discovering the horrible truth of it, we could move the drumming slightly south, to Palm Bay, to the beach, to one of the many river parks, to where drumming would not mean pausing to dodge a Dodge.

We have a downtown area. Of course, it used to have more buildings in it before four hurricanes in one year took many of them to Mexico. Now, the rents are low and the city is not only asking for people to bring in creative business, it is go so far as helping foot the bill with loans, incubator projects, assistance with equipment, business plans and advertising. The City of Palm Bay wants you and is willing to lend you the cash to set up shop.

Music is everywhere here. Jazz, Bluegrass and Rock fill the parks on weekends with bands and jams hosted by clubs, colleges and the city of Palm Bay. Renaissance and medieval music ensembles, theatre guilds (even the world-renown F.I.T., an engineering school, has a theatre guild) and writers’ clubs mix and match for a vibrant community of word and sound. We might be the only people to have that. Where else can you go to a coffeehouse and find the first violinist for the local symphony and the president of the ACLU in one New-world Beat Tribal-Fusion band? World’s fastest banjoist? Yes sir. How about Punk Eco-Ska? We got that, too. Here. Palm Bay.

And as for communities of faith, those are many and varied as well. Sure, there are churches of differing types and sizes from Apostolic to Zion, but there is also Unity, United and Universal. Temples? Orthodox, Conservative and Reform, sumptuous synagogues to homey chabads. We have mosques and ashrams. UU? You bet. (And the Unitarian Universalist Minister Ann Fuller kicks ass!)

Buddhism? Looking for Zen, Shin, Forth Wave, Engaged? Sure. We have a Thai temple and monastery open full time to the community complete with classes, meditation hall and monthly festivals. Asatru and Alexandrian? It’s here. Looking for Bacchus in Brevard? He’s here too. Wicca? We got it. North European, East Asian, West African and South American. You’ll find it in Palm Bay. If it exists, it is here. If it doesn’t exist, it might be here anyway.

Recreation? If you are into Kayaking, boating, cycling or walking, you have it day or night, year in and year out. You can’t drive down any of the main streets on any morning or afternoon without seeing volleyball, soccer or kickball. Into watching but not getting your hands dirty? We have soccer and baseball teams. Spend an evening watching the roller derby as the derby girls of the Harbor City Nautigals beat the crap out of the Bellevue Betties or the Space Coast Slashers.

If you are into classes, the community centers have them in spades ranging from acrobatics to Zumba. Martial arts are all over and include tai chi, chi kung, kung fu, Japanese sword, archery and Brazilian Capoaeira. We have kick boxing and Jiu Jitsu. I have not seen Krav Maga and Hisardut, but, really, it’s only a matter of time.

If you are into skateboarding, you found a great place. With plenty of outdoor skateparks and new indoor parks as well, skating is big and, if you are into streetsurfing, you’ll find the best in equipment and shops available all around.

Into the salty sea? If you are into the ocean in any way – surfing, skimming or wakeboarding – you haven’t just found a great place, you found THE place. The area Between Cocoa Beach and Sabeastian Inlet, of which Palm Bay is smack in the center, is year-round Surf-Heaven. There is a reason Ron Jons is in Cocoa Beach, after all, and Sebastian Inlet is home to several national surfing events every year and is well known to have the best surfing on the east coast.

Walk the beach any early morning and see people surf-fishing or running. Walk it in the evening in the summer and you may spot sea turtles coming up to nest or heading back out to the sea in the predawn.

Enjoy being a political thorn in the establishment’s side? There is an active growing progressive movement all though our county. One can be a part of the Space Coast Progressive Alliance, Patriots for Peace, Vets for Peace or any of the many groups which, amazingly, actually work in concert toward well-defined goals. When is the last time you saw that?

What don’t we have? A bus tour to take you to the slums. We have a slum. It’s nicer than most of the places I have lived, but, by comparison, it is a slum. I drive through it in two minutes. I walk through it in ten.

Why no bus tour? Who needs it? Asheville does. Horrible place. Terrible. Don’t go there.

Come here. If you are a lefty, liberal, centrist and/or an eco-nut. If you are a tree-hugging dirt-worshiper. If you would rather drum than eat, garden than shop, walk than drive, dance than fight, sing than shout, we want you. If you’d rather wear tie dye than a silk tie, we want you. If you’d rather eat tabouli than a Big Mac and have acupuncture than surgery, massage than drugs, we want you. The City of Palm Bay wants you. The City of Palm Bay needs you. I know I do.


Posted by on August 2, 2007 in Culture, Nature, Social, Travel


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Paper or Plastic?

I have been a user of canvas bags for as long as I can remember. From the first I became environmentally aware, I brought my own cloth bags to grocery stores. Later, as a business owner, purchasing boxes of bags showed me there were real savings to be had; bags are not cheap. So I never saw how bringing canvas bags to the store should be a seeming endless source of confusion on the part of nearly everyone, except myself.

As a fellow in my early twenties, I would go to Publix with my bags, toss them in the cart as I entered and do my shopping. This rarely ended in simply packing my goods in the bags and leaving. No. That particular chain likes to have bagboys. A sexist term, true, but it sounds better than bagpeople, which brings up images of unshowered unfortunates with rusted carts and thinned frocks with pockets full of cats. The bagboys (and baggirls) range in age from fifteen to one hundred and sixty. They happily pack your defrosting, sweating ice cream next to the soon-to-be soggy cereal for you and don’t like at all if you should pack for yourself. Instead, they insist on having their own people put the milk carton on top of the tomatoes. It is just one of the many courtesies they offer.

Lately, Publix has taken to hiring the developmentally disabled and the packing has much improved.

Still, I prefer to bag the items myself. I can pack them in fewer bags, know what is where, be less grumbly and, as my wife tells the bagpersons, it is just generally safer for them all around.

Approaching the checkout counter with my cart, I’d toss the bags on the conveyor first so the bagperson would see them and know, obviously, where the groceries would go.

“What’s this?” the cashier asks, turning one around, looking for a price on the sack old enough the words are hard to read, seams now only half-sewn.

I would, invariably, inform her it was a bag.

“How much is it?”

“It is nothing. It is old.”

“How do I charge you for it?”

“You don’t. It is a bag. You pack in it”

“Where in the store did you get this?”

“Nowhere in the store. I got it from my truck. I brought it with me. Does it really look new to you? I brought it to pack groceries in.” And she would look at me, turning the bag over again and again as if a tag would appear and make the liar of me. Then, she would toss them to the end of the counter and begin to tally my bill.

Not just Publix, of course. Winn Dixie, Harris Teeter, one Kroger, once, Food Lion, Shopright, Super Foodtown, Kash N’ Karry. South Florida, Central North Carolina, New Jersey.

The bags are in the hands of the bagboy. He also turns them over again and again, pulls them inside out, looking for goodies. He then opens a plastic bag on the frame and tosses my bags inside it, into the bottom, placing the food on top of them as the items pass the scanner. I watch.

Slowly, wide eyed, I ask, “Whachya doin?” the way one talks to a boy who has just put a bit of his anatomy in a lightsocket but you are more concerned with the socket than with him and, in the end, you might just flip the switch on just for the show.


“I can see that. Don’t you think the bags inside the bag might be more effective outside the bag? Perhaps we could put groceries in them?”

“Oh, was I supposed to pack in those?”

“What on Earth did you think they were for?”

“I don’t know. I just packed them.”

“I know. I saw that. Not planning on medical school, are you?” I ask, with stress on each, individual word to assure understanding.


He continues packing anyway.

“Undo it. Put the food in the cloth bag please.”

He scoffs, snarls, sniffs and grudges as he reverses course and out of the plastic bag comes the food and, finally, a clump of cloth.

I watch. He packs the food in the plastic bag again, my cloth ones laying beside it, empty, heaped. As he finishes the bag, he picks the top cloth one from the pile, opens it wide and puts the half-full plastic bag inside.

This is a matter of principle now. I’m not letting this go.

“Can you tell me what is the point in what you just did?”

“You said you wanted it in the cloth bag.”

“Why do I need it in the plastic bag first?

In truth, sometimes I do request an item in plastic. If it looks leaky. If it is wet. I didn’t want to go into that with this fellow. His water seemed muddy enough.

I ask, again, that it be undone. Packed into my re-usable bags.

He does so to a stream of barely audible mutterings. The cloth is still wrinkled and convoluted for all the extra room left by the little in it. He lifts the bag by the handle and, with great difficulty, as I watch, patiently, head cocked to the side like a confused dog, he lowers it into the plastic bag. I have three items inside a cloth sack, inside a plastic bag.

“Ok… I am confused. It must be me because I am not the bag-professional here, (I was a bagboy, truth to tell, but so what? My forte was offering carryout service to old women who had walked from no fewer than half a dozen blocks away. I would be out of the store at least two hours every day. No less. “Carryout is our policy.”) but can you tell me why I need my cloth bag inside a plastic one?”

He said not one word, lifted it out and threw the plastic bag away.

“Nope. My purpose in using cloth bags is to save the plastic and paper. How do I accomplish that if you throw it away?”

“Well, it’s used.”

“What? Is it dirty? It had packages in it just like the next set of packages it could have in it, to go home with the next person in line unless they have cloth bags too. Then you can torture them. At least, you could put it in the recycle bin instead of the garbage.”

I took it from his hand, smoothed it out, put it back on the frame and smiled.

I wish I could say this happened only once.

Sometimes I have fewer bags than I need. Some may be in the laundry or I have purchased more than my bags can handle and I opt for a plastic bag. Often, the bagger will put in one or two items. Why? Do they fight? I’m not saying I am against the separation of hot from cold or chemicals from foods; I am talking about cereal boxes. Surely, this cannot be a weight issue that a bag can hold only a box of Cheerios and a can of tuna. Why do I need to take home scores of bags containing only two items each? And if I ask for the items condensed, again, the bagger takes them out, put them in new bags and attempts to throw the original bags away. Foiled again. Why not throw them out? They are, after all, only a non-renewable resource.

Ah, you say, but some of the bags we use now are made of corn cellulose. Still, while corn is renewable, the fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides used to grow them aren’t. They are petrochemical in origin and none too good for our environment. And even if they weren’t finite, polluting and carcinogenic, why waste a perfectly good bag?

Bag in a bag? Bag my goods and put the bag in a bag? Maybe for an extra heavy item, a sharp one, but I have had a bagger do this with everything.

I once, just once, asked to speak to a store manager. I explained it might be good to tell the bagboys what to do with cloth bags. I asked for a ballpark figure on how much the store would save if bagboys stopped putting one item in a bag, throwing bags away, bagging bags in bags. He admitted it was a goodly sum and had actually looked into it. I asked, why not talk with them?

He explained he had tried once and it just doesn’t work. He shook his head. Indeed, let us continue concentrating on State-wide Highstakes Testing and No Child Left Behind. That way we can have a whole generation of people who can write a mediocre essay under pressure but can’t figure out how to use a cloth bag.

I wish I could say it was just the large, run-of-the-mill stores. I wish I could, but I can’t. I started going to Whole Foods and such places, in part, because they knew what to do with the bags. Or so I thought. I had, not along ago, a long talk with the manager of a Whole Foods on the issue.

I had one item. It was a jug. It had a handle. The employee put it in a bag. Because it was heavy, he then put that bagged jug into another bag. I suggested his employees should know better. I shopped there, in part, because I felt they did.

He said I was wrong and, if I worked there a week, I would swear the environmental movement was doomed by stupidity.

Walgreen’s. I purchase an item. A four pack of cassette tapes. Light. Easy to carry. He places them in a bag.

“I really don’t need that. Thanks.”

“Ok,” he says, taking them out of the bag, balling it up and –

“What are you doing with the bag,” I ask quickly.

He stops. “Why? Do you want it?”


“Ok,” he says, shrugs and reaches under the counter to throw it away.

“Is the bag bad? Is it ruined? Is it being punished? It had cassette tapes in it. Does that mean you can’t use it for the next person? Can you tell me one good reason it should go in the garbage?” Does it have something communicable?

“No.” He is confused.

“Good.” So was I.

I still am.

Do the Earth a favour: bring your own bags. And next time a clerk or bagboy asks you “Paper or Plastic” just point behind him and tell him his mother wants him. Then, while he goes running to find her, bag it yourself.

Happy Earth Day.


Posted by on April 27, 2007 in Culture, Food, Nature, Social


Now is the Autumn of my Discontent

I am outside with a spray nozzle in my hand, watering the bulbs, the sun mimosa, bananas, ly chi and carambola trees. The sun has just gone below the Indian River, just below the spit of land past it; into the Atlantic Ocean. It is dark except for the moon, full yesterday but now with a small missing crescent, reflecting the distant daylight brightly in the moist air and grass. In the dark everything glows.

The sprinklers blow the wellwater misted across the small bit of the world in my full care and the air is atomized night-jasmine and sulfur perfume. The entire world smells like it is drinking water from a garden hose.

The temperature is in the sixties. In just two days the temperature has dropped. In just two days my world has gone from hot and wet to cool and dry, from shut tight and air conditioned to a fan in the open windows and the uninhibited sound of the train in the distance.

In just two days my energy has risen and I think of moving to Alaska. My brother-in-law tells me all about it now that they live there. I think of it seriously. Whenever the temperature drops I think of the joy of living in The North. Whenever the temperature rises again, I think of the joy of moving to The North.

Living in Florida, The North is not far. Those not living in Florida might think The North is actually quite removed from the land of flowers, as far spacially as psychologically, but it doesn’t take long to get there. One needn’t go far to find cooler temperatures for more of the year, coloured leaves, even snow. In a car, it takes only ten hours for the temperature to drop twenty or more degrees in the Autumn, in the Winter, in the Spring.

Last Winter, in the time between Christmas and New Years, early in the near dawn, we left Ft. Lauderdale in a Saturn Ion, my wife and I, dressed in dungarees and t-shirts. We drove North through Florida five hours to Jacksonville and changed into a long-sleeved shirt. Three hours later, in South Carolina we broke out the jackets. Two hours, in Virginia, we needed them. An hour and a half later, in Maryland, as we exited the car at a service plaza, we shivered and put the jackets away and out came the leather coats. An hour later, in Delaware I wondered where my long johns had been packed, I found my hat and it was more than a casual Winter. In the gray sky white flakes began to drift. It was the evening of the same day.

In one half a day, from warm weather to a woolen sweater. Amazing. And it left me wanting more as the grip of this new Autumn’s surrounding chill wakes me, moves me and leaves me perpetually wanting to embrace Winter.

Often, when the sky is gray with clouds spanning westerly over the coast, I look up and expect it to be cold. Regardless the time of year I expect the air to be cold, the wind to chill, the ground to be cooling and I am always surprised. I am astonished to walk outside and find the air warm. It is wrong. It feels wrong inside me and the outside world does not match what I know, in my heart, in my muscles, it should be.

This last Summer, early June, I find myself in Milwaukee. At night the air is dipping into the forties. During the day it is dry and warms slowly only to drop again, soon, with the dipping sun. The air is filled with lilac and, well before ever seeing one, I recognize the scent. It is the smell of childhood: lilac, lily of the valley and apple blossoms. It is of flowers in the cool morning air, in the cooling evening.

Becca has just called. They have been in Kentucky for three days now. Bowling Green. Upon their arrival she, Kayla and Richard immediately took off their shoes and walked into the first patch of lawn. Real grass, Becca tells us. Not like in Florida. It is soft, a pliant cushion under the feet. Sometimes the grass tilts up and sometimes it tilts down. Hills. Actual hills. She had nearly forgotten. It is evening as I say my goodby and the temperature is dropping into the forties.

Ohio. June. Outside Gallipolis. I am camping. In the daytime it is reaching the eighties and the people around me, not from Florida, are complaining of the heat. It is nothing. At night the temperature drops into the forties. It is splendid. Truly wonderful and truly comfortable.

Redlick, Kentucky. June again. My friend Lisa and I stumble upon a sign in the road pointing toward a bluegrass festival. It is the late afternoon and, after a glorious attempt to score moonshine from a potter in a hollow like thousands of others among these mud-bucket-pie mountains, we drive the one-lane county track eastward into the forest in search of music.

Lisa and I lay side by side on our blanket, beneath the sky and in front of the stage. Beneath us the grass moistens and around us the air is quickly cooling in the creeping eventide. Three hours later we are soaked with dew. It all feels right. It all feels normal.

North Carolina. Saxapahaw. Winter and an outdoor hot tub with the great-grandson of James Joyce, named James Joyce. He lives in Yadkin County and teaches English at the community college there. I remember him so clearly because he is so much better read than I. His accent is very different than his great-grandfather’s. Also there is Starr, who went with me to get my TB test when my wife could not, who understood the terror of an unfounded fear is greater than that of one built on a real foundation. Allison, of the Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans from the Triad CUUPs of Greensboro UU, Paul and assorted people from a group called The Lunatic Fringe. The steam rises from the fog veil hovering between the water and the air, around our too many bodies and not a bathing suit in sight. The difference in temperature is vivid, palpable, glorious.

Earlier that night, on a rise above the Haw River, we celebrated a full moon. Walking into the group a tall, gangly man named Bill, distinctive enough I could recognize him anywhere. I knew him in Gainesville and how could he be here? His daughter lives in Durham and he is friends of the ladies in this group. We shared some very unpleasant experiences in Gainesville have an understanding of what it means to belong. We embrace out of surprise as much a friendship. It is February, it is cold and it is a very small world. Just as it should be.

It is January. I am driving through Philadelphia to attend Sunday services at the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Restoration in the Mt. Airy area of this city. Philadelphia is built like a berry with a common center but mostly composed of multiple small, individual small-town feeling areas, different sizes and shapes, all together which make up the great city. Driving on Roosevelt Parkway, we found ourselves on a cut-though section between forty-foot rising rockwalls rife with frozen-in-motion spits of water stopped in mid-cascade, beneath the elegance of gigantic skeletal trees making an over-arching finger-bone tunnel. In the middle of a city, we were in the ninety-two thousand acre Fairmount Park, one of the largest urban parks in the world and an area which comprises ten percent of the total land of Philadelphia.

That afternoon, in the Byrn Mawr section, gloved, scarved and capped, I went for a three hour walk in the sub-freezing air, careful on the ice, past delis and art museums, past my own breath coalescing in the air before me, trailing past me. I am alive and quick. My face feels red and I am smiling. I am smiling.

Three days have passed since I wrote the first words here. It is mid October. Today the temperature is eighty-eight degrees. The world is not right. This is wrong. This is just wrong.


Posted by on October 15, 2006 in Nature, Uncategorized


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Crop Circles

I have a crop circle in my front yard. I awoke this morning to spiraled grass in two opposing adjoining sweeps, long and low on the wet mat of the soil. Six feet wide and here, in Palm Bay, on my one-eighth acre parcel, in my front yard, crop circles. And the cars go whizzing by. It is a private showing.

My front yard has not been cut in two months. We have decided to replace, pull out, do away with the non-native plants and allow the native to return, take over. It is a small thing to do and of little effect – my small home with the yard of native plants among the weekend mowers, gas trimmers, electric weed-eaters, leaf-blowers, grind-metal edgers. It is small and incredibly conspicuous.

Sections of the lawn have been pulled of grass and the naturally growing succulents of our area have retaken the sandy soil. Long red fleshy pencil-stems cover the ground and they are covered by small, puffy fat-needle green leaves and, they, spotted with small flowers in red, purple, yellow, blue. Sun mimosas trail, gather, subsume the open land, sending legs here and there of delicate leaves and up into the air, stalks of purple and pink puff-ball flowers. All together, a glorious mat of green leaf and rainbow flower not but six inches at its highest point and no need to mow, no need to cut, no need for gas fumes, exhaust fumes, chemical fumes or weekends spent in service of grass.

But the sections which have not been pulled, they grow wild, high and green, full and deep and talked about as the neighbours walk by. The grass grows four feet high, some topped with red flowers, large purple blooms arrive every morning and, by the afternoon, fall to create a speckled three-dimensional star-map of fading violet, suspended within the net of interlacing leaves. Florida poinsettias, orange jasmine. Plants and flowers I do not know the names of and do not want to know by name. They are, somehow, more natural, more real for my inability to place a name on them. Who am I to tell the flowers what they should be called?

And, in the midst of this, crop circles. And why not? One does not find crop circles in mowed yards. Faeries do not visit the space between mowers and clippings. But mine? Four feet high? Why not? Why not nocturnal visitors in the moistening pre-dawn patting out waves of elegance and delight in the spindles and leaves? Why not?

This is what I get for not mowing. This is what I get for inviting the invisible to my home. This is what I get for opening myself to the stares and quiet talk of my neighbours. I get crop circles. I’m fine with that.

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Posted by on September 2, 2006 in Culture, Nature, Religion, Social


Playing at Playalinda: Mindful Self-indulgence at the Beach.

Playing at Playalinda: Mindful Self-indulgence at the Beach

We planned another day at the beach, Evanne and I. The last day at Playalinda was enjoyed so much that another day was planned on the way back from the first. It certainly lived up to its name: beautiful beach. Evanne pulled out her planner: a notebook with self-drawn calendar inside. Evanne’s keeping of a calendar has been the best thing for my social life. That is what I told her in the car. I misspoke. Social, yes, but artistic more-so, as every time we are together feels like an artistic expedition. It is not that I use Evanne’s scheduler. I need no calendar on paper and keep it, instead, in my head. But others do not and it has always been a difficulty. They must check their calendars, look at their schedules, get back to me later. Evanne knows now with the flip of a page. So, yes, I misspoke. With Evanne’s do-it-yourself dayplanner, we can work in tandem. With a date picked, Beth was called to make sure it was a day she could make it, or arrange to, and it was done. Thus, our day was set.

A trip for five was in our thoughts. We had just heard about a shipwreck and wanted to investigate; knowing Evanne’s husband Jack would be as interested as we. I looked forward to the mile or so walk up the most unspoiled seashore in Florida to the derelict, supposedly on the shore. My wife, Lee, may or may not go for the walk but was definitely up for an afternoon of laying out on the sand, wading in the water, enjoying her Atlantic Ocean. A trip for five and, as today, not a single bathing suit would be packed.

And for two weeks this was looked forward to. We would leave at ten to keep Beth out of the afternoon sun.

During the next two weeks, times changed; later, earlier, who can go, who might be working and but week was left.

We spent the week painting my son’s room. This had been planned for over the last two months and the time was here. By ‘we’ I mean Evanne and Alek from a design by Alek. I was tapemeister. I can be trusted with masking tape. Paint is another story.

Black squares, red squares, black and white checkerboard walls, graffiti ceiling, a black wall full of Mindless Self Indulgence. That is to say, the wall is covered from top left to bottom right with lyrics written in silver Sharpie. It was amazing, the process of taping, painting and moving a room from stark to startling in three days. What was more amazing was to watch the process of Evanne writing on the wall, word by word, letter by letter. Just as startling, no six inch square section of the lyric wall does not contain a curse-word, an expletive, a derisive term. I measured.

Pictures were taken, digital, emailed to his friends. They think it is cool and can hardly believe his parents, us, allowed the room painted in such a way. My son thinks it would be more cool if we thought it was less so. He’ll have to deal with that. My wife thinks it’s cool. I think it’s cool too but I don’t get the lyrics. I understand the parodic nature of the band. I get it as anti-pop. But I also don’t see the artistry, why anyone would want to look at it day after day after day. The world from which that music would come is not the world I’d want to live in.

I too have started writing on my walls. In silver Sharpie. Our back room, that which use to be a shed, is painted in dark swirls blue as new denim, dense as cirrus clouds. It is the conservatory of our manor home and it contains two drum-sets, a dulcimer, a base guitar, an amp, four full floor to ceiling bookcases, an old sofabed, a fifty-year-old Castro Convertible table. It is ten by nine and slowly, the walls become home to a hypergraphic storm of poetry and prose.

It was two weeks ago I had said, in an off comment, if I lived alone, I’d write on my walls. I said this again, later, to Evanne, Evanne said this to my wife. Surprised, Lee thought this was splendid. Why not?

Soon, we’ll start on our bedroom: denim, patched walls. Rivets and seams. Lee has already picked up a denim comforter. On the walls will be the signs for the directions. Painted around the room, emerging from the fictionalized aging of the denim, within the discoloration over time, a part of the creases from wear, the Eight Auspicious Symbols of Tibetan Buddhism. What do we constantly face? What do we take in through the eyes, in what do we immerse ourselves? What do we make ourselves and what do we become?

Lee is talking about a wall of hieroglyphs.

She is also saying she can’t go to the beach. She has taken patients for that day originally scheduled for a day she had to drive to South Florida. We are four.

Friday comes, Jack is called to work. Ultimately, this is a good thing for him. Construction, remodeling, building and rebuilding is decreased here. This is recent. It is hurricane season. So now we are three and it is time to leave. Driving together, in Beth’s car, we are lost, end up on US1, much like old Florida, roadside attractions, rustic shops, antique malls, flea markets. Scrub and river. Forty-five minutes and we find our way. We drive to the last lot as Beth, a biologist by training, cannot believe there is so much unspoiled, conserved land. We must come back to hike. We must return to the sanctuary. We will, but on to the beach.

As usual, the parking lot for the clothing optional section, the last section, is the most crowded. It is next to one of the many small domed observatories dotting this coast, used to track launches. A white two story bubble with a mohawk crest, surrounded by a fence. We see them everywhere here.

We look to use the restrooms before unloading the car: three chairs, a small plantable umbrella, and a cloth bag stuffed with two horseblankets, some towels, extra clothing and our water. The bathrooms are composed of a room the size of two port-a-potties with a slanted toilet embedded into the stainless steel wall. Next to it is a lever coming out from the floor, extending upward about three feet and slightly off ninety degrees; long enough to reach my waist. The ladies bathroom, and I have this on authority only, contains a spider large enough to require a personal name, wide enough to play frisbee with. As a result, I guard the men’s room door while it was occupied Evanne. It has two locks. I guard it anyway. There are few honours left men these days.

We have taken sneakers with us and small bags to hold our clothes. We grab those and the umbrella, take out the blankets, put back the chairs. Off we go, walking past the observatory, giving it a wide berth. NASA is close by, fences everywhere, guardposts. Our boys in the government, here to help. A wide berth.

The beach is crowded, especially considering the distance one must travel to get to this beach, to the end of this beach, to the last lot at the end of this beach. We walk toward the water and the cooler sand, north, out of the crowd and, at a place Beth and Evanne decide is a great spot for a blanket, settle. Down the blankets are lain, out comes the umbrella, Evanne opens it and I grab the handle quickly as she is jerked suddenly northward. I take the umbrella to make exactly the same error in case anyone did not see it the first time. Shall we open it into the wind, she suggests. Absolutely. Into the ground, no hammer, rocks gathered, sand piled around the base and, when all is done, we have earned an oblong patch of shadow large enough to keep the one o’clock sun off a toy dog.

And, by the time I have the sand piled around the umbrella pole, the clothes are off and the ladies sit, looking out to the ocean. How easily one can get use to a new way. No trepidation. I’ve nothing to do but join them.

I pull the sunscreen from my bag and make sure it is available, visible. I am reminded we should watch each other to make sure no-one burns. I don’t forget the spots I missed last time. You are parental just when you need to be, I am told. A compliment. Appreciated.

Into the water. It feels cold to start and warms slowly. I know the temperature of the water has not changed but only how I feel it, perceive it. We become accustomed to a thing. Our perceptions change. Our senses adjust. Plain becomes beautiful, cool becomes warm and the change has been us, not the thing itself. But, in the end, who can tell. With no external witness, it is the location of two points in an otherwise empty space. Which one has moved and in what relation to the other cannot be told. Reality is plastic.

Beth walks out. At an inch shy of six feet, thin and long, the waves wash around her, take no notice. Evanne and I get knocked over again and again, washed in, washed out. We are buffeted and I turn to the side, grab Evanne’s hand to keep her from falling back as she is hit by another wave. Beth stands tall in the distance; we are getting buried on the sand. Still, the hot air, warm water, cooling breeze, open to the world, even with feet covered, sand over my ankles, I am in bliss and, then I am on my backside and washed over by a wave.

So we walk. We think of getting our sneakers, putting them in our bags with some clothes so, if the shipwreck is found, we can climb, clamber, explore. Instead, we opt to leave them behind taking only one small bag and a camera, choosing the freedom to walk unfettered, unburdened. And walk we do. A mile, two, three. No shipwreck. Then, darkness at the surf’s edge. Rolling rippled darkness visible through the sand. Tar? Stone? Stone is unlikely here on this central Florida shore. I reach down and feel for the texture. It is not stone but gives gently, dense and spongy. A fingernail comes up with softness under it. Softness and moistness like soil, compost. This is wood; sea-soaked, decomposing wood. We have found our shipwreck and there is nothing here to explore. We walk it and it is visible over a hundred feet long, look out and it is wide by at least forty, disappearing into the waves. We walk on.

And walk. We pass all people, everything. There is nothing in sight made by a human. Nothing to hear but waves, birds and our own laughter. We are alone on the beach from which we are separated by nothing. Evanne says something I do not remember but it results in a hug, my arm around her waist for a moment as we walk.

And walk – the three of us, all light, bright, reflective. Ohio, Nebraska and Massachusetts have given three bodies to the South and we look it. We are white and pink, not tan, beige, bronze. And we are walking together in the July sun.

The sandpipers are running up to the receding surf, away from the incoming waves. Along the shoreline as it moves in and out. Evanne does the same, yelling she is a sandpiper, a sandpiper, a sandpiper, running up to the foam as it leaves, away from the surf as it arrives, in and out, up and down following the shore. It is a perfect imitation as she jogs and bobs with them, her little body in perfect mimic of the tiny birds.

They are redubbed Evannebirds.

It may be too much for Beth, the heat or the distance or the incline of the shore and we turn back, passing a couple kissing by the surf. In the distance, the observatory, small like a newly popped mushroom. The closer we get the more people we pass, then chairs, towels and, at last, our blankets, umbrella and Beth heads to the water to cool. Then back, wet, to the blanket to lie, looking up at the sky, blue and clear.

As she rests quietly, Evanne and I talk. Who is offended? Why should so few beaches be open to this? We are comfortable without wet cloth, we are not cold. Not covered in dry cloth, we are not hot. I frame it as a health issue. Evanne frames it as a freedom issue. Why not at least half the beaches? If there are people who are really offended, why not set aside a beach for them. At the end of the road. The last lot. Past the last lot. But those who wish the least constraints are nearly always put upon to travel the furthest. It is the way, it seems, and seems to have always been so.

And now it is time to return to constraints. The clouds are coming in: dark and rumbling in the not-so distance. I do not mind getting wet, walking in the rain, but I would like to put away the umbrella and blankets before they are sodden. Once this is done, we make a mistake by looking at a watch hanging on a bag. It is past four o’clock. We have taken our time, took no notice of tomorrow, no thought of yesterday. Just now, now and the sound of the waves. In the moment. Mindless.

We do, indeed, go.

Clothes are put on with great reticence. We have eaten saltines, apples, oat-bars. Real food is called for. Where to go is asked by Beth, who is driving today, as we pack. They know I am careful but I do not try to put my diet on them. They know I will not keep them from going where they want but know I should eat as well and want to know where we can go. Anywhere with vegetables is what I tell her as we drive the long road out of Canaveral. Down US1 or to 95? Truly, I do not know. We choose 95, driving through Titusville and find a sub place. This will do and we park as Lee calls. Dinner? But the girls are hungry and we are forty minutes away from Lee.

Vietnamese is what she wants. I’d love it myself. Beth and Evanne have not had and, Beth, considerate as she always is, suggests putting dinner off a bit and joining Lee. I am glad of this. Since Lee still has an errand or two, the timing works. Beth drives and Evanne holds my phone out between them as they sing her a song, one they created about a “pokey woman” and dedicated to their favorite physician; my Lee. She laughs and laughs over the cell.

We meet at the Vietnamese restaurant. One of us is short and the meal is covered. It’s no big thing. It is no thing at all.


Posted by on August 1, 2006 in Culture, Nature, philosophy, Social


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Day of the Manatees

US1 through southern and central Brevard County is an easy drive of sparse architecture and brilliant liquid beauty along the Indian River. The Indian River is wide and shallow, averaging three feet deep and often navigable by foot from the quarter mile to eight miles between bank to bank. Not a river at all, really, but a rod-straight saltwater sound, it is barely separated from the Atlantic by more than a spit of land.

Along the river are salt-marshes, inlets and coves and it was past one of those many coves I drove Saturday morning on my way from Palm Bay, five miles north, to pick up Evanne. That day we were making a kiln of coiled newspaper at my home, breaking into a bag of terracotta clay with about a dozen people to make runes, Tellstones, whatnots small in size. People were due at noon.

As I drove, the shoulder, commonly narrow enough only for an emergency stop, widened into a grass-filled clearing level with the lapping river. Only about forty feet deep and perhaps one hundred feet long, normally empty and affording a view of the wide river and the narrow division of land which broke the ocean and created the sound, today it was bordered, as the trees cleared, by an upright half-sheet of plywood asking, in large caution-orange paint, that we take home one of the many pit-bull puppies available. Behind it were parked what were certainly to be too many cars to be explained by free puppies. Against the shore were clumps of people – adults, children – with cameras, binoculars, pointing fingers off the bank at a space some thirty feet distant.

At fifty miles per hour I can’t see much. Cars, people, cameras and a boiling of water where they point. In the river’s tumult were dark shapes, significant in size, one breaking the surface of the water. While I cannot see what they are, by the time the tableau has taken its place behind me, as the car curves past the Honda dealership, I have figured out what they were; manatees.

I have been here a year. I have not seen a manatee though I hear about them and their friendly nature, their bad breath, the texture of their skin.

I speed up. I am but five minutes from Evanne’s and reach for my phone to call her, to ask her to be ready so, in the truck, we can go back, park, walk to the bank and, I hope, see my first manatees. The phone rings.

“Are we on for today? I figured we were because you said we were, but Jack said I should check.”

I was due to pick her up at eleven that morning. It was ten ‘till.

“I’m four minutes away. Can you be ready? I’ll explain when I get there but I don’t want to talk while I’m driving.”

I drive too fast. She is ready and gets into the truck.

“I think I passed a group of manatees right off the road. I think. I want to stop and see. We have about an hour. If people have to wait a bit for us, for this, they’ll have to wait.”

“Really? I’d love to see them.”

People rush so much. Everything, it seems, is on a time frame. For picking up Evanne on time, by a clock, at a time designated by us and marked by specific numbers on a clock, watch, cell-phone, I chance not seeing the manatees. I drove by them. I think briefly of passing them by again; people are due at my house. I drive back quickly. Too quickly. Time again. This time I stop, pulling over the double-yellow line into the clearing and between two cars.

There is a whirlpool deep with dark silhouettes of bodies long and broad. I can see this through the windshield and open the glove-box to take out the binoculars, the monocular and we get out.

Approaching the water, I hand the binoculars to Evanne. “I asked for a discount on the binoculars, since I can use only one lens, but they just laughed. I don’t see why I should pay for something I can’t use. You turn this to focus.” She takes them out of the case, I twist the wheel between the lenses as she holds them. I take the monocular out of its case and stuff the vinyl into my back pocket. I put it to my right eye and point it out to the roil in the river.

We are two among a constantly renewing eight or ten people watching the spectacle in the water. Three manatees, it appears, one female and two male: mating season. We watch, one then the other, the one again. Breaching, tails slapping the surface, mist blowing from nostrils, grey backs above the water. At once it appears there is a jostling, it appears one has attacked another. We watch. We listen.

Perhaps the female has told one of the males she has had enough. Perhaps has had all she wants. Or one male has challenged, is ready to fight, been rebuked by the female. Then all is calm and they are taking turns again.

The sound skips over the water and mixes with, spurs on the chatter around us .

“It’s a manatee orgy.”

“Manatee gangbang.”

“She’s tired of them and wants a ciggy.”

Snickering, laughing. Rude comments.

I think to myself, talk to myself, I wonder at the anthropomorphizing. Why put them into a human frame? Have we done such a good job of it? After all, they’re the ones making love in the water, having sex in the river, taking turns, out in the open, no worries, no cares, procreating, playing (perhaps), not thinking of tomorrow, not yesterday, just now, in action and moment, life lived as present-tense verbs.

What’s our problem? We want to live, be healthy, or, at least, be comfortable while we live long. We want to live and live and live. Quantity over quality and tomorrow over the moment. We want to have things, more things, one more thing, then something else, another. More and more. We want shelter because we will be more comfortable, live longer if we are out of the cold, out of the heat, out of the sun. Longer, more, tomorrow, worry, next year, better place. Then, we look at the manatees in the river and give them our thoughts, our desires and our reactions when it is we who wish to feel like them, give up the home, live in the water, have sex on the shore, think of nothing and have only now. But for the fear, we would. But for fear of the end, we would. And so, we pretend they are like us as imagining we are them simply begs dissonance, wonder, confusion.

It is quarter ‘till twelve. Evanne reminds me we have people who will be waiting for us. I respond by going to my truck and getting my polarized sunshields – big enough to fit over my glasses. With these, I can cut out the reflection of the water, see through the surface. They are one more thing. I bring them back and hand them to Evanne. We pass them back and forth. Finally, binoculars, monocular are put away. I’m reminded it’s time to go and, back to the truck, we do just that.

We drive way from the water, out to US1, and, as we recross the double-yellow I can still see the swirling of the water in my mirror.

The afternoon comes, the company does as well. Stones are made, a kiln is built. I make a dinner of salmon and steak, both on the grill for hours now, lowly, slowly and vegetables cooked fast in a large, flame-surrounded wok.

Over dinner, Craig tells us about the park nearby, Goode Park, and the manatees. He lays on the dock, the one that floats. His hands lay in the water, waving gently and the manatees come to him and to have their bellies rubbed. Bellies rubbed? I have never heard of that. Manatees again.

I am to do a workshop that evening: a singing workshop. Old Aramaic chants. It is at Goode Park. I picked it because it was close by; six blocks away and I plan to walk there. Goode Park is on Turkey Creek, which connects to the Indian River.

Walk there we do. It is seven in the evening and the workshop starts at seven-thirty. It starts when I get there but I would not start late. I will start on time, by a clock, at a time designated by us and marked by specific numbers on a clock, watch, cell-phone, and, if there are any, I chance not seeing the manatees.

I walk with Evanne and Valerie to the dock and, as we step, it moves beneath us. I see nothing but lay down on my belly, as do the ladies. I put my hands in the water and wave them in and out just under the surface. In and out. Nearly instantly, surprisingly, a nose, four inches across, breaks the surface, closed nostrils open, hot air expelled and it smells of old vegetables., eyes are wide, focused on my face. Eyes like mahogany shooters surrounded by grey flesh. A short-nose elephant in the water.

I reach over and pat the head. It is smooth, warm, comfortable. Round, firm, comforting. Another comes up, sleekly, quietly, graceful in way I have seldom seen and I am thinking how something so impossibly shaped, so ungainly on land could be the utter animation of grace and flow and while I am thinking this another sneaks up, unseen, unheard. So large and so quiet.

I pat it with both hands, rubbing either side of its head. As I do, it snuffles at my palms, left then right, opens its mouth, licks my fingers and moves forward placing its head once more between my hands.

It turns over, deftly, silently as I rub and my hands are on it’s belly: soft, muscular, warm and I rub it as long as it will have until it moves back and my hands are on it’s chest, its flippers are thick, nails large and tough and I can’t help but feel them and I hold its hand. Hand, so much like my hand, five nails, fingers joined by skin and cartilage but five fingers, five nails. A moment passes and the hand I’m holding places, easily moves, mine back onto its chest, making its desire well and clear; it wants its chest and neck rubbed.

It is raised from the water, belly and a portion of its side above the surface, visible. On the grey skin, in the flesh, are four yellow scars, at regular distances, at the same angle, nearly and inch wide and each about a foot long. I would see this again and again as the manatees would come up, each in turn, scars and scars.

And so, our bellies to the ground, theirs to the air, we rubbed them, as long as they would have, into the warm night.

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Posted by on July 15, 2006 in Culture, Nature, Social


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