To Swim

The Sea by Night

I took a walk along the sea by night

Waves invited me as they crashed and roared

Inviting me into the cool waters

I felt and sensed the spray upon my face
But I did not swim. It isn’t time yet

Instead I sat at its edge pondering,

Remembering. I think with clarity

Here, when I can see with my eyes what waits.

 

Waters reach my feet but it isn’t time

It isn’t my time, but it’s another’s

I’ll get to swim one day. I long for it.

 

Until then, I will walk the earth on foot

It is forbidden to wade in early

But hope for the day breathes inside my heart

Memorization is Overrated

Memory

A hallmark of education in this country, in our time, seems to be this: memorization is overrated.

Many of you probably agree. We’ve all partaken in the groaning and moaning about history classes that are reduced to “a bunch of names and dates.” “Why does it matter if I know what year Columbus sailed the ocean blue?” (1492 is the knee-jerk response, of course, but also in 1493 and 1498 for those of you at home keeping score.) “Who cares if I know the periodic table? I can just look it up.”

Yes. Yes you can. But here’s the problem with that.

It lets you be stupid.

“Dang it, Wes! You’ve insulted me for the last time. I’m going to stop reading your blog and spend more time on r/cats.”

Wait a minute and hear me out.

For centuries and centuries- possibly from the beginning of time- man has relied on memorization as the primary means of learning. Why is that? We are often quick to assume that those who have gone before us were brainless nitwits and Neanderthals, so it isn’t hard to disregard their opinion. (of course, those who actually read things written more than ten years ago will see how silly the idea of past inferiority is) Yet they must have had a reason. It is said that Saladin, the great hero of the Second Crusades (Well, hero if you’re a Muslim, I suppose, but he was even respected by his enemies in Christendom at the time) had ten books of poetry committed to memory. TEN. I know people who don’t have their own phone number committed to memory.

We give lip service to critical thinking- an excellent concept, to be sure, and quite valuable. And yet what good is analysis by a fool? By someone who knows nothing. I have zero knowledge about diesel mechanics. If a diesel mechanic called me up and said, “Wes, come look at this aircraft carrier I have in the bay. I want your analysis.” Well, I suppose I could wander down to the water and give it a look. Then, using my powers of critical thinking, I could tell him…

Well, probably nothing of use.

Why was Sherlock Holmes so successful, albeit in his fictional world, at solving crimes? His powers of observation and deduction, of course. Yes, good. Why was this of use to him? Other people were capable of noticing the six flecks of mud that were on the riding boot of the man at the door, but that did no one any good except for Sherlock Holmes. Why? Because, like the freak of nature that he is, he had memorized the color of every mud in England, so he was able to deduce where the man had just come from. Without his great wealth of facts, Sherlock Holmes is reduced to being a moderately clever average joe with a cocaine problem and a penchant for the violin.

The most intelligent people I know also seem to have the most committed to memory. I do not think this is a coincidence. Training our memory trains our mind. Proper reflection and critical analysis can only take place after there are facts to work with. Insight comes from saturation, not from a void. It is said that the Druids of ancient Celtic lore were able to reproduce anything they had read one time. Think about that. Once they had completed the training of years and years, they were supposed to have been able to read a book one time, then pick up a pen and reproduce it for you.

I don’t know about you, but that sounds like a pretty handy skill to me. If you’re thinking to yourself, “I don’t need to reproduce books that often,” then you’re not thinking broadly enough. Remembering precisely what happened, knowing the facts and figures relevant to my work, preserving new words when trying to learn a language- all of these things make for a life of higher achievement and learning.

Furthermore, I can say based on my own experience and more importantly on the testimony of others that there is a deeper sort of understanding that often comes with memorization. I often don’t fully grasp a piece of poetry until I’ve committed it to memory. Once done, its meaning opens up like a blossoming flower. Am I being overly dramatic? Perhaps, but it is true nonetheless.

Why is it that people go through four years of a language during high school and don’t speak a word of a second language? Why is it that so few people remember how to do the calculus they learned in college? Why is it that so many people read a book or listen to a speech and instantly forget what it was about? Why do we so often repeat the same mistakes over and over again?

Memory is a precious and an underappreciated thing, friends. Thankfully, it is a muscle that can be improved with practice.

Now let’s go memorize something, yeah?

Not If, But When

whiskey

 

“Jeremy!”

“Hello, Mr. Wallace.”

Jeremy swallowed hard, glancing up at the tall, gray-haired man in front of him. Mr. Wallace wore a tweed suit and an Armani smile, but what was it that Jenny had said? He starts out nice, then he turns vicious. That was what she said.
Great.

Mr. Wallace turned and shouted up the stairs.

“Jenifer! Your suitor is here.”

Jenny’s voice came back muffled.

“Daddy, I told you not to call him that.”

Mr. Wallace turned back at Jeremy with a warm grin and he gave a slight shrug of his shoulders.

“Kids, huh?”

Jeremy raised his eyebrows and nodded. Forget the fact that he was the same age as Jenny. Actually, she was a month older.

“Come on in, son.”

Mr. Wallace led the way, and Jeremy thanked him as he walked inside.

The entryway was beautiful. A tasteful weave lay beneath their feet, and an artful chandelier hung above, drawing the eyes up the spiral stairway, where Jenny’s head appeared for a moment. Her hair was pulled back and she frowned.

“Daddy, be nice to him!”

She smiled then- a real, genuine smile. A smile you could believe in.

“I’ll be down in a minute, Jer.”

Jeremy couldn’t help his heart fluttering a beat as they locked eyes before she vanished. She was way out of his league. She always said the same thing about him. That was what he called an ideal situation.

The fact that he had never seen the inside of his girlfriend’s house in the year and a half they had dated, for the simple reason that she didn’t want him to meet her father, was not.

The things we do for love.

Jeremy was still looking around at the décor when a large, Scottish hand landed on his shoulder, almost making him stumble forward a step.

“Come on, Jeremy! I’ll give you the walking tour.”

The way he said it made it sound like “Walken,” like Christopher Walken, and the thought of the old actor leading him around the house, pointing things out in a New York accent like, “Hey, and over there are some ferns. I do not like the ferns, but the, uh… the manangement. See, they say, “hey, you’ve got to keep the ferns.” Stupid-’ and then a New York blue streak. Jeremy had a vivid imagination, and the mental image made him chuckle.

“Something funny, son?”

Jeremy snapped his head up, suddenly mortified.

“No! No sir, not at all. I don’t think it even makes sense for Christopher Walken to be in here.”

What?

Mr. Wallace raised an eyebrow. Jeremy panicked inwardly. He laughed nervously.

“No, that came out funny. I mean, why would he live here? It’s your house, not some random movie star’s.”

Mr. Wallace frowned.

“You don’t like my house, Jeremy?”

“No! No, I do. It’s very nice.”

Mr. Wallace gave Jeremy a funny look, then continued walking. Jeremy had a vivid imagination. He could see entire scenes as soon as he thought of an idea. He had a vivid imagination, and a bad way of expressing himself. Not a great combination for dinner with the parents.

“Margery! Come meet our daughter’s suitor.”

They headed toward the kitchen, where an older, duller version of Jenny stood, wiping her hands on her apron. She had the same twinkle in her eye as her daughter, and she greeted Jeremy warmly, making him relax a bit.

“Such a pleasure to finally meet you Jeremy. Jenny says such good things.”

“When you can wrangle them out of her!”

Mrs. Wallace gave her husband a look. He seemed immune.

“Margery, according to Jeremy here we need to get a new house. Ours isn’t good enough. He seems to think it’s some sort of a dump.”

“No! No, I never- I don’t think that at all. I wish that I could-”

“That’s enough out of the chatterbox. Come on, Jeremy, I’ll show you the den.”

They left Mrs. Wallace in the kitchen with a confused expression on her face, Jeremy with a horrified one. What else had Jenny said? Jeremy could see her in front of him, right outside of the Monday/Wednesday lecture they had together. The image was crystal clear in his mind as she said, “He has this way of bringing out the worst in people. Don’t let him get to you. Not if it goes badly, but when,” she sighed. “I’ll still love you, okay? Even if the house burns down. Then we never have to go over for anything other than Christmas.”

A warning like that sure puts a guy at ease.

“Have a seat, Jeremy.”

The den was very nice- and if there was one thing Jeremy appreciated it was a good piece of furniture. The couch was plush, covered in real leather, and the cushions had fine impressions of artful designs on the surface. It was cool in the room, and it made him feel a little better. He could hang out with dad for a few minutes, and then he’d have Jenny around to help him out if he stuck his foot in his mouth. The couch received him like a body of water, enveloping him in comfort. All discomfort was banished in such a fine sofa.

“Mind if I call you Steve?”

The discomfort was back.

“What?”

“Steve.” Mr. Wallace repeated the word like it was a natural thing to ask. “I don’t like the name Jeremy so much; mind if I call you Steve instead?”

Jeremy fidgeted in his seat a bit. Suddenly the beautiful, perfect piece of upholstery was a medieval torture device.

“Well, that’s not my name, and I was named Jeremy for a pretty specific and neat reason, so yes. I do mind. I could tell you the back story if you-”

Mr. Wallace sank down heavily into the couch disconcertingly close to Jeremy, and he let his arm flop across Jeremy’s shoulders.

“Whew, that’s a relief, Steve, thank you. It’s a much more sensible name, Steve. I’ll tell Jenifer that you prefer it.”

“No, please don’t.”

It was like he wasn’t even there.

“Say, you a drinking man, Steve?”

Jeremy glanced at the Scotsman’s ruddy face, only an inch or so to his left.

“Well, actually, no. I prefer to avoid it for a lot of reasons. When I was a kid, my neighbor’s-”

Mr. Wallace leaped up from the couch and crossed the room, opening a cabinet covered with etched glass in the likeness of a brown bear.

“That’s what I like to hear, son! A man does a few things, and drinking good, strong liquor is one of them. You take your whiskey neat, Steve?”

“I still would prefer not to. I don’t feel comfortable with the idea of-”

“Quit jerking me around, Steve. Ice or no ice?”

Jeremy put his hands out diplomatically.

“Okay, if I had to drink, which I’d really rather not do, I suppose with ice, because it would dilute it some, but I’m very firm on-”

“Neat! That’s a man’s choice, Steve, I’m proud to know you. No ice it is. Straight up.”

Mr. Wallace returned to the couch and crashed into it heavily again, now holding two tumblers and a fifth of highland malt whiskey. He set the tumblers on the coffee table before them and opened the bottle.

“Say when.”

Right away, Jeremy said when. Mr. Wallace kept on pouring.

“When. When. When! That’s good. When. When!”

Mr. Wallace chuckled.

“Well, you can’t accuse me of being heavy handed, Jeremy. It’s your own dang fault if your eyes end up being bigger than your stomach. Of course, you know it’s a fighting offense to accept whiskey from a man, then disdain to finish it.”

The glass was full. Not mostly full, not halfway full. It was up to the brim. Jeremy stole a glance at the bottle. 90 proof.

Mr. Wallace handed the glass to Jeremy, and poured himself a more reasonable dose. He clinked the glasses together and forced the tumbler into his hand.

“Bottoms up, son.”

Jeremy did the calculations in his head. He was not a large man. He was six feet tall, a hundred and forty pounds, and since he didn’t drink he had about a zero tolerance for the liquor. A full glass would either kill him or put him under the table. Or he’d die under the table. He could see exactly how his corpse would look in his mind.

“I’d really rather not, sir. I have a…”

Mr. Wallace’s expression turned sour as he removed his glass from his lips.

“Are you refusing a man’s gracious hospitality, son?”

This was the most frightening sentence Jeremy had ever heard. He looked away from Jenny’s father for a moment, then glanced at the overflowing glass of brown death in his hand. How could such an angel like Jenny come from this man?

He sighed and brought the liquid to his lips. Mr. Wallace tipped the glass as he did, and instead of an easy sip, he ended up downing a mouthful.

“Spit one drop of that stuff on my floor, my couch, or on yourself, and I’ll have your head. This whiskey’s gold.”

Somehow, Jeremy managed to swallow. He felt like he had been struck in the face with a baseball bat, then like someone was pushing in on his ears from both sides. He coughed, and some whiskey went up into his nose.

“There you are, Steve.  Now tell me about your plans for my daughter.”

Jeremy wasn’t sure if the big man was actually crazy or just pretending, but it was an impressive display of bullying, coercion, selective hearing, and outright dominance either way. In the five minutes it took for Jenny and dinner to get ready, he had managed to get him to drink the entire glass of whiskey. He was chewing on an after dinner mint and drilling him with questions that made his head spin when Jenny and her mother mercifully came in to fetch them for dinner. The whiskey and the glasses were mercifully already gone. Mr. Wallace had stowed them a minute before.

Jeremy wasn’t sure how he got to his feet, but he managed somehow. His head was swimming already, and he knew the stuff had barely begun its effect. Already he had only just stopped himself from trying to describe the bizarre scenes that went on in his head. He would have sounded ridiculous doing so sober, and sober he was not.

Jenny smiled at him, and her father put a big arm around his shoulders as they walked into the dining room.

“Jeremy.” So he was back to calling him Jeremy now. “Jeremy, son, you remind me a lot of myself.”

Mrs. Wallace turned around and grinned.

“What a nice thing to say.”

Jeremy’s heart warmed a bit at this- though that may have just been the whiskey. Maybe Mr. Wallace was just a bit of an odd character, but with a heart of gold that would accept anyone who partook with him in the things he loved. Mr. Wallace leaned into his ear and whispered, however, making Jeremy forsake this thought.

“All of the things I hate about myself, that is.”

The color drained from Jeremy’s blushing face. He was glad for Mr. Wallace’s arm around him now, because he was afraid he couldn’t keep his feet alone.

Jenny had said that no matter how much of a disaster tonight was, she would still love him. Not if it went wrong, but when.

Mr. Wallace sniffed at the air as they reached the table and adopted a quizzical expression.

“Jeremy,” he said loudly, incredulously. “Have you been drinking?”

He really hoped Jenny was telling the truth.

 

 

Fear

eyes-394175_640

Fear should lessen with age
But often it doesn’t
It seems the stuff of children
yet it fills the hearts of men

A child fears the dark
Because he suspects there’s something there
An adult fears it too
Because he suspects there is nothing

Wild fears age into mundane ones
But it is all loss and abandonment

“What if there is a monster?”
Means “Will no one save me?”
“What if I lose my house?”
Means the same

“What if I don’t know where to go?”
Means, “I fear I’m lost”
“Things just don’t seem to work out”
Means the same

There are many what if’s in fear
There must be, for they lack substance
Only what might or may
Never what is
There is no uncertainty with the tiger before your face
Only of the one that lurks in the dark

And yet fear is childish still
Though men and women adopt it
They practice conceit, yet the vice
Is no less childish because of it

There is only one object that should rightly be feared
And its fear should not age

Loss is not it.

Struggle!

Flashlight

When I was thirteen years old, my cousin tutored me in math, teaching me Geometry. We would go over to my grandpa’s house, gather a couple of chairs around a table in the rumpus room, and get to work. On one such occasion, working through problems in the book, we came across a difficult puzzle. I don’t remember the exact problem, only that it had something to do with shooting a hockey puck so that it gets past the goalie and into the net- and that it was really hard. I couldn’t figure it out. She couldn’t figure it out. It was apparent that she was a bit frustrated (as was I) with my questions and requests for clarification of the concepts we were studying in the problem, because it wasn’t making any sense. My cousin, having no other recourse, started talking through a couple of lines of reasoning she could maybe use to solve it. Math scribbles covered the paper. Lines of thought were followed, then abandoned when it was apparent they were incorrect. Lots and lots of writing. No solution. Frustration.

I asked her in my frustration, at one point, how all of the “impressive-looking math” helps us when it wasn’t getting us closer to the problem’s solution. My cousin ran a hand through her hair and I’ll never forget what she told me. It was something along the lines of, “I don’t know how to do this. But I’m trying. And sometimes, you have to do a lot of ‘impressive-looking math’ to try and figure out something that works.”

Lo and behold, however many more minutes passed without fruit, eventually, she came up with the right answer, and understanding followed like a wave. A wise man once said that despair is the refusal to struggle. I refused on that day. My cousin did not. She figured out the problem.

I share this story, because I have heard a lot of talks and read a lot of articles recently (really in the past several years) that seem to have a common theme: ‘There isn’t always a solution.’ ‘Stop trying to fix it.’ ‘Don’t say that to him/her/etc.’ ‘That’s just how things are.’ Something has sort of been bubbling up inside of me with the addition of more and more such expositions, and I wanted to share my thoughts with you.

Let me not be misunderstood. Empathy is a good thing. It’s been said that people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. This is absolutely the case. Love must come first, and it must be sincere. If someone comes to me with a problem, the first thing I’m going to do is not sit them down and tell them all of the things they did wrong. Of course they need a shoulder to cry on. Of course I will (hopefully) provide that to them. That said, this is often viewed as the proper end of things, and I don’t think that it is. I see a lot of back-patting, and not a lot of change. I think sincere love for each other has to go further than this.

I don’t know when we all tacitly agreed that fixing things is bad form, but I disagree wholeheartedly. Frankly, I have problems, and I want them to get better. I very often am in uncertainty about some of them. I can’t always see the solution, but I think it’s better to struggle than to despair. When I have an issue and I take it to someone, open arms are great, and I need that, and everyone needs that. But if there’s a solution, I want to hear it. I want to be reminded of truth, I want to be reminded of what I know but my circumstances have obscured. Perhaps it is the impertinence of my youth, but I want answers.

We’re often told that there aren’t any. I don’t believe that. I think that there is not a problem in this world that does not have a solution. It very often might not look the way I think it ought to, but there is always a solution. There is always an answer, even if I don’t know it.

I was told recently that recipes are great in the kitchen, but if the lights go out, they’re worthless. I agree and I disagree. If I’ve memorized the recipe, it still does me a great deal of good. If someone in the next room has it in front of them and they’ve got a lamp on, it’s still helpful.

I’m not talking about cheap solutions and heartless “shut up and get better”isms. What I am talking about is the courage to seek healing where it looks like there can’t be any, to keep looking for a solution when it seems like you’ve exhausted every avenue, to keep fighting when it looks like you’re beat. Sometimes I don’t have the answer- but there is one. Sometimes I can’t do it myself- but someone can.

In short, I am not satisfied with mere empathy. I want answers. I want truth.

Struggle.

Still Here

joshua-tree-national-park-74399_640

“I’m not a miss. I’m not a shot of potential and a glass of failure. I’m still here, ain’t I?”

Marquez tilted his head and shaved a bit of hair off of Jamie’s chine. The machete was sharp.

“I don’t think that’s the best idea to push on us, vato. You got some people angry. We invested in you.”

Jamie pulled at the zip ties that held him fast to the concrete pillar. Abandoned parking garages were the worst place for this sort of thing. You could practically feel all of the bodies stashed around.

“Then it’d be a big waste to off your investment, don’t you think, Marky? Come on, let me talk to Jefe.”

Marquez leaned back and scratched his chest with the butt of his blade. Flies buzzed around, even in the shade. They were attracted to the sweat.

“I don’t know, guero. He’s pretty busy.”

“He’ll want to talk to me.”

Oye! Ya estan terminado con el hoyo?” Marquez had turned and was yelling to his partners. They raised their shovels and shouted back from the sun-baked earth outside of the protective shade of the dusty parking structure.

Casi ya!

They were just about finished with the grave. Great.

Marquez turned back to Jamie.

“Yeah, I think he won’t want to talk to you, seeing as how you’re a dead man. Dead men is scary, vato. He don’t want to talk to you.”

“Look… I may know something about the diamonds.”

That got his attention. One eyebrow rose.

Esta lista!

Marquez looked over his shoulder and shouted back to his associates.

Espera un momento!

He looked back to Jamie.

“Then why didn’t you turn them in, estupido? At the end of the job like you said?”

Jamie avoided his gaze. His reply was cut off as Marquez continued speaking, jabbing his machete toward his chest.

“You said that the protection showed up and you couldn’t get the diamonds out of the compound. You said you dropped them.”

“I may have dropped them off instead of just dropping them. They’re in a safe place.”

“Where?”

“Not far.”

Marquez looked left, then right. He folded his arms, the machete sticking menacingly out of one side. He stared at Jamie; Jamie stared at him.

“Just take me to Jefe- I can straighten this all out.”

“That was a lot of diamonds, my friend, but Jefe is no puppy mutt criminal, vato. He has experience. He’d rather have fear and trustworthy men than a big score. I take you to him, he slit your throat himself.”

Great. The “stash the stolen goods” part had gone beautifully. The “get away from the cartel that wants to kill you” part, not so much.

“Where are they?” Marquez asked, letting his head roll around like he wasn’t interested, but his eyes betrayed him.

“Close. I told you already.”

“Tell me where they are.”

“So I can make you happy before I die? No thanks.”

Marquez glanced over his shoulder again. His assistants were starting to wonder what the holdup was. Marquez took a step closer to Jamie, his blade raised.

“That’s a shame, vato. I really like to be happy.”

Jamie watched as the blade fell. And his arms were suddenly free. Marquez stooped down and cut away the zip ties from his feet as well.

“I also like to be rich,” he said under his breath. He glanced up at Jamie with an understanding in his eye. There was a tacit accord between them.

Amigos! Yo voy al otro lugar para matarle. Aqui alguien quizas oyera sus gritos. Regresare.

Marquez took Jamie roughly by the crook of his arm, keeping the machete at his throat.

“We’re going to get into the truck, and you will tell me where we go. If you do something stupid, I kill you. Ok?”

“Whatever you say, Marky.”

“Good.”

The walk to the beat up truck was a tense one. Jamie marveled at their vehicle when they finally reached it. For as much money as these guys had, he would have thought they might drive nicer cars. Not on the job, he thought, realizing why. Nice cars were conspicuous. When you drive into the desert to kill somebody, you take the beater.

“Get in.”

Jamie did as he was told. The car door slammed, and the dirt and sand flew up into the air, making Jamie cough. The driver’s side door opened, and Marquez slid in, sheathing his machete.

“Let me see your hands.”

“Why would you want to-”

Tus manos, tonto! Give me your hands!”

Jamie did as he was told. A pair of handcuffs clicked into place around both hands, snaked through a handle on the dash.

“Thanks. These feel great.”

“Just be happy you can feel at all, guero. Your life is in a delicate place, I think. Everyone wants you to die.”

“But not you.”

Marquez hit the gas and the truck tore out onto the dusty, abandoned road, putting new tracks in the sand. He smiled.

“I want you to give me the diamonds. After that, no me importa.”

“Your compassion is touching.” Jamie fidgeted with his cuffs. They were fixed tightly, and the handle they went around was surprisingly strong. Jimmying free did not seem to be an option. “Turn left here.”

It was a quiet ride, just dust, occasional directions, and the beating, blistering heat. As they neared a cave, Jamie sat up suddenly.

“Stop here.”

Marquez gave him a glance, then braked. He shut off the truck.

“The diamonds are here?”

“In that cave there. You walk in about thirty feet, then look around for a stack of three rocks. It’ll be on your left. The diamonds are buried underneath that, only about six inches down.”

Marquez repeated the instructions to himself, then nodded. He opened his door and started to get out.

“Hey!” Jamie said, holding up his cuffed wrists as best as he could. “Aren’t you going to uncuff me?”

Marquez smirked.

“What for? I know where they are now, yes? What do I need you for?”

Marquez slid his machete out of its sheath as he cautiously approached the cave’s entrance. Jamie shouted after him.

“You took me out here to kill me, then? Right after you nabbed the goods?”

Marquez disappeared into the blackness, but his voice carried out.

Si, vato! Que otro? Estupido…”

Then, there was a gunshot, and the sound of a body hitting the ground. Jamie leaned back in his chair. A second later, a dark-skinned, slick-haired hombre in a bulletproof vest and shades stepped out of the cave, heading toward the truck. The vest had the letters “FBI” printed across the front.

“Hey, thanks, Carlos,” Jamie said, sitting up again.

“Don’t mention it. That clown pulled a freakin’ machete on me.”

Carlos took Jamie’s hands and rotated them, trying to see what kind of cuffs held him. He kept talking.

“We thought you were a miss. A shot of potential with your first assignment, and then a big ol’ tumbler full of failure.”

Jamie smirked.

“I’m still here, ain’t I?”

Felicity

misty

To be loved and yet not known is shallow

To be known and not loved is what we fear

Hanging in balance, we straddle the row

Hoping to be held without holding dear

 

“Give your heart in pieces,” the prudent say

Like carrots meted out before a mule

If he eats a few, then snubs one- it may

Be easier for the heart to o’errule

 

Some truth is there spoken, but more suppressed

If love’s without fear, then fearless is best

A life with hands open is ever blest

How much more to live with an open chest!

 

I am known by God, and loved- let it be

If another loves me, felicity.