It is spring in Ann Arbor, Michigan. So far, like the damp, chilly winter we just had, spring has been wet, but it’s been punctuated by promising warm days under skies as blue as memories. This season has a reputation for frolic, mating rituals, the riotous bursting forth of suppressed life. But there is an earnestness to spring as well, an implied faith that awakening from dormancy is worth the bother despite the short growing season of this northern clime. It is a sense that life will out, that even in this time of unreason and teetering on the brink of we-know-not-what-but-it-don’t-seem-good, the world is safe enough to re-enter.

IMG_4886.jpgLooking out my bedroom window to my backyard, I think that autumn is not the only season with “peak color.” Spring has it, too, and it is upon us. The new leaves on the young tulip tree are a bright, succulent green that seems as much a light source as a reflection. Nearby, the Japanese maple leaves appear like delicate little hands painted a rich, dark red. The pink flowers of the pear tree next door arc above the fence. They remind me of redbuds, whose branch-hugging blossoms outline the bony winter shapes of the trees even as they declare, “It’s spring! It’s finally spring!”

Sunlight through translucent new leaves is lovely, but it is on a rainy day that the colors are at their peak. The wetness reveals the truest hues as it does in river stones. It is tempting to collect those stones, to bring them home to admire, yet it never quite works out, does it? Dry, they become dull and dusty, seemingly ordinary, and when you notice them months or years later, you wonder what possessed you to put them on your mantle or sideboard or whatever knick-knack place you have. You could put them in a home fountain to expose their beauty once again, and maybe you do for a time, but eventually you tire of refilling it, when all along if you had left them in the river, they would have shone for you and anyone else who happened upon them.

I stand on my front porch and look at the new redbud tree that stands hopefully where a lovely one, carefully nurtured, once lived. That one, having just reached its prime, was crushed by a mammoth street tree that fell during a windstorm, grazing the house when it could have destroyed it. We cleaned up, did some thankfully minor repairs, and planted another redbud. It appears to be thriving, and it should have a nice long life in its spot. Then again, that’s what I thought about the previous one until its lease all too suddenly ended. For now, the new tree seems to be making the best of the time it has in what was a place of life, then sudden death, and now life again. I miss its predecessor, but I am rooting for this one. It’s gradually coming into its own. Life, like truth (I hope), will out. Spring is its time.

The Accidental Actor

The man in the waiting area stands over me and asks, “Who are you?” His sandy hair is greying, and his square glasses are just a bit askew. He seems forward but not brash, direct but not unkind. I look up at him. I think he is referring to my son, who sits next to me.

“This is Elijah,” I answer.

They exchange greetings, and the man asks again, “Who are you?” He is looking right at me. His target is undeniable.

“Me? I’m his transportation,” I say, pointing at Elijah. The man keeps looking at me. His look is appraising. I begin to wonder what is going on. This is getting uncomfortable.

Finally, he says, “Sometimes the transportation ends up being so much more.”

I admire the cleverness of his line and wish I had thought of something like it. Throughout the conversation, I had wanted to stay a step ahead of him, but now that’s not working out. I feel a little out of control, like I’m walking in the dark. I decide that I need information. I ask, “What do you have in mind?”

“I want you to read for a part. Will you?”

My stomach flutters. I feel sweat blossom pretty much everywhere. And, cliché though it is, time slows. Ah, terror: haven’t felt you for a while; welcome back. I glance at Elijah. He is looking at me and smiling, instantly encouraging. To him, this is clearly a blast, but he is not reveling in my discomfort. His delight is genuine.

I have this thought: “I will not say no out of fear, not in front of my kid. Not when he willingly and bravely does this whenever he can.” Out loud, as casually as I can manage, I say, “Sure.”

The man ushers me up and out of my chair and toward a room. He produces a blank audition form seemingly out of nowhere and thrusts it into my hand. “Fill this out,” he says. “Let me give you some background about the character…” Just before we enter the room, he asks “Have you acted before?”

“Um, no, not really. I mean, a little.”

“When was the last time?”

Forgetting some work as an extra I did in a couple of plays a few years ago, I say, “I’m not sure. When I was 13, maybe?”

“Oh,” he says, frowning. He sounds somewhat grave, the first sign of uncertainty breaking through. He had been so confident. I had liked his confidence. He states the obvious: “Then it’s been a while.”

I don’t bother to take offense. “Yeah. A long time.” And then I walk into the room. Elijah follows.

Elijah and I are at these university film department auditions so that he can audition for a part in another movie, not the one that I find myself accidentally auditioning for. I hadn’t intended to do anything more than support my kid.

In the room, the man and I stop at a side table piled with scripts, where he tells a young guy who’s sitting there, “I’m thinking of him for Henry.” That guy looks at me for a long moment and then glances down at the pile. He hands me a script along with a character list. The front of the room has been cleared for the stage. A few people are behind a camera, including the person who turns out to be the director. I am horrified to see that the room is full of other people holding scripts. I had hoped that I could do this privately. It seems preferable to make a fool of oneself in private. My heartbeat feels prominent, fast, and less than regular.

Elijah and I take seats in the back of the room. I find the highlighted portions of the script and begin to study them. It reads easily. It’s clear and poignant. I can imagine these lines coming out of my mouth. I glance at the character list and plot synopsis. The film is a family drama, and Henry is the father, the male lead. He’s no-nonsense and in a painful situation. I look back at the script. Again and again I review the lines. Elijah looks over my shoulder. He’s seen more than a few scripts. “It’s good,” he says.

“I think so, too,” I reply. I turn to the beginning and begin to skim it. It’s excellent. Suddenly, I want to do this. I want to try to be this Henry guy. People are auditioning for various parts. I watch them. I start to think about how to go about this reading and it occurs to me that I’ve helped both of my kids prepare for parts in many productions. I ask myself, “What do I tell them to do?” And I answer, “Stay present, make eye contact, listen.” I read what the other actor in the scene will be saying and imagine how I would feel if I were in Henry’s shoes and someone were saying those things to me.

When it’s my turn, I go to the front of the room, sit down, and face the camera. I say my name and the part I’ll be reading. A young actor joins me. We read a scene, and I find myself having real feelings, as if I am actually Henry. I’m surprised at that. I have a strange sensation that I am simultaneously someone else and observing myself being that person. The director looks pleased. Another young actor does the scene with me. Then another, and another, and still another. I get a sweet thumbs up from Elijah between each reading. No one else that I had seen read for Henry had been up there so long.

Three days later, I get a call from the director: “I’d like you to be Henry,” she says, and she’s thrilled when I say yes. We shoot the film over five weekends. I love every minute of it.

One day, I took my kid to an audition and became an accidental actor. Now, after another short film and three plays, not to mention a couple of auditions that didn’t work out but taught me a lot, I can drop the word “accidental.” As the man said, “Sometimes the transportation ends up being so much more.”


During this past winter, such as it was, I wrote this:

Night after night, the fog has descended over Ann Arbor. House by house, my block disappears. Droplets of water cling to cars, jackets, my skin. This is not winter weather, yet it is this winter’s weather, driven by warm, wet air, El Niño air, its grey moisture sucked into materiality by the chill of the ground. It snowed a few weeks ago. The flakes were heavy, fluffy, paradigmatic. My daughter made a giant snowman. My son wrestled in the snow with his friends. And then the weather warmed, and it was gone. None has fallen since.

Many people that I’ve spoken to around town have remarked favorably on the mild weather. “After the past two winters, we’ve earned this,” they say. Yet there is anxiety in their voices. Maybe there is even dread. This weather feels wrong, heavy not just with moisture but also with reminders of climate change, environmental degradation, accelerating extinction. It is confusing weather. It feels important and dangerous. It speaks to our times.

I returned to the draft and read it in the midst of this droughty summer. The other day, rain finally came, but only for a short time, and then the heat returned. Clouds without promise hover in the withholding sky. The air is close and thick. People talk about the drought in anxious voices. The weather is not so confusing as it was over the winter, but it feels no less important and dangerous, and it most certainly speaks to our times. Hot times. Violent times. Racist and xenophobic times. Times that teeter between progress and regress.

We are living in a tinderbox of our own making.

A Slow Pleasure

In his column in today’s New York Times, Timothy Egan laments the continued dwindling of the average attention span. Apparently, it’s gone from twelve seconds in 2000 to a measly eight seconds. At least, it has amongst Canadians, according to a study he mentions, but let’s assume that the results are at least fairly generalizable. “Generalizable.” I think it took me more than eight seconds to think of and write that word, which makes me feel better about myself, but that’s beside the point.

Or maybe it’s not.

After confessing to being addicted to the real-time/anytime news and instant virtual “connection” that our pocket screens offer, Egan writes that gardening and deep reading are activities that manage to break him free and slow him down.

Reading his column, I thought about what slows me down, too. Reading certainly does. Hiking does, too. But perhaps more than anything, writing settles my mind into a slower, more contemplative rhythm. And, reading Egan’s piece, it occurred to me that this luxurious slowness is one of the things I love most about putting words on a page.

As quickly as my thoughts might fly while writing, I can only type or handwrite so fast. And often, my thoughts don’t come so quickly, at least not for long. I don’t find rapid production sustainable when writing. Instead, I settle into a deliberate pace, so different from what’s offered on social media or news sites or demanded of me in my job or shuttling the kids to their activities. When I write, I take the time to mull over words and sentences and think hard about scenes and dialogue and the feelings and sensations I want to evoke in readers. I slow down. I breathe. I close my eyes and pull up mental pictures, and then I try to re-create those on the page with mere words so that readers might see them, too. Sometimes I succeed, sometimes I don’t, but always, I enjoy the attempt.

Like sleeping (which we Americans don’t do nearly enough), might the activities that turn us away from the screaming stream of non-stop information be just what we need to recharge and recover our bearings? I think so. After writing, the harried feeling that I so often experience is gone, swept away by a slow pleasure that is pleasurable in no small part because of its very slowness.

Fishing for Papa

This essay was first published in The Crazy Wisdom Community Journal: Issue #60, May through August 2015. The online version in the Journal can be found here.

There are three ponds on my in-laws’ property in northern Georgia. Each was stocked decades ago with largemouth bass and bluegill, and since then, the fish populations have flourished. I’ve seen them from the water’s edge, sleek shapes among the weeds, under overhanging branches, and near the pilings of the old dock. On a recent visit, my kids asked if we could go fishing, so we went to the nearest of the ponds with the two decrepit fishing rods from the wrap-around porch, rigged with the only two lures available. One rod sometimes loses its upper half with a hard cast. The other has a broken reel mount, so the reel is always on the brink of falling off.

I demonstrated how to cast and reel in the line, and the kids practiced casting toward the center of the pond. At first, they were too quick and jerky in their movements, naturally thinking that casting far requires a lot of force, and the lures flew astray or splashed hard into the water just a few feet away. “Try slowing down and moving more smoothly,” I told them, “and let the rod do the rest.” After some more fits and starts, they sent their lures soaring gracefully farther and farther toward the middle of the pond as their fishing rods became extensions of their arms. Their smiles flashed as they hit their marks more often than not. I showed them how to work the lures back to shore, varying speeds and angles and bringing them close past likely fish hideouts.

As I watched the children, memories of my grandfather rushed into my mind. Papa was an angler, not by profession, but by passion. A Chicago native, he fished the lakes of the Midwest for years, returning to his favorites, like Lake of the Woods in Minnesota, time and again. Later, when he and Nana moved to my hometown of Los Angeles, he didn’t get to fish as often. Yet he talked about fishing with a wistfulness that I didn’t hear from him on any other subject, though baseball sometimes came close for the former second baseman. When he talked fishing, his clear blue eyes shone and a grin lit his round face. His tackle box was among my favorite things, a massive green case that opened by splitting apart the top to reveal six stacked trays, three on a side, which lifted into perfect tiers to reveal a meticulously organized array of lures.

When I was about ten years old, Papa bought me my first fishing gear, a grey, six-foot, light-action Browning rod and matching Mitchell reel. That same evening, I took the rubber band off the spool of the reel – exactly what he had told me not to do. I did it so I could see the line, thin and bluish-white, almost luminous in the light of my bedroom. The line instantly sprang from the spool with a will and quickly grew into a bird’s nest, even as I tried to hold it in place.

I shuffled down the hall and into the dining room, where Papa was sitting at the table, and handed him the mess. He took a slow, appraising look and said, “Took off the rubber band, huh?” Then he set to work on it. His hands were knobby and his fingers blunt, perhaps from the physical labor he did as a grocery warehouseman, yet he deftly handled the ultra-fine line. He could have cut it, of course. Or he could have made me deal with it to teach me a lesson. But he knew that the lesson had been learned already. Nothing more needed to be said.

Fishing with my children, I remembered standing as a boy with Papa in my front yard, casting a rubber weight over and over again as he gently gave me nuggets of advice. I remembered my practice casts hitting the near edge of the neighbor’s lawn, then the middle, and eventually the driveway, beyond the lawn, and Papa giving me encouragement: “Oooh! That was a good one! Try putting the next one over there.”

Before long, Papa took me to Lake Casitas for my first real fishing trip. There, he showed my cousin and me how to place our casts precisely under overhangs, where bass might be lurking, though only my uncle caught anything on that broiling day. Later, my cousin and I attended a day camp that ended the summer with a week-long fishing adventure in the Sierras. Before that trip, Papa showed us how to rig for rainbow and brown trout. Fishing the San Joaquin and Owens Rivers, Twin Lakes, Horseshoe Lake, and Lake Mary, I did as he taught, keeping quiet by the bank, standing so that my shadow did not darken the water, and placing my bait or lures right where I wanted them. He was a great teacher; I caught plenty of fish.

Despite my childhood love of fishing, and the fact that Papa frequently extolled the angling wonders of Michigan when I moved here 20 years ago, as an adult I’ve fished very little. Yet in Georgia, as I taught my children, Papa’s lessons came back to me as if riding into my mind on my memories of him. When my kids felt comfortable casting and working the lures back to shore, we talked about where the fish might be, and I taught them as Papa had taught me. There were some good looking overhangs and weedy areas, and while we risked losing our lures to snags, the kids felt confident that they could place them right where they wanted them, just as my cousin and I had at Lake Casitas and in the Sierras so many years before. That’s what they did, and it worked. Each of them caught and released a lot of fish.

They caught the fishing bug, too, as I had once. During our few days in Georgia, the children and I grabbed whatever time we could to go down to the pond and see if the fish were biting. The children’s eyes shone, and their faces wore joyous grins, as Papa’s had when he fished or just talked about it. I watched quietly as the children angled, admiring their patience and concentration. Their casts were beautiful – their arms cocked back and then brought their fishing rods forward swiftly and smoothly, and their lures flew into the pond trailed by an arc of line that settled gently onto the water. I watched their intent looks as they worked the lures back to shore, bringing them right past where they thought the fish might be waiting. And I thought about how much Papa would have loved that moment. The surge of closeness to him that I felt watching his great-grandchildren fish that pond in northern Georgia brought to the surface not only how much I miss him but also the tremendous gifts he gave me over the years: his love, encouragement, and knowledge. They are gifts I try to pass along to my children, and like most parents, I don’t always succeed. But when I do, my mind fills with warm thoughts of those who bestowed those gifts upon me, and Papa was one of my primary sources.