Finding the Spot

The most memorable part of my family’s day trips to State Beach in Los Angeles was one man who was always there when we arrived. He was probably about 65 and tan and trim in that way that some older men are: no rippling muscles but sharp shoulder blades and thin arms that suggested a life of action. He wore only a Speedo, and he always occupied the same exact square of beach, right next to a faded blue lifeguard stand.

As thousands of people over the course of the day walked past him, he performed the same act over and over: he heaved a large white frisbee at an angle over the ocean and toward the sky and then waited as it reached its apex and hurtled back along the incoming breeze into his outstretched hand. He was so skilled at his task that he barely ever left his small box of sand.

As a child, I noticed how oblivious everyone seemed of  this man, passers-by strolling along, talking, maybe ducking their heads for a moment to avoid the incoming frisbee. He acted as if no one was there — just him, the wind, and that spinning chunk of plastic.

That man has stuck with me all these years; I sometimes think of him when I lose my feet in the world’s stampede. My friend Carmen once showed me an exercise: she asked me to put my hands together out in front of me. She immediately pushed them down with great force. She then told me to raise them again, and that this time I could resist but not actively push back. And so I separated my feet to shoulder’s width, bent my knees, inhaled and exhaled a deep breath, and lifted my arms up. She pushed but could not budge my arms.

“Life is like me trying to push down your arms,” she said. “The trick is to always been ready to hold your ground.” This is hard because one never knows when life’s wild winds will come. Sometimes I can predict it; the transition from work to home can be difficult, going from a desk I can control and a door I can close to a house where Rio wants to play the second I arrive, any plans I had for myself gone like a string on a helium balloon. Sometimes I have literally shaped my right hand into a “c” (for chaos) and knocked it against my forehead a couple of times before entering the house to remind myself to brace for life’s half nelson.

The truth is, I try to be attentive to those around me, particularly Annie and Rio. The trick is balancing this with my own inner life, which can be just as demanding. If I ditch it for them, I risk losing touch with the channel that sometimes opens inside me. If I ditch them for it, I might not be there when they need me, and vice versa, something I witnessed happen with too many fathers. Just tonight I tried to squeeze in a few moments with the page right as my domestic needs came calling. I chose the words, which felt right at the time, but it can carry a price.

I’m not sure the Frisbee guy had to grapple with this. After all, there weren’t a bunch of toddlers clamoring on a blanket beneath his feet. He could focus exclusively on that piece of plastic. Who knows, maybe every other day of the week he took care of his three grandchildren. But for me, for now, I’m constantly trying to juggle my inner and outer responsibilities, and it seems the weather of what’s right changes every hour.

Funny enough, in college I started playing Ultimate Frisbee and became well acquainted with the nuances of a flying disc. I even started practicing my throws into the ocean wind when my friends and I went to the beach. There really is an art to it: measuring the strength and direction of the wind; angling the frisbee just right; throwing that piece of plastic with just enough force that it returns to the spot you’re standing on. But the man on the beach’s true art was not simply mastering this skill but having the presence to stay committed to it while the world whirled around him. Today I set the alarm early, and Rio and Annie are, as of this moment, still sleeping.

Shortcuts

Photo by Anna Blackshaw

When I was little I spent the summers at my grandparents’ house in Connecticut. Every other week we’d drive from their home near Hartford to the tiny fishing cottage my grandfather built in the 1940s on the edge of Bashan Lake.

One of the best parts about “going down the lake” was that my second cousins lived three cottages down. We’d spend all day building forts, hiding in the woods, and swimming, moving between their cottage and ours like they were swappable goods.

Up the dirt road from their cottage was a place we called “the Professor’s House.” It was nicer than the others, with a perfectly trimmed yard bordered by a straight line of cinder blocks to separate it from the dusty path. We often played near there, and it would have been easier to cut across this lawn than to walk around it. But we never, ever took this shortcut. My cousin Billy had told us about the day he took one step over the cinder-block wall; the elderly professor had come running out of his house shaking his fist and screaming for Billy to get off his lawn. I had recently read “To Kill a Mockingbird,” and the idea of a Boo Radley-type figure, rarely seen, chasing me down, was enough to keep me off that property every summer I was there.

After my son Rio was born five years ago, we started returning to the lake. Despite the passing of thirty years, the Professor’s house was still pin-neat, and the yard looked the same. I began telling Rio the story about my cousin and the Professor.

(I tell Rio two original stories every night after I tuck him in. It keeps my improvisation skills sharp, and it has become such a valued resource to Rio that taking away stories as a punishment is the one loss sure to make him cry.

It’s exhausting “being on” for a final performance after hours with the kid, but if I try to fake it, Rio always knows. In fact, just tonight I tried to skimp on one of my stories by telling him about the Bermuda Triangle; after I finished, he sat up in bed and declared, “That wasn’t a story! You just described the place! There wasn’t any ‘once up a time’ or anything that happened!” Soon thereafter, there was a laser beam coming from the depths of Atlantis that sliced an overhead spaceship in half.)

But back to the Professor. To keep things fresh, I started adjusting the story: sometimes my cousin would trip over the wall and barely escape the Professor’s grasp. Other times, the main actors were Rio and his cousin Milo, and they would run full speed to our cabin with the Professor hot on their trail. In the final rendition, the Professor finally finds Rio and Milo under a picnic table and ends up only wanting to offer them a cookie, after all.

Last summer, Rio and I saw someone down at the Professor’s house and walked down to chat. The man standing there was the Professor’s godson, and he offered me a beer as Rio ran down to play with the man’s teenage son on the dock. I told the man about our childhood lore, and he laughed, saying that the Professor was in fact very particular about his lawn. He called the Professor a “good man” but really didn’t say much more than that. I left a little disappointed that there was no dramatic end to the story; I’d hoped for some intrigue, some mystery, something about the Professor that was as monumental as the myth. But instead he was just a math professor from New York who liked to garden and come up to the lake on weekends. But in my story, he will always loom large; who knows, tonight he might come up with the math equation needed to transform flashlights into light sabers.

Quiet

Portrait of Carl and Lillian Sandburg by Edward Steichen

Carl Sandburg called it the “creative hush,” that holy place where the heart sings and the pen records. He found it at night, after everyone had gone to bed; while his wife and daughters slept he wrote in his upstairs office: poetry, Abraham Lincoln biographies, folk songs. At five in the morning he’d shuffle in his slippers over to his bedroom, hugging on the way his wife Lillian who was just heading out to milk her prize-winning goats.

There’s not much silence where I live. Bynum is quiet, but the acoustics in our old mill house produce more cacophony than symphony. House guests do not sleep in late chez Blackshaw-McKee. (Rio may chortle at your earplugs.) Annie and Rio both have the gift of the gab, and one generally knows where they are in the house, no matter what their activities. Rio has taken to busting out improvised rock n’ roll choruses while he plays, and Annie does a mean Ella Fitzgerald while cooking pasta putanesca. When Rio slips into bed with us in the early morning, he and Annie usually joke and giggle in a half-asleep state, me turning over and sighing histrionically, relegated to the outermost edge of the bed. The last time Annie was out of town, Rio came to bed as usual in the morning, nestled into her spot, and then said to me, rather formally, “Excuse me. Can we cuddle?” We did of course, but only after he relayed to me the dream he’d just been having.

Yeah, I get my quiet where I can. I read Rumi on the toilet.

But old Sandburg wasn’t so flexible. He needed his hush. He was 67 when they moved from Michigan to North Carolina. Lillian was sick of the cold northern climate, which proved difficult for her goats. She researched the best spot for raising her particular breed, settling on western North Carolina in a town called Flat Rock. Carl was fine with the whole thing as long as he didn’t have to change his routine. And so before they moved in, Lillian had the upstairs renovated so that it matched the exact layout of their house in Michigan. By the time they drove down, she’d had the contents of their entire house shipped and put in their proper place, down to the last book.

Carl wrote at this sprawling house until he died of heart failure at 88, winning the Pulitzer prize for poetry in his seventies. He said he only needed four things in life, maybe five: to stay out of jail; to eat regular; to have what he wrote printed; to have a little love inside the house and outside of it; and, he said, sometimes, to sing.