My first “official” public poetry reading at Unity Church of Houston Thursday, March 22nd 2018. Part of Assemble for Action, a series of motivational gatherings with candid discussions, personal reflections, musical incantations and poetic recitations all leading up to the monumental March for our Lives demonstration this coming Saturday, March 24th, in downtown Houston. I briefly discuss my perspective on gun violence as a military veteran and mental health advocate, followed by three poems on the respective themes of war/violence/destruction, grief and loss, and redemption through a commitment to lasting peace. Enjoy.
Greetings everyone and Happy Monday!
Hope everybody is doing well. You know, in recent weeks I had been reflecting on my past military service in the United States Coast Guard with a certain measure of tenderness and pride, perhaps even sentimentality as well. One of the best decisions I ever made, without question, and certainly one of the experiential “pillars” that you could say comprised a good chunk of the valuable perspective, insight and character that makes me who I am today.
I entered as a Radarman (RD) in the Spring of 2001, Sierra-159 company. Yep, that’s right, the famed “It’s Just Eight Weeks” recruitment video company. My “claim to fame” was being the kid who was interviewed while fighting back tears in segment 7 after just learning that I had been reverted after failing the Performance Enhancement Platoon (PEP), which was essentially a mega-boot camp within boot camp (read: absolute unmitigated Hell) for recruits who let’s say needed a little more of a “push” to uphold the very high standards of discipline and obedience demanded of us. It’s not so much that I was a “problem recruit” behaviorally speaking as it was me being a bit scatterbrained from time to time and in need of a good tune-up in the interest of training me to realize and reach my highest potential. And boy did they tune me up alright, even though I still managed to get sent back a company because I continued to make a chain of small mistakes! I did earn a Command Master Chief key a few years later after the CMC of Pacific Area/D-11 showed the embarrassing video to the entire crew aboard the my ship, the Coast Guard Cutter Munro! 😱😂
RD was the rating (specialty) that dealt with everything operations oriented, including intelligence collection, analysis and dissemination, communications, and of course, radar surveillance and navigation. Not long after I enlisted the rating name was changed to Operations Specialist (OS) to reflect specialty’s rapidly-growing purview of responsibility and scope throughout the maritime environment.
As OS’s, we were charged with coordinating resources and logistics to prosecute search and rescue and other critical missions, and many lives were saved from being stranded on the high seas and other waterways in the process. Sometimes, unfortunately, one of our local units would answer a rescue call concerning a person who jumped from a high bridge in an attempt to take their own life. These calls were always the hardest because they almost always ended up with the person passing away.
I’d have to say that the highlight of my career began when I was on overnight watch as the Response Duty Officer at District Eight Command Center the moment Hurricane Katrina made landfall. My LT and I looked at each other and pretty much decided right then to rock and roll. He phoned the Admiral right away and I made other calls. It was time to put all our training and contingency plans into motion, and get the hell out of Dodge.
We reconstituted the District Headquarters in St Louis, and immediately set up a makeshift command center in a small office at a downtown mixed-use office building. During the first week alone we answered over 4,100 calls for assistance while pulling non-stop “port and starboard” watch schedules, 12 hours on, 12 hours off, day in, day out. Many of the calls came from people in search of loved ones, and people stranded themselves but who unfortunately had no clear sense of geographic reference to pass on to the servicing Air Station in Mississippi due to the massive flooding. Many were sick and in need of emergency medications either for themselves or others close to them. Some of the callers were children who were separated from their families, and vice-versa. We were of course exhausted and had a sense of helplessness as we realized there was very little we could personally do to help these people other than take their contact info down and approximate address/general geographic location to pass onto one of a few Air Stations/remote response stations for further coordination. But the adrenaline brought on and kept on by the elevated operational tempo gave us all the momentum we needed to keep pressing on. After about the second week one of the Captains allowed for the crew to take leave in staggered segments, where one group would be allowed to take a certain number of days at a time to return to the New Orleans area to check on their homes, gather their families and coordinate the logistics of where they were going to be staying and so on. Once the first group reported back another group would be free to go and so on. My apartment fared relatively well, but the complex as a whole was ravaged and had to be extensively renovated. If I recall correctly, there was at least one fatality there. The neighborhood and of course the metro as a whole looked like it could have been straight from a Mad Max-type apocalyptic thriller. Some of my shipmates were not so lucky, returning to substantially and in some cases completely-submerged homes.
We ended up staying in St Louis for several months, eventually relocating to a much bigger area to accommodate all of the District Offices, including a larger and more comfortable office to house the command center. The crew was relocated from temporary to more permanent housing and the constant outpouring of generosity, love, support and appreciation from the wider community was very moving. The command center crew eventually found ways to blow off steam and have fun during our free time. And boy did we blow off some major steam! In the process, we without a doubt solidified as a team and became much closer than ever before. We were the “Katrina Crew,” the tight band of officers, OS’s, and Marine Science Technicians (MST’s) who made it through one of the worst natural disasters in US history to contribute to the saving/assisting of over 33,000 lives in our own little way, while up against an unprecedented operational and logistical environment.
When I raised my hand to enlist, I swore to live by the core values of Honor, Respect, and Devotion to Duty, instilled in me from day 1 of basic training. These core values are the Guard’s guiding principles in everything we do, from search and rescue (SAR), ports and waterways security, marine mammal/marine environmental protection, drug interdiction, servicing aids to navigation (ATON), to humane treatment of migrants, defense readiness/homeland security, ice ops, diplomatic visits, and so on.
Even though I am long out of the Coast Guard now I still feel that it is my mission to live by these core values as I work to try to save lives in a different way, through being a staunch advocate for mental health awareness and support for all, not the least of whom my fellow brothers and sisters in arms. In the nearly 11 years I’ve been separated, I’ve been to the deepest oceanic trenches of despair with my own battle with depression and suicidal ideation. Indeed, last year was pretty much the closest I had ever been to being one of the roughly 22 veterans who on average succumb to the demons they so courageously and heroically tried to battle. But somehow, someway, I have managed to keep those demons at bay, enough to proudly proclaim my lifetime commitment to:
1) Honor the value of every life.
2) Respect everyone I come across, regardless of who they are or where they come from or what they believe or who they choose to love.
3) Remain fully Devoted to what I consider to be the noble and privileged Duty of reaching out to people who are hurting to show them love and appreciation for who they are and who they can become, and to advocate ceaselessly for those who hurt.
I’m not a trained therapist or mental health professional or anything. Just a regular guy who loves humanity and cries when you cry, always with a shoulder for you to cry on if necessary.
I am above all else a friend. A friend to all. A friend to you. A friend on a new mission, which is to be a lighthouse of hope to all who are hurting, and to urge everyone who has bravely overcome their own personal demons to please, please be a lighthouse of hope to others, for I can’t save everyone by myself, as much as I would like to be able to. Drop a few words of kindness and encouragement to people you come across in the course of your daily lives, online and offline, family, friend and stranger alike. Be especially kind and compassionate to those who make their hurt and pain known, whether explicitly or through suggestion. Together, we can get through this. And we will. Because I am ready for any opportunity that may come my way to help improve the human condition. And I want you to always be ready as well. Why? Because Semper Paratus, that’s why!
Seems that Synchronicity has stricken once again. Several days ago I had been planning to write a post about genius. And, voila! One of the world’s foremost geniuses in history has just ascended into the celestial realm.
Regarding the concept itself, though, I wanted to explore the essential nature of genius and the way in which it tends to find manifestation in the realm of externality. My working interpretation has always been that genius is not so much a fixed capacity to absorb and reproduce a seemingly inexhaustible array of facts as it is an organic process of synthesis of various realms of knowledge in order to create or reveal new realms. In fact, I made this very observation in a Facebook post a couple years ago, about two weeks to the day (the date of the posting was 3/28/2016). On that post, I followed up with the caution that if one ever happened to run into a genius, to be patient with them, as you would a person of limited intellectual capacity. You may get bombarded with numerous strands of seemingly disconnected thought, which is simply evidence of the fact that some geniuses are simply better at synthesizing than others.
Initially I had been planning to more or less limit my exploration of genius to this working interpretation, which of course is essentially entailed in most conventional definitions of genius. But I was actually moved to delve more deeply into the human component of genius not only in light of Professor Hawking’s ascension, but also upon recently learning of the suicide of Nathan Haselbauer in 2015.
Nathan was pretty much by all accounts a genius. His IQ was tested to be around 162, and his keen intellect helped propel him into a very lucrative career as a Wall Street speculator at the tender age of 18. He would go on to develop a variety of logic puzzles, IQ tests and brain games, and had even established an international high IQ organization on par with Mensa.
I first took notice of him when he appeared as a guest on a BBC Horizon documentary episode called “Battle of the Brains” in 2007. The documentary was basically an investigation into the nature of intelligence and an exploration of some of the current theories about what intelligence is, including Howard Gardner’s famous theory of multiple intelligences, the concept of emotional intelligence, and the nature of creativity. Nathan was one of several guests who were by all accounts very intelligent and highly successful in their respective fields.
There was a child musical prodigy, who at 14 was already composing his own symphonies and other works. There was a supersonic jet pilot, a career which needless to say requires not only an extreme amount of intelligence, but also a highly-advanced problem-solving capacity, keen attention to detail and a transcendent level of focus. There was also a very talented self-taught artist who never finished high school, but who routinely sold her paintings to art collectors and galleries for thousands. There was a dramatist/playwright/literary critic, who began writing plays as a young girl. Aside from plays, she has also written several novels, musicals, radio plays, films, TV shows, even an opera. There was also an internationally-accomplished chess grandmaster, who had been called the “female Bobby Fischer.” And last, a quantum physicist who is currently a distinguished professor at MIT.
The guests went through a battery of tests in a competition-like setting in order to determine which brilliant mind would emerge as the most quintessentially intelligent, who most accurately represented the concept of intelligence in human form. The tests were really fun to watch, and included a variety of exercises designed to gauge each person’s aptitude for creative expression, creative thought, spatial awareness, IQ testing ability, and so on. Nathan, the quantum physicist, and the dramatist/playwright/critic all emerged as the “winners” at the end, indicating that, at least within the scope and purview of the show’s testing structure, they each most closely represented the “true” definition of intelligence (I was particularly proud of the literary arts being represented, being a poet and all. Lord knows we’re generally not the first thing people think of when they are asked to picture a ‘genius,’ hahaha, Shakespeare of course being an uncommon exception 🤣🤔🤓).
Back to Nathan’s story. I took a liking to him almost right away. Aside from being incredibly smart he also had an air of gentleness about him. You could say he was even soft-spoken. I never once picked up an attitude of grandiosity or narcissism, despite being the guest with the highest IQ and the wealthiest to boot. I learned that he was living in a small Colorado town at the time of his demise. He generally kept to himself, and it was learned some time after his death that he simply dreaded the thought of living a lonely life. He suffered from depression and was given to extreme isolation, and finally decided to end it all shortly after his 40th birthday.
Nathan’s story moved me deeply, because I just as easily could have been him. I am 3 years away from 40, and have been assessed by at least one clinical psychologist in the past who, let’s just say, was astounded and very encouraged by cognitive/intellectual ability, specifically as it relates to language. That’s as far as I’ll go with that, because I don’t believe in talking about IQ and I am certainly loath to self-aggrandizement, aka “tooting my own horn.” (If anyone is interested in hearing more about my experience with the clinical psychologist, message me).
Anyway, I also suffered as Nathan suffered. I have battled clinical depression and feelings of loneliness for a very long time, and just last year when I was at my life’s lowest point, I, too, dreaded the thought of going through my 40’s and 50’s with little prospect of meaningful social interaction. I guess you could say that I was tricked, as I am almost certain poor Nathan was, into thinking that the only thing I needed to live a purposeful, fulfilling and self-actualized existence was my intellectual capacity. I romanticized the hermit, the recluse, the lone wolf who retreated into the hidden depths of a forest to dedicate his entire life to the constant acquisition of knowledge for its own sake.
And boy was I wrong! In fact, that thinking had caused me so much emotional anguish and despair that it nearly took my own life. So what have I learned? Simple, that we as human beings are BY DESIGN to be involved in humanity, and we thrive the most when we dedicate our lives not to isolated study, but to the advancement of civilization towards greater and greater enlightenment. The more we fight this design, the more we suffer.
Professor Hawking accepted this design; nay, embraced it fully, dedicating his entire life to advancing humanity through a ceaseless and unconditional commitment to curiosity. I admired him very much, and was especially inspired by his perseverance through tremendous physical adversity. ALS is a devastating degenerative condition, and the fact that he managed to survive nearly 50 years with the condition is nothing short of remarkable. But it is also a testament to the fact that once you decide to open the precious intellectual gifts in your mind to the world, you are pretty much destined to thrive, in spite of whatever adversity life tries to throw at you. It is not lost on me that Hawking lived to be about the same age as Einstein, and that the date of his ascension, 3/14, has brought many things in life, well, full circle, or at least much closer to it.
Be well everyone.
“The intellect is good but until it has become the servant of the heart, it is of little avail.”
She arrived bearing leaflets
gathered hastily from a tree
that once made its home
along the bluff that bowed
in the direction of All Saint’s Creek,
Where the flightless seraphs would
traverse from time to time
to retrace the melody
that escaped somewhere between
celestial monuments immemorial
And the hallowed confluence of
electric mists and vernal shadows
that marked the beginning
and the end of a journey’s refrain,
just beyond the bend.
One leaf was given to a man of great wisdom
who preferred the wistful caress
of remote breezes emanating from
solitude sweetened with age
and fortified with crystalline shells of Faith.
Another was given to the golden-haired urchin
who painted the meadows with colors
birthed out of fond remembrances of
tender passages from lullabies
that dared to trace their lineage back to Blue.
Several more were given to
the animals that dutifully roamed
the forgotten stretch of the forest
in which visions of sunrise trickled down
like nervous rain on its journey beneath the surface.
The last leaf was given to me
as I wondered into the chestnut stream
that flowed from her eyes.
I held it to my heart and promised her
that I would awaken each morning hereafter
Bearing lavender periwinkles for her silken hair
extending in every direction, culminating into
tightly-woven star steps leading back
to the beginning of the Creek
where there were dreams of flight, patient and graceful.
I promised her that when the leaf crumbles,
my heart will divide the pieces among
every meandering soul in search of her lament,
and legions of despondent youth
will arise and build spatial arias from her maiden cry.
And the galaxies will awaken, changing form
with each resolution, presaging the moment
when each star will descend upon the horizon
and illuminate the spot where the leaflets once
graced her outstretched hand.
I sit and mark the journey
of lost stars that find their way down the bluff
and into my bosom, where I inscribe her smile on them,
and turn them into wings that glow in the dark
for the angels who plant trees at night.
Art by Matt Wisniewski
I am happy to announce the availability of my debut collection of poetry for purchase. Please follow the link below to access the title from my Create Space page. It is also available on Amazon and Kindle, and in about a month look for it at a bookstore near you! Enjoy and thank you so much for your support.
And there I stood
at the threshold of infinity,
the tides would cease to swerve,
when the moon would
turn to face me and weep,
when the lighthouse
would become darkened
by the sempiternal emptiness
of unanswered questions.
And then I chose a star to hold,
to cherish and protect as the path takes on new direction.
I speak to a destiny that radiates possibility,
that dissipates the tribulations of yore
and casts them into the pond
where I once thought the answers awaited me.
And here I sing robust melodies
bejeweled with red stones,
warm and smooth to the touch,
filled with a luscious silence, a knowing.
The future reveals an exploding genesis,
its particulates raining upon my head
down my face, attached to my song,
christened by the scintillations
emanating from my bosom.
Nestled by the fireside,
The temperate caress
of an errant flicker
awakens the latent
serenade of the season,
carrying expectant smiles
to their place beyond the sphere.
in this series of nows and forevers,
in the way your hand
Lies untroubled in mine,
redolent of the halcyon’s
repose after her flight
through celestial reveries
interconnected by the vestal melodies
of winged seraphs
perched atop the star that sits aloof
bearing our likeness.
I’ve heard the echoes,
chased the shadows,
danced with the reveries
of phantom caresses.
Retreat with me
to a safe space
‘neath the snow-laden burrows
behind the curtain of remembrances
where we will carve out
of innocence and mirth,
and ascend the smoky hills by night’s end.
Art: “The Road in front of Saint-Siméon Farm in Winter”
under the cherry blossom tree,
where we will absorb
the full range
of moonlit harmonies.