Ethan had recently turned twenty-one and felt every bit of the arrogance that comes with the drinking age. He commuted thirty minutes to college and was realizing that life cannot be an avoidance of real responsibility. The previous two years were about stretching out and seeing what life away from home was like. The truth was that the only change for him was the lack of a curfew. He also had a roommate, but they didn’t travel in the same circles, so that wasn’t much of a change for Ethan. The lack of respect he held for his freedom left him walking across a floor or Milwaukee’s Best cans and sleeping through classes he had already passed in high school. Now he was sitting in summer classes, hoping to rehabilitate his GPA and finish college in a reasonable amount of time.

The thing about summer classes is that they are humiliating without the proper context. For Ethan, summer had been about freedom and being away from school. The days were for working and the nights were for getting into trouble. Summers always brought a party, but this one was going to be different for Ethan. The days would be about school and the nights were for working. He figured that being twenty-one, the nights could start whenever he got off work, but he was not excited about his first summer class, Human Relations. The class was about cooperative learning and problem solving. Small groups were formed to lead activities and to also provide lunch for the day. It was the kind of scenario that drove Ethan crazy. He didn’t want to go to class and talk. He wanted to sit in the back of the room, take notes, pass a test, and get the credits. The professor promised that this would not be that kind of class.

“Each day we will start in a circle and recite our Full Value Contract. Basically, you will be committing to being present, giving your best, and respecting others.” We will discuss different aspects of human relationships, such as trust, communication, problem-solving, and decision-making. In this room, we are all equal and have a duty to participate in all discussions. With that, my name is Virginia Squires. I’m a doctor, but if you would, please call me Virginia, I would be most appreciative.”

The course was already like nothing that Ethan had experienced in his college education so far. The professors had been distant, either by attitude or physical distance. Each course seemed to be a lesson of impersonal behavior, but this one, while not what Ethan wanted, felt different. Virginia was old, like retirement old. Her hair was white and she wore clothes better suited for Leave It To Beaver than Miami Vice. She spoke with the mixed up English and southern accent that is old-time Virginia, but she did so without the venom that so many southern debutantes can wield.

“One more thing,” she said, “we stop early and everyone must stay for lunch. We eat together for a reason. People eat with their friends, not their enemies.”

With that class began. There were no desks or chairs, only large pillows. The official name for the course was PSY 310 Human Relations, but everyone knew it as the pillow class. Ethan sat with his group and did the usual listening. He spoke briefly when it was his turn and quickly found himself drifting into a summer siesta.

“Ethan, are you okay?” asked Virginia. Her tone was sweet, but her eyes were sending a different message. She was making it clear that the pillows were to create a casual atmosphere and not to become a sleep aid. Before Ethan could answer she asked another question, “Ethan, what do you like to do for exercise?”

“Uh, I like to play basketball.”

“Great, tomorrow you will do our first biographical presentation. Make sure you mention something about basketball. May I ask where you are from?”


“Oh, do you know the Band Box?”

Everyone knew the Band Box. It was the coolest record shop around. The floors were wooden and creaked when walked across. Vinyl and cassettes filled every bin and cool rock star and black light posters covered the walls. Besides music, a person could get concert tickets and choose from a multitude of smoking tools. Ethan discovered Eric Clapton, Dire Straits, and The Clash there, although he never told his parents that he went there. His father forbade him from going to the store given the Band Box’s reputation as a head shop.

“I do. How do you know the store.”

“I love Led Zeppelin,” she said. Everyone started laughing at the thought of Mrs. Clever rocking out to Zep. “Actually, my son works there. He’s a music guy.”

She had made her point and done it in a way that spared Ethan the embarrassment of a scolding by a college professor. Still, though, she had let Ethan know that his near slumbering behavior was not without a consequence, he had been assigned to present about himself and basketball. Ethan was still a salty sort and not deft at massaging a delicate situation. He came from an athletic, Texas, military background that valued the certainty of making a point without feeling. Sports instilled a sense of competition where winning was the only goal. Being from Texas, Ethan carried that wild west defiance of the Lone Star state. His connection to the military through his grandfather had taught him that survival and destruction where the way of a soldier.

“She wants basketball, I’ll give her basketball,” thought Ethan.

The next day everyone milled around the room getting to know each other. Some people were drinking coffee, others eating their Egg McMuffins. Ethan sat alone working on his lines to let Virginia Squires know that she would not intimidate him no matter how proper and soft-spoken her attacks came. He would do his speech and then be done for the rest of the course. She would realize the error of her ways and maybe even apologize for being so passive with him yesterday. At least, that was the way it went when he had been taking to the steering wheel on the drive to class. Everything changed after the Full Value contract was said. Ethan lost every bit of anger and even felt a sense of guilt. Virginia was an old lady and had done nothing to Ethan. In fact, she had gone out of her way to be nice to him. It was Ethan who was creating the stress in the situation. All he had to do was talk about himself. There was no need to crush her. No need to win anything. No reason to make an ass of himself.

“Ethan, tell us about yourself.”

“First, Dr. Squires…”

“Virginia,” she said.

He started over, “First, Virginia, I would like to apologize for nearly falling asleep yesterday. As for me, I’m a transfer student from ODU and I’m working in Colonial Williamsburg. I like all kinds of sports, but especially basketball.”

“Have you ever been to a professional game?” asked Virginia.

“I saw the Rockets and Bullets play a preseason game a couple of years ago. When I was a little kid, I got to see Dr. J. and George Gervin play with…” Ethan hesitated and Virginia smiled. He realized that she knew what was coming and was okay with what he was about the say.

“…the Virginia Squires…” The class started laughing.

Virginia seized the floor, “Do you guys think I’ve ever heard that one before? Ethan, what do you like about basketball?”

“I like the movement and how each play is kind of a predetermined uncertainty.”

“What do you mean by that?” she asked.

“The offense knows where they want the ball to go, but they have to take what the defense gives them. They can’t force anything, they must take what they are given. To score is predetermined, at least in theory, but how they are going to do it is uncertain for the offense.”

Virginia thought for a moment, “Ethan, how is that like human relations?”

“Wow, I’ve never thought about it like that. I guess if we go into a situation thinking it’s going to be one way, then we might miss opportunities that could present themselves.”

“Exactly, flexibility is one key to our dealings with others. Thank you for introducing yourself today.”

With the grace of Julius soaring to the rim and the dexterity of George Gervin flipping his finger roll, Virginia Squires had snuck a lesson into Ethan’s presentation. For once in his life, he didn’t think of it as a threat that needed to be dealt with. Instead, he received the gift she gave him. She had presented Ethan with a seed, that while slow growing, would serve him well. The three weeks would pass quickly. The paper towers they built that were meant to symbolize creativity. The whisper down the lane games stressed the importance of clear communication. The friendly lunches broke barriers in Ethan that no other classes had been able to do. He started to see the value of teaching people social skills and the importance of problem-solving in every aspect of our lives. He even started talking to the people in his class and got to know some of them away from school. The course was more than credits. It was life changing.

Thank goodness for Dr. Virginia Squires.

The William and Mary Bookstore (formerly Casey’s)

There were two real bookstores in Williamsburg when I was a kid. There was Scriveners and The College Bookstore. They were different than the book racks at the grocery stores or at Grant’s Department store. Scriveners and The College Bookstore had prestige, hardcover books, and in the case of the college bookstore awesome sections for swag and drawing. It was the swag that got me hooked me into college bookstores. I rarely visit a college without stopping in the bookstore. There is something about the way the textbooks are organized and the ridiculous gear that they sell to college kids, the over priced sweatshirts, the junk food, and the novelty stuff. It was the William and Mary bookstore where a subtle and long simmering thought was bestowed upon me.

I was hanging out at the bookstore thinking about buying a stuffed basketball for my room when my eye caught a drafting set. Drawing was something that I enjoyed doing, but I had never had the tools that would make me a great artist. The kit had a compass, protractor, and ruler. Naively, I thought that this was all I would need to create great drawings. Little did I know, right? I didn’t by the kit. Instead, I wandered into the books and started looking through history books about different wars. Back then, military history was a big part of my life. My father was interested in military themes, my school was teaching about all of the American wars, and Tidewater was full of military history. The Civil War was at the top of my list back then. The first book I picked up was full of photography of the Civil War. I could not believe the photography of Mathew Brady. I did not see a glamorous portrayal of war. For the first time, I saw real death resulting from the barbarism of war. The pain on the dead soldiers’ faces stole the romanticized images of war Hollywood had propagandized before me. In a real way, my values about wars were changing and I was a long way from the “Tribe swag” that I initially thought of buying.

My time until I would need to hustle to my father’s office was winding down and I knew I better hurry if I was going to buy something. I was torn between the different parts of me, sports, creative, and learner. I bounced around the store picking up the ball, dreaming about drawing, or thumbing through pages of books way above my grade level. I had no idea why I was interested in each of them, but each item pulled on my wanting nerves equally. Finally the time came to make a decision, so I went with a pack of tracing paper.

Really? Tracing paper. Where did that come from?

It’s been about forty years since that day. I am writing this while sitting in a YMCA and listening to a group of middle schoolers use their east coast valley girl accents to talk about playing solitaire while I try to block them out and watch Chase Jarvis Live on YouTube. There’s a lot going on here and I’m searching for reasons why I bought tracing paper… What did I do with that tracing paper? I traced comic books. I guess I tapped into my drawing side by buying the paper. I still can’t draw a great picture, but I get ridiculous with concept maps. Maybe I really want to be a visual artist and the tracing paper allowed that to go on for awhile.

I’m also trying to figure out how the tracing paper beat out the Civil War book. Feel free to offer analysis (for free of course…). Another thing I like to do is take photographs. Mathew Brady is someone who still intrigues me, but it’s Sally Mann who captures the intensity I felt the first time I saw the photos in the book. When I take photos, my first instinct is to find a mood or tone that has the same feel as glass plates. They are imperfect, haunting, and full of mysticism. The tracing paper was none of that, but it was safe and allowed me to replicate something that was there. It was “within the lines” which is something that I’ve learned to live with, but I really wish I never let become a part of me. I wish that I could go into creating something with no fear and make art that represented the honesty that I think Brady and Mann are able to muster. I’m getting closer to that ideal, finding the bite, the true emotion, the abstraction that captures the reality around me. It’s coming…

My best guess is that I bought the paper because the sports gear cost too much and I didn’t want to read the book, just look at the photos. I settled for the paper, because it was something I could use quickly and afford. I also knew my grandfather probably had the drawing gear, so I would not need to waste my money there. Sports would be an important part of my life and still is, but I find myself drawn to the creatives of the world who tend to see the world a bit differently. I do love the artistry of athletic achievement, however, the over saturated, fantasy dominated, and seemingly never ending seasons have worn me out. Music, art, writing each allow me time to think without the television time out, the talking heads explaining the nuances of some obscure rule, or the endless analysis of what team best suits what free agent.

Art also affords me the opportunity to think differently. So much art, no matter the medium is built on being outside the box or close to some edge. I like divergent thinking and my years have taught me that tracing is not the best way to go. I want to create “stuff,” art if you will, and being hamstrung by the idea that I need to be like others, worry about critics, or create for the purpose of sales are ideas that are as thin as the paper that I bought all those years ago. It’s also good that those ideas are just as easily torn like the onion skin thin paper I traced the Incredible Hulk onto. Thank goodness for the College Bookstore. Who knew that someday I would be reflecting on the purpose of tracing paper in my development as a creative? It seems that the day of indecision and settling was more important than I ever knew. Perhaps this is the time that I am finally ready to realize what that day meant to me.

Learning takes time…

Photo Credit:

Coach Jones, I owe you an apology
For as my aunt will tell you
I was cocky and sullen as a teenager.

I know now what you stood for
And better understand your method
That was once madness to me.

You stand for hard work, commitment, and respect.
I was not wise enough to understand back then,
Thinking I was free of your influence.

I thought that because
You were not my teacher or coach.
You were, though, a principled man.

I thought that I could say what I wanted
Because my aunt is only sort of right,
She fails to mention that I can be confrontational, too.

You asked me to tie my shoes
And I spoke with great disrespect to you,
Much to the surprise to all my teammates.

Kudos to you for using my words against me.
Coach Farrior took care of things
And I stayed out of your sights for the rest of my time at LHS.

Recently, I saw you at a football game in the ‘Burg.
Thirty years had passed since I last spoke to you
And I was embarrassed.

Embarrassed of how I spoke to you.
Embarrassed that I did not apologize to you there.
Just embarrassed…Humility seems to come with age.

So Coach Jones,
Please know that I am truly sorry
For the way that I spoke to you.

You did not deserve that.

Just old enough to drive,
Young Man slumps in his desk
Learning the definitions
For a subject he may never use.

His mind drifts to the cars,
To the girls he hopes to meet,
To the suburban “sort of” mansion,
To the fat wallet he’ll need to pay for it all.

Young Man expects
All this will come to him
Without the effort it takes.
Life is a lay up for him since he is already great.

He knows this is how he is, after all,
Because his mom told him so,
Because he plays a sport,
Because he just got his learner’s permit.

Young Man knows nothing
Of responsibility or mettle
As he has never been tested
Or held accountable.

So he sees easy street coming his way
Where the houses are huge,
Where life is a party,
Where his day dream becomes reality.

Thinking of places
Where people talk longingly of adventure
Hallowed grounds that maybe
Are the convergence of something holy,
Mystic, or just plain old folklore

Places so calm
Yet full of energy
Able to inspire greatness
That evolves with time
Savoring the current trends,
Wit, or just plain old rebelliousness

Places from my youth
The Library, where writing thoughts were born
In the stacks of biographies
Where sports heroes and historical greats
Taught me ambition and diversity when
One summer I played pepper
With Dizzy, Lou, and the Babe
Another was schooled in the wisdom of
Malcom, Martin, and Nellie

Then my father offered,
“Don’t ever go in there.”
Of course I was off to The Band Box
With its fancy pipes and
Posters of long haired hippies
Rocking it out
The stacks of albums and cassettes taunting
My varied tastes that included
Clapton, Marley, and Dire Straits

The end of the road
On this colonial style sort of Sunset Strip
Stopped at Paul’s
Where the Hot Holly
Came without pickles or tomatoes
Tabs were acceptable
The walk home short
And all I could think about was leaving town

When I remember those years on that simple street
I know I was more influenced by Steely Dan
Than Thomas Jefferson
But off to the side of William and Mary
I sure got an education
Without taking any classes
Or paying any tuition

Back in the day
When shorts were shorts
And my hair was brown
I had ambitions of playing a college sport
On this day when my nephew signed
Realizing his dream of college baseball
I came face to face
With part of my athletic past
As a high school hoops player
My skills were modest at best
Camp seemed like the best way to get better
And there I sat in William and Mary Hall so full of myself
Ready to defend a shooting legend from up North
Who was yet unknown to my uninformed cockiness
He asked me to guard him
I took my best stance and
Received a beating like none I’d ever had
No dribbles, just swishes
No trash talk, just buckets
Somehow I walked away with a smile
Unbruised and refocused on getting better
So today when I ran into the man
That has so vividly stayed with my memory
All these thirty or so years
I had to break ranks with my shy snobbery
Sharing the story with him
And thanking him for not going easy on me
For checking cocky with skilled reality
Today, like then, he was stylish
Professional and unassuming
A man
When my nephew spoke about himself
Giving thanks to all
Directly, succinctly
Like a man
I felt proud of him
Joy for parents
For our whole family
Not because of the scholarship
But because of the same reasons I love telling
How Herb Magee scorched me in the ‘Burg
And ultimately allowed me to grow up
Showing me how to handle adversity gracefully,
Successes with an unassuming character,
And a living with a gentle ease that
Comes with being
A man
My nephew’s got it
Grace, quiet confidence, and a gentle soul
All without taking a beat down
At hoops camp

How hard is the jump
From third to fourth grade
Once coddled little young ones
Now on the verge of adolescence
With the expectations are already levied
Without a grace period
These academic shoots
Are just breaking the surface
Of frustration, responsibility, and peculiarities
Embodied by teachers and bosses

Too bad for these kids
That must scale academic cliffs
At such young ages
Thank goodness the precipices are there, though
So these budding adults
Can learn to live independently
Sans parental influence,
Enabling teachers,
Or lack of knowledge
Of how things get done

Penning words with passion
With causes deeply entrenched
He set out
To rewrite it
Inspired by Swift, Twain, and Tosh
The fires of justice
Scorched any thought
He decided
Deserved a brand

Then it all changed
When She got in

His anger left
He realized all this
Started the infernos where
The only one burning was
So he reconciled with
Jonathan, Mark, and Peter
While still holding their conviction
To what is just
Just without that Sherman flint
Too often struck
Now saved for fires
Worth lighting