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Saturday, April 26, 2014


“Best of an island is, once you get there – you can’t go any farther … 
you’ve come to the end of things….”

Agatha Christie,
And Then There Were None

By some happenstance of venture and misadventure, I once was the owner of three homes that shared a common trait -- all of them were on islands.

Vieques, an island off the island of Puerto Rico, where we operate a bed-and-breakfast.

The island of Manhattan, where we had a business office and apartment.

Cape Cod, home to our Truro B & B, became an island 540 feet off the mainland when the canal was dug in 1914.

So it was understandable that I was interviewed by the Financial Times about my experience in living on three different islands. I pitched my talking points around what I knew interested their readers. Here’s some of what the reporter wrote:

“Everything is likely to be more expensive on an island,” says media entrepreneur Peter Yaremko – who splits his time between the islands of Manhattan, Vieques and Cape Cod. “But with only a fixed amount of land available for development, real estate values have a much better chance of increasing.”

Our human ancestors have since pre-historic times sought to dwell near bodies of water.

And living on an island is even better than pitching your tent on the coastline of an ocean or on the shoreline of a river or lake.

Here’s why:

When you live on an island, you enjoy – at the same time – both a sense of separateness from the pack and also the ability to connect when you choose to, by bridge or boat.

This is probably most true of Manhattan, and may explain the assertive attitude of people who live there.

Some might say that the attitude of islanders, which I called assertive, might more rightly be termed uppity. Snobby, even.

For example, the ancient Wampanoag of Cape Cod were isolated from any neighboring tribes, and it was said that they avoided the mainland “because they have become one with the eastern ocean, and it is their delight.”

I wouldn’t call that snobby, would you?

Then again … how else to explain these lyrics of Laurie Anderson’s song?

And there was a beautiful view
But nobody could see
Cause everybody on the island
Was saying “Look at me! Look at me!”

As my wisdom increases with increasing age, I find myself settling back and agreeing with Herman Wouk.

He bought and operated a hotel in the West Indies for several years, something like what I’ve been doing.

He turned his adventures in island living into an entertaining and spot-on novel titled, Don’t Stop the Carnival.

And he nails it:

“This comes from a piece of wisdom that his climate of eternal summer teaches him. It is that, under all the parade of human effort and noise, today is like yesterday, and tomorrow will be like today; that existence is a wheel of recurring patterns from which no one escapes; that all anybody does in this life is live for a while and then die for good, without finding out much; and that therefore the idea is to take things easy and enjoy the passing time under the sun.”

In my next blog, “Birds of Paradise”

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Yellow Brick Road

“You could start at a path leading nowhere more fantastic than from your own front steps to the sidewalk, and from there you could go … well, anywhere at all.”

Stephen King, It

Growing up in Perth Amboy, NJ, we were city kids, mostly. We did most of our playing on the sidewalk in front of our houses.

The girls played Jacks and Hop-Skip-Jump on it … we boys skinned our knees on it … the lucky ones among us might find that some cute girl had furtively chalked a Cupid’s heart with our initials on it.

But mostly, we saw a sidewalk as only a beat-up piece of cracked concrete not worth talking about.

I don’t think any of us ever recognized the transcendence of a sidewalk: that countless numbers of us would grow older and start down that sidewalk toward final destinations too varied to imagine.

If a humble sidewalk means so many different things to so many different people, what about the larger, longer pathway of our lives?

What about the yellow brick road we learned about from Dorothy -- the one that leads to our heart’s desire, to our fulfillment?

Should the yellow brick road of our life be followed blindly -- or should we forge it according to our own ambitions?

Here’s one suggestion:

Follow your own yellow brick road. If that doesn’t work, buy yellow shoes.

During a lifetime, the decision often has to be made again and again as the road ends, or diverges.

“Our battered suitcases were piled on the sidewalk again; we had longer ways to go,” Beat Novelist Jack Kerouac wrote. “But no matter, the road is life.”

Want to talk about laying your own yellow brick road? Fifty years ago this month, IBM did just that. It charted its own new path and thereby changed the worlds of computing and business with the revolutionary System/360, an entirely new dimension in computing that ushered in the Information Age.

System/360 came about because of an extremely risky decision by a small group of IBM managers and engineers. They could have chosen to continue to refine already successful products -- and there were sound technical and marketing arguments for doing that. 

But after debates that were described as “fierce,” they decided to essentially bet the business on what would be the largest privately financed commercial project ever.

Launching the System/360 eventually cost the company upwards of $5 billion (many times that number in current dollars). 

IBM Chief Tom Watson, Jr.: ”the riskiest decision I ever made.”

In choosing to map out their ambitious and difficult yellow brick road, IBM’s resolve delivered an important moment in history and put the company in position to dominate its industry for decades.

For us as individuals, too, the yellow brick road we choose to either follow or fashion delivers a moment in history – our own, and one that's no less important.

It took a poet of the brilliance of Robert Frost to measure the significance of that moment:

I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

In my next blog, "Islands"

Saturday, April 12, 2014

The Sounds of Silence

The words of the prophets are
Written on the subway walls
And tenement halls
And whispered in the sounds of silence

Paul Simon is said to have conceived his famously poetic ballad in the middle of the night, in his bathroom, with the lights out and tap water running.

No wonder he had to closet himself like that in order to create. It’s about the only way to get away from the modern world’s ceaseless cacophony of noise, piped-in music and ubiquitous babble.

Even paradise is noisy.

In Vieques, for instance, roosters cock-a-doodle-doo through the night and dogs bark round-the-clock.

On Cape Cod, April brings the first crocuses, the first openings of shops and restaurants and the first arrivals of tourist mobs lugging their floofloovers and tartookas, their pantookas, their dafflers and wuzzles.

I served my writing apprenticeship in the City Rooms of daily newspapers, so I’m no stranger to noise. I learned how to block out chatter, shouting and cursing while putting together a news story accurately and succinctly (well, at least succinctly).

But wherever I go, I can’t seem to escape the latest madness-inducing caterwauling – the vapid pop music that saturates stores, shopping malls, airports and almost every other public space. I am forced to endure the wailing of panties-less Miley Cyrus even while I pump gasoline!

To seek a higher, truer -- and quieter -- paradise, I have been on retreat this week at St. Joseph’s Abbey, the Trappist monastery in Spencer, MA.

This monastery is Cistercian of the Strict Observance, the order founded in the 12th Century that was home to the late, famed, Catholic monk and spiritual writer, Thomas Merton.

In fact, I titled my second novel – Silently in the Dark -- after a quote from Merton’s The Monastic Journey:

“Monks must be as trees which exist silently in the dark, and by their vital presence purify the air.”

 At St. Joseph’s Abbey, Trappist monks listen for the “still, small voice.”

Silence is supreme here from the time the monks rise near three in the morning to begin their prayer and work day.

They speak only when necessary and not at all from 8pm to 8am – the period known as the 
“Grand Silence.” Meals are eaten together, but in silence. Visiting guests, like me, follow the regimen.

What’s the point of all this hush? To give God a chance to get a word in.

It can be puzzling at first, because if we read Psalm 29, it seems that we can’t escape the voice of God:

The voice of the Lord flashes forth flames of fire ...

The voice of the Lord shakes the wilderness of Kadesh ...

The voice of the Lord makes the oaks to whirl and strips the forests bare ...

The God of glory thunders ...

It seems that the voice of God is earth-shatteringly loud.

And can be – if you listen for it in silence.

The prophet Elijah, for example, sought God in windstorm and earthquake and fire – all the places that the people of his time expected God would occupy. But Elijah heard God only as a “still, small voice.”

In Psalm 46, the Creator himself advises us to, “Be still, and know that I am God.”

For the Trappists, the quiet helps them maintain near-constant focus on God, whose language is silence. In silence, the monks listen for the voice of God.

In joining them this week, I sit quietly and try to rid my mind of its incessant interior monolog, and I turn my full attention to the present moment.

I am alone with my own measured breathing … the sharp knocking of hot water pipes … the drone of a passing airplane … the soft padding of monks’ sandals along cloister corridors … early Spring birdsong outside the window … the muffled flitter of a moth’s wing against a lampshade.

These are the sounds of life around me. I cannot help but hear them.

But what I listen for are the inner sounds of silence. The ones words can’t capture.

And in doing that, I share in a small way the monk’s quiet, lifelong quest -- a finite creature stretching inwardly to discover the infinite.

In my next blog, "Yellow Brick Road"

Friday, April 4, 2014

Another Similarity

The grandfather had become very old. His legs would not carry him, his eyes could not see, his ears could not hear, and he was toothless.

When he ate, bits of food sometimes dropped out of his mouth. His son and his son’s wife no longer allowed him to eat with them at the table. He had to eat his meals in the corner near the stove.

One day they gave him his food in a bowl. He tried to move the bowl closer; it fell to the floor and broke. His daughter-in-law scolded him. She told him that he spoiled everything in the house and broke their dishes, and she said that from now on he would get his food in a wooden dish. The old man sighed and said nothing.

A few days later, the old man’s son and his wife were sitting in their hut, resting and watching their little boy playing on the floor. They saw him putting together something out of small pieces of wood. His father asked him, “What are you making, Misha?”

The little grandson said, “I’m making a wooden bucket. When you and Mamma get old, I’ll feed you out of this wooden dish.”

The young peasant and his wife looked at each other and tears filled their eyes. They were ashamed because they had treated the old grandfather so meanly, and from that day they again let the old man eat with them at the table and took better care of him.

“The Old Grandfather and His Little Grandson”
Retold by Leo Tolstoy

My grandson, Connor, spent his Spring Break from Drexel University with my wife and me and came away smitten with the paradise that is Vieques.

We had lots of time together, and he and I talked of how we like to think of ourselves as out-of-the-ordinary personalities. When other kids in kindergarten built structures, for example, Connor knocked them down. When my kindergarten teacher passed around a large can of sugared gumdrops and told us to each take one. I took two.

Connor Joseph Schmitt

As Connor grew from a little boy to a fascinating young man of many talents and interests, we both discovered even more similarities.

Not only does he look like I did as a youth, but we both:
  • Tan easily
  • Drink our coffee black
  • Hate drinking soda
  • Prefer water
  • Like spicy food
  • Enjoy the taste of lemon
  • Hum to ourselves when preoccupied
  • Have a birthmark in the same spot on our right ear
  • Choose yellow when confronted with a color choice
  • Have had the quality of our writing acknowledged
  • Had identical chain-reaction car accidents on the highway -- with our vehicle totaled and no injury to ourselves
Each time Connor and I discover a common trait, we rush to be the first to pronounce, “Another similarity.” The line always brings us a laugh.

But … I’ve listed only physical similarities. I have yet to learn how much else I may pass to Connor in the way of perceptions and principles.

I may never know.

Erasmus Darwin, for example, died without knowing how much he influenced his more famous grandson, Charles, in their surprisingly similar theories of evolution and inheritance.

In a 2012 study of 5,500 grandparents in 11 European countries, Norwegian sociologist Knud Knudsen found that Europeans generally spend a good deal of time with their grandchildren. Grandmothers are more involved with their grandchildren when a couple is younger, he said, but with age, grandfathers usually show greater solicitude.

It seems to be all about time.

One’s time is one’s greatest gift to a loved one, especially for a grandfather -- whose inventory of it is running down.

Here’s writer John Clarke:

I think I know now why there can exist a special bond between grandfathers and their grandsons. I think it has to do with their perceptions of time. Somehow we in the middle have either forgotten or have become so world-weary that the slowness of time seems like a long-ago dream.

Einstein was the first to work out the math about time. He was able to mathematically prove something we all somehow already know: that time is not a constant. I personally believe that time slows then speeds up and then slows again over the course of our lives.

I remember well the long days of my childhood when I had nothing more important to do than to sit on the porch with my grandfather and hear him tell the story about how a beehive works or how to graft a branch onto an apple tree. He and my maternal grandmother were the only adults I knew who understood this slowness of time. They proved this by making time for me.

In my next blog, “The Sounds of Silence”