Monday, September 15, 2014

Already Read 'Em, An Experiment

This is not my bookshelf. This is not my house. This is not my to be read pile. But it could be if I let it. Bibliophiles are a dangerous lot, always pulling in new books around us. We can't wait to read the next book, before we are even finished the current book.

There is a great scene/line in the remake of the movie "Cape Fear," where Max Cady (played by Robert De Niro) is getting out of prison. When he is sent to prison, he can't read. So Nick Nolte isn't worried about Cady realizing that he let him hang, so to speak. But Cady/De Niro teaches himself to read. And he reads like crazy. And figures shit out. And along the way he develops a collection of books, which he is leaving in his prison cell as he walks to be released. So he is walking out with the guards and another guard calls out:

"Hey Cady, what about your books?"

"Already read 'em."

The ultimate utilitarian. They have served their purpose. Later, bitches. A bibliophile, Cady is not.

There is a funny thing about my bookshelves and my books. I haven't already read them all. I'm a tangential reader--I'll have books lined up to read next and some stray thought from something I am reading runs me down a mental rabbit hole, I pick up a new book and the book that was next in line gets backburnered. Rinse, repeat.

So I own some kickass books that I haven't read. And it is time to read them. Because some of them are beyond classic. And they are already here, living with me, untapped.

Here is the experiment: no new books. No new books so that I get to, and stick to, reading some of what is here. My goal is to go for a year. That would be some shit. But I will try six months, and then take the experiment's pulse. The goal is not to read all of my unread books. That would take more than a year. The goal is to spend the next six months to a year reading only books I already own. No new books.

But it hardly limits my reading. I am a slow reader. I am not saying I will get through this list, or that I won't modify it by swapping out one book for another off the shelf. But with a little thought, here is what an opening salve:


"Ulysses," James Joyce
"The Old Man and the Sea," Ernest Hemingway (haven't read since high school)
"Far Tortuga," Peter Matthiessen
"Cathedral," Raymond Carver (short stories, have read a few of them)
"The Once and Future King," T.H. White (have read part)
"V.," Thomas Pynchon
"The Sound and the Fury," William Faulkner


"The Spell of the Sensuous," David Abram
"The Poetics of Space," Gaston Bachelard
"Travels with Herodotus," Ryszard Kapuscinski
"Forests," Robert Pogue Harrison
"The Golden Bough," Sir James George Frazier

A formidable list. I am first finishing Cormac McCarthy's "Blood Meridian," and Tony Horwitz's "Confederates in the Attic," before embarking, but buying no new books begins today, Sept. 15, 2014. Vegas odds aren't good that I can complete this experiment; that I won't cave like a book junkie and have a book binge, but I am going to give it a shot.

The book selling industry may feel a slight pinch. And I guess there are at least a couple reasons behind this experiment. One would be not spending money I don't have to spend, when the riches are already here. It frees up more cash for craft beer :)

But I think the bigger point is that reading isn't always about reading the next thing or the new thing. If your mind is actively engaging what it is encountering, and adding its own thoughts and depth, then the right stuff finds it and even more mundane reading (which this list is not) can turn into big stuff. Sometimes it is the reader, not the book. Books are the stimulus, not the result. You are the result, what you do with or from or because of the stimulus/book.

And that isn't to reduce books, literature, or art to just being stimuli. But that is in effect what it is. A painting is experienced by a viewer, a book by a reader, who reacts to it. Who takes it in. Who studies it. Who feels it. Who relates it to their own experience. And in that respect, art, to the viewer, the reader, the audience, is to be experienced, to stimulate us. To make us think; to make us cry; to make us laugh; to make us create; to make us question; to make us wonder; to make us love.

We have to change ourselves. I have to change myself. The lesson, perhaps, is to look at what is around me, the things I already have, rather than continually looking for new and next. And I am excited for the books that are here.

And why not start with a literary mountain to climb? Next up, Ulysses. Let's talk, JJ.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Light Blue Male

He was the last of the litter. When we got there to meet him his mother, Ginger's owners simply called him "Light Blue Male," as they identified he and his brothers and sisters by the color ribbon they had around their neck. I ran around the back yard with him. The puppies weren't old enough to go home yet, so we came back on Nov. 7, 2000, and brought the newest member of our family, Ivan, our Golden Retriever puppy home with us.

Golden Retrievers weren't new to me. When I was nine, our family mutt, Lucy, died and I was given the choice as to what kind of dog we got next. I went for a Golden then, and named her Morgan, after Morgan Le Fay, of Arthurian fame and infamy. Ivan's name, how many years later, circled back. I dug the story of Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott. There was Tolstoy's short story, "The Death of Ivan Ilyich." And as we would come to know him, there was also "Ivan the Red," or "Ivan the Terrible."

On our drive back to Easton from outside Baltimore, we stopped at Wendy's and got him some fries, as friends had done likewise with their new puppy coming home.

We quickly learned that Ivan's sense of direction went in a straight line. If he could find a weak point in a fence, he was through it; if not, he was over or under it, and then he was a nose-to-the-ground bolt, not thinking of coming home until corralled and dragged him in shame.

I have never had a more unforgettable pet. Or a pet who dealt with more changes, all in stride. Ivan joined our family before our daughters Anna (12) and Ava (9) were born. He moved with us from one house to another. He has seen cats come and go, birds and fish, and another dog join him. None of it really phased him.

Water dog. Watching him run and jump, dock dog style off a floating dock in Wye Mills, there was little doubt of his water roots. Most of the time he swam, I had to get in with him and keep him on a leash, or he would swim straight out from the shore into open water.

Training partner. I have run trails with some speedy humans. But none could touch Ivan, whether an 11-mile trail run, or five, anytime I thought I had more energy, I was quickly proven wrong. Some of my favorite times with him, were out running together, watching him in complete doghood.

Car traveler? Not so much. On his first trip to Butler, Pa., Ivan traveled in his crate and proceeded to chew the rubber mat he was lying on to shreds. On shorter trips as he got older, the nose in the wind with the window down, must be universal for all dogs.

Voracious Omnivore. Ivan should have been dead long ago. He has been on a steroid that kept him from pulling his fur out for itchy skin. The steroid made him eat like a tornado with teeth. Baby-proofing a house is easier. He scarfed whole steaks and pizzas off the kitchen counter; ate a box of pancake batter; tore through a box of Swiss Miss hot chocolate packets (on a then white area rug); chewed through aluminum cat food cans; tore through juice boxes; and would get butcher knives out of the sink and carry them to lick them clean. He had a gut lined with iron.

Ceaseless family member. Ivan helped raise two babies, as well as having their friends over. He had toddlers use his fir to pull themselves up; he was pawed and pet and smushed at every turn. Between kids, other animals joining the family, he has been steadfast, and only ever redirected with his tongue, licking kids off of him. Just don't try to take his dinner.

This past Sunday, on Sept. 7, Ivan turned 14. He outlived pretty well all the other dogs he knew as a puppy. He slowed down a lot this summer and I wasn't sure he would see Labor Day. Last Wednesday, he took a turn for the worse and we took him to the vets: tumor in his stomach, lymphoma. It was a matter of days or weeks. He couldn't get up without help, was quickly losing his quality of life. He couldn't do the things that always made him happy.

Yesterday he stopped getting up, or wanting help. When the vet came over, he could tell he was in more pain, his stomach had gotten much worse. We made the tough decision, but the only one that felt right, to let him go. So we held him in our arms and said good-bye.

One minute the dog you have loved is in your arms and hurt and panting. And then he's not. His body is there and he looks the same, but he's gone. Free from pain, free from the body that had broken down on him.

A number of people have talked about the poem, "The Rainbow Bridge." I haven't read it and am not sure I will. When I over the course of my life about a family pet, Ivan is the first name and face that comes to mind. He epitomized what that meant. Seeing him at peace at the end of his life, I also see him at the peak of his life, running, chasing squirrels (he once caught one), rolling in the cool dirt, swimming and eating.

Of all the nicknames he had, the one he most earned, just now, is Ivan the Unforgettable. The light blue ribbon he wore around his neck was the color of the sky. And now the sky will be Ivan's color to me. The color of the sky: light blue male.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Saturday Improvisation: Boom Boxes, Bob Marley, Brubeck

I wish boom boxes hadn't fallen out of fashion. Sure, iPods are far more convenient and efficient for hauling music around, but they don't make the personal statement that pimping an oversized cassette-playing cannon on your shoulder does.

My boom box from ages 14 to 16-ish was nothing to look at. It had scraps of skateboard griptape plastered all over it and silver anarchy symbols drawn on it. It was almost always to be found on my 13' Boston Whaler. And it generally only had one cassette, dubbed from two vinyl records: on one side was Bob Marley and the Wailers, "Exodus," and on the other was Oingo Boingo "Dead Man's Party." Exodus was the first Marley album I had; the first reggae album I had and I listened to it constantly.

Yesterday morning I ran listening to Marley's live album, "Babylon By Bus," which I have long called a desert island album for me. Feel good vibes fit for any occasion. I have a couple different philosophies about running music: 1) hard, heavy stuff to push you through the lows and the pain when it comes, 2) music to get lost in, space out to, during the really long runs where you have to go slow to survive, 3) Feel good music to help you transcend time and pain. Babylon By Bus fits into the last category.

The song "Exodus" came on and I was transported from my back roads run to the Whaler, sand and water spraying my face, and hearing Marley almost 30 years before and getting much the same out of his voice and music today.

I intentionally left Saturday as unplanned as I could. So that I could be open to anything that came up. Carpe the Labor Day weekend diem. Improvise. Impromptu is sometimes how the coolest stuff happens. Like jazz. And as the gods of improvisation would have it, jazz is what presented itself. A friend had an extra ticket to a Dave Brubeck tribute quartet at the Avalon Theatre. If you haven't listened to Brubeck's iconic album, "Time Out" give yourself a time out and do it. You already know the song "Take Five," whether you know you do or not.

I have been a big jazz fan for a while. Generally all older time-tested stuff like Miles Davis, Monk, Coltrane, Mingus, Art Blakey. For some reason I have not heard jazz performed at the Avalon. So an unplanned Saturday turned into a few afternoon Dale's Pale Ale drafts and live jazz played to a packed theater at two o'clock in the afternoon, led by Bobby Militello, who was Brubeck's alto saxophone player for 30 years, and getting to catch up with the band over a beer or two after the show.

Sometimes impromptu improvisational Saturdays have a way of pulling it together. Almost like jazz.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Home is where the blank is

In March we were walking through Monticello. The docent was walloping us with stories and facts, how long it took to build; how Jefferson entertained guests; all that he put into making the perfect home for himself. We're going to gloss over the slave labor, etc., that was required to build and maintain Monticello, because that's not what this post is about. It's about what "home" means to people. Because that's where my mind went. What do we want/need out of our home? What do I want out of a home. And I guess I've come up with some ideas, some things that I need for a house, condo, apartment, estate, to be a home. After all, home is where the [blank] is.

Home as sanctuary. This is big for me. Like maybe number one. When I have had a shitty day; when the world weighs on my shoulders; when I am beat down from a beach traffic-laden commute, when I walk in my house, I want it to damn near forcibly pull the stress off my shoulders and give it a beat down to not let it inside. When it rains or snows, or blows, or is ice in the beard cold, I want to be able to exhale peace and comfort inside. If I want to be a hermit, which sometimes I do, I want to unfold myself into my home.

Home as launching pad. This is about inspiration and adventure. I am admittedly a homebody. But I've also been born with a bit of wanderlust, and even more so the concept of carpe'ing the diem. I want to paddleboard on a Sunday afternoon. I want to go hunting for snails/periwinkles with the girls. I want to go look for Mason Dixon markers. I want to wake up in the morning, pick up a book and be transported and inspired to write, to think, to explore somewhere I haven't been. I want my home to help add to that sense.

And here is the thing about home as a launching pad. For it to be one, home can't be a burden unto itself. It can't require me to spend all weekend as a slave to the yard, the house, the laundry. Because ultimately, and time and time again, I have found through experience, that all that stuff is still there waiting for you when you get back. But a spontaneous adventure, just as it happens, may only exist at that particular time.

Home as connection. This works on a lot of levels. Ideally, home should connect you to the place you live. The Eastern Shore, or Easton, or Oxford, or wherever. It should connect you to your family, your friends, your history. And this can be done even in a one room apartment.

Growing up, the above bookcase was full of Betamax tapes. It had my Star Wars, Empire Strikes Back, Future Primitive skateboarding tape, you name it. If memory serves it belonged to my great grandmother. I have always dug it, and it has come with me many places. It reminds me of family. It reminds me of the places I've lived. It reminds me of the various things that have lived in it. It's the bookcase, in this case, that helps make the home, both for the memories it brings back, but also for one of the most essential things for me to have in any home: books.

Home as fun. There are times when I sit around and reminisce on the great times, the parties, the cookouts, the impromptu back yard happy hours. Home should be the setting for some of your most fun times. The kind that make you smile just sitting and looking around and wondering what the walls' perspective would be, were they able to tell stories. Maybe home as playground would be included within the fun bucket.

Home as self. Or more like an extension of self. And this ties to some of the above, but it can mean a lot of different things. To some people, it is hard wood floors or tile kitchens; to some it is the paint scheme, the furniture or the landscaping; to some it is the garage or the main cave. A friend who knew Joe Namath's daughter said Broadway Joe had a massive bathroom, from where he conducted most of his business. To each their own. If you rent a place, or can't afford a home that is how you see yourself, or would want to see yourself, there are still ways to make it feel like you. For me, again, books. Maybe beer and backpacks hanging waiting to go on a trip. Running shoes asking to be taken out for a run.

Home as love/Home as feeling. Or its ability to evoke a feeling, from you. When you pull up on the street, or in the driveway, the hope is that your home makes you feel good. So many things contribute to that: pets, kids, memories, all of the things mentioned above. For some, that means a simple house that is easy to maintain. For others, a palatial estate where they can go Gatsby in their parties and entertaining. For some a log cabin, for others a cottage. For some, a place to hang a coat and suitcase and get mail between travels.

That's the thing. Home is a loaded four-letter word. It means different things to different people. It's a fill in the blank exercise. Home is where the [blank] is.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Back Road Peace, Dark Wood and Rebirth

Runners are creatures of habit. For the past 10 years, I have had known running routes mapped out in my head. When I walk out the front door, I know specific routes from two miles to 20 miles and everything in between. I know where to turn around for a 10 mile route. I've tread many of them many times.

Saturday I ran a new route, on a new road. It's a road I've driven and been driven on since before kindergarten, with friends that have lived down it. But I had never run it. Back roads, tree-lined, almost full shade. During a 6-mile run, two cars and a tractor passed. Some deer. The tail end of a fox making scarce. I went without music; the roads are narrow and I didn't want to end up an unwitting hood ornament.

There is a peace on running a back country road that exists nowhere else. Most of my road miles have been run on Oxford Road or St. Michaels Road, with cars and trucks whirring past. Or through Easton with small town hustle all around.

Saturday was a reset button. A new route. Solace. Back road peace.

Dark Wood. Tree-lined roads lead my mind to Dante. After studying the Inferno in college, Dante's dark wood has stuck with me.

Midway in the journey of our life
I came to myself in a dark wood,
for the straight way was lost.
Ah, how hard it is to tell
the nature of that wood, savage, dense and harsh --
the very thought of it renews my fear!
It is so bitter death is hardly more so.
But to set forth the good I found
I will recount the other things I saw.
How I came there I cannot really tell,
I was so full of sleep
when I forsook the one true way.

Dante gives us the perfect losing our way metaphor. The opening lines to the most poetic mid-life crisis in history. I have a framed print of Dante and his guide Virgil navigating the dark wood together.

I frequently have those dark wood moments. I wonder if I am on the right path; I wonder if I am lost or have wandered astray; I wonder; I wander. My paths are more meandering than direct. Rather than the one true path, I often feel like mine is a singletrack trail or a country back road. Where do back roads lead?

Rebirth. Spring gets all the credit for new life and rebirth. It's the easy sell. But fall has always been my season for rebirth. Each fall is a new school year. A new grade for the girls, the clock turned back to zero, on top of the foundations they have built in the past years. New teachers. And new students for teachers.

Cooler weather, sloughing off the tired heat of summer. Needing to pull on a sweatshirt or sweater in the evening. Stout beer salivating. My energy usually resets in the fall as well. Fall races for our running peeps. Field hockey for the girls. Football taking over Sunday televisions.

For me, fall is about rebirth. It's about new running routes. It's about reconnecting and navigating the dark wood in the journey of our life. Dante will tell you about it. But nobody named a football team after the Divine Comedy.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Tasting the Pain, Singing the Blues

I listened to almost nothing but Pink Floyd for an entire summer. Every album. Then I realized why I was so depressed. I was 16. Musically innovative, expansive, deep, but fu**ing depressing. So I stopped listening.

I have never seen "Old Yeller." I have no desire to see it. If you know the dog gets shot in the end and everyone cries their eyes out, why subject yourself to it? Why make yourself sad when you don't have to be? Who does that? There is enough sad in life anyway, without looking for extra.

And that has mostly been my life aesthetic. I want art, music, film. literature, poetry that inspire; that elevates my soul; that makes me wonder; that turns me on and gets me riled up; that makes my heart race; that sends me off to contemplate the Cosmos.

But then I found a different kind of sad. Blue sad. Blues sad. I don't remember when I started listening to Delta Blues music, but it has been a while.

The lone blues man, with his guitar and his loneliness, sometimes without even a guitar; with his suffering, sitting on a porch step or a curb. Hungry. Feet hurt. He knows the kind of sad that has always haunted me.

He wails of our ultimate alone-ness in the world. He cries out about Love's impermanence. He frees his blues soul through his fingers, his tapping foot, his raspy voice. If you don't believe me, listen to Son House.

There is no emotion, no music, more primal than a blues howl. And yet, sometimes when I hear it, it doesn't sound exactly sad. It's cathartic. It can be transformative. Like somehow turning his heartbreak, his alone loose into the Universe, changes it.

But I don't know that. And neither does he. And that's where the blues plumbs the depths and the heights. The blues man sings his song out into the Universe; he wonders if the Universe or anyone else in it hears him at all, or gives a shit.

And then, hearing no reply, hearing nothing back, he knows it doesn't fu**ing matter;

He's going to sing anyway. Because he has to.

Monday, August 11, 2014

The Waiting Place: trolling or bottom fishing

Sunday morning's run around town, a run to sweat Saturday night out of me, was couched between waiting songs. Early on it was Fugazi's "Waiting Room." Towards the end, it was Trampled By Turtles, "Wait So Long." And that got me thinking about waiting. And reading Dr. Seuss's "Oh the Places You'll Go" to the girls. The good doctor frequently has a lot to say to grown-ups, the same as kids. Take for example, The Waiting Place, where people end up getting stuck, waiting:

Waiting for a train to go or a bus to come
or a plane to go or the mail to come
or the rain to go or the phone to ring
or the snow to snow or waiting around for a Yes or No
or waiting for their hair to grow.

Everyone is just waiting.

Waiting for the fish to bite
or waiting for wind to fly a kite
or waiting around for Friday night
or waiting, perhaps, for their Uncle Jake
or a pot to boil, or a Better Break
or a string of pearls, or a pair of pants
or a wig with curls, or Another Chance.

Everyone is just waiting.

I have a short attention span. I don't sit still well. I don't have much patience, though I try to have more. Waiting does not suit me. Beckett brings it to the front, Waiting for Godot, who never shows. Fu** that.

Growing up fishing with my dad and my grandfather, out in the Bay or the Choptank River, we mostly trolled for blue fish or rock fish, often around Sharp's Island Light, dragging whatever color hose the fish seemed to be biting on that day. Trolling is an impatient man's fishing. For someone who doesn't want to just cast and fish the bottom and sit back and read, or drink a beer, chill out. To be honest, that kind of fishing, that kind of waiting has a great appeal to me, for just being kicked back. And then there is fly fishing or casting, which might be the best of them, but I haven't done much of that.

But you get to a point in life where, say you are 42, just to pick a number. And life has flipped itself on its head, not death or serious illness, not hunger or homelessness, not the big shit mind you, but life as you know it, nonetheless has fundamentally shifted, beneath your feet, where you don't quite trust the ground anymore. You wait for that shit to shift on you some more, or you look at where you were standing and it was right on a fu**ing fault line. And you can see that, and you step away from the fault line. You find yourself some higher ground (cue Stevie or the Chili Peppers). And you think long and hard about where you want to be standing, what you want to be doing. And you've got it in your head. You know what you need to do. And you are ready to do it. And then what happens?

Waiting. You throw your intentions out into the Universe, and you wait. And maybe fishing is the most apt metaphor for what comes next in life. You try to pick the best bait, you listen and learn where the fish are biting, you decide what you want to catch, and then you cast. And then you wait. Because life. And we do spend an inordinate amount of our time... waiting.

But the thing about Dr. Seuss. He rarely leaves you hanging. He'll often give you some hope. Maybe an alternative. A way to be different. And true to form, he does, simply:

That's not for you!

Somehow you'll escape
all that waiting and staying.
You'll find the bright places
where Boom Bands are playing.

With banner flip-flapping,
once more you'll ride high!
Ready for anything under the sky.

I've read some fairly profound shit over my 42 years, books that have changed my life, my worldview, my thinking on about every level. And it's funny how much of that stuff Dr. Seuss can pack into any number of his "children's" books.

Sunday evening, I had dinner, had a Dale's, and was folding laundry. Typical Sunday evening. The Nats were playing the Braves on Sunday night baseball. I got a text message from a friend that said, paddleboarding in Oxford, leave at 7pm. It was 6:40pm. It wasn't how I had figured the evening at that point. Instead, I was going to be... waiting.

I'm in. See you down there. We put in, paddled around Batchelor's Point, into a choppy, windy Choptank River. we rounded into Boone Creek and literally surfed waves up to the sand bar. The super moon was huge on the horizon. There were herons, birds, glassy water. This is where we skimboarded for hours in high school. Joel snapped some photos. It was getting dark. We were dreading the likely rough paddle back.

When we left Boone Creek, the wind had laid down a bit and was at our backs, with the current. The waves pushed us, from behind, surfing. It was the exact opposite of the paddle out. It was an effortless floating. As we got back to the beach, the moon was huge and bright and beaming off the river. It's the kind of thing you don't see, the kind of evening/sunset/night you don't have, if you're just waiting. Nope. It's where Boom Bands are playing. And you need to be ready for anything under the sky.