Wednesday, June 24, 2015

A Proper Summer


I spent my summers outside; in or on the water, on a bike or a skateboard, or blazing trails and building forts in a marsh. They were proper summers. They are still some of my favorite memories. My best summer days now closely resemble those days of being off from school and having the childhood ease of the season.

My soul frequently bottle rockets with happiness watching the girls spend similar summer days. They've got familiar settings: Oxford, the park, the beach at the Strand, the ferry dock, the yacht club, swimming in pools; Ocean City and Assateague, body surfing the waves, people watching on the boardwalk, the rides at Jolly Roger. They've got the open schedule and lack of alarm clocks, stretching their arms in the morning and contemplating what to do, or what not to do.

Summer is on its own timetable. It has its own agenda. We do well when we don't try to overschedule.

The light in summer is very young and wholly unsupervised.
No one has made it sit down to breakfast.
It's the first one up, the first one out.
- Robert Hass

Summer is a pause. For the girls, it's the end of a school year, but not the beginning of a new one. It's something in between. Eventually we lose that. A proper summer is as free from schedules and clocks as Jim Harrison strives for:

I hope to define my life, whatever is left, by migrations, south and north with the birds and far from the metallic fever of clocks, the self starting at the clock saying, "I must do this." I can't tell the time on the tongue of the river in the cool morning air, the smell of the ferment of greenery, the dust off the canyon's rock walls, the swallows swooping above the scent of raw water.

I like summer as a clean slate for the girls. The freedom of summer vanishes soon enough. Don't rush it. Breathe in the honeysuckle, the salt air, the Old Bay. Float, swim, paddle. Make your own way.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Memory Spirals and the Heart


Dr. Seuss's "One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish," is on the wall of the doctor's office. Ava is 10. But my memory spirals back to when she was a baby. She might have had a heart murmur, but we needed more tests. We were sitting in a heart specialist's in Annapolis. I was reading to her, a book off the shelf in the waiting room. "One Fish, Two Fish." Ten years later, sitting in the doctor's office with Ava, I in both places. Wrapped in a memory spiral.


Over the past year, I have driven or run by this lane almost everyday. Didn't give it much thought. Until a few weeks ago, on a run, I remembered standing on the lane, outside a Ford Fiesta, listening to Led Zeppelin IV all the way through for the first time. I was 15. I came to Zeppelin via Black Sabbath, Ozzy, and Iron Maiden, leading to Bad Brains, the Clash and Metallica. Zeppelin wasn't heavy enough. Until I sat and listened to IV, "Black Dog," "When the Levee Breaks," "Misty Mountain Hop." Running past, my memory spiraled; I heard Zeppelin over the Damian Marley that was in my headphones.

Cormac McCarthy wrote that, "Scars have the strange power to remind us that our past is real." Brick columns and Dr. Seuss drawings can leave mental scars, that bring our personal past spiraling back.

The thing about memory though, is that it can fade or change over time. How much does it connect or correspond to our actual past?

"You know what I think?" she says. "That people's memories are maybe the fuel they burn to stay alive. Whether those memories have any actual importance or not, it doesn't matter as far as the maintenance of life is concerned. They're all just fuel. Advertising fillers in the newspaper, philosophy books, dirty pictures in a magazine, a bundle of ten-thousand-yen-bills: when you feed 'em to the fire, they're all just paper... It's the exact same thing. Important memories, not-so-important memories, totally useless memories: there's no distinction--they're all just fuel." - Haruki Murakami

I have a hard time with that one. Not all memories are created equally. Some memories make us more who we are than others memories. Remembering the first time my 13-year-old daughter looked in the direction of my voice as a baby is more a part of me than where I first heard Zeppelin IV. I recall one far more than the other. These two memories reside in different parts of me: one stamped somewhere on the brain, the other imprinted deeply on my soul.


Memory distorts. The details we retain are ours and they are subjective, the parts that are important to us. Tennessee Williams knows why:

The scene is memory and is therefore nonrealistic. Memory takes a lot of poetic license. It omits some details; others are exaggerated, according to the emotional value of the articles it touches, for memory is seated predominantly in the heart.

Truth matters to me. I hang my hat on facts. The philosopher in me climbs toward objectivity. But at the end of the day, I don't mind the notion that memory lives closer to the heart. Cue the Rush song. A life lived closer to the heart is a life lived.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Observations After Storms and Fire


After the storm, a watercolor washed sky. The colors were created by the storm, they didn't exist beforehand. Back out on the deck, listening to Big Bill Broonzy, a Great Blue Heron flies overhead. Clouds have stretched out lazy. Three deer are fanned across the yard.

Broonzy is singing stories. The sun stalls from dropping with the moon overhead, both wanting to hear about Joe Turner. The setting sun, the overhead moon, Broonzy, and me; we each have a part in this jam session, even if mine is just to be here to document it in some way.


I don't think anyone misses being 13. I watch a daughter trying to figure out whether to stand out or blend in. At that age, no one wants to call attention to themselves. You work hard to have friends while earning widespread anonymity.

That's the age I found skateboarding and punk music. The individualism each espoused hammered a hardcore riff in my soul. Listening to lyrics, imbibing street art, and learning to navigate a streetscape and teach a growing body and 10x30 board on wheels to ollie, railslide, powerslide, gave me something else to focus on.

For all the attitude problems that came during that period, skateboarding and what it meant helped steer me to the person I am still becoming. I have found that anytime I let myself blend in, fall in step, life intervenes, kicks my a** a bit, knocks me down, and says, "nope, that's not you." This past year has proven that all the more.


Gary Snyder is a writer I would dig meeting. He is a poet of rocks, of birds, of myths, of people, of the Earth. He includes and integrates everything into his writing. He also gets the real and symbolic cycle of death and rebirth:

"Lodgepole Pine: the wonderful reproductive power of this species on areas over which its stand has been killed by fire is dependent upon the ability of the closed cones to endure a fire which kills the tree without injuring its seed. After fire, the cones open and shed their seeds on the bared ground and a new growth springs up."

Fire. And after fire, growth. I can find that cycle over and over again looking back at my life. For me, rebirth and growth has often come through running. I find something of myself and the world on the road and trails and I'll have opportunity on both training for the Patapsco Valley 50K in October.

Storms, standing out, individualism, fire, growth, growing up. I'm not sure I ever come up with answers so much as observations. Being a father brings all kinds of stop-me-in-my-tracks observations. Especially cool are the times when I look around and notice a daughter in her element, taking everything in, completely comfortable in her own skin. And I realize that's how they all add up, the storms, the fire cycles, rebirth, trying to figure it all out, being a father--it's those moments when we're learning who we are, and we have those moments of "yep, something like this."


Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Blue Shoes, Blue Scholars


Running shoe companies don't make much money on me these days. My road running shoes are Saucony Kinvaras that I bought as a birthday present for myself at the end of March 2014. They have not been lost in a closet; they have run.

They have run me back in to shape and out of 30 pounds. They have run me through a troubled soul and a restless body. They have run me through town and onto the back roads. They have run me back into a few races, from a November half-marathon, to my daughters' first 5K.

My running shoes have introduced me to Eastern Bluebirds; to roads I'd not traveled in decades; to a self I'd not known until I met myself on the road alone. I keep thinking it is time to upgrade, to replace them, but they still feel good. Plus I'm cheap :)


My Sauconys (granted that doesn't sound as cool as "My Adidas") also re-introduced me to the Blue Scholars, a Seattle-based hip hop duo that a west coast boat builder got me hip to. The Scholars are smooth, intellectual and deeply spiritual. This past Sunday, their song "Burnt Offering" came up on the shuffled playlist. The whole song listens like a sermon, an offering of hard-won wisdom. The hook goes like this:

So I give thanks to the most, the least that I can do
I wear this skin to find the me inside of you
When I dream that I'm dreaming I feel most alive
Sacrifice nights, write to survive,
Proper hand gestures, conjure ancestors,
Drinking from the bottle that was meant
For the message that was sent from the tired and the true,
I give thanks to the most, the least that I can do.

Tapping into something larger than yourself; giving thanks to the most; getting in touch with dreams; connecting to the past.

Blue has long been my color. This past year plus it has come to the forefront of my soul and my world. Blue shoes and Blue Scholars. "I give thanks to the most, the least that I can do."

Sunday, May 10, 2015

St. Mothers Day


My girls aren't growing up the way I did. Very few kids do these days. In our house, my dad worked (and still does), he was the provider; my mom stayed home and raised my sister and me. My girls know two working parents. And parents now generally play both provider and nurturer, the luxury of someone staying home to raise kids is largely gone.

I think my father might concede that he had the easier lot. He has always worked as hard as anyone I know, during tax season he was out of the house before we woke up and we were in bed before he got home. But he could generally see his troubles coming. I don't think my mom had a clue what she was in for.

Maybe sons try to emulate their fathers more. I struggle to fill his shoes and ultimately I never will, but I've realized I wear my own shoes--his docksiders are my Sanuks, his cross-trainers are my trail-running shoes. Mothers and sons are a different matter.

My mother saved me from drowning after I fell in the river before I could swim. I yelled at her for cheating me out of my chance to ride in the ambulance. At elementary school field days, she had a line backed up across the lawn for face painting (she is a Maryland Institute College of Art graduate). I never had a store-bought Halloween costume--from a Jawa, to a Sand Person, to Boba Fett, to Ace Frehley, my mom hand-made and assembled every costume and I won first prize in the costume contest every year (during this same stretch my sister exhausted the Strawberry Shortcake character catalog and cleaned up equally well).

When it came to youth soccer, Little League Baseball, and youth lacrosse, my mom drove teammates and I to every away game. When I got into skateboarding, she endured Powell Peralta and Zorlac stickers all over her car, and carted us from Atlantic Skates and the Ocean Bowl in Ocean City to Island Dreams Surf and Skate shop in Towson where my grandparents lived. Thanks and praise is not often forthcoming from kids, I have come to realize, and it wasn't for her then.

My mom was not a church-goer, but she and my dad decided that we should grow up going to church while we were young. So my mom took us and taught Sunday School. If there is a heaven, I feel reasonably certain my mom has a spot reserved for her there. And she owes that to me more than my sister. Some kids go through a rebellious phase. Some kids go through a complete-fu**ing-idiot-with-their-head-up-their-a** phase. I fell into the latter category. My oldest daughter is 13, which is roughly when that phase started for me. She seems to have a much better head on her shoulders, thankfully. But I already have no idea why my parents didn't leave me in a pit in the back yard for days or weeks at a time. My mom's battles with my sister were of a different nature, but they were equally emotional. There is just no easy way to parent through adolescence.

These are first world problems, and I get that. My mom didn't kill dinner and carry it miles on her back to feed us. Thanks to my parents, my sister and I had a childhood that kids around the world and in this country would kill for. I don't take that for granted. And I think that is part of what it is about, now as a parent myself.

My mom has had patience where most would falter. She made her kids' passions and hobbies her own for many years. Our successes were hers, and our failures stung her worse than us. Talking to her on numerous occasions, she told me that her hope was that my sister and I "grow up to be good people." To that point, I think she succeeded.

This year my mom turned 70. Some things never change. She is active now in my daughters' lives, known now as "Grammy." She takes them to school in a pinch, goes on field trips, attends awards assemblies, and on non-dog show weekends, can be found at field hockey, lacrosse, soccer, or baseball games for her grandchildren.

Trying to make a living, I think it has always been easier to appreciate what my father and grandfather did for their families, as providers. It's maybe wired in the guy gene. But once I became a parent, and as the girls have gotten older, it has become all the more clear what my mom gave us, as nurturer, cheerleader, nurse, chauffeur, homework helper, chef, household runner. You know, all the things that come into my mind when I say, "Mom."

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Spring Reigns


Every September/October, I declare fall my favorite season. Something about the temperatures cooling, the reds, oranges and yellows painting themselves onto trees. Playoff baseball and football season starting. And while I dig the changing of each season, I've held on to fall being the greatest. Until this year.

After a winter of self-imposed hermithood, of cold rain, of dismal lack of color; the rebirth of spring feels different this year. Walking the same roads of Baileys Neck and Jeffries Road, the world is different. You can look at the same tree (above) or down the same lane (below) and they are not the same as they were two months earlier.


Cracking a beer, with burgers on the grill, and walking up the yard, the sun and the dandelions smile in silent conversation with each other. The girls break out bare feet, lacrosse sticks, and a cheap bouncy ball and invent a sport somewhere between badminton and balloon tennis.


The spring has been full of Eastern Bluebirds, American Goldfinches, Northern Flickers, Blue Jays, and Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds at the feeders and along the road. And last spring, as I was descended upon by Cardinals when I ran, it was a phenomenon I noted but didn't understand. There was some Cardinal connection, but I couldn't place it. This spring, the Cardinals still divebomb, they still say hello every morning and evening. I see them when I walk, or when I run, or at the feeders. The difference is that this spring I know why. And knowing is half the battle. #YoJoe

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Warbling


The sun is preceded by streaks, sharp smears of light across the sky. It likes to be announced before coming on the scene.

If you're quiet, frogs and birds are deafening in this last gasp of dark. It's like walking late into a cafeteria, impossible to follow any given conversation through the noise.

My new-found fascination with birds does not lend itself to fast running times. I stop to take a picture, or watch a red-tailed hawk in the tree, or see where a cardinal or eastern bluebird lands. It does lend itself to some unexpected interval training.

I'm more obsessed with warblers these days than personal running records. More taking in and being part of my surroundings than running through them. Which is not to say I don't feel transcendent when quick-stepping down winding singletrack trails, or dropping the throttle for the last mile or half-mile of a run.

There is something to walking out of breath through the back door, pouring a water, and grabbing Peterson's Field Guide to cool down on the back deck and try to figure out what bird I saw in the brush along the road; or trying over morning coffee to ID the yellow-headed newcomer to the feeder.

Forrest Gander's "Science and Steepleflower" has been on my bookshelf for a couple years. I've started and stopped in it a few times. Books open themselves at the right time. Gander goes vertical, deep into things. He knows the names of things, but doesn't lose their wonder for the science.

... Can you smell
where analyses end, the orchard
oriole begins? 

I dig the notion that getting at the thing itself, the sublime nature of something, comes on the other side of science.

I have no idea what it is about warblers or if I have ever seen one. Certainly not consciously and been able to name it. But that seems to be where I am with this whole bird thing--learning, fascinated, possessed by a beginner's mind, curiosity, and opportunity. And it doesn't hurt that I can walk the yard and the treeline with a Dale's, a notebook and pen, look and listen, and breathe in sun and sound.