First Impressions: Baltic Nations - What hit me yesterday, gazing out the window of our rented car, was the starkness outside of Riga. We left that slightly off-kilter metropolis (more on th...
Thursday, December 18, 2014
On paper, my last semester at N.C. State was a failure. Ultimately it left me on the street, back in Maryland, getting in shape with designs of going into the Army and jumping out of planes. It got me back to running. Made me change my life's direction. That is the good.
Not a lot of time was spent in classrooms. But I think I learned a lot that fall. The curriculum was organic, unstructured, self-guided. It included Jerry Garcia and David Grisman. It included chess and whiskey. It included Whitman and Emerson. It included Paul Newman and Robert Redford; Charlie Chaplan and Robert Downey Jr.; daily episodes of Northern Exposure reruns; and deep discussions with a good friend, Lindsay Loflin, who was the only other English Literature (and in his case film) student that I knew well at a textiles and engineering school.
Northern Exposure is my favorite TV series of all time. It was made and aired within the parameters of prime time network television, before HBO changed the TV series rules forever (for the better) with shows such as The Wire, Sopranos, Game of Thrones, etc. Point being Northern Exposure had to play by the network rules. Let's be honest, Maggie O'Connell (Janine Turner) could have been a fun character to have playing by HBO/Showtime standards :)
For me, the series is full of life lessons, philosophy, humor, etc. It is a study on how life sometimes goes in directions you had no idea were coming, not directions you necessarily would want, but directions you need to get where you are going. Dr. Joel Fleischman (Rob Morrow) is a Jewish physician from NYC whose medical school at Columbia was financed by the state of Alaska. He is a city cat, but winds up in Cicely, Alaska, as part of a contract to repay/pay back the state for his education. It's in the middle of nowhere, he hates it, is a salmon out of water, but starts to change. The place and people teach him, even when he doesn't want them to or expect it. We get what we need, and what needs us.
Alaskan/Indian Ed Chigliak (Darren E. Burrows), film critic and aspiring director is a brilliantly conceived, quirky character. Adam Arkin's "Adam," the paranoid recluse who is a gourmet chef and wired into the inner-workings of global counter-intelligence is phenomenal. And Chris Stevens (John Corbett), radio DJ host of "Chris in the Morning" is perhaps my favorite character of all time, possibly in any media. Chris is an air waves philosopher, reading Walt Whitman to his listeners; sharing personal stories, groping life. The piano fling scene and speech is one of the all-time great moments in television. To me that sums up art, philosophy, fun, being eccentric, being different, being alive. YouTube won't let me embed it, but I highly recommend you check it out with the link.
Because it's how I roll, I'll also give you the text of Chris's speech:
I've been here now for some days, groping my way along, trying to realize my vision here. I started concentrating so hard on my vision that I lost sight. I've come to find out that it's not the vision, it's not the vision at all. It's the groping. It's the groping, it's the yearning, it's the moving forward. I was so fixated on that flying cow that when Ed told me Monty Python already painted that picture, I thought I was through. I had to let go of that cow so I could see all the other possibilities. Anyway, I want to thank Maurice for helping me to let go of that cow. Thank you Maurice for playing Apollo to my Dionysus in art's Cartesian dialectic. And thanks to you, Ed, cause the truth shall set us free! And Maggie, thank you for sharing in the destruction of your house so that today we could have something to fling. I think Kierkegaard said it oh so well, "The self is only that which it's in the process of becoming." Art? Same thing. James Joyce had something to say about it too. "Welcome, Oh Life! I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge the smythe of my soul the uncreated conscious of my race." We're here today to fling something that bubbled up from the collective unconsciousness of our community. Ed, you about ready? The thing I learned folks, this is absolutely key: It's not the thing you fling. It's the fling itself. Let's fling something, Cicely!
I am at such a loss for words here. Philosophy, art, existentialism, Monty Python, breaking shit, the collective unconscious, James Joyce, Kierkegaard, catharsis, groping: these are a few of my favorite things.
A couple years ago, I scarfed up seasons one and two of Northern Exposure on DVD. I put it on this morning at 4-ish a.m., with a cup of coffee and began the series again from the pilot episode. There is so much there. It inspires me, makes me laugh, makes me think. And though it is a TV show about a place that doesn't really exist, it rekindles my urge to go stand in Alaska, to hike there, to trail run there, to stay in a cabin, to drink beer in a tavern, to imbibe the spirit of the place.
It's the groping. It's the fling itself. Let's fling something!
Tuesday, December 16, 2014
The thing about a mix tape is that it was generally made with you in mind. Unless you had a playa on your hands, mix tapes were made by one person for one other. The songs selected were intended for, or evocative of, or telling a story of some sort for one person, or maybe a small group. It was a personal form of communication made using constructs of popular culture. Either that or it was an attempt to get laid.
I'm a big fan of the Marvel movies. It would be an understatement to say I was stoked by their recent Phase 3 movie slate announcement. I haven't read any of the "Guardians of the Galaxy," comics or graphic novels, though I have been meaning to, but had heard solid reviews of the movie, so took a chance and snarfed it up. Younger daughter Ava and I have watched it twice, the second time so her older sister could watch it as well.
The mix tape looms large. The soundtrack for Guardians, which I have downloaded and listened to a number of times, is a mix tape made for our hero Peter Quill (played by Chris Pratt) by his mother in the 1980s. "Awesome Mix Vol. 1," was her collecting her favorite songs to share with her son. In addition to being completely iconic, badass 1970s and 80s songs, they are woven perfectly into the movie.
"Come and Get Your Love" by Redbone, anyone? Ava has been singing that song all morning and now counts it as one of her three favorite songs.
When I run with tunes these days, I work out a playlist and then hit shuffle, to let the Universe throw me a sort of running mix tape based on songs I'm vibing on. The Guardians soundtrack is currently tumbling with Digable Planets, Beck and D'Angelo, among others.
But the mix tape philosophy got me thinking about other art forms, books and movies that I dig. A mix tape is not a novel. It is most likely not about plot. It's about every song, every section, chapter, part, being something onto itself, and also not allowing any filler, any lulls. "Pulp Fiction," "True Romance," and "Snatch" are films that feel episodic, where there is scene after scene of simply and utterly cool. Bands like De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest and The Beastie Boys put out albums that felt like mix tapes.
There is a level of care and attention given to a mix tape that only certain authors can come close to replicating for a whole book, or work of any sort. I got the mix tape high the first time I read William Blake's "Marriage of Heaven and Hell." I'm cruising through some deep and heady stuff, one "song" ends and here come the "Proverbs of Hell (plucking a few favorites at random):"
The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.
A fool sees not the same tree that a wise man sees.
He whose face gives no light, shall never become a star.
Eternity is in love with the productions of time.
The hours of folly are measur'd by the clock; but of wisdom, no clock can measure.
The most sublime act is to set another before you.
And Blake just mows you down with rapid fire, fortune cookie bullets. Poets, essayists and short story writers are more likely to conjure mix tape magic it seems, with their ability to work the pause, the silence between the songs; and their prerogative to change direction, change tone, pace without notice--heavy metal to bluegrass to reggae to jazz. One of the literary lions who clearly understood mix tapes was Jorge Luis Borges. You can see it in "Labyrinths," or "Dreamtigers," or almost anything he put out into the world. Maybe for Borges, a mix tape was a labyrinth:
Time is the substance I am made of. Time is a river which sweeps me along, but I am the river; it is a tiger which destroys me, but I am the tiger; it is a fire which consumes me, but I am the fire.
Then I reflect that all things happen, happen to one, precisely now. Century follows century, and things happen only in the present. There are countless men in the air, on land and at sea, and all that really happens happens to me.
Before unearthing this letter, I had questioned myself about the ways in which a book can be infinite. I could think of nothing other than a cyclic volume, a circular one. A book whose last pages was identical with the first, a book which had the possibility of continuing indefinitely.
Maybe that is another aspect of the mix tape--it is almost cyclic or circular; it doesn't matter where you hit play, you are pulled in, wrapped up; you can start and stop at any point or just let it ride.
If that's the case, Borges definitely got it. You can see him taking copies of a new book to his close friends, his lady friends, his peeps. Or maybe he'd be kicked back in a chair, next to a cat, waiting for folks to come to him. I mean, he's Borges. Maybe he would just send a text that said: "New mix tape: Come and Get Your Love. Borges, out."
Sunday, December 14, 2014
I'm not much for Christmas. That hurts to say, but it's been a few years coming. It feels tired, forced, fake. Blame Walmart and Target, for putting Christmas shit out in September next to the back to school shopping. Blame consumer America for Black Friday and Cyber Monday and all the other fanfare and crap that killed Kenny and Christmas all at once.
How about we blame Charles Dickens? I mean I'm a Dickens fan, but you tell me if you could pick between what Christmas is now, and this:
... in medieval times, peasants and lords alike celebrated Christmas with a twelve-day rager, glomming the Nativity onto the pagan feasts of Saturnalia and the Winter Solstice to create a super-holiday full of carol singing, gift-giving, raucous game-playing, the burning of Yule logs, and a whole hell of a lot of drinking.
Sign me up. That sounds like Festivus before the Costanza's came up with the feats of strength. In the fantastic article quoted above, Richard Michael Kelly connects the publication of "A Christmas Carol" to the lame popular public celebration of Christmas we have today.
Nostalgia at Christmas time isn't a new thing. Dylan Thomas felt it too. His "A Child's Christmas in Wales" is the one story I read every year. To myself, mind you. Thomas connects history and his memories in recalling:
Years and years and years ago, when I was a boy, when there were wolves in Wales, and birds the color of red-flannel petticoats whisked past the harp-shaped hills, when we sang and wallowed all night and day in caves that smelt like Sunday afternoons in damp front farmhouse parlors, and we chased, with the jawbones of deacons, the English and the bears, before the motor car, before the wheel, before the duchess-faced horse, we rode the daft and happy hills bareback, it snowed and snowed... Our snow was not only shaken from whitewash buckets down the sky, it came shawling out of the ground and swam and drifted out of the arms and hands and bodies of the trees; snow grew overnight on the roofs of the houses like a pure and grandfather moss, minutely white-ivied the walls and settled on the postman, opening the gate, like a dumb, numb thunderstorm of white, torn Christmas cards.
Get a poet reminiscing about snow, and let him/her roll.
I'm not Charlie Brown here, wondering about the true meaning of Christmas. I've born witness to folks and communities that get it. Doug Hanks Jr. and the town of Oxford with the dock trees in Town Creek come to mind. Going down there last year with Joel Shilliday to get photos of the lit up creek, or talking with Henry Hale about how and why the trees continue to get out there and how so much of the town is into it. That's a bit of what Christmas is, or should be.
My favorite part of Christmas every year growing up was the fact that my grandparents from Towson would drive down and stay Christmas Eve, wake up with us on Christmas morning, and sometimes stay the next night. Sure, presents rocked, but seeing their car turn onto E. Division Street in Oxford, and helping them unload the car, that is Christmas to me as much as anything will be.
I'm not sure what traditions my girls are inheriting. Each year, the three of us have gone to Hutchison's Christmas Forest and cut down a tree, but this is their last year. We don't go overboard on Christmas gifts, but I guess there is the stress of gifts, followed directly by January and February birthdays. But Christmas feels like a fake facade town, set up with just the building fronts leaning against two-by-fours, that a strong wind will take down.
Christmas, even in sight of what it is all about, feels like a going through the motions and has for the past few years. The girls are super excited Christmas morning and day, they spend time with family, eat, play with their booty (toys people, their loot, come on ;), but I need to get myself back in the spirit.
For me, the solid memories of Christmas past, seems heading firmly in the direction of Christmas passed.
I don't have an answer. Maybe it's a search. Maybe a quest. But if you will indulge me with letting Dylan Thomas ramble again, he has something of it here:
Bring out the tall tales now that we told by the fire as the gaslight bubbled like a diver. Ghosts wooed like owls in the long nights when I dared not look over my shoulder; animals lurked in the cubbyhole under the stairs where the gas meter ticked. And I remember that we went singing carols once, when there wasn't the shaving of a moon to light the flying streets. At the end of a long road was a drive that led to a large house, and we stumbled up the darkness of the drive that night, each one of us afraid, each one holding a stone in his hand in case, and all of us too brave to say a word. The wind through the trees made noises as of old and unpleasant and maybe webfooted men wheezing in caves. We reached the black bulk of the house.
"What shall we give them? Hark the Herald?"
"No," Jack said. "Good King Wenceslas. I'll count three."
One, two, three, and we began to sing, our voices high and seemingly distant in the snow-felted darkness round that house that was occupied by nobody that we knew. We stood close together, near the dark door.
Good King Wenceslas looked out
On the Feast of Stephen...
And then a small, dry voice, like the voice of someone who has not spoken for a long time, joined our singing: a small, dry, eggshell voice from the other side of the door: a small dry voice through the keyhole. And when we stopped running we were outside our house; the front room was lovely; balloons floated under the hot-water-bottle-gulping gas; everything was good again and shone over the town.
A group of boys go caroling on a completely dark night, to a house they don't know. They are afraid. They bust out an old song they know. They connect with a total stranger, which may well have encompassed his whole Christmas. They run like hell back home and all is right with the world.
Unscripted. Spur of the moment. Out of the comfort zone. Spontaneity, fear, human connection to a stranger. Merry Christmas.
Wednesday, December 10, 2014
My mind is dancing, fickle like fire. It won't stand still--it jumps, flicks tongues, wall rides, scattering darkness, but dives back down before illuminating. Can't see what's there.
I'm sitting in a cave. It's me, the fire, someone across the fire from me that I can't make out, just an outline. Not a stranger, just can't see across the fire.
Can't make out the cave walls. There are shadows. I need to stoke the fire. With what? Drugs bring smoke but no additional light. They are not the stoke.
tucked up in clefts in the cliffs
growing strict fields of corn and beans
sinking deeper and deeper in the earth
up to your hips in Gods
your head all turned to eagle-down
& lightning for knees and elbows
your eyes full of pollen
the smell of bats
the flavor of sandstone
grit on the tongue.
at the food of ladders in the dark.
Gary Snyder chants. The flames dance higher. Figures on the wall...
Art. Poetry. Drawings. The child, surrounded by nature, is the one connected to the Universe. I know these drawings. I've seen them. I've written about them, read about them.
Caves. Fire. Shelter. Food. Primal elements. Fire meant food, community. It still does. Fire pulls the tribe together. It is conversation, happy hour, camping, return from a trail run to crack a beer, sip soup and share stories. Fire lets us see in the dark.
The cave has more. Skateboarding. Future Primitive. A love that began at 13 and has continued through today at 42 and tomorrow at whatever age. The figures on the wall look like this...
Lance Mountain. The figures are also running. Tribal. More of the cave, the walls are showing now. Scenes, images, symbols from my life. The girls. Passions. Shared experiences. Spelled out on the walls of the cave. Plato would be pleased.
I get up and walk to further parts of the cave. The walls are bare. They are uncovered. Unwritten. Still to be written. The writing is from life. From love. From experience. What is the rest of the story? What symbols? What art?
What becomes paintings on the cave walls begins as dreams. Neil Gaiman knows dreams. He has written Dream's story in epic and graphic fashion. He begins "The Sandman, Vol. 6: Fables & Reflections" with an artist, a playwright and director who is afraid of heights. In his dreams, he fears falling. He believes there are two possible outcomes to falling in a dream: either you wake up, or you die. No good outcome.
And the artist, the dreamer, finds himself in a dream, climbing. At the top of the mountain, he meets Dream. Dream points out that there is a third alternative. "Sometimes when you fall, you fly."
The most unlikely scenario. It flies in the face of common sense. But we aren't talking sense. We are talking dreams. Why would anything sensical wind up as a cave painting?
Saturday, December 6, 2014
Monk: What happens when the leaves are falling, and the trees bare?
Ummon: The golden wind, revealed!
- Hegikan Roku (The Blue Cliff Records, via Peter Matthiessen, "The Snow Leopard")
Life has a funny way of showing you things. Things that maybe at first you'd rather not see, hear, think about or experience. But that end up with you being exactly where you need to be, when you need to be there.
As Peter Matthiessen and his crew turn their trek through the Himalayas from westward to northward, he cites the quote above. It's kind of a sky is falling moment. Shit, what do we do? What happens when the last of the leaves have fallen? Chill. That's when we find out what's really there, underneath.
Oh. Okay. Cool.
If I ever write a proper book, it will be non-fiction, extended memoir, something, not a novel. And I hope I can bring even a fraction of what Matthiessen does to the table, in his ability to tell a razor wire tight/taut story, and then go for pages talking about cosmology, and how modern science and ancient Eastern philosophy are saying the same things about the nature of the Universe, and keep your attention rapt in doing so, not make you mad that the travel narrative has taken a tangent:
Today most scientists would agree with the ancient Hindus that nothing exists or is destroyed, things merely change shape or form; that matter is insubstantial in origin, a temporary aggregate of the pervasive energy that animates the electron.
When I was at N.C. State, a friend of ours married a girl who went to a nearby all girls college in Raleigh. She was Samoan; her cousin played nose tackle for State and went on to play for a time for the Detroit Lions. He was a beast. She was a self-proclaimed witch (let's call her a good witch). A number of us went to their engagement party and I don't know that I have ever unexpectedly laughed so hard, at these giant Samoan dudes, who could rip your limbs off, engaged in side-splittingly hilarious "your mama" joke one-ups-manship. Random and fantastic. My roommate and I quoted them for weeks.
We hung with our friend and the Samoan witch for a while, until they dropped out of school and seemed to drop off the face of the earth. One night on Hillsborough Street in Raleigh, she was reading palms. Why not?
She told me some of the basic stuff you'd hope to hear: long life; two and a half children (have two girls and a miscarriage, so maybe that's what that was?); and an active love line. She said that the love of my life would be someone who I knew first as a friend, then wouldn't talk to for some time, fall out of touch, and then would reconnect with later.
I can't say I have given that a lot of thought, other than to play it back in my head a few times here and there any wonder about it and file it back under the C & C Music Factory mental category of "Things that make you go hhmmmm..." At the least, great cocktail party fodder to be able to say that you've had your palm read by a Samoan witch (self-proclaimed).
This fall hasn't been my most active time for running. But it's been better than it has been in a few years. I guess 2008 to 2010-ish were the heyday for the Rise Up Runners in terms of how often we ran and raced and got together. But as I've said on here before, so much of that group is about the camaraderie, the goofy challenges, the eccentric friendships and connections.
In September, a friend turned 40. It happens to the best of us. Instead of a party, he challenged us: swim 0.4 miles, bike 40 km, run 4 miles, and to officially finish, you must have finished a 40oz of beer or malt liquor. The 40Tri (copyrighted ;). That event was a blast.
We then threw out a schedule that asked those who were game to complete a race on the Eastern Shore, each month, from Sept. to Dec.: 4 MONTHS, 4 RACES, 4 SHORE. The 40TRI. The Horn Point Spat Dash in Cambridge. The Chester River Challenge Half-Marathon and 5K in Chestertown or the Across the Bay 10K, and this month, the Pain in the Neck 50K in Cambridge.
The goal was not to finish the races per se, but to get the band back together. To run, to hang, to train, to push each other with ridiculous challenges.
Today is the Pain in the Neck, the last leg. A friend from N.C. State who lives in Delaware is coming over for it. It's a 5K loop, that runners can run up to 10 times. It is going to be in the 40s to 50 degrees and rainy. A bunch of fools running circles in the woods in December.
Yep, file that under the same C&C Music Factory mental category: Things that make you go hhmmm...
Wednesday, December 3, 2014
I ran probably 10 of the 13.1 miles of the Chester River Challenge with a girl I'd never met and will likely never see again. About three miles into the race, a group of us settled into a comfortable pace and pushed along as a pack. Running face first into a 30-40 mph headwind on the second half of the course, this girl in blue and I pushed ahead of the pack.
I've run with a number of folks, but I don't think any of them have had the same foot strike pace that I do. Blue girl did. You only heard one set of feet pounding pavement. We didn't talk much. But at one point, we turned out of the wind down a stretch of hilly, country road, were off mostly on our own, and the thought of running that road, in that weather, as a training run was in my mind, since the rest of my body hurt.
"Sometimes this whole running thing is a bleak, solitary pursuit," I said.
"Yeah, it is," she laughed.
But for those miles, for the couple shared comments, for those common footfalls it wasn't.
Human loneliness seem to be the basic condition for two of my life loves: running and writing. Both have solitude as a building block. Both require you to turn inside, to see what is there and to do something with it. And maybe in the end, both are an answer to this condition of loneliness.
The medium of poetry isn't language, really: it's human loneliness, a loneliness that poets, having received it themselves from earlier poets, transfer to their readers. Like bees in a honeycomb, writers and readers experience isolation and solitude communally and collaboratively. - Dan Chiasson, The New Yorker, reviewing Olena Kalytiak Davis's new book.
Maybe writing, especially writing as personal as poetry, is the writer saying, "Hey, this fu**ing sucks. Anyone else?" And the act of writing, the reaching out, if we stumble across some universal feeling or nerve, or at least one other nerve in one other person, the loneliness might abate.
Music can probably be included as a means of combating the lonely. I am not a musician, but I hear it in Delta blues. And I hear it in Sturgill Simpson. Simpson seems to be connecting with a number of folks, Rolling Stone Magazine called his "Metamodern Sounds in Country Music" one of the 50 best albums in 2014.
I dig the way Rolling Stone blurbs it along with some Simpson lyrics:
"Marijuana, LSD, psilocybin, DMT, they all changed the way I see / But love's the only thing that ever saved my life," sings Simpson. The Kentucky-born singer-songwriter's breakthrough album features plenty more folk wisdom, delivered in a singular barrel-aged baritone.
Since a friend shoved me in Simpson's direction, I have been listening a lot, and he seems to fit any mood, from cleaning the house, to happy hour, to morning coffee, or sipping whiskey under the stars.
Running, writing, and music all seem to be born out of an elemental loneliness. They all feel like ways for the runner, writer, musician to bridge a perceived gap, to connect with something, or someone else. And, lucky us, the act of doing, or reading, or listening, can sometimes let us know that someone else out there gets it. Gets us.
Monday, December 1, 2014
There can only be so many plots, right? If you listen to Christopher Booker, there are seven to work with. So in rocking a plot, choose wisely. The farther back you reach, the more likely you'll get to the good stuff. Homer's Odyssey seemed to fascinate James Joyce, as well as Matt Fraction.
Homer hit the ball out of the park (sorry) in such epic fashion the title of his Odyssey now has its own meaning in modern English:
1. a long wandering or voyage usually marked by many changes of fortune.
2. an intellectual or spiritual wandering or quest.
If I stick with the second definition, I feel like that's a description of my daily life. Booker fits Homer's Odyssey into the "Voyage and Return" category, "the protagonist goes to a strange land and, after overcoming the threats it poses to him/her, returns with nothing but experience." He cites "Alice in Wonderland" as another example.
I can relate to that aspect as well--I return from most of my voyages with empty pockets and a full soul.
Fraction has the balls to take on Homer and re-make the Odyssey into something totally new. Turn Odysseus into a girl. Change the setting to sci-fi and rock out a smart, psychedelic comic that visually and viscerally spins your brain. Those that follow along at home may remember that I blame Matt Fraction for pulling me back into comics and graphic novels.
There is something both epic and daunting and maybe terrifying about building on one of the most revered works in the canon of western literature. Joyce more than pulled it off, and took his Odyssey into the mind, and inside a single day in Dublin. The possibilities are endless.
My own odyssey is only partially literary at the moment. It's a personal wandering, a personal quest to figure out myself, life, the Universe, vocation, etc. It's what you do when you are 42.
Lately I have sequestered myself into my Baileys Neck crib. Gone ghost, fled to interior life, and close surroundings. I could feel a pull to change scenery. Pull together a quick and easy overnight, a voyage and return. Shenandoah National Park is a sub-three hour trek. Mary's Rock at Thornton Gap provided about a four-mile hike (up and back) full of snow, ice, slush and views you won't find on Maryland's Eastern Shore.
A proper odyssey can't be contained in a day or four miles. But for a flatlander surrounded by water, not mountains, it can be just enough to screw my soul on a bit differently. A spiritual wandering, returning with nothing but experience. And a smiling sanctuary in the mind.