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.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

It's not that I am getting older


It's not that I'm getting older. Or slowing down. But I walk more. I still run, still push myself. Hey man, I'm still hardcore, haven't gained weight in the past year. I still know how to earn sweat. I walk to notice the things I only ran by. I walk to keep up with the girls.

You can't build forts if you're too busy running. You can't stare into nesting ospreys or cardinals playing hide and seek. Only lying on your back can you properly discuss cloud formations, what color blue the sky is, or imbibe the cosmos via stars in the night sky.

I heed the same elders:  Hass, Snyder, Merwin, Merton. I've maybe added a few to the list: bluebird, woodpecker, hawk, At this time last year, I wrote this on turning 42. The view has changed, but I try to live each of those things everyday, the best I can.

It's not that I'm getting older, but life feels deeper this year. Like I've had a year submerged and am getting back in touch with the air.

I have no new advice this year. I'm not generally one to give it, and not always to take it anyway. But I still think Gary Snyder got it right when he advised:

To climb these coming crests
one word to you, to
you and your children:

stay together
learn the flowers
go light

I don't dare to add to Gary's simple mantra. But if I were, I might say:

find your people
watch the birds
go for walks

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Life Isn't Shaped Like a Baseball Bat. I hope.


I hope life isn't shaped like a baseball bat. A bat has a "sweet spot," the part of the bat a batter wants to hit the ball with to send it on a ride. The sweet spot is a small part of the bat, and if you are standing in the batter's box, you are using all the rest of the bat to try to connect the sweet spot with the ball.

If life is like that, then a whole lot of your life is spent trying to get to the sweet spot; the best part. This came up at dinner with friends the other night; not the baseball bat analogy itself, but the sweet spot. And why, when you find something great, a period of time at work, or life, does the sweet spot have to be finite? Why can't it be extended? Why are the best of days numbered? Looking back at 20-ish years working at the same place, one friend could pick out the best five or six years, which were towards the end of his time there, but didn't last beyond that time frame. Things change.

Life is not all about a job, I think many people will tell you--those with a family, hobbies, passions, a relationship. So maybe it is that careers are shaped like baseball bats? I don't know, I think we can all look back on our lives and find different times when things were cranking along as you'd want them. But invariably, life's sweet spots get superseded, or end, or maybe just change when we weren't looking.

Einstein was a pretty smart cat. Let's invoke him here:

Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance, you must keep moving.

The world as we have created it is a process of our thinking. It cannot be changed without changing our thinking.

The measure of intelligence is the ability to change.

Maybe that's the rub. That we expect things to stay the same. We expect to keep doing the same things, which seem to be working at the time, but that is only for a time, and we don't see the change coming. What was the sweet spot becomes a rut, a habit, when we aren't paying attention.

What's a good change metaphor? Let's go with water. Mankind dealing with change is like being in water. If you want to get beneath the surface, you can emulate the diver. Per Pablo Neruda:

Time after time
he takes hold of the water, the sand,
and is
born again.
Submerging
each day
to the hold
of the pitiless
current,
Pacific and
Chilean
cold,
the diver
must practice
his
birth again,
make  himself
monstrous
and tentative,
displace himself
fearfully,
grow wise
in his slothful
mobility, like
an underseas
moon.
Even
his thinking
must merge
with the water

Neruda was not kind to paper. But he was frequently on to things. His odes, love poems, and epic "Residence on Earth" are a man reckoning with life, existence, the Universe.

"Even his thinking must merge with water."  When the physicist and the poet say the same thing, it might be time to pay attention. Embrace change. Don't hold onto things for too long expecting them to stay the same. Merge our thinking with water.

Life doesn't have to be shaped like a baseball bat. If life is change, like water, maybe we can be the diver.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Interstellar Cosmic Universal Randomness


As random as Bruce Willis in a pink Easter Bunny suit. That's pretty random. Where random is the root word in the phrase, "interstellar, cosmic, universal randomness." And when you frame it that way, it got me to wondering, how random is anything once you go cosmic?

Years ago I walked into the Newscenter in Easton, a book store not known for its poetry selection or for books beyond bestsellers and classics. And on the end cap was a book called "The Shadow of Sirius" by W.S. Merwin. I had heard of Merwin before, but never read him, and had no inclination to pick that book up--it was thin with a pale gray cover, no reason to notice it. But I picked it up, bought it, read it cover to cover. Merwin became a heavy for me. A short stretch later, a former boss/mentor and I went to see Merwin speak/read at the Folger Theater in D.C. In the audience was my former adviser from Washington College, who waited in line with me to go meet Merwin and get books signed. I have not met most of the writers I most look up to. Merwin is one of the few. Looking back, I don't think picking that book up was random.

Both of us understood
what a privilege it was
to be out for a walk
with each other.

I turned in Merwin's thin, gray book to those words yesterday. They wouldn't have meant anything different to me until recently, but they landed right where they were supposed to, cosmically speaking.

Sirius, the Dog Star, is the brightest star visible from any part of the Earth. An interstellar all star. It's easy to spot on winter and spring evenings. And I dig that it is described as "white to blue" in color.

Stars and birds have grabbed my attention a lot lately. Those sky dwellers that leave us at once feeling grounded, but knowing ours is not the only lot, and that we are somehow connected. A view from the back deck, accompanied by books, accompanied by pilsner, conversation, love, watching the birds move about above, or intuiting us moving about beneath the stars. Victor Hugo feels the intermingling of the soul and the stars:

He was there alone with himself, collected, tranquil, adoring, comparing the serenity of his heart with the serenity of the skies, moved in the darkness by the visible splendors of the constellations, and the invisible splendor of God, opening his soul to the thoughts which fall from the Unknown. In such moments, offering up his heart at the hour when the flowers of night inhale their perfume, lighted like a lamp in the center of the starry night, expanding his soul in ecstasy in the midst of the universal radiance of creation, he could not himself perhaps have told what was passing in his own mind; he felt something depart from him, and something descend upon him, mysterious interchanges of the depths of his soul with the depths of the universe.

The intermingling of the soul and the stars. The terrestrial and the heavenly. This universal scale, the cosmic perspective; it is from that balcony that random dissipates, gives way to the underlying pattern.

Merwin's big book of selected poems is titled, "Migration." He is a poet of the birds and the stars. And late in his Sirius book, he turns to the thrush,

O nameless joy of the morning

tumbling upward note by note out of the night
and the hush of the dark valley
and out of whatever has not been there

song unquestioning and unbounded
yes this is the place and the one time
in the whole of before and after
with all memory waking into it

The song of the thrush brings the cosmos from the sky, from the night, into the now, waking with all memory. Timeless to temporal.

Random. Like Bruce Willis in a pink Easter Bunny suit. Chuck Palahniuk says of the Easter Bunny, Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy, that they, "seem like greater steps toward faith and imagination. Like cognitive training exercises."

Maybe that's how it goes. The Willis Bunny is a step toward faith and imagination. Or maybe, a dude in an Easter Bunny suit isn't random in the connected minds of those who conjured it.