Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Winter Break

The coolest Christmas gift I ever got was the Star Wars Death Star. It was put together, set up in front of the Christmas tree when I came downstairs.

Watching our girls open and get excited about Christmas--the season and presents-- I don't know what their best gift will be. The Star Wars trilogy and all that came with it defined our childhood. I'm not sure this generation has that singular zeitgeist for its collective youth imagination. The narrative is pluralistic now, splintered. Maybe it's not a narrative...


The thing besides Christmas and family that connects our winters to the girls' is snow. Anna tries to ambush me blind with snowballs. We belly-laugh after I counterattack with a sidewinder that SPLATS, imprinted to the earflap of her peace sign fleece hat.

The next day our family will be frozen grinned and smoke breathing at night, at the bottom of a sledding hill, and I'm thinking this is a winter memory, a life memory that we will each remember forever...


The week between Christmas and New Years has become sacred. Family time, with no plans, no schedule, only impromptu places to go or things to do. It's a sanctuary week to recharge before going into the long, cold stretch of January and February. The cool of Christmas gives way to the dark droll of winter proper. Quiet like ice...


From the bathroom I can hear the phone ringing, just barely, over the sweeper running downstairs. Technology is a mouthy bitch, discontent to leave the quiet still.

My latest tech indulgence is the opposite--it cultivates quiet. My dad surprised me and my sister's husband with Kindles. I'm a book guy, I like being surrounded by them, to have stacks on the coffee table and shelves (much to my wife's chagrin ;), waiting by the bed and next to the couch. I wouldn't have thought of a Kindle. But I dig it. I'm more than halfway through Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad in just a few days and I'm a slow reader.

Goon Squad squats with Charles Simic's Master of Disguises and Robert Hass's The Apple Trees at Olema in a flat easily taken for a day planner.

As smitten as I am with Egan's Goon Squad (and I am smitten), with its stories and style and characters and connected threads, it's not until I dig into Simic and Matthew Lippman that I have to pick up a pen and start to write...


Thursday, December 23, 2010

Wherefore art thou, fairy tale?

I'm not sure how the fairy tale goes now. Or if there even is one. Maybe we've outgrown them.

Over Thanksgiving, Robin and I stayed up watching Pretty Woman. Julia Roberts wanted the fairy tale. In that case, it was: hooker meets emotionally damaged billionaire, buys clothes, makes him emotionally whole, he punches Jason Alexander, and they ride off in a limo together. We're not sure about the happily ever after part; there hasn't been a sequel.

This story ran in The New York Times wedding section this past Sunday. It's caused a ruckus of sorts. Typical story: boy meets girl, they get married and have kids, hang with a couple like them with kids, boy and girl from the disparate marriages dig each other, fall in love, tell their spouses, move out, get divorced, get re-married to each other. Much bigger family. Brady style.

They did it for love. There has to be something for following your heart, right? You only live once and the kids will get over it. Half of their friends will have something like that happen, so they'll fit in anyway.

Maybe one marriage and/or kids isn't what people want, or should expect out of life, out of a relationship anymore. We trade cars in, we move from house to house, town to city, job to job. Change and transition is the new foundation.

For the past several years we've watched a number of friends, with or without kids, split up. It's rough. People whose weddings you attended, that you remember, that you thought were rock solid.

I'm not judging, just riffing. We live our lives trying to make what we think are the best decisions. The ones that will bring us the most happiness. Life isn't simple, or even linear. If you are "meant" to be with someone, maybe it's not the person you married and had kids with. It happens. Repeatedly. People change. Or they don't.

Maybe marriage as a bond, as a vow, isn't relevant. But it makes you worried to be married.

I write this having been married 11+ years and having been with my wife for 15+ years, each of which include my best and happiest days and experiences. Not all of these experiences--say finishing my first marathon as a touchstone--have happened with Robin, but all have happened because of, or in connection with, or with us being together as the foundation, condition, backdrop to whatever experience.

What we have together, including our girls, makes us happier than not being together. There are rough days or stretches, which we have worked through. Our intentions are to be happy, stay together, raise the girls, surprise each other, deepen our relationship and our friendships, find new ways to make ourselves and each other happy. Love, explore, live, together.

We want that to work. I hope it will. I like to think we both have a say in that being the case.

Funny, looking at different things that happened to bring us together: me failing out of college, Robin looking for a teaching job and having a friend from Penn State who was teaching in Tilghman Island, our circles of friends connecting via Tom and Nan and that we live in a small town, the fact that I had seen Blue Miracle in Raleigh and dug them and that all involved decided to go see them at the Avalon, meeting each other, being intrigued by Robin, different dates, staying up all night talking, moving beyond talking (but still talking).

We were Christmas shopping this past Saturday, without the kids. It was December 18 and it was a chaotic vortex of holiday shopping in Annapolis. Amidst the chaos and Christmas spirit, Robin remembered one of the first nights we spent together, as a new couple, looking for any and all time we could spend together, be together, get together (cue 70s-80s porn soundtrack music ;), then she asked, "Did you ever think it would lead to this?"

We laughed. I thought back to that time, those early days, the thoughts I had in my head about us, about myself, about being together. Did you ever think it would lead to this? "This" being us making each other laugh, together but better than then, still wanting her and looking forward to our time spent, our girls and watching them do their things--sports, playing with dolls, building forts, spilling drinks, asking questions, giving hugs--Did you ever think it would lead to this?

"Yeah," I said. "Actually, I kind of did. Or at least I hoped."

[I was going to end there (you can stop reading if you prefer that as a stopping point). But I realize that our case is just our case. It's probably not the norm. It's not everyone's story. It's just ours. It's a work in progress. But it's my frame of reference. And that's what you get on a blog that I write :). Add your thoughts to the mix if you are of the mind.]

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

And Huey Lewis nods his head

Maybe the muscles in his face were frozen. He walked brisk with his bags from 7-Eleven, smiling down the side of the road. Thirty degrees of cold and wind on a Sunday morning. Maybe he was wearing a Santa hat. People making that walk rarely smile, even when it's warmer. His frozen smile was all you could see. 'Tis the season.

Today we light the fourth candle--the candle of love. With this flame we signify the love of God that surrounds us and fills us at all times, but that we recognize in a special way in the Christmas story. There is no greater power than love.

Huey Lewis didn't write that, but you can see him nodding his head.

"I'm going to put my head down and pretend to tie my shoe so nobody can see me." Anna wasn't big on our family reading and lighting the Advent candles at church. Her shoes didn't have laces. Nobody in our family is big on public speaking. But it's Christmas.

Loving God, we open ourselves to you this Christmas season.
As these candles are lit, light our lives with your imagination.
Show us the creative power of hope.
Fill us with the kind of joy that cannot be contained, but must be shared.
Prepare our hearts to be transformed by you

A prayer. I want to write that down to remember any time we light candles in the house.

Dale talks to the kids about birthdays and whose is coming up. Kevin says we don't have to go to timeout for fighting over Jesus's love--there is enough to go around. And he asks a question. A big one.

"What would God look like, among us?"

Hhhmm. I think if he walked along the side of Washington Street, carrying his groceries in the cold, he'd be smiling.

And Huey Lewis nods his head.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

The Green Monster

I've been to Boston once, but it doesn't really count. I was 15 or 16. We went as a family, stayed at a sweet hotel for a conference my dad was attending. I didn't want to be there, wanted instead to be on my Boston Whaler on the river, or on the phone with my girlfriend or in a semi-trance listening to Pink Floyd.

We hit Cheers and went around the city a bit, but I wasn't there, really. My dad wanted the two of us to hit Fenway Park and size up the Green Monster. Nah, I'm gonna hang at the hotel. What a shit.

It would have served us both better if he had punched me in the gut and kneed me in the face as a wake-the-fu%& up call, but that kind of thing is frowned up, and my dad didn't roll like that. He went by himself.

I have hated talking on the phone since that summer--a kind of existential response to wasting so much time tethered to a wall that could have been spent exploring, living. We did our share of living that summer also, but still.

Perspective seems to smooth out the rough wake we've kicked out. Or maybe perspective is just distance mixed with common sense and maybe we don't feel things as strongly now as when we were earlier versions of ourselves. I don't know.

I can tell you that if I go back to Boston, I'm going to Fenway Park. I'm gonna check out the Green Monster.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Riffing off Matthew Lippman's title: monkey bars

The monkey bars are gone from the Oxford Park. I'm not surprised. I've never seen anyone get brained there, or break an arm. Or even fall. But it could happen. And we don't like hard surfaces or steel bars around our kids. Childhood is now brought to you by Nerf.

I might posit that the monkey bars were stolen by the cast of the board game Clue. I could completely see Colonel Mustard wacking the monkey bars in the billiard room with the wrench.

At one point the Oxford Police Department had two unmarked cop cars. One was maroon, one was French's yellow. Our friend Siachos deemed them "Professor Plum" and "Colonel Mustard." You can guess that stuck like long hair to flypaper.

So maybe Clue becomes an extended metaphor for small town cops and our tendency to want to protect ourselves to boredom or some form of numbness. I'm guilty too. Nobody wants their kids to get hurt. I probably wouldn't let our girls on the monkey bars (the photo above shows the exact set up the Oxford Park rocked), as much as I dug them and as much as they conjure up my childhood, of which I am also a fan.

I haven't read Matthew Lippman's book Monkey Bars yet. It might not even get its name from the archetypal public playground apparatus. But you can bet that after reading The Rumpus's interview with Lippman and review of the book, that I ordered that shit directly. As has been established, I dig monkey bars.

And I am happy to riff off of Lippman's title to let my mind wander back to the days of 20-inch BMX bike transportation, to a time of sharp edges and jumping high and far off of wooden swings out toward the water; of running in the air like fucking Carl Lewis and hitting the ground and rolling to lessen the impact; of grass-stained knees and skinned elbows and open-mouthed smiles; of laughing and not worrying.

Monday, December 13, 2010

A few of my favorite things

There are things you know you love before you know they exist or before you know they have names or to name them. For me these things are frequently mongrels--mixed breeds of pursuits, activities or passions that when combined reach beyond what the disparate parts can do on their own.

I write entirely to find out what I am thinking, what I'm looking at, what I see, and what it means. --Joan Didion.

I never thought of trail running as something different from distance running, just the best/coolest part of what running is. When I rekindled my running a few years back, I saw an issue of Trail Runner Magazine on the newsstand and it was instant and immersive epiphany. The first time I hit a trail with that intention in my crawl, I basically floated above the trails. I read and thought about it when I wasn't doing it. It provides an aesthetic, a rush, a peace, a calm, a connection that other ways of being don't and maybe can't. Trail running is the reduction, the distillation of what I dig most about running, kind of like fast-forwarding through the boring parts of an action movie.

Cruising the streets, surveying concrete and asphalt for hills, tools, angles, transitions, this was/is the organic, responsive part of skateboarding that tractor-beamed me into it as a teenager. A sort of nomadic zen that seemed to be created with/by the hum of polyurethane wheels in motion. When I stepped back into skating at age 35 on a 7x27 Element board with thin wheels not meant for rolling, something was amiss. Ollying objects was fun, but nothing soulful.

When a friend brought his Subsonic Pulse 40-inch longboard over and we took turns surfing the street and learned long distance pumping, the mutt offspring of long distance skateboarding took root in me. Just going out cruising, seeing what you encounter, but also pushing your own boundaries or limits.

Most recently it was the naming of the lyric essay while reading David Shields. The lyric essay is a label-shunning literary hybrid that describes what I have looked for in reading and strive to create in writing. I'm not sure when or where or who coined the genre, but the Seneca Review outed it in a 1997 issue. The editors, John D'Agata and Deborah Tall talk about it like this:

"The lyric essay partakes of the poem in its density and shapeliness, its distillation of ideas and musicality of language. It partakes of the essay in its weight, in its overt desire to engage with facts, melding its allegiance to the actual with its passion for imaginative form... As Helen Vendler says of the lyric poem, "It depends on gaps. . . . It is suggestive rather than exhaustive." ... it may meander, making use of other genres when they serve its purpose: recombinant, it samples the techniques of fiction, drama, journalism, song, and film.

"Given its genre mingling, the lyric essay often accretes by fragments, taking shape mosaically - its import visible only when one stands back and sees it whole... It elucidates through the dance of its own delving... Loyal to that original sense of essay as a test or a quest, an attempt at making sense, the lyric essay sets off on an uncharted course through interlocking webs of idea, circumstance, and language - a pursuit with no foreknown conclusion, an arrival that might still leave the writer questioning... We turn to the lyric essay - with its malleability, ingenuity, immediacy, complexity, and use of poetic language - to give us a fresh way to make music of the world."

Yeah, that's the ticket. A test, a quest, an attempt at making sense, questioning, trying to figure the world and myself out as part of the process. Trying to learn something via writing that I didn't and wouldn't have known otherwise. That's what writing has always been about for me and why in school and outside of school, philosophy and literature and writing have always been connected, there have never been clear lines between them and the best writers, the ones that I come back to again and again, are the ones who fuse all these things together and speak them, combine them in ways that you never forget. Ways that make you see. Differently.

* image by Robert Rauschenberg

Friday, December 10, 2010

And one

Nobody orders nachos without cheese. And no one writes about their pets without dwarfing the amount of cheese found on 7-11 or Oriole Park nachos. Therefore, writing about pets is ill advised unless you are writing a script for Lifetime television. I'm not.

And yet, I'm still going to sail the seas of cheese (props to Primus) and venture into the land of pets. But you've been warned.

A shade over ten years ago we brought home a Golden Retriever. Ivan. He is dark/red enough to have been taken for an Irish Setter more than once. Ivan the Red. Yes, we should have seen it coming. Ivan is my second run-in with Goldens. The first came when I was nine and the crotchety black cocker spaniel-based mutt we had (Lucy) died. It was around my birthday and I was told I could pick the next dog and even name it. I went Golden Retriever. And named her Morgan after King Arthur's twisted sister, Morgan Le Fay (people then suspected Morgan Fairchild as the namesake, but come on, I was nine, into medieval and Arthurian shit and besides, Heather Thomas and Bo Derek were more in at the time anyway).

Morgan was a good dog and Ivan is a stalwart family member as well. I don't think I have taken to any of the family dogs between Morgan and Ivan in the way I have to them--just something about a breed that sticks with you, I reckon (mmm-hhmm, props to Slingblade).

Despite his various issues (I have come home to him having decimated a full box of Swiss Miss hot chocolate packets all over a white rug), Ivan has earned respect and love. He has seen us bring home one baby girl (Anna), move to a new house, bring home a second baby (Ava), seen a cat come home one year (Sesame), another cat the next (Carlos), and he has been pulled on, dressed up, bopped in the nose, the list continues. And as Goldens are, he couldn't be more thrilled to see you when you roll in. He's been on trail runs to Tuckahoe (almost railroading me into a tree coming down a steep hill at one time) and almost always has to be on leash when out of the yard to keep from re-enacting the scene from the movie Funny Farm, where the dog takes off running in a straight line and is never seen again.

For a couple months now, we've been thinking about rescuing a Golden. We weren't nuts enough to think about a puppy, more along the one to three year mark. We've started and stopped and thought and looked online, but not gone any further.

And then Robin gets an e-mail forwarded to her: a family with a baby, who needs to find a home for their three-year old Golden Doodle. Now, it's never been a life goal of mine to have a dog with the word "Doodle" in the breed [scene: lifting weights or at the tattoo joint, doing something tough, 'yeah, y'all got a dog?' 'yeah, man, we have a Golden Doodle.' Muffled laughter, end of conversation]. But I'm a sucker.

I remember catching a glimpse of our first Doodle maybe ten-ish years ago, in Ocean City. And we have friends with two Doodles. They are great dogs, seemingly just curlier lighter Goldens.

Last night, Lucia came home. Ava, our five-year old said, "Dad, they have the same eyes." They do. And mannerisms, the same paw that comes up, high-five-like to ask for loving.

And one. Our family now has a second dog. Ava points out that we now have two of each species: parents, daughters, dogs, cats, birds. Don't get me started on the birds. But welcome, Lucia!

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Trout fishing. Or found along the way

There's a Safeway receipt tucked between pages of my copy of Richard Brautigan's Trout Fishing in America. I didn't buy the book at Safeway and, odder, it's not really a book about trout fishing. I did go shopping at Safeway though, and the receipt seemed like it could be useful as a bookmark. So "cream cheese" and "Shake n Bake" are extra words hiding between book covers.

Spontaneity is a groove I have stepped inside for notebook scrawl and for this blog. A week ago when I sat down to write I wasn't planning on writing the Christmas post; I had vague, half-formed ideas of writing something else entirely. But as I got writing I followed the strand and that's where it led.

I am a strand follower. Sometimes to the detriment of depth. I'll get following a new strand like a string around the corner, up the stairs, out the window, across the river and up a mountain. Hopefully I'll remember to look around on the trek (and to bring coffee and clean underwear) to see where I've gone, but frequently said trek can get re-routed by another strand found along the way.

Not just any strand will do. Like trout, I am prone to certain kinds of bait, eschewing others, and I will go after them repeatedly. Right now the strands, the bait that has me hooked includes: Charles Simic, Delta blues music, Richard Brautigan, David Shields' book Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, The White Stripes, Terrance Hayes, Christmas trees, the urge to go for a long, grueling trail run on new terrain, co-reading books out loud with our eight-year-old. the lyric essay, C.D. Wright, Skip James, stout beer, found objects, collage and how about "list making" for 200, Alex.

Anyone who stops by here frequently or on Facebook or Twitter is likely already hip to some of these strands. I tend to display the bait I've taken, like a transparent trout inside whom you can clearly make out the swallowed bait.

These strands repeat themselves, they loop over one another, crisscross and actually change and inform each other. They are indicative of the kinds of things that grab me over time and at a given time.

So in the mornings I sit down in the bottom of a lake, river, stream and I try to let the splash settle. I grab on to the chosen bait without any real idea where it will lead. I'm off. And that's pretty cool.

Unless I were a real trout.

Monday, December 6, 2010

At the laundromat

The laundromat reeks of being backstage, actors with hair tucked up but not yet wigged, make-up foundation layered, waiting for further building. Costumes are removed for the next show. This is not a place to impress.

I sit reading about Jeff Bridges' band and his childhood, about how he uses the word "dude" incessantly in real life. As I look up the dryer has kaleidoscoped our costumes--each a memory of what we were doing while wearing a particular shirt or skirt--one covering up another, shoved aside by another. A mosh pit of memory, which is maybe an apt metaphor--one memory skanking and high-stepping in front of the others.

I think back to yesterday, sitting behind our dryer, with its insides spread around me, an inexperienced paramedic unsure which piece to resuscitate.

My mind moves forward to the Ravens game, which I don't yet know that they'll lose in heartbreaking fashion to the Steelers, but man what a game.

Back to the laundromat - I look up at a woman pushing a cart by and we both laugh for no real reason. A few words to the mom in Uggs and a Ray Rice jersey and her daughter in Ray Lewis jersey. We're trying to predict a future different  than what will happen--maybe one where Flacco hits Dickson for the first down and the dryer, the drive rather doesn't stall.

I read Terrance Hayes "Mystic Bounce"--maybe that's what's going on in the dryer--and Hayes says:

If I were in charge, I would know how to fix
the world: free health care or free physicals,
at least and an abiding love of the abstract.

Fast forward to this morning and Hayes says the same thing when I read it again.

The abstract, the laundromat, the Ravens game, the Hayes line, they're all new colors swirling, new articles of clothing moshing with no real rhythm around the dryer, one circling in front of the next.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Art and family

I am not a black Delta blues and reggae phenom. But maybe I am Corey Harris. I don't have his talent or guitars or dreads or cap, but I found out how I am like Corey Harris on Friday at the NightCat, when his five year-old daughter was there with him.

He ordered her a bagel, got her set up with a movie on a laptop and proceeded to transform the house into some club on the Mississippi Delta with a timeless voice and virtuoso finger picking. He is a singular talent. But like those of us with young kids, before every song his eyes found her and made sure she was okay, then he closed them and transformed himself and all of us.

Funny I've been thinking about art and family of late. And how some people who take themselves to be serious artists or writers or musicians will spurn the idea of family or kids in order to focus on/dedicate themselves to their art. Their is some validity to the idea that when you own (or don't have to share) the hours in your day, you can devote more time to studying, creating. Sometimes a quiet evening, free of homework, or a Saturday morning with no soccer or field hockey, where you can go sit in a coffee house or museum, or people watch on a street, would be pretty sweet.

But for me, art or creativity springs from the messy parts, the jumble, the connections, which are sometimes tangled, sometimes free-flowing. My perception and perspective are re-shaped through how our girls see the world and how their words, their ideas and concepts, their humor changes. And how I react to it all.

The discipline to make sure creative time doesn't simply live on the edges of the day, but has it's time to percolate and time to drink deeply off of it, there's a challenge there. For me the answer is often get up early; make that time when everyone is sleeping. With a 90-minute drive to and from work, I often have ideas gel or start from a lyric from The Roots or The White Stripes, or a riff, or a nugget from NPR, or the improvisation of a Robert Glasper.

There isn't a choice between art and family because they are both co-mingling, swirling through the funnel of my experience to hopefully turn into something worthwhile, creatively speaking. Then again, that existential creativity of having a hand in the people the girls are becoming, the person Robin is, the dingbat that I am and am becoming; there is something to be said for that kind of fruitful creativity as well.

I can't speak for Corey Harris, whose music and vibe and daughter are all beautiful and seem interconnected. But I can relate when I see her come up to him on stage to be with her dad and how I feel when Anna or Ava bring notebook or art pad and crayons and spark their own creativity, and how they feed mine.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Merry Fu$%ing Christmas!

I am frequently under the influence. Especially this time of year. Sometimes to the point of stumbling. It starts with Christmas lights.

This morning the outside of the window is being pelted with rain and the wind is ripping around so much that the motion-tripped light has been shining all night. But the white Christmas lights next to the window inside, each their own sun of Christmas fu#%ing spirit, makes the weather irrelevant. On Saturday, we'll go to Hutchison Brothers Tree Farm and Griswold a Christmas tree and I will plug it in and stare at it with coffee in the morning or in the evening or before bed and my smile will begin in the gut.

I am under the influence of Dylan Thomas, having found a pocket-sized edition of his A Child's Christmas in Wales, with stellar woodcut illustrations--the only Christmas story that begins with two boys waiting to throw snowballs at cats and a house catching fire.

I am under the influence of Charles Schulz and Vince Guaraldi, who are the undisputed tag team champions of the holidays and whose Charlie Brown Christmas will be screened a minimum of a dozen times this month--the zombie-walking holiday dance, Linus's "that's what Christmas is all about" monologue and Charlie Brown's blockheaded Christmas tree.

Tis the season, motherfu%&ers! And while I lack Clark Griswold's drive to light the neighborhood and tax the power grid with Christmas lights, I frequently feel lit up, just the same.