Friday, January 28, 2011

Are you gonna eat that melancholy? Part 1, Nox

I f#%ing hate the word melancholy. It's like a fruit that can't admit it's a vegetable. And either way, you don't want it on your plate.

But here I sit, last at the table, in a staredown with melancholy and I can't stomach it. I want it to extract itself, move off the plate of its own accord so I don't have to eat that shit.

And there it sits. I've been sick. It's been cold. Couped up, cabin-fevered, little sunlight. And generally I'm an upbeat cat, but, man.

I've been sitting with three brilliant writers, muses really, who I am smitten with and shaken by, who are hip to some rough revelations about humanity.

Anne Carson (above). Joan Didion. C.D. Wright.

I've got some Buddhist in me. I fathom our transitory being, impermanence, non-attachment. But I have a rough time with death and our whole corporeal rodeo here.

Carson. Her book Nox. It's big. As a book and as a physical work of art and collage, yeah, but it is large in scope as well. The book is an elegy for her brother, who died and with whom she wasn't close in their adult lives.

She is thinking elegy, which leads her to history. She is a classics scholar, so history leads to Herodotus. Here is Carson's take on the Big Poppa of history:

Herodotus is a historian who trains you to think as you read. It is a process of asking, searching, collecting, doubting, striving, testing, blaming and above all standing amazed at the strange things humans do. Now by far the strangest thing that humans do--he is firm on this--is history. This asking.

This process, this asking, this is the kind of stuff that makes me tick. It gets me fired up. It's how I am wired, digging into the big questions. And Carson rightly connects elegy to history, and vice-versa, as they both run square into death. Yikes. Let me grab a beer here.

Carson being Carson, she digs into word origins, includes scraps of letters from her brother, mother, and juxtaposes some poignant, personal history with the broad historical sweep.

She looks the melancholy on her plate square in the snout (of course, it's not likely that a fruitgetable would have a snout, but it's a working metaphor, so play along), swallows it down and moves on to her potatoes. Meat and potatoes seem like something you should eat to balance your melancholy.

So there is this beautiful elegy/history construct in the form of Nox and Carson to deal with. That's part one of the mental malaise that's swirling at the moment, which is necessarily catching me different based on the winter, kicking the whole body cold, the getting older, the asking the big questions.

I need to go for a run, do some yoga, too snowy to hit the longboard. Get out of the house. Like maybe to Hawaii. That'll work.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

At Chick Fil-A

We've got Chick Fil-A all to ourselves, Anna and Ava barefoot in the play place, Latin jazz strumming over the speakers and the girls are choreographing their dance moves in step, one then the other copies.

I just got off the phone with my dad, called to wish him a happy birthday, which is today, and we talk about the Ravens, because it's fresh and that's what we do.

A steady rain outside, with a hint of ice or snow to come. It's nasty, but the coffee is solid and I'm kicked back with Terrance Hayes's Lighthead, but mostly watching the girls.

Thinking about birthdays and fathers and kids--Anna's birthday is Monday and Ava's is less than two weeks away.

Generations of consciousness and smiles. The creativity the girls are turning loose in the play place matches the flamenco finger picking of the guitar.

Ava comes out and asks to sit on my lap to finish her yogurt. Anna walks out reciting, "six salamanders, eight chocolate chip cookies, 11 trees..."

I think about the girls and my dad and being a dad and my heart knows, in this moment, I could not love any more than I do.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Fog, a.k.a. setting for stun

Carl Sandburg did not live on the Eastern Shore. If he had, he would know that fog doesn't creep in on little cat feet, but is poured from a ladle, splashing over the side of the soup bowl.

If you want a taste of the surreal, drive over the Chesapeake Bay Bridge when it is suspended in/emerging from thick fog. It hangs with you, leaving you similarly suspended, then mires you in slow motion.

That same sort of suspended fog has filled my head the last couple days in the form of a head cold--one that ladles fog between your eyes, ears, body and brain, leaving you thick-headed and thought-inhibited.

Thick-headed until the head fog starts to lift, gradually giving back sight, sound, sun and thought.

Yesterday, as I started to get my head and body back, I was reading Bob Hicok's Insomnia Diary and came across this gem:

finally we threw our mouths away
when language got in the way of being stunned.

I think that's what I was getting at or trying to say last week. And maybe some of what my friend and fellow scribe TWM, aka 41hebrewcat, was trying to say here. Fucking words, man. And yet, when strung together right, they can stun.

So trying to emerge from the fog and being stunned by words, the power of the right words to stun. That's where I'm at [that was a good drum break].

* photo from the San Fransisco History Center, San Fransisco Public Library, Creative Commons.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Memory, "the hardest button to button"

Looking backward. Over time. I feel like an observer of my years. Along for the ride for the calendar of events. Yet I can remember actively making decisions, participating, the will involved.

Memory. Maybe that's Jack White's hardest button to button (a song presently stuck in my head from Friday's commute). It's frequently mine. And it's the hardest button that takes your attention.

My memory is fragments. Sometimes ordered, sometimes scattered. Sometimes like a puzzle. But when I put the puzzle together and it fits and I feel like I have it I?

Our girls amaze us with their memories--the odd details or seemingly random places or moments or experiences. And they are vivid, these memories. Things we had forgotten, but which come rushing back in waves of awareness when the girls remind us.

"Remember that time..?" for them could cue something from an hour ago, a month, two years ago, equally. And when they were younger, "yesterday" could mean any of those time frames.

John McPhee has a stellar collection of essays in a book called Pieces of the Frame. This concept of pieces, these fragments, moments, they also frame how my mind works for writing.

Trying to string fragments together, hang them on some sort of framework that I can assemble into a meaningful whole.

Sometimes if the fragments fall or fit together, if from a distance or up close they reflect something larger, it feels like freeing your fingers after buttoning the hardest button. To button.

* photo by Walker Evans, 1962.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

"We talking about practice"

Practice. We talking about practice. Allen Iverson wasn't big on practice. More of a game day guy.

But perfect comes from practice, right?

You want to be a poet? Write 75 lines every day. That was Ezra Pound to W.S. Merwin. Merwin followed his advice. Seems to have worked out for him.

With something like running, I frequently get more out of training runs than from the race they are preparing for.

There's no glamour in practice. That's alright, I got no glamour anyway.

An artist friend once said, that's the thing about being a professional artist. There are days when I feel like drawing. There are days when I don't. I settle in and draw either way. Because that's what I do. That's my choice.

Preparation is implied. It's a condition. We don't care about it watching TV or walking through a gallery, but it better be reflected in the final product. The outcome.

Jerry Rice and Walter Payton never stopped practicing. Preparing. Payton ran up hills in his Kangaroos. They were always ready.

I was never a boyscout. My time in the woods and marshes was unstructured. It was my own. We made trails and forts and bridges of our own design. It was just what we did.

I'm lazy. But I try to show up. To be present.

The will to succeed is nothing without the will to prepare. To practice. That's the word on the street. And in the locker room. It's what makes the interview.

Allen Iverson dissed practice once he had already arrived. But you know there was a nine-year-old AI, an 11, a 13-year old Iverson that was out by himself, ball, rim, streetlight. Putting in his time.

Showing up.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Building rip rap

For Gary Snyder, rip rap is a cobble of stone laid on steep, / Slick rock to make a trail for horses / In the mountains.

It's also his first book of poetry, first published in 1959. To use its own line to describe it, it's like drinking cold snow-water from a tin cup / Looking down for miles / Through high still air.

If you are from sea-level, tidal country, rip rap's construction is similar, but the cobble of stone is to battle the river, arrest erosion, save the shoreline.

For a kid in a canoe, rip rap conjured up castles.

If they are available, rip rap might be made out of stones nearby. If there are none around, you bring them in.

The mind wanders. A million
Summers, night air still and the rocks
Warm. Sky over endless mountains.

What if we built a rip rap of lines and thoughts and verses, those we've found that hold meaning, interspersed with those we create, to shore up our minds and souls, to make a trail leading to...

All the junk that goes with being human
Drops away...

But what is it that falls away? What is it that goes with being human? The unsettled mind, maybe. The dwindling of the modern attention span. To be human is to oscillate like a fan.

A clear attentive mind
Has no meaning but that
Which sees is truly seen.

And that's what Snyder is to me. Clarity. Clean clear lines and thoughts. Drinking snow-water from a tin cup. Building a rip rap with our thoughts, re-imagining the word between mountains and shoreline.

* italics are Gary Snyder's words from Rip Rap.

Friday, January 14, 2011

"Saying what I mean to say"

Friend, sometimes the wind's scuttle makes the reeds
In the body vibrate. Sometimes the noise gives up its code
And the music is better at saying what I mean to say.
--Terrance Hayes

And how. How many times have I wished for the right note to convey what I am after. Or the right brushstroke. Writing, stepchild of the arts, is what you have left if you can't draw or sing or play music or dance. It takes home the least primal award.

I've been listening to Robert Johnson and Son House and Blind Willie Johnson of late. Those cats could sing and play nursery rhymes and still move you to tears or reverie.

Language must have been born out of frustration. Why can't he/she understand? How come they don't get it? How can I make them know? How can I make them see me? And words grew and attached themselves to things and concepts and actions through consent and a hope that we were speaking their true names.

Maybe I am glad for this frustration after all. This need for language and to find the right words--to invent them if need be. The struggle to say it precisely.

Maybe. But sometimes I'd still give music the nod.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Getting here from there: a blogstory

It all started with running 34 miles around a lake in Appomattox, Va., in February a few years back. It was 14 degrees and a sufferfest for me after mile 20 or so, when the leg cramps kicked in. The race director, uber ultrarunning legend David Horton, asked for race reports to post on his website. I wrote one to wrap my head around the experience. And that became the first blog post on The 4-1-Run.

The name, The 4-Run, was/is a play off of 4-1-1, the phone information hotline, and the idea was that it would be running stories, information in general, and the adventures and thoughts of one runner, me, slugging away and seeing what it was all about. And that was the case for a couple years. Highlights include two yayhoo's multi-day trek through the White Mountains, "The Adventures of Tuckerman and Wood Frog," finishing the JFK 50-mile run, and heady/thinky/soul stuff like "Why do you run?"

I dug it, and enjoy going back through those posts, but it also became a bit of a grind. How much do I have to say about running? There's a ton of other stuff I'm writing about and I'd like to do more with it all. And the posts that weren't all running, but more a look at life in some way, like when my sister's son, our nephew, Samuel was born with hypoplastic left-heart syndrome. That place where running and life intersect, shifting the focus more to life.

So then I decided to try an experiment in the fall of 2009. Writing something and taking photographs every day for 30 days. I outlined the 30-day challenge here and opened up the subject matter to whatever it wanted to be, posting writing and photos here and a photo a day on Facebook. And it's been on like Donkey Kong since.

This blog became a creative writing outlet, a cyber-memoir of sorts, a chance to riff on, contemplate and work through whatever moves me, in whatever way it takes shape. And that's where/when shit got really fun.

And that's the very short history of The 4-1-Run and how we got here from there.

Monday, January 10, 2011


I'm used to hitting bottom. Diving is a bad idea unless you're sure of the depth.

Walking in from the beach is a slow, steady immersion. Almost anywhere you pick, you can still touch, still stand 100 feet from the shore.

That has an effect on you. The river, the bay, the water is trustworthy, predictable, but of course, not really.

Shoal, meaning shallow. Or becoming shallow quickly. Or maybe a sandbar. It's not a word you want to have to learn at speed on a boat--a concept better kept at a distance on those occasions.

But taken at slower speeds, shoal, walking barefoot through sea grass, soft mud underfoot, or wading into cool, blue-green-brown up to your shorts after a run...

I wonder if my worldview would be different if I'd grown up on a lake or the ocean?


Years ago, cliff jumping off the shores of Smith Mountain Lake, we counted three or four seconds in the air before you hit the surface. Ramoino dove, right off. It took me a while. Awfully close to the shore, it seemed.

"It's a man-made lake, plenty deep," Elliott said. And it was.

Shoal is not a word for Smith Mountain Lake.


Maybe shoal is a good notion for us bottom feeders. Maybe it accounts for my tendency to skim the surface of things, frequently, thinking the bottom will reflect what I find at any given depth. Maybe it's comforting, feeling like a skipping stone, to know you don't have too far to drop once you slow down.

If you've ever taken a skiff or a Whaler up Peachblossom Creek at speed, you know where to swing way wide, hard right, hard left, or you've run aground there on one of two sandbars called "Hell" and "Damnation" on some charts.

Cruising by boat from Cambridge to Oxford, Andrew points out the shoal spots, where it gets shoal, where you want to stay away from.

Shoal, then, is a warning. And a comfort. And it's fun to say. But beneath any reference, it's built in. It's a given. It's part of a place and people who get it.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

The blues man painted houses

The blues man painted houses. He painted the one across the street from us, growing up.

I don't remember his name. It might have been John or James. He brought his bass guitar and a small amp with him. He wrote a song with my sister, who was six or seven at the time.

My name is Su-sie, I live across the street from here...

An old school blues bass line thumped along behind her.

A cosmic smile wore his face, black skin and beard.

You might try to argue that he was too happy to be a blues man. His rebuttal was his heart, which seemed to take in the human condition. He felt. He got it.

And he took the time to plug in and help a six-year-old write and play a song. I was 11. And I can hear the song, his fingers walking on the bass, the plaster walls and old windows rattling, my sister's voice, off key, with a hint of what it sounds like now.

I can hear his smile.

The blues man painted houses. He painted the one across the street. And a couple of kids who hung out to hear him.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Motivation; Used to do

I used to run.

I used to be in shape. I used to seek out adventure or meet it head-long when it found me.

I used to play with the kids. I used to grab a longboard when Anna wanted to go for a bike ride. I used to kick the soccer ball, play tag or field hockey one-on-one in the back yard.

I used to be interesting. I used to be interested. I used to beat the sunrise up and smile at it with my eyes.

I used to have a couch without an ass-print on it. I used to not watch too many TV shows. I used to be mobile. I used to go mobile.

I used to connect towns with my feet. I used to run through the woods like a kid. My miles in the morning used to be a source of pride. I used to be proud. And humble. And not numb.

I used to run. I used to do.


Those thoughts and others like them are what go through my head when I decide to make and keep a date with myself to run 7.5 miles on New Year's Day, 2011. A source of motivation to push myself, to fight against complacency. To seek and create my own discipline, to go after the feeling that comes with running and with finishing an hour run on a day when I don't have to run, but I want to.

It's not a long run or a memorable one, but it's a run. It helps me think about goals for myself, for running, for work, for life and what I am going to do to move closer to them.

Running connects me to the road, to the town, to the water, to the trees, to what I encounter on my run. It connects me to my mind, to my body, to my will, to my soul, over the course of an out and back route that I have run more times than I can count.

Running lets me start 2011 the way I want to. On my terms. It is a prayer. Of thanks. Of hope. Of looking forward. Of being present.

I see you, 2011. Welcome. Let's dance. Check that. I don't dance much. Let's go for a run.

* Co-posted at Rise Up Runners

Saturday, January 1, 2011

2010 Redux

Old school Delta blues, Charles Simic, Sanuk (non-)shoes and Christmas lights. These are some semi-random things that I have dug or have moved me in 2010.

This is the time of year where you simultaneously look backward at the year ending and forward, trying to peek in, wonder about, get a taste of or shape the year to come. For the moment, I'm gonna look back.

2010 brought for me a new job, writing for the Coast Guard and commuting to Washington, D.C.

It brought second and third grade and pre-k and kindergarten, field hockey and soccer and swimming in the deep end over the summer--the end of all floaties.

It was an uneventful year for running and longboarding (chronicling such being the genesis of this blog), with just a trail half-marathon and a road 10-miler in terms of races, but 2010 saw three Rise Up Runners qualify for the Boston Marathon and RUR co-founder Landy run a sub-3:00 hour marathon.

2010 caught The Dead Weather and W.S. Merwin live and took in Washington Nationals and Baltimore Ravens games.

2010 brought a renewed interest in and examination of faith, with a new pastor, Kevin Kinsey, at our church and reading Thomas Merton and Thich Nhat Hanh and the Dalai Lama.

For reading, it brought Merwin and Simic and Tony Hoagland, Franz Wright and C.D. Wright, Matthew Lippman, John D'Agata and David Shields, Saul Williams, Terrance Hayes and circled back around to Robert Hass. 2010 discovered The Rumpus and the lyric essay.

2010 brought with it words like melanoma and miscarriage and walked past them without stopping (years can be like that). It saw family and friends leave us, though they stick with us long beyond any given year.

It saw sweatsuit and costume parties and friends turn 40 and a summer full of beaches and swimming and some stand-up paddleboarding.

2010 has seen a new dog join our family, the girls lose baby teeth, our "new room" get put together and the full spectrum of holidays cruise by.

And now 2010 has left us, the calendar says, and it will take me a solid month to remember to write 2011 on things. But time is a lot more fluid and a lot less segmented than our calendars and clocks would have us believe. Yesterday is like today is like tomorrow in that the sun, we think, will come up and we do what we do for the days and subsequent nights.

The key, when we can, is to approach each day, week, month, year as a gift in and of itself and dig them and do them and savor them. I try to remind myself of that every morning. So I'll wrap this rant up with a quote from Phineas Flynn (of Phineas and Ferb fame), who I can hear in the other room, who treats every day as "the best day ever" and who every morning comes up with a unique creative idea and says, "Ferb, I know what we're going to do today (or this year)!"

Well, I don't, yet, but can't wait to find out.