Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Small town rites of passage

There were two skills that guaranteed childhood (semi) independence and your ability to participate in just about anything worth doing. Two small-town skills: being able to ride your bike and being able to swim.

Once you developed the skill and trust to set out on your 20-inch dirt bike, you owned Oxford. Ride to Doc's Quick Shop in the morning, or evening, and it was all there. From the "Bajas" tracks and jumps on the hardened clay dredged from Town Creek to town-wide bike tag; from Little League practice to swimming at the Ferry Dock.

And that's where marketable skill number two comes in. Oxford is surrounded by water on three sides. From the park, to the yacht club, Ferry Dock or Strand--there is always a beach, dock, or some other means of getting to the water. I don't remember anyone growing up in or around the town that didn't learn how to swim. If there was such a kid, they must have been hermitted up in an attic.

Almost any rite of passage involved bike riding or swimming. Two of the more ill-advised bike treks I can recall involved, having just turned 12, following the gastronomic impulse of a friend who had a Big Mac Attack and the two of us rode the 12-or-so miles from Oxford to the Easton McDonalds. And the second was a habit we had of racing (behind) the bug spraying truck through town.

This is the kind of stuff that frequently bubbles to surface consciousness for me as both our girls first choice of outdoor activities are bike riding and swimming. That's what they want to do, almost anytime asked. It's a different area and era, yet the tendencies are the same.

There is something about the smile, the eyes, the joy that emanates from them, not just the first time they keep themselves afloat or ride without falling, but every time they hit the water or pedal fast down the street.

I look at them and I get it. It's not just that I remember the feeling, I still get it, particularly doing either or both with Anna and Ava. Maybe riding your bike or swimming is the key to childhood. Maybe they are the key to keeping your inner-child alive. Either way, look for our bikes in front of Doc's (now known as the Oxford Market) or at the park on weekends and this summer. Now if I could just find what they did with the Bajas...

Monday, April 25, 2011

Ivan DeJesus

Ivan DeJesus. He was always a perplexing baseball card for me. I pronounced his name De-JEE-sus for about a year. Thinking it was pretty ballsy for someone to put Jesus's name in their own name.

I'm not sure why, but I frequently think about Ivan DeJesus around this time of year. Could be the preponderance of "Jesus" sprinkled through conversation via Easter; the fact that baseball season is in full swing (sorry); or some other connection I haven't pinned down yet.

It's an interesting thing, talking about/explaining Easter to kids. The rising from the dead thing, the killing Jesus in the first place, and then the whole why-the-fu*%-is-there-a-rabbit-hiding-eggs-in-our-house conundrum.

I dig Easter--for its timing, riding high on spring breezes and warming temps; for its colors and the girls rocking Easter dresses; for eyes lighting up on egg hunts and finding the strangely hidden eggs, the ones that are up high or supremely camouflaged; for the Easter egg that gets found a day or two after Easter.

I dig Easter for its focus on renewal. Our church has a tradition of covering an entire six- or seven-foot cross with flowers, to symbolize new life, where everyone brings in cut flowers and puts them on the cross. I can sit and stare at it for the whole service.

I dig Easter for the focus on faith. For contemplating life, death, sacrifice, rebirth, perspective, thanks.

Funny, I've always taken Easter and the resurrection as a metaphor for spiritual awakening or rebirth, not as an actual zombie-come-back-from-the-dead situation (I have seen folks tweeting about zombie Jesus). I guess it seems that if you dig what Jesus taught, how he lived his life, what he stands for, you don't need the resurrection as proof positive that he was right. You just take it at face value.

The rebirth/eternal life vibe is one that comes up in Christianity, Buddhism, etc. and I think each faith has something worthwhile to ponder on it.

Then again, what do I know. I spent a year thinking a guy's name was Ivan De-Jee-sus.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Take it from Ben Wade

Follow the interesting. Implied advice from Ben Wade (aka Russell Crowe) in "3:10 to Yuma." Maybe cultivate or invite the interesting, to boot.

Watched 3:10 last night on one of the largest privately-owned screens this side of the Bay. Wade/Crowe's willingness/infatuation with following any flow that seemed interesting (as long as it didn't piss him off) sticks with me.

Most of our lives are structured to become routine. I think we could do well to welcome the novel when it says hello. Or maybe even say hello first.

I've changed course on the last couple of runs I've gone on. Decided to do something different. Not a major deal, but it instantly changes the mindset, the scenery, the feeling. Or when we've woken up and grabbed the girls and gone somewhere we weren't thinking about until drinking coffee that morning.

That's the stuff that sticks with me. That I want the girls to remember.

A quick Friday riff. Grabbing the tails of thoughts as they go by. Catching the 3:10 to...

Wednesday, April 20, 2011


William Carlos Williams was a doctor. Wallace Stevens sold insurance. Frank O'Hara worked at a museum. If that's all they did, we wouldn't know them--wouldn't remember.

We know them for their fringes. For what they did with the edges of their days--their mornings, commutes, lunch breaks, nights.

Ultimately, they weren't defined by their jobs.

I take cues from people like this in my life. From the naval architect who plays the mandolin. From the teacher and graphic designer who spend nights in their art studios. From the carpenter who still checks the Ocean City surf report and migrates to Costa Rica when he can. From the pediatrician who got me skateboarding again.

It's the fringes that are ours to claim. Those times outside the lines of our jobs.

What do you do when no one is telling you what to do?

Is that what we make of our lives? Is that how we'll be remembered?

If it is, I hope I paint my fringes aquamarine and wear them on my sleeve, or feet or hat. I hope I stretch them from night to morning and hang them on my office wall.

I hope I wrap our girls in fringes so that they will cultivate and decorate and color their own.

Monday, April 18, 2011

3-for-3 towards infinity

As a child, I saw faces on walls, ceilings, doorknobs and spoons. Then, one day, they were all gone. - Charles Simic

We replace the animate world of the child with test scores. In third grade, if we're not careful, we can usher in the end of innocence via the end of imagination.

The world alive for test scores. Hardly a fair trade. If we facilitate this deal, we deserve what we get.

I'm the child of the rainy Sunday afternoons of my youth. - Simic

Improvisation. What you do when there is nothing to do. That defines you.

When the game is rained out, you can't hit the beach and you are left to fill in the blank spaces around scheduled activities. What do you do?

My rainy Sundays were filled with Tinker Toys, Legos, Star Wars figures, baseball cards and comic books as a kid. Seldom do I come up with something better today as an adult.

On rainy days in our house, if it gets too quiet, I go check on the girls and find them queens and creators of entire worlds that somehow (just barely) fit inside their rooms. On those occasions I smile.

The imagination has moments when it knows what the word "infinity" means. - Simic

Those moments. How to cultivate. How to extend. How to get back to...

How do you embrace the infinite--arms and mind and soul stretched wide...

My recent moments make me sound like a skipping record: breathless on a mud-ridden, water-logged trail run, ground flowers in bloom, hurting, pushed past my limit but still moving forward, hanging on; watching Ava draw at the dining room table; cutting the grass while Anna loops the neighborhood on her bike; reading Wallace Stevens.

Our imaginations are their most fertile, most infinite when we are children. Though we may not know what "fertile" or "infinite" mean, still we know them by being a child, by coloring the grass purple, by never knowing or caring what time it is, by surveying our rooms, our yards, our line of sight, and seeing them as boundless.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Caution: Looks Off Bridges

I can't say if he was in the Army. It was just a jacket. Could have picked it up anywhere. The Army jacket is the second thing I noticed.

First is that he was stopped, standing on the Frederick Douglass Bridge. People don't stop on bridges and just look off at the river. But he did. Stopped time and watched planes land at Reagan. Or the tide. I don't know what he was looking at, but he was stopped and looking.

About 15 years ago we drank beer standing on the Bay Bridge. We were on our way to a Grateful Dead show at RFK (what turned out to be their second to last there) and an accident on the bridge stopped traffic. I had never gotten out of a car and looked off the Bay Bridge. It called for a Bud 10oz.

I've been reading notebooks lately. Charles Simic's, Campbell McGrath's, Sam Shepard's and Gary Snyder's. Writing in a notebook is like stopping on a bridge. Trying to take that pause and get your soul around it. A moment where you keep yourself from just moving forward without looking. Without stopping. Without thinking.

Like the dude in the Army jacket, I stop and look off bridges. I should get a bumper sticker to warn folks.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

"Alive to what is about"

One does not need universities and libraries,
One need be alive to what is about
- Gary Snyder

I don't normally run in the evening, but the weather was too nice not to.

Not much time, half an hour, four miles worth of time and distance, so start in on it

I still speak to everyone I pass. I can't not. I enjoy the responses and smiles, they are part of the run.

After winter runs, I appreciate an earned sweat, warm with a breeze back

I pass two slow bikers who seem put off that feet might be faster than wheels.

Back to our neighborhood, Anna sees me from our house and is sprinting in t-shirt, jeans and socks to meet me. She turns and pulls up alongside and tests me.

We sprint side-by-side, her eyes big, her hair behind her and she laughs loud and wild. I think about racing my dad down our street as a child

Robin and Ava are in the front yard. Spring breeze, last of the sunlight.

I get the girls' bikes and they ride around the neighborhood, Ava mimicking Anna, follow the leader

Circling back and out again, circling back

One does not need universities and libraries,
One need be alive to what is about

Anna at Milburn Landing, April 2011

Friday, April 8, 2011

Geography and dreams

I didn't even take geography in high school. And still it has been a guiding force in my life. Not just any geography, mind you. More like a place.

I had a choice out of college. Two job offers: public relations (PR) at an art museum or reporter at the local paper. My cousin had gone the reporter route. It took him from Easton to Salisbury, to Wilmington, DE, to Chestertown, to Washington, DC, to Miami, where he's been for several years now. That's the newspaper route--you follow the trail to bigger papers and go where the offer is.

Geography is irrelevant.

Robin and I talked about it. It would be a life of moving. No deep roots.

PR offered up more possibilities where we were (and still are). It gave us a chance in one place. Where we met. Where I'm from. And where we love.

It might give us a geography of our choosing.

We chose geography. But it wasn't that easy. I think I've had the idea that I wanted to be a writer for some time. When I started the art museum job, telling people I did public relations left a foul taste in my mouth. I felt like I sold out before I ever bought in. No one dreams of a career in PR, not when they're little and dreams are still pliable.

My grandfather thought I'd be a sports writer for The Baltimore Sun. With my writing interest and love of sports and Baltimore (he and I always talked Orioles and Colts, then Ravens, and Baltimore sports icons, and he would always give me The Sun sports page when we stayed with my grandparents in Towson), it just made sense. Sitting around the campfire this past weekend, talking dream jobs, I said I want Mitch Albom's job, but based out of Baltimore and not Detroit. To write about the teams and sports I dig, but also use it as a launching pad for non-sports writing. You've heard of Tuesdays with Morrie, right? Oprah has. I don't think that's what I'd write, but you get the idea.

Around the same campfire, I explained the geography choice; how it's not an either/or vs. the dream, it's actually part of the dream.

If you've grown up on the Eastern Shore and been whirled into the Tred Avon River by the Oxford Ferry's wake; if you've beached your Whaler or skiff at night for a bonfire under the stars or camping on Chloras Point; if you've put down a few beers at sunset on a creek standing with friends on a newly constructed wooden bridge; if you've walked around a colonial town and been inside the houses where your father and grandfather were born and raised; if you've skateboarded and run on these same streets, giving them your own take; you're on your way to understanding this kind of geography.

But not yet.

When you walk along unsteady brick sidewalks, unsteady for the tree roots growing up underneath them, and you've got one daughter riding on your shoulders and the other holding your hand, walking next to your wife who you met here, laughing remembering these same roots under your childhood Keds shoes; and you're walking to the water to see the fireworks at the same place you watched them and learned to sail, at a place your great uncle helped put on the map...

you're getting closer. But it's not just having a history with a place. It's a connection. It's feeling the rivers and roads and marshes and woods--I could swear my blood kisses with the Bay's brackish water, separated only by skin when I jump or wade in.

I've known I've wanted to raise kids here since I was a carefree kid here, I think.

I'm not sacrificing a dream for a place. The place is contained in the dream and the dream is contained in the place.

Since picking PR over journalism, I've still been able to forge a writing niche. I've written about artists and art who/that inspire me. I've ferreted out, transcribed, edited and helped publish parts of James Michener's diary he kept while writing Chesapeake. I've learned and written about the Bay for various jobs.

In the latest chapter of my writing life I've been learning and writing about the Coast Guard--a service my grandfather and great uncle both served in during World War II. I'm occasionally writing about a new cutter named after a former Coast Guard Commandant who put my grandparents up in his house when they didn't have a place to stay. It has opened my eyes and connected me to a part of my family history that is now also a part of my family's present.

Writing is a part of my daily life, at work and in the mornings, on my own time.

Geography and dreams. For some people, it's a choice between them. Or maybe one is irrelevant. For me, I'm not sure where one ends and the other begins. Maybe they are the same.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Dante, Cobain, dark woods and mid-life crises

Midway through our life's journey, I found myself
in dark woods, the right road lost.
- Dante's "Inferno," Canto I, translated by Robert Pinsky

Dante may be one of the best and most elegantly transcribed mid-life crises on record. His dark wood moment came when he was 35. He was rolling creatively into uncharted territory. Anyone who has flung themselves into the creative process can maybe relate. I see Dante, solo, venturing into the dark wood. Daunting shit, the dark wood.

As timing would have it, April 5 is the day another artist found himself in a dark wood, an inferno of his own. This is the day, 17 years ago, that Kurt Cobain killed himself. I remember being a freshman at N.C. State when I first heard "Nevermind." We burned that album up--both in Raleigh and in Easton, home for Thanksgiving and for Christmas break that fall and winter. I think for anyone our age (let's paint a broad brush stroke over 30 to 50?), that album claims watershed status.

We've talked about Rimbaud and Cobain and flaming out early as creative folks. But my mind is in a different place at the moment. The image of Dante I like better than the one of him soloing into the dark wood is the image of Dante meeting Virgil while he is there.

That image hangs in a frame on a wall in our house. I remember talking at length about Dante and Virgil and the idea of Virgil as a guide, as a model, as a kindred soul, in Professor Cousineau's class at Washington College. Dante's "Inferno," like Nirvana's "Nevermind," both carry watershed status for me.

Dante and Virgil weren't homies. They were separated by more than 1,000 years. They didn't kick it together at the bar or library. Dante's connection and debt to Virgil was intellectual, aesthetic and philosophical. Virgil leads Dante through the dark wood, through hell, Purgatory and into Paradise. Some metaphorical shit going on there, no?

I'm not sure this kind of guide would have been any help to Cobain. Depression, drugs, rock-star-status, you're talking clinical, chemical, psychological baggage that was maybe just too damn heavy to carry around anymore.

But I dig the role of Virgil as guide. As a way of thinking, when you are trying to cover new ground, when you are trying to break free creatively, when you're not sure how it all fits together existentially, that hey, man, there have been other folks before you who have blazed this path; their own path, leading somewhere different, but no less tenuous for them than for you. Than for me.

So I think about Dante and Cobain today. About the mid-life crisis as another birthday is a few days away. And I'm thankful for the Virgils. Both the creative guides--Whitman, Williams, Merwin, Hass, Snyder, Simic--who have put it out there and who stoke my soul to find its own way through the dark wood. And for the real pillars or guides who have been there--my grandfathers, father, family, friends and other touchstones who clear the way in their own way, or help me back up, or are just there.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Milburn Landing fragments

Bunk beds, a double bed, heater, fan, table and chairs inside a one-room wooden cabin. It's more than ample for four of us. In our Joneses-keeping-paced-with world, I sometimes forget that that's all shelter really needs to afford.

I notice the mist on the river before the sun and the Deep Purple guitar riff cues in my head. The girls are up with the sunrise; a doughnut down and they are out on the playground.

Hot meal - eggs, pancakes, sausage, bacon - remarkable how much better food tastes and is appreciated while camping.

John boat ride to Shad's Landing and back finds a black duck with its purple wings overhead and a bald eagle who flies in slow motion.

Lunch is when you're hungry and riding bikes and playing on the river bank obliviate TV and video games for the kids.

Camping with families/friends creates a village, everyone watches and plays with the kids, cooks together, eats together, gathers in common areas.

The afternoon is a series of squalls and sunshine, rain and sun without a visible rainbow, but we don't need one to see the day's color.

Mandolin, guitar, harmonica and vocals draws a crowd and Lucky 7 Porter grooves smiles.

Later, cooking around the fire, lantern-lit playground games and bedtime based on tiredness.

Once the kids are down, campfire stories swirl with dreams, positions, fears and wishes, reminiscing and provoking until eyes and fire begin to fade

I walk outside at 2 a.m. and look up at an expanse of stars through the fingers of the trees, all reflected off the river.

Fragments, notebook jottings don't do the weekend justice. On the drive home and unpacking the car, everything smells of campfire smoke. A smell I hope remains in my nose, or at least memory, for some time... until next time.