Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Raison d'etre

That thought or line that you wake up with in your head and fumble around in the dark for pen and paper so you don't lose it.

The phrase or string of thinking that you repeat over in your head while driving until you get somewhere when you can pull over and jot it down.

Sometimes it comes down to that: how badly does it need to exist?

It has to start that way, maybe. But it has to move beyond just the beginning, make the turn around the track from inspiration to perspiration and back to inspire.

There are those things made--in art, music, architecture, writing--that when you see, hear, walk into or read, you say, Yeah. That had to exist. The world would be less, not the same without it.

That's the kind of stuff I want to experience. To be bowled over by. To create, myself.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Diamond-shaped temple: Borges, Ripken, Flanagan

Perhaps he was a god, breathing life into, animating, his various worlds and people.

"He sought a soul which would merit participation in the universe."

Wednesday was Jorge Luis Borges's birthday. He would have been 112 years old. He earned himself a Google Doodle with his worlds and people, his lifetime of creation. It was also Cal Ripken, Jr.'s birthday. He was 51. He's earned himself a household name that more people in America know than know Borges's. No Google Doodle, but Cal could run for and win any elected office in Maryland.

Reading Borges's story, "The Circular Ruins," all I can picture is a diamond shape. A baseball field. He says "the circle was a temple..., whose god no longer received the homage of men."

When I was seven, eight, ten, I breathed life into my baseball cards. Murray, Singleton, Bumbry, Dempsey, Palmer, Flanagan. I could recite statistics and characteristics and when I would watch them on TV, the Orioles and their diamond-shaped temple were more than images on a screen and somehow more than people--athletes--when we would go worship at Memorial Stadium.

I wasn't the only life-breather when it came to baseball and the Orioles. The diamond-shaped temple was full. And the breathing was dialectical: they, in turn, filled us with life, via home runs, strikeouts, a hometown pride and a cartoon bird.

Ripken earned himself a demigod status in Baltimore, perhaps in the wider baseball world. He was and still is baseball in Baltimore. The city's chosen son.

Flanagan was my favorite pitcher, and behind Murray, my favorite Oriole. 1979 was one of the first years I was quoting Orioles statistics and he went 23-9 and won the American League Cy Young Award, named the best pitcher for that year. Flanny and the O's went to the World Series, losing a heart-breaker to the Pirates. Perhaps we didn't pray hard enough at the temple until 1983.

Flanagan wore number 46. He was the only 46 I could think of my sophomore year of high school at Easton High, when I grabbed my jersey and became another number 46. The same black and orange colors, though I didn't have the cool mustache or long hair, and wasn't left-handed.

Wednesday, with Borges's Google Doodle and Ripken's birthday, the Orioles played baseball at a diamond-shaped temple. The Orioles have not been a good team for some time, and you might say their god, the cartoon bird no longer receives the homage of men, though the town wants to pray there. On Wednesday night, #46 was on the mound for the O's and pitched them to victory, not unlike Flanagan did so frequently in the 1970s and 80s. Maybe the temple was alive for a night.

But as Jim Palmer spoke after, the game faded into the background. We were no longer breathing life into Flanagan. At least not in a real sense.

But yesterday, driving to work and listening to people call into 105.7 The Fan, and tell Flanagan stories, there was no doubt: he was still breathing life into us.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

"Something about the duality of man, sir"

I'm a dog with my nose in the wind. And I sit with my back to the wind, watching water flow by, un-doglike. Seems I sometimes have a view that sees flip-sides of a coin.

I'm not much of a walker, but I am worse at sitting on my ass. With more than 13 weeks of no running now, walking at lunch offers at least some mobility. I can see why Frank O'Hara dug his lunch walks and writing. Stretch the legs and the mind, together.

Sitting on a bench along the Ft. McNair waterfront, the tide runs the way my legs want to. Jets land and take off from Reagan, a marvel of science every minute. This D.C. moves at a different pace. Clouds are the only traffic.

I walk back in front of the National War College, and it strikes me, having and watching kids, that they don't need to be taught to fight. Maybe taught how to win? Taught to resolve?

"I think I was trying to suggest something about the duality of man, sir."

Private Joker (Matthew Modine) in Full Metal Jacket is one of the movie characters I have most strongly identified with. It comes down to his ability, his willingness, to be neck-deep in a situation and stand outside it, observing, at the same time. His "Born to Kill" helmet with the peace sign pin speaks before and after his suggest something about the duality of man, sir, line.

"Basic Military Journalism. You gotta be shittin' me, Joker. You think you're Mickey Spillane? You think you're some kind of a fuckin' writer?"

"I wrote for my high school newspaper, sir."

As sensible an answer as you could give. A killer and a writer. A neck-deep participant and an observer. I'm not sure whether I first saw Jacket in 1987 or 1988, but beyond being one of the most quotable movies of all time, that has always stuck with me.

And Private Joker's suggest something about the duality of man, sir, line and character is what pops into my head walking by the National War College, on a pristine summer day, with the rivers flowing and the breeze both in my face and at my back.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Adrift, akimbo, a capella

Don't expect musical accompaniment. That would denote rhythm. And this summer, for me, has had none.

Summer is a raft on the river, sans rudder or paddle. Everything is adrift. And I dig it. With the girls out of school, the sun staying up late, and most the house sleeping in, days are blank slates when I get home.

Go with the flow... but this flow is unaccompanied. It has no soundtrack. If it did, it would be the sound of cornhole bags smacking wood or flopping on pavement. It would be the sound of kids cannonballing in the deep end or laughing on rides at small town carnivals.

It's the summer of the cornhole.


Woken by the dogs, my watch says 2:20 a.m. "A few weeks ago we'd have just been going to bed."


I stand with my hands on my hips wondering what "arms akimbo" means. Sometimes you like the sound of a word before you catch its drift.

Drift and flow, silence, and summer, all spin in a tumble dry low dream cycle, and when I open the door...

It's morning. I'm making coffee. And fall is looking in the window, holding a paddle for me.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Great Visceral

It was like being next to a burn barrel. All over town. Smoke from a Virginia swamp fire. That's what I've smelled the past couple days. And seen a haze from the dissipated smoke.

Reading someone from another country and generation, reading them describe the stars the same way I think about them.

Writing and reading and talking about Nationals closer Drew Storen's slider the other night against the Phillies, the one he fleeced by Ryan Howard and realizing we were all seeing the same thing.

Growing up in a small town, you realize how closely connected everyone is. There may be six degrees of separation from Kevin Bacon, but there is rarely more than one or two degrees on the Eastern Shore. Even with folks who aren't from here.

But being connected to people is different, almost expected in some ways. Being connected geographically, olfactory and visually connected, to a place you haven't seen or thought of like the Great Dismal Swamp is one of those visceral experiences where I just shake my head, breathe in wafting swamp fire smoke and think... "Man."

* AP Photo/Stephen M. Katz

Friday, August 12, 2011

Thoughts walking through Ft. McNair

A walk around Ft. McNair. Not an exercise walk. A clear my head and stretch my legs walk.

The Black Keys are in my ears and wind in my face. The walk, for lunch on a beautiful D.C. afternoon, is a solid call. I needed this. The breeze and voices of the Keys breathe air and energy through my lungs.

Without running or any workout routine going, I've been a passenger in my body and through the weeks. A new school schedule for Robin and the girls will likely make lunch runs and workouts the norm. I'm ready for that change, though I'll try to keep some early morning runs, when I get back to running.

Seeing an American flag in the wind at Ft. McNair carries its own awesome meaning, especially this week with the SEAL helicopter going down in Afghanistan. I walk past soldiers and sailors and Marines and I wonder--how can I serve? What is my part? I frequently have that feeling that I am someone who should have been in the military.

Philip Levine was named U.S. Poet Laureate this week. He's been one of my favorite writers for some time. One of the things that moved him further into poetry was reading a book by Wilfred Owen, given to him by a high school English teacher. Owen was a lieutenant in World War I. He wrote about his experiences in the trenches, the literal and figurative casualties of war.

Levine graduated from high school in 1946. He had figured he'd be drafted out of school, but World War II had just ended. He knew his calling was to write poetry. To know your calling.

He worked in automobile plants, a Detroit factory worker, and wrote grease-stained poetry on the side. We need more grease-stained poets and writers, like Levine and Palahniuk. That's how you arrive at Levine's "The Simple Truth:"

                                                           Some things
you know all your life. They are so simple and true
they must be said without elegance, meter and rhyme,
they must be laid on the table beside the salt shaker,
the glass of water, the absence of light fathering
in the shadows of picture frames, they must be
naked and alone, they must stand for themselves.

Maybe that's it. Maybe that's my part, my calling, but more to the point, maybe that's any of our parts: for our lives, for our selves to be "simple and true," "laid on the table beside the salt shaker," and standing for ourselves.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

"And her marvelous stars expand"

I was floating on a raft with a half-full beer can in my hand. When I leaned my head back the tree branches and leaves mimicked the expanse of the stars. It was like they shared a set of opening wings. Of course, it could have been the beer...

"And her marvelous stars expand."

That's a line from Pablo Neruda. It opens itself up from within, "Residence on Earth," a book/extended meditation/extended poem that he wrote over the course of 20 years (1925-1945). He stopped writing it the year my mom was born.

But the night stars expanded this morning, when I read it, 65-plus years later. And they expanded back to last week, floating in the pool, thinking that same thing, but without giving it words, just awe, and a mental note.

Maybe Neruda is a time traveler, knowing that it might take him 20 years to let go of his poem, but that with it, its utterance, he might travel across decades or centuries.

Maybe it's just a service of the stars, flinging themselves out across the sky each night, like so much sand from a child's plastic shovel,

And by realizing that the stars are so much shovel-flung sand, and giving ourselves that scale in the scheme of things, we see that, smaller than sand, we can stand shoulder to shoulder with Neruda, separated by only a half-century, which is what, really?

Yeah, Neruda is a time traveler. He uses the stars, which he steps on, as they expand. But maybe it's the beer...

Friday, August 5, 2011

Every, each

More pages every day. More miles, traveled. More breaths, breathed.

More coffee, more food, more information, processed: computer screen, Droid, radio, conversations, TV, books.

More hormones. More daydreams. More fantasies. More indulgence. More restraint.

The sameness. The routine. But there is beauty there. I like knowing that the sun is coming up. I like knowing where I live, where I'll sleep, which truck is mine in the parking lot.

Who wants a day of nothing but novelty? Nothing but surprises? Can you even have a surprise without an expectation of something, well, expected?

But in all these things there are differences. One breath from another. Which words to use. What to listen to, what's on the next page...

What questions will the girls ask? What will they discover in the sameness, that they never noticed before? And can I do the... same?

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Skeeball and other snippets over 16 years

Master of Puppets is playing while Lester Kasai takes his run on the half-pipe at Mt. Trashmore in Virginia Beach. It's the first skateboard contest I've been to and the first Metallica song I've heard. I am 13.

Two of us are stuck about 15 feet up, pitch black but for head lamps in John Brown's Cave in Harpers Ferry. We sure ourselves against shaft-shaped rock and ease down to the others. I am 15.

I am standing in an arcade on the boardwalk in Ocean City with friends, laughing beyond our sides hurting, watching a bonehead in a g-string ram his fist down the 50-hole in skeeball while tickets spew out onto the floor. I am 19.

We are sitting in a bar in Raleigh and the remnants of a shot of Jagermeister are burning my throat and shaking my head. After the walk home, I roll two port-a-johns down a hill. The night I turned 21.

I have just run 11 miles, from Oxford to Easton, just because I hadn't before and because I've gotten myself into shape. The miles are a sanctuary for big thoughts and no thoughts. I am 23.

I am standing with my father, for a picture, having just graduated magna cum-laude from Washington College. The picture has taken seven years to take. It matches the one of he and his father when he graduated from the University of Virginia. I am 26.

I am wearing a suit, writing a press release with a pen and paper, during a job interview at the Academy of the Arts. I've decided against graduate school in favor of a tie job. I am in the Academy's library at a desk, surrounded by books. Still 26.

We had our first sonogram and found out we are having a girl. I am out for a run on Rails to Trails and my head is running ahead of and above my body when the various names we've talked about and like stop swirling and two stop in place, like a slot machine: Anna Louise. I am 29.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Not to be confused with Colt Seavers

My mind is stuck on fall and it's only August 1. Maybe it's because I live with a teacher and summer vacation is on its last legs. Maybe it's because football season is upon us with training camps and free agent signings, and if you are a Baltimore fan, fall and football season have been the only sport to look forward to for more than a decade.

Either way, I'm a fall guy. Not THE Fall Guy, aka Colt Seavers, mind you. And hopefully not a fall guy, as in set up to take the blame. I just dig autumn. Jeans and sweatshirt evenings. Cooler running temps. NFL Sundays. Despite the leaves falling, autumn has always felt like a time of rebirth and energy for me. Of beginnings.

We'll have a fourth-grader and a first-grader in the house. Robin will be at a new school, in a new county, teaching a new grade. Field hockey and soccer for the girls. Hopefully a return to running for me, after now nine weeks off due to injury.

As much as I dig fall though, I'm not about to let go of summer. It's still on-the-water season. We've still got Nationals games on the calendar. And our house is still in vacation mode.

So I'll try to dwell, breathing summer deeply in. And at the same time, smile toward fall.