Saturday, December 31, 2011

Twelve for 2012

Hello 2012. I can see you. Walking up to the door with the insulated pizza box. Or is that a candygram?

2011 is on its way out. But I don't care to look back on a year that had me hobbled with a messed up ankle for almost half of it. I want to look forward.

What do I want from 2012? What do I hope to accomplish? This is all subject to change. But here are some thoughts. I put these out there with/as intent...

- Complete/compete in an event I've never done before. Maybe this is a new trail race, or distance I haven't run before. Or maybe it is a stand-up paddleboard or kayak race. Throwing something new into the physical challenges.

- Read James Joyce's "Ulysses" before I turn 40 (on April 8). This has been one of those reads that feels like it has been missing, as a college English major, where we read "Dubliners" and "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man." It has been sitting on my bookshelf, beckoning. I've thought about it. It is time to listen.

- Read books that are currently on my bookshelf vs. buying more. I have amassed a prized collection of books I'd like to read (and some I actually have). But too many of them fall to rainy day status as I get pulled in by something new. This is a year I want to cultivate what is here vs. acquire what is not.

- Get out on the water/go fishing more. I don't hunt. I don't play golf. I dig fishing, but don't do it nearly enough. I'm not talking about going offshore fishing. I mean to get out fishing on the Bay, in the rivers. Local.

- Go to more Nationals games, take the girls to their first Major League Baseball game. I've got my Memorial Park/Camden Yards memories with my dad. That's part of what pulled me to the Nationals when I started working next door. Now our household, my Pittsburgh wife included, are Nationals fans. This will be a fun year to indoctrinate the girls beyond evening Comcast TV.

- Finish 2012 in better shape than I start it, both physically and financially. This is a big one. This year was too sedentary for me in terms of physical activity. And it was another year of wanting to accomplish more, sock more away in terms of finances. Though these two things aren't related, I want to go at them both with abandon. Restrained abandon :)

- Spend less money on stuff, shit I don't need, either save it, or spend it on experiences. Forgo stuff for life.

- Take better care of my temper. It generally stays indoors, doesn't venture out. But the girls see it in the mornings, or around homework time. It doesn't seem like me. And I need to be mindful of it. Perhaps starting the majority of the days with meditation or yoga--Sun Salutations first thing most mornings...

- Plan and take more trips. Of the day variety, of the overnight variety, of the weekend variety. Let's go places we haven't been. Let's take the girls sometimes and just grown-ups and/or friends.

- Walk the dogs more. They dig it. I dig it. We don't do it enough. We should.

- Complete a project I haven't done before. Not sure if this is going to be an around the house or yard project, a creative writing/research project. It is a way of expanding horizons and comfort zones.

- Take care of my house (Protect this house!). In this case literally. The house, the yard, the garage. I'm not one that comes home and tinkers. I'm not going to be, not going to try to be. But I do derive some peace of mind from working in the yard, or when I friend and I re-floored the downstairs. There is some stuff that needs doing. Let's gitterdun.

Well, there is 12 to do's for 2012. That seems like a good number. The key is in the follow-through. That's how the doors get open. And this isn't so much a to do list as it is a mode or way of being for 2012. Direct the intent.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Boxes of Yule, or blank slatedness

2011 has phoned it in. You can't expect much. Its last few days are torn between a Christmas hangover and new year build up. Pull the covers up and hit snoooze.

But wait. Maybe because of low/no expectations, we should expect more. We can do with these days what we want. A week given to us by teachers and school administrators since we were in kindergarten. This week is ours, Fu$% yeah!

Having said that, it still feels like recharging time. A few Fat Tire ales. Some Woodford Reserve. Listening to the Roots "undun." Listening to Ambrose Akinmusire's "When the Heart Emerges Glistening." Reading Walker Percy. Reading Kabir. Contemplating Lewis Carroll. Readying my mind for David Foster Wallace, "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again." Morning coffee. Deciding what way to try to direct my body/fitness in 2012.

I'm not sure 2011 has a discernible theme for me. For that matter, I'm not sure any year has, aside from the year I got married (1999) or the years the girls were born (2002 and 2005). The attempt, I suppose, is to wrap a neat little bow around 2011 with these last few days. Or maybe it is to set it out on the curb with the Christmas tree, and boxes of Yule.

I'm not sure I can pull that off. I think I'd rather enjoy each one, in its blank slatedness. Its carefree aura. Happy week between Christmas and New Year's. May it be the best of the season.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Christmas light-tinted glasses

Let's say there are two types of consciousness: Christmas morning consciousness and the other 364 mornings a year consciousness. There is something about Christmas morning that is different. That takes you back to being a kid. It is full of hope, anticipation. You can't wait to get out of bed.

So what's up with the rest of the year? Why can't that Dec. 25 feeling be the norm? What the hell are you asking me for? Why don't you ask yourself?

It seems like that is maybe the one morning a year we give ourselves permission to not think about work, not to think about bills, or the everyday, mundane quality that days can quickly take on. We allow ourselves to dwell in a sort of awe. To see the world through Christmas-light-tinted glasses.

It's easy to blame the rest of the world for the fact that we don't feel or see the world this way everyday. But ultimately that's bullshit. How I look at the world is up to me, not just as an abstract responsibility, but every morning.

I'm not saying I've mastered it. Far from it. There are plenty of days I struggle to get the day going. I'm pissed at the girls for not getting ready for school. I'm having a mental/spiritual 38 degrees and rainy day going on in my head.

But I'm the one who has to fix that. I've got to work that through and get back to that Christmas morning consciousness. What William Blake identified as "twofold consciousness." What Colin Wilson tried to convey in his book "The Outsider."

What are the ways I can cultivate that feeling? For some people, it is solace/faith/hope through religion (Christmas is Jesus's birthday, after all). For some people meditation (I've got to do a lot more of this). For some people maybe a morning run (I need to get back to that). Maybe there is a mantra to chant to bring it all back.

Personally, I like the idea of leaving the Christmas tree up all year long. Maybe change the decorations to reflect the current season--flowers in the spring, Red Stripe and flip-flops and fishing rods in the summer, football in the fall. Oh to see the world everyday through Christmas light-tinted glasses.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Homegrown, home team

I read everything I can lay eyes on when it comes to the Ravens and the Nationals. I frequently cruise by The Washington Post's Nationals Journal and The Baltimore Sun's Ravens pages. I spin the radio dial by 105.7 The Fan on the commute during football season. I have text alerts come to my phone from The Sun and MASN.

I don't frequently call in and don't think I've ever commented online--does anyone set out to be a wave in an ocean?--but can and do discuss with friends, family, fans in person. We have a 13-year-old nephew who reminds me of me in his encyclopedic fervor for sports statistics and theories. I've said and been told before that sports reporter is a road I should have taken with a full tank of gas. I read the Nats reports by Adam Kilgore at the Post and think, man, how cool would it be to write about that stuff all day...

I recently caught up with a former philosophy professor/mentor, who is a baseball fanatic. He had the following comment, "I have been a Branch Rickey man since my childhood. This means adopting failed teams that are engaged in rebuilding through their farm system... The Nationals are very exciting and I can't wait for Bryce Harper." He made another comment that he envied my work location (next to the Nationals stadium in DC) because, "You get to see the best fielding third baseman since Brooks Robinson." I, too, am a Ryan Zimmerman fan.

There is something to this home-grown thing he mentions. A born and raised Baltimore fan, localizes me. We watched Cal Ripken come through the ranks. But the Ravens have given us that since coming to Baltimore as well: Ray Lewis, Jonathan Ogden, Ed Reed, Todd Heap, Ray Rice, Joe Flacco, Haloti Ngata, Terrell Suggs, Torrey Smith. These are all players we've watch get drafted and step onto the playing field as "our" guys. And then you add the Anquan Boldins and Vonta Leachs, the right players to round out what you've got.

The Nationals are vibing the same way: Ryan Zimmerman, Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmerman, Danny Espinosa, Ian Desmond, Bryce Harper, then you add a Jayson Werth and a Gio Gonzales and see where things go. You get in on the ground floor and hope to take the elevator on up. If you've been or listened to a game and seen Zimm hit a game-winning home run or make a phenomenal play at third, or seen Tyler Clippard or Drew Storen shut down an offense, you can feel something deeper going on.

Watching an Ozzie Newsome/John Harbaugh or Mike Rizzo/Davey Johnson combination is akin to a chess match on top of the actual games and seasons. It's a game within or on top of a game and when they both work together it's the complexity and simplicity of a symphony.

I'm not sure what sent me down the sports path this morning. The football season is gearing up for the playoffs. And the Nationals just made a big off-season splash, which we've been waiting for. Maybe that's it.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Maybe the soul looks like snow

When someone old dies, the question gets asked: what does the soul/spirit look like? This is positing that you believe there is a soul/spirit, something more than the breath in the body.

If someone 92 dies, what does their soul look like apart from the body? 92? 70? 30? The time in their life when they were the happiest? Or is it that essence that connects all these ages? That look in the eyes that you can trace from baby pictures on through old age. Or is it a color or smell unique to a soul?

Hard to wrap your brain around a soul. The concept gets credence even in science, per the theory that energy isn't created or destroyed, it is just transferred and transformed. Certainly there is an energy in someone alive that is absent when they are dead.

If you connect that concept to Jung's collective unconscious--that we can tap back into history, that we are connected to it, the soul will swim through your head, buoyant and sticky like a magnetic is sticky, pulling the mind along.

These are heady conceits, appetizers for uncertainty.

I don't know what the soul looks like. Maybe it looks like snow, which is why I get light-hearted when it snows. And maybe Dylan Thomas is also describing the soul when he writes:

"Our snow was not only shaken from whitewash buckets down the sky, it came shawling out of the ground and swam and drifted out of the arms and hands and bodies of the trees; snow grew overnight on the roofs of the houses like a pure and grandfather moss, minutely white-ivied the walls and settled on the postman, opening the gate like a dumb, numb thunderstorm of white, torn Christmas cards."

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Remembering Shirley Miller

Remarks given at memorial service, 12/17/11.

Frank Sinatra had nothing on Shirley Miller. More than a mantra, “My Way,” was likely Shirley’s theme song. It practically played on loud speakers in any room she walked into.

Shirley was my grandmother. She decided when I was born that she didn’t want to be called “grandma” or “granny,” or anything of the sort. She decided to let me try to say her name and go with whatever that effort produced. “Shuey” was what came out and it is how she has been known by our family ever since.

Shuey was fiercely independent, yet never drove. In fact, never even got a driver’s license. But it never slowed her down. She could always get where she wanted to go. If her late husband Bob Miller’s autobiography had a sub-title, it might be “Driving Miss Shirley.” But he never minded. He always seemed to be having a good time and you could find him reading a newspaper with a cup of coffee at about any antique or gem show.

If you ever rode in a car with Shuey around Easton, or Towson, or Baltimore, you know that she could, and did, turn every building, or home, or store into a personal landmark. “Where Dr. Detrich’s office is, that’s the house we grew up in.” “That’s the house where Cousin Nellie lived.” That’s where mother moved.” “That’s where we got Berger’s cakes…” She was a walking oral history of a place, which was put to good use when she worked with curators, archivists and volunteers with historic photographs at the Historical Society of Talbot County.

Shuey was resourceful. She collected, as she liked to say, “anything there is more than two of.” Dolls, jewelry, Christmas tree pins, Cameos, books—we’d be here a while if I tried to list everything. When she found something at an antique show, she would figure out how to get it. She might trade for it. She might go down to the basement of their Towson house and make slipcovers or curtains to make extra money.

Shuey was not one for sitting around, there were too many things she wanted to do. At Londonderry, she planned trips and social events, helped with movie nights. She was big on movies. I love the story she would tell about her mother, who went to just about every movie they showed at the Avalon Theatre. She figured out which seat was the very center seat in the theater. And that’s where she sat. If someone was in her seat, she asked them to move. You can see where Shuey got parts of her personality.

Because of her tenacious collecting and shopping personality, around Christmas time, she was the secret weapon. She was given a list of whatever the must-have hot gift was for my sister or me. And she was there when Toys ‘R Us opened, throwing elbows and acquiring the gift, by all means necessary. I think she got them all.

Christmas time has always made me think of Bob and Shirley. They were really the best part of the holiday. On Christmas Eve, they drove to Oxford from Towson. We waited to see them turn the corner onto our street. We helped them unload the car of presents and suitcases. We had dinner and they were there the next morning when we woke up—Shuey with her tea and Pop with his coffee. This time of year will always make me think of them.

This past Sunday, I went over to her house. She wasn't doing well. Wanted company. We watched the Ravens game and they happened to be playing the Colts. Shirley and Bob were big Baltimore Colts fans and they attended almost every Colts home game together. She could tell you all about the old Colts and this past Sunday was talking about Art Donovan.

I asked her if she ever, after all those years of cheering for the Colts, ever thought she'd be pulling for Baltimore to beat the Colts. She said, "Yep. As soon as they left town."

That's a statement that encapsulates Shuey well. She didn’t dwell on things. She moved on to what was next. She let you know what she thought and didn’t add any words or soften a sentiment that she meant to be hard. I will always love, and learn from, her directness. She’d probably tell me I’ve already said too much.

On Monday night I watched a documentary about the writer/philosopher Walker Percy. He is the kind of writer she and I would have talked about—she would bring me book reviews cut out of the Baltimore Sun. Percy’s first novel was called “The Moviegoer,” which instantly made me think of Shuey and her mom. She stayed in my head and thoughts for the rest of the film, very clearly. It was later that night that she died.

I’ve since picked up the book and been reading it, thinking of her. There is this idea in “The Moviegoer,” which says we all have a search, that is the thing that “anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life.”

My sense of Shuey is that she was never sunk in the everydayness of life. She lived, daily, on her own terms. She did and said the things that she wanted to do and say. She spent time with the people she loved and enjoyed. And she truly lived the life that she set out to live.

Tomorrow is her husband’s birthday. While I am sad that we don’t get to spend Christmas with Shuey, I am happy to think that she gets to spend it with Pop. I will always picture them together. Probably reading the Sun, drinking coffee and tea, wearing festive sweaters. I like to picture them in their house in Towson, where they spent 62 years. It was the first house I knew with a green house. I’m pretty sure she’s got one now, too.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011


I got Walker Percy confused with Walker Evans. I recorded a documentary on PBS thinking I'd learn more about "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men," which is a touchstone for me. What I got instead was what I needed.

"It has to do with a view of man, a theory of man. Man as more than an organism, as more than a consumer. Man the wayfarer. Man the pilgrim. Man in transit, on a journey." -Walker Percy

If I am like Walker Percy, it is in that Wayfarers are maybe my favorite sunglasses of all time. Wait, different "wayfarer?" Okay. If I'm like Walker Percy, it is in that I am stuck posing the big, meaty existential questions. I am not comfortable, not content to not ask them. I love the word "wayfarer" (and the glasses, in large part for the name). Pilgrim is a word far richer than the Mayflower. Life as pilgrimage, as a journey for answers. A spiritual, a soul quest.

When they started talking about Percy's first, and maybe most influential novel, "The Moviegoer," it made me think of my grandmother. And of her mother, who watched movies at The Avalon Theatre in Easton. I knew her mother, my great-grandmother, as Muddy. Muddy figured out which seat in the Avalon was the very center seat, and sat in it for every movie. If someone was in her seat, she moved them. My grandmother, who our family calls Shuey, also watched movies in that theatre. So did my father, who I call Dad, and so did I, who I call me. I watched "Star Wars" and "Raiders of the Lost Ark" in the Avalon, and met my wife there (at a concert, not a movie).

But "moviegoer" made me think of my grandmother, Shuey, and of her mother, and movies. And I want to read it. Shuey and I talked about books and movies. I went over to her house on Sunday. She wasn't doing well. Wanted company. She had the Ravens game on, which we watched. They were playing the Colts, whose games, when the Colts were in Baltimore, she and my grandfather didn't miss many of. I asked her if she ever thought she'd be pulling for Baltimore to beat the Colts. She said, "Yep. As soon as they left town."

That's a statement that encapsulates Shuey well. She lets you know what she thinks and doesn't add any words or soften a sentiment that she means to be hard.

The Ravens won the game. We talked a bit more.

The phone rang this morning, at 1:45 a.m., or so. Shuey died around midnight. Her journey moved on. I'll have a lot more to say about that. I've been awake since and haven't had a chance to put those thoughts in order. For now it's man the wayfarer, The Moviegoer and thinking about Shuey.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Frost-breathed inspiration

Frost-breathed inspiration. Ice on the windshields, the kind that begs the scraper. Walking out front to frost on the bones seems to wake my soul more quickly.

Vince Guaraldi and watching the Charlie Brown Christmas special. Dylan Thomas's treasure, "A Child's Christmas in Wales." Cutting down our tree in 60 degree rain then swilling hot chocolate from Styrofoam cups.

The storytelling of John Jeremiah Sullivan. The power of William Carlos Williams's words. The Roots's new album, "undun," which may rewrite expectations for all hip-hop albums to follow. The buoyant beats and lyrics of TV on the Radio. Listening to this Black Keys song in the truck with our girls dancing along...

The unconsciously quotable, tears in your eyes laughter at Chevy Chase and Randy Quaid in Christmas Vacation.

Any chance to savor Samuel Smith's Oatmeal Stout.

And the lights on the Christmas tree. Plugging in the tree lights first thing in the morning, still dark outside. Standing in the dark room in front of the kaleidoscope that resides amongst glass balls and fir branches, I have no definite age.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Is it really real?

We rock around a real Christmas tree. It was a holiday tradition for my sister and I to go out with our parents and help pick out and cut down a tree. It has become the same thing for our girls. Full disclosure, my sister's husband's family owns a Christmas tree farm, and you don't want to be the ones caught with the fake tree.

There is no shortage of places to get a real tree, mind you. The Lions Club, the Optimist Club, community organizations with lots around town, Lowes, Wal Mart, etc. Sometimes I'm asked, why don't you get a tree that's already cut? I could go with the Tevye/Fiddler on the Roof answer...TRADITION! (tradition)! And that's part of it. But there is something more basic, that cuts to how I roll.

I'd rather put money in the hands/pockets of friends or family. This is an across the board philosophy. I've got nothing against Starbucks--they have perhaps improved the quality of coffee, nationwide. But I'd rather give my money to Tim Cureton and Rise Up Coffee (plus the coffee is better). Dogfish and Fat Tire are fine beers, which I enjoy drinking. But Geoff DeBisschop and Evolution Craft Brewing Co. are making the best stuff around and they are friends.

I applaud and try to go with the buy local approach as best I can. But supporting friends goes much deeper. Especially when you have talented friends who are doing cool things.

Plato offered up as one possible definition of justice, helping your friends and thwarting your enemies. It would be hard to argue that as a universal principle for mankind (unless you can do so without having any enemies), but in my limited, personal world, I like it. Particularly the first part.

When I can further a tradition and give a fun, meaningful experience to my family and help my friends at the same time... well, that's tinsel on the tree. A real tree.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Lunch break

The window is too public for a voyeur. The seat in the coffee shop requires you to be a part of the scene, not apart from. Would never do. That's okay, I'm not into voyeurism.

Plain sight hiding places. Flannel shirt, jeans, boots or running shoes--coffee shop camouflage. In view, but unnoticed. An espresso-sipping notebook scribbler, like the rest. Easier to find than cream.

Used to be, I stopped in here before work or at lunch. Knew most of the people. Worked in town and was dailed in to what was going on. Now my work world is across the bridge, inside the beltway. When I look at downtown Easton, I can't see it as a place where I can work. Where I've grown up, where I live, where I will live, but not as a place where I can find a job doing what I do.

The rain outside isn't cold. But makes inside the better option, makes you have to want to go out. The coffee shop is comfortable, but feels almost sterile. Nothing of note. It's also not why I am downtown. Pull up hood, pick up coffee, jet. Rain letting up. Walk down Goldsborough.

I hear the soundtrack for Frogger, waiting for cars to go by, hop through the opening, up the sidewalk, around the corner.

I left Easton to make a living. We stay in Easton to live. The last time I hit the coffee shop was Waterfowl Festival weekend. Nine-year-old daughter Anna and I were downtown to hear Chester River Runoff. It was hands-in-pockets cold. No idea how you pluck a banjo with cold hands. Between sets, Anna and I grabbed hot chocolate and coffee. The band was there, too.

This time Anna is the band. 4th and 5th grade chorus. Christmas concert at the Festival of Trees at the Tidewater Inn. As I get to the Tidewater, her class is is stretched around the building like Christmas garland, filing their way in. I see her before she sees me; a friend points me out to her, and at nine years old it's still cool to acknowledge me.

As we all go in, Easton High School's chorus is performing. We had friends who were in Mr. Thomas's chorus. I flash-forward in my head and wonder if Anna will still be singing when she gets to high school. I knock that shit off, because picturing our girls growing up too quickly wrecks me and dudes don't ask for tissues at Christmas concerts.

The Easton Elementary chorus goes on. There is a full slew of kids, and Anna is in about the middle. We find each other and she smiles every time I hold up the camera. Flashes glances over while singing. They sing "Winter Wonderland," which is a favorite of mine.

They finish to applause and file off stage. I head out, back to the rain, but Anna catches me from behind, to say thanks for coming and see you after school. These life moments keep coming: concerts, field hockey games, field trips, award ceremonies. As kids, we had our first dances in the same room at the Tidewater. Easton reaches back across generations of my family, and reaches forward.