Friday, December 28, 2012

The Great Escape


Steve McQueen doesn't live here. Then again, neither do I. But it's my great escape. My head-heart-soul are kicked back with coffee, firewood, a notebook and pen, and Jorie Graham's "Place," even if my body hasn't figured out how to join them yet.

I'm generally lit up by the Christmas spirit, but this year, I've felt more like escaping. Wind, rain and sleet the day after were a treat for words, ideas and naps. And for building Legos if you
live in our house and attend elementary school.

My mind drifts between snow, cabins, frozen ponds and polar icebreakers. There's wanderlust in my legs to get out, to go somewhere. But Lyme Disease landed this year and has limited my time on foot and has me wondering how to cope, how to get back, how to get "it" back. I don't know my body and what it's capable of the way I have known it. What I'm left with is restless leg syndrome of the mind.

My mind seeks both stillness and adventure. I have a sense that both body and mind need to stretch to activate the soul.

The cold is setting in. I get the hibernating animals: I want to do the same, but not sleep, but go inward. I'm some place between, like a waiting room (cue the Fugazi song). Except for that song, I hate waiting rooms.

I want to simplify, Thoreau style; I want to meditate like Thomas Merton. I'm affected by the spaces around me, which is part of the reason for wanting to escape.

I want to tie disparate threads together--Jorie Graham, Merton and Gaston Bachelard's "Poetics of Space," with the backdrop of a winter cabin as the existential shoelaces to lace up the trail shoes.

Aahh, it's the work.

* Photo from Cabin Porn, my new favorite Tumblr site.

Monday, November 12, 2012

A$$-pocket notebook as a Cloud Atlas


1. "I asked, how is knowledge found?" "You must learn how to read, little sister."

2. "We are only what we know, and I wished to be much more than I was, sorely."

3. "What was knowledge for, I would ask myself, if I could not use it to better my existence?"

I carry around a small, black notebook in my back pocket. Or, as we've said here, quoting R.L. Burnside, my "ass pocket." My notebook and a pen are more likely than my wallet to be found on me in a search.

The ass-pocket notebook is scrawled through with quotes, inspirations, existential questions, landmarks, grocery lists, reading and music recommendations, notes jotted from meetings. When I flip back through it, I can remember where I was or what I was thinking when I read the pages forward. If I can read my writing.

We've talked about Junot Diaz here already. The other mind-blowing contemporary novelist who has been rewiring my brain is David Mitchell, as I am on the home stretch of his "Cloud Atlas." There is no spoiler here, I'm not talking plot twists or reviewing the book. But as I got to the section called, "An Orison of Sonmi-451," I found myself filling my ass-pocket notebook with passages like the three above.

Sonmi as a character is coming to things like knowledge, reading, nature and the world outside for the first time, and as such appreciates things in a way that most of us have long forgotten or taken for granted. That echoes one of my favorite concepts/lenses for looking at life and the world, "Beginner's Mind."

I've pondered the title, "Cloud Atlas" a bit, which I more than dig. The fruitless, frustrating mess of trying to map the moving, shifting, swirling clouds. Why would anyone put themselves through that? But then, you have the mornings or evenings when the clouds are painted with sun, and even though you know there can be no holding it together, no way to make it stay; you know that by the time you try to tell someone about it, just to get them to look it will be gone.

You know there is no point. But you have to do it anyway. You have to try. And maybe "Art" with a capital "A," maybe that's what Art is, just a cloud atlas. Just an attempt to map the unmappable.

And that's why I carry the ass-pocket notebook. For those times, when the sun-painted clouds need mapping.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

"The world runs through us"


I could start with dreams, since I rarely have them. I hadn't dreamed on consecutive nights in more than a decade. "Sleeps in Fits" could be my Indian name. But there I was dreaming--super powers one night, confused in a distorted neighborhood the next. Deep sleep, Freud be damned.

I could start with inspiration, reading Jack Kerouac's poems, or Junot Diaz, Carl Sandburg or Matthew Dickman. Writers who read the world and themselves and swirl the two together on the page. Writers who look beyond language to what the words point at.

I could start with reading Ada Limon's "Shark in the Rivers," sitting along the Anacostia River while a Coast Guard Dolphin helicopter circle-hovers the river, three, four times; the river a debris-littered still in the days after Hurricane Sandy.

The pilot and I look at the river, neither of us wants to jump in.

The helicopter's WHUP is louder than the river, but not as loud as Sandy.

Ada Limon says, "This is the way / the world runs through us..."

and I wonder if she means with dreams, inspiration, words, poetry, helicopters and hurricanes.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

I get why Thales fell in a well


I get why Thales fell in a well. The stars invented the word mesmerize for their own use.

I fling the kitchen trash bag in to the garbage can outside and crane my head back. The Milky Way, Orion's Belt, the dippers, whatever stencil you want to put over the night sky.

Philosophers and poets are kids, still fascinated by stars and clouds; still at home with their backs on the cool grass, their eyes searching, trying to make sense of the sky.

Thales is credited as the first Greek philosopher, before Socrates (pronounced "So-crates," Bill and Ted style), Plato or Aristotle who posterity came to know better. Thales, the story goes, was walking, eyes to the sky, and fell into a well, not paying any mind to where he was going.

You can think Thales a fool (history says otherwise) or you can envy his focus, his commitment to his sense of wonder. Philosophy and poetry both begin in wonder, expanding on Aristotle's notion.

When I take the trash out on a clear night, I get Thales. I'm glad there's not a well near our sidewalk.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Shazam, the lightning


If we were loosed from our bodies, freed from these shells, what would we be? Nothing? Maybe. Or would we become the quality that most defines us.

Roll that around in your head. Laughter, lightness, anger, grief. What word would people use to describe you, would you use to describe yourself, and how would you dig being that quality, post-body?

We would blow like a wind, inhabiting people and places that conjured us--laughter at a party, anger and fear in a back alley brawl, tears at a funeral. If that were the case, would we be more careful what qualities defined us? Who wants to be grief eternal? I'd go with laughter or wonder eternal anyday.

Let our bodies hit the floor. Not in a speed metal, mow 'em down manner, but a casting off of weight or restraint. Look at what is left and if you are glad of it.

Lately, I haven't dug what I'd leave. It doesn't feel like me.

This line of thinking sprung from a tangent. Junot Diaz was describing a character in the later pages of "Oscar Wao" and says of her, "Neither Captain Marvel, nor Billy Batson, but the lightning."

It was a magical lightning that transformed Billy into the Captain, made him superhuman. To describe a person as that lightning. Wow. I wrote it down and rolled it around in my head. I don't know what to make of it, except that I am struck by it...like...wait for it... lightning.

Diaz's words are also that lightning, transforming my thoughts about words and descriptions. About how to look at people. About how to look at myself.

Our 10-year-old pushes the ball up at field hockey practice. Our seven-year-old and a friend are on the playground pretending to be spiders caught in a giant web.

I am perched on a picnic table, in between the two. While the girls are in motion, I am still. Writing, reading fragments from Roland Barthes, who is mourning the death of his mother. Wisps of wind and rain spin evening melancholy.

And I wonder, what quality I would be past my body. But more, what quality will the girls remember me being? Is it how I'd want to be remembered?

Friday, October 5, 2012

A Barn on Mulberry Street


I've always wanted a barn. It's one of those Eastern Shore landscapes aesthetics that inhabits me. Barns are churches, a symbol of rural ethics, a structure that says America.

But my barn would not be a haven for horses or cows. Hay would be at a minimum. I grew up with barns, but I also grew up with the Bat Cave. Not the Bat Cave to be a superhero, but the Bat Cave as man cave, as a place where you surround yourself with the things that make you, you. Things that inspire, motivate, elevate.

The walls of my barn would be transition so that I could navigate the floor and wall by skateboard. Along with barn architecture, skatepark architecture fills me with awe. It invites you to inhabit the space, and the world, differently. To create, to move, to experiment. And in my barn, in my world, motion, creativity and experimentation are paramount.


My barn would be a library and a writer's studio. I have no interest in spending time in a place where I am not surrounded by books and the lofty thoughts of those who have come before and along with me. Rather than a desk, the writing space would be a big open table, where pages can be spread out and imbibed together, a collage of thoughts and phrases, paragraphs and verses,


The barn as a temple. But not just a temple on the landscape, or a skatepark or a library, but also a temple for the body. I've always pictured the barn having gymnastics rings hanging from the ceiling, exposed beams, a rural jungle gym, to keep the body fit.


Oh yes, the barn. But living in town doesn't lend itself to having a barn.

Unless you live on Mulberry Street. On the way home, I saw a barn. But not an ordinary barn, this barn had a skatepark, and a library... it was a jungle gym. And Van Halen and Jane's Addiction and Dr. Dog were playing concerts there...

Sunday, September 16, 2012

The World at Seven


"What does he mean?" is the sound, the voice, the question of a seven-year-old trying to figure out the world. In this case, it is our seven-year-old asking her older sister what a character in a show was saying.

She is coming further into the agreement that is language. She seeks out words she knows, written on buildings or advertisements at Nationals Park, and speaks them quietly out loud.

Watching a Nationals game, she recites the numbers of players as they come up, "Drew Storen is 22, Kurt Suzueski (her pronunciation) is 24, Adam LaRoche is 25, Jesus Flores is 26, Jordan Zimmermann is 27, Jayson Werth is 28."

I'm floored by it, so I'll quiz her while we are watching.

"Who is 55?" She doesn't recognize call up Eury Perez, pinch-running for Michael Morse. We walk about September call-ups and she likes pitcher Zach Duke's name.

On a Sunday morning, she comes downstairs with her blanket wrapped around her like a cape. When you're seven, they are the same, blankets and capes.

Every day is a lineless sheet of paper in the morning, which is filled with doodles, wisdom, numbers, poetry and memories by bedtime.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

On the river bank, after


Sandburg and I sit on the river bank, eating lunch, talking about Chicago and how people are. On the other shore, two helicopters take off, bank over the river and fly directly overhead. These are the same helicopters that carried a different President to St. Michaels when I worked there and got to see him speak.

Then, like now, was after. After we looked at machines flying over cities differently. After flying machines were flown into buildings and the President we saw in St. Michaels got interrupted talking to school children; children that could have been my daughters, but weren’t. Children who wished they were in that school because it would have meant they were far away from New York and didn’t lose their parents.

That day, before, I was in Easton. I didn’t work in Washington, like now, after.

Now, I sit with Sandburg on the river bank of the Anacostia, watching planes landing and taking off at Reagan National. Watching Presidential Helicopters flying overhead.

Sandburg’s Chicago didn’t have planes flying into buildings. It wasn’t something he thought about. But our girls, and their children, will learn it as part of their history classes. It’s part of their story, part of our story, now, after.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

If I had listened to Hegel


If I had listened to Hegel, life might be different. I don't know where we'd be living or if I would have found a job teaching philosophy. But If I'd listened to Hegel, I'd know the answers.

I met Hegel for the first time in Dr. Bob Anderson's logic class at Washington College. I asked Dr. Anderson if he bought into how the logic we were learning related to real-life. He was an Obi-wan Kenobi kind of figure, who always had me listening for more than was going on in class. He said he personally subscribed to Hegelian logic. That was before I Googled. Off to the library.

Modern philosophy class with Dr. Anderson danced closer to Hegel, by way of Descartes, Locke, Hume and Kant. Philosophy had its hooks in my spirit long before Washington College, but Anderson and company, ancient philosophy, Thomas Kuhn, Nietzsche, Buddhism, I was happily soaking in the existential hot tub--reading Kierkegaard, Camus and Dostoevsky over the summer for no reason.

As I worked on my English degree, dialed in on William Blake, Wordsworth and British Romanticism, Hegel hung in the background, an influence. His dialectic logic surfaced everywhere. I was skimming the surface, but didn't have a chance to dive deep. Hegel's tome "Phenomenology of Spirit," stared me down.

I am motivated by challenges. Bigger challenge, more motivation. Hegel's Phenomenology has been pegged both as one of the crowning achievements of modern philosophy and one of the ten most difficult books of all time. Game on, Hegel. Let's dance.

Dr. Anderson and I talked graduate schools for philosophy. This would be where I would dance or wrestle with Hegel, the lion at the gate of the contemporary deep thinkers who followed him. The ring, or dance floor (sorry, can't pick which metaphor I prefer), was Duquesne University.

And then it wasn't. The siren-call of a real job and income drowned out Hegel. His finger-on-my-chest, German breath in my grill challenge became a whisper. It was almost like a kid outgrowing Santa Claus, pushing the pursuit of the philosophy career out for something more practical. But I know better.

I've always heard Hegel, before I knew who he was. I've always been my fullest self when I'm absorbed in study and activity, whether philosophy or literature, or running. And I know that Hegel gets closer to reality and being than Wall Street and big business can even sniff.

Funny thing is, I can apply Hegel's dialectic (thesis, then its antithesis or opposite, combining in a synthesis of both) to any part of my own life and it works. Take my slothful, hazy unstudying years at N.C. State. They led to my running and lifting weights, in shape years of serious study at Washington College while working, which led to the jobs and writing that followed.

I can still hear Hegel. His Phenomenology sits in a box of books in our garage. Yesterday (Aug. 27) was Hegel's birthday, which got me thinking about him again. Our cage match or dance is still coming. Sure, if I'd listened to Hegel, my life might be different now. But truth is, I've never stopped listening.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Insane in the Montaigne


Sartre got me sick. His damn nausea, contagious from typed ink on a book written more than 30 years before I was born. But it's not the ink, it's the words are contagious. No, not the words, the ideas behind them.

I wouldn't be concerned if I were you. Maybe you were vaccinated. Maybe they don't get to you. But the existentialists have always soared me and sunk me. It's not that they are right or wrong, it's that they speak to how I am wired. The questions I have, the ones I ask when driving to or from work, or when I wake up, or when I can't sleep. These questions you either ask, or you don't. Some ask them.

Jim Holt asks them. He has compiled and culled a book called "Why Does the World Exist?" I've been asking that question since I was knee-deep in marsh water building bridges and forts to play war. It's part of what tractor-beamed me to study philosophy. Holt digs in and asks folks that might know something about it. I'm just digging into his book, but if you want a taste, Kathryn Schulz wrestles with the idea and the book in one of the most thought-provoking book reviews I've read. Check the technique.

Philosophers, poets and storytellers are the dog-walkers who lead me around by a leash. I don't follow blindly, but I'm led. I'm not after answers, but possibilities.

Our seven year old can't stop singing Cypress Hill's "Insane in the Brain." (for the record, it's the edited for radio version on a mix CD, she really doesn't get the lyrics, just the sticky hook). I can't blame her, I've always dug Cypress Hill myself.

At the same time, I've been reading Michel de Montaigne's "Essays." Montaigne didn't mind searching himself for answers, examining what he thought, on the page, to see what he thought. In his words, "I put forward formless and unresolved notions... not to establish truth, but to seek it."

I think that's what I'm after, or maybe what I'm trying to do. A life's pursuit. Maybe. Or I might just be insane in the Montaigne...

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Family, hometowns and the collective unconscious, sort of


I am not related to Carl Jung. But his July 26 birthday coincides with our family reunion, which has happened for 62 years in a row. So maybe he is an honorary cousin. Or at least, for me, a kindred cousin.

I like to look at Jung and family through a kind of prism that reflects each back on the other. This idiosyncratic lens extends Jung's idea of the collective unconscious and the genes/DNA that is passed through generations by your family and then adds a dash of Native American shamanism. What I end up with is this in-the-bones in-the-soul connection to family that you can both know and feel the presence of your ancestors.

Now, I'm not a new age guy. Not trying to go woo-woo on you. But when we are at a family reunion and I see our girls running and playing, swimming, it takes me back to being their ages and doing the same thing off World Farms Road at my Great Aunt Harriett McCord's house. I can see my grandfather and his generation in the same way Anna and Ava see my father. They call him "Grandaddy," the same name we used for his dad.

It's a little more than that. On Sunday the girls and I were at the Oxford (Md.) Park. I played at that park when I was little (and older), as did my dad. His father attended school on that same ground. If I sit there quietly and let my mind drift, I get caught in thinking how many generations of our family have walked that same ground. The small town of Oxford feels like sacred ground, when I frame it that way.

After a weekend that included our Parson's family reunion and a shoreline-exploring, ice cream-eating trip to the Oxford Park, I asked the girls if they wanted to swing by the Oxford Cemetery, so see where my Grandaddy and his wife, and others in our family were buried. They did. They hadn't been there before and I hadn't been there in some time.

We found and read my grandparents', the girls' great grandparents, who they never met, head stones. My grandmother died a couple months before I turned four, but I can see her clear as day--when I would walk in their house, she would pretend to be "The Terrible Tickler," a favorite character from a Sesame Street book I liked. I called her "Me-me." She was my dad's and aunt's mother, my grandfather's second wife, after he lost his first wife and baby during childbirth. Though he was a good bit older than Me-me, he lived almost 20 years longer and is who I think of when I think of fishing or being on a boat on the Chesapeake Bay. These were/are pictures and thoughts in my head just upon seeing their graves.

The girls and I walked further. We saw another relative, Doug Hanks, Sr., who I knew as "Pop," my cousin Dougie's grandfather and an otherworldly log canoe sailor. As we walked the cemetery, as when we played in the park, I had the real sense that I was comprised of these people, this place, our girls. That is, until the girls started to moan about how hot it was.

But they thought it was cool. On our way out of the cemetery, we saw a heron on the shore, which is another story. When we got home, they ran in and told Robin about the cemetery, the park, the Scottish Highland Creamery. The reunion still swam through all our heads. They don't need Jung or his collective unconscious to understand family and place. I guess I don't either. But I'm always trying to frame or get my head around the things that excite me. The things I'm made of.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Ocean Size or Admiring the Sand Jesus


"I want to be more like the ocean, no talking, man - all action." - Perry Farrell

When I am in the ocean, I am 12. I haven't heard Perry Farrell's supreme longing to be ocean size. I'm just diving through waves, body surfing, occasionally victimized by shorebreak.

I'm buying my first skateboard, a Sims Flagship from the Sunshine House, the small skate shop they had behind the yellow beacon of a surf shop on 62nd Street along Coastal Highway.

I'm riding the Tidal Wave roller coaster and the Zipper on the boardwalk or admiring the sand Jesus, the ultimate in weather-dependent ephemeral art.

We're skating the old Ocean Bowl, watching Mike Vallely jump off the top of a construction trailer and land on his skateboard on the basketball court below to start his run at the Ocean City street contest.

Ocean City has seen us grow up, from wide-eyed kids, to beer and girl-hungry teens and 20-somethings, to parents bringing our own kids to the beach to make their own memories.

The ocean doesn't care that I'm older now. It doesn't care that it transports me through time with each swell, curl, crashing wave. It doesn't care that my seven-year-old daughter and six-year-old nephew are alongside me, body surfing with racing hearts and salt water smiles, the first summer they've got it down.

I've frequently felt Perry Farrell's longing to be like the ocean. But not today.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Bearditude, a list of influential beards


I have had a beard for longer than our girls have been alive (they are ten and seven). A good many of our friends haven't known me without one. And my wife digs it (so why change?). But self-reflection can be a worthwhile venture and I have certainly been influenced by famous beards, past and present.

So who are those role model beards out there? Let's take a look.

1. Plato. You are talking to an English/Philosophy graduate who just about had his bags packed to go to philosophy graduate school at Duquesne University en route to teaching college philosophy. But the existential jones goes back further, as long as I can recall. A way of being wired. And I still remember being lost in thought and excited like Christmas when we were going to discuss Plato's "Allegory of the Cave" in class.


2. Santa Claus. Alright, let's be honest. Religion aside, most American kids see Santa as the most recognizable beard. White-bearded dude, lives in the snow, flying reindeer, all the toys in the world. All the beard qualifications necessary.


3. Jesus Christ. While we're on the subject of Christmas... I was baptized and grew up in the Episcopal church. Water into wine, working miracles. Dr. J has to go on any beard list.


4. Chuck Norris. If you grew up in the 1970s and 1980s, you've seen Chuck Norris kick ass. You've been simultaneously scared and awed by his beard. And why did Chuck lose to Bruce Lee in "Way of the Dragon" in one of the most epic martial arts screen battles ever? No beard.


5. Abe Lincoln. He is more than just a Racing President for the Washington Nationals. He's the first iconic U.S. President I can remember, even before George Washington. And a role model for unkempt skinny cerebral kids growing up anywhere.


6. Walt Whitman. Please remember the second half of the above English/Philosophy value meal. I've written poetry since I sat in the back of Mr. Springer's world history class, a 14-year-old skate punk who scribbled in notebook margins rather than pay attention in class. Hemingway and Whitman are a toss-up for bearded writers, but I have to go with Whitman on a personal preference. Just being earnest.


7. ZZ Top. Did you see the video for "Sharp Dressed Man," as a young man? Did you own ZZ Top "Eliminator?" Have you heard "La Grange?" The greatest rock and roll beards of all time. And we live in a rock and roll world.


8. Jayson Werth. If you live in our house, chances are your favorite beard belongs to the Washington Nationals Jayson Werth. Our girls ask how he is doing every time the Nats are on (which is almost every game), they love seeing him in the dugout during home games, and none of us can wait for his return to the lineup. If you want to talk famous beards, Jayson Werth's Beard even has its own Twitter account.

There's my list of influential beards. Those beards that come to mind when talking famous facial hair. Feel free to add your own.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

"Existentialists in shorts," creating meaning on the run


"Running wasn't just exercise or a hobby, or even necessarily competition, for them. Basically they were existentialists is shorts. I wanted to be one, too." -Scott Jurek, "Eat & Run."

Sometimes you create meaning with each step of a run. Sometimes with none. Mostly it's a happy medium.

I start out noticing every step. The impact on landing, the effort to move my legs. The first part of a run is an in-body experience. Everyday mind.

Each step moves further into consciousness. The body starts to fade into the background. The mind wanders. Wanders with the music. Wanders, thoughts flitting like birds out of mind. The breath is still there, and the movement. The body doesn't hurt, yet. I don't notice the miles or effort.

Then it comes back, the body. The breath reconnects, the legs are pumping, the arms, everything is in sync, connected, but different from when I started.

On long runs I can drift between these states--in body, out. On those, exhilaration can meet delirium.

I am running right behind some deep revelation, something life changing, if I can only run a little faster, reach out and catch it, grab it, tackle it.

But it's rarely about that revelation. I'm not generally fast enough to catch it. It's then that I get that it's the first step where we create meaning in a run, and every step after, not just some elusive magical step.

It's the knowledge that two, four, 10, 20, 50 miles are underfoot, logged by will, effort, discipline. I've put some order on one small part of the day, in my own way. I've seen things that no one sitting inside got to see. I've lived. I've reminded my mind-body-soul that we are free and mobile, sometimes. When we ask.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Marriage is a beach


Being married reminds me of swimming off the Oxford Ferry dock when we were little. It's easy to get nostalgic. And it's fun. Thankfully, after 13 years today, our marriage hasn't been banned like swimming off the ferry dock.

With a late June wedding, summer makes me think of our day in the sun, getting married on the Tred Avon River in the church I grew up in. But summer makes me think of Robin and our 17 years together, in general. She is a teacher and a good many of our trips and adventures have happened over the summer, when she is on vacation. We've covered some ground--Colorado, Maine, Florida, Cooperstown, N.Y. (pictured above), the Outer Banks--or we've been just as happy on our home rivers or Ocean City.

I know that summer is going to bring us time together, to do whatever. Marriage has done the same. So maybe marriage is summer vacation.

Maybe I've been mulling over too much Kierkegaard lately, with his fear and trembling over life's big decisions, but life can come unwrapped or unglued or just be generally chaotic at times. We'll keep the water metaphor rolling here, with life as water/river/ocean. Our response to the water, is to build a life--whether a dock, a living shoreline, bulkhead, beach. Something to buffer us, something to comfort, something to give us shape in the midst of chaos. Our jobs, our likes, our families are part of that. So maybe marriage is a beach.

For me, Robin and our marriage has been that constancy. You don't often see marriage billed as a buffer against existential dread, nor should you, as that sounds pretty fu**ing glum. But maybe you see what I am getting at. When you find someone to go through life with, through the tough times, through uncertainty, that's a rare and special thing.

But in 13 years it has rarely felt that way. It has felt more like the kind of beach you picture, non-metaphorically--it's been fun. Fun to the point where I know I would be missing out on life's most fun times were we not married. From concerts to boat rides, from parties for no reason to speaking slurred French at Schooners Llanding 17 years ago. When I string my best, most fun memories together, most of them have happened in the time Robin and I have been together.

Marriage makes me nostalgic in that way, enjoying the looking back at where we've been. But it also makes me hopeful. The looking ahead to where we might go. But beyond looking in either direction, it makes me enjoy the now. It makes me enjoy getting up in the morning and it makes me enjoy coming home after work.

I'm not sure what I think of marriage as an institution. It doesn't always work. Maybe it's flawed. Maybe people don't take it seriously enough. Maybe marriage shouldn't be so serious. For me, I know why marriages don't always work. Because not everyone finds Robin.


In the spirit of looking back, here are thoughts from our 12-year anniversary last year and on our 11-year anniversary the year before. 

Sunday, June 24, 2012

On becoming a Nationals fan


"You'll be working right next door, you know you should think about becoming a Nationals fan. They could use you."

"Thanks, but I've always been an Orioles fan. I've got a team."

That was a conversation I had with my former boss at my going away party from the maritime museum where I worked. He was a DC lawyer who had been waiting for a team and then going to games since the former Montreal Expos came to Washington. I didn't see the appeal for me. I've always been a Baltimore guy, never a DC fan.

As has been documented here, I've built memories with my father going to Memorial Stadium. I can still name just about every Oriole that played in Baltimore from 1977 to 1997, and I studied up on the O's teams of the 1960s and early 1970s. Having said that, I've still been to more games at Memorial Stadium than I have at Camden Yards, which opened when I was 20. The O's left a sour taste in my mouth when they drove then manager Davey Johnson out of town. And Baltimore had re-emerged for me as a football city, with the Ravens as the team I followed most.

And then three baseball seasons ago, I started working in Washington, D.C. My work commute has me drive right in front of the Washington Nationals stadium every day. Our offices are right next door. One day a few seasons ago, a group of us took the afternoon off and went to a daytime Nationals game. And then another. And then another. I told myself it made sense to have a National League team to pull for, since they weren't in opposition to the Orioles. It's important for my own pride and honor to point out that the Nationals, at that time, were in worse shape than the O's. Mine was not the case of ditching a bad team for a good one.

My wife and I (mortal football enemies) went to a game together with friends. I started pointing out Nats players like Ryan Zimmerman and filling in some back stories. We got to where we would put the Nats on in the evenings in the summer. And I found what had been my childhood love of baseball, long dormant, waking up with a fervor. The Nats weren't winning right away, but they were exciting. I loved watching pitchers bat and the strategy that comes with when to pinch-hit.


I am a believer that with a sport like baseball, going to games gets you excited in a way that watching on TV cannot. There is something to being at a baseball game, sitting at Nationals Stadium that transported me back to Memorial Stadium. But the Nats were a team I found, or maybe that found me. A direction I was going. My father introduced me to baseball and to the Orioles. I inherited his love of the game. My father is also an accountant. Sometimes you have to go down the path, in life and in sports, that is right for you.

At the same time, two friends I have in DC, both raised Yankees fans, were going through something similar on their own. They both found, they had a hard time watching Yankees games, they would rather watch the Nats. One of them gave it some thought and put it this way:

"As Mike will attest, both of us will always have a warm place in our hearts for the hometown teams we were raised on, the O's & Yanks. This past weekend, I was sitting in Fells' Point, Baltimore wearing my Nats shirt in a sea of black & orange, trying to figure out exactly why I can't bring myself to watch a Yankees game in its entirety and I came up with this explanation: For many of us who had dads (or uncles in my case) who brought us to our 1st baseball game, the bond we formed w/our 1st team was something in the way of indoctrination. We looked up to our dads & wanted to be like them so rooting for a different team was practically unthinkable. As adults in a new city, loving the Nationals is no indoctrination - it is OUR CHOICE. There's something special about choosing to be swept up in civic pride on your own w/out anyone else's influence. The Yankees will always evoke fond memories & be in my heart forever but the Washington Nationals will always be MY TEAM."

I think that gets to it pretty directly. We recently took my dad to Nationals Stadium, for a Nats vs. O's game. I felt proud to show him the stadium and team I go to see, in the same way he must have felt proud to see me get swept up in the Orioles some 35 years ago.

But that's also where something remarkable to me comes in. Our daughters, ages ten and seven, each went to their first baseball games this year. I wasn't sure what to expect. Each of our girls can name every player on the Nationals roster. Our seven-year-old routinely asks about Chad Tracy or Roger Bernadina--the Goon Squad who come in off the bench--or if Sean Burnett, a relief pitcher, is going to pitch tonight. I never saw it coming. They both love Bryce Harper and Stephen Stasburg, yes, but the part of the game and player they get most excited about is when (now) closer Tyler Clippard comes into the game. I can get them to come in from outside by telling them Clippard is pitching. Our 10-year-old told me this week, "Some people think that baseball is boring to watch, but that's because they don't watch the Nationals."


I didn't see that coming. Their Natitude is off the charts. As we were driving to Florida to visit my wife's family a couple weeks ago, it was late and the Nats were playing the Red Sox. My wife was commentating the game from live updates on my phone, the girls cheering when the Nats scored.

Yesterday, Robin, Ava and I went with my father to Camden Yards to see the Nats play the O's. We had seen round one of the Battle of the Beltway series in Washington. There was a great turnout of O's fans in orange to go with the Nationals' sea of red. It was a great friendly rivalry, based on geography, in inter-league play. In Baltimore, it was similar. Full stadiums. Fans cheering for both teams. "Let's go Nats!" and "Let's go O's!" cheers trying to drown each other out.

I would not have imagined thinking of Camden Yards as an away game. The Orioles were the team that taught me about baseball, that taught me about being a fan. The Nationals are the team that found me when baseball wasn't a household word in our house, that picked us up and has swept up our family. Baseball is a sport for both the heart and the head. For us, the Nationals have both.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

The first non-Robert


I'm the first non-Robert on the Oxford side of my family in three generations. My father and his father are both Roberts (incidentally, so was my Baltimore grandfather). With that kind of multi-generational gravity going, most of the older folks in Oxford still called me "Bobby," when I was little.

My father, no doubt, looked to avoid the confusion of another Robert. Or maybe it was to break the identity shackles Robert carried with it. It did make it as my middle name.

Besides the reigning first name, the other notable thing that didn't get passed directly to me is my father's love and aptitude for numbers. He's an accountant and has been treasurer of every organization he has belonged to. Words are my currency; we'll hope the math gene is just dormant and has been passed on to our girls.

In the interest of full disclosure, my dad also didn't pass along his hairline (or lack thereof), yet, which is something I'm okay with. But I'm not really thinking of the things not passed on this Father's Day morning.

Anna, our 10-year-old, and I have taken to playing catch, lacrosse style, in our front yard. She picked it up more quickly than I did. I had my dad come out front a few weeks ago to watch Anna play. It took me back to our back yard when I was nine or ten, two gold-shafted Warhawk lacrosse sticks, one with a red head, one with a yellow, trying to get the magic in that stick to work. It was only a couple years earlier we had been after the same goal with baseball mitts and ball.

Learning to play catch, ride a bike, how to fish. Becoming a swept-up baseball, football and Baltimore fan (the last of which has waned a bit in the baseball world, having worked next door to Nationals Stadium for the past three baseball seasons). Immersing myself in sports statistics and history because my dad seem to have it all memorized.

There are things, like those above, that a father can teach his children. There are other things, like the shape of my face, my eyes, the gait of my walk--for years when the two of us walk next to each other, our walks are almost indistinguishable--the sound of my laugh/voice, which were not taught, but undeniably paternal in my case.

Somewhere intertwined and above all this is something I hope I can pass on to our girls as well as my father passed on to me and my sister: how to live life. Those things like going after dreams, not being afraid to try things, not being afraid to fall, but when you do, being able to get up, dust yourself off, and get back at it; looking out for your family; appreciating your shared history/having a sense for your roots. I think these things are taught by example. These things emerge, are imparted by observation, discussion and the shape of a life lived as the backdrop.

The thing I learned most quickly as a father/parent, is that parents don't know shit. At least, that's how I felt, still sometimes feel. There were no handbooks, no answer sheets. I'm mentally scratching my head to answer some of the questions the girls throw at me. But as a child, and through growing up, I have always felt (and still frequently do), that my father (and mother) knew/knows things I didn't/don't. There was a certainty, an authority in his answers that seemed beyond question. Gravitas. I have always wondered where the hell that dad gravitas comes from.

On this Father's Day, looking back at myself at Anna and Ava's ages and the things my dad was able to give, impart, be for us, I try to live up to his example, try to be that kind of father for our girls. Though they won't be fathers, maybe it will help them come up with their own ideas of what one is/does. Dad has been that for me.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Cast off the sea monkeys


It may that pool and ocean water have leaked into my brain. That combination of salt and chlorine, which, when you add Corona and multiply by no set schedule after driving 14 hours, sets your mind on simmer. Also known as vacation mode.

It may be that my brain is just slightly overfilled with thoughts. Like the legs of a girl maybe equal parts surfer and redneck, which were a little too long for her frame but all the more striking for their gangliness.

Leaked water, overfull thoughts, legs too long, whatever, it adds up to unsettled mind. It won't quite relax with the body. It has a different agenda, without the means or cooperation to get there.

Still our lives resemble dreams... realms of fantastic desire and possibility, like the kingdom of sea monkeys promised in the back pages of comic books of my childhood. -Campbell McGrath

Maybe Campbell McGrath is right and our dreams are sea monkeys, never as cool or promising or fully realized as we want them to be, believed them to be when we saw them advertised in the back of comic books.

Forty years is beyond the midpoint for dreams. There is still time to realize them, but elapsed time, energy and youth are all factors.

Our trip south is a beginning to summer. It is about family. It's about taking our girls to Disney World. Disney electrifies dreams; it blasts them from a star-loaded bazooka. It takes life's inconveniences, like waiting in line, and puts a princess or a pot of gold or wild ride at the end. We would do well to keep Disney in our minds, to hold on to and reach for our dreams.

At home I'm tired. I haven't been working out since my back spasm-induced ambulance ride. The routine isn't right. It's not fully me. The heart and soul is missing from the motions.

Your mojo can turn up in strange places. Mine gets cranking watching Washington Nationals games. Swimming with the girls or riding through the Haunted Mansion with Anna. Watching Ava rally through the Disney World heat or running a couple miles, doing push-ups and talking about life with Robin. Reading McGrath, Roger Angell, Tracy Smith and John Brandon.

Being on Florida vacation time. Looking to breath deep and fill my lungs for a return. A return to self. A return to place. A return on investment.

To go elbow or shoulder deep into and after dreams. To cast off the sea monkeys.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

1982: Tron, Cal Ripken, Jr. and Juju Music


Keanu Reeves wasn't the first famous person to get sucked into a computer. Jeff Bridges did it way before Keanu. It was 1982 when Tron came out. Thirty years ago.

As big a Tron fan as I was--we would play the Tron video game at the bowling alley for afternoons, plus I had the action figures--that's not what I mainly remember about 1982.

1982 was the year the Baltimore Orioles went on an end of the season tear and took the first three games in their final four game series from the Milwaukee Brewers. They played the very last game of the season for all the marbles: winner goes to the playoffs, loser goes home. The O's lost, though they would win the World Series the next year. 1982 was the year Earl Weaver said he was stepping down as manager. And it was the year that a rookie infielder, Cal Ripken, Jr., would break into the major leagues. I had the baseball card of Orioles prospects that Topps put out that year.


I was 10 years old in 1982. It's a year that has surfaced a couple times today. First for Tron, in a running conversation with my brother-in-law. Second for King Sunny Ade's album "Juju Music," which came out in 1982 and introduced the World Beat movement to the United States. It's the album that I have been listening to today and laughed that it came out the same year as Tron.


King Sunny Ade was changing music, changing the world, the year baseball didn't know it was seeing one of its all-time greats starting out, the same year I was playing little league, collecting baseball cards and wishing I had a light cycle to rip around on.

Thirty years later, Jeff Bridges, Cal Ripken, Jr. and King Sunny Ade are all pretty solid with their legacies. I'm still working on mine. Then again, they are all older than me.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Of Icons and Idols


A baseball player, a skateboarder and an ultra runner walk into a bar... stop me if you've heard this one... that would actually be a conversation I'd love to sit in on. Over the course of my life, these three figures have represented the sports idols/icons that have most shaped my life.

Eddie Murray was my first sports hero. The Baltimore Orioles first baseman with his iconic hat-tamed afro. We've talked about him here before--going to your first baseball game at Memorial Stadium and being swept up in the crowd chanting, "Ed-die! Ed-die! Ed-die!" The pursuit of his Topps baseball card and even my own wanting to play first base came after. After the Colts departed Baltimore, baseball was all we had to follow.

At age 13, and a broken arm from baseball later I had moved on to lacrosse, I discovered a sport/lifestyle much more formative and transformative for me: skateboarding. This was during the time that Powell Peralta's Bones Brigade was taking shape and a tall, skinny kid was spinning 720 degree airs on half-pipes and starting to dominate professional skateboarding. I was a not-as-tall skinny kid and Tony Hawk became the guy to emulate. Never mind that we skated street, not ramps around Easton and Oxford.

Skateboarding and running have been the two physical pursuits that have shaped and defined my life probably more than any others. It's funny to think that Tony Hawk is still the singular name in skateboarding, transforming the sport and turning himself into a worldwide brand and a household name. Maybe I should have stuck with skating.

I have stepped away from both sports at different times. When I stepped back into running, at around age 30 and started reading about it, not just doing it, Dean Karnazes was making headlines and magazine covers for unthinkable pursuits. Meanwhile, another skinny kid was quietly dominating trail ultra running, winning seven consecutive Western States 100 mile races. Scott Jurek seemed to love running for running. It would take the book "Born to Run," to spread the gospel of Jurek beyond the ears of the ultra running faithful.

While I haven't skimmed the surface of the commitment or accomplishments of a Hawk or a Jurek, if you asked someone who knew me in my teenage years, the first thing they'd remember is that I was a skateboarder. If you ask someone about me over the past ten years, they'd say I was a runner. We take cues and inspiration from the icons of the sports and pursuits we love. We may try to emulate their training or tricks or style.

I have held Murray, Hawk and Jurek up, and still do, as emblems of sports I love. Our various icons shape our lives. I've been riffing on and thinking about icons a lot lately as Adam Yauch, MCA of the Beastie Boys died of cancer at age 47. And Maurice Sendak, author of "Where the Wild Things Are," which was THE iconic book from my childhood--my mom decorated my room after the book--died a few days later.

The Beastie Boys have been the band I have most consistently listened to since I was 14. I have previously listed their album "Paul's Boutique" as one of the major touchstones in my life. I guess we reach an age when our touchstones, our icons, start to disappear. We're all ephemeral.

I don't have a point here, or a neat bow to tie everything up with. I guess it's just a matter of acknowledging and appreciating the icons, the people, who I have held up; who have dedicated their lives to pursuits that are important to me. Of giving props to the people who have brought joy and inspiration to me over the years.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Life, death, greatness and cutting the grass


In the morning, I'm reading about Branch Rickey. Jimmy Breslin's book about a man who changed the world by calling up the first black baseball professional baseball player in the all white league. Breslin can write, he's someone to emulate, and reading him makes me want to change the world like Rickey and Jackie Robinson.

But I cut the grass instead. Our Founding Fathers and the other world changers must not have cut grass or had chores. How the hell can you change the world when you are doing yard work? They went out and did big, great things, unbothered by filling up the gas can or emptying the dishwasher. Everyone has those motivations toward greatness from time to time, but details get in the way.

Taylor Spies is someone that seemed destined to be a great man. You got that sense meeting him when he was 14. Then he died in his sleep Thursday night/Friday morning. He was 37 years old, married, with two sons three years old and younger.

I met Taylor at Easton High School in the Youth and Government program. He might have been five feet tall standing on a phone book at the time. We thought of him as a sort of younger brother and gave him a wedgie for the ages at an Annapolis hotel. He would still laugh about it when we talked. None of our friends escaped wedgies in those days.

The next time Taylor and I connected, we were both working around Easton and would see each other daily at Coffee East. I left smiling and inspired after every conversation. Every time.

I'm cutting the grass and listening to Nas, his album "Illmatic." Nas says, "I never sleep cause sleep is the cousin to death." I've often felt that way, not wanting to sleep for fear of missing something big. Taylor's death resurfaces that thinking. Wednesday he is posting pictures of his boys, Friday dead.

Nas is on shuffle on my ipod and next he says, "Life's a bi*** and then you die, that's why we get high... cause you never know when you're gonna go." Nas is wise beyond years and words but I don't want to believe him.

I don't know what I think about God, but I don't want to see life that way. I think about going on Anna's field trip this week and being there to see her get her school award for her straight-A report card. I think about taking Ava to her first Major League Baseball game and the Nationals' Ryan Zimmerman hitting a home run. When you add up all the little moments, all the things that happen only once ever, that we get to experience, to be a part of, and it has to add up to something more than "Life's a bi*** and then you die."

Then there are Taylor's boys, who will have a hard time remembering their dad as they grow up. They'll see pictures of him, maybe at the ages we knew him, and wonder what he was like, what he was thinking. They are lucky to be Spies's because their uncles, grandparents, cousins and great family will make sure they remember Taylor.

It's later in the day and I have not become great like Branch Rickey. I haven't figured out a way to capture Taylor's great light and put it in a lantern to carry with me.

I cut the grass. I ran out front with our seven-year-old to catch the Good Humor truck and get the girls Fat Frog pops. I watched the Nationals win in extra innings. It's later and I'm sitting in the back listening to the wind with a Dale's Pale Ale.

Melancholy blows in like the clouds that are beginning to cover the sky. I think about Taylor and about Alvin Sanger, another great soul that left us this week. I can picture both of their smiles and how excited each of them got when they saw you--like you were the one person in the world they were hoping to run into.

Maybe being able to picture that so vividly--me, who wasn't one of their closest friends or family--the fact that they can have so strong an impact, maybe that's how we get beyond Nas. Each of their personalities, their accomplishments, their families, their friends, their lives as examples, they certainly live on. They are still with us.

In an interview, Nas talking about how he came through the death of his mother, said, "This is what happens. This is life. You've got to keep living on."

I did not become great today. But maybe, having known Taylor and Alvin, remembering them today, thinking about the ways they are still part of the people they touched; maybe it's through knowing great people like them, that we touch greatness.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Just another day unlike any other


When I sit out back on the plot of land my Dad grew up on and his dad grew up on, in Oxford, Md., everything is right with the Universe.

Our girls are running barefoot in the grass, playing with their cousins--my sister's boys--the same way we did when we were little. I'm drinking a Shiner Spring Ale because it's spring. It's also Easter. And my 40th birthday.

Though spring is a time for flowers, and we transformed a cross with fresh-cut flowers this morning at church, right now for me it's a time for roots.

I've been thinking about family a lot this week, in part because my mom's father, when my mom was in the hospital getting ready to have me, sat in the waiting room and figured out all the times my birthday would fall on Easter. This is one of those times--a day Pop held in his mind 40 years ago.


As I'm watching the kids play, my Dad comes out back. We talk about growing up there and how they used to raise chuckers and chickens, how there were ponies and pheasant and we laugh thinking how the town of Oxford would receive that now. We talk about the Orioles and Nationals, who are both off to a good start.

When I was born, it was during an April ice storm. Today is green and 60 degrees. I don't mind global warming so much if it lets me sit outside with family on an Easter birthday.

There is another significance to April 8. Robin and I have been together for 17 years. She is the kind of person you change your life for and never wonder what life had been like if you'd never met.

Birthday, Easter, soul mate day. That's a trinity you can't claim on just any day. Just another day, unlike any other.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

The death of mud puddles


"Filled with kids in rainboots / who know the pleasure of mud and kings." The universe is like that when you have early eyes. Matthew Dickman knows it. He remembers. But he also knows it becomes more than that. It's not that the mud disappears, it's that we look past it and the rainboots don't fit anymore and we don't buy new ones.

And we learn too much. Biology is the death of carefree mud puddles. Brackish water isn't meant to be seen through. But that doesn't stop us.

Mortgage payments are the death of mud puddles. Who has the time? And how does rainboot stomping help us move on up like George Jefferson? There is no utility in even the perfect puddle stomp.

Gangsta rap is the death of mud puddles. Once you've come "Straight Outta Compton," once you're packing a 9mm in your sweatpants at a nightclub, you can't be seen stomping in a puddle, just stomping on some chump mother fucker.

Business suits and fancy shoes are the death of mud puddles. Who could afford the dry cleaning bill? Who could show up to work covered in mud?

We can't unsee what we've seen. We drive through mud puddles on our way to somewhere else. Somewhere consequential. Somewhere important, etched into our schedule.

Maybe rainboots are unforgetting like elephants or Shel Silverstein's Giving Tree. Maybe they are biding their time, amassing an army. Waiting to take back the world, give us back our mud puddles. Maybe the next time you see a wall of rainboots, you'll remember.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Playing Han Solo and muddy-booted heroes


We want our optimists to be believable, not all Pollyanna and shit. We want them to have grease on their fingers and mud on their boots to show they've been through it and they still believe.

We want out heroes to have scars and questionable pasts like Han Solo because we've all fucked up, too. And we want to believe in redemption and that we can still land a starring role in our own lives.

I always preferred Han to Luke Skywalker because Han was cooler. He had a bad ass spaceship, memorable one-liners and that was before I knew he got the girl.

Lord knows I've made my share of mistakes. Hopefully not the kind that will get me deep frozen or send bounty hunters after me, but I still wake up nervous, uneasy.

My Millennium Falcon was smaller and plastic and ended up in the sandbox in our back yard as part of an action figure fort. But I don't think that's a main part of the story line.


Most days I wake up smiling, after coffee. I like to think my deep freeze happened in my late teens and early 20s.

I prefer to look at where Harrison Ford has gone since then and the depth and diversity of his life's work. But hell, maybe playing Han Solo was his summit.

Summit is defined as the highest point of a mountain or the highest possible level of achievement. But it was also a candy bar.

Friday, March 23, 2012

If I were to write a poem


If I were going to write a poem, it would have to have coffee in it. Coffee is the prime morning mover. It's the Alpha. It's another word for mojo. A poem would start with coffee, for sure.

And speaking about mojo, a poem I wrote would have to have Muddy Waters. His mojo working has been tickling my eardrums and soul, rocking them like they were in a hammock.

If I were going to write a poem, it should have a hammock in it, absolutely. It's the spring breeze and warm sunshine on the skin season of hammocks. It would also have to include some cut grass. Maybe cutting grass, with some reference to pull-starting the lawnmower for the first time in the spring--that rite of passage, requiring faith, luck and extra elbow grease to wake the mower from its seasonal slumber.

Hammocks, though a present-day obsession, are also a remembering back yards past--getting dumped from our hammock as a kid and getting the wind knocked out of me for the first time. Another way to get brained was playing on the monkey bars.

If I were to write a poem it would have to have monkey bars. Both the kind you played on and the book by Matthew Lippman, which is the kind you play in. Because I saw that today was Lippman's birthday and picked up "Monkey Bars," and it made me think, this is the kind of shit I need to spend my time reading, and re-reading, and writing.

That poem would have to include the Nationals because it is spring training and we're a buzz with the Nats, with tickets for Davey Johnson's boys' home opener against the Reds. When I'm rocking my Nats hat and see the Curly W in the rear view mirror taking the girls to school, it curls a soul smile.

If I were to write a poem today, it would have to include running, since we've had a return to spring running and racing and the Rise Up Runners. It would have to include longboard skateboarding, with the girls and the dogs around the neighborhood and the sound the wheels make cruising on the road.

A poem would have to include pale ale and cherry blossoms, the Bay Bridge and the D.C. waterfront. It would have to include dock bars and mulch and Langston Hughes writing down the blues in verse.

Man, that's a lot of stuff. If I were to write a poem this morning I'd have to unpack my consciousness, empty out my mind into words I haven't thought about yet and hope it comes across. Yeah. Sure glad I'm not writing a poem this morning.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Fishing with Son House


Sunday morning. Feet in the dirt. Light breeze on the skin. Sun on the face. Raking garden beds, rolling the wheelbarrow across the yard. It was meditative. And then Son House does this:



And I ask you, on Sunday morning, what can church do that that experience, in God's house, nature, working, with a transcendent song and voice hasn't opened up on the spot?

My most revealing (we are talking John the Revelator, after all) Sunday spiritual experiences have come this way. On a long sunrise run. At a state park. Working in the yard. Writing and reading and drinking coffee on the back deck. They are the moments I am most open. The moments that are most personal and most universal.

For me, a spiritual journey is a personal one. My path, whatever it may look like, has included a lot of different forks, turns, twists, traditions, overarchingly led by soul. It's been hard to find in just one book or just one church. Bodhidharma would say it isn't in any book or church. True zen (whatever that is) would probably say these experiences are available in any book or church, as long as the mind and spirit are open to it. Everything is available everywhere, infinitely.

Maybe a spiritual journey is like going fishing. You go where you are most likely to find fish. You base this on where you've caught them before, where others are catching them. You go on intuition and past experience.

I catch fish outside, early in the morning. I catch them running. I catch them in the spring. I catch them listening to Son House and the Delta blues. John the Revelator was a fisherman, apparently.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Gary Snyder's campfire and Bodhidharma


I recently met Bodhidharma. I'm sure we've crossed paths before, but I was too busy rapping with Buddha and Du Fu and Li Po to catch Bodhi. Turns out, he has a lot to say, albeit with few words.

Bodhidharma is the cat credited for turning the Shaolin Temple upside down and for bringing Zen to China. He was upset at what crappy shape the Shaolin monks were in. So he taught them techniques to get in and stay in shape as well as teaching meditation. Physical and mental prowess and awareness.

Daniele Bolelli introduced me to Bodhidharma. Reading Bolelli's "On the Warrior's Path," he relates the story of the Shaolin ass kicking. Bolelli is on a modern day mission akin to Bodhidharma. DB says:

"It is time for an athletic philosophy: a philosophy forged through muscles and heart; a philosophy born out of the union of body and mind, of pragmatism and utopia, of sweet sensibility and a warrior's determination."

I've been a warrior since high school (Easton High School Warriors). But I've also always felt in step with the warrior ethos. I began to think of it that way after finding Chogyam Trungpa's "The Sacred Path of the Warrior" at a pivotal time in my life.

This concept of warrior though isn't what we currently envision when we hear the word. It has an Eastern bent, something that Trungpa and Bodhidharma and Bolelli bring to it. It is that one-two punch of spiritual and physical, bringing out a deeper experience. As Bolelli puts it, "An individual who is truly alive should not settle for anything less than the totality of experience."

I like writers in whom the East meets West in everywhere. I've always been lit up by thinkers and teachers who marry the spiritual, mental and physical pursuits, realizing they are all connected. And the ones who can do that with originality and humor get my vote and my full attention. Bolelli roped me in when he connected Tom Robbins (another favorite) to the martial arts. And then he called on Gary Snyder.

"We have chosen to follow Kant along the road of "progress" and science rather than sitting around the campfire with Gary Snyder.... Big mistake."

"On the Warrior's Path" is a wild ride. The first chapter, "The Body as a Temple," should be taught in schools, as early as possible. It should be practiced and preached. Maybe around the campfire that Snyder stoked.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Revision, the improv gut method


Improvisation and revision aren't the same thing. Maybe not. And I'm not sure which I'm doing, but I'm going to call it the latter.

Ulysses may remain a mystery a bit longer. Reading Joyce is confronting a master. I've known that since "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man" and "Dubliners." Ulysses is stunning. But I'm not feeling it. It's an exercise in discipline only at present, without soul. And one thing about my reading and self-directed studies, since college really, is that they are soul-driven. There is so much out there to read, if I'm not feeling it, what's the point?

So my resolution to have finished Ulysses by 40 (Apr. 8) has been tabled. Now, I'm all about the one-to-one correspondence when it comes to personal betterment. So what to replace it with? Something reading, something soul-driven, something delving into a/the masters.

The answer has been presenting itself all of 2012, but especially yesterday morning. Monday. Driving to work. Listening for the first time, in full, to Duke Ellington's "Money Jungle," where the Duke composed for and played with Charles Mingus and Max Roach. I can't recall be so moved by an entire album on first listen as I was on the road yesterday. My soul was lifted up.

And I looked at what I was reading, instead of Ulysses, and it was Nat Hentoff's "The Jazz Life," and Ted Gioia's, "The History of Jazz," and amped for Geoff Dyer's "But Beautiful," and I'm not well-read, or read at all about jazz, which by virtue of listening to and thinking about has profoundly changed my life over the last decade. I count Mingus, Miles and Monk in the same aesthetic company as Mark Twain and Robert Hass and Whitman and William Carlos Williams.

So my revised, my improvised goal for 2012, is to get read on jazz. Well read. To better know what I'm listening to. Not for the sake of analyzing really, but for the sake of context and curiosity. It feels like what I should be doing. It's what I am doing, where I'm led.

And while I'm at it, I'll add an experiential component: to attend a jazz show or festival to see a musician I really want to see. I have not attended a jazz concert, proper. A lot of jazz inspired, a lot of improvisation, but to find an Ambrose Akinmusire, a Robert Glasper, a Jason Moran, etc. show.

So that's my revision. Revision by gut method. Also known as improvisation.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Abstract, a.k.a. the left cross


Q-Tip has the coolest voice in hip hop. I've maintained that statement since first hearing "A Tribe Called Quest" years ago. Tip also goes by the handle "The Abstract Poet." When I think about his lyrics, his flow, his songs, abstract doesn't seem to be the right word. His narratives paint pictures with more detail.

But then I think about the fact that he produced Tribe's earliest albums. And I think about how those albums affect me: that if I disregard the words and just roll with the beat, the jazz, the music, then I am tapped into the abstract.

Mark Rothko said, "We favor the simple expression of the complex thought." Rothko went after "the elimination of all obstacles between the painter and the idea and between the idea and the observer." That led him to large canvases with swaths of color. The canvas as a portal for the viewer to look into, look through. The abstract.



Abstract hits me differently. Maybe it's the left cross you don't see coming. A landscape painting or a ballad relies on story, and per Rothko, the the idea is buried in the story. You've got to excavate. It's not naked before you. Maybe unearthed is another word for abstract.

The abstract is the likely reason I dig jazz. Miles, Monk, Mingus. With little in the way of lyrics, the bass, the horn, the keys emote directly to the soul. For me, Mingus may be the master of the unseen left cross. Mingus has one-punch knockout power, raining down  a river to float your soul down a Nile of the abstract.

Mingus, Rothko, Q-Tip. They've all attended some sort of boxing/archaeology school. That school that teaches you how to unearth an idea, dust it off and straight knock someone out with it.

Funny, my response is the Obi-wan Kenobi stance: let my guard down and take it. I don't expect to become more powerful. But there is something to being hit with the left cross. Hit with the abstract.



Thursday, February 16, 2012

Swirling toilet bowl vortex


Occasionally, the toilet gives us a useful image. Time and toilets have a lot in common. Picture the swirling vortex of the toilet flushing. Looks a little like a galaxy.

That swirling toilet bowl vortex has inside it all those things you want to get done in a day, a week, a month, a year. And those things are constantly disappearing, going away down the drain. It's inevitable. Most of them go that route.

Seems of late, I have been focusing on what we choose to pluck from that vortex and actually accomplish. Knowing that most of those things I want to do are going to get away, what are the ones I REALLY want to make happen? Let me make sure I save them from the toilet of Time (capital  "T" Time). Our lives are all about the choices we make and what we prevent from being flushed. That is what we're left with.

I'm not necessarily sold on milestone birthdays. We seem to be fixated on multiples of 10. Why is 39 or 41 any less a big deal than 40? But I'm not immune to reflection and an age like 40 gives a good reason to look back and look forward, and thereby also look at the now.

In my 20s, I sidekicked myself into shape, rediscovering running, lifting weights, making the time to play any sport I could play. Then Anna came along. Fitness slipped until I amped the running up to marathons and beyond and trail running. I spent most of my 30s in great running shape.

Last year's ankle injury brought with it general lethargy and loss of fitness rhythm. And 2012 finds me 20 pounds heavier than my fighting weight. So I will pluck my fitness from the swirling toilet bowl vortex. Forty ounces to 40, comes in under six weeks now, so I am in the process of taking back the gym, taking back the roads, trails, playing fields, etc.

It's a funny thing, fitness. When I've had it, other things follow suit. I'm more productive, more creative, have more energy, am more fun, happier, you get the idea.

Looking for suitable toilet bowl galaxy illustrations is also a funny thing. It drives home the fact that Mario, of Super Mario fame and a favorite of our daughters on Wii, is a plumber. Given our toilet of Time metaphor, maybe Mario is that existential hero our time needs. Combating the swirling toilet bowl vortex as it tries to flush down those things we want to do with our lives. Thanks, Mario. We needed that.