Thursday, December 26, 2013

The Gravy List


I don't know what I think about bucket lists. I'm not sure that life needs to be judged like a list, just checking things off and then determining happiness or success, or how good a life lived was based on check marks. But I do make lists. And my mind seems to function more efficiently when I've created and am working from a list.

I was thinking the other day about a "gravy list," a list of those things that don't determine whether you've lived a good life--let's leave that to things like character and family, legacy, satisfaction--but a list that we each create to say, you know, life is cool, but it'd be even cooler if I was able to do some of these things.

So I present, 10/11 items, in no particular order, that comprise my gravy list.

1. Complete a rim-to-rim trail run of the Grand Canyon. Running one way it's a little more than 20 miles. It's been done as an out and back run, 40+ in a day. That's great, but I'm just looking for the basic. Here are some details and helpful training tips. In my experience, the natural world, and cities for that matter, are best experienced on foot. Trail running stirs my soul as few other activities have. I'd love to cross the Grand Canyon, on foot, with some running peeps, in a day.

2. Attend Washington Nationals spring training games. I've written here a number of times about our family's fandom for the Nats. I've been following baseball since I was a kid, collecting baseball cards, pouring over statistics. Our girls don't like watching football in the least, but they love going to Nats games. I've always thought it would be cool to go to a few spring training games, warm weather, laid back, getting to see the team as they gear up for the season. I don't need to go to all the games, just a couple.

3. Complete a book-length manuscript. I'm a writer. It's what I love, it's what I spend much of my time doing, or thinking about, or working on, etc. To this point, my writing has taken the form of essays, reflections, articles, stories, aphorisms, fragments, poetry, etc. I haven't wrapped my head around a big, book-length project. I've got some ideas I'd like to explore.

4. Buy/drink a beer with a living writer whose work I dig, but who I've never met. Maybe this is a fan boy thing, but it's also wanting to talk shop, pick the brain, hear stories from someone I've read and enjoyed, someone who is doing the kind of stuff I'd like to do. A way to say thanks and to learn. There is not one particular person I have in mind, but I can think of a number of them.

5. Take a hut-to-hut family hike in the White Mountains, via the Appalachian Mountain Club. The White Mountains were a game changer for me. I've written about it on here and our hut-to-hut adventures became part of a Trail Runner Magazine feature I wrote on fastpacking. In this case, I'm not talking epic in terms of miles, but expanding the notion of epic with our girls. Something easy, starting at Pinkham or the Highland Center, going to the nearest hut for the night and heading back. Something to let them know what is out there. We live on the panoramic Eastern Shore of Maryland. It is beautiful, but flat. The girls get excited for the hills of western Pennsylvania. I'd love for our family to imbibe the whole AMC experience.



6. Attend a Liverpool Football Club game at Anfield. I've been bitten by the English Premier League soccer/football bug to be sure. I've also never left the United States--I've been from the Florida Keys to Maine to California, but never had a passport. My life won't be incomplete if I never get a passport. But hearing Reds fans singing "You'll Never Walk Alone" in unison would be a different kind of sports spectating experience. And the writer in me, and the beer drinker in me, would want to add to the trip with pub life and a day hike through the Lake District, in the footsteps of Wordsworth, maybe a stop through the Eagle and Child Tavern, a la Tolkien, C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams.

7. Complete a full arm tattoo sleeve of personal images and symbols. I'm on my way with my right arm sporting an elemental heron and an image form a rune with St. Patrick and snakes. My tattoos have been slower going, based on finding an image/symbol with deep, personal meaning, and time and money to get it done. But, as folks with tattoos know, the scheme digs in, the feeling, the result, walking around as a personal art gallery, yeah, sign me up.

8. Attend a Sonny Rollins concert. I prefer old school jazz to contemporary. The legends I dig listening to are mostly gone. Rollins is still touring at 82 years old. If you want some more background, Men's Journal ran a great story on Rollins in September. When Rollins was thought to be one of the top saxophone players out there, he pulled back and spent three years playing on the Williamsburg Bridge just to get even better. There is only one Saxophone Colossus.

9. Deliver a Sunday sermon. I'm not fully sure why this is on here. Part of it is an embrace what you fear approach. I'm not big on public speaking. I don't pretend to know anything profound that I could impart by means of a sermon. But I like the idea of exploring an idea, history, humor, personal experience, stories, and life with a group of folks in that way. Maybe I might even come up with something to say.


10. Create a recurring comic strip/series/story, working with an artist/illustrator. Through middle school, I devoured Marvel Comics, mostly Daredevil, The Avengers, The X-Men. Comic strips such as Calvin and Hobbes, Peanuts and Pearls Before Swine, condense humor, wonder, compassion, hard knocks and friendship into memorable images and turns of phrase. We live in a visual age. I love the idea of visual storytelling. I've been reading graphic novels of late and digging the work of Matt Fraction, Frank Miller, Rick Remender. I'm not sure how, where I/we'd start, but I've been formulating some ideas. And we live in a digital age where many things are possible.

So there are ten. If I included 11, the next would be learning to play the piano. But let's stick with ten. This is above and beyond kids' field hockey games and days at the beach or park, making time for date nights and time with friends and family. Those things are the framework. The meat, with apologies to vegetarians. These ten things, they're the Gravy List.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Community

Photo by Diving Dog Creative Solutions.

If I won the lottery, I'd buy a house in Oxford, the town I grew up in, and I would throw myself fully into my writing. If it was a big enough lottery, I'd move a bunch of friends with young families down there with us, so all of our kids would know the town as their home. It's a pretty simple dream, as dreams go. Idyllic, maybe.

I was telling a friend recently that there are two times when driving that I can feel my soul lighten: 1) driving eastbound across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, and 2) slowing down to 25 mph as you come into Oxford and looking up Town Creek as you round the causeway. These are moments when I truly know I am home.

I've been working in Washington, D.C., for close to four years now, with a summer sabbatical thrown in this year. Prior to my across the pond commute, I worked for 10-plus years for two non-profit organizations that were big parts of the Eastern Shore community. My job kept me dialed in, whereas the past four years have kept me tuned out. Though I live here, our girls go to school and play youth sports here, I haven't felt connected.

That's why I can't thank Eastern Shore Savvy enough. The two articles I write for them each month have helped me reconnect. I've caught up with an iconic high school teacher; dug into the history of the church I grew up in; and explored the tradition of Oxford's Town Creek Christmas lights. Here's a working list of the people and places I've written about.

These are stories I probably wouldn't have written. They don't really fit into the local paper, and working full-time in DC, I'm not about to go shopping story ideas around. And with every interview, rekindling connections with people and places, I feel more a part of what's going on around me. I'm exploring things I'm curious about and maybe telling stories that wouldn't be told otherwise.

I'm feeling more rooted. And more like a storyteller. Amen.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Pynchon, Raymond Chandler, Off Roading and Terra Incognita


I wake up between 4:00 and 4:30 a.m. I make coffee. I light the Christmas Tree. And after my first sip of caffeinated salvation, I sit down with Thomas Pynchon's "Mason & Dixon." Generally a chapter a morning. Each one is roughly between five and 12 pages. I've just past the 300 page mark. Come evening, I grab for Kevin Barry's "Dark Lies the Island," as my brain isn't suited for Pynchon at the end of the day (the link is to The Millions interview with Kevin Barry, which is one of the great writer interviews you will ever read. We will discuss another time).

A friend recently professed his preference for Raymond Chandler over Pynchon. I understand. I dig them both, though I'm no expert. I've read Chandler's "The Big Sleep" and this is my first Pynchon. But the two certainly set about their business differently.

Reading Pynchon is going off road. You aren't following a paved road, a well-maintained trail, or even a backwoods singletrack. He's leading you through the wilderness, into Terra Incognita. That is likely part of the point with "Mason & Dixon," where the riff is man's drawing of boundaries, of trying to record, chart, make sense of the wider world, the stars, the universe. The book and my mind both wander. I like wandering.


Raymond Chandler is a man at home with a pipe. His plots and characters drive his stories. He elevated the detective story to literary status. I flew through "The Big Sleep." Chandler gives his readers a map. Or at least hints at a map. Reading Chandler is an adventure, albeit a different sort from reading Pynchon. That's not to say that Chandler is formulaic, he is brilliant. And I can't get enough his notion about technique vs. ideas, "The moment a man begins to talk about technique, that's proof that he is fresh out of ideas." His letters read like essays.

At present, I am wandering America in the 1700s with Pynchon, Mason and Dixon. I've got Chandler's "The Long Goodbye" on my list of next books to read. There is time in the mind for off road adventures and grand prix.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Pynchon's Mason & Dixon: Latitudes and Departures


What if your life to this point was all prelude to what you will be remembered for? What if all your lived experiences to date were destined to wind up as footnotes in your autobiography?

That's where my head is through 250-plus pages of Thomas Pynchon's "Mason & Dixon," as the surveyors/astronomers are almost sunk at sea, chased by lustful women around Cape Town, and as Charles Mason is visited by a ghost in James Town, St. Helena. This is my first Pynchon novel. It's written in 18th century language, it's Pynchon and I'm frequently confused as to what's going on. I touch base with a solid set of reading notes after finishing a chapter. And they've got a whole Mason & Dixon Wiki to help lost literary surveyors like me.

But as I'm feeling abandoned or bewildered, Pynchon casts a fly into the deep water and I take the hook. Flies like, "a part of the Soul that doesn't depend on Memories, that lies further than Memories." Or "I owe my Existence to a pair of Shoes." Or:

"The Pilgrim, however long or crooked his Road, may keep ever before him the Holy Place he must by his Faith seek, as the American Ranger, however indeterminate or unposted his Wilderness, may enjoy, ever at his Back, the Impulse of Duty he must, by his Honor, attend."

And one more, "a People who liv'd in quite another relation to Time,-- one that did not, like our own, hold at its heart the terror of Time's passage,-- far more preferably, Indifference to it, pure and transparent as possible." A people who lived among and through us, in a different version of time. And they were pygmies, of course.

Flights of imagination and language. That's Pynchon's hook that brings me to the surface and keeps me reading. Talking dogs, time-floating pygmies, secret societies and ley lines are all bait. And the friendship between Mason and Jeremiah Dixon, whose names I have known since I was little, only because Maryland's border bears their name.

History felt flat to me in school: learning about people whose lives were distant from us, didn't relate to us, weren't like us. Then you start to read history books by Joseph Ellis or David McCullough or Howard Zinn, and you recognize that historical figures, in their own time and lives, woke up with worries and quirks and passions just the same as any of us. History was not predetermined. It was based on people's choices, commitment, mistakes, dumb luck, love.

I picture Pynchon sitting at a desk with charts, maps and notes in front of him, surveying the time, the lives, the interior motivations and hang ups of Mason and Dixon. And I want to know more. I want to know where Pynchon's imagination goes, where Mason and Dixon go--where fantasy meets history.

Part I of the novel, "Latitudes and Departures" is in the rear view mirror now. Part II, "America" lies ahead.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Beardventures for Charity, Day 7: Enter Johnny Scrappleseed


I have moved from the back yard into the garage. Anyone who has seen our garage knows that this is a step down. Last night I met a dozen refugees who are camped out in there. It seems our garage has a scale like Oscar the Grouch's garbage can from Sesame Street. Good thing the square footage isn't factored into our home appraisal.

Living in back yard and/or an infinitely cluttered garage gives a man time to think. About heat. About artificial light. About television. The refugees made a campfire in the garage using comic books and CD jackets for kindling. One of the guys looked familiar. He had a shopping cart full of newspaper sports sections, log canoe polo shirts and law books. He said he comes to the garage to contemplate breakfast meats. Calls himself Johnny Scrappleseed. I think he knows something about garages, scrapple, beards, life and infinity. I'll report more as I uncover it.

For now the refugees are friendly. Scrapple may promote beard growth. I hope this is not all for naught. I hope people are donating to "Cover Your Chin for Charity." They can pick their own beard grower and charity to support.

I just found my old Lincoln Logs and Tinker Toys.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Time Traveling with friends. And Pynchon.


I've taken up time traveling. It's not a new adventure, really, I've been doing it for some time. At St. James School, we would run trails at the Antietam Battlefield. My mind would drift, wondering what it would have been like, rewinding time, what they went through... but then a turn in the trail, a friend running past, something would bring me back to the present.

As someone who reads and writes, time travel is a vocational habit. Walking through the Natural History Museum, the Field Museum, the Adler Planetarium, my mind is anything but stationary.

In this case, time travel takes a couple forms. It is going back in time with Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon. Traveling to their world through the imagination of Thomas Pynchon and his historical novel, "Mason & Dixon," and through traveling with a group of friends/adventurers to find stone markers and walk the trail that Mason and Dixon surveyed and marked, the border of Maryland and U.S. history called the Mason-Dixon Line.

On Nov. 17, nine of us set off through early morning fog (there is always fog involved in time travel) to the Millington Wildlife Area, on the border of Maryland and Delaware. A couple folks in our group knew the park and we had GPS coordinates for where there was rumored to be a Mason-Dixon marker, off trail, somewhere in the woods.

Our group includes a couple of marine biologists and a card-carrying naturalist, who is working to catalog all the living things in Maryland. It's a fascinating band of vagrants to walk through the woods with, especially for me, who is fascinated by everything I encounter on a hike or a trail run, but no very little about what it is.


Following our directions, we hiked in on a marked Millington trail, then went off trail, blazing thick, blood-thirsty briers, log-crossing a stream, and wandering until we found the stone marker in question.

Finding a stone in the woods may sound unremarkable. But a stone that was laid in the 1760s during a survey/expedition that has become mythical in its own right; a stone put there by two men whose names any Marylander has heard practically since birth; a stone whose boundary has become synonymous with the Civil War; a stone about whose setters I am embarked on a literary journey with via the fantastic mind of Thomas Pynchon, well, that to me transforms it to remarkable. Then again, bourbon may have factored into that alchemy.

This was the "official" kickoff to our Mason Dixon Pynchon adventure. As we contemplated the stone and Mason and Dixon, I read the opening passage of Pynchon's novel aloud. That may be as far as a couple members of our group get in the book. ;) But as much as the book itself, and traversing one of the great writers of our time, for me the adventure is equal parts reading, experiencing the physical artifacts of history, experiencing the natural world and landscape around us that I haven't explored enough, and doing it with a group of friends equally disturbed enough to meet at 6:30 a.m. on a foggy Sunday morning to go look for a rock in the woods.


Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Beardventures for Charity, Day 3


Day 3

Last night I fashioned a makeshift beard by stapling two squirrels and a neighborhood cat to my face. Don't judge me, it was cold. I'll take a picture when I can get them to stop fighting. For any animal rights activists, I didn't hurt them. It's only temporary. When my beard grows back I plan to free them. If you don't want your cats turned into beards, don't leave them out at night.

My security badge for work has a photo of me with a beard on it. I was stopped three times, fingerprinted, and I don't want to talk about the rest. Co-workers walked by me in the hall. I sat alone at lunch. Now I know how the beardless feel: shunned, solitary, lesser.

Beneath the scratches from the squirrels and cat, my stubble is returning. I am hopeful of returning to the house soon. I fear if I try to pass of my cat squirrel beard, our dogs will attack me.

In the meantime, don't forget "Cover Your Chin for Charity." Help me get back in the house. Help these squirrels and cat get back to their lives. You can choose your charity and your contestant. I'm behind "Children with Cancer," benefiting a good friend's niece. And me getting in out of the cold.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Beardventures for Charity, Day 1


Day 1

Help me. I made a big mistake. It all started when I wrote about "Cover Your Chin for Charity." I was trying to help a friend. Do something for the community. I got caught up in the moment. You have to start the contest clean-shaven. So I shaved my beard of 13 years, mustache and goatee for three before that. IT WAS FOR CHARITY!

My wife and daughters kicked me out of the house. I'm sleeping in the back yard. Thankfully it is warm tonight. But it's November. That won't last. They won't let me back in until my beard grows back. Or maybe I can show them it was for a good cause.

I don't know if I can make it. Hipsters won't talk to me anymore. Other pick-up truck drivers don't wave back when I finger wave from the steering wheel. My daughters, who have never known me without a beard, yell for me to tell their dad to come back when they throw me scraps in the yard. Our cats hiss at me through the window.

I'll try to report as often as I can hack a wifi signal. I'm trying to will my beard back. So I can get back in the house. Maybe you can help. If you want to donate to the contest, you can pick me as the contestant to support when you check out. You can also pick which charity your donation goes to. Personally, I'm supporting "Children with Cancer," to support a close friend's niece who has cancer. But you can pick whichever charity you want. I'm just trying to get back in the house. Donation, charity, contestant information is here.

Help me. I'll report back later.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

November is more than Wyclef


November gets the shaft. Walmart goes from Halloween to Christmas and all November gets is a Wyclef song.

November is the calendar's transitional phase. It's a table-clearing, dish-washing break to get ready for Black Friday. We can't market November. How the fu** can we package giving thanks??

November for me is a month of trail runs and memories of the JFK 50-miler. It's a month of football, cool mornings and dark drives home from work. November is a month for beer you can't see through and clothes smelling like back yard fire pits.

November gets profound poets like Kenneth Rexroth, who most people haven't heard of, saying things like, "November comes to the forest," and:

We stand in the snowy twilight
And watch the moon rise in a breach of cloud.
Between the black pines lie narrow bands of moonlight,
Glimmering with floating snow.
An owl cries in the sifting darkness.
The moon has a sheen like a glacier.

November is the simplest month. No costumes, no pretenses, no shopping overdose, just family, food and a blank slate between two louder siblings.

November is a fireside view of winter coming, reflected.


* Photo is of the Arado Weehouse in Pepin, Wisc., by Alchemy Architects.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Cold Bones


Cold bones shake the soul awake. They toughen the skin.

Cold bones make a warm house happier. They make sweat from a winter run better earned than money.

Cold bones dig down jackets and newbie hats. They are a fan of thermos coffee on the sidelines of a kids' game.

Cold bones seek out bonfires and bourbon's bite. Stout beer is made for cold bones.

Adventures are made up largely of cold bones and innovation and shelter owe their lives to cold bones.

Mountains are not climbed without cold bones and no deer stand or duck blind can tell a story without cold bones.

In the summer, I wake up, walk outside and feel no different. Life is unchanged. Perspective still groggy.

In the winter, cold bones remind me I am alive.


Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Mason Dixon Existential Adventure


The Mason-Dixon Line is a tractor beam for Marylanders. When I went to college in Raleigh, N.C., people called me a yankee when they heard I was from Maryland. When I've gone north, people call me a southerner. No one knows what to make of us. Geocultural shapeshifters defined by our proximity to Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon's line.

We drive over the line on Route 70, crossing into Pennsylvania when we visit my wife's family outside Pittsburgh. I've always been fascinated by the thought of it. I was downright giddy when I found out that there is a 193-mile Mason Dixon Trail, which connects the Appalachian Trail to the Brandywine Trail. We've even tread on some of it at White Clay Creek State Park in Newark, Del. There are different sections mapped out and detailed for hiking trips. It doesn't take much to get me amped for a trail adventure.

Then there is the me who digs being down a literary-historical-philosophical rabbit hole read of an adventure. Imagine how cool it would be to tie together an in-the-world trail adventure with an in-the-mind imagination-bending quest. Enter Thomas Pynchon.

Tom Robbins, a literary hero of mine, called Pynchon's "Mason & Dixon" essential reading for the enlightened. Pynchon's novel imagines the lives and work of the surveyors who would divide the north and the south. I've been looking for a reason to dig into Pynchon and "Mason & Dixon" in particular. And I've been searching for some kind of in-the-world adventure to get back on the trails that have fueled and filled my soul. It's time to make a you-got-your-chocolate-in-my-peanut-butter Reese's Peanut Butter Cup hybrid.

We've got a core group of willing existential adventurers who are going to read "Mason & Dixon," and then go experience the trail. Logistics are still being worked out, whether we will cover the whole trail, section by section over the course of a year, marking where we stopped and picking up there later, or just hit some of the most scenic stretches. Our current crew includes birders, teachers, a former rugby player, historians, trail runners, marine biologists, writers, among other semi-arbitrary labels. The roster is expanding.

Mason Dixon immersion. Deep, cool, fun experiences. Thought-provoking stuff to read. Soul-searching adventures to ponder and write about. Meaningful ways to connect with great people and experiential ways to connect with American history and landscape.

Details, progress reports, updates and further Mason Dixon Pynchon trail musings to follow. The adventure is just beginning.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

On Lightheartedness and Vocation


Chesapeake Bay Bridge construction worker is not a job I'm suited for. It's the whole height thing, that lurch in my stomach when I look down over the edge of a bridge or while ridge-walking along a mountain. I'm okay with it, but not for a long stretch.

At the same time, it's hard not to feel more alive than normal when driving across the Bay Bridge: racing heart from the height, from the freighters on the water, from the color palette, from the whole panorama, just a bit more than I can soak into my soul at one time. Whether a bridge or a mountain, a super-sized helping of the awe of the experience is based on being up high. You're not going to feel that alive sitting in a cubicle.

It's a kind of lightheartedness. I've cultivated that kind of lightheartedness as long as I can remember. But sometimes I go for long stretches forgetting about it. Who has the time? But being high doesn't always involve being up high.

Lately, I've had that feeling reading Frederick Buechner. Reading Barbara Brown Taylor and Wendell Berry. Watching our eight-year-old daughter kick-save a shot on goal in her first experience playing field hockey goalie. Running. Writing.

I've been doing more writing for Eastern Shore Savvy, and if you follow along at home, I'll have at least an article each month, which is keeping me writing and looking for new things in our shared Eastern Shore backyard to explore and write about.

A lot of my Buechner, Berry, Brown Taylor reading has been about vocation. Everybody needs a vocation. A friend of late was wondering what her purpose was--beyond being a mother, teacher, friend, laughing, enjoying life. What is that larger purpose that calls us beyond ourselves? It's not by accident, or maybe it kind of is, that the Three B's above are all spiritual seekers, question askers, who have all thought outside the vocation box. All are clearly doing what they are called to do, and have left us/me a road map as to how they discerned what that is.

I think Snoopy has the right/write idea. Find a place with a sweet view to call home and sit up there, take it all in and write it all down. And this time of year, hang out in pumpkin patches.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Composing a Day


Louis Armstrong is playing walk-up music for a September storm. I don't know what God looks like, but I picture him blowing a horn, conducting a storm, looking a lot like Louis.

I'm sitting on the back deck, drinking a Pabst Blue Ribbon, Louis on the stereo blowing through the window, watching the storm approach. It's a singular moment. The day has been full of them. Watching our girls play field hockey. Making jambalaya for lunch. Getting out Halloween decorations. Buying mums. Sometimes the profound lives in the mundane. But I have to look for it.

Now it's morning coffee. Sunrise after a rain storm. Church. Sunday football. A Nationals double-header. A day with family.

The thing about Louis Armstrong's horn, you only know it by the pauses, the silences that surround the notes. Days are like that: notes and pauses and bridges between the two. Each day is a composition, part structure, part improvisation. The thing a jazz man can teach me about composing a day: always make room for improv--those singular, watching a storm roll in moments that you can't structure.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Confessions from an Employment Sabbatical


Forgive me, Father, it's been almost three months since I was last employed. It's not for lack of effort. I can't tell you how many jobs I've applied for. I'm told summer is a bad time to look for a job. What's a seeker to do?

I sit down at the picnic table at the Oxford Park at noon. The bells of the church next door begin to chime, playing "Amazing Grace" as I eat my lunch and read Frederick Buechner's "The Alphabet of Grace." Maybe there is a theme working here.

It's funny, Father, I think I've learned a few things during my employment sabbatical. Or maybe remembered is a better phrase. Or I was reminded. I wouldn't trade the last couple months for any job I could have had.

Here's what I've found:

Family. We've traveled more, done more, and spent more time together this summer, with my wife and the girls out of school than any other summer since we've had the girls. Since school has been back, I've been able to take them to school and pick them up, help with homework, take them to field hockey practice and make dinner. None of that happened while working in DC.

Time. Yes, it's part of "Family," it's the backdrop for everything else, but I'm not forgetting it. The hours in a day didn't tick by the same, and hopefully they will mean something different from here on.

Community. Helping family and friends move things, taking and picking up friends' children from school, reconnecting with our church community, including a former high school chemistry teacher I wrote about, and feeling my own roots here again, where I had been neglecting them.

Faith. There will be more to say on this one. I'm not fully sure what I've got here, but it's been taking a cue from Buechner, who says, "Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery that it is. In the boredom and pain of it, no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace." (from "Now and Then"). I've been listening to my life. What else could I hear?

There's more, Father, but let's just keep it to the big bullet points.

I get on my single-speed bike and ride around Oxford: down to the ferry dock, the Strand, by old friends' houses, out to the end of Bachelor's Point, with smells floating on the wind. I come back to the park and sit down again. The sun hits the river and the water sparkles with the sublime. A single piling juts above, oblivious.

A man is overzealously brushing his beagle-looking dog. A girl sits on a bench reading a book with the sun and the river breeze in her face. Cicadas connect the trees in a web of clicks and chirps. A small, overworked outboard motorboat pushes a makeshift barge up the river. The sun lands on my picnic table, lighting my glasses, which rest on Buechner's book.

Yes, Father, I've found a job it seems. back in DC. My employment sabbatical is coming to an end. Yes, it is good to have a job. I certainly need one. Sabbaticals are expensive. But I can't put a price on what I've found with this time. How bout we leave off with Buechner:

"You are alive. It needn't have been so. It wasn't so once, and it will not be so forever. But it is so now. And what is it like: to be alive in this maybe one place of all places anywhere where life is? Live a day of it and see. Take any day and be alive in it." (from "The Alphabet of Grace.")

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Gonna kick it root down


Trees aren't known for road trips. They seem to dig spreading roots. That's their tree-ness. But don't let trees' stationary nature fool you. They kick it root down. The Beastie Boys and Octavio Paz get it.

tree that is firmly rooted and that dances,
turning course of a river that goes curving,
advances and retreats, goes roundabout,
arriving forever: - Octavio Paz, "Sun Stone"

Firmly rooted AND dances. That's how I see trees. A friend recently wrote about her nomadic nature, how she mostly loves it, relocating from place to place, living on the go, but sometimes gets overwhelmed by it. A few weeks ago my wife, who is from a small town outside Pittsburgh, asked me if I felt like I'd accomplished/would accomplish less because we live in the place where I grew up.

No. Quite the opposite. I feel strengthened living on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. I think it's because I kick it root down. I don't know if I'm fully comparing myself to a tree, but there is something to the power of place, for me this place, that is comforting, energizing and inspiring. When I go for a run, either solo or with friends, I see things I've never seen, even running the same route, I pass or meet people I've never met, and there are places to see and things to do I haven't skimmed the surface of in 41 years. Some of our closest friends are people that have moved here, people who felt something about this place, people I'd have never known if I didn't live here.

Don't get me wrong, I'm a fan of road trips. Maine is incomparable, the White Mountains in New Hampshire are breathtaking, the Florida Keys and the Outer Banks are rejuvenating. I can be up for a good road trip in a key jingle.

But there is something to tree wisdom. There is something to the idea that roots actually help me float in the clouds, by knowing the ground beneath me.

And it's not just the firmly rooted part. It's the "and that dances." I'm not much of a dancer, but let's be metaphorical, shall we? Let's look at dancing as celebrating, as joy, as movement and wonder. It's not in addition to being rooted, it's because of being rooted.

I met my wife here. We were married here. Our kids were born and are growing up here. I've worked and lived and played and explored here. I've dug into the history and geography of the place. My history and the history of this place are the same, intertwined. We like to kick it root down.

(By the way, Paz's notion of rivers, constantly flowing the same course, but ever-changing, constantly renewing, "arriving forever" works the same as the tree metaphor, but I can't think of a catchy song lyric to tie that together :)

Monday, August 26, 2013

And time and memory dance


I hope Einstein is right. And Billy Pilgrim. And Frederick Buechner. Right with regards to time, that it's relative and panoramic and bendable.

Billy Pilgrim (as recorded by Kurt Vonnegut in "Slaughterhouse-Five") clues us in on the Tralfamadorian view of time, where they "can look at all the different moments just the way we can look at a stretch of the Rocky Mountains, for instance... It is just an illusion we have here on Earth that one moment follows another one, like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone it is gone forever."

Children have a more useful concept of time. Our girls have said "Yesterday" or "last year" to describe the same memory at different times when they were younger. Buechner nails it by explaining, "It is by its content rather than its duration that a child knows time, by its quality rather than its quantity."

This might hold still for adults: I have memories from when I was three years old--my parents bailing out a sailboat they had after a storm, or the inside of my nursery school classroom--that are more vivid and clear than things that happened last week. Our memory alters time.

Memory is more than a looking back to a time that is no longer; it is a looking out into another kind of time altogether where everything that ever was continues not just to be, but to grow and change with the life that is in it still. - Buechner, "The Sacred Journey"

Neither time, nor our memories are fixed. It's more like they're dancing. Yesterday, our eight-year-old daughter Ava and I set out on our bikes to a cemetery a couple miles up the road, where I recently learned my great grandparents were buried. All the Valliant relatives I've known were buried in the Oxford Cemetery. This great grandfather, Jeremiah, died in 1919, decades before my dad was born.

Ava and I had to explore the cemetery to find the grave, an ancestral scavenger hunt in play. We both lit up when we found it, not far from where we parked our bikes, though we'd walked the long way round and come back to it.

"It was cool to meet my great great grandfather today," Ava told me later in the evening.

"Meet." I didn't correct her. It was the perfect word. Time and death are grown-up ideas, not useful or relevant to an eight year old.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

God, groceries and language


I have God and groceries in my pocket. Onions, butter, red bell peppers on one side and on the other, Peter Rollins, saying, "God can no more be contained in experience than in language."

God and groceries equally contained in language, jotted in a pocket notebook, referred back to on a shopping trip or in the throes of back porch contemplation. Of course, neither are actually contained in language. Rollins is right, language is just a finger pointing at the two. And groceries are a lot easier to point to than God is.

Language being imperfect is no reason to abandon it. Maybe to reinvent it. Sonny Rollins (no relation to Peter) in the 1950s was thought of as one of the top saxophone players around. But he stopped playing in clubs and spent three years on the Williamsburg Bridge, reinventing his style. His language. Getting it right.

Martin Heidegger looked at the whole of western philosophy and decided that they'd all missed the damn boat in how they were thinking about "Being," so he went back and tried to start over, better.

I like S. Rollins' commitment to his art and Heidegger's stones to think he could see something that the sweeping history of philosophy was missing. After penning something as dense as "Being and Time," Heidegger throttled off the word count and runed out this:

The world's darkening never reaches
     to the light of Being.

We are too late for the gods and too
     early for Being. Being's poem,
     just begun, is man.

To head toward a star--this only.

To think is to confine yourself to a
     single thought that one day stands
     still like a star in the world's sky.

He peered into one of the early doorways to existentialism, which others would have to walk through later. He trusted groceries more than God, or at least in language's ability to get to the former.

Thought and language. Together they can guide you through the supermarket, contemplate Being, or leave you just shy of God. What is it that gets us beyond? If you asked either Rollins or Heidegger, I think they'd all disagree.

Only one of them can play the sax.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Sketching spiritual stripes


"A free man at the start of a long journey whose conclusion is uncertain." -Red Redding, "Shawshank Redemption."

There isn't much that's important that hasn't been said in "The Shawshank Redemption." In this case, Red could have been summarizing my thoughts on spirituality. We are free men and women setting out on a long journey with a yet to be determined outcome.

My own unfinished trek started out in the Episcopal Church, baptized and confirmed (and later married) at Holy Trinity Church in Oxford, Md., as well as a couple formative years and thoughts at St. James School outside Hagerstown, Md. But as an adult, I didn't come to appreciate Christianity until studying Buddhism, philosophy and Taoism/systems thinking in college. And reading Tom Robbins.

Our own spiritual journeys are winding paths and trailblazing up a mountain. How far we get and what we find is up to us. I tend to agree with Krishnamurti when he says in "Freedom From the Known:"

The question of whether or not there is a God or truth or reality, or whatever you like to call it, can never be answered by books, or priests, philosophers or saviours. Nobody and nothing can answer the question but you yourself...

That's always been one of my beefs with Catholicism, that your experience of God has to be filtered through another person. Unless your Catholic like Thomas Merton, in which case I'm in your camp. But we'll rap with Merton another time.

I've always considered myself a spiritual nomad, a wanderer, a philosopher in training (cue KRS-ONE and BDP, "I think very deeply"). At the same time, my wife and I wanted our girls to be raised in and exposed to the thoughts, teachings, traditions that we knew growing up.

About 13 years ago, we were invited by friends to the Easton Church of the Brethren. I didn't know anything about the Church of the Brethren (even though my sister's husband grew up in that church), but when we went to church, Pastor Gene Hagenberger was riffing on Kierkegaard and Jesus, and grabbed my attention. And the congregation over the next couple years, from making us feel at home and welcome, and throwing my wife a baby shower when she was pregnant with our first daughter, has always felt like family.

Even still, I struggle. I find God on Sunday morning trail runs, in sunsets on the water, in Sonny Rollins' saxophone, in the horseshoe crab I picked up in Ocean City and showed to the girls and other kids on the beach. If I'm looking for God daily in the world, what is it about church specifically on Sunday mornings?

And that's when family, when community, speaks up. The Brethren stress individual study of the Bible, your own relationship with God. I can dig that. There are our girls, putting their spiritual feelers out into the Universe. And there is the church community, who have been there for us through the births of both our children and through the deaths of family and loved ones.

There is Pastor Kevin Kinsey, in his mid-30s, his wife and two children coming to Easton and looking for the same kind of community that those of us who have grown up on the Eastern Shore have known.

We each have our own spiritual journeys to embark on. For my own, and for the sense of community, I'm going to be questioning, thinking about, exploring my own journey via social media and on Sundays with the Easton Church of the Brethren. Like them on Facebook and follow along. Or come see us on Sundays when you can.

I'm not an evangelist. I didn't stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night. Just a vagabond working my way up the mountain.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Happy Hour


At different times, I have seen the Universe from our back porch: reflected in the Butterfly Bush; reflected in kids bouncing on the trampoline; reflected in Evolution Craft Brewing's Lot No. 6 Double IPA; reflected in Walt Whitman or Mario Santiago Papasquiaro's poetry, or Kerouac's "On the Road," or Thomas Merton; reflected in scooping up the dead baby bird that fell from the tree.

The breeze blows over fresh cut grass as I read...

The world gives you itself in fragments / in splinters:

and

in 1 flaming summer you catch bits of the universe licking its face
the moment 1 indescribable girl
      rips her Oaxacan blouse,
just at the crescent of sweat from her armpits

with the hoppy taste of IPA still dancing on my tongue and tickling my brain as crickets take over the soundtrack, backed by cars and diesel engines from the highway.

THIS is happy hour.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Jay-Z, Spike Jonze, Bob Burnquist and Mountain Song


Jay-Z didn't apply for a job. There is no job application for rapper, record label exec, basketball team owner, sports agent. Neither did Spike Jonze. Or Bob Burnquist. What each of these cats are doing with their lives didn't exist as a job you can apply for. Their lives and livelihoods exist because they created them the way they wanted them to be.

Creativity and dreams and livelihood all tie together somehow. Or they should. Our creative impulses, the tangents we follow, the paths we explore--there has to be a way to harness them, to use them, to incorporate them into how we make a living: the job search, the career decisions, the life direction. It should be one larger whole. How can I work them altogether? Find the perspective that sees them all at the same time.

Isn't it those people, the Jay-Z's, the Spike Jonzes, the Burnquists, who figure this out, that meet success head on, on their own terms?

Don't get me wrong, there are jobs I've applied for at the National Aquarium, the Smithsonian, Washington College and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation that I'd do backflips through hoops to get. I'm not in a position to just follow my bliss. But it seems like the people who change work, who change the world, who build their dreams into the world around them, and make a grand living in the process, are those who didn't just apply for a job to do so.

Yesterday I went for an afternoon run. It had been raining all day and water was flowing hard and fast under a foot bridge on the rail trail near our house. It would not be denied. There is something to being that water. Being water flowing downhill, not to be stopped. Jay-Z, Jonze and Burnquist get it. They know what it is to be coming down the mountain.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Vonnegut saved fiction


I thought I'd held fiction's head underwater long enough to drown it. Then Kurt Vonnegut saved it. It's not the first time he's done it. And he doesn't work alone.

Vonnegut first saved fiction while I was in college. I was uncovering the secrets of the Universe in the poems and proverbs of William Blake, the dialogues of Plato, the scientific mysticism of Fritjof Capra, the interconnectedness of Buddhism and the aphorisms of Nietzsche. What did I need fiction for? The highfalutin make believe of blowhards.

But "Slaughterhouse-Five" is short and I'm on break... And "Cat's Cradle," and then I remembered why fiction mattered. How, in Vonnegut's hands and voice, it doesn't take itself all that seriously, but does; is irreverent, but genuine, is made up and autobiographical; imparts philosophy without preaching.

There have been co-conspirators: trying to navigate the mind and work of James Joyce in school; discovering and devouring Tom Robbins when graduate school for philosophy didn't happen; backing into David Mitchell while writing speeches and feature articles. When I think I need to back slowly out of fiction's room, someone taps me on the shoulder.

This past week in Ocean City, I was unmotivated by a novel I was reading. I'm searching for a job, wondering where life is going, if the girls had sunscreen on them, if the beer has enough ice on it, you know, equally important existential questions. Fiction, I got no time for you. And then I start looking at titles of books on the beach house's shelves. And there is "Bluebeard," a Vonnegut I haven't read.

I picked it up and half finished it in a day. We were leaving the beach, so I picked up my own copy at a book store on the way home. In the midst of job applications, getting rid of a tree in the yard, feeding kids, Vonnegut seeps into the day. "Bluebeard" is finished. Fiction matters. Its ideas. Its voice. Its humor.

Vonnegut has saved it. Again.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Go to weddings


I have no advice to give. I'm not a marriage counselor. And anything I've learned over the course of being married for 14 years is so quirky it probably wouldn't do you any good anyway. Each marriage is like a snowflake, unique and melts when it gets too hot... (kidding). But if I could recommend one thing to the married couples out there, it might be: go to weddings.

Not in a Wedding Crashers kind of way, for the sake of morals and no midnight bondage art shows, let's stick with weddings you actually get invited to. Take the opportunity to get dressed up and go on a date. Pay attention during the service. Watch for the moment when the bride and groom see each other for the first time. Look at the look on the bride's father as he walks her down the aisle (especially if you have two daughters--it's sacred and uplifting and crushing all at once).

Hold hands and listen to the vows the couple makes to one another. Watch how happy they are to be married and dancing and celebrating with the people around them. If you the wedding you are attending is along the shores of the Chesapeake Bay and you get to catch a sunset with the spans of the Bay Bridge in the background, so much the better.

Go to celebrate your friends, absolutely, but go also to remind yourself of your own wedding day. Re-live all those thoughts and feelings for yourself and with each other. Remember, spark, recharge.

It's funny how much your thoughts are the same and different over time. Watching a brother serving as best man, toasting his newly married younger brother and wife, it takes my thoughts to our daughters, who are 11 and eight and certainly won't be getting married for another 30 years or so...;), wondering if they'll be close enough to be the maids/matrons of honor at each other's weddings (should they find someone and choose to get married), what their lives will be like, what their shared memories will be, and what they might say to the other.

Other people's weddings are a time for celebration. But they can also be a time for reminding you of what got you there, however long ago.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Chasing Wallace Stevens, Adam Brown and Danny Way


Maybe I've been chasing Wallace Stevens all along. I don't know. I'm no expert. Didn't know that much about him, really. But he came to stand for something in my mind before I even read him.

Wallace Stevens is a path, a way to combine the philosophical and the creative; the absurd and the profound; the stars, the Earth, myth and books. From my first times reading him, I've know he was doing something with his writing that I want to do with mine. It's also his commitment to writing, since he didn't write for a living, but still made time, composing in his head on his walk to work. All the same, I don't want to get shoved to the ground by Hemingway or sell insurance like Stevens did.

I like Stevens as a model, albeit an imperfect one. Not a catwalk-turning model, but something to strive for.  I've been thinking about a couple other models lately: Adam Brown and Danny Way. I don't have designs on being a modernist poet, a Navy SEAL or a game-changing professional skateboarder. But at times I've wanted to be all three.


I'm not going to go into detail about Adam Brown's story. I'll let Eric Blehm do that for you in his book "Fearless: The Undaunted Courage and Ultimate Sacrifice of Navy SEAL Team SIX Operator Adam Brown," which I think all human beings should read. What I want to say about Brown is that he has become a model for me for overcoming obstacles. From drug addiction to injuries that should have ended his career, Brown relentlessly and compassionately ran down his dream. He would not be stopped. That's something I want to cultivate further in myself.

And Danny Way represents a couple things. Forging a new path, a new way of doing things is part of it. As I've mentioned here, I've been hooked on skateboarding since I was 13. At that time it was Tony Hawk, Mike McGill, Lance Mountain and the Bones Brigade. It was Christian Hosoi and the Alva skaters. It was Mark Gonzales and Mike Vallely. And then at a time when I had drifted a way from skating, Danny Way started building mega ramps and doing things that make my jaw and stomach drop.


If you want to be inspired by the story of a guy who goes after what he loves doing, watch "Waiting for Lightning" about Way jumping over the Great Wall of China. But it's as much Way's life story as it is the jump itself. And that's where it's most powerful. Way represents for me, figuring out how to make a living doing what you love, even when you weren't sure there was a living to be made doing it. Way didn't become a pro skater in a cookie-cutter manner, he redefined what people thought could be done on a skateboard, and revolutionized the sport. Whereas most people think that work is somewhere you go, put in effort, get paid--doctor, lawyer, teacher--Way invented another way to go, doing what he loves.

So there are three models I'm perpetually chasing. Chasing Wallace Stevens is a commitment to write and a striving for depth and form, marrying philosophy and creativity. Chasing Adam Brown is living up to Brown's example of overcoming any obstacle in my path, while not losing sight of what's important in my life. And Chasing Danny Way is creating a new way to think about, to pursue making a living and doing what I love.

That's a lot of chasing. Time to lace up the running shoes.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Save your freedom for a rainy day


"Save your freedom for a rainy day," someone had written on the bathroom wall... It remained there at eye level above the washbasin all summer. No retorts or cross-outs. Just this blank command as you angled and turned your hands under the faucet. - Rachel Kushner, THE FLAMETHROWERS.

Freedom is a tricky one. It's generally owned by your routine and your obligations. Freedom sits doing shots with your commitments and your bills, seeing who blacks out first. It may be that we are the most free at those nondescript times, like washing our hands in the bathroom of a bar, where our next decision doesn't carry the weight of the big ones.

For the past three and a half years, I've worked on a contract as a writer for the Coast Guard. The job in and of itself meant a commute to Washington, D.C., from Maryland's Eastern Shore, a trek I never thought I would make. It was a better job, a better opportunity than the previous eight-ish years working at a museum. The past three-plus years writing for the Coast Guard have been eye-opening, learning, defining. I've been up at 5 a.m. each morning researching and compiling an early morning report that went out before most people are at work.

This morning that contract is over. I still woke up at 4:30 a.m. (I'm a morning person), and wasn't sure what to do. So I started reading Rachel Kushner's "The Flamethrowers," which came as a Father's Day reading recommendation. It's already drawing tightening circles around art and freedom and the things I like to put my head around.

I'm not sure what contract or other opportunity is coming next. There's a freedom there, a reflection point that maybe asks what I want it to be, but also feels like we generally limit our choices before we really consider them.

We've been meandering about Maine this week, a geographic change from Maryland, and our girls first visit here, as a backdrop to mull things over, in odd moments, sipping a Long Trail Ale, looking at what happens when God employs a different palette, Bob Ross-style, painting mountains and rocky coasts and lobster boats, where we are used to seeing corn fields, cattails, and workboats chasing blue crabs.

It's not lost on me that our girls sat atop Cadillac Mountain yesterday in Acadia National Park, a decided and welcome experience and shift in perspective, as I wonder what will fill my work life next.


Saturday, April 13, 2013

Contemplating spring and destiny, which has no beeper


Apr. 13--I'm cheating on David Foster Wallace. It's not that  I don't love him. I do. Sometimes I'm cheating on DFW with himself. But "Infinite Jest" is a 1,000-plus page tome that is gumbo-dense, very few page breaks and minimal places to come up for air.

So I'll put it down and turn to Thomas Merton, whose faith I don't have, but I envy. Merton often carries me from winter to spring, through the last, darkest cold days before short sleeves and beer on the back deck. Merton gives way to Walt Whitman. I try to re-read "Leaves of Grass" every spring.

This is how my reading and mental life goes. Like House of Pain, I jump around. I chase down tangents, at times feeling like a certain writer was put in front of me at a certain time because he or she has something to tell me. That often seems the case.

When I pick "Infinite Jest" back up, I'll forage my way through and come across something like this:

...both destiny's kisses and its dope-slaps illustrate an individual person's basic personal powerlessness over the really meaningful events in his life: i.e. almost nothing important that ever happens to you happens because you engineer it. Destiny has no beeper; destiny always leans trenchcoated out of an alley with some sort of Psst that you usually can't even hear because you're in such a rush to or from something important you've tried to engineer.

And then I sit thinking, "daaaammn," existentially speaking, and I know that I'm with DFW for the long haul, even though it may take some time. But hopefully not a Time [that] came to him in the falcon-black of the library night in an orange mohawk and Merry Widow w/ tacky Amalfo pumps and nothing else. -DFW, because that shit would be crazy.

Apr. 9--My feet prayed today. It was a three and a half mile prayer of thanks. They prayed on asphalt, dirt, gravel, wood and concrete. Their prayer went something like this:

Thank you for another year. Thank you for spring and sun on skin, for daffodils in bloom. Thank you for friends and family and their creativity in helping us live our lives in community. Thank you for breath and sweat, thank you muscles that work and ache, thank you for fields and roads and for a means to connect them all.

I'm not sure whether the people I passed could hear what my feet were praying, but I think they could. After a couple years that included a five-month layoff for an ankle injury, the better part of a year with undiagnosed Lyme Disease, and a recent layoff for being sick, my feet and I will always be thankful for an easy run in warm spring weather, the day after my birthday.

Apr. 13--So prayer seems to be on my mind lately. Not the ask for things kind of prayer, but the Merton-style contemplative prayer. Something like this:

There is in us an instinct for newness, for renewal, for a liberation of creative power. We seek to awaken in ourselves a force which really changes our lives from within. And yet the same instinct tells us that this change is a recovery of that which is deepest, most original, most personal in ourselves. To be born again is not to become somebody else, but to become ourselves. (Merton, "Love and Living")

That's how it comes together: spring, newness, renewal. Contemplation, whether it is inspired by DFW, or a spring run, or Merton.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Much like a Charlie in the Box, no one wants a haphazard mojo


My mornings have been usurped. Willingly, nobody stole them. But the up-while-it's-still-dark time that used to be for running, writing, meditating, is for work. Has been for a while, but I haven't figured out how to adjust my mojo. My mojo is fragmnted and haphazard. Much like a Charlie-in-the-Box, no one wants a haphazard mojo.

Rhythm is everything. Rhythm is nothing. If you are Eric B. and Rakim, you can let the rhythm hit 'em.  Maybe I mean momentum vs. rhythm, but probably both. They both invoke flow. So do rivers and diners, but the latter is another kind of Flo.

Eric B. and Rakim also advised not to sweat the technique. Solid advice. Get it working. Let it go. Look for content. And content is everywhere.

If my thinking is fragmented, blame David Foster Wallace. Part of my reading time is spread out within "Infinite Jest" at the moment. Other parts are contemplating alongside Thomas Merton, who seems to be who I pick up when I question faith, question life, want to find something to direct the questions.

In third grade, I went to the Salisbury Civic Center to my first WWF/professional wrestling match. There were four of us, as part of a friend's birthday party. Andre the Giant beat Blackjack Mulligan. Jimmy "Superfly" Snuka wrestled Ivan "The Polish Hammer" Putski. Bob Backlund retained his title against Playboy Buddy Rhodes. This past Sunday, we were in the same arena with our girls watching John Cena, Chris Jericho, Ryback and The Shield. Wrestling, the theater of the absurd, as a generational connection.

Baseball is another connection. March has been a dress rehearsal, building steam to opening day. About baseball, Walt Whitman said, "Baseball is our game, the American game. I connect it with our national character... America's game: has the snap, go, fling, of the American atmosphere." I'm a Whitman fan and a baseball fan. For our family, baseball season means Washington Nationals games in D.C., and Nats games on MASN on in the evenings.

The girls tear through packs of Topps baseball cards looking for Nationals' players the way I looked for Eddie Murray, Gary Roenicke and Jim Palmer Orioles cards when I was their age.

So this post is largely nostalgia. And looking forward. It's a cycle, circling back on itself and forward. It's renewal. It's spring.

 

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

A lone astronomer


In a room which blazed with light the young bride who was one day to be Queen of Italy was introduced. It was the event of the year... And while the world of fashion amused itself thus, at the same hour and in the same city a lone astronomer was discovering a new planet... --James Salter, "The Cinema," from DUSK AND OTHER STORIES.

I might hate James Salter. He was born in 1925, grew up in New York City, graduated from West Point and flew planes for the U.S. Army, flying more than 100 missions as a fighter pilot including during the Korean War. He resigned from the military to focus on writing. And his short stories and prose blur the line between prose and poetry. There isn't a word out of place. I hang on every sentence. He simultaneously inspires and makes me want to hang it up. But mostly inspires.

Salter went from fighter pilot to writer. He didn't waste time. I envy his economy of words and time. We all have a finite number of days on this earth, or at least in the bodies we're rocking presently. I wrote out the passage above about the queen-to-be and the lone astronomer. With your days, you can attend posh parties or you can set out to discover a new planet. Maybe, in the best lives, you can do both.

I picture Salter as the lone astronomer. About writing, he tells the Paris Review, "I hate the first inexact, inadequate expression of things. The whole joy of writing comes from the opportunity to go over it and make it good, one way or another." Salter misses parties.

I'm lazy. I don't always use my time to look for planets. To make the attempt. But as we're getting set to begin our Infinite Quest trekking through David Foster Wallace's masterpiece, Salter gives me the image of the lone astronomer. Salter and Wallace have made their discoveries. They've missed parties, put in their time.

Will we do the same?

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

David Foster Wallace slams his junk on the counter


David Foster Wallace slams his junk on the counter. All of it. FWOP! The beautiful, the damaged, the cerebral, the interconnected, the difficult, the long-winded, the mind-blowing, the annotated. Here, take this, all of it, and have at it.

Wallace's second novel, "Infinite Jest," is more than 1,000 pages. It's a difficult book that's been critically heralded as genius by almost all counts, if sprawling, daunting and labyrinthine. That's not what young novelists are supposed to do. When you are 34 years old, building a literary reputation, you aren't supposed to slam down a confusing doorstop of a tome that might alienate readers who want an easy beach read.

When I walk into a bookstore, I know that I don't want to read most of the books in the joint. Not even close. I'm looking for books that speak to me about life, art, storytelling, philosophy, the Universe; that open my mind to possibilities; that connect things in ways I haven't considered. I'm learning over time what books those might be, what authors write the kind of books I want to read. I've known Wallace through his essays and shorter pieces. He is one of those writers.

But I have shied away from "Infinite Jest." With a book that size that is known as a tough read, I figured I might balk. Start and stop and figure I'll get back to it. But I didn't want to. I wanted to have at it. Eat the elephant, one bite at a time, but with the attention it deserves. I love that DFW was willing to slam his junk--his genius, his hang-ups, his shortcomings--and say, here.

In a commencement address at Kenyon College, Wallace posited that the goal of an education was to learn, "How to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default-setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone, day in and day out."

That's a cat I want to hang with, one that has something to say to me. If you don't know much about Wallace or "Infinite Jest," I recommend reading Dave Eggers' foreword to the book.

I want to hear what Wallace has to say in his art, in his biggest, most brilliant book. So I've enlisted help. Myself included, we have 12 adventurers who are going to follow Wallace on his infinite quest. Strength in numbers. Many minds to help navigate the maze. We light our torches and begin the journey on Feb. 15. Holler if you'd like to join the expedition.

Wallace hung himself when he was 46. He suffered from depression and was on and off his meds toward the end of his life. The New Yorker has a great article on the chronology of his life and his struggles. There are geniuses/artists it seems, who aren't right for our times. Maybe for any times. The tragedy of it, we are left with a limited number of ways to honor, appreciate, indulge what he left behind. But one of those ways, part of his legacy is Infinite.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Art is singing on the railroad tracks


Art is singing on the railroad tracks, even when you hear the train coming. Metaphorically speaking, mind you, I'm not advocating train track art.

I've been listening to Tom Waits a lot lately, saw this photo and said right off, that's what art is. That's the attempt. When it's so important, where you have to do it, you have to create music, painting, writing, whatever, whatever the risk.

The New York Times Magazine ran a feature on George Saunders and his new book of short stories. Reading the article made me ashamed not to have read Saunders. But I'm remedying that. And have since found out he'll be reading at Politics and Prose in D.C., on Jan. 14.

Saunders further sold me with a newly written preface to his first book, "CivilWarLand in Bad Decline." He flashes back to his life as a technical writer and a new father during the time he scratched out the time to write the stories. It's both his commitment to make it happen and his way of talking about the author creating art once they've stopped trying to imitate the writers they are influenced by:

The work he does there is not the work of his masters. It is less. It is more modest; it is messier. It is small and minor.

But at least it’s his.

He sent the trained dog that is his talent off in search of a fat glorious pheasant, and it brought back the lower half of a Barbie doll.

So be it.

So be it. It's like fishing and pulling up a boot. Saunders's story of writing his first book helps keep the (this) writer's dream alive a lit longer. He's singing on the railroad tracks. George Saunders, Tom Waits and the lower halves of Barbie dolls. Amen.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

"And miles to go before I sleep"


Robert Frost and I don't talk much. He's a bit old school and rhymey for my taste. A funny thing though, when a poet reaches out of your memory, out of your subconscious, to chat.

I've had Frost's "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" in my head for a number of months now. Particularly the last stanza:

The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

I hear Frost speaking in the deep, Southern drawl or Mr. Chew, our 10th grade English teacher at St. James. Mr. Chew was also our cross country coach, who got us out running through the woods, usually before they were snowy, and there wasn't much stopping going on.

Frost's narrator stops to chill, take in a scene, a moment, where most folks en route keep cranking. But there was something more going on. Maybe Frost-the-narrator (FTN) is tired, fed up with work, with bills, with all the shit he's got to do. The moment of hesitation presents something else. Dude, fu** it, what if I just chill here and take this in. For good?

The temptation is there, "the woods are lovely, dark and deep." But FTN doesn't give himself more than the passing thought. Nah, man, "I've got promises to keep, / And miles to go before I sleep." I got shit to do.

Let's face it, we've got days, maybe weeks-months-years where the temptation of the snowy woods is there. It's funny though, how often I hear Mr. Chew as FTN, out of the blue with those last three lines, "But I've got promises to keep, / And miles to go before I sleep, / And miles to go before I sleep."

So this fall and winter, I've had Frost and Chew speaking up from memory, from subconscious, saying hey. And then on New Year's Day, as we're taking out Christmas decorations down, Robin pulls down a blackboard she writes a new seasonal message on every couple months. She wipes the old "Merry Christmas" off. She says:

What if I put the first verse of Robert Frost's "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening," on the board?

I've never mentioned Frost, or Mr. Chew, or that poem to her. Voices, speaking from the past. Our past, for us to hear. If we listen.

That would be cool, hon.

So I leave you with Frost's whole poem. You can say it out loud, in a deep Southern drawl if you want.

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.  

He gives his harness bells a shake

To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.  

The woods are lovely, dark and deep.

But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Proof by lamp, proof by stumble


A-stumble back from a bar, watching my feet to see if they make a straight line.

A lamp lit in a window is proof of another life. Someone else's existence.

Feet stretched onto a stool, the glow of a television. Maybe she's watching Seinfeld reruns. Or some law/cop drama. Maybe she got some shitty news. A break up. A lump. Maybe there's a stack of bills next to her chair and not enough to cover them.

Maybe she's just stumbled home a few minutes before me, unexcited by hook-up prospects, and she's just nuked some mac and cheese or pizza that lived in the fridge. Maybe her beer buzz has her contemplating trips to the mountains where dudes will be hotter and smarter and pizza will taste better at altitude with legs sore from hiking.

Or maybe she sits on her couch, scribbling in a notebook about the guy that just wandered by her window, on the street at closing time; proof of another life, proof against the one a.m. existential aloneness.

Proof by a lamp lit in a house. Proof by the stumble of a passer-by.