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


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.