Sunday, August 31, 2014

Saturday Improvisation: Boom Boxes, Bob Marley, Brubeck

I wish boom boxes hadn't fallen out of fashion. Sure, iPods are far more convenient and efficient for hauling music around, but they don't make the personal statement that pimping an oversized cassette-playing cannon on your shoulder does.

My boom box from ages 14 to 16-ish was nothing to look at. It had scraps of skateboard griptape plastered all over it and silver anarchy symbols drawn on it. It was almost always to be found on my 13' Boston Whaler. And it generally only had one cassette, dubbed from two vinyl records: on one side was Bob Marley and the Wailers, "Exodus," and on the other was Oingo Boingo "Dead Man's Party." Exodus was the first Marley album I had; the first reggae album I had and I listened to it constantly.

Yesterday morning I ran listening to Marley's live album, "Babylon By Bus," which I have long called a desert island album for me. Feel good vibes fit for any occasion. I have a couple different philosophies about running music: 1) hard, heavy stuff to push you through the lows and the pain when it comes, 2) music to get lost in, space out to, during the really long runs where you have to go slow to survive, 3) Feel good music to help you transcend time and pain. Babylon By Bus fits into the last category.

The song "Exodus" came on and I was transported from my back roads run to the Whaler, sand and water spraying my face, and hearing Marley almost 30 years before and getting much the same out of his voice and music today.

I intentionally left Saturday as unplanned as I could. So that I could be open to anything that came up. Carpe the Labor Day weekend diem. Improvise. Impromptu is sometimes how the coolest stuff happens. Like jazz. And as the gods of improvisation would have it, jazz is what presented itself. A friend had an extra ticket to a Dave Brubeck tribute quartet at the Avalon Theatre. If you haven't listened to Brubeck's iconic album, "Time Out" give yourself a time out and do it. You already know the song "Take Five," whether you know you do or not.

I have been a big jazz fan for a while. Generally all older time-tested stuff like Miles Davis, Monk, Coltrane, Mingus, Art Blakey. For some reason I have not heard jazz performed at the Avalon. So an unplanned Saturday turned into a few afternoon Dale's Pale Ale drafts and live jazz played to a packed theater at two o'clock in the afternoon, led by Bobby Militello, who was Brubeck's alto saxophone player for 30 years, and getting to catch up with the band over a beer or two after the show.

Sometimes impromptu improvisational Saturdays have a way of pulling it together. Almost like jazz.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Home is where the blank is

In March we were walking through Monticello. The docent was walloping us with stories and facts, how long it took to build; how Jefferson entertained guests; all that he put into making the perfect home for himself. We're going to gloss over the slave labor, etc., that was required to build and maintain Monticello, because that's not what this post is about. It's about what "home" means to people. Because that's where my mind went. What do we want/need out of our home? What do I want out of a home. And I guess I've come up with some ideas, some things that I need for a house, condo, apartment, estate, to be a home. After all, home is where the [blank] is.

Home as sanctuary. This is big for me. Like maybe number one. When I have had a shitty day; when the world weighs on my shoulders; when I am beat down from a beach traffic-laden commute, when I walk in my house, I want it to damn near forcibly pull the stress off my shoulders and give it a beat down to not let it inside. When it rains or snows, or blows, or is ice in the beard cold, I want to be able to exhale peace and comfort inside. If I want to be a hermit, which sometimes I do, I want to unfold myself into my home.

Home as launching pad. This is about inspiration and adventure. I am admittedly a homebody. But I've also been born with a bit of wanderlust, and even more so the concept of carpe'ing the diem. I want to paddleboard on a Sunday afternoon. I want to go hunting for snails/periwinkles with the girls. I want to go look for Mason Dixon markers. I want to wake up in the morning, pick up a book and be transported and inspired to write, to think, to explore somewhere I haven't been. I want my home to help add to that sense.

And here is the thing about home as a launching pad. For it to be one, home can't be a burden unto itself. It can't require me to spend all weekend as a slave to the yard, the house, the laundry. Because ultimately, and time and time again, I have found through experience, that all that stuff is still there waiting for you when you get back. But a spontaneous adventure, just as it happens, may only exist at that particular time.

Home as connection. This works on a lot of levels. Ideally, home should connect you to the place you live. The Eastern Shore, or Easton, or Oxford, or wherever. It should connect you to your family, your friends, your history. And this can be done even in a one room apartment.

Growing up, the above bookcase was full of Betamax tapes. It had my Star Wars, Empire Strikes Back, Future Primitive skateboarding tape, you name it. If memory serves it belonged to my great grandmother. I have always dug it, and it has come with me many places. It reminds me of family. It reminds me of the places I've lived. It reminds me of the various things that have lived in it. It's the bookcase, in this case, that helps make the home, both for the memories it brings back, but also for one of the most essential things for me to have in any home: books.

Home as fun. There are times when I sit around and reminisce on the great times, the parties, the cookouts, the impromptu back yard happy hours. Home should be the setting for some of your most fun times. The kind that make you smile just sitting and looking around and wondering what the walls' perspective would be, were they able to tell stories. Maybe home as playground would be included within the fun bucket.

Home as self. Or more like an extension of self. And this ties to some of the above, but it can mean a lot of different things. To some people, it is hard wood floors or tile kitchens; to some it is the paint scheme, the furniture or the landscaping; to some it is the garage or the main cave. A friend who knew Joe Namath's daughter said Broadway Joe had a massive bathroom, from where he conducted most of his business. To each their own. If you rent a place, or can't afford a home that is how you see yourself, or would want to see yourself, there are still ways to make it feel like you. For me, again, books. Maybe beer and backpacks hanging waiting to go on a trip. Running shoes asking to be taken out for a run.

Home as love/Home as feeling. Or its ability to evoke a feeling, from you. When you pull up on the street, or in the driveway, the hope is that your home makes you feel good. So many things contribute to that: pets, kids, memories, all of the things mentioned above. For some, that means a simple house that is easy to maintain. For others, a palatial estate where they can go Gatsby in their parties and entertaining. For some a log cabin, for others a cottage. For some, a place to hang a coat and suitcase and get mail between travels.

That's the thing. Home is a loaded four-letter word. It means different things to different people. It's a fill in the blank exercise. Home is where the [blank] is.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Back Road Peace, Dark Wood and Rebirth

Runners are creatures of habit. For the past 10 years, I have had known running routes mapped out in my head. When I walk out the front door, I know specific routes from two miles to 20 miles and everything in between. I know where to turn around for a 10 mile route. I've tread many of them many times.

Saturday I ran a new route, on a new road. It's a road I've driven and been driven on since before kindergarten, with friends that have lived down it. But I had never run it. Back roads, tree-lined, almost full shade. During a 6-mile run, two cars and a tractor passed. Some deer. The tail end of a fox making scarce. I went without music; the roads are narrow and I didn't want to end up an unwitting hood ornament.

There is a peace on running a back country road that exists nowhere else. Most of my road miles have been run on Oxford Road or St. Michaels Road, with cars and trucks whirring past. Or through Easton with small town hustle all around.

Saturday was a reset button. A new route. Solace. Back road peace.

Dark Wood. Tree-lined roads lead my mind to Dante. After studying the Inferno in college, Dante's dark wood has stuck with me.

Midway in the journey of our life
I came to myself in a dark wood,
for the straight way was lost.
Ah, how hard it is to tell
the nature of that wood, savage, dense and harsh --
the very thought of it renews my fear!
It is so bitter death is hardly more so.
But to set forth the good I found
I will recount the other things I saw.
How I came there I cannot really tell,
I was so full of sleep
when I forsook the one true way.

Dante gives us the perfect losing our way metaphor. The opening lines to the most poetic mid-life crisis in history. I have a framed print of Dante and his guide Virgil navigating the dark wood together.

I frequently have those dark wood moments. I wonder if I am on the right path; I wonder if I am lost or have wandered astray; I wonder; I wander. My paths are more meandering than direct. Rather than the one true path, I often feel like mine is a singletrack trail or a country back road. Where do back roads lead?

Rebirth. Spring gets all the credit for new life and rebirth. It's the easy sell. But fall has always been my season for rebirth. Each fall is a new school year. A new grade for the girls, the clock turned back to zero, on top of the foundations they have built in the past years. New teachers. And new students for teachers.

Cooler weather, sloughing off the tired heat of summer. Needing to pull on a sweatshirt or sweater in the evening. Stout beer salivating. My energy usually resets in the fall as well. Fall races for our running peeps. Field hockey for the girls. Football taking over Sunday televisions.

For me, fall is about rebirth. It's about new running routes. It's about reconnecting and navigating the dark wood in the journey of our life. Dante will tell you about it. But nobody named a football team after the Divine Comedy.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Tasting the Pain, Singing the Blues

I listened to almost nothing but Pink Floyd for an entire summer. Every album. Then I realized why I was so depressed. I was 16. Musically innovative, expansive, deep, but fu**ing depressing. So I stopped listening.

I have never seen "Old Yeller." I have no desire to see it. If you know the dog gets shot in the end and everyone cries their eyes out, why subject yourself to it? Why make yourself sad when you don't have to be? Who does that? There is enough sad in life anyway, without looking for extra.

And that has mostly been my life aesthetic. I want art, music, film. literature, poetry that inspire; that elevates my soul; that makes me wonder; that turns me on and gets me riled up; that makes my heart race; that sends me off to contemplate the Cosmos.

But then I found a different kind of sad. Blue sad. Blues sad. I don't remember when I started listening to Delta Blues music, but it has been a while.

The lone blues man, with his guitar and his loneliness, sometimes without even a guitar; with his suffering, sitting on a porch step or a curb. Hungry. Feet hurt. He knows the kind of sad that has always haunted me.

He wails of our ultimate alone-ness in the world. He cries out about Love's impermanence. He frees his blues soul through his fingers, his tapping foot, his raspy voice. If you don't believe me, listen to Son House.

There is no emotion, no music, more primal than a blues howl. And yet, sometimes when I hear it, it doesn't sound exactly sad. It's cathartic. It can be transformative. Like somehow turning his heartbreak, his alone loose into the Universe, changes it.

But I don't know that. And neither does he. And that's where the blues plumbs the depths and the heights. The blues man sings his song out into the Universe; he wonders if the Universe or anyone else in it hears him at all, or gives a shit.

And then, hearing no reply, hearing nothing back, he knows it doesn't fu**ing matter;

He's going to sing anyway. Because he has to.

Monday, August 11, 2014

The Waiting Place: trolling or bottom fishing

Sunday morning's run around town, a run to sweat Saturday night out of me, was couched between waiting songs. Early on it was Fugazi's "Waiting Room." Towards the end, it was Trampled By Turtles, "Wait So Long." And that got me thinking about waiting. And reading Dr. Seuss's "Oh the Places You'll Go" to the girls. The good doctor frequently has a lot to say to grown-ups, the same as kids. Take for example, The Waiting Place, where people end up getting stuck, waiting:

Waiting for a train to go or a bus to come
or a plane to go or the mail to come
or the rain to go or the phone to ring
or the snow to snow or waiting around for a Yes or No
or waiting for their hair to grow.

Everyone is just waiting.

Waiting for the fish to bite
or waiting for wind to fly a kite
or waiting around for Friday night
or waiting, perhaps, for their Uncle Jake
or a pot to boil, or a Better Break
or a string of pearls, or a pair of pants
or a wig with curls, or Another Chance.

Everyone is just waiting.

I have a short attention span. I don't sit still well. I don't have much patience, though I try to have more. Waiting does not suit me. Beckett brings it to the front, Waiting for Godot, who never shows. Fu** that.

Growing up fishing with my dad and my grandfather, out in the Bay or the Choptank River, we mostly trolled for blue fish or rock fish, often around Sharp's Island Light, dragging whatever color hose the fish seemed to be biting on that day. Trolling is an impatient man's fishing. For someone who doesn't want to just cast and fish the bottom and sit back and read, or drink a beer, chill out. To be honest, that kind of fishing, that kind of waiting has a great appeal to me, for just being kicked back. And then there is fly fishing or casting, which might be the best of them, but I haven't done much of that.

But you get to a point in life where, say you are 42, just to pick a number. And life has flipped itself on its head, not death or serious illness, not hunger or homelessness, not the big shit mind you, but life as you know it, nonetheless has fundamentally shifted, beneath your feet, where you don't quite trust the ground anymore. You wait for that shit to shift on you some more, or you look at where you were standing and it was right on a fu**ing fault line. And you can see that, and you step away from the fault line. You find yourself some higher ground (cue Stevie or the Chili Peppers). And you think long and hard about where you want to be standing, what you want to be doing. And you've got it in your head. You know what you need to do. And you are ready to do it. And then what happens?

Waiting. You throw your intentions out into the Universe, and you wait. And maybe fishing is the most apt metaphor for what comes next in life. You try to pick the best bait, you listen and learn where the fish are biting, you decide what you want to catch, and then you cast. And then you wait. Because life. And we do spend an inordinate amount of our time... waiting.

But the thing about Dr. Seuss. He rarely leaves you hanging. He'll often give you some hope. Maybe an alternative. A way to be different. And true to form, he does, simply:

That's not for you!

Somehow you'll escape
all that waiting and staying.
You'll find the bright places
where Boom Bands are playing.

With banner flip-flapping,
once more you'll ride high!
Ready for anything under the sky.

I've read some fairly profound shit over my 42 years, books that have changed my life, my worldview, my thinking on about every level. And it's funny how much of that stuff Dr. Seuss can pack into any number of his "children's" books.

Sunday evening, I had dinner, had a Dale's, and was folding laundry. Typical Sunday evening. The Nats were playing the Braves on Sunday night baseball. I got a text message from a friend that said, paddleboarding in Oxford, leave at 7pm. It was 6:40pm. It wasn't how I had figured the evening at that point. Instead, I was going to be... waiting.

I'm in. See you down there. We put in, paddled around Batchelor's Point, into a choppy, windy Choptank River. we rounded into Boone Creek and literally surfed waves up to the sand bar. The super moon was huge on the horizon. There were herons, birds, glassy water. This is where we skimboarded for hours in high school. Joel snapped some photos. It was getting dark. We were dreading the likely rough paddle back.

When we left Boone Creek, the wind had laid down a bit and was at our backs, with the current. The waves pushed us, from behind, surfing. It was the exact opposite of the paddle out. It was an effortless floating. As we got back to the beach, the moon was huge and bright and beaming off the river. It's the kind of thing you don't see, the kind of evening/sunset/night you don't have, if you're just waiting. Nope. It's where Boom Bands are playing. And you need to be ready for anything under the sky.

Friday, August 8, 2014

I Run to Meet Myself

In times of crisis, I run. Not away, but through. About a mile into a run, my soul, body and mind get in step, superfluous thoughts, those beyond breathing, those beyond don't trip, those beyond watch where you're going and take everything in, superfluous thoughts bead and roll away with my sweat.

It's not a surprise or a coincidence that during some of the biggest transitional times in my life, that running has been a means of knowing myself, of knowing my heart, and of being right in my body. It takes me to places that planes, trains, automobiles or bikes can't reach. In some ways, each run can be a pilgrimage.

Since ancient times pilgrimages have been conducted from place to place, in belief that a question can travel into an answer as water into thirst... the only rule of travel is, Don't come back the way you went. Come a new way. - Anne Carson, "The Anthropology of Water."

Pilgrimage is a word used to describe a journey, both physical and spiritual, to a sacred place. Maybe a temple, shrine, church, speakeasy, tavern (hey, don't question what sacred means to different folks ;), a journey that changes the pilgrim, transforms them in a meaningful way. I remember the first time I ran the 10-ish miles from Oxford to Easton, a trip made daily in a car, and that I had made a number of times by bike, but doing it on foot, never stopping to walk, felt like as significant a 10-miles as I could have run. My first trail race, my first marathon, the significance was finishing the distance, the course, not where I ended up. But the pilgrimage-typed runs for me are often not to anywhere in particular.

Pilgrims were people who figured things out as they walked. - Anne Carson, same as above.

Thank you, Anne. That's it exactly. Figuring things out as I run. Sometimes consciously, sometimes not. Sometimes it's the sweat that cleanses. Sometimes I've exhaled something I couldn't abide. Sometimes I've breathed in something I desperately needed, though I couldn't tell you at which point or mile I found it, just that I did. Maybe.

Where do I "go" on these personal pilgrimages? Maybe I go "away."

Being "away" is the true freedom. I escape to where I want to be, thinking what I want to think, creating what I want to create. - George Sheehan, "Running and Being"

Sheehan has as much to teach as maybe any other runner/writer has said about running, thinking and the soul. But I am not sure he has just what I mean here. There are times I run to escape, escape the day, escape bills, escape a mood, escape life, but there are just as many times that I run to live. To think. To solve.

I suck at sitting meditation. If my body is still, my mind wants to move faster. Yoga, Tai Chi, better. Running seems to put everything in place.

Motion and meditation are apparently a unity. "Sit as little as possible," wrote Nietzsche. "Give no credence to any thought that was not born outdoors, while one moved about freely--in which the muscles are not celebrating a feast, too." - George Sheehan (and Nietzsche), "Running and Being"

Thank you, George. That's more to it. Motion and meditation are a unity. That's how it feels. Thoughts born or grown on a run seem to have more substance, because they have come after, or because of, other thoughts falling away.

So what is it I am trying to learn when I run? I wonder...

Pilgrims were people wondering, wondering. Whom shall I meet now? - Anne Carson, take a guess ;)

I've met some awesome people through running. A fair amount of my close friends now I have spent some time on the roads or trails with. I spend a lot more time wondering than knowing. Safe to say I don't know much. But where running becomes a pilgrimage, where it becomes a journey on foot to the soul, I know who I run to meet.

I run to meet myself.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Things That Define Us

We are more than our toys. Maybe. We are more than the things we have. But some of those things can help define us. We all have stuff that becomes a part of who we are; things that people associate with us; things that we come to be known for.

So I was thinking over the last week or so about the things that define me. Here's a short list.

2002 Ford F-150. I bought the above truck in 2003. It had 11,000 miles on it. 11 years later and it has 154,000. When I bought it I said I wanted to drive it for 9 to 12 years. It has been my everyday driving vehicle for 10 years, until this winter when I picked up a commuting car to burn the DC miles and give the truck a rest. It's the only vehicle our girls have ever known me to drive. It has helped us move; carried mulch, paddleboards, furniture, been to Pennsylvania, commuted to DC for four years. When loaned to friends it has carried everything from bunk beds to deer carcasses. Of all the vehicles I have owned, it is the one the best defines me: simple, blue, steady, basic, versatile. At least the truck is.

Running shoes. Not any specific kind of running shoes; I have run in Brooks, New Balance, Mizuno, Nike, Asics, Montrail, Inov-8; I have run in road shoes and trail shoes. But the common theme is running. If you read this blog or have known me since high school, when cross country first hit, or getting in shape after failing out of school, or training for the Annapolis 10-miler, or training for my first marathon or ultramarathon, you know that running is one of the activities that defines me. I feel right when I put on running shoes.

Moleskine pocket notebook. Close friends know that I always have a notebook and pen in my pocket. If we are at a bar, on a boat, at a party, if I am at the grocery store, work, or a coffee shop. Because I forget things if I don't write them down. Because I never know when a line will strike me, or something I see, or something someone says will trigger something I want to think more about later. These notebooks are filled with lists, with thoughts, with random lines, with quotes, with doodles from the girls if they get bored and ask for my notebook. It has to fit in my back pocket. I tried the hardbound versions, but the covers got destroyed because they don't like to be sat on. So this is the notebook of choice. Thankfully, even Target has them now.

Skateboard. If three activities define my life, both from the longview and different periods within it, they would be writing, running and skateboarding. I bought my first skateboard, a Sims Flagship with Venture Trucks, from the Sunshine House in Ocean City, Md. I was 13. More than anything over the next five years, skateboarding was what I did, helped shape the music I listened to, the videos I watched, the clothes and shoes I wore, what we did with acquired extra wood, where we went, how I thought. When I turned 35, I bought a skateboard after having taken some time off. I set up things to ollie over in the street and our older daughter got a kick out of it. And then a friend got bitten by the longboarding bug, infected me, and endurance, distance, and skateboarding got thrown in the gumbo of further life-defining activities. I still feel as stoked today to feel wheels on pavement as I did almost 30 years ago.

Nationals Jayson Werth jersey. Over the years, baseball has eclipsed football by far as the chosen sport for our house, and our girls. We've discussed the Nationals on here before. We've discussed Jayson Werth and his beard on here before. The Werth jersey was a birthday present to myself a couple/few years ago and has been worn to almost every Nats game we have been to, as well as Camden Yards and Citizens Bank Park in Philly. Being in the stands when he launches a WERTHQUAKE into the bleachers is fun. His Game 4 walk-off series saving home run has to be one of the best radio calls in the Nationals brief history. Our daughter Ava has a Werth shirt as well. To me, it's the symbol of a family loving a team, and baseball, together.

So there is a quick top five of things that in some way define me, now and over the years. What things define you?