Sunday, September 28, 2014

Alone vs. Not Alone, or is that even the question?

This is a stretch of land I have taken to taking in a fair amount lately. On this particular Saturday afternoon/evening, the wind blows leaves to the north (to the right); butterflies corkscrew emergency landings; squirrels leap invisible hurdles then turn and exit, seeming to forget what they were after. The sun inches to the west, shadows reacting with their own arc on the field.

All these things take place as I sit with two fingers of Jameson's, taking it all in, an observer trying to make sense of it all. And here's the thing: that swath of existences, this corner of the Universe and the wider Universe writ large--none of it gives a shit. I can sit there or not, it will continue about its business. I can be ecstatic, or I can be wrestling with the deep feeling of being alone, it will remain indifferent. Down to leaves and butterflies and ant hills, or up to dying stars or black holes or comets, whether I am having a good day, a bad day, or whether I am here at all makes no difference.

Let's call that a scientific fact. Now, what I do with that fact, how I react, how I create my life and my worldview given that that is true--that is what life is. That is what my life will be.

That's the first conscious thought of existential ____________ that must have been grappled with going back to ancient people who painted on the walls of cave. That blank is there so you can insert your own word: dread, freedom, trembling, ecstasy, it's all in what that sense of your place in the bigger picture evokes in you.

What I think, how I fit myself into that blank depends completely on when you ask me. I am not a Che Guevara fan by any means, but I think he was right when he wrote, "In nine months a man can think a lot of thoughts, from the height of philosophical conjecture to the most abject longing for a bowl of soup--in perfect harmony with the state of his stomach."

For the past seven months or so, I have wrestled with the question of whether we are ultimately alone or not alone in this life, on a soul deep level. If you have children or a spouse, it is easy to say not alone, you are surrounded by people you love and who love you. And that's true. Truth is what you know in your heart and soul. Or maybe that's faith. But stay with me. I watch our 12 year old wrestle with that alienated feeling, as 12 year olds will, because I watch and remember it fully, that no one else in the world understands them. And that is valid for their life experience. Nothing I can say can convince her that I went through what she is going through, and in earnest, I didn't, I am a guy, she is a girl, I was in 7th grade 30 years ago and life was different. This is her experience.

But who or what can bridge that gap that takes us from alone to not alone? It's wrapped into the same realization that the Universe doesn't need me; that life goes on regardless. Some people's perception of God crosses that void. For some it is love, probably with a "L." For some, it is our interconnectedness to creation, that we will return to the earth and our corporeal ingredients will be recycled back into the soil. For some it is art, and being able to live on in memories maybe.

I haven't figured it out. Sometimes I feel like Tony Hoagland, who wrote:

At this state in the journey

I would estimate the distance
between myself and my feelings
is roughly the same as the mileage

from Seattle to New York.

I don't have an answer. I'm not sure I will, but I am fairly sure that it doesn't matter in the grand scheme of things whether I find out or not. Here is another Hoagland-ism from the same poem, "Self-Improvement:"

Often we ask ourselves
to make absolute sense
out of what just happens,
and in this way, what we are practicing

is suffering,
which everybody practices,
but strangely few of us
grow graceful in.

To grow graceful. To rail against. To acquiesce. To rebel against. To delve. To try to understand. To make peace with. What we come up with, our own answer, is our life.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Floating Under the Stars, or Open Book in Case of Emergency

Poetry goes deep. Like a 70-yard bomb dropped perfectly into the hands of your favorite wide receiver. When I read the right stuff, it connects every time. And I have to say it is more essential to my life and mental well being than fiction or non-fiction could ever be. Here's why.

When it comes to books, and probably life in general, I am demanding but have a chronically short attention span. As I've said before, my mind is a series of tangents, followed until the next one comes along . Poetry can deliver in one re-readable, memorizable page what it takes a novel or narrative non-fiction book hundreds of pages to accomplish. And sometimes I need that quick fix, something to straighten my soul out that hits like a shot of bourbon.

At my existentially loneliest, I reach for poetry. When other books feel like a distraction, which is sometimes welcome, most of the time I know I need to sit and ponder. To wonder, to question, to try to get to the bottom and come out the other side.

Saturday I was having one of those kind of evenings, stockpiling some moments like that, when really I shouldn't have been. I had watched our daughters played field hockey, taken them and a friend to see a Spanish Galleon/tall ship in Oxford, then swimming at the Strand. It was a good, full day. The girls were napping. And those existential crisis moments come up on me unexpected.

So I reached for James Tate's "Memoir of the Hawk" and a pale ale. I sat on the deck, listened to the breeze talking to the trees; the birds chirp over the quieter wind; and I dug in. And I did the same thing Sunday, when time presented itself. I did a fair amount of underlining. Tate tapped me on the shoulder with this, looking for that perfect, private place to escape to:

has never been discovered,
is thought to be the source of all fire.
is a pigpen for the soul,
changes its shape and location
when you try to think of it.

I know that place. It recedes into the horizon before you can quite make it out. It's always just beyond my grasp. Fu**ing Tantalus, reaching for hanging fruit, just out of reach. And that doesn't help me solve anything, but it puts me in the frame of mind where, hey, this cat Tate, maybe he knows where I'm coming from. Then he goes for broke in a poem called "Scattered Reflections:"

And only myself to blame--love,
booze, stupidity, mix 'em up
and you'll find yourself babbling
to God in Arabic about a demonic cat
living in your head next to the
fiery urinal.

Good writing, for me, should make you think, should make you laugh, should connect you to the broader world. Love, booze and stupidity will leave you dumbfounded.

When I was young,
I thought respectable meant dead.

And then at some invisible point
you realize it is the same story
told over and over, and that's
when you either move on or die.

Maybe we all reach that point. Where we recognize the rut. Where wherever we go, we are stuck hearing the same cocktail party banter, sitting in the same cubicle, walking in circles. We're like a dog, spinning itself a space to lie down.

But here is where Tate lets loose the long tight spiral that lands in my hands in stride down the sideline:

I drove the whole country, examining
homes, stores, businesses, streets,
people, like a crazed inspector general,
when all I was looking for was me.
I concluded that there was no me,
just flutterings, shudderings, and shadows.
I think most people feel the same way,
and it isn't bad, floating under the stars
at night like fireflies sending signals.

Floating under the stars at night. Maybe that is what we do in this life. And we're so concerned that we're floating on the right kind of raft, or boat, or if we have on our swanky swimsuits, that we forget to look up. We forget to look at the stars.

Floating under the stars at night. And it isn't bad.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Already Read 'Em, An Experiment

This is not my bookshelf. This is not my house. This is not my to be read pile. But it could be if I let it. Bibliophiles are a dangerous lot, always pulling in new books around us. We can't wait to read the next book, before we are even finished the current book.

There is a great scene/line in the remake of the movie "Cape Fear," where Max Cady (played by Robert De Niro) is getting out of prison. When he is sent to prison, he can't read. So Nick Nolte isn't worried about Cady realizing that he let him hang, so to speak. But Cady/De Niro teaches himself to read. And he reads like crazy. And figures shit out. And along the way he develops a collection of books, which he is leaving in his prison cell as he walks to be released. So he is walking out with the guards and another guard calls out:

"Hey Cady, what about your books?"

"Already read 'em."

The ultimate utilitarian. They have served their purpose. Later, bitches. A bibliophile, Cady is not.

There is a funny thing about my bookshelves and my books. I haven't already read them all. I'm a tangential reader--I'll have books lined up to read next and some stray thought from something I am reading runs me down a mental rabbit hole, I pick up a new book and the book that was next in line gets backburnered. Rinse, repeat.

So I own some kickass books that I haven't read. And it is time to read them. Because some of them are beyond classic. And they are already here, living with me, untapped.

Here is the experiment: no new books. No new books so that I get to, and stick to, reading some of what is here. My goal is to go for a year. That would be some shit. But I will try six months, and then take the experiment's pulse. The goal is not to read all of my unread books. That would take more than a year. The goal is to spend the next six months to a year reading only books I already own. No new books.

But it hardly limits my reading. I am a slow reader. I am not saying I will get through this list, or that I won't modify it by swapping out one book for another off the shelf. But with a little thought, here is what an opening salve:


"Ulysses," James Joyce
"The Old Man and the Sea," Ernest Hemingway (haven't read since high school)
"Far Tortuga," Peter Matthiessen
"Cathedral," Raymond Carver (short stories, have read a few of them)
"The Once and Future King," T.H. White (have read part)
"V.," Thomas Pynchon
"The Sound and the Fury," William Faulkner


"The Spell of the Sensuous," David Abram
"The Poetics of Space," Gaston Bachelard
"Travels with Herodotus," Ryszard Kapuscinski
"Forests," Robert Pogue Harrison
"The Golden Bough," Sir James George Frazier

A formidable list. I am first finishing Cormac McCarthy's "Blood Meridian," and Tony Horwitz's "Confederates in the Attic," before embarking, but buying no new books begins today, Sept. 15, 2014. Vegas odds aren't good that I can complete this experiment; that I won't cave like a book junkie and have a book binge, but I am going to give it a shot.

The book selling industry may feel a slight pinch. And I guess there are at least a couple reasons behind this experiment. One would be not spending money I don't have to spend, when the riches are already here. It frees up more cash for craft beer :)

But I think the bigger point is that reading isn't always about reading the next thing or the new thing. If your mind is actively engaging what it is encountering, and adding its own thoughts and depth, then the right stuff finds it and even more mundane reading (which this list is not) can turn into big stuff. Sometimes it is the reader, not the book. Books are the stimulus, not the result. You are the result, what you do with or from or because of the stimulus/book.

And that isn't to reduce books, literature, or art to just being stimuli. But that is in effect what it is. A painting is experienced by a viewer, a book by a reader, who reacts to it. Who takes it in. Who studies it. Who feels it. Who relates it to their own experience. And in that respect, art, to the viewer, the reader, the audience, is to be experienced, to stimulate us. To make us think; to make us cry; to make us laugh; to make us create; to make us question; to make us wonder; to make us love.

We have to change ourselves. I have to change myself. The lesson, perhaps, is to look at what is around me, the things I already have, rather than continually looking for new and next. And I am excited for the books that are here.

And why not start with a literary mountain to climb? Next up, Ulysses. Let's talk, JJ.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Light Blue Male

He was the last of the litter. When we got there to meet him his mother, Ginger's owners simply called him "Light Blue Male," as they identified he and his brothers and sisters by the color ribbon they had around their neck. I ran around the back yard with him. The puppies weren't old enough to go home yet, so we came back on Nov. 7, 2000, and brought the newest member of our family, Ivan, our Golden Retriever puppy home with us.

Golden Retrievers weren't new to me. When I was nine, our family mutt, Lucy, died and I was given the choice as to what kind of dog we got next. I went for a Golden then, and named her Morgan, after Morgan Le Fay, of Arthurian fame and infamy. Ivan's name, how many years later, circled back. I dug the story of Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott. There was Tolstoy's short story, "The Death of Ivan Ilyich." And as we would come to know him, there was also "Ivan the Red," or "Ivan the Terrible."

On our drive back to Easton from outside Baltimore, we stopped at Wendy's and got him some fries, as friends had done likewise with their new puppy coming home.

We quickly learned that Ivan's sense of direction went in a straight line. If he could find a weak point in a fence, he was through it; if not, he was over or under it, and then he was a nose-to-the-ground bolt, not thinking of coming home until corralled and dragged him in shame.

I have never had a more unforgettable pet. Or a pet who dealt with more changes, all in stride. Ivan joined our family before our daughters Anna (12) and Ava (9) were born. He moved with us from one house to another. He has seen cats come and go, birds and fish, and another dog join him. None of it really phased him.

Water dog. Watching him run and jump, dock dog style off a floating dock in Wye Mills, there was little doubt of his water roots. Most of the time he swam, I had to get in with him and keep him on a leash, or he would swim straight out from the shore into open water.

Training partner. I have run trails with some speedy humans. But none could touch Ivan, whether an 11-mile trail run, or five, anytime I thought I had more energy, I was quickly proven wrong. Some of my favorite times with him, were out running together, watching him in complete doghood.

Car traveler? Not so much. On his first trip to Butler, Pa., Ivan traveled in his crate and proceeded to chew the rubber mat he was lying on to shreds. On shorter trips as he got older, the nose in the wind with the window down, must be universal for all dogs.

Voracious Omnivore. Ivan should have been dead long ago. He has been on a steroid that kept him from pulling his fur out for itchy skin. The steroid made him eat like a tornado with teeth. Baby-proofing a house is easier. He scarfed whole steaks and pizzas off the kitchen counter; ate a box of pancake batter; tore through a box of Swiss Miss hot chocolate packets (on a then white area rug); chewed through aluminum cat food cans; tore through juice boxes; and would get butcher knives out of the sink and carry them to lick them clean. He had a gut lined with iron.

Ceaseless family member. Ivan helped raise two babies, as well as having their friends over. He had toddlers use his fir to pull themselves up; he was pawed and pet and smushed at every turn. Between kids, other animals joining the family, he has been steadfast, and only ever redirected with his tongue, licking kids off of him. Just don't try to take his dinner.

This past Sunday, on Sept. 7, Ivan turned 14. He outlived pretty well all the other dogs he knew as a puppy. He slowed down a lot this summer and I wasn't sure he would see Labor Day. Last Wednesday, he took a turn for the worse and we took him to the vets: tumor in his stomach, lymphoma. It was a matter of days or weeks. He couldn't get up without help, was quickly losing his quality of life. He couldn't do the things that always made him happy.

Yesterday he stopped getting up, or wanting help. When the vet came over, he could tell he was in more pain, his stomach had gotten much worse. We made the tough decision, but the only one that felt right, to let him go. So we held him in our arms and said good-bye.

One minute the dog you have loved is in your arms and hurt and panting. And then he's not. His body is there and he looks the same, but he's gone. Free from pain, free from the body that had broken down on him.

A number of people have talked about the poem, "The Rainbow Bridge." I haven't read it and am not sure I will. When I over the course of my life about a family pet, Ivan is the first name and face that comes to mind. He epitomized what that meant. Seeing him at peace at the end of his life, I also see him at the peak of his life, running, chasing squirrels (he once caught one), rolling in the cool dirt, swimming and eating.

Of all the nicknames he had, the one he most earned, just now, is Ivan the Unforgettable. The light blue ribbon he wore around his neck was the color of the sky. And now the sky will be Ivan's color to me. The color of the sky: light blue male.