Friday, July 23, 2010

Getting Out of the Sweltering City

In Baltimore, a little way up Harford Road, you'll find Clifton Park. It's on the east side of the road, and stretches all the way over to Belair Road. There's a public golf course, and, nearby, you'll find what used to be called Lake Clifton High School. Clifton Park, if I am not mistaken, used to be the country estate of Johns Hopkins, the man who now has his name on a prestigious university and hospital, and is a well-known patriarch of Charm City. As I understood it, Clifton Park was where the Hopkinses used to retire during the hottest of the summer months, to escape the unpleasantness of the sweltering city. I always found this odd, since Clifton Park really isn't that far away from what would have been the city limits back in Johns' day, but, when you think about it, an August day in Baltimore in the 19th century was probably pretty heinous. Not in the muggy quality (which it certainly possessed), but in the funkiness. I can only imagine that the garbage, the water, the ships, the sailors, all were pretty offensive. So, being hot and sweaty in the middle of a giant park was clearly a respite from the hot and sweaty and stenchy (What? "Stenchy" is not a word?) conditions immediately surrounding a harbor town.

So, in that great tradition (not the philanthropic one, in which I make millions and then found a university, an orphanage, a hospital, and art museum, etc., etc.) Monkey and I are off to escape the dog days on the Plains, the mid-nineties, the high dew points. Our destination is the cool and mountainous Eastern Slope. Colorado, here we come!

We hope to return with a plethora of stories to shock and amaze (or at least entertain), and a multitude of images to share. We hope the weather is better than last year, that our hikes are dryer, and that our spirit remains undaunted by any set backs. We'll communicate with you again when we return. Westward, ho!

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Being What You Are

What are you? Are you more prone to identify yourself by some familial relationship (mother, father, brother, sister, aunt), or are you more likely to identify yourself by your profession (teacher, chef, truck driver, manager)? Are you the thing you practice (writer, musician, quilter), or the thing you have nearly perfected (scrap booker, reader, gardener)? Are you all of these things?

Well, of course, you are. That's probably the easiest set of related questions you might ponder today. We all identify ourselves in multiple ways. One of the earliest activities I do with my kiddos is to have them self-identify. They can find it hard, at first, to discover the words to describe themselves. Many use simple adjectives, but, more often, they use labels that correspond to sports, hobbies, and familial connections. It can sometimes be very telling how a person chooses to describe him/her self.

I had an opportunity to describe myself, this weekend. Meeting new people is always a chance to refine how you identify yourself, isn't it? (Or as James would say, "Init?") So, in meeting new people, the chance to define myself as a "musician" and a "writer" came up. In both instances, I was hesitant to do so. My first tag for myself is definitely, "teacher." It is no surprise that I define myself primarily through my work. It is either nature or nurture, but I get that from goes way back. Following that would be "husband." Third might be "dog owner," since that is a pretty big part of my life right now. Maybe I throw in "baseball fan," or "coffee drinker," or "closet Libertarian," at this point, but "writer" and "musician" come way down the list, if they make it at all.

My reticence to self-identify as a writer led to a discussion of what defines a writer. After all, here I am, right now, writing. Thus, I am a writer, right? Well, yes. What is a writer? A person who writes. Do I write? Yes. So, what's the problem? Right.

Same for musician (but, if I had to only choose a label between "writer" and "musician," I am going "writer" every time...I at least feel like a competent writer...I am not a very competent musician). I play music, therefore I am a musician.

But, is there some other aspect of it that causes me this pause when I have to claim a membership in the writer's club? I suppose it is a need to have some one else lend legitimacy to what I am doing. Here I sit at a desk full of folders of my own products. But very few of those creations have been seen by anyone. A few poems sent out (years ago), some even published. A play that was given a public reading. But, most of it is here with me, and, most likely, here it will stay. Writing isn't my means of making a living, and, as I mentioned earlier, that is the primary way that I identify myself. Until I am regularly (or sufficiently) paid to write, I will not be a writer. The more I think about it, the less I like how that sounds.

In a review of Daniel Johnston's newest release, Douglas Wolk said, "There is no valid excuse for not making your art in a world where Daniel Johnston managed to do what he did." I am really taking that to heart. Surely, however, it begs the question of whether art without an audience is art, at all. Which, in a way, is the same thing as the tree falling in the forest. And, again, presupposes that others legitimize you. And I want to get away from that. So, for the sake of my own argument (and personal growth, perhaps), I am going to say that art without an audience, while denying the world an experience, is still art. David is still David when the lights go out at the Academy.

So, yes, I am a writer. I mean, in a way, this whole self-doubt thing is silly, considering that I spend 190 days a year telling kids who hate to write that they ARE writers. And I believe it, but, I wonder if I might be saying the word in a different way. Yes, they are writers, but David Mitchell, he's a WRITER. I don't know. But, if I am, I am doing them a disservice. Because Johnny Grumplepants in the third row and John Irving both do it the same way. One might be better at it. One might be more experienced. But, the act of writing is the act of writing, and when I write, I am a writer, dammit.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Like Getting Married All Over Again

I have written about three versions of what went down this weekend, when the Long Haulers came to visit. Nothing captures what really went down. So, I have decided that, rather than twist in the scrivening wind a fourth time, I will simply give you a bullet pointed version of the weekend.

--Meeting Melissa and Tom on Friday at Bread and Cup was great fun. They seemed really interesting and interested. It was easy and enjoyable to talk to them. I was actually excited about Saturday after meeting them on Friday. (Honestly, I was not super excited before was more like a sort of low-level dread.)

--Saturday morning was one of those "What the %^$# did I get myself into?" mornings. The ease that I felt after Friday had dissipated in the night, and I began to feel a bit nervous again.

--Tom and Melissa had some camera issues on Saturday morning. They arrived later than expected, and while Tom set up in the living room, Monkey and Melissa walked about the house, while Melissa filmed the tour. Then, Monkey and I went out back and did some "everyday stuff," like playing ball with the mutts and reading the paper, for the sake of getting some "couple doing everyday stuff" footage. I picked a tomato. After a little while, that feeling of comfort and well-being returned and the nerves went away.

--The "interview" was great. It went kind of long (multiple hours), but it was awesome to talk with Monkey about us. Something we don't really do that much. We even learned some stuff from years ago that we didn't know about each cool is that?

--The dogs were awesome. Parker bumped the cameras a couple of times, and he may have put a paw on the computer keyboard a few times (I don't think to any detrimental effect), but, for the most part, they just sacked out for the day.

--After the interview, we sat in the dining room and had a beer and just talked about stuff (Truly, even when I lecture all day (which I rarely do) I don't think I talk as much as I talked on Saturday.). Monkey suggested we all go out for dinner again. Tom and Melissa were up for it. We met at Yia Yia's for pizza.

--Dinner Saturday night was great, too.

--Overall, an experience that I didn't really expect to be great turned out to be 100 times more than that. First, it was an extreme pleasure to meet and hang out with two great people. But, even more so, it was so wonderful to spend almost a whole day just focusing on my marriage with Monkey. It occurs to me that talking about our marriage this past Saturday was, in a way, as beautiful and awesome as getting married on that Saturday almost a dozen years ago.

Thanks, Melissa and Tom for both opportunities.

Friday, July 16, 2010

A Dose of Dimness

So, hooray, they may have finally plugged the oil leak. That's great. It really is. But, I just can't get too excited over it. I think I am suffering from too much cynicism. Or maybe it's just reality. I mean, plugging up a deep sea gusher after three months and 200 million gallons is like signing a peace treaty after a mutually destructive global nuclear war. I mean, let the healing begin, sure, but things are so totally fucked, how long is it going to take?

Not to mention that this good news comes at a time when that wacky, wonderful war in Afghanistan (you know, the one that is "Obama's War") is getting more dicey by the day. And....

Look, I am not trying to bum anybody out, but I have been thinking, lately. Perhaps more than usual. Everything is hosed. Everything. There are very few things in this world that I can think of right now, beside the things that I have a direct hand in making or keeping a certain way, that work for me. The small picture stuff: my marriage, my dogs, those things are good. My house is falling apart around me, and my job is sort of undefined, right now, but I can deal with those things. But, all the big picture stuff: economic stuff, big business stuff, energy stuff, conservation stuff, political stuff...all that is just totally off the rails. And I don't know what to do about it.

I can hear the chorus of folks out there saying, "Live a purposeful life. Make the right choices." I see that as being more and more impossible every day. I feel like every time I think I have a handle on some kind of small act, it is co-opted, or I figure out it isn't the good choice I thought it was. And, anyway, it shouldn't be that hard to live a life that doesn't support criminality, amorality, unethical behavior, or the hi-jacking of the planet's genetic code. I can't take it.

In French class, one year in high school, we listened to a French song called "Si j'etais presidente (If I were president)" I don't remember any of the lyrics (except the title line from the chorus), but the gist of it was that this singer would make the country and the world into his ideal if he had the power. We had to write our own version. Since it was in French, and I was an average student of the language, at best, I am certain that Ms. Butcher doesn't have my lyrics in a portfolio of excellent student work somewhere in her files marked "Baltimore Polytechnic Institute (1980s)." But, I know I didn't take the assignment that seriously, anyway. I just wanted to make sure I used at least 70% of my vocabulary words correctly, therefore ensuring a grade of C. What I would really do...well, that didn't really enter into it.

I wonder what our current leader would write (in English), if he were posed with this assignment? I think we had some idea that some change was coming. Well, some change has come, most notably in the form of a new Health Care Bill, soon to be making its way into reality. But, it is and will continue to be molded, watered down, and hacked away at by pharmaceutical companies (especially the two with revenues in excess of $60 billion) and insurance lobbyists and other special interest groups until it doesn't do anything but waste money, time, and people. What else?

I guess that might be another reason why I feel so defeated, right now. I guess I was expecting more from BO. Instead, I just see a smarter version of the same dumb shit: poor response to a Gulf disaster and floundering policies in the middle east. I know that he is not single-handedly responsible for these things, but he has to take the heat as much as his predecessor. It just makes me wonder: are we so far down the road that we can't get turned around and onto a better track?

But, what would I do, si j'etais presidente? I guess it doesn't matter. It's never going to happen. And, even if it did, any efforts I made to create my vision would be thwarted by everyone who has even a tiny bit of power, money, and influence. They'd want to keep that power, that money, that influence. Who wouldn't? But, aaaargh, the world as it is is so ridiculously messed up. In so many ways. What can we do? What can I do? You know, besides move to Canada, eh?

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Stuck Between Stations

In the dull morning light at the edge of town, Holly lifted the blinds and sighed. Out the window, the rain had doused the street trash and left it running in the gutter. Her face held the reflected gloom in the wrinkled corners of her eyes and the crags that traced her jowls from mouth's edge to chin. She hacked. She coughed. She got up out of the bed.

She'd had a rough time of it the last couple of years: hospital trips, living in a tent down by the river, being born again (and lost, again), reeling in the years. It seemed like every time she had her cob-webby head above water, bobbing in sight of dry land, some eddy or rip tide would suck her down and drag her back out to sea.

The soundtrack of her life had been little stories of hoodrats and soccer punks, drug dealers, massive nights, and a multitude of casualties. Power chords, key board riffs, and some Kerouac-cum-Randy Newman-sounding dude chattering away and snapping his fingers like a four year-old on speed. It was no kind of soundtrack for a forty year-old. Hell, it was no kind of life, either.

But, lately, something was missing. The spastic energy of her life to this point was bearable, even enjoyable (dim and dangerous, yes, but hella fun), but for the last year or so, something was akilter. Some kind of yin was missing from her yang. Some sort of ipso was no longer a part of her facto. Some manner of tic was not accompanying her toc. The shape was there. The word was there. The sound was there. But it had a different tenor, a new tone, a subtly altered hue.

Last night, that band had played, The Hold Steady. Sounded good. Rocked and rolled in all the right places. Payed its dues with sweat. But where was that other guy, this time? The buttoned-up, mustachioed fellow in the flat cap and suit vest, swigging red wine right from the bottle and zipping his digits over the keyboard like he'd been born behind a Hammond organ? Sure, they had a keyboard player, now relegated to the back of the stage and playing riffs he never invented, but that front-man energy was missing from the stage. That energy that acted as a balance to the lead singer's pogo-stick energy--a balance to the talky-singer's white tennis shoes, his ephemeral, and strangely uncoordinated, stadium rock pose--was not there. The music, it all sounded right. But the vibe, the vibe was off.

It's funny how that happens. You take something away, and you think you can replace it. Hell, for the most part, you do replace it. But something is forever changed. Something you can't even imagine becomes something else (and you might not even notice it IS something else). Like that time, down by the banks of the Mississippi River, when she woke up bathed in a hot soft light....

Monday, July 05, 2010

Thank You, China, For Your Explosive Technology

I never grew up with the fireworks tradition. Yes, we'd have a Fourth of July cook out every year. We'd swim and eat hot dogs and potato salad. Sometimes, we'd go to a parade. Sometimes, we'd make our way to Fullerton for some professional displays of glowing metal and gun powder flares. A couple of years, someone would even procure some bottle rockets or fire crackers and light a few off in the backyard. Where Monkey and I come from, however, fireworks are verboten. There are no stands, no tents, no sales. You buy sparklers at the grocery store, if you want, but you are not buying, or legally lighting anything else, in the Old Line State. As a result, July 4 is a holiday that troubles me. Certain aspects of it, at least. I expect, here in the corn belt, where they celebrate America's independence with an orgy of flaring paper tubes and exploding sticks, that someone will either be seriously injured, or that someone will set a car or house on fire. Don't mistake me, I am all for celebrating our nation's independence from the "bad king" (as a friend of ours' four year-old once put it), but I had a few moments of fear and loathing last night, once the rain stopped and the sun went down.

It has been mentioned here before that our oldest dog, Ripken, is a bit on the skittish side when it comes to noise. A rattle of pots in the cupboard will send him bolting for the living room, head down and tail between his legs. It makes it easy to distract him if he ever does anything wrong. All I have to do is raise my voice, and he immediately stops doing anything. This is only a problem when I am correcting Parker, the puppy, since Ripken is then the one who immediately goes into "submissive" mode. If only Parker were as quick to get the message, but he'll learn.

As a result of this skittishness, Ripken hates hates hates the 4th of July. For him, it's three days of scary noises which cause him to hold all bodily functions until the coast is clear. It can't be healthy. He's been this way since as long as Monkey and I remember, and neither of us can think of what might have caused this personality trait in our handsome old boy.

Yesterday, the actual Fourth, was of course, expected to be the pinnacle of bangs and booms, of high pitched rocket whine and foundation-shaking shell bursts. We held out hope, however, that it wouldn't be too bad. The previous two days had been acceptable, as far as the volume and density of explosives-related noise in the general vicinity. On top of that, it was raining heavily from the early AM hours, and the forecast was for unrelenting rain and storms all day. Surely, that would put a damper on the fireworks, we thought. Ripken would be able to spend a wet, but anxiety-free holiday for once.

Unfortunately, around four in the afternoon, the rain broke, and by seven PM, the sun was out. Like roaches in the dark, the pyros filled the streets almost the minute the last raindrop fell. As a result, our after-dinner walk was curtailed, as nearly every corner in our little neighborhood was stationed by an army of children and adults with that wild red-eyed look they get when shit is blowing up.

Truth be told, Money and I had an invitation to a party, so we snuck out for a few hours. We left the stereo playing for Ripken (he spends the loudest parts of the fourth in our relatively sound-proof basement), and could tell by Parker's behavior to this point that his time in the crate would have no detrimental effect upon him...he is, to this point, fearless to a point of stupidity.

At the party, as the sun began to set, boxes and bags, crates and truck beds full of fireworks appeared. In the cul de sac on which our party was being held, a seeming free-for-all of children and "supervising" adults were firing off every kind of air- and ground-based entertainment explosive that could be bought, smuggled, or finagled from the various tents and stands around town. Who was I to complain? Part of the tradition of the holiday is the lighting off of fireworks, and IT IS LEGAL in our town to shoot fireworks on July 3 and 4, until midnight. If it's legal, then okay.

But, honestly, it's still annoying. Especially when Monkey and I arrived home at 9:30 to find our entire street engulfed in gun smoke, and populated with cars and people there to watch the fireworks at the country club down the street and to explode the rest of their soon-to-be-illegal stash. The video above is from the street right outside the Monkey House. It doesn't capture the scene as it truly was. The sounds in the background, while difficult to hear throughout the video, were constant and everywhere. The pall of smoke, visible in the streetlight's glow, was more prevalent, in truth.

The funny thing that dawned on me this morning: all of this mayhem (welcome to the war zone, it seemed) is legal (albeit for two days) just outside my front door, but I have to keep my chickens fifty feet away from your house? My chickens are not going to explode and set your roof on fire, are they?