Saturday, November 30, 2013

The End of Autumn: Return to DC

Strom Thurmond, when he was Senate president pro tem in 1998, was known to start every morning that the Senate was in session by calling the Senate to order and introducing the morning prayer with an assertive knock of the gavel.

Whether the gallery was filled with DC tourists as they watched the proceedings of the day or simply called to order in a vacant room (as it rarely was that session), the orders of the day would not commence without that ritual. In 1998, he was still the oldest Senator to have ever served his country. And it would be another five years before he would retire.

What is less commonly thought of as a Senate morning ritual was when Senator Thurmond entered the Senate chamber each morning and looked over the sleepy-eyed but eager group of navy-suited high schoolers and called out gamely in his cadenced Southern accent, “howallthePagesdoin'thismornin'?” To which we murmured our response: “very well,sir.”

I know this because when I was sixteen, I was one of 26 students from around the US that served as a Senate page in 1998. That was the session of Clinton’s impeachment trial, the Starr report, John Glenn’s departure for space. The Page position (which is offered three times each year) is often a stopover on the way to government service and the role itself is an institution almost as old as the Senate. When I was sixteen, I imagined myself as a future ambassador or diplomat almost as much as I imagined myself a poet or karaoke star. But in all my imagining of a future self, I don't think I ever imagined myself getting older at all.

But age and personal evolution are a relentless thing. And nearly 15 years later I returned

to DC in order to visit my company’s East coast office.

Instead of staying at a hotel, I dropped onto the couch of another former page who did, indeed, find his way back to DC. He picked me up in his petite, sporty black car from the airport, looking well-groomed and Senatorial in his grey work suit with a fashionably thin pink tie. At 10 p.m. when he picked me up, he had just gotten off work and didn’t appear disgruntled or perturbed. We went straight out for alcoholic milkshakes at a place called Ted’s Bulletin.

Ted’s Bulletin is a hipster oasis in an landscape of Talbot’s suits. The menus have been made to look like old fashioned news bulletins, the waiters wear straw hats, the walls are brick, and a film from the 40s is projected silently onto an open wall. Homemade blueberry cheesecake pop tarts are on the dessert menu.

But I suppose what is most interesting about Ted’s Bulletin is its location. In Page school, they began each term with a basic self defense course for everyone (probably geared more for hick students like me who grew up in towns that could list their population on a sign and could count the number of traffic lights downtown). The instructors (most likely students from one of the DC universities) stood front-and-center in the sallow-lit common room and terrified us:

“Remember that you should not fight when someone attacks you, you should just run!”

“An easy weapon if you have to fight: simply carry your keys in a ball in your fist and use them as brass knuckles.”

They also sketched maps of the DC areas that we night want to avoid (particularly after dark). Southeast DC certainly had a large, comprehensive X through it. A veritable elephant graveyard on our radar. And now I was drinking milkshakes that were made to taste like girl scout cookies in a falsely nostalgic bar in that very neighborhood. I would also be sleeping in that neighborhood, walking to the Metro from there. Things seem to have changed since I've been gone...

“It’s been fifteen years,” J reminds me as we walk past the old page dorm later that
weekend, wondering if we should go in.

“Can you imagine?” he asks for what is maybe the third time since I've arrived, “if someone came into the dorm when we were staying there as pages? That means that they would have been pages in 1983.”

He's right, of course. It seems absurd. I imagine the hair styles paired with their blue suits, the music that they must have played in their hallways, the foiled and clumsy romances. When they were serving in their nation's capital, I was barely one year old and they were imagining their lives yet to come.

That is the way of places that I've lived in before. I go to the Kennedy Center with its red-bannered hallways that are the size of boulevards for the first time and I watch a ballet, I help my co-workers finish a dangerous pitcher of Magaritas and a gourmet Mexican restaurant. I look out at Dupon Circle from our new office and think about the coming year for our business, but the thing that arouses a sincere and almost cumbersome feeling
within me are the memories that surface when I see something no grander than the Capitol Hill corner store that I used to shop in for hot pockets, or the apartment complex where I first watched Buffy the Vampire Slayer when I was a teenager, or the steps of congress (now blocked off to the public) where my Page friend took what is still my favorite picture of me.

The ritual of life seems slow: going to the same office and possibly the same set of problems every day makes you forget that life is passing and generating staggering statistics in your own life. This year I will consume more than a ton of food, 630 pounds of milk, yogurt, cheese and ice cream alone (and let’s be honest, possibly more than that), I will spend more than $1000 going out to lunch, 52 days watching TV, and I will never notice how much of that is just cycling away into an anonymous history.

It’s things like this that make me think change is not only necessary for the sake of
progress, but so that you have a place to return to in order to be reminded of the pace of your own life. And, honestly, with a daily motorcycle ride, a company that is growing at an exponential rate and a languishing publishing career, I need a reminder of the pace my life is moving at.

In the book The Age of Insight they describe the mood of Austria in 1902 based on reports from Berta Zuckerkandl who wrote of Rodin’s and Klimt’s meeting a momentous salon. Ostensibly,

“Rodin leaned over to Klimt and said ‘I have never before experienced such an atmosphere – your tragic and magnificent Beethoven fresco; your unforgettable, temple-like exhibition; and now this garden, these women, this music… and round it all this gay, childlike happiness… What is the reason for it all? And Klimt slowly nodded his beautiful head and answered only one word: ‘Austria.’”

I have that same bewildered wonder as I look around at my life and the path that's led me onward. I don't understand how age has brought me to this place sometimes. The way I am almost always trying to negotiate what it is like to go home again and see the people that I love. I might sit across from the table from my father this Christmas and say “I have never experienced such an atmosphere – this busy
and remarkable trip to our nation’s capital, this unforgettable array of people whose names populate my address book, and now this moment: the return home, the return to work, my cat, my lover, my bed – and surrounding all this a bewildered sense of wonder that seems totally out of time. What is the reason for it all?”

And my father, I imagine turning slowly to me with a wry grin on his face at his own glibness as he responds with just two words “your 30s.”

My friend J and I talk about how we miss travel: how the scope of our once-mobile worlds seem somewhat constricted and how it often makes us a little sad... But we also smile at each other over the wreckage of our milkshakes and speak with such gladness that we can return to the people and places that have given us such rare and luminous moments: ballet, cheap take-out, laughter, and a sense of how every part of the journey is a gift that I wish
we were aware of every day. 

On the day that my favorite picture was taken of me, I was wearing my boxy navy blue suit that my mother had purchased for me from JC Penny’s. J and I had detoured on the way back from some Senate errand and we went to go take in the mid-November view from the steps of Congress down to the Washington monument. J – always with his trusty camera in-hand started snapping photos the moment we stepped outside and just as his photo session his a fever pitch, the snow began to fall in earnest. I walked slowly down the steps towards my friend (someone I couldn’t know would still be in my life fifteen years later) and realized how remarkable the moment I was living in was. Maybe not in the context of history, but within my own life: the snow slowing wilting my hair, the comprehensive view across the city, the freedom of a life without parents, and I started grinning the way you do when you catch yourself in your own life. And that was when J took the picture.  

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Holiday On the Edge of the Inferno

Summer ends and another year of business begins with the annual dawn of Labor Day. This year, I woke up headfirst in a pile of my own clothes in a tent at an elevation of 7,000 feet above sea level. In spite of the fact that the hills have been burning for weeks, there is no fire here, just the vague smell of smoke and a haziness over the tops of the trees. The weather is glorious, in fact: warm lake-floating, hiking weather. Outside the tent, a dog is already patrolling the perimeter, snuffling at his tin food bowl, curling up in an astonishingly small ball of fur, waiting for the rest of us to get up.

In a few minutes, I hear the sounds of the eight-year-old giggling and rustling into her purple down jacket to walk to the bathroom, then her father and his girlfriend wondering aloud about whether there is enough bacon for everyone. When we emerge from our tent, we all snuffle quietly around the
site like the dog and smile at each other, re-teaching ourselves how to toast bagels in a skillet.

The forest had been burning for weeks, starting on August 17th and it plowed through over 200,000 acres of land; gnashing up trees, brush, branches and a swath of land that is comprehensively bigger than the city of Chicago. They call it the Yosemite Rim Fire and it swallowed a summer camp and over 100 more human structures. The moment that Jason and I hit the edge of Desolation Wilderness, a gray miasma seemed to be pluming from nowhere in thready clouds and the smell of smoldering brush was immediately in our noses. Completely ignoring the needs of Califonia tourist season and the end-of-summer holiday, the fire threatened to cut San Francisco off from its water supply and even had the temerity to develop its own weather system.

Nevertheless, traffic along route 50 heaped together at town centers, ice cream stands had long lines
In case you can't tell, the sign reads "Welcome to Kyburz,
Now Leaving Kyburz"
and people were content to set their folding lawn chairs directly into the sun-drenched meltwater river that we rode along. Autumn and California tourism are both inexorable, it seems.

It is an interesting thing: going camping with an eight-year-old. You realize how raw and un-evolved you might possibly be, how much you have in common. For example: when the adults fail to stop at In n’ Out Burger, you might very well both entirely lose your shit. When the battery on your phone dwindles slowly to dead, you might wander around in a funk wondering how you are ever going to get through the long ride home without your music. It is almost certainly true that you would rather be reading your book than talking to any of the very pleasant people that you are camping with. And both you and the eight year old are positively sure that “happy baby” is definitely the best yoga pose. And, of course, without sufficient snacks between meal times, you will surely consider throwing someone innocent into the fire.

At least, I can say that this is one of the most charming eight-year-olds I've ever met: interested in hiking, plant names, and yoga poses. Throughout the entire two-and-a-half days that we were in the mountains, she read her book, chatted gamely with the adults, went running up and down trails and climbed rocks more sociably than most of the adults that I know.

But what reveals itself just as plainly, is how much you have changed since last you were eight-years-old.

I wake in the middle of the night that first evening and I can’t breathe. I sit up, massaging my chest, feeling like I could shake something loose. I unzip the tent and walk around in the dark under a sky startlingly blank of stars. The whole world is dead quiet and much as I imagine black bears and coyotes beyond the ken of my night vision,  I realize that it is far more likely that what is making it so hard to breathe in the already thin air is not fear, but the smoke filtering through the trees. The rim fire burns through my mind as I zombie-shuffle through the camp site, imagining that I perhaps can see an orange glow reflected in the tops of the trees and I sit there considering it: its portents, how dry and burnt out the planet is, giving way to my thoughts about the vanishing coral reefs and the great Pacific garbage patch. It is difficult to sleep for the rest of the

At the campfire, after we’ve melted chocolate-covered marshmallows onto gourmet graham crackers, I realize that the purple-jacketed eight year old has maneuvered herself close to me, and by the shushing of her down jacket, I hear first and then feel her wrapping her arms around me while we watch the flames in the fire pit. I snuggle in closer, so pleased to have affection heaped on me: an almost stranger. And wonder how: in complete abandon, with absolutely no reserve or apprehension that I might pull away or reject her at all she can remain completely emotionally available. And I realize that the cheek now tucked under my chin has never known the pain of settling for second happiness.

In a moment of small drama, our eight-year-old takes awhile to come back from her walk around the campground with the dog and just as her father departed on the motorcycle to trace the camp paths looking for her she came triumphantly around the bend, announcing that she had gotten lost and found her way back and was now ready to do yoga. She regarded her absence as a grand adventure, her
return as a testament to her level-headedness and resources and not at all as a failure on her part to do what was expected of her. She didn't waste a moment of reflection or self-beration. She pulled out the thermarest and directed me to the large open field that was obligingly sunlit: “Time for Yoga!”

Autumn has always been a splendid and somewhat mournful season in my heart. I once read that the biggest changes in our life continue to follow the academic calendar no matter how old we are: new ritual beginnings in the autumn, grand adventures that begin in the springtime. I look back over a year of journal entries and realize that I have been in the same place for a year, that the only other country I traveled to this year was Canada, that I am in love and impatient as ever for adulthood to yield up something better than the privilege of being able to eat an ice cream sandwich at midnight if I wish to. I am wondering what this year will be the year of: the year of a career move, or the year of publication, the year of gaining five pounds or the year I learned how to sail? As summer closes down, I realize that there’s very little left of the year to define itself by. I’d better get to work.

The Yosemite rim fire has diminished over the past few weeks, but experts are still predicting that full containment won’t come until October. The fire has burned about 400 square miles, making it the third largest conflagration in California history. It is still unclear how the fire began, though a careless, unnamed hunter is thought to be the source. 

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Mr. Everyday Things: Billy Joel Day 2013

Today I’m thinking of late 70s 'fros, doo-wop comebacks, and the third best-selling solo artist in the United States. I’m thinking of American disappointment, of wars I didn’t experience, and frustrated love. I mean, I guess I’m just thinking of the whole human experience with all of the requisite high and low notes, those plot points that are revisited in pretty much every great work of art since we first put stick to sand.

In short, I’m in a New York state of mind.

I’m thinking of Billy Joel today, because (as many of my friends know) it’s a day that some fans and I set aside a few years ago for honoring the Piano Man. To celebrate properly, you should probably open a bottle of red or a bottle of white, lie down on the carpet and listen to some Billy Joel on vinyl. But, I suppose, it’s best if we all keep Billy Joel Day in our own way.  Maybe it’s a review of the interviews that he’s given, maybe it's re-reading a compendium of articles or sending a carefully-crafted piece of fan-mail, maybe it means dressing in a leather jacket and pouting at a camera.

For me, it comes in a semi-annual attempt to try and articulate what separates him from other artists in my mind. We’ll see what comes of this year’s parsing.

Perhaps (least romantically and just to get started), when it comes to the metrics, Billy Joel can take everyone to the mat.
  • He has produced 11 multi-platinum albums.
  • In the world of singles, he’s scored 3 #1 chart-toppers, 13 Top Ten Hits, and 33 Top 40 Hits.
  • He is a six-time Grammy winner (nominated 23 times).
  • He has sold over 150 million records worldwide (making him the 9th most successful solo artist of all time).
  • He is featured in Rolling Stone’s Top 100 albums of all time.
When it comes to technical accomplishment, it’s really hard to out-punch Billy Joel
  • Billy Joel began his training on piano at the age of four (mostly due to the influence of his parents). And although he wasn’t a fan of it at the time, he studied classical tunes, music theory, and received the benefits of a flush musical education in spite of his family often struggling to make ends meet.
  • He was playing in bands at the age of 14 almost full-time.
  • He studied with classical legends like Lennie Tristano and Mortin Estrin.
  • He learned about and was inspired by legends that he strived to honor: Beethoven, the Beatles, Ray Charles, James Brown and many others whose influence you can hear throughout his music.
  • And unlike many other stars of his day, Billy Joel has written and composed almost all of his own songs – making him one of the most competitive, well-rounded melodists in the biz
When it comes to hard work, Billy Joel paid his famous people dues and shows up in high company:
  • He became one of the first American rock acts to play in the USSR since the Berlin Wall went up.
  • He was inducted into the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame in 1999 (almost 35 years after he began his musical career) by his hero and major influence, Ray Charles.
  • The singer's stint of 12 shows at Madison Square Garden broke the former record held by, The Boss, Bruce Springsteen, who played 10 sold-out shows at the same arena. That record earned Joel the first retired number (12) in the arena owned by a non-athlete.
  • In 1991, he bagged ‘Grammy Legend Award’, a special award for merit given to the recording artists.
  • In 1997, he was given the ASCAP’s founder award for lifetime achievement.
But… I guess…

In the end…

…I’m not talking about any of that…

I like William Martin Joel, because he’s a geek in a way that is very familiar to me.

Actor Simon Pegg recently weighed in on the fan culture social classification system. His description has been memed and shared across various social media in the past year. Pegg said:

“Being a geek is all about being honest about what you enjoy and not being afraid to demonstrate that affection. It means never having to play it cool about how much you like something. It’s basically a license to proudly emote on a somewhat childish level rather than behave like a supposed adult. Being a geek is extremely liberating.”

Billy Joel’s a geek. And about two very important things. He’s a geek for music and he’s a geek for human beings.  

The greatest tragedy of the socially inept artist, is how reverently and tender they regard their fellow humans – even when that love results in a missed connections. Which, even in recent interviews, is the subject that Joel is most haunted by: his loneliness and longing for connection. Billy Joel, to me, with his sensitivity (and sometimes oversensitivity) is a great example of the intelligent nerd who is awed by the miracle of the world they are functioning in. Think of this favorite Joel moment -when he and a Vanderbilt student jam at a question and answer session:

and how pleased he is to invite another young artist onto his stage. Or (one of the moments that inspired the first Billy Joel Day) an instance in this 70s performance of New York State of Mind when Joel actually “geeks out” (as I would classify it) over a saxophone solo at the song’s climax (the solo begins around 6 minutes, 15 seconds, Joel’s reaction just after that)

He's so moved by being around a musical talent, that he stops his own performance. As an artist and as a person, Billy Joel is someone who feels warmth over the human experience in a painful and mortal fashion. Who, in spite of a long history of beautiful women and money and success, saves some of his most sincere feelings for artists that he's revered and the loneliness that he feels that might be unquellable. 

“Some writers can write reams of great books and then J. D. Salinger wrote just a few. Beethoven wrote nine symphonies. They were all phenomenal. Mozart wrote some 40 symphonies, and they were all phenomenal. That doesn’t mean Beethoven was a lesser writer, it’s just some guys are capable of more productivity, some guys take more time… Beethoven you hear the struggle in it. Look at his manuscripts, and there’s reams of scratched-out music that he hated. He stops and he starts. I love that about Beethoven, his humanity shows in his music.”

"So I go to visit my father in Vienna, I’m walking around this town and I see this old lady. She must have been about 90 years old and she is sweeping the street. I say to my father "What’s this nice old lady doing sweeping the street?” He says “She’s got a job, she feels useful, she’s happy, she’s making the street clean, she’s not put out to pasture”. We treat old people in this country pretty badly. We put them in rest homes, we kinda kick them under the rug and make believe they don’t exist. They [the people in Vienna] don’t feel like that. In a lot of these older places in the world, they value their older people and their older people feel they can still be a part of the community and I thought 'This is a terrific idea — that old people are useful -and that means I don’t have to worry so much about getting old because I can still have a use in this world in my old age. I thought “Vienna waits for you…”
From a Q&A about using Vienna as a metaphor:

"When I look at great works of art or listen to inspired music, I sense intimate portraits of the specific times in which they were created. And they have lasted because someone, somewhere felt compelled to create it, and someone else understood what they were trying to do. Why do we still respond when we bear the opening notes of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony—DA DA DA DA? Or Gershwin's Rhapsody In Blue? Or Little Richard's Tutti Fruitti? Because when we hear it we realize that we are still bound by a common emotion to those who came before us. Like family, we are irrevocably tied to each other because that same emotion still exists today. This is what all good musicians understand."
From his Berklee College Commencement Address:

I always thought it was interesting that one of the things that made Billy Joel “less cool” was his classical training. The very fact that he learned to play piano the way any of us could made him boring and unremarkable; that was a sign to the naysayers that he wasn’t “legit” the way someone whose musical blood pulsed pure and without influence. I think we’re somewhat embarrassed for him that he’s human, common and in public. And not only that… he’s singing about it. I really believe that’s part of makes him uncool – and part of what makes him so popular.

We’re talking about songs from confessionals.

I think popular artists who truly love and feel something are not only necessary, they are reassuring. They bring us sincerity and give us permission to present unvarnished emotion about what we love, what hurts, and what we hope for. These are important dialogues in an age of near-chronic irony. I sometimes worry as I listen to the latest droning explanation of why some band is “the next big thing” that unfiltered ardor is in danger of extinction. Songs of recognizably aching loneliness,  lyrics based on suicide notes or love songs that profess unassailable intimacy – it’s not a love that is enumerated, reasoned, out of reach – it’s just recognizable, human, vulnerability, and it doesn’t argue to be presented as anything else. It makes one want to stand back when someone else does something remarkable and say “what a marvelous thing to live in this fucked up universe.” And I guess that’s the way I love things, too.

It’s not particularly dignified or remarkable – but maybe that’s the most astonishing thing about it. It has no regard for how it appears. And in a world that is sometimes more concerned with the appearance of achievement, polish, and presentation, appearing just the way you are can be truly radical.

This small essay has largely been a collage of videos, transcripts, and articles. So I guess I’m still using Billy Joel’s art to explain itself. But if that’s working for you – what’s a few more? Listening to Billy Joel’s work is still one of the best ways to get in touch with him as a person and a great way to lean into some of our shared human experiences. My Billy Joel Day gift to you (the BJ songs I can’t stop listening to lately):

You're My Home:

Leave a Tender Moment Alone: 

Through the Long Night: 

This is the Time: 

All About Soul: 

All My Life: 

Tomorrow is Today: 


Just the Way You Are: 

While the Night Is Still Young: 


Happy Billy Joel Day! I’ll continue to keep it in my geek heart for many years to come.

Monday, June 17, 2013

California 2013: Sense and Sensibility

Alaska is known for its beautiful and rugged landscape, a fierce (and sometimes violent) history of gold and lumber-pillaging and is still the choice setting for much fishing, hunting, and the famous Iditarod. It also boasts a compelling wildness tipping point that is more fluid than most other places in the United States: bears that wander through grocery parking lots and moose whose hulking bodies mist morning backyards. 

The natural environment offers challenges in weather, accessibility, fierce beauty and formidability. It might be one of the reasons why the people that I’ve met who have lived there are some of the most interesting individuals I have ever run into. I’ve met them on dance floors and midnight at a hotel hot tub, at motorcycle bars and video arcades. They are vibrant, friendly, and in the chorus of the universe their voices are probably the most bold (and possibly slightly off-key).  Perhaps this is why I would like to go to Alaska someday: to be away from the things of man, to be close to people who affably clash with expectation, and to encounter a place that is still a little wild. I’m jealous of my friends’ summer sojourn there.

But right now I live in California, which is perhaps at the opposite end of the spectrum. It is the land of Neptune High School, celebrity politicians, and people who have never even heard of salt damage to their cars. Flowers bloom year round here: Godetias, miniature hollyhocks, baby blue eyes. The bodies here are well-yoga'd, creative, vegan restaurants abound, and a motorcycle can be a practical commuter vehicle.  I admit that I read my friend’s warnings on Facebook about possible pipe freezes this winter with a certain degree of smugness, as though I, personally, had discovered this coastal paradise, like my arrival here was a badge of some sort of achievement that I had earned by clocking time over the past three decades in soggy or more gloomy climes.

But life has a way of straightening you out, reminding you that no matter how extravagant the sunset or how well-lit the highways are by banks of rippling, golden mustard flowers, that you are just as foolish as you have ever been. I will admit: this has been an unwieldy year for me so far.

I purchased a motorcycle: a red 2006 Kawasaki Vulcan, a great starter bike. It is like falling in love, it is like the first few months of college, I am having an undeniable romance with motorcycles: reading poems and books about them, listening to stories from older, more weathered motorcyclists at my coffeeshop as though they are handing down legend, smiling at the cheeky motorcycle quotes that I find:

“Four wheels move the body.  Two wheels move the soul.”

“The perfect man?  A poet on a motorcycle.”
Lucinda Williams

“Life may begin at 30, but it doesn't get interesting until about 150.”
note: I don’t think I’ve gone over 40 yet on my motorcycle yet. I haven’t even taken it on the freeway

A few weeks ago, I went on a short weekend motorcycle road trip with my boyfriend and another couple (not on my bike). It was so hot that my female counterpart wore a bright pink tank top while she was on the bike for that entire first day – no jacket required (note: Phil Collins reference intentional and would also like to acknowledge for my parents that this is not the safest choice – I won’t do that, Mom). We drove North through Anderson Valley, a less populated and less commercial wine country where the tastings are free and there are no corkage fees, we stayed overnight in Boonville (a remarkably small town, but with enough personality to merit its own language). Over the course of about 36 hours together we tasted more than five bottles of wine and ended the day in a garden drinking down cold hard cider from a nearby farm. We tramped through high-grassed meadows in our motorcycle gear only to strip down to our bikini bodies by the river. We traveled back
to the Bay area down the coast in the booming sunlight: the beaches of the Mendocino coast are an odd mix of West Coast and East coast: slightly gray and weathered, foggy bogs creating dunes of cherry brush and large rock outcroppings that offer dramatic coastal viewpoints. We parted ways after we broke up a chocolate chip cookie that we ate at the delta of the Russian River while an outdoor jazz band played covers of “We’ve Got the Funk.” It was a weekend full of stampeding herds of pleasures.

And yet, I had spent the better part of the Spring in distress, feeling stunted in many of my pursuits, incredibly cut-off (even left behind) from some of my best friends and most of my recent history, and a whole host of other unhelpful reflections.

No one tells you what a hard thing surviving your own mediocrity can be.

This was me in the Run For Your Lives
Zombie 5K Obstacle Course (but is
also a pretty good approximation
of my springtime
emotional state, too).
I asked my friends to forgive me: “forgive me if I am too glum, too concentrated on our inevitable self-destruction as a species, on talking about how we’re trampling the planet, or talking about my own failings and sadness.”

Suffice to say that I spent a few months under water, trying to convince the people close to me that “yeah, I was bummed, but things were manageable, that I was fine.” This, in some part, was a lie. For the most part, I’d be more comfortable being naked in public than I would be letting you see just how much I resemble a sobby, red-eyed, greasy sloth on a bad day. But stay with me here for a moment and you’ll see why I'm going to bother to mention it this time around.

I’ve spent a lot of time diagnosing that feeling when it’s cropped up throughout my life: the wrong blend of chemicals in my body, childhood experiences, new birth control, a need more exercise, less sugar, terrible jobs (past tense), terrible relationships (also past tense), maybe I needed to create a list of daily affirmations and say them to myself in the mirror, maybe I needed to get out and make some new friends, maybe I needed to get back in touch with old friends, too much TV, not enough TV. The list of things that you are doing wrong or could be doing better for your own good is seemingly endless, but there is one thing that has unswervingly paralleled with a better mood.

Tree tunnel near Point Reyes, CA

When I am writing. Even if it’s just in my journal or on this blog or a few lines of poetry, I realize that I am healthier when I am organizing my thoughts line by line progressively down a page. In the months in which my journal is full and my blog is updated and I’ve spent some time researching and typing, I spend less time at the bottom of my own well. It had not been happening enough.

Which is why I rebooted an old pledge that a friend and I had made to each other: one poem a week. Each week, I send a poem to a friend of mine and she sends one to me and (if nothing else). In this way, I’ve made some room for creative productivity in the middle of the rest of the business in my life. And the difference has been remarkable.

I also started doing yoga four time a week, drastically improved my diet, and bought a motorcycle and the change has been remarkable. 

That is the dramatic montage version of making all these choices: it does not show my grumpiness over giving up my morning coffee or the withering looks I’ve come to give scales, but I am happy to report that all of these things have set me up for a very promising summer where I am looking forward to motorcycle adventures, road trips and reunions with some of my favorite people back East.

On the eve of my birthday I took a ride through the rolling headlands that boulder right into the Pacific ocean. It is glorious to be at the edge of America with the surf that comes in threatening undertow to humans and their dogs alike: a bit tumultuous. It is also wondrous to be in the month of April and lie on a black sand beach in the 80 degree heat. Generally I associate my birthday with damp, cold mornings and sunshine threatening to break through the clouds, but not beaches and motorcycle rides. It’s a feeling that I could get used to.

They say that smell is one of the most powerful generators of memory and not just sense memory, but emotional memory. In April, I woke up on a Monday morning and rode through the streets of waking Oakland (men in blue overalls constructing yet another watchtower-like hospital building, an officer uncommonly casual and reading the paper in his car) and was overwhelmed by how much the heat of the streets and the coming day smelled like Rome in the throws of summer. Whatever pall had been on me slipped off just a little as my sense memory catapulted into hot weather and the perspective offered by history. 

It was the same thing hiking down the hill to the beach the day before my birthday, invited by Jason* whose talent are many. But surprise, recreational botany is such an underrated and unexpected talent that it takes a special prize in my heart. Down we go on perilously, ready-to-tip log steps laid into the cliffside and with each step, he reaches his hand back behind him, handing me small crumbles of leaves and ferns that he’s crushed between his thumb and forefinger and telling me to smell, illustrating the landscape not just with information, but with perfume:
“California sage,” he announces as my lungs bellow with a white, lemony fragrance, “it’s not a true sage, but it’s one of the natives that you find along the coast.” Another few steps, “Yarrow. Now that’s a magical plant,” the smell is rotund and almost floral, “it’s good for wounds and was once used to treat soldiers in battle.”

He invites me to reach out and touch a bud of orange bouncing in the hillside breeze and I pull back my hands to find them strangely tacky. He smiles and says “sticky monkey flower.”

I don’t identify much with my astrological sign, but one quality of Taurus that has always seemed embarrassingly accurate is their sensuality, an almost feline love of tactile pleasure. In this way, a ride down to the ocean is a riot of delight. It is ocean spray, citrusy perfume, the crash of waves, some hazy horn sound like a dial tone on the water in the distance, the hot sand in comedic avalanches under my bare feet – an unstoppable collision of sense after sense.

It is almost healing and I am convinced that this is part of what appeals to we Taureans – it makes the flinty, sparking neuroses of intellect go quiet for awhile. Of course, no great insight or philosophy is achieved in this time, but it is a welcome pause from a lifetime rooted in self (even selfishness). One is more a part of the slippery cave water coming down the bluffs, the roar of wind along the highway, or the rush of clean, sugared smell of opening fresia blossoms. Sometimes it is better this way.


*"Wait! What? Who's this Jason person?" you ask.
"Oh yeah," I reply, "I'm dating a man named Jason."

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Cultivating Gratitude at Urban Ore

New Years 2012: Last Time I was in NYC

I am traveling to New York today after almost two months of stationary, single-state existence. I am folded up in my economy airline seat, sipping cranberry juice and resisting the urge to read my novel. I am traveling for work (electric green sweater? Check!). I am traveling to see friends.

As glad as I am for the change of pace, which feels like an escape hatch from sometimes-tedious reality (everyone at work is sick, I’m out of cat litter again, the bank account is teetering dangerously close to zero), I find that I am somewhat attached to the rhythm of my life. I like California: its quirks, bizarre pockets of weather, and contradictions of personality.

Of course… that’s what I always like about a place.

An example, though.

The might 'cado
Here is a pleasing idiosyncrasy – the perceived tendency in California to add an avocado to everything. Something I am glad to incorporate onto just about any you-name-it. And since I’ve been informed that they’re good for the skin, I’ve been looking for opportunities to add them to everything, including chocolate mousse.

As we walked through the farmer’s market that weekend, I saw numerous varieties of avocado: Reed, Fuerte, even the curiously named “Bacon Avocado.” But the recipe I was working off of just showed that straightforward and familiar almost purple-green Hass avocado, which was born right here in California in the 1930s and took almost forty years to replace the Fuerte avocado as the standard. Granted – all avocados are originally from Mexico – originating somewhere around 6,000 BC and making the long journey to Southern California in 1871. But nowadays, 90 percent of all avocados eaten domestically come from California and 60 percent of all of California’s avocados come from the San Diego region. In fact, my favorite fact is that the mother tree of all California Hass Avocados was born in a backyard in La Habra Heights, California (near Los Angeles).

View to the Golden Gate from Coit Tower
I wonder how many of the total avocados produced are consumed by Californians.

But I’m headed out of town for the rest of the week. I haven’t been to New York in almost a year. Haven’t hugged these friends in months, so I’m headed towards the statue of liberty, Lena Dunham, and past internships that failed to lead to careers.

Big cities. A theme for my life for the past year: New York, Boston, Paris, San Francisco, London, Dublin. Thronging, irritating, vital cities. It is a long way from the one-stoplight town I grew up in and it’s funny how much I like them in spite of my affection for rural cow farms and swampy corners of New England. I visit my urban friends and everyone has advice on how to handle their cities:

“Never buy strawberries at the market on Saturday, buy them on Tuesday after they’ve been freshly purchased from the farm at the beginning of the week.”

“Sixth street is probably the most dangerous section of the city.”

“Avoid Hoxton unless you want to see one more up-and-coming hipster neighborhood.”

“I’d carry my pocket umbrella at all times.”

“I’d have a reusable grocery bag on me at all times.”

New Years 2013
People say these things with a tilt of their head and a flatness of tone that doesn’t brook questioning. Sentences that they’ve earned the privilege to say. These pieces of wisdom are badges of experience, even ownership. Something that makes it your city.

I would like that feeling. I can’t remember the last time I had some sense of it. More than ownership; belonging.

There are, however, small instances of that or a feeling similar to that here in 2013: the feeling of gladness in one’s own life. I have come to feel that the most precious feeling is not joy or romantic love or even insight or affection, so much as gratitude. Riding from North Berkeley to Lake Merritt this morning on my silent, white electric scooter was a quiet moment like that. An ice cold coffee in a thermos, inappropriate, white trimmed black high heels clicking to the pavement at each stoplight, and a big, hot sun that makes the pauses at intersections worth it. Gratitude wakes up the senses and lets us shrug off global warming for an instant so that we might appreciate the virtues of sunrise before we are too entrenched in our daily grind.

Belonging is the long arc of gratitude, and something that I continue to associate more with people than with place. Amid a pleasant stream of visitors, I recognize memories that will become part of what is my history. I am glad that I don’t always recognize these moments as they’re happening. I am equally grateful when I do.

Grapes of Wrath and Obama at Urban Ore
In Berkeley, there is a place called Urban Ore. It’s a second life for already-loved possessions. It is not for the timid or the casual Goodwill-shopper. There are truly acres to shop through here: entire sections dedicated to doors and their frames, a parking lot of still-usable toilets in a variety of colors, holographic Jesus placards and (literally) kitchen sinks. I go there with my friend R. Just the two of us roaming through a breezy warehouse on a slow Sunday morning (I think it was the morning of the Super bowl).

You could spend whole days trailing through photo albums of other people’s pictures. R and I spend a good fifteen minutes pretending that these are photos of our life and describing who these people are to us. We meander through the creaking shelves of books, we ramble fun-house style between various sets of French doors that open onto each other. I try on glasses and hats, pick through kitchenware and wish that there was an appropriate place in my life to hang a lifesize poster of the St. Paul’s Girl. All of these things that were once part of an old life, waiting for the next one.

Pulling it Off at Urban Ore
Urban Ore is a reassuring and drafty metaphor for those of us who are waiting for the next thing. All of us in different states of damage or repair waiting to fit perfectly into someone else’s life. Or wondering if we do.

Afterwards, we go back to her place and eat rinsed grapes out of a white-sided bowl that looks like it once belonged in her mother’s kitchen. We talk about how she used to wear bows in her hair (she still should) or how I hope that my bitter-girl humor doesn’t put her off (it doesn’t).

There are people I won’t see when I’m in New York, too. Acquaintances who have forgotten me or I’ve forgotten, people from unselected futures that ghost through the city. I’ll think of them, too. In a big enough city, there is no metric large enough to measure your unlived lives or potential regrets.

And much as it is a life that is still becoming, I suppose there are a few pieces of advice that make me belong at least to who I am, if not where I am. And these rules apply in any city:
  • Ride something with two wheels and you will better enjoy waking up early.  
  •  Encourage your friends to wear large statement bows in their hair or to get on stage at karaoke.
  • Share your favorite things with other people. There is perhaps no better way to cultivate gratitude.
  • Love fluffy cats and stop to pet every dog tethered outside your coffeeshop.
  • Add avocado to anything.