Discovery

This morning, an alumni retreated into the courtyard from the locked gate of Branford College.

“How do we get out of here?” she pleaded.

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The answer can be simple.

You put on your running shoes.  You wait until someone enters from the outside.  You slip out the gate.  And you set out for parts unknown.

While in school, my attention (perhaps our attention) was turned inward toward whatever adventures and drama were insulated within those many stone courtyards.  Rarely did I venture beyond the bounds of the residential colleges.  And if I did, only a few blocks distant to a late night falafel joint or a beeline to the pizza at Wooster Square.

But I was rarely driven, nor did I incite myself, to truly explore.  It was impressed upon us that beyond the moated buildings of our campus lurked threats and dangers.  It was better to stay safe.

On this morning I ran out on Chapel Street.

To my chagrin, I was reminded that I never learned the cardinal directions of this landscape.  I lived here for four years and never thought to contemplate the prevailing winds or through what tributaries and estuaries the water flowed.  I didn’t know how the neighborhoods and town functioned.

Today on this run I learned that there had once been a blizzard in 1888 that had dumped 52 inches of snow over three days.

I learned that double streetcar tracks once ran out into the countryside, far beyond any point that I could imagine.

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On several corners I saw connects hanging out, waiting for their peeps.

I saw Seventh Day Adventists dressed up and walking to worship.

I discovered a wetland laced with paths and trails.

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I saw a monument to the Spanish American War, but stripped of it’s memorial plaque.  I wondered about pyrrhic victories and what would drive someone to remove the plaque, and was reminded that every victory implies another person’s loss.

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I discovered a skate park.

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I found a boy who could ride a wheelie for a very long time while spinning his front wheel in the air like a top.

I learned that cattails are native to the wetland, and that they are under constant threat from the advancing phragmites.  If you look closely, you can see them preparing for onslaught, amassing in the distance.

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I remembered that the world is ripe for teaching if we choose to learn.

I was reminded that the victor always controls what and whom we choose to memorialize.

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And perhaps, in this case, that the victory was premised not on an absence of slavery, but on the promotion of an economic arrangement that merely privileged slavery in a different form.

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I learned that Joan Baez and the Doors had once played in the New Haven Arena.  In it’s stead, an FBI building now stands.

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I learned that there once was a man named Camp.  And he played football at Yale Bowl.  He developed the snapback from center and the system of downs, things of which I still have scant inkling.

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I learned that a network of rail lines once filagreed throughout New England and that this network capillaries once promoted all manner of human interaction and communication.  I longed to travel and engage in that way.

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I saw how community is woven from the most frail and ephemeral of connections.  And that connection may be that thing for which, in whatever way possible, we must constantly strive.

 

I realized that although Yale may have been my whaling ship, it was an ever beautiful and ever imperfect vessel indeed.

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Day Two Maui in 4 Stories

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Today’s rout includes stories about running, smart phones, strongmen, and choices.  And also about the screwed up way that we roll when we travel.

The facts?  Severely non-interesting.  We ran in the morning.  We bought some fruit.  We read on the beach at Ka’anapali.  We floated in the water.  We drove south and checked into a hotel in Kihei and switched rooms once and hotels once.  I walked in the dark to Wailea.

We had a few conversations with other people.  But I had at least four thoughts.

1.  Andy’s Philosophy of Running.  When you run, you’re mapping your body to the landscape. My favorite kind of running is just running around: – the kind where you don’t know where you’re going and you go down that path until it intersects with this path and then you follow a trail to just see where it goes and sometimes you double back around and find yourself in some totally unexpected place.

It’s exploration by running.  In the process you feel the air of the place.  You feel the different and ever changing texture of the volcanic and coral ground.  And spiderwebs in the face.  And the sounds and fragrances and cast of light that are unique to every place and each sliver of the day.

It’s a great way to get around.

2. Seeking.  A few weeks ago Mazie wanted to get rid of her smartphone.  I keep looking at it, she said, expecting to find something inside that’s never there.

It’s as true a statement as any.  We have wedded ourselves to a device of wanting, one that leaves us perpetually leaving the moment and physical space that we presently inhabit to go find something somewhere else.  I believe the Device has reinforced us as a nation of dissatisfied seekers.  At every moment we have the somatic experience of wanting to fill “dead space” by peering into an object for something that is not there.

At the same time, we enter the Device because we want to be anchored in certainty.  We look at the Map app to know exactly where we are.  We go to Yelp to make sure we go to a good restaurant.  In an idle moment we tap on Google News and scan the headlines so we know exactly what may be happening elsewhere in the world  at that moment.

Yet the more we outsource our native intelligence to a smart device, how more dumb do we as individuals become?

So here’s the embarrassing confession. On this trip we’ve tried (and sadly it does take trying) to disengage from the devices. In any given moment, rather than turning to the device for the answer, we’ve had to turn back to the world and back to people.   That’s where a lot of the conversations have come from.

Sadly, the feeling is strangely revelatory.  And even more strangely, this was how we would move through the world as recently as a decade ago.  It changes everything.

I used to pride myself on my sense of geography and direction.  And in the brief span of the Device Era, I’ve all but lost it.  So over the last few days when we drive and we haven’t known where we are, we’ve had to look around and think about it for a moment and let the landscape tell us.  Or we just go and hope to get to where we’re going.  Or we ask someone for directions and listen closely to the landmarks they mention because those are the keys to finding your way around.  I begin to feel like myself again.

We ask people on the sidewalk where they would get a good cup of coffee.  Random people on the street tell us where to run or to find the best poke.  We look for signs and pieces of paper.  I’m craving paper.  Paper newspaper.  Paper maps.  Paper paper.  Something that feels material and textured.

There’s still MapMyRun (I do it because the maps are kind of totems and when I run around randomly it’s nice to know how far I’ve gone.)  And there’s the Facebook (a lot of times I feel like just some guy floating out there and FB provides a feeling of connectedness).  But even these things it may be soon time to ditch.

3.  The Benevolent Strongman.  This is not a non-sequitur!  Rather it’s exactly the sort of thing one can think about while lying on a beach in Hawai’i.

The man in the White House and Bill Graham are/were strongmen.  Why, I wonder, do I detest one and have an abiding love and appreciation for the other?  Strongmen are usually damaged souls.  Bill Graham certainly was – as damaged as any soul that has ever been.

It’s one of my favorite stories that I never mind retelling.  So for those who don’t know:

Wolfgang Grajonca was born in Berlin in 1931 during the restoration of the Reich.
When his father died shortly after, his mother kept him and his five siblings alive by selling fake flowers and costume jewelry in Berlin markets.
In 1938, the year of Kristalnacht, his mother placed him and his sister Tolia in a children’s home to save them.
His mother and remaining siblings would later be gassed on the way to Auschwitz.  He would never see them again.
At the onset of the war, Wolfgang and the other orphans would be evacuated to France.
In 1941, when Paris fell to the Germans, the International Red Cross escorted 64 children on foot and by bus to Lyons.  Wolfgang’s baby sister Tolia became sick with pneumonia and was left behind in an infirmary.  Grajonca would never see her again.
The 10 year old boy then walked to Marseilles and from there he was carried to Madrid.  And Lisbon.  And Casablanca. And Dakar.  He was placed on a boat to America and survived on cookies and oranges.  When he arrived in New York Harbor on September 24th, 1941, he weighed 55 lbs.  Of the original 64 children evacuated from the orphanage, only 11 would arrive in America.
Those refugee orphans were taken to Army barracks in upstate New York.  One by one the eleven children were adopted by families who were paid 48 dollars a month to take Jewish children.  There Wolfgang waited for nine weeks.  He was the very last child to be taken.

And I’m fairly sure that somewhere in that time, deep in the core of that little boy, that is when he decided that no one.  Absolutely no one.  Would ever.  Ever.  Fuck with him again.

That’s when he became Bill Graham.

I believe he understood people in a fundamentally profound way.  He knew that, after a Dead show let’s say, when you have a whole lot of people not in their right mind, that all those people needed somewhere safe to go.  So in this case, he set it up so that no one would have to leave – they could all stay camped out in the parking lot for as long as they needed.  But (and this is important) he also understood that in order to have the parking lot, you also needed rules.  And for rules to work, you also need an enforcer.  And if you operate in a world of the vain glorious and narcissistic and among those who lust for power (which was the world of rock ‘n roll) – you needed someone who was willing to fight back and fight back hard and was not afraid to leave bodies and hurt feelings in his wake.  He didn’t care.  I believe he was fundamentally driven by a misanthropic view of humanity.  Yet (and this is where he may differ from the other guy), I believe he genuinely cared for other people – he longed deeply in a way that he could perhaps not articulate for something righteous and good. “This.  is. Your. Fucking.  Job,” I imagine him saying.  “Do. Your.  Job.”

Once at a New Year’s show, my brother-in-law Vaughan was standing on the floor and looked over to see Graham standing right there beside him.  “Yo man,” someone asked.  “What are you doing here?”

Graham shrugged.  “I wanted to be down here with the the freaks,” he said.

In a sense, Graham was a kind of Holden Caufield:  the wounded soul who struggled angrily – sad and valiant – to catch the innocent as they tumbled into that field of rye.

4.  Where You’re At.  Anna got up at 2 am the other night so she could finish up a boatload of work before the close of the weekend.  She sat there at a wooden table in an old Lahaina hotel while the drunken loudly caroused home in the street below.  “It doesn’t matter what you’re doing where you’re at,” I reminded her.  “As long as you’re where you’re at.”  Which is another way to say that it doesn’t matter if you’re in front of a computer screen at two in the morning if that computer screen is on a wooden desk in a delightful old room in Hawai’i.

And with that said, yesterday afternoon we checked  into the Maui Coast in Kihei.

What we had imagined:  Anna’s conference was in Wailea. No rooms available.  But whatever.  We’ll be in Maui.  We’ll stay in Kihei and each morning we could ride bikes to Wailea and what delightful mornings those will be.   When we arrive they have no rooms readied, but no prob, we say they can take their time.  We are absolutely fine.  Mary the reservation lady, visibly relieved, suggests that we check out the strip malls down the street.

My heart begins to sink.

We ask about the bikes.  Turns out we have limited use.  Wailea is four miles away uphill.  And we can’t use the bikes past 6:30.   My heart sinks further.  But a room becomes available.  Second floor.  The window basically looks out at wall.

We head back to the front desk.  This time Manny the super nice supervisor greets us.  “Any chance we could have a different room?”  we ask guiltily.  Everyone is so terribly nice.  We are totally willing to wait.  Manny punches the keyboard.  “Complimentary upgrade.” he says.  Now we find ourselves on the top floor in a suite.  Big soaking tub.  Windows looking out over the mild sprawl of Kihei. Anna takes the car keys and heads off to the conference in Wailea.

I lay down on the bed.  I flip through one of those weird vacation activity guides. I stare up at the ceiling.  And that’s when I realize that this is exactly the kind of room where a person kills himself.

Feeling my lease on life growing rapidly shorter, I head downstairs and start walking toward Wailea.  I walk past the strip malls.  I cut over to the beach and walk on the sand as the sun sets.  The beach runs out and I pop up a trail and walk cliffside in front of a line of condos, vacationers outside grilling on the barbecues.  In the growing darkness I trudge through a park past a lone bagpiper playing an aching ode to the crashing waves of the Pacific.  I walk and I walk and I walk through the darkness.  Now on a grassy shoulder I cross over to a sidewalk.  The road curves up into what appears to be a posh neighborhood.  I take a narrow street that deadends and then a concrete staircase down to a beach, hardly a couple feet of sand gently pounded by the black surf as the night tide comes up.  I continue walking along the white liminal sand and then through water and then rocks and over driftwood until there is beach no longer.  Just me and the surf.  I detect a narrow sand trail that cuts up through some undergrowth and I follow that maybe 20 feet and there on those narrow trail in the darkness I see a naked body lying in the sand blocking the whole trail – and I mean a Sumo wrestler size body just lying there – and in a split second I think, ‘okay.  This is either a) some dude who’s probably sleeping and I need to carefully step over and around him and risk some kooky altercation, or b) he’s dead.’  And either way, even just in the process of finding out, I got a problem on my hands.

So I wind back down the pitch trail and back into the inky surf and along the night shore and the rocks and the driftwood trees until I find luminescent beach again and then back onto the road and into the posh neighborhood.

The phone rings.  It’s Anna.  “Where you at,” she asks.   “I’m on a grass island by the side of the road,” I tell her.  I sit down on the grass, but it smells faintly of sewage and gray water.  I stand.  “Never mind,” I tell her.  Come find me, I’ll be walking on the road to Wailea.”  I walk on up a long hill through the darkness beneath a line of towering and twisting banyon trees and eventually a car pulls up slowly beside me and I climb in and find myself sitting beside Anna.

“I don’t think we can stay in that hotel,” I tell her.

“I was thinking the exact same thing,” she says.

It’s nine at night and we drive on to Wailea and up to a Marriott Residence Inn within true walking distance of the conference and we talk with Kody the super nice desk clerk.  He can set us up.  It’ll cost us an extra few hundred bucks for the week.   Anna and I get a beer and go sit in the darkness by the blue glow of the pool to sort it all out.

We take some time to do our figuring (It seems she and I spend a lot of time figuring). We agree.  The Coast is a perfectly nice hotel.  And we can drive into Wailea each morning together.  And I can hang at the whatever whatever resort in whatever lounge chair and write.  What difference, really, does it make where we lay our head at night?

Well, there was something vaguely soul destroying about Kihei.

We don’t need posh.  But we want to be some place.  And unfortunately these days too many rooms and too many spots feel like no place.  Perhaps it was an absence of greenery or an abundance of stoplights.  Or the pizza hut on the corner.  Or roads and distances best trafficked by auto.  Or the inclination of the light.  Who knows?

But some differences do make a difference.

“If we decide to move,” I ask Anna, “Is that a good choice?”

“It’s absolutely a good choice,” she answers.

On Running

A couple days ago I ran from Burlington (almost) to Huntington (almost).  I’d hoped to make it all the way to the Fielder place, but such as it was.

Along the way I reencountered some wonderful things about Vermont, not the least of which was this:  Of the perhaps five hundred oncoming cars that passed me that day, 95% of them dropped their speed by at least 20 mph.  Many didn’t just straddle the yellow line, they swung way left of center.  And everyone waved.

We call that a civil society.  I have a lot of metal around me and am driving fast. You’re just in your shorts and t-shirt and are plodding along on the side of the road.  Don’t worry.  I’m going to watch your back.  And we’re going to connect as human beings.  And even though we’ll never see each other again in our lives, the world will be richer for that moment.

Which brings me to another great thing about Vermont.  Call it Bernie Sanders.

On Saturday we swung by 131 Church Street.  We got some bumper stickers and a t-shirt. And we wrote our small check, making a small pre-election tithe to the democratic process.

Nearly every pundit qualifies with “he has no chance of winning” as if to say honesty sports a zero chance in hell.

But that’s what a lot of people still don’t get about Vermont. This place is about the unlikely and the fiercely independent prevailing over all.  Just wait.  Bernie’s going to show some legs and I have little doubt a lot of folks will be left eating dust.

Why do I support him?

1.  Someone needs to dope slap the Clinton campaign.  Hilary will never ever listen to me.  Not in a million years.  I’m just a citizen.  But there’s a very slight chance she might need to respond to Bernie.

2.  In this country leaders are not supposed to be anointed.  We elect them.  Let’s put Hilary through an election.

3.  I don’t know if he would make a good President.  But I have no doubt he will make an outstanding candidate.  He’ll broaden the debate.  He’ll say the uncommon.  He will speak. And to the best of his ability he will speak the truth.

4.  I long for a candidate who will not descend into the gutter of negative campaigning.

5.  I want someone who will stand for something and very clearly tell us what that thing is.

6.  In this state, even Fred Tuttle counts for something.  And like it or not, he wins.

In Vermont, come Town Meeting Day, a lot of things fly.  And sometimes even the unlikely prevails, no matter how humble or homely or off beat the speaker.  As long as the idea is voiced with respect.  And it honors thy neighbor. And it’s truthful.  And it makes sense.

This election season we all may be surprised at how many hunger for this.

Fault line 2009-10-28: Foot. Snow. Earth.

I ran this morning toward the new fields that Philip has plowed. An inch of snow blanketed the ground. Out by his field area I noticed a cottonwood structure – not quite a ramada – that had been erected at some point. It may have been there for three years or a thousand or since yesterday. I only just noticed it. The dogs and I cut down across the wash, across the snow blanketed runnels along the bench and up to the plowed fields on the other side. The structure had no apparent use. And no apparent past or future. Much like many of the discoveries here, it seems to exist apart from time.

Philip had a good year. The monsoons did not come this summer which pretty much did in most of the farmers. But not Philip. His vast field sported dense head high corn. But here is the secret. He had water. But it did not come this year. The rain actually fell in August, 2008. And it sat on top of the dense clay, creating a swamp of his field. He got nothing that year. And it took three months for the rain to perc into the ground. And then the ground froze. And when it thawed, the dense clay would not give up the moisture. Philip planted late and the corn was slow to start, but when the roots finally hit that year old moisture it took off.

Philip watered his field one year in advance. And now he is plowing and preparing fields further up the wash that may not be planted for another two years. And may not produce for three.

If any foundation or philanthropic people are reading this, take note. Not all environments operate on a 1 year funding cycle. Here a full cycle of rain and drought may take 10 to 30 years. A single planting cycle here may span three to five years. Time slows down. Life proceeds as it should. Not as we want it to. We must learn to let life proceed as it should. Problems arise from forcing it.

We must accommodate ourselves to it. We must slow our pulse.

On my run, I notice footprints in the snow, the print of a human foot, complete with heel and arch and toes. I consider two possibilities. The first: at dawn a person ran before me wearing skins on their feet. The second and even more compelling: A person in fact ran barefoot in the snow.

I ponder and decide to explore the more compelling of the two. I strip off my shoes and socks. I stand on the frozen mud. I set off running barefoot across the whitened desert.

The cold instantly hardens my feet to most sensation. I feel a gentle burning pain overridden by a lightness of step. I run fast. I feel a slight bump on my heel that feels uncomfortable. I stop and find a goat head lodged in my foot up to the hilt. I cannot feel it. I pull it out and continue on for close to half a mile. Not much. Certainly not as much as some. My distant ancestors would most certainly have been ashamed.

But we do what we can. If only to feel the cold.