Thursday, January 17, 2013

Borderlands



Notes from today’s WALK…

The WALK takes me to a natural place. 

Or does it? 

Our house is 10 minutes from a State Park, a National Recreation Area, and a Land Trust. It is also 10 minutes from San Francisco. Our house has electricity, heat, and a modified bitumen roof. It is also half a mile from a redwood grove. I live a liminal existence, traversing the borderlands between grime and grace, civilization and survivalism. 

Or perhaps I’m overstating this. 

On recent WALKs, I have encountered, in some particular order, coyotes, a bobcat, snakes, foxes, rabbits, red tailed hawks, red shouldered hawks, deer, dead deer, and turkey vultures. The trail goes through a primordial forest of bay tree, live oaks, redwoods, ferns, and huckleberries before breaking into the windswept chaparral of manzanita, scrub oak, coyote brush, sage, toyon, lupine, and sticky monkey.

Along the same path today I also saw a matchbox car, sunglasses, and a rusted out VW. And when I arrived at the top of Homestead Hill, I saw an expanse of pacific blue to the west and the smog of Chevron smokestacks to the east. 
 
The WALK takes me to a threshold place (in more ways than one, on a good day). But it also makes me doubt the purity of this place and its purpose. 

An old dear friend, the redheaded urban planner, derides the space where the WALK takes place. Not the specific trail, mind you, but spaces like it. He shines his lovably self-righteous light on the fallacy of so many of our supposed natural places. To him, there is pure nature and pure city, and everything in between is a subdivision of self-delusion. Because the in-betweens are impure; they are not what we say they are. Muir Woods is an ancient forest with a parking lot. Mt. Tam is a State Park with an air force base on top. 

Today I am afraid the redheaded urban planner is right. Can I be at one with nature when I can hear Highway 101? Am I close to the earth when I see it dotted with blue New York Times bags filled with dog shit? Today I see the uneven stitches on the story I've so carefully woven.

Most days, though, I forgive myself. Most of us land in the liminal spaces. Most of us live in the in-betweens. I’m doing the best I can, just like everybody else. Are we to blame if the border has become so wide that it now makes up most of the map. Yes. We probably are. And that’s the part that’s harder to forgive.


 

Thursday, January 10, 2013

The Flood



Notes from today’s WALK (with help from A.A. Milne)…

It says something about me, though I’m not at all sure what, that the part of my Sunday newspaper I most look forward to is the Big 5 Sporting Goods advertising circular. (Actually, it says something about me that I still look forward to a newspaper at all, but that is another subject.) It is four full-color pages of ridiculous deals on everything from shoes to guns to barbells to tents to boogie boards; all from famous sounding brands like Adio, Columbus, Spenco, Rugged Exposure, and Kent. Every item looks so good and is priced so well that I find myself day dreaming of a garage full of off-brand and second run sporting goods; coolers with lids that don’t quite fit, dull hunting knives, and gas grills that may or may not be missing a crucial valve. Of course, I have never purchased a single thing. 

The one item I do come close to buying every week is whichever inflatable raft is being advertised. This week there are two:

1.       Intex Seahawk 2. Includes 48 inch French oars & high output pump. 3 air chambers. Reg. $89.99. Sale price $69.99. (Discontinued style.)

2.        Intex Challenger 3. 3-person inflatable boat. 3 air chambers. Seats up to 3. Reg. $99.99. Sale price $69.99. (Oars not included.)

I believe no household should ever be without an inflatable raft and I feel that it is one of my great failures as a father and a husband that I have not purchased one yet. (I do have a sit-on-top kayak, but it only sits one-person-on-top, so my guilt is hardly assuaged.) 

My compulsion to provide my family with emergency and/or recreational flotation is well founded in one of my most crystalline childhood memories.

It rained and it rained and it rained. Piglet told himself that never in all his life, and he was goodness old how oldthree, was it, or four?never had he seen so much rain. Days and days and days.

The water began rising around my father’s new house on Oxford Avenue. There was a nearly dry creek bed about a block and half away from the house. In the summer and fall, it was hardly a trickle. But when the rains started, it became an entirely different waterway. 

The little dry ditches in which Piglet had nosed about so often had become streams, and the streams across which he had splashed were rivers, and the river, between whose banks they had played so happily, had sprawled out of its own bed and was taking up so much room everywhere, that Piglet was beginning to wonder whether it would be coming into his bed soon.

I sat on our front porch, watching the street fill with water. It looked like slow motion. Inch by inch, the water in the gutters crept across the crown of the street. Within an hour, the two enormous puddles had become one. The pavement disappeared under a great rippling sheet of water. My father and step-mother were inside the house, wondering aloud, in very concerned voices, how high the water would get. I sat on the porch wondering the same thing. But I was not the least bit concerned. I was beside myself with excitement. As far as I was concerned, the water could not rise high enough or fast enough. 

“The atmospheric conditions have been very unfavourable lately,” said Owl.
“The what?”
“It has been raining.”
“Yes,” said Christopher Robin, “It has.”
“The flood level has reached an unprecedented height.”
“The who?”
“There’s a lot of water about,” explained Owl.
“Yes,” said Christopher Robin, “There is.”
Hours passed. The rain-darkened day turned to storm-swept dusk. Amazingly, our power stayed on and the streetlamp cast an ochre glow over the shimmering water. The flood waters had risen over the curb and were slowly engulfing the sidewalk and creeping up our driveway like ooze from a B horror movie. Inside, my father was saying something about sandbags, as my step-mother worked to get books and records and other valuables off the floor.

“It’s a little anxious,” he said to himself, “to be a Very Small Animal Entirely Surrounded by Water.”

Soon the water rose over the grass in our front yard. The green blades receded like some closely cropped kelp bed. I remained on the porch, hoping and praying that the rain wouldn’t stop. At this rate, I thought, it could reach the front steps before it got really dark. Our concrete porch sat only two steps above our yard. When the water finally reached the first step, my father came outside. He looked across our flooded street in the fading light of the evening.

“Still got about two more feet,” he said, his voice sounding both resolute and resigned.

“I don’t think it’ll come in the house, Dad.” 

“I hope not.” Though he didn’t sound hopeful.

“But I kind of want it to come up a little more.”

On the morning of the fifth day he saw the water all around him, and knew that for the first time in his life he was on a real island. Which was very exciting.

The water did keep rising. Soon our first step disappeared. My father came out to the porch again with my rain boots and yellow slicker. His wore an expression of pure exhaustion; the magnetic opposite of the anticipation he must have seen on my face. I put on the boots and slicker as he went back inside. I turned back to see if the water had risen any more.

Every morning he went out with his umbrella and put a stick in the place where the water came up to, and every next morning he went out and he couldn’t see his stick anymore…

And then the rain stopped. It turned to sprinkles at first. Then mist. But in five minutes, it was done. I ran into the house.

“The rain’s stopped! It’s stopped raining!”

My father came back out on the porch. He reached his palm out from under the eave, as if his fatigued eyes might have deceived him in the half-light.
“I think you’re right.”

He went back inside. I stared at the water that was halfway up our second step. It didn’t look like it was rising anymore. It didn’t look like it was going anywhere. From inside the house, I could hear a hissing noise, like someone repeatedly and rhythmically shushing a crying baby. The sound continued for so long that I soon tuned it out, wondering instead whether the rain had really stopped for good.

The rain did not start again. Another five minutes passed and my father appeared on the front porch holding a bright orange inflatable raft, one paddle, and a flashlight. 

“You want to take it out?” he asked.

“By myself?”

“Sure. Just stay where I can see you.”

So he took his biggest jar and corked it up. “All boats have to have a name,” he said, “so I shall call mine The Floating Bear.” And with these words he dropped his boat into the water and jumped in after it.

I struck out right from our top step and paddled up and down our block, which was now more river than street, feeling braver and freer and happier than I could ever remember feeling in my life, all the while wishing the water would never recede and hoping that Oxford Avenue was a magical street that  flooded every year, even if that meant that my father would spend winter after winter holding his breath for days at a time, wishing he’d remembered to get sandbags, and inflating rafts for me only when he knew for sure that the danger was behind us.

And that is really the end of the story, and I am very tired after that last sentence, I think I shall stop here.

Old Friend



Notes from the WALK...

The hotter the fire, the harder the steel.

 

It’s possible I have made this expression up, but searching the dust bunnies that cling to the contact paper of my mind, I seem to recall that it’s an actual saying. I think it comes from the blacksmithy, Medieval, twelve-sided dice world and applies literally to swords forged in fire and figuratively to bonds forged in suffering. 

Or maybe it doesn’t. But I was reminded of it (or made it up) on today’s WALK as I took note of all the lichen and moss along the path. As mentioned previously, the first half of the path is in the shade. Bay trees, redwood, ferns, and huckleberry are everywhere. Enough to bring a native plant lover to climax. (Dear God. Maybe that’s not lichen!) And nearly everywhere you look, there is some kind of growth clinging to a branch or spreading over bark. It looks like the dermatology ward at the tree hospital.

Moss and lichen remind me of one of my best friends. I’ve known him for 24 years. I trust him completely. I’d do just about anything for him. And we have virtually nothing in common. His is a moss-ologist, meaning he has a PhD in mosses. He lives in Denmark. Unless something’s changed, he gets high almost every day. The truth is, we haven’t spoken in about a year. We haven’t seen each other in two years. He is an abysmal correspondent. Yet I never question the strength of our bond. Never doubt the permanence of the relationship.

We met in high school. I was miserable at the time, in the way that only high school kids can be miserable, and I’m fairly certain he was, too. We had little in common then. He, the oldest of three kids, an urban dweller, the son of a union iron worker dad and a peach-pie-making mom, bookish, awkward, and frighteningly smart. Me, the only child of a divorced parents, a suburbanite, rebellious (within reason), athletic, underachieving, and lonely. We spent seven out of the next nine years together, counting the three years when we were in the same college town. Sometimes we were closer than others. But the misery and joy we endured together, and at each other hands, became the basis of whatever the hell we have now.

Pausing to examine some hairy looking moss on a dying live oak branch, I thought longingly about my old friend. I do miss him, but it is absence that does not threaten. 

 I’ve met many people in the years since our paths diverged.  New friendships born of out of shared interests, shared professions, or kids sharing the same pre-school. I have more in common with any one of these people than I ever did with my old friend. These new friendships are easier. Life is easier now. And with ease comes weakness. 

This is not a lament or some pathetic plea for things to be the way they used to be. I’m a guarded optimist when it comes to new relationships. But I sometimes suspect that they’ll have to get a lot more difficult if they’re going to last.  

The Artist



Notes from today’s WALK (San Francisco edition)…

 
“…and this guy’s  getting rich on his fuckin’ demented art showing little kids with tubes up their fuckin’ asses.”

He speaks these words as he and his companion pass me on Bryant Street. He is a large man who walks with purpose in a bobbing hunch. His face is scrunched from brow to neck, as if compressed in a slowly constricting vice. His weak chin is impossibly close to his nearly-lipless mouth. His eyes squint under a black baseball cap with a defiantly flat brim. An oversized black baseball jersey covers his barrel chest. The jersey and cap combine to lend a post-Cholo-ish air to his appearance, but he is clearly Caucasian. His baggie black denim shorts and barely-laced combat boots are a dead giveaway. He is intimidating.

His companion is older. They walk at a steady pace; the companion pushing an oversized green shopping cart. It is filled with a mix of empty bottles, personal eclectica, and something not alive but nevertheless covered in fur. The companion has a long, gray, Manson like beard. His shriveled lips mask and all-gum mouth. His weathered skin is the color of the urine-infused concrete that was his bed last night. He is 60-going-on-dead. He mumbles attentively; a sympathetic response to his agitated friend.

“…and this guy’s  getting rich on his fuckin’ demented art showing little kids with tubes up their fuckin’ asses.”

The words are spoken seriously, lucidly. Fairly shouted, they are enriched with anger and genuine concern. They hang in the air in front of me as the two men reach the corner and cross 20th Street, headed south. 

Who is this artist? I wonder. Why would he depict such a thing? What statement is he making? My mind returns to the speaker. The disgust in his tone reverberates in my ear. Is it the children he is worried about? There was something protective in his tone. Is he disgusted with the subject matter or with the fact that it is making someone rich? Come to think of it, it sounded almost as if he knew the artist personally. Is it bitterness I hear? Is he jealous of the artist’s success? I can sympathize. It’s hard enough to see someone in your field succeed while you struggle, but to come in second to someone who puts tubes up the asses of kids! That would be particularly galling. And how does this man, who, if we’re being honest, looks like he’s been inside more dumpsters than art galleries, even know about this artist?
 
It’s nice to get into the City from time to time.

Dog Balls



Notes from today’s WALK (as inspired by Eckhart Tolle, and the inspired Dana Gould Hour podcast)...

Here’s how I know I’m making progress. When I was younger, like a hundred hack comics before me, I envied dogs’ ability to lick themselves. I would think, “Do you know how happy I would be if I could do that!” 

Now I’m older and I no longer envy this about dogs. I envy that while they’re licking themselves, they’re not thinking about the laundry that needs folding. They don’t lap blissfully at their testicles while wondering if the car needs an oil change or if the rejection letter they're expecting is in the mailbox. Dogs live entirely in the moment. They are fully and only conscious of what they are doing that second! Nothing else ever creeps in. 

That is what I'm working on. I practice turning off the ego voice; the self-judging, shame-based story about not being good enough, not doing enough, not working hard enough. When that voice is silenced and I am in the moment, I feel fleetingly at peace.

I am getting older. My bones ache even when I exercise. My muscles become less limber despite a stretching routine. I am farther away than I've ever been from being able to lick myself. But I think I’m getting closer to being fully present to it if I could. That’s progress.

~

Which reminds me of a tired but wonderful old joke. Two guys are staring at a dog that is licking himself. One guy turns to the other guy and says, “Man, I wish I could do that.” The other guy says, “Maybe if you scratch him behind the ear, he’ll let you.”

I’ll be here all week folks. Don’t forget to tip your waitress.