Categotry Archives: Marching to New Orleans

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For the Love of the Train

Categories: A Day in the Life, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, If You're Going to San Francisco, Marching to New Orleans, Tags: , , ,

The St. Charles line at night.

The St. Charles line at night.

I took the streetcar home yesterday. I don’t always take the streetcar to and from work, like I did with BART when I worked at Glide in San Francisco. I often take the car, dropping Alex off on the way, so I can use the car at work as I attend trainings and workshops and will eventually have more donor meetings and school visits. The car that badly needs a wheel alignment from its brutal encounters with the streets of New Orleans, streets that I’ve compared to San Francisco after consecutive 7.0+ earthquakes. The wheels of the streetcar are permanently, perfectly aligned.

The streetcar rolls down the neutral ground of St. Charles Avenue, the big broad host to many of the Mardi Gras parades, a street adorned with gaslamp-lit hotel entrances and stately homes that could be hotels and libraries that used to be stately homes. Neutral ground is what we call “medians” here in New Orleans, a special designation indicating both the substantial size of most of our medians and their particular Commonsy role in the social order here. People hang out on the neutral ground, especially during parade season, where lawn chairs and boxtop ladders and every height of seat in between litter the St. Charles midsection, making streetcar progress, like most progress in the city during that time, impossible. Why take the streetcar when you have a float?

But it’s post-Mardi Gras in New Orleans this week, time for reflecting and taking stock, cleaning up and bundling up. It was about 40 degrees last night, and awfully windy, when I stepped off the red Canal Street line that cruises down from my work and into the heart of the city, crossing the intersection to Canal and Carondelet to wait for the outbound green St. Charles line to take me home.

It is my home, for what it’s worth, at this point in my life. People at poker tables or work or wherever always ask me where I’m from and Alex makes fun of me for giving a complicated answer. I don’t always run people through the rigmarole of each sequential city off the bat, but I often end up there when people can’t reconcile being “from the West” but having “just moved from New Jersey”. I inevitably end up at stats like having visited 48 states or the substantial time (4+ years) in five of them and the incredulity isn’t aided by the fact that many people assume I’m a bit younger than I am when they look at me (it has to be the hair… and maybe the genetics from my parents, wherein no one could believe my mother was retirement age when she retired, or my father getting carded for a drink at dinner about a decade ago). Alex thinks it’s too much information. But I’m also the guy who gives a real and sometimes quite extensive answer to “How are you?” so somehow just picking one of the last 3.5 decades worth of places doesn’t seem to cut it.

In part because of moments like last night at the train. Because I stood there, shivering, acknowledging the likewise chilled people who approached the little yellow CAR STOP sign on the corner, and just looking around. Trying to center myself, trying to bank this moment for the memories and internalize what it feels like to be newly 35 in a new city again, anticipating a ride on my current favorite mode of transportation. And I glanced across the road, over the four lanes and two neutral-grounded sets of streetcar tracks of Canal, and realized again I was standing at the magical transformation point where Carondelet discards its inhibitions and becomes Bourbon Street, officially entering the French Quarter. And I felt the rumbling echo of early mornings emerging from Powell Street Station in San Francisco, quick-stepping past the iconic cable car turnaround as two directions of Rice-a-Roni vehicles floated on the hill-climbing tracks in the half-sun light. The echo was resonant, powerful. I have had the good fortune to log serious time in some of the Great Places of this country, perhaps of the world. Meaningful, significant places, pilgrimage destinations, and the epicenters of perhaps the only two remaining streetcar systems of significance within these fifty states. And while the Powell Street trek up to the Wharf was never part of my commute and I only rode it maybe five times in seven years in the Bay Area, the crowds of revelers snapping iPhone photos as the turntable spun their car around never got old.

I may get old at this point. More and more, I face that somewhat surprising possibility. All I can ask for are trains to ride to take me to the next stop, the next landmark destination, the next beautiful and historical Place. For now, it’s on the neutral ground, and that’s way better than neutral.

The Powell Street turntable.

The Powell Street turntable.

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The Unexpected Virtue of Mardi Gras

Categories: A Day in the Life, Marching to New Orleans, Tags: ,

Who is that masked man?

Who is that masked man?

I’ve been trying to explain to people all week what I loved so much about Mardi Gras. For those who were here, or have been here, the explanation works a little better. I am here attempting to distill an explanation, obviously, that works better for a wider audience, that can convey to you – since you probably were not here and quite possibly have never been here – what made Mardi Gras so unexpectedly special. It’s a bit like trying to explain to Alex (who is here and was here) what I like so much about New Orleans. It defies the easy and effable assumptions.

It should be clarified that when I say “Mardi Gras”, I don’t mean that Tuesday that falls before Ash Wednesday, marking the last joyous day before forty long days of Lent. I mean the entire season that culminates in that day in the city of New Orleans and its surrounding environs. It was one of my many flawed assumptions, commonly held misconceptions even, that Mardi Gras is basically just one big glorious blowout day before Lent settles in. It’s really a mini-season running from Twelfth Night (that number of days after Christmas) to Mardi Gras day itself, an age littered with parades, beads, king cake, and revelry of all sorts. I have never seen, with the possible exception of my parents’ neighborhood on Christmas Eve for luminarias in Albuquerque, a city get so decked out and so fully embrace a holiday as New Orleans does for the Mardi Gras season. There are flags, lights, bunting, banners, signs, and the participation rate in this decor is extremely high. It put Christmas to shame, and Christmas was well-embraced for a city that functionally (my header graphic aside) never sees snow.

And dinosaurs!

And dinosaurs!

The next flawed assumption about Mardi Gras is that the receipt of beads is some sort of exchange for lascivious behavior. There are places where this transaction still takes place, or place really, namely Bourbon street, where affection-starved men will fling beads off their overpriced balcony to briefly bare-breasted women below. And it’s possible that the roots of all bead-throwing rituals are in this kind of overtly chauvinistic power-structure. But much as we can have gay marriage and equal marriages in today’s society despite the heritage of quasi-chattel slavery marriages, bead-throwing at Mardi Gras is quite equal-opportunity, with the scales slightly tilted in favor of children. Especially those who are trundled up to these ladder contraptions with makeshift wooden car-seat boxes atop, a wooden pole belting them in to assure that they don’t spill out and over as they reach ten young digits for the next strand of airborne color. Usually these are backed by increasingly exhausted parents, disproportionately mothers, who do most of the actual catching, as well as the bagging of various beads, stuffed animals, glowy ornaments, sports equipment, and plastic-but-metal-sounding coins that stream through the air.

There is a lot I could conceivably object to about this practice, to take care of the counter-arguments up front. There is certainly a materialistic core to the event that made me uncomfortable at times. It is possible to step back from the event and see a metaphor for the nation itself – thousands of adoring supplicants charging the gilded chariots of those with all the power/money/prestige, begging for worthless trinkets with perceived value. There are sometimes even echoes of the concentration camp guard flinging bread to prisoners when a particularly taunting float-rider will stingily toss one or two strands into a scrum. None of this is aided by the fact that it is common practice for those in a “krewe” (yes, note the replacement of a traditional C with a K already) to hide their identity, making many of the outfits and especially headgear a little too reminiscent of the Klan, especially when the chosen color is white. And it is hard to ignore the environmental impact of literally millions of strands of plastic beads being manufactured for the sole purpose of this ode to trinketry. Especially when the remains of any given parade literally litter the streets as crowds disperse, mixed with spilled alcohol, peanut shells, plastic cups, and broken glass. Hundreds of glittering strands of broken beads await the cleanup crew to sweep them into the trash so the next march can commence.

There had to be a better way they could design this outfit, no?

There had to be a better way they could design this outfit, no?

I’ve made quite a case for it, huh?

But the event of Mardi Gras itself, both within an individual parade and across the entire duration of the collective festivities, a real sense of innocence, wonder, and joy pervade. There is a lingering ostensible justification of the Lenten restraint to follow, but this inspiration has empirically diminished or possibly crumbled. In its wake, the sheer revelry for the sake of revelry reigns supreme, as best embodied by children who have no need to question or analyze a celebration. It’s also worth noting that many of these children are growing up in substandard socioeconomic circumstances and a vast quantity of the throws from various floats are toys or stuffed animals of one kind or another. I witnessed some kids receiving a modest Christmas’ worth of playthings at a single parade … and there are about forty parades. As much as we can cast a materialistic lens on this happening, there was also a fair sense of Robin Hood in the air, but a more Scroogeian Robin Hood or even better, the kind of taking from the rich that is, indeed, the rich’s own idea.

Secret societies afloat aside, there was also an incredible sense of community camaraderie on the sidelines of each of these parades. Granted that there was some drunken insanity closer to Canal Street, but posting up nearer our apartment around Napoleon & St. Charles or even down by Poydras and St. Charles in the downtown district, a family atmosphere dominated. Class distinctions of all kinds evaporated as tourists and locals mingled across all ages and sects to vie for the multitude flying off each float. There were a couple overly competitive people, mostly hailing from the Northeast, who grabbed and snatched and ripped things from one’s hands, but almost everyone was smiling, laughing, and quick to let go a strand that garnered mutual attachment. When the average person seemed to get about 25 strands of beads, plus assorted cups and goodies, from each individual parade (and there were often 2-3 in a row), there was more than enough to go around.

I also learned recently that the roots of much of the Mardi Gras regalia are Russian in nature, only increasing my visceral positive associations with the ongoing event. While the Catholic traditions brought by the French and Spanish started Mardi Gras celebrations in the 18th century in New Orleans, it wasn’t until the 1872 arrival of a Romanov Grand Duke that Mardi Gras had a “Rex” – the presiding king of Carnival, who also bestowed the Russian royal family’s crowning colors of purple, gold, and green on the event.

All of these seem like minor, technical reasons for falling in love with the holiday so robust that most everyone gets 3-5 days off work and the entire city shuts down. And, like snow days and a few other holidays or events, shutting a city down itself is a cause to enjoy a phenomenon, taking everyone outside their workaday perspectives and into the streets to bond and unite and see the world anew. There is something deeper than all this, something beyond the primal competitiveness that is stoked by vying for colorful beads and even beyond the simple joy of watching people dance with fire, dance in costume, dance along to the drum twice their size that they beat in tempo.

I think it has to do with magic.

Panorama pictures just end up small when you put them on the web.

Panorama pictures just end up small when you put them on the web.

New Orleans is one of the few places in America that carries a deep, spiritual sense with it. It is perhaps the only major city to have this distinction. When I visited India, the entire country and even more of bordering Nepal seemed utterly drenched with symbolism, spirituality, deeper meaning, and even magic. I’m sure I’m losing some readers with this rhetoric, but I can only say that some places feel like there is something deeper going on and some don’t. If you’ve seen Eddie Izzard, his discussion of Stonehenge’s location speaks to this a bit – he illustrates how Stonehenge is built on an eerie windswept plain, whereas Manhattan could never host something like that. Well, here, from the transcript of “Dress to Kill”:

“But they built Stonehenge, and it’s built in an area called Salisbury Plain in the South of England. The area of Salisbury Plain where they built it is very ( eerie chanting ), ’cause that’s good, you know. It’s a mystical thing; build it in a mystical area. You don’t want to build it in an area that’s ( singing upbeat jazzy tune ). No, there you build Trump Tower.”

If you’re not an Izzard fan or you’re just not going to use a comedian as evidence for the variable nature of physical locations’ spiritual properties, perhaps you can imagine yourself in a graveyard or at the Wailing Wall. I’ve never been, but it seems obvious to me that most of the Arabian Peninsula and especially its western portions are similar to India, just embedded with a sense of Purpose and Depth. It’s hard to imagine people fighting so hard over the city of Jerusalem without this reinforcing sense of its importance beyond just reading the books that say so. And domestically, it’s pretty much just New Mexico and New Orleans that achieve that for me, that trips my radar in the same way. And some National Parks, I guess, notably the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone. My contention is that there just are some innately holy places in the world, charged with significance of a more ethereal nature. And New Orleans is one of them.

So when you take a holy place, dress it up in a unique combination of colors, stream color across every tree and branch and spare bit of fence, dress everyone up, and shut the city down, you get an alchemy that is greater than the whole of its analyzable parts. Yes, you get some craziness and drunkenness and people who take it too far or in an obnoxious direction. But you also get the unbridled wonder of children and tourists and first-timers reveling in the sheer scale and size of the alligators lumbering down the city streets, the poles aflame with live fire, the largess bestowed upon the joyous crowd.

See the person jumping in the lower-right for scale.

See the person jumping in the lower-right for scale.

There’s probably a bit of the costumery, mysticism, decoration, and kindness of strangers of Halloween thrown in there too. Indeed, much of my strong gut favoritism to Mardi Gras may just be that it’s all a repackaging of Halloween in slightly fancier dress. And in February. When it’s alternately 35 and 75 out, as it was at the beginning of different parades this month. A little testament to the instability of a haunted land that could be washed away in an instant, with a spirit that lives forever.

Yeah, it's a little like Halloween.

Yeah, it’s a little like Halloween.

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The Sound of Silence

Categories: A Day in the Life, Marching to New Orleans, Tags: ,

The cemetery kitty-corner from our house in New Orleans, in the fog, two days ago.

The cemetery kitty-corner from our house in New Orleans, in the fog, two days ago.

One of the great challenges of the modern age is finding sufficient solitude.

By “modern age”, of course, I don’t mean the 1950s, which I guess took hold of that term a while back and didn’t let go. I mean now, a time I sometimes call “contemporary” as pretty much the only word that I can use to rigidly refer to this one. And by “solitude”, I don’t necessarily really even mean being alone, even though that’s what the word means. I mean a deeper, more peaceful quiet, the ability to be alone with one’s thoughts, even in the midst of a variety of other humans. What I mean to say, I suppose, is that it’s hard to be bored these days. Or at least find a place to be quiet.

Boredom and quiet are not typical byproducts of the current Western societies which pride themselves on their smartphone technology, infinite navigability, and instant gratification. Boredom and quiet are the obvious enemies, to be paved over with walls of distraction and sound at every opportunity. Listening to nothing is missing the opportunity to be listening to the latest hit single by your new favorite band. Not having anything to do is unthinkable on face, but if it can be imagined, is to be replaced by getting the updates on what millions of people you care about, whether you know them or not, are doing at this very moment. Lord knows they aren’t bored, and if they are, they are certainly feigning otherwise on a social media outlet of choice.

I’m not above this fray entirely, of course, though I adamantly swear by my decision to avoid smartphones and, given the way a recent NPR piece on their use sounded, would probably choose to give up cell-phones altogether if smartphones somehow became my only option. Even now, you may be reading this blog post on a smartphone and have come here via a link thereon that I posted to social media in the hopes that you would catch it right there, now, in real time. To which I can only offer my opposition to the whole circumstance as a defense, that the technology sometimes must be used as its only effective undoing, perhaps. After all, Republicans still seek government office to undermine the power of government. One would imagine that an anti-literacy campaign might still use written words to spread the message of their initial organization. Or that those who seek to undermine the role of money must still spend it until then.

But I often find myself wishing I could be more bored than I am, and certainly in an environment more quiet. It’s not that I long for the 8-hour wait at Harry Potter World, exactly – while I found that experience instructive, it was well more than too much of a good thing to regularly seek. But I basically have found that NPR’s conclusions about the benefits of boredom come true. As I noted in June 2013, “Boredom is essential to the writing process… You need to force yourself to be bored enough to be truly creative.” As the piece describes, the mind will only be pushed to real creativity, really interesting stuff, if it has to amuse itself beyond the readily available and accessible amusements. If there is sufficient distraction, then why rise above it? If there is no distraction, we will create it, and it may be the most interesting idea, concept, or whimsy yet.

I think this is why I have done some of my best thinking, from creative development to more concrete problem-solving, in the shower. There is something to be said for being in a place that’s comfortable and for the soothing de-stressing nature of warm water. But most of it is just that this is one of the most rote and dull processes of the day, while also managing to not be distractingly unpleasant. Many things can be extra-distracting even if boring and thus undermine the value that boredom can offer, much like the extra bloodflow of a migraine loses any beneficial effects by triggering painful nerves with the swollen veins: the pain overrides the added blood, neutralizing and even negating it. But the shower is not particularly chore-like or unpleasant, thus creating that perfect blend of boredom and thoughtlessness that creates real, interesting thoughts.

The other ingredient necessary for this kind of insight, at least for me, is silence. Or at least the absence of specific, comprehensible noise, which is actually not the same thing at all. There are many dins that create the functional equivalent of silence in terms of lacking any discernible sound that creates a linguistic or musical experience that distracts the mind from wandering, be it into a book, a piece of writing, or mere reverie toward creative groundwork. A coffee shop may offer a sufficient balance of neighboring conversations such that they create an overall hubbub that sounds more like white noise than like language and this is nearly as good as real quiet. A train station’s crowded echoes, at least in a really authentic glorious station (think Philadelphia’s 30th Street, LA’s Union, NY’s Grand Central, that kind of thing) will offer the same effect. But outside these rare exceptional circumstances, and perhaps libraries, this silence or mix of noise that cancels to simulate it is confoundingly hard to come by.

Music is a huge culprit. There are almost no public buildings that fail to play some kind of music and, increasingly, it is both loud and has words. A remarkable number of otherwise abandoned coffee shops are inhospitable to reading and writing for their unending chorus of worded music which competes for and, for me, overrides any attention being offered to rival words. There are many decent reasons for playing music in such venues, I suppose, like making the day go faster for the employees or offering patrons an environment that reminds them of high school or their hipster friend, but it seems like someone could make a fortune by being “the quiet coffee shop” as a place conducive both to quiet conversation and the reading and writing that people, in one era, most closely associated with the establishments.

Indeed, even bookstores, such as they still exist, are increasingly being invaded by music. To say nothing of restaurants, cafes, and other establishments even less traditionally associated with quiet than coffee shops and bookstores. Libraries remain a rare bastion of silence, though their inhospitability to other things, like food and drink, makes them limited candidates for long reading, writing, and/or thinking sessions. I guess I must be an outlier in my wishes, since everyone seems to be adopting music as a universal soundtrack to indoor existence, but is it possible that we’re just not thinking that deeply about this invasion? Or is no one else so impacted as I am?

After all, most of my generation has supposedly grown up doing homework with the television and radio (or other music device) on simultaneously and competing for attention. I have witnessed peers be able to hold conversations or focus on work of various kinds while so much audible and discernible dialogue distracts me to the point of, well, distraction. So perhaps I’m just a particularly bad auditory multi-tasker, something akin to my generally slow reading (at least for an avid reader), someone for whom words are such a centerpiece that there can only be one viable set of them at a time. But, like the NPR piece on boredom suggests, maybe it’s not that I’m the only one who wants silence. Maybe no one is really thinking about the loss of silence as something we should be guarding against in the first place.

The only place where I can really see (or hear of, more accurately for a couple reasons) this battle being fought is in transportation, where the much-discussed Quiet Car has been created on various Amtrak routes and imitated by other train lines, at least in the northeast. This is a key feature of many trains that aims for the purest form of silence, since, after all, it’s pretty hard to enforce the mixed hubbub that would result from just the right number of conversations. The main target of the Quiet Car seems to be cell-phone conversations, but loud music is surely also shunted away from this purported ambassador of peace. No wonder I often deeply miss my train commute in the Bay Area on BART or even excitedly anticipate a possible streetcar commute in my newest city. While I spent and would spend most of that time reading, it’s at least a refuge from the unending assault of music and other noise on my concentration.

It is hard to read that above sentence without feeling like a bit of a curmudgeon. There is a bit of “get off my lawn” about calling for silence in any venue, perhaps more so if I irritably claim it is “for your own good”. And yet I fear for a generation raised without silence at all, where quiet and its cousin boredom are stamped out like the last of a nasty virus whose loss no one will mourn. Yes, I suppose, we can always create these things in our own homes, filling it with as much noise or as little as we wish. But I think there is something about the collective environments and surprises of the realms outside the home that make silence and even boredom there far more salient than that cultivated in the house.

At least in New Orleans, there is no shortage of such places outdoors. The cemeteries with their various decaying dead keeping watch above ground, the duck-strewn parks of trees and green, the resting neighborhoods with their tales of history, water, success, and woe. Even the ghosts in these places sometimes respect the silence, content to haunt one’s thoughts peacefully, despite stirring the mind within.

Now if only I can convince some of the coffee shops to follow suit.

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My Life with (Ms.) Pac-Man (or 84,400 Points Can’t Be Wrong)

Categories: A Day in the Life, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, Marching to New Orleans, Video Games Killed the Free Time, Tags: , , ,

My record-high Ms. Pac-Man score, set earlier this week.

My record-high Ms. Pac-Man score, set earlier this week.

Ms. Pac-Man has played a major role in my existence.

I think I first played the arcade classic in the early-mid 1980s, probably just after it had come out. My father was a big fan of the early Pac-Man tables that came to the world about the same time I did and he would often bring me along for long lunches and early dinners with his sales associates in his various cable-selling and/or entrepreneurial efforts of those heady Reagan years. Often these meals were at establishments that had a couple video games making a trial appearance at the front entrance, competing with the cigarette vending machines, the dirty old bubblegum-dispensers, and occasionally the clucking chicken prize machines that I absolutely adored.

(Given Alex’s incredulity at seeing her first cigarette vending machine at Harrah’s New Orleans a few months back, I expect similar puzzlement about the last kind of machine from those not around in the early ’80s, though it may also have been a localized thing. In which case, behold:)

These things were everywhere.  And they were AWESOME.

These things were everywhere. And they were AWESOME.

I don’t know exactly when my father first hoisted me up to a proper height to be able to reach the controls of Ms. Pac-Man’s hectic voyage through her haunted maze of dots, but it may have been at one of those bar-style tables that would have been decidedly more accessible to my short childhood frame (not a redundancy – I was really short for my age until I shot up to my current height around ages 12-13). It was sometime after we’d seen Tron in theaters as my first or second movie-going experience* and I almost immediately remember connecting the experience of the character I was remotely controlling with the lives of those mono-suited and harrowed drivers in the film. It was thrilling. I’m sure I died quickly and had no idea why, but I also carefully watched my Dad and his associates play over time and soon Ms. Pac-Man would join Halloween and Watership Down as inextricably magical portals in my consciousness.

Thereafter, Ms. Pac-Man would always be my go-to game at arcades and pizza parlors in my youth. I didn’t frequent these places often, but birthday parties or other outings in Seaside, Oregon made them a common location to test out the skills of evading ghosts and eating fruit. I played a safe survival strategy, eschewing the big points to be gained from eating lots of ghosts and preferring usually to gobble the unguarded dots while they went through their mollified blue phase. NBA Jam certainly made a run at my heart for the top spot in the world of video gaming outside the computer, but nothing could knock the hungry yellow circle off her perch.

Then the obsession really kicked into high gear and got some reasonable attempts at practice when we moved to New Mexico and I fell into the habit of bowling with my friends on an at-least weekly basis. Holiday Bowl on Lomas at ~Louisiana remains there and became our third or fourth home and had a big Ms. Pac-Man machine right in the front of the various video games adorning the entrance. Jake and I were the biggest fans, but most everyone took a turn or two at the big yellow-and-blue box, with the crowded semicircle of onlookers cheering or groaning at every turn. It was here that I honed more risky strategies, emerging as I was from a highly risk-averse youth into a still disproportionately risk-averse teenage-dom. I went for the full 1600 (3000 total) points of eating all four ghosts. I went for the fruit from time to time, learning the valuable lesson that it’s there, especially in the early levels (up to peach) mostly to distract you and get you eaten. I learned to hate Red, or Blinky as it is named in the game, for its cunning and speed, especially in sometimes trying to get eaten early so it could fly back out of the gate when no longer vulnerable.

I remember a particular national debate trip in high school where we ate somewhere that had a Ms. Pac-Man machine (or maybe it was in an airport?) and I dropped everything to get out some quarters and give it a spin. My debate teammates had never seen me transformed by the effects of the twists, turns, triumphs, and tragedies, and were thus mostly amused. Jess Hass told me she had never seen me that animated and that it was like another person had come out of my shell. It’s probably somewhat like what people who’ve never seen me dance think when they first see me at a party or wedding.

Then there was a bit of a lull. Brandeis lacked a Ms. Pac-Man machine on campus and Pelta-Heller taught me to play pinball instead. That and laundry scooped up my extra quarters and my skills lapsed a bit. I’d still jump at the chance to gobble some dots and ghosts when presented with the opportunity, but the chances became less frequent as aging machines were taken out. A brief renaissance ensued when Gris and I discovered a table Ms. Pac-Man sublimely sitting in the middle of an Ethiopian bar and grill in Oakland, though. I distinctly remember playing after his birthday party there to console him upon having his car stolen that day (it was recovered two days later not much worse for the already heavy wear).

And then my Dad called and said he’d found an affordably priced Pac-Man table machine on the Internet and did I think it would be cool if he bought it and put it in the basement? This is a bit like a lifetime soccer fan being called on a casual Tuesday night by a relative who is weighing in on whether he or she should choose to buy Manchester United. I got done with my gleeful incredulity about four minutes later and could only calm down enough to make my approval truly clear another four minutes after that.

This elation was only mildly dampened when I came home the first time to discover that he had not just short-handed the game’s title by calling it “Pac-Man” but that it was, in fact, an original, not the Ms. Pac-Man that had stolen my heart over the last two-point-five decades. But I quickly grew to love the simpler and less prolific original, though the cut scenes were not something I’d memorized the tune to ages before. The ghosts were a bit more plodding and logical, but the overall game ran slower and had less variation with the lack of different boards. That said, it was very hard to argue with being able to fish the quarters back out of the till unspent, nor the camaraderie of playing against my father.

The Pac-Man machine has been dormant and is being considered for re-sale, but my Dad and I got it up out of the basement and plugged it in upstairs last visit, when Alex and I went out for Balloon Fiesta in October. And she went from very new to pretty darn good quite quickly, an echo of her childhood playing Super-Mario (I always had a computer for games instead of a Nintendo). And shortly upon our return, we discovered that the arcade at our favored local movie theater, the Elmwood 20 in Harahan (same parking lot as the only NOLA-area Chipotle!) has a back room. We’d been playing air-hockey and occasionally gambling away dollars in the claw machine (curse you, Kurt Falk!) when especially early for films, but guess what was sitting in the back the whole time (I mean, all of four months, but we see a lot of movies…)? Yup, Ms. Pac-Man.

With our honed practice on the arguably harder original game in Albuquerque, we suddenly started tearing up the field on this machine. To the point that it was only a couple weeks of two-a-movie-each play before we were each setting individual records. After nearly 30 years of play, an individual record! I was pretty sure that about 60-65,000 was my personal best prior to discovering this machine, and soon I was over 70k. I made the fourth board design, the dark blue one, for only the second time in my life, edging past the “Junior” cut-scene. And then I was consistently getting deep into the prior dark-brown boards, or getting through the first four levels without losing a life. The picture up top is from our last session, when we each played three games, and two (2!) of mine were personal bests, back-to-back. Alex also set a personal best with 44,560 points.

It has only been after the last two sessions that I connected my most lamented fact about this particular Ms. Pac-Man machine with my favorite. You see, the sound basically doesn’t work on this machine. Once in a while, there’s a scratchy murmur of a sound trying to escape the otherwise broken speakers, but that’s it. I have actually sung the music for the first two cut scenes most every time we reach them as I miss dancing to it so much. I have missed (or thought I missed) the satisfying power-up bloops of consuming ghosts or the anguished disintegration noise that so poetically echoes the frustration of the reverse.

But what if I’m setting records… because there’s no sound?

What if I’m not better at all at this point in my life, but just less distracted than usual? It certainly follows that, like the early-level fruit, the sound proves to be as much an impediment to success as it does a boost. There’s already a ton of mental multi-tasking required for stellar Pac-Man play. One must develop a planned route, re-route the route continually when it is blocked or dangerous, line up ghosts for quick eats after eating a big dot, and constantly strain peripheral vision to be aware of all four enemies on the board while also processing blind tunnels and, in the later levels, game-making 2,000-point pears and 5,000-point bananas. All that and try to anticipate when the ghosts will randomly reverse and throw the whole thing off. Could sound be the fourth dimension that keeps concentration impossible? And its absence indicate an opportunity to master the game as never before?

I won’t know, of course, till I can test my newly honed skills on a fully-operational machine somewhere else. Though I’m nervous to play anywhere but this dingy back-room in Harahan after getting remarkably close to the fabled six-digit threshold. Until then, I’ll have to wonder, like with so many pursuits these days and always, how much of my success is the unadulterated improvement that so often follows practice and how much is the sheer luck of unpredictable circumstance.

As, no doubt, Pac-Man and Ms. Pac-Man must wonder as they traverse those three vaunted and normally musical cut-scenes. Was it destiny that prompted them to meet? Or were they the only two Pac-(wo)M(e)n in the world and lucky enough to bump into each other? How much credit can they claim for the little family they forge?


*Much debate persists in my family about whether I saw Tron or E.T. first in theaters. I loved the experience of the first and was terrorized for years by recollections of images of the protagonist in the latter. E.T. was released on June 11, 1982 and Tron was released a month later, on July 9, 1982. But admittedly E.T. was a blockbuster that stuck around in theaters for months after Tron‘s debut. That said, the earlier release seems to correlate better with my theory that E.T. was actually my first movie and that part of what scared me was the strange new experience of being in a really dark yet crowded room. If you think about it, going to a movie theater is intensely bizarre and disconcerting for a new human.

by

It Doesn’t Really Snow Here

Categories: A Day in the Life, Marching to New Orleans, Metablogging, Quick Updates, Upcoming Projects, Tags: , , , ,

A quick click of the refresh button will show you some new imagery around here.

To review, here was the old header:

Header of this blog, 1 October through 10 November 2014.

Header of this blog, 1 October through 10 November 2014.

And here is the new:

Header of this blog, today through question-marks!

Header of this blog, today through question-marks!

Of course the actual versions are much larger, trying to span the entire distance of the page as it appears on whatever of various screen resolutions you may be using. For a long time, screen resolutions were getting finer and finer, but now it seems everyone uses really small screens like tablets and phones to access the web, so I assume that trend is leveling off. I’m not really sure myself, because while I long ago acquiesced to get a cell-phone, I insist on keeping a dumb-phone instead of delving into the rabbit-hole of touch-screens. I suspect this is only the first of many many refusals which put one foot of mine solidly in middle age at the ripe old sum of 34.

It doesn’t really snow in New Orleans. Or it does like every 5 years, maybe. I’m obviously hoping this year, like any winter in which I exist, is one of those rare ones where it snows even where it normally doesn’t. Certainly I can’t complain – last winter in Jersey sent us off to a snowless land quite well with weekly storms over half a foot. That said, our alternative current landing spot was Helsinki, which would’ve finally fulfilled a lifelong ambition to live somewhere where the snow is constant and overwhelming. A place like Buffalo or Lake Tahoe or northern Canada or Minnesota where the question is not if but how much and perhaps, later, will it still be snowing in June. And yes, I felt this way even when I had to drive several hours every weekend as part of my job.

This image is one I found on the Internet of a storm in 2008. The rest of the color scheme is my traditional wintry mix of light blue and light gray, while keeping the general body text style as when I started this theme at the top of last month. Still going with this theme overall (Type-o-Graphy) – I really like everything about it except for the fact that it jump-cuts words while keeping a jagged right justification. I really still can’t figure out who thought that was a good idea. To be fair, I guess I could start doing a solid justify on both sides of the page, but then I’d have to retroactively add that to the last 1,371 posts on this page and … yeah, I don’t really feel like doing that. I just wish it wouldn’t jump-cut words assuming I have a justified page text.

The things we worry about in this life.

In case it wasn’t also obvious, I am mildly obsessed with the New Orleans streetcars, especially the St. Charles line that runs a few blocks from our apartment down the main corridor of Uptown New Orleans, one of the prettiest streets in America for my money. Whether it hosts snow this year or not, I’ve already seen it get decked out for Halloween in full regalia and I can only imagine that Christmas and then Mardi Gras will far eclipse that effort. Though it does seem like an awful lot of people show up in this city for Halloween.

I’ve been watching the new Dr. Who lately, finally, since Alex got us Netflix (I dropped it in 2011 after it had become kind of stressful for me and pressured me into watching screens when I’d rather be reading). The old one was my favorite show for a number of years – reruns were on late-night PBS in my childhood and my Dad introduced me to the show. The new one does an excellent job of capturing the spirit of the original, both in significance and fun. And, like David Foster Wallace writing and most science fiction (these are two separate things – I know that DFW did not write sci-fi), Dr. Who gets me to always think deeply about the larger context of existence and exactly what is being done with our time/energy on this planet, both as an individual (me) and a species (humans). Not always, of late, with perfectly settling conclusions, but I think everyone should have influences in their life that constantly put things in a more universal (and mortal) context.

I wish more people were doing that in blogs, though. I just updated the list of blogs on the sidebar and there’s been a lot of attrition. Which reminds me that I have to figure out how to make future upcoming quizzes (I really want to get the Song Quiz out before 2015, really) more sharable on Facebook, since the “Paste this text into your webpage code!” line, while still an option, is not going to be the primary way of spreading the quiz around.

When I can hire a part-time programming assistant for this site, I’ll know I’ve really made it.

by

On Waiting

Categories: A Day in the Life, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, Marching to New Orleans, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, Read it and Weep, Tags: , , , ,

It's rough when a 375-minute wait-time proves to be an underestimate.

It's rough when a 375-minute wait-time proves to be an underestimate.

Yesterday I went to the DMV to become an official resident of Louisiana, changing over the car registration and getting a new driver’s license. (I was allowed to smile this time, unlike in New Jersey.) It’s interesting, perhaps, that driving is such a ubiquitous expectation for members of our society that changing one’s vehicular status seems to be the really defining part of residency. I have often tried to discuss with people how strange it is that driving is a universally expected skill, even though it’s reasonably difficult and arbitrary and the consequences of this expectation kill 40,000 people a year in the nation (or, as I prefer to put such statistics, cause 13.3 9/11’s a year). When Alex and I went to Texas two of the last three weekends, we noticed these oddly disturbing but effective electronic roadside signs. In stark yellow letters across a black field, they announced that 2157 people had died on Texas roads this year so far, so we should drive safely.

I still think a more appropriate reaction might be that we should stop driving cars and find more efficient, safe, and communal ways of getting around the nation, but hey. One 9/11 can cause endless war, but 13 of them a year trigger only the exhortation that people should reduce the speedometer reading by 10%. USA!

While at the DMV, however, I was reminded of what a universal American experience said motor vehicle offices are. I had put this visit off till the penultimate possible day (the Prius’ Jersey plates expire tomorrow) in dread of the long lines, crabby employees, and overbearing fluorescence of the trip. None of these factors were any less potent in reality than they were in the anticipation of my mind. The office could have been straight out of Piscataway or Oakland or Albuquerque, replete with the red digital board announcing that one’s number was interminably far away, the absolutely least patient and considerate humans currently employed in customer service worldwide, and low hanging buzzing lights that augmented the shadows on the hangdog droop of one’s long-suffering plastic-chair-bound comrades.

Americans are not accustomed to waiting, as a general rule, and we do not handle it well. This is a society that complains like the bitterly oppressed and imprisoned when a webpage takes thirty seconds to load instead of two, when cars ahead do not simulate the squealing launch of a NASCAR race as soon as a streetlight turns green. It is not merely that waiting brings to mind the opportunity cost of precious seconds that could be spent in rapturous adoration of a television or smartphone, but that impatience is kind of drummed into us as a cultural virtue. We crave instant gratification, revere fast food, proliferate the drive-through because getting out of a car and walking across half a parking lot is just such an impediment to the immediacy of our needs. One shudders to think of this country being confronted with miles-long walks to fresh water or even Depression-era bread-lines. No doubt many red-blooded patriots would choose to defiantly expire of starvation, rather than participate in the self-abnegation incumbent in getting in such a queue.

It is worth noting, then, the exceptional circumstances that do lead to Americans voluntarily standing in lines. Much has been made lately of the kind of badge of honor that trendy New Yorkers wear by waiting, sometimes overnight, in lines for various hip New York experiences, e.g. cronuts, new iPhones, the experience of rain in an art museum, etc. And it is perhaps telling that our most line-prone urbanites have their own nomenclature for such waiting, being the only American sub-species who call such waiting “standing on line” as opposed to “in line”. Indeed, I have found that this slip of terminology is perhaps the best way for immediately rooting out a New Yorker from an otherwise sane batch of people – they are totally incapable of saying “in line” like the rest of the nation. And to anyone not raised in New York, “on line” sounds infinitely clunky and even misspoken. I have often wondered whether the NYC lingo for queues is responsible for the Internet being called “going online” – perhaps a New Yorker was the first person to complain of the bleeps and bloops of 1990s modem signatures and declared that this was like camping out for Yankees playoff tickets.

I have to believe that there is something about New Yorkers’ reputed impatience that makes line-waiting such a vital part of the New York experience for those who choose to partake in it. It’s like people who grew up poor flaunting their access to cash with some flashy unnecessary purchase. Look how much time I can waste amidst all this rush and bustle! Look how much and how passionately I care about the two new features of this portable telephone! And, as in all games and most of life, this patience is rewarded. If we can call the opportunity to spend too much money for something that’s probably not that great a reward.

It is this type of line-waiting that Alex and I engaged in over the summer in Orlando, Florida when, on 8 July 2014, we attended the official grand opening of Diagon Alley in Universal Studios’ Wizarding World of Harry Potter and rode the new ride Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts. We spent a cumulative 10 hours waiting to ride one ride.

We had first considered heading down to Harry Potter World years ago and when it was announced that a whole new section of the park would be opened and dedicated to the boy wizard, it seemed like a no-brainer to try to go this summer. But Universal became especially cagey about when precisely the new part of the park and its new ride would open just as we were planning our trip to New Orleans, so it was basically after the plans had been made (though I rarely finalize plans fully, in part to capture just such opportunities as this) that they announced the new ride would open on one of the days we were already slated to be in Orlando.

Part of the problem is that the escape from Gringotts as a scene in both the 7th book and 8th movie of the Harry Potter series already seems like an amusement park ride. One can’t help thinking that J.K. Rowling herself wrote the imagery with something like Universal Studios in mind, so the craving to ride such a ride has long been patiently waiting inside every HP fan. The other problem is that we were able to waltz into Diagon Alley the day before it opened, in the evening of July 7th, during a “soft open” that it was doing, so we naively assumed that there would be no line for the same area on the official opening day.

It is worth noting here that if you like Harry Potter, you should do everything you can to go to the Wizarding World in Orlando. I simply can’t recommend it enough. Hogsmeade is really impressive and all but one of the rides there are great, but the attention to detail, craftsmanship, and just pure love that went into Diagon Alley are rarely matched in any theme park or place of American entertainment. It feels, for all the world, like visiting the place, like the Alley itself has been made manifest, giving it a sense of place usually exclusively reserved for, well, real places. And I know part of the whole HP themeology is the concept of blurring what is real from what is not and questioning the importance of such distinctions, but rarely is such a question asked so poignantly as in this location.

So not only did Alex and I not make an effort to get to the park as early as possible on the 8th of July, but we spent the first 10 minutes in the park bum-rushing for the entrance to Diagon Alley rather than trying to find the end of the line to get in. Having no idea there would be a line because we’d gotten in so easily the day before, we missed the chance to be probably 45 minutes earlier in the line as people streamed in, shortcutting directly to the entrance and then walking all the way back along the length of the line to find our place in it.

Despite dire warnings that the line could be upwards of six hours just to get into a place we’d gallivanted through in wonder the night before, the wait for the Alley itself only proved to be a little over two hours. At first, we were able to get in and out of line and I even walked onto the Simpsons ride, which proved quite fun, while Alex held our place. But soon they cracked down on such shenanigans and there was nothing to do but settle in, try to hydrate in the wake of the intense Florida sun, and get to know our line-neighbors, a pair of Australian young women who worked at Disney and were making a budding career as journeying theme park cast members.

Alex had also followed the absolute cardinal rule of line-waiting, which is Bring A Book. During most of my life, I wish I were reading more and I actually have grown to love mass transit and even some other opportunities to wait in line because they “force” me to read. There is probably something interesting in play about our screen-based and fast-paced society that makes reading something hard to choose over other, more exciting seeming options, even if what I really most want to be doing is reading. Part of the problem is that reading is often soporific by nature, especially since most people recline when reading, and thus big plans of a night spent reading for hours often yield a half-hour of reading followed by sleeping more than one wanted.* Which, for all its other foibles, makes the subway or the streetcar or even the fluorescent-drenched DMV office or auto repair waiting-room an excellent refuge for actually getting to read.

*I realize, of course, that “sleeping more than one wanted” is possibly a concept unique to me, especially as an adult American in his mid-thirties. This is the difficulty of trying to bridge one’s experience into more universal ones.

I honestly have no recollection of why I forgot a book that day. I may have assumed that the lines would comport to some reasonable standard of timeliness and that I would be bouncy and excited instead of bored while waiting. I may just have wanted to reduced the load in my backpack or I may have, incomprehensibly, left my backpack in the car and asked Alex to carry a couple things in her purse. There have been so many quick trips to places that somehow yielded unexpected waits, though, that I almost never violate the Bring A Book rule and am constantly admonishing myself to follow it, much like its equally important cousin rule (in my life), which is Bring A Layer. But for some reason, I had no books. Alex had brought Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.

In the sun-soaked line for Diagon Alley, we joked idly about Alex making significant progress in said tome during line-standing. Shortly after stowing our stuff in the requisite lockers in Diagon Alley (the locker-line itself taking on the order of 40 minutes while Alex sat in Knockturn Alley’s dank to recover from the sun), we discovered that this progress might not be such a joke. When we entered the line for Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts, the sign warned us that 375 minutes of waiting (6.25 hours for those scoring at home) may, well, await us (see image atop this post). Since entering the Alley an hour prior, this number had steadily been increasing as I waited for a locker and we downed some cool refreshments and gawked at how well crafted the overall place was. The safe assumption seemed to be that the wait times would only increase, that if we waited another hour, the sign would say 500 and another hour after that might close the line altogether and deprive us of our chance to experience the ride. (We were leaving the next day for New Orleans, though we ended up going north up the coast for an amazing sea turtle experience instead that I may someday recall in a different post.)

So the only thing to do was to get in line.

I have spent a lot of time thinking about how to talk about the experience of waiting for what proved to be 8 hours in a line without a book.* I was trying to capture my observations and the different feelings during the experience, but nothing much stuck or was terribly salient, the probable result of the inevitable brain-scramble that comes of such experience. And while my waiting experience pales in comparison to the life of those in Guantanamo Bay or some other detainment facility, let alone the millions our society keeps incarcerated round the clock, it does have the counter-point that it was voluntarily chosen. And thus an experience for which I had no one to blame but myself. Which is probably not how DMV or auto-repair purgatories feel, but a little like cronut waits, I guess.

*Can you believe that they do not sell a single book in Diagon Alley? This is the place’s largest flaw, by far. One can acquire the entire Harry Potter series in Hogsmeade, but no book of any kind is available in Diagon Alley. I would have paid an exorbitant markup for just about any book some four hours into the wait.

It should be noted that we were allowed, by virtue of there being two of us, to get out of the line and return to our original position. We didn’t discover this fact for the first 3+ hours of the wait, when it first occurred to us that they had to let us go to the bathroom at some point in a 375-minute span. When assuming there was a bathroom somewhere in the swirling line matrix, I was told to simply proceed to the rest of the Alley and find a normal bathroom out there. Which opened up a new world of relief possibilities, including alternately going to get food, beverages, look at the cool things in this part of the theme park, and get cool in Knockturn Alley. Unfortunately, riding other rides or exploring the rest of the park was not an option as it would entail another 2-4 hour wait to return to Diagon Alley, so our options were still relatively limited.

The other issue in play was that the ride kept breaking down. Being a brand-new ride and one suddenly ramped up to the expectations of thousands of simultaneously descending American tourists, the attraction buckled under the weight of being asked to constantly run at capacity. Frankly, it probably wasn’t ready for an opening they’d already delayed and equivocated about. But engineering is no match for the advertising dollars of an announced opening, so there we were facing extended delays periodically announced in a fake British accent over the tinny loudspeaker. These would occasionally be refuted by a more joyous announcement that they were pleased to tell us either half or all of the ride was functioning once more and we would soon have the experience that we truly had all been waiting for.

How to capture the backflips one’s mind starts to do in hour five of a wait? How one grows tired of standing, gives up and just sits on the ground, grows tired of sitting on the ground, sits on the rails of the switchback line-holder, grows numb from that, starts dancing in place, thinks about something else. The biggest problem with waiting in line is how powerfully the act itself captures one’s imagination, how being in line makes one think so chronically about being in line. Sure, one’s mind is able to wander a bit to other things, but most of those are uses of time that one could spend that are not being in line, even those in the theme park itself, and the inevitable question of whether it was, in fact, worth it to get in this line in the first place and at one point it might have made sense to follow a handful of people seen leaving the line after 1, 2, 3 hours. After about 3 hours, no one leaves. That seems to be the tipping point at which one is “pot committed” to borrow a poker phrase, the point of proverbial no return.

Or how to illustrate the horror of looking back in line two hours deep and realizing how much shorter the aggregate line now is, that one could have saved the majority of the last two hours by simply doing something, anything else? That those things would have been active and fun and nothing like the fate that has not only befallen the last two, visibly wasted hours, but that one has two more sessions of two hours just like it ahead. The amount of palpable regret in the process is almost as painful as the feeling in one’s feet after four hours of mostly standing.

How to describe the elation of finally leaving the outdoor portion of the line, most of which was at least covered and had some industrial fans posted and blowing on the lucky few for a while, entering the hallowed halls of Gringotts and its pitch-perfect depiction of the solemn white marble entranceway, complete with surprisingly lifelike animatronic goblins who blink and stare in a quizzical way that one only thinks at this stage, hour 5, is meant to question one’s life choices at voluntarily being in this line so long?

How to explain the incredible effort it takes for a deeply introverted woman who is actually, horror of horrors, in this line alone (and without a book*) to start talking to me in hour 4.5 of the line? This person going on to explain that she is an annual local-pass holder and was here for the Hogsmeade opening as well, the last part making me question why we spent extra money on individual tickets to be here when there are some people who are doubtlessly here for free, save for the already much-thought-over opportunity-cost of being in this line instead of any of the other fun parts of the park which, no doubt, have almost no line since basically everyone who is in this park is here to be here, namely this interminable and constantly extending line.

*Worth noting, also, that the aforementioned lockers indicated that one is supposed to carry nothing onto this ride and thus, also, nothing into the line to wait for the ride either, except disposable things. We actually tested me pocketing Alex’s copy of Chamber of Secrets three times to ensure that we’d be able to keep it on the ride. Although, by hour 3, it’s pretty clear the value of the book and that we would be willing to buy a book that we’d be forced to dispose of three hours hence just to have those three hours with access to a book!

Or whether to bother with the bubbling resentment for the fourth member of the party of teenage girls that, unfortunately, can only be described as a “gaggle”? The one who, just before it was impossible to have return-to-line privileges, showed up for the first time all line, in hour 6, yes, hour 6, to join her friends after 6 carefree hours* running around the various empty rides and attractions of the park while the rest of us, her three cohorts included, toiled away in the psychological gymnastics of standing in this interminable line for three minutes of fun, albeit new fun, at the end.

*Admittedly some of these 6 hours must have been spent in the same 2-4 hour line that we all endured to get into Diagon Alley in the first place, though since we did that too, it is not a marginal harm of her avoiding the first 6 hours of the Gringotts line.

When I was in high school, we had to do various “experiential education” trips, which was just a codeword for hiking/camping as sponsored by the school. There was, at one point, an entire curriculum around it, but I think that had more or less died out by the time I got to the Academy, possibly because the department was chaired by my least favorite educator at the school of all-time and the one I was convinced was the least intelligent, which was something I used to be very mean about. This being the same guy who, in the nascent days of e-mail, my friends and I created a group e-mail chain relating the mistakes he made about American history in his two sections of AP US History, this being a daily occurrence, usually with multiple instances from each class. I kind of suspect he had just been too active in certain outdoorsy extracurricular activities popular in earlier decades, which were in no way part of the curriculum of so-called “experiential” education.

Regardless, we got to choose our sophomore-year trip and, traumatized from a Philmont trip in which it had rained torrentially for five solid days, I opted for a more minimalist venture, the Wilderness Solo, in which we did a brief group hike to a serene lakeside mountain spot, then hiked around a bit alone to scout out some spots for the next day, then embarked early in the morning for 24-36 hours of completely solo time in the woods.

The two trip chaperones of course checked on us twice, once actually having us acknowledge them directly, which I guess was necessary for liability, but it kind of spoiled the sheen of the event for me. What I didn’t realize, of course, is that a disproportionate portion of our trip’s cohort were drama types not just because this trip was less exhaustive than most but because it was the easiest to sneak alcohol and/or drugs into and most of the folks on the trip used the whole adventure as an excuse to get entirely wasted in the wilderness. I, of course, not being that type of person whatsoever, actually had taken the guides seriously the night before when they talked about getting us to refrain from reading or writing or other “distractions” and really trying to get into our “theta waves” of a totally meditative and relaxed state without normal stimuli.

I almost went crazy.

And it wasn’t just the typical camping crazy of late-night sounds and the “oh my, even though I’m normally not a fearful person, the realization that it is dark to the point of invisibility out there and I am protected by very thin nylon and a flimsy zipper and every gust of wind is surely a giant wildebeest with a craving for human meat” crazy. It was some serious crazy. Like “am I really a person?” crazy. Like “life is probably just a simulated illusion meant to inflict pain on us as some sort of trial” crazy.

I also distinctly remember that I spent a majority of my solo time with the Kinks’ song “Lola,” annoying in the best of times heard once, stuck in my head. A song which I only knew a small portion of the lyrics to, making the loop of the repetitive refrain of it being stuck internally shorter, making the entire feedback loop of having a song inexorably in one’s head that much more catastrophically frustrating. Doubtlessly, the perfection of contemplative nature-bound meditation is just no match for pop culture’s infectious rhythms in even the most introspective brain.

When I started to get too crazy, I just broke down and read, which had been my plan all along before the impressionable prior night of theta waves and the rapture/enlightenment that would surely come from simply doing nothing in the woods all day. As though I had briefly lost my mind and forgotten that doing nothing and boredom had been lifelong sworn enemies which I had created entire imaginary worlds to combat. I was pretty big on enlightenment in those days and the quest therefor.

I think the Wilderness Solo was the last time before 8 July 2014 that I felt so crazy and in my head, so self-doubting about an individual decision to sign up for nothingness. And, like the Wilderness Solo, the process of resurfacing to normal levels of stimulus was euphoric. Just entering the building and seeing adornment, the decorated hallways of Gringotts and its various winding vaults that still comprise about 90-120 minutes of line-waiting was a total thrill on the order of a first drink of water after days in a desert. There is this little small part of the ride that you get before the actual ride, that you think is the actual ride, which consists of an elevator into the deepest parts of the vaults as they go over safety procedures, and that felt like winning the World Series. Of course there was a commensurate letdown when we stepped out of that and not onto waiting minecarts but… more infinite line. Snaking through the fake-stone circuitousness to a spiral staircase that ostensibly led up to the real line.

We lost another 45 minutes in there, but this wasn’t by design. The ride broke down when we hit the steps and didn’t resume for a good long while and we all had to contemplate the possibility that our 7.25 hours thus far were all for absolute naught, that this really was a torture chamber and there wasn’t even an inkling of gold at the end of the rainbow. But this extra span gave Alex just enough time to charge through the last few chapters of the Chamber of Secrets, our subterranean time matching Harry and Ron’s, such that she completed the entire tome while in line that day.

The ride was amazing, for a ride. It was truly impressive and awesome and we even got to go again right away because it broke down at the very end and we didn’t get the full experience so they put us on 5 minutes later to start all over and that time it worked. The two-for-one (1.75-for-one?) experience was an extra elating bonus, but the deflation experienced right after exiting and hitting twilight in the expanse of the park made December 26th look like Christmas. It was, objectively, a crazy thing to have done. It seemed, altogether, a waste. Though something kind of cool to have experienced and gone through nonetheless, a fable for the children and grandchildren, though possibly when they are at an age to not so impressionably take the irrationality of the decision to heart.

If nothing else, we concluded, heading over to ride the Hogwarts Express, it would make a good story.

I’ll let you be the judge of that.

But there’s something in waiting, also, that I think is about the lack of knowing exactly how long you’ll be waiting. And I think, not to get too political at the end here, this is what distinguishes Guantanamo Bay from even an extraordinarily long prison sentence. While surely cynicism about ever leaving must be kicking in now for those who remain, those in Gitmo never know when they’re going to leave. Any day they wake up could be their last in that situation. But they don’t know. They have no way of knowing.

And I think waiting as a test of patience can be conquered if one has a definable sense, especially if it’s exact, of how long one has to wait. It can be counted down and quantified and realized. This is why they at least try to post a reasonable wait-time estimate at the gate to these amusement-park ride queues. It is the not knowing how long one is in purgatory that made last year so impossibly hard for me. And what makes Gitmo worse than a normal detention center. What makes being held without charge a universally reviled crime. And what makes getting in line the first day of a ride a very irrational decision.

One never makes good on the promises one makes to oneself in such a setting to savor every non-bored minute thereafter. But at least the remembering and the going through it again can be a bit of a start. You are not in Gitmo. Go out and do something awesome.

Or at least read a book.

by

City of Lost Causes

Categories: A Day in the Life, Marching to New Orleans, Tags: ,

The city of New Orleans belongs to the trees. In the rollicking residential neighborhoods of gaslamps and pillars, porches and endlessly long thin houses, the trees grow big as the houses themselves, mighty roots the size of trees in other lands pushing and pulling at the sidewalk, casting aside concrete slabs like so much paper in the wind. In other cities, men with backhoes would come and hack at the living wood, tamp it down, corral it, make it bend to human will so the sidewalk could lie flat and even and safe for wheels and half-drunk tourists. Not so here. Here the humans put up cautionary hands, accept their place in the hierarchy, allow the trees to sprawl as God intended, make adjustments, trip over cracks in the pavement and dip their tires down low to accommodate.

The only battle of significance ever fought here was after the war in which it played a role had officially ended. The city is the largest in the world to sit below sea level, a fact painfully raised by the 2005 hurricane that conspired with human neglect to nearly destroy the place. The largest celebration of the year honors the last day of bliss before forty days of restraint and self-reflection, one final bacchanalian death throe before the calm of the days that follow.

In most civilized parts of the world, the humans there try to control the land they’re on, to shape it and alter it so it conforms to their vision of existence. Here there is a sense of acquiescence, of acknowledgment of forces beyond control, be they trees that shape the roadways or ghosts that shape the past. The lights flicker and dance, the revelers do the same, the low-lying lands give off the feeling that one is already underwater, drowning, going down fast, and it’s time to let go. The symbol of the city is a long-dead flower of a long-dead monarchy in a country whose influence over the city ended, directly, two centuries ago. There is a palpable feeling sometimes, in the heat and humidity of an August afternoon, that we might all be dead already, that we are living out the memories of our lives as they once were, some sort of haunted mansion planet that people can only come to visit and see through crystal balls or lettered boards or Geiger-style counters in the basement frost.

Of course there are people doing the hard work of restoration. One sees it everywhere, taking buildings that may not have been working or at least glorious since The Storm and mulching the front lawn, repainting the pillars, replacing the windows. There are workers everywhere in this part of the city where we’ve settled, sweating through their shirts and pointing to various detail work for the wealthy families come to reclaim their patch of heaven. So it is everywhere in a nation such as ours, even in the fabled lands below the waterline. Here I feel none of the defiance of New Jersey, though, or even Boston. It’s more of a humble effort in the face of the inevitable. “How do we ever survive this life?” I asked myself in a fit of despair the other day. Then I started giggling, almost uncontrollably.

The joke is that we don’t.

Not actually a haunted mansion in New Orleans, but rather in Disneyland's New Orleans Square.  A future post is slated to discuss the tremendous impact that New Orleans Square had on me as a child and how it's manifesting in my love of New Orleans now.  I cannot tell you how disappointed I was upon visiting Disney World for the first time that their commensurate square is Liberty Square and modeled on New England and their Haunted Mansion looks like Salem instead of New Orleans.

Not actually a haunted mansion in New Orleans, but rather in Disneyland's New Orleans Square. A future post is slated to discuss the tremendous impact that New Orleans Square had on me as a child and how it's manifesting in my love of New Orleans now. I cannot tell you how disappointed I was upon visiting Disney World for the first time that their commensurate square is Liberty Square and modeled on New England and their Haunted Mansion looks like Salem instead of New Orleans.

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Elegy for AC

Categories: A Day in the Life, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, Hypothetically Speaking, Know When to Fold 'Em, Marching to New Orleans, Metablogging, Tags: , , , , ,

I didn't take this, but I might as well have.

I didn't take this, but I might as well have.

The first month I lived in New Jersey, Fish and I went to see Counting Crows play at the Borgata and then stayed up most all of the night playing poker. I wrote about it here, at the time. The month I moved away, we did the same thing. It’s just one of those things. Like the only PJ’s Coffee of New Orleans on Earth outside of the southern US being in Highland Park, New Jersey when I moved there and closing the month I move to New Orleans. It’s enough to make you a solipsist, or at least to be very focused with one’s own life, something Counting Crows shows always have a way of doing, as I’ve talked about recently in the wake of a just earlier show.

There’s a theory I have sometimes, that I think about more than I’d care to, about life as Contract Bridge. It’s a version of solipsism and probably something that just missed inclusion in The Best of All Possible Worlds but might even make a decent sequel if that book were up for that sort of thing. In any event, the idea doesn’t necessitate solipsism, though it certainly implies it or a warped expanded kind of meta-solipsism. The idea is that there are a million of each of us out there, living on parallel worlds, and we’re all basically playing our own individual video games of our own lives, but it’s being scored and at the end you get compared to the other versions of yourself out there. I use this notion to both berate and reassure myself, the idea that there is a Storey Clayton abroad in some far-flung galaxy who took exactly the opportunities I had and is a renowned and well-regarded author with several books that are even now changing his society. Or hell, just a Storey Clayton who was able to not have a marriage taken from him. That would be neat. It’s not always a way of lamenting my fate, it’s at least half the time a way of trying to kick my own rear into gear and remind myself how much potential and opportunity I’ve truly had, which only occasionally slips into a reminder of how pathetically I’ve squandered it.

The circumstances of August 2009 were so vastly different than June 2014 that they don’t even seem like the same planet. But we kept making references to the earlier time, overlooking things like spending the day seeing “500 Days of Summer” earlier that weekend, how significant I found that movie at the time without being able to envision any portends of my own impending doom (reason: there weren’t any portends). We didn’t wait as long in line this time and weren’t quite as close, but the show itself was so much better for the lack of accompanying bands going crazy. The Toad opener was awesome, especially being able to get to see “Something’s Always Wrong”, Fish’s old them song, live with him. And “Windmills” again, which always kills me. The lead singer of Toad kept referencing how crazy it was that the band had broken up 16 years ago and you could feel this kind of reference to the idea that Counting Crows had been together the whole time and what could have been for him and then. You got the feeling that the decade and a half felt like a wasted blur to him. I haven’t seen their VH1 special (if applicable) and don’t know what demons, chemical or otherwise, he may have spent the last few years wrestling with, but I could really relate to the implied sentiment. Of course, one goes to Counting Crows shows to relate with what’s on stage, whether it works or not. That’s just what you do. Hearing him say “We’re hear to sing songs about sad people so you don’t have to,” made me boggle that I’d never heard Adam Duritz drop a line like that.

It would be a fitting epigraph for half my own fiction. Or maybe all of it. There’s always more novels to come.

Fish had sort of promised Madeleine and/or himself that we wouldn’t stay out quite as late this time, but we’d gotten a hotel room in anticipation of breaking that pledge and break it we did. Fish had perhaps his best night of his life on the poker table and then I went to show him Revel before they close it. For the uninformed, it’s a casino that was built to be high-end, 1% style that started building in 2008, which is every bit the disaster you’d expect it to be. By the time they opened it in 2012, it was already bleeding money from every drain. The state owns it now, functionally, and is probably shutting it down in September unless they can find someone to buy it. It’s one of the most beautiful places to gamble I’ve ever seen (I’ve been seeing a lot lately) and the poker room was perhaps my favorite, a place where I always made money and spent one really fun weekend when they’d just opened sipping luxury coffee and scooping some pretty big pots. The poker room closed a while ago, shortly after I cashed in a tournament there, but the rest of the floor is still really beautiful if you can avoid eye contact with the suicidally depressed employees. Revel convinced thousands of people with great casino jobs in NJ and Philly to quit to come to the only place anyone was supposed to be playing after 2012. But the place was bankrupt less than a year after opening and it’s almost all over. We put five bucks on three numbers of a roulette wheel, hit one of them, played a couple more rounds, and walked away with even more of the state of New Jersey’s money.

Then we ran out to the beach to watch the sun rise and take in all the things people feel on beaches when it’s way past bedtime. (Yes, CC played “A Long December,” and there’s all that baggage out there too.) The sands of time, the tides of time, the significance of half a decade spent in a state that I’ve always hated (and it’s grown on me, but only in terms of a few people and really just RUDU, to be honest… even Rutgers as a whole did next to nothing to endear me to the institution), a state that’s made me suffer more concretely than any other by a long shot. The relief and exultation I feel to be leaving the physical state of New Jersey, even despite missing RUDU and access to Philly and AC, is constantly palpable even now, a month and a half after departure. I don’t really believe in curses, but I do believe that significance is infused in time and space, even if it’s only in how we think it makes us feel. Good God.

Since getting here to New Orleans (and playing poker a lot, which is my trial job for now… so far, so good, and yes, I’m monitoring it closely so don’t panic), a lot of people have been talking about Atlantic City like it’s in hospice care. And to be sure, casinos are drying up left and right. Not just Revel, but Alex’s favorite, Showboat, itself something New Orleans themed in New Jersey, is slated to close in September, even though it’s still turning a profit. Pennsylvania just passed NJ as second state in the country for gambling revenues and explains a lot of why AC is falling apart… the Philadelphia market and I-95 corridor now have alternatives that don’t require burning as much $3.50 a gallon gas. Honestly, I just tell people these days that the Mob couldn’t shut down competition forever and I think that explains AC’s demise as much as anything. There’s a lot of grand metaphors to be made about how much America has turned to gambling in the last decade as a balm for its problems and I should honestly be the last to complain given my new attempted livelihood and its enabling, but it does feel like the habit of a country in decline. But then we’ve always been a nation of get-rich-quick and when the bootstraps snap in our hands, I guess the craps table looks as enticing as anything else.

Before I left, a lot of people expressed concern at the proverbial crosshairs I was putting myself into by moving to New Orleans, what with the crime and especially the flooding and the hurricanes. I hastened to point out to them that in the time I lived in New Jersey, New Brunswick got hit with two hurricanes while New Orleans experienced zero. Yes, the specter of Katrina looms large over everything here, but the larger point is that you can spend your whole life running from certain things and planning for certain others. You don’t have any more control over your life than you do over how those dice land. It sure feels like you do because you threw them, but really you’re just facing a series of decisions with very limited information and the best of hopes and intentions but no real power. It should be liberating in a way, though it doesn’t absolve you of the responsibility of doing the best with the very limited control you do have. You need to savor what you’ve got. But in the end, it’s the sun and the tides and the seven billion other people who are running this show, not you.

I’ve been struggling with how to write about the past and the present now that I’m ensconced, sort of, in New Orleans. It’s complicated by the fact that the move still isn’t settled here and I don’t know how to talk about that and am not sure I really even want to, at least for now. But there were so many experiences along the way that I was too busy and overwhelmed to discuss, the move (never ever use All-in-One Moving, ever, people), the trip to Orlando and the Georgia beaches where we watched a sea turtle lay eggs and crawl back to the water, everything that’s happened in the city of the fleur-de-lis. And maybe these are best discussed in reflection. One sure as heck doesn’t know how to describe waiting eight hours in a line for an amusement park ride while that’s happening. But it feels crazy to be posting a Counting Crows setlist five weeks in arrears. Or it would if I didn’t spend every morning singing “Cover Up the Sun” to myself in anticipation of the new album now less than a month away.

I will probably never again visit an Atlantic City that looks like the one I spent a decent amount of time in during my five-year tenure in New Jersey. But that’s okay, change is the only constant. All these “New”s are attached to these cities and states to remind us of that. Someday maybe I’ll take a tour of only the olds, hit Mexico and Jersey and Brunswick and York and Orleans. All places, save Mexico I guess, trumped by their newer bigger better counterparts. Before we all hit the tables and gambled away our fortunes. You do remember that’s what happened in 2008, don’t you?

This underwater city seems like as good a place as any to hole up for now. If the apocalypse hit, everyone would help each other out. They’ve done it before. That’s enough change for me today.

God, I didn’t even really talk about the show as much as I wanted. That’s what happens when you let it sit for five weeks. It was a short but powerful set. And they even played Mr. Jones, sparing me the ability to rant about one-song-fans for another few months, though I tell you the rant is pretty sweet. I sure wasn’t expecting that, but I was expecting “Potter” somehow right after “Earthquake Driver”, which I want to put on the record would be the Crows’ biggest hit in years and years on the charts if they release it as a single. Instead, it seems like they’re releasing the 9-minute “Palisades Park” first, which seems to show that now 50-year-old Duritz likes his current touring regimen and is done with big-time fame, even if they did just sign with Capitol. The song does sound like a stream-of-consciousness hybrid of his favorite themes of the last few years. Ah well, we all just want to be understood. That’s what this particular video game/life is about.

Counting Crows
28 June 2014
The Borgata – Atlantic City, New Jersey
with Toad the Wet Sprocket

Round Here (Palisades Park alt)
Untitled (Love Song)
Richard Manuel is Dead
Mr. Jones
Colorblind
Start Again
Omaha
Earthquake Driver
Mrs. Potter’s Lullaby
A Long December
Cover Up the Sun
Hanginaround

Palisades Park
Rain King (Oh Susanna alt)
Holiday in Spain

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Porch Storm

Categories: A Day in the Life, Marching to New Orleans, Quick Updates, Tags: , ,

He sits out on the high rickety wood porch, consuming pages like nutrients long missing from his diet. The movers, the cleaners, the gas company, everybody’s late, everybody’s nice. Except the moving truck driver from Astoria, Queens. Of course. He’s both the latest and meanest of them all.

People smoke too much and drink too often and constantly use endearments that sound like sexual harassment. They wink often and smile easily and take their time walking the sidewalks. The air is somewhere between a gas and a solid most of the time the sun’s out, surrounding with presence more than evading with absence like one might be used to.

The clouds start to gather, dark and thin, wispy strands like wand emanation from a fantasy world. They combine, swirl, lower, gain heft and weight and presence. Then there’s a flash, the world set alight, and a faint rumble, and the sky bursts open on this bold hard cue. Within minutes, there are pools of churning water at every curb and corner and the flashes and cracks are performing a grand orchestral opera that puts fireworks to shame. It is several minutes before the water becomes sufficiently dense on the porch to threaten the pages themselves and send him inside.

The streetcar sounds its bell and rolls along roads like they were designed for something other than pollution. Tired children are lifted off the boards and onto laps while excited tourists hang half their weight out the window and crane to see statues, balconies, flags of the fleur-de-lis. The conductor pulls a lever and we turn into the busy intersection, there are echoes of a hillside on the edge of the Tenderloin and a time before most of us were born.

The best a nomad can hope for is something that feels like home.

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Facing the Direction I am Bound

Categories: A Day in the Life, All the Poets Became Rock Stars, Awareness is Never Enough - It Must Always Be Wonder, From the Road, Marching to New Orleans, Tags: , , , ,

It's always emotional.

It's always emotional.

I’m overdue to head back north, racing for the direction where things should be wrapped up tight in a nice little bow, or at least packed up in cardboard and covered over with tape. Progress on the move has been slow and steady and not fast enough and I’m facing the very real possibility of having to cancel some of my farewells so that I can ensure the movers have stuff to actually take with them, since I’m not enacting the Bonfire Plan for the move to New Orleans. In the meantime, I’ve spent another weekend in Atlanta for so many good reasons, one of which was the first of two opportunities this week to see Counting Crows.

I feel like Counting Crows show posts for me should already come preloaded with the emotional ramifications, baggage, and impact of all prior such shows. Lord knows you can find a lot of that background information already in here (just pop “Counting Crows” into the Search function on the sidebar and see what happens). But there’s a reason that “Awareness is never enough – it must always be wonder” is a seminal phrase in my life, a watchword for my experience of the divine, and a clickable tag/category in this here blog format. Because it’s true.

I should be getting coffee and on the road for ten hours soon, so I don’t really have time to do the full concert justice. Suffice it to say that they opened with a classic 10-minute “Round Here”, went on to do one of their better covers from the recent cover album, and then Adam announced to the crowd that he had written a song for me.

Okay, not really. But kinda really.

I’ve been trying to find the lyrics online to prove to you that I’m not making this up. But listening to “Cover Up the Sun” for the first time in my life brought back exactly the same chill that “Mrs. Potter’s Lullaby” did on the pre-release quasi-illicit MP3 back in Waltham so many eons ago. But (remember the phrase!) even more so. Way more so. The song includes the lyric “When I left California, I was 29 years old, and the world just spun me round.” Which, okay, maybe that’s something Adam Duritz and I inadvertently have in common, though I’d never quite put it together before, but sure. But when the next lines are “Now I just watch Louisiana scroll across the window pane, and I’m facing the direction I am bound”, well, it’s enough to make a solipsist of the best of us.

Yeah, the song is about leaving the west and moving to New Orleans. There’s only a couple of references to the New York City area just thrown in for fun.

Of course I am not the only person who feels this way about Counting Crows or their lyrics or their shows. The magic of the band, as I’ve said repeatedly here, is being able to gather together thousands of people for whom the songs were written and feel the absolute power of people belting along to songs that are about them and to share that experience with everyone else who feels the same way and yet somehow have none of the charm of the song being about them reduced by the shared gathering. If anything, it’s enhanced. It’s perhaps in these moments that we get closest to the Jewish idea of God (although I note the irony of that statement in print, because I’d have to cross out the o for it to really be Jewish, but I’m not gonna because I find the idea of an unnameable God so distasteful, no offense dear Jewish people), with the re-convergence of all our divided split light, that we are all the same in our unique brightness and by coming back together, we can drown out the sun.

There were a couple more covers than I would have chosen for the set (I could probably go without “Friend of the Devil” for the rest of my CC life, though the intro to it this time ’round was hilarious) and I’ve probably never cried less at one of their shows, though this is largely because I am happy, both in the moment and with the visible trajectory of the near future. But it was also a summer set of joy and energy and just the right amount of bitterness to recognize the year just ended. And while none of the other new songs quite lived up to the power of that first one, they all sound at least intriguing and at most like future sources of wonder.

Maybe Counting Crows shows are well written horoscopes, online quizzes, or tarot card readings, that we can find our own meaning in the deeply expressed emotion of Duritz and friends bleeding out on stage. You can take the cynical road if you want to and I’ve never lately begrudged anyone the cynical road. But at the risk of being the sucker who falls for the seventeenth time, I prefer a deeper, more fundamental explanation. In a recent debate round for a summer exhibition tournament, I explained how free will is compatible with a tri-omni vision of God, how I believe we are all offered free will as the ultimate sign of respect and love. Much of my third novel is about exploring this concept as well. And yet, somehow, there always seems to be room for this incredible sense of everything working out, coming together, being for a reason. I don’t think it’s absolute or as powerful as free will, since refugees routinely starve to death in diseased camps after watching their families die, but the feeling of a benevolent net from the universe is palpable. Maybe it’s first-world privilege, which was on display at an other-worldly level in the Chastain Park Amphitheatre in Atlanta last night, but maybe it’s just our best burning bush, coming to you live on a perfectly-lit stage.

The rant about people leaving CC shows complaining that he didn’t play “Mr. Jones” will have to wait till after Atlantic City.

Counting Crows
22 June 2014
Chastain Park Amphitheatre – Atlanta, GA
with Toad the Wet Sprocket and Daniel and the Lion
new songs in italics

Round Here (Private Archipelago alt)
Untitled (Love Song)
Cover Up the Sun
St. Robinson in His Cadillac Dream
Hospital
Colorblind
Start Again
Omaha
Scarecrow
Recovering the Satellites
Like Teenage Gravity
God of Ocean Tides
Friend of the Devil
Big Yellow Taxi
Hard Candy
A Long December
You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere
Hanginaround

Palisades Park
Rain King (Oh Susanna alt)
Holiday in Spain

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Getting Mugged

Categories: A Day in the Life, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, Marching to New Orleans, The Long Tunnel, Tags: , , ,

Moving is difficult. It’s not refugee-camp difficult or even traumatic-crisis difficult, which actually distinguishes it from a lot of this year, which has been harder. But it’s one of those things where the work is long and sloggy and contrasts highly with the ability to see the mission which is to go to a new place and have fun and exciting new adventures. There is nothing new-adventuresy about the process of taking all your accumulated junk and carefully nestling it in cardboard cubes so someone else can drive it across the country. It’s tiresome, exhausting, makes you question why you’re not a would-be monk with a penchant for arson, and, lately, kicks up enough dust to give me marginal respiratory problems (I’m going to the hardware store for a mask and goggles later this morning).

But, you might think, it’s worth it for the sentimental stuff. After all, who keeps all this garbage if it’s literally just a burden in every sense of the word? Surely the reason for keeping things is their reminder of past days of halcyon, times that shimmer in memory with an emotional gleam. Oh, this is when I got that. Oh, here’s the book I read when. And no doubt, there is some of that in my process. Ticket stubs from when Alex and I went to Tennessee on our first real trip together. Books from all ages. My turtle collection, though it’s been bound in the same plastic wrap in plastic tub from the last move (I know, I know). Debate cases from two different eras.

But then there are items like this:
GettingMugged

That is a mug, gifted to me circa 2002, bearing a statement that was true at the time.

Why have I kept it? What on Earth would possess me to go through my divorce and hold on to a cheesy undergraduate keepsake that was a half-joke at the time (we had friends who would seriously gift such items in part as the Ivy status symbols they were intended to be and that sentiment was not one we shared)? Why would I go to the trouble of keeping it, separating it from the mugs for daily use, and bunging it away to serve as a little land-mine for myself a year and a half later when it would spring on me, unsuspecting, while packing for the next move?

Pondering this question quickly gets me down a certain rabbit hole. Emily’s mother and I were standing in a dusty makeshift market in Monrovia in July 2010 at the conclusion of an absurd tour scheduled for us by a wife who couldn’t be bothered to take a minute off from work for her husband flying out to try to save their marriage. And the reality of suggesting some little trinket or souvenir immediately soured on Em’s mom’s tongue when she mentioned it, but the words were already out in the air, nearly as insensitive as the daily drivel of her offspring. She attempted a retraction, some quick sort of recognition that maybe I didn’t want to remember being here. As though that were an option.

She said “Maybe you don’t want a souvenir of Liberia.”

And I said, immediately, having thought about it for three seconds, “Everything I own is a souvenir of Liberia.”

To her credit, she started crying.

But it’s true, or it was true at the time. I revisited this seminal phrase, if not the precipitating incident, in a blog post fifteen months later, one that makes my webpage the only Google hit for the full-quotes search of said sentence. And while I do not expect that uniqueness to change, the reality of the statement has certainly diminished over time. I’ve lived and accumulated and not everything is a painful reminder of being married for seven years and suddenly having that revoked as though it had never happened. I’ve developed a relationship that I’m really excited about, excited enough to be the partial basis of a move several states away that necessitates all this packing in the first place. One that will surely make some people find this post itself to be unseemly and regressive, as though people become one dimensional when past hurts they feel are only a secondary aspect of their personality and not primary. I’ve even cut off communication, for three years, one month, and seventeen days, and counting, pretending that the object of my affection and ire is dead to try to find some semblance of peace. The illusion doesn’t hold, obviously, merely from blocking Facebook and asking friends not to inform me of her whereabouts (the emotional lift of knowing when she had left Princeton was tangible when I passed those haunted exits on Route 1). But the inability to interact with her cruel indifference has been a profound relief, one that tempers me every time I consider lifting the blockade.

And it’s the contrast between that cruel indifference of a woman trying to justify an affair as the first non-mistake of her life, a liquid personality who’d found a new solid container in which to imbue all her hopes and fears and immediately adapt to (thank you Ben Brandzel) and the mug that made me keep the damn thing in the first place. The mug is solid, physical, and literally bears writing which conveys the message she so viciously denied. You are loved. This feeling is real and shared and is worth proclaiming.

The idea that this mug is necessary to understand this message is patently absurd. I have, for example, our wedding rings. A DVD of the wedding ceremony in which she professes her love and undying commitment. And these items, no doubt, are landmines too, laying in wait as I sift through the sedimentary levels of papers of the last few years. But there’s something about this mug that is so unabashed and simple that it seems to give me the solace I crave and, simultaneously, fuel the rage I still have unresolved. And its roots are no doubt in a deeper past. After all, we are always fighting the last war.

When the person I used to call PLB betrayed me (it’s honestly just easier to continue using this moniker because it’s been a reference point here and among friends for decades, though most of my issues with this person have been resolved, though I still strongly question her ongoing judgment for, in part, other reasons), the most painful part (or maybe the most painful tied with the assumption that I couldn’t forgive her for lying) was that she denied that the feelings had ever been meaningful. Despite her last spoken words to me for years being “I still love you and we’re still getting married,” she told everyone at our high school who would listen that we’d broken up long before those words were said and that our relationship had been typical casual teenage fare in which she’d never emotionally invested. In short, I was a fool and an idiot and carrying on about nothing. And over time, it was this denial of feelings that outraged me so greatly, compelled me to routinely spit on the object I saw in front of me that reminded me of what cruel denial she was engaging in (her car), made me so untrusting of people in my future when they said that they felt something real.

And in October 2010, as I was scraping along rock-bottom and had nothing to lose, I saw PLB for the first time in fourteen years and she acknowledged the wrong she’d done, fully and completely, and gave me a solace I wasn’t even fully aware I needed. The irony of this timing will never be lost on me. But she said that her feelings had been genuine, that despite all the lies and uncertainty of everything else in her life, she had meant the promises she’d made to me. We were not just young kids fooling around. We were really feeling something real.

Somehow, this stupid inane trivial mug conveys that message to me, stands in counter to a person for whom making such an admission would crush her identity and make her narrative of tilting ever-upward in progress a sham. I have never understood the people who break up or get divorced (there is a difference, and people referring to divorces as “break-ups” is now a lifetime pet-peeve) saying “we really love each other, but timing/circumstances/life just didn’t work out,” but of late I envied them because they depart with a huge satisfaction of knowing that they didn’t feel and strive and love in vain. It is the feeling of standing out alone on the rock, of being the idiot who thought a marriage meant something when the other person is so callous and thinks and professes that the marriage is just obviously tissue-paper, that makes me want to hold up this mug and say “You lie! You loved me. Even if you won’t admit it, I know.”

I know, intellectually, that the evidence that she loved me is overwhelming. And I know that all her cruelty is just a series of defense mechanisms, the armor she embraced so she wouldn’t have to face the pain she was causing. Any third-grader with a two-bit interest in psychology could tell me that and they’d be right. I know. I know. But emotionally, it doesn’t make it any less damaging. Not one bit. Which is deeply unfortunate and prompts all this exposition.

And I hasten to add that all this obsession herein about the mug and the marriage does not undercut what I’m feeling about my current relationship and the future whose theme decorates this blog and most of my thoughts that are not angst about the mundane struggles of the moving process. I know that most people prefer to have an uncomplicated emotional perspective, whatever their feelings might be about the past, that it’s easier to disregard and diminish past loves in favor of the future so that one’s feelings about that future can appear uncomplicated. But this is dishonest and untrue, and I suspect not just for me. And I had a realization fairly early in my relationship with Alex and told her the next day, namely that if Emily came back and knocked on the door and begged for another chance, I would have to turn her away and say that I had new commitments and would have to see those through first and that if they never waned, she would never get that chance. It was a big moment, huge, and Alex sincerely told me she never expected it, let alone that quickly. So let’s not take anything away from the present with all this about the past.

But the past is real. That’s the whole point. It really happened and no amount of defensive denial is going to change that.

I’m going to discard the mug. Donate it, I guess, to Goodwill or someone, let someone use it in the absence of any emotional resonance or past feeling. It can be one of those discordant images of objects in the possession of the poor, like the T-shirts worn by homeless in the Tenderloin celebrating some tech conference that utterly failed to draw its expected audience. Or that proclaim the championship of a team that never won it, though those more often head to Africa where they are less likely to spur a confused reaction. The image of an Ivy trophy sitting in a thrift shop is almost as satisfying as one of Emily sincerely apologizing and admitting that the time we spent together actually meant something to her.

Besides, I have this post now. I have the image and all the thoughts that flow from it. Maybe I should do this with every sentimental object in my life. Make it a study, an object lesson, then let it go, send it on its way of being a metaphor for something meaningful rather than a collection of solid atoms I have to hold and transport. Everything in my life could be a mandala. And while my Dad’s voice in my head notes the possibility of an EMP or a paradigm shift that destroys our electronic virtual world, the Internet is generally perceived to be pretty permanent. Or sufficiently so for this life. Maybe this is a model for how to get rid of everything, to pack light, to meet the goal of getting everything down to a backpack.

But no matter what we own, we all have a lot to carry.

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A Walk in the Park

Categories: A Day in the Life, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, Marching to New Orleans, Metablogging, Tags: , , ,

It’s been quite a week.

I would like to be poetic and hip and write one of those rambly but ultimately reflective and incisive posts that I aspire to write nearly every time I sit down at this screen. But I have a weird mix of energy and productivity and what (for lack of a better way of putting it) I would call morningness that actually debilitates the more loquacious and important post. When I wake up in the morning and want to be awake, my brain is trained for the pragmatic, the practical, the mathematical, the straightforward. This is why I do basically all of my fiction writing at night, when my brain has entered a state far different and more creative. Not everyone sees the morning this way, but I think it makes sense. The brain hasn’t had time to fog up and adjust to the more lyrical side of life… it’s about procuring food and sustaining itself and getting from point A to point B in the morning. And while I really prefer to be in the hazier more creative state all the time, the morningness certainly serves its purposes well, like in today’s dealing with bank accounts and furniture and all manner of practicalities innate to the moving process.

So this will mostly be about basic updates, the kind of things I want to chronicle but may not be in the mood to chronicle poetically.

I will be moving to New Orleans, officially. I know there was some equivocation before, but signing a lease and putting down a deposit is about as definitive as things get in my life, so that appears to be that. Alex and I will be living in the Uptown neighborhood of New Orleans for at least the next year and very probably the one after that. No, I still haven’t settled on what I’m doing yet, but I couldn’t be much more excited to head to the city after spending a whirlwind 60 hours there.

I spent most of the time there with dear friends Ariel & Michael who’ve seen me near my best and at my absolute worst in a decade and a half of friendship (with Ariel at least). They are erstwhile New Orleanians who’d not been back since they traveled there to marry. I got to join them in Audubon Park, location of their nuptials, as well as all over the city as they remembered it fondly and frequently and compared it to itself both before and after Katrina. It may be the last time I see them before they are parents and this brief visit was full of things to tell their child, not least of which was a visit to pick up a sign bearing her future name.

Walking through the French Quarter at night not only made me giddy at how lucky I am to be moving to New Orleans, but reminded me how big an impact New Orleans Square in Disneyland had on my imagination as a young child. Ariel, Michael, and I talked a bit about influences on children and the extent to which parents can control them, an increasingly relevant concern for many of my friends as they all start to procreate. I think I am constantly amazed at something rarely discussed in person but often captured in fiction, the little inadvertent magic that happens to young children without design or motive as they encounter unexpected beauty or captivation in the world. Many influences can be traced to parental or societal direction, but others come trailing in on the whim of a particularly good day or a very memorable scene that strikes a young person’s fancy just so without clear explication. The results are often more powerful than all the deliberate guidance in the world. I have always adored Disneyland and New Orleans Square has always been my favorite stop therein and a bit of the French Quarter at night (more secluded, less Bourbony) hinted or overtly referenced the calm fireflies of the opening waters of Pirates of the Caribbean, the long shadows of intriguing homes of the Haunted Mansion, or the raucous bravado of the rest of the former ride.

It is rare that we get to reinhabit what felt magical in our childhood and live it even more robustly than the first whispered promise of unseen delight. I do believe this hope is why most of us have children. To be able to live this way, or even to imagine doing so, makes me so grateful and even more excited.

Okay, maybe there’ll be a little poetry in this post after all.

Of course, there’s also the concern with something like this that it will quickly become pedestrian. And by that, I don’t mean prone to walking, which this entire week was, because that was awesome. I walked more than 5 miles the first day in New Orleans, traipsing around from lovely to horrendous to so-so apartments and back again, ducking around the streetcar line that is sadly being repaired in long stretches and replaced by bus. It was hot and humid and exhausting and wonderful and got my mind in just the right setting as walking extensively always does. No, my fear is that like Sarah once said about living in the Grand Canyon, that one will become used to the most beautiful place on Earth, to lose an appreciation for it as it becomes the normal setting for existence. I think this is part of why I’m being careful about employment or commitments of time just yet as I head for Louisiana. I want to be sure that I keep the magic and excitement involved in the decisions that I make, that I can keep that fresh joyous feeling about life for a long time to come. It not only makes the days fuller and richer, but it preserves an amount of hope I haven’t felt in some time. I can’t remember the last time I felt I had chosen where I was and what I was doing, fully. And even here, terms were dictated by Alex’s employment and other forces. But I am finally digging out from under the oppressive weight of Emily’s decisions and the fallout therefrom. I’m doing something on my own terms and it tastes like liberation.

And a little bit, perhaps, like veggie gumbo. Something I still have yet to see outside of Anaheim. Though I might just see it in Orlando next, coincidentally my stopover city on my return flight from NOLA, since the plan involves a stop in that city’s various attractions between Atlanta and the new home.

The visit also entailed a trip to Atlanta to see Alex and whale sharks and the world of Coca-Cola. The Georgia Aquarium continues to be the most impressive in the world and probably my favorite… I could probably spend open till close staring at the largest tank in the world (the one that houses the whale sharks). A late discovery that they do have cuttlefish (Alex’s favorite and easily the most underrated fish in the sea) meant a lot of extra time and a brief audition of Alex as the ambassador from one species to the next as family after family tried to figure out why we were so obsessed.

Alex is living at Georgia Tech for the month of June and being back on that campus brought a nice round of memories up as well, even if my visit to see Jake there was relatively brief back in the day. Revisiting some of these cities reminds me how excited I am to see Austin, by far the city in America I’m most excited to visit that I never have to date. With the quantity of friends there and its proximity to Louisiana, I have no doubt it will be a new home away from home in the coming years.

This post was going to be part of Quick Updates and it now is too long for that and the rest of my morningness is probably better spent on the mundane tasks of moving on which I am already behind, though starting to catch up quickly. There will be plenty of time to weigh in on the political developments of recent days (including Iraq, the war that keeps on giving) and sports (the World Cup! The Mariners in playoff position!). But it will all have to wait. I must go and do, now that the future is taking a little more shape, a little more color.

We’ll start with yellow.

A glimpse of what the future looks like.

A glimpse of what the future looks like.

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Marching to New Orleans

Categories: A Day in the Life, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, Marching to New Orleans, Metablogging, The Agony of the Wait is the Agony of Debate, Upcoming Projects, Tags: , , , , ,

From my first visit to New Orleans...

From my first visit to New Orleans...

You may have noticed a burst of color around here. If you haven’t noticed said burst of color, hit the “refresh” button on your browser.

Ah, there we go.

I’m moving to New Orleans in a little over a month. My girlfriend, Alex, and I are heading there so that she can Teach for America. We both acknowledge that there are some things TFA could do better for the way our society is headed overall, but she wants to be a teacher and this seems like an easy way to test that desire and do so in an awesome new place.

I will be leaving my job coaching debate at Rutgers, one that I have unofficially done for 5 full years and officially done for three and a half. I could not possibly be more conflicted about this decision. In fact, I was so conflicted that despite announcing to the team that I would be leaving at the Senior Banquet on May 7th, I did not officially submit my resignation letter until about an hour ago. And I still am kind of in a shocked awe of that decision. I actually decided to leave. I have loved almost everything about coaching the Rutgers team and watching their incredible hard work, dedication, and perseverance pay off in untold unpredicted ways, culminating in this year’s trip to the National Championship Finals. And yet there have been challenges, as there are with any pursuit, and I’m starting to feel restless, as I always do after 5 years anywhere. Anywhere, much less New Jersey.

My relationship with this state is weird and circuitous. I can honestly stay that no state has brought me more overall pain during my time here, but almost none have brought me more joy. I never would have predicted that I would spend so long living here, but I wrote two books, coached for five years, lost a marriage, and started another quite serious relationship. But I’m not here to just tick off milestones and put New Jersey in perspective. It will be a long time before I can fully do that.

Perhaps the better thing, as suggested by the glaring colors and header of this blog as of today, is to look forward to Louisiana. I’m not sure what I’ll do there, but I have lots of ideas. I will probably start out focusing a little bit on poker, since that’s been going really well lately and I hear it can be done as a job. But I’m considering very seriously doing more with writing, with this webpage, and possibly getting back into non-profits. I might take a job in a coffee shop or library to get involved in the community and support some creative pursuits. I might work at Tulane, doing something vaguely administrative. I think I’m done with debate for a while and I’d like my nights and weekends back, but that can always change… someone in Alex’s TFA cohort apparently went to my high school and started the Tulane debate team, which apparently will be seeking to join APDA next year. You can’t make real life up.

It is too strange, early, and overwhelming to contextualize all this transition, except that it feels right. RUDU is poised to be a self-sustaining force for the foreseeable future of APDA at this stage, with two National Finalists returning and a ton of talent convincing the administration to maintain its commitment to the team. My work there could continue, but is largely done. The five-year bells for a location in the back of my head are jangling hard. I have always been fascinated by New Orleans and even have a novel plot set there where I could do some of this alleged “research” I sometimes hear things about. Maybe I’ll finally manage to go on a ghost tour, or even start running them. I think my visions of New Orleans were long defined by its Square in Disneyland, easily the most random but enthralling part of the plastic kingdom. I mean, Pirates of the Caribbean, the Haunted Mansion, and veggie gumbo? I think New Orleans Square might be the only place I’d be more excited to move than the actual city itself.

I will be doing a small tour of the eastern seaboard before I head out to make sure I see those I’m going to miss most before I go. I’ve contacted most folks about this, but please feel free to e-mail so we can hang out before I go. I’m also going to be heading down to the Maryland summer tournament on June 14th as sort of a last goodbye to APDA. Even though it won’t be a last anything, of course, because are we ever really done with APDA? I have every intention of showing up to a tournament or two next year to judge and see RUDU again and get back in the world that has been a bigger part of my life than any other single community.

There is still a tiny chance we end up in Finland next year, actually. And a still tinier chance that we end up in a third, indeterminate, place. But with Alex in training to teach in New Orleans as we speak and time passing just as quickly as ever, this seems like as good a time as any to call it. So there you go. Or, rather, here I go. Again.

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