Categotry Archives: The Long Tunnel

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A Study in Scarlet

Categories: A Day in the Life, All the Poets Became Rock Stars, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, The Long Tunnel, Tags: , , ,

New Brunswick is a city of sirens. There are hospitals here, by the seeming score, spiraling outward from the world-famous Robert Wood Johnson, one of the Johnson & Johnson Johnsons, an epicenter of so-called healthcare in the so-called Healthcare City. The frequency of sirens in a place is rarely the function of the number of emergencies in a locale so much as the quantity of people employed in dealing with such emergencies. As a destination for the dead, dying, those in need of repair, New Brunswick takes all manner of boxy windowless vehicles in their quest to deposit their hapless fading contents at the halls of last-ditch recovery.

No one appears to be from here. America is vaunted as a nation of immigrants, but New Brunswick is truly a town of transients, the imported students mixing with the deposited unwell mingling with those who treat them from miles around interspersed with the migrant workers who are just passing through in search of opportunity. Many must be born here with all the hospitals, but who is here to stay? The staff and service providers of the hospitals and schools, one supposes. And indeed, few people are really from any place without a utilitarian purpose for passing through, without getting hung up on the hooks of a place while they’re on their way to somewhere else. Surely between becoming Scarlet Knights or mopping scarlet wounds, many must start to feel a sense of home, an aspect of permanence, a value to their location beyond being a place to hang one’s notepad or scalpel.

The wind blows icily through this village in March, sliding down the unresistant Raritan River and bending off into the crannies between old brick buildings and their comrades made to look old and brick. They’re raising a gargantuan parking structure over the church and the train station, facing it with linoleum-rolled brick facade to soften the starkness of the grand monument to the motor vehicle at rest it will inevitably be. The cranes hold overlarge masses of tools and chains and concrete blocks, hovering in the tilty moving air before being hauled aloft in an infinite skyward arc. Ceaselessly lit police cars block the streets on either side, preventing even the ambulances from passing under the cranes just on the off chance of some mishap that would necessitate the summoning of yet more sirened automobiles. There are cones of orange and signs of red, enforced caution for those who might otherwise throw it windward.

I have all but become David Gray in my sudden success in contests. Counting Crows, long my favorite band still producing music, put out a call for cover art for a new brief solo effort by frontman Adam Duritz, long a kindred spirit and mouthpiece for my pain. While the final 25 are not to be announced till tomorrow, my own cover submission of deep dark red for the work, entitled “All My Bloody Valentines”, has garnered massive attention in the Facebook group and is likely to be selected as a finalist. Like the songs the cover would ultimately adorn, the image is dark and emotional and ultimately plain, honest, and symbolic.

Stop.

Look:
All My Bloody Valentines Cover

Listen:
All My Bloody Valentines

“Valentine’s Day”, “O My Sweet Carolina”, and “You Might Think” are particularly recommended.

I wish I could tell you that everything gets easier once you have a dream job fall in your lap. I wish I could tell you that a few things going your way is all that it takes to put you on the mend, on the road to recovery, on the road to something greater than yourself. I wish I could tell you that the personal and the emotional can be subsumed by expenditures of time, that feelings of public affirmation can quiet the whispers of personal condemnation. Of course my wishing won’t make anything so, no matter what seems to go well or turn on a dime. All one can do is try to express, create, reach out, fail to reject. To make contact with the people one has loved and turn cheeks and take it, whatever it may be, in the hopes that by living a life as we know we should will prompt others to follow suit. Knowing, all the while, that such reciprocity is all but undermining of the point of our own often vain effort… that doing it for its own sake is the only sincere, though glass-ridden, path.

There are easier things than backing up a twelve-passenger van designed to seat ten through a pattern of briefly spaced cones in sequential S-turns, snaking through narrowly defined parameters in reverse and knowing the consequences of flattened plastic to be much greater than they appear. There are harder things than the cascade of laughter such efforts create, than the spiraling ability of any close-knit group of young hopefuls to create inside jokes and shared experience like it’s popcorn in a microwave. Somewhere beyond both what is hard and easy is a future that seems both probable and impossible, unimaginable yet underway. Nothing is simple now, nor merely challenging, but everything is either given or out of reach. It is a good time to be learning yoga, to literally be stretching the limits of credulity and muscle flexion, to always be working to adjust to the expectations of the increasingly unfathomable.

Yesterday I smashed my knuckles in the shower door, shaking out the pain as the internal hemorrhages swelled up to meet the indented joints. I thought about crying out, but there was no one to hear. I shook it out and sucked on my fingers and looked at the purpling reddening mess of slightly mangled digits. My mind went back to an Oakland laundromat, to a Philadelphia street, to times when there was comfort and solace. It was a silly thing, the smashing, and a sillier thing to feel lonely over. I have a friend who says that no one will notice if she goes missing for days on end. To her, this fact is unsettling comfort. To me, such reality, though not even precisely true of my own circumstances, speaks like silent condemnation. Like a failure so profound that it makes all the bogeymen of the past – failing out of school or missing a deadline or not securing a job – look like joyous occasions. To feel crazy for being so lonely only underscores the angst. It is the flaming red cape with which the matador taunts the bull: a scarlet cloth to swallow all memory with shades of a life that can only be charged at, but never struck through, a reality whose phantom and transient nature ends in a mouthful of dust and a torso full of swords.

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Drops

Categories: A Day in the Life, Quick Updates, The Long Tunnel, Tags: , ,

He tosses and turns in the vain effort to get to sleep. There is throbbing in his head, the natural consequence of this sort of upheaval, this sort of discombobulation of schedule and energy and the flailing inability to stay at rest for more than two-hundred and forty minutes at a time. It is a vicious cycle, the pain creating the need to sleep creating the need to awaken creating the pain. There is ticking in the background, the gentle click of time in its passage, meting out empty hours between newly filled hours that march for a hazy horizon gaining clarity but still no certainty whatsoever.

One never knows the exact moment that one falls asleep. It is the magical nature of losing consciousness that one is never around to feel it. One can beckon it or hasten it or trick oneself toward it, but one never gets to feel that precise moment of final drift into oblivion. The closest that can be reconciled is to awaken shortly after and realize that one had just drifted, to start-stop-start-stop and try to simulate the sensation by being aware of its close proximity. But this approximation only highlights the nature of awakening and not asleepening. Namely, surprise. One is always surprised to wake up, not merely because life is a gift, but because it indicates the news that one had fallen asleep, which till then had not officially registered with the office of consciousness.

He awakens to the comforting but unstable sounds of rain on the roof, thunder in the distance, the roil and tumult of running water on tin, asphalt, concrete, glass, marshy grass. The contrasting symphony of collisions blending into a familiar din that might be soporific were he not dealing with the fresh consciousness that predictably comes after four thin hours. There is renewal of the tossing and flipping, but he knows how this scene ends and eventually the covers are cast aside in something just better than disgust as he rises to face 3:52 in the morning and all that it implies.

I have yet to adjust to this life. To any part of it. I am awash in reflection, anticipation, appreciation, exhaustion, and resignation. Five parts, equal measure. I grow weary of even categorizing how I feel or what I hope for, but it’s automatic to the point where I can no longer even imagine how to avoid it. It’s nice to be too busy to notice, sometimes, fleetingly, but the schedule increases the impacts of the inevitable moments when not noticing is impossible. The next step will be reducing the headaches, or sleeping through the night, or finding a situation that can help me with either.

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31: I’m Still Here

Categories: A Day in the Life, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, The Agony of the Wait is the Agony of Debate, The Long Tunnel, What Dreams May Come, Tags: , , , ,

Last night, I had a dream about admitting a romantic interest to one of my oldest friends who I liked for some years back in the day. In the dream, it was acknowledged with the effortless casuality of ancient history and ancient knowledge, the artful and slightly playful dismissiveness that only comes from people with supreme confidence in themselves and their every decision. Such an attitude doesn’t quite comport with the real-life version of this person, and yet speaks volumes to my perception of relative confidence and attitudinal approach as I face the hills and waves of future forays. Increasingly, my major concerns are that everyone else likes themselves better than I do (empirically untrue, of course, because everyone feels this way) and that no one else feels living is truly serious business. This last, unfortunately, may empirically be true.

On the other hand, I often feel I’ve gotten younger with every passing year. As a child who grew up nine-going-on-forty, the approaching march to 40 feels like emotional regression. I think a fitting model of adulthood would be about figuring out what one has to take seriously and what one can take risks with. I think that a huge part of my rapport with my debate team, for example, comes from the fact that I can stay loose and jokey with them, that our practices, downtime at tournaments, and day-to-day interactions are far from all-business. My critique of most adults is that they cast aside their imagination and creativity in the belief that conforming to societally desired expectations will somehow improve their standing or others’ perception of them. Empirically, again, little could be further from the truth. No one likes a conformist. No one is impressed by how well someone falls in line, etches themselves into a cog, or fails to make waves. And yet aging implies a pressure to sit down, shut up, and start plodding along an inevitable treadmill toward a dubious retired future.

My own future is starting to take shape, at least in the narrow scope of the next year or so, and possibly longer. I have accepted an offer to join the staff of Rutgers University on a full-time basis, serving in an expanded version of my volunteer role that I’ve undertaken for the past year and a half. The school’s administration’s embracing of the debate team in the last few weeks has been overwhelmingly impressive and expansive and I am incredibly grateful to them and the institution writ large for the emerging depth of opportunity they are making available to me, but especially to the students of Rutgers. I think another facet of adjusting to adulthood is increasing acclimation to the idea that one will be under-acknowledged for one’s work and efforts – I am keenly aware of how distant my life suddenly is from such acclimation and what a call to action that contrast can be.

I spent the weekend on the Princeton campus, an emotional gauntlet of tremendous proportion. The recentering of the tournament in the traditional McCosh 50 heightened memories of all stripes, dating back to the spring of 1999, to say nothing of Edwards Hall and the various portents of the best year of my life. There were countless pockets of the campus I found myself in or near or passing by, having to shake my head in wonder at the circular cyclical nature of existence and what sort of bold metaphor one’s life tends to be. Of course, having the company of a team and a new generation to coach and assist both distracted from and periodically enhanced the nature of the trial. Suffice it to say it was emotional.

While the varsity squad struggled a bit again, the novices had yet another breakout performance, including a novice semis break for a team in their first and second APDA tournaments, respectively. Were I not sticking around, this would be about the time I would be desperately reconsidering that decision in the face of how much upside there is in the youth of the team, of wondering where we could be in a year or two. Which is of course nice instant confirmation of my decision to return, to see where we can get, to take pleasure in the incremental improvements as part of a long continuum I can now afford to see out instead of wistfully remember with wonder a couple years hence.

Today itself will be quiet, I’d imagine. A couple folks are coming up from Philly to help me invest in my decision to reside here for the foreseeable future – my apartment remains relatively sparse and unadorned, many artifacts still boxed or stowed, the whole place underlit and overly whitewalled. Hopefully by day’s end, the place will be less refugee camp and more safe haven, a place I have chosen instead of one I’ve fallen into, a reflection of a life I’m leading instead of following. It’s not the most celebratory of usages of time, but it’s befitting of my current status and location. Last year was celebratory and surprising and joyous. This year will be reflective but ultimately rejuvenating.

And, to top it off, my favorite of birthday perks, it’s supposed to snow tonight. While we got a whiff of spring a couple days back, yesterday about-faced into bitter windblown cold and this evening’s forecast calls for flaky precipitation, growing heavy right around the time of my actual birth anniversary (2:56 AM Eastern, four minutes till midnight Pacific). Not sure I’ll be up that late, given my new need to report to work on a schedule, but maybe I’ll set a brief alarm to blearily examine the echoes of 1992 as they fall and scatter on a place I’m starting to call home.

Apparently, two years ago, someone decided to make this the World Day of Social Justice. Hard to imagine a more desirable designation, especially since World Peace Day was already taken. We’re not there yet, folks, and the struggle is long, laborious, and continuous. But with any luck, there are still contributions to be made, reasons to persist in the effort. I remain alive and so long as I do, it will be as an idealist, perhaps even increasingly starry-eyed as the years cascade and I insist on remaining imaginative. There are doubtlessly worse ways to grow old than in the company of heated debate, the camaraderie of youthful enthusiasts, the glint of limitless potential, the shade of support and acknowledgment. It is a blessing to spend any day appreciative, maybe even on the cusp of something like hope.

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Instruction

Categories: A Day in the Life, The Long Tunnel, Tags: ,

Sit in a coffee shop. Try to be present. Try to feel each moment, each second washing over the self-consciousness, perhaps washing away the self-consciousness, at least to the extent possible. Tune out the upbeat music in the background. Stare at the fire. Watch the improved simulation of real logs with natural gas, watch the emberetic glow of high-temperature metal designed to look like wood. Think. Try not to think. Be present. Try to find some kernel of value in this moment that proves to you that it’s worth sticking around for more of these. Figure out what that is, if applicable. Try not to think about “not applicable”. Come up with something, dammit.

Walk to a coffee shop. Suit up after checking the weather. Pile on more sweatshirts, for the forty now will hopefully be closer to thirty upon return, if only you can stay out longer like you were supposed to the last few times. Try not to picture your teary tearing through the streets of a week before, try not to create a muscle memory of tear ducts connected to misshapen shoes traversing ice-slush-concrete. Try. Try harder. Pick up the crazy striped jacket and try not to think of when it was purchased. Pick up the perfect-green thick jacket and try not to think of when it was purchased. Wonder how long it will be till life doesn’t feel like an empty set of references to something that apparently never existed, or certainly doesn’t any more. Try not to lose the interest in going out altogether. Pick up your shit and just go already.

Decide to take a shower. Showers are often inspiring, remember? Showers are the conduit to a weird kind of thinking-non-thinking, a weird kind of place where muscle memory takes over and replaces detailed thought, let alone memory, washing (get it?) everything away to a place where clarity can swoop in like the natural state it was always supposed to be in the first place. Try not to think about the challenges. The nudity, the mirror, the scale, the anxiety, the memory. Focus on the water. Focus on things being a little too hot, but without doing so too much. Focus on the drowning noise, so unlike most other noise, rhythmic and neutral, what your damn white noise alarm clock tries and fails to be. Focus on anything, something, just get your clothes off already because there’s a chance, however slight, that you will feel just the marginalist bit better after doing this and that will make everything seem worth it for a few minutes or hours and that could create a momentum that will make the whole day tolerable. Maybe. Worth a shot.

Try to eat something. Try not to resort to going out, because it won’t be worth it anyway. Try to wrestle with the need to cook, the ease with which certain meals have become turnkey enough, especially since you still have a little salsa left. Try to not wait it out too long. Fail at that. Feel the pulsing aches of little hungers, literally eating at the sides of your stomach. Feel their echoes in your head, your heart. Question why you do this to yourself. Ignore your own answer. Try to push yourself a little harder, to reconcile the importance of long-term consequences lasting three or six hours with the utter unimportance of actual long-term consequences. Try to convince yourself that it is your low blood sugar talking, that you are not actually this upset. Try to persuade yourself that being full may equate to a little more happy, somehow. Try to push yourself up off the couch, just do it already. Get out oil, tortillas, cheese, salsa, string yourself along with the smell and the promise of anything that will feel a little better than the dull pangs residing in so many physical crevices of your forlorn body.

Tear yourself away from the computer. There is about an hour worth of tolerable material on the Internet and then things will lapse into danger. There will be research after that, there will be wallowing. There will be intractable pitfalls that could ruin everything. It almost happened anyway – there was a mine today – but the mines are not the same as the holes you walk into yourself. You can’t do anything about the mines, or maybe you can, but that remains to be seen and resolved and so in the limbo that remains, you must do everything you can to be smart. It is so fucking hard for you to be smart. Why is that? Don’t answer that question. Try to rebuild a semblance of causality that makes sense. Scrap it. Convince yourself, squinting, that causality is unnecessary. Just breathe. Turn off the monitor. Consider what to replace it with. Remember you have another Netflix still, that it doesn’t interest you but will kill a couple hours. Move from one screen to the next.

Try to get up. Remember that the time of half-asleepness that so many spend so much of their lives savoring or craving, that you used to like when you were not alone, remember that this can ruin the whole day. Remember that your mind will wander in this state, that the dreams that come even if you do manage to return to sleep will be the most devastating. Remember that even if you didn’t want to be up this early, it is, like most everything, up to fate to decide. That the best you can do is to be the limp pliable marionette of destiny until something comes along and scoops you out of the muck. Remember that this is a terrible, if occasionally necessary way to look at life. Remember your resolutions. Remember the hope of being somehow productive today. Remember how full of promise every day felt a year ago. Scrap that. Try to think how silly the margins between then and now feel, but remember how everything you believe in and have ever advocated requires that perspective. Despair. Stop despairing, kick your own ass out of bed. Look around. Put your hands on your knees. Sigh. Try to find a reason. Walk to the computer in the hopes there will be something of interest there. Maybe today there will be hope.

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On Cataclysm

Categories: A Day in the Life, The Long Tunnel, Tags: ,

They say that the hardest thing about dealing with someone dying is that the rest of the world goes on like nothing happened. Apocalypse would be easier to deal with, because then at least the world would stop to recognize the magnitude of the circumstances and show a little respect. But the average death, the average cessation of a human life, goes unnoticed and uncharted by all but a handful of the 7,000,000,000 human residents of this particular sphere. It keeps spinning, literally and figuratively, and its inhabitants keep trying to carve out a buck or a rupee or a yuan or whatever it is that gives their life the appearance of meaning.

It is harder, I might posit, when the person who died is technically actually still alive. And harder still, perhaps, when it is oneself who has somehow died, who persists in a sort of waking mortis. Whose purpose and causes and order for things have all disintegrated irreparably, and yet no one is mourning for a person or people they presume to still be breathing. Worry is not the same as mourning. Worry is what most of the world spends most of its time doing. It is as trivial as eating or excreting, and just as interesting. Mourning, on the other hand, requires recognition that that about which we worry has already been transcended, eclipsed, surpassed.

I find my circumstances fittingly reflected on the Raritan River as I traverse its cold concrete bridge from time to time during my newly re-established weekly schedule in New Jersey. The Raritan, a river of incredible breadth, though likely little depth, has frozen almost solid for most of this season, accumulating heaps of snow that have persistently adhered to the semipermeable surface of the frigid waters. And my life could be likened to one shuffling along the Raritan, one whose desire to cross the river is pedestrian and compulsive, whose awareness of the lethally swift undercurrent beneath the shaky shelf is either blissfully ignorant or wantonly dismissive. It’s not like I’m stepping or jumping or running across the river. But I’m not exactly taking the bridge either. And every step, with random aplomb, carries the risk of the whole venture getting irreparably soaked.

The cracks are all over the apartment, the fissures and cacophonous severance of protective ice littering boxes and walls and shelving and papers strewn all about the place. I can build on a day or two or ten and feel pretty good most of the time, snow falling and packing in over the water, subzero temperatures sealing the last remaining gaps. But silently the weakness lurks, waiting for, if not the perfect time, a particularly unpredictable time to strike, to knock me down to size, to remind me how my own circumstances are as fragile as the last lonely layer of ice itself.

Such is the nature of disaster and its time-lapsed affects on the human perspective. I am hardly unique in any of this – indeed, such grief is incumbent in the human condition. But like a deep illness or a staggeringly unexpected injury, it bears contemplation like nothing else. The pain is capable of such vastness, such overwhelm, such sudden acuteness, that it can only be met with meditation, acknowledgment, and ultimately deep appreciation for the power of same. There are lots of reasons for me to hold my tongue in this late instance, this late-night running afoul of reminders of how deeply I was loved, how profoundly I was betrayed. But the merit of pondering openly, of considering the precise shape and dimension of the instigation of my suffering, it outweighs any possible concerns of backlash or misunderstanding. And it is perhaps worth noting that it is only alone, only alone amongst artifacts and memories and the vastness of time, that such fissures are likely to open and swallow me whole.

Would that the snow pile up all night, outpacing the makeshift plow trucks traversing the roadways and the hurried annoyed East Coasters as they slide and shuffle for the doorways. Would that it pile so high as to block doorways and fell trees and impede every aspect of tired daily routine. Then, at least for a day, there would be acknowledgment of enormity, of something so vast that all would take notice, all would be in recovery.

This is not the way of the world. How we carry our own grief, like all else we think and feel, is what defines our life. Is my effort to discuss it the effort to shoulder it among friends, to pass my backpack to others as I struggle beneath its weight? Or is it merely my own log of fording countless rivers, impervious to the underlying reality reflected by the water itself, flowing unseen and uncontrollable? Whether I get to control my course across solid ice or whether the flow of everything will be determined by an overriding current seems, at this moment, entirely up to chance.

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Red Light Green Light

Categories: A Day in the Life, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, The Agony of the Wait is the Agony of Debate, The Long Tunnel, Tags: , , ,

Two sheets of legal paper, turned horizontal, filled up with the cascading words of four speakers in proscribed order, one, two, three, four, two, one. Discussions of God and the role of evil and the amount of suffering in this life, discussions of love and the nature of it and the sincerity of seduction, the role of chemicals and free will in our approach to the way we pair. And driving, hours of driving, driving up and down coasts and over roads traversed recently and long ago, through snow, over ice, sliding and turning, the revolution of our world being that of the rubber tire, grooved and wearing, the amalgam of melted chemical shipped in from a land far away to cover our own pseudo-land, paved asphalt.

A dinner, non-celebratory but still communally held and gathered, one reminiscent of some of the closest gatherings of a bygone team in an era that feels exactly one lifetime prior. What role will meals like this serve for its youngest participants? For its oldest? Is everything an attempt to recreate the past in some way, are we all beating against the tide of memory, is everything done just to do it again? Is it routine we crave, or something deeper and more rhythmic, or is it merely the idea that non-suffering is so fleeting in this life that the glint of its reflection is to be chased and mined out of every possible moment, mirror, window? The best we can hope for must transcend that which has already been experienced, but such reality is always a surprise. And worse, we become accustomed all too quickly. In a flash, it becomes the new normal, an adjusted baseline, at best a shiny object to be buried under the pile of daily living, to shine and glimmer and be unearthed in future recollections all over again.

Gasoline pumping, coursing beneath my shaky hand in the buzzing lighted frost of a two-degrees-below Western Massachusetts rest stop. The previous stop, so familiar and knowing, the last stop on the Mass Pike before bending down to I-84, but it had ever-so-fittingly been felled by a power outage so as to bring a full stop to the reminiscence. There is the idea that one knows not what one is doing in the midst of one’s ghosts, but also that ghosts are fluid, mobile, hard to see, present. Their transparency gives them great strength, the kind of strength God must have, to flit unseen, to exercise the greatest force in the greatest restraint. It is this offering of power that the ghosts must make, or might not. And what is the point of running? Is not the great message of the Western canon that one cannot outrun one’s destiny, cannot outpace one’s past? Better to embrace, to collide, to retrace and reimagine for the purpose of greater armoring against the swirls of an opaque time to come.

The thrall of the moment, of still being able to hold a crowd on pindrop, to twirl their emotions on bended word with a flash and a flourish, now loud, now quiet. The plaudits of articulated feedback and laughter and pounding, their steady rhythm reflecting my own heartbeat and perhaps, for a night, nourishing its course. It’s not a fair fight, but no one says it needs to be, and what in this world can be labeled as truly fair? An old trope, to be sure, but one that resonates all the more in the recent audacity of certain claims. Maybe they’re right after all. Maybe we are all just a collection of bouncing chemicals, of measured manipulation, of raging self-interests clashing in the desire to be coldly satiated or justified. The pale black fear that rises up during the prior discussion about God, the confrontation with the diversity and depth of disbelief, the echoes of an earlier friend joining me in my own self-admonishment. Even the most convicted must have doubts sometimes, and even those doubts must be knee-bucklingly ferocious in particular convergences of imagery and thought. All of this cannot be for naught, but what if it is? All of these things must still be important, but what if importance itself is somehow contrivance?

Contradiction runs high and the doubts do not persist, but there is much to be gathered from the coursing energy of an overnight drive through star-wreaked skies and sleep-soaked cities. It is the routine moments, the floors of our happiest times, that will linger the longest in pained regret. Look down. See. Take what you take for granted and hold it up skyward. Cherish, treasure. I am not the first to beg you to do this, but that alone should tell you something. For there is a future, here and maybe elsewhere, and this floor will be gone. Or pockmarked, or stained, or torn into dangerous slivers around the edges. And you will regret having walked on it. Having dropped the shavings and chaff of your daily celebration on its beautiful flatness, its unappreciated solidity.

Strive, my friends, to look down. We are all in this together.

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In the Absence of People

Categories: A Day in the Life, Just Add Photo, The Agony of the Wait is the Agony of Debate, The Long Tunnel, Upcoming Projects, Tags: , , , ,

The air is pregnant with impending snow today, the entire high sky taking on a gray-white hue as though snow were the literal product of such a sky being chipped and chiseled into flaky falling flecks. The radar maps say it’s far away still, but the feel of a person as they walk through our three-dimensional metaphor ought outweigh any technological override. Any moment now, the clear paths and piled yards of my frigid neighborhood will find new comrades, paratrooping in to reinforce their ranks.

I’m back in Highland Park, in Jersey for the foreseeable as I try to make my resolve to improve this year a reality, struggling against the siren call of visits to grocery stores and other overlit places I only ventured to in pairs, or not at all. Each week is to be punctuated with the refuge of a debate tournament, the travel and camaraderie and distraction found therein, the opportunity (as especially this last weekend at Dartmouth) for truly elevated discourse and exploration of ideas. The community of college debaters is such a distillation of intellectual vigor and passion that I am frankly surprised more people do not find themselves gravitationally tied to it as I do. No doubt its periodic overcompetitive acrimony is a deterrent, as might be the distractions of normal life and its beckoning stress and responsibility. But given its unmatched ability to perpetuate thought in an exciting way, there’s no place I’d rather spend time and energy, at least for now.

I’m at a crossroads these next few days, determining how to approach what are likely to be my last few months in New Jersey. There’s a need to reintegrate a three-month novel project into my daily routine without it swallowing everything else whole. There’s a need to determine exactly how much unpacking I want to do for a temporary stint in this apartment, what the ratio of energy is between making things more livable here and making the move unbearable at its conclusion. There’s a need to place other orbital parts of my life in their respective aspects, to figure out where things are going and what good uses of time really are. Priorities, trade-offs, balance, perspective. Really, life is never any different than this – these are always the things one must weigh when looking at existence. It’s merely that most people are too busy to look at existence too often, while I have nothing but time.

I guess I look forward to a time when I feel too constrained by other priorities to examine my own priorities. Although I can see the drawbacks of that too, and I must be careful what I hope to see.

In the spirit of trying to get my engines revved, of trying to buck up and plow through the life-maintenance shlock that must be cleared away to get to the good (creative) stuff, in the theme of embracing a life that is controlled almost entirely by other people but can still be viewed from my own perspective, I will close with a video. It’s one I was sent about a week ago by my friend Michael, one that he said reminded him of me and I say reminds me of who I used to be, long before I ever met him. Who I must be again, or could be, or could take a couple pointers from. While we collect more information about life as it progresses, if we’re paying attention, we don’t always improve. Sometimes we go backwards, we lose vision, we lose touch with what is essential. Here’s hoping this can help you restore, as it does me, at least on the margins:

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2011: A Vignette Odyssey II

Categories: A Day in the Life, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, From the Road, Read it and Weep, The Long Tunnel, Tags: , , , ,

I

Two: The Frontier Restaurant in Albuquerque has long been a sort of totem of my relatively limited affection for the world. The things I like tend to be things I like a lot and the Frontier may be close to my favorite of these things. It has great food, relatively cheap (it used to be unqualifiedly cheap, but now such things have gotten a little less certain), a wide expanse of comfortable, Western-themed rooms, a wide cross-section of Albuquerque’s population, and hundreds of memories (most of them even good) haunting its tiled corridors. Introducing new people to the Frontier has become a hallmark of their visits to New Mexico and a highlight of any trip home for me, for spreading the Gospel of the Frontier is one of my most thoroughly developed skills.

Brandzy had been to the Frontier before we made it in for a crowded Sunday lunch, but he’d been there alone and in a rush and only on my far-flung recommendation while I sat in, I believe, an office at Glide. So while the experience was not entirely untested, his ability to fully embrace the Frontier ethos as one who is being guided and shown around had not been breached. Having discovered a new love of green chile the night before at Garcia’s, it was no problem convincing him to try a cheeseless breakfast burrito and begin the rapid indoctrination process often underway by the time someone sets foot over the Frontier’s well-traversed thresholds.

He arranged a hasty reunion there with a long-estranged friend, leaving us just enough time in the schedule to stop by the old place on Twelfth Street for a glimpse of what my actual upbringing in Albuquerque was like before my parents moved and were able to claim the place they’ve lived since I was ensconced in college. Gone were the chickens and ducks and geese; added were several walls and outcroppings of the structure my Dad had begun to augment before our move. But the echoes of a bygone era, already reverberating through my perspective after nearly a month in New Mexico, began to thunder loudly in my cranium as it perched just visibly over the ditch-side wall to offer a view of stuccoed straw-bales and the wispy visage of a teenager who’ll never walk that yard again.

We didn’t reunite thereafter till it was dark outside, a fire blazing within to offer a bulwark against single-digit temperatures that threatened any stranded without the walls. Brandzy’s picked up guitar lately and he picked up his, encouraging me to literally dust off an instrument I hadn’t touched in over a decade as he began to practice. I almost caught up to him in a couple-hour impromptu jam, relearning “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “This Land is Your Land” and plowing through our recently recounted memories of me at eighteen or thirteen to squint into an even more distant past, one at eleven and twelve, one accompanied by the plucking of strings and the pressing of frets as I failed to practice sufficiently to make good on a musical promise always more hoped for than manifest. “Puff the Magic Dragon” added heart-strings to those already being tugged, but we struggled with B-minor and had to regroup with the two we’d played together as we laughed and celebrated a minor victory in being able to learn, or at least remember, at thirty years old.

Three: A return to the Frontier and a series of near-goodbyes marked this sleepy day, with Brandzy departing for Arizona before tragedy was to strike there coincidental to his more planful journey. We said farewell repeatedly, culminating in a last farewell as he retrieved forgotten sheet music on his way westward once more, promising to listen and talk of future farewells as many times as might be necessary. I spent the day in increasing awareness of my hurtling toward departure from New Mexico, left once again to feel the already waning rhythms of life in a family of three as I lived it for almost two decades, but so little in the past twelve years. Late in the day, after good portions of reading and computer time, I was able to convince my parents to engage in some magical thinking and accompany me to my father’s first (modern) 3D movie, the “Voyage of the Dawn Treader”. And on the third day of the year, the three of us watched a three-dimensional film, the third in the classic Narnian series, nearly having the theater to ourselves before a couple stragglers joined us in late preview. All were pleasantly surprised by the quality of the film and the engagement of its contours, convinced once more that sharing a movie outside the bounds of the homestead is not only viable, but vital.

Four: My last full day in Albuquerque was slow and methodical, as I took periodic care to note the passage of time and the significance of a day that, like any at home or in the company of those one rarely sees, could bear unseen and increased significance in certain retrospects. I have learned over much belaborment that it is important not to overemphasize such days, to overload them or overstress them if possible. There is great pressure put on departure, especially when it carries potential portends of long absence and the gaping maw of life unknown and unplanned, of reunions whose dates are unmarked on the calendar. That very pressure that inclines one to enjoy and squeeze the stuffing out of these moments of significance can suffocate same, strangling the throats that would call on memory to the point where all that can be heard are plaintive, even frustrated cries. It is one of those Murphian curses of our existence that an awareness of important days can crush them, that our most beautiful memories are often of days almost unnoticed at the time.

I managed to finish my book, to dine with my family, to make plans to see a friend who’d just made it to town in time to play piano and a last card game with Fish and I before we departed. Eliaii and I rarely overlap for long in Albuquerque, but our conversation made the most of it this time, as early hours of the fifth day of the year were burned in serious contemplation of life and its foibles after he and Fish’s father conquered Fish and I at what Trivial Pursuit recently informed me was the most popular four-player game of all-time (bridge). If it was the last night at what I’ve lovingly called The Tank for a decade and a half, it was one for the ages. Fish and I had sat before the gas fire several times this trip, contemplating New Year’s past and further past, or imagining what future hope could be carved from the newly breached shore my life has been wrecked upon. I had not realized how much of these opportunities to regroup and reminisce had been made possible by Fish himself until that night, until hearing his parents wax wistful about Florida on Christmas and realizing that at age thirty, despite feeling like kids, we are directing more traffic in our lives than we really might imagine.

Five: Village Inn is no Frontier. It’s not even Waffle House. But it is open and relatively close to The Tank, and Eliaii and I finished the last large meal of my time in Nuevo over discussions of where things are heading in a year that if I keep saying it has to be better than last year, it almost certainly won’t be. A cop sat behind Eliaii and looked up occasionally over his strongbox-computer-sourced work, trying not to acknowledge me as I talked about places I might live and jobs I might pursue and avenues I might attempt to sidle down in the coming months and years. I often caught myself wondering what he might think of our cavalier evaluations of Albuquerque, its advantages and disadvantages. It’s easy to assume that almost any well-settled local is a lifelong native, but it’s quite possible he was an import from Texas or California or even possibly Chicago, though there’s something about police in particular that I believe makes them seem provincial. It’s probably halfway between a stereotype and the belief that they take up arms and badges in the defense of a long-held community tradition, or at least in a place where they’re familiar with what neighborhoods require what sort of patrol. In any event, he heard me compare Seattle, Denver, Flagstaff, and Vancouver favorably, though I lamented that Albuquerque’s affordability and climate were not available without the ghosts.

I considered staying up all night, but it was clear by six or so that this would be a poor plan, especially since my departure was later than my traditional bargain-basement dawn voyage. I caught about a hundred minutes of sleep in the steady restlessness of the jittery need to awaken quickly when it is, in fact, time to awaken. How many mornings spent alarmed and ready without necessity, starting alert every five minutes only to discover that the need to leave bed is still many minutes or even quarter-hours hence. And then the final moment of awakening, of sounded emergency startling, it seems anticlimactic and almost sad, wasted in its annoyance on a person already feeling as though he’s been awake and ready for days.

It was in this state that I began to cry, facing the magnitude of the departure that was upon me, feeling the welled and stored pressure of all that had built in days and weeks and a near-month of muddling through in search of resolutions, answers, hope, holiday, restoration. Once unleashed, my final of many floodgates on New Mexican soil knew no stoppage, prompting a contemplation of punting the flight altogether in favor of later times or, perhaps, making a vacation more permanent or at least indefinite. Departures like this, as often tagged in this format itself by my “Pre-Trip Posts” moniker, tend to carry that pre-remembrance feeling even more heavily than last full days in a locale. My family is heavy with premature death, with tragic losses and missed opportunities to say goodbye, adding extra weight to every long preview of extended absence. A deluge of unchecked tears as the last of the packing culminates is hardly a harbinger to ward such misgivings. We bawled and hugged and my parents begged me to reconsider my resolve to fly to Philadelphia. I almost relented. But at some point, amidst the pangs of reconsideration and reformatting of a whole vision of this year, I stood up and said “it’s time.”

Airports are lonelier than any Valentine’s Day, any New Year’s, any holiday spent solo. Many are alone, but nearly all of them are heart-filled with the last kisses of loved ones or the even more soaring anticipation of long reunion. It is too early to declare these experiences forever spoiled, but a thirty-hour jaunt to Liberia resulting in a cold shoulder went a long way toward inhibiting my taste for unaccompanied air travel. After a steadying phone call to Stina to iron out last details of the pending trip to Vermont and New Hampshire, I resolved to sleep as fast as possible, making up for the nervy hundred minutes of half-rest that had preceded my teary farewells to hearth and home. We were airborne, underway, then as Albuquerque receded ‘neath a bank of clouds, I nestled in the very back row against my parka and gave in to merciful unconsciousness.

I was awakened some hours later by a special announcement over the loudspeaker with a surreal-sounding request that all passengers aboard our flight from Albuquerque to Chicago lower our window shades and press our flight attendant call buttons. It was a minute or so before I could be sure I wasn’t dreaming, groggily blinking at the 100% participation with what appeared to be a prelude to an ill-lit ritual of cult or creed. Instead, it proved to be a marriage proposal, inarticulate and choked as it emerged from a pudgy but sincere-seeming guy as introduced by a profoundly polished contrasting stewardess. The view from the back was murky enough to briefly convince me that he was offering a wedding to the stewardess herself, but it proved to be a fellow traveler on the wind to Chicago that was receiving what would long be considered the happiest news of her life. My thoughts went quickly to a mid-inning proposal at a Philadelphia ballgame Emily and I attended shortly before she flew away, our wincing looks to each other reminding both of us that our best proposal story of our lives, the best proposal story either of us have ever heard, has been burned on a needlessly heartbroken marriage whose memory now only brings pain. It is hard to say how particularly cruel life has been lately or whether I merely notice its cruelty more unguardedly in my present state, but I would also venture that none of you have borne witness to an airborne proposal and that things are really going out of their way these days. I tried to fall back asleep as soon as possible, shortly after desperately trying to make myself clap along with the congratulatory crowd.

I didn’t leave the plane in Chicago, instead waiting for all but 9 of the seats to be filled by those who filed on in annoyed single-file, scouting seats and bin space like buzzards on a planet of immortals. Inevitably one of the loudest of the future passengers found his way across the aisle from me, where I was newly placed in good old row seventeen. He’d made a new friend in line and spent almost all of the boarding phase yelling details of his dramatic life across the way to her chosen seat, just behind my head. Turns out he’d flown back to Chicago from Philly to bail his ex-wife out of jail. She’d just burned his house in Chicago down. He was taking the kids, who were coming with their grandparents in the back of the line, back to one of the grandparents’ places in Philadelphia to recover while he contemplated whether to press charges and how to collect on the insurance. The guy looked like the kind of person who would make up a story like this just to pass the time, but by the point when two scared-looking bear-clutching grade-schoolers dutifully boarded between hand-wringing matriarchs trying to look brave, I was convinced. Maybe the only thing special about anyone’s experience is that they think it is special. Maybe suffering is all the same.

I read at length from my Mom’s long-recommended recent favorite, The Shadow of the Wind, while trying to shake the idea that I was getting a portrait of American nuptials presented by Southwest Airlines. I couldn’t sleep a wink all the way down into Philadelphia, a rarity for me on planes. I have long tried to keep myself awake on the large commercial vehicles, often just to see if I can, sometimes because I desperately want to read or converse or otherwise enjoy consciousness. But this was my first flight in ages to offer me such, almost not counting since its first half was spent almost completely asleep. As we eased down toward Philadelphia in one of the most gradual descents of all-time, I was able to peer through cloudless skies at early evening scenes of eastern America. It occurred to me, squinting and sighing, how like constellations the light patterns of winter cities in this country are, how the order/chaos of patterned streets and traffic and buildings, especially in smaller towns, resembles nebulas and swirling galaxies high above in the same dim-lit view. We rotate and revolve around a center, we follow an orbit, and dim glimmers of yellow or white or even purple hints at our existence, winking in the void as we wait to be driven homeward.

All the way back, I’d think how strange it was that I’d never before correlated far-flung star systems to the electric networks that adorn our own civilized groupings. Sitting for long stretches on overlit trains, even longer stretches in even more overlit train stations, hauling my overstuffed bags down the rickety ice-flecked stairs of the New Brunswick depot, hailing a cabbie my parents had insisted I employ to make the last tiny stretch of my journey less exhausting than all that piled on before it, I would wonder. How can we be so close to so much and not see? What am I not seeing before me now that might be my skyward salvation? And what, most of all, might I never see, never connect or correlate, until such time when its knowledge is no longer useful? Are we ever making decisions as though truly informed? Or does the chaos outweigh the order, leaving us as much starstruck or star-crossed as we are illuminated?

I’m not sure about this emergent 2011 pattern of recalling a day or a handful of them in somewhat distant retrospect, but I kind of like the affect it has on my thinking and the way I talk about things. Like these constellation/streetlights themselves, I think I might often be too close to the days I’m writing about, and even a few hours or a week of reflection time can make an enormous difference in how circumspect or thoughtful I can be about them. I can’t imagine sandbagging future thoughts and entries to create this effect, but while I’m still catching up on the early parts of the year, I’m not going to fight it. In other words, this vignette series will continue, at least for another entry or so.

by

Die, 2010!

Categories: A Day in the Life, Telling Stories, The Agony of the Wait is the Agony of Debate, The Long Tunnel, Upcoming Projects, Tags: , , , ,

Is there anything so great in this world as a shower? I doubt it. There is something ineffable about the way it focuses one’s mind and thinking, at least sometimes, that makes it the single most consistent source of inspiration, resolution, and clarity that I have access to. You want to go do a cool groundbreaking psychological study? Attach electrodes to the brain and see what channels and conduits open and close as said head is doused by hot water, shampoo, and soap. But for all the collateral electrocution, you’d come up with some pretty amazing results.

In any event, I came to Albuquerque for nigh on a month largely to get a reset on my life. To try to figure out what the swath of damage was from 2010 and to determine what, if any, resolution I could make for 2011. Not resolutions, mind you, necessarily, because although I appreciate the tradition, the whole thing is a little contrived and probably more directional than I could count on myself to be on this trip. But some kind of decision, or decisions, some kind of purpose or at least a path to try to find it.

It’s frequently been a tough trip, as I’ve found Albuquerque to be haunted by memories old and older. Much time was logged before friends arrived and their arrival has not heralded the automatic good times that such encounters used to. Which is not to say that I’ve been miserable or even largely unhappy, nor that others have made me feel that way. Much of my time here has been wonderful and I’ve found my friends and family to mostly be powerful aids in my effort to establish an interest in the future. Or at least to share a meal or a game with, even if it isn’t quite up to pre-2010 standards in my own beleaguered soul. But up until the shower this early afternoon, nothing had really resolved itself. Nothing was funneling or folding toward some purposeful outcome, let alone a set of them. I’ve read a lot, thought a lot, talked a lot, cried a lot, seen more than a few movies. All minor little influences to be sure, but it took falling water to put it all together.

How long any of this will last remains to be seen. It seems literarily contrived in the extreme that the path for the next few months snapped together like the proverbial mosaic gone groutless in the waning hours of the year, with less than twelve to go before a deliriously celebrated transition to the next. The next that, please God, has to be better than this one, though admittedly 2010 was not without accomplishments. Certainly in spite of the disastrous middle times between the accomplishments, finishing my third novel and leading Rutgers debate to a fourth ranking in the nation are not to be trifled with. Indeed, had my marriage persisted, this year could be counted perhaps among my five best, especially since that means it also would have involved our scheduled trip to Egypt. In any case, contrived-seeming or not, temporary wishful thinking or otherwise, a list of directions for the coming annum has sprung up in my head amidst the steamy confines of tile and glass block.

I present them here for the same reason that people have listed such things for time immemorial. Indeed, this blog itself could be considered one gigantic New Year’s Resolution machine, applied evenly to every day or thought or perspective to usher in the accountability and consistency required of making public declarations to any sort of audience. I can resolve to do all kinds of things every minute and the last six months have been aswirl with just that: emotional and mental lines in the sand that were constantly erased and redrawn, moved and altered, bent and broken, till all that was left was a pile of overwrought pre-glass. Now it’s time to apply some heat and pressure, to try to cobble the tiny grains of windblown wreckage into something useful, solid, even stable. Fragile and vulnerable, of course, as all glass is, but at least tangible and visible to the naked eye as something other than infinitesimal fragments.

Here goes:

1. I will not be seeking a part-time job upon my return to New Jersey in January.

2. Instead, I will spend that time ramping up creative pursuits of many stripes as though this time were deliberately spent away from day jobs like 2009-2010. Among these will be escalating the visibility and promotional potential of The Blue Pyramid, with new quizzes and especially the long discussed but still unfulfilled Facebook integration.

3. I will also aggressively ramp up the pursuit of representation/publication for American Dream On and The Best of All Possible Worlds.

4. Finally on this creative front, I will commence work on my fourth novel. Soon after returning to Jersey, I will set a deadline for it as with the past three novels and I will finish the book by the deadline, taking this process just as seriously as the prior ones. The novel has a working title already, but it will be known publicly as Project X for the time being.

5. I will obviously fulfill the remainder of my commitment to the Rutgers debate team, attending every tournament this year as previously planned.

6. Unless significant reasons to stay emerge, I will plan on moving West in the summer of 2011. I will spend time scouting out cities and possibilities, with few to no places in the western thirteen states ruled out. I will plan to return to conventional full-time employment for the year starting in fall 2011, possibly even multiple jobs.

7. Aside from the above, I will not put pressure on myself to do or be or pursue anything else. Which is not to say that I might not also find other uses of my time or energy, but I will keep myself from beating up on myself about any shortcomings outside of fulfillment of the above six pursuits. While I will try to stick to a budget, I will not worry about money, because this plan is financially sustainable. While I will try to volunteer some, I will not berate myself for prioritizing creative pursuits over volunteer time. While I will try to read a great deal, I will not get on my own case if I spend more time playing video games. As long as nothing else interferes with the above goals, it’s fair game.

It doesn’t look like much, now that I have it up there, and a good bit of it was probably already the gameplan in one form or another. But it feels like an incredible relief to have it up and out there, especially #7. I’ve spent enough time in the last half-year contemplating the brink of my own self-destruction that there’s simply no point in not making sweeping decisions to improve the quality and purpose of my own life. I believe that the only really fulfilling aspect of the human mind is the pursuit of creativity. The soul may be fed by love, however painful that seems to be, and even efforts to help others, which all good creative pursuits also are. But the mind requires creativity and the only thing I really value or trust about myself at this point is my mind. If I don’t focus on that, in finding my way back to feeling okay through maximizing those efforts and those pursuits at the detriment of financial concerns or emotional self-flagellation, then not only will I not make it, but there will be no point to making it. I’m in a long, ongoing argument with myself about the value of getting through this. I must arm myself with all the best reasons to go forward.

2010, no one will miss you. Please see yourself out.

by

I Am Sad.

Categories: A Day in the Life, The Long Tunnel, Tags: ,

“And it’s all good
cause I’m no good
and believe me
you don’t need me
it’s a big world
and I’m old news to you.”
-Allison Weiss, “July 25, 2007”

A year ago, I’d just finished editing my first novel to be completed in the better part of a decade, American Dream On. It’s my longest book in a decade that saw three novels written and I’m pretty sure it’s my best. It’s probably the best thing I’ll ever write. The world looked new and hopeful and everything finally seemed like it was falling into place and I was thinking most of the time about two things when I wasn’t focused on writing. The first was how much I wanted to be able to go back in time and tell my old despondent self that life was going to work out. The second was how much I was preparing myself to have a child, to get into the mindset and mentality and place in life to raise a child with the woman I loved and had married long before.

There are really no words to describe the amount of loss that I feel when I confront 2010. To say that it’s irreparable feels at once like giving up and like saying something blandly self-evident, akin to “people should probably get some oxygen from time to time.” I have to have the humility and perspective to realize that if December 2009 Storey wanted to tell prior incarnations of himself that things would work out, there could be future mes who want to come back and ensure this me typing at this second that the same will happen. Ah-ha, I must remind him, you have no idea what might lurk around the bend and how random and crushing it could be to your life. And on and on it may go, until inevitably it doesn’t.

It’s sad to think that this is all that life amounts to, or is sort of the quick summation one could throw on it. It’s also sad to think that I only focus on this when things aren’t going well. Truly, rationally, reasonably, I should lament these kinds of things at all times, even when my own life is in swimmingly good states. And indeed, my capacity to still be unhappy, or more accurately thoughtfully depressed, even when life was good, is something that probably baffled a whole bunch of people. “If you’re not angry, you’re just stupid, you don’t care.” I quote it often and it comes off like justification, but it’s really just visceral awareness. How can people accept the world as it is and still be paying any attention at all?

I have no conclusions tonight, save the titular one. It’s profound and all-encompassing and I don’t care who knows. I get in this mindset where I try to craft a capacity for a murky, undefined future that largely seems untenable, and I sometimes try to come off as a little more hopeful. I mean, look at the banner for this site. I get irrationally exuberant with the throes of not being quite so depressed as I was for days before. But you know what? It’s illusory. It’s temporary. I am sad. I am probably just a sad person. I have all sorts of reasons and all sorts of factors, but in the end, this is the way that it is. I can seem different in some contexts, I can get myself up for interactions with friends or a favored activity or whatnot, but in the end, I’m just sad. The world, beautiful as it can be, is a sad place for our species. It should make you sad too.

Sadness is not the enemy. Sadness is a motivator, as is anger. These things have their limits, maybe, but ultimately they are the root of caring and striving and trying. I don’t know how much capacity for any of those I have or will have, but I know I’m sad. And I’m not going to apologize for it or try to make it something it isn’t. I am sad sad sad sad sad. And I should be. And I don’t care.

by

The Way Life Used to Be

Categories: A Day in the Life, Awareness is Never Enough - It Must Always Be Wonder, Just Add Photo, The Long Tunnel, Tags: , , ,

Boy, can I not wait for this year to be over! Who’s with me? Yesterday I found out that I need a root canal, which joins my wife leaving me and kidney stones as great things that have happened in the second half of 2010. Not all of these things are equal, of course, but the piling on could really stand to stop. Forgive my lack of posting lately, but sometimes trying to live one’s life overrides trying to chronicle it. Suffice it to say I don’t feel totally poetic lately.

A couple days ago, though, I joined my parents for a trip to Bandelier National Monument. I’d thought it was my first time ever there, but upon arriving I realized I’d been there briefly with my Dad once before, though not climbed up toward any of the cliff dwellings or anything terribly detailed. This time, I took lots of pictures so I wouldn’t forget:


The remains of the dwellings at the base of the cliff.


The holes in the cliff face are all either footholds or former dwellings.


The cliff face.


Looking up the cliff.


Cool formations, with a vista beyond.


The view from the cliff.


Dad with his camera.


Reminds me of Yosemite.


The old apartments.


Lookout.


The old community below the cliffs.


High rise.


Easy access.


Hole in the wall.


Majestic.


Dwellings more conveniently located.


Cactus!


The sign between my parents says “Do not handle the bats.” We saw no bats.


Winter scene.


The remaining snow.


Red wood.


At the base of an upcoming climb! (The camera case belonged to other photographic tourists.)


Going up…


A light in the distance.


High atop the cliff.


Streaked with airplanes.


Sunset in the distance.


The highest kiva.


Sun sets on the highest kiva.


Various distances.


From within the kiva.


Twilight.


The loneliest tree.


Going down, with people I don’t know.


I climbed down the ladders facing out from the wall, since they felt a little more like steps.


Looking back at where I stood, ensconced in the cliff wall high above.


My favorite tree in the park.


When I hit the parking lot, I thought the closest car was actually my car. From a distance, it even looked like it had yellow Jersey plates. Upon closer inspection, it was clear that they were Nuevo plates. Upon even closer inspection, it was revealed that the plates read “119 PFT”. As in 119, my current address in Jersey. As in pft, the dismissive onomatopoetic statement of derision. As in, maybe the idea of staying east is laughable. Yeah. This moved me pretty significantly, though it hasn’t managed to literally follow suit. Yet.


Nifty sign near the little village of shops and ranger housing near the visitor center.


On the drive home through the Jemez Mountains, we saw this gorgeous winter horizon.


Dad got out the binoculars to look at a distant herd of elk.


Aspens in snow.


Bonus shots from my parents’ camera: it’s me, looking strangely happy.


Bonus shot 2: me climbing.


Bonus shot 3: my mother and I on an untolled bridge.

Before the year ends, it’s supposed to snow again, my friend Brandzy is supposed to show up, and I may write in this space at least once more to sum up what has almost certainly amounted to the worst year of my life, despite the successes at Rutgers debate and the completion of my third novel. As I once told Mike Galya, there’s really only one portion of one’s life that really matters. 2011, you better be better.

by

Second Street Soliloquy

Categories: A Day in the Life, All the Poets Became Rock Stars, Awareness is Never Enough - It Must Always Be Wonder, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, The Long Tunnel, Tags: , , , ,

“Courage is when you’re afraid
but you keep on moving anyway
courage is when you’re in pain
but you keep on living anyway

It’s not how many times you’ve been knocked down
it’s how many times you get back up

Courage is when you’ve lost your way
but you find your strength anyway
courage is when you’re afraid
courage is when it all seems gray
courage is when you make a change
and you keep on living anyway”

-Orianthi (via The Strange Familiar), “Courage”

This song has been following me around lately, most recently finding me on the way to Fish’s at a time I was starting to feel particularly haunted again. One of those “awareness is never enough” moments to be sure, even though it seems sort of innately silly that such moments can come with frequently heard radio songs. I remember finding significance in every time “The Freshmen” by Verve Pipe came on, even though it was probably #1 in the country for most of that summer. I also remember a time just after when “Brick” by Ben Folds Five came on at precisely the right time and my counterparts and I shook a late-night hotel parking garage with the reverberation of speakers echoing against our plaintive sing-along cries. That was a night I balanced off a fifteen-story interior balcony and later ripped up a dollar bill to post, ticket-like, under the windshield wiper of the most expensive car I could find. I would long call it the best buck I ever spent.

It’s easy to feel like the radio is speaking to you, especially at nights when you’re alone and the power of your feelings is so great that it feels like it’s almost extracting penance from whatever DJ is on the other end of the signal. I’m using the second person not as a crutch, but to convey the singularity of feeling spoken to that the radio itself provides at such times. You can go around and around as many have about whether pop songs reflect our emotions because they are trite and corny but have manufactured similar shallowness in our hearts or whether they reflect fundamental truths that cut to the core of emotions we try to complicate and mystify in our own minds when, deep down, people are really quite simple. I don’t have a horse in that race, but you might. I just feel and react as sincerely as I can when it feels like the world is talking. And I’m listening a lot lately, especially.

Driving back from Fish’s house has involved late nights on Second Street in Albuquerque ever since my family first moved from the place on 12th Street to the current location on Silver in the midst of luminaria central. I’d long discovered 2nd’s superiority to 4th, the slightly larger street more famously close to Fish’s windy back-road domicile. It’s got higher speed limits and fewer lights and way fewer businesses with drunk and/or distracted drivers pulling out into traffic without looking so much as one way. So for nigh on a decade or so, I’ve been wandering back from late nights and early mornings at the place long lovingly dubbed “The Tank” (where does a Fish live?) between the straight-shot painted lines that demarcate Second.

Early on, Second Street is as much hinterland as anything, but as it approaches downtown, there is an eerieness that creeps in, especially in winter. I forget about it almost every drive, or more accurately every first drive of the season I’ve returned home concurrent with Fish. Albuquerque’s downtown buildings tend to be lit in various colors at night, especially during December, and Second is particularly partial to purples and greens. Additionally, Civic Center shows up on Second, a wide-open expanse of paved space that’s so clearly designed for throngs of people, yet so often empty. Needless to say, the confluence of lights and buildings, against an often misty frigid backdrop of winter sky creates an aura of presence and even prescience rarely felt in vehicular transit.

But it is the echoes of such prior experiences and revelations, many themselves already documented on this page in one place or another, at one time or another, that really compounded the feeling tonight. I remember early trips down Second in the green Kia, blasting music of my own choice wrenched from any awareness-yielding fates lingering at the touch of a far-flung jockey. “A Murder of One” at top volume, with thoughts of at least two different girls vying for my heartache. The liberation of loud music belted along to in the company of self alone, the release of such insane frustration at one’s personal state, the glinting possibility of the dead of night contrasting against the vast emptiness of darkness itself. “Change, change, change!” And things, they did. Later trips down Second Street (memory lane?) with Emily herself, even relating the stories of my lonely angsty nights years prior, warmed and heartened by having finally secured love and having her fall asleep to murmuring stories of yore after a long night with friends and games and camaraderie, the throes of knowing exactly how lucky and happy I was in the moment I was feeling it. An awareness that seemingly could only come with the totem of the asphalt beneath us and its solidity, its unflinching sameness, the constancy of the buildings and the environs and even the lighting that evoked resonance. And now, full circle, back again and alone, raging against wrongs present and imagined futures in a quieter, hollower, aged way. Only to pass Civic Center and discover that it was precisely past two, the bars of Central emptying themselves of short-skirted revelers and their bravadoing cohorts, all spilling in an overdressed but underclothed mass into the damp night air. The concern that one or another might trip and fall into the path of the oncoming gray Kia, the fourth car utilized in this unending lifelong procession from one home to another.

I have no conclusions for this nighttime series of visions, only the sinking feeling of being thrust into a hologram, of seeing the shadowy ethereal nature of reality blinking back at me but being no more able to seize it or control it than I could hold down a phantom and demand the answers. It’s a little like a Ray Bradbury story, “Night Meeting”, but I am the Martian I am colliding with, blending the story almost into “Night Call, Collect” as well. But I am not here to torment my past or future, either, just to nod at it, to sagely wave as I pass through versions of myself, stalling and humming at red, sailing along through green.

Time is an illusion in this world, a well held and reinforced one, but a fraud nonetheless. To be able to see through it, to capture the constancy of what underlies our lives, surely that must be what most of this metaphor is trying to show us. Damned if I can see it, or how, or why, but I can detect the underlying attributes, the essence of what is being shown. Hello, Storey. It’s Storey. You will live and love and feel pain and mostly, even between friend and family, you will be alone. You will feel alone. And no matter how well or much or deeply you connect, no one will ever understand. Not really. Not fully. This is your lot. And it will be okay. For maybe in the manufacturing of multiple selves through time, you will find the understanding from another that you crave so deeply. Even if that other is merely yourself in another mirror.

But tomorrow is luminaria day and now you must rest, if only for a little while. Good night.

by

New Toy

Categories: A Day in the Life, Read it and Weep, The Long Tunnel, Upcoming Projects, Tags: , , ,

I’ve made it pretty clear this year that I will neither be sending nor receiving gifts for Christmas or associated holiday seasons, though I’m still deliberating about sending out a New Year’s Letter. On the one hand, it’s a tradition that I started with Emily in 2003; on the other, it’s one that I was well more enthusiastic about and she basically pressured me into giving up. So there’s some opportunity to reclaim it. At the same time, what do I really have to send in a friendly greeting to everyone about the advent of 2011? “Thank God it won’t be 2010 anymore!”? An inspiring message, to be sure, but do people really need an 8.5×11 in their mailbox with such declaration? Not at all sure. Besides, it’s not a mystery to anyone who’d be on the list that this year was a setback. I could just send out an e-card or even post a holiday letter right here, where everyone’d inevitably see it anyway. But then isn’t most of the point that someone cares enough to go to the trouble of printing something out on actual paper, of signing their name, of finding the address of their friends? So, yeah. Nothing is simple these days.

So despite my moratorium on gifts, largely borne of exhaustion at the idea of giving and horror at the accumulation incumbent in receiving, I went and bought myself a big ol’ new toy this week, which arrived today on a Budget Rent-a-Truck masquerading as a FedEx delivery vehicle. It’s what I’m using to write this very post, a Dell Inspiron laptop that is my first ever computer of the portable variety. I don’t really need it, which begs the question of why I went out and spent ~1% of my net worth on it. There were a lot of micro-factors, including a desire to become familiar with post-XP Windows operating systems (while not having to rely on them, thank you trusty desktop!), a desire to utilize streaming Netflix movies while not trying to use my office chair like a couch, and a desire to be able to write in places that are not my apartment. None of them singularly compelling, but in combination enough to make an interesting case, especially when my misperception that any decent laptop cost at least $850 had been so roundly dispelled. This one was less than $500, including taxes and shipping.

I’m not intending to make it my primary computer, which really gets me on my case about spending money like this for a backup computer at a time when I intend to be saving for some indeterminate future. At the same time, I haven’t bought a new computer in about 7 years, and that one cost about the same as this one. $750 a decade is probably a reasonable computer budget, especially for someone who uses theirs as much as I use mine. Plus it’s a little lift, sadly, to get a new toy. I say sadly because I truly wish I were immune to the American-instilled pleasures of having a new material item to play with. But I am honest enough to admit that it gives me a little thrill, that it’s fun to explore and learn, that I enjoy the tactile pleasures of the shiny o-bespeckled base and cover. Am I nervous as all get-out that I will tire of using the keyboard which, although not bad for a laptop, is still annoying? Sure. Or that if I spill something in this keyboard, the whole computer is wrecked, something I’ve long criticized about laptops? Of course. But hey. Life is unpredictable. Might as well take some chances when the impulse strikes. And, y’know, it doesn’t do grievous harm or something.

Meanwhile, New Mexico continues to be a really mixed bag. I’m loving the food, splurging additionally to stuff myself with rellenos, enchiladas, and burritos. I continue to read a lot, now about a third of the way through John Irving’s behemoth Until I Find You. I can’t tell if he’s writing it absurdly simply to prove a point of some kind or if he really was always a very simple writer and I didn’t notice amidst his really engaging plots like Owen Meany or Widow. Maybe I’ve been reading too much Pynchon and DeLillo and Russian lit lately, but this work is coming off like a third grade composition. Maybe he’s just lost it as a writer. Nevertheless, it’s entertaining in the lurid way that most Irving pieces are. And I’m sure it will be ultimately convoluted and heartbreaking, so there’s that to look forward to.

Now that I have my laptop, I might move forward with the ambiguously talked-around quiz project that was laughably short of launching before I left NJ, despite my ambitious claims to the contrary. Of course, we’re also in the full throes of luminaria season, which gets going in earnest tomorrow as I take the 600 folded bags and start filling them with sand to be stored in the garage. My ambition was to place them a day early (the 23rd) – something I’ve often talked about but never actually followed through with for one reason or other. But they’re now predicting rain that entire day, meaning it’ll have to be another dawn-to-dusk marathon layout on the 24th, as per usual. And that’s assuming the rain doesn’t start to impinge on the actual display day. Now that I’ve got a camera built into the laptop, I even toyed with the idea of making a “How to Make Luminarias” video, but I probably won’t have the energy. At least the rate at which projects occur to me is steady, even if my inertia is larger than normal.

This has wound up being a rather prosaic post. Blame the latent materialism, blame John Irving’s low-vocab influence. I had more poetic efforts in mind last night amidst the lunar eclipse and the solstice. But after lying down on the rooftop for the better part of half an hour it was too cold to persist. By the time I went back out in search of a reddened orb, it was blockaded entirely by clouds, the world hemmed in from the astronomical convergence. It almost brought me to tears, and not mostly because I was sad to miss out on a direct visual of one of the most photographed events of 2010. The moon does funny things to people. It tilts the tides unseen within us all.

I’m about halfway through my month in Albuquerque. Up till now, almost all of the time has been with family. Much more of the time to come will be with friends. These twin pillars continue to radiate the import of this place for me, whatever toys I bring or hold, whatever meaning I ascribe to its tasty food and haunted corridors. In the end, as always, it’s about the people. The luminarias, laptops, and lunches don’t hurt. But it’s about folks. That’s all we are in the end.

by

After the Snow

Categories: A Day in the Life, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, Read it and Weep, Telling Stories, The Long Tunnel, Tags: , , , ,

Before the Snow | During the Snow

The summers I was 14 and 15, I spent intense three-week sessions at the Center for Talented Youth (CTY) at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. The program was designed to augment the studies of languishing “gifted” kids scattered in normal middle- and high-school routines and give them an outlet for their overactive intellectual interest through taking college(ish)-level courses in an actual college environment. The larger point of the program, and the one I probably enjoyed the most, was the social element – throwing a bunch of bright nerdy youngsters together to meet each other and feel less lonely amidst summers that might otherwise be spent reading alone or trudging through some mindless job. Indeed, it was at CTY that I first danced with a girl (outside of a play performance, at least) and where I was first introduced to Diplomacy, which I then promptly imported to my own batch of regular-season bright nerdy fellows back in Albuquerque.

There were other dancing girls at Dickinson those summers, ones I would usually only see periodically and mostly picking at their cereal bowls during crack-of-dawn breakfasts at the cafeteria. CTY had a strict lights-out policy at some absurdly early hour like 10 PM (it may have been 11, or it might have even been 9:30 on weeknights). They checked for flashlights and militantly patrolled the halls. And while I bitterly resented the requirement to sleep far more than I normally would (I was already down to 4-6 hours a night and, by the second summer, pulling all-nighters periodically), I did appreciate that the schedule forced me out of bed at 5 or 6 in the morning so I could take a shower long before anyone else was up. Being housed in dorms, these summers were my first brush with communal bathrooms and I was seriously unprepared for the kind of familiarity and camaraderie implicit in such confines. After all, I’d always gone home after baseball games rather than face the horrors of the long row of uncurtained showers. There was a perfectly good shower at home. Dickinson’s showers were not so devastatingly unprivate, but the idea of even appearing in a bathrobe or trying to change while wearing one in front of other people was overwhelming to my modest early teenage sensibilities.

Thus I was done with showers by 6:30 at the latest and found myself in the unlikely scenario of being awake to see one of the only phases of the day I routinely missed during the rest of my life. Breakfast opened at 7:00 sharp at the cafeteria and many were the mornings that I leisurely waltzed up the brick walk from the dorms to the student center, breathing fresh dawn air and watching the sun’s first glimmers through trees and feeling pure and whole about the opportunity that life itself provided. Only in the euphoria of paper-laden all-nighters in late high-school and early college did I find such similar bliss of first light hitting the world, of being so alive while the rest of the world rested. I remembered talking with Gris at some point during college about how he felt sort of queasy if he was ever awake when most of the surrounding society was asleep, that he felt out of balance with the universe. To me, it’s always been just the opposite. When the world is silent, the mind comes alive. See?

So I would get to the cafeteria, inevitably a little too early, to find myself in the tiny line leading to the fading brown double-doors that held one of the best breakfast spreads I’d ever encountered. It was wasted on most of my cohorts, of course, those attending the ballet camp of indeterminate origin that shared the campus during those summers. Indeed, exactly three groups held regular camps at Dickinson in 1994 and 1995 while I was there – the ballerinas (who we lovingly called “rinas”), us, and the Washington Redskins. It was like some poorly constructed joke or an ironic attempt at diversity by the deans of the school. Tiny high-school aged female ballet students, enormous burly adult football players, and average mid-to-high-school prodigies. Grace, brawn, and brain. Small, large, and medium. Female, male, and mixed (or for the most part, more accurately, sexless). Those who refused to eat, those who ate everything, and those in the middle.

As the doors flung back at 7:00 to reveal eggs, potatoes, waffles or pancakes, breakfast meats, a cereal bar, and countless fountain-sprung beverages, one couldn’t help but wonder whether the intent of the deans had merely been to evenly space the burden on the cafeteria staff. Not only were the rinas generally disinclined to eat food, but it was clear that the dawn rush of undersized dancers relished the competition of who could eat less in front of the others. No football players ever saw the doors open at 7:00 and I was generally one of one to three representatives of CTY. But the rinas usually streamed in that early, maybe under the theory that failing to sleep would encourage weight-loss or perhaps their program began earlier than our classes (it must have). And while I loaded up on hearty American breakfasts, they rushed the cereal bar for underfilled bowls with spritzes of skim milk, tiny portions of delicate fruit, or sometimes just the beverage tray of juice a la carte. Smug looks were exchanged and indifferent blank stares as it gradually became clear to me that their respective undereating was as much for show as for function.

Occasionally I would wax eloquent about my early-morning eating habits and persuade one of my friends at CTY to rise at dawn’s first salvo to join me for the meal. I actually enjoyed the solitude of it at times, but solitude gets wearing, especially for an only child ensconced in a summer program to remind him that he is not alone. While I prevailed upon many classmates to join me at least once, I think few to none ever made a repeat visit to the pre-7 line at the cafeteria doors. No doubt a handful were lured by the promise of unfettered visibility of dainty rinas, already suited up in their skin-tight attire, only a few throwing a slovenly sweatshirt over the top. No doubt this was a competitive aspect of the breakfast display as well. There was virtually no fraternization between rinas and CTYers, and mutual contempt ran high. Sometimes an ambitious older experienced CTY male (CTY was capped at 16) would attempt interaction and there were even rumors of one or two rendezvous, but most of my friends were content to look from a safe distance. Me, I never much saw the appeal. I was certainly noticing girls by that point (I’d been noticing them for about ten years, truth be told), but the squat taut bodies and lifeless sneers were not particularly my style. Mostly I was fascinated by their social groupings and birdlike hierarchies, and occasionally was drawn in by the kindred loner who (always sweatshirted) would linger with a walkman or a book and mostly stare into space unegotistically while chewing slowly and thoughtfully.

We were cruel to the rinas in our own conversations – everyone gathered at roughly the same time for lunch and we’d chuckle about their haughty prima donna attitudes and empty plates. We had no inklings of the pressure they must be under, oblivious to the depth of others’ plights in the way that even brainy young teenagers inevitably are. There were the more sage among us who would speak philosophically about bodily drive and the need for artistry and how our own pursuits of mental fitness were undoubtedly superior. Some who would jest about trying to convert a random rina to the more intellectual pursuits, which inevitably devolved into a gag about what part of their pursuits they were really after. I would ponder the table-corner loners and shudder at the idea of approaching one for so much as borrowing the salt, let alone a conversation.

I saw “Black Swan” with my father last night, a movie ostensibly about ballerinas. To say it was my first contact with ballet since the summer of ’95 would be gross exaggeration, but much of the movie served as a time machine, teleporting me to the quiet breakfast air of exactly half my life ago. The film itself is brilliant, a crushing examination of the drive for perfection and the pains and power of artistry in a seedy, practical world. Darren Aronofsky has had my attention since “Pi” and while the subject matter of “The Wrestler” left me unwatchably cold, I have great esteem for both “The Fountain” and “Requiem for a Dream”, both first watched in the last year or so. As can be expected in his films, there are moments that are profoundly unsettling and uncomfortable. No matter how old one gets, watching sex scenes on a big screen next to one’s father never gets easier. But we were both able to agree that the film was a triumph by the starkly contrasting credits.

Much of the examination of the movie resembles the same examinations we used to make from three cafeteria tables away, with varying degrees of compassion, about the impact of the art on the artists. How could one live on a quarter-grapefruit (a half-eaten half) a morning, especially when one was about to put one’s body through unbelievable torment? We had no visibility into the condition of the rinas’ feet from looking over our heavily laden trays that summer, but “Black Swan” spares little in its stark displays. We never turned the camera inward in those discussions, asking whether four mandated hours at the library each day were truly necessary, or what impact being openly intelligent might have had on our social progress. Although, of course, our physiological health was largely untouched by a commitment to college-level coursework… we could eat what we wanted without reprisal. Although no doubt many of the girls among us felt disproportionate pressure to stay slim with the already glaring “strike” against their social standing of high intelligence.

What’s amazing about “Black Swan” is the disconnect between the artist’s personal vision of perfection/accomplishment and the vision of everyone around her. Everyone else has their own theory about what will provide a leg up for her performance and ability, and while she dabbles in each suggestion, she ultimately crafts her own ideal solution to the problem of how to find flawlessness in performance. And while the conclusion, which I will not here spoil, is shocking to the allegedly objective eye we try to watch with, it is undeniably a form of perfection unanticipatable and unexpectable. In exceeding the bounds of what we could dream of, it reaches a nirvana of unassailability that provides true transcendence.

Which helps inform the journey of any artist or performer or just striving person in the long road of their life. And this, of course, takes me back to my own struggles, both of late and of yore, and one of the greatest pieces of writing I have ever encountered, both in its own twirling perfection and for informing me about my own path. The story is “Hommage a Bournonville” by Peter Hoeg, which appears in his brilliant collection Tales of the Night. I first read it in the hurried boxed-up finals week of my second sophomore semester at Brandeis, nestled between thin detentes between myself and both my roommate of that year and my only girlfriend of that year, both patchings-up that were frail and destined not to last. While both people had headline-level impacts on the awful nature of that year that almost drove me from college (at least temporarily, though it probably would’ve been permanent), it was an anniversary e-mail from the most significant of ex-girlfriends that drove me to the initial brink that dark annum. No doubt that interaction and the fallout of what followed were heavy in my mind as I spun page after page in awe.

Through the magic of my extensive public record-keeping efforts, I can know that it was the fifth of May 2000 that I first read the story and the fifteenth of June eight years later when I anointed the piece as the second best short story of all-time. You should go read it now, on page 154 of that file. But if you don’t, you should know that the centerpiece of the story is, of course, ballet.

The story is about ballet about as much as “Black Swan” is, about as much as this post is, which is to say entirely and not at all. It is as layered and multifaceted as both, a story within a story within a story, much of the narrative embedded in a third-person retelling of an autobiographical story to a second party described within what is, itself, a short story written by another author who, at some point in his life, really was a ballet dancer. And the story, like the movie and what you are reading now, is mostly about art. About the sacrifices people make for it, about striving for perfection within its unforgiving but paradoxically flexible confines, and about how love or life itself weave and bend within the treacherous passages left for them by the self-demanding artist. It is hard now to truly talk about what is most relevant about these pieces without spoiling them mercilessly, without ruining their ends and conclusions, and yet to navigate even those waters while still enabling you to finish this post and then see and read is perhaps my own struggle with perfection at this very moment.

The point, it is probably though perhaps not safe to say, of “Hommage a Bournonville”, of “Black Swan”, is that love itself and even perhaps sexual feelings in the first place, are tools with which grand artistry can be crafted. They are implements of scouring pain and visceral sensation, they have unmatched power to provide release and tension, outlet and bottling up, strife and chaos. And when the artist can examine these feelings, without flinching or turning away, as mere tools in the bag of life for creating the grand performance, the ideal artistry, it is then that the artist simultaneously flirts with perfection and madness. What person in their right mind would choose an artistic acme, be it on stage or on page, over a happily fulfilled life of love? None. And yet, there is an argument for it, no? There is an argument to be made that living and loving is commonplace, mundane, the march of the masses, while true artistic genius requires putting such temptations in their place.

It is dangerous territory to contemplate, for sure, especially as someone who has, despite its alleged mundanity, always placed love first in line. But in reading and rereading “Hommage”, in watching “Swan”, it is clear to me that the opportunity of heartbreak, especially this continual and renewed heartbreak I now face, offers consolation prizes in the form of artistic expression. These prizes, as they always have, seem hollow and shallow and pale to me, but it is only in understanding their insufficient nature that I can truly feel the feelings necessary to make the whole project work. It’s like a game I’ve long played with the universe and found important – one can have faith that everything will work out in the end, but as soon as one resigns one’s fate in that way, takes the path of those who replace medicine or decision-making with prayer, then one invalidates the deal and submits to the only path of possibility for things not working out in the end. That the rules for the game are that one must play it sincerely and react accordingly. One must be devastated by losses and setbacks, not winking at the camera (wherever it may be) and nodding that things will ultimately be for the best, but collapsing in the knowledge that they will never again recover. And only by doing that, by feeling it to its fullest extent, can one enact that strange moral strings of the universe that preserve real hope.

Which makes one start to wonder to what extent life itself is a performance, that existence in this strange backwards planet is itself rigged for artistry and beauty. That what captivates us about ballet and makes said dance such a conduit for grand metaphor of screen and word is its resemblance to life itself. That in standing on tippy-toes and flailing effortlessly and yet exactly, we all see ourselves and the eternal struggle to both let go and be precise in our deeds. And the judgment the ballerina fears may reflect the same we dread in our own lives. Will our existence remain in the shadows, unnoticed? Will we fall at the moment of our grandest opportunity? Will we prioritize base concerns like eating or sleeping or laughing with friends over the highest calling of our otherwise mundane existence?

And what role pain? What role do the pitfalls and pratfalls of physical and emotional scarring have in shaping who we are, how we will perform, what we will be remembered for? No doubt the high emotions of a ballet like “Swan Lake” or “La Sylphide” are meant to illustrate the profoundest impact of love, especially love taken or unfulfilled, on our very lives. To what extent is it more important to illustrate such impacts for others than to live them oneself? Is every artist a martyr? Is martyrdom, emotional or literal, itself what enables artistry? Are those tapped for greatness in dance or writing or filmmaking merely those who have, by accident or unluck, endured more than the rest of us? Can it be shaped or crafted? Or is it merely those who see their almost universal pains and losses as opportunity who have the advantage, who get the toehold on explaining what we all know in the bottom of our arrhythmic hearts?

It seems that if I make it as a writer, I will have to thank the two people (so far!) who have hurt me the most, for bringing me a depth of feeling more oceanic than all the experiences in the rest of my three decades of life. Neither were dancers of any kind, unless one can classify their devastating twirls of deceit and betrayal, their flowering lack of confidence and trust, as a form of ballet. I have been known to say I could not have found pacifism or believed it as thoroughly, were it not for my life-threatening experiences at Broadway Middle School, four years before Dickinson. Is all this meant merely to bring me skills and understandings that only brushes with the harshest of feelings can bring? It is a cute and convenient story, and one that doesn’t wash most of the time, that sounds profoundly like an excuse, a juice-squeezer desperately trying to churn through a mountain of lemons with gallons of artificial sweetener. But I see “Black Swan”, I read “Hommage a Bournonville”, and I have to wonder. To remember, to feel, and to wonder again.

As Ani DiFranco put it in her own song about swans, “I don’t care if they eat me alive. I’ve got better things to do than survive. I’ve got a memory of your warm skin in my hand. I’ve got a vision of blue sky and dry land.”

Artistic vision and triumph in the face of the gravest of threats. Pain unending, manifest in visions of blood and wrathful vengeance. To what extent is this wishful thinking, the efforts of a poetic mind to make meaning of unthinkable agony? And to what extent is it real, true, the nature of beauty and redemption in a warped world unsure of its own purpose?

by

Before the Snow

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

The conflagration crackles in the cast-iron fireplace. The tabby lounges on the table, soaking up the radiant warmth from its glow at a safe, unsingeworthy distance. Later he will rise and stretch, his yawn revealing sharp fangs that have never known ferocity before he attacks the bamboo poker with reckless vigor, just less than oblivious of the looming burn risk overhead. It will pop anew as the flame licks previously untouched bark and the feline will scramble away, only to return when the noise has subsided.

There is a man there, too, or a boy perhaps, given his environs and their eerie pseudo-familiarity. Thirty going on thirteen, the reverse of the well-worn axioms of his youthful sagacity. “I was so much older then; I’m younger than that now.” Maybe all the artists age in reverse, Benjamin Buttons in search of infantilism and the birth of all things. As though the roots of creativity were somehow planted in wisdom but only understood in the aged fruition of the wry vigors of taking life less seriously. Alas, he is not an artist now, or yet – only a dreamer.

His hands are waxy with the residue of brown paper sandwich bags, a numbing subtle feel that exaggerates itself once noticed, all but to the point of putting the nimblest brittlest of limbs to sleep. These limbs have touched much today in their quest to keep the house of his parents dry – brooms and cement mix and the drops of cold rain whispering the promise of snow in its harsh icy decline. The fingers have come gloved and ungloved, pocketed and unpocketed, clutched at hair in his face and tissue before it as he navigated the warm-cold-warm-cold confines of a day on winter’s verge. It is the house of his parents he has helped protect against the worst of the dripping leaks around the edges, but it is not the house of his youth or even his upbringing. By the time he was here, he’d already been brought up, already begun the joyful decline into first real childishness.

The sandwich bags are the first step of a worn tradition, one he normally anticipates all year. They are to be filled with sand and a candle each, propped just so at just such a distance on just such a night to light the way for wayward tourists and reborn children in search of their soulful expression of a red-numbered day on the calendar. This whole calendar year has gone red for the man-boy, the red of debt and blood and the ink of insufficient penmanship. Whole months struck from the annum like typographical travesties, or perhaps just awkward sentences, whose denotation could no more warrant full expression than the merely self-describing awk. As though whatever professor were grading this set of days couldn’t be bothered to write in complete words, let alone sentences.

It is not Strunk & White’s manual which now concerns the man-boy, any more than he can fret about the precise length of the lip of each bag as it is folded outward, over, amidst the retribution of wax and the febrile protestations from the glass-faced hothouse. The tabby refuses to settle while the surprisingly boisterous lunchsacks meet their sequential fates, beginning their transformation from would-be tuna-and-Ruffles containers to full-fledged bringers of joy. The triangular ears twitch and start with each new vessel, ultimately finding solace in a clawing and half-biting into the latest foldee, as though perhaps said fish-wich were still to be procured through sheer grit and imagination. His look of affront from being batted away speaks volumes to a sense of cool entitlement that few outside the feline race can express.

Others try, though. They feel deserving of so much, satisfied by so little. The man-boy himself cannot count himself apart from this judgmental generalization, knowing that what he asked proved too much in a scarlet flash-flood of useless days. And now he sits calmly, picking up the pieces as though manifest in each new light brown ex-tree, dexterously processing them in a way his thoughts refuse to bend. He has been down many mental roads these last few days, raised voice and lowered it, cried to the heavens and sobbed to the winds. But not today. Today there is calm and the whispered promise of overnight snow.

He will wait for it, watchful, like a forlorn lover awaiting news he knows may not be good. Staring out the window between foldings like his thirteen-year-old self on a birthday where miraculous frozen water fell from the sky on a beach town three lifetimes past. Like a man who knows the adage but stares at the gas-fired pot all the same. Like a man whose time is long and his road is unseen. From time to time, he tears himself away to converse with his parents, harbingers of his future as all parents are, or to check the retoasting of his jacket and hat for the fateful moment when the sky turns white.

Tarry now. Wait with him a while. Wait to see his smile rise, his cheeks bloom, his eyes crinkle at each edge for a new reason. Look now, for then he will be out the door.

by

What I’ve Learned in the Last 48 Hours

Categories: A Day in the Life, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, Quick Updates, Read it and Weep, The Long Tunnel, Tags: , , , ,

There seems to be a directly proportional (or close) relationship between pain and learning. Or at least challenge and growth. Our muscles exist as a metaphor for the way we are supposed to advance ourselves. With the tearing of new wounds comes the opportunity for new advances. Now muscle tears may be more acceptable or reasonable than psychic rips. The paradox persists that even though pain is an opportunity for growth, it’s no reason to actually incite violence or cause pain to others. A reason to not despair at receiving such pain, however, it may be.

In any event, it’s been a heck of a ride lately. My Dad would probably claim that there are larger forces in the universe that made, say, the 13th a really difficult day and today much better. Maybe so, maybe so. But I like to think we all have a little something to do with our lives as well. And so I present some haphazard collections of platitudes that I’ve gleaned or reinforced in an intense two days:

  • I made the right decision in staying in Jersey for this year. I had long suspected this, but this trip has fully confirmed that New Brunswick is/was preferable to the available alternatives for the annum. This is very exciting, because people often make the right or good decisions and never get confirmation of their correctness. I’m lucky to have such early affirmation.
  • Teaching something is like a mantra or a prayer that reminds the teacher of the value of whatever one is teaching. Conveying something thus has almost as much value for the one conveying it as those hearing it for the first time. This also makes teaching something of a religious, or at least philosophical, exercise.
  • Thomas Pynchon just isn’t very good. He’s clever and occasionally hilarious, but I suspect a great deal of his success comes from incoherently talking above the heads of most of his reviewers, thus being received as brilliant for surpassing his capacity to be understood. I remember the same principle applying to some bafflingly successful debaters back in the day. Also probably applies to a number of philosophers. The one redeeming trait he has is capturing the sentiment of creeping universal paranoia that those who are paying attention to the universe may get from time to time, but there are ways he could do this without sacrificing cogency.
  • Computers have gotten a lot cheaper lately. Thanks, Recession.
  • It’s good to be impulsive sometimes.
  • It’s often easier to feel good about life when the weather is terrible outside. There’s a passage in the middle of Watership Down about why humans like winter when other animals don’t – because they get to feel safe and secure and insulated from the dangers the season of bad weather brings. To expand this idea, it may often be easier to feel good in opposition to something than in favor of it.
  • Not just because of the above, Seattle is starting to look really promising for 2011-2012.
  • When in doubt, reach out.

by

Land of Enchantment in Forty Flicks

Categories: A Day in the Life, Just Add Photo, The Long Tunnel, Tags: , ,

My month-long return to Nuevo Mexico is off to a bit of a rough start. I just can’t seem to get in an emotional groove I feel good about. Someone or other told me the first holiday season would be especially challenging, but I really had no idea. And then I remember how difficult it was just to sort through ornaments. Sheesh. The way things are going, I’m starting to believe that I need to spend mid-2011 and thereafter in a new town I’ve never lived in. Or visited. With all-new stuff. Yeah, that’s going to happen.

Anyway, here’s some things that are all-new and might not even be depressing. A couple shots from Albuquerque, but most of these are scenes from yesterday’s trip with the parents to the Salinas National Monument, home of several old missions on the east side of the Manzano Mountains south of ABQ. They’re pretty neat, even if they do represent Catholic co-option of native religion, culture, and people. So it goes.


Abandoned apartment building in downtown ABQ – they never finished building it when the boom went bust.


I could swear that part of the Senior Project film that Gris did with Bay & Toby was filmed in this back alley. Or that we were initially going to film some of my homeless-man scenes there but then shifted to another nearby locale. It’s funny what being back in one’s hometown can do to the memory.


The iconic towers of the ABQ skyline.


Nesbitt L’Orange, my parents’ relatively new cat.


Trains!


Abo, the first of the three missions.


Big sky.


Abo meets big sky.


Ruins.


Long wall.


They don’t make contrast like that everywhere.


A tree grows in the ruin.


Light and shadow.


The horse we rode in on.


The door is ajar.


Almost like Nebraska.


Mesa with tracks.


Best sign ever.


Cactus in bloom.


Arch with parents.


This is Gran Quivira, whose color is more traditional stone than the traditional mission color.


Room with a view.


A view of the room.


My father, gesticulating wildly.


View of many rooms.


View of the basement.


Quorai, the last of the three.


Church in state.


Slice of sky.


Sunset within.


Glorious ruin.


Ground level.


Contemporary interruption.


Almost Aztec.


A little bit of sol.


Runs down the hallway…


Silhouette.


My favorite window.


The moon, incoming.


The sun, outgoing.

by

From You to Me

Categories: A Day in the Life, All the Poets Became Rock Stars, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, Pre-Trip Posts, The Long Tunnel, Tags: , , , ,

I don’t know why
I’m afraid to fly
back to my home
where I know I’ll be all right
I never could quite say
how you made me feel the way
you always did
but kid, I’d never treat you right
and I don’t know where you are
even though I’ve come so far
I can’t say that life without you isn’t hard
and I don’t know where to go
please don’t say I told you so
when I tell you I still miss you in the dark
I guess I’ll always miss you in the dark.

I’ll say goodbye
to the memories and the lies
I always told
I’m getting older every day
if I could I’d take it back
but the past is just the past
with you and me
it doesn’t matter what I say
’cause I don’t know where you are
even though I’ve come so far
I can’t say that life without you isn’t hard
and I don’t know where to go
please don’t say I told you so
when I tell you I still miss you in the dark
I guess I’ll always miss you in the dark.

We were all we’d ever be
I was you and you were me
crashing deeper to the bottom of the sea
where we still lie
and if I fall out of the sky
I won’t dare to wonder why
’cause baby, I deserve to die.

-Allison Weiss

by

The UMBC Redemption

Categories: A Day in the Life, Awareness is Never Enough - It Must Always Be Wonder, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, Telling Stories, The Agony of the Wait is the Agony of Debate, The Long Tunnel, Tags: , , , , ,

The 2002 American Parliamentary Debate Association (APDA) National Championship at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) was one of the great highs and lows of my life. It marked the culmination of my competitive debate career and a turning point in my relationship with the woman who would become my (first) wife. It would long be remembered as my favorite weekend of debate despite becoming a crippling and embittering disappointment in terms of my actual debate performance. And in light of events of this year, the whole event would retroactively transform into a debacle, with the one grand saving moment of both the weekend and my life (perhaps the best story about me that exists) becoming yet another tired tragedy in a litany of a lifetime of mistakes.

The tournament got off to a great start, long before the tournament itself. Brandeis was in the habit of renting a team van to attend the National Championship, a tradition I believe started by our coach Greg once we got in the habit of qualifying teams for Nationals. While we were heavily laden with the teams who’d qualled and our additional free seed, a number of judges were also along for the ride, mostly younger debaters who’d just missed as part of a year I spent seemingly dropping semifinals by one ballot almost every weekend. These included close friend Nikki, who was the only person in the world fully informed about my personal intentions for the weekend after a late-night post-practice conversation about where I saw my life going. And then someone went and suggested that they braid my hair.

I’d had my hair braided a couple times before, most notably at the Senior Retreat in high school, a weekend I’ve long remembered as the lowest point in my life after the age of ten and perhaps the saddest I’ve ever grappled with being until 2010. It’s always been an amateur effort by a group of bored girls, though I usually really enjoy the look and feel of the results, at least until my head starts itching a few days in. For this tournament, there was something particularly important about taking up the spontaneous offer of hair-braiding – I’d always wanted to attend a tournament with my hair in braids and there was something about the freeing nature of doing something so unconventional and even bizarre in the most important, serious, and ultimate tournament I’d ever faced that felt like a necessary rite. I remember the bewildered looks of many rival debaters as I entered the halls, debaters who expected me to be one of the contenders for the Championship, wondering why I’d decided to go off the deep end at such a pivotal time.

Thanks to the power of photography and preservation, you don’t have to take my words for it:

My recall for the round-by-round progress of that tournament is uncanny to this day. I would mentally replay the competitions and speeches on lonely train rides and in late-hour contemplation, in downtime at numerous jobs and drives. First round against Yale novices, Korn and Bendor (the former of whom went on to become an APDA President and help me run the 2007 Vassar Nationals five years later), and they ran a case against civil disobedience. Phil Folkemer of Maryland judging. The goofy grins that Tirrell and I exchanged when they read the case statement, the flawless opportunity it gave me to wax eloquent on my personally favorite topics. Round two, judged by an UMBC dino who seemed twice my age, removed his shoes, but still looked askance at my wild and unkempt ‘do. Hitting Joe Ross and his partner, the same Joe I’d met at the debate camp I hadn’t wanted to attend in the summer of ’97, the same place I’d met Kate who was directing that selfsame tournament, the camp that seemed to all but save my life at the time from the bottomless rabbit hole I was dropping down. Joe who was dating my girlfriend’s best friend and debate partner, the concentric circles of a nine-year debate career looping and spilling, combining and recombining into an effortless beautiful confused mosaic. We ran the Professor case, our classic first-rounder, cruised easily into a 2-0 record despite the judge’s possible misgivings about my reckless youth.

Just two rounds on Friday for a title tournament, then gearing up for the next day. The irony of talking briefly about the Lottery case, the one we’d prepped for Emily and Lauren just in case, given that they were perhaps the only opp team we fully respected at the contest. Emily asking me how to opp the case idly on our way into the tournament together. My joke, my mysterious smile: “Well I’m not going to tell you that now.” A dead giveaway of what we’d run when, horror of horrors, they posted round three and we were in fact Gov against Princeton CG.

The round that became unfortunately ugly, Lauren and Drew getting fiercely competitive as Em was upset about our case choice and I was just trying to enjoy my last round running my favorite case. Speeches going well over time, getting docked for scores apparently already suffering, and then the realization going into round four that we’d just put my girlfriend on the brink of elimination from Nationals, which was (as was the general tradition, the prior year excepted) breaking only to quarterfinals. And both our teams, speaks tanked, hitting our two respective least favorite teams. Me squaring off against the President of APDA, a fierce rival of both Emily’s and mine. Emily against Yale’s top team of juniors, the same group who’d gotten her to unknowingly prep against me at Worlds and then bragged to the whole American contingent about throwing a wedge in our relationship.

And then the judging debacles ensued, a mad scramble of scratched and ineligible judges leading to a sophomore panel for Emily’s round and our round being judged by an ex of mine, another Florida high school debater, more circles spinning and spinning around this epic series of events. To top it off, the Columbia rivals chose to run a case I’d already hit, no less when debating with Kate for our first time ever her freshman year, one I’d long remembered for its topic being organ donation and my LOR crystallizing into themed tags about different organs, including “The Appendix: extra extraneous stuff in their case that doesn’t help”. I gave basically the same opp, basically the same LOR, and we won this time around. The MG from that team would be dead within a half-decade, but no one knew that then. He’d beaten Emily for the APDA Presidency the year before and nothing he’d done since had endeared him to either of us. Emily would spend as much of her senior speech calling him out as thanking anyone else.

On to the 4-0 round, a matchup with defending National Finalists, current Team of the Year, and future (spoiler alert!) National Champions, the other top-rated Princeton team. We had a fabulous round with them about where to try Milosevic, a case they ran and did well, though we ended up disagreeing with Steve Maloney’s call that we hadn’t carried the contest. I remember an ornery and bored-seeming younger brother of Yoni watching the round, seeming utterly disinterested in debate as he was treated to a real showcase round. The same kid would go on to debate quite ably for Yale, including a great performance in the best round I would ever judge, a match between he and his partner and a Stanford team in a bubble round at Nationals 2006.

4-1 still left us a shot at the break, though the quality of our competition was indicating to us that our speaker points must be pretty poor. Emily had already learned they’d dropped 4th round to Yale and would need a miracle to try to become the one 2-down team to break. With our points, it was utterly clear we needed to win. We were Gov against good friends and excellent opponents Raj & Phil from MIT. We had burned Lottery. It was the most important round I’d faced since National semifinals the year before. It threatened to be my last. Drew and I looked through the casefile. I almost whispered “Reparations”. He looked askance at me. We’d never run it together in competition. It was perhaps the most open case in our file. But one, like Lottery, that I really believed in. He asked if I was sure. I nodded definitively. “If this is my last round ever, this is exactly what I want to be running.”

It wasn’t our last round ever, nor as it would turn out even the last time that I’d run that case, given Emily’s and my return to APDA four years later for a one-tournament sequel. We put it all on the line for that debate, asking the US government to give $1,000,000 to every man, woman, and child born on a reservation or whose parents were. It’s the only time we ran that case without it being recorded and it was by far the best that case ever did. At one point, panicking, MIT actually suggested that we weren’t giving enough to Native Americans, that perhaps the only real apology would be actually bankrupting the United States. We won and were in, though it would take many long hours of agonizing waiting for us to learn that.

During those hours, I spoke to Emily about their chances, about how much my former teammate, the President of ‘Deis debate when I’d joined, had liked their 6th round and given them a shot to break with high points. I took the braids out of my hair in preparation for the formal banquet. I nervously contemplated my plans for said banquet, ideas I’d discussed as possible with Em at some point so as not to put her unfairly on the spot, but to still make a magic moment. My hair was curled and crinkled as we dressed in our hotel room for the pending announcement, both of us on pins and needles about all to follow that fateful night.

Off we went. The vegetarian offering was disappointing, the hotel’s standard introduction of servers a cringeworthy combination of Disney and racism. We could barely eat. The nerves and tension mounted. Lots were drawn for the order of senior speeches and Emily secured the last one of the night. I asked to trade with her. She smiled at me sideways and said okay.

The speeches rolled on, shorter than normal at the behest of UMBC who, like the Disneyesque introduction, was losing the banquet hall at midnight. I was finally called, almost over time already. Nevertheless, I proceeded with my longest speech on APDA, calling out that same President briefly before launching into an ode to the people I’d loved so dearly and competed with so fiercely for four years. I closed with two people. The first was the host of that tournament, an old and important friend from that debate camp and everything that followed. The second was Emily. I only spoke briefly of her before losing myself in emotion and noting that I had a question to ask her if she could come up to the front.

It was the second-happiest moment of my life (the happiest to that point), but somehow cannot remain so. Or maybe it will until something somehow surpasses it, something that God-willing will not fall victim to the eternal tarnish of time. It is a moment that prompts tears and breaks my heart to even begin to contemplate, one that did plenty of both at the moment. That hushed ripple of rising shock when I said that sentence still makes every nerve ending tingle. I can recall every second of that slow walk all the way from the back of the room. Everything slows to almost a standstill, then I get up, hug her, and everything goes into warp speed. A hundred congratulations, a thousand smiles. I almost didn’t notice when they announced that Brandeis CT had advanced to quarterfinals.

We were facing NYU A, including a person who, as I noted at the open of my LOC, had judged my very first APDA round ever, a contest at Columbia Novice, which Kraig and I went on to win, where I also had to LOC, this time following a 150-second PMC from Riley McCormick. She went on to get much better and I somehow scrambled about 6 and a half minutes of responses out of her barely outlined case. I remain uncertain to this day how he was qualified to judge that round and yet also had a year of eligibility left for that tournament concurrent with my own senior year, but I don’t mean to cast aspersions. I’m sure it was all above board. What happened that round, though, never seemed quite so much to me.

The auditorium was packed, a steep rising lecture hall that had clearly decided this was the quarterfinal to watch. There were some surprises in the break and a couple noticeable absences, including Emily and the same MIT team we’d edged in 6th round. It wasn’t until awards that we learned the latter was supposed to break but hadn’t due to a mathematical tabulation error. But us against NYU was a battle more predicted for semis or even later, and we had the edge on Opp. Only three judges were in the round to decide the contest.

Had there been a floor vote, we would have won by an almost 95-5 margin. But only three opinions mattered. One was clearly with us. One was against us for reasons that sounded strange, but I ultimately felt were sincere. And the tiebreaking vote was from someone who, as I flashed through my memories of his time at that tournament after the heartbreaking announcement of our 2-1 loss, I could not separate from images of our opponents. Indeed, I still have run across pictures from that tournament where he is in every car, every room, every table, every situation hanging out with our two opponents. They were the closest of friends.

Which would be somewhat acceptable had he been able to give me a coherent reason for his decision. But it rapidly became apparent he’d made no effort whatsoever to adjudicate the round at all. His flow was almost blank and he stumbled over forming the beginnings of a sentence about why he’d voted Gov. After five minutes of stammering, the judge who’d voted for us intently listening as well with increasing concern, he finally said “Look, it’s not about you guys personally.” To which I looked him straight in the eye and said “I know. It’s about them personally and that’s why this is an illegitimate decision.”

There was no recourse for the apparent travesty and I long blamed my close friend Kate for these events, at least in part, though my calling out of her tournament’s tab policies hurt her perhaps even more than I felt hurt by unfairly losing my last round ever. The ensuing conflicts led to a long-time dissolution of our friendship that we have only recently patched up, exacerbated by a series of slights and indignities that seem to mar many friendships that become infused with the heat of personal competition and ego. I handled it poorly. She made some mistakes too. These things happen between people. I am learning to try to figure out how to forgive. But there are many people in my life who I can give a second chance to, even if I don’t forgive them fully. Even if they can’t try to take that second chance.

Suddenly the tournament was a crushing failure. Yes, I was now engaged, and yes, we’d had a great run. But my debate career was suddenly over, just when I’d been preparing for semifinals as so many around me had told me how certain it was we’d dominated quarters. I couldn’t bear to watch semis, making sure to recommend that the Chicago team hitting NYU protest that judge’s empaneling before I took off for a long walk around campus. I returned for finals, featuring that same NYU team, forlornly telling some Harvard kids about the case Drew and I had prepped for National Finals while we watched a round about libertarianism instead. They promptly stole the case and ran it at Triangulars next weekend. But Emily and I would get to run it at BU Finals four years later and you can listen to the round.

Fast-forward eight years and seven months. I am back at UMBC for the first time since that fateful weekend. My marriage has ended in betrayal. My life has wended back to debate in a big way. And while it’s not Nationals and we didn’t have a big rented van and it’s a really bad idea to braid someone’s hair while they’re driving, something like that same team spirit has gelled and coalesced at the Rutgers University Debate Union (RUDU).

Our best team went north to MIT by themselves and, as of this writing, it looks like their being awarded 9th team and just being kept out of the break was the result of a mathematical tabulation error – they should have been the 6th or 7th breaking team. Left to their own devices, the five teams we took to UMBC all consisted of first- or second-year debaters, all kids I’d tutored from the beginning of their time with parliamentary debate. Chris and Ashley were fresh off their first varsity break together at the massive Fordham tournament just before Thanksgiving. Krishna and Bhargavi were fresh off losing a bubble round at the last tourney they’d attended together just before Krishna’s finger was smashed in a car-door and kept her out of competition for a while. Our novice teams had put together some good performances lately. But without our top team, how would we fare?

The tournament was no cake-walk. We thought Chris and Ashley were undefeated after Friday, but it turns out we were all 2-1 or 1-2 at that point. Our novice teams had both gotten out of the gate 0-2. We weren’t even sure they were breaking to quarterfinals, meaning that all of our teams might have almost been out at that point. And then it became Saturday.

We got our pairings and it was evident no one was 3-0. People prepared cases, went off to rounds. Krishna & Bhargavi came back bubbling about a spectacular 4th round and got the information they’d won 3rd round after being worried about it. Chris & Ashley returned confident. The stage was set for important bubble rounds. And then Chris & Ashley drew the highest-ranked team in attendance, the nation’s 6th team from Hopkins. They were nervous, but finally were able to be pep-talked into not being intimidated. They felt good about the round afterwards, but weren’t at all sure of the outcome, of what the judge would focus on. And then, after pizza and waiting and long last, the announcements came.

First, our novice hybrid team was into novice finals. Then, Chris & Ashley broke. Then, Krishna & Bhargavi did too. Suddenly there was a World-Series-like mob of breaking debaters on the side of our row in the General Assembly lecture hall. Two teams in quarterfinals, including the first break ever for Krishna & Bhargavi. Maybe this UMBC tour was going to be different.

While Krishna & Bhargavi were out of cases and had to borrow one for a tough round in quarters, Chris & Ashley were well prepped and took down a Fordham team 2-1 with one of their classics. Then I was given the semifinal round off from judging, a nod from a tab staff well stocked with judges and knowing that I’d probably like a chance to see my team. We went down a cinder-block tunnel and I almost froze. I realized what couldn’t quite be true – this lecture hall where Chris & Ashley were about to debate for a trip to their first final round was the same one that had hosted my last qualified competitive round ever. Quarters at Nats 2002. At first I thought I’d been wrong because the desk up front was different – I told myself it was just very similarly situated and sloped. But as I examined the desk, I realized it had to be a new computerized addition not present in 2002. And after comparing it to this old picture from that round:

…it was all too clear. And for extra fun, one of the panelists on this semifinal panel was the legitimate of the two who’d dropped me so many years ago in that ultimate round. I had a sinking feeling. Would history repeat itself? I dug into the seat for the round between Maryland and Rutgers and watched.

At first, I was a bit nervous. Chris was on his game in LOC, but his time management wasn’t amazing. And then Ashley started to really turn things around in MOC, setting up what turned out to be one of the best opp-blocks I’ve ever seen. Chris’ LOR was nearly flawless. A kid I’d seen often be rough and flailing was polished, rhetorical, inspiring. I was taken aback. The PMR was strong, but there was no way we were dropping this one. It was half an hour until we heard a 5-0 decision favored Rutgers. Chris & Ashley were going to finals and a win away from both qualifying for Nationals.

The Final was a treat. Chris & Ashley had fun with a case from the back-burner of Fordham’s file and made the right choice of those offered them in an entertaining opp-choice. They won a 6-3, us tensely waiting for the announcement that was started, stopped, and restarted three times after we’d learned of many other great awards detailed in this post on the RUDU blog. The exuberance was overwhelming with the announcement, the sheer joy and shock pouring out that as I well recall only the very first tournament win can bring. Indeed, after collecting their trophy, Ashley and especially Chris actually tackled me to the ground in celebration:

Getting up slowly from the floor, almost teary and completely mindblown, I came to terms with the incredible pinnacles and troughs of human emotion and experience. I’ve been talking periodically about my writing The Best of All Possible Worlds tearing open a portal of surreality in my life that may never again close. That the fork in the road taken by the completion of that piece has irreparably heightened the extremity of everything that follows. It’s a weird, vaguely extreme thing to believe, and yet you may understand if and when you read it. The quarterfinal round I judged was about the interpretation of art and made for a fascinating debate. And yet I must conclude that titles should always be bigger than authors’ names on book covers, because any good work is far greater than the author could have intended. And what if in crafting that work, I crafted undeniable surreality for myself and the rest of my days? What is to anchor us to the present, to the understanding that our lives are indeed as random and mundane as probability would lead us to believe?

I don’t have answers today, a lazy Sunday spent basking and recovering from the enormity of all these memories compiled and reconfigured, for both the worse and the better. I’m not sure I’ve ever had quite so much fun as a debate tournament as this Saturday at UMBC. It’s quite a replacement for a prior Saturday at UMBC. I will be processing this and more for a long time to come. But for 24 hours, I’ve been happy. And I’ve lived through enough to know just how to appreciate that. I pulled Chris & Ashley aside to remind them before the Final round of just one thing: to have fun. To appreciate what they were about to experience. I have to pull myself aside and remember that too sometimes. Now, mostly. Right now.

by

Happy? Thanksgiving!

Categories: A Day in the Life, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, From the Road, The Long Tunnel, Tags: , , ,

It’s my first Thanksgiving in Philadelphia since 1998, wherein I stayed with my friend Kate and I met her rollicking family and quotations for the ages were first coined. I’m friends with Kate again, after a bit of a hiatus, so these memories are even nicer and fresher than they used to be and make being back in Philly for the holiday that much cooler. I’m just glad we don’t have a Thanksgiving parade to be in like 12 years ago. In no small part because it was snowing when I awoke this morning.

It’s disorienting to wake up in an unfamiliar place, but doubly so when the sky above is gray and white and mottled with the aura of inscrutability. And while most aspects of this place (Fish’s now longtime home in South Philly) are not unfamiliar, I am unaccustomed to staying downstairs or having it look like a place that’s presentable. I’ve been choosing the couch over the room I spent much of August in, in part perhaps because of that, but also because it’s such a novelty for Fish’s long torn-up place to have a couch. And I think I feel more at home on couches anyway, it keeps me in better touch with transience, makes the adjustments easier. Waking up in a bed unfamiliar can be even more uncertain.

For some reason at Thanksgiving, I’m always tempted to review the last few years’ worth of the days or several. I feel like this blog itself is littered with references to summarative statements about the holiday and my own experiences with same. I’ve been through the political mixed feelings, the eventual distillation of the meaning of this holiday being able to transcend its dubious genocidal beginnings. I’ve been through the touchstone of this holiday with collegiate loneliness, with my adopted long-time family, and now am confronting it on my own again, though with the company of the lifelong family that are my friends. I intend to split the day between Ariel/Michael’s and Fish/Mad’s, getting two dinners for the price of zero and managing to avoid a household with football for the duration. There aren’t even TV’s in these places!

The snow has since given in to rain as the day plows toward afternoon and we are reminded how early in the winter it really is. Yesterday I wandered around the city for several miles and a couple hours, getting myself really chilled before turning around and almost running back to the warm confines of Fish’s abode. This is perhaps the eternal thing about Thanksgiving, that which transcends specifics of location or even the company of fellow diners at a Chinese restaurant outside an empty campus. That humans gather together, in groups large and small, to huddle together against the cold an unforgiving world to consume sustaining foods and celebrate their survival and the bounty of whatever they’ve been offered in life. No matter how isolated I might feel in comparison to Thanksgivings past, no matter how trying the holidays might in some ways feel this time ’round, I can take solace in still being here, still cradling a flame of warmth and light and hope against the torments of a tumultuous unrestrained external reality.

I am thankful for you. And you, over there. And you too. You are my community, my beacon in the darkness. Together we’ll make it through. We need not share the same table to feel the same sustenance this peaceful day.

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