Tuesday, August 30, 2011

albany redux

as the title suggests, the following essay is the reworking, from memory, of an essay i first wrote during grad school for one of my classes.  it is a redux because soon after moving to maine i lost almost all of my writings in a flood that left over a foot of rain in the basement of a house i was living in. 

consequently, all of (my perception) good essays from that time were lost to mother earth.  most of them were forgetful, as it has been about 20 years since i wrote them, and most were also forgetful simply because they were not that good.  however, a few of them have stuck in my head because they were either personal in nature or had that certain something that made me keep coming back to them in my mind.  "albany" was one of those for both reasons.  it was an interesting occurrence in my life and in my very humble opinion, the original was one of my best essays. 

i can't speak to the quality of this new one, but we'll see, because unlike my college or professional publications (few they are) i do not write these essays then brood over them, dissect and edit them, either by myself or with a group.  i just simply write, making changes as i go along, then i read them over again to make sure they are at the very least coherent and have no glaring typos, grammatical errors, etc.  but that's it.  other than that, they are there, ripe for the picking and ready to be picked over by readers.

a note about this reworking of "albany".  in the very remote possibility that someone was in my class and is reading this now and even more remotely remembers it, my apologies if things seem different.  like most essayists, i am working from memory and memory is always fuzzy, especially with the passage of time.  it's impossible -- or very nearly so -- to go back and check the accuracy of these events.  nor would i want to.  this rendition is my telling of something that happened to me years ago and i prefer to go on memory; i do however, promise to be as accurate and honest to the original as possible without being able to refer back to my previous essay or fact checking times and places.  also, in the original (this was before the widespread use of the internet) i used the real name of the person i went to visit. now, with the advent of google and facebook and everyone knowing everyone's business, i will refrain from using her name for what should be obvious reasons after reading.

so, without further ado, i give you "albany redux"

at a time in my life in which everything sucked and (mistakenly) i thought things could not get any worse, i did what every idiot male will do, i packed up and headed out.  i was in college and not very motivated anyway, when my girfriend (later to be future, then ex-wife) and i broke up.  i was devastated and at a loss as what do to, when a friend of mine suggested i move to boston to live with her and a few friends who were going to boston university and sharing an aparment.  there were many people moving in and out that year but they had a couch i could use and an extra body to pay the rent was always welcome. 

so, with very little else to keep me grounded, i packed up my few books and belongings and set out for allston, a section of greater boston on the green line and not too far from b.u.  i had very little plans set out, i just needed to get out of the hapless situation i was in and i had lived in boston prior for one summer working at mass general as a phlebotomist.  i figured i could maybe pick up some hours there or find a more permanent position somewhere either drawing blood or maybe working at a doctor's office.  it was really the only skill i had at the time.

but as i said, i was listless and moreover i was severely depressed about the breakup.  i was young and emotional then, not the haggard and curmudgeonly tim we all know and tolerate.  frustrated by the lack of available positions in the area, i signed up with a company called medi-temp which, like the name suggests, provided temporary work for people in the medical community.  but at the time, even temp jobs were hard to come by; one day i would draw blood for a doctor's office in brighton, then the next i would be packing boxes at a book distribution center.  why those kind of jobs were listed under medical i have no idea, but the desire to eat and drink was such that i took what jobs they would give me.

work was inconsistent, so i would frequently have a day or two -- sometimes even a week -- where i would have no work.  and with everyone else in class, i was bored and not given to socializing easily, i started taking day/night trips to various places around new england and canada.  i made trips to portland, maine, st. johnsbury, vermont, quebec city, montreal, new york city, etc.  by and large they were good trips and i would either come back home or sleep in my car (see previous post).   i am usually comfortable being alone and like to see different places and visit new restaurants and new bookstores. 

however, after a time i grew weary of traveling aimlessly and started to think of things i could do and see.  i had recently read the novel ironweed by william kennedy and had been fascinated by the characters and places.  the novel had even sparked a high school memory of anna ciampi (not her real name).

i first met anna ciampi in high school when i attended an future business leaders of america, fbla for short, conference.  for those of you who are laughing, it's because you know how far from being any kind of business leader i am.  but i was in fbla for several reasons.  one, they went on the coolest trips.  two, i did take typing and a few other business classes because i liked the teachers, ms. timmerman and ms. speer.  three, my best friend walter was a big deal in the fbla, running for offices, statewide and perhaps even national, though my memory is foggy on that point. walter is and always was a motivated person, succeeding in life as he did back even in high school.  plus, he's one funny fucker. 

during one of our years in fbla, a few of us went to a national conference; again i'm not sure where but i believe it was somewhere in texas (walter emailed me after i asked him and he believes it was little rock).  walter was going to give a speech and i'm assuming i was there to attend the conference and be his majordomo or perhaps more accurately, his man friday.  frankly, i don't remember much about the conference except for seeing two girls kiss (ostensibly on a dare or to shock and titillate, which of course it did) and anna ciampi. 

i don't remember if it was at a night time dance or function, or in one of the talks at the conference, but at some point i began talking to anna.  she was/is an italian/american from albany, new york.  i was captivated by her accent and her brash demeanor.  she was different from anyone i knew, as exotic to a high schooler from podunk arkansas as anyone could be.  she had this wonderful tangle of dark black hair and a large nose that to this day i still find appealing on women.  i have a vague recollection of her wearing green shorts and a brown top at some point and i remember she looked very good in them, quite voluptuous. 

the foremost memory of that trip was making out with anna on the bed next to my friend while he was making out with another girl from mississippi.  this sort of thing would happen to walter; he was popular and ambitious and the girls thought he was cute.  but for me, it was one of those infrequent times when the stars align and you find a girl you are attracted to and she finds you attractive.  i can remember the television on and the lights low and feeling like the luckiest guy on the planet.  to use the parlance of my mother's time, i believe i reached third base that evening.  which, as it turns out, was the only evening we had because the conference was over the next day.

we did exchange addresses, email not readily available back in the dark ages. and we did write, she told me of her family, her soccer team, about her college plans.  i've long since lost those letters, but i still recall the excitement each time i received one.  she was a good writer and i imagined a time i would get to see her again.  i fantasized, as kids the world over will do, that we would meet up again soon and continue where we left off.  but life and distance kept us apart, and eventually her letters dwindled down to nothing.  other interests, school and time made the weekend a distant memory for her i'm sure, and after some time, it slipped into the recesses of my mind too. 

but, sitting on my couch/bed in boston those years later and with william kennedy's ironweed in my head, i started to wonder what had happened to her and what she was doing.  it was only about 6 years or so later, so i thought there might be a chance of finding her.  the information age was still a ways away and though i had forgotten much about her, i still recalled her address from all the letters i had sent her.  i'm lousy at remembering faces or events, but numbers and addresses i seem to have a knack at storing.  

the trip from boston to albany is only about three hours and it takes you near worcester, springfield and stockbridge.  it's a lovely area, especially in the fall, but this was winter and the trees were bare and wet snow covered the ground and i was content to keep my eyes on the road and listen to the slush slush sound my tires made.   as soon as i passed into new york state, i started wondering if i would really go through with it.  it seemed silly and childish and there was a good chance she was off at school or indeed that she and her parents had moved somewhere.  but, i figured, at the very least i could find her house and drive around looking at some of the landmarks in ironweed, a copy of which i brought with me.

i stopped at a gas station and bought a cup of coffee, some chips and a map of albany.  taking it back to my car i began searching for her address.  there was a blowup of albany and a street index on the backside of the map and it wasn't long before i found a few places listed in the book and, more pertinent to this story, anna's address.  she was on the other side of town so i decided to go find it first, then decide what to do.  it didn't hurt to at least go check it out, right?  it was the middle of the day during the week, probably no one was home.

i found the house pretty easily.  it helped that it was on a corner lot and there was a low, white brick fence around it with the street number prominently displayed.  it was impossible to tell if anyone was home as there was a garage and it was daytime so there were no lights to easily see.  so i drove by it, then took a trip around the neighborhood to check it out and decide what to do.  it was a very nice suburban neighborhood, full of an eclectic mix of capes and federals with what looked like well tended lawns under the blanket of snow.  i drove around for a while, just looking and building up my resolve.  i decided there was no harm in ringing the doorbell.  i suppose i could have called but i hadn't bothered to look up the number and i felt like if i didn't do it in person, i wouldn't do it at all.  i was at loose ends in my life and looking back i realize i just wanted to revisit a time in my life when things were easier and i had hope. and for at least for that long ago weekend, i was on top of the world.

parking in the driveway, i gathered up my coat and headed to the door.  i rang the doorbell, there was no response.  i waited a second then knocked on the door, figuring there was no one home but wanting to satisfy myself that i had at least tried.  after a few more seconds i heard some noise inside and then the door opened a bit, the person peeking their head out.

"yeah?", was all she said.  i just stared back at her.  i wasn't sure what to say.  it looked vaguely like anna, but it had been a while and it if were her, she had changed a lot.  anna had been curvaceous while this person was sickly thin, gaunt.  her cheeks were sunken and her hair was stringy and looked oily.  her clothes were tight which only accentuated her skinny frame.  her nose was even more pronounced but instead of enhancing her beauty, it made her look even more thin.  i looked closer. it was her, no question about it.  just a sickly version of her.  i thought maybe she had been very ill.

i finally spoke.  "are you anna?"

"yeah, what do you want? who are you?"

i didn't know what to do; for a number of reasons i wanted to run, she was obviously much different than she was in high school and i was already nervous enough about seeing her again.  but then i realized i had changed too.  i had lost weight from lack of desire to eat and my hair was already thinning. but mostly i was at a low point in my life and i had little to lose by talking. 

so i started talking.  i mentioned the fbla trip and the letters we wrote and i reminded her that i had her address, that i was living in boston and that i was just in the area looking at some landmarks and thought i would look her up while i was there.  actually the reverse was true; i had used the book as an excuse to come to see her, but she didn't need to know that.  i rambled, standing at the door, for what seemed like forever.  finally i stopped and looked at her: nothing.  i could tell she had no idea what i was talking about. 

"cool, you wanna go for a walk or something? my folks won't let me have anyone in the house."

we headed out around the neighborhood and without any preamble, she started telling me her story.  her senior year of high school a friend of hers got her to try heroin.  turns out, she loved it.  couldn't get enough of it.  she kept it under wraps just long enough to get accepted to the rochester institute of technology.  but after a semester there, she got kicked out because she wasn't going to any classes and al her money from home was going to heroin.

"i couldn't get out of bed without thinking of how i was going to get more heroin.  i sold everything, from my books to my car and finally my folks knew something was up so they made me come back home and put me in rehab.  i've been in rehab three times now.  i don't think it's sticking."  she said all of this without a trace of pity or care in her voice.  most of the time we were walking, she kept her head down and only rarely did she lift her head to look at me or anything else. 

it was cold so i suggested maybe we should go get a cup of coffee.  she must have trusted me or not cared, because i could still tell she had no idea who i was but she said, "sure, i know of a place." she said it just like that, "...of a place". i remember liking the way that sounded.

as we were getting in the car she saw my copy of ironweed.  she asked if i wanted to see some of the places like i mentioned.  i said yes.  "we can pass by a few of them on the way to the diner."  so we headed out and she gave me directions through the streets and into the city.  at one place she pointed out that her dad used to take her there when she was a little girl to play in the park.  "now it's just a dump, like the rest of albany." and she chuckled at that.

i was feeling depressed.  i wasn't sure what i had hoped would happen, but this certainly wasn't it.  i'm sure we looked like a loathsome pair as we took a booth at the diner.  we ordered two coffees and then she told me she didn't have any money to pay.  i told her that was alright, i would buy and if she wanted some food that was okay, too. 

"no, i can hardly eat anymore.  food just makes my stomach turn.  my parents make me eat with them when we are home and it all tastes the same.  like shit."

as we sat there, i told her about my ex-girlfriend and living in boston, try to find out what to do with my life.  we both just looked at each other.  all that easy time of talking when we were back at the conference was gone.  now it was just two sad and lonely people staring across a table, waiting for coffee, one strung out from too many drugs and another just feeling sorry for himself.  we drank our coffee and i reminded her again of our time at the fbla conference but i could have been talking about the lack of rainwater in sub saharan africa because i could tell she wasn't listening and had no memory of that weekend.  she was also jittery, i noticed that the coffee in the mugs was dancing about; her legs were bouncing up and down fast and furious. 

funny thing though... the moment should have been awkward, and i should have wanted to get out of there, but for some reason a sort of calm came over me.  this was, i suspect, a precursor to the man i have become, to accepting people for what they are, who they are.  i had hoped for more, for me, for her, but in the end, it was enough to have come all that way and to see her.  we sat in what was, at least for me, a comfortable silence of the weak and the tired. 

i started driving her home and as we neared the house, she said: "you better let me off here, my folks won't want me to be with you. and i was wondering, can you lend me some money?"

those of you who know what she was probably going to do with the money, can now cast the first stones.  i gave her all i had on me, minus 10 bucks for gas to get me home.  in the end, i decided it was much like the homeless in the streets around boston, they hit you up for money and you either gave it to them or not; but what they do with it is their own business.  and what she did with it is her business.  she used me for money but i used her too, for a look at the past, for what could have been, what never was and it told me a little bit about what i was becoming. 

and i'm okay with that.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

the best places to sleep in your car

i've often thought that if i were to write books instead of these pithy little essays, one of them would have to be about traveling.  i've done a fair amount of traveling, not near as much as i would like to, but i've enjoyed almost every trip. i've cruised through the caribbean, the baltic sea, and i've wandered through europe. 

but i would have to say my favorite mode of traveling is driving.  i've driven all across north america and have burned through at least four cars in doing so.  as readers know by now, i lived in maine most of my adult life, but my family was, and is, in arkansas, mississippi, and virginia.  so i did a lot of traveling up and down the eastern seaboard and across the south.  and for a short time i lived out west, making the trek from los angeles to arkansas and maine, across mountains and deserts, city and countrysides. why didn't i fly all these places? well for a few years in my late 20's i developed a fear of flying.  inexplicable, as i had been flying all my life and never had a problem before.  but there it was.  i still flew but for about 3 years i only flew when absolutely necessary.

so i drove everywhere, but i really didn't mind because even from a young age, i loved driving.  when i was 14, my parents and i took a trip to bar harbor, maine from arkansas and my father, being of neither sound mind or good judgment (just kidding, dad), let me drive a large part of the way there.  i enjoyed being in control of the wheel, deciding which lane to be in, where we were going to stop, what to listen to on the radio.

another reason i liked driving as opposed to flying is that it was usually cheaper.  i am, at heart, a cheapskate.  i like things, i just hate paying for them.  so when i would travel, i would frequently just drive all through the day and night until i got to my destination.  however, even the most driven (pardon the pun) of us have to stop and sleep every once in a while.  and that's where one of america's greatest achievements come into play, the rest stop.  frequently, travel means you must stop and rest and there's nothing quite as cheap as sleeping in your car.  and rest stops are reasonably safe and best of all, free.  i've tried stopping in hotels and motels, but really when i just want four or five hours sleep, i feel silly paying 50-100 bucks for a flimsy mattress, a thin towel and even thinner walls.

i discovered, that if you plan it right, you can find a rest area in most states to sleep in for a bit, or if you so choose and are careful, you can even live in them if you don't frequent the same rest stop each night (more on that in another post).

so, my dear readers, i give you a few of favorite rest areas in the united states:

1.  oceanside, ca -- without a doubt, this is my favorite rest area.  not because it is the cleanest or has the best restrooms or vending machines; it isn't any of those things.  but what it does have is the most magnificent view.  if you can get a spot on the southern part of the rest area, you can wake up to an ocean view and in the still hours of the night, you can roll your windows down and listen to the surf bashing the shore.  in the morning, you can get back on i-5 and head south to san diego or north to los angeles.  the bathrooms are serviceable and there are plenty of cops through there so it feels safe.

2.  virgina/tennessee border -- another beautiful part of the country, and both sides have very nice rest stops. interestingly enough both towns on the border are bristol, just split between the two states i believe.  if i had to choose, i would say the virgina stop is probably just a notch above the tennessee one, but i might be biased because i think virginia is a lovely state, the drive up i-81 is one of the prettiest i've even traversed.  plus my oldest brother lives in charolottesville, va and i've always enjoyed visiting there (btw, the answer is yes, i stay with him rather than a rest stop when i'm visiting him).  this one has clean restrooms, a beautiful view, and if you are there during business hours, you can go in and cool off, read about virginia's history, and pick up any amount of info about the surrounding area.  be warned though, the cops don't like you staying more than two hours and it's posted you aren't supposed to stay overnight.  but don't let that stop you.  if they chase you and want to sleep more, just cross the interstate and head into tennessee where the cops are different and at the very least, you've got yourself two more hours of sleep.
some of you might be wondering why i don't stay in truck stops.  well, i've tried that, but they are usually very noisy and have too much light and people moving around.  if you are nervous about rest areas (as the mare commented to me via text as i write this), then try one, but for me i prefer the smaller, darker confines of rest stops.

3.  connecticut, near exit 3 on i-95 south -- this one is absolutely lousy for sleeping in.  i've done it, but i was constantly awakened, and there as many lights there as at a truck stop.  but it makes the list because it is just so much fun.  it's like being at penn station or grand central terminal, large and full of people from all over the country and because it is so close to nyc, it is full of life and is a great place to people watch.  there's also a place there to get your car serviced if you need it, get gas and change your oil, fix your tire.  one day i was there for a while because of a wreck on the interstate.  i counted thirty urinals and 16 stalls in the men's rooms.  it's a toilet extravaganza! there's plenty of food, a concession area to buy magazines, munchies, lottery tickets, tee shirts, pens, gum, smokes, drinks, and areas to sit outside if you are so inclined. it's a lot like the jersey turnpike rest stops, which are also great because they will pump your gas (nj law) for you.  i once played in an impromptu poker game with some travelers at the grover cleveland new jersey turnpike rest area because we were all too tired to drive but it was too noisy to sleep.  by the end of the game i was rested, but also down 30 bucks.

4.  somewhere in the west, arizona or new mexico -- i'm sorry i don't have any more information on this one, but it really doesn't matter, because it wasn't so much the beauty or facilities of the rest area, but simply the fact that i was able to stop and sleep.  the sleep can only be described as... delicious. i am an insomniac, i struggle with sleep so much that most nights it is a battle to get my mind to shut off and if i get 5 hours sleep, i'm doing great.  but rest areas are unique for me, they are like camping in a way, you are in an enclosed area, snug and secure in your car or truck.  i like being out in the open and on the road where almost no one knows where or who you are.  you are part of this great interstate web of roads and freeways and byways but you are also alone.

i love them because i (mostly) only stop at them when i am dead tired.  this one stands out to me because i remember being so tired that almost as soon as i put the car in park, my mind shut down, my eyes closed and i fell into the most delicious, dead sleep.  it was about 2am when i pulled in and i didn't wake up for four hours.  those four hours were some of the most relaxing sleep i'd had in years. truth be told, this can be said about just any rest stop i've been to, i pull in and i just relax. it's so nice to know you are off the road and you can rest. 

i could go on and on about this, but it's getting late.  think i'll grab the intrepid boxer maggie and head out to the car for a well deserved sleep. :-)

what are some of your favorite rest areas?

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

all the news that isn't, and why i'm okay with that

as i write this, i'm once again firmly ensconced in the relative comfort of the cabin on the spring river. i have put away clothes, food, let the intrepid boxer maggie romp around and pee, read the red sox recap and box score, and looked over some articles my father sent me from his daily perusing of the news.

and here is the sticking point; i do not like the news. let me elaborate on this before my father (who has hopefully by now read all of my prior posts) becomes offended.  i like the articles my father sends me, the last two sent were about the hawks last sighting in washington square park before the hawk cam goes dormant for winter and the other was about recent fossils found in western australia that are perhaps the oldest fossils ever found, at over 3.4 billion years old. my father knows to not send me articles on the dailly butchering of peoples or politics, neither local or global.

my father grew up in a time that the news was only found in a few places, the radio or the newspaper, and later, television.  some of the most important things to happen in the last century were only heard on the radio, read about the next day in the paper, or if you were lucky and/or rich (of which my father was neither for a long time), seen on the nightly news.  consequently, my father takes great pleasure in reading the paper each morning, reading the obituaries to make sure he isn't in there (sorry for the old joke, but it still makes me laugh) and going over the daily events of life in town and in the world we all live in.  he feels a connection with the outside world and for 77 years, he has sought to understand the trials and tribulations of man, and has borne witness to the highs and lows of society in general. and i have no doubt, he is a better man for it.

he and my mother are lovers of information, and they have passed this along to their three sons.  i will admit to being a npr junkie and indeed, one of my early memories of childhood is staring at the headline of one of the old little rock papers of nixon resigning that was posted on the door of richard key's brother's room.  i am a person, a human living on this planet; and i have not been immune to the horrible attacks of september 11, the more recent norway killings, or the recent abduction and murder of a toddler near the mare's hometown.  they have affected me and being ignorant of history means we are doomed to repeat it, though i'm not sure we really have managed to keep from repeating our transgressions on people, animals, the earth, etc.

but at some point, i began to grow weary of news, of politics, of death, murder, rape, crime, the latest hollywood idiot drunken brawl.  this is not really meant to be a diatribe against the way dissemination of the news has changed over the years, it certainly has changed and their are probably pros and cons to the changes, but frankly i don't give a fuck.  i'm fed up with it and it depresses me to no end. those who know me (and probably that is all of you, since why the hell else would you be reading this?) i have my own bouts with depression and have decided that i don't need to add to it by reading the gory details of murder and mayhem or the, perhaps less tragic but also unsettling, aspects of politics as usual.

in short, i've tuned out.  i have not sat (willingly) through the "evening news" for over two decades now and have no desire to do so.  i'm certainly sorry that life is snuffed out in libya or tibet or salem, mo for no other reason than some fucked up mind thought it right to do so.  but i've tuned out.  i won't even listen to the beginning of npr's all things considered because it is a rundown of the latest news i "must know".  there are those of you -- and rightly so -- will criticize me of being the worst kind of person, an apathetic ass who refuses to join the rest of us in the zeitgeist of the human experience.  you will say that if i don't vote, i have no right to complain or worse yet an uninformed person can not influence our world for good.  to turn a blind eye to the horror's of the world is to ignore what must not be ignored. if i am not informed -- you scream -- how will i combat the horrible atrocities (redunancy) of the world at large?

and you are mostly right.  if i were to completely turn away from humanity, i would be no better than the germans who refused to acknowledge the holocaust because it wasn't happening to them, therefore it wasn't happening.  and maybe you are right, i don't know.  but when i was living in maine, there was a movement starting to catch on, the kind of think globally, act locally mindset that most people (including me) roll their eyes at.  (my apologies to mrs. smith, my 5th grade english teacher for ending so many sentences with prepositions. we'll save the discussion on language and grammar for another post.)

but here's my theory... if we are to take care of our own, the people we love, the humans and animals we love, the land which we tend to, and we try to not hurt those them, then aren't we doing what we can to make the world as a whole a better place? do i stop my neighbor next door from pouring motor oil in his backyard even though it doesn't come onto my property? i suppose i should say something, but shouldn't the people he loves and cares about do that?  again, i don't know and i'm not saying i am correct.  but all i'm saying is that i'm not sure seeing geraldo or diane sawyer pointing a camera at my neighbor is going to change the way i feel about things, cause me to take up arms against man's inhumanity to man.  there are holes in my logic, i know... i am sitting here remonstrating myself as i type -- i know i would not let anyone harm anyone in my presence, loved one or not, but please stick with me as i try to piece this all together.

i feel as if i'm coming off as an asshole in this post, and maybe i am.  but i've been called worse and that will likely continue.  but i've lived my life searching for work that keeps me from listening to water cooler gossip and kept me from hearing the latest tidbit about who's sleeping with whom and what fucktard has shot up a building.

i'm not old, but i have reached middle age and am peering over the the other side and i can't say i feel worse about my life by tuning out from most of the world's troubles.  i love my family and friends and animals and would gladly rip your heart out if you tried to hurt any of them.

and i'm saying, for me at least, that's all i can do.

Friday, August 19, 2011

from maine to toronto -- or, how i came to love baseball

it makes me smile to think of past thoughts and beliefs. you are never too old to change and if you believe you think one thing, just wait -- it may change. for example, when i was in high school i could think of nothing more boring than baseball or golf, two games i enjoy immensely now, the watching of the former, the playing of the latter. my brother bob and i used to joke that golf courses would be a lot more interesting and a less waste of space if they were combined with graveyards, both being a waste of space in my opinion.  at least at that time i thought that; i'm still on the fence about graveyards, but that's for another post.

my feelings on these sports was changed, in great part, by my good friend and long time doubles partner, mike.  mike is a hulk of a man, 6'4" and strong, possessed with quick feet and a killer overhead. but he is also a thinker and a wise and funny fellow who i enjoy talking about anything and everything. like any respectable mainer, he was born a red sox fan.  when you were young, you picked favorite teams. that's just what you did and even though i was not interested in baseball, i picked the cincinnati reds, most likely because they were doing good that year. i had no loyalty because: 1. they were no real local teams where i'm from and 2. i just didn't much care.

but to grow up in maine is to be a red sox fan. there is no major league team in maine but boston is only an hour or so away from where mike grew up in kennebunk.  and he was a fan. after our practices, we'd sit and drink beers with the other players and during the summer there would always be a game on.  everyone would watch and cheer and though still not interested, i started to pay attention because everyone else was.  i would get caught up in the moment.

in 2004, mike suggested we take a trip somewhere.  he knows i like to travel and it turned out that the red sox have these package trips. you can go to another town and watch the sox play and stay at a hotel, etc. it sounded fun to me, but mostly because i could get on the road. those that know me, know i love to drive and to travel. a perfect fit. and if there's going to be beer and sports involved, even better.  we scoured the schedule to see what might fit into our schedule and what town we might like to see.  being close to the canadian border, we thought it might be fun to try toronto, as it was not that long a drive and we could stop along the way at the casino in upstate new york. 

after our regular night of practice, we headed out from his house. we had both worked that day and then played tennis, but we had to be in toronto that next day so we started out on our trip about 11pm. after a successful stop at the casino, we kept heading west toward the canadian border.  by this time the sun was out and we had been up for about 24 hours and we were getting pretty tired but kept driving. we crossed near niagra falls, and though we were tired, decided to stop and look at the falls. i had been before, but not from the canadian side.  after a few hours of sightseeing, we got back underway.  i seem to recall there were lots of vineyards along the way but we had no time to stop; we needed to get to toronto to get a little sleep before the game started, otherwise we'd be asleep by the second inning.

we arrived mid afternoon at the hotel, unshaven, tired, and cranky.  the hotel garage was one of those typical in large cities, small spaces, lots of underground spirals which are not easy to maneuver in a large truck. we found a spot but it was next to a pylon and as i turned to get into the spot i knew it was going to be a tight fit. halfway into it, i hear this scrape on the driver's side. i look at mike, he looks at me and i say, "fuck it" and pump the gas. for the next three years until i traded that truck it still had the yellow streak of paint from the pylon down it's side.

i had been to a few games before, at fenway park in boston and camden yards in baltimore and even one game, when i was young, in montreal before the expos moved. but it was always with my parents or a friend who really wasn't into the game. but this was different.   we were in toronto for four games, and more importantly, i was with mike, who as i've stated is a big fan and who really understands the game, having played college ball. 

after some rest in the hotel, we walked down to the stadium, just a ten minute walk. but the weather was perfect, sun but no humidity to speak of and the air was crisp and just cool enough to feel good on the skin. we grabbed a few beers and found our seats, which were down the right line near first base. we were surrounded by a bunch of sox fans since the away team seats are usually sold in blocks.  it was a perfect day for baseball, or just sitting with a beer and your friend, talking and looking at all the people in rogers centre, the home of the toronto blue jays.

my favorite baseball player is kevin youkilis. the reason is simple, i got to see his first ever professional game for the sox that day and on his second at bat, he hit a home run.  to see the faces of the fans, myself and mike included, is to know the essence of baseball.  to watch something that only a handful of people over time can do, is a thing of beauty.  athletes at the top of their game is something that you don't see forget.

but here's something that makes baseball different -- there is time.  time to see things happen, but also time to see what's not happening, the first baseman talking to the runner on first, the men in the dugout talking and laughing, watching the game. baseball is like a chess game, you see plays happening and you see the defense try to figure out where to stand.  there is time to talk to your friend, to look around the stands and see the kid with his baseball cap and an impossibly small glove on his hand.  it's more than a sport; the old saying that it is a pastime holds true.  it's a perfect way to spend a day or night, cheer on your team and feel that you are a part of something.

the series went well for the red sox; they won three out of the four games we watched and with each game i began to see what it was all about.  i'm no patriot, no hot dog, apple pie kinda guy, but sitting in the stands, i get it.  I see what the fuss is all about.  each day we would go out and wander around the great city of toronto, then watch a game and then find all the best places in toronto for a beer.  and there are a lot of them.  an added bonus, you can buy cuban cigars in canada, which was a treat to enjoy on a long walk around the downtown area.

it was just a great trip... i've been to many a game since then, including a few postseason games the same year, the year they finally broke their drought and won their first world series in 86 years.  but none of my trips to the ballpark has been as exciting as that trip to toronto.  plus on the way back, we won even more money at the casino, but that's a story for another time...

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

remembering bill morrissey, wordsmith. and oh yeah, a singer too

readers (that mean all 3 of you) will recall i like lists. and if i had to make a list of my favorite musicians of all time, bill morrissey would be in my top 5.  bill died last month at the too young age of 59 in a motel in georgia. he was stopped for the night before heading back to new hampshire after performing at a few places through the south. in fact, i had talked to my friend kenneth about going to a concert outside of nashville that apparently was one of his last. sadly, time and life got in the way and i forgot about the concert.

it was only by chance that i heard of his passing.  i had been listening to one of bill's albums on my ipod when i remembered the concert and i google searched for him to see if i could still get tickets. when his website popped up, i instead saw a list of obituary notices. my heart sank.  like most people when they read something like this, i couldn't believe it. but it was true, as i read on i found out he died of complications of heart disease. what shocked me most was that it had happened almost three weeks before i read anything about it.

then i thought i shouldn't be surprised, for as much as i loved his music, he wasn't well known, especially outside of his native new england. i believe this to be a tragedy, as much as his death is a tragedy, for his music was an opening to a world for me. there was nothing extraordinary about his voice, other than it was way too deep and raspy to be a singer. his guitar and fiddle work, though good, was nothing especially transcendent. but the words -- ah, the words, that's where he shined. much like others i love, it's not so much the music but the tales, the language, the stories that got you.  a few words in, and if you are a wannabe writer like me, you think: "shit! that's it! i would have killed to written that."

they came off his tongue like poems, sparse and full of life and death and love and if you were happy and wanted to be sad (i'm not the only one, right?) you could listen to bill.  if you were sad and wanted to be happy, you could listen to bill.  if you were sad and wanted to bawl your fucking eyes out, you could listen to him speak of love to never be, love that is lost, heartbreak the whole world knows, or the pain of having to kill your own dog: "you've known that old hound longer/than you've known any of your friends/and no matter how you've let him down/he'll always take you back again/wrap him in his blanket/hold him once more close to you/lead him out behind the barn/with a borrowed .22.  if you wanted to laugh, you could listen to him sing of amnesia: "what if i'm born again/or in some weirdo sect/i know i'm not jewish/cuz i looked down and checked."

i first came across his music thanks to a friend in portland, maine. we were both fans of john prine and he suggested we all go see a concert happening in portland, a quad bill, if you will called something like "on a summer's night". i believe it was patti larkin, cheryl wheeler, cliff eberhardt, and greg brown.  it doesn't matter. what does matter is i heard greg play and he mentioned his friend bill, also a folk singer, singer/songwriter (the term i prefer to use).  loving greg's music, i was anxious to find out more about this bill morrissey.

i was able to get hold of his first album and well, to be cliche, it blew me away. the stories were like prine's and greg's, but they were of new england. of mill towns, of sad tired people, of woods crazy people, gone mad from the snow. these were now my people. as you may recall, i was born in arkansas but my heart was in new england, where is most likely will always be. i soaked it up, hours were spent traversing the back woods and lonely roads of maine and new hampshire (i was in grad school at unh at the time) listening to his music, the sad fiddle, the happy guitar, the guttural lows and almost painful highs of his voice.

after that, i was hooked. i got all his albums and though i have favorites, it's really his body of work that speaks to me. the way that he can take you through the range of emotions in 9 to 12 songs is astounding.  and you have to listen, you want to listen to the words. you want to get them right. music and i are friends.  we are not lovers.  i am not in love with music. i listen and yes, it is important to me, but i'm just as likely to be found listening to an audiobook or npr than music. and i can't remember the last time i willingly turned on the radio to listen to music.

i love words. i love stories that can make you cackle, not just laugh, but cackle. and words that can make you want to curl up in a ball and cry because it just feels so fucking good to do so.  and his words do that without reservation and without pity.

my love for my brothers is exponentially heightened because i ultimately have them to thank for introducing me to singer/songwriters. they both play guitar and one of my first memories is of rick singing "spanish pipedream" (alternately known better as "blow up your tv") by john prine in the car when i was young. consider the first couple of lines from the aforementioned song: "she was a level headed dancer/on the road to alcohol/and i was just a soldier/on the way to montreal". so few lines, yet so much information and emotion. you have a woman, i imagine her middle aged and ragged, a stripper with tired eyes and saggy breasts.  and he, a slightly younger man, a soldier who, fed up with the war, decides to go awol and leave for canada. so in those sparse few lines, you have love, lost love, patriotism (or if you choose, lack thereof) and the beginning of a story.

that's a john prine song, but the important thing to remember is that it set me off on the path of searching for stories. for poems, for little vignettes, snippets of time and place and people who you've never heard of but your swear in your heart and mind you know. great poets do this, hayden carruth, paul zimmer to name a few.  bill morrissey is among those elite few who can tell a story, wrench tears from the jaded, pull laughter from the saddest sack. 

many years later, i shared this music with my good friend kenneth who had turned me on to another gifted singer, nanci griffith. he too, is a lover of words and instantly he knew he had found another person to listen to. we talked of his songs the way we would talk of most things, with great gusto. we'd take grand trips with our other friend steve and we'd listen to his music. steve and i saw bill one time at raoul's in portland. it was a magical night, filled with whiskey and music and fun.  i saw him perform many times, but getting to see him with friends is best, that was you can share the moment and relive it over and over again.

there's been many obits written about the death of bill morrissey, i'm heartened to see many others felt the same way about him as i did. and from all accounts, he was as kind and generous in real life as he was personable on stage. and we celebrate his life as we should, and we take comfort in the fact his music is still with us and it can make us smile to remember the good times. but right now, in this dark room and in this dark space, i'm also reminded of a poem by paul zimmer that fits my mood just now:

a rant against losses

word has come of my friend's death in london.
in my desolation memories begin to roll.
i recall once looking for him in the pubs
when a young barman, pondering my inquiry,
smirked, "red nose and a pint of cider, right?
the knobby one who zigzags when he walks?"

i should have slammed his pearly teeth,
stood him on his diapered head and shaken
the little drums from his ears! even now
it soothes me to hope that his old age
becomes tawdry, that his hair falls out,
that his joints ignite and ache incessantly.

for my friend was worn fine with civility,
a wise, endearing man, lover of words,
to be respected beyond the capacity
of any modish, indifferent callow wag.
god damn ridiculous vacant youth,
and piss on you, death, and fuck you!


i felt better knowing bill morrissey was in the world, that somewhere he was thinking his thoughts, living his life, singing his songs. i will miss him...

#2: hillbilly feng shui

i like lists. they look orderly. there are those who say it's lazy writing, an easy way out. well, screw those people. it's not easy. it may be easier than a beautifully designed essay, but it's harder than it seems. you have to think about the list, make decisions, decide what stays, what goes, what order to put things in and validate them to yourself as well as others. 

the only reason i bring this up is because i mentioned in the title of this post that it was #2. i do like order. the older i get, the more i like things in their place.  take, for instance, a recent trip by my brother and my two nephews to the cabin, where i am now.  i spend as much time as i can up here, especially these days when i'm not teaching much or at all and the health of my parents is stable and my girlfriend is hard at work.  i've spent some time up here clearing the property we own in front of the cabin so that we can have a better view of the creek and river. once i did that, i worked on our neighbor's property (with their blessing) so we'd have an even better view. it became an obsession of mine, but a pleasant one. now it looks more orderly as well and i have a nice view of the river to look at while i listen to the red sox play.

so, over time, i've gotten the interior of the cabin to look the way i want it to as well.  you know the maxim "a place for everything and everything in its place"? that's what i did last winter. with the help of mary and the intrepid boxer (actually maggie did very little other than to provide moral support), we organized the kitchen drawers, the closets, bookshelves, etc. and found places for all those things you find in a house, hammers, nails, scissors, twine, forks, knives, fishing tackle, clothes, knickknacks (i looked it up, it's really spelled that way), gewgaws (also looked up), and the like.

a quick aside: i give maggie the title of intrepid because she is just that (mostly... she is afraid of mirrors and ceiling fans, but what the hell, i am too). she will run headlong into the densest forest, the tallest grasses with reckless and fearless abandon, bounding through like a deer, in search of rabbits; she will stand by my side and protect me no matter the danger, be it a great dane or marauder (there are a lot of marauders in arkansas apparently. who knew?).

where was i? oh yes, order. after all that hard work, the cabin has an order, a nice rhythm and flow to it. call it hillbilly feng shui.  so when the wrecking crew, the triumvirate -- the hurricane, tornado and whirling dervish (as i like to call them) -- show up, insanity ensues. clothes are scattered about, food is all over the counters and tables, chairs and floor. half eaten cookies, sandwiches, empty cans are strewn about in a madcap display of disorder. cabinets are left wide open, toothpaste is on the toilet for some reason and the smell of unwashed youth permeates the room.  keep in mind these are three men ranging from their 20's to 50's who spend all day fishing, cleaning said fish and generally sweating and eating and farting. this is all bad enough. at least when they are gone, the mess is mostly gone with them.  what is left, and most disturbing, is the lack of order and distinct impression that something is wrong...

the first clue something is not quite right happens when i need to cut open a package of ritz crackers. i reach into the drawer and blindly reach for the scissors. and keep reaching. i turn to look and see they are gone. i look in the other drawer, not there either.  i found them in the bedroom. no big deal, someone had to cut something in the bedroom. fine.  next i look for the steak knives. i have four of them, thereby limiting the amount of people who can come over at one time (sneaky bastard that i am). there are only two. those lost were found in another kitchen drawer.  no biggie. then, today, i needed the flashlight to search under the couch for my nephew's mouth guard. i looked in the drawer under the microwave where it's supposed to be. it's not there. i search under the sink. nope. i then search all the closets. still no flashlight. i'm stymied but, using a bit of maggie's intrepid nature, i mush on, determined to search the whole cabin if need be.

and i did need.  i finally found the flashlight on the very top of the shower caddy in the downstairs bathroom next to the shampoo no one ever uses and frankly should be thrown away.  what was it doing in the shower? one can only guess, and frankly i choose not to.

they are now gone and while i miss them terribly, the cabin once again has it's peace and order restored.

wait -- where is the bedroom clock? perhaps i best go look behind the toilet...

Monday, August 15, 2011

commence prattling

so, it's come to this... facebook does not allow me the space required for my (mostly) mindless dronings. and while i enjoy lurking and sharing tidbits here and there on facebook and similar places, i really was looking for a place to, well, prattle on.  it's something i'm not given to in social settings; verbal badinage is not my strength, though with the notable exceptions of kenneth, steve, mary, and the lovely and wise maggie (my 4 year old white boxer) i can talk and talk and talk. but mostly i tend to listen and observe and practice patience.  so it is here that i've finally decided to start putting fingers to keys and press upon the pages some of my thoughts.

a few words about the intent and design of this page.  first off, it's about nothing in particular and everything under and over the sun. one day i may write about the particular chases of miss maggie after rabbits while another i may talk of the death of a beloved singer.  i may even rant about the news or politics, though alternately i'm a nihilist or an egotist so you can never really be sure what i'm going to spout off about next.  basically i'm a failed writer because i do not write.  i've talked about writing, and have several degrees in writing.  but mostly i do not write.  not because i don't think about it, i do. most days i want nothing more than to create a new story or to work on one from years ago -- one day i want to write fiction, the next day i want to write an essay on the benefits of wearing long pants when clearing acreage (those afflicted with poison ivy will understand this).

mostly, i need a place to get started.  and, this being the age of everyone having 15 minutes of fame, i'm staking my plot, cutting down trees and crushing stones in this blogosphere. i can make no promises of how long it will last or if indeed it won't fail tremendously.  nor can i make a promise of its consistency. mostly i will write if i can, or if i force myself. we'll see how it goes. but remember, i make no promises about the content nor talent of my ever aging brain.  this may be fruitless, but i aim to give it the old post grad school try.

a word here about words: i will make no apologies for typos, misspellings, foul language, flighty language, punctuation, grammar, verbosity or terseness.  i am no e.e. cummings, i write in lower case because i'm too lazy to do otherwise. read no further if you are offended by the lack of capitalization, the words fuck, shit, dick, pussy or any other word you might possibly find offensive. make no mistake -- i am a lover of language, of words and letters, be they socially acceptable or sinfully distasteful.  in short, those of you who know me will know that while i believe in the power of language, i also believe words have no more power than what we give them. so take them for what they are: words. nothing more, nothing less. 

those of you who do not know me that well might be wondering at this point: who the fuck is this dullard and why am i reading this? for those brave souls, allow me a brief synopsis (i believe this to be a redundancy, but it sounds lovely coming off the tongue of the mind): i'm tim burns, aged 43, a male living in arkansas. from arkansas but i lived most of my adult life in the great state of maine.  through very little fault of my own (okay, some of my own fault) i find myself back in arkansas, missing maine terribly but comforted in my new surroundings by an amazingly patient girlfriend, my two oldest friends, my parents of whom i have probably not sufficiently thanked for keeping me alive for so fucking long, a few dear friends from school, my intrepid boxer who loves me despite accidentally giving her moldy dog food and causing her an upset stomach, and the great generosity and free use of my parents' cabin located on the spring river near the missouri border.  i spend my time teaching tennis, reading, clearing land on the spring river, cooking, and watching jeopardy.  there's probably more to say, but you will hopefully find out more about me in upcoming blogs. i hate questions, which is why i probably failed as a wannabe literary journalist. i found it was hard for me to ask people things; i simply wanted it to come to me gradually.  and that takes time. which is hard in real life, but in the blogosphere, all things are possible.

so as of right now, it's 1:30 or so in the morning and i should be getting to bed. fear not, this won't always read like the rantings of a (way) post pubescent schoolboy. but tomorrow i must help a friend and i have lots of mowing/weed eating/ clearing to do. 

i hope you'll give this a chance. i hope i do too.  just remember you've been warned: it may truly suck.