Friday, December 16, 2011

Be Here Now: More than Just a Great Song

"Be here now, no other place to be.
This whole world keeps changing, come change with me.
Everything that’s happened, all that’s yet to come
Is here inside this moment, it’s the only one."
-- Mason Jennings, "Be Here Now"

Where to begin? The time from my grandfather's unexpected death until now was a nonstop torrent. Exhausting in many ways, it has finally subsided and left me back home in Amherst on Friday night, with a hot fire in the woodstove, a dog and cat for company. Drinking a beer and listening to Bon Iver while my microwave lasagna cools, I'm pretty damn content with this peaceful, albeit hermit-like, occasion.

David Gessner writes that transcendent moments are often aided by beer. I would add great music to the list as well. So here goes some kind of attempt to find truth in my recent reality.

On our hike through the woods yesterday, Dorri (the two-year old golden retriever who occupies my parents' empty nest with more energy than my brothers and I ever combined for) and I came upon a big oak tree that had been chewed completely through its base by beavers. A beautiful wooden hourglass with a sizable carpet of chips beneath, it was the kind of precise effort any craftsman would admire. Yet it was all for naught. Early in its fall earthward – it would have been majestic – the great tree lodged against one of its forest cousins and never completed its descent. It remains stuck up there, its crown crookedly intruding on the neighbor's, waiting for some exceptional gust to send it crashing home.

Do you think the beavers were upset? All that work – imagine the toothaches – and no reward? It's tempting to picture the squat rodents gnashing incisors and slapping flat tails in frustration. Wikipedia even tells me there was an animated Nickelodeon show called “The Angry Beavers” that probably illustrated such imaginings (see what I missed out on growing up without cable?). But reality is not a Saturday morning cartoon set in Wayouttatown, Oregon. No, the beavers probably faced only momentary confusion at the abnormal result of their felling process before moving mechanically on to the next tree, the next lodge, the next dam.

If only it could sometimes be the same with people.

Annie Dillard tells a magnificent story in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek of a certain transcendent moment (no beer or music involved) that she stumbled upon outside of a gas station in Appalachia. Smelling her hot coffee, patting a stranger's puppy behind the ears, and watching a mountain sunset, the author is consumed by the sensory present. But, she writes,

the second I verbalize this awareness in my brain, I cease to see the mountain or feel the puppy. I am opaque, so much black asphalt. But at the same second, the second I know I've lost it, I also realize that the puppy is still squirming on his back under my hand. Nothing has changed for him.

For the nonhuman world, the present is the only concern. I think of a line from the rapper Atmosphere: “So now I keep a close eye on my pets / because they make most of their moves off of instinct and sense.” Imagine it: a life ruled by the senses. Pure experience of present moment, undiluted by excessive thought. The smell of woodsmoke. The taste of beer. The sound of guitar and harmonized voices. The fierce orange of burning coals. Nothing else.

I should clarify. I'm not saying we'd be better off living like all of Earth's other animals. I'm not saying we should reject our beautiful, analyzing, contextualizing brains in favor of primitivism. But there's a whole lot to be said for not over-analyzing, not over-contextualizing our experiences.

Reflecting on the puppy-mountain moment, Dillard writes, “Consciousness itself does not hinder living in the preset. In fact, it is only to a heightened awareness that the great door to the present opens at all.” Indeed, here on the couch, if I do not elevate my focus, I ignore the taste of the beer and the impossible brightness of the coals. The dissatisfaction, however, comes when I start thinking about myself doing these things instead of just doing them (Nike had a lot behind its “Just Do It” slogan, ya know), when I start picturing myself sitting here on a Friday night, unkempt and alone, start imagining alternatives to this reality (Matt at some crazy party, Matt on a date with a pretty girl, Matt anywhere but here). “Self-consciousness, however,” writes Dillard, “does hinder the experience of the present.” It's the over-thinking that kills, the “looking over my own shoulder,” as she calls it.

The same hike that found the beaver tree produced another example of beautiful simplicity when Dorri stumbled upon a Common Water Snake hidden in the leaves along the bank of Plum Brook. She stood erect, tense as a bowstring, as the black reptile bunched itself up and commenced a mesmerizing, twisting dance toward the water, gliding away from the dog while never taking its eyes off of her. Even I, a few yards removed from the scene, was momentarily entranced by its ancient energy. Of course, once the snake was out of sight, it was also out of mind for Dorri, as she hurtled away after a new olfactory intrigue. And although I replayed the episode in my head a few times (as I'm doing now), it wasn't long before I too returned to the forest in front of me, to the deep dark green of the pines and spruces, the grays of the leafless beeches and maples, the moist air and the indifferent slate of December sky. Back in my native woods, I was gladly complete in the moment.


It has been pretty easy to maintain such present-mindedness doing the kinds of things I've been doing lately. Two weeks ago tonight, I was on my way to Tucson, Arizona for a few days of ultimate frisbee and great fun. Team Train Wreck, clad in varying degrees of conductor outfits, was a ragtag bunch of players who either hailed from Santa Fe or, like me and a few other Carleton friends, were convinced to make the trip to Tucson by our unflinchingly upbeat captain, Sam. When we weren't playing bluegrass in between games, we played hard and competed admirably on the field, going 3-3 on the weekend and reaching the semifinals of the “Fun Bracket.” After spending all fall desperately beseeching and rarely convincing my co-workers to play ultimate with me in Texas, I can't tell you how wonderful it was to simply participate in a real tournament again. That feeling after four draining games on Saturday, the one where your entire body rebels at any movement whatsoever yet you find yourself waking up on Sunday to pop some ibuprofen and take the field again? Yeah, can't beat it.

We also happened to be there for probably the only rainy weekend Tucson will see for the next year. As a result, Saturday's games were moved an hour north to drier fields in Tempe. At the end of the day, this shift in location led to the wildest twist of the weekend when Drew's car broke down with all five members of the Carleton contingent inside it shortly after leaving the fields. Closer inspection on Sunday revealed a break in the exhaust pipe that we could have driven back to Tucson with, but we were exhausted and the rain had just arrived in Tempe, so we decided to utilize all 100 miles of free towing that AAA had given Drew. Thankfully, the truck that picked us up was enormous (how often am I thankful for enormous trucks?), with plenty of room for four cozy Carls behind our soft-spoken driver, Gilbert, and me riding shotgun.

The ride down to Tucson became an instance of present-mindedness turning a lemon into wonderful lemonade. Once we concluded that Gilbert was not going to provide much in the way of talk, the rest of us quickly returned to reunion mode. I found myself deep in conversation with Sam, the two of us detailing everything from our romantic lives to winter ski plans as we held one of those talks that reminds you why you make the effort to see good friends who live far away. I felt a little like Kerouac, riding some extraordinary automobile through the deep American night, talking about deep things.

Before long we were back in Tucson, cleaned up, and heading to a tournament party full of delicious beer and awkward dancing, but it was that completely unpredicted tow-truck ride that I'll cherish most from the evening. Had we let self-consciousness enter the picture, had we thought about how ridiculous a thing it was – five of us crammed into the cab in damp, smelly overalls and conductor hats – we probably would have silently shifted in our seats all the way back to Tucson. Instead, we embraced the bizarre present and forgot about most everything except our conversations and the joy of being together as friends, creating an experience that still seems too absurd and too great to have been true.


The time in Tucson wasn't the only intensely present episode from recent weeks. I could go into depth about the many moments at work when I find my mind and heart entirely devoted to the fifth-graders in front of me, whether I'm watching one complete a close-up illustration of a pine cone, stand slack-jawed under a star-strewn sky, or fiercely stick up for a handicapped cabinmate who'd been a stranger 48 hours prior. I could also spew about the unprecedented, heartfelt connections I made with many relatives surrounding Gramp's memorial service this week, about how a gathering to celebrate 91 years of past life became a greatly meaningful present for me and many others because we weren't just mourning the man who wasn't there anymore but were celebrating the goodness that we found alive and radiating in one another. I could go on and on, but I won't. Three paragraphs about a ride through Arizona in a tow-truck was probably more than enough.

The point is this: when you spend most of your time fully engaged with the things and the people around you, the unmeasurable beauty of life can't help but soar into omnipresence.

So what am I saying? That we should ignore past and future entirely and never let our minds spiral at will? Of course not. This largely retrospective blog, for one, wouldn't exist with such an approach. Unceasing present-mindedness is the business of Zen masters and an unrealistic expectation for most of us. If we want to live within the demands of our society, there are times when we must take our eyes away from here and now and look ahead to then. So too, there are countless cases when recalling the past makes us wiser, safer, happier in the present. Yet so often we go too far. So often we over-analyze ourselves and recapitulate unnecessarily. We must choose our battles, striving only to distract ourselves with the thoughts that truly make us better. Then we can spend the great bulk of our lives embracing the dear present, and when the next watersnake or puppy or tow-truck ride comes along, we will drink it clean with eyes wide as children.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Memories of Gramp

Last night my 91-year old grandfather died after a fall on Thanksgiving left him with substantial brain damage and injuries to an already weakening body. He was a proud and strong man who never desired a compromised mental existence at the end of his life and when it became clear that he would not recover to a place of dignity, the decision to take him off life support was a unified one for my family.

The night of his fall will remain clear in my mind for a very long time. We had just finished our traditional late Thanksgiving dinner at my Aunt and Uncle's home and were lounging around in lazy, tryptophany conversation. Earlier in the evening, I'd had the chance to catch up with both Gram and Gramp, explaining my job to them and thanking them for their graduation present of financial help with my new car. It had been most of a year since I'd seen them, and it was plain to see that Gramp, especially, was in rougher shape than I remembered. Much of his hearing was gone and his short-term memory starting to falter, a reality that I knew infuriated him. Our last conversation was a confused one, as he attempted to ask me over the voices of others what my plans were for going back to school. “I imagine you'll want to return soon to academia,” he told me. It might be a few years later than he'd hoped, but when I revisit the idea of grad school in the not-too-distant future, I know I'll remember Gramp's final words to me as a motivator.

The aftermath of the fall itself was probably the most cinematic thing that I've ever experienced. One of those caught-in-the-moment times after which you struggle to believe that such a sequence truly occurred. There we were, carelessly sprawled across couches when my cousin Geof's shouts rang up from the basement like something out of a dream. With my brother in the first-floor bathroom, Gramp had tried to walk down the stairs to relieve himself. But something horrible occurred within his 91-year old body just before he reached the bottom, something that caused him to faceplant on the carpeted cement floor with no apparent attempt or ability to break his fall. Several minutes later, Geof, who'd been out walking his dog, decided so thankfully to come in through the basement door where he found the scene that I would unforgettably witness moments later: our grandfather, our ever-steady grandfather prone and unconscious on the white carpet with a platter-sized pool of blood issued from his broken face.

The ensuing blur of paramedics, Gram upstairs surrounded by family, and the awful wait for news needs no elaboration. What I will vividly remember is the basic need to be doing something that felt useful, to be in action and not thinking about the reality of what had just occurred. Now, however, one week later, with the outcome of that night realized, the truth is setting in. The truth that I will never see Gramp's crinkled face again, hug his weathered, bony shoulders, listen to one of his bad jokes or old farm stories. And in grief, I have remembered just what a remarkable man my grandfather was.

Harry Hart was a quintessential member of his golden generation. He grew up rural in North Rush, N.Y., but as the son of one of the little town's most respected farmers and a dedicated schoolteacher (that's my great-grandmother Martha, or Mattie, after whom I'm partially named), he was educated well along with a childhood of feeding pigs and baseball games with his older siblings. Leaving the farm, he attended the University of Rochester, where he studied engineering. I'll never forget, however, his story from an introductory literature class of a renowned professor striding in on the first day of the semester, leaning back in his chair, lighting a pipe, and whipping off a one-period summary of the English language. It must have been experiences like this that gave Gramp his adroit way with words. Up until the end, he was an eloquent man and a prolific purveyor of dry humor, both traits to which I, of course, aspire.

It was also at the U of R that he won the heart of Jean Lincoln and made her his high-class bride. The rest is the stuff of classic American iconography: the young couple moved to the city, started a family, Gramp became an engineer and rose in the postwar boom, moving the Harts to the suburbs and making a living in the budding global market of the mid-century. Selling the machinery for auto plants in Japan, he explored a far larger world than that of his rural ancestors and gave his family a life of middle-class baby-boom comfort. He traveled the continents, often with Gram alongside, and the home at 8 Greenridge Road, Pittsford became an embassy for businessmen from the Far East and beyond. His livelihood helped give Dad and my uncles the chance to fulfill their own ambitions, to raise loving families, to live in relative ease. In turn, Dad's career has done much to pass those opportunities down to my brothers and me, and I am endlessly grateful both for my father and for the man who helped raise him honest, hard-working, and humble.

Yet for all his rise into modern 20th-century life, Gramp never forgot his rural foundation. Though he settled in the suburbs, he gardened and fished avidly, keeping contact with the land even though he'd chosen not to stay on the family farm (as the youngest son, the family's abnormal succession tradition would have passed it to him). He was in many ways a cosmopolitan man, but he was never too good to get his hands dirty. And when my brothers and I came along, he was never too busy to take us out to cast for perch or pull up carrots, finding the same pride in these simple things as in showing us his photos of Egypt or Korea. After the Saturday opera, he'd talk baseball with me. His knowledge of wines matched his knowledge of bird species. And I wonder where I get my jack-of-all-trades tendencies from? They're from the huge old willow by the pond and the Audubon paintings on the walls. From the zucchinis in the garden and the home-canned peaches in the cellar. From Gramp's creased face and strong back – deep roots of an enduring family tree.

With Gram and Gramp at my HS Graduation, June 2007

Sunday, November 6, 2011

A Roadtrip in Words

What is that feeling when you're driving away from people and they recede on the plain till you see their specks dispersing? — it's the too-huge world vaulting us, and it's good-by. But we lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies.” --Jack Kerouac, On The Road

I can think of no one better than Kerouac to summarize what I've been up to in the last week or so. First, a little context: last week, the Outdoor Education Center that I work for in Texas shut down temporarily in honor of the Spirit International Amateur Golf Championships taking place next door at the prestigious Whispering Pines Golf Club. Affectionately known as “Spirit Week” to our staff, this meant a break from teaching as international golfers and their families would fill our cabins instead of fifth-graders. I'd been looking forward to this week since August, and as the crowds funneled into Trinity, Texas on Friday, I fled the scene, seeking my own kind of spirited week on the road. I had no Dean Moriarty riding alongside, but there were times when I couldn't help but feel a bit like Sal Paradise during my little adventure up and down America's midsection. Here's how it all went down.

Friday, October 28
First destination: Madison, Wisconsin, a 19.5-hour drive from Trinity, according to Google Maps. I need to be there by Saturday night for the university town's legendary Halloween FreakFest event. But friends I haven't seen since June are waiting for me and the wanderlust is running thick, so I make up my mind to drive til I drop.

I guess the story really starts the night before with the historic, improbable, cathartic sixth game of the World Series that kept me up well past my appointed pre-roadtrip bedtime. So instead of a crack-of-dawn departure, it's not until past nine that I hazily load up the Silver Bullet (my Ford Fiesta) and take off. It's a cool gray East Texas morning, and I tilt open the sunroof, letting the moist air fill my nostrils with promise. As fast-paced bluegrass jumps out of the speakers, I'm quickly awake, present, and ready to chase down the day. Lufkin, Nacogdoches, and Texarkana blur by and soon the sun is out, the breeze still cool, and I'm on I-30 entering the state or Arkansas for the first time in my life.

The drive through the Natural State will go down as one of the best of the trip. Streaming northeast towards Little Rock through small towns with names like Hope (Bill Clinton's birthplace) and Arkadelphia, the highway is a little concrete channel enclosed in dense forest. For the first time this year, I'm beginning to see signs of autumn from the auburn and maroon leaves on all sides. For a hundred miles, no billboards, no stripmalls, no neon. A natural state indeed, for the land and for me. I can't help but think of Faulkner's deep Mississippi woods, a fantasy playing out in my mind where I pull over, step off into the trees and find myself back in time, face-to-face with the giant, transcendent bear of Go Down, Moses. The spirit of the place is old, dark, silently crying for protection. But I am young and high off of motion, like the Kerouac who wrote, “we were all delighted, we all realized we were leaving confusion and nonsense behind and performing our one noble function of the time, move.” So on I go, afternoon turning to evening as I pass Little Rock and fly east towards Memphis, sunset reflecting off of cotton fields, a deluge of gold and white while the big orange sun gently dips its shoulders beneath a flat, endless horizon.

Now it is night and my iPod's battery nearly dead, a problem I had inexcusably forgotten would arise. It's okay though because I'm entering St. Louis Cardinal country and it is nearly time for Game Seven to begin. Praying to the gods of baseball and AM radio, I scan through the airwaves, finding a whole lot of high school football, but finally my holy grail, AM 1000, WMVP out of Chicago, streaming loud and clear all the way through the 400-mile height of Illinois and down to me in the southeastern corner of Missouri. With Dan Shulman's play-by-play carrying me forward, I curve northeast from I-55 to I-57, crossing the Mississippi and entering Illinois at Cairo.

Not many things can distract me from Game Seven of the World Series, but crossing the Mississippi River at Cairo, Illinois is one of them. Warning, tangent time. For the uninformed, Cairo hosts the junction of the Ohio River and the Mississip, and any American literature buff like myself will recognize it as one of Huck Finn and Jim's biggest destinations in Mark Twain's canonical tale. Cairo is where the odd couple was planning to leave the Mississippi, taking the Ohio north and east to the free states and Jim's emancipation. It never happened, but the place still represents the point in the book where Huck relates his fiercest internal struggles between the Southern conventions of his upbringing and his growing loyalty to Jim, between the grip of the past and the humanity of the present. I'm not thinking on quite so deep a level as I drive past the rivertown, but still, it is a border being crossed in my mind too, as I perform the reverse course to Huck and Jim's, venturing north to the more liberal lands of my own past. (On an even more tangential note, I'm also thinking of a favorite songwriter, Josh Ritter, who mentions the place in “Monster Ballads” with the lyrics, “I was thinkin' 'bout my river days, and I was thinkin' 'bout me and Jim, passing Cairo on a getaway, with every steamboat like a hymn”).

Returning from the annals of an English major's mind to our present journey, however, I leave Huck and Jim (and Josh) behind and begin the long, lonely Illinois passage, from the state's southern tip at Cairo to its northern border with Wisconsin, over 430 miles and seven hours of driving, all in the Land of Lincoln. But I have baseball and a fine clear night for company and the distance passes quickly. In the little town of Ina, roughly parallel with St. Louis, I stop for gas, the Cardinals now leading 5-2 in the late innings. A couple of cammo-clad teenagers waltz into the convenience store, downing Red Bulls and shouting joyfully about what seems an inevitable title for their team. (I was halfheartedly pulling for the Rangers, but after suffering through the Red Sox' September shitshow, I was mostly just happy for exciting, well-played baseball from anybody in October).

Indeed, the Cards close it out, completing what will go down as one of the wilder turnarounds in World Series history, one strike from elimination not once, but twice in Game Six, to champions less than 24 hours later. Baseball, just like life, is a game where the littlest things can make all the difference. For now, though, back to the road.

After listening to all of ESPN Radio's postgame coverage until I start hearing the same interviews over again, I find a station playing only blues and exult in the fact that I'm no longer in country-dominated Texas. Jamming out to Sonny Boy Williamson and Muddy Waters, I feel distinctly like Sal Paradise, the post-midnight miles disappearing as fast as the twists and turns of a sax solo blaring through car speakers. Fifties bop was Sal's soundtrack, but connection is there in the soft night, the hard road, the soulful music and the thirst for adventure.

I arrive in Madison at 3:30 a.m., 18.5 hours after I left Trinity (faster than you, Google Maps!), head pounding, body drained, but abundantly joyful. I step out of the car and the cold night air greets me like a strong kiss. Hello again, Midwest! I sure did miss you. The time of day is nearly irrelevant in a college town, however, and as I find a parking spot on my friends' street, I realize already that I've come to one of those wonderful cities that sucks life down to the bone, fighting for every last morsel of meaty substance the day can give. Under the glow of streetlamps, the revelers stumble home in torn up Halloween costumes, hipsters kiss goodnight at an intersection, and a heated argument rings out from inside a fully-lit house. Overwhelmed and exhausted, I stumble into a hug with my bleary-eyed host Ben and collapse fully-clothed next to him in bed.

Saturday, October 29
I am not the only house-guest this weekend. Ben, an ultimate frisbee teammate from Carleton, shares the first-floor apartment with Sarah and Peter, two other former classmates; all three work for Epic, a Madison software company with a deep love for Carleton grads. With the popularity of FreakFest, however, this weekend their modest home has become a veritable congregation site for the Carleton frisbee family. Three friends from Minneapolis and another from Indiana have beaten me to Madison, and the cramped but festive atmosphere is undeniable.

I am awoken around nine – too early – with Sarah poking her head through the door. Any sleep-deprived bitterness is quickly erased, however, as she jumps smiling onto the bed. Is there a better way to start a morning than with a hug from a pretty girl you haven't seen in months? It's a good omen for what's about to be a most memorable day.

First order of business is breakfast at the Madison Farmer's Market, a colossal affair of tents and pedestrian traffic surrounding the state capitol on all sides. Fresh apples and cider, Wisconsin cheese bread, the word organic plastered everywhere – I can't help but feel like I'm back on native soil. My mind flashes back to Saturday mornings spent at the smaller Amherst Farmer's Market, but rather than homesickness, I'm hit by a rush of affection for Madison.

There's more to do today than enjoy the return to crisp autumn air and a college town atmosphere, however, and before long we're back at the house preparing for FreakFest. Another Carleton teammate and Madison transplant, Eric, has organized a large cohort to dress as “The 101 Dalmatians” for the event, and we're all excited to join the pack. I'd already fashioned my own dalmatian outfit for our OEC Halloween Party the previous weekend (think white thermal underwear and black spray paint), but I spend the afternoon helping others with theirs. By the time the sun goes down we look like a regular bunch of fire-station hounds, and it's time to start the festivities.

The evening passes in a haze of delight, starting with the pregame at “Shorty House” (Sarah, Ben, and Peter each stand at about five-eight or shorter). My drinks tell the tale of a return to collegiate frivolity: progressing from sophisticated local IPAs to an experiment in whiskey and apple cider to guzzling PBR. Soon we're joyfully drunk and ready to meet up with the rest of the pack. There's at least 40 of us that gather in a nearby park – not 101, but still a strong, spotted showing – and thanks to the wonders of the internet, we've all already labeled ourselves as different dalmatians from the 90s TV series. There's Skipper (me), Otto, Tipper, and even one Cruella. We congregate for a group picture (it's on facebook already), then woofing and wonderful, tramp off towards State Street and the main event.

The scene is like nothing I've ever experienced. Thousands of us, bent on living the hell out of our twenties, costumed and consumed with madness for life. There's live music on three different stages, crowds spilling out of every bar, and people people people everywhere, laughing, shouting, howling. Soon our pack splits up into smaller groups and I find myself by one of the stages, barking at passers-by while the mass throbs to a hip-hop beat and the rapper brings their hands to the air like a blazing preacher for the church of youth and night and now. Next up is a pop-punk outfit and a few of us wriggle towards the front of the crowd. We stomp, push, and sing. We dance with beautiful girls in leather jackets from Milwaukee. We finally stagger home, our limbs jello, our minds in overdrive, alive, alive and thankful.

Sunday, October 30
Somehow, a few of us diehard frisbee fans manage to haul ourselves out of bed at eight to watch the live webcast of the men's national championship game between San Francisco's Revolver and Boston's Ironside. There are ex-Carls playing for both clubs and we take at least a small amount of pride in knowing a few of the athletes at the peak of our fledgling sport. One day, maybe, we'll be able to watch this final match at primetime, but for now it's a brutal test of a fan's dedication scheduling the biggest game of the season for Sunday morning of Halloween weekend. Not exactly the best way to attract outsiders to the sport if you ask me.

Once Revolver has polished off Ironside with brutal efficiency, it's time for by far the most important event of the hungover morning: breakfast. We head to a perfect spot called Marigold Kitchen, one of those not-quite-greasy-spoon-but-not-too-overpriced places, and I feast on eggs scrambled with ham, cheese, veggies and potatoes. Throw in toast, coffee, and a muffin and I'm feeling halfway decent by the time we head home. Walking through a slight drizzle, I'm reminded of the early blizzard that has just hit New England and call up my parents. Here I am experiencing my first real dose of autumn, and winter has already struck back home, where I learn that our yard is buried under two feet of snow, trees are down everywhere, and nearly the entire state of Massachusetts is without power (they even postponed trick-or-treating statewide). Suddenly, I don't feel quite so bad about going back to 80-degree Texas in a week.

First, however, I've got another important stop to make: Carleton College, Northfield, Minnesota. So after spending most of the afternoon lazing around Madison, I finally say my goodbyes, throw a thank you six-pack in the Shorty House fridge, and point the Silver Bullet west. Leaving Madison as daylight fades from a gray sky, I promise myself that I'll be back soon. After two months in rural Texas, the weekend in Wisconsin's capital city has been more than just a breath of fresh fall air. It's been a momentary return to a young, hip world that I'd practically forgotten. Don't get me wrong – I love my job in the Lone Star State. But it's precisely because my work as an Outdoor Educator has been so fulfilling, so conducive to present-mindedness, that I've forgotten about the joys of urban life. It's a little like the feeling I got after studying abroad in London: the reassuring knowledge that I can thrive in many different environments.

Driving through the Wisconsin night, I turn my mind to Carleton. During my four years there, I was involved in everything from baseball to frisbee to a cappella and the outing club, and as a result, I've kept a great many friends from the younger classes. I'm beyond eager to see them all, and one I've even been working on for a job at the OEC next year. Yet in my excitement, I've forgotten an important detail: my visit is scheduled for week eight of the ten-week Carleton trimester. The college's unique calendar makes each term a fast-paced rollercoaster of stress, and eighth week represents the middle of the final, steepest climb. For seniors, many of whom are neck-deep in their final theses by now (not to mention applying to jobs or grad school for next year), it's one of the most stressful times of their undergraduate lives.

The reality of my timing won't hit home for awhile, however, as I spend my first night on the subdued campus happily reuniting with a few close friends. I bed down in the cramped five-person suite where several frisbee teammates live, and for now, chatting with them about their fall tournaments and the past weekend's happenings, it feels a bit like I never left.

Monday, October 31 – Wednesday, November 2
After sleeping through the morning, however, the strangeness of it all starts to set in. Everyone's in class or working, and here I am, on vacation. As a Carleton student, nearly every waking moment of my week was busy. If I wasn't at practice, rehearsal, or my work study job, I was frantically trying to keep up with schoolwork. I keep half-expecting myself to remember I've got a book to read for Friday or a paper to write tonight, but no, the only books I read now I choose myself and my writing is largely confined to this here blog (hopefully this will help you forgive me the length of these entries!).

So here I am, sitting on my grown-up ass with all my friends up to their ears in work and nothing to do until frisbee practice at three. The solution? A trip to the Cowling Arboretum, Carleton's 880-acre natural space devoted to the admirable trifecta of education, conservation, and recreation (for more info, check out the Arb's great website: On one side of the Arb is campus, on the other the Cannon River, a modest tributary that flows through downtown Northfield on its way to meeting the Mississippi in Red Wing.

Before I head to the Arb, however, I read a few pages of Annie Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, my current self-assigned classic of nature writing. I'm having an interesting time with the book so far. The writing is profound and dense, very original but hard to follow for its creativity. Like Thoreau, you must read every sentence carefully, sometimes twice, if you are to glean anything significant from it. In the first two chapters, at least, it is a lofty book of ideas, not a narrative.

Chapter two is about sight. Dillard strives to see things as they truly are without the blinders of “verbalization” as she calls it. This goal – to escape the limits of language – is not uncommon in the nature writing genre, but Dillard brings a unique voice to it. She talks about the importance of noticing the minutiae in Nature, and it was after reading those paragraphs that I headed into the Arb for the first time in five months.

Nature is a humble teacher, as I try to be. If you're expecting something extravagant every time you walk in the woods – and I mean extravagant by our 21st century fast-and-furious special-effects dominated standards – you'll be disappointed. There is nothing glamorous in my walk today. No bald eagles or blazing fall foliage (a few weeks late, damn), not even a white-tailed deer. Yet there is still a lesson to be found.

I must slow down, put away the cell phone, stop thinking about frisbee and friends and planning out the rest of my visit. I must center myself in the present. After filling a plastic bag with sand from the banks of the Cannon (one of our teachers collects sand from all over the world and I promised him some of Minnesota's finest), I finally manage to do so, standing there then sitting on the sand, watching the river slide on, watching little birds dart branch-to-branch. Quickly, my mind wanders into nostalgia.

It's the same river that has inspired and welcomed me so many times before. The same one I watched on a run the night before the election in 2008, after which I went back to my dorm and wrote some shitty poetry, one of my earliest pieces of real creative writing. It's the same river that flooded historically a year ago, whose overflown waters I waded through in boxer shorts with teammates on a Friday evening. Fuzzy and ecstatic, we climbed to the top of the stadium and I lost myself in the silver moonlight dancing on raging black below. It's the same river too that became a playground for our senior class last spring, a local anchor to which we symbolically rooted ourselves, longing for the current of time to slow down and not whisk us out of our little bubble of contentment. We floated down on plastic tubes, sweating or laughing or maybe just together while we still could be. On our prom night, drunk off of champagne and unspeakable emotions and each other, we threw our clothes in the bushes and felt the cool flow, our naked bodies, consuming the present while the Cannon journeyed on. On to Red Wing and the Mississippi, eventually past Hannibal, Cairo, Baton Rouge and into the Gulf (who knew I'd follow that water south at the time?).

So coming back to the Cannon, to Carleton truly is coming home, because what is home if it is not a constant, an unchanging warmth that welcomes us back, tired and different. And as I sit on the bank in solitude, those vivid scenes replaying themselves in my mind, I think of how this moment is a microcosm of my whole visit. Just as the river continues, the college continues, with the same steady current. The cast is slightly changed, but the script remains largely unaltered. While a weekend visit might have been more exciting, I'm glad I'm here at the beginning of eighth week, now a stranger to the collective stress enveloping campus. I am one of those droplets of water. I ran my course, reached the larger river, turned south. The return is bittersweet, a reminder of the great times had, a chance for a few more, but also confirmation that I really have moved on. There's no more feeling of “it's like I never left.” I graduated. I left. The place will never be the same for me.

But it will still be here for the occasional homecoming. And while my relationship with it will unavoidably become that of a distant ex-pat, it's the bonds with the people that need not be weakened. This is the other half of the lesson, derived from countless hugs, smiles and quick catch-up conversations. From the joy of reunion in Madison and here, and from the growing hope of continued relationships with these friends. All I'll take back to Texas of the place is a bag of sand and a few glowing leaves, but the intangible gifts of the visit will be great.

And so, for the rest of my stay in Northfield, I resolve to revel in the memories that assault me around every turn while still embracing the undeniable present. I am here now. I am changed. The place is not. Flow on, old river. Mine will only be a quick dip in the waters of memory, but the sweetness will linger on my tongue long after I return to the shore.

At peace with the present, my time at Carleton finishes happily. I go to frisbee practice and give pointers to the rookies. I drop in on a cappella rehearsal, meet the new members, and catch up with the old. I hug and laugh with and appreciate the friends I've missed, listen to their struggles, promise them the end will come, the paper will be written. And of course, even though it's supposed to be my vacation from work, I find myself constantly telling people about my wonderful job, about how lucky and thankful I am, joking that maybe if they wait until the middle of the summer to get serious about the future something as excellent will fall into their laps. So when it comes time to point the car south again, I find myself not sad to leave, but, as Kerouac says, leaning forward “to the next crazy venture.”

And folks, the crazy ventures weren't quite finished yet.

Thursday, November 3
After a friend comes down from The Cities for a morning catch-up coffee (Patty, you're the best!), it's time to say a few last goodbyes then leave Nortfield behind, destination Kansas City and a night with Justin, a new friend and housemate from the OEC. It's a new kind of departure: the last time I drove out of Minnesota, I had graduated two days before and was hightailing it to New Mexico for the summer, my mind a hungover slushpile of emotions that I wouldn't even start sorting out for another month. Now, my sight feels as clear as the bright Iowa afternoon.

I have neglected, however, to think of my iPod once again, leaving it uncharged after a run in the Arb on Tuesday. Yet it becomes a positive mistake as I tune in to Iowa Public Radio for the majority of the drive. If I'm going to embrace my adulthood I might as well start listening to the news, right?

It's not about to be a night of sober maturity, however, as Justin directs me straight from I-35 to the bar where he's meeting with a handful of siblings and friends. Within minutes of getting off the highway, I'm drinking Sam Adams and laughing along with everyone else at pictures of Halloween costumes, Justin's Paul McCartney haircut, and the Chiefs' lucky win last weekend. Those with kids at home and jobs to get up for – see, adults can have fun too – depart before things get too silly, and knowing I have a twelve-hour drive tomorrow, I try to talk Justin into a low-key night. But he's not hearing any of it. And honestly, why should he? If he were visiting Amherst or Northfield for one night, I'd want to show him a good time. Besides, who knows of the next time I'll be in Kansas City. I'm 22 years old and hey, I'm on vacation after all.

Staying in the cozy suburb of Lee's Summit, a few of us head first to a quiet bar where I sample some delicious local beers (Boulevard's Tank 7 Farmhouse Ale becomes a quick favorite), then end our night in fine fashion at a rowdier dive bar. Despite our proximity to one of the nation's larger cities, there's almost a small-town atmosphere: Justin and his buddies know the waitresses, we easily start conversations with the strangers nextdoor, everyone we meet has a smile and a laugh to share. It feels like the Midwest distilled.

The highlight of the night comes when former Chiefs defensive end Neil Smith enters the bar with an entourage of well-dressed men and gorgeous women. An enforcer of the 90s who would go on to earn two rings with the Broncos, Smith is one of those not-quite-superstar players of whom casual fans from elsewhere (like me) have never heard, but whom the local diehards revere. So we convince Justin that it won't be tacky of him to shake the man's hand and thank him for a decade of dominance, and just like that, my host's night is made.

Eventually, we make it back to Justin's house and I'm snoozing on the couch at least reasonably close to my goal of midnight. I know waking up for the drive to Houston will be awful tomorrow, but I've had too much fun to worry about it now. How can I think negatively of another night underneath the cool Midwestern sky, another night of joyful camaraderie, another night lived for its own sake and nothing more?

Friday, November 4
Well, the morning is just as bad as I could have imagined, but after downing some eggs, coffee, and ibuprofen, I'm back on the road by nine. Buoyed by my excitement to see a dear Carleton friend in Houston tonight, the drive flies mostly by. Down the western edge of Missouri to Joplin, then into sunny, vast Oklahoma on the southwest diagonal of US-69 through little dustbowl, Tom Joad towns like Wagoner, Muskogee, and McAlester. (Quick side note: since I began living in more open parts of the country, I've grown increasingly fond of these US-routes, often more direct than the crowded, billboard-strewn interstates not to mention they're nearly as fast and afford the chance to drive through the Muskogees of the country).

Anyway, the frustration doesn't arrive until I cross the border into Texas (coincidence?), and traffic thickens into the stew that is Dallas at rush hour. Turning to my newest roadtrip standby, however, I find NPR and make myself feel like a patient, informed adult rather than another angry motorist. Eventually, I emerge back onto open roads and before I know it, the drive is over and I'm hugging my friend Sam in front of the Crowne Plaza in downtown Houston.

A year ahead of me at Carleton, Sam was a late-in-the-game friend with whom I've grown even closer since he graduated. That's in no small part because of his wise decision to settle in Santa Fe, New Mexico for the time being, giving us the opportunity for summer reunions while I'm a couple hours away at Philmont. Now his very cool job for an AmeriCorps affiliate called Citizen Schools has taken him to Houston for a conference, and I've hurried down from the north to catch him on his last night in town. After a week of parking next to curbs and crashing on couches, I'm pleasantly taken aback when I realize our plan for me to sneak into his room at the Crowne Plaza requires me to valet park the Silver Bullet. I suppose it's the least I can do after she's made a journey of some 2,400 miles without a hiccup and the polite valets don't ask questions about the maps, backpacks, and trail mix strewn across the seats. Wishing my trusty steed a safe and luxurious night, I follow Sam up to the 11th floor and soon I'm meeting his gregarious co-workers and readying myself for one more evening of shenanigans on this roadtrip full of late nights.

As we down beers from all over the country at the Flying Saucer Tap House, Sam and I hold a much-needed catch-up on each other's lives and talk teaching with the rest of the group. It's an experience not unlike the previous night's in Kansas City. Once again, I find myself quickly bonding with people who'd been strangers just hours ago. Sure, the alcohol smooths out the awkward formalities, but I believe there's a lot more to it than just booze – it's what happens when good people make connections with one another. Sam's friends trust him, Sam trusts me, and just like that, we're all a bunch of laughing, loving 20-something-year-olds. So I feel no hesitation when we all pile into a Houstonian group member's Kia Rio and make for the hip, studenty club block a few miles away, no shame as we dance poorly to the blazing hip-hop tracks, and no regrets as we teeter back into our rooms at the Crowne Plaza. Once again, I fall asleep enamored with life.

Saturday, November 5
It's another early morning as the conference-goers are off to their final seminar at 9:30. Sam and I raid the breakfast buffet for egg sandwiches and coffee while I tentatively agree to meet up with him and some other Carl friends in Tucson for an ultimate tournament a month from now. It'll require a chunk of my next paycheck, but after the great time we've had together and the lack of frisbee I've played this fall, how can I turn it down? Another chance for reunion, another chance for new excitement.

After I retrieve the well-rested Silver Bullet, I can practically hear my bed beckoning two hours away in Trinity. But first there's one more connection to be made in a trip so chock-full of them, so I navigate through the city to Dunn Bros Coffee where I've arranged to meet a high school friend with whom I haven't spoken in four years. Emily is in Houston with Teach For America, running a head-start program for inner-city four- and five-year-olds and we quickly bond over stories about our students. An hour's passed before we know it and we're both excited to have gotten back in touch. For me, it's a last example of what has held true for all of my trip: that making the extra effort to reconnect with the people you care about is always worth it. That you can never have too many friends in a world where the internet and our phones allow us to nullify distance on a daily basis. And that, when you're tired of those less personal forms of contact, sometimes you just have to load up the car and take off, no matter what the distance.

So as I return to Trinity from eight days away that feel like a month's worth of memories, I promise myself that it'll happen again soon. And as I happily fall back into the routine of teaching, I do so still leaning forward to that next adventure.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Paddling with Gessner

When you live in Trinity, Texas, there's not a whole lot to do on the weekends. It's 45 minutes to Huntsville, the nearest town with a Wal-Mart, two hours to Houston, three and half to Dallas or Austin. Couple geographic isolation with the inevitable exhaustion that follows a week of teaching and supervising fifth-graders around the clock, and quite often my weekends look like this: sleep, eat, watch football and drink beer with co-workers, repeat. Occasionally I'll muster up the motivation for a three-mile run around the neighborhood adjacent to our center, but otherwise I'm about as lazy as a crusty old armadillo come Saturday and Sunday.

This is not how I imagined it would be. When I took the job down here, I pictured myself hopping in my new 40-mpg Ford Fiesta and zipping everywhere from Albuqerque to Arkansas once the school week was done, my weekends full of bluegrass concerts, backpacking trips, and visits with friends far and wide. Am I upset, disappointed with the somewhat slothful reality? Honestly, I'm not. Receiving more than my share of satisfaction from the work I do Monday through Friday, I feel little of that living-for-the-weekend syndrome that so many possess, the attitude that prompted Thoreau to conclude, “the majority of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” Instead, I find myself happy for the opportunity to relax, bond with co-workers, and, of course, watch more sports than I ever had time for in college.

The present weekend is proving to be no exception to the pattern. At one point, I had planned to spend it at a reunion of Philmont friends in Indiana; more recently I was hoping to make a music festival in the Ozarks. Nope. When I couldn't find anyone who'd drive eight hours with me to watch bands with names like Trampled by Turtles and Railroad Earth, I easily conceded to another low-key weekend in Trinity. So last night became an unexpected trip down memory lane thanks to the friends who accompanied me to the local high school football game. (Turns out small-town East Texas ball is even worse than bigger-town Western Mass ball. Same angsty teenagers in the bleachers, though). And this morning, I found myself following an impulse and grabbing one of our center's kayaks for a quick paddle on Lake Livingston.

Okay, I'm romanticizing. My modest excursion was hardly a spontaneous hear-the-voice-of-Mother-Nature-and-go outing. With 90-degree temperatures every day still leaving hiking an unappealing option, I'd been longing to do something that felt remotely outdoorsy for a while now. A larger source of inspiration, however, came from the book I've been reading, David Gessner's Soaring With Fidel. It's a very enjoyable and engaging narrative about osprey migration from a very enjoyable and engaging author who happens to be a fellow Massachusetts native and ultimate frisbee enthusiast. Needless to say, I'd been feeling connected to Mr. Gessner lately, and I thought, what better way to strengthen the bond than by imitating the guy?

I wasn't expecting to see any ospreys on our drought-damaged finger of the 83,000-acre reservoir, but as I pushed my little red vessel into the water, I was reasonably hopeful for some kind of exciting contact with the natural world. In fact, the lake had already provided most of the connection I'd felt to my new home in the Piney Woods. Great egrets, cormorants, and great blue herons have been a daily sighting, and on Monday an army of American White Pelicans, at least a thousand strong, had chosen to stop here near the end of their migration.

As soon as I hit the water, the intensity of the mid-morning sun reminded me that I was in Texas, a whole lot closer to the equator than any place I'd lived before. Not yet 10 o'clock in mid-October, I was already sweaty and longing for the autumn chill of the Adirondack lakes and New England rivers I'd grown up with. But in addition to the heat and lack of fall colors, Lake Livingston provided a vast diversity of avian life to investigate. I've never been much of a birder, but Gessner's book had piqued my curiosity and I watched with rapture from my kayak as gulls soared overhead and sentinel herons scanned for fish from the shallows. 
Of course, I quickly discovered a problem: despite my best efforts to paddle silently, every time I got close enough for a decent look at a bird, it bolted. Fifth-grade vocab words still on my mind, I wished goofily for a sign to wear that somehow told them all, “I'm not a predator! I just want to observe you filling your niche in the ecosystem!” Guess if I'm going to get serious about this birding thing I ought to invest in a pair of binoculars. It didn't take optical aid, however, to notice a tell-tale white head and large body high in a loblolly pine near the shore. I'd seen a bald eagle a few weeks earlier while teaching canoeing to students, and my first thought was that I'd found the same iconic individual. As I paddled delicately closer, however, I could tell the bird, still definitely a raptor, was too small for aquiline status. My Gessner-aided excitement growing, I prayed silently that it would stay put long enough for me to possibly identify it, novice that I am. I'd been reading enough about ospreys, after all, that I thought I ought to be able to pick one out in the flesh. My mind flashed back to a couple years previous when my parents and I had spent a late-August afternoon hanging out near a beautiful member of the species on aptly-named Osprey Island in Blue Mountain Lake, New York.

But could my luck really be that good? In his book, Gessner writes about the inexplicable good fortune he had in seeing ospreys early in his own trip. Was it possible that somehow a drop of it had passed on to me through the same author-reader connection that had led me into the kayak to begin with? I checked my romanticizing. I had been on the water for no more than 15 minutes. I had never seen an osprey on Lake Livingston before. I was getting carried away with myself. Yet it was perfectly conceivable that one of the birds would visit our lake on its migration south. While the ospreys in Soaring with Fidel did their flying further east, we weren't all that far from the Gulf of Mexico, the species is hardly endangered, and Lake Livingston certainly meets the necessary criterion of a plentiful fish stock.

The moment of truth came and went all too quickly. I paddled once and my new, still unidentified friend took off. As he did, my spirits soared with him (here I go, getting all chummy with this bird before I even know what species it is, let alone whether it's actually a “he”). Unmistakably grasped in the talons was a small fish, and I was pretty sure the underside carried the characteristic black-and-white speckling. There was not the same accentuated hitch to the wings as the bird on Gessner's cover, but I thought I noticed a slight bend as it flapped off to enjoy some privacy with breakfast.

Sorry for interrupting,” I wanted to call after the beautiful bird as I vainly took a few paddles in the same direction. I watched until he/she turned to a distant speck, and the longer I followed the stately flight, the more decisively I convinced myself that I had, indeed, seen an osprey.

Whether I actually had or not seems unimportant now. I stayed on the lake for another hour or so, but the day was already won. Meaningful connection with the place had been reached, and it was only sweetened by the added connection I felt toward David Gessner. Once I finish writing this, I have half a mind to email the man, suggesting we meet up for a beer the next time I'm near his home in Wilmington, North Carolina (whenever that will be). Couldn't hurt to try, right?

Hypothetical protege fantasies aside, it was a great way to spend a Saturday morning, and believe it or not, it happened right here in Trinity, Texas. It is powerful to remember that some of the best gifts life has to offer lie right in our back forties, provided we're willing to get off the couch and find them. Or in my case, forgo what might have been a more stimulating weekend elsewhere for the deeper experience of planting a few roots in my new home.

At this point, I've still had my fair share of struggles in finding footing down here. There are little things, like the raised eyebrows from the supermarket cashier when I hand over my Massachusetts driver's license (is buying my Shiner Bock in peace really too much to ask?), or the fact that even working at an outdoor education center, I see as many cowboy boots as trail runners.

But these are the kinds of adjustments everyone encounters when they make a major change of scenery. Hardly insurmountable. What has been more unsettling has been my inability to embrace the natural setting in which I'm teaching. I see place as the combined experience of an area's human and nonhuman influences, and while 21st-century me says I've got a great job with great people and I should stop complaining, an older part of me – perhaps my inner “Eartheist,” to borrow Edward Abbey's self-label – is not yet convinced by its new habitat. While spending my summers in the Rockies, I determined that it was the trifecta of place, people (co-workers), and program that made Philmont such a special, formative part of my life. So far, only the latter two parts of that equation have been consistently present in Texas. Yet experiences like this morning's make it easier to look past the dead trees and dirty shoreline, providing at least brief moments of that deeper contact with Nature that Thoreau found so necessary and about which Gessner has made a living as a writer.

We've all had these moments, whether we've recognized them or not. Perhaps we were on top of a mountain, with our lives below placed in new perspective. Perhaps we were in the woods, watching the careful movements of a deer or a fox. Perhaps it was the first time a thunderstorm truly terrified us. I find a line from Gary Snyder's poem "Piute Creek" provides the most succinct explanation of the phenomenon: All the junk that goes with being human / Drops away. And I believe, paradoxically, that it's during these moments of emptiness that we recognize a deeper, more ancient part of ourselves than the one that goes to work in the morning, struggles to make ends meet, eats, drinks, loves. The experience lends us calm that we can call upon during difficult times, and it teaches us to respect our natural world. It's the beginnings of this contact that I hope to provide for my students.

Let's return briefly to this past Monday's pelican party, because it was another moment of contact worth summarizing. After lunch, the four other guys in my “cabin cluster” group ventured out to explore nearby Burrito Island. I still don't know how the place got its name, but it's easy to see that thanks to the drought, it has swollen well beyond its normal, two-dollar Taco Bell size to legitimate grande status. And little did we know, a grand surprise indeed awaited us.

After tramping through the wooded portion of the island, we emerged into the previously-submerged area, pushing aside 10-foot tall reeds that hadn't been there before this summer (despite killing so many plants, the drought has give new space for others), and soon we stepped out onto the mud flats of what used to be Lake Livingston and now would more aptly be called Lake Dyingston. 

Yet it was a spectacle of life, not death, we beheld from the edge of Burrito Island. As soon as we popped out of the reeds, there was the sun reflecting off countless white wings on the remaining sliver of water still a few hundred yards away. We walked closer and tripped the alarm system. Whum, whum, whum! A thousand American White Pelicans rose into the air, a giant patchwork of white against the trees on shore and thunderheads that had finally arrived overhead. I stood silently as the others walked on, simply listening to the rush of air beneath that mass of wings. It was both a powerful and soothing sound, as beautiful as the sight of the great flock above our pitiful lake. I'd been in Texas for a month and a half, and for the first time the place had left me completely awestruck.

It's migration season for the birds (and for David Gessner too, at least in the book), but this week's experiences have provided me with a blessing in grounding. The moments of contact assure me that I don't always need a concert or a roadtrip to find my thrills, and that more unexpected joys surely await.