Saturday, December 31, 2011

33. Wake Up And Fight


   I like the idea of New Year's Resolutions/Goals/Rules/Plans. I like the idea of taking a moment to reflect upon what exactly it is that I want to get out of my life. Of course, plans and goals can change. Unexpected opportunities and circumstances can shift the direction that I want to go. And I'll never live long enough to do all of the things that I can dream of doing. But I'm going to try to do them all anyway. And making a list every now and then is helpful.

Woody Guthrie's Resolutions for 1942
   Most of the things that I'll put on my annual list are specific. Such as last year's "Run Three Marathons", "Clean the Apartment on the 1st and 3rd Tuesday of Every Month", or "Blog At Least Once a Month." (I ran two, and I missed the third due to injury. The apartment... Well, there's gonna be a do-over in 2012 on that one. And as for blogging, you're reading Post #52.)  I like to be specific because I'm a cheater at heart. And I need a system that doesn't allow me to convince myself that I've done something, when I actually haven't.

   For other people, the list is more abstract. Do this more. Do that less. Be mindful of this thing and that. And if that works, then that's fantastic.
Feb 2011 - Learning To Ice Skate

   But whatever form the list takes, the process itself is worthwhile. The process of asking yourself to consider what is important. What is fulfilling. And then making the conscious decision to move in that direction. The decision to move with purpose.

2011 Polar Plunge - Lake Michigan
New Year's Day
   It's not so easy as it sounds, of course. And I come up short often. But it beats living life with one hand on the snooze button. So with 2012 just a few hours away, I want to throw a few of my plans out into the internet.

   Writing. Last year, I just wanted to get comfortable with the idea of taking something that I'd written and putting it out into the world. I've done that with this blog. I've posted some random musings from my day to day life, and I've posted other things that have been quite personal. I'm going to continue with that, but I want to do more. I write fiction. I'm not terribly good at it. But I'm not terrible either. Before 2012 is over, I will submit at least three stories for publication. It doesn't really matter where. But I will put them out into the world. I will also complete the project that I've started, which involves interviewing marathoners and writing their stories.

Cleveland Marathon - May 2011

   
   Running. I will run three marathons. Prague in May. Denver in September. And Sacramento in December. I will train my ass off. And by December, I will qualify for the Boston Marathon.

   Travel. Three new countries. Czech Republic. Poland. Russia. Two new states. Oregon and Washington.

   I'm going to fill that list up with some smaller goals too. But that'll do for this post.

   Thank you, whoever you are, for taking the time to read this blog. I hope you've had a great year. And I hope you've got an even better one coming. Happy New Year, Internet Surfers! See you in 2012!  

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Preaching and Practicing

"All it takes is all you got." - Marc Davis

   I was on the treadmill yesterday and my thoughts drifted to a friend. I was going to meet this friend for coffee after I left the gym. Our original plan was to meet for pizza. (She is a former Chicagoan. And I would imagine that upon leaving this city, one of the more devastating losses to deal with would be the loss of Chicago pizza.) But pizza was cancelled. Though not because Chicago pizza became any less delicious. It was cancelled because she was at the borderline starvation stage of her seemingly endless cycle of dieting.

   It's a frustrating process to watch. In part, because I know how fruitless and unhealthy that process is. But also because she knows how fruitless and unhealthy that process is, yet she continues with it anyway. However, I've had that conversation more times than I've cared to, and so I just agreed to switch to coffee and I kept my self-righteous rants to myself.

   As I continued to run, my thoughts breezed on through other topics, before eventually settling on my upcoming marathon training schedule. I've been fighting an ankle injury for months. I think that it's more or less healed at this point, but I know that I need to do more to build the strength back up. I need to do ankle exercises on a consistent basis. That kind of stuff is not my strong point though. No part of marathon training outside of the actual running is my strong point. I don't stretch enough. I don't swim enough laps. I should lift weights more often. I should do yoga more often. I should invest in compression socks to help my legs recover from long runs. I should do a lot of things. But I don't.

   And as I thought these thoughts, I began to recognize the similarities between my cycle, and that of my friend. I know what I need to do. I know that doing these things will help me achieve goals that I've been unable to reach so far. Yet I continue my pattern of short-cuts and half-measures anyway. I continue with my fruitless practices even as I preach to somebody else about the absurdity of doing the same damn thing. The hypocrisy is hard to ignore.

   And this pattern exists in other areas of my life as well. In college I rarely missed a good History or English Lit class. But I skipped the hard sciences on a regular basis. Regardless of the knowledge that those were needed for a diploma. When I clean my home, I inevitably stuff junk into a closet or a drawer. Pushing aside an easy task, and saving it for a tomorrow that often never comes. In my private and public life, I often choose to do just enough. Just enough to keep my head above water. Like paying nothing but the interest on an old debt, even when it is within my means to pay it all off.

   Which brings me to here. To this morning. To this keyboard. In just a few days, I will begin an eleven month training schedule. A training schedule that I'm writing out right now. I will run three marathons in that span. The goals are simple. Set the bar high, yet realistic. Train hard. Train smart. Train honest. Skip nothing. Take no short cuts. And cross the Finish Line of that third marathon in under 3:10:00. Qualify for the Boston Marathon.

   Half-measures won't get me there. Nor will excuses. There is no easy route. There is no pushing it off for another day. Either bridge the gap between what I preach and what I practice. Or come up short. Either, or.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Taxi

"...to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell-type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that lit the stars --- compassion, love, and the subsurface unity of all things." - David Foster Wallace


   I took a cab home from work last night. The driver was a middle-aged man and he had a thick accent that I assumed came from somewhere in Africa. He asked me where I was heading, and then he returned to his cell phone conversation. His voice was loud and his demeanor jovial. He had large hands with knuckles like fat acorns, a big soft smile, and deep lines on his forehead. He laughed often and with his whole body.

Sahara Desert
   As the cab took us south on Halsted, I noticed something irregular about the driver's speech. A hitch and a stutter. And I felt a bit surprised by that. I was surprised because I have a preconceived notion, a shallow stereotype, of what a stutterer is like. Anxiety ridden, timid, insecure, etc. And this man seemed to be far from any of those things.

   And then I realized that I was mistaken. There was no hitch. No stutter. The man was using a language that includes clicks and pops and something that seemed to come from the top of the throat and the roof of the mouth. As if he were gathering phlegm. The sounds were more quiet than those that were more familiar to my ears. Just soft and subtle sounds among the louder bits of English, French, and something unrecognizable.

   And as I listened intently to the man's conversation, I became more and more curious about him. I climb into at least a couple hundred cabs a year, and almost all of those drivers are foreign born. But this time, as I listened to these foreign sounds from the back seat, I stopped to consider just how radically different this man's native country may be from the one that he lives in now. And I wanted to know about those differences. Or perhaps there are more similarities than I'd guess. Which I'd also like to hear about. Either way, I just wanted to hear this guy's story.

   I didn't get his story though. He did finish his phone call a few blocks prior to pulling up in front of my building. So I was able to ask him where he was from. But that was it. I decided to be content with that.

Algiers
   He is from Algeria. The largest country on the African continent. Home to vast stretches of Saharan Desert. Home to the Atlas Mountains and Mediterranean coast lines. Large cities in the north. Oil reserves in the south. Home to obscene wealth and widespread poverty. Home to Berbers and Arabs. Home to despots and civil wars. Home to countless tribal groups and the cultural stamp of English/French/Italian colonial powers. Home to fishermen and blacksmiths. Beggars and thieves. Home to mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters. And home to cab drivers.  

   And I wonder where this cab driver's story fits in. He was born in Algeria. A little baby. Probably some time in the 1960s. Probably into one of the densely populated cities in the north. Perhaps Algiers? Maybe Oran or Constantine? How long did he stay there? What was his experience like? What was his family like? Did he leave them behind when he left the country? Or were they here in Chicago with him today? Were they even alive? Does he miss home? Does he lay awake at night and think of somebody that is half a world away?

Atlas Mountains
   Obviously I'll never know the answers to those questions. Our paths crossed briefly. I won't be more than a slight gust of wind in the story of his life. But I want him, even if it's just a small piece of him, to be a bit more than that in mine.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Great American Road Trip

"The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page." - St. Augustine

   Hitting the road in one week. Packing a bag on Wednesday night. Getting up early on Thursday morning. Loading a cooler with some snacks. Picking out some good driving music. Heading south from Chicago. Driving down the length of Illinois, across a chunk of southeastern Missouri, passing through a small patch of Arkansas, and landing in Memphis.

   A view of middle America from behind the windshield. Small towns, expansive farms, and a few remaining wooded areas. Giant trucks and sprawling gas stations under a big open sky. Many things in the less populated regions of this country seem massive. Caricatures of their urban cousins. Enormous churches, billboards, and tractors, all dwarf their condensed urban equivalents. Yet they remain small ornaments on the landscape of their rural home. Pieces of the quiet beauty that blankets the roads and fields and homes of the region.

   There may not be an American tradition that I am more in love with, than The Great American Road Trip. Some of my favorite childhood memories come from just such trips. Wood paneled station wagon. Mom behind the wheel. Cans of pop and bologna sandwiches. Four kids sprawled out in the car. Windows down, with feet hanging out in wind. Pumping our arms at the trucks we passed and the gleeful laughter that followed the blasting of their horns. Laughter derived from the idea that we knew of a secret language. One that belonged to children and truck drivers alone.

   We carefully noted the license plates from different states. Some clue seeping in. A clue of the vast world outside of our small one. And special reverence was reserved for those plates from the furthest corners of the country.

   There will be no small children in the car for this trip. But the feeling is similar. The feeling of exploration. Me and Abby. Exploring the countryside. Exploring Memphis. Exploring our sense of what we can and can not do. Questioning boundaries. On the road. The peaceful hum of steady movement all around us. A quiet engine. Rubber tires on asphalt. A reclined passenger seat. Slowing the world down, while simultaneously rocketing through it. And embracing the feeling, even if only for a little while, that maybe we could just keep moving forever.

(Thanks for the road trips mom!)

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Alvarez Hardware Store

   I walked down to my neighborhood hardware store about a month ago to get some keys made. It's a small store, and it seems to be run by just one man. I've tried to bring him whatever business I can over the last six and a half years that I've lived in this neighborhood, but that isn't much. I bought a new toilet seat a few years back. And I've directed a new neighbor or two to the store. But other than that, I've just gone there for keys.

   The man was never unfriendly with me, but I usually felt like I picked up on some sense of frustration mixed with resignation coming from him. I figured that his store had to be struggling. It was usually empty, and my occasional need for keys wasn't going to keep him afloat. But there wasn't much I could do about that. I am a renter, rather than a home owner, so I only tend to the most minor repairs in my apartment.

   It wasn't until this last trip there that I spent any significant amount of time thinking about the store, what it may mean to the man that owns it, and also, what it meant to me.

   I arrived to find that the door was closed. The windows were covered from top to bottom with plain brown paper. And the iron gate that was typically pulled aside during business hours, was closed and locked. Alvarez Hardware Store had finally gone out of business.

   I took a step back and took a moment to look at the store. I'd walked by it over a thousand times. I'd walked into it about a half dozen times. But I think that that was the first time I'd noticed the name.

   This was presumably the name of the man that had owned and operated the store. I have no idea what his first name is. I never asked. But I immediately thought back to that aforementioned sense of frustration and resignation that I thought I got from him. And for the first time, the irony of his key making services struck me.

   This neighborhood, Pilsen, has seen a significant demographic shift since I first moved here in the spring of 2005. The shift started before that. But even if I stick to the changes that I've witnessed first hand, the contrast between "what is" and "what used to be" is stark.

   In 2005, I moved into a neighborhood that seemed to be comprised entirely of Hispanic families. That summer, I saw front porches crowded with friends and families every night. I saw kids playing in the spray of a fire hydrant. I saw mammoth 4th of July block parties. I heard an ice cream truck every 30 minutes. And there was even a small family circus that set up in the park every September.

   Of course Pilsen was not an Hispanic Mayberry. There was a notable gang presence, and it was relatively easy to recognize the houses from which drugs were being sold. And on one evening I found myself frighteningly close to a shooting.

   But on the whole, I felt like I'd moved into a tight-knit community of families that had laid down roots in the neighborhood. People knew one another, and I always got the sense that they looked out for one another.

   Much of that feeling is still here in 2011. It just isn't as strong. The packs of children are thinner. The block parties are fewer and farther between. The songs of the ice cream truck less frequent. And I think 2008 was the last time that circus came through.

   Today's Pilsen, while still predominantly Hispanic, is also home to people that look like me, and live lifestyles that are similar to mine. Single people in their twenties and thirties. Mostly white. Students and artists and hipsters and aimless wanderers. We came here, just a trickle at first, and then a steady stream. We provided a clientele for a few new restaurants and bars and coffee shops. Thrift stores became vintage clothing stores. We drove up the rent and fattened the pockets of the area landlords and real estate investors in the process. And we probably influenced the increased police presence and the improvements on the local CTA routes. (At a time when both of those public sector services are being defunded.)

   But we didn't go to Alvarez Hardware Store. Except of course to get some spare keys for our new apartments. It must have felt something like making a weapon that you know may very well be the instrument of your death. Grinding keys for the new residents of what is soon to be your old neighborhood.

   And as I looked at that closed storefront, I wondered, for the first time, about the man that used to stand behind that counter. I wondered how long Mr. Alvarez had had his store. I wondered if he has a family to support. I wondered if he has had to take a job at some big box store, making keys for low wages. Or if perhaps he found his way to something else. Maybe even something better?

   I also considered the irony of my own role in the demise of this business, and that of other small businesses in the neighborhood. The small bakeries and taquerias. The tailor and the corner drug store. They are a part of the identity and the appeal of the neighborhood. They're a part of what attracted me to the place when I first walked down 18th street, just days after moving to Chicago. But their inexpensive goods and services can't handle the rent increases that I help to bring about. And the new demand for higher end commerce will continue to push them out. And some day down the road, I will wake up to see that the process is complete. That by my mere presence, I've helped to sow the seeds of the destruction of something that I once found beautiful.

   And as these thoughts collected in mind, I didn't experience them with any sense of guilt. Nor did I feel any call to arms. The world changes. And I don't want to fight the dying man's fight against change, as long the living man's embrace of it is an option. I will probably leave a world that looks little like the one I was born into, and I wouldn't have that any other way.

   However, I do want to be conscious of my active role in the world. And I want to be aware of those around me. I couldn't have saved Alvarez Hardware Store. But I could have known the man's first name. I could have taken a closer look at that particular piece of the neighborhood that I am so fond of. I could have taken a closer look at another man, and my relationship with him.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Switching Gears

"know when to fold 'em" - Don Schlitz

   I'm leaving for Memphis in 24 days. The trip was planned around the St. Jude Memphis Marathon on December 3. I'll be going with my girlfriend, Abby. This was to be my sixth marathon, and it will be her first. The race is still the focus of the trip, but my role in it has changed.

   I've been fighting an ankle injury since September. I tried pushing through it, and it got worse. I tried resting it, and that seemed to be working, but then it flared up again. More rest is probably the answer, and that's what I'm going to do. But with less than four weeks left before the race, and considering all of the training runs that I've missed, I have to accept that I won't be ready to run 26.2 miles any time soon.

   I'm going to request that my registration be switched to the half-marathon. That's a distance that I feel comfortable with, and I'm still hopeful that I can get myself in good enough shape to make that an enjoyable run. This is the second time that I've had to pull out of a marathon, and while I am disappointed, I feel like I've made my peace with it.

   There is one big upside to this change in plans. I'll get to see much more of Abby's first marathon than I would have if I'd been focused on my own race. I've been watching her prepare for months. Watching the miles add up. Witnessing her excitement and her anxieties. The peaks and valleys of this experience can be gloriously high and achingly low. And I'll now be able to see the culmination of that experience in a way that I just couldn't have done as a participant.

   And in that sense, I haven't lost the experience of running this race, so much as I've exchanged it for a different experience.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Goodbye

"Then leaf subsides to leaf." - Robert Frost

   I said goodbye to an old friend tonight. I've only known her for four and a half years. But "old friend" still feels like the right way to put it. A lot passed in that short period of time. Her life saw a lot of changes. Mine did too.

   Right from the beginning, we shared things with each other. We opened up the good, the bad, and the ugly. And we seemed to accept, and even embrace, all of those aspects of each other with little effort.

   She's moving across the country. She may be back here one day. She may not. But it still felt like goodbye. I'll keep in touch. I'll see her again, whether here or there. But it's goodbye in the sense that we won't be meeting for drinks or coffee. We won't go bowling or see a concert or take her dog for a walk. No more Monday morning matinee movies in January. We'll just catch up every now and then.

   I've done this before. I've moved away from friends. And friends have moved away from me. And I'm mostly okay with it. It's a little sad, to be sure. But this is what happens in life. People come in and out of it. You tie a string to the most important ones, and every now and then you tug it, just to make sure that they're there. But they're barely there. Over time their voices grow faint and their images become blurry.

   We met briefly for coffee. I saw that her car was filled to the brim with the few possessions that she hadn't abandoned. We were both tired, and her night wasn't quite done. We stumbled through some small talk. And then it was time for her to go.

   She dropped me off at my apartment and I felt a sadness that I never gave voice to. I already regret that.

   An hour later, I picked up the phone and sent her a text. Trying to do justice to the goodbye that I felt. We traded a few inside jokes and I smiled. The jokes were small acknowledgments of the history that we'd shared. Something that was ours and ours alone. That would have to do.

   She should already be in another state by now.

There Isn't

   It's the middle of the night. I'm in my bed. There is no sound other than the low hum of the refrigerator.

   There is a sense of neglect to my apartment. My sheets and blanket need to be washed. Magazines and books and stacks of CDs need to be reorganized. I should vacuum and mop too. The place feels like an old car with rust on the body and an empty pop can that has been on the floorboard too long. I feel a little dirty by extension. And I also have the somewhat contradictory feeling of having just woken up here.

   I've been reading. The book is Stop-Time by Frank Conroy. The line that keeps coming back to me is this: "...as if there were all the time in the world."

   I keep putting the book down and looking around at my apartment. And I feel those words crawling all over everything.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

The Crushing Weight of Doubt

   Some days I sit in front of this keyboard and I feel good. I find a thread to follow. I find a way to express something that I'm thinking or feeling. And if I can sit back and look at the product of that day, and believe that I've created something honest, then I'll probably feel pretty good about it.

   Other days nothing comes out. On those days, I usually feel like I have something to say, but I just can't find it. I can bounce around from one angle to the next. I can poke and prod. I can shake all the bushes, but the thing that I'm searching for remains hidden, and I'm eventually forced to abandon my search for the day.

   And then there are days like today. And those are by far the worse. Those are the days when the heavy voice of doubt is booming down from the mountaintops. "Who the fuck do you think you are? What the hell makes you think that you have anything meaningful to say? Why would anybody give a shit about your thoughts on anything? You're nothing special. You're a joke. You have nothing to offer anybody. So just shut up and go away. Find a corner to crawl into. Finish out your pathetic little life in your pathetic little corner, and be done with it."

   Days like today are tough. But writing this made it a little less so.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Obstacles

"I just have to make sure that in my mind, I'm ready for being able to play with the pain." - Kim Clijsters

   Seven weeks from tomorrow, I am going to run the Memphis Marathon. I'm not ready. I'm far from ready. I sprained my ankle last month, and every time I think it's on the mend, I have another setback. So now, I'm giving it all the rest I can.

   I've run once in the last ten days, and that hurt. So I sit. I elevate. I ice. It's not good for me to sit this much. Running is much more than just exercise. It is my grip on sanity. It keeps my head clear. It brings me peace. Without it, my thoughts swirl and crash into one another. I get anxious. I become irritable.

   And I look at my shoes. I look out of the window. And that just compounds the frustration. I just want to run.

   I still go to the gym. I lift. I get on the elliptical. I should be swimming more.

   I have seven weeks. I'm not in bad shape now. I'm just not in marathon shape. If I can get back on the road next week, then there is still hope. Hope of getting myself in a position to enjoy the race. I've already thrown the clock out of the window. This won't be my fastest marathon. But that doesn't mean that it can't be a good one. I can put in a lot of work in six weeks. If I'm healthy.

   In the meantime, I sit. I elevate. I ice. I simmer. I try not to boil over.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Room With A View

 
   I was at a high school yesterday afternoon. I was there to help some students with their English papers. There were a lot of students in the Learning Resource Center, which is available for one hour after classes are over.  Many were working on their own. Perhaps just taking advantage of an atmosphere that is conducive to studying. Others were using the computers. And others were there in search of academic assistance. The latter group is the smallest, though not for lack of need.

   It can be difficult to ask for help. Difficult to admit uncertainty or reveal any sense of vulnerability. This is true for most of us, but it's an insecurity that can be especially acute among adolescents. Though some of the students did seem to be more comfortable asking for help with some subjects than with others.

   I sat at the table designated for English tutors and waited for students. There were students at the math table, and several at the science table. One student asked me if I knew anything about quantum mechanics. I told her that I didn't, but that I'd try to read through the work with her and help in any way that I could until a more qualified tutor became available. Thankfully the cavalry arrived sooner, rather than later.

   I also talked with a teacher for a moment. We discussed the low levels of writing proficiency among many of the students. That was something that I'd seen firsthand through tutoring, but that she was more intimately familiar with. She nodded at the empty seats at the English table and said, "that's a tough one for them to admit they need help with."

   I thought about that statement for a while. For better or for worse, math and science are subjects that many people in our society struggle with. Perhaps that lessens the feelings of inadequacy for the students that need help in those areas.

   But English is different. Our relationship with words is personal. We use language to communicate with each other. We use it categorize and organize everything that we encounter in the complex world around us. And, perhaps most importantly, we use language to sort through and define our own internal thoughts and feelings. And in that sense, our words are intricately and inseparably tied to our sense of self.

   In that light, it makes sense that students would be hesitant to ask for help. The insecurities, anxieties, and self-doubt that seem part and parcel of being a teenager, would make the already difficult task of opening oneself to personal criticism seem absolutely unbearable.

   However, being sympathetic to that doesn't really help me as I sit at the table waiting for a student. I can create a recipe that spices up constructive criticism with sincere praise, but I still have to get some food in the kitchen in order to cook.

   I'd like to say that I had some sort of epiphany while waiting for students. That I discovered a method for miraculously breaking down the defensive barriers built by pride and fear. It feels good to wrap a nice little bow around the solution to a problem. But that didn't happen.

   I did eventually get a student to work with though. He was writing a paper on Macbeth. He knew what he wanted to say, but he wanted my help with the structural aspects of the paper. He knew that there were improvements to be made, and that those improvements were escaping him. He listened to my feedback openly and thoughtfully, and seemed eager take what he could from our exchange.

   His willingness to acknowledge his linguistic shortcomings was both refreshing and endearing. And I found myself searching for the source of that courage while we talked. He apparently excelled in other areas, such as the hard sciences. Maybe that success helped give him the confidence to address the things that he struggled with. Though I'm sure that there is much more to it than that. My interaction with him was brief. And any conclusions that I might come to about what makes him who he is, would be hopelessly incomplete.

   We finished up, and I looked at the clock. The hour was almost over. I looked around the room. I looked at the students. Watched them interact with each other. Saw a few knowing glances exchanged among friends. Noticed the top of the high school hierarchy of strong boys and pretty girls. And I saw a few fevered pencils quickening as the time to leave approached.

   There was something comforting about the familiarity of it all. There were plenty of outward differences between this environment and my own adolescence. But underneath, there was something timeless and reassuring. Something that said that all of life's dilemmas were here long before I was, and that they'll all be here long after I'm gone. There is a peace that comes with the moments that I can see this, and yesterday I got that peace for a little while.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

A Collection of Random Thoughts From a 17 Mile Run Through Chicago on a Cool Fall Day

   Standing on my front step. Looking at the light rain. Hesitant. And finally into the street. The first steps are good. Not great. But better than what I'd feared. Tightness in both upper thighs and my right calf. But nothing that I can't run with. And the left ankle feels fine for now.

   East on 19th Street. Go by the old laundromat. Cross the weed choked railroad tracks. Come out onto Halsted and turn south. I feel good. Better than expected. But this is a long run, and it's dangerous to get too excited too early.

   Over the drawbridge, under the Orange Line tracks, out of Pilsen, and into Bridgeport. The doors are open at Freddie's. They're not open for business yet. But this is the first time I've seen the inside of the building since the fire. It's been completely gutted. Everybody inside is wearing a tool belt. And nobody is eating pizza. But it's good to see that there is work being done.

   A man mowing the lawn in the rain. I remember mowing lawns with an electric mower when I was a kid. Long orange extension cord stretched out behind me. One couple that I mowed for, seemed to always be fighting. I wonder where they are now. I wonder what they're like.

   East on 35th. Run by the ballpark. Tag the statue. Rituals can be helpful. They can help you remember things that might be easily forgotten otherwise. Over the Dan Ryan. Under the Metra tracks.

   Out of Bridgeport, and into Bronzeville. North on State. Through the ITT campus. Dodging students. Umbrellas in one hand. Cell phones in the other. Eyes locked on the phone.

   Traffic on State Street is light, yet slow. A cruising sedan parts the waters of a giant puddle, like a canoe on a small lake. A crosswalk beeps its signals for the visually impaired. I cross the street and make a soft left back onto the sidewalk. Careful with the ankle.

   East on 31st. Moving beyond the campus. Residential Bronzville. Vacant lots behind chain link fences. Old churches. Broken glass in the gutter. A lonely gas station. John J. Pershing Magnet School. The lights behind the windows of the classroom trailer seem dim. The fall weather suits the neighborhood well, and I feel comfortable and at peace as I pass through.

   Onto the bridge that takes me over a dozen or so sets of of railroad tracks. Outbound trains headed for places like South Bend, Indiana and Kalamazoo, Michigan. The skyline comes into view from the bridge. The dark and misty fingers of the sky grab the tops of the buildings like a chess player resting his hands on his pieces, uncertain of his next move.

   Onto the lakefront path. 31st Street Beach. An elderly man is talking to himself about the rain and the wind and the waves. And my first thought is that he's at least a little crazy. But I was contemplating the same things in my head. And he was simply giving voice to his thoughts. Is that gap so big?

   The man fades into the background, and I'm left with one of Chicago's best kept secrets. The south end of the lakefront path. Bird sanctuaries filled with wildflowers. Waves crashing into the seawall. Several miles of quiet open space. The rain picked up as I ran by the Fallen Firemen and Paramedics Memorial Park.

   Next to McCormick Place, I see a small group of ducks with their beaks shoved into small puddles. And I wonder what type of food there is to be found in such a spot. On the north side of Burnham Harbor, I see people fishing in the rain. They're the first people I've seen since the old man.

   Around the aquarium and into the downtown stretch of lakefront. The weather keeps all but the most determined tourists at bay on a day like today. And even this stretch is free of all but a handful of people and a few dozen geese.

   Ohio Street Beach. Oak Street Beach. People standing by the water. Just looking at it. That's incredibly common. Something about the massive body of water just draws the attention of people. I don't remember ever going for a run along the lakefront without seeing at least one person in that trance-like state.

   North Avenue Beach. One last water fountain, before heading into Lincoln Park and turning south to go home. Empty carb packets litter the area around the fountain. Many of this city's marathoners are only twelve days from Race Day. And they will have just finished the last of their long runs.

   There had been trucks scattered along the beaches. Gathering seasonal equipment, and taking it to storage until next year. And the same thing was happening in the park.

   I ran through Old Town. Boutiques and restaurants. Bars and condos. A world that always feels a little foreign to me. I pass the shop windows and give a passing glance to the things that I can't imagine even wanting, much less buying. With the one exception being food. I do love food in all of its delightful variety.

   The fatigue and the soreness were getting hard to ignore. It was a lazy summer, and the rust is still apparent. But there was no sign of injury. And fatigue and soreness can be beat. Besides, I wasn't settling for anything other than total exhaustion today.

   I ran down Orleans, just south of Division. A stretch of road that doesn't seem to fit with any of the neighborhoods that surround it. Not Old Town to the north, or the Gold Coast to the east. Nor River North to the south, or the ruins of Cabrini to the west. Orleans from Division St. to Chicago Ave. serves as a cafeteria for many of the city's cab drivers. Indian, Pakistani, and Somalian restaurants populate this stretch of  the city. A small pocket for the locals, on the outskirts of a downtown area that is geared to the tourists and suburbanites that seem to prefer the comfort and familiarity of the big chain restaurants.

   I turned west, not wanting to get caught downtown. I ran by the home of the Jesse White Tumblers and a large community garden. And I turned south on Halsted, rounding the Tribune building. As I climbed my final bridge, I put my head down and locked my attention into a series of slow but steady strides. Up the hill. Over the tracks. No slacking on the pace. Crest the hill. And bring the head up to feel the rain as the downhill stretch begins.

   This is the spot that tells me I'm almost home. Just a few more miles to go. My steps were slow, and my legs were heavy. But I felt good. I wasn't moving fast, but I was moving clean. There was no hitch. No pain. I was almost 15 miles in, and I was fine.

   My head cleared as I moved through the West Loop and made my way back home to Pilsen. I wasn't thinking much about my surroundings anymore. I was just movement. Steady, flowing, movement.

   I saw a small bird on the sidewalk near the end of the run. It wasn't moving, but it sat upright and from a distance it didn't seem hurt. But as I got closer, I could see it's right wing was sticking out at an unnatural angle. And then I got close enough to see the raindrops collecting on its cold stiff feathers. Beads of water standing on the stillness of a vacant vessel. I stepped over it and made my way home.

   Nine and a half weeks 'til the Memphis Marathon. Time to move.

Into The Storm

"Everyone who has run knows that its most important value is in removing tension and allowing a release from whatever other cares the day may bring." - Jimmy Carter


   I got up at 6:00 this morning. I work at night, so it's rare that I'm up before 8:00 or 9:00. My dreams were strange and vivid, and maybe even somewhat relevant to the real world? I've got too much crap in my head right now. Unavoidable family stuff for the most part. Things that I am helpless to change, and equally helpless to let go of. I'm glad that my training schedule calls for a long run today. It's the only way I know to clear my head.

   17 miles. That will be the longest run I've done since I ran the Cleveland Marathon in May. I feel pretty far removed from that race. But I'm slowly making my way forward. And I do have time. The race is nine weeks from Saturday. If I can get back into a good rhythm within the next few weeks, then I'll be fine. I keep reminding myself that I ran my fastest marathon just three and a half months after my slowest. And most of those gains happened in the final two months of training.

   But that's looking too far down the road. Right now I just want to run. And I want to feel good doing it.

   The sky outside of my window looks something like an old blanket that's been left outside for months. It may have had some color to it once upon a time, but it's just a grey mass now. Cold and heavy and wet. And the trees are not made a brighter green by the rain, the way they are in the spring. They just look tired. I imagine the lake looks restless and agitated right now. It all sounds incredibly inviting. Time to lace 'em up. Time to run.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

When The Sun Comes Up

"Every morning in Africa a gazelle wakes up. It knows it must move faster than the lion or it will not survive. Every morning a lion wakes up and it knows it must move faster than the slowest gazelle or it will starve. It doesn't matter if you are the lion or the gazelle, when the sun comes up, you better be moving." - Roger Bannister

   I took my new running shoes out for a spin today. They're blue, silver, and white. They look like modern, sleek versions of R2D2. They're probably the shoes that I'll wear in ten weeks when I run the St. Jude Memphis Marathon. And when I look at them, I can't help but be frustrated by the contrast between how they look and how I feel.

   I feel banged up. But I'm not that far into training. At this early stage, I shouldn't feel this tight and sluggish every day. I've got a minor sprain in my left ankle that won't go away. It's not so bad that I can't run, it's just bad enough that I can't run well. I've given it plenty of rest, but it's not responding. So to hell with it. I'll run anyway.

   I ran ten miles today. Not too fast. Not too slow. About 7:45 per mile. The ankle held up. But it's a little swollen now.

   Other parts are more tight and sore than they should be too. But I don't see any point in listing them off. It's just difficult to get my mind in a good place, when so many things feel out of place physically. My body feels muddled, and my thoughts do too. Though I did experience a fleeting moment of clarity today.

   I ran through downtown to get to the lake. It was raining. A soft and cool rain, which is always nice to run in. Tourists and suburbanites littered the Saturday morning streets. They crowded under umbrellas, they scrunched their shoulders up, and they ran from one awning to the next. All in a futile effort to avoid a few drops of water. Judging from their body language and facial expressions, you might have thought that there were cannonballs falling from the sky, rather than tiny raindrops.

   And then I got to the lake and I saw other members of my tribe. Dozens of them. Wearing only shorts, shirts, and running shoes. Shoulders back, heads held up, and big dopey grins soaking up the simple joy of running in the rain. I fed off of that instantly. My body was still sore, but I didn't care. I splashed through puddles. I bounded up and down the occasional lakefront hill. I leaned into the turns. And I too had a big dopey grin to accompany my thoughts as I remembered, for a moment, why it is that I run in the first place.

   I wish I could say that that lasted. That I turned some metaphorical corner, and that I'm back on track mentally if not physically. But it didn't. And I'm not.

   I'm not in a panic either. I'm just going to do the one thing that I know to do. I'm going to run. And I'm going to hope that this stuff blows over. And regardless of what happens, whether I'm feeling strong or feeling hobbled, I'm going to run that marathon in ten weeks. And I'll run the best race that I have in me that day. Whatever that may be.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Soft Footsteps

   I was ten years old when I saw it for the first time. We'd moved to a new neighborhood, and I'd met a kid that lived down the block from me. His name was Kirk, he was also ten years old, and he had leukemia.

   I knew that that was a serious illness. And I understood that it would kill Kirk at some point. I was old enough to grasp those concepts. But I'd never given much thought to how the disease would affect his life on a day to day basis, prior to his death. At ten years old, the idea of "day to day life" was so automatic, that it never seemed to warrant any conscious thought.

   Kirk was small for his age. When we played, he often ran out of energy. When we rode our bikes, he went around the obstacles that I would jump. He was quiet and soft spoken.

   There were times when we were playing with large groups of boys, and the play would turn loud and rough with the collective energy of the pack. Kirk would head home when that happened. It wasn't that he didn't like the rough play. He just couldn't do it. He'd never say goodbye, or let me know that he was going. He'd just disappear.

   A lot of our play happened inside the house, with action figures and toy cars. We'd mimic the chase scenes that we'd seen on TV, or jumble the identities of the action figures, combining characters and story lines from pro wrestling, Cold War era action movies, and the NFL. Like a lot of young boys, we idolized grown men that were stronger and faster than the next guy. I think the wistful aspects of that play were especially acute for Kirk. He was never going to grow up to be a man. Strong and fast, or otherwise.

   A year passed. His trips to the hospital became longer, and more frequent. Sometimes he was at school. Most of the time he wasn't. And then one day I looked out of my bedroom window and saw an ambulance driving slowly down the street, coming from his house. I really think that I knew at that moment that it was over. A few hours later, his older sister called our house. Kirk had passed away.

   I was sad about his death. But I wasn't grief stricken. There was a general melancholy lingering about my thoughts and feelings, but it was a quiet and peaceful sadness. Maybe that came from Kirk himself. He'd seemed at peace with his fate since I'd met him. He accepted his illness and its consequences with a soft dignity and humility. If he was suffering through any internal torments, whether physical, mental, or spiritual, I never noticed it.

   I remember one night that he'd come to my house to sleep over. When I woke up the next morning, he was already gone. My mom explained that she'd heard the door shut in the middle of the night. She looked outside and saw eleven year old Kirk walking down the dark and empty street by himself. He'd gotten cold, and rather than ask us to turn the heat up, he'd quietly made his way down the block to his house. It was just a few months later that he left this world in the same manner.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Me & My Beast

"All art is a kind of confession, more or less oblique. All artists, if they are to survive, are forced, at last, to tell the whole story; to vomit the anguish up." - James Baldwin

   I haven't done much serious running over the last four months. Which is to say that I've been running all summer, but I've done it sporadically, usually at an easy pace, and rarely for distances beyond eight or nine miles.

   I had been writing a lot over the first two thirds of that stretch, but that has fizzled as well.

   I feel like the two are related, though I'm at a loss to explain that feeling in a succinct manner.

   After I finished the Cleveland Marathon last May, I knew that I was ready for a break. That was my third marathon in eight months, and I was physically and emotionally drained. So I reigned it in. I ran when I wanted to run, and I rested when I wanted to rest. I filled my summer with greasy food and cold beer. I indulged my social life in ways that I'm unable to do while training.

   I very quickly let eight months of work fade away, and let my body go soft.

   But not all of that time went to idle comfort. I spent a lot of time at this keyboard. Some of it for this blog. And some of it for other forms of writing. I dusted off an old fictional character and saw him develop and grow in ways that he never had before. And I saw a new character born as well. I worked through the early periods of gentle exploration with her. Slowly and gingerly seeking to discover who this person is. It feels like watching a bird hatch from an egg. I try to nurture it and keep it warm, while letting it emerge from its shell at it's own natural pace. A beak pecking through the shell here. A wingtip emerging there.

   But after a while the writing grew stagnant. The process became sluggish and cloudy. And my head grew soft.

   I've been picking both of those things back up as of late.

   I'm running the Memphis Marathon in less than three months, and the miles are beginning to pile up again as I become more committed to my training. That is a relatively straight forward process at this point. I know what I need to do, it's simply a matter of doing it. There are frustrations over the degree to which I let myself go over the summer, but I know that I can put that aside. There just isn't anything useful to do with that stuff, so you set it down and walk on.

   The writing process however, is far less straight forward. There are the standard problems of writing to work through. Sorting through the words that stream through the head. Trying to sort the honest thoughts and feelings from the comforting lies. Trying to figure out what fears and disappointments and regrets are lurking beneath those lies. That stuff is always a big part of the writing process. In fact, that is the very reason for writing. Writing is simply searching.

   But it isn't enough to just find those truths or expose the lies. Because the discovery doesn't bring instant resolution. If anything, it breathes life into some things that are big and powerful and at times terrifying. And you find yourself sitting there with this beast, and you know that it has to find a home. It can live, sometimes it has to live, but it can't live with you alone. It'll kill you. So you want to let it out into the world.

   But that's not so easy to do. The beast may belong to me. It may carry my name. But it also knows everybody that I know. And if I just set him free, there's no telling who he'll cross paths with.

   I remember reading Long Day's Journey Into Night in an English class. The story itself was dripping with the tension of desperation and fear and love and suffering. But what really hit me was the story of the author himself. When I learned that Eugene O'Neill had sealed the manuscript and asked his publisher to wait until 25 years after his death to publish it, I was dumbstruck. Not only had he decided to live alone with the beast, he'd agreed to let it climb into his coffin and follow him into eternity.

   Maybe that's where my connection between running and writing comes in. I haven't yet figured out what to do with my beast. I keep breathing life into him. He grows in front of my eyes. And I'm not as afraid of him as I used to be. But I know that I can't live with him forever. So for now, until I find a way to set him free, I take him running with me.

   It takes a while to wear him down. He's a strong runner. But I'm stronger. He grows quiet as the miles add up. And when I get home, there is a moment of peace, I can almost believe that we could be friends. And I can sit in front of this keyboard and breath yet more life into him.

Monday, September 12, 2011

9-12

   Flags waved. Songs were sung with trembling voices. And people all across the country asked each other to remember where they were the day that the planes hit the towers.

   Thousands of lives were lost on September 11, 2001. And in the ten years that have followed, millions more have died or had their lives, their families, their homes, shattered beyond repair by the wars that were fought, and are still being fought, in the name of those attacks.

   I can't tell anybody else how to feel about that. I can't tell anybody else what to think about those attacks, and our collective response to them. But I can hope, for myself and my fellow Americans, that as the dramatic images and stirring words of the anniversary fade, we find our way to a place of thoughtful and compassionate reflection. A place of honest reflection. I can hope that we consider everything that happened that morning, and everything that preceded and followed the attacks, with an open mind.

   And I hope for those things, because I believe that this is the best way for us to truly honor and respect those that have died. I can hope for those things, because I believe that honest and thoughtful consideration of our place in the world, and of those that we share it with, is the most effective means of limiting the deadly conflict that puts such a tremendous weight on the hearts of so many people around the world.

   My own thoughts on the topic are numerous and muddled, and often conflicting. I find it difficult to believe that a world without war is possible, yet I find it immoral and unacceptable that we should strive for anything less. I believe that as Americans, we are guilty of unspeakable atrocities, both historically and in the present moment. I also believe that as Americans, we are responsible for acts of profound beauty, sacrifice, and heroism, both historically and in the present moment. And I believe that those truths, as well as many others, need to be considered in any worthwhile discussion of September 11.

   I don't want to elaborate on the specifics of those beliefs right now. Because that's not the point that I'm attempting to articulate here. I simply want to remind myself to thoughtfully consider those beliefs, how I got them, and what impact they might have on myself and those around me. And I want to hope that my neighbors will do the same.

   (Below are three pieces that offer viewpoints that I found thoughtful and honest. The first was published about a month after the attacks. It is a long article, but well worth your time. The other two were published yesterday, on the tenth anniversary of the attacks. One is a quick read from a faith-based perspective. The other is a four and a half minute video clip discussing the media treatment of the tenth anniversary.)

http://www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/2001/10/14/the-politics-of-rage-why-do-they-hate-us.html

http://www.internetmonk.com/archive/911-the-last-word-for-now

http://www.mediaite.com/tv/toure-calls-out-media-911-nostalgia-leaves-dylan-ratigan-speechless/

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Butt Call


   My phone rang this morning. I was still half asleep, and pretty hungover, so I didn't get up to see who was calling. I just let it ring.

   It was my girlfriend. Well, it was my girlfriend's phone, but she didn't mean to call. She was at work, and the phone was in her pocket. The sequence of numbers necessary to call my phone happened to be accidentally pushed. And I got a voice-mail filled with random tidbits of conversation and lots of background noise.

  She is a waitress. I heard a guy asking her about a side of fries. Mundane stuff. But it struck me. Hearing a piece of her life. A piece that has nothing to do with me. I thought about her. I thought about her as an individual person, with thoughts that are only her own. The center of her own personal universe. Trying to navigate her way through the world. It was endearing.

   Her name is Abby. And she wakes up every day, with her own myriad thoughts and questions and conflicts.  This happens billions of times per day in this amazing and beautiful world.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Malaise

   I feel like I should have a lot to write about. But nothing worthwhile seems to be coming out.

   I crashed my bike a few nights ago. The wreck didn't cause any notable structural damage to myself, or to my bike. But I did get a deep gash under my left eye. Deep enough that it definitely needed stitches. I got to the hospital around 2 a.m. Five hours later, a doctor finally got around to sewing my face up. In the interval, I sat in the waiting room, with mounting frustration, exhaustion, and anger.

   I was frustrated and angry with myself for the carelessness that landed me in that hospital. I was frustrated with the hospital for the long wait, and the jaded and indifferent staff. And I couldn't help but think of the right-wing claims of private sector efficiency, as I sat in the waiting room bleeding onto my apparently useless insurance card.

   That should be easy to write about. But everything that comes out just seems like a rant. And I don't want to rant.

   I'm also in the process of switching jobs. After six and a half years at my soon to be former job, I'm making a change. The job description will be similar, but the environment is radically different. I'm leaving behind a mammoth, impersonal, bureaucratic corporate restaurant. And I'm starting at a local restaurant and beer brewery. The new place is a breath of fresh air. I like the people that I've met there. I like the environment that they've created. And the product that they're selling is made with pride and a clear commitment to quality, rather than simply focusing on profit margin alone. The contrasts are clear and easy to see.

   That should also be easy to write about. But everything that comes out seems like a preachy rant. And I still don't want to rant.

    Over the course of the last week, I've seen thought provoking live readings and a live painting exhibition. I've read good journalism and literature. I've followed the flavor of the week political stories. I've spent quiet time by myself, taking long walks and runs. And I've found good conversations with intelligent people.

   All of those things usually lead me to write. But I've got nothing more than some bits of fictional dialogue to show for it.

   And that is where I sit now. With a collection of thoughts, ideas, and feelings stewing inside of me. But with no palatable means to organize and express them.
 

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Cool Breeze

"For them that think death's honesty - Won't fall upon them naturally - Life sometimes must get lonely" - Bob Dylan

   I woke up this morning before dawn. Quickly, suddenly, violently awake.

   I went to the doctor yesterday. I feel fine, but I wanted a thorough check-up. I'd never had one before. I've always felt healthy. So I assumed that that meant that I was healthy. But I'm 37 years old. Which isn't far from 40. Which means that I am a middle-aged man. So I figured I should go make sure that everything is in proper working order. I'm still waiting on the results from my blood and piss.

   My father was diagnosed with prostate cancer early last year. My uncle, my dad's youngest brother, was diagnosed with lung cancer last month. Another uncle of mine, and another of my dad's brothers, died of lung cancer years ago. There is a fourth brother, and I doubt that he's healthy. I don't mean to sound cold, or overly pessimistic, but he's been drinking and smoking heavily for decades. And he doesn't get regular exercise. And all three of his brothers have been diagnosed with cancer.

   The doctor checked my prostate. I'm younger than most men that are diagnosed with prostate cancer, but what the hell. We're in the doctor's office and they've got the gloves, so why not start shoving fingers in assess. Apparently the inside of my ass feels just fine.

   So now I'm just waiting on my blood and piss. I get those results next week.

   My dad's cancer has been removed. He keeps himself in good health, and the cancer was discovered early. He should be fine. My uncle's cancer is much further along. His road will be a tough one.

   I was talking with my uncle about a week ago. The one that has been recently diagnosed with cancer. I started to tell him about my recent trip to Cleveland. I was beginning to tell him how much he'd enjoy the Rock n' Roll Hall of Fame. And then our voices faded, and we moved quietly on to another topic. Its not that he couldn't make it there. But again, the road that lays in front of him is a tough one. And he'll need to choose his pit-stops carefully.

   After the doctor checked my prostate, he said that I could probably set that concern aside until I was about 50 years old.

   And that's the number that I woke up with this morning. That number, and the overwhelming truth that I could be dead by then. It may be the first time in my life that I was hit with the full force of my own death. The gravity, the inevitability, the immediacy, and the permanence of death landed on me clean and clear and undeniable.

   I won't be here. I won't have these thoughts, or any other thoughts. I just won't be.

   I was at home, in the perceived safety of my own bed. But for a moment, I was overwhelmed by fear and sorrow. A deadening sadness covered me like a lead blanket.

   It seems a little absurd now. Like I'd considered myself immortal up until this morning. But it was real at that moment. For that moment, in my heart and mind, I may as well have already been dead.

   I didn't jump out of bed and write a bucket list, or vow to make any drastic changes in my life. Nor did god speak to me. I just rolled over, bunched up the blanket that was under my head, and felt the cool breeze coming in from the window. But it's still sitting with me. It's still lingering.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Getting Back To The Edge Of The Cliff

"and god is whoever you're performing for" - Doug Martsch

   Too much time in this space. This blog space. Not time well spent. Wasted time. Distracted time.

   I started writing here for a few different reasons. But it's becoming a crutch. It's becoming an easy alternative to more difficult, and more rewarding, forms of writing.

   And worst of all, is the Stats page. I keep looking to see who is reading this. And how often. And which posts. That's a terrible habit, and I can't let it continue. I have thousands of stories buried underneath my 37 years. Pains and joys tucked away in the crevices of my gut, my spine, my heart. And I can't find them if I'm looking outward. I can't find my honest thoughts and feelings, while looking to other people for validation. I can look at other people to see other people, but I can't look at them to see myself.

   I don't think that I need to shut down the blog all together. I think I can still use it from time to time. But I have to reign it in. And I'm going to start that process right now.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Bug Bite - Part 3 of 3

Mexico City (D.F.)

   I had never before seen anything like Mexico City. Street vendors, tourists, beggars, business people, and paint huffing six year old children, walk among 800 year old Aztec ruins, 400 year old Catholic Cathedrals, and modern sky-scrapers. All of which share the same patch of real estate. College kids drink in the same bars as prostitutes. Displaced indigenous women sit on the sidewalk and sell hand made tlacoyos for thirty cents to the Americans and Europeans that reach down to drop the coins into their waiting hands. A beautiful park filled with miles of green grass and lush trees sits just a few miles from the trash dumps that hundreds of families use for food and shelter. Impeccably clean museums frame the history of the city with well preserved art and artifacts, while garbage and pollution help to spread sickness outside of those same walls. Massive Diego Rivera murals show the clash of the cultures that have come together here over the years. Modern subway trains cost twenty cents, and provide transportation for elderly grandmothers, grade school students, and petty thieves alike. The contrasts are unmistakable and unavoidable. The noises, the colors, and the smells of the place bombard you at every turn.

   These different worlds, thrown together in one boiling mass of humanity, produce a chaotic and exhilarating energy, and I was instantly drawn to all of it. But it also brought to the surface a lot of conflicting thoughts and emotions within myself. And as I walked through the city and interacted with the people there, I found myself beginning to question the validity of how I viewed myself in relation to other people.

   I had always looked upon the privileged classes with a degree of judgement and scorn. To my way of thinking, there was something inherently immoral about the accumulation of large amounts of wealth, in a world where dire poverty is so widespread. And I had never had any doubts as to which side of that struggle I was on. But then I found myself surrounded by people that wouldn't make as much money in a year, as I would make in a week, or even a day. There were millions of people struggling to survive in this city, and many of them had to choose between crime, prostitution, begging, starvation, or leaving their home and family for a foreign and potentially hostile land. And seeing this, I had to acknowledge that my own station was far more privileged than I'd ever admitted to myself. Because struggle or not, my options were virtually limitless.

   Here, I did not have the luxury of considering the lives of others through the lens of books and movies. I could not sit in the safety of a college classroom, and talk about the collision of cultures and its impact on those that are directly involved. The people in question were now all around me. They weren't photographs, or statistics in a sociology textbook. They were living breathing human beings. And I couldn't cozy up to the romantic notion that my working class status in the U.S., somehow automatically tied me to the struggles of the poor and oppressed worldwide. Here, I was forced to recognize and accept the fact that no matter where I fell among the income strata in the U.S., my status as an American citizen with full-time employment (and with the resources to travel throughout a foreign country), placed me among the wealthiest people in the world. So I now had to take all of the harsh judgement that I had applied to the people that Americans consider wealthy, and see if I could stand up underneath it myself. And one person in particular helped force that view to come into focus for me, more than anyone else that I met on that trip.

   It was our first night in D.F. I was sitting in a bar with the two friends that I was traveling with. The bar was on the second floor of an old building made of stone. Near the entrance, there was a small wooden dance floor that stood empty. On the other side of the room, sat a group of eight Mexican men and women, that all looked to be about twenty years old. They were clean cut, well dressed, and just loud enough give the impression that they were having a good time, but not so loud as to be obnoxious. A quiet, heavy-set, middle-aged woman was serving us. The rest of the room was empty.

   It wasn't exactly what we were looking for. We wanted to find something a little more lively. But we hadn't received any good suggestions yet, and all of the bar descriptions in our travel book seemed vague. In the other cities that we'd visited, we'd been content to wander the streets aimlessly and leave our night to chance. But we were all a bit apprehensive about the prospect of wandering the streets at night in a city that had such a notorious reputation for crime. So we sat with our beers, and talked about calling it an early night. We still had several more days left, before heading back to Monterrey. Perhaps we'd be better off waiting until we found somebody to point us in the right direction. And then we noticed two attractive young women sitting at a table at the other end of the room, and we decided to have another round of beers.

   We were half way through that next round of beer, and still debating the best way to approach a couple of women that were probably on the opposite side of a language barrier, when we noticed that a third woman had joined them. The significance of the language barrier, and any other social barriers, now seemed to be shrinking rapidly. Clearly this was just short of divine providence. Things had been falling into place for us throughout the whole trip, and from underneath the warm and fuzzy comfort of several beers, it looked as though it was happening again.

   And then our soft spoken waitress decided to help us out. When she came around to offer us another round, she suggested that we buy a round for the three women as well. Perhaps that should have been a red flag. Perhaps three unaccompanied women sitting in a bar in Mexico City should have been a red flag too. But we were seeing the world as we wanted it to be, not as it was. So we bought the round of drinks and asked the women if they'd mind us sitting with them.

   There wasn't any collective "Eureka!" moment for the three of us. But through a series of glances at one another, we did all convey to each other that we finally understood what was happening. We realized that the three women were prostitutes, and that they worked for the bar.

   We knew each other well enough to know that none of us were going to be purchasing another human being for sex. But we weren't sure of what it was that we were going to do. And now that we were seated at the table with the three women, it was an awkward topic to discuss.

   So we just talked with them. We bought another round of drinks for everybody, and we talked. We used what little collective Spanish was available to us, and they did the same with a seemingly equal amount of collective English. The uneasy feeling that had come with the discovery of their profession, began to fade away. And on the surface it almost became something as simple as three guys talking to three gals.

   My supply of Spanish ran out first, and I was initially content to sit in silence and observe. But after a while, I noticed that one of the women had a particularly short supply of English as well, which put her in the same boat as me. So I finished my beer and I asked her if she'd like to dance. She smiled and said yes, and we made our way to the otherwise empty dance floor.

   I put some money in the jukebox. She picked the songs. And we took a few spins around the floor. As we danced, I decided to take another shot at speaking with her. With just the two of us, we could talk at our own speed, and perhaps have more success with our words.

   We started at the beginning. We exchanged names again. I told her that I lived in Chicago, and she asked if it was really so cold there. I asked her if she had always lived in D.F., and she said that she was from an area not far from the city. She asked about my family, and I told her about them. She furrowed her brow as she took it all in, and occasionally she offered a polite nod. I asked her about her family too. I couldn't discern the details, but it seemed that they were no longer around. Then I asked if she had any children, and she gave me a smile that managed to be both sheepish and enthusiastic. She told me that she'd just had a baby three weeks prior. I asked about the father, and she just shook her head.

   I realized how personal our conversation had become, and then the thought came to me that perhaps that was the only type of conversation available to two people that have so few words to work with. Small talk, in its own way, is more complex. It often involves elements such as cultural references and inside jokes. Things which just don't translate well. But simple and honest emotions such as sorrow and joy are universal. And so are the comforts and concerns that inevitably accompany our relationships with friends and family.

   I had also become curious about her age as we talked. When we first spotted the women sitting at the table, I might have guessed that they were in their early twenties. But I was starting to realize that my estimate had probably overshot the mark in this case in particular, so I asked her how old she was.

   When she said "trece", I stopped in my tracks. I asked her again, thinking/hoping that perhaps I'd misunderstood her, or that my limited Spanish was failing me again. The second time she said it, she said it with a whisper. She had obviously noticed my surprise and discomfort. But the number stayed the same. This girl was thirteen years old.

   More specifically, this girl was a thirteen year old single mother. She was living in Mexico City without any family to help her. And she was a prostitute. Those facts punched me in the face one after the other. And on the heels of those facts came several more. I was sitting in a bar, buying her drinks, and talking and dancing with her.

   Somehow, in a matter of minutes, I'd gone from a guy that was out to have a few beers, and maybe talk/flirt/dance with a woman, to a guy that was offering at least a passive contribution to child prostitution.

   There was an unbearable amount of commotion in my head at that moment. I had no idea what to do. I didn't know which direction I should even start in.

   We left the dance floor, and I could see that the girl was embarrassed, and maybe a little ashamed. I wanted to do something to make it better for her. I wanted things to be other than the way they were. But more than anything, I wanted to be out of that building. I wanted to put some distance between myself and what was happening in that bar. I wanted to rebuild that fragile barrier between my world and hers. A barrier that had seemed so solid just an hour before.

   I did leave the bar. But I couldn't rebuild the wall. The shock of learning that girl's age, had blown open the window, and given full view to the ugly truths that I'd been choosing to ignore. My world was more closely tied to the world of that child than I'd ever wanted to acknowledge. And my role in the relationship was not as benign as I'd dreamed it to be.

   In theory, I'd had some awareness of my privileged life for some time. And I knew that my privileges came at the expense of others. I knew, for instance, that the products that I bought in the U.S., often came from countries where workers were underpaid and maltreated. And that by purchasing those products, I was supporting an unjust and immoral system. But I rationalized my decisions. I told myself, that I couldn't change the world, and that I couldn't possibly function in American society without supporting such systems. I told myself that I had to pick my battles and then move on with my life.

   But standing in front of that girl, I was forced to honestly consider the real human impact of that perspective. And, though I tried to block this process out, it also forced me to honestly consider what I truly felt in my gut about my place in the arrangement.

   The truth was, that from the moment I'd set foot in Mexico, I'd been enjoying the power and freedom that my relative wealth gave me. I'd walked around like a tiny benevolent dictator, doling out coins that came so easy to me, and feeling self-satisfied when I saw the enthusiasm with which they were gobbled up. That unequal distribution of power made me feel like a giant, and I liked it. I felt dirty and ashamed for liking it, but I liked it none the less.

   And I'd still liked it when we were talking to three prostitutes in a bar. I'd convinced myself that I was on firm moral ground because I wasn't going to have sex with any of those women. But the imbalance of power was still there. I had money that they needed, and I got to choose whether they'd get it, what they'd have to give me in exchange, and exactly how much I'd part with. The circumstances stripped those women of most of the equalizers that they might have had if we'd crossed paths in the U.S. And consequently, I was free of any insecurities or social anxieties that I'd have been subject to at home. It was an arrangement that was easy to take advantage of, but one that was in direct conflict with my view of who I am and who I want to be.

   I wrestled with that conflict throughout the remainder of the trip, and I still wrestle with it today. I still struggle, sometimes unsuccessfully, to resist selfish impulses, even as I acknowledge the adverse affect that my actions can have on others. I have yet to find a formula for ridding myself of those impulses and desires all together. But I am trying to be more honest with myself about the choices that I'm making. I'm trying to limit the rationalizations and the excuses. I'm trying to be honest with myself about who I am. And I'm hoping that that will bring me closer to being who I want to be.

   We stayed in Mexico City for several more days. We climbed the Aztec pyramids outside of the city. We went to museums and parks. We wandered around in the daytime, and soaked up the raw and vibrant life of the city streets. We ate wonderful food. We watched street performers. And then, eventually, we made our way home.

   I've been back to Mexico a couple of times since that first trip. It's a beautiful country, and it will always have a special place in my thoughts, because it was the there that the travel bug first took a really big bite out of me.

Joe, Me, Jason.
On top of a pyramid, outside of Mexico City.
   I've also had the opportunity to explore some other countries since then. And through those travels, I've made discoveries about myself and the people around me, that I don't think I could have made at home. I'm still drawn to the big cities. I'm still drawn to the unfamiliar. I still find plenty of profound beauty and human dignity among all of the widespread cruelty and tragedy. I enjoy getting out of my comfort zone. I like having to make conscious observations about unfamiliar surroundings. And I like the surprises, even when they're tough to handle.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Lou

   I met a man at a bar about six years ago. His name was Brian. He had Lou Gehrig's Disease. He was in a wheelchair. His body was thin, and his limbs were slightly contorted. He was 30-something years old. He'd lived a physically active life before the disease arrived. He'd done a lot of hiking, mountain climbing, boating, and martial arts. But his passion was for motorcross. He knew that he'd be dead within months, or possibly even weeks.

   He wasn't close to his family, but he'd had a group of friends that shared his active lifestyle. When his disease made that lifestyle unsustainable, they abandoned him. All of them. They stopped calling. They didn't come visit. They didn't write. They were gone. He was left to face death alone.

   He moved to the north end of downtown Chicago. That part of the city was easily navigated by wheelchair. He had money in the bank, and he made the bars of Chicago's Gold Coast neighborhood his new and final home. The bartenders and doormen all knew him by name. But he was desperate to be truly close to somebody.

   He told me all of this with a steady downpour of words. He had no time for pretense or subtlety. He could not afford to be cowed by the thought of rejection. He did not have the luxury of lying to himself.

   And I listened to all of this. I let the words soak in. I could feel the fear and the loneliness in every word that the man uttered. We moved together from one bar to the next. Faces that were familiar to him, helped him in and out of bars. Onto and off of bar stools. He drank gin. And he threw his naked pleas for companionship at me like a mad fisherman, furiously throwing his line at the water, over and over again.

   As the night inched closer to morning, he wound down. The urgency that had been in his words and movements began to subside. But there was no peace in the creeping silence. There was only defeat.

   When we prepared to part ways, he gave me his phone number. I don't know whether he believed that I'd call. I do know that he wanted that call to come. But it didn't come. Not from me.

   I was sincerely sympathetic. I was even curious. But I was also scared, and that was the emotion that won.

   I don't know how long I held onto the number. I don't remember how close I came to calling. I only remember that I didn't do it.

   I sometimes wonder how his final days played out. Whether he found somebody more courageous, or simply more caring, than me. Whether he had somebody to hold his hand as he died.

   I wonder what would be different with me too, had I made that call.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Tidbits From The Beach

   I'm in North Carolina, at Sunset Beach. This is the fourth day of my vacation. Two friends of mine got married here a few days ago. They met each other about four years ago, and I met them both around that same time.

Bride and Groom
   We don't live in the same city any more. They've been in Denver for three years now. So I've only seen brief glimpses of their transition from the realm of dating to the that of marriage. I've visited with them in Denver a few times. I've seen the home that they share. Played with their dogs. Drank beer with them at their neighborhood bar.

   That view, however limited, has left me with a good impression. The seem to have a genuine tenderness with each other, and they seem to communicate openly and honestly. They're both thoughtful and intelligent people, and they seem to share common values and perspectives.

   And I feel confident that they have found connections with matters that are deeply personal as well. We all have various pieces of debris from our life, that we carry around within ourselves. They seem like they've found a way to share those pieces of themselves with each other, and they seem like they've grown together through that process.

   Its a remarkable thing to witness, no matter the vantage point.

Me on the left. Justin on the right.  Beach house roof deck. 
   I'm sharing a beach house this week with three other friends. We've had a lot of down time. I've been able to read a little. Write a little. Eat and drink a lot. Do some swimming and lounge in the sun. Things have slowed down. We have nowhere to be. We just get to be.

   We watched the sunrise on the beach after a night of great food, heavy drinking, story telling, and hard laughter. Three of us went running together yesterday morning. And I believe there is an ocean-side ice cream cone in my future.

Waiting on the sunrise with the groom.
   The slow and easy pace allows me time to see things in a different light. I can pause to consider the people around me as individual  people. With their own unique hopes and fears. Their own personal history. I hear the waves, and pause to consider the ocean of which they are a part. I can stare at the stars, and consider each as an individual sun. And the limitless possibilities of the universe begin to open up.

   Life is beautiful. And I'm going to go jump in the ocean now.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Where to Put Things

"I don't know where to put things, ya know? I really do have love to give. I just don't know where to put it." - Quiz Kid Donnie Smith


   I've been trying to learn how to write for roughly fourteen years. But for the most part I've kept the results of those efforts to myself. That doesn't mean that I have thousands of pages of writing hidden away in my closet. I don't. I have hundreds of pages at best, and most of that would be meaningless to anybody but me.

   Throughout those fourteen years there have been long stretches of time in which I wrote nothing. Though there have never been long stretches of time in which I did not think about writing.

   Fiction is what I want to write. There is a desperation in my gut to make that happen. But that desperation rarely succeeds in traveling from my gut to my fingertips. It happens, but not often.

   I can't give a full explanation of why I want to write fiction. I know that it started with falling in love with literature that was written by others. I know that I saw those writers use fiction to engage the more difficult aspects of living. I saw them use their characters and stories to explore the dark and disturbing elements within themselves. And I wanted that for myself. I still do. I also know that that explanation is far from complete.

   I created this blog in October of 2009. In April of 2011, I finally started using it. I wasn't sure what I'd do with it. I don't see myself using this space for fiction. But I felt like I needed to put something out into the world. I needed to get comfortable with the idea of other people reading the thoughts that I've put down.

   I also needed to develop some discipline. I needed a routine. A writer has to write. The fiction will not be there every day. It isn't there most days. But there is always something in my head. When the fiction isn't there, I can write on other topics. On the days that I can't seem to dig deep, I can sort through the things that are a little closer to the surface. That keeps the fingers moving.

   Sometimes I think the experiment has been a fruitful one. I've been writing almost every morning for the past few months. But I do question it too. Am I settling for the easy stuff too often? Most days I don't even try to write any fiction. I just go straight to the blog. Have I created a cheap and hollow replica of my honest desires? Am I settling for something less than what I want, because I'm afraid of the real thing?

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Bug Bite - Part 2 of 3



   We arrived in Queretaro on a Saturday, and that was by design. Jason had been there once before, and he'd come away with a decidedly favorable impression of the city's nightlife. So we figured we'd soak up the night spots there, and then have the following weekdays to explore Mexico City's museums, parks, ruins, and so on. But those plans had one big hitch that none of us had been aware of. The federal elections were going to be held on Sunday, and it is illegal to sell alcohol in Mexico on election day. So from Saturday at midnight, through Sunday evening, the bars that we'd hoped to visit would be closed.

   We had actually heard about this a few days prior to arriving in Queretaro. But I don't think we really believed it. My own disbelief was rooted in the impression that I had of the country's legal system in general. The handful of cross border excursions that I'd made over the years had taught me that "illegal" in Mexico, really just meant "expensive". And even the term expensive was relative. But the closer election day came, the more we talked to people about this one day prohibition. And the more we talked to people, the more we realized that the bars really were going to close.

Lucha Libre Flyer
   Of course we didn't have to go out drinking at night in order to enjoy the city. I could just enjoy the daytime wanderings through the streets and parks. We'd have a relaxing weekend and move on. But I'd got the idea in my head, and it wasn't going away. (Election day also happened to be my birthday, and that probably added to my stubbornness.) And then those daytime wanderings brought us upon an alternative. While walking down the street, Joe spotted a flyer for some lucha libre matches. There was a full slate of matches scheduled for the night of the elections, and our derailed bar-hopping plans had just been rerouted to the colorful world of Mexican free wrestling.

   Before the liquor sales shut down, we grabbed a bottle of Cuban rum. (Good rum that was illegal in the U.S. because of an outdated, misguided, and inhumane trade embargo. But was readily available at a great price in Mexico.) And with most of that bottle in our bellies and an excited sense of mischief in heads, we arrived at Arena Queretaro.

Myself and Jason at Arena Queretaro.
   Arena Queretaro looked like one of the old high school basketball gyms in the movie Hoosiers. Though time had taken its toll on the place. In the center of the gym was the wrestling ring. Well worn, tattered, and taped up, the ring stood empty when we arrived. As did most of the seats. The rows of aluminum folding chairs were about ten deep on each side. And behind them stood the cracked and dirty concrete walls of the old building. We took a few seats in the front row and watched the other fans and spectators trickle in.

   I was later told that we would have experienced a much larger crowd had it not been election night. But whatever the hundred or so person audience lacked in size, they more than made up for in intensity.

   As soon as the first wrestlers took to the ring, they were greeted by cheers and jeers from the fans. One woman in particular stood apart from the rest of crowd and earned a permanent spot in my memory. The venom that she aimed at her enemies in the ring was both frightening and comical. Her face was red, her muscled strained, and the animosity in her voice might give somebody the impression that she was confronting the murderer of a loved one, rather than an underpaid b-list entertainer. But that alone isn't what made her stand out. Throughout the matches, while she spewed out hate filled obscenities that filled the gym, a baby of about four or five months slept peacefully in her arms. Not once did she hand off the baby to one of the merely mildly ruffled women in her party, who seemed content to shout an occasional admonishment or perhaps shake a fist at the ring. And not once did that baby show any sort of alarm at the fury that was emanating from it's presumed mother. Which led me to speculate that perhaps she is like this all the time. That thought led my down a whole other rabbit hole of questions. For instance, what might life be like for that kid, and for the man that helped produce the offspring?

   But I did eventually pull my attention away from the woman, and return my gaze to the ring. The view from the front row provided an interesting perspective on the wrestling. The punches and kicks were clearly not landing with full force. And they tossed each other around with moves that were obviously choreographed. But it was equally apparent that these guys were taking a beating. The sweat was pouring out, the cuts and scrapes seemed quite real, and the labored breathes coming from the ring were evidence that they were giving everything they had to the performance. And then they took their battles beyond the ropes.

Lucha Libre @ Arena Queretaro
   The first time a wrestler was thrown into the seats, the crowd squealed with mock terror and delight, scattered out of harm's way, and left the two men to fight it out on their own. The wrestlers punched and kicked one another among the fallen chairs, before finding their way back into the ring. The second time, the same thing happened, but on another side of the stage. And at that point I realized that they would probably make their way around to our side at some point.

   As that realization sank in, the excitement and the anticipation began to mix with the Cuban rum, and I turned to Jason and Joe, and told them that I wasn't going to move if one of the guys got thrown our way. I wanted to get in on the fight somehow. And just a moment later they came flying my way.

   I think it was the "good guy" that landed in my lap, but I couldn't be sure. Either way, I grabbed him from behind and held him in a full nelson. This was a pretty big guy, and I have no doubt that he could have shaken off my little seventh grade playground move with relative ease, had he chosen to. But both wrestlers embraced the improvisational moment. The one in my lap pretended to struggle for his freedom, while his opponent tried to stifle the laughter that I could see behind his mask, all while delivering heavy stomps to the prone man's chest.

   After delivering those kicks, the standing wrestler grabbed his enemy and threw him back into the ring and I nearly pissed myself with glee. I looked around and saw the chairs that had been knocked over, the spilled popcorn and cokes that littered the floor, and I noticed that the fallen fighter had left some of his blood on my pants.

   The absurdity of it all was absolutely beautiful. In that environment I could just let go of any attachments that I had to the realm of logic and reason and I could embrace the honesty and the simplicity of impulse and sensation. It isn't a state that I want to find myself in on a daily basis, but there is an undeniably cathartic release involved in the process of giving yourself over to those elements from time to time.

   After the last match, I left Queretaro Arena with an easy smile on my face. It was a quiet summer night in the city, and we rode in silence in a cab with the windows rolled down.

   The polls had closed, and as we rode down the street we noticed that people were posting what looked like results from individual precincts. Big pieces of paper with names and numbers printed on them, were stapled to walls. And the people passing by immediately gathered around to take a look. But it was a close and highly contested election, and the results were far from final that evening.

   That following morning we packed our bags and once again set out for the bus station. We had one stop left, before returning to Jason's place in Monterrey. Mexico City was just a quick ride down the highway and I was excited to get there.

   Mexico City was the red letter destination on that itinerary for me. I love the chaotic energy of large cities, and I knew that this was one of the biggest in the world. And in theory, I knew that I was going into something that was outside of my realm of experience. I'd listened to Jason talk about the place. I'd read about it. I'd seen it portrayed vividly in one of my favorite movies. But in the end, nothing that I had read or heard about could convey the sights, sounds, smells, and the feel of that city. In order to get even a taste of the humanity that that city is teeming with, I had to stand in it.