The Patron Saint of the Arbors

I.

There’s a handsome young gentleman who lives in my apartment complex who, the first year or so that I lived here, I thought was not a he but rather a she. This is a mistake many of us make when presented with a non-human creature: too often we address the cool, tough, intense, or energetic creatures as he, while the softer, gentler, more demure ones we call she. When we see a hawk or a bad-ass dog or a cartoon of a fierce dinosaur, we say, “Whoa, look at that guy!” With pretty birds and adorable pups it’s always, “Who’s a pretty girl?” This is crazy, though, and it reveals how deeply held our prejudices are.

So this gentleman in my complex, for over a year I referred to her as Honkers, a name drawn from her meow that is only barely deeper and bolder than a squeak. It’s a soft little Owmp, which in its pitifulness matches the cat’s scrawny size. Honkers is only seen at night, hanging around outside the apartment of one of our neighbors on the floor below us. She sleeps out there just outside the door, on a bed that her person put there for that purpose. But more often Honkers can be seen about ten feet down the way, sitting erect and looking out through the little wrought iron fence that blocks the walkway from the courtyard below. Always sitting there, Honkers just looks out on the nighttime world. When we come up from the car, she greets us with her little noise, honking and bonking and rubbing and purring. For a stranger, Honkers is the perfect cat.

Once or twice, I’d be talking to Honkers about what she’d seen and done since the last time we’d seen each other, when her owner would crack the door to see who was out there. Acting more skittish than the cats, I would dart away for fear of getting caught being the weirdo that I am. Eventually, though, I did get caught. On that occasion, my wife was standing there with our groceries — I had set my bag down, knowing that Honkers was, wisely, afraid of shopping bags — and she was patiently indulging me as I pet the cat. Then the door opened too quickly for me to gather my groceries and run away, so I tried chatting a bit with Honkers’ owner.

As friendly and chatty as Honkers is, her person is the opposite. But I was able to learn from her that Honkers’ real name is Tiggs — presumably short for Tigger, a terrible and obvious name for a cat — and that she is a boy cat. More accurately, she’s a grown-ass man cat. Tiggs just showed up at the person’s door one day and has been attached to her ever since.

After my conversation with Tiggs’ person, I still take time to say hello to him whenever I can, and avoid her at all costs. Also, while common sense suggests his name is short for Tigger, I assume it’s actually an elision of Taye Diggs, so that’s what I call him. I don’t work nights anymore so I don’t see him as much, and besides I think he’s usually allowed to sleep inside when it’s below freezing, as it has been lately. But still, on warm nights sometimes he’s outside when I’m leaving for my pre-dawn run, and at the risk of disturbing his slumber I still usually exchange good mornings with him. Recently I saw him on the opposite side of the apartment complex, an area to which he rarely strays except for those occasions when he’s feeling so sociable that he follows my wife and I to our door. When he follows us, he usually lays outside our apartment for an hour or two, driving our cat Puss — full name Hunter Paxton Pusserton — absolutely crazy as he spies from the window.

On this occasion, though, Taye Diggs was on the landing half a flight of stairs up from the laundry room, pacing distractedly. I said hello, of course, and scratched him a bit behind the ears. Then I continued to the laundry room, to do those things that people do there. Then it became clear why Taye was just a half-flight of stairs away: his person was doing her laundry, and he had chosen to accompany her. We all always knew Taye Diggs was a true gentleman.

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Some Resolutions

Close readers of this blog (so, basically, my wife and my cat maybe, though my paltry traffic numbers leave me not totally convinced even they read me) may notice an inconsistency in my last post. As I collected my thoughts on the new year, I wrote that this year was exceptional in that I was actually making resolutions. Here’s what I wrote:

As I’ve noted in every New Year’s essay since my first one in 2011, I don’t like resolutions. (But this year I make some, see below.) Too often they’re negative, and they carry little weight beyond the end of January. I instead try to frame it positively.

First of all, this is not that much of an exception, as I’ve written almost that exact same thing before. Second of all, I never actually stated the resolutions I made this year. So here they are:

  • Stop biting my fingernails and, moreover, quit picking at my cuticles when I’m anxious. I’m tired of bleeding on everything.
  • Get up when I’m supposed to and consistently do my training in the morning rather than the evenings.
  • Drink less.
  • Be less affected by heteronymous forces. That is, curb my jealousies and resentments. Be myself and be good at it.
  • Keep reading. Challenge myself with new ideas.
  • Answer emails within a day of receiving them.

That will probably do it. If I do that combination of trivial and intense things while connecting better with the people around me, 2016 will be a good year.

Thoughts on the New Year: 2016 Edition

This is the fifth edition of my annual Thoughts on the New Year essay. I wrote it over three sessions, starting in the lobby of a Midas on New Year’s Eve and completing it the morning of New Year’s Day  at a crowded breakfast table. It feels awfully scattershot to me, but that’s how my brain works. See previous editions of this essay here.

Could any New Year’s Eve feel more unexpected? Sure, this is the inevitable end of any year: they all must end 365 or 366 days after they begin. But usually I’m at least aware that the year is ending for a couple weeks before it actually does. 2015 was so full, from beginning to end, that I haven’t felt any natural slowdown of this year or the attendant excitement for the coming one. That’s not a bad thing — tonight will be a fantastic night spent with friends and family– but it just feels different.

For the last several years, New Year’s — and all the hope and expectation that comes with it — has led me to think very deeply and feel very intensely about the coming year. That’s resulted in four consecutive annual editions of this essay. (Five in a row, whoa!) While writing this essay has become an important part of my New Year tradition, I didn’t start thinking about this year’s essay until this afternoon

As 2014 turned into 2015,  I committed myself to digging in, focusing, being more consistent, and chugging along like a tugboat captain. It was the Year of Stability. But it was still a year I was  excited about. And it didn’t disappoint: I followed up running a marathon in 2014 with running two more, and finishing the second under three hours. (Something achieved by only 2 1/2 percent of everyone who attempts a marathon — itself less than two percent of the population.) After nearly two years at a very good job I got a new one, and was able to quit my second job. Oh, and I got married.

All of those feats are indicators of stability. Marriage is stability. Long distance running is itself an endeavor of persistence, and it’s an activity I began in earnest in 2013 and am continuing into next year. That’s stability. And sure, I changed jobs, but I did so in a move that will hopefully allow me professional stability in a way I’ve never had..

So while chugging along I did some really great things, but it was stable. This was the first year since I was in high school in which I didn’t move. The apartment in which my wife, my cat, and I live isn’t great — I decided yesterday that it’s the third- or fourth-worst of the 12 or more I’ve lived in as an adult — and I don’t particularly like the area where we live. I feel, occasionally, that I’m performing well below my ambitions. But committing to my plan, working hard, and digging in was my goal for this past year. In addition to my very real and tangible and exciting successes, achieving that more passive goal is its own victory. I end 2015 feeling very good about the year.

The end of 2015 snuck up on me. Here we are, but when did we get here? When did all this time pass? This year has been busy, right up to the last few hours. (It’s so busy that I began this essay in the lobby of a Midas, watching the second Hangover movie while getting an oil change.) Suddenly tomorrow is next year and I’ve hardly thought about it at all.

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2015 Was a Very Good Year for Music

This was a good year for me, on a number of different levels. I ran a ton, broke three hours in the marathon, worked at a great company where my job was to talk to smart people, left that one for a much larger company where my job continues to be to talk to smart people, started learning the harmonica, and wrote the first song I’ve written in maybe 10 year. (It’s a terrible song, but still.) I also started writing for fun again. Oh, and I got married.

My general thoughts on this past year — and the one to come — will come through in a later essay as I celebrate the fifth year of my annual Thoughts on the New Year essay. But something happened to me this year that I neither planned nor expected: I got really knowledgeable about music. I’ve played music since I was a kid and always listened to it constantly, but I’ve never been the sort of person who reads Pitchfork or anything like that and has been able to speak fluently about the “best” albums of the year, or the music from the past year they were most excited about*. In general, I’m always a couple of years behind. But this year, I began using Spotify as a way to dive deeper into the genres that I love, and I made a deliberate effort to concentrate on songs and albums that came out within the last year or so. I’ve found a way to pursue a comprehensive knowledge of where my favorite kinds of music — bluegrass, “progressive” bluegrass, alt-country, and Americana — stand in 2015.

These are, of course, not the only genres I listen to, but they certainly are the ones I listen to the most. In this post I’m going to discuss bluegrass and country and their offshoots as purely and natively American genres, but while I won’t list the other great American genres I pay attention to, it’s worth noting that others exist. This year has also seen some incredibly innovative, groundbreaking, and powerful releases in other areas of the American music world. It would be a tragedy for me to ignore a landmark album like Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly or a largely unknown but powerful protest record like Active(ist), by the incredible Baltimore organizer, artist, speaker and rapper Kwame Rose. So while they won’t be discussed in more detail below, those albums and that broader sense of American-ness —  encompassing not just white, Southern things like bluegrass but a more broadly integrative idea of what it means to be an American — deserve being mentioned above the fold.

At any rate, here, now, a listicle of (some of) my favorite** albums from 2015:

The Railsplitters: The Faster It Goes

This is probably my favorite of all the performers I’ve discovered this year. (Maybe up there with William Elliott Whitmore, who we’ll get to next.) Getting to Colorado to see them live or, you know, seeing them on tour in California, is one of my top priorities, and it’s maybe my biggest regret from having been unable to make it  to Denver for work this fall. This record is full of fun tracks where the band takes traditional bluegrass instrumentation — guitars, double bass, mandolin — and infuse them with enough pop melodies and jazz rhythms that it feels alive, new, and dynamic. It’s important for traditional music to engage with contemporary sounds. Culture is a dynamic beast that grows and evolves, and The Railsplitters are one of the great groups out there today making sure that bluegrass thrives in the 21st Century.

The perfectly-named instrumental track The Estuary shows their bluegrass chops, but the song You is among the most fun ones on the album:

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Another Novel Not Written

There are so many things I’ve not written. There are countless novels, plays, stories, journal entries, screenplays, teleplays, recipes, cookbooks and brochures that I’ve not written. The very small number of things I’ve written is overwhelmingly dwarfed by the number of things I’ve not written.

This is called potential: there’s always more to do, more to write.

More problematically, the number of things I’ve written is even dwarfed by the number of things I’ve started writing and given up. I’ve never written a screenplay, but I’ve started three and quit them all. I’ve written a dozen or so (of course unpublished) short stories but have thought about, taken notes for, and even begun countless more. Almost 10 years ago I helped co-write two different theatrical productions; the number of plays I’ve started outlining must outnumber those at a ratio of 10 to 1.

Last month I added another entry to the numbers of creative projects I’ve undertaken and quit. This was maybe my most ambitious attempt, so quitting it doesn’t really hurt all that much.

My goal was to participate in National Novel Writing Month, something I mentioned in my last post on this site over two months ago. National Novel Writing Month is a non-profit organization that encourages people — adults and schoolchildren — to write an entire novel in 30 days. The target is 50,000 words, which I believe comes out to about 1,600 words per day. I could confirm that math using a calculator, but the specifics are less important to what I’m saying here. Point is, it’s ambitious.

On November 1, I started strong. The idea for the novel had been germinating in my mind for months. I spent much of my Sunday long runs thinking about different passages, phrases, descriptions and events that could contribute. November 1 was a Sunday. I sat down at my computer and started writing. I wrote a little over 450 words before needing to go on my long run. I came back from my run and had to do some errands. At that time, Sunday was my only day off and my only chance to do many of the chores and activities that allow adults to live productively through the week. So I never got back to my computer that day, but I figured if I could just write 50 extra words per day, I’d be fine.

November 2 I started a new job that requires a commute of about an hour and a half. I thought I’d be able to take that time to work on my novel, but it’s hard to write when standing on a train. (I almost always stand, keeping the seats for people whose need to sit is more urgent or extreme than my own.) Also, as happens in life, I decided that there were other things I could do on my commute that made me happier. In the morning I do language lessons and read Le Monde; in the evenings I read.

One week and 465 words into National Novel Writing Month, I resigned myself to quitting my novel. In the past I would have really beaten myself up over this: the last 10 years of my life can be described as a cycle of wanting to do creative work and being frustrated with myself for not making the time to pursue it, with brief periods of hard work intermixed in there. But I (no longer) want to be a famous writer, or even a published one. That’s ego. I want to write because I love doing it, and sometimes things don’t get written because they’re not very good or I’m not very committed to the idea. Other times I don’t write because it’s simply not a priority then. And that’s okay.

Ideas are autonomous things. They have their own souls and needs and potentials. Ones that get nurtured and encouraged can become great; they can leave the mind of the writer or artist and enter the thoughts of strangers, adding value to many people. Other ideas, living quietly in the back of my mind, will still live out their proper and wonderful existences, adding value to my life even if I don’t do anything with them.

This is another novel not written, and there will be many, many more. And that’s just fine by me.

Working Hard, or Hardly Working

Sunday is my only day off. As my only day off, I usually just want to sit around and do nothing all day long. But also, as my only day off, it’s the day I need to do laundry and clean and buy groceries and, ideally, cook a fun dinner for my wife.

Sunday is also my best opportunity to catch up on my creative work, something I abandoned because of personal life stresses many years ago, which I’m trying to regain. But when I have to do laundry and clean and shop and cook — and really just want to be laying on the couch napping and watching sitcoms with my cat — it’s difficult to also write and read and play guitar and practice my harmonica. But those are things I need to force myself to do.

To force myself to do them, I’ve set myself some goals. In October, I’m working on two short pieces of creative writing: an essay about running for submission to Runner’s World but most probable publication in some other, more minor outdoors magazine, and a short story about an imaginary acquaintance I used to have back in Napa. (He was a troll; he passed away during the earthquake. I used to pass his home on many of my long runs and bid my respects.) Today I did indeed finish the first draft of the running essay, which came in at just over one thousand words. It requires heavy editing and re-working.

In November I’m participating in National Novel Writing Month. My novel is going to revolve around a career hospitality worker, which is a sort of bizarro-world alternative reality I could easily be living. The protagonist is a composite of myself and several people I’ve worked with over the years. His co-workers are, likewise, fictional of course but will incorporate characteristics of restaurant people I’ve known and loved.

And all of this is going on at the same time as my Super Secret Creative Project (tipping my hand a little, it’s a screenplay), and my budding harmonica skills. Little in this world makes me as happy as working towards improving myself. Even if on some base level I do just want to be laying on the couch with a beer.

Eating for Fuel vs Eating for Fun

I used to have a friend back in New Orleans whose father lived somewhere in the Upper Midwest. I remember him complaining once that his father was coming down for a visit and that, while my friend liked to enjoy his meals while taking advantage of the incredible dining options in New Orleans, his father did not take pleasure in eating. He told me something to the effect of: “My dad’s never eaten a meal for fun. He says food is for fuel.”

My friend’s utilitarian father is not wrong. Nor is my friend, the slightly-more-hedonistic son. Food (and the eating thereof) occupies a unique space in human existence, wherein it is a simple biological need at its most basic, while also being understood across cultures as a source of pleasure and tradition*.

I. Food as Fun

I’ve always loved eating. When I was a kid (and into my early teens) I could eat forever. I could eat six burgers in a sitting. In elementary school I infamously ate large jar of apple sauce at our church minister’s house — one small bowl at a time — which my parents were embarrassed to learn when they picked up my sister and I. After soccer practice my mom and I would sometimes go to Taco Bell and I would order ALL of the tacos. (Always soft tacos, of course.) I could eat an entire tray of lasagna, and I loved every bite of it.

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