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.

Continue reading “The Patron Saint of the Arbors”

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.

From Sea to Shining Sea

I get married in 16 days. In itself that’s exciting, but it also means that in 13-14 days much of my friends and family will be making the big trek across the country to California, the Golden State. I realized today (thanks to some stellar Instagram action) that this will be the first time to the West Coast for my favorite full-blooded sister*. It will be the same for my mother. I’ve known this about my mother since we first started planning the wedding — she’s afraid to fly, so I’m fairly certain she has only been west of the Mississippi once or twice, maybe just as far as the West Bank of New Orleans. But somehow the news about my sister was a surprise.

Upon making this realization, my first thought was: oh, I need to make sure she touches the Pacific Ocean.

When you think about it, that’s an odd first thought. She’s coming to California for the first time ever — there are so many natural and man-made wonders in this part of the country. The scenery is so stunning, the history and culture of the Bay Area is so rich, but the only thing I really need her to do while here is touch the ocean? Touching the Pacific was one of my big “bucket list” activities upon moving to California. It was a big deal when I finally did, some nine months after moving here**.

Water plays an important role in my life. My soul just reacts positively to water. Growing up near it, in a region whose identity and culture contain endless nods to the sea, perhaps this is just a function of being a Marylander. Maybe it’s more a result of my parents’ lifestyles, particularly my sailing, seafaring, occasionally-swashbucklin’ father. Whatever the reason, I’ve always felt a special connection to the water, in whatever form I find it: River, sea, ocean, or otherwise. When I’m stumped on a project or a piece of writing, I take a shower and I get clarity. It’s just deep within my veins.

But back to oceans. Coming from the East Coast, I do and always will think of the Atlantic as the Original Ocean. It’s the first American ocean, the one that people crossed to create our country. It’s the one we drove an hour or two to play in. It’s the one upon whose tributaries we lived. Every gutter in my mother’s neighborhood says “CHESAPEAKE BAY DRAINAGE DO NOT DUMP.” Everything runs to the Chesapeake,  and the Chesapeake is a big, blue and beautiful arm of the Atlantic. But it wasn’t the Atlantic, it was just the ocean. The Ocean.

If the Atlantic is the original American ocean, the Pacific is the new ocean. For better or worse (often for worse), much of American history was defined by the push west. The Pacific Ocean was the endgame. Manifest Destiny told us Anglo-Americans that we had the right to everything from sea to shining sea, from east to west, and so westward we marched. Who cares what people were there already, if the French or the Spanish or the new Mexican Republic or, heaven forbid, indigenous people had preexisting claims on those lands. We marched west, and even still this is considered good and normal. There is, after all, very little nuance in the old Oregon Trail games.

There’s also the migrations from the Gold Rush, the Dust Bowl, and the San Francisco-centric counter culture. American history, it sometimes seems, has two overarching trends: wars with Europe and movement towards the Pacific Ocean.

Even today, going west is what one does. As an East Coaster (and former Gulf Coaster) living on the West Coast, there is something regressive-seeming about going back East (unless you’re going to try to make it in New York.) It’s a rhetorical trick — there isn’t anything regressive about it. It’s over 100 years since the last of the contiguous 48 states were added. The continental US, as it is today, has been set for a long while. This is your country. Move about as you please.

Still: it’s a Great American Thing to go west. It’s a $500 flight to go east.

(Related: my favorite West Coast thing is the way people here — including those who have never lived a day outside of California — refer to the East Coast as “back East.” Back there: that’s where we began***.)

Water is the lifeblood of a society. It explains why we live where we do. It feeds our economy, from transportation to agriculture to industry to tourism. It creates defining cultural symbols. It feeds and nourishes us, literally and figuratively. As a nation borne out of Anglo-European colonies, the Atlantic nurtured and raised us. But we grew up with — and toward — the Pacific. It made us who we are.

So if your sister is about to be on the Pacific coast for the first time, of course she has to put her feet in it.

*I have three sisters. Technically one is a half, one is a step, and one is a full, but they’re all just great.

**I may have had my feet in the Pacific once before, one a brief trip to San Diego in 2008. I can’t recall.

***I recognize that this discussion of the Pacific coast as defined by migration from east to west ignores all movements from Asia to the United States across the Pacific, or to the Western US from Mexico and south. I am intentionally regurgitating the understanding of the West Coast as understood by a middle class white kid growing up “back East.”

To Preserve Is to Kill, or: a Probably-Obtuse Discussion of Gentrification

I once said something that seemed insightful, and whomever I said it to reacted in such a way that I started to really think maybe it was insightful, and it has stuck with me ever since. I’m certain it came in the context of a conversation about gentrification, because as a frequent gentrifier that’s a conversation I often have*. At any rate it definitely came in the context of a conversation about cultural preservation, because this is what I said:

To preserve is to kill. Once you start talking about “preservation” as such, that thing that you wish to preserve — as an organic product of the culture in question — is already gone.

My reasoning for that (intentionally controversial) statement is rooted in food, as most of my most important thoughts are. Think about preservation as a cooking method. When you eat a cucumber, it is pretty much the same vegetable it was when it was a living, growing thing on the vine. You pull it off the vine, you slice it up, you have a cucumber. But as an organic thing, that cucumber exists only on the vine, and for a short period after being removed. So what do you do if you love that cucumber and want to have it with you for months to come? You preserve it, by pickling.

But then it’s not a cucumber. It’s a pickle, reminiscent of the cucumber it was on the vine, but no longer the same thing.

The same thought experiment works for berries, preserved as, well, preserves. Or red meat, which when you cook it properly is bloody like the red-blooded mammal it came from, but which when preserved becomes jerky. You’re able to keep the food product with you, protect it from the ravages of spoilage and waste. You’re being respectful to the resources that were used to feed and water the plant or animal. But you’re changing its nature, definitively.

When you’re talking about historic preservation, of historic homes or battlegrounds or whatever, this is assumed, and it’s not a negative thing. It’s actually good. That home is no longer the residence of whichever rich and/or famous person once lived there, so it’s lost the vibrant, organic presence it had when it was in use, but still we want to preserve that for future generations to observe. Or the battleground, upon which battle is no longer taking place, is preserved for future generations to see and learn from. This is not a bad thing.

This applies to other cultural relics too, like, say, music or clothing from a bygone era. Because relics are, by definition, remainders of yesteryear**. Preserving them is less like pickling a cucumber or making blackberry preserves, and more like petrified wood. But petrified wood you made. (I don’t know, my simile is getting a little muddled. Like berries in a blackberry mojito. Oh lord, similes upon similes. Somebody save me.)

But when you start talking about preserving neighborhoods, protecting them from change, that’s when preservation, to me, becomes nonsense. Once you start talking about preservation, you’ve already lost. Because cultures are dynamic, organic things, constantly changing and evolving and progressing and regressing. Neighborhoods, as the buzzing physical embodiments of culture, necessarily change and evolve and progress and regress, too. Preservation implies you’re stopping that change, retaining what exists now and removing it from its context for good.

I’m venturing into Privilege Town here, I know. It’s easy for me to sit here and listen to music made by white guys appropriating other cultures and ramble about how we shouldn’t try to preserve neighborhoods or other cultural institutions. But I don’t mean to say that, instead, let’s just gentrify and displace and destroy, without any care for the people whose cultures we’re destroying. That’s like digging up the cucumber vine and leaving all the vegetables to rot, and is sort of like what often happens now anyway. Right before some well-intentioned but tone-deaf white twentysomethings say, hey, before you finish that let’s grab a couple of those veggies and preserve ’em.

My point is that we should be more proactive. We need to start caring about people and neighborhoods and cultures and everything else, before we get to the point of talking about “preservation.” Let them change and evolve and improve, but let it happen naturally. Once you start talking about preservation, you’ve already lost it.

*As a committed urbanite I’m not super-psyched about living in the lily white suburbs at the moment, but I guess one benefit is that this is the first time in the last 10 years I haven’t stressed about my role in broader patterns of social inequality and displacement. (Which is one of the purposes of the suburbs, probably: to not notice the broader patterns of social inequality.)

** Sincere apologies for using both “a bygone era” and “yesteryear” in a single paragraph. Every editor and employer I’ve ever had would slap me over the head for that.

Whatever, I’ll Eat What I Want

Lately I’ve been trying to live a little more healthily. I like to have a drink or two or three or four, and I like to eat pizza in excess, and burritos upon burritos upon burritos, and basically just whatever else I can get my hands on. I’m a pretty fit dude, but lately it’s seemed like I could be a little kinder to myself. My body, mind and soul could all benefit.

But sometimes, that’s no fun. Especially when the lady is out of town — as she does sometimes, staying at her parents’ house because they’re closer to her work. Basically I just eat pizza and gummy bears and drink beer when she’s gone.

Today, out of curiosity I tallied all the calories I take in on a normal day. Today, a very typical day, I ate a very normal amount of food. I’ve recently started training for my next race, but I’m still in the early stages where I’m going on short, relatively slow runs. But still, today’s four miler, at a 7:20 pace, is close to 600 calories burned.

Tallying this today started with idle curiosity, but it led to a very active, happy thought: I’m going to eat a bag of gummy bears, and they’re going to be great.

Sundays in the Greatest City in the Land of Pleasant Living

This is a Baltimore story. Which in a way makes it an America story, because Baltimore is The Greatest City in America. But it’s more a generic America story because it involves so many things that characterize our country — industry and religion and spending time in cars with your family and fantasizing about the lives of people you’ve never met.

But above all, this is a Sunday morning story.

Growing up, we went to church every week. (Well, my family went to church every week. I went every other week because that’s what happens when your parents are divorced. One week here with this routine; one week there with another routine.) Early on, my step-father began taking classes  at a bible college out in the country a ways northeast of our home in Baltimore. He was ordained as a minister in the Christian Church when I was maybe in middle school. As often happens, the timeline is fuzzy. I think I was 12 or 13, but I’m an unreliable narrator.

By this time we were no longer going to the gigantic church on Mountain Road in Harford County that we’d briefly attended when I was very young. Nor were we attending the much smaller church on the Baltimore-Harford county line that we attended for most of my elementary school life*. By the time he was ordained we were attending a newer church down by the airport, which is south of Baltimore. The church now has a real building — I think — but for as long as I attended, in middle and high school, it was housed first in a conference room at a Holiday Inn near the airport and, later, in a refurbished warehouse. I’m sure it was actually further, but that latter location felt like it was only 300 yards short of one of the airport’s runways.

That’s also where I spent most of my Sundays in high school, when I wasn’t at my dad’s house and didn’t have a soccer game. Because of my parents’ involvement in the church, and because it was so much farther away from home than our previous churches, we’d stay there all day. Sometimes we’d bring bagels and pimento cheese and make little sandwiches.** Sometimes we’d go to Golden Corral with a big group from church. Sometimes we’d go to another family’s house and have lunch there. But inevitably we’d end up back at the warehouse complex. Sometimes my step-dad and I would throw around a lacrosse ball. Maybe I’d do homework, but usually we’d all hang out, us kids who were stranded there. We were in middle/high school, after all.

But that’s not the point of this story, actually. This story is from when we first started going to that church, when I was a little bit younger and didn’t play lacrosse and wasn’t really interested in girls yet. Usually when we drove down we would listen to WPOC, Baltimore’s country station. On Sunday mornings the station would play gospel. Generally white gospel,  usually a cappella stuff, the music of Appalachia and Tennessee and Kentucky (or at least the white parts of Tennessee, considering Memphis and its surroundings are the source of much of the great black gospel).

I’d be in the back seat of the car with my sister, fully immersed in my own head. We spent a lot of time in the car growing up, between church and driving between my mom’s and dad’s houses. I spent a lot of time thinking, and a lot of time playing little games. I’d tap my left foot every time a car passed driving the other direction on the highway, and my right foot every time we passed a car going the same direction. I’d try to keep time with the gospel playing on WPOC and see how many of my foot taps lined up both with passing cars and with the radio.

There’s an area we’d pass most mornings, as I-895 took us from Northeast Baltimore through Southeast Baltimore towards the Harbor and, eventually, Anne Arundel County. This area was particularly industrial. This was before the warehouse-park days at the church, and was far and away the most industrial area we’d pass all day. It struck me as somehow wonderful and foreign and terribly intriguing — the strangest industrial area I’d ever seen. This, even though every other weekend, twice a weekend, we’d drive past Sparrows Point and Bethlehem Steel and all of Baltimore’s harbor-related industry going to and from my dad’s house.

Something about this area struck me as different. We’d pass a big old cemetery on a hill, then the Baltimore Travel Plex, and then these long, straight roads and warehouses so tall they were in line with the elevated highway. One of those long, straight roads had a weird-looking bar, and all the roads looked like they were constructed for the biggest trucks ever built. It all seemed to secret and I wondered how people got down there and what they did. And the gospel played and I’d tap my feet imagining how many different strange roads we’d have to go on to get down there, and what we’d do once we were there. But we never went — why would we? Instead we drove to church, where I’d spend my Sunday, and then we’d drive past it again at night. But by that point I’d be tired and the gospel would be over and my imagination had no interest in exploring down there.

But every now and then, I’ll hear a song like Sierra Hull’s version of The Land of Living***:

And it will take me right back to that car flying down the raised highway, looking out at those massive warehouses, fantasizing about those terrifying and wonderful places. I listen to a lot of bluegrass and gospel, basically all day every day while I’m at work, and I wonder how much that’s influenced by those Sunday mornings.

As some closure to this story, when I was a junior and a senior in high school, I dated a girl from Dundalk, in Southeast Baltimore. To get from her house to my dad’s, I’d drive down those very same industrial streets I’d fantasized about when I was in middle school. Turns out, to get down there all you had to do was date a girl from Dundalk.

*In Northeast Baltimore, one can go from the inner city — scenes straight out of The Wire — to the country in about a 25 minute drive. It goes from decaying post-industrial American city to nice outer reaches of the city to older suburbs to newer suburbs to exurbs to rural, in a very short distance. We lived just about halfway out, where older suburbs meet the newer.

**This is part of why I find it so hilarious that pimento cheese is — or was, at least a couple of years ago — so trendy. It’s cheap food! It’s what you eat when your parents don’t want to go out to lunch between services at church!

***This song has a double-meaning for this story. For one, when I heard it on Spotify earlier this week, it planted the seeds of this essay. But my hometown is also known as The Land of Pleasant Living.

And He Doesn’t Even Like Pancakes

Part of my parents’ custody agreement was that my sister and I went to my dad’s, about an hour south of our place in Carney (an older suburb just across the city line from Baltimore), every other weekend. One of the highlights of that weekend, for me, was the one morning when he would make pancakes. Sometimes it was Saturday, sometimes it was Sunday, but almost every weekend we were there my dad made pancakes.

I love pancakes. My stepfather, with whom I lived with my mother, my sister and my stepsister, also regularly made pancakes. Pancakes are my breakfast of choice for my birthday, typically prepared by my stepfather, because I always woke up on my birthday morning at home.

But those pancakes made by my father every other weekend, something was special. He doesn’t really cook, though he’s always baked bread rather irregularly. His two specialties are super-spicy, homemade cheese-its, and pancakes. Those two items pretty much constitute my earliest food memories.

It wasn’t until I was an adult I found out my dad never really ate the pancakes*. They were just for my sister and I, because we loved them.

*Holy crap I just wrote the word “pancakes” seven times in four short paragraphs.

This is a Difficult City, but a Great One

New Orleans is not always an easy city to live in. Sometimes, it’s quite difficult. But hell no, I’m never living anywhere else. I could never live somewhere where I could not, if I wanted to, say I wanted to go see live music on a Monday night and go get a couple cheap beers in a neighborhood bar not far from my rented home and catch some of the best fucking music in the world. Bless this town, unlike any other.