Friday, July 31, 2009

Travelogue 287 – July 31

It's 5am; sunlight is tinting the sky over the highway, over the wooded hills. When is the last time I've seen so many sunrises? 2009 is my Year of Eastern Skies. (A better title than Year of Sleepless Nights.)

We're on the move. We're on obscure, twisting roads among minute-man hamlets and Dunkin-Donut townlets. The ways may be obscure to me, but these are the days of Troy's life. We've taken in three of his childhood homes, nestled in woods that haunt with Sleepy-Hollow shadow and European-import little people, among trees pointing with irrepressible life toward the hope of new light. This is the East, land of the sun, land of beginnings. It's where America, land of liberty, took its first steps. It's also a place of memories. Connecticut is where Troy grew up, but it's also where I spent a few years after college. It's dark with night; it's new and it's old in the dawn – just as I'm innocent and decrepit in the state of sleeplessness.

In the middle of the road of our life, I find myself in an obscure forest. I've was writing about Dante recently – part of the futile project to document my life during the last five years. (Yes, even Dante makes an appearance!) Suddenly echoes of Dante are all too apropos. I've just emerged from a midnight expedition through several circles of hell. I now feel comfortable that I'll be ready for eternal torment when my time comes. I've been there, and it looks a lot like Atlanta.

Specifically, it looks like the Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, Terminal C. Terminal C, my assigned circle, is actually straight as an airliner's aisle, but much less roomy. My circle of hell is very long and very crowded. The ugly tiles of the corridor gleam with artificial lighting, enhanced to glare even more unnaturally than earthly fluorescents. Lost souls from delayed and canceled flights wander up and down the hall without rest because there is nowhere to sit. You pass restaurants and bars that are rammed to capacity with the unhappy dead. There is no rest. There is no exit – except for the connecting flight that seems to suffer delays at a faster rate than the normal progression of time. I spend four and a half hours in Atlanta.

In case you think your circle of hell might be better, I'm here to report that they are identical. I manage the Dantean feat of escape into an adjoining circle. I ride the infernal escalator down into the subterranean tunnel that connects the four terminals, T,A,B, C, and D. I shuffle like a zombie along the bleak wormhole, eschewing the moving walkway, thinking that haste is meaningless in hell. I catch the escalator up to Terminal D. It's as though I had never moved. Rod Serling is the poet of modern hells, not Dante. I stumble back in horror, running back down the wormhole.

With a weary eagle eye, I notice on one of my passes that there's a seat in Popeye's. I order a three-piece Greasy-Meal from minimum wage minions of Beelzebub. They are not like earthly fast food employees because in hell they enjoy their boredom, staring off into the lack of distance and reciting menu options with weird relish. I eat slowly, drawing out my sit-down time and watching with horror the skits of the damned. There's a toothless man in his fifties with a remnant of blonde good lucks. He's chatting up a teenage girl at the table next to him, saying she looks like Julia Roberts. She says she knows she does. She has square-tip manicured nails, painted in an elaborate design. She wears a cardinal red hoodie and very thin, flat flip-flops. He points out that though he wears his wedding ring, he and his wife are separated. At several adjoining tables, massive mamas with arena-sized brassy voices conduct swarms of children like electron clouds. Only Julia and I out of all the guests at Popeye's are eating. I escape, choosing the tortures of aimless fatigue to the terrors of the fried-chicken funhouse.

Somehow it happens that an angel of mercy sponsors me, plucking me from early damnation and depositing me in Boston, in the quiet halls of Logan International. Troy is waiting for me outside Terminal C. I breathe in the fresh, outdoor fumes of Boston with new gratitude and love for life. I will reform, Domine; I will be a better man.

Over hill and dale, we speed through the forests of old Massachusetts, racing toward Connecticut down trails blazed by Puritans. I contemplate our pilgrim's progress in the rays of a new dawn. Lids fall heavily over my eyes, and the sun leaves a scarlet mark. Never forget, my son: Terminal C!

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Travelogue 286 – July 18
The Cone of Noise

My neighbor across the hall listens to public radio 24 hours a day. It's not a disturbance particularly, though it is disturbing. Heavy metal would be a disturbance; MPR around the clock is just creepy.

When I pass her door, I picture the ceaseless sentences like the bars of a cage. Each story is time spent, and she scratches the count of her days into the plaster of her wall. The curtains are shut tight against the light of trivial weekdays. What are the bare sidewalks and traffic, the peregrinations of fellow citizens, measured against the titanic struggles of Ms. Sotomayor or the exteeeeeensive debate about healthcare in America? This is Reality.

Is it?Is it information or is it living? I should knock on my neighbor's door. Maybe there's been a half-hour segment on the subtle border between the two. Maybe Ira Glass has a show on file: 'Where Reality Falls Short'.

Myself, I could use a break from reality. The emails and phone calls keep coming in. Please, people, work it up into a pithy interview piece or a droll presentation with sound effects. Even better if I can download and pause when I like. And please tag it with a thinking-person's rhetorical question at the end, so I can feel engaged – in that gosh-times-are-tough, glass-of-milk-and-off-to-bed kind of way.

No, Reality is at my door, relentless and messy. The assault has been merciless since I first went to Ethiopia. Now, Saba is feeling short-changed by the role of Leeza's sister. When the bank balance is low, accountability rising, staff needs and children's problems spiking, she thinks there should be more rewards. 'Give me more' is her slogan. What annoys her is that it seems to be everyone else's slogan, too. Families at the school are unbearably insistent on this point. Funders are all about the children and families. They are not concerned about her. When her work is unsatisfactory, the funding is threatened. Her response is to threaten the funders. She invents crimes and lawsuits. She sends the lizard men after my staff, has them dragged to the lizard station in the middle of the night.

Too much Reality, Ira. I want to cocoon with a discussion panel. I want to drink cocoa and participate in American democracy remotely, absorbing issues of moment between cups of coffee.

It's 4am. I can't sleep for worrying. I pause at my neighbor's door. The debate goes on, wonderfully responsible, wonderfully lulling. I'm thinking my neighbor is peacefully slumbering, Bless her, and bless Ms. Sotomayor. Me, I'm kept up by the faces of children who might not have a school to attend this fall. I'm going to see what this day looks like as it comes up over the Mississippi. They keep coming, the days, sunrise after sunrise.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Travelogue 285 – July 11
That Heaveny ittle L-word

Today it's six years since we lost Leeza. I've seen the whole day, from its first dark blue glimmerings outside my apartment window. I haven't been sleeping.

The dawn brightens and the sun appears unimpeded. It's a perfectly cloudless sky that greets me. Before the sun sends first fire over the horizon, I'm out for a jog. It's a dream-like run on no sleep; the world meets my fragmented thoughts in a shimmering no-man's land.

Yesterday I'm on my bike charting some long miles on a muggier day of pachydermic clouds. I'm just topping the crest of the new pedestrian bridge over Hiawatha and reviewing a dream while I'm scanning the horizon.

The dream is the briefest of narratives, profound only in the feeling and recollection, rather than in stories: languidly, I reach the top of a staircase, or I come to the end of the riverside promenade. Sadly, but with a smile, I say, ‘That’s it?’ The stroll ends suddenly. But sometimes, I think dreams are encoded software updates. You wake up, and the silly dream seems significant. The world looks different.

The pedestrian bridge commands a wide prospect, encompassing the downtown skyline, the Seward and West Bank neighborhoods, and the old silos along the river and along Hiawatha. I happen to catch sight of Leeza’s apartment building on Franklin, and it comes home to me again that the next day is the anniversary of her passing. I’m sad.

This world looks different today because the after-world looks different. I’ve never lacked occasion in this life for contemplating the next. Death began stalking me and my family and loved ones early. And even when our grim friend has taken breaks, I’ve dabbled in religious meditations and childish speculation about things occult and divine, and never – surprise! – come up with anything very original or plausible.

The central issue raised by death and dying is loss. Today’s update, still booting up, informs me that somehow we don’t lose. Even with sad eyes on the old landmark, my dream sings a soothing song. I don’t ask where she is anymore; she doesn’t ask where I am. I’m insomnia on a bike; I’m coasting through sunlight.

The 11th has dawned, and the sun has risen quickly. By the time I jog across the Stone Arch Bridge on my way home, the sun’s gotten a good inch or two free from the eastern fringe of trees. It’s bright in my bloodshot eye. There’s a man slumped against the railing of the bridge, muttering to himself. He seems to have no shape among his tattered clothes. I’m sure the only difference between us is that I’m moving. What keeps me from sliding down to the ground and indulging in dreams?

The funny thing about yesterday’s cycle ride is the mission. A few keys have popped off my laptop’s keyboard, among them the L. I’m on my way to Todd’s to borrow a keyboard. Can I recover my L? The answer for now: just keep moving.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Travelogue 284 – July 10
13 Points

Was that poetry, Tom? If so, it was the type that almost slips by you, especially after a few margaritas. He’s leaning in the doorway of the Terminal Bar with a drink in his hand. I’m walking my bike beside Roxana. Tom says, ‘Oh no, Dana’s bike is drunk again.’ He's smiling like peace's eternal reign, and his voice is like a wall of granite in the forest.

Tom is a neighborhood guy. You can see him just about any day of the week, wandering up East Hennepin. He might be coasting on his bike, or measuring melancholy steps. Many mornings you can see him at Taraccino Coffee Shop. Many nights you’ll find him at the Terminal Bar. He’s the guy who looks like a graying and haggard (and yet still better-preserved than the original) Nick Nolte with a beard.

The Terminal Bar is where I met him first. It was during that summer after my first trip to Ethiopia. A friend’s band was playing at the bar. We struck up a conversation at the bar. He had hit on hard times … about forty years ago. He still worries over it. You see the anxiety on his face during the day. But at night, with a beer in hand, he is easy-going and kind. I tell him about Leeza and Ethiopia. He rumbles with a lot of sympathy. He tells me he has been meaning to turn his life around. He has his mind on going south, Arizona or Florida – I can’t remember where. I tell him I’ll buy his bus ticket.

Roxana and I have been just down the street at the noisy Bulldog, playing hearts with Todd and Snookie B. That's the card game in which hearts are meant to be discarded. They're worth one point each, and the low score wins. Even worse is the loathsome queen of spades, worth thirteen points. I saw more of this damsel of distress than I would have wished, and ended up losing, but not before one superlative act of cruelty, dumping the queen on Todd when he was saving the rest of us from a desperate moon gambit on Snookie's part. Oh well, just a card game; but if only you could have seen the shock on Todd's face.

Todd had his revenge; he won the game. But he suffered a minor defeat as weatherman. When we arrived at the Bulldog, clouds were gathering, dark and threatening. Todd poo-pooed our fears of rain, and we sat alone at an outside table. He pulled up the radar and showed us. Yep, the skies looked fairly harmless on the computer screen. Sitting outside at the boisterous Bulldog has definite advantages. Sure enough, the clouds proved impotent for a few hours. We started our game. Several parties followed our lead and chose outdoor tables. But halfway through the game, a determined drizzle discovered us, leaving a film of card-deterrent over the tabletop. We had no choice but to move indoors, sitting at a high four-top in that corner between the shuffle board and the bar, and underneath three TV screens.

Tom never took me up on my deal. He stayed in Minnesota. He's still in Minnesota, wrinkling his brow in the morning over life's cruelties. I don't know if he has a home, if he ever had a home. But he has the permanently rumpled look of itinerancy. Sometimes he looks at me with a low fire of pain in his eyes, and I know Florida has occurred to him. He's still in Minnesota, though, smiling like a lord at his hearth in the evenings and uttering crypticisms.

Come to think of it, I believe my bike is drunk again.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Travelogue 283 – July 5

Yes, back in the States I’m immediately partaking in two of my stateside indulgences with great relish: books and movies. I won’t say ‘film’, like my European mates might, because I acknowledge my addiction to blockbusters.

The latest is Johnny Depp’s Dillinger, a portrayal ‘shot through with wit and intelligence’, according to the local paper. Aesthetically, the movie is graceful and interesting to watch, thanks to Michael Mann’s direction and his little video cameras: sharp pictures, dizzying motion, and the latter mercifully controlled so that one might think there’s conscious choreography behind the jerking and swirling lenses, not a ten year-old’s impulse to make the audience puke.

And, to employ a tired standard to Hollywood, the characters are not one-dimensional. Dillinger makes some bad choices, and the cop in close pursuit, Batman in disguise, makes some ugly compromises. There’s moral tension to match the simpler variety of tension.

It’s odd that we feel comforted by such a bland formula: ‘It isn’t simplistic. It’s complex. There are no easy answers. The characters are multi-dimensional. Etc.’ But isn’t Dillinger most endearing when he says, ‘I like baseball, movies, good clothes, fast cars and you. What else do you need to know?’ But: if we secretly root for simplicity, does it mean that we believe it exists? Isn’t it patronizing to make a moral position out of praising complexity in characters? Don’t we all live in the same tough world?

Maybe my taste in books is a little more sophisticated. Maybe. I cruise around Amazon, looking for titles I’ve picked up here and there in magazines, mostly while in Ethiopia. I have an interest in history lately. I order two recent biographies, one of King Alfred and one of Caesar.

I haven’t started reading the book on Alfred yet, but apparently the author, David Horspool, applies himself like a scientist to the mythology wrapped around the famous king, like cloth around a mummy, untangling each length of it in light of various myth-making agendas, and sets out to discover what one reviewer describes as ‘an altogether more ambiguous and interesting character.’ (Hmm. Again the nod to the dubious god of complexity.)

The Caesar bio, on the other hand, reads to me like Seutonius made mellow, and outfitted with casual paragraphs of historical context, in the lecture voice of an amiable old Classics professor, which is just what the author is. The blurb inside the book jacket says, ‘JC was a complex man (!) … and this author presents Caesar in all his dimensions and contradictions’.

I hear a soft and smug voice behind all this, telling us that only the sophisticated men and women of our era, schooled in Freud and Oprah, can understand and value complexity. And I wonder, did Seutonius think Caesar was a simple man, one-dimensional, unambiguous, lacking in contradictions?
Caesar, of infamous diversity in sexual tastes but so devoted to his first wife that he refused the order of an earlier dictator to divorce her? Caesar, of ancient aristocratic lineage, who championed the plebs? Caesar, who worked his way up the traditional ladder to power and then did more than any man to destroy the same tradition? The politician who out-soldiered the soldiers, and then became scholar? Because Seutonius didn’t state the obvious, ‘Here is an interesting man; he was complex in character,’ does that mean it escaped his notice?

Or have we agreed for the purpose of simplicity on complexity? A character can’t be taken seriously unless there is ambiguity and contradiction. Until he or she has become complex, we are allowed to scoff. I wonder if this is a strategy in Sarah Palin’s mind as she strengthens her bid for the presidency by walking out on the responsibility of governing Alaska, mid-term? Does any contradiction add up the right way: complexity = personality heaven?

Here’s some complexity for you: why did Michael Mann change the famous ‘lady in red’ to the lady in a white blouse and orange skirt? Does that make sense? He must be complex.

Here’s some more. The real Dillinger allowed his dad to talk him into doing the right thing and going to prison for eight years for robbing a local grocery store. Eight years during which he stewed and raged, and plotted doing some real damage. His bank-robbing spree lasted only one year before he was killed. So there is a little more going on than fast cars. Hmm.