Friday, January 27, 2012

Travelogue 433 – January 27
Death, the Entertainer

Now it's basketball. And again New York stands in as the villain, challenging the everyman LeBron. I'm sitting behind a bar of burnished steel and watching the action on a screen bigger than my bed. I'm sitting by myself, but I'm not alone. Next to me are a couple young men being funny for each other and declaring in breathy syllables their admiration when the men on the court achieve some miracle. A man in white lobs the ball high over the heads of players rushing toward the basket. LeBron is already high in the air to catch and stuff in one fluid motion. As he charges, a man in blue swings the ball in a high arc from one hand to the other, over the head of the defender, and then up to the basket. 'Ho-o-o-o,' exclaim the boys at the bar. To me, basketball looks like first-graders at play. The guys are so big now, and the shiny court hasn't grown with them.

My job is less kinetic. I sit by myself in the office – I have an office while I'm in Denver – and I review lists that fill me with foreboding. Sometimes I'll pace, if I'm on the phone or on Skype. At other times, I gaze out at the city through the parted shutters of my blinds. The sky is often blue over the mild hills tapering off toward the flat east. But this morning, there was snow, descending at forty-five degrees in the wind, drawing a veil over the town. There was only the street below, and people in heavy coats struggling against the weather.

When I walk to the gym, I see the mountains. They haven't moved an inch during the night. They are noble creations, aren't they, standing somber guard over their valleys, keeping secrets sacred until they're forgotten?

Basketball and the 'Angus Burger' are the preludes to my night out, a film next door at the multiplex. The bar is a mammoth affair, with rooms full of video games for the kids, and several types of venues for adults, leather couches for some, square Fifties bar for others, and the anonymous sports bar.

I hear someone say 'Newcastle', and I eagerly look up at the screen, forgetting where I am. I'm expecting to see the boys in black and white taking to the pitch. But it's an order for beer. I'm in America. At the gym today, I walk past a trainer and his client. The trainer has an accent. 'Where are you from?' asks the client. I'm from England. The client says, 'Where?' England, the trainer pronounces slowly, and he's struggling to keep his professional smile from breaking into a laugh. 'Ah,' the client replies, 'and hence the accent.' Yes.

For those of us not completely lost to cynicism, poetry is a fan sport. One wants the poet to succeed. But poetry is a tough game, and few poems are slam dunks. It's something of a bitter disappointment when a poem comes close and fails. It's too much like life, like poring over one's formidable lists at the office and catching the first whiff of failure. Most of us are destined by our own ambitions to be mediocre. One could hardly be blamed for hoping for more from poets and point guards.

The film is about a boy whose father has died in the nine-eleven attacks. He is a neurotic and brilliant boy, portrayed by a fragile and brilliant waif, surrounded and nurtured by a guard of box-office superstars. The direction is compelling, the story sweet and implausible. It's an undisguised attempt at poetry, and it falls just short. One senses that in Hollywood, the first sense to rot is the gauge of sentimentality. One of the trailers shows Drew, long-time Hollywooder, crying over whales. Cry, humanity, please do cry! But don't leave it to Hollywood to demonstrate how. They have forgotten how real people cry.

On the radio is a man talking about death. He is doing so intelligently, but I have to turn the radio off, and rest in silence. I can't take it any more.

As I slowly compile my anemic and stumbling little memoir, I shape a realization around our dear companion, death. Troy said something to me after Leeza had died and after some time had passed. I wish I could remember the words exactly, but he said something to the effect that Leeza's death had been a crisis for me. The message wasn't in the words but in the tone, a tone that suggested a kind of wonder. It was something about her death in particular that triggered an odd chemical reaction, a rash, a latent psychological train wreck. Really? I thought. Are there measures for sane grief? Wouldn't that be the most inhuman of creations, an index for grief, the small iron weight one puts in the balances to set against one human life?

But it's true that Leeza was the final resounding note in a crescendo of death in my life, running through friend, aunt, mother, and wife within a compact eight years. The first shock came for me when I was sixteen, when my father died – more precisely, when I discovered his corpse. With Leeza, the last moorings came free. There's an eternity preserved for me in that moment, in which I scream. I will never stop.

And when I get into the car after the film, after the poet has assayed his tender sensibility against the cold in the attic, after the poet has stood uncertainly before his failure, assessed his fair complexion in the attic's mirror and then has turned away, when I get into the car I am alone. I am sleeping in the house of strangers.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Travelogue 432 – January 22

I'm watching football in Denver. It's a tied game at the moment. The crowd at the bar is excited. Most of them are rooting for the Niners. That's not surprising: I'm in the West. New York will not inspire much loyalty.

Not even half the seats in the bar are full, and it's a small place. It's a Sunday night. The place is long and narrow, showing off some weathered brick behind the bar. The walls are adorned the standard chaotic selection of visuals. There is a poster of Hendrix. There are swirls of paint on canvas executed by locals. There are posters and cards made from vintage advertisements, which I've noticed are items that tug with peculiar force upon American sentiment.

After a long stretch of current TV ads – all of which suggest a world designed by professional wrestlers, full of earth-shaking grandeur, everything outsized and narrated in basso melodrama like a circus – the boys are back on the field. They rumble out in their tights, and they take positions. It's a sweaty ballet, excess meat jiggling for the multiple cameras that sweep the field. Everything suffers symptoms of excess: from the tattoos and hair attachments to the ads, to the equipment and Dr. Strangelove intensity of the coaches, to the sheer number of camera angles. It is sport become farce. So serious, it is drained of human interest. I leave before the tie is resolved.

I'm staying with Rich and his family. It's an anonymous residential area, and even after a week, I have to watch the street signs and the house numbers or become lost among the samenesses. It's a nice location. I can drove my shiny blue rental car only ten minutes to the office. In fifteen minutes I can run to Cheery Creek. I run along the creek toward downtown, out and back.

Or I can run to the cemetery. Evelyn suggests it. I hadn't run in that direction yet, and hadn't seen it. But it's only two blocks away. Fairmount is a vast swath of land, and she's right that I can run among the dead, along peaceful asphalt lanes for a good long time. The mile-high sky is indeed high, blue and sharp in blue clarity. The mountains stand in silent formation in the west, and do not flinch as heavy clouds, etched in fine detail, gather about their heads.

I'm struggling with my run today. I've been on the road for almost two weeks, and I've been running every day, logging miles on three continents. My body is protesting by now. The muscles are tired; my gait is clumsy and slow. The dead make no comment. They keep their counsel, hiding beneath slabs of marble, behind columns. Some of them share sumptuous pavilions with their families. Some have only the frozen earth beneath sturdy leaves of grass that hold on through winter like faded specters of their summer green.

I give it up after a while and turn back. I have an appointment. I will sit among a circle of folks in a dim and subdued chamber of a Denver church. The carpet has died. The plush chairs cling to life, determined to support us with stoic devotion to duty. A frail voice has descended. It wants to tell about a life-changing experience in 1962. All eyes in the circle are fixed in a forward position. I try to follow the voice, turning my head slowly and with reverence. The eyes are blue as a Colorado sky.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Travelogue 431 – January 15

Blink. And who am I today?

It's been more than a year since I was back in the US. I arrived in Minnesota yesterday, and the home state welcomes me with flurries. Flying in, we don't break through the heavy cloud cover until the last few miles. The unraveling ground below is a patchwork of grasses and brown, bare trees and white. The winter has been unseasonably warm.

Usually these returns are emotional. I study the terrain of the Twin Cities from the plane's portal and I locate downtown. I spot familiar highways, familiar lakes. I study the neat geometries of my town, and they seem so safe. I feel relief. I anticipate the sensation of my routines.

This time I don't feel much. My heart reflects the cold of the winter air. I wonder about that. I have no answer to it.

Sometimes one's story is overpowering; it's a shadow you can't shake. History stalks every thought, and life is coherent. At other times, the story drops away precipitately. Myself, I understand those occasional white-outs. You blink at the scene out the airplane finestrino, and nothing is yours.

The lady at passport control is not impressed. I breeze through and pick up my bag. My first interaction outside the gate is with an Amharic speaker. What is it with Ethiopes and airports? Lost your bearings? Visit the airport and buy a coffee. Say, 'selam naw?' And you will be reassured with a beautiful African smile: all is at peace. You may return to your life.

Sitting with my coffee, a man enters from the among the swirling snow outside. He is trailing a bag on wheels behind him. He is staring in an abstracted way. He looks at me without registering anything, He stares at my bag. He shuffles forward and on behind the great pillar there, hiding the baggage carousel from view.

Very shortly afterward, a policeman enters with a dog on a leash. He looks concerned. He passes beyond the great pillar there. He returns; he asks if I speak Spanish. and I shrug. He moves on. I follow his steps, crane to look beyond the pillar. The staring man's legs stretch horizontally on the ground. They are twitching. The man has had a seizure. A few more policemen come by. They stand aside and look down on him, speaking occasionally in their radios. They are waiting for the paramedics.

I'm back, and I'm lost. I'm home and I'm lost. There's a story … the staring man enters from outside. Swirling snow follows in his steps. Cold wind follows him in. The door slides shut. I'm staring at his bag, but I'm not thinking about it. I'm stepping forward because it's the direction I had assumed. I have a bag in tow. The fluorescent lights are flickering on the dull blue carpet. My feet are cold. I feel as though I'm falling.

Selam naw?

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Travelogue 430 – January 12
The Lack of Light

From the bed to the desk is about a meter and a half. From either station to the bathroom is about two. I awake at 6 and switch on the little Al Gore bulb above the bed. I turn down the very efficient radiator, which has very effectively vaporized every free molecule of H2O in the atmosphere hours ago. I open the window a moment to shake the lethargy of too much heat and too much sleep. The street below is silent. There are no lights on any windows of the high and narrow brick houses up and down the block.

I sit at the little desk, rearranging hotel accessories to make way for my netbook: the bulky digital alarm clock, the tea kettle, the remote. I turn on the sturdy machine that has seen me through an entire year on the road. I will put in a few hours work before the sun comes up. Until the sun rises, I haven't the heart to go outside.

I think Amsterdam has become the second most northern spot on the globe that I've ever visited, since my race in Grimsthorpe in England last summer. But that would be a difference of only a fraction of a degree of latitude, and I'm sure Grimsthorpe has very little edge in damp darkness over Amsterdam this week. I arrived in the Netherlands yesterday at 7am. Schiphol airport's high windows revealed no sign of daylight. I took a seat in the terminal lobby and stared through those high windows. Citizens and travelers bustled across the vast floor of the place, and all their passion stirred nary a photon.

My netbook may be sturdy and it may be loyal, but it is maddeningly slow to boot up. I slouch in front of its deliberating screen, going over scrolling lists of work in my mind. My body is meditating on other things. Like a sad and lost child, it wonders where the glorious Ethiopian sun has gone and when it will come back. It wonders over a variety of aches and pains, some engendered by the near-sleepless night on the plane, some engendered by the long run yesterday, accomplished on no sleep.

The flight wasn't so bad. The worst of it was the little old man next to me, who may have appeared harmless but had elbows of steel. Somehow his seat was not enough to contain his tiny frame. He spread inexorably, like a bag of settling stones, overflowing the armrest and digging into my pampered Western flesh. I was already suffering from an overdose of melatonin, which only managed to reduce me to plant-level consciousness still able to suffer from sleeplessness and my neighbor's refined tortures but unable to register any higher mind function.

It was in this state that I sat slumped on a bench in the Schiphol terminal, waiting, nearly in tears, for any sign of redeeming sunlight. I had to abandon my vigil, still in darkness, and board a shuttle for the hotel.

The trusty netbook has found itself once again, a miracle of steady-handed science, and I click on the usual round of icons, opening my documents, discovering today's wireless link to the world. Today that is the hotel's server, access to which I had to pay ten euros for. The mouse having done its work, the screen winks reassuringly at me with a small and slowly spinning dial. Everything's under control, it says.

Airports are funny places, full to their lofty ceilings with static tension. The human psyche, developed over millennia in dull and dry savannas where there was very little to do, nevertheless hates waiting. If one has the power to dissociate, it's amusing to observe. There's very little more reliable in this world than the airline ticket. Once purchased, there is little to stand in the way of its consummation. They will hold planes packed with hundreds of impatient souls in order to announce your name across the airport. Please board now, they will beg. We desperately want to redeem your ticket and get you where you want to go. And yet, people waiting to board will still behave as a mob, straining forward against each other as though at the head of the line were the last five new iPhones. They cannot sit still in the gate area, putting in a mighty struggle with the final moments before travel under the horrid fluorescent sky. They bite their nails; they pace; they bicker; they violently rifle through their bags. All in all, it feels more like a hospital ward or a welfare office than a place where vacations begin.

My travel has deposited me in this room with no open space more than a square meter wide, and I'm setting fingertips to the surface of work, shivering against the supernaturally long night. One brighter note: behind that bathroom door is a fully functioning shower with hot water at any hour. Blessings abound.