Thursday, September 20, 2012

Travelogue 466– September 20
The Runners

And I travel into sunny Cambridge (picking up the thread of narrative from three blogs back) not to relish its ever-budding youthfulness inside a city of stern history, not to beat futilely upon the castle door of New England's exclusive internet, but to participate in another fundraising event. Participate means here speak and shake hands. This is far less demanding than extreme sports.

So, once I give up on Harvard Square's internet, I return to the Red Line and ride it toward Boston, disembarking at Kendall Square. This is the exit for Boston's other academic heavyweight, M.I.T. It's also the neighborhood of the Kendall Square Theater, an independent cinema. I will be presenting there after the showing of 'Town of Runners', a British documentary about the Ethiopian town of Bekoji. This is the small town made famous by its runners, also made famous by this blog in the summer of this year.

I visited Bekoji in order to assess for a prospective library project, to be partially funded by the makers of 'Town of Runners'. After visiting and filming for four years, the filmmakers have committed themselves to helping the community and the athletes. That's where we come in.

Above ground, Kendall Square looks very different than Harvard Square. I've traveled from quaint and old world ivy league to a tight grid of modern streets. I catch a glimpse of M.I.T., and it looks more like the headquarters of a pharmaceutical company than a university campus, certainly nothing like the bit of old England that is Harvard.

I stop in at a bookshop, nothing like the cozy basement shop in Harvard Square, instead huge and anonymous, housed behind glass in the ground floor of a high rise. I stop in a Chipotle, as antiseptic as the bookstore. And I stop for a pint in an Irish pub, which is set in a clean-brick block of shops and condos. The pub manages, with a concentrated effort at d├ęcor, to leave the clinical geometry outside. If anything, it overcompensates, with the predictable cute phrases carved in wood, and the etchings of Irish authors, etc., but I'm grateful.

Outside the pub window, the high-tech working class are lining up in the bike lane, streamlined cycling helmets on, yellow shirts, and spiky shoes. One stops too suddenly and nearly topples over trying to get out of the toe clip. Inside, the bartender maintains a ceaseless patter in his broad Boston accent. When I ask the way to the theater, he stares at me and suddenly shouts, 'The-ater! The-ater!' in a caricatured British voice. I'm not sure what the joke is; perhaps the word rings wrong in this neck of the woods, or maybe the spark in his brain was born of no reasoning. I'm not even sure I should laugh, so I just say, 'Yes.' He's disappointed. He leans back against his counter and pulls his chin into his neck. He continues to stare. 'All right,' he says, resuming his natural flat Boston tone, 'see the stairs?' The stezz. Yes, there are shallow steps outside leading to a cleanly paved path between the condos. 'Follow that path to the next block and take a left. It's right there.' He looks away in boredom.

This is the first time I see the film in its entirety. It's a poignant account of a story very familiar to me, the struggle of young Ethiopian athletes to make it – a parable about anyone with a dream in a context of poverty. They might grow up in this special town, supported by Coach Sintayehu; supported by town's tradition of running; supported by the hundreds of other kids with the same dream. But that doesn't solve the hunger or the lack of gear – even shoes. That doesn't remove the intransigent and blind bureaucracy. The beauty is in seeing them, year after year, season after season, returning to the trails and to the decrepit dirt track. It's a story of hope. The anchoring image in the film is the camera tracking Hawi as she runs along the side of the highway, recording her breath and her determination, like a fire of faith.

My contribution afterward is basically, 'Yep, that's how it is.' But I can add a little update, as I've met some of the stars of the film – the cheerful and stubborn coach, Hawi still running, and Biruk tall and calm and now a college boy. It's all real, and life does persist in its fragile and tenacious and spirited way. Thousands of young Biruks still stare out the windows of their family souks watching the passing donkeys in the dirt roads of home. And I realize I can't remember what it's like not to know the highlands and the grasses and the crazy people who inhabit them.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Travelogue 465– September 19
To The Beach
Part Two

Van life is a blur. We in the van follow each runner, stopping every few miles in order to offer water to the penitent, and cheer her on. There are two vans per team, by the way, and the runners in the second van are off resting or wringing their hands somewhere, waiting for six hours or so until their set of relay legs begin. We don't see much of them during the whole event.

At the end of each leg, the runner meets his or her successor in an improvised chute made of ribbons and passes off the 'baton', which in this race is simply a plastic arm band. The next runner heads off down the road to strained and exhausted cheers from the parched throats of increasingly weary teammates.

My first shift is the longest of the entire course, just about nine miles, and the arm band is passed to me just as the sun finds its power. Beautiful weather has followed me to every destination on this trip outside Ethiopia, from Holland into Michigan and Minnesota, and now into New Hampshire, where we have been blessed with blue skies. But dogging my steps has also been the heat. By the time I'm a mile into my nine-mile run, I realize that I am committed to a broad strip of asphalt with no shade. The sun is blazing down on all the second shift runners. I settle into a hot weather pace, and mentally shrug: the weeks of training in sharp sun will pay off now. And I do make it, though I'm a bit woozy by the time I pass the baton off again.

All runners in this show have been assigned three legs, all corresponding to their place in the lineup. As second in the rotation, I apparently have been given the most difficult of the assignments. A few others have individual legs that are more difficult than any of mine, but mine in aggregate are the toughest, which means the longest and the most hilly. I've been training regularly; that alone qualifies me, in the eyes of the captains of this team, for second shift. Most of the others have followed the 'when and if' training regimen, when and if there is time and inclination. That said, I was pretty impressed with everyone's performance.

The Granite State goes far toward comforting us in those early stages, offering up beautiful landscape. We stop during leg #5 or 6 to wade into a small, cold lake underneath a high bluff that is a patchwork of greenery and exposed rock. This is the perfect tonic.

The day advances. The race legs get hotter and hotter. I pity Number Six, who runs mid-afternoon, and has a leg nearly as long as mine. Her face is bright red with exertion; her effort inspires sympathetic pain. But she finishes, and Van Two takes over. We're off for a few hours. We go for dinner and for a nap. The nap occurs in the lawns behind the school where Van Two will finish off their round, and where we will start over. Liz pulls tarp and sleeping bags from the boot of the van, and we set up in the grass closest to the parking lot. The mosquitoes immediately join the party, circling over the grass. As dusk settles into night, the grass becomes dewy. The sleeping bags become damp.

I take a walk. Inside the school building, local charities have set up tables of carb-rich foods. Runners are lounging in school cafeteria chairs. I do my best to read. There are two students of the school, probably ten years-old or so, charged with hanging out in the hall and directing runners back toward the food tables. One boy aspires to be a carnival barker: 'Right this way! High five! How are you doing? Step right this way to a delicious meal of your choice. Thank you very much!'

And all too soon, we're back into it. My second leg is seven and a half, and it's a night shift. We are required by race regulations to wear an assortment of night gear: reflective vests, blinking lights, and headlamps. I figure out I've put on the headlamp upside down, because it is banging against my forehead. Once sorted, I find the pace. It is eerie running a race at night. My cohort of runners appear only as bobbing and scarce blinking red lights ahead. Cars continue to pass; it's only a two-lane road now, and each of us is reduced to hoping that the drivers see us. It's a misty night, and as we dip into shallow valleys along the way, we run through a light fog. The headlamp projects a shining circle around my vision. It is hypnotizing. The lull between cars is very sweet: silent and redolent with night in the forest. The leg passes quickly. It may be muggy, but the air is cool – a nice contract to the daytime heat.

In the morning, we drive to the next transfer point between vans. The more intrepid of the group head to a field where tents have been set up for runners. Half of us stay in the van. I sleep curled up on the back bench, my refuge and my exile, managing a few hours free of consciousness.

The second day takes on that attenuated and brittle quality of sleep-deprivation, light grating and sound tinny, either too close or too far. Leg Number Three is every bit as painful as expected, running in the morning's gathering heat, taking on a half-mile incline right at the end of my six and a half. And then I'm done. The rest is riding in the van and handing out water to exhausted runners.

The end of a race of this sort has to be surreal, a complement to the start. One is reminded of that sense of placelessness. What does it mean? And how does it relate to that first place, where the mountains were so quiet? Here, one stands in the sands at the verge of the Atlantic Ocean, among a crowd of runners and supporters – among a much dwindled crowd if you are one of the contenders for last place, as we are – and one waits for a solitary figure to appear at the far end of the strand, a figure who must finish his last leg running a quarter or mile or so in sand, in the meantime restoring one's exhausted senses with the sound of the waves, the mellow summer colors of the sea. Today is another one lit with glorious sunshine.

There he is, hobbling forward against the force of the sands. We line up ahead of the finishing chute, cheering him on. As he passes, we all join in behind him, crossing the line in a group, making a ruckus for the last photos and video. And stop, reeling from the struggle across ten meters of sands after having rested. It's over.

One hundred meters further is the event's beer tent. We wade through the crowds eagerly. Plastic pint cups secured for everyone, we drift toward the picnic tables, testing our first war stories, and relishing the equivocal triumph. The whole team gets a chance to get to know each other. The sun seems to hold for while, just above the western horizon, looking back wistfully, hanging among red mists just over Vermont, perhaps, smiling on us through the tent flaps, smiling at the antics of children.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Travelogue 464– September 18
To The Beach
Part One

But I have come east not to reminisce, but to run. Massachusetts grows older at many times the pace I do. But I am headed north, to the relative innocence of New Hampshire. (How innocent, if it claims to be the first state to rebel against the Empire? No matter; the forests glow with youthfulness to my eyes, a buoyancy to the yellow-green of its mountain forests that doesn't admit to the brooding of Massachusetts shadows. No matter.)

So the plane wheels in around the city. Logan International occupies its own peninsula, island-like in its isolation. The plane cruises in along the northern coast, dotted with inlets, marshes, and stands of rock rising from the surf, even unto the eastern horizon. The sun glints off the distant downtown buildings, which, again, seem belittled by the bay, by the history, rather than enhanced by it.

I arrive at Logan International, and I am immediately out again, riding in a rental car agency van on a narrow and deteriorating highway, the 1A. We're heading north, and it occurs to me in my sleep-deprived state that the driver may be taking me to New Hampshire himself. By the time we reach the agency, it does seem as though we have covered half my ride. I thank him and shake his hand.

I am going to New Hampshire to participate in a 200-mile relay. Participate means run. There are twelve of us, and, yes, we are running a 200-mile relay, from the mountains to the ocean. This is the state I'm reduced to as charity guy. I have to join in the American craze for everything 'extreme', in order to make the kids a buck. If it doesn't hurt, it's not worth watching, let alone donating to. Doing it for charity relieves us from taking the 'race' seriously, of course, and our mantra driving up to the race starting point is, 'It'll be fun'. Indeed, the bits I remember were fun. But speaking abstractly for the moment, there is something disturbing about my people's concentrated push into realms that are hard to distinguish from mass sadomasochism. But hey, what doesn't kill us turns us on, right?

I aim the rental north and pass over the state line, into the far north. It's night by the time I make it to Hampton. This is where the race ends, and where I'm meeting up with the team in the morning. I rush into my hotel room and desperately try to force myself to sleep, to no avail, and 4am arrives to roust me out of bed before I've had as many as four hours of real sleep. I weave through the beach town, still under pall of deep night, and I discover the team already loaded into their vans. There are the awkward hellos among strangers who all have regrets, and we are off. We have two hours to drive up north, further up the long state. We will have to make it to the top Franconia State Park. most of the way from Hampton to Canada.

We greet the sun at our destination as it sheds first light on the surrounding mountains, mountains still blue with night. It feels as though we are lost among them; the mission of running across the map somehow draining the place of location, the location of place: it's neither north nor south. We're on a sloping field in the middle of gentle mountains that relate to nowhere else on the map, but in some magical way, we will start running and we will end up back at a place with a name.

There are dozens of vans parked in the lot. We are lectured about dangers and procedures; we are registered; we are photographed; and suddenly our first runner is released out the chute, jogging across the grass toward oblivion. I'm second in the rotation, so watching her head off has particular poignancy. I change into my running gear, and we launch the long trek of the vans.

There are two vans, which means that six people are living in each van for the next thirty-six hours. I am the only man in this van, which brings with it a certain smelly shame; let's not forget that this comes at the end of a vagabond trip of nearly four weeks. But it also means that I am billeting with a mellower sort of human, further mellowed by physical exhaustion. They are kind. I settle in the back bench with proper deference. There are piles of stuff on every bench, and the state of disorder will only grow with the passing hours.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Travelogue 463– September 17
Random Access Memory

I have a time on my hands, just when I don't want it. New England is playing chess with me, and I am just about stalemated. My mobile network does not seem welcome in this region – providing me yet another run-in with America's nonsensical phone systems that punish mobile phone users who are mobile. There is a method to being a business traveler in a country of business travelers that has eluded me. I have no mobile network, and I have no internet connection. Today I've traveled from Acton into Cambridge, expressly to access better networks. But apparently even Harvard students must be confounded with signal issues, providing them a lab for dealing with the real world frustration of getting ahead in this one-legged free-style called America. 'Look ma, no infrastructure!'

Today I have traveled from Acton into Cambridge. I have parked the car -- dare I say it? -- in Harvard Yard. Not true. I parked the car at a ramp down the Red Line and taken the subway in … to Harvard Yard. Maybe my esteemed reader doesn't understand the joke referenced here, but it's a good-natured jab at the edgy Boston accent, an accent that I've been enjoying for days now. Like any accent, it's most fun when you hear it from the mouths of children. To my ear the accent is flat and metallic, and so suggestive of noiresque grit and sarcasms that the children of Massachusetts seem weirdly sophisticated ordering candy at the corner store.

I have time on my hands, and it's a beautiful day in Cambridge. I gaze out the window helplessly, waiting for my computer to negotiate with the surly spirits of the internet. I will soon take a walk among the lawns and venerable halls of Harvard Yard. But I must first turn in a modicum of work.

Enough time has passed that I hardly feel as though I'm back. But that was indeed the same life as this one. Flying over the length of Massachusetts on a spectacularly sunny day, seemingly all the old state's hills and forests laid out below me, I am reminded: I used to live here. We pass over a river that I'm pretty sure is the Connecticut River, nestled in its broad and green valley that I remember by the innocuous name of Pleasant Valley.

Hillary attended the notorious Hampshire College, while I gathered non-transferable credits at the post-graduate academies of Unemployment and Aimlessness. I did manage to squeeze in stints in slacker jobs that I will never forget. One was as parking ticket clerk for the town of Amherst. I had a desk at Town Hall, and recorded by hand the occasions of man's malfeasance in a great ledger. I loved the old castle of Town Hall, set among the green and serene lanes of Amherst, town of Dickinson and Frost. My other memorable gig was at the radio station in Northampton. Though merely a clerk, I was allowed to play in the studio, learning a few tricks of the DJ trade, now no doubt obsolete.

My years there merge into a handful of tableaux: the timeless prospect of green hills on gorgeous summer days; the feeling of claustrophobia for a California boy among all those trees; the year on the second floor of the old Bay State Hotel in Northampton, living above the bar and rehearsing Jonny's songs; running across the snow with Hillary and feeling winter's bite for the first time, being scared by it.

We pass overhead in the plane. We pass over the twin stretches of water that are the Quabbin Reservoir, and on into the midland hills around Worcester, the province of our friend Doug, with his impish grin and guitar, his accent hard as diamond. And we pass over the darker forests that surround and presage dark Boston, repository of so much history, a history and a city seemingly denied by the times, by the country that was essentially born here.

The city emerges where forests meet the ocean. It seems to occupy the center of a natural circle, described by the bay and its islands, North America, made of trees and more trees, pouring into the amphitheatre to attend the tragedy. The clusters of buildings are modest, fleeting ornaments to the enduring bedrock of Massachusetts.

The computer is new, and keenly embarrassed that Massachusetts is its first theatre of operation. It struggles valiantly with the connection, and does manage to complete a few tasks, slipping a few emails past the embargo to let the world know I'm safe and still engaged in the good fight. It is time for a show of mercy. I relieve the computer and cross the street to stroll through Harvard Yard, heart of another profound tradition. Young students are leading tours today. They walk backward, orating in sing-song strains about the obscure rooms and the mundane rituals of higher education. This is how it goes, year after year, they say.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Travelogue 462– September 10
Touch of Season

The asphalt is dry. The grass in the park looks wan and unloved. The lakes themselves seem tired. The Midwest has been through a drought. Even the Mississippi looks depleted, shrinking from its banks, flowing only quietly.

I swing past the bottom of Lake of the Isles on Saturday morning, and the dry road is peaceful. I continue on into Kenwood. We have a board meeting scheduled at the community center. Across the street, some neighbors are at work setting up for some festival. It's already becoming a beautiful day, the kind that Minnesotans will not waste. All day there will be a ruckus over there, children running mad and grills smoking.

The community center is closed. There has been some misunderstanding with the center manager. We gather in front, sitting on benches inside a semi-circle of cold concrete. The sun hasn't touched this little plaza yet. And my rousing welcome speech is met with shivers.

And so it is that, even at the tail end of an overheated summer, on the morning of another sunny day, the board greets the organization's new home with the site's most appropriate body response. This is Minnesota, one must shiver.

The same phenomenon follows us, even into the dinner break. While outside the afternoon hums with residue heat, the Chatterbox is resolute in its climate control, blasting us deep into autumn with its AC. We huddle together around the table anxiously. I don't have anything to wear with long sleeves.

Jon works in the restaurant business, and that means in the management of a prosperous chain, not as a busboy. He measures the place up in a glance or two. The Chatterbox is a favorite of mine. It's an anomaly, and somehow so Minnesotan in its quirks. Unassuming outside, and comfortable inside, the bar manages to stand out in pleasant ways. It has two rooms, one a typical Midwestern barroom, stools at the long bar, booths with plush seats, and one room a restaurant with high table tops and stools. The restaurant is supplied with a variety of games, board and video. There is a TV devoted to video games, ringed by couches. The food is the surprise, at least for Jon, who sums up, 'Upscale menu, downscale decor.' The beers are their own microbrew, and the food is bar food-plus. My favorite is the 'Build Your Own Mac and Cheese'. There's something about Jon's verdict that seems to capture Minnesota for me.

We may be cold, but TK warms us up with political debate, teasing the liberals at the table with a full menu of neo-con invective, spliced with a Catholic critique. Obama is a well-meaning failure. Carter did nothing. Clinton: well, TK will just pray for us. TK is Ethiopian-American. He says he asks his friends of African origin who are all enamored of Obama if they can think of one good African leader. Just one. So why is an American leader with African ancestry hailed as a great man? We liberals, laugh and try to change the subject.

The Mississippi has lost much of its mass, but none of its charm. Cien, Louie and I stand on its banks. We've been running. I should say, Cien and Louie have been running, and I've been jogging. Louie continues to run after Cien and I have stopped, jumping in the river's waters and sniffing up the two other dogs on the beach. We stand underneath the bluffs of Fort Snelling, beside the meeting of waters, of various waters, from Minnehaha Creek to myriad small streams, emptying in shallow deltas across the light sand here. A few miles downriver, it will be the Minnesota River that adds its considerable volume to the grand old watercourse.

Here the park surrounds us, with its high banks and woods deep with summer green, even in a dry season green. We breathe gratefully of the season, our lungs fresh,emptied, scoured by the miles among the trees. We inhabit the moment, moment like a still life, like a snapshot of golden summer. Humble Minnesota teaches gratitude.

Saturday, September 01, 2012

Travelogue 461– September 1
Mitt and the Tigers

On a Saturday morning, there will be men in waders standing in the middle of the Grand River, casting their line. And this is downtown.

I'll be riding Stephanie's bicycle down the sidewalk set three meters above the river. The water will be calm. One of the men will be smoking a cigarette. The buildings of downtown Grand Rapids will stand quietly beside us, providing something like testament to the peace of the scene.

I will ride by the Gerald R. Ford Museum, among its expansive lawns on the other side of the river. That's about where I will turn, to the left, away from Gerald's memorial and into downtown proper. I will make my way to the Madcap Coffeehouse, there to work at my little computer for hours while sipping macchiatos.

I will worry about America. I visit this country infrequently. Generally I see that as a blessing. My country makes me nervous. I don't understand it.

One night, I'll be eating chicken wings and trying to watch the Tigers. The Tigers will be holding onto second place in the division in which the Twins are dead last. They will be losing to the Royals. I'll be sitting at the bar drinking Mad Hatter, trying to ignore the carnival that is this establishment. Grand Rapids will not seem to have much selection in bars, either offering seedy depression or overripe fun-fun-fun.

My peaceful baseball vigil will be threatened by politics, the neighboring television screen suddenly glaring with a live broadcast from the Republican convention. Mitt will be smiling and shaking hands on his approach to the podium. There will be something to this man's manner that approximates the natural in a curious way, making for an interesting aesthetic. The spectacle makes watching my game difficult, and I prepare to go.

This will seem the crux of my anxiety, and ultimately the salve, this glimpse of a new aesthetic. America worries me. Will it not seem that there were moments, like a brief moment after Prohibition and through the Second World War, like the 60s, -- even as the government chose to play Byzantium to Russia's Khan, -- when America might have chosen a European path, a style and a sensibility gentle and cosmopolitan?

Will it not seem tragic to someone like me that America didn't? I like Europe. Their policies and their people seem moderate and measured. They have many more centuries of grief to draw from as wisdom.

But will we not resign ourselves to the American aesthetic after all? The unforgiving slide into conservatism -- lasting my entire adult life -- masks an assertion of identity in the face of history. The country's violent and passionate re-entry into European history in the twentieth century awakened things in the national soul, longings and then the reaction to those longings. And now we drift away again, into determined Americana, part self-conscious myth and part nature. And the tonic to despair is love of the aesthetic.

That same night, Mitt's night, will feature preseason football. The crowd in the carnival wings bar will be all about the football. Mitt and the Tigers will only be sideshows. 'Grab your foam finger,' the television will scream. There will be a table of loud men who seem to be 'playing' fantasy football. They will have pasted a diagram on the wall charting their fantasies, their triumphs.

That night will pass. I will remark on the beauty of the morning, the placid waters, the gentle late-summer skies. The city will be so quiet at this hour. The fishermen will seem so contented. I will remark how near the center they are, how shallow the river.