Friday, January 29, 2010

A Snow Day in Nashville

Well kids, it's snowing in Nashville, or it has been for the last couple of hours. I'd say I had about an inch or two on my car when I walked outside.

Where I grew up in PA, we call this a "Tease." Teachers and students alike would sit in class and stare out the window knowing that this smattering was no justification for us to be at home, but we couldn't shake the thought, so the day was a wash anyway. We knew it was better to stay in school than to waste a snow day that we'd have to make up in June, but it wasn't much consolation at the time. We were all bitter.

Here in Nashville, this is somewhere between a "Blizzard" and "Armageddon." No joke. Let's just say that the weatherperson on the evening news lets it slip that there's a "30% chance of snow tomorrow." This is what happens:
  • Schools: county after county starts phoning in to cancel school for the next day.
  • There are bottlenecks at every grocery store and gas station full of all the people planning for aftermath to the tune of nuclear fallout. They are all buying bread and milk and gasoline.
  • Even the most level-headed of people break out their "the end is nigh" sandwich signs.
  • Driving: well, I'll get to that...
You non-Nashvillians probably think I jest. (Ok, the sandwich signs may be slightly hyperbolic.) I didn't believe it myself until I saw it with my own eyes.

Snow days (usually six inches or more) in PA were delightful. We'd all rush over to the biggest hill within range and start building sled/snowboard ramps. Moms and dads generally went to work knowing the kids would be too busy out in the snow to get into any trouble at home. When we were old enough to drive, we went straight to the high school parking lot to see who could turn the most do-nuts in their least until the police showed and told us to beat it. Those of us who had 4x4's, put them to the test seeking out the biggest snowbanks to drive through. We'd cut through corn fields, pretending that we could have sworn this was where the road was. Gosh I miss that.

Nashville driving is a bit of a nightmare when snow's NOT in the picture. Snow makes it crazy.

My first snow here in Nashville, I went to visit my sister Friday night to do laundry. She lived atop a hill off of OHB in Nashville. I awoke Saturday morning to about four inches of snow. Not thinking much of it, I borrowed my sister's Corolla to swing past the grocery store for something arbitrary. OHB is a rather hilly five-lane road in south Nashville and once I had a visual of it, I couldn't believe my eyes:

As if there were no lines on the road at all, there were cars, trucks, etc. pointed in EVERY direction on both sides of the road. Wheels were spinning madly, and cars were sliding uncontrollably. I stared in awe. I'd seen more order in the bumper cars at Hersheypark. Recalling my mission to mind, I proceeded to chart a course through the wreckage in the little Corolla...slowly weaving my way through the chaos. It was laughable at first, but soon rather became a nuisance.

Driving in the snow in a rear-wheel-driven vehicle is the most difficult snow-driving there is. Front-wheel-drive is far more conducive...that's what my sister's Corolla was. If you are driving a 4x4, you have NO excuse. Period.

Refuting Nashville snow-driving logic:
  • You CANNOT drive the same speed in the snow as you would on dry roads and expect to be able to control your car. You should be at half-speed or less.
  • Once your tires begin spinning, giving the vehicle more throttle will NEVER make your wheels grip.
Seriously, just drive slowly. Once your wheels lose grip, take your foot off the throttle and try again even more slowly. I repeat: DRIVE SLOWLY!

In about an hour, I'm going to meet Hugh "Sunday Bloody" Mundy at Percy Warner for a snowy trail run. A fellow PA boy, I don't worry about either of our driving capacities in getting there. I am a bit worried about what kind of traffic resistance we'll meet on the way. I'm even more worried about having to abandon my journey to help somebody out of a ditch.

All kidding aside, Nashvillians...don't drive in this stuff unless you must, and be careful out there!

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Dear Annie Dillard: (pt. 2)

My promise to Annie Dillard has been kept. I finished her book "Pilgrim at Tinker Creek" this morning. What a brilliantly creative and perceptive woman.

I've now finished two books this year, and it's still January. I'm going to keep two tangible piles of books this year: the ones I've read and the ones on my list to be read. Hopefully it'll help keep me on task. Next on the list is "The Sparrow" by Mary Doria Russell. I hope to be moving through books quickly enough this year that I can be a little less careful, and a little more adventurous in my reading selections.

In "Blue Like Jazz," the first book I read this year, Donald Miller goes into detail about the effects of spending too much time by himself. Amongst these effects, he talks about reading a lot and beginning to have "conversations" with people like Emily Dickinson who he'd been reading a lot of at the time. He even talks about visiting the house in Amherst, MA, where she lived in the 19th century and confesses to a romantic (in a nice, "kiss-of-the-hand" way...not a gross, "gratuitous-'love'-scene" way) relationship he'd love to have with her were she still alive.

I expressed briefly that Miller's book spoke to me in a way that met me where I am in life right now. I think he and I are rather kindred spirits and I hope to meet him sometime off the radar, off the record so we can have a candid conversation between two pilgrims on the same voyage. That being said, I think I sort of get where he's coming from.

Miller's and Dillard's books are both full of personal opinions and experiences. After finishing both books, I found myself with an overwhelming desire to meet persons behind the personas. It probably has a lot to do with that particular style of writing. For example, after reading Lord of the Rings, I wanted to meet Gandalf and Aragorn, not necessarily Tolkien...although that'd be cool too. I think it also has to do with the fact that I'm simply a poor listener in person. Books, however, offer a one-way communication in which I have no option but to listen and ponder what the other person says. I have no option to retort, and so I keep my comments to myself...hopefully something I learn to do more in person.

I wouldn't feign to even begin to understand Miller or Dillard, but I would most certainly REALLY relish buying them a cup of coffee and just talking with them for a brief spell. I would feel silly about this if it were for some sort of personal gain, but I'd really just like the pleasure of walking a few moments of this life together with them and no more. People were created to need and enjoy each doesn't seem unreasonable.

Anyway, what I needn't forget is that most of the people who were aware of Dickinson in her lifetime found her reclusive, odd, and didn't know she even wrote. It wasn't till she died that she was discovered and published properly. Tragic. Whereas I'd love to meet both Donald Miller and Annie Dillard, I won't be found wanting should opportunity never present itself. I'm surrounded by people everyday, and I'm learning that they're all very interesting. As I get better about focusing outward rather than inward, I think there are a lot of unexpected adventures to be had. It's high time for me to start "seeing" the people around me and the unique beauty that's within every one of them. By not doing so, I do both them and myself a terrible disservice.

Dear Annie Dillard:

I kept my promise and finished your book and enjoyed it thoroughly. If you're ever in the Nashville area, look up ol' Handygraham. It would be my distinct privilege and honor to buy you a cup of coffee, or your beverage of choice. Thanks for being you.



Dear Donald Miller:

I shan't re-invent the wheel, but the same goes for you, my friend. A cup of coffee is hardly a fair trade-off for how much I enjoyed your book, but hey, it is what it is.

just as sincerely,


Saturday, January 23, 2010

A moment of enlightenment???

I think I may have had a brief moment of enlightenment this morning...a tiny glimpse of Heaven, maybe?

I've been under a pretty good deal of stress lately. The components are somewhat typical to those of us Generation X/Y or whatever we are, and are not really relevant or worth going into. Suffice it to say that sometimes the road is hard, and sometimes it's easy...right now, I'm on one of the hard stretches...perhaps one of the hardest stretches I've seen.

In the Annie Dillard book I've been reading, she described a particular moment of existence. Obviously, we constantly exist, but we come across a few occasions in this life where we forget ourselves and momentarily become one in symbiosis with the planet. Dillard's "moment" came unexpectedly at a gas station in backwoods Virginia. It involved patting a random puppy and getting lost in the beauty/wonder of (I think it was...) the Appalachians. My experience had some slightly different variables. 8)

Ok, I don't think my experience can be compared to Dillard's, exactly. If you ever read about it, I think you'll see what I mean. I think it is, however along the same lines. My moment came to me in the midst of some pretty high stress, and for just a moment, I was in a place where everything felt like it would be all right.

Here's what happened:

My nephew had a basketball game at nine in south Brentwood. Following my typical rules of "Morning Math," I naturally left at a minute when I'd have no chance in the world of actually getting there by nine. Of course, I forgot that I-440 was closed for construction, as it always is on weekends these days, so I had to go out of the way to get to the I-65 only to realize that my normal cut-through was also disabled due to the flea market at the TN State Fairgrounds. It's now nine, I'm still 15 minutes out, this short-term stress on top of my long-term stress is making my blood pressure skyrocket. Of course, I was so busy stressing that I got off at the wrong exit. AHHHHH!!! I HATE being late to things that children are involved in. Kids are so impressionable, and they need us adults to BE THERE when we say we will.

Anyway, I met only a negligible amount of resistance on the rest of the drive and began to calm down a bit. Crap - I was the "hustle & bustle" I mentioned last Saturday. Deep Breath. Exhale. I came back to my senses a bit. The sun was working its way up in the sky and looked warm and alive. I was wearing my favorite, hella-comfy East Nasty shirt and my brand-new, awesome sunglasses that impulse bought with a little Christmas money and are completely dope. I was sipping a cup of good coffee and driving up to the top of the bridge right next to Ravenwood High School, which provides a simply stellar view of the surrounding land. Are you ready for this? [Crescendo...] I was listening to "Jump" by Van Halen. [Crux] These elements melted together into one, and I felt the world around me singing along. My sails filled with the wind, and I was lifted out of my stress as I floated weightless in the arms of the moment. [Decrescendo] (Sigh of contentment)

I got to the game just in time to see Liam catch a long pass from back court and score his first two points EVER! It was he was on top of the world...getting back on defense with an uncontrollable sense of invincibility and trying so hard to play it cool...but his elation was undeniable and infectious.

Ahhh...well, like all fleeting glimpses of Heaven, the game ended and real life resumed, but at least I had those few moments, and they were wonderful.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Boldly going...somewhere...

This morning I went to check out some things at my friend Sara's house that she's been looking at getting fixed. The last thing I took a look at for her was a spigot on the back of her house, which was oozing enough that it might make a mess of her water bill. I insisted on her letting me fix it before I left. Much to my delight, this meant I got to crawl into yet another undiscovered universe off the beaten path.

Boldly going where no man has gone before...where most would probably not want to go:

One of the "fun" things about being handygraham is that I get to venture into little pockets of the world that exist unbeknownst to the general populace. I joke about it, but I really do enjoy it.

When I was in elementary school, I used to read Beverly Cleary books, sports books, and other pretty down-to-earth stories. By the time I got to middle school, I'd picked up so many extra-curricular activities that I ran out of time for reading. Much to my surprise, when I got to college, I found myself reading (and REALLY enjoying) the nerdy fantasy books that I used to make fun of my buddies for reading. These are my favorite types of books and also my favorite types of movies now.

There's just something endearing about these fantasy realms that makes me really want to visit them...and I'm sad I'll never actually be able to. I can't tell you how many times I've thought I'd love to visit Hogwarts, journey from Hobbiton to the House of Elrond to Lothlorien to Gondor, take a spin through the floating mountains of Pandora, maybe make the jump to hyperspace with Han Solo & Chewbacca. Alas, so many realms, so little time.

Since I can't actually visit these places, I have to settle for exploring the lesser-known realms of our my profession, that means crawl spaces and attics. I've spent hours in these atmospheres. Crawl spaces are usually dirty places into which most people don't even want to look, let alone hang out. I like them because they're like my only little space in the world where I know nobody will bother me - where there are no distractions. There's something peaceful about them, and I can think.

A few months back, I got to install an attic stair into an attic in a 90-year-old house. Nobody had been up there since it was built - in fact, I had to cut/make/frame the opening for the about an adventure. As I began to make the breach in the ceiling, I couldn't help but imagine crawling up through that portal for the first time and vanishing into the future/past/parallel universe/Narnia/the Room of Requirement. Well, it was just an attic, but it was still my discovery, and it was beautiful.

About a year ago, I did some work at a rather large house. The crawlspace was so deep at some spots that the ladder wouldn't reach the house above it. It was so long that the foundation blocked the view of the whole space. I saw myself swinging across the abyss on Indiana Jones' whip, grabbing the hidden treasure, then swinging back out before the house caved in on me. I surely lost myself down there for a good twenty minutes just imagining the explorations and possibilities. (Then I had to deduct that time from the bill...sadly, I don't get paid to daydream.)

Who doesn't dream, when they're younger, that they can pull on a certain book on the shelf and open a door to a magical realm...or at least a secret laboratory. I get these thoughts EVERY time I am up in an attic with easily hidden and unused space. I did some work at some friends' house last summer. It was a relatively new house, but not without secret compartments. For the size of their house, both their attic and basement/crawlspace were vast. I immediately began imagining secret clubhouses, hidden chambers, and the infamous ninja training room. I wondered about the best way to conceal such secret entrances.

I hope when I have kids that I still have the imagination to appreciate these possibilities for my kids' sakes...and maybe for mine too.

Thursday, January 21, 2010


Sometimes I forget that I have sisters. I don't forget that my siblings are in fact female, I actually forget that they're there in their glory. (Please take note to the proper usage/spelling of those homophones. Thank you.)

My older sister, Gretchen, is...well, she's older than me. I also have a younger sister named Chelsea who is almost exactly two and a half years younger than me. When we were younger and all under the same roof, I'd say we got along ok. Chelsea and I looked up to Gretchen a lot because she was in high school, then college before we even knew what happened. Gretchen was always very loving and also rather "big-sisterly/motherly" to Chels & me, so we were really bummed to see her head off to college.

Chelsea and I, being so close in age, had a very interesting dynamic when we were younger...actually it's rather tragic now that I think of it. She really looked up to me, and I wouldn't have anything to do with her. Eventually, she fell into some friends with whom she was comfortable and we had an appropriate, Generation X/Y brother/sister relationship: we co-existed with little to no communication. Believing all things that happen in this life, both good & bad, happen for a reason, I don't regret a lot of things in my life. For a multitude of reasons, this I regret.

(picture L-R: Chelsea, me, Gretchen)

Well, time went on. Gretchen graduated college, got married, then moved on to further schooling in Nashville, TN with her husband Dan. We got to see her on holidays. Eventually, I graduated from High School. Being a little less particular in my college choosing, I visited one school, Middle Tennessee State University, applied to it, and soon found my way to Nashville.

It was when I moved 750 miles away to college that something miraculous happened...Chelsea and I began to get along. We'd still have some spats here and there, but we began to laugh together in far more significant quantities (she exposed me to, and I remember crying I was laughing so hard). I have a little sister...what a magnificent discovery. Though she and I are quite different, she is the only one who will ever be able to relate to certain aspects of my life and vice versa, and I hope I never forget that again.

More time passed. Chels put in a few semesters at community college back home, then came to her senses and joined Gretch and me in Middle Tennessee, as she finished up her undergrad at my alma mater (MTSU). The summer after I graduated, Chelsea and I moved into Gretchen & Dan's house...Gretchen was pregnant with her second child at that point. Details spared - maybe not Chels's & my best idea...

I work and live alone, and I also have a tough time really connecting with people, so I often get into the habit of forgetting the people around me...including my lovely sisters.

Last week, I took Gretchen out for her birthday...just "me & gretchy." I don't remember the last time I had her all to myself. It was glorious, and I hope it's not so long before I get to do that again with her. Whereas I've had a reasonable amount of good one-on-one time with Chelsea, I still feel I take her for granted as well. I was delighted the other day to find out that she has begun blogging. Sadly, I'll never know if this blog is any good somewhat due to bias, but mostly because I'm just excited to have a different vantage point on her life.

As this is a year of new discoveries for me, I'm very glad to have been able to move my sisters to the front of that list. Ahh, what surprises are lurking around the corners of my path today?!? Maybe I'll discover I'm adopted...

Monday, January 18, 2010

Amok in the Muck

Yesterday morning, I had what they call "frostnip," if not a very mild case of "frostbite" on some of my fingers.

The East Nasties, my group of running peoples (and oh so much more) had their third Sunday morning training run for the Country Music 1/2 marathon yesterday morning. I wouldn't say that the weather has been uncooperative for our runs lately, but it has certainly made for interesting running conditions, to say the least.

The first two of these runs were unseasonably cold for Nashville, TN - about 15-17°F - cold enough, in fact, that the moisture from my breath froze into "beard-cicles." (I've included a picture of myself and my buddy Hunter...his sideburn-cicle's pretty amazing) Well, true to form for 2010 so far, yesterday's conditions were no exception. Let me set the scene:

The first few runs of our training are done in the luxurious land of Shelby Bottoms park in East Nashville, which is a protected area of natural wetlands. The temperature has just recently risen above freezing and we've had rain for the last couple of days. This makes for standing water on the paved trails, and grass/unpaved trails that are completely submerged underwater. The temperature was about 45°F and it was raining when we ran yesterday.

Shelby Bottoms has a great greenway that connects to other greenway could literally run for miles and hours. I spent the first 7 miles running with my friend Julie on the more civilized parts of the greenway, but on our return voyage, my adventurism got the best of me and "the wild" called. I bid Julie farewell and disappeared into the nastiest trail I know of in did not disappoint. I ran most of the next 3.5 miles in ankle-deep to calf-deep 40°F water (no exaggeration), plotting the wettest return route I could think of, and it was simply EXHILARATING!

It was so fun that I actually ran that part faster than the greenway part. It was so fun that I miscalculated my time and ended up running 90 minutes instead of 80...10.5 miles. When I finally emerged from the wilderness back into the mundane and stopped running, I realized that I quite literally couldn't move my hands. A 45°F-run isn't normally cold enough to freeze my digits, so I neglected my gloves. I hadn't accounted, however, for the cold rain and the icy swamp water I was bounding through.

My heat doesn't work in my car right now, but getting all of my wet clothing off REALLY helped. It's very difficult to untie your shoes, however, when you can't move/feel your fingers. That was the only bad part...I was helpless, irrational, freezing and very frustrated because I couldn't get those blasted shoes off and thus, was stuck in my wet shorts for a time. It took some time, some DEEP breaths, and a lot of focus, but I eventually got them off.

My hands went through the painful thawing process: warming up, burning, extremely sensitive, etc. After 25 minutes or so, the temperature had risen in them, but to my surprise I still could not feel my thumbs, index or middle fingers, and the color wasn't returning to them...I began to get a little worried. Thankfully after about 45 minutes (and oddly instantaneously), I regained feeling in them (perhaps by some magic in the Cracker Barrel coffee), but they definitely gave me a pretty good scare. Wowsers.

Anyway, I wanted to remember this, so I blogged about it. For some reason, I still don't feel quite right calling myself a "runner." I'm more comfortable calling myself a guy who runs. But I do feel that a run like this may be enough to earn me the title, "runner," or maybe "idiot."

Adventures to you on this Monday.

Let's also DEFINITELY take a moment to ponder the life of one of the greatest human beings to ever walk this earth...Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

When Saturday held its breath...

I slept in this morning after a long, arduous Friday followed by a late Friday night enjoying a fire in my backyard fireplace with good company.

This day has been hauntingly surreal - almost dreamlike. The sky was a blanket of thinnish clouds with some extra-thin spots for the sun to almost come through, but not. It spent the hours in limbo between either getting sunny or getting rainy, but was never actually able to make a decision.

The sky was the first thing I noticed as I ventured out of the house this morning, but as I unloaded firewood from my trailer, I also noticed the wind, or lack thereof. The air was uncomfortably stagnant and still. My college buddies and I rent a place at Center Hill lake every March in the off-season to enjoy lower rental rates and a less-populated vacationing area. We often have a whole lakeside neighborhood to ourselves. Because of the low elevation of the lake and the high elevation of its surroundings, the air has almost always been still while we're there. The lake is a sheet of glass. Today had that kind of a feel.

The only sign of life was the crows' banter, which I daresay is neither pleasant nor soothing.

It seemed as though Saturday herself were on edge, nervous, if she were in anticipation of something unknown. It felt like Saturday had taken a deep breath and was wondering on how she should exhale...there so many ways: Singing, shouting, return to normal breathing, making room for another deep breath, not to mention the vast array of sighs: sighs of relief, melancholy, contentment, frustration, unrest, etc. It was as if Saturday wanted to do them all, but couldn't decide on which emotion to follow through.

As I sat, waiting to meet a client, I watched car after car drive by, a flurry of hustle and bustle, unawares - just going about their business taking no notice to Saturday's unrest. They seemed like ghosts. Time was moving so slowly, yet so quickly at the same time, and nothing in the sky could give you the slightest inclination of the actual hour of the day. I felt the need to check two timepieces every time I checked the hour today just in case one of them was lying. I remembered to eat lunch today only because I happened to look at the clock around noon. Everything routine felt out-of-place and wrong. Saturday let a few raindrops fall, but I could tell she didn't have her heart in it, and those too felt out-of-place and wrong...perhaps they were accidental tears of anxiety.

I've seen Saturday behave like this a few times over the years. I remember one in particular right now though:

There used to be a quarry on the northwest side of my hometown...I assume it's still there??? One Saturday about this time of year, some buddies and I (we were probably 14), snuck off to the quarry to explore. We found waterfalls, beautiful blue-green water, rocks to climb on and cool trees. Later that day, we also found a deer that had been shot and left for dead recently. I wondered about the tree falling in the woods with no one to hear it making a sound or not. It's embedded in my mind the same way a really vivid dream is. The sky looked that day (14 years ago) just as it did today...undecided, like Saturday wanted us to explore, but didn't want us to find the poor deer. We must take the bad with the good.

I tried to understand Saturday's tension today. I drove in silence till I felt we needed music. I hopelessly scrolled through my ipod wondering what kind of music could POSSIBLY be apropos to embrace Saturday's mood. The best I could think of was Mozart. Saturday, Mozart and I waited together at Fat Mo's, then I went back home to eat my timely lunch, embrace silence and enter the world of dreams for the afternoon.

And so Saturday exhaled.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Cookies and Leaf piles.

I'm eating "Kroger Value: Iced Oatmeal Cookies" right now. I just finished my lunch and have developed the habit of needing a sweet fix after meals. I think there are about 40 Oatmeal Cookies in this package. I also think I might just eat half of them right now. I mean why not? I have been blessed with an incredible metabolism that's never really allowed me to gain weight. On a slow week, my cumulative running mileage is higher than what the majority of Americans will run this whole year. These things are dang good. Oatmeal's good for you, right? Not to mention, I need an excuse to drink the milk in my fridge before it goes bad.

Yeah, I thought so.

The Distillery of Leaves:

On the next street over and about a block down, live some good friends of mine. They are awesome and I'm thankful for them, but I'm annoyed with them right now. They raked a big pile of leaves a month or so ago and left them in the front yard. I'm not annoyed because the leaves look bad...they don't...I'm annoyed because they are so wonderfully inviting that I lose myself every time I drive by them.

Leaf piles are magnificent things:

When I was in middle school (i.e. before I was driving [legally, that is]), I had a purple freestyle Mongoose bike with all the cool pegs and no brakes. I stopped the bike by putting my feet on the front wheel pegs and pinching the tire with my toes, and subsequently went through shoes rather quickly. In Palmyra, PA, all you have to do with your leaves is rake them out to the curb and the big vacuum truck comes to suck them up. Until the vacuum comes, however, they are SO fun to ride your bike through. My favorite thing to do was to ride into the piles and fishtail the back end of my bike so it was sliding sideways through the leaves...freedom.

I have a beautiful maple tree that stands watch over my front yard. In the fall, it goes ablaze with the most beautiful yellow imaginable. During the first year in my house, this queenly maple decided to completely shed her royal autumn robes the week before Halloween. Perhaps she was welcoming me to "my" property. Naturally, I raked them into a massive pile for the neighborhood kids to enjoy, and boy did they ever...I might have enjoyed them a bit myself.

A pile of freshly-raked, dry leaves isn't quite as cushioned as you might imagine. However, if you leave it to brave the elements for a few weeks, this changes. The rain makes the pile a bit spongier and a bit more cushioned. The combination of wind AND rain smooths it much in the same manner as the pebbles that have been worn down by the river-flow.

My friends' pile of leaves has undergone just this transformation. It's smooth, and is surely by now is as cushiony-welcoming as a king-sized bed. We've not seen rain in some days, so it's surely not too soggy. The temperature outside being far more bearable than it's been of late, and the fact that the pile has been warmed by the sun all day is making it simply irresistible to my soul right now.

Pairing this magnificence with my morning readings of Annie Dillard's awe-filled descriptions of nature, I want nothing more right now than to go lay in that pile and stare into the blue sky till it turns to night.

Alas, it just can't be so this day. I've over-stayed my lunchtime, eaten my 20 oatmeal cookies, and must go paint. There will be other leaf piles, and I would certainly like to make sure this property remains in MY name (not the bank's) until I should choose to sell it.

If you have time, perhaps you'll go enjoy a leaf pile today and tell me about it.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Within and Without

I found a reading chair yesterday for $15 at Salvation Army. After a ton of Lysol, a sheet to cover it, and some other small additions, I now have a functional, albeit work-in-progress reading corner. I christened it this morning...

In keeping my promise to Annie Dillard, I worked through another two chapters of her book, "Pilgrim at Tinker Creek," this morning. The second chapter I read was entitled "The Present," and the first portion called to me enough that I had to force myself to finish the chapter before my mind slipped into reflection.

I became conscious of this world almost 29 years ago. I may not remember it, but even the days I don't remember made me who I am today. Those 29 years now belong to this mythological entity we call "The Past." I've always been intrigued by history - particularly the parts of it that happened before I was born - because there's no way for me to REALLY know if it ever actually happened. Seeing as everybody has a different spin on historical events, I often can't help but think sometimes that we're all in "The Matrix," and this is just a big hoax.

In this chapter, Dillard alludes to how self-consciousness robs us of our capacity to experience the present. She's right again. Somewhere in my childhood or adolescence, I learned self-analysis and became self-conscious. I found such a fascinating query (my own brain) that I think I may have been (and am probably still) trapped in the stifling world of introspect since then, and in turn, cut off from the world around me. I've exchanged the real thing for some alternative reality I've imagined. And what have I really figured out? I still use less than 10% of my brain, and haven't really discovered anything that hasn't been discovered before.

I realized this morning in my readings that I'm not sure I have ever really believed the world existed/will exist outside of MY existence. (i.e. when I'm born, the world is born with me...when I die, it dies with me.) I hate that.

Now, this doesn't stem from me thinking the world revolves around me (though I'm hardly exempt from such shallow thought). It stems from the fact that I've been so very wrapped up in solving the Rubik's cube in my head that I've forgotten the world exists outside of it.

I like Dillard's artistic, yet logical take on the world. The nature of the Scientific thought process is sort of a trapping process where we catch, classify, categorize and compartmentalize. The world is so vast and alive, however, that trying to do this is like trying to catch every ounce of the fire hydrant's spray with little glass vials. In essence, one could argue that Science tries to harness this beast of a universe and confine it to a box that we can's like trying to find the end of infinity. In Dillard's artistic process, the goal seems to be exploring the wonders of the world simply to appreciate its literally expands before our eyes, and we grow to love infinity.

Now, please don't hear me downing Science here. I love Science, and it's so very important. Along with helping us be good stewards of our habitat, the understanding that Science provides makes it possible for us to appreciate this world's greatness in ways otherwise inconceivable. I think this is why nerdy scientists are so lovable, because every day they learn new ways to love the world. I like Dillard's thought process because I've spent so much time in the Scientific process that I've forgotten to appreciate the world and its essence, I've forgotten to live. What's the point of spending all of this time trying to understand if it doesn't ultimately drive us to appreciate and enjoy the world around us. I know, it's cliche, but that doesn't negate its truth. The question I'm wondering about now is: How can these two processes work in conjunction?

It seems I've got a very quickly growing list of resolutions for 2010, but this is one thing I'd really like to work on. I'd like to shift my gaze to without rather than within.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The Reading Chair

Last year, my buddy Rod Jones read 40 books. FORTY BOOKS! And they weren't all books like Harry Potter that you just start reading and 24 hours later realize that you accidentally swallowed it whole. This year he's going to shoot for 52...and I believe he'll do it.

I've enjoyed reading since I was able to do so, but when adolescence set in, my interests (girls) diversified so greatly and quickly that I either ran out of time for reading, or simply forgot about it. Of course, teachers ASSIGNING reading didn't mesh well with my rebellious nature.

When I got to college, I had "free time" for the first time. I put that in quotation marks because that "free time" could also have been labeled as study time or class time. That year, for some reason, I picked up "The Great Gatsby" by F. Scott Fitzgerald (a book I was supposed to read multiple times in high school, but never did) and was astounded by its beauty. I made sure to slip back into the high school on one of my breaks to apologize to Mrs. Bucks for not reading it when she'd originally asked me to do so. Thanks to Fitzgerald's genius, I'd re-discovered my love for reading. Every once in a while, I come across a book that reminds me of the treasures you can find in literature.

I daresay that Rod's got me inspired and excited to do some more reading this year. I haven't set a number yet because I've not yet decided on how I'd like to measure my progress. I think I'll probably come up with a weekly quota of hours I'd like to spend reading. I think I want to avoid reading a certain number of pages, or chapters, or books because my mind might focus on that rather than what I'm reading.

To help reach this goal, I'm setting up a reading corner in my bedroom that will revolve around "The Reading Chair," for which I'm on the hunt right now. My house is currently adorned in the furniture I grew up with and other pieces that just showed up as a result of people taking pity on my abysmal seating selection and capacity for home decor. Being a bachelor, I've never intentionally sought out a piece of furniture in my life, and I'm already overwhelmed.

This chair has to be comfy, but not so comfy that I'm inclined to fall asleep (it doesn't take much). Unfortunately, it also has to be relatively small because the tight entry to my bedroom strips me of my normal furniture-moving maneuvers...the window may still be an option though. It's got to be broken-in, but not falling apart. Free or cheap wouldn't hurt either. Perhaps I'll need a pipe and a smoking jacket...but I feel like that's contrary to my running life. Maybe I'm just not committed enough to this reading thing.

Anyway, I've knocked out one book now and am determined to keep my promise to Annie Dillard to finish "Pilgrim at Tinker Creek" by the end of this month.

As soon as I click "publish post," I'm closing up this laptop and heading straight to Salvation Army & Goodwill to see what their selection of Reading Chair candidates looks like. Should anybody have any suggestions, however, I'm gladly open to them.

Happy Tuesday!

Monday, January 11, 2010

Dear Annie Dillard:

My first English class in college was taught by Ms. Brookhart. She was neither a professor nor a doctor, but was quite effective nonetheless. Brookhart was a small woman with a rootsy (not hippie) vibe to her, always cloaked in the faint smell of's funny how that smell can actually be endearing on some people. She didn't really dress to impress because she didn't have to. She was just that cool.

A wise and pragmatic woman, she handed my first assignment back to me ungraded - quietly saying something to the effect of, "Mr. Stoner, don't be cute, just do the assignment." I thought it would be "creative" to write the first part of the story from the third person, then switch to first person at a clutch, pivotal moment in the plot line. Brookhart didn't. Regardless, I really grew to love Brookhart and ended up taking my next English class with her as well.

I know we read at least four or five books in her class that first semester, but I don't remember any of them except the one we never actually got to read in class. It's a book called "Pilgrim at Tinker Creek" by Annie Dillard. For ten years now, I've been trying to read this book, but it ends up making me think so much, I've never actually gotten much past the beginning of chapter two because of these two sentences (but particularly the second one):
"It is still the first week in January, and I've got great plans. I've been thinking about seeing."
This makes my mind spin every time I read it. When I finally was able to get past those sentences, I read Dillard's brilliant descriptions of blind people LITERALLY seeing for the first time. She also made some irresistible allusions to the wonderment with which the innocent, beautifully naive eyes and minds of children perceive the world.

I've gone to see the movie "Avatar" thrice already at the local 3D IMAX theatre. Particularly when sitting close to the screen, which I'm starting to believe is the best way to view an IMAX movie, I found myself getting a bit seasick due to the 3D view. I quickly found that if I stop focusing on only a small portion (the main character/action) of the screen and broaden my view to take the whole thing in, the queasiness subsides. What a telling metaphor.

So much in our modern day culture hinges on us keeping our eye on the ball, that we miss the fact that there are 17 other people on the baseball diamond...hundreds more in the stands. When did we lose or dismiss the wonderment we experienced as children?

I was at Lowe's just before Christmas picking up something arbitrary for a job when the guy in line next to me tapped me on the arm, smiled, and pointed across the store saying, "Remember those days?" He was pointing at a little boy with what looked like his grandmother. The little boy was staring wide-eyed at all the huge inflatable Christmas decorations, laughing with wonder, and Grandma was eating it up. My eyes fixed on the boy and his grandmother, through a faint smile laced with melancholy, I quietly replied, "I sure wish I could," never actually meeting my line-mate's eyes.

The sentence that follows Dillard's first two loaded sentences is this: "There are lots of things to see, unwrapped gifts and free surprises." She is so very right.

I will have owned my house for five years this March. This is my land and nobody else's, except maybe the bank's if I stop paying my mortgage...but they've got too many houses already...I think they want me to keep it. Regularly, I've groomed my lawn and cleaned up my house, covering every inch of my property countless times, but I'm not sure if I've ever really stopped to look at it. How am I ever to appreciate what I have if I never stop to look at it?

This makes me think of the other people in my life as well. How often do I really stop to look in their eyes, to truly connect with them? And we've got four other primary senses that we may be neglecting as well. When the native tribe in "Avatar" greet each other, they do so by looking deep into the others' eyes and saying, "I see you" but only after they actually "see" the other person. I want to know what that feels like.

The bad news: Who can tell how much we've missed by not seeing, etc.?
The good news: What's to stop us from doing so today? Childlike wonderment in our dull adult bodies sounds like a vibrant adventure waiting to happen.

* * *
Dear Annie Dillard:

It's the second week of January and I've got great plans. I've been thinking about seeing too.



p.s. I'm finally on chapter four of your book, and I promise to finish it this month.
p.p.s. I see you.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Confessions of a Conformist to non-Conformity

I've never really been able to listen to the Dave Matthews Band. Dave Matthews writes great songs and is an accomplished, respectable musician, but I've just never been able to listen to him. Why? Simply because the rest of the world loves him.

In middle school, it was routine for myself and a few others to stop at my friend Seth's house on the way home after school. We'd pilfer snacks from the cabinets, play soccer, shoot things with pellet guns, and spend hours coming up with wonderfully creative pyrotechnic experiments.

(sidebar) One time at Seth's house, I shot an exploding target at point-blank range. From my friends' perspectives, I imagine it looked a lot like Wile E. Coyote after he accidentally holds onto the ACME TNT just a little too long. I stood astonished and frozen for a moment, then turned around to see my friends mouthing panicked words to me, but somebody had pushed the mute button. My hearing returned about 30 minutes later. It was awesome. (end sidebar)

Seth's parents graciously, almost always, invited us boys to stay for dinner, and in doing so they got to know us quite well. I must have been ranting about my lack of respect for authority one night when Seth's father half-seriously, half-jokingly called me a "conformist to non-conformity." Not quite sure what exactly that meant at the time, I smirked and thanked him, but spent the rest of the dinner in silent, fierce contemplation. Turns out he was right.

Sadly, the DMB is not the only thing I've missed out on over the years due to my strict aversion to the mainstream. I know "What's popular isn't always right, and what's right isn't always popular," but apparently sometimes it is. Cognizant of my natural disposition to go against the grain, I have to consciously make efforts now to at least entertain the current trends and really try to see if I actually enjoy them or not.

About five years ago, my friend Amy gave me the book, "Blue Like Jazz," by Donald Miller. On the cover, the book is described as "nonreligious thoughts on Christian spirituality," which pretty much triggered my gag reflex right from the off. For five years now, I've looked at that book on my shelf and rolled my eyes because the whole Christian culture LOVES it. Generally speaking, Christian literature just gets on my nerves, and I don't enjoy what the majority of church-goers enjoy.

I'd never have opened this book if it weren't for my buddy Ian. Ian's story is his, and not mine to tell, but suffice it to say, that he's a great guy and I've found in him a certain kindred spirit the likes of which we humans are lucky to come across on few occasions in our lifetimes. Thanks to Ian's unintentional persuasion, a week or so ago, I quite painfully swallowed my pride to find myself staring at chapter 1 of Donald Miller's book. I finished it this afternoon and am at a bit of a loss for words.
  • I'm thankful for Amy and Ian.
  • I'm thankful for Donald Miller.
  • I'm terrified of my own pride and self-centeredness.
  • I'm embarrassed at how onlookers must have (rightfully) perceived me all of these years.
  • I'm afraid I'll forget what I've learned from this book.
  • I think I'm hopeful that there is yet hope for even me.
My point here isn't really to tout how great this book is, although I did enjoy it immensely . We all have books that speak to us, and this one came at the right time to a fellow like myself who really needed to hear it. The most important thing I've gotten out of this experience is that my pride is a cruel traitor, betraying me so very subtly yet so very effectively. Damn my pride. May 2010 be a year in which I grant no quarter to my pride in order to make room for Pride's far more laudable antithesis, Humility.

not ready, and yet ready,


Friday, January 8, 2010


Hello Blogworld - No doubt, the seven of you who kindly read my blog have missed me desperately. 8)

You know what's annoying? When the cup-holder in your car clings to your coffee cup just long enough to leave its proper place. It then proceeds to let go just in time to dump all of your change on the floorboard. Irritating.

At the end of 2008, I went to a New Years Eve Party with a bunch of friends. We ate, drank, and were merry. It was awesome. Later that night, we migrated about three blocks over to the JAM house - former home (and Nashville's newest tourist attraction), of the famous HootenAnnie Parsons. Enjoying an appropriate level of inebriation, and thus in the best of moods, I sought out my good friend Seth. Seth had seen some trying times in 2008, but I had a feeling about him that night. I pulled him aside and proceeded to tell him this:

"Seth, I don't know why, but I think this is your year. Yes, you're due. This is your year." Then I confidently and brazenly announced it to everybody else, perhaps a bit to Seth's embarrassment.

Later that night...or later that morning, I guess...we confiscated Seth's cell phone and texted everybody in his phone book saying, "Hey guys, it's my year!!!" Perhaps even more to Seth's embarrassment.

Well, 2009 progressed and the prophesy slipped my mind until Seth took me aside at a Christmas party about a month ago to tell me that I was right. "About what?" I asked him. "Turns out this was my year after all," he replied to me. I needn't go into detail, but I'll just say that Seth had a pretty good (and well-deserved) third and fourth quarter of 2009. Though I really had naught to do with it, it still made me feel good and happy for him, and they began to encourage me to give 2010 to somebody. Some suggested I should give it to myself, at which I chuckled and assured them was quite simply impossible.

Well, true to form, I forgot to give it to somebody, when in the wee hours of the morning on January 1, 2010, I received a text from my buddy Aman exclaiming something to the effect of what I'd told Seth a year ago almost to the minute. Weird. Later that night, I also received a text from Seth's cell phone saying, "It's totally my year yall!" It seems the confiscation of and blanket texting from Seth's cell phone on NYE has become a tradition...and a good one. 8)

Anyway, all that to say that though I'm a natural skeptic, rather untrusting, and not one for getting my hopes up, I think I have a good feeling about this year. (Thanks Aman!) Starting 01-01-10, I felt the very foundations of my life begin to shift. It seems I may be in for a wild ride in 2010, and I haven't the slightest idea of that what could mean. I guess we'll see.

Happy New Year, Friends!