December 29, 2009

On Paper

It came to my attention in a loud and unmistakable way that I have not been blogging. For the few of you who have been on hunger strikes, you may dig out your forks and knives and abstain from nourishment no more. My sincerest apologies to everyone, and not just the seven people who read this, everyone. In the world. Why not apologize to the world?

I used to blog a lot. Somehow, I mustered weekly inspiration to scrape out some bit of truth from my everyday life. Lately, that's been tough. I'm still writing. Usually about how hard it is to write, and everything else pertains to what I ate for dinner/how tough work is/what free cable is like, and it usually gets placed in my journal. C.S. Lewis, so I read or heard, never liked journaling, he didn't see the value in it. I kind of like looking back at my thoughts from, say, sophomore year of college. I like having a few books squirreled away that chronicle my life from 2003 on in a naked, vulnerable way. Which reminds me, I need to destroy them before I die. But I like having them. Anyway, I'm writing, mind you.

It’s tough, though. It’s not that I don’t have much to write about. It just turns out there’s less I know about. And that’s not as postmodern as it sounds. I bet most people find that the older they grow, the more stuff they don’t know about.

Consider this: I went out and got myself a job and I can’t for the life of me figure out what I’m doing here. A few people have asked me how it’s going (which is a frustratingly general question). And I have to tell them that, no this isn’t my dream job, but it’s going fine, and it’s far too early to conclude anything about it. It’s far too large a life move to tuck my tail and head back to Grand Rapids to comfort and familiarity. (And to think, I’m just an hour or so down the road. Do come visit.)

I like budgeting. When I got a job I thought, I’ll be making more money than ever before. I’ll get to buy junk I’ve always wanted. When I delivered pizzas, I never knew how much money I’d have. But with a set income, things always seem to work out on paper. And I’m learning: Things do not always work out on paper. I’m still behind, financially. I have no idea where my money goes. I know I’m not spending it. There’s no way I’m going to pay for cable. I am, however, considering a YMCA membership.

But forget the stuff I want. I have a list of things I “need.” Every time I go to the store and hold one in my hand, I tell myself I can go without it. I have on three different, nonconsecutive occasions stood in the aisles at Meijer holding the very same letter file, thinking about how disheveled my desk looks with all the bills and papers and letters in a rumpled pile of chaos. And then I think, this rumpled pile of chaos may not look nice, but it is free. And the letter file is not free. I usually put the letter file back until I go grocery shopping again. This, I think, describes me better than I ever could with my own words. Next time someone asks me to tell them about myself, I’m going to tell them about this, and they’ll really think I’m crazy.

The truth is, I would rather go places. I don’t want things. Forty hours a week makes it hard to go places, that’s my biggest gripe. I went to the bank in Dowagiac after a snow storm the other day, I’d never been there before.

I told God while I was driving there that I didn’t get it. I never asked for this job, never aspired for a life on the lakeshore in Saint Joseph. I like to think that this has been a life move put upon me outside of myself. I have always asked Him to make the moves, while I would watch or follow. So as I drove on slippery white roads stained with gravel for traction, I told him that I didn’t get it, but I would give it a year.

December 9, 2009

2700 words about 1/2 of Kilimanjaro that I dug out of an old journal

It is five a.m. and the workers are up, and the kitchen is clattering with pots and pans and dishes. I don’t need to be up for another two hours, don’t need to start the biggest of days in a long, long time, so I stay under the blanket and mosquito net and try to forget the noises, just outside my door. As the kitchen comes to life across the hall, I fade in and out of consciousness, dreaming short and forgettable dreams. On the other side of my room, beyond the wall, is the dining room. Hungry hostel patrons arrive when it opens at six, eager to start a day in the Serengeti, or Ngorongoro, or Lake Manyara, or – like me – Kilimanjaro.

I roll out of bed at seven, with butterflies in my stomach. At least, I hope they’re butterflies. When your stomach feels upset for any reason in Africa, it is cause for some concern. Last night, we ate at Arusha’s finest fast food, McMoody’s, named and decorated to imitate McDonald’s. What better than greasy, suspicious fast food before six days ascending and descending the highest peak in Africa.

I shower – no flip flops, even in a dirty hostel. I decide, as I dry, that I have the worst room in the place, situated between the workers quarters – where they rise and fall at all hours of the night – and the kitchen – where the day begins long before I want it to – and the dining room – where patrons stay and talk right outside my window long beyond my bed time. The walls are thin, they keep out the noise no better than my mosquito net would. This is the kind of hotel/hostel/stopping place you are eager to leave to go climb a mountain.

I eat a good breakfast in a lamentable dining room, food prepared in a lamentable kitchen. The butterflies begin to feel like sickness. My stomach is, for one reason or another, upset. Amanda’s is, too. Elizabeth, Amanda’s sister and the third member of our trekking trio, feels fine. We eat. We pack. We wait for our bus ride to Kili.

It comes expectably late. Our guide, August, is riding shotgun. We toss in our bags and leave the hostel with excitement and butterflies and bags full of warm clothes.

We roll through Arusha, a nice city with a few big buildings and lots of vendors. It sits in the shadow of Mt Meru, an hour down the road from Moshi at the base of Kilimanjaro. Before we are out of town, we stop and an unassuming little duka (shop) to rent gaiters. It does not fit my prior notions of a mountain-gear outfitter. There are shelves with tea and toiletries, and a clothesline with peanuts and candy and condoms, and crates of soda in the back. A man comes and buys two individual cigarettes while we wait for the woman behind the counter to find us some gaiters.

Then, we drive. The rains fall, and I think of how I have not seen rain in two months in Mumba. The landscape, if it weren’t for the Maasai and the meager shacks, looks a little like the Midwest where I live. It is flat and neatly apportioned for farmers, strips of trees to segregate their land.

It’s cloudy, and though we’re near the base of the mountain, we see nothing but a vast slope upward and out of sight. The road is straight until it bears left up toward Marangu, the starting point. Then it winds and weaves and steers blindly into switchbacks up the mountainside. There are lush green trees, banana trees, bushes, all wet with fresh rain. The base of Kilimanjaro is a rainforest though all the surrounds it is dry thirsty savannah. I tell the girls this is what I think Congo must look like, and I beam as they agree. They lived there.

While we wait at the gate, peddlers offer us hats and cigarettes, and we decline thoughtlessly. By the time we pass though the gate, my butterflies – or whatever they were – have faded. Still, I beeline for the restrooms. Our guide, August in his broad-rimmed Aussie sunhat, distributes lunches. Porters divide our things. We climb only with backpacks, small ones.

We sign in at the gate, and there are prospective climbers all around us. My first inclination is to evaluate them, to thin the ranks and find people who make me look svelte by comparison. There aren’t any. Some are old, some young, all in reasonable shape. There’s a flock of Japanese people decked out in extensive gear and taking pictures. In the sign-in book, under “Address,” where everyone else has simply written their country of origin, I want to write my extensive contact info. But the line is long and the mountain is waiting, so I write only “USA, Mich.” I miss Michigan. We turn past the headquarters, beyond the gift shop with expensive candy and t-shirts and “I did it” certificates, and walk up a short path to an archway. As best I can tell, it serves simply to be the official official starting point, the spot at which people can really say, “Now I’m climbing the mountain,” even though it’s at an altitude of almost 2000 m.

August waits at the gate and sends us on with the assistant guide. He tells us there are six porters and himself and the assistant guide and, I think, a pit crew, doctor, firefighter, basketweaver, and phrenologist, all of whom we’ll have to tip when we finish. August stays behind to sign paper or some other official business. We climb for an hour before he catches up.

The first day of the climb is short and breathtakingly beautiful. It’s a gentle walk up through a vibrant jungle with few mosquitoes and abundant plant life. Not a square inch of anything is without an abundance of biodiversity. It’s a biology teacher’s dream. We go up for two hours, and it doesn’t seem so bad. It’s damp and I sweat, a lot. It’s hot today, but the rain is done for now. We stop for a bit, where our road nearly crosses that of our porters. They climb a steeper, shorter way, where trucks can go if need be. At our stop, I get my picture taken with a great big slug. So far, so good. We go again.

There are waterfalls and the forest canopy is thick and the path is well-trodden. A few people pass us going down. Some are successful (I ask them) and I’m in awe, like they’re celebrities. I I can’t yet include myself among their ranks, as I am unsure of why my body can and will do. A group of people with various handicaps passes us, too. One is pushing himself, determinedly, in a wheelchair. I think he made it. Then, a man rolls by on a stretched with an oxygen mask. I don’t ask him if he made it.

Soon, the forest begins to change. Green broad leaves fade away, the waterfalls are gone, and gnarly trees with yellowish/tan lichen beards come to dominate. We hear monkeys, I see a colobus. They’re big and white with bushy tails.

My sweat continues to pour, off two months worth of beard, down onto my shirt. I am sore, I am tired. I ask August for a break, and we stop next to a trio of Belgians. I size them up and decide they’re no more motley a crew than we are. A woman introduces herself, her husband, and her father. He is an old man. They are friendly and we are happy to meet new people. August tells us we are 20-25 minutes away from camp. We press on and finish the first day’s hike in 3 and ½ hours. No record, but much faster than we expected and faster than the 4-6 hours advertised by a sign at the trailhead.

The camp here is called the Mandara camp. There are huts and a dining hall and indoor bathrooms with flush toilets. This is camping, I tell myself. Soon after we stop, we feel the chill. We’re at 9,000 feet, and I reapply the layers I discarded on the last 20 minutes of the trail. We make our home in a small hut, hang up our damp clothes,, and have popcorn and tea in the dining hall.

August takes us on a short day hike, just fifteen minutes up the hill to Maundi crater. It’s a bed of grass surrounded by a rim of trees and is, to me, unremarkable. But from the rim, you can see the floor of Tanzania far below. The clouds hover abover our heads, and the sun breaks into beams to shine like flashlights on parcels of land below. We hike back to camp, and dinner is ready. The Belgians are next to us again, and a Spanish couple with a tag-on American sits on the other side of us. We converse with both. When dinner is over, there is nothing left to do. We return to our huts to rest, which turns into an early sleep.

Half-way through the night, I awake to Elizabeth and Amanda leaving the cabin. They don’t return for an hour and I know something must be wrong. Still, I pretend to sleep through it and will find out what I need to in the morning, if they want to share.

It is Tuesday morning. I rise, dress, brush my teeth. Elizabeth taps my should and says she needs to talk outside. Amanda lays in bed, unmoving.

“Amanda has giardia.”

This, I have heard of, and in no uncertain ways that would lead me to believe it isn’t an awful awful stomach bug I don’t ever want to experience. Elizabeth tells me she doesn’t want to sacrifice her sister for a lifelong dream, and I hear the panic and despair in her voice. She tells me, “She might need to go down, and I’ll go with her. You can carry on alone.” This all sounds a little hasty to me, and I ask if we’re sure it’s giardia, if maybe it’s just something she ate. She has already checked with herm mom, and they’ree sure it’s giardia. Still, I think of them making a heavy decision and her feeling fine in another few hours at the bottom of the mountain. I tell her we can wait a few hours, see how she feels, and go from there.

Elizabeth agrees, but seems solemnly and stubbornly committed to getting her sister off the mountain. I go to breakfast. There, the female half of the Spanish couple reveals herself to be a doctor. I share my heavy heart – a day into this and one is sick and our trip is in jeopardy. She offers her assistance. Elizabeth doesn’t show for breakfast. I bring our remaining fruit for her, and the Spanish doctor lady stops me on the way back. I tell her I’m bringing the fruit for “the older one with black hair,” but the language barrier between us has her convinced I’m going to disobey her orders that the sick one drinks a lot and eats a little. Elizabeth comes and I give her the fruit.

Within an hour, Amanda is convinced she can go on. Whether it's naivete, hopefulness, or healthiness, I can’t say. But she’s ready to go, so we pack and take to the trail behind August.

This section of the trail seems flatter. We pass a few more successful summiters, and lots of porters. Here, we share the trail. Some of them run with sacks of pots and pans balanced on their heads, resting on top of the 50 lb packs strapped to their backs. I could never do this job.

I ask August how many times he has climbed the mountain, and I do it with careful, special English. He speaks quickly and his English is good except that the words run fluidly together, like Swahili. I have to think about what he says. He tells me he has been a guide for 14 years, and has climbed the mountain hundreds of times. We are lucky to have such an experienced guide, and I tell him this.

He tells me he’s climbed with people from all over the world, and has climbed in France and will go to Colorado and the Himalayas soon, too. I ask which people come out here the most, and with no hesitation he tells me that Americans do. He says he’s climbed with old and young people. Two years ago, he took two 97 year-old women from Madrid all the way to the summit. The summit day took them 19 hours and it was really difficult for him because usually that part takes 6-8 hours. I marvel at the story of the old women. When I’m 97 – if I’m ever 97 – I will not be climbing stairs anymore, let along mountains.

August volunteers that Austrians make the best climbers and Japanese make the worst. He told me that if ten Japanese climbers start, one will make it. Later that day, a group of Japanese climbers pass us going down. He greets them in Japanese. After an exchange in Swahili with their guide, he tells me they didn’t make it.

After three hours, I am exhausted. Lots of ups and downs. I curse every downhill, because to me, I might as well be walking backwards down the mountain. I learned on the first day that one doesn’t look more than ten feet in front of them, it will only cause disappointment. The uphills will not end. You don’t stop noticing the incline and you don’t stop caring. You can, however, keep yourself from thinking about it.

My pack is heavier with every step. Water, food, layers of clothes, medicine, and books all weigh it down. I brought my big Bible. And I have never resented a concordance so much.

We reach the crest of the hill, and though it’s cool, I am near collapse. There are a few picnic tables. Long ago on the trail, the gnarly trees ended, and here there are only shrubs and flowers. The clouds roll around us; we’re in them. The Belgians are eating at a table, and they invite us to join them. I am tired. Amanda has a violent stomach bug and she broke her toe two months ago and is only 17. She seems to be doing fine. Soon, with my layers again missing and sweat seeping through my shirt and cooling in the breeze, I am shivering. The younger Belgian, his name is Birger, tells me we’re at the halfway point. Only the halfway point? I want to curse. The good nws, however, is that we only have 200 more meters to go upward.

We eat a lunch of dry muffins and oranges, and hit the trail again. Rest is an amazing thing, because by doing nothing you can do so much. I am refreshed, and when I tire, we catch convenient glimpses of the summit between breaks in the clouds. We sweat through, and by three o’clock, we arrive at Horombo hut, the most beautiful sight of our journey, save for a few brief glimpses of the iconic snowy flat-topped summit. A cloud envelops the camp and we begin to freeze. More popcorn and tea, and we are warm. Soon after, a dinner of spaghetti. We wish we’d had a lunch of spaghetti. Again, we retire for an early night.

I have never been this high before, at 3,720 meters or 12,300 feet. The altitude, it seems, forbids me sleep and I catch occasional glimpses of dreams that are trying to start. A mouse visits, eats some of our food. I would kill it, but I am too warm. Elizabeth catches me shining my light on it. I tell her that a mouse is eating her food. She gets up, it scampers away. I lay in bed until the sun comes up. Though the night held none, today is a day of rest. Acclimitization. We three and our new Belgian friends welcome it. I tell myself, “I think I can do this.”

November 14, 2009

Heroes

I was in an antiques store today. Actually, an antiques mall. It's just a few miles from where I live, and I drive by it every day on the way to work. I knew eventually I'd have to stop in and look at all their old garbage. So today I did. It's a giant warehouse, and out front is a sign that says, "Invest in your future with the past. Buy Antiques." Whether or not antiques, specifically their antiques, are a sound investment, I can't tell you. But they are neat.

When there is nothing else on TV (and sometimes when there is something else on TV) I will watch Antiques Roadshow and sit in awe as some expert with a bowtie gives a detailed history of Grandma's shampoo bottle. Seriously, I don't know how they know these things. And I'm not sure I want to. I just find it all really really interesting when an object has been passed down by so many people, and outlived them, and accumulated bits and pieces of their life in every scratch, stain, and repair. I have always loved stuff that survived the past, miraculously escaping the permanent, mysterious history of the world, not to die on some scrap heap or landfill but instead to continue serving its purpose long beyond the intention or awareness of its creator.

Which brings me to the RC Cola cans. There was no shortage of cool stuff to stare at and not buy - books better than a century old, coins, glassware, political pins, world war two posters - and RC Cola cans from the 70s. (How do you like that, Mom and Dad? Stuff from the 70s is now antique.) There was a shelf full of them, and each one had the picture and stats of a pro Football or Baseball player. They were basically sportscards that were once filled with soda pop. One had Rollie Fingers on it. And I had never seen anything like that before, so I thought: What an incredible idea! They should do this today! They'd be a hit; collectors would buy 'em up.

Except. Except. I don't think people would be all that interested.

As I imagined a Pepsi can emblazened with the athletic accomplishments of Ledanian Tomlinson and Derek Jeter, I realized that most people probably wouldn't really care. I guess I have this notion that athletes were once heroes, untouchable celebrities from afar who people encountered only occasionally through televised games and nightly newspaper articles and, for the very lucky, once and a while from the stands at a stadium. But people today, I guess, don't see athletes that way anymore.

And there's a paradox in that. Because they get more press than ever and make unbelievable amounts of money, and sports marketing is as big as ever. If anything, they should be far more significant today than ever before. But I can't convince myself that that's the case. I don't think the majority of the population really cares about them at all. Certainly not enough to warrant some marketing company donating an entire line of soda cans to them. People who really want to can go out and get their jersey or an 8x10 glossy or just about anything with their likeness on it. For the diehard sports fan, they're still heroes.

But for everybody else, they aren't. Professional athletes are just people who've devoted their life to getting really really good at a game. They spent their time in the classroom figuring out how to run routes and hit knuckleballs. Maybe they don't really need to be heroes. Maybe they never were. Maybe it's the internet, or too many athlete scandals, or celebrity culture as a whole.

So I guess my question/point is this: It worked to put them on soda cans in the 70s, and it probably wouldn't today. Have professional athletes slipped in public standing from where (I think) they once were, or were they ever really there in the first place?

This is what I do know: Tomorrow, I'm going to spend the day watching football because I still really like it. And next summer, I'm going to spend too much money on baseball tickets, and I'll listen to every game on the radio that I can. So, though the athletes themselves might not be terribly important, I sure enjoy watching them.

October 19, 2009

Things I wish they told me after graduation

Sometimes, life moves at a crawl, and sometimes it moves really quickly. For the last few weeks, it has moved quickly.

For the last few years, my defining struggle has been to find my first full time job. 40 hours. Big paychecks. Rent due. Grocery shopping. Health insurance. It was the big hurdle, which when cleared would finally let me see some purpose, some direction, with clarity.

In the last few months, I came to appreciate that time. In the years after college, I obsessed over getting health insurance and income, seeking the definition and direction in a career. Life crawled.

But simultaneously, I lived a few pretty incredible memories. I spent a summer working in Orlando and got my work into a nationally-distributed publication. Later, I would see my name in a magazine on the rack in a bookstore in Grand Rapids. I went to Africa, slept in a tent with shreds of nylon between me and some hungry, loud hyenas. I climbed Mount Kilimanjaro. I learned phrases in Swahili, fought a wildfire, showed films to burgeoning crowds in the waning daylight before the skies glittered impossibly with the Milky Way. I saw that life in ministry, though unspeakably difficult, was full of joy, meaning, purpose. I came home, got really good at delivering pizzas, answered the call to go back to summer camp and be the old guy on staff. And I loved it.

I didn't notice this at the time, but: I lived. While I was waiting for a career, I found ways to fill the cracks in my life, and they became life, became memories. I wouldn't trade them for a cubicle.

But life sped up. A few weeks ago, I got a call for a job. Come down for an interview, they said. I did. And suddenly, a job offer. I took it. Years of struggle, at times painful and exhausting, shaking my fist at a God whose patience dwarfed my own, met with solution.

I liked wondering, waiting. I became accustomed to it; it became a familiar, comfortable foe. And now it's... gone. I miss it.

Can you tell that I'm sliding into cubicle life with a touch of restlessness? If this is the thing you're looking forward to, for meaning, for life, I can tell you that this is not where you will find it.

Lest you worry that I'm miserable, be assured, I am not: Restlessness is not misery. The last few years of my life, I was restless at times, but I was never miserable. I am not worried about where I am. Man has had to till the fields since the first guy screwed it all up for us and I'm eager to put in my work. And to be honest, today was only day one and it was good. This will be a good place to work and I'll probably enjoy it.

If finding a career, or a beginning to one, was a hurdle, I've cleared it. But there are a bunch more hurdles. There's a lot to figure out about where to go from here. That familiar, comfortable foe isn't totally gone.



(In the meantime, I'll just bang on me drum)

October 6, 2009

Game 163

I can’t fault anyone for not caring about baseball. It probably has the least action of any team sport, especially out of the ones that are nationally televised. No other sport has stretches barren of action like baseball. Ground out. Fly ball. Foul. Foul. Foul. Foul. Pickoff move. Pickoff move. Pickoff move. Foul. This is not the hard-hitting, breakaway touchdown-running game of football. It’s not the fast-paced head-to-head contest of basketball, hockey, or soccer. It’s a bunch of guys who spend the majority of three hours standing in the grass between opportunities to wave a piece of wood at a little piece of hurtling cowhide.

To be sure, my attachment to baseball is purely sentimental. I couldn’t pick this game up now. But I’ve been with it for years. I fell asleep to Ernie Harwell’s voice as he called games when I was a kid. All I knew was that the Tigers were the good guys, and if they won, I won. I didn’t know anything about pennant races or playoff rotations or magic numbers then. They were awful for years, but loyal fans stayed with them, assured that winning seasons would return, and they did. So I’ve got emotional stake in them, my team.

Today, I consider myself as big a baseball fan as I have ever been. Never have I cared, thought, or known more about baseball than now. Last week I went to a game when the Tigers had a chance to clinch the division, to ensure a playoff spot, and I literally dreamt of baseball the night before.

Tonight is their biggest game of the season. And unfortunately, it’s drenched in disappointment. If I would have written about the Tigers last week when I wanted to, this blog would have been a lot different. But much has changed since they were up three games with four to play. The reality is: they shouldn’t have had to play today. They shouldn't have needed game #163. They should have clinched long ago. You can count on one hand the teams that have dropped a seven game lead in the last month of the season, and none has ever blown a three game lead with four to play. No team has ever failed to make the playoffs leading their division since May 10.

Tonight, they have to win to get in, and they have to do it at the Metrodome, potentially the last Major League Baseball game ever to be played there. And they’ll have to play with the off-field drama of Miguel Cabrera, the MVP candidate who went drinking with the opposing team over the weekend, during the most important series of the season. Not only did he go drinking, he went heavy-drinking. Like, blow a .26 on the breathalyzer heavy drinking. (If I remember my Responsible Decisions classes from middle school, that means something like 26 beers.) He went home and got into a fight with his wife. She called the cops, and the general manager had to pick him up at the police station in the morning. That night, with scratches on his face from his scuffle, presumably still drunk or hungover, he went 0-for-4, just like he did the day before, and the next day he went 0-for-3, effectively ending any MVP talk. He’ll play tonight, and he’ll get booed. He’d get booed at home, too. I’d boo him. I don’t know why he even played on Saturday. He should have been benched. Hungover, scratched – the guy shouldn’t have been batting cleanup.

But all of that aside, they still have to play the game. They’ve still got a chance. And I’m still going to watch, because it’s my team. While they were fading away over the weekend, epic-failing to end the season, Tigers fans everywhere gave up on them, groaning, mourning the end of a season filled with, apparently, false hopes. But if they win tonight, it’s all forgotten, the season will be a near-miss but a success nonetheless.

I don’t know what’s going to happen, but if they can win, there’s a great story in there. If Rick Porcello, the 20 year old rookie, can win the most crucial game of the MLB season so far – not just for the Tigers, but for any team – it all wraps up nicely. The Rookie comes through, the story continues, and that knucklehead Cabrera gets off the hook for nearly killing our season. We’ll begin to think about the Yankees, who clinched weeks ago and haven’t really played a meaningful game since. We’ll talk up our pitching staff, we’ll look ahead to the ALCS, the World Series, and we’ll dread a rematch with the Cardinals.

So, the game starts in less than an hour. Maybe you’ll be into it, maybe not. I assume that by the time you read this, it will be long over and we’ll be looking at the Yankees or we’ll be looking at firing and trading a few select staff and players.

August 28, 2009

UP

While you were all busy trading in your 1989 Geo Prizms (with the rebuilt motor, and the scraping brakes, and the rusty wheel-wells, and the dashboard that gets the awful convulsing seizure every time you drive faster than 55 mph) for a suspiciously large government subsidy to buy a car that, let’s face it, you really can’t afford because your college loan payments are due and you couldn’t get the hardship deferment, which you wouldn’t need if you’d forego a latte here and there, that –

Anyway, while you were all recklessly buying cars thanks to Cash for Clunkers, I took off for the U.P.

I flew solo. Not my first choice, mind you, but my potential fellow journeymen backed out (disclaimer: They did it for legitimate and understandable reasons). So I could have stayed home and watched TV and sat around and sneezed because of the cat, or I could have gone out to see a small woodsy part of the world. Naturally, I opted anti-cat, pro-road-trip. So last week Thursday, I left.

My only locked-in plans: a reserved campsite for Saturday and Sunday night at the Porcupine Mountains in far west of the U.P. Other than that, I had only my slightest whims to obey. Of course, I had plans in the back of my mind.

Pictured Rocks. Never seen ’em, that I can recall. The Porkies, of course. And, probably, I thought, a ride back through Minnesota. I had at that point only been to 28 states, and Minnesota was not among them. Social rounds in Chicago. Then home.

A while ago, I learned that driving alone was actually kind of fun. There’s nobody to dispute musical choices. Or routes. Or pit stops. Or anything else. Nobody to grip the door handles nervously when you narrowly miss an exit. You have complete control over the radio and the route. But no one to banter with.

No one to chip in for gas money.

Okay, flying solo isn’t ideal. I never said it was. I only said it was kinda fun. Five days on the road/in the wilderness all by yourself can stretch you. You’re the crazy guy in camp, the one the other campers wonder why he’s out here all alone, the one roasting hot dogs each night, the one trying desperately to dry his boxer shorts on the picnic table before the sun sets (they didn’t.) You’re the one who, when the sun goes down and you hear funny noises outside the tent, there’s no one else to shove awake for fight-off-the-bears-with-a-hatchet-duty.

And the UP does have bears. I just didn’t see them with my own eyes. When I got to the Porcupine Mountains, I asked the mustachioed guy at the ranger station a question. I phrased it this way:

“Okay, na├»ve city-boy question… Are there bears around here?”
“Ha! Well, what do you want the answer to be?”
“Well… I kinda want to see a bear. Just not at 2 am.”

He told me they hadn’t seen a bear in this campground for a while, but there were plenty in the park. And I might hear some wolves at night.

Bears are bad enough, but…Wolves? That’s not how I want to go. If I’m going to get eaten, I want to be enjoyed by one single animal, not ripped to shreds and evenly distributed by a pack of wolves. I’ve heard they’re sloppy eaters. They’d leave my various pieces strewn about the park. Perfectly tasty pieces of Jim, left for the lowly turkey vultures, then ants, and finally fungi to finish off. No, I deserve to go in one whole delicious piece.

Well, my food supply was pretty sparse. And I kept it in my car anyway. And besides, I heard the hyenas outside my tent in Tanzania and they didn’t eat me. Maybe I’m just not appetizing to wild animals. Moral of the story: I did not get eaten by wolves or bears. God must need me around for something else.

I have this one other fear when I travel: Leaving stuff behind.

In my head, I’m leaving something behind unknowingly everywhere I go. At first, it’s a few candy wrappers. Then, a few miles down the road, it’s actual food. Then money. Then camping equipment. And clothes. And finally, essential car parts. I picture myself driving down the road, items of increasing importance hemorrhaging from the automobile, leaving a trail like Hansel and Gretel so when my parents get worried in a few weeks and need to find where the wolves left my body parts, they need only to follow the trail of junk. I lose things until I finally arrive in my driveway in my underpants and hiking boots, steering wheel in hand, running along inside a frame Fred Flintstone-style.

Of course, I don’t really leave anything behind. I just worry incessantly about it. It drives me nuts. But that’s part of the beauty of car-camping. You can just cram everything into your car, and if you don’t see anything on the ground of the campsite, you can safely assume it’s all stowed somewhere among the pile of indiscernible stuff in your back seat. To the best of my knowledge, I didn’t leave anything important behind. I just felt sick each time I left a campsite.

I went to Minnesota. Have you been to Duluth? This guy has. Nice area. The downtown is unique, a strip of buildings, shops, and ports narrowly spread near the shore of Lake Superior. I didn’t stay there long. I went on toward Minneapolis, also a cool city. But I rode the light rail. Paid for my ticket, and apparently there’s nowhere for them to check it. Everybody just kinda gets on and off, like an old trolley. Honor system, I guess. I went to a Twins/Orioles game at the Metrodome. My first indoor baseball game, and one of the last in Minneapolis because they’re moving to Target Field next summer. It’s my hope they won’t need the Metrodome in November, as the Tigers should be in the playoffs. But that’s all beside the point.

From Minneapolis, I rolled through Madison, Wisconsin to see Mark, then to Chicago to hang out with Kyle and Linda. I came home Wednesday afternoon and promptly collapsed on the couch in the basement. I just don’t get enough sleep when I’m in a tent, fearing for my life, gripping a hatchet inside my sleeping bag so the bears don’t get me.

Would I do it again? I probably would. About half-way through the trip, I realized that the scale of this adventure was considerably small, and it was more of a practice for a bigger adventure someday. We’ll see what that ends up being. And next time, I probably won’t fly solo. Though it’s worth it, the experiences are all a little better when there’s someone to share them with, even if they’re going to protest your musical choices, veto the random roadside memorial visits, and grip the handle nervously when you narrowly make your exit.

Pictures:










August 22, 2009

Pictured Rocks - Like the Smokies, but next to a ginormous lake

Dear self,

No time for witty banter on the blog today. Let the pictures do the talking.

sincerely,

self

August 17, 2009

Jim is back.

I know what you’re thinking.

You’re thinking “Jim hasn’t updated his blog in months. Months, I tells ya. What happened to him? Did he quit writing? Did he abandon this blog and start another one without telling us? Is he avoiding me? Why hasn’t he told me anything about camp yet?”

Well. I have answers.

You see, when I moved up to camp May 15, I stayed pretty busy. Soon, a month had gone by before I had a chance to even think about writing any kind of delightfully informative blog entry. And I got to thinking, I can’t really do justice for this much of the summer with one hastily written blog entry. And then I thought, maybe I just need to take a break from the blog and any kind of creative writing anyway. And I decided to take the rest of the summer off from this blog. And not tell you. Specifically you. It’s not because the blogging would have been stale, but on the contrary: I think it would have been mind-blowing. You’d have been rapt, knuckles white around the mouse, scrolling desperately to the end of the page while you inched toward the edge of your office-chair and/or folding chair and/or couch cushions. You’d have reached the end, found some brilliant epiphany, and never have been the same. Still, regardless of your need for depth and discovery, I decided a few months of mental rest would do my written acuities some good. Recharge time, if you will.

But now I am home from camp.

And I am back.

For two weeks.

Sort of.

September 1, I’ll be going back to volunteer for that month, and maybe a little bit longer if they can keep me busy. But I think I’ll blog then. My three month break is over. And the Tigers are still in first place. And I haven’t broken any bones. And gas is cheap. And the interwebs are still functioning. Ergo, I’m here to blog. Maybe summarize – nay, shed the tiniest bit of light on – the summer.

I don’t know where I’ll be going from here. Both in the blog and in real life. I want to take a road trip. I was thinking about going to the UP. But I’ll probably have to fly solo up there.

May 13, 2009

Fender-bender

Not long after I got my new wheels, I joked to my brother that I needed to christen them with a fender-bender. I don't know why I made this joke, because it wasn't all that funny.

And it was a joke.

But now it's not.

Tonight, on my way to work, I took a classic spare-myself-a-wait-at-the-light-and-get-to-work-on-time maneuver, turning right and making the so-called Michigan left to avoid the stop-light left. It went smoothly. Except. Except: after I completed it, I had to wait at the stop light. It turned green, and people started to go. So I looked down at my iPod, presumably to find Kenny Loggins or Elvis Costello or some other such artist too old for my own good. And once I looked up again, there was a rusty old pickup much closer than I had remembered, much more stationary than I had remembered. I slammed the brakes too late, christened the new Honda, and muttered a few choice words.

I haven't been in many accidents. Actually, I've never been at the wheel for a significant bumper-thumper. So, I told myself there probably wasn't much damage, even though I knew our collision was sound. I got out, checked everything over - I'd show you a picture if I had taken one - and saw the great big scrape on top of my bumper, and a big dent in the grill. Thankfully, the Honda H was in pristine condition - how else do you know it's a Honda? The other driver got out and looked it over. He seemed unmoved by it all. No damage at all to his pickup. He handed over his information and I wrote it down nervously.

He seemed cool, collected. But if life is anything like the movies - and I have no reason to believe it isn't, because the cinema is the fount from which I tap my whole reality - then this guy was probably on his way to a diamond heist. I bet that when I bumped him, he assumed I was from a rival faction, attempting to keep him from getting to the big exchange. He probably took a pistol from under his seat, loaded it, screwed on a silencer, and tucked it into the back of his slacks. He wouldn't have hesitated to take me out, get back into his truck, and get back on his way to a private jet to Liberia where there would have been a few a few shady characters in a limo with suitcases full of Benjamins and Euros, and the guy's girlfriend, taken hostage and tied up on the floor. This was never about the diamonds, it was about getting his woman back. He got sucked away from his career as a semi-professional softball player and into a complicated web of lies, deceit, and pretty diamonds. He would have handed over the diamonds and waited for them to unshackle her - did I mention she's shackled? - and when they finally unlocked her handcuffs, she PULLED A GUN ON HIM. SHE WAS IN ON IT THE WHOLE TIME, AND SHE NEVER LOVED HIM. But I digress.

The important thing is that he wasn't mad, and we didn't have a beef. There was no damage to his truck. And I'm not surprised, because it was made of metal and my car is made of, like, old laundry basket plastic. It folded right up.

Anyway. I got his info, let him leave, and filed a police report and a claim with my insurance. It was all my fault. So now Kenny Loggins has cost me, I can only assume, at least my $500 deductible.

I spent the rest of the night wondering why I didn't just do something differently to avoid the accident. If I had just waited at the light or gone straight or been five minutes faster or slower or left the iPod at home... But then I thought, How many times have I done it right and not realized it? The six years I had my car, not once did I have so much as a bump, or a scrape, or a busted mirror. You never know when or how often you've escaped danger or humiliation. How many times have I taken the right way and, say, serendipitously avoided mowing down a troupe of girl scouts helping elderly folks cross the street? Then I would certainly have spent the rest of my life in jail with that hanging over my head. But no... I just got into a fender-bender. And it's just kind of expensive. I'm going to drain my checking account, but if that's the worst thing that happens, I think I'll be alright.

By the way, I would name the movie something with a diamond pun. And it would star Nicholas Cage.

May 11, 2009

Tornado

I'm sitting here watching PBS after midnight. They're showing a BBC documentary about Tornadoes.

I have always, always, always wanted to see a tornado. I have a suspiciously large number of dreams about them, and in each one, I decide that I'm actually finally seeing a tornado in real life and I'm not dreaming anymore. And I always stand outside and gawk and marvel at their hugeness, soak up their sheer destructive power. And then I wake up and awkwardly realize that I still haven't seen a tornado in real life.

Whenever we get a really violent storm and I get the chance to watch it, I scan the sky in morbid curiosity, hoping to catch a glimpse of a funnel cloud forming. They never do. They're rare in Michigan, where our weather is buffeted by Lake Michigan.

My dad has seen them, I think. I've asked him before. He grew up in Iowa. I'm not sure he ever wants to see another one. Iowa is in the tornado alley where, I learned via PBS - and stowed away somewhere in the section of my brain allotted to fifth grade science class - warm winds from the south rise up over cold winds from the north, drifting up into the jet stream where they begin to rotate. The supercells spin and funnel downward toward the ground, and berth the twisters, and throw train cars around like toys and destroy trailer parks. It's a classic joke to make fun of the people who get on the news and stand in front of where their trailer used to be.

This documentary is showing the destruction. You always see it on the news in the spring when a particularly bad one levels a neighborhood somewhere in Kansas. A particularly bad storm occurred in Oklahoma in 1999, and they showed a lingering shot of block after block after block of skeletal remains of houses, acres and acres of garbage and debris and walls and bricks and sinks and typewriters, and trucks where living rooms used to be. A team of storm chasers from England arrive late. They miss the spectacle, and see only the aftermath of entire neighborhoods and towns left completely destroyed. They leave feeling a little... depressed.

And I think... I don't really want to see a tornado all that badly.

May 2, 2009

The first days of the Honda Civic

A few weeks ago, sensing the beginning of the end of the Escort, I began to look for a new car. I didn't find anything.

Bethany did.

About five minutes after I told her I was looking, she pointed me to an ad on Craigslist for a Honda Civic. I looked up a few reviews, did a little research. People say Honda Civics run forever. I saw a story about one that made it to 900,000 miles. A friend told me yesterday he knew someone that just bought one with 400,000 miles on it. A guy at work bought one from 1997, and said you can expect them to reach 300,000. So since this one was almost in my price range, I emailed the owner and asked to check it out.

I went out to her house a few days ago and took the car for a test drive out on the freeway. It handled well, had a sunroof and A/C and cruise control and a CD player, veritable luxuries in my book, but I didn't necessarily feel love at first sight. I didn't know for sure. I thought... I want it, but I haven't driven anything else.

But another couple was driving down from Mount Pleasant that night to check it out, so I had to make a decision. I asked my brother if I should pull the trigger and he told me to go for it if it seemed right.

After I test drove it, I stopped and applied for a loan. When they called and told me I was approved, I called the owner and told her I wanted her car. She was happy, and called... the others... and told them not to bother with the trip. Meanwhile, I had another friend run a Carfax report. He called me and gave it a really positive endorsement.

So... I bought the Civic.

I've been driving it for a few days, watching the miles tick up, permanently away from the 64,000 mark at which I bought it. We're getting to know each other. I still reach down for the shifter when I'm slowing down. There's nothing there... My hand doesn't know what to do while I drive. And my left foot gets bored looking for the clutch. But I'm sure they'll get over it soon. It's road-trip worthy. It's in good shape... It's nice.

It's an adjustment. With the Escort, it was paid off. It outlived my expectations. There was no pretense, no pressure for upkeep. That car was supposed to die with me. And I have to baby this one.

Picture for you:

I DRIVE A HONDA CIVIC. I DRIVE A HONDA CIVIC.

May 1, 2009

The final days of ZX2

Thursday. I'm driving on a busy street when I begin to feel a shake from the front of my car. It feels like a flat tire. I stop to check it out. All tires are present and full of air, nothing is dragging underneath, nothing is awry under the hood. I return to the car and pray that I make it back to the store.

It does not make it back to the store.

The vibration begins immediately. In the back of my mind, I'm thinking: Is this the end? Since I'm not well-versed in vehicular snafus, I grip the steering wheel and beg the car to survive two more miles. But soon, the shaking intensifies, and quickly, and suddenly I come to a dragging, grinding, screeching halt, leaning forward and to the left. Cars lean forward and to the left when a wheel comes off.

And sure enough, I see the emancipated wheel, keeping all of its momentum upon liberation from the weighty car, rolling and bouncing across the street, through a suspiciously large gap in traffic. It jumps the curb, rolls up a driveway, and barges through some poor homeowner's screen door.

I will have to deal with that later. For now, I'm sitting in traffic, near rush hour, at a busy intersection. On three wheels. I get out, inspect the damage, and pop a squat in the grass by the street.

Huh.

I call work. I'm outta commission for... at least an hour, I say. I call dad and hurriedly, anxiously explain the scenario as best I understand it. Soon, an old friend rolls up and helps find the lug nuts. A cop pulls up behind me and we fill out an accident report. We inspect the damage at the house and retrieve the wheel. No one lives there, the cop tells me. Abandoned. Foreclosed. Thank God.

A wrecker comes, dad comes, the boss comes, and we agree that all of this came about because the lug nuts weren't tight enough after the new tires I got on Saturday. The wrecker charges $20 to put the wheel back on. The car is good enough to drive back home, so dad takes it and I finish the shift in his truck.

Saturday, I drive the car again, the wheels polished and brushed up by the tire dealer. They did their best to make things right. But by 11, a strange noise is coming from under the hood, and the bitter smell of burning rubber. My AC compressor, I later discover, is seizing up and has an appetite for serpentine belts. When I drive it home later, tense because it's loud, I hear the belt snap in the driveway, and rubber-smelling smoke pours from under the hood when I get out.

Sigh.

Sunday morning when I get up, I look for a new car.

Sunday afternoon, Dad and I replace the belt. When we go to buy a new belt, an old friend is there who offers to look at the car later in the week. It takes four hours for dad and I to replace the belt because we can't get to the darn thing and we don't have hands the size of a three-year-old girl. Another friend stops by to help us, and this is when I discover it's the AC compressor, and it's hungry for another belt, at least until it's replaced.

Monday, the old friend we saw when we were buying the belt offers to buy the car for $700. I'm not sure what I could get for a maybe-running car with some real issues, but he knows how to fix cars and I agree to the price, because it'll be in good hands. A few days later, he comes to get it, and swaps out the AC compressor with one from the junkyard. He slips on the new belt in five minutes, roughly three hours and 55 minutes faster than Dad and I did it.

I sign over the title, find the keys, and drive it to his house and say a strange, brief good-bye.

It patiently taught me to drive it's stick shift, suffered through that long drive to Florida after its air conditioning gave out, rolled over the 200,000 milestone a few weeks ago.

It's weird to get attached to something. You ascribe a personality to it. I never named it, nothing seemed right, but I did like it. When I paid it off, it was mine, and I had pride in it even though it never really fit me. Little red car, no head room... just didn't seem right for me.

But it was. Every time I drove, and that was often, it was there with me. Everywhere that I would go, the Escort would surely follow. It felt so wrong leaving it in Florida when I flew home for a week. We adapted to each other, conformed to each other. It was truly my space.

And now it's not my car anymore.

But I've got a new one.

April 23, 2009

short - really short - fiction

(Not my style I know. But I wrote it, and there's not sense in writing it unless someone reads it. So here you go... Thoughts?)

Baby Grand

She lies in bed each night and drifts into sleep, under personal symphonies from the room above. Each night, same time, when the news has finished with the important stuff and switched to sports and weather, the pianist sits down to his instrument, anchored firmly to the wooden floor, and plays dreamy melodies, unknowingly serenading the girl below, the one with the tired feet. She’s come to expect it, to miss it if it’s gone, because the tones resonate through the floorboards and down the walls, into her ears and pull her slowly from the waking day into the soft, short night. It’s a fine way to end a stressful day, full of books and classes then dishes, trays and glasses full of beer, and customers who demand more, so much more, than she can deliver. And as she drifts, she forgets them.

Tonight, it’s the woman with the Prada sunglasses who visits every Wednesday to sit silently with her husband and reveal nothing, only that she and he hardly talk, and that she lives in Cicero, and always keeps the glasses where she can see them.

And she forgets the man in the tux, with his bowtie hanging limp over his lapels, who asked for drinks she’d never heard of, and had it in for her and let her do nothing right and made her fill the break room with awkwardness when she cried to the cooks. And when he left, he signed his name on the credit slip and drew a line through the tip and went home to watch the news and practice his baby grand.

April 17, 2009

The 2009 Tea Parties

Do you know about the Tea Parties? You probably heard about them. I didn't go. There was one in Grand Rapids, and I thought about it... I'm frustrated with my government, and if this is a way to show it, you could probably count me in. But I like to be sure. I don't want to half-heartedly protest anything. In case, you know, some counter-protesting occurs and someone hunts me down, gets me into an argument and finds me ill-prepared to defend my presence and inherent support, and converts me to a communist. And I do not want to become a communist. So I didn't go to the Tea Parties.

Plus, I was working.

So I started to look into them. I followed a little bit of the media coverage, and sure enough: There's some counter-protesting going on. And plenty of mockery. On the surface, the tea parties are a bunch of people who are angry about tax increases, many of whom haven't seen a tax increase, probably won't for a while, and maybe never will. People at the bottom end of the tax bracket pay only a small part of the federal income tax - I've mentioned this before. So I'll admit the protesting seems a little ironic.

But I think there's more to it than tax increases. You see, there's a small chunk of people left who actually want the government to take less money and do less stuff. I count myself among them. We're fiscal conservatives who want to take care of ourselves, and we want the government to do less. But we see the government getting bigger. Yeah, I know, it started under George W. Bush. We're mad at him too.

We're mad about - I shudder at the word - bailouts. Remember when GM got too big to fail? Remember how Bank of America got too big to fail? What happens if our government gets too big to fail? The more the government does, the bigger it gets, the closer it gets to that line. People see their freedoms shrinking, and the government growing, and that's why they're getting upset.

I'm not going to sound the Socialism alarm. Maybe we're there, maybe we're not, maybe it's the worst thing ever, maybe no one's really going to care or notice in fifty years. That evaluation is far beyond me and the B I got in three credit-hours of undergraduate macroeconomics. I can't begin to tell you the basic merits and demerits of socialism, but I'm pretty sure they don't entirely jive with this wacky but unshakable idea I have that the government should do less and take less money.

My financial life is okay in this system. But it's the trajectory that bugs me. If the government is getting a little bigger today, where will it be tomorrow? In a year? In ten years? If I'm a little annoyed and curious about it, imagine how many more people are scared and angry and marginalized enough to get organized and to raise a ruckus and dump tea in the Grand River. And all over the rest of the country.

There's a significant number of people who don't feel well-represented by their government, and they have every right to protest. You can protest whatever you want. You protest when your rights erode, hopefully you start doing it before they're gone. It makes sense for people to protest a tax increase.

Naturally, they got mocked. And of course, the easiest way to make fun of tea-parties is to make a tea-bagging joke. If you don't know what that is, and you really want to know, go ask the Urban Dictionary. Suffice it to say it's an innuendo that would draw snickers from frat boys. And some of the rest of us, but only in our weaker moments. I swear. And apparently, Anderson Cooper, too. Dubbing a tea-involving protest as tea-bagging is an easy joke, a comparison expected from anonymous, edgy political bloggers and humorists like Jon Stewart. Likening a movement to a sex-act is a convenient way to devalue it. It bugs me to see otherwise professional journalists slough off a widespread, reasonable protest.

I'm amazed at the ease with which some people are laughing it off. A bunch of white, rich tea-baggers want to keep their money and they're finally raising a stink about it, right? Is someone out of touch here, though? Is it the people protesting out of concern for a government growing too big to fail? The same legion of people who choose Fox News over CNN, the ones who built the conservative talk radio audience? The wealthy ones who bear the load of the tax burden, who feel underrepresented and have reached a tipping point and are taking their frustration to the streets? Or is it the people making teabagging jokes?




From the movie Network

April 15, 2009

The ATL

When the Braves game ended on Saturday night, we took the bus to the MARTA station at Five Points, and waited to take it south to where we'd parked. On our side, waiting for the southbound train toward the airport, were me, Joel, and his wife Katie, along with a handful of black people. On the other side, waiting for the northbound train, was a huge crowd, mostly white, decked out in Braves paraphernalia. The MARTA tracks divided us.

As I understand it, this situation sums up Atlanta fairly well. The city has one of the fastest growing white populations in the country, and they mostly live on the north side, while the south side is predominantly black. In the few days I spent in the city, I didn't see enough to be able to make such a claim. Joel told me it was so, and Google helped me find a few other sources to confirm it.

I don't know if you've been to Atlanta, or what it conjures up in your brain when you think of it, but I got off the plane there thinking it would be a pretty modern, progressive, cosmopolitan city, without really knowing for sure. And it is. But it's still decidedly southern. Within a few minutes in the airport, I was inundated with southern drawl, and I knew I was the one who talked funny.

The south is interesting, and I'd like to spend more time there someday. After all, I was born in Alabama, not far from the Gulf. (And I can't help but think this is why I like Bluegrass.) But I was whisked away before I was old enough to convince my parents to stay away from the snow. I can't fathom how different it would have been to grow up there, missing out on real winters, eating breakfast at Waffle House, and hearing an entirely different perspective on the Civil War and General Lee and Jefferson Davis. They're still heroes down there.

There's a giant carving of them, along with Stonewall Jackson, on Stone Mountain. It's like the Mount Rushmore of the south. Stone Mountain is one of the biggest tourist attractions in the state, just 20 miles east of Atlanta, and you can climb it in about a half hour if you're good. We did that on Sunday, when it was perfectly clear and 70 degrees. From the top we could see all of Metro Atlanta, including the downtown and midtown skylines and Buckhead.

Of course I did all of the other touristy stuff, too. I visited the World of Coca-Cola, the CNN Center, and the Georgia Aquarium. They're all worth checking out, but go on a weekday morning if you can because they'll be crowded on the weekends. We hung out in Piedmont Park and went to a Braves game on Saturday night. We went to the Martin Luther King Jr National Historic Site, in the east shadow of the skyline. Since it's a national park, it's all free. Also worth a look: A trip up the Westin hotel to its rotating restaurant, the sorta-cleverly titled SunDial. If you eat there - I can't afford to - it's free to go up. If you don't, you have to bribe them five bucks. Or, you have to pay five bucks for a ticket. I paid for my ticket and got a good view. If you want to get your bearings, do this first. Or just go up in the Marriott Marquis around the corner. It's not as tall, but it's free. We visited the Starbucks inside on Saturday and killed a few hours playing cards in their lobby. Probably the coolest lobby/atrium I've ever been in.

I don't usually think of Atlanta as a big tourist draw. It's just another big city, right? I went because I know people there. Back when I was in Tanzania, salivating at the thought of touring my country, I told my friend Joel I might want to visit. He invited me down, and when I got cabin fever in March, I decided to buy the ticket and go. It was worth it - there's plenty to do in Atlanta. It wasn't the most restful vacation ever, and there was no beach, but it was a change of pace. And I guess that's what I needed.

Pichafoyou:

Top to bottom:
Carvings on Stone Mountain
Inside the CNN Center
Looking South from the Westin toward Turner Field
Olympic Park, from the Westin
MLKJr's house
Stoney Tangawizi, on tap at the World of Coca-Cola
Inside Turner Field
A "H8BAMA" license plate. They must really hate Alabama.
Looking north toward Midtown from the Westin

















April 3, 2009

Adventures in Pizza Delivery, Episode 37c

Tonight was a historically bad night for tips, one that shattered a sad record that has stood across hundreds of nights of work. The specifics: Twelve customers combined to compensate me $18. It was an uttermost void of consumer benevolence. Epic weakness. So as all down-on-their-luck pizza men do, I got melodramatic and drew comparisons between myself and the Israelites. I stood there on the freshly-mopped floor, defeated and broken, wondering if somehow God was angry with me for my disobedience, or my lack of justice. And I realized I was blaming God, as I believe men are prone to do, when in reality I live in a broken world where the work is not always fair, nor the tippers generous, nor... nor my heart always thankful.

In a strange way, I felt better.

April 1, 2009

Michigan (State)

This is why I watch basketball. From the beginning of each season in November, I invest my time into watching and listening to the Spartans play basketball in the anticipation that maybe this year they'll go to the Final Four to play for a championship in front of the whole country.

And now they're there - just like my bracket predicted - and I have to watch. I have to see them play their final game of the season, whether it's Saturday night against Connecticut, the overdog, riding out a recruiting scandal, or Monday night against Villanova, another underdog, or UNC, the juggernaut with the national fanbase, the team of players who could easily have walked into the NBA but came back to win the national championship they missed last year, the team that drubbed us in the same building in December. I'll watch with as much enthusiasm as anyone, glued to the TV to see if my Spartans will get the glory I hoped they would when the season began.

And they get to do it all in Detroit.

Naturally, that's a story line for the national media. I knew, before MSU beat Louisville, that we were going to see stories about this being "a ray of sunshine" in a dark state (in the words of our governor in an ESPN interview today). I'm not surprised to see stories like this one and this one. They're good articles, and I don't deny the reality that seeing our guys play for a national championship will be a nice distraction for some people. But they still bug me a little.

I should tell you that I hate strongly dislike every article, story, anecdote, commercial, idea, sentence, paragraph, essay, joke, poem, eulogy, sermon and musical that starts with "In this economy..." We don't need any more reminders what it's like to live "in this economy." Michigan has been in our recession for almost ten years, and it isn't news anymore. The angle is tired and old and no one should be using it to sell newspapers, let alone siding and fried chicken.

But what really bothers me is that our fine state has been rebranded to align with Detroit's continuing decay. I can't speak from an outsiders perspective, but when every good thing to come out of Michigan becomes "a ray of sunshine" for us, I get the feeling people think we're all kicking empty bean cans around our doldrums, looking for jobs and sewing patches on our trousers while we wait for things to get better. So when this basketball game comes along, we all get to forget about how abysmal and unbearably awful our little unemployed lives are for a minute. Of course, on Tuesday reality will sink in and we'll go off to find our bean cans again.

All I know is that we're all going to rally around the home-town pride. Well, most of us are, save for a few proud Wolverine fans. But the rest of us are going to sports bars and ordering pizzas and buying t-shirts, like we always would, because we want to see our guys win, because we waited for it all season, because we want it anyway. Not because we need a distraction "in this economy."

So props to my Spartans. I've waited all year for this weekend, and I couldn't be more pleased to see them still playing. Besides, all of the other storylines are better. Playing 80 miles from home is good. The 30-year anniversary of their first championship is good. Seeing a team of mostly Michigan guys beat a team that unfairly recruited players using an agent is good. A potential rematch against UNC in the same building is good. Whatever happens, it has been a good season.

March 25, 2009

Google: trusted advisor, all-knowing confidant, magic 8-ball

I don't know when it started, but Google added a prompt/dropdown thing a while ago that offers suggestions for what you might be looking for, based on what you've typed, before you click search or "I'm feeling lucky." Such tech-related knowledge is beyond me, as is explaining why anything comes up when you search. Google is too big, too far away, too complicated, too anonymous for me to understand it.

Which is probably why so many people trust it with big, important life-questions.

The prompt/dropdown thing clues us in to just what people are Googling. Go to Google and type, "should I..." and you'll see some options come up.

Should I call him?
Should I refinance?
Should I get a divorce?
Should I go to law school?

Type "how should I," and you'll see stuff ranging from the mundane to the intensely personal.

How should I get my haircut?
How should I do my makeup?
How should I ask her out?
How should I propose?

"Why do I..."

...love him?
...sweat so much?
...have so much gas?

How do I know...

...If a guy or girl likes you?
...If you're pregnant?
...If your in love? (This one has 91,300,000 results. "if you're in love" has about half that many.)

When should I...

...get married?
...divorce?
...take creatine?

And, of course, google isn't immune to the deeper religious and philosophical questions.

Why does God...

...allow children to suffer?
...love me?
...exist?

Why doesn't God...

...show himself?
...heal amputees?
...exist?

I've done this before. (Maybe not with the deeper religious stuff. Yet.) And you probably have, too. The question is on your mind, and Google is right there, why not ask? For example, I know very little about cars. If I hear a noise, see an oil spot where I parked, smell something burning, see something burning, the first thing I do is... call dad. Then maybe I Google it later. Google is great for those of us who are automotively handicapped.

I guess what makes me feel a little ocky is that Google seems to be a go-to resource for relationship questions. People want definite, concrete answers; they want to follow the formula. And if that formula is out there, Google probably has it. So people take their intensely personal questions, from their unique individual situations, and bring them before the vast, anonymous space of the internet.

"Should I get a divorce?" (2,430,000 results.)

Really
? You want Google to be your magic 8-ball on that one? Did you talk to your husband/wife before you googled it? I hope so. Or maybe you talked to your family and friends about it? If their advice was, "I dunno. Why dontcha Google it?" then I wouldn't blame you for seeking help elsewhere.

March 20, 2009

My 1998 Ford Escort ZX2 is dying...

...and I'm the one killing it.

I took it on in 2003, when it was five years old, young and robust and virile and buoyant. There wasn't a spot of rust on it. I would take it through the car wash and it would shine like a ruby. A big, car-shaped ruby.

I remember the trip up to camp, just after it became mine, and I wanted it to prove itself. On the open empty roads of Oceana county, I cruised down a hill on the freeway and kicked it up to 100. The engine whirred, strong and calm and confident. It panted for more, but I was satisfied. Never made it do that again, never forced it, never let it, though it was strong and eager. Maybe... Maybe it needed that. I let it weaken and atrophy, never pushed it again.

Now the age is showing. There's rust eating away above the rear wheels. Things begin to shake and rattle when I press the accelerator on the freeway, and I don't hear the calm confidence anymore. It begins to feel like walking on eggshells, and I ease off to... to be nice.

It has been leaking oil. It is perhaps a simple sign of age, perhaps a cry for attention. Either way, it's a reminder that our relationship is nearing a sad inevitable end. Every time it leaves a dark stain in the driveway, I'm reminded of its age, and my regrets at not letting it be all it could be, and how things can never be the way they once were. I took it in for an oil change today, and they told me the oil pan had rusted through, and the radiator was leaking. To change the oil pan, they have to remove the engine. All said and done, repairs would be more than the value of the car.

It is a sad choice to make, to live with an imperfect, dying, struggling automobile you once loved. It will age and deteriorate, and I'll move on. I'll begin to look at other cars, ignoring its lapsing state, thoughtless as it putters toward a sad, anonymous end in a junkyard.

But I'll be alright, eventually. I'll find another car and we'll bond. I'll enjoy the air-conditioning and cruise control, and the Escort will be fossilized in my past, placed high upon a pedestal it can never live up to. It'll be phony and nostalgic and perfect, the way I'll remember it best.

I confided in my brother about all this.

SeekUpward: I've put 95,000 miles on it
ishoppejon: you raised it from a pup
SeekUpward: I knew the end would come eventually
SeekUpward: well, it had 107,000 when I got it
SeekUpward: It tears me up inside that I'm not the primary mile-putter
ishoppejon: but you stuck with it through good and bad
ishoppejon: you have had it for the longest time.
SeekUpward: yeah, that's true
ishoppejon: don't beat yourself up
ishoppejon: http://www.lyricstime.com/the-lost-dogs-i-m-setting-you-free-but-i-m-not-letting-you-go-lyrics.html
SeekUpward: I just... you think you have such a personal connection, and then you realize it's spent so much time with someone else, and you realize, maybe you just hardly know anything about it.
SeekUpward: that's all I'm saying.
ishoppejon: I understand
SeekUpward: Somewhere out there, my car has another person
ishoppejon: we can't always live our lives in the ideal...you think you're supposed to go to school, go to college, get a job, and get a car that no one has ever been with.
ishoppejon: and we need to realize, Jim
ishoppejon: we need to realize that isn't always how it ends up
ishoppejon: we live one life, that of our own
SeekUpward: you're right.
ishoppejon: I'm not saying put emotion aside...take time to feel
ishoppejon: thats how a person heals
SeekUpward: I feel like intimacy is dead. And we're the ones that killed it.
ishoppejon: well, if we can kill, we can try to revive it
SeekUpward: that's a good way to think about it.
SeekUpward: Some people name their cars.
SeekUpward: I never did that.
SeekUpward: nothing seemed right.
SeekUpward: I wonder, if I knew it better, if I would have named it. Or, if I had named it, if I would have known it better.
ishoppejon: I'd like to think "Original NyQuil" is an appropriate name for my car.

March 18, 2009

It's time for....

I watched this religiously when I was a kid. Everyday, four o'clock, Animaniacs. Without exception. I'd get myself a bowl of cereal, turn on the tube and let television dictate my developing sense of humor. Today Jon sent me a link to a YouTube video of, without a doubt, our favorite visiting character, Mr. Director, posing as a clown on a visit to the Warner Brothers and their Warner sister Dot. I watched it this morning, and in my semi-grownup-ness, I still laughed at everything. To me, it's every bit as funny now as it was when I was a kid. It's amazing. I think there's universal appeal in the show, especially the marvelously cartoonish violence. Mr. Director, in each of his incarnations as director, clown, actor, comedian, was a regular recipient of it.

Animaniacs played off lots of stuff a kid only sorta gets... For one, they complained about the writers and censors. A bunch. And there was tons of innuendo. ("Hellooooooooo nurse!!!, for one, and a song devoted entirely to Lake Titicaca. Ah-em.) But there were some brilliant educational pieces, too... Anyone remember Yakko singing the nations of the world? I'm too out of touch with kids television to know for sure, but something tells me Hannah Montana isn't teaching kids about Borneo and Vietnam.

Three things I want you to see, if you have time:

The aforementioned Clown clip:


Yakko's nations of the world:


And the treasured introduction, to which I still know all the words:

March 11, 2009

Travels

I bought a plane ticket. In a month - barring the catastrophic prospect of a job offer - I'm flying to Atlanta to see some friends. I've never been to Atlanta. I've been through Atlanta, on six lanes of I-75, with my fingers white-knuckled on the steering wheel, trying desperately to see the city without crashing and finding myself at the bottom of a massive pileup. From that fleeting vantage point, flying between the freeway walls far beneath the skyscrapers, Atlanta looks like a pretty cool city. Soon, I'll know for sure. Cuz I bought the plane ticket.

I don't know when or how the travel bug bit me. And I hate using the term travel bug because it makes me think of tourists with cameras who sneak out the hotel to take self-portraits in front of landmarks and eat at the same restaurants they have back home. I want to distance myself from that as much as possible. (Sidenote: To make this specific experience more authentically Atlantan, I requested to my friend Joel that we go to Chick-fil-A.) And besides, most people claim to be ill with the travel bug. If you asked a roomful of people if they liked to travel, they'd probably all raise their hands. Everybody wants to travel. It's just that not everbody can, because of time, responsibility, or money. I have time. I only have a little responsibility. The thing I lack is money. Two out of three ain't bad.

But money... that's something to address. There isn't much I want to spend money on right now. But there are lots of places I want to see. I would rather have an experience than a product anyday. I would rather cross another destination off my list than a household appliance. That will change once I get out of my parents house and into the world, where you actually have to spend money on little things like heat and electricity and space to call a home. But I love being able to tell people that I've been there, wherever there is.

There are, I think, different levels of being somewhere. You don't really ever know a place until you call it home. I know Michigan. And you definitely haven't seen a place until you've gotten away from your hotel room and the theme parks and arcades and strip malls. Otherwise, you've only been to little pockets of places at best, where the locals don't go and if they do, they're wearing their work uniforms. I can say that I've seen Orlando, even though I never went to Disney. I've been to Sandusky, but I haven't really seen it. And you definitely haven't been to a place if you've only passed through it.

There are lots of places I've passed through, and Atlanta is among them. Soon, I'll be able to say I've been there. Hopefully, I'll see it too.

Wikipedia: Atlanta skyline

March 1, 2009

Intersections

She calls Papa John's and asks about their deals. The Pizza Guy explains them to her, competing with escalating shrieks from her kids, who demand mommy's attention. They get louder and louder as mommy tries to make dinner decisions, particularly the daughter, until at last they reach a climax, and mommy reaches her breaking point. "GODDAMN IT," she screams at her daughter, right into the phone, and The Pizza Guy hears her. She's embarrassed. It slipped out. She tells him she'll... have to call him back.

#7: Blanchard: It is 8:00 pm. The Pedestrian is crossing 44th Street just as The Pizza Guy turns onto it from Clyde Park. He gauges the distance, clutches his brown paper sack in his left hand, and crosses. Oops, didn't judge it right, should have waited. Never mind, though, The Pizza Guy has slowed to let him cross. But as he crosses, he slows, stops, and stands in the street. So Pizza Guy slows and stops, too, and there's a brief standoff as Pizza Guy raises his hands in disbelief as if to say, "What are you doing?" The Pedestrian raises one hand and one finger, the one in the middle, because it's his road too and he can do what he wants.

#16: Walden Woods: It is 11:30 pm. There's a knock on the door, and the kids rush it. They shout at The Pizza Guy, and they're excited to see him. They poke through the curtains to see him through the window, and he makes faces at them and they laugh and shout at him some more. Mommy comes and opens the door, keeps her cell phone at her ear. The mass of children grows, and they crowd around mommy. There's a lot of shouting and she can't hear her friend on the phone, so she shouts too. "You're going to go to bed right now without your dinner if you don't shut up." They don't listen. Too much excitement about pizza. And a guest. "Okay," she says. "You're all going to bed as soon as you're done eating."

#18: 44th Street: It is 12:30 am. The pizza man knocks and mommy answers the door. The kids are watching TV and mommy is burning a cigarette. She'll burn another when it's gone. She hands the pizza man $15, takes the pizza, and closes the door.

February 25, 2009

200000

This is a big deal. It's a very big deal.



My Ford Escort crossed the 200,000 mile mark just before it rolled into my driveway last night. You'll forgive me if I come off sounding like a proud parent, but this is an occasion for celebrating. It's been a lot of hard work, and he definitely doesn't have all of his original parts, but he just chugged beyond a historical milestone. I'm so glad I got to take the picture.

Would you believe I traded my Mutt Cutts van for it, straight up? I can get 70 miles to the gallon on that hog. No? Okay, false. I bought it in 2003 from my mom's co-worker (I think) with around 107,000 miles on it. And it eats me up inside to know that the majority of its miles were put on by someone else. Not for long, Escort. You and me, we're heading on into the sunset. We're going down together.

In case you're wondering, 200000 miles is enough to drive from my house to 588 Tigers games at Comerica Park (Happy Spring Training). I could have delivered 40000 pizzas. It's enough to drive to LA and go back and forth between there and New York City 35 times, and then go back home. Or I could have driven around earth 25 times. Or I could have driven 84% of the way to the moon.

Really, I racked up those miles with lots of trips to camp, delivering pizzas to people at unholy hours of the night, a shocking number of trips to Jimmy John's, and a long road trip to Orlando. I didn't expect the car to make it this far. Just figured it would die one day after I paid it off. But it's going strong, still has its stride... it's not limping. Yet.

February 24, 2009

iTunes

A few months ago, I reformatted my hard drive. Wiped it clean. Best decision I ever made. I backed up everything, all my pictures, my music, my documents - even the stuff from college classes, stuff I'll never use or see again. Just in case, you know, the school comes calling and says, "Hey, we need to see that rough draft of your section of that final group project from Spanish 201, otherwise we're taking back your diploma." Boom, got it. Si, yo tengo. (Am I the only one that hangs onto this crap?) Anyway. I saved everything. Except, somehow my collection of the top 100 hip-hop songs from the 1990s disappeared. My library is now sadly lacking of The Diggable Planets and Nas.

Which leaves me with only 2,653 songs. Most of them acquired entirely legally, off my own CDs or via amazonmp3.com ($1.99 for Andrew Bird, $3.99 for The Killers. Yessss.) I don't know how my collection ballooned that big, but I do know that it's dwarfed in comparison to many others. (Sidenote: What if I started one of those annoying facebook chain letters asking people about their iTunes playlists. How many songs? Ten most listened to? Ten most recently listened to? How many unplayed?)

iTunes is great because it tracks all your music and how many times you've played it. I like this feature, and I assume it's standard for most players... iTunes probably isn't so special. But when I wiped my compy clean, iTunes reset itself. Curses. Back to zero on everything. Time was, a guy could look back and see which songs were played most often, which ones were rated the highest. No more. I know I listened to Intergalactic more than 40 times... but now it's back to zero. And so, I threw together a playlist of the good ones, and slowly sought out my favorites again.

So I made a playlist of all the unplayed ones. I have 1,619 songs which, as far as I know, I've never heard before. And right now I'm working it down to zero. I've found a few good ones - I would never, ever have sought out "Go Faster," by the Black Crowes, but I found it, and I'm sure it will be on the playlist for the gym. And I really like that demo of Jefferson Aeroplane from Relient K's Bird and the Bee Sides album. Also found: A Petra (yeah, that's right, Petra) medley with The Coloring Song, Derek Webb's Please before I go, and lots of other great stuff that would have been skipped over and never been put into a playlist.

I challenge you to do the same. Cuz, life is like a box of chocolates. Or something.