Monday, July 28, 2008

Old Friend

I am not good at multi-tasking. I find it hard to juggle the details of several tasks in a way that allows me to complete any of the tasks well. So, I tend to complete things serially. I will make a list, tackle the first item on the list until it is done, then move on to the next entry. In this way I get things done and generally I get them done well. But, if ever I find myself in a spot where I must complete several complicated tasks simultaneously, I get stressed out, steps get forgotten or mixed-up, and none of the tasks comes out as well as it could have if it was the only thing I had to do.
I watch Erica prepare appetizers, main courses, and dessert whenever we have people over for dinner and I am amazed. Her brain sorts, evaluates, plans, and acts in an efficient way that allows her to get everything done and done well, at just the right moment. If she asks me to help out by making a sauce for the veggies and grilling the meat at the same time, I freak out.
I can’t prove it, but I think whatever deficit of mine it is that leaves me unable to focus on more than one thing at a time is also responsible for my inability to keep in touch in any meaningful way with old friends. I can focus on just one or two relationships in my life at any given time. This makes those one or two relationships rich and meaningful, but it also puts a LOT of pressure on them. At the same time other relationships are starved of the one ingredient needed to keep them strong and vibrant—attention.
This whole dynamic is something I am just coming to terms with in myself, even though I have been aware of it for years. A few months ago I decided I needed to take some of the pressure off of my relationship with my wife and daughter by reconnecting with an old friend or two. Right away I thought of my closest friend from my Peace Corps days in Yemen twenty years ago. Her name is Amy and she and I have been in touch only sporadically since we returned to life in America in 1989. My loss of closeness with Amy has always been a big regret for me.
Well, this week Amy and her husband and daughter were on the East Coast to visit family and we had the chance to spend the day together at the Mystic Aquarium in Mystic, CT. It was the first time we had seen each other in ten years. I was excited and nervous before we got to the aquarium but quickly realized that I didn’t need to be.

Many changes have happened to Amy and to me since we met on the rooftop of a courtyard house in the Al’G’aa section of Sana’a and spent six hours talking. We have each gotten married, had a child, gotten a graduate degree and a teaching certificate, moved several times, and hit forty.
It was a relief to feel right away that none of the changes that have happened in either of us have changed the nature of our deep connection to each other. We picked up our friendship right where it left off when we used to see each other all the time. The ease and comfort of a good conversation with an old friend is a gift that I almost forgot the value of. Getting back in touch with Amy and then seeing her again feel like a gift I have given myself simply by picking up the phone and, (as Michelle Shocked once put it), walking across that burning bridge.
Amy now lives in California and I live in Connecticut, but you can bet I will not let ten more years go by before we get together again.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Finding Things Beautiful

We have been back in New Haven for a week. Since our return the air has been hot, humid, and unhealthy. The direct comparison forced upon me by spending two weeks in Montana and then returning straight to New Haven in a heat wave has been unavoidable. On many dimensions, Montana has it all over New Haven.
Don’t get me wrong--after five years here, our life has become pretty good. We know people, we have friends, we can walk to most of the important places in our day. But I find that in this first week back I have been focusing on the negatives far more than the positives of life in New Haven. The traffic in New Haven is god-awful and many residents think the laws in place to govern the operation of a motor vehicle are really only suggestions that they are free to ignore. There is a lot of litter everywhere. People in New Haven drop trash all the time. I have even seen police officers dropping trash out of the windows of their patrol cars. There are frequent Air Quality Alerts that make it clear that simply breathing is doing harm to your lungs. Petty crime is rampant. We have had two bicycles stolen from our back yard and Yale sends out frequent e-mail warnings to employees about muggings on local streets.
I don’t necessarily want to be fixated on the things I don’t like about life in Connecticut, so I have been trying to come up with ways to raise my mind up out of its rut and force it into a new track. This morning while running I think I may have hit upon something that might work. It certainly won’t make me magically fall in love with New Haven, but it might get my mind to focus on healthy and positive things instead of my laundry list of things to complain about.
I took the early shift today for my run since it promised to be another hot day and Erica had a seven o’clock run scheduled with some co-workers. I needed to be back by home by 6:30. As a result, the sun was very low in the eastern sky as I crested East Rock. There was a thick band of clouds low on the horizon and their undersides glowed a fiery pink and orange as the rays of the sun shone up at them. A seagull flew over my head and its pure white underside turned the same fiery pinkish-orange color as it flew out of shadow and into the odd, luminous morning light

It was really beautiful. And it surprised me that I saw something that beautiful while running in New Haven. It made me think. On the spot and on the fly I decided to try to find two beautiful things each morning this summer. I have read some of the research that shows that happiness can be learned. Happiness and contentment depend, in no small measure, on where you decide to focus your attention. To a degree, if you look for crap, you find crap. So I am hoping that if you look for beauty, you’ll find beauty.
When I thought about it, I had already seen the other beautiful thing this morning. The clouds had been spectacular before I even saw the seagull. This left me two miles in which to think about just how this “Beautiful Things” challenge might work and to set some ground rules for myself. I have decided that the things I find don’t have to be found in the morning—it can be any time of day. It is really my underlying approach to things that may or may not change my appreciation of New Haven, not whether I find beautiful things in the morning or later in the day.
I have also decided that I don’t need to find two beautiful things each day. Instead, I need to find two things beautiful. It might not sound much different, but as I ran it struck me as an important distinction, and one that is hard to put into words. Off the top of my head the best example I can think of is Erica and Isabel playing new pieces on the piano. To the outside observer walking by our open windows, the faltering fingers, incorrect notes, and accidentally atonal tunes are objectively NOT beautiful. But to me in the dining room, seeing the concentration, determination, and sheer enjoyment on the faces of my wife and daughter as they begin to struggle through new pieces is beautiful.
As experiments go, this one comes with absolutely no cost and a huge potential payoff.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Code Blue

It has been a long run of very hot weather here in New Haven. And sadly, the tropical temperatures and humidity have corresponded with a major clean-up of our un-air-conditioned third floor, a huge weeding job in the garden, and the long-overdue Spring clean-up of our back yard. During, (and especially after), each of these onerous tasks I have been craving a cold beer or two.

Only one question: How do I know if my beer is actually cold enough to drink? Sure, I could reach into the fridge and FEEL the can or bottle, but that is so 1990s. Or, even more radically, I could just trust that the fridge has done what it has always done and kept the things in it cold. OR, I could buy Coors Light in the patented color-changing bottles that let you KNOW when the beer inside is cold enough. The mountains on the label turn from white to blue. And thank God they do, because there were so many serious mistakes made before this technology came along. Can you even imagine popping the top on a bottle of beer that is 41 degrees Fahrenheit instead of the ideal 38 degrees?
And because I have been so busy around the house I have been neglecting personal hygiene ever-so-slightly. The big things are still getting done—armpits, hair, feet—but the secondary, strictly-for-show areas have been getting short shrift. I have a well-trimmed beard, but the whiskers that grow on my throat south of the beard require a shave every two or three days to keep them separate from my chest hair.
Only one question: Will I get the best shave possible if my razor has only three blades? Should I bump up to the Quattro, or maybe even the Gillette Fusion Shaving System, (with FIVE blades)? Will my throat be as smooth as it could be if I use a razor instead of a shaving system? (I guess that's three questions, isn't it? Oops, four.)

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Montana Photos

We got back from Montana last night around 11 p.m. and I miss it already. There were ripe cherry tomatoes and a riot of flowers in the front garden to ease the transition, but I thought posting a few of my favorite pictures from the trip might help me keep my mind in Montana for just a little while longer.

Erica snapped this picture as we walked back from Woodbine Falls near the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness. It was a beautiful morning for a hike and the falls were raging due to a snowy winter and a late melt. Below is just one small arc of the view from the falls. We were looking up the Stillwater Valley toward Cathedral Mountain and Yellowstone Park.

More of Cathedral Mountain:

A section Of Woodbine Falls:

Some random shots from another early morning walk near Beehive Rock in the Stillwater Valley (near Absarokee):

Below are two pictures of the Stillwater River leaving the canyon and heading out into flatter land. Some of the water in these shots was snow up in Yellowstone Park less than 24 hours before. The meltoff has been later than usual this year, so the river is still very high, as you can see. The trail through the canyon runs right next to the river for a good mile and during high water it can be a little scary.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Missoula Half Marathon

Yesterday’s half marathon in Missoula, Montana was great. The race began outside of town on a road that descended for two miles through a heavily wooded area. It sometimes gets very hot in Montana in the summer, so race organizers scheduled a 6 a.m. gun, (or cannon, in this case). It was 52 degrees and the sky was clear and blue. Perfect running weather.
Erica and I ran the first five miles together and we saw a bald eagle carrying a fish back to its nest and another bald eagle perched in a treetop just over the race course, perplexedly watching 731 half-marathoners plod by, earthbound and sweaty.
I trained much smarter for the race than I have in the past and as a result I felt good the whole way. I am not a fast runner so I was hoping to finish the race in less than two hours. I ended up doing a little better than I had even hoped and finished the 13.1 miles in 1 hour 54 minutes and a few seconds. That works out to 8:43 per mile, which for me is pretty good. I was very happy with the result.
Next race is a 10-miler in Branford on August 3, then a 12.2-miler in New Haven on Labor Day, and then a 212-mile relay through New Hampshire in mid-September. It is called Reach the Beach and it is the reason I have gotten back into running lately. I am sure I’ll write more about Reach the Beach in future posts.

Friday, July 11, 2008

High Water

I can’t say that I am a good flyfisherman. The most I am willing to say is that I sometimes catch fish. My technique tends to the sidearm, and my fly selection leaves lots of room for improvement. I like to think my deficits are the result of flyfishing only four or five times a year, but it might just be that I am not any good.
To be fully honest, I don’t really care all that much if I catch fish or not. Of course I would rather come back to the cabin with a couple of fifteen-inch rainbows in my creel, but if I come back empty-creeled, it’s no big deal to me. I feel about flyfishing the way I did about playing football in high school. I was on the team, but I wasn’t a starter. I liked the practices, I loved the games, and I did my best. But if I dropped a pass or if we lost a game, it didn’t crush me the way it did some of my teammates.
On a good morning here at the cabin I’ll wake up before everyone else, microwave whatever is left in the pot from yesterday, add cream and sugar to make it potable, and then go out to the shed to put on the waders, vest, and net that transform me from a teacher on vacation into a flyfisherman. I’ll chug the coffee as I get dressed and then walk down the road a quarter-mile to the Stafford’s bridge, where I’ll step into the river. The first time each year is always a little awkward—it feels like I am moving too fast with the river—like I should take some time to get to know it again, maybe buy it a drink and chat a little first.
My steps are uncertain and my body is not yet used to the constant push of water feeling gravity’s pull past my thighs on into the Plains. My first few casts are invariably tentative. But pretty soon I get my sea legs and my Kent Tekulve-cast figures itself out and I am on my way.
Before I ever even learned to cast a fly, one of my favorite books was a novel by David James Duncan called The River Why. It is a funny book that contains several passages extolling the pleasure to be had from laying out a well-cast fly in a sublimely beautiful setting. I understand just what Duncan was writing about.
I generally have an excellent sense of time. I can usually tell what time it is to within ten minutes no matter what. The only exception is when I am out on the river. When I am fishing the Stillwater with dry flies, time does all kinds of strange things. It mostly gets caught in an eddy and spins there in place so that when I get out of the river after six hours of tossing a fake bug through the air it feels like I have been in the river for just an hour or two.
Excuse my metephysicality, but my self just goes away for a long stretch of time when I am waist deep in the river, trying to think like a fish and gauge the wind and the current. Losing my self for such a long period of time is better than sleep. It clears my head and leaves me feeling relaxed, both in the world and in my head.
Alas, it is too windy and the river is still too high to go out this morning. Instead I’ll have another cup of coffee and sit out on the back deck to read before anybody else wakes up.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Idealism vs. Realism

I have been reading many different writers’ laments about Barack Obama and his charge to the center lately. The writers question Senator Obama’s stances on capital punishment for sex offenders, amnesty for telecommunication companies that helped the government eavesdrop illegally on American citizens, and the Supreme Court’s recent second amendment decision, to name just a few of the bones of contention.
I understand the disappointment these writers are giving vent to; I can even commiserate with them on some of his shifts. But I refuse to share in their disapproval of the Senator from Illinois.
The past eight years have been an unmitigated national disaster. President Bush has set the bar to a new low for presidential performance. But we need to remember that George Bush was already four years into his catastrophic tenure when he was re-elected in 2004. He managed to defeat John Kerry not because of the strength of his record, the force of his intellect, or the power of his personality on the campaign trail. He managed to defeat John Kerry because John Kerry ran a god-awful campaign.
Barack Obama is a smart man and a skilled campaigner. He used his organizational strength and his eloquence to defeat a heavily favored Hillary Clinton in the race for the Democratic nomination. He knows what he is doing. It is not the Democratic base that is going to win the general election for Senator Obama. It is the large, increasingly nervous and frustrated center that will give him the landslide he will most surely earn in November.
To reach that large group of voters in the middle, Barack Obama must spend some time emphasizing those positions of his that are more moderate. To complain about his tack to the middle is to place ideological purity above electoral success. There will be time for idealism when President Obama is sworn in on January 20, 2009. First, he needs to win the election, and the way he will do that is not by preaching to the choir but instead by proselytizing the unconverted.

Saturday, July 5, 2008


I woke up at four o’clock this morning with a cramp in my left calf. As cramps go it was a pretty good one—excellent timing, good form, real staying power. It forced me out of bed and vertical in about two seconds flat. Once I was upright and put my full weight on my left foot, the cramp went away. And I realized I needed to pee. Once I took care of that, I quietly crawled back into bed so as not to wake Erica.
As I lay in bed I realized that beneath the cramp and the full bladder there was another feeling. In the dark at four a.m. I couldn’t identify what it was. I tried for a while, but then the sound of the river flowing by the cabin and down to the Yellowstone and into the Missouri and then on into the Mississippi caught me up in its music and its flow and I fell back into sleep before I could name what I was feeling.
This practice of naming my feelings is a new thing to me. Heck, for many years I hardly even recognized that I HAD feelings, let alone spent time trying to identify them. As a result, the names don’t always come quickly and last night the river music and sleep came first.
Then this morning I went for a run on the unpaved road that follows the Stillwater River wiggle-for-wiggle through this beautiful valley. And as I was running I was able to name the feeling. It was “homesickness.”
I was born in Delaware and lived there into sixth grade. Then we moved to Long Island, where I lived for eight years. I went to college in Pennsylvania, lived for two years in Yemen, and then spent some time in Massachusetts, Delaware again, and Maine. And none of those places ever felt like home—none of them ever touched something inside me directly the way Montana did the first time I saw it.

I spent three summers working on various Indian reservations in Montana before I finally got my act together and moved there for good. At the time everything I owned fit in the back seat and trunk of my 1970 Plymouth Valiant named Fuad and I vowed to just drive on Interstate 90 in Montana until I got tired. Wherever that was, I would stop and start a life.
It was Billings. On my first morning there I found a job and an apartment. In my third year there I met a woman and, within three months of meeting, we knew we would spend our lives together.

But then our lives took us away from Montana in 1997 and since then we have only been able to return for visits a few times a year.

During my run it hit me full-on that no other place in the world feels the way Montana does to me. Montana fits in a way Delaware and New York and Connecticut never have. As a child I drew mountains everywhere, even though I had never seen real mountains. (The highest point in Delaware doesn’t even crack 500 feet above sea level.) The mountains I drew were rocky and jagged and had evergreen trees on the flanks only so high. Often they were snow-capped.
The first time I went to Montana it was to direct a community service project on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation in the southeast corner of the state. I flew into Billings and when I exited the airport I had to stop in my tracks, drop my bag, and stare with my mouth open. There, off to the southwest, were the mountains I had been drawing my whole life. They talked to me in a language I could understand because I had seen them before. The feeling I had on my run this morning was my reminder that I need to find a way back here. I need to come home before my connection to Montana has been stretched too far and too thin to hold.

Last Weekend

Last weekend was pretty great for me. I got up early on Saturday and ran twelve miles in under two hours. I am training for a half-marathon to be run in Missoula, Montana on July 13 and Saturday’s run was my final long training run. When it was over I felt strong and ready.
And then on Sunday I drove to Ellington Airport east of Hartford and jumped out of a plane from 10,500 feet. “Jumped out of a plane” is really a misleading description, though. In actuality, I was strapped to a veteran skydiver and together we fell out of a plane for about 5000 feet and 45 seconds before he pulled the ripcord and activated our chute. All I had to do was scoot forward out the doorway of the plane and then let gravity work its magic. It was utterly terrifying for about ten seconds and then pretty amazing for the rest of the fall.
All in all, a really good weekend.