254. A state of lethargy

We took a bus trip over the Thanksgiving holidays. South, my friends, to Savannah, Georgia. It was nice to be in the South. Folks seem a lot friendlier and courteous. They also drink a lot, I noticed. You can get a carry cup at the bar so you never have to leave half a beer behind you, or in front of you if you walk out backwards. This seems like a good idea until you notice that out on River Street there are guys with full beers staggering along the cobblestones and singing badly as they approach you, your wife and daughter.  Looking at it that way, you know it may not be such a great idea.  Some ideas look better going away from you than coming at you.  “Go Dawgs!! Whoohoo!!!” On top of this imminent danger hover the various steep, very worn slate, historic steps that rise about thirty feet to the upper level of Bay Street. newsflash 1: I guess you can’t fall up them. newsflash 2: drunks always seem to have soft landings anyway.

It was a nice reprieve from the sucky weather we’ve been experiencing up north lately. You know how tense you get just from being in the damp cold? Then you walk into a warm restaurant or store and ahhhh, you instinctively relax. Seems pretty simple really. And we did just this at various points of interest. The lovely cathedral of St. John the Baptist was one long ahhhh for us as we meandered along viewing the stained glass and murals. I forget which saint it was who was carrying his own head in his hands. His halo was empty. It appeared to be an overhead shot of a pilsner beer placed on the shoulders of a man walking along with his head in his hands. Sort of like the drunks on River Street from the night before. Funny how the most bizarre stuff is what you remember.

On River Street an old guitar player named Walter engaged us and persuaded us to listen to him play his guitar and sing some toothless blues songs. He invited my daughter to sing with him. She obliged and sang “What a Wonderful World” alongside Walter. He never asked for money but we knew the drill and happily put some in his can. Where he had strategically placed himself possessed some strange acoustics. Somehow it produced an echo in the little brick circle where he stood. Walter explained that there was an old tunnel underneath that spot which accounted for the strange echoing. “When I’z a boy, we ud break on into it, yeah, till they covered it up. Dats wheya da echo be com from.” I asked him to sing Sam Cook’s “A Change is Gonna Come”. He complied in a voice that wheezed like a rusted out muffler on an old Chrysler Imperial.

On Thanksgiving evening we ate dinner at Paula Deen’s restaurant, The Lady and Son. The food was good, buffet style. The wait staff were fabulous, like Disneyworld employees, smart and gracious, good looking, young and talented. What surprised me was the fact that roughly half of the customers were black. I had assumed, incorrectly, that with all the bad racist publicity that surrounded Paula Deen two years ago blacks would not support  her. Happily, I was wrong. I guess forgiveness is the business of business.  In any event I felt good leaving the restaurant/store and waddling back to our hotel. I am a fan of forgiveness and  second chances. I don’t believe in perfection.

You know, if you eat a lot and take bus rides everywhere, you gain weight. I figure that I put on a half pound per day with the extra food and deficit of exercise. It was a challenge to eat more than twice a day with the rich food and abundant availability. All your energy goes toward trying to digest the three egg omelet with everything on it plus the bagel and bacon with hash browns and grits breakfast. On the bus we sat like 29 upright pythons trying to digest what we’d gorged on. Fortunately we had limbs to brace us on turns. Still, with negligible blood flow to our brains, a state of lethargy crept in, slowing our breathing, dropping eyelids, inviting somnolence. A serpent of sleep constricted our brains gently, rocking along with the hum of radial tires across an asphalt carpet. ZZZZZZZZZZZ

Lethe was one of the five rivers of Hell in the Greek myths. here’s some cool background info on it…

In Greek mythology, Lethe /ˈlθi/ (Greek: Λήθη, Lḗthē; Ancient Greek: [lɛ́:tʰɛː], Modern Greek: [ˈliθi]) was one of the five rivers of Hades. Also known as the Ameles potamos (river of unmindfulness), the Lethe flowed around the cave of Hypnos and through the Underworld, where all those who drank from it experienced complete forgetfulness. Lethe was also the name of the Greek spirit of forgetfulness and oblivion, with whom the river was often identified.

In Classical Greek, the word lethe literally means “oblivion”, “forgetfulness”, or “concealment”.[1] It is related to the Greek word for “truth”, aletheia (ἀλήθεια), which through the privative alpha literally means “un-forgetfulness” or “un-concealment”.

I find etymology fascinating, my bloggentas. Some words carry rich histories in their letters, speaking deeper than mere surface connection. But  here we were crossing the Savannah River and entering an entire state of lethargy. And what we forgot is maybe more important that what we remembered. Ahh, stress for one. Forget it. And who won the Civil War? Who cares? If blacks and whites eat elbow to elbow at Paula Deen’s on Thanksgiving, it turned out well. And bitterness, resentment, class consciousness, indignity, who needs them? Let’s all forget some more. Four things were forbidden in the original charter of Savannah– slavery, lawyers, Catholics and Jews, and liquor. Eventually all would be allowed due to self interested pragmatism. There’s a shocker. Oh well, go back to sleep children. We’ll be there soon.

 

 

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225. Five kilometers to go

Runners and walkers of all ages will enjoy the Footrace FrenzyI am going to run again in the annual 5K Race Against Poverty through our downtown streets on the first Friday in June. It’s a fundraiser for a community action program called Circles. My wife mentors a single woman in that program, helping her to see the way out of poverty by working and saving, and stewarding her earnings. It’s refreshing to see a program that actually works in the here and now without a government bureaucracy overseeing and wasting millions of dollars on another pipe dream that only works on graph paper. I have new sneakers and a bright orange t-shirt to impress the many fashionistas in our Wal Mart town. Looking good actually reduces your race time. It’s similar to golf; the best dressed golfer wins.

On this particular night our sleepy downtown will be teeming with people. Hundreds of folks come out to walk or run the course. Other stationary hundreds cheer on the racers as they go by. Even as we jog through the public housing section at the south end of town, folks clap and encourage us… though I never visit that section of town at any other time… they are kind. It’s nice all around. The very officious Fire Police direct traffic around the runners and walkers with great authority and vigor in their temporary power. Businesses are jacked up with customers. They are usually closed by 6 p.m. Cars and trucks are rerouted so pedestrians can lollygag in the streets for a couple of hours.

There is a different feeling, a more inviting one, when the traffic disappears. I’d like to keep it that way all year round. A simple rerouting could make our four prime blocks around the center square park-like and very calm while crushing the rest of our town with traffic. There’s the rub, dang it. Why couldn’t Turtle Town just have started out with a nice sheep meadow in the center and then built around that? Because of all the sheep poop, I guess. Why not a village green or a commons area?  We do have a trout stream that runs through the center of town which has not been poisoned yet. That’s a nice touch to any urban area.

So I’ve been jogging in preparation for the race. I of course will not race. My goal is to not stop and to feel good about merely completing the 3.1 miles. Last year the young gun Jana talked some pre-race smack to me about how she was going to dust me off like some old stuffed pheasant on a bookshelf in an English library on a cruise ship far away. Well, she is half my age and should dust me; however, she had not prepared for the run and was mostly full of young brash talk. As we ran off from the start line, she left me behind. No surprise. However, I caught up to her farther up the course, where legs and lungs began to ache. We chatted in little bursts of breath as we jogged next to one another. About a third of a mile from the end I said, “I guess this is where you dust me.” She laughed and started to run faster, leaving me behind… just as I had calculated. I watched as she slowed down after about fifty yards ahead of me. I started running on her outside shoulder so that she could not see me sneaking up on her. As we turned the final corner of the race, Jana looked behind over her right shoulder as I passed  her on her left side. She did not see me beat her to the finish line. But the computer chips on our shoes told the sad tale:  she was smoked by a 57 year old stuffed bird. I had no time to celebrate as my lungs burst and dissolved in the humid summer air. Whew! It took about an hour for my body to return to equilibrium. Which again is why I am jogging now in preparation for the race.

In an earlier post I told the tale of Pastor Kyle “Losing His Lasagna” in the same race three years ago. Unlike sneaking past Jana, there was no satisfaction in passing the hurling Pastor Kyle on King Street bridge, chumming for trout with his regurgitated lasagna dinner. “What was I thinking?” he cried out to me as I handed him my blue hanker chief to wipe the tomatoey vomitus off his chin. So it goes. One man’s personal sermon:  never eat and run, my sheep.

Today I was chatting with Corey, who is in my ballroom dance classes on Friday evenings. (With his wife. We are not a couple. You know what I mean!!!) He smokes in the alley outside my office building. A couple of weeks ago he told me that he was going to run in the Race Against Poverty. I asked if he was going to smoke and if he needed an ashtray for the race. He said no, he’d be  quitting soon and then training. Well, he was smoking a cigarette today. I told him I was worried about him dying on the course, which I don’t think is fair for all the nonsmokers who would have to hurdle his lifeless carcass. He assured me that he was quitting the nasty nicotine and would train soon. But we are running out of time here. The race is three weeks away. He told me that he used to run seven minute miles, and he has short legs, so that’s saying something for a guy who is built more for wrestling than running. He went on to reference a scene from the t.v. show Scrubs in which one of the characters remembers his glory race days during which he smoked and sprinted. Only on t.v. my blog puffs. I am not going to stop and defibrillate him as he reaches for another Marlboro.  It’s only five kilometers, man. Not kill-o-meters. Suck it up, man. Go.

 

189. cruel renewal

Making all things new again. That’s a tall order, I think. Just making one simple thing new again is hard enough. Refinishing a piece of furniture, for example, requires five times the effort than the original finishing took. Think about it:  you have to strip the varnish or polyurethane with some solvent and a wire brush and fine tools to get into the grooves. Then you have to strip out the stain with more stain remover/solvent. At this point you have to sand the remaining stains or patches of finish to smooth out the original wood grain. Finer and finer grits of sandpaper need to be rubbed carefully with the grain. Then you wipe away the fine dust. Finally you are back to the starting point of new, bare furniture. But that’s what you do to restore the old wood to prime condition so that its luster and deep grain can be seen and appreciated again, or maybe for the first time.

Image result for maple trees pictures

My buddy Clark knows a lot about wood and renewal. He learned about trees as a kid in Patton, PA., walking through the woods to school cuz he’d been thrown off the school bus again and again for being a hyperactive ne’er do well. He was rejected frequently as a kid by humans but not by trees or pieces of wood. He learned about oaks and maples and birch and beech and box elder and walnut and cherry simply walking by them twice a day. He saw pines grow to their fullness and die in his lifetime. However, dead trees simply cross over to lumber for him. He eyes up  trees and looks for unique features that he can use in tables or bowls or just long runs for boards. And then he gets to work creating with saws and planer, lathe and chisels.

A couple of years ago I helped him saw up a spalted maple; that’s a downed tree which has been decaying with fungi but hasn’t rotted yet. The result of spalting is a beautiful array of discoloration, waves and rivulets of brown, red, and black paint spilled throughout the wood. Clark turns hunks of this stuff into gorgeous bowls that appear to be fired ceramic. You have to touch them to believe they are not ceramic but wood, not paintings of deserts landscapes but infected wood transformed into marble. Beauty birthed from death.

Image result for spalted maple lumber pictures

He learned about renewal by living a life full of zest and curiosity… after he was down and decaying like a fallen maple in the leaf mold.  Alcohol was the lightning and tornado that slew him. By age 35 his doctor told him he had a year to live if he did not quit drinking. He said, ” Thanks, Doc. I ‘m tired of living,” and went to the closest bar. He got so polluted on Yuenglings or Iron City beer that the bartender asked, “Don’t you think you’ve had enough?”  “Hell no,” he bellowed and order another. He had one more angry sip and announced, “Now I’ve had enough.” He stumbled out of the bar and right into the path of his beloved daughter and her best friend. (Timber!) No details remain except the pain of shame he saw on his precious girl’s face. Something transformative occurred in that one second. Clark grew on the level of consciousness even as his angry pride fell down face first. He recalls it like Paul falling off his horse on the way to Damascus. Clark went to rehab the next day. That was almost 35 years ago.

Since then he’s been sanding off the old varnish of youth, adolescence and early adult life. The mess of foolishness, the lacqeur of addiction and scars of selfishness. As he does this consciousness raising on a cognitive level, he’s finding more and more to like about himself… compassion, loyalty, a modicum of patience…and an artist’s heart/head/hands package. Late in life, to be sure, but there it is: beauty born from pain and suffering. He is spalted maple through and through, washed by the rivers of alcohol, rejection and rage that are dry riverbeds nowadays.Image result for spalted maple lumber pictures

One story of thousands will have to suffice. Ironic, of course. Up the road from his childhood house was a substantial estate owned by the Five Farabaugh sisters. They were well off spinster sisters. Clark’s dad agreed to be an informal caretaker of the property when the only male child left to run part of the A&P store chain out west. One by one the old ladies died off until there were no more. Still Clark’s father “Bunny” continued the upkeep of the property. When Clark went along to help, his father would say, “Don’t even think about stealing anything. We might be poor but we’re honest, by God.” There were many objects and knickknacks all over this grand Victorian house. In the attic the sisters had a miniature classroom where they had played school as little girls. He remembered thinking, “I could learn here. They would not beat me for being wiggly. They would favor me somehow.” In the old days the sisters had given his dad oranges at Christmas, which was unheard of by working class folks. Only the wealthy could afford citrus fruit in winter. Clark’s family not only ate them but his mom made marmalade from the peels. Then one day that fine house and every object in it burned to cinders and ashes. Nothing survived but memories. Nothing.

Nothing worked out in his life.  By age five he had developed a sense of doom. The spalting had begun. He wondered about the loose ends and unfairness of it all–

“Five old ladies, never had sex or got married or had kids or grandkids. What’s the point? They had wealth and it all disappeared. Just a waste. I shoulda stole something but the Old Man woulda killed me.”

Actually it did not disappear. Rather, it was breathed into Clark’s lungs and memory, spalding his soul. I’m sure if surgeons could extricate his soul and sand it down, it would radiate like his hero George Nakashima’s table tops. Renewed for all to see and appreciate. Nakashima was interned during WWII for being Japanese. That was his sole crime. Poetically, tragically,  or ironically that is where he learned to master woodworking under the tutelage of a master Japanese woodworker. More beauty born from pain and suffering.

So  often we screw up the unstained and painless new and have to claw our way back to a renewal that is soaked in barrels of liquid pain. But that is the difference between grapes and wine, sand and pearls, knowledge and wisdom.