Getting a grip

This post was supposed to be an upbeat running update. The fact that I am writing it a month after I started it is the perfect metaphor for how I feel about life right now. I was getting back into a running groove with two consecutive 25+-mile weeks. Paces were slow, but improving. Then I ended up with a week of struggle — a work trip out of town followed by an extended weekend with my son — that has now turned into two blank weeks in the run log. It’s frustrating, and even moreso because I have nobody or nothing to blame but myself. There were opportunities to run during the past two weeks, and I will regret not taking them even more as we head into winter and the weather becomes determinant at least when it comes to running outdoors.

But it’s not just running; it’s many aspects of self improvement that I have undertaken — diet, sleep, meditation, a return to reading, focus on writing. The only one that has really held up is the meditation. Hell, I haven’t even been very consistent about drinking water! (The exception there being my morning cup of lemon water.)

I haven’t even gotten to finances, which probably should make the list. But I’d rather live long in poverty than die comfortably in a hurry.

So of course, it is time for a reboot of sorts. I have to look at the things that I am doing well, figure out the patterns, and figure out a way to extend that to the other parts of my life I want to improve.

The obvious success of the meditation and water is doing them first thing in the morning before other obligations take over. I certainly can’t do everything else before 7 a.m. But if I cannot replicate the timing, I must adopt the scheduling. Everything needs to have a time assigned to it, or it won’t get done.

So, what to do. First, find some time. My workday is set in stone according to the bus schedule. Is there opportunity during the lunch hour? Yes, provided I do some meal prep and take food with me. This addresses three things — quality of food, money spent, and time available for writing or possibly running.

The benefits will cascade into the evening as I (theoretically) won’t be as tired upon arrival, and I will be less likely to eat crap for dinner. The result ought to be a more consistent workout routine, better diet and a more reasonable bedtime.

That all sounds good in theory; in practice, it requires discipline and the abandoning of excuses — two things for which I have never displayed any particular acuity. Setting a schedule will be necessary to enable a slacker such as me to have any hope.

I realize that all of this is terribly self-indulgent. I also have visions of finding time for more public service, writing letters and engaging in more social activism. But all of that has to come after I get my personal house in order so that I will have the mental and physical energy required to be there for others.

So today’s goal is devising a schedule. I will likely do that on paper before I commit it to pixels. If folks read this and have tools that they have found helpful in this regard, please share them in the comments!

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Waiting…

There’s a woman who sits on a bench down the street from my office. I walk past her nearly every day, on my way to the coffee shop, where I get my usual double-tall latte and a plain bagel with cream cheese. She sits brightly, like a sparrow perched on a limb, scanning the street, eyes darting toward whatever direction the traffic is coming from. She’s thin, with spidery arms and bony ankles lined with blue veins. She wears long skirts and blousy tops, with a preference for shades of blue. And she always wears a shabby grey zip-up sweatshirt over everything — extra-large by the looks of it. The hood droops to the middle of her back, and the sweatshirt is long enough that she sits on it, probably keeping her skirt from touching the dirty bench. The well-worn New Balance sneakers used to be white, but that was a long time ago. She has three bags — an orange purse and two green cloth shopping bags from Market of Choice, but they are only half full, so it’s impossible to see what’s inside. She doesn’t appear to be homeless; her straw-colored hair is brushed and her face has been made up, with slightly too-red blush on her cheeks and pink lipstick and silver-blue eye shadow.

“Would you like a cup of coffee; it’s cold out here.”

it was a rare rainy day, with a chill breeze. I considered skipping the coffee run, but habit took me out the door without a thought and I was self-conscious about just going back inside. After all, the coffee shop was barely two blocks away. I instinctively looked over at the bench and saw the woman there, hunched over, with the hood over her head and the sweatshirt pulled tight around her. I imagined it was a poor defense against the weather and felt bad that I would soon have a steaming cup from Broody’s.

She turned toward me quickly, startled, but she didn’t say a word. Her mouth was set hard in a straight line and her eyes flashed with what? anger? fear? Suddenly unsure of myself, I stammered. “I … um … I’m just headed into the shop up the street. You look cold.”

“No thank you. It will be here soon.” Her voice was crisp and clear, like an elementary schoolteacher, carrying a hint of reproach without being unkind. She turned her eyes back to the street.

“OK,” I said, straightening up and stuffing my hands into my pockets. I started to turn, but paused.

“If you don’t mind me asking, what’s coming?”

She glanced at me, then quickly turned her head toward the intersection and the sound of a loud truck rolling through.

“The bus of course. I’m waiting for the bus.”

I reflexively looked up the street and then back at the woman.

“The bus doesn’t stop here,” i said. “It stops two blocks over, on 37th.”

She turned to me again. This time, I was pretty sure there was anger in her eyes.

“I’m waiting.” And her head turned again, eyes flitting between the east-bound traffic crossing in front of us to the vehicles waiting at the light to head north and south.

“But…”

“I said I’m waiting.” This time, her head never moved. She pulled the sweatshirt tighter around her shoulders. It was as much a signal that our conversation was over as it was an attempt to deflect the stiffening breeze.

Ten minutes later, she was still sitting there as I sipped my coffee. I bent down and sat a paper cup full of hot coffee next to here. “Here you go. Something to keep you warm while you are waiting.”

I didn’t look back to see if she picked up the cup.

The next morning, the rain had passed, but the breeze had grown into a cold wind. The bench was empty.

A crowd filled Broody’s with raucous conversation over the noise of the twin espresso machines. Everyone seemed invigorated by the cold and its promise of real autumn weather.

After several minutes, I moved to the counter. “Hey ,Gary.”

Behind the counter, Gary was already pulling tamping grounds into the espresso maker. “Morning! How’s it going? Your usual?”

“Please. Hey, you know anything about that woman who sits on the bench down the street?”

“You mean the lady in blue?”

“Yeah, that’s the one. She’s not there this morning.”

“Hm,” Gary shrugged as he flipped the switch on the machine and adjusted the small metal cup to catch the stream of espresso. “I used to see her all the time when I worked the lunch shift. I’d come in at 10:30 and she’d always be sitting there. She’s the cleanest homeless person I’ve ever seen.”

He poured two shots into my cup.

“I don’t see her much now. I come to work too early. She’s not there at 5 a.m.”

“So she never comes in here?”

“Not that I’ve ever seen.”

“OK, thanks.”

I laid a $5 bill on the counter and left.

I didn’t see the woman the rest of the week. I would periodically step outside the office and cross the street to where I could see her bench. Her absence irritated me for some reason. Had she been so offended by my offer of coffee that she had chosen a new place to wait for her imaginary bus? Was I wrong to be friendly?

On Monday, the bench remained empty. On Tuesday, too.

Notes from a bar stool

Random thoughts, from atop a whiskey-barrel table at #Barbarian Brewing in downtown Boise.

Walking in Boise during the summer fire season is like sailing through gravy. Forecast: 102 degrees, with a chance of lung cancer.

I followed an older couple (older = older than me) today who were rolling slowly through downtown on their bikes, checking the trash cans and other crannies for valuables. Cans, mostly, but at least one plastic flower that the woman slipped into her plastic grocery sack. They were moving in the lowest gear on old mountain bikes, mostly propelling themselves by pushing worn shoes against the pavement. I noticed that the old man touched every single building they passed. He would run a hand along the window, or stop and place his palm against the rough stone.

Observation: Parallel parking is quickly becoming a lost art.

Observation #2: Beer #2 is the tipping point for me. I can stop there, or I can go all in. There is no “third and final” beer.

Two guys in their 30s are sitting at the barrel near mine. They notice a 70-plus redhead in a turquoise pant-and-blouse set drinking root beer, alone, at a long table. They invite themselves over and have a great time entertaining, and being entertained by, this woman who could be their grandmother. People are awesome.

I pay their bar tab on my way out.

Observation #3: You rarely see crannies without nooks.

The freedom we need

Question: What are the fundamental human rights? I don’t mean rights granted by the law, Constitution or cops. I’m not talking about rights granted by anyone’s holy book, although you might consider freedoms stemming from “natural law” or your version of god. Can we agree on a few?

How about the right to clean air and water? Would access to healthy food count? Shelter? The right to travel from one place to another?

Sunrise behind razor wireAmerica’s founding fathers wrote about “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” These are great fundamental concepts, but meaningless without the ability to eat, drink, breathe and seek shelter from the elements.

So which fundamental rights does our society (via government) protect? Clean air or water? Nope. Access to healthy food? Hah! We don’t even have the legal right to know what’s IN our food. And we certainly don’t have the right to grow or gather our own, unless we are property owners, and even then, that right can be severely restricted. Shelter? Please. And the right to freely choose where to live, work or visit is very narrowly restricted.

What’s one right that the government DOES regard as sacred? The right to own a gun. Why is that right enshrined in the U.S. Constitution but not the right to breathe, drink, eat or sleep indoors? It never occurred to those who wrote the country’s founding documents that those fundamental rights would ever be questioned. It would probably have seemed absurd that you even had to say out loud, much less write down, that these things are basic rights. These truths were self-evident.

But here we are: You have a fundamental legal right to own a firearm. But if you use that weapon to enforce your right to breathe clean air, drink clean water, eat clean food or sleep indoors, you will end up in prison.

Is that freedom?

Baseball, running, and magic

Baseball fans are invariably superstitious. In a game driven by cold calculus – averages, probabilities, statistics – we believe in magic. We don’t understand it; that’s what makes it magic. But we acknowledge its presence, and we aren’t shy about trying to shift the winds of fortune ever so slightly in our team’s favor through seemingly ridiculous means. Backward baseball caps. Lucky shirts. Silent benedictions of pinch hitters past their prime. Because we know that even the tiniest shift — a batting-average percentage point, a nudge up or down two spots right of the decimal in an ERA, a slightly larger clump of dirt in the right spot at the right time between shortstop and third base, a momentary lapse in focus, can mean the difference between glory and ignominy. Ask Bill Buckner.

They say there are no atheists in foxholes. It should be said that there are no atheists in baseball. Disbelieve any baseball fan who says he’s never prayed with a man on second and a .220 hitter at the plate in the eighth inning of a tie game.

And so it came to pass that I was running in a particular spot along the Boise River last night, on a dirt path along the south shore. I had intentionally lengthened my usual Tuesday night six-mile run to seven miles as both signal and sacrifice to the baseball gods that a Dodger victory, and the resulting Game 7, in this World Series should also come to pass. It was because of this longer run that I was at an unfamiliar turnaround spot after 3.5 miles, getting ready to head back to my starting point, when I encountered a couple walking their dog. She wore a too-large jacket in that unmistakable, beautiful blue, with “Dodgers” scripted across the front. He looked like Santa Claus, albeit in better shape. (Maybe Santa has a personal trainer leading up to his big day?) The beard, the flowing white hair. His eyes twinkled like St. Nick’s when I said I hoped her jacket would be good luck tonight. “Us too,” she said. We chatted briefly about tired pitchers and the benefits of a rest day.

And then I was on my way, with an extra spring in my step and a smile on my face. I KNEW there would be a Game 7. It was Christmas in October. I had done my part to make it happen, and the baseball gods had given me a sign. Now, #Dodgers — let’s make it a #BlueNovember. THAT would be truly magical.

In Praise of Walking

Stick with me for a minute here. What’s your hurry? If you’re here, you’re just killing time anyway. What are you doing? I’m just sitting in a coffee shop, called Slow by Slow, waiting for a pour-over. Today’s theme is either impatience, or taking it easy (or, as I like to call it, moving with the rhythms of the universe). Let’s go with the latter.

I spent a couple of relaxing hours playing video games in a basement barcade last night. (For those unaware, a barcade is a video arcade, usually weighted toward old-school games like PacMan and Galaga, that also has booze — either a full bar or just beer and wine.)
Cuppa joe
In my younger days, I would gladly have spent the entire evening and an untold number of quarters in the cozy, stone-walled confines of this man-boy cave, blasting digital aliens, eating virtual dots and drinking real beer well past my bedtime. But my adult self craves fresh air and relative solitude and movement. Opportunities for all of these are limited, so I take them when I can get them.

Thus, I emerged into to the twilight and thought about what great fortune I have to live the way I do — relatively free and without serious want. The air was clear and crisp. A breeze rattled the autumn leaves here in the City of Trees. To walk through downtown was a privilege, and that’s my real purpose with this mini-ramble — to encourage walking.
I could have caught a ride with a friend or grabbed a bike or hailed an Uber. But I would have missed a lot. I would have missed seeing a bricklayer tailoring his wares to fit a sidewalk corner just perfectly. I would not have seen the little boy, maybe four, in a knit cap and long pants staring in wide-eyed fascination at the water springing from the Grove fountain.

I would never have noticed the group of Cub Scouts solemnly running their fingers along the stones at the Anne Frank memorial while a den leader explained its purpose. I would not have exchanged greetings with the tattooed man in a ripped shirt shuffling along the Greenbelt path with a heavy pack and a skateboard on his back, walking a dog so tiny that only the leash kept it from getting lost in the grass and leaves.

I certainly would not have noticed the loud and colorful battle on the lawn at Julia Davis Park between opposing clans of the SCA — men, mostly, grunting and swinging faux broadswords at one another’s homemade shields, for king and country and the sheer joy of doing something completely ridiculous.

I would have bypassed the old man leaning on the railing of the Friendship Bridge crossing the Boise River, his white hair and beard ruffled by the breeze. We both watched a younger man fly-fishing in the middle of the river below, and we wondered if he’d caught anything other than the attention of the ducks patrolling the rocky shoreline.

I probably wouldn’t have caught the glow of the sunset on the windows of Boise State’s Interactive Learning Center. Instead, I’d be cursing the light for making it harder to find a parking spot.

There’s a lot out there, in your backyard, in your neighborhood, in your town or along your back road. Slow down and take a look every now and then.

Walk. In a world built on speed, going slow is a revolutionary act.

Look Up

Take the reminders from the universe when you get them! Today’s reminder is to look up, or you might miss something. Be present. Beauty abounds, but we usually aren’t paying attention.

I was walking to work this morning, on my usual route along the Boise River. Crisp fall air. Leaves just starting to turn. Heavy dew on the grass. Steam rising from the river. Beautiful morning. But I had descended pretty far into the podcast I was listening to, and wasn’t looking at much beyond the concrete path. The occasional leaf. Weeds coming up in the seams of the cement. Feet moving towad the office. Two sets of wet, indistinct tracks crossing the path. More steps. Wait. What?

I walked back to the tracks, which were really just wet imprints on the concrete, with soft edges. Nothing unusual because folks are often walking their dogs. But these were shaped more like footballs, with one end slightly larger than the other. I looked closely. These look like deer tracks, and they can’t have been here that long. I looked around. Sure enough, two deer stood near a fence not 30 feet from me. They watched me nervously for a few seconds before moving down the path. They weren’t stopping for a photo, unfortunately, but I did get a couple.

Mostly I just stood and watched them and marveled that I had nearly walked past these big, beautiful wild creatures right here in the middle of Idaho’s largest city.

It reminded me not to take this precious time before work each day for granted. Look up. Be here, now. You’ll never know what you’re missing.

Fear and Forgetting in Las Vegas

Welcome to the days after, when we endure the macabre carnival of compassion that always follows these mass shootings. We’ve learned what we can about the shooter, for now, so attention turns towards the dead. I’m already tired, so tired, as we all are, of this story because it’s a story we’ve already endured dozens of times, and the ending is always the same. But I won’t turn away from the stories of the victims because they deserve to be remembered. They didn’t ask to be part of whatever bizarre tragedy the shooter had envisioned, but they are. And they are victims of us, too, victims of a society that has lost its way and doesn’t seem particularly interested in finding it again. We don’t know why those 59 people were strewn across the Las Vegas concert grounds, or why the 500-plus luckier souls were suffering in hospitals all over town. It certainly couldn’t be the guns. (People kill, people, remember?) It wasn’t mental illness. Mental illness isn’t a problem in this country — certainly not one that results in mass killings, mass incarceration, mass trauma — because we can’t even commit to providing basic healthcare to everyone, much less care for mental health. It’s not a culture of violence that glorifies guns and killing. Nobody is more peace-loving than America.

So what is it?

We’ll never know, because we won’t hold ourselves accountable. “Crazy lone-wolf gunman.” “Doesn’t fit the model for a mass killer.” “Family and neighbors are shocked” — it puts al the responsibility in one tidy, easy-to-dismiss box. The shooter is dead now, so there’s nothing to worry about. So we don’t worry about it. Until the next time. Then we will forget about the last time, when we said it was time to do something. We are good at forgetting. We do it intentionally. Look at the way we talk about Las Vegas — “the worst mass shooting in modern American history.” That word “modern” puts some kind of weird, amorphous timeline behind all of the shootings of the past, what, 20 years? 50?

It dismisses all the even larger massacres, always targeting people of color — Wounded Knee, Sand Creek, Fort Pillow. Well, those were carried out by “the government” so they didn’t involve me, or you. We aren’t responsible. Same as the “lone wolf” in Vegas. Nothing to do with me, with us.

Just ignore it. Watch the video clips for the hundredth time. Listen to the same interviews over and over. Read the same comments on social media. Finally shrug and decide nothing can be done now.

Maybe next time.

Persistence of memory

Some years ago, during the biggest transition of my adult life, a friend introduced me to maté. This South American cousin of tea has been used for centuries among the indigenous people there. It’s readily available here in America, as is nearly everything in the world these days. We enjoyed many, many cups of maté together.  Sometimes we drank it late at night listening to music, solving all the world’s problems. Other times, we sat beside a mountain stream warming ourselves after a wet hike. We added young cedar shoots to the mix. Around a campfire with other forest activists, we drank it with nettles we had gathered. Sitting cross-legged in the middle of a yurt, we sipped it with dried rose hips from the surrounding woods. We shared a gourd between the two of us, or with many in group gatherings. It nourished the soul and the heart while quenching our thirst and warming our insides.

Maté is a mild tonic, a gentle plant medicine that is nothing like ayahuasca, psilocybin or other psychedelics currently gaining wider acceptance in our disjointed, confused and desperate times. Its magic comes as much from the way it is consumed as the leaves themselves. Traditionally, maté is consumed in a group as part of a welcoming ritual. This ceremony, known as Tomando Maté, is a source of community and friendship. (You can learn more about it here, at the Art of Tea blog.)

When I moved from Oregon, I brought maté with me as one of the treasures from my life there. But I found that it had lost much of its magic. I still enjoyed the warming sensation, the gentle stimulant effect, the calm that comes with preparing it. But it was missing the connection with friends, old friends and those I had never met, that made maté such a unique and important part of my life. Sipping maté at my desk, at work, in place of coffee or Earl Grey, just didn’t have the same feeling.

I’ve been thinking about maté lately, and my relationship with the past and with those people that first shared it with me. It was a time when the future seemed every bit as uncertain as it does now, but it was more hopeful somehow — a product of youth, I suppose. I can’t say for sure — no great epiphany is waiting for you at the end of this blog post. But I realized that putting the maté on the shelf was in some ways an attempt to break with the past because not doing so was painful in some way. Regret, perhaps.

So I’ve pulled out my old bombilla, and I’ve found a suitable ceramic mug (although I really need to get a gourd), so I can create some sort of personal maté ritual. My goal is not to re-create the past, or paste over it, but to establish a new connection with this plant and all that it represents in hopes of creating a bridge to the future that recalls the best parts of the history that brought me to the present.

Swimmer

Mornings are chilly now, the water cold and resistant.

She slips in from the dock at the upper end of the pond, feeling the cold wrap around her like mercury.

Her breath catches and she must focus to bring her breathing back into a regular patter.

What a strange thing — to think about breathing, to consciously focus on something so automatic, so fundamental that it usually requires no thought. Perhaps this is what it means to be fully awake — to be aware of the thoughts and movements that slip beneath our consciousness.

She leans forward and begins to move, pushing herself forward with slow, overhead strokes and gentle movements of her legs.

Her body warms inside the wetsuit, but the cold water slaps her face with every stroke, reminding her of her breath. 

She finds a familiar rhythm. Gasp, stroke, stroke, turn, gasp, stroke, repeat. Over and over until that is all there is, a liquid world surrounding comfortable repeated motions. A sense of movement without progress. Her body slides forward almost without effort, approaching the liquid gold of the sunrise pouring across the pond’s rippling surface.

This is all there is. Swim. Breathe. Swim. Stay afloat. Maintain the rhythm. Move without a destination. Feel the motion. Be the motion.

Float.

Exist.

Be.