Thursday, September 30, 2010

Code Red: A Spoiler Slips Past

I still check email. I do this even though email (as has been noted by many) tends to make us technological serfs.

Seven days a week, multiple times per day, it sends us into the in-box fields to harvest spams and other missives for low personal wages while we pay the high cost of all the time that is excised from our lives. That said, the Van Winkle Project has never been about removing email from my life.

Necessary evil and all that.

But email just gave a sudden jolt to my placid news-less, weather-less, sports-less, entertainment-less sleep. I opened a message from our university president. Why not? Technically he's my boss. The subject line was innocent: A Message From.

Here's what I read...

To faculty and staff:
Monday's shooting incident on the The University of Texas at Austin campus is an unfortunate but timely reminder about the importance of emergency preparedness.

No, no, wait! What shooting? I'm not supposed to know anything about that kind of thing until Sept. 11, 2011!

The rest of the email was benign. Information on how our institution is prepared if, worse case, some horrible act of violence takes place in our midst.

A tiny ding had been made in my peace of mind and complacency . And that dent wanted to enlarge into a full-blown hole. I panted to know more.

Who got shot? Was anyone killed? Who was the shooter? Why did he do it? Why is it always, always a "he"?

The fragment of information I now owned was like stooping down and picking up an empty shell casing in the middle of the street. All I knew was what that shiny brass cylinder I held in my hand silently implied. A weapon had been fired. The missing lead bullet that had once snuggly fit into the casing had traveled in the direction of a fellow human being at a velocity capable of causing it to do terrible damage.

I assume most readers of this blog--even without being news addicts like myself--know more than I do about what happened at the University of Texas on Monday. One way or another news travels. Which leaves me curious about one other matter.

Are you glad you know? - V.M.

D.I.Y. Torpor

Here's a personal headline that meant a great deal to me this morning:


You see, I had used up the last of the peach jam that had sustained me for a couple of months. I entered the pantry in deep culinary suspense. What did I have warehoused on a back shelf? I reached in.

Black cherry!

Hats Off to the Man in the White Suit
Literature is how black cherry jam entered my life. A few years ago I was re-reading Tom Wolfe's classic collection of New Journalism, The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby (1965).

Toward the end I came across one of his wonderful New York City profile pieces. It's called "A Sunday Kind of Love." Wolfe, the wearer of white suits and the owner of the most manic and keenly insightful prose style in America, tells a simple story. It's how a friend has enthusiastically spoken of the way he spends his Sundays in a cramped, rather trashy "nothing" Chelsea apartment with his girl friend. The best part is the food they share on p. 250:

"Anne would make scrambled eggs, plain scrambled eggs, but it was a feast. It was incredible. She would bring out a couple of these little smoked fish with golden skin and some smoked oysters that always came in a little can with ornate lettering and royal colors and flourishes and some Kissebrot bread and black cherry preserves, and then the coffee...George would tear off another slice of Kissebrot and pile on some black cherry preserves and drink some more coffee and have another cigarette, and Anne crossed her legs under her terrycloth bathrobe and crossed her arms and drew on her cigarette, and that was the way it went..."

George sums up: "It was the torpor boy. It was beautiful. Torpor is a beautiful, underrated thing. Torpor is a luxury..."

Well, how often can you chase torpor, that lazy state of crawl under the covers to seek reassuring numbness,  all for under $10, no pharmaceuticals involved. I bought the black cherry jam (not "preserves", but close enough) and I saved it for a special day.

This Just In...
This morning I was eating news rather than reading or listening to it. And the news is that black cherry jam is a really fine thing. Although it won't take you all the way to torpor (I think a companionable other in terrycloth is the other essential key ingredient), it's a start.

Luxury resides in my hand and heads toward my lips, teeth, and tongue. And I won't forget the coffee. - V.W.

Monday, September 27, 2010

A Coupon Fantasy

I think most of us would agree that time is incredibly valuable. I find myself longing for more of it nearly every day.

Since I can't and don't want to throw away my entire life and relocate myself to a desert island, what's needed is something that would stretch my present portion of time the way coupons stretch purchasing power at the grocery store.

I don't want to become too excited just yet, but I may have stumbled upon just such a thing.

Ssss...The Sound of Your Brain Undistracted
It seems to me that being Van Winkled from all that's going on in the larger world has given me a bit more time. How much? I do know that Mon-Fri I get dinner from oven to plate more quickly because from 5:30-6 p.m. I'm no longer trying to watch network evening news at the same time I'm stirring a sauce or breaking out the brocolli. And I know more than 15 minutes a day were once taken up in my reading the local newspaper and leafing through magazines and catalogs.

Have I perhaps gained as much as a 25 minutes a day?

More importantly, beyond the extra ticks on the clock, could it be that distancing myself from what the rest of the world is doing has cleared out my brain? It's probably too soon to make a firm declaration, but I am sensing that I feel as if I'm more open to 1) pleasurable, 2) focused, 3) sustained experiences. I feel less distracted.

Here's one example. I'm reading more books than I have in years. (Including a certain 500+ page novel "everyone's talking about" which will be a subject of a future post.)

It could be I've encountered a legitimate phenomenon that occurs when a human being pulls away from electronic media and other forms of information overload. Let's call the resulting state of contentment Distraction Deflation (DD). It's like an over-pressurized balloon finally being able to exhale in a long, satisfying sigh. It feels pretty good and apparently I'm not alone in thinking so.

Another Personal-Social Experiment
Over the summer the New York Times issued what they called an "Unplugged Challenge" to its on-line readers. They asked them to create videos describing what happened when they gave up some form of technology for a short time.

Many people quit checking email or Facebook. Others set aside their cell phones. Then they posted videos about what it was like. All of them mention being surprised by how much calmer they felt and how it was easier to concentrate as they shed their electronic-cyber restlessness the way a snake escapes a confining skin.

It's worth checking out the videos:

A Question (Per Chance to Dream)
Here's a thought experiment...

Ask yourself what you would do if someone handed you a 25 minutes/day coupon good for at least one year.

To make it more real you might talk to someone about you fantasy response to the question. Then, if you feel inspired, pass it on. Ask them what they fantasize doing with the 25 minutes/day coupon.

NY Times Idea: Unplug Yourself! (and use wall cleat by Karl Zahn)


Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Review of My Ficus Tree

It's rampantly leafy, my ficus tree, but I hadn't noticed that. In fact, I hadn't looked at the tree in the master bedroom in a long time.

To Tree or Not to Tree
I wouldn't be reviewing our ficus at all except for my present condition of being deprived of all news of happenings on the planet.

In order to cope, I have found myself Van Winkle "wake walking" about the house, looking at things and reassessing them during the time I might have normally had the newspaper open or the television turned on, or, more likely, would have been scrolling pages and clicking links on the Internet.

Today I went down the hall. I went left, I went right. That's how I came face to face with this little tree.

Hey, what if I wrote of review of it?

All right. Let's see. The ficus benjamina or "weeping fig"  would seem to be the all-purpose, lonely, sentry-like tree, suitable for the in-door worlds of corporate America or the American home. The ficus is so successful in being a part of the cultural fabric we've woven (in which nature gets to play a decidedly minor role) we hardly notice them. Yet they are so numerous that people have figured out how to introduce a more efficient version into our lives.

Voila. No water, no fertilizer, no light required, just an occasional squirt of 409 cleaner or dab of Superglue if something comes loose. It's as near to natural as you can get, this now-on-sale "nearly natural Silk Ficus Tree."

The tree currently under consideration is a bit better than that, although 95% of the time its owner is unaware that it's a living entity and that once a month he ought to pour a gallon of water down the barrel basket throat of the poor thing. If he forgets, it lets him know it has feelings. By mournfully dropping leaves.

Something's Been Going On
What I hadn't realized about our ficus is that it seems to be doing well. The reason for the surprise is that last I checked, a rather long time ago, it was somewhat sparse in the vegetation department.

The tree's condition depressed me at the time as it was a reminder of the first ficus I ever owned. That one belonged to me when I lived in Alaska. It died a slow death, a victim of an eastern exposure during the dark winter and a drafty window that let in the cold. Not even 24-hour "light support" courtesy of the blueish glow of metal halide tube lights could keep that ficus from converting itself into a large stick sculpture.

Our current ficus is another story. It's become like our son who almost unnoticed added two inches to his height during May-August. Suddenly on the day he's starting school again we hold out hands to measure and say, Is that really you?

Yes. New leaves have grown over the summer. This reviewer is impressed.

The Realization
It's a jungle in there...
As today I stare and take mental notes at the foot of my happy, modestly successful, warm weather thriving ficus, a metaphor occurs to me.

Some people are ficus trees.

Hmm. Really? That sounds a bit bizarre. What does that mean? Let me try to explain...

Stuck as they are in dusty corners or at the bottom of the stairwell, we may ignore the folks who live and work outside the limelight, but it doesn't matter. If they're given temperate albeit humble conditions, these people put down roots. Without the benefit of a cheering section or accolades or magazine headlines or news feature stories, they quietly, slowly, grow and they even flourish.

I know, it's awfully sentimental. But seriously. Imagine it.

Right now there must be some single moms or single dads standing tall like a ficus and quietly raising their kids to be decent, respectful human beings.

Or, off to the side, it's a husband and wife, just emerging from marriage counseling, and, against the odds, they're going to save their marriage, growing old together, putting new leaves on their life, and the kids will someday gather at the silver anniversary.

Or there's a social worker figuring out creative ways to help clients even when the State keeps cutting funding.

Or there's the teacher standing in the aisle of OfficeMax putting art supplies in her cart for her third graders and she's paying for it out of her own money.

Or you'll find the priest or the minister, the 99 out of 100 who would never abuse anyone, huddled with confused or suffering people and listening to them and passing to them again the box of Kleenex.

Or notice the silent, wise child who is doing her homework at the kitchen table and knows when to say "no" to too much screen time or how to ignore that text message that just rattled her cell phone.

Or hold in your mind for a moment and forward best wishes to the day laborer who's just trying to support his family on piss poor wages and he's bringing home dinner tonight to five other people while staying off the bottle and the welfare rolls.

Or there's the white collar employee, so far down the corporate food chain that if he got to be like Dwight on The Office, or she could be Pam, it would be a HUGE promotion, yet they're talking pleasantly on the phone to irate customers, filling out their expense accounts and time sheets accurately, doing their job and doing it well.

This community of human ficuses might even include some talented artist everyone ignores, but he or she is still getting up every day and hoping for just enough dose of water to keep on putting out a sufficient number of leaves to declare, I took my stand here and I exist. And if no one notices, so be it. That artist's goal is to endure as a true, real living thing in a world of way too much silk and plastic, and share the shade with someone else who needs a moment of cool rest.

The Rating
Because this ficus tree has taught me so much and it costs me probably pennies per year to maintain, I'm going to give it a thumb's up and a **** rating. Suitable for all ages.- V.W.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Black Out

Still Life With Flat Screen Unplugged, 2010
Last night our son made me feel good about being Van Winkled. He emerged at 6 p.m. from the Williams-Couric-Sawyer-Major Pharmaceutical Companies half-hour and slammed the door on the TV room.

"What a waste of time!"

Apparently not much happened on our planet yesterday. He also said the feature stories "sucked."

At that point I started trying to cheat. I asked, "So since I started this project nothing very momentous has occurred?"

"Well," he hesitated, knowing very well what I was up to. "Let's just say there's only been one thing. We would have definitely talked about it over dinner. Then that would have been it."

He clammed up. I started to obsess. What could this bit of news I missed have been? He reminded me. He's saving the info for me in a file on the desktop of my computer. He's labeled it "Daddy No-No". And guess what. Until Sept. 11, 2011, it will be password protected.

"It's a long password, Dad."

Let's see:  aa29ry8ab0

Or:   g2r2weqa129p?

Or could it be: 1whya4qw-don't0-you98a09[0just-0-give07up?


Saturday, September 18, 2010

Pimp My Nostradamus

As I write this I've been without information about the larger world for just a few hours shy of a week.

I'm not doing very well.

It's not that I think something calamitous has happened. My neighbors and colleagues seem much the same old same. So there's no evidence of anything to be worried about per se. It's just that I seem to be going through some kind of withdrawal pangs. I miss those headlines, the talking heads on TV, the scroll of highs and lows of humanity on the computer screen.

Heck, it ticked me off yesterday when I couldn't look at the fall season catalogs that arrived in the mail. What's the story behind that new J. Crew look with a bearded mountain man guy in a preppy v-neck sweater?

I had to toss it aside. Honestly, I haven't really replaced this aspect of my life with anything yet.

Looking Ahead
Since I'm not able to observe the cultural, political, and weather events of the present day, I thought I'd spend today looking the other direction. Into tomorrow. But you should know.

I'm no Nostradamus, the "man who saw through time."

I don't think I've ever forecast much of anything correctly in my life to date. Therefore no one should rely upon me to pick stocks or bet on a team or a horse race although, come to think of it, I've been pretty much dead-on when I've found a new food product I like and then predicted that within a year the manufacturer would either change or discontinue it (latest example: what happened to those delicious Flat Earth veggie chips made by Frito Lay?).

So now that you've been apprised of my limitations, here are some lists and headlines I imagine might greet me when a year from now I'm getting caught up on the events of Sept. 11, 2010 to Sept. 11, 2011

Famous or Notable People Who Might Die (Already In Ill or Compromised Health, Listed in Order Least Missed to Most Missed)
  1. Osama Bin Laden
  2. Kim Jong-il
  3. Fidel Castro
  4. Dick Cheney
  5. Christopher Hitchens
  6. Steve Jobs
  7. Elizabeth Edwards
  8. Michael Douglas
  9. Billy Graham
  10. Muhammed Ali
  11. Hello Kitty
  12. The Staffs of Newsweek and the New York Times

Disasters (All Equally Likely)
  1. Monsoons Flood Southern India
  2. Volcano Obliterates Island in the Pacific
  3. Tornadoes Hit a City of 100,000 or Greater in the Midwest
  4. 6.0 or Greater Earthquake in Southern California
  5. Pandemic Disease Kills Thousands Around the World
  6. Hurricane Strikes New Orleans Again
  7. Giant Sinkhole Swallows U.S. Congress
  8. Giant Deficit Swallows United States of America

The World of Sports (All Improbable, So Why Not?)
  1. Houston Texans Play Dallas Cowboys in Super Bowl XLV
  2. George W. Bush Makes the Coin Toss at Super Bowl XLV
  3. Brett Favre on Sidelines at Super Bowl XLV Makes Coin Toss to Determine if He Will Retire
  4. Black Eye Peas Suffer Vocal Malfunction at Halftime in Super Bowl XLV
  5. Miami's Dream Team Goes Undefeated and LeBron James Changes Nickname from "The Chosen One" to "The Impeccably Perfect One"
  6. Tiger Woods Goes Back to Just Like Before His Sex Bust--Wins Everything and Gets All the Babes!
  7. The Cubs, the Series, Snowballs Don't Melt...
  8. NASCAR Season Cancelled Due to Fans' Concern Over High Carbon Emissions of Racers Contributing to Global Warming
  9. Sarah Palin (Once "Sarah Barracuda" on Her Women's College Basketball Team) Increases Her Diversity Loving Credentials by Joining Harlem Globetrotters 12-City Tour

On the Entertainment Front (So Absurd I Want Them to be True)
  1. Martin Scorcese Makes Documentary on His Mother's Italian Cooking Called Meatballs and Mean Streets
  2. Next Madonna, Lady Gaga is...the "Real Femme" Who is All Over YouTube and There Are Rumors She is a He or a She-He or is it He-She?
  3. Jonathan Franzen's Novel Freedom Revealed on Oprah to be a Work of Nonfiction, Betrayed Readers Demand Refund
  4. Apple Reasserts Reputation for Flawless, Stunning Innovation With iPhone 5 Featuring New Improved Hidden Antenna With Special "Listen In, They're Out There" Function That Connects to Radio Signals From Distant Quasars
  5. Critics Slam New Dick Cheney Reality Hunting Show on ESPN, Calling it "Scatter Shot," "Off the Mark"
  6. Critics Stop Talking About Madmen, a Show the Average American (i.e., American Idol Fan) has NEVER Watched and Focus on New Reality Series on Fox: Desperate Lives of Global Warming Truthers
  7. All TV and Film Criticism Is Outsourced to 17-Year-Olds at High School in Dalian, China
  8. Facebook releases updates allowing users to add "Enemies" and "Frenemies"
  9. Art form Emerges on Twitter Featuring Two-Syllable Poems Called "Hai-Coughs" (e.g., "Hell-Low!" and "Good-Date!") 
  10. U2's Bono Announces His Discovery of the Circular Nature of Anthemic, Socially Aware Rock 'n' Roll and Band Re-Records Note for Note its First Album Boy, Releases it Just in Time for Christmas.
  11. Bono Makes Solo Album Featuring Gospel Tunes Called What Will It Take to Convince You That Even Though I Look Like This and Use the F-Bomb From Time to Time I'm Really a Christian?

Human Malfeasance and Tragedies (Not Funny, Hoping ALL Are Improbable)
  1. [Country] Bombs [Country]
  2. Terrorists Attack [American City]
  3. Plane Goes Down With [number] Aboard
  4. [Type of Industry] Plant Explodes
  5. Disgruntled [worker, student, ex-spouse, live-in boy/girl friend] Kills [number]
  6. Structure Failure in [building, bridge, roadway] Causes Collapse Killing [number]
  7. Foggy Pile-up on [City] Freeway Kills [number], Injures [number]
  8. Priest Charged with Sexually Abusing [number] Children


Thursday, September 16, 2010

Literary Analysis of Rip Van Winkle by Washington Irving

Wait a minute. Did someone say "literary analysis"? I don't think so...

The tale of Rip Van Winkle doesn't exactly present the same kind of special challenges as trying to figure out what happened in a Christopher Nolan film (Memento, Inception) or peeling back the onion layers in James Joyce's Ulysses.

If I pretend otherwise, I think there's a good chance you might join ol' Rip. Z...z...z...z...z

"Rip Van Winkle" is the kind of story we read (usually in abridged form) to children and we do so with great success. Even children understand the plot--Rip fell asleep. For a really, really long time. Then he woke up. Everything, including himself, had changed.

Still, it's been a long time since I encountered this old chestnut, and I thought it would be a good idea to revisit it and see if there's any wisdom I can cull that might help or inspire me in my current Van Winkled state which compels me to give up all news, weather, sports and entertainment.

And, even if my quest proves futile, I will always respect a story that within a few pages sends me scrambling to the red Webster's Third Collegiate on my shelf to look up "termagant," "virago" and "junto."

Rip Van Hen Pecked
As a child I never realized the engine that drives this story. Perhaps it was due to an inability at that point to put myself in adult shoes. Or maybe I was overwhelmed by the compelling moment when Rip awakes with a long beard and rusty musket by his side and his world has changed but as yet he has no idea. He thinks he just had a wee too much to drink and overslept.

Here's the thing I overlooked or forgot: Rip is a man in a drastically bad marriage. Washington Irving minces no words:

...his wife kept continually dinning in his ears about his idleness, his carelessness, and the ruin he was bringing on his family. Morning, noon, and night, her tongue was incessantly going...

And as the Van Winkles' anniversaries come and go...

Times grew worse and worse with Rip Van Winkle as years of matrimony rolled on; a tart temper never mellows with age, and a sharp tongue is the only edged tool that grows keener by constant use.

How does Rip cope with this? He shrugs off his wife's verbal abuse, which only makes her more "shrewish." When it becomes really bad he heads to the town square to talk with friends or the country to go fishing or the mountains to hunt, the latter being the locale for his Great Sleep.

It isn't in Rip's nature to work through a conflict whether its with the weeds taking over his fields, his kids wearing out their clothes, or his wife driving him up the wall. He always chooses flight over fight.

This makes Rip a recognizable type, a passive person. If he were updated to the year 2010, we'd find Rip to be an underemployed couch potato, knocking back the brews, dipping into the chip bowl, and watching his favorite sports on TV. His wife would complain that he doesn't mow the lawn, take out the trash, or fix the faucet that's been leaking for the past three years. His own children would find Dad to be a kind of a pleasant stranger in the home.

I'm Not There...
As I'm re-reading this story there's not much for me to identify with at first. I try to be the kind of spouse who pulls his weight around the house. I do my part to see that the oil gets changed in the car, finances are managed on Quicken, my clothes placed in the hamper. I even cook. As for my wife she is the farthest thing from a sharp-tongued shrew. We both believe nagging is just nagging, not an actual communication skill. Though I know men who feel differently, I don't find myself longing to get away from the house, nor have I yet created for myself a man-cave.

The Parallel
Rip and Friends Discussing an Old Newspaper Just Delivered
Then I come to an interesting paragraph and suddenly I'm buying into the story personally. I'm reading about another way Rip passes his time. He joins others on a bench in front of the small inn where there is "a kind of perpetual club of the sages, philosophers, and other idle personages of the village". Here's what the men do:

But it would have been worth any statesman’s money to have heard the profound discussions which sometimes took place, when by chance an old newspaper fell into their hands, from some passing traveler. How solemnly they would listen to the contents, as drawled out by Derrick Van Bummel, the schoolmaster, a dapper, learned little man, who was not to be daunted by the most gigantic word in the dictionary; and how sagely they would deliberate upon public events some months after they had taken place.

Rip reads and discusses the news. Even old news--if that's all there is at hand. Yes! He must share my addiction to the news and social-cultural gossip, which right now I'm trying so hard to leave behind for a year...

Hold On
As I look at the story more closely, my opinion changes; Rip circa 1770 isn't really an antecedent of Rip VW 2010, i.e., me.

I notice that even though the story takes place at an important historical moment--the years when American colonists are growing frustrated and angry with British taxation and impositions on their freedom--there's no mention of Rip or of anyone being so upset by the news that they seek a way to sign petitions or protest. Rip and his friends are apparently there for the camaraderie and chatter more than anything else. It's another way for Rip to pass time in pleasant diversion and escape from his misery-inducing wife. He's not headed for political action or the ranks of the Minutemen but for the heights of the Catskills where he will fall into his twenty-year sleep.

Back in the folds and mysterious creases of those mountains seems to reside the point of this rather dark and twisted story. What Rip needs to improve his life isn't news and well formed opinions. He needs time. Only upon waking and wandering around town in a disoriented state does he finally get news he can really use. It's about his wife.

“Oh, she too had died but a short time since; she broke a blood vessel in a fit of passion at a New England peddler.”

The narrator adds: "There was a drop of comfort, at least, in this intelligence."

In an age before marriage counseling and divorce, this is one sure way to fix a bad marriage.

A Moral or Theme Extracted
Let's not call the thrilling conclusion of this post a "literary analysis"; rather think of it as a couple of idle observations while I lounge about today's virtual version of the town square, aka the blogosphere...

For Rip Van Winkle the only news that matters is personal. A king can be jettisoned and replaced by a president, congress, a constitution, and a different flag, but in the end all that matters to Rip is freedom within his four walls at home. His freedom is not purchased by the American Revolution. He needs something else. To be rid of the person who irritates and impinges on his pursuit of life, liberty and happiness (i.e., hunting, fishing, and idling). Let's not talk about the downfall of King George, let's talk about the longed for exit of a shrew of a wife.

There may be a similar realization awaiting me somewhere down the line. Could it be that my consumption of the news of the world means very little, practically speaking? That I delude myself when I think I take seriously these messages from beyond, because in the end I'm nearly as passive as Rip, almost never acting upon that knowledge? Does this mean that for me the only news that counts resides at home?

At this point, that seems too neat, too expected of an outcome. So I resist. Only time will tell...
Rip Van Winkle awakes, returns home...

Monday, September 13, 2010

Chasing Ghosts (of the News)

Runing at midnight was unlike any experience I've ever had.

[If you're just tuning in, this project was launched with a midnight 5k run. See 9-8-2010 post.]

It turned out that the difficult part, for me at least, wasn't what I had supposed--being awake at well past my normal, sedate, middle-age person's bedtime and asking myself to perform physically on top of that.

The hard thing was I was profoundly in the dark. This unfolded in a way I had not expected.

There were 164 of us who began in the brightly lit parking lot of our sponsoring entity, a medical rehab center. A contingent from the local military base came out and presented the American flag. Someone sang the national anthem. All in honor of those who perished on September 11, 2001, and the men and women who have died since in two wars in distant lands. Then the clock reached midnight and we were off.

Within a hundred yards the race course led us into a nearby neighborhood. A down-market neighborhood. A sleepy neighborhood. The kind of neighborhood where a street lamp appears only once a block. The kind of neighborhood where no lights are switched on in the houses and trees are blocking the night sky.

Wow. It was dark.

I was fine as long as I tail-gated a fellow runner. I had my midnight mix tape and I was cooking along, enjoying everything except the heat (it was still a rather warm 78 degrees after an afternoon high of 95). Soon I made so bold as to pass the runner in front of me and at that point there arrived my first surprise.

I didn't see anyone ahead of me. When I finally did  make out fellow runners they were far away blobs whose reflective bands or white shirts caught light in an indefinite fashion. Had I really seen that or was I dreaming it in a waking state?

Hanging In There
Our race hosts were good about stationing people on corners whenever there was a turn to make and waving a flashlight at us, but I was having trouble seeing them, too.

There was one good thing about the optical challenge: Instead of obsessing over my performance in my usual fashion (am I running fast enough, am I breathing too hard, how far until the finish line), I was completely absorbed with picking out the real estate in front of me and aiming myself in what I hoped was the right direction. Because if I made a wrong turn it would be worse than a matter of dinging my finish time. I would be lost in a part of the town I knew nothing about, all alone, and standing around in not much more than my underwear.

Happily, I saw a clot of ghostly runners up ahead. I lengthened my stride slightly and spent probably one mile catching up with them. Yes! I'm no longer in trouble, I thought as I tucked myself in behind them. Then I realized. They were going slower than me. I would have to pass.

That's how it came to be that for the entire last mile I was by my lonesome. This is where my tale becomes slightly metaphorical.

Having had nearly 24 hours now to live without any news of the larger world, including setting aside the newspapers and keeping away form the TV and certain pages on the Internet, I can say that as a 21st century Rip Van Winkle I feel a bit like I'm chasing ghosts of information in the dark. I can't quite see them and I can't catch up. The experience is dreamy. At the same time it's disconcerting because it's so isolating.

I feel like I'm alone with just my steady footfalls on pavement. It's not that I'm a hermit like Henry David Thoreau. I'm still in the midst of humanity, but the distancing and blurring has begun.

Our son just walked out of the room in the house where we keep the TV and he was muttering about something he saw on the news. My blood pressure spiked. What was it? Did Pastor Jones do something? Have there been Middle East reactions? Wasn't there a tropical storm that started with "I" when I was still connected to my news/weather umbilical? Has it strengthened and moved in a threatening direction?

Kitchen Cook's Lonely TV...
In the kitchen, where 5 nights a week I'm the one making dinner for the three of us, I have a little TV set. I got it last year so I wouldn't miss any of the evening news while I was making busy with skillets and pots of water boiling pasta. It's another window on the world that has been taken away. The screen now greets me with the same blackness as the night of my midnight run.

I'll be honest. It's tempting to pick up the remote and...

All I can do is keep running and maybe learn to love this journey.

Right now, for this Rip Van Winkle, it feels like I have a very long ways to go in the dark.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

The Man Who Knew...Too Little

The Pumpjack Snooki 'Stache
I didn't read the news today. So I may have missed the story... 

About a lucky man, who didn't make the grade.

Though the news may have been rather bad,
I just had to laugh
 and be glad I didn't see the photograph.

So what if he blew minds at his tiny Florida church by deploying flames?
Noticing that our taste for the stupid and sensational hasn't changed.

Of course, a crowd of reporters stood and stared...

They wanted us to know they'd seen such ignorance before.
Everyone was sure he wasn't really from the house of the Lord...

All right, okay, my reaction doesn't shoe-horn all that well into the lyrical framework of Lennon-McCartney's "A Day In The Life," and, truth be told, I won't know for a whole year if Pastor Terry Jones woke up this morning, the ninth anniversary of the September 11th attacks, and actually went looking for his Zippo lighter. Or could it be that as I write this he's on a plane bound for New York City as claimed and he'll get his meeting with another Inman?

At this point I'm not sure this matters.

This episode, which has dominated the headlines for the past few days, seems to teach us more about ourselves and our dysfunctional relationship with the news media than it has about Pastor Jones.

Am I the only who thinks Pastor Jones wasn't newsworthy or worth taking up our precious mental time in the first place? That there are no serious lessons to be learned here about anything except the successful ways one can elbow their way into the national consciousness? Here's the tally:

1- It doesn't take a YouTube video or building a balloon out of Reynolds Wrap. Your viral moment that culminates in the Pope and generals and the President of the United States commenting on you as well as a personal phone call from the Secretary of Defense can begin with a 12-foot trailer and large block lettering on the side of five words, "INTERNATIONAL BURN A [choose your symbolic rant item] DAY".

2 - It helps if you look a bit out of the ordinary. Pastor Jones' pumpjack moustache is his own personal Snooki that accompanies him wherever he goes. This hirsute and animated companion does a veritable lap dance on his face each time he makes a solemn pronouncement that he's just met with another Inman and brokered something only two degrees removed from total world peace.

3 - Mostly it's a matter of timing. Pastor Jones caught us in the lull between oil spill, so-called "ground zero mosque" controversy, and whatever comes next. It's not hard to imagine if this week there had been a Category 5 hurricane headed toward Florida, not a word of ink would have been spilled on Pastor Jones. In fact, it would have been a fine test of Pastor Jones' Christian faith. Rather than show his love and zeal for the Lord by striking at the devil and burning a few copies of another religion's holy book, he could have prayed for everyone to be spared from the hurricane. Or maybe he could have done that crazy Jesus thing I've heard about somewhere in another time and place and helped some of the victims. He could have offered bottled water, not flames. I would have liked to have read a story about that or seen a clip during the Couric, Williams, or Sawyer evening half hour--except there's the hard fact to face: It probably wouldnt' make the news...

Instead, we get another reality-show-caliber, freakish fellow American striding forward to make love to the microphones, looking over his shoulder to see if there are any agents in the audience so maybe he can get a book deal or maybe a documentary film, give me a contract and an advance, give it to me now!

Where I'm At

It's plain what's happening here. I have no news today, so I'm resorting to auto-pilot and commenting on what news I still retain in my memory. And here's the truth. I smelleth the stink of stale.

The news is over for me. All of it. Completely and totally. I'm going to have to accept that and find something else to write about. More importantly, I'm going to have to find something else to think about.

I'm a bit ticked off about it at this point. Because I want to know, America and the world. What's happening out there? But I've got to let you walk away. Like allowing the kids go off to camp or blessing the beloved when she takes that solo vacation at the beach she's always wanted.

So I say goodbye to you, news, but please be careful. Don't get into too much trouble.

And don't do anything I wouldn't do.


Friday, September 10, 2010

A Cascade of Lasts

Hello, World. It's Friday. And I'm growing sleepy. Very sleepy.

I have to say it felt odd to retrieve the local newspaper from the front lawn  this morning and realize it was the last time for a long time that I would allow myself to spread it open on the breakfast bar and read it.

Here's some of what I learned.

- The NFL season opened last night in the Superdome with the Superbowl defending Saints squeaking out a victory over the Vikings, 14-9. The forever young Brett Favre threw an interception in the second quarter, so who can say how his season will unfold.

- BP released a report on the causes of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. Much of it amounted to finger pointing at others.

- After over a year in being kept in captivity with two fellow hikers who strayed across the border into Iran, an American woman is being freed. It is a gesture being made by the Iranian government as Ramadan begins.

- On the cusp of the 9/11 anniversary Florida "pastor" Terry Jones seemed to relent and say he would abandon his plan to burn copies of the Koran tomorrow.

Touch That Dial...

After my morning paper and morning cup of coffee it was time to make my morning drive to take our son to school. On the way back I listened to NPR's Morning Edition for the last time.

- A gas main exploded south of San Francisco and engulfed a neighborhood in flames. At least one has died. The search of homes goes on to determine if others may have perished.

- A Federal District Court judge has ruled that the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy for gays is unconstitutional.

- And guess what? The Saints beat the Vikings 14-9.

Endangered Media Species

Of course, I then had to take a look at The New York Times on-line, which for years has been my home page on my Internet browser.

It was pretty much a rehash of what I had learned from my other sources, but speaking of The New York Times, there is this to note...

Yesterday at a "media summit" in London, Arthur Sulzberger, publisher of the venerable newspaper which has long billed itself as the home of "all the news that's fit to print," said this:

"We will stop printing the New York Times sometime in the future, date TBD."

Of course, what Mr. Sulzberger has in mind isn't total extinction, but an evolutionary leap into the digital world that would leave behind the decaying wood-fiber carcass of the paper edition.

This news broke in the Huffington Post, which is a major player in the mish mash of digital sources offering bite-size nuggets of news. According to the experts, entities like Huffington are killing off the ink-drenched experience of holding a broadsheet in hand and leafing over page by page and not worrying about the coffee mug rings you leave behind on it.

This has me worrying.

When I awake 365 days from now can I count on the Sunday edition of The New York Times greeting me out on the front lawn? Or is it as if I am saying goodbye to a lover and though we agree we will meet again, more passionately than ever, we vow it!, she knows. This is it. She's not coming back. She won't even be around to see me cry.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Midnight Mix Tape

Feets don't fail me now...
At 12 a.m. as our time zone crosses over into Sept. 11, I will take off running. Literally.

There's a 5K race "in the midnight hour" and I plan to be in it. Besides the opportunity to run at the strangest time I've ever attempted, I'm drawn to the symmetry of it all.

When the race horn blows and we set off I'll be a man who still knows something about what is happening in the world.

When I cross the finish line about 25 minutes later (I'm more determined than I am fast) I'll be completely Van Winkled.

Motivating Oneself to Move 
Nowadays I wouldn't think of running without having my MP3 player and headphones (Note to audiophiles: low-end ear buds don't pump enough bass to cater to demanding aural taste). I need music to take my mind off the inevitable pain.

Case in point: I ran in a race last weekend and I'm not sure I would have made it to the end if not for the fact that I was listening all the way to the performance The Pixies gave at Madison Square Garden during their 2004 reunion tour. When "No. 13 Baby" came on with the refrain "I'm in a state, I'm in a state," and Kim Deal's pulsing bass rattled my bones that's when I knew. I fired afterburners and got into my own state of, I'm going finish, I'm going to finish, finish this race no matter what.

For the upcoming special running occasion I thought it might be appropriate to seek out songs with "midnight" in their title and lyrics. I won't be concocting anything fancy (such as a true mix which can be done with the cool $30 Mix Tape Portable DJ Mixer available from Urban Outfitters, pictured below). This is just old school, dig through my CD collection, rip the songs and sync them onto my player.

The Play List
In the Midnight Hour (The Young Rascals) 4'00":
A hard rockin' gem with a driving groove, though the obvious choice I have to admit is to go with the original artist, the late great Wilson Pickett. Here's the deal, though. In 1966 The Rascals (still "The Young" when they released this) produced an indisputably fine white guy cover. The bass absolutely crunches and the organ, not normally my favorite instrument, swells like an outbound jet cooking on the runway. Wow. Italian-American boys got soul, too.

After Midnight (Eric Clapton) 2'50":
Back when this tune came out I was living in Anchorage, Alaska. My best friend was a kid who was from California and he had come north bearing record albums. Hippie stuff like Country Joe and the Fish "Feeling Like I'm Fixin' to Die Rag." I sat in his parents' basement flipping through the intoxicating 12 x 12 stacks and I remember this one. A bearded E.C. in a cream suit sits in a chair with a Strat between his legs and a bunch of rolled up carpets to his left. This relaxed dapper man wasn't the same guitar god who wah-wahed us into ecstasy during his stint with Cream. Eric was into a new big band thing.

Still, like Cream, the music must have been pretty loud and the vocals poorly enunciated, because my friend kept talking about his favorite tune on the album, "Captain Midnight," until I finally corrected him by pointing to the track list. "Uh, I think he's saying after midnight." I do like the idea of an alternative lyric featuring Captain Midnight, however. If he were the basis of the song he would be the kind of dude who would throw a heck of a party. "Captain Midnight! We're gonna let it all hang out!"

Midnight Rider
(Allman Brothers Band) 2'57":

I immersed myself in the double-disc pleasures of At the Filmore East and Eat a Peach enough times to etch them into my classic rock memory long before there was the term "classic rock." Much later I finally dug into the band's back catalog and discovered this highlight from the ABB's second studio album, Idlewild South. It has the greatest acoustic guitar riff to arrive belatedly to my ears. And there's something about that line and the way Greg moans it--"I've got one...more--silver dollah..." that manages to sound authentically Gothic southern bluesy and haunting.

The Midnight Special
(Creedence Clearwater Revival) 4'11":

This song belongs to Huey Ledbetter better known as Leadbelly. Which gives me an opportunty to say that I'm in the camp that rock 'n' roll never would have happened period had African-American culture not been available to whites for them to feast upon and bend to their own ends. White kids (like me) at a particular historical moment badly needed liberation and joy, but I don't think we were capable of inventing the soundtrack for it by ourselves. So there's a debt as well as a theft. Call it the Elvis effect. The sad part is that many musical consumers never even find out about the original artist, the one with the darker skin. Of course, John Fogerty was talented enough that he hardly needed to rely upon covers (and, in this case, lyrics that are somewhat watered down from Ledbelly's) to fill CCR albums and sell a bi-jillion copies.

This song's lyrics remind me (if I'm paying attention) that there's a black man sitting in a prison cell who sees the light of the Midnight Special train rattling past and watches freedom pass him by. Still, the light shining on him is enough to cause him to dare to hope.

Burning of the Midnight Lamp
(Jimi Hendrix) 3'38":

I'm a Hendrix fan, but this tune on Electric Ladyland never really caught my fancy. It's too anthemic and over-the-top dramatic, as if John Phillips Sousa had dropped acid. The wah-wah riff sounds more weird than compelling. Talking electric bagpipes? But hey, the song is about midnight. It's loud, too. I'm not going to drift off to sleep at the 3.5 kilometer mark when this one comes over the headphones.

Midnight Rambler (The Rolling Stones) 9'04":
The most obvious choice, I suppose, of the whole batch. Midnight is the time for creepin' and movin' and groovin' per the RS gospel, and the world's loudest rock 'n' roll band produces an irresistible rhythm on this one that's bound to give me a lift as I'm starting to fade. Of course, I'm going with the live version on Get 'Yer Ya-Ya's Out!'(though I've got to tell you there are even better performances of this tune out there on boots).

Introduction to The Sleeping Beauty (Peter Illich Tchaikovsky) 3'33":
Our son loves classical music. For him a massed orchestra is the sun, moon and stars and the entire musical universe. When he went looking for a classical piece to propel Dad on his midnight run he first came up with the "Moonlight Sonata." I decided to mess with his head: But what if the moon isn't out that night? So he dug some more among the stacks of CDs that litter our home and came up with this raucous orchestral warhorse. There's no "midnight" in it, but it does use musical speech to tell the story of a person who is asleep and awaits awakening. I can't think of a better way for newly Van Winkled me to come across the finish line.

I'm Only Sleeping (The Beatles) 3'00":
Wait! I need one more tune to for my cool-down. Let's go to the Revolver album where 44 years ago John Lennon sang the words of what could be my Van Winkle Project mission statement: Don't wake me...don't spoil my day, I'm miles away...floating up stream...keeping an eye on the world going by my window, taking my time...

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Back and Forth

As I draw near the starting line of this experiment, I have two competing emotions. These feelings come, they go.

Some days I can’t wait to shut down all news. I see myself as a binge consumer of others' tragedies who now staggers with regrets and is ready to go sober. I'm ready to swear off the world and its free supply of libations that intoxicate the mind with images and words about collisions and disasters rippling across the earth’s crust, even deep into the ocean where the oil has plumed and spread, all of it leaving the poor decisively poorer, the helpless without solace, and the rest of us despairing or worrying.

As if that’s not bad enough there is the ongoing antagonism of groups of humans toward other groups. Choose your corner of the world. There seem to be people picking on others, disputing with them, and when it comes down to it, almost happy to spill blood in the name of their cause because they are so sure they are right and everyone else is wrong.

Then there’s the preposterous vanity of our species which arrives in an unending parade of new entertainments and opportunities that are supposed to incite us to hand over our money and our time for the privilege of being distracted and pretending that this fill in the blank (apparel, movies, TV show, song, game, gadget) is just too wonderful! Doesn’t it make us so happy?

And I’m sitting here thinking, Please be quiet, don’t tell me anymore.

The problem is that a few hours later I find myself on the other side of the knowledge divide.

Suddenly I’m almost frightened of what’s about to take place. I’m going to become uninformed. I’ll join those people who are habitually so out of touch that they can’t name their state’s senators or a single congressman. Why I might soon be walking in solidarity with those very folks who during one of those Tonight Show outdoor interview bits couldn’t tell Jay Leno who lives at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. But every one of them knew who lives in a pineapple under the sea. Duh, Sponge Bob.

As I write this I find my fear of being cut off from the news having the upper hand. This drives me to extreme measures.

Like a junkie whose last stash is about to be flushed before the cops arrive, I catch myself running into the other room and mainlining what remains of my access to information and media.

Where is that last issue of Newsweek I haven’t gotten to read? What will I find if I probe beyond just the home page of today’s New York Times on-line? Let’s not just watch the 5:30 network news, let’s catch the 10:00 o’clock local, too. Even though the smooth jazz (doo-doo-doo-duh-doodoo...) and heraldic (Dah-dah-dah-dah...) theme music is state-of-the-art annoying, I’ve begun tuning in Morning Edition and All Things Considered when I'm in the car. Yes, oh yes, I’m saving up for a newsless day—

What did I just say? A day without news? I can hardly wait!

As I said. I go back. And forth.