Monthly Archives: July 2009

Long Way Back Home

As the story goes, Hansel and Gretel tried to mark the way back home by leaving a trail of bread crumbs. Hikers make notches in trees to mark the trail so they know how to get back to camp. Back in the day, divers would be doomed without their tether to the boat.

A lot of our lives, in one way or another, is spent trying not to get lost and making sure we get back home. One way of doing that is by tracing our way back via landmarks. But when you’re trying to reach back in time moreso than distance, those landmarks take the form of homesteads, gravesites and hometowns.

It wasn’t until I went to Virginia and West Virginia with my brother that these landmarks began to make sense to me in that context. Visiting the cemetery where my great-grandfather, his brothers, and the children that he and my great-grandmother had that didn’t survive infancy are buried — a cemetery located in a tiny valley town in West Virginia where my grandmother and great-uncle were born — somehow helped complete a piece of a puzzle I didn’t know I needed solved. I felt the same way upon seeing the tiny white house where my grandmother and great-uncle were raised, as well as visiting the town in West Virginia where many of my relatives were from — a town I’d heard about my entire life — and seeing where my cousin still lives in that town. Picking through shoeboxes full of photos scavenged from the shambles that is my grandmother’s house in Florida provides another piece,  connecting names and stories to faces that are fleshed out by anecdotes. Slowly, the branches of the family tree begin to tie together and grow leafy.

I now know why I feel the need to visit the house I grew up in each time I’m in Florida, even though I don’t have many fond memories of the place, and despite the fact that all I can do is idle on the street outside. This time around, as my brother and I idled on Second Avenue while a fierce thunderstorm began to swirl around us, a boy from the house next door collected the mail from both houses, then politely inquired as to what we were doing, parked next to the “No Parking” signs my grandmother had the city erect nearly 15 years ago.

“She grew up here,” my brother, in the passenger seat, told the boy as he gestured to me. “We’re just taking a look.” The boy nodded and smiled, oblivious to the complex family tapestry he had just grazed.

As these realizations fell upon me in Virginia, I began seriously regretting not visiting my great-grandmother’s grave in Boynton Beach while I was in Florida. Here I was, visiting the gravesites of people I’ve never met, from whom I am generations removed, but not that of a woman with whom I pretty much grew up. I sacrificed that visit in the name of making good time on the road, speeding north away from the demons and bad memories and toward the inevitable adventures my brother and I would have, watching the number of palm trees dwindle as our latitude increased.

I also began regretting the fact that my grandmother does not have a proper landmark. At the time, in January, I was in survival mode, and it didn’t seem important. Now, I am simply in living mode, and after last week, it feels wrong to be missing one of the points on this map back in time. I understand now why they are important. You can retrace those points of reference, and like stops on an audio tour, they provide relevance and context. All together, they tell a story.

The me that drove out of Florida, scrutinizing the ratio of palm to other roadside flora as we headed north, was the old me. The me that wishes I’d spent just a few hours longer down there is the new me, a me I never thought would come to pass. Sure, we were driving north, but little did I know we were really driving closer to South Florida, and that when we finally got to Virginia and West Virginia, a part of me would never really leave. We were following a road atlas and a GPS, but there was really a different map charting our course.  It was true: where we were going, we didn’t need roads.*

* I got that message as a fun auto-reply from “Doc Brown” on Twitter last week, and in retrospect, it’s mighty appropriate.

Road Trip Radio

My brother and I are geniuses, obviously, which explains why we didn’t realize that our rental car had XM radio until, oh, two days into our trip. Clearly, we were distracted from this discovery by our other rigorous intellectual pursuits. Or, maybe, we’re just that clueless.

Either way, the discovery delighted us. One of my favorite memories with my brother is tooling around Providence in a Zipcar, back when they had XM radio, and surfing through the various stations. We stumbled across some sort of public information channel, which was full of unintentionally hilarious items that left us cracking up. This time around, we quickly found our favorite stations — 1st Wave (new wave), Boneyard (metal), Lithium (grunge/90s), Classic Rewind, Classic Vinyl,  Underground Garage, 90s on 9 and 80s on 8. Occasionally, we found something on the Loft, Spectrum, Alt Nation or Coffeehouse, but believe it or not, Sirius XM U was a bit too hip for even us to bear.

All was well for the first couple of days. But by midweek, we noticed something that surprised us. I think we had expected satellite radio to be some haven of repeat-free playlists, where DJs took advantage of practically infinite archives within their genres to craft programs that were unique and diverse. But by the 8th time of hearing New Order’s “True Faith” on 1st wave and our 50th Stone Temple Pilots song on Lithium, we sensed something was amiss.

Apparently, while satellite radio has the benefit of allowing you to hone in on stations that focus on your favorite genres  — thus rescuing you from an adult contemporary wasteland that can cruelly juxtapose a pretty good Guster song with something wretch-worthy by Kenny Loggins — within those stations, the same unfortunate rotations seem to apply. This doesn’t make sense to me for a station like 1st Wave, which could easily find other New Order songs to play or bust out something by Depeche Mode other than “Enjoy the Silence.” By the end of our trip, we’d be turning the dial away from songs we had previously been excited to hear not three days previously, because we’d already heard them ten times.

Still, I really enjoyed having XM Radio on our roadtrip. It helped diffuse any potential iPod wars by presenting a highly desirable alternative, and we had a lot of fun mishearing song lyrics, hearing new songs, singing along to old favorites and generally talking about what is a passion for both of us. For my brother and I, music is a huge common thread, so we particularly enjoyed having something over which we could share our enjoyment — and our mockery.

Of note: I was in a store Saturday and they started playing New Order’s “True Faith.” I didn’t know whether to feel nostalgic or like Bill Murray in “Groundhog Day.”

Cane Fu

When I saw this blog post about how some senior citizens are learning to defend themselves with “cane fu,” I had to smile. My great-grandmother was years ahead of the curve on that one.

Her bedroom door had a deadbolt on it, but that didn’t stop thieves from breaking into the house — twice, the second time a year to the day after the first time — and busting through that bedroom door, looking for loot. Each time, she rose from bed, grabbed her cane and chased off the intruder, shouting “Get out of my house! Get out of my house!” And amazingly, they did.

Mamo (pronounced “maw-maw”) died in 1999, and these incidents took place relatively late in her life. She was shrunken, frail and in declining health. But she was still strong. It was the same strength she used when she pulled her children miles down the road to Princeton, West Virginia, in a pony cart after she left her husband because no one could give her a lift. And it’s a strength I don’t think I appreciated during her lifetime.

I just got back from a whirlwind roadtrip with my brother through the South, culminating with a visit to Virginia and West Virginia to see family and visit family landmarks. I am sure I will explore some of this in greater detail in the months to come, but I think one of the most important realizations I came away with from this experience is that the family framework is important. It’s bigger than just one person; it’s bigger than your own idea of what it is. It’s everything, and everyone. But it needs to be maintained. And you do that by accepting your place in it and maintaining your connections to everyone else — past and present — within it. That doesn’t mean it’s positive all the time, but staying present within it is critical. What does this have to do with Mamo’s “cane fu” strength? Since I am part of the framework, it’s in me, as well.

Another interesting observation I took away from my trip was the idea of being treated like family — how you can come out of nowhere but, if you’re a part of that framework, you can be treated like family. To me, that means unconditional acceptance. I understand that not all families are like this, and that there are often strains, divisions, rivalries and bitterness, and that sometimes even acceptance can come questions and doubt. But I venture that only within the family framework is it possible to experience that level of unconditional acceptance and welcoming. I say this because this week, I saw it happen.

If you had told me this 10 years ago, I would have vehemently disagreed with you. Friends meant everything; the idea of family had not lived up to the hype, and I was over it.

But little did I know, I was just beginning.

Take Five (Or Ten?): Top 10 Albums and Songs of 2009 (So Far)

My pal Dave over at The Shimmy Shake asked me to compile my top songs/albums/whatevers of 2009 to date, and how could I not help but comply with a request from such a swell guy? I’ve reposted my musings here, but please hop on over to The Shimmy Shake — Dave is increasingly responsible for introducing me to awesome new bands, so you’re best off taking your new music tips from him. He won’t lead you astray.

I haven’t provided an excessive amount of commentary, but hopefully enough to get you interested. Note: I deliberately picked songs that are not on any of the top 10 albums. I cast a much wider net for MP3s than I do for albums, so I think there are some interesting picks in there.  Also, you may have read about some of these songs in previous posts, particularly my summer jams post, so apologies for any redundancies.

Without further ado…

Albums

A Camp – Colonia – Another rec from the DP himself. I love me some Cardigans, and while the slower tempo on this record took some time for me to adjust to, I soon fell hard.

Bishop Allen – Grrr… – These guys continue to be some of the most inventive popsmiths out there. Another Boston(-originated) band makes good.

Bob Mould – Life and Times – The man, the myth, the legend – he’s not quitting anytime soon. Another solid effort.

Eels – Hombre Loco – A concept piece revolving around the concept of desire, the inimitable Mr. E leaves it all out on the table once more, and you can’t help but be affected.

Hello Saferide – More Modern Short Stories From… – My favorite quirky Swedish chanteuse spins more tantalizing yarns.

Neko Case – Middle Cyclone – What more can be said? She is simply captivating. This album is a compelling work that demands your attention

AC Newman – Get Guilty – I always feel like AC is better off sticking to his other life as a Pornographer, but his solo work is pretty enjoyable, and this is no different — probably better than his solo debut, actually.

The Pains of Being Pure at Heart – Yes, their band may have the most precious/pretentious name ever, but they put out a heck of a fun record, poppy with a hint of 80s throwback.

Passion Pit – Manners – Yay, another Boston band makes good! Some of the most fun, well-crafted music I’ve heard in a while.

Yeah Yeah Yeahs – It’s Blitz – YYY albums always sneak up on me. I think they’ll just be alright, and then Karen O never fails to blow me away. ‘Blitz’ is no different.

Songs

Phoenix – 1901 – Just a fun electro-poppy cut from some hipper-than-thou French dudes.

Baby Dayliner – You Push, I’ll Go – I imagine this song playing in the car when you’re heading out to the bar. Gonna get a vodka soda, with a lime, with a lime.

The Decemberists – The Rake’s Song – Was not a fan of this album, but this song just kicks ass. Deliciously spiteful.

St. Vincent – Marrow – A fun, dark and crunchy offering from the lovely Ms. Clark.

Mary Onettes – Dare – This song is a delightfully fuzzy new wave throwback.

Owl City – Hot Air Balloon – The DP actually turned me onto this. He described it best: Postal Service Lite. Still fun, though.

Nickodemus – Sun Children – An awesomely catchy summer jam, complete with a great horn section.

Thunderheist – Sweet 16 – Here’s your dirty club cut of the summer.

Paper Moon – What Are You Going to Do with Me? – This Canadian band has not got enough props for their solid head-bobbing pop.

Brighton Port Authority feat. David Byrne and Dizzee Rascal – Toe Jam – Probably my favorite song of the year. The <a href=”http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6hi99JdeBeY”>video</a&gt; is a must-see. Censorship was never so much fun. </span>

My Three-Month Blogaversary

Saturday will be the three-month anniversary of this blog. With this post, I creep above 40,000 words written in this space during that time, over the span of more than 60 posts. I am also bumping up against 4,000 views since launch. Sounds great, right? Well, believe it or not, I am somewhat ambivalent about this accomplishment.

When I wrote the About page for this blog, I paused when thinking of how to describe what exactly I was trying to do here. I ended up using the vague term “personal writing project,” which may look like it means nothing, but it actually means a lot of things.

I have a Livejournal that I’ve kept for seven or so years (it’s easy to find but impossible to read, muahahaha). My activity there had dwindled over the past year or so, probably owing to Facebook and Twitter and a host of other distractions, including writing features for the Boston Phoenix. Back in February, I decided to port my Twitter updates over to LJ, and the reaction was vehemently negative. LJ should be for LJ, the prevailing sentiment declared. Leave Twitter over there.

About a week later, I wrote a thoughtful post about appreciating my non-hip neighborhood in Somerville (which I republished here by request, since it’s friends-locked now on LJ) and got a lot of positive feedback, summed up by my friend Joey who said, “That was a very nice tale and a reason why you shouldn’t give up on LJ.”

The next day, someone anonymously gifted me with 12 months of paid LJ account time. This is a $20-some investment, no small shakes. I still don’t know who it was, but I owe them big time. It jolted me into realizing that This Was Important.

That whole chain of events came during a relatively crappy time, when things on all fronts of my life were at varying stages of chaos, panic or transition. The Twitter Backlash of ought-nine reminded me about the one thing in life I have to hold onto no matter what: writing. Nothing can take that away. I’m good at it, and people like reading what I write. And I should give myself the space to let it happen — on a personal level moreso than freelance. For my own sake, if nothing else.

But, as I began recommitting to my personal writing, there were other factors in play, as well. Mainly, there was the developing story of my family — both my most recently acquired family in England and the family I am gradually rediscovering here in the states, families that my brother and I have been getting to know in one way or another over the past seven years, since we started getting to know each other. Our upcoming trip to Florida and West Virginia is another chapter in that story. I’ve known for a long time that I was going to need to write this story, to try to figure out what it all means and share it. I realized in April, after returning from my most recent trip to England, that it was time to get serious about this. But to get serious, I needed to find time in my life to commit to writing, and I needed a mechanism for holding me accountable.

That’s when I decided to start a blog. I wanted to keep LJ as a space for more personal musings among friends. The purposes of this blog were to get me back in the practice of personal essay writing; to get me used to writing about my life in a public platform; to try out ideas and share snippets and vignettes from this broader writing endeavor.

For a long time, a quote by Anne Lamott that I had cut out of the newspaper was taped to my computer monitor: “You just sit down and write everyday for three or four hours. You do it like piano scales until you have a story to tell.” Well, I didn’t have three or four hours a day, but I did realize I needed to make time in my life in order to make this goal a reality. So, I start setting my alarm 45 minutes earlier each morning, giving myself just two options: write or run. This has worked out remarkably well. Most of my blogging gets done in the mornings before work. (And sometimes, I actually run!)

As far as the piano scales part goes, some of my blog entries have been about my family (the ones self-importantly tagged “The Project”), but I’ve also written about the Boston Globe, music, various things in Somerville and topics ranging from relationships to swine flu to the merits of iTunes vs. Amazon MP3. I am of two minds about this. In one regard, any writing is worthwhile writing — any writing is writing I wasn’t doing before. But in another sense, am I getting distracted from what I should be writing about? As I look at the numbers with which I led off this post — particularly the 40,000 words one — I can’t help but think, did I spent 40,000 words writing about the union woes at the Globe when I could have been working on The Project?

Maybe there is no “should” or “could.” Maybe there is only “write.” After all, you can’t write your symphonies unless you do your major scales, or something. (There’s a reason I quit piano lessons.) These 40,000 words would not have been written had I not started this blog, and without them I would not have gleaned the lessons I have about presenting a well-reasoned argument; writing with purpose and not for the sake of filling space; not being afraid of putting personal information and reflection out into the public sphere; diligence and discipline that, surprisingly, are needed even to do something you love and need to do to survive.

That said, I know I have a large task ahead of me, and I won’t lie and say it’s not scary. It’s scary, alright. It’s not only a test of my abilities, but of my fortitude in confronting a life — the parts of it both known and unknown — and trying to make sense of it. Skeletons, closets, etc. But there’s no turning back now.

I recently taped another quote to my wall, this time by Michael Chabon:

“It seems kind of magical and mysterious,” he says, but in the end, writing is a job.

“You sit down in your chair and you put in the time until you get 500 words or 1,000 words or whatever your personal target is. … It’s a habit and it’s an occupation. Inspiration really plays a minor role.”

This quote may seem kind of deflating, but it actually helps me. I don’t want writing to be magical and mysterious. I have a goal. I have things I need to do. And I need to sit in this chair and do them.

Here’s hoping that the next 40,000 words of this blog bring me closer to telling the story I need to tell. I may still write about the Globe or my latest musical obsessions, but I know I need to focus more on the bigger goal. So I’ll keep on trucking. Note by note, word by word. Until the story is told.

16.25 Miles

I understand that for many bikers, this is nothing. This is every morning. This is a daily commute. This is a lunch break. But for me, it was a revelation.

Sunday, I set out to ride my bike for the four-mile round-trip to Davis Square and back, with the simple mission of returning library books. I was pleased by how much easier the usually arduous ride up Winter Hill since getting my upgrades at Open Bicycle. Then I decided, why not hit the bike path? It was an absolutely gorgeous afternoon. When I got to my usual destination of Spy Pond, I thought — why not keep going?

The one other time I tried to ride farther down the bike path ended badly, as I was wearing a backpack and my bike was not really ready for such a ride. This, however, was the farthest I’d stretched my bike out since it got fixed up. And I was pleasantly surprised by the results.

I was able to stash my messenger bag in the front basket. I took breaks for water and rest along the way. My goal was to make it to some indicator that I was in Lexington, which I achieved when I reached the Seasons Four garden shop. (When I checked GMap Pedometer later, I was dismayed to learn I was just 1.25 miles from Lexington Center.)

It also turns out that my stopping point was five miles from the end of the Minuteman Bikeway in Bedford. But keep in mind, round-trip from my house to Davis Square is a hair over four miles. So, in truth, I came just over five miles short of completing the Davis-to-Bedford circuit. That makes me happy.

I haven’t been on my bike much lately, but the relative ease with which I accomplished this ride has got me excited for the next nice day when I can (hopefully) tackle the whole route, tacking on the distance between my house and Davis Square. I can’t wait.

By the way, the above photo? Spotted along the path. Oh yeah. Hold onto that feeling.

An Adventure Like No Other

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been preoccupied with booking flights, cars and hotels. Me and Google Maps are BFF. I’ve weighed the merits of Tennessee vs. South Carolina, and I’ve flagged the sections of my family geneaology that note the locations of family burial plots.

Wait, what?

Next Saturday, my brother and I embark on a journey so ridiculous, I was almost certain when I conceived of it three-plus months ago that it would never come to fruition. It was too kooky. Too unreal. Too difficult. Too improbable. But if I know anything about my life by now, it should be that the improbable is the norm.

We’re doing a hit job on South Florida, hopefully dropping in and out within a 24-hour span to show him where I grew up and finish getting the last items out of my grandmother’s house. Then we’re driving up to Virginia to visit my mom’s cousin Bobby and see our ancestral homeland in West Virginia. I’ve heard so much about how beautiful the country is up there, and given how much I’ve gotten in touch with the British side of my family over the past few years, I am looking forward to learning about and experiencing more of my mom’s side. And come on, when you are a direct descendant of this guy, you know you’re in for an interesting trip. On the way from FL to VA, we’re going to take two days to tour the South, stopping in at some weird sites along the way. So, I won’t be around much next week. I’ll probably be updating Twitter and Facebook from the road, though, so check in on the hijinks there.

Isn’t this insane?

Isn’t this awesome?

Even though we’re bound to see a lot of crazy, amazing things on this trip, I already know what the best part is going to be — it’ll be the same thing that was the best part of our trip to London in 2007. I’m getting to spend an entire week with my brother. What could possibly top that?