Thursday, November 17, 2011

Down By the Old Milly Stream

Another piece up on TNB, kids, check it out. And in case you're wondering, yes, I would love to field your relationship questions: just email me and I will post a response as soon as I get around to it, unless your relationship issues are boring, in which case I'll respond right away. Seriously, I may be one of the best untapped resources in this particular discipline -- just ask any of my many recently single friends. I know my stuff.

I have a couple things on my mind, the first of which is something I admit I don't know a whole lot about, in part because I've avoided the coverage as much as possible, but also because what coverage I have seen doesn't tell me anything. I've started to look into it in the last few days because it's getting awfully goddamned real all of a sudden, but even a concerted effort isn't telling me much. I'm talking, of course, about the Occupy Movement. I have friends in some of the cities where the Occupiers are or have been Occupying. The one constant refrain I've heard is that a substantial number of the Occupiers are not at all unlike my friends and me: they are average people in their thirties and forties, they're thoughtful and articulate, they have jobs (so in that way they're unlike me, but fair enough). The point is that they're not just a bunch of dirty hippies and drug-addled punks who are simply flocking to tent cities because it's the groovy thing to do right now, man. If I understand the Movement correctly -- and please, someone, straighten me out if I'm way off-base -- it is fundamentally about holding Wall Street fat cats accountable. It's about putting an end to "corporate greed." Is that about right? Because that's what it sounds like to me, and honestly, it sounds like a good idea. Except how do you do that? I'm not being glib or negative, I'm honestly asking: how do you put an end to corporate greed? How do you even define corporate greed? That seems like an entirely subjective term. If someone can enlighten me, in her or his own words, I'd be grateful. And I mean that -- in your own words. Please don't send me links to media analysis of the Movement, I've read too much of that already and, again, I don't find myself any closer to understanding the essence of what's going on.

The other thing on my mind is my friend Milly.

A few years ago I wrote a vaguely investigative piece for the local newspaper -- my great pal Christina was the assistant city editor, and she would very kindly offer me softball freelance assignments from time to time because she knew I needed the money and, although I'm really not a journalist (I have neither the eye nor the ear for it, and "just the facts" leaves me feeling anxious), I can write a sentence, so it was all good. The last piece I wrote involved the typical contentiousness that arises whenever someone who owns undeveloped land on or near a lake seeks permission to subdivide his property and sell the lots to people who will build houses on them. There are compelling reasons to manage that sort of development with a deft and careful hand: unchecked development kills lakes. It's that simple: more houses means more run-off. You're cutting down trees, building roads and driveways, putting in septic systems, et cetera. In truth, though, more often than not the most compelling reason to squash such development tends to be much more personal: nobody wants his pristine spot sullied by the presence of a bunch of other people. This particular piece of land sits just north of the lake in question, on the banks of an inlet brook that feeds the lake from a source far up in what's called the Kennebec Highlands. Beaver Brook is a pristine piece of water, virtually untouched by anything man-made along its entire course from the hills to the center of the valley where it terminates in the lake. The two families that own the only other camps at the mouth of the brook raised that point in challenging the petition: they feared this subdivision would eventually destroy that rare unspoiled water source, which would in time lead to significant damage to the lake. Anyone who has ever known long-time lake people -- I'm talking about lake houses that have been in families for at least a couple generations -- would recognize in the shorthand what was really going on: they didn't want eight new houses springing up in a spot that, for their entire lives, had contained but three small, inconspicuous camps. But I couldn't write that, of course, because no one would actually say it. I could only write the facts: that some people thought the brook would be destroyed, and that other people disagreed, and ultimately the planning board approved the petition because, unless the property owner actually did something stupid like put an outhouse hanging out over the brook, he wasn't doing anything wrong.

I'm meandering, I realize, but take my word for it, I am doing so for appropriate effect. You see, in writing that article I had to do a fair amount of research into things I really knew nothing about, one of which was the waterway in question, as well as inland waterways in general. I still don't know all there is to know about lakes and streams and fens and such, but here's what I took away from that research: waterways such as these are remarkable. If you were to follow that particular brook backwards to its source, you would find it taking a handful of different forms: at times it's an unassuming brook, sometimes it is wide and swift, at one point it fattens up into a modest pond, other times it appears to disappear entirely, when in fact it's flowing beneath a mossy fen. I found this fascinating. It is often a wondrous thing to have your perceptions either proven spectacularly wrong or, at the very least, unexpectedly broadened.

Beaver Brook came to mind this evening as I was scrolling through some photo albums Milly posted on Picasa -- was called to mind, actually, by a picture she'd taken of a stream somewhere in Quebec. Milly, it turns out, takes astonishing pictures. I don't have the language or the inclination to analyze visual art and tell you what I think is good or bad about it. I approach visual art much the same way I approach wine: I know a good bottle of wine when I taste it, not because there's something on the label that means everything to connoisseurs but nothing to me. I know when I'm looking at Milly's photos and find myself smiling and nodding my head, find that my breath catches in my throat, that I'm looking at something special. Milly is, by nature, quiet and observant, which means she is inclined to see things many if not most people miss. This is one reason she manages, through the lens of a camera, to transform moments into art. The other reason is that she so clearly loves it. It's impossible to look through her photos and not understand that about her. Maybe if I ask her nicely she'll let me post a few of my favorites for you to see. No promises.

As I've gotten to know Milly well over the last few months, and particularly these last few weeks, I've come to understand that she is very much like that shape-shifting waterway. I've found myself walking along her banks confident in my sense of what I'd find when I rounded the bend, only to be, time and time again, greeted by a sight that is not unpleasantly unforeseen. She surprises me not just in what she notices but in how she draws the picture for me. Since some of those things she notices are about me, and because she relays her observations of me in a way that conveys her sincere sense that I should be as impressed with myself as she is -- well, that's what we call a genuine win-win. She's also the girl who will casually mention the time she spent as a day-trader in her twenties, or her brief stint as a trained phlebotomist, and always as she's describing the impulse to follow these paths, her eyes take on a look that is equal parts intensity and curiosity and mischief. And always in the telling there is a moment when she smiles, and then she laughs, delighted as she should be by the fact that she's just told me something about herself I wouldn't have guessed even given an infinite number of chances.

This evening as I was making my way through an album of photos Milly took at a very snowy outdoor winter wedding, my phone buzzed and it was my friend Chili telling me he had a piece of mail for me from Milly. I love this about her, too: when she was in Chicago a couple months ago, she sent me a postcard, care of my favorite bar, the bar where she and I like to sit and share beer and bacon; this time she sent me a package, care of my buddy's office. Delightful. In the package were several snack packs of Whoppers and a card in which she wrote (among other things), "p.s. You're a really handsome guy." There are times when I feel a little bad that this smart, beautiful woman apparently lost a bet with Satan and thus ended up spending quality time with the likes of me, but for my own sake I'm glad because it means I get to keep tracing the course of that mysterious stream, slowly uncovering its secrets.

I can very much appreciate the allure of putting up four walls and a roof at the terminus of that lovely brook, with a porch on the front where I'd sit in my creaky rocking chair every evening and watch her lovely waters settle quietly into the vast, peaceful lake.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

So I've been trying to write a new post all morning, but blogger wouldn't let me. It's pretty harsh when your own blog doesn't want you blogging anymore. I was closing in on a strange sort of despair when, probably the ninth time I'd gone back and tried to open a new post, my eye finally fell upon the notice in the menu bar suggesting I try the new blogger interface. It wasn't until that moment that it occurred to me that blogger is a Google product, as is gmail, which recently launched a new interface that, as promised, is not optional. Neither is it particularly appealing. Function means more to me than form, but still, if you're going to get a hard-on about rolling out your new facelift, try to make it look like something that wasn't designed by developmentally challenged second graders. Those who would point out that my blog is pretty spare in appearance, I'd say this: I don't pretend to be a designer, nor do I want to be one. I just write. I'm willing to bet Google paid some design firm a fair chunk of change to drape their sites in the emperor's new clothes, and if I'm right, they got fleeced hard.

Before I get down to it, I want to point out the link in the upper right corner of the blog: it connects you to The Nervous Breakdown, an arts & culture website featuring work by some of the smartest, funniest, most insightful people you'll encounter anywhere. If you enjoy my writing, you'll absolutely love TNB. They've published two of my essays in the last couple weeks, and with any luck I'll be contributing regularly. Check them out, and if you're a real trooper, join their book club -- it's an outstanding deal, and it supports some truly vibrant and meaningful writing. Feel free to email me if you have questions.

Thanks very much to all who have commented on my last post. That one was special to me in a few ways, but mostly because it surprised me by going someplace I didn't expect. I was, as I mentioned, in a funk I hadn't been able to shake, and as I cracked my first Rolling Rock pounder Saturday evening, out of nowhere I remembered the image of the sign behind the bar in Seattle: "Attitude Adjustment Hour." From that image I started coaxing recollections of the days and weeks and months that surrounded that evening sitting in a bar in a far-away city with my girlfriend's dad twenty years ago, and bits and pieces I hadn't thought about in years surged back to me like the benign remnants of a capsized cruise ship washing ashore, hats and shoes and deck chairs and umbrellas, only faintly hinting at some distant tragedy now that they've been separated from the wreck itself (as well as the casualties). There I was, just sitting in the Bear Cave trying to adjust my own attitude, and all of a sudden I found myself thinking about a lovely pixie, three electricians from Texas, a closet full of handguns, and the flaws and joys of a relationship that at one time meant the world to me. You don't need any more than that to tell a story.

Kierkegaard said, "Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards." Yeah, no shit, Soren. Actually, I've always been partial to the way Milan Kundera put it in The Unbearable Lightness of Being: "We can never know what to want, because, living only one life, we can neither compare it with our previous lives nor perfect it in our lives to come." Life is a complicated, backwards affair. The events that have the most profound effects on us do so most often in hindsight: whether we act or react or sit silently still, the play goes on, and as time accumulates behind us we find ourselves sitting in the balcony gazing down upon those remembered scenes being reenacted by perfect replicas of ourselves and, removed now from the stage, we notice details downstage, off center, that eluded us in the living of those moments. We remember a sign in a bar, and from that brief detail we hear a wistful admonition for what it was, we see strangers become generous neighbors, we smell gun oil, we remember unfair fights, and the threads of bad choices made for good reasons become clear and compelling and forgivable.

It's reasonable to say this contributes to my inclination toward storytelling. I hear it in my voice, hear it in the voice in my head when I'm writing: an implied sense of perpetual wonder. How and why lead to exactly when was that and where was I and who else was there. I'm constantly searching for something in those scenes from my life. I'd like to tell you I'm trying to make sense out of all of it because I believe that will help me do a better job tomorrow or the next day, but that would be a lie. What I'm really looking for are those wooden boxes hidden in the closet, the ones containing my long-ago neighbors' pistols. I'm looking for those guns because that's where the story is. If we don't buy that ridiculous couch, there's no story. If we don't move to Seattle together, break up, reconcile, love each other but disagree constantly, no story. If I don't hide the guns in the closet, no story. If I don't find my way to that particular bar and choose a seat that affords me a view of the sign hanging over the bartender's head, I don't sit up straight almost twenty years later in the Bear Cave and realize what I need is an Attitude Adjustment. I could have gone twenty more years without looking in that closet. Except that Saturday I needed an Attitude Adjustment. And from that I have a story. See how easy it is?