Monday, September 9, 2013

To-Do List


“I want the hard road” 
a friend

     On a steep shoreline in Sausalito, overlooking a tucked-in part of the Bay, there exist some dwellings frozen in 1975. Before I knew how to drive, I knew I wanted a black 911 Porsche that I would park on the rooftop carport of the Portofino Apartments. I assumed I'd be alone and that this would be the pad where I'd live until I figured out how I wanted to conduct my middle years.

     
     I am in those middle years now. Never moved into those apartments, still cant afford the Porsche. Other dreams and ideas pushed that one aside. Looking back, it was easy to forget.
     But when I find myself one night on the boardwalk across the water from the Portofino, I can still recognize that part of myself that would like to smell the ocean every morning, to hear the sound of little waves splashing against small seaside rocks, to maybe hear a fog horn in the night.
     So what happened all those years in between? I don't know. But at some point in adulthood it became easier to cross dreams off my list than to add them to it. One of the best years of my life was 1987. It was the year I graduated from Saint Ignatius College Prep, where I spent four formative years that shape me to this day. Three months later I packed up and drove 600 miles south to San Diego to start college and live on my own. Those were some ground swell changes. I don't remember being scared. I do remember feeling anything was possible.
     We get good at distracting ourselves, with fluffy magazines about other people's pursuits and apps we convince ourselves tell us something we couldn't have figured out on our own. Distractions become the new dreams, anything to avoid asking, “What do I really want?” What's more, we sit around and wait for the answer to come to us like a million dollar check in the mail, instead of getting up and seeking the answer through the trials and errors of life. I speak from experience.
     I think one of the hardest things is when something is so close you can smell it and feel it, and you want it and all you have to do is reach out and grab it, but you've told yourself for so long that you can't do it, and it slips away. The words of doubt and disbelief you would have righteously rebelled against as an earnest young adult you now accept as truth, while your own words of your dreams and ideas you choose to forget. One my fears in life is of moments slipping away, of opportunities lost. I think it is sad when dreams become footnotes.
     There was, however, a point in my life about ten years ago when I was proud of myself for literally getting off the couch and doing something. I had spent months watching neighbors run by my house to the local trails, while I continued to gain weight and become more nostalgic about the years when I was a runner. I can't recall why, maybe I saw the fork in the road, but one day I just got up and ran. It was the typical return-to-running story that had me stopped in my tracks a mile later, out of breath and out of shape.
     But I had enough of a glimpse down the trail, peeking through to possibilities of what I could be, that it got me out running the next day, the next week, the next month...and here I am, still running. And had I not taken those first steps, had I continued to excuse myself into believing my running days were behind me, I would not have the joy, identity and health that running has given me.
     And how lucky for me was it that the pursuit I chose to restart at 34 is one that allows me to feel, for at least a couple of hours, that anything is possible, that it is 1987 again? Trail running is runner and the wild, runner shed of those distractions, runner with the creativity to plan a route on the fly, runner free to follow his or her desire to climb a mountain, race through a forest, splash through a creek or stop to take in the view. Entering a trailhead, I enter that part of me that holds my desires, while running closer to who I want to be. For today, “What do I want?” can be answered.

     So as I run on trails behind schools, on trails named after funny numbers, finding rocks with vantage point perches, I find myself running towards the things that are important to me in my life, finding they are not as far away or as impossible as I thought. The top of Mount Tamalpais used to feel so unreachable. If a runner is lucky, what they want is right next to them. Yes, running gives me all this.
     I wish I remembered what it was about 1987 and 2003 that got me to embrace change. Instead of hanging out in the hypothetical world of my head, the land of “What if's?”, maybe I spent less time back then asking myself questions and more time just doing, answering those questions the way I trail run: scraping my knees, feeling thirsty, getting my feet wet, falling down, getting lost.

Alexander Supertramp spent more time doing than dreaming
     Is it easy? No. But that is just an excuse. I love challenges, especially the ones I drape around my neck like chain mail. When people ask me why I am trying to eat vegan or why I run long distances or why I don't have an iPhone I tell them it is to challenge myself. Why would you deny yourself something easy and good, like ice cream and lazy Sundays and google maps, they question. Yes, those things are easy and good but I want to see if I am strong enough to do without, to learn what it is I really want. At this point they shake their heads and give up. But how else am I going to know what it is essential to my life? How will I learn about my strength and resolve? How will I discover who I am? Easy isn't always better. If it was I wouldn't be a runner.
     Some dreams were ok to dispense with. I never really wanted to be an architect. But I am a runner now, again, and I am in so deep that it will always be a dream fulfilled and realized. I also remember that when I was a young man I wanted to be a writer. I am trying my best through these writings and other projects to not forget that again. There are other ideas in my book of dreams. I've added a few recently. And when my last day on earth comes, I hope to cross off the last entry...
     ...because I got up and did it.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

I'll Miss You, part four

   

 


     It could have been that he was trying to hard. The run up the Steps of Ascension to the Church of Madonna del Sasso was marked by fourteen engravings of Jesus' plight. Jesus he was not, though that wasn't a bad role model. He had work to do on his own beliefs but he thought if there existed a church like this back home, residing proudly on a mountain top above town, faith would not feel like such a chore. For now, he used the legs God gave him to power himself assuredly up the pathway made of river pebbles, stopping at each engraving to take in the weight of a story two thousand years old.


The granite courtyard in front of the church's door afforded a view back down the mountain to the small city of Locarno, resting on the shores of long Lago Maggiore, Switzerland. Not too far south, the lake extended into Italy. Glacial peaks of the Alps enclosed the lake like a fortress. No easy way out.
     Which was a fitting way for him to feel as he was stuck in the fixed gaze of those at vista points, too much to take in, too curious to look away. This city, this region, held a grip on him that only home could compete with, for it was here that he got his first taste of Europe so many years ago as a wide-eyed child. The impression was deep, filled with Vespas and Haribo and a language he wanted to speak. From the culture of Switzerland he could create a new identity for
himself back home, and this set up a
pattern of yearly re-invention that was still firmly in place. Family friends showed him the best the place had to offer, the best of themselves as hosts and friends. Every few years he would return, his growing maturity allowing him to take back home this part of Europe as part of himself.
     But looking down on Locarno didn't feel the same now. Places change. This little city had grown, filled in its blank spots with apartment buildings and occupied vacant storefronts with American companies – frustratingly, just like the home he needed space from. Longing for the Europe of his past, he searched the shoreline from high up on the mountain for places that would trigger a memory, something to bring him back to the time when everything felt new. But it had been too long, or maybe he was just out of practice, to have this approach of eyes wide open with no assumptions, no need to rank things as “best”. And now he felt stretched thin with a foot so far back in the past and one in the future, so thin as to feel he was transparent, looked through and discovered to be a fake in the present, his only line “This is just like the good old days.” And even that was a rare occurrence now. Apparently, the fortress wasn't as well protected as he thought.
   
“Mi dispiace, mi potete aiutare?”
     An elderly woman struggled with a black iron gate, twisting in vain a stubborn latch. She wore a black dress down to her shins, walking shoes with thick midsoles and a look of determination. Everyday she walked up this path. She had her expectations. This gate was supposed to open for her.
     A quick jiggle of the gate showed it was simply sagging and needed a lift to be released, so lift he did and swung it open for her with ease and a touch of pride, acknowledging to himself how good it felt to help someone with little gestures. She passed through as the hinges were still creaking.
     Taking his hand in hers, she said “Grazie a mille.”
     “Prego.”
     She continued with her purpose down a different path than he had ascended, one built of blocks of granite set perhaps a century ago. He too slipped through the gate, following her lead at a respectable distance. If he just looked at her body and ignored her head of gray hair, his guess might be thirty. She moved with the ease of a local, with confidence through the familiar, always moving. Her past was her present would be her future. He had several guesses about what she carried in her tattered canvas bag, but whether it was vegetables for supper or blankets for a friend, it seemed irrelevant to her direction. She descended down to Locarno to be among people she never left.
   
     Watching her, he wondered if she always walked with such intent. Some things never change, like the way one laughs or is predisposed to impatience. He wanted to think she was stalwart, a representative of the old guard keeping dying traditions alive. It could have just been though that this was his attempt to make this woman into all the important women in his life, for he missed her with an intensity that grew with time and distance. Now that he tried to bridge this gap, this stretching, this pulling, left him with an ache rooted in something becoming more intangible with each passing day. In his heart he didn't want to let go. Absence did make the heart grow stronger, but only when an end to the separation was in sight. He needed to see her somewhere in his future, though she was buried in the past, or soon he would snap. Something had to give.
   
The church loomed above him and the woman on its granite perch. Maybe it had been repainted in recent years. Was that yellow, mustard, gold? He saw a sign listing the daily masses, guessing a priest inside gave his best attempts at dressing up Christianity for a new generation, trying to make old traditions relevant and yet it all sounded so familiar. A smart priest would know he cant ever go back to the past. He understood this now, that nothing is ever the same tomorrow, that nostalgia should be respected like a sleeping tiger. Beauty could turn to pain. His ache was her, his fear that he would forget how much he loved her without her here by his side. And he didn't want to leave her behind. He wanted to carry her into today and wear her around his neck like a gemstone. But the day at hand felt as foreign as the ground he walked on. Why couldn't today be the day this country felt like home?
   

 Back down by the lake and the Piazza Grande, by the hydrangeas and begging ducks, by cafe umbrellas and cigarette smoke, a series of benches faced the water, inviting leisure. In a natural yet inadvertant way he followed the woman to the lakeside, revealing his inattentiveness when she sat down next to an older gentleman and their movement stopped. She looked up at him.
     “Grazie, grazie.” Thank you for a kind gesture not forgotten by a shift in scenery.
     “Prego,” he repeated.
     She turned her attention to the gentleman on the bench, pulling goods from her bag – salami, cheese, bread – and placing them on his lap. In return, he held both her hands in his and mouthed ancient Italian, their version of the language created during intimate moments such as these. She returned his affection with laughter and dancing eyes. He was the lucky one. She gently pointed back up the mountain, mentioning the details of the church gate. Then she excused herself and gestured to him to sit in the open space on the bench by her friend.
     “Sit. Sit,” said the old man.
     “You speak English?”
     “Yes, little bit. Come. Sit.” The wood was warm where she had been. A breeze kicked up across the lake, shaking locust trees. Time could stand still for all he cared.
     “Grazie, per opening the gate. Her strength, she is no so strong as she once was. But she make this walk every day, so it's not so bad. You are from Australia?”
     “No, United States.”
     “Ah, American. Dove? Where?”
     “California.”
     “Si, California. It is beautiful, yes?”
     “Yes, but not like here.”
     “No, no. Yes, it is beautiful. You have the redwoods grande, ah.”
     “Yes, I guess it is nice.”
     “Si, si.” He sat back at a good memory. “And now, you are on holiday?”
     “Si.”
     “And where have you been?”
     As he told him about Paris and Vernazza and Venice and now Locarno, the old man took in the description of each city as he might ingest fine wine – in, taste, gone, in, taste, gone. He pulled off chunks of piora cheese, offering every other piece to the young man with a hunk of torn-off bread.
     Speaking aloud the thoughts he had about each destination made them feel real, not a figment of his imagination or just of his past. They were alive. And when he peppered in stories of her, she felt alive too. The old man was a good listener, his furrowed brow showing his intent to understand. With each anecdote there was a smile and with each smile there was a connection and with each connection he could feel his heart open. The key that jangled around in his pocket with Swiss franc change was probably a common key, would open most any lock. He wasn't going to hide anymore. If the premise of any lock was thievery, he wanted nothing to do with locks. In the back of his mind he knew a lock on the Pont de L'Archeveche needed removing. Giving was worth the risk. This old man was a master thief, for he picked the lock on his heart with quiet skill, stepped inside and took a look around.
The old man could hear his questioning, the doubt as to whether all these days added up to anything. He whispered these words:
     “Everybody's looking for the ladder. Everybody wants to know how the story started and how it will end. The steps you take, they are not so easy. But what's the use of half a story, half a dream. You must climb all the steps in between. 'Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.' That is Rilke. He was Austrian, not German. Ha! Un giourno, bene?”
     “Si.”
     The old man patted his arm before he could respond much more, ending the moment in acknowledgement that his listener wouldn't understand his words today but, handed to him like a rough stone yet to be polished into a gem, their worth would eventually become evident. The old man's hands were thick and calloused.
     His own hands were still smooth, he still had time. So he would carry this stone with him, and not some heavy key in his pocket that wouldn't open a rusty lock anyway. With daily rubbing and patience, this stone could become precious. And that, not a lock that freezes moments, was something he could wear around his neck.
     Finally, the salami was brought forth. He smelled it, rubbed it with his thumbs and set it on the bench. It was smaller than the American varieties, the meat darker and speckled with more fat.
“Life is like a stick of salami,” he proclaimed, now in full a full voice. “You must enjoy each slice. Do not think of all the pieces you have eaten. And do not slice salami in many pieces to have such a big pile in front of you. You can only eat one at a time, no?” He pulled a knife from his inner jacket pocket and cleaved off the first bit. “Slice just one, peel and eat...enjoy. Then, aspetti...wait. Enjoy one at a time. Capisce?
     “Si.”
     “Allora. Where do you go next?”
     New days were ahead of him. Paris was again on the horizon, but for now...
     “Uno espresso a Cafe Revelli e brioche con cioccolato e...e...”
     “E' bene. Benissimo.”
      Clinking next to the key in his pocket was just enough change for a sip of strong coffee.


Saturday, August 24, 2013

I'll Miss You, part three

   
   
   
     Venice was not how he remembered it. As an impressionable kid, he was introduced to a city of quiet canals and hidden courtyards, siestri and plaza. Venice offered surprise and romance, the promise of discovery if one embraced the possibility of what could be around the next corner, a wandering maze to solve with a reward at the end. It was a city of pockets, campo to campo, moments of relief after passing through walkways the width of an arm span. Without the vantage point of height or depth, Venetians had to accept the chance that anything could happen, that inspiration or a dead end were always just footsteps away.
   
     However, the novelty of Venice had been exploited since he was last there, for the city was, after all, a center of merchants aiming to please and earn a lire. Glass shops and fabric stores were replaced by pandering food walk-ups and curios made quickly, consumed even quicker by people led through the annals of Venice like sheep. Familiarity is comfort and comfort opens wallets.




Plastic bottles floated in schools atop the Grand Canal. If there was one thing he despised while traveling it was being catered to, to be reminded of home. He came to Venice to feel Venetian but that Italian way of life was buried under a cloak of distraction made by the tourist trade.



     But his memories of Venice were sentimental and strong, not just of tight quarters but also of grand squares filled with cafes and music, compari and soda ordered with grace, sam bucco sipped slowly. He recalled the surprise of a paisley dress on a beautiful woman moving briskly beneath a portico, the sun setting over the Adriatic, the soothing sound of waves lapping against the limestone foundations of palaces. He could hear the calls, today, of a cliched romance trying to claim intangibles, to commodify heartstrings, to package and sell love. He clung on to his memories like they were old photographs from his past.

     And he would not give up, for the memory of being there with her was strong with an almost folk lorean stance, as if he had always been there with her, never left. Could he find the heart of Venice, which he hoped was still beating somewhere and waiting to be found? He believed he could. He believed in them, but it would take some effort to peel back the clutter of days gone by. Only a lonely walk would do. He could run another day.


For solitude, the walk had to begin early, or late, when the rolling shutters of cafes were pulled down closed. The last vestiges of light stuck around to well after 10, 22:00, on this midsummer's night eve. More patience. The beauty of Venice, he discovered first hand as a boy, was in wandering its passageways and campos approaching each journey in stages, stopping at a storefront display of linen fashions or a bar offering cicchetti, to be open to the possibilities of new experiences in a city a thousand years old.
     So he walked with no particular destination in mind, just the goal of a brief taste of the Venice he remembered. When a noisy crowd blocked his way, he ventured down a quiet side passage. Each turn increased his chances of getting lost, each turn taking him past laundry hung from lines, each turn along buildings of crumbling plaster revealing foundations of brick.


Around one of these turns an old woman stuck her hand out for change. He dug into his pockets for some coins that had been jangling around for half a day, forgotten. Dropping the change into her weathered hands, he paused for her to express gratitude. But she looked at the coins in disappointment. He hadn't thought about their worth, but now looking down into her palm he figured it was the equivalent of giving her a few pennies. She may have been poor and begging, but insults were insults. Quickly, he pulled a thousand lire from his pocket.
     “Grazie a mille,” she whispered with a smile and a touch to his shoulder. They went their separate ways.
   
A long quiet slot between two buildings called to him. Absent of much light, he shouldn't have been intrigued. But he was. The sound of his steps lightly echoed upwards like something out of a movie. Each of his hands could touch opposing buildings as he walked arms outstretched. From behind curtained windows came the sounds of Italians living their lives – dishes clanking, water trickling down drains, “Aspetti...per padre...prima di mangiare.” Finally.
     The welcome surprise at the end of the walkway was that it ended at the water. He sat down on the stone with his back against the wall, his feet near the dark water's surface. He waited...
     ...for what he believed was so close. It had to be. There was no where else to go. It didn't matter that she wasn't there with him, he still kept inside everything she gave him. He just wanted to feel it on his fingertips, close at hand, without the weight of cliched romance that visitors to Venice often fell prey to. It had to be real.
     The high water line was marked by seaweed and barnacles attached to pitted brick, salt water up high where it didn't belong, causing Venice to slowly sink. They'd figure something out. A city doesn't last 1592 years without some creativity. He started brainstorming ideas, but the science and the hour and the sound of lapping waves lulled him to unconsciousness.

     His time spent asleep was hard and quick, so much so that he wasn't sure where he was when he awoke. But it was tranquil to the point where he didn't care. Silence was something to behold, not destroy by movement. He felt good about his decision not to run. It was moments like these she taught him to wait for.
     And that's when she came back to him at last that night, on the wind as the scent of a perfume she once wore, of tropics and vanilla, of style and desire. Scent took him to somewhere he'd been before, delivered him to a place beyond nostalgia. Venice tonight or yesterday. It didn't matter. As he found himself now resting in the heart of Venice – it's subtle charms scratched in walls, taste of garlic in the air, cool stone on his palms – he also rested on the water's edge with her deep in his heart, that place of protection beneath the distractions of the days spent without her. Nothing was lost. It just took some quiet.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

I'll Miss You, part two

   

     There were merits to starting over. With his eyes closed he could almost pretend he did. The mild mediterranean sun of early summer warmed his skin as he lay back on a flat rock on the water's edge in the harbor. He inhaled deep breaths of ocean air, the smell of fish caught and breezes from the horizon.  He felt calm, he felt at home.

   
     The gentle patting of waves on the hulls of anchored dories suggested a life of pulling fish from the sea...or buying those fish to cook for patrons at a crowded taverna. From sea to plate to belly, the simplicity was appealing after time spent amongst a city living on the stage of a bygone era. Here in Vernazza, the era continued.
   
   
   
     Sitting up, he took in the honesty of a town hunkered into the two hillsides of a small valley. Water from the creek spilled onto a small beach, a natural harbor, an entry and an exit. Church bells rang. Turning his attention closer at hand, or foot, he watched a small crab rest on a forgotten rope in the tide pools. With its delicate pinchers it pulled bits of scavenged food from the rope's fibers, feeding itself inconspicuously. When he moved in for a closer look, the crab scurried away under a rock.




He stopped and stayed in this Italian seaside town for three reasons – running, swimming and fish, for these were the three things he told himself he could not live without. Here, they were in abundance. Well-worn trails built of stone steps connected Vernazza to Monterosso to the northwest and to Corniglia to the southeast. He ran those paths for their rewarding difficulty, finishing back in town to dive into the sea to wash away the sweat, salt to salt, swimming with the sea life – gamboza, anchuige, sea bream - that would nourish him for the next day, the next run. If there was more that he needed, he struggled to figure out what that was.


   






          From the sanctuary above town, it was tempting to imagine living there on the coast permanently, simply staying, learning the language and a new set of customs. Gravesites with marble headstones bearing the names of Fanelli, Gianni and Rosso rested in struggled-for spots, finally above it all.








     He played his usual game – where would he live, which window would he peer from, which door he'd open daily. But all the windows were the same size. Four story apartment buildings hunkered shoulder to shoulder on long-forgotten bedrock, claiming the valley and relegating the creek to an underground channel.
This was a bold and honest way to live, he determined, to forfeit hillside views for a spot within the inner workings of the town, of the earth. Surely at some point in the future, the mountains would send down water and mud in quantities Vernazza could not absorb, scouring clean shops and livelihoods. But the town was old. They have cleaned up before, they have begun again, they have started over, which was what he was considering now. A lone house perched above him on a cliff spoke of the need for security, a fixation on guessing the future by the clarity of the horizon. But when that house goes, there will be nothing left. You never really know when it is going to rain.
   



     No fences, no barbed wire, boats tied loosely, doors with locks that hadn't been turned in generations – why is it so hard for us to trust each other, back in that other place where we lock our hearts with keys and combinations, hidden and concealed in memory? The passageways of Vernazza were narrow. Mud shoveled out from one floor must be washed out to sea. A hand is a hand.

     “Dooooorrrreeee...” The heavy rowers voice bellowed and echoed across the water and over the courtyard and up the Via Visconti. His big shoulders were ready to row anywhere for a fair price.
     He knew what he could do if this were to be his home – the town runner, from village to village, carrying words or packages or notes. He knew without a doubt he could do this well.

“Mi potete aiutare, per favore?”
     He was snapped out of thoughts of a hypothetical future by the question of a young Italian man who had approached him quietly from behind.
     “Mi dispiace. Non parle Italiano.”
     The young man frowned in mock disappointment, his hair dark and skin olive. He held with care both hands a large glass vase of ornate craftsmanship, filled affectionately with countryside flowers. Standing at the base of a ladder leading to a marble plaque, it became obvious the man needed more hands.
     “Help? Aiuto?”
     “Si! Si! Grazie.”
     Affixed to each plaque in the cemetery was a picture of its deceased, flattering pictures from earlier times of people in suits and Sunday dresses. At the top of the ladder was a picture of a woman, Francesca Bianca Aurora, who must have been the young man's grandmother, based on the dates of her life.
     “I put the fiori here for my mother. She lives in France. We miss my nonna.”
     He understood enough to know this woman died recently. The pain of loss was just sinking in, still tender to the touch. The young man took a deep breath.
     “Allora,” he said and climbed to the top. He motioned with his hands for the vase to be passed up. The exchange was smooth but as the young man stepped up a rung, the vase was lost from his grip and suddenly airborne.
     Without thinking, he had done something he had always done when objects fell, something he read about in a Mark Twain novel, a move Huck used to catch a knife – he stuck his foot out to break the fall. And though the vase spilled water and flowers to the dirt, the container remained intact, having been slowed from breaking point by his interjection. There would be a bruise there the next day, paired nicely with the red welt from the key that was still in his pocket, but it was a small price to pay to save the irreplaceable.
     “Ah! Grazie! Grazie!” He talked on and on about the vase, probably one of his last tangible reminders of her.
     “Prego.”
     The vase could be refilled with water and new flowers could be picked. He was thankful the vessel itself was still in one piece.
     “My name is Eduardo. You?”
     “You speak English well.”
     “Una piccolo.”
     “I'm Rex.”
     The young man's hand was warm and strong. More than a handshake, it was a pull, closer.