6/30/2009

Downtown Mall as Community Front Porch

I really enjoy when I get to spend spending the last hour of my work-day here on Charlottesville's Downtown Mall. If I'm not at a government meeting, I'm likely in my office. So, I like to come down, get a cup of tea at Java Java, and sit here and type until my battery runs out. This beautiful evening I'm adding some items to cvillepedia and breathing in the moist summer air. As this is one of my nights without the kids, I'll go home, cook dinner, and then work a few hours before going to bed. Thankfully, I'm getting to spend a little time in this little oasis.

I just came across an article from the Lexington Herald-Courier on Charlottesville's Downtown Mall. The writer, Tom Eblen, was just here for Bike Virginia, and wrote something that appealed to me:
"The mall has become a big tourist draw and economic engine. More importantly, it has become Charlottesville's community front porch. Most of the people we saw there seemed to be locals. Some said they come every week between May and October."
I seem to be out here several times every day that I'm at work. I often run down the mall because it's a nice stretch where I don't have to worry about cars. I love the random natuire of running into people I know. I bring my kids here as often as I can so they can walk about. We visit the Discovery Museum about twice a month or so, and have frequent slices of pizza at Vita Nova. I feel incredibly fortunate to live here and look forward to raising them here.

Lexington, Kentucky is considering bricking over a one-block stretch somewhere in their downtown. That's causing a lot of controversy, as you can imagine. Our own $7.5 million renovation caused a lot of debate here, but here I sit, six months after construction, sipping the remnants of my tea.

People are constantly milling past, and I get to hear snippets of conversation. Old men keep entering the Masonic Lodge. A couple from Northern Virginia expressed glee that they could live here more cheaply after looking at a sign to my left that advertises downtown apartments for $1050 to $1450 a month. A couple at the Nook is irritated they're sitting behind the tree. The wife is telling this to someone on the phone while the husband sits back and sips his lemonade patiently. A trio of elderly women are eating two plates of hamburgers. Young families are strolling around, taking advantage of the cool, summer air.

So many strangers to me, but yet, are they really strangers? I'm sure it wouldn't take long to get to know some of them. A single guy with a lap-top isn't the kind of person you approach. That would be impolite, as I'm clearly working, right?

One of the projects I'd like to work on for the Charlottesville Podcasting Network would be to interview some of these people, but I've yet to find the time or the resources to make it a reality. On my runs, I sometimes dream up radio shows I'd love to produce. But, the current reality of my life is spending as much time as I can working so that I can afford my mortgage.

The little sparrows have no qualms coming up to me. They keep landing on my table in search of food. They fly away empty-beaked.

The Nook is hopping. Mostly every table outside is filled with patrons, chewing away on diner food that isn't quite as authentic as it might have been a few years ago. But, of course, they didn't have as many tables then, did they?

The birds must be getting food from somewhere, as I can hear at least one chirp every two seconds. People must drop a lot of crumbs from those hamburgers and hot dogs. I just watched a trio of birds fighting over a huge chunk of bun. They scramble just as we scramble to make it through life with a full belly.

There's been a lot of talk about the health of the mall. To my right is an empty store front where Order from Horder used to be. To my left is the old A&N, which was occupied in June for the Look3 festival. But, do these empty store fronts really serve as any kind of barometer for how our community front porch is doing?

I'm looking west, and I can see the Urban Outfitters, open for business now. I've not been in there, but I can comment that I've seen a lot of people walking in and out with merchandise. Will the presence of this chain store transform the character of the Mall? Will the pair of empty stores I'm sitting next to be a future retail mecca?

I don't know. Can there really be an answer?

I'm glad that our predecessors decided to build this place for us. All of my life I wanted to be in a place like this, and here I am. Spending the last hour and a half here has been a tonic for me, just like going to the gym was earlier today. At times, I can feel incredibly isolated. Even though I know a lot of people, I don't know a lot of people.

Here, I get to glimpse a little bit of our American humanity. I just watched a teacher say hello to one of her former students. He's maybe 5 years out of high school, and I can imagine the conversation. He was incredibly startled to see her, but now they seem to be quite pleased to be chatting.

I didn't grow up in Charlottesville. I grew up in Lynchburg. There's nothing like the Mall down there. As I've written here before, I feel disconnected from my childhood, and in many ways I feel like my life began in 2002 when I moved here. Every day I feel like I'm learning how to become more human. How to become a member of a community.

My own front porch is always in flux. I'm constantly moving things on and off of it in the hopes of making it more efficient. Last week it was totally cluttered with my double-stroller, my push mower, a trash-can. This week it's covered with grass clippings that I've not yet swept away. Next week, who knows what it'll be like. But, I know that I'll use it to sit outside when I need a break from my work-night.

A shout-out to my ant friend


I'll say this about my friend, the black ant. She is totally and utterly persistent. I've been sitting in the waiting room at Edgecomb's for the past hour waiting for some work to be done on my car. I put my laptop down on the table they provide, and suddenly, this little black ant crawled across the top. I brushed it away, thinking she was a spider.

And then she came back. I brushed her away.

And then she came back again. And again.

I ate a banana about half an hour ago. She came over and sniffed it. Her little antennae shimmied with glee. I picked up the peel to put in the trash can, and she dropped off back to the table. I think she wants to keep me company.

A minute ago, she crawled up my hand while I was typing. Now she's crawling on the phone. What is she searching for? Why doesn't she appear to have any other friends here? What will happen to her when I leave here? Will another person getting their car serviced have less patience?

It would be so easy to pound her into oblivion. I'd do that with the fly, if I could. In the past five minute she's been joined by a fly, who I find bothersome. The ant is no bother at all. In fact, she's cheering me up by getting my mind off of the various things that really are bugging me today.

I wish her well.

A training update



Last night, I was incredibly worried my exercise habit was going to crash and burn and that I was going to stop running forever. I had not run since Saturday, when I stopped myself after about five miles because I did not like running on the side of the road in rural Bedford County. I was out with my brother-in-law Scott, and he was showing me the ropes, telling me what he's learned in his years as a runner. I'm not used to talking while running, and I think that interfered with my breathing quite a bit. It was not a good run, and was also blazing hot despite being just after 8:00 AM.

My knees are beginning to bother me a little, too. While mountain biking the day before, I took a small tumble while exploring an old logging road in Smith Mountain Lake State Park on a cheap bike my father bought from Wal-Mart years ago. I don't think anyone has ever taken it out on a trail. I hadn't planned too, either. I had to get out of the house. Everyone else was sitting around waiting for something to happen, but for me, it was a precious day off.

I don't relax much. Or rather, that would have been a true statement about six months ago. These days, I relax during exercise at least five times a week. Sometimes more, if I'm lucky.

When I commit myself to exercise, all my stress and worry disappears. My body does what a body is supposed to do - move.

The longer I postpone bouts of exercise, the grumpier and more pessimistic I feel. And the longer I feel like that, the less likely I am to exercise. My mind is sometimes not to be trusted.

These days, it's easier and more fulfilling to run than to go to the gym. So, last
night, when I was finally finished with work, I changed into my running clothes, put my new shoes on. Stretched and procrastinated for as long as I could. And then, off I went.

Within a few minutes, I felt great. Because I had stretched before running, the pains in my knees disappeared as I was running down Market Street towards the river. I knew I needed to go slow, because this was not my day to run fast. After my first group long run, my friend Harry Landers told me that I really needed to watch my pace during times that were not specifically meant to be hard work-outs. If I'm going to run a marathon, I'm going to need to learn to pace myself and resist the temptation to run out as fast as I can.

Oh, I need to learn that skill in so many different ways. At the moment, the demands of my body will hopefully teach my mind a lesson.

But yet, my mind resists even thinking about that idea, which spills over to my body. Tonight, I found it hard to not push myself as hard as I could, in small ways. I generally tried to slow myself down and run as slow as I could. But, I also let myself start doing quick pick-ups where I upped the pace significantly for 20 seconds here and there. These felt awesome.

When I got to the corner of Alderman and McCormick (via Market to Carlton, Carlton to the Hinton Avenue area, Hinton to Avon, Belmont Bridge to the Mall, the Mall to West Main/University Avenue, via Alderman) I picked up my pace a little more, mostly because I kept having to pass the incoming First Years at their orientation. I was deep in thought, relaxingly thinking about all of my troubles, all of my worries.

And that's where I am. I finished my very productive day with a run. I had a great morning with my kids, wrote an important story for Charlottesville Tomorrow, prepared another story for tomorrow, and then ran as best as I could, surpassing expectations. Tomorrow I'll try to squeeze in a routine at the gym, and then will look forward to running Wednesday morning. Thursday I'll try to hit the gym somehow, and then Friday I will make myself rest as best I can despite doing a fill-in shift at Court Square Tavern. Saturday will be a long run in the morning, and then more time with the kids for Saturday and Sunday.

Life is going to be okay, in part because I'm taking the best anti-depressant possible. I'm taking myself for runs! But, it's more than that. I mentioned the bike wreck. I didn't mention that I was laughing my head off afterwards because I just wasn't clearly looking where I was going. I had taken what appeared to be an abandoned road, and, that's exactly what it was. overgrown towards the end. As I was slowly navigating around one unruly section, and I suddenly stopped. I was somehow in slow motion here, as I appeared to be stuck in time. At first I thought the chain got caught on something, but as I began to fall to the ground, I noticed my shoelace was tangled in an old barbed wire. Down I went!

But I detached, picked myself up, and kept pushing on, looking for a cool place to ride. I eventually sped down this gorgeous old logging road, totally covered by the tree canopy. Down I went, knowing full well that what goes down must come back up.

And back up I did have to go! There was a good mile-long incline and I had to climb, climb, and climb some more. Six months ago, I couldn't have imagined being able to power up the hill. I would have stopped and walked. But, on that beautiful Friday, I was able to do it without breaking much of a sweat. A doe crossed my path at one point. I saw a hidden pond. I felt fantastic.

And after my less-than-successful run with Scott, I went for a long trek in the kayak. I don't know how far I went. Maybe six miles or so. I was out for about an hour and a half. Again, I could not have done that six months ago.

Some days I get completely and utterly locked with worry. My mind freezes when it comprehends how hard things can be at times. I have not entirely learned the lesson that exercise can almost always break that log-jam for me, if only for an hour here or an hour there.

And now, I'm in training. I ran 27 miles last week. I'll shoot for about 25 this week to give my body a little bit of a break, and because I want to be careful on these knees. I don't want to over do it, but i don't want to under do it, either. I'm listening to my body, trying to overcome the problems of my mind. This could be a lifelong struggle, but I'm prepared to take it one step at a time.

6/14/2009

The horizon



The best thing about my house is that I look out over a huge field, and can see the entire sky as I work in my office.

I've just put the kids to bed after a long struggle, and I suspect my son is going to start crying out at any minute to be rocked to sleep. I've got several hours of work ahead of me before I can go to bed. The dishes aren't done. Toys are strewn everywhere.

But, I can stare out of this window, and see the clouds drifting across the sky. That allows me to take a deep pause and inhale a deep breath so I can get going with what needs to be done.

What would I do without Dan Deacon?

(note to Facebook friends: This post is better seen on my blog, where the YouTube embeds work)

As I type this, my friend is at the Dan Deacon show in Baltimore. I had hoped to go, but this is my night with the kids and nothing is more important than them. I wish him well and hope he has one of the best times of his life.

He just texted me to tell me the show's underway, and I wish so much I could just teleport there for a few minutes. Dan Deacon is a master of showmanship, something that can be evidenced in all of the reports I've read about how he can transform crowds into dancing machines. I first heard about him thanks to a track played on NPR's All Songs Considered that I heard while at the gym. Bob Boilen sang his praises, and then I heard this track which definitely piqued my interest as I did my leg exercises.



You have to understand. I have been interested in the composition of electronic music since learning that Raymond Scott, who directed the CBS Orchestra in the 1930's, pioneered the use of electronic music after he retired from that position. Scott also is responsible for some of the best music of the 20th century in my opinion. I first learned of that music after learning that Carl Stalling, who scored the Looney Tunes cartoons, had based many of his compositions on Scott's work. I mean, we've all heard Powerhouse, right? (you'll have to click on the link to hear this - strongly recommended)

Scott's jazz work was all about juxtaposing segments within a song. In Powerhouse, for instance, there's an A section and a B section. Both are more or less independent of each other, but complement each other. B is usually a little more contemplative. Both together fuse into something quite amazing. In my mind, this has always appealed to me. After all, the music that caught my attention the most when I was 15 was the Pixies, who applied the same formula to their version of rock music.



The B part is less distinct from the rest in the track I'm using as an example. But, I'm using Debaser here because the common thread so far among all three artists is the fact they convey motion so well through music. The Pixies stopped being any good, of course, because Black Francis became such a control freak. That's similar to what happened to Raymond Scott, whose s jazz work frustrated him because he had to work with other musicians, who were keen to improv. In his mind, he couldn't rely on them, and so he began to build machines to make music for him. One day I'll write a little more about that. But for now...

Dan Deacon builds not only on Scott's compositional style, but is the living embodiment of a composer who no longer needs an ensemble. Yet, Deacon's not been content with being a mere musician and took the whole thing full circle when he brought a live ensemble on tour with him this spring, as documented in this fantastic offering by NPR's All Songs Considered.

Go listen, or at least watch the video there. Listen to him talk, listen to what he does with the crowd, and fall in love with the guy. It's hard not to. His music is so far the perfect embodiment of hope and lunacy and brilliance. At least, it was for me when I first heard one of his live show's thanks to National Public Radio. I heard it only days after moving back into my home after being in exile for five months. When I did, in the early morning hours of May 19th, 2009, my life kind of changed. I began to let hope back into my own life. I couldn't figure, it out, but writing this, I realize that he's the heir to at two of my musical favorites, completing the circle in some way for me. After all, I've dabbled in both electronic music and punk rock, but yet I've always been way too scared to actually to do. Now, I feel a bit more enabled, but even if I don't pursue that avenue, I have the knowledge that someone else felt inspired in the same way I was.

And now, my friend is up there dancing in a crazy manner while listening to Mr. Deacon play his music while he exhorts the crowds to fully join in. So I conclude this post (and my night) with this live track from Chicago so you can have an idea of what he's capable of doing:



What would I do without Dan Deacon?

I don't want to know.





6/12/2009

Six months later



Six months later, I'm still at the gym, still running, and now planning on how to make this last for the rest of my life. I don't want this to be a fad. I want this to be what I do, who I am, part of my identity.

At the gym today, I went on a treadmill for the first time in six weeks or so. I'm tired of riding a bike for 7 minutes, so I decided to run for 5 minutes instead. Such a strange feeling now to be on a treadmill, but feels good to ramp up to 7.5 miles per hour at the very beginning. Of course, it was a warm-up, not a sprint, so I calmed down and just watched Ellen for a few minutes. Via the closed captioning, I learned that some 9-year-old kid was hawking a book on "How to Talk To Girls." I smiled, but didn't worry too much about it. Right now, I'm focused on running, and after 5 minutes, I'd "run" half a mile without breaking a sweat and moved on to the weight machines.

I won't go into those details, except to say I definitely need to get a personal trainer. I'm concerned I'm building my body in a very uneven fashion. My wrists are still ridiculously skinny. My calves and thighs are bulking up, but they taper up to my knees, making me look a reverse Christmas cracker. And, of course, I'm not really doing what I need to do to get my core tightened.

Somewhere in that last sentence is a metaphor that carries deep meaning if only I could flesh it out. I am confident that along with the exercise, all will become clear in the near future. I've placed myself on a new path that I could not have imagined. Somewhere in this paragraph and in these last six months are the secrets to my happiness.

Quitting coffee, day four

I went to the Blue Ridge Country Store this morning to get a biscuit. On days I have the kids, it is very difficult to get out of the house with them and also feed myself. So, after dropping them off with their mother, and after walking my dog (who had snuck into the car demanding a walk downtown), I walked the two blocks downhill.

Usually, I'd get a cup of coffee. Blue Ridge Country Store serves Greenberry's Coffee, and it's usually absolutely delicious. I'll get at least one a day, plus two refills.

But this week, I've decided to cut back. I've been relying too much on coffee to get me started. The money adds up after a while, and I feel more skittish. Being over caffeinated is not a feeling I enjoy. Neither is being tired, but switching to water has seemed to help. When I get the craving, I fill up my glass and swig it down.

And you know? I find I'm not missing it. Instead, I bought a Coke Zero (my new fixation) to go with my delicious egg and cheese.

Of course, let's see how I'm doing on Monday.

6/07/2009

The training has begun

My iPod sounded a loud alarm at 5:30 on Saturday morning. I'd gone to bed only six hours before after an evening at Court Square Tavern. I'll be changing my schedule around a lot in the next five months as I prepare to do something I've always wanted to do - run a marathon.

I only hit snooze once. I had to be at the track to do a two-minute time trial so the coach would be able to prepare a personalized training scheme for me. The terminology is all new to me, but I'm approaching this training program with an open mind. I had to be at the University of Virginia track by 6:15, but they recommended that runners do at least a mile warm-up.

Fear tried to keep me from going. I'd not run on a track since high school Unanswered questions crept through my mind like kudzu, trying to find some purchase in my resolve to show up on time, ready to compete. How many laps would I need to run? Would people laugh at my clothes? What if no one wanted to talk to me? Would I be laughed at? Would the coach think I was an idiot for even trying to do something that may or may not be past my performance level? Had I had too much to drink the night before? Was there enough life left in my shoes?

I didn't give in to any of them. While the dark part of my mind whispered these questions, I fixed a cup of tea, had a piece of toast, and drowned them out by putting Dan Deacon's "Woof Woof" on the iPod. I put a black shirt on, my gray running shorts, and white socks. I stretched, started jumping around, and began to get somewhat excited.

I got to the track. For a moment I got really intimidated because there were clusters of people standing together. I'm somewhat phobic about being in places where I don't know anybody. But, I walked up to the track and did not see the coach. I asked a woman if this was where the time trial was being held. She said yes, but we were early. There were people running already, warming up.

Since I've been running, I notice other people running all the time. If I'm not running and I see them, I get jealous because that what I'd rather be doing. If I'm running and they're running, I feel this instant kinship. The motion is simple, but each of us runs in a different manner. I look at how people move their legs, their arms. Do they lean? Do they go fast? When I see people sprint, I want to cheer them on.

So, as soon as I started jogging for my warm-up, I began to feel totally at home. The track has all of these odd markings that must be used for all the various races that are run there. And here There were weird markings I don't understand. A big sign for Davenport Field told me how many times the U.Va baseball team has been to the post-season. The sky was foggy. So was my mind, as I cursed the night version of myself for that last glass of Spaten. My head didn't pound, though, and my body didn't protest. I made myself go at a ridiculously slow pace and held the moment in my mind.

By the time I'd run three laps, the coach was there and the crowd was gathering. There were maybe 30 people waiting to run the time trial. In all, there's something like 150 people in the marathon training program run by the Charlottesville Track Club. That's a lot of people who want to take on this same challenge. Most of them were women. We all have different body types. Two older men were there, as well as a lot of people in their thirties and forties. I'm looking forward to knowing these people as we spend our Saturday mornings together, running further and further, faster and faster, on the back roads of Albemarle County.

I am tremendously impressed by the wisdom of Mark Lorenzoni. Everything he says, I'm soaking up like a sponge. Today, most of it went over my head because he was rattling off all these things about how fast we should run, and at what pace. He encouraged us to run negative splits. I had no idea what that meant. I did get the message that we were to take it easy for the first mile, and then run faster for the second. He told us the story of his wife and her training program to run her first marathon in 25 years.

After ten minutes of tips, he had us begin. The pack separated incredibly quickly. Some people are just incredibly fast, and I'm in awe of them. They'll always be faster than me. What I like about running is the individuality involved. I don't feel the need to finish first, though of course, I want to finish as fast as I can. If that means I win a race, then so be it. But, for the most part, running isn't about finish first. It's about finishing, period.

Eight laps around the track buys you a two mile run. I fell into my usual groove that I get when I'm running on a flat surface. I've been deliberately pushing myself to hit hills, so it was a nice break to run at the same elevation the whole time. A weak white sun tried to push through the fog. The sky was otherwise beginning to turn blue. A flock of blackbirds circled overheard.

We are all running, each of us giving it our best. I ran the first lap in about 2:15 and the coach told me that was at a 8 minute mile pace. I ran the second lap a little faster. I was holding back and trying to pace myself, like he said. I did not want to burn out. When I hit the fourth lap, he announced I'd run the first mile at 7:48.

Being coached is an experience I've not had since I was 9 or 10, and I was swimming at the YMCA in Lynchburg. I used to love swimming competitively, but I got so discouraged that I wasn't the best. I stopped doing it. I got fat. I gave up on my body.

But, I'm claiming it back. I have been claiming it back. I'm opening myself up to someone telling me what to do.

Each time I ran a lap, the sun grew a little stronger, the sky a little more blue. My lap times kept getting shorter and shorter. I didn't sprint, but just ran at a comfortable pace. I didn't mind when people lapped me, and passed me. After all, I was lapping and passing other people, too.

This existence we lead from birth to grave is much like a marathon, filled with triumph and pain. We're all in training, whether we know it or not. As I look back on the last six months of my life, and the emotional pain I've been suffering due to the end of my marriage, I'm much more aware of the various techniques that have to be learned in order to build up endurance. I've learned to push away the sadness. I've learned to stop myself from scratching the emotional itch to dwell on my condition. Most importantly, I've learned to run.

And so I finished, at 14:55 in two minutes, much better that I can imagine I would have done six months ago. I may actually be able to do this, to actually run a marathon. I don't know what will happen between now and November 14, when the Richmond marathon is going to be run. I am this person.

When challenged with sudden change in your life, the best way through is to challenge yourself. Do that for long enough, and you come through to the other end, when things start to make sense again. Today, I ran 9 miles in the hot sun because I felt I needed to.