Saturday, December 31, 2005


Last day of 2005—and Tropical Storm Zeta is partying in the Atlantic...


Friday, December 30, 2005


I was riding today down a two-lane road with high, steep, tree-lined banks—long, flat and straight, I'd surmise it was an old railroad grade. I was following a big truck, a car-hauler, as it sped along.

In its wake, it sucked up the loose leaves from along the roadside; countless tan lanceolate blades of willow oak. They swirled in the air, and danced along behind the truck where I rode.

For just a few brief moments, they paced me and I rode inside a sphere of stationary motion; I moved and the leaves moved with me. It was like riding inside a shaken snow-globe. Then the wind swept the air clean around me, and I was back in the world again.

That was fun.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Going Downhill Fast

Surprisingly, snow goes a long way to make ski slopes less gut-wrenchingly terrifying.

It obscures the jagged boulders and gnarled roots, fills the eroded gullies and gopher holes, and wraps a deep, soft blanket over the multitude of hard things with sharp pointy edges. That’s small comfort on a warm September day when you’re poised at the top of a fifteen-hundred foot descent, one finger on the brake lever of your bicycle to hold you in the starting gate. Sure, snow would be nice—but you’re not using the ski slope anyway. You’re following a downhill bicycle course carved with reckless abandon through the woods next to the slope, a path strewn with artfully crafted obstacles.

Whose woods these are, I think I know—and he must be one sick, sadistic son-of-a-bitch. They dump all the debris from smoothing the slopes here, just off the ski trails. Boulders, fallen trees, mounds of dirt and gravel, brush piles, even broken-down equipment. It all takes refuge here, barely out of sight and for sure out of mind. The ten-foot wide path for the mountain bike racers is marked through the woods with thousands of yards of yellow ‘caution’ tape festooned from sapling to sapling—an ironic touch if there ever was one.

You think ‘path through the woods,’ and it calls to mind a pleasant hiking trail, sun dappled and punctuated by bluebirds like a Disney cartoon. But this isn’t remotely like a hiking trail, or even like bushwhacking through trackless forest—it’s worse than that. It’s the opposite of a hiking trail, where somebody worked hard to clear your way.

Here, the path is deliberately made difficult by the addition of log obstacles, ramps and boardwalks to nowhere, and countless other fiendish devices. Only the lowest two-hundred yards of the course leaves the woods for the open slope—then it becomes a serpentine gully carved into raw earth with steeply banked sides and berms—a hellish dirt road lifted straight from a pinball machine.

The course is ‘technical,’ meaning being competent isn’t enough—you must bring a fully loaded bag of tricks, including the abilities to levitate, fly, and to go two directions simultaneously. A high threshold of pain helps, as does a certain lack of common sense. Many of the self-preservation instincts and behaviors most of us take for granted are notably absent from the competitors—at least the successful ones.

This is Phil’s first race; he has never competed in downhill before, nor for that matter has he attempted it; urban BMX—under cover of darkness—has been his thing. At eighteen, he must be the youngest rider here; we are both nervous. Well before dawn, we loaded his bike, tools, gear, and supplies in the van and began the four-hour drive up I-95, stumbling bleary-eyed from coffee stop to coffee stop. We arrived just in time for him to register and make the mandatory rider’s meeting. Then he gets just two practice runs down the course before the real event—the Novice competition.

The few spectators at the event are treated to countless trappings of spectacle. Fluttering pennants, banners and streamers manically vie for attention beneath the bright blue sky of the finish line. Harsh, distorted music pours unrecognizably from hidden PA speakers. Two ambulances park at the base of the slope, lights flashing for no apparent reason; their crisply uniformed attendants study a word puzzle book from some grocery checkout line with identically furrowed brows. The competitors walk about with helmets tucked under their arms, clad from neck to toe in bright plastic body armor like psychedelic knights, leading their elegant, if filthy, bicycles to the staging area with one careless hand on the saddle.

A ‘trials’ rider—a court jester of sorts, in his own peculiar motley—performs bicycle stunts for an audience of two, leaping his bicycle from a dead stop to the top of a picnic table in two sweet moves, then onto a boulder the height of a man’s head. With nowhere to go from there, he falters for a moment, then lurches to the ground with a jarring thud; his audience titters, turns and walks away.

Rider’s meeting over, the competitors burst out of the faux-Alpine lodge into the warm fall morning. There is much macho swagger as riders boast and strut across the gravel to their respective SUVs for their final preparations. Then there is a murmur of interest as Phil rides across the lot; heads turn to follow him. Riders point, tap each other on the shoulder, stop what they are doing. They are noticing Phil’s bike. Phil has suddenly earned a mantle of awestruck, bemused respect from the experienced riders—for sheer ballsiness, if not for common sense.

Alone among the riders, Phil will make his run—his novice downhill run—on a hardtail.

Most downhillers compete on bikes having little in common with ordinary bikes but the number of wheels. Exotic frame designs, space-age composites, sophisticated forks and rear suspensions with complex linkages and high-tech shock absorbers, hydraulic disk brakes—they are more like motorcycles with human engines. Single components can run into the thousands of dollars; lots of bikes here are worth more than the cars that carried them in.

Yet my son (fools rush in where angels fear to tread) will make his run on a bike with a solid frame—a hardtail, as they say. No shock absorber on the rear; just a few inches of travel on a hydraulic fork in front. This makes Phil the shock absorber for every drop, jump, bump, root, rock and stump—all taken up by his arms, legs and back, hopefully leaving something in reserve to pedal, steer and brake, and watch the course ahead. Where other, more sophisticated bikes will smooth the treacherous route for their riders by being supple and compliant, the hardtail will fight him every foot of the way, recoiling and bucking in response to each new event, and it’s not clear who will win.

Riders catch the chairlift to the starting gate on top of the mountain. In full battle regalia, holding their bicycle cross-armed across their chest, they step onto the chairlift platform. With each snatch of a rider by the chair, it hesitates, sways, then yanks the rider and steed ponderously free from the earth, bobbing and swaying as if to spit them back out to the ground again. The chairlift settles down to a modest, nauseating oscillation, as the rider disappears upwards into the distance, another tiny colored bead on a long elastic necklace.

I offer words of encouragement as Phil lines up for the slow lift ride to the mountaintop, then walk towards the course to catch the show. Spectators have already camped out in the prime viewing spots, and it’s understandable why. The crowd favorite overlooks a crater-like pit, thirty feet across and ten deep. The course comes along the side of the pit, then veers onto a wooden ramp leading to thin air; the course picks up again on the opposite side of the pit, heading the opposite direction.

Rider after rider makes their practice run at the pit. Some negotiate the pit with great finesse, blasting off the ramp, slinging around the circumference and shooting out the other side like a marble from a mixing bowl. Others—less skillful or confident—balk at the end of the ramp then drop like Wile E. Coyote into the mud below. Shaken, cursing and raging, they scramble out of the muddy pit with their bikes. I watch a dozen riders try this with varying degrees of success, and wonder—with some concern—how Phil will manage.

Continuing up the mountain, I hear the next rider long before I see him. He crashes through the woods, pushing a non-stop wave of expletives before him as though warding evil spirits from his path. But the evil spirits have had their fill of this particular rider; he launches spectacularly over a fallen log, only to plant his front wheel against a boulder on landing. He briefly adopts a shocked ‘Superman’ pose as he flies through the air, then sprawls belly-first into the rocky forest floor; his bike pirouettes in the air slow-mo and crashes down square on his back. This does not comfort me in any way.

Suddenly it’s Phil’s turn. Before I even find a good viewing spot he streaks past me in a blur, bobbing and weaving through the woods like a prizefighter. I scramble to follow, but the last I see of him is his perfect launch off the ramp into the pit—and then him shooting out the other side like a marble from a mixing bowl.

By the time I get down to the finish line, Phil is propped up on his elbows in the grass, surrounded by a flock of admirers—mostly little kids. He and his bike are mud spattered but his grin tells me all I need to know. Both he and the bike survived intact, and on each run he shaved thirty seconds off his previous time. We hang around waiting for the final results to be posted.

Though he did not place, his times are quite respectable for an experienced downhiller on a fully suspended bike—for a novice on a hardtail, they are astonishing.

I help gather up the sweat-soaked armor he has flung off, and watch as he slowly, painfully hobbles towards the van. As we wind our way down the twisty two-lane road back to the highway, I ask him his impressions of the race. There is a long silence before I realize he is asleep, and will stay that way for the drive home.

Another place I'm glad I don't work:

At the "China National Native Produce & Animal by-Product Import & Export Corporation, Shanghai Native Produce Branch."

Could you imagine having to answer the phone like that all day long?

They are the packers of "Instant Chrysanthemum Beverage," which comprises sugar and (sic) Chrysant HE Mum powder. It may be an acquired taste, but initial impressions are of sugar dissolved in lower Mississippi River water. Perhaps it is what Chinese Astronauts drink instead of Tang; in any case, one is reminded that in the language of flowers, Chrysanthemums represent death.

I will steadfastly resist any urge to acquire a taste for this product. I don't imagine it will be much of an issue.

On the historical antecedents of the Cheney-Rumsfeld-Bush policy on dissent: Channelling the Greats

"We should rid our ranks of all impotent thinking. All views that overestimate the strength of the enemy and underestimate the strength of the people are wrong."

Mao-Zedong, "The Present Situation and Our Tasks" 12/25/47
From my personal copy of Mao's 'Little Red Book,' a Christmas Gift picked up in China by my wonderful niece Katie.

Saturday, December 24, 2005

What a concept!

Did you know that Georgetown is just like a giant shopping mall...but one that you can drive a car through! Why hasn't anybody thought of that before?!

Friday, December 23, 2005

Walking in a Winter Wonderland—for real

Mary's big client was kind enough to include us in their holiday celebration last night, a wonderful dinner in a private room of a very classy restaurant. Good food, good wine, good company, good music, and good spirits all around.

When the celebration finally came to an end around ten o'clock, we decided to do without the exhilaration of a return cab ride to where we had parked; instead, we would take advantage of the relatively mild air and walk back. It was a beautiful crisp clear evening, with a three-quarter moon hanging low in the eastern sky and even some stars visible through the glare of the city lights.

We walked down the cobblestone streets and crossed the old iron bridge over the canal, then continued down to the waterfront. We stood and admired the reflections sparkling on the water, their own special kind of holiday decorations.

As we stood in the night air, Mary saw something moving in the distance, downriver from where we stood. My jaded urban instincts told me immediately it was a rat scurrying from one hiding spot to another. As I followed its movements, I reevaluated; it was way too big for even a well-fed city rat, and moved with too much determination and speed—much to my chagrin, directly towards where we both stood. Opossum, perhaps?

Opossums have their own distinctive, purposeless, shambling way of moving. Whatever this spectral being was, it meant business, and was hustling straight down the narrow walkway we were on. We quickly stepped across the worn railroad ties bordering the path—as though that would deter whatever was approaching if it meant us harm.

Then it emerged into the light—A red fox, in the middle of this most urban of areas. It trotted right past us with insouciant alacrity, tossing a quick glance at us over its shoulder and continuing on its way with, I believe, a smile on its face.

Who would have imagined? What a delightful surprise to cap a wonderful evening.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Last Call

When I’m dead and gone, stash me on ice.

Let me go without additives, preservatives, or artificial colors. If I’m gonna be displayed, let’s make it prompt and timely, so there’s no need for preservation.

And if I’m on display, let’s skip the ostentatious, garish, or flamboyant trappings; I’ve always preferred things plain and unadorned. If I have to be boxed up, put me in a white pine box made by friendly hands and keep it simple. Stick a Guinness in my hand and slap a pair of Groucho glasses on me and I’ll be fine.

Whether the box becomes my kindling doesn’t matter a bit to me. Once I’m roasted to a fare-thee-well, do what you will with my ashes. I always thought the compost pile was a nice place to end up, since I spent countless hours marveling at its energy and industry. Or you could dump me straight into the garden; who could ask for a better place to be reinvented than a garden, maybe as a beet? (Ashes are good for root crops, so I always heard). Granted, that might make some squeamish, so I leave my final disposition up to you—again, it won’t matter much to me.

As for a service: I have lived my life mercifully free from the ravages of religious leanings, and grant such things no significance. They didn’t take up space in my life, and shouldn’t clutter up things afterwards. So please—no religious trappings of any kind to muddy up my departure. Now, spirituality—that’s another matter entirely.

If folks want to expound on their personal feelings, that would be dandy. I’d just prefer ‘organized religion’ be barred at the gate by a burly bouncer with no neck and wraparound shades. Let’s not confuse ‘religion’ with ‘spirituality’ for this particular event. To you who ascribe to a particular fashion or flavor of religion: Let’s just agree to disagree. There’s no point in fretting about it on my account—if we’re at this point, I’ll probably have the answer you’ve been looking for, and you won’t. (PS: Unless, of course, you can find an Evangelical Atheist minister to preside).

This is what I want for my send-off:

If people want to speechify, that’s okay; it certainly won’t bother me. If long, pointless stories are to be told, they should be off-color and at my expense. The guest list should be as inclusive as possible, but let’s just set the tone by saying: “Bicycle couriers.” Need I say more? This should be a courier party—nothing less.

There should be lots of women weeping and wailing, keening and rending garments and throwing themselves on the ground. I have set aside a small fund to compensate them for their troubles—look in the bank files, listed under “Children’s Inheritance.”

Let’s not forget music—lots of music. It should be sad and tragic: Barber and Tchaikovsky; brooding Beethoven, Dvorak and Smetana. Throw in some Clash, Zeppelin, some Muddy Waters, Rory Gallagher and the Pogues, lots of Motown—and whatever good dancing music seems like fun at the time. Good damn luck finding a DJ, and oh—did I mention loud? *

There oughta be lots of drinking. I want a fierce, ferocious wake, with fountains of fine ale flowing like rivers across the floor; endless bottles of Irish whisky, and lots and lots of champagne. I want everyone in attendance to be wracked with anguish and unable to work for a day or two after—from their horrible pounding hangovers. See

And dancing? You bet—lots of dancing. I want a loud and boisterous party where everyone relaxes, laughs, flirts and has a good time while they forget the guest of honor. Make the neighbors call the police—then invite the whole lot of them in for a drink.

I want fire—lots of fire. I want a nice big going away fire, flames and sparks leaping up way into the dark sky. A funeral pyre would be just swell—or even better, a real Viking-style funeral, with flaming longboat pushed out onto the waves, me as its Captain, first mate and crew. But I’d settle for a nice roaring bonfire, since it’s probably hard to find a body of water that allows Viking funerals nowadays. Roast some weenies, toast some marshmallows, and stuff your faces with s’mores—what are fires for, after all?

Obviously, fireworks would add a certain ‘je ne sais quoi,’ in my opinion. Or even better, a bonfire and fireworks. Things that soar and explode and scream, to warn the otherworld I’m on my way and they’d better be ready. The best result would be some combination of singing, dancing, eating, drinking, fire and pouring whisky onto the fire to satisfy the spirits—but I’ll leave those details up to you. And don’t forget the song, which goes like this:

“Gimme that old time religion, that old time religion,
Gimme that old time religion, It’s good enough for me”

“Maw and Paw were druids, they drank fermented fluids,
Danced nekkid in the woo-ids, It’s good enough for me!”

Hey, you know me, just a good old-school Celt—a pagan wandering in a world of Manichean dualism. I’ll probably be around, checking in with you from time to time when the distance between worlds is least. Certainly at Beltane, the great feast of lust and desire, and Lughnasa, the high summer celebration; at dark Samhain, when spirits move most freely, and in the deep cold of Imbolc.

Light the fires, raise your glasses and look to me coming. I’ll hear you call.

*Addendum: "The Night that Paddy Murphy Died," Great Big Sea; "Body of An American" The Pogues; "Funeral for a Friend/Love lies Bleeding," Elton John, because it's 11 minutes long and it's a great song, and "What's So Funny...," Elvis Costello, just because I said so, and it's my party, right?

**Addendum #2: "Solace" by Scott Joplin, the Joshua Rifkin version...just an achingly beautiful song from both a composer and performer who need greater recognition. Joplin was the American Bach.

***"Ashokan Farewell," Jay Ungar & Molly Mason.

Crap. I'll just need to burn a friggin' CD and staple it to my will, otherwise who knows what'll get played, right??

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Ghosts On The Wire

It happened some years ago in the dead of a cold winter night, according to my mother. She and my father were asleep in the master bedroom of an old Virginia farmhouse, nestled somewhere in the eastern foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

At the darkest hour, she awoke to a feeling like static electricity crawling all over her. She sat upright to face a lone figure standing across the room on the broad hearth of the stone fireplace. The young man, bore an expression of unspeakable weariness, woe and distress. He wore the tattered, filthy uniform of a Civil War soldier.

They looked at each other for what must have seemed like an eternity—my mother struck dumb, all but deafened by the blood rushing in her ears. The man spoke just four words to her:
“Where is my mother?”

It was all my mother could do to reach out and touch my sleeping father’s arm and rouse him to witness this spectral visitation. Yet at the very moment she touched him, both the apparition and the crawling sensation vanished, discharged like lightning. My parents, now both fully awake, were alone behind a latched and locked door.

I reminded her of this story a few months before she died. She laughed and shrugged. “ I had forgotten all about that. It was so long ago.” She laughed again, shook her head dismissively, and went about her work.


Not long ago, I had a second phone line installed. Before I had told anyone the new number, I started receiving strange calls at all hours of the day and night. I would answer, and after a long pause of hissing and static, a thin, quavering voice would ask: “…Can I speak…to Joe?”

I was always polite, and explained the number had recently been reassigned, and there was no Joe here. After another pause of hissing and static, the frail quavering voice: “But Joe must be there. Joe is my son; I just spoke to him last week.”

I knew demand for phone numbers was high, but the phone company wouldn’t have reassigned the number in a week. I asked what number she was trying to call. Hissing and static. Then she recited my number, area code, exchange and all. Her confusion turned to agitation, yet there was little I could do but leave her with hollow assurance there was no Joe.

She called many times. The same thin, tired voice, streaked with weariness, woe and distress, so far away on the other end of the line and stretched to the breaking point through the wires. “…Can I speak…to Joe?”

I have come to instantly recognize that plaintive voice. I have tried to help her, to accommodate her inquiries. I know she lives in somewhere in Virginia; because she calls from a private home; she lives alone. Yet my help only seems to confuse her more. She believes I am the phone company, and that I can somehow trace Joe down a wire.

But she still needs my help. I will reach out through those thin wires, through the hissing and static, and connect her with Joe—if there even is a Joe.

I find myself waiting for her call, and I am reminded: “Where is my mother?”


I spent the first twenty years of my riding career on Campaigner, a BMW R80St. It was originally what was referred to as a "standard" bike, for its upright riding posture—neither slouched like a cruiser nor leaning forward like a sportsbike. After a few years, I installed shorter ("Europa") handlebars which produced a more forward-leaning riding posture—I wanted to emulate the unbeatably cool style of the R90s or R100s.

I always scoffed at the bent-forward, straight armed posture of the sportbike riders, trying to imagine the wrist stress, backaches and hand-numbness that must accompany such a riding position.

So then a couple of years ago I went out and, sure enough, bought a sportbike—Beast, a 2003 BMW R1100sa. (At least for BMW it's a sportbike; some folks still scoff at the idea.) Well guess what—I'm a convert.

Lots of riders have asked me about the riding posture. What's surprising is that not only does Beast have a fairly typical sport-bike riding setup, but I took advantage of the one adjustment BMW allows it's 1100s owners to make. I actually lowered the clip-on handlebars to below the tripleclamp instead of above the triple clamp as they come from the factory, dropping them another inch or two.

What's most amazing to me is how comfortable it is. Many years ago, I used to own a "Balans" chair—one of those wacky kneeling chairs from Scandinavia. It was always my favorite office chair, and I never had any back problems while using it.

Riding Beast is way more comfortable than sitting in the office chair I currently have at work—not to mention way more fun and intellectually stimulating. Unfortunately, the noises I have to make at the office apparently disturb my cube-farm mates, so I have to keep it down.


"One swallow does not make a spring, nor does one fine day"—December 18, 2005

Aristotle sure knew about the weather. Today was a pleasant change from the run of weather we've been having recently. Bitterly cold a few days ago, then snow and sleet, then rain and gloom and sogginess. Today the sky was blue with few clouds, the sun bright though low in the firmament, and it was mild enough that a winter coat was more of an annoyance than a necessity.

Needless to say, this struck me as perfect riding weather. And one thing I am incredibly consistent with is underestimating how cold it is—every single time I gear up, I remind myself that I've never come back from a ride too warm, but can't count the times I've come back unable to locate one extremity or another. Well, today was no different.

Even worse, I was taking the Rockster out to blow the cobwebs off and keep a charge on the battery. While I confirmed the Rockster is virtually identical technically to Beast in performance and handling (with just a slight shift in the power curve) there is a crucial difference—the Rockster is currently unfaired except for the bulbous bodywork around the gas tank. (Yeah, I know—there's a nice Parabellum windscreen sitting in a box in the workshop, waiting to be installed...but I digress).

I headed out to my 'test track,' the web of roads I've made reference to several times before here. (Philip and I rode it when he was up over Thanksgiving, he on Campaigner and me on Beast) About a third of the way there, I noted that while most of the sky was clear and bright blue, there was a pale wash of high clouds intercepting the sun.

Hmm. I might as well have been riding under the hunter moon for all the warmth the sun gave. And since we are nearly at the solstice, the sun sat very low all afternoon—caught in the upper branches of the bare trees. While this is very poignantly photogenic, it has a perverse side effect: the relentless shadow strobing from the trees. It seemed no matter which direction I rode, one eye was constantly in shadow and the other was constantly flashing between brilliant sun and deep shade. I have heard that this can, at the right speed, produce a hypnotic, soporific effect; the flickering light induces a sympathetic response in the brain at alpha wave-frequencies, creating a nearly trance-like state of altered awareness.

Good damn thing I was so freaking cold by then; my only altered awareness was the lack of sensation in certain critical areas. I rode the loop, wrung out the Rockster as best I could while still in the break-in period, and headed for coffee stop #1. At one point, anticipating a bump in the road, I stood up on the foot-pegs—or attempted to, anyway. My legs and knees were so stiff and unresponsive that I had barely gotten my butt off the saddle before I hit the bump, and found myself at the point of maximum awkwardness. Oh well.

Coffee helped, a little. But I had reached a point that's in the neighborhood of hypothermia, which when you do it to an engine part is referred to as "cold soak." I was just a little bit too cold all over. Stupid trick #2: I've put a "cold kit" on Beast, which consists of odds and ends of clothing I can throw on for just such an occasion that are worth about 10 degrees improvement. But I wasn't riding Beast, was I? No, my emergency cold kit was safe and warm, at home.

The discomfort is temporary and merely an annoyance—a hot shower pretty much makes it go away in about ten minutes flat. But when you're cold soaked, you don't feel like turning your head to look at your mirrors, or check your blind spot when changing lanes, or look at your instruments to check your speed or a host of other little niceties--that's the stinky part. They say hypothermia affects your judgment, but before you get to that point, you just get lazy.

The really neat part was that there were a surprising number of bikes on the road, mostly oilhead beemers. Each and every one gave and got a hearty wave, secure in the knowledge that they were among the elite, hardcore who knew in their hearts that—

—it was really friggin' cold on the road today.

That may be good enough for you, buddy...

I was at the local-groovy-hippie-national-corporate-feel-good grocery emporium today, doing my semi-annual drive-by shopping spree (lots of looking, little buying) and was stopped cold by:

Natural Wax Paper.

Of course, this was a few aisles removed from the all-natural oreo knock-offs (just the way God intended them to be, fresh-picked by indigenous farmers off the shade-grown oreo trees.)

Apparently this kind of wax paper does not present the lurking menace to body and soul that mass-market, heartless globalized petrochemical wax paper posed. Or something. I really couldn't quite grok the importance of this improved or saftened product.

Nevertheless, I'm no longer taking any chances with the health, safety and well-being of the ones I love. I simply had not recognized the magnitude of risk posed by that insidious translucent threat lurking in the kitchen drawer—and I'm not just talking about that sadistic little knife-edge on the box.

From now on, I'm not just switching to a better, more humane kind of wax paper—no siree. I plan to COMPLETELY REMOVE the wax paper (peeling, removing the rind, as it were) from any foodstuffs I intend for my family to consume. There's just no sense in taking any chances, is there now?

You can never be too safe.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Yeah, that's what I'll do...

If I ever get pulled over by a cop (which, oddly, hasn't happened in a really long time...) this is what I will do:

As they walk up to me, I will either roll down the car window(if driving), or very slowly and respectfully remove my helmet (if riding) and I will say to them:

"This is about those songs I downloaded, isn't it?!? Look, man , I was gonna buy the CDs, but like I couldn't FIND EM ANYWHERE! I'M REALLY, REALLY SORRY!!"

Then they will shake their head and leave me alone.

Birdoswald to Walton, April 2004

After a leisurely breakfast and a slow, lingering morning at "Hill-On-The-Wall," we retrace our steps to the Museum and ruins of the Roman fort at Birdoswald.

We walk the ruins of the fort, then enjoy a relaxing alfresco lunch in the cool spring sun. The prior day's long, rugged hike from Steel Rigg along the basalt spine of the Great Whin Sill, combined with the late departure, makes cabbing to Walton an appealing alternative for Mary, Madeline and Philip.

I decide to hike to Walton alone. I'd guess it's only six or eight miles—an easy couple of hours. As I depart Birdoswald, I pass a family hiking eastbound; still within sight of the fort, I encounter another hiker, also heading east. I don’t meet or see another soul until I arrive at our lodgings at Town’s Head Farm in Walton, late in the afternoon.

At one point, far out of sight of any human settlements, I stop and am puzzled by what sounds like at first, the laboring engine of a massive truck—which never seems to get any closer or more distant—then a roaring jet engine, which curiously also neither approaches or retreats. I stand perfectly still for a few minutes, trying to identify the source of the odd sound.

Then I realize it is the wind, sweeping through the forests and fields through which I am walking. I stand still for a few more moments, have walked into a past where man does not seem to exist. I have rarely felt, so intensely, the tranquility of being so utterly alone.

At my feet, there lay a feather—long, elegant, delicate yet powerful. I pick it up, tuck it carefully in my hat, and wear it for the remainder of the hike. It now sits beside me where I write, my one souvenir from that ancient lonely place.

Letting go

This spring for her eighteenth birthday, Madeline and I took the day and went for a practice hike with her friend Maddie. They were preparing for their eight day coast-to-coast hike across England, scheduled for right after high school graduation.

We scouted out a convenient section of the Appalachian Trail with good road access. I would hike part way with them, then return to the car, drive to the next road crossing, and rendezvous with them. I think the total estimated mileage was around eleven or twelve miles, a decent stretch of mostly gently-rolling trail through unremarkable eastern deciduous forests.

To reach the Appalachian Trail proper, we ascended through broad open meadows, the path overhung with lush, dripping grasses and weeds. It was overcast and cool, with a gentle mist falling from time to time; on occasion the clouds would part enough to permit views of the distant piedmont.

It did not take long for us to finds our cadence, and by the time we had reached the ridgeline, we were making steady headway. With each step, I calculated the point where I would need to turn back for the rendezvous to time out right.

It so happened that my 'point of no return' coincided, more or less, with our lunch break. We sat on a large fallen tree in the quiet damp woods, eating whatever trail oddities we had packed—trail mix and granola bars, apples and oranges, hot coffee from a thermos (sure sign of a day-hiker)—until the time came to start walking again.

We conferred briefly, looked at the map once more, double-checked the math on our time estimates. Then it was time to go.

I have never experienced such a clearly defined transition. My daughter was eighteen; now we were quite literally turning away from each other and going off in our separate directions. I was trusting her into the wild, hoping that I had prepared her adequately and knowing that if not, it was too late to do anything about it now.

I hit my stride promptly, a good 3-1/2 mile an hour pace. I brushed the tear from my eye and focused on the task at hand—getting back to the car promptly without getting hurt on the way. In the middle of the day, in the middle of the week, before the hordes of through-hikers arrive, the AT can be a pretty lonesome place if you get into trouble.

Except for one brief stop at a trail junction to wring out my soaking socks, I hiked straight back to the car. The drive to the next trailhead was uneventful, a circuitous route through the verdant Virginia farmland, and I arrived a bare fifteen minutes ahead of the girls, who made a spectacular entrance, striding across a stone-and-timber bridge above a rushing mountain stream.

The return trip to town was quiet, with both Madeline and Maddie sacked out from the day's exertions, none the worse for wear. But I think we all knew then something important had transpired...

Friday, December 16, 2005

Here's a better idea for you, FORD

The Ford Motor Company just regrew its spine after initially caving into pressure from the lunatic fringe and pulling advertising for Jaquars, Volvos and some other product lines from gay-oriented publications. They will resume advertising in these publications which apparently help move lots of FoMoCo products.

What we really need to boycott Ford for —and I'm sure you all can get behind me on this—is their co-opting of Vince Guaraldi's immortal classic "Linus and Lucy" (now 40 years old—when did that happen?) for their goddam ad campaign.

Is nothing sacred? Isn't the true meaning of Christmas carried in those treasured lyrics?

(Oh,'s an instrumental...)

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Now you know

The wind chill at 17 deg. F. and 95 mph is -13 deg. Fahrenheit. To convert that to Celsius, do the following conversion:

(Really cold F.) = (Still Really cold C.)

Monday, December 12, 2005

The Second-Best Christmas Song ever

Fleming and John's " Winter Wonderland." (RealAudio required)

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Best F-ing Christmas Song Ever — "Fairy Tale of New York"

It was Christmas Eve babe, in the drunk tank
An old man said to me, won't see another one
And then he sang a song, 'The Rare Old Mountain Dew'
I turned my face away and dreamed about you

Got on a lucky one, came in eighteen to one
I've got a feeling this year's for me and you
So happy Christmas, I love you baby
I can see a better time
When all our dreams come true

They've got cars big as bars, they've got rivers of gold
But the wind goes right through you, it's no place for the old
When you first took my hand on a cold Christmas Eve
You promised me Broadway was waiting for me

You were handsome/You were pretty, Queen of New York City
When the band finished playing they howled out for more
Sinatra was swinging, all the drunks they were singing
We kissed on a corner then danced through the night

[CHORUS:]The boys of the NYPD choir
Were singing 'Galway Bay'
And the bells were ringing out for Christmas Day

You're a bum/You're a punk/You're an old Slut on junk
Lying there almost dead on a drip in that bed
You scum bag/You maggot/You cheap lousy faggot
Happy Christmas your arse I pray God it's our last

[Repeat chorus]

I could have been someone/Well so could anyone
You took my dreams from me whenI first found you/
I kept them with me babe I put them with my own
Can't make it all alone I've built my dreams around you

[Repeat chorus]

(Ronan Keating/performed by the Pogues)

Thursday, December 08, 2005

A Christmas Story

My mother died at Arlington Hospital at six o'clock on Christmas Eve (just like old Jacob Marley) in 1996, from the results of a stroke she had suffered a few days earlier.

I have a memory of a group of the grown-ups sitting around her hospital bed, chatting quietly that cold, grey afternoon. If I recall correctly, her grandchildren had all said their good-byes the night before, and were off with their Aunt, who took them bowling. It was a pleasant diversion for them at a difficult time, and in years since has become an odd little family tradition—"What, your family doesn't traditionally go Christmas Eve Bowling?!?"

I felt we needed something to acknowledge the season, so I left the hospital and drove, first, to the ABC store, and then to the grocery store, the last faltering incarnation of the once-proud "Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company."

I bought a small flask of bourbon and a small flask of dark rum from the bleak, stale-smelling, harshly-fluorescent-lit, Soviet-inspired ABC store, and a quart of eggnog, a shaker of nutmeg and some cheap plastic cups from the grocery store. I returned to the hospital room with bottles and bags tucked into the capacious pockets of my winter coat, then poured a round of eggnogs for all, spiked them with a bit of bourbon and rum, and dusted each with nutmeg.

We drank a round to Mom, then a second to finish off the container of eggnog. Most of us left the hospital around sundown except Mom's oldest daughter, my big sister, who stayed with Mom until she died and then called us all to let us know. We all cried, a little bit of sadness and a little bit of rage and a little bit of relief and a lot of emotional exhaustion after a week of increasingly despairing hospital visits.

I still have the container of nutmeg, though it's almost all gone now. It gives me some idea of how fast—on average—we consume nutmeg. I never had a way to gauge that before.

Merry Christmas.