The day is coming to a close, but still the Virginia sun bakes the tarmac outside the giant windows. CNN blares. A teenager stares blankly, white earbuds draped from her ears connect to a shiny black box in her lap. A man paces in front of the entrance to the restrooms speaking emphatically into a phone. A man and a woman dressed in business suits exchange niceties. It is time to board. With extreme alacrity everyone scrambles toward the jetway. The flight has been delayed an hour and there is a worried look on many travelers who need to make connections in Atlanta.
The flight crew hustles us to our seats. The captain comes on and apologizes for the delay due to bad weather in Atlanta. The last thing I do before the door is closed is gaze at my weather aap. There is a huge red blob sitting over Atlanta. We sit for a few minutes and then one of the flight attendants comes over the PA, “Disarm the doors”. There is a collective groan. A ground agent comes on the PA and informs us we need to exit the plane. There is a ‘ground-hold’ in Atlanta and it will be at least 90 minutes before we can depart.
There is nothing quite as satisfying as walking off an airplane having finished a flight to your destination. Therefore, it stands to reason that there is nothing quite as dissatisfying as getting off an airplane having gone nowhere. Some business travelers let down their guard, “Do you have a connection?”, a portly man in a short-sleeve shirt and tie asks his neighbor. It is getting close to 8pm and the crowd heads for the restaurant and bar across from the gate. One by one the seats are taken. I sit one stool down from a man who appears to have been there all day. I order a sandwich and a beer and stare at the TV. It is going to be a long night.
A man with a large Starbucks cup asks me if the seat between me and the drunkest man in county is taken. “It’s all yours”, I say trying to conceal any double meaning. “Thanks, I’m Jim.” He says. Jim is lugging a canvas guitar case. His drunk neighbor asks him what kind of music he plays. Jim politely converses with him. Then I suggest half-jokingly that he should play. “Nah”, he says and orders a glass of red wine. He is friendly and we talk a bit more about the flight problems. He is going home to Austin and needs to make a connecting flight. “Really, you should get out your guitar and play.” I tell him. He is afraid of bothering people. I point out how busy the bar is and that no one should really notice. He looks around and begins to pull out the instrument and then hesitates. “What about security? Airports are funny that way.” The drunk man erupts, “What are they going to arrest you for? Making people happy?”
Jim looks relieved and confident. He begins to play. After an initial shock the bar warms up to him. It quickly becomes a sing-along as Jim belts out the Eagles an Jim Croce tunes. We all laugh when he starts playing a song called “Walking Back to Georgia.” The kitchen help comes out to enjoy the show and a few people pull out phones to take a picture. Looking around, the crowd has taken on a whole new tenor. People are smiling and some begin to speak with their neighbors. Laptops are closed and earbuds drop. Everyone is clapping and singing along to “Sweet Caroline”.
The PA roars outside the bar and everyone comes to attention. The flight is ready to go. It is almost 9.30. Everyone squares up on their tabs and Jim shoves his guitar back in the case. “Nice talking to you, Jim” I say. We spill out of the bar and walk to the gate. As the tickets ‘beep’ under the laser reader, and we begin to board the plane for a second time, the shroud of anonomynity casts itself over us once more. We fly home in silence and scatter wordlessly like dust.
Before there were the Appalachian mountains and before Africa slammed into what is now the Southeastern United States to form them, there were vast, low, swampy flatlands. Few animals were to be found and the ground was littered with oxygen producing ferns of various sizes. Year after year plant matter broke down as sediment and was covered over with more of the same.
I am going to talk about one year in particular. The year is not certain and in the long life of the sun it is not especially important. On this particular year ferns grew much like any year before or after. The ferns lived, prospered, died and were buried in the muck. As the sun shone on them for the last time in the shallow water it seemed certain they would never see the light again.
50 million years later the mountains rose. In the northwest corner of what is now Georgia a lot of fern sediment was crushed into coal by the mountain building forces, but the ferns I am interested in were not destroyed and lay entombed in shale rock. During our very recent era, coal was mined in this part of Georgia and the shale tailings were pushed up into long 15 foot heaps. The heaps channeled water and built stream beds. A hundred years later I was born. Two weeks ago we visited these heaps with permission from the Rome Geological Society and brought back a number of chunks of shale we found under the wet snow and black earth.
Yesterday, I sat on my driveway in the warmth of the Georgia March sun and took a chisel to the seams in the sides of the shale. Carefully I pried apart bits of 300 million year old mud from one another and let the sun shine on the fossil of ferns that grew in that ancient swamp. The leaves shone black, but I could see the life they once had and could imagine them green and swaying in a heavy rain storm. I held the rocks sunward and smiled broadly not only at what I had found, but what I had freed after such an improbable amount of time.
I felt incredibly small and then I wiped a tear from my eye that smudged coal dust from my hands across my face. My wife came out with the dog. She said, ‘you have dirt on your face.’ ‘I know,’ I replied, ‘I know.’
What do you want to be when you grow up?
That is a question that sounds pretty fresh even though it has probably not been posed to me in over 25 years. If you had asked me that on the day I graduated high school I would have told you the same thing as when I graduated from college: I want to be a writer.For me college was just a buffer zone between high school and the real world which promptly swallowed me whole the minute I graduated from Duke with my Classical Studies degree. I sucked it up and did what I needed to. I did my time working as a sales person in Chicago and diligently pounded away at the great American novel in the evenings and weekends. I found new purpose after I got married and was putting my wife through law school. I figured if I could just make it until she graduated, I could finally sign off of this merry-go-round and get down to the business of being a writer while she made the money. I also figured I could put my novel and writing away until I had more time to work on it. I counted down to the day my wife graduated. There was nobody happier than me as we drove the Ryder van up I-94 from Chicago to St Paul, MN to begin her clerkship job there. I announced with glee to my boss that I was leaving. When he asked where I was going, I said St Paul. In retrospect, I think that what he meant was what was I planning to do next? “No idea,” would have been the answer.
I took a job at Bruegger’s bagels in St Paul for something to do and waited for the money to role in. It didn’t work that way, and getting paid minimum wage to be bossed about by a 17-year-old store manager was insulting. I cold make a lot more than that and get insulted just the same. I signed on to AT&T in Minneapolis and never looked back. That was 1994. By the end of 2010 I had been rewarded as the best, worked overseas, promoted, made the boss and then talked-about, abused and sent back to back of the line. Something had to be done.
So, I started writing. I wrote a screenplay that still needs revision. I also started looking for a way to start over. We moved to Atlanta in late 2011. I found another AT&T job that had more promise but initially did not have a very bright outlook. And, I kept writing. I volunteered to blog for AT&T and I started blogging for myself here on WordPress. I joined toastmasters and began writing engaging speeches. Last Friday as I drove home, I realized I was finally a writer. I didn’t go back to journalism school, I didn’t go back to square one. I also did not write the great American novel and rocket out of my current life. I just evolved in the direction I had always wanted to go. I think I am just at the beginning of my new career. Maybe I will look back and find another true tipping point in my metamorphosis. But it has been in the past week, that I have felt that I am truly now a writer and nothing else.
Monday seems like the right day to bring this up. I haven’t been to a rock show in a long time, but I did go to one back in October with my friend here in Atlanta Ronnie Jakes. We went to see Dinosaur Jr. the seminal 90’s band and (now) aging rockers. They played a small venue at the Variety Playhouse in Little Five Point.
I was afraid I was I going to feel sad in my fluorescent ear-plugs seeing how one of my favorite bands had devolved over the years. There was some of that, but I also got back in touch with why I enjoy live rock shows at all.
The band rolled onto the stage late and disheveled. I watched the performers and tried to get into their heads. Where did they get that tee-shirt? What were they doing before the show? How much money do they really make doing this? What do they do with any down-time in all these cities they tour? I also notice their craft. I am in toastmasters these days and speaking in front of a room of 15 people effectively is not easy. These guys are playing and singing in front of a raucous house of 100’s.
But then the music fills my ears. The reckless abandon of loud power cords, too much bass and nervous looks to the sound team to turn up or down some level. The sound issues happen inevitably and is one of my favorite parts of the show. The show takes on its own life, the performers are just a part of it. The audience is another and the music and overall sound make up the other two legs of the chair. I retreat into my own head. The sound surrounds my thoughts. This is exactly the way it was back in college at these shows. Between the noise, I can still think about my worries, which have evolved from ‘how am I going to pass this class?’ to ‘How do I get out of this dead-end job?’ But, the music answers my all fears. It tells me to not worry. It moves me to ponder why I care about those things anyway? I meld into the music, lyrics, other audience members and band members. This is the swell of humanity. We are here for such a short time. I am beckoned to live life and feel alive in this place. The whole world in one room.
These days I don’t see a lot of shows, but I do find myself on weekends sitting on the patio in a plastic chair I salvaged from a neighbors who had it out as junk. I put my feet up on the drink table I salvaged from another house last Spring. I watch the private jets on approach for a landing in Peachtree Airport and wonder what would happen if I didn’t go to work on Monday. Would my life actually improve? Would I finally be living the rock ‘n roll life that I have dreamed about since college?
Something went terribly wrong in Belize. I don’t want to speculate on what or why it happened, but neighbors lives sometimes meld together in strange ways. In the case of John McAfee his neighbor lost his life and this sent John, the millionaire dot com’er on a wild ride. First he evaded the crack Believe police by burying himself in the sand up to his face on the beach in front of his house. He then snuck away McGiver-style and hid out in cafes around town lurking behind a newspaper in disguise. Of course he continued to post to his social media sites about his life on the lam and claiming innocence to any wrong-doing. I didn’t catch how he did it, but he slipped over the border to Guatemala and ask for asylum. He was roundly denied and plans to extradite him back to Belize are pending.
John’s odyssey is a helpful reminder for me that I am not ready to retire just yet. I am not saying that I would end up in his position, but I can easily imagine getting into some sort of trouble if I was not chained up in my cube 40 hours a week. Each day when I get to the office I step out into that humid Georgia air and think, “what would I do today if I didn’t have to work.’ I am never without ideas. Sometimes they involve researching something at the library or finally learning how to really play the guitar and ukulele. Other days they involve turning up the radio and driving much too fast.
I often quote my long-dead friend Socrates who told us we should ‘know ourselves’. There are a number of advantages to such knowledge. The biggest, I have to imagine, is knowing our limits. Roman emperor Trajan wept when he reached the end of the Persian peninsula in his waning years. He wanted to conquer the world and just settle the matter. He wanted to have everything settled at least to the east. He realized that the world was too big and he was too small. It is the same feeling I had years ago when I set out to paint our house in St Paul. I worked all spring, summer and fall to do it. After the next harsh Minnesota winter had ended I was looking at the eaves on spring day and noticed the paint already showing signs of wear. I got on my knees and wept. I had no army to witness it and no one to chronicle it beside my paint-speckled ladder and stiff paint brushes. I knew how Trajan felt.
Each day we need to get up and not do our part. Do the work the world has put before us. This does not mean we are not aware of how it could be different or that we are sleep-walking through life. It does mean that we know our limits and try to live each day uncomfortably smashed up against the edges of what delineates us.
The snow flew in Minnesota this weekend. Meanwhile, it was hot and muggy in Atlanta. We dragged our tree home from the shopping center behind our house on a red plastic sled. The scraping on the roads and sidewalks made a hideous noise as we went along.
I feel sorry for John McAfee.
Dry as a bone. Not sure what is so dry about bones, but this phrase came to mind as the last of the oak leaves sifted down making crackling noises as they hit the road and driveways on the street where I live in Georgia. It hasn’t rained in forever. The great holiday preparations are in full swing and I hung our Christmas lights with the help of my son who is fantastic with all things electrical and mechanical. He loves getting up on the roof and this gave us a good excuse to both be up there.
I don’t dread Mondays the way my kids do. On Sunday night my daughter and I drove her friend home on the empty Atlanta streets. It seemed the entire world was taking a short pause before the crush of a new work week and a new week of holiday shopping and preparing. The kids are getting ready for their big break and can hardly stand it. Meanwhile in the car my daughter lamented the beginning of the new school week. I listened and searched my own heart. I was not worried about the new week. I knew I would be safe in my nameless cube as I am right now and it wouldn’t be all that bad. The difficulty I face is feeling ok with my work while trying to remain motivated to change it and make it more engaging. The job I have now allows for a great deal of introspection. Any responsibility I have I try to release to anyone who wishes to have it more than me. I know that holding on to responsibility does not allow for growth or movement.
So, the dead leaves fly. It is so strange to have a warm day at the beginning of December, but that is just how it is in Atlanta. I feel the sunshine on my shirt and I try to remember to feel content. This is not forever. It is just for now.
The road from our house around to the Stone Mountain batholith curves and winds up and down. Batholith is a clever way of saying a large single chunk of granite that has formed and cooled underground during the Appalachian mountain-building phase about 280 million years ago and now has eroded up and out of the ground. From Stone Mountain the highway bends less yet continues to roll over red dirt as we head toward Macon. I am half awake and the sun is coming up. I am cheating John Muir in his historic walk from the Appalachians to Savannah by means of following the Savannah river.
After Macon my wife is driving and fall asleep for a short period of time. When I jolt awake I notice the road has flattened and the road-cut through the tiny dips and hills looks like a miniature version of the badlands. Rolling water from the otherwise flat surface is gouging conical and fantastic mazes in the sand. The sand is white with a reddish tint. I also notice spanish moss hanging from the trees and I see scrub pines.
Another 100 miles roll by until I notice John Muir’s Palmetto trees and bushes populating the side of the road between the pines in the ever-increasing white sand earth. Muir was so excited to see his first Palmetto. He grew up in Scotland and emigrated to Illinois via New York and this was his first trip south when he walked the Savannah to the sea. Little did he know that some Palmettos grow in Scotland and the most northerly Palmetto lives in norther Scotland outside a hotel by a lac. Oh well.
It is our last day in Savannah on Sunday and we are up early and ready for the trudge home. We roll down a partial dirt road to Bonaventure cemetery where Muir slept each night to get away from the Collera and Typhus that rand rampant in Savannah in his era. He slept under some bushes near the Wilmington River in this cemetery. The dead can’t make you sick, only the living can do that.
I would be less scared of ghosts and more scared of alligators, I think as I look at the marshy terrain as it leads to the river bank from the old part of the cemetery. The day is so fresh; birds sing. There is a certain slight coolness and dampness in the air, but the sun is direct and hot on my shoulders. A boat passes lazily down the river creating small wake that lumbers like a day laborer in August to the shore. Lush green bushes and palmettos are canopied by live oaks and dangling spanish moss. The scene is sufficiently morose and life-giving at the same time. We awkwardly walk about and gaze at the remembrances of those who have come before us. My 11-year-old daughter pulls a scrap paper and pencil from the glove box and sits in the grass facing the river with her back to the grave stones and pens a poem. Something small and benign stirs under the bushes. The journey is complete.