Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Born Not To Run . . .

Though I had officially called it quits on my day job of nearly three-decades Christmas Eve, January 2, 2020 felt like my first real day of retirement. Two of my kids were still home, one on college break, the other recently graduated and looking for a job. My wife had gone back to work that morning, but before doing so, turned off the lights on the Christmas tree, signaling the holidays were officially over. Over too, was the excitement leading up to my retirement, which made me feel like a between person, a ghost passing through a purgatory of relative being and non-being and coming out the other side a whole person again who, for the first time since his teens, no longer had a job to go to. Now that these things had passed, I was charged with implementing the plan I developed to avoid common post-work mistakes like watching Morning Joe, napping half the day away or pouring myself a drink at noon.

I awoke a bit before 4 a.m. which was a shade later than the time I got up during my working days. I made coffee, fed animals and engaged in a bit of self-loathing for wasting time scrolling through meaningless social media posts. Eventually, about 4:45am, I got going on what would fill many of my post-work hours—writing. I am the author of two novels and currently have a book of essays in search of a home. So I got to work on my highest priority piece, a novel that had been shelved for some time because of the day job and other projects—I always seem to have twenty things going at once. Part of my plan was to prioritize these projects into a hierarchical order. The most important, hardest writing would come in the earliest part of the day, when the caffeine circulating through my system would synchronize with my fresh, well rested mind. Other writing and tasks would follow according to importance.

I was on track through the first part of the morning, going a little longer than I had planned. Since there were no clocks to punch or appointments I resisted the urge to stop. Instead, I boldly told myself, any and all rules were now made and enforced at my discretion—except the dishes. Part of the retirement agreement I made with my wife was she never would never have to come home to another sinkful of dishes. Since she was now the keeper of the healthcare and a growing 401K, it seemed to be a reasonable trade off. So aside from the dishes, I only had this flimsy framework and was a little delayed getting to my second task of the day—going for a walk with my dog. I want to make a distinction here because most often during my working life I would take my dog for a walk, where she would drag me along neighborhood streets near our house in varying fits of excitement. Today I was going for a walk with my dog, which was a big difference. This was for both of us.
Kaya Francis Bean

These walks were to be another component of my retirement. In the day to day bustle of working, your environment often becomes something to contend with rather than experience, especially when you work outdoors and live just outside of Buffalo, New York. I wanted to experience my environment in a non-antagonistic way. I wanted the snow to have a chance to be earthy and neutral rather than this nuisance that made my commute harried and dangerous. I wanted the stillness and solitude of the woods to be a volume knob set to one or zero. So, in the bright sunshine on a balmy forty-three degree day in Western New York, me and my excitable forty-five pound rescue dog, Kaya Francis Bean took the short twenty minute ride south of the city to Chestnut Ridge Park.

For many on the south side of the city and the nearby Southtowns, The Ridge, as it is commonly known, played a big part in our lives. Growing up in the 60’s, Buffalo still had a lot of heavy industry and The Ridge was a day long respite from the dirty city and it’s nearby industry. In the winter it was a place to sled, toboggan and drink hot chocolate. In the summer there were picnics that always included baseball, catching frogs and sliding down the ravine that cut through the park. Later, in my high school years I would attend big parties on spring and summer weekends, where we would drink beer, throw a frisbee and just hang with friends. And, because I was shy and inarticulate and we didn’t have the social media or apps, I tried to get the attention of girls, for whom I had amorous feelings, by giving them—the eye. This was a statement made with protracted eye contact that said, I’m really interested, but have no game. Yes, it was as creepy as it sounds and almost never produced any results. By the time I had my own family heavy industry was long gone from Buffalo and a move to the suburbs came with an abundance of parks, so The Ridge, beyond some occasional sledding, became irrelevant.

Although much of the twelve-hundred acre park was closed to traffic in the winter, it was still possible to hike on the melting snow-covered roads. Trying to shut down my head a bit and just be, for a few moments, we walked out of the parking lot up an adjacent road off the main drag. The twisting path was worn with snow covered foot and paw prints, but there were no people in sight. Though I could hear the distant hum of maintenance trucks and eventually a dog barking, which made Kaya pull on her leash, it was relatively peaceful, calm and very pretty. I looked at the closed outhouses and picnic shelters covered by steel roofs and my quiet head started to buzz with a million memories of mosquito bites, unrequited crushes and pop flies. Sitting in one of the shelters on top of a picnic table with Kaya nudging at my hand to either come up with more treats or keep moving, I looked at a snow-covered field of a thousand kickball and tag games and started to think about place—this place, Chestnut Ridge, and Buffalo.

A few days earlier, on New Year’s Eve, a friend who had left Buffalo decades earlier for Houston, Texas posted on social media about how he was always reflective at this time of the year. That, when he was at a turning point in his life, Bruce Springsteen's Born To Run, guided his escape from Buffalo. It was his “rocket fuel of departure,” he said. Others chimed in about leaving Buffalo because of drugs or the ignorance of the parochial neighborhoods. In her teen years my future wife appropriated a line from “Thunder Road” off the same record for her high school quote—“it’s a town full of losers and I’m pulling out of here to win.” I too had romantic visions of departure and adventure, but mine came more from literature than music. But, leaving and moving on didn’t just start in a music studio with the Boss. A large part of the human story is about movement of people, whether it’s wandering nomadically in the desert for forty-years, chasing gold in the Yukon or these days, fleeing climate change. But, beyond these romantic visions of physical escape, the real thing I think Springsteen was talking about and fighting against is apathy. Born To Run, and “Thunder Road,” are a response to the deadening of the human spirit, the vacancy of our souls.

By the time Springsteen got to Born To Run in the mid-1970’s America had been conquered. Our expansionist dreams had been fulfilled from sea to shining sea and beyond. His audience, mostly white kids who had enough disposable income to buy his records by the millions, were bored and restless and connected to the idea of redemption beneath the hood of a car and to die in an everlasting kiss with Mary or Wendy as they pulled out of here to win. The imagery, to quote my friend was, “rocket fuel,” and the powerful myth making rock-n-roll, provided an escape from the monotony of middle-class privilege. But was it ever true?

Some of us, I suppose, can point to a handful of experiences when we felt free and alive, out cruising with our friends or a girl. But, the cruising and the girls never lasted, because we all had to, in the most un-born-to-run way, get up and go to work in the morning. We had to earn money so we could eat, have shelter and so we could buy false rock-n-roll dreams that would keep the tedium of our lives at bay. No one likes to admit it, but what we need, what we crave is stability. I can’t recall one instance where anyone has gone screaming into the night and come out the other side strong, healthy and successful.

We all know the nefarious stories of rock-n-rollers burning down the highway at two-hundred-miles-per-hour and then crashing in a haze of substance abuse and shattered dreams. We’ve read the adventures of Jack Kerouac on the road, crisscrossing the country in search of his muse, only to die from alcoholism at the tender age of forty-seven. Or maybe we’ve immersed ourselves in the depraved narratives of Charles Bukowski, who lived life out of a cardboard suitcase, forever at the edge of homelessness in Los Angeles. More recently the tragedy of Anthony Bourdain. And surely most of us know the stress and hardships of those whose work requires constant travel. So, this idea of gassing up the hemi, with four on the floor and busting out into the night seems to come with a whole lot of negative and often tragic consequences.

Then there’s the other side of that coin where we need rather than want to leave. The “rocket fuel” Born To Run provided my friend was to leave Buffalo, his hometown. All of us living in Rust Belt towns from Scranton, Pennsylvania to Gary, Indiana know the upheaval of the last forty years. As globalism made the world contract with its cheap labor and production costs, a way of life disappeared from these towns. At its height Bethlehem Steel in Lackawanna, just south of Buffalo, employed some twenty-thousand people and spawned thousands of secondary jobs. I remember sitting on my porch as a kid listening to my dad talk to our neighbor, Mr. Anderson, who worked at the plant—we all had neighbors who worked at the plant— Mr. Anderson pointing up at the familiar hazy twilight, all burnt orange and red with plant exhaust said, “That there is mother’s milk.” But, by 1982 the milk ducts went dry, not only in Buffalo, but throughout the whole region.

In 1950 Rust Belt towns contained almost forty-percent of the U.S. population. By 2000, that number dwindled to about twenty-five-percent. Somewhere in there my friend and other neighborhood people took their leave, including members of my own family. Some left, I suppose, to chase dreams fired by rock-n-roll, but I imagine most said good-bye because of bad circumstances and lack of opportunity. Regardless of why they left, once they found that place at the other end of the road, they most likely did the same things I was doing in Buffalo or what you were doing where you live. They got a job, found a spouse, raised kids, cut grass, cheered for teams, but just in a different physical location. Everything is the same except for the little dot on the map where they ended up. Of course, there are differences—they might have traded snow for tornados, chicken wings for gumbo or gone from a red state to a blue state. Otherwise, it’s all the same. We might not like to admit it, but the truth is, we are born not to run. The truth is, when upheaval and change becomes necessary we do everything in our power to settle back into a stable situation.

As much as it would seem that our job is to remain stable and not physically pick up and leave, the real task it seems to me, is to stay mentally engaged and plugged in so our lives don’t become monotonous and our soul’s dead. That’s what’s really born to run—our heads and our intellect. But people don’t nurture their heads. They listen to the same music, watch the same TV shows and news programs, hear the same boring stories about your wife’s work friend, Susan. Then, after a week of being trampled and debased chasing that dollar that keeps you stable and alive, you have a few beers and hear that scruffy Springsteen guy belt out Born To Run and you think the grass is greener in Texas or Florida, but it’s not. The place where the grass will grow to the most exquisite shade of suburban green is right there in your own head.

I did a physically demanding job in all kinds of weather for nearly three decades and while I can’t say I liked it, I was able to find a certain equanimity that others didn’t. And the reason was I continuously fed myself with books and music and writing. Through this whole past Christmas season, with holiday music assaulting the masses post-Halloween, I was able to mostly avoid all of those overplayed songs. While everyone was dashing through the snow with Gwen Stafeni on the local lite hits station, I was listening to a niche classical station on Sirius XM called Holiday Pops. It should be noted that when I hear the name Philip Glass, I think of J.D.Salinger’s fictional Glass family, not the great minimalist composer. When I hear the name DeBussy I think of the New York Knicks great 1970’s power forward, Dave DeBusschere, not the nineteenth century French impressionist composer. The reality is I know next to nothing about classical music and furthermore, I’m not sure I even like it. But for over a month I listened to the holiday music of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and the New York Philharmonic, King's College Choir and others. While it may not have been consistently pleasing, in the very least it was always fresh and interesting. It fired sleeping neurons in my head and took me to places I'd never seen before—new vistas were explored and unknown sonic landscapes were considered. But most of all this music made me ponder the season in a way Nat King Cole and Bing Crosby no longer had the power to do.

So, here in this formerly dirty town, in this park south of the city, with an excitable little rescue dog I’m going to walk these lovely snow-covered trails. I’m going to think about the games played and reminisce about all the people gone from here, but mostly as my life takes this new turn and I find a new framework to keep me moving forward I’m going to nurture that thing that was truly born to run—my head.

And when I get home, I'm going to make sure there are no dishes in the sink.

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