Thursday, August 28, 2008

Reaching Out for a Tune

Last night I watched a movie, an Italian production named The Orange Thief. It was a mildly interesting movie about a guy who stole oranges for a living, a thug who was in jail, and a wild girl who could really sing.

The orange thief was caught and thrown in jail. He shared a cell with the thug, who wanted him to sing a song. The guard had left a guitar outside the cell, but the bars were too close together for the prisoners to get it inside. So the thief put his arms through the bars, picked up the instrument, and played.

The scene of a man in jail reaching outside to play a guitar was an inspiring one to me. It didn't matter that he was singing about something as humble and quaint as a little donkey. If I could reach out from my own jail just to strike a cheerful tune, then maybe I could bring a little more sunshine into my life and hopefully someone else's life as well.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Chopin on the Road

When I crossed the border from Georgia into Tennessee, one side of the road was still slumbering in a long dark shadow; but on the other side the morning sun was spreading a thin layer of gold on the pine trees, and those needles at the top were sparkling in response.

My mind was as calm and contented as the landscape was still and bright. These long drives could be tiring, but they also helped me to unwind. My past few months had been stressful with frustration and anger accumulated but undealt with for lack of time. Just three days ago, when I had started this trip and my car had just reached the countryside outside Washington, pent-up emotions had suddenly broken loose and created such a storm inside my mind that a whole CD had finished playing on the car stereo without me hearing anything. As the miles had rolled by one after another, the commotion in my head had subsided and finally died down, and I had realized with shock how tense I had been.

Stress therapy aside, I was still a sucker for road trips. I supposed they appeased the restlessness and the curiosity in me, or maybe it was simply my kind of fun. As a child I had accompanied my parents on road trips occasionally; and I still remembered the rush of excitement at the appearance of the blue shape of a mountain faintly visible in the horizon, and at the thought that before long I would reach that distant, unfamiliar place. Since then I had passed beyond a great deal of blue mountains, but the excitement had not diminished, for which I considered myself a fortunate man.

I was not so fortunate in one particular aspect. Since leaving my childhood behind, the more I had learned about humanity, the dimmer my view of it had become. Sometimes while mulling over my own existence, I felt as helpless as a seabird trapped in the body of an earthworm. Thinking too much was certainly a bad idea and made my life terribly lonely, but it was in my disposition and there was nothing I could do to stop it.

I shook my head to dispel the gloomy thoughts, then popped a CD into the player. The brisk, bright, and exquisite piano sound of Chopin enlivened my mood. Outside, the sun was cheering up the lush but quiet landscape. White farmhouses and red barns, green meadows with black-and-white cows grazing or just lying around, then a river full to the brim with a big country house half-hidden behind a bend. This part of Tennessee was less developed, and there was no strip mall or big box in sight.

Presently I hit Interstate 40. My first trip on this highway had been on a Greyhound bus before starting graduate school nearly thirteen years ago. To the west and across an area of spectacular rugged mountains was Nashville, where I had changed to another bus to Memphis and had sat between a drunk and a cowboy carrying a guitar. The memory brought me a grin and a chuckle, but I had to turn east to get back to my current place in life. No time for wandering now.

Chopin was still playing, the sun was still shining, and my mind was drifting from one small thought to another until I noticed that lining the roadsides were cypresses instead of pines. I was approaching Bristol, where thirteen years ago a Canadian journalist had got out of that Greyhound bus after giving me a long talk on the corruption of the wealthy and politically influential. I had changed from an earnest greenhorn who would have swallowed any story back then into the hardened skeptical man of today, and I wondered if it was really for the better. Naiveté could hurt, but without trust life would be just a desert of dead rock.

I left Bristol behind and crossed the border into southwestern Virginia. The hilly countryside here was picturesque, basking in light and covered in green grass. Farmhouses, cows and horses attested to a slow pace of life. I turned on the radio and caught some country singer telling the world that he was a common man driving a common van, and something about highbrow people losing their sanity which made me burst out laughing.

I supposed it was possible for me to live a normal, happy life. I could cast aside my weltschmerz, get a good woman, and occupy myself with whatever husbands and fathers normally did. Suddenly I found myself yearning for a suburban home filled with light and affection. There would be a couple of kids playing around, orchids in the kitchen, and the sunlit sound of Chopin.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Roosevelt Island

I was not feeling well, so I decided to pretend to be feeling well. I grabbed my hat and backpack and was on my way to explore Roosevelt Island.

I parked on the bank of the Potomac near Key Bridge, then took a short walk to a footbridge. Behind me were hordes of zipping cars and the slick highrises of Rosslyn. In front of me was the quiet, slender bridge ending at an expansive wealth of green foliage so lush it spilled over into the surrounding water.

A few steps into the island I stopped where the gravelled path split into more paths. I hesitated a moment then followed the widest one, which also looked the most trodden. Soon I came to an eyesore, a jarring implant in the middle of graceful nature. It was a memorial to Teddy Roosevelt, massive, ungainly, and about as feeling as the plain concrete it was built with. I thought of taking a picture but skipped the idea, for I did not want to offend my camera.

I backtracked to where the trails branched off. Mindful of the deplorable effect of following the crowd, this time I picked a trail as thin as a thread that swung to the lower ground along the shoreline. This was a rough one, blocked by fallen trees some low enough to climb over, some not so low I had to crouch to pass under. A couple of red birds darted about then disappeared. Through a gap in the foliage I saw the river, so I picked my way across the wild growth until my shoes almost touched the water. I looked out and my eyes caught quite a pleasant scene.

Right in the middle of the river rose a rock, resting against which was a kayak painted blue and white. A guy was sitting on the rock watching his girlfriend swimming in the sparkling emerald water. I had to admit it was a swell idea to take your lover in a kayak to a lonely rock in a river for a swim on a sultry afternoon. The only thing that seemed a bit odd to me was that the guy did not strip and jump in to swim with her as I would have done.

I got back to my trail and resumed the hike. Eventually I emerged from a tangle of twigs and vines onto a small stretch of sand bordering the river on the island side that faced the District. It was low tide, and beyond the stretch of sand there was an additional stretch of mud. This part of the river was busy with motorboats and kayaks, with the arcs of Key Bridge and the spires of Georgetown University in the backdrop.

View of Key Bridge from Roosevelt Island

The view was picturesque, so I sat down on a drift log to take it all in. After a while, the noise of the motorboats and the neon-orange life vests on the kayakers started to grate on my nerves. I found a new trail and plunged back into the more subdued colors and sounds of the forest.

Soon I came to what I thought to be a footbridge, but the bridge kept going on and on until I realized it was really a footpath constructed from wood that ran above a large tract of swamp. It was such a pleasure to walk on that clear path under a thick canopy of green leaves through which the fierce summer sun was metamorphosed into a soft, diffusing emerald glow that tenderly wrapped around you and caressed all your senses. I sat down on a bench, relaxed and contented. It did not matter that the faint humming of a hustle-bustle life still reverberated to this haven or a passing airplane was rumbling above my head, for what I was getting was precious enough for me.

A couple of joggers passed by and gave me a smile. That reminded me that someone would be waiting for me shortly, so I stood up with reluctance and walked the rest of the trail. At last I arrived at the footbridge that led me back to the riverbank, only this time the island was behind my back and in front of me was a tall glass building bearing the name of a company that fed on military contracts. That was the world I was returning to, just another bee in one of those beehives. But I promised myself that I would go back to sit on that bench again when the magic breath of autumn would turn Roosevelt Island into a mass of red and golden enchantment. As to that hideous memorial, I would just ignore it.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Cock Your Head

There was a ding, the elevator door opened. A woman stepped out, followed by a small boy of maybe three or four years old. The boy was speaking with excitement, “Mom, Mom, it’s a vee!” to which his mother replied, “No, it’s an el.” I could still hear him protest that it was a vee and his mother firmly assert that it was an el on their way out of the building.

The overheard conversation intrigued me, and when inside the elevator pressing on the button to my floor I suddenly understood what the boy and his mother had talked about. On the control panel there was a button with the letter L for Lobby, and the boy must have cocked his head to see a V instead.

Smart little fellow, I thought and couldn’t suppress a grin. Too bad his mother didn’t see it that way, but that’s exactly how a virgin mind was stripped of its originality and molded into seeing things the way everyone else did. Too bad we reduce ourselves to a bunch of horses with blinkers.

How about this for a change. When you get stuck or simply get bored, just cock your head when looking at whatever interests you. Like that boy, you might see a V instead of an L, and that might give you a whole new set of eyes to see the world with.