Sunday, May 24, 2009

Road Tested and Battle Weary

I'm two days in to my four day walk from South Bethlehem to Bryn Mawr. First, the good news: no injuries, only a couple of minor blisters, and my spirit is unbowed. Now, the bad: I have to go to work again on Tuesday. I wish I could stay out on the road. This practice walk is teaching me a couple of things, and one is that I will enjoy the rythym of my days as I walk halfway across the country. Although I often rail against it, I do well with a strict routine, and I am finding that I enjoy the demands of the road between 9am and 5pm, followed by the pleasures of company and rest with my hosts in the evening.

Speaking of hosts, I've been blessed with two wonderful home stays so far. In Quakertown I was welcomed with open arms by David & Jeanette Ryan. A little over a month ago I wrote David after going to the Quakertown United Methodist Church website and seeing that he was its pastor. David did not hesitate in extending an invite to stay with his family during my night in Quakertown. So after my 14 mile walk from Lehigh I was able to relax at his house with his family and a couple of close friends and enjoy an evening of good food and stimulating conversation. I mean, what more can you want from a day than a challenging walk followed by good company? In a nutshell, that is what I am seeking on this walk. On my first full scale "practice day" I saw that it isn't a pipe dream. There are people out there - like the Ryans - who will welcome a stranger into their house and show them the same care and concern they would to Jesus (sans the foot washing) or to an existing friend.  I hope that at the end of my journey I will be able to start repaying all the hospitality I am shown by giving the same to others in return. I think more than anything else, that is how this trip will change me - I'll be intensely aware of the opportunities to breakdown the walls that separate us and try to make friends of those strangers in need.

I got an early start on Saturday because I knew I had a mammoth walking task ahead. Google Maps had delivered the bad news that I had 21 long miles to tread before arriving at Del and Keli's. What Google Maps conveniently left out was that these were 21 hilly miles, thus mulitplying the challenge by an order of three. Add to this saucy mix that Mother Nature poked me in the ribs with another day with temperatures in the high 80s and it was beginning to look like a perfect storm, minus Marky Mark's full Maritime Beard. 

When you have 21 miles in front of you there is no reason to rush. The road will always be there, and there are always more steps to take. So I plod along, careful to hydrate and openly wishing that I had more interesting podcasts loaded up on my iPod. I've learned quite a few lessons in these first days, so I thought I would mention some here lest I forget them before August 30:
  • Sneakers aren't going to cut it. Lack of sidewalks and graded shoulders mean that I am often walking on an incline. Shoes with ankle support will be the order of the day. I need me some boots.
  • Walking seems less like a chore when I have a podcast or musical to listen to. It must trick the brain into forgetting about whatever physical stress the body is undergoing.
  • Sidewalks are few and far between. I must make peace with enjoying the shoulder of the road. The white line separating the car lane from the shoulder is my BFF. The wider that area is, the more I thank said transportation planner.
  • I can never drink enough water. In fact, I've been sweating from places I didn't even know could sweat, my back being the lead offender. 
  • If I am going to get a lunch to carry in my backpack for a couple of hours before eating it, a chicken fajita wrap with salsa probably isn't the best call.
There are other lessons and observations, but they elude me now. From time to time I write them on Twitter in real time, so you can check those out if you are really bored. But I warn you, don't expect any laughs. It's hard to be funny while climbing an endless hill and keeping an eye on the semi-truck headed your way on a narrow road. So hopefully you will settle for adequate spelling and good grammar.

I arrived in Sanatoga at Del & Keli's at around 4pm. I was tired. My feet hurt. But I had conquered one of the harder 21 miles hikes I will face and was still upright. I was welcomed by the whole crew, including my parents, and after a shower I felt rejuvenated. Cleansed from the soot of the road I was able to eat, drink and continue my ongoing 6-year discussion I have been having with Del and my father about homosexuality. Long story, but suffice it to say our conversation always seems to come back to this topic. We each have three distinct viewpoints and it is fun to go back and forth and explore each other's views without getting all attached to who is right and who is wrong. 

A quick aside - as I experience more of life I am starting to see that feeling like I am "right" in any given situation is kind of an intellectual conceit. My opinions are just that - mental constructs that for whatever reason I have settled on given my experience in life and how I have reflected on those experiences afterward. It no longer matters to me if someone thinks my opinion is wrong. It doesn't trigger a desire to make them see that I am, in fact, right and they are the ones who are wrong. That is a never-ending cycle of attachment to thought that can only bring frustration and sow discord among friends. I have some friends - like Endel and Claire - who I agree with on many things. Other friends - like Del or Andrea - hold some beliefs that are very different from mine. That doesn't have to make the bonds of friendship weaker. I have found that when I drop my attachment to being right, I can discuss any topic with greater internal harmony. The mind is a great tool, but a crafty one at times. If not careful, it can bring more problems than it does solutions. 

On to Phoenixville this afternoon. Total mileage:

Day One: Lehigh to Quakertown: 14.24 miles
Day Two: Quakertown to Sanatoga: 21.3 miles

Thursday, May 14, 2009

What Makes Us Happy?

You mean besides Broadway musicals, watching The Office or long walks through Central Park in the Spring? Sure, those things make me happy in any given moment, but an article I read today by Joshua Wolf Shenk in The Atlantic has got me thinking a lot about what constitutes a happy and fulfilling life as a whole.

I'll admit that before reading this article I didn't know what a Longitudinal Study was. I might have acted like I understood the term if someone mentioned it in conversation, if only for fear of appearing ignorant. But it turns out I'm a big fan and I didn't even know it. One of my favorite documentaries - The 7UP series - is a popular culture example. Longitudinal Studies - I'll call them Longies for short - are scientific studies of a relatively small group of people over a very long period of time. This article is about a cohort (watch out now, scientific terms coming fast and furious) known as the Grant Group who were all Harvard Students in the early 1940s. It's a long but fascinating article that I may or may not have read entirely at work. Details at 11. But I recommend you read it if this topic interests you.

The scientist who saved this study from dying a slow death due to lack of funding in the 50s and making it his research baby ever since is George Vaillant, whose own complexities and search for happiness are a story within a story, both of which are touched on in this magazine article. The sentence that has stayed with me all day comes from a March 2008 newsletter about the study. It ran an interview with Valliant in which he was asked, "What have you learned from the Grant Study men?" His answer was succinct and beautiful ... at least to me.

Vaillant’s response: “That the only thing that really matters in life are your relationships to other people.” Well, that and the occasional Phillies World Series victory every quarter century. But who's counting?

Saturday, May 9, 2009

The Week in Review: Doing What You Love, Forgiveness and my first Tweet

Sometimes I dream about blogging everyday, only to see days go by without typing a single word. It's almost like I need more time to process my experiences and my thoughts before writing about them. Fellow blogger and walker Skip Potts says writing is a sad vessel to carry thought and I think some of my hesitancy to write at times might be because deep down I wonder if my truest thoughts will slip through the cracks in that vessel and leave the reader with an mouthful of air rather than a nourishing drink. Yet language is what we have, so I use it, if not everyday then - at the very least - to compose a cracked clay cup called my: WEEK IN REVIEW

Saturday Evening, May 2nd

I didn't have time to complete a full 15-mile practice walk last weekend, so I was stuck with the option of an evening stroll. I left my apartment in Harlem at 5pm headed south to Houston St. to catch an 8pm showing of the documentary "Every Little Step" at the Angelika Theater. By 5pm what had been an overcast day was now sunny and bright and the temperature was perfect for walking. Within the first two blocks I felt that familiar flood of positive emotion. Maybe it is the power of Presence, of being somewhere and doing something that you love, of being in the moment and not wanting to be anywhere else. Whatever it is, it feels wonderful. Not wonderful in the way I imagine rounding the bases after hitting a game-winning homer while 60,000 stand and scream feels, but in a less intense, longer lasting sense.

My apartment is only ten blocks from Central Park and at 102nd Street I entered the park and committed to follow its East Drive artery all the way down until it flushed me out onto 59th Street. Not to be too corny - oh, what the hell I'll be corny - but I can't overstate how much I enjoyed "Every Little Step" of that walk through Central Park. All around me the park was alive with people and pets and sunshine and smiles and runners and bikers and blankets full of lovers and friends. In a few less words, it was a joyous place. I plodded along listening to my music and soaking it all in. Honestly, I didn't want it to end. You can't beat Central Park on a beautiful Spring Day. You just can't. To me, its what makes this city most livable and refreshing.

The walk from 59th Street to Houston along 6th Ave. wasn't as transcendent, but it was far from a chore. Walking never is for me. I navigated the crowded sidewalks of Midtown and then eased into the Village. I got to the movie theater early. That won't be a surprise to anyone who knows me. I'm always early, even when I try not to be. A pit stop at the Jamba Juice across the street helped kill 30 minutes and then it was curtain time. All I will say about the movie is this - I find it so inspiring to see people striving to make a living doing what they love the most, even when that dream is challenging. The thousands of people who came to audition for the revival of A Chorus Line all loved to dance and sing. It was an expression of who they felt themselves to be at a core level. It was their life's purpose. This movie was the story of all those thousands trying to get one of 16 roles. To me, it wasn't a story about how few people achieve their dreams, but rather a story about how beautiful it is that so many people are not afraid to GO for their dreams. There is a lesson in that for me. A rather large one, in fact.

Total Miles: 7.67

Monday, May 4th

At the American Bible Society we have a short 30 minute service each Monday called "Moments for the Word". Up until about a month ago, I never went. Then I noticed one of the services was about the story of the Good Samaritan and would feature the music of Keith Green. They had me at "Keith". I've loved that guy's music since I was a kid and Bob, Beth and Andrea introduced me to him in Summer Youth Ministry. But I digress. The point is after attending that one, the chaplain Julian asked me to do a scripture reading a couple weeks later for the Easter service. I accepted. Then this past week the speaker and performer was to be a Rwandan gentleman named Jean-Paul Sumputu and the topic of the service was Forgiveness. That's a worthy topic, regardless of your religious beliefs, so attended again.

Jean-Paul's story was harrowing and inspirational. Both his parents and three of his siblings were killed during the Rwandan genocide. Because he was a well-known singer and a Tutsi, he had fled the country in the lead-up to the government planned massacre. When he finally returned to his village he learned that his Hutu neighbors, including his best friend Vincente, had killed his family. Understandably, this filled him with emotions that led him down a dark path for a number of years. Yet in 2003, while on a mountaintop retreat in Uganda, he found the power of forgiveness and his dark path began to lighten. His testimony was that he realized that the power of forgiveness is that it heals yourself. It is for the victim, not the offender. It's a inner process, not an external one. It allows you to continue living without the weight of anger and spite. It's a choice you can make.

A few of us had lunch with Jean-Paul afterward and he talked about the realities of Rwanda in greater depth. There is a great resistance to forgiveness in that country. It's not surprising really. There is resistance to forgiveness everywhere - both in personal relationships and on the larger scale of national atrocities. As humans there is a part of us that wants to hold onto spite and feed a story of victimhood when we are wronged. The well documented irony is that, in the end, that spite and that story only hurts the person who holds onto it. It is like a diseased blanket that is grabbed because we feel a sudden blast of cold, but then we can't let go of it after the cold has gone and even though the initial warmth of it has been replaced by sickness. Meeting Jean-Paul left me with one lingering question: If he can forgive his closest friend who killed his family, who should I forgive? And what forgiveness should I offer myself?

Wednesday, May 5th

On the scale of important events ranging from 1-10, what I did on Wednesday night probably ranks about a .0002. But I thought it worthy of a mention nonetheless. Late on Wednesday night, after the Lakers lost a home game to the Rockets, I ended my Twitter virginity. I posted the following words of wisdom, destined to be studied years from now by historians trying to deconstruct the popular culture of 2009: "Why do I still care if the Lakers win or not? It's not like they are sitting around wondering how my day was. But it still gets me - a bit."

I'll let you sit with that for a while so you can comprehend its heft. There. That second and a half should about do it. It did capture some key things about my personality though. In 160 characters or less, it told a story of my love for sports and the changing spectrum through which I now view them. The subtext is that as a teenager and young adult I was way too invested in the performance of my team. I allowed their success or failure to affect my state of being. Today I'm almost at the stage where I can simply enjoy the thrill of watching sports played at the highest level without the attachment to a specific outcome.

So now I'm on Twitter. The floodgates have opened to another social networking avenue. But like all online social networking sites, it is merely a tool, not an end in itself. It is worthwhile to note that one of the main reasons I am taking this journey in August is to reestablish what is most true and most beautiful about life - face to face personal interactions with friends, strangers and family. Actual relationships are built on spending time together. The internet is a great communication tool that can bring us closer together. But for me, it is only a mean to a much greater end - spending time with people across the country over shared meals and shared roofs as a reminder that genuine human relationships is what makes life most fulfilling. Wow, maybe I should post that on Twitter.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Russians, Hasidics & Sikhs, Oh My!

What is the point of this story
What information pertains

The thought that life could be better

Is woven indelibly

Into our hearts

And our brains
Paul Simon, Train in the Distance

Saturday, April 25 - The D train reaches the end of the track at Stillwell & Surf Avenues in Coney Island. The ride from Harlem took me 1hr and 10 minutes. The walk 15 1/2 miles back in the opposite direction would take me most of the rest of the day.

The beginnings of my practice walks are always a contemplative, peaceful affair. It's usually the morning. Not many people are out . Its just me, miles of road ahead of me, the rhythmic sound of my feet underneath me and plenty of time to play with whatever thoughts squeeze their way into my mind. Those thoughts are often ordered by whatever music I'm listening to at the time. On this Saturday morning, I decided to test out listening to Pandora - an iPhone application I have on my phone which connects me to programmable Internet radio. I plug in the artists I like, and it spits out a variety of music it thinks I will enjoy.

I was still on Surf Ave. in Coney Island when Pandora played "Train in the Distance" by Paul Simon. Somehow this song had flown under my radar for my entire life until I heard it on a CD of my father's while driving back from NYC a couple years ago. The lyrics immediately grabbed me. Every time I have heard it since I've waited for those last lines which so beautifully capture why we love the sound of the train in the distance. Our ears register it as the sound of promise. It takes us out of the Present and into an imagined future where our "life could be better".

I fall into this trap as much as anyone I suppose. It's hard to live in the Present Moment, and even harder to accept that moment and our lives for what it Is, not what we Want It To Be. If the thought that life could be better is woven into our hearts and and our brains, can we ever truly be content? I pondered that in the Coney Island morning as I walked toward the boardwalk, free and unencumbered, a blue sky above me and warm breezes all around. And I thought, whatever the answer is, I'm content with my life right now. At that moment, I didn't need a train in the distance. The sound of my feet underneath would do. The Present had beaten out the Future.

Doctor, my eyes have seen the years
And the slow parade of fears with crying

Now I want to understand

I have done all that I could
To see the evil and the good without hiding

You must help me if you can

- Jackson Browne, Doctor My Eyes

I had left Surf Ave behind, as well as the Brighton Beach Boardwalk and a good bit of Coney Island Avenue by the time Pandora dealt me a hand of Jackson Browne. My Jackson Browne repertoire began and ended with "The Pretender" until a month ago. Then I heard "Doctor, My Eyes" and I fell in love all over again. Whereas with the Paul Simon song my payoff is at the end, this one gives me what I need in the first two verses. It speaks to the human desire to fully understand our experience here on earth - both the evil and the good. I don't just want to be a participant, I want to be an all-knowing participant, so we look to doctors/preachers/mystics to help us if they can.

This puts me in mind of Samuel Hamilton from Steinbeck's East of Eden. Like me, he was an interested observer of life. He was endowed with some gifts and at the same time challenged by a few shortcomings and obstacles. Yet he always yearned to understand. For those of us who are likewise - and really, who doesn't want to fully understand - we must inevitably come up against the limits of human knowledge. How does one deal with that? I choose to accept it joyously and put down my desire for certainties in a world that will always fill me with awe and wonder. Those two currencies are enough. There will be some things that I feel certain about for a time. But I hope those beliefs never harden into the kind of certainties that block out life experiences that might cast doubt on that which I hold to be true. What separated Sam Hamilton from his wife was the juxtaposition of their unique character traits - Wonderment versus Certainty. I will put my stock with the former. Sure, the world is full of both evil and good. But isn't that one of the things that make it so interesting?

Lions, and Tigers, and Bears! Oh My!
- Dorothy, Wizard of Oz

The misfits on the Yellow Brick Road were a bit intimidated by the diversity of creatures lining their path to Oz. My path from Coney Island to Bryant Park was no less diverse, but I loved every minute of it. Let's start from the beginning. Brighton Beach abuts Coney Island and a quick stroll on its boardwalk tells you right away where it got its nickname of Little Russia. Older Russian men line each side of the wooden walk, talking, sunning themselves, looking out on the world with a slightly suspicious gaze. Once I got to Coney Island Ave and headed due north, I gradually put Little Russia behind me and entered a world of Hasidic Jews in Midwood and Flatbush. Given that it was a Saturday, most stores were shuttered. Small groups of multi-generation families walked along in their Sabbath black, chatting and laughing at a relaxed pace.

The neighborhood remained Jewish by faith but became ethnically Persian. Shortly thereafter it lost its Jewish tenor and became Syrian and Middle Eastern. I walked past a woman on her stoop in a full Burqah. By that time I was near Prospect Park. I hooked a left and headed to Park Slope, where upper middle class white folks with young kids are the order of the day. After Park Slope the neighborhoods lose a specific ethnic identity. Downtown Brooklyn is a wonderful tapestry of different people walking along busy streets lined with every kind of store imaginable.
Since I'd already walked across the Brooklyn Bridge I opted to take the Manhattan bridge across the East River. With a number of subway trains sharing the bridge with me it made for a noisy walk, but the view back toward the Brooklyn Bridge and downtown Manhattan was spectacular.

The Manhattan Bridge drops pedestrians off smack dab in the middle of Chinatown. For my two cents, Canal Street in Chinatown is the busiest pedestrian street in all of Manhattan. Trying to walk down it without bumping into two or three people each city block should be its own Olympic sport. I headed north, away from the crowds and toward Bryant Park. Chinatown was my last brush with an 0ld-school ethnic neighborhood but it wasn't my last experience with good old fashioned ethnic pride. When I arrived at Madison Square Park on 23rd & Park Ave. I was funneled into the tail end of the Annual Sikh Day Parade & Celebration. The park was awash in Sikhs from the Punjab, festooned in traditional dress. It was a beautiful sea of orange and white mixing with the usual park crowd of Shake Shack addicts waiting their turn in line for a burger.

All that was left was 15 short blocks from Madison Square Park to Bryant Park. In walking parlance, that's chump change. At Bryant Park I caught the subway home. Of all my practice walks so far, this had been the most enjoyable start to finish. Even though it was over, I wasn't yearning for any train in the distance. The D train I was on back to Harlem was just fine.

Total Distance: 15.5 miles