Monday, November 30, 2009

Smitten by a certain little girl (East Point, GA)

Jerry & Kala on Tuesday morning

Jerry, me, Kala and Donna on Monday night

One of the reasons I decided to walk from Chattanooga through Atlanta, instead of a more direct route through Birmingham, was because of certain friends I really wanted to see. This journey is about people, plain and simple, and so I wanted to make a point of spending time with those who have played an important role in my life, even if it is a few miles out of my way.

Jerry Weaver is one of those people. Jerry has known me since the day I was born. Like me, he is West Hebron born and bred and, as I've mentioned before on here, that creates a special bond.

I consider Jerry a friend for more reasons that simple geographical coincidence of birth. Jerry is a few years older than me, but like all of the group of boys slightly older than me in Hebron - Rick Waite, Sam Coldwell, Chris Worthington, Jerry, etc. - he always made a point to include me and Aaron in various activities, especially sports. As a young kid constantly striving to be like the older ones, that meant a lot.

I have another memory of Jerry that sends a smile creeping across my face. When my family moved to Africa and my brother and I were desperately missing West Hebron, he used to send audio tapes to us in Harare. On them he would put on different comedy sketches, some by himself and some with his sister Leslie, and we would laugh hysterically at the inside jokes about West Hebron and the cast of characters who live there. I couldn't have imagined a better gift that would have been more appreicated .. and anticpated ... than those tapes were.

As adults our paths haven't crossed frequently, but I've always enjoyed it when they have. He came to Philly for a Mumia Abu-Jamal rally in the early 90s when I was in college and we got to spend some time together. My father and I stayed with him in Iowa when we were driving cross country in 2004. Two years later our paths crossed in West Hebron over Christmas and I got to meet his then fiance Donna who he married shortly after.

Talking with Jerry is always a treat because he makes me think. I relate to him because we are both dreamers of a sort. He is a professional anthropologist and a professor at Spelman and as such is interested in human behavior, history and sociological trends. I am nothing but an amatuer anthropologist and a professor of walking-along-the-shoulder-of-roads, but I love the exchange of ideas that comes from talking to other free thinkers who don't necessarily fall into the mainstream of thought reflected by the majority culture.

For all the things we have in common, there are two where our life experiences decidedly differ. He has a wonderful wife and a beautiful daughter, and I have neither. In my defense, I haven't tried my hand at either. Obviously there are reasons for that we won't get into here, but we did light-heartedly touch on them over dinner at Jerry & Donna's house. Suffice it to say I'm not ready yet, and since I try to live in the present moment as much as possible, I don't see the point in trying to divine my future in that regard.

Jerry and Donna took wonderful care of me. They were a tag-team in the kitchen, with Jerry slicing some amazing Salmon sashimi and Donna putting her foot in some Talapia, spinach & rice and asaparagus spears. Along with Donna's friend Nichelle we put a hurting on that food and a bottle of wine and shared some great conversation on topics as diverse as Atlanta's mayoral election and Jerry's beloved grandfather - someone who I decidedly can not picture as mayor of Atlanta but who was a beautiful soul and a great man (and who was friends with my own grandfather Big Daddy).

Then there is Kala, Donna & Jerry's daughter. I don't get smitten with kids often. Let me rephrase. I don't ever get smitten with little kids. But Kala was something else. Almost as soon as I walked in Jerry handed her to me so he could put away some food and she didn't even bat an eyelash. She smiled and giggled at me and then I fed her some organic food and an avocado and it was like we were long time friends. In other words, she charmed the socks off of me. She is so cute and has such an endearing personality that .... dare I say it .... no .... cannot compute ... it almost made me want a child of my own. Wait. What was that I heard? A collective gasp?

All joking aside, if I lived in Atlanta, I would be happy to babysit little Kala. And let me use this opportunity to wish her a happy birthday. She was a week away from celebrating her first birthday when I was there. Here's hoping I get to see her and Donna and Jerry much more in the coming years. And that she gets to have a childhood experience filled with all the love and adventure that Jerry and I were surrounded by as kids in West Hebron. I'm sure she will.

On Tuesday morning Jerry and Kala walked me to the entrance of their subdivision to say goodbye and set me on the road to Union City. As I walked away it occured to me that Jerry is the last person I will meet on this trip who I already know and am friends with. From here on out it is first time meetings each night all the way to New Orleans. I couldn't have picked a better person, or a better family, to be the last outpost of my known world.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Game Time ... continued (Metro Atlanta)

The silhouette of the Atlanta skyline


Note to self: Next time I go to an Atlanta bar to watch the Georgia/Georgia Tech football game, camp out the night before for a good seat. My friend Alisha and I arrived at a bar near Georgia Tech about 30 minutes before kickoff and we felt like the last people to arrive at a party. The place was a madhouse. The hostess was announcing that it was a 2-hour wait for a table. We went to the bar and seemed to luck out when two people left a small round table only to be told that bar seating was also being reserved in advance.

Not ready to surrender, we went across the street to another establishment. It was just as packed. They had an upstairs bar, so we trudged up the steps to give it a look. That look revealed wall to wall Bulldog and Yellow Jacket fans. We walked around a bit in a daze, hoping that we would magically see two chairs open up. Nothing. Right as we considered leaving Alisha spied two free seats set up against a bar built against a side wall. There were jackets nearby, but not on the seats, leaving it ambiguous whether someone was saving them. This was no time for the meek of heart. Alisha swooped in, figuring someone would say something if they were being saved. No one said a word. Sweet victory.

Tech vs. Georgia draws a decidedly Bulldog crowd. And doesn't leave many open seats

Next challenge: getting something to drink. Problem is, I don't like the taste of beer. It almost seems unpatriotic to say, especially given all the beer ads during football games, but I prefer something sweeter. This is the point where, if I were still in college, someone would yell at me to take off my skirt. "What do you want to drink?" Alisha asked. "Hard Cider" I said a bit sheepishly. She looked at me incredulously and I steadied myself for the inevitable condescension. Instead she said, "Me too" and we exchanged a high five. There would be no snide remarks this time. We were a mutual administration society and I proposed that we bring the meeting to order with a celebratory pitcher of that sweet cider.

Getting the bartenders attention proved to be quite an undertaking. When I finally got to order my pitcher I saw him scramble around the bar for a bit and then come back empty handed. No luck. They were out of ....pitchers. Not hard cider. But pitchers. He dispatched a waiter downstairs in search of clean pitchers and I slinked back to my seat, unsuccessful.

Alisha and I waited for the clean pitchers to make their way upstairs (and really, should a bar ever run out of pitchers?). A woman came around the corner to where we were sitting. She looked at us, then at her friends, then back to us, then to her friends again. "Really guys?" she said to her friends. "The one thing I asked was for you to save my seats and you couldn't even do that?" The friends looked at us, noticing for the first time in 10 minutes that we were sitting there. "Whoops, sorry," they told her. We smiled but didn't budge. This was survival of the fittest.

We finally got our pitcher and the game kicked off. When it did, one thing became obvious - although Georgia Tech was the local team, Georgia fans outnumbered them about 2 to 1. We watched as Georgia stormed out to a lead, much to the delight of the assembled crowd. The noise level rose, the wait staff looked increasingly frazzled and overworked and Alisha and I protected our little corner of the wall with evolutionary zeal.

The great thing about college football is the over-the-top enthusiasm of the fan base. The worst thing about it is that the games take forever. For-evah. Two hours went by and it was only halftime, so we decided to leave and watch the rest at her house. We had had enough of the crowds and I needed to contact Jackie Childs about a possible sexual harassment suit. I should explain. A drunk female Georgia fan had come up to us and started running her hands through my hair. "What beautiful curly hair," she said as she fondled it. Then she kneaded my shoulders and ran her hands across my chest. I was a bit stunned at first but had to laugh when she said, "It's okay, I'm a lesbian." She asked if Alisha and I were dating and we told her we were just friends. Curious, she started quizzing me about "my type". I was non-committal. I should have told her drunk lesbian Bulldog fans were my type to see what she would say, but instead Alisha and I just laughed at her antics until she was distracted by a different shiny object. That object happened to be her friend (who bore an uncanny resemblance to Pat from Saturday Night Live fame) who needed help getting the bartender's attention.

We rushed out and met up with Alisha's friend Chris to watch the last bit of the game at her condo. As Georgia Tech mounted one final drive to try and win the game I thought of my friend Rod up in the press box, unable to cheer, but pulling for Tech to win with every fiber of his being. Tech got into Georgia territory with time running down and needed a touchdown to win. Then, on a fourth and short, Tech's quarterback hit their star wide-receiver right in the numbers with what would have been a first down pass. It bounced off his chest and onto the ground. Game. Set. Match. And bedtime. For me at least.


On Sunday Alisha and I took it easy. We had brunch with her friend Kali , Alisha took me to buy a new pair of walking pants and then we sat around the apartment and did work on our computers. We needed to save our energy. Georgia/Georgia Tech might have been the game the city of Atlanta cared most about, but as far as Alisha was concerned the Steelers game against the Ravens on Sunday night was the only one that mattered.

The bar that she and her fellow Steelers fans attend every week happens to be an outpost of the Baltimore faithful. To make matters worse, the Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger had suffered a concussion the week before and would not be playing, nor would All-Pro safety Troy Polamalu. Starting at quarterback would be Dennis Dixon, a third stringer who had started exactly zero NFL games before tonight.

Given that the ration of Baltimore to Pittsburgh fans at the bar would be roughly that of the Georgia to Georgia Tech fans the night before, I was made an honorary Steeler fan. I slipped on a Big Ben jersey and tried to look was "Western Pennsylvania" as possible. Given my high level of education, dashing good looks and ability to be articulate, that was quite a challenge, but I did my best. (I kid, I kid, don't sic Lynn Swann on me).

When we got to the bar I could see what Alisha and her friends had been fearing. One full end of the bar was swarming with boisterous Ravens fans. Their team was injury free. The Steelers were riddled with injury. This could be a long night. Sure enough, the Ravens scored quickly and the Ravens fans erupted. Chants of "B-more" rained down and any Steelers fan in their line of vision was ridiculed and mocked. We stood around in our black and gold trying not to look too pathetic.

Then something amazing happened. Even with a third string quarterback and playing in a hostile city, the Steelers made a game of it. Dixon didn't melt under the pressure, the Steelers defense showed a bit of swagger and as the game drew on we had as much cause to celebrate as the legion of Baltimore fans. Down a touchdown late in the fourth quarter Dixon led the Steelers on a long drive, punctuating it with a touchdown run of his own to tie the score.

Now it was our turn to be obnoxious. Terrible towels waved. Epithets were hurled back at the Baltimore fans. They stood around looking stupid, scared that they were about to loose a game everybody expected them to win. A final drive by Baltimore ended with a missed field goal and we were heading to overtime. The picture (below) of our small Steelers cheering section was taken at this moment of surging optimism. See the smiles on our faces? Notice our regal bearing, full of hope?

Steeler Nation, in happier times

That all came crashing down in a matter of minutes. The Steelers won the toss and were driving when Dixon suddenly remembered he wasn't a first-string quarterback. He threw an interception right to a Ravens defender at midfield and our fate was sealed. The Baltimore section of the bar exploded in rapturous celebration and before we knew it the Ravens were kicking the winning field goal and we were mounting a hurried exit from the bar.

I'm glad I took the group picture when I did. Because despite the loss, it was an extremely fun game to watch and the Steelers fans I met were great company. Our smiles in the picture reflected the total experience, if not the final result. I believe a great philosopher - possibly Socrates - once said "it's not who wins or loses, but how you play the game." And I don't care what those purple clad Ravens fans say, Pittsburgh left their heart out on the field. They can be proud of that.
Alisha, Sadie and me (back to representin' Philly)

Now I can go back to being an Eagles fan. But at least some part of my heart will be with the Steelers and in that bar each Sunday from now to the rest of the year. A big thank you to Alisha and Sadie for such showing me such a fun time over two nights in Atlanta. In case you were wondering, Sadie's Steelers doggie jersey is in the mail. Now that is a true fan.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Game Time (Metro Atlanta)

Me and Rod on Friday night

Me, Bett & Talbert Williams at the High Museum of Art

The Army used to have a commercial claiming they did more by 9am than most people do all day. On Friday, I could have made the claim that I walked farther by 1pm than most people do all month. I covered 18 miles in 5 1/2 hours from Marietta to Georgia Tech's campus by lunchtime. That allowed me to meet up with Bett & Talbert Williams for a delicious lunch at the High Museum of Art and then attend a Yellow Jacket basketball game at 4pm. That game was just the first of a three-course sports meal waiting for me in Metro Atlanta. It was my appetizer of sorts.

Appetizer: The Rodfather

Rod Mackenzie was waiting for me outside the will call window at Georgia Tech's Alexander Memorial Coliseum. Rod is one in a shrinking category of people as I move south - he is someone I have met before. Rod is a friend of my father's from way back. My dad and Rod went to high school together, went to the same church, wandered around Lower Merion township looking for 2-on-2 games, went on double dates when my parents first started dating and then, as newlyweds, even briefly lived together.

Given that he and my dad used to be a potent 2-on-2 combo, it was appropriate that he was taking me to a basketball game. Rod works for the website and was covering Georgia Tech's game against Mercer. He and I sat in the press section. Given that it was an early season game and the press' attention was wholly focused on the next day's football game against Georgia, it didn't appear that I was taking anybody's seat.

The game should have never been in doubt. Georgia Tech plays in the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) along with teams like Duke, UNC and Wake Forest. Mercer University hails from the Atlantic Sun Conference, home to titans like Stetson and Lipscomb. Yes, that was a bit of facetiousness on my part. I've been a college hoops fan my whole life and I have never even heard of those two schools. Yet despite the difference in pedigree, it was a competitive game. Mercer senior James Florence exploded for 40 points and they kept is close enough to lose with honor, 85-74.

On press row our attention was diverted by the ESPN Gamecast coverage of the Auburn-Alabama football game going on at the same time. Auburn was threatening Alabama's perfect season until a late fourth quarter drive put an exclamation point on the Crimson Tide's comeback a nail in the Tigers' coffin. All the Georgia Tech faithful, including Rod, were hoping for an Auburn win. Georgia Tech's football team was currently ranked 7th, and any stumble by the top 6 would only help their BCS prospects.

There was another thing I noticed during the game. Rod personally knew just about everyone associated with Georgia Tech athletics. He was constantly greeting people or pointing someone out to me and letting me know how where they fit in the Georgia Tech athletics hierarchy. Everybody seemed to know and like him too. My intuition was confirmed as we left the arena with a friend of his who was giving us a ride.

"They call him the Rodfather" he said jokingly, after Rod said hello and goodnight to another passerby. I figured it must be a term of affection because of the long reach of his friendships and associations with Georgia Tech sports. He seems like far too nice a guy to put a horse's head in a coach's bed when they ice him out of a press conference.

Back at his apartment we watched the Pitt-WVU football game and had dinner. Tired out from my day of activity I called it a night before the final whistle of West Virginia's upset win. Rod couldn't have been too happy about the result. He used to live in Pittsburgh back in the late 70s and early 80s and became close with a lot of guys in the football program.

Now his allegiances lie fully with the Ramblin Wreck of Georgia Tech and tomorrow was their rivalry game against Georgia. I went to bed and let my mind digest the sports appetizer I had enjoyed and make some room for an entree and dessert later that weekend. Rod stayed up, typing up his basketball notes and probably silently hoping that the Pittsburgh game didn't portend a similar upset the next evening for his Yellow Jackets. Funny thing about rivalry games though. Anything can happen.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

The Cats Who Stare at Men (Greater Atlanta)

Luke, Julie and me. Mr. Dublin is on the far left and Michael is sitting next to me.

Luke takes Mr. Dublin for a spin

I didn't grow up with cats. My mom has a restive relationship with felines. Instead we had a dog named Bismark when I when I was very little and no pets after that. Despite my lineage, I didn't inherit my mom's uneasiness. At the same time, I can't call myself a cat person. I don't frequent cat websites. When I see a stray the thought of taking it in doesn't cross my mind. Let me illustrate my point by comparison. I was once on a remote island Cay off of Turks & Caicos with my friend Endel and we happened upon a cat in distress. It was awe inspiring to see Endel and his family rescue it, adopt it and jump through multiple bureaucratic hoops to take it back to the United States with them. That is what I mean by cat people.

Most of my hosts have pets and I am comfortable with all of them. I can say that because I haven't had to share the house with a snake ... yet. If pressed, I would say I prefer dogs to cats, just because they seem to have stronger personalities. But I enjoy the eccentricities of all animals.

I spent Thanksgiving with Luke and Julie Lane in Marietta, GA. Luke and Julie are both cat people. They have three rescue cats, each with its own unique personality. Luke's favorite is Mr. Dublin, a rambunctious, playful cat with a vertical leap that would make NBA scouts drool. Julie's affections lean toward Michael, a quieter, more thoughtful cat who resembles Dublin but carries a few extra pounds. Then there is their is a black cat who name currently escapes me. It seems to be content to slink around the house as a casual observer to Dublin's hijinks and his attempts to antagonize Michael.

As the only stranger in their midst, Mr. Dublin wanted to take a measure of me. As I feasted on our Thanksgiving meal of turkey chili, stuffing, cranberry sauce, rolls and pumpkin pie Dubs sat in front of me and stared at me. He was probably thinking, "Let's see if this sucker is going to take pity on a cute cat and throw me some scraps." Little did he know I am Joanne's child. I was not raised to be suckered in by the cuteness of cats. I stared back, content to enjoy every last morsel of my meal without sharing. Mr. Dublin would have had way better luck with Endel.

After we ate Luke played ring leader and Sir Dublin showed off his jumping ability. I tried to photograph him in mid leap, but my camera seems to be a bit lacking in the action shot category. Take my word for it, it was impressive. If I had his ups I would have been able to dunk as a younger man. That I couldn't still sticks in my craw. Just once I would have liked to drive down the middle of the lane, elevate and throw it down in an organized game of basketball. Alas, it wasn't meant to be.

Luke, Julie and I bid adeiu to the cats and spent our Thanksgiving evening at the movies. Our choice, appropriately, was The Men Who Stare at Goats. My verdict? Eeeeeh. I'm not a movie critic, but I will stay this: I went into the movie with low expectations and it met them. I did, however, enjoy the Welch's Fruit Snacks I bought at the concession stand and some popcorn Luke bought. So there is always a silver lining.

Julie and Luke are both night owls, but they were amazingly considerate in letting me go to sleep in their living room right after returning home, even though that meant having to retreat to their room for the evening at the audacious hour of 10pm. To help my chances for a fitful sleep they separated Mr. Dublin from Michael. The goal was to cut down on the chances of a light night steel cage match breaking out. Dublin stayed out with me and slept part of the night on my bed. I only remember him stepping across my back two or three times. Perhaps he wanted to play. Or perhaps he just wanted to get me back for not succumbing to his penetrating gaze and throwing him some stuffing. If so, then we are even.

As for Julie and Luke, we aren't even. I am definitely in their debt. They took in a complete stranger on Thanksgiving Day and graciously let me celebrate it with them. It is always harder to find hosts on holidays, but they made it seem like a breeze. So thank you both from the bottom of my heart. Let's hope I can find some people as kind as the two of you in Mobile, AL for Christmas.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Finders Keepers (Greater Atlanta)

Tina, Nina (2), Nathan (3), Joy, Tanya, Noah (1) and me

Nathan and Noah front and center while Nina finds her groove in the background

I am hyper self conscious about dancing. Always have been and barring a miracle probably always will be. My earliest memory of this crippling self consciousness is a Grade 7 dance at my school in Harare. It was there that I started my distinguished career as a wall flower. Around that same time I was at a party hosted by a French friend of our family, Guilhem. I have this vivid image of standing against the wall and watching in abject fascination as his roommate Jean Luc danced with complete abandon, utterly unconcerned whether people were watching or not. Part of me desired that freedom. The other part was horrified of what others would think of me. I'll let you guess what part won the battle.

There have been brief moments when I allowed myself to dance in front of people. I remember dancing in front of my housemates the year I lived in SouthWest Philaldelphia, but I don't remember what precipitated that MC Hammer moment. Heidi and Peter Dillon's wedding also comes to mind. In fact, I think there is video evidence of that still floating around somewhere. I am pretty sure that one was due to some arm turning by a pushy DJ. Adam Severin's wedding in LA is the only other time I can think of. I remember a few glasses of wine and a song by Outkast aiding and abetting that affront against the dance floor. But overall, 36 years have come and gone and I can count the number of times I have let myself dance and be free on one hand ... and still have fingers left over.

Be afraid. Be very afraid. The rare dance, Fall 1995

I disclose all this because on Wednesday night I was sitting in a suburb of Atlanta with my host Joy Tyler and some of her extended family. There were three children in the room: Nathan, age 3, Nina age 2 and Noah, age 1. Music was playing from their PS2 and all of a sudden an episode of The Soul Train broke out, kids edition. The good news was I wasn't a wallflower. I was a couchflower instead. I sat there and watched them get taken away by the music, bouncing around the room and grooving to the beat without an ounce of self consciousness. There are few things as innately joyous as watching kids dancing. It goes on a short list with puppies and energetic gospel choirs as things that immediately make me smile and enjoy life just a bit more.

All the adults in the room were encouraging the kids as they danced. Tina exhorted her daughter.

"Go ahead." She called out playfully at as her daughter Nina strutted across the room.

"Find it Nina." Her daughter drew deeper into the music, swinging her arms and pursing her lips.

"Keep it, baby. Hold on to it." Nina now had her rhythm. There wasn't anything that was going to disturb that groove. That is, until an errant dance kick from her cousin Nathan caught her just above the eye. That brought a brief crying intermission to the dance party but within three minutes a hug had been administered and an apology proferred and they were out on the dance floor again ... finding the rhythm and then keeping it in their grasp.

That scene would never have happened in my living room growing up. It just isn't a part of the DNA of my family. Or maybe it is that Peter, Paul and Mary isn't exactly dance music. (You try to dance to Polly Von and then tell me how successful you were.) Needless to say, experiencing this alien scene made me a bit envious. I'm going to put "lose my self consciousness about dancing" on my bucket list along with learning Spanish, studying guitar and being in a community theater production of Rent as Roger.

For now, I can still enjoy watching others dance. It was a joyous way to spend part of the night before Thanksgiving. So I give thanks to Joy and Tina and Tanya and Nathan and Noah and Nina. I found joy in that apartment ... and I've kept it in my memory. Finders Keepers.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

One Big Campfire (Taylorsville, GA)

George, Ann, Cory, Nathaniel, Sarah and me on Tuesday night

Me, Adrienne, George, Nathaniel and the dogs on Wednesday morning

I finished my first week of walking by lumbering into a parking lot near Poughkeepsie, NY and being picked up by Bruce Smith. That night he and his wife JoAnn hosted me and I was given a Follow Your Bliss T-shirt she had painted for me as a gift using the design from my website.

Three months and 1,000 miles later I still had that t-shirt in my pack as I lumbered through rural Northwest Georgia in search of small crossroads town called Kingston, GA. That is where I had arranged to be picked up by Ann and George Lowe. On the face of it there doesn't seem to be much of a connection between the two days, other than getting a short ride at the end of a long day of walking.

Yet with all things on this walk there is an unseen linkage between event A and event B. In this case that link was Nathaniel Smith and his partner Adrienne. Nathaniel is the youngest son of Bruce and JoAnn and after he heard about his parents hosting me, Adrienne contacted her parents in Northwest Georgia. If it wasn't for chance connections like this I wouldn't have found about 1/4 of my hosts. Thanks to Adrienne's help I was able to find a place to stay in Taylorsville, GA two nights before Thanksgiving. What was cause for even more thanks is that on the same day Nathaniel and Adrienne just happened to be driving down to Taylorsville from their home in Indiana to visit her parents.

Taylorsville was quite a bit more than a country mile beyond my typical walking distance, which is why I arranged a pickup in Kingston. As it was, I slogged 22 miles from Calhoun to Kingston. I've said it before and I will say it again. 18 miles feels perfect. 20 miles is a grind. And 22 miles is just a royal pain in the ... yeah, you get the idea. So I was thrilled that they could pick me up and end the misery of my sore feet for one day.

The pick up was also quite useful because the Lowes live way out in the country. I'm talking this-road-bears-the-family-name-because-ain't-nobody-shares-this-road-but-us country. George and Ann bought it years ago when it used to be the edge of a wheat field. Now it is undeniably home but retains a quaint country eccentricity. George has all sorts of trees planted and there is a garden and a place to sit and have a bonfire (which we made use of later on). Inside is decorated with tons of pottery they have bought and collected over the years. There are paintings and collectibles and pictures on every wall, giving it a warm, lived-in feel.

I arrived well before Adrienne and Nathaniel, so I visited with George, Ann, their son Cory and his fiance Sarah while we waited for them to arrive. Before dusk George took me out into the yard to show me a large wasp hive. There it was, perfectly shaped and nestled way up near the top of a leafless tree. If this had been a cartoon it would have dropped, broken and a swarm of bees would have chased me around the yard Benny Hill style. As it was, we just stood there and stared at it. George had heard that in years when wasps build their hives low to the ground it was an indicator of a cold winter to come. Peering way up at this hive near the top branch of a tall tree I silently hoped that was true. I could use a mild winter with 500 miles and the month of December between me and New Olreans. As far as I'm concerned, the wasps have spoken. I better keep that SPF in my pack.

Adrienne and Nathaniel arrived well after dark and we all hung out and talked around a roaring bonfire George had constructed to take the chill out of the night air. There is nothing like a fire, some marshmellows for toasting, stimulating conversation and the company of friends and family. It brought me back in mind of another night I had on my first week of walking.

On the third night of my trip Nick & Bert Tebordo hosted me in Cohoes, NY and after dinner Nick built a fire in a pit in his backyard where his family and I and a couple of friends sat around and talked the night away. The longer this trip lasts, the more occasion I have to see how one event connects or reminds me of another. All of my experiences are strung together by the beautiful willingness of all my hosts to broaden their definition of family for one evening and methaphorically allow me a space around their campfire.

In this way, I survive the cold, dark nights surrounded by the love of many, who are really just One, and in the light of the morning I set out to find my next campfire, warmed by the sun a promise made to me by a hive of Taylorsville bees.

Monday, November 23, 2009

What a Long Strange Trip it Has Been (Calhoun, GA)

Scenic Mohawk Industries, just outside of Calhoun, GA

The background tapestry of my night ... or was it my dream?

I should have known Monday would turn out to be a bit unique. It's not often that I wake up to see a picture and story about me on the front page of a small town newspaper. In fact, that has never happened. So I was already in uncharted waters.

That was just the overture. Ben Laughter dropped me off at the Oakwood Cafe where Mickey Shealey brought me breakfast. As we were eating and talking a woman came over to me and said, "You be safe out there, you hear? I'm a trucker, so I know what kind of things go on out there. Just be careful."

I smiled and said that I would, all the while wondering just what it was that she has seen that had her so concerned for my safety. I picture some giant snake, like in a Frog and Toad novel, waiting for me to come around a bend in the road. What does she think might happen? And why is it that the overwhelming majority of people who hear about this trip play the safety card right off the top of the deck? Only a few times have I told someone about this trip and they responded with something along the lines of, "Meet as many strangers as you can and soak up every moment of this experience."

I really enjoyed The Friends Formerly Known As Strangers I had met in Dalton - Ben, Lynn, Miller, Mary Lynn, Mickey. And as I walked out of town I randomly met another kind soul. He was a worker at a gas station convenience store at the south edge of town. I saw him walk out of the store, come to the edge of the road and hold up a large Gatorade. I took off my headset and he called out, "We just read about you in the paper and we figured you'd be headed this way. Can you use a Gatorade?" I could, and I did.

Laden down with plenty of fluids I headed on to Calhoun. This is where things got a little weird. I was listening to the audio book "Great Expectations" by Charles Dickens, awash in the imaginary sights and sounds of the 1800s, when I got startled from behind on the road. It wasn't a car. It wasn't a truck. It wasn't an angry dog intent on avenging its brethren's defeat at the Battle of Thorngrove. It was a lean, stern looking man riding a rather large horse. He was dressed in an old fashioned full length black trench coat and cowboy hat. I joked to myself that he looked like a character stuck in the Civil War when all of a sudden he turned into a small driveway leading to a set of stables. As I walked up on it I read the sign outside: "The Confederate Stables of the United States, 1865."

Confederate flags adorned the barns. There were no cars to be seen. Is it possible that I had been listening to Dickens and stepped into a time warp, transporting me back to the second half of the 19th century? The rider galloped out onto the road again when I drew parallel with barn and I started to wonder if he was keeping an eye on me. Then, just when I started to question my sanity, I heard a distant ring. The mysterious horseman pulled out a cell phone, put it up to his ear and said a gruff hello. Whew. Something tells me it wasn't Jefferson Davis wanting to make sure he picked up a quart of milk.

Dalton, where I was walking from, is home to Shaw Industries, the largest carpet manufacturer in the world. Calhoun, where I was walking to, is home to Mohawk Industries, the largest floor covering manufacturer in the world. Ah, the beauty of corporate word play. I am pretty sure the only people who care about distinctions like that live in either Dalton or Calhoun. I don't live in either, so the only significance to me was that I had to walk past the rather large and ugly Mohawk plant just outside of town. For some reason, it put me in mind of Milwaukee. Maybe all gray, industrial visages do that but either way I started fantasizing that a whistle would blow and Laverne & Shirley would come barreling out of the doors. Yep, it was just one of those days.

Just after 5pm I met the person who had agreed to host me. His name was Nathan and I connected with him through Couchsurfing. I've been on the road long enough now to know that you can't expect the same level of hospitality from a single man as you can from a married couple or a single woman. It is just two completely different paradigms. And right away I sensed that Nathan didn't know what the night held and exactly where I would be staying. Needless to say, that didn't put me at ease.

He was an affable and friendly guy who apparently doesn't sleep much. Appropriately, our first stop was at a gas station to buy him a Red Bull. From there we went to a small trailer outside a house in the country that contained a makeshift recording studio. A couple of his friends were there and he laid down a quick bass track for a song a young 17-year-old ingenue was there to sing. From there we all went back to his friend's house on the other side of town. By this time he had revealed to me he was kind of crashing with his parents at the moment and I thought to myself, "do they now that they might have an extra guest tonight?"

Luckily his friend's house turned out to be my last stop for the night. His friend's mother served me a wonderful meal while Nathan left to give a guitar lesson and then audition a drummer for his band. By the time I heard Nathan and his friends return it was past 10 and I was knocked out on the couch.

I faded in and out of sleep that night. I'm not entirely sure what parts were a dream and which weren't. I remember people in the living room talking in hushed tones because I was sleeping. I remember a pregnant girl playing Super Mario Brothers on the big screen TV. I remember the sounds of Nathan playing guitar and singing with a group of people out on his friend's patio until about 3am in the morning. Lastly, I remember Nathan talking to his friend around 4am, softly asking him if it was cool if I stayed for the rest of the night on the couch. It was, and I did.

I was awake before anyone else in the house. I showered, packed and left a note of thanks to his friend's mother for letting me stay there and for the wonderful meal. I was gone before getting a chance to say goodbye.

And here's the worst thing. This was the only stay of my trip that I forgot to take a photograph. Everything was so chaotic and up in the air that it just never happened. So who knows? Maybe it was all a dream. Maybe the picture in my mind's eye is more vivid and enjoyable than any actual image could be. There is Nathan, his friend's mom, the young singing ingenue, the Super Mario girl, the mysterious horseman, Laverne, Shirley and a pipe smoking Charles Dickens reading quietly in the corner.

If this was a page in my high school yearbook I picture Nathan writing across the top of it, "Lately, it occurs to me: What a long, strange trip it has been."

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Wall to Wall Hospitality (Dalton, Ga)

Ben, Lynn, Miller, Mary Lynn, Savannah and Me on Sunday night

Mickey & I on Monday morning

There are some towns where I struggle to find someone ... anyone ... to host me. In Dalton, GA I had the exact opposite experience. Leave it to the carpet capital of the USA to show me wall to wall hospitality. In the space of one day I received two separate offers of home stays. Ben Laughter called me to say he and his wife would love to host me after being contacted by their daughter-in-law in Knoxville who heard about my journey. A few hours later the Presbyterian pastor Mickey Shealy replied to an email I had sent him to say he and his wife would be happy to host me as well. Given my embarrassment of riches, I decided to stay with the Laughters and then have breakfast with Mickey. I wish I had this problem in every town.

The only thing that wasn't welcoming in Dalton was the weather. Most of my walk from Ringgold had been under cool, wet skies. I had just reached the city limits and was getting ready to call Ben when I noticed an email in my inbox. Misty Watson, a reporter from the local Dalton paper, was trying to get in contact with me about writing a newspaper article on my walk. I haven't sought out any press on this trip but I am happy to talk to all who are interested, so I called her and then called Ben and before I knew it I found myself in the offices of the Dalton Daily Citizen.

The three of us then moved a few blocks to the office Ben shares with his wife Lynn. We took pictures there and talked a little bit more about my trip and what had made the Laughters open to hosting a stranger. Satisfied that she had all she needed Misty went back to the newsroom and the Laughters and I continued our Sunday night.

That Sunday night included a quick business meeting at their church, loading a truck with donations to Samaritan's purse and then a fun dinner with their daughter Mary Lynn, her husband Miller and their daughter Savannah.

When we awoke on Monday morning there was the article on the front page of the paper, along with the somewhat posed picture of us "meeting" for the first time. Here is a link to the article. The lead sentence was short and to the point. "Garth Poorman is not afraid of strangers," it read.

I like that. In a way, it summarizes a big theme of my trip. We live in a society that largely fears strangers. This trip offers a different narrative. My personal experience has been that seeking out and interacting with strangers has been a wonderful benefit to my life, not a cause for worry.

My suspicion is that there is a correlation before what we expect to find in life and what we actually experience. I set out on this trip expecting to run into strangers who were welcoming, kind and loving and that is exactly what has happened. I have over 80 exhibits in defense of that position. After meeting the Laughter family and Mickey Shealey, make that 82.

It puts me in mind of scripture verse I remember singing as a child:

"Ask, and it shall be given unto you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and the door will be opened unto you."

All I will add is, "Halle-lu ... Halle-lu-jah."

Foundations (Chattanooga & Nashville)

After six days of rest in Chattanooga, I am gradually getting back into the rhythms of my walk. My week in Chattanooga came at a perfect time, right at the cusp of 1,000 miles walked, and provided me a chance to be with my grandmother's family. My grandmother isn't around anymore, but she lives on through her six brothers and sisters who have so much of her spirit and likeness that being with them makes me feel as if she is still here.

Even though I am already in Atlanta, I offer this recap of my week in Chattanooga. It was a week unlike any other I have had on this trip because I finally got to put my feet up and stop walking.

The Evatts and me, joined by Chic & Theda (in chairs)

Evatt-dently home

My home base while in Chattanooga was with my grandmother's youngest sister Jeanette Evatt and her husband Bill. They have been such an integral part of this trip, both as hosts and as supporters, that there are not sufficient words for me to thank them. After 79 days of unrelenting travel, with only a single rest day per week, it felt restorative to unpack my bags in their extra room and stay in one place for six complete days.

Bill & Jeanette have four children, all with families of their own, and on the Sunday I arrived 16 of the Evatt family came for a joint celebration. My arrival in Chattanooga coincided with my great aunt Theda's 86th birthday. Theda was the fifth child of Mama and Papa Freeland and the next born after my grandmother. I dare say it is much easier to walk 1,000 miles than it is to live 86 years with the kind of selfless compassion that Theda has always shown her friends and family, myself definitely included. Her milestone was thus more noteworthy than mine, but I was glad we could celebrate together, not only on Sunday night, but on Monday as well when I joined her and her husband Chic for a birthday lunch across town.

As with all the gatherings and celebrations on this walk, I insisted that we all gather for a group picture on Sunday night. With a total of 19 of us herded into the frame it temporarily set a record for largest group picture of my walk. It was a mark that would only last four days before being matched by the Nashville side of the family.

A cleaner, less hippie-ish look so as not to scare strangers.

For You, It's Free

On Monday I decided I needed a haircut. The sides and back of my hair had long since mutinied and overturned the dictatorial order my Russian barber last instituted three and a half months ago. I figured that if I didn't get at least a trim before arriving in New Orleans someone might be tempted to give me an unflattering nickname along the way - possibly Grizzly Poorman or Garth Crusoe. I wanted to avoid that possibility.

Bill took me to his barber. Had I been walking past it I'm not sure I would have recognized it as a barber shop. It looked more like a small home with a window in front, a mostly gravel yard and an attitude about landscaping strongly leaning to the "hands off" approach. In fact, I'm pretty sure this barber uses it as both a home and a shop. Once inside there are a couple of barber chairs, a few seats to wait your turn and laissez-faire attitude about interior decorating, as evidenced by a variety of leafs strewn around the floor.

This barber was not in a hurry. But his deliberate pace allowed him to talk and connect with his patrons. The customer in the chair before me was a man in his 90s. I didn't see him pay and I suspect that the barber had done it for free. When I took the chair and he began his slow revolution around my head with the clippers we starting talking about my walk. By the time he was done, I was that much closer to getting my AARP card, but I was also sporting a much cleaner haircut. When I asked him how much he replied, "For you, it's free."

I guess when you are that nice and giving, there isn't a lot extra in the company budget for indoor leaf removal. As it should be.

One of Chattanooga's beautiful sculptures, framed by an autumn tree.

Bill & I walking the wooden planks of the Walnut Street Bridge

Chattanooga is for walkers

On Wednesday Bill and I decided to make the most of a sunny afternoon and have him show me a bit of Chattanooga. I've walked through many towns on this trip and sadly many are a mere shell of what I assume was their former glory. Chattanooga will not be added to that list. It is a beautiful city which seems to be thriving in a very touch economy.

Bill and I parked near the downtown section of the Riverwalk, a seven mile green way that traces alongside the Tennessee river from the Chickamauga Dam to downtown Chattanooga. We got out and walked a spell, around a beautiful sculpture garden, up along a bluff with shops and restaurants, alongside the gorgeous Hunter Museum of art and then across the Walnut Street Bridge. The Walnut Street bridge is the longest pedestrian only bridge in the world and since I am one of the nation's foremost pedestrians at this time, I thought it would be terrible shame if I didn't add my footprints on its wooden cross planks.

The Walnut Street Bridge connects downtown Chattanooga with trendy North Shore. I can't tell you much about North Shore other than it provided me with a huge White Chocolate Raspberry shake to add to my caloric intake for the day. I asked nothing more of it. Bill and I took the leisurely stroll back into Chattanooga, retraced our steps back along the Riverwalk and to the car.

This might seem like a bit of a back-handed compliment, but if I was forced to choose a place to live and the nation's major cities weren't an option, I'd settle in good ole Chattanooga. The weather never gets too cold. It has a fledgling arts scene, beautiful paths devoted to pedestrians and it is geographically located in striking distance to Atlanta, Knoxville and Nashville. It might be a mid-major among American cities, but if so, at least it is a mid-major competing with the big boys for a BCS birth. It is the Boise State football team of the American urban landscape.

The Nashville Crew at Lorene's house

Me and Annie V

Theresa, me, Tanya and Lorene

Ain't No Party Like a Lorene Party

I couldn't stay in Chattanooga for a week without driving up to Nashville. Wait, let me specific. I couldn't stay in Chattanooga for a week without being sprawled comfortably along the backseat while Bill and Jeanette drove me to Nashville. That's closer to the mark.

Of my grandmother's brothers and sisters, three live in the Nashville area, one in Crossville and two in Chattanooga. Lorene Douglas is one of the Nashville group and she invited us up for a lunch gathering. Lorene has a special place in my heart and in the heart of my family. She has been widowed for a number of years and is an absolute saint when it comes to keeping in touch and letting everyone know she is thinking of them. When my grandmother was ill with Parkinsons and dementia, Lorene called her every night without exception at 8pm. I would be taking care of Nonnie sometimes and I could set my watch on that ring. I'd pick up, Lorene and I would talk for a while and then I would hand the phone to Nonnie. In the later years Nonnie couldn't really say anything. But I or my dad would hold the phone to her ear and Lorene would talk to her about her brothers and sisters and tell her that she loved her. Even though at the end Nonnie couldn't express herself, I knew that those calls made her feel loved and included.

Lorene had prepared quite a southern feast for everyone on this Thursday. Bill, Jeanette and I arrived first, but others arrived quickly on our heels. Dewitt, Sarah, Sheila and little Asher. Then Theresa and Tonya. Then Annie V, Anita, Scott and TJ. Then Sherry, Richard, Ward and Dot. Lastly we were joined by Donald and Sue, bringing the total to 20. When I started gathering the troops for our picture, that would have broken the record set just four days back. But young TJ decided to opt out of the group photo. So Nashville & Chattanooga had to settle for a tie.

With Lorene, Annie V, Dewitt and Donald all there, I was really glad to have been able to see all my grandmother's brothers and sisters on my trip through Tennessee. She would have been so happy. Sometimes people talk about seeing family as if it is a burden. For me, it is never so. I always look forward to my stops in Nashville and Chattanooga. I've included them on numerous trips I have taken over the years. The Freeland family tree always provides a wonderful pleasant shade for me to rest under. That shade comes with good stories, great food and those winning Freeland smiles.

Bill, Jeanette and I had to leave early in the afternoon to get back to Chattanooga before it was too late. I fell asleep in the backseat for a while before awaking right around sunset. It is a reminder that beauty is not sole property of the new and the youthful. All my grandmother's brothers and sisters are 75 or older, and I can't think of a more beautiful group of people. I hope my sunset years are lived with as much grace.

Here birdie birdie, here birdie ....

Fore! Bill pulls out his driver

Speak softly, but carry a big five wood

To say I am a infrequent golfer would be putting it mildly. In the past five years I could count my golf outings on one hand. There would be a few beat downs I put on my dad on the par 3 course outside of Norristown, PA and a corresponding clinic put on me by my friend Endel in Phoenixville. Truth is I am not that competitive when it comes to golf. My dad and I battle it out in a sometimes annual par 3 contest, but other than that I just like to get out there and knock it around.

As with all other casual golfers, inconsistency is the adjective that describes my game. There is no rhyme or reason to what part of my game might be firing on all cylinders on any given day and what part might be absolutely abysmal. It is a total crap shoot.

One of the nice things about coming to Chattanooga is that Bill and I find a way to work in a golf game. Given that I am a left hander, Bill had to sniff out a set of clubs for me to use. He was able to find a partial set at Brainerd golf course which the attendant allowed me to use for free. There was a dented driver, a five wood, four different irons and a putter. Bill's son John joined us to make a fearsome threesome, with Bill driving the lead cart and John and I careening around behind him.

We took our place at the first tee and I commenced to weed out which clubs would be my Kryptonite. I swung my driver on that initial par four and sliced a little gift right into the neighbors yard. No charge for that express mail gift. John jokingly noted that mulligans are always free on the first hole so I teed up another ball, banished the dented driver to my bag and took out the five wood.

Thus started a long and fruitful relationship between me and my five wood. I bogeyed the first hole before falling apart on 2, 3 and 4. Gathering some shreds of pride on the fifth hole I hit two monster five woods back to back on the 364-yard par 4, leaving my ball about five feet from the hole. I drained my birdie put and realized that I might never play another hole so well for the rest of my life.

That reminds me of a little story. I used to play church softball with a guy named Den Fenstermacher. He was the team captain, our left fielder and an all around quirky type of guy. We played on a field with a fence and it was his much discussed dream to hit a home run in one of our games. Years passed, we won championships, dominated our league and yet Den never hit one out. He did strength training in the off-season, started swinging up on the ball more and yet it didn't happen. Then the last game of year, some 10 seasons or so into playing with our church, Den lit into one and it sailed over the left field fence. As he strided the bases the team exploded with cheers. He was restrained in his celebration but there was a look of complete satisfaction on his face. Part of me thought he might tap home and keep running straight to his car like a character out of an Amelia Bedelia book. He didn't. The game ended and he packed up his car and we all said our "see you next season" to one another. But we didn't see Den next season. He packed it up and never played another game.

If I would have walked off after my birdie on the fifth hole this might be a better story. Yet I kept hacking away. I managed to par the following par-3 and then the par-4 ninth. I would add two more pars on the back nine, but no more birdies. My five wood continued to talk a big game, but my short game did just as good a job of shooting me in the foot. I finished the day with a respectable 95. I kept it in double digits and for me that's a victory.

It was dark when we finished our round. The golf shop had closed up and one guy was just waiting for our carts. For a second I thought about returning my clubs minus one five wood. They would never know. But lest I use it as a walking stick, I had no where to put it. So I bid it a tearful goodbye. May its drives always be long and straight.

Me, Elianha & Alan as I set off for Dalton

The Power is in the Bracelet

On Sunday morning I ended my time in Chattanooga the same place I started it - Silverdale Baptist Church. Bill had met me here last Sunday afternoon at the end of my long walk from Cleveland. Now Bill, Jeanette, their son Alan, his wife Kelly, their daughter Elianha and I were there for early morning services.

Pastor Tony preached on the final passage from the Sermon on the Mount. In it Jesus employs the metaphor of building your house on a rock versus building it on the sand. The intro to the sermon was a cute YouTube video of a little girl singing the well known kids song about the same story. I remember singing it as a kid, but I don't remember every giving the metaphor itself much thought.

Pastor Tony talked about how the inevitable storms of life will always test our foundations, whether we like it or not. That got me thinking about what I would answer if someone asked me point blank, "what is your foundation in life?" I'm not going to answer that question here, because I think that explanation belongs in a different place and I will address it head on in what I write after this trip. But having spent the past six days surrounded by the love and concern of my extended Tennessee family I do know that families provide a kind of foundation that can be so important when life deals us some challenges.

My immediate challenge as we left the service was that it was raining again. We drove to Cracker Barrel restaurant across the Georgia state line and Alan treated us to brunch. I got one more chance to play with Elianha, Alan and Kelly's six year old daughter. She is such a ray of sunshine, in both her inexhaustible energy and her ability to light up any room with a smile. Earlier in the week she and I had taken our turns with a bracelet making kit she was loaned by one of her friends. She made me a gold and purple one which signify the Mardi Gras colors of New Olreans, my destination. I put that on my left wrist. At her urging I made another one for myself that is on my right. I won't take them off until I get there.

After lunch I got out in the center of Ringgold, GA and said my goodbyes to all of them. There was a slight rain. Not much of a storm. Especially given a foundation like those who waved goodbye to me there and all the others I had seen and talked to in Chattanooga and Nashville. Before I know it, these bracelets will be strolling down Bourbon Street.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Back Together Again (Cleveland, TN)

Kathy, Debbie, me, Vickie & Lamar in Cleveland, TN

Before walking across America became my vocation, I had a more conventional office space. It was on the fifth floor of "Bible House", the American Bible Society's headquarters which look out over Central Park and Columbus Circle. Okay, so maybe it isn't as glamourous as it sounds. I didn't have a window in my office. And yes, technically it wasn't my office alone. I shared it with Famatta. But I had a desk and a computer and most days I had a working internet connection. It was my home away from home for 40 hours a week.

Physical office spaces have never meant much to me. I can work just about anywhere. What does matter - and matter a lot - are the people I work most closely with. In this respect, I had reason to rejoice. The other assistants on the executive side of the fifth floor - Famatta, Michael and Rachelle - were wonderful co-workers. Then there were the executives themselves.

In the two years I worked for ABS there were two distinct periods of leadership. For the first nine months I worked there the President's Office was, how can I put it delicately, a bit unapproachable. Since the tenor of an organization resonates from the top down, our executive office space felt like a cross between "The Holiest of Holies" and a Please Don't Touch Museum. In other words, other employees did their best to give it a wide berth.

Then, in May of 2008, "The Gray Lady" published an article and everything started to change. The President's contract wasn't renewed, one of the EVPs left and the organization underwent a period of soul searching. During that time the two remaining EVPs - Dr. Lamar Vest and my boss Simon Barnes - ran the organization under the oversight of the Chairman of the Board of Trustees.

There was no speech by Ronald Reagan challenging the organization to "tear down" this invisible wall separating the Executive Offices from the rest of the organization, but that's exactly what they started working to do. The interim leadership set the tone and then by the end of 2008 the Board of Trustees elected Dr. Vest to serve as the next President. ABS finally got its glasnost.

I can only speak for myself, but by the time I left I felt like the attitude of the organization had shifted quite a bit. It wasn't sudden, nor could it have been. Organizations which have been around for almost 200 years don't tend to have that luxury. But it was palpable. The Exective Offices started to feel like a more welcoming place. And Rachelle, Famatta, Michael and I got a new office companion for a couple weeks a month - Dr. Vest's executive assistant Debbie.

Debbie Davis and Kathy Anderson are two of Dr. Vest's administrative support team. There were days when I would think I was a pretty good assistant, but once I got a peek behind the curtain of their organizational skills I knew I was merely a gesticulating Wizard of Oz. When Simon traveled I would give him a laminated itinerary. Debbie and Kathy gave Dr. Vest a full binder. I had Simon's meeting calender planned out through the end of the year. They were already filling up Dr. Vest's calendar through the end of 2010. You get the idea. They were good. Really good.

Luckily, they were also exceedingly kind. With Dr. Vest setting the tone and Debbie, Kathy and Michael managing the logisitics, the President's office became what it should have been all along - a place where multiple voices are heard and lower-level employees could have a say in the direction of the Society.

On a personal level the difference between the two periods of leadership can be summarized by this unassailable fact. I wouldn't have felt comfortable asking the first President to be a host on my walk across country. With Dr. Vest it just seemed like the most natural thing to ask and I knew he would be happy to have me. Thus, way back in August, Debbie and I compared calendars and we settled on a date that looked like it would work for everyone, including her and Kathy.

In August the thought of me walking into Cleveland, TN on Nov. 14th - almost 1,000 miles into my journey - seemed very far off in the distance. By Saturday morning when I left the Schrock's house in Athens it was only a single day's journey away. All that separated me was a few miles of country road, an overly amorous cat and the overpowering scent of wood pulp.

With those paper dragons slayed, I sauntered up to Lamar and Vickie's house a mere 4 minutes past my expected arrival time. I guess you can take me out of the office but you can't take the office out of me. An administrative assistant is forever trying to keep things on schedule.

Lamar and Vickie welcomed me like a member of their family. Debbie and Kathy came over and we had a little Executive Office reunion under a Tennessee sky. Before dinner I was interviewed by the local Cleveland newspaper and then Lamar gave me a quick tour of Cleveland, TN, his home for the better part of 20 years. Lee University sits near the center of town. Dr. Vest served as President of that institution a number of years ago as it was laying out its vision for the expansion that is evident today. Beautiful new buildings abound on a well laid out campus, including one that bears his name.

Back at the original Vest building, also known as his house, we dined on steaks and potatoes and I filled them in on some of my adventures since leaving the cocoon of Bible House. They had read some of those stories from my blog, especially Kathy, who gets at least one vote as my site's biggest fan. It was nice to know that those I worked with were still taking in interest in what I was up to. Whether it is those in Bible House, or in Liberty Ridge (Suite 301 ... represent!) or anywhere else throughout the organization, I have really appreciated the calls, the emails and the connections with hosts made on my behalf. The Vests are the third ABS family I have stayed with after Janet Grell in New Jersey and John Walter in Virginia. Other of my ABS friends like Joey and Malorie and Sam and Joseph and Shamalia and Siyumi and Brian have connected me with people they know who have formed some of my host network across the country. Still others gave me gifts that have come in handy on the road. My boss Simon and his wife bought me the hiking boots that have cushioned every step of my journey. Geof and his wife got me the gift card that turned into my aluminum canteen, which turned into my last line of defense against the attacking dog in Thorngrove, TN. The list goes on and on.

When I think of all that ABS has done to support me following my bliss, it starts to feel less like a company and more like a ..... oh, what's the word for it ..... ah yes, a family. Lets hope it stays that way. So I want to say hi to any and all of you reading this and wish you a Happy Thanksgiving. I'm thankful that I worked there for two years and extra grateful that I met all of you.


While I was writing this entry I thought a lot about my work life up until embarking on this journey. All good writing has one core element in common: rigorous honesty. The author Michael Chabon said in an interview with Terry Gross that he recognizes when he is striking a particularly deep vein of honesty in his writing when he feels his stomach start to churn with embarrassment at the thought of others reading it.

That is a very big build up to a relatively small piece of honesty about my past life. It is important enough to me that I feel the need to say it in writing: I have spent the better part of the last 10 years judging myself rather harshly for being an administrative assistant.

This has nothing to do with the career itself. It can be a very demanding profession, especially at the elite level, and those who do it well are some of the most talented people I know. Rather, the self-judgment of my career choice to this point sprang from an inner knowing that I had taken jobs as an administrative assistant not because it was what I felt called to do, but because I was too scared to go out there and Follow My Own Bliss.

I feel into administrative work after fleeing the stress of teaching. My first job as an administrative assistant was at UCLA Medical Center, working for the CAO of the Radiation Oncology unit. It came very easily to me. I am a natural planner, very time conscious, and I seem to have an innate ability to organize someone's work life and put people at ease. I loved that it was a 9-5 gig and I never, ever, ev-ah had to think about it between 5:01pm and 8:59am. It was the perfect antidote to the poisonous stress I wrestled with as a teacher.

Then I got comfortable. I pushed down those yearnings telling me that I should be doing something that excites me and challenges my creativity. I let fears of failure and financial insecurity win the day. One year became two. Two became almost five years at UCLA. Then I moved back east and found ... what else ... another adminstrative assistant job. It was the familiar path of least resistance. But it was also a lesson I needed to learn. And for that reason I'm happy that my life played out just like it did.

The adminstrative assistant job I got when I returned to the Philadelphia area was with Geneva Global. That is how I started working for Simon Barnes who was one of their senior advisors at the time. Simon and I hit it off and what resulted was a five year working relationship. When he took a job as the Executive Vice President of the American Bible Society in August of 2007 I shifted jobs with him and moved to New York City to work in their executive offices.

In some ways it was a dream come true. I had wanted to move to NYC and this gave me a perfect avenue to do so. I had a boss I got along great with, nice co-workers and a life that was low in stress and high in free time. So you might be thinking, "what was the problem?"

It was that voice. That voice in your head that whispers, "This isn't the truest expression of who you are." For some people their calling is to be an administrative or executive assistant. But not me. I knew it all along but was battling my fears. One of the ways I knew was the cocktail party test. Here is how it goes. You are at a party and someone asks you what you do for a living. Freeze. The test is your internal reaction to that question and the subsequent answer you give.

I always failed that test. I hated the question and always tried to either change the topic or deflect with humor. I disliked it because I thought if I replied, "I'm an administrative assistant" that person would silently be judging me. The truth is I was simply projecting my own self-judgment onto the person I was talking to. Eventually this inner discomfort every time this situation arose was one of the things which convinced me to take steps to live a life that is a more authentic expression of who I am. Thus, this journey. It is my first step in letting the real me come out. I honestly don't know yet what the second, third and fourth steps of that journey will be or how I will support myself in the future.

I do know this. I have come to peace with having been an administrative assistant. If it happens that I need to go back to that profession to make money so that I can continue to do what I love on the side, I'll do so with more neutrality than I had before. My grandfather supported his family as a doctor, but it wasn't his bliss. His bliss was growing his roses and dahlias. I realize that sometimes jobs and callings are the same path, and sometimes one supports the other. Only time will tell what my experience is.

Friday, November 13, 2009

The Almighty Dollar (Athens, TN)

Me, the Schrocks and their youngest son on Saturday morning in Athens, GA

The Newsons and I on Friday night in Athens, TN

There have been two or three times where my best laid plans have come undone at the last minute. Each time a solution has manifested itself, without any effort on my part.

Back in Christiansburg, Viriginia Barry Helms bought me a hotel room when his wife got very sick a day before I was to arrive. Then, this past Friday in Athens, Tina Newson had to call an audible for nearly the same reason. Her husband Tom came down with a bad bout of the flu and she was battling it as well. I got a call from her Friday afternoon to let me know she would meet me somewhere in Athens and take me to dinner but afterwards she would be taking me to another family who would host me for the night.

Considerations like this are probably a bit part of the reason that eleven weeks into this trip I still haven't come down with as much as a cough. No cold. No flu. No walking pneumonia, although that would probably be the most appropriate disease to contract given my vocation. I think the other part of the equation is that my immune system is bolstered by all the exercise, water and fresh air. I should stop boasting. Pride always cometh before the fall.

Tina and her kids treated me to a great dinner at a restaurant in downtown Athens run by a family from Miami. That is also where Tina and Tom lived before moving to Tennessee. I've been to Miami only once, but it seemed nothing like Athens. We talked about what it is like to acclimate to a new culture and find a new community of friends. I don't know how I would handle it if I was forced to move from NYC to a much smaller, more rural town. I grew up in a farming village but that was then and this is now. I am too used to cultural diversity, endless theater options and $12 movies. Wait a second, I could live without that last one.

Tina and her kids sometimes go up to a $1 second run movie theater in Knoxville. One dollar! I don't know what I could get for $1 in New York City. There is a funny commercial I recently watched that posed that very same question. It shows a guy getting into a NYC cab holding $1 and saying, "Where can I go for this?" and the cab driver simply says, "You can get out."

Tina's family goes to the local Vineyard Church, but she grew up closely connected to the Mennonite Tradition. I got connected to her and her husband through the Mennonite Your Way Directory. I have probably mentioned it on here before, but it has been a wonderful resource for me. The Mennonite tradition is steeped in hospitality. When Tina realized it wouldn't be prudent for me to stay with them she was able to find me a room with the Schrock family.

Gary Schrock, his wife and their children (four boys, two girls) live just outside of Athens. He runs a family business that builds and installs roof trusses. I am not sure how much notice they had that I would be staying with them but it didn't seem to matter. They welcomed me as if was the most normal thing in the world to have a cross country walker saunter into their living room on a Friday night. In the course of our conversation that night and then the following morning I got a quick education on the roof trussing business. Like, for instance, what a roof truss was.

Owning a small business can not be the easiest thing. I have never been much of an entrepreneur so I can't relate to what Gary must face day in and day out. The boom and bust cycles of unsteady business must be unsettling at times. Yet as a family they have a rock solid faith that God will provide. Gary shared with me a recent decision he had to make about taking a rather sizable amount of stimulus money that would have come with some strings attached. It could have possibly helped him to grow his business, but in the end he didn't feel right about taking it. Since making that decision he has seen an uptick in business, so he figures God is providing. What he is making will be the value of a hard day's work, not a hand out.

He admitted it wasn't an easy decision. Had I been in his shoes, I can see how tempting it would have been to accept the money. Listen, who wouldn't feel the Siren call of free money? I've never been one for lottery tickets, but when I have bought some in the past I realized that I wasn't really purchasing a chance to win some astounding sum of money. I was purchasing the right to daydream for a few minutes or a few hours about what it would be like to not be limited by the lack of money anymore.

I am not going to sit here and say that if someone walked up to me right now and offered me 5 million that I would not take it. I almost certainly would. But I will posit that, counter-intuitively, it would probably end up being a bad decision in terms of my long term fulfillment and happiness. Those things that come most easily to me in life are those that I have most often taken for granted. They aren't enjoyed with the same fullness as earning something by my own labor. Plus, unlimited money could easily be a Siren call that takes my eye off what really matters in life.

That leads to a larger question. Does money itself - whether hard earned or fallen into my lap - have any correlation with happiness and fulfillment? That is a question that each person will have their own opinion on. George Valliant also has an opinion. He is the lead researcher on the longest running longitudinal study of human fulfillment. It started in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1939 and has followed hundreds of its initial subjects through the ups and downs of life, families, kids, careers, fortunes, prestige, deaths, disappointments and everything else life throws at us in varying degrees. I blogged the link to an article about this study back in May. But I will reiterate my take away from that article here. Valliant was asked what he has learned about happiness from being intimately familiar with the lives of all these men over decades and decades of interviews, psychological testing and self reporting. "The only thing that really matters in life is the relationships you have with other people." Full stop. If he would have said that standing on one leg and then said, "The rest of life is just commentary," it would have been a perfect bookend to Rabbi Hillel's statement 2,000 years ago.

Looking at Gary Schrock and his family, I could tell that it mattered not much whether his business was in a boom or bust cycle. The warm, colorful stories they told me about their 6 week family trip all across the Western United States a few years ago pointed toward the obvious conclusion. Their happiness comes from being with each other. Full stop.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Double Dipping (Loudon & Sweetwater, TN)

Vonnie, me & Ken on Thursday morning

There is an iconic episode of Seinfeld where George attends a funeral for a relative of a woman he is dating. At the wake he is killing time while waiting to talk to the priest about getting a copy of the death certificate so that he can show it to the airline and get a bereavement fare. Then, out of nowhere, a dispute breaks out around a bowl of dip.

I had to pull a Costanza this week. I dipped into Ken & Vonnie Harvey's hospitality on Wednesday night after arriving in Loudon, TN. Then a place to stay in Sweetwater fell through because of a mix up with dates and I stuck my chip back in .... and I dipped again. Ken & Vonnie were only too happy to have me double dip, even though it meant that Ken had to drive 30 minutes on Thursday afternoon to pick me up in Sweetwater and then another half hour Friday morning to drop me back off.

Ken & Vonnie couldn't have been more gracious or enthusiastic in their welcome. Ken is the older brother of Ginger Will who I stayed with in Schaghticoke during the first week of my trip. Ginger's family was the first I stayed with who were complete strangers to me beofre I arrived at their door. Ken & Vonnie were now the 36th, testament to the fact that I have relied on the kindness of people who didn't know me for fully half of the nights I have been on the road. That is a very humbling fact and one that fills me anew with a sense of gratitude.

The Harveys live in Telico Village, a sprawling development situated in different neighborhoods surrounding a large lake created by damming the Little Tennessee River just south of Lenoir City. It is a world all its own, with golf courses, a yacht club, its own volunteer EMTs, hundreds of hobby clubs and its own electoral system for Village government.

Despite its self sufficiency Telico Village is not immune from the one force of nature in these parts that has the power to preempt all other discussions: Tennessee football. You might have thought that leaving Knoxville meant leaving behind the daily dramas of Volunteer Football. You would have thought wrong.

Late Wednesday night three Freshman football players from UT had attempted to rob someone in Knoxville. When word of this arrest broke out on Thursday all the resources of the greater Knoxville media were dedicated to dissecting the implications. As Ken drove me back to Telico Village from Sweetwater we caught some of the discussion on local talk radio. The host, who had an uncanny vocal resemblance to Rush Limbaugh, was taking calls and speculating on what the fallout would be. Later, on the local evening news, the network affiliate we were watching on the kitchen TV devoted the first 10 minutes of the newscast to a three man discussion of the case.

The whole incident was an interesting learning experience for me. For most of the past 11 weeks I've had very little interaction with the news. I haven't missed it one bit. When I do catch snippets of news coverage now I am struck by how often its stories have a negative focus. It has left me asking, "How much do I want to be plugged into the news media when I return home?" In following my bliss these past eleven week I have concentrated wholly on interacting with the people who comprise my daily life - my hosts, those I meet on the road, those I am contacting for possible stays in coming weeks. These interactions have been overwhelmingly positive and consequently, so is my resulting outlook on life.

So it begs the question - how much do I want to involve myself with news that is almost exclusively negative and serves to sow fears about issues I have no control over? A quick confession here. I used to live for debating the news. I loved it. My college friends and I have maintained a long standing email discussion group that has devoted a good chunk of our working lives to debating the issues of the day, albeit leavened with a great deal of humor. I am pretty sure if I went back and complied all the emails my friend Ray and I exchanged over the Iraq War between 2002-2004 I would have a tome to rival Gibbons' Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire.

Ray still tries to bait me into debates from time to time. He knows my old flash points and likes to try and get me worked about Obama. But now I am like Phil Ivey at a poker table. I'm a rock. I think I simply reached the point where I realized I was arguing to augment my own ego. I wanted to feel like I was right. I wanted to convince others that I was right. On a subconscious level my self worth was tied up in those mental constructs. It had a lot of power over me. I could become angry over debates on issues as abstract and antiquated as the Vietnam War. I remember one specific email I wrote in anger, drawing deep into my quiver of patronization and intellectual egotism to tell Ray that I would no longer debate the Vietnam War with someone whose sole knowledge of the subject consisted of a scan of the Wikipedia page and a familiarity with Swift Boat ads. I mean, you can't get more pompous than that.

This doesn't mean I can't have opinions on issues or discussions with friends about what is going on in the world. It just means that I no longer want to identify with my beliefs. That will allow me to be a better listener to those who hold different beliefs and not feel threatened by an opinion diametrically opposed to mine. There is freedom in that.

This journey has brought a lot of things into focus for me about what might allow me to live a more fulfilling, compassionate life. Maybe the biggest one is a shift of focus from ideas (beliefs) to actions (compassion). I love the story about the great Jewish Rabbi Hillel who lived around the time of Jesus. As the story goes he was asked by a non-Jew to recite the whole Torah while standing on one leg. Doing so Hillel said simply this, "Do not do unto your neighbor what you would not have him do unto you." Balancing back on two feet he said, "That is the whole law. The rest is just commentary."

I prefer the syntax of Jesus' teaching that says, "Do onto others as you would want them to do unto you." They are the same teaching, stated slightly differently. Act compassionately. Everything else is just commentary.

I suspect that if I tune out of some of the endless commentary, I'll have more time to act and more time to return the love that has been so generously shown to me. Thanks Ken & Vonnie for your compassion. Scratch that. For your double dip of compassion.