Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Mindful on a Train

I recently had the occasion to ride the Altamont Commuter Express (A.C.E.) train from Santa Clara to Manteca/Lathrop. It was an incredibly enriching experience. I rode with my mom, who had packed us a lunch of ham sandwiches, apples, and bottled water. My Aunt Laura Jean assisted in the lunch packing, it should be noted.

Anyway, we spent the trip sharing thoughts, and me in hypo-chatty mode (it feels like a conversation, but I'm predominantly doing most of the talking...), noticing the things so easily taken for granted. We left the driving to the engineer and were free to notice the scenery as we leisurely sauntered across the rails, snaking through the "back country" of the Bay Area. We started off going through Alviso and the desalinization plants along the bay/delta that flows into San Francisco Bay. We noted large white mounds, guessed and hypothesized as to what they were and what sort of manufacturing was occurring there, and then we saw a water tower with "Leslie Salt" painted on it. We snaked along with a river through the towns (cities?) of Newark, Union City, Sunol, and Pleasanton-- all the while noticing things that outdated much of what we see in our everyday lives in the bustle of urban living. Somewhere between Newark and Livermore, I noticed an old railroad engine-- possibly a steam engine-- that had been sitting dormant for many years. It is now a decomposing heap of hazardous waste; rusting metal entwined with weeds and vines and surely other wildlife. Noticing it made my mind reel with possibility. And oh, the questions! How long had it been parked there? How old was it? When did it make its last run? Were there any plans of renovation? How many people, places, and things had this engine assisted with its service?

I talked and talked with my mom, inspired by our surroundings and the unique perspective with which the train rider is provided. With no distraction from other drivers, safety concerns, controlling a vehicle, etc., one is allowed to pay more attention and notice more about the scenery, and more time is allowed for undistracted reflection. We rode the train for about an hour and forty-five minutes. It took me almost that long to eat my lunch, I was so embedded in the experience.

So I was inspired to drive the backroads, in order that I might find some subjects for my photography and writing. Suzy and I embarked on a little jaunt that attempted to recreate the experience I had on the train. We drove on paths less taken than the freeways and highways, my intention being to find that steam engine and take some photos.

We drove through Niles Canyon, but stuck to the "main" roads due to time constraints (and because we needed gas...), so I didn't locate my steam engine. But we did see many a wildflower, including countless California Poppies, and found gas in a side of Pleasanton that we had never realized existed-- it felt so small town friendly, we almost couldn't believe it was Pleasanton. But then, when you take Interstate 580 through it most of the time, that's what you miss. You see the big ticket, fast this-and-that, cookie cutter stuff that has homogenized the American sense of place. Mass corporate culture masks reality, placing products and brand names in front of the soul of small town America, all in the name of "progress." But I think I've typed about that before (see last entry. I know I'll be going back to re-read).

What I did get to see instead of the good ol' steam engine, was some good old-fashioned train crossing signals. We pulled off the road so I could snap a few quick shots of poppies and the guardrails and signals. (Suzy sat quite patiently in the car while I indulged my muse. She even took a couple photos. But that's for her blog, not this one...) I'm reminded of the importance of trains in general-- from my experiences in Grinnell, to childhood memories of trains on Lake Shasta and in Escalon, to my mom's memories of the train ride that brought her and her mom and sister from a small town in Georgia to California when she was five years old.

But that's for mom's blog.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Catching Up with Mike

We went to Santa Cruz a few weeks ago, even though there was a storm brewin'. One of Suzy's co-workers had said he would be there because it was the best time to go-- you can watch the waves roll in and pound the pier, and there's hardly any people there. All the weather wimps stay home. So we went, packing lots of layers of clothing and raingear, for an overnight stay in the city where we like to spend a lot of our leisure time-- a place where we're comfortable, and where we've considered living, if we could find some way to make it work.

We headed over on a Saturday, early afternoon, well before the storm was to start to hit. We took Saratoga Avenue, which turns into Hwy 9, through the Los Gatos/Saratoga hills, passing through small towns like Felton and Ben Lomond, places that still have businesses with names like "Dottie's Diner" and "Jim's Bar," and not a fast food restaurant to be seen. Nary a Starbuck's or Jamba Juice, either.

We paused to snap some pictures of the beautiful moss covered forestation. We even grabbed a couple of fliers advertising some of the properties on the market, which included a log cabin, built in 1920, that had been reduced to a bargain basement asking price of $469,000. Mature landscaping included.When we arrived in Santa Cruz, we checked into our hotel and got dressed in layers so we could walk into downtown and have lunch at one of our favorite hangouts, 99 Bottles, a beer haven with pub grub that touts, literally, 99 bottles of beer on the wall, several of which are offered on tap. Suzy and I have both completed our first tour through the beer menu, consuming 99 different beers and earning our free t-shirt and our names & short quotes added to the Wall of Fame. I finished first, having started several years before I had even met Suzy; and incidentally, when Suzy finished about two years after I had, her name was added to the wall-- in the same booth as mine, so that we are just a few name plates away from each other. We couldn't have planned it better if we had tried.

Lunch was good, and we talked with some of the locals who patronized the pub on that day about some of the goings on around town. It's these sorts of conversations that Suzy and I treasure; it's a favorite sport of ours to frequent establishments and "serve and volley semantics" with the patronage. Some of the most interesting conversations and people have happened into our lives as we have bellied up to the bar. And although we arrived at a time when all stools at the bar were occupied, we sat at a table in the southwest corner of the front dining area and spoke to a mother and her son about the clam chowder cook-off that was occurring that weekend down at the wharf, and had gone on despite the foul weather. Yet another reason for us to return on another day and experience a festival of fun and food. Like we need reasons...

After lunch, we did some shopping and then headed back to the hotel to make plans for dinner. As we were walking up Soquel Avenue towards Water Street, I saw the following scene and paused to take a picture:But as I first looked to take the above picture, Suzy remarked that there was someone on the porch. I looked closer and asked if I could take a picture, but couldn't hear the response of the individual talking back to me. So I moved closer. And I met Mike. Here's the first picture I snapped:

Mike, Suzy and I talked for awhile about this and that, and he told us some stories about how this was his campsite, that he was just gonna hang out here, out of the rain, until the storm had passed.

He told us how he tried to live his life, always cleaning up after himself, using garbage cans how they're supposed to be used. He spoke of how he had some sleeping bags that were on their way, as promised by some earlier folks that he'd visited with. I took another picture of him, at his request, as he said-- "How about another one without the hat?"

I asked if he was here at this particular location often (not as a pick-up line, by the way), and that was when he talked about how this was his campsite. We exchanged some life stories, and he extolled the virtue that is life. "Life is great!" he preached, playfully and yet somberly. No joke. He wasn't being flip. He was being honest. And we honestly believed him.

I thanked him for his time and his stories, and asked him if he'd like a copy of the pictures I'd taken. He said that would be really nice. So I said I'd print them out and bring them by to him the next time we were passing through town. He thanked us, and we bid him well. Suzy gave him some money and he thanked her and said "God Bless You." All the while, with a smile.

We made it back to the hotel (after I paused to take the picture I had initially intended) and farted around, somewhat literally, until it was time to make a decision about dinner. By this time the storm was starting to whip up quite a ruckus, and so our plan to walk down to the wharf was receiving some serious 2nd and 3rd reconsiderations. Ultimately, we opted to gear up, bundle up, and walk on down to see what we'd find down at the wharf. Of course, this took a bit of time due to the fact that I was in Chatty Kathy mode, blathering about like some talk-radio personality that had miraculously awaken from a coma just minutes before "going live"... So we made it down to the wharf, decided on a restaurant, and proceeded to have a wonderful, peaceful, fulfilling meal and conversation. I took my leftovers to go, and after opting out of dessert and finishing a stellar after dinner cup of coffee, we began our walk back to our hotel.

To our surprise, the rain had stopped; Any wind left had been tamed to a whispering breeze. We had a very pleasant saunter back to the hotel. We happened upon the "Alto house" on our way, and so I decided to stop in again and see how Mike was holding up. He spoke much more slowly than he had earlier, his speech quite slurred, and I wondered if he had spent the money Suzy had given him on a bottle of medication of some sort. I asked him if he liked seafood, and handed him my leftover halibut when he said that he did. I told him what it was, and that he should probably eat it slowly or it might make him sick. He thanked us with a few simple words, but said them in a way that seemed to gather all the warmth in his heart and shower it gently over us. He spoke of his Guardian Angels that kept watch over him, and helped him through the rough patches in his life. And he said that he always tried to do right and that he had five dollars in his pocket and it was ours if we wanted it. I thanked him and said that we didn't need it.

I think it may have been the five dollars Suzy had given to him earlier.

He snuggled up to the leftovers, adjusting the welcome mat draped over his lap to keep his legs warm, and settled into eating. As we left him to his meal, he blessed us again. And we felt it.

The night was calm and soothing. I felt almost as if we were in the eye of the storm, so to speak. We got back to our hotel and peeled off our layers of clothing and prepared for sleep. Within minutes of returning to the sanctuary of our room, the wind kicked up, and the rain returned, and the storm once again began its assault upon the night. It was like we had been sheltered from it for our walk back from the wharf, and upon securing ourselves in our hotel room, the hounds had again been released.

I would not sleep much that night, thinking of all things poetic, symbolic, and monolithic. And inspirational.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Plenty to Talk About

I've been a veritable Chatty Kathy doll lately. Lotsa brain activity coupled with an enhanced interface with my vocalization and communication skills. But still I be pausing short of writing things down. Beyond the dry erase board by the phone, at least...

Every now and then, things catch up with you. You're going along, thinking things are just fine. You're driving down the road at a comfortable speed, feeling good and adequate about your driving skills, trusting in your ability to make the journey even though you can't see beyond what is being lit by your headlights (how about a little shout out to E.L. Doctorow for that spicy metaphor?)... you keep driving, even though you're tired, even though things seem to be getting increasingly "hairy" and your self doubt, or your "spidey sense," is tingling... You think you see, in slow motion, something in your peripheral vision darting around and jutting in and out of your headlights, and so you kinda swerve a little, and the back end fishtails, but you're still in control-- right? Still barreling down the poorly lit road... Nevermind that you've long since driven through several warning signs-- you turn on your windshield wipers to clear the debris from the countless barriers you've plowed your vehicle into and beyond, splinters and sparks exploading like fireworks--road closure and other numerous signs to slow down, turn around, or just stop and check your road map...

Uh, I sure can obliquely rant and rave through extended metaphor. God forbid I get to the meat and potatoes of where the rubber hits the road-- Er, get to the bare-naked facts of my story. Okay, so it's not God's doing-- it's mine.

Long story short? I've been parked for awhile here, doin' some routine maintenance. Long overdue tuneup. Change the oil, check the plugs, bleed the break lines... rotate the tires... adjust the mirrors... renew registra-- Okay, enough already.

What happened is that I had another episode. Mania strikes again.

Got me some new support classes, new meds, new options. And a new outlook, new perspective. Optimistic, dare I type.

Lots of thought crystalization. Things making sense. Enjoying everyday experiences and noticing the beauty that life seems to effortlessly eek into existence everyday, everywhere... or should I say anywhere? So many things that have been right here in my back yard that I've taken for granted, or not allowed myself to see, or maybe just forgot how to look outside myself to be able to notice...

So I gots me some writin' to do, mmm--hmm. Lots.

But I must take my time, do it well, and do it healthfully; Nurture the nascent, budding blooms inside my imagination by mindfully attending to their needs without ignoring needs of my own.

Hence the hiatus. "Down for maintenance" for unknown time period. And this is O. K.

I'm good with it. Hope you are, too.

Again, enjoy the ride-- maybe you should take the wheel for a bit? Lemme know what you think.

I promise to return the favor.