Thursday, October 31, 2013

Benched Week 26: Trick or Treat

The affection caught me completely unprepared.  It is, after all, just another city in an ever-compressing line of them.  But as I pulled onto Broad Street off of I-95, I realized that this one, Philadelphia, was different.

It felt like home.

And as I found my bench on a balmy Halloween night, was it a trick of the eye that the city seemed to have a welcoming glow?  Was it a nostalgic trick of the heart, perhaps?

I had, so many years ago, started my freelance career here, riding the El into Center City, walking through City Hall with my black, mock-leather portfolio in hand.  I carried, as well, a healthy dose of unrealistic optimism toward the door-opening effect of my talent.  I cringe when I think of what I carried in those pages back then.

City Hall is still open to pedestrians, to my surprise.  So I strolled through, finding dramatic shadows in the architecture.

And unremembered sculptures.

I came out the end with a view of North Broad, which I had, long ago, daily trudged up four blocks to a hole-in-the-wall ad agency.  One with rats in the darkroom.  But tonight, even this view seemed polished and pretty.

So, it is a trick, of fate, of grace to be back here.  And therein is the treat: my serpentine career bringing me back – minus the optimism and most of my hair, but replaced with a keen-edged appreciation for the moments and places that bring delight.  Like Philly on an autumn night.  Or the crisp jazz in the hotel bar.

On the street, moments before, a woman stopped nearby as I sat on my bench.  She was on the phone, distraught.  “I don’t know what happened to the ten dollars,” she was saying to her babysitter.  “I had it, but now it’s gone.  So I’m going to be late getting back.  I don't know how long."

I fished a ten from my wallet and walked up to her.  “Would this help?” I asked.

“Oh my God!” she replied. “That’s exactly what I lost!”  She thanked me – assuming I had found it – and set off quickly for the subway.

I guess I tricked her with my treat.

But I had to help.  What else could I do after such a warm welcome by the City of Brotherly Love?

Monday, October 28, 2013

Benched #25: sharing the road

“Those who are going nowhere can have no fellow-travellers.”

That quote from C. S. Lewis has been stuck in my head for the past few days.  It’s challenged me to think of it as a question: Where are you headed and who’s going with you?

It’s the other side of the issue of living in the moment – a theme I seem to keep picking up from people I’m around lately. Living in the moment needs to be more than just living moment-by-moment.  It can’t negate the concept that there’s a bigger picture. In the words of the business events I scribe, there needs to be a road map.

My literal road map in the last week has taken me to Lancaster, Washington, D.C.,San Francisco, and Harrisonburg, VA, where an old friend – Bob, a professor at James Madison University -- took me to see a couple of benches on the campus. The first is called the Kissing Bench, because, the legend says, those who kiss on the bench will end up married. 

Then, as we walked back to our cars to go to dinner, he showed me another bench, tucked in an alcove.  I liked the contrast of the starkness of the setting with the worn wood of the slats – it’s clearly much used.

The next day, on Skyline Drive, my wife, daughter, son and I took a leisurely stroll through the woods, passing a deer that was blind in one eye.  Creepy. 

Further on, Grace and I took a break on a roadside bench.

Friends.  Family. Joining me in bench-sitting.  More to the point this week -- becoming fellow travelers.  Not so much in this one thing that I’m doing, but as Lewis expounds, discovering friendship in a shared interest.  As I look around, I find that I’m missing fellow travelers for much of my ongoing journey.  It may be that my new career isolates me.  Perhaps it’s how busy people are.  Could be where I live.  But it’s something that has to be a part of my road map: journeying together.

Except for the four college-age guys in the car that rear-ended mine on the way back from the mountains.  Note to self: don’t travel with people who tie a shopping cart on top of their new sports car.

There are times a lonely road isn’t so bad.

Benched #24: the blue in the gray

What does one do when the only day to take to a bench in Chicago turns out to be wet and ugly?

Sit in the rain, that’s what.  How could I pass up a chance to take a seat along the shore of Lake Michigan?  Weather schmeather.

On the upside, I had my choice of benches.  There was not a soul in sight.  I chose one on a concrete overhang. Of all my bench-sittings, this proved to be the loneliest.  It could have been the dreary skies.  Or the solitude at the edge of a major city.  Then again, it could have been Tom.

Tom was a panhandler, singing and playing a harmonica in the tunnel walkway under Lake Shore Drive.  I stopped, dropped money into his bucket and talked with him a bit.  He was a cheerful guy with, what else: a sad story.  I wasn’t sure if any of it could be believed.  Maybe not the fact that he had been turned out of his nearby apartment just early today.  Certainly not the tale that he had a fortune in jewels hidden in the place that had better (profanely prefaced) BE there when he got the apartment back.  I shook his hand, we wished each other the best and I walked away, listening to the forlorn wailing of harmonica blues echo behind me in the tunnel.

The rain was a fine spray, kicked up by gusts of wind, blowing at my back, thankfully, as I sat on my stone octagon.  Clouds descended on the skyline, shrouding the tallest of the buildings.  It was a uniformly gray landscape.  Depressingly gray.

Except for the one patch of blue – just an accent on an ornate tower.  But it was a conspicuous blue.  A serendipitous blue.

I know in these blogs I tend towards involved analogies.  This time, I’ll try to keep things simple and just say that I want to be that patch of blue on a gray landscape.  It’s not that life is the equivalent of a rainy day.  Life is a gift – a wonderful, overflowing, astonishing gift.  But it can become a bit, well, ordinary.  Buried under the mundane.

A little color helps – something unexpected and pleasing.  Like the little doodles I often leave for housekeeping with a tip in hotels.  Or asking the taxi driver today what he missed from his native Bulgaria.  Or, for that matter, stopping to talk with Tom.

This, I’m deciding, is getting close to the heart of what I’m to do with my margins of time.  Each day, every day, look for a way to use those skills I’ve developed, those gifts I’ve been given, to bring a little color into someone’s day.

Just be livin’ the blues, man.  I’ll just be livin’ the blues.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Benched #23: what we cling to

Consider ivy.

Sure, there are other, bigger things to see from my bench.  From this spot along Market Street in my home town, you can see the building where my father-in-law ran a loan company.  Just a few doors down, see the hotel where Alison and I had our wedding reception.  Down another block one can find the church where we married and now attend.

But ignore all that history in architecture.  Disregard even the smaller details, like the town clock that I noticed for the first time. 

And the strange animal that embellishes the bench’s armrests.  (A griffin, perhaps?)

Instead, check out what’s all around this seat – and in some spots, growing through it.

Simple, green ivy.

Ivy has charm.  First of all, there is the playful pointiness of the leaves, like starbursts on green tracers.  Overlap them and you have a jigsaw puzzle never meant to be assembled, delightful in its disarray.

Then, it’s dogged. Persistent.  A wall isn’t an obstacle to the vine, it’s a surface to use for more growth.  Ivy excels at plant parkour, slower than slow, but no less sure-footed. 

When it finds itself surrounded, it clings.  And keeps moving.

That’s a useful picture to me.  For over a lifetime, I’ve built solid walls of settled things – knowledge, skills, memories, beliefs, and habits, both good and bad.  I know what I do well and what I don’t.  For instance, that guy over there who is fixing his car – that’s something I don’t do well and never will.  That’s okay with me.

It’s good not to have to re-construct all that knowledge everyday.  Saves a ton of time.  But then, what do I do with that time I’ve saved?  I have a clear choice: sit back and settle inside the familiar walls or use them as a toehold to reach new territory.  Cling for comfort or cling for growth.

I know it seems like I keep reiterating the purpose of my quest for this blog.  But I am making progress – like rediscovering my love for photography and writing – even if it is slow.

Ask the ivy. Wall-crawling takes time.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Benched #22: here

My effort to squeeze a bench sitting into the schedule on Sunday was almost laughable.  Planned right, there would just be enough time on my drive to suburban D.C. to stop at Cunningham Falls in Maryland, to sit for forty minutes and take in the cascading water.

But there were problems.   Like getting to the falls, for one.  A winding drive to the park followed by what had been promised as a “fairly flat” half-mile hike shaved off precious minutes.  Then, there were the falls. 

Or the lack thereof.  I suppose renaming it Cunningham Trickle wouldn’t draw in the crowds.  And these “falls” drew crowds – with the kind of international flavor I’ve been finding only in cities.

Ironically, I had planned to draw the cascade, as a change of pace from my usual photos.  But without much water or time, I opted to do a quick sketch of the woods off to one side.  (Drawing the scene was far easier than photographing my hand drawing the scene, which taught me that using a camera is yet another thing I don’t do well left-handed.)

That’s when this boy appeared.  Like an advanced scout for an invading troop, he popped up, eyeing with glee the rocky landscape ahead.  His siblings and weary parents followed behind.  He and his brothers petitioned the adults to let them roam and climb. The father readily agreed.

The mother protested, saying, “If we let them climb we can’t get to the next place!”

The father asked, “What’s the hurry?”

“There’s all kinds of owls and stuff to see.”


“At the tire park.”

The dad’s next words ended the argument.  He said, “But when are we coming back here?”

Exactly, I thought.  Those are words to live by.  When are we coming back here?  Why be ever-pressing to the next place, the next person, the next weekend?  It was a pointed thought at that moment, as I was panicking to get back to the car to speed to my gig.  It’s hard to enjoy the scenery when you’re racing by it.

Racing. During the drive I thought again of how I had, in the last few days, turned down three engagements in three different cities so that I could be at my daughter’s cross country meet today.  It made no financial sense, but then, when would I be coming back here: Grace, stride for stride with one of her good friends, sprinting with a fluidity that seemed almost effortless, belying the hard work she puts in.  And here: the pleasure in her flushed face, afterward, as she told me details of her running.

After so much of my own racing around, it’s good to be here.