Big City

May 30, 2022

We headed for Nashville through thick fog that obscured the mountains and reinforced the numbness we felt, the whole country felt. What goes through the mind of an 18-year-old kid as he pulls the trigger in an elementary school classroom? No one knows, maybe not even the kid. On Memorial Day weekend we should be honoring those who served. Texans are mourning children.

We plodded on, from one gun-happy state to another, up I-26 past Asheville then to I-40 into the Volunteer State, legendary home of Davey Crockett and his long rifles.

We looked forward to going back, but the fast-moving dark clouds and sheets of rain slowed us down. Tennessee, greenest state and all that, has become a weird, offbeat place. Firearms and violence are ingrained in its history. Just past Knoxville is a billboard advertising tours of Brushy Mountain State Prison, the remote, now-closed state penitentiary where James Earl Ray, assassin of Martin Luther King Jr., was locked up—until one day he wasn’t. Ray escaped in June 1977 and tramped in circles around the bleak, hostile Frozen Head mountain forest for two days. We passed on the tour.

The Civil War is big, with ads at rest stops for the “Tennessee Civil War Trails.” At a pretty picnic area outside Crossville is a marker noting the exploits of Confederate guerrilla leader Champ Ferguson. Champ commanded a vicious band of rebels that attacked Union troops and supply lines. He operated with even more-notorious General John Morgan, who led a gang of irregulars in harassing Union forces in East Tennessee.

Champ Ferguson and gang

Morgan was caught and shot in September 1864. Ferguson surrendered in May 1865. Because he wasn’t a regular soldier he was hanged as a traitor. Morgan is memorialized in Greeneville. Ferguson’s shrine at Crossville is more impressive than his military career.

Music City, when we lived there in the mid-70s through mid-80s, still was a slow-moving, easy-going Southern town: No NFL or NHL team, only two or three high-rise office buildings, no rush hour. The city had two independent daily newspapers. It had its local scandals, mainly the one with Governor Ray Blanton. He went to jail in 1984 for mail fraud, although also indicted for pardoning a bunch of prison inmates who bribed him, including 20 convicted murderers. Nashville Sheriff Fate Thomas, who held the office for 18 years, served four years on various corruption charges.

The most recent seamy story is of Mayor Megan Barry, an up-and-coming, fresh-faced Democrat who in March 2018 resigned as part of a felony plea after admitting to having an affair with her police bodyguard, who was paid for time he spent with her. They both got three years’ probation and reimbursed the city.  Nashville, after all, was and still is one of the biggest buckles on the Bible belt, I recall something like 700 congregations of all persuasions.

A few years ago you could bump into country music stars buying groceries. On Music Row you’d see guys dragging guitars, hoping to get an audition at the studios that line the Row. The population of the metropolitan area then was about 500,000, now it’s one million and counting.

We lived near Vanderbilt University. On football Saturdays traffic would back up on our street, we could hear the crowds at the games, mostly groans, because Vandy wasn’t very good. Back then it was kind of a lowbrow place, some houses kept up, others down and out. One house away from ours was a home for troubled boys. Today the neighborhood is absolutely chic, with homes marketed in the $900,000 range. Joggers roam the streets, contractors are adding upgrades, signs advertising Democratic causes decorate the yards.

One of the two newspapers went out of business, the other was absorbed into the monster Gannett conglomerate. Downtown now is pocked with skyscrapers that weren’t there five years ago. Acres of stores and homes have been bulldozed to make room for new apartment and condo towers and office buildings. The once-humble North Nashville precinct has been obliterated through gentrification run amok, block after block of apartments have appeared and are still appearing, construction cranes are rising, jackhammers throbbing.

The Nashville boom isn’t unique, it’s going on in Florida, Texas, and South Carolina. Gridlocked traffic snakes along city streets, property taxes skyrocket, newcomers bid against each other for boxy houses and townhomes on treeless lots. But then, everyone needs a place to live. Nashville has its throbbing, exciting pace. Too exciting for us.

I walked past our old place, just a brick Cape Cod-type cottage with a few nice features, like a stone fireplace. The brick has been painted gray for many years. I can still see the crooked lines of my chimney tuckpointing. A dried dollop of white paint, which I spilled, remains on a front-window screen. It’s been 36 years.

Parthenon, Centennial Park

I resisted the urge to ring the doorbell and asked whoever answers if I can get a look at the inside. The fellow or gal would be puzzled; he or she may not have been born when we left. The place has been sold several times anyway, with the local real estate market red-hot for decades.

Across the street from our house stands a large home once surrounded by a beautiful, spacious lawn. I looked once, then twice. A second home now sits on the property, crammed between the older house and the sidewalk. Well, the couple who were our neighbors in 1986 are long gone. Why not add something?

Before we left we strolled through Centennial Park on West End near Vanderbilt, a true jewel of the city. We passed the graceful Parthenon, a knockoff of the real one in Greece. The park has been nicely spruced up, with cleanly designed walkways, a Tennessee Women’s Suffrage monument, and new landscaping, yet remains the same place we took our kids to play long ago.

We drove 100 miles south to Monteagle, winding up Sewanee Mountain, and got a room at the Smokehouse Lodge. We listened for a while to Mississippi base virtuoso Brandon Greene sing his heartfelt ballads on the patio out back. We waved at a few folks, people who stayed put on the mountain, happily. The next day, perched high on the Cumberland Plateau, we stared at the spectacular vista of lush green farmland. We breathed deeply. Not a construction crane in sight.


May 23, 2022

The old man stared at the green corridor ahead. Daylight was fading. His back ached from leaning forward. His legs felt heavier with each step. He heard nothing, no breeze in the trees, no bird calls, no scurrying squirrels. No human being was near. He was alone on this stretch of trail, probably five miles from the last aid station and that far from the next one.

He reminded himself he was 74, the oldest entrant in the field in this 100-mile trail run. He figured he was around mile 45. Lately, he was the oldest in any event he entered, usually the only one in the 70-plus group. Even with his aching back he grinned at the thought of winning the division, finishing both first and last. The race report would place him first. Oh boy, he thought. Isn’t that a big deal.

The event was called a “trail run,” but his pace included very little running. He picked up speed on the descents with a kind of calculated trot. He focused on the surface, trying to avoid the obstacles that could cause him to topple forward. If he did and was lucky he would throw his hands forward to cushion the fall. If he couldn’t, he might crack or slash something.

It had happened countless times, usually just a glancing blow, but at others, gashed arms and legs, ankle strains and sprains, knocks on the head, once a concussion and a couple of broken ribs. Injuries were part of the game. He felt pleased that he stumbled far less often now than in his early years of running in the woods. He had needed many training runs to develop his skills: the ability to quickly assess the terrain as he moved over it, the reflexes to place his feet firmly and safely, avoiding rocks and roots that could throw him off balance. He was good at it. He should be, he reminded himself, he had been doing it for 20 years.

He could see the stretch ahead rising to a short level point, then rising again until the trail disappeared into the trees. His thighs throbbed, each step became shorter, more deliberate. He watched the ground no more than ten or twelve feet ahead, focusing on progress over and past the rocks, than casting his eyes forward to measure his progress. The climb became steeper. He paused and drew water from the tube of his hydration pack. It was warm but good. He stepped forward, feeling the drag of gravity.

What’s the point, he asked himself. He knew the question would come to him at some hard moment, as it always did when he was stuck alone in the forest on a knee-stretching, breath-sucking climb. He had conjured up different answers: senior fitness, camaraderie with younger folks, the lure of the challenge, the satisfaction of finishing or at least trying to finish. There was the sublime, consoling solitude of the deep forest, the breathtaking mountain views. Then the nagging one he tried to avoid: the reality of age, of time passing, the mystery of what lay ahead. Seventy really is not the new forty

None of the answers made the trail easier. He knew, no, he hoped, he would stumble into the finish under the 35-hour cutoff. The few folks still hanging around would applaud, the race director would smile and shake his hand. He would slump in the nearest chair and bow his head.

He achieved the top of the hill and exhaled and paused, looking at the descent that curled around a sharp bend. He knew this short, steep slope led only to another hill. Night was softly closing in. He reached up and touched his headlamp. At the start of the race in the pre-dawn darkness that morning he had left it hanging around his neck rather than stow it in his pack, to avoid a stop to fumble with it. He had packed a spare light and triple-A batteries in case of a midnight headlamp disaster.

He reached the bottom and turned into the curl, the trail narrowed and wound into thick brush. He knew this section went for about a mile, or was it two miles. The descent provided some sense of recovery, but he knew it wouldn’t last. He tried to stay in the center of the trail to avoid touching the underbrush, where the ticks waited. He paused, thinking he heard voices, then shook his head. What was he hearing? The rest of the field were far ahead, he knew he couldn’t overtake any of those young greyhounds, or even the middle-aged ones. Keep moving, he muttered to himself.

The question returned: what’s the point? Why the endless training, with the risk of injury–not only cuts, bruises, skinned knees, blisters, but also sprains, dehydration, kidney stress. Then, snakes, horseflies, ticks. Then the days of recovery, the aching back and legs, the temptation to numb the pain with bourbon. The folks at the finish always had plenty of strong stuff.

The shadows lengthened, the lush greenery grew dark. To conserve battery power he waited until darkness had nearly descended before switching on the headlamp. He moved more slowly. Night fell, and he slogged through the beam, glancing left and right, the light creating ghostly shadows of the trees and underbrush, gnats dancing in the light around his face The woods came alive with the deafening staccato of katydids and crickets, and in the distance the haunting hoot of an owl.

The air cooled, he paused and reached into his pack for his thermal shirt and pulled it over his head. He moved on through the forest music, the beam ever brighter in the deepening darkness. He drew more water.

He felt stronger then, knowing he had managed his pace well up the climbs and down the descents, around the rocks and the blown-down trees and fallen branches. He breathed deeply, freely, knowing the point: relentless forward progress, moving through the pain, the exhaustion, the loneliness, the heat of the day and the night’s chill. To persevere, to overcome, to finish the race, to succeed at the mission. The mission was within him all these years. It was the way he wanted it to be, the way it always had been. The mission told him all he knew about himself.

He guessed the aid station was within a mile. He had come a respectable distance for an old coot. He looked forward to a welcoming word from the crew. They would ask him how he felt, and if he wanted to go on or drop from the race. He would have a moment’s pause to get his breath. Then, before the urge to quit seized him, to step back onto the trail.

The Visit

May 16, 2022

It was time to head back to northern Virginia. Eighteen months away isn’t all that long. Maybe I really didn’t want to go back. But I wanted to see people I care about, and wanted to do things that were, for the moment, important. So I had to go back, to the state, the community, the neighborhood that for 33 years had been home.

The North Carolina novelist Thomas Wolfe became famous, not so much because of the greatness of his books, but because of one of his titles: You Can’t Go Home Again. Wolfe, who also wrote Look Homeward Angel and Of Time and the River, died just before turning 38. Home Again was published posthumously. He never had the chance, as do those who last longer, to go home.

The trip was based on a chore, volunteer work at a trail ultra-running event in the deep-green Massanutten mountains that in two ragged ridges form a 100-mile-long rock fortress in the state’s northwestern corner. Virginia has its modest seacoast, mostly identified with low-rent tourism and military bases. It has its history as the nexus of Civil War tragedy that echoes through the Wilderness, Petersburg, and Appomattox. But the mountains down the western spine of the state, the Shenandoah and Massanuttens, in their eternal, brooding, stunning beauty, give Virginia its unique strain of majesty. 

The traffic crept up on me. It was Tuesday, but by Fredericksburg the interstate was nearly packed in. I rounded a bend and there it was, the massive project to extend new “high-occupancy” lanes still farther south. Backhoes, bulldozers, graders, and dump trucks lined up in rows. Huge rings of concrete sewer-line piping and prefab sections of overpass were laid out over giant dunes of plowed-up gravel. Crews stood around as if observing their work. Yet I could barely recognize any progress since we passed the same spot in October 2020.

The intensely complicated, vastly expensive job seemed a metaphor for my final thoughts about this place: the razing of natural features to achieve some small-minded notion of convenience. More and wider roads to attract more cars, more congestion, more sprawl. Should that matter? South Carolina and the feds have been widening I-85 for years. We still moved there.

Fredericksburg is a rough boundary between North and South. Below are the small cities, factory towns, and farms that still venerate the Gray in the War of Blue and Gray. Above is the suburban snarl of Stafford, Prince William, and Fairfax Counties and the urban enclaves of Alexandria and Arlington. Anyone who knows Virginia knows about the state’s split personality: the depressed, rural, Trump-devoted south and west and the traffic-choked, blue-chip northeast corner, frozen rigid in Democratic Party orthodoxy.

From the Woodbridge exit I drove past the house. The new owners had pulled the hyacinth and forsythia shrubs from the front yard and put up a patio umbrella with some chairs. The lawn was scruffy, the grass pale and feeble, struggling in the poor soil, as it did when I owned the place. The hostas I had planted years ago survived, maybe because as perennials they cared for themselves. Otherwise the block, the street, the neighborhood had hardly changed. I drove on.

The few familiar faces I saw the next day at the old parish church had aged, I searched my memory for names. I thought some noticed me, they wondered, probably, who is that old guy. I nodded then left.

The friends I visited have been busy upgrading their properties. Northern Virginia still is a sweet home for some. For me it became an impersonal, alien place, a swamp of commercial dreck (like many others), traffic, and bureaucracy.

At some long-ago time the northern Virginia suburbs south of the Beltway became a sensible place to settle for the droves of civil servants, military families, and contractors sent to or drawn to government. Affluent and not-so-affluent subdivisions grew like capillaries from the major arteries of I-95 and I-66. Eventually the interstates and local roads became choked. Residential and retail development stretched west toward Front Royal and south to Fredericksburg.

We landed in the middle of all that, in a subdivision attached to a main four-lane road that became a six- then an eight-lane road. A mile or so from our intersection was another subdivision, then beyond that another, which bled into a strip mall. The pattern repeated itself across the county. Walking to a destination became an eccentricity. Life was defined by driving.   

Long ago in other places we lived, families stayed for decades. Our neighbors in Nashville and Red Bank, N.J., were elderly couples and young families. They walked to the grocery, the drugstore, the park, the elementary school. Kids plays ball in the street. As a kid I played ball in the street and walked to the school bus stop then walked home. But I know, everyone knows, that world died a generation ago, maybe two.

Today parents walk their children to the bus, in the afternoon they gather to wait for them to get off. And so on. But things change, and we should have known that when we dreamed ourselves through the everyday world of the 1950s and 1960s. Apart from the nostalgia and the blowsy thinking, the world then was a very hard place. While we nestled in our comfortable communities, others suffered, in other neighborhoods, other worlds.

The good, caring people recreate home when we show up. The true friends cook for us and get us up to date on their kids, their adventures, their plans and dreams. They listen to our stories and smile at our grumpiness. They wish we hadn’t left, and they’re not likely to follow. Old timers who look for new “situations” are on their own. We knew that when we left, we left anyway. Home is, after all, always becoming what you hope it will be. Then the ones you love step up. They promise: you can go home again.

Completely Fine

May 9, 2022

I closed the cover of Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine, a first novel by Scottish author Gail Honeyman. The book won a prestigious literary prize, the Costa First Novel Award in 2017, which is given to English, Scottish, and Irish authors. I’ve now read it twice.

Completely Fine is a story of confronting tragedy and of courage. God knows we are getting many such stories today in the nightmare world of Ukraine. But Honeyman’s story of Eleanor is personal, private, and consuming.

This isn’t the kind of book I would be inclined to read, but our daughter read it a while back and said it got good reviews. I borrowed it at the public library, browsed through it, then finished it in a few days.

Until two Virginia friends talked me into getting into a local book club two years ago, I almost never read fiction. The club selections include a lot of works of fiction, many of them ponderous agonizing about personal conflict, bad relationships, alienation, loneliness. It’s the literature of the modern world. I plow through it, waiting for the gems.

I’ve made the time. When you quit working you’re signing up, figuratively, for reworking your schedule—that is, for transforming your life. Some folks relocate, others stay put. In either case it’s the “R” word, retirement. We all aspire to get the formula right. Some do it gracefully, others go off the rails with money problems, health problems, personal loss, the way life works. You have close calls, you do what you can to right the ship and keep sailing. You can do those things, or you can stare at TV or the internet for hours every day.

The goal, everyone’s goal, is getting joy out of this chapter of life by seeking perspective, balance, a sense of the world. You could call it old-folks maturity, but really it’s the mission of any thinking person. Balance means preserving and sharpening the life of the mind by battling the impulse to lapse into routine. Retired folks can find themselves in a fix. Unless you “unretire” and go back to work, your schedule now is your own and you’re looking at seven days off every week. “Every day is Saturday,” a smart guy I know used to say.

You can seek joy by taking up hobbies, travel, staying fit, volunteering, dabbling in new things, like this blog. But they’re not obligations or commitments. The free time is still there, inviting you to reflect, to look out at the sunrise and the sunset, to ponder what you’ve accomplished and what your life means, what you believe, what lies ahead.

Balance and perspective means learning, opening yourself to awareness and understanding of new, even disturbing sides of human nature.

That’s how I found Eleanor Oliphant. It’s fiction, but somehow just barely. Like all good fiction, whether by Dostoevsky, Jane Austin, Charlotte Bronte, Scott Fitzgerald, Honeyman’s story says something about life that resonates. She may not end up with those names in some pantheon of great writers. But then, she might.

When Honeyman’s story begins, set in the author’s hometown of Glasgow, Scotland, Eleanor, the heroine—I think that’s the right word—is dutiful and meticulous in going about her life, which amounts to a clerical job in an office. She goes to work, says as little as possible to her colleagues, shops for her groceries, returns to her humble apartment. She stays home over weekends, speaking to no one but store clerks from Friday evening until Monday morning.

Her story begins to unfold. She reports that she drinks a couple of liters of vodka every weekend, then sleeps it off. She speaks on the phone with someone whom she calls “Mummy,” disturbing conversations with a voice that is difficult to identify as a parent.

The world barges in on her constricted life. Her office computer stops working, she calls IT—the IT guy, Raymond, shows up to fix it. She reports with irritation his appearance—slovenly dress, chin stubble, bad haircut. When she leaves work she is annoyed Raymond is leaving at the same time. Trying to be polite, she walks with him toward the bus stop. Suddenly an elderly man collapses on the sidewalk. Raymond rushes to help. He hands Eleanor his cellphone and orders her to call emergency services, but she is paralyzed and useless. Raymond grabs the phone from her and calls. EMTs take the man to the hospital.

A social services worker visits Eleanor’s apartment for a stilted, difficult interview. We begin to develop a fuller but still incomplete picture. Raymond persuades her to visit the old man at the hospital. At his bedside, the man’s children thank Eleanor and Raymond for helping their father.

That’s my teaser.

The writer draws us into the near-opaque mystery of Eleanor’s life. It is a mystery of profound personal tragedy that becomes, depending how the reader may score such things, one of redemption through self-knowledge, self-respect, self-love. She writes delicately and obliquely of fearless acceptance of life’s experiences, of honesty and courage, helped along by recognition and understanding of the value of the human person.

Honeyman leaves us an eloquent but discreet message of the enduring promise of acceptance and kindness, humble and unpretentious as it may be. She doesn’t preach. She offers no happy ending, but unwritten lessons about pain, honesty, and recovery, lessons that call to us, and endure.