Sunday, December 4, 2022

Not Even Not Traveling 23: Barcelona 5, On Archaeology, On Travel

Barcelona, 2022

The Archaeology Tour at Born CCM

On our first tour in Barcelona, we came across an outdoor mall excavated to reveal seventeenth century ruins beneath. In last tour in the city, we scheduled a walk through those ruins.

Right away, I could see why the Europeans of the time considered Americans to be unsophisticated bumpkins. These were ordinary city houses we were strolling through. They'd been carelessly, almost randomly buried and excavated. But they had plumbing, bridges, wood-fired stoves, stables, workbenches, and more all built in, all in stone. In contrast, Americans were just discovering log cabins and mostly still used dried mud as mortar.

During the war of Spanish succession, the families of Barcelona were tied by trade to the English and Dutch. Nevertheless, they supported the more local candidate, Philip of Anjou. The forces of Archduke Charles, backed by the English and Dutch, sailed into the harbor and bombed Barcelona into submission. The locals switched their support to Charles, as required.

For eight years, Barcelona survived in that arrangement as the most significant city in semi-independent Catalonia. The French-Spanish forces led by Philip weren't strong enough to recapture it. In the end, though, Philip's army and navy surrounded the city and bombed it until it surrendered. The defeat was the end of Catalonian independence.

When Barcelona lost for good, about a fifth of the city was flattened. It didn't happen in the fighting but as part of the conditions of peace. Philip wanted to make sure Barcelona couldn't rebel again. He had a fort built over the demolished neighborhoods. 

A hundred fifty years later, locals knocked down the fort and replaced it with a park. A century later, they paved over the park to create an open-air market. Finally, the market went out of business. The city decided to build a library on the same spot. A library building is heavy. It needs supports in the ground underneath. So the construction crew started digging. They found a section of the old city that was once assumed to be destroyed. However, the old city ground had been so low and so near Philip's proposed fort that the engineers building the fort had filled in the area with dirt. 

That's how the foundations of the old Barcelona neighborhood escaped. Everywhere else in the demolished fifth of the city, each house owner had been required to take apart their house stone by stone and transport it to the site of the fort to be used in its construction. Here in the low-lying area, the bottom floors had been allowed to remain.
Although the ruins come from the 17th century, many of the underlying stones date back to the 13th century. That's the way it is with old structures. We walked among the houses, along the ancient streets, and put our hands on the masonry. In the narrow avenues lay ballast rocks, former window-frame stones, and even mill stones. Every type of medieval stone that could get thoroughly used and discarded became part of the pavement.

That afternoon, we took our last dinner in Barcelona. By Spanish standards, we were early enough for a late lunch. But we had a plane to catch the next day and the departure time determined our schedule. For our meal, we had mostly vermut and sangria. Well, we also stopped at two different places for tapas. We had lots of calamari, shrimp, tripe, beef, and vegetables. 

Delay in Barcelona

We rose the next morning at four and made it to the airport with plenty of time before our flight. Once we boarded, however, the pilot announced a water valve wasn't working.

Planes aren't allowed to fly without water. So we had to wait until the valve got fixed. But it didn't get fixed. We waited some more until British Airways bought the legal amount of containerized water necessary for the trip to London. The delay meant we would have only forty minutes to get to our connecting flight.

Delay in London

We had plenty of time between flights. It wasn't enough. 

The staff in Heathrow noticed we weren't going to make it. They pushed us through the process of re-demonstrating our security and checking bags through customs. The systems still weren't fast enough. Jenn received a notice on her phone that our flight had closed. 

Heathrow staff kept pushing us through. We got to the flight counter at our gate and they continued to expedite us. The closed flight was still boarding. We could see the line. We hopped on at the end.

Then the airport staff pulled me out of line. My ticket had been flagged.

While I watched everyone else board, I passed through a physical inspection. This used to happen to me a lot because my name is the same as someone who was at the table during the peace talks between the British government and the IRA. It does sort of make sense that my name would get flagged in Britain. The Heathrow staff seemed to understand, too. They watched my wife ease herself out of the boarding line to wait for me. They assured me I was going to make it. 

They wanted to look at me extra and they did but I have to say, they were efficient. They delayed me until I was the last person on board but they got me in my seat. 

Rainbow Connection 

As our flight ascended, I glanced down at the clouds between the plane and the ground. There, I noticed the shadow of the plane surrounded by the perfect circle of a rainbow. The artistic arrangement was all moving together at hundreds of miles an hour, of course, and in unison. I'd never seen anything quite like it. As a spectacle, the shadow in the center of the rainbow was sensible. I'm sure others have witnessed the same phenomenon. The luck of witnessing the natural perfection made me grateful anyway. I watched the rainbow circle wink out as we passed over blanks in the cloud cover, then reappear with the clouds. 

For a minute, the phenomenon kept reappearing every time there were wisps of clouds below us to provide a canvas for the plane shadow and its surrounding rainbow circle.

"Oh," I said, as I leaned back down. "I should have taken a picture."

"What?" Diane asked. 

"Nothing." I'd been so entranced, I hadn't mentioned it. 

Saturday, December 3, 2022

Not Even Not Traveling 22: On Supermercats in Barcelona

Barcelona 2022

For No Good Reason

While in the city, we kept seeing these places:

They are convenience stores advertised, perhaps a little oddly to Americans, as if they are related to the supermarkets devised in the United States to offer something of everything and perhaps a bit too much of most things. At low costs and low values. But these places are just using the Spanish generic term for convenience store as far as I could tell.

I didn't think of supermarkets or package stores whenever I saw one, really. Although I mostly shut up, I kept making this joke in my head: 

Unfortunately, this sort of thinking very likely only makes sense to people who speak some English, speak some Spanish, watch nature shows, read biology texts, read comic books, and drink a lot of sangria. 

So it seems like a very small crossover audience. I made this little illustration for you anyway.

Friday, December 2, 2022

Not Even Not Traveling 21: Barcelona 4, On a Mountain

Barcelona, 2022


For this trip, we had to rise early. We knew we had to be on time for our bus though we were in Spain, which is comparatively relaxed. Montserrat is a mountain, after all, and it's reasonably far from downtown. We knew timeliness was important. Unfortunately, we also needed to understand the transportation system. We almost did. We wandered astray a little, enough to make for some tension about whether we'd get to the bus before our deadline. We didn't make it, actually, but we were close enough, only a minute or two late. Another group trailed in behind us a few minutes after. 

Assembled in our seats, we listened to the tour lecture. A few minutes into it, I started to nap. The drive to Montserrat took the driver about an hour. He had to steer us uphill over a lot of switchbacks. There's no escaping them short of owning a helicopter, not if you want to visit the monastery. But does anyone want to visit a monastery? I do, myself, but I think most folks don't because the tour included a wine tasting. On our agenda was a walk through a local vineyard, a meal, and a beverage sampling at the end. 

But first, we had to observe the monastery grounds. They're nice, as our guide Gus pointed out.

Gus walked us around the place (but not through the actual monastery halls, to my disappointment) and his explanations of the area included the basilica. Gus was proving to be a fun guy; he grew up in Venezuela and came to Barcelona as a musician looking for a place to play. He started his own studio and played in gigs for other musicians around Barcelona. Plus, of course, he was our guide. 

"There's a choir?" I asked about something Gus said.

"World famous," he reiterated. He implied I should know more than I did, really. Based on Gus's descriptions I was interested in hearing the choir sing. There was a scheduled performance in the chapel later that day. Moreover, Gus pointed out a museum on the grounds. It displayed Picasso paintings, Monet, Rembrandt, Dali, and more. What is a museum doing on the top of the mountain? I wondered. It made me curious.  

When the walk through the monastery basilica was finished, Gus told us to do our own thing for a couple hours.

There were wine shops, cheese vendors, the museum, and a scheduled choir concert. I was fairly interested in all of them. First, though, I wanted to hike across the mountain.  

It's a good thing Diane is patient with my pace. She stayed by my side as we traversed the southern path, which was mostly paved with bricks and cobblestones. The view was as inspiring as you might expect from a mountaintop. Lots of other visitors thought so, too. There were plenty of folks on the trail taking pictures. We didn't see anyone who looked like a bottom-to-top hiker, though. That is always possibility. There are paths to hike from the base of Montserrat to the peak, plus there are open-air lifts and other methods. 

We hiked to the southeast cross and back. After our return downhill to the shops, we located Norm and Jenn. They had bought us tickets for the museum and choir. There wasn't a lot of time for the museum. But as prestigious as the art on the walls may be, the place wasn't so large that we couldn't see most of it before rushing back to the basilica. If you've ever witnessed sightseers speed-glancing at paintings, that was us. 

You can't speed-listen to a concert, though. We had to hold still in the pews. 

The choir was ordinary for a while, although with greater voices than most and traditional European church music. At times, the chords of their arrangements spread out and took on unusual, beautiful shapes. The quality of sound in the basilica was superb, of course. 

"Should we buy cheese?" we asked one another as we headed for the bus depot at the foot of the town that surrounds the monastery. Our guide had encouraged us to do so, as it supported the local farmers, who were also the cheese producers. 

"Let's look," someone said. We all nodded. 

I told myself we would positively not buy any local cheese. We couldn't eat it all and we had no good way to carry it back home. So we got cheese. (We shipped it back on the airplane in a checked bag.)

The walking tour at the winery was limited. We didn't get to walk around the grounds. Apparently, we weren't trusted not to touch the grape vines. We did climb up to the top tower of what used to be the castle, though. (In Spain, you couldn't have walls around your house, no matter how rich you were, unless you got ennobled. One of the family did, in fact, get knighted during a war. So the household of potters and farmers was allowed to put walls around their estate and turn it into an official castle. He and the rest of the family had already been turning it into a winery at the time. They had wide fields of clay soils as the basis for their pots and the same slopes could be used to grow vines.)

We heard the family name for the estate only one or fourteen times, so I don't remember it. Apparently I didn't read any of the wine bottles, either. I'm sure they're moderately famous and very nice. 

We did hear about the wine blight, though, and how that was America's fault. It was enlightening to hear the Spanish view of it. Even in that version, the evil American grape vines saved the European vines in the end by becoming the roots for all European grape crops. The splicing onto American vine roots to grow European grapes continues. Right now, there's no other way. 

In the midst of the blight, the local black grape variety grown around Montserrat was lost. However, the vineyard owners discovered leftover roots and made a successful graft decades later to save the variety. Spanish black grapes are a wine staple again. We drank a few wines based on them. They didn't compare well to the vermut and sangria we'd been sampling all over Barcelona, though.

After we got back to Barcelona, we sampled more vermut.

Thursday, December 1, 2022

Not Even Not Traveling 20: Barcelona 3, On Gaudi and Can Sole

Barcelona, 2022

The Gaudi Architecture Walking Tour

Our tour guide, Meit (given name: Victoria) proved to be knowledgeable and friendly. She chatted with us informally from the start. Although my pace was slow, we somehow made pretty good time on the tour. Maybe it was due to how much we talked along the way. Instead of hiking, then listening, we held a discussion almost constantly about not only the sites on our tour but all aspects of Spain.

Meit waited for me patiently when it was necessary, often talking to the others. Her enthusiasm for Gaudi architecture shone through. She had smiles and broad gestures for those works. She said she liked languages in general, spoke a handful of Romantic and Germanic tongues, and she enjoyed good architecture. We got the benefit of her enthusiasms.

Meit grew up in Argentina. She came to Spain to follow her family, really, many of whom had moved to Madrid or Barcelona ahead of her. She'd had chances to see a lot of Europe before settling in Barcelona. She expressed her admiration for Berlin and Budapest as other cities to visit or perhaps to live. 

Near noontime, our walking tour reached Gaudí's Casa Batlló, which is, aside from Sagrada Familia, the most famous building in Barcelona. The house is decorated with aquatic motifs and skull mask balconies. It's simultaneously full of ocean imagery, particularly on the inside, and dragon imagery that includes a scaled roof with a solitary sword-like tower to signify how Saint George killed the dragon. In this Gaudi rendition, it looks a bit like the dragon sank into the sea as it passed away and lay down in the landscape of a Monet painting filled with water lilies.

Meit's recommendations for lunch proved good as well, tapas at reasonable prices.

Next, however, we ran into problems with the tour.

As scheduled, we took taxis to Park Güell. Yes, it's another Gaudi creation. Although I'd never considered it before, the place looked wonderful, a beautifully thought-out amalgam of architecture and gardens. I'm sure it's one of the best green spaces in Barcelona.
It wasn't intended to be a park, though. The original plan to construct a modern estate modeled on the British garden homes built by Capability Brown and others in England. (Many of these are wonderfully described in the Bill Bryson book, "Home.") 

But Park Guell needs more than 50 minutes to tour. It was obvious right away this was going to be a problem. Also, the place requires a guide to make sense of the features. Maps alone are not enough. And the touring company did not buy a ticket for Meit. So our visit was undercut by the lack of her advice about what to see and do. In addition, since the tour company forced our guide to abandon us, she wasn't in a position to give advice ahead of time. The tour guides are not regular visitors to the park, so they have no firsthand knowledge. 

Apparently, the Park Guell staff is partly responsible. They don't want to allow the tour guides in. Possibly Park Guell is holding out for a larger cut of the action; I'm not sure. But it made the visit kind of terrible compared to what it could have been.

At the end of our too-rapid hike, we rushed to get to the gate and meet Meit so she could take us to Sagrada Familia.

That site proved to be another with tour problems. The difficulties came strictly from the way the guide company operates. They're not due to Sagrada Familia site itself, which is fine.

When we arrived at the Sagrada Familia building, we had already downloaded the tour apps as instructed. However, our guide gave out the ticket information immediately before our entry into the site. This close timing meant we had no way to download the audio portion of the tour. (When ten thousand people are all trying to use the same cell tower, no one is really using it.) Our solution was to badger the local site staff for wireless access. Fortunately, they gave it to us. Then we downloaded and configured the audio tour app. There is no excuse for the default guide arrangement, though. The walking tour can (and should) be restructured so that the guides give out the Sagrada Familia ticket information during lunch. Tourists like us can run downloads and configure the app then using the restaurant wifi access. The guide can even confirm guest readiness for the final stage of the tour.

That said, once we worked out the the app configuration, the tour got pretty great pretty fast. The app is a fine way to deliver what tourists want. The Sagrada Familia site is beautiful, too, even under construction as it is, even to infidels of the religion and non-believers in architecture, like me. Seriously, it's good. If you like history or creative architecture, it's recommended.

The Long Walk to Can Sole

Weeks earlier, while in Frederick Maryland, Diane and I ate at a tapas restaurant called Isabella’s. When Diane mentioned to the manager that we were going to Spain, he recommended a place called Can Sole. On Sunday afternoon, we started a leisurely walk toward it.

We got as far as the docks before we ran into rows of vendor stalls. We window-shopped through them. Then we stopped at an outdoor café and ordered red vermut and sangria. At the table, we relaxed and watched the boats barely move in the breeze.

After a couple rounds, we marched to a beach on the Mediterranean Sea, where are we played in the water. It was November and the water was brisk.

“I didn’t bring a swimsuit,” I realized as I watched a few hardy swimmers heading out to a buoy.

“Oh, hell no,” someone else said. And that was probably right.

After half an hour, we rolled down our pants legs, wriggled on our shoes, and turned west for the last few blocks to Can Sole. There, we found local diners and native Barcelona staff, not the international tourists and accommodating venues we had been frequenting. This was a fine restaurant but it was truly Spanish and that was a comforting thing.

Even with the language barrier, I felt more relaxed than I had in most of the tourist shops. The food was excellent and the conversation was held over vermut and sangria. 

The theme of the day seemed to be vermut and sangria. Back at the hotel, we spent some time on the rooftop café, playing cards and drinking a bit more.

Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Not Even Not Traveling 19: Barcelona 2, On Segways, On Food, and On Our Own

Barcelona, 2022

The Segway Tour

The next day, our tour guide was Oscar. Oscar had grown up elsewhere in Spain, lived in America for a few years, and eventually toured Europe and decided Barcelona was the best city for him.

He had excellent Segway skills. We have quite a few photos from our three hour tour. Whenever a picture shows all four of us, Oscar took it, and he usually did it with both hands on the camera, not on his vehicle. He balanced in whatever direction forward or backward he preferred, sometimes at different angles in multiple shots. Really, he was as comfortable on his vehicle as an expert can be. 

Oscar navigated the traffic of Barcelona with a strong sense of timing. On a few occasions, he negotiated spots in the traffic for our group by talking with the drivers or pedestrians around us. He took our previous bicycle trip into account as well. When he heard that we had toured an area he had intended to visit, he took us somewhere else instead. Under Oscar's guidance, we ranged farther than he usually takes tourists. We traveled northwest across most of the city. Of course, we had to drive a long way back but it was worth it.

As it turns out, a city built for bicycles is also built for segways, power scooters, wheelchairs, and more. Our vehicles were in great condition with perfect tires, responsive gyroscopes, gears, storage, and everything else needed. They were an excellent choice for active visitors. Oscar kept the tour moving. He was personally informative and sometimes funny. 

I recommend the experience. It's fun simply to ride the segways. Our guide made the day better by keeping our group together and circling back for anyone who found a slope or intersection difficult. Oscar adjusted our sightseeing on the fly. Three hours is a lot of riding. We saw a lot. And it was all good. 

Dinner at Disfrutar

I'm going to leave most of our food experience for Norm to describe. He was our leader in those events. He's the one who orders the best wine, understands the rating systems for restaurants and, for everyone's reading purposes, also writes about it all.

For my part, it's enough to say we spent five hours eating dinner. It was a culinary adventure. There were twenty-eight courses, all of them small. They arrived with an attention to detail that requires dining patrons to remain on sensory alert. 

This was probably the best dining experience I've had. And I've had a few.

Strolling through Oldtown Barcelona

The next day, Diane and I wandered through the streets. 

We started out as a group of four. As two couples, though, we had troubles getting in synch. We found ourselves interested in different aspects of our surroundings. In addition, I can be a slow strider nowadays. Although everyone was patient with me, after a while we split into couples and arranged to meet up again later. 

Diane took me to a bookstore she'd noticed. We browsed through it, found and explored a similar shop with magazines, and ventured into more retail vendors in the area. We had a good time being window-shoppers in a leisurely way.  

When we met again as a full group, it was to take a taxi to another dining experience, this time at a place called Enigma. The restaurant wasn't even close (in my limited view) to Disfrutar as far as the food quality. The general experience, though, was good. We spent about three and a half hours on the food and drink courses. In our conversation, we reflected on our views of Barcelona so far, the health of the people, the energy, the clean parks and sidewalks, the high quality roads, and the modern technical infrastructure. The place looked well run.

Diane had noticed a number beautiful buildings with somewhat ugly electrical cable nests on the outside. We had to guess that's what happens when the structures are hundreds of years old and workers can't rip them apart to install power cables.

Not Even Not Traveling 18: Barcelona 1, On Bikes

Barcelona, 2022

Being There

The flight to Barcelona was kind of exhausting. I've traveled enough within the United States to know how to prepare for some of it. I brought lots to write. I got something to read. I had a game. Still, the four of us each had to sit in a 2 x 2 area for half a day. Human bodies complain about those constraints. Looming after our hours of immobility, we had a connecting flight to catch in Heathrow. We were going to leap from inactivity to hurrying through corridors and queues pretty fast.

I haven't passed through customs since I was a child. For sure, I hadn't realized that Britain has a labyrinthine process that's different from the U.S. process or the Spain process. Security theatre in each country is a little different. No one seems to trust anyone else, which is probably sensible. Heathrow itself requires a rush-and-wait attitude. The British airport equipment breaks and requires manual intervention. The Heathrow staff manage the queues of travelers well and so they essentially make the bad systems look better than they really are.

We arrived in Barcelona on the next day by eleven in the morning. By four in the afternoon, we were climbing onto our bicycles.

The Barcelona Bike Tour

The tour bikes were all similar, built in a style that I would describe as slightly foreign. Yes, they were all familiar, too, and basically just bikes. They had two wheels and handlebars. They had a power assist mode. I started to figure out the parts that were new to me. Most of my awkwardness came from how I hadn't ridden a bike for a decade. It still wasn't too much of a problem except for the hair-trigger brakes.

The citizens of Barcelona seemed relaxed about passing close to bikes, cars, buskers, distracted tourists watching the world through cameras, street barriers, buses, taxis, vespas, skateboarders, electric scooters, people blowing human-sized bubbles on the sidewalk, wandering guitarists, and police who never seemed concerned with anything other than their fellow police. It's a city. It's built for bicycle travel. In a small American town, if a car passes within a yard of a pedestrian, it's probably because someone was careless. In Barcelona, the acceptable space between scooters, cars, and other deadly inconveniences was less than a foot.

Every time someone jumped in front of me, especially with a child in tow, I tried to ease to a halt. The brakes weren't having it. They wanted a full brick-wall, face-planting stop or nothing. I've got some leg injury problems, so I re-injured myself on the first time I planted my foot. And the second time. And so on.
"I have been here two years," said our tour guide, Agatha, as she pedaled her bike. "I love Barcelona. I lived here before. I wanted my partner to move back."

Agatha grew up in Poland and Sweden. She spoke at least four languages, I'm guessing all of them with a charming Swedish accent.

"Look at that," she said at nearly every stop. "See? I love this city."

She took us from point to point and explained the districts of Barcelona, information I needed but which largely slipped through my mental fishing net as I paid more attention to driving than to the schools-worth of information from the tour. Agatha showed us the Gothic Quarter, Chinatown, Barconeleta, Las Ramblas, and more. She held up guideboook pictures of the city's history. We stopped to see art installations. We visited an outdoor mall that had been excavated to reveal seventeenth century ruins. We biked along the beach for miles, where every stop showed us one site or another from the 1992 Olympics like the diving stage, the volleyball sands, and the canoeing, rowing, and sailing venues.  
"Olympics transformed the city," she said during her presentation. Apparently, Barcelona had been a working class town with a port fortified during the middle ages and not much improved since. The Spanish national government decided to make an example of the host city and built bike paths in it. The government also dredged the port, hauled in sand from the Sahara Desert to make a beach, improved the roads, and added parks.

Surprisingly, the results were sustainable. They snowballed in a fantastic way for Spain. The city continues to make improvements and attract tourism.

For two hours, we rode on our bikes from place to place. The tour ended on foot, however, with a hike to a restaurant. I don't think I can recommend the restaurant but the bike tour, yes, absolutely.

Sunday, November 27, 2022

Not Even Not Zen 282: Biomythography - Note 36b, That Asshole Tree

That Asshole Tree, Part Two

"Go out and play," my mother said.

It was the same thing she'd told me in College Park. Unlike in a small city, though, the rural setting where we lived near Darnestown offered almost no chance to visit other people. I couldn't knock on doors until I found available friends. If I wanted to get away from my family, that was fine enough, but if the cute girl, Jeannie, wasn't allowed outside or the Hecker kids couldn't skip their goat-feeding chores, I had no one else. I could hike from farm to farm. I could explore the woods. That was it.

Half a year or so after moving to the area, I calmed down about the situation. I'd tried the farms. There didn't seem to be much to like or dislike about cows or corn. The cattle stared at me with disinterest. After enough time, I returned the feeling.

So it was the woods for me.

There are a lot of things to do in a forest, including play in the streams and creeks, catch crawfish, follow raccoon trails, attempt to track the deer, poke blacksnakes with sticks, locate the copperheads, play in broken-down, abandoned wood shacks or eighteenth-century stone buildings, chop down trees for amusement, beat rocks with sticks until the sticks shatter, eat blackberries, and, well, a lot more, too. Most of those might not sound attractive. But sometimes anything was better than being home. 

I wasn't happy in our new home at first. For one, it was yellow-green with pollen for a lot of the time. I could see the sheen of pollen on the roof, on the steps, in the rain barrels, on the cars, in the doorways, and in the house. There were other things as bad or worse, too, like cigar smoke, snakes in my room, and the presence of people, but the bad health of the place was the most significant.

When we'd moved, I'd gotten asthmatic from the pollen and angry about my situation. On top of my intermittent medical problems, I was usually irritated by the wolf spiders that were bigger than my hands, the dogs running loose in the neighborhood and occasionally attacking, the stink of the farm fields and herds of cows over the next hill, the broken-down mill and its copperheads, and more. I'd taken to the woods because there was nothing else to do. 

After a while, even though I was becoming a teenager and the natural world seemed increasingly ridiculous, I started noticing the individual trees along the trails, the plants growing in the clearings, the roots gnarling up out of the ground, the shelves of shale rock and the patches of clay next to the creek, the different sorts of bees and brambles, and the clearings.

Many of the trees became my landmarks. 

One of them was an oak that leaned out over the water. I didn’t like it. It didn’t seem like a friendly tree. On its heavy bark grew a vine and next to it grew a juniper bush. Other than those two things, nothing lived near the unfriendly oak. It kept an area to itself. The grass and underbrush around it had died. There were no oak saplings nearby. Even though the spot sat next to the sunshine of the creek and was itself a clearing that got sun, nothing seemed to grow except the tree and the one bush it tolerated.

I visited it in the fall and in the winter. In the spring, I put my hand on the bark as I leaned over the water and surveyed the creek for a few minutes. A while later, my skin came up with a rash. That's how I discovered the furry vine around the tree was poison ivy.

The rash made me hate the tree even more. Even while I was starting to feel better towards a lot of the trees and towards certain spots along the trails, I really did not like the clearing or the leaning oak. As convenient as the place was to stop for a moment, it never felt friendly.

It took me another year, maybe until I was fourteen, before I realized the oak tree was in a battle with the poison ivy vine. The vine was trying to strangle the oak tree. It occupied a lot of the trunk and most of the branches. It choked out some of the oak leaves. Both the tree and the vine were leaning out over the creek.  That was a great place to get sunlight and energy to grow. But it was also a position from which the tree roots could be undercut by the flow of water as the waning and flooding creek ate into the sandy clay banks.

That was what was happening. I could tell the tree was closer to the stream than it had been when I first saw it.

By the time I was fifteen I had learned more about the clearing. In most of the forest, the trees and bracken grew close together. There were sapling oaks all over. That pattern was the rule. Yet still nothing had successfully taken root near the asshole oak except the weird, lonely juniper bush. The juniper had grown within the root ball of the big tree. I hadn’t read any books about the underground life of trees. Maybe there had been none written at that point. It didn’t take anything besides observation, though, to understand that most of the oaks were supportive of saplings but this one was not. It was killing the children around it and yet somehow it made one exception, one friendship.

I remembered in elementary school how one bully had tolerated a stooge who followed him around and supported his behavior toward everyone else. The juniper struck me as that sort of supporter. Somehow, when it was young, its roots had reached out among the roots of the oak and sensed the bully in its fight with the vine. And it had decided to offer something to the oak. What it was, I had no way of knowing. Maybe it gave some badly needed nutrients. Whatever peace deal was made, the juniper lived. It was tolerated by, maybe even protected by, the mightier tree.

Although I never got to like the oak or to really tolerate the way it killed almost everything around it to create the clearing, I did start to root for it in an absent minded, teenaged way. I hoped it could last long enough to beat the poison ivy.

During the winter when I turned sixteen, ice and floods cut out five feet of riverbank underneath the leaning oak. Abruptly, the tree tilted harder toward the middle of the creek. The storms had exposed half of its roots, even the deep ones.

In the spring, I walked through and saw that the clearing was missing. The tree had disappeared and more, too. The ground itself was gone. Most of it had fallen into the water ten feet below. I waded through brambles to glance down. There, at an angle across the creek, lay the dying asshole oak tree.

By then, I had gotten used to the way most of the trees around me had personalities. Some of them were a bit quirky. And for sure, they were all nicer than the asshole oak tree. But there was no doubt that the tree had showed me how aggressive a plant could seem. The thing had wanted to fight. It had scrambled like crazy against its poison ivy infestation. Ultimately, it lost its war. But it had tried. Really, really tried.

Sure, maybe plants aren't intelligent in the way people are. But ever since that tree I’ve felt they have intentionality. They have goals. Their aims become clear over a long enough span of time. You have to be in a forest and in the very same place for plenty of seasons in a row. Years, at least. Then you can see the plant-world dramas play out.

Sunday, November 20, 2022

Not Even Not Zen 281: Biomythography - Note 36a, That Asshole Tree

Biomythology, Note 36
That Asshole Tree, Part One

Imagine a map with lots of small cities and towns close together. Traverse the paths as if you're visiting friends. That was my life, often complete with the studying of the maps. From the ages of eight to twelve, I bicycled around College Park, Greenbelt, Hyattsville, Riverdale, Adelphi, and Lanham. Those places and the University of Maryland campus made a single huge city for me. Everything there was accessible if I was willing to pedal. As a bonus, Paint Branch Creek ran through several of the towns. I could wander into the woods surrounding the creek whenever I wanted, which was often, and come out someplace different, which was only sometimes a problem. Except for a few years in Germany and a few months in Annapolis, the College Park area formed all of my geographic memory. It had everything I wanted in it, even nuclear power plants and mutant frogs. It didn't quite have spaceships but those were nearby. It was nearly perfect.

Then, when I was 12, my parents moved us from the city of College Park to a place in the woods. They had been looking at houses for years, sometimes dragging me with them. Fortunately, they hadn't liked anything.  

Then, one day they announced, "We bought a house."

They put my brothers and me into their Ford Ranch Wagon. My father drove. We passed a few town signs and then a few more. I finished reading and re-reading my comic books until I couldn't stand to look at them. We passed a sign welcoming us to a different county. I complained about it. We kept driving. I finished the Isaac Asimov book I'd brought. My brothers slept. I complained some more. My shoulders ached. My eyes were tired. My legs hurt from too much doing nothing. 

We passed the farthest-away housing development we had ever visited. I said something about that. My father kept driving. 

“How much longer?” I asked, eyes half closed.

“We’re close now.”

I sat up and looked. We were driving on a narrow country road between farms. There were white and brown Guernsey cattle at the top of a hill to my right. To my left, I saw a few Holsteins.

"There's nothing here," I grumbled in protest. 

"That's what your father likes." My mother turned in her seat to to look at me for the first time in forty minutes. "Well, he thinks so."

"No more Baileys," growled my father. "No more the Johnsons or the Harts."

"He doesn't want so many neighbors." She gave us both a gentle smile. "I don't mind."

I slumped back, trying to contemplate the concept but failing. Mostly I felt a boredom so complete that my spine twitched. My head felt like I'd stuffed it with cotton. 

A few hills later, my father slowed the car. 

"It's somewhere around here," he murmured. 

"What is?" I wondered. There was nothing but country road and farms. 

"Is this it?" He pressed the brakes harder. My gaze darted around. I noticed fences, fields, and trees. I tried to figure out what he was seeing. My mother pointed at a road sign on our right.

"I think it is," my mother replied. She sounded unsure. "It's got to be one of these."

"Yes!" they both agreed. My father slowed and turned sharply into what had seemed to be a grove of trees. The heavy boughs concealed a gap. We rolled into it. Immediately, our tires sent pebbles and dirt flying up around us. Ding, ding, ding. The sounds were alarm bells for me. I'd only heard them at my grandmother's house and at the worst of our summer camp sites. We'd gotten stuck in a road at one of the campgrounds, too, and needed other campers to push us out of a muddy rut. 

Brambles on either side of us flopped toward the middle. Tree branches scraped against our doors. The vegetation barely left enough room for our car. We couldn't possibly squeeze around another vehicle coming the other way. Both sides would need to drive into the underbrush to make room. 

"This is rocks," I said. I pressed my pale lips together in disappointment. "It's rocks and dirt. Is this our driveway? We have to fix it."

"Oh, no," my father answered with a chuckle. "This is the road."

Sunday, November 13, 2022

Not Even Not Zen 280: Biomythography - Note 35, Corporal Punishments

Biomythography - Note 35
Corporal Punishments

On a Saturday morning, I sat at the kitchen table flipping through the sequel to a book I'd read the night before. Light swept in from the windows on my left. Farther to my left, outside, I could hear my mother clipping trees. She had strolled around the house to work on her gardens. This was during the summer when I was twelve.

In those days, I was often the last to sleep and the first to wake. Sometimes, late at night, my father discovered my lights on and made me turn them off after berating me that I was ruining my eyes with my reading. He kept late hours himself, smoking, eating popcorn, and sitting in front of the television. My mother hadn't re-discovered reading yet so on weekends she sometimes started her day before anyone else. This was one of those days.

My father had raised me on the theory that bright, motivated people need less sleep. It was no surprise to see him up in the morning as early as my mother and I were. He took a playful swing at me as he passed from the dining room to the kitchen. I saw his fist coming and dodged.

"Move that book under the light!" he said. "Remember your eyes."

I grunted and kept reading.

For a while, he clanged through the drawers. He shuffled the copper-bottom pots in the kitchen behind me. I glanced over my shoulder once or twice when he fell quiet. The second time, he was trying to sneak up from behind to hit me. I noticed and glowered at him. He turned back to his copper-bottom frying pan. He tossed in another two pieces of bacon as if he hadn't been caught.

This was his way. He had grown up with physical humor, rough jokes, pranks, and corporal punishments. In contrast, I felt bewildered by most of his pranks. I read books constantly or sat with books in my lap, lost in thought. Something about those bookish habits irritated my father.

But I kept reading.

A few minutes later, as the bacon sizzled and popped, my father snuck three steps closer and smacked me on the back of the head. He hit me hard enough to make me drop the book.

"Quit it!" I yelled.

"No." He pulled back as if he would smack me again although, at this age, he couldn't reach me if I saw it coming. I'd built up better blocking reflexes. "Don't raise your voice in the house. That was nothing."

He was right. It was normal for him, for us, and maybe for the times. A lot of parents had grown up with corporal punishments harsher than they gave. His mother had grown up in an orphanage where discipline had been uneven and hard. When it came her turn, she meted out for her son a set of similar, arbitrary punishments. To those generations, ours seemed soft. When I got lost in my reading, I would fail to notice my father, which upset him. That's why he he smacked me a few times a day almost every day. Sometimes four or five days in a row went by during which he didn't catch me daydreaming or I didn't get in trouble or we didn't cross paths. As an estimate, he made contact with my head three hundred times per year, roughly, from the ages of five to fifteen. It didn't seem like much at the time, though. It was simply part of the background of my life.

An ordinary part of life or not, it had an effect. Currently, although I still lose myself in whatever I'm doing, I turn and respond quickly to sounds behind me or to the sides. At some base level, I have slightly more physical awareness than I'd have otherwise acquired.

That may not seem like a good trade-off for all the prank hitting but it was his judgment call. Likewise, so were all the spankings, slaps, hard labor, or other attempts at physical correction during the generations that preceded ours. In those times, every parent believed in corporal punishment. Many societies support it now. It's tried and true; it's worked as the main system of behavior correction for hundreds of thousands of years, possibly millions, depending on how you count the different lineages of humanity.

"I think timeouts are working," Diane would tell me, years later, in defiance of those million years.

"Yeah." I had to agree. We sat in the living room and watched our oldest son stand in the corner. He had put himself there.

Our generation marked a change. It seemed like a risky experiment. Maybe it still is. At the beginning of our parenting as part of Generation X in the United States, I believed that constant corporal punishment was necessary. Diane did, too. But she had noticed another way. She had seen it in action and wanted to try it, corrective behavior without any hitting, without even casual slaps on the hand.

That sounds like a big change. But as a parent, it wasn't too big to enact.

Children respond to all sorts of feedback. A gentle lecture can seem pretty intimidating. A timeout is perhaps the gentlest of corporal punishments, no hitting involved. It's true that most kids get violent at some point because they can't have what they want. But they commit kid-sized violence, easily stopped, dodged, or prevented with a diversion. I'm not suggesting that parents don't need to defend themselves or their property. You don't need to let kids rip apart books or poke holes into precious paintings. But when they're little, you can just move them away from doing it, too.


Other entries on corporal punishments have been redacted.

Sunday, November 6, 2022

Not Even Not Zen 279: Tucker Mythology - Worst Best Man, Pt. 7

Tucker Mythology
Worst Best Man

Part Seven, Recovered

Andrea dug into her purse. She pulled out a handful of pens and papers. I sat down in an empty seat by her reception table. She took a chair next to me. For a moment, she stared and waited. I sank my head into my hands.

"I'll cut the paper into note cards," she said. She folded the largest piece into quarters, then eighths. 

After a pause, pen to lip, I started jotting down notes. There were a lot of stories I could tell about Tucker. I wanted to find one that was emblematic of him. Ideally, it would be one that any listener could use to project forward into the kind of married man he would become.

What I ended up with after the first attempt was a list of phrases, reminders about growing up with Tucker. There was a time we'd bicycled fourteen miles to visit a girl. Her father had given us each a beer as a reward. Another time, we drove twenty miles to buy bottle rockets in a brown paper bag so we could hide them from our parents and the law.
We had also shot bows in the forest and scooped up crawfish from the creek. We'd hunted the roadside trees for black walnuts, busted them open with a hammer, and tried to bake them. We'd built dams and deadfall traps, learned to drive, and taken girls on double dates. I sifted through our lives together for the best stories, the ones that revealed the most about Tucker's character. It wasn't hard to think of incidents. It was more difficult to choose among them for the metaphors about the rest of his time here on earth. 
Andrea read over my shoulder. Otherwise, she tried to remain quiet. Around us, later carloads of people started to file in for the banquet. The smells of the food cooking grew stronger. No one approached us, though. It occurred to me that I was grateful for something to do. Sure, it was rough to get a speech as a last-minute assignment. But there was some daredevil fun to it, too. I started mentioning some of my ideas about things Tucker and I had done to make Andrea snort into her water glass. She had big, expressive eyes. They widened a few times when hearing about our teenaged adventures.

"Hey, man." Tucker returned to look over my other shoulder. "Laura's concerned about the speech. She doesn't want you to mention any time we broke the law together."

"Okay." That eliminated a bunch of ideas but it seemed like a reasonable request. I had plenty of other sorts of stories to try. The requirement narrowed my choices down. Maybe it would help.
He smiled and waved to other guests. A young man and a woman I didn't know, apparently a couple, stopped by at the table. They got into a drink-sloshing conversation. Another couple joined in. After a while, I think Tucker understood that his presence was getting in the way of the writing. He led his group of guests away to the side of the room where his wife was holding court with her friends.

Five minutes later, he returned.

"A few more requests from Laura," he began. This time, he had a long list of things that his wife didn't want me to mention. I got the impression that Tucker was adding to the list as he went through it, too, as it occurred to him that he'd done a few deeds he still didn't want me to mention in front of his parents. He kept glancing to the Mostrom family table.

When he left, I had a column of marks next to my column of ideas. The three notecards I'd assembled were no good, for sure.

"If you follow those requests, you have to eliminate everything," Andrea observed.

"Well, there's ... no, not that." I pointed to a cute story note. But no, I'd been told I couldn't talk about an incident involving other women. That rule made sense.

"You've got nothing." Andrea had stopped smiling. Now she was irritated. "You should just throw him under the bus. Talk about how he never met with you this whole summer. He never told you what to do as best man."

"I think they all expected me to just know," I said, meaning his friends and family. It felt like I should have just known. But Andrea was right. No one is born knowing what to do in a wedding service or that the wedding ceremony, in an unspoken way, continues to its second half in the reception dinner.

"At least my time allowed has been cut to two minutes." That had seemed like a heavy restriction when I'd heard it. Now it was a bright spot in the plans.

"Sure." Andrea rolled her eyes and gave me an indulgent smile. "Can you talk for two minutes about nothing?"

"Probably." Maybe it should have been an intimidating prospect but I found myself weirdly confident. I was already getting an idea about what to do.

I'd written notes about the end of the speech. Whatever I talked about for the story, I wanted it to lead me into the real subject of the day, which was love. Why not forego the story entirely? They'd been rubbed out by all the requirements. And it wouldn't matter to the real point. I could talk about the challenges of being a couple. I knew those pretty well, I thought. I could continue about the ideals of love, of growing together, of not just sustaining affections but improving them with life and time and children, of becoming more and more in love over the years.

"I can do it." All it took were a few more notes. When I was done, I looked at the mess, and decided to write a fresh copy to get the wording right.

An hour later, after a light and queasy dinner of chicken with vegetables, everyone tapped their glasses and startled me.

"That's the call for your speech," Tucker leaned and whispered to me.

 I stood up and immediately talked about growing older and growing more in love.

"Oh!" Tucker's mother said when I finished. She seemed shocked that I was so brief. I think I came in at less than my two minutes. Then I raised my glass, half-filled with wine. Everyone raised theirs in response. And we all drank.


There is a picture of me from that day, taken by my girlfriend. It was a good camera shot under the circumstances. (She was an excellent artist plus she looked at me with a flattering eye.) My expression is tired but resolute. Ready. Determined to do the right thing.

The last thing I did for the married couple was to truss up their car. The end of that job was the last I saw of Tucker. He was standing in a big crowd, surrounded by his new friends and his family. I waved. He didn't see me.

As I drove home I felt so tired I had to pull off the road and close my eyes. I knew I'd screwed up. Tucker never called, not for the remainder of the summer and not at Christmas. He never replied to my letters. The following spring, I mailed him the first story I sold for money and I had to wonder if he ever saw it.

A lot has gone on in everyone's life since. The woman I'd been living with split, although we stayed in contact for a few years. She made new friends and a new life. I did, too. Tucker lived through an active time that included a divorce and a re-marriage before I met him again. Despite all the friendships for everyone involved, though, I've probably never again had as close a buddy as Tucker. I'm sure I never will. It was a special thing, a teenage blood-brother bond. You can only develop them when you're young, romantic, and willing to bare and share your secret heart. You have to have a secret heart in the first place. Even now, a few of my closest friends knew me as a teen and I treasure them. They know parts of me, and I of them, that no one else will ever see.

What Tucker and I had when we were fifteen, cutting down trees and hiking through the woods, was a perfect start for a lifetime of friendship. It didn't quite finish that way but that's on us. Although I didn’t know it at the time, the end of our closeness around the time of his wedding was inevitable, maybe just the right thing. It had to happen somehow. We had to leave each other behind.

We're lucky. As adults, we met again and instantly found a verbal chemistry, a friendship that was different, new, and reasonably adult - as adult as they two of us were going to be.
"What's that?" Andrea asked in the evening.

I looked at the piece of paper in my hand. I'd taken it from my pants pocket as I changed back into my clothes from the day before. This thin scrap had a girl's name at the top and a phone number beneath.

"Oh, yeah." It took me a second to remember. "All those times I got girls to dance with Tucker? One of them gave me her phone number. I can't remember why."

Then, suddenly, I had a vision of her. She was a short, dark-haired cutie. Her face was flushed as we paused between dances.

"I never do this," she'd told me. She pressed a piece of paper into my hand. "But your bachelor party is leaving soon, you said, and you're so drunk. You're not going to remember this. I can't just tell you my number."

Andrea's expression clouded as she watched me recall the pretty face. She looked at the wastebasket, turned her back, and marched away. With a sigh, I dropped the scrap into it.

Well, that's the last time that will ever happen, I told myself. I sighed for youth lost, opportunities frittered and gone. Then I sat down with last night's shirt in my lap. When I put my elbow on the shirt, it crinkled.

I stopped, turned over the shirt, and patted it down. There was another slip of paper. I pulled it out of the front pocket.

Another phone number on it, this time with no name. It looked like my writing this time.

I tossed it on my desk. A few minutes later, I brushed the second scrap into the trash can along with the first.