Repost: Down Around St. James Infirmary

The heart breaks and breaks, and lives by breaking. — Stanley Kunitz

Listen:

There is a sneaking suspicion in the deepest of my neurons that home is who you hang your thoughts on. Every day I seek a frame of reference, a frame of happening on whom to hang mine. But when I’m not strong enough to believe there might be someone who could bear the mind I bare, I mean on the nights when I shuffle home just wrung the hell out, the bluesmen are the ones who’re there.

The blues are a compulsive suspension of disbelief. You don’t listen to the blues; you drag yourself on hands and knees into their embrace and hold onto them as tightly and for as long as you can. When your ribcage goes numb from the metronomic smack of that impulse to get gone, you find yourself curled up with their unrelenting lack like a drunk coming to on the cold tile floor, and wrestling the music into something that makes life gloriously livable once again. The blues are what you do with not being enough.

It starts with a lopsided beat that speaks to the way nothing quite syncs up in your head. Uneven fits of instrumentation run flush and level together. The harmonica caterwauls, the bluesman drags his voice through the mud, and together they scrape away the residue of outrage you feel toward the conveniences that have atrophied your will, and your own consequent insufficiency. Their hoarse runs pack every angry misgiving into that chasm between how things are and how they ought to be, compress the doubt you’ve hatefully cultivated into a pining for more and more and more until you cry uncle.

The bridge hits. You’d better sit down now.

You wrench your heartbeat into a matching arrhythmia to keep time with the crooked soul of syncopation, and when the piano wraps itself round the bass and the drums spot weld them together, when the beat hits that sweet spot– you know that spot– it uncoils over your shoulders in a convulsive roll. Before you can recover, the guitar keens, the horns and brass begin to wail these flattened chords that knock every stubborn burr off the spliced and soldered fragments of your heart, and the friction from it breaks you down into a shaky, feverish shell.

The weary rest between one beat and the next is enough to tell you that you cannot be for the ones you love, because they are not for you. You are all for yourselves, even while you resolutely seek something, someone, to be for. Despite your best efforts, here you are as home as you’ll ever be.

But the inclement mercy of the blues is that you become okay with not being okay. A calm stems from the music’s disquiet, a euphoric release is borne on the musician’s rundown of letdowns. disconnected revelers congregate around the music that celebrates their malcontent and lionizes their fallibility.

So hold on to those blues until your body is one big white-knuckled fist, and yell for more, always more. Hold on til they learn not to let you go.

The most dangerous thing I know is that beats cling to rests, and rests to beats.

Big Jay McNeely, Olympic Auditorium, 1953

Big Jay McNeely, Olympic Auditorium, 1953

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Bike Rides 131, or The Wild Rumpus that Could.

A great friend of mine, Dan Urlick, offered up the November slot of his newspaper column. For whatever reason, I was convinced someone at the Herald would see right through me and cut the whole thing. But it showed up in the Sunday paper today, and although my opening was cut, it was pretty neat to see it in black and white, on real paper and everything. Thanks to Dan at Bike Rides for the opportunity, and for being a super cool guy. Read his past columns and grab a copy or two of his books here. Below is my piece in full, complete with opening. I’ve also written a brandshinynew, grammatically correct closing line to replace the original, which included a poorly placed modifier. Woo.

Read on, you.

Wild Rumpus

On the way up, there is falling. Somewhere ahead of and above me are fellow wrenches Chad and Rainier. Levis Mound punishes me and my bike with switchback after switchback of tight, sandy singletrack. It’s day two of our Labor Day Rydjor Rendezvous in Wisconsin, and my stubborn bliss falters amid the lung-burning and white-knuckling.

Just over the apex of a climb called “Cliffhanger,” a bead of sweat sinks into my eye, stinging it shut. A branch snags my handlebar and I am catapulted over the front wheel. I gingerly pick myself up and slam my bike upright just as Jens, another mechanic, stops behind me and asks in an uncharacteristically serious voice, “Ya good?”

“Fine,” I mutter, wanting to be more fine than I am.

The one drawback of working at Rydjor is watching customers pedal away on the bike you’ve lovingly brought back to life and knowing it’s only a matter of time before your work is reversed by miles of tar seams, potholes, and the occasional garage door. The mechanic must realize that a corollary of “all good things must come to an end” is that all good things fall into disrepair.

Maybe this sentiment had sunk into our bones more than was healthy. Maybe it was that we’d all come to know a little less that summer, and the unknowns had not yet lost their sting despite having become familiar. Whatever the reason, the idea of absconding to a bikeable wilderness was too alluring for us to wait up.

If you’d asked me at the top of “Cliffhanger,” I’d have said it was a siren call; this hill was eating me and my comically inadequate singlespeed alive. Still, there was the descent to finish, and this was the last chance to finish our wild rumpus in style before heading home, and I just plain wanted a piece of this hill. I swung a leg over the top tube and clipped in, jaw clenched, ears hot.

“Get it, G,” said Jens.

It must have been the rare flow I found myself in on the way down that put me in a philosophical mood. I realized rather suddenly that in knowing little, there is comfort; you can’t go backwards. And after awhile, you get used to working with a lack of experience and information. You learn to wing it. So what if this trail had me out of my depth? So what if I hadn’t gotten the hang of weight distribution or picking lines or how to take that high berm that was oh lord right ahead of me? Jens, who’d crept in front a mile or so earlier, floated up and down the loopy ramp without hesitation. Before I had the chance to think twice, I followed suit, whipping my rear tire around behind me as I cornered, throwing my weight back, and releasing a yawp.

“Did you get it, G?” Jens called back.

“You know it,” I said as we flew around another bend, riding at the edge of control but familiar with the feeling.

Months later, I remember that easy flow that was so difficult to find, and what the Levis Mound sirens gave me, which is this: Some things were made to be thought twice about. Riding bike is not one of them.

Traffic Tip: While some physicists argue over what makes a bicycle so stable, this is what I believe: Because it has two wheels, the bicycle is made to fall over and over, in one continuous tumble. Riding a bike involves nothing more than falling in the right direction.