I remember the time I had to abandon my bike at the Rockefeller Library at Brown University.
During my New England trip, in 2008, I had high hopes for that bike. All the parks and battlefields I’d visit were perfect for a bike, I thought, so I stuffed it into the hatch of my Suzuki Aerio.
Stuffing it may have been a mistake, however, because the damage was evident immediately. The frame was bent sometime during the trip, and that made the wheel terribly wobbly – making the bike ride like some demented shopping cart.
I only rode it a half mile in Providence, Rhode Island, before giving up. I parked the bike at the library, went inside for a water, came back out to say my goodbyes, and left it there. With any luck, the university would consider it a donation from some stranger.
That incident was one of many I had on that trip: a parking garage booted my car wheel, my knee ached, I got hit on at a rest stop, I stayed at some sleazy motel in New Jersey.
If I could pick any song that said, “This is why I want to play guitar,” then “Rocket” would be it.
The original version was magic to a 14-year-old me. Still is. And it’s so gratifying to hear Billy say that this song is the Plutonic ideal of Pumpkins material. Especially when all the weirdness hit the Pumkins, and I looked back on Siamese Dream with longing, thinking, “If only they could do that again.”
In a world where everything is becoming virtual people seem to become more and more disconnected from physical media and while that has its upsides there are also the faults of such a way of life. This leads consumers to long for something physical to connect to when enjoying things they take interest in.
So it’s with great pleasure that, after digging the spot out my galas with my fingernail, I can put that discolored depression to good use. Into my coffee can it goes, collecting with other vegetable matter, coffee grounds, and crushed egg shells. From there, it goes into my compost pile.
The whole concept of compost fascinates me. But maybe I said that already.
Anyway, now that the garden is finishing up, it’s a good time to reflect on what I’ve learned since March – and since my first garden project last year.
First, though, let me say that it’s a helluva joy to eat stuff you’ve grown with your own two hands – especially when it’s drop-dead delicious. That yellow tomato? Life-changing. The green beans that never stop coming? Tender and flavorful. I was a veggie fan before, but now? Died-in-the-wool, man.
Maybe you’ve heard, but there’s a lot of work involved in gardening. Milkweed plants were a problem. They would sprout up without fail in the middle of the spinach or bush beans. It’s not a pretty plant. When I would pull it at its base, the whole thing would come up easily.
Mosquitos were also a problem. Back in the garden area, the mosquitos were everywhere – especially when I would work out there, near dusk. I would head out to the garden with my gloves and bucket, start picking veggies, and be swarmed. Absolutely swarmed.
There were always weeds to be picked. Grass to tear out. Now, because I’m only out there once a week (if that), the weeds are taking over. Clover and milkweed and random grasses – they’re stealing the sun from the planted-on-purpose vegetables. Eventually they’ll take over, and once again the area will need to be cleared. Next spring, perhaps. It’ll become a perennial tradition.
In the meantime, the beans and tomatoes keep coming. They’re crowding each other’s territory now: the tomatoes are greedy with their sunshine, and shoot stalk into the zucchini plant’s territory.
Soil and sun and water join forces to make delicious. It’s an easy formula, even when you question if it’s going to work out. You plant the seeds and you wait. And you wait some more. And then some green appears, and you’re kind of worried because you don’t know how it’s going to do. It does just fine, thanks, and in a few months you see some produce. The green tomatoes stay green longer than you’d like, and the squash never really comes at all.
“Being shot out of a cannon will always be better than being squeezed out of a tube,” Hunter S. Thompson once said, and it’s true in the case of gardening. Gardening is, at its heart, a Zen practice: deep breaths, slumped shoulders, and just a little bit of slack-jawed senselessness. You want the damn things to be done already, but Nature says, “Hold on. Be patient.”
What choice do you have? Squeezed out of a tube it is.
Here’s the part where I rap lyrically about the Earth and the soil, and how deep and powerful it is. The truth is, the dirt is vitally important to the vegetables, and not at all to me. I deal well with plants, not with dirt. Sweaty is better than dirty, always. Except for a short period of time when I was toddler and ate mud, getting dirty has never been my idea of fun. I love to work and to put forth effort, to get drenched in sweat and have my hands raw with effort. But I don’t like to get dirty. I leave that to the plants.
But those tomatoes? They make the whole thing worth it. Every bite is a reminder of those weeks and months of work. The little seeds that started as sprouts and then became bushy food factories. Now I have more tomatoes than I know what to do with. So I bring them to work, and others enjoy them.
Step by step, food is born. It’s a beautiful thing. Delicious, too, not only in flavor but in appreciation.
But I had never done Vegas righteously. Last weekend I finally got the chance, and did it as it should be done: with good friends to enjoy the spectacle.
The entire weekend was like one long-running comedy routine, with new in-jokes appearing from the sights, sounds, and people of this city. We took our accommodations and had a lot of fun with it, both with the people that we saw and the location of the hotel. Staying off-Strip means you get to see that other Vegas you always hear about – the one we saw, in full color, along Fremont Street.
Ah, Fremont Street. You take the old Vegas that appears in movies, the Vegas that Sinatra and Martin knew, you put a roof over it, and you turn it into an amusement park. It was still my favorite part of the trip. The Strip seemed like a giant themed shopping mall. But Fremont Street was the Vegas that I always pictured in my head: lights, mutants, cheap booze, the whole works. If I ever go back, I’ll be sure to spend more time on Fremont Street.
No one in our little group struck it rich, nor did anything too crazy happen. The trip was four guys who know each other so well taking this spaceship of a city as it is. We walked, and took in a ball game, and saw a show, and took a trip to the Hoover Dam. And then there was karaoke. Lots of that in a bar called Ellis Island, where tourists and locals both meet for cheap (but good) beer and lots of fun.
My role in these types of trips is usually the documentarian – a role I relish. Between photos and the video above, I feel like I captured some of the best parts of the trip while still leaving those fun parts – the ones only us four guys would get – locked away in memory. That’s as it should be.
The title of the video comes from a brief snippet of Fremont Street. The showgirls, the ones on either side of the gentlemen where one whispers something in his ear, walk around ready to pose for pictures. When I stood there to get my own picture taken, the one whispered “We do work for tips, okay?” into my ear.
Nothing is free in Vegas. Not really. And that’s okay.
Call me a railing jumper. I wear it as a point of pride.
That photo of the waterfall above? I had another one from the viewing station, probably 20 to 30 feet above where I took the above shot. Then I glanced over the wooden railing that surrounded the viewing station, saw a root-studded path down to the rocks below, and jumped.
It happens often enough, especially on trips and photo assignments, that I automatically look for a way to hop the fence and find a path to get closer. It happened on that trip Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. I only hesitated because there were a mom and a dad, with their two kids, standing next to me, and I didn’t want to be a bad influence on the kids.
But then I thought, “Well, why not?” Maybe the kids will get yelled at now, but isn’t it better to show them that a little rebellion will do you good?
Sure, jumping the fence could get you hurt (the rocks were slippery from the waterfall spray) or arrested (though I didn’t see a sign – but more often I do). But getting a closer view of that waterfall was worth it.
Now this kind of thing gets me in trouble. I’ve had enough run-ins with the authorities that keeps me at least pragmatically cautious. My first instinct, though, is to jump the fence – always has been.
While in Yellowstone, it wasn’t enough that I saw pretty waterfalls from the park roadway. No, I had to slide down the ravine, step into the river, scramble up the rocks, and get a closer view. Tasting the river is more memorable than seeing it from the side window.
At the north rim of the Grand Canyon I noticed, just next to the lot where middle-aged insurance salesmen parked their Buicks, a little outcropping of rock. It was dozens of yards away from the main viewing area, the one encircled by metal railing. This little ledge off to the side? The one partially covered by ragged desert brush and boulders? No one was there. It was all mine.
So I climbed it. And as my legs dangled from the edge and the tourists screamed in horror, I felt like I was getting a view that few people saw. There’s something to be said about experiencing the Grand Canyon all by yourself, with no one around, and with nothing holding you back from the void. There was no railing here.
And so it is with life. That’s pretty obvious, but the more I travel, the more I realize people are content with staying within some prescribed boundary.
This philosophy is largely situational. Rules aren’t there simply to be broken. As Dr. Renner, my journalism professor and mentor always said, “Rules are made for smart people to break.” In other words: learn the rules, pay attention, and break them when it makes sense.
If everyone broke the rules willy-nilly, there might not be waterfalls to photograph. But if breaking the rules means harming nothing or nobody but yourself, I say go for it.
Jump the fence.
Maybe it says something about my compulsion to hang there on the edge of nothing. Maybe I just need medication. I don’t know.
But while I have legs to carry me and a lack of the kind of common sense that says “stay within the boundaries,” I’ll keep doing it.
I realize that every child makes a similar pronouncement. A fireman. A policeman. A lawyer. A doctor. A superhero. And I realize that I’m far from being a full-time writer paying the bills completely through the force of my fingertips. But how often can an adult look back and see a moment like that, so defining and seemingly prophetic, and find echoes of their present within it?
For me, it was an old typewriter my grandmother picked up at a yard sale, an wooden pirate ship model that I got from who-knows-where, and a vivid imagination steeped in Saturday morning cartoons, hours playing with action figures, and a deep need to make something.
I would write these stories about a pirate ship captain and his crew, and all their adventures as they sailed the seven seas. Writing was huge for me, and as far back as junior high I remembered that wherever I ended up, it had to have something to do with writing.
My sophomore year English teacher, Mrs. Wiley, told me I had a “journalistic style” to my writing. So naturally I took that to mean I should be on the newspaper staff, and the next year I did just that. A year later, I was editor of our high school newspaper. Four years later: my college newspaper.
It’s not always clear, especially when you’re a teenager, what you should be doing with your life. Sometimes you need little pushes in a direction that’s not always clear to you at the time.
It’s still like that for me now, but it was especially true then. My biggest concerns in high school were working after school, band, and girls (probably in reverse order) – not what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.
But looking back, it’s easy to see the direction my life was heading, and it all started with that old typewriter and model pirate ship.