Wednesday, December 31, 2008

another time around the block

Somewhere I read (I think it was on Fr. Stephen's blog) that you should take things slowly when reading about Orthodox spirituality. I find it almost impossible to read slowly, so I try to make up for it by reading repeatedly. I'm heading back through St. Theophan's The Spiritual Life for a second pass, and I was brought up short again by the same letter as before.

Almost two and a half years ago, I was a recovering progressive, and St. Theophan's 19th-c. remarks on such persons were just what I needed. Today, my politics are in a rather different place, but there's more wisdom for me to deal with in letter #16:
Just exactly what is to be done? Nothing in particular, just that which presents itself to each one according to the circumstances of his life, and which is demanded by the individual events with which each of us meets. That is all. God arranges the lot of each person, and the entire course of life of each one is also His all-good industry, as is each moment and each meeting. . . . Is someone seeking help? Help him. Has someone offended you? Forgive him. Have you offended somebody? Rush to ask forgiveness and make peace. Did somebody praise you? Don't be proud. Did somebody scold you? Do not be angry. Is it time to pray? Pray. Is it time to work? Work. Etc., etc., etc. If, after all of this has been explained, you set about to act in this way in every instance, so that your works will be pleasing to God, having carried them out according to the commandments without any deviation, then all the problems of your life will be solved completely and satisfactorily.

So simple to say, so hard to do with a stubborn, self-willed heart. Lord, have mercy!

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

all the way to Timbuktu

Did I ever mention that I played soccer in college? OK, so I went to a pathetically small college. If you were male and breathing, you could start on the team. The real emphasis was men's basketball, but apparently there was some rule about needing to have so many different teams in order to play intercollegiate. So anyone could play on the men's soccer team--anyone. (I mentioned that I played, right?) We were usually lucky to have one sub on the bench. (Basically, our only rehearsed skill was endurance--most of our practice time consisted of running.) Our coach's day job was working at a restaurant. When they scheduled him in conflict with a practice or a game, his pregnant wife would fill in. (Those were the rough times.) When neither one could make it, our team captain was the coach.

Did I mention that soccer really wasn't the thing at that school? Our furthest away game was at Washington Bible College. They gave us some kind of "sack lunch" (which I think included baked potatoes) for the ride down and a few bucks for supper on the way back. There were no drivers, so players drove in shifts. (Picture a reformed dead-head druggie teetering on the edge while driving through miles of concrete-barrier "cattle chutes," in the dark, after a long afternoon of no-sub soccer.) There were no overnight accommodations, so we drove down from NY and back in one day. We arrived with a few minutes to stretch before the game, and when it was over, we piled back in to head out.

By that point, we were starving, so we started watching for somewhere to eat. The signs in MD didn't show you what was off the exit--just the standard fork and spoon logo. So our first attempt led us a few miles down the road to . . . Timbuktu. Seriously. No clue where we were or where to get food, and we ended up at Timbuktu. It looked like more time and more money than we could afford, so we turned around and kept going. Oh, I should mention that the trip wasn't all bad--we scored our one and only goal of the season. Didn't win--but scored. We acted like we'd just won the playoffs or something.

Fast-forward 15 years. To celebrate my birthday and a promotion at work, we drove five minutes to . . . Timbuktu! Yeah, the first time we set foot in the place. We've lived within driving distance for years. Overheard some neighbors talking about it--seemed like a good place but a bit pricey. Now we practically live around the corner, so how could we resist? It was definitely a good decision to skip it on the soccer trip. But it is very good food and a very nice, local restaurant. It's no longer quite as out of the way as when they picked the name, now that Rt. 100 runs right by. But it would still be worth visiting by camel.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Christ is Born! Glorify Him!

I wish everyone a blessed feast of the Nativity (Christmas)! And for friends on the Julian calendar, have a blessed fast through the prayers of St. Peter the Aleut (happy name day to me), and you can keep the Christmas wish in your pocket for later. (It gets better with age.)

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

my desert

Although a localist at heart, I hail from the wilds of suburbia. Actually, I'm not sure exactly what to call the place where I live--a half-baked new-urbanist development in an unincorporated town. This is where I must struggle for salvation.

First, the neighborhood: Stacked townhouses (one two-story on top of another) in unnaturally long and narrow rows. To call it a "block" would be generous--it is wide enough to accommodate the dwellings, and nothing faces either end. The "alley," where the cars and garages supposedly hide, is as wide as the road and serves as the "view" from our balconies. The zoning is supposedly mixed-use, but so far that means townhouses, elevator condos, and one lonely little commercial building that houses an eye care shop. In their defense, the development was planned during the housing bubble and has been delivered during and after the pop. But nothing that I've seen gives much hope that even the original design really met new urbanist ideals. Maybe one day it will get there, but in the meantime, we're left with the existing surroundings.

The development sits at a busy intersection without crosswalks or pedestrian signals. There is a plaza across the street, if you don't mind dashing through traffic to get there. It has a chain grocery store, a chain drug store, a large liquor store, a dollar store, a pool supply store (that should come in handy), a hair salon, a cell phone store, a Chinese restaurant, a Pizza Hut with crummy dine-in service, and maybe a few other odds and ends. From my standpoint, the most useful of the bunch is the liquor store, which thankfully carries local beer. That's just about the high point in this account. Beyond the plaza there's a seasonal ice cream stand (another plus), a place where you can buy ice 24 hrs/day, and one of several low-end motels in the area. You'll have to stay on the other side of Rt. 1, though, when you come for a visit, if you want a red, heart-shaped jacuzzi.

If you brave the dash across Rt. 1, there are a couple of gas stations, a bank, more motels, McDonald's, Burger King, a Taco Bell/KFC, and a strip mall with a dentist office, a nail salon, a place that does bail bonds, and a Caribbean grocery. Adjacent to the development, there's some kind of factory, a Subway restaurant, a tattoo parlor, a currently Mexican restaurant, and a nursery/farmer's market. The last is another bonus, since it appears that we can actually buy locally grown produce. On the side of the development that's away from the intersection, there's a middle school and an elementary school. There's no safe way to walk to them along the road, but a stairway further back in the development provides access to the ball fields, so it should be possible for the kids to walk to school when they're old enough.

Further up Rt. 1, there's a mess of expressways with some scattered businesses. Down the other way, there's a public library but otherwise not too much useful within biking distance. (As for walking, there's some sidewalk on one side of the road, but without good places to cross, that's of minimal use.) Past the schools is the I-95 underpass and mostly residential neighborhoods on the side streets. On the far side of I-95 is another rare gem--the Holy Trinity Russian Orthodox Cemetery, also known by its previous name of Cathedral Gardens. Holy Trinity Church is actually in downtown Baltimore, but there's a small chapel here on the grounds, as well as picnic facilities. (Holy Cross uses some of the cemetery space and usually has at least one picnic there each year, which is how I discovered it.) They serve vigil there all but the first Saturday of each month, so it's in that sense the closest Orthodox church to where I live. Unfortunately, man does not live by vigil alone, so I'm torn between going one place for vigil (and thereby taking time away from my life at Holy Cross) and another for other services, or traveling out of town for everything.

I've read that Elkridge is the oldest settlement in Howard County. It's barely that, bounded on one side by Anne Arundel County and on another by Baltimore County. The original name was Elk Ridge Landing. The ridge is supposed to be somewhere to the west; the landing refers to days when it was the second busiest sea port in Maryland. Tobacco growers would roll their casks (down Rolling Rd., of course) to the Landing, which was the furthest navigable point inland on the Patapsco River. I've mentioned elsewhere that Elkridge sits on the Fall Line, where the outer Piedmont hills drop down to meet the Atlantic Coastal Plain. Any rivers that cross this line would produce waterfalls and rapids. Later it became something of a little steel town, when there was actually an Elkridge Furnace (now there's just an inn that bears the name). The railroad was important here in its time. Elkridge's most famous landmark is still the Thomas Viaduct, which I think is the longest curved stone railroad bridge.

Today it's still defined by transportation routes, but somewhat differently. Silting has rendered the Patapsco too shallow for ships to navigate, and even the commuter rail station here was closed in favor of the car-friendly Dorsey station at Rt. 100. You can still hear the trains go by, and there's a place I know where you could easily jump a slow-moving freight. But these days the most influential transportation is by road. Rt. 1 is still a north-south alternate between Washington and Baltimore. The 895 interchange takes traffic around Baltimore to the east. A bit further up you can get on 195 toward BWI Airport or 695, the Baltimore Beltway. A lot of trucking comes through here, which I suppose explains all the cheap motels.

Rt. 1 is the source of most of Elkridge's growth, but it is also the bane of its community life. It is too fast and too wide for anything but car through-travel. There are few alternate routes to get anywhere, and most of the residential neighborhoods end up as isolated enclaves, accessible only by car. There is something called "Main St.," or I should say, two somethings. They're divided by train tracks, with a concrete barrier to prevent crossing. I'm not entirely sure how they got the name "Main St."--maybe there was more going on years and years ago, but right now they look like they've been mostly residential. And that's pretty much the story around here--once you get off of Rt. 1, there's not much commercial fabric--some industrial parks, some newer shopping plazas, but no real walkable community services. You need a rebellious streak or the necessity of poverty to survive around here without a car.

Needless to say, the community can hardly sustain jobs for all of its residents. So, many of us commute elsewhere. My best hopes are either to work from home as much as possible or to find a job in Baltimore. There's a commuter bus that stops across the street and runs downtown (or at least, there is as long as we can keep MTA from axing the route). Even biking to work in Baltimore would be feasible. I'd much rather work in Elkridge, but given the realistic options, Baltimore's a better option than DC. Of course, most of the Federal jobs are in DC, so my chances are slim.

This is where we live. We didn't really pick the location; it's just what we've been given and what we have to deal with. It's better than some places, worse than others. God is here as much as anywhere else, and for the foreseeable future we're here. Beyond that, what is there but to live life as it comes?

Monday, December 22, 2008

back in black

I'm back to blogging, but I make no promises. I still need to learn silence. It may be that I will post infrequently, or perhaps not at all. Who can say? But it's not fair to the other bloggers who must put up with my inane comments, simply because I have nowhere else to speak for myself.

I expect the name of this blog to change. So far, it's the wittiest thing I've been able to come up with. In the time that I've been offline, we've moved to a new house in Elkridge, MD. Where before I could walk to the bus stop, now my commute is a bit more complicated. The nearest mass transit to DC and adjacent areas is the MARC (commuter train). The nearest station is about four miles away. So, I leave the house a little before 5:00, bike down US Rt. 1 to the Dorsey station, catch the train to Union Station in DC, then Metro back out to Bethesda where I work. I typically get to my desk around 7:00 and home around 5:30. My morning bike ride is pretty much always in darkness; these days, so is my evening ride. There's a spot on Rt. 103, as I approach the station, where I catch the street lights just right so my shadow stretches out beside me. There's almost no traffic at that point, and no serious hills. So it's just me racing my own shadow the last bit of the ride.

My commute says a lot about me:
  • I'm cheap--instead of buying a second car, I dropped $60 for a beat-up old 10-speed off of Craig's List, which I intend to ride year-round.
  • I'm stubborn--you have to have something to keep you going. Most of my ride is down Rt. 1, a major artery with speed limits ranging 45-50 mph, several good hills, and a general lack of shoulders. If you've seen someone biking that route, it was probably me--yellow raincoat, orange vest, flashing lights, and probably sucking wind on some hill.
  • I'm anti-automobile--did I mention that I'm not a serious cyclist? Before this, I hadn't ridden in something like twelve years, and that was a brief period after someone gave me a bike. I just can't come up with a cheaper mode of transportation that meets my needs, and now that I'm doing it, I can add the reason that "someone has to." I'm anxiously awaiting the death of the automobile, and in the meantime, anything I can do to remind drivers that they don't own the road is nothing short of a public service.
  • I'm conservationist--I don't get much of a high from the exercise, and the scenery is nothing to write home about. But I do get a great feeling from the knowledge that I've gone from point A to point B without burning a drop of fossil fuel.
So, when I'm out there racing my own shadow, it's a very defining moment. The day that I hang up my bike and start driving will also be defining, because it will mean that I've yielded to my wife's priorities (like me not getting mowed down by some oblivious driver).

Cycling also gives me something to write about, because it's still very much a learning experience. Like the other day, when I finally bothered to check the recommended air pressure on my tires and realized that I had them way underinflated. It was like finding a whole extra gear! Or the first time I realized how useless my brakes become in wet weather. Oh, and if you think I'm some kind of ironman for biking every day, rain or shine, I should point out that I only commute to work two days per week. The other three weekdays, I don't even put on pants until noon. (That might change once our office renovations are done, but I'm keeping my fingers crossed.)

But this isn't a blog about cycling or commuting or anything else really. It's about me--whatever that entails.