Monday, July 18, 2005

Jive an' Wail

The coolest I might ever have been as an adult was in the summer of 1998. It was the waning years of the nineties when the papers rambled about Monica and the markets raged with online drug stores and supermarkets, a distant time of peace and dizzying motion when the word network became a verb and mindshare became the goal. If we were to experience the roar of the twenties then we had to steal its anthem. Swing was back in style.

I am not really sure how I convinced Amy Chamberlain to take swing dance classes with me. I think it was at a Christmas party when we got into a conversation about whether the animated character, Arthur, was really an Aardvark or a mouse. I was sticking to the mouse concept, but the early work proved that he once had a far less kid friendly proboscis. Somehow after this discussion, six months later we were swing dancing.

We found a small dancehall for classes in a neighborhood that is now called South Beach, but was then the China Basin. (I still don't understand the new name because it is neither south (it is on the east) nor a beach). The place had an appropriate seediness to remind us that swing came out of prohibition, but across the road the new ballpark was being built whose fans would be beautiful yuppies rather than the cold, bitter ones of the Candlestick. It was the last time for us to have edginess and we could dance like we didn't care.

Mercury, the Roman god, is a male, but in my own mythology the goddess for being everywhere at once is Amy. She had the ability to be both flakey and sincere. When you spent time with her you felt like you were in the center of the world, but you were never really sure when she would show up. I like to think that she believed that she could help everyone and almost had enough energy to pull it off.

And she did have such enthusiasm. I had no idea that this petite curly blond was an athletic dynamo. I was about a year from getting into any kind of shape having spent what it seemed like the decade eating at Taco Bell, and did my best just to try to keep up.

We twirled, cherry dipped and pretzel'd. But mostly we laughed.

Shakespeare wrote a sonnet comparing a woman to a summer's day, and if I had to pick a handful of days to be compared to (rather than the usual foggy ones), those four classes would be right in the mix. I wish I had the common sense then to realize that. There are the large moments like family reunions, weddings, and graduations that everyone knows to bring cameras to, but there are also those smaller ones that you wish you could capture and hold onto by something more reliable than fading memories.

We were wonders at turning and much better at dips than lifts. I never got down an over the back maneuver, but when we got caught halfway through a pose and wound up stuck like the board game twister we would just giggle to the dismay of our colleagues who seriously thought they could audition for the next Gap commercial.

The hard thing is that dances are fleeting and so are summer days.

I saw Amy only occasionally after that. A couple of years later we ran into each other at Portland Marathon. I think she had finished, showered, written a children's story, and come back to transition area, by the time I crossed the line. She could do it all.

And that is why it is so hard to find out that she has past. I mean how does someone like that drown? I got the news abroad and the reality of it still seems so distant.

I want to believe that she is out there way ahead – it could be another marathon, it could be Africa, it could be at a friend's wedding dancing – that she is just over the horizon giggling at the wonder of trying to do it all.

Friday, July 15, 2005


I kept getting lost in France. The instructions from our Backroad's guides were more than adequate; if they were recipes, they would have not only the ingredients and the temperature, but also the right way to slice the vegetables and where to shop for the meat. The rest of the service from my luggage being taken from room to room, to the little jokes at rest stops, to the water bottles always being filled were equally well thought out, but still I wound up seeing a little bit more of France than I expected.

The group came from places like Boston, Cleveland, Texas, and Washington and followed the roads better than I did. They mostly made the proper turns save for a few unmarked roads, the doom of any directions. But for me the turns started to blend after a while. We constantly made lefts at yield signs, veered right around churches, and the second spoke at rotaries. France can seem like an endless maze of small grey cafes nested around churches and Post Offices. The new holy trinity of France is no longer the father, the son, and the spirit; but the church, the food, and the government ministries.

Some of these towns blurred, but some of the villages were a gorgeous in the same way the French summer peaches were - tantalizing in both brevity and intensity. There were a couple of moments while biking, perhaps after the delirium from making it up a hill or the quick breath from taking a turn a little fast - moments that we could see bales of hay rolled into impressionist cylinders instead of American cubes, or a group of cows grazing on the same field that British intelligence had to parachute to get data for d-day, or just an archipelago of red poppies in a sea of yellow mustard that we knew that we were in that mental postcard we first dreamt when booking the bike ride and the same memory we will return to when thinking about work after coming home.
That this is what it meant to be in rural Brittany and Normandy.

And sometimes we could tell by the smell. The scent of barns is universal. And the bugs that accompanied it as well.

Yet if the country doesn't always smell like flowers, at least the French version has old buildings to visit. The first day we biked to a sacked castle that was just only slightly larger the mansion we stayed in that evening. The next day we saw Fort La Latte, which unfortunately was not the French headquarters of Starbuck's, but it was perched on top of large bluff and had a large furnace to heat cannonballs instead of espressos. The cannonballs would take about six hours to heat up, so whatever ship that was in range would leave the harbor and probably have headed up the coast for the very nice cove where we had picnic by the sea.

Both of these days were just preludes to Mount St. Michelle - the Alcatraz of the abbey world. It is built on and into its own rock, which when the tide was high it would be its own island. The stones for the abbey's construction had to be floated on by boats from a nearby island, and the construction took centuries. I like to think of it as the first software project. During the audio tour we learned the first idea came as a vision, but then section after section fell down and was rebuilt.. There was the cloister 2.0, the facade 3.0, and the mission statement of the place had changed from church, to fort, to jail, to tourist trap.

The rain came the next day after we went to the tapestries in Bayeaux and headed the Normandy coast to where the allied troops landed.
Clutched tightly in my right hand the road instructions were well on the way to confetti. Somewhere in the gap between two of the threads was the instructions to make a right, but I continued on the same gravelly road. It lead me to an unexpected point, a small rocky beach covered in rotting kelp and wooden spikes. The storm had passed, but there were still a few eager clouds ahead hoping to catch up to the group.

In the distance was Utah Beach where the General Roosevelt had landed along with thousands of others on d-day, but now the place was empty except the waves and gulls. These beaches are flatter and simpler than you think from the movies like Saving Private Ryan. It is easy to say that they have the serenity of impressionist painting, because, well, it actually is where Seruat invented pointillism. He did several studies of Port en Basin where we stayed the last few nights of the journey. The rambling Atlantic was the foundation of the splotches that defined the genre and it simple blues and greens were perfect for the limited palette of the starving impressionists. The brightness of the Mediterranean would be added later with Van Gough, but for a moment, that brief year of 1888 (surprisingly not covered in vh1 I love the 80's), the place was in the center of the idea that you paint by dots.

I like to think of these beaches existing in both of those concepts, that they could be on both girls' impressionist wall calendars and in the boys' d-day video game, that there is such a duality of pain and peace, and that both revolutions of artistic innovation and military achievement can exist on the same sand.

The British landing at Arromanche was the best of the later. They actually floated over an entire dock a few days after the main landing.
Parts of the structure still exist like concrete beached whales.

I believe that travel has a similar dichotomy of the joy of new things combined with the desperation of good logistics.

I know that even as I kept getting lost in France, the week spent in bike shorts and racing jerseys was one of the best I have had in a while.