Aimless

The way I ride.

A couple Sundays ago, I did something that I have not done in a long time: I went outside, got on my bike and pedaled off with no particular destination in mind. I cruised at first, rolling easily along flat D.C. streets, legs moving in even cadence. Then I started pushing. I climbed a hill, wound through a bustling section of the Northwest corridor, and peeled off over into the greenery of an area called Mount Pleasant — and aptly so. If not for the closeness of the brick homes, sitting shoulder to shoulder, I could have sworn in that moment I was in another place entirely; perhaps somewhere in Minnesota, or Wisconsin. Folks mowed their lawns (lawns!) and sat out on their porches, reading or having a drink. There was an easiness that was uncharacteristic of Washington. I soaked in the scenery for a moment and continued, gliding like a skim-boarder atop a long stretch of seawater, rolling like a wave, bombing, dodging, cutting from neighborhood to neighborhood.

Free. And with nowhere to go.

Aimlessness is something at which I was once a master. Any good suburban boy should be if he’s going to survive the drudgery, the blandness of his upbringings. Back then my vehicle was…well, a vehicle. My first car was a ’91 Honda Civic hatchback with no power steering. Turning the damn thing, especially at slow speeds, took so much elbow grease that you almost needed two people to wheel it through the mall parking lot. But it took me where I needed to go, and mostly where I needed to go was away, afar, wherever. Often, I ended up at an empty beach, those fine spaces of the Washington state variety: tree-lined, rocky, chilly, empty. I would walk out on the smooth rocks and spongy sand when the tide had receded  and listen to the lapping of the water. And I could  light a cigarette without having to worry about being seen by someone I knew, or (worse still) someone who knew my parents.

My aimlessness evolved when I first traveled, when I made my trans-Pacific leap to South Korea. Those who have read this blog and its predecessors know that I mention this event often — perhaps more than any of you would care to read about. But it was an undeniably impactful moment. And for a college-age kid to be unleashed in a foreign city, armed with a knowledge of the local grammar and generously refilled ATM card, was to know the bounds of aimlessness on a new level. On an empty weekend (or a school-filled weekday for that matter), I and a cast of dormitory cohorts could catch a bus across Seoul, climb a mountain, find a new favorite barbecue joint, jazz joint, a place to turn the night fuzzy with soju. Ever the only child with a need for alone time, I might strike out on my own, out of town, or just to a subway stop I had never emerged from. Once I did this and then, using the Han River to set my bearings, tested the limits of my sense of direction by wandering the streets until I’d found my way back to campus. I suppose it wasn’t aimlessness per se — but my true aim, more than anything else, was to be lost, to be steeped in the unfamiliar.

My habits shifted again when I returned to the United States and moved to Madison, Wis. There, I become obsessed with bicycles, and every outing presented the potential to cut loose. I could fly around the lake on the way to the grocery store, or just ride, and ride, and ride, out into bucolic countryside or through the quiet veins of the capital’s neighborhoods, until someone called and I had somewhere to be. It was one of my favorite ways to pass the time.

I never lost the urge to be aimless, but for some reason, in the past year and a half or so, I stopped making the time. I started scheduling, making sure every task was purpose-bound — regardless of whether the purpose was worthwhile or not. I became a compulsive organizer, a re-shuffler books, papers, kitchenwares, all in a war against entropy. It filled the minutes — hours even — but not in a way that produced an outcome on any level. And so I’m trying to break from this, to either focus, or be purposefully un-focused. Projects like blogging, writing, or any real form of expression reflect an outpouring of creativity, of effort; they yield tangible work. Aimlessness is the way we fill ourselves back up so that we can create again.

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Resume (May in D.C.)

Meridian Hill Park in winter

Call it a sign of the scattered and rushed times we live in. There is an entire blog devoted solely to documenting the failures and ensuing apologies of other bloggers — those who have returned to their keyboard, hat in hand to their readers, following a long absence. It’s titled, fittingly, Sorry I Haven’t PostedIt’s been since January since I tapped out anything here on Road Notes, and so I suppose I could count myself among these bloggers’ ranks. But at this point the apology is probably unnecessary. Judging by the readership stats, it would likely just echo out into the emptiness of cyberspace.

Things have been warming up here in the District; as I wrote in my last post, however, the weather never really cooled after the glow of autumn. Still, it’s been nice to have consistently summer-like weather lately. People don shorts and flip-flops, the sidewalk cafes are set out, and the pace of day-to-day life somehow seems slower — if only just because the hours of daylight are longer.

Today I took a jog (my first in too long) up to Meridian Hill Park. It’s what I would call D.C.’s answer to New York’s Central Park, with the major caveat that it is smaller and more humble by several orders of magnitude. But at least it is my central beacon in this city. During the winter, skateboarders would ride the curves of its empty fountain, and on morning runs the fingers of bare trees would seem to reach above the dawn horizon, unrivaled by the stories of surrounding buildings, simply because of the hill’s vantage point.

Now the trees have become lush again: draped in greenery, they form a canopy enclosing a space that feels worlds away from all that “Washington” has come to mean to the rest of the United States, or the rest of the world. There was a line of men sitting on a bench rapping on bongo drums, assisted by spurts of melody from a saxophonist, who stood on one end. Young men and women without shoes on — on either side of the park — tried their best to balance along tight-ropes they had set up between trees. And a few souls laid out on the grass in solitude, accompanied only by the pages of the paperbacks they held.

I think of spring as the time when I first discovered D.C. Though J and I actually moved here in January of last year, during a comparatively bitter winter, it wasn’t until the leaves came out that I began taking runs through the neighborhoods, finding the surprising quiet between the rows of brick townhomes. In the fall of 2010 I wrote about finding a halcyon moment during a stroll through a small town in rural Wisconsin, where my wife is from. In D.C., I have found the joy in taking runs around town. I never wear headphones, so that I can hear the sparse signs of nature (but mostly the sirens), and I often am spurred to break off of the route I have drawn.

As could be said of many capitals, in the District, there are two cities: the one of Capitol Hill, the monuments, the White House, and K Street; and the one of low-slung neighborhoods, where folks of all types mingle, whether they are building careers, building families, both, or just passing on through. And when I run, I transverse these worlds, throttling my speed up and down commensurate with how familiar or unfamiliar the neighborhood is — and how winded I am.

As I settle into spring again, I resume this curiosity. The city (both of them) seems to open up and I let my legs carry me. And I tell myself that I’ll do a better job of remembering what I see, so that I can bring it back, and write it down here.