Monday, December 28, 2015


   I looked deep into my heart last week. 
   It beats at an odd rhythm. Thump, tap tap, thump, tap tap.
   It works fine when I'm resting or when I'm working out but the everyday beat is uneven. It stutters. It plays around. 
   I had some tests done. 
   The MD told me, "Well, if you do die from it it'll be fast so...there's that." 
    Just keep riding your bike, was his parting advice. Your heart's a champ when you're sweating.
    Normal life is killing me was the message. 
    Trussed up like Da Vinci's akimbo man - tape and wires hanging between my chest and the machine. I was a health care marionette. 
   I stood , I sat , I laid down, I ran on a tread mill and then they took that thing they run across a pregnant woman's belly and filmed my heart with sound. Sonared my chest. 
   And there it was. The little muscle that's kept me alive for half a century. Pumping away. An oblong shape jumping at every beat. That motion when someone surprises you- that full body jerk you make when you leap back from sleep - that's what a heart does - and when it's going at 180 beats per minute the saying "Nearly lept out of my chest" no longer seems like an idiom.
   Every step I've taken. The days I spent grousing in Edgewood grade school, fused to the chair in Ms Jozwiak's class, the long beautiful Ohio summers, the dark incredible years in New England, the decades sprinting between New York and LA. Each minute inside that pathetic personal immensity my heart was pumping inside me. The same song every day, every hour down to the minute.
   In the sonogram what struck me most was the not the heart's wafer thin walls  but its bird-like finger valves opening and closing, tapping away like feathered drumsticks, letting the blood run from chamber to chamber. It doesn't even look like a "process"- it's a dance, a stream barely regulated. I've never seen such efficiency. 
   Your life rushes through you and your heart keeps the time. Keeps it from overflowing. Or stopping dead. It is the time. Your time. 
   Your life as a single muscle. Stunning to stare at on a screen, cut in half like a house you're wondering should I build it or not, a cross section. A four room fixer upper.  
  I wanted to give it a name. Reach out and pet it like I would an eager dog, a happy horse who had carried me for a hours. I stared. It couldn't possibly be me but really is me more than my imagination or the bag of ideas I call my soul. 
  There I was. A nameless, blind blob, eager and working in the dark, bobbing away like a mad legless gerbil .....there I am. David Conrad. 
   Inconceivable machine. One that never rests. Amazing we live as long as we do.
  Every one of us with the same inner badass. 
  I laughed. I wanted to hug the little guy.
  I guess I kinda do, every day. 
   Now I lay me down to sleep...
   And wake up in 2016. Another decade making the turn and heading home. 

Monday, December 14, 2015

the train to Harper's Ferry

  The train from NYC to Pittsburgh costs almost 400 bucks. The train from DC to Pgh costs 150 and you get a private room.
   Union Station, just a few blocks from the Capitol, is one of the most beautiful structures in the country. I imagine the old days. House members and maybe even a Senator walking the distance and hopping on a train home, their term complete.
  When DC was said to be a quiet town and politicians spent as much time in the State they represented as the place they made their name.
   Now DC seems to me more like the Kremlin I saw once when I was 17 or Wonka's factory behind the walls. No one ever goes in. No one ever comes out. Or to tell the truth, like a Steel Mill, like the one I live next to in Pittsburgh- in all the years I've spent in my hometown only once have I seen an employee walk thru the gates.
   The 4:15 to Chicago. I had an empty room. A thin thing- two seats faced each other,  a drop down bed, a sliding door with a curtain that velcro'd to the aluminum threshold.
   My window was huge but the sun had almost set by the time we cleared the Maryland suburbs and by the time we crossed the Potomac at Harper's Ferry it was dark and I had to imagine the old town; period houses preserved from falling down its hillside to the warehouses and shops where Lee had once commanded a garrison and John Brown had tried to end the Civil War before it began.
   I thought of two things.
   1) We. Traveling by train is always we. You're part of a troop, a continuum, a gathering of emigrants leaving one place, finding another but always welded to the ground. The rails deliver you or they take you away but you are always home. You're in America.
  Trains I think are mechanical metaphors for the best of the States, the best we ever did. Yes, rail travel and the Railroads brought the murderous wealth of the Eastern States across the continent and helped burn and bury the Native tribes. That's for sure.
   But they also literally became the skeleton for a nation that was previously only an idea. They let us make it flesh. They were Will incarnate. They were the sound of hope for generations of American kids trapped in tiny towns across Middle West and the Plains. When Fitzgerald talks about the dark fields of the republic rolling on under the night, his wild dreams rolled across them by train.
  Maybe I was born in the wrong century under the wrong star but to this day I can't think of anything more elementally astonishing than a full locomotive roaring by pulling a half mile of metal. Not planes, not movies, not a cruise ship spinning on its 1000 foot axis to dock on the Hudson, not anything made by humankind shakes me the same way.
  My family on both sides worked for a Railroad that at the peak of its strength had more employees than the federal government. I can't help but feel that I belong to them, the rail yards and the old stations and the dying men sitting in little museums up and down the East coast telling the occasional visitor how these mammoth furnaces on wheels once worked.
  The second thing I thought as I crossed the Potomac was that, soon enough, we're going to have a battle on our hands. Because a new Civil War, started in the imagination of extremists on both sides, is going to raise up a new Cloudsplitter, a new John Brown for whom the only solution to America's deep sins is more violence.
  This is what I see-
   And before I tell you what I see, let me say that I own a gun.
   I wish I owned several more.
   My father had 8 guns in the house, two of which were rare and beautiful family heirlooms that I wish I had been able to save. My brothers sold them when he died, emblems they claimed of a culture they wanted no part of.
  I shoot skeet and trap and sporting clays. A Pennsylvanian, I've of course gone deer hunting. I've shot grouse and pheasant and I tried once to shoot a turkey. (It didn't go well.)
  I have more than a few friends -some veterans, some not- who hunt regularly, who own multiple weapons, and who can strip, rebuild and repair them like you'd clear a pencil sharpener.
   They lock their weapons away. They separate the ammunition stores from the gun. They pay copious license fees to hunt where they hunt- fees that make up the majority of the money raised to maintain the State Forests of Western PA.
    That said, I believe resistance to increased Gun Control legislation is more than a tragedy. I believe it's criminal. As a nation, as a people, I think we are responsible for every mass shooting, every gun death - we have the blood on our hands, our souls really- until we change our laws.
    No true hunter needs an assault rifle. Most hunters I know pride themselves on Robert DeNiro's mandate in The Deer Hunter- one shot. You should be able to kill a deer or an elk or a bear with one shot, if you know what you're doing. Hunters train themselves to do so. They train their sons and daughters. And mostly, they treat the weapon with the utmost respect, always treat it as loaded, know its every part and tooling, learn to strip it cleanly, learn to kill cleanly and use as much of the animal as you can.
   I see nothing wrong with this. There's no intrinsic evil here, just a choice. Cattle farming is more deadly, more disruptive to the environment, than hunting.
   But, none of this lifestyle, this gun culture requires unlimited liberty. This life can continue with NO change even if we demand stricter registration and purchasing laws.
   What would change is the body count. Plain and simple.
   It's simple statistics- change the laws, fewer people by a factor of ten are murdered.
  When these laws are changed does it mean you can't buy almost any gun known to mankind? No. Does it mean the government is going to come and take your weapons? No.
  All it means is you're going to be required to pass some tests that you, as a responsible American, would already pass. All it means is your unfettered liberty is now slightly ( and not even "well") regulated. Within reason.
   I frankly don't care what the framers of the constitution meant in their 18th century minds when they wrote the second amendment. They were fine with slavery. They had no inkling women should vote. I can handle that they may have not been able to foresee the future.
   No original intent, no abstract notion of Americanness or liberty or freedom is worth thousands of deaths. Nothing is worth it.
  But that's just me. And I'll argue this all day. Hell, I'll argue it at a gun range with my radical republican friends, some of whom were Navy Seals. And then we'll hug and go home. Usually.
  But that's not what came into my mind as I crossed the Potomac.
  What I saw was this.
  There's going to be another John Brown.
  There's someone out there. A man who saw his kids or his neighbors gunned down in an Amish church, or in a grade school in Connecticut, or his wife killed in a VA Tech classroom, or one of his co workers blown across a wall by an AR-15 held 2 feet from her chest in a Municipal office in San Bernadino, there's a guy out there, or maybe even a woman who's watched this madness up close, or maybe only watched it play out again and again on the tv as people look the camera straight in the eye and say "If we put more money into mental health this would all end"- this person is going to go and buy a gun, and train themselves how to use it and then they're going to walk into the government office of a Representative who got an A from the NRA, or they're going to walk into an NRA meeting itself, or a gun store, or a shooting range, and they're going to kill a few people.
  Maybe hold some hostages, maybe live long enough to say, "This is how the fires come back , this is the circle of justice, this is what your laws bring you." And gun down the gunners.
  I hope I'm wrong. It's everything each lunatic fringe would love to see happen.
   For a long time slavery was something abolitionists prayed would end. They spoke eloquently that an enlightened nation should legislate it out of existence. The met, they organized, they asked for sanctions, they abhorred what they felt was a culture of violence, a civilization built on human cost.
   And then one day one of them, John Brown, got up and was willing to kill people to end it. He watched his own son die as he tried to start an insurrection to stop it.
  Most people, abolitionists included, called him a madman, a radical extremist.
   His last words were, "I am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood. I had as I now think vainly flattered myself that without very much bloodshed it might be done."
   Under the dark hillside where he was cornered more than a century and a half ago, as the steel behemoth taking me home crawled into the trees, I thought- he's out there now, he exists, he's been brought up by what we've left undone in this country.
   God help us.