Once again, I…

…didn’t go to the gym this morning. Running, it seems, I can manage, but there is something about a gruesomely lit gym full of people (even an hour before dawn!) that just keeps me in bed these days. This is despite the fact that – speaking of gruesome – I would at least no longer have to look at Don Imus’s face – pinched and turd like under that ill-advised cowboy hat – on the televisions along one wall of the gym, but that doesn’t turn out to be incentive enough. I guess I’ve always just hated these places. The only gym I ever enjoyed going to was on the Coast Guard base in Miami Beach. Really, it was more of a weight room, and that might be the important difference: a dim room, cluttered with weight plates and dumbbells, the standing leg-press rack looming dark and ominous like a guillotine. Actually, there are two additional and probably more important qualities that contributed to my love of this room: hardly anyone was ever in it, at least when I went in, and I was allowed to go “on the clock,” whatever that term means during a multi-year stretch best described in a t-shirt I once saw in a store in Rehobeth: “This t-shirt belongs to me but my ass belongs to Uncle Sam.”

On my patrol boat, the command allowed the crew to spend the first hour of each work day on PT (physical training). In practice, this only applied to the two-man Operations Department, since everyone else had what you might call work to do. My supervisor, Fred, the senior quartermaster (navigator, in the naval services), was a fitness freak and highly encouraged me to be one too, although he spent his hour running. I did my running in the afternoons after I got home from work; mornings, I engaged in the closest I’ve ever come to a program of grotesque physical overdevelopment (not very close, but still, it was something). There was always a certain amount of resentment against the “bridge queens,” as quartermasters were sometimes fondly referred to by the crew members who had to actually get dirt under their fingernails, and our religious use of the PT hour when everyone else was already turning wrenches or chipping rust didn’t help. Our philosophy was that no one had forced these guys to become grease monkeys or deck apes. Fred and I had had a similar take on our early, entry-level experience as seamen and had chosen our specialty carefully. Call us bridge queens if you want, we thought, but at least the bridge has air conditioning.

Every weekday afternoon that the boat was in port, I ran about 4 miles along the streets near the pastel apartment complex where the Coast Guard had assigned me to live. I was running for my life. In Miami, I was very lonely and depressed, not having found anything like the camaraderie and social network I’d had at my previous station, a much larger ship based in the much friendlier city of Seattle. That ship had had a crew of 180, but the patrol boat had only 16, and the luck of the draw was against me. I got along with everyone on the patrol boat, and I respected them all, I just never felt like calling any of them up to go out on the town when we were in home port. (Obviously, it was a different story when we made foreign port calls on various Caribbean islands.) When I started actually considering having a few drinks before work to dull the pain, I knew I needed to try something different. Exercise became something I buried myself in, as a distraction from the numbness and emptiness of the rest of my existence. My program reached its apogee on the weekend. On Saturdays, I would go to a yoga class first thing in the morning, then hit the base weight room, then go for a run. But I would leave from the base, not from my apartment, meaning that within a half mile of starting out I was on the white, white sand of Miami Beach, running past sapphire blue water and topless super models walking leopards on leashes (OK, that only happened once, but it’s true: Miami Beach is a strange, strange place – and so easy to get to from the U.S.!). By the time I was getting around to the running portion of my Saturday program, it was usually noon or one p.m., which meant that it was hot, sometimes dangerously so. I even ran on code red days, the ozone punching holes in my lungs, my brain almost boiling in 104-degree heat. I was never the only one, but there were never very many of us pushing ourselves this way. The hotter it was, the crazier I felt and the more I wanted to do it.

The other thing that saved me was reading Thank You and Okay: An American Zen Failure in Japan. I didn’t exactly become a Zen Buddhist, but it was something of a revelation to see the possibility of understanding physical, menial work as a meditative activity. As I thought about it some more, I realized that the often nonsensical orders given by my supervisors, especially the executive officer, could be seen as similar to the koans offered by Zen monks to their acolytes as a way of preparing their minds for enlightenment. A koan, according to Wikipedia, is “a story, dialogue, question, or statement… containing aspects that are inaccessible to rational understanding, yet that may be accessible to intuition.” The classic example is “what is the sound of one hand clapping?” As an example of the kind of orders I’m talking about, the command at one point decided that our boat was not generally clean enough, so – in addition to the end-of-day cleanups we performed – we were ordered to spend the first part of every day cleaning as well. We weren’t cleaning our berthing areas, mind you, but our work spaces, meaning that – before, say, commencing a day of sanding and painting – we had to give the area where we would be working a really good sweeping and wipe down. I don’t know what in this was available to my “intuition,” but I certainly couldn’t bring any “rational understanding” to bear on such things. But keeping the Buddhists in mind, I was sometimes able to simply relinquish my need for any of this stuff to make sense and to lose myself in the physical pleasure of using my body and watching my paint brush turn great long expanses of the superstructure gleaming white under the fierce sub-tropical sun. (See, I got dirt under my fingernails, too, sometimes.)

Yesterday’s visits from the electrician and the prospective property manager went well. The porch light is now wired to code and the smoke detector is hard-wired, with battery backup. And I’ll probably hire the manager who stopped by, although I’m going to check her references first. Working on the porch light, the electrician observed that, though the previous installation had not been done the way a professional electrician would have done it, “for amateur, they were pretty good. Definitely, they were trying to do good work here. They caulked from above, use pretty good wire. Not code, but pretty good…” He laughed and observed that there seemed to have been two different amateurs at work on the wiring in the house, “the drunk monkey” and this one, who seemed to actually know the principles and safety steps, if not the exact gauge and style of wire that will satisfy the city safety inspector. So good, work: you know who you are.

The property manager was a pleasant surprise. I wasn’t expecting unpleasant, but she turned out to know so much about this type of house and, apparently, the rental business, that I could feel myself relaxing into the prospect of having someone take care of all this stuff as she talked. Another pleasant surprise was her guess that replacing the tub liner (including replacing the drywall behind it with green board) was only going to cost about $600, a job that I – knowing nothing about this stuff – was worried would be more in the several thousand dollar range. $600 makes my rental-accounting/startup-costs spreadsheets very happy, indeed. (She also seemed to think that we had guessed exactly right about what an appropriate rent for this place might be, which is nice.)

The other thing I liked about the property manager was that she didn’t try to make a hard sell. She explained her services and then left the contract with me, saying she wanted me to review it on my own and then get back to her in a few days. This is the way to do it, of course: there is something about someone who doesn’t seem desperate for your business that makes you want to give it to them. Of course, any good scam artist knows this, too, but I see this company’s signs all over the city now that I know the name, and, as I said, I’m going to be calling a few of her references before taking any further steps. I’d say that all indications point to “yes,” so far.

In the evening, my father and I were sitting around in the living room when A. called. I went upstairs to take the call. She was at the Rim and in a hurry to get back to camp, so we didn’t get a chance to talk long. I expect we’ll talk some more in the next couple of days, so I’ll gather up the details and do a Bird Camp dispatch later, but basically she has been really busy lately. The professor who runs the Bird Camp research project is visiting the camp, which means A. has to take the opportunity to get trained by him on some tasks that she hasn’t otherwise learned yet, in addition to attending evening meetings/classes he gives, in addition to planning schedules and constantly driving back and forth to Flagstaff on various errands. She says she doesn’t get a minute to herself until she lies down in her tent each night, and lord only knows what time that is. So, as easy as it is to fantasize about doing her job while I’m stuck behind my computer at work, it’s hard work and certainly no vacation in the woods. That said, she and I do fantasize, somewhat more realistically, about my joining the seasonal staff at Bird Camp next summer to take on the errand-driving job/managing the vehicles (they constantly need new tires and little repairs to the undercarriage) and a few other minor tasks, which I would love to do, and, in addition to the company, I think A. also likes the idea of my hanging around camp in a grease-stained t-shirt. I’d love to do it this season, right now, honestly, but we can’t afford the pay cut until someone else is paying the mortgage on this house.

I was upstairs on the phone with A. when my father shouted up to me that Kirk, the lawn guy, was at the door. Kirk recently realized that this house has cuttable grass in back as well as the front, and a few days back I gave him the go-ahead to cut that, too. He did it while I wasn’t at home and has been stopping by for a few nights in a row to collect his fee, but I haven’t yet been home when he has knocked and my father has had to tell him to come back later. I got off the phone with A. and came down to find Kirk swaying drunkenly on the door step in the dusk. What with his 25 percent increase over last year’s fee for the front yard (from $4 to $5), and the $3 he is apparently going to be charging for the back, this lawn care stuff is suddenly becoming a noticeable little chunk of change. It remains to be seen how often he’s going to be pestering me to do this work, now that I’m probably one of his better revenue streams on this block (having one of the only back yards, for one thing), but this is the kind of thing I was originally worried about and which inspired me to turn him away when we first moved in. I respect the guy’s work and the fact that he’s trying to make an honest go of it, but I don’t want to be his ATM every time he feels like buying a pint of rotgut. We’ll see how it goes.

And so will you.