Sunday, May 23, 2010


I like to fancy myself an outdoorsman.  Someone who enjoys the great outdoors; the woods, the ponds, the animals.  But I usually find myself far away from my cabin in Cattaraugus County, stuck in the clean-cut and paved suburbs.  But it turns out the great outdoors can be found right here in Amherst, Williamsville, and Clarence.  Add in an incredibly fun, new activity, and you have a great Sunday afternoon.  So I put on old jeans and hiking shoes, and headed out with Neil, as well as Dom, Dave, and Nick.

Geocaching.  Think of it as a futuristic treasure hunt.  Instead of a pirate’s map with X marking the spot, you have a handheld GPS (or even a smart phone, in this age of incredible technology), a given latitude and longitude, and perhaps a cryptic clue or two.  At the end of the trail is a cache, usually a Tupperware container or something similar, holding a logbook, where you sign your name and the date and earn your bragging rights.  You just drive to the location (in our case, Dann Lake in Clarence, a fifteen minute drive down Transit Road), plug in the coordinates, and start hiking.  Some geocaches are placed in urban areas, even on the UB campus. But most, like this one, are hidden in parks and other green spaces.

We pulled off to the side of the road, near an entrance where a crude bridge spanned a drainage ditch.  After checking our supplies (plenty of water, trail mix, cell phones, and GPS) and getting psyched up, we started walking up a well-worn path.  At first our directions were spotty; we walked in circles and found ourselves at dead ends, peninsulas where standing water was several feet deep and several yards wide.  After re-calibrating our GPS, we found a new route around most of the swamp, near the park’s rear entrance.  It became quickly apparent that we weren’t going to find this cache and stay dry.  As hot and sunny as it was that day, it was no match for the past week’s rainstorms, which had flooded paths and turned hard ground into slippery mud.

We progressed through thick brush and sharp branches, eventually emerging at the lake itself.  It was rather beautiful, seeing this fairly large, deep blue lake just a few hundred yards from Transit Road.  A father and two sons were there fishing, and we walked along the edge of the shore until the GPS pointed us down a smaller path into the woods.  We were in the right area; we just needed to find the right spot.
Again the GPS proved unreliable.  We would fight our way amid branches, stepping from stone to stone across the swamp like Indiana Jones, only to have the GPS reverse course, and send us back to the other side of the path.  After a few false starts, we finally got within a few feet.  Dom was sharp enough to spot the cache: a small plastic container covered in camouflage contact paper.

But this was not the end of our adventure. Inside the box was a picture of a barcode: a bonus round for those with the right tools.  Dom came to the rescue again, with a barcode-scanning app from the Android market.  Armed with a new set of coordinates, we set out down the path to the next cache.  After a few more circles we came to the spot where the cache had to be: a very large, foot-deep marsh.  We had gotten all the way here; we weren’t giving up.  Dom and Neil sacrificed themselves, plunging into the water and walking around.  Dave hovered at the water’s edge, and Nick and I looked on from the path, scanning the trees for a sign of the box.  It was a precarious situation: Dom and Neil sloshing through the standing water, gingerly holding and passing the very fragile, very expensive, borrowed GPS.  At this point we became acutely aware of one of the problems of standing water: bugs.  Gnats and mosquitoes were everywhere, making us anxious to find the cache and leave.  As I zeroed in on a promising shadow, Neil made the spot from thirty feet away, and splashed his way to a small tree, where the cache was nestled between a few low-lying limbs.  It was our proudest moment: we each signed the logbook, and left one of Neil’s “random act of kindness” inspirational cards.  Feeling quite accomplished, we began the trek back, which turned out to be no easier than the way in.

We finally reached the road, and took stock of ourselves: sweaty, sore, tired, bleeding; our shoes and pants covered in mud.  So we stood in the road, next to Dom’s brother’s Cadillac, trying to figure out how to keep the car relatively clean.  At the time, we only had one solution.  Our shoes went into the trunk, and our pants followed.  Five college students in t-shirts and boxers, driving on Millersport Highway.  I can only imagine what would have happened if we had crashed, or been pulled over; I’m not sure if bottomless driving is illegal, but I’m sure its frowned upon, and probably laughed at.  Definitely not something you want on a police report.  The excitement of the day, topped off with the thrill of having the wind on our legs, made us giddy.  We took a detour to Dunkin’ Donuts, to see our good friend Kevin and his sister Amy, and cool down with iced coffee.  Kevin was unfazed by our attire; he looked down and said, “Are any of you wearing pants? No? Ok. That’s $11.25.”

We eventually got back to the apartment.  By some stroke of luck, no neighbors were out to see us emerge in our boxers, carrying jeans caked in mud and shoes still dripping from swamp water.  Those we placed on the back porch to dry, and we scattered ourselves across the room, collapsing on couches and trading stories of the highlights of the day only barely gone by.  We were immensely tired, not being used to seven-mile hikes in the midday May sun.  But all we could talk about was “next week,” the next cache we would find, what we would do differently.  It was a good feeling, to end the day worn-out and sore, but with a feeling of epic accomplishment.

Geocaching was a great activity.  There was something sublime about the combination of nature and technology.  It’s hard to believe that a little plastic box can pinpoint your place on the Earth using satellites.  Anything that gets me outdoors, exercising while exploring woods and streams, out in the middle of nowhere, is a good thing.  And the fact that it was hidden right here all along just made it sweeter.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Walking Down a Twisted Road

I am damn lucky that my mom has good taste in music.  First, she passed that gift down to me.  Second, her Mothers Day gift was four tickets to see Neil Young at Shea’s.

When Neil’s solo Twisted Road tour rolled into town on Wednesday, I found myself in orchestra four, row L.  For those of you unfamiliar with Shea’s, that means just left of center, about forty feet from where he stood on the stage.  Absolutely phenomenal seats, with a view that allowed me to see every finger move on the fretboard, and all the emotions that played on his face.

Bert Jansch, a Scottish folk guitarist, opened the show with some beautiful Scottish and Irish folk music.  While his accent left lyrics at times unintelligible, he had a gift for fingerpicking.  He played his guitar with striking confidence, keeping the crowd entertained as we waited for the headliner.

The stage was set like an antique shop: old lamps, 1940’s style kitchen chairs, a wooden cigar shop Indian, and of course several guitars and pianos.  Throughout the show, he would switch on and off between a few acoustic guitars, a Les Paul, an ES-335 hollow-body electric, an upright piano, a baby grand, and an organ.  Between the stage setup, the seats, and the intimate atmosphere that Shea’s offered, it felt as though the whole show was just for me.

When Neil Young finally strolled on, the crowd went crazy.  But he calmly sat down, picked up an acoustic, and launched right into “My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue).”  It was the first time I heard or saw him play live, and it was nearly a religious experience.  To hear his music on an iPod or the radio is one thing, but to watch him make it in front of you is unbelievably powerful.  He continued on with a mix of his classic acoustic folk rock, and the groundbreaking electric songs that earned him the title “godfather of grunge.”

Some of the crowd favorites included “Helpless,” and the unreleased, autobiographical “Hitchhiker.”  He performed one of the best versions of “Ohio” I’ve ever heard, just a few weeks past the 40th anniversary of the Kent State shootings, and got a great reaction from the crowd when he updated the lyrics of “After the Gold Rush,” singing ‘look at mother nature on the run/in the twenty-first century.’  Finally, he closed with the song my mom wanted to hear, “Cinnamon Girl.”

As Neil walked off stage, the crowd stayed on its feet applauding.  No one dared move; the whole theatre knew that he would be back for more.  After a minute or two, he slipped back onstage with a beer in hand and began his encore.  The final song was “Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black),” the electric version of the song he opened with.  It was a genius way to close the show, and I’m happy he chose it.  Apart from being one of my favorite songs (either version), it reminded me of the Nick Orrange memorial collage at UB, where one of his Facebook statuses is displayed prominently: “once you’re gone, you can’t come back/when you’re out of the blue, and into the black.”

Neil Young isn’t quite so young anymore; he joked about himself to the crowd, commenting “sixty-four and there’s so much more,” a reference to the song “Old Man.”  But age has not slowed him down.  Look at his hair, and you see gray; look at his face, and you see lines of age.  But look at his body as he plays, and listen to his voice, and its as though he hasn’t changed since Woodstock.  Dressed in jeans and a black t-shirt, with a white cowboy hat, he would bend and sway along to the music, playing and feeling with his entire body.

I promise you, if I had walked out of the theatre and right into the Devil, I would have sold my soul then and there to play like Neil Young.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

A Treatise on Friendship

Editor’s Note: This piece is not about someone; it is about everyone.  Before the question even forms, this is not a shot at anyone, or passive-aggression.  I speak to “you” for lack of a better pronoun.  This is a composite, made from a wide range of experiences: it is the things I have seen, and the things I fear I may see.

* * *

I don’t care what some song lyrics say: love is not a battlefield.  Friendships are not something to be won or lost.  So much of my pessimism regarding the problems of our world comes from watching the actions of, and the relationships between, individuals.

Just for one moment, step back and consider what any relationship between two people is: pure beauty, two individuals giving a part of themselves to create something more, something slightly more sublime.  Ever see someone playing with two lighters?  Each burns with its own small flame, but hold them close and they immediately become one: bigger, brighter, and hotter.  That is friendship.  Those friendships are the individual links of the chains that form the web we call a society.  We like to believe in the power of one, the idea that one person can change our world.  And yes, one person can make quite a difference.  But not entirely alone.  Mankind could not thrive, could not even survive, as a collection of disconnected individuals.  Forget the basic need for procreation: without shoulders to lean on, and people below to catch those who may fall, we are nothing.  Without others, why should we exist? Without others, I wonder if we even would exist.

And this is why it pains me so to watch people throw others around like chips in a card game.  If that is all the respect and reverence you can give to it, why should I respect you?  Why should I trust you? It might as well be me you just gambled away; perhaps I could be next.  Every betrayal, every whispered word behind another’s back, every friend forsaken, is another crack forming in our society’s foundation.  And I don’t know how much longer until something, somewhere, gives way.

I know that not all relationships will last, and friendships sometimes must die.  I am not blind to reality and practicality.  But isn’t that enough? Must we foster an environment where friends are now, like everything else, disposable? And more pressing, when did I lose the power to keep my friendships separate from those of everyone else?  Someone once told me that the end of a relationship is like a fork in the road: two separate paths, which will never cross again.  The insinuation is that when I come upon that fork I must choose a road, and follow only one.  I say bullshit.  So what if you don’t like them, and they don’t like you.  I like you.  I like them.  Why does that have to change?  Again, I concede that there are situations where this must happen.  I don’t like it, but I accept it.  But not every time.  Not this time.  Don’t ask me to choose between two friendships.  In the end, I will resent you for forcing that choice, and I will resent myself for making it.  If not being friends with them is more important than being friends with you, then I don’t need you.  If it is worth that little to you, then it is not worth the effort on my part.  That outlook tells me you are negative, depressing, toxic.  I’m far too cynical already: I don’t need anyone or anything else to make me more jaded.

So that’s it.  That’s where I stand.  And if you decide you need to carve a new fork in the road, then I wish you well.  But, should you decide to turn back, come find me.  I want you to.