Running to Stand Still: Chapter 1

 

We Are Come To Outlive Our Brains [December 28, 2018]

 

“Everything’s overlapping 

To the future to the passing  

We are only passing through 

We’re vapor, light, and liquid blue

Take a look around 

It’s exactly how it’s supposed to be

Take a look around 

The shape’s are hanging over me

Take a look around 

The shape’s are hanging over you

Take a look around 

Stop trying to rush nature

Slow it down

We will come to outlive our brains”

~

You live a short fifteen minute walk from the Journal Square PATH train station.  In order to get to midtown Manhattan – a normally short subway ride under the Hudson River – it would stand within reason to leave your apartment twenty minutes before the 33rd Street train was scheduled to depart the station.  Give yourself a cushion in case the sidewalks are too crowded with people browsing the wares outside the numerous farmers markets. Or a group of mothers who decide to push their baby strollers side by side – blocking the sidewalk like a soccer team creating a wall to defend against a free kick.

But that would be wrong.  You’ve calculated that the absolute best time to leave your apartment would be twenty minutes before the World Trade Center train gets to Journal Square.

You have this all figured out.  Sure, the World Trade Center train departs from the station before the 33rd Street train.  This much is true. But the 33rd Street train arrives at the station first. And then waits there for awhile, mostly empty.

That is until the moment the World Trade Center train doors open and let out the herd of commuters coming in from Newark who need to transfer to the 33rd Street line.  Only the strong survive in this stampede across the platform. Old ladies and children need not apply – they don’t stand a chance. Everyone jostles for position to secure the handful of available seats on the train.  You’ve even seen pregnant women frozen out in this mad dash.  

Of course, you’re already at the Journal Square station before this whole ordeal takes place.  You’re just looking to go to 33rd Street. But you’ve won. By getting there twenty minutes before the World Trade Center train – while the 33rd Street train calmly awaits your arrival – you ensure yourself a seat.  

This seat serves two purposes.  The first: it ensures you spend the next fifteen minutes (on good days) to ninety-five minutes (on not so good days) in relative comfort compared to the plebians forced to stand.  And second: it acts as a front row seat to this incredibly entertaining race.

You’ve made silent friendships with other commuters who have learned – as you have – to game the system.  An unspoken – but understood – seating chart emerges. When someone from the usual crew is missing, you wonder to yourself, “Huh, I guess they’re taking a sick day or something,” and you wonder what you would do all day if you had the same freedom.  If you were so fortunate to be graced with a touch of strep throat or maybe a stomach virus. Anything to spare you the trouble of having to cram this utterly useless evolutionary adaptation of how to score a seat on the 33rd Street train into the encoding of your DNA. 

This is my daily commute as a sixth grade English teacher in the Bronx.  Or at least part of my commute; I still have to transfer to the northbound D train at 33rd Street, take it all the way to the last stop, and then walk three quarters of a mile.  Don’t get me wrong: the walk isn’t a back-breaking distance. But it feels like a splash of vinegar on the wound in my soul caused by the amount of time I’m forced to spend in a subway car.  

The whole trip usually takes me an hour and a half.  But as I mentioned earlier, there were good days. And then there were not so good days.  Even though I religiously left my apartment by 5:47 AM to beat that damned World Train Center train which would theoretically get me to school at 7:17 AM with plenty of time to spare – in case of track failure or some other catastrophe – I’ve been late to work a shocking number of times. 

Let me just repeat that one more time: even though I left my apartment over two hours before work was scheduled to start, outside forces out of my control have caused me to be late more times than I’m willing to admit. And as you could have probably guessed, someone who is as a meticulous planner as I am does not like being late.

So for about a year and a half, this was my daily commute.  Until I decided that driving to work would be a better alternative if I didn’t want to shave years off of my expected lifespan.     

But I had to return to my old stomping grounds one more time.  The Journal Square PATH station. The 33rd Street train. So naturally, like clockwork, I left my apartment twenty minutes before the arrival of the World Trade Center train.  

Down the first two flights of escalators, past the turnstiles on the right, down the final set of escalators, I waited for the 33rd Street train next to a large stone column.  Waiting in this spot guarantees that the doors of the final train car will open up right in front of me (I really wish I didn’t know this bit of information). From there, I would have first dibs on the most precious seat in the entire train: the single seat.  

What’s so special about the single seat, you say?  It’s the same size as every other seat in the train after all.

Believe me when I say: this seat is the PATH’s version of first class.  You can sleep with your head nestled against the wall. You can cross your legs if you choose to do so.  You can read any book you want without feeling like the person sitting next to you is reading over your shoulder.  You don’t have to listen to the crappy music emanating from someone else’s headphones. Hell, this seat isn’t even a handicapped seat, so you’re not obligated to give it up if you don’t want to.  The world is truly your oyster.

But on this day, I wasn’t waiting for the 33rd Street train to go to work.  I didn’t need to transfer to the northbound D train at 33rd Street, take it all the way to the last stop, and then walk to school.

No transfers.  Just one train.  The 33rd Street train.  The last stop on the 33rd Street train is – you guessed it – 33rd Street.  And that was my final destination.  

Because on this day, I would be seeing the band Phish play at Madison Square Garden – the first of four shows in their annual New Year’s run.  They have held their New Year’s shows at MSG the last few years, and Gf and I have made it our yearly tradition as well. Sometimes she skips out on a show or two, but never the New Year’s Eve show.  

This year was going to be the first year we were both going to each of the four shows.  It was our consolation prize to ourselves after the band’s three day festival in upstate New York, Curveball, was cancelled.  That was supposed to be our summer vacation. So we treated ourselves with all four shows at MSG this New Year’s.  

As the train shuttled me into New York City, I rested my head against the wall next to that single seat and closed my eyes.  

Christmas break.  The first milestone of the school year that seems to call out: “Hey, you made it!  And you thought this day would never come!”  

The same commute from my first year teaching.  I remember the months leading up to that first New Year’s run, my first Christmas break as a teacher.  From the time I bought the tickets in October to December when the shows took place, Phish was the only thing on my mind.  Those concerts were the only thing getting me to wake up every morning and go to work. My life was a barren wasteland of subway cars, lesson plans, and grad school homework, and listening to Phish as I trudged through the streets of Jersey City towards the train station to start my work day was the only reminder I had that something better lay on the horizon.  It was an oasis in the desert of my life; in my mind, the image of Phish playing in MSG was an isolated circus tent off in the distance among chaos and destruction. No going out with friends before then, no eating out with Gf, no fun of any sort. It was just Phish.     

And here I was again.  Another year of seeing one of my favorite bands play at my favorite place to see them.  A band that would be forever linked to this period of time in my life.

My first Phish show was July 9th, 2016 in Hartford, Connecticut.  All Phish fans know the anniversary of their first Phish show. Yes, it took me a long time to get on the train, but I’ve made up for lost time.  Since then, I’ve been to 26 Phish concerts (which is nothing compared to many Phish fans who are well into the hundreds). But that first show was one I will never forget. 

I was sitting at home working on lesson plans for the upcoming week.  This was my first week teaching at a summer school in Harlem, part of my training and preparation to become a full-time teacher the coming September.  I had taken a break to browse Reddit when I saw a post offering free Phish tickets for that evening’s show to anyone who would be willing to pick them up in Queens.  

At the time, I had only been listening to Phish mostly while running.  I had gotten into the Grateful Dead a few years back – after spending most of my life resistant to the idea of jam bands in general – and figured Phish was the next logical step.  I enjoyed how their jams provided nice background noise for my runs, but that was really the extent of my fandom.  

I did, however, want to see them live at some point just to say that I did, especially after skipping out on their shows at Bonnaroo – both in 2009 and 2012.  Plus, I had read that they were supposedly a really good live band. So even though I was just a casual fan, they were high up on my list of must-see live acts.      

When I came across the Reddit post offering free tickets, I took stock of my situation (of course, I did this while quickly typing a message to the benevolent Reddit user just in case I did decide to take him up on the offer…what can I say, I’m a multi-tasker).  

This was my first full week as a teacher.  Sure, it was summer school, but everywhere I read online said that the first summer in this program would be brutal.  I would have no free time, and any free time I did have would be spent lesson planning. Classroom management would be a struggle and successfully completing this summer boot camp wasn’t exactly a sure thing.  My career as a teacher might be over before it even started if I didn’t play my cards right. One review online even said: “the first summer in this program is hands down the hardest thing you will ever have to do in your life.”  Oof.  

Yet, I seemed to have most of the lesson planning under control.  I was an auto-pilot; everything seemed pretty straightforward. In fact, zoning out while creating lesson plans for the upcoming week is what led me to browsing Reddit in the first place.  It helped that I was also getting a lot of work done in my allotted free time at the school. Instead of socializing during this time like most of the other prospective teachers, I would just put my headphones on, my head down, and complete whatever paperwork I needed to get done.  I wasn’t making many friends, but I was getting all my work done. And my nights and weekends definitely didn’t feel as stressful as the other teachers were making it out to be.      

An easy decision then.  I sent the message. And then waited.  And he replied. The tickets were ours.  

We just had to move quickly since we first had to drive to Queens and then to Hartford.  So Gf and I dropped everything we were doing that Saturday, jumped into my Toyota Yaris, and set off on an adventure (appropriately enough, my car hit the big milestone of 100,000 miles on this trek).  We picked up a pie of pizza at Frank Pepe’s along the way and devoured it on the drive over. We didn’t have time to sit down and eat unless we wanted to cut it real close to the scheduled start time. And we didn’t want to miss a minute of the show.  Somehow, deep down I knew this was going to be a life altering show.

And it was.  It was at that show that I was indoctrinated into the cult of Phish. 

The laid back atmosphere on the lawn.  The sea of glowsticks being thrown into the air at precisely the right moments.  The lights that seemed to perfectly mirror every note and bend of every song. I only knew a couple of songs that were played in the show, but I now had nineteen new favorite Phish songs, courtesy of that night’s setlist.  

Every Phish show you go to earns you a free audio download of the concert by scanning the barcode on the ticket stub on their website.  And I listened to that show for the rest of the summer as I commuted to the school in Harlem where I was training. I listened to that show while running.  The music just wasn’t mere background noise as it was before. The music transformed my running, informed it. As the improvisational jams peaked, I would go faster.  When the music slowed down again to blissful atmospherics, I would take a moment to take in my surroundings and appreciate it all. Enjoying nature, but also enjoying how far I’d come.  Both in running and in my new career path. It’s safe to say that I wouldn’t be the runner that I am today if not for Phish. It allowed me to view things from a different perspective. That maybe we needed to look harder at the things around us.  The answers might have been hiding under our noses all along.    

I listened to that show up until my next Phish shows: that year’s New Year’s run at The Garden.  And then those four shows also entered the rotation. I listened to those shows on my walks to the Journal Square train station: through snow, through rain, through gaggles of baby strollers.  I listened to those shows for countless hours in the New York City subway on my way to and from work and grad school.  

The next summer, I saw nine of their thirteen concerts at MSG (dubbed The Baker’s Dozen).  The only reason I didn’t go to the full thirteen was because I was also taking grad school classes that summer.  And well, money. I had originally bought tickets for eight of the shows, but after my last final exam of the semester, I had finished early enough that I checked online the moment I got out and was able to score a cheap ticket for that night’s show as a treat to myself.  As if eight shows wasn’t enough. The final four shows in that memorable run were a celebration for finishing a full slate of summer classes and successfully completing my first year of teaching.  

Going to nine concerts over the course of a summer isn’t cheap – especially when you take into account that half of them were with a +1.  And we’re definitely not rolling in money. But if I had the opportunity, I would do it all over again. Each and every one of those concerts and the memories attributed to them is something that will live on forever.  In fact, if I had to do it all over again, maybe I would do all thirteen. Grad school be damned.  

I went to the New Year’s shows that year too, capping off a tumultuous year full of ups and downs.  The hug Gf and I shared during that New Year’s Eve show as balloons and confetti rained down in the arena as the band launched into their cover of “Auld Lang Syne” is something I never want to forget.  After everything we had been through – that year especially – in that moment I knew for sure that this is the person I am going to eventually marry. And of course, in typical Phish fashion, after that truly special personal moment, they launch into a song about a man who is contemplating throwing his wife off of a boat.  The hilarity and irony of it all was too perfect.     

I can write a story about each Phish show I’ve been to and its significance in my life, but you get the idea.  They are on the very short list of bands that are forever tied to this time in my life and hold a special place in the totality of it all.  And on this familiar trip into the city – to Madison Square Garden once again – I thought about all of this and more as I leaned against that familiar wall. 

I thought about running my first marathon in Washington, D.C. that previous March.  I thought about all of the races I ran to earn entry into the New York City marathon the following year.  I thought about spraining my foot in one of those races, yet still finishing with a decent time. I thought about how hard I worked to recover from that injury.  My chances of winning the Runaway Jim 5K at Phish’s Curveball festival took a serious hit with that injury (with the times I was posting up in training, the idea wasn’t that farfetched).  But as long as I could heal in time to conquer the Chowdah Challenge (completing both the Cape Cod Half and Full Marathon), then I would be happy.  

And I did just that.  I ran the half marathon through a Nor’easter and completed the full marathon despite the pain every time I took a step.  My first two marathons and ten other races just that past year. And I wasn’t even taking into account finishing grad school or writing again for the first time in many years. 

I had started a blog to chronicle my running and spent every weekend in November and December working on each chapter in my series. I would teach Monday through Friday and then write, edit, and revise Saturday and Sunday.  I had no social life. There was nothing else other than work and then writing. But I felt alive. My life had purpose and meaning.  

Not only that, but with the work I put into the blog in those two months, I was selected as an Official Blogger for the Pittsburgh Marathon which I was going to be participating in the next May.  I had applied as an afterthought; since I barely had any followers on the blog or social media, I didn’t think I would be chosen.  

After many years of unfortunate bounces in life, things were starting to look up.  It had taken me awhile to get here, but as I took the train to Madison Square Garden, I thought about this year’s incarnation.  This version of me.  

These four shows were going to be a celebration of the journey.  And the direction I was headed.  

I met Gf once she got out of work for our typical pre-concert meal whenever we go to MSG: Peruvian chicken and ceviche at Riko (probably the last delicious and affordable restaurant in all of midtown).  After splitting a deep bowl of arroz chaufa and a large plate of ceviche, I took my yearly infamous photo with John Cena outside of the nearby Tapout Fitness gym, and then it was time to head into the venue.

cena

The buzz before a show at MSG is like no other.  The throngs of people outside. The lit up marquee.  The skyscrapers surrounding you. Everything feels larger than life.  

Triple it for a Phish show.  Inside the venue, it’s a large room full of “Nice to see you again”’s or “Nice to meet you”’s (seriously, some of my favorite concert memories have been chatting with strangers at Phish shows).  It’s full of people speculating what the opening song would be, last minute beer runs, and everyone waiting to be completely locked into the band for three plus hours.

After we took a quick lap around the concourse  where we stopped to look at the merch table, see if we recognized anyone at the various stands, and just soak in the atmosphere, we took our seats.  We had a great view, though were once again behind the stage – as per tradition. Death, taxes, and behind the stage seating for New Year’s. But honestly, I have come to love those seats.  It gives me an awesome view of the crowd and gets me closer to the stage. Plus, the sound is great. 

And as the lights go down, the crowd roared into life.  The four members each took the stage. 

I looked at Gf and then around at the arena.  Everybody is cheering and eager to get these four shows started.  The energy from the stage is also palpable, with every member of the band grinning from ear to ear.  In this moment of pure joy and excitement, I try to find meaning.

All of us here ready to let loose and have fun by dancing and singing along to our favorite band after spending the entire year working.  There’s a tinge of sadness really that we have to work so hard to enjoy these moments. To feel like I need this to live. The carrot on the stick.  It shouldn’t have to be like this. Thinking about these New Year’s shows during my first year teaching is the only thing that consistently got me up in the morning to go to work.  Just counting down the days.  

I want to feel like there’s more to all of this.  I want to feel like how I did the past two months every weekend.  Not drinking with friends or playing video games all day. Just writing. My life had meaning.  I wanted to tell my story and not just be a blip on the radar. I wanted to live.  

But I thought about how special it was that all of us in here were sharing this moment together.  We live our lives all year and then cap it off with these four shows. We all have different experiences, yet this is what ties us.  And it’s not just here in Madison Square Garden, it’s everywhere. The experiences we share. It is how we connect to others. I thought about the eight blog posts I had put out – the story of my life in a way.  How liberating it was to put it all out there.  Free.  

The anticipation before the first song builds to a crescendo as the band tuned and tinkered with their instruments.  What would they play? How were they going to set the tone for this concert, this run of shows, this new year?  

The familiar chords of one of their new songs – debuted on Halloween under the guise of fictional Kasvot Vӓxt – “We Are Come To Outlive Our Brains” emerged.  At that moment, all of the stress from work and everything else melted away. Forget our pasts. We were all there for one purpose: to have an absolute blast.  It was infectious. For the next four days, there’s nowhere else I would rather be.

A Phish show straddles the line between blissful enjoyment and transcendental contemplation.  It is chaos, beauty, silliness. Love and sadness, hope and despair. Light and dark. For many of us, this is the frequency on the radio dial that gives us meaning in our lives.  

I was home.    

The song took on a whole new meaning.  It was a harbinger of things to come. The music, the memories.  The next four nights were going to be truly magical. A celebration.  But more than that, it seemed to convey a message to me:

2018 was a pretty special year in my life.  But now, I needed to buckle up for 2019.  

cena too

 

Running

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