Down in Big D

by Tom Swift

13 December 2017

9:46 a.m.
Dog stashed, mid-week morning rush hour negotiated, and checked in by an amiable American Airlines staffer freelancing in the self-check kiosks, I head for airport security with light feet. As a younger adult, I resisted air travel — the decisions and the timing and the cost, well, the stress used to be a bit much — but far less so do I today. As I’m about to embark on my fourth trip of the calendar year, a calm comes over me. I like being at the airport with somewhere to go.

10:04 a.m.
There is a reason they charge twice as much for food at the airport as they do everywhere else: they can. And I don’t care. I love eating at the airport. I settle into a short booth at my favorite pre-flight haunt, nibble on a chicken wrap, and figure out where I am going to sleep the next few nights. I booked this flight fourteen hours ago.

11:04 a.m.
If I had to select a single song to represent me in this moment it might well be “Foolish Heart” by Steve Perry. Buds in, waiting to board, from the first beats of this ’80s track I am sent to the basement of the house in which I was raised. In my memory it’s late at night, I’m the only one awake in a full house (not unusual; I often had a hard time sleeping as an adolescent), and cable access television glows from one side of the family room. Maybe, too, the faux fireplace turns its plastic flames, creaky heat warming our toes after a day of skating on the frozen pond that abuts our suburban backyard. Those early days of low-budget municipal cable television featured public announcements — city hall hours updates and garbage collection reminders, as I recall — set to Top 40 music. Everything else in the house is quiet. Only my dreams are loud — dreams of high school hockey glory, mostly, with the occasional flight of fancy about one or other of the co-eds in class I am just now starting to think of in a new light.

I need a love that grows
I don’t want it unless I know
With each passin’ hour
Someone, somehow
Will be there, ready to share

11:37 a.m.
After a lengthy delay on the tarmac, we’re up in the air.

11:48 a.m.
Yesterday, prior to deciding to book, I happened to rewatch Up in the Air, a movie about a man (played by George Clooney) who travels by himself a lot.

11:49 a.m.
“Solitary Man” (sung by Neil Diamond) is the next song in the soundtrack of the movie I am making in my mind right now, which features a man traveling by himself because, well, this time he needs to get away, right now, the flight was almost nothing, the weather will be much warmer than in his native Minnesota, and, well, he’s never been to Dallas so … why not?

12:05 p.m.
It is amazing how much of the time I wait for the next thing. How often I wait to clear the next hurdle before I exhale. How long I hold my breath sometimes!

12:06 p.m.
I breathe consciously four times.

12:08 p.m.
I pull out my reading material for this trip: Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, a story about a hapless chap’s excursion. And, of course, a woman is involved.

1:25 p.m.
One of my other three trips this year was solo. On that trip, to Ottawa and Montreal, I stayed part of the time with a cousin and her husband who had greeted me at the airport and made available a spare bedroom. The other two trips were with, yes, well, a woman was involved. I spend no small amount of my time on the flight to Dallas looking back.

1:26 p.m.
The advantage of solo travel is that I can do whatever I want whenever I want to. What lies ahead?

2:02 p.m.
We land at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport.

14 December 2017

11:38 a.m.
I want to tell you that since I arrived in Dallas I commenced on a Good Time festival of fun, that I have been in a what Hemingway would call a moveable feast: that I have been gobbling up life in Texas-sized bites. Party, party, relax, relax, eat, eat, drink, drink. In fact, while I did last night make it to Deep Ellum, a neighborhood of nightclubs and pubs in East Dallas, and while I did swallow some adult beverages and meet some whipper-snapper smart men and women — Bitcoin savants — who kindly invited me into their party at a dueling piano bar, in the first 22 hours or so in Dallas I am mostly overcome with grief. I am alone by choice. But that doesn’t mean the choice didn’t suck aspirin. Such a statement begs at least one question, which, forgive me, dear reader, I will not be answering here. Hugs!

You know how some people just lift you up without even trying to? CrossFit D-Town is perhaps best known as the home of CrossFit Games stalwart Becca Day. But Coach Armando becomes my star from the moment I open the front door. He promptly shows me around the place and, aesthetically, it’s the most pleasing of the dozen or so CrossFit gyms I have visited outside of my home gym in Minnesota. As I guzzle my first calories of the day in the form of a Starbucks — I have not eaten since a quick grab of Big Guys Chicken and Rice between bar hops the night before — Armando shows me the mobility room and a lounge with books stacked on a table between couches. He actually uses the word “décor” in response to one of my questions — aesthetics matters here; usually CrossFit gyms take pride in their lack of décor — and I cannot believe I have found a gym that dedicates space for reading. Art and athletics: that is me. Over the course of the next ninety minutes Armando will teach me some mobility moves and coach me up for a clean-and-jerk hero workout as well as a spicy squat-press-thruster AMRAP (as many rounds as possible). But more than anything he helps me draw a line in my day. I no longer have a desire to be on the underside of the hotel bed covers. Let’s move.

2:12 p.m.
After stepping out of an interactive video with moving seats about fracking at the Perot Museum of Nature and Science I share an eye-roll with Haley, the museum staffer who had been the only other person sitting with me in the 10-minute exhibit, which gives you a bird’s-eye view of the fracking process without happening to mention a single thing about the environmental impact of said fracking. “This whole exhibit,” she says, “was funded by four oil magnates.” I see. So, have you been to the art museum down the street?

4:11 p.m.
By the time I walk into Del Frisco and sit at the bar, I’ve gone 18 hours without food. As someone who works out maybe more than he even should, usually I eat a meal about once every three. The kitchen is not yet open for anything but appetizers but the young man behind the bar makes a plea on my behalf and I end up ordering the best steak salad I’ve ever had, with deviled eggs and there must have been a whole avocado in here. The meat is cooked just right, pink throughout, and outlined by crispy pepper.

I am not sure why I chose to walk into this place among the dozens of joints in the area; possibly the floor-to-ceiling windows drew me in. It’s hard to say why we are attracted to the things we are.

On a staircase that rises over the bar an inscription reads: “Do Right and Fear No Man.”

Behind that bar, as I take forkfuls of steak, works one of the most beautiful women I have ever seen. Melissa wears all black, a choker around her neck and curly blond wagging below that line. She calls me “hon” and speaks with quiet sincerity. My default setting is slightly nervous but I speak to her with rare ease. I feel no pressure to impress. If this solitary man is here for any reason it is merely to bear witness.

I know before I leave — after I have gone upstairs and discovered a dining area with cherry-brown tables set for the evening; on one side of the two-story window employees, bottles stacked on the table before them, have what seems like big-picture conversation as they taste and pair wines; this has got to be a fabulous place to take a date — that I will remember this moment. I do not need to make of it anything more than it already is. Encounters with beauty are cherished not just because of the observation but rather the interaction of energies that create something felt. Or something like that! And, really, mostly it’s about getting out of my own way and keeping my head up. I want very much to experience beautiful energy with someone that I will know in the everyday over time, long-term, someone I will know far better, and who will know me, faults and all, far better than Melissa ever will. But you take beauty where you find it and when you are capable of receiving it; five minutes of beauty received is worth more than five months of most anything else. Maybe that’s not quite right but I do want to believe I am learning more about savoring. And about not trying to make more of something than is possible.

I take the last slow bite of my steak salad. My plate is clean. I put down my money, thank Melissa, gather my coat, and step into the night.

5:33 p.m.
I do not have a sophisticated level of appreciation for visual art. But whenever I go to a new city I find at least one gallery or museum and in it I roam until I am arrested by something; could be an arrangement of color or a moving scene. Tonight, a young girl’s eyes captured in an old photograph — eyes of guilt as she bears witness to a tree that has been set aflame by the boy standing next to her — are among the things that make me stop the monologue in my mind, the one that second-guesses my choices and fantasizes on what could have been, and just be.

5:44 p.m.
I may know no greater happiness than those moments in which I’ve taken the first steps from underneath a cloud of grief. Tomorrow morning, I will happen to hear a podcast in which death and dying expert Frank Ostaseski will describe the three levels of grief, the final one being what he calls a “loosening.” Whereas grief remains in our sphere its grip on us has lessened; we move on. Loosening: I like this term. This seems like the right word; rather than embrace the desire to immediately replace that which has been lost, a feeling that is often intense in my case (and I don’t believe I am alone in that), during the loosening one both allows the grief to exist and yet makes moves away from it.

I am at this moment sitting on a leather bench on the top half of a split-level exhibit in the Dallas Museum of Art. Usually, the museum closes at 5 o’clock but they are open late tonight for a Star Wars party. I sit and simply soak in the energy. We spend so much of our time these days staring at screens that arouse our senses. Sitting in a room full of art — I don’t even have to be looking at the art itself; here again, I am simply bearing witness, I suppose — and I have an opposite reaction: a current of calm runs through me.

Sometimes I cannot believe how low I can go into my own shit. I write that statement with gratitude in my heart, for I have come to see — after more struggle than I care to admit — that as low as I can go I can rise as high, as if I couldn’t reach my height without also knowing what it’s like at my bottom. I don’t welcome a trip to the depths; I am sent; absolutely, I don’t go voluntarily. But having been I am grateful to know what it’s like down there.

I am reminded as I write these words that Haley at the science museum and I had drilled down near the Earth’s core. After we returned to the surface we shared a laugh and enjoyed easy conversation. It didn’t occur to me to report this in the earlier entry but after she and I parted I had gone straight to the opposite side of the science museum to watch a film. It was called “Journey to Space.” From the depths to the heavens, there you go.

8:48 p.m.
I have always loved being in a big city at night. Dallas is not the most walkable city. It does not, at least at this time of year, two weeks before Christmas, have a lot to offer in terms of entertainment unless you want to see a professional sporting event. What it does have, I am told, is more restaurants per capita than New York City and, what I observed, is that so many of these restaurants are in some way architecturally unique. Walking about I don’t see anywhere I have ever before been. It doesn’t take me long to feel my way into the right spot for me on this night.

Lark in the Park is a perfectly lit place with large ornate chalk drawings on the walls. These drawings, I am told, are rotated every few weeks by local artists who have earned the privilege to decorate the dining room. I sit at the bar next to a woman named Christi who happens to be the CFO of the company that owns Lark and who happens to be here on this night from her home in Miami. Sometimes while visiting a new place you feel the need to not stay in any one spot for long; there is so much you could be doing that you can’t, in theory, do at home. I did not feel this need on this night or in this place or really on this trip. Christi and I slide easily into conversation and she kindly shares elements of her meal with me: wild Spanish octopus with beluga lentils and sea beans. Yeah, it’s that kind of place. She even offers nibbles of her dessert, a platter of baby beignets, and it was all more than I could put away after the oysters and pucker-up salad I had ordered for myself.

More than any item on any menu I crave connection. I crave meaningful conversation. A sharing of souls. Christi and I, along with one of the men behind the bar — I’ll call him Chad — have one of these. We talk food, of course, and Chad should be a food writer given the flare and detail with which he answers our many questions about the menu. We also talk about all the places in the world we have gone and still want to go. At one point, I think Christi and I nearly book a spot on a van Chad is going to rent in order to circle Iceland next summer.

Later Christi will tell me I look like someone famous. She says she thought so as soon as I had walked in the door. At first I am Kevin Costner. Later, after some Googling, I am Bradley Cooper. It must be said Christi was not using a line here. Which would be cheap and easy and would certainly work on me. Kidding! In all sincerity, no, no line, it must have been the lighting (I did say it was perfectly lit) because at another point in the evening, Nick, another man working the bar, also approaches me and wonders aloud if I am someone famous. Twelve hours before I was ducked under the covers on the fourteenth floor of a hotel located next to a public transit stop, making like a mental patient. Now I am taken for a megastar.

Depths to heavens. You can’t make it up.


15 December 2017

10:04 a.m.
Some people would never travel alone and I get that. Strangely, though I am more introverted than extroverted I usually find it easy to strike up conversations with people. So though I am alone I don’t feel isolated. Over a late breakfast, I think about the people I have already met: not just Armando and Melissa and Haley and Christi but also a kind man at the science museum who had welcomed me inside the front door and answered six of my rapid-fire questions with a smile perpetually across his face. Also: a woman at the art museum who had wandered slowly among the pieces while waiting for her date. She was going to Star Wars (his deal) but she was not dressed in anyway like a Wookie, wearing a skirt and high boots. We were near some ornate ancient jewelry and the piece at hand was big but beautiful. “Could you see yourself carrying that around your neck?” I asked. “I would never pull it off,” she said, bowing her head. I can assure you I am not clever unless I have a pen in my hand and at least an eight-minute delay between communications. Yet I had one of those moments in which the unconscious blurts out, “are you kidding?” She looked up from her shyness to accept my sincerity.

We talked for no more than a hot minute. Connection. There is something about length that speaks to depth. How deeply can you connect with someone you do not know? Yet it can happen, can’t it? Two strangers can cross paths and for a lovely moment they are more honest and true with each other than they may be on the date they are waiting for, or with the person they have spent a year with, more honest with a stranger because they don’t have anything to lose.

While eating some oatmeal and eggs (not together) I realize how grateful I am for moments in which I have left myself open to such encounters.

11:09 a.m.
“Of those to whom much is given, much is required.” Those are the words of John F. Kennedy and I am in the Sixth Floor Museum across from Dealey Plaza from where our 35th president was assassinated.

I am quickly moved far more than I expect to be as I go on the audio tours and take in the various exhibits and videos. One film has no narration; it is just images and footage of the ways in which people all over the world, common citizens and world leaders alike, reacted in the days following Kennedy’s death. I have heard people who were alive and old enough to remember where they were describe the feeling of learning that our president had died as a demarcation point in their lives. Sitting before those images it occurs that it must have been like a decapitation: the head of our country had been severed; the act would have to affect all other parts of our collective body. How much might we still be grieving that loss — even those of us who were not yet on the planet?

Grief, as I have come to understand it, is a public act. Which is to say, of course we feel loss personally and privately. But to grieve is to make that loss known to others. Grief means being sad and angry and confused in the presence of other people. We need the connection, however unspoken. Why funerals, why memorials, why remembrances, why days set aside for the sole purpose of remembering those no longer with us. In another video, a man who had been a college student that day, November 22, 1963, says that he could get all the information and footage he wanted from the wall-to-wall coverage on television. But he got in his car and drove to the Capitol simply because he “just wanted to do something.” Grief is a verb.

1:13 p.m.
I take off my shoes and socks and stand on the grassy knoll.

6:46 p.m.
After a rest stop and a mini nap, I arrive via train to Fort Worth, and via an Uber to the historic Fort Worth Stockyards, the nation’s last standing livestock market that is now home to seemingly three things: steakhouses, cowboy/cowgirl apparel shops, and night clubs. I have been given instructions from a contact at my hotel that I must go to Billy Bob’s, supposedly the largest honkytonk in all of Texas. With two large dance floors and stages, a live bull run, and every fun-house game you can think of (and maybe one or two you can’t) it is a place to be experienced. I had stood in a line that reached well out the door before I saddle up to one of at least a half-dozen full bars tended by young lasses who call you darlin’, order a whiskey sour, and take it all in. The darlin’ who is not here would love this place.


16 December 2017

12:42 p.m.
Our flight is delayed. I stand at the gate, listening to my music. Delays often annoy me but at this moment I am in no hurry. For a second I consider accepting the airline’s offer of a voucher to remain an extra day. But, no, I do want to return to my world and my dog and so, when it is announced that a change of planes is needed, this one in a different terminal, I go with the other passengers back on the tram and wait anew at a new gate while they ready the new plane.

After we finally do board, I sit next to Autumn, a woman born in Thailand, living in Texas, flying to Moose Lake, Minnesota. Makes sense! Autumn is on her way to see family for the winter holidays while on break from life as a university student. I am on a break of sorts myself — from food, again. I had somehow managed to not walk into the McDonalds I encountered at the first terminal almost immediately after stepping off the tram; those fries smell especially good at the airport. It’s been 12 hours at this point but feels like 18. I have emptied a lot on this trip but I figure I can clear out more. I pass on all the airport options.

Weeks after this moment I will come across the TedX talk “Owning Alone,” during which the author Teresa Rodriquez outlines a process of using vacations to deal with grief. In fact, she describes a process not unlike the one I have spontaneously underwent during this trip, even if I can’t say I have followed all seven of her tenants to a T. I have tried to “be brave” and “faithful” but that all sounds cleaner than a scrubbing of my recent emotions would suggest. Rodriguez had years ago fell in love with a “beautiful” man who abruptly abandoned her. In the wake of her grief, she learned how to navigate the world, even in a foreign land, alone, and an impromptu trip kick-started this awakening for her. A trip, she says, is not merely an adventure to a new place but “an adventure into your heart and soul.” You turn into something “more beautiful” than before your departure. And so we have a responsibility, she says, “to share what we experience on our trips.”

Sitting on the plane, Hemingway cracked in my lap and a pen in my hand, I breathe four conscious breaths. I turn off my phone. Music is still in my ears.

Steve Perry was an arena rock star — the lead singer of Journey, one of the most commercially successful bands of a generation — who abruptly walked away. Nowadays the rock ‘n’ roll Hall of Famer barely makes public appearances. The life he was leading no longer was good for him, so he did what he had to do: leave. “Foolish Heart” was recorded on his first solo album. In the video that would have aired many times on that glowing television in the basement of my boyhood home Perry walks onto a darkened stage, steps to a microphone, sings his solo to an empty room, and walks off. There is something to be said for that. You can do only so much to make people listen to you.

I want to say, after my solo swing to Texas, that I am more “beautiful” than before I left. But I don’t know about that. Maybe a wee bit stronger. Undoubtedly, I am grateful for it all: my journeys to the depths as well as those moments when I have risen up and noticed the beauty before me. Music takes you back and simultaneous suggests a way forward: look inside. The one you most need to sing for is yourself.

Foolish heart, hear me calling
Stop before you start falling
Foolish heart, heed my warning
You’ve been wrong before
Don’t be wrong any more

1:44 p.m.
Our plane speeds, speeds, speeds across the ground … and lifts into the sky.