Sunday, November 30, 2008

On Top of the Mountain

On top of Lincoln peak late Saturday afternoon, the magnificent clear, cold light turning the snow covered peaks radiantly amber could never have been captured with a camera. Nor could the hue of the grins of father and son, satisfied with their commitment to be instructors consummated, be described as they stood together at the end of the day, looking back up the mountain to discover Venus and Jupiter in perfect alignment over the long, bumpy trail they had just skied.

And it was only the end of the first day of a long season to come.

Accustomed to being acknowledged as accomplished, it was a humbling experience to spend so much time this weekend with people whose job it is to inspire the turn of perfection in each of us. Guilty of flaunting my old equipment and out-of-date clothing, diving down headwalls with no warm-up after years of sporadic days on snow, I could relish the ease with which I could cut through moguls.

But over this weekend of training a rank amateur to a professional instructor status, I was challenged to throw off the bravado and work hard to make pretty turns. So used to offering tips to any friend, family, or struggling stranger in my path, as the rookie this weekend, I was constantly the receiver of pointers, an ankle thrust here and a hip rotation there. Countless times, people politely suggested I might do better with a pair of shaped skis from this generation.

Being one whose style has turned heads and collected whoops from the chairlift in the spray of his turns, this could have been a horrifying experience. Given all the humble pie devoured in these last years over home, business and marriage, I could have argued back bitterly. It could have been so easy to cry over the next dish of not being good enough.

Instead, the enthusiasm that all my new friends had for this winter sport at this World Class resort that tries harder (where else do they hand out hot cider to departing guests?), the professional commitment they show to spread the skills with love was inspirational. Quickly, I caught the sense of pride and responsibility to provide an exhilarating experience for young guests. In charge of the same group of kids all winter long, I can only hope they might one day talk to their children in the kind of glowing terms I talk about my skiing adventures and the mentor I had at their age.

A transformation occurred when I put on the instructor’s jacket and cruised the slopes with my compatriots. As good a skier as I have been over the years, especially in the early ones, the instructor’s jacket signified an elite, privileged few who skied the mountain and got paid for it.

Not only could I wear my own today, but I got to ride the lift with my son who had one too.
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Thursday, November 27, 2008

Giving Thanks

So focused on where we want to go, it can be easy to forget where we have been, and how far we have come.

This holiday for me, crosses all lines of religion, ethnicity, and economics to be truly American. Only on this day do the roads empty, most stores close, and everyone has a common purpose, celebrated in one basic form. “Over the river and through the woods”, we go to celebrate the loved ones, the rock solid foundations in our lives. Priceless moments of conversations light and deep are cooked over the hard work of preparing the food, smells that linger a lifetime. Since living in town, I have enjoyed a walk outdoors at dusk, breathing in the silence of everyone feasting, gathered across the country in families together.

This year, my family is broken and my younger kids will be with their mother. My own sisters and parents are scattered. My friends all rightfully have plans of their own. A co-worker graciously invited me to join his family for a day of feast and football, but I have declined. Not to be pitied, or feeling depressed, for the first time in my life, I am thankful to be alone.

Fortunately, I am in no way truly alone. If I could get there, my children and sister in Oregon would share food and celebration with great spirit. In Pennsylvania, I have a father and sisters who would watch the Eagles with me in the same combination of hope and dread that plagues their loyal fans of 50 years.

And I have a mother whose eyes, as bright and blue as ever, might show the tiniest flicker of recognition at the sound of the voice she raised.

In this year of turmoil and change, one friendship has deepened into brotherhood, a man so there for me, and I for him, I joked yesterday that a day without at least a phone call causes withdrawal symptoms. Other friendships have blossomed or wilted according to the natural choices of sides. Some very old friendships have been re-ignited, and some great new friends welcome and support my current journey.

One year ago, I said I needed to hear my own voice. In the wreckage of homelife, work, and all that was not working, I was trying so hard to fix it all so fast, I could no longer tell what was truly my own, or just words I thought I was supposed to say. A second divorce, just like a bankruptcy, were options outside the strong family values I have known, but the din was overwhelming and could have led to a very real and awful silence.

So for better or worse, I am thankful today to be alone, to write and sing and do my work as best I can to put humble bread upon my table. I laugh, I can make others laugh. I cry, and am beginning to understand that it is not my job to keep others from crying. My inappropriate compulsive behaviors have vanished. There are those who congratulate me and others who admonish, but I am doing my best to hear those outside judgments as just votes of confidence, allowing my voice to be altered perhaps, but in no way diminished.

In this same circumstance twenty years ago, with the same guitar, piano, and dreams of writing novels, I felt half-complete. For life to be right as I knew and wanted it, all was second best until I had a mate with whom it could be shared. Having met a wonderful woman, I was determined to make our union work, no matter what. These many years, full of joys and pain, have provided lessons I needed to learn, as great and as hard as they have been. I have few regrets.

Today, I am liking the voice I hear. Always in need of refinement, still, it carries itself well, sings a song, alone or in a crowd, to make my mother proud.

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Friday, November 21, 2008

Peace in Rest

Last night I rested.

I saw my blog hits were way below even my usual modest number, and recognizing it coincides directly to the regularity of postings, I knew an entry was overdue. The pressure mounted to prove how well I could perform against a deadline, but struggling on the first paragraph, I dropped my pen and rested.

In the process of revitalizing my 20 old songs, I have purchased this wonderful combination of hardware and software that lets me record them in the comfort of my own home. Surrounded by my books on shelves, boxes still to be unpacked, unmade bed and dirty dishes, I can lay down multi-guitars, play piano, and sing background vocals to myself (Broken Mirrors). This process has been consumming hours of my time, a way to hear ideas and variations until I find real musicians to spice it up.

I looked at all that inviting possibility, but left the songs quiet, and rested instead.

Short story plots, query letters, and revised essays need to be written, packaged and mailed out. My new partnership in medical writing must be further explored. The books on the table beckon to be opened.

But last night I rested.

Around my half-renovated apartment, so much needs to be completed. A sketch is required in preparation of tiling the shower this weekend. The kitchen counter is still plywood, drawers must be built and walls painted. Recycled bindings must be mounted to other skis because the snow is falling and Sugarbush opens tomorrow.

Is it any wonder, with all the excitement abounding, I could not choose except to uncharacteristically shove it all aside, relax and rest?

This week, winter takes its first real bite on our fingers and toes. The slight breeze turns mild temperatures bitter for those of us bundled and working outside. I spent the day braced against the cold, calculating rafter lengths and angles mathematically with frozen-slogged mind, and called directions with stiff cheeks slurring words.

Today will be the same, so last night I rested.

Out for music and friendship most nights lately, last night I knew I had to settle in. What lovely peace was felt with ornately soft jazz cooking on the stereo as I melted cheese and tuna on the stove. Forcing myself simply to sit at the table, a place setting for one, I listened, ate, pondered, and…rested.

Having done so last night, a better entry for the blog is written this morning.

Rest well, when you have the chance; the sunlight will always return.

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Monday, November 17, 2008

Slippery Slopes

Even as I express concern over taking on too many activities, a casual conversation has quickly evolved into a serious winter commitment.

These many changes this year, have brought into question the most basic foundations of relationships, home, hometowns, and even careers. The business of carpentry has not served me well, making me wonder if I should even continue to hammer at the trade.

My son and I were discussing career alternatives one evening recently in regard to both our lives. The focus was on teaching high school, both of us particularly interested in English, but he suddenly quipped that I should be a ski instructor.

At his age, living in the Philadelphia suburbs (a “flatlander”, they call us in Vermont), I yearned to live a life on snow. I was skiing enough to love the lifestyle more than any girl, and imagined skiing adventures much more clearly than any concept of marriage.

My first job was in a ski shop. My third was washing dishes at dawn and dusk so I could ski in daylight. Anyone who knew me well was surprised that I had not only settled for love over skiing, but actually married a woman who had no interest at all to slide down mountains in the cold.

My sister and her husband have long advocated that I teach skiing as the most joyful combination of my skills and talents. They saw the light in my eyes, the bounce in my turns, the utter delight I exuded when playing with their kids and mine on Oregon slopes.
Back then, I even combined the sport with my dreams of writing by publishing articles in Skiing Magazine. Travelling the Northwest, enjoying fresh powder and awesome lodging, all expenses paid, seemed a life too good to be true...and so it faded.

When my son suggested I instruct this winter, I faltered. In these last few years, we have had some exhilarating days on snow, just 30 minutes from home to a wonderland that, in my stressed and impoverished circumstances, seemed more than I could afford, but was worth every effort to create and cherish such grins on our faces.

Just a quick call to a friend was all it took to get us both jobs at Sugarbush. I suppose the New England Puritan ethic must have a stronger grip on me than I imagine as I contemplate a winter of dancing on moguls and slicing powder tails on pristine mornings; how else do I explain the fear that enshrouds this vision?

I worry about the gas and long hour of commute each way, the cost of boots and skis (even recycled). Already concerned over a plate too full of activities, I have commited to every Saturday and Sunday coaching a group of rambunctious pre-teens who might easily run this old man ragged. And deepest in my bones, it is just plain hard for me to imagine we could be on this Earth to have so much fun.

But half the weekends I get to romp with my son, sharing tunes on his IPod and tales of splendid bumps and crashes. We will spend time together that will count for so much to me once he has gone to college and on to a life of his own. With my new schedule of independence, I am blessed to be able to provide this opportunity for us to play.

And to get paid for it all as well! Yo-da-lay-hee-hoo!
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Saturday, November 15, 2008

Paradise Lost & Found

A pile of papers were signed yesterday, and as quickly as that, I was no longer a home-owner.

Two lawyers, a couple of sweet kids and my new friends, the new owners, tried to make it easier with light banter, but there was tension in the room. It was difficult to look at the young father settling into their future and not think about how optimistic I felt 12 years ago when purchasing the property and signing the mortgage that would build us a home.

From the time I shoved snow off the foundation to set the first piece of wood to mowing the lawn last spring, this home served as such a tangible monument for what I could do for my family. We were safe and warm. At times, we laughed uproariously together. Many times, we variously cringed and cried.

For me, the home became tainted by the violence of the emotions it sheltered. Moving from it, although difficult, has not been as wrenchingly painful as I imagined. This sorrow is not at all a product of the home, and a new family has every chance of enjoying all the wealth, comfort and love a crackling holiday fire can inspire.

Decisions I made a long time ago, and momentum I allowed to sweep over me, meant that I left that conference table yesterday with only a small check of reimbursement for work and materials required to complete the sale. My share of the proceeds was gobbled by the IRS for repayment of money I had used to feed my family in hard times. It was wrong, inappropriate, and I alone, am financially paying for it.

In a clear effort to redirect the pain and bitterness, I immediately took a portion of that meager payment and bought myself an electric guitar I had been caressing for several weeks. The hard work to build and pay for that home, to provide for my family as best I could, brought me satisfaction beyond measure, but was corrupted horribly by the years of stress and the final loss. This small gesture (replacing the guitar I had sold to pay an electric bill) is an affirmation to be fondled daily, whether by fingers or eyes, reminding me that I am worth it, life matters, hard work pays off.

Misfortune befalls all of us in some form. We can be victims, blaming others and remain in the squalor of our unhappiness, or we can take responsibility for our contribution and climb out into the light. This lovely house on Hayward Street, for me, will forever be remembered as the home where I helped to raise two incredible beings who will one day understand that, in spite of it all, they were loved.

Once, I received a trophy, long vanished, for an all-star game I did not deserve, having played with only half my heart among others whose efforts made me look good. Another trophy, which still sits on my shelf, I did earn with an out-standing whole-hearted effort. This little guitar means much more to me than its modest price would indicate, is much more solid in my hands than any amount of money that might have come and gone from my checking account.

May I play it in good health, expressing well all the love that surrounds me.
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Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Leaky Pipes

If anyone had told me they would still be plumbing tonight (Tuesday) the little hole in the pipe I set out to fix on Saturday, I would call them a lousy plumber. Not exactly a plumber myself, I have sweated a lot of pipes in my life, and this little repair to my heat should not have taken very long.

Never mind, the tiny leak (a result of a careless moment laying floors) is between floors, making me constantly go up and down via the outside. Disregarding that it is in a far corner, over the abandoned oil tank and obstructed by old bike carcasses. Excuse the several other pipes in the way; it should not have taken four days and six trips to the hardware store.

Still, I am without heat, and though it is not the dead of winter, it is Vermont, and it is cold in my home tonight (very cold this morning).

Patience is a concept that constantly challenges me. For whatever lack of skill, twist of fate, combination of miscuts, faulty parts, and grains of dust in the joints, I have to delay yet another day the celebration of this handy job completed.

Since setting to the task of recording my music, I have decided to buy a new electric guitar to replace the gifted one that replaced the beauty I had sold years ago in crisis to pay the electric bill. Many are fondled and caressed, so tempting to put my money down and bring home, but I force myself to remember there is a looming list of higher priorities right now.

Likewise, I begin the search for compatible musicians to bring these songs alive. Over the weekend, I placed an ad on Craig’s List and at the local music store. I answered ads. I put my rough recordings Out There to lure talent to me.

But it is a long process, requiring much patience, fortitude and perseverance.

Beyond blog entries, I have stories, and even a novel, to write. Each morning, the desk with its laptop and yellow pads empty and waiting to be covered with ink lure me to stay, but I know I have to march out the door and down the road to complete this roof and raise the bank account. Duty screams while creativity beckons with such an alluring call. No matter how vivid my dreams, I need the money and must honor the contracts.

After years of distracted progress up one mountain, this year, I have dared to leap across to another, teetering on a precarious ledge, establishing a tentative foothold. So anxious to see the view, my heart wants to race forward up this new path, learn the outcome of these bold efforts I make today to further my writing and music.

But patience must be required and tolerated. The time must methodically be taken. Yet another piece of copper must be purchased, cleaned, fluxed and soldered into place--no step skipped over--to repair the leak and restore the heat.

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Sunday, November 9, 2008

Up on the Roof

For several weeks, I have been considering an entry on the relentless pace I lead daily and the fear that it will eventually cause collapse and misfortune. Just a few minutes of half-dreams cushion the time between alarm and my leap from bed each morning. There is hardly a pause before the night is late and lonely, and I fall asleep with a book in my lap.

No question that this is of my own doing. I am generating all of this activity and have the power to curtail it at anytime. Writing blogs, playing music, finding cannons, or telling a sad story on the radio does nothing to satisfy my need for food, clothing and shelter, yet this has all become a need as basic as breathing and, without realizing it, I had been suffocating before.

Influenced by the other need, the realistic need to pay my cell bill, and glad to have work, given the economic fears, I have been replacing the roof of a house more than an hour away, consuming more than usual time to make a living. Working with a couple of friends, it is a mellow job, high up the mountainside, over-looking miles of hardwood forests and open hayfields. While gas prices have fortunately dropped and temperatures for late fall are pleasantly high, we are pushing hard to get it done efficiently between rain storms and the expanding darkness.

Sunday, I worked by myself, methodically laying shingles and singing my new song. At lunch, it seemed silly to sit safely on the ground by my truck when the view was incredible from up on the roof. I imagined a perch out of a Carole King song, balanced on my ladder (strapped in, of course—OSHA approved!), munching my turkey sandwich meditating on the awesome vista. Unable to sit so pleasantly still, however, I had to scramble back down for my notebook so I could eat with one hand and write an essay (that was later abandoned) with the other about the wonders of the panoramic vision spread before me.

Well, after bragging a while back about rarely being sick, this pace has fulfilled my prediction, delivering a second punch of a stuffed head and aching cough in a month. Not listening to my own warnings to take a rest, my body captured the germs to make it so. Still, I have worked miserably right through it, determined to take advantage of the great weather and necessary paycheck.

Some times, I do just stop, and looking at myself like the snapshot of a stranger, I am amazed. Tonight, for example, I sit with a hamburger and a beer in a corner booth of a family restaurant (I am a trattoria kind of guy), yellow pad filling with black ink. Rain puddles outside, neon lights splintered in the drops. Guys step up to croon at an open mic. In my own neighborhood, it is Saturday night, and I know no one here.

Times like these, the momentum of the last months of change overwhelm. Twenty years of life everyday with the same good woman creates such a basis of existence, a reference point around which all else revolves. To break that anchor tumbles me into a swirling world with no boundaries and unexplored vistas over every rooftop.

Some friends are rediscovered, others drift away, still coupled themselves, or at least attached to my other half. Alliances are shifted and some encounters are suddenly awkward. New friends and companions are just at the confluence, merging or submerging with no rhyme or reason. Who can know? Recognition of my old self is hard to find.

No wonder, then, my head fills and my body aches, racked with coughing fits, slowing me down to ponder the view. The redefinition of self is hard work, the pace relentless. Some days feel like a blessing of banter with a son to be proud of; others are best passed curled up in contemplation, as if thumb in my mouth. Too many mistakes have taken their toll, but the blanket of fear must still be thrown off.

The best are those days when the sun shines, the conversation buzzes. Work gets done, laughter blows through the trees. The rustle of the wind promises that life only gets better and better, and the memories of the past never lose their luster. Today, I will make one of those.
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Sunday, November 2, 2008

On the Edge

My mom kept many sacred relics around her home, so this poem by her granddaughter thumb tacked to the wall by her bed for 20 years can be considered especially precious. In an unusual fit of organizational bravado this morning, I was finally mounting it to a frame, when the last lines brought together the fragments of thoughts swimming aimlessly around my next blog entry which for days had not been congealing very well.

I do know that walking on the edge is beautiful, and this daughter of mine has taught me this so well. At 23, fresh out of a fancy college and headed into a wide, wide world, full of hope, wonder and optimism, my heart bonded with her little soul and we merged our lives there on the edge of a mountain on the Oregon Coast. 18 months later, I was marrying her pregnant mother, leaping into a settled life of family, committed to writing, making music and earning (for the time being) a living as a carpenter.

Well, even though not all dreams work out, it is important to appreciate the gifts that come along the way. Walking on the edge is dangerous, but unexpected rewards are abundant to those willing to dare the risks, making it truly beautiful.

Lately, living on the edge involves gathering up the salvageable pieces from the crash of huge business risks, and learning to move forward in spite of it all. In fact, embracing these changes, after the losses have been mourned, actually uncovers a wealth of unexpected surprises and abundant good fortune.

As I reflect on the losses and gains, no matter how painful these last months have been, by risking everything to live more passionately, life has become enriched by a universe of compassionate and supportive people. Where I feared humiliation by going public with these stories, the response has been so gratifying, one can only be encouraged to open the heart all the more.

Why this valuable lesson could not be learned in the last 20 years, and a marriage revived, is a question I cannot bring to bear in these pages out of respect for another loved one. Suffice it to say that FEAR is a powerful enemy that constantly pulls us away from the edge, makes us live in fits of genius smothered by spurts of caution that inhibit, rather than support, success.

To thrive, we must live ALIVE, risking judgments of foolishness from others, but honest to ourselves and the dreams that beat our hearts.

So this week, after the local notoriety about my cannon lost and regained, and the national exposure of my human frailty and determination, life has settled back into routines of soccer games, grocery shopping, and earning a living with a hammer (still). This week, it is easy to pause on my roofing job, safely harnessed against a fall and humming my new song, to consider how close to the edge I am living.

The challenge lies in the everyday life of walking safely on the ground, along the store aisles, and still feel on the Edge.
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