Monday, September 29, 2008

The Mankind Project

Men do not just talk about football and sex anymore.

Clearly, so many of the stereotypes of masculine and feminine roles no longer apply. The world has changed, and men are adapting.

In my world this weekend, I gathered at a camp with 60 some men who are committed to making their lives better by living consciously, feeling their emotions, and honoring the wealth in others. Being the Annual Gathering required in the By-Laws, there was plenty of financial discussion, hard looks at the past, and lofty dreams about membership growth in the future. Hearty and delicious meals were combined and prepared to feed the mass artfully by an ebullient master who invited men to join him in shifts, and made it fun.

Two workshops were presented to help us uncover thick layers of impenetrable protections over our emotions, and to build porous boundaries of discernment in their place. A ropes course raised us high. An auction raised money for great causes, and kept us delightfully high.

Throughout the weekend, there was a continuous and fascinating thread of men talking over the look and feel of churning emotions in their lives. Not about the promotion in question, the arriving new grandchild, the marriages of agony and joy; the talk was all about the feelings around these events: the envy of another man, the shame of our own inadequacies, the pride for our actions. Each and every conversation was an effort to hold those feelings, recognize how they affect us, be able to shed some of them, and walk more freely in awareness.

Listening to men articulate their passions about making themselves and the world a better place was truly the most moving aspect. Most of these men I knew only as little as I would people at a social function listing job descriptions, number of kids and sports scores. Most of these men I left knowing little more about their particulars, but precious more about the colors of their internal lives.

These are men who can wear wigs, poke fun at each other, and be outrageously silly. These are men who can face each other in conflict and, with all due respect, agree to disagree, recognizing that the charge between them is more about oneself than the other. These are men who can listen, admit they are wrong, and act to restore their integrity. These are men who can compassionately hold their companions accountable, understanding that every action affects the group, but most especially the man in action.

As comfortable to hug as to shake hands, they will do whatever it takes to stand behind a man who suffers, or causes suffering, if he will accept their total--and honest--support. These are men who do not leave their talk at the door like cultists their masks and robes, but take their compassion to the streets, to prisons and soup kitchens, and to their own homes and offices.

To be among these men is to feel strong, safe, cared for, and powerful, to feel alive at the core. These are warriors in the new world.

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Friday, September 26, 2008

Sickness & Health

My kids will tell you I never get sick.

Largely this is true. Because I cannot afford it, and I just do not like it, even if germs, sneezes, coughs, and flues are pounding me, I find the quickest way to get back on my feet is to stay on my feet. Pretend that I just feel fine, and generally pretty quickly I do.

Six weeks ago, I booked plane reservations to Oregon and wrote a piece about the importance of reconnecting with an old home and old friends. The trip was weighted with potentially life-altering significance emotionally as it represented action and movement not available to me during the years of marriage.

Yet on the eve of departure, circumstances combined to present more challenges to actually boarding and taking off. Like pretending not to be sick, I knew I could have ignored all symptoms and headed for the airport anyway, but the crushing weight of an actual head cold made all the other reasons too difficult to ignore. I postponed my pilgrimage to some uncertain future date. At least, I wrote about that too.

In reading many of my posts (and some of others), there is much ado about Being a Writer, and something less of actual substance to the words. I can declare myself to be something, but only in the actual doing does it become truth.

Yes, people reassure me regularly with generous comments that, indeed, I am a writer—all very flattering and wonderful balm to my divorced damaged ego. Still, no matter how pretty the wrapping in words, there needs to be depth and enlightenment, movement beyond repetitive declarations.

Months ago, I also committed myself to attend a workshop this weekend. A continuation of my masculine work, I will gather with 67 men who speak in a common language of brotherhood, spirituality, shadows, integrity, authenticity, and peace, with a stated goal of changing the world one man at a time.

Some of the men I met a year ago, others I have only known through sharing thoughtful EMAIL correspondences. Like friendships made through blogging, I anticipate that actually meeting these men will be quite revealing. The work we will do in the official events should be emotionally challenging now that I better understand that language. The dialogues we share on the pathways, at the table, and just beyond the light of the campfire may be even more enlivening.

Yet, once again, symptoms of a low-grade flu combine with circumstances of timing and money to make me hesitate, threatens my resolve and determination to move forward. So busy declaring myself being a writer, I balk when presented with the opportunity to explore the passions and emotions that writing is all about.

“Sickness” conspires once again to hold me back, but this time I will continue to pretend all is well in my world.
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Wednesday, September 24, 2008

50th Entry in the Forest

Life is so busy.

Today I begin to write this essay in the waiting room of our local office of the IRS, and finish it late lying nearly asleep, writing on my yellow pad at any available moment during, and between, tasks on my long, long list of the day.

Life is always busy. Lists are always long.

I keep scrambling through the underbrush of these lists, tasks snarling at my ankles. I methodically multi-task my way in relentless pursuit of the mountaintop from where I will be able one day to look out over the other side, taking measure of the broad landscape of a life with not a single list in sight.

Day in, day out, hour by painful, slogging hour, running here, dodging there, I seek the top of the Mountain which never appears. Nor do I even find a comfortable ledge for rest along the path.

Exhaustion and depression threaten if I stare at the lists too long. It is overwhelming to calculate just how much time it might take to accomplish each item and add that to the Whole. Dangerous enough to contemplate first thing in the morning for fear of never climbing out of bed, it is even worse to awaken startled at 3 AM in a sweat of panic that wide open eyes will not shut again before dawn.

During the day, no sooner is one task completed, marked off, and passed by, but like trees in the forest, there is no seeing beyond all the others to catch even a faint glimpse of the destination.

You just know it is there.

You have Faith.

For years, I have been plodding along, scrambling to pay bills with work that rewards me with dollars at the end of the week for nearly every hour I can charge. So many days though, it has felt like I was just cutting down and sawing up the tall, straight studs of Douglas Fir, installing them honorably into shelters for humankind , but overcome in the struggle of it, doing it without Spirit, and therfore, not successfully.

All the while, I have yearned to walk among the beautiful birch, stroll with companions in the moonlight under the flickering, silvery leaves. A story teller, by nature, I would describe the heart of our struggles to see our forests, and exalt the stories of those who overcome their fears of failure, finding their particular mountaintop where lists are no longer drugery, but blessings.

I have allowed myself to be sidetracked, lost my way.

Now, the trees one by one are changing--in my imagination first, then on this page. Step by measured step, not yet giving up my “day job”, I keep moving forward, completing tasks and choosing new, and different, assignments. Today, for example, in real life, thanks to Hayden Tompkins, under the canopied list of my varied identities, I added the description of editor.

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Thursday, September 18, 2008

Pens & Hammers

Pleased and flattered to be mentioned as a musician finding his passion in an eloquent entry at Persistent Illusion, I have thought a lot about identity in the last few days.

So many pieces of our lives are reflected by the various people who share time in our lives. It is curious and confusing to imagine ourselves from their perspective, looking from outside inwards. It becomes easy,then, to define ourselves by what we do.

On Sundays with my pals in the park, for example, I am a soccer player. That is how they know me and rarely is that impression altered by a chance encounter somewhere else during the week. Lately, for a few evenings, and in Hayden’s blog, I am a musician. To my clients, I am a contractor, my workers a boss. Some former business associates believe I am an incompetent.

Different friends and acquaintances, depending how they know me, might describe me as either caring or self-absorbed, adventurous or habituated, effusive or reserved. Even my children see me differently. My former wives likely roll their eyes, each for her own reasons.

Like the mosaic of the thousand images pasted together that, from a distance, form a famous face, these parts make me whole. Truly, each of these personas has its respective place, but I am unable to make the quintessential definition. For me, it is impossible to stand back far enough to be able to recognize the overall face without slipping over the edge and tumbling into a sea of confusion.

So it is with fascination that I find myself today looking at the same choice of vocations as I did so many years ago. At 24, newly married with three children, I remember well the look on my friend’s face, a doctor near retirement, when he heard me say I wanted to take the winter off to write. His bemused assumption that I was supremely na├»ve affected me profoundly, caused me to question my certainty that I would live and die a writer, carpentry being just to tide me over until that Great Novel was published.

Thirty years later, after struggling so many different ways to make a business out of remodeling skills, I am still balanced precariously with my feet in construction boots, trying to pull myself to sanity with one hand writing and the other playing music. No matter the call to make realistic choices for family and mortgages, the urge to create just will not lie dormant.

It becomes clearer by the day that my business has struggled because my heart and passion is fed elsewhere. Brick by invisible brick, however, a wall has been built separating me from my dreams, the daily call for dollars on the table superceding the luxury of quietly allowing ink to flow across the pages. The apparent quick fix of dollars per hour influences every choice, inhibits the flow of words, keeping them as distractions swirling in my head just beyond reach, interrupting the job at hand.

Off-balance, nothing goes well, and the bank account suffers miserably.

The opportunity in a crisis is to stretch beyond normal boundaries and discover the limitless expanse beyond our internal definitions of ourselves. As a contractor who loves removing walls and opening formerly constricted spaces, it is ironic that I should so long be banging my head against my own fears.

Glen, at PluginID, writes about living with authenticity and commitment, saying, “If you really want something…you CAN DO IT.” I feel like I wear that bemused smile of my doctor friend considering this young man’s simplified words, but realize the Internet is a great equalizer, giving blog sites authority simply by virtue of the ideas themselves, never mind the age and experience of the author.

The struggle to write my truth has cost me another marriage and the disillusionment of a cherished daughter, but this man was dying not living his passion. We all knew it. Something had to change. Step by (en)lightened step, with better vision everyday, I move forward.
Today, driving to the jobsite has taken hours as I keep pulling over to write another paragraph.
Sledgehammer in hand, the ink begins to flow.
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Wednesday, September 17, 2008

A Touch of Flu

Some day my son will read this, so I will apologize in advance for being such a selfish dad.

A generation earlier, my dad’s job was to work, play catch, and disappear mysteriously every December evening to make strange noises, emerging Christmas morning with an incredible doll house full of hand-made furniture, or new houses for the Christmas Village.

When a child was sick, his schedule did not change. If the child was really sick, he visited quickly and stood awkwardly at the end of the bed. When I was in the hospital with something so dreadful every possible diagnosis ended in death, he brought my mother early and took her home late, but it was she who helped me through the complicated tests and the awful waits in between (happily, the diagnoses were all wrong and, as you can read, I lived to tell the tale).

I need no apology from him now because that is just the way it was back then.

Today, as dads, we are much more involved in our children’s health. The first to see his tiny head crown, I have been with my son at nearly every doctor’s appointment, sick or well. I have rocked him for hours under a blanket by an open window on a cold, croupy night, and wiped his feverish forehead dry during a summer flu.

To keep her from squirming, I held my 18 month old daughter for 4 hours straight post surgery, the two of us tangled in wires monitoring her heart, never a peep of complaint from her as I hummed and hummed a comforting song.

Their mother, of course, has been no less involved.

Tonight, after a long trip back from a soccer game he never played in, although it is our week for him to stay with me, he has chosen to be home in his regular bed, safe with his mother nearby, nursing him softly. Sympathetic and understanding how, not feeling well, he would want this, still I confess jealousy torments my caring heart.

Sad it is that he must choose between his parents. There should certainly be no argument around choice for him tonight: he is granted, by virtue of our love, whatever comfort he needs; but I am alone here at my humble apartment under construction, helpless and discomforted myself, wishing I could do more, wanting to put my hand to his forehead.

Nothing serious that will bother him more than a day or two, this further reminder of our changes scalds my patience. He will heal himself quickly, but I sit here in the meantime, stewing. I know a call would most likely wake him, talking would ache his head all the more, but still I want the satisfaction of standing in the doorway, hearing his labored-but-peaceful breath, reassured with my own senses that he will live to play another day.
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Sunday, September 14, 2008

Hurricane Kip

Last night I just stared at the screen, a list of tasks urgent in my head, but not an ounce of energy to motivate myself into action.

Perhaps this could be because Saturday nights are supposed to be frolicsome rendezvous with pals and lovers, while I was home and very much alone. Maybe it could have been knowing that my son and his mother were dancing at an annual event where we had all been together a year ago.

I know I could not move, lift a finger or blink an eye. I was done for the evening but still unable to take myself to bed. And this morning feels little better, grey with remnants of a hurricane spitting its last gasp on us far to the north of where it showed its mightiest power.

Fortunately, I can look back on a week that began with strong words leaping to pages on the screen. Ideas percolated for stories stretching towards print like the hurricane gathering moisture. For several days, thoughts raced through my mind. Even as I dutifully wrote out bills and proposals for the construction work that feeds my family, characters formed on the horizon as light and dark clouds.

In the middle of the week, music embraced my attention, pushing me up the street to play in public for the first time in many years. Inspired and compulsive, on the verge of obsessed, I worked late into several nights to get old music online, establishing a few minor chords of bragging rights to illustrate the tugs and twists that color my personal midlife, an upheaval of mixed metaphors storming around a half-centered third eye.

How strange it was to be so immersed in the blogosphere of my imagination, conjuring dreams of an appearance on Oprah to talk about surviving Hurricane Kip and playing a song or two from my hit album with my hot band, only to be humbled by jumping into my truck—late as usual—with its cracked windshield and dents, in my dirty clothes to pay the bills of reality.

By the end of the week, I had to be fully engaged in late night painting sessions to transform the interior of a deli that had to remain open each day. Working alone, as people stroll past between restaurants and the theater (yes, we have culture as well as cows in Vermont), enjoying their evening, disorientation and delusions spin ugly thoughts.

Into every life there must be a healthy measure of balance. Work and family, art and finances, music and the hum of daily activity—the balances and blendings must be found to create a well-rounded peaceful life. Even the tension between joys and pains must be balanced (not necessarily equal), like day and night, sunshine and rain, activity and rest: one infusing the other. Without these dances--balanced harmonies--crisis is certain.

So I can forgive myself, after finishing another wall, and cleaned up enough to face my list of tasks. I can understand why my fingers refuse to budge. And in the morning, after a good night’s sleep, they seem to be doing better.

Now if I could only explain this to my mortgage company.
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Thursday, September 11, 2008

Music Alights

This is not as pretty and seemlessly easy for you as I want it to be, but after hours and hours frying my techno-inhibited brain, enough is enough. I'm just going to post it as it is. (besides, in my exhausted state, I can hear Hayden's dancing feet close on my heels).

So for better or worse, I sing to you, dear readers (if you'll only click the sidebar on the right and then on the panel in the upper right when it appears)

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Tuesday, September 9, 2008

A Room Full Of Song

There are some who will say I have gone way beyond the young blonde or fiery red sports car.

Since unpacking and retuning my guitar, I have re-acquainted myself with an armful of songs I wrote in my teen and twenty years. Some have struck me as not at all half bad, igniting a growing compulsion to bring them out into the open.

Too busy and really way too old to form a band that hits the road playing county fairs and honkytonks "throooough-out the south", I have been steadily working to transpose an old analogue tape to digital and upload a few songs onto this blog. Perhaps with them in some sort of existence beyond my fingers, I can rest and move on, knowing in some small way they might survive.

This came from the later months of my first separation as an antidote to loneliness, when I gathered musician friends to record parts and pieces and extra voices as best we could. One by one, we stood in a bath tub surrounded by heavy fabric for just the right sound for all eight tracks in our little home-made studio.

While only a verse and a half was possibly good enough for an album, some of the rest I would still be proud (or bold) enough to share with friends...if I could only solve the latest technical challenges. This afternoon, when I certainly should have been doing more to earn real dollars, I used up four precious hours to advance my project little farther. I remain determined to get them online before Hayden’s persistence pays off with the long-promised video of her dancing (you think we’d forget?!).

Thusly, tonight, full of the music and frustrated by the technicalities, I yearned to sing those songs beyond the lonely four walls of my own little home. There is something truly seductive about singing into a microphone, surrounding yourself in the embrace of the music. So up I went along the short road to a local bar that hosts a weekly town-famous open mike.

Apparently, this is quite the gig because even getting there fashionably early, the quarter-hour slots were already filled past mid-night. Believing the world had gone to Hip-Hop, I discovered there is no shortage of singer/songwriters on my very own street.

To be honest, I felt a fierce competition in myself, listening to each, making comparisons and loading the criteria always in my own favor. It was not pretty, so I was glad to be alone, the old guy (they were all half my age) settled in the darkest corner, suffering the need once more for approval to overcome the relentless voice of harsh self-criticism.

Hour after hour, they came on, nearly all guys, nearly all in jeans, t-shirts and sneakers, nearly every one singing his own song for better or worse. Though in jeans myself, I, at least, wore a polo shirt and loafers, my own sneakers being just too abused to wear off the jobsite.

One more guy and his guitar… and suddenly, the air cleared. I was finally able to get beyod my own petty voice and recognize the gift each was giving, the risk each was taking. Sure, some were crooners with voices that split and shattered, but they were still playing, still daring to share. Others played cheap guitars with less than nimble fingers, yet, for them, it could have been Carnegie Hall.

Humbled, I finally took the small stage. Loyal listeners were still in abundance and attentive. Many of the other troubadours had remained in support of their brethren.

It made no difference who was better, or that I was the only one who was even alive in the 70's. All had our moments of glory, each and every note not especially spectacular (and some rocking the house), but still a sound so sweet, a note common to us all, joining us together, each with our own armful of original work on display, craving a little rush of golden applause, and shrugging it off shyly when it actually came.

And I was right: it was a lot more fun to sing through a mic.
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Sunday, September 7, 2008

Confessions of a Wayward Yogi

A high percentage of the bloggers I read are teachers of Yoga, according to their credits, so these humble words may only be an off-pitch chorus to a well-rehearsed choir because, in truth, my practice has been erratic at best.

My first wife, older and so much more experienced in life than I, was a teacher, gorgeous and alluring as she practiced between me and the TV set once kids had been read and sung to sleep. We might have been headed for our own snuggles, but she routinely took the time to replenish herself, citing Hindu scripts and chanting a language way too foreign for my rock and rolling ears.

I grew attracted, however, recognizing that several of the poses were so similar to stretches I had discovered myself, warming up for soccer games in my earlier life. As my mates kicked and jostled nervously, I would be off to one side quietly saluting the moment as a way of preparation that just felt good from deep inside.

The influence of my teacher--and her teachers--was strong enough that when we separated, I maintained sanity in my tiny transition room under my sister’s garage by an almost hourly practice of Yoga and meditation. Unable to sleep well, the insistent and imperturbable ocean roar outside guided my breath. The postures brought an internally terrified young man a little peace.

A flamboyant rebel to routine, my practice has always been irregular and without structure. I tend to move in no prescribed pattern, but flow into postures like floodwaters rushing along a path of least resistance. Held long or short, standing or sitting, the motion comes from somewhere deep inside, and lifts my spirit as well as tones my body. The practice is always best when my mind goes quiet, my heart lies open, my muscles unclench. I remember that ocean breath, and my body stretches further into the pose; another wave rolls in, and I am deeper still.

In the rush and madness of financial and emotional stress, however, my practice has been overlooked, suspended regularly by the crisis at hand, the ocean too far away to feel its presence. How infuriating it is, that when drowning, the very air we need to survive is just over our heads, available to fill our lungs with life energy if only we could reach the surface, but still we sink lower…

In the aftermath, the construction mess of this second separation has not been conducive to laying my nose to the floor. Coincidentally to the loss of my practice, however, has come a resurgence of play on the soccer field. Lucky enough to be welcomed back to the game, I arrogantly have jumped right into foot-to-foot contact with guys half my age without taking the time to warm up, confidently believing if I can play at all at my ripe old age, why bother to stretch and center?

The answer, so obvious to all others, seems to have eluded me completely, that same rebel who so flamboyantly has crossed boundaries in marriage and business.

Not anyone special, not an elite citizen granted dispensation to lead an abundantly easy life, my failures have taught me the lesson of appreciation for the gifts we have each and most days. Incredibly fortunate to trust my legs to carry me one more hour back and forth, protecting our goal (I am smart enough to leave the hard running and scoring to the younger guys), I relish the games each week, the time spent with my son, and our friends, on Sunday afternoons.

So in the hopes of continued play and life, I have begun to stretch again each morning, practicing Yoga in my own personal way. I salute the sun at first with an aching stiffness, despite a good night’s sleep, and gradually reach the floor with an ease that can breathe in the Ocean's roar for yet another day.
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Wednesday, September 3, 2008


Fall is really the start of the New Year.

Whether in class or not, most lives revolve around the school calendar, settling back into ritual and routine as the new academic year begins. Clearly the students are waiting for the bus each morning, or the roads are full of parents car-pooling, mug in hand, heading to work after. But businesses change, as well, with bargain specials and cut rate clearances, sales increased or decreased because people become bound to their homes, school and routines.

As naturally as the leaves turning and air grown crisper, the football season begins. Building projects that had meandered through conception in spring and the design phase in summer are rushed into production to be finished by Thanksgiving. There is an urgency to firewood deliveries, and the chimney sweeps work overtime. Squirrels gather their nuts.

New to the complicated dynamics of sharing a child, the summer was an introductory lesson with a lot of improvisation, based largely around sleeping one full week at each place and alternating homes for dinner. Summer could be loose and plans changed, the schedule interrupted by travels and camps.

Now, for the sake of my son’s best efforts to focus on schoolwork and sanity (to lead as normal a life as possible), we have graduated to a system of alternating weeks with only one dinner with the off-parent. Weekends end the week for the parent-in-charge who can enjoy lounging (while my son sleeps in) and developing naturally and normally a Saturday all day into a Sunday. The “hand-off” occurs near the evening with enough time for dinner and to settle back into the other home for the week to come.

Last night was our first of many, and the sweet domestic feel of it made my heart glow. Books and new binders (and the trash of their wrappings) spread around him, my son did his homework, calling out an occasional question. I made a real dinner (as opposed to pizza in the middle of a construction site), and later cleaned it up, cleaned up, in fact, the entire apartment. Classical music mellowed the mood.

This set the scene for the year ahead, and it is definitely one with which I can live. So much turmoil has been the tone of our home to date—not just the renovation of the place, but the reconstruction of our lives. The year that began with uncertainty, disruption and tension evolved into a summer of sporadic and spontaneous adventures.

We ate our pizzas in front of movies on the laptop, lived with dust, and experimented with furniture found in garages and the recycle store. It all had an air of impermanence and improvisation, as if any day we would go back to our home on Hayward Street and the family we used to be would be again.

Now the air has changed, the sun sets sooner each evening. We settle into the routine like survivors on an island, determined to make the best of it. A new winter approaches and we are readying our supplies.

And this morning, there are lunches to be made before heading off to school and work.

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