Monday, August 23, 2010

Safety Belt

A snap of the fingers and the shake of a few hands turn me into an insurance salesman. Well, I have to take a test and go through some training, but the hard work of deciding is done.

The visions of a man paying his bills, taking his woman on a trip, putting his kids through college are just too strong to ignore. I have struggled so long and so hard to keep my head above water, it should be an amazing experience to actually swim.

My background and emotional training rebels to this move as if it were a sell-out with a capital “S”. I can feel my mother rolling in her bed of Alzheimer’s disbelief.

Despite or because of our comfortable circumstances, we were raised to question authority before the phrase had become cliché. I went to a school that encouraged reinventions of the wheel. My mother’s pride that my father’s rank earned him an invitation to shake the hand of Henry Kissinger was surpassed only by her satisfaction to look the Secretary of State in the eye and refuse to do so. My family has honored success in spite of the rules, not because of them.

Yet as affectionately as my father tells the story of his rebellious wife, he tries to mask his disappointment in the financial dependence of his only son. He carried the mortgage on my first home and opened the door to my others. He bailed out my business several times, losing considerable money, and now has given me the time (credited against my inheritance) to recuperate emotionally from my failures and physically from my accident.

His push for me to find a job has been overt, but compassionately understanding and supporting my quest for passion and creativity. He followed his brother into his father’s business and hated that part of it so much, he rarely invited me to even see his office, much less get a sense of what a working environment actually looked like. Without clear guidance, his shadow has influenced my every decision about earning money. This decision being made coincidentally on his birthday delivers the perfect gift of irony that at long last I have chosen a near guarantee of financial success.

In the days since, the magnitude of the change seems both invisible and immensely apparent. Life goes on as usual, balancing my limited resources and coaxing the Redster to carry me a few miles further along. Internally, the smile shapes the growing vision of soon being able to pay cash for something more suitable for transportation and looking for a brighter place to live.

The upheaval of time has yet to color my reality. I book shows and volunteer for some projects as if without the slightest constraint on schedule. Harkening to their demand for 50 hour weeks to start, my consciousness has not assimilated the red and still lives in camouflage. The shift to accountability is a pink elephant, lurking in the next room.

My real fear is how the embrace of this “straight” job will affect my internal organs. As I have been writing so passionately about following dreams, living authentically and from the heart, I struggle with the loss of integrity this might bring, as if once again truly on the verge of being the writer my mother always knew I could be, fear rushes in, turning me in another “safer” direction.

All the rationalizations about flexibility of schedule, independence, and the security of financial vehicles are easily conjured because they have rolled off my tongue so fluently for thirty years as my construction business got more complicated and consumming. I blame its failure squarely on the heart wanting to be occupied elsewhere and risk that same half-hearted, self-sabotaging effort even more now.

Dostoevsky remained in his rented rooms, largely alone, wrestling his addictions and writing profoundly and passionately. Fitzgerald drank and Hemingway romped with bulls. Kerouac’s energy for the road sputtered out of gas much too early and I wonder about the spontaneous fireworks he could have generated with a laptop from his watchtower, but the contributions he did type transformed a generation.

Me? I sing my songs, write my wrongs, fit in with the throngs, selling insurance and living happily ever after.

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Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Full Coverage

In January, the start of a new year, an ad on Craig’s List led me to sit through a session on selling supplemental insurance. The pitch had a little to do with the product and a lot to do with how much money could be made by following the simple scripted routine, a game of numbers that would lead invariably to an early retirement.

Living in a scarcity of dollars for most of my adult life, and even dependent at my age on my Dad’s largesse to enjoy the food on my own table (or, honestly, in the health food café), I left the conference room feeling a bit dirty for considering it, but with my integrity still intact. Insurance, I believed, is a fear-based industry focused on the disaster that might never come. It takes money upfront out of your pocket for an intangible service you hope is never needed. I walked away proud to remember the additions to people’s lives built with my sweat and blood in exchange for their money, and even if my own pockets are sparse, I am comforted to know my hard work enabled my ex to be free with a comfortable nest of eggs in her new life.

Months have wandered by with the view from my couch relatively unchanged beyond the green of the leaves and gorgeous purple of the bee balm that have come and threaten soon to pass. The long anticipated surgery is still just as far away, depending on a financial decision. Braces and college tuition payments loom even as I stretch my dollars on the electric and cell phone bills. A hundred resumes return but a few polite responses about the overwhelming number of applications allowing them the luxury to choose more qualified people to interview.

In August, therefore, even as the different ad made me suspicious it would lead to the same conference room, I answered anyway and sure enough sat through the spiel again. This time, however, there flowed over my body a palpable feeling of relief, like when leaving a marriage, I was taking one step closer to a more sane reality. The pitch penetrated my thick skin of skepticism. I bathed in the image of writing checks and whipping out my card without the slightest concern for balance financially or emotionally.

In the middle of the presentation, a man walked past the door who served as the perfect point, to answer a question, that the initial licensing fee could be recovered threefold in the first week. I actually know him as a passionate, serious and committed musician and if he was comfortable making the compromise to support his art, then perhaps so could I.

The next week, I have spent envisioning what this variation of reality might look like. I see some tangible items like a more efficient and presentable car or useful truck, a new pair of shoes; perhaps even a move out of the dark and dreary cave of my basement apartment. Trips to lands long imagined appear on the horizon.

More importantly, with some financial security, my daughter might prove brave enough to speak to me again. A life without crisis could allow even more creative expression given the ability to relax at a cellular level around the question of basic survival and/or an unhealthy dependence on my father.

My requirements so simplified, I have no need to commit to the hours that will give myself retirement to a yacht in Miami ten short years from now. Astonished and uncomprehending, they wonder if that lack of purpose disqualifies me from their normally aggressive profile, but I am confident that, if on board, I will be a considerable asset.

Considering my battle with health insurance and corporate mentalities, it seems an abomination that I would support the very industry that has caused me such trouble. The truth is that it is my own negligence that failed to submit the paperwork in a timely way and my appeal is for mercy, not contesting the letter of the law. Much of my construction income actually came from the tragedies of fire and water damage that did happen and was fortunately insured. Usually, I came off as saving the day, providing a valuable service to get a family back in their home, rather than a mercenary chaser of fire trucks.

My best selling point, in fact, is wishing I had such a policy in place when my scaffold collapsed as everyone’s inevitably does at one time or another.

Although I continue to peruse Craig’s List for that ultimate listing that might match my intelligence (relative), skills and passion with creativity and dollars, I have already embraced this opportunity enough to sit here this morning, writing in the sunshine as the hour for my follow-up interview approaches. Taking charge of my life, I walk through the door…

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Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Sex in the Country

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Saturday, August 7, 2010

Adventurous Shadows

In our family, an “adventure” has always been my signal to announce a deviation from the normal routine, usually with no plan in mind, something I think is a lot of fun, but became a foul word during the years of my marriage. Hearing it, my kids would roll their eyes and groan, my son only recently explaining why.

“Mom would need to get out of the house,” he said, “And you would do whatever she wanted, but you’d always get into a fight and we’d be in the back seat wishing we could be anywhere but on an ‘adventure’.” Now I use the word just to tease him into a conspiratorial smile, much like I used to transform a frown into a grin when they were little by commanding them NOT to smile.

This one actually started with the plan of touring the campus of Pratt Institute as a possibility for architectural school. Since we would be in New York, it made sense to grab an opportunity to play some music as well. Booking a gig fairly easily with the hope of earning some gas money and increasing the songs’ exposure put the trip on.

Thanks to my dad and the timing of his support check, it was a rare time to travel without fear of having no money to pay the tolls. The freedom from worry allowed me to drive many of those miles scheming ways to get financially independent from my reliance on him for economic survival. The Road provides an inspired perspective, one of the main reasons I appreciate adventuring so much.

Banjo Jim’s turned out to be another small club made larger by the internet into something in my mind that might transform our humble musical careers. Full of vigor and equally allured, Dan and Ian drove down to meet us to play as three quarters of Birchwood Coupe. Despite the raunchy décor, some sweet mountain music greeted us, followed by very tasty jazz mixed with the heat of the blues. The guitar player was good enough to make Dan want to stay in his seat, but we had come this far already, we had to go on.

Some shows resonate with a juice that quenches our thirst, but this one felt as dry and dis-orienting as a desert. Half the audience left at the end of each set. The road had given us a strange blend of adrenalin and fatigue to crimp our fingers without a spare room to flex them before taking the stage.

In the small space, the shrill voice of a woman on a nervous date was an incessant interruption. The bar tender/sound man was continually outside on the phone, not able to help Dan hear his guitar. Our eyes rarely met nor energies melded until close to the end of the set when the humor of the disaster, much like the command not to, just took us over and spread my smile wide.

The enthusiasm of the other guitarist helped a lot to cushion the blow. He was a yoga teacher who had taken a class in Burlington once several hundred yards from my home and liked my songs well enough he hoped I would send him some he might be able to play. Sometimes the best results are in the shadows of our expectations.

The boys left immediately for home while Sawyer and I bumped through the potholes of Brooklyn in search of a clean-looking place to stay before his interview at Pratt in the morning. As none appeared and one AM ticked past, he figured out he really is not comfortable with the crowded intensity of this city and could not see himself in school here, so we skee-daddled to something cheap and clean in New Jersey.

In the morning, it was easy to find pancakes without real maple syrup. Throughout the miles, our banter had been quick and pointed with humor, especially around the word ‘adventure”, so I was waiting for the twisted punchline when he told me an old woman a few tables behind me had just passed away, but apparently it was the truth. We were witnesses to a peaceful transition in such a moment of normality, his first real sight of death was not in the least shocking or frightening, but inspired a wonderful conversation over the next miles.

Later, after a lifetime of accounts from all angles, and just happening to be passing by with time to spare, it seemed the perfect moment to experience the residue of energy at Yazgur’s farm still lingering after the Woodstock Festival 41 years earlier. I thought about it driving past the first exit and a strongly intuitive voice urged me to follow through with the impulse at the second one.

I envisioned a scene of the two of us on the hilltop over-looking the site that had defined an important part of my generation. A hug between us could pass the energy ever onwards. Even though I could not resist announcing this deviation as another adventure and he put on some atrocious rap music to pay me back, he was game to humor my intention.

We knew the site was actually not in the town of Woodstock, but figured it must be close enough by. We wandered around the countryside for a few random miles looking for a sign before, feeling silly, I stopped to ask. Turns out, it was an hour and a half away in a totally different direction, a diversion no longer worth the adventure. We had a good laugh that some voices might be better ignored.

Once again cruising north into Vermont on 22A, although he has acknowledged his discomfort with the large trucks barreling straight at us with the potential for a 120 MPH impact (he is good at math problems), Sawyer admitted the road laid on a luscious mat of green could be no better welcome home. He looks forward to the trip we must take one day across the country, cornfields to prairie to mountains to West Coast, father and son on an epic road of adventure, having gotten comfortable, even preferring, the lives of his two parents separated and happy.

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Wednesday, August 4, 2010


A friend was considering tiles for a bathroom floor. Since it was such a small square footage and my recovery needs exercise in many different ways, I happily volunteered.

Not a fluid and flawless artisan of tile, but a trader of jacks to get jobs done, I was good enough in my days of making hay to still have a small saw, some left-over supplies and the experience to recommend tile and grout combinations to compliment the space. I was eager to test my stamina and see if my calluses would reappear.

In these years after bankruptcy and divorce, failures and disappointments, despite growing confidence that other skills and blossoming relationships might be all the better, these months of couch-sitting have been just as fraught with depression as excitement. The cup can seem bottomless and emptying ever more rapidly, way to deep at certain times to imagine any semblance of full.

My father’s letter to his lawyer expressing his disappointment in me only seems to confirm the one of just two letters he ever wrote to me, this first as I was entering a college not quite covered in ivy and he worried if I would ever truly apply myself. His pride and approval so lacking all these years, I had no clue they were missing any more than I understood that I needed them.

Having given myself all this time to think about it since my accident, I remember my own pride, looking at the picture in the family album, of the four year old boy who white-washed the entire exterior of the living room addition before I knew anything about Tom Sawyer. Perhaps some solace can be found in that my Dad at least was pleased enough to take the picture.

There is not a single one of the little boy in tears struggling under the weight of the heavy canvas tent on the long path up to the campsite. Plenty of photos in the album show our tents and tarps—bigger and heavier every year despite my growth—all set up in complicated comfort at wonderful sites around the country and Europe.

Likewise, my mother always emphasized the beautiful harmonies of voice my four sisters managed while doing the dishes and I never questioned that I was allowed to remain at the table to learn chess from my father. My stacking the winter wood, mowing the lawn and packing the car seemed a justifiable balance.

He pushed me down the front yard hill, figuring the speed and the will to avoid trees would teach me to ride a bike. He pushed me off a mountain top to learn how to ski and I followed him along blithely for years after that until we noticed instructors skied with their uphill ski forward, not back, and it was a lot easier to make turns.

My father was not brutish and insensitive, cruel or malicious. When he got rolling, his jokes cracked like the best of them. He constructed elaborate toboggan runs with banked turns and tunnels that brought the neighborhood to play in our front yard. He jumped in the ocean waves and roared down mountain slopes with us. He built a tiny New England model village and a huge dollhouse, both heirlooms and museum worthy.

Much of his quiet demeanor and reserved affection, we now understand, was the product of the relationship with his own parents. So intent was he on my not following his footsteps, he barely took me to the office where he worked with his father and brother. His anger erupted out of nothing, apparently like his mother, and a hammer would be thrown close and violently enough to make me fear the expectation I could help him with his projects.

My mother painted our childhood rosy and idyllic, the next generation of Trapp Family singers and I grew up believing this picture was not posed, but a wonderful truth. I remember clearly the cold, blustery day in March, when we picnicked in the New Jersey turnpike rest stop parking area and Mother exclaimed about how perfect it all was while I envied strangers heading inside for burgers, but it has taken me this long to realize how close some of those thrown hammers came to hitting me.

As I clean off the excess grout on my tile project, I see my own hammer neatly placed in the bucket of tools. My natural tendency is to leave them lying scattered, the rubble unswept, the project nearly complete, but I force myself to be better organized than I learned. It is easier to find the tape measure in its place than to run to the store for a new one. I invite my son to help me, but respect his preference to learn the same skills at school, proudly support him with his own set of tools and smile with satisfaction to see he already knows so much.

My grout lines are not perfectly straight, the intersections not totally smooth to the bare foot. The project took me longer than it should have, and I regularly winced along the way. Still, I think my friend will be pleased. I know I am. It’s great to be reminded that there are some things about construction I can do well.

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Sunday, August 1, 2010

Of Sons & Fathers

My son and I made a fast trip to Philadelphia last week (he was already there with his mother) to visit my father and look at schools. As the Redster cruised the Vermont countryside, my appreciation for this beautiful state soared. It is always important for us to look at where we are, making sure it is still where we want to be. For me, Vermont has always felt blissfully comfortable, golden in sunlight and still warm under a blanket of winter snow, always interesting in its texture of light and shadows.

With my father, of course, lies the undercurrent that I am reliant on his support, shamefully (my word) unable at this point in my life to take financial care of myself, much less what is left of my family. Even as I examine the influence of his energy on my upbringing, I arrive needing cash for the gas to drive him on a simple errand to the store.

At the end of his life and lonely for company, he is contemplative, philosophical and judgmental, evaluating his own achievements and legacy. It has not helped that in cleaning up his computer, I stumbled upon a letter to his lawyer and accountant expressing his disappointment in me, his only son.

At the same time, for the first time, he is loving, affectionate, helpless himself in many ways. We shared coffee in the kitchen, sitting with our catheters as he shared the same updates as the morning before and the visit before that, his stories new and old as routine and predictable now as his days. While he professes to look forward to the Big Sleep (his words) looming for him ever presently ahead, he is clearly scared. Even as he scoffs at our beliefs, he listens to the ideas my sister and I share about past and future lives and the spirits surrounding us.

My son is drawn towards architecture as a way of perception like his grandfather and the father before him. Where the heritage intimidated me (still I have designed many homes), my son considers no other schools than those offering a degree in creating order within our environment, perhaps a result less from the tradition in our blood than from the emotional chaos his parents provided in his own childhood. I stand between the two, admiring their sense of structure as I abandon mine to embrace intuition.

Both politely remind me in different ways, but equal in authority, that I need to get a job. Agreeing with them, I argue for the surgery that will put me back on the couch for several months at the same time answering countless opportunities on Craig’s List with resumes.

In the meantime, my spirit thrives on the adventure of long drives down the road. The solid sense of going towards something makes the view out the window and the food along the way look and taste all the better. There is purpose even as we drift along or wander around.

After a tour of Philadelphia University, and with bellies treated to the famous steak sandwiches, I could not help deviating up the East River Drive to show him the sculling boats and the gorgeous row of club houses, supporting his interest in rowing. We were feeling good and enjoyed a few quips and chuckles at the expense of tourists posing for pictures at the statue of Rocky in front of the Art Museum.

No sooner had we crossed the river into a scary section of the City, than the Redster’s ailing muffler blew apart and dragged us roaringly to a halt. We fell to the sidewalk and contrived a way to loop a guitar cord around the pipe and closed into the doors on either side so we could continue to a safer neighborhood. Forced to stop every few miles to resecure the cord, we limped cheerfully home.

I joked about the stories he would be able to tell his own children about their wayward and eccentric grandfather with the huge heart but no real grasp on a stable reality, continually caught in the storms of the black cloud that followed over him. My son good-naturedly manages my challenges, embracing the balance between his two households which are respectively one too rigid and the other too loose.

Another balance was taking him camping one night, a favorite way of travel in my family growing up, but something I had never done with him before. His cousin steered us towards a mountaintop with a fire tower where we could just park and pitch a tent. Despite the full moon and his worldly age (nearly 17), it was delightful to mentor some expertise of negotiating the darkness, the lack of comfort, and the plethora of unfamiliar natural sounds that made a normally confident young man shy being more than five feet away from me.

After financing the muffler repair, giving me cash to finish our trip and a check to cover the next month, my father joked as we were leaving that he hoped I would not be visiting again any time soon as it costs him so much to have me around. Using something forgotten as an excuse, I had to go back inside to hug him again to ensure that—being so ready to die—those would not be his final words to me. There are some things a sense of humor cannot over come.

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