Monday, February 28, 2011

They Come With Instructions

One of my monkeys fell apart on the chairlift over the weekend.

Perhaps it was the challenge of taking a second run on the bigger chair, exploring new trails as a group that she had only done previously with her family. It might have been because she had had two negative experiences on a similar double chair the weekend before. Possibly, she was just plain tired already and not up for another run before lunch.

My job is to figure it out, or at the very least, to help her feel better.

Letting her cry on without trying too hard to filter or control her tears, she finally reached a place of deeper truth.

“My dad is going away,” she wept in a voice so shrill it sounded almost as a single tear dripping down a blackboard, “He has to work so hard so we aren’t poor, and the last time he went away he came back with a diamond on a necklace for me from a store named Tifferies or something.”

My first instinct was to poo-poo this fear as completely unjust compared to plights of most of the rest of us in this world, but remaining quiet and sympathetic to her pain, it was a good lesson to me that no matter the degree, fear is fear and equally terrifying to us all.

The real loss for her was time with her Daddy, at six years old inconsolable by the argument that more time will come later. At fifty-six, one has learned the preciousness of such time even more, understanding the reality and finality of death and wanting to reach out to his parent or child as well.

With this job come so many opportunities to teach more than skiing. In the lodge, of course, there are lessons of manners, sharing and cleaning up. We monitor our bodies to save an extra trip off the slopes. With helmets off and no fighting the wind, we tell stories of teachers at school and summer homes at the Cape. In Sawyer and I, they see a father and son who love each other and make work like play together (although it took them awhile to believe the relationship since he is taller than me).

On the mountainside, in addition to the emphasis on safety and skills, life is evident for them to see. Despite their insatiable need to keep moving, pushing off impatiently just as I catch up, I try to get them to stop a few times each morning to look around at the cold and peaceful vista spread out below them, to look up at the sky of brilliant blue or fast-rushing clouds of fury whipped by the winter winds. As snow falls, there is a quiet so soft, we should all pause to notice.

This weekend, there was enough snow for them to ski deeper into the woods. Rather than turn between, in and around the trees, I wanted them to focus on the empty spaces of soft white racing towards them, a shift of Escherian proportions where the openings become all and blockages disappear. The metaphor settled on them as silently as the puffs of deep powder pushed out of their tracks.

On the lift one day, one wondered what it might feel like to die, her eyes not frightened, but bright with curiosity. I told her of my friend’s grandfather, Charles Lindbergh, a great adventurer whose last words were about the awe of heading towards a new adventure, then shared my own experience of the sense of peace I felt in my fall from the scaffold, clearly figuring out I had already died before hitting the asphalt brought me rudely back to consciousness.

Mostly, I love the lessons they are teaching me. Anger at the injustice of disproportionate sharing of French fries can be dissolved in an instant with marshmallows. Tears of pain can be transformed just as quickly into laughter by a tickling poke in the ribs and a few taps on the helmet. The sky is always blue, no matter how grey, and hugs are worth far more than dollar bills, even if they do buy chocolate bars.

Although diamonds might be a girl’s best friend, nothing compares to a daddy’s love and the idea of his absence is a very scary thing indeed.

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Friday, February 11, 2011

Knocks on the Head

This insurance would not at all be an option for me if I had to be pushy, pernicious or obnoxious. It takes a tough skin to withstand the initial distrust when explaining the purpose of my call, but even believing I offer something worthwhile, I will not over-stay my welcome.

It surprises me then when enthusiasm at the first meeting has generated a nearly completed application and invites a follow-up appointment, there are so many times a new friend will not even answer the phone to say they have reconsidered. My last vision of them might be all smiles and assurances, but some are not only unwilling to actually say “no”, but simply hang up as soon as they recognize my voice.

Caller ID saves me from more of those abrupt and painful endings, but actually turns out to be worse in a way because I so much want to believe they are just pre-occupied or not at home, not staring at the number and waiting for me to give up. When I knock on the door a week later, just to be absolutely sure, sometimes that is true and we have completed the contract. Sometimes, even with cars in the driveway, they would not even come to the door (always the optimist, I hope it was because I had surprised them in bed, interrupting a rare moment with no kids around, and consider going back to try again one last time).

As the tools for communication grow ever more sophisticated and simple, more at our fingertips (literally) in every moment (also literally), it surprises me that we seem less able to look each other in the eye and speak what truly is in our hearts. The fewer children our government leaves behind, the less we actually know how to read and articulate. As more information is received on 145 character tweets and U-tube videos download to our Ipods, common sense is slipping away, opening fewer doors and overwhelmed trying to change a tire.

I met a family last week who missed an appointment and agreed to reschedule. They welcomed me into their home and listened intently to my plan providing protection to their four children. Later, the husband said they were waiting for a paycheck to have me back, but invited me to call last night and keep trying because they could easily be distracted by the kids.

I did exactly as I understood I should do (the notes from each contact lie in front of me), but the mother called early this morning angry, demanding to get taken off my list. Irately, she claimed I was badgering and inappropriately insensitive (rewritten politely) and hung up before I could explain or even be sure who exactly I should remove.

Determined to be a para-legal (why not a lawyer?) and make her family more prosperous than the one in which she was raised, I applaud her ability and willingness to stand up and speak out clearly for herself and her family. My confusion aside that I had so misunderstood the signals, I am grateful to be misled and optimistic (in that case only) no longer.

Although there was no room for apology or negotiation, I am relieved to know where I stand and can move forward with few wounds to lick. Even as I notice my tendency to think it must truly be all my fault, that I really could be so obnoxious, possibly pernicious, certainly pushy, I am free to focus on that issue of my own insecurity directly and waste no more time knocking on a door that is unlikely to open farther.

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Thursday, February 10, 2011

Men in caves

Last night, I witnessed the tears of a man who had his own struggles, completely outside of myself and separate from those that have been consuming me. Because insurance sales are best done in the home in the evenings, I have not been able to attend my I Group since before my mother died in September. I had much to work on, but so did he.

The group is a weekly continuation of the emotional work wrenched opened and released during the weekend of the Mankind Project’s New Warrior training. Using the tools and vocabulary acquired in those days of initiation, the process of peeling layers is safe when held within the containers of these brothers and one is supported to go deep in ways that cannot be reached with a lover.

Ritualistic and sacred, both God-respectful and pagan in its ceremonies, one holds oneself accountable to himself and his fellow men, at these meetings, looking at the integrity with which he is honoring his mission, his root purpose for living this life. If moved, a man can risk his heart, stepping out of his comfort zone to explore the mystery of his feelings. Embracing the hunter inherent, the knife is turned upon himself so that he may bleed and be purged.

Immediately, I recognized how lax has been my practice in these several months to check in with myself. I have been a man of actuarial charts, commission rates and potential bonuses, not at all the spiritual seeker and inspirational warrior I like to believe. Counting the miles and calculating the ratio between members visited and policies sold, I have been distracted by the urgency of need and neglected the nurturance of my soul. More concerned with pocket than heart, the results have been decidedly unexciting and unprofitable.

Along the way this week, I considered all the effort balanced against so little in the account, compared the fulfillment to the flow of energy and considered I might as well be writing and sending words off to market, rather than spending so much time on the road hunting for elusive commissions. I must walk the talk.

In March, my daughter will play Rosalind in “As You Like It”, my favorite character in my favorite Shakespeare play, a strong woman of purpose. Moaning with shame that I cannot really afford the airfare to be in the audience, I realized suddenly I have the tools and talent to pay my way. If travel writing should truly be one of the genres I wish to pursue, a trip to Florida provides the perfect opportunity to whip out the pen. If I jump on it properly, I could even secure a solo gig for one evening, mixing music and words creatively to take me where I want to go.

So used to operating in this world on one level, it is difficult to rise up and see things from a different perspective. Even as we religiously attend our groups to peel off the layers, the skin grows back at such a doggedly determined rate, we have no idea there is a fresh coat of cells just regenerated to protect our accustomed beliefs and we stumble as usual.

That definition of insanity reasserts itself in moments like this where banging the head on a brick wall, expecting different results, only produces a bruised and swollen brain. The I-group holds a mirror to my face and helps me to see the lack of progress as a motivation for change rather than an excuse to collapse in discouragement.

Men listen and ask “why”, prodding their fingers into the wound instead of gently trying to soothe the pain. Ultimate love and deep caring are evident in the circle, selfish motives are whole-heartedly absent as they stand to support the man in the light who faces his shadow. They play roles and spot danger, surrounding the man’s concentration with a large container of focused energy so that he can do his work.

When it is over, we settle back into our normal lives and various relationships, renewed and recharged to face the challenges and embrace the rewards. Proud of our strength, humbled by our place in humanity, determined, mindful and accountable to a standard of our own integrity, we go forth to face our fears, forgiving ourselves with a knowing chuckle when our forehead bounces off those bricks again.

In the morning, I find new sources to submit queries regarding my trip. Reading over drafts of other stories, minor revisions improve the flow of several sentences and those can be sent out as well. Each member I see in my travels has real interest in the policies I offer and make follow-up appointments. On the long drive to one who was not even home after all, words to a new song tumbled around so clearly, I could pick out the chords in the comforting warmth of my home at the end of the day, not feeling like the ride was wasted.

Progress comes in small steps, no matter how much we seem to be standing still.

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Monday, February 7, 2011

Apocalypse Soon

On the way to the Mountain early this morning, the red sun heralded a storm approaching (“…sailors take warning!”), but the glow was magnificent and the cold, crisp air created a sparkling luster. Out of the beautiful silence came a simple question from my son that started a chilling thought process.

“So what’s going on in Egypt?”

The evening before we had been looking at Utube videos of a UFO sighted over Jerusalem. A brilliant and pulsating light had dropped low, then with an explosion, rocketed upwards and danced with others in a pattern before disappearing. Just the day before, he had been remembering, he confided, our conversation last month about an article I had read which promised that the coming months would bring many sightings over cities as aliens made us comfortable with the reality of their existence.

Taking his lead about Egypt, I mused on the predictions of apocalypse and transcendence that are intensifying, focused on the fast approaching date of December 21, 2012. Suspending our comfortable and well-supported belief that life as we know it will go on pretty much as usual day after day without significant upheaval, one can link together so many of the world’s recent and current events and surmise that these visions of drastic change could, in fact, be coming true.

Egypt is following Tunisia, sprouting further protests in Jordan, and has planted seeds of disquiet in who knows what other land. The internet connects people around the world and especially in countries where repression is strong. Doors are harder to keep closed now and a mass of individuals flood out onto the streets, first online, then in reality, and governments fall.

The vision of hippies (“Power to the People!”) in the Sixties and communists in the twenties of a world population united as one comes closer into being through a complicated little box of circuitry and an unlimited number of simple zeros and ones. The world as we knew it has, in fact, changed quite radically.

Communication between lovers and neighbors is inevitable and unstoppable. It is our natural tendency as humans to come together, to connect. Fear is what makes enemies of each other. Not having enough, or at least as much as the next guy, or losing what we do have, makes us hold on tighter, build walls around us, and strike out against others.

My sister Lane makes the point that my effort to sell insurance might not be reaping the promised rewards because, both personally and as an industry, it is fear-based and non-productive. Worry about the future--even if you might be solving the problem--will not bring any more security in the moment.

On my way to the mountain, I hold that theory to the factual fire that so much of the money floating over the snow at the ski area is made by investment bankers trading on the hopes and fears of a volatile market. Why are they doing so well? And why do I stand outside of that, peering in and wanting just a little share of their comfort and happiness?

In 2008, I rode the chairlift with some of those who expressed sickness and discomfort, fear, because their friends had tumbled from six figure incomes to five and sold their second homes. I knew many others (including myself) who had lost their only home and had no job at all. It was hard to be sympathetic and yet I could feel their suffering because at the very core, suffering is no less intense for the reason.

The world as we knew it was shaken by the exposed fragility we realized so painfully was in the system. We elected a new President, concentrated on the determination to save the giants too big to fail and bought into the promises of so many changes ahead.

Three years later, however, the word “sub-prime” carries little resonance and the upheaval in Egypt is a distant story supplanted by the Super Bowl. We go about our business in the same cars, focused on our bank accounts, building towards the next vacation and the day we can retire. The fear that once gripped us has settled back into the dust created by a life of relative ease.

“So what if…,” I asked my son, “That time, like the era before Noah was advised to build an arc, was a warning to us all to change our ways? What if, having largely disregarded the fundamental calls for change, the computers will crash and all that paper wealth is washed away like so much rain upon this snow?”

We drove in more silence as the red sun rose over the peaceful valley so white, wisps of smoke rising out of chimneys in cold, crisp curls.

We are all one, I hope, just neighbors helping neighbors, pulling each other out of ditches and trying to stay warm and fed. We have learned enough, hopefully, to know that others live in deserts and dress differently to keep their own selves cool. Many who have not cut their fingers on practical tasks would not survive, choosing at some level to come back at a better time.

There is, however, an ever-growing number of people ready to embrace the change, who are learning to adapt and thrive. Love and gratitude, music and passion seem to be the uniting components. Fear, so divisive and destructive, falls away, soothed by the infinite healing power of Faith.

It seems no coincidence that in the evening, in a place so mundane as a grocery store, I should come upon two friends reaching the very same conclusions at the end of a conversation that started with a question about Egypt.

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Thursday, February 3, 2011

Skattered Brain

My son just left to enjoy a rare day of deep fresh powder on the slopes. He is giddy with excitement. The last time there was a day of promise like this was two years ago when we were newly back to skiing, newly into our life as a family of two, and I took him out of school to create an amazing memory for us of a father and son, life as it should be, could be.

Last week reminded me of the worst days of my years as a building contractor. The bank account was negative, going deeper with charges, while several more checks were poised to clear. In desperate heart beats, I made phone calls, other calls and calls back again. Revisiting that agonizing fear to make payroll, I shuffled appointments, scrambled to meet the FedEx delivery, and raced to the bank on fumes to make the deposit by five.

Even without a frightened wife as a moral marker, I felt less a man in those awful hours than a starving animal with hunters closing in, wishing to go back in time and no where near that beckoning house of hens. No sooner, however, was that account replenished and my card worked to put gas in the tank and go home, then my heart lightened, the sun blazed into glorious colors and I rejoined the world of the thriving. My sense of self, one foot solid on the ground, was restored.

With no penny to spare, the lack, like a ball and chain, makes every step twice as hard and three times as exhausting. It costs money to have little money and the sense of abundance that New Age pundits claim is so readily available is totally elusive when you have to count so often and worry so much.

A friend said recently that money is just energy, intending to be reassuring that it flows like water inevitably and unstoppably. In that context, on that day, I had none of either and had to exert plenty to get a little in the bank.

My life, I think, has been led in the converse belief that energy can be money. The harder I work, the better I should be. When intention is pure, the heart is open, the plan is clear, all falls into line and the Universe delivers a life of abundance and satisfaction. Believing that so strongly, I have to look closely at my intentions, heart and execution in difficult times like this and recognize that something may not be lined up as purely as I would like to believe.

In the construction business, I did not end up with a plush house and fancy car while my friends and co-workers were stiffed. I did pay the mortgage, put food on the table and took my wife out occasionally for an elegant dinner while delaying checks to my subs and eventually giving said house (my share) to the IRS. The mistakes are easily identifiable that no matter how modest and loving my intentions, business was done in the wrong order and the deck of cards ultimately collapsed.

Lessons are learned and we pick ourselves up to continue on. Now I drive an old but paid-off car and humbly come home to a basement apartment. I take a friend to dinner only when I know my other bills have been paid. The chicken or the egg, I suffer a tube in my belly perhaps as pennance to my Root Chakra for all the pain I have caused my family, friends and sub-contractors.

I honor my passions of writing and music, fulfilling my heart and making a little spending dough. To earn more, I relentlessly drive the miles to sell insurance. Still I am reliant on my father for a check each month to bring all the ends together to fit the means.

Some, concerned about my welfare and wanting the best for me, wonder if the financial dependence on my father is as much a problem of enabling childlike behavior as it is helpful to keep me (and my own son) off the streets. My father himself, so frustrated and disappointed, keeps track of every penny against my eventual inheritance, worried there will be no share left for me when he is finally gone.

The fear is that with the support of my father firmly under me, I do not have to look so hard for more reliable work. I do not feel the desperate urge to find warmth from the cold. On any given day, it can be easy to stay at home, clicking away time on the internet or writing another essay when just a simple phone call can deliver enough to pay the bills for a week. I have the freedom to make the choice to go skiing deep powder with my son.

In actuality, the truth is not so easy to discern and I flounder in the dilemma that time is running out. I feel like there is still so much ground to cover just to catch up. Having squandered all of my resources and good-will to successfully work in construction any more and looking at more serious recovery time from my injury, without my father’s help to make a great leap of change, I would be homeless. I am so fortunate that he is there, able and willing.

At the Mountain, I see what might be a distorted but very strong representation of an enviable standard of living. Men fifteen years younger than I (mostly brokers) support wives with huge diamonds and three children. They are personable, comfortable, and quite happy with slope-side condominiums for second homes and mid-winter breaks in the Bahamas.

Every day on my insurance rounds, I see a much different reality of single parents or couples with children just getting by on a slim and tenuous wage. To their credit, many seem no less happy in spite of their struggle. Their children are as bright-eyed and eager to share as my Monkeys.

In between is most of the population working hard, making sound decisions, counting blessings, paying the mortgage on time and tending the garden once spring breaks loose. Life provides the rewards of a promotion, graduation, a grandchild, occasional adventures and exceptional celebrations along the way. Overall, every Monday is the start of another week towards retirement and happiness is found in each soccer game on a crisp Saturday morning or a movie curled up together on the couch.

I just want to belong to something as real as that, to awake in the morning grateful and proud of myself, and be able, when the powder is so unusually deep, to go with my son on that occasional adventure. Today, however, I will work.

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