Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Gift of Appreciation

It was almost surreal. The weather back in Minnesota was growing colder by the hour. Snow flurries had followed me out to the airport. Now later that same day I was working up a sweat on my inaugural mountain hike of the season.  There was beauty all around me yet I wasn’t feeling the love. Things should have been really great back in Palm Springs but I wasn’t able to appreciate my good fortune being in the desert instead of under three feet of snow back home. So I continued trudging upwards toward my tabernacle.

Silence came gradually over me after my heavy breathing had subsided. I found my saddle of granite and settled in. My mind began to wander back over the last six months in Minnesota. The stress of dealing with Sharon’s mom. The satisfaction of long bike rides, trail runs, a complete rewrite of ‘Debris’ and other assorted writing projects. Coffee on the porch. Time well spent with the grandchildren, friends and family.

One of the beauties of traveling inside one’s head is that you never know where you’ll end up or what you’ll discover along the way. Gradually the feeling of melancholy subsided and I was able to fully embrace the bliss of my surroundings. Throughout the rest of the season I made it a point to always take some time to appreciate my surroundings. Truth be told, I had to go inside myself to find the peace outside.

When they were young I used to take my kids hiking in the woods. At a certain point in our trek I’d make them stand still and listen to the sounds that whirred all around us. “Listen to the stillness,” I encourage them, “because in that silence will be a world of sounds.  Of course, it didn’t stick at first. They got fidgety and distracted. But gradually they began to hear the birds, the wind rustling through the leaves, far-off sounds of traffic and of course, the all-encompassing sounds of silence.

I feel sorry for those folks who aren’t able to appreciate their surroundings in life.

Recently a friend of mine talked about his son who was feeling depressed. His son was 40 years old and hadn’t yet acquired a home of his own or met career goals that he had set up for himself. My friend reminded his son that his own children still had a devoted dad and attentive father. While it was true his son hadn’t accomplished what some of his college friends had and he wasn’t where he thought he would be at age 40, he could still be appreciative of his strong marriage, wonderful wife, good health and three devoted sons.

Another friend of mine goes on a yearly retreat at a Jesuit Center in the Twin Cities. It is a week of silence and contemplation and reflection. He loves it and has been doing it for 35 years. Quite a testament to the power of silence.

Then there are others I know who can’t appreciate their present day because they’re always focused on the future. It’s a little like the sign in a tavern: “Free Beer Tomorrow.”

Or others whose only disposition is to see dark clouds overhead instead of a life well lived and family members who support them.

To this day I can’t explain what happened that afternoon or why it took me so long to appreciate my surroundings. One good thing came out of it. I was determined not to let that happen to me once I returned to Minnesota in the spring.

So each morning I have my ritual on the porch. I stretch, arrange my coffee and iPad and notebook and then…nothing. I sit in my chair and listen to the sounds of the day awakening all around me. It might be birds at breakfast or singing in the trees or sailing overhead. It might be the wind pushing gently through my screens. It might be traffic several blocks away as commuters rush up Cedar Avenue to their destiny with their concrete cubicles.

There is also great comfort in trail running and sometimes getting lost in the woods and in my head. Eventually I find a way out and then back-track back to my car.

3 miles into a 4.3 loop, 30 degree incline, 85 degrees, high humidity,  water dripping off leaves and my nose, oh, yeah, pure bliss

To quote from a book on Buddhism: ‘So much of our lives takes place in our heads.’  Running through the woods, oblivious to everything around me, frees my mind to wander just as my rubbery legs are carrying me over hill and dale. Going nowhere in particular frees my mind to see the world, one’s surroundings and life in a new light.

Appreciation is a gift we’ve been given if we’re smart enough to recognize it and grasp it. It doesn’t cost us anything. All it takes is a little time to reflect on our good fortune no matter how challenging our lives might be or have been.

As the ancient philosophers Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius remind us, it’s not our experiences that form who we are but instead the ways in which we respond to them. In other words it’s the perspective we choose – not the incidents or life experiences themselves – that ultimately defines who we are. By stripping away the accoutrements of wealth and accumulation and success we can discover the pure beauty of life all around us.

Melanie has begun to have every family at the dinner table express one item of appreciation they experienced that day. It’s a wonderful yet subtle way to remind her kids that there is always something to be grateful for. Face it, kids tend to follow what we do, even more so than what we say. Daily reminders of appreciation become great fodder for their young, resilient minds.

The secret here is to find beauty and wonder even on an average day or as part of our routine lives. I could start to list my good fortune and it would be a long list. That despite the fact that there have been numerous losses, failures, stumbles and falls along the way. There were things that I accomplished along with many others that I didn’t. It’s a reflection on times past and opportunities lost. An appreciation for reconnecting with old friends while accepting the loss of other friendships that have faded away.

It’s the appreciation of what others have done for you. The ability to step out of your own little world and see it from another’s perspective. Understanding that being nice doesn’t hurt and being kind isn’t weakness. And saying ‘thank you’ isn’t an apology but rather acknowledgement of nice things others have done for you. Most importantly it’s realizing that while it is one thing to acknowledge ones blessing, it is sometimes entirely different to embrace it and appreciate it for what it is worth.

It’s an appreciation for my surroundings; both the beauty of the desert and the green of Minnesota. It’s passing on the gift of appreciation to my kids and grandkids. An appreciation for my life as it is…

and belief that it can only get better.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

My Bootleg Years

Living in Amsterdam. 1970

Bootleg: an illegal copy of a video, CD, etc., or an illegal recording of a live performance.

Perhaps that’s what I’m trying to do. Understand those past experiences that defined my life…up until this point. It would seem I’ve entered my bootleg years.

In my lost years, I examined and reflected upon that period between high school graduation on May 3rd, 1961 and my marriage on May 31st, 1971. But further reflection of those ten years has left me with a parcel of unanswered questions. It’s much like discovering Ancestry.com and hidden family tracks buried beneath the sands of time. There seem to be a multitude of clues waiting to be unearthed and examined.

Living in Denmark.  1967

Visiting Apple Records.  London 1970

But as interesting as rehashing the past might be, a larger question remains. What do
those past experiences have to do with my present life? What do the tumultuous changes and excitement of the 60’s have to do with my present state of mind? And more importantly, why does it seem to matter so much to me now?

I’ve come to realize and appreciate that those were my bootleg years. Unbeknownst to me I was absorbing, collecting, inhaling and assimilating many of the thoughts and icons, values and virtues, assumptions and goals, ideas and ideals of that period. It became my cloak of many colors that I ended up wearing throughout my life.

But why reflect back on that period now?

My Cretin Classmates.  2011

For one thing, people are dying all around me. Classmates have left our classroom of life. Neighbors have gotten old and frail then disappeared into that large brick building downtown. Others in the prime of their life have suddenly gotten the big C.

But more than the threat of the grim reaper haunting my doorstep is the stark fact that I can’t redo what’s been done…even if I wanted to. I can’t start over again…in most things. I’ve passed through multiple stages in my life.

So how did those ten years mold me into the person I am today? And as importantly, can I allow my head to wander the clouds and still keep my feet firmly planted on the ground as I begun this collective retrospective of my time on earth? Can I do this introspection of mine without bias, apologies or regrets?

Exploring one’s past is like scratching poetry on the beach before the waves of time obliterate those thoughts and ideas. I want to peel back the truth as I know it because it is organic and free of vice. It is pure.

I also refuse to play the mind game: ‘But if not for’…

Our Family 2015

This is it then. It’s all here in this cornucopia of lives and people, places and things that I have lived and experienced, loved and lost, found and lost again, gained and lost again, failed and succeeded.

Now almost organically I am harvesting that lifetime of memories. A plethora of experiences and past moments that offer a brief glimpse into a life lost in the fog of time and a fading memory.

It’s a glimpse at my own legacy and others who have passed before me.

It’s future dates I won’t see.

And who will read my eulogy.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

The King and Queen of Lilly Pond

My graduation party consisted of aunts and uncles sitting around the basement, drinking too much, smoking incessantly and playing cards. There were no class differences here. These were hard-working lower class folks who in many instances had endured a hard-scrabble life, made plenty of mistakes and still hadn’t grasped the importance of education. It was what it was. Welcome to 1961.

I went to two graduations several weeks ago. How times have changed.

The first was on grandpa’s farm. It consisted of pulled pork, craft beers, little smoking and less card playing. At first the graduate was going to take a gap year before she decided what to do with the rest of her life. Then there was talk of a tech school. We all smiled and wished her well. What else is there to say?

The second graduation the next day was in a banquet facility not that far away. It had craft beers, good food and no card-playing. The graduate was going off to college and then moving to Montana. We all congratulated her on her accomplishments and wished her well in college.

The biggest difference in these graduations was not only the time-element; approximately fifty-four years since mine but the socioeconomic income disparities among the invited guests. Not entirely surprising when you factor in the tremendous economic growth many folks have benefited from over the last fifty years.

That’s normally not an issue. We all smile at one another. We all know who has the money and who doesn’t. We all know who is generous with their income and who is saving every last dime. There is no need for pretense. Yet what always amazes and amuses me is the presence of the King and Queen of Lilly Pond at many of these events.

Palm Springs has a boatload of them. They all sit around Starbucks in Indian Wells (average income 1.2 million dollars). They’re dressed in their crisp white tennis attire or golf duds. Their Ferraris and Bentleys are parked in front. BMWs, Mercedes, and Lexus are relegated to the back parking lot. They glad-hand one another and are all smiles. The lessor among us just focus on our iPads and ignore their empty banter.

The local rag sheet is rife with tales of their philanthropic endeavors which are actually quite generous. Traced back to their home of origin these couples and widows come from generations of moneyed stock. The Coachella Valley is their playground and they play it well.

I’ve been at a few events where the aire was rarified and the tone elevated. It’s a wonderful mind-expanding opportunity to observe the rich and famous…at arm’s length.

Usually it’s the woman who makes the grand gestures with her bright white smile.
Her second just peruses the crowd for anyone worthy of his time and vocal cords. But it doesn’t take long to know their place in the socioeconomic strata of the people involved. They have arrived and no amount of pleasantries can hide their own self-induced sense of superiority.

Their demeanor is not necessarily nefarious nor meant to project an aire of superiority. But their true intent is always wallowing just below the surface of their bronze skin and a fa├žade of interest in what the other person is saying.

Back home at those graduations, family obligations brought the king and queen out. But their judgment of the rest of us was seldom hidden. The reasons are obvious.

We haven’t learned the social etiquette of the pinkie-up tea drinker. Our bookshelves don’t reflect the latest New York Times best sellers. Our investments, if any, aren’t as exotic and worldwide. And celebrities don't attend our graduation parties.

Most of us are just hard working folks, some luckier than others. But we’re comfortable in our own skin and don’t mind mixing with the masses. We know where we came from and what it took to get there.

That doesn’t make us better than those who haven’t; just more fortunate. I’ve walked in their boots. I don’t want to do it again but I haven’t forgotten those miles traveled either.

Kings and Queens have short memories but still feel a sense of superiority that belies their real accomplishments. Yet beyond their found money there is really little difference between their mukluks and mine.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

The Law of Unintended Consequences

Me as a Cretin Cheerleader circa 1961

I’ve never been an outspoken person.  Nor do I think of myself as one who shoots off his big mouth without first engaging his brain…well, maybe as a cheerleader at Cretin High School.  Yet there have been several instances when my words have come back to haunt me.  Verbal stumbles that somehow distracted offended or otherwise put some people off.

Hence the weekly challenge of blog writing while finding solid footing between truth and candor verses that murky field of quicksand linguistics.

My most recent stumble came after sharing my first novel ‘Love in the A Shau’ with a dear friend of mine.  It seems that her husband took offense with my writing.  I’m not sure if it was the profanity (timely and realistic for that period and setting; a college campus and Vietnam) or the few sex scenes (mild by today’s standards).  Never the less he was offended and didn’t want my friend to see me again.  Somehow my first novel had over-shadowed our friendship of over thirty years.  We still have lunch occasionally but are careful never mention her husband or my book.

Then there was a couple that took offense to what they perceived of as a series is missteps on my part.  Upon reflection I’ve come to the conclusion that they misunderstood my comments about some of our mutual acquaintances.  In the end, a lack of communication and feedback eroded our friendship even before it had a chance to solidify.

I once made ‘friends’ on Facebook with an old work associate from back in the eighties.  I wrote him a letter reminiscing about the ‘crazy boss’ we both worked for.  Surprisingly, it turned out his recollection of that mad man wasn’t the same as mine.  This old acquaintance took offense at my comments about Dr.  Jekyll and thus ended that ‘friend’ on Facebook before it ever got started.  I never heard from him again.  It never changed my opinion about our old boss but I was sorry I might have offended that fellow in the process.

Then there was an old friend from many lives ago.  The communication between us wasn’t the clearest or most concise but it was reconnecting never-the-less.  From scratches on her emails I could sense that she was probably religious.  That fact never flavored our conversations until one of my blogs entitled ‘rug munching’ was posted.

After that blog appeared on Facebook all communication ended and I couldn’t help but wonder if my declaration of love being love and not just reserved to one man and one woman might have offended her religious sensibilities.  I never found out.  She disappeared into that vast black hole called cyberspace.

In each and every instance of misunderstanding or offense taken I’ve come to ponder my own actions and wherein the fault might lie.  On a certain level I was certainly aware that my comments might have an effect on my recipients – positive or negative.  But as I told a friend once ‘they (my comments) were open and honest.’ My words certainly weren’t meant to hurt or offend.

Call it the law of invisible consequences.  That any and all actions or comments on our part can have an impact on others.  That being said I don’t think going mute is the answer.  My blogs, postings and reflections have all been from the heart.  They were never meant to challenge, question, criticize or compromise another person’s point of view. 

But across the board what I find interesting is the inability or unwillingness to address those issues the aforementioned folks have with me and my writings or comments.  Perhaps they’re feeling a bit of ‘Minnesota Nice’ although none of these folks in question reside in Minnesota.

There is a parcel of blogs that I’m working on now.  I’ve reviewed each and every one to see if any of them might offend someone somehow someplace.  Beats me. 

So do I dare be honest and make comments true to my heart or censor my writing because someone might find it offensive?  Do I try to be PC or just ‘tell it as I see it?’

In the end I really don’t have any choice.  I’ve got to stand in my truth.  I’ve created this bed of words and ideas and opinions and judgement calls.  So I’ll going to continue to expose myself in cyberspace and hope I’m not misunderstood.  Or face the reaction if I am. 

It’s still telling it like it is…at least from my point of view - which is the only one I have.