Monday, May 30, 2011

A Memorial Day message

"When our perils are past, shall our gratitude sleep?" -George Canning

Memorial Day. It's one of those days where people are moved to express gratitude, but in the wash of emotions words seem to fall flat on the enormity of deep emotions that the men and women of our military evoke. Pride, appreciation, admiration are all a small part of what we feel when we think of the service that has been rendered since the infancy of this country.

There are few places on earth where men and women will fight to the death to defend my right to burn the flag they fought to defend if I choose to. To allow me to give voice to criticism to the government that they answer to. To allow me vote as I wish for whomever I wish. To be a wacko right-wing liberal if I choose or a conservative, left wing nut. No, they are guided by the oath they took to protect the country and the constitution of the United States. That's it. Regardless of my race, religious beliefs or political affiliation.

These amazing people have spilled their blood so that I don't have to spill mine. They have stood on sand, snow, swamps and places too horrible to imagine. They have faced enemy fire in jungles, villages and lands far from home. They have held their fellow service men and women when they have died thousands of miles away from friends and family.

When I am in line at the airport and see one of these fine people boarding a plane, dressed in their camouflage fatigues, giving a long last hug to their family, I literally ache. The sacrifice being made isn't just on the battlefield, it's in the homes, families and hearts of those who serve us. You and me. The people who can "go about our business" unaware that somewhere far from their home is a man or a woman who is standing ready to put their life on the line for us. They don't know us, but they do know that it is their job to defend us only because of the provenance of our birth on United States soil.

"This nation will remain the land of the free only so long as it is the home of the brave." -Elmer Davis

How can you sum up the magnitude of the personal sacrifice that each of these men and women have made on all of our behalf? How can you tell someone who has faced the dirty, sweaty, bitter reality of battle how much what they have done means to you? How can you really say how much you appreciate their willingness to face sniper fire or an improvised explosive device? There literally aren't enough words in the English language to allow me to eloquently express the gratitude that swells in my heart for each of them.

To say it as best I can: To men the men and women of the United States Armed Forces past, present and future, a husband and father, thanks you for your willingness to assure that my  grandchildren will enjoy the same freedoms that I have had. God bless you each and everyone.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Going gentle


Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.
 -Excerpt from "Do not go gentle into that good night," by Dylan Thomas


My reflection stares back at me while I'm looking into the darkness. A streak of blue light passes by. Then another. And another. Speed increases and our plane lifts from the runway. A grid of blue marker lights reveals itself-shrinking against our growing altitude. Below cars and roads become smaller. Expanding blackness rushes in, engulfing the ground in the velvet of night.

There's a moment in nighttime flights where street lights become soft edged pools of light. The edges of sidewalks are hit with this light, making them look like stitches of thread in fabric. Neighborhoods become electric patches on fabric covering the dark landscape.

The plane is pushing harder. Bernoulli and his principles lift us higher. Moving upward and onward, the glowing neighborhood lights grow smaller. A deep, blue purple expanding horizon spreads out. The last traces of the last day's light is pressed into the present by the star covered night.

I can't count how many times I've taken in this view. The expanding earth, my reflection in the window. Ten-thousand feet, twenty-thousand feet, altitude incremented by speeds measured in hundreds of miles per hour, propels us forward. The magic of flight is not lost on me. Normally this is an awesome moment. The kid in me who loved airplanes, would be fully engaged and completely satisfied. Tonight, that moment that would normally be filled with joy is "dulled."

The writer in my head wants to say "melancholy." The problem with melancholy is that while it sounds right, the feeling doesn't match my computer's dictionary defined description of "a deep, pensive, and long lasting sadness." That's not quite it. No, it's definitely a dulled happiness, not a happiness displaced by melancholy.

It was Sunday, May 8th. I had spent a great weekend with both my daughters and my 2 grandson's. My older daughter, Miriam, had graduated the preceding Friday morning (magna cum laude no less - not that I'm bragging mind you). Her son, Oliver, was dedicated in a church service that same Sunday morning. He stole the show. My younger daughter, Madison, was there for the festivities, with her shock of fuchsia hair and wickedly awesome new tattoos. Her punk rock-a-billy attitude took the kitchen by storm making french toast with fresh orange zest that made the kitchen smell so wonderful that it would have given Escoffier pause. Madison's son, Lucas, my first grandchild, amazed us all with his quick, bright eyed intelligence. This gathering should have been enough for anyone. But no, there was something more.

The magic of the weekend came for me late on Saturday afternoon. Miriam lives in Nashville, Tennessee. Our families had come there for the weekend's events. For some, Nashville is the home of country music, the Ryman Auditorium and the honky-tonks on Broadway. But if you are a graphic artist, it is the home of Hatch Show Prints. Founded in 1895, this small print shop, created the show posters for every major artist who ever walked the stage of the Grand Ol' Opry. Every time I'm in Nashville, I make a pilgrimage to see living history. The fumes of the ink, the walls covered in posters for everyone from Hank Williams to unknown punk bands touring far away lands. But that wasn't the magic.

It was getting late in the afternoon. Hatch closes at 5 PM. I was getting ready to go and I asked my daughters if they'd like to ride with me. Both of their children were occupied, so they said they'd ride along. For the first time in several years, I had both of my daughters with me. No husbands, no children, no other family members. Just me and my girls.

As part of the population of fragmented families in America, I, like many other fathers have had their key interactions with their children on weekends. The sum total of one on one interaction is compressed into a few short hours. When my girls would come to visit, we tried to cram as much of this interaction time into as little space as possible. Thrift shops, funky stores and the obligatory visit to Goodwill to see what bargains could be found became part of our sense of normalcy. It was a place that we had carved out for ourselves. We would reconnect and build on these moments so that it would sustain our connectedness until we saw each other again. But over the past few years, advice I'd given my daughters occurred. "Life happened."

I tired to prepare my daughters for this inevitability in life. But somewhere along the way, I'd forgotten to listen to my own advice. Life happened. My little girls became women, wives and mothers. Their lives happened.

There are parts of me that misses being with my daughters. Laughing, talking and being caught in the simple act of being together. I once had a shrink who explained that mourning is the longing for the way that things have once been, but recognizing that they will never be the same again. The laugh of someone who has departed. A home that has burned to the ground. Or, in my case, two young girls browsing racks of clothes and talking about the next destination on a Saturday afternoon.

On Broadway, in Nashville on a beautiful spring afternoon, I was granted an "Our Town" moment. But instead of Wilder's perverseness of taking the protagonists back to cruelly relive a moment while forcing them to be fully cognizant of the ephemeral passing of the moment. Making the lack of the appreciation of the first passing of the moment amplified to tragic proportions. That wasn't the case. No, for me, it was past meets present. My daughters and I laughed as we once did. We took in the world, but this time I  had the presence of mind to keep my eyes open. The pure pleasure of that exact place and time and the joy of being in their company was ever present.

I knew this moment in time would be short. All great moments are. Aware of this, I took on the practice of actors, and did my best to be "in the moment." If you truly focus, you can stretch microseconds out to cover years, or the lonely hours when you need them most.

So, looking out over the fabric of the night as my plane hurdled forward, I wasn't nearly as happy to be flying over the countryside as I normally would have been. Instead, my joy of flight had been replaced by the memory of the day before.

This would be the perfect moment to wallow in self-pity. Time lost, never to return. Mourning. No, these feelings were replaced by an odd sense of happiness. Being in the moment allowed me to see my daughters without the sentimentality that normally clouds the reality of vision. I didn't see my little girls as being lost to the past. I saw them as the remarkable women they are. They have become awesome people who have rich lives of their own. They have husbands and children, lives and homes. Homes in which that they are making wonderful places to create life memories for my grandsons.

As a parent, isn't that what it's really about? You're there to help them walk. To convince them that there are no monsters in the dark. At some point they walk and they face the darkness alone, and they find their own place in the world. It's at that moment that you realize that you are no longer necessary for their survival. You can "go gentle into that good night," and they will be fine. This is a tragic moment for some parents.

No, I took great pleasure in the fact that these remarkable young women chose to spend a few hours with their dad. On a street with country western tunes wafting in the air, I wove a little more fabric into my life that will sustain me as a grow older.

Looking down from seat 11A onto a landscape covered in glowing clusters of lights, communities revealed themselves. Our lives are a lot like that. A vast landscape covered in sparkling moments that glow in our memory – joining our lives into a beautiful network that connects us all.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

A face in the crowd

"You are not special. You are not a beautiful or unique snowflake. You're the same decaying organic matter as everything else. "  
    - Tyler Durden in "Flight Club",  by Chuck Palahniuk
Maybe it's because I'm in the dead center of being middle aged. White, American and male. What I have come to observe is the underlying reality of life and the quantities that God, or nature, depending on your belief system, throws at this adventure called life, amazes and amuses me. Because, beyond our myopic focus on our minuscule lives, exists a larger system that we are a part of. It's survival of the species. In order to assure that survival, large quantities of individuals and lives are thrown into the cosmic void in order to assure that this system we exist in continues.

When we look across nature. Fish lay eggs in the hundreds in order to make sure that a variable quantity survive to return to the spawning ground to repeat the cycle. Insects do the same. And, while we tend to look at our numbers relative to the size of our families, when you look at the aggregate total across the globe, they are not disimilar.

Where we differ is that we are nurtured and cared for by parents for significantly longer. We exit the womb unable to care for our selves for several years. So, as a result, we humans have fewer offspring per pair than other organisms in the animal kingdom. But that does not give us an out in the scheme of things. Malaria, cystic fibrosis, famine-all cause deaths in huge quantities. There is also a stasis that balances deaths and births with a slight advantage to birth over death. Now there are several billion of us roaming the earth.

No, when I look at masses of people lost in their daily lives going through the motions of existence that I become sad. There is always an elusive something that sends us down another mental rabbit hole and away from our daily existence.

"I see all this potential, and I see squandering. G** **** *t, an entire generation pumping gas, waiting tables; slaves with white collars. Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy s**t we don't need. We're the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our Great War's a spiritual war... our Great Depression is our lives. We've all been raised on television to believe that one day we'd all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won't. And we're slowly learning that fact. And we're very, very pissed off."
 - Tyler Durden in "Flight Club",  by Chuck Palahniuk 
Believe it or not, I'm writing this from an optimistic viewpoint. The moment of the reality came as I looked in the mirror and saw myself for who I really am. An average guy who lives an average life. There is a need for life in the middle of the bell curve in order to set apart the exceptional people who make our species the remarkable life form that it is.

When I was younger, I dreamed of fame, fortune and success. The reality is that there is never enough of anything. There is no point where there is never enough wealth. At what point is the perfection of beauty achieved? By who's standards would that be established? If we ever achieve the level of perfect we seek, there will always be the desire for more. We humans have an amazing ability to acquire and desire. Our threshold for acceptance will always expand beyond the present state of existence.

So, as I looked in the mirror, I realized that I was part of the aggregate of the sum total of the experience that we all collectively share. As I walk down the street, I am one of the faces in the crowd. Neither exceptional nor offensive. I become another touchstone that people compare themselves against. More often than not, I fall below them in every aspect, and by being who I am, I allow someone else to feel better about who they are. That's a tough pill for most to swallow. But, it is the reality of my existence.

I have a co-worker who spent an extended period of time in Japan. In the culture there, there is a saying, "The nail that sticks up, gets hammered." Too often we want to separate ourselves from all of humanity. To excel and be exceptional. There's nothing wrong with that desire in and of itself. The desire to improve upon who we are. It's when that desire moves from from internal improvement to external betterment, that we get lost in the rabbit hole of delusional desire to make ourselves better than others, that damages our place in society. It's a huge disservice to ourselves as well.

"Make a careful exploration of who you are and the work you have been given, and then sink yourself into that... Don't compare yourself with others."
   - Galatians 6:4 MSG 

No, when we take a step back and take stock in who we are as individuals is a bold step. To love who we are and where we are in life and to fully embrace the reality of ourselves, outside the self-created fantasy of an ideal of who or what we want to be, takes an incredible amount of courage. It's when we take that step that we can truly start to live.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Eating your own dog food


Eating your own dog food is a phrase that's used in advertising when you are  telling someone they should try their own product. I applied that thinking this morning when I read my post from last night. The words I read were absolutely terrible. Everything was overwritten, overwrought and just down right bad.

Some of my best friends make their livings as writers. They use words to put food on the table. If any of you are reading this, I beg you to ignore my previous post. It was written like a drunken sailor with a thesaurus.

In my line of work, I sometimes have to read work written by young copywriters. I made every mistake that I bust them for. "Too wordy." "Trying to hard to be clever." Cut out the descriptive language and get to the point." "Your reader isn't as in love with your words as you are." 

When I read through my post from last night, I realized I was trying too many tricks. In the end, my own self-absorbed use of the language got in the way of my thought. I have the first part of writing down-writing from your heart. It's the second part that's the problem-editing with your head. Then lastly, forgot the words of Faulkner:"Kill your darlings."

Words are like spices, too many and the focus of the dish that's being served is ruined. Sometimes I forget to listen to the narrative voice in my head, and I get lost in the pretty, shiny words. The meat of the subject gets lost and the whole thing is ruined.

So, here's the deal, if you're one of the 2 or 3  people who actually read this blog and you catch me being too clever for my own good, call me on it. Remind me to eat my own dog food.

In the future, I'll try to keep my writing focused, stay away from too many bits of word play and not waste your time. As the old saying goes, if you've got something to say, say it. Make your point and get out. I'll try to do the same.

Word count


Writing in a supine position is a new experience for me. Usually I sit on the couch, with the laptop on, well,  my laptop. The rhythm of the keys moving at a frenetic pace, full of fits and starts. Deep thuds combined with the high clicking sound of the keyboard as my fingers find their way to the keys. In these private moments, traces of thoughts are formed in bursts of fits, starts, reconsideration and editorial randomness. Language as jazz-improvised in a concert of introspection. Judging by the number of readers most of the time, I'm the only one in attendance. At least I have a good seat.

I wish I understood my drive to write. Maybe it's because actual conversation is so difficult for me. Taking words by the throat and throwing them to the wind. Caution and hesitation are my stock in trade in social circles. One can not edit and undo that which has been uttered into the ether. Or as my friend Howard says "you can't un-ring a bell."

No, what I overhear in most circles is random words. Social conventions of useless words tossed around with little regard to the permanence of the moment. Chatter for the sake of being heard. I find it exhausting and not worth the effort. Words for me are the sacred link to the heart of a person. If a conversation is merely for social convention, then what's the point?

In my life, I have a very small circle of friends that I could sit with and spin tangles of words over countless hours. I could count all of those folks on two hands and one foot. It's not because of the words spoken between us, but because of the love I feel when effortless words emanate, intertwine and float into the late hours. Sometimes wine is involved. Throwing caution to the wind, a perilous journey of interconnected thoughts that meander a drunken path is tread. No road, no plan, no point other than sharing in the revelry of the moment. Chords of laughter fill the air making the music of life that matters. 

There are often periods in each of our lives where we are stranded in the desert. It's the hope of cool water in arid stretches of nothingness that pushes us forward. Pressing against the heat of the sun, we walk great distances hoping that something will soothe the parched places that the heat has withered.  

I miss the sound of the voices that I hold dear. Email, text and IM'ing can never replace a warm smile and a hearty laugh. When I get a message from a friend, I have so much to say, that I put off answering until I have the time to give a sincere answer. Days pass, then weeks, and before you know it, the opportunity has passed. Months go by, then the embarrassment of having not answered takes over. 

So what does one do? Wait for the perfect moment for the perfect gathering? Or, do you wade into shallow end of the conversational pool with a few short, but not as heart felt, words? Is it the thought that counts or the count of the words? I am coming to the conclusion that a few here and there is better than few and far between. 

I guess it all goes back to the old saw of "How do you spell love? T-I-M-E." So a little time, a little love and a few heartfelt words are better than none at all. I think maybe the better way to frame an approach can be modeled on the words of Mother Teresa. "Not all of us can do great things. But all of us can do small things with great love." Well chosen words to live by. If she had felt they had neither the gravitas, nor the word count, we would have been none the wiser, and that would have been the greater shame.