Rites of spring.

The birds pass through where I am from. So do the Interstate truckers. But, all prairie birds fly home again, with songs from far off lands, and so do I. Truckers, they often get bladder infections and dull their long hauling by the hum of the road.

There’s a welcome quiet to the flat lands when you’ve been exposed too long to greater heights. The same quiet I once mistook for boredom before I left. And after a few many years in the western sun, you forget the world was ever green. Not to mention, independent of our latitude and longitude, the haste of our busy lives — that demand more and more of us for less and less–  rob us of these moments.   Till something breaks us from our routine and freshens our eyes with the salt of the earth. The sum total of it is we forget, till we remember. And what it takes to remember are often the things we don’t plan for. Then, we come home and see it, as if for the first time.

Many of our American voices had the prairie in their blood. I hear it’s vanishing. I hope it doesn’t take the song with it.   Where will all the birds go when these wet lands disappear? Old repurposed railroad tracks? Or to nest in among the junk washed into the delta of the last century? The century of progress. Or does it live on in the back of old book stores where Carl Sandburg finds a home still?

Spring makes believers of us all. You hear it in the sermon of the air.
I trust in spring. It may be the fool in me- but then, a fool I am. The world needs its fools, too. How else could we face the darker parts of life in all their certainty? That ancient pagan blood in me hails Spring above else. Even if it doesn’t come in earnest till a month or so into the baseball season. Mother earth may be confused by its recent timing, but I am not.

I think of Peter Sellers in that simple concerto – Being There and the secrets we harvest from fools wise enough to tend their garden. It’s of course easier to sing its praises when I’ve been thus removed from the winter that proceeded it. But there are many types of winter; not all of which adhere to the barometer.

There aren’t many corn fields left, you really have to get far from the city to find them. But eventually, that’s all you’ll find. When I was younger, I couldn’t wait to get where there were mountains and oceans. There was a kid. Dan P.  Who’s mom worked for the airlines. He had been everywhere it seemed. Every Christmas vacation it felt like he would return with a tan just to taunt us – and we’d all take turns interrogating him.  His modesty about what life was like beyond the Mississippi would annoy me.

The call of the frontier hasn’t diminished I guess. We all still head to California looking for gold. Except now, there isn’t a store run by Mormans outside of Culver, MO that manufactures wagon wheels. But it still begins with a tale of what lies beyond the endless plain. In addition to Dan and his mom who worked for United, there was Randy. Randy would pack a bus and drive to Colorado to ski. A mythical sport indeed reserved for people of higher class.  He was cursed with braces at an early age to repent for being rich in cultural experience.

In Colorado, they had snow for a purpose.  Our family always went east and south and were limited in our range to whatever adventure lay within two day’s drive in a wagon.  And dad didn’t fly a plane he couldn’t pilot and he never learned to fly.  Which meant the western range and the land of cowboys might as well have been on Mars.  The Griswolds were an ominous warning to all Chicagoland families who ventured too far in the family wagon.  Wall-e-world was just too far.  And an albatross all its own.  But those mountains and those oceans have a far reach to the wild imaginings of a land locked heart.  You’d hear them call  in the whistle of a west bound train at night.  That Santa Fe diesel.  Every night, come bed time. A dream of train smoke.

I haven’t heard a train whistle in some time. It has a different ring to it these days. They don’t come as often as they once did.  But, they’re there still.  If you listen for them.

The Pineapple Hill Hang Et al

I Lyfted a dancer named Jazmin to the Odd Ball Cabaret Easter Sunday just before the sun went down. The Al Pastor spits were under construction on Sepulveda and the roll top low riders were gone for the day around the corner at The Horseless Carriage, but you could still smell the fresh coat of wax.

And Jazinine’s stripper body lotion.  She was a vanilla girl.

I don’t want to generalize, or sound insensitive, but for the sake of classification, there’s two kinds of strippers- at least the ones I’ve Lyfted in my car-  the one that shows up in sparkles and heels and the incognito one, dressed as if they’re going to the gym.

Jazmin was  the latter.  Destinee was the former. I doubted either performed to Jack Johnson tunes.    Destinee spent the whole ride out to Ontario’s Tropical Lei negotiating a deal that would send her to Arizona for a month.  “Listen, I’m not going to Tuscon for five grand.”

I didn’t blame her.   I was doing the math in my head.  I wondered if the Arizona gig was the kind that allowed her to claim travel deductions.  Unlike Jazmin, Destinee smelled like an ash tray.

“I mean, we hanged out and I was like fine, for a couple of hours, but for a month… In Arizona.”  I was beginning to realize Tuesdays at the Tropical Lei was just a side hustle.

Her eyelashes were like war paint.  She put on her face the whole way while barking into her Bluetooth.  I turned up classical 91.5.  Bizet’s Carmen came on to lend a little irony.  I keep a good detachment most of the time unless a customer wants to talk, but I was moved by the image of a woman  putting on war paint as if she was about to face battle.

Jazmin wore a different mask.  And spent the whole way up Sepulveda in a contemplative state.  There was an athlete’s concentration.  You could tell she was willing herself into something.  Destinee was farther up the road.  And had passed that stop long ago.

After I dropped Jazmin off, I picked up a mother and her Abuela and took them to a storefront church where the chairs are empty and all the hands are raised and the singing in Spanish fills the dark night.  These kinds of places stuck between bail bondsman and where you can get a pay day advance flank the neon with a different light.  My car smelled like vanilla for a while.  We have a smell.  All of us.  From the couple you pick up at the Korean BBQ to the line cook steeped in grease.  To fear itself.

But cologne is the worst.

Soren is back as a “client of the Pineapple Hill Bar and Saloon again.” But just weekends now. He used to be a “client from twelve noon till two am every day.”

He’s back cause of some girl he met there once.” I will go back till I find her again and when I do, it will be a good night.”

He looks at me in the mirror. “She will remember me.”  He sounded like an Armenian General McArthur.

“Yeah, Pineapple Hill’s got a certain… charm, attracts a particular…” I searched for the right word and opted to repeat his. “client.”

I quietly wondered how something could be a saloon and a bar.  Felt like some kind of koan only a Don Henley lyric would unlock …

People talk when you don’t.  And certain people prefer to talk to strangers.  Soren was of that type.  In the brief 1.4 miles it took to get from his spot to the Pineapple Hill Bar and Saloon I learned more about him than many of my cousins.

For example, Soren used to go to work tell, “the guys on job site what to do, get materials, then go to Pineapple Hill Saloon, and then check back on the guys at 3.30 to see what they did, and then… back to The Hill.  It was my job.  Back and forth.  But no more.”

I waited for him to clue me in on the difference as I looked at the clock on the dash and that it read 3.30.

“Well, I hope you find her, man.”

“So, do I, friend. So do I.”  After fighting with the door handle he got out.  I watched him as he fixed his suede jacket then rolled the windows down to diffuse the cheap cologne.

 

Warts and all

We’re all flawed.  We’re such a mash-up of insecurities and assets that clash with intrinsic contradiction that when taken in concert feel akin to a towering plate at the ass end of a Shakey’s buffet line.   No wonder Modigliani saw us how he did, in his divine intoxication; elegant fools.  Naked.  anonymous and often in mismatched pairs.

The warring natures in us fight to reconcile with shadows for bare knuckle dominance and so on and so forth because of  societal pressures or negative beliefs of any number of blah blah blah. Point is: We’re all way more nuanced than we think and even what we tell ourselves or dream about.  It’s a miracle we can even feed ourselves as Bob Dylan croons at the end of his prayer of outrage, “Idiot Wind.”

We chase behind the fallout left at the crossroads of our lives; the interpersonal fuck ups, the shitty career moves, or decisions based in fear, like detectives gathering evidence to feed whatever story we need to tell ourselves to make us feel better about how we lost what we thought we wanted or didn’t get what we felt we couldn’t live without.  Could be a dream or a love or even worse.. an identity, or all of the above.   Things fall apart.  It is the nature of things.  Life does that.  And something else grows in its place.   Adversity reveals to us the parts of ourselves we didn’t know were there, untapped inner resources, or more ugly unexpressed things that rot within us like left overs past their due date in the fridge.  And so we face reckoning here on earth, not beyond, if we are fortunate.

We’re a mixed breed.  It was built into us by the great creator. These conflicting desires.   These limitations and yearnings.  The holy trinity?  It’s within us.  It is us.  We’re spirit.  We’re animal.  And we’re consciousness, right?  We can’t be just one of these things.  Whenever we lean in on the animal  – the part of us that only knows fighting, fucking, shitting, eating, you know, making babies and running from bears – something is lost and we come to with indigestion, remorse, or the jitters.  If we lean too hard on our intellect – then we lose impulse and build our own prisons of construct to make our world smaller and smaller as we try to rationalize the infinite with this finite thing… or when we sit on the cushion too long and forget the world, we can love people in the abstract but insult a waitress or honk at the car in front – then once again, part of us is out of balance.  And you don’t get very far when you are out of balance. Or, at least, I never did.  You just go round and round.

I think in this whole chase the doom train of our end times, or fight for who can scream the loudest that expresses itself in the great divide of political extremes – we are missing this simple more Jungian approach to it all. Balance. Not compromise.  Compromise is different.  Compromise is not needed when things are in balance.  And balance comes from being secure in the fullness of position.  In a way, it can be manufactured by counter weights and ballast — all forms of triangulating… this balance.  And security.   It comes with constant adjustment.  And orientation toward a fixed point.  Or True North if you will. But nothing is true as any navigator understands.  There is a thing called Relative North.  And getting those two to work in unison is how alignment is achieved and a vector made.   And theory becomes application.  That’s how we arrive where we want to get to, efficiently, safely, and without scurvy.

Most of us don’t achieve balance till late in life. And a corporate buzz phrase du jour of “we promote work life balance,” isn’t enough.  The problem is more nuanced.  More personal.  And requires attention.  And right effort.  Not a quick fix seminar.

Attention.  Awareness.  And adjustment.  My father, in his infinite wisdom, would say, “life is a series of constant adjustments.”  It took me years to experience that as unescapable fact.

There’s a axiom, amid certain spiritual circles, that says the great myth us humans suffer from — when it comes to these matters —  is that we cling to the belief that there is time.  There isn’t time. Everything can wait but man’s quest for God.  Or Self.  But oh how we look in all the wrong places along the way.   So becomes our daily doing an odyssey.  A daily odyssey.  Like Bloom we all are.  And it is that day in early June.  Over and over again.   As we try to cross town and find our way home again.  And know it for the first time.

I’ve been pondering these things lately with a newfound openness that only loss can create.  Or change.  And as I give myself the respect and time to adjust – as my father would say – clarity returns.  And with that clarity I start to draw connections with the thinker and I start to feel with the flesh what is in my heart… a kind of profound optimism.

Maybe these greenhouse-gas-infused-post-end times– with our doomsday clock counting down the hours and days … will continue to ignite, and more importantly, fuel a sense of spiritual urgency.  I may be wrong, but I think we need to reclaim that principle from the fanatics.  All due respect to them and their fixed relevation curated into the final chapter.  I do agree.  There is no time.  None.  To waste.  But not on plastic bottles alone. And outlawing straws.  Or increasing the tax on oil imports…. The change is within.  As it always is.

Again, I may be wrong, but there is an opportunity in crisis.  I believe in Mandarin – the symbol for crisis is the symbol of danger coupled with the symbol for opportunity.  Call me naive, call me a deep down optimist – but maybe the change we need in this world is happening right now within each of us as we stumble forward and work on ourselves and our little lives toward greater harmony within us.   You cannot harm, others, yourself, or the world, when you become integrated and at peace.  When each part of you works in harmony with the rest and you reside in that transcendent bliss.  I’ve had glimpses of it. And it does do something I can’t deny.  Conflicts dissolve.  It is a solvent.  This attention inward.  You need less.  You want less.  You vilify less.  I know it sounds simple.  But complex solutions usually are.  Maybe that is why they are so often overlooked.  I know it’s been that way in my life.  We’re blind to it, till something shakes us out of the spell and we see things for what they are.  It’s the greatest dividend love gives us when it appears to leave.  It shows us our incompleteness.  That space for, well… God.  Spirit.  Or simply… our humanity.

That’s the kind of sustainability that can grow organically from each of us and power the change to come. As we express it in our individual ways.  This profound human kindness cannot help but repair this earth,  And it is the original and ultimate inexhaustible human resource.   Call me a dreamer.  Sure.  I’ve been called worse.  But it sure makes it easier to make way in California as we approach the hot part of the year when climate change roars tonight with uncommon winds and nothing looks that good on Netflix.

Loch Lomond

The pain of the loss of love feels endless to the heart because the heart has no sense of context and can not tell time. It just pumps and only knows how to love. It does not respond to reason and, in fact, it can be very cruel to our hearts, in my experience, when they are gauzed up by the dings of life, to demand it to be rational or linear and impose anything on it beyond gentleness.

When love breaks us, it breaks us open. And that openness makes us more willing to receive. The poets would write about lovers being transformed by grief into mulberry trees and cows and birds and the whole night sky because it is only these things that can contain us and sustain us amid the crazy storm of loss that rips us apart from the inside when we lose love, or appear to. But again, the heart can’t tell the difference.

In those states, we expand because we have to. All of life bursts open and carries us into the Wild where we are bathed in the divine and learn of the great source of this love we have but a dull glimmer of when we hold our dog,  or our lover’s hand or …

It makes us mad and bold and capable of doing the impossible. This love. It is the nitro that propels all great human achievement and mothers or fathers to take on a second job and live in their car as they commute between the two. It makes the stars closer and the agony of being and fear of nothingness vanish under its pure light.   In the end, it is all there is.  As Dylan says on Nashville Skyline, “it makes the world go round.”

But when that light goes out it can be dark. And in that darkness, even more is revealed. The ocean is deep, yes, but not as deep as that dark. There is no dark darker.  According to other interpretations of the Bible, it is the absence of love that is hell.  And that was Satan’s punishment for loving God too much:  To be cast into exile. Into permanent night.

So we learn to light a candle and fumble on. We learn that love can be a deceiver. That it can betray our hearts and attacks our belief. When the lover is apart from his or her beloved.

Modern days society likes to diminish the profundity of great love into clinical terms and things that make us feel like we are even more broken because we love poorly or too much or not enough… or whatever other buzz word we use to feed our own fear of inadequacy or myth of unlovability or yadda yadda … There’s no drama in it, just fact. Our hearts are dumb. And there is no flaw in that. If they were not dumb we would never populate the human race.  Or attend an opera.  Or read a poem.  Or …

It’s what makes us alive. It’s the price of being human. This thing in our chests that beats. For that which we love or hope for or… share.  It is the very drum of life itself.

That’s why them poets talk of gods disguised as beggars and the forest coming alive by the pain of grief. Hell, it’s why birds sing. Cross oceans and take up homes in strange lands.  But our society teaches us to run from pain, to deny it, to narcotize it, dull it. But If we allow ourselves to make love to the pain itself. Not in a gimmicky or self
Indulgent or victim way- but simply feel it, we are transformed like all lovers into something greater.  The heart can’t help but expand.  And love.

It is the only thing that has ever inspired anything of great worth. To live fully, you must love fully. And to love fully, you will lose greatly. Or feel like you have for a time.  But to love without attachment, freely, that’s the target, the moving target Cupid sets his bow on.

I am of the belief that love is our natural state. Pure consciousness expressed as love. But we forget it so easy. We get pulled into the day by day and the bells and whistles and demands of us as House holders and lose perspective. These are things that lovers know. About each other and the world. Those common secrets that when whispered we steal from one another and don’t miss till they are gone. The little things. And the moments shared in the intimacy of our lives and when that ends, or rather changes – it leaves a void. Memory haunts for a time, but sooner or later we begin to feel whole again. The heart is a resilient thing. It can break a thousand times or more and still go on performing its function. Thank god it was designed perfectly to compete its single task; to make us not feel so alone on this earth as we move from day to night.  It is less than a yard from our brains but sometimes it takes a trip around the moon or more to travel that span and return home to ourselves.

O gracious love you teach us always to emerge and rise with bigger hearts more capable of loving. And more willing to share that love freely. It is the one great commodity in the world and the only true inexhaustible resource.   There is love.  And there is fear.  Period.

So here’s to all us crazy fools out there risking love with full knowledge of the cost of it all- the promise of loss. Let us not contort ourseles into formulas to self-improvement, but simply let our cups overflow.   Isn’t that what the prophets ask us from time to time?

What a divine comedy it all is.  The promise that we will all let each other down and yet, the real hidden miracle is that we can go on loving. After loss. And more loss. And disappointment. Without cutting ourselves off or deluding ourself with some proxy. That takes courage. Great courage and faith. And a dumb heart with a poor memory. Without which we would be surely lost.  That’s what Zorba would advise as he plants trees he will not ever see grow.   Sir George Harrison I’m sure put it better, but I think he sung in praise of that same kind of Blake-like innocence love returns us to. It admits us back into the garden for a time. But as guests only.

Maybe that’s why we sing in praise of it for as long as we have.  The song keeps the melody alive in our hearts long after the bruises vanish.  I haven’t been able to pick up my guitar.  But I know I will.  In the meantime:

I’ll take the high road or you take the low road and we will meet somewhere in Scotland on the Bonny Bonny banks of Loch Lol…” as the folk song goes, and goes ,and goes… on and on– while the world spins and somehow doesn’t fall out of gravity and collapse by the weight of all our dreams. And so we love on, and on. And volunteer.  Show up for those in our lives with our missing parts.  Or we get a dog. Maybe all great lovers return to us as dogs … I think Ovid touched on that in his Metamophasis. Or should have.

Bridges

This life.  This modern American life is based on acquisition.  We are taught to acquire from early on.  To get more.  To go for the direction of our dreams, to strive, to not settle; and to learn ways to streamline and leverage and take that more and parlay it to even more – more.  But, we are not taught how to lose.  And so much of life is about coping with loss.  We lose everything in the end. If we are lucky.  I’m talking about grief – the cost of love.  And the secret bridge between love and grief is time.  A commodity to be valued above all else.

What a lovely little life we have and how little we see of it.  Every once in a while, circumstance grants us a glimpse into seeing things from that brilliant perspective and we can ponder a taste of what and how God sees, and maybe, if we are lucky, feel what he/she/it must feel.  Compassion. Endless compassion.  And powerlessness.  But then we return to the way things are and forget our excursions into the great reality.  Pain can teach us that.  Loss can teach us that.  We need to get good at losing if we are to make a success of this life.

And then we settle back into the delusion and forget how fragile it all is.  But in truth, all of us are coping with loss, all the time.  It is built into the fact of being human, being here.  We lose the use of an arm from a surgery, we lose a pet, or a loved one, or a career, or what we think we are, or a relationship.  And with that loss comes the feelings associated with loss.    The ones that rip us apart and break us open not apart.  And that gap between the finger of man and the finger of god stretches.  I don’t know much, but I do know that there is a seduction built into our society to distance ourselves from the very aspect that we are only here for a short while.  That everything we hold dear and near is passing.  Right?  I don’t want to get all zen-lite here, but it is truth.

Some people hang on more than others.  Tell me what you hang onto the most, and that is the very thing that you might need to let go of.  For many of us is our career, or our partners, or our children.   Some of us hang on to old subscriptions to National Geographic, or baseball cards, or locally sourced honey.  But, we also hang on to identities.  Things we let define us.  And then sometimes life has a way of ripping that from us, just so we can lean in and grow closer to whatever it is that we define God as.  I have always been an alchemist.  I can’t help but try and forage from the shipwrecks of various periods in my life and make something beautiful out of them.  Groundlessness can be very fertile ground.  It is the mulch of change.

I recall a time way back… maybe fifteen years ago now, when I was just a beginner in a spiritual practice and some of the crusty old timers were saying things like… “Matt, all you got to do is hold on, man, just hold on.”  And then that grey-haired silver back would limp off with his hip problems and another would come around and say, “just let go, Matt.  All you have to do is let go.”

Yeah.  That’s the deal in this thing beyond the Costco parking lot and the Instagram likes – we are asked to decide what to hold on to and what to let go of.

I had a wise friend who  retired to North Carolina that liked to say, “life is a series of surrenders.”  No wiser thing has ever been said about freedom.  And independence. True independence.

I think of these things today as the Painted Ladies flap their chaos wings north from Mexico en masse weaving in and out of our suburban existence with a flight and fancy all their own.  It is spring again.  A time of transition.  And rebirth. A morning for the whole world.  But spring itself can’t make up its mind. It bounces between winter and summer and makes fools of us all.  It grieves it’s own passing.  No wonder all the world wants to make babies in it.  After a thaw. And the green grass.  We get a glimpse of the perfect timing of all things and think we can catch the trick of hand.  And we pause.  Or I do.  It transforms us. And reminds us we are change.

Maybe that’s why the cherry blossoms are so revered.  I’d like to think so.  It makes making friends with the totality of life that much sweeter.

These Strange Days

So Facebook found out I was single again before my family did.  I was scrolling during my morning quiet time a few days after we traded keys and saw those ad windows in my stream announce: BEST THREE DATING APPS for RECENTLY SINGLE dudes.  To blend in among posts and camouflage their intent, the links were liked by three of my “friends” I couldn’t pick out in a line up without looking at their profile first.

I thought… maybe a coincidence…  Clearly Artificial Intelligence isn’t that intuitive…

But then there was the ad for EUGENIX testosterone enhancement and of course HIMS E.D. pills.  Followed by some kind of link that claims the statistical happiness quotient of meeting Slavic women and where men can find Asian ladies.  Or dating mindfully.  In among fake news and pictures of food and fiends from college with their kids doing gymnastics competitions and  whatever appalling piece of injustice trolled from the world-wide webs, I saw the sinister truth in clear black and white.

When our trends change, when life makes an abrupt turn… there used to be a lag.  A glitch in the Matrix, but now it’s woven in.  We’ve become this.  Advanced search configurations and tracking can probably predict what I may have to eat tonight based on trends to some degree of accuracy.    This is the cost of having toilet paper delivered to our door in the middle of the night.  The real question is, did the sneaky math machine know it was coming before I did?    Were they able to tell by the Netflix streaming options, and the diminishing curve of good night texts and the pause rate in between.  And how does facial recognition software fit into all of this?

So, Facebook figured out I was single.  I didn’t touch my status.  I don’t think I ever have.  For all I know, I could still be married to my ex-wife from way back.  I mean, the pictures of our story book wedding are down in my photo stream.  We joked about it the other day as she went back to Sweden, “The bigger the wedding, the shorter the marriage.”

I wonder if buried in the service agreement is some kind of key word trigger that activates Agent Smith when we drift too far from our predictable behavior to charm us back in line.

A small price to pay for freedom, right?

But it baffles me just the same.  And besides…the puzzle keeps me occupied while my heart heals up, and I get beneath my feet again.  I’m no sleuth, and I certainly don’t know advanced mathematics, but, this is what I got:  all the meta data harvested from my cellular device must have concluded — since I no longer send bit emojis to a certain number in the 310 area code- that it was time to change my target-based-ad-stream to show me TEN WAYS for NICE GUYS TO NOT FALL INTO THE NICE GUY TRAP.

Jeez, now the book of face knows I’m a nice guy, too?  That’s it.  I’m buying a Harley and getting a tattoo just to break the code.  Or I should join the Republican Party or a taxidermy convention just to cause it to think its got me pegged.  What else does this thing know about me that I don’t?

We give it away, we give so much away.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m the first to admit my own hypocrisy here.  I just… I much preferred it when the 0101001 sent travel packages, hiking gear, and things to do with writing sites.   The status quo that lulls us into a false sense of security whispers such a sweet melody to distract us, doesn’t it? But it doesn’t quite cloud out the real:  we are the product and the consumer.  And that mean I guess, we are ever so gently guided toward eating ourselves.  We interface on such a deep level with the system.  It becomes a part of us, much like a digital saddle.   But the imperfections in the binary code shine like glass in the sun when our behavior patterns shift.  The system can’t quite adapt to the inevitabilities of life.    Ask anyone who is coping with loss.  In any form.

But when these patterns shift, I also get to see how much power I gave away.

For example, every time I get in my car and turn on WAZE navigation, it boots up and starts to load me in the direction of where she lived; if it is between the hours of 4-6 pm.  Or after I leave a meeting on Thursday at 8.30.  I have to manually over ride it.

We have to manually opt out.  And then when we do, we get to see it with that quiet sense of detachment. And it becomes what 0100100 it is;  the homogenized privilege of convenience — 0011100 – where we get shepherded to our likes and only see what a set of zeroes and ones filters based on our prejudices.  But I see something else in this period of reflection.  110001001 I see how we  narrow 0100100 ourselves.  Or I do.  And think I see #0101001 more than there is.    But it blinds.  And sours.  And keeps us isolated.  This hybrid wheel of trending that uses our disgust and outrage at base inequalities about things like fairness and law and reduces it to a share and a button and a profile.

A profile.  Look the word up.  It means many things but it also means:

Myopia.

With the football team

I got into Northwestern. Barely.  Probably because I was a duck.  Part of my agreement, if I were to matriculate, was to enroll in a remedial English class my first semester.

I was with the football team.  And a few other athletes.  They were all big and I was not and we were in a small room.  It was Dr. Smith, I believe. We read Strunk/ White, James Baldwin and Eudora Welty.  See, I couldn’t write an essay.  According to the standard – standard. Maybe because acting at a young age, or staying home from school, pretending to be sick, in order to listen to story-tellers on record and comedians resulted in implicit bias: I never thought of punctuation or modifying my conjunctions, et al.  As an actor, they tell you to cross all that out. And move at the speed of thought and feeling.

Telling people what you were going to say, saying it, then telling them that you said it just bored-the-piss out of me.  It made me feel wrong.  Don’t know why.  I heard that Hank Aaron spent the early part of his career holding the bat the wrong way – what is known as over-handed – till a hitting coach said, “you know, you don’t hold a bat that way there, Hank.”  He didn’t know.  The greatest home run hitter of all time didn’t know how to hold a bat.  For years.  But, the dividend of his ignorance was that his mistakes coupled with his grit made his wrists as fast as they were.  And that speed turned into magic.  And that magic was what he was.

I also hear Sandy Koufax had a similar Come-to-Jesus epiphany… which is amazing, because he was a Jew.  And probably still is.

His conversion was, “Hey, Sandy!  Don’t throw so hard.”

Part of the reason these stories become stories and why we pass them on to encourage the ones coming up the trail behind is because, in case you haven’t found out yet, the trail’s a hard road.  And I’ve done some hard travellin’, don’t you know…

I followed Woody Guthrie ’cause Bob Dylan followed Woody Guthrie and I wanted to be Bob Dylan.  I read Plutarch and Tacitus because he said he did.  And Rimbaud and The Old Testament because John Steinbeck said the answers were there.   I’d catch the fire brand , try not to burn myself on the way to my green hard-shell Imac and scribble. Sometimes on plastic.  Because I figured Kafka would if he had access to Petroleum byproduct.   I was cluelessly on the hunt for something I didn’t know but trusted I would recognize when I found it.  Like a pig for truffles.

But, yeah, I needed schooling.  On the elements of style.  Something to frame my imagination in and a spine to fix it on.  Others had tried.  But it never stuck. My mom was my first grammar teacher.  I would take stories from a typewriter and share them with her and she would give me the hard edit with her red pen.  I was six. Seven, maybe.   But, the rules of language were like a labyrinth to me that only led to a mystery I couldn’t decode.   During summer, we’d sit with those S.R.A. critical reading things and I’d struggle to retain and understand what I read.  She was patient.  I was not. The hours she spent helping me formulate complete thoughts and then sentences, sentences with clauses, and independent clauses.  It felt almost like a second language.  I’ve never been quite able to remember my first.  There’s always a sense of translation from something more primal whenever I sit down to write.  Maybe pure sound.   Who knows.  Above my pay grade.

I used to think there was something wrong with the way I thought, but the truth was, I had to catch up to my hand. My hand, my head, and my heart were all moving at different speeds.  And needed to come into alignment.   Achieving that alignment requires a lifetime of constant adjustments.  To find harmony.  Balance.  And know, intrinsically, what to leave in… what to leave out.

Looking back, I guess, I was inspired.  And didn’t know it.  I had a radar for things unseen and unspoken.  And words came to me.  In no particular order.  And I didn’t know what to do with any of it.  Sometimes I wish I could tell the younger me, “Hey, that thing you got?  It’s going to take some time.”

But, yeah, I couldn’t catch up to my head.  Still can’t.  Which is why I learned to listen to my heart.   And when I do, the punctuation lands where it should. And I get to surprise myself.  And who doesn’t like that.    But slowly, ever so slowly, I learned to correct the way I hold my bat.  And now I am surprised how much easier it is to hold it the right way.

Language is eroding.  It’s what languages do.  And that erosion is assisted by many things.  Like Twitter and all its mutated offspring.   But we’re the number one accomplice in its murder. How none of us could write cursive.  And then there is the day we all stopped looking things up.  But this decay is not new.  Our common tongue evolves.  Mutates.  And we change with it.  We’re just in one of those funky growing periods.  Where suddenly we remember  why we had to learn to write a bibliography and properly cite our sources.    And look at all the trouble that has caused.  From words.  Words have the power to heal, to bridge, to literally change the world; but, they can also be the most dangerous weapon on earth  and be welded against the scared and hungry, and desperate, and ignorant, and blind.  They can get men and women to do unspeakable things.  And at the same time, give us remembrance of things past, resurrect the dead, and give shape to whole worlds not yet born.    They put our kids to bed at night and serve as conduit between what we feel and what we think.  I sometimes don’t know either till I find the words, and then in finding them… know.

I’d like to tell you I learned the rules from Dr. Smith that I couldn’t  hear from my own mother.  But that’s not true.  It took what it took.  I had to field the same note, time and time, till… I got it: the true value of clarity.  The danger in haste and delay, the crypt of confusion.  The lack of action.  And change.  The courage it takes to be simple.  And true.  And employ these things in service of something bigger than me.   But, I finally surrendered and learned the rules.  Now, I can break them.  Which is the real fun part.

For the record

Nothing about creative work is sexy.  Contrary to popular belief or what pops up in a news feed.  So, don’t believe it.  It’s fake news.

Pro-Soccer players grind it out all week,  balancing conditioning with weight training, team exercises, strategy sessions, and recovery time for the chance to let it flow for two 45 minute halves once a week, or so.  The match is the reward.  Anyone who’s ever played a sport knows that.  The rest is what it takes– what famed coach, Pep Guadiola, calls “the privilege of the pressure.”

Fetch wood and carry water.  Rinse repeat.  That’s how you get to Carnegie Hall or Yankee Stadium.  If that matters to ya.  The grace comes from balancing all of that  with a job-job that pays for those eight or nine minutes of playing.  That five-minute open mike.  Or a meeting with junior executives where we can soft pitch, knowing it’s a pass before we walk in the door.  Point is, it doesn’t add up and it never will.  So, that can’t be why we do it.

But there comes that moment.  When you have to push all your chips in.  Because to do otherwise would be to live a lie, and that’s when you know.  Or rather when I knew. Why the root of what we call sacred is the same as sacrifice.  Like I said, nothing is sexy about the true creative life.  It’s actually pretty boring.  And consistent.  And involves a studio in Van Nuys when friends have families and kids and dogs and yards and trips to the Bahamas and more kids and ski trips and…  And you’re forced to dig even deeper till you crack through that last layer and all that is left is this.

It will never be enough.   And expectation is a sneaky thing.  As is entitlement.  And any unfortunate event that  we can be tempted to translate into victim-ese.  But when I finally stopped digging, ran out of people to blame, and finally didn’t need any outside validation to support my claim as a professional, I found the most surprising thing.  I didn’t need it.  I felt like a prisoner freed.  I could finally play the game.  Cause that’s all it is, a silly game.  Kids can play.  Children play baseball.  Soccer.  And dress up.  And the same things give the select few 300 million.  But that doesn’t mean the rest of us can’t play; even if  none of the “in- between” is fair, governed more by chance than anything, and is always a game of inches and subject to the trends of subjectivity.  And timing.

The fact that somebody wants to consider paying you or me for it every once in a while, I mean… ridiculous.   And when they don’t…?  Well, that’s when I get to grow.  Return to fundamentals.  Do the real.   Where it really matters.

I don’t have any advice, but, if you want to be famous, maybe consider asking yourself why.  I’ve been famous.  It doesn’t change anything.  In fact, it can make things a lot worse.  I’d do something else if I could, but I can’t.  I’ve tried.  There’s a lot better ways to make a living, but for some reason, I’m good at this.  So, I guess I’ll stick to it till the universe decides to tell me I should drive a truck.

Lately, I’ve been hearing that I’m level-headed and grounded because of my response to certain things.  And I want to turn around and check who these people might be referring to, because it sure can’t be me.  Grace is a gift.  And it don’t belong to us.  It’s granted on loan.  For ours to use for a time. What we can control is effort. And there’s nothing more beautiful and poetic than an effortless foul shot or the way a Nylon string player plucks a Bach etude.  Easy.  As if it is a natural thing.  A natural thing that results from sustained effort.

I had a mentor in college, who just retired to the big black box theater in the sky to critique the angels on their sense of truth and scope, who liked to say, “never let them see the work.”

Which was a bit of a trick.  And a straight up mind-fuck, because he liked to only give us things  that involved… you guessed it- a lot of work.  None of that work was sexy.  Especially in a one piece, dance belt  and in ballet shoes at 8.00 in the morning and you were sweating out the drinking from the night before.

His name was Bud Beyer.  And no one ever handed anything to him either.  Everything about Bud was unlikely and a contradiction.  He was The Master Builder incarnate.  Down to the little church tower he couldn’t  reach to complete.   And subsequently, never rang.

He taught us, before we knew it, the subtle art of … endurance.  What it takes to make it- whatever the fuck that means, is, and always be, one thing– endurance.  That simple.  And none of it is sexy.

So, if you’re waiting for someone to hand out TV shows on the street; you might get lucky, yes, but, you also might get run over.  All great reckonings occur in little rooms. In garages.  When no one is there to see them.  The shift it takes happens long before anyone notices.  That’s the secret to an overnight success, or, in my case, a “Come back.”

“The art of showing up,” as my friend who’s named after Mark Twain liked to say.  Or … simply – outlasting the motherfuckers.  O.T.M.  That same friend would add.  Problem is, there’s a lot of motherfuckers.  Peddling hype.  Clogging up the 405. Who can pitch and are good in a room but crumble when it comes to doing the thing.  So learn to do the thing first.  Whatever your thing is.  It takes longer than you can possibly imagine –  a day longer than you can stomach it – but it is worth it in the end.  Learn to dope-a-rope like The Champ.  To lean on your edges like coach White taught me.  So you could fall.  Because when you fall, you learn.   Hence my nickname when I was  a Duck.  The Grinder.  Like Keith Magnuson of Chicago Blackhawk fame.   Sadly, I sold his jersey a few years back when I was hard up for money and in between gigs.  But it kept me going, and I think The Original Grinder would have approved.

So all that’s to say, that Steven Pressfield is right.  Julie Cameron is right.  Natalie Goldberg is right.  Robert McKee is right.  Jack White was right. Susan Peretz was right.  Martin Landau was right.  Candace Justice was right.  Jason Gansauer was right.  And Bud Beyer was right.  When that many people say the same thing, it is prudent to pay attention.  And put that into action.  That’s what I did.  Still do.

A couple of months back I was waiting to cash a check for a job I completed which ran into some kind of financial hic-cup and then it stalled out and drifted off. It stung.  I threw myself a pity party for a minute or two.  Then, dusted myself off and you know what I did.  Almost got sued for another job and then lost a third.  All after I somehow climbed in through the window and had the privilege of being a Greenhorn after twenty years of apprenticeship.

The world felt upside down.  Groundlessness can be very fertile with the right perspective though.  Because I didn’t know what else to do, I just went back to work.  Even if no one was paying me.  I rewrote one thing in my catalogue. Then since I did one, I figured why not do the others.  Then, since I was sweated like an old horse – I started in on  two other scripts I had been meaning to write.  Finished a series pilot that had been nagging me- simply to make room upstairs and unclog the old chute.  Followed by  a bluegrass musical.  Because three or four colleagues said – “hey, why haven’t you written one yet, you play music, you write, you know?”  And then when I finished that, I set it aside and did a half hour pilot.  Drafted up a pitch for a series bible.  Two more episodes for my anthology series.  An outline. And a note or two on a modern western set in the Grand Escalante Staircase centered around a B.L.A. employee.  One at a time.  Page by page. Day by day.  Then, when my pitch dried up at the one yard line, right when I asked for what I believed I was worth and take it on the chin, I retooled it and wrote another.  Outlined a third.  And now wrote one to a show I couldn’t sell on the pitch.  All for fun and for free.  I must be crazy, right? Maybe I am.  But it’s what I know how to do.   Keep moving, inch by inch.  Grinding.   It ain’t sexy, but it sure is satisfying.

 

Search engine optimizing and the quest for a chair.

My friend Ernie and I had our Newsie hats on and a broken umbrella.  We vaulted up Hilhurst to his nearby Starbucks avoiding the running water squeezing the narrow roads of Los Feliz like clogged veins: two men braving the rain in search of the pinnacle of story emboldened by the fact that it was negative-f–k back in the middle west.

We got caffeinated and started talking fast.  I’m not sure much of it made sense, but one thing stood out above the fray.  It was after the rains let up.

“Yeah, I mean, if a chair gets built and no one sits in it, is it still a chair?”Ernie queried.

We had been dialoguing the nuance of an artist’s life.  It felt like a reincarnation of My Dinner With Andre as our talks often devolve into or from.   I was playing the role of Wallace Shaun, languishing– from  having lost a gig that was a sure thing, folowed by a rejection from one of the top agencies that thought I was too much a playwright and some feedback from a manager named D. who took the time to tell me “yeah, I read your work.  And there wasn’t anything there to turn heads.”  A perfect trifecta.

I laughed about being unfit for the century I find my feet in because I didn’t know how to bake in search engine optimization into my hash-tagging.   “Maybe we’re out of touch.”

“Maybe that’s not such a bad thing,” he countered.

I had even confessed to Ernie that I didn’t want to pick up the guitar too much after completing the record even.  But allowing myself to feel it.  There was a mourning going on.  For something inside.  I’ll call that thing: an agenda.

See, we can’t escape it.  The allure of … well, I’ll let Ernie describe it.  “Yeah, we build a thing, like a chair, and we hope people will sit in it. Maybe we put it up on Etsy so people will buy it, but, you know –

I jumped in as I often do, especially on caffeine.  It’s a bad trait.  My friends mostly tolerate.

“No one can afford the custom rate.  No one will ever pay us enough for what we put in. The years.  Or the materials, if they want a chair that’s not some xerox hand-me-down-”

It was Ernie’s time to jump in:

“Nor should they.”  The reward is in the doing.  Ernie’s a zen dude.  But he would probably laugh at being labeled as such and rip off the label.  He likes to think of what we do as the way, the means, by which, we steadily perfect ourselves.  Not perfect as in that whole mirage of perfection bull shit – but perfect ourselves in the image of what we wish to become.  To aim toward that which we will never quite hit.  It’s the only thing that can sustain a true creative life.  At least one that is lived authentically.  Great works take great effort.  And great effort takes great sacrifice.  And I am learning that one can sacrifice without suffering.  But do so with joy and complete acceptance.

Maybe that’s why Chehkov always returned to the theme of life as a let down but we must work.  In this human comedy, Uncle Vanya, we must work.

Sometimes no one wants what you are selling. No matter how hard you try.  And the great gift from that, for me… is I get to learn about who I am in those moments.  What motivates me.  And make adjustments.  And those adjustments almost always involve me getting that diving bell out and digging in. And chipping away at what I am not, at what no longer serves me… till only the chair is left.  Till there is simply the chair and me.  And then, only the chair.  Of itself.  Whole and complete.

I think whenever I have been motivated by anything outside – either trying to predict what others will respond to, or what might have MARKET APPEAL, I end up with something that isn’t me.  And I pay a price.   Every time, I have paid a price. Sometimes that price is steep.  And it needs to be so in order to, like a Zen slap, correct my course.

In contrast, whenever I involve my heart, and lean toward truth, it always seems to create beauty.  And there can never be enough beauty in this world.

“So what do you do after you finish the chair?” I asked Ernie.

“What do you think?  Build another.”

 

 

 

 

The good side to being away from home

So I’m waiting for my nurse girlfriend to get off her shift and finding a home in the fridge for the banana cream pie from San Fernando Valley’s famed Four and Twenty diner and I’m thinking of all the loved ones who serve us on these days.

We don’t have to look to far away lands to militarize the concept of service.  It could be that son of yours who works the drive thru at McDonald’s.  Or your daughter who works the swing shift at the paint factory. Some things are twenty-four hour industries.  Hotels.  I remember doing Christmas shifts opening doors at hotels.  My brother John has sucked up many a double at the blast furnace in East Chicago.  And my honey on the fourth floor intensive care unit.   She would hate me for bringing her into this, but I’ll cope with that wrath on my own.  Like many so-called heroes, they hate being called such.  Singled out as that.  What they do is a job. It has to be kept on that level otherwise it becomes something it’s not.  And life has a way of smacking any delusions of grandeur when you’re job is to tend to the most critical among us.

So here’s to the fire fighters tonight.  Hope they get to watch Christmas Vacation on repeat like the rest of us instead of be out in the cold putting out fires caused by faulty wiring and an old plastic Christmas tree.

Holiday pay makes up for part of it because certain things in our world don’t stop for family gatherings.  Like our need for late night taquitos or an infant’s failing heart. And each require one of us to delay our celebration.

I was on speaker with my family at home back in Northwest Indiana getting passed along in the usual holiday fashion.   It was an echo chamber made worse by being on my speaker in the car.  I fought off unnamed guilt for not being able to clone myself as the marine layer slipped behind the pass at Mulholland and the sky was quick to sign off in thin layers of tangerine.

I heard about mom’s ham and the beef from Portillo’s and I got just enough a taste of home to make me hungry for more.  When you live away from your kin, or your roots- these days take on new meaning.   I miss out on things like who got who what for Christmas sometimes but when I do get to go home, the days are marked with occasion and event.  And quality time.    My brother Dan was quick to remind me something the Drill Instructors were apt to joke about as punishment during basic training for him way back:  “Joe, we gonna cancel Christmas. Just like that.  That’s what we are going to do.”

So yeah, no one’s gonna cancel Christmas.  Jesus will get born again in the usual way next year.  The lawn ornaments and nativity scenes will light up the American night once again.   But it’s nice to think of everyone working on these days.  And the ones we don’t have with us.  But I also like to think of the ones who don’t know they’re not alone.  Who maybe just lost a job or a wife or a dog.  These days can be hard on those.  I’ll try to keep that in mind as I wait for my honey to get home and shuffle like a zombie to bed, mumbling gratitude through sleep starved eyes.

Tonight I feel apart of it all I guess.  And wanted to take a moment to share it with ya.  But if you don’t mind, I’ll keep it brief tonight as I got a few presents to wrap.  I managed to pay it forward with my Chicago contingent by sending off certificates that authenticated that I offset my carbon footprint by donating to wind turbines in Kenya or something  instead of guessing what socks or sweater or book to give.  Made me feel like I could wash my hands of the whole end of the world carbon crisis affair. At least for 2018-2019 is concerned.  A drop in the bucket no less, but my drop.  That’s cool, yeah, but.. I do love to spoil my gal, so I put my powers of deductive reasoning to good use and now I am about to seal my educated guesses in wrapping paper and scotch tape.  Gift giving is an art in and of itself.  And one I have yet to master.  Good thing they won’t cancel Christmas so I can practice again next year.

Goodwill and peace beyond all understanding to each and every one of you on this big blue ball in the sky tonight.  May we each find that star of Bethlehem up there in the twenty-first century night.    I’ll keep the light on for my sweetheart and maybe the Johnny Mathis playing. Cause that’s what she likes.