Innocence Lost … and found again

Each year as my four still-little kids slowly grow up (yes, I know they grow too quickly, but that depends on how much attention you pay, and now that I have changed my life to the point at which I can focus on them, time has thankfully slowed down a bit …), milestones are reached, and one that is perhaps the most heartbreaking is the transition from the belief of the version of Santa Claus as mysterious god-like traveler, to the 7 and 8-year old version, where parents chase the kids from the room to secretly wrap presents addressed from Him to Them, in a deception that can be mean-spirited at best.

Last night, Sully, my little six-year old genius, sick in bed with an asthma identical to the type I had at his age, lay next to me while I was working on my laptop and asked me to “look up the Gods” on Google.  He first wanted to know all about the “Very First God”, and then the “Gods that came later”, and finally, the “Plant Gods” because he loves plants so much.  We took quite a journey together, discovering the likes of Kronos, Zoroaster, a detour to look at 200 pictures of Jesus, the Hundu gods, and finally watching an obscure video about shamans in South America using hallucinogenic plants to communicate with their own version of God(s).  Needless to say, it was a series of complication questions, but he studied each bit of information with his brand of seriousness that sometimes scares me, and then the conversation shifted to Santa Claus.  Sully is the type of kid that you don’t want to lie to — he strikes me as the kind of child that will remember such a slight pretty much forever, and so it was with great relief that he asked the kinds of questions that were fairly easy to answer, such as “So, if Santa Claus is coming to our house on Friday night, then when will he be able to get to the houses in China?”  Happily, now that NORAD is tracking Santa, that was an easy one, and I have no doubt that he is visiting that site tonight to watch His progress.  When I look at the four of them, there is a clear line between the two sets, and it runs directly across the axis of Santa Claus belief.  How different is the sensibility of the 7 and 9 year-olds, who “know” the secret of Santa and the 4 and 6-year olds who maintain their innocence of that Spirit, and how tough it is to disseminate when the fateful question comes … “Well … see, Santa is very much real as a Spirit, it’s just that as an actual person who lives in the North Pole with Elves … um …. ”  Big sigh at that point, and soon another one crosses over in their first step toward the dreariness of adulthood.

How can I communicate to these kids without being negative and cynical that discovering that Santa is an invention, or that earning money means you can buy more toys than your neighbor, or that sex is a thrill perhaps greater than the best victory on  Mario Brothers Brawl, are not necessarily great advances in their evolution toward growing up?  When I have the pre-puberty conversations with my 9-year old — initiated by him, by the way, and who, amazingly, can thoughtfully listen to what condoms are for instead of shamefully backing away as I think I probably did when I was that age — I always leave them with a slight tinge that more he learns about the world the closer he is to joining the rest of us adults, who fell asleep and forgot how to have fun a long time ago.

But see, this is my problem, and illustrates the state that I am in, and which I am trying to climb out of, where I sometimes feel guilt for the simple pleasures of having old-fashioned Fun in a childlike way because I am not earning money for the Mortgage or the Car Payment, or providing Guidance to our little ones from an Adult  perspective as a Responsible Parent.  And as it is my problem, it has nothing to do with them — that is, there is no choice but to do the best I can to show them that Adults do NOT have to be completely asleep and distracted from the present moment at ALL times.  One of the best things about being in the presence of small children is that they themselves spend most of their moments in the present, and demand no less from those that they are interacting with.  They catch you … so easily.  Try it sometime — act like a typical Adult around them, and you will soon see that they shrug and walk away, bored, because you are not responding with the same sense of wonder and concentration than they are as they ask these impossible and magnificent questions.

And so, there is nothing we can do.  The kids will grow up.  They will fall asleep just like we do — how many times did my father implore me to read Krishnamurti, spend time in monasteries, meditate, and generally seek, seek, seek answers for these deep and burning questions — and to what end?  None immediate, but hey — here I am , 40 years later and still asking them, right?  So it was not a total loss.  The point is that there is nothing we can do to prevent the kids from joining us here in Plato’s Cave except to wake up NOW … and then provide them with an example for the rest of their time with us.  I think there is still time, for me, because my kids are still young enough to witness it, since they are not allowed to go off on their own for another 9 – 15 years.  So … now that I am very close to figuring out how to support the family without killing myself (more about that in another post), there’s a chance that the Innocence that I myself lost right around the time when I discovered the “truth” about Santa, might be found again.

Fish … 16 years later

The news I alluded to earlier was that after 16 years I finally finished something I started!  Namely … Fish.

I think it was in the summer of 1994 that I holed up in a little Studio Apartment on Capitol Hill in Seattle for a summer and a half.  It was the first place I lived that wasn’t a hostel after the beginning of 1989, when I started fishing in Alaska.  From 1989 – 1994 I just traveled around the country and world, staying in hostels and camping, returning to a storage unit in Seattle where I had a duffel bag of fishing clothes, which I would drag up to the boats for another tour.

But in the summer of 1994 I wanted to see what it would be like to live in a place for months on end, and so I found a nice little studio in a brick building with hardwood floors.  I enrolled in a couple of acting classes at the UW, a couple of private art classes from an artist in Pioneer Square, and a mystery writing class at the University of Washington extension taught by Stephen Greenleaf, a California author.

The other thing I did was write a book.  The idea of writing the book came after one morning when I read a particularly interesting article in the NY Review of Books by Jonathan Raban.  It occurred to me that he lived in Seattle, probably just around the corner from me, and so I opened the phone book and dialed his number (back then I suppose he felt sufficiently anonymous to list himself — he probably unlisted himself shortly after!).  Knowing his interest in the sea, I invited him down to Pier 91 for an insider’s tour of a factory trawler.  I figured his innate curiosity would overcome any doubts he might have about receiving an unsolicited phone call from some fan.  I was right, and he met me there the next day.

He was surprisingly tall — the image I had created in my mind from reading his books, the first one when I was about 15, about his trip down the Mississippi — was one of an enormously clever, humorous, and impish personality.  In person he was a bit more regal than I imagined he would have been.  His language was what you might expect from someone educated in the best schools of England — and his manner was that of a perfect gentleman.  I talked about the sub-culture of the factory trawlers in Alaska, particularly the relationship between the Norwegian immigrants who were brought in on visas to teach the Americans how to fish, and those Americans who were the ostensible students — something he was particularly interested in.  When I suggested that this topic might be one that he would be interested in writing about, he cocked an eyebrow and said, “It’s YOU that should write about it, not me …”

That brief conversation stuck with me, and later that summer I dove into a plot that I had been thinking about  — a mystery set on a factory trawler.  For the ensuing 25 days I wrote about ten pages a day.  My days went like this:

6:30 Wake — write until 8

8:00 — breakfast in a cafe down the street

9:00 – 1:00 PM write

1:00 – 3:00 — walk to the Post Office box that I had in the U district, and back.

3:00 – 7:00 – write

7:00 – 8:00 eat at a restaurant

8:00 – midnight — write.

So, writing about 12 hours a day. I did this every single day for about 25 days (walking to the PO Box on Sunday was replaced with walking to a bar that served good microbrews) and during one of the walks I saw a poster or ad for the mystery writing class at the UW extension.  At the end of the summer I took the class, and was able to let Stephen Greenleaf read it as part of the class.  He said it was “good enough to publish” but it needed a “frame.”  He explained how to write one, but I never got a chance to write it.  I just put it on a shelf.

14 years later, in 2008, I found the file on an old computer and started working on the book.  The reason, of course, was the kids.  I wanted SOMETHING to leave behind, even if it was a silly mystery.  I first wrote a frame for it, then I ended up rewriting large parts of it.  I changed the sidekick character from a young black man from New Orleans to a Samoan fisherman, and I added some details here and there.  But, in general, I was surprised by the way the story had held up.

It took all of two years, but I worked out the logistics of self-publishing — actually started a publishing company by buying my own ISBN numbers — and the result is a 230-page murder mystery named “Fish.”  It was hard, hard work — I think I went through four Proof stages.  I can think of fewer painful tasks than to proofread a book you have written.  After the fourth time reading it you are so sick of it that you cannot imagine anyone reading it, much less buying it.

But what a great feeling to be DONE.

The Return

How perfectly appropriate that this site was dead in the water for the months of July, August, September and most of October, since this was the time when I was finishing up the brutal seven month stint of attempting to work 3000 miles from where I lived, and commuting across the country on a weekly basis, or as much as I could, to hold the family and my life more or less together.  At that time I was about as alive as the site was, and it was only this evening when I turned my attention to it, only to find it pretty much gone.  I did manage to get it back, though, after wrestling with the WordPress version and various file permissions.

And how ephemeral our web presences are.  If I typed “Owen Scott” into a browser, this site would actually come up first, sometimes, and always on the first page. Now, of course, it’s gone completely from their various databases.  This happened with House of Pilates a couple of times, but on a much smaller scale, since that site was down for just a few days, and the listing on Google and elsewhere popped back to it’s spot within a week or so of being back, but being gone for months … probably a transgression that is unforgivable.  Which is probably just as well.

I wish I could say that I myself were back to where I would like to be, although I am still clearly in recovery mode.  I have noticed that when describing the narrative of the last eight months or so, if I substitute the word “work” with “heroin” or “crack”, the sentences make the same sense.  I am, however, a binge-worker in recovery.  I suppose I need to learn a little about addiction to try to find a healthier relationship with work.  Right now I am having a very difficult time finding the energy that drove me to work like I did — and that is not the kind of energy I should be finding, since it clearly is not healthy, no matter how productive it is.

Anyway, I do have news — though no time at the moment to write it up … will do so in the next post…

The Traveler

Not so long ago, when I was younger, I loved to travel.  And, under the right circumstances, I still do.  Not lately, however.

On my way back from NY last week, I ended up on what we used to call a “Milk Run” — Westchester to Philly to Phoenix to SNA.  It wasn’t so bad, mainly because I have simply gotten skilled at the modern travel thing, which consists of a series of small details, performed ritually, and expressed pretty well in “Up in the Air” — no need to detail them now.

But, on the leg from Phoenix I had a very brief conversation with a guy, maybe my age, maybe a little younger (at what point does it become disconcerting when, in your daily travels, the people you meet are generally younger than yourself…), but in any case, this guy had been traveling – that is flying — twice each week for NINE YEARS.

His kids were 16 and 9.  So, it was all they knew of him — that he was simply gone most of the time.  For me this was a bit heartbreaking.  But of course I have no right to even think that, since for all I really know it could be the best thing for everyone.  But, my heartbreak was merely an extension of my own reality for these past five months.  Last week my nine-year old had cried when I wasn’t going to make his Open House, which he and his class had worked so hard for.  How many times had this guy I met experienced that kind of call?  And how did he survive even the first one?

On another leg I met an extraordinary woman by the name of Jackie who was indeed a bit older than me, although not nearly as much as she thought, wherein she praised my attitude of suffering over these kinds of things,  as well as the plan I shared with here wherein I would sacrifice the money, the professional challenges and accolades for some kind of Mosquito Coast-like radical family action, or series of actions.  She said that her own father was absent, and remained so, even to this day.  He was, however, a hard worker.  She said he did a wonderful job of providing for the family in a monetary way, but was an absolute failure in terms of providing emotional nourishment.  Or even archtypal nourishment,  because who can argue the inherent and far-reaching power of the Father Figure, as it were?  How many stories have we heard about young men wandering around, looking for the spiritual father?  Um …Ulysses, The New Testament … Catcher in the Rye to name  a few.

But, see, I can’t really tell if things really ARE different than when I was a kid.  Everyone tells me so — and this is in the context of when I describe what it was like to grow up with my own father, who was an absolute failure in all efforts to support the family in a monetary way, but a complete success in every other.  People tell me — they say things like “But the seventies was when this kind of thing was acceptable …”  What kind of things, and who are these people, you might ask.  Well, I’m mainly talking about giving up completely on what one can only describe as an unbalanced life led for the sake of much more money than would be needed if we lived a reasonable lifestyle.  Giving this up in favor of something much, much less.  Much smaller.  But filled with time.

It’s a cliche’ and I’m sorry for it — but it must be said again, and this is where I actually have some experience on a few different levels regarding the purely materialistic life — it is absolute folly to work yourself half to death in order to buy things.  There’s more to it than that, of course.  In fact it’s actually CRIMINAL to buy things that you don’t need for the sake of buying them, when you could be giving your money away to someone who could actually do some good with it.  But … hey, I can take that back for now, since I don’t want to offend the neighbors.  Much.

Anyway.

Just had to get that off my mind.  And anyway, it’s the 31st of May.  I can’t go a month without writing some damn thing .. especially since this category is “Daily Writing”  What a joke!

Panera’s University of Commodities Trading

Back in Orange County, but still working on NY projects means that I have to get up at 5AM, for the most part, and start my day by 6.  For the last few weeks I have tried to get into my office at around this time, and half the time the alarm goes off in the lobby when I use my key, and I have no way of turning it off. It’s pretty irritating, and I can’t work with the stupid thing ringing throughout the building, and so I just leave and head for a place where I can work (and even have breakfast!) which is Panera, not Starbucks, because at Panera’s they have cheaper coffee, better breakfast, a self-serve mentality, and for an old guy like me, better music.  Classical in the morning and Classic Jazz so good in the afternoon that my Dad couldn’t have put together a better playlist.

But the last few weeks have been especially great because twenty minutes after I arrive each time there is this older guy who shows up at the table across the room from me and proceeds to trade commodities through a combination of Internet and phone conversations with someone who is either his student, or the person who’s money he is managing, or both.  Not sure.  But it’s been absolutely fascinating as well as a little frustrating because I have to focus on designing and documenting CRM solutions while trying to listen with half an ear to a whole other world — just as technical, by the way — that I know nothing about, but have always been interested in.

What an opportunity!  I mean, this guy is obviously some kind of retired master of the trade, and just as passionate as he probably always was about it, because every time he returns from a trip to the coffee machine he’s cursing the pork belly prices, or hog futures, or cattle whatever …

And his conversations are priceless — I can only hear one side of the conversation, but it’s every bit as technical and arcane as what I suppose my conversations with my colleagues and students must sound like.  I suppose the difference is that the upside of learning that trade is a lot larger than the upside to learning to produce elegant entity relationship diagrams.

Or is it?

Starbucks is full of similar opportunities in learning, and the other day when I was pretty much stuck there on Saturday for eight hours banging out a monster document, I made friends with the woman who was sitting right next to me at one of those community tech tables that first made their appearance in Seattle in ’95, but which I suppose has led to friendships, maybe even love affairs and marriages — who knows — all over the world, perhaps… anyway this person was a lawyer who had turned first-grade school-teacher out of frustration and when I asked why I kept running into lawyers who turned into something else (I told her the story of my best friend thirty years ago, Dave Irving, who passed the NY bar and never practiced law because, as a paraphrase .. ” … the one thing I learned from Law School is that lawyers are scumbags and I don’t want to be one!”) she proceeded to explain in the most articulate manner as anyone I have ever heard exactly WHY I shouldn’t waste $54,000 and three years of my life to get a law degree.

This was a valuable lesson, because I really have been toying with the idea of going to law school, for  a few reasons —

1. Because I know I would be really good at it.

2. Because I am a little tired of working hour for hour at a rate that can barely pay the bills in this insanely expensive part of the country in which I live — or I should say, in this insanely expensive lifestyle that I have chosen.

3. Because I have a distinct and pleasurable memory of conducting kangaroo courts at the age of eight in the cellar of our house in Orange County, NY.  I remember being the defense lawyer in all cases, having no taste for prosecution.  I did, however, like to win.  I even remember the book I had, although not the title.  Just the smooth blue binding and the photos of big glass buildings and I think the Lincoln Memorial on the cover.  Men with black suits looking up in the foreground like on some kind of higher mission of justice …

But all of that romanticism notwithstanding, my new ex-lawyer friend from NY (who else but a New Yorker would take forty minutes from a day to make a new friend in a coffee shop?) explained the entire fifteen-year experience in law in a single sentence:

” Fuck me …?   Fuck You!!!”

That was about it.  As she said, it’s essentially a nasty business run by nasty, angry people.  Everyone’s angery.  Judges, colleagues, partners, non-partners trying to make partner … it’s just a social mess.

And you know?  I somehow believe her.

It turns out that none of my three reasons are really enough to take the trouble in getting the degree and then taking the bar, and finally making my way in that industry.  It’s a tough one to let go, but I really have to.  There are other ways to make a better living — like eavesdropping in Panera at 6:30 AM!

Escape from New York

I just spent a bunch of time in New York, and this time it was the actual city itself, not upstate, and man, was I happy to be back there, and re-discover a place that I had left 22 years ago. I could go on and on about the New York of today, but I’d rather tell the story of why I left in the first place.

In 1986, I was living in Ulster County in a spectacular, dilapidated farmhouse on 140 acres, with a pond, and endless meadows and woods all around.  There was an adorable Norwegian couple in their mid eighties next door, and I lived with my girlfriend in what could only be described as a sort of bucolic paradise.  I can’t remember what we paid in rent, but it could not have been more than $500 a month, because I’m pretty sure we couldn’t afford much more than that.  I believe it may have been the fall of that year when my girlfriend left for the Happy Valley of Amherst, MA, to get her master’s degree.  We more or less broke up, and we moved out of that old farmhouse, and I moved into my parent’s house down the road — from one dilapidated farmhouse to another.  The move was to be temporary, but the months slipped by — September, October, November …

And it was November where I began to feel a sort of growing frustration with my surroundings, because it’s November when the amazing multi-colored display of the autumn Catskills comes to an end, and rarely has any snow fallen by then, and so everywhere you look is a gray, dull forest of bare maples and oaks.  After 25 years of this, it starts to get … old, for lack of a better word.

I was framing houses that autumn and winter, and as the months wore on, I became more and more restless.  I was probably depressed about breaking up with my girlfriend, a little embarrassed to be living with my parents while in my twenties, and more than a little ready for a change.  January of 1987 was one of the coldest I had remembered.

One day in that freezing month, when the wind was blowing what had to be 40 miles an hour, I remember standing on some ceiling joists in a two-story on the East side of the Hudson, with my torso pushed through the rafters, accepting 4X8 sheets of plywood from an assistance below, and tossing them on a 12X12 pitch roof and nailing them as fast as the nail gun would operate in that arctic cold.  Three times the compressor had quit that day, and I remember being so cold that I couldn’t even move my jaw properly to answer the questions from the helper below me.  I just worked silently, slapping those long pieces of plywood onto the roof and moving as fast as my motor skills would allow me in that temperature.  At one point, I hung the nail gun on a rafter, pulled up a sheet and started to flip it onto the roof when the wind gusted ferociously and ripped it from my hand.  I watched it sail down the street like a little autumn leaf in the wind.

Something at that moment snapped in me, as I watched that sheet of plywood sailing away through the early afternoon white light.  I paused, watched it go, and laughed a little more than maybe I should have.  Then I slowly stepped down through the house and called down to the boss.

“Todd !  Hey, Todd!”

His head craned up from the compressor, which had just then quit from the cold.

“I’m taking off, man …”

He smiled,  “Absolutely … this is ridiculous. C’mon we’re all outta here, guys!  Let’s all break for the day!”

Down below as we wrapped up, I pulled him aside and explained that I wasn’t coming in the next day.  He looked at me, and said that I was right — I should take a couple of days off — maybe even a week.  I hadn’t had a vacation in more than half a year, and had been working Saturdays, and even some Sundays.   But I explained that, actually, I needed a little more time than that.  I said I would surely be back, but I wasn’t sure when.

He saw something in my eyes, I suppose, and didn’t try to dissuade me.  That afternoon I drove home home, backed the pickup up through the frozen yard up the barn in the back, and pulled my 17 foot Coleman canoe out and stuck it into the back of the pickup, through the back window of the cap.

I hugged my parents goodbye and started driving straight south, figuring I would stop when it got warm enough.  I ended up driving almost nonstop to the Everglades, where I put the canoe in a black river in the state park adjoining the federal lands.  Over the next two days, I paddled the boat very slowly down the winding dark water, fishing and stopping often,  until I reached the ocean.  There I more or less turned left, towing the boat behind me in just a few inches of water, as I walked east toward a deserted, stony beach, where I camped.  I decided, then, that I was not leaving that beach until I had decided just where I was going to live next.

It took three days, but after hours and hours of thinking, punctuated by longs bouts of not thinking at all, I finally came to a decision — the Pacific Northwest.  I would drive my truck straight west as soon as spring came.

I did return to work a few weeks later,  framing houses until the weather turned, but I told Todd I was done before my birthday, which was at the end of April.   He tried everything to get me to stay — told me I’d have my own crew if I wanted it.  Raise — all the stuff you do to keep someone who works hard.  But I was having none of it, and as the days warmed, I became more and more restless and excited, and just before my 26th birthday I packed up my truck, said goodbye one last time to my parents, and drove.  West.

The Parallel Life … Unlived

One of the things that frustrates us, especially as we get older, is the unlived parallel life.  At virtually every turn, we have opportunities for our lives to head in a certain direction, but we only seem to be able to follow and participate in just one of these threads.  In imaginative fiction as well as in imaginative science there is this recurring idea of a multitude of existing realities unfolding at every turn as we meander along our ant-like circuitous routes to nowhere, or wherever it is we think we are going.  It boggles our little minds to think about it, because there just seems to be way too many opportunities for a turn — more than we can possibly imagine.  I step in front of traffic, or I don’t.  If I live in Manhattan, that choice exists fifty times a day.  And there are 8 million of me in that little strip of land.  So it just seems too silly to contemplate.

But what are the real-life implications of being aware of the limitation of following just a single thread?  That’s it exactly — we limit our behavior.  After all, we have only so much we can do, and once we get past a certain age … well, it just gets to be too much to imagine.  We are already so far down a path … why bother.  Here’s just one …

You are in line at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC at 10:15 AM.  The place opens at 10:30, but there is a popular show there, so the line stretches like a snake almost through the glass doors.  You just wait, and play with whatever small square electronic box you carry around with you to kill the time and provide distraction.  Today, however, a spectacular woman appears behind you in the line — couldn’t be a day over 24.  Your heart stops for a moment, and the phone rings.  You take it, and it’s a lengthy discussion wherein you are able to somehow display you intellectual prowess, and perhaps a little wit.  What luck.  After the call, you quite casually twist 30 degrees and mention something about the line.  A huge smile is what you get back, and some kind of South American accent.  What country?  Venezuela.  Of course.  Happens you were there — yes, just before Chavez was elected.  She is studying politics in Madrid precisely because of Chavez.  She is both impossibly beautiful, friendly, and intelligent all at once.  Within fifteen minutes you realize that this would be one of those critical moments in your life … 20 years ago, anyway.  But not now.  When you both get your tickets, together, and step up toward the escalator, she turns to you helplessly, and shrugs with the map.  She wants a guide, or she likes you, or both.  But it doesn’t matter, at this point, because you know you cannot go down the path that is presented.  Surely, it would be an enjoyable day, but what more would it do but remind you that when you were twenty-five you never placed yourself in a position of meeting a Venezuelan heiress studying in Madrid, and so you could not have followed such a path.  Instead, you are on the path that has taken you here — and of course there is nothing whatever wrong with where and what you are now — it is full of love and life and happiness most of the time — but hey, I don’t care how happy you are every minute of the day, you must admit that it’s a bit frustrating and sad that our lives on this planet seem so limited, so structured, and so … finite.”

Yes, yes, I know there is beauty everywhere.  I also know that it is a supreme act of selfishness to view the outside world solely as it relates to ME, and it is certainly somewhat pathetic that I would deny myself a fine afternoon with a lovely person only because I’m a little sad that I’m not longer as young as I once was … but this transition from youth to middle age, and then through the belly of the beast itself as our hormones gradually begin to turn off like someone slowly cranking a rusted pump wheel … well, it’s tough.  I remember once in Woodstock, when my father was close to the end of his life, and we found ourselves at the Woodstock theater, waiting on line (again, with the lines! We should never complain about them …) and there was this very attractive woman in her fifties. maybe, staring at us in a friendly, open way.  I never saw my father so flustered.  Later , he turned sad, especially when I pressed him to step up and make some kind contact.  He was too far down his own path, and despite the fact that my mother had been gone for years, he couldn’t begin to imagine the possibilities.   It is what we do, I suppose.

When I was a lot younger I used to imagine all kinds of spiritual possibilities — like wouldn’t it be great if our “higher being,” as it were, was very much like a genius chess grandmaster, walking back and forth along a fifty-foot table against 20 players, managing 20 games at once?  With this, idea, what the kernel of our selves REALLY did was simply to manage all of these lives, or at least stay aware of them, guiding us along our paths like so many wayward sheep, all with the intention of learning and evolving, heading toward some higher plane of awareness.  Or, maybe it’s just a series of games, and the multitude of parallel lives we live are nothing more than an elaborate series of very interesting games played by some celestial race that we used to call Gods, but have lost our belief and in some cases, our need of them.

Anyway, that’s one idea, toward the middle of one life, on one single wayward path that has been followed for almost half a century.   It’s hard to reconcile all of the effort we expend in order to make sense and attempt to validate this one little thread that we have spun, if it’s true that there may be so many more that we are responsible for.  Just think of Proust, who lay in bed for years in an effort to Remember everything he could in his short life.  A heroic effort, to be sure, and worth it, I suppose, since he did produce something that outlasted him for going on a hundred years now. But think of the efficiency that we now have to emulate and extend this idea:

Technology is leading us toward the broadcasting of our every waking moment.  Twitter is the nascent beginning of a sort of Public Narcissism that will completely take us over within five years.  Mark these words — just a few years, people who are truly hooked into the “cloud” will wear devices or perhaps clothes that record every moment and will upload a constant “stream.”  People will choose to follow that stream or other streams.  Those will be the reality streams, which might get pretty mundane and boring, although we shouldn’t underestimate the capacity for humans to engage in all forms of voyeurism — they have proven that much with reality television — but perhaps more popular will be the fantasy streams, once we figure out how to create avatars and realities that might have been, and push them out into the cloud like so many errant children — lives to be lived and watched any time we choose to hook into them.  In that case, perhaps one of my sons will move to Madrid with a Venezuelan heiress, as well as raise eleven children on a farm in Idaho, work for thirty years in Patagonia as a geologist, and spend another life traveling the world as a member of Cirque du Soleil.   Maybe instead of immortality, humans will be content with living a dozen lives all at the same time.

Wouldn’t be so bad, I think.

” … like the time I strangled that poor Porcupine…”

It’s just going to be stories from the past from now on, I think, because they are easier to write, and it’s pretty clear that it’s futile for me to “save up” these stories for some future memoir.  Besides, it’s good practice.  Because of the time constraints in my life right now, these won’t be stories in any real sense (those have a beginning, middle, and an end), but rather “sketches”, I think, would be more accurate.

So this poor porcupine.  He is still staring at me these 27 years later with two round black marbles for eyes.   It haunts me, honestly.

See, my first college degree, such as it was, was in Fish and Wildlife Technology at the State University of New York at Cobleskill, which is a pretty nice little college town nestled in the rolling, grassy farmlands southwest of Albany, and which are really an extension of the Catskills themselves, minus the thick forests. The students in that program were almost universally small-town kids from around the state, like myself, who dreamed of a career with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.  Most of these kids, though, were way ahead of me in the actual hunting/fishing/trapping categories, since I never much liked to kill things when I was growing up, so I had a lot to learn if I was going to catch up and join the rest of the class, as it were.

We would have “game dinners”, which were organized by the professors and featured just about everything you could eat that was running around that part of the country from venison to grouse to trout — delicious and rowdy affairs with plenty of beer and wine and the things you do when you are freshmen in college.

My girlfriend at the time, Johnna Lee McClelland, had a project for one of the introductory classes wherein she had to pick an animal, trap it,  skin it, and present the pelt to the professor for a grade.  The project was graded both on skill as well as originality.  I thought that a porcupine would be pretty original, not to mention challenging to skin, and so I promised her I would furnish her with a freshly killed porcupine for her to complete her project.

The problem was that I had no traps, no real trapping skills, and did not have a ready supply of porcupines hanging around the college or even my house, which was about a hundred miles south. But, I went back home on spring break determined to find myself a porcupine.  A few years before that, when I used to camp in the Catskills with my best friend at the time, Kevin Reidy, we would be awakened in the middle of the night sometimes by strange clicking and grinding noises all around the tent, which turned out to be bands of porcupines waddling around at night, fretting as they are wont to do, apparently at least since Shakespeare’s day.  So I headed up to the Catskills.

A few days of camping and hiking found me not far from Echo Lake, climbing up a steep, wooded path toward Mount Overlook.  And what do you suppose I found as I approached about the halfway point? — a fretful Porpentine, swaying above me in the trees about fifteen feet above me!

First I had to climb up a small adjacent tree armed with a long stick, and I was able to prod the poor little guy until he fell out of the tree.  Then I jumped down and caught up to him pretty quickly and tried hitting him with a stout stick, but his body of quills were excellent protection against my blows.  Finally, I somehow rolled him over and pressed the thick, twisted club-like tree branch against his throat, and, like I said earlier, watched his black marble eyes watch me as he slowly expired.

When I presented this trophy to my girlfriend the following week and told her the story she was appropriately horrified.  She didn’t break up with me at that very moment, but if I remember, it wasn’t much long after that.   A sad, strange story from a long time ago …

1984

In the spring of 1984, fresh from college, I received a letter from a friend of my father’s named David Frair.  He had been one of the fascinating crew of people that my father hung out with in the 1960’s, and who had always represented the epitome of the free spirit of that time.  Back in the 1960’s and a little later (notice the date that the article linked above was written …) he had been a photographer for the Middletown Times Herald Record, as well as the Newburgh Evening News, which folded in 1990.  My father was a reporter for both newspapers, and was also a radio newsman for the local radio station in Newburgh, and they met as newspeople first, then became friends and even erstwhile business partners in a hilarious venture to build houses along with a motley crew of kids in their 20’s, all of which indulged in the recreations of that decade.  The efforts to actually build houses under the influence of those times, and attempting to do so in the one of the most conservative places in New York (how is it that Orange Counties around the country end up so conservative?  Was it William III himself?) lent itself to endless stories from both David and my father, as well as their associate Joey Nicosia.

But that’s not what the letter was about. It was an offer to me to come out the Cape Cod, where Dave was currently living, to help him “manage his land and sea affairs”, which meant standing in for him on land, helping to finish various construction projects, while he went to sea on small Cod boats, and occasionally making sea trips while he remained on land.  I jumped at the chance, since Dave himself represented the kind of adventurer I wanted to be, and because the Cape is a lovely place, especially in the spring.

My first assignment was to spend the summer finishing the painting of a huge old mansion located next to the Kennedy estate in Centerville, MA (Hyannisport is just a stroll down the road) named “Fernbrook“.  It is now a bed and breakfast, but at the time it was owned by a fascinating couple from Boston.  He was an eccentric artist and she was an administrator at a Boston hospital, and she came down on weekends.  I was just a kid, but I moved right in and not only finished the panting project, but became the groundskeeper, for lack of a better word.

The owners took on boarders to help make the morgtage, and a Danish family of a single mother and two teenage daughters moved into the attic upstairs.  There was a woman across the street in another huge old house who collected asian artifacts her whole life, and whose husband has spent forty years in the foreign service.  I would mow her lawn as well, and she introduced me to Gabriel Garcia Marquez as a writer to admire, even if it was futile to emulate his vision.  I still have a few of the soapstone buddhas she gave me.  They sit in what we now call Crystal’s office.  Halfway through the painting job, I called for my father, and he came and spent a couple of months with me there, helping me to finish the house.  I vaguely remember some arguments, which eventually caused him to return to NY, but while he was there we had mostly great times together.

There was a pond, and what seemed like acres of weeping willows, and hilly mounds of soft grass everywhere, fragrant gardens, and wide porches that wrapped around various portions of the house.   There was a strange guy named “Smitty” who seemed to come from Texas, and who would suddenly appear in the strangest circumstances, uttering phrases that made no sense,  and who my father  described him as the local Sufi mystic, an exchange that had me laughing so hard that I smile broadly now, 25 years later, remembering it.  The teenage sons of the owners would occasionally come down from Boston and open the house up to the locals for parties that  lasted days.

A couple of trips for Dave on Cod boats ended badly for me, and so I retreated to the mansion for the remainder of the summer and into the fall.  In mid-October I left the Cape and drove to the Adirondacks to live in a cabin along the upper reaches of the Hudson, when I took a somewhat serious stab at writing.  But that’s another story entirely.

Here’s to hoping that this current job will leave me enough time after a few months to flesh out this story and also tell the next …

Unlikely Saints Among Us

When my father was alive, and I was much younger, he and I would have long conversations about what, exactly, was meant by “enlightenment.”  I remember at one point he gave me a wonderful book about a woman who called herself the “Peace Pilgrim,” and who simply walked wherever the road took her, for 28 years.  She walked for a purpose, and while her routes may have been random, her intentions were not.  Nevertheless, collectively, as a culture, we call people that do things like that “crazy,” but of course they are far from it — if we must indulge in our propensity to compare everything, then  it is we that are crazy, settling for a life of drudgery, normalcy, and routine, and they who are sane, alive, and without fear.  It is someone like the Peace Pilgrim who I think sets a good example of what we might call “enlightened.”

Maybe a useful definition might be one who has a freedom of spirit, and who is in touch with the kernel of awareness that is completely liberated from distraction, ego, and fear — those things that keep us locked into a daily dialog with dread.  It’s a bit naive to think that the enlightened person feels no pain, and is only happy all of the time.  Happiness, I think, is more of a natural condition of freedom, of enlightenment, but it not impervious to pain and suffering.  It’s just that the enlightened person experiences suffering with the same clarity that they experience everything else, and so they are more alive than the rest of us even then.

But there are subtle degrees, and every once in awhile, if you keep your eyes open you stumble upon someone who is living in this enlightened state right before your eyes, and in the most unlikely of places.  I don’t remember this happening for about the last twenty years or so, so it’s worth writing about, since it happened today.

Today I took a certification exam, which is delivered by a company named Prometric,  a gargantuan network of tiny and not-so-tiny testing centers spread across the globe like so many grains of salt.  Some of these places are really tiny — they are found in Community Colleges, strip malls, in the lobbies of office buildings — all over the place.  Today’s exam was delivered in the local Community College, and after thirty-five minutes of conversation with the proctor there — a middle-aged woman who worked part-time there — I felt that I was immeasurably enriched simply for being in her presence, such was the energy that she carried around with her, and which she had no trouble expressing.  She absolutely loved her part-time, low-paying job, and gave it her all, to the point at which she had used her design skills to create a set of blueprints for the complete redesign of the center itself — a generous offer that the college, or Prometric, or maybe both, took her up on.  They move into the new building in January.

With just a few simple words she changed my way of thinking about teaching.  The limit I had naturally imposed on myself with respect to teaching these technical courses, once  I get the Microsoft Training Certification, was that I would limit myself to teaching things that I myself was an expert in.  This sounds like a fairly sensible idea, and it could actually work from a practical standpoint because I do have a lot of broad and deep experience in this industry, but she pointed out that what was bringing to the classroom was much more than the dry, procedural knowledge of the subject matter — it was me, my energy and personality, and the ability to help people open up to the material, which in my profession, can be dense, abstract, and impenetrable at times.  And it is indeed my gift for analogy and communication that makes me a good teacher, and not necessarily what I know.  Besides, as she pointed out, the Curricula is set, particularly for the Microsoft Courses — it’s the art of interpretation and delivery that makes the difference, and is why everyone doesn’t simply lock themselves up in a room with a book to learn what they need to learn these days.

But it was the few simple words that she left me with, and delivered in a manner that made me feel the importance of the idea that really stopped me, because I had not heard them so simply expressed in a long time — it was the simple fact that after all of the years she had been alive, and all of the things she had learned, she felt that the only place it made sense to spend time was the present.  Neither the future nor the past held much use for her.  It w as only the present where she felt most alive.  She mentioned God and Blessings a number of times in that relatively brief conversation, but I must say, I don’t think Dogen himself could have said it better.

Writing, finally, because it's better late than never