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"Well they blew up the chicken man in philly last night, and they they blew up his house, too..."     BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN    Atlantic City

Over the Christmas/New Year holiday I was introduced to some new music. Music taste is like food taste. And cartoons. Just because two people like everything they ever shared together before, it does not translate that the next thing will be relished equally. So when a friend with which I have no real musical history said "You have to listen to this..." I was skeptical. Until I was hooked. Everything- the trio format, the melancholy meter, the purposefully off-tempo nature of the call and response- in essence the precision unruliness of the whole, made me, in an instant, a life-long fan of Esbjörn Svensson.

Then the punch line-

"yeah; too bad he's dead..."

So, anyway, in one breath I'm given this great music and in the next the weight of the knowledge that they'll never be any more. It makes me sad to love it so much. Really, go out on the googles and search for "Elevation of Love", the live performance from Berghausen, Germany. You'll understand...

Damn kids...

--- --- ---

Death has been the theme of late, this year's black. I've had to experience too much of it, viscerally and peripherally. I'll let you in on a little secret. Both suck. When death comes close you grieve. And grief lingers long after you think it should have known it was time to go. Grief is like a bad house guest who missed the cue that its time to strip the bed, pack the bags, and take your coffee in a travel mug. For cryin' out loud I just want to read the paper...

And when death comes to a friend its just as hard because there is nothing to be done. Be available, be open, be a good listener. But don't try to 'help' because there is no help you can offer that a true friend wouldn't have already extended.

--- --- ---

Everything dies, baby, that's a fact...


Its true for people, pets, plants, jazz musicians, even well-intended-but-poorly-conceived-blogs. Everything has a lifespan. My dad's death was sudden but not unexpected. When a body nears ninety years old all bets are off. You say 'he had a good life' and thank the lord the end was quick and relatively painless. But when death comes sooner you begin to question the point of it all. So young, so much left to do, so much- so much...


When my brother Skip died I was mad. Mad that he didn't try harder, mad that I try at all. To this day I don't think I've really cried for him. I cried on and off for days after our cat Gabriel died. P and I talked about what a good soul he was, and how he enriched our lives. And we buried him in the garden and placed an angel on his grave. But for my brother there was only anger. No, that wasn't it. There was mad. Concocted from a pound of frustration and seasoned with a healthy pinch of guilt. Mad. That it made no sense.

--- --- ---

But maybe everything that dies some day comes back...

That days are getting longer. Dinner comes at twilight now, and not early evening. Looking out the kitchen window, the sky is streaked pink and purple. A pillow of dusk. It is a time of looking torward, not whence. Gabriel's angel holds a handful of seed for the finches. They do not linger and wonder at the nature of tender cherub cupping her hands for them to feed from. Lingering is careless and fraught with danger. Smart animals...


I'm listening to e.s.t. Live from Hamburg. It is such beautiful music. It makes my brain smile whilst I write. And I realize as I listen, it never ends. As long as I listen the music is real. Every time a song ends, the audience applauds. Every time. And then another song begins. Over and over. And so it goes.


It occurred to me tonight that when I left Florida, after I said goodbye to my dad, I took only one souvenir- honest to God- a travel mug, full of coffee. How'd I miss that one?


Its time-to move forward, or if not forward, at least toward. Toward the coming spring, coming opportunity, toward the future,  And bring a travel mug full of memories, and stories, and good music...


--- --- ---


"Everything dies, baby, that's a fact. But maybe everything that dies some day comes back. Put your makeup on and fix your hair up pretty, and meet me tonight in Atlantic City..."






I am afraid I am a very poor example of Buddhist detachment... LAMA NORBU Little Buddha

I knew it would be difficult. And it was.


It wasn't difficult because I didn't want him to go. Going or not going wasn't my decision to make. It was his. And he made his decision. It was his time, he knew it was his time, he made his decision, and he embraced it. It was difficult because I was powerless to do anything.


By the time I reached their Florida home he was already very weak. My sisters had been tending to him for a week by then, dutiful and doting daughters, expressing true unabashed love. He had stopped eating, and drank only to lubricate his throat. Twenty-four hours later he was in a dream state. In another twenty-four he was gone. Its forty-eight hours later as I write this.

And I'm in a good place.

It's not that I don't miss him. Every time I think I'm near the end of my list I find new reasons to miss him. I'm in a good place because I found a parachute.

--- --- ---

It felt like jumping from an airplane, like falling. An event uncertain except for the certainty of the pain to come. But it wasn't falling. What I was feeling was actually the sensation of clinging. Of holding on. In short, grief. Grief is the inability to let go of emotion, and the initial emotional freefall that comes thereafter. Thing is- the deed is done, the die cast. And wanting it to be different = Grief. With the capital "G".

And grieve I did. With the capital "G". It began almost as soon as I arrived, and never really stopped until I had said my goodbye and headed home.

I had to go partly because it was time for me to go. I had to get back home to my life, to my family. And partly because there was nothing I could do, except continue to grieve. Worse, my grief was beginning to feed on itself, and was becoming destructive. It was time to go. And let go. But what I didn't know was that hidden inside letting go was a parachute- a big gossamer veil to slow the fall. And within that veil of letting go was the comfort and healing.

I wrote about this not too long ago, about letting go, although it reads now like ancient text. What I wrote about then was slightly different. I wrote about letting go in one's personal life, of not being driven by goals or decisions. Of being the water, and not the rock in the water. Of giving over to inevitability. This is different. And the same.

One immediate acknowledgement was in the needs of mine own family. Life goes on whether we are prepared to go on with it. Or not. But normalcy made me feel normal again. People in the supermarket laughed and discussed weekend plans. The cats at the feed store gave their usual disinterested greeting. Gasoline still cost too much.  Normal. It felt "let go."

--- --- ---

From this point forward it will always be "after dad died." And yet life goes on. And will go on. In the way that life must. And I will miss him, like my brothers and sisters will, and like my mother will, though none of us as deeply as my mother will. And I will cry, at unexpected times, for unexpected reasons. And I will carry with me the memories, of his smile, his amazing piercing whistle, his mechanical genius, and his love- his unending, inexhaustible love. And from these I will build my parachute, and keep it tucked firmly under my arm in case of emergency.


I am afraid I am a very poor example of Buddhist detachment...




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Don't Stop Believing...

"Mama, cars don't behave. They are behaved upon...." BOOLIE WERTHEN Driving Miss Daisy

I used to love politics. It was one of my favorite sports, right up there with hockey and pitching pennies. But no more. Watching politics now reminds me why I turned the television off in the first place, and makes me question why I ever turned it back on. Too much too much. American politics, and maybe politics in general, almost requires a suspension of basic physical laws merely to exist, because politics seems to only function properly in a one-dimensional universe. Politics has become about dislike, and mistrust, and why the other guy sucks so much. It's one of the reasons we should never look to politics for change. It's just not about that. Maybe it used to be but those days are gone along with the forty-hour work week and the 16 ounce pound of coffee. Talking about politics is pointless, because politics will only change when its very survival demands it. The sad and basic fact is that politics, and by extension governance, does not act. It only reacts.

I have a new business card. On the old one I referred to myself as photographer, teacher, and "activist", though without the air-quotes. A profession of activism is not entirely untrue, but its not really accurate either. First of all I'm not completely comfortable with the idea of activism. The word connotes acts far too radical and anarchistic for my taste. And neck tats. So I changed the wording slightly and now refer to myself as an advocate. I like the sound of that. It rings entirely true. I am an advocate. And in some way so must we all be.

I believe that we should live a considered life. The mere fact of our sentience makes this obligatory. I believe that only through sharing ourselves with others do we give our life value. I believe in stewardship of our physical planet. I believe that still photography has a peculiar power to enable us to comprehend the beauty, and horror, or our modern existence. And I believe we have an obligation to advocate for the things we believe in. It is within advocacy that the conduit for change begins and the roots of leadership take hold.

It all begins with knowing what you believe. The very nature of belief, a really true, must tell the world belief, compels the believer to look for others to share it with. The group of equal believers finds a singular empowerment through the belief and the comity of their bond. Their beliefs become magnetic, pulling others closer, if only for look. But all magnets polarize, and outside every belief is an equal and opposite belief with is own believers. Which is where the magic happens.

When our beliefs are challenged, when we become forced to defend a core value, and can do so effectively, even without changing the mind of the challenger, we gain a confidence in our beliefs and a confidence in our self to share those beliefs. We become, for lack of a better word, leaders. No one asked us to lead, or looked to us for leadership, or knew leadership resided within us. We simply lead. Lech Walesa was an electrician in the Gdansk, Poland shipyards. He believed that the workers deserved a union. Communist Poland was not a place where unions found easy purchase. But Walesa believed, and enough of his workers believed in him that from a strike against the yard operator (enter activism) that he organized was born the Solidarność movement, ending in the downfall of the communist government. That's the thing about beliefs. No one becomes a leader who doesn't believe, and believing can make anyone a leader.

As often as possible I try to engage my students in debate. Its one of my charter responsibilities as a teacher, to foster critical thinking. Often we talk about how involvement drives decision, and uninvolvement indecision. I believe it is essential that they own a firm understanding that they have an obligation to be involved in, or at least aware of, the world they inhabit. Because from awareness is borne belief, from belief confidence, and only from a position of confidence can someone truly lead.

Practice leadership. Plant a seed. Lead by example. Love your life and share. Share your religion, your passion, your favorite team. Make a difference. Offer a ride, loan a buck, buy a cup of coffee. Stand in front of the tank, march, be noisy. Or work quietly and in the background. Never give up. Don't back down. Or give in. Be the better version of you. Believe.



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An Un-whole Whole

I ain't happy but, I'm feeling glad I got sunshine, in a bag I'm useless, but not for long The future is coming on...

GORILLAZ  Clint Eastwood


I read an interesting blog post recently that focused on the idea of some people having near completeness but missing a critical element either socially or professionally, so as to remain somehow un-whole. And although I agree with the point of the article I think the picture is fundamentally flawed. I've come to believe that if we develop empty areas in our whole, they become filled with other elements of character with similar shapes. Nature abhors a vacuum. We become driven professionals, or passionate lovers of some thing, to the create a sense of wholeness. Outwardly we look and act whole, but we remain essentially un-whole.  Reestablishing a balance, then is not just a matter of filling a void, but requires a more base level reorganization of self, which is much harder work.

Last summer I became familiar with the twelve-step program of recovery used by groups like Alcoholics Anonymous. Its used by numerous others as well because it has such a simple philosophy. Healing begins with a simple admission; I am powerless over my transgression, and I cannot fix this alone. It is a beautiful and elegant solution. It's also what makes healing so hard. Most of us are not good at self-reflection. We project our psychological duck face to the mirror, take a quick look, and move on. We don't want to admit to powerlessness. Yet it remains the key to change. But an admission of powerlessness is not a admission of weakness. Rather it is an admission of connectedness, and acknowledgement that we are part of something bigger than ourselves. It is an acknowledgement that we have responsibilities to others beside ourself.

But it also means much more...

We live in a world of unprecedented technological connectedness. Email, texts, Twitter, Facebook. We have this amazing conduit for connectivity. But for it to have a full measure of usefulness we have a responsibility to use it to create a lasting dialogue. Otherwise we are just electronic soapbox preachers, shouting to a crowd of disinterested bystanders.

What constitutes connectedness?

Connectedness is awareness. An awareness that we all are, that we all exist. That as we pass among one another we exchange between us small bits of understanding, bits of cosmos itself, bits of ourself. The bits fill the voids within us, within our whole. Thomas Merton once spoke of standing on a street corner in Louisville Kentucky and watching the people walk by. In a moment of personal epiphany he saw in the chaos a delicate dance of connectedness as bodies slipped past one another in a silent recognition of each other. He saw also his own connectedness, which had been the very thing he fought against as a contemplative monk. For years Merton had wanted only solitude, from the world, from fellow monks. He wished only to write, to examine his own singular relationship with God. Now here he was, on a busy downtown street corner, observing this magical dance, and seeing the the people "shining like the sun". In a moment he understood the deeper meaning of connectedness, and that it was within this congress with others that God resides.

Connectedness is courage. Mohandas K Gandhi spoke of the non-violent movement as being founded in the principle of connectedness.  To Gandhi connectedness demanded stewardship, of the poor, the sick, the needy. From this stewardship came the courage to protect, and from this the courage to act. The action, or non-action as it were, was borne from the courage of connectedness.

And so it goes...

So, as for the point I seem to be not making in all of this, is that from connectedness comes wholeness. The little slices that enter our whole, the ones we fill with misguided actions and activities, are really symptoms of a disconnect. Fortunately its easy to heal. Admit that you are not alone, that you need your family, you need your friends. Tell your loved ones that you love them. Then show them.

And be whole.





The Junk Drawer

There were several interesting responses to Monday's post regarding fear, enough so that I'm going to continue with that theme for today's entry.  Its a little more more light-hearted and a bit tongue in cheek, but it's from the heart. Okay. A couple days ago a friend and former student (thank you, Sarah) wrote a facebook post expressing her joy at having cleaned out her junk drawer, and it struck me as a powerful metaphor. I too have a junk drawer, both in a literal and figurative definition of the phrase, and usually I wait far too long to clean either of them out. So this past weekend I took a good look at the physical junk drawer, the one in the kitchen, cleaned it real good, and in the process mused over my organizational methodology.

It goes like this...

My junk drawer contains three distinct classifications of items, based loosely on the Stephen Covey important/urgent matrix; "Important / must be dealt with", "Important / too scary to deal with right now", and "Junk i'm not prepared to let go of yet".

Almost everything that goes into the junk drawer enters under a larger umbrella classification; "Please Make It Go Away", and is disseminated from there to its final sub-catagory. One of the more frustrating things for me is my inability to accurately determine at the outset on which pile the object in question will ultimately reside.  The "must be dealt with" pile is usually bills to be paid or statements and business documents in need of filing, and the "junk" is usually bulk mail I've inexplicably kept, broken things, and things I might have a use for someday if I lived a different life from the one I have now. But it's the "too scary to deal with right now" is special, because its contents are always so surprising.

I pay most of my bills online; all my utilities except for electricity, home and auto insurance, credit cards; I either receive electronic reminders and statements, or have scheduled payment arrangements in place. Very little paper in the form of requests for payment ever cross the threshold anymore. Most of my financial transactions are made in the virtual realm, so nothing truly ever comes in or goes out- instead a mutually agreed upon token is sent which acknowledges that a transaction has taken place and all accounts are in agreement. Its clean with no messy details. It just goes away, and and my laptop glows with a happy blue-white light and says "Thank you for your payment." Neither fear nor trepidation ever taint the process.

But the bills that arrive in envelopes are cold, stark reminders of a debt owed- and that scares me. It means writing a check (which means first finding the checkbook) and although it is still allegorical, it represents a harder form of currency that I must physically part with. It means sitting in the harsh light of the kitchen, and having to write out the word "hundred". And it means having that much less hard currency until next payday, which seems perpetually fourteen more days away. "Too scary," it growls. And so it goes away for another day.

But the "scary" pile isn't just about money. That's what makes it so fascinating. Because within it lurks other things like reminders of social contracts not of my own making, or of my own making which I now regret. It contains requests that trigger my chicken-shit gland, which is already hyperactive to begin with. It contains things that challenge my belief system, which is based on the principle that I'm an inferior human being.  Some of the things that go into the "scary" pile are nice things, like letters from former students, requests for speaking engagements, museum 'calls for work'. Sometimes it just seems like too much bear. So in the drawer it goes until i can screw up enough courage to pull the drawer out- all the way out, set it on the kitchen counter, and address my fears with a big glass of wine.

Sadly, the biggest, and most unruly pile is not the "scary" pile but rather the "junk" pile. The "junk" pile is a sad and constant reminder of lost interests, of various successes and failures. Among it we find bills which have been replaced by more recent reminders, calls for work with expired deadlines, broken things for which I have to finally admit I have no real interest in fixing, and things I can't remember why they ever found the drawer in the first place. But it also contains odd reminders of things I've long since accomplished and moved on from, receipts, stubs, souvenirs of happy events long passed.

In addressing the junk drawer the procedure is always the same. I always start with the "must deal with" pile and all its attendant obligation, and usually nothing there ever seems as intimidating as it appeared to be when it first went in. Because, honestly, when you absolutely have to face it, you do. Next is the  "junk" pile, mostly because it requires purging before it can accept more, and also because it's my reward for slogging through the "must deal" pile and addressing the drawer in the first place. Lastly comes the "too scary" pile, to be recycled for another time and glass of wine. But it's always smaller than I thought it would be, and it never recycles more than once. It has to do, i suppose, with the pain/pleasure principle- when the pain of not doing finally supersedes the pain of doing it, the 'it' gets done. Or maybe it's because it is just so horribly embarrassing to have to look at it more than once. With that the cycle is complete, the purged items are tossed, and the drawer returns to its happy home.

From the outside it appears an endlessly amusing exercise, and I only wish it held some kind of grand parable or lesson to be learned- like "face your fears" or "take care of things now"- but honestly I only come away with a clearer understanding of my quirks. Plus, it kind of works. Mostly. For better or worse it has been my way for well over twenty-five years. It has gone from action to habit to trusted old friend and at this point I see no urgent need to abandon it for something different.

I only wish I could remember how to order more checks...






Fear of Falling

When we fear  things I think that we wish for them ... every fear hides a wish.


Back when I was clever I had a favorite joke. No, not the penguin joke. I used to say that I didn't have a fear of falling, I had a fear of landing. It was supposed to show my grasp of semantics, and my wry, subtle, ironic side. Except that the joke wasn't ironic, or particularly subtle. Or funny. Truth is though that I have a genuine fear of heights. And I've spent a good portion of my life trying to prove myself wrong.

The house I grew up in had a second floor bedroom with a door to a porch with no railings. It was at best an eight foot drop to the lawn below, and more than once I had watched my younger brother take a flyer off the back of the house with nary a thought. I used to stand on the edge looking down, and I could feel my hands cramping- it was the strangest feeling- my hands would tingle and curl into a cramped fist until I went back inside. I can recreate the feeling to this day just by thinking about it, it was that powerful. Looking back I like to think that I was standing hard in the face of my fear with fists clenched so tight as to cause me pain. But it wasn't like that at all. It was some lower level recognition of all the possible consequences of purposefully standing at the edge. It was more like, "I'm going to puke now."

Now, there are some things that scare other people that I'm not so afraid of. Speaking in public. Being first in line. Day-old bagels. And yet so many of things that I am afraid of- making small talk at parties, being noticed, making phone calls, seem comparatively silly. Over time I've come to understand that often what I perceive as fear is really simple anxiety, including my fear of heights. My fear of making phone calls is honestly an anxiety over having to pay attention to what the other party is saying. I'm am a visual learner. Show me a picture of food and I can easily surmise how it was made and what it will taste like. But describe a recipe to me and I'm lost by the time I hear, "First you..." I'm the same on the phone.  My mind wanders like a monkey. I try to take notes. I try making mental pictures. Nothing works. Its frustrating. So I tend to avoid the phone. I use email and messaging copiously. At parties, where I am equally likely to be expected to converse, I park near the food. Or a door. Problem solved.

Last spring I stood at the rim of the Letchworth gorge. My entire body vibrated and tingled, my hands curled and cramped. And in an instant I understood my anxiety. It is an anxiety over trust. Do I trust the two inch thick tempered glass viewing platform on the Kinzua bridge to not let go beneath my feet? Do I trust the one hundred thirty year old iron railing at the edge of the Thirty Mile Point lighthouse to not snap when I lean on it? Do I trust the rocky ledge at Letchworth to not give way and plunge me three hundred feet down the side of the precipice? And do I trust myself to want turn and walk away from the edge? But bottom line it is still just an anxiety, and it is based entirely on an uncertainty of outcome. And to a degree, so is fear.

But even though they share kindred traits, fear and anxiety are not siblings but rather cousins, with entirely different family dynamics. Anxiety can range from annoying to crippling in its intensity. The same anxiety might slow one person but stop another in their tracks. Anxiety is situational and transient. It waxes and wanes. I understand, or at least acknowledge, my most of my anxieties and try when I can to stretch their limits. But Fear is different. Fear is bigger and more profound. Fear is, well, fear. Because fear, for all its ferocity, hides within its roar a siren's call.  Fear is a challenge, a call to action. Fear is the ego whispering, "You don't dare." Fears are the wishes we dare not make. Fears are risks we dare not take.

For instance, I believe that I have a genuine fear of success. It would explain a lot. It would explain why I haven't had a solo show of my photographs in over fifteen years. Or why I don't book more, and more profitable, photo gigs. It would explain why the photographic triptych that won Best in Show at a prestigious regional art competition last fall is packed away in my attic right now. It would explain why I've sabotaged almost every one of my opportunities toward professional advancement. (Ego) "You don't dare."


Fear as a wish deferred explains the what, but not the why. Why don't I dare? Okay, I was born and raised in the Catholic church.  And although i'm no longer a practicing member, I'm still imbued with its doctrine and principles. And If there is any one thing the Catholics teach better than anything else it's humility, wrapped in a cloak of eternal guilt. My entire adult life is an example of that creed. Catholicism doesn't by any means discourage success, but as for personal recognition the party line is quite different. Do well, and do good, just don't make a fuss. So it could be the legacy of growing up Catholic that keeps my ego in check. But it is also quite possible that it is simply the way my parents (who are also Catholic) raised their clan; "That's nice dear and I'm proud of you, but no one likes a braggart." Regardless of its source, it's an issue with which I have always struggled, and one with which I will never be comfortable in attempting to change.

But back to my main point. If every fear hides a wish, then suddenly fear isn't so big. Or bad. Fear becomes manageable. I get that now. So finally, I'm learning to dare. Baby steps. The first thing I did was to start a blog so I can think out loud, and then I invited people I know, and people I don't know, to read it. I even contacted a couple galleries about show possibilities. Solo shows. Of my work. And honestly it hasn't been (very) scary, even though it did involve having to make phone calls. In fact, its been a somewhat liberating experience. I've challenged some admittedly basic fears, and found hidden inside them, a wish. And nothing bad happened. Huh. Weird.

I'd love to know what fears you've conquered, and how you managed to conquer them. Just in case. Because I'm thinking, maybe I'll finally try a spin on a ferris wheel. Or wearing orange...

until then,