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"Leave the gun. Take the cannoli..." PETER CLEMENZA The Godfather

A couple weeks ago I suffered an inevitable WordPress Blog Failure (WPBF). I logged into the blog and- everything was gone- everything. Posts, pictures, comments; all gone. It took two weeks to get it back, and I'm still looking for the photos to add back in. But at least its back. When I found the blog missing though, my first reaction was to want to puke. I fought it off but it was in my throat. Six months work disappeared in an instant, like Paulie in The Godfather. I could taste the cannoli.

My second reaction was relief. Maybe now is a good time to stop. Frankly, I was surprised I had six months' worth of posts in me. (A friend who edited some early drafts thought I had far less than that.) But merrily I rode along, spouting vast theories based on half-vast premises. And I loved every word I wrote. And every comment I received. I especially loved the single comment I received on my second post, wherein the commenter called me everything from just plain stupid to truly psychologically damaged. It was in itself a work of art. It made the blog- great, and fun, and important.

But after my dad died I just lost steam. After The Vigil I had myself convinced that I had moved past it all, but in all honesty I hadn't really even begun to work through any of it. I left Florida for home on a Friday morning. My dad died a few hours later. When I left for the airport the original plan was for a memorial service sometime in "the future", but by the time I arrived home that evening everything had changed. The reality was that less than a week later I was the only one of my siblings who was not in attendance for my dad's funeral mass. I was at the gym, eleven hundred miles away. It really pissed me off.

Shortly after that, I wrote about Ahab, and what a tool he was. I wrote about my dad, and how much I miss him. And after that I couldn't think of anything decent to write about.

So I just stopped.

And all that time I missed it so. The truth is that I love writing, and I love working against my self-imposed deadlines, and scheduling the drafts at 11 pm to post at 5:01 am the following morning. So I'm taking another shot at it. A shot at momentum. As it stands right now, I don't feel comfortable writing about Buddhist ethics, and I have been counseled not to delve into topics relating to education. So that leaves me with cycling, and photography. And nutrition. And possibly big pharma. (Did you read the story about the pesticide resistant "super-weeds"? The subtext of the story is that over 70% of all corn and soy grown in this country is genetically engineered by Monsanto to resist Monsanto's Roundup®. The sub-subtext is that 100% of the 70% genetically engineered corn and soy is, at some point in its life, soaked in Monsanto's Roundup®. yum.)

I'm also taking this opportunity to start a public registry to replace my aging camera equipment. You can sponsor a lens or a body or an accessory or two. Right now I have my eye set on a Fuji X-Pro1 or X-E1. Don't be shy.

Truly tho- the short of it all is that I think I'm back- I think.

That, and-  I've really missed my friends.

brother mark

(psst; click the quote for a special treat...)



Abbey Road

"Do or Do Not. There is No Try"   YODA   Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back

In 1969 the Beatles released the album Abbey Road. The album was recorded almost six months after the album released as Let It Be, which is seen historically as their final album, but because of quarrels over L.I.B. it was released a year earlier. The culmination of the second side of the album is a sixteen minute medley of first-take recordings of half-finished compositions never meant to be released as a finished product. It kicks ass. And in there lies a message...

Do or Do Not.  (or)  Leave that, I'll clean it up later. I'm not entirely sure yet.

--- --- ---

I don't know where it goes, or why it suddenly comes back. I love winter, but every winter gets a little harder. Even 20,000 I.U.'s of vitamin D daily can't keep the beast at bay. I'm become better at fighting it, and the sullenness lasts only days now, or a week, but it wearies me, the struggle.

This year the big gift among the boys at the high school was headphones. Big-ass, full-on, cover-the-ears, active-noise-cancelling headphones. It took a while for me to figure it all out. They just want to retreat as far as they can into their own heads. 

I bought a set of headphones today. They are International Distress orange. 

--- --- ---

I made a few resolutions this year. I should have announced them with all due pomp and bother last week, but I didn't. They are...

1] Drink more water. at least four liters a day.

2] Find that yoga DVD I couldn't live without two years ago. 

3] Use it.

4] Plan ahead. At least once.

5] ........ I forgot. [damn] It was really good too.

--- --- ---

When Abraham Lincoln was conflicted he would put his thoughts to paper. Thoughts to paper. Tell me that's not a great line.  Anyway, he would write these letters, chastising Generals or admonishing underlings for misdeeds. But upon finishing, he placed them in a folder, and noted them as "Never sent, or signed"  The point was not to confront, but to confront the anger and frustration of a scenario outside the realm of his control. 

I just dismissed the entire second half of this post into the ether. We'll all be better off for that. It is my sincere hope that by doing so it will help reduce the occurrences of my talking to my self out loud whilst walking around the Walmart.  It's becoming really embarrassing. 

--- --- ---

I remember now. I'm going to learn Spanish...

--- --- ---

There is a new camera on the market. It's called the Lytro. It is a "light field" camera. You point it in the direction of the scene you want to photograph. Click. Later, in the comfort of your own home, you zoom, or not, focus close, or far away. Change the viewing angle. Its crazy. I predict it will change photography the way that the Segway changed transportation. 

Remember, you heard it here first. 

--- --- ---

I've begun reading fiction again. For almost twenty years I've read only non-fiction, except for some Kurt Vonnegut, so that really doesn't count. I just bought Still Life with Woodpecker by Tom Robbins, and The Garden of Eden by Ernest Hemingway. I can't seem to find anything new by John Updike, tho...

--- --- ---

By now, shouldn't I be smarter?




Moby Dick

Why the f*** should I have to press "1" for English?  STATEMENT ON A BUMPER STICKER

Captain Ahab, the mythic, God-like ship's captain in Moby Dick, the man-hero wholly consumed with rage against a Godless beast which cost him his leg, rejects outright all things which do not fortify his fevered vengeance quest. Deep within his soul Ahab believes that the white whale is the embodiment of evil, and acts accordingly against it. From the pages which recount Ahab's odyssey comes one of the greatest exultations of the total consumption of rage ever written in modern literature, American or other.

"He piled upon the whale's white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam on down; and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart's shell upon it."

Dude could write.

My friend the Colonel once shared this book to a former Iraqi army officer he worked with. Days later the book was returned with a courteous but confused thank you.

"I'm sorry," he said, "But I just don't understand. All this because he lost his leg."

"Um- yeah, that's the point."

"But bad things happen to people every day. Where I come from we have learned to just move on."

--- --- ---

The world is changing. (...duh)

Look, what I don't know about the world could almost fill the Hollywood Bowl. But I do know this- all living things change. And when I refer to change I'm not referring to climate or population, although if half the world's population were wiped out today, there would still be more people inhabiting the earth than did in 1990. What I mean is the day to day of change, the "Yes, the ATM is asking me to choose a language" change. I mean, really, I'm supposed to adopt this as my white whale?

There's a big disagreement over solar and wind energy. Windmills are ugly, solar takes a long time to pay out. Both are seriously flawed technologies. But the NFL didn't look anything like the NFL when Jim Thorpe was running around in a scratchy woolen sweater and a leather hat. But football, like everything else, evolved. Setting aside the obvious value judgements to be made and focusing solely on the thing, football is what it is because it followed a sequence of change. And the same goes for solar power and wind power and biofuels and microwave popcorn and Southern Tier 2Xmas. What it is is only what it is, not what it was, or what it will be. Why is that so difficult a thing to wrap a head around?

--- --- ---

Resistance to change is what drives most business and all government.  It's what creates brand identity and a two-party system. If we wanted change we would change. But instead we let the same banks that tanked the global economy pay a 'fine' of one point nine BILLION dollars for laundering Mexican drug money and then loaning that money to countries we don't loan money to. And no one says a word. Or goes to jail. Or cares.

George Carlin once wrote that we placate ourselves by marveling at the fact that we have thirty-seven kinds of mustard to choose from on the grocery store shelf, but we ignore the fact we have no real choice over who our leaders are. Because that's the way we want it.

--- --- ---

My father's grandfather came from the Alsace. His grandmother from County Cork. Growing up we ate cabbage and pork and beef cooked in vinegar and more cabbage. My dad drank beer. Two doors down my friend's family ate chopped liver and boiled eggs and chicken and drank sweet wine. Further down the block were dinners of mutton and pasta and veal and wine that didn't come from a store. We were neighbors. And friends. And we were who we were. And we weren't afraid of who the others were either. I learned to speak Hebrew from Sam and Italian from Chuck's dad. I ate gefilte fish. And tripe. And now years later my students bring me mofongo and pani puri to try. And I eat that.

And we are friends.

--- --- ---

And none of this makes me angry, or scared, or makes me lash out at a world out of control or a world that isn't the same as it was when I was young, even though it isn't the same. I don't want it the same. I like my iPad, and Kindle books, and I like my digital camera. And I like a world that offers me a venue to write my thoughts out, and lets me put them out there...

And if it means that I have to press "1" then I'll press "1" and I won't shoot my heart upon some feigned foe. No, instead I'll press "1" and acknowledge the fact that my world is filled with colors and smells and favors I never knew as a boy. I'll remember Kodachrome fondly, but I won't romanticize it.

And I will ask myself why I would want it any other way.

--- --- ---




All Saints Day

Tony, Tony,
look around.
Something's lost
and must be found!


Today is a special day in the Catholic church. This first day of November is All Saints Day. For the uninitiated, All Saints Day is not a typical feast day in the tradition of the individual Saints and their fetes. It is more a day of observance and solemn recognition of all who have passed before. Deeply rooted in the western european tradition, All Saints Day was instituted sometime after 700 A.D. as a sort of papal Veteran's Day to "honour all the saints, both known and unknown." Such a profound and simple principle- "honor all, known and unknown." Its very existence makes manifest the true binding force of any religion or fellowship or tribe; the heartfelt communion of a congregation of souls, past, present, and future. And it underscores the very principle of connectedness with a thick line, indelible to time or whimsey. It says, "We all are one."

I remember as far back as far back goes watching my father's mother sitting after Sunday dinner, occasionally on our living room sofa, but more often on the stiff wooden chair near the big front window, sorting through her holy cards. Every Sunday she recited prayers so long-ago ingrained that the cards, worn thin by the years and crudely laminated with scotch tape, acted merely as orisonal placeholders. Half whispering, half meditating, her charm bracelet making it's grandmotherly clink, clink, clink, she offered recitations of petition and gratitude. She would shuffle through her deck of saints, meticulously assembled like the batting rotation in some fantasy invocation team, with positions secured through years of tough negotiation. "Now on deck, Francis of Assisi. Assisi..."

My grandmother's saints were real to her. They were friends. Each had a special conversation to be spoken, and a special time and place to be spoken to. Each had a job, full with the expectations that jobs bring. The saints were concrete, they were flesh and blood. And really, that's what saints are. Real. Because before the saints were saints they were people. With lives. And stories. And each had earned through due diligence their place in my grandmother's starting lineup. She never played favorites, nor would she brook some trendy upstart with an aggressive PR agenda. They earned their spot in the rotation through hard work and by providing consistent results. And they told great stories.

Always batting first was the perennial fan favorite, Saint Anthony. Before Anthony became the patron saint of lost car keys, he was a simple country doctor and preacher. Born Fernando Martins de Bulhões in Lisbon Portugal, he became Brother Anthony of the Franciscan order after finding himself tasked by a visiting monk with tending to the bodies of five Franciscan friars who had been martyred for their evangelism in Morocco. "They were willing to die for their belief" he wrote, "and I prayed that my own death should have such weight." Anthony, at the time a foundering novice longed for connectedness to something greater, for the calling. He became an evangelical, traveling extensively, preaching to everyone, and when there were none, to no one. Preaching to spread his word. Preaching to find his way. Through it he found solace, and a voice. There are many stories as to why Anthony is connected to lost things, but the most compelling stories are those that have to do with his utter humility in aiding those in need, and restoring their faith in God and fellow man. Which makes him, along with the finder of lost trinkets, also the finder of lost souls.

Francis, our friend from Assisi, the founder of Anthony's Franciscan order, himself tells a story of casting off riches and the excesses of youth and position, and adopting a life of humble service. It is said that he slept outdoors, on the ground, and that all who knew him considered him a friend. His official team photo depicts him with a bird on his shoulder, cupping his hands to hold food, or water. Service to the smallest among us. Service to the weakest. Service that matters. Indeed it is what ties the saints together, the subjugation of personal desire for a life of service and advocacy.  Its the tie that binds them together, and them to us.

Agnes, the virgin saint, the patron of both couples in love and victims of abuse, was killed for refusing to be forcibly married to the son of a wealthy nobleman. Jeanne D'Arc, a simple farmer's daughter, led a criminally small French army battalion to victory against invading English forces. Later captured and tried by a British tribunal, she endured fourteen months of incarceration and interrogation before being burned at the stake. And all before her twentieth birthday. For God? Perhaps yes, or perhaps instead through God. But certainly for their sisters and brothers, and by extension, for us. Because nothing is anything if its not done for someone, or for something.

And now to address the subtext, the second stringers, the unknowns. While the knowns will always find their herald, there remain so many more unknown's out there, forever unheralded. And now, like then, they are still feeding the birds, fighting an overwhelming force, tending to the battered bodies of the abused. They don't seek recognition, they don't act for redemption or indulgence, they seek only to heal, to help, to soften the blow or even take a blow. For justice, or righteousness, or just for a friend. They'll never make the starting rotation, or make it out of the minors. Hell, they'll never even have a rookie card. But its not because they don't make saints like they used to. It's because true saints don't think of themselves that way. It's because sainthood, like politics, is local.

 In the Buffalo region we have our favorites- like Father Baker, Tim Russert, Constance B. Eve, or Anne and Milton Rogovin... By light of day they looked and sounded like ordinary people, but now, through the filter of time and a light sanding by history, they shine like the beacons we knew they would be. To a person they would say they were just doing their job, just doing what was right, or needed, or wanted. And it's not just that we miss them now that they're gone, though we do, it's that we find in their absence all the things that still need doing. And for the most part it's still pretty grimy work.

 So today I make a special request- leave the name of a known or unknown in the comments box, with a word or two of why, or send it along in an email if you prefer. Share this post with a friend or colleague, and celebrate what the day is about - service...

And save those rookie cards!




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Water Moves

Since I gave up hope I feel much better...   ANONYMOUS

 I remember a story from long ago, from a source I no longer recall. The story is one of competitive sailing, on big, fast, ocean-going boats.  It seems that during a regatta the skipper noticed a piece of seaweed clinging to the keel of the boat. These boats are so finely tuned that even a length of kelp could cause a noticeable slowing of the boats pace. A member of the crew was dispatched to remove the kelp with a pike pole, a long pole with a hook on the end. He stabbed furiously at it, trying in vane to dislodge it. The skipper screamed in anger, as his action only further slowed their pace, the stabbing in the water caused more friction than the seaweed itself. Another crew member grabbed the pike, and punched it into the water just forward of the mass, letting the water move it along, catching and freeing the kelp at the pole moved past, swept by only the current. The secret was to let the water go and move with it rather than resist it.

We live in a rural location, with streams and runs crisscrossing our county. Recently P and I were out on one of our beloved day trips, stopping to photograph when inspiration presented itself. It was one of those perfect fall days that is neither warm nor cold, with air so clear and a sky so azure it hurts just to look at it. I found myself perched at the edge of a stream watching the water move past, swirling around some rocks as it moved by. Occasionally a leaf would happen by, carried by the current, and slip past the rocks with a little twist to and fro, and an undulation of acknowledgement of the rock as it meandered along. And then it was gone. And it struck me- if water is the passing of time, the passing of life, then we are either the leaf or the rock. Water moves, and we either give in to it, move with it, and go where it takes us, or stand fast, in defiance of the current and endure its relentless sanction.

When we are rock, our entire existence becomes one of obstruction,  countlessly bombarded by life as it moves around, and past. We cling to our hopes, our dreams, We cling to our problems. The spiritual writer Eckhart Tolle believes we create and maintain problems because they help give us a sense of identity. We define our self by our circumstance. To change the circumstance is to change our identity.

But life for the leaf is relatively calm in comparison.  Granted, leaf life is a state of constant flux with an uncertain future, but from moment to moment the flow is smooth and transitional. If this, then that. For the rock it is one crushing blow after another. The constant friction wears in subtle and unsubtle ways. Until ultimately the rock is worn down, worn out, and worn away. The leaf just gives in. At first blush, giving in looks and feels like giving up. It feels like giving away- of power, of control, of authority. It feels like quitting. But rather, giving in is an exercise of power. Giving in is a conscious release of a false sense of personal identity. Circumstance no longer defines us.

Giving in is letting go. It's the letting go of the frustrations over the things we never did for the acknowledgement of the things we've done. It's the letting go of anger over things we are powerless to change, and the embrace of the power we have. It's the letting go of idle hope and the embrace of action. Giving in is not giving up. It is the first step in moving on, of taking stock of who we are. Now. At this moment. Giving in is the inhale, the in breath. It gives us pause. A pause that refreshes our identity.

Over and over.

Because water moves.


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Fish Out Of Water...

“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”   ALBERT EINSTEIN

When I was in fifth grade I learned how to draw. It wasn't in an art class, because the school I attended didn't really have them. I learned to draw after school, taught by one of my teachers who stayed late to teach me. I attended Blessed Sacrament school. You probably know it. The one in Kenmore. My teacher was Sister Martin. She ran a tough classroom, but then again she was Irish, like many of us claimed to be back then. The "Irish" had nothing to do with how she ran her classroom, but when the flag of Ireland is the biggest flag in the room, and you learn to sing Irish songs during free time, and you're ten years old, and you have a limited number of conclusions you can logically reach before it starts to hurt, you think, "Irish." But anyway, when she wasn't making us kneel on pencils, or teaching us about Irish politics, she loved us. And we loved her.

I remember that day. Not the date, nor the season even, but that moment. I remember it was late in the afternoon, after everyone else had gone home. There was only she, and me. We were in the big room that served as the cafeteria and the auditorium and the gymnasium and the playground and the chapel when the heat wasn't working in the temporary church that housed our parish for twenty years. The big room with the chocolate floors polished to a heavenly lustre. That afternoon Sister Martin showed me what I didn't know I knew. That I could draw.

I drew a robin, copied from an Audubon book, and shaded with color pencil. It was a thing of extraordinary marvelosity. It shone. Really. Shone. In my rapturous state I imagined I was channeling Michelangelo himself, and his spirit had surrounded me in a veil of holy robin-drawing light, but apparently I had merely pressed so hard with the color pencil I burnished the pigment into a thin veneer on the paper. But hey, shone is shone. When I had finished it, I showed it to Sister Martin. She smiled and patted me on the head. It was bliss. When I returned home I showed my drawing to every living member of the household, including Archie the cat whom, as a sidebar discussion, was never referred to as just Archie, but always as Archie the cat. "Rawr." he said. "Cool." From that point in my life, from that point forward, I would always be an artist.

I never forgot that kindness, that act of recognition.  I have no doubt that I left ample evidence of my love for drawing on the desk in the classroom, and perhaps she was just trying to find me a better canvas to work with.   But it changed me, that simple act, it forever altered my perception of self. From then on I was a 'something'. 

A few years ago I got to thank Sister Martin. It was at the memorial for my brother Skip, in Cincinnati Ohio. Skip died right before Christmas that year, and the family gathered just after for his service. Cincinnati is an eight hour drive from Jamestown, with way too much time to think. The service was what it was, which was a memorial. At the reception afterwards my mom pointed out an older woman talking to my brother Kevin. "Mark," she said, "That's Sister Martin." She was no longer a nun, and hadn't been for a long time, and lived now in Florida near where my parents live. I told her the story, and finished with "thank you." "You're welcome" was all she said.

So almost forty-five years after that drawing lesson, I find myself imbedded deep within a similar universe, with my role reversed. In high school everyone is a fish out of water, a fish up a tree. My job is to point that out. "Maybe you're not a fish at all," I tell them, "or maybe you are, and the tree isn't where you belong."  And together we look for home, for kin. Sometimes we find it, sometimes we don't. Sometimes we find others just like them. Lots of them. And sometimes I have to point them down a different path and explain that I can't go along.

"Because I'm not a fish," I say." I'm a bird."

A Robin.





Okay, so yesterday I go in to PetSmart to buy a bag of cat food. No big deal, right? But when I get to the cat food aisle I turn the corner and am immediately stopped by an associate in the middle of training a dog owner. At PetSmart they will train dog owners how to be a dog owner while at the same time convincing them that they're training the dog. Like you have to train a a dog to be a dog.  But anyway the aisles at PetSmart are really long so I couldn't immediately find the food I was looking for.  And every time I moved I either stepped in front of the dog who was assisting in the training of his owner, or was standing between the associate and the owner being trained who were talking to one another from opposite ends of the aisle.

Now normally I wouldn't be put out by any of this but I was sensing this energy from them that was distinctly negative.  I was interfering with the dog owner training and my presence in the cat food aisle was not welcome. I sidled in, mumbling out loud at the inconvenience, barked at the associate when she asked if I needed assistance, stabbed at a bag of food, and took it to the register and checked out, fuming. Now honestly my agitation and confusion might have been compounded by the 5 Hour Energy shot I inexplicably purchased while checking out a few minutes earlier at Wegmans, but bottom line I ended up walking out with the wrong bag of food, and not even just a little wrong, but wrong by a mile. My mind was in a million places, none of them good. It took almost an hour for me to get beyond the whole stupid incident. It really, really got under my skin. But now, in the cool of the evening, things are different, and I'd like to make an apology to those two innocent souls.

I'm sorry I behaved so badly.

I don't know what it is that gets into me. At times I take on such a small-minded, egocentric view of my world. And in that frame of mind  it was easy to understand how these two people at either end of the aisle could create such an unworkable situation. Me- innocent guy trying to locate a simple bag of cat food, them- occupying and dominating an entire aisle of this otherwise sparsely populated store. I know their perspective was much different. Them- having a lovely, fun, and instructive afternoon, me- angry, agitated, and frankly, rude guy acting like someone just parked their car in his living room.

 I completely lost my self to anger. Over cat food.

I don't know where this anger comes from or what purpose it serves. Perhaps it is some sort of alarm, a warning that I'm out of balance, or tired, or hungry. But it seems so deeply rooted, and so quick to show itself. And that's what scares me. The fact that I'm capable of such irrationality. Looking back some hours later I can see that it came in reaction to being - embarrassed- not the word i'm looking for but-  I was caught off guard, I was surprised by walking into the middle of this dog owner training and -panicked. right word. I panicked. I could have so easily said, "I'm sorry, I don't mean to get in your way, but I need to look for cat food. I'll only be a couple minutes, don't let me interfere." But man did I not do that.  Not even close...

Thomas Merton, always helpful in a pinch, says that anger stems from a loss of connectedness, a separation of spirit, which allows for a polarization of humanity. It makes sense when I look at the way in which I wrote the original scenario, with the focus on the "Me / Them" conflict.  And although I will stop short of questioning Merton's insight into humanity, I have to put forth a different postulation of my own. Having had some time to think this through and develop a reasonable rationalization, I'm hoping that it really wasn't anger at all that I felt. I think I was, for lack of a better word, scared. A situation I was not prepared for presented itself and I acted like an animal does when it finds itself cornered and confused. I made myself as threatening as possible.  Yeah- that's the ticket- it was just animal Mark. But although that may be a reasonably argued explanation for my actions, I won't allow it to be an excuse.

Because I'm better than that.

At least that's what I tell myself . And then I keep proving myself wrong.  But I'm beginning to think that therein lies the point. That life gives us unending opportunity to test and retest our beliefs. I spent the better part of yesterday afternoon putting summer to bed- getting outdoor furniture packed into neat arrangements in the garage, getting the lawn mowed one last time, raising the porch swing to its winter position - and throughout it all I kept rewinding that five minutes of my life and doing it over and doing it better.

And eventually I did get it right. And then I put it to bed along with everything else .  It left me with a beautiful little gift to roll around over supper, knowing that I had it within me to do it better next time, and knowing that a next time will come. Because for one thing I still need to return the bag of cat food I did buy and buy the cat food I need. And if I happen upon the associate who was training the dog owner, or the dog owner, I'll have to accept whatever version of the afternoon they remember for good or ill, if they even remember it at all.

And I'll do better this time, and maybe the time after this.

till' next time...




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,