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Monday, December 20, 2010

Happy Birthday to Me?

It's the season of my birth.  From where I type, I am a 30 minute drive from the hospital in which I was delivered unto this world.  Just six days shy of the darkest day of the year, it should come as no surprise that I associate my birthday with short days and cold winter nights.  For as much as I've used my birthday as a time to celebrate, I can't help but use the occasion to pause and reflect.

The salient points of my birth story are:
  • I was born two weeks past my due date and was induced.
  • I might have shared a birthday with my father, but for some reason, the hospital didn't schedule inductions on Saturday, else the 13th would have been my birthday.
  • The 2nd choice was to be the 16th, Beethoven's birthday, but for some other reason, that couldn't happen.
  • It was a snowy evening the 14th and the roads were slick.
  • I was born on December 15th, 1969 at 12:26pm at Windham Memorial Community Hospital in Willimantic, Connecticut. 
  • I weighed 8lbs. 12oz. (or thereabout).
It isn't hyperbole to say that when anyone one of us enters the world, we instantly change the course of humanity.  It isn't the slightest exaggeration to claim that even those that don't enter the world, leave an indelible impression.  When a life ends, there is a void forever left unfilled.  One may continue to lead a rich and full life, but there is still a vacuum, a black hole.

About a month ago, we learned that two sets of parents of children who went to Max's daycare lost their babies.  A couple of weeks ago, a friend's child lost her nearly 5 year battle with cancer.  And just a week ago, a friend from high school lost his 4 day old son.  July 20th, 2009 is my son Leo's birthday.  Technically, it's the day of his death, though we knew he was not living by the 17th.  The days between learning that news and his birth are the most surreal of my now 41 years.  Every time I hear of someone else's loss, I can't help but think about Leo.  The truth is that even when he's not foremost in my mind, he's a fiber of the fabric of me, inseparable from that which is me.  And while I see him as one of the pillars of my person, there are innumerable elements that make me who I am.  But only for a moment.  The fact is as permanent as we view our character, our essence, is ever changing.  We are not the same person we were a year ago, a month ago, yesterday.

All of us are constantly changing.  The person who woke up this morning is not that same person who goes to sleep tonight.  This is both a physical truth (our body does not stop aging, our mind does not stop perceiving), but also a metaphysical one.  From the coffee I consumed today to the audiovisual stimuli I encounter, we are always being shaped, mutated, and altered.  Every single breath we take introduces something new to our bodies.  In actuality there is no permanent self.  And the fact that we eat, drink, and breathe elements of this world, means that we are not part of a whole, but rather that we are all one.  It seems practical to be an individual, to see yourself separate from other people or different from your environment and really that's what most people do most moments of most days.  The ego demands constant satisfaction.  The ego thrives on the memories of the past and the promises or fears of the future. In the present moment, the ego dissolves.  Without an ego to demand attention, we are all free to see the oneness of it all - to see everything as it is.

I've been reading Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, a transcription of several talks given by Shunryu Suzuki, a well known Zen Master who died less two years after I was born.  The book reads like a series of two page reflections on various thoughts about what zazen is, what Buddhism is, what enlightenment is - and often what those things are not.  There are quotes like:

"As soon as you see something, you already start to intellectualize it. As soon as you intellectualize something, it is no longer what you saw."

"When you do something, you should burn yourself completely, like a good bonfire, leaving no trace of yourself."

"Life and death are the same thing. When we realize this fact, we have no fear of death anymore, nor actual difficulty in our life."

"Without accepting the fact that everything changes, we cannot find perfect composure. But unfortunately, although it is true, it is difficult for us to accept it. Because we cannot accept the truth of transience, we suffer."

Though Leo is not present, he is also not absent.  To me, Leo's short 'existence' is a highly concentrated dose of reality.  The truth about Leo, about all of us, is that though we are all temporary, none of us are insignificant.  We should not mistake this to mean that we are important.  To do so is to confuse ego with selflessness.  Leo is always somewhere inside of me.  The same way my parents are a part of me.  The same way that every interaction, every person, every conversation, every love, and every instant of experience is.

As I consider this, understand this, I still can't help but think more about Leo.  I am not going to enter into the whole when life begins debate, but surely Leo, though he never lived a day on this earth, lived and lives on as someone real, someone that existed, that has a lasting impact, not just on the lives of Linda and me, but on our families, and on our friends - and really anyone who happens to learn of him.  And his story is just one of the zillions of events that happen every moment.  

Think of an event that is shared by more than one person.  It could be a concert, a movie, tornado - anything.  As Rashomon shows, everyone has a completely unique interpretation of the same thing.  Two planes hit the World Trade Centers and there's instantly six billion vantages (and the billions more that time will generate), a prism so multifaceted we're all blinded by the separation of light.  Whose interpretation of an event is the right one?  No one's.  It's impossible to be 'right,' because being right requires your ego to validate your perception; it necessitates differentiating your perspective from someone else's and because we know we are not really separate, we cannot really see truth. 

Birthdays are a time to indulge, we think.  We indulge in the celebration of our existence.  We celebrate living another year, the anniversary of our current incarnation.  Our friends and family gather to be thankful for us.  Even if you don't make much of birthdays or downplay their significance, it's difficult to avoid the acknowledgement of 365 more days.  My father turned 75 last week.  A man always interested in numbers, he's claimed for some time now that he plans to only live 1000 months (83 years old, three months and change).  An arbitrary age, but at least a round number of months.  He called me today to wish me a happy birthday and the two of us made note of the age, 41.  He mocked it for its insignificance in the scheme of birthdays, certainly nothing compared to 75.  I highlighted it's uniqueness, divisible only by one and itself - a prime number.

For most of my life, I've reveled in my birthday.  I loved that I could look at a clock and see 12:15 and know that was also my birthday.  I loved being a Sagittarius.  And while I am not yet ready to relinquish my special day, I also am more cognizant that it's self indulgence.  My father-in-law was born on September 11th.  From 2001 onward his special day is a reminder of senseless violence - a day that changed the course of history.  My mom and niece share a birthday, April 20th - which is also Hitler's birthday, and the date of the Columbine school shooting. 

Out of the billions of lives lived, the ones cut short, and of the billions yet to exist; out of the billions of moments that make up the annals of existence, it's quite impressive that we possess these giant egos that compel us to acknowledge a day as significant simply because it's when we were born.  The fact is we are significant and have an impact, no matter how long or short we exist in the minds of others - just not in the obvious ways we commonly consider.  People often strive a lifetime to leave some kind of legacy, but the truth is you only need an instant to make a lasting impression.

So while I celebrate my birthday, and indulge myself with cake, I'll also be swallowing a good portion of humility.


Thursday, November 11, 2010

In School Suspension

As some of you know I have a master's degree in education and am certified to teach high school English.  In You Never Know I wrote about some of my experiences teaching high school on Cape Cod.  At the time I was 26 years-old and not yet ready to confine myself to the rigid regimen that the successful execution of the profession requires.  Instead of teaching I lit out for new adventures and found them in travels both foreign and domestic.  For over a decade, I moved from city to city - never keeping a single address for more than a couple of years at most (and sometimes the duration was no more than a season).  I spent many months of my 20s in and around Boston, but from there I left for a few months in London, three quarters of a year in Amsterdam, a summer in Toronto, and on it went.  Though Boston was my base and the city to which I most frequently returned, it was never long before I grew restless there.  For all it's comfort and offerings, Boston was too familiar, staid, and provincial (ironic as that is to say now - read on).

In my early 30s, I left Boston again for Europe, intent this time on living in Switzerland.  And while I lived there for a time, I never took root. I fled Zürich and made an attempt at solitary introspection hiking a section of the Appalachian Trail for a month (see also Kiss it Goodbye).  I spent hour after hour watching my step as I walked over hill and dale.  At month's end I exchanged my hiking boots for sneakers, my tent for an extra room in my sister and brother-in-law's Manhattan apartment.  My romance with my now wife was budding, but it took a move to Long Beach, California to blossom.  We lived there a year before marrying and returning to Massachusetts - this time to the more suburban North Shore towns of Beverly, Marblehead, and Salem.  Aside from my years growing up in Mansfield, Connecticut, Salem was the address I kept the longest in life - all of 4 years.  And now I find myself but a 30 minute bucolic drive from my old hometown, set amidst the same thick woods, rocky fields, and verdant farms of my youth - and from the high school whose senior class of 1987 voted me, deservingly I immodestly think, Class Clown.

For the past several weeks, I've been substitute teaching in my high school.  Only a few teachers from my era remain and the building itself has undergone major renovations so I don't feel as though it's a complete time warp.  However there remain just enough vestiges of the past - so as to provide more than a few surreal déjà vu moments.  The old gymnasium appears largely unchanged; what used to be the math wing (the roof off of which I once fell - as described in My Bad Back) might well have been teleported from the 1980s to the present.  And just as it was when I was in school, the Boys Soccer team is amongst the best in the state - and a top 5 team nationally.

It's been more than a decade since I last walked the halls between classes, heard the din of the cafeteria at lunch (at 10:36am!), or stood, hand over heart, for the Pledge of Allegiance.  Instead of asking for a pass, I write and sign them.  I now call teachers by their first names.  Students give me a wider berth in the halls and a level warier stares in my direction (or alternatively avoid eye contact completely).  I am the now sssshhher and not the shhhshee; I am the mover of student's seats and not the pupil being centered in the front row before the watchful gaze of the mistrusting and annoyed teacher.

The classes I've been substituting for of late are heterogeneous, but trend heavily toward lower performing students.  Many of the 9th and 10th graders I see in class have various accommodations to address their special needs.  Some students have aides and others take tests in a resource room.  The few brighter students in the class 'get' somewhat more than their classmates, but appear equally unable to focus for more than a few seconds at a time.  They fidget, twitch and seem to reflexively belch, "WHAT?" when called upon, unsure if it's to answer a question or answer for playing with their iPods not so slyly hidden below the desktop.

When I occasionally sit in with a new class, the first words out of their mouths are nearly always the same, "Are you a sub?!"  When I confirm the fact, there is never a trace of disappointment.  "Yes!" is the universal exclamation.  Often I am there merely push play on the VCR for them to watch the movie the teacher has left for me to show.  Other times, I pass out a worksheet.  Though I wander between the desks offering assistance, only infrequently do they accept.  The sub rarely, if ever, is more than a proctor's pointer.  For the students, as well as for me, this moment in time feels like little more than a weigh station - a caesura in life, a chance and brief encounter that will surely be forgotten as quickly as the homework assignment itself.  When the bell rings, the students shuffle off to their next period.  And like I was, after enduring several thousand bells marking time, they'll be off on their own unpredictable adventures.  (Bell arithmetic:  approximately 18 bells per day; 180 days per year times 4 years = 12,960 chimes.  Consider the veteran teacher who has been there 30 or more years....)

It's strange, to say the least, to see my life of today framed by the this institution of my past.  It's too easy to say, "if I only knew then what I know now," but only because it's so true, so very, very true.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

You Never Know

There's that moment when the blur comes into focus.  There's the instant all the noise in your head quiets.  There's the proverbial switch that gets flipped - the light bulb goes on.

Isn't it interesting (but not necessarily worthwhile) to look back at a time when you were so sure of how something in your life was going to go and realize now just how wrong you were.  You thought you'd be with her (or him) forever.  You thought you found what it was that you wanted to do for the rest of your life.    You thought this was going to be the last job you ever had.  You were certain that if you just did A, B, and C that X, Y, and Z would follow.  We often trot out the phrase, "you never know," only to eschew our own advice when we want to believe something.  We want it to be as we believe it will be so badly that we forget that it never is, can never be.

In May of 1996 I'd just finished my master's degree in education.  After the graduation ceremony and celebratory meal, I finished loading all of my worldly possessions into the small U-Haul trailer hitched to my 1991 Toyota Corolla.  I was moving to Portland, Maine.  This is where I thought my life would unfold.  My girlfriend was from Maine and had an exciting job at a successful advertising agency near the Old Port.  We rented an apartment in a cool old building on the Western Promenade.  We got a cat.

At 25 years of age, I felt sure I was on a course toward adulthood.  I could see it in my mind's eye.  I got on well with my girlfriend's parents and siblings.  They had a nice farmhouse not far from the city and a four season condo in Bridgton.  We played tennis, swam in the lake, went for hikes and skied in the winter.  My girlfriend's mom was an enthusiastic and talented cook.  When we'd go over to their house for Sunday dinners, the smell of tomatoes, garlic and onions made my knees buckle in epicurious anticipation.  Before the food touched my tongue, I could already taste it.  I could taste it as surely as I thought I could see my future in my crystal ball.

As I envisioned it, my girlfriend and I would get engaged, marry, have children.  We'd go to Acadia and Mt. Katahdin.  Having already spent a Christmas with their family, I could imagine all of us, with our spouses and children, sitting around the tree, drinking hot cocoa spiked with peppermint schnapps.  They were a musical family.  Their father would cajole the kids into trotting out their high school instruments to play carols.  And my family adored my girlfriend as well. When she came to our Passover celebration with her winsome smile and good humor she charmed the room. 

I knew, too, that I'd be a great teacher - the one the kids would love, respect, and admire.  They'd hang on my every wise word, laugh at my every witticism, and come to me for sage advice.  With my teaching career already determined, I thought I'd find time to write that great American novel on the side.  My girlfriend was a young star at her agency; she'd already been assigned to big clients, been shipped to Chile for work.  There wasn't much that wasn't right in our world.  Until the day there wasn't anything that was right.

I spent the summer of 1996 in Portland reveling in a future already clear in my mind.  We decorated our Western Promenade apartment and went on weekend excursions.  I saw these as steps toward a certain path.  I worked that summer giving guided bus tours of Portland and used my free time to send out scores of applications to area high schools.  It was just a matter of time, I knew, before all the pieces fell into place.  It was just a matter of time.

June soon became July and August came just as swiftly.  But along with late summer's humidity, a certain coolness could be felt at 48 Western Promenade.  There was a new curtness in my girlfriend's voice that portended ill-fortunes.  I hoped against hope that it would be short-lived, that it was a phase.  It wasn't long, however, before I had to ask,  "What's going on?"  

I could see the anguish in her eyes.  She had something to say that she knew would hurt me.  She knew it would be painful, just as it was painful for her to have come to the realization.  She unburdened her conscience, released a torrent of pent up feelings.  She cared for me, but....there was no other way to say it, she didn't want us to remain together.  It hurt.  I didn't feel betrayed; she hadn't betrayed me, she had only remained true to herself.  As much as it stung, I could not fault her for listening to her conscience.  When we moved in together, she felt sure it was what she wanted; it simply wasn't how she felt now.  

I wept on my pillow and felt the pain of our breakup.  But as much as I felt sadness over our breakup, I know much of it had more to do with the loss of the life I had so vividly anticipated.  All of it was gone in that instant.  All that never was could never be.  The image frames in my mind melted away like celluloid too close to the hot projector lamp.  The door to that future didn't just close, it evaporated completely, like a horrible magic trick.

*     *     *     *     *

The next weekend I picked up a Sunday Boston Globe help wanted section (In the mid 1990s it was still possible to find a job in an actual newspaper).  I hadn't even glanced at any opportunities outside of Maine before then.  Why would I have?  There was an ad for English teachers on Cape Cod.  Having spent weeks and summers there, I began the application process.  I submitted my credentials.  Unlike the lack of response I'd had from a single school in Maine, I got a call the very next week to come in for an interview.

I showed up, answered the questions of the department head and was soon thereafter led into the principal's office for an impromptu interview with him.  Afterward I was asked to wait in the outer office while they conferred.  The department head came out, sat down, and said, "I've only ever done this once before in my career, but I'd like to make you an offer today."  I accepted.

In the span of two weeks, the life I'd mapped out in Maine had gone from a foregone conclusion to a painful memory.  I'd exchanged my apartment overlooking the Fore River for a basement hovel opposite a boat yard next to Lewis Bay in Hyannis.  From my dark and dank apartment, I could hear the Nantucket ferries coming and going, the safety instructions of the crew blaring loudly into the one window of my cheap abode.  I began school just days after arriving and was jolted by just how disinterested my students were in just about anything I had to say.  I was saddened by how poorly they wrote, demoralized by just how uncritical their minds were, and dismayed by how uninvolved their parents were.  This was not how I'd pictured it at all.  There were exceptions, of course, too few and far between to alter the landscape.

As teachers well know, the school day starts early, far too early.  I woke each morning well before dawn and ate my breakfast in the car.  I taught mostly ungrateful students all day long and spent endless hours correcting and commenting upon ghastly compositions.  I worked hard to construct lesson plans to engage and enlighten.  By the estimation of my colleagues and superiors, I was proving myself a competent and natural teacher.  By my own measurement, I was miserable.  

While I made friends with some colleagues, found some time for my own extracurricular activities, I was lonely even in company.  I made frequent visits to Boston to have fun with my friends, but when Sunday rolled around, I left early so I'd have time for my schoolwork.  Lessons plans, reading papers and reading the books I was teaching all required most of my nights and weekends.  I never took a shortcut in my work, but rarely did I feel rewards I imagined teaching would provide.  

One of my mentors who I co-taught with, a 30 year veteran of the classroom (as well as a veteran of the U.S. Navy) took me under his wing. When I felt most dispirited, Jim would offer some wise words, some perspective.  He was good at what he did, but also a realist.  His experience had taught him how to recognize the truths that cannot be denied.  He knew that it was not always possible to make a reluctant student engage.  He knew that some kids, despite their enthusiasm and attention weren't going to become great students.  He knew that in the summer he'd be happier fishing in the Bass River.  And Jim also knew that winter in S. Yarmouth, Cape Cod for a 25 year-old first year teacher with few close friends or family nearby was not the stuff of postcards from a Wellfleet summer.  I remember what he said to me nearly verbatim, "Dave, when you punch out your timecard at the end of your career, it shouldn't be here."  (Jim is retired from teaching, but is regular columnist for the Cape Cod Times.)

By spring, I'd finally found some rhythm to my days and weeks.  I got the hang of my schedule, grew used to the classroom and its sizable requirements.  I still wasn't extracting much satisfaction from my days, but I was at least conditioned.  It's therefore easy to understand why I was so looking forward to my April vacation.  I'd planned a cross country journey to San Francisco.  My dad had recently moved to Marin County and I had a few close friends who'd settled there after college.  Taking my seat on the airplane, I was giddy with anticipation.  It was like being set free from jail!  I left my schoolwork behind.  The only matter related to school that lingered was the excellent evaluation I'd just received from my department head and the offer to renew my contract for the following year.  I tucked those thoughts into my brain's back pocket and lit out for the coast.

*     *     *     *     *

The weather in San Francisco in spring isn't always guaranteed great, but it was the week I was there.  From the airport, I made my way to the ferry across the bay to Larkspur.  It was a clear day and the views of the Golden Gate, Alcatraz and the San Francisco skyline were breathtaking and intoxicating.  Even San Quentin captured the imagination as the ferry eased into Marin.  My dad and I hiked Mt. Tamalpais, walked Muir Woods, and toured Tiburon and Sausalito.  Later in the week as I shifted accommodations to my friends in the city, I took in the tourist sites:  Fisherman's Wharf, Ghirardelli Sq., Coit Tower, Haight & Ashbury, City Lights bookstore to name a few.  We drove up to Napa and Sonoma and did what you do there (hiccup).  I shunned sleep in favor of revelry.  I filled my every waking moment with the stuff of leisure and adventure.  Knowing that I had but 9 days, inclusive of my flights, I sought to wrest every minute of fun I could from the little time I had.

I had booked a redeye flight back from San Francisco to Boston that last Saturday night.  For my last adventure, a large group of us - old friends and new - went out to a chic dinner in the Mission neighborhood.  Earlier that day, I'd been at Pier 39 overlooking San Francisco Bay, eating, drinking and reveling.  It was my last day and I was intent on savoring, if not imbibing every last drop of California sunshine.  At dinner around a large circular table, the cocktails and jokes went round.  I was having a lot of fun, but I was also somewhat aware that I had a flight to catch.  Though I knew I had to go, my sense of time was failing.  After much procrastination, I finally asked my friend sitting next to me what time I had to leave to make sure I caught my flight.  She asked to see my ticket and when I produced it, her eyes widened,  "NOW!"  she howled.

My heart raced as I duck-duck-goosed my way around the table, giving kisses and hugs.  I dashed to my friend's car to grab my suitcase as she hailed me a taxi.  I barked my instructions to the driver and soon realized I had zero cash in my wallet.  I asked the driver to stop at an ATM, putting further at risk the likelihood of making the flight.  The driver sensed my apprehension and when he asked what time my flight left, he found another gear in that taxi.  We weaved through traffic, pissed off innumerable drivers, and pulled up to the Delta gates with but moments spare.  This being the pre 9/11 era, I was able to quickly check my bags at the curb and make my way through security with relative speed.  I focused, albeit with great intoxication, on finding my gate.  And once I found the gate and made my way down the jetway to the plane, I called upon my few remaining senses to zone in on locating my assigned seat.  I had the kind of tunnel vision of a mind both self-conscious of being drunk while trying to appear sober.  I honed in on my seat, only vaguely aware that the plane was not especially full.

I fell down in my seat next to, if not partly on, a couple.  I am sure it wasn't graceful for I had exhausted the little gross motor control I had in just getting down the aisle.  I exhaled a mighty sigh of relief and couldn't help, I'm sure, but breathe vodka fumes on my neighbors.  I slurred to them as clearly as I could, "I'll probably be able to find another seat once we get going."  I said this to them forgetting that I was surely the last person to board and in that moment wholly unaware that we were literally about the only passengers on the plane.  As I finally took a half moment to scan the cabin and realize how odd it must have been for them to have a drunken 20-something year-old kid plop down nearly on top of them on an empty plane, I sheepishly offered, "Maybe I'll just move now."  They never said a word to me as I skulked away to an empty row in the rear of the plane.

To say I slept the first leg of the flight to Atlanta would be to imply I had some choice in the matter.  I was unconscious.  I passed out before the plane even took off and felt nothing of the landing either.  It was only when they turned on the cabin lights after we arrived at a complete stop at the gate that I realized we'd even left San Francisco.  I endured a pounding headache and the parched mouth of a desert dust storm on the flight leg to Boston.  My friend, Chris, picked me up and took me to the IHOP in Brighton.  From there we went to his apartment where I'd left my car.  It was a typical rainy April New England day.  The air was bone-chilling, the skies dark and depressing.  In other words, it was the perfect meteorological complement to both my mood and physical condition.

As I drove down Rt. 3 toward the Cape and cataloged the work that lay waiting for the remainder of my Sunday (term papers to read; lesson plans to finalize; chapters to read), my stomach began to knot.  It wasn't the hangover or IHOP that caused my innards to twist - and it wasn't the prospect of hours of schoolwork, either.  I drove through Weymouth, Hanover, Pembroke and Kingston, I began to clearly see the months ahead.  I saw a summer of fun in Wellfleet, free of the monotony of the school year.  I felt, viscerally, the ebb of that summer and the lack of enthusiasm I'd have for September's arrival.  I projected the undulating emotions of the academic year, saw the long hours wielding chalk and a red pen.  And I felt certain that when next April came, I'd head out to San Francisco.  I'd fill my vacation week with laughter and adventure.  I'd book a redeye flight home so that I'd maximize every possible minute of the vacation.  I'd arrive back in Boston on a cold and rainy day, get picked up by Chris, and we'd go to IHOP so I could wistfully regale him with the tales of my escapades.  And then I'd drive to South Yarmouth with a gnawing pit in my gut.  As I drove Capeward, somewhere between Plymouth and Barnstable, the light bulb went on.  

I arrived at 26 Arlington Street, South Yarmouth, Massachusetts by midday.  I unpacked my school work and dutifully fulfilled my teaching responsibilities.  Exhausted by nightfall, I turned in early and rose the next day before the sun.  When I met with my department head later that day, I solemnly told her that, no, I would not be renewing my contract; I would not be returning to teach there the next year.

I didn't know what I'd be doing next.  I now know that I couldn't have known it even if I thought I did.  All I knew then was that the pit in my gut was gone and I felt more happy not knowing then I'd ever felt being sure of what was to come.

Friday, October 1, 2010

The Chronicles, No. 4

Did I tell you I'm in another play?  I have small roles (yes, two different characters in the same play), but the commitment to the effort - and the rehearsal schedule is much the same as it was for The Foreigner.  I am enjoying the creative process as well as the camaraderie. The play is Arthur Miller's The Crucible.  Whereas The Foreigner was a comedic farce, The Crucible is anything but.  Written by Miller in the 1950s, The Crucible sought to highlight the hypocrisy of McCarthyism.  If you're local, the play will be performed at the Bradley Playhouse the last two weekends of October.

Did I tell you that our B&B project is most likely being put on hold?  It's taken the better part of the last year to gather all the information we needed to make an informed decision.  The crux of the matter is that the revenue we can reasonably predict isn't sufficient enough to cover the amount of debt we'd have to assume.  And while we could make a go of it and even have a decent chance of overcoming obstacles, we'd rather be conservative and not jeopardize the prospect of retaining the Farm for years and generations to come.  The plan now is to investigate small renovations that can be done to get us onto the property.  Stay tuned.

Did I tell you about the headstone we're in the process of getting for Leo?  Linda and I met with a local grave marker company a week or two ago.  We're going to put a marker in the small, ancient cemetery here in Pomfret where many of Linda's family's ancestors are buried.  The cemetery is so tiny and full that there are few actual procedures for putting in a new gravestone.  Because we just have ashes and not body to bury, we're able to put our marker in without having to get special permission.  We're grateful that we'll have a place to see Leonardo Mathewson Ring's name, glad to have him with family, and glad to recognize him in some form of permanence, even if his physical presence with us was short.  We miss him everyday, feel his absence and yet in that absence his presence is perhaps stronger.

Did I tell you that Max moved up to pre-school?  He turns three in November and continues to be a bottomless source of joy and amazement.  I'll spare you the cloying doting of an adoring father, except to say he's a constant wonder and a blessing beyond words.  The only thing we desire for him is a sibling.  Unfortunately that's not such an easy prospect.  Pregnancy, while possible, isn't something we can count on and adoption is expensive.  This said, we're trying to get our heads around undertaking the latter.  We'll need help and asking for it doesn't come easy.  But not asking means not receiving.

And what about that running?  I am still at it, but I do admit to a recent bout of laziness.  I got sick a few weeks ago and then some unseasonable humidity deterred me from making a swift return.  I am not concerned that I'll remain sidelined.  I get too much from it to remain idle.  And I'm still an avid Five Finger/Minimalist footwear guy.  In recent months, I've noticed more and more discussion about the practice.  Friends of mine who were skeptics are now donning the freaky feet, reveling, childlike, in the sensation of the ground beneath their soles.

Quiet Corner living is, well, quiet and still.  When we moved here from Salem, Massachusetts, we had our reservations, but with each passing month, and now a year's worth of seasons, we can confidently express just how happy we are to have made the move.  I am still in the hunt for a job that meets both our financial needs and my personal set of values, but thanks to Linda, we're keeping our heads, perhaps even our shoulders above water.

I haven't been writing much lately and I wish I had something that could serve as an excuse.  I did a lot of 'talking' over the last year or so.  Sometimes I'd sit down to write and feel that I'd already said what I was thinking.  I didn't want to bore readers with what I felt was simply a rehashing of things already said.  I felt sensitive that much of what I wrote felt as if I was making judgements about how others chose to live their lives.  Frankly, I didn't want to hear myself think anymore.  Which brings me to my last thought.

There's been enough upheaval in my life in the past years to cause me to take stock.  I've experienced loss on many fronts (a child, a job, a condo, a good credit score) and yet I feel as though I've gained much more than I've 'lost' through the experience.  In my efforts to make sense of things, I've embraced some Buddhist philosophies.  (I am not a practicing Buddhist, nor do I represent that I have anything close to a deep understanding of the practice.)  What I read about the nature of suffering, the laws of impermanence, and the mighty and dangerous ego resonates deeply.  When I watch my mind and can see the ego focusing on past regrets or future fantasy, I feel more equipped to recognize what's happening in those thoughts and more swiftly I'm able return to the present.  When I drive, I try to just drive.  When I wash the dishes I try to just wash the dishes.  You may not be surprised by how incredibly difficult it is just to be wholly present.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Wisdom in Water

Several months ago - perhaps even a year - Linda and I watched the movie Surfwise. "SURFWISE follows the odyssey of 85-year-old legendary surfer Dr. Dorian "Doc" Paskowitz, his wife Juliette, and their nine children—all of whom were home-schooled on the beaches of Southern California, Hawaii, Mexico and Israel; they surfed every day of their lives, and were forced to adhere to a strict diet and lifestyle by their passionate and demanding, health-conscious father."

Surfers and some fans of surfing know well the Paskowitz story, but beyond that cultural subset  few knew of Doc or his story.  But perhaps I should first begin with my surfing history - brief as it is.

Frequent Ring Writes readers know that it's only been in recent years that I've developed some coordinated control over my long limbs.  Not always gangly, but rarely nimble, I stuck to games that relied little on eye/hand coordination.  Year by year, sport by sport, I was weaned away from the more talented players.  Sports like soccer, basketball, baseball, and football (we had no program in our town) were played in gym and I was amongst the last player picked..  Hockey  - skating and holding a stick to hit a puck - represented something wholly unimaginable.  Other than a bicycle, things with wheels were downright laughable; I nearly killed myself in attempts at skateboarding, roller skating or blading.  I looked like Gerald Ford coming down a jetway.  I tried skiing and remarkably never busted a bone though I took falls a plenty from Aspen to the Alps.

I soon learned that sports with repetitive movements were something that, with much practice, I could manage.  Bicycling, and running were two simple ones - one foot after the other.  I could even play a bit of golf (though never a great handicap) by grooving a swing that was serviceable.  In college I found crew and rowing to be the perfect complement to my skill set.  I sat on a seat, strapped my feet to a board, and simply inserted an oar into the water and pulled.  Over four years I honed my stroke, eventually making the 1st boat and winning a New England gold medal in our class.  And rowing gets us closer to water and closer to surfing.

It was through rowing that I became acquainted with Phi Mu Delta (PMD).  I joined the novice crew team and soon learned that several of the male rowers on the varsity team were in a fraternity.  I'd never thought that I'd want to be in a fraternity and didn't give it much thought at first.  I just wanted to be on the team.  I was an eager rower, if but a weak novice one.  I was so dedicated to the idea of making a go of it, that I convinced my novice coach to let me sleep at his rooming house over winter break so I could participate in the workouts.  (Deep down I think I also knew there was not a chance I'd perform them as well at home over a month long holiday break).   Living at the house, I grew to know the other roomers.  I soon found out I was living in an alumni crew house.  A couple of the boarders, though much older than I were still finishing their undergraduate degrees, others were taking grad courses.  There were former rowers, both from the men's and women's teams.  Though I was just a few months into my rowing career, I quickly absorbed much about UMass Crew in those few weeks.

One evening, two of the house dwellers, Jill and Michele - who rowed together on the women's team, invited me to drive up to L.L.Bean in Freeport, ME with two friend of theirs, Larry and Josh.  It was late, but Bean is open 24 hours and no one had classes or had to work the next day.  Jill had a behemoth of a station wagon and the five of us piled in and drove through the dead of a cold winter night to Freeport.  We drank beer and laughed most of the way and arrived at L.L. Bean at 2am.  We wandered the empty aisles, sat in display canoes, and even bought a few things.  Jill said she had a friend in Portland on whose floor we could crash.  We took many turns that Jill was guessing at which led us to a house she said she thought  was her friend's.  I am about 6'3; Josh and Larry are both taller and more solid.  The five of us tiptoed loudly into the living room.  Giant Josh laid claim to the couch and the rest of us huddled on chairs and on the floor.

In the morning, I heard people whispering, people I didn't know.  "Who is this?" the voiced inquired.  In a hungover haze, I became aware that these people were stepping lightly through and around us.  I felt sure we were in some stranger's house.  Finally, a person said, "I think that's Jill."  Relieved but still disheveled and embarrassed we demurely left and returned to Amherst.  Jill piloted the big station wagon to the other side of campus from where I lived and pulled behind a large boarding house on N. Pleasant Street that had Greek letters on the front.  The house was neither impressive or inviting.  It looked simply like a beat up boarding house.  From the car, I could see thick plastic covering the windows to keep the January cold out.  We said our goodbyes and Jill, Michele, and I returned to coach's house.  On the way back, I asked what the house was.  Michele and Jill both knowingly chuckled and answered, "It's the Mu."

I didn't know that much about The Mu, but soon learned that my coach was a brother at Phi Mu Delta and so was the lightweight coach.  I learned that nearly a couple of dozen current and former rowers that I knew were Phi Mu Delta's, some proudly and others less overtly.  I also learned there were plenty who were not.  That spring semester, I returned to my dorm, regular classes and continued to train with the crew team.  I was buried somewhere in the 2nd or 3rd novice boat, but still saw Josh and Larry among the rest of our teammates in the gym.  It was not long into the semester that I got a call in my dorm room from Josh.  He wanted to know if I was "interested in coming by the house sometime and meeting the guys."  I declined, politely saying that I wasn't really interested in fraternities.  But Josh is charming and persistent.  And standing several inches taller and weighing many muscular pounds more than me, he's an effective salesman.

He and Larry both, along with a few other PMD rowers made other entreaties.  Finally Josh told me just to come by for "an Exchange."  He explained that it was a small party, usually on Thursday nights in which a different sorority or two came over and we drank beer.  Josh said, "You like girls and beer, don't you? Come on."  Not wanting to go alone I convinced my closest novice rower friend, Russell, to come with me.  The details of my Phi Mu Delta experience are too numerous and at times too embarrassing to delve into here.  The summary is that I pledged that fraternity (as did Russell) and ended up living in the house for the remainder of my three years in college, rowing for the crew team all the while.   But what about surfing?  What about the ocean?  Yes, yes.  I will come to that.

Growing up in landlocked Mansfield, Connecticut, over an hour's drive to the beach, it was a special occasion when we went.  We'd drive to Ocean Beach Park in New London or Rocky Neck in Niantic, but soon we drifted eastward until Watch Hill, Misquamicut, and East Beach became the favorites.  It was out in Rhode Island where you were more likely to find bigger waves.  Though I'd proven myself able to tread water, I wasn't a natural swimmer.  It also so happens that my mother has always been quite protective.  The rule was that I wasn't to go out in water above my armpits. I did some body surfing, jumped around a bit, but when the waves got big, I was relegated to the shallows or the beach.  Sure, I sometimes went out over my head, but I had taken enough underwater tumbles in the rolling surf to know that I wasn't going to tempt the wrath of Poseidon.

While we day tripped to RI from time to time, it was summers that we, along with the masses, drove to Cape Cod for extended vacations.  When I was little we went to Craigville, and even into my early teens we often spent a week or so there.  We also had friends in Eastham and as a preteen (was I ever a tween?) that was the first time I can recall being cognitively aware of the Lower Cape.  We spent many days along bayside sandy beaches.  On clear days you could see the relic that was the Target Ship and sometimes all the way up to the Monument in Provincetown.  Our friends would take us sailing, fishing, and clam-digging.  We boated out to islands that disappeared when the tide came up.  On the ocean side, the water was colder and often there was more surf.  We'd go to beaches up and down the National Seashore - From Nauset in Orleans, up to Nauset Light in Eastham, Marconi in Wellfleet - and every Hollow beach along Cape Cod's forearm from Wellfleet to Truro to P'town.  Our beach visits were so precious that I can remember my sister and I huddled under a blanket on a rainy day as our mom pointed to a light patch of sky saying hopefully, "I think it's clearing!"

In my youth, I might have seen a surfer or two from those beaches.  I now know for certain they were there. But surfing to me then - standing on an unstable board floating on fast flowing waves that were, by definition, going to break - was beyond my mind's projection.  Like skateboarding and the then unknown to me snowboarding, I didn't need any "sport" to challenge my ability to stay upright.  Still, I learned to love the water and as I grew older and into a more confident swimmer, I swam out over my head, let big waves lift me up, and survived the times heavy water pinned me below the surface so long that I wasn't sure which way was up.  When I got scared, I took a break but always braved the waves again.  But I never surfed, knew little of it beyond goofy surf movies or Beach Boys songs.

What I didn't know as a young boy on the Lower Cape in the 1970s was that in late 1980s I'd be living in a fraternity with several guys who spent their summers and between semesters living, working, and playing there.  Beginning the first summer after college, I would make regular trips to the Cape to visit my friends.  Wellfleet was where they went and often that's where I could be found.  My friends worked at the Beachcomber, for the town, at the general store, and for the trash company.  I heard many outrageous stories of parties, girls, fights, thefts, garbage finds, and bonfires.  From what I saw on my weekend visits, I had no reason to suspect any of it as hyperbole.   After college I continued to make trips to the Lower Cape. Sometimes I'd go with family, other times with, or to see friends.  Though up to that point I'd never spent any more than a couple of weeks there, I began to feel comfortable in Wellfleet.  I began to recognize the same people - friends of my friends, people who'd spent the entire summer of their lives there.  And through my friends, I made new friends.  And yet throughout that time I still never surfed.

Flash forward to the mid 1990's.  I'm halfway through my two year graduate degree at UMass - Amherst.  I have the summer off and Steve successfully pitches the idea of me working in Wellfleet for the summer and living with him in what we call the "Suck Shacks" behind our friend Luke's family restaurant in S. Wellfleet.  The Suck Shacks consisted of 5 small cottages.  Some had two bedrooms, others were studios. Each shack was tiny and featured two-burner stinkolaters (sink, stove, refrigerator units).  Having never lived in Wellfleet for a full summer I jumped at the chance.  Our stinkolater was named The Diavlo 5000.

I got two jobs - as a waiter at a pricey Wellfleet restaurant and as a beach officer for the town.  As a waiter, I had to be at work by late afternoon and was done around 12am.  I reported to the beach at 830am.  My job as the assistant manager was to help assign sticker checkers to beach and pond parking lots, give breaks to the staff, and then spend the rest of the time driving around Wellfleet, issuing tickets to illegally parked or unstickered cars.  I was deputized and carried a badge.  And it was during this summer, 1995, that I finally learned about surfing.

Steve was - and still is - an avid surfer.  Though he grew up in Boston, he discovered surfing on the Cape and like so many was immediately hooked.  Our friend Luke (went to UMass, was a PMD, and whose parents owned the Suck Shacks) spent most of the summers of his youth (and still does) in Wellfleet.  Though Luke spent the school year in Foxboro on his skateboard, he spent the summers on the Cape on his surfboard.  By the time I rolled into Wellfleet in 1995, Steve and Luke had both been surfing for years and had already begun their ongoing efforts to surf all over the world.  (Luke is also an accomplished photographer and much of his work features surfing:
Courtesy of

Between Luke and Steve there were surfboards all over and in the Suck Shacks.  They were piled on roof racks, hanging in the rafters, leaning against walls - both in and outside.  From them (and other surfer friends of theirs who became friends of mine) I learned about the different boards, what the shapes and sizes were good for.  For years prior Steve had drilled quotes from Endless Summer and Big Wednesday into my head.  But now I was watching obscure surf videos, in Luke's Suck Shack, drunk at 2am.  The next morning, bleary eyed, Luke and/or Steve would wake at dawn to check the surf, the wind.  Sometimes I'd go with them and survey the waves.  "Blown out." "Choppy." Nice lines."  Rippin'".  I began to absorb the language.  Slowly I was being drawn in.  What was it about surfing that could consume my friends so?  Sometimes they'd try to explain it to me, but were rendered speechless only saying that it was too hard to put into words.

Other than playing on a board in small "long board" waves, I had yet to try it myself until that summer.  Steve piled a few boards on top of his ancient station wagon and we drove to the beach.  The waves were small but ridable.  I pulled on a borrowed and very tight-fitting 3/2 wetsuit and Steve handed me an insanely heavy longboard.  It could have kept King Kong afloat.  It was a good board for me to learn on.  The waves weren't so big that I couldn't paddle past them, but big enough for me to paddle into them (a condition I later required for any surfing excursion).  Eventually, I worked my way through the progression of going from my chest to my knees to my feet and then even popping from chest to feet (I bet it didn't look like I popped up, but I felt like I did). After many tries, I finally managed to catch a long ride into the beach. It was fun, and thrilling and I felt a sense of pride in the accomplishment.  Many life-long surfers begin this same way - one ride.  I am not one of those people.

Encouraged by my modest success, I continued to tag along with the surfers from time to time. I held no allusion that I was a natural or that I could begin to even approximate their skill, but I enjoyed it just the same.  I borrowed a board and a suit and managed a couple of other small surfing successes.  But when the waves got big, I got pummeled.  The water rose so quickly and crashed with such ferocity that I spent as much time drinking water as I did paddling through it.  My efforts to stand resulted in swift and impromptu dismounts.  I hung nothing.

Though I'd occasionally try my hand, a serious surfer I would not be.  Still having tried it, having caught a few waves, I did have an inkling of how addictive it could be.  I sensed the oneness with the water that riding a wave offered.  I saw the beach from the water, from well past the area where waves began to crest.  And having watched all those surf movies and having looked through all the surf magazines around the Suck Shack, I began to absorb some of what surfing meant to my friends.  And while I didn't achieve their surfing proficiency, I did come to imbibe the purity which it represents.

So back to this movie, Surfwise, which we watched a while back, but upon which I still regularly reflect.  The story is about this successful doctor who grows so unhappy in his professional life that he decides to chuck it all and live life to its fullest - in his small camper with his wife, his 9 kids, and their surfboards. I won't attempt to sum up the experience - leave that to the documentarians - but certainly Doc developed a philosophy to which he both fiercely subscribed and one which he also enforced in his family - not always to their liking.  Through all Paskowitz's experiences, he honed a life philosophy, summed it up in five elements:  A balance of Diet, Exercise, Rest, Recreation, and Attitudes of Mind.

The Paskowitz Family
Unlike Doc and instead of being surrounded by beaches and waves, I am, these days, mostly surrounded by lush green fields and dense woods.  And yet, like Paskowitz, I, too, endeavor to find balance between diet, exercise, rest, recreation, and attitudes of mind.  And like Paskowitz being near and in the water helps.  In the 15 years since that first Suck Shack summer I've managed to sneak in a Wellfleet weekend or two most summers.  And because I've made many friends there, I still see familiar faces.  Steve still lives there and so does Luke.  There are still boards atop their cars.

Last weekend I spent three days in Wellfleet with my wife and my son, staying with friends.  And this time I went to a beach that I'd driven past for decades, but never been to.  It's Mayo Beach - just down the road from the Wellfleet Pier.  It's a bayside cove and the waves don't get very big - perfect for my toddler son.  He splashed in the water while I stared at the dunes.  Toddlers can be bears and devils.  "No" is Max's favorite word.  Life - with or without a toddler - can be busy, stressful, and frustrating.  Finding time for a balance between "diet, exercise, rest, recreation, and attitudes of mind. isn't a simple task.  Wellfleet helps, wherever your "Wellfleet" happens to be.

One day we were driving down a windy dirt and scrub pine road.  The side view mirror was clipping branches as we followed Jack and Inga's car down the a narrow and wooded fire road.  Further and further we drove.  Surely we were on private property, surely we were lost.  On a piece of land barely a few miles wide surely we would run out of road.  And we did.  Late, late in the afternoon, we arrived at a hidden dune cul-de-sac.  We couldn't see the beach from where we parked.  We couldn't even hear the waves beyond the dune and above the sound of the strong breeze.  We followed a steep path through the grassy dunes, passing a few people as they were leaving.  When after a few minutes, we finally crested the last hill, an empty expanse of beach revealed itself to us.  Here, in Wellfleet, in the middle of a hot and sunny August weekend was an empty beach, no one as far as we could see in either direction.  It was ours.  It was equal parts diet, exercise, rest, recreation and attitudes of mind.  I didn't surf, but I was riding the wave.

Surfwise Trailer

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The Arrest

When I was about ten years old I lived in Carriage House Apartments on Hunting Lodge Road in Storrs, CT.  The apartments are less than a mile from The University of Connecticut campus and while they are now full of hard partying students, they were once more populated by grad students and single parents.  I'd wander up and down the cul-de-sac road with playmates who lived in other buildings.  We played cops and robbers, we had forts, and for a brief time it was part of my paper route.

The apartments were bordered by woods and I often delved into them on mini explorations.  By just going a hundred feet in I'd be transported to a some kind of forest retreat.  The ferns were large and lush, sometimes equaling me in height; the mushrooms growing on the decaying trees made me ponder the mysteries of nature.  I lifted rocks to see scurrying insects and I watched slugs ooze their way forth.  I often caught poison ivy, but was rarely deterred from going back into those woods.

One day, I went further into the woods than I'd ever gone.  To me it felt as if I was miles away, though I now know it was more like a football field's distance.  (When you're young, small distances seem great and the fact that the woods were dense lent to the perception of being much removed from my apartment.)  After meandering around a while, I stumbled upon a trail and followed it.  Soon the trees became more sparse and I could see some buildings ahead.  There were three apartment buildings - they looked abandoned.  I didn't even detect a road that led to them.  There was a front door that was ajar.  I pushed it open and saw a door to an apartment to my left and right.  Stairs led up to two more apartments. All the doors were open.  Peering in, I saw discarded furniture and no signs of residents.  For a child who liked to explore, I felt like I'd stumbled upon some kind of archeological discovery.  It was late in the afternoon and I knew I had to be getting home, but I vowed to return.

A few days later I told my friend, Rainer, a boy who I often played with who lived in another building up the road about my discovery.  I told him roughly where I'd found it and that we'd have to go back to check it out.  It was shortly after that two other friends, Ron and Micah were over and I instead took them through the woods to the enchanting structures (or 'attractive nuisances' in legal parlance).  I led them down the path up to the first of the three buildings.  They were initially timid about venturing in.  I assured them that no one lived there, that the doors were open.  We three boys wandered into one of the upstairs apartments and peered into the dank and musty rooms.  Who had lived here, we wondered.  Why did they leave all this stuff?  It was weird, a bit scary, and exhilarating, too.

One of us, I forget who, found a box of square bathroom tiles.  Someone was dared to throw one.  The dare was taken.  One of us did it first:  held the tile like a Ninja throwing star and hucked it with all our mini-might.  It twirled, disc-like, and burst through a window.  The glass exploded with a delightful crash.  It wasn't long before we'd emptied the box and glass was scattered everywhere.  I think if pressed, we might have known what vandalism was, but at the time, it didn't register that we were guilty of it.

We wandered into the kitchen.  For some insane reason there were cases of cream cheese in an unplugged refrigerator.  It wasn't Philly brand, but it was those same oblong bricks packaged in thick silver foil.  In the ceiling of the kitchen was a square hole leading up to an attic crawl space.  The hole was uncovered and one of us ingeniously conceived of a game.  Open the cream cheese package so that one end was open and the other was still covered in foil.  The aim then was to throw the brick o' cream cheese in just such a way as to propel it into the attic and have it stick to the roof so that it didn't come back down after pitching it up.  This was a lot of fun.  We were sad to see that box of cream cheese empty.

The three of us wandered from apartment to apartment wreaking similar havoc as we went.  When we'd exhausted the entertainment in one building we moved on to the next and then to the last of the three.  In that one, we found old furniture and reveled in pitching it down the stairs.  It was marvelous to watch the furniture tumble end over end, legs of chairs and tables flew off as they careened down.  The whole escapade is somewhat blurry in my memory, but I do recall a lot of laughter, excitement, and joy.  I am sure some of that was because we knew what we were doing was illicit, but boys like to break stuff and we'd found a treasure trove of seemingly abandoned wares to destroy.  The place was a pit before we'd entered it, surely we weren't causing anyone any harm....

Someone heard a voice outside.  We froze.  I can still feel the way my heart pounded in my chest.  We all immediately hid out of instinct.  Someone peered out the window and announced that it was just Rainer!  Phew, it was only Rainer coming to find us at the buildings I'd told him about a few days prior.  What a relief!  We stood up and went to make our way out of the building, but soon saw that Rainer was not alone, with him was an elderly woman.  We wanted to run, but the furniture we'd tossed down the stairs was blocking the door!  We were trapped, trapped by our own stupidity.  The woman told that we come out and slowly but surely we moved enough debris away to squeeze our way out.  Our heads hung low; she told us to follow her to her house.

It turned out that while Rainer was trying to find us, he'd stumbled upon this woman's house.  She asked him what he was up to and he told her he was looking for the old buildings I'd told him about.  She knew just the ones and led him to us.  Amazingly she didn't seem mad and she never raised her voice to us.  In fact, when we got to her home and while we waited for the police to arrive, she gave us cookies and something to drink.  Her husband came by shortly thereafter.  He wasn't as nice.  In fact he was a real jerk.  I don't remember what he said exactly, but he was mean, mean in the way a ten year old knows what mean is.  He was mean for means sake.  We were caught, but he still insisted on threatening us.  We were thankful when the police came.

The cops arrived and we were told to call our parents and then sit in the cruiser while the officer presumably took statements.  I remember that though I was scared, I thought the inside of the cruiser was really cool.  My mom was still at work, but my older sister, Elise, was at home.  As it turned out the house were were in was very close to the apartments and she walked over in a matter of minutes.  My sister (who would later go to Harvard Law School) took great umbrage at our treatment and got into a heated exchange with the officer.  Not long afterward, my mom arrived.  She, too, was less than pleased.  She couldn't conceive how we'd thought this was something that was okay to do.  Micah and Ron's moms felt the same.  Our fathers all were less appalled.  Boys will be boys, they said.

In the weeks that followed we were interviewed by the insurance investigator.  Sometime before that the three of us juvenile delinquents agreed to say that we'd only vandalized one of the three buildings.  The other two were like that when we got there, we were to say.  And we did.  But that insurance investigator was too shrewd.  When he interviewed me he said that the other boys told him we'd vandalized all three, not just the one.  This is exactly what he told Micah and Ron, too.  I caved immediately.  Sipowicz wasn't needed to break us!  Some weeks after that, I reported to Willimantic Juvenile Court.  All three of us received probation and the promise that if we kept out of trouble (we did) our records would be expunged (they were).

When word got out around town about our arrest, there were many varied reactions.  Teachers were shocked, appalled, disappointed.  A friend of the family tried to make us feel better by telling us he'd once burned down a field as a youth (though his destruction was more the result of improper magnifying glass use than intentional wreckage).   Another family friend praised our demolition work for he knew the property owner to be a real jerk.  And later I found out that he really was a jerk and a criminal, too.  He later tried to burn down those properties to get the insurance money!  For many years, I drove past his house and could see those buildings hidden mostly by trees.  When the old man was out front, I'd honk my horn.  He'd wave and I'd give him the finger.  Boys will be boys.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010


There's a lot of noise out there.  And there's a lot of noise in your head.

I grew up in a mostly rural pocket of northeastern Connecticut.  Save for being the home of the state's university, Mansfield was - and is still - a quiet town.  With the UConn skating rink and Student Union arcade room, a drive-in theater, and not much else, I was accustomed to finding ways of passing the hours.  I explored the woods looking for trails, I attempted to go fishing, I enjoyed sledding down pristine white hills.  Though there were many who chose to stay, I, like a lot of kids - many also the children of professional academics - sought to get away just as soon as we could.

Though college only took me to another college cow-town, Amherst, Massachusetts, it was big school in an area with several other colleges within a 20 minute radius.  I met hundreds of new people, joined the crew team and was exposed to a whole different set of experiences.  I fell under the spell of a fraternity, joining their ranks and living in our fetid house for three solid years of college.  There was a buzz and an energy and as a 20 year-old who wanted to be buzzed and energized there was no better place.  With the exception of the time I broke my humerus bone in half and got 10 stitches in my other hand (lumber yard accident, different story) and lived back home for a few weeks recuperation, I flew the coop right after high school.

Moving to a Boston suburb and then into the city after college, I have mostly lived in urban or suburban places ever since.  And as I moved into more compact and complex environments, my own world got more complex.  I had a job now, had to make my own decisions and sometimes suffer the consequences.   In my early twenties, I, like many, made - let's see, to put it politely - questionable decisions.  Many times given the choice between industriousness and indolence I chose the latter.  The party instead of the library, the girl instead of the gym.

A few years later, I advanced in my place of employment.  At first it wasn't really any kind of effort.  I was likable, reasonably intelligent, and mostly kind.  It wasn't long, however, that things got more complex.  If I was still going to be in the company's good favor - and just as importantly if I wanted to boost my pay, I had to take on more responsibility.  More responsibility requires more effort, more training, more curiosity and diligence.  Sure I'd made periodic efforts in my classes.  Sometimes I had to put in maximum effort to get passing grades in particularly difficult courses.  I often employed determination and resolve as an oarsman in college.  In crew I had to learn from my teammates and my coaches how to put forth consistent effort.  And in that sport my failure was my teammates' failure; I felt responsible to them.

Responsibility.  I have no idea how I came to possess any semblance of it.  When I was in high school I worked at the Mansfield Depot Restaurant.  I began as a dishwasher.  I showed up on time, I did my job thoroughly and conscientiously.  If someone called in sick and they called me, I went in.  If they needed someone to work a double, I offered.  Certainly, I was motivated by money.  Though I made less than $4/hr. when I started, those paychecks supplied all my spending money.  I saved up and with some help from my dad, bought my first car (1974 Volvo 164E, with a jerky transmission).  But not far  below money, I didn't want my bosses to think poorly of me.  I felt rewarded by how thankful they were that I was able to work and was a diligent employee.  I should have said "no" more than I did.  I should have spent a little bit of time being still while I could.

When I was in my early 30s, I moved abroad.  It had been a goal of mine; it appeared to be  the next adventure I was craving.  In my several years of city hopping, I lived in London, Amsterdam, Toronto, and Zurich - and that was only where I got my mail.  I was using my work postings to go to Italy or Luxembourg, France, Scandinavia, India, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Poland, and Malta of all places.  Though I travelled more than some, there were others I worked with who hadn't missed a continent and had seemingly alighted in every country on them.  They lived out of their suitcases, had wallets stuffed with reimbursable receipts, and knew every Irish bar in every non-Irish city they'd seen.   I relished the travel, the relative perks, and the opportunity to learn more about myself by seeing myself in different settings.

Year by year, the adventure continued until I moved back to Boston.  It was shortly after 9/11 and our country was a different place than the one that had launched me in the 1990s.  After the 2000 Election, when Bush 'beat' Gore, it was all and more than we might have anticipated.  The country moved right, and became even more partisan.  Bush made extraordinary gaffes, both publicly and politically. But it was funny still.  The Daily Show and Will Ferrell can thank Dubya (and a lot of talent, too) for much of their success today.  But after 9/11 things got pretty serious.  War.  Terrorists, Global Warming, global political unrest, loose nukes!  This was my 30s.

Eventually, traveling began to lose its luster and I had to make different kinds of choices.  I chose between a salary and a lifestyle.  I tried to strike a balance between what I wanted to do and what people wanted me to do.  I'd begun to save for my future.  I took time to consider.  I got my own financial planner.  The more I tried to reconcile what the heck I was doing with my life, I tried to think about what was meaningful to me.  My family.  My friends.  That was about it.  I was traipsing around the globe, but had so much time to myself that I had ample time to reflect.  I reflected on what was worthwhile.  Socializing was valuable, but I grew weary of the repetition.  On many quiet Sunday afternoons, I'd wander foreign city streets.  I was able to meet up with friends, but I also enjoyed the stillness of being alone in a park, by a river, on a trail.

Stillness.  That was the word that my stream of consciousness lingered on.  It's the word that inspired this posting.  I was enjoying a hot shower after a peaceful run.  Both of those things offer stillness, if one permits it to enter you.  Sometimes it's an effort, but other times it is spontaneous.  In the shower, you feel the warm water beat on your skin, cooling and warming at the same time.  You get to give yourself and all over body massage (if you're cleaning all the parts you ought to).  In the shower, behind the closed door, you're away from the TV, the kids, the internet and the iPhone.  Sure you can have a radio, but that would ruin the stillness, the privacy of the moment.  I many wives complain about the length of time their husbands spend in the bathroom doing number two.  It's the stillness.  Whether in the corporate bathroom stall, or the downstairs loo under the stairs, many a man takes respite from all that consumes him outside that door.  Take 10, deep, deep breaths, and you'll feel the stillness seep into you.  Calgon, take me away!

I don't know how many millions the makers of Ambien are raking in, but I do know that they are banking on people's inability to find and possess stillness.  And in that vein, alcohol, recreational drugs, including cigarettes, are mechanisms whereby many find that confounded, illusive stillness.  On the healthier side, many find stillness in yoga, pilates, and various forms of martial arts.  When I lived in New York City for an unemployed time, I had a lot of time to walk the island of Manhattan.  I'd walk 100 blocks at a time, at all hours of the day and night.  For the millions who've done this in any world class city around the globe, you know what it is to be struck by the sheer magnitude of the operation.  All those people, all that transportation, infrastructure, food, trash!  It's 24/7 because it has to be, because it's alive, it breathes.  I am thankful for the time I lived in Manhattan because at that point in my life it taught me that I didn't want to live there. For me, it was too busy.  I literally became tired sometimes after just a short walk outside because I couldn't help but absorb how busy everyone else was.  I needed more stillness.  I am betting there's a lot of Ambien in Manhattan.

In between my second and final European tour of living and that stint in NYC, I disappeared for two months.  Long before Mark Sanford made it a popular alibi, I hiked a few hundred miles of the Appalachian Trail.  Along with a friend who'd often found the stillness he craved in nature, we hoofed it up and down hills and mountains.  We traversed large open fields, scaled rocks, swam in ravines, and spent hour after hour not saying a word.  It was exactly what I needed when I needed it.  Before that hike, I was living in Zurich and planning on moving to Lucerne soon after the summer.  The company package offered wasn't quite what I was expecting and the company was not going to offer more.  We were at an impasse.  It was not the first time I had to make a decision about what was valuable to me, but it was one of those times where you ask yourself what your life means to you - and how valuable you feel to those you work for.  It was a watershed moment for me because it allowed me the opportunity to be true to myself.

I thanked them for the many opportunities I'd been given and gave my notice.  In the process of coming to that decision I spoke with many confidants.  As I'd done many times before and would do many times again, I used those discussions to comb through the complexity of emotions that accompany a major life decision.  As I explained the situation to people in both monetary terms and at what juncture in my life this occured, I began to understand that I'd reached as far as I wanted to go with the company.  I didn't want anyone else's job who was superior.  As I interpreted it then, to me those people were pawns of the company.  If you were talented and completely dedicated to the company, you were 'rewarded' by moving to ten cities in ten years.  Or maybe your whole family would have to move from Boston to China, no matter that it's your daugther's senior year in high school.  I didn't want to be a cog, however highly paid that cog was.

I knew that even though I knew I could earn more money, I also knew that you either have to be very intelligent or very hard working or both - and even if you are you have to catch some luck, too.  Whatever the psychological reasons (and I'm sure they are deep and plentiful), it wasn't enough to make me want to supplant my independence for the sake of the company.  I'd gotten what I perceived was valuable out of the relationship.  I was paid well enough, I got to travel, I had friends all over the world and a global perspective that I continue to carry with me every day.  But the wave had crested and I didn't want to be pulled down into the undertow.

Sadly, many of you - and certainly people you know  - are churning in the undertow and looking to come up for air.  To breathe.  To find stillness.  It happens imperceptibly slowly.  It's easy to see the second hand on a clock move.  If you stare carefully, you can see a minute hand move.  But staring at an hour hand will make you insane.  And yet, time passes.  Before you realize it, you bought a house.  You got married.  Your kids are almost in, what the F!, middle school!  And for too many, you're stuck in a job, town, marriage, relationship, bad habit that you've been in for years.  We find moments of stillness.  For the fortunate among us hard work leads to vacation and that sunrise on the lake from the deck.  A few bottles of wine will stop the mental carousel for an evening.  Otherwise, it's very hard to stop the noise.  Every question leads to another question and another person perhaps to involve, and a cost consideration, and maybe someone's feelings to think about.  With the increase in electronic communication, the immediacy of the times in which we live, presents the need of simply removing yourself from being accessible.  We now have the burden of being concerned that if you don't answer a text message in a 'reasonable' amount of time, you're perceived either as an idiot for not having your apparatus with you or as one intentionally avoiding communication.  And if you are having an affair, it means you are b-u-s-t-e-d.

My path required that I have a crises of personal conscious and leave the job that wasn't filling my soul anymore.  I ditched my laptop and mobile phone and took to the Appalachian Trail.  And while there was stillness and I had many pure and perfectly still moments, I had long, long conversations with myself, too.  What was I going to do when I came out of the woods?  Where was I going to live?  Who was going to be my life partner, the ballast for which I was so obviously yearning?

My romantic arc - rated PG - in brief.  I didn't have a real girlfriend until college.  In high school, I barely kissed a girl outside of whatever spin the bottle game I was fortunate in which to land a seat.  College was different.  In college I wasn't the person everybody already knew.  And girls were different.  They appreciated different things.  For years being funny meant getting laughs.  In college and beyond being funny meant you got to occasionally kiss the girl.  This was new to me and after finally experiencing it for myself it was hard for me to just want to kiss one girl.  So I kissed a few, had some major crushes, picked up girls, and got dumped by girls.  My dad's been married at least as many times as Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected president and I used to say - and I think I believed  - that I didn't want to get married before I was ready to stay married.  I met some fantastic women, smart, beautiful, funny, athletic, driven, compassionate, worldly and then there were a few who weren't any of those things.  I was looking for the perfect woman for me and as searchers know the longer it takes the harder it becomes.

It was a void I was looking to fill.  And as much luck as I've ever had led Linda Mary LoPiccolo into my life.  As they say in life and in cliché, all the others were merely prelude to this.  When we finally engaged out in Long Beach, California where we lived in August of 2003, I'd chosen for the first time the kind of permanent commitment that had long eluded me.  It was the first time this selfish Sagittarius elected to be responsible for something other than himself.  It took me longer than it ought to have to realize it, but I fell in love with Linda and thankfully she with me.  I guess I am a slow learner because it's obvious to me now how perfect she is.  Not perfect.  Perfect for me.  But I digress.

There was this moment right after our wedding that I often return to.  After the reception and after stopping at the bar where our rowdy friends and repaired to, Linda and I got in the back of a somewhat tacky limo for our ride from Connecticut to our Boston hotel.  (We departed to Mexico the next morning.  I recommend Hotel Secreto).  It was the first time we were alone in several days.  Those days preceding the wedding are hectic.  There's family coming in, last minute arrangements, weather to watch, and of course, fun to be had.  With the wedding and our all our guests behind us, we could breathe.  We had stillness and the beauty of it, what was magical was that it was shared.  I looked into Linda's eyes and she into mine and in that moment we were perfectly aligned (horizontally, too).  It was a moment of stillness and perfection to which I regularly return.

But like that hour hand on a clock, time passes and it's hard to tell how it did, so quickly.  You think about all that's happened in that span of time, but looking back months get condensed into a nugget of experience.  When Linda and I were going through fertility treatments it went on for more than a year.  And then the whole process of considering and then moving forward with adoption is collapsed into a sentence when really that was probably a year, too. And whether you have your own baby or adopt one, you know what happens after it arrives.  And for those that don't have kids, you can imagine!  Time flies and the 'noise' is as loud as it's ever been.  Not just the noise of the kid, which is real to be sure, but now you've got a spouse, a child or two, or three or seven.  The dogs need to be walked and taken to the vet.  There's the dance recital, your sick parent, the hockey practice, the potential new position, GLOBAL ECONOMIC MELTDOWN!  That's not what we were prepping for.  As you get older you realize the calamities of youth were but love taps compared to the punches life has in store for you now.

So much noise. A lot of political noise - everyone's pissed off.  They're pissed at their government and they're pissed at the opposition.  They're pissed at big business and they're pissed at corruption.  Sarah Palin's pissed off, Glen Beck's pissed off.  Keith Olberman's pissed off.  John McCain looks pissed off even when he's happy.  If you're at all tuned in, you can't miss the rancor - it's on the radio, the web and on billboards.  I was running around my sister's neighborhood in Texas and many houses had these "No Socialism" placards stuck on their front lawns.  I get freedom of speech, am 100% for it, but just because you can say something doesn't mean you should.  But hey, it's a free country.  I digress again.  And it's easy to do because there are a lot of things in this life that are truly distracting.

Television is pretty noisy too.  Many of these reality shows capitalize on conflict.  If someone's not pissed off, they better be obviously peeved.  How much louder are the commercials than the show?  I know I am not alone in muting them.  Mute.  Silent.  Still.  Breathe.  I used to listen to my iPod (which I still sometimes call a Walkman) a lot when I was running.  In the cities I used it to disappear into the music and into the rhythm of my stride.  I also liked drowning out the sound of my heavy breathing.  It's not attractive.  But as I got fitter and especially when I ran on quieter routes, I left the iPod at home and chose instead to absorb my environment completely.  I smelled the foliage, heard the rippling brook, the chirping birds.  When I lived closer to a pool and swam laps, I found stillness in the repetition.  I find that stillness sometimes when I'm doing dishes or ironing (yes I do both).

As much as I praise stillness, I cannot help now but hear the word still and associate it with stillborn - and that is what Leo what was.  Born still at eight months.  Years after fertility treatments failed and after adoption succeeded we got pregnant.  That event, too, now is reduced to a sentence.  Something years in the making, so much emotional energy invested, so much noise endured, even embraced at times, gets relegated to a sentence.  We got pregnant.  On our own.  Leo brought us tremendous joy while Linda's pregnancy progressed normally and without warning.  It was a warm July day, 4 weeks before the due date when we learned that the baby had died.  This was the kind of stillness I never sought, never truly considered, and the one that also necessitates the stillness I now perpetually crave.  After Leo died, after three long days in the hospital, and after we went to the funeral home to collect his ashes, Linda and I paused as best we could.  Our son Max needed and deserved our attention and he got it.  But we couldn't breathe and we needed to.  We left Max with relatives and went north, to Maine to a cabin retreat belonging to that hiking friend of mine.  Those days nestled in the thick woods, next to that long lake were a gift.  I went for a few jogs.  Linda read.  We swam and we napped.  And there were tears. We had coffee at sunrise with the water lapping on shores. Then we left.

2009 was especially noisy.  The economy tanked, the housing bubble burst, and Obama replaced 8 years of Bush.  I was unemployed and we'd made the decision to walk away from our upside down city condo.  We lost the baby we longed to raise, suddenly, tragically.  And through it all, Linda and I were making choices that compelled us to listen to our values.  I don't want to spend two hours commuting every work day.  I don't think working that hard is worth either commuting or paying through the nose to live closer.  It just makes things noisier.  Let me make sure that readers know that I am speaking only for myself.  Millions choose to commute or feel that what they get for their hard work is worth that equation.  That's fine if it's fine for you.  It wasn't for me and we chose to move to the Quiet Corner - what the northeastern part of the state of Connecticut is affectionately called.  Through all the noise, the message was steadily speaking.  Leo's stillness firmly repositioned stillness to the forefront of my thoughts.  I read some Deepak Chopra and Eckhart Tolle.  I took some wonderfully long and meditative runs in preparation for my first marathon.  I practiced tuning out the noise.  I practiced being present.

Please don't imagine me some Buddhist monk in constant meditation.  I am not.  Despite my green environs and dearth of neighbors, the world too easily penetrates, vibrates, reverberates.  Internet, cable television, radio have made access to noise nearly as abundant here as it was in my former urban life.  But proximity permits me easier entry into stillness.  There's a mile stretch of road that I either drive or run on nearly every day.  It's one of the few straight roads around and there's a canopy of ancient and tall trees that form a cathedral vaulted ceiling of branches.  This time of year the green is so new and lustrous.  Later those leaves will grow richly and deeply green, but now they are translucent; when the sun shines through them the vernal splendor is arresting.

You might imagine me trotting down that shady road, or going to the farmer's market for freshly picked vegetables and those are things I indeed do.  But my mind is still too noisy, too many misplaced thoughts pulling me from the present.  I've read that it's a good first step that I'm aware of these leanings, that to be conscious of my thoughts helps to bring me back to the present.  It's an effort, every waking moment is an effort.  I go through phases of wanting to work on presence and in choosing not to, procrastinating being present for goodness sake!  Recently though, I was in a bookstore and saw a book about Zen Buddhism, Buddhism Is Not What You Think.  I bought it because everything I've ever read - which is not a ton - about Buddhism appeals to me.  I bought it because I knew I would find it helpful to have a new reminder of what it is I am seeking to honor, to value.  It's not something mystical I'm after; it's not even something necessarily spiritual.  What I'm looking for is something practical, a way to be, stasis.  There's a more peaceful mind in me - and in you.