195. burly legacies: nakashima, pete seeger and mark craver

Big people cast long shadows in life and even longer ones in death. Big personas are not perfect; rather, they’re landmarks for observant travelers who find existential confirmation from these monumental persons. Like a huge white oak tree in a vast field or an enormous saguaro cactus in the sprawling desertscape, great people become compass points for the rest of us to navigate life by. There is a “foundness” in our fondness for these characters. We feel safer, stronger, and braver in their presence, whether it is through direct contact or not.

George Nakashima was a great man who spoke through wood. His biography/philosophy of life, The Soul of a Tree, is worth reading for inspiration. He was a man of many countries and influences, and ultimately a great artist. An educated American architect with a master’s degree from M.I.T., nonetheless he was interned for part of WWII because he was also Japanese.

“Nakashima’s home, studio and workshop near New Hope, Pennsylvania, was listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places in August 2008. One of Nakashima’s workshops, located in Takamatsu City, Japan, currently houses a museum and gallery of his works. In 1984, George Nakashima had the opportunity to purchase the largest and finest walnut log he had ever seen, and sought to use the immense planks to their fullest potential. He dreamed then that if Altars for Peace were made for each continent of the world, as centers for meditation, prayer and activities for peace, the world would be a better place. Over the past decade, his furniture has become ultra-collectible and his legacy of what became known as the “free-edge” aesthetic influential.” Wikipedia entry.

Simple beauty. He worked with the wood’s natural knots and burls.

Pete Seeger is a legendary figure who outloved his enemies. His banjo motto said, “This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender”.  He maintained a singular focus for nine decades of life, always affirming life and freedom. I can’t even begin to outline the achievements of this great man. Funny how he was a peacenik and a believer in the oneness of humanity, and the sanctity of nature and human life. He used words and music like George Nakashima used planes and chisels.  Maybe you’ve heard a few of his most influential songs.

“Whose Side Are You On?”

“Goodnight Irene”

“If I Had A Hammer”

“We Will Overcome”

“Wimoweh, The Lion Sleeps Tonight”

“Where Have All The Flowers Gone?”

“Turn, Turn, Turn”

“Worried Man Blues”

It’s ironic that he withdrew from Harvard after failing a class. Consequently, he went on the road to educate himself about American people, music and life. Like Nakashima, his life was interrupted, twisted into knots, thank God.  He did not have his  freedom taken from him; instead, he grabbed for it and gobbled it down.

 Like Nakashima Pete Seeger’s patriotism was tested. He was a communist at one time, which sounds odd… an American Communist.  I believe he evolved into a humanitarian and left the political theory behind him, outliving Joe McCarthy at the House Un-American Activities Committee and J. Edgar Hoover at the FBI. Great men have plenty of haters, but heroes must have villains to overcome, right? John Lennon’s line, “Time wounds all heels” comes to mind. Whose legacy is worth reading now? Not the haters and fear mongers. Who winds up on the right side of history? You don’t know until it gets here. Still, some folks seem like clairvoyant soothsayers. Perhaps that’s because they hold to truth and beauty. Their view of the future is not so different from the best of the past.

Mark Craver was my friend from high school days. He cast a long shadow in many lives, as a student, a friend, a teacher, a writer, and just as a human being. His nickname from the days of Lew Welge, Sam Ray, and Jim Wilkie was “Burly”. I think Wilkie tagged him with that name. Funny that the concept of burls fits well in each of these guys’ lives.

“A burl is a tree growth in which the grain has grown in a deformed manner. It is commonly found in the form of a rounded outgrowth on a tree trunk or branch that is filled with small knots from dormant buds.

A burl results from a tree undergoing some form of stress. It may be caused by an injury, virus or fungus. Most burls grow beneath the ground, attached to the roots as a type of malignancy that is generally not discovered until the tree dies or falls over. Such burls sometimes appear as groups of bulbous protrusions connected by a system of rope-like roots. Almost all burl wood is covered by bark, even if it is underground. Insect infestation and certain types of mold infestation are the most common causes of this condition.”  Wikipedia entry.

So, if you are following the analogy, Blogestations, things of beauty are born out of deformity, dormant buds, crushed dreams, even malignancies. If you’ve ever seen a good burl in the woods, it resembles tree cancer. Yet, this is where wood artisans find the material for gorgeous swirls and crazy patterns in their work. It’s hard to work on a lathe when the grain cyclones through a hunk of hard wood, but that’s where the jackpot is.

Mark absorbed pain, I think, just as he absorbed knowledge and beauty. His photographic memory contained many unforgettable uglies right alongside sterling moments. Mark speaks in a low voice in my memory banks. He died in his sleep ten years ago. I recall the memorial service at George Mason University. Black, white, Asian, Hispanic, academics, young, old, bikers, fishermen, farmers, men and women, straight and gay, artists and audience were all there, maybe 400 folks who loved Mark. On the drive over to his sister’s house, which was further west, I drove into the glorious winter sunset hoping it would not set, that the darkness would not come. Like Dylan Thomas’s voice urges his dying father,

Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night

Do not go gentle into that good night, Old age should burn and rave at close of day; Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Though wise men at their end know dark is right, Because their words had forked no lightning they Do not go gentle into that good night.
Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay, Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight, And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way, Do not go gentle into that good night.
Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay, Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
And you, my father, there on that sad height, Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray. Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Yeah, well Crave, Pete, George,

Fellas, that light does indeed die and we all go into the good night.

Thanks for your legacies.

194. empty space?

Every time I begin writing a post, I am filling empty space, not totally but significantly. As the black words spill onto the barren white background, my eyes fix on the black foreground and release the snow white canvas behind. I’m on to consciousness making and doing language– constructing words into phrases and sentences, mapping something new. That’s where the pay off is, right? In the black ink of communication. But today I’d like to focus on the empty white space and celebrate it. It’s gonna be hard, I know, to let go of the black documentation of reality and slide into the slipstream of other consciousness. But that is what I am proposing; so loosen your security seat belts. And before departure, Blogaceans, you might ask yourselves “Why would I want to go there?” Perhaps because the black ink reality has worn you thin and has squirted into your eyes like an octopus’s escape trick. So read on.

Let’s begin with the margins around this entry. If there were no margins, your eyes would have a hard time finding where to start. They would fall off the page’s edge, so to speak, into frustration.  But I bet you forget them just as soon as you have found the first word in the upper left hand corner of the page. Your anxiety does not rise because you have found the start button and you can maintain cognitive control. Otherwise you could have something like a pane of glass that has no top or bottom, no front or back to it, or so it seems.  In any event you are only going to look through it and not gaze upon it, so what difference does the orientation make?  That’s what I’m talking about, Bloggisatvas, the awareness of the transparent, unfilled space.

Imagine the Grand Canyon. We think of its deep walls and the Colorado River crashing through it. Think again of the air, the gap, the clear margin between walls that allows you to see the millennial record carved into stone.  It is this gap that was once an eroding riverbed washing away to silt in the Gulf of California. Helicopters and birds fly through this space now. This void, however,  is the vehicle for our astonishment as we look through it unconsciously. And I want to meditate on and celebrate this space that may be empty but is not lacking. To fill this void would destroy it. To pave it would reverse the narrative of time, and warp nature. No one would do that, would they? How about damming the Colorado River so we can use every drop of water out west? Unthinkable… wait, that’s happened over and over again. But, but wait a second, no one would do that to the Grand Canyon, would they?

Years ago the movers and shakers of my little town were financially aroused enough to develop the last piece of open ground within the limits of our humble town. It lay there empty and fallow from their lustful perspective, simply behaving like agricultural land when it could be fertilized with tax breaks and rerouted roads and turned into glorious shopping malls and housing tracts and fast food restaurants that would employ thousands in low paying jobs. For many years the adjoining township refused to allow the construction of an interstate ramp, which would have opened up the development of this last piece of empty space. The townies fought in court for many years against the townshippers as the land continued to escalate in value. In a last ditch effort the township supervisors obtained a historical landscape designation that would temporarily disallow development. I believe such designations are used to keep Walmart from building a superstore in the middle of Gettysburg Battlefield or in front of Mt. Rushmore. The local township view was lovely but not so historically valuable. Eventually its special status was overruled. Financial lust won again. Is anyone surprised? Law almost always sides with money.

Today in that empty space we  have the ubiquitous  type of strip mall that has flourished in the last fifteen years. It has the Staples, the Pet Smart, the Kohls or Gap or Old Navy, the Red Robin, the TGIFridays, the Panera Bread template that you see off of every interstate highway in the country, arranged in the same order so no one gets confused, i.e., has to think or evaluate. I’m sure you recognize the layout because there is bound to be one of these strip malls located near your town, wherever you live in the USA. This sort of development continues to be the rage, but I would compare it to strip mining. It’s all about the now and lacks respect for the past, the downtowns across America that were not tax free zones, and the future, when the next fad turns these strip malls into old Hollywood fronts. When the grass grows through the forgotten pavement of these ghost malls, your grandchildren will ask you what that ghastly thing was. Will you say, “It was a good idea at the time”  as they blip and bleep on their electronic devices in the back seat of your Denali? Suburban blight, rural ruin, big bucks…. One thing is certain: the next great idea will storm through, and corporate America will happily sell your children’s heritage back to you for a good price along with a long term service agreement.

For me, I want to refocus into the amorphous void. I don’t need what Madison Avenue is selling. I never did. When advertisers persuade you that your view is empty, your canyon void, your space wastefully wide open– stop them there. Just before the carpeting pitch, the mall dream, and the highest good to the highest bidder argument comes spewing forth on forked tongues.  Instead, just fade, surrender to the white space canvas of peace. Sanity lives in the margins, the gaps,  the greenways and the voids we hold dear.

193. even the shadow of the leper

Sunday’s message at church was from Mark 1:40, where Jesus healed a leper. I’ve never met a leper or seen anyone with horrible skin diseases, but I can imagine the disfiguration that comes from leprosy. I recall the movie Ben Hur and the valley where the lepers lived as their skin fell off. But you can know things your whole life and not really know them at the core. How many times have I heard a Scripture and thought to myself, “Oh, sure, the Samaritan woman at the well, John 4. Sure, I know that one”… only to have a gifted pastor break open my calcified mind and find a fresh spring flowing there? How could that Samaritan woman have five divorces and not be adulterous, cuz adultery was punishable by public stoning, right, and she’s still breathing? Hmmm. Maybe something else is going on…. It happened again today. For some reason the message was a fork in my eye and a tattoo needle beating on my brain like a hummingbird’s wing.

Our Pastor Interimus is Don Baker. He focused on human touch, and how critical it is for human well being to be touched by other humans. He mentioned how kids love to touch things, even break things, and how we guard valuables against errant touch. But in the Gospel of Mark a leper approaches Jesus, a rabbi. It is the most unclean member of that society, covered in open leprous sores, approaching the cleanest, God himself in human skin. According to the laws and customs of that time, “even the shadow of the leper” could make one ceremonially unclean. That’s some intense mojo attributed to leprosy. As far as I can Google search, leprosy is communicated via sneezes and armadillos not through touch. I know you must think I am pulling your on-line leg, but check my facts on this one. I have earned your incredulity, I know, but this is true; trust me. No? Then at least trust Wikipedia.

Anyway, since we don’t have lepers in our little town, we had to generalize to the various outcasts who don’t touch us because we avoid touching them– the mentally ill, the poor, the foreign, the imprisoned, GLBT. These are the very folks God told us to provide for, along with widows and orphans.  They are our untouchables, our pariahs. And how are we doing with this gift of  human touch?  Not well, I’m afraid to report. I don’t cringe when a mentally ill person’s shadow falls on me. I’m not that superstitious…but that is a very vague form of touch. For it to occur implies there is a geographic closeness between us. On the other hand, I don’t approach these folks openly and lovingly. We don’t touch one another. I think it’s awkward or unnecessary. I speculate, “Someone in church or government will comfort them. I contribute to those institutions, so I’m indirectly good. I have indirectly fulfilled my duty… like paying someone to take my place in war.” The thing is that Jesus did not merely tolerate the leper; He directly embraced the man, and His touch healed the leper. He did not send the leper to the Salvation Army or the United Way or County Welfare.

Later in Sunday School we expanded the analysis of Mark’s passage. As we read deeper, we saw a trade going on, very similar to the Samaritan woman at the well. Jesus trades places with the leper who came in from beyond the camp or city for healing. Because the healed leper could not restrain from telling others of his miraculous healing, Jesus was then overwhelmed by healing seekers and had to leave the city limits. In a short time frame Jesus became an outcast, and a threat to the order of Jerusalem and Jewish life. He had this way of turning things and people’s minds upside down. If  you’ve ever baked a pineapple upside down cake, then you’ve had the odd experience of flipping a perfectly placid cake surface over onto a wildly juicy, fruity layer that drips invitingly. Jesus did this without a cake or pineapple. He did the same thing to the woman at the well, and she ran off to tell everyone what happened to her:  Jesus had reset her, right side up.

It is an odd thing that when we are hurting, we isolate ourselves from others. We lay low and lick our wounds. Survival is all that concerns us then, and in our isolation we validate our own pariah-ness. Then, when relief or healing comes, we can’t restrain ourselves; we have to shout out our victory. How to bridge the gap between hiding from pain and embracing the cure? Somehow that leper knew who Jesus was and found Him. The leper was proactive, but the woman at the well did not know about Jesus. They merely met at Jacob’s well at noon. She was reactive and defensive until Jesus broke through her resistance by telling her of her five husbands. This outcast woman ran into her village to tell others about Jesus being the Messiah, His words being living water.  So whether you seek Jesus or He seeks you, the outcome can be the same if you will abandon your isolation.

Have you ever been the leper?  The outcast? The hated one? It’s not fun being the only gay guy on the football team, the only Black person in the county, the only Jew in Tehran, the only Muslim in Brooklyn, the only white guy in Camden, the only lesbian at the beauty pageant, the only woman in the submarine, etc. How about the only sane one on the psych ward, the only native in a sea of migrants, the only migrant in a sea of natives, or the only insane one on a sane ward? Your “only-ness” is indicative of your isolation and helplessness. Everyone needs help; everyone needs a savior.  How crazy is it that someone who is all would trade places with you in your empty nothingness? And yet that is what Jesus does for addicts, adulterers, sex offenders, murderers, thieves, prostitutes, used car salesmen, bankers, teachers, pilots, preachers, plumbers, bar owners, managers, and you. His crazy love is no crazier than running away from a leper’s shadow.

192. Forgiveness and perfection

The guy across from me was telling of his false starts in life, his addictions, and his desperation to make it all right. I listened attentively, validating as he went along. Then I shared a thought, “Forgiveness is key to the redemption process, you know. Otherwise you are assuming that perfection is not only possible, but that it is the normal order of life.”

He paused. “That’s the most profound thought I’ve heard in years, Man. I’m gonna sit with that for a while. Cuz I don’t ever forgive myself; I loathe myself. Which makes me want to get morphine and numb out, but then I hate myself even more for being a deadbeat addict. I want to be a good man, a good husband and a good father.”

“Yeah, well those are  possible in our imperfect, broken world, but you can’t be a perfect anything. However, you can pursue excellence. ”

“Okay, wow. This means something strong for me.”

“I can see that. Sometimes there are light bulb moments in counseling. They are fun, cool, even holy.”

“Tell me some more on perfection cuz I’m messed up about it.”

“Let’s see, I used to say that perfection is a living room you can’t live in, a car you can’t drive, a coin you can’t spend or a stamp you can’t send.  It’s a museum not a life. On the other hand real life is  meticulously messy and thoroughly incomplete and wonderfully disappointing.”

“Man, this is news to me. I never thought these thoughts before. Where did you learn this stuff?”

“From life, you know, experience and interacting with suffering persons. From my faith. and my own failures. There’s a lot of overlap between Christian beliefs and what is good in psychology. Like forgiveness, it’s a fundamental piece of the New Covenant that is Christianity. It’s essential to resetting the brokenness and separation from God that results from our sin. But even secular forgiveness produces a similar outcome of relief and a resetting of relationship. Think about this:  if your wife forgives you, then the waters of your relationship can begin flowing again. You are not dammed up any longer. Your relationship can move and dance again. In Christianity it’s an even bigger thing… you are not damned any longer when you accept your sinfulness and repent of it, then accept Jesus as your savior. Your soul can dance forever, not because you are perfect but because you are forgiven by a perfect God.”

“Man! I went to church as a kid, but I never got that concept. How is that possible?”

“Hey, I sat through Algebra I and II in high school and Business Calculus in college, but I can’t tell you a thing about them. I passed them all, but I have not a single lasting memory.”

“Yeah, yeah, you weren’t invested in it; you didn’t apply it so it wasted away. I get that.”

“Pretty much. I couldn’t be a NASA engineer…not that I ever wanted to be one.”

“Hmmmm. I don’t have to be perfect, so I don’t have to be angry at my brokenness? I like that, it’s a relief already. How did I get to these beliefs, I wonder?”

“Well, I imagine your family modeled some of this to you… you know, all or nothing behavior where all equals perfect and nothing equals obliteration by shame.”

“My mom was like that, always doing and doing, and then she’d drink alone every night. Not drunk so much as  just unavailable. I think I’m a lot like her, sort of going through the motions but not really living in the moment or enjoying what I do. I’m always looking for the approval and endorsement of others. When it doesn’t come immediately, I get pissed. But I won’t show it to anyone. I put up my mask of ‘everything is fine’.”

“I guess it gets lonely behind such a mask.”

“Oh yeah, only my wife gets in behind it, and then I want her to fix my life, make it all better. But that’s my job. I get so twisted up  and confused that I want to use again to reduce the anxiety and self loathing. So I cycle around and around. See, in my family it was not the work you did that mattered; it was how much money you made. I got into my field cuz people said I could make a lot of money without much schooling, and I did.”

“Okay, but your soul dried up, right?”

“Something like that. It wasn’t rewarding to me even though I was good at it. I was impatient for more, something bigger.”

“And that’s what the morphine gave you?”

“Absolutely. It erased my daily anxieties and self loathing till the next day. But the next day I’d start lower, you know, like standing on the beach as the waves hit you and undermine the sand beneath you.”

“Yeah, you get shorter with each receding wave.”

“So I don’t have to feel this way any more? ”


“But what about when the anxiety hits the roof and I start coming unglued?”

“You get with a sponsor or mentor and sweat your way through it. The anxiety will subside when other trusted folks show up.”

“That’s something I’ve never done, ya know, shared my fear and self  hatred.”

“Well, that’s the way through it, Man, not around it or under it. THROUGH IT. You can do it. ”

“Whooooowwww. I hope so. I can’t wait any longer to start my life.”

“Hey, make no mistake:  you have started your life. These lessons are gonna be burned into your brain, tattooed on for the rest of  your days. This is not sleepy Algebra class. You will make use of this agony one day. Take that to the bank.”

“You make it sound simple but not easy.”

“Simple as sawing your leg off rather than dying of gangrene. Simple? Yeah. Easy? No way.”

“Okay, where’s the saw?”

“That’s next week, tough guy. Power or manual?”

“Definitely manual.”

191. pushing jello uphill

When I was a middle school teacher, there were times when kids would sit with blank papers in front of them during the time allowed for writing their  little assignments, usually the world famous five paragraph model. “I don’t know what to write” was their typical response to any prompting. I’d say something like, ” Just push your pencil and see what you get. You can always rewrite it later; that’s what editing is about.” Somehow these kids thought that making a mark on paper was equal to opening negotiations with an international extortionist. (Mind you, they had time to brainstorm and outline prior to writing. We did follow a logical  process.) If they left the paper blank, so it seemed to me, then they would not have to edit or rewrite or share with anyone. The case was not that they had nothing to share; nor was it a case of double negatives; rather, they lacked trust and enjoyment in the communication business.  Once the trust hurdle was cleared, we could have some fun with the written word. Sometimes, though, it felt like I was delivering breech babies…”Okay, I’ve got a foot. Pull. NO! That won’t work. It’s Stuck! I need 100 cc’s of vodka, stat!! Uh, that’s for me, Nurse.”  At other times it was more like Caesarean deliveries in a school desk. “Okay, you have a wooooord… is that THE? Now what would be a good word to follow THE? People? Good. Which people? The people around you. Alriiiight.” Whew! chipmunk brain surgery.

Occasionally I need to apply the same push to my own writing. “Just start, Senor Burrito, and you can always edit how you like later”, I tell myself. “Push it”, like Jimi Hendrix playing live, with no thought about the mixing and editing later. Just jam now. (Forget the fact that he was on several hits of acid.) If I approach topics like an obsessive-compulsive safe cracker, I’ll never write anything. It’s not poetry here, bloggeisters; it’s just a brief communion of your mind and mine, as scary and unholy as that may be. I appreciate your courage in investigating the tapestries and caves of my meandering mind. I hope that you find at least one redeemable sentence woven in the tapestry, or one cave painting that intrigues you. After all, I have trusted enough to open the negotiation of communication, knowing full well that there are risks on-line in our sue-happy country.

My attorney daughter cautioned me not to use last names to avoid torts. (I told her I didn’t personally know any torts, then she clarified this is not a slang term for the dull witted…otherwise I would qualify. Rather, it’s the name of  litigations in civil court, aka, lawsuits for money, not to be confused with tortes, flourless cakes in nice restaurants.)  Thus far I’ve only referenced one dead rock legend by last name, so I think I’m safe, though safety is not my goal. But torts are not either, especially since the word comes from the root “tort”, meaning “to twist” from which we get ….. contort, extort, distort, and torture. You get the picture.  These are not happy verbs to experience, I know. Also, I want to assure you that, unlike my hero Jimi, I am not under the influence of any hallucinogenic drugs at the moment. Still, I think it would be prudent if you signed a release of liability at this point, indicating that  reading beyond this sentence implies that you are not damaged or annoyed by the content herein.   Signed___________________________ and dated_____________________. Thank you. And while you are up, would you pass me that buttercream torte on the counter?

I’d hate to live in bubble wrap with a helmet, steel toed boots, an air bag safety vest, a harness, skateboard pads, and a mouth guard just to avoid the risks that come with living. Risk free living is not living, in my book. Every once in a while we have to push our limits, fears, and comfort zones if we are to grow ourselves. If not, we live defensively, doing the same safe things over and over, setting up like thick green Jello in the back of the fridge. I’m not saying that you should go skydiving in the nude over Vegas, but mix it up at home, take a small chance on a regular basis.  Sure, it’s messy making changes. Just ask Chris…uh, the governor of Jersey. When you rip down that 1980’s wallpaper of  ducks and cattails, it’ll be pure chaos for a short while. However, once the new sagebrush blush and tangerine paint go on and you rearrange the lighting and furniture, the ducks and cattails will only be  faint background quacks and meows. This is what I tell myself when I contemplate renovating our finished basement. The temporary trauma will not override the lasting tranquility of calming colors on the walls. I say, “Push against the torts. Out with you, rabid Torts! If you don’t like it, sue me.”Image result for fat folks on treadmills pictures

Push the Jello uphill, Blog Nation. Step it up on the treadmill that is everyday life or be hurled backwards onto the floor of Planet Fatness. Some days it feels like the cholesterol clots are chasing us on the treadmill; they are flying monkeys released by the Wicked Witch who wants our cool running shoes. But press on. Soon I need to give my annual blood work for my doc to take roll of the good and bad cholesterol twins and the evil  triplets, those triglyceride demons. I feel like Alex Rodriguez about to be busted and put on medication probation. I’m pretty sure that the increased diet and decreased exercise regimen that I have been on since October will produce some spoiled fruit in my circulatory system. A pineapple clog, a bushel of triglyceride kiwi, a watermelon-sized aneurysm somewhere. Yup. So I must keep on pushin‘ my jello uphill. I’ll see you at the top of the slop.

190. walking backwards on calloused knuckles

It’s an odd experience to walk backwards. Sometimes you have to do this in biting cold wind because facing it could  freezezip your face off, leaving you with frostbite patches of dead skin and a fleshless nose. If you’ve ever caught a tender piece of your anatomy in a hard metal zipper yank, then you have a rough idea of being freezezipped.  So you turn around and carefully plod backwards on a windswept winter sidewalk or pathway. Sure it’s dangerous, but it’s a compromise against certain disaster.

According to a recent article on frostbite,

“Noses, fingers, toes and ears face the biggest risk. Those body parts have less blood flowing through them and a lot less mass than the body’s core. They’re also more likely to be exposed to the elements. Obviously, bundling up those tender parts is key.”  [Nancy Shute, Your Health, 1-6-14] Thank you, Nancy.

There are other versions of walking backwards. I blogged about retracing one’s steps in post 151. That involved careful re-examining an external reality for something tangible that was lost.  That is not what I have in mind today. What I’m after this time out is more like a near sighted man stumbling backwards in a psychological blizzard searching for something that is lost but intangible. Why?  I get a lot of these sad sagas in my counseling experiences. Men mostly who have lost the love that they took for granted just a month ago. Make no mistake:  these men suffer frostbite damage; it’s just that theirs is invisible…a chamber of their heart atrophies.

Image result for neanderthal pictures

Their controlling self-absorbed lives come unglued when she says, “Enough is enough”. These men start grasping at the ashes of their relationships, hoping to come up with something solid and salvageable instead of powdered soot. Then they get angry, feeling victimized. They push buttons that used to produce sure results. They intimidate, threaten and rage, but it’s too late; the horse is out of the barn, down the lane, and over the county line. They don’t realize that telling their soon-to-be ex-wife that she used to be really pretty when she weighed 50 pounds less is actually an insult. Or that they’d be there if she had terminal cancer. In their memories are oasis-like spots of joy and ecstasy and happiness where these guys focus their attention, believing that three good episodes prove a lovely pattern of behavior over seven or eleven or fifteen years. Not so much, knuckle walkers.

Meanwhile their hurt women are emotionally starved and aching for tenderness, compassion, acceptance, and yes, love. Not perfection or even exceptionality, no, just a modicum of decency and concern, respect and sharing life together. By the time the hurt woman actually leaves the relationship, she is so gut shot that no amount of counseling or medication or therapeutic retreats can sew up the holes in her guts and promote healing. When he desperately asks about counseling and medication, a cruise, a weekend getaway, she gets disgusted because she trumpeted these options for years into deaf ears. Now that he can miraculously hear, she’s gone deaf.  She actually gets enraged when he starts to get help, read books, join a therapy group or do individual counseling. In some ways it’s like telling a corpse how much you love her, and then cleaning the house, or doing the bills, or making dates for the two of you. It’s too freaking late, okay? Even Norman Bates would agree with this evaluation.

Still, these knuckle walkers stagger backwards, remembering how irresistible she was, how fetching, and her image dominates each empty moment. Her perfume, her manicured nails, the baby soft skin… all gone. Her laugh, the way she played with her hair, the killer smile. He resolves to be a new man, but it’s a blizzard of images and feelings swirling around his narrowly hooded view. He can’t see a horizon due to all the flurries. In some ways it’s like Jack London’s short story, “To Build a Fire”. Just when you think the reckless agonist has succeeded in saving himself with a survival fire, the snow above him melts and extinguishes it. TShhhhhh.  Death, ice cold spears of death, is moments away. But it’s not a single moment or incident that kills a relationship. It’s years of termite infestation, the slights and names, the absences, and the blatant superiority attitude. “Meet my needs and ignore yours.”

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There is, however, a moment of epiphany for the demeaned woman. She may come to consciousness watching a movie about a despicable, controlling person. Or it may be a visit to the large apes exhibit at the zoo where a silverback male puts on his dominance act…and the loose points of reference snap together in a razor sharp line of conclusion. “He’s a beast, an idiot, a hostage taker.” She begins the escape plan. Separates out the bills. Finds a way to squirrel away money. Contacts an attorney. All the while allowing Bonzo the Chimp to have his way, scooting about on his calloused knuckles. In fact, he may feel the loss of resistance and conclude that the little woman is finally wising up to comply with his program. Bonzo’s own arrogance is about to choke him silly.

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The breakthrough moment may be that Fourth of July when he flicks her sunglasses off her tense face and says, “Look at me!” The brilliant July sun blasts her shrinking pupils and frames his cocksure portrait with a radioactive glow. “Oh, I see so clearly now,” she thinks to herself. The moment burns onto her memory plates like x-rays. He knuckle walks backwards, beating his chest and thinking he has won another round in this little love war. He’ll send flowers or a special journey necklace later, the kind with tiny diamonds that get bigger as they flow down in an S shape. Later she will turn it upside down and say with a smirk, “The journey’s over, Bonzo.”

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He will turn his back on the icy truths that bite  him and stumble blindly backwards on calloused knuckles.

189. cruel renewal

Making all things new again. That’s a tall order, I think. Just making one simple thing new again is hard enough. Refinishing a piece of furniture, for example, requires five times the effort than the original finishing took. Think about it:  you have to strip the varnish or polyurethane with some solvent and a wire brush and fine tools to get into the grooves. Then you have to strip out the stain with more stain remover/solvent. At this point you have to sand the remaining stains or patches of finish to smooth out the original wood grain. Finer and finer grits of sandpaper need to be rubbed carefully with the grain. Then you wipe away the fine dust. Finally you are back to the starting point of new, bare furniture. But that’s what you do to restore the old wood to prime condition so that its luster and deep grain can be seen and appreciated again, or maybe for the first time.

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My buddy Clark knows a lot about wood and renewal. He learned about trees as a kid in Patton, PA., walking through the woods to school cuz he’d been thrown off the school bus again and again for being a hyperactive ne’er do well. He was rejected frequently as a kid by humans but not by trees or pieces of wood. He learned about oaks and maples and birch and beech and box elder and walnut and cherry simply walking by them twice a day. He saw pines grow to their fullness and die in his lifetime. However, dead trees simply cross over to lumber for him. He eyes up  trees and looks for unique features that he can use in tables or bowls or just long runs for boards. And then he gets to work creating with saws and planer, lathe and chisels.

A couple of years ago I helped him saw up a spalted maple; that’s a downed tree which has been decaying with fungi but hasn’t rotted yet. The result of spalting is a beautiful array of discoloration, waves and rivulets of brown, red, and black paint spilled throughout the wood. Clark turns hunks of this stuff into gorgeous bowls that appear to be fired ceramic. You have to touch them to believe they are not ceramic but wood, not paintings of deserts landscapes but infected wood transformed into marble. Beauty birthed from death.

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He learned about renewal by living a life full of zest and curiosity… after he was down and decaying like a fallen maple in the leaf mold.  Alcohol was the lightning and tornado that slew him. By age 35 his doctor told him he had a year to live if he did not quit drinking. He said, ” Thanks, Doc. I ‘m tired of living,” and went to the closest bar. He got so polluted on Yuenglings or Iron City beer that the bartender asked, “Don’t you think you’ve had enough?”  “Hell no,” he bellowed and order another. He had one more angry sip and announced, “Now I’ve had enough.” He stumbled out of the bar and right into the path of his beloved daughter and her best friend. (Timber!) No details remain except the pain of shame he saw on his precious girl’s face. Something transformative occurred in that one second. Clark grew on the level of consciousness even as his angry pride fell down face first. He recalls it like Paul falling off his horse on the way to Damascus. Clark went to rehab the next day. That was almost 35 years ago.

Since then he’s been sanding off the old varnish of youth, adolescence and early adult life. The mess of foolishness, the lacqeur of addiction and scars of selfishness. As he does this consciousness raising on a cognitive level, he’s finding more and more to like about himself… compassion, loyalty, a modicum of patience…and an artist’s heart/head/hands package. Late in life, to be sure, but there it is: beauty born from pain and suffering. He is spalted maple through and through, washed by the rivers of alcohol, rejection and rage that are dry riverbeds nowadays.Image result for spalted maple lumber pictures

One story of thousands will have to suffice. Ironic, of course. Up the road from his childhood house was a substantial estate owned by the Five Farabaugh sisters. They were well off spinster sisters. Clark’s dad agreed to be an informal caretaker of the property when the only male child left to run part of the A&P store chain out west. One by one the old ladies died off until there were no more. Still Clark’s father “Bunny” continued the upkeep of the property. When Clark went along to help, his father would say, “Don’t even think about stealing anything. We might be poor but we’re honest, by God.” There were many objects and knickknacks all over this grand Victorian house. In the attic the sisters had a miniature classroom where they had played school as little girls. He remembered thinking, “I could learn here. They would not beat me for being wiggly. They would favor me somehow.” In the old days the sisters had given his dad oranges at Christmas, which was unheard of by working class folks. Only the wealthy could afford citrus fruit in winter. Clark’s family not only ate them but his mom made marmalade from the peels. Then one day that fine house and every object in it burned to cinders and ashes. Nothing survived but memories. Nothing.

Nothing worked out in his life.  By age five he had developed a sense of doom. The spalting had begun. He wondered about the loose ends and unfairness of it all–

“Five old ladies, never had sex or got married or had kids or grandkids. What’s the point? They had wealth and it all disappeared. Just a waste. I shoulda stole something but the Old Man woulda killed me.”

Actually it did not disappear. Rather, it was breathed into Clark’s lungs and memory, spalding his soul. I’m sure if surgeons could extricate his soul and sand it down, it would radiate like his hero George Nakashima’s table tops. Renewed for all to see and appreciate. Nakashima was interned during WWII for being Japanese. That was his sole crime. Poetically, tragically,  or ironically that is where he learned to master woodworking under the tutelage of a master Japanese woodworker. More beauty born from pain and suffering.

So  often we screw up the unstained and painless new and have to claw our way back to a renewal that is soaked in barrels of liquid pain. But that is the difference between grapes and wine, sand and pearls, knowledge and wisdom.



188. Social Media Medusa– Don’t Look Now

Image result for facebook icon picturesI did it finally; joined up with the evil empire of Facebook. Why? One reason:  I wanted to open up traffic on my blog. That’s it. I have no interest in where you went drinking last night or how cozy you are now in your new Christmas pajamas. It’s so trifling, I think. Life lived via mosquito bites. I’m not going there. No comment from me.  Nosirreee. The other connection icons simply confuse me. What is Tumblr, Twitter and the other signs? I don’t want to learn the language of cyber graffiti… how to do it or interpret it. No thanks. I had a hard enough time with Spanish and Latin. They were required classes back in the day.

I fear that Facebook is the modern equivalent of the mythical Medusa, the snake-haired monster whose gaze turned onlookers to stone.  Medusa was so arrogant and irreverent that she compared her own beauty to that of the goddess Athena, who did not handle the mortal comparison well at all. She cursed the beautiful woman and created a situation where Medusa’s face caused instant, horrible petrified death for any mortal who beheld her disfigured appearance. Well, can Facebook turn you to stone? Perhaps. It’s not making you any more beautiful, folks, as you hang your new, used and soiled laundry out there on cyber clothes lines. See, it all starts with narcissism, staring in the mirror longer than is necessary for hygienic reasons. You start to glom on to your own sense of glamour, “Oh my, how ravishing am I?” And then the tumblrs begin to click, and there you are, posting self indulgent selfies that really aren’t that glamorous. A rumbling begins like a bad sinus infection in your face; your hair turns serpentine; your eyes become red dot laser beams. Then truly, looks can kill.Image result for medusa pictures

Don’t look now. I mean it.  Staring relentlessly at your timeline and cute attached videos helps your blood coagulate as adipose deposits link up in your butt. Each peek is like another shot of Botox in your brow, stiffening your range of facial expression. People, stuff is happening out there in real time as you sit helplessly chained to your imaginary friends. Listen: I once knew a guy who bragged that he had 600 Facebook friends. I asked how many had helped him move furniture at least once. “None,” was his answer. “Real friends help you move your stuff,” was mine. Oh well, I’m not going to change the world with another cranky rant against the fashion of the day. Nor am I offering to move your couch. Let’s keep it superficial. Don’t ask; don’t tell.

“Everyone is doing it,” said the naked and intoxicated folks in the pool. “Don’t be a prude. It’s fun and freeing and feels good.” I grabbed my wallet and tightened my belt the last time I heard similar lines. I don’t want to be a nude pirate or a swinging sugar daddy. If prude is the front end of prudent, I’m down with that. In fact, better a dry prude than a water ravaged prune with a hangover.

Here’s my problem, Blogwaddlers. ( I know, you’re thinking, ‘ Just one?’ ) I start posts with only a wisp of an idea and I go forth– no gas, no map, no where. Nothing but my cell phone and a roll of duct tape. And I write myself out to the end of a figurative diving board above a pool filled with hungry alligators. I bounce and ponder my options. 1.) I could tuck my tail, which I do not literally possess, and walk back my previous paragraphs, toning them down and making a viable way out of the mess I have created. 2.) I could continue to aimlessly bounce. 3.) Or I could dive headlong into the reptilian reservoir. 4.) Or I could reserve the right to another choice that I have not thought of yet. Well, being the intrepid courageous blogger that I am in front of my monitor, safely seated in a leather swivel chair, I choose to face the unthinking carnivores below my poetic board. Mind you, I am not for one second getting off my diving board. No Nellie. I have to solve this riddle like Perseus did when he faced his Medusa.  Let me reiterate: I am not getting in that pool.

So the clever Perseus was blessed by various gods with gifts– a sword, a helmet that made him invisible, winged sandals,  and a shiny shield. With all these weapons he could sneak up on the Medusa and shine her stony gaze back onto her via his shield. Being invisible he could get next to the ugly monster and whack her head off with that super sword. And that’s what he did. But I lack these weapons as I face a pool of toothy predators snapping at my precarious perch. Oh my, what will I do?

Well, if you watch enough animal rescue and cop shows, you know that alligators have great muscle strength when they chomp down those mighty jaws but little strength in the reverse. Also you know that they are not too clever or adaptive. So I have the upper hand. As I bounced on my dreamlike diving board, I devised a plan worthy of Perseus. I would lean over the pool and snap pictures of the gregarious gators to attract the monsters to me. As they posed and primped for their glam shot, I would loop a clever noose of duct tape around their snouts, and quickly wrap it tight as they recovered from the temporary blindness of the photo flash. Yeah! Who’s snapping now?  One by one I’d lure these left over dinosaurs into the fame zone and zap! Depotentiate each despotic dental-fanged thrasher. Only then would I walk unharmed across their bumpy backs into myth and history.

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And now the moral:  well, um, the whole thing is preposterous, I know. The longer the post, the less coherent and serious it has  become. And let this be a lesson about staring too long into the face of Medusa or Facebook or alligators. Someone could get hurt.Image result for googly eyed human faces