28 January 2011

Ode to an Old Friend

Across the street from where I grew up, a field faded into forest. In fact, for most of my childhood, forest surrounded our home on three sides. But we always called this one, “across the street.” The meadow contained a hill, which became a magnet for sleds and saucers during the annual snow day that the upper Napa Valley would receive, but otherwise the entire area was the domain of my friends and me. The forest proper was set further back beyond the crest of the hill, preceded by a ring of thick Manzanita brush. Access into the darkness of stately pines and oaks was either by established trail, or on hands and knees. If you pushed through the forest, you would eventually come out into another sloping field. Down across that, you would pass over a winding road to reenter an even larger stretch of forested land. Once upon a time this second forest had been a vineyard. Overgrown and abandoned, nature had long ago reclaimed the land. Later in my life, machines came and reasserted the dominion of men and this second forest became vineyards once again, but that is not today’s tale.

Today’s tale focuses just to the left of where you would be standing if you stood atop the second sloping meadow and stared out over the forested expanse of the abandoned vineyard. Because there, lying out of sight and off the beaten path, was a hidden vale. With friends I would roam the entire expanse of the surrounding lands, but the vale I reserved for myself. Maybe others came there as well, I don’t know. I do know that in all my visits, I never encountered another human being. It was a secret place where two hills overlapped, a widened draw in geographical lexicon. But to me it was another time and place.

The vale sloped downwards with the hills that formed its borders and right at its apex, sat a giant oak tree. Gnarled and rambling, the tree probably predated permanent human settlement in the area by quite some time. Maybe it was lonely, or maybe it initially suffered my presence in silence. Either way the tree became my friend. The oak stood guard over the vale and all within the vale acknowledged its mastery. Down near the bottom of the slope a dark hole opened into nothingness. A place of evil to my young imagination; whatever lurked there was kept in check by the sentinel oak and his nearby companions.

Over the years the vale and its lordly oak were many things to me. It became a refuge in times of pain or sorrow, a fertile ground on which my imagination could run free, or a sanctuary to retreat into with book and food in hand. This latter scenario was happily the most common and I spent countless hours, curled amongst the roots of the oak, visiting worlds whose only access was through the turn of a page. Depending on the topic of the day, I came to the vale as a wide variety of characters. Knight, forester, woodsman, archer, hero of old, or scared child; the tree welcomed them all equally and without judgement.

The vale changed very little with time, but it was far from static. In the early mornings, dew would drip from fog shrouded trees, the silence broken only by the impact of water on ground. In the heat of midday, the oak offered shelter from the glare of sunlight, a cool shadow that invited one to lie silently, listening to the hum of insects and the calls of songbirds that came to feed on them. As dusk descended, shadows fell across the vale, lengthening and distorting the familiar shapes that it held. On summer evenings I would lie against its trunk, listening to a chorus of frogs and watching the brilliant colors of the sunset succumb to the velvety purple of the night sky. If I had no other place to be, I would peer out between its limbs, book set aside in the dark, waiting for the first stars to pierce the sky. The stored heat of the oak warmed me, almost as if warm blood ran through its veins and no cares assailed me there.

As I reached adulthood, I went out into the world to turn imagination into reality. The images of books became the scenery around me; the deeds I once acted out became duties I must fulfill. In my darkest hours, in times most challenging, I retreated within the confines of my mind to the embrace of my old friend the oak. The vale endured as my sanctuary no matter where I stood in the world. When deeds were done and oaths completed, I returned to my childhood home, the boy who had once set out now faded forever behind me.

At long last I stand once again at the top of the second sloping meadow; I stare out across the once abandoned vineyard, the forest reduced again to orderly rows of vines, their fruit ripening in the sun. I stare with different eyes upon a vastly different scene. Turning from that, I move towards my sanctuary, the vale and my old friend the lordly oak. There at the apex of the veil, I encounter a house, its foundation hewed from the soil that once nurtured my friend. A winding stretch of pavement cuts down through the veil to a gate at the edge of the road. I turn and trudge homeward, not through stately forest but across fenced and posted property. No remnant of the familiar to guide me.

I often wonder how my old friend the oak died. Did he go out fighting, dulling the blades of machines, fouling the steel cables and eliciting the curses of his killer? Or did the oak pass on alone, with none but his longtime subjects to witness the cycle of nature completed?

In extreme flights of fancy, I imagine that the oak sprang into being; patiently gathering his power across centuries until the exact intersection in time where our paths crossed. Then, with his power shared and that time passed, the oak slipped back into the embrace of the cosmos to await a new whisper of need, a new child foretold. In that time I imagine the old oak will reappear, young, strong, and regal as ever; patiently biding his time until this new friend appears, roaming alone through hidden vales in search of something they cannot quite name.

24 January 2011

Is There a Point to These Memories?

Sometimes I feel like time flashes by in the blink of an eye. One minute, I am telling someone I’ll call them tomorrow, the very next minute it is two months later. But when I stop to think about my life so far, it often feels as if I have lived a whole bunch of lives, each separate and distinct from the next. One likely culprit in creating this effect is the rapidly accelerating technology in my lifetime. Let’s face it, even that shiny new cell phone that was the envy of the party last month, now feels like a couple of fruit cans connected by a string. But the real driving force behind the fragmentation of my life is that I never learned how to be normal. In fact, I now openly challenge the existence of “normal.” Here is a stroll through a very few decidedly non-inclusive recollections.

I used to always go to work with my father. He was a third generation custom finish carpenter whose craftsmanship abilities died with him. Anyway, we decided to walk home one summer evening and, as everybody was doing at the time, begin chatting about the moon landing. I was most likely about six, so that would have been the Apollo 15 mission. We talked about how long it took to get out there and my dad patiently dealt with all my silly questions. Forty years later, the moment is still vibrant in my memory.

Sitting around the dinner table, my father’s anger was palpable. The focus of his rage was not some transgression we were responsible for, so I remember feeling a little out of place. As if I was seeing something a nine year old had no right to witness. It was 1975 and images of the last helicopter out of Vietnam, desperate refugees falling from its skids, were plastered across the 17” screen of our black and white television.

I grew up in a sleepy little town in the upper Napa Valley. The entire town was basically a Seventh-Day Adventist College and some associated businesses. The one store carried no meat, no booze, and at the time, not so much as a solitary caffeinated soda. We sat along a major approach route to Lake Berryessa, which is a huge manmade lake. It was also the favored party location of just about everybody. In the early and mid 1970s, I remember the long lines of outlaw bikers, most notably Hell’s Angels, which would wind through town on their way to the campgrounds along the lake. We had no beer or steak so unless they needed gas, they never stopped. As a child, I took my cues from the fearful citizenry around me. Any petty crime in the entire area became the work of these ruffians. Later, some of my friends were members, family members, or associates and I found out about the difference between myths and reality. About the same timeframe, the Zodiac killer rolled through town leaving a few bodies behind. Groups of fearful citizenry prowled the streets with CB Radios at the ready as distorted news flashes crackled out of AM radios all over town.

Oil embargos, hostage situations, presidential assassination attempts, and proxy wars from Afghanistan to Nicaragua barely got me through high school. Heavy metal, Pink Floyd, video arcades, and midnight showings of “A Boy and His Dog” scrolled by as the settings of my life. Little changed, a 1969 Chevy Nova was still cool, even though that 1982 Trans Am was a faster ride to the other side of virginity.

In 1982, my father died; he was young and it was sudden. Issues of coping and grief aside, my future immediately took on a less structured feel. After high school, came the Marine Corps, motorcycles, Mohawks, communal living, and countless crazy days. Double features of “Mad Max” and “The Road Warrior” still played like clockwork and still cost $2.75. I had a small, tight-knit group of friends. If you saw one of us, you saw most of us.

The 1990s started a personal evolution. One minute, I was uncertain as to my identity; the experimenting of the 1980s settling down on something decidedly different then mainstream, while skill sets worked to cement me into a conformist’s role. In 1992, I cringed when a mother stepped onto her porch in Ruby Ridge, Idaho and was shot in the head by an FBI sniper while holding her baby in her arms. Memories of a 1985 incident in Philadelphia where police dropped a military grade weapon on the headquarters of the African American group “MOVE” came flooding back. Then, absolute rage as I watched 76 men, women, and children burn to death in Waco, Texas. Their crime? Mostly it was being misunderstood in an era where different was equated to dangerous. It seems as if it is always that era in America. I took a transfer to Santa Fe and pinned on a badge.

I told myself I would be a different kind of lawman and I was. Having worn cuffs for petty traffic scuffles in my younger days, I was in no hurry to slap them on anybody else. High speed chases, high speed women, and dabbling in the world of competitive Chess filled my days. After a few years in the high desert, during which I watched a misguided attempt to retaliate against government abuses blow 168 innocent people into the next life, I headed back to the bay area where I lost my way.

Convinced that money was a key ingredient that had been missing from my life thus far; I pursued sales positions with some of the world’s biggest companies. Ensconced in the heart of Silicon Valley, I soaked up the dot.com party like a starving man. The energy, the excitement, the buzz in the air was contagious and addictive. The old rules didn’t apply, right up until the day that they did. I fled the insane cost of living and the two hour waits for movie tickets and headed north to the sanctuary of Portland.

My personal evolution warred with my pragmatism. Settle down, or continue to chase whatever caught my eye? To quiet them both down, I took up ultra distance endurance sports. It’s hard to worry about anything except your next step when you are mountain biking, running, kayaking, and mountaineering 150 miles over a twenty-four hour period. I immersed myself in the lifestyle. Scuba diving in exotic locales was my downtime.

Then came the exact moment when I could no longer pretend that everything was as I intended it to be. An argument broke out between my boss and me. He asserted that knowledge was just useless crap that got in the way of making money. In short, I was not delivering the sales production he wanted because I was “thinking” too much. The discussion got me thinking and it made me take a hard look at myself. The old gang had long ago dispersed; the once unbreakable bonds, broken by divergent time and space. I was out in no-man’s land alone, the decision was mine to make. It took me a month to pull the trigger and embrace thinking over selling; the pursuit of knowledge over the pursuit of dollars. Now, five years and a degree and a half later, I would only change one thing that I had control over during the last forty-five years. I really feel like I should have taken more pictures.

15 January 2011

Try This On For Size!

     Welcome to 2011 my friends. And what a year it has already been! I have been wracking my brain trying to come up with some more light hearted material; since I realize that all this heavy pontificating can get old. Trust me; it does for me as well. The steady stream of wars, assassination attempts, civil rights violations, rampant government and corporate abuse and so on tends to lock my attention on negatives and cause me to leave a lot of positives unsaid. In light of that, for the first post of 2011 I thought I might throw out some advice and observations. Free of charge; do with them as you will.

     First, take an inventory of what matters in life. I know that every two bit advice column says the same thing. The problem is that they say this and then they list a whole bunch of crap that shouldn’t even be on your list, let alone at the top of your list. Here is my list; health, family, friends, sleep. That is it; in that order. It is short and to the point for a reason. To be effective, any list has to be remembered.

     Face it, your health is the foundation which decides all else. Dump anything that interferes with it or prepare yourself for martyrdom. Family? They matter most and they count when all else fails you. Make sure you do the same for them. Friends define the texture of your life. I have no problem being alone for long periods of time, but a life absent high quality friendship tends to pass unnoticed. Memories and anticipation form the bookends of a well lived life. Do not deny yourself or others the gift of unconditional friendship. Sleep acts as the gauge for all else. It is simple; if you sleep well at night then you had a good day. A good life is nothing more than a string of good days.

     Go out of your way to encounter beauty in unexpected places. A stark tree limb, framed against a grey sky, can unleash a wave of emotion if you give it a chance. Try it. Park somewhere and just watch the world around you. When something draws your attention, focus on it and let your imagination run wild. I have no doubts that this is how Tolkien found Middle Earth or Erickson birthed his world of the Malaz. You don’t have to write a series of books about what you see; but doing this whenever possible will help you sleep better at night.

     Cancel your TV service. I know what a “granola” thing to say, but hear me out. TV has become a cacophony of the absurd. Any quality show you wish to watch is available through various services like Amazon, iTunes, Netflix, or Hulu. Many inexpensive devices will now stream these prepaid subscriptions directly to your TV, so being forced to huddle around the 15” laptop screen has become passé. You’ll get what you want, when you want it, for a lot less money. The real benefit however, is  that you won’t get all of the pundits, talking heads, fool’s parades, and desperate losers constantly yapping in your space. That crap will drag you down every time. Plus, we did this in my home and we save about $1200 a year; even after subscription prices are figured in.

     Drop the grudges. Unless you are engaged in hunting down the killers of your loved ones, holding a grudge is sort of like paying death forward. Your whole life has now coalesced around a negative that was most likely spawned by a simple misunderstanding. People die every day. In most cases, they didn’t get up that morning expecting not to see the sunset. Ask yourself if the value of one minute, day, week, month, or year is worth your grudge. If you cannot answer yes, make amends and do whatever you can do to make up for any time already lost.

     Think about the times you are the happiest, the memories that are the most fondly recalled, and the people and things associated with these events. Now spend your energy replicating those situations. There is no reason, other than some misguided idea that life has to be serious, that your every waking moment cannot be a celebration of the best things about your life. Try it out, I promise you’ll be happier, healthier and better rested. If for some bizarre reason you cannot appreciate this, your family and friends will.