Saturday, February 28, 2015

Hibernate. Thaw. Wake.

This winter I have hibernated. More than any other time in my life. I have rested, recharged. I have run a bit in the cold, ventured out, but largely stayed inside. Read. Binge-watched. Thought. Felt. Connected. Being between jobs lent itself to hibernating. So did having time on my own every other weekend. I am not sure I dig hibernating, but somehow it felt necessary.

Hibernating is temporary. After the slumber, comes the waking up. This winter has been cold. Frozen. Snow has stuck around for a time to finish off February. Now comes the thaw. Snow abates, the ground finds the sun again. Rebirth. Spring brings to life.

I wake to abundance. Baskin-Robbins has nothing on the flavors in my life. A new job. Two beautiful girls each with winter birthdays starting lacrosse season. Inspiration to fill a notebook everyday for two months and counting, since the beginning of the year. Blue eyes, open to see themselves looking back. Bluebirds of happiness.

This is the first winter I haven't lived in or on the edge of town. I've dialed in on birds. I've been overrun with Blue Jays and Cardinals; I've noticed Eastern Bluebirds for maybe the first time; I've had several remarkable Bald Eagle encounters. The girls and I watched a Red-Bellied Woodpecker show a handful of Blue Jays what time it was at our tree-hanging feeder, then saw one hanging on the side of the road going to school a day or two later.

A few nights ago, we stopped the car in the road to watch a Red-Tailed Hawk go from lane to tree for a perch. This morning, I watched from the kitchen sink as the same type of hawk changed trees along the lane. I geek out by grabbing my Audubon Mid-Atlantic Field Guide and feel giddy looking up birds. Even Cobain knew there was something to "an illustrated book about birds."

And from time to time I grab "Animal Speak," to see what Ted Andrews has to say about a new bird popping around repeatedly. How about the woodpecker, Ted?

The red found in the head area of any woodpecker reflects stimulation of the mental activities... It reflects a stimulation and wakening of new mental faculties... it will become increasingly important for you to follow your own unique rhythms and flight... When woodpecker comes into your life, it indicates that the foundation is there. It is now safe to follow your own rhythms.

 And the Red-Tailed Hawk?

This powerful bird can awaken visionary power and lead you to your life purpose. It is the messenger bird, and wherever it shows up, pay attention. There is a message coming... This bird is the catalyst, stimulating hope and new ideas. It reflects a need to be open to the new or shows you ways that you may help teach others to be open to the new.

I'm not calling Andrews and his animal speak gospel. But I find it interesting, illuminating, and in many cases spot on with a message inserted seemingly right where and when one seems to be speaking itself in other ways into life. Maybe the birds are onto something.

In the meantime, winter is wrapping up. Hibernation is coming to an end. The yard thaws. And it is time to wake up.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Learning Ava Lessons

I'm not sure younger daughter Ava hears the drums that other spirited kids march to. They might distract her from coloring or building Legos. As she turns 10 (Feb. 12), I'm still not sure I have her figured out. Which is one of the things I love most about her.

We do birthdays quickly, like pulling off a Band-Aid. Ava's older sister Anna turned 13 on Jan. 31. Less than two weeks later and both girls are in double digits. The winter months are ripe with the passage of time.

Ava projectile vomited for the first year of her life. Damn acid reflux. She was queen of the wardrobe change and I was pretty well shirtless during my shifts at night when she was a newborn. She would only sleep soundly on your chest and shoulder, no crib or bassinet. I watched marathon's of MTV's "Viva La Bam," "Office Space," "Swingers," "First Blood," "Road House," or anything else on late night.

Ava's sister Anna is me through and through. She thinks like I do, asks questions I asked, cops the same attitude. I understand her, maybe too well. I've never had that with Ava, which means I have to pay closer attention; try to figure her out. I'm grateful for how different that has made our relationship; for how different she and her sister can be.

A couple years ago Ava wanted to sign up for gymnastics so she could learn to do the perfect cartwheel. She did. She has a mind that is all focus when she wants it to be, something I have never had. She is dingy, air-headed, but easily makes honor roll. What she lacks in common sense, she easily makes up for with determination, action, and compassion. She is quick to know if I am feeling down and how to lift my spirits.

Ava is the self-starter that neither her sister or I am. She can move on a whim. She is not, however, a morning person, like Anna and I are. Ava's differences teach me when I listen. And I try to listen.

For years now, Ava has done something which seems rare with kids now: she entertains herself. She comes up with things to do. She will read before bed or when the mood strikes her. Dolls, Legos, bocce, hikes, almost anything is an option.

Especially in the past year, Ava and I have connected because we are different. I don't know that I would have seen that coming or that I can put it into words. There's something about Ava that maybe I realized I don't need to understand to enjoy. What can be frustration at first, can quickly turn into laughter when blue eyes meet and smiles crack.

One of my favorite Ava lessons is that there doesn't need to be any wasted moments, any lost time. I always carry a pocket notebook and pen to write with. Ava goes further. In her school backpack, she carries an extra coloring book and 96-pack of Crayola crayons. Not 16. Not 64. The Ole 96'er. She colors at home; she colors in the car; this past Saturday, she had me pack a large coloring tablet and markers when we went to watch her cousins play indoor soccer. She colored in the bleachers.

At home on the couch, making a book about Halloween that she would bind with a cover
The Ole 96'er, because sometimes six shades of yellow aren't enough.
You can only watch so much soccer in a morning.
Last March I tried to remind myself not to waste another single day. Carpe the fu**ing diem. Make every day count. Wake up. Live. Love. Play. Work. Ava is my living, blood, daily reminder of that. Pack 96 crayons if that's what you need. Draw, or color, or write, or run, or watch the snow fall out the back door or walk back roads and see a tree full of cardinals, a phenomenon you've never seen in 42 years.

I frequently carry a backpack or messenger bag with me. Notebooks and books or graphic novels, Ava's coloring book and travel markers. Be prepared. Don't miss out. I'm learning my Ava lessons.

Happy 10th birthday to the one who shows me the world differently and reminds me to pay attention.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Vocation, Commitment, and Making a Life

I've never wanted "technical writer" written on my tombstone. But frequently over the last five years of driving 70 miles each way to work in Washington, D.C., that has felt like the direction my life was going. It was a decision I made to make a better living, to make more money than I could on the Eastern Shore. I don't regret it. I am thankful to have had those opportunities. I have been grateful for every job I have had. Any complaint I could levy fully falls under first world problems. Quit your bellyaching and go to work.

But D.C. and technical writing left me twice in a lurch. Reeling and trying to figure out what would come next. And for better or worse, I am an introspective idealist; a day dreamer. I've never cared for the status quo, and I've never wanted to show up to work to punch a clock and collect a paycheck. I've always wanted to do something with my professional life, my vocation. At one point I thought that would be as a college philosophy professor. Then I fell into museums and cultural organizations. There is something about working for an organization whose mission pushes for cultural, social, or civic causes that finger the heart strings. And then there is this whole writing thing, which has been wrapped up in one of my life's great passions since I was 14.

I want work to be meaningful, both in general and for me. But I am also a father to two wonderful daughters, for whom I need to provide. I wrestled with trying to continue driving four-to-five hours a day for a bigger paycheck, coming home beat and beat down. Or to try to make a better life, rather than just a better living; a way to be creative, to be a part of the community, to make things happen and to make a difference.

I have that opportunity when I start later this month as Executive Director of the Oxford Community Center (OCC) in Oxford, Md. It is a professional homecoming to the Eastern Shore, It is a chance to re-connect, re-engage the community I love and where I have grown up and always lived. It is a chance to help guide an organization poised to take big steps toward anchoring the word "community" for a growing audience. It is a seven mile commute, not a 70 mile commute, a commute I will do by bike sometimes in the summer, and even by stand-up paddleboard here and there.

This blog is a place to talk about life more than making a living. So that is what I will stick with here. Working back on the Shore is also, and foremost, a commitment to my daughters, to have time with them, instead of spending that time driving. It is evenings playing catch with lacrosse sticks or Nerf wars with the sun still up; it is a weekday evening with ice cream in the park. It is opening my heart and soul instead of hardening them. It is finding happiness and being the father the girls deserve in their lives.

OCC is also an opportunity to walk closer to my dreams. I have heard Jim Carey in my head frequently this winter using his father's example, saying, "You can fail at what you DON'T want, so you might as well take the chance on doing what you love."

This is also a conscious decision to commit to my writing. To using the time I am getting back each day and the time when I don't have the girls, to make more happen with writing for magazines, for websites, and taking on writing projects to try to make a name as a writer. Dreams are no better than idle thoughts unless I try to make them real.

The past few months I've been living closer to my heart (cue the Rush song). I've been looking and feeling more deeply. I've been connecting in ways that I had forgotten. Love, family, vocation, dreams. Re-connecting to heart and soul and life. Not just making a better living, but making a better life.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Finding My Bluebird

I feel like I am reasonably in tune and observant. But sometimes I don't notice things until I do. I've talked about herons, and being divebombed by cardinals, and this fall having blue jays making themselves known.

At the end of last week I was running on a back road, along the edge of woodlands, when a couple birds much deeper blue than a blue jay were playing from tree to tree, branch to branch. Brilliant blue on their backs and wings, but a ruddy brown on their bellies. They were all I could see. Why have I not noticed these birds more? They can't be that uncommon, I know they've been here all along. Why have I never honed in on them? I was given an "Audubon Field Guide to the Mid-Atlantic States" for Christmas. I thought about those blue birds for the rest of the run. Folks who know me, or return readers here know I am obsessed with the color blue.

I put the field guide to its first use: Eastern Bluebird. Sialia sialis. Thrush family. "Male brilliant blue above, chest, and sides rusty orange; ...sits upright on snags and wires. ...Habitat: fields, woodland edges, farms."

On Sunday I ran my longest run of 2015 to date. At about the halfway point, one of my all-time favorite songs in general, and favorite running songs came on: Zeppelin's "Ramble On." I've heard it hundreds of times. In my head I can sing along with most of the words. It resonates deeply with me. But as the song was ending, I heard Robert Plant sing, "I can't find my bluebird." Another goddamn bluebird I hadn't noticed before, though I've clearly heard it over and over again.

What's up, bluebirds?

I dug around. Bluebirds are often taken to mean happiness. Contentment. Joy.

Don't get me wrong, sometimes a bluebird is just a bluebird. And I can just dig them for being another opportunity for the color blue to say hey. But sometimes I also like to dwell on things and see if the Universe is continuing its ongoing conversation. A book I have on hand at the house, "Animal Speak," by Ted Andrews, did me some justice talking about herons (my main bird totem), cardinals and blue jays. What has Ted compiled and curated about bluebirds?

When bluebirds show up as a totem, it should first of all remind you to take time to enjoy yourself... can be symbolic of a need to work hard and play hard... symbolic of a passage, a time of movement into another level of being... a new confidence and happiness in coming into your own... If a bluebird has come into your life, look for opportunities to touch the joyful and intrinsically native aspects of yourself that you may have lost touch with.

Where I am in life these days, there is some deep resonance going on there. Reading elsewhere, there is even more focus on bluebirds and transition. Yep, that's there too.

Happiness. Contentment. Joy. Transition. Work hard. Play hard.

Robert Plant can't find his bluebird, so he is rambling on. Right now, I'm finding my bluebird.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Fake Uncles and Godfathers

Beware of men you are taught to call "uncle," who aren't actually your uncle. It's likely they've got something on your parents. For my sister and I, two of those people were Doug Hanks Jr. (pictured above right, with balloons) and Artie Jeffra (above left, with laurel crown and stuffed snake). "Uncle Doug" became my godfather, while "Uncle Artie" was my sister's. These two men taught me what side-splitting, can't-catch-your-breath, damn-near-wet-yourself laughter is.

Doug died in 2003. His exploits, stories, thoughts, and memories were well documented. He wrote them down. He always had a project. He involved others and got the community excited about things. Artie died a week ago, on Jan. 25. I doubt his stories will be as widely accessible, but he has as many of them.

When we were growing up, what either of them did for a living didn't matter much to us. I knew Doug had a real estate company next to the Avalon Theater in Easton. I knew that Artie did different things, from painting and wallpaper to working with/on boats. I remember hearing that his dad was a boxing champion. My father and Doug grew up together in Oxford, and the Hanks's were cousins of ours. I don't know how Artie came into the mix.

What we cared about, is that when they showed up for family functions, the party started. Drinks and laughter started flowing. Music got louder. They were in the backyard playing wiffle ball with or against us kids. As it got dark, Artie would be karaoke singing into a lacrosse stick or baseball bat to my dad's reel-to-reel taped Motown songs. We were on the floor laughing at him.

Artie loved when I got into heavy metal music in middle school. He dug Judas Priest. For my birthday, he would give me money or a gift certificate to the local music store (Price's) to go buy a "headache tape," named for the headache it would give my parents. Like giving a Talking Elmo doll to someone's toddler.

We heard rumors of Artie's legendary antics: "borrowing" a fire truck in Ocean City or singing and dancing on tables at the Oxford Fire Department bull roast. We never tried to confirm them. What we knew is that Artie liked to have a good time, and he made everyone else's time so much better. His laugh was raucous, raspy, and contagious. It was impossible to be on hand for and not catch.

When my dad turned 70 last year, Artie couldn't make the party/roast because of the lung issues that ultimately took his life. Doug had passed away some ten years before. That night there was plenty of laughter shared, but I missed both of theirs. Doug would have been in his element telling stories at the microphone. The Artie of old would have extended the party and had people dancing.

Family parties for my daughters and my sister's children are dull by comparison. Our generation has lost some of the laughter--we don't have an Artie or a Doug that the kids can't wait to see come in the door. Both were once in a lifetime personalities, irreplaceable, but I feel like we need to channel them better.

Our godfathers, our fake uncles, taught us how to laugh. Deep belly laugh. That's a gift to pass on.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Notes to Anna on her 13th Birthday

Of the different life moments you picture, I'm not sure the day you have a teenager is one of them. Your oldest child's 13th birthday. I mean, really it's an odd birthday to get sentimental about. It ends in a 3, how big can it be? But as a parent it feels pretty effing big. You now have a teenager.

Today is older daughter Anna's 13th birthday. I can remember turning 13, going to the same middle school she goes to, This is one of those days that I didn't see coming, but I live for. I am writing this preamble, drinking from a coffee mug that she painted me two days after I turned 40 and had wrenched my back and landed in the ER. As a writer, it's never a good thing when I am at a loss for words. But let me try to get it together here and shift gears.

Notes to Anna on her 13th Birthday

On your 13th birthday, I feel like I should have some sort of profound or fatherly advice. I don't. But you are so much like me when I was 13, that I know you wouldn't listen to it if I did :) What I have instead are memories, stories, dreams, and love. I hope some of them will be of use to you.

I promise to dig for sand crabs for you and with you until I can't. There was a time at the beach where I did all the digging, and you would study and parade around with the findings. Now you are the queen of sand crab excavation. Where you watched me, your sister and cousins now watch you. When did that happen?

I have never cared much about raking leaves. Until you were old enough to love jumping in a leaf pile. I hope I can continue to make leaf piles, both real and metaphorical, for you to jump into. Life is too short to rake leaves without jumping in the leaf pile.

You and are both the oldest child. Don't tell anyone, but parents make all their mistakes with/on the first kid. How can they not? There is no guidebook. It's trial by fire. But if you bring this up, and call me out on it, you're still grounded ;)

I will race or chase you anytime. Standing challenge. Even though you now cut better than I do and I can no longer take it easy and speed up at the end to try to catch you. Whether for field hockey, lacrosse, or running away from your sister, watching you run is one of my life's great joys.

There is never a time that I don't want to throw the lacrosse ball. I didn't play field hockey growing up. But I did play lacrosse, which seems it will be the one sport that connects us, that we've both played, and I can't describe really the feeling of watching you use your off hand or watching you run up the field on a fast break. Don't move off of midfield--you are too fast to play defense :)

You are so much better at being a kid then I was; at least at doing the right thing. I think my loudest moments getting to age 13, and then for a few years after, were the ways I messed up or fell down. I watch you act as a good friend and peacemaker among your friends; I see your full years of perfect attendance and honor roll report cards without effort, and I realize you have this growing up game figured out so much better than I did. We do, however, need to talk about how you treat your sister...

Sing. There are things you have done, that I never had the nerve for at your age. Like singing in chorus. And I guess even if I did have the nerve, I've never had the voice. You have both. Find those things like singing, that you can do, and do them. Those are things worth doing.

Stay goofy and profound. Think the thoughts and ask the questions that make your brain tingle. You wrote the following in second grade. It came home in your weekly folder, it has since been thrown away, but I wrote it down because I loved it:

Go play baseball right now!
Do not tuch that fish.
The frog is green.
How heave is that rock?
The hen is laying eggs.

There are Zen masters who might randomly recite that to students. Keep in touch with that part of yourself and allow yourself to be loose, silly, observant and deep all at the same time.

Remember, you are brackish. You are growing up around the water. It's a part of you. You are centuries connected to the place you live. Sometimes it can feel suffocating, many more times it can feel deeper than oceans.

As you turn 13 today, you don't need my advice. I'll still give it to you when I have something to say, and maybe sometimes you'll listen. I won't hold my breath ;) But on this day and every other, you know the one thing you have of mine, that you always will, is my heart. I can't wait to see where life takes you, actually, scratch that--where you take life. I will do everything I can to help you drive it. I love you Anna Louise, and happy birthday!

And I guess one quick question: how the hell did you get to be a teenager already???

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Beer, Poetry & Happiness

Maine Beer Company combined two of my favorite things: beer and poetry. More specifically, really good beer and an iconic poem by one of my heavies, my all-time favorite writers, William Carlos Williams. Red Wheelbarrow Ale has climbed among the leaders in my favorite beer crew.

Beer and poetry are two things that I like to imbibe daily that spin my mind and soul a bit. They can reshuffle the deck, and spin the compass in myriad directions. "Red Wheelbarrow" the poem is short, simple and confounding. Check the technique:

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

I've written about Williams here before. He was a physician, who had a lifelong medical practice in Rutherford, New Jersey. He was not an ivory tower academic. He didn't much dig T.S. Eliot, who he felt was too stock in Europe--history, culture, tradition, allusion--and Williams looked to dial poetry back to more common, everyday language, and write about things and people that were more everyday life.

Some of his poetry, "Red Wheelbarrow" included is about the image it creates, like a still life painting. You can just sit with it, like you would a good beer on a deck in the sun on a spring evening, sun going down behind tall pine trees. It's a scene. You can also play with the Zen idea of the interconnectedness of the Universe. Hell, you can do just about anything you want--the thing about poetry, like beer, is not all tastes are the same, not all interpretations are the same, and you can sit and ponder that shit for a while.

I found good poetry before I found good beer. I'm not sure what the first "good" beer I drank was. But I do know that it was Carl Sandburg that slammed down the strong man mallet and lit the poetry neon sign up for me, when I was 15.

Sandburg dug and wrote about Chicago. So that became the first city I thought about when I thought about poetry. Dude, Chicago has their own poet; a cat that writes all about them and their people, the blue collar folks. Sandburg and Williams had that in common, the common.

Sandburg made his point for me, especially, in a poem called "Happiness:"

I ASKED professors who teach the meaning of life to tell
      me what is happiness.
And I went to famous executives who boss the work of
      thousands of men.
They all shook their heads and gave me a smile as though
      I was trying to fool with them.
And then one Sunday afternoon I wandered out along
      the Desplaines river
And I saw a crowd of Hungarians under the trees with
      their women and children and a keg of beer and an

Thank you, Carl. It's not the academics or philosophers who know happiness. It's not the business people, who are too clever to get caught in that game. It's the families, sitting along the river, with a keg and music.

When I think of Chicago today, I think of happiness. Not that Chicago is a happy city, but that image resonates. I think of a trip I took there and running along the lake, to Navy Point, going to the Field Museum, the Art Institute, the Adler Planetarium. I think about Wrigley Field and Soldier Field and digging the Bears after the Colts left Baltimore. But those are details, memories.

Today, it's beer, poetry and happiness.