5/24/10

In Defense of my Self-Imposed Impecunity, Part I

When I decided to leave Chicago, I was broke, cold, and lonely. I headed back home to Orlando to regroup and regain my footing in the world. Orlando had been my home for 25 years, my place of birth, my zone of comfort. However my plan wasn't to stay and stagnate there, but to take a short respite from the rigors of life and then set off on a new adventure. After all, just six months earlier I had finally broken out of my home town, that place of nurturing complacency, and was not ready to fall back into its wide, warm arms so soon. I knew upon coming back I would be tempted to stay there and revel in the familiarity, as I had grad school looming in just nine months. So many of my friends speak often of the lethargy imposed by The City Beautiful on people our age. I often wonder just what it is about that area makes its youth not venture forth and search for America, search for themselves. But I could not let myself succumb to the temptation to stay.

I suppose if you asked die-hard Orlandoians they would refute these claims of complacency. After all, Orlando has a burgeoning scene of punk, rockabilly, and new-age metal. The disciples of these scenes have claimed the four square blocks of downtown Orlando for their own, filling the bars and tattoo parlors with droves of youthful headbangers. (To them, this description must be entirely inadequate. I'm out of the loop, have no tattoos, and I hardly ever wear black.). Also, the beach is just an hours drive in either direction and the water is warm enough for swimming nine months out of the year, enticing for surfers and tanners. Plus the parents there are willing to support their children, "Just until they catch their break." I, on the other hand, petition my mom's support from thousands of miles away. Works just the same.

For me, Orlando presents a different set of hurdles of comfort. I found myself, immediately upon coming back in January 2010, working at the same lucrative restaurant, serving the same customers and their kids, playing the same golf courses, eating at the same places, frequenting the same bars and seeing the same people there every time. Every morning I woke up with the same hangover in the same bedroom of the same house I had lived in for the same six years since high school. This is special life in Orlando, a beautiful life, one that took me 25 years to build, one of ease and familiarity. And I don't want to sound like I took it all for granted, because I will always treasure those friendships, those golf courses, that job, that house, my family, all those things that have shaped and molded my life.Plus my cat was elated to be back in the house and yard where he was raised. These warm and inviting patterns comprised the trappings of my temptation. It's not that I wanted to reject Orlando, but that I needed to embrace something different.

I came very close to staying in Orlando. For two months I committed to the old routine before deciding it was my time to go. In those two months I was bringing in enough money to pay off my car, was working on my student loans, my credit card, and the money I owed my mother. I even began formulating a plan to play competitive golf over the summer. However, after one particularly frustrating day of work replete with all the old frustrations--those frustrations become intolerable once you have moved beyond and above them--that nebulous idea of California became concrete and necessary. It was time to go.

My mother, who lives in Orlando, took the news rather hard when I told her that in two week's time I would be leaving. She was so behind me paying off my debts before grad school that she felt it a personal affront upon hearing the news. But soon she changed her outlook and gave me her best wishes. And my brother even flashed some anger at the news, for what, I don't know. It seems each time I leave a place for good I make some people angry. I wonder if they are truly upset at my departure, concerned with my physical and financial well-being, or if something inside of them wishes for the courage to pack up and leave. At times, I think, the fear of not moving fuels my moving on as much as the love of something new. But I made peace with my family and my friends, and my best friend George who worked at the same restaurant took a week's paid vacation to drive me across the country and bought a ticket to fly home from San Francisco. I had no way of anticipating the special adventures we would have in those 10 days of newness.

The one farewell that stands out to me the most is the one I had with my father. I went to his apartment to say goodbye and found him disabled by a bum knee, weakened by medication, and pale from lack of sunlight. In spite of all this we had a short but cheery conversation about my trip and the route I would be taking. I was originally planning to go through New Orleans, a place my father knew very well, but had changed that plan to spend an extra night in Vegas. "Well, I'm glad you're not going to New Orleans," he said. I smiled and said goodbye, looking at him one last time before I left. There was something morbid and skeletal about his profile. I closed the door and stood there for a moment in the bright, crisp, March afternoon. My eyes watered as I donned my sunglasses. A lump grew in my throat, and I felt overwhelmed with a sense that I might never see him again.

The next morning George, Watson and I set off for California. Watson is my cat, now five years old and becoming a very good traveler. Even so, driving across the country with your cat and your best friend on a mission to see some of the best sites and party towns of America is a stressful and daunting task. One must always be cognizant of the feline and its comfortability; does it have a place to lay in the car? Has it eaten? Has it gone to the bathroom? A road trip can become the traumatic event that changes a cat's demeanor and personality forever. The cat has no reference, no knowledge of the road, of the journey, of the destination. The only thing the cat knows is that he's stuck in a flying tuna can packed with all its owners things on unsteady footing for endless hours upon endless days. Watson had already made the journey from Orlando to Chicago and back, so I was confident he could adjust to five days of life on the road.

To be continued . . . .

5/23/10

Trusting Your Inner Artist

Do you remember the last time you allowed your inner-artist to create?
Maybe you were walking down the road and the clouds and the tree-tops reminded you of an epic, underworld battle. In your mind, the details of your sensory input morphed into an implication about all humanity. You allowed it to take place, and you were an artist.
The great author J.R.R. Tolkien invented Middle Earth while fighting in the trenches of World War I. Every moment is an opportunity to focus on your craft.
Perhaps you decided, in an “ah-ha” moment, to hang the wind chime you made in third grade from the orange tree in the back yard, next to the banjo-playing frog made of plaster and, by arranging those objects as you saw fit, you pleased your inner-artist.
Once, while in California for a wedding, I turned the coffee table in my hotel room upside-down, unfolded the ironing board and placed it on top, took out the iron, set it on the ironing board, and adorned the arrangement with a lamp shade. I titled it “Hotel Room Art,” and some people from the wedding party shuffled through to see my creation. It got good reviews. I followed my hunch, my instincts, my dream-like inspirations, and created a proud memory of my trip.
I never had formal training in painting. But one day I felt the urge to paint, and two weeks later had created the self-acclaimed “Thought Garden,” now featured in the gallery of my bedroom.
How about those original song lyrics that have been bouncing around your head for months? Give them life, write them down, see how they look on paper, and finish them. Trust it. Do it. Don’t be nervous, don’t sweat it. Then share them with others. Finish your projects, but know when to set them down, give them your signature, and deem them “complete.” Then move on. There’s more art to create.
And that idea for a screenplay or novel you never found the time to write? Or maybe you’re worried about the grammar, spelling, and punctuation? Who cares! Get it down, find the time, and edit it later. Don’t worry about it being good or bad, because artistic expressions, if done with the full commitment and veracity of the human spirit, will always be good. Trust yourself for once.
What stops us from acting on those impulses to create, refine, and symbolize? We all can be artists by opening our minds and listening to our hearts. People often ignore those artistic impulses that emerge during their busy and bustling lives. Is work preventing your progress, holding you back from creating art, from applying meaning and substance to a shadowy, illusory world? Is the constant game of relationships and interaction distracting you from the beauty glowing within you, bristling at every moment? Have we defined our lives in terms of rigidity and structure--the normal, working chump staying safe and secure, free of judgment from an unforgiving society; the artist neglected and laughed at behind his back?
The accumulation of wealth and status is the illusion of progress. The artist’s progress happens from within, in the murky depths of the human subconscious where thoughts and feelings intermingle, where words and ideas fly around as sea birds feeding on the chum at the surface of the water, the shores of existence. This is the most real reality we have, the one connecting us to the spider-web of energy we call humanity. Without art, we are but shells of humans, listless lumps of lard, disconnected, isolated, and blocked from the beauty which birthed us.
Instead of succumbing to that dull and meaningless existence, choose to be a medium for the expressions of the cosmos. Open your channels to the art forms eager to flow through you. Nurture, develop, and trust your inner artist.

5/12/10

It's Not About Basketball: A Confessional

Your eyes open around 11:00 a.m. As you look at the clock, you note the time and drift back into dreamworld. The mind runs, races, calls on itself to spin out strange illusions of reality. The images sparkle, flicker before your eyes. They titillate your senses. You experience the half-dream as if it were real. But soon, the machinations of your imagination fail. They cannot sustain the experience. You awake fully. Rolling over, you see your cat, Watson, in a similar state of repose. The world around you comes into focus: your bedroom, its lime green walls, the fan on the dresser, small and black, its comforting hum, the air circulating and chilling your feet as they stick out from under the covers. The light comes pouring in through the window in horizontal bands. You yawn, stretch, and groan a little at the jarring reorientation into this reality of yours. But it’s not about reality.

Smiling at your cat, he too blinks awake. He extends his arms and claws, and then yawns into the blanket. Hesitantly, you take your left arm out from under the cover exposing it to the cold flowing air in the room and move it to your cat’s head. His soft fur with white and amber patches feels chilly to the touch. You pet him, warming and loving him, until slowly he begins to convey those signs of contentment with you his owner, the purring, the eyes rolling back, the heavy breathing. For a moment you lay there, awake now, frozen in the moment like a photograph.

You emerge from the bedroom and head automatically into the bathroom. This process of movement, this ordered operation has guided you each morning for the whole of your life. From the bed to the toilet to evacuate what refuse was carried over from dreamworld. In recent years, on the advice of a radio talk show host who shot his wife and dog and is now in prison, and a troubling movie called About Schmidt starring Jack Nicholson, you’ve taken to sitting down to urinate. This simple idea, though somewhat emasculating and leaving you prone to embarrassment less someone come in on you, prevents you from peeing on the seat. You often congratulate yourself for disregarding pride and following ration. There on the toilet bowl, you think of how this solution has made going to the bathroom so effortless and clean. Function before style, you think. It’s not about function, or style.

Your cat scratches at the bathroom door. You turn the knob and he comes prancing in, rubbing against your legs and circling at your feet before plopping down on the bathmat and the boxer shorts you slept in. The cat loves no place better for bonding with you and receiving a rub down than at your feet in the bathroom. He purrs audibly, and the purring echoes off the tiled walls. His joy makes you grin, feel light in the chest. As he rolls over exposing his belly, you grab a clump of fur and shake it, his body jostling beneath you. He looks up and seems to smile, his mouth turning upward, his eyes becoming slits. You soon get up, sending him scurrying out the door.

Washing your hands, you look up and see your image there in the mirror. Your hair is disheveled, newly cut short but still in disarray. Your face has a few discrepancies in complexion but all in all the skin is not too bad. Your gaze moves down to your chest, arms and stomach. Standing here you try and think what your body must look like to other people. To you it has always looked chunky, with notable deposits of fat and tiny little titties framing hairy cleavage. But you try and look at yourself through the gaze of another. You’ve gotten compliments recently on losing weight, something you haven’t necessarily tried to do but the fast pace of work and life has facilitated such improvements. Turning sideways, you note the thinness of your arms in relation to the thickness of your chest, the bulge of your gut drooping slightly over your boxers. The package that pleases the ladies.

Looking past these physical shortcomings you see perhaps the person those friends and co-workers keep telling you is there. The tall, thin person who sometimes shows up in photographs. Your chest looks a little smaller today, a little tighter. Your stomach seems more in proportion with your body. You raise your arms and flex your biceps. Yes. You see it now. Those muscles are a good fit. You begin to feel pretty good about your body, and leave the bathroom with ego intact. But it’s not about ego, either.

As you carry on with your morning routine you feel optimistic about the day, the month, the year. However, you’re still cold, and notice a rumbling of hunger down in your stomach. You remember the dinner you had of salad and three beers, and realize you need sustenance. But first you go into your dresser and throw on a t-shirt and some athletic shorts. Still a little groggy with sleep, you come out into the living room and look around for a moment, getting your bearings. You open the front door and feel a rush of air blow over your body. It feels good. Stepping further outside, onto the front porch, you look around at the midday scenery of birds and trees and grass and Florida in February, and gauge with your body, with your skin, the temperature outside.

Just a month and a half earlier you were in Chicago. You had moved up there with your now ex-girlfriend. Whatever kind of relationship you lost with her, you had gained with the city. Chicago became your companion, a dear friend of yours with whom you could pass the time with cheer and satisfaction. With its parks and museums, its beach on Lake Michigan, the skyscrapers of the Loop, towering, inspiring, oddly comforting, the commingling of youth and legend in the bars of the north side, the countless colleges and their art students, the sensibilities of the Midwest, kind and compassionate, infused with the setting of a metropolis, bustling and anonymous. For six months you developed a relationship with the Windy City, made friends in the restaurant where you worked. Then you ran out of money and the locals loathed the oncoming winter so often and so sincerely that in late December you ran back to Orlando.

Sure, it was cold in Illinois, but the heat worked in every building and the coat you wore was entirely adequate for the snow. You arrived in Florida during one of the harshest cold snaps on record—six of the first eight nights with temperatures dipping below freezing. And none of the heat worked anywhere you went. Those first two weeks you slept on a friend’s couch with the heat running continuously and the thermostat reading fifty-six. You tried to get comfortable on the sofa, wearing sweaters, pants, and socks to bed. At night you sniffled with coldness and sorrow at the lovers you had lost and the familiarity you had wandered back into from which you had run in the first place--the same bars, the same job, the same house, golf courses and restaurants. The cold of Chicago proved warmer and more secure than the tropical winter you ran back to in Florida. This morning you crave sunshine, humidity, and heat. Your body wants to be warmed just once completely through, to thaw out the cold, the sorrow, the sleep. But it’s not about any of these things.

Seventy-six, you guess, as the temperature there on the front porch. You open up the front and back doors, and all the blinds and windows as a welcoming of light and airflow into your home, your heart, a thawing of this temple. You take a quick check of your mood. You feel good: positive, light-hearted, optimistic. You can smile in this moment, and you do. Watson wants out the front screen door and you move to him, coo to him, tell him you love him as you let him out into the yard. Watching after him curious as always as to where he goes, you see him slink along the side hedge of bushes, creeping, stalking, and disappearing into the foliage. You bid him well and move on.

Stepping lightly, you move to the kitchen. You take a pot from beneath the counter, fill it with water and set it on high heat on the stove. Then you take the bag of coffee beans from the freezer, the coffee grinder and French press from the cabinet, and grind the beans. As the violent whir of the grinder fills the room the aroma of the beans begins to permeate the air. The grinds smell of exotic places deep in the jungle or the rain forest. It reminds you of her, the one in Chicago.

The coffee ritual was one of the purest and most humanizing elements of your relationship. Every morning, the need for one or the other to buy the coffee, make the coffee, prepare it precisely the way the other takes it, for no two coffee drinkers are the same. Half and half and sugar, soy milk and Splenda, honey or cinnamon or flavored cream. In your mind, your imagining, you make her cup each time you make your own. Two sips for every one. You smell her now, the soft, flowery scent of women’s lotions perfuming the piquant aroma of the coffee bean. Maybe it’s about the perfume. No, it’s not about the perfume.

For a moment, you stop and stare. Your hands hover over the grinder, right index finger lingering loosely on the button, the left hand lightly holding the top down. A memory flashes through your mind, triggered by the smell, a quick flash of desire. This makes you blink hard and shake your head abruptly to loosen the grips of recollection. You free yourself back into the present. The water steams, and then boils. Dumping the grinds in the glass cylinder of the French press, you feel somehow depleted, enervated, but glad to be making coffee.

Most grinds fall to the bottom of the pot, but some latch on high to the tube and you try to wash them to the bottom as your pour in the boiling water. You put on the lid and let the mixture sit. In the meantime, you grab a book, Bill Simmon’s The Book of Basketball, turn on the corner lamp, and plop down on the couch to read, tilting the pages to catch as much of the dim lamplight as possible.

The subject of these few pages is Isiah Thomas, Pistons icon, original “Bad Boy,” nemesis to Larry Bird and bumbling Knicks general manager whose choices for trades and draft picks the author roundly censures. You never considered Thomas a favorite player, more like an enemy to demonize, and are entertained by Simmon’s extended haranguing. Though, near the end of the chapter, the author sites an episode in Las Vegas where he met Thomas at a topless pool on the outdoor deck of a casino. He is at first apprehensive to meet the legendary point guard because of the frequent excoriations of the man in his column, but they meet and chat and the author asks Isiah, among other things, about his frequently mentioned yet seldom explained “secret” of basketball.

“The secret of basketball,” Thomas says, “Is that it’s not really about basketball.”

It’s not really about basketball, you repeat to yourself, and crinkle your brow. Thomas goes on to explain, through the book’s creative portrayal of the poolside scene, that winning a championship in the NBA takes teamwork, selflessness, and a sacrificing of personal statistics for the greater good of the team. It’s about whatever it takes to win. Simply playing good fundamental basketball will not win you the NBA Championship, Thomas says. It’s not about basketball. It’s about playing as a team, playing for the other man, everyone helping each other to be their best, like the Celtics and the Lakers of the 80’s, like Phil Jackson’s teams capturing glory with the triangle offense, the successes of Shaq and Kobe. Thomas’s Pistons of the late 80’s learned these lessons and won two titles. The secret of basketball is that it’s not really about basketball. It’s about self-sacrifice. It’s about winning.

This concept gives you pause. What else in life is not about itself? Love? Success? Glory? Fulfillment? You mark your page in the book with the outer sleeve and set it down beside you on the couch. Sitting cross-legged on the deep leather sofa that weeks earlier served as your bed, you turn and gaze out the window. The fronds of a palm tree rub against each other in the wind, making a creaking, whooshing noise. Birds call out to each other through the midday sunlight. You watch as a squirrel darts up a light pole, her fluffy tail wagging proudly behind her. Across the street, the neighbor waters his ornamental bushes, pulling his hose to a fro; Watson lays at the edge of the yard staring at the snaking hose and the gushing water, his tail beating meditatively on the ground. It all looks so serene. It’s not about serenity.

You rise and return to the kitchen where your pot of coffee is ready. It’s not about the coffee, you think, as you pour the murky liquid into your mug. Even the mug was a gift from her, the one you left in Chicago. On it the letters read, “Look Busy, Jesus is Coming!” accompanied by a cartoon image of The Messiah looking flabbergasted at what he would find if he did come back. The one you gave her read “If Anything Can Go Right, It Will.” While adding the cream and sugar, you also think to add the skim milk and Splenda that surely accompany her coffee today. You smell it again, womanscent and coffee beans, and picture her here, enjoying the morning while sipping from her sentimental mug, the tiny drops of liquid lingering momentarily on her upper lip before she envelops them, reigns them back in with her bottom lip and tongue. The gradual building of energy. Plans for the day. Compliments to give. Random displays of affection. Caresses and kind remarks. The warmth of a Chicago winter.

You sip from your mug as you close your eyes and clear your thoughts, leaning back against the counter. You went to Chicago to claim love and glory. It didn’t work out. You came back to Orlando to find safety and security in friendship. You only missed Chicago. There appears to be no easy answer. Suddenly it hits you. A wave of emotion washes over you as if the Holy Spirit just filled the vessel of your slovenly body, holding you up with a wire attached to your chest. The mug falls from your hand. The porcelain shatters and coffee spews all over the floor. You feel lighter than air, as if you could float, or fly. The world’s expectations go rushing out the door. You’ve entered the proverbial moment, the present, the place where you feel at once a part of and apart from the glory of universe, able to see it, feel it, appreciate it, and be it all at once. Suddenly the fears and anxieties of all your ventures no longer exist. You are completely assuaged of your guilt and trepidation.

From your elevated perch, you look down and see the cartoon face of Jesus staring back at you. His complete image remains intact, and nothing else, on one shard of the broken coffee mug. The look on his face is one of anguish and surprise, as if he can’t believe what he caught you doing. He is garbed in a white robe and sandals and wears long hair, a long beard, and a mustache. Framed there on the tile floor, one hand covers his gaping mouth, his eyebrows slant upward, and his eyes are wide and surprised.

Feeling more confident than ever, you smile down at him reassuringly. He appears to relax his gaze, drop his hand, and a gentle smile seems to wash over his face. For a moment you swear he just winked at you. Each breath now, each blinking of the eyes or thought passing through your mind comforts and satisfies you. After putting a fresh pot of water on the stove, you set about picking up the shards of porcelain and sopping up the coffee, moving purposefully with each sweep of the broom, each tilt of the dustpan, and each wipe of the towel. You are simply cleaning up the mess. But it’s not about cleaning. You are, for the first time in a long time, present with your morning coffee.