Saturday, November 28, 2009

Breaking Free From My Possessions

I'm throwing stuff out. Again.

The photo above is from 1985. This battered Volkswagen Van contained all my possessions at that time, and the pillow tied on top is my futon-bed. It wasn't much stuff, and yet this load weighed me down. Several times on the road from Philadelphia to Dallas, I was tempted to park the van and walk away from it. 

There's a wonderful scene in Franco Zefferelli's movie Brother Sun, Sister Moon, in which young Saint Francis gives his clothes to his father in the central square of Assisi, then walks away naked, toward sainthood. The actor playing Francis, Graham Faulkner was young and toned; this helped us stop wondering what he would do a few minutes later, when thorns and bugs attacked him. Nevertheless, we tend to over-estimate the usefulness of things we keep, and under-estimate what keeping them costs us, to the extent we consider this at all. 

The cost reveals itself at odd moments. While recovering from a devastating break-up, I noticed that my mood soared, each time I disposed of something associated with the dead romance. It was a complete surprise. I didn't think that lamp from Target was weighing me down. Despite this discovery, I didn't throw everything out. The urge to hoard stuff was so strong, the remnants of the past life left one at a time, over many years. If I had it to do over again, I'd pack a bag and walk away from it all. I'd have been stronger much sooner that way. 

Imagine walking into this beautiful room. Notice the rounded windows, like the gateway in the movie poster above. We could dance across it, skate across it, sit in the uncrowded light and air. But to sit we'd need a chair. Maybe a table. A few books. Well maybe a few more. Before long, I would block up the windows with stuff, and this room would resemble the cluttered space I'm sitting in now. 

Probably we need some of this stuff, but it must be less than I have. Our things clutter our minds, not just our houses. I think that's why some of us are drawn to the ocean or the desert. 

How often I've traveled to a place like the Grand Canyon and wanted to stay there. Never mind I can't stand heat. The greatest thing about this view: It has none of my baggage in it. On that basis, almost any place would do as well, provided I didn't send back for the moving van. 

Years ago, my apartment looked like this tunnel of books. I wanted the books around me, because I was proud of having read them all. I wanted to remember what I'd learned, and probably I wanted to impress visitors with my vast knowledge. But now, today, remembering is not the challenge. Now I must get new thoughts in my head. Out! Out, all of you! I'll see you in the public library if you're needed again!

We think we're strong enough to carry all this stuff, to hold it in our arms, and still open those arms to new ideas. We only defeat ourselves. Learning, working, romance, all start with empty space. If there's no room for them, they can't come in to our lives. 

Emptiness is a necessary precondition. For this reason, I'm not bothered by the possibility that life has no meaning. Life might be empty of meaning in the same way that a suitcase is empty when you buy it. No one would buy a suitcase already full of someone else's stuff. The emptiness makes it useful! It's our invitation. The universe offers us a place to perform, and fill our corner with the meaning we discover. This is better than than swallowing a meaning given to us from outside. 

We grow strong when we open to the present moment. Clarity of vision lends us the force of urgency. Precious little time remains, to do better work, to learn new lessons. 

Sunday, November 22, 2009


Here we are, approaching the big holiday of Thanksgiving. 

Holidays. I'm both attracted to them and repelled by them. Thanksgiving delivers a wonderful idea—let's appreciate what we have—and an undertone of accusation: You need to be reminded. You're not grateful enough on your own. You don't really deserve what you have, it's just luck or a gift from God that He plans to take back soon. 

Does anyone else feel this way? Maybe not. Guilt is my general reaction to everything.

So guilty or not, here are some things I like. They keep me going.

Max [right], seen here with his friends, lining up for Kindergarten.

Living close to the ocean. It's a mental pleasure, since I'm never getting in that freezing water, like these brave surfers.

Brightly colored houses.

A misty drive back from the grocery store. 

Monday, November 9, 2009

A Few Days in October

In October, 1989 I lived in the Richmond District of San Francisco. I was married to a tall southern belle, and we rented an apartment with 15 windows and sweeping views. We'd come to the city two years earlier, with all our stuff in the back of a station wagon. The city had been good to us. 

I painted outdoors a great deal, on the cliffs around Land's End. I had accumulated enough work to participate in San Francisco's Open Studios event. I found a group space at an industrial building on York Street, and paid to show my paintings there. The other artists in the building showed a wide variety of work. Some of it, like the sculpture above, was thoughtful, accomplished and interesting. On the other hand, the idea of "art" is often the refuge of the criminally insane. 

A few feet away from my earnest, boring rectangles, a group of aging white guys—The Architects of Doom—built a large installation, resembling a 1970s rumpus room, a place where the Brady Bunch might go to relax. The night of the show's opening, they gave a performance, by tearing everything up with power tools, while shrieking their lungs out. It was a toss-up between Primal Scream therapy session and prison riot. Unpleasant as this episode was, it was merely the beginning. The Architects videotaped the carnage, and played it back in a continuous loop for the next two days, at top volume [of course], about ten feet from where I had to sit. When people call artists "dangerous," the artists often swell with pride. These guys were dangerous like razorback hogs. 

The Architects were not the only antagonists in the show, just the loudest. Another artist insisted her dog was part of her installation. Predictably, she barely batted an eye when it urinated on other artists' work. I woke with flea bites. Altogether, York Street 1989 was an experience better remembered than re-lived.

Glad was I to pack up my pictures, spray them for fleas and return to my cliffs by the sea. The next weekend, I worked on the painting above. The high point at the center of this composition was fenced off years ago, but when I worked here, a trail led up to it, with a big sign reading, "Stay Back! People Have Fallen To Their Deaths."

It was a perfect day. Seals flipped in the water below me. After a rewarding afternoon, I strapped my french easel to my back and walked home. When I got to my apartment door, the strap broke and the box fell, tearing the panel two inches at the top and putting a permanent stain on the carpeted stairs. I paused for a moment, and thought, "What big effects from a tiny event! If all my actions were this powerful, I'd be a millionaire."

Then came Tuesday afternoon. I was preparing to leave my job at a law firm, on the 25th Floor of a building downtown. I waited for the elevator, but before it arrived, the floor began to move underneath me. I ran back into the office and got under a desk, just before the shaking intensified. The scientists told us the earthquake only lasted 15 seconds. If you happen to experience something similar, it may surprise you, how long 15 seconds can seem, when you think you're about to die. The building continued to sway and settle a while longer, after the ground was still.

One of the worst things about a big earthquakes is the aftershocks. You know they're coming, but that doesn't help. They can be worse than the initial movement, because all your nerves are raw. Only a few minutes had passed when the building moved again. From down the hall, I heard the voice of an ambitious paralegal barking, "First aftershock!" A minute later, she yelled, "The Bay Bridge has collapsed!" This woman annoyed the hell out of me, but she also lent a breath of humor to a dark moment. Like Alexander Haig, she wanted everyone to know that she was in control here. She intended to take charge of this earthquake and make it her own.

Out on the street, there was much confusion. I wondered if I would have to walk six miles to get home. By a stroke of luck, my normal bus pulled up to its stop and I got on. Progress was glacial, due to heavy traffic and a power blackout. None of the streetlights worked, either. By the time I got off the bus, the neighborhood was so dark, I worried I'd get hit crossing the street. The stairs in our apartment building had no windows, so I had to feel along like a blind person. Half way up, I heard the welcome voice of my neighbor, Brian Jackson. His wife worked on the peninsula south of town, and wasn't able to come home right away. We looked out the window and saw the scene in the photo above. The red lights at right are on the Golden Gate Bridge. It's remarkable for what's missing, the lights of the city. This is how it looked in the day:

The aftershocks continued all night. The next morning the sun rose beautifully. This city really knows how to advertise itself. It's like a difficult lover, who never looks sweeter than when she's sorry after a big fight.

We picked up our friend Sara in the Marina. I suggested we take a drink on the roof, and celebrate the fact that we'd survived. The initial reporting was not accurate; 57 people died, instead of "hundreds." When I bought wine at the grocery, there were long lines of people buying beer, charcoal and potato chips. We laughed at ourselves. Our light attitude may seem insensitive, but I, for one, was still terrified underneath it. Unfortunately, there wasn't much we could do to help, and we had time to kill between aftershocks. Later, I read about the Great Earthquake of 1906, and many San Franciscans reacted the same way, climbing Twin Peaks to watch the city burn. They looked remarkably well-dressed for the occasion. 

All of this was long ago, when we were young. We might have died, but we didn't. We can make the same benediction on this day.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

New Job and Samuel Gottscho

Exactly two weeks after I received notice that I would be laid off, I accepted a new job at my company. Many thanks to each or you who encouraged me during this time. A lay-off can happen again, to either of us, just about any time.

This was an interesting experience. It opened my mind to many ideas, and tested my understanding of how the world works. I plan to write more about these subjects later. In the mean time, if you want to put yourself in the best possible position to endure a lay-off, I recommend Keith Ferrazzi's book, Never Eat Alone: And Other Secrets to Success, One Relationship at a Time Ferrazzi's approach has worked well for me. He writes:

There has never been a better time to reach out and connect than right now. The dynamic of our society, and particularly of our economy, will increasingly be defined by interdependence and interconnectivity. In other words, the more everything becomes connected to everything and everyone else, the more we begin to depend on whom and what we’re connected with. 

Now that life is returning to "normal," I'd like to show you some photographs by Samuel Gottscho. They are incredible, romantic visions. I don't think it's possible to see Mr. Gottscho's photographs of New York, without wanting to pack your suitcase and race to Manhattan. 

Even in photography, we see what the artist wants us to see. The image is processed through a machine, but it is the artist's eye that determines the feeling expressed. Spend five minutes with Samuel Gottscho, and you'll never mistake his photographs for anyone else's. 


Mr. Gottscho came to photography late in life. He couldn't quit his job in sales and concentrate on taking photographs until he was 50 years old. Fortunately for us, he was blessed with a long life. He said he did his best work around age 70. His example gives hope to people like me, who wasted their youth.