Resolutions

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I once heard an interview with Billy Joel. When asked what was the worst part of his childhood, he said it was that his mother made him take piano lessons. All his friends were out playing in the streets and laughing all summer long but he was stuck inside practicing at the keyboard for hours and hours. “I hated it,” he said. Then he was asked what was the best part of his childhood, and he laughed and said, “My mother made me take piano lessons.”

I had been thinking about how 2017 absolutely sucked. I won’t bother with the details, but it was challenging; thankfully, not nearly as much as it was for most other people, including some loved ones, but challenging just the same. And yet, here I am at the end of it both metaphorically and literally as 2018 is sitting right in the path just a few feet ahead of us all.

Interesting, I don’t find myself beaten down or discouraged; no, just the opposite. I feel a sense of resolve. We usually don’t notice during the trials of life that they can also be wake-up calls, preparation in a way for what’s next. I am faced with new beginnings and I really don’t mind. It’s as if I was given the materials to build new wings then pushed off a cliff and told to figure out how they work on the way down.

Well it usually does take a shove off the cliff to get us to fly. We are so resistant to change, aren’t we? I mean, theoretically we welcome change, we enjoy the variety and new experiences; but realistically it is scary, especially when rocketing toward fifty-eight years old. Still, with a little contemplation and retreat, plus just the right amount of caffeine, I’m able to see how I could only arrive at this place I find myself by suffering through the scratching and peeling that occurs when shedding an old skin. And now that I’ve had a moment to regroup, process, rationalize, and meditate—I believe I’ve come up with some basic resolves.

First though, in making these resolutions, I had to reach back into some former motivational training. There was a time I was paid very good money to assist people with their resolve to change. Thanks to lessons learned from my old boss Richard, I’m acutely aware that we don’t lose fifty pounds by losing fifty pounds. We lose fifty pounds by losing one pound, then another, then we gain a few back and then lose a few more than that, and eventually we realize we’ve made progress. So my list must be patient; it must not contain bravado or climatic moments at every turn.

Second, my list must be tempered by experience. One of my favorite character traits revealed in The Great Gatsby is when his father, after Jay’s death, is reading the list of resolves his son wrote when just a boy. In one of them the young Jay had written, “Save $5.00 (crossed out) $3.00 per week.” We learn Jay has ambition but understands his limitations. My list must show hope without setting myself up for discouragement.

Third my list must not bring me down the old paths I’ve walked aimlessly hoping to bump into something good. Nothing falls in our lap; we will not win the lottery, talent without effort is as common as corn, and the famous truism is as true as ever—the definition of insanity is doing the same thing hoping to reach different results. No, my list must be specific, take advantage of this clean slate before me, appreciate the challenges I still carry, blend my talents with a determined work ethic, and be unabashedly honest.

It is how my resolutions should have always been of course no matter my circumstance, whether one of comfort or not. I would tell the health club members that a list of resolutions can be created any time of the year, from any point of momentum or despair. And while obviously I know that, my past resolutions were often lofty and quickly abandoned, and I almost always waited until either the New Year or my birthday to implement change.

And finally, I must appreciate those aspects of my past which worked, which I rely upon to know who I am, and which I refuse to abandon. It is brilliantly acceptable for a list to include, “I will continue to…” several times. Many things in my life, after all, worked out fine and I have no intention of resolving them away. So any successful list must include not only new approaches to the old failures but reliance upon tried and proven traits which keep me sane.

In the end, this year is no different but for one minor aspect—my future is completely unpredictable for the first time in three decades, and the attention I pay to these resolves will be the difference between making the same mistakes or making it all worthwhile.

So here I am at the break of this New Year, and I came up with a short but solid list with which I can move forward with confidence and hope. I do like the New Year best for these sorts of things. We just spent a week, at the least, consuming sugar, being lazy, not working, and just about any other vice we can squeeze around the Holy Day celebration. So now I sit here on Boxing Day feeling beat to death by 2017 and over-consumption during these last few days, and I’ve come up with a very specific list of goals.

Before that, though, two items to rule out of resolution lists: First, no more weight loss plans. Come on, I’m not an idiot. How hard is it to know what is good for me and bad for me? A primary way to not have to worry about changes in health care laws is to attempt to avoid the need for health care at all, and one of the two ways to do that is to eat right. No sugar, no salt, no late night eating, etc. We all know the list so there is no need for it to be on our “resolution list.” Just freaking eat right, Bob. Second, exercise. This is yet another way of avoiding doctor’s visits, and we know this. Oh my God we all know that if we move around we stay healthier. This isn’t rocket science. To include it on the list is to imply I’ve got the attention span and discipline of a five-year-old. Exercise and healthy eating have no place on the resolution list of anyone who can think clearly. The exception to this would be legitimate addicts (which also would apply to the group dedicated to quit smoking and drinking). If you are not an addict then just be disciplined and stop making excuses. If you are, then the resolution should be to seek professional help immediately so the New Year begins with a program to move away from old habits. Besides, many rehabilitation programs already have the greatest resolution list ever created: To accept the things I cannot change and to change the things I can. I don’t attempt so much for the wisdom part.

Something else I like to do with the list is tell someone I trust to be honest with me, someone who isn’t afraid of me becoming irritated by the reminders and nagging. But most importantly, the list cannot be thought of as “goals for the year.” It has to be a list of resolutions for today, just for today. That’s it. So taking exercise and healthy eating as examples since neither should be on the list anyway, we must not think in terms of “this year I am going to…” but instead, ‘Today, I will…” and do that every morning. And if need be, make it, “For the next hour I will (or will not)….” This is how people achieve success in all fields; they certainly have an ultimate goal in mind, but they almost unanimously work in terms of the “now.” As time goes swiftly by—and it does go by swiftly—the hours and days add up to new ways of life—and before you know it you build your wings and you learn to fly.

So the list:

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Peace, briefly

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Christmas is the time of year we look for the familiar, the consistency in our lives we lean on to support all the craziness life has become. We recall stories from our youth, we talk about old times and of things to come. We share food and clean up and drink wine and laugh telling the same bad jokes and counting on the same silly family members to keep the mood light. Whoever cooked the stuffing will worry there is too much spice, and someone is going to insist you have just the last bit of wine in the bottle. The game might be on or music—at some point there will be music—and eventually everything will settle to the Norman Rockwell painting it should be. Some people will read new books, some will sit near the fire and have a drink and talk about those who have left us. The last thing everyone will say before heading off to bed is “Merry Christmas.”

It is the same in all homes though to varying degrees of comfort. Some living rooms are sparse, some will celebrate in shelters, and some under bridges somewhere praying for a warm night; the peace of Christmas is not dependent upon income or position. It is Christmas and some undercurrent of peace permeates our thoughts, our intentions. We want it to last. We are glad for what we have.

I do not understand why everyone doesn’t celebrate Christmas; I really don’t. I understand the ones who shun Easter; Easter, after all, is what makes Christianity what it is with the Resurrection as the foundation of the Faith. It is Easter, after all, that set the whole Religion in motion. So if you don’t buy into the resurrection part, well then Easter is not for you.

But Christmas is when we celebrate the Birth of Someone—Son of God, Messiah, Prophet, call Him what you will based upon your Faith, or lack thereof—who is literally the personification of peace. It is not the season to directly recognize His divinity; Christmas is decidedly about His humanity. The Man preached absolute peace, encouraged us to love our enemies and forgive them, reminded us to remember our own shortcomings, and insisted on love as the basic tenet of life. Who can possibly have a problem with that?

It seems a lot of people.

I have one friend who hates Christmas. Despises it. Absolute contempt. Though to be fair, he feels that way about everything and everyone. But this time of year he is especially hostile. I don’t know why except he believes not believing in the divine means you shouldn’t believe in the humanity. That makes no sense to me. Shouldn’t we start with humanity? Isn’t that the point to begin with? If you don’t comprehend the mystery of the resurrection, you can at least understand the life of this Rebel who stopped history in its tracks.

He cracked history in half so that even those who crucified him must be dated relative to His life. Christmas Day is a chance to remember the one Person who had perhaps the greatest effect on all of humanity.

Some don’t like the shopping, the carols, the crowds, and the commercialization of Christmastime. I never understood that either. If you don’t like the commercialization and crowds and shopping then don’t buy anything. But to put a positive spin on it all: it is the season when retailers do well enough to keep the prices down, when even the most tight-assed co-workers buy a tray of food for the luncheon, and strangers greet you with something other than disgust. It’s like a big, seasonal “time out” where everyone gets to pretend to get along. And some of those naysayers prefer to point out the hypocrisy of the season, noting the phoniness of pretending to be nice one day, saying “Merry Christmas,” and not giving you the time of day the next

Okay, but listen: if you have the choice of those around you being nasty only eleven months of the year instead of twelve, wouldn’t you take it? And since when is your peace of mind and happiness dependent upon what someone else says or does? If that is true then there is no better time to pause and contemplate the peace that is the season. That WWJD wristband so popular for a short time some years ago makes perfect sense. Here is The example of how we should act toward other people; here is The Ideal—a Birth that happened only one time in the history of ever—surely it isn’t a bad idea to take one day to recognize His time here on earth. Have you read His bio? Go ahead, Wiki Him, and then tell me His Birth isn’t worth celebrating.

My incoming seventeen-year-old freshmen will be the first group of students who were born after 911. They have known nothing but war, nothing but hostility, insecurity, terrorism, and fear. Surely now is a good time for some peace, even if ever so briefly.

How about this: make dinner and invite friends and family and tell stories of days long ago—like something out of a Norman Rockwell painting. Put some extra spice in the stuffing and make sure someone finishes off the wine. Put the game on, sit near the fire and have a drink and remember those who can’t be with us any longer. They’re missed, especially this time of year.

Peace my friends.

And Merry Christmas.

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Get Back

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The earth was frozen here this morning, and as I walked along the sand at the ocean’s edge, I didn’t leave footprints. I moved along as if on pavement, and so I moved along quite a while despite the freezing temperatures and the winds from the northwest. The water was relatively calm, and it seemed almost an effort for the waves to run too far past the break. A few fishing boats moved out from the inlet, and several dolphins barely broke the surface fifty yards out.

This is my constant. This is any time of my life standing here in December, too early for the sun, watching some planet just above the horizon dim then fade to a brightening sky.

We are inundated with information, and most of it is negative, or contradictory, or frightening, or simply pathetic. From presidential tweets to congressional shenanigans, to civil-war-like partisanship, to murders and terrorism, to racism and hypocritical judgments; to financial fears for graduate students, middle class workers, young graduates, seniors on fixed incomes; to the awakening of brave women exposing the horrific trend in society of men—particularly those in positions of power—to blatantly or subtly offend others. My mind is saturated with information, and little of it is positive, none of it is healthy.

And the worst part of all of this is the lies and backstabbing. It has filtered down (or started, perhaps?) to the workplace. I swear to anyone who doesn’t understand, it has become impossible to know who to trust right in my own hallway.

What a hell of a race. Honestly, I simply cannot wrap my head around how a species with such potential can be so destructive on so many levels, from ridicule to greed to mass-annihilation. What the hell happened? Really, if God’s coming back, now’s good. Is God already here? Is that why no footprints in the sand this morning? I hope not; I truly would be quite disappointed to know that. I prefer this mess we have made is all from freewill. I can believe in that. Still, there doesn’t appear to be a plan, does there?

I understand this is an oversimplified view of world events and situations, and an idealistic reaction concerning what we are capable of. In fact, it crosses decidedly into triteness.

But one of the tenants of productive human behavior is to surround yourself with positive people, to step away from the negative ones, the complainers. To remain healthy, creative people should engage with other creative types, and planners and visionaries should be working toward new advances with other like-minds. Of course. But these like-minded individuals are getting harder to find. Or maybe—maybe—they’re still out there, they’re just harder to recognize for the cloud of unknowing coming from the media, from the meetings, from the droves of people speaking out of both sides of their mouths.

Perhaps I’m just tired. For the most part it has been a long, bad year. I just turned in my final grades and was reading some blogs here, and I thought how negative I’d become this year, how, well, tired I’ve become. On this blog I tried to justify writing about the college and politics and the world at large by noting that it is all a “wilderness.”

Until, that is, I stepped off the boardwalk and moved to the waves which didn’t make it much past the break, and the sand was firm like pavement, and my feet didn’t even leave imprints, and the cold wind coming from the northwest kept me decidedly in the moment. It all seems predetermined out there.  When was the last time you went for a walk outside in very cold weather? Not to the car, or from the car to the mall. I mean a walk without destination, absent of headlines and voting results. It is the ultimate in the immediate; it remains the only evidence of permanence I can find.

Out on the horizon this morning, well before the sun broke through, some thin clouds ran the length to the south like jib sails running out front heading to the Outer Banks just to the south. The water was warmer than the air, and sea birds kept diving by me as I walked hoping I had food. One landed near my feet disturbing a few sandpipers I was sneaking past.

The pier is closed for the season, and the lights running down the boardwalk were still on so I could clearly see no one was around but a few military out for an early run. One old man wrapped tight in a parka walked his dog.

But at the water’s edge all I could hear was water, and even that so gently I could sometimes also hear the dolphins’ fins break the surface. It was that calm. No hypocrisy. No backstabbing or negativity. It is the ultimate definition of truth. It remains the most honest experience I have found.

And so I came to work and I turned in my grades. It is time to head back to my small patch of woods at the river.

You’d be surprised. There’s so much to be done. “Count all the bees in the hive. Chase all the clouds from the sky.”

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Acknowledgements

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I’ve been messing with this piece for a long time. I acknowledge now it is time to let it go

I’d like to acknowledge a few people without whom none of this would be possible. My parents, of course, and God, I’ve got to acknowledge God, it’s required of these kinds of things. I’d like to thank the friends that got me here, like Eddie and Steve, Mike and Dave, Sean and Tom, Tom and Tim, oh I could go on, yes I could go on. I’d like to thank those that influenced me: Tim and John. The Muppets and the Velvet Underground. Jackson and Bruce and Billy and Eric, Jimmy and Neil—the other Neil. I can’t forget the places from where I would not end up here: the Shack and the dives along the way. The Club and the Bull and Finch. The Golden Tiger and the Blue Door Blues and Jazz club where they don’t play blues nor jazz and the door is brown, but really that makes me thank them more. I’d like to thank those who took a chance on me and then broke up with me; those that said I was worthless and forced me to do something valuable out of spite. I’d like to thank Spite. God Bless Spite.

I’d like to acknowledge the people who left impressions on me that cannot be repaid. The profs and elementary school teachers. Mr Kingston for caring; Mrs Guidice for understanding we were only five years old.

I’d like to acknowledge that I’m impatient; that I’m intolerant of people who repeat themselves; that I’m lazy; that I’m prone toward wandering instead of being focused. I have to acknowledge right here that I’d much rather have taken more time after high school; and then after college instead of ending up in Mexico headed to New York. I’d like to admit it was simply a matter of thinking something would simply drop in my lap.

I’d like to acknowledge that I am irked by people who use sentences in the form of a question when they’re not really asking anything. I’d like to acknowledge I’m as curious as to what happens to the assholes who I’ve taught as much as I wonder about the honor roll members, who often, I must admit, are equally assholic.

I’d like to thank my son without whom I would not, to the best of my knowledge, be a father. I’d like to acknowledge it might be the only thing I never tire of doing. I’d like to admit right now I tire of doing everything else really pretty quickly.

I’d like to have known my grandfathers.

I’d like to thank Camus for making me question everything and Indiana Jones for making me think I know everything. I’d like to acknowledge the people who pick up the cigarette butts most people flick out the window because they’re too-lazyass-bark-at-the-moon stupid to use their ashtray.

I’d like to acknowledge Aaron Sorkin and the writers of West Wing and Newsroom for some of these lines.

I’d like to thank Kathleen who I knew when I was five. And Kay, of course, and the early morning calls of cows in the distance.  I’d like to thank Essie. I’d like to thank Lynn and Kathy and Michele—not that Michele the other Michele—and Mary and Joan and Margo and Lisa. I do not wish to thank Stacey. Freak.

I’d like to acknowledge people like Albert Schweitzer and Mother Teresa and other contemporaries of ours for making me realize I’ve really done nothing at all.

I’d like to thank my inexperience in starvation, my ineptitude in homelessness, my warless neighborhood, and the plague-less road I’m on.

I’d like to acknowledge rest stops and urinals. Or trees, I acknowledge both equally. I’d like to take some time right now to acknowledge the passing of time, the quickness of life, the fleeting moments during which we are truly passionate, the ability, the possibility, and the stability. I’d like to recognize my ability to know when it is time to move on, to let go.

I’d like to thank myself for not hurting anyone. I’d like to thank those I might have hurt for dropping my classes. Ironically, I’d like to acknowledge I’ve hurt way too many people. I’d like to take it all back. I’d like to give it all away. I’d like to leave it all on the playing field. I’d like to go back and run one more time on the south shore beaches where my grandparents lived, where we’d walk along Freeport Avenue smack dab in the middle of the road where the cement slabs met along long strips of soft tar, and we’d press our toes into the tar as we made our way to the ocean, and be two behind my sister, one behind my brother, in front of some cousins, and later we’d go back to the house and explore the ancient attic. And we’d drive home late and in the morning I’d wake to the sound of foghorns drifting up from the Great South Bay. I’d like that a lot. 

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Astronomy 101

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Winter at night in the country is silent. To the north is a harvested field where often geese land just around dusk, and in the river beyond that. Just on the east is the bay, and there’s nothing but trees to the west and south. When the sky is clear this time of year it is cold, and now Saturn is settling below the horizon just after midnight. The just-about-to-be-Super Full Moon is climbing over the Chesapeake, and if it weren’t so bright the Milky Way in the south would be more visible. This is the way it is; this is seven at night in the country in winter.

This is the Cold Moon. It is the first full moon in winter, so the Cold Moon. In two weeks is the Geminid meteor shower offering more than one hundred and twenty flybys an hour. If you lay on your back on a blanket in the grass in the country on December 14th or so, you can probably make a few wishes every minute.

Today I miss my family—my siblings and their families, many cousins and some cousins once removed are all having lunch in Manhattan. It is Christmastime in New York and they’re sharing stories and laughing, probably walking around mid-town, stopping in some stores, watching the skaters at Rockefeller Center. I wish I were there. “Next time” is too iffy anymore. Time keeps redefining “next time.” At the same time my soul is filled with peace because my son and I will get out his telescope and spend some time tonight out here on the bay in the country looking deep into the Milky Way. We will try and see some craters on the moon, blind ourselves by observing Vega in the west, and if we are out early enough we will see the rings of Saturn in the Southwest.

After a while I’ll start a fire in the fire pit on the patio near the back path, and we’ll heat up some cider. I am sure that while we will enjoy ourselves, we both would have liked to been in New York City today. Some years ago we went and met my cousin Roy and his wife Patty and had pizza and walked in the rain, lit candles at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, and talked about the joy of spending time with family. I haven’t seen them since. It makes me sad.

Honestly, our lives should revolve around family; it really is that simple. Unfortunately, that is not the way it is way too often. We battle with deadlines and struggle against the proverbial sand seeping through the hourglass. I would like to slow the whole thing down. I’d love to be able to live like we lived half a century ago when cousins were a stone’s-throw away and every day someone was around, sharing dinner, and we would run into each other at the stores. Now we are scattered like stars and to meet with more than a handful of us means mapping out distances to common locales, coordinating schedules, and planning ahead for accommodations and flights. The simplicity of saying, “Hey, we’re going to get a fire going in the pit tonight, drink some wine and use the telescope; why don’t you come by,” has receded to so long ago I barely remember when. I wouldn’t change much about my life; but if I could make one small adjustment, I’d arrange it for all my cousins and extended family to live nearby, especially my siblings and their families. I suppose we appreciate each other more for the lack of constant contact and the possibilities of “next time.” But part of me wishes I was in NY right now.

Still, few events bring me more peace than sitting outside with my adult son, having cider and looking for constellations in the night sky. It is incomprehensible how much space exists between us and the stars, and how long it would take to get there. When the world is too much with us, we can always find a little peace out in the field in the perfect stillness of night and watch some meteor shoot by, dimmed only by the light of the moon

Vincent van Gogh once wondered in a letter to his brother, why can’t the stars be as accessible as the dots on a map of France. If we take a train to reach Paris, he supposed, then perhaps we take death to reach a star. I think of that sometimes when I’m looking toward Vega or Orion, or when I get lost in the Pleiades. It is silent out here stretching clear across the water, and the chill reaches deep inside, and you realize this is exactly how it was for Copernicus, for Galileo, for our grandfathers, and forever it will be exactly like this. And you realize life should always be like this but it is inexpressible, so you look around for someone to share it with, because talking about it falls short, is incomplete. It must be shared to be understood.

And you realize right then that family is the center, the absolute center of your universe. At some point we come to understand that life revolves around them.

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