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New Pen, Blank Page
Image Source: New Buddha

Sometimes I wonder if I’ll ever connect with a thought (again).

The words escape, trickling away from my conscious, until they gather behind a wall, mocking me. Ideas swoop in and out, never staying long enough to present themselves. Flickers of notions, here and gone before I can get my pen out. Not to be.

Sometimes the thought of trying to write another piece, no matter how short, leaves me paralyzed with fear. I try to start and can’t, and I convince myself that I will never finish another sentence again. I try to reach the words behind the wall, but they remain trapped, never to see daylight. The blank page screams in triumph, and I cower in defeat.

Often the exhaustion gets to me. Trying to form and finish a narrative against the backdrop of reality: extremely stressful day-job, long, soul-sucking commute, mortgage, bills, aches and pains, daily maintenance, feeding and watering. Some days it gets to me, and I give fleeting credence to the naysayers in my head, the voices screaming quit and rest.

But I can’t quit and rest, you see. Because I have no choice. Because I am so close to things happening and opportunities presenting themselves and my goal of self-sufficiency through the written word actually maybe, just maybe, becoming my reality.

I have no choice but to continue. So it starts with one word…one word interrupting the purity of the blank page…like a cheap run turning a 10-0 blowout into a 10-1 ballgame…one word leading to two…one thought connecting to another…

One thinker trying to connect with a thought (again)…

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All Images: Lewis Wick Hine via George Eastman House

I feel the rush.

I am securely on the ground, looking at the photography of Lewis W. Hine, but I feel it all: the rush of gravity at 1,000’, the rush of the wind at that inhuman height, the rush of America, reeling from depression but rising to unimaginable heights out of unprecedented lows. I feel the rush of greatness that comes from watching mere mortals doing extraordinary things, and I feel the rush of pride that says my people did this.

I see ordinary men, discounting their feats and fears. They mock gravity, traipsing untethered across 6” wide beams a quarter of a mile above the safety of the grounded Earth. They toss and catch glowing hot rivets in a dance for which they alone know the choreography. They pound, tighten, seal, hoist, pull, push and will the King of All Buildings into existence. And they think nothing of the heart-stopping danger, nor the exhilarating posterity of their work. It’s just a job. Just tryin’ to feed my family during hard times. The long-term impact of their work rushes past their short-term humility.

I see the building rise and I feel the shock of the times. 1930: The Great Depression, bread and soup lines, Hoovervilles in Central Park, no jobs, no hope. Hard times and hard, lean men desperate for work.

The building is financed by a shadowy, speculating CEO and chaired by the beloved former governor: John Jacob Raskob and Alfred E. Smith are the stuff of American biography themselves. 3,400 men find work at the nadir of American employment and spirit. The building rises to 102 floors, 1,250 feet, in 14 months. 4 ½ floors per week. It is ahead of schedule and under budget, with only five men lost during construction. This is our greatness. This is what my people – my fellow humans – can accomplish. This is the rush of Americanism.

And as the building rises it becomes an inextricable symbol of the zeitgeist. I hear Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” and see Scott Fitzgerald lamenting his Lost City and the Babe still hitting 40+ homers in pinstripes, still larger than life. I hear Ellington and Langston Hughes and Woody Guthrie and see Alfred Stieglitz and Ansel Adams. I see Chaplin the tramp and Errol Flynn and Astaire and Busby Berkeley. I see the greatness of American art in 1930 and 1931, and it all becomes a pastiche around the rush to the sky in the middle of Manhattan in the middle of the depression. I feel the rush, not just to recover, but to conquer.

I feel this rush of American Exceptionalism, now nearly a century old, and realize that there is nothing greater in the world.

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Lesson Number One: the metronome doesn’t care about you.

See that metronome there on the piano, class? It doesn’t give a crap about you! You could be having the worst day of your life, but the metronome doesn’t care. You could be swimming with herpes, but the metronome does not care. Flood, famine, pestilence? The metronome does! Not! Care! Set that thing to 120 beats per minute, and it IS 120 beats per minute. No wavering, no complaining: Just a ruthless, methodical 120 bpm straight down the middle.

Think about this, class! The metronome is one of the great levelers the world has ever known. It is democracy and justice. Balance and symmetry. That metronome doesn’t care if you’re black, white, green, whatever. All it cares about in this world is keeping tempo. It shows you what is and gives you the chance to succeed. And if you can’t keep up, well, that’s on you to keep trying. THAT’S democracy.

What’s great about the metronome is that it will LET you succeed. It will give you all the tools you need to pull yourself up by your bootstraps and get ahead. If you’re struggling with a passage at 160 bpm, you can slow it down and work on that phrasing until you get it nailed, and then speed it up until you get that nailed, and then speed THAT up. Try asking if you can slow down the production line at the factory so you can catch up!

And here’s something really cool: the metronome takes you in between the lines. See, class, rhythm isn’t notes: it’s the spaces in between the notes. The metronome is set, and it offers you the same exact space in between notes, over and over and over again. You can fill and synchronize those spaces all you want, and you’ll have unlimited chances to get it right. Because that metronome isn’t stopping and it isn’t going anywhere.

You will never have a more honest, even-handed friend in your life, class. That metronome right there is pure loyalty. It’s there for you, precisely because it doesn’t care about you.

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Image Source: Brian McGuire

I lie in bed in the dark trying to keep up with my hurtling thoughts. My wife sleeps beside me – sweetly, untroubled – backlit by the alarm clock. Occasional footsteps, growing fewer and fewer as the night goes on, rustle outside the window. The room is dark and still, except for the thoughts running away from me.

Can’t sleep…

The tempo of my thoughts is allegro.

FINally my music education pays off! Allegro: fast, quickly and bright. 120-168 beats per minute. Lively.

And WHY CAN’T I SLEEP?!?

The thoughts come fast and quick:

The water bill is due…then the hospital bill is due…MORTgage is due…and what was that RATTLING SOUND in the car?!?

I. Can. Not. SLEEP.

Midnight comes and I run the numbers in my head.

1:00 AM comes and I plan the payoffs. I write a check in my head for the mortgage and cringe. The heating oil truck pulls up in my mind for another delivery and I panic. I see the price at the pump in my thoughts and freak out.

NEED SLEEP!

How the hell did people afford to live before? The economy was so much different in the ‘50s, ‘60s, ‘70s…what happened to the middle class?!? WHAT ABOUT US?!?

I think and feel the worst and convince myself that it will never get better.

And then I think of my life and all at once it hits me and I realize that it IS better.

I remember I’m a stable married homeowner with a stable job and a stable life. I realize that we’re handling the expenses of life and we’re not breaking.

I think of where I was a decade ago. Back then I was alone and sleeping on a mattress. Back then I couldn’t imagine not having roommates or not being employed through a temp agency. Back then I was bouncing $300 rent checks and I couldn’t even think of eating out at nice places.

Tonight we had a hell of a nice dinner and talked of our coming vacation at the beach. And we’re making the mortgage and all the bills. I would NOT have been having this conversation back then.

It IS better…

I remember my breathing exercises from therapy, and how much they help. I train myself to slooooooowwwwwwww my breathing – and with it my thoughts – from allegro to adagio.

Ah hah! Adagio: slow and stately (literally, “at ease”). 66-76 beats per minute. Sloooowwww, solemn. Definitive. My music education has paid off!

At ease. At ease I breeeeaaaaattttthhhhhheeeeeeee.

INNNNNhaaaaaaaaling pooositive. Hooooollllllding onnn to pooositive.

DAMN! The phone bill!

EXhaling negative. EXhaling negative. PUSHing out negative. PUSHing out negative.

And my student loan!

INNNNNhaaaaaaaaling pooositive. Hooooollllllding onnn to pooositive.

The bills will be there tomorrow. Let it goooooo tonight…

INNNNNhaaaaaaaaling pooositive. Hooooollllllding onnn to pooositive.

It IS better….

EXhaling negative. EXhaling negative. PUSHing out negative. PUSHing out negative.

NOTHing I can do about it now….so let it goooooooooo….

EXhaling negative. EXhaling negative. PUSHing out negative. PUSHing out negative.

NOTHing I can do about it now….so let it goooooooooo….

Let it gooooooooo and sleeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeep

My breathing slooooooows down my brain and body. Caaallllmmmmm and clarity befall the path of my thoughts. And I realize that I’m alllllright.

What can I do about that surprise bill at 2:00 AM? NOTHing. So let it gooooooo.
What can I do about that surprise bill at 9:00 AM? Pay it. And then it’s goooooone.

My thoughts slooowww to an adagio that I can carry about all day. Confident, controlled. At ease.

At. Eeeeaaaaaasssssseeeeeee…

It IS better.

It IS better…

The alarm clock glows 3:00 AM. My wife sleeps on, undisturbed. I exhale. Adagio. I inhale. Adagio.

And then? I sleep.

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fire sky
Image Source: stephendun

The pain wasn’t explosive at first. It was more warm and beckoning. Passionate, even. Much more carmine red than cardinal. It wasn’t until I realized the pain and pulled my finger away from the burner that the hurt burst forth in fierce, angry agony. Lesson learned: the initial contact isn’t nearly as painful as subsequent or repeated contact.

It was the night of the All Star Game, 1982, and I was at my grandparent’s farm making Jiffy Pop for the Midsummer Classic. I was nine, and I remember staring at the orange/red coils and thinking, “what would happen if I put a finger on the burner?”

Not three years earlier, I was at the farm, on the back of our trailer with our Christmas tree, which we had just cut down from our own woods. I was sitting on the back of the trailer, by the right rear tire, while my grandpa drove the tractor and my parents walked behind. I was wearing my moon boots, and I remember staring at the tire and thinking, “what would happen if I put my boot on the tire?”

Broken collarbone.

I remember feeling the thud of hitting the ground, the wind hurtling from my body and a warm ache just under my neck. And then I was screaming and my mom and dad were running for me. Carmine to crimson.

My first sips of beer came from cans thrown away on Jacksonville Beach. You could always find an empty on the beach, and occasionally I would pick one up and take a pull. I showed one to my mom once, and she was horrified.

From there, I went undercover and graduated to sips of Jack at my friend’s parents’ house. These raids reversed the lesson. The first taste was explosive: pure tongue-tingling medicinal fire. But then, once you swallowed, the warmth spread. It was like swallowing the sun and feeling the beams slowly reach all over my body. Crimson to carmine. I liked this carmine.

I liked it a lot.

Most of my life has been spent, I now realize, in search of the inverse carmine. The pain becomes too much and I run for the beckoning warmth. I do it again and again, realizing that the warmth deceives, that warmth is also pain, and will lead to more and escalated pain.

Still, the lure of warmth holds the greatest sway. I seek warmth like the winter sunsets at the farm, and my parents and grandparents and their loving spirits.

Warmth like endless summer days when all I had to worry about was if we’d end up at Pizza Hut or McDonald’s after Tee-ball. Warmth like jumping in the hay in the barn and dreaming about girls and real electric guitars.

Who doesn’t want to be warm and safe?

Who cares that safety is a lie?

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Image Source: EListMania

September, 1986: I was freshly fourteen, freshly home in Maine after four years of Florida exile and ready to start eighth grade. I missed Maine like crazy, but I got used to the life of a pre-teen Florida beach bum/skate rat. Every day in Jacksonville was like a Cameron Crowe film, and I was straight out of central casting, bedecked with a devil-lock (nicely highlighted by fourteen bottles of Sun-in), surf and skate tees, Jimmy-Z’s skate shorts and violet Chuck Taylors.

My new Maine chums were, to put it mildly, a little taken aback by me. Walking into Sugg Middle School, Lisbon Falls, Maine, circa 1986, was like walking into a documentary about the Nixon years. I decided to dress up in a Cosby sweater for that first day. My classmates were all bowl cuts and bangs and jean jackets. I was listening to and skating to The Dead Kennedys, Black Flag, The Ramones and Agent Orange. Transportation for the rest of the class revolved around the most extreme engines on two or four wheels, and the Maine airwaves were filled with Grace Slick and John Kay and Steppenwolf on the dinosaur station.

And there were only two feet clad in violet Chucks for many miles around.

It was September, 1986. Reagan and Gorbachev were staring each other down. The Red Sox were cruising in the American League East. The Beastie Boys, Robert Palmer and Don Johnson (sic) ruled the charts, and Who’s The Boss?, Growing Pains and ALF were must see TV.

I was fourteen and finally back home after four years of dreaming. And I was about to become a middle school pariah; a purple-wearing faggot.

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Happy 4th by Westbye
Happy 4th, a photo by Westbye on Flickr.

The eleven mile stretch between my grandparent’s farm and the town of Gardiner, Maine had several farms that featured their name on the barn. There was the MAPLE TREE FARM, which had a plank sign above the barn doors. Then there was the Chip Off The Block Farm, which was a red barn with the name and an Amish seeing-eye design painted on. But my favorite was the LENTY TO DO FARM. I never thought about what it meant to have Lenty to Do, or what it took to accomplish Lenty, and it certainly never occurred to me that perhaps a “P” had fallen off somewhere. It was the LENTY TO DO FARM, and that was that. No questions, nothing to see here.

As my grandpa whipped us past these farms in the Oldsmobile, I always wished we had a finger bar mower, just like the one on the tractor, attached to the passenger side. Grandpa would attach the mower to the tractor, lower it so its gruesome, pulsing teeth spread out six feet from the tractor and a foot above the ground, and drive out into the fields to mow the hay. I always pictured the mower on the car, destroying everything in its path: mailboxes, telephone poles, all the detritus of the sidewalk decapitated and laying in a swath of rural destruction at the hands of the Rocket Delta 88.

A trip to Gardiner meant a haircut for grandpa and getting toys at Wilson’s Department Store for my brother, grandmother and me. We would park next to the Kennebec River and walk up the stairs of the Arcade to Water St. The Arcade was narrow and rickety, and always smelled of musty river water, greasy paper plates with pizza slices in some form of forgotten decomposition and occasionally urine.

The toy section was upstairs at Wilson’s, and it was a magical world of Hot Wheels cars, car and airplane model kits, Diff’rent Strokes and Dukes of Hazzard coloring books and my favorite: Topps Baseball Sticker Albums with shiny stickers. And of course whiffle balls and bats for games on the lawn of the farm.

After doing our trading, as grandma would call it, grandpa got behind the wheel of the Olds and floored it home.

Some grandfathers sit on the porch and tell grandiose fishing stories. Some grandfathers play Bingo at the VA and volunteer for bean suppers. My grandfather drove like a maniac. Yelling at everything and nothing, dropping cigar ashes, eating…driving never deterred him from any of the above. Why so crazy? Temperament and more lax traffic enforcement, I guess. Why the hurry? Probably to make it home in time for the start of Another World. We always seemed to make it just in time.

I would sit in the back of the Delta 88, driving my new Hot Wheels across the bench seat, breathing in that wonderful cigar smoke, and plotting the destruction of rural Maine by hay mower as we pushed 60 in a 35. Anything that existed within six feet of the road was a goddamn goner. I probably would have spared the LENTY TO DO FARM, though. Whatever Lenty was, I didn’t want to have it to do.

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