Saturday, October 23, 2010

Save the Humans!

At present, I sit perched atop a rock formation a few hundred feet above a crystal blue mountain lake nestled deep in the San Bernardino National Forest. It’s a crisp, clear, autumn day. The smell of dark, rich oak; musky woodland earth; and sweet butterscotch (from the bark of the Jeffrey Pines) form an intoxicating blend, each alternating in strength and distinction with every passing breeze. The sun shines warm on the back of my shirt while the wind chills my neck, nose and hands. Winter has sent cool, fresh oxygen ahead to scout the landscape. The brisk air burns my nasal passages as I breathe in a bit too deeply. And, instead of taking the opportunity to truly enjoy my surroundings, to draw on the inspiration presented by the muse of God’s creation—inspiration to meditate, pray, write, rest; I find myself derailed, thoughts hijacked by a plastic water bottle. Here, along the woodland trail, someone has discarded a water bottle. While I want to believe this was inadvertent, an old tennis shoe abandoned on a rock a few feet back has already set my mind’s course in the opposite direction.

I place the garbage in my day pack and push ahead, trying to refocus and enjoy the afternoon. I find a secluded spot away from the main trail and begin to read. Half an hour slips by. I watch chipmunks dart blithely in and out of the rocks around me. It's cold in the shadows—the cleft of the rock where I have been sitting. I set out further into the woods in search of a sunnier site. No sooner have I escaped the solitude of my boulder fortress than I literally trip on a second water bottle; a synthetic blemish conspicuously marring the forest floor.

Now, I’ve never spray painted a fur coat or picketed the G.M. Corporation for producing gas guzzling sport utility vehicles. I don’t have solar panels on my roof. I don’t limit my wardrobe to natural fibers. I don’t post the photos of the latest puppy up for adoption at the local shelter on my facebook profile. “Not that there’s anything wrong with that...” I’m just not that guy. Even so, I love granola. I can frequently be found camping or hiking or biking. I often spend hours exploring tide pools or photographing coastal wildlife. I hate wearing shoes. I love the mountains and the ocean and the desert. I enjoy sleeping outside under the stars. (I took my oldest son camping in the inner gorge of Grand Canyon, just he and I, when he was only seven years old.) I recycle. I bring my own bags to the grocery store whenever possible...

I connect with God most freely when I am surrounded by the beauty of His creation. I’m overwhelmed by the intricacy and balance—the plenary perfection in His design. I’ve learned more of who He is and who I am in environments such as these. For a long time, stumbling upon vandalism or reckless abuse would make me angry. I’d feel robbed—somehow victimized by another person's thoughtlessness; another person's selfishness. But, anger is rarely a healthy motivator. Going deeper, I can’t help but acknowledge that the agenda behind this kind of emotion is ultimately just as narcissistic.

I could tell you that the water bottles and the abandoned footwear and the graffiti on the majestic, fifty foot rocks at the top of this trail all rob me of the enjoyment of the natural beauty around me. And, honestly, it is, for me, a bit like an air-horn in the middle of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto for strings. But, who am I that these things should be mine to enjoy? Why am I at the center of this argument? Am I the victim? Really?

Please understand, I am not advocating for the chipmunks or oak trees or Jeffry Pines (though that might not be a bad thing). And, I do see how nature is often victimized by humanity. But, how much more often is humanity victimized by itself? Today, as I sit here, I can’t help but wonder “who we think we are?”

You see, on my way here, I passed through a construction zone where crews are building a new bridge/dam over the lake. Large portions of rock had to be carved away to accommodate the new road. Metal anchors protrude from the boulders to hold the elements in place. But, perhaps most disturbingly, there is a portion of the rock facing that has been reconstructed—fashioned out of concrete to give a more “natural” look to the cliff wall along the man-made path. So, now we are synthesizing nature?

I hiked this same trail with my family a couple of weeks ago. At the top, colorful moss adorns the underside of a large rock formation. My youngest son asked me who painted the rocks. It wasn’t that he had no context for understanding the limitless colors and variations of organic life. It's just that my family is constantly exposed to the graffiti laden urban area in the valley below. He has become accustomed to the defacement and subsequent cleanup (smeared residue or patches of rolled paint) of freeway overpasses and abandoned buildings. The “tagging” at the top of the trail, around the corner from where we stood, just further confirms his suspicion that someone has painted these rocks.

When did nature become unnatural? Is our life so full of simulation that we are unable to distinguish between the real and the synthetic? Maybe someone left their tennis shoe on the rock because it didn’t seem all that wrong or out of place. After all, the last time they were sitting on a "rock" adjusting their shoe was on the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland or outside the Rainforest Café that anchors the southeast entrance of the mall. Maybe the individual didn’t notice they were leaving their water bottle behind because the synthetic has become so commonplace among the natural. Is that possible? Are we losing the ability to make these important differentiations? If so, what does that say about our ability to understand ourselves and others? Are other vital areas of discernment lost on us as well—the kind of distinctions that feed our appreciation of one another? Are we able to distinguish ourselves from God? Do we want to? Using Hollywood motion picture set tricks to even out part of the rock wall along the highway is just an innocuous enhancement, right? What are the broader implications in my relationships, my education, my faith? How do we keep from becoming disillusioned or even jaded when the Divine has become so inscrutably intertwined with humanity—when the dangerously dynamic God has been replaced by a more manageable static version? The angst I often feel at the intersection of identity and spirituality expands in the vacuum created by these unanswered questions.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Get the "lead" out

It’s been a while since my last post. Sorry about that. This has been an extremely busy summer. Among other things, my family and I moved from the valley to a home in the nearby mountains—which, consequently, leads me to my thought for the day.

A couple of weeks ago, early on a Sunday morning, we were driving “down the hill” and, as is often the case, we found ourselves in a winding line of cars accordioned together by a slow vehicle in the lead.

The shortest route connecting our small town to the valley below is a two lane, state highway. There are four, brief segments over the fourteen mile stretch where the road widens, providing an opportunity for motorists to pass slower vehicles. In addition, there are dozens of “turn-outs” along the road. Signs are posted, encouraging slower motorists to use these “turn-outs.” Funny, no matter how long the line of cars behind them, few of the slower drivers seem to recognize that these signs refer to them.

There we are, riding our brakes down the twisting mountain road, praying the hunter green minivan in the lead will take the not-so-subtle hint. Alas, no such luck. So, we wait in restless anticipation for the next passing lane. Sadly, however, if one finds oneself more than two vehicles behind the lead car, the chances of passing the offending tortoise are sketchy at best. Hairpin curves and steep grades present a worthy challenge even for the most skilled drivers. Often, only a vehicle or two break away. The remaining seven jockey aggressively in a 20 second free-for-all, eventually settling into a new, but equally frustrating configuration.

A small, white sedan that had been veraciously tailgating our minivan pied piper eagerly passed at the first opportunity. I watched in envy, fully expecting the car to slip quietly away into the serpentine distance. On the contrary, we watched in head-shaking resignation as the sedan settled into a pace negligibly different than that of the minivan. I might have been surprised if I hadn’t witness the same phenomenon countless times before.

As the noxious stench of burning brake pads wafted inexorably through the morning air, I thought to myself, “dissatisfied followers make lousy leaders.” How many people make it a life theme to discredit, defame, second guess, and work around those out-in-front? But, when granted the reigns, either by gift or by coups, they demonstrate a keen lack of innovation or meaningful direction.

A few miles ahead, our not-so-merry band of travelers caught up to another small string of vehicles, held captive by a large RV. The driver of the behemoth, more considerate than many, pulled over into a suitable turn-out and the now lengthy parade of motorists made their way past. Both cars that had initially been trapped behind the RV resumed a tempo quite a bit brisker than the white sedan had previously maintained. You guessed it! The driver of the white sedan began hugging the tail of his leader—exercising the tenacity of a would-be revolutionary, desperate to triumph over his malicious oppressors.

The simple truth is that most people—in spite of all the complaining, the character aspersions, the social tailgating—need a leader to follow; an official pace car, if you will. It’s much easier to apply the pressure than it is to deal with it. Ask Governor Schwarzenegger.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Literary Roulette

It’s not that there are no words waiting to emerge from the blank page before me. Alas, there are too many words; too many thoughts; too many emotions. Most are worthy of contemplation. Few are worthy of prose.

I recently saw a clip from the 80’s hit television show, The Golden Girls. Betty White’s character, true to course, launches into some inane tale from her childhood. Estelle Getty’s character responds. “What an injustice! Hemingway ran out of stories to tell and shot himself. She just keeps on going!”

Tonight, I find myself caught somewhere between St. Olaf and The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

A picture's worth...

…about 39¢ at the Kodak photo kiosk.

I spend a lot of time at the beach—biking; kayaking; exploring tide pools; enjoying the sun, sand, and surf. The family and I went whale watching a couple of weekends ago. We’ve been a number of times, each trip a unique adventure. From late January through mid April, California Gray Whales migrate from the warm waters of the Baja Mexico peninsula (where they breed) to the food rich waters of the Arctic.

On a two hour expedition, it is a treat to see one or two of the exquisite mammals. On this particular outing, we were privileged to follow three whales for over an hour. Seeing the Gray Whales fluke (a dive fully exposing the large, powerful tail) is also no guarantee. We saw the trio fluking more than half a dozen times.

I took our old beater, 2.0 megapixel, digital camera on the trip. When we would see a whale crest the blue-green waters on the horizon, I would rush to the side of the boat and snap feverishly, desperate to capture the moment. I kept thinking of people I wished were there with us—family friends who would love this experience. I hoped the photos might inspire them to plan their own expedition. Even more, I wanted to capture the wonder and remember the connection I felt with creation. On occasions like these, my petty problems are swallowed up by a glimpse at the enormity and beauty of God; showcased in this breathtaking work of art we call Earth. These are among the lean but precious moments that grant pause to my otherwise evanescent existence.

Once home, I couldn’t wait to view the photos. The images staring back at me from the screen failed to meet my expectations. I wasn’t surprised by the poor quality. My disappointment and frustration had little to do with the inferior results. Even with the very best technology, the photos were destined to miss the mark.

I grabbed a great shot of my wife leaning against the port bow, the late morning sun warm on her face. But, there was a young boy behind her in the shot. Not one of my children. A stranger. I honestly don’t remember him being in the frame. So, I used my finely tuned photo editing skills and extremely expensive software to simply remove him from the photo. After the expedition was over, we went on a hike up the coast, investigating tide pools and exploring caves carved out by centuries of waves crashing against the rocky shore. I took a photo of the stony coastline. On the left hand side of the frame, a couple stands near the ocean cliff. I somehow overlooked them in my viewfinder. In fact, I don’t recall them ever being there at all. Again, a little computer magic, and they were gone.

Not long ago, we celebrated a good friend’s birthday by going to see jazz singer, Jane Monheit, at a club in Hollywood. She is a favorite of mine and I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to have her sign a CD and pose alongside me for a photo. After a few weeks of displaying the picture as taken, I cropped Jane out, did a little photo manipulation, and used the headshot as my profile icon on a social networking sight.

A friend commented: “You're playing with Baudrillard's notions of simulation/simulacra quite a bit here...”

My reply: “Is that the notion that reality doesn't exist; that humanity has reduced everything to a mere simulation of reality? If so, I'm not entirely certain I disagree— with the theory or how it may relate to this photo. [written with a sly grin]”

Her response: “Yes, this is a simulation of ‘you’ - the simulation is even furthered by merely taking a picture... copies of copies... =)”

On principle, I am not one for revisionist history. I like to think I remember (or at least strive to remember) things as they were, not as I want them to have been. However, I realize that my understanding of “how things were” was then and still remains limited to my perspective, my values, my focus. I manipulated the photos to better serve as a reflection of my memory of the outing. One may argue that, in doing so, I altered reality. But, alas, in truth, it is my experience, my perceived reality I want to immortalize.

I trust the images I capture with my camera to spark memories of the experience. I see the photos and suddenly I can smell the ocean. I feel the breeze. My muscles recall the difficulty of the rocky terrain. I feel the cool of the water filling my boot as I misstep in an ocean cave. I hear the seagulls overhead and the crash of the waves against the shore. I feel the rocking of the boat, the smooth wood of the starboard rail, and the softness of my wife’s hand in mine. I hear Ms. Monheit’s warm, sultry tones— the fragrance of wine rich and heavy in the air.

But, sharing my photos with you, providing a soundtrack, simulating a fragrance, adjusting the temperature… regardless of the accuracy of the images, no matter how multisensory the replication; I cannot give you my experience.

My grandparents used to travel a lot. They would fly off to exotic places and visit people and things I had only read about or seen on television. My siblings and I could hardly wait to see what souvenirs they might bring. We would pour through their photos. (My grandmother was notorious for cutting people’s heads out of the frame.) We would listen to them talk about their adventures. It was enough to wet my appetite for such experiences but, sadly, it would be some time before I had the freedom or resource to taste them myself.

A number of years ago, my family and I drove down highway 101 in Los Angeles for the first time. I saw the murals that had been painted on the freeway wall in preparation of the 1984 Olympics. I remembered them from my grandparents’ photos. In context, they were nothing like what I had imagined those many years before. The amazing thing was not seeing them for myself, it was sharing them (along with my childhood memories of the idea of them) with my own children.

In the next few weeks I will be spending a good deal of money upgrading my camera. I am excited about the notion of capturing the beauty of the world around me with a higher level of excellence. I thoroughly enjoy photography as art. I am a graphic design hobbyist largely because I enjoy sharing ideas and emotions through visual expression. But, life is not a scrapbook. It is not a collection hanging in a gallery. And, if I wish to really taste it and smell it and feel it and know it… I must do so by personally engaging life’s subject matter. If I want those I care about to enjoy the benefits of my experiences, I must bring them on the journey. In the end, to see the whales —I mean to really know what they look like— you can’t log on to my blog. You have to get on the boat.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

“You’re gonna make it after all!”

In 1970, Mary Tyler Moore starred in a runaway television hit bearing her name. Her character, Mary Richards, was a tenacious, independent woman in her thirties who exercised the personal strength and resourcefulness necessary to “make it” on her own in the big city. Breaking with the social convention of the day, she was the first single female character in television history not waiting or even looking for a man to marry and support her. She helped lead a cultural revolution to secure a professional place for women in what had been a man’s world. Ironically, Moore’s television stardom had been established by her role as Emily Post approved, stay-at-home wife and mother, Laura Petrie (“The Dick Van Dyke Show”).

Moore was not the first television actress to shed her archetypal, happy-homemaker persona. In 1962, iconic comedienne, Lucille Ball, traded in the puritanical Lucy Ricardo image to become Lucy Carmichael, a middle aged widow and mother of two. The show chronicled her adventures as she successfully, but inimitably navigated life as a single mother: first, in suburban Connecticut (with roommate Vivian Bagley, a divorcée with one son), and later, living on her own in Los Angeles.

In 1975, Norman Lear introduced us to George and Louise (Weezy) Jefferson; a successful, upwardly mobile, African-American couple holding their own in the Anglo-American dominated world of business and semi affluent society. The show, by far the most successful spin-off of Lear’s “All in the Family,” would continue for a total of eleven seasons, making it the longest running series in American television history to feature a predominantly African-American cast. This paved the way for the incontrovertible success of “The Cosby Show” (premiering in 1984), which ranked first in Nielson ratings for five consecutive seasons and opened the door for an explosion of African-American centered series like “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” “A Different World,” “In Living Color,” and “Family Matters.”

In 1998, NBC gave us “Will & Grace,” a show whose creators and cast were outspokenly dedicated to normalizing homosexuality in middleclass America.

But, this is not a post about social breakthroughs in media or the impact of television on civil rights. And, though I often use this forum to discuss the intersection of faith and culture, I will refrain from expressing my less than amiable views concerning the extreme fundamentalist argument that our world began to spiral out of control when women left the home or that corporate American media is driven by a liberal, anti-God agenda. Those targets are far too easy and the arguments a wasteful diversion. Instead, I want to speak to the universal social value demonstrated in what seems to be a recurring theme in small screen theatrics.

“Don’t tell me what I can’t do.” My fellow “LOST” addicts will recognize the John Locke mantra. But long before actor Terry O’Quinn uttered the phrase, it had already served as anthem for centuries of epic hero stories—fables, poetry, art, music, literature, cinema, television, on and on it goes.

I thoroughly enjoyed the Super Bowl this year. I’m not much of a football fan. I’ve been known to take in a good college game now and then, but I cannot honestly say I’ve ever watched an entire professional league game. This year was different. It wasn’t that I suddenly developed a greater appreciation for the sport. It was the circumstance I found engaging.

My wife was born in Louisiana. I know firsthand how diehard Saints fans can be. I also know how much of a joke the team has been to the rest of the NFL. When they earned their place in the Super Bowl opposite the Colts, I posted the following as my facebook status: “It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine.” When the big game finally came around, I found myself cheering for the unlikely franchise. Not out of allegiance to my wife or her family, not out of pity or hope for the underdog— I rooted for the Saints because I love a good upset. It is not so much that I want to see the little guy win as it is that I enjoy seeing the self-assured, big guy get taken down a notch or two.

I laughed. I actually laughed out loud and for a long time when I heard that little-known Republican state legislator, Scott Brown, won Edward Kennedy's old seat in the US Senate. I was curiously ecstatic— not because or in spite of his political affiliation, rather because it seemed the people of Massachusetts went to the polls muttering, "don't tell me what I can't do."

There was something incredibly satisfying when my son’s U12 soccer team (who, consequently never won a single game in regular season play) knocked the number one ranked team out of the regional finals. When the odds are stacked against you, it feels good to have a little “don’t tell me what I can’t do” (a la Lucy, Mary, George, Will, or Locke) rise up from deep inside.

But, it occurs to me that maybe, just maybe, this attitude has so permeated our sense of self and the social constructs of the average American community that we root for the underdog just to see the big guy fall. We simply can’t stand the thought that someone else gets to be right. But, just because someone or something is “wrong,” does that mean any opposition is “right” by default? Who decides? Before the battle, “sic semper tyrannis!”— but, what happens once Caesar is dead? You see, now the New Orleans Saints are the big guy to be beaten. Vindication rarely evens the playing field. Most often, all it does is rearrange the players.

While international and domestic equity assurance policies (e.g. Affirmative Action) are unquestionably noble in theory, in practice, they often seem to do little more than restack the deck. I’m not crying “reverse discrimination” here. I am simply pointing out that, when the dust settles, someone still wins and another still loses; someone gets the job and someone doesn’t.

I guess what I’m wondering is, from whence do our convictions come? Are they our own? Or, are they simply the opposite of what we perceive our enemy’s agenda to be? “Don’t tell me what I can’t do!” When did we make the world about proving everyone else wrong? And, what does that say about humanity? Not everyone is right for every job. Not every team has what it takes to win the Super Bowl. Not every single (or single-again) man or woman is built to navigate life on their own. What makes us think that “on our own” is somehow better? And, while we certainly shouldn’t stack the odds against one another because of race, gender, religious conviction, marital status, and the like; anger and frustration and “don’t tell me what I can’t do” seem to lead to a mere shifting of the players and voices. Is this, ultimately, how we settle the issue of inequality? Is this the path to lasting peace? How many regimes must fall? How many leaders do we overthrow? How many amendments do we make? How many T.V. shows does it take?

Without argument, there are inhumanities that must be ended. There are egregious abuses to be redressed. This is not about acquiescence to oppression or a justification for tyranny. Even so, in the end, Mary Richards’ most formidable opponents were her own personal demons. She didn’t have to “stick it to the Man” to be happy. Lucy found the greatest joy among her friends and family, not in triumph over those she thought were her enemies. George and Weezy faced many of the same domestic and relational issues I grapple with daily, despite the differences in the color of our skin. Ironically, while Will and Grace boldly confronted unjust social generalizations and unmerited hatred, one petty quarrel would rob their characters of years of friendship. As for John Locke? ...well, I guess we’ll soon find out where “don’t tell me what I can’t do” gets him. Still, I cannot help but think there must be a better way. Maybe.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Meus Bonus Pars: The Lost Episodes

Those of you who actually follow my blog with some regularity (or should I say both of you?) will notice that both this and the entry dated February 20 only just appeared today, March 13th. Confused? I often begin entries as inspiration strikes and then save the unfinished works as drafts until I have sufficient time to revisit them. (At present, there are at least four unfinished drafts waiting in cue.) While it is my intention to post here at least once a month, there are times when the "to do" list of life becomes brutal and the unshaped thoughts are left on the cyber-shelf. Furthermore, I will often take independent bits and pieces and fold them into a single post or add them as support to a burgeoning thought line. Some drafts may never become published pieces in any form.

So, when a post appears here, the date/time stamp usually represents the moment when the writing process began and may or mayn't reflect the publish date and time of the work. Sorry for the confusion. And yes, I wrote this entire entry just so I might have cause to use the contraction "mayn't."