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There is always this point in mid-November where I get a bit down. It is partially a reflection of my environment: it’s now downright desolate outside, the leaves have fallen and the trees are bare, frost has leveled most of the other plants, there is no snow yet but plenty of cold rain, and there is a marked decrease in daylight. The festive part of Autumn is over: the Halloween candy has been eaten, the moldy pumpkins reluctantly disposed of, and the ephemeral panoply of colors has seeped away (a few determined harvest-style wreaths and window dressings notwithstanding). It can’t be helped as I am the “sensitive artist” type, and therefore am profoundly affected by my surroundings.

The first couple holidays of my personal version of the Holiday Season – which runs from mid-October to January 2nd – have come and gone: our wedding anniversary on Oct. 26, Halloween and the Wife’s birthday on November 11, and there is a pause before its resumption. So next up is Thanksgiving – the BIG ONE, as far as I am concerned. During most of my adult life I have enjoyed it, and thus anticipated it, even more than Christmas.

First, it’s simple and requires minimal preparation. You have no gift-giving obligations, so you don’t have to worry about shopping for it, or even sending out greeting cards. You show up for the Main Event, eat, and then relax in a manner of your choosing. Expectations are muted for this holiday, so the potential for Disappointment is small (unlike Christmas or Valentine’s Day, for example). Second, at four days it is the longest weekend of the year. It’s position in the calendar is also fixed, unlike Christmas which “floats” (and if it falls on a Wednesday traveling out of town can become a real hassle). So this predictability means that everyone is pretty much doing the same thing on the same day. The result is you are even less rushed, and you typically have ample time to visit friends that you wouldn’t get to see over Christmas, where there are more relatives milling about, holiday concerts at school, religious observances of various sorts and so forth. So not only is there more time, but people’s schedules are emptier. That’s a clear win-win.

Thanksgiving is not shaping up to be as enjoyable as I hoped this year, but I still focus on it to revive my flagging spirits. In short, I’m thankful for a holiday about being thankful.

See? This is a fine example of cognitive behavioral therapy. I am writing myself out of a funk. I should try this more often.

Let's Revisit the Dark Side

And now, a trip down the rabbit hole...

If people only suspected the full scope and dark nature of the things bouncing around in my mind, they would no doubt be appalled. But for better or for worse, I am more “seasoned” now, like a piece of driftwood bleached by the sun: pure structure, austere and (outside this venue) strangely silent. My presence makes a statement, and the Wife supplies the rest, the caption and supporting annotation. I have perfected the blank look. I am much better at keeping the mouth shut, although with suitable provocation there are the occasional outbursts, and “accidents”. Hence the blog – some outlet is needed. This works out nicely for everyone.

Once I had sharp edges. But now I am more like river rock, the flinty ridges worn away, leaving a smooth, rounded, indistinct shape that can be easily trod upon without injury. And where before I dug in my heels and stood resolute, I can now be shifted by the currents. At work, this makes me a “team player”.

That’s OK. Beneath the lumpy exterior the core remains, like the crystalline treasures secreted in the depths of a geode. Oddly though, I am less brittle than before...

My tendency to avoid confrontation has been exacerbated by this evolution of character. When you don’t care as much, and begin to winnow out the not-so-important, it’s easier to adopt a live-and-let-live attitude. For example, I can wave to the neighbors, even though their drunken teenage son vomited on our driveway the night before, or their landscapers woke me up early on a Saturday morning with chainsaws. I am comfortable saying “I don’t know,” when I get inquiries that expose my ignorance, even if it is in my area of expertise. There is no diminishment to my manhood. I can disagree with people and be respectful about it (as long as they don’t dig into me). You can’t alter people’s outlooks, or the views they have formed following exposure to years of propaganda, skewed parenting, biased education and trite delusional rhetoric, no matter how forceful or rational your argument might be. It’s pointless to debate. It is enough not to condemn outright.

Though counterintuitive, I have become a Friend Of The People by having a low regard for my fellow man. The Wife says, “You don’t care what people think!” As if that was a bad thing. Just do whatever it is that you do, and leave me out of it, and everything will be just fine. Good Lord, I am starting to sound like a Libertarian!

I admit it, there was a time I reveled in cruelty. The cutting remark. The caustic observation that so smoothly fell off the tongue. Some men hunt game and savor the memories of the kill-shot, some slander their opponents in court for a princely fee, some twist the truth in the halls of power. For me a pithy insult just made my day. That still required other people for fodder, however, and thus mandated a dependency of some sort. Of what use is a mill without a steady supply of grist?

But now I can smile in the office, and it’s not fake. Now I can emit a jolly laugh, and it’s not forced. Previously I neither smiled nor laughed, because it wouldn’t have been genuine, and I abhor artifice.

I am now forced to conclude that people can change – on the top couple of layers, at least. But that swirling, murky realm where the fears and desires cavort with reckless abandon and where reptilian instinct dwells is intact. It’s just that the accretion of adult stuff is resulting in a more benevolent weighted average, you see. Maybe that is not so much change as it is growth. A is not transformed into B, but its characteristics are muted when (A+B)/2 = C.

For those who have known me in my younger, crazier days, when it was guaranteed that I would fly into a magnificent rage at least twice a week and who fear I have “gone soft”, I can assure you, the old Classic Me is still there. Perhaps he has been relegated to the chorus line, a bit too “long in the tooth” to play the leading man. But he is around if you care to look. So permit me to parade these monsters from the Id about for our mutual entertainment. They may offend, but they won’t bite.

November Morning

As I get out of my vehicle to go into the office, I briefly look up and note that the scene matches my mood. It's fitting to be in tune with nature...

Behold the Majesty of Gardening Implements!

I never thought that I would get into gardening. My years of indentured servitude (what others called their childhood) were witness to many landscaping chores in which I was an unwilling participant. I raked and mowed, transplanted shrubs, gathered up rotten apples, picked berries, weeded, and for several years every spring break I would be greeted by the arrival of an entire truckload of low-grade mulch, provided gratis by the city dump, the volume of which my mother had no doubt carefully calculated so that it would take me the entire week of my break to distribute it about the property. After all, idle hands are the Devil's plaything! Even now my indignation at the unfairness of it all is palpable.

This mound was so large, it was just shy of reaching critical mass – even in the middle of a sunny afternoon it would sit there, steaming and hissing, its interior host to its own exothermic processes. It probably emitted X-rays and possessed a strong magnetic field as well, just like Jupiter. But I digress.

Anyway, when it came time for me to purchase an abode of my very own, the pull of the Condo was difficult to overcome, mostly due to the above-mentioned aversion to yard work. But then, after about a year in that little brick ranch I ultimately purchased, I discovered something:

Aside from being a geneticist, gardening is the pastime in which we can get closest to being God.

This realization exhilarated me, although it came not by way of some heretical epiphany, but crept over me little by little – much like Alzheimer's.

Within the confines of my yard I am astride the flower bed like a Colossus. My gloved hand is the Hand of Fate. To some flora I am a beneficent, nurturing entity, but to other species I stalk the land like the Black Death. Entire populations are wiped out, while others are tended to with gentle care. The spray from the garden hose is a blessing to all, while the foaming RoundUp application is a curse of the worst kind. I supply the conditions required for my chosen to flourish, be it selecting a location that provides the necessary amount of sunlight, to amending the soil to alter the pH or supplement its nutrients. I decide who gets to live, and who dies, who gets to propagate, and who must be content with their lot.

I pruned the hell out of the hawthorn tree near the patio so that I could say to the plants previously eking out a precarious existence below: "let there be light". I staged my own Exodus by moving the irises en masse from the northeast corner of the house to the Promised Land on the opposite side of the backyard. And like Jehovah's vow to Abraham concerning his descendants, after I carefully placed the wood hyacinths in several areas I said that they would one day be "as numerous as stars in the heavens," a prophecy admittedly exaggerated, but still poetic.

Like most of the deities conceived by the ancients and worshipped in temples across the cradle of civilization, I am not all-powerful. Furthermore, I can't be everywhere – so things escape my notice. One noxious specie's persistence might outlast my own will. Vermin may consume my favorite columbine, or decapitate the Rembrandt tulips just as they achieve their full glory.

But when you spend the bulk of each day housed in a gray cloth-covered box slavishly obeying the dictates of architects and project managers, being elevated to such stature is heady indeed. And though I am brought low once more when I enter the house and am given a new set of chores by the Wife, for that brief period of time I feel expansive, sagacious and puissant.

Change - It's More Grisly Than You Know

Every time the presidential election season begins to heat up, there’s a lot of talk about “change”. But the nature of the change in question does not interest me.

I’m not one to alter things without ample reason. I can leave my furniture in the same place for seven years and never feel the itch to rearrange it, or drink the same hazelnut-flavored coffee every Sunday morning, or even continue to listen to cassettes of classic rock tunes I compiled way back in the 80’s (I have no shame, obviously). I rarely succumb to whimsy. You make a decision, and then move on. Life is best lived with a system in place. Nothing productive comes out of chaos. Put another way: achievement is not accidental. For example, when I moved into my house I spent two years working on it without respite, sacrificing precious free time on the altar of Future Comforts, but once I got to the end of that road, I was done. And liberated (relatively). Except now, nine years later the Wife is talking about repainting the living room...(but that's another story).

I’ve known others that can’t help but tinker with things around them endlessly. Maybe they are perfectionists. Maybe they need distractions, or they actually enjoy the process of effort. Me, I like the product. If I could skip directly to that, I would be just as content. Take painting, for example – one of my passions. Often I find painting arduous, fraught with technical burdens that suck the fun right out of the pastime. But the vision of the final product sustains me.

If I have convinced you I am not merely indolent, I can move on to what I really want to talk about. For if you can free yourself from distractions, you can be more aware of what is important, vital and ultimately nourishing. So how can one attune oneself to the barely perceptible hum of the profound?

Choice is a major distraction. Read the “The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less” by Barry Schwartz and you’ll see what I mean. My reasoning is that if you can plot a course among the minutiae of everyday life that is basically satisfying and then set cruise control, you are relieved of certain burdens that free up other intellectual resources. What you choose to do with them is your concern.

Me? I will observe, evaluate, and act when the time is right.

Sometimes I get the sense that there swirls great power about us of which few are aware, and its method of working is comprehended by even fewer. How much in Life is unfolding, accumulating, marshaling, coiling to strike? There are trends, and movements, and processes Out There that subscribe to arcane rules that are completely devoid of pity. And not to be mystical, but I suspect the signs are there for those who can see. I'm not claiming there is an intelligence behind it - it might be like a vast mechanism, where power is being stored and won't be released until it is time for the Big Event to transpire.

Meanwhile, back on the Terran ranch there are rice shortages, melting glaciers, forest fires, rupturing water mains, cornfields being diverted from people to ethanol plants, corrupt elections, impotent peacekeepers, self-righteous bureaucrats, exponential birthrates, a rising techno-class of Asiatics that will surpass us American slobs in another decade, invasive species choking out indigenous life, invasive migrants choking out Western culture, and somewhere in some stinking jungle, some super-bug that is no doubt poised to wipe us out - which a few myopic oligarchs will find a way to obscenely profit from.

It’s man against man, man against nature, man against himself.

So say you know this – big deal. One could reasonably say – what are you going to do about it? I would reply – what could you possibly expect me to do about it? One enlightened man alone is a black hole. Everything is taken in, but nothing escapes. An ex-colleague of mine says he has his guns, and “when the time comes, I’ll be in the basement, and they can come and get me!” Me? I have always said that I want to meet the End of All Things face-to-face. As if I should be so lucky. Common indeed is the generation that exhibits the towering narcissism required to believe that it will be the one to be victimized by The End. Doubtless, our little blue world will just limp on, stumbling towards the state of maximum entropy that the laws of Thermodynamics demands.

This is the sort of stuff that burdens my mind when I am left unoccupied for too long.

Quote of the Day

A friend of mine was wondering aloud on FB if he was being lazy or efficient by putting his coffee maker in his office so he doesn't have to get up when he needs coffee. This inspired me to craft the following adage:

Efficiency is merely laziness with directed purpose.

I am getting better at this brevity thing. I can "do profound" almost on command, but I have to labor to achieve pithiness.

Of course, in a way this is a variant of the venerable chestnut "work smarter, not harder."

Seasonal Ambience

I didn't even pass out candy last year, and the year before that was a dud due to rain (today's kids are so fragile!), but this year I am trying my darnedest to have some Halloween cheer, even though it feels very 11th-hour (work, how I resent thee!). Here's a sampling of my pumpkin carving prowess...

Martha Stewart, eat your heart out.

Lost In The Woods

After years of intensive study of the works of Maxfield Parrish, I produced several oil paintings using a reasonably passable simulation of his style. This is essentially the apotheosis of my efforts. The young woman is based on a photo I took - a friend of mine who modeled for me once way back in 1998, believe it or not, and I hung on to the resulting stack of photos for almost a decade before using any in a painting (I have quite a few ideas for compositions in the queue!).

The sense of misty depth achieved by multiple thin layers of zinc oxide was effective, if not as cleanly executed as I would have preferred. I am still quite taken with the richness of color and the implied textures of bark and stone, but after this painting I decided to step away and abandon this technique for the foreseeable future - the detail work required for the [monochrome] griselle is too time-consuming.

But I did capture the mystical wonder and trepidation that one experiences when placed in an arboreal fantasy out of a fairy tale. What could be up ahead - a witch, ogre or Chesire cat?

The camera couldn't capture all the detail, so I zoomed in a bit and took a closeup so there would be better resolution on the face. Please note that as the painting is not large by any means, the head is actually smaller than a postage stamp! (My 000 brush got quite the workout.)


More Fall Grandiosity

My view of the neighbors across the street:

Of course, it sucks that I'm busier at work than I have been at any point this entire year and can't actually savor any of this, but still, I can grab a tranquil 5-10 minutes here and there.

An Absence of Grace

I was listening to the radio in the car on the way from work and John Cleese was being interviewed on public radio’s “Fresh Air”. We have a lot in common: we are both tall, he’s British – I want to be British, and he’s pretty funny – while I’m absolutely hilarious. But it turns out we also have the same mixture of dexterity and ungainliness. Cleese mentioned how he had always been very good with his hands but completely graceless otherwise; for example, dancing has always been an impossibility for him. Despite - or because – of this, he managed to turn this awkwardness into a rich vein to mine for physical comedy.

I am exactly the same way. My hands can work wonders, be it with pen, brush, guitar, knife, or tool. But coordinating my various extremities in order to dance, or make a layup in basketball or swing a golf club to effect a long/straight drive off the tee is never going to happen. I even know what my limbs should be doing, but exerting the necessary control to enable them to perform in concert eludes my grasp. To be sure, I have never been described as clumsy. If anything, I am extremely sure-footed. I’m careful by nature and have acute situational awareness, so I never fall, bump into anything (unlike the Wife, who is so frequently covered in bruises that strangers surreptitiously pull her aside in public to ask if “she is in a safe environment”), rarely drop objects or lose control of them.

I didn’t finish listening to the interview because I had arrived at my next destination, which was my fitness club. By strange coincidence while I was lifting weights I noticed an elegant woman I had never seen there before executing these sinuous dance moves in a wooden-floored portion of the gym. Clad in a black leotard with high heels, she twisted and twirled and arched seamlessly. I surmised she was practicing a routine for ballroom dance – perhaps for a competition. She was obviously quite good, and I had to restrain myself from staring at her. This was no stilted, rarified artifice like ballet. This was poetry in motion, and as natural as it was complex. Such fluidity made her seem almost otherworldly; an elven visitor bringing a touch of eldritch randomness to an otherwise mundane tableau as she sashayed about while exhibiting the meditative intensity of a Dervish.

I once watched a show about Fred Astaire and I recall how one person described how everything he did – every action, however trivial or everyday was done in a graceful manner. It was claimed that he could just walk into a room, sit in a chair, reach into his pocket and pull out a cigarette in a way that was a joy to witness.

There’s a word that describes such skill. It is what the ancient Greeks termed “excellence”.

My movements are efficient, and being a bit more indolent with middle age, typically economical. But it’s rare that I can honestly say that they are remotely graceful. For some reason, thinking about all this shamed me just a little bit – because I knew that I was capable of more, but was not living up to my potential.

In times past, before I necessarily became preoccupied with more pressing matters, I made an effort to cultivate excellence in almost everything I did, whether it was brewing a cup of coffee, writing a check to pay a bill, or pruning my plants or a thousand other things generally and appropriately considered drudgery. I was raised to not cut corners and to always strive to do one’s best, and this is a sound philosophy to set one on the road to attaining Excellence. Like Hercule Poirot, I derived a certain pride and satisfaction from being able to make my surroundings “just so”, to have tasks carried out in a certain way – the proper, right way. But I have had a lapse in outlook and effort, it seems. Nowadays I am fortunate if results are “good enough”. The grind of Life and its various travails has rendered me a lesser version of What Might Have Been. Someday I shall summon the resolve to struggle towards the beckoning summit again. But first I would require a less harried and more tranquil existence.