Thursday, April 30, 2009

"Go ahead, you can laugh all you want, I've got my philosophy..."


Being involved in some sort of Boy Scouting program from ages five to twenty, I grew up with many slogans and mottos that helped cement my idealistic view of the world. "Be prepared" and "Do a good turn daily", along with the Scout Oath, Outdoor Code, and the twelve points of the Scout Law, were so drilled into me that I truly have tried to live my life to my best moral ability. I can't say I've always succeeded, but those who know me well will hopefully attest to my strong efforts.

Oddly, to me the most important of all of these seemed be "Take only pictures, leave only footprints." Around the age of ten when I first heard this phrase uttered, and long before I was a photographer, I knew it could also be understood on a deeper level. Not only does it provide a perfect visual to convey having a low impact on your physical environment, but the sentiment also works quite well for interpersonal relationships.

Whether one calls it a "butterfly effect", "six degrees of separation", or the military's often quoted "shit rolls down hill", the concept of our actions affecting more than just our immediate present is a universal concept. Even most religions and governments have at some level a foundation in a policy of empathy, treating others as you would like to be treated. Unfortunately, several of those also have a "thou shalt smite" clause as well, but that's a topic for another time.

The thing that is constantly on my mind, and I wish it were for more people, is that the effect our actions have on others, and what words we use to communicate ideas to others, can have lasting consequences. I'm not going to lie, the amount of effort it takes can be fairly exhausting, but I still try every day.

I know that if I talk to someone with low self-esteem and use the wrong words, I am often making their concerns worse. I also know that if I don't act immediately or with the proper enthusiasm with some people they will take it in a negative way, sharing that negativity inevitably with others. Yes, though I'm aware that its not my job to boost the world's ego or make everyone on the planet feel special, its also important for all of us to not add to the negativity out in the world. I honestly think that the lives we touch, and how we touch them, affect others, and those lives, others. What a wonderfully simplistic and idealistic notion it is that if we can take an extra second to think before we acted or spoke, we could create a better sense of harmony in our society.

I've written before regarding my disdain for speaking out of anger or hurt, and sadly we see it every day. Someone honks and flips you off while driving, which in turn makes you get upset and defensive. By the time you get to work you're holding a grudge, making your work environment testy and your coworkers frustrated. Then they take that mood home and it spreads exponentially. We've all been on both sides of this kind of story.

I'm not perfect. Thankfully, though there have been many people in my life who have convinced me that the effect I've had in their lives was exceedingly positive, the people who stand out most in my memory are the ones I failed. Whether through forethought or not, my actions, inaction, thoughtless words or deeds failed them in some way that had more of a consequence than I would have ever hoped or expected. Some of those things only came to my attention months or years after, as so often happens, and for some reason the time and distance never lessens the guilt or regret I have felt.

Again, yes, I realize these are "navel gazing" notions written from the perspective of someone who lives in a fairly comfortable life in a fairly comfortable middle-class world. I'm sure in Uganda or Zimbabwe I wouldn't have a second to be able to think this way. Still, a guy can hope.

When preparing for a long weekend Boy Scout hike, my dad always used to give us advice on loading up our backpacks, knowing we'd have to carry everything in and everything out over the course of miles on our developing shoulders. In discussing how heavy to make our packs, he'd always say "Worry about the small things, the large things will take care of themselves." Yet another slogan. To this day, I focus on the small things I think I can have some kind of effect on and let the large, out-of-control things take care of themselves.

Maybe the moral of this story is we should all take some time and go through a Scouting program. Then again...maybe not. Or, maybe we should all just listen to Ben Folds Five's "My Philosophy"...

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

And life goes on...


The neighborhoods I've lived in since going off to college have not always been the best. Whether I stood out due to my different race, language, or just lack of shared lifestyles, for the most part I've never been one to communicate heavily with my neighbors. Currently, the duplex I live in is sandwiched nicely between two winners. First, there's the Rage-aholic who I refer to only as the expletive which he yells out the most towards his ex-wife and daughter. Then, there's the house with the ever changing array of Mexican gangsters who are liable to either have a barbecue on their front lawn or start a fight there any given day, gambler's choice. The rest of the neighborhood is made up of mostly illegal immigrant workers who don't speak a lot of English and try to keep as low a profile as possible. Needless to say, though I love the inside of my place and its affordability, I don't feel as though I can really be understood by those around me, nor have I ever felt the need to be.

The one bright spot in the area for me has been a little black mutt of a dog which I have only ever referred to as "that scrappy little guy". His small size, mangy, matted coat, permanently injured right hind leg, and questionable breeding are all qualities that would not win him awards at Westminster. Still, I love that little guy. He hobbles around in the middle of the street happy as a clam, always up early to greet the day with a wag of the tail and a spring in three of his steps. He's always looked as if he's saying "Hey, buddy, how's it goin'? Gonna be a helluva day!", with my picturing his voice somewhere in that dark place between James Woods and Maurice Chevalier.

Though I don't know where he sleeps at night, he is always in the same area and is like our little neighborhood ambassador, greeting delivery men and police officers with equal excitement, who sadly often show up with equal frequency. His desire to remain in the street at least four feet away from the curb at all times is always a concern to me, but he seems pretty "street smart" and I try to believe he can handle himself as much as I'd like others to believe in me.

Another reason I like him is that he seems like a practical jokester. More times than I can recall I have been driving back home with a friend or model and they have seen him on his back, flopping wildly in the middle of the street. Their immediate reaction is of course that he's been injured, hit by a car. The truth though is often he basks in the glow of the afternoon sun, enjoying a prolonged scratch of his back on the warm asphalt with a big cat-chasing grin across his crooked little teeth. To add to the dramatic effect, he wriggles on his back continuously, lingering for thirty seconds or more as if to prolong the worry and agony of the concerned viewer. Eventually, the little guy snaps back on his feet, jauntily skipping along once again to parts unknown, looking refreshed and satisfied as the observer breathes a deep sigh of relief. I secretly imagine him peering from behind a car, deviously pleased with himself, thinking "Man, I really had that chick going for a second! Ha!"

I love that little guy. He's a symbol that reminds me to enjoy the simple pleasures of life, stay true to your nature, and smile at what the day brings you. Though I don't see him every day, nor do I know whom he belongs to, he's been a little bright spot for me on days when I've needed it.

Then, I left for work this morning. Imagine my shock and sadness when I saw him there in the middle of the street lying on his belly, not moving. At first, as so many times before, I assumed he was resting, or playing possum, about to spring up at any moment to give one of his little trademark grins. Alas, there was none.

The odds ran out, simple as that. Some reckless, speeding driver, of which our street has countless, probably clipped him and sped on without a second thought. I'd like to think he saw one last sunrise before the final moment, but who can say? Anyone who knows me is aware that I'm not a huge "pet-person", and though I like and respect animals, I've never been one to place my emotions for them any higher than for a favorite pair of shoes or random acquaintance. Still, that scrappy little guy has been on my mind all day.

Some call it callous of me to be able to take photos of sadness and death. My belief is that if we are to document the good times, it is just as important to remember the bad, which makes those happy times all the more special. I couldn't help but take a second and crouch down next to him in the middle of the street this morning, studying his features one last time hoping to remember every detail, knowing I wouldn't. Finally, I took a photo of him as I had always wanted to when he was alive, yet had never made the time to do so. When I came home from work this afternoon his body was gone, as if he never existed.

And that's what happens to us all. And that's why its important for us all to share these stories of lives, big and small, and thus I am. Rock on, little fella.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Peace and Clarity


The other night I had a wonderful conversation with a very dear friend. It was one of those talks that usually only happen late in the evening after everyone else has gone to bed and you're left with just the two of you. You sit around lazily on the softest piece of furniture possible and discuss anything and everything in a thoughtful, honest, and rational stream-of-consciousness kind of way. Afterward you feel warm and peaceful and indescribably relieved, always wishing you could engage in that type of discussion more often.

There are very few people that I can have these kinds of conversations with, and even fewer opportunities for those conversations to occur. Still, the power they have and the joy they bring, even when discussing not so happy topics, make them more than worth the wait.

The world is not an easy place in which to live. Thankfully, though I've had it much easier than most, we all have had to struggle against many trials and complications on a day to day basis. Some of us handle it with a bit more grace than others, and the things that each of us find comfort and refuge in, even on the smallest level, are of tantamount importance.

I've realized just how "together" I feel lately, as though some wave of calm and confidence has come out of nowhere and wrapped me up snuggly. Sure, I can still get frustrated and sad over a given situation, but I am also more at peace and patient in those moments now, both feelings that have never been easily attained goals in my life.

What has caused this new found sense of clarity is not entirely clear. I can point to several things in the last year that brought happiness and sorrow to my life, times of tough decisions and forced compromises, achievements and loss. There were many extremes that I thought I had experienced before, that I felt I would be completely prepared for, and yet wasn't at all. And I'm glad for that. Only by struggle, challenge, and pushing oneself can you find out what you are capable of. Even learning your limitations isn't a bad thing if it makes you more aware of what is possible and teaches you to prepare more than you did before.

I'm not saying I have all the answers, nor am I saying I know what will work best in the future. All I know is that I am at a place that I have always wanted to be, where I know I can handle myself in pretty much any situation and be everything I have ever been in that moment. I'd say that's a good thing.

I'll conclude with this to hopefully sum up what I've been trying to say:

There is a series of comic books titled "Moonshadow" by J.M. DeMatteis, where the main character, as an old man, retells a long and winding story of his life on what he calls his "Journey to Awakening". After countless tales about his travels, transgressions, and complicated experiences that cover many years, the story concludes with what he has been alluding to the entire time: the final, intense moment of clarity that shaped his understanding of life. What did he learn in the final moment? The narrator stops and says after a long pause and a smile, "Its been so long, I simply don't remember anymore," and happily dances away, playing his flute without a care in the world.

I think about that a lot.