‘To be born again.’
Van Morrison, Astral Weeks.
The drive south down Highway 880 past the shit treatment plant, then alongside of the port of Oakland and towards it’s much less than special downtown skyline, past the airport and finally into the always scintillating suburb of San Leandro is not particularly pretty or inspiring. Neither is the eventual destination. Doing the drive in a tiny red Alfa Romeo convertible makes it intimidating as well. This crowded road serves as the main artery south from the port. It is filled with large semis pulling 40 foot containers of imported goods, just getting started on their respective voyages, running late, hyped up on who knows what, driving fast and hard and in a real hurry. With one mistake any one of those huge trucks could crush my little red sports car in one moment of inattention and turn us into a coke can. Add the condition of the road, as bumpy as the economy and seemingly with no budget to fix even a pothole, a steady stream of projectiles hurling upwards and you get the picture. It is not pretty. If that isn’t enough, there is the Alfa’s hard, no make that jarring ride, the result of worn shocks and 20 year-old foam in the seats and you have a bracing Tuesday morning road trip. Wearing a bandage that covers my left eye doesn’t help my peripheral vision as I navigate and the sharp residual pain behind my knee felt with every shift shouldn’t help my mood.
The view is as inspiring as the condition of the road. A series of decaying brick buildings line both sides of the interstate in various states of repair along with deserted rail yards and grey concrete BART tracks. These are vistas that would be common heading south into New Jersey from Manhattan, not here in precious Northern California. It is a long way from the Golden Gate Bridge and those bright blue vistas of the Pacific Ocean. There are no redwoods or open space to be seen.
That is just where I found myself on a brisk cloudy Tuesday morning driving to work once again. Smiling and excited just to be there. I didn’t care how it looked or who was on the road. I was happy as a fucking clam. Which made me wonder, does a clam feel happiness?
Anyway the point is this: All stories come to an end and it was time for this one to do the same. I knew this phase of my life was over as soon as we reached an agreement to start working at the coffee company the week before. My personal odyssey of manful meditations and mental voyages came to a halt right then. Just as light bulbs burn out, taut muscles decay, pert breasts and muscular pecs sag southwards as gravity pulls them down, everything ends. Period. Moments pass like sand in our personal hourglass until they drain out. If we are lucky, we get to turn the timepiece over again and start anew. I got that chance.
Change was here. Now. It started today. I was working again. I was sure that my need for daily manful mediations would fall away gently like a scab that was ready to go and hopefully not one that was picked off too early leaving a scar. It was all hard to believe but it was over.
The manful meditation path I walked over the past 18 months was one of the epic journeys that stitched together form the fabric of my life. This chapter took much longer than I ever imagined or expected. All of those days at home that dragged on forever. So much emptiness to overcome and so little guidance on how to do so. So many daily challenges and so very few answers.
It was a harder and longer trail than any I had climbed before. I was out of energy but not from physical exertion. I had no inner strength left, exhausted by a 10-year stint running a dysfunctional business. Suffocated by time spent caring for others who couldn’t care for themselves and none left to grow in.
Our busy lives leave no time in which to gain perspective. No time to enjoy the view, much less look at it, from an onrushing express train. We travel in a blind temporal subway, a tunnel, safe in a concrete tube fine as long as everything works perfectly but not knowing where the train is going with no stops to get off, no cord to pull. Then I found an emergency stop and the ride ended. Suddenly there was no structure to hide in. No work problems to distract, no one to motivate me. Nowhere to go. Nothing to do. No emails. No phone calls. It was totally and utterly incomprehensible.
This was a long and often confusing road. The path kept climbing and twisting. Each turn became sharper as life came back into focus through small victories and major defeats. Each step more steep and difficult to climb as it revealed new insights. Each truth less false as it revealed itself slowly over time.
Before the summit of change, there are a series of vast plateaus. When you think that you have reached enlightenment or employment, when you finally walk onto that plain you have been looking at as you climbed upward, it is not there. Instead, there is another steep hill that you did not see. Another climb that you did not anticipate. There is no choice but to keep going up. And up. And then up again.
The journey revealed much in my character and opened doors that will not close. It changed me forever.
My love of life increased exponentially, in fact, it became painfully acute. The power of my emotions now overwhelms me. I find myself crying at sappy scenes in movies where before I had always held back. Tears flow freely down from the corners of my eyes whenever there is emotional impact, usually during the revelation of a great truth or an act of real kindness.
I became a kinder person without sacrificing morals or fortitude. If anything I became stronger. Kindness was completely new to me. I do not recall being taught about kindness growing up. Perhaps I rejected it during the pressure cooker atmosphere of my youth when it was seen as a crack in your defenses that would be immediately exploited by those around you. Now I live it day-to-day and actually enjoy it.
I found a deep inner reserve of strength that I did not know I had. Forced by sheer will alone to climb out of bed on the days when I didn’t want to. Apply for jobs that I wouldn’t get or want. Walk long and hard when I would rather have quit. Made to wander before I emerged from a mental desert.
I gained a sense of real spirituality. There is no time for spiritual growth in the life of a Jewish adult male. This was the first time I ever felt anything like this. Organized religion never offered these kinds of teachings, lost instead in equal parts dogma and ritual. Now I can’t say that I am a practicing anything these days. I can say that the teachings of Buddhist philosophy resonated with me in a way that my religion never did. They sunk in right away, permeated my soul and are part of me.
I learned to accept and then embrace a good life. Not what is publicly considered to be a great life, but a really good one. Realized that I don’t have to have the power of Fela or a 180 IQ or a bigger house, car or bank account to achieve happiness. The sound of my saxophone became that of the sweet notes of Paul Desmond and Stan Getz, away from the overblown power of Julius Hemphill, Anthony Braxton and Coltrane in his later years. I understood for the first time that great people suffer and often don’t live happy lives.
I allowed myself to become vulnerable, something that is both dangerous and exhilarating.
I slowed down. By doing so I learned to appreciate simple moments of pleasure that would have passed me by. Here is one I can’t forget. A tale of how the lion’s roar of the downshift beats deep in the heart of even the youngest manful man.
A few weeks ago I was waiting for a red light in my neighborhood. A perfect day to drive that bright red convertible. The car may be underpowered, but it features the classic pinafarina studio sports car nose, shining chrome grill and recessed headlights that say simply sports car. A very young manful man (probably no more than 8 years old) was crossing with his mother and his younger brother. I waited for them to go by. As he passed in front of the long red hood of the Alfa he looked at it a manner that is usually reserved for the subject of another well known group of manful meditations, women. I mean he checked it out long, lustful and hard. Just when he was about to pass by the front of the car, he looked up right at me and said, “Wow Mister that is a really cool car”.
I smiled at him and replied, “Thanks. I think it is too. I hope that when you get older, and if you work at it, you will get the car that you want.”
He smiled back. Then he walked away with his towel draped over his shoulder and took his mom’s hand. It made my day. In years past I would have been impatiently waiting for him to get out of the way. I would never have noticed him.
I found myself uttering words that I never had before. One particular five letter word appeared over and over in conversation with friends and family. That word was happy. That was new territory in my life.
I felt centered. Calmer. Stronger.
At the same time I lost all patience with those who are close minded, angry and do not listen to anyone or anything except themselves. I discovered that the freedom to walk away from an asshole and not to engage is true liberation. I can’t take them anymore. It hurts to just to listen to their voices.
When I look back on the past year and a half it seems like a blur. I have thought about what happened, maybe too often, trying to gain a better understanding of who I was and who I became. Some of the moments feel silly or wasted but there is little that I would, or could, have done differently.
I don’t know if manful meditation was the cause of these changes. I do know that they wouldn’t have happened without it.
Most of all, I am relieved that the pain inside of me has subsided. I remain aware that it can return at any moment. I worry that fear and resentment will regain an upper hand and wrestle me back down. My anxieties will always be there hanging out behind the scenes waiting for an opening, be it the returning stress of work, the oblivious nature of those around me or too much vino tinto rojo. They lurk in the background waiting to see if that skeleton key still turns my emotional tumblers, waiting to stroll back into my life like a pimp hooking back up with a whore he has known for years. A grizzled veteran dealer approaching an old recovering customer who says, “yes man I have what you want…”. It is a fact, my anxieties may be gone for the moment, but they will be back one day and MM will be there to help me to work through them.
Above all I hope that I learned how to become a better man. I wonder, when did men decide they were no longer gentlemen? When did they take the gentle part out of the discussion? And why? When did we decide that it was only important to win with complete disregard to the pain of the other side and the larger question of how you got there? When did just win at all costs become an acceptable result? Well we men made that decision. And by doing so we destabilized ourselves. Now when we suffer a loss, which is inevitable, we have no emotional base or historical reference to work from. Our personal lives are not comparable to great sports franchises like the Yankees or the Lakers. We don’t lead the lives of LeBron or Kobe or any of these images who are repeatedly shoved into our faces as reference points. Modern men are not ready or prepared for change or loss just as I wasn’t. In fact, we are ill prepared, having nothing to fall back on short of trying to win again and no win ever being quite enough. No one says “just lose baby.” There is too much black and white, win and loss, and not enough understanding of just how grey it is.
It was a time I will never live again. I learned to stretch my mind and my body. Learned not to fear fear, but to embrace it. To understand that obstacles are fears, nothing more. Learned to stop daydreaming about life while driving and watch out for that fucking bitch in the white BMW convertible that was about to cut me off and hit the brakes just as she did. Who did she think she was?
Guess the old Zen spirit hasn’t subjugated my LA driving instincts.
So there I was, awake again and driving past Hagenberger Road with the top down spring air rushing through the car and warming my soul. Riding to work on a day where the temperature broke 60 for the first time in 3 months. Even if was only 62 degrees out today it felt warm to me.
This was not a typical job either. I was on my way to work in sales for a company that had no marketing materials. It had no marketing budget either, in theory or reality. No historical data to rely upon. No computer, I had to bring my own. There was dust coating the desk and half the lights were burnt out in my office. Expired samples and paperwork from the last lost soul that inhabited it littered the room. To make things even better I wasn’t getting paid and didn’t expect to for some time until things got better and sales picked up.
In short, it was a perfect opportunity.
I drove south. The man-Buddha inside spoke to me one more time as I turned off the freeway and merged onto Marina Boulevard, the exit for work. I swear that this time I heard a distinct Yiddish accent in his voice as he did, eerily close to that of my father.
“Perfect?”(pronounced poifecht), he said to me his voice rising in tone and authority. “You call this perfect Mr. Big Shot? Who are you kidding? Now, if the Giants would win the World Series, now that would be perfect. But this?”
I had to laugh. I mean, who the fuck was HE kidding? Our World Series dreams ended in 2002 in Anaheim, killed by a rally monkey, dead pitching arms and coaching hubris. A world series win? This would never happen in my lifetime. Maybe years from now I would watch the Giants play and win a game 7 in heaven. But I would never see it here on earth and with about the same odds of happening as me seeing heaven.
The final recipe. A roast chicken to die for.
The technique for making a great roast chicken relies on searing and braising, like so many good stews and chilies. You need:
A good size chicken, 5 pounds plus.
1 pound mushrooms.
Salt, pepper, garlic rosemary, paprika.
A roasting pan with a lid or one you can seal with aluminum foil.
Wash the chicken and let it dry. Rub it with the olive oil, salt, pepper and paprika. Cut the lemons in quarters and stuff it in the cavity along with the rosemary while you heat the oven to 475.
Start with the breast up for 5 to 8 minutes until it browns, no cover. Bring out the pan and turn the chicken over. Return it to the oven until the other side browns, another 5 to 8 minutes. Lower the heat to 350, add the carrots and cover the pan. Cook for 1 hour. Lower the heat to 275, add the mushrooms. Cover again and cook for another 1 hour. The wing should wiggle freely. If it doesn’t cook in 15 minute increments until it does. Turn the heat back up to 475 and return uncovered until brown to your desires. Remove, let sit for 5 minutes. Carve and serve with lots of sauce and twice baked potatoes.
Songs for my funeral.
While this is far from an epitaph, I have often thought about what songs I would like played at my funeral. So here they are. There only three and if you are there, make sure they get played. While they are playing please listen. That is all I ask.
Kind of Blue. Miles Davis. Words fall short.
Ry Cooder. Secret Love from Mambo Sinuendo. A man. A guitar. Perfection.
Just A Man. Los Lobos. Sums it all up for me.
If someone wants another tune play Waltz for Debby by Bill Evans. Shouldn’t be a dry eye in the house after that.
-Some words of thanks.
First to my family. She who is Florence. She is there when I need her and is the love of my life.
To our two exceptional kidults, Olivia and Mark. I would not have made it through this adventure without your humor, your power and your passion for living.
To my parents, Melanie and Harry, wherever you are for making me smart in every sense of the word.
My brothers in arms Mark, Fred, Mitchell, Michael and Ron. Better than real brothers.
My faithful walking buddy, bigfoot white dog Kelly, the walking machine.
My network. Yes, it is important. We help each other after all.
And to everyone who listened to me during this journey and anyone who ever read these posts.
I thank you all.
April 19, 2010.