So I’m old now. The “big four-oh”. Sort of feels like Friday.
I started to write something all introspective and “judgy” about where I am in my life, and I realized how mind-crushingly cliché that is. “Cliché” I can handle; “mind-crushing,” not so much.
Let me instead mention some gifts I’ve unexpectedly gotten over the years, usually not on my birthday, that have helped me to get to today and will hopefully carry me on for at least another forty years.
Ancient Wisdom and Management Fads
This gift is credited to Ken Bralich. It would have been about fourth grade. We were at my house, in the back yard around my family’s pool. Ken watched me with puzzlement as I laboriously dried myself off from the feet up, having to go back often and re-dry places I’d already visited. Ken looked at me and said “You know, Jim, if you just dry yourself off from the top down, you won’t have to do it all over again”.
To say it had never occurred to me is probably lame at this point, but it really had never occurred to me that starting at the feet and working against gravity and nature was not the best way to do it. Mind. Blown.
What I’ve gleaned from Ken’s simple statement is this: “Be Mindful.” Think about what you are doing and where you are. Even if it’s just drying off at the pool. This turns out to be one of the seven factors of enlightenment in Buddhism, and is the seventh element of the noble eightfold path. Neither Ken nor I knew that at the time, and I’m not Buddhist, but I think the lesson still holds.
In fact, corporations pay millions of dollars annually for this kind of advice, called “Lean”, and apply it to business processes. It’s almost a religion amongst middle to upper management who will go from “Lean” to “Six Sigma” to “Kaizan” and back. And there was a fourth-grader nailing it and giving it away for free.
In later years, I have extended Ken’s advice to drying off from the shower, where it works equally well.
The Beauty of the Common Man
Growing up, my next door neighbor and (most of the time) friend was a guy by the name of Steve Blatner. He went by the nickname “Jake”. Jake was thin, quick, energetic, and often angry. My friends and I often imagined that if Jake ever gained the power to make people spontaneously combust by giving them a “Jake Stare”, there would be lines of corpses lining the halls of Jacobs High School or northern Illinois in general. In other words, Jake’s default look was what is known as “The Stink-Eye”.
While we were all hanging out one day, Jake’s brother Chris mentioned another kid from the neighborhood, saying “I feel bad for SomeKidName. I don’t think he’ll ever find a girl or anything.”
Jake suddenly spun around and balefully glared at him, saying “Everybody marries somebody, fuckhole, haven’t you figured that out by now!” His irritation sated, he turned back away and lapsed into sullen Jake silence.
Chris apparently hadn’t figured that out by now. Neither had I. Nowadays, even when I meet someone I don’t like and imagine them friendless and alone, I remember that nugget of “Wisdom by Jake™” and realize that even that douche bag I meet at work or at the gas station has a wife and people who love him. So maybe our disagreements probably aren’t entirely his fault. Just because I think he has no redeeming qualities, someone else may. So perhaps the problem lies partly with me.
Many years after that, remembering this sage Jake wisdom (everybody marries somebody) gave me the courage to blurt my declaration of love to my wife, starting a chain of events that led to Jake being proven right. How did it go…Ah, yes: “Ah, Bullshit! Donna, I love you.”
The next two gifts were during the same day. After I lost my job in Minnesota in a bloodbath of layoffs and terminations preceding the shutdown of the Lockheed Martin plant, I lived in Baltimore for nine long months while my wife struggled to sell the house while keeping the kids’ lives semi-normal. During that time, I was supported by many great friends, both new and old, and was able to make it without a housing payment (other than the one in MN). I worked three jobs and picked up random weekend jobs I found on Craigslist to make ends meet. One of these Craigslist jobs (unloading art for an art show) paid very well, even above the $50 in cash that I was paid. This job was a single day, 4 hour unloading operation advertised on Craigslist, and there was a large sample of Baltimore’s out-of-work and homeless population who showed up to work it, as you might or might not imagine.
f (x) = x
While unloading paintings from the truck, I talked with a reformed drug addict that had moved to Baltimore after destroying his old life in New Jersey. He had moved to Baltimore five years prior after getting out of jail. I have to admit was still a little nervous of him, since he was about 6’ 4” and he looked a lot like Ray Lewis. Also, he’d admitted to having a violent past. We had exhausted the weather, and I didn’t know anything about the Ravens or Orioles yet. So I asked him what he thought of the Baltimore area and life out here on the East Coast, making tentative eye contact with him.
He looked straight at me with intense eyes, and I couldn’t look away. I was locked like predator and prey. He simply said “It is what you make of it, now, isn’t it?”
At the risk of sounding overly dramatic, I actually felt cold chills rock me. I mean, you hear about people having a “moment of clarity”, but you always chalk it off as some sort of simple turn of phrase. No. It is an actual physical response to a realization of something you probably should have known all along. It really is exactly what you make of it. Everything. What you put in, you get out. The function of x returns x. As you sow, so shall you reap. Karma’s a bitch. You get the idea. And, finally at that moment, so did I.
I never learned his name, but I thanked him when I left that day. He probably didn’t know why.
That day also brought me into contact with another man whose name I also never learned, but he gave me a gift as well. This man looked like the real life inspiration to Damon Wayons’ “Anton Jackson” character on In Living Color. He was a grizzled, old, homeless black guy who wasn’t all that clean, and had that nasally down and out sort of voice that Mr. Wayons uses for the character. The real life version had some whiskey-scratch thrown in just in case one didn’t realize what a rough life the man had lived by looking at him.
I judged him exactly as he looked, and didn’t think much of him either positively or negatively.
One of the paintings was a fairly pretty one of a woman in a white dress sitting in a field of flowers. We set it down carefully (as the foreman kept shrieking for everyone to be careful with these paintings) and looked at it.
I, being a bit of a pompous douche, turned to “Anton” and said “You know I never really understood some of this impressionist stuff.” I started to turn away, assuming our conversation was over, since this guy probably had no clue what I meant by impressionist.
As I turned, “Anton” said: “Yeah, you know Monet was blind in the latter half of his life, ‘cause of the cataracts. After his wife died, he’d just sit in his studio and paint. Not a bad way to live. Too bad about the cancer.”
The painting was, in fact, an original Monet titled “Springtime”, done in 1872. It is currently in the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore. (Here, if you want to see it: http://art.thewalters.org/detail/10078/ )
Recap: I was schooled in French impressionist paintings by a 65 year-old homeless black man who looked like he’d been run over and smelled of whiskey and beer.
The cliché “Don’t judge a book by its cover” is pathetically over used, so I’ll say I had a severe forced attitude adjustment that day. Now when I see someone, and catch myself thinking “Hillbilly”, “Redneck”, or any other such stereotype, I pause. If I catch myself starting to assume things about them based on how they are dressed or presented, I remember “Anton” and stop that line of thought immediately.
I really wish I had a better name for him, but he was so horribly similar to the Damon Wayons character, that I just can’t think of him any other way.
Apparently, another lesson I need to learn is to remember people’s names.
So: Four (five) lessons presented as gifts to me. Hopefully, I make something of them.
Also, I’m really really old now.
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