Friday, January 29, 2010

Friday Night Riff: Mortality, Wealth 'n Art


Your only obligation is to live and be happy. - Albert Camus

There's that joke about 'if you want to make God laugh, just tell him your plans.' Thought I'd try to give the Ol' Guy a chuckle.

In the year 2010, the average life expectancy in the United States is seventy-eight years old. Seventy-five if you happen to be male. That's AVERAGE. That would give me 20 more years - IF I live an average life span for a US male in 2010. A hundred years ago, I'd be ancient material at 55. Today, through the miracles of medical technology we've managed to extend that span - at all cost, sometimes at a questionable cost of quality. But that's a whole 'nuther conversation about how in the average last year of life, a person in the US will have 10 specialists involved in the care and management of their humble, mortal chassis.

I heard that daunting statistic the other day. Now, being someone who has had daunting statistics before in my doctor's attempts to define my undefinable life, I tend to place statistics out of my reach; they have NOTHING to do with ME - not when you are an Outlier - someone who skews the statistics. Still, average is average, and as non-average as I'd like to believe I am, I also have enough humility intact to know there is nothing special about me. Still, even with irony thrown in to stack the odds, averages prevail. But the complement of 'average' - on the other side of the tracks - is 'Outlier'.

Which brings me to a favorite art piece I saw in the Toronto Art Museum about average mortality statistics. Okay, hang in there with me; this is more elegant than dreary and frightful. In a window like you might see in a jewelry store - a display window - is a velvet-lined case that holds stacks of gold coins; each one representing a month. So 12 months X 78 average years = 936 gold coins TOTAL. Sounds like a lot. It is. Especially when you consider that there are still parts of the world TODAY where you are old at 40. The average life span today in Swaziland is 39 years - or 468 months oF gold coins; exactly half of what we receive in the US.

Each month the artist visits their on-going, ever-changing art piece at the museum; opens the display window case; removes a coin from the neat stack in the blue velvet lined box and drops it onto the ever-growing pile next to the box - another month of their life gone: another gold coin spent. No returns, no do-overs, no exchanges - and perhaps most importantly - NO Complaint Desk; just a gold coin, a token of something much more precious: a month of life - hopefully spent well on things of value.

The artist makes you stop and think about the preciousness - not just in theoretical terms, but in the coins spent, never to be seen again. When I saw this piece, immediately I did the math adding up the 'average' left for myself, if I GET TO have an average US male lifespan of 75 yrs. That's 20 more years X 12 months equaling 240 gold coins of earthly life. A nice amount; a respectable amount; but still, not a HUGE amount. Rather, a FINITE, limited amount, much smaller than the 660 coins spent so far - approximately one quarter of the original total. IF I get to be average. Maybe I have more; maybe less. I could be spending my last gold coin right now and not even know it.

Lucky me! I have a gold coin in my hand today! Lucky you! You have one in yours also! How many more will I get? Where do I want to spend them? How do I want to spend them? With whom do I want to share the wealth with?

It's a precious gold coin in my hands; could be the last one - or maybe there's a dozen or 500 more left. Don't know, but any way you slice it - the one gold coin in my hand right now?: Precious. The only precious one. The rest of the stack is just a 'maybe', 'hopefully', or 'if I'm lucky.'

But luck's a funny, fickle thing. Everybody thinks they want the quantity of a big stack of coins; everyone thinks they want longevity - a hundred years, please. But if there's any chance of my ending up spending those last twelve months with 10 specialist doctors and hundreds of props as the 'average' US citizen with 'artificially induced longevity' will - PLEASE! Let me be mercifully struck by a random, stray bullet to the heart - perhaps while dancing! I'd prefer it.

But then, just as with jokin' on God with MY plans, I imagine my preferences bring a wry grin to the Mysterious One, also.

Bottom line: In the end, it ain't about how much you had in your stack; it's ALL about how you spent it and how much happiness it brought.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Fallow Ground

I hate the term 'writer's block'. It sounds so purposeless and broken; like a part of me that is important to myself has fallen into disrepair and needs remedy. I remember a favorite author and writing mentor of mine, Luis Alberto Urrea, at one time saying: "Then write about why it's difficult to write." This is my attempt.

At a time in my life when I was very broken physically, a teacher of mine told me I had to learn how to rest 'intentionally'. Up to that point I looked at resting as a necessary inconvenience - a collapse of sorts from my purposeful life. He instructed me to walk out into nature every day, find a place with few people, and sit. Intentionally. Not walk because it's good exercise, but sit, because IT would be good exercise if I did it with intention and purpose. I followed his advice and found myself sitting under a large oak tree every day.

I'd pry myself off my couch or bed, a place I had every right to be collapsed upon due to my condition and force myself to go elsewhere - just to sit there. To make sitting my purpose. To become the best dang 'sitter' I could be. Intentional rest.

It's not so easy. In fact, at first it's quite uncomfortable. The rest of the world seeming so purpose-driven while I was trying to accomplish what really looked like nothing - AND become good at it.

It's the same thing with the rest of my life. I love it when there's lots of energy pouring through me, when the fire is burning high and my only job is to keep up with stoking it. But then there are those times when I have no logs to burn. Limitation can feel painful, confining and imprisoning.

Last week I learned something about that through my own physical limitations - the funky nerves whose electrical circuitry suddenly go into a 'brown-out', the muscles of my legs that follow into weakness and then the joints that won’t operate properly and slide painfully out of place. I was in such a predicament last week; one of the worst episodes I'd had in a while. With that comes lots of opportunity to revisit past 'bad episodes' in my mind and to actively 'awfulize' my situation.

But this time, I refused to go down that road.

You see, I had a plan. I had to drive my son across the border to catch the train so he could visit his friends in Toronto. That meant not only driving - an activity that is difficult under these conditions, but I also had wanted to stop in Detroit on my way home to visit the Detroit Institute of Arts. I've wanted to go there for inspiration for several months. Finally, i was going to go. But then the brown-out happened.

But I'm an ornery ol' cuss - and I was going dammit! I didn't care if all I could do was be there on my feet for only ten minutes. I was going - and NOTHING was stopping me.

Walking from the parking garage to the admissions was a short, painful walk. It looked like I wouldn't be able to be there for long. I paid my eight dollars and stood there staring at the folded up wheelchairs to the side, debating inside myself. Now, I've used the little electric carts before in the stores; those are fun. You can zip around in those like you're in an electric go-cart, but a REAL wheelchair, well, that's a different story - one that I resist. The woman behind the desk noticed me with my cane staring at the wheelchairs and said the most perfect thing she could have to a middle-aged man grappling with ever-changing disability: "Why walk when you can roll?" She made a lot of sense.

"SOLD! I'll take one," and she unfolded it for me. I hopped in and took off. Now, even though this latest hurdle of mine was a challenging one, as it is for most people when they find themselves in the position to use a cane or a wheelchair or some other 'prop' for everyday activity, I have experience.

When I was much younger, I worked in Special Education with kids with multiple disabilities of one type or another. As with all kids, life was playful and you play with what you have. We'd often have wheelchair races - kids against kids, or better yet, kids against staff. I became quite good at 'spinning on a dime', quick stops, ninety degree turns and going fast - really fast! It was a gas! A gas IF you didn't HAVE to be in the chair. Now it was my turn; my turn to HAVE to use a chair; either use it or just go home - AND I WASN'T GOING HOME! Instead, I took off like a madman on wheels! I had art to see. Matisse awaited me along with Diego Rivera and I'd kept them and myself waiting for far too long.

I flew from one room to another, from gallery to gallery, taking in old favorites and new ones I'd never seen. I whipped down the hallways excitedly to the next room, and the next, and the next.... It was a GAS! and I had THE BEST time I've had in recent memory.

Five hours later I looked at the clock and realized it would soon be closing time and I'd spent the day so immersed, so captivated in the Beauty and Creativity that my body with its limitations was nowhere to be found. What normally would have been painful walking to endure, had become a cruise through the best of what humanity has to offer. I'd forgotten my pain, my limitations, simply because I had surrendered to the wheelchair - my cruiser. I'd become so immersed I'd forgotten my body; I'd forgotten to eat, drink water or go to the bathroom. My bodily needs had become nonexistent. There was only art and my creative mind taking it all in. It was a piece of heaven on earth - and I'd only found it by surrendering.

I learned a lot that day about myself and about how art can carry us - a vehicle to somewhere beyond 'here' - especially when 'here' is difficult or challenging. I learned again that sometimes the path of least resistance has its own rewards. But it's also coupled with my ornery will, my stubborn determination that I WILL do it!

It was a strange day; one of the more crappy ones physically, yet mentally and emotionally one of the better ones. It could have so easily been otherwise.

So when the tide of creativity and writing seems to be in an ebb, I try to remind myself that these moments are equally as important as the highly productive ones; uncomfortable, but important. Sometimes we need to rest; to sit fallow and empty. That's the time of taking in inspiration; time to read, to go to the library, to look at art, watch movies and nature - take in - breathe in - INspiration. Later will come the exhalation, the breathing out, the expression. Fallow ground IS productive - as is INTENTIONAL rest.

I leave you with two pictures here. During the Depression, Diego Rivera was commissioned by Edsel Ford to paint a mural in the courtyard of the Art Institute. Rivera lived with Frida Kahlo for several years in the hotel next door while he painted what he considered to be his life's masterpiece: four large, towering walls of murals depicting Nature, Technology and its uses both positive and negative. There are hundreds of stories on those walls. The one at the top of this post is one small frame high above the floor. It got him in a lot of trouble with the Catholic Church in 1932: How dare he depict a baby coming from the earth! To me, it's a wonderful depiction of 'fallow ground' - purposeful, intentional incubation.

The other I just add for fun and interest; an honoring of the spirits of Diego and Frida that resound within those walls. Look closely to the right side and you'll see the two of them stealing a moment of 'love on the scaffolding.'

Here's to Diego and Frida; here's to fallow ground; and here's to surrendering to the creative fire and how IT wants to burn.

Monday, January 4, 2010

December on the North Sea

Come aboard. This is Popeye's ride - crossing the North Sea from the Netherlands and arriving into Copenhagen. He makes an appearance at 2:09.

Now he sits in our living room watching television, catching up on 'pop culture', asking: "who is so-and-so?" some pop icon he's never heard of. He's been blissfully ignorant of such things while passionately engaged in others. Now he's recovering, regaining his bearings for 'the next thing' which still is yet to appear on the horizon.