yomama.jpgSometimes heading off aimlessly down the road without any particular place to go can be a healing experience. In Australian aboriginal cultures, the walkabout’s time-tested ritual gives young men a chance to learn more about their character and strength through a solitary wilderness journey. Perhaps not an exact interpretation yet honoring the spirit of the walkabout, I hopped in the car this past weekend and headed off to points unknown on a “carabout.” It’s a bit difficult in a sprawling place like Texas to honor the true process of a walkabout. While not exactly venturing into wilderness, I went somewhere I’d never been before, which in my mind qualified the trip as a walkabout.

I’m not one to dance well with serendipity, but I learned a little footwork this weekend towards that goal. Originally planning to head towards Galveston and the calming influence of the ocean surf, a friend reminded me that it was spring break. The thought of quiet contemplation amid the annual ritual of 150,000 drunken, lusty college kids didn’t quite work. Drop about 30 years and I might think that cool, but all I could envision was the noise and the traffic jam.

cow.jpgSo I headed in the opposite direction, towards the piney woods of north Texas. Where I went exactly doesn’t matter; only the journey and the chance to think mattered. This mini-retreat of sorts was long overdue to sort through some personal issues and attempt to quiet the noise in my head. Granted a lot of that noise comes from living in a large urban area, but it’s usually easier to think when temporarily changing the venue to a quiet, unfamiliar place where the pace is slower, or at least different. While you can find quiet at home by telling people you’re leaving town but staying, putting the phone in the freezer, unplugging the TV, etc., it’s hard to visually ignore the things around you that remind you of your past or chores yet undone. A simple walkabout encourages a fresh viewpoint with the least amount of distractions.

optimism.jpgWhat I accomplished over the weekend is personal, but my point is to encourage anyone to try a walkabout from time to time and give yourself a fresh perspective, or at least the chance to remove the distortion in your lives long enough to consider things anew. Even though, as one friend admonished, I didn’t have a geek-free walkabout it was still an energizing event. There were even moments of shear serendipity that I rarely allow, being the anal, planning type I am. For example, I can’t remember ever traveling somewhere without a hotel reservation, yet Saturday night I simple stopped and got a room when I was ready to turn in for the night. This small deed may seem trivial to most of you, but it’s anathema to a linear, logical thinker. I’m hoping the stoic walls of Analtown are beginning to crumble, for inside lives a nomadic spirit ready to travel by decisions made impromptu without regard for conclusions.

Today it’s back to the paycheck grind, but that’s okay. I feel different this Monday than most Mondays, and want to believe it’s because I’m fresh off a journey without boundaries or predisposing the outcome. Can’t wait to hit the road on the next walkabout and see where it takes me. All that’s required is to point the car down the road and go, letting dusk be my signal to stop, wherever that may be…after I make sure I have gas…and cash…and writing stuff…and the laptop…and… Hey, when you’re learning to dance you step on a lot of toes until you learn, right? So long as their my own toes, I figure I’m still hearing the music and will get it eventually.

Shakespeare’s Dilemma

Photo by Gary. All rights reserved.

Inspired by the wonderful sketches shared at moleskinerie, I finally succumbed to buying my first moleskine….without lines. As an ardent disciple of the mantra “stay between the lines” in my journaling over the years, I seem to be more comfortable writing in a ruled journal rather than face the challenge of a truly blank page. Since I paint using words, it seemed unnecessary and somewhat frightening to lose the safety of those lines. Perhaps it’s that bane of all writers, to be stuck “staring at a blank page,” that kept me buying ruled journals all these years. Somehow I always count those printed lines as page occupants, thus preventing my mind from seeing blank pages…or perhaps I thought the lined pages more accepting of my handwriting. Working past all that I still hesitated to change my process, even as I purchased my new blue-banded beauty…yet the stirring of my suppressed internal sketcher could be ignored no longer.

The last time I remember using a blank journal was several decades ago while in architecture school at UT Austin. I was a high-school architecture prodigy of sorts, and my initial exposure to “real world” architectural studies was a humbling experience. Blank sketch books were de rigueur of my first architectural drawing class, and while I can’t remember the brand, I do remember the frustrations associated with those unruly blank pages. The first day we assembled in a campus courtyard to sketch stately oak trees. When the TA started to define the assignment, it sounded so simple, so basic, so “why aren’t we doing some serious sketching.” But to our collective surprise, he prohibited us from actually drawing the tree. Our assignment was to draw the voids existing between branches, and thus by sketching the tree’s nothingness we’d in essence define its reality. Despite the Zen-like appeal, my logical mind imploded, and noting the expressions of my fellow students it seemed I wasn’t alone. After that assignment, I had hoped such absurdity would be atypical and we’d soon be sketching the marvelous edifices that populated the campus. Hope proved fleeting, however, as the following week we met to sketch the modernistic use of brick, tile, and stainless steel in a campus dorm lobby. And as suspected, our Zen TA intoned that we were NOT to draw the walls, fountain, or sculpture, but instead the shadows that defined the space.

These long-forgotten experiments in abstract interpretation and forced out-of-the-box thinking came as flashbacks when I started working the blank, rule-less pages of my new Moleskine. In the two weeks since, I admit to enjoying the unrestricted writing freedom these creamy empty pages allow. Maybe it’s the release from the bondage of lines that usually define my pen’s path or perhaps the freshness of form in a familiar process that’s contributing to feeling like a kid with a new toy. And although the hidden artist has yet to appear, for the moment I’m content knowing my fountain pen could smoothly move from verb to vision when the sketcher does finally awaken. Other than the doodle I placed on the owner’s page (ala Vonnegut), I’m determined to include several sketches before I finish this volume and face that gut-wrenching decision: to rule, or not to rule…that will most definitely be the question.


– I wrote this post a few weeks ago for first publication at moleskinerie, but thought it was equally viable here (and I’m cheating a little by reprinting vs. original, but it’s Friday and don’t feel like a new article today!). If you haven’t checked out moleskinerie yet, please do so…well worth a daily read.

Media Overload

I try to read as much as possible to sate my info-junkie muse and keep up with my points of interest. It’s an ongoing battle to get through everything on a daily basis, and the struggle’s continuous between devoting more reading time or reducing to fewer sources. If I could, I’d read The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal every day, two print sources I consider at the top of the news heap. And while I don’t always manage those two, I do try to keep up with 20+ Web sites/Weblogs in my constantly shifting virtual reading pile. I use Avant Browser which makes this task easier: one click on my Daily News link and it opens all 20+ sites/blogs in individual tabbed windows. Definitely makes for easy strolling through each day’s offerings.

Even with tech toys streamlining the process, it’s still a media blitz of sorts. Information overload is a real threat in our lives. I’ve read about folks committing to media blackout and feeling great after unplugging the television, cancelling the newspaper and periodicals, etc. These individuals tend to experience better communication and bonding with their companions and greater overall serenity and happiness. No question the news can be depressing. Our world is not always pleasant, especially with the media constantly reminding us of human failures whenever it can. If newspapers could only report good news, we’d save a lot of trees.

In my travels, one indulging pleasure is the leisurely read of a newspaper over a breakfast served and cleared by someone else. Simple decadence awaits for the taking in the unhurried act of reading the paper without deadlines to attend, appointments to make, or demands of morning’s usual rituals for facing the working world. Whenever possible, I try to read local papers for a taste of where I’m visiting. I can learn world events anytime, but the reported shenanigans on a local level are priceless. One of our frequent destinations a few years back was the sleepy west Texas town of Fort Davis. With a local population of 900, but an annual tourist influx in the tens of thousands, their local paper The Mountain Dispatch was always a treat. Part of the enjoyment of any small town is the slower pace of life, and the local rags usually reflect this improved approach to what’s important. Sometimes it takes the small things in life to show us what’s big on the important scale, and lessons sometimes appear where you least expect. Simple pleasures should be slowly absorbed, and the casual reading of events outside my periphery while leisurely basking in sunbeams with fresh coffee odor tauntingly floating seems like the good life…at least it does to me.

Birthday Blues?

Today I’m a birthday boy. Only comes once a year (and once is enough, thank you), and in true curmudgeonly style, I usually don’t make a fuss about celebrating the day I came into the world. Never have thought that one day a year should be special when in reality they should all be special.

As I conclude my first year of my second half-century, I notice I’m more reflective about intangibles than when younger. I also notice a disturbing, creeping emotionalism over the last 10+ years. Not sure I like that, but do like the peripheral benefits of compassion and awareness that comes with a more emotional thought. I’ve also never been a nostalgic thinker, preferring to ponder the moment and plan the future (when I’m not dwelling on past shouldas, a habit I’m working hard at breaking). But my intensive writing over the last few months has, to my surprise, dredged my past and surfaced a lot of memories…not dogmatic ones, but fond experiences that meant something and were thankfully stored and not thrown away by the internal one. Guess I didn’t realize then that my mind was doing me a favor by silently making a backup copy of these events, being omniscient while I was merely oblivious. Writing, if done honestly and consistently, will surface lost and/or distant moments (both good and bad) at times when we most need them.

As usual, my celebration will be mostly quiet. I’m nearing the point where the local fire department has to be notified prior to the traditional lighting of birthday-cake candles, so I’ll dispense with that (besides, I’m eating low-carb and birthday cake, while special, ain’t low anything). My two boys have birthdays next month, and by contrast that event will seem like the Astros won the World Series (this year, just watch) compared to my quiet reflection. But I’m more than okay with that. When we’re young, birthdays are major events in our drive to become mature, to always be older than our biological clocks would have us be. But as we get older, the “another year and I’m still alive” approach seems to replace the excitement of youth. This celebration over beating the devil just one more time seems counterproductive to what’s important. After all, living should be about the journey, not measuring the distance.

Coffee, Tea, and Me

coffee.jpgThere is something definitely soothing, calming, and healthy about a cup of good tea served at the right temperature in the right moment. For years, tea has been my drug of choice and with my tea habit evolving to a level only other serious tea drinkers would understand. It’s not that I adhered to the Japanese Tea Ceremony (although I considered doing so several times), but more that I became selective in the tea I’d drink. Since most restaurants serve abysmal tea (Lipton Orange Pekoe may be dandy to make your garden grow but drinkable it’s not), I would carry my own selections in a small round tin, courtesy of Republic of Tea, which incidentally used to be my favorite leaf (Mighty Leaf is now my pulse, but mighty hard to find!). Traveling by car usually meant taking my own tea maker, since it’s sacrilegious to make tea in a mere coffee pot. Avowed tea drinkers can always tell if coffee’s been made in the apparatus before, especially hot water provided in air pots that formerly housed the evil brew known as coffee. Tainting the holy water of tea with even a hint of coffee was a treasonous offense, punishable by banning the perpetrator to a life of instant coffee.

Although I’ve always preferred the purifying benefits of water-soaked leaves over burnt beans, I’ve recently become a traitor to my own cause. I have become a coffee drinker almost to the rabidity of my former tea habit. It’s not that I’ve lost the tea taste, but grew tired of fighting the battle to have decent tea in places without dragging either my own tea or tea-making tools. Coffee is more the beverage of convenience, and I guess I should blame the Starbucks empire for getting me hooked on their over-roasted, over-priced, over-rated products. Around here they are the only coffee house, but I do enjoy the coffee-house ambiance for everything from reading to writing to all things online.

My first foray into coffee was interesting. I’d try coffee now and then over the years, loving the brewing odors but hating the oily, bitter taste. I began as newbies usually do my having a little coffee in my hazelnut-flavored cup of half and half, gradually increasing the coffee ratio until even a veteran coffee drinker could tell there was coffee in there. The first few cups gave me quite the buzz. Although tea has a good deal of caffeine in it, for whatever reason the caffeine in coffee affects me differently. I’ve heard from coffee purists that tea does that for them, so perhaps it’s just a subtle difference in the chemicals that causes the increase when switching.

Now coffee has become my drug of choice, and I tend to drink it early in the morning and as an after-work relaxer. I still drink tea, and it’s ironic that I now go through a ceremonial process of sort when making tea that I didn’t used to take time for. Maybe I feel guilty having changed allegiances and in some odd way I feel it necessary to pay homage to my old idol. Whatever the reason, I fill my tea kettle with filtered water and while it boils I fill the tea pot with hot-as-can water to prewarm it and keep the brew hotter, longer. After seeping the leaves, I use a tea cozy to keep the pot warm until I’ve exhausted its contents. The process feels good, and slows life down as preparing tea should. While I don’t add the pauses in the process for reflection as any good tea ceremony would have, I do notice that there’s a calming effect in the making of tea that adds to the enjoyment. Coffee seems to be a drink for people in a hurry, while I think of tea drinkers as those who choose to step off this crazily spinning planet for a few moments to reflect within while sipping tea. I guess each approach has its place in our lives and times when they both make sense. I’ll continue on my bad coffee habits as they seem needed at the moment, but will hope for a day when my pace of life will make slowing down to enjoy a fine cup of Mighty Leaf tea the better choice.

Winter’s Cocoon

The cycle of life depends on the seasons for rest, renewal, and rebirth of purpose. Our journey around the Sun progresses through these seasons for reasons that our ancestors celebrated at every chance. Sadly, modern society seems to have evolved away from these grounding rituals much to the dereliction of our civilization.

I remember enjoying and feeling the effects of seasons more fully when I lived in the northern climes of Boston and Chicago. The oppressive weight of summer’s heat always gave in to autumn’s cooling embrace, followed by the deep-sleep healing that winter’s frosty cocoon brought, cumulating in spring’s glorious rebirth of life breaking through the worn-out welcome of winter’s brown, slushy blanket. I always seemed to enjoy winter more than any other time of the year. I felt protected by the cold and soothed by the fresh wintry blankets of night-fallen snow I’d discover upon waking. Winter’s delights seemed to inspire a notion of re-energizing for the year ahead.

These seasonal changes seemed important to me then, and that was quite an accomplishment since I was a teenager at the time, not a period usually filled with reflective moments like these. And each year I continue to spend in south Texas keeps me yearning for the cycle of seasons. We get coldish winters with occasional frosty short freezes, but the seasons here tend to merge into one another rather than ones marked with distinction.

Our perception of time does change as we age. As youth, we tend to notice but two seasons: a long nine-month season of school followed by the ever-too-brief season of summer. As we become working adults, the focus shifts to infrequent breaks from the year-round work routine with little notice of the cycle of seasons. Families develop and seasons highlight the events of our children. And as children begin to leave the nest, we tend to find ourselves noticing the seasons again. And so another cycle emerges.

Traditions do exist that celebrate peak points along these cycles of time, and while evidence of them still exists in some rituals, our hectic lives blur the demarcations between the four distinct seasons, each with something special to offer if we manage to stop and notice. One of my quiet resolutions this year is to try and bring back some of the lost magic of seasonal shifting, especially as I move from winter’s cocoon to the emergence of spring. Time, and seasons, will be the only proof if I succeed.