Sunday, July 17, 2011

The essence of flight

       Most birds don’t bother to learn more than the simplest fundamentals of flight – how to fly from bluff to sea, food to tree and back again.  Along the way they might pass by other flocks doing similar birdly duties - scanning open meadows for dots of food, shiny threads or small sticks to upgrade their treetop homes, all while keeping within proven flight paths and formations.  These birds have learned well the act of being “a bird,” and for all their days they will fly to meet that definition within the best of their abilities.  The hummingbird will hum, the crow will cackle and the sparrow will chirp.  But once in a while we hear a bird sing for no other reason it would seem than to cheer us up.  Once in a while a bird will fall out of formation to ride an updraft and show us how he can turn open air into a ballroom dance floor for no other reason than to dance.  Once in a while we see a bird that seems to understand being “a bird” is, from wing to tip, an unlimited idea of freedom.  

          Once there was a songbird who would sit a top her apple tree and sing her song.  Her feathers were a little brighter than other songbirds and her song would always turn heads.  “Look down there,” a goose would say to the flock “it looks like a songbird but she doesn’t sing their song”.  She sang not because she was a bird, but because she found her own song in her heart.  One day her song carried to a far off redwood where a great bald eagle had taken residence.  The eagle had heard a number of songbirds in his days, but the score that came across the wind that morning stirred him like no other had before.  As the hummingbird hums and the crow cackles, so is the eagle concerned with eagle-like business.  However, unlike all other birds in the sky, the eagles’ business is to do everything with majesty and pride.  No eagle goes unnoticed as he gracefully cuts jet streams through the midday sun or silhouettes himself against a harvest moon, nor does he intent to.  So, it should go without saying that something like a song dancing through the trees from a far away songbird should draw no more than a glancing ear from a creature with such a noble purpose.  But this particular eagle, like the songbird who sang a different tune, found himself outside the margins of what defined his own kind.  And so, high in his purchase above the forest canopy, the eagle stretched his wings to the horizon, stiffened the silver feathers atop his head and soared towards his noblest of purposes.

         Together, the songbird and the eagle built a great nest lined with the finest down feathers, the freshest of forest kindling and only the best of natures’ bounty.  And there, nestled in their redwood overlooking a bowling green, they tended to their two chicks.  The eagle would teach them to hold their head high and keep the eagle majesty in their heart.  The songbird would teach them to open their eyes to nature around them, see the song inside all living things and help them find the voice to sing it themselves.  The chicks learned that, while a birds duty is to fly, their calling is to sing.  As the chicks grew they would draw attention from flocks flying across their open field on migration.  “Look at how they dart through the air, spiraling skyward with no fear of stalling,” they would cheer to one another.  And for a brief moment the flocks overhead shared an understanding of what they were witnessing and flew a little higher than their formation required.  For years they grew together as a family, sharing the highest of highs and learning to deal with the lowest of lows.  Nothing, it seemed, could ruffle the majesty from their feathers nor dull the pitch of their song.

          One might find it a sad turn in the story to lean that the great nest which overlooked a bowling green was thrown down from its redwood foundation one summer.  Passing flocks, which had come to look forward to their brief aerial view of the family over the years, were saddened to see the open meadow overgrown and quiet.  No longer was the morning fog carved into tapestries by spiraling wing trails.  No longer could the songbirds’ melodies be heard from the skies above.  The meadow had been reclaimed and overrun by nature, sparing only the fallen nest which had been left at the foot of its redwood, abandoned and forgotten.  And sad it was to the casual onlooker, the passerby who saw only the brick and mortar of the nest.  What a shame it was to the bird that values such bird-like things as shiny thread and down-lined twigs, the highest of redwoods and the widest of meadows in which to fly.  And what a shame it would have been if this noble family had let that storm rock their foundation.  

However, unlike the trees and the grass that surrounded the family, no storm could sway the quality of their character.  No storm could touch the nest that the songbird had built in her chick’s hearts, their true understanding of ‘home’.  What other birds did not recognize was that they carried that great redwood with them in their heart, a tall proud ideal of how high one must perch to see the farthest goals in life.  The family rose from that patch of land like a phoenix rising from a pile of ashes, intact and reborn.  Their path led them to different lands, new learning grounds and even a stony stream brook for which they could practice their ever evolving song.  And, while they never took their surroundings for granted, they knew that no plot of land or towering tree would replace the comfort they felt from knowing they were a family.   

Many birds are taught to look just beyond their beak to reach their goals, not to loose sight of their mission from bluff to sea, food to tree and back again.  But they rarely take the time to enjoy the freedom their wings afford them.  Some birds will leave their nest to find their own song and become disheartened by the distance and effort it takes to seek it out.  It takes the pride and determination of an eagle along with the artistry and understanding of a songbird to truly make the most of life.  We are masters of the sky and only when we look down do we remember we are suppose to fly lower.  The air gets thin, the wind gets cold, but no bird flies too high if he soars with his own wings.  And no bird is ever truly lost if he remembers that; from wing to tip, we are all the essence of flight...the definition of freedom.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Black eye Blues

When I was a kid I could imagine nothing worse than being punched in the face. If I could avoid the absolute horror of knuckles smashing into the soft tissue and cartilage of my beautiful head throughout the day, then I won. It was the worst thing that could happen, even considering the knowledge of pain such as charlie horses, footballs to the groin, dental instruments, hornet stings, baseballs to the groin, my brother's fish hook shaped finger lodged under the armpit, beneath the jaw or behind the ear (anatomical knowledge which surely helped lead him to be the doctor he is today...your welcome Paul!), along with broken bones, compound fractures and even more sports related groin attacks. It was becoming apparent that simply having the name 'jock armour' did not translate into literal protection.

So why then was a relatively quick and fleeting pain like a hit to the face so terrifying? I had surely done more damage to myself on a daily basis when something like the ring of a doorbell meant cutting my brother off at his room, doing a spin move to avoid his kung fu grip, bounding down the stairs 5 at a time, slipping on the wood and landing face first at the stoop...hungry, beaten, and hopeful that Papa John hired paramedic drivers as delivery men.  Even the gash I got from sliding around the ice in my backyard with my hands in my pockets was more damaging than any 14 year old kid could cause. If my many past injuries taught me anything, it was that most pain would be diluted by the gallon of adrenaline sent racing through my bloodstream, leaving me dizzy and staring like an idiot at a protruding bone with little more than a cool tingly feeling and the worry that "mom's not going to like this one".

In a time of my life when was I was discovering just how resilient and tough my body could be, something inside was still in its infancy; the idea that I was more than just the sum of my physical flesh but part of a "social collective." The definition of who I was out there in the world did not depend on my own knowledge that I was awesome, but how well I could convince everyone else of this fact. All of a sudden there were motivations and meanings behind the things I did and the words I said...why the hell was I wearing this blanket around my neck like a cape? Was I "special?" The innocence of my youth was evaporating into the cloud of self-awareness brewing inside me. In a flash I knew that I had things to prove, reputations to uphold, people to impress, fears to acknowledge, and a body that would one day wither and die and be eaten by worms and...Oh, the horror! But for the time being, if I could avoid being punched in the head then I'd be happy.

There are few things uglier than a group 13 year old boys. The discovery that a clever nickname or the pointing out of some minor flaw could inflict major psychological damage was like trading in water balloons for napalm. There is a saying that "the nail that sticks out gets hammered down", and in the early days of school we all feel like a nail from time to time. Its a cold war where your best defense is to convince everyone you are quicker and better armed than anyone else...and hopefully avoid the hammer.

Upon meeting me or hearing my name, you probably made a number of connections and thought up some pretty funny names to throw out in conversation...let me stop you now, I've heard it. "strap?" Come on, how unoriginal! It was a blessing to have such an obvious target and I would hone my acting skills and grimace, playing possum to protect the many deeper and more tender flaws I saw in myself. This was just part of the social process, a necessary torment we all go through...unless you were home-schooled, which only meant you were a juicy piece of veal waiting to be thrown to the wolves come high school. "Jock itch? Damn it all, you got me point blank!" I would agree, "You'd think a clever guy like you would know enough not to rub pizza all over your face or whatever your doing to cultivate that acne garden." Game, set...match.

But this was not the real threat. There were rules of engagement; no low blows or kicking once on the ground. And even when things went too far and the animal rage inside bent through the bars of social restraint, we were aware of our limitations. In all the times my brother and I would get into it, over whether we would be watching X-Men or Double Dare for example, the face was off limits. Sure the ears, hair and throat were fair game, but no knuckles were allowed to hit soft tissue. It wasn't even an option. In fact, the only time Paul could ever be accused of hitting me in the face was a time when my mother was working and I was wrested from the soft and comfy couch which he deemed was "his" at that point in time, discouraging my attempts to reclaim it with kicks of caution from his spider like legs. I waited, just like De Niro in "The Godfather", until my mother was due to pull into the driveway.

 As she entered the house, I meekly called from my bedroom: "mooooom.....cough, cough, MomMMM!" The room she walked into was more a crime scene than a place of rest, a testament to the imaginary ass whooping I had created by threading my leg through a desk chair, turning over furniture and positioning my body to appear splayed out on the hardwood floor, bloody and weak. I had repeatedly punched my nose, being sure not to hurt myself too bad but enough to draw a convincing pool of blood to dry above my lip. I pointed to the living room with a trembling arm, communicating that i was OK and Paul could be found ".....over.....THERE". I had to bury my face in a pillow to avoid my laughs from drowning out the satisfying terror and confusion I heard in my brothers voice as he proclaimed, "WHAT?? He's...WHAT? Mom, I didn't do THAT!

Although being covered in hornet stings or breaking your arm on a trampoline is painful, it is a badge of honor, a testament to your adventurous bravado! While less satisfying than the scars worth bragging about, the scrapes and bruises dealt by friends and family is bearable, a fencing match...nothing worth further introspection. But if someone could be driven to ignore the unwritten code of "non-face-punching-ness" then something had gone terribly, terribly wrong. It was as if they had punched ballot of your face...literally. The act was a vote that stated: "I hate you, and i hate your face. It is a stupid face attached to a stupid person and I'd rather risk serious punishment than risk someone thinking we are friends." Learning you are not as charming and universally loved as you think you are is tough. And, although it is about as concrete a reality as gravity itself, it doesn't mean you want to fall out of a tree in order to learn its full potential.

Then one day, it happened. Someone punched me in the face...yes, ME! (don't worry mom, I'm ok). Just as nonchalantly as a Monday follows Sunday this event I had analyzed a hundred times over and had granted access to my inner most understandings about life, identity, self and how I am perceived just...happened. Its funny, at least now, how betrayed I felt that the universe did not reciprocate the effort I had put into this by at least giving me some dark ominous clouds outside my window, a message in my cereal, or perhaps some wise old sage on the sidewalk reminding me to "mind your words...beware!" But no, nothing. just sunshine, spring flowers, and bluebirds...all I saw was a universe wonderfully indifferent to our little tragedies, far too busy creating the things for which we can contrast our problems against and show just how ridiculous they really are.

Where was I...oh yes, I was getting punched in the face. So it went like this; on a curiously typical afternoon I walked to a friends house as I had done the day before and the day before that. This friend went to a different school and ran with an already established group of kids of which I was "sampling", as we do from time to time, and trying to figure out where I fit. I wouldn't say they were "bad news" or anything like that (although my family would beg to differ), because in truth every friend I had was bad news to some extent including me....especially me. We were all just miserable little pricks who smiled and acted proper to our friends mothers, saying things like "gee Mrs. Roth, the garden outside looks great! Were you a model? I didn't know Barry had a sister!?" While my charming wit and humor had always served me well, I took for granted that its complex suitabilities might be misinterpreted around this group of people I had only known a month or so.

We were laughing and joking and listening to awful music which we thought was great when I realized one of the kids had borrowed some CD's from me and had neglected to remember bringing them back after multiple reminders. Back then CD's were bought from stores, with actual paper money, and a collection of 20 or so was a liquid asset, part of my net worth! "Hey Joey, whats going on with those CD's?" I barked, cool as a cucumber in my friends throne like lazy boy. He looked up searching his memory "Hmmmm, they must still be at home, I'll bring them next time". Unacceptable. I'm the new guy here, the "fresh fish" and just like in prison I felt the need to assert my position amongst the group before their concrete perceptions of me solidified. "Ok," I joked, "maybe put them next to your food stamps so that your sure to not forget them next time." Hilarious, right? You get it? He didn't get it. As quick as the words came out, I was eating them. I had been hit in the left eye and by the time I stumbled out of the chair it was over, broken up...leaving me holding my eye and ego, both swelling up to a blackish blue color.

 Surely people would protest, mobs would gather and pass out pitch forks and torches to defend such a treasure as myself! But I knew that wouldn't be the case...people would laugh, they'd point and stare as whispers that I was punched, neah, KNOCKED OUT by someone's little sister or a whatever. I knew, because I had been a part of that mob before and watched others writhe in shame as their "social worth" was discussed by anyone and everyone who had ever known them. The truth was I deserved it, I made a low blow at my friend for being poor, an emotional blow he probably wanted to avoid as much as I wanted to avoid the physical one.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not suggesting that getting punched in the face has some kind of universal power over everybody. Perhaps you're a big dick and are used to it. maybe you're kinda into it (you sick perverse animal!). Maybe for you it was exposing your less than tone torso for a game of shirts and skins. Maybe you feared the fact you wet the bed and wore a back brace would be leaked during morning announcements. Maybe your family was poor. Or maybe you feared getting your period in the shower after kickball practice (didn't go so well for "Carrie"...nor the rest of the school). Whatever the form it took, it was the physical manifestation of the dream where you suddenly realize you showed up to school naked. Except, instead of everyone seeing your pecker (they should be so lucky), they are gazing at your bare soul...and its experiencing major shrinkage.

I once heard the eyes are the window to the soul; two little reflection pools which shimmer our innermost hopes and fears for the rest of the world to see. Sometimes our tranquil surface is broken by a rock or pebble, sending ripples in all directions. But in the end they will fade, leaving only a greater understanding of our own width and depth. Those physical and emotional ripples have helped temper the man I am today and strengthen the idea of who I want to be tomorrow. While my fears, or at least my understanding of what is worth fearing, is constantly changing, I have gained perspective from the people I have known and try not to sweat the small stuff. At least, that's the plan. But, as Mike Tyson once said: "Everyone's got a plan...until they get punched in the face."