I just see trees

I had the wonderful opportunity to spend the entire day with my youngest daughter on Saturday. Since the separation, the physical distance between us has been a real barrier. When we do see each other, it tends to be rushed because of time constraints. Saturday, we had 2 hours in the car and a day of binge-watching Netflix ahead of us.

I love riding in the car with the kids, one at a time or all at once. I have a ritual with each one. With my oldest, it’s radio off and let’s talk. With my second oldest it’s sports talk and name the car. With my youngest son, it’s all music, comparing Spotify playlists and playing for each other our favorite new artists. With my youngest, we only have one ritual. It’s called put the damn phone down. She kills me with how she cannot pull herself away from the endless snapchats, facetimes, and texts. She doesn’t mean to be rude, she’s just addicted. She is one of the millions I suppose. I am probably being selfish, I want as much quality time with her as I can get, and I want her to see what I see.

The ride to my place in NH from hers is an increasingly scenic one. As the odometer increases the number of houses dwindles. Four-lane highways become 2 lane roads. Imported, high-end cars are soon outnumbered by domestically produced vehicles. I can actually feel the stress wash off my body as I reach the halfway point of the 100-mile commute. At mile 57 comes my favorite part. There is a long stretch of climbing road, the type that has a slow lane for trucks and heavy equipment. Once the peak of this stretch is reached and you top the hill you are immediately hit with a vast, panoramic view of the White Mountains. You can see for 50 miles on a clear day from that spot. Layer after layer of hills, snowcapped in spots, fading in clarity as you strain to see the end of it. It takes my breath away every time. As can be expected, I prepped her ahead of time that I wanted her to put the phone down when we reached it because it diminishes fast once you are down the hill. My daughter took a look, said “nice” and went back to her phone.

download (60)

It’s not her fault, her generation was raised on screens. All of my kids are like that. My mother with her new dating app is too. Smartphones and staying inside are here to stay whether I like it or not. That’s extraordinarily difficult for me because I love the outdoors. One of my favorite movie scenes is from the Great Outdoors with John Candy and Dan Aykroyd. They are in Canada on vacation, sitting on a deck overlooking a lake. Dan Aykroyd goes off on a tear about what he sees when he looks out. Future Industrialization, urban sprawl, forestry, medical waste dumps. John Candy’s character, when asked what he sees, says “I just see trees.” Then he is summarily insulted for being short-sighted and simple. Sorry to say, but that’s me, I just see trees.

download (55)

I want my kids to see trees. I want them to appreciate the power and beauty of nature. I want them to see crashing waves during hurricanes, starlit nights and sunsets, windy days and mountain views as I do; as a reminder of just how small we really are. To recognize the beauty, power, age and resilience of the tall mountain, the rushing river and the mighty Oak is to recognize our relative size and overall significance. No man is a match for the tide, despite his wealth, power and Instagram followers. It is a call to humility, a damper of ego and hubris, a wake-up call to recognize your smallness.

My children continue to marvel, and I suspect privately mock my newfound Spirituality. That’s fine with me, I was a pretty vocal agnostic for a long time so I have it coming. When I told them about my change of heart, it was a result of deciding between being honest, or not sharing something valuable for fear of being accused of flip-flopping. They are cautiously happy for me while still confused about my change of heart. I could explain it so easily if they let me.

Walk outdoors and look up. That’s all. Look to the top of the treeline, gaze up from the base of a mountain, stare at the stars on a cold winter night and you will see how small, not insignificant just small, we really are. When I did this, I offered myself up as a role player, a piece in the great puzzle. I made myself smaller so that my life could be bigger. I found the power to let down my guard and ask for help and guidance.

download (59)

Sure, I like screens. I’m working on one now. They serve their purpose. But given the choice…I still just see trees.

Ego, Omelette’s and getting along

I had the pleasure of doing a charity breakfast Saturday morning. It is one of the commitments I always make sure to keep each year. It is a combined effort between a local church and my Masonic lodge. It is a Santa Breakfast where families come for a nice breakfast and a picture with Santa Clause. I have worked the Omelette station for the last 3 years.

I have fun cooking, joking with the kids, messing with the parents and I meet new people every year. I really enjoy it, and I was asked back after the first year due to my entertainment value. Omelette stations are like fireworks. For some reason, people can’t get enough of watching someone make one. People “ooooh” and “aaaaahhh” as it develops. They want to talk about it with you, tell you how they “could never do it” and “would end up with scrambled eggs.” Some even ask if they can watch, as if I would send them away until it’s ready. It is so incredibly easy for me, I have over 20 years of cooking experience. A saute’ pan is like an extension of my right arm. Which enables me to “bring it” on the big finale…the flip. It is so easy to do but people love it.

download (53)

This year my usual partner in eggs didn’t make it. I was asked to work with the Minister’s son. Eli is a tall, smart, good-looking kid who claimed to know how to make an omelette. He made the first one for a lovely old woman and she was delighted. He was very pleased with himself. I thought it was awful. Not in a mean way but he could do so much better. Then came my turn to make one. When I was done, flip and all, I realized that I was being watched by a whole bunch of people. Eli looked at me and said: “I want mine to look like that”. I showed him by walking him through the next 2 that he made. They were better but not good. Finally, he said, “I like making them my way.” I assured him that it was fine. It’s a church breakfast, who cares. Then I saw a chance for a teachable moment.

“Eli, at 21 have you learned everything you are going to learn? Or are you going to be open to new ideas? Because every day that you are not learning something from someone is a wasted day.” He smiled and silently acknowledged that I was right.

The next few were a collaboration and he picked it up fast. We also had fun doing it. By the end of the breakfast he was putting out some nice looking and tasty food, and he was smiling. He even pulled off “the flip” a few times. At the end of the breakfast, his Dad Kevin came over and told Eli how well he did. Eli punched me in the arm and said: “I owe it to the master here”. After Kevin left I said: “you had a little ego at first didn’t you?”

“Yup.”

“But when you put it aside you learned something right?”

“I sure did, and I’m glad that I met you today.”

“Eli, the pleasure was all mine.”

Ego is in all of us. I maintain that it is as ugly and destructive, and green, as envy. Most of us keep it largely in check, only allowing it to rear its ugly head when our fragility is truly challenged. It comes out at small moments and places as well, like an omelette station. My ego wanted me to make every omelette, to not share the job, to have all of the accolades to myself. But I didn’t, I told the ugly side of me to stay inside and let me handle it.

Ego is not the same as pride. Flashback twenty years. I was driving around town in my convertible mustang with some friends and some jerk I didn’t know pulled up next to me and started making fun of my car. Not me personally, just my car. My friends started jawing with his friends and at the next light, we pulled into the parking lot of a local watering hole.

The way that the kid got out of his car suggested that a fight was pending. He took off his shirt and removed all doubt. Then, comically, he took off his shoes. The door to the bar opened and the people spilled out into the parking lot. I removed my shirt, to his apparent shock I was in a hell of a lot better shape than he was and a lot bigger. I left my shoes on. I saw the look on his face and he quickly caught himself and put his tough guy face on again. My friends were ready but didn’t engage and I became aware that I was to be the one to fight this kid. I didn’t want to but there was a lot of pressure and a lot of eyes on me. I knew that if it got bad I would have back up so I walked, shirtless and determined, towards my nameless foe.

download (54)

We squared off. He was talking some kind of smack, I still didn’t even know why he wanted to fight me, but here we were. I circled in a defensive posture, sizing him up for how many skills he might possess. He looked scared and a little drunk. Finally, he made the mistake of telling me in a loud voice, for the crowd’s benefit, that he was going to “kick my ass.”

Again, I didn’t want to fight this kid. I hated fighting. But my ego, or my pride, sure wanted a piece of this kid. Then I heard my dad’s voice in my ear, his familiar saying resonating if you punch an asshole in the mouth he’s still an asshole. I dropped my fists and said “I have a better idea. Why don’t you put your fists down, your shoes on and let’s have a beer instead.”

“You don’t want to fight?” he asked. Looking around for a reaction from the crowd.

“I can, but do I have to?” He shook his head. I watched him put his clothes back on, I buttoned my shirt and nodded towards the door of the pub. We, and our thankful friends parted a sea of disappointed bar patrons and drank for 2 hours. I didn’t make a friend that night but I avoided making an enemy.

I went home that night with my ego in check, and my pride intact.

great idea…someone else can do it

Leopards have spots, Zebras have stripes, people will always be a disappointment. Some things never change.

I am not usually one to promote such fatalistic, gloomy stuff but I’m entitled. I am a big believer in people. I believe in their basic goodness, that most people are decent and charitable beings and are worth investing in. Some people are a bit more difficult but I try to assume is good until proven otherwise. I was raised that way.

images (41)

Some are held to a higher standard. When I joined Freemasonry, the oldest fraternity in the world, I joined in hopes of being around men of the character of its most famous members, founding fathers, presidents and civic leaders. The appeal of Freemasonry was to follow in the footsteps and surround myself with good men. Men of character, with a strong moral compass who dedicate their time and resources to improving their family, their community and themselves. Freemasonry was a natural draw for me, they are low-key in their labors for the community and seek no accolades or praise. The best giving is anonymous giving.

I joined and immediately became an enthusiastic, active member. I volunteered at charity events like blood drives, medical equipment loaner programs, and other such activities. I spent time with some great men, many much older than me, and I learned a lot from them.

Our lodge, or meeting place is a special place. Within our walls, there is a strong sense of fraternity and friendship. Participation is encouraged, selflessness is required. Members are asked to step forward, not wait to be asked, to offer ways to improve our fraternity and our lodge. I eagerly stepped forward. Dare I say I jumped into the pool. I joined committees and local organizations as an envoy or ambassador. I enjoyed it immensely, it was good for my character. Unfortunately, I noticed too late that I was one of the only ones. Everyone else was stepping back and letting me do all the work.

download (50)

I tried not to get annoyed, but after 3 years of it, I noticed that if I didn’t step up things weren’t happening. I began to feel taken advantage of. So I slowly weaned myself off. I was still active in meetings but I started asking for help, for others to step up and join me, or actually do it without me. I talked of good things; coat drives for veterans, food drives for the local food bank, money for the school kids that needed things outside of traditional programs. Crickets in the room.

download (51).jpg

Freemasons take upon themselves an obligation. Part of that is to be selfless, support our brethren and be charitable within your means. I began to realize that my brothers weren’t living up to their obligations.

This year I ran into some life-changing events. I told my brothers that I would not be available for much this year, that my usual assignments would have to be delegated. I am very sorry, but not surprised to report that as of today they have not replaced me, that activity is at an all-time low, that our charities are suffering and our attendance is a joke. I should feel bad. But I don’t.

I learned something. Even though an organization has a long history of above-average people, “better men” to their credit they are, at the end of the day regular people. And regular people can be a disappointment. Some things will never change.

The Scorpion and the Frog

download (3)

The first time I heard the story of the Scorpion and the Frog it stuck like glue. After all, isn’t one of the eternal questions “can man really change?” I wanted to believe that people are capable of change but as I get older I am less confident. I do believe that people can improve, but our demons, our bad habits, are still there.

I used to be an unforgiving prick. I once told an old high school classmate, who had tracked me down (before the age of FB when it was a lot harder) in my early twenties. He had sought me out to apologize for wronging me in HS. He was in step 9, making amends. Despite his great effort and sincerity, my answer was to tell him to go Fuck himself. Not a proud moment. I’m not a hateful guy, in fact, I am generally known as a nice guy. I just have a problem with forgiveness.

download (47)

As I got older, and my blood pressure was increasing, I taught myself to let some things go. Part of that was to forgive. It required me to control, not change my nature. Anger, stress, and bitterness are a burden to carry around. It is a weight that affects your body as much as carrying actual weight. I committed to it. Since then I have forgiven people that deserve it, and some that don’t. I have given second chances to people that I normally wouldn’t. It’s the right thing to do. I’m better, and lighter, for it.

A self-aware man is a walking dichotomy. He is two men; the one he is and the one he wants to be. The only way to achieve the second is to improve and refine the first. He needs to recognize his flaws, move past his own ego and change it. This is a great way to ensure a great future. It does not, however, do anything about his past.

download (48)

Past behavior is a great descriptor of a man’s nature. Your “nature” is usually defined as your most visible, known attribute. It is what people reflect on at your funeral. “Ahhhh, he was a real genuine guy”, “he was a generous guy”, “she was a kind soul”. My father measured a man’s nature by whether or not someone would or would not “give you the shirt off of his/her back”.  It’s your legacy.

I have become very concerned about my legacy lately. Even though I have twenty +- years left I have had enough reality checks to know that it is not too soon to work on my legacy. It isn’t a tremendous undertaking, I have rectified most of my past mistakes in which I think I may have hurt someone. But I have a few left.

Today, on my way up from a doctor’s appointment I decided to do a pop-in on an old friend who had just bought a business near me. He and I go way back but haven’t spoken in many years because I offended him at his wedding. I brought to his wedding a guest that he warned me would upset his new bride. He was correct on that one. It wasn’t pretty and I took a lot of heat about it. We really haven’t spoken since.

I found his place and I gathered myself in the car before I went in. I found him under the hood of a ’79 Lincoln doing what he does best. I got his attention by cracking a weak joke about a car that I used to bring to him. He recognized me right away and we began to talk. It really never reached friendly, I could tell he wasn’t any happier to see me than a guy selling him a new socket wrench. I didn’t offer the apology today, it wasn’t the right time. I just asked if we can get together sometime for a beer and talk. He gave me a non-committal “sure that sounds great” and excused himself to go back to work. I left.

images (37)

He’s still pissed and that’s ok. I’m the first person to tell you that just because someone is willing to be forgiven doesn’t mean someone is ready to forgive him. He probably thinks that I haven’t changed. That my nature is still the hard-charging, screw the consequences type that I was twenty years ago.

There is still time for him to decide if he would let me get on his back for a ride across the river.