Sunday, October 30, 2011

Sept. 29, 1959, Esther St., New York, NY

Halloween is here!  Goblins, ghouls, ghosts!  It's that time of year where the temperature begins to cool, the nights become longer, and the creepy-crawly things of the dark emerge.  These days, it's a holiday of fun and frolic where kids and adults alike dress up, masquerade, consume far too much candy, and spend the next couple months trying to eat their way through the mounds of sweets they have procured.  The entire event is shrouded in mystery where the average joe is able to put aside who he or she may be, and become something completely different and hopefully exhilarating. Yet for some, the mask they wore was already in place and won't be removed after.  And as with most holidays, the ideals of the specific event resonate and can easily be used as a catalyst for analyzing life, attitudes, and prosperity.

All too often, folks waltz into Halloween ready to take on a fake persona in relief of the previous one they have been secretly living as for a much longer while.  Fear, doubt, lack of hope, lack of foresight, or an inability to find the good in things places pressure on an individual's psyche forcing a fight-or-flight reaction to which most choose "flight".

I know, this wasn't much of a segway but I hope you get the idea here.

So what do folks really have to hide?  And why do folks even feel the need to hide?

Years ago, I read a book about advancing my self-esteem by boiling all my personal concerns down to the nitty-gritty and working my way back up.  The process took some time for according to the book's instructions, I was to initially spend every night for several nights standing stark-naked in front of a mirror and without angst or disappointment, point out to myself what my physical flaws were.  The assertion was, if I could get to a place where I could begin to accept the things I was unhappy about even if it meant repeatedly pointing them out to myself, then I could begin to let those foibles go when I was around others.  Indeed, most of my life until my late 20s and early 30s was riddled with insecurity and the masks I wore--depending on the situation--were innumerable.

Sept. 29, 1959, Esther St., New York, NY by Vivian Maier (1926-2009) is one of hundreds of thousands of black and white photographs she took while living the life of a nanny for 40 years (her story is actually quite fascinating and I've included a link to it if you click her name above).  Portrayed is an elderly man in New York seated in a chair along Esther St. while he enjoys a cigarette.  Vivid, dirty, horrendously ugly, the male blows out his latest inhale and stares back at the lens without qualm, without remorse, and without hesitation.  His clothing filthy, his hands riddled with callouses and age, yet his hair is swept neatly and most likely for the moment which Maier captured.

For what does he have to hide?

Immediately, some of you in the recesses of your mind are reflecting upon the implied notions of who this man was and how he lived his life, deducing how you would behave if his attributes were yours.  It's the innate nature of being a human:  Judging others based upon your own precognitive understandings and often times, the reaction is unfair or unnecessary.  Because if you ask me, this man is beautiful!  He is the very embodiment of what it is to be a free citizen, a man open to making his own choices, living his life in as much peace as he can muster and without doubt.  Deep in the craggily folds of his leathery skin and encrusted in the dirt covering his shirt and overalls are the virtues of responsibility.  Yes, responsibility!  Oh, he may be smoking, but he's probably in his 70s and clearly taking a break from earning his keep which he has every right to enjoy.  And to toss insult to injury, it is all capture in a moment where his confident smirk warps his mouth upward and as if to say, "You're darn right I'm alive and well and there is nothing you can do to take this moment away from me!"

He's out there.  He's alive, he's not shy, he's on display for countless pairs of eyes because for him, what is on the minds of others cannot be controlled or become a concern.  He's aged and while that has been beneficial for his maturity and understanding of life, he's a fresh reminder that to try and hide who you truly are is an utter waste of time and energy.  This man is living proof.

Acceptance is an important part of removing your mask.  From something as silly as accepting Halloween is over to something as serious as confronting a need to abuse oneself.  Accepting that you are who you are regardless of circumstance and no matter what.  Do you see a flaw in yourself?  Great!  Confront it, accept that it exists, then get your butt out there and do something about it!  Don't like where you are in life?  Don't cry about it in public or make a scene, the world doesn't give a damn for it is too busy improving its own life!

Find joy!  Find the things you know you're fortunate to have but never, ever lose sight of the fact that what others may presume about you won't change a damned thing about who you really are.  You have to change you on your own terms and time and as long as you're willing to look at your own true face in the mirror, will you begin to be able to sit on that bench yourself and proudly display your uniqueness for all the world to admire without needing a mask.  Exhale your demons and negativity and remember, dressing up as someone else is but for one day a year, the rest is on you to make the best of.

You only get one chance.

Sunday, October 16, 2011


 "Excellence is an art won by training and habituation.  We do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but we rather have those because we have acted rightly.  We are what we repeatedly do.  Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit."
- Aristotle

There is a strange passion in loyalty to something we desire to accomplish.  A passion that burns inside our very souls, pounding from the depths of our chests wanting to reach out and grasp a goal that seems inevitably and perpetually out of reach.  We strain to find the motivation to keep going but the strain is never an option.  Inside, we can feel our emotions stretching over our limbs like muscles that cling to every joint and refuse to allow us to get that much more forward.  Creases in our face begin to form and fold as the pressure builds, each one like a strip of tight heat across our foreheads and next to our eyes.

I want what I want!  I know I can reach it!  I burn with desire, from head to toe!  Can't you see this means more to me than breathing itself?!  Can't you see, I am worthy of this!  I can have this!  I need this!

This passion is something all of us have whether stretched out over a long period of time in hopes of reaching a professional goal or nearly instantaneous in a moment where life is about to end.  A passion so strong, rooted in sacrifice, it manifests itself with ferocious velocity throughout our bodies.  Physically, we ache inside sometimes literally, almost always emotionally.  And just when you think you've reached a moment of reprieve, you look over at something off in the distance that immediately reminds you of this deep, deep desire and you cannot prevent your emotions from overwhelming you once again.

At this very moment, I can think of two things that drive me the most each nearly as important as the next.  Yet at the same time, I can also sense what it must feel like to have this same passion not for something to come or something inevitable but for something in the here and right now.  I picture the men I trained with during my short time in the Army Infantry and though I could not serve by their sides in war, my mind automatically skips over what could have become of them and I am left ... just missing them.  A whisper of my heart tells me they are gone, having laid the ultimate sacrifice for their nation but my mind does not want to accept this or spend more than a moment thinking about it.  I cannot!  For their passion to serve, their passion to sacrifice, and God-forbid, their need to passionately want to survive--oddly enough--gives me hope and renewed strength.

Requiescat by Briton Rivière (1840-1920) is a painting of a soldier, in full dress armor, lying in repose while his faithful bloodhound waits by the side of his master.  The somber tenderness of this piece is humbling to behold which is centralized and signified the eyes of the hound and the position of his nose next to his master's deceased hand.  Yet detail is just as significant to the entire piece as the canine who idly awaits:  We can see the intricate armor indicating the man's military significance.  He is lying in repose so he was someone important.  The embroidered and tasseled blanket over his bed showing expense was no object in honoring his sacrifice and existence.  And most interestingly, his faithful pet is seated on his haunches yet his upper body is up and ready.  I also appreciate that the dog's head is poised upward yet resting endearingly as if to say, "I'm ready when you are, master, but I sense something is wrong and I will not leave your side."

A heartbreaking painting when you grasp the full magnitude of what is being shared in the incredible detail and implied by the look, the feel, the color, and the emotions of his faithful dog.  Dare I say that there is no direct symbolism here to which we can all relate in terms of relationships.  No, what I see is a man enriched by giving up his own life while being honored more so than any human could have.  It's that honor.  The honor symbolized by his pet that looms patiently by his side as if he were going to get up and continue on.  I honestly cannot relate the symbolism here to humans as it just doesn't seem right nor what any honorable man or woman would want after paying the ultimate sacrifice of death.

What comes with an honorable life and the instinctual desire to sacrifice oneself no matter the end result is true legacy.  Though each of us has a "legacy" to leave behind, the most significant legacies are those left behind by the ones who have given up the most for others.  A deep passion and willingness to fight on, to push forward, to ignore temptation, to follow-through regardless of the oft endured ridicule, ostracizing, and ignorance.  Do any of us know who this man is?  Probably not and there really isn't much written about this piece.  Yet what is portrayed in this work doesn't make me think of any one person who is lofty in what he or she has sacrificed but of all the ones who have received no attention, no honor but have left a wake of influence and a void of quality that once was there.

Requiescat in Pace means "Rest in Peace" in Latin and is far too often misused.  It isn't a statement of hope, but a message of what is--a phrase used to indicate that this beloved person may now enjoy the painless spoils of all he has done.  His life may be over but his legacy will live on.

Saturday, October 8, 2011


The story goes, in 1949, lightning hit the forest in Mann Gulch about a half an hour North of Helena, Montana.  A fire roared into life and was spotted by a local Ranger.  Calls went out for assistance and after several hours, smokejumpers were dispatched and dropped into the heart of the forest.  Leading them was a foreman named Wagner Dodge who was a seasoned veteran of fires and with the help of a local terrain expert, he assessed the situation.  Gathering up his crew as they finished eating their lunches, he instructed his 14 men to head to the ridge of the gulch and move along its edge so they could flank the presumed fire line from behind.

Dodge took a moment to sit and eat while he discussed his plan of attack with the terrain expert when he noticed smoke filling the sky had gotten much more dense and had shifted.  Sensing imminent trouble, Dodge scrambled up the sloping gulch to meet up with his crew just as they crested the peak.  What stood before them was a wall of flames filling the valley and up and over the ridge line merely a few hundred yards away and roaring towards them with tremendous ferocity.  A not-so-uncommon combination of wind, ecological circumstances, and dry heat set the table for a loud and destructive force and the only option the men had was to turn and run for their lives.

Hitting the bottom slope of the gulch and into a field, Dodge knew their efforts to get to safety were in vain but instructed the men to drop their gear and begin heading up the rocky incline of the gulch.  Looking back and seeing the flames fill the funnel-shaped valley like the barrel of a cannon, Dodge saw they were out of time.  Quickly, he lit a patch of grass to create an "escape fire" (an area of grass that is pre-burned) and as it spread outward, he yelled to the men to get face down.  But the noise, panic, and confusion of the moment prevented many of the crew from hearing their leader's instructions.

David, by Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680), is the life-sized sculpture of David from the Bible as he was about to slay the giant, Goliath.  Breaking from the typical works of the 17th century which displayed many subjects in romantic or poetic poses, Bernini opted to do this particular commissioned piece as if David were frozen in time the very moment he was about to sling the rock.  Moreover, Bernini shows his artistic superiority through the implied psychology that is captured in David's face, body, and movement.

Examining the features of this piece, I am astounded by the realism.  The infamous story of the young man facing off against a giant is timeless and one many Christians and non-Christians are familiar with.  Worth noting is how the story is structured in I Samuel, Chapter 17 removing any doubt of David's fearless acceptance of the giant's challenge to fight.  Looking at the facial expression and body language, I can easily see that the only thought on David's mind is his determination to live up to his proclamation that the LORD would deliver Goliath into his hand.  Ultimately, Bernini has created a masterpiece that is timeless, awe-inspiring, and magnanimous--worthy of being considered one of the greatest sculptures ever created.

Of the 16 men in Mann Gulch that day in 1949, only 3 survived including Dodge.  Two men had luckily found their way through a crevasse in the steep, rocky hillside while Dodge was able to avoid certain death by lying in the escape fire's burned area.  It was later discovered that the men who perished were not overwhelmed by flames, but by the fire's incredible force of sucking the oxygen from the very air around them.  As the valley filled with flames--winds pushing the fire from behind, winds being created by the fire's massive inhale--each man who died suffocated to death before being burned.  Not long after the fire was extinguished, investigators easily located where each smokejumper had died finding body-shaped areas in the charred field where the grass was still alive.

Much like David, Dodge faced an incredible giant and was able to stay alive through confidence, determination, and quick thinking.  While fear and panic led to a terrible travesty, courage and will led to life and a story that has gone on to save countless firefighters from death.  From struggle often comes triumph.  Israel was finally able to fight back the Philistine army based upon the actions of one young man.  Countless firefighters and smokejumpers today are alive and able to confidently fight wildfires based upon the actions of Dodge.