On August 31, I ambled my way to the highest point in Rhode Island: Jerimoth Hill, accessible via a 1/10 mile trail that ascends a whopping ten total vertical feet. (Friends of mine joked – “Surely Federal Hill is the highest point in the state.” Natch.) Having both Mount Mansfield in Vermont and 31 miles of the AT in the previous two weeks, it was a trifle – I was there to tick a box in the list of New England’s highest points.
But it turned out to be a bit more emotional than I anticipated. I sat on the little rock, festooned with a helpful cairn, and snapped the first of what would end up being three self-portraits over the next month. There was a trail book in a steel strongbox on the rock as well, and in it I wrote: “We are not crushed by mountains, but suffocated by tiny hills.”
Today I’m thinking of Carol and another recently deceased seminary friend, the redoubtable Bill Bradford. Bill was known by many as “the badass chaplain,” and he did indeed completely own his chosen vocation. Bill had depths of compassion that most of us will never begin to reach. He often quoted Paul Tillich: “The first duty of love is to listen,” and he was above all else a man who knew how be present to the sick, the poor, the oppressed. He will be missed.
My portraits: grieving, waiting, pushing back – against the tiny hills.
The cold, it rips you unobserved.
The flu, oh, it may pass after a few days
But you want a vaccine for it; care of
someone brighter, an expert in chemistry.
Bodies have a memory, you see
and you keep the little injuries for life;
going out gets that much harder.
The coffee is inert on your sick room table;
it cannot mend, today. It shivers a bit,
(the world is chilly which makes the flu and heartbreak)
under the shadow of that rising wall,
atop a pathway crumbling, un-counseled, far off.
Damask in the silt
Little mice tense in skin
Making nothing from something
A little flu, a little sadness
It will pass in a few days – I aver.
Whenever we lose a patient on my unit, I try to take a second to whisper, “Thank you.” No, not “thank you that it wasn’t me,” but rather for that person’s life, witness, gifts, and all they gave to the ones they loved.
Maybe it was the sun shower that hit just as I left work, maybe it was the date I went on last night with a girl that made my heart sing, but today, as I came to a field bursting with black-eyed-susies on my hike, I decided to shout my gratitude out loud. I spread my hands wide, let the wind and butterflies twist around me, and just let my voice speak for the mass of my soul: “Thank you!”
Working in healthcare, I see death often enough that it’s honed my sense of urgency about the whole “carpe diem” thing. Perhaps it’s a shuffling of priorities. So much of my life has been spent in the pursuit of Truth that I have often forgot that other aims are more important. Life presents opportunities for us to be right and kind – but sometimes it gives us a choice to only one or the other. Insecure, unhappy, and overly-educated, I have all too often chosen to be Right and not kind. I’m glad that, in recent years, I have learned to be kind more often.
At an in-service for work today, we took the new hires on a tour of the building. Our wonderful Infection Control/Safety Compliance Officer, Jane, stopped to talk about responding to a combative patient. The question was when it’s right to argue with an angry patient, and when it’s better to avoid an argument. When safety or health is at risk, she said, it’s important to be right. But if these concerns aren’t present, it’s better to be kind. If a dementia patient thinks it’s 1945, let them think it. What good will come of trying to convince otherwise?
“As often as possible, choose to be kind over right,” Jane said to cap the conversation.
A patient in a wheelchair, on leave from long-term care (the unit for people who won’t, most likely, ever be going home) suddenly spoke up.
“That’s very good advice,” she said. “I’ve seen people who spent their lives trying to be right and not kind, and let me tell you…they don’t get many visitors.”
We touch down on this earth and barely find our feet before the ground disappears below us. The sliver of time we occupy in the greater lifetime of our cosmos is such a small space within which to move, to learn, to create. How do we want to use that time?
It’s a question that is never fully answered; or one that dips below the horizon of our awareness as we become focused on the immediate, the logistical, and the mundane. I try to bring it forward each day and use it to stay focused on the things that really matter – those virtues and choices that will mean more meaning, more love, and – yes – more friends and loved ones at our side when time runs out.
My friends, don’t listen to the pragmatists or cynics. Give away the “stuff” you think you need and become rich with freedom and peace. Love wildly and impulsively. Believe in gods or good people or fields stuffed with flowers.
Every Wednesday, my local Salvation Army Thrift store runs a 50% off sale on everything in their inventory. I make it a point to stop in and browse the books and compact discs each week. It’s a lot of rummaging through trash for the odd treasure, but generally a worthwhile effort.
This week brought in an impressive haul of ten mint-condition, world-class classical music CDs that cost me a mere $0.99 – a price not even Amazon can beat. As I was checking out, the clerk asked if I’d noticed a few other discs of the same genre. “There’s a collection of classical meditation songs and a 4-disc set of Beethoven’s sonatas,” she mentioned helpfully.
She meant well of course, so I simply thanked for her the tip and completed my purchase. I’d seen both of the discs she mentioned, but the meditation CD featured no-name orchestras and Beethoven’s sonatas were performed by an unknown pianist. But her comment reflects the general disposition towards buying classical music: cheaper is better. Make no mistake, there are a lot of cheap classical records and discs out there, and many buyers are tempted by colossal boxed sets selling, if you’ll pardon the pun, for a song. For casual classical listeners, these types of bargain discs are probably quite sufficient. But if you’re serious about classical music, you’ll want to learn how to sort through the many recordings available for the best ones.
Let’s accept the subjectivity of taste as a given. When talking about the quality of music, much will fall into the realm of personal opinions. However, there are generally accepted markers of good vs. mediocre recordings, and they are your guidelines to making sound purchases. To organize these standards and make them easy to remember, I use a rubric of my own design, the CLASS system: Conductor, Label, Artists, Sound, Symphony.
Here’s how each category breaks down.
Conductor: Truly great performances are accomplished not just by skillful musicians, but the vision of the conductor, too. The conductor interprets the composer’s score in ways that dramatically affect the sound, pace, and feel of the performance. A good conductor brings something new to the table, or else interprets the composition in a way that honors the composer’s original intent. The novice classical music fan might think that one performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony will sound the same as any other. This couldn’t be more incorrect. Performances of the same piece can vary dramatically from conductor to conductor, and many critics will find one interpretation divine and another profane.
The most celebrated conductors of classical music earned their status by being consistently talented and unique in their interpretations of different works. They know how to coax the best performances from their musicians, and they show obvious passion and respect for the music they choose to perform. While there are variations of opinions, a few conductors to watch for as you shop are: Herbert von Karajan, Otto Klemperer, Charles Munch, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Pierre Boulet, Andre Previn, Masaaki Suzuki, and Daniel Barenboim. I’m also a fan of Charles Dutoit and Leonard Bernstein – I have yet to hear a Bernstein recording that I didn’t enjoy.
Label: The cost of producing a classical record or CD is – you may be surprised – considerable. Licensing fees and the costs of paying world-class performers account for much of the expense, and rightly so – these costs help fund orchestras and artists and keep classical music, which represents a fraction of a percent of total music sales, a viable genre. So a no-name recording label probably couldn’t afford the best orchestras and musicians, and the resulting performances will likely be poorer for it. Look for respected labels with a proven history of great releases: EMI, Sony Classical, Decca, Deutsche Grammophon, Telarc, and RCA. For budget-priced discs with superb performances and quality, Naxos is a fantastic label which I strongly recommend.
Artists: A slam dunk category – this is one of the first things I look for on a disc. If the artists or soloists are no-names or aren’t listed at all, you’re taking a risk of getting sub-par – and in some cases terrible – performances. Because musical prodigies are recognized at a very young age, if the soloist is unknown it’s a sure bet that their talent is average. Always keep your eye out for proven musicians like Hilary Hahn, Sarah Chang, Claudio Arrau, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Alfred Brendel Jasmine Choi, Isaac Stern, Itzhak Perlman, and Yo-Yo Ma (to name just a VERY few). For vocal music, look for the great tenors and sopranos – Placido Domingo, Luciano Pavarotti, Maria Callas, Andrea Bocelli, and so on.
Sound: Applicable to any musical genre, this category refers simply to the recording methods and mastering for any given performance. Since you’re unlikely to be able to listen to a record or disc before purchasing, consult the reviews online to get a sense of the recording quality. Some of the greatest performances of classical music were given in the early half of the 20th century and later, so analog recording methods were used and you should keep that in mind. The mastering of the recordings, however, can significantly impact even an analog source, and great performances can be completely ruined if the mix is off (imagine a concerto where the soloists are far off in the mix – I’ve heard it before, and it’s quite disappointing). Modern releases, of course, will have a clarity and immediacy you may not find on older recordings (though some prefer the older analog sound), but even with cutting edge equipment some sound engineers still get it wrong from time to time. For example, I prefer Leonard Berstein’s First Mahler Cycle, recorded in the sixties on analog equipment, over some of the recordings of Gustavo Dudamel’s cycle from just a few years ago. The former has a stronger and more evocative mix, while the latter suffers from a very flat, compressed sound to my ears.
Symphony: As important as musicians and conductor is the symphony performing the piece (for chamber works, refer to the individual artists). Symphonies with platinum reputations attract the highest caliber musicians, and have provided consistently strong performances – some of them for a century or more. If your bargain CD features a performance of Prokofiev’s Third Symphony by the Downer’s Grove Illinois Orchestra, you’re taking a chance that the performances will be poor. Look for the greats: The Royal Concertgebouw Symphony of Amsterdam, the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonics, the London Symphony orchestra, The Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and so on.
There you have it – a quick guide to purchasing the best classical music. As you explore, you’ll start to realize which conductors, artists, and orchestras you enjoy the most, and indeed there is always disagreement over who did which piece ‘best’ or ‘better’ than the rest. Whether online, at the bargain store, or browsing flea markets and tag sales, the best deal is a low price and superior artists, conductors, labels, and sound.
Sometimes, the trails take you where you’d rather not go. The solitude of the forest, a timelessness arranged by ancient oaks and granite erratics, puts the contemplative hiker face-to-face with history, the moment, the unknown to come. Cut off from technology, compelled by the rhythm of footsteps on living soil, hiking can become a pilgrimage or an unlikely form of time travel. Sometimes, turning a corner on the trail startles us with an insight into where we’ve come from, or where we’re going. It can be exhilarating. And unsettling.
Today, I put myself on a path that I knew would be fraught with demons. The aptly named “Devil’s Hopyard” State Park in Salem, Connecticut is the last hike I ever made with my ex-wife. It was August 2010, and my first time in the park. We set out on a picture-perfect day, accompanied by friends. I had just picked up the latest CD from Spock’s Beard, and I was singing the opening track (“At the Edge of the In-Between”) as we departed from the falls and headed south to the Tablet Rock vista.
We were mesmerized by the splendor of the forest – Devil’s Hopyard is perfectly Tolkienesque in its design. Among massive boulders are gnarled roots and abundant emerald mosses. The high canopy casts light and shadow with ethereal effect. It is a place that feels otherworldly and magical. We took many photos along the way: a sunlit glade, a friend upon a rock pointing westward like an erstwhile Lewis or Clark, goofy faces through the lifted roots of an old tree. At the vista, we set up my camera to snap a photo of my ex-wife, my friends, and I. We stood with our backs to the bright, blue sky. We were smiling and charged with the glow of the day.
This time, I was alone at each of the places where an inauspicious history had been made. At the lookout, I set up my camera to re-create the photo of five years ago. I’m not sure why; perhaps it was another maudlin gesture among many. But I’d like to say it was a minor means of taking stock of things lost, an inventory of resources and assets squandered or spoiled in the five year span that had elapsed since that special day. I’d like that image to speak the words I need to hear: “Let this be another reason to keep improving.”
I was playing the Spock’s Beard CD again (on my phone, this time), and as I descended toward the trailhead the middle section of “Jaws of Heaven” stopped me stone dead in my tracks. Nick D’Virgilio sang:
I awoke this morning A lifetime come and gone The ending of a journey My destiny at dawn
Yesterday behind me There is only now Every circle that was closing Is opening somehow And it’s clear to see the reasons Are woven deep in the wondering.
I had counted on ghosts and demons, but wasn’t for prepared for the tears that came suddenly at that moment. I’d have looked quite a sight, a middle-aged man weeping in a little clearing in the woods, had anyone come across me. But I let the crying run its course, and resumed my journey when it felt right to walk again.
I’m not fond of collecting regrets or wallowing in the sadness of misused past – well, not anymore, anyway. The fact is, I’m at about the midpoint of my life. Acts One and Two have now come and gone, and Act Three is about to begin. I’m sure I will always mourn my possible pasts and rue the mistakes I have made. Depression made a perfect hell out of the first half of my life, and the devastation can’t be undone. The noonday demon, however, is gone – and that is a success that almost balances the ledger as I move forward.
Returning to this place to lay eyes on places I had been with the wife and friends who are now gone was the very essence of a catharsis. In the weeks to come leading to my fortieth birthday, I believe I’ll return to other places of significance to my past – both on the trails and off. Perhaps it’s helpful to make a ritual of our reflections. Maybe looking back is easier, or more fruitful, if it’s done with a reverence that affirms both the temporal immutability of the past and its capability to be an active, living catalyst for change in the present. In the static, immobility of days forever dead we hear the still small voice, urging us to make the next Act better.
I’m well into the year in which I will turn 40 years old. Things didn’t quite kick off as expected on my birthday back in September, to be sure. The planned entry into nursing school vaporized when funds didn’t become available in time, and I must sheepishly admit to spending my birthday party lakeside and brooding into a setting sun. It wasn’t an auspicious way to mark what I have hoped would been a renaissance rather than a time of rueful regret.
There are rumors in the press that mid-life crises for my generation (GenX) have been canceled, and that’s just fine with me. I could spend this year looking back and enumerating the errors I’ve made, but that would be upholding a very unhealthy tradition of obsessing over the past. I’m working with just one central premise as I plan for the second half of my stay in the universe:
I’m tired of being weak and defeated.
Last summer, a friend wrote me a very pointed e-mail in which she said that many of my efforts – in business, in art, in romance – have failed because I don’t “project an attitude of success.” At the time, I was incensed. She’s a very successful one-percenter and I saw her remarks as a gross oversimplification of the laws of the universe (and an insensitive classist remark, to boot). It rankled my progressive ideology and activated a series of rationalizations that I now believe are very unhealthy. You know the type: the system is gamed against us, wealthy people fail to grasp the realities of the lower classes, and the universe doesn’t give a damn about our attitude (more on that later). You could say that the excuses arise from a victim mentality. For most of my life, I’ve seen myself as just a passive, immobile fixture of the world. I’ve typically responded to what Richard Dawkins calls the “pitiless indifference” of the cosmos with resignation and apathy. Without a god or any justice in the universe, it seemed like existence was something to endure.
In the preface to my book Eggshells & Entrophy, I shared my envy of a certain type of fortunate soul who isn’t troubled by the hardship or cruelty of the world. They simply “get on with it.” These folks aren’t poets or painters, I said, but people who get things done. “If you want to know the good life,” I said, “don’t ask a priest – observe a plumber.” I felt like I was cursed to ever hold the opposite mindset, rendered impotent and helpless by too much despair over how things ‘ought to be.’ I spent far too much time producing abstract sadness for myself instead of working on concrete satisfaction. I wonder, now, how much of the depression I’ve experienced in my life stemmed from this wrong-headed way of responding to the world. How much heartbreak would I have been spared had I stopped fretting about the capriciousness of life and just got on with living it?
Now, you may be worried that I’m about to launch into some tenuous proposition about the “real” meaning of life and the grand overarching dynamic that drives creation. Not at all. Nothing in my epistemology has changed, and to be quite frank I don’t really see any good coming from dwelling on the grand questions anymore. So many have dedicated their lives to following the seemingly innate drive to discover something “more,” and without success. For me, at least, the solution is to stop pursuing pipe dreams. I’ve spent the better part of the last twenty years looking for answers, a fruitless endeavor that earned me three worthless graduate degrees and an arrested career. While I idled away my time in philosophy, theology, and psychology courses, my more grounded and sensible peers made lucrative careers in business and science. The search for meaning as a vocation really is an exquisite joke. In both assets and answers, it leaves you bankrupt.
I’m starting to think my friend was right (when someone with a seven-figure annual income gives me advice, maybe we ought to listen). It’s embarrassing that, of all the things I’ve learned in some eleven years of post-high school education, I lost a fairly simple lesson from social psychology: that our behavior will change how people view us, behave toward us, feel toward us. Positive thinking doesn’t change the laws of the universe, but it does affect the people in our lives. Projecting strength and assurance makes people feel more confident in us, and their support can increase the probability of achieving certain goals. It creates respect. I’ve always curried favor through self-deprecation and even self-loathing. I’ve found that it generally earns other people’s pity, their concern and compassion, but…respect? No. Why would they believe in someone who doesn’t believe in himself?
I’m also starting to see the benefit of “radical acceptance,” a term that comes from Marsha Linehan and the method dialectical behavioral therapy she developed. In a nutshell, radical acceptance is the frame of mind that stops fighting reality. It acknowledges that good things will happen and bad things will happen, and most of both will be well beyond our control. Our choice comes in how we respond. But I also feel there’s a crucial next step that comes in asking how we can use the present reality to our advantage. So I’ve been asking myself how I can work within the system to achieve my goals instead of worrying endlessly about how unjust the system is.
My mid-life renewal begins on the premise that I will not enjoy the kind of life I want if I continue to de-value or immiserate myself with pervasive despair over the status quo. It means scrapping those interests and aspects of my personality that won’t move me closer to my goals. Of course, philosophy has a place in human experience and, yes, there’s a modicum of satisfaction in occasionally looking up at the stars and wondering why there’s something rather than nothing at all. For those whose joy is found in the search, and for whom other considerations are less concerning, philosophy and theology are enough. My goals, however, are becoming more concrete. I want to make a respectable income. I want to give my daughter more than a basic childhood. I want more pleasurable experiences and fun.
It’s a mid-life renewal. Of course, the sense of mortality at this age is a little bit more keen that it was at twenty, but that awareness is galvanizing. I feel compelled to make the most of my time, not to squander it with worry about the world’s many problems or the apparent meaninglessness of the cosmos. It’s a wonderful feeling to start believing in who I am. It’s pushing me to create a better me, with a new career (now underway), an improved and healthier body, and a personality that attracts people rather than repels them.
I know some of my readers are also approaching my age, and I welcome your thoughts on starting over at mid-life. Please share them in the comments below.
When I’m not working for The Chronicle newspaper as a photographer, or for the Humanist Connection of Stanford as Community Outreach Manager, or raising a 3-year-old (whew!), I’m working in a residential sober house/HIV AIDS facility as a case manager. Like all social services work, the pay is awful and the results mixed. For each client who achieves sobriety and begins life anew, ten re-use and end up back on the street. It’s absolutely true in this vocation that you have to love people and believe in the essential goodness of our species – or at least our potential to do good given the right circumstances – or you won’t last.
I arrived at work yesterday to find out one of our clients was being evicted. As of today, he’s homeless again. The proper folks over at Admin decided they were fed up with his public racism and violent temper. I’ve clashed with him before over his refusals to peacefully co-habitate with the “blacks” and “blancos” in our facility. He’s been threatening toward me and, due to my soft-spoken and gentle approach with clients (I employ the unconditional positive regard model to care), he decided that I must be gay. Under his breath he often refers to me as the “cabrón,” not knowing I have enough of a grasp on Spanish to understand when he’s discussing me in pejorative terms. But I’ve always maintained my friendly, forgiving disposition with him. It’s hard to be threatening or unkind to someone who unfailingly treats you with dignity.
But my co-workers and the other clients were happy to be rid of him. The mood was jovial when I arrived, with staff and clients talking about “karma” and comeuppance and exhorting me to rejoice that the man who detests me so much is getting his just desserts. Honestly, I’m just sad to see another broken person falling through the cracks.
I remembered something my boss said at a recent staff meeting. A co-worker said that she didn’t understand why this man could be “so manipulative and hateful.” My boss asked in response: “Did you have two parents who loved you? Did you know that you were loved and safe? Because if you did, you had more than this man ever did.”
Late in the evening, he came for his final supervised medication administration. I could tell he’d been worn down by the victorious stares of his peers, the triumphant grins of the staff who were ready to shake him off like dust from their feet.
I shook his hand and told him, “I wish you all the best.”