Archive for the ‘Stories’ Category

“Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”

– Hebrews 11:1

The other night I received a call from an old friend whom I’d not talked with in a couple of years. Over the course of the next hour, we played cross country catch up on the intervening period since our paths last crossed.

Then Josh, my friend, asked me a question that caught me off guard: “Are you still doing anything with film?”

Two summers ago, not long before the last time we’d spoken, I’d flown out to Los Angeles to study for a few weeks under a modestly successful filmmaker there who was offering takers the chance to make their own short films while soaking up an industry insider’s perspective, and for dirt cheap. People from all walks of life showed up: some already working in the industry; others wanting to break in; some already enrolled in good film schools; and even one socially active senior who wanted to raise awareness on a neglected population living within his community by making a documentary.

The philosophy of our instructor: “Just do it.” Start making film, as nowadays you shouldn’t have to go to an expensive film school in order to enter the industry and do good work.

A few years earlier, I couldn’t have imagined such a wild lark. And even when going, the idea of the LA Dream Factory was not all that appealing to me. On paper, as a recent graduate from a counseling program, it almost didn’t make sense. Yet having time in my schedule as I was unemployed, and offered an invitation that spoke to something deep inside, I headed to LA.

But to my friend’s question—with the brief exception of beginning a screenplay turned novel last year—I answered with a quiet “No.” That that part of my life is on the shelf for now.

On one hand, it wasn’t easy to hear Josh’s words because they elicited an ache. An ache underscored by feeling called to live a certain way over the last eight-plus years which for the most part has been hard and had relatively few outward signs of success, where there have been many brick walls, disappointments, distractions, and temptations while seeking to honor this sense of call.

But this isn’t a story about film; it’s a story about desire. And being invited into my story by a friend who knows me—who sees me, and gets me—was a great kindness. Though recognizing my difficulty, Josh was glad that I have not deadened myself to desire. That I still live with it.

As I put it to him, I’m at a place in my life where there are certain things that I have no other possible way to reckon them now but by faith. They just seem too impossible, and out of reach. Foolish.

To live by faith is to live with the ache of desire. It is the calling to live as an artist—seeing into being those things which do not yet exist, carried by what William Blake called a “firm persuasion.”

When drawn into territory where there are no clear road maps, can you be a fool? Will you be a fool?

I’ve often been tempted to be too practical for my own good, and at some of the worst possible times. But due to the apparent foolishness I’ve succumbed to in recent years, why begin now?

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Poets vs. Engineers

The other day I went to a networking lunch here in Orlando. It’s one of the better such meetings I’ve been to, enabling me the chance to have a few conversations of substance, and not just that sense of a whir of faces sizing me up as if to say “I wonder if you are of any value to me… Next please.”

At the end, I struck up conversation with a realtor, each of us sharing a bit of our stories—how we got to Orlando—and weathering the current economy among other things. After a time, he surprised me a bit with a couple of his comments, which he meant to be taken as compliments.

He said I had a “Zen quality” about me.

He also said I seemed “entrepreneurial.”

Perhaps they seem at odds. But taken in context, I totally tracked with him.

I had explained my love and experience of international travel, and well as living in far flung places such as Seattle and the South Pacific prior to coming to Orlando a couple years ago. And a quality of living that only comes by, well… getting out there and living.

That’s what he meant by entrepreneurial. Not afraid to experience life. And where things have not been all that, allowing the experiences to shape me for the better, nonetheless.

That’s where the Zen thing came in, contrasting what he described as my easy-going demeanor with his own edginess, which—normally taken as a good thing in business circles—he felt to be a disadvantage at times.

My new acquaintance was also talking about how he recognized a Zen demeanor does not always sit so well within the super-charged atmosphere of business circles.

Yep. I just laughed a bit, and quipped, “Poets vs. Engineers.” Or (true) entrepreneurs vs. technicians—living in tune with larger cycles and rhythms to life and not just the bottom line. Or artists vs. business people… Name your cliché; you get the point.

Of course, each has their place. But try telling that to the guy or gal who’s convinced that theirs is the most important thing in the world. Ever. Now let me charge you $500 for that advice. Or if I’m an artist, will you pay me peanuts for this thing of beauty now so that one day you can brag to your friends when it’s worth a $1000?

Beauty will save the world

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“Easy reading is damn hard writing.”

—Nathaniel Hawthorne

The other night I was reading a short piece by travel author, Paul Theroux. Theroux has distinguished himself over the last few decades as something of a man of letters, whose fiction and non-fiction explores the many faces of humanity, like good Greek drama. He’ll talk about the common in a way that is extraordinary, causing us to look at things as though for the first time.

Part of his gift is that Theroux is a master in setting up a scene, or a character in a scene, with great yet subtle details, with a satisfying payoff in the end. Whether that’s to be shocked, amused, or challenged.

I was reading a story called “Sadik,” from The Great Railway Bazaar, about a traveling companion on one leg of his journey. A picture is painted of a seedy, unattractive, but highly shrewd and entertaining man.

The picture was painted so well, that by story’s end, I didn’t see what was coming. Like a sucker punch to the gut, I found myself howling in laughter. The best laugh I’ve had in a long time. I laughed so hard that I could not finish the short paragraph, as I could not get a focus as my book was shaking, and tears began to form. I had to pause before reading the next sentence; pause and laugh hard again before finishing.

To prove the story’s power, I recalled it a couple times the following day—and began to laugh once more.

There’s plenty to occupy our thoughts and days that have a quite opposite effect: a painful memory that brings shame and regret. A missed opportunity. A strain in a relationship. Worrying about all there is to do in the coming week. Things that have power, too, but in a way that shrivels, and even kills.

That’s why I’m grateful for the interruption of this story. For a moment, it rescued me from the routine and invited me to enjoy myself freely without thinking about all these other things. And that is a wonderful payoff.

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Years ago when I worked out, I might go at it for two-plus hours—and put in zippo cardio exercise—all in the vain hopes of becoming more like one of my then idols, Arnold Schwarzenegger or Frank Zane, from bodybuilding’s Golden Age.

But not today. I like to do my business quickly and leave. There’s too much more important stuff in my life now to attend to. But if I never go, I start feeling bad, too. So this is my happy compromise.

So a few weeks ago when working out, I headed for the seated leg press sled. It’s a sort of hybrid device between free weight squats and a leg press machine. Thankfully, my club has two of these, so there’s less likelihood of having to wait for someone to finish. But it only went so far in this case, as I now explain.

I noticed there weren’t the usual number of 45 lb plates handy to load onto it. But next to my device, I noticed another leg contraption that had a ridiculous number of these plates stacked on each arm. I counted 28 in all—14 on each arm. 1260 lbs. Now usually, if I’ve seen someone using anywhere near approaching this amount (and this is the largest by far), they tend to be gargantuan dudes to fit the part with a couple of spotters to help them through potential sticking points on their reps.

There had been nobody close to neighboring equipment in several minutes, and I was quickly running out of plates to stack on mine. Then moseys up a tall older gentlemen of lean, lanky build—hardly whom I would have expected to be using this.

Already hacked with this guy for his violation of gym etiquette—leaving a machine unattended for several minutes while using up most of the available plates nearby—I fumed at him with suspicion over any attempt to actually try to press all those plates. When he went to move them, he only pushed all that weight maybe 3-4 inches, not even a quarter of the range of motion (Those of you who work out know the difference that form and range of motion can do to get the maximum effect, and how much harder a modest amount of weight can be when not cutting corners.). I was duly unimpressed.

In the weeks since when working my legs, I noticed the same thing. I want to use the leg press, but the most of the weights are taken up by an unattended machine. To make matters worse, there is a towel spread over it, clearly an attempt to say, “Taken. Don’t use.” Next to it, an unattended seated leg press had a water bottle and keys marking them, too. Well, you guessed it: my friend—“The strongest man in the world”—casually strolls in after a long absence.

I’ve since observed this guy marking off up to three devices at a time. While scowling over his faux presses, I can only guess what he’s doing with all this weight in the first place. Is he a sprinter? Maybe training those muscle fibers for that particular movement? Is he really getting any benefit from it, particularly with 5-10 minute rests between sets?

On one of these days, wanting to get in and out, I walked a distance to find weights to drag back to my device. When my friend showed up, I had apparently interrupted his flow, as he was eyeing my equipment for remaining 45’s he intended to use for his 1,000 lb+ press. I ignored him as non-discreetly as possible, walking great distances to secure more plates for my device—and hinting with my example how to do full presses with short breaks in between sets.

He did not seem to catch on.

Rather, he sheepishly offered to put some plates on my equipment when he was dropping back down on his—noticing my short supply. A few days later, he noticed he had apparently taken over my device when I stepped away for some water, as he made a modest show of wanting to set it back up for me. “Don’t try to be nice, man. That will just get in the way of my fuming at you,” I thought.

I’ve since seen this guy fraternizing with a couple other men. In truth, he may be a decent fellow. But it’s kind of hard for me to want to know him in this light. I’ve gotten so used to him being “that guy.” Do you have someone like this in your life? The one you’ve pegged as “that guy.” Or, “Oh her.”

Maybe I will come around at some point. Gosh darn it, it kind of makes me feel guilty that I may have the bigger issue here. He might even make a friend under different circumstances. I don’t want to sugarcoat the frustration of my experience with this guy. But is there an opportunity for me to get a different kind of workout here? To be stretched and challenged more than just the mental discipline practiced between me and some inanimate device? But to risk humbling myself to know another whom I took offense from, to look at someone as an opportunity rather than an obstacle—that’s a far harder workout.

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Lent Season is upon us.

Those of you familiar with the Christian faith and tradition likely know this. But I don’t want to assume anything.

See, I should know this firsthand myself. And I do. Yet, it wasn’t always this way, but rather became so only recently.

Around this time a couple years ago, I was speaking with a local businessman about a particular matter, when I noticed during our conversation that he had this big smudge of grease or ink on his forehead. Not wanting to leave him to the snickers of other noticing folks like myself, I was about to tell him about it to help him save face. But for whatever reason, I didn’t.

Now I’m not generally the type of guy who will let something like this go on while  some pour soul becomes the laughing stock of his or her peers. But whatever held me back this time, by doing so, I was the one who saved face that day.

I come from a non-liturgical tradition that never really observed Lent, certainly not on a large scale. And while I may have heard the name dropped every so often over the years, I remained blissfully ignorant about the significance of Lent to my heritage.

Now it seems I’m not the only one to fall prey to such folly. The other day, Vice-President Joe Biden, and President Obama were making an appearance for a press conference, where the Catholic Biden visibly bore such a mark on his forehead. On CNN the following day, audio was played from a couple of journalists for Britain’s Sky News speculating about it as they watched news feed for the conference—apparently mistaking the mark for a bruise (I wondered this, too, at first, from seeing a small photo from the conference online. What is meant to be the mark of the cross in ash sometimes ends up being an amorphous blotch. Still, even the less descript marks are synonymous with Ash Wednesday for those who know.).

At any rate, I now know about Ash Wednesday as the faith community of which I’m a part practices Lent. The significance of the season is to anticipate the resurrection of Christ, which for many, makes Easter even more important than Christmas. Lent takes place 46 days out before Easter, or the biblically significant 40 days when not counting Sundays. Traditionally, people give up something—some food, drink, or practice—as a willing sort of self-denial.

For my first Lent last year, I gave up caffeine (no easy feat!). But it’s about more than just giving up something. It’s about getting something in return. Replacing it with something good which hopefully will draw one closer in their relationship with the Lord.

This year—the coffee stays. But I have been more mindful about the why (drawing closer to God) behind the what (what I’m giving up).

To bring my folly full circle, the other night I walked into work not long after attending our Ash Wednesday service. A few minutes later, my partner on the night shift made a comment regarding my forehead—“Ash Wednesday, huh?” (You kind of forget it’s there after awhile). Then mused, “Good ol’ Catholics.”

I started to take exception—not being Catholic—probably more than anything from some long-standing issue going back to childhood where I feel I have to correct someone who misunderstands me.

But then I had to catch myself. And smile a little, moreover glad at the general recognition that got it right. Of being identified with something I had chosen to willingly identify with. And risk a little ignorance if needed, no doubt which my business friend was well familiar with that day a few years ago.

And it takes me back to the what and the why again—both in what I seek to give up, as well as what I hope to gain. If it were merely discipline or religiosity I was looking for, I could join a class at the gym, or attend a seminar. But I’m already happy enough with the fitness routine I have. And as for gaining more knowledge, I’m trying to make better use of that which I’m already acquainted with.

No. This is more about presence and connectedness in the here-and-now. Awareness and encounter of realities outside of myself—Holy Otherness—without any sort of self-editing for whoever may be watching. Real journeys are like this, off-the-beaten path sort of affairs that while possessing public and community dimensions, nevertheless take their journeyers into very personalized experiences.

Granted, this sometimes feels elusive, and not always my actual experience. So far, my 40 day season is not off to the best start. But there are moments that this awareness and encounter happens. And the aim has a way of focusing the general movement in the aim’s direction, where even the common has a way of becoming holy.

Last year, I did notice a positive difference in myself at the end of the season. It wasn’t one of those dramatic changes that takes place overnight. But I was happier, and more spiritually connected…

I’m hoping history repeats itself this year as I look forward with great anticipation to something new.

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The other day I got called in for an audition for a national commercial being shot here in Orlando.

Now me being an actor might feel kind of like Forrest Gump did being a national celebrity—it’s not something I exactly went looking for. I sort of stumbled onto it. To paraphrase Forrest: “I just felt like acting.”

Okay, so I should make it clear that this is not something I do for a living. Like many in this business, I do it on occasion. And in my case, during these tough economic times, it makes a lot of sense to find decent paying gigs on the side to supplement the cash flow. Feel free to dream yourself, but don’t get any grandiose ideas: while a couple have been nice paying ones, I’m waiting to move from the three-figure to the four-figure income range on this thing. Cumulatively, and not per gig, that is.

In other words, don’t quit your day job, because these sorts of things don’t come along all the time. And like most anything else, you have to work it if you want to be successful.

In this case, I had gotten the call for this opportunity from a new agent I’d just contacted. And I was pretty pumped, as it’s the best opportunity I’ve gotten so far (and easily could put me into the four-figure range).

Now you’d think I’d have the sense to be on my A game for this. But I quickly saw myself for the greenhorn I was, as I walked into this casting call underprepared. The notification had come so fast. And I’d rushed out to Ross to purchase the right kind of shirt a few hours beforehand, only to get increasingly uptight as the minutes ticked away toward appointment time and the shirt was still damp after running it through the dryer for an hour and a half. With little time to spare, I finally grabbed it, ironed it, and ran.

No worries, I thought, while slurping my coffee down the freeway—as there was only one line to speak:

“So that’s how the secret got out!”

How hard could it be?

But it’s amazing how challenging such a seemingly small thing can feel when you’re under pressure. And as with so much else, it’s the little things that count.

I got to the hotel where the auditions were being held, only to find that I was one of about half a dozen guys auditioning for the same part. Surely I could expect there to be others, right? This is why they call it a casting call—not a done deal. Still, though, it took seeing it firsthand to understand this better. And many of these guys looked pretty experienced.

To confirm this hunch, I saw that everyone else waiting in the lobby had headshots in hand to pass along to the agency. Calling cards to bookmark their faces from these busy auditions as well as to hopefully gain future work. I looked down at my empty hands.

Aw crap! I thought. Didn’t I read something about that? In my haste, I’d forgotten that this is how these things roll. Sure, I’d just mailed half a dozen photos and resumes to my agent (who lives in a different city than the agency running this thing). And I’ve done several gigs where I already had secured the part beforehand, and thus, didn’t need a headshot. In those cases, I’d worked as an extra, which is a little different than principle acting roles. Or if acting, I’d known the people doing the shooting beforehand and was given the opportunity without a need to audition.


To make matters worse, the guy in the lobby lining us up for our time slots was a bit of a hard-ass—a fragile ego long grown cynical from this business—who didn’t like it when some of those from the hopeful lot gathered around him didn’t bow down in full subservience, as he barked out orders he expected us idiots to comply with. Two parties approaching the same situation from totally different perspectives.

To be honest, as I waited in line for my turn to go into the casting room, I felt kind of like I was back in grade school waiting to be called out by the teacher then exposed in front of the whole class as it’s revealed that I don’t have my homework. And I happened to spy some paperwork revealing that this Miami agency had sister offices in LA and New York. In other words, a big deal… No pressure.

The casting didn’t go so bad, though. The director and his assistant were actually pretty nice. And I was auditioning alongside a pleasant young woman who helped to loosen me up. Still, though, it probably wasn’t enough. At one point, the director asked me, “Are you just going to stand there?” Though this five-second sequence was confined within the same floor space, there’s a language to our bodies that we’re expected to bring when acting. It’s much more than just speaking lines with emphasis, or changing voice tones. And it had been far enough out since any acting classes I’ve taken for me to forget most of this.

The next take went better, though, and he seemed to approve…

So the last couple days have rolled by, and no callbacks. Rejection is part of the territory in this business, so I’m already putting this one behind me and gearing up for the next one. At least I got called in the first place, which was a hopeful sign. And if it happened once, it can happen again.

Next time, I’ll be ready.

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So I was over in Winter Park getting recertified for CPR the other day.

I’ve done this routine several times now. But what I expected to be a fairly tame if not boring experience proved to be anything but. The fact that the instructor who welcomed us sported a cap reading “MARINES” in big block letters—and even more the fact that with his hulking no-nonsense presence he looked every bit the part of a former drill instructor—should have been an early tip-off.

Jumping right into our test, Tony immediately started grilling us for answers. And if you blinked, you might miss an important bit he’d be sure to call you out on any second.

At one point, wanting some clarification, I asked Tony about a particular item. In response, he had me go to the ground and give him thirty. Thirty chest compressions on the training dummy, that is.

Another question was asked. In response, Tony started lecturing on the evils of poor hygiene and spread of hepatitis (Lesson: never do CPR without a breathing shield.). Things seemed to calm down a bit, then began a lecture on medical liability (Lesson: make damn sure you have verbal or implied consent before performing any treatment.).

The other class member, Lanika, and I thought we might get a small break when a new person walked through the door. But without missing a beat, Tony’s assistant, Patty—who until this point had been dropping wry comments throughout our grilling—gladly jumped in to take over.

I shouldn’t have been fooled by her friendlier demeanor. For it wasn’t very long before Patty was going, So what are you gonna do now, Brian?! This person only has a few seconds to live! Then came her crazy laugh upon seeing the deer in the headlights look in my eyes.

What seemed perhaps a slightly unorthodox teaching style actually proved to be one of the most effective classes I’ve ever attended. Tony and Patty waste no time helping you to experience the material, not just passively hear it. And barking at us like they did helped cement this serious content.

I was reminded a bit of the late Sam Kinison. His trademark comedy routine always had his characters starting out in a low, calm voice as they asked questions of another. But it was never long before he erupted into a series of screams going, “Ahhhhh!!!! Say it!!!”—reducing his victims to tears and ashes.

Okay, so they didn’t exactly reduce us to tears or ashes. But they didn’t mind giving us a little heat. All I can say is “Thanks.” It might just save a life one day.


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The Narcissistic Kitty

I live in a cat house.

No—not that kind of cathouse. The kind that is full of felines, as both my roommates have cats.

Now I’m no cat expert, and it had been years since I’d had regular acquaintance with any. So I’m learning a bit more about cats in general as I get clued in to the particularities of each of these kitties. No newsflash for the pet owners among you—but it really is true how these critters have “personalities” of their own, and can amuse one for hours on end based on the character traits that make them uniquely them.

This was first bought home to me with an episode I was unfortunately not present to witness, where Kaya, the male cat, attacks my other roommate as he reaches down to pet one of his own cats (female) by jumping on his back from behind and sinking his claws in deep. Clearly jealousy kicking in. Though neither of the female cats will give him the time of day, nevertheless, according to Kaya’s owner they are “his bitches” now…

Well, the other day, I was walking down the hall when I happened to look through the door into my roomie’s bedroom. There in the corner was Kaya, standing atop his perch looking into his own mirror.

Now I’d never really stopped to think about it before that a cat would really need his own mirror. But seeing him there admiring himself for minutes on end, and then realizing the fact that along with his mirror Kaya’s food dish and water bowl happened to be elevated off the floor, drove home to me why. It would just not do for Kaya to eat off common ground! No sir! Kaya must have an exalted perch.

It was further explained to me that Kaya will let his owner know when his water bowl needs to be changed—as he will flatly refuse anything near approaching day-old water—the point further made by his threatening demeanor for you to go do something about it. Like most firmly established but dysfunctionally-suspect relationships in the human realm, theirs is a pattern that has been established over time, with certain ritual moments even looked forward to with a sort of glee. In telling me more about their history, my roommate starts to engage in a type of blood sport, where Kaya will often start whining, hissing, and flaring his fangs at any signs of affection such as attempts to pet him. His owner just laughs it off as he darts his hand in to pet him anyway then quickly retreats it, then eventually goes in for the kill as he swoops him up off his feet, rendering his claws immobile as he hugs him.

No doubt this springs from kitty issues.

When my roommate’s sister, Kaya’s original owner, essentially abandoned him after later getting a dog, her brother stepped in to adopt Kaya. So abandonment, lack of trust, jealousy, snobbery—and now, it appears—a healthy dose of narcissism…

They say you never really get to know someone until you know their story.

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Get That Bird!

I heard a really good one just recently… A couple days ago, I was having breakfast with my father at Prosser’s Restaurant. A round of colorful stories was being shared by the men at our table, when something said prompted my dad to say, “Greg, tell the one about the emu.”

Greg Moore proceeded to relate how a good friend of his had gotten into the emu breeding business. At some point, having more than he really needed, his friend convinced Greg to take a few of them, given that he had enough space for them on his horse farm. Greg was assured it would be easy and he would enjoy having them. (Greg did not say if he was still friends with this guy, but with what follows, I’m kind of doubting it.)

One day Greg came home surprised to find the dominant male emu running around outside the pasture. He had earlier reasoned his five foot fence should be high enough for the emus since it was tall enough for his horses. The moments that followed gave him pause to question the wisdom of owning emus.

Greg’s wife told him to “Get that bird!” Greg grabbed the emu.

The emu did not like being grabbed.

“He started ripping my pants with his talons. Blood was running down my legs.”

My eyes got wide as saucers.

“Then he shredded my drawers!” Our shock shifted to amusement.

In retaliation to the emu’s parry, Greg reached for his long neck. “I was so mad I was going to break that S.O.B’s neck! At one point, I bent it over double!”

Now Greg is a big man, with big hands. He’s the kind of guy you’d expect to have some acquaintance with tools, a guy who’s seen his share of manual labor.

“But I couldn’t do it,” he continued. “He was a tough old S.O.B.”

In exasperation, Greg made for the quickest retreat he could. “I finally grabbed him and threw him back over the fence.” With adrenaline flowing and a hostile emu loose, tossing a 90 lb bird over a fence wasn’t a problem.

Some time after he recovered from this incident, Greg came home to find the emu loose again. Bracing himself to face his old nemesis, Greg marched the warpath toward his truck where he could see the giant bird on the other side.

He rounded the corner to find his wife there–the emu eating out of one hand, while petting him with the other… The emu then stood his ground to protect Greg’s wife…

This would not be the last run-in with this bird. Some time later, he disappeared altogether. Shortly after, footage was shown on the local news of Lake City police officers chasing an emu around town, trying to capture it.

When I heard this, I could just picture an episode of the Keystone Kops. Recalling my visit to an Australian sheep farm several years ago, I now understood why the emus there were tightly fenced in, with chicken wire going up to the ceiling of their pen. Dang, man…

Thank you for sharing this great story, Greg!

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Happy New Year, y’all. I’m scribing this from my cold northern outpost of South Carolina—relative to FL anyway. But cold nonetheless, where it’s been dipping down into the 20s and 10s here. Brrrrhhh! Give me some balmy Floridian 40s!

The singles event at the Museum of Art was very nice. My expectations were modest. I knew of only one friend ahead of time for sure, my college roomie, Michael. Funny how the little things feel like a lot when you’ve been out of the loop for so long—having long given up those expectations of seeing everyone you ever knew from your old life. I really didn’t know who would be there. It would be a mix of people across a span of years beyond my time here, where I might quickly get lost in an unknown crowd. Only when showing up at the door did this occur to me, and my old insecurities around strange social gatherings begin to flicker.

A guy named “Event Coordinator” greeted me on my way inside. I presented my ticket, then zoomed by tables full of people enjoying dinner, by-and-large avoiding eye contact, choosing to direct my attention toward the buffet serving line. I needn’t have worried for anonymity’s sake, however. I soon heard a familiar voice from one of the tables: “Brian Bragdon.” It was Rachel… Whew.

And so I began to connect with friends old and new, sitting with Rachel, and mingling with some of her friends there. To my left was a distinguished-looking African gentleman. I recognized his photo from a Christmas card off Michael’s refrigerator. Recalling what I thought was apparently his nickname, I blurted out, “Hey—You’re Fatty, aren’t you?”—so wanting to be in-the-socially-poised-know than the Gomer Pyle-ish rube I was quickly making myself out to be. Fatty (actually pronounced “Fah-tee,” and whom I learned was from Gambia) never corrected me. He just good-naturedly smiled as he welcomed the friend of friends—me only later catching my faux pas. I needn’t have worried. He was a gentleman, as I say.

Everyone was dressed to kill. Excellent food, too—special nods to the prime rib and carrot cake. I slipped into a short spell of catch-up with Rachel, and was introduced to quite a few cute lady friends. Then got a Debbie alert from Michael. Going over to say hello to her and her mystery girlfriend, I got quite a shock when this friend called me by name and (re)introduced herself. Leslie Evans from TCA days. I had not seen her seen her since graduating, and would not have recognized her had she not said anything (after all, she was in junior high then). Saying small, small world somehow seems inadequate. But dang.

Then there was Brian Helms—one of the friendliest faces on campus back then and once probably half my size he was so thin. Still friendly as ever—and bigger than me now, all filled out. He’s become something of a entrepreneur in Charlotte, managing several properties. I’d never have guessed this of Brian then. He’d come across Kiyosaki’s Rich Dad, Poor Dad in an English bookstore in Romania during his adventures abroad and started educating himself. He talked, too, of his former exp’s in Amway. Never got far with it but how he loved the positive attitude, personal growth, and camaraderie. I spoke of my own business venture this past year, and despite a similar story, we both agreed there was payoff beyond the outward experience of success or failure with any program.

Out on the floor, a lot of dancing was getting underway. The DJ had a great selection of hits old and new—the more familiar the tune, the more I found my rhythm. I’d get inspired for a few seconds and my friends would be screaming, “Brian!” Meanwhile, it didn’t take long for my lower back to start joining in, too—“Brian!” Firing off dead lifts at 275 a couple days earlier was coming back to haunt me. But try explaining that to a mostly younger crowd. Better not let them see you wince! Not an easy thing when you’re supposed to be having fun.

I did get that visit into the Ansel Adams gallery. Amazing. Many of his best known works on display. Getting the story behind the shots, as well as his thoughts on looking for the elusive perfect moment. There was a shot with this plain of boulders in the foreground with the giant Sierras rising behind. Actually taken from Manzanar, a Japanese internment camp in WWII. Adams was sensitive to themes of dislocation and loss rising out of the clashing issues of politics and race—feeling that while the harsh environment surrounding the camps echoed the residents’ suffering, it simultaneously offered an almost other-worldly comfort with beautiful views in the distance to help sustain their spirits. He tried capturing this juxtaposition of emotion on film with what he felt the experience of its residents might be. Find out more at http://www.hctc.commnet.edu/artmuseum/anseladams/details/mtwilliamson.html.

I overheard this one gal in the gallery playing docent to a group of people. After her friends wandered off, we struck up conversation. Denise is living my dream life—she’s traveled all over the world as a photojournalist, and currently teaches some photography courses at USC. Where other people might see just pictures, Denise sees stories that need to be told. As if in echo to Adams, she told me about one assignment she did following a group of Somali refugees as they transitioned from their lives in an equatorial refugee camp to a suburban Chicago winter. Only a 48 hour trip, but worlds apart. The far longer journey was from one exile to another in search of hope, where terms like “culture shock” didn’t even begin to capture their experience. You can check out her work at http://denisemcgill.com/ .

Back on the dance floor, Michael Bush was the star of the show. Maybe because he’s my good friend who’s never stopped cracking me up in over 20 years. And genuinely one of the coolest guys I know. But he did own it—all heads nodding their respect and clapping hands as he struck some pretty groovin’ moves while sporting some wacky strobe light shades.

The DJ brought in midnight at the end of “1999.” He fudged a couple minutes to let the song play out, I think, but no one seemed to really notice. When he did the countdown, it suddenly occurred to me that hugs and kisses would soon be following amid the cheers. Standing next to me was a really attractive blonde, a friend of Rachel and Mandy I’d not met. In the spirit of the new year, I smooched her like we were well acquainted, introducing myself later to “Dena”… Hey—one of the few occasions I could get away with this. I wasn’t going to waste it.

There was an after hours party over at a guy, Steve’s, apartment. There was breakfast, then more dancing, as me and the other Brian groaned and succumbed to defeat, sitting on the couches, good-naturedly accepting our lots as “old guys.”… The best part to me was when Steve had everyone take a moment to share what they were thankful for in the previous year, as well as what they were hoping for in the year to come. I was struck overall by the level of friendship in this group, a tight-knit bond showing much love for one another. There were many stories of loss—divorce and job loss were common themes—but underscored by renewed hope, made possible in large measure by the support they had found from each other. I felt both a gladness and an ache. A gladness that is unique to standing in the center of a community like this. And an ache that I have long missed experiencing anything like this…

It has been a rather slow time overall on my vacation. The subtle seduction of inertia here compromises my ability to do daily disciplines well—like this writing, e.g. And prayer. All the more reason for short visits, though it’s been good visiting with my folks and grandmother… The other focus of my time—working on James’ chapter—which is still in progress. Hell and high water apparently were not enough to rush it through.

Back on the road tomorrow. Will post next from O-Town.

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