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Vanilla Sky

The other day I was coming out of LA Fitness, when I was surprised with a visual feast—a late afternoon sunset following the cloud break of a recent shower.

Now Florida already has some great sunsets. And due to the fact that most of the state sits between two coasts, the collision of moist air currents can make for some spectacular storms. But to say it was a beautiful sunset doesn’t quite capture the encounter that led me to take another way home just so I could stretch out the experience a few moments longer.

It was a quality of light that some artists have been known to chase after. Pacific Northwest photographer Mary Randlett probably says it best: “I have always called it Toledo Light [for the dramatic sky in El Greco’s noted painting Storm over Toledo]. We have wonderful liquid light in the Northwest.”

Liquid light. That is what I experienced on the drive home that evening. Back at the house, the sun now safely hidden behind the trees, its effect could still be seen in the clouds above—carrying a luminescence that seemed almost unnatural. Around that time, my roommate stepped outside to smoke a cigarette, as he settled into the comfort of a lounge chair. He cracked a wide grin and nodded his head upward.

“Vanilla sky,” he said.

I nodded in mutual admiration of the moment, about something touching on the transcendent in an otherwise day-is-done routine. I have a huge capacity to be stirred by nature, which is why I’m grateful every now and again to be jolted like this.

I’ve other moments very similar to this one in its quality of light: the late afternoon ride back to Seattle from Vancouver with my friend, Rob, following the breaking of another storm; the surprise of the sun managing to peek through gloomy skies shrouding the slopes of Chile’s Mount Osorno; and the brief penetration of light through a veil of valley mists following a soggy afternoon in Dorrigo National Park, Australia. Experiences of the holy breaking into the now.

I’m reminded of John Eldredge’s statement: “The world is overflowing with beauty. God seems to be rather enamored with it. Gloriously wasteful. Apparently, he feels that there ought to be plenty of it in our lives.”

Gloriously wasteful is right. I don’t always notice. But in moments like this that I do—Wow.

The Glowing Veiled Forests of Dorrigo / Brian Bragdon

Dorrigo Mists / Brian Bragdon

Late Afternoon Light Near Osorno / Brian Bragdon

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

The Blog Vacation

Hi Everyone,

I’ve been on vacation lately. A blog vacation, that is.

I know. I know. These are not welcome words, particularly coming from the fingertips of a writer—where among other things—consistency is key in branding ourselves.

How many times, for instance, have you come across a website where you find someone already claimed a domain name you felt to have great potential—only to see that most unspeakable of horrors… Only one or two entries, and then nada!

A dead blog. And nothing posted in months or years since the initial enthusiasm that gave birth to the only evidence that someone somewhere even bothered to create it in the first place. Which is right up there with “This web page is parked free, courtesy of …” or “Under Construction” or “Coming Soon!” and other dead ends in cyberspace. The internet equivalent of commercial building projects gone belly up in the real world.

Now on the positive side of things, it’s not as though I’ve stopped writing. Far from it, in fact. It’s just that publicly I’ve been largely incognito, save for an occasional article, and now—Tweeting. Most of my writing has been behind the scenes: journaling, business or ghost-writing assignments, and thus, off the grid.

I like being off the grid, actually. It’s one of my favorite things in the world, because when I am, chances are very good that I’m playing in fine style: exploring a new city, a new country, a new wilderness escape, or a new art museum.

But in this case, not so much. I just got behind. Busy. Distracted. Pulled in many directions, which ironically, has included looking for writing opportunities. And even lacking in inspiration some days to write here while attending to all these other matters.

Ahhh… WWJD? What would Julia (Cameron) do? My Morning Pages Muse.

Okay, so maybe not all the best reasons in the world. But hey—this is my confession.

Anyway, good to be back. And I hope to be checking in with you a little more often.

See you soon,

Brian

Gone on Walkabout

“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.


Second Innocence

I think sometimes of how way back in my story I used to perceive myself and the world around me. I probably could have used the word “innocent.” There may be a degree to which it was true.  But in hindsight, as well as how I look at my now, much of what I formerly thought would be better described with the word “naiveté.”

Way back in the Story of our Beginnings, we were offered perfect life and freedom—and had it—basically, everything that we dream about now. But given this opportunity, we ultimately chose a way of control via knowledge and its presumed power over fear, uncertainty, and the future; rather than living in the now—with everything we needed to do so.

This return to innocence—either by longing for it or some brief taste of it—is the theme of countless songs and poems. I’m not against it, per se; and in the right context, would encourage it. Where I take issue is more with the ways in which we go about it. Which often means an attempt to recover things as though they were before the loss of innocence, as though the loss never happened.

No one is innocent anymore. You can order your life to live with a greater sense of freedom, and with the eyes of a child, but it is not first innocence. To attempt it, as though the wounds and licks you take in this life mean nothing, as thought those hard-won etches in your face that tell a story mean nothing—is denial, and a continuation of naiveté. And the casualties will not only be your true self, but those nearest to you, too.

In Life 2.0, we are called to a second innocence of sorts. But it is an innocence that comes via open eyes. Second Innocence is not First Innocence. And it’s not really innocence, strictly speaking.

Second Innocence is purity. Not purity so much in an innate sense like a non-self-conscious child, nor a conscious moral asceticism, either.

Rather, it’s a choice—a choice to go back into our lives, knowing what the options are, and well acquainted with darkness—yet moving in a general direction that chooses the better way. It is living in paradox. Innocence with our eyes open. Using knowledge once more—not to control—but to surrender and live.

I was having coffee at Starbucks today with my friend, Jack, when our conversation turned to the topic of real authenticity vs. fake authenticity. Or real transparency vs. fake transparency.

We had been discussing the need for a connecting of your words with your story at an emotional level in order for them to carry weight (not being emotional per se). The difference between being real and merely trying to be impressive, or detached.

How many people do you know who can be quite eloquent and charming, making you think they are so… well, authentic? And yet, they know how to work it, “turn it on” as needed, without really thinking or feeling.

I suppose this has something in common with many politicians and celebrities who love to be in front of people; though that’s not who I have in mind. I’m thinking of those who know how to sound real, maybe even have carved out a perception of themselves as being like this, as an identity that they prize. And maybe they have been like this at some point in their lives. But along the way, it becomes rather easy for them to put forth this persona—which, while maybe impressive to others—isn’t trying all that hard for them, and never gets to the core of where they experience life. It never allows others to really know them either, or themselves to be impacted and transformed by others. In truth, it can be BS, or some other general spinning of one’s wheels in matters of being human.

Authenticity is so in nowadays. Everybody talks about it. “He’s one of a kind.” Or, “She’s so real.” It can be very refreshing, even disruptive, when experienced.

But how often is what passes for “being authentic” truly so? I’m not against the term. I think there’s a reason it’s popular. Yet it seems it’s in danger of being hijacked as just another buzzword that loses its meaning and power over time, all those tangible and intangible things that make up what it means to be real.

… Maybe there’s a reason why the real deal seems so hard to come by.

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.

The 82nd Academy Awards took place Sunday night. The critics have already given us their takes, variously repeating back to us how they think we felt about them, or else how we should have felt. How tag-team hosting by Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin fell flat, or how they did fairly well, depending who you hear. And of course, there’s the talk on it being a night of firsts, the biggest being the first ever female winning for “Best Director,” for Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker. It’s the kind of talk that’s meant to sell audiences.

But all punditry aside, I had a few observations of my own. First off, Kathryn Bigelow is hot!

While this wasn’t really discussed during the ceremonies, with the focus instead given to her artistic talent, former marriage and continuing collaboration with fellow contender James Cameron, and of course, the strong possibility of her making history… blah, blah, blah… I had to wonder, “Man, does anyone else think this woman is really attractive?” And at 58, pretty hot! (Or any age for that matter.) To confirm my hunch, I later punched in “Kathryn Bigelow is” on Google to see what would pre-fill. And sure enough, “Kathryn Bigelow is hot” showed up, with thousands of hits. A couple times during the show, they spoke with James Cameron about her. Not known for a subdued ego, “I’m the king of the world!” Cameron nevertheless offered fairly glowing praise for his ex, as well he should. Yet despite how positive their relationship may be today, all I could think was, “Man, you idiot!”

Then there was the notable true Cinderella story of Gabourey Sidibe, star of another indie favorite, Precious. Throughout the night, Gabourey glowed as she shared top billing with the world’s most famous and beautiful people, based on her freshman film effort. It was really cool to see how so many people responded to this new star with genuine warmth and praise, in a town often known for its obsession with outward beauty and status. Yet, I found one response to be telling, when speaking of Sidibe’s performance, someone asked with amazement Where did this come from? In other words, how did someone without a Hollywood pedigree command such attention?

While I have yet to see Precious (As with many, one of the things I like about the Oscars is getting the popular and critical buzz on films I’ve yet to see and might enjoy.), I was not surprised at all. Not everyone may have it within them to put forth an Oscar-winning performance, but I have this conviction that everyone has within them a glory to bring to the world. A glory that when truly seen, should cause people to go, “Whoa!” Of course, how often do we truly see another person’s glory? Or how often if ever have we been able to tap into this inner place and get seen? Which at least makes the surprise behind the question somewhat understandable.

While it did get slow at times, at certain points I was aware of some warm fuzzies coming over me. For example, there was the moving tribute to the late John Hughes, creative genius behind such classics as Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Home Alone. But I think this is about more than nostalgia. For I don’t care who I talk to, but practically every person I’ve ever met has some sort of emotional attachment or response to certain stars and films. We need bright and shining stars of some sort to inspire us, whether in our actual lives, or at a cultural or artistic level, as with celebrities. While it can be taken to excess, I don’t think such attraction is lame. And nothing seems to span the chasm in our existential aloneness than our common intrigue with art—and story in particular. All the better, however, when such inspiration offers something authentic and personal or something transcending the status quo, as with Sidibe and Bigelow.

Tiger’s Entitlement

Last week, Tiger Woods broke his long silence regarding the shocking revelations late last year of a secret life, personally giving a prepared statement in a press conference from the PGA Headquarters in Pontre Vedra Beach, Florida. Immediately afterward, the pundits were giving their takes on his appearance. Some felt it was very appropriate, and hit the right notes. Others thought he was insincere, merely seeking to recover in light of his damaged celebrity and corporate sponsor relationships.

I was struck, though, by Woods’ naming his sin of entitlement, citing it as a factor in his downfall. Prepared statement or not, it took guts to say this. More so, to make some semblance of owning it, as he had his mother sitting right there in front of him, neither of them cracking a smile through the 13 minute confession. That couldn’t have been fun.

I don’t know whether or not Tiger is making an earnest effort to overcome his problems. But I’m glad he said this. Entitlement is a huge problem today. While it probably always has been, I have a sense it’s probably never been more prevalent than now. Yet it often goes unacknowledged, is dismissed, or even openly embraced. Entitlement is one of those things that’s a lot easier to spot in others than ourselves. But it’s also one of those things that can be quite subtle, and fly under the radar for a long time, until like Woods, a lot of damage has been done.

If I’m really honest with myself, I feel very entitled myself. That I deserve certain treatment by others, as when I don’t receive from them what I’m expecting, or the general sense that life ought to be better for me than it is. In fact, I’d be rather embarrassed to give account for some of the things I’ve felt entitled to. Maybe that’s why a lot of us vent so much energy in outrage when we see it in another, because we know this about ourselves.

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