Sunday, December 29, 2013

Benched Week 31: a snowy invitation

There’s nothing like this time of year for a fresh start.

I began my usual year-end review a few days ago, in which I consider the good and the bad that has happened in the family’s life in the past twelve months.  That mixture was swirling in my mind like stirred hot cocoa as I drove back from State College, having dropped off a son at the Megabus.  As I passed a favorite park of ours, I decided to turn in and find a bench.

It’s ironic that we’ve never visited a park with such a name in the wintertime.  We call it by its nickname, Halfway Dam, and love to grill here in the summer, when the beach is crowded with people and the water is just a shade less frigid.  Today, I found it had quite a different personality – hushed as if hibernating or holding its breath until spring. 

There were a few people who had come to enjoy the cold,though.  Young hockey players warmed up.

And a family had a half-hearted snowball fight.

It’s good to see a familiar landscape in a different light.  It’s not unlike my daughter’s room this morning, after she spent yesterday rearranging the furniture – all the same elements viewed from a different angle.  I think that’s why I do my year-end review.  Distance gives a new perspective on personal scenery.

But it’s not just about looking back.  It’s just as much about looking forward.  And as I sat on my bench and gazed across the beautiful, unmarred snow that covered the icy lake, it struck me how a new year is like a fresh layer of snow over familiar ground.  Sure, much of this ground has been trekked before, but there’s a pleasure in setting out, making a mark –feeling like one is on a journey of discovery.

The metaphor becomes even more powerful to me when I change the time frame: not just each year, but each day is a fresh field of snow. Every day brings an invitation to make a mark, to chart a course.  Or to switch metaphors just a bit – every day is like a blank canvas, just waiting for a new work of art.  (Or in one case when Grace was little, the snow was both.)

So, I think I’m ready to make my mark on today.  Whether it be something whimsical, or just a simple walk on a renewed landscape.

Fresh snow -- a fresh day -- awaits!

Monday, December 9, 2013

Benched Week 30: guarded moments

My second trip to Manhattan in two weeks brought me to an inevitable spot.  Rockefeller Center and its bejeweled tree had drawn crowds even in the late afternoon, when the lights were not yet piercing and the skaters weren’t yet pirouetting below. I joined the throng.

I had hoped for a bench, and I was happily surprised one lining each side of the garden that approaches the view.  With people swirling around me, I sat and watched.

With the fast turnover of the crowd, it didn’t take long to pick out the one person who didn’t move on. And it wasn’t this rather grim-faced guy, who stood for some time alone, unmoving against the wall.  Even he eventually melded back into the crowd.

The one constant was a young guard who had been given the duty of telling people to stop standing on the benches.  Or climbing into the garden. 

Most often, they were after a clearer, more dramatic shot.  But he commanded –politely – that they get down.  Or get out of the plants. And scarcely a minute went by without him approaching someone. 

I decided I had to talk to him.

“Tough job,” I said when I sidled up.  He nodded. I added,  “Anyone ever get angry?”

 “Nah,” he answered.  “They’re tourists.  They listen. Thing is, they don’t realize those benches are slick.  Don’t want anyone to get hurt.”

Little life lesson there.  Rules aren’t usually just to curtail fun.  They mean to protect – not only delicate displays from trampling tourists, but trampling tourists from themselves.

I’ve been feeling a bit lately like challenges in life are like security guards just putting a damper on the fun.  Standing in the way of a great shot, as it were.

But according to a dear friend I talked with as I drove today, challenges can be a way to get our attention – to stop and take stock, to pay attention to what we’re doing.  To think about the decisions we’re making. And the ones that we might need to make.

There might just be a new angle, a new approach, a new road to take.  

Now only if I could find a herald to announce which direction that would be.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Benched Week 29: long walk in Longwood

Who knew that Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, PA, famous for its indoor and outdoor flora, would have a plethora of delightful benches?  I passed many as Alison, Grace and I wandered the grounds, settling on this grand stone one as my official bench of the week.

But we weren’t there for the benches.  We were trying to get into a holiday mood.

I have a like/dislike relationship with Christmas traditions.  Over the years, we’ve committed to less and less of the usual rituals, dropping by the wayside baking cookies, Christmas cards, and regularly submitting to holiday music.  I’m afraid that if Alison didn’t drive the decorating, I’d cut a sprig of holly from the neighbor’s tree and call it a day.

In fact, I’m finding myself increasingly allergic to rituals of all kinds.  For a theme-and-variation guy, traditions feel like the cage I’m left to pace in.  Same songs. Same movies.  Same sappy sentiments.

Can we say, “Bah, humbug, children?”

But Longwood taught me something.  This time of year has a tremendous potential for infusing beauty into one’s life, if even just for a month.  (Hear that, Madison Avenue?  One month.)  As I walked and looked at the displays – with both an eye and a camera lens – I felt my senses filling up with color and texture and design.

Then, as I was just cropping photos, it hit me: traditions are a frame for the beauty.  They give us cause to decorate and the pause to appreciate. Just like a frame hones in our vision to just the key elements the artist or photographer wants us to see, holiday traditions frame up those simple joys, those fundamental truths that usually get swept up in the everyday.  They put a shine and a sparkle on them.

So, in the coming days, I’m going to share with you my framing of the beauty that I saw – not so much the outdoor splendor of lit trees, floating on water.

Or the lavish color of the fountain show.

But the small, touches of design and color, made (hopefully) more delightful because of the framing. May they add a few moments of beauty to your holiday season.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Benched Week 28: sitting at the crossroads

On this cold, November Thursday, I am sitting on a bench in the tiny community of Buffalo Crossroads, which is not much more than just that, an intersection.  I am here to contemplate this building, the first incarnation of the church I attend.

As I sit and watch the empty building, I try to imagine the sounds of a Sunday long ago: the service ending, the doors creak open.  Laughing kids sprint out onto the grass, chased by the remonstrations of parents. Compliments are murmured to the pastor. Buggies creak as families climb aboard.

Now the building lies empty. The church they built and moved to in town is 180 years old.

The new becomes old and requires new again.

That brings my musing around to organizational change.

How does change come to organizations?  After dedicating five years of hard effort to help transform a local one – with little to show for it – I picture the process as like nudging a cruise ship with a rowboat. At times, it feels impossible.  But since I am now a professional eavesdropper on the answers businesses are crafting to that question, I know it can be done.  Invariably, change is brought by a forced hand.  The wiser companies proactively adjust to a coming crisis.  The others react just before the ship hits the rocks.

Transformation always comes with a price.  Often, cherished things must be let go.  Just down the road, this former elementary school is now – ironically – a church.  I’m sure the transition was anything but easy.

And I recognize that not all change is good.  Just over the horizon, a local farmer has built a hideous silo that forever alters the beautiful landscape.  It’s probably a useful addition for him, but is a regrettable one for the rest of us.

It’s a tricky balance.

And so I turn the question inward: what change needs to come in me?

Am I requiring minor adjustments, or, as my boys are suggesting, it’s time to chart a whole, new course?  Thomas Edison once said, “Restlessness is discontent and discontent is the first necessity of progress.”  Restlessness and discontent: the twin tugboats inside me.  But where are they nudging me?

As is often the case on these bench-sittings, there is a visual punch line for me.  I look down as I go to leave, and see this

Even in the contented hills of central PA, change comes.

But is it worth the wait?

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Benched Week 27: birds of a feather

I have a great friend who is batty about birds.

In many parts of the world, Scott has caught and banded songbirds, hummingbirds and saw whet owls. But as long as I have known him – since college days, when we were roommates – he has been most passionate about birds of prey.

So it’s not surprising that, when I called him to ask if we could have an outing on Friday with my daughter, Grace (who had the day off from school), he suggested Hawk Mountain Sanctuary.  It wasn’t the hands-on experience he had given us before banding hawks at private stations, but the wind was blowing perfectly, promising an impressive aerial show.

And it was blowing.  Unrelentingly cold.  The first bite of winter. When we arrived at the North Lookout, there were already a dozen or so people huddled in parkas.  I found the closest thing I could to a bench: a rock shelf nestled under an overhang.  Grace squeezed in beside me, as we tried to give less for the wind to gnaw on.

The hawks came by sporadically, and none very close.  Grace was the first to spot the bald eagle rising from the forest below us.  Her news rippled across the crowd, now augmented by a class of school kids.  Binoculars pivoted to where she pointed.  People were genuinely excited.


I envy this about Scott. He belongs to a worldwide community of people who share his passion.  Sitting on a rocky ridge for a whole frigid day to watch birds fly by borders on the fanatical for me, though I have gladly done it with him in the past. But I am a dabbler.  There are many who are as hard-core committed as he is.

That’s something that’s a part of my search at this point of my life – some passion in my life that will connect me to a community of like-minded people.  Is it art?  Old movies? Storytelling?  Faith?  An international fellowship of bench-sitters?

I know this: enthusiasm is contagious.  Scott’s love for raptors, freely shared with my kids, has made them appreciate the magnificent birds.  Same goes for me.

Up to a point.  When the snow shower we had watched crawl across the valley finally reached us, I called it quits.  Leaving early meant we missed sighting a few golden eagles, which would have been awe-inspiring to see come soaring through the swirling flakes.

But those dedicated hawk watchers saw them.  It’s only fitting.  There should be a reward for being hard-core.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Benched Week 26: Trick or Treat

The affection caught me completely unprepared.  It is, after all, just another city in an ever-compressing line of them.  But as I pulled onto Broad Street off of I-95, I realized that this one, Philadelphia, was different.

It felt like home.

And as I found my bench on a balmy Halloween night, was it a trick of the eye that the city seemed to have a welcoming glow?  Was it a nostalgic trick of the heart, perhaps?

I had, so many years ago, started my freelance career here, riding the El into Center City, walking through City Hall with my black, mock-leather portfolio in hand.  I carried, as well, a healthy dose of unrealistic optimism toward the door-opening effect of my talent.  I cringe when I think of what I carried in those pages back then.

City Hall is still open to pedestrians, to my surprise.  So I strolled through, finding dramatic shadows in the architecture.

And unremembered sculptures.

I came out the end with a view of North Broad, which I had, long ago, daily trudged up four blocks to a hole-in-the-wall ad agency.  One with rats in the darkroom.  But tonight, even this view seemed polished and pretty.

So, it is a trick, of fate, of grace to be back here.  And therein is the treat: my serpentine career bringing me back – minus the optimism and most of my hair, but replaced with a keen-edged appreciation for the moments and places that bring delight.  Like Philly on an autumn night.  Or the crisp jazz in the hotel bar.

On the street, moments before, a woman stopped nearby as I sat on my bench.  She was on the phone, distraught.  “I don’t know what happened to the ten dollars,” she was saying to her babysitter.  “I had it, but now it’s gone.  So I’m going to be late getting back.  I don't know how long."

I fished a ten from my wallet and walked up to her.  “Would this help?” I asked.

“Oh my God!” she replied. “That’s exactly what I lost!”  She thanked me – assuming I had found it – and set off quickly for the subway.

I guess I tricked her with my treat.

But I had to help.  What else could I do after such a warm welcome by the City of Brotherly Love?

Monday, October 28, 2013

Benched #25: sharing the road

“Those who are going nowhere can have no fellow-travellers.”

That quote from C. S. Lewis has been stuck in my head for the past few days.  It’s challenged me to think of it as a question: Where are you headed and who’s going with you?

It’s the other side of the issue of living in the moment – a theme I seem to keep picking up from people I’m around lately. Living in the moment needs to be more than just living moment-by-moment.  It can’t negate the concept that there’s a bigger picture. In the words of the business events I scribe, there needs to be a road map.

My literal road map in the last week has taken me to Lancaster, Washington, D.C.,San Francisco, and Harrisonburg, VA, where an old friend – Bob, a professor at James Madison University -- took me to see a couple of benches on the campus. The first is called the Kissing Bench, because, the legend says, those who kiss on the bench will end up married. 

Then, as we walked back to our cars to go to dinner, he showed me another bench, tucked in an alcove.  I liked the contrast of the starkness of the setting with the worn wood of the slats – it’s clearly much used.

The next day, on Skyline Drive, my wife, daughter, son and I took a leisurely stroll through the woods, passing a deer that was blind in one eye.  Creepy. 

Further on, Grace and I took a break on a roadside bench.

Friends.  Family. Joining me in bench-sitting.  More to the point this week -- becoming fellow travelers.  Not so much in this one thing that I’m doing, but as Lewis expounds, discovering friendship in a shared interest.  As I look around, I find that I’m missing fellow travelers for much of my ongoing journey.  It may be that my new career isolates me.  Perhaps it’s how busy people are.  Could be where I live.  But it’s something that has to be a part of my road map: journeying together.

Except for the four college-age guys in the car that rear-ended mine on the way back from the mountains.  Note to self: don’t travel with people who tie a shopping cart on top of their new sports car.

There are times a lonely road isn’t so bad.

Benched #24: the blue in the gray

What does one do when the only day to take to a bench in Chicago turns out to be wet and ugly?

Sit in the rain, that’s what.  How could I pass up a chance to take a seat along the shore of Lake Michigan?  Weather schmeather.

On the upside, I had my choice of benches.  There was not a soul in sight.  I chose one on a concrete overhang. Of all my bench-sittings, this proved to be the loneliest.  It could have been the dreary skies.  Or the solitude at the edge of a major city.  Then again, it could have been Tom.

Tom was a panhandler, singing and playing a harmonica in the tunnel walkway under Lake Shore Drive.  I stopped, dropped money into his bucket and talked with him a bit.  He was a cheerful guy with, what else: a sad story.  I wasn’t sure if any of it could be believed.  Maybe not the fact that he had been turned out of his nearby apartment just early today.  Certainly not the tale that he had a fortune in jewels hidden in the place that had better (profanely prefaced) BE there when he got the apartment back.  I shook his hand, we wished each other the best and I walked away, listening to the forlorn wailing of harmonica blues echo behind me in the tunnel.

The rain was a fine spray, kicked up by gusts of wind, blowing at my back, thankfully, as I sat on my stone octagon.  Clouds descended on the skyline, shrouding the tallest of the buildings.  It was a uniformly gray landscape.  Depressingly gray.

Except for the one patch of blue – just an accent on an ornate tower.  But it was a conspicuous blue.  A serendipitous blue.

I know in these blogs I tend towards involved analogies.  This time, I’ll try to keep things simple and just say that I want to be that patch of blue on a gray landscape.  It’s not that life is the equivalent of a rainy day.  Life is a gift – a wonderful, overflowing, astonishing gift.  But it can become a bit, well, ordinary.  Buried under the mundane.

A little color helps – something unexpected and pleasing.  Like the little doodles I often leave for housekeeping with a tip in hotels.  Or asking the taxi driver today what he missed from his native Bulgaria.  Or, for that matter, stopping to talk with Tom.

This, I’m deciding, is getting close to the heart of what I’m to do with my margins of time.  Each day, every day, look for a way to use those skills I’ve developed, those gifts I’ve been given, to bring a little color into someone’s day.

Just be livin’ the blues, man.  I’ll just be livin’ the blues.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Benched #23: what we cling to

Consider ivy.

Sure, there are other, bigger things to see from my bench.  From this spot along Market Street in my home town, you can see the building where my father-in-law ran a loan company.  Just a few doors down, see the hotel where Alison and I had our wedding reception.  Down another block one can find the church where we married and now attend.

But ignore all that history in architecture.  Disregard even the smaller details, like the town clock that I noticed for the first time. 

And the strange animal that embellishes the bench’s armrests.  (A griffin, perhaps?)

Instead, check out what’s all around this seat – and in some spots, growing through it.

Simple, green ivy.

Ivy has charm.  First of all, there is the playful pointiness of the leaves, like starbursts on green tracers.  Overlap them and you have a jigsaw puzzle never meant to be assembled, delightful in its disarray.

Then, it’s dogged. Persistent.  A wall isn’t an obstacle to the vine, it’s a surface to use for more growth.  Ivy excels at plant parkour, slower than slow, but no less sure-footed. 

When it finds itself surrounded, it clings.  And keeps moving.

That’s a useful picture to me.  For over a lifetime, I’ve built solid walls of settled things – knowledge, skills, memories, beliefs, and habits, both good and bad.  I know what I do well and what I don’t.  For instance, that guy over there who is fixing his car – that’s something I don’t do well and never will.  That’s okay with me.

It’s good not to have to re-construct all that knowledge everyday.  Saves a ton of time.  But then, what do I do with that time I’ve saved?  I have a clear choice: sit back and settle inside the familiar walls or use them as a toehold to reach new territory.  Cling for comfort or cling for growth.

I know it seems like I keep reiterating the purpose of my quest for this blog.  But I am making progress – like rediscovering my love for photography and writing – even if it is slow.

Ask the ivy. Wall-crawling takes time.