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Stories

Summer Camp

 

I’m the only person I know that didn’t like sleep-away camp. My parents started shipping me off to a camp near Portland, Main when I was seven years old. All the kids in my neighborhood went to camp. Why should I be any different?

I don’t know the answer—only that I was different. I thought camp was eight weeks of purgatory. It was like being in the army. Who pays big bucks for your kid to be in the army all summer long?  Lots of parents, that’s who. I don’t know if my parents wanted to get rid of me, or whether they thought it would be good for me. I don’t know to this day. And I can’t ask my parents, because they’re gone. I certainly made it known that I didn’t want to go to sleep-away camp.

A typical day started with a recorded version of reville at 7:00 AM. I dragged myself out of bed, put on my camp uniform shorts and shirt, and marched myself off to the mess hall with seven other brats and our counselor. I use the term “counselor” loosely. A typical camp counselor had no qualifications to oversee children except the absence of a criminal record.

At breakfast, I competed with seven other hungry mouths to cram down a decent breakfast. If I wanted seconds, there were no seconds. I had one shot, and I had to make it count. I learned early at camp how to eat fast. I still eat too fast today.

Next, my bratty bunk mates and I were herded back to our bunkhouse to make our beds and sweep the wooden floors. No bunkhouse I ever lived in had even floors. I had to be careful not to break an ankle just walking around. And the dust. I have no idea how so much dust accumulated overnight. We would have been buried in it if we hadn’t swept up every day.

Having cleaned up the hovel we lived in, we embarked upon our pre-planned day of sports and activities, broken up only by lunch at the mess hall and a short nap afterwards. Then it was back to our pre-planned day.

Are you getting an inkling of why I hated this? On top of the regimented routine, I missed my parents and my friends at home terribly.

By the time I was nine or ten years old, I was given the luxury of two “free-play” days during the week. I always chose to go to the rifle range to shoot at targets or go to the golf cage to hit balls with every club in my bag. Then I went to the putting green to practice putting.

I was a loner, even back then. Maybe that’s one of the reasons I hated camp. But it was much more than that. I felt that my fundamental freedoms had been stripped from me. I think deep down I always wanted to be free to shape my own life.

When I was thirteen, I could legally go to work. I chose to go to work during the summer rather than go to summer camp. I’m sure my camp-loving friends thought I was crazy. I didn’t care. I was me and they were them. We’ve grown farther apart through the years, but that’s another story.

I worked at my father’s company, a wholesale wallpaper distributor (Zins Wallpaper) located in Newark, New Jersey. I picked rolls of wallpaper from a maze of bins in the shipping department to fill orders from paint and wallpaper stores.

From time to time, I’d get lost in the bins and have a smoke. On the official morning break, I’d order a corn muffin and a vanilla malt. I didn’t have to worry about calories back then. I had a metabolism like a nuclear reactor. I also enjoyed the early ride into work with my father every morning. And I rode home with the aged gentleman my father had bought the business from. His name was Sam Zins. He was a very kind man.

Don’t get me wrong. Aside from these pleasant memories, picking wallpaper orders in the basement of Zins Wallpaper was no picnic. But it sure as hell beat the crap out of summer camp.

What was your summer camp experience? Did you go to camp or do something else during the summer? Tell me. I’d like to know.

 

Categories
Stories

Grain Burgers and the Door to the Infinite

The moment arrived unannounced during a set of solitary yoga postures on my plush, living room rug.  A long stretch to relieve the tension of the day popped something open inside me.  It was not a ligament or a tendon.  It was my hardened heart.

In the Hollywood version of the story, the hero manages to crawl to the phone, call 911, and then wakes up in a hospital bed after a miraculous, life-saving operation by a brilliant, open-heart surgeon.  The experience impresses upon our hero a number of crucial life lessons.  After the crisis, the hero’s character and actions towards others change profoundly for the better.

Unfortunately, life does not resemble a Hollywood B movie.  My physical heart had not split open while in shoulder stand on the rug.  A more subtle heart had opened, and with it, a door to a new world and another destiny.

It all started with Jorge, the new employee I would never have invited to lunch if my regular lunch buddies had not run off without me.  Jorge was Mexican, the only Latin guy on in the executive suite of a wallpaper distribution company that hired mostly Anglo-Americans when Miami’s transformation into a multi-cultural city had begun in earnest in 1981.

Jorge was in his early thirties, average looking, average height, dark hair, brown eyes, and a thin mustache.  He was the kind of guy who could get lost in a crowd easily.  I had no idea his unheralded arrival would trigger a seminal occurrence in my life.

My company hired Jorge for its fledgling export division.  Jorge’s mission was to open up markets in South America and the Caribbean (approximately one quarter of the world) all by himself.  He had the ability to speak Spanish and, I presumed, super-human sales skills coupled with a pioneering spirit.  I didn’t envy Jorge one bit.

I considered myself above Jorge.  I was the high and mighty Marketing Director—Jorge the lowly new sales recruit.  I had served my time in sales.  I was grateful beyond words not to have to spend my days selling wallpaper sample books to dealers who had no more room in their stores for them.  I figured, if nothing else, I could learn something about the export market by going to lunch with the new recruit.  Besides, Jorge was the only soul left on the second floor other than myself.

Jorge suggested we eat at a quiet, natural food restaurant in Miami Springs.  My lunch prospects had just been elevated from a singular, fatty, McDonald’s affair to a tasty, low cholesterol engagement.  I happily agreed.

Over salads and grain burgers, I discovered Jorge was a vegetarian and practiced meditation daily.  Here was a subject I had some interest in, having experimented with various forms and teachers of meditation over the years.  You might say I was a semi-serious spiritual seeker.  And, I had reached a curious crossroads, a sort of impasse in my life.

I had everything a thirty-something American male could wish for: the perfect job in a field I enjoyed; a great boss; a townhouse bachelor pad; girlfriends, a few pals to hang out with; a sports car and club memberships.  I had scrupulously followed the prescribed formulas for success.  I had cobbled together many of the accouterments of an ideal life.

Yet I felt restless and unfulfilled.

I was terrified there was something terribly wrong with me.  I felt the cold winds of middle age blowing in my direction.  I saw myself dating one girl after another well into my eighties, until I finally abandoned the search for true love when my body and spirit caved in from old age.

There I was, sitting across from this lowly new recruit munching on his iceberg lettuce.  He casually mentioned losing 80 pounds after becoming a vegetarian.  I commented that it must have taken a great deal of willpower.  He answered, “Not really.”

I began to pepper Jorge with questions.  The guy was unlike many of the salespeople in our company I regularly rubbed elbows with.  He had a depth and an intensity that I found intriguing.

I asked Jorge what kind of meditation he practiced.  He said it was not a “kind of meditation.”  He launched into a passionate discourse about a profound experience of peace the meditation opened up for him.  He invited me to a presentation scheduled at a hotel on Miami Beach that evening.  I told myself there was no way I was going to drive all the way from South Miami to the Beach to attend some dubious spiritual seminar.

That night, I found myself sitting in a lime green, orange accented meeting room at the Carlyle Hotel.

Curiosity—and some undefinable vibe emanating from between Jorge’s words at lunch had picked me up from the chocolate brown pit sofa in my living room and deposited me in an uncomfortable chair surrounded by a room full of strangers.

Indian music played from six-foot speakers flanking a makeshift stage.  The only thing that kept me in my seat was the absence of Hare-Krishna-like chanting.

I glanced to my left and caught a glimpse of Jorge, who smiled kindly at me.  Someone took the stage and began speaking into a microphone.

The Indian Music and the microphone are the only details I recall after the program began.  My perspective slowly shifted from an external focus to a pleasant inner experience.

A succession of three speakers addressed the gathering that evening.  I do not recall a single word any one of them said.  I just remember feeling relaxed.  I had an experience that can only be described as feeling at home with myself.

For the first time in a very long while, I had actually enjoyed myself without a great deal of effort or alcohol to help me along.  I felt like an invisible hand had knocked off a layer of caked mud from my body.

It is difficult for me to describe what happened after that evening.  I can only say that it marked the beginning of a long journey that lasts to this day, to this very moment.

In the days and weeks after the event at the Carlyle Hotel, I met Jorge’s teacher, who essentially introduced me to myself.  I thought I knew myself pretty well.  I began to see that the image I held of myself was only a faint glimmer of a deeper, broader self, filled with possibilities.

Many years later, my life remains full of challenges, but I face them with real joy and optimism.  I have discovered that life can be every bit as beautiful as you want it to be.  It takes some courage and effort, but the possibility is real for anyone willing to step up to the plate.

I look inward now for satisfaction, rather than chasing it on the outside.  I shake hands with myself on a daily basis through meditation.  I feel more grounded.  I feel more love from within, which reflects positively into my outer life.

It occurs to me that I should have picked up the tab for Jorge’s lunch.  Jorge, my friend, if you’re out there somewhere and can read this, please know that I owe you one.

 

 

Categories
Folk Guitar Music

A Tribute to Kate Wolf

Who is Kate Wolf? If you’re like most people, you probably have no idea. I’m a huge folk music fan, and I’d never heard of Kate until last year, but I’m happy to have discovered her. Better late than never.  Her music pierces my heart, and the simple beauty of her voice, melodies, and guitar-playing transport me to transcendent realms.

There’s a story that a fan at a live concert once complimented Kate on her earrings.  Without hesitation, she removed the earrings and handed them to the fan.  I believe the beauty of Kate’s music emanated from the beautiful being that she surely was.

Kate Wolf came to prominence during a ten year period from 1975 to 1985.  Tragically, Leukemia brought Kate’s life and singer/songwriting career to a premature end at the age of forty-four.  Despite her foreshortened life span, Kate managed, in her gentle way, to become a major influence on the folk scene with songs like, “Give Yourself to Love,” “Across the Great Divide,” “Green Eyes,” “September Song,” and many more.  In all, she produced seven albums including a “live” in-concert album recorded at a music festival in Mendocino, California.

The appeal of Wolf’s music is the same today as it was when she released her first album on her Owl Records label more than 30 years ago. Her music is plainspoken with powerful natural imagery woven into poignant portrayals of the longings, joys, and sorrows of the heart that transcend romantic stereotypes.

Singing in a plain, pure voice, Wolf never indulged in vocal ornamentation for the sake of effect, and she avoided saccharine sentimentality with her natural sweetness.

As an acoustic guitar-based folk artist, she distinguished herself from such forebears as Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and James Taylor, and from her more self-consciously naturalist and mystical contemporaries in “women’s music.”

Now, when cynicism and irony seem to be second nature to pop music, Wolf’s directness rings truer than ever.

“Kate was unique,” says Berkeley-based guitarist Nina Gerber, who was inspired to become a professional musician after seeing Wolf perform in a pizza parlor in Sevastopol, a small town north of San Francisco.  Gerber became Wolf’s key accompanist from 1978 to 1986. Gerber produced the memorial album, Treasures Left Behind, and she has helped organize and produce all four Kate Wolf Memorial Music Festivals.

“She had her own style,” Gerber says. “There was nobody to compare her to. Nowadays, you listen to somebody and they either sound like Shawn [Colvin] or Nanci [Griffith] or Emmylou [Harris] or whomever.

“Kate really took on the environment she was in, so when she wrote about it, it wasn’t contrived. She didn’t go out of her way to try to be flowery and poetic. She pretty much said things the way they were.”

Yet, while Wolf’s songs seem inimitably personal when she sings them, they lend themselves surprisingly well to interpretation.  As a prime example, Nanci Griffith, an unpretentious young woman who once described her music as “rockabilly” and eventually gained an international audience, lends a soul-searing depth and beauty to her interpretations of wolf’s songs.

When Wolf sang of a woman who “rises like the dolphin,” or an “owl calling softly as the night was falling,” it felt true. She brought the listener into her unpretentious realm while prodding him or her to see the natural world anew — always with love as the bottom line.

Wolf, born Kathryn Louise Allen in San Francisco on January 27, 1942, cultivated her approach after moving to Sonoma County in the early 1970’s. She sang songs like “Across The Great Divide,” “Safe At Anchor,” “The Wind Blows Wild,” “Poet’s Heart” and “Give Yourself To Love” in a pure voice, as unaffected, comforting and honest as you want to hear from your lover in the middle of the night. At the height of her popularity, Kate appeared at The Austin City Limits Music Festival and Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion.

“I live for a sense of a feeling of purposefulness in this world, you know, that I could stop my life at any point and feel that my life has been worthwhile; that the people I’ve loved and my children have all reached a point where their lives are now going to come to fruit. And as far as something I live by, it’s to try to be as alive as possible and feel free to make my mistakes and try to be as honest as I can with myself.”

Kate Wolf, 1942 to 1986

Categories
inspiration

It Starts With Self-Confidence

Self-Confidence is an essential component of happiness and success.

Where does self-confidence come from?  Where does it go when we need it most?

How does an energetic child with a mountainous capacity for curiosity grow into a narrow-minded, emotionally constricted adult full of hopelessness and suffering?

The answer is simple.  We lose the key to the door that opens to a satisfying existence; belief in ourselves and the faith that every day can be sculpted into a masterpiece of joy.

Self-confidence is an elusive commodity that fluctuates with life’s events including, but not limited to; our mood, brain chemistry, the weather, acceptance or rejection.  It is a fragile, unpredictable elixir; here today, gone tomorrow.  Yet for a fortunate few, it is a constant, a second nature, a faithful servant and friend.

With self-confidence, we can create the next, great wonder of the world.  Without it, we walk bent over through life, a mere shadow on the wall, a faint reflection of our glorious and noble human potential.

If your self-confidence is at a low ebb, you can take the first step towards a more joyful and productive life by LOVING YOURSELF.  Forgive yourself for past transgressions, whether real or imagined.  Start each day with a clean slate.  The past is dead.  The future is a possibility based on how you think and what you chose to do in this very moment.

Think with hope in your heart.  Hopeful thoughts are positive, creative, loving thoughts.  Hopeful thoughts will fill you with possibilities.  They will fill you with confidence in yourself because they come from your TRUE SELF; the real you.

There are always two roads stretching before us.  One road leads to freedom and JOY.  The other one leads to misery and limitation.  Take the time, right now, to cast away doubt and fear.  Listen to your inner voice, the one that wants to set you free.

Self-confidence comes from being the person you truly are; your best self.  Trust yourself.  Love yourself.  Let the flame of love grow in your heart.  Seek the sources that support and nurture your truest and best self.  Self-confidence will bloom automatically, along with passion and the freedom to enjoy life.