Living Well Is the Best Revenge

All apologies to the late George Herbert for appropriating his title. But it’s an apt approach to weathering the crazy and noisy political zeitgeist of 2017. Of course it’s important to stay concerned, informed, and involved. But it’s also important to practice fierce self-care, to stop to smell the roses, and to remove oneself from the fray frequently, in order to recharge the batteries.

These photos I’ve taken remind and reassure me that the world is still a beautiful and incredible place.

First Snow

An occasion for reflection and gratitude

Over the twenty-eight years that I’ve been a naturalized New Englander, I’ve developed a personal tradition: every year, I must artisanally hand-shovel the first snowfall. In fact, I try to avoid using a gasoline-powered snowblower for as long as I can into the season. This ceases to be practical after the second or third foot of snow has fallen in as many weeks, which eventually does happen.

This year the first real snowfall came pretty late—December 28th. (I’m not counting the flurries that flew early in October.) We didn’t get a deep accumulation—it was only three or four inches. But what little fell was wet, heavy as bricks, and covered with a brittle crust of ice, leading me to question the wisdom of shoveling the whole driveway by hand (and by back). But I forged ahead and did my work, and in the process reminded myself of why I had concocted my silly tradition in the first place.

It had something to do with being rugged and stoic in the face of daunting odds and conditions, which I’ve romanticized as a New England trait. It also puts me in touch with an earlier, more thoughtful, less mechanized way of doing things. We live in such a privileged, materialistic society that makes it so easy to step on a pedal and end up miles from where we were half an hour ago. In this light, I think it is so important to maintain a perspective that honors the laws of physics and the idea that what goes up must come down. Whatever seems easy (like pushing a button and starting an orange robot that makes easy work of snow removal) must be paid for somewhere else in the universe, probably by some innocent butterfly whose only crime was flapping its wings.

So I return to my shoveling, thinking these deep thoughts, fancying myself some kind of modern-day Thoreau, “wishing to speak a word for Nature.” But I burst my own bubble when I catch myself grumbling about how hard it is to live in a place that experiences extreme winters. (I’m sure that my friends in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Manitoba will chuckle at this characterization of Massachusetts.) There’s always a five-to-ten-foot strip where the driveway meets the road, where big plow trucks throw salty slush, adding the snow from the road to the snow already on your driveway, gluing everything together into a giant block of concrete, and turning your evening into a major excavation project.

But the complaining reflex doesn’t last for long, as I snap back to the perspective of how fortunate and grateful I am. After so many years of struggling and wanting, I finally have a driveway TO shovel. And I think about people in Missouri and Louisiana whose homes are being flooded, and worry about them. I think about people who are being held captive, even if it’s a prison of their own making—a mental scaffolding of religious fanaticism, political fervor, or lust for attention. And my heart goes out to them, and hopes that one day they will find peace within themselves. I think a lot about people who face health challenges, and all the associated pain. My heart goes out to everyone in the world who is suffering, and it makes my little mountain of ice seem so inconsequential.

And I return to my shoveling.

Springing Forward, Falling Backward

All of this time zone switching is upsetting our circadian rhythms. Let’s pick one time zone and stick with it.

A traffic sign outside of the local fire station flashes a reminder: “Change your clocks, change your smoke detector batteries.” It’s a clever association, but I would argue that only one of these periodic tasks is necessary. Smoke detectors save lives. I’m happy to spend an hour per year installing fresh batteries so that I won’t be awoken at 3:00 in the morning by a periodic chirp from who knows where in the house. But “springing forward” and “falling backward” jars our circadian rhythms. Why do we continue to do this to ourselves?

There are several urban myths purporting to explain why we change our clocks. One has it that shifting clocks forward gives farmers more daylight to work their fields in the summer. Another theory has it that changing clocks back in the fall makes it lighter—and therefore safer—for school children to board buses and walk to school early in the morning. Flashlights, anyone? Yet another story has it that we save energy in the summer by leaving our lights off until later in the evening. This seems to be loosely related to the legend that Benjamin Franklin advocated for people to arise earlier, so that they would make better use of morning light, and consequently burn fewer candles. But I have yet to see any compelling evidence that changing our clocks helps us. A growing body of evidence suggests that it does not.

Checklist of clocks to change
Checklist of clocks to change

How many clocks do you change twice per year? I change seven (not including my iPhone and my computer, which are smart enough to change themselves). I’ve got a watch. An old digital clock radio. The clock in my camera. My microwave oven. My regular oven. A manual wall clock in the kitchen. The clock in my car. Don’t get me wrong—I’m deeply grateful for each of these luxuries. But each of them has its own peculiar way of setting the time, and some of them are less intuitive than others (I’m looking at you, Hyundai).

As silly and monotonous as this chore seems, I’m not opposed to doing the work. I like to tinker with things, so I find messing around with clocks to be enjoyable on a certain level. But I am loath to endure what amounts to bureaucratically imposed jet lag twice per year. We humans are sensitive creatures. Furthermore, we are not the only things that are impacted by this biannual ritual–consider all the time-dependent software that stands to go awry. A few years ago my iPhone’s calendar events got mixed up for days after a time change.

I agree with Tom Emswiler, who argues that we in Massachusetts should defect from our time zone, and join the Atlantic Standard Time Zone (one hour ahead of Eastern Time) year-round. It makes sense—New England is farther east than many other states on the Eastern Seaboard. Among other sound arguments, Emswiler cites a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine which found that heart attacks increased for three days in the spring following the start of daylight saving time. That “lost hour” may be fraught with deeper repercussions than the modern productivity-oriented mindset understands or wants to admit.

I realize that time is an abstract, and that nothing is really changing but our “framing” of it. Clouds, trees, fish, and birds (apart from the cuckoo) don’t pay attention to what clocks say. But when society decides that a store opens at 9, employers say that work starts at 8, and a friend wants to meet for lunch at noon, we have little choice but to adopt the new frame when it changes.

But what if we didn’t? What if we stopped trying to change time? We would do well to heed the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson who said, “Adopt the pace of nature: her secret is patience.” In the context of timekeeping, we could be more patient with the short days of winter and the long days of summer, accept the strengths and limitations of each part of the cycle in the particular place where we live, and embrace the ebb and flow of light through the seasons without jolting our biological rhythms in the process.

Back in the Rink

I’ve come out of retirement. I’m playing hockey again, and loving it.

In an earlier post, I announced my retirement from the hockey league I’d been playing in for several years. Well, that didn’t last very long. No sooner had my equipment dried than I’d developed a hankering to skate again. I’ll stop short of saying that hockey is an addiction. But I will say that I had sorely underestimated its importance in my life.

Previously I had adopted the view that I was getting older, my body was becoming more frail, and I needed to protect myself from physical harm. While this may be true, it’s even more important that I work hard to counteract the perils of a sedentary desk job, and exercise intensely so that my heart stays strong. Playing hockey does this. I would argue that hockey also teaches virtues that can be applied in life outside the rink: balance, patience, sacrifice, teamwork, humility, effort, effort, and more effort.

The key for me has been to find an independent group less rough and competitive than the league I had been playing in previously. Thankfully, I have found such a group.

We all dress together, and teams are formed anew every time we skate. There is greater variety, and more camaraderie than competitiveness. The level of play is as high as I’ve ever known, but the stakes are lower. We don’t keep score, and there are no penalties or referees. We’re simply a bunch of adults who are out to have fun, and prove nothing.


Update, March, 2017: I sustained enough minor sprains and injuries in the 2016–2017 season that I’m considering stepping down from organized play again. The realities of an aging body are upon me. Henceforth I plan to continue to play pond hockey, go to public “puck time” sessions at local rinks, and go to public skating sessions as often as possible.

All-Season Rope Swing

Of all the crazy things that kids from Massachusetts do, this is one of my favorites.

When you hear the words “rope swing,” you may think of a hot summer day. Maybe you envision lolling at your local swimming hole, swinging from a shade tree and plunging into the cool water below. But what if it’s that time of year when the days are short, it’s freezing outside, and your favorite pond is covered with a thick layer of ice? Watch as a young skater from Easthampton, Massachusetts demonstrates that a rope swing can be enjoyed in the wintertime too. I tried this swing a few times myself, and it was a blast.

I had captured the raw footage in 2010, but until recently it had sat on my hard drive taking up space and gathering digital dust, as so many other movie clips do. I want to make more movies, but sitting down to teach myself the filmmaking craft requires a level of commitment that until recently I hadn’t made. It’s further complicated by one of my new resolutions: to be more mindful about the amount of time I spend in front of glowing screens. But facility with the filmmaking medium seems like an important attribute for a visually-oriented communicator to develop, so I’m biting the bullet and sacrificing a few more hours to the cause.

Sure, this film may be a little crude: the stylized cloud shapes in the title sequence are cheesy ready-mades from the Final Cut library. The funky Duality typeface (by one of my favorite type designers, Ray Larabie) pairs well with the clouds, but probably isn’t the best fit for the overall subject matter. The choice of music doesn’t particularly support the narrative, either, but I wrote and recorded it, so at least my intellectual property karma is clean.

Who knows, maybe if I allow myself to play more freely and unselfconsciously, and embrace a few inconsistencies, I will grow artistically, and will develop an authorial voice and a stronger narrative vision. The important thing is that I keep doing the work, sharing the work, and learning to use the tools. Meaning can emerge.

I am trying to get over being such a perfectionist that I never publish anything. Hopefully the more I do this, the more comfortable I will become with letting my awkward learning process show. Thank you for indulging me. Your encouragement is appreciated. I hope you enjoy this sketch.

Wintertime Fun: Pond Skating

A short film paying tribute to one of my favorite activities, pond hockey

When I visit my family down South, sometimes I get asked how I tolerate the cold winters of my current New England home. I suppose the answer has something to do with the lesson of survival in the face of adversity. Yes, a cold climate can be inconvenient, depressing, and uncomfortable; but there are ways to adapt. Snow tires, hats, boots, layered clothes, and positive attitudes make a remarkable difference in one’s ability not only to survive winter, but to thrive in it.

Enjoying outdoor activities is another way to avoid the winter “blahs.” Water freezes, so we skate on it. Snow falls, so we don skis, snowboards, or snowshoes and make the best of it. Taking photographs allows us to share winter’s stark, pristine beauty abstracted from its messiness.

In this short movie that I filmed on on Lower Mill Pond, my buddy Matt Waugh and I enjoyed some pond hockey on a patch of ice that I had just cleared of snow. The temperature that day never rose above 21° Farenheit, but was I cold? Not at all. In fact, after shoveling continuously for three hours, I was overheated. The ensuing fun made all the hard work worthwhile.

Hanging up the Skates

A story about my relationship with the great sport of ice hockey, and my short-lived retirement from organized play.

Trace at age 8, as a Mite
The author as a Maple Leaf Mite, circa 1974

When I was a kid, I played one season of ice hockey as a Toronto Maple Leaf at the Mites level. The Atlanta Flames were my hometown’s professional team at the time, and hockey was popular enough to support a vibrant youth program in what was at that time one of the few southern cities to host an NHL team. My dad (who also played amateur hockey) took me to see a lot of Flames games at the Omni, and we sat right behind one of the goals—literally in the first or second row. I got to see some of The Greats—Bobby Orr, Phil Esposito, Bobby Clarke, Curt Bennett (need I say more?)—playing at close range, smashing into the glass sans-helmet (back when that was allowed), seventies hair flowing in the breeze. In between the periods, I was one of the kids to whom referees would sometimes toss game pucks over the glass. In a box in an attic somewhere, I must still have one or two of those pucks, and autographs of several of the Flames.

Hockey is a sport of contrasts. As a mild-mannered, peace loving guy, I am as conflicted about the brutal and aggressive aspects of the sport as I am enthralled with its beauty and regalia. The code of honor between the players. The beautiful graphic design and colors of the uniforms, set against a brilliant field of snowy white. The sheer grace of the dance on skates. The speed. The strategy. The skill. The uniqueness and obscurity of it. The crispness of the cold air. The bravery. The adrenaline. The passion. The pizza. (Okay, I digress.)

I don’t remember whether, after one season, I quit playing of my own accord, or whether my parents couldn’t afford to keep buying bigger and bigger skates and pads to keep up with their growing boy. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that I fell in love with the sport, and always thought that I had played it better than any other organized sport I had played as a kid (which consisted of soccer, basketball, and baseball).

Later on in my childhood, I had a notion to try out for football, a seemingly more accessible sport than hockey, but one I had never played before. I didn’t even like football very much, but many of my peers were playing it, and for some reason, I got it in my mind that I should play too. But a strange thing happened when I arrived at the tryouts: I freaked out. I panicked. I chickened out. I cried. I hid behind the bleachers. The sight of all those kids confidently playing a sport I didn’t yet know how to play filled me with angst. The prospect of embarrassment was terrifying. I ended up begging my mom to take me home, before I ever set foot on the field. In her motherly compassion, she obliged. (Thanks, Mom!)

As trivial as that incident seemed, it stuck with me over the years, staying safely stowed away in that part of my heart where I stow such things. Even as adulthood offered more meaningful opportunities for me to develop my competence and self confidence, I occasionally recalled that time of self doubt, and I imagined it symbolizing something I needed to overcome at some point, when the opportunity presented itself.

On a wing and a prayer, I moved to New England in my early twenties, and ice sports once again entered my consciousness. I lived not far from an outdoor rink that the Town of Amherst maintained during the winters, and I occasionally played pick-up hockey with the locals. Later, while studying art at the University of Massachusetts, my studio space was located in the legendary Art Barn, just a stone’s throw from the Mullins Center ice rink. For several semesters, I managed to finagle my class schedule such that I could ice skate every weekday at the noontime public skating session. I got really good at skating during that time. It was meditation. All of that time on the ice gave me a lot of time to reflect on and romanticize my childhood hockey experience. I often thought about how cool it would be to play again someday. But when? And how?

A few years back, as my fortieth birthday approached, it hit me: THIS was my time to start striking things off my bucket list. Trying out for an amateur hockey team served a dual purpose. It gave me a chance once again to play the sport I had played and loved as a kid, and it gave me a chance to revisit the aforementioned football tryout shame incident, and this time, to push through and overcome the fear. I am happy to report that the whole venture has been incredibly worthwhile and successful on both of those levels. I have made some good friends, and have achieved a difficult goal that I set for myself. (Did I mention that playing hockey is difficult?) Playing has kept me in pretty decent shape, and—I would argue—has contributed to my physical dexterity and mental sharpness.

But some good things must come to an end*, and I’m beginning to feel the toll that an intensely physical sport can take on a body. My injuries over the past handful of seasons have been fairly minor, thankfully. Some bumps and bruises and a puck to the chest. One painful hip pointer that lasted a half a year or so. Other people in my league have not been so fortunate. A couple of guys have sustained pretty serious and bloody accidental skate-slicings in the last two seasons (one in the forearm and one in the thigh) and there have been a few garden variety busted knees, snapped tendons and the like. Amazingly, no lost teeth (the smart guys like me wear the full bird-cage face masks on our helmets). Ours is a fairly collegial, gentlemanly, no-check league in which referees are strict and fighting is not tolerated. But hockey is fast, and incidental contact is unavoidable. I want to get out before my number comes up!

Trace as a grown-up hockey player
The author as a grown-up hockey player

While I am a little emotional about my pending retirement, I have no regrets about bowing out of the league honorably at this point, and I will leave with my head held high. I’ve represented the forty-something crowd quite respectably, skating head-to-head with, and scoring goals against kids half my age. I’m sure I will continue to play informal shinny and pond hockey when available. But I am looking forward to reclaiming my Saturday nights from this long-standing commitment. Saturday nights I will henceforth spend working in my studio, visiting with friends, adventuring, reading and relaxing at home, possibly watching hockey, and maybe—just maybe—updating my website from time to time.

Saturday, February 25th, 2012, at 8:00 p.m. in Greenfield, Massachusetts, I will play my last regular-season game as a winger with the Canadiens of the Greenfield Adult Hockey League. Then the following Saturday, playoffs begin. If we lose the first game of the playoffs, it’s over. I’m done. If we win, my team goes on to play a best-of-three series for the championship. Which ever way it goes, I can’t wait to play my heart and lungs out, then retire #11.

* 2015 update: Retirement just wasn’t for me. I’m back in the rink.

Blanketed

A portrait of a New England farmhouse under a blanket of snow.

Snow in October is rare in Western Massachusetts. A foot of snow this early is unimaginable, but it is what we have received. Freshly-fallen snow is beautiful and peaceful, but it can also be destructive. Tree carnage is everywhere. And where there is tree carnage, there are downed power lines and power outages. A website reports that 2.3 million homes and businesses throughout New England are without power.

I have often wondered why we in the United States don’t bury our power lines underground. In addition to aesthetic concerns, elevated lines seem so vulnerable. Experience confirms this: every year some combination of tornado, hurricane, and frozen precipitation causes widespread power outages. My friend Jean-Pierre—who is from Switzerland—says that the Swiss bury their utilities, and that in his memory they rarely if ever had power outages. I assume that the reason we don’t follow this example is cost. But if you factor in the cost of lost productivity associated with repeated power outages, and the dangers of potential electrocution by downed power lines, undergrounding starts to seem more attractive. Further, if such a widespread outage had occurred during a brutally cold snap, hypothermia could have become an issue.

For now I will focus on the beautiful aspects of the snow. I will slow down and appreciate all of the things I take for granted that are made possible by electricity: freshly ground coffee beans, hot water to make coffee with, a hot meal, and a hot shower. The ability to do laundry, work on the computer, and charge my phone.

I took this photo in 2010, not far from where I live. It was night time, so I put the camera on a tripod, and left the shutter open for around fifteen seconds to capture enough light. It was snowing when I took the picture, but the flakes were moving quickly enough that they did not appear in the long exposure. Here’s to more snow, but maybe not until December.