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Best Worst Day

Why didn't the skeleton cross the road?
He didn't have any guts.

- Pediatric surgeon to young patient

It's Homecoming Weekend at colleges all across America. Football, dances, Halloween concerts. I'm in Annapolis, Maryland, for Parents Weekend for the USNA Second Class - one celebration specifically for junior year Midshipmen - a mark of having made it thus far and "earned" that all important double stripe of authority and responsibility within the Brigade. What a beautiful weekend of weather, all the proud families and Mids, the exciting home football game against Eastern Carolina in Marine-Navy Stadium. That game framed what I'd call "the proverbial streak of bad luck," what my grandfather called an ebb life tide, when it seems not much is ever going right. The much needed touchdown in the 4th quarter to win is ruled out on review, the saving field kick hits the standard and bounces smack back into the field. Navy is defeated. All the best effort met with successive waves of bad breaks, bad judgment, bad luck. Bad news.

I thought about this as I laughed hearing the joke I opened this day's essay with. So what if you get over the road in the most haphazard of ways, at the wrong corner? You had the courage to cross. I am so proud of these young men and women and their effort at all they do - from the rigors of Academy academics to the demands of leadership and upholding personal accountability at all times. These Mids are heroes to me in their selfless commitment to serve our country, and their determined endeavors to get what is required of them at all times right. Who among us upholds that standard? Precious few. It makes the man or woman from the inside, from character out. Bravo Zulu, Class of 2013.

Now the idea of an ebb tide of life, that life has its swells and shallows, times when everything we do is met with disappointment and failure, and we hang on to the hope of a turn in the tide, is one any of us over the age of 40 is well acquainted with. Somewhere along the line in my own hardening into adulthood I learned this phrase, "I don't understand, but I accept." And it has come to symbolize, to me, that forever-seeming balance point of not knowing if or will you endure but waking up each day and arming for battle. The Battle of Today: one more day living with struggle or heartbreak. The specter of cancer in the family, of the loss of a job, of the tragic death of a parent, of the unexpected illness in a child.

"I don't understand, but I accept," holds the heart's door open to perspective, to the tide coming in. To the sense of balance of good and not so good in life. And sure, the field goal smacked the post and kicked back at the kicker - a failed attempt if ever there was one - but that player made the effort. Attempted the summit to carry the day. And next time, he will. Because he had the guts.

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Said Without Elegance

Lemoille Canyon
Some things
you know all your life. They are simple and true
they must be said without elegance, meter and rhyme,
they must be laid on the table beside the salt shaker,
the glass of water, the absence of light gathering
in the shadows of picture frames, they must be
naked and alone, they must stand for themselves.

- from "The Simple Truth," by Philip Levine

I had the joy of visiting with an old friend his weekend. Someone I have known since I was fifteen. We have been entwined, then apart, parallel and opposing. Like sparrows darting high above the bluffs of Mendocino we have danced our own dance. And now, here we are. His once curly mop of brown hair is short cut white, he talks of a 40th high school reunion, his face weathered by sun and work and life. His heart, like a pocket with a hole, loses days and moments with the woman he has spent his life with, even as she loses her place in the world. She sinks within an incurable illness. He works; pours his 4 am coffee alone in his kitchen. Weekends, he drives to visit her. She sits in the shadows of her losses. Gone are her mountains, her music and horses, replaced now with the quiet ticks of the clock above the clinic door, anchored in the voice of the man she married.

There was something about this visit. The unexpected ballast to what we carry of the past. The balance and heft of years in the work we have chosen, the sting of the losses within our marriages, the surprising transience of dreams and opportunity, this sturdy survivorship that has opened us to the truth of simple endurance. We celebrate the connection that is long friendship, bow to the evolution of our ambitions. In the mirror of one another we recognize the rubbing away of edges. The value of what we now know are the singular cornerstones of life experience. My friend and I share a good meal and talk late into the night beside the fire, single malt in our glasses. At my feet, the Scottie flops on his side and warms his belly.

My pal has gone, back to the Ruby Mountains and the inexorable unfolding of the fates given him to tend. I am here, with mine. The birch leaves in front yard are yellow now, small boats of gold sailing down from the trees. I feel this autumn. The season within changing with the trees. Good friends are these remarkable pebbles we collect on our journeys; like special bookmarks, we tuck them in our hearts to mark our favorite passages, pieces of life we give over to the polish of time.
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The Importance of Being Duff

Outside of a dog, a book is man's best friend.
Inside of a dog, it's too dark to read.

- Groucho Marx

I think the whole world knows about McDuff, our singing white Scottie. Well, technically, his color is more of a latte "wheaten" color as it's called in the land of official pedigrees, with creamy light patches on both shoulders and white white ears and whiskers that frame eyes as dark as chocolate.

It is the eyes that stop you. Expressive as a Scottish poet, the dog is both dignified and as emotionally transparent as a child. The tail is up and the bark fierce when he charges on the "invaders" - squirrels - sneaking up on the bird feeders in the yard. It is their game: the gray squirrels that live in the trees streak across the grass, take a lateral arabesque from the crabapple tree, flying over Duff's head as he circles the yard in a whirl, setting the leaves to dance. Job done, McDuff lies contentedly in the cool grass, big head on his stubby paws, dozing as the the quail and chickadee flock the feeders. Later, when he comes into the kitchen, tail wagging as he smells the salmon steaming on the table, I swear he smiles.

McDuff will be eleven soon. He was my young son's much desired surprise Christmas puppy. Not yet ready to be weaned, we presented David with a gift-wrapped photograph album of snapshots of McDuff growing. Nicknamed "Chubby" at the time, piled in a basket of litter mates, he was an easy going pup with an eye for lunch. Daivd looked through the album in delight, eyes shining. "Oh thank you, Mom and Dad! You gave me a book of dog pictures!" Ken and I looked at each other and burst out laughing. We explained that Duff could come home in three weeks. That Duffy was his dog, for real, and forever.

Last week I had to tell my son, away at the US Naval Academy, that his dog, our Duffy, has an unexpected illness. A quick and aggressive cancer that is changing everything, almost quicker than either Duff or I can cope. My big son held back his emotion. "He shouldn't suffer, Mom. I'll come back if you need me to be with you when its time."

And just like that my boy became the adult, and I cried in his dog's fur.

Not to be maudlin here (well, way past that point I guess), but it's day at a time now. Duff has a new cushy bed, his days eased with homemade casserole and pain medications and the bits of smoked salmon my friend Greg sneaks him. I hold him and he looks at me with those great dark eyes, and I know he knows. He's been with me though some very tough times: always my hiking buddy, my companion as the kids one after the other left for college. A few weeks ago, the kids home for just a few days, we stood on the top of a bluff at Priest Lake, sharing water as we took in the view and late summer butterflies after a long hot hike. We followed the trail down to the shore and Duff waded into the cool water up to his belly and lapped water as he stood there, laughing. So happy to have "the herd" home.

Now, time is finite in a visible way. Duff sleeping in a slant of sun.

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Dreams in Color

"I cannot conceive of beauty itself without seeing it in colour. Life is short, and time and beauty are precious. That is why I seek beauty in the everyday objects that touch our lives, from the smallest plate to the largest vessel. It was that sense of the fleeting nature of time and beauty that inspired my pottery journey. I wanted to realize that aesthetic in clay... I also seek beauty in simplicity. Although my work has been extensively handled and worked I want it to show no unnatural elaboration of fussiness. I want to express clean lines, clear and vibrant colours, and an unforced character."
- Hsiao-Chen Peng, potter, Vancouver, BC

The age-old question, "When you dream, do you dream in color, or black and white?" has often come up in conversation among artists and writers. So much of what we do as artists is multidimensional and seeded in raw concept, worked and reworked in our thoughts and dreams, that dreaming itself becomes part of the creative process. And while the answer for me is both - my happy or creative dreams are often in vivid color while my dark and brooding worries are cast in black and white - the idea that we can choose light and shadow or color intensity within our own mental "sleep studios" is intriguing to me.

Perhaps we are capable of more than imbuing stark visceral dimension to fear, more than shimmering tints of beauty held in our imaginations. Could we surf the nights in unbounded manipulation of time? Collaborate with our unconscious designer to weave objects of character from complex springs, articulate the real from the possible, embrace beauty in things imperfect and natural? Express the simple, the balance in all things at the elemental level?

I like to think so. We are all of us builders, inventors, artists and prophets of our times. I believe we dream in order to create. Line and design are, for me, the skeletal structures of beauty. Color is the palette of the personal, even as structure and geometry are the common language of the world. Close your eyes. Invite the creative. What does your innermost compass track in your night sky?
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Well Made

Raven and the First Men, Bill Reid. Photo credit: Meredith Arnold

One basic quality unites all the works of mankind that speak to us in human, recognizable voices across the barriers of time, culture and space: the simple quality of being well made."
- Bill Reid, Haida artist, Vancouver BC

Just days ago, at the University of British Columbia Museum of Anthropology, I stood in awe of floor to ceiling totem poles of the coastal native tribes of the Canadian Northwest. Collected and archived from a period of several hundred years ago to just past the end of 19th century - and reinterpreted and revived in the 20th century and today by artists such as Bill Reid - these ancient cultures speak through the silence. They communicate, as Reid said, across time. Through the artistry of the hand-hewn canoe, the enduring totem, the plaited basket left behind by long ago generations for modern discovery. The MOA display area for these totems, a vast soaring open space, constructed of rough cedar poles supporting glass walls rising three plus stories, barely accommodates some of these magnificent artifacts. Many totems are larger in diameter than three men might wrap their arms around - some of them cut and shipped in segments, they are so tall. Painted and unpainted, aged salt-stained gray, cracked, fragile, these totems are the long ago work of living peoples of today. The stories of these coastal peoples, their legends and family histories, are carved into the iconic shapes of raven, bear, dog fish, whale and human, to name just a few.

As I explored the museum, I found myself studying the "multiversity galleries," collections of fascinating and diverse examples of crafts and cultural arts of Pacific peoples that range from the Polynesian and Asian to the Inuit. The connection between objects well made and enduring cultural linkages began to emerge as I studied the collective display. The use of porcelain masks in ancient Japanese Samurai Noh Theatre, for example, reflects a similar importance in the carved and painted masks of Northwest native dance. Weaving patterns in basketry from Northwest coastal communities represent patterns of handcrafted art reinterpreted elsewhere around the Pacific. My illuminating day among the old carvings echoed with the enduring power of art. The voices of the past are heard by the people of the present in the things they have made.
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