Being Male

It’s nice to be the privileged gender. It has a bunch of benefits. I’m not gloating. I had nothing to do with it. My parents started the whole thing and I’ve managed to maintain it. It’s like being born rich, after a while you take it for granted. Being male came naturally for me so I don’t usually give it much thought. In fact, I had second thoughts about writing this.

At times, I question the good fortune of being male. Being on the top tier of anything is difficult. Life under a patriarchy is harsh enough, but being part of the ruling class brings risks. No, this isn’t where the woe-is-me starts. I have no complaints. It’s enough to have shared in the soap operas, periodic cramps, and nine months of excess estrogen to know being female is not for me. I have nothing against guys who think they should be. There are always defectors, just as there are wannabes. Beyond physical distinctions, gender is just a state of mind, anyway.

There’s no debate. Men are expected to be the stronger gender. Money and power are perfumes for us. They’re the scent of strength and success. That’s how we keep one another in check. Once you have these two fists, you welcome any fight. When you’re male, aspiring to superiority and wealth just makes sense.

It’s also true that being male can be boring. Maybe that’s why many men aren’t very interesting. At least that’s what many women say. Although, I think this is part of the natural selection process. To be female is too weed out the losers. A male with merit stands a chance of being transformed into whatever a female sees in him. It’s the fate that most males fight. But I suspect that most males realize they can’t do it alone.

In essence, being male is about not being female. I can list all the attributes of every female I’ve known and still not comprehend their gender. The same, of course, holds true for any female. Each gender is dependent on the other for their identity. What we are is also what we are not. What has being male done for me? In as many ways as it made my life easier, it made my life more difficult. The grass isn’t greener, girls. It’s artificial turf.

Flying the Friendly Skies

For me, the thought of having to make another business trip is like having to see a dentist. I’ll go, but I won’t like it. Vacation is a whole other matter. I can endure the drudgery of selecting a week’s wardrobe if it’s for a good cause. Collecting seven pairs of underwear and socks can be a pleasure if you’re daydreaming about tapas in Barcelona or catching a train to Paris. But revisiting somewhere that you know beyond a doubt that you’d never live is a punch in the gut.

I was reading a short travel essay by Paul Theroux the other evening. He pointed out that very little gets written about the tedium of travel. My guess is that’s because people generally don’t want to experience the tedium twice. I know for sure that I intentionally avoid thinking about travel time spent strapped to a seat in a plane. Unfortunately, that’s my primary means of business travel these days. So in between trips, I waste time lying to myself that I’ll never have to do it again. I realize it’s a lie, but it’s consoling.

The anxiety begins to build the week before actual departure. It’s like preparing for prison. I’m never truly convinced that I’ll return home. The thought of encapsulation weighs heavy. Rubbing elbows with a stranger stuck in the center seat is certainly easier than San Quentin, but I still cringe. I’m hardly a germophobe. I’m absolutely comfortable with most any food drop rule. It’s just about being compressed.

After diving into my seat to avoid the exasperated faces following me into what could become our community casket, I sink into anonymity. Once the aisle clears, it’s nothing but profiles, bald spots, and clumps of hair bobbing into view from this perspective. Then the countdown to arrival begins.

Eventually I crawl over my seat-mates’ possessions for a brief escape. I’m always somewhat surprised to see the gaping mouths and varied expressions occupying the seats behind me. My legs are often numb at this point. It takes the momentum of the tilting aisle to get me moving towards a restroom the size of a phone booth. Swaying from headrest to headrest, I make my way forward trying not to let either hand land on a head or a stranger’s face. Once I reach the end of the line, I feel relief only to immediately begin dreading the return trip. Worse yet, I dread the possibility of the seatbelt sign going on and everyone being instructed to return to their respective pods without the benefit of urination.

This is the tedium travel writers try to avoid. They rather start the adventure with scenes of the descent onto a fresh terrain to be explored; or the discovery of what lies beneath endless rows of palm trees; or what they view from the terrace once they’ve retired into a comfortable cotton robe. While in the unwritten Travel & Leisure assignment, the business traveler wrestles their computer case from under their neighbor’s seat and bumps their unsuspecting head on the storage bin above. It feels so good to get out. But the ordeal has just begun.

In God We Trust

When it comes to religion, I disclaim any expertise or higher learning. I attended catechism classes with other fledgling faithfuls but very little sank in. Memorizing has never been one of my strengths. I was never awed by the dumbed-down retelling of biblical myths and the pious illustrations that filled the textbook. The whole thing seemed like propaganda. I kept my true feelings to myself, though, as is the general rule for most things when you’re a pubescent teen. It wasn’t my idea to go to church, anyway. It was my mother’s.

She seemed to be on a mission. To this day, I’m still not sure why she wanted her children to be exposed to conventional religion. She did allude to a passing exposure to Catholicism in her youth on a couple of occasions, but she never elaborated. Her excuse was that it would just be good for us. So I gave in to adopting the appearance of a bonafide Christian, knowing that it would never last. Neither one of my parents professed Christian devotion so why should I.

While my father sat at the dining room table with his coffee and crossword puzzle on most Sunday mornings, my sister and I had to get dressed and go. My mother always drove us there and back. Thankfully for her, Grace Lutheran was only ten minutes away. It always felt a little odd as she pulled into the parking lot and up to the curb at the rear entry. Parishioners would be filing past our car in their Sunday best while my mother paused to make her delivery. She’d uncomfortably look straight ahead as we hopped out, as if quilted by the vivid hypocrisy of ditching us there.

But now I’ve begun to wonder if that look was something else. It could have been a bit of impatience along with a sense of obligation. It never occurred to me that both of my parents may have been where I am today – ambivalent. If I were ever to label myself in any one way among many, it would be as a humanist. One god cannot be our only hope. Humankind has created a plethora of gods and look where it’s gotten us. From the beginning, our heroes have been gods. But no one hero can save us.

That’s where each of us comes in. The monomyths of Jesus, Mohamed, Buddha, etc., outline paths to follow. We just have to explore them; first for ourselves, then for the sake of others. There are many. I thank my mother for allowing me not to become content with following just one.

Trump and The Abstract

According to Dictionary.com, the meaning of ABSTRACT can be “a work of art, especially a nonrepresentational one, stressing formal relationships. Also, of or relating to the formal aspect of art, emphasizing lines, colors, generalized or geometrical forms, etc., especially with reference to their relationship to one another.”

Two and three dimensional artworks produce tangible abstractions. The image is simplified in order to represent generalized, yet distinct, relationships. Ironically, outside of the arts, ABSTRACT has a quite different meaning. Again, Dictionary.com:

“The act of considering something as a general quality or characteristic, apart from concrete realities, specific objects, or actual instances. An impractical idea; something visionary and unrealistic. The act of taking away or separating; withdrawal: The sensation of cold is due to the abstraction of heat from our bodies.”

This one word embodies two opposing meanings. The practical perspective on the abstract is to write it off, render it “visionary and unrealistic.” The aesthetic perspective allows possibilities to flourish. Nothing gets written off. Every element is worth consideration. Without the willingness to explore ideas, we’d lead narrow lives that cling only to what we know best – whatever it may be. We’d avoid the impractical. We’d willingly reduce our world to be only what we see and hear for ourselves. We’d leave the abstract battles, the conversations considering things “apart from concrete realities,” to our surrogate leaders – whoever they may be – lawyers, doctors, academics, scientists, priests, pastors, rabbis, politicians, etc.

Without intellectual exploration driven by an interest in ethics and ideals, simply succeeding at what’s considered to be immediately practical becomes our obsession.  That’s how Mr. Trump got elected.

People who have hit several dead ends, unable to see multiple possibilities, are looking for hope. They are especially susceptible to his message. He promises solutions that sound better than what they could have provided for themselves. But he doesn’t only play to the downtrodden. The abstract complexities of the world, the circumstances filled with subtle relationships, are actually beyond the grasp of much of Middle America, the working poor, wealthy entrepreneurs, and all the other demographic segments of our society. Admittedly, we all disdain the abstract to some degree because it evades our immediate comprehension. That’s why we willingly seek and follow leaders. We’re hoping that as a collective, leaders will allow relationships to evolve in order to establish cooperation and make sense of the world.

Mr. Trump is missing the fact that there are millions of people capable of comprehending abstract circumstantial relationships, opposing political concepts, and many of the details he dismisses. It’s up to us to voice our perspectives and beliefs. There are other possibilities beyond Mr. Trump’s. He’s caught up in a tit-for-tat, shallow mindedness that reduces the abstract spectrum of colorful possibilities to black and white for those who are easily overwhelmed.

Mr. Trump can only control us if we let him. I offer this advice to those of us who are comfortable with considering multiple perspectives, allowing the underlying relationships to form a whole greater than its parts: IT’S TIME TO RESIST.

Buddhas

My first Buddha encounter involved a figurine of the legendary “Laughing Buddha.” I don’t recall exactly how or when he landed beside the cardboard cigar box I kept on top of my dresser, but I was sixteen at the time. It was a carved-wood rendition of the famous monk, both arms stretched upward with open palms cradling the sky. His bald head was tilted to one side giving him a diagonal smile with just a glimpse of a tongue. Keeping with tradition, his belly bulged over a simple sash and the draping folds of an open robe. I don’t know who told me, but I knew it was supposedly good luck to rub that belly. I probably did at least once.

What I clearly recall were my attempts to photograph him. I had this vision of looking up at him with a bright halo framing his euphoria. Photoshop and any idea of special photo-effects were still decades away into my future. All I had to work with was the family Polaroid camera, the lighting within my attic bedroom, and a near total lack of photographic know-how.

Undeterred, I assumed that the good fortune this little guy supposedly guaranteed would carry me to immediate success. I stood him on a small inverted gift box in front of the dresser-mirror, left on only a reading lamp in order to at least see what I was doing, and assumed that the reflected flash would provide the halo I envisioned. I positioned myself and the camera below his feet in order to peek over the dresser’s edge and fill the entire frame with his life-size eminence. Holding my breath to steady the camera, I clicked the shutter. The flash went off like lightening. I immediately thought, “YES!” I paced the room waiting for the photo to materialize. “It’s gonna be great,” I whispered. However, as I stared into the rigid 3 by 4 Polaroid photo-frame, all that emerged was a white sheen engulfing the faint outline of a head beneath upright arms reminiscent of a referee signaling a touchdown. “No way!” I thought to myself.

This scenario went on for hours until I wasted all of the film packs. I tried every which way to capture the exotic joy the little monk embodied. I spent subsequent afternoons reviewing where I went wrong and contemplating future fixes. Eventually the memory of this string of photographic mishaps faded away. But my introduction to a Buddha stuck with me. It didn’t take long for me to find traditional images of Gautama Buddha. Far from the jolly smile and Santa Claus physique of my first encounter, this Buddha sat cross-legged in serene stillness. I later flirted with the practice of yoga and read sections of The Tibetan Book of the Dead as I began to search for a shortcut to nirvana. Still in my twenties, I lacked the patience that I later learned was a prerequisite to any journey.

When I was 62, my girlfriend and now wife gave me a cross-legged, stone monk the size of a small child for Christmas. We both thought of him as a young Buddha.  His shaved head and body are golden. His eyes are closed and his face reflects the comfort of meditation. He’s dressed in a red robe with a studded sash draped over one shoulder. I placed him on top of a wooden chest facing the area I used for my morning yoga routine. I’d look into his stillness before starting my daily series of asanas. Later in the day I’d pass by him as I came and went from my home office.

Living alone, he became my quiet companion. I have to admit that it was a bit spooky at first. There were times that I expected him to relax his legs over the edge of the chest, stand up, and join me for lunch on the garden patio. I never expected us to have a conversation. It would be enough to share his company as we silently noted recent changes in the fig tree as the flapping buzz of a hummingbird simultaneously caught our attention. I eventually created a permanent spot for him in the shade of the plum tree. He’s become part of his surroundings.

Today I’m quickly approaching the threshold of my 65th birthday. The word Buddha conjures a variety of memories for me. It also evokes a symbolic lifeline from my past into my future. For me, within the central stillness of the meditative Buddha there’s the reality of constant change – an inevitable evolution. That’s why in the latest photo of my symbolic Buddha, reflected light is combined with the movement of water. A flash of stillness discovered in any given moment reminds us that nothing remains the same.

Chicago

Fuzzy impressions are all that I have left from the trip my daughter and I made to Chicago about five years ago. Our first stop was at one of several hotel bars that overlooked the Miracle Mile.  I thought she’d like getting a view of the glitzy storefronts and mobs of shoppers to set the tone for the next few days.  Plus it gave us a chance to grab a drink and a light lunch before our afternoon trek.

We had already checked-in at a boutique hotel a few blocks from Michigan Ave and the Oak Street Beach.  The room had just enough space to get around the two twins beds and a desk below a relatively large window.  We had an expansive view of the air shaft separating the hotel from its neighbor.  Both buildings were tall enough to cast a constant shadow over the open space, making the dingy brick across the way a dull deep red.  So, needless to say, we didn’t have any reason to spend time in the room other than to change clothes or to sleep.

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All Rights Reserved, Jeff Griffiths 2017

We completed our pilgrimage to the EGG that afternoon.  The stroll along Michigan Ave was a bit like walking the midway at a carnival.  We passed every sort of person on vacation one would expect to see in the heartland.  Stocky grey-haired, middle-aged ladies in vibrant variations of pastel pink blouses combined with white peddle-pushers toddled behind their husbands dressed comfortably in primarily kaki.  Fanny packs and belly bags were still the trend and were the badge of the practical-minded tourist.

 

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As can be expected when you’re alongside one of the Great Lakes, the weather was reliably variable.  As the folks in Michigan like to say, “If you don’t like the weather, wait awhile cuzz it’s gonna change.”  And it did throughout most of our short stay.  Fortunately, it was late August so we had warm days and comfortable evenings even with the random showers.

We got caught in a cloud burst while wandering through Millennium Park the following morning so we ducked into a pavilion and were quickly joined by a husband and wife with two middle-school kids in tow.  All four were dressed in New York Yankee garb with the classic NY cap and pinstriped shirt, complimented by matching navy blue shorts.  I took the parents to be in their mid to late thirties.  They both were attractive, athletically fit, and happily on vacation.  It was vividly clear whose team they were on if and when it came down to a debate over whose city is best.  The thought of broadcasting that I was from Detroit never occurred to me.  But much like stereotypical New Yorkers, they didn’t hesitate to be loud and proud.

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All Rights Reserved, Jeff Griffiths 2017

Chicago is all about waterways.  We spent another afternoon strolling the riverwalk for a few hours, eventually getting out on the water.  We discovered that the best views of the city are had when you’re not in it.  The drone of cars and buses disappeared beneath the constant splashing we heard while bobbing on a sightseeing boat plowing its way toward the lake.  Our ride along the river came to a standstill at the harbor locks as we joined a raft of boats clustered together.  As captains tried not to drift into one another, a shirtless sailor used a paddle to maintain space between himself and a slender speedboat aimlessly adrift with three bikini-clad blondes enjoying cocktails and giggly conversation.

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All Rights Reserved, Jeff Griffiths 2017

Once we were set free and beyond the enormous steel gates, our skipper headed straight toward Lake Michigan’s expansive horizon.  We quickly left the weekend pleasure boats behind and were in the company of a cabin cruiser headed away from us and up the coast.  We reached open water and began to turn back toward the Chicago skyline.  It was a brand new sight for both of us.  I thought of the other cities and sights that my daughter and I had shared during past travels.  Like London when she was just beginning to prepare for kindergarten.  And like Madrid when she was transitioning to middle-school.  But those trips were taken while accompanied by my past wives – her mother, then her step-mother.  Now she was in college and living independently.  I was single and turning over a new chapter as well.  Among all the impressions that trip left behind for me to mull over, the clearest recollection is of how much fun it was to share time together.  Just the two of us.

 

 

 

What was I thinking

I began working on this image a couple of weeks before the recent 2016 presidential election.  Like many other people, I’d become weary of the drivel that had dragged most election related conversations into the gutter.  What I had anticipated to be a no-holds-barred dogfight had turned into a nightmare reality.  Substance no longer mattered.  It was all about mud and seeing what would stick.

What was even more disturbing were the parallels with the rise of Nazi Germany.  It didn’t help that I had just spent a week in Dusseldorf.  I had attended glasstec along with thousands of other trade show enthusiasts.  The week leading up to the show had been filled with festivities in the center of town, culminating in cycle races through the city’s streets on Sunday afternoon.  The harsh sound of German shouted through loudspeakers combined with roaring crowds of Aryan onlookers gave me flashbacks of scratched black and white scenes of Hitler addressing a sea of mesmerized faces.  As I wandered through pristine neighborhoods, the orderly parade of shiny Audi’s and Beamers along with the periodic flash and growl of a top model Porsche made me quite certain that beneath the veneer of serenity was a very aggressive and capable economy and culture.

Back at the hotel, news of the American elections with scenes of Trump egging on a crowd juiced with the power of us against them hovered above the bar beside panning shots of the chanting soccer audience on another TV and channel.  I had this weird sense that humanity was spinning out of control.  It was like any minute, rioting would become a sport.

While still under this influence, I sorted through photos I’d taken at the holocaust memorial below the Legion of Honor in San Francisco a couple years earlier.  The encrusted bodies frozen in despair said what I felt.  I began constructing their message and filling in their world.  The more I looked at the monitor, the more intently I felt as if I was one of them.

Going Places

The urge to travel is the strongest when I’m at home.  The TV is most often the enabler.  Looking at places I haven’t been immediately grabs my imagination and makes me want to pack and go.  Train travel is the best.  The ease of just being a rider without the need to know directions is always a relief, but even more so when I’m being hurled forward on tracks.  The certainty of arriving intact is much stronger than when I’m in the air.

The window always frames a cinematic view.  Passing landscapes of undulating hillsides add another rhythm to the gentle sway and thumps that are soon forgotten.  Towers and cranes alongside rusty steel warehouses seem to popup out of nowhere and disappear just as quickly.  The row of parked cars comprised of a few Fiats, a Peugeot, and other random models leaves me wondering what it’s like to work there and how glad I am that I don’t.

Each station arrival introduces a new cast of characters.  An elderly woman dressed in a freshly pressed black jacket, a strand of pearls, and a plain grey dress leaves a powdery scent trailing behind as she struggles to her seat.  She likes the idea of wearing lilacs.  The scent holds the memory of her wedding day and late husband.  For her, traveling is bothersome.  She only does it because her daughter rarely has the time to come see her.

 

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All Rights Reserved, Jeff Griffiths 2017

 

I can’t decide whether it’s the people or the places that I most enjoy seeing pass by.  Either way, it’s all about the escape.  The rest is entertainment.  Permanence is a source of conflict for me.  Each day is a question mark.  Is this all that there is or will ever be?   Will a change in scenery or in the assortment of nameless faces really make much difference?  Not really.  But it’s always worth it to me.  The thought of being the traveling observer appeals to me.  Just an anonymous man seated beside the window watching others live out their expectations, moving from station to station without a set destination, not knowing when or where to get off.

 

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All Rights Reserved, Jeff Griffiths 2017

Close Your Eyes and No One Sees Me

For me, Portugal is all about the backstreets and alleys.  Whether you’re slowly trudging up a winding pathway of cobblestone through the Alfama or climbing the seemingly insurmountable steps in Medieval Coimbra, the sights, scents and sounds deaden the ache rising from your feet.  You’re pulled upward by the search for that perfect vantage point to look out over layers of red tile roofs and whitewashed stucco descending to the banks of the nearest major river.

 

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Citizen Consumer, Coimbra

 

It was along the ascent to the grand plaza of the Universidad de Coimbra that we came across the first of a series of messages taunting the tourists that struggle to make their way to the top.  This alley led to the plaza’s rear entrance and broke off from the street serving the central shopping district.  Students dressed in their black cloaks congregate along the stone steps and ledges in front of fado bars, cafes, and shops filled with phony curios and Portuguese trinkets, watching over the weary travelers with unsympathetic smiles like crows perched on a wire on the lookout for prey.

On our return back down the hill from the university’s monumental facades and empty hallways, I collected a few more images that reflected the somber tone of the many Portuguese men and women I had passed by during our visit.  The reality is that people work very hard and long for very little throughout Portugal.  For most tourists, Portugal’s affordability is a reprieve from the expensive attractions and getaways in Western Europe.  City streets throughout the country are cluttered with brightly painted Tuk Tuks operated by multilingual entrepreneurs who have abandoned professional careers offering little in the way of upward mobility and financial prosperity.  Tourism is now driving economic growth.

Just as in their music, there’s an undertone of sadness and inevitable misfortune in many Portuguese eyes.  Many faces appeared to feel forgotten.  Others have simply lost sight of themselves.

 

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All Rights Reserved, Jeff Griffiths 2017