To my mentor (who found me on the street when I ripped my pants and eventually gave me a camera and let me follow him around so I could learn how to make photos) on his 50th birthday.
Fifty years ago today, you came screaming out of your mother, took your first breath, and opened your eyes to begin one of the most unique lives I have the honor to swim alongside personally. You run the gamut between being one of the most generous and wise people in my life, able to talk me up from a pit or down from the edge of a cliff depending on my flavor of frustration, to making me want to pull my hair out and knock you in the teeth. Of course I love you for that, and to your credit, this range of selves you carry means you are never boring, and I value that in a co-pirate.
I’m sure that day we bumped into each other along Forbes in Squirrel Hill wasn’t the first time we met, maybe I served you mead or ale as you passed through my small town while taking your livestock to market, maybe we toured on the same vaudeville circuit or robbed banks together, or maybe we simply sat by the same fire for the night while heading opposite ways on the Silk Road. Either way, I am reminded constantly how different my life would be if our paths hadn’t crossed that day. I am so grateful for the richness and adventure that has been added to my journey because you are the indescribable person that you are, and because you have an appreciation of the workings of the Universe and a trust for your Curious Instinct that tapped at the inside of your rib cage when you reached out to say hello (however many years ago that was). It’s our shared time worshipping at the altar of Chaos and Peace, rolling in our heads the golden possibility and red betrayal that an interaction with a stranger could hold, and our faith in a feeling that made us and keeps us friends and family, part of a larger tribe that goes beyond our birth days and our death days.
As I’m sure you’ve felt, with big birthdays come big feelings (which is probably why many people like to soak their birthdays in hard liquor, myself included). A chance to reflect turns to a tendency become nostalgic, to woulda-coulda-shoulda, to mourn old selves and wish new ones and before you know it, you’re carried away, damn it. It becomes so easy to lose yourself in nostalgia for the past and fear or projection or a list of self-improvements for the future, that we ping pong between two things that do not exist at the expense at the one thing that does, the present. Alan Watts said it this way:
"There is a contradiction in wanting to be perfectly secure in a universe whose very nature is momentariness and fluidity. But the contradiction lies a little deeper than the mere conflict between the desire for security and the fact of change. If I want to be secure, that is, protected from the flux of life, I am wanting to be separate from life. Yet it is this very sense of separateness which makes me feel insecure. To be secure means to isolate and fortify the “I,” but it is just the feeling of being an isolated “I” which makes me feel lonely and afraid. In other words, the more security I can get, the more I shall want.
To put it still more plainly: the desire for security and the feeling of insecurity are the same thing. To hold your breath is to lose your breath. A society based on the quest for security is nothing but a breath-retention contest in which everyone is as taut as a drum and as purple as a beet.”
Watts goes on and on, as philosophers do, basically saying that happiness doesn’t come by improving our experience, but by being completely present with our experience, living within it in the fullest possible sense. Of course this is easier said than done, Watts, especially for those of us with crazy, artist minds like you and I. But this is the gift that you showed me in the camera, in a life of complete immersion in moments and people, in an appreciation for living in light, jumping from puddle to puddle of the stuff, knowing that it will be great, then fluorescent tube lighting in a high school gym, then at some time and place, great again. Of course, we miss moments, we choose the wrong lens, we struggle to focus in the dark, we let ego or others’ ideas of what we should be cloud our own vision or knock us from engaging fully in what is our present. Watts again:
"The real reason why human life can be so utterly exasperating and frustrating is not because there are facts called death, pain, fear, or hunger. The madness of the thing is that when such facts are present, we circle, buzz, writhe, and whirl, trying to get the “I” out of the experience. We pretend that we are amoebas, and try to protect ourselves from life by splitting in two. Sanity, wholeness, and integration lie in the realization that we are not divided, that man and his present experience are one, and that no separate “I” or mind can be found.
To understand music, you must listen to it. But so long as you are thinking, “I am listening to this music,” you are not listening.”
On your 50th birthday, I realize this is the present you’ve given me, and sometimes, when I’m at my best, I can receive it. Happy birthday, El Jeffe, and cheers to many more.