Mon Quotidien

Mon quotidien – it’s a French expression that means my daily routine. Tom, my weekly French Skype conversation partner used it this morning. I jotted it down on the pad I keep on my desk just for those occasions when I hear and learn new vocabulary. And I am always hearing and learning new vocabulary in our Monday morning conversations.

I’ve been a student of French for 40 years now – well really 48 years if you count grade school and high school. But in those first eight years (I started in 5th grade), French was always my worst subject despite how much I liked it and even envied those other students to whom it seemed to come so easily. It never did to me. I struggled right from the get-go ­– even though I had the benefit of a private tutor in that first year before I was shipped off to boarding school in the sixth grade. I more or less excelled in my other subjects – even in Latin (an entirely dead language, except to my Latin teachers). I was regularly the best in the class in Latin. But in French I languished – a B student at best, but sometimes a disappointing C+ student with a mediocre command of the grammar and a poor recall of vocabulary. I just assumed that I had no gift for languages (at least not the living languages), and would never speak another one with any competence much less fluency.

And then Mitchell Sedgwick spent his senior year of high school in France, and that changed everything. It changed my life. You see, Mitchell Sedgwick had possibly been the only other student in my class as poor in French as I. On graduation day, I overheard him talking with Mr. Theobald, my French teacher and college guidance counselor. I don’t recall what they were talking about and I probably wouldn’t have understood it at the time either. You see, their entire conversation was in fluid and fluent French.

Something inside of me snapped – perhaps that self-limiting belief that I could never do the same. That conversation was a watershed moment in my life. But I couldn’t have known it at the time – that has come with hindsight. What I did know at the time was that if Mitchell Sedgwick could speak French fluently, then god dammit, I could too! And I would!! And that determination planted itself solidly at my core. And true to the words of the German philosopher Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the moment one definitely commits oneself, then providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance which no man could have dreamed would have come his way.

I committed and the universe responded to encourage me and to assist me to make my commitment a reality.

Encouragement: I’m not sure which one came first, the movie or the National Geographic article. But the two were very much married.

Friends – the movie – was a teenage love story which transpired largely in the Camargue – the marsh area of the Rhone delta in southern France, also known as the French cowboy country. An American boy – a captive of a soulless milieu of self-absorbed, disinterested, affluent parents living in Paris – meets French girl while walking alone aimlessly for the umteenth time through the city. They flirt and woo in two languages and ultimately escape the clutches of loveless families to create a family of their own in this relatively remote and removed area in the south of France. They set up house in one of the storied, straw-thatched roof, stucco-walled homes of the region surrounded by marshes alive with the sights and sounds of wild, white stallions and mares running freely. He’s a virgin at love and sex. She is a virgin at love and sex. Together they fumble; they get better at it and they find themselves pregnant. He finds work as a ranch hand. She prepares for the birth of their child.

I was seduced by it all: the storyline, the setting. the music (replete with songs composed and sung by a young Elton John). I envied the boy’s courage to walk away from parents too preoccupied with themselves and their own lives to genuinely care about him. I envied his self-reliance; his falling in love; his discovery of sex. I envied his bilingualism.

I was an 18 year-old, the produce of a pair of narcissists who’d mistakenly had twins too late in life to want to be parents, recently cast aside (in favor of another) by a girl I’d been transfixed on, and one susceptible to a story that offered an escape and a salve. I bought the soundtrack and played it repeatedly. It was soothing to the wounds of a kid longing for both love and a home where he would be valued and wanted.

I saw the movie for the first time on the day I lost my virginity to a girl I made out with the previous summer on back-to-back sultry nights on a beach in Miami. This summer, I had gone to visit her in North Carolina. The sex was not entirely unexpected. More, eagerly awaited.

So, that was the first bit of encouragement. A movie carried on in two languages that struck a deep cord, a deep hurt, a deep hole and just happened to coincide with my own sexual christening. Boy, if I could be bilingual like that kid in the movie and go to that part of the world and have a girlfriend…

And then there was the National Geographic article that came out at just about the same time as my June 1973 graduation. All about the Camargue. It was beautiful! It was too coincidental! It was a huge nudge in a direction that was not yet entirely clear to me.

And finally there was the match that lit the tinder, the igniting bit of encouragement I needed that ultimately launched me on my way to a 40-year affair with the French language and more importantly on my way to 40 rich years of relationship with my closest of friends. It all happened over the course of an afternoon spent drinking Cuba Libres while floating in a river with my high school wrestling partner and a couple of his buddies somewhere outside of a barrio near Maracaibo in Venezuela.

His dad worked for a foreign oil company and they lived in a gated compound a few hours from Caracas. Jim, my teammate, had invited me to come down to spend two weeks in early summer after school. My parents had paid for the trip as a graduation present. Jim had spent many of his childhood years living in and around Maracaibo. He spoke Spanish and had buds in the barrios. Sometimes we’d all hang out together on the compound drinking rum and cokes. Otherwise, there was little to do except play golf on the compound’s scruffy course. Pretty often, we ventured out to the surrounding barrios. I especially liked our stops at the home of an elderly woman who sold empanadas from a pot of boiling oil in her front room. I never had any idea what she was saying to me (or what was in the empanadas), but boy were they good!

The afternoon in question, Jim and I and two of his buds Jeeped it through the brush to a natural warm water pool on a local estuary. With us we brought a inflatable float and a plank to put on top so we could put down our Cuba Libres while we swam and soaked. We must have spent the better part of the afternoon. We drank, we talked, we laughed. We drank and talked some more. And at some point along the way I was hit by the realization, like an electrical shock to the system, that these kids, Jim’s buds, no older than I was, kids from the barrios of Maracaibo could carry on in English – and they did it just fine. Wow! With only a barrio education, they were speaking my language – and much better than I spoke a language that was not my own. I was impressed.

And then I was defiant. “Well dammit, if they, with only a barrio education, can speak a second language and I, with the finest education money can buy, cannot, then this will not do!” That shock to the system was the match. Boom! Right then and there I decided that I was going to defer going to college in the fall and instead go to France. I was going throw myself into total immersion and attempt to learn to speak a second language really, really well. My mind was set.

Providence moved to provide assistance.

I sprang into action when I arrived back at Logan Airport in Boston after the end of the two weeks. Instead of immediately alerting my parents that I had landed safely, I first called my college advisor, Mr. Theobald and asked to see him – that very day. Yes, this was the same Mr. Theobald with whom Mitchell Sedgwick had been speaking on graduation day. The same Mr. Theobald who had also been one of my French teachers.

He agreed. I made my way on public transportation from the airport in East Boston to his home in Milton, spilled my plans and asked about options for spending the year abroad. He offered a few. I was ever so grateful. Then I made my way home.

My parents were sitting on the porch reading the morning paper when I announced that I did not want start college the following month, but instead spend a year in France so that I could learn to speak French fluently.

Pauline’s first reaction (the part I can remember – in no small part because it was so far out in left field) was, ‘absolutely not. You won’t go to college. You’ll end up being a bum.” Cold water – not entirely unexpected but surprising in its intensity.

So I addressed my ideas to my father. In a nutshell I explained that if ever I had the opportunity to learn to speak another language fluently, this was it. The timing was perfect. I was asking for the go-ahead – which meant, I was asking him to pay for it.

And he did. I don’t know what was really going through his mind at the time and he never shared. But if I were to guess, it would be something along the lines of: I wish I’d had an opportunity to live overseas along the way. I envy you. Go.

It was early August. I had to act fast. On Mr. Theobald’s recommendations, I sent letters asking for application materials from universities in France and an organization in Connecticut that organized study abroad programs for high school students. They were just starting a new program that was for graduates as well. Initially I understood it to be in Avignon, a city very close to the Camargue. It was not until later that I learned it was in Evian. The mistake was mine, of course – a error in understanding the pronunciation. Where the fuck was Evian?

But I applied anyway. Fortunately for me, the Evian program, which was already full at the late date of my application, opened up. One of the participants dropped out. I was offered the place. I needed to send in a deposit and be prepared to leave in 4 weeks.

And 4 weeks later I left. I deferred my admittance to college for a year. I met handsome John Metz who was supposed to have been my freshman year roommate. We went sailing together for an afternoon on Cape Cod and I had a meal with his family. I fixated on him. He was blond, athletic, gorgeous and I was gay without knowing it yet. I almost changed my mind about going because I was so fixed on this guy. But providence continued to move me along toward Evian, France and not Brunswick, Maine.

September 9, 1973: Dateline Paris. It was the first stop for a few days before I and the other year-abroad students boarded a train at Gare de Lyon for Evian. I didn’t understand a thing people were saying. But I did fix on one of the girls in our group, Jacqueline. Wow, was she pretty.

At some point over the next 10 months, I did go the Camargue and I even met a girl to share it with.

July 16, 1974: I returned home – reluctantly. I left behind a host family to whom I had become quite attached. And I said goodbye to a schoolmate and adult figures who had made me feel valued and even loved. Most of them didn’t speak English. But by this time my French was fluent.

Today, I keep up my French so I can continue to have meaningful relationships with them all. I visit them and those who can visit me. We talk by phone. We’ve begun to Skype. I still keep a pad on my desk just for those occasions when I hear and learn new vocabulary.

October 27, 2014: Mon quotidien – it’s a French expression that means my daily routine. Tom, my French Skype conversation partner who’s gradually becoming a nice friend used it this morning. I jotted it down.

The Four Cs to Getting Re-Stoked

Perhaps I spoke too soon.

As with most anything, there are ups and downs. I just seemed to be experiencing a steady stream of downs which led me to believe that mediocre was about as good as I was ever going to get. Now, I have never been very good at stomaching just mediocre, much less anything to the south, especially if I had been investing a fair amount of time and effort in an endeavor.

So, it’s been with a great sense of disappointment that I have chronicled my surfing misadventures of the past year — all starting with my near drowning at El Golfo and continuing through my trip to Guiones eight months later where the swell was consistently overhead and relentless for the entirety of my seven day stay. Yes I had some successes, but no breakthroughs, nothing to merit a mention of anything but a claim of “mediocre” for the quality of my surfing. So I beat myself up and publicly pronounced in this blog that I was “just not a natural.” I doubted that I would ever be anything better than a mediocre surfer — not the spirit that draws one back into the water, especially with the plethora of alternate athletic pursuits that release dopamine into the system and generate an endorphin high. Let’s see: feel bummed out or feel jazzed? I’ll go with jazzed and what makes me feel that way.

So I went back to the tried and true. I went back to the gym, and lifted weights for six months. I told myself that I was doing so because (as I’d read in several articles on aging) weight lifting was essential for men of my age to defend against bone weakness and the loss of bone density. Okay that seemed valid. But much closer to the truth, weight lifting was something I knew I could do and be good at — certainly I could be better than mediocre. So to the gym it was, earplugs in place, music and muscles pumping — I set about a high reps, high intensity workout three to four days a week, confident that a six month regime would deliver results that would make me feel good/better about myself physically and athletically.

And it did.

And then I went back to surfing.

Six months out of the water, I went back to Guiones — site of the relentless overheads. And this time, I went back with the express intention of having fun, whatever happened in the water.

And lo and behold, I did.

And even more, I got noticeably better in just 10 sessions.

So, what happened this time around that eluded me in my previous two excursions and caused me to both doubt my abilities and lose my confidence?

Well first, the conditions were more in line with my abilities. I was challenged, yes, but not overwhelmed by the size and speed of the waves.

Second, I had coaching from terrific instructors who focused keenly on just two or three elements that I could fine tune. (Now, in all fairness, I had had a superb coach who did the same on my first trip to Guiones, but the conditions were just too overwhelming.) On both occasions, the coaches were precise and persistent at pointing out the few incremental shifts that could allow for a leap in my performance on the waves.

Third, I made a commitment to both listen to and follow through on the coaching. The former without the latter is a formula for frustration if not futility. (And, yes, I will fess up that I have been and am one to listen to good counsel without following through in other areas of my life.) But that was not going to be the case this week. The pattern was going to be different — and perhaps good practice for those other areas of my life!

And, finally, I allowed myself to be content with my sessions — each and every one.  Whatever happened out on the water, I told myself that if I was following through on the advice of my coaches, then I could allow myself to be just fine with the results — content.

Conditions, coaching, commitment and contentment — these are my take-aways. These are the elements that have lifted me out of a place of disappointment (if not discouragement) and re-stoked my enthusiasm.

So, if you will allow, let me linger for a minute longer and reflect on the broader lessons — the broader implications of these convenient (and okay, slightly contrived) four Cs.

Conditions: They will always be different. They are the exogenous variable over which we have no control. What we do have is the knowledge that they will change. Sometimes they will overwhelm. Sometime they will underwhelm. At times they will challenge. At other times, they will seem easy. Once in a while, they will be perfect. And then it all changes all over again. For my part, I can honor this dynamic, knowing full well to stay away when the conditions are clearly beyond me, but otherwise I can just keep going back.

Coaching: I am well served to connect with a coach who will help me articulate goals that are precise and meaningful to me — goals that get me jazzed about achieving them. This is valid not just out on the water, but for so many other areas of my life — personal, professional, physical health. Then the fun begins. It will be my coach’s job to set challenges and push me to meet those challenges and to give me feedback along the way to point out what to change or fine tune. My coach will be my champion and co-creator as I pursue my goals. My coach will be a gift I give to myself to help me grow!

Commitment: I will commit to follow through on the coaching I receive, or all has been for naught. At times this will take courage. If we look to the dictionary for a definition of courage, we find:

Courage n : 1. mental and moral strength to venture, persevere and withstand danger, fear or difficulty; 2. firmness of mind in the face of danger or extreme difficulty

So, at its core, we can say that courage is a resolve of the mind.

And, there’s more.

At the root of the word courage is the French word coeur, which means heart. At its core, then, courage is also rooted in the heart. That is to say, we garner our courage, in part, because we care, and that caring helps us generate the force to take on risk and confront fear — in short, to act! When we take into account both meanings, the full dimension of courage reaches broadly to embrace both our mental resolve (head) and our caring (heart). Courage, in sum, is the force that allows us to draw on the strength of our mental resolve and our deeper, heartfelt caring to push against fear, and dare to take actions that could have a strong impact as we attempt to grow.

And there is more.

When I commit, fully commit and follow through, there is every possibility that an unexplainable force will help me along in ways that I might never have been able to script for myself. The great German philosopher Goethe expressed this phenomenon this way:

Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness, concerning all acts of initiative (and creation). There is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which, kills countless ideas and splendid plans: That the moment one definitely commits oneself, then providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance which no man could have dreamed would have come his way. Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it now. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it. Begin it now.

Contentment: Contentment is the high-five I will offer to myself with sincere generosity of spirit for a job well done. Regardless of the conditions, I will heed and follow through on the direction of my coach. I will have the courage to throw myself wholeheartedly and with mental resolve into the challenge handed to me. I will offer myself the peace of mind that comes with being just fine with the outcome.

So, what are my take-aways? Tomorrow the conditions will be different — that is out of my control. No matter. I will focus on the challenge and direction handed to me by my coach and I will commit to follow through. At the end of the day, I will allow myself to be content with the results!

I’m stoked.

Let’s Leave, They’re Only a Buck Fifty at Safeway

If you are fortunate enough one of these days to drive along the central coast of California between Santa Cruz and Monterey, you will pass by field upon field of tall, thick-stalked, prickly leaved, some say prehistoric-looking spiny plants supporting a fist-sized vegetable that is poetically known as the vegetable of passion, the food of nobility, the thistle of love — the California artichoke. Artichokes are one of the oldest foods known to humankind. They are said to be an aphrodisiac. They were first cultivated for food in the Mediterranean thousands of years ago. Early plantings were first made in North America by French settlers in Louisiana, and then brought to California by Italians in the late 1800s.

Castroville lies at midpoint along the central California coast between Santa Cruz and Monterey. This small town, population 6,700 or so, claims to be the “artichoke capital of the world.” In 1949, in Castroville, Marilyn Monroe was crowned the first official “California Artichoke Queen.” Settled by the Spanish, and planted by Italian immigrants, Castroville is now largely populated by Mexican-Americans and Mexican farm workers who cultivate and harvest nearly four million artichokes from the Monterey region every year.

A mile or so south of town, Pezzini’s 100-acre farm straddles the coastal highway. A nine-foot-high green plywood “artichoke” gives direction to Pezzini Farm’s roadside grocery stand — take exit 414A. It’s not remarkable. Just an old, gray clapboard barn. Yet, it’s entirely unique.

In the back, wooden crates four feet on a side and four feet deep overflow with artichokes. Out front where I poke around, artichokes are heaped into bins, sorted and priced by size — I’m sure there is some official agricultural formula by weight or girth or something like that. To me it looks like: xs, s, m, l, xl, xxl, xxxl.

If you can’t wait to get home, you can buy an xxl freshly steamed artichoke right there (or if you prefer, some deep-fried artichoke hearts), along with as much dipping sauce as you like — homemade lemon-dill or garlic-mayo, or both. It’s a whole meal. There are a couple of picnic tables just out front, too.

So, on one of my visits, as I was finishing up the last bite of my artichoke heart, a 60-something couple drove up to the front of the stand, parked, got out. The couple poked around the stand for a few minutes, the husband following in the footsteps of his wife.

She closely examined the bins of different sized and priced artichokes — starting with the “xs” priced at $0.79 each, and moving down the line to the “xxxl” at $1.99. Perhaps no more that five minutes into their visit, she paused, turned to her husband, and insisted, “Let’s leave, they’re only a buck fifty at Safeway.” They got back in their car and drove off.

That one sentence unleashed in me a whole stream-of-consciousness. Part of me felt sorry for the woman. Another part of me felt fearful. My stream of consciousness went something like this:

Lady, get a grip.

These are right out of the field.

There’s no way you’re going to find this at Safeway, even if an artichoke there is only a buck and a half.

In that one sentence, I felt jolted by the rude and very real reminder that an important and meaningful part of my world is endangered. I dearly love my community. More accurately, I dearly love the unique character of my community — local mom-and-pop entrepreneurs whose businesses are personal expressions of creativity and courage, and whose survival is almost entirely dependent on our support: on us, the members of the community. In that one sentence, “Let’s leave, they’re only a buck fifty at Safeway,” I was reminded that character survives only in direct proportion to the sum of our actions to safeguard it. Is our world so caught up in commoditization that we are blind to character?

Metaphorically, I believe Pezzini’s is each of the local entrepreneurs whose small businesses form part of the soul of my community. Their grocery store and farm stand represents each of the local entrepreneurs whose businesses offer an oasis of uniqueness and personality in a world mounded with food and furniture and clothing and coffee that all seems to come out of the same limited variety of molds. These entrepreneurs offer a taste of natural, no-artificial-flavor in a world dominated by corporate formula and chemical-infusion. They offer an encounter with robust authenticity — albeit one sometimes rough around the edges. And yes, at Pezzini Farms, chances are that an artichoke will cost more than it does at a strip-mall Safeway.

Chances are, the smaller guys will never be able to compete on price with the bigger guys. Such is the law in an economies-of-scale world.

Chances are, indeed, that my community (well, our communities) will increasingly include the cookie-cutter coffee shop, the big-box building supply hangar, the fast-food franchise, the monolithic bank branch, the identical-looking chain store, the gigantic supermarket, the mega-mart and the big bookstore whose name begins with a “B.” Stocked, supported, subsidized and sometimes supersized by suppliers and shippers originating from places unknown, these better-financed, lower-priced, reliable, predictable, formula-driven purveyors provide (and always will provide) products that we need and want, at prices that most of us can afford.

And for that let us be thankful.

But, chances are the bigger guys might not buy and stock the proudly crafted, local cottage-industry products that you’ll find at the small-guys’ stores. Such is the larger guys’ limitations in an economies-of-scale world.

I liken my community to a patchwork quilt with each store, each shop, each street vendor; each merchant, each market, each mom-and-pop shop; each Safeway, each Shaw’s, and each Shop-and-Save; each minimart and each mega-mart; each small guy and each big guy; each — a colorful, exciting, lively and vibrant patch contributing to the texture and warmth and uniqueness of my community. There is a need for them all.

All.

The local entrepreneurs are part of our fabric. I value the texture that the proud, local proprietors contribute to my community. I’m mindful of my role as a member of the community today, and as a co-creator of the world I want to live in as I grow older. I’m mindful of the character of the community I want to inhabit. And I’m mindful, too, that that character will survive only in direct proportion to the sum of my actions, and those of like-minded individuals, to safeguard and support it.

So, I choose to channel my purchasing power in their direction. Not all, but some. Not all of the time, but some of the time — routinely, regularly. Not because I have to, not because I am told to, but because I want to, and because I care.

I take personal responsibility to support our local entrepreneurs. I choose to freely, frequently and gratefully pay a small premium to our local entrepreneurs as a purposeful, intentional investment in their survival. I have decided not to assess the price of uniqueness as a cost, not to have it weigh on me as an expense. Instead, I have chosen to treat the premiums I pay to the small business owners as investments — investments in supporting the character I long to enjoy well into the future.

I’m thinking that the premiums I pay are minimal investments in another day. I’m thinking that on another day, five months or even ten years from now, as I pass by exit 414A on the coastal highway, I will still see that nine-foot-high green plywood artichoke pointing the way to Pezzini’s small 100-acre artichoke patch and grocery. I’m thinking that I’m investing now, so that on another day, I and many more like me will still stop and sit down at those picnic benches, and that I and many more like me will still eat and celebrate and even give thanks for a freshly steamed artichoke right out of the field — even if someone else still insists, “Let’s leave, they’re only a buck fifty at Safeway.”

— from The Engaging Leader

I Don’t Know How to Make Chicken

CJ and I had been dating for a couple of months. He was at my apartment in San Francisco and I had asked him what he might like to have for dinner. Chicken. I hesitated, cringed and meekishly responded, I don’t know how to make chicken.

Now mind you, at that point I was 45 years old. But I had yet to prepare chicken on the stove. Yes, there had been the occasional BBQ outdoors and the oven version smothered in liquids and vegetable – thanks in large part to the 1980s preppy staple The Silver Palate Cookbook. But stovetop chicken had not yet been part of my repertoire.

Incredulity! If there is a facial expression for incredulity, that is what flashed across CJ’s face. And then with a combination of empathy and authority, he offered two words – a remedy, a formula, a path forward. Apply heat. It changed my world.

Was it really that simple? Was he telling me that there was no special talent or alchemy required to prepare a piece of poultry?

Flash forward 13 years.

I’ve come a long way since that watershed moment.

It started several years ago with trout in parchment paper – a recipe with step-by-step photo illustrations from The Italian Cooking Encyclopedia.

And then there was the summer of tarts and torts drawn from Mastering the Art of French Cooking. I had seen the movie Julie and Julia a short time before. If Julie could do it, I could do it. So I pulled down my mother’s 1977 edition of Julia Child’s tome, opened to tarte aux pommes, got out the flour and butter, plucked some apples from the tree in the garden, and I was off. In the months that followed: pâte brisé, pâte sucré, tarte aux framboises, tarte aux fraises. Could it really be this simple? Just follow the recipe et voilà, crème patissière.

And then there was the coq au vin. Oh wow! And then there was the osso buco in a newly purchased Le Creuset Dutch oven, bought just for the occasion. I was getting serious. Sure, I had upgraded from Revere Ware to All-clad 15 years earlier, but that was only because other gay men I knew had All- Clad pots and pans. It seemed like the thing to have in a San Francisco kitchen. But to shell out $275 expressly to make a singular dish, that was quite the statement – to myself – about applying heat seriously.

Yesterday was Thanksgiving Day. CJ prepared and baked a turkey with chestnut current stuffing, orange sweet potatoes and hazelnut dusted brussels sprouts. Dinner is his thing on Thanksgiving. And it was all absolutely delicious

I made the pie — a coconut and graham cracker crusted lemon meringue pie. Step by step, I followed a recipe that our friend Jane gave us last year. First the crust, then apply heat, set aside.  Then the lemon custard filling, heat, set aside. Then the meringue stabilizer, heat, set aside. Then the meringue – thick, airy, ethereal meringue. (I’ve gotten really good at making it just right in the past year.) Then combine all of the ingredients, mounding the meringue higher and higher with peaks galore. And finally, apply heat.

The pie came out of the oven at just about noon, beautifully browned, the peaks ever so slightly singed. Exquisite. CJ had plenty of time remaining to bake the turkey and cook the fixings for our 6 o’clock dinnertime.

Who were we kidding? We had our first few slices of pie at 2 in the afternoon.

Legacy

My grandfather came over on the boat from Sicily at the age of 20, landed at Ellis Island in New York Harbor on April 30, 1900, settled among his Italian relatives in Brooklyn and set up shop as a barber. Four years later, he married a Sicilian farm girl, newly arrived in America from his home village of Juliana in the mountains above Palermo. He was naturalized as an American citizen on May 6, 1905. My grandmother gave birth to four children — three boys and a girl — and my grandfather made sure his family never wanted for food or shelter, in no small part because he had a great mind for numbers and regularly won at pinochle. He and the other Italian men in the neighborhood would play the game for hours after work. Several times a week, he’d use part of the winnings to buy ice cream or pastries at the corner German bakery for his kids. He’d help out his brothers and cousins with a loan when they asked. He’d take half a day off on Sundays to be with the family; otherwise he was in his shop.

At least, that’s the story that I was told by my uncle and my aunt. I repeat it because I like it. It is a pioneering, self-assured, make-your-own-way-in-the-world American story. Support a family by day by the labor of your hands, and by playing and winning at cards at night — it sounds tough. Treat the kids, and help out the relatives — it sounds tender. Work your tail off to provide, because that is our lot and we embrace it — it sounds noble.

But that is all I really know about my grandfather. He died before I was born, and my father never really talked much about him. So all I have to go on are these sound bites: provided for his family, always put food on the table, good at cards, a pioneer, gutsy and principled. That is the only memory of my grandfather to survive today. And since I am the only one of my generation to have heard these stories, I doubt that much, if anything at all, about my grandfather will survive beyond the tomorrow of my life.

I don’t know that my grandfather gave much thought to how he wanted to be remembered, or that he cared about being remembered at all. I suspect that he had his hands full just getting from one day to the next. As he lived and toiled and took care of his family, my grandfather was just being who he was. His memory would take care of itself. He died in 1953. History has all but forgotten him.

I doubt that much if anything about my life (or my interests or accomplishments, or failures for that matter) will survive beyond the brief memories of my contemporaries.

And what is remembered of me will take on a different form for the many people with whom I crossed paths along the way: parents, partners, lovers, friends, teachers, teammates, therapists, colleagues, coworkers, children, caregivers, casual acquaintances … the list can go on for pages. What is certain is that in the minds of most, the sound bites are all pretty much set. There is little that I can do to recast the image or impression that I have already left. And so while I might wonder, “How do I want to be remembered?” the reality is that in the fleeting moments that I might be recalled to mind at all, I will be remembered in ways that I can neither control nor change.

I used to get unduly wrapped up in the idea that I needed to leave a legacy. I used to feel pressured to be memorable or to do things that would be memorable. I don’t any longer. I don’t want the pressure. I don’t need the pressure on top of just getting from one day to the next. I know more clearly now that the memory of me and my life, like that of my grandfather, will prove to be little more than a handful of sound bites, remembered by few, spoken of seldom and forgotten too soon.

What a relief.

Now, I get on with the life I have in front of me, one day at a time. And I get on with my life with presence and with deliberate purpose. Sure, I still sometimes ponder, “How do I want to be remembered?” But much more often, I ask myself, “How do I want to be?” I focus less on when I am gone, and more on as I am, today. I try to pay attention to the right here, the right now — to the moments that, of their own accord, and without any help from me, coalesce into the hours, the days and the years of my life, today. I pay attention to my behaviors, my words and my choices that of their own accord show me who I am today. And I try to live the behaviors and words and choices that help me to be the person I strive to be, today.

I have grown to cherish the sacred nature of this work.

– From The Citizen Leader by Peter Alduino

LEA

She took my breath away when I first saw her walking across campus on a spring day thirty-seven years ago. She was the most beautiful girl I had seen in my two years at this small New England college. There were only 1200 of us on campus, and of that number only 400 were women. How had not seen her until now? Who is she and how am I going to make sure I see her again?

It’s not that she knocked the breath out of me. It’s more that when I saw her I gasped. I was unable to let go of the breath lodged in my lungs. I was stuck, suspended – so taken was I by her light. This hadn’t happened to me before. I had read about it – it was that semester that I was taking an elective in Shakespeare. I’d heard about it – 60s and 70s swoon songs. But now it was happening to me. I wasn’t breathing. I couldn’t breath. I was completely and utterly seized.

When I did exhale, I let go of my breath with a spontaneous and surprising and audible, Oh Wow! She didn’t hear me, but I heard me. I was stunned.

Thirty-seven years later, I remember and re-feel and re-hear that moment as clearly and as viscerally as if it happened this morning. This is the first I have written of it. But not the first I’ve recalled it. Oh no. Not by a very long shot.

On a trip back to campus 3,000 miles away some six years ago, I went back to the very spot where I was walking when I first saw her. I breathed in the memory deeply. For a couple of moments, I relished the nostalgia. Then I sighed and walked on. I don’t know if or when I’ll return to campus again, but if and when I do, I’ll repeat that same bit of reverie. That moment changed everything. She changed everything.

Just Not a Natural

I am a competent surfer but not an accomplished surfer. And certainly, I am not a pretty surfer, unless caught in a photo at just the right instant. The few seconds on either side of the snapshot would reveal otherwise – feet turned out rather than pidgeon-toed, hips too centered over the board rather than forward to accelerate or back to break, hands over the same rail rather than opposing rails, head looking down rather than up and down the line. Okay, in all candor, perhaps there are more than the occasional good pop-ups with all of the elements of my stance coalescing and contributing to a steady ride down the line.

I paddled into my first wave some 13 years ago at the age of 45. In these past eight months since my near drowning on a reef break in Costa Rica, I am making peace with the notion that I am just not a natural. I suspect I am about as good as I am going to get. And that is okay. My efforts from this point forward will surely produce a share of fun rides and even some thrills, but whether I’ll become markedly better at dropping in and trimming and carving on larger waves, that remains to be seen.

Is a part of me disappointed? I don’t know yet. But I do know that a part of me is relieved. It’s that part of me that believed that I’d be cool if I was a really good surfer, or that in order to be cool, I needed to be a really good surfer. Either way, I am fine with not being a really good surfer. I am fine with not being cool and with not needing to be cool. I am cool with just being me, being Peter, whomever I appear to be or however I appear to be to the world around me. If and when I surf, I’ll go out because I want to be on the water, or because I want to paddle since paddling is a great workout, or because the waves look accessible and fun and even challenging. I’ll go, too, if someone invites me to join them in the line up. How ironic it would be if now, after all this time in Santa Cruz, after having given up the fantasy of really good surfing and instead settling into my more humble reality, I were to develop a small tribe of buds because of surfing.

Culture Shock in Tamarindo, Costa Rica

I am in culture shock within the first few minutes of arriving in Tamarindo after having spent seven days in the secluded, lush and quiet hamlet of Guiones only fifty miles south, but a world apart. Paved roads, lines of traffic, dozens of pedestrians on the shoulders along any 100 meter stretch of the road. Barely a view to the beach – so jam packed is the beach-side street with stores, restaurants, hotels, hostels and outdoor markets. A pickup truck with a loudspeaker makes its way down the main drag – its prerecorded announcement shouting out the attractions of the newest bar in town. Nicaraguan peasants blow bird calls through hollowed out wooden whistles and hawk a collection of hand-made beads, bracelets and other ornaments to passers by. A man with a mostly full bottle of vodka in one hand and a cup of iced liquid in the other staggers and props himself against a telephone pole while muttering as I pass by. Shirtless young men strut their stuff, their board shorts pulled low below their navels all but inviting further investigation. Girls in sarongs cluster, stroll, shop but curiously pay no attention to the guys. Am I the only one taking notice?

I slept soundly in Guiones. The fourteen of us at the surf resort were crashed out and regenerating for a new day of surfing by 10pm each night. Last night, the fourteen or so other guests at the hostel in Tamarindo were awake and sharing and laughing well into the late hours of the night. The self proclaimed “Meanest Night Club in Tamarindo” next door blared music into the night air until 1:30am. I was dead tired for my 6:00am surf session. And it could have been a great session – out on the boat, anchored off shore at Playa Grande, head high waves, no crowd. Not even dunking into the ocean water helped. I found myself yawning as I waited for sets. A few waves, a few wipeouts, a lot of sitting on my board trying to rev up. It was not to be. I paddled back to the boat after only an hour. I struggled to stay alert as the boat driver kept trying to engage me in a back and forth. The one other guy who came out with us stayed out for a good while longer. I closed my eyes on and off wanting to nod off.

I had breakfast alone when I got back to shore.

I woke up so refreshed yesterday morning in sweet Guiones. I didn’t surf, thinking that one day off would reenergize me for these three days in Tamarindo. It’s noon here now. I’m going to put in the ear plugs, take a nap and perhaps drift back south.

Community Makes All The Difference

I go on surfaris because I have grown to enjoy the community I meet and make along the way. This week in Guiones, Costa Rica, my tribe is a patchwork of varied and delightful men, women and boys. Two best-of-friends, adventurous, twenty-something Brazilian men are here on a stop while traveling around Central America for a month. For the more intrepid between them, Costa Rica is the forty-first country he has visited in the past two years. A navy doc dad and nurse mom are here with their two teenage sons learning to surf as a family. As the days go by, the sons are naturals in the water – not so much the mom or dad. But I am loving my evenings talking with them over glasses of Argentinian wine. A prosecutor novice surfer whose job back home has beaten down her spirits is here on the Costa Rican coast to get completely away and laugh and smile and feel alive for the first time in too long. And she is doing all of the above and is becoming more beautiful each day that goes by in this land of pura vida and the happiest people on the planet. A recently divorced dad talks lovingly and adoringly about his three-year old daughter and I can feel how hard the surprise of the separation and the negotiations around his daughter’s care weigh on him – every weekend taken up with looking after her, and his hours during the week consumed by his chiropractic patients. He is the hardest working surfer among our tribe, returning time and again to paddle out through the relentless onshore breaking waves. Now on day four of our week’s stay, his in-water therapy is giving way to a lovely playfulness and smile on land. The pharmacist in our group is a man in love with his profession. He is the more boisterous member of our tribe this week and enjoyably so, fueling and engaging our own enthusiasms. Our quieter business consultants are coming out of their shells as the week goes on, as we get more comfortable with one another, as the evening libations flow. Last night it was charades acted out from under a sheet – a post dinner party game fueled by mai tais, beer, wine and the punchy humor brought on by our collective exhaustion after two sessions in head high waves. For the novices among us, even the whitewater has been challenging – a turtle roll followed by another and another, just to get to the outside and then set up for dropping into a smaller unbroken wave.

Were I to be surfing these waves on my own without the community created by this crew at 6am yoga, eating breakfast, drinking post-surf smoothies, at lunch, on the beach, in the water, rinsing off in the pool, around the table at dinner, celebrating birthdays and laughing over party games afterwards, this surfari would be solitary, lonely, uninteresting, uninspired. Community is inspiring the experience. Community makes all the difference. And this week I have happened to fall in with – we have all happened to fall in with – a handful of individuals whose alchemy has created an upbeat and enjoyable community of companions.

The following video of our tribe was created by the very talented folks at Surf Simply in Guiones, Costa Rica

On Terror, Tyranny and Cowardice

On Monday in Boston, we were assaulted by two bombings carried out by unknown assailants for unknown reasons. This stealth act of terrorism, perpetrated on unsuspecting, peaceful and innocent civilians needs to be called out for what it is: cowardice.

On Wednesday in the United States Senate, we were assaulted by the tyranny of the National Rifle Association when forty-five sycophant Senators voted against background checks for gun purchases and transfers for reasons that they can neither articulate nor defend without deceit or deflection.

Today, Thursday April 18, 2013, is the anniversary of the day when two hundred and thirty-eight years ago men of courage stood up against tyranny at the Battles of Lexington and Concord. Two hundred and thirty-eight years ago today, a handful of determined farmers standing in for hundreds of thousands of their fellow citizens fought against a tyrant who neither represented nor honored the interests of the people.

Yesterday, forty-five senators grossly dishonored the spirit of that first Patriot’s Day. Yesterday, forty-five senators buckled to the tyranny of the National Rifle Association, and refused to fight for the interests of the 90% of the American people who support background checks as a measure to guard against guns falling into the hands of criminals and terrorists. Yesterday, forty-five senators betrayed their duty to represent their constituents and chose instead to succumb to the tyranny of the NRA representing not the American people but gun manufacturers and arms dealers.

The “no” vote by these forty-five senators needs to be called out for what it is: cowardice.

As yet, we have no names or motive to attach to the cowards responsible for the carnage in Boston. But we do have the names of each and every one of the senators whose shameful votes yesterday will contribute to the continued carnage made possible by the unfettered sale and distribution of guns and assault weapons to individuals with no precautions legislated for background checks.

Should you chose to voice your outrage at their betrayal of the values of representative government for which American patriots have fought and sacrificed for two hundred and thirty-eight years, here are the twitter handles of those cowardly senators:

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) — @SenAlexander

Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) — @KellyAyotte

Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) — @SenJohnBarrasso

Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) — @MaxBaucus

Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) — @SenatorBegich

Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) — @RoyBlunt

Sen. John Boozman (R-Ark.) — @JohnBoozeman

Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) — @SenatorBurr

Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) — @SaxbyChambliss

Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.) — @SenDanCoats

Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) — @TomCoburn

Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) — @SenThadCochran

Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) — @SenBobCorker

Sen. Jon Cornyn (R-Texas) — @JohnCornyn

Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) — @MikeCrapo

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) — @SenTedCruz

Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) — @SenatorEnzi

Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.) — @SenatorFischer

Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) — @JeffFlake

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) — @GrahamBlog

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) — @ChuckGrassley

Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) — @SenOrrinHatch

Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) — @SenatorHeitkamp

Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) — @SenDeanHeller

Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.) — @SenJohnHoeven

Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) — @jiminhofe

Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) — @SenatorIsakson

Sen. Mike Johanns (R-Neb.) — @Mike_Johanns

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) — @SenRonJohnson

Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) — @SenMikeLee

Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) — @McConnellPress

Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) — @JerryMoran

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) — @lisamurkowski

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) — @SenRandPaul

Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) — @robportman

Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) — @SenMarkPryor

Sen. Jim Risch (R-Idaho) — @SenatorRisch

Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) — @SenPatRoberts

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) — @marcorubio

Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) — @SenatorTimScott

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) — @SenatorSessions

Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) — @SenShelbyPress

Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) — @SenJohnThune

Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) — @DavidVitter

Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) — @SenatorWicker

Related Readings:

“Shame On You!”: Senate Rejects Gun Background Check Compromise

WATCH: Obama Slams ‘Shameful Day For Washington’ After Senate Kills Gun Bill

Catholic bishops: Background check vote shows a ‘failure in moral leadership’

How the NRA Impeded the Boston Bomber Investigation