Monthly Archives: September 2008

The Abundance of the Moment

I was talking the other night to a friend about the gas shortage here in Atlanta, and admitted that I was embarrassed how it had unnerved me.

Hurricanes Gustav and Ike shut down the refineries on the gulf coast which produce the gasoline that is pumped through pipelines to the southeast. It has taken the refineries a long time to get back up and running, and the gasoline reaching our area is well below normal.

The result has been shortages, long lines and the barely muted panic of a population habituated, and unable to get, it’s substance of choice.

The first line I saw was a week ago when I went to get my car washed at a gas station. (Due to a drought, we’re also restricted from engaging in another American birthright: the domestic joy of washing the car in the driveway.)
There was a line half a block long at the station. The attendant said it was because they were selling lowest octane gas at $3.87 a gallon.

I got the car washed without waiting, but the experience was disturbing.

Wild Mind

The same thing happened when Katrina shut down the refineries. I sat one afternoon in a line for 30 minutes waiting to fill up. I had a job the next day, and I needed the money. My mind ran wild, beginning with “What happens if they run out? Where do I go next? What happens if I can’t find any gas?”

So here I was again, running through a well-stocked inventory of fear-driven scenarios, all of them built around scarcity and lack. And every time I’ve seen a station since with long lines, those fears are refreshed as if I’d hit the reload button on my Firefox browser.

And I ask everyone I speak with if they’ve bought gas, where, and what were the lines like.

“I’m glad you told me that,” my friend said the other night. “I was thinking it was just me who was so freaked out.” 

Combustible Emotions

Finally I decided to take a look at the obsession head-on. What I came up with was that the high level of uncertainty I’ve experienced over the past few years has made me unusually sensitive.

I’ve managed reasonably well, but a gas shortage threatens one of the freedoms I treasure most: mobility. If I can’t get around, I’m in deep trouble. And I live in a sprawling city with nearly 5.5 million inhabitants, most of whom are habituated to plentiful gasoline and long commutes.

Those lines teem with people whose unchecked anxieties are probably similar to mine, and their emotions are more combustible than fuel. I heard a story last week about a guy who cut in front of a woman. She  went into the station, bought a cup of coffee and dumped it on him.

Authorities say part of the problem is that people are panicking and topping off their tanks rather than waiting until they’re low to re-fuel. If I’d seen a short line, I’d have done it myself.

And I’ve given plenty of thought to options, too. The AT&T store is looking for help. Or maybe the library at the end of the street, or Borders, which is just a mile away. Those are places I could walk to. Lowe’s is a few miles the other way, and the MARTA station a few hundred yards from here puts other possibilities within reach.

Reclaiming the Day

But for all the nightmares I’ve conjured, none has come to pass. And as a passage in a book called “Courage to Change” points out, “My best hope is every bit as likely to occur as my worst fear….” It adds, “All I can do is make the most of this day.”

Come to think of it, this day isn’t half-bad. Temperature about 80, low humidity and I’ve got the double front doors open and am sitting in the doorway with a commanding view of a riot of greenery — trees, lawn, shrubs — the street, and the  ravine across the street. A young mother passes pushing a stroller and leading a dog on a leash. She sees me and we exchange waves.

What’s not to like? With this splendid working environment, I have wrapped up two jobs, written a blog, figured out how to put ads on my website and been offered an interesting assignment that will pay a lot of bills for the next few months.  And all of this without turning on the ignition.

The abundance of the moment reminds me that giving in to the panderings of the unchecked mind is stupid, weak and a failure of faith. Faith in the Creator, and faith in my ability not just to cope, but to make the best of a situation.

Online reports say gas supplies ought to be normal by mid-October. I trust that my reservoir of sanity will be topped off and flowing freely well before that.

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Blue-Chip Discipline

I’m in one of the stuffed purple chairs at Starbucks, editing a story on my laptop. An academic friend of mine is in the adjoining chair, checking his assets in the Wall Street Journal.

“You gonna work much longer?” he says, folding the paper in half and then in half again.

“As long as I can,” I say, bemused.

He meant was I planning to retire soon. I’ve made no secret that reinventing myself has taken a toll on my finances. That it has eluded my friend probably says more about his preoccupation with finding a woman to marry at the age of 51 than about my circumstances.

Which are anything but robust, at least in the Wall Street Journal sense of the word. But in a world that seems to be lurching from one financial crisis to another, I’ve got some blue-chip experience when it comes to what Andy Stanley calls “faith tension.”

In Money  We Trust

Stanley is the pastor of three very successful non-denominational churches in Atlanta, and the other day he discussed Jesus’ take on spiritual discipline.

One facet of spiritual discipline, he said, is prayer. Not “prayer on the go” – praying that you’ll get to your appointment on time, for example – but taking time out every day, away from all distractions, and praying.

Another is giving, whether to the poor, to charity, to a church, whatever, but giving without expecting to be recognized or applauded by others. This was the nub of our existence, Stanley said, because what people trust above all else is money.

“It competes with God more than anything,” he said.

Thus the tension of faith: do you believe in God or in money? If you trust God, then you give as an act of faith, not knowing what’s going to happen next, but secure in the knowledge that your needs will be met.

People on Edge

It’s reminiscent of a one-liner from an underground comic strip called the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers during the “sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll” era: “Dope will get you through times of no money, better than money will get you through times of no dope.”

Substitute “God” for “dope” and you’ve got the premise of a lifetime.

But does it work? We’ve had a series of crises that test our financial certitude, from financial institutions to oil prices to the mortgage debacle.

A woman on the radio asked consumer advocate Clark Howard about insurance giant A.I.G., which the government was  about to prop up. “I’m about to retire,” she said, “and I’m kind of depending on that money for my retirement.”

“Of course you are,” yelped an agitated  Howard.  

When people are on edge, when their savings, pensions and IRAs are imperiled, when their security is threatened,  what does spiritual discipline have to do with it?

The Foothills of Faith

Plenty. After several years of financial stress I came to the conclusion that there was no way I was going to succeed on my terms. Having tried everything else I could think, and being about nine parts out of ten desperate, I decided to turn it all over to God. Not just work and finances, but everything. And not just once, but every day, and sometimes more than once a day when I start waffling.

It wasn’t such a big step. I’ve been studying spiritual matters for 25 years. But all I had for it was a set of beliefs, some of them pretty ordinary, others rather unconventional.  I’ve started writing a book to lay it all out on the supposition that others may find it useful and perheps inspiring. 

But those beliefs don’t add up to faith, and I didn’t realize that’s what was missing until I turned things over to the Creator and began to experience an almost dreamlike serenity. My circumstances hadn’t changed, but my attitude had. Things didn’t bother me the way they used to, and I don’t worry nearly as much. If I were hallucinating or indulging some kind of fantasy, I would have seen through it quickly. I’ve too accomplished a doubter to fall for self-hypnosis.

But I’m just in the foothills of faith; I’ve got a long way to go. Last night, I broke a tooth during dinner, and started obsessing about how much it’s going to cost to repair it. I called a friend, a 20-year veteran in  Al-Anon and a cancer survivor.

“That’s just life stuff,” he said. “The things that money can’t fix are the things that really matter. “

No Contest

So I turned the dentist issue over to God, relieved to be reminded once more that I am not in charge, and serenity drifted back into the room. 

Will spiritual discipline solve the financial crisis? Probably not. 

But when I look at the options — let’s see: I can either put my faith in financial instruments that are subject to the greed, fear and unpredictability of fallible people like myself, or I can put my faith in the source of the serenity I’ve been experiencing for the past eight months or so — well, it’s really not much of a contest.



LinkedIn as a Metaphor

I got an email yesterday from a friend whom I had invited to be one of my connections on LinkedIn. The essence of her question was: why?

And the essence of my answer was: I don’t know, but I’ve been sitting on the sidelines all my life acting like I’m in control when all I’ve been doing is surviving, not living. Signing up for LinkedIn isn’t exactly bungee jumping, but it’s a small step in the right direction.

I understand her reluctance, though.  She’s like a lot of people who watch others jump from trend to trend, and sign on only to the sure things.
It took me a couple of years – and a career shift – to convince me of the need for a cell phone. I waited until three years ago to start my own website.

Sanctioned Insanity

Standoffishness is a family heirloom. My buddies buddies got to stay out ’til midnight; I had to be in at 10:30. The message was “We’re different,” and there’s something to be said for not going along with the lowing herd.

The rest of the story, however, is that mine was a joyless and stressful childhood. We may have been different, but I was miserable. Holding back and isolating was how I survived.

Now – and I must remind myself of this for the rest of my days – I have other choices. Holding back and isolation no longer represent safety. They are an invitation to sanctioned insanity – the random soundtrack of the untamed mind.

Now when I feel that craziness rising, I call friends who have been there, too, and understand.


In that same spirit, I signed up with LinkedIn because someone asked me to be a connection. But I filled in the bare minimum on my profile – just 15% — as if it were wasting away from a lingering disease.

Recently, however, I filled in the work and education portions, and got a recommendation. Then I asked a number of people to be my connections, mainly because that 15% was bugging me. It reminded me of my father’s lectures about how I was underachieving.

So now my profile is a robust 90%. I’ve got 32 connections who have 2200 connections and a total network of 547,600 people, which is mind-bending.

I re-connected with some folks I hadn’t heard from in years, which is cool, but that network stuns me. I can send out a query and get coverage that is unimaginable in any other way.

Giving Up Control

In particular, I’m looking for websites with good writing, not the usual “My hamster loves Cheerios” drivel.

Finding some good sites would be helpful, but for me the greatest benefit is taking the chance – no longer holding back and trying to be in control.

Even if it doesn’t work out, I’m pretty sure it won’t be fatal.
Although, come to think of it, that might make an interesting screenplay – a social networking version of “Fatal Attraction” ….

The Quality Commitment

I came across a remark from Jimmy Page  the other day in the June 12 Rolling Stone that reminded me about the importance of commitment.

In an interview with David Fricke, Page said, “The main thing is quality… The important thing is to commit to playing. You have to put a lot in to get a lot out.”

As a rock critic (see Bio), I could take or leave Led Zeppelin, although I still consider their “When the Levee Breaks” one of the great rock ‘n’ roll songs of all time.

But Page’s comment echoes something I heard recently from a friend who turned her back on the financial world to become an artist. While bemoaning the decline of morals and standards in our culture, she remarked that “quality will always stand out.”

Rear-Guard Action

These remarks are especially helpful right now. As a freelance writer, I write for a variety of media – internet, special interest magazines and newspapers.

I enjoy all kinds of writing, but journalism is where I got my start and where I have the most freedom. But newspapers are losing money and readers at a frightening rate. The Atlanta paper recently asked for 54 people to take buyouts, and got 73 takers.

At the moment, that seems to mean more work for me. But sometimes I wonder if I’m fighting a rear-guard action: I’m being paid piecemeal for stories that I used to do as a full-time writer with a salary and benefits.

Which makes me wonder if I’m on the right track. And if I’m not, what is the right track? The smart money seems to be on the internet, but where? Is there a market for what I do? For that matter, how would I characterize what I do?

Everyday Magic

Answer: I tell stories, often the story behind the story. I look for qualities like connection and change, for the positive and upbeat. I look for the magic in everyday life.

So…newspapers? Magazines? The internet? I don’t know where this adventure is taking me.

But I do know this: my commitment, like Jimmy Page’s, is to do the best I can, and hope that readers leave feeling better than they did when they got here.

That doesn’t necessarily mean this adventure will have a  happy ending. But I’m beginning to understand that I’m not in the results business. All I can do is commit and have the satisfaction of knowing I did my best. Anything less would be cheating myself.

The Wisdom of Squirrels

The pistol shots began about 730 on Sunday morning: BANG! BANGBANGBANG! BANG! BANGBANG!

I don’t live in that kind of neighborhood, so I got up and wandered into the living room. The sun was still low and hung up in the foliage east of the house. But it had broken through in one spot and cast a fiery orange glow on the living room wall. It was so bright that I thought I’d left a light on in the kitchen.

I stepped into the morning cool on the front porch and confirmed that those weren’t pistol shots at all. It was squirrels.

Tattooing the Tin

There were at least three of them high in a hickory tree next to the house, tails thrashing violently as they cut nuts loose and let them fall, presumably to be collected later. Most of them were tattooing my tin roof and either bouncing off or sliding down the roof like loose gravel.

But I didn’t mind. Unlike the moron on the next block who had fired up his leaf blower and everyone else be damned, I admired the squirrels.
Within a half-hour of daybreak, they’d begun the day’s work – in this case, harvesting for the cold months ahead – presumably without any of the angst that attends humans at work.

In fact, they are so uncomplicated and childlike that they stopped in the middle of their labor to engage in a madcap game of tag. 

A Dull Lad

They raced up and down the pin oak in the front yard, ripping through the ivy-entwined trunk at full speed, then scrambled out on slender branches and made outrageous leaps into the waiting embrace of a dogwood across the driveway.

I watched from a bentwood rocker on the porch and wondered what my life would look like if I could toggle that easily between work and play.
Considering that I am by habit and family legacy far too serious, and that I am in truth and in fact a dull lad these days, I’d say I’ve got a lot to learn from the squirrels.

Something to the effect that, yes, work is important, but so is play. Neglect it at the peril of suffering your own company.