Back in the Director’s Chair

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Januarys Foal_

January can be cold and dark in Aspen, and so it was when I said goodbye to my gallery for the last time 7 years ago.  I had been there 19 years,  I knew I would miss it, the wonderful collectors, meeting new people, helping them find art they would love.  Simply put, it was time.  But in a quiet way, I knew I would be back, some day in a different experience.  I can never do the same thing twice, I’m just built that way.

So when artist, Nancy Noel contacted me in early August about running her new gallery, I had mixed feelings, not realizing I was ready to come back to directing a gallery. I knew she needed a director, I had been contact by no fewer than three different acquaintances to this fact. And apparently, several people had given her my name as well. I wasn’t really thinking of running a gallery again, not really. But life does present surprises and I do love surprises.

Interfearing with Time

Interfearing with Time, 91×134 (yes, almost 8 x 12 feet!)

Nancy and I met on the Saturday before the Monday she was planning to return to her home in Indiana. I met with her mostly out of curiosity. Nancy and her two sons sort of interviewed me. I say sort of, because I was never asked for a resume or anything like that. We just spoke about her new gallery and what I might suggest. The more we spoke, the more intrigued I became. It was clear the gallery needed a director and the director need a gallery. We met again on Sunday evening; I suspect both of us had already decided what we would do. And I started the next day.

In every way this was going to be a different gallery experience. N.A. Noel Gallery carries only Nancy’s work. This is new for me. There are many successful one person galleries in the world, but it requires a different approach. I’m used to presenting various one-person exhibitions and finding new artists and promoting their art and career.  Nancy’s career is well established. She also paints from a unique vantage point, driven only by her spiritual guides. Nancy might paint an angel one day, and an Amish girl the next, or an enormous clock laden with crows the next. Each has a rich story to tell.

Touch, 68 x 92"

Touch, 68 x 92″

Nancy’s skill with a brush is unquestionable and you can feel the emotional passion behind each stroke. This is the work of an artist driven to express what is welling up in her soul. Throughout her career she has drawn spectacular collectors to her work, people like Oprah Winfrey, Robert Redford and Nelson Mandela. But more importantly, her work is passionate.  In the short time I’ve been running the gallery, I’ve seen viewers become overwhelmed with emotion, some crying, others expressing long buried stories about loved ones. She calls her gallery in Indiana a sanctuary. I think that’s the right word here too. Nancy’s work draws out those deeply buried feeling locked inside each of us.

N.A. Noel Preschool, Kenya

N.A. Noel Preschool, Kenya

I was also intrigued by Nancy’s personal story. She is modest and it takes some tugging, but eventually some of her story came out. She is passionate about her work with children, animals and the planet. And she does something about it. Nancy has built a preschool in Kenya, helping hundreds of children learn and get basic health care. It is a great success story, which touched me deeply and helped me make my decision to work with someone this compassionate.

The N.A. Noel Gallery

The N.A. Noel Gallery

Everything about the Aspen gallery is unique, the art, the artist, the collectors, the way we present the work, the way viewers approach the art. All of it is different. I love to learn and I love the expansive experience it offers. For example, last week we invited the Tibetan Monks of Gadan Shartse to do a blessing ceremony in the gallery. After an hour of chanting and prayer, the room glowed with spiritual light. Not exactly your typical art gallery, right? Good, because I don’t want ordinary, I want extraordinary.

Monks Blessing the Gallery

Monks Blessing the Gallery

When you are visiting Aspen, please stop in and say hello. I’m glad to be directing again and honored to be presenting art that touches people’s souls in a magnificent gallery.

 

 

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Through the Blackness of Fear – Origins of a Short Story

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Colors by Jay Magidson is now available in print

Colors by Jay Magidson

Sometimes an idea builds inside like a kind of spiritual pressure, threatening to overwhelm the holder, even consume him. This happened to me about ten years ago. I had been writing short stories over the past year. There was no thought to what they might be used for or why I was writing them, just when they came up, I would commit them to paper. It was only recently that I even understood their purpose, and their power in my life.

Each story had a single color as its title. The first was Gray, the Kafkaesque tale of a man lost in a featureless city. Another was Yellow, about an antique’s dealer consumed slowly each night by a dead cat representing his contradictory life.

The story that began to overwhelm me, I later called Black. It started as only a seed of a feeling, a bit of undefined anxiety. I would wake at night with a deep, unexplainable fear. Everything was going well in my life and I had no reason to feel this way. I pushed it aside, ignoring it as just general anxiety about life. But it grew stronger until it began to consume me, holding a kind of opaque fabric in front of my vision.

I lost quite a bit of sleep, lying there, desperately trying to push the horrible feelings away, running from this undefinable dark fog. Out of desperation on the third night, I got up, my stomach in a deeply clenched knot and sat in front of my computer and began to write. Without thinking about it, the words began to pour out of my fingers and instead of feeling relief and peace, the way I usually do when I sit down to write, the fear grew worse. I realized there was no way around this feeling, that the only way out, was through the blackness. I was terrified.

With a deep breath, I dove into the bleak feeling and for the first time, touched it. The best I can describe it, was like a kind of river flowing beneath the surface of my life, a river of unexplored pain. I dipped my hand into that river, touching its icy thickness. The fear and anxiety only grew worse, and I knew what I must do in that moment. I had to jump in.

The story began to flow like nothing else I had ever written before, nothing related to my life, as if I were a completely different person releasing this horrible and dark crime that had been eating at me, consuming me with guilt until I couldn’t bear it anymore.

The entire story came out that night, in one marathon sitting. And when I laid done the final period I was free. The fear had left me, replaced with a deep sense of gratitude and wonder at life. I had dove through that river of pain and had been cleansed by its fire, rising up on the other side a different, better person.

I’ve put the short story online here, if you would like to read it. It is surreal and personal, without any reference in my life. I read it now, still wondering where it can from, or why I wrote it, not really sure what it means. I only know that I had to write it, had to release it, or would have been consumed by it.

I think we misunderstand fear, shying away from it, avoiding the pain it represents. And when that suggests bodily injury, that’s probably wise, a mechanism for keeping us safe, built into our DNA. But there is another kind of fear, that which we need to embrace. It holds a deep kind of meaning on the other side of its invisible veil; we must leap the chasm with only our faith to keep us aloft. And on the other side is peace, growth, understanding, and maybe if we are lucky, a bit of wisdom.

 

One Second from Drowning and Other Stupid Ideas

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The best things to write about are those which are most difficult, the ones that make your palms sweat remembering them. For me it was 30 years ago when a foolish decision found me holding my breath in a dark underwater cave without a way out.

I was living on Maui in the mid-80s; things were simple, no responsibilities, few bills and good friends. We loved to hike and explore the beautiful tropical island. Maui was different then, still relatively unspoiled by strip malls and traffic. We’d often meet at a place called “Paradise Fruit” on Kihei Road, a funky place with dirt floors and picnic benches, where they sold fresh fruit and smoothies to the locals. You could feel the moist ocean breeze and hear the surf just beyond the small parking lot filled with rusting junkers, surfboards strapped to their roofs.

800px-Waianapanapa_lava_tube_2A group of us decided to go to Wai’anapanapa caves, a state park near Hana. It is and was a very touristy spot, but a place none of us had been to. Hana is a tiny, remote town at the far end of Maui, about a three hour drive along a windy, mostly single lane road. Wai’anapanapa caves are a maze of ancient lava tubes that formed hundreds of thousands of years ago when the volcano was active. They have since filled with fresh water, which eventually empties into the ocean nearby. It is a spectacularly beautiful place, and like all areas that are overrun with tourists, if you explore just a little further than most people, you will find the truly magical part.

And that’s what we did. Most visitors jump into the first cave pool which is exposed to the outside and leave. The water is cold and that pretty much completes it for most people. But the caves don’t end there, not even close, they go on for miles into the bowels of the mountain, hundreds of large and small caves, connecting like Swiss cheese. The problem is the water is cold, and it is pitch black once you go even a short way into the maze.

cave poolOne of my friends brought a waterproof flashlight and another brought a pair of swim-goggles, those little ones that just cover your eyes for swimming laps. But just one of each, and there were four of us, so we had to stay together. Which was probably a good idea, one which I should have heeded.

We followed the first large cave into the dimness until we reached a dead-end. We had been told there was another large cave on the other side only accessible by an underwater tunnel. OK, scary and challenging. Andrew, my crazy friend, took the light and swim-goggles and disappeared under the water. He was back in a few seconds. “It’s easy, down a little, straight ahead and up, there is another cave with a large air pocket.” One by one we went through. It was not deep, only about four or five feet under the water, then up the other side. Now we were in a separate cave about 10 or 15 feet in diameter, with about five feet of airspace overhead.

It was fun to turn off the light and enjoy the intense blackness of the interior cave. But we couldn’t linger here very long. The water was cold and we were treading water, the bottom far below us. The wise thing would have been to go back. The wise thing…

It was Andrew again who dove down and looked for another path. He went down, this time without the light. He came back a few seconds later. “Hey there is an opening or tunnel and it is glowing with light.” We took turns looking, sharing the one pair of swim goggles to see what he was talking about. When it was my turn, I took the goggles, a deep breath and dove down.

underwaterMy hands get clammy and my heart tightens as I remember what came next. This was thirty years ago and it feels like yesterday. I am sure I’m not alone in feeling a terrible fear of drowning, that burning desire to breathe, but not being able to. It still haunts me.

I have never been afraid of the water and am a great swimmer; was on the swim and water polo teams in high school. I swam in the ocean in Maui regularly, was young and in good shape. But confidence can be our enemy, pushing us to take foolish risks with our lives.

I dove under. It was dark at first, away from the glowing flashlight in the cave above, and my eyes grew sensitive to the gloom. I spotted the glow of light that Andrew had seen about 15 feet below. It grew larger as I approached, the pressure of the depth causing my ears to pop. Once upon it, I realized it was indeed an opening, which must be another cave open to the sky.

Andrew had speculated the glow came from a cave with an open roof, a chimney he called it. Now looking at the dull green glow, I thought of that theory and decided to go in a few feet, take a look up as best I could and return to the others with my observation. We could decide if we wanted to do this together, perhaps holding hands, with a single leader as we only had the one pair of goggles.

I eased through the wide opening. The water immediately grew much lighter. Looking up at that depth through 10 or 15 feet of water gave me no clue to what was overhead. It was just blurry and brighter. I turned around to return to my friends, but my night vision was gone. I couldn’t see the opening in the darkness below and ran into the side wall. I had to make a decision quickly, fumble around for the opening, the right opening, or continue up into the light.

If there was light, surely there was air, right? So onward it was, into the unknown. The water was cold and we had been treading water in the cave, so the single gulp of air I had taken was nearly out. I had that awful feeling of needing to take a breath. I headed toward the bright green light, only it wasn’t up, but sideways. It was clearly a tunnel now that I moved forward, the semi-smooth walls of the watery lava tube visible on all sides of me. Gratefully it finally curved up, growing brighter and brighter, but also narrower and narrower, until my shoulders bumped first on one side, then the other and it became too cramped to pull with my arms.

My lungs screamed for air, and my mind raced in panic. The tunnel surely went to the surface to the light and air, but what if it was too narrow for me to swim through? Should I go back now, while I could still manage to turn my body around, force myself to swim into the darkness, all the while running out of air, feeling for an opening I hoped I could find; or risk going on only to be wedged into the narrow tunnel, quickly drowning when my body got stuck. With no time to waste on decisions, I went on.

The tunnel scraped my shoulders on both sides now, my arms ahead of me were now forced to stay this way as the tunnel was too narrow for me to bring them down to my sides. I was only able to swim on from the short strokes of my barely kicking legs.
I was out of air. I can’t know what it’s like for other people when they face the possibility of death. For me in that moment it was peaceful, an inevitability that removed fear. I was going to die and there was nothing I could do about it. The single breath of cold damp air from the dark cavern far behind me was long used up and I was going to drown because of one stupid decision. I thought of my friends waiting behind, not knowing what happened to me, hoping they wouldn’t follow. I thought of my family and my brief life, was it really supposed to be this short. Oh well, better luck next time.

Warm air and blinding sunshine slapped my face; blessed sweet air that I gulped in great spasms. I had blasted through to the outside of the entire cave system, to the park and trails that surround it. A young couple who had been walking by, stared at me in surprise and wonder, a swamp monster who had suddenly burst out of a tiny pool of rotting leaves barely two feet across. What the hell.

escher puddleI stood there shivering and panting, realizing how close I had come to the end. Air and warmth soon refilled my lungs and damaged psyche. I was alive – am alive. I thought briefly of going back into the tunnel to warn my friends not to follow. But the thought of diving blindly through the rotting leaves into the cold darkness below overwhelmed me and I couldn’t do it.

Time is a strange thing, expanding and contracting at the same time. The whole experience was surely less than a single minute. I have no idea. It was an infinity in my mind, stretching and stretching into hours. I would never willing repeat the experience, but I’m glad it happened. I’m a little less afraid of death and a lot more in love with life because of it.

My Time Machine is Late Again

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Time MachineWe love the concept of the time machine, going back in time and fixing things or warning our younger selves of imminent danger. Since H.G. Wells wrote his classic story, science fiction writers have been absolutely fascinated with the possibilities and tried hundreds of ways to make it work. They seem to always get in trouble and never seem to have all that much fun with them, however. So with that in mind, I came up with a short list of:

Fun things to do with your time machine:

  • Go 5 minutes back in time and destroy your time machine before you get in just to see what happens.
  • Go back in time and ruin your parent’s marriage before you were born.
  • Go back in time 1 minute and greet yourself. There are now two of you. Do this 999 times more, so that there are 1000 of you. If you have the patience, fill the whole earth with yourself.
  • Go back in time one minute so there are two of you. Then zoom 20 years into the future and get all your old you’s memories and experiences and kill your old self. Repeat and continue until you are 1 million years old.
  • Go back in time with you and your time machine 1 minute, so there are 2 yous and 2 time machines. Each of you repeats this until there are 7 billion time machines. Give one to each person on earth, sit back and enjoy the show.
  • Go back to 1933 and kick Hitler in the balls, go back one minute before that and do it again. Repeat.
  • Take your girlfriend to the top of the Empire State Building. Tell her you’ll be right back. Take your time machine to earlier that evening and rearrange the CitiCorp sign so it lights up with her name on the tower. Return one minute after you said you’d be gone, point out the sign and reap the rewards.
  • Go back in time one billionth of a second over and over so you are invisible.
  • Go back to the Cretaceous (not Jurassic) period and take photographs and videos of velociraptors. Bring the photos to Steven Spielberg and explain to him once-and-for-all that they had brains the size of a pea, and were not smarter than people.
  • Find someone with a “WWJD” (what would Jesus do?) sticker. Send him back 2000 years so he can ask in person (I didn’t say anything about bringing him back).
  • Climb to the top of Mt. Everest with your time machine. Open a parachute just as you travel 10 million years into the future. Then float down onto the eroded hill below.
  • Go one year into the future and find out all the new fashions. Bring some back and wear them in your own time, then constantly brag about how you are always ahead of your time.
  • And finally, get the winning lottery numbers, horse race winner, stock market successes, and get yourself very rich indeed.

Got any more? Add them in the comments, and they had better be good. Don’t make me go back in time and break up your grandparents’ marriage.

When There was an East Berlin

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berlin wall- wireThe dark sky overhead threatens snow as I walk the nearly deserted streets. Ominous gray buildings with their unlit windows reflect the steely sky, glowering down at me. Out of nowhere, a lone man rushes by, I can’t see what he looks like, the collar of his long wool coat pulled up to hide his face.  He moves close enough that I hear his accented whisper, “Go home, this place is not for you.”

That was winter 1980 in a city that no longer exists today. Well, it does exist, but not its name, East Berlin. This is the real story of how I found myself in a city surrounded by razor wire and land mines.

Copenhagen

Copenhagen

I spent my final year of college in Copenhagen, Denmark, a fantastically beautiful city, full of charm and history. In between semesters, many of the foreign students traveled, bought ridiculously affordable Eurail passes and used them to go as far and as wide a possible during the two week break. I went with a friend to Germany, along the Rhine visiting castles and breweries. We parted ways to travel alone and increase the adventure. You meet people when you travel alone; you have to, or you go crazy. I learned quickly that language isn’t the biggest barrier to communication, fear is. I found that if you try to talk to someone, whether you know their language or not, you can communicate pretty well.

So somewhere in Western Germany at a youth hostel on my winter break, I decided to go to Berlin. Sounded good, why not. After World War II, Germany was divided into two countries, West Germany and the DDR (Deutsche Demokratische Republik), or East Germany, as everyone outside of the country called it. They were still divided in 1980 and I wanted to see the scary half. West Germany was like the rest of Europe, easy travel, friendly people and they honored my Eurail passes. But East Germany was verboten, off limits, a Soviet state, unknown and tempting. So crazy 20 year-old me had to go.

By this point in my European travels, I had been to Poland, Hungary and Yugoslavia, also Soviet block countries. I didn’t know it at the time, but I think I had a sense all of this would disappear in time, the separateness, the old countries held onto with the iron grip of the USSR. And I wanted to see it before it went away.

Berlin

Berlin

Berlin, the giant decadent German metropolis, was also split into East and West, a city arbitrarily cut in half. The strange thing about this arrangement was that West Berlin being in the Eastern part of Germany was surrounded by East Germany, essentially an island in another country. So when I and my fellow travelers took the train from Western Germany to West Berlin, we traveled through miles and miles of East Germany. The train was like a space craft, rushing through the forbidden void, where we were allowed to breathe the air, look out the window, but nothing more.

The train stopped just before entering Berlin in a kind of special security station. The doors were not opened and no one was allowed off the train. Soon, black uniformed police officers and dogs (yes, German Shepherds) worked their way through the compartments, inspecting bags, lifting seats and pulling parts of the ceiling down looking for illegal and smuggled substances, drugs I assumed, since I didn’t speak any German.

leaving sectorAfter an hour or so of this unnerving experience, the train continued on to Berlin. It was about 4 in the afternoon, in late December, and like most of Central Europe in the winter, dreary and cold, but it wasn’t dark. Berlin was brilliantly lit and lively. That was a long time ago, but I assume it is even more so today. A big lively, energetic city in the middle of this other country. It was a strange feeling, like they were trying to make up for their oppressed brethren by being even livelier than they had to be. “Party like it’s 1999” and all that.

I didn’t have much money, so I stayed in some youth hostel or cheap hotel. The next day, I went to the American Embassy to get a visa to visit East Berlin, that’s why I came all this way after all. The young woman at the window asked me why I wanted to do that, did I have family, business, diplomatic interests? Nope, I just wanted to see it. “Are you sure?” She asked. “Yeah, I’m sure.” I replied, not at all sure. I gave them the $25 and got a huge colorful stamp in my passport that allowed me 24 hours in East Germany. “Be sure to be back before your visa expires.” She warned me. “What happens if I don’t make it in time?” I asked. “Just be back.” She said seriously.

Berlin Wall

Berlin Wall

Of course, I didn’t have a car and you can’t exactly hitch-hike across a mine field, so I walked. This part of my travels was worth the entire trip. Forget East Germany, Berlin, lights, and whatever was on the other side of that high cinder-block wall, just walking through a military check point will satisfy almost any travel junky.

If you are under 40 years old, you may have no idea what I’m talking about, but try to understand, West Berlin was big and exciting, tall buildings, music, food, beer, you know, a modern energetic city. And East Berlin was the complete opposite, gray and dark, no lights, low rise, oppressive Soviet style buildings and probably (just to torture the Germans) bad beer. Berlin is built on a slight hill, West Berlin was on the upper slope, so those in the Eastern half could see it, look up at all that shiny fun, they just couldn’t get there. That was just cruel.

Checkpoint Charlie

Checkpoint Charlie

Friedrichstrasse or Checkpoint Charlie was one of the pathways from West to East. That’s what it was called before they pulled it all down and rejoined the two German halves back together in 1990.  The two cities were divided by a tall, ugly cinder-block wall covered in graffiti on the eastern side. It was topped with razor wire and broken glass.   After that, a wide, dead stretch of land filled with land mines ended in a tall chain-link fence, and also topped with razor wire, and you were on the western side of the city.  Every 100 feet or so, a tower rose along the fence, each housed with soldiers armed with search lights and automatic rifles, and probably heavier weapons. Imagine guards in a prison tower and multiply that by 10. Checkpoint Charlie was the route through this dead zone. It was designed for vehicles, zigzagging, so you couldn’t force your way through. As I walked through this maze of soldiers and concrete, my visa and passport was checked three times. I was frisked, smelled by dogs, asked several times what my business in East Berlin was, and reluctantly allowed into the other side.

Checkpoint Charlie

Checkpoint Charlie

Suddenly, and anti-climatically, I found myself in East Berlin with no plan, and no idea that my American passport with its current and legitimate visa was probably worth killing for. Only looking back now, do I realize how foolish and dangerous my actions had been. That scary wall and field of landmines was there for a reason, and people died regularly trying to cross it into West Berlin. But God protects children and stupid tourists.

East Berlin

East Berlin

They made me convert 100 of my precious US dollars into East German Marks. Two problems with that, 1) nothing to buy, and 2) you couldn’t take the currency out when you left. This was becoming an expensive trip for a poor college student. But I plunged on, there must be something to do here, it was a pretty big city after all. I walked into the bleak streets of East Berlin, heavy dark buildings greeted me on the wide boulevards, but there are no shops or restaurants, and more strange than that, no people. Everyone must be inside hiding from the KGB or something. I walked on, but the landscape didn’t change much and it was cold. No benches, no cafes or bookstores, no castles or even churches. This is where bad tourists go after they die, those who didn’t lead a good enough life to get into Paris. I looked back and there was West Berlin rising above on its hill, all lights and fun, and more importantly right now, food.berlin wallA little bored, but not ready to give up, I walked on. That’s when the stranger passed me. “Go home, this place is not for you.” He said in a thick German accent, gone before I even understood what he had told me.

In that moment, I realized where I was and what danger I might be in. This stranger, too afraid to even slow down and talk to me, had warned me. It was like a scene out of a Cold War spy novel. I immediately turned around and walked back toward the transfer building, constantly looking over my shoulder, starting at shadows or any stray movement. An hour later, I arrived, relatively safe in the eastern check point building . There were lots of soldiers, and thankfully a diner. I spent as much of my play money on the food as I could. Unfortunately, it was as cheap as it was terrible. I gave up and went back through Check Point Charlie, somewhat disappointed and tired.

The thing about travel adventures is that they are always better in remembrance than at the time. I didn’t really give the experience much thought in my two days in Berlin, but only later when I saw myself standing in that empty bleak city with the gray sky. Everything about it was oppressive, as if it were designed to crush the spirit of all who lived there. I’ll never forget the feeling of that city, or the man’s voice who warned me.

Colors by Jay Magidson - Now Available in Print

Colors, the book

Prologue:

I told you this story so I could explain where ideas come from. This experience gave me the idea for a short story I titled, Gray, which I wrote 30 years later. While writing it, I hadn’t realized where I had seen the gray city or the steel sky of my story. But it had stayed in my consciousness, all those years, like a seed waiting patiently to germinate. That year, I wrote eight more short stories and combined them into a book called Colors.  Only looking back now, as I write this, do I realize that all of it, the experience, the stories, even this essay is an attempt to understand and describe the feeling of East Berlin on that winter day, so long ago.

Through the Volcano – a Journey of Discovery

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maui from oceanIt was the late 1980s. I found myself on the island of Maui, HI after a failed marriage, a ton of world travel, and a series of dead-end jobs. It is a beautiful place to live, warm and friendly, but life tends to leak out through the coconut shavings if you don’t pay attention. Serving grilled Mahi Mahi and Mai Tais to pink-skinned tourists was not exactly how I envisioned making my great mark on the planet.

Millions of years ago, the island of Maui emerged from the ocean as two volcanoes, one now extinct and the other dormant, with a wide valley spreading between them. The two mountains couldn’t be more different; the smaller, older peak, Pu’u Kukui is choked with a blanket of thick, impenetrable foliage, where it rains virtually every day. To the east, Haleakala towers over its older brother, nearly twice as high at 10,000 feet, a massive barren desert wasteland at its peak.

I worked at the Maui Intercontinental Hotel as a waiter, bored and mildly depressed most of the time. One evening after watching a spectacular sunset over the ocean, I swore I’d do something spontaneous (and stupid), to shake up my life. I turned my back to the silver-blue of the ocean and looked up to the towering volcano of Haleakala looming high above. “Hell, I’ll hike through the crater tonight.” I told myself.

haleakalaI was an avid hiker, and had done the hike before – during the day of course, like all sane people. But it was a full moon that night, what could be better. I grabbed a single bottle of water, my beat-up tennis shoes, a windbreaker and threw them into my car and took off. Now this wasn’t just any car, but a Maui beater, as the locals called it. The previous owner had “sawed” the roof off of an old two door Ford Mustang to make it into a convertible. I thought it was the coolest thing ever when I bought it for $800. It rains a lot in Hawaii and metal rusts when it gets wet, salt air speeds up that process – a lot. The floorboards had mostly rotted out and you could see the road speeding by under your feet in places, so you had to be careful how you stepped into the car.  You didn’t want to fall through the floor, or run with the car like the Flintstones. To stay dry in the car when it rained, I simply drove faster.

It’s also warm in Hawaii, all year round, day and night. Like most of the people living there, I only wore my shoes to hike or work, otherwise it was flip flops, shorts and a tee shirt. A cold day was when you had to shut the windows, and that was only a few times a year. Haleakala is high enough to have a completely different climate, however. I hadn’t thought about that when I left the warm tropical night by the ocean.

Halfway up the mountain I felt the temperature dropping, not too bad at first, just colder. I flipped on the heater in my car (which I’d never used before) and I was fine. About three quarters of the way up it started to rain lightly; I sped up a little so it went over the windshield. Another few miles up, the rain turned to sleet, then to hail, and finally to honest-to-god snow. Really, snow, in Hawaii.

I thought seriously about turning back then; challenging oneself is a great thing and all, but not in shorts and a windbreaker. I was feeling sorry for myself though, and decided I needed a little more misery, so I plowed on. It was about 10 at night when I finally arrived at the top of Haleakala. A thick slushy layer of snow greeted me when I stepped out of my car in the empty parking lot. The wind was howling and cold, just above freezing.Haleakala craterHaleakala is a huge mountain, nearly 100 miles in circumference at its base. The top is a blown out volcano crater, proud on one side and dropping away to the sea on the right. The rim rises again on the left to about 8,000 feet. The trail I was going take crosses the mouth of the crater, down the sloping rim dropping 3,500 feet to the valley floor, then follows that about eight or nine miles, then up, climbing steeply for about 2,000 feet and out of the crater. The total hike is about 12 miles. The tourist guides like to give you comparisons about the size of the crater, telling you it is large enough to swallow the entire island of Manhattan including the skyscrapers with room to spare. From the rim you can see what look like tiny volcanoes, cinder cones, dotting the crater floor. Those tiny volcanoes are actually quite large up close, some rising well over 200 feet high. And everything in there is colored charcoal or burnt-red like Beelzebub’s garden in Hell.

cinder coneMy tennis shoes squeaked as I sloshed though the melting snow and sleet to the mouth of the crater and to the trail-head. I leaned over the rim of the crater, the raging wind holding me up as I stared down into that frozen maw. “This is nuts!” I shouted, but my life was nuts. Overhead, angry clouds whipped by, threatening to pummel me with more snow and rain. In the daytime, on a nice sunny day, this was a 7-hour hike. I had worked all day and was already cold and getting numb (remember the shorts and tee-shirt). But something had driven me to this moment; so I closed my I eyes and asked, begged really, “What do I do?”

The answer came immediately, a single word, so clear I didn’t dare question it. “Trust.” I walked face first into that gale, the tiny bits of snow stinging my suntanned face. But as soon as I dropped a few feet into the crater, the wind stopped completely. It must be the wall of the crater blocking the wind, I thought. Then, as miraculously, the clouds overhead split and dissipated as if I were watching a time-lapse film. The full moon burst out and bathed the world in a thousand shades of silver. All my fear and doubt evaporated as I fell to my knees in gratitude. “Thank you.” I offered simply. “Thank you for my life.”

I began walking now, following the well-worn trail, buoyed and energized by the gift of this single word and this amazing night. The volcanic soil crunched reassuringly under my feet with every step. Sometimes I would stand very still, holding my breath and listen. Nothing. It was so quiet my ears would ring, and my own heartbeat sounded like a drum in the unearthly silence.

The descent to the crater floor took about two hours. Little grows in this barren moonscape with the exception of a rare succulent called the silversword plant, which grows nowhere else in the world. My timing was excellent and I was able to see some of them flowering, blossoms glowing silver in the moonlight, jutting skyward on a single thick stock as wide and tall as a man. I passed dozens of these magnificent plants along the trail, each more beautiful than the last.

silversword

A couple of miles along the crater floor, about 1 or 2 in the morning, heavy clouds moved in and it grew quite dark. At this point in the trail, there was a very important junction that I mustn’t miss. One way led up and out of the crater, my destination. The other led down and out the far side of the island through a dense rain forest ending at the ocean more than 20 miles away, to the rural, lightly inhabited far side of the island 60 miles away from where I lived. I didn’t have any food and just this one, nearly empty bottle of water. The wrong route would have made for two very long and miserable days.

kaupo gap

Kaupo Gap, Haleakala

The ground was hard, dense volcanic rock, which didn’t show my tracks or the trail. I was lost. I spiraled out from where I stood trying to regain the trail. Nothing. The voice came to me again.  “Rest,” it said. So I did. I lay on the hard ground and slept for about half an hour. I felt better when I got up and looked around for the trail again. There! Not the trail, but a single set of footprints, seemingly out of nowhere in a patch of soft volcanic dust. I followed them back to the main trail.   Why hadn’t I seen them before? Never mind. Think what you like, but I choose to believe in angels that night.

Everything was glorious after that. A light mist began falling which created a moon-bow high overhead. I had never seen or even heard of such a thing, a monochrome rainbow that circled the full moon, shining a dozen shades of silver. All of this beauty for one lone man in the middle of the night, in this gigantic, empty landscape, a dot of land in the vast Pacific Ocean. It was overwhelming.

SONY DSCHours later, I arrived at the final leg of the trail, a series of steep switchbacks up the far crater rim and out along a thin saddle-back. This is the most spectacular part of the hike, a naked ridge. One side drops down and away into the crater from where I came; the other side sweeps far down to the ocean 8,000 feet below.  It is like straddling a knife’s edge in the sky. The moon was just setting into the ocean horizon to my left as the sun rose out of the sea to my right. It was and is the most magnificent thing I have ever seen.

sunrise over the ocean

I lingered on that ridge for a time, exhausted and elated at the new day, and the end of my long and magical night. I said good-bye to Haleakala and my melancholy that day, realizing that life had been showering me with beauty and magic all along; I had only to open my eyes to it.

I moved away from Maui a few months later, my mind made up to face the world and all the mysteries I could embrace. I gave my “convertible” away when I left the island, careful to warn the new owner, “Don’t drive too fast over bumps, it might break in half.”

Finding a Diamond in a Sea of Glass

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There has been a lot of hand wringing over the state of book publishing the last several years. Large publishing houses in financial distress and complaints that online giants like Amazon are undercutting the industry. Add to that the many, many books now being self-published in print and digitally (many of low quality) and it is overwhelming for readers, making it difficult to choose what to read. Most readers, when in doubt, stick to their favorite authors. That’s pretty safe, but what if you want to reach out, try something new, where do you look?

piles of booksJust a few decades ago, the book publishing industry was a kind of a closed club, with a handful of publishers controlling the vast majority of new books released. They decided what books we saw on the shelves of bookstores and what books were presented to critics. The choices were safe, books that would sell in the tens of thousands and appeal to a lot of readers. When The New York Times would put a book on its best seller list, that author was guaranteed success. Pretty simple, but also pretty stifling if your audience was small.

That was Before the Floodgates were Opened

Fast forward to 2015. Anyone can publish a book the instant they finish writing it. It doesn’t have to be edited, reviewed, or even spell checked. Just press the publish button and up it goes onto Amazon, a Blog, Smashwords, or wherever. Just like that, you are a published author. That’s good for the author, bad for the old publishing industry and difficult for readers.

How do you Find a Single Diamond in a Sea of Glass?

glassI love listening to audiobook.  Recently, I started reviewing them for a web site called AudioBookReviewer.com so I could hear new titles. Like all things, a few books are very good, many are OK, and some are just horrible. It got me thinking about how the democratization of the web has made too many things available, but also how it helps us sift through huge amounts of choices with relative ease.

Amazon.com is a good example here. Let’s say you’re looking for a new gift for a child, you type in a general idea of what you want, then narrow it down to one of the products that looks good. Now you choose which brand. If you’re like me, you read the reviews. Let’s say there are 400 reviews; that’s good, they probably can’t fake that many. Maybe you look at the one star reviews first. Did the toy break the first day, shatter in the toddler’s mouth and choke him to death, or are the reviewers just whiners who hate anything with blue in it. And you pick. For the most part, you do fine, and your baby makes it to his second birthday without lead poisoning.

child gunBooks are not quite there yet, but this is the same process. Someone like me reads or listens to many books and “grades” them one to five stars. One for awful, five for Tolstoy. You like what I’ve reviewed in the past and perhaps follow my choices forward. Multiply this by thousands of reviewers and we get through the tens of thousands of new books together – kind of.

Here’s the big problem. The review system is rigged, loaded with lies. How do I know? Because I listen to horrible books that have five star ratings. Five stars is a perfect book, something that should move us to tears or rapture, Melville or Hugo. Right? There is nothing to stop authors from getting friends or family to load great reviews for their book. We all know this and try to sift through, but it messes up the system. The truth is, it’s not so different from what the publishing industry has done to us for decades, just more obvious and not so professional.

Be Patient

This organic system of review and selection is new, still being polished and perfected. Wikipedia, just a few years ago, was not the reliable, trusted source it is today. Anyone could post some trivia or undocumented statement diluting the quality of the whole. But through a series of checks and self-policing policies, it has become quite good (not flawless), but truly amazing in its scope and general accuracy, which you can verify yourself. No printed encyclopedia can come close to this towering online reference resource.

tower of babelI chose to review audiobooks, not printed ones, because there is a higher barrier to entry. Audiobooks aren’t inexpensive to produce and this requires the author/publisher to put more effort into the quality of their book before they release it. I like websites like AudioBookReviewer.com because they tend to review the book, more than critique them. In other words, the reviewer gives an overview of the book even if he or she doesn’t like it personally, often going into great detail. In fact, you might choose to listen to a book I didn’t like for whatever quirky thing that bugged me, but you look for in books. A critique on the other hand, gushes over great books and shreds a bad one. You love or hate it, which doesn’t really help you sift through the many books that you might enjoy for a light read. Think of movie reviews here.

The Future is Bright for Book Publishing

A large publisher, no matter how good or how much they like a new book, will not publish it if the audience is too small. It just isn’t worth it. This is not true for self-publishing. Now there is a way for the many strange and wonderful books that would never see the light of day a decade ago, to find their small, but discerning audience. This is great news for you the reader, especially, if you are like me and love the rare and unusual.

The Philosophy of 600 Grit Sandpaper

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The orbital sander buzzes, sawdust flying everywhere, making me wonder how my odd journey brought me to this moment. I’m a middle-aged bald guy with two teenagers, living in the Colorado Rocky Mountains, a former art gallery owner and art dealer, wearing a respirator and headphones sanding a lowly piece of poplar, not cherry or walnut or even maple – poplar, the weed of the tree kingdom – and loving every second of it.

_MG_2091My wife is a very successful artist. Her works have been exhibited in Aspen, Vail, New York, Houston, Geneva, Gstaad, Singapore, Mexico City, Toronto, Laguna Beach, San Francisco, Miami and many more fancy cities. Am I bragging about her? Of course, what kind of husband would I be if I didn’t. The thing is, her works are complex, really complex. They are essentially layers of antique objects, butterflies, doll furniture, clocks, toys, silverware, wasp nests, eggs, bones, shells, sand, beetles, and whatever else she thinks of, sandwiched between sheets of acrylic. I tell you all this, because I am the one who gets to make the boxes and frames that hold them all together. And I do mean “gets to,” because even though I can’t tell anyone, I secretly love it.

Since I was a kid, I loved to build things—and ahem—take things apart. I took lots of things apart, things you aren’t supposed to take apart. I grew up in a time when TVs were giant polished wooden boxes that took two strong men to lift, full of burning-hot tubes, leaky capacitors, heavy transformers, and scary warnings on the back that said, “Danger High Voltage, Do Not Open.” Yep, I opened the TV, took all the tubes out without any clue how they were supposed to go back. Dad loved that when he got home to sit on the couch in front of the TV. I took apart the clock radio, the mechanical curtain rods, the door locks, the iron, the car door, the coffee percolator, my bicycle, the lawn mower, the electrical outlets (zap!), and anything else with screws or bolts. Most of it I got back together before mom found out, except for some things that went over my head, like the TV.

Have you ever seen those books “How Things Work?” I never read those books. Instead I reverse engineered everything to learn how it worked, I guess I still do. I have a curiosity about mechanical objects, especially broken ones. I am sure everything can be fixed with enough patience and superglue. But I grew up and taking apart the toaster is not much of a profession. Instead, I joined my father in his gallery in New York, then went on my own,for over 30 years now, showing and selling fine art. Don’t get me wrong, I get a charge out of that too. I really love great art, fall in love, heart pounding passionate love with it. How do you mix these two opposites together? Lots of patience apparently.

Cherished-Memories-of-Cornells-Lost-Muse54x34llg

My wife wasn’t an artist when I met her. She worked for me at my art gallery in Aspen, where we fell in love at first sight. Yes it happens, and it happened to us. Her parents are artists and so it was logical for her to work in the arts, sell it if you can’t make it. She did this with me until her 39th birthday when she woke up one morning and said, “I have to create something or I’ll explode.” I didn’t want her to explode, so I cleared out the garage and told her to go for it. Next thing I know, she’s selling masterpieces and I’m sanding poplar.Now here’s the secret part (well not anymore, I guess), that juvenile-delinquent mechanical engineer was still living inside me. And he was anxious to start taking stuff apart again. Oh sure, I got to fix the vacuum cleaner once in a while, but that’s pretty pedestrian, pull out the dog hair and they call you a genius. My wife’s art is way, way more satisfying than that, like when she decided to put a music box in the middle of one of her pieces. Which has to work, you know, wind up and play. It’s buried inside a work of art, two feet away from the edge of the frame and has to be wound up! I grumbled out loud about the misery and tedium of making something so preposterous work, but inside, I rubbed my hands together in pure mad-scientist glee, carefully containing the sound of my insane laughter.

Tis-but-a-breif-moment28x23One of my favorite pieces, called “Cherished Memories of Cornell’s Lost Muse” has a whole set of doll furniture along the inside bottom edge of the frame. How do you get toothpick thin table legs to stay on a piece wood that has to be turned upside down, shipped, handled, and horror of horrors, possibly dropped? “This is madness!” I say out loud. But inside the crazy nerd declares, “No, this is Sparta!” and makes it work.

Cherished-Memories-of-Cornells-Lost-Muse54x34detail3So here I am enjoying my life so much, I feel guilty most of my waking hours. It’s called work isn’t it, drudgery, miserable, horrible 9 to 5 torture. So I fake it, complain that it’s hard or tedious. That’s what you say so no one knows how friggin awesome your job really is and tries to take it.

Oh, and 600 grit sandpaper makes wood way smoother than a baby’s butt, even if it is only poplar.

You Are Smarter Than You Think

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You are smarter than you thinkDo you give more credit to strangers or critics than to yourself? How would anything ever get created if we let these self-chosen gatekeepers actually run everything? The truth is, nothing would be created. Critics are there as afterthoughts, telling us about movies, books or art they loved or hated. But they come only AFTER all the creative blood has been spilt.

Is our work being judged or thickness of our skin

When did we all become critics anyway? It is encouraged—no—required that we act as critics daily. Don’t believe me, post a video of a famous performer on Facebook. You’ll get dozens of comments ranging from how great the performer is, to how horrible they were to their ex. If you want to really torture yourself, put a political statement on social media. You’ll get loved and hated, complimented and slandered.

Why have we become so critical?

I don’t know why, but we have and it is not healthy for new ideas. It crushes the spirit of budding creativity. It you are working out a complicated or fragile idea and you put it online for comments, you might as well erase the thought from your mind or the file from your computer first. It will be crushed under the weight of petty commentary, and the reasons for their ire will be banal: “I liked the story, but the lead character has the same name as my ex-wife, so how could I like a story with my ex in it?” W.T.F.

There is such a thing as good and bad

Only time decides what is good or bad, what should be cherished and what should be discarded. But that is not the point, ideas need to be born, nurtured and matured before they are judged. If you believe in your story, flesh it out, work on it, polish it, rewrite it again and again, until it is the best you can make it. Then release it to the world. It is not yours anymore and if it flies, it flies and if it sinks, it sinks, but at least it exists. You gave birth to an idea and saw it through. This is a big deal and should be honored, not scoffed at, not ever. Creativity is such an important human endeavor, god-like in a way. We take an idea and bring it into reality, from nothing to something. Good or bad, you brought it to life. Dr. Frankenstein couldn’t do better.

If you hesitate to bring your ideas to life because you are afraid of criticism or ridicule, then remember to nurture them like babies, protecting them until they are old enough to go into the world on their own. Then let them go. Like our grown children, they will have to make it on their own someday. If your work gets judged and criticized, positive or negatively, put that aside. Who are these people, and why are they smarter than you? They probably aren’t actually. And if that’s true, then why do you care what they say.

Where Do Ideas Come From?

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Granted, this is not new territory, but the question continues to get raised, by readers, and by writers looking for new story ideas. I can’t speak (write) for anyone else, so I’ll tell you how ideas sometimes come to me.

One place I go for ideas is that sweet spot between waking and sleeping. When I go to bed at night, I kind of play with that twilight zone before sleep, not quite awake, not quite asleep, seeing how wide I can stretch it. It is kind of like daydreaming, but much richer, crazier, none of the rules of reality get in the way. It’s like a kid asking, what if I could fly, or be invisible or jump inside of other people’s dreams? And I just let the ideas come, the wilder the better. Some I grab and tell myself. “I’m going to remember you.” Sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t, but it doesn’t matter. It is far more important to keep the ideas flowing then destroy the process by getting up and writing something down. How pedestrian can you get?

Other ideas come from daydreaming. I daydream all the time. I doubt my family has any idea how much. Except maybe my daughter, she is a master daydreamer too. It is likely most writers and artists are great daydreamers. A cloud floats by and it reminds you of a clown, which makes you think of the circus, which makes you think of all of mankind locked in a freak show without knowing it. And on it goes.

Maybe you’re sitting at a restaurant and you overhear two people talking. “What a great baritone voice that man has.” You think he could be a radio personality with that voice, but maybe that is just a cover and you create some spy scenario in your head. OK, I know, most of life is not all that interesting, but add just a drop of untamed imagination and it is never boring. I have no idea what it’s like not to have an overactive imagination, telling oneself stories all the time, inventing characters and scenarios. People without wild imaginations probably get a lot more stuff done.

Ideas come from nowhere too, and those are the best ones of all. I get up early, before anyone else, when the house is quite and I can write, not feel guilty that I should be helping with the millions of things that need to get done when you have a family. Many times, I have a blank page and no starting place. I know I need a new chapter, but have absolutely no idea what is supposed to come next. I don’t agonize over it, I just write. It starts out as pure shit, but I don’t stop, because I know what’s going to happen if I just trust the process. And pretty soon, my fingers kind of disconnect from my brain, and out comes…stuff. Pretty good stuff, sometimes even great stuff. Then I hear a soft peep out of the critical part of my mind, “hey what’s that, where did that come from, that’s not you, you can’t write like that.” But I give him a good gagging and let the process continue. Maybe it lasts a few minutes, maybe a few hours. And damn if it isn’t pretty good.

Where did it come from? I have no idea. Call it the muses, call it intuition, the subconscious, long buried memories, call it God. What difference does it make, but by all means don’t stop it. That is the most creative a human being can be. And it is way cool!