King of The Jungle

The King Is In The Castle

“Dust everywhere… and out of that emerged this beautiful boy with the bluest eyes I’d ever seen, holding his hand out to help me to my feet.” – Marie Lu, Legend.

We ate sushi and spaghetti for Thanksgiving last week with a giggly group of old and new friends in the remote Costa Rican surf/yoga mecca of Nosara, a place my wife and I hold deeply sacred. Sitting alone on my board the following morning, Black Friday, I stared into the vast blue and recalled the last time we visited – twelve years earlier – utterly broken and terrified we’d never have children. 

Nosara Thanksgiving 2018
Nosara Thanksgiving 2018
Our Sausalito, CA Houseboat 2006

Three miscarriages in one year had turned the lights out on our typically shiny, happy life. The third, at 19 weeks, shut our hearts down completely. All we wanted was kids. A few weeks before Christmas 2006, we opted to bury ourselves deep in Nosara’s jungle with hopes of healing. Sunlight dusted the sky our first morning, as Jodi slept, and I paddled into the warm, buttery ocean. I stared into that same Pacific void, taking deep circular breaths. And got magnificently lost in the ocean’s bounty for the next three hours, until my arms were spaghetti, and I came in to meet my wife for breakfast. Jodi sat immersed in Overcoming Life’s Disappointments by Harold Kushner, and she handed me a passage that read, “When we open our hearts to pain and suffering, we begin to heal, not because suffering is redemptive but because opening our hearts is.”

Tell Me Again, 70"x48" Acrylic, paper, antique maps, linen on panel 2005
Tell Me Again, 70″x48″ Acrylic, paper, antique maps, linen on panel 2006

When we returned to Sausalito, Jodi told me she was ready to try again but that this was the last time. If our fourth pregnancy did not work, she simply could not handle another attempt physically or emotionally. That was a tough pill to swallow, but I swallowed it in silence. 

The fourth pregnancy with Jodi on bedrest with her dog and manservant in our houseboat.
The fourth pregnancy – Jodi on houseboat bedrest with her dog and manservant.

Opening our hearts

Watching my squealing boys jump into the bean-shaped pool last weekend … and paddle out by my side into the forgiving surf … and engage smartly with interested adults, I felt music in me … a soulful bass line that thumped in my open heart. A rhythm born of both agony and ecstasy beneath a melody sung in the voices of children. My children. 

Before we ever met, Jodi and I dreamt of living abroad with our future families. We had no idea that the family part would be such a struggle. But that struggle produced in us both a hyper awareness, not intellectual but cellular. Akin to a blind person who one day gets to see. Every color, every shape, even the most mundane, becomes sanctified. One simply wants to keep one’s eyes open and see see see. 

Really Good Food - acrylic paint, 1950s Betty Crocker Cookbook on wood panel, 48x32” 2016
Really Good Food – acrylic paint, 1950s Betty Crocker Cookbook on wood panel, 48×32” 2016. Available.

Yes, the world is a mess, but my gratitude burns hotter than ever … for the privilege of fatherhood and the love of a fine woman. And living parents. And friends who keep me laughing. And the opportunity to live simply in unspoiled nature. And the ability to transform whimsy into works of art. Mine is a full belly that has known the pain of hunger. 

Art Basel 2018

Find my work at Pinta Art Fair during Art Basel Miami 2018

For the first time in a while, I won’t be attending Art Basel Miami this year (I’ll be surfing). But I invite you and your friends to find my paintings at the Pinta Fair in Wynwood. 

Gratitude not Attitude!

Buzzing From the Stoke

Sam Freeski

At a religious service last month, invited to pray silently, I shut my eyes, inhaled deeply and began my routine gamut of wishes: ongoing health for my children, longevity for my parents, personal creative success, etc. Suddenly, my thoughts came crashing to earth, as I remembered my friend Ron and his 16-yr-old son, Sam, a champion freeskier who, just a week earlier, suffered a major wipeout and now lay in a serious coma.

It seems, when we invoke a higher power, most of us tend to reach for the lofty branches of future outcomes. But, as I sat in that service thinking of my buddy sitting beside his motionless son, my framework tilted backward, from future to present, from what I hoped to realize to what actually existed for me:

  • Healthy, big-hearted children
  • Living and loving parents
  • The use of my five senses
  • A magnificent life partner

If life was a song I’d title it Everything Can Change The Next Instant. And the chorus would be two words repeated over and over – Give Thanks.

Fortune and Courage, mixed media on paper, 19"x15" 2005, Stuart Sheldon
Fortune and Courage, mixed media on paper, 19×15″ 2005, Stuart Sheldon

I come back to this again and again, because we’re all suffering to some degree. For some, that suffering is ancillary, a sidebar to a life of plenty. For others, like Ron, it is acute, the focal point of his waking hours. Either way, the bad, even the worst-case bad, can be tempered if we itemize the good. And there’s good in there somewhere.

As weeks passed, Sam lay unmoving amidst beeping machines and IV tubes. Day in and day out, Ron stroked the golden hair of his first born. And, even in this horrific state, Ron managed a steady stream of FB posts and emails to acknowledge the real-time tidal wave of love and support that washed over him and his family. He implored us to keep it coming. From the sandwich shop that kept sending food and would not accept payment. To the folks back home who kept a vigil for his boy. To Sam’s ski-team coach and colleagues who paced in the hospital waiting room as the hours ticked by. 

Happy Sam

Whether you call it prayer, intention, focus or simply hope, we all sent our constant healing vibes to Sam. And each time I thought of Sam in his deep sleep, my very next thought was of my sons who were awake – a stark mix of pain and joy that kept me off balance … and made me hug my kids extra tight and kiss them twice as much.

Sam & Sis

Sam died last week. 

I’ve always been a strong believer that there is no future and no past, there is only now.

But how can that be true for one whose child is gone? When, there is only past, what does one pray for?

The answer, syrupy as it may sound, is gratitude. Because, in my darkest hours, there was nothing else to hold onto other than the fact that our loved ones tried so hard to help us.

Goodbye Old Friend, 20"X23" Acrylic, paper, antique book pages and cardboard on panel with original poetry, 2005, Stuart Sheldon
Goodbye Old Friend, Acrylic, paper, antique book pages and cardboard on panel with original poetry, 20X23″ 2005, Stuart Sheldon

Sam was beloved by all. And Ron knows this unequivocally. I hope my sons are held in the same regard. And, like Sam, they charge headlong into their passion, constantly “buzzing from the stoke,” as one surf buddy described that sublime state of being. May they laugh heartily all the time. Make others laugh like Sam did. Stride confidently up to adults and introduce themselves like Sam did. Be one of the bros. Those are all future hopes.

But, we’re talking about present acknowledgment – and for that I can say, with a song in my heart, thank you Sam, for leading by example. For being one of the good guys. For choosing joy and badassery as an athlete. And silly as a friend. And got your back as a brother. And snuggly as a grandchild. You are the child we want our children to be.

And you always will be.

Death Is Nothing

 

Bad Daddy!

“Did you play tennis today in gym class?” I asked my 7-yo, as we walked into the house after school.  “No Daddy. You forgot to pack my gym clothes,” he said, flashing a you dumbass grin. 

My wife took a well-deserved, girls-only ski trip two weeks ago (yes, our lives are profoundly privileged). As she carved perfect S’s on her snowboard, I did my best to keep my kids fed and clothed and deposited at school on time. Luckily, no one lost an eye. But, after only one day, I longed for my wife’s return, fully aware of what I already knew – she runs our lives and keeps us balanced.

Men of the world, whether you wish to admit it or not, I’ll bet the woman in your home keeps the wheels on the jalopy that is your life.

Keep the Balance

I’m not ashamed of it. On the contrary, I feel bone-tingling appreciation that she is both able and willing to manage the team, make healthy dinners, pay the bills, schedule the doctor appointments and put the gym clothes in the backpacks. Not to mention, instill fairness and character into our sons with pitch-perfect instincts. It was not long ago that she worked full time on top of all the above. Now, she enjoys the life of a stay-at-home mom. Were I currently in charge of our lives, given my pinball life of art-making, writing deadlines and technology consulting, we’d all be sleeping on piles of unfolded laundry and my kids would be eating pizza crusts for lunch more than once a week.

Stu & Kai on the houseboat 2008 Having said that, when our first was born, I was in charge. As a full-time fine artist, I had the time to be our first son’s full-time caregiver, while Jodi ran her ad-exec gig from her home office on our Sausalito houseboat. It had to be this way, because her income paid most of our bills, and her insurance kept our teeth clean. Frankly, I was thrilled for the opportunity; as an experience collector, the thought of bearing witness to the unfolding flower of my own progeny, day in and day out, exalted me. For two years, I strapped that little guy into the Baby Bjorn and off we went, just him and me, from Mommy and Me to Gymboree. What I learned amidst the burp cloths and Wheels on the Bus was this:

  1. I can’t remember most of it but wouldn’t trade it for anything.
  2. Anyone who discounts the monumental work involved in stay-at-home parenting is a damn fool.

Women hold this job far more often than men. And I’m here to tell the husbands that you better well appreciate the sacrifice and effort your partner puts forth keeping your offspring and house from disintegrating.

The captain of our ship
The captain of our ship

Today is not Mother’s Day or Valentines Day. It’s just Thursday. That is reason enough to take a moment to give your partner the props he or she is due.

Honey, thanks for running the show. And remind me, is today a gym day?

Be Amazed

“Everyone has two lives. The second one begins when you realize you have only one.”     Steven Sotloff. 

She Gets It. I wish everyone looked at my art like this.
She Gets It. I wish everyone looked at my art like this.

If you are not amazed at something right now, you’re either not paying attention or you’re a fool. When you turn on the faucet, if water comes out, be dazzled. If it is drinkable, be awestruck. Much of the world would give anything for such basics. And yet, each day, all day, we walk oblivious to our good fortune. And even have the audacity to complain.

Our time is short.

But our opportunities for gratitude are many. I come back to this theme often … because I need to be reminded. Of course, we all have our crosses to bear. And some are heavier than others. But our level of satisfaction is, to a large degree, our choice.

Capetown, S. Africa. One of my favorite places. On the balcony of some of my favorite people.
Capetown, S. Africa. One of my favorite places. On the balcony of some of my favorite people.

I’m in Capetown, South Africa right now, one of the most beautiful places I’ve been, with some of the most beautiful people I know. Thank you universe for allowing me to be healthy enough and free enough to Be Here Now. It is an enormous privilege.

“Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement … to get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.” Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel

Take a moment and look at your hand. Turn it over. Move your fingers. Pinch your arm. Pick up something. YOUR HAND WORKS LIKE A CHARM. It is one of the most astonishing machines that exists. It is so extraordinary that you would not be out of line to weep as you studied it.

If we introduce this type of fundamental appreciation for the basics, think of how much we will groove on the so-called “big stuff.”

Be Present

Take a few extra moments right now and look around you. Acknowledge. Things could be a lot worse.

Speak To Me In Your Dreams, I Am Listening

Goodbye Old Friend, 20"X23" Acrylic, paper, antique book pages and cardboard on panel with original poetry, 2005, Stuart Sheldon
Goodbye Old Friend, 20″X23″ Acrylic, paper, antique book pages and cardboard on panel with original poetry, 2005, Stuart Sheldon

“Speak to me in your dreams. I am listening.” Henry Miller

A friend of mine was a teenager when he lost his dad. In his early thirties, my friend told me, “I dreamed of my dad last night. It doesn’t happen often, but I always love when he visits me in my dreams. I get to see him and talk to him and catch up.” I’d never thought about a dream as such a critical interaction. But, of course, in this context, it is everything.

“Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday; I can’t be sure.”                                                                        Albert Camus, The Stranger

I have not lost a parent. But I imagine, as Camus implies above, one can lose all sense of time and place in those moments just after one of your genetic ties to the earth is severed, and one of the only constants in your life disappears forever.

There is no rhyme nor reason for how life works. Though I felt ready for a child at 29, I was 44 when my first was born. Of course, prior to that moment, I was the child, the one cared for. My genetic relationships went only in one direction, upward. Then, I became a caregiver and took my place in the middle of the generational spectrum. The final of these stages occurs when a parent dies, and again, I revert to a one-directional relationship, this time downward toward my child (and his child, if I’m lucky).

Each of these transitions is earth-shaking. None of us is ready for them. They happen when they happen, and we deal as best we can.

I remember, the first night home with our first son. Mind you, we struggled for over two years to have a baby, and feared in our souls we might ultimately fail. Still, that first night home, our new roommate screeched uncontrollably, his face a bright red heirloom tomato with no teeth and squinty eyes. “What do we do,” I implored my wife, pacing the bedroom floor with Kai swaddled just like they showed us at the hospital. “I don’t know. I just don’t know,” Jodi barked, three hours into the maelstrom, her eyes bloodshot and shell-shocked. Nothing worked. Kai screamed for five hours, and we ended the night exasperated and sleepless. “Whose baby is this and when are they gonna come get it?” I teased my wife the next morning, my fingers like talons around a cup of diesel-fueled coffee.

Leveled off at cruising altitude
Leveled off at cruising altitude

Of course, we do eventually gain our balance. We are a highly evolved species, trained in our cells to keep calm and carry on. The upshot of these seismic events is a megadose of wisdom infused directly into our spines (with a heavy-gauge needle). Our ability for love and gratitude increases exponentially from both death and birth.

A dear friend lost her father last week. As is to be expected, she is reeling. But he’s my dad. How can he not be here, I imagine her thinking. That’s what I would be thinking. She told me he was a great father, and she loved him deeply. If my children say that upon my death, I will have lived a worthwhile life. I can testify that my friend’s dad raised a truly exemplary daughter who is testament to the content of his character.

These stark moments of transition are the price of admission for living … and loving.

Sunday was my mom’s 75th, and we celebrated her amazingness properly. Fifty years ago, at 25, she made me exist. Now, I am 50, with 2 wee lads. My boys stand at the bottom of the mountain. I stand in the middle. And mom triumphs near the top. We keep hiking upward, looking ahead and back to check on one another, to be sure we’re all safe.

The journey is exhilarating, the views breathtaking, the milestones humbling and deeply gratifying.

Ever upward, until one random day, the person at the top is shrouded in the clouds and cannot be seen or heard again … except in dreams. 

I Have Created Life But Never Taken It – PART 2

Golden Gate National Cemetary

“Hey, douchebag. There was a lot happening between Vietnam and Operation Enduring Freedom/Operation Iraqi Freedom. Plenty of chances to get your war on. Too bad you didn’t have the balls to join.”  ~~    US Soldier’s note to me.

Apparently, a number of  individuals who fought in our recent wars wanted to kick my ass after a reader shared last week’s post, I Have Created Life But Never Taken It, on a popular website for military personnel.

I am grateful for these candid reactions. They definitely woke me up. Here is a further sampling of the soldiers’ unfiltered and heartfelt thoughts:

  • As he says he “never went to war. Never killed a man. Never got shot at. Never watched a friend die mid-sentence” so he has no clue wtf he’s talking about, he’s just another self righteous never-been civvie talking about concepts he can’t conceivably understand because he chose not to serve.
  • “I am not particularly sensible, just happened to be born in the pocket between senseless death in the Far East (Vietnam) and senseless death in the Middle East (Iraq & Afghanistan).” So he believes the deaths of these men was senseless? The author can go fuck himself.
  • It was a good read, but that “senseless death” comment pissed me off.
  • Senseless death? The men I went to basic with or served with in real units who aren’t here now didn’t die senselessly, they died defending this country, seeking vengeance for the 3000 people who died on 9-11 no different than the ww2 vets who went to war to avenge the 2500 who were killed at Pearl Harbor.
  • One thing he’s right about though, I’m not a hero, no matter how many times random civvies say I am, I only did what was expected of me. We got attacked, I enlisted, that’s just doing what you are supposed to do. What he refuses to recognize is that is the same sense of duty that led the WW2 guys to enlist after Pearl Harbor.

My response is this: 

  1. I cannot overstate my gratitude for the sacrifice made by the soldiers who fought in Vietnam and since. They are people of distinct honor and incredible courage.

  2. The issue I have is not with the soldiers but with the leaders who were MISLEADING both the nation and the fighters they sent to harm’s way.

  3. The critical issue here appears to be my use of the word “SENSELESS.” Let me define terms. My use of “senseless” is based not on the idea that the soldiers’ actions were senseless, quite the contrary. These men and women answered a call and did what they believed to be right for a country most worthy of their sacrifice. 

Senseless has nothing to do with the soldiers themselves. The senselessness stems from the false pretenses that underlied those conflicts. And from the deceit of US leaders in prosecuting these wars. Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, said it himself about Vietnam, “We of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations who participated in the decisions on Vietnam acted according to what we thought were the principles and traditions of this nation. We made our decisions in light of those values. Yet we were wrong, terribly wrong. We owe it to future generations to explain why. I truly believe that we made an error not of values and intentions, but of judgment and capabilities.”

One could argue Iraq is worse, given that we now know that war was predicated on bald-faced lies orchestrated to lead us all to believe the fight was with Saddam. When draft-dodgers have the ruthless audacity to instigate wars that kill honor-bound volunteers, society has a serious problem. THAT is senseless. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad that cold-blooded piece of garbage, Saddam, is dead. But he had nothing to do with 9-11 nor Al Queda at that time.

Thus, it is an immoral travesty that any of our soldiers died in his country … and in wars which, in retrospect, we know were misguided. 

Fortune and Courage, mixed media on paper, 19"x15" 2005, Stuart Sheldon
Fortune and Courage, mixed media on paper, 19″x15″ 2005, Stuart Sheldon

That does not detract at all from these soldiers’ noble sacrifices. Anyone who enlisted post 9-11 to serve the honor of America is righteous. Period! 

My dad served in the 50s in the Army. As did my uncle. I did not enlist because I did not have to nor feel the need to do so. I wanted to pursue my education and career. But, make no mistake, I recognize how lucky and pampered my life is for not having had to serve. I respect the soldiers’ opinions above. And want these men to know that I deeply appreciate their service, no matter what they think of me.

As I said last week, it all comes down to gratitude. Thank you Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan vets. You did your difficult jobs with your heads high. My small words do not begin to do your enormous sacrifice justice.