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“Your real duty is to go away from the community to find your bliss.” – Joseph Campbell
24 May 2016

Democracy At Work: Assessment Grievance

Assessment Grievance

Assessment Grievance

We went to the annual Assessment Grievance today in my town of Jackson, N.Y., where homeowners can go to "grieve" their taxes before the town's Assessment Review Board. It was a lovely exercise in democracy at work. Four or five people showed up to ask that their assessments be lowered and present their arguments.

There are not a lot of homes in our town.

We had a new appraisal, done last year which valued our house at about $40,000 less than the town assessors did and we asked the assessment board to consider reducing it. They could not have been nicer or more patient or professional, they are just volunteer townspeople and neighbors, everybody seemed to want to know what we had to say and do the right thing. We'll know in a month or two if our arguments were accepted. If not, we have no complaints, we were treated courteously and fairly.

The board introduced themselves, and I noticed right away that every single one of them had a road named after them. That means their families have lived here a long time. No matter how long I live here, I do not imagine there will ever be a "Katz" road. I knew some of the board members, they all knew Florence Walrath, who owned our house before we did.

It felt like the purest kind of democratic exercise, it was held in our little Town Hall and Justice Court. (The judge sits on the dais on the right once a week.) We think we have a good case, we not only have the appraisal but a number of comparable sales for houses that are new or much more updated than ours – two or three baths, two-car garages, pools – that were assessed at lower rates. Win or lose, it was actually fun and rewarding.

I am one of those people who avoid sitting on committees or getting too involved in local government, but this was a pleasure. How it is supposed to work.


Posted in General

Safe Places: Staying Grounded In The Din

Staying Grounded

Staying Grounded

I get letters every day from people saying they are frightened by the new and angry politics enveloping the country, and worried about the future. Many say they are sickened by the cruelty and viciousness that seem a hallmark of our search for a leader.

"For the first time in my life," wrote Marcia, "I am really worried about my country."

It is a challenge, for me also, and I am working to find my center, my safe place, my way of grasping what is happening without surrendering to it or being enveloped by it. But I am getting there. Challenge is good for learning, if your eyes and heart stay open. If you are curious as to how I do it, here is how:

– I do not attach labels to myself or permit others to label me. I do not belong to the "left" or the "right," my ideas and values cross those lines, as do those of many people. Labels are the opposite of thought and learning, they kill both. They spawn anger and hatred, not reason. I reject them and avoid people who carry them in their consciousness, and define themselves in so narrow and demeaning a way.

– My life is not an argument. I do not discuss my politics on social media or with people I do not know and trust.

I do not object to people who disagree with me, or despise them for it. I do not try to persuade them of my beliefs or belittle or ridicule theirs.  It is not my purpose or right to tell other people what to believe. I have no patience or space in my head for haters, people who demonize those they disagree with and make them monsters.

They are enemies of reason, free speech, and democratic values. They are damaging our precious and fragile system.

I do not argue my feelings on Facebook or Twitter, forums built efficiently for expressing rage or hysteria but not for civil communication or understanding. Connection for its own sake is pointless. To connect with another human, I must listen as well as speak.

Be gentle, I tell myself. Listen and learn. Follow my heart and remember to like the face I see in the mirror each morning. That is the only one that can guide my moral choices. Say or do nothing I will regret at another time. I resolve to  not hate those who disagree with me, or those who are hateful to me because of what I believe.

I am smarter and wiser than no one, my world is filled with hues of gray and shade. I do not live in the black and white world of labels, anyone has the capacity to be right. The gift of hatred and rage is that it gives me the opportunity to be better, to do good.

I resolve in this turbulent year, this time of finger-pointing and rage, to be my own good example, since our leaders do not care to inspire us, but mostly manipulate us. I want to be my own revolution, to listen, to strive to do good. To take my photos and write my words.

I strive to make human connections wherever I am – at the pharmacy, in a box store, on the telephone with a giant company I know does not really think I am important to them. Every connection is a beam of light, a cause for hope.

I understand that the for-profit corporate news is neither truthful nor reflective of the human spirit. The criminal is damaged and frightening, the hypocrite is truly evil, beneath mercy or contempt. H.L. Mencken writes that the demagogues and racists are an ingrained tradition in our culture, they prey and rise quickly on the fears of the masses of people, and fail and inevitably fail when they are called up to offer more than fear and hate. They never can, he says, because they are not able to.

They don't really know how to do anything but stir the boiling pots of anger and fearfulness.

Joseph Campbell says revolution does not come from the streets outside, but from within each of us., from our commitment to leading our lives.

"A revolution is supposed to be a change that turns everything around," wrote Thomas Merton. "But the ideology of political revolution will never change anything except appearances. There will be violence, and power will pass from one party to another, but when the smoke clears and the bodies of all the dead men are underground, the situation will be essentially the same as it was before: there will be a minority of strong men in power exploiting all the others for their own ends.  There will be the same greed and cruelty and lust and ambition and avarice and hypocrisy as before."

For the revolutions of men change nothing, he says. The only influence that can really upset the injustice and inequity of men is the light and love with in us.

People who preach hate and explore fear are gifted vampires to me, they feed off the blood and souls of the suffering and the displaced, they grow fat like ticks on terror and confusion. They have nothing to offer me, and nothing to do with me. I do not care to join any system that accommodates them.

It is a conceit to tell other people what to believe and feel, I am not that strong or wise. It is a tragedy to let others determine what I feel and make me tremble and worry.

This appears to be the season of rage, I see anger and resentment all around me, in the air. I am resolved to deal with it well.  The Kabbalah says "go to yourself, know yourself, fulfill yourself." If I make my own revolution, no one can take it from me or stop me from creating it. My salvation will always be what is within me, not what is outside of me.

Posted in General

Circle Of Love: Red And The St. John’s Boys

Circle Of Love

Circle Of Love

Before the St.  John's Boys left the farm to go back to New York City, they all gathered around Red to touch him, talk to  him, connect with him. He enjoyed it as much as they did. Most of the kids had never seen a border collie, they had only known guard dogs walking in city streets. They were drawn to him, surprised by him. He rewarded their affection and attention.

Posted in General

Through The Lens In New York City: What Do I Need?

What Do I Need?

What Do I Need?

Tomorrow, I am off to New York City for two reasons: one to see my daughter, perhaps for the last time before she becomes a mother and I become a grandfather. Secondly, to go to B & H Photo with two of my beloved cameras to try and trade them in for enough credit to get a new lens or possibly, a different, even used new camera.

Maria will drive me to the train and she'll pick me up in the afternoon and bring me home. My daughter and I will meet for lunch somewhere in midtown Manhattan.

It's an important trip for me, creativity and personally.
I want to clarify and simplify my photography. I'm delighted with the black ad white monochrome, it is inspiring me think differently about my photography and to see images differently. I also want to buy a portrait lens. My plan is to end up with two cameras, one for color, one for black and white.

I want to see and talk to my daughter before I become a grandfather this summer.

I will be downgrading from the high-end Canon 1D to a less expensive model, when I got the 1 D I thought I would be shooting fast-moving animals, but I think I don't need that complex a camera for what I shoot now. I want to end up with fewer things that I use more and master. My two main lenses would be the 35 mm, my favorite lens, and a portrait lens, possibly the 85 mm.

The camera I have an eye on would improve the resolution and picture quality of my photos,mbut would shed some of the expensive features I don't really use.

To pull this off, I have to haggle with the legendary buyers and appraisers at B&H Photo, they are honest but tough.

And I am re-considering what it is I really need, the key to a considered life.

Like everyone else, money is tight for us and we have made some desperately-needed improvements to the farm. In order to live the loves we love, we have to be continuously conscious about money. That is the life we chose. Writers and artists do not have a lot of cash lying around, and never have.

If I can't get enough for the cameras, then I will only buy what I have the money to buy. I might come back with nothing, or with one camera instead of two, or with a used camera instead of a new one, or with one new lens. The blog readers were kind enough to help me buy the monochrome – and I am sharing the photos, as promised – but I'm  not comfortable asking for any more, or putting any more pressure on our budget.

I have to figure out how to make it work so I can be responsible, help manage our finances, and continue to expand my creativity.

We are re-paying the last of the debts we incurred over the sale of the first Bedlam Farm, and we are committed to re-paying all of them. That will take us awhile. We have made great progress.

Some think photographic equipment is frivolous, especially if you aren't rich. Photography is not a hobby for me, it much more important than that. The cameras are not toys. The photographs are central to my income, from the blog, from my books, they are key in attracting people to my blog and growing my presence online. Photography is not only essential to my creativity, my art, but to my income as well.

We live in a visual age, words are not enough. Photos tell stories also, and photos and words have worked beautifully for me, together they are a major reason millions of people read my blog each year.

That makes it all more complicated for me. Maria, as always, supports my creativity. If the trade works, she says, get the camera, get the lens. If it doesn't get what you can afford. Makes sense.

I'm thinking of skipping the lens for now, getting it down the road, perhaps if and when I sell another book. I thought this would all be simple, but it isn't, really. It speaks to my own sense of responsibility and maturity, my evolving ideas about what it is I truly need, the support of creativity, and my growing dedication to a simpler and more spiritual life. That means fewer things. Less is more.

I am not a diddler, I usually make decisions quickly, i don't often spend much time in self-doubt, or in second-guessing. I can leave that to the many people on Facebook who love to do it. Fortunately I have a beautiful two-and-a-half hour train along the Hudson to think about it.

And it is important to me to see my daughter Emma tomorrow. She is coming to B&H Photo to meet me, and we will walk together to a restaurant she has chosen. She is a whiz at finding good restaurants on her Iphone.

We live well apart from one another, we live differently, but we remain close and connected. I suspect she cannot yet grasp the meaning to a father of seeing his daughter, his only child, make this great transition from one phase of life to another.

To me, this marks the clear boundary between being a child and being a mother, two very different things, for her, for me. So tomorrow will be a growing day, a learning day, an emotional day. Maybe a creative day.

I'm excited to see what happens. I have some decisions to make.

Posted in General

The Greening Of Bedlam: Urns and Gardens And Cats

Urns And Gardens

Urns And Gardens

This is the year of the gardens at Bedlam Farm, we are throwing our imaginations and bodies into the farmhouse and the grounds, we had a good time while the money lasted, (it was not very expensive), but that period is coming to an end. We painted the farmhouse, fixed up the pasture and the barn, added a new fence for rotational grazing, planted some new gardens, are heating our frigid bedroom. I think that's about it for this year, but the results are happy.

Out in the garden, Flo the barn cat took up residence in front of one of Ed Gulley's wooden flowers, and we put some daisies and begonias in the old urn. I liked the image, it had a neat symmetry to it. I think of this time as the greening of Bedlam Farm. The farmhouse and grounds needed some loving, and we were happy to provide it a month before the June 25-26 Open House. We couldn't do all of the things we wanted to do, but we did a lot and we are more deeply attached than ever to our home.

Oh, and Maria just sold all of her Three Chance scarves. Very cool.

Posted in General