Master or Captain?

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© Jeff Horner Photography

I’ve been doing a lot of flying — in airplanes — recently, and whenever I fly, I think. Flying time is great thinking time. It’s always been that way. Not only do I still find air travel as fascinating and enjoyable (for the most part) as I did as a kid, I’ve always enjoyed that particular sensation of actually leaving the Earth, of suspending regular life for a time, of reducing everything I know into tiny, manageable little patches, scrutinized as randomly as I please from a wholly renewed perspective. (Aisle seat?? No thanks.)

As a photographer I’ve been working with a lot of athletes, both baseball and physique athletes lately. Among that lofty crowd, in person and on the endlessly-tended Instagram and Facebook feeds, one finds a great deal of inspirational quotes. Whether intended to inspire themselves, inspire their followers, or just inspire a big package of good-natured “Likes,” such words are everywhere there. “Never stop, never give up.” “You are what you make yourself.” “I succeed because I am willing to do things others are not.” A big one is “Most people fail in life not because they aim too high and miss, but because they aim too low and hit.” Many such truisms are indeed inspirational, and still more are intended to prove that the athlete has what it takes to succeed where others will fail. (I’ve always maintained that it’s important for one to succeed but none of one’s business if another one fails, yet that sort of measured thinking often gets lost among the shouts.) For some reason, I’ve seen one statement repeated in one form or another, across industries, across platforms: “I am the master of my own destiny!”

As a half-century man, my first impulse is to agree, and whole-heartedly. Such perspective, if truly believed and truly lived, is invaluable, hard-won, and often a lesson missed by those around us. We are fortunate to have come by that assertion honestly, through trial and tribulation, from lessons learned and failures endured. “I am the master of my own destiny!” is one of those truisms I also find to be true, but flying back to Atlanta the other day, I began to wonder, “Am I?”

I have stated often, and will again, that I’ve found my forties and now fifties to be the best possible age to have achieved, and suspect that I’ll look back on them as a golden age. All of the things that used to frighten us as young adults drop away, if we’ve been fortunate enough to have paid attention and learned along the way. If we’ve been blessed with the drive and frame of mind to take risks in life, we’ve learned that we may fail, but more than likely with an open mind and determination, we will succeed. We’ve learned that if we do fail, it never was and never will be the end of the world, and so we’ve learned to pick ourselves up, stop worrying about how many people may have seen us stumble, and move on, stronger in the rising.

Ultimately, we’ve learned that there’s nothing we can’t try, nothing too frightening or too daunting to risk trying. We’ve learned to rely on ourselves, we’ve learned to rid ourselves of the negative people and negative voices in our lives (or at least manage them), and we’ve learned that we’ll probably succeed, because we’ve learned to trust ourselves. We know that if we don’t succeed, we’ve learned to love ourselves enough to recover without collapsing into inertia, without giving in to fear and shame. “Failure Is Not An Option” makes for a great t-shirt, but I’ve never found it to be anything but empty bluster. Of course failure is an option. Not an option we seek after eagerly, but entirely possible nonetheless. It’s how we learn to deal with failure that betters us as bona fide grown-ups, I think.

Another way of saying all of this might be to say we’ve learned to navigate. We’ve learned a great deal about how to get around successfully on this once-intimidating planet. We’ve learned to retain the wonder and jettison the fear, and yet we’re young enough to keep enjoying the ride, keep steering past obstacles, keep looking forward to what’s coming next. But we’re not the master of What Comes Next.

Regardless of one’s spirituality — one’s faith — we’re also wise in having learned that quite often, if not virtually always, we’re not ever completely in control. Along our way we can’t command what’s over the horizon, can’t direct the wind, can’t always calm the ocean. Whether we learned this as young people (lucky!), through trial and error, in a twelve-step program or in whatever our temples of worship may have turned out to be, it’s just as much a blessing to have learned that, too: We’re the able captains of our own ship, but we’re not the master of the world; we’re not the masters of our own destiny.

A younger version of myself would have slapped my lips off, had he ever known I would come to this way of thinking, but it strikes me as plainly evident, and in no way as a negative. Perpetuating the vessel-on-the-ocean analogy, imagine knowing as our younger selves that we would one day learn to stay above-decks no matter what we’re enduring, learn to analyze what’s going on around us and make decisions in the blink of an eye that we can stand by, that we’ve learned to trust ourselves to be out there in the middle of the ocean no matter how far away from shore, from others. It’s just us and What’s Coming Next.

If you’ve come to a certain Faith along your own journey, that’s fine. That helps you, you’ve learned to trust it. Cleave to it and pay attention to it. Don’t dare foist it on anyone else, because the nature of your Faith is just that: Your Faith.

So no, I don’t think we’re the Masters Of Our Own Destiny. We’re the Captains Of Our Own Ship, moving onward to our destiny as wisely and as confidently as we can.

Manhattan After Sandy — 10/31/12

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© Jeff Horner

Just got back from a last foray into Lower Manhattan. It’s so otherworldly down there, a classic case of “life imitating art.” I think it would be the more beautiful if it weren’t so tragic, or at least so emblematic of tragedy.

I’ve been down there the last three nights, taking a different route each time. Never, have I seen so many stars in the New York sky. Each time the dead traffic signals begin around 33rd Street or so, until you realize the Avenues are still lit but the cross streets are wholly dark, both street and building. At first it’s odd to find yourself among others who automatically stop at crossing signals (if anyone in NY ever actually stops for them) that are cold dead. Down to 23rd Street there is intermittent light, but below that the whole area is dark, dark, dark. Yet everywhere – everywhere, without exception – there are people. Sometimes it’s an individual approaching and passing you by, other times it’s a group of people at a dark corner.
The first night after the hurricane, Tuesday night, cars were still allowed on the road unqualified, and the cars combined with the taxis and the squad cars made for ridiculous road traffic, the headlights the only source of light. Restaurants and delis had their doors and windows open and were selling their food on the street, for reduced prices or for free, trying to get rid of it that first 24 hours before it started to go bad. As I sank below 14th Street, two separate groups approached me and asked me if I was “from the light,” which added to the sci-fi movie feeling. “When does the light begin,” asked another, people floating up to where they’d heard there was still power. I was repeatedly struck by the feeling that I was sinking underwater, in a sense, the further down Manhattan I walked. The light from “above” faded quickly, and there was no moon that first night. People were illuminated either by their cell phones or by little LED flashlights, which appeared for all the world like those impossibly deep and invisible sea creatures who carry their own small, eerie light source with them, surrounded by black.I had stopped to help as a volunteer in Union Square at first, but after the first hour I broke away and explored the dark on my own. Here traffic thinned on the Avenues, and on the cross streets there were blocks with no street traffic at all, each with the occasional quiet pedestrian or group, making their way some place or another. Each night – even last night, Halloween – I noticed how quiet it was. No reveling, no screaming punks, no shouting across the streets. It was just the entire of Lower Manhattan, walking slowly and talking quietly among themselves.The smell was continual, and it wasn’t bad, at least not at that point. There was the smell of the earth and of earthworms, of boxwood and of the occasional fireplace fire from some of the older buildings and restaurants, and the almost out-of-place smell of freshly-split wood, coming from fallen limbs and downed branches everywhere. I had the sense that I had really moved back in time, trite as it sounds, and that I was standing on the very streets of Manhattan in 1912, or in 1882, or such. There was the utter nighttime darkness, the quiet foot traffic in front of brownstones on the street, and the flickering of candlelight, be it directly in the windows or deep inside the rooms, emanating orange and dim. All that was really missing was the sound of horses’ hooves on cobblestone and the illusion would have been complete. Floating on my lips was the quiet phrase that I later heard coming from so many mouths, quietly: “So weird.”

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© Jeff Horner

I made my way over to the Lower East Side to check on the relative of a friend, and by then the loss of power must have been affecting cell tower or repeaters, because phone service was nonexistent. Also, normally anywhere in New York, when you browse for nearby Wi-Fi networks you get a long list, but now there were none at all. It was the same everywhere, east side and west. A few hours later I decided to head back up into the light, but I went back last night with a camera. I had no tripod, so I was reduced to using the pointed tips of wrought-iron fence posts, parked cars, bicycles or garbage cans, or sometimes trying to stand impossibly still for the exposure, but I was never really able to get a proper nighttime shot of the dead landmarks normally blazing with light. One of my favorite buildings in New York is the Met Life tower, an enormous stone building with a huge clock on each face standing at 23rd and Lex, and is normally almost blinding in the night sky over Madison Square Park, shining bone-white in the night. It’s a ghost in the darkness now, lit last night at least by the waning moon above. I went back briefly again tonight, ostensibly my last night in New York, just to experience it again.
But I and so many others up here are so fortunate not to have lost more than some time to Sandy and her aftermath. I’ve met many people up here who have simply checked in to a hotel as a group, briefly, to shower and charge their phones, or to come to their Midtown offices to work before going home to the dark. They’re scared. The first night held an excitement and a relief that physical damage in Manhattan wasn’t any worse, and a sense that we had all experienced something historic together. Last night was Halloween, and the first break in the clouds. By tonight, the novelty is beginning to wear off. I’ll be glad finally to get on a plane tomorrow, and to wonder from the sky how long it’ll take before anything like normal returns here.

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© Jeff Horner