There were two things in particular that really aggravated me about this year’s Presidential Election. The first was no matter when I turned on the television there was some kind of political advertisement – Ad nauseam. Enough already! I get it, the other candidate is a bum so I’m supposed to vote for you instead.

The other blister was the incessant bluster of pundits and talking heads referencing the ‘latest poll’. If you think about it, what are polls anyway? Besides an abusive use of the telephone to interrupt dinner time, polls are nothing more than an unending and transitory series of snapshots taken in an attempt to statistically portray a picture of what’s important to us.

While not as allegedly sophisticated as modern-day polling, cultures all over this whirling rock we call Earth have done much the same thing for centuries. Whether to convey stories, outline social pecking orders or generally prove the point of a picture being, in fact, worth a thousand words, impressions matter. Long before the ancestors of George Lucas ever touched foot on the North American continent, Native Americans took this idea of imagery to a whole new level by converting their social pictures into a unique 3-D form visible for everyone to see.

Some of my vivid childhood memories from spending time in Door County (WI) revolved around Chief Oshkosh and his Menominee Indian outpost in Egg Harbor. The chanting, the tribal dances measured in drum beat, the costumes – and all in front of the totem pole in his amphitheater made for a heady rush for my five-year old brain already burdened (sic) with an active imagination.

I remember closing my eyes on those summer evenings and imagining what it must have been like to be out scouting the surrounding forests for just the right tree. I wondered how they determined what the carvings were going to be. How did they come up with who (or what) was going to be stacked on top of who? Did the wood carvers already know where the finished pole was going to stand? And what did the finished totem stand for in their tribal society? In fact, I’m beginning to wonder if my own life-long practice of collecting personal totem stems from my early exposure to the Chief and his people on so many of those summer nights so long ago.

Here’s a cross-section of my totem pole:


CRYSTAL APPLE means Mentor Status – Thank you, Kay P. Early in my career, your faith in me is something I pay forward to this very day.


TURTLE says Spiritual Peace watching the sunrise in Sedona.


MEMPHIS reminds me that Human Betrayal exists – Memphis


HAWAIIAN CAT and KITTEN was my very first gift to Rick, purchased during my post-divorce solo trip to Hawaii 10-days after we first met.


LINCON’s BUST was the coup-purchase of my 8th Grade fieldtrip to Springfield, IL. It still carries the scars of when I used it as a hammer while hanging pictures in my dorm room (Freshmen Year). It also reminds me that the gift in difficult times is being brought to your knees – in prayer.


SWEDISH HORSE from countless pancake mornings at Al Johnson’s restaurant in Sister Bay.


SCOOBY-DOO sits on my desk, a gift from project team members I had the privilege of leading during my years at HBO. Their brilliance at overcoming overwhelming odds takes my breath away still.

Point is, whatever the totem ends up being, I have a dozen or so little mementos all around the house which collectively speak the shorthand of my Life thus far. But this week got me wondering if totems, however potent they may be, mean much if I let them slip out of conscious view. What happens when I don’t pay attention to the lessons they stand to teach?

Don’t get me wrong. I have so much to be grateful for in what has already been a tremendous life. I’ve been to so many places and done so many things that it almost doesn’t seem possible to have squeezed it all into the time I’ve had…but I have.

I’ll spare you the laundry list of challenges I’ve been confronted with over the past month or so except to say they’ve stretched and bent me in every which way just to ‘keep it all together‘.

Know the feeling?

And for me anyway, when I’m really stressed, a really frustrating development rises up to bite me in the butt. Namely, it is me, seamlessly reverting back to some of my old thought patterns and behaviors…the very ones I’ve worked so hard to overcome. And then the unsettleing thought haunts me in the middle of the night…what if I’ll never be successful in overcoming them?


I resent it when I start acting like I’m an island, instead of depending on those around me. Those old whispers of ‘not being enough’ ignite a slow burn inside my head. And after awhile, I’m genuinely startled when I witness my anger taking on an ugly, irrational turn towards the volcanic. The tragic consequence of all of this is when the people I care for most, are the ones who bear the brunt of my eruptions. Logically, such a toll is not acceptable. But emotionally, there have been instances in the past few weeks when I haven’t considered the damage I can cause till after the fact. So much for being emotionally evolved.

But in those moments, I’m reminded of how important it is to look away from all the negative totems I burden myself with and turn instead, to focusing on the good ones and the positive effects they hold for me.

This week, it wasn’t until I had gotten to the point where I could calmly tick off the stressors and name them for what they were that things began to change.

I’ve come to the conclusion that the worst stressors aren’t the big things like thermonuclear war, but all the little things getting together; things like my normal sleep patterns being completely upended by my work schedule; not being able to have an evening meal prepared by my own chef-in-residence or watching night-time TV together; working 6-days a week in an intense job that routinely calls on me to be emotional bartender, priest, enforcer and Dr. Phil – all at the same time.

But with all of that being true, perhaps the most telling indicator of something being really wrong is when I realize my own relationship with myself is changing for the worse.

I have worked hard over the years to identify what I need in order to maintain my own emotional equilibrium. And yet, this week I realized I’d been horse-trading with myself as I cut myself fewer and fewer graces to the point where my wake-up call sounded something like ‘Everyone gets what they need…except me’. Recoiling at the sound of own world-class whineiness, I instantly remembered what I already knew…the real culprit in all of this, was me. If you will permit me, let me come at this from another angle compliments of a screen play that unfolded in front of me in the clothing section of our local Walmart.


This one’s nice…”


Do you like the color?”

‘It’s OK’

Why don’t you try it on.”

(SIGH) ‘Nah’

Oh come on, it looks like it’s your size”


Oh, it looks good. Do you like it?”


Oh come on. Let’s get it.”


The only sad difference between this scene played out by children all over the country is that this time, it wasn’t a child. It was me, resisting Rick’s efforts to pick up a new hooded sweatshirt to replace the one I didn’t even have. What snapped me out of my self-imposed stupor was normally, I relish the chance of providing for my Other Half. But now, when the figurative shoe was on the other foot? I fought him in the classic passive/agressive style I’d trained in as a child – and I did so at every turn. Why?

I was so swept up in my own funk I’d lost sight of the forest for my trees. My own totems of giving, loving and care were all there, looking down on me while I busied myself looking for the victim window where I could cash in my pity party voucher.

In a nanosecond, all of my malaise snapped into sharp focus as I recalled a wise soul who made sure I understood that for many trauma victims, it wasn’t a matter of solving the past, but managing it in the present moment. It’s no less true for me than it is for an alcohlic or a binge-eater. Once an alcholic, you will always be an alcholic. It’s not about back then, but what you do now, knowing what you know now.

Got childhood issues or body-images that aren’t nice or fluffy? Guess what. There is no ‘conquer’…it’s an illusion designed to trick us into quitting the never-ending process of becoming our truest selves. Who among us can withstand the malicious whispering our psyches do when we tell ourselves we’re failing…that we’re ‘not enough. ‘Oh I know, I’ll give up before I fail’. Sorry to break it to you, but that’s called quitting.

The sooner I consistently, day-in-day-out, embrace the understanding that there will always be troublesome behaviors indelibly etched into my emotional DNA, the sooner I get on with the business of being grateful for having been granted the opportunity to manage those feelings and behaviors; being ‘functional’ with them versus always feeling oppositional about them. And gratitude changes you.

The ancient Americans knew it too. Trees rot. Clans change. And when they do? It’s time to go out into the forest and take a new pole. Without whimper or surprise, they mimic the seasons of nature and simply start the process all over again.

Look around you this week. Poll yourself and take a 60-second inventory of the totems surrounding you. Write them down (quickly)…don’t think about them – right or wrong. Just write them down and do it in 60-seconds. Time! Your 60-seconds is up.

What purpose does each of the totems on your list serve? Whom do they serve?

While I’m not proud of my hard-headed stubborness this week, I’m thankful that Love insisted on staying the course until such time as I looked up and took stock of what going on. I took my own poll and found new strength in old totem.

I was given the chance to once again stand tall in front of my Life.

With so much left for me to do, the next time someone asks me my name, I’m going to say, “Me Totem”. Travel well this week. Stand tall. Someone you don’t even know is going to see what you stand for and find their way back to their own village. Does it get any better than that?

PHOTO CREDITS and ATTRIBUTIONS: Opening Totem Graphic Compilation: Totem Pole, Sitka by Betsy Malloy:; John T Williams Memorial Totem Pole Project in Seattle:; Dan’s Totem by dan4kent.; Rocky Island:; Teen Shopping:; Eagle Totem:; Lee Wallace Totem_Raven Stealing the Sun:; Samuel Marsden Brooks Oshkosh:

Fun Facts about Chief Roy Oshkosh (circa 1950): His ancestor, Chief (Samuel Marsden Brooks) Oshkosh (also spelled Os-kosh or Oskosh) (1795–August 29, 1858) was the chief of the Menominee Indian tribe from 1827 until his death. He played a key role in treaty negotiations as the Menominee tribe tried to protect their lands in Wisconsin from the resettling New York Indians and the American pioneers. Oshkosh, Wisconsin is named after him. [Source:]

For a fuller read on the subject, here’s a good place to start your exploration of the topic:

 This one’s for Kina

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About dan4kent

Born and raised in the Midwest, Dan lives in the Chicagoland area. With a grown son from a previous marriage, he has since built a committed relationship of 33 years with his partner Rick, the Love of his Life. Having written his whole life, he blogged for years because he has to write…he can’t help it. Know the feeling? There’s ‘good‘ to be found in all of it. “If all I do is leave someone (or something) better than I found them, then I’ve done my part. Thanks for letting me grace your screen, if only for a little while.”
This entry was posted in Hope, Inspiration, Life, Life Lessons, Love and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to TOTEM POLL

  1. Amy Putkonen says:

    This was beautiful, Dan. Raw. I loved your totems and the photoshopped totem pole out in the forest. Fun. I think that most of us humans are given an equal amount of humility and gusto to deal with these crazy lives. How can we not? One foot in front of the other…keep moving forward, that is what I say. Let the crap be crap and let it go.

    I am glad that I discovered you through Athena’s comments. Fun. Have a great week.

    • dan4kent says:

      Amy – Pardon my delay in responding. Having come to appreciate your work (several times a week), your thoughts brought a quiet smile. Thank you for warming me up on a cold Chicago morning. Tao on! Dan.

  2. yearstricken says:

    I am not much of a collector unless you count space and dust. Maybe I’m an astronaut at heart. 🙂

    • dan4kent says:

      Agreed. And if I could come on your mission, I’d bring the water ’cause I’ve been told I’m all wet (on more than one occasion). Put the space and dust with water and we might just get a planet. Who knows? It’d be something to do. Glad you dropped me your note. Dan

  3. purplemary54 says:

    Totems on my desk: A laughing Buddhas; John Lennon action figure; Kermit the Frog doll; Henry V mug from England; reference books. Sounds like an interesting combination. Laughter, unity, peace, music, knowledge, tolerance, and childlike joy. I hope I can live up to that.

  4. Pingback: Rationalization, minimizing, and denial | Human In Recovery

  5. So happy to read you again! I love how you make me think (more often much harder than I want to on a Sunday night.) You have a way of pushing me to look both deep inside and all around me. Have a great week my friend!

    • dan4kent says:

      Glad to hear it. Sorry about the Sunday night cranial bit, but hey, it seems to be how I roll (ha!). It’s heartening to know that in pushing myself, you gain impetus to do the same. Did you do the totem test? Just curious. Travel well (as will I). Dan

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