Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Right Moments to Remember

I was watching a squirrel out the living room window earlier today, hunched over on a branch of the sugar maple in our side yard. His paws were folded over on his chest, as every ounce of his increasing girth screamed cold. The squirrel's body language mimics my own, as this cold, damp and gray November day has been the kind that saps my motivation and reflects my focus inward. It is a day that lacks color and vigor, as if life knows that winter is coming and has resigned to the prospect.

There is something hidden in these days where the fruitlessness of effort seems obvious, when your to-do list knows it can wait another day. I use these days to reflect and recharge, affirm my bearing or chart a change in course.

Today, what has returned to my consciousness repeatedly is memory -- not the ability to remember facts and figures, but those things from our past that our minds retain and define who we are. A friend recently expressed her gratitude for the difficult times in her life, for they made her who she is today. It is her memory of those times that defines her. Another friend talked of the memory of the smells, tastes, sounds and sights of her childhood and how they affirm her history.

I began to question what I hold as memories of the people, places and experiences that make up my past. Just as a single instance of negative feedback can mar a string of positive encouragement, I wondered if the painful moments of my past have hidden moments of fulfillment.

My friend asked me what sounds reminded me of childhood. The first thing that came to mind was the loon call my grandfather would make by cupping his hands together. The memory brought me right back to the wonderful summers we enjoyed at my grandparents' house and the Sundays after church when their house would be filled with the aroma of bacon and eggs.

So many of these memories I had locked in a secluded cove of my mind, hidden there by more recent, more painful experiences. As an adult, the dominant memory of my grandfather is the letter he sent to all my relatives encouraging them to boycott my wedding, for the sole reason that it was not being held in the Catholic Church. He chose to not even meet the wonderful woman I would marry, instead letting dogma and faith determine his actions. In a single stroke, he severed two relationships -- his with me, and my relationship (albiet tenuous) with the church. I wanted absolutely nothing to do with him or source of his dogma.

I don't bring up this episode to open old wounds, but instead to bury them and resurrect the memories that bring warmth and a smile to my heart. I've let the memory of his betrayal of me define him and me for too long. I've worn the damage as a badge for nearly seventeen years, and it's something that I will never forget, nor forgive. But it's time to bring some balance to my memory, and allow myself to accept this man that betrayed his grandson also gave his grandson a sense of responsibility, toughness and perseverance that he carries with him today.

Today, on this reflective late autumn day, I'm choosing the right moments to remember.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

The Transience of Place

Holidays inevitably become times of contemplation when my thoughts run the gamut from appreciation to apprehension, from memories of the past to the uncertainty of the future. The past couple of days have been no exception to this lifelong trend.

My wife, son and I spent this Thanksgiving holiday with my mother- and father-in-law. Although Thanksgiving Day was cold, damp and blustery, warmer air followed and treated us to a beautiful, crisp day on Friday. We took the opportunity to walk in the wooded area along the lakefront surrounding my in-laws' home. In the late fall, several species of oak and hickory stand as thin spires among a carpet of brown leaves, dotted with bright green mosses and deep red of raspberry and wild rose cane.

When my wife and son decided to return to the house, I continued down through a ravine that empties into one of the many coves that form the fingers of the lake. I worked my way up to the top edge of a bluff that looks out across the cove toward an area that is just teeming with wild aster, goldenrod and liatris in the summer months, but today was colored only by the earth tones of the wildflowers' drying flower heads and stems.

I looked down to see the evenly cut stump and trunk of a tree that had been felled months earlier. Nature had already begun to run its course. The oak's deeply furrowed bark was covered in moss, its ridges lined with  rounded white fungus. A slimy black mold weeped from the center of the stump. Although the past six months had changed its appearance, I knew this was my place.

Last spring during our Easter holiday visit, I sat on this same tree trunk. I was in the middle of what is best described as my atheism immersion, when I mistakenly became so militant against religious evangelism that I became equally evangelical for the opposing viewpoint. Sitting on this fallen tree, surrounded by renewed life springing forth from trees and shrubs awakened from their winter slumber, I felt an emotion unknown to me. I felt one with that place, no longer an observer, but an integral part of my surroundings. I felt the wonder in the plants, in the animals, and in the earth that fed both. I may have rejected the belief in an intervening, personal deity, but at that moment I could not deny an underlying connection with that place.

When I returned to that place yesterday, I sat perched on the fallen oak, looking out over the lake. My thoughts returned to that Easter morning, and confirmed the emotions of that day. I can't claim to be any closer to understanding that connection I feel with this place. It is a place of clarity and escape, where my mind can focus on the past and the future, while simultaneously being in the present. It is a place where I can transport those from my past and present who have come closest to knowing me, and feel their presence next to me on that decaying, yet solid oak.

There is a danger in assigning to much importance to a single spot on this earth. It is the transience of place. There is a reason the tree was felled by chainsaw, instead of the natural cycle of growth and demise. The bluff where the tree grew is slowly being undercut by the motion of the lake. Over time, perhaps just within a year, the soil that surrounded the roots anchoring the oak would be gone, and the tree would meet its fate at the bottom of the cove. Whether nature took its course or by human intervention, the tree's fate was sealed.

Soon, the stump will fall into the lake and the tree will be harvested for firewood, and the location will change forever. But long after I no longer recognize it, I will always have my place.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

A Solitary Emotion

I sit here in bed at 4 a.m. on Thursday morning, awakened by the familiar sound of the weekday alarm on my iPhone. However, this is no ordinary weekday, and the alarm was not set for me. The alarm signaled the start of Thanksgiving Day, when my wife would drag herself, after just four hours of sleep, to the kitchen to help her mother make the final preparations for the feast around which this entire day orbits.

While I simply could have turned off the alarm and fallen back to sleep once my wife quietly stepped out of our bedroom, the early morning effort of these two women made me think. My mother-in-law, for as long as I've known her, has never wavered in her commitment to her family. Her daughter -- my wife -- has followed in these steadfast footsteps. Waking up long before the sun to prepare a Thanksgiving feast may not seem extraordinary, unless viewed in the context of this continuum of family dedication. I am thankful that nearly twenty years ago, I was accepted -- no, better yet, invited -- to become a part of this family.

If being a part of this family was the extent of my life's fortune, I would have little right to complain of my lot. But as my mind wandered through each intersecting circle of my life, it became clear that my gratitude should not end at the edges of my home and family.

Over the course of this year, I have seen neighbors lose their homes to foreclosure. Yet I still have a roof (albiet leaky) over my head. I have been shocked as very talented and dedicated people unexpectedly lose their jobs. Yet, my paycheck reliably shows up each month. I have seen friends torn by the pressure of living up to family expectations. Yet, I was born to a family that accepts and supports me for who I am. I have witnessed friends suffer through the end of long-term relationships. Yet, I wake up each day with my life's partner by my side. I have felt loneliness in the spirit of friends and strangers. Yet, my days are filled with the companionship and compassion of friends.

As Thanksgiving dawn raises a sleepy eye and the aroma of our impending feast permeates the house, I am overwhelmed by a solitary emotion. I am thankful.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Of Hope and Daffodils

A few weeks ago, we instituted a rule in our house where no one is allowed to use electronics between dinner and the time our son goes to bed. We had slipped into a pattern where the kid would play his Nintendo DS all evening, and my wife and I would cuddle up with our laptops, her on Hulu, me doing some form of social media. All of a sudden it would be bedtime, and we'd barely spoken a word to each other.

The no electronics rule has been a wonderful addition by subtraction. We are playing games together, reading books, and generally interacting more than we have in a long while. Despite the kid's occasional "I can't think of anything to do" or the serious temptation to pick up my iPhone just "to check in" with Facebook or Twitter, it has completely changed -- for the better -- how our family weekday evenings function.

One of tonight's activities was reading Shel Silverstein's Where the Sidewalk Ends, a childhood book familiar to most as a unique collection of quirky poems about the sometimes strangest things. Every once in a while, though, Silverstein draws an arrow of poignancy in his bow that strikes dead center. Tonight, it was with 'Poor Angus', a poem about an average guy with an extraordinary perspective.
Oh what do you do, poor Angus,
When hunger makes you cry?
"I fix myself an omelet, sir,
Of fluffy clouds and sky."

Oh what to you wear, poor Angus,
When winds blow down the hills?
"I sew myself a warm cloak, sir,
Of hope and daffodils."

Oh who do you love, poor Angus,
When Catherine's left the moor?
"Ah, then sir, then's the only time
I feel I'm really poor."
In the days leading up to Thanksgiving, I have been publicly thanking those people that make my life the opposite of poor, the people who have opened their lives to me, who support and challenge me, who love me, and who each enrich my life in their own unique way. They are, if I may borrow some of Silverstein's words, the people who fill my days with hope and daffodils.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

What Makes Good Knowledge?

Over the past couple of months, I haven't been taking the time to spend my Saturday morning coffee time over a for a session of caffeine-coupled brain nourishment. Today, an unscheduled morning at home provided a great opportunity to explore some new ideas and awaken the synapses. Of the videos on the TED homepage, one caught my eye: David Deutch's "A New Way to Explain Explanation" -- his attempt to demonstrate how the way we explain things affects knowledge and progress and how myth has been a common human solution to the unknown.

Deutch's talk was a well-spent 16 minutes, and now has me asking myself this question: What parts of my knowledge and belief could easily be explained in another equally plausible way?

Sunday, November 15, 2009

The View from the Top of the Fence

Yesterday, in support of a blog post by Laura Mathews at Punk Rock Gardens, I tweeted this response: inflexible ideology is always bad. Although Laura's post was focused on the infighting between different factions of the gardening world, it brought to the surface something that has been simmering in the back of my brain for a while.

I am repeatedly struck by feelings of guilt and shame when I disagree with the consensus of groups with whom I am generally proud to identify. As humans, we have this need for group identification. I'm a progressive. I'm a conservative. I'm a Catholic. I'm an atheist. We define ourselves by our group memberships, and often -- when confronted by a decision -- look to the principles (dogma?) of these groups for guidance. When a referendum comes up for a vote, we ask ourselves how we should vote as progressives or conservatives, rather than making our decision based on the merits of issue at hand.

There are few things that gain more scorn from this group identification mentality than being a fence-sitter or a relativist. The worst thing one can say is it depends. For ideologues, there is a checklist -- sometimes stated, often implied -- that guides our decisions. The world is black and white. As a member of this group, you will believe this and act this way.

But there is an inherent danger in living solely on one side of the ideological fence. There's no flexibility, no room for change and adaptation. Our lives are too nuanced for black and white. There is a spectral decision continuum of not only grey, but infinite colors, from which we can choose. Why would we limit ourselves from the outset to just black and white?

I'm not questioning the need for personal principles. These are those things that provide the magnetism for our personal compass. What I'm increasingly wary of is letting the groups I identify with define my decision-making by default.

I'm ready to climb to the top of the fence and enjoy the view.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The Economy of Squirrels

As I was walking through an old neighborhood taking photos over my lunch hour today, I was struck by the silence that exists in a residential area during the work day. The only sound that broke the crisp fall air was the scurrying of squirrels through fallen leaves, moving acorns collected from oaks that towered over our heads. The furry little guys went about their work feverishly. From a distance, their economy was astounding. They seemed to be getting a lot done, racing the cold months ahead.

Their efficiency was particularly relevant today. As I opened my Facebook Inbox this morning, I was greeted by a wonderful, unsolicited and completely flattering compliment. Although I won't divulge the author or exact details of the message, its content gave me a little extra spring on this beautiful autumn day. As someone who might sometimes be accused of compliment-seeking behavior, this unexpected message was a pleasant surprise, but also one that caught me unprepared for its delivery.

My friend's compliment centered on my time management skills, an area where I feel like a colossal failure on most days. So, I started to think.....and think....and think. In fact, most of the subliminal river that has run through my afternoon and evening has rambled downstream toward answering one question: Why do I appear to be managing my time in such a way that I can pack work, family, friends, blogging, Facebook, Twitter, photography and a variety of other personal interests into this 24-hour package we call a day?

I might be better off just answering simply: "I just do." There is a danger in overanalyzing a system that seems to be working (at least to outside observers). It's like a pitching coach tinkering with the delivery of a 20-game winner. But tinkering and analyzing is something innate in my nature. I never leave well enough alone, and this won't be an exception. There's a value in questioning the why and how -- the method to our madness.

So, back to the original question -- is there a secret recipe for my time management? This question is hard to answer, because most of my days don't feel very efficient. But there are a few things that I can identify:
  • I don't participate in idle activity. If I'm not asleep, I'm doing something that is engaging my brain or my body, more often the former, but frequently both. Idleness, a more negative term for rest, is my antithesis. If I had to choose one word to describe my personality, it would be restless. When you have a near hatred for doing nothing, you tend to do something.

  • I do multiple things at once. On the rare occasion when I'm paying attention to TV, I'll also have a book or newspaper in my hands and a chat window or two open on my laptop. In my mind, one of the greatest advatages of communicating through social media is the opportunity for multiple, simultaneous conversation streams. Gaps in one conversation are no longer unproductive. Using 30 seconds here and 40 seconds there that might otherwise be underutilized can lead to having larger chunks of available time later in the day.

  • My son has reached an age where he's growing more independent each day. At a certain age, kids transform from black holes that demand all your attention into little people who can live on their own for hours at a time. While we still spend and enjoy a great deal of time together, we are certainly past the days of the 24/7 time demands.

  • My iPhone is quite simply the best tool I've ever had at my disposal. Whether it's a quick check of Facebook while I wait for a work meeting to start, deleting a few extraneous emails while standing in line at the grocery store, or posting a quick Tweet while walking across the quad on my way to lunch, the iPhone has turned each of those past moments of waiting and waste into micro-factories of productive time. I easily save an hour each day by having all my electronic connections with me 24 hours a day.
Is mine the perfect system? By no means. In fact, I found it equal parts humorous and disconcerting when a recent study showed that multitaskers are remarkably bad at multitasking. I have started to feel the truth of that in my own life, and have scaled back some of my ambitions and activities accordingly. I do a lot of things. I'm not sure how many of them I do well. Nor am I confident that much of what I do is aimed in the right direction, satisfying immediate or future goals.

Hopefully, my efforts can mimic the squirrels. Those acorns are either used for winter food, or end up becoming a new stand of towering oaks that feed future squirrel generations. Either way, the system works, right? One can only hope.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Return It Better

While enjoying a few solitary moments over lunch today at a chilly, basement table in a local sandwich and pastry shop, a cloudy childhood memory surfaced. The complete details escape me, for I cannot remember the exact time, or even the place.

I was helping my grandfather cut the lawn, and the mower engine had mysteriously malfunctioned before the job was complete. Never one to leave a job half-done, my grandfather quickly borrowed the neighbor's mower so we could complete our chore. The yellow mower, although a newer model than our broken machine, did not appear well maintained. Grass clippings clogged its plastic discharge chute, and bits of leaves choked the engine's air filter. Despite its condition of neglect, one pull of the starter cord brought it sputtering to life and allowed us to finish our job.

After completing the last swath of uncut lawn, I stopped the engine and began to push the mower back toward the neighbor's garage. My grandfather stopped me in my tracks, ordered me back to his garage and instructed me to clean every last nook of the mower--engine, blade, deck and all. By the time I finished, the neighbor's mower looked brand new, and I had learned one of the many life lessons my grandfather gave me: Whenever you borrow something, return it in better condition than it arrived.

As I sat there today, more than 25 years after that summer afternoon, it struck me that perhaps my grandfather's lesson could serve as my golden rule of life. While the traditional Golden Rule impels us to treat others as we would have them treat us, the return it better rule teaches us to ensure that the individual lives we enter are better off upon our exit. When we interact with others, from the grocery store clerk to our closest, lifelong friend, we are taking their time and attention and borrowing their spirit. If we would make the effort to return their lawnmower improved, can't we at least do the same for their spirit?

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