Thursday, January 25, 2007

Swing Low

I'd like this to be one of those blogs where intelligent men ponder their lives using wit and humor: reflecting on their successes and an occasional failure, describing their relationships with their children in glowing anecdotes, going on about the blessings of marriage, critically yet poignantly discussing world events and how their unique understanding would help us all.

But this won't be one of those blogs, because I'm not one of those men.

While it is true that I have successes and failures, beautiful children, a lovely wife, and strong opinions that I am not afraid to discuss, I am missing something. I do not hold my head high as other men do. Even those with less fortune in life, even those who live in perpetual ignorance, even those who are bitter and resentful...these men I do not feel at par with. These are men I feel inferior to.

It was said that "if a man makes himself a worm, he must not complain when he is trodden upon." I'm not complaining. But I am wondering what makes me different. It's not humility, not anymore. I used to be content to be a man who didn't toot his own horn, who knew his limits and lived within them, who was satisfied with modest blessings in life and happy to begin each day fresh. But of late, things have change. Or more accurately, I have changed.

Oh, I'm not so fundamentally different a man than I was a year ago, five years ago, even ten. I've grown, matured, to be sure, but as years pass the gaps in my person I expected to fill with experience and wisdom remain empty, even have grown deeper. This is disheartening, and sometimes, on days like today, maddening.

* * * * *

Those words were written on a different day, and I declined to post them, primarily due to fear of criticism, or perhaps revealing too much about myself, my problems, and my sensitivities. Fact is, I'm going to encounter criticism anyway, if for nothing else than my lack of attentiveness or job performance. Fact is, I'm going to reveal my weaknesses with the sudden absence of strengths--strengths everyone in my life are accustomed to.

The kind of man I am does not come to light through one blog post, one workday, or one encounter with a stranger or friend. I do believe I have more low days than I ought to, and I really can't waste time lamenting faults or mistakes or omissions of character. I need to find my way back to the path.

The kind of man I am demands that I do justice to my true self, that purer simpler self who struggles in a busy crazy confusing world; demands that I satisfy my curiosities; demands that I be honest with myself first. But what I've learned about humans tells me the Self is most often the person we lie to.

I've done a fair bit of lying to myself, but also have I seen many truths. Obviously there is still work to be done; I can only hope I am granted enough days to do it.


Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Pet Peeve

CBC News writes (here

"For at least the second time this month, the U.S. has sent one of its heavily armed AC-130 gunships to strike what are described as suspected terrorist targets in southern Somalia, the Washington Post reported on Wednesday.

"The AC-130, based on the same airframe as the workhorse Hercules transport of the Canadian Forces, can lay down withering fire from side-firing cannons and machine guns while circling ground targets."

* * * * *

Wait just one minute, CBC. The Hercules transport is an American aircraft, not Canadian. We were gracious enough to allow other countries to purchase them for their own militaries. Not just yours, and not just this aircraft. Dozens of governments fly the likes of the C-130, F-16, and KC-135 every day in defense of their own airspace, all thanks to the generosity of the American military.

So do us a favor, and if you're going to criticize America, her military, or her role across the globe, do try to refrain from taking credit for the airframe of one of the most versatile aircraft in use today--at least when it's of American design.

Oh, and you're welcome.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Balance and States of Well-Being

When I was a kid, possibly early teens, I embarked on the extraordinary effort to learn how to qualify life. I'd heard about the trendy biorhythms and emotional IQ and such, and while it seemed kitschy, it also struck me that there must be some way to measure one's internal prosperity.

What I came up with were what I called the states of well-being: physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual. I know these are all over now; my physical therapist brought them up in conversation one day, and my wife attended a work conference where they discussed them (as well as a fifth: synergistic, but I don't buy that one yet). But honest to God, when I was just a lad, I discovered them all on my lonesome, and for a long time I was sure nobody else knew beans about them. I guess I should have published a pamphlet or something.

Anyway, in my amateur philosophizing, I concluded that to establish what I called Balance, each state of well being (SWB) must be attended to. I aligned them on a plus sign, with each pair of complementary SWB's across from the other: physical/emotional, and mental/spirital. I arrived at the conclusion that there was a spiritual SWB not really by observation, as with the others, but by an absence of the thing. I knew people who were healthy, smart, and had it together, but who still weren't happy. I didn't know exactly what was missing, just that something was. I even resisted labling it spirituality for a long time, steeped as I was in my logical view of the world, but it's what fit, so it stuck.

Once I had a basic scheme, I tried to figure out ways to quantify each SWB. I really couldn't, not in a traditional numeric sense anyway. All I concluded was that one had to keep working, possibly improving, in order to maintain that state. But what to work on? That was my next question.

I compiled lists of things that a person might do and/or achieve to keep up with each SWB. The physical list wasn't exactly a no-brainer, I actually used the US Army Physical Fitness Manual for much of it, but it basically is stuff you ought to do to stay healthy and fit. The mental list was more work; it basically says that while you don't necessarily need to earn a PhD, you do have to do your brain justice and keep learning a variety of new things, even mundane stuff, for its own sake. Emotional well-being wasn't an easy list to populate, being very short on it myself (especially at the time) so I filled it with things I thought emotionally healthy people did. Turns out I was right on some accounts: relationships with family and friends, maintaining a personal code of conduct (I later referred to the Air Force Core Values), character, and honesty with yourself are all things I thought might be required. The spiritual list remained blank for years (actually, it's still blank on paper) until I learned about healing arts, body energy, and other such things that usually makes people roll their eyes at me.

Well today I am at the realization that I really need to get back to work on my Balance. I've had too many ups and downs the last several (insert your favorite time interval here; they all apply at the moment no matter how small) to ignore my overall health any longer. Ironically, what I need to work on the least, at my second discovery of my SWB system, is my spiritual self. The rest is buried beneath layers of dysfunction and self-neglect.

So if anyone's reading, send a nice thought my way today. I could use it in a big way. Thanks.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

A Life Without Beauty

Long ago (in high school) I had a Stagecraft class that was taught by the guy who ran the theater program. Now, let me first explain that this was no ordinary school. This is a very prominent private college-prep type school. I was a boarder on scholarship from an inner-city environment, and it was kind of overwhelming. There is a dining hall that looks like the Hogwart's Great Hall in the Harry Potter movies, statues overlooking lakes, a founding manor with a mansion and accompanying gardens and fountains, world renowned architecture, the whole works. So our school had its own performing arts building.

Now, let me explain something else. I was not a very art-minded person, which is ironic when you consider the school. This class appealed to me specifically because of the building aspect. I had to have an art class, and weaving just wasn't my bag (we had our own studio complete with a few dozen looms). Our main job in the class was to build sets for the school's productions (3-4 a year, I think) and, when showtime came, set up risers and chairs, take tickets, man the snack booth, and perform all the various technical things necessary for such an event. My specialty was spotlight.

Dr. Charles Geroux was the teacher's name. In addition to teaching us that you can build anything out of 3/4" plywood, 2x4's and drywall screws, he tried his best to present us with a world full of splendor. He assigned us speeches and presentations. Once per semester he'd bring a banjo and sing us folk songs he hoped we knew, though we never really sang along. He was a thespian, and he did his damndest to bring out the thespian in all of us via the medium of lumber and handywork.

One day during a discussion, the point of art for art's sake was brought up. Finally, I'd had enough. I did not understand the point of it all, and said so. Why does something have to be appealing or decorated or look pretty or invoke thought if it already does the thing it's supposed to to? Fountains, okay. Statues, sure. Paintings and music, brilliant. But bridges? Fences? Furniture? Give me a break.

Doc Geroux smiled calmly. You know the archway between Marquis and the Dining Hall? he asked me. Yes, I think so, I answered. Take a walk up there and read it, and come back and tell me what it says, he instructed. Of course he knew what it said already, why couldn't he just tell me? Nevertheless, it was a nice day, and being given permission to walk the campus during class was nothing I would argue with. So I walked up there, strolling casually the brick walkways, under limestone archways, past the Gateway of Friendship, through the fountained quad, between the statues of twin greyhounds near the courtyard entrance to Marquis Hall, and to my destination. And there on the arch were the words "A life without beauty is only half lived."

Now, all the arches (and there are plenty) are carved with quotations by great thinkers and such, and I'd taken very little notice during the whole of my time there. In fact, the quad, with its central fountain, the bricked walkways, the tower overlooking the campus, the green copper roof of the campus across the lake, the serenity of the gardens, had all escaped my significant notice. I know this now, but walking back I probably felt indignant, resisting the realization that was struggling within, knowing full well the lecture I was sure to receive upon my return. I did not stroll back casually as I had on the way there; I had no interest in enjoying some free time during the rigorous eight-period schedule.

When I did get back, I was asked the phrase, which I repeated. The Doc was an even better teacher than I realized. He didn't lecture me. He didn't present my folly to the class as something punishable or to be scoffed at or rejected. He allowed me to dwell on the experience, he let it soak in.

I recall very little of my childhood, even at the age this occured, but to this day that memory has never faded. I've never had to sit back and tap my chin trying to recall the phrase on the archway between Marquis and the Dining Hall. And since that day the way I saw the campus, and the world, changed. The way I lived my life changed.

Which brings me to today's tangent, a news story titled "Parents question plan to replace school tower." Atop a Dearborn middle school sits a beautiful clock that has fallen to age and disrepair. The district has already approved $416,000 from its building maintenance fund to replace the clock, and yet some parents don't think it's worth it. In one parent's words, "It's not necessary for the students. It's not really important."

What would Doc Geroux say? I think he would be appalled. Honestly, the thing is beautiful. It's even mostly still functional. I give serious kudos to the person who proposed using district funds to replace it, and to those whose approval was necessary to make it happen. The article says that even though the money to repair the clock "come[s] from the district's budget for building maintenance...some parents say they would rather spend the money on something that directly benefits students."

How is this thing not benefiting them? The money is reserved for stuff like light bulbs and contractors, not books and teacher salaries. If the clock isn't benefiting them, what about marching band, or choir? What about the sport's programs? Are they benefiting the students in any way? Sure they are. Are these ways measurable? Absolutely. Turning our kids' brains into calculators is not education. Teaching them to think critically, to see the world and call a kettle black without losing hope, to be charitable and expressive, to better humanity--this is education. Art helps provide that. If parents at Woodworth Middle School realy want to know how their majectic clock might potentially--directly--benefit their kids, they should take more than traditional academics into account.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Get Your Coffee Off My Car

I'd just like to remind Dr. Michael J. Fugle, DO that it's rude to put your cup down on someone else's car while you unlock your own.

I can say this to him because yesterday he did just this as I sat inside the car listening to the final moments of TAL #106, Father's Day '98, before my physical therapy appointment. I heard two men talking as they walked out, and thought nothing of it. I saw one was in a white coat, the other an older guy. Some kind of professional, to be sure, but perhaps a salesman, vendor, landlord, maybe even a patient. He was carrying a styrofoam cup and some papers. My car was parked next to this big silver SUV.

Older guy waves off the younger white coat and walks to the rear of the SUV. Then he sets his cup on my deck lid. I assumed he'd pick it back up immediately, even if he hadn't noticed me sitting there. But he didn't. He fumbled with some keys or such, then walked between the two vehicles and unlocked his. At first I thought he'd leave it there, which definitely would have made me brave enough to vocalize my displeasure as he reversed out of the spot. "Excuse me," I'd say politely, "you left your coffee ON MY CAR." Really, the embarrassment on his part would have been plenty to justify a lack of well-deserved rudeness on my part. But he didn't leave it; he remembered, collected it, and moved off. All through the ordeal, which lasted all of about twelve seconds, I tried to make eye contact with the guy. I'd have smiled and nodded (see aformentioned embarrassment/rudeness tradeoff), but it never happened. All I could see were his jacket and his papers.

Margot, the therapist, was watching from inside, I found out a few moments later, and told me who the guy was. She said he did apparently notice that my car was NOT unoccupied before pulling away. "I kind of don't give a damn," I told her, "about his coffee, I mean. What would he have done with it if I hadn't been parked there?"

Really, the nerve of some folks.

Tuesday, January 9, 2007

Sexism is Funny

Here's some dandy amusing spam. Trouble is, the Spanish word for computer IS ACTUALLY FEMININE. Why is it so funny for everyone to bash men, but so sexist for anyone to bash women? In any case, enjoy.

* * * * *

A Spanish teacher was explaining to her class that in Spanish, unlike English, nouns are designated as either masculine or feminine.

"House" for instance, is feminine: "la casa."

"Pencil," however, is masculine: "el lapiz."

A student asked, "What gender is 'computer'?"

Instead of giving the answer, the teacher split the class into two groups, male and female, and asked them to decide for themselves whether "computer" should be a masculine or a feminine noun.

Each group was asked to give four reasons for its recommendation.

The men's group decided that "computer" should definitely be of the feminine gender ("la computadora"), because:

1. No one but their creator understands their internal logic;

2. The native language they use to communicate with other computers is incomprehensible to everyone else;

3. Even the smallest mistakes are stored in long term memory for possible later retrieval; and

4. As soon as you make a commitment to one, you find yourself spending half your paycheck on accessories for it.

The women's group, however, concluded that computers should be Masculine ("el computador"), because:

1. In order to do anything with them, you have to turn them on;

2. They have a lot of data but still can't think for themselves;

3. They are supposed to help you solve problems, but half the time they ARE the problem; and

4. As soon as you commit to one, you realize that if you had waited a little longer, you could have gotten a better model.

The women won.

* * * * *

Thursday, January 4, 2007

Miscellany: Grinch

This is one of my favorite holiday pieces. Give it a listen. Or if you're so inclined, read the text below (reproduced without permission). Truly, it's much better in audio.

Commentary: Grinch's True End, by John Moe

The Grinch’s True End

An Open Letter
By John Moe


Dear Steven,
It’s been several months now since you left and I remained here on Mt. Crumpet in the home we built together. I think it’s important that I share my feelings. I hate you Steven. Hate; hate; hate you.

For years we stood for something. We hated the Whos. Like we always said if it weren’t for Christmas and the Who’s infernal screeching of “carols” we would have had absolute quiet all year long and isn’t that why we moved to Mt. Crumpet in the first place, Steven? Every December our meditation, gardening and literary work were shattered with “Wahoo-Boraice” or whatever that stupid song was. Have you learned it yet? Well have you? The Whos ruined our lives. Annually. And then you joined them. And why? WHY?! Because you heard them sing. Who was I living with all those years? Honestly, if you know, tell me Steven.

And, by the way, there was nothing wrong with your heart. I have, in our big file cabinet, a report from the Dr. that says while your heart was abnormally small (5th percentile), it was completely functional and unless you attempt to run a triathlon, you’re fine. And all that aside, your heart has nothing to do with your emotions. You left your Zoloft here, by the way. If you haven’t picked up a new prescription, I will send it down to you but you
should really renew it.

Alone up here on Mt. Crumpet my thoughts have turned to that night. In retrospect, there were many mistakes. You shouldn’t have worn a Santa suit. Also you should not have engaged Cindy Lou Who – at all. I’m not sure what inverted Stockholm syndrome took place while I waited on the roof, but I do know that it all could have been solved with a hard shove and a quick exit. Additionally we should have stashed the Christmas crap and then left town right away – the shore, Cozumel, my parents’ place even.

But really the problem was the Whos. They’re stupid, Steven. People who get robbed and then sing with joy are stupid people. And now you’ve gone to live with them, in a … what? Hut? – I can’t blame them anymore for being who they are. Perhaps I can’t even blame you for being who you evidently were all along. Perhaps I can only blame myself for seeing you as the one I spent all those years with. The one I thought shared my yearning for solitude and my deep and justified hatred for everyone else. But that was not you. You are a Who. Enjoy the roast beast. Whatever. Jerk.


Moving Day

It looks like roughly 24 hours from now, I'll be ready to officially change my residence.

Not that we're ready to move by a long shot. Nothing's packed, parts of the house are a perpetual mess, and we made a plan only yesterday only yesterday regarding how we might move all our stuff. Seriously, I only want to bring about half of it. I imagine a great mound of broken or unused toys, unworn and ill-fitting clothes, broken furniture that made its way to corners of the basement because it was too large for the trash, building scraps, junk mail that has piled up, and general crap that has permeated our household the last eleven years. I suppose now is the time to plan for that long-coveted dumpster I've been fighting for so long. Now is the time to purge.

Of course, this sort of purging is a good thing. Making your house and your life cleaner is a good thing. Moving up in the world is a good thing.

On the surface, this move is just that: a move up. The house is bigger, the neighborhood is better, the city is safer, and the schools preferred. But this seems an empty victory to me. Several small details make me feel that, although facts are this is better for the family, this will not feel right for a long time. I am afraid to tell anyone this--they all seem so happy for us. And I don't want to explain those details; some are embarrassing.

Maybe what I should be doing is focusing on the good parts of this whole deal--and those abound. Just the chance to start over in an empty house is overwhelmingly uplifting to me. The possibility of having more room for concievably less stuff makes me giddy. Having a bedroom door will be a luxury. The ride to work and the kids' school is markedly shorter, which means less driving and gas. The yard is bigger, and although it can't be fenced I look forward to playing with the dogs this summer and planting a bigger garden without crowding the swingset. There are mature trees. There is a garage and a front porch suitable for sitting to watch the rain.

But what I can't shake is the fear that something is terribly amiss. I'm sure my sense of dread is caused more by the typical new year's malaise and my own personal issues than anything real, but for me it's real enough and cannot be ignored. Lately I've had trouble putting to practice lots of the life skills I gained only recently in my adulthood, and this makes coping with the house anxiety even more acute.