REPORT A PROBLEM
I often recall a cartoon I saw years ago that pictured a tycoon reminiscing nostalgically about his days of youthful struggle. It seemed funny and absurd then, but it has taken on more poignancy over the years. Lately, I've become nostalgic about the relationship I used to have with time, longing for the free time I used to have.
Upon reflection, however, I think I've actually skipped from one dysfunction (I treated time as a eternal wellspring) to a new dysfunction (compensating for the profligacy of my past with time that feels like it's stolen from my wife and kids).
If I were superstitious, I would think that my cold was punishment for my hubris. My wife and kids have been down with colds and flu on and off for months, but I have dodged the bullets, giving credit to frequent hand-washing, regular vitamin intake, occasional squirts of Zicam, and general good health.
Now, despite the ibuprofen, antihistamine, and Sudafed, my eyeballs feel like they're filled with lead shot, I'm coughing up a regular sirocco, and the muscles from my shoulder blades to the base of my neck are conspiring to pull themselves into a single point of twisting ache.
As kids, we visited this area, where I now live with my family. One summer, when I was fourteen, we hung out for several weeks at the pool of my grandparents' country club. It took a while for us to become a part of the group, but by the end we were playing "Sharks and Minnows," a pool game that I recall with a thrill and fondness, too. I can still picture this guy, Eddie Holleran, running and leaping wildly from the side of the pool in his trademark style - splayed arms, legs, fingers, wide-mouthed and bug-eyed. Pure joy.
Imagine environmentalism as an ethic.
More than a cause, but less than a religion.
Lifestyle which includes an integrated relationship with nature, rather than activity that is designed to meet specific goals.
A specific environmental goal may be met, or it may become irrelevant, and begs the question, "Now what?"
A personal relationship with nature, on the other hand, is a more permanent resident of the psyche, like a relationship with a family member.
This relationship might fall anywhere along a spectrum from litterbug to tree-sitter. From complete disengagement to obsessive zealotry.
Imagine environmentalism as a desirable ethic.
We strive to improve our living experience (gain wisdom), but we must occasionally relearn some of the lessons that we knew before.
For a good ten years or so, I had successfully avoided over-commitment to projects and events. Until, that is, about two months and three committees ago. An old familiar feeling is returning and it's taking up residence in my lower intestines, where it churns and gnaws and says things like, "If you don't get to work on that project soon, you're going to be in a real bind," or "You'll soon be exposed for the slacker you are."
Despite the hundreds of bike rides that I've been on, I still have this pre-ride fantasy that I will really get some things thought through. I even consider taking along my digital voice recorder so that I don't lose the great writing ideas that I'm sure to think of.
What I really think about while I ride is current speed, average speed, time elapsed, time remaining, distance traveled, distance remaining, current heart rate, target heart rate, repeat. Take a drink, don't hit that pot hole, acquire the eye of that driver, call out as I overtake pedestrians.
Really enlightening stuff.
During my youth, through college and beyond, I was gregarious almost to a fault. As I recall it, I almost always preferred being around people to being alone.
If this were being said of someone else, I would assume that this person's aversion to being alone resulted from discomfort with his own internal dialogue. But that wasn't me. I don't have insight into all of my motivations, but the biggest dynamic was certainly my sincere joy of social intercourse.
The present inhabitant of this body, me, is looking you in the eye, feigning interest, pretending to care, and craving solitude.
We all like to feel unique. Special. We hold fast to the notion that there is no one else out there quite like us. But these notions we have of being unique individuals are continually under assault. Population numbers alone provide staggering odds against our one-of-a-kind status.
Now there is a new and fantastic challenge to the concept of being unique. Google. Just google (yes, it's a verb now, too) the most specialized interest that a person might pursue - let's say "hamster grooming" (4,970 hits), or "Laotian fiction" (2,210 hits).
Wouldn't it be wiser just to embrace our insignificance?
Granted, none of us in this room are daredevils or high-rollers, but we are successful professionals with our collective share of experiences in stress, conflict, danger, and even death. We deal with important issues and hard people on a regular basis.
But we're equally converted to quivering masses of goo as we watch our kids in piano recital.
You're nervous enough when it's someone else's child, and you feel for the parent when their kid makes even the smallest error, for you know how you are when it's yours. Each note brings the promise and the dread of the next…
The SuperSoaker. Today there is a wide variety of sizes, designs, and brands, and they blend in with all of the other toys on the shelves – nothing special. But when I saw a SuperSoaker for the first time, I was completely blown away.
Back in sixty-five, the squirt guns truly deserved the name, delivering puny, wilting streams of water whilst comparative torrents from the leaking fill holes flowed over your wrist and down your arm. I gleefully pictured my eleven year-old self emerging from behind the carport, with an eye-popping day-glo plastic monstrosity of futuristic terror slung across my arm.
I am slain by financial setbacks today. I have taken major body-blows over the past few weeks that have punished me with their magnitude (like a five hundred dollar quarterly sewer bill) and by their subtext ("You should have been better prepared." "Your wasteful ways are coming back to haunt you."). Today I heard that I didn't get that supervisory position. As for the tax refund I expected. It used to pay for our vacation, but I hit the "calculate" button and TurboTax spit out a sum that would disappoint a panhandler. Worst of all, the complaining doesn't become me.
I saw some skin the other day. The girl at the coffee shop, reaching for something in a high cabinet, opened a gap between her sweater and her belt. A little midriff is not the most forbidden territory on the planet, for sure, but was arousing in its unintendedness, its purity, its vulnerability.
My senses were sharpened by adrenaline, and I saw exceptional detail considering the distance. Creamy (of course), the fine lines making diamond shapes between delicate blonde hairs, soft – seeming to yield even to the pressure of my gaze, my hands and fingers twitched involuntarily from libidinous impulse.
I would have preferred that fame came upon me suddenly. I would have enjoyed the benefits and thrills so much more if they hadn't come upon me incrementally the way that they did.
Still, there are some good things about being famous:
People don't interrupt me when I speak (notice that famous people in interviews get really perturbed when they're interrupted? They've gotten used to the lack of interruptions).
I get so much free stuff that I could have really used in my pre-fame days.
I get to meet other famous people.
I heard from all of my old girlfriends.
We passed by a town where I lived the lost part of my life. As we drove along, I told my kids that I used to live nearby. Repressed memories flooded my consciousness and shame curdled in my viscera.
I had lived low. I set aside the values of my heritage. I ran with the available crowd. I took mystery drugs. I was struck to the ground by strange men. I had sex with nameless, nearly faceless women. I developed strange skin conditions. I became intimately familiar with a lifestyle, the avoidance of which has turned me into my father.
Whenever I have indulged in a fashion or trend, the satisfaction registers a little spike on the timeline. But on those occasions when I either couldn't afford to indulge or I just missed the boat, the memory has more staying power.
Whenever I see a pair of good hiking boots, I picture Jan Robinson tying the extra long laces on her Vasques. Her type of guy (how I wanted to be that guy) wore Vasques, crisp jeans, and a down vest. And actually hiked. If only I had followed the "Outdoors" sign at the crossroads… yeah, I missed that trend.
Eventually, I rejected my Christian upbringing. But before I left it, I became more intensely Christian than I had ever been growing up in the church. I became "born again." I went through confirmation on my own. I wore a silver cross that I made in art class. I said "Praise the Lord" to nearly everything (and to the irritation of my friends). I joined a group called "Young Life," where we sang Christian folk and shared our mutual faith. One night, when some members tried to get us all speaking in tongues, I discovered the limit of my devotion.
I tell my kids to go play with their toys (ninety percent of my parenting is keeping the kids away from the TV). "All of the toys you have? Don't talk to me about being bored."
Meanwhile, my toys collect dust in every room in the house. I recently bought software for digital photo management, a label kit for CD's, orbital polisher for the cars, a complete set of dumbbells (and shamefully, an "Ab-Roller"), a two-liter hydration pack, a wood-chipper, Vuarnet ski goggles, and knobby bicycle tires. But I'm all caught up on "The West Wing" and "Six Feet Under."
I was so sure as a kid that when I grew up I was going to remember what it was like to be a kid. I can remember screaming this fact through a closed bedroom door, lashing out at my parents in anger and frustration.
I failed, of course.
I'm not blind to my sometimes callous approach to the anxieties of my kids. I once read an interview with Sister Wendy, the art historian. She said that her parents always treated her lovingly, and that she therefore knew no other way to treat others.
My kids will know other ways.
My daughter, she is learning to write reports and she has this one, actually two reports that she has to do while she is on vacation and the one is due on Tuesday and the other one has to be an outline so she has to have a first sentence for each of the paragraphs for the report on Vermont, but the other one has to have a rough draft that is two paragraphs at least three sentences each, and I keep telling her to use some periods from time to time to break up her thoughts, but she doesn't.
The best revenge is a life lived well. I have long loved this notion, and also occasionally claimed it as one of my guiding principles.
On the plus side, it has given me a steady reason to eschew vengeance. I do not spend wasted hours working myself into spiraling anger by fantasizing multiple methods of revenge. I would even go so far as to say that I have found a higher road of truly attempting to give the benefit of the doubt to people.
My failure is that I can't seem to master the living well portion of the equation.
I'm whitebread suburban, baby-boomerin', NPR-listenin' middle American, I gotta go go, get a ticket 'cos I gotta get, down to the Eminem concert, yo. Well I'm well-represented, not disrespected, sittin' in the arena, waitin' for the scene I, feel the message, it rings a bell, I'm an angry young man again, this story sells, he's got so much energy, I need some energy, it's what's gone wrong with me, I lack the need to be, out and spreadin' seed. I've gotta massive guilt in this cage I built. I've much too ease, less need to please, I need release, yo.
I feel it in my gut, the bombs falling on Baghdad, imagining and fearing the horror and anger of millions of people around the world directed against me and mine.
I want to be absolved of blame.
"It's not my fault!" I want to say, as I carry my five bags of trash to the curb. As I gas up my SUV.
I didn't ask those soldiers to protect my interests.
"I was bred for over-consumption!" I could claim.
"I'm a victim of Madison Avenue, born into a dream world of prosperity and shielded from the seamy underbelly of consumerism!"
A minister came to me for absolution. I attribute his atonement to a kind of twelve-step program for young ministers, where he had to go around patching up the damaged fabric of his past.
I gave it freely.
More correctly, I gave it quickly and insincerely.
I would never have said, "I can't forgive you."
The dynamics were odd and complex. But two stood out.
One was that I felt that I had truly been wronged.
The other was that he was came to me as he was in an ascendancy in his life and I was at my nadir.
I wrung it out on the bicycle 'til I'm salty and sticky and completely spent. When I attempt some small talk with a woman at the fountain, the half-smiled look of thinly veiled distaste on this woman immediately withers the exultation of my exhaustion. It brings back the days when my regular experience with the rejection of strange women was enough to sour me on the singles' scene forever. I am blown away by how belittled and depressed I am by this momentary encounter, as I can't reconcile the low feeling with what I think of as my healthy self-image.
It was early in my addiction that I was befriended by a master of moderation, and even then I heard the small inner voice that advised me to his path.
I didn't know then that his path was not available to me.
I have substantial will-power, so when I accept my inability to limit pot-smoking to the weekend, it is not for a lack of resolve. I feel hard-wired to addiction. I'm frustrated in the knowledge that I can't enjoy the best of both worlds. That pot and alcohol are strictly binary for me.
Off completely or on without restraint.
Junior hates himself, but he is blind to it. His compensating mechanism is to puff and strut and refuse ever to admit that he is wrong.
Junior fears that he is perceived as stupid, so he uses vocabulary that exceeds his grasp.
Junior feels that people consider him crude and unsophisticated, so he has thrown himself into wine collecting.
Junior feels inferior, so he substitutes bluster for teamwork and speaks out of turn with a practiced superior tone.
Junior evokes pity in others, but he is smart in his own way. He skillfully plays on sympathies to get his way.
I exercise a self-imposed discipline of not writing about current events in my hundred words entries. In these troubled times, I must therefore allocate a certain amount of what would be writing time attempting to expunge international events and national politics from my mind. It's very difficult. I'm never completely free of the psychological effects of the war and terrorism that have become part of our world since 9/11.
I have always considered myself an optimist, so it really rocked me when I came across this Oscar Wilde quotation the other day - "The basis for optimism is sheer terror."
The little guy gets up in the middle of the night, his brain barely awake, his little eyes sandy with sleepers. Little shuffling steps in the hallway bring me to my own semi-conscious state, and at some point it occurs to me that it's the hyper-vigilant parent within me that's responding. A cool hollow forms in my chest as I feel him approach. My love aches in response to his silhouette in the doorway and I want to hold him close and let him feel how deeply I care.
There's just no room, little guy.
Go on back to bed.
While I attempt to teach my daughter scholastic discipline, I inadvertently teach her how to withhold love to make a point. She comes to me in her pain and I struggle to comfort her, the hug I give is stiff and conditional. I'm too concerned that my lesson for her about not putting off homework until the last moment may become diluted if I appear too sympathetic to her pain. Her graceful handwriting and her beautiful piano playing mask the painful struggles between us that went in to creating that fine veneer. There is no logical path to letting go.
My grandmother phoned last night just after they got home from the hospital. Six hours in the emergency room (she probably bitched at my grandfather during every free minute), and all they did was send her home with Vicodin. It's not the medicos' fault that she refuses to adjust her lifestyle to her condition. Bent and hobbled by mini-strokes and arthritis, even on the best of days she shuffles around their big house with it's long stairs and hardwood floors, literally teetering on the edge of catastrophe. Last night when I asked, she admitted that she's getting around by crawling.
Little league. I wonder what percentage of kids truly enjoy the experience.
Until I was on The Cubs, I had hardly known humiliation in my life, yet by the close of that endless season I had become all too familiar with failure, ridicule, and embarrassment.
Even before try-outs, the stars were out of alignment. My dad gave me a baseball mitt from the golden age of the sport - one of those splay-fingered models that you see on statues of Honus Wagner or on Charlie Brown. I knew not to complain, but...
"It was good enough for me!" he said.
The Tip Jar