Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Memoirs from a New York City Bus 3

The numbers were confusing but the maps helped on the busy New York City Street. We watched cabs weave in and out of traffic as they battled for a half car advantage over the vehicle next to them. Getting the nose of your car there first means everything. I saw very few personal vehicles, the New York street was filled with cabs, limos, delivery vans, construction trucks, and busses. It was one of those busses my wife and I waited for. Our Metro Card worked on busses as well as the Subway. Apparently you get close with the Subway and then walk or take the bus to your specific destination. So here we were, standing at a pole that told us our bus would stop here and then it came.

Our first attempt at a bus was a failure, while we had “exact” money we didn’t have exact “change”. I didn’t know people still used change anymore. While my wife rifled through her purse the bus took off anticipating our $4 in change. Seeing our typical tourist embarrassing dilemma, a good Samaritan close by offered us change. I gave her my paper money and a smile of thanks and used her coins to jingle through the box at the entrance of the bus. We sat in our seat waiting for time to erase the embarrassed tourism stain we just covered ourselves with.

NOW, we were old pros and armed with our Metro Card we calmly slipped it into the slot on that same box and waited for it to spit it back out at us as we smoothly moved to find a seat. As we sat looking out the large windows at the NYC building and activity an elderly man worked his way up the steps to that threatening box. He put a Metro Card in the slot and it spit it out for a different reason, it was expired. The bus driver attempted to take it to throw it away but the man was quicker and put it back in his pocket. He tried another, then another, then another. The bus driver was getting impatient and apparently knew the trick. All the man said was “I’m 95 years old! I can’t keep track of these things!” Card after card was thrown into the garbage until finally the man just went and sat down. The bus driver, in a Brooklyn accent, told the man he had to pay. “I’m 95 years old! I can’t keep track of these things!” I was about to get up and pay for the man but I realized, again, I didn’t have correct change and the Metro Card only works once. But before I could complete the debate in my mind the bus pulled away from the curb and solved the problem. He sat calmly, like he’d pulled this trick for the hundredth time and would a hundred more. “Next time get a good card!” said the driver as the man exited. “I’m 95 years old, I can’t keep track of these things!” and he was gone.

I smiled at the man as his years, glass eye, and cane covered up an amazingly sharp mind. I wanted to know him, I pictured him as that grandfather that sneaks you candy when mom and dad say “no.” I pictured him as that penny pincher who, when finally dead after 110 years, has millions stashed away under his bed and in coffee cans. While the bus driver had to play the annoyed child of the crazy parent, I got to be the grandchild he slipped the candy to and I would have loved to sit on his lap and hear the story of his 95 years.

Memoirs from a New York City Subway 2

The plastic benches are surprisingly comfortable as my wife and I sit. They are colored in 70’s tones but there is a lot of chrome around and chrome, like blue jeans, never goes out of style. As we move along south, at least I hope its south, on Manhattan Island the subway fills with people heading to work. Soon the comfortable bench becomes crowded and people begin to stand in front of me. They hold the vertical chrome bars first but as more and more people crush into the car they begin to grasp the horizontal ones above my head and I have a great view of armpits in front of me. At every stop the deck is reshuffled as people move about to get out, get in, get a better grip or get an open seat.

Businessmen read papers folded strategically with one hand while holding on with the other. Young people with backpacks are wired into their iPods as they bob their heads to the bass drum even I can hear across the aisle. Moms with children pulled close to them like hens protecting them from the crush of people in the car. Women in short skirts and fashion purses check their makeup in small mirrors. Rough workers with Thermos lunch boxes and Yankee caps pulled down over their eyes sleep in corners. Magically they understand the garbled announcement of the upcoming station and the next one as my wife and I look at each other questioning what the announcement was. It sounded more like a bad fast-food drive through box. More likely the experienced “feel” when they are at their stop, there bodies know when to wake them or nudge them out of their iPod induced stupor and exit the train.

As I feel the car accelerate and decelerate with each passing station I watch the people. Not the individuals anymore, the PEOPLE as a whole. Everyone is in sync. The subway takes off and we all lean the same way in the crush of people. The subway stops and we all lean the opposite way together. We reshuffled the deck and all lean the same way as it takes off. I smile at the subway dance. All equal, all participate; all are a part of the dance. Businessmen lean with the construction workers, short skirted women lean with moms and their children, and we tourists join in the dance and lean and shuffle with all of them.

I smile as I watch the subway dance until I am nudged by my wife that we are at our stop. From outside I watch the reshuffle and the lean as the train takes off again. A little sadness creeps in as I miss my fellow dancers. We are not so different after all, we people. My fellowship moves on without me as my wife and I move through the hall and into the real, sunlit world again.

Memoirs from a New York City Subway

My wife and I headed to the wedding of a family member a little early so that we could spend a few days in New York City. We had never been there and we wanted to take in the sites, see a few shows and buy a few gifts. Apparently taking a personal car on Manhattan Island is suicide both physically and financially so we were trained by a friend in the City on how to use the subway and bus system.

Armed with a subway system map, a Metro Card giving us a weeks worth of riding, and our belief in humanity we found the nearest stairway leading into the unknown. I have rarely ridden on public transportation. No buses other than the ones I needed to get to school and no trains other than trams around airports and amusement parks.

I could feel my heart racing as I walked down the steps. They were concrete and swept but still stained black from millions of shoes and ground dirt. The lights dimmed as we descended and then we faced our first test. It was a twisted metal jungle with a turnstile in the middle. I swiped my Metro Card and pushed through the metal thicket to the other side. We slowly merged into the traffic of experienced riders searching for any clue: number, letter, or even color that would take us to our train. Finding the clue we picked up speed and hoped we didn’t look too much like one of those annoying tourists. (Although the wide-eyed Bambi expression, Hawaiian shirt, and camera’s around our neck probably gave us away). We went through hallways, stairways and escalators to find our train and finally there it was.

I stood on the concrete pad earnestly looking down a dark tunnel to see my train. Across the tracks was a tile wall with the name of where I was currently standing “42nd Street” written in different colored tile. I remembered the first Matrix movie where Neo and Mr. Smith did battle and busted up a similar looking subway station. All around me were people avoiding each other’s eyes, in their own cocoon sometimes looking at their watches, sometimes looking down the tunnel but mostly looking into their own little world.

The air was hot and stuffy and so were the people. Then a cool breeze wafted down the stairs in the form of music. Music being played on some kind of pipe flute and it was good. We, my fellow travelers and I, looked up the stairs together to see where it was coming from. When we could not see anything we were about to go back to our own worlds when down the stairs came a young man with his hands raised high yelling “I can fly, Jack, I can fly! I am the king of the world!” All around my smiled and some even laughed out loud as we all now knew where we heard that music before. It was the theme to Titanic. The young man disappeared into the crowd; the people went back to their own cocoon and with a whoosh of air that preceded the coming train my attention was back on the business at hand. The young man filled his backpack with a hundred smiles and a few laughs. I happily gave him a smile and resolved to steal a few from other people that day.

The Merry-go-round Pole

As I drive through the Sierra Nevada Mountain range I notice my automatic transmission downshifts as I make my way uphill. My air conditioner is making it a little too cool for me and so I turn it down a notch. I reach over and munch on a snack bar and take a swig of my bottled water and then turn up the volume on my CD player as a great song is now on. I look off to the snow covered peaks in my protected shell and marvel at the beauty there. Multi-hues of gray and black are mixed in with the snow-white peaks; the white salt flats shimmer in the sun and look as if they are holding up a blue lake a few feet off the ground. Joshua trees extend their arms in praise along the highway seeming to wave at me as I pass by at 80 mph.

I caught a show on the first white conquerors of the American West. Not so much the conquering and killing of the Native Americans and Mexicans as much as the conquering of the land. The things that I now look on as beauty they looked on as another unassailable wall. My truck simply downshifts to make it up and over the mountain passes but they had a much bigger challenge. First they had to find the pass through the mountain, or around it, or the easiest over it. Next they had to blaze the trail, mark it, and memorize it. Then they dealt with bears, dead water, extreme heat and extreme cold. Finally arriving in California they had to make their way all the way back again through the same hostile land. Next came the rails connecting the country; then the roads and finally the expressway that I was driving on.

I never knew the telegraph, my kids will never know rotary phones or party lines, their kids will never know landline phones. I never road a horse and buggy, my kids don’t know regular vs. unleaded and their kids won’t know fossil fuel. To me the Nazi’s are in the history books, my kids studied Viet Nam and the Cold War as history, and their kids will look at the Middle East wars as too long ago to be important. We move at an ever increasing rate of change. It is as if we are on a Merry-go-round going faster and faster as we try to reach for something stationary to hang on to but all we can manage is a touch of memory or a short grip of a flash photo in our minds. I notice even when we put our pictures into albums all nicely dressed up we cut out the background to keep what we think is important. We leave a cutout of us at that time with no context to surround us.

As I hold on tight to the pole of my Merry-go-round I wonder what is next and what I have to look forward to. It is exciting and scary and that is life. Then I open my hands folded around a solid pole in the midst of the chaos of change and I smile. I smile because “I don’t know what the future holds, but I know who holds the future.” Do you?

Abandon All Hope

In my continuing effort to make up for my slacking in High School and getting my Bachelor’s degree I finished a book I was supposed to have read 25 years ago: The Inferno, by Dante. The writer has a chance to climb down through the levels of hell, deeper and deeper until he reaches the place of Lucifer himself. The Father of Lies is chewing on Judas Iscariot and others in the deepest, darkest place imaginable. Finally Dante climbs down the body of the Lord of the Flies and finds that he is now facing UP and looking at the legs of the Prince of Darkness. His guide explains that Satan remains, in fact, where he fell to earth, immovable. His feet and legs remain exposed to light while his head, arms, and torso is firmly imbedded in hell.

It was an interesting ending to his journey but I was captured by the beginning of his journey where he and his guide first entered the upper-most level of hell. Before they entered Dante wrote about a sign that said, “Abandon all hope, you who enter here!” I brushed by that statement the first time I read it but, in retrospect that is one of the best descriptions of hell that I have ever heard. Hell is a place of no hope.

Hope is what drives us in our lives. We hope for a better job. We hope for a better life. We hope our children are healthy and become successful. We hope our parents and siblings have all they need. We hope our candidate can change things. We hope our marriage will get better. We hope, we hope, and we hope some more. Even when the doctor tells us “there is no hope” we still hope. Picture a life without hope. Picture a life where there is nothing you can do or try to make things better, healthier, or longer.

The nature of religion is to put a face on that hope and a solid reason behind that hope. Our Faith tells us that our God is in control and eventually, someday, somehow all that is wrong will be made right. Someday our hopes will be realized and that is what gives us hope. Now picture a life with no hope, no chance of things getting better, no chance of pain going away, no chance of … hope. THAT is hell.

Unfortunately many people choose to be in hell right now. It is not something that is in the future but in the present. If you believe you are in one of the levels of hell right now, without hope, then it is time to take a good hard look at who or what you are putting your faith in. In pre-eternity the loss of hope comes from a weak faith or a weak god; which have you?

A Baby Toe, a Tongue and a Rudder

I have a wide walk. I don’t exactly have a duck-like walk with my feet sticking out East and West when I am trying to walk North, but I do have a slight turn on each side. While this does, I believe, give me a little more stability it also leaves a few of my toes vulnerable to the objects they move by on every step. In other words, I tend to stub my toes a LOT.

So I am walking into my office in a bit of a hurry, bare-footed as usual, and I catch my baby toe on the corner of a piece of furniture. If cartoons were real it would have been one of those instances where I would see stars, moons and planets as an indication of extreme pain, and my baby toe would have grown to the size of a basketball with red shading and exclamation punctuation protruding from it. Were I a man given to swearing that would have been a good time to do it. My normal reaction is to inhale through clenched teeth and squeeze the tears from my eyes. Now, my baby toe is black and blue and swelled to the point where I cannot see the separation between the baby toe and the one next to it. Pain still leaps like an electrical shock up my leg if I attempt to clench my toes or walk.

I noticed how much I use that often ignored part of my anatomy. Really, how many times a day do you consider your baby toe? Now I consider it every step I take. I noticed my balance is a bit off and that my sandals scrunch that toe more than they should. It amazes me how important such a little, insignificant thing can be.

I think we take a lot of things like that for granted. A wise man named James wrote that though the tongue is small it controls a person’s life like the small rudder can turn a whole ship. The things we say, purposefully or inadvertently, can set the course for our lives. A damaged baby toe has changed the way I walk and think. The little things in life: toes, tongues and rudders need our attention too. What is the direction you are heading and what is taking you there?

When the Cure is Worse than the Illness

There was a time when mentally ill people were given an electrical shock to the brain to “reset” it, much like you would give your heart a shock to get it back in rhythm. There was a time when mentally ill people had a part of their brain lopped off like you would remove your tonsils to keep from inflammation. There was a time when mentally ill people would have their blood let in order to let the evil things out. There is a time, right or wrong, when the cure is worse than the illness. Twenty years from now we will look back on our medical practices and be amazed at how arcane they are.

In the book Don Quixote, Cervantes ends the book with the Don in bed suffering from a crushed body but also a crushed spirit. His friends: a priest, a bachelor, and his family, try to get him to come out of his mental fixation with Knights, Lords, and Ladies and get back to the reality of managing his estate. Don Quixote lived a dream life with his squire Sancho, fighting evil and righting wrongs all in the name of his beauty Dulcinea. He was true to his word as a Knight should be, he was above reproach when treating all women with the highest chivalry, and he championed the poor and fatherless. To do all of this with consistency even though abused and beat up many times meant that he had to be mentally ill, right?

He was a laughing stock to most and an embarrassment to his friends and family with all his antics and that is why they pulled him home to face reality. They administered the “cure” by forcing him to face who he really was. Only his true friend Sancho stayed with him. Eventually he was broken in spirit and never physically recovered.

I wish I had that mental illness. The illness that puts others always ahead of self – no matter the pain. The illness that treats all people with honor and respect – no matter who they are or what station in life they were at. The illness that seeks to right the wrongs in the world – no matter the cost. The illness that is so true to my loved ones that I would sacrifice anything for them. If I had that illness I would not seek to be cured either. Maybe we can find a way to inject that illness into people’s veins, then all people would put other’s ahead of themselves, but maybe I’m just dreaming an Impossible Dream.

To Each His Dulcinea

I have been catching up with some of the reading that I was required to do in Junior High and High School. Only about 30 years late but cut me some slack, I wasn’t interested in reading then and probably neither were you.

I just finished an exhausting book by Cervantes called Don Quixote – you may have heard of it. It is about a man who spends all his time reading books on the Knights of Old and believes that he is called to become a Knight Errant. Knights Errant are those Knights who serve no specific king but travel the country doing good, righting wrongs, and protecting those with no protection. The motivation for this life is not money or fame but an effort to win the love of their lady. Don Quixote or the Knight of the Sorrowful Face is pestered by wizards who turn giants into windmills, invading armies into flocks of sheep, and mostly those who wish him to come home and give up this crazy dream. He comes home a few times beat up and exhausted only to escape back into his life with his squire Sancho and in the name of the beauty Dulcinea.

No one has seen or heard of Dulcinea. She exists only in the mind of Don Quixote but she is his muse, his motivation, and his might in battle. Without Dulcinea Don Quixote would be nothing more than a fool wearing a shaving basin as a golden helmet.

Who or what is your Dulcinea? What keeps you going? What is your motivation? How strong is that motivation? What makes you get up in the morning? Your Dulcinea could be one of the loves of your life: you spouse or children. It could be the future love of your life: a teenager fighting to remain a virgin. Your Dulcinea may be many things. The priests and servants of Don Quixote tried to convince him that Dulcinea doesn’t exist and his response was: “If there is no Dulcinea then I am a shell void of my very substance!” Amen, preach it brother.

There is a song in the Broadway musical Man of La Mancha on Don Quixote’s life called “To Each His Dulcinea” because while we tip at windmills daily we are strengthened by the substance of our dreams of a better life.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

The Drug Problem in America

I received this email from my father.

The other day, someone at a store in our town read that a methamphetamine lab had been found in an old farmhouse in the adjoining county and he asked me a rhetorical question, ''Why didn't we have a drug problem when you and I were growing up?'' I replied: I had a drug problem when I was young. I was drug to church on Sunday morning. I was drug to church for weddings and funerals. I was drug to family reunions and community socials no matter the weather. I was drug by my ears when I was disrespectful to adults. I was also drug to the woodshed when I disobeyed my parents, told a lie, brought home a bad report card, did not speak with respect, spoke ill of the teacher or the preacher, or if I didn't put forth my best effort in everything that was asked of me. I was drug to the kitchen sink to have my mouth washed out with soap if I uttered a profane four-letter word. I was drug out to pull weeds in mom's garden and flower beds and cockleburs out of dad's fields. I was drug to the homes of family, friends, and neighbors to help out some poor soul who had no one to mow the yard, repair the clothesline, or chop some firewood; and, if my mother had ever known that I took a single dime as a tip for this kindness, she would have drug me back to the woodshed.

Those drugs are still in my veins; and they affect my behavior in everything I do, say, and think. They are stronger than cocaine, crack, or heroin; and, if today's children had this kind of drug problem, America would be a better place.

Wow. Well said dad! My father is of the WWII “Builder” generation and I am of the “Boomer” generation. The Builder Generation built an amazing America for my generation of parents. The Boomers like me took that freshly built America and tinkered with it. We did some rebelling and some rebuilding but we blew it when it came to our kids. We truly thought we were giving our kids a better life when we removed corporal punishment at home and at school. We thought we were expanding our kid’s minds when we allowed in ideas, thoughts, and influences of all kinds: good and evil. We thought we were making the right choice for our kids when we divorced our spouses to save them from strife at home. We thought our kids would make the right choices if we just “let them be themselves” and wouldn’t “drag” them to things they didn’t want to go to. We were wrong, dead wrong and my generation needs to apologize to the Builder Generation. We have an America that is more wealthy than ever before but more messed up than ever before: drugs everywhere and accessible, sex starting in 7th grade and younger, and kids shooting kids over Xbox and Nikes.

I pray my kids come out of this war against each other in America as another “builder” generation. This time building better families instead of better computers and bank accounts.

Take a Tree Stand

We’ve established that EVERYBODY has a religion, a system of belief, but most can’t define what they believe. If you asked me if I believed in calculus I would answer, “Absolutely!” with not a little bit of emphasis behind it. But if you would ask me to define calculus I would say, “Uh, umm, it has something to do with numbers and how computers work … I think?” I would mumble this because I really don’t know. I never studied calculus, I never had calculus done to me that I know of, and I don’t even know anyone named calculus.

That is pretty much the way people look at their religion, their system of belief, nowadays. We know we believe in a god but really don’t know anything about him or her. We know who Jesus was but really don’t know if he was any different than Confucius or Mohammed or Moses. Because of this we throw out nebulous catch-phrases to define our religion like “undenominational” or “spiritual but not religious” or “my own private beliefs that cannot influence my public actions” and assume no one will call us on that. While these phrases sound nicey-nice and politically correct they are ridiculous, oxymoronic, and shallow. When I hear them I want to slap the person and say, “Wake up, and take a STAND!”

I think those of us in the States are especially guilty of this lazy thinking. We go to the Walmart Undenominational Megaplex Church and pick up our few ounces of good feelings, our package of psychobabble, and a few bottles of smooth talkin’ preacher; then we go home filled but somehow not satisfied. In the 70’s we threw out the baby with the bathwater in our denominational churches by throwing out historic, biblical tradition and knowledge for the sake of openness and feelings.

Any religion, system of belief, denomination or church MUST be able to stand up to your scrutiny and investigation. I should open up a book on calculus, call my friend who teaches Math at a University, and find out if this calculus thing is true, right, and worth believing in and then take a stand. Start to define the trees of the forest of religions and grow a backbone by building a tree-stand in it instead of dancing like a nymph through the forest, touching a few trees, and believing you stand for something.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Butting Heads

My wife and I took at brief trip to a park nearby where the Nevada State Animal tends to hang out. No, I am not talking about the three-eyed, one armed domestic slot; nor am I talking about the green felt covered table, nor the gold lamiae clad, oxygen toting, retired folk. I am talking about the native long-horned sheep.

There is a park next to the foothills where they come to feed and sit in the grass under the shade of the NON-domestic trees. The come out of rocky, scrub brush land to the manicured park and hang out close to the picnic tables and soccer field. It is kind of like their mini vacation, leaving their harsh life to a life with a buffet of green grass, shade, and peace.

While Frankie would take pictures of them I would sit on the picnic table and watch their interaction. You can tell the males from the females, out side of the obvious, by their darker color and bigger, thicker horns. The bigger and thicker the horns, the older the male. You can also tell the older males by how scarred up their bodies are. Scarred from a life in the rocks but most of all scarred from the many fights for dominance that they have had and, obviously, won. One particular old male sat serenely in the shade about 20 feet from my picnic table and looked over his harem of females. There were a few smaller males around who would make their way over to this patriarch as if to sneak up on him. They would stand over him and he wouldn’t even give them the time of day. His head would turn directly away from them. After a few moments of being ignored the young buck would bow down and nudge the old man with his forehead. The old man would still ignore him so he would nudge a little harder trying to get the attention of the old man. After a few more even stronger butts and attempts to pick a fight the young buck moves on to “play” fighting with another young buck.

After a while the patriarch gets up to graze a bit and every long horned head turns to see where he is going. If not too far they relax again. Human spectators try to get closer and closer to take pictures and when too close all the females, and young males get up and move to the patriarch for protection. The young males just pretend that they are grazing but the females have their heads up and ears out, ready and wary. The head butting commences again with the young males but the patriarch remains, surrounded by his harem, content. The time will come when he will again have to defend his territory and his friends but today … ah, today, he is at peace. I think I will longingly name him Uncle Sam.