Monday, December 28, 2009

Last Column of the Year

This is my last column of the year. I write a column every week. I have been doing this now for 20 years. That is over 1000 columns. If you count the column I had as a Senior in High School you could probably add another dozen or so to that total. A couple hundred of them have been put into books, a couple dozen have been published in other people's books, a few newspapers get them and publish one or two of them a month depending on if they have room. My column has not "taken off" into national syndication, the blog form hasn't gone viral, and my website has trickled down to only a few hundred visitors a month. So why do I keep doing it?

There are times when I think of running for political office and then I remember that I have 20 years of thoughts and columns for my opponent to pick through and find glaring politically incorrect statements I've made. I force deadlines on myself and sometimes just don't want to write and sometimes I just don't have any ideas that seem worth sharing. So why do I keep doing it?

I write for the same reason some of your go to the gym. I write for the same reason some of you jog or walk every day. Writing is my exercise. It stretches my mind. It forces me to do things that I normally don't do in any given day. As I sit here the beagle in my brain is running to corners and dark places, sniffing out words and phrases, thoughts and stories, and bringing them back to the place where he can deposit them through my fingers to you. So many things have been seared into my memory over the 50 years of my life but so many things have been lost on the receding train track of time. Writing gives me a chance to run to the caboose and look behind, memorizing as much as I can before it is captured within that distant line on the horizon. I write as exercise but also there is something more, I think.

A seventh grade teacher slapped a wooden yard-stick on the desk of a sleeping 12-yearold so hard that it broke into pieces. He woke with shock and embarrassment to not being able to close his eyes again for days. Later that same teacher took the writings of that student and read them in front of class. It was a "Hitchcockian story" he said and it was about an eye transplant going wrong and driving the owner of the new eyes crazy because colors weren't the same, shapes were different, and the world was wrong. After he read some of the words out loud to the class he said, "This is some of the best writing I have ever read from a seventh grader!" The teachers words were more shocking than the shattered yard-stick to the kid.

My beagle just found that story in an avenue of my mind that hasn't been explored in decades. That may have begun my fascination with the written word but I think it really just legitimizes my penchant for day-dreaming. Writers are just daydreaming kids who invite you into their world imagined.

Lessons Learned from pulling up old Carpet

The carpet was soft and navy blue and was in EVERY room in our house. We picked out furniture based on the color of it and remodeled our life around it but it was time to go. Almost 900 square feet of it at least, the rest will take a while to replenish the monetary supply to replace. As I pulled up the carpet I also pulled up some lessons along with it. So here are a few I learned:

1. What helps can also hurt: The inverted nails that held the carpet in place for so many years are still sharp. So many things in our lives are great and helpful ... until they're not.

2. No matter how many times you clean there is still something dirty: I bet we vacuumed that carpet over a thousand times yet deep down it was still dirty. In life there is only so much you can do to clean up before you need to be totally remodeled and start fresh again.

3. No job is too big: The task looked daunting for years but I finally decided to tackle it and it isn't as big as I thought. If you are waiting for a remodel in your life that seems too big to tackle start a piece at a time and work your way through it, you will find it is not that big after all.

4. It's never easy: It is find to pull the carpet and replace it but what do you do with the baseboard, then what do you do with the level of the sliding blinds that are screwed into the carpet at the perfect height, then what do you do with the transition from the carpet to the tile? Kind of my mantra and it may seem the opposite of the one above but you will ALWAYS run into problems when you tackle any project: it is never easy. So be prepared and handle it in stride.

5. What about the Garbage Man: As I look at the growing mountain of refuse outside my house I wonder what my garbage man is going to say, or do. How will what you do impact others?

6. Watch out for Scope Creep: The job seems to be getting bigger. First it was replacing the carpet; then carpet and paint; then carpet, paint, new fixtures; then carpet, paint, new fixtures, and a new buffet; now carpet, paint, new fixtures, buffet, and redo the fireplace. Stay tuned for more! Learn to say "NO" or don't start until you have a LARGE bank account.

I am still in the middle of the project as I write this and expect the house to be in upheaval for about a month until the flooring comes in. Stay tuned, I might have more lessons OR I might never recover...

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Group Interaction

I wrote a number of columns back about the way people manage to walk through crowds but what is just as interesting is how crowds react to people walking through them. People react, then others react to their reaction, them more react to the reaction of the people reacting, and so on and so on and so on.

This happens in nature all the time. Near blind army ants on densely populated trails spontaneously form traffic lanes to minimize congestion. A school of fish will turn as one in reaction to a threat, as if reeling from a blow. A swarm of bees tell each other where and how far the flowers are by their particular looping flight pattern and the waggle of their tails. Range animals will take to stampeding if one of them is startled for no good reason. A High School popular will wear a particular outfit and the next week all the wannabees are wearing the same thing. You know, nature.

I was sitting at a stop light fiddling with the radio when the car in front of me lurched and I followed suit thinking the light was now green and almost ran into the back of the quick brake lights in front of me. I saw the guy behind almost hit me and so did the people next to me.

Sometimes this collective unconscious reaction is beneficial like when there is a TRUE danger or realistic incentive. Sometimes the group response is banal or harmless like a viral video or Black Friday sale. Often, though, these unconscious group motions are harmful. Yelling "FIRE" in a crowded room. Peer pressure. Enron-like doctoring numbers to make you look better. The question becomes "How can I resist the pressure, the automatic response?"

The first thing you can do is PAY ATTENTION! If I would have been watching the traffic light instead of fiddling with my radio I never would have been duped into lurching.

The second thing you can do is PLAN AHEAD! If you rehearsed your response to "Would you please lie for me?" you would NOT give in to the pressure. Rehearse saying, "I'm sorry but lying will hurt you AND me, I can't do it." If you planned your expenses and money management you would not be swayed by the latest trend or gadget.

The third thing you can do is PICK WISELY your friends and who you trust. If the people you surround yourself with are trustworthy and "have your back" then if they react you can trust their reaction and follow the group.

The fourth thing you can do is FOCUS. I had to catch chickens when I was on the farm growing up and one thing I discovered was that I could not catch all of them at one time. As much as I tried I could not catch one until I began focusing on just one and not the whole group. When I chased that ONE I could catch him. Then the distractions of the group of chicken's faded away.

So pay attention, plan ahead, pick your friends wisely, and focus. Then you will be Jenny I who weathers the storm and becomes the BubbaGump Shrimp of your world.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Damping the Pendulum

Tire swings play in my memory like a soap bubble too tender to touch or be real but yet you know it's there. I remember one on a huge tree in our yard on the farm. I remember the fear of it coming too close to the ground and the limb looking too fragile for my growing body. Yet I got it swinging: higher and higher. To get it going you must "lean into" the swing at the right time to build momentum upon momentum. I got it going to the point I was level with limb and found the rope going a bit slack as I changed direction. On the extreme end the pressure on the rope became too much and it broke. In slow motion I saw my world come crashing down, I hit the ground and felt my lungs expel all their air. I gulped it all back in short gasps and found my legs still through the hole of the tire.

I remember my kids learning to swing by simply moving their lower legs back and forth and getting frustrated at the low amount of moving. Lean into it: legs, body and all! But don't go too far!

Our life is full of pendulum swings. The most visible now is the political pendulum. It swings every few years from conservative to liberal, from Democrat to Republican and back again. Ever searching for the elusive "swing" vote.

Our love life seems full of pendulum swings from passionate love to passionate hate, from "I don't want you by me" to "I can't get enough of you"; from never leaving the bed to sleeping on the couch. We search for that "balance."

In our work life we love it, we hate it. We get a new boss we love but if we wait around another will come that drives us crazy. We are close to coworkers and then they, or we, move on. The pendulum swings back and forth as we seek balance.

How do we stop it? Do we want to stop it? I find myself playing the role of damper quite often. Dampers are used in tall buildings and in radio towers as a counter weight to cut down on the swing of the towers from high winds. As the tower goes one way, the damper will go the other to counter balance. Maybe because I can see the benefits of both sides and the destructiveness of the extremes of both sides. Maybe it is my middle child syndrome: seeking peace and not conflict. Maybe it is just because of a life lived sensing, seeing, and touching extremes both by mistake and by choice. Maybe it is simply because I enjoy playing "devil's advocate" and taking the opposing view to whoever is in the discussion.

Winds of change will cause the pendulum to swing back and forth. We may be able to put the brakes on it for a while like a child grinding a swing to a halt with worn out tennis shoes but it cannot last. The best we can do is to lean against the crazy to keep BOTH sides from going extreme. Because it is at the EXTREME ends that our world will come crashing down.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

It is impossible to step into the same river twice

I went to a home of sorts this past week, not the home of my childhood but the vacation home of my children's childhood. The water of the cottage looked the same and even the docks were painted the same as I remember. My three kids learned to swim, caught fish, and had amazing adventures in life-jackets too big for them and then too small for them and then too big again. I felt a pang of nostalgia as the same three are now grown, living their own lives, and soon having their own children. I took off my shoes and stepped into the water and realized it was different now.

Heraclitus, who coined the above phrase, believed that the universe was always changing. He believed EVERYTHING was changing and in flux and that you could never go back again, even a second ago. Good words and a good story can take you to places you have been and even experience some of the emotions of that place in that time. While your mind can go back YOU cannot. We all know 40 year-old High Schoolers still living the great catch or the great shot as if it happened yesterday. We've all seen mature women dressed as teens trying to live that past memory. We all know the river has changed but yet we believe it looks the same.

There are some things that are better left in the past because it is a maturing process to get beyond it, there are some experiences we would rather NOT repeat that keep reoccurring. Past hurts, both physical and emotional, seem to be a river we keep stepping in as if it is happening all over again. It seems that we cannot grow beyond the level of maturity we were at when the hurt occurred, we seem to swim in the same river time after time. Professionals tell us to take out those hurts like stones in a backpack, to analyze them, find out where they came from, and then put them back in our pack so we can continue to carry them. Everything flows and nothing abides.

"How do you pick up the threads of an old life? How do you go on when you begin to understand that there is no going back? There are some things that time cannot mend. There are some hurts that are too deep and have taken hold." (Return of the King, JRR Tolkien)

"What if this is as good as it gets?" (Melvin in As Good As it Gets)

Well now I've done it. I've written myself into a corner with no way of getting out of it without depressing you. Maybe I'll leave you with another Heraclitus philosophical thought. He believed the world was constantly changing like the desk globe you remember on your teacher's desk, but there was something OUTSIDE the ever-changing cosmos that gave it order, meaning, and held it in place like the two points on the poles of the globe. Something he called the Logos. Hmm. Interesting.