Sunday, December 30, 2007

Psychic Minefields

One feature of the Afghan landscape that is never going to leave me has to do with red and white painted rocks. I described it in one of my missives from there, half a decade ago:

I had been told before coming here that this was the most heavily mined corner of the earth. But if the engineers slides are to be trusted, that's not so. At a mere 40 mines per square mile, this land ranks behind Iraq, Egypt, Croatia, Cambodia (reported by some sources to have more amputees per capita than any other country in the world), and finally Bosnia. For Bosnia, the tally is nearly 150 mines deployed per square mile. We once feared nuclear winter as a horrible possibility. But a worse decimation of the land has already set in, in some places. Imagine standing on the edge of our national forests and looking in, but knowing that to venture there was to take your life in your hands. Imagine the Appalachian Trail not marked with discreet cairns, but with red and white painted stones every ten feet or so. Irregular stone bobbers to mark out the territory belonging to another sort of fishers of men. 150 mines per square mile. One quarter as dense as the placement of poles in De Maria's Lightning Field, if they were evenly distributed. They're not. Stroll across such a field to buy your lottery ticket and your odds of losing on the way far exceed your odds of winning if you get there at all.
In haunting images though, we frequently find the metaphors that make other, even harder to understand phenomena finally clear to us. In minefields and those who mark them and those who work to clear them, I've finally come to understand the action of personal insecurities and some of the methodologies by which we deal with them.

For a long time, I've been very close to someone with a rather baffling trait that I've been painfully aware of, but unable to understand. The things that have been most important to me, I've always tried to share--windows to my soul for the person I would most want to understand it. Sometimes there as been interest there; sometimes not. Take this blog for instance. If I were in a relationship with someone, a serious relationship, I would want to understand the things that matter most to them. I can't imagine being in a relationship with an artist, but never having been to a showing or seen her studio. A dancer, and having never seen her dance. An actress, but seldom attending her plays or viewing her movies. I seriously cannot imagine that. I think of myself as a writer. Yes, I have many other interests, but few where so much from so deep is on such open display. I don't think that person I'm speaking of could find her way to this blog without help. I doubt she's read half a dozen posts here in the last year. And those, early ones that I printed and asked her to. Eventually, I quit even that. A good friend and published author has said that he wouldn't want his significant other to read his fiction. I understand that. But this seems different. So, this lack of interest, or even studied avoidance, has been confusing to me.

Equally confusing has been a dynamic by which that person has subtly discouraged my interest in the things most important to her. It has felt as if by sharing something with me it is somehow tarnished. Only recently, through a series of epiphanies, have I finally come to believe I understand this phenomenon. What it boils down to, I think, is that my understanding and appreciating these things would allow the person I really am to impinge upon her mental construct of me. Wouldn't want that--reality endangering misconception.

The central epiphany was the realization that this person believed things about me that rather boggled my mind. Things that acquaintances found laughable and my best friends found ludicrous. Yet, a curiosity about myself that I'll touch more on below prompted me to go so far as to seek the opinion of a professional on at least one issue. Even at the cost of losing a client they concluded the issues I'd been accused of having simply weren't part of my constitution. And key here is that if they were, I wanted to know. I wanted those mines marked, removed, dismantled, disposed of.

That awareness of what someone else is seeing when they look at you can be both devastating and empowering. Devastating if your self-esteem is built predominantly on the esteem of others. In a functioning psyche, these two sources of our self-image are like a binary star system, always in play. Too much reliance on solely our own opinion of our actions can lead to maladjustment that's even criminal. But too much reliance on the opinions of others can leave us defenseless against the worst kinds of insecurities. And that truth is the other half of the reluctance to share those most important things. If my appreciating them would endanger misconceptions held dear, then equally dangerous is the chance I might not appreciate them, in which case my tastes would become not a judgment about whatever thing it was, or more accurately still, just my tastes, but about her for placing any value in the thing being considered.

Thus, insecurity, I'm concluding, is the most pernicious demon of all. A fire and forget weapon. A psychic landmine with a shelf life of forever. And a good therapist, I've come to realize, is really just a mental minesweeper. His or her job: find and mark, and eventually remove and disarm those bad-ass bouncing Betties someone sowed in a person's childhood. I think that's why I've always rather enjoyed the brief bouts of therapy that have followed one misadventure or another in my life. You learn the layouts of your own minefields. Initially, just knowing what fields or trails to avoid is enough. Then you learn how to navigate through even dangerous topics and situations. Eventually, if you're brave enough and persistent enough, you learn how to remove some of those mines entirely, to render them inert. The more you do this, the safer life becomes for you and for everyone around you. You become, if you're lucky, the kind of person who can even help others navigate, mark, and de-mine their own fields.

There is much here that I am going to miss. That's sad. Yet, there is much that I am not going to miss. That's sadder still. Perhaps first on that list is the telltale click that too frequently followed my best intended acts and signaled that lifting my foot would mean losing an emotional leg. The forests of Bosnia and fields of Cambodia are comparative playgrounds to the fields in which such a relationship is played out. It becomes a life constricted by those red and white rocks. Eventually, it becomes paralyzing.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Strings Through the Eye of a Ring

“He sketched for the sergeant a problematic career of the man before them, his hands drafting with a marvelous dexterity the shapes of what varied paths conspired here in the ultimate authority of the extant—as he told them—like strings drawn together through the eye of a ring” (Blood Meridian pg 84).
This quote came to mind tonight as I was thinking of the wonderful way in which so many different blogs connect through each of the blogs of their respective owners. Buck has a post up today of himself in Russian hat similar to mine. Jay dropped in and commented on the golf post below and next thing I knew I was learning the recipe for a new drink (which I will report on as soon as I procure more peppermint schnapps).

Finally, back in that same arena where I saw James Taylor a few months ago, I managed to make it out on the ice tonight for charity sake. I didn't mind that I fell once. What I wish hadn't happened is that I took out my date on the way down. The funniest part was lying there on the ice, looking over at my hand pinned between her and the ice and realizing I'd actually tried to catch her. It seemed like the gentlemanly thing to do. If you're going to knock a woman off her feet on the ice, the least you can do is offer any body part of your own that may cushion the fall. I don't think that hand helped a whole lot.

Interesting instance of convergence though: later at dinner, we ran into a couple with whom I ventured onto the ice three years ago--the only other time I've done so in the last four years. Just figure the odds. Life is strange that way.

All in all, a great evening, from ice skating to wine, dinner, unexpected meetings with old friends, and hours of smile-driven conversation that I was frighteningly disinclined to see end.

Blue skies! Doc.

Friday, December 28, 2007

No So Bright After All

Because Buzzard asked for it, here's what may have been the funniest post I sent from Bagram, almost five years ago:

Sent: Monday, January 06, 2003 8:06 AM
Subject: Day 71, Not so bright after all

It's official. I'm starting my TDY mustache today. A little late, true, but this is more by necessity than choice.

"You guys need anything else?"

"No, sir. You're good to go." A slight pause and a chuckle. "Do you need a flashlight?"

As I walked to the shower in the darkness tonight to take out my contacts, I was amazed by how much light that tiny little sliver of a moon was putting out. I could see my shadow. I could see the shadow of the sign in the middle of the path, the one with the big square plywood base and five-foot, four-by-four post with the "No Traffic!" sign nailed to the top of it. Go outside tonight and see for yourself, but give your eyes time to adjust. Mine had had plenty of time to adjust walking back from dinner. My night vision was great, on the way to the shower hut.

"I don't think you'll need any stitches, sir. The thing about cuts in that area is that they bleed like all get out."

"Tell me about it."

"We'll just clean it up and give you some bacitracin for it. Be careful shaving though, that's right on the edge there. Let me just wipe this blood off your face."

As soon as he starts wiping with the alcohol swab, I half chuckle, "That's not blood, that's a cut."

"How about this here on the tip of your nose."

"Ow. Yeah. Cut!" Chuckles all about.

Coming out of the brightly lit shower hut, my night vision was nonexistent. I couldn't see diddly. I stopped for just a second to get my bearings. Scanned my microlight quickly over the road immediately in front of me, then started forward. I remembered the sign, off to the right of my path. Couldn't be right in front of me because I could see the chem-lights tied to the gate ahead. You get used to navigating in the dark around here. You know where everything is, and if you can see light in the distance, you silhouette things as well. I was sure I was clear of the sign, because I could see those chem-lights, a hundred yards away. . . Five-foot sign; five-foot, six-inch eyeballs. One hundred eighty pounds or so of six-foot, one-inch pure stupidity planted firmly dead center on the front edge of the wide base, which, as luck would have it, was sitting a little off kilter on a rock, tilted the other way of course, so that the five-foot, four-by-four post now becomes a lever, like stepping on a garden rake, bearing the sign that says "No traffic!" at a rather high rate of speed, straight toward five-foot nose and upper lip just slightly below five-foot, six-inch eyeballs.

That'll stop you in your tracks, let me tell you. I stood there for a few seconds, not quite sure whether I was going to keep standing or pass out. Glasses akilter. Wondering how many teeth I'd just lost. Even I had to chuckle when I thought about what that must have looked like, had anyone been watching through night-vision goggles. Then I began to feel the warm trickle down over my lips. I regained my balance, leaned forward so that the dripping blood would miss my DCUs and found my way back to the shower hut. Inside I dripped a path over to the sink where I could see my lip already swelling. The gash below my nose looked wide and deep. "Beauty," I thought. I leaned dripping over the sink, wet a towel and staunched the flow, and decided to head to the hospital to see how many stitches I'd need. When I walked in, still holding pressure on the gash below my nose, I said, "Is this where you come to apply for the dumbass award? I think I'm pretty much a shoe-in."

No stitches, it turns out. I'd laugh at myself, but it hurts to smile.

And that is why I look so damned serious in any photos taken of me that second week of January, 2003.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

The Situation, Man, The Situation!

Nothing really tweaked my beak today, so I decided to reach back into a bag of old things I sent a few years ago from a little country we all but owned at the time. The more we give it back, the more dangerous it gets, but that's the way of these things.

Here, from that deployment, is a little account I penned the day after Christmas, of a holiday surreal enough to trump even this one.


It's been very quiet here today--as if all the people at higher headquarters who had to justify their going in to work on the holy day itself by bothering us with stupid questions finally decided to take a day off. Fewer than half a dozen (as opposed to several dozen) e-mails. No phone calls to compare with yesterday [Christmas Day]. Let me replay one for you, without any exaggeration:

Field phone: "Ring, ring"

Me: "CJTF One-eighty, CJ Four, LtCol _, unsecure line."

Idiot at the Pentagon: "Col _, this is the Army G-4 shop. I'm calling on behalf of General _, sir. I wonder," in a somewhat hushed tone, "if you can tell me if the situation at Bagram is still the same."

"The situation?"

"Yes. The situation at Bagram."

Now at this point my mind is racing. In the last week, we've had an F-16 run off the end of the runway after the pilot ejected at the last minute, and until yesterday, it sat in a minefield while we cleared a path to it (11 mines delicately removed--the wheels missed one by inches), downloaded its ordnance and fuel, then slung it out under a Chinook. Two nights ago we had a C-130 do a landing, which, technically I think, met the USAFA Contrails definition of a crash, to wit: "a landing in which the vertical velocity is so great and the time spent in reducing it to zero is so small that the resulting forces are large enough to cause structural failure."

No one was hurt, but when the aircraft came to a stop it was half on, half off the runway, about midway down, with only the two nose gear tires still inflated. The air smelled of burned rubber for an hour. Result: runway now closed just as Dave's flight is getting ready to come our way from Kandahar. And that is why David Letterman really never made it to Bagram.

There have been numerous issues that I can't discuss here. All of which, however, seemed strangely normal for a war zone, so I had my pick of "situations" to choose from--some new, some old, some resolved, some disgustingly the same. Back to Col Flagg (wasn't that the spook in MASH?) and "the situation at Bagram" . . .

Finally, fed up in general with folks back in the states who could and should be in their homes with their families instead of bothering us to justify their need to come to the office, I answered: "Well, it's still the same. Bagram's still situated in Afghanistan about 26 miles northwest of Kabul." I swear. That's exactly what I said.

"No. No!" he said with some urgency, "the situation, the SITUATION at Bagram."

"Hold on a minute," I said. Then with my hand over the receiver I asked the three other people manning my tent section on this sunny Christmas afternoon, "Does anyone in here have any idea what SITUATION the Pentagon might be calling about? Is there something new going on I haven't heard about yet?"

"Do what?" "The situation?" "Who?" "Beats me." "You've got to be kidding." etc.

I turned back to the phone. "No one here has the slightest idea what you're talking about."

"The SITUATION, sir, at BAGRAM," then finally, exasperated, firing the words out as quickly and softly as possible, as if whispering them at high speed might make them somehow less intelligible to any enemy listening in, "IstherunwayatBagramstillclosedtoone-thirties?"

"Why don't you call me back at _. Out." And I hung up. I didn't really care whether he'd had time to copy down the number to the secure line or not. In fact, I rather hoped he hadn't. First, it's good to be a LtCol. You outrank most of the people in the military. Second, if I turned out not to outrank him, I still didn't need to worry too much, as my chain of command doesn't really run up Army channels, even here, and I could always turn the tables on this idiot for beginning a conversation with the assumption that the topic shouldn't be discussed in the clear and then changing his mind. It would have been a simple thing to ask for a number to call back on to go secure. I had visions of Col Flagg cornering Hawkeye in a tent and repeating, "The situation, damn it man, the situation."

Oh lord, did the Air Force gang have a good laugh last night.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Merry Christmas

And while there's still a little of it left, Merry Christmas to you all.


My sister was telling me tonight that one of my nephews has a goose egg on his forehead "the size of a walnut! I've never seen anything like it." I don't think they were even able to determine definitively what bonked him. She knows when it happened--loud noise, short silence while child takes first deep breath, or two, or even three, then the really serious cry--but not the exact mechanics of it.

She's out there on the east coast, I'm here in the Rockies, but I know what that goose egg looks like. And not because I can remember the time my oldest daughter decided to spin in circles until she was giggling and dizzy, and then not giggling anymore after the face plant into the corner of the steel shower stall in her grandparents' bathroom. That's not why I know what the goose egg looks like. No. She looked like a Klingon. She dead centered the vertical edge of the shower stall on her own two- or three-year-old forehead and ended up, not with a goose egg, but with a ridge from her nose to her hairline. After we got over the guilt that every parent feels every time their child stubs a toe, we had a pretty good laugh. All we needed was a Star Trek convention and we'd have been set.

No, I know what that goose egg on my nephew's forehead looks like because, I kid you not, I thought I'd killed a man with a golf ball once.

Back around 1989, I was playing a course in the Central Valley of California (the Big Valley of TV fame) with several other guys from my office. For 16 holes there hadn't been a soul in front of us. Maybe it was one of those days when the fog was so thick that you'd hit the ball and then three guys watching would all shrug and say, "Not a clue," and the guy who hit it would say, "Felt like the middle of the fairway," and you'd just start walking into the fog and hope. But if it began that way, it was clear by the time we reached Number 17, about a 160-yard par four, water to the left, and vineyard and out-of-bounds to the right.

I was having a pretty good round, and having won the previous hole, I teed up first and cut loose with a solid 7-iron. It flew nice and high and felt like it would have about the right distance, but as soon as I looked up, I knew I'd pulled it enough left to miss the green. Then, all three of the other guys, at the same time, yelled "FORE!" "What?" I said. Remember, there had been no one in front of us all day, and I'd seen no one on the green when I teed up. But looking now to the area left of the green where I knew my ball was coming down, I saw a single man standing near a tree. "FORE!" I echoed.

At that point, that man did the unthinkable. He looked up. The ball hit him square in the head, knocking off a John Deere ball cap. I doubt he ever saw it coming. Probably the brim of the cap kept him from seeing it. I will never forget the sound--like striking a tree trunk with an axe handle. By the time the sound reached us, he'd already raised both arms over his head in precisely the move that might have protected him had he done it a few seconds sooner. As it turned out, the move wasn't entirely futile. A second later, he dropped straight down to both knees, then he pitched forward, face down, into the grass, falling into the elbows now sheltering his face. Then, he didn't move.

We were all running, covering the distance of that fairway in a chorus of "Oh shit"s and "F**k me to tears!" and "Jesus Christ Almighty"s. As we got there and formed a circle around him, he still hadn't moved. He lay face down in the grass, his face resting in the crooks of his elbows, the palms of his hands laying on the back of his head. Just as one of my partners was about to start the sprint to the clubhouse to call an ambulance, the man moaned, then began to draw up his knees and then to stand up, against all our protests.

"What happened?" he asked. "I remember somebody yelling 'Fore!' and I remember looking up and I heard the ball hit the tree and then everything went black."

"Mister, that wasn't the tree you heard the ball hit; that was your skull!" I said, fighting back nervous laughter. And as I said it, two other guys whistled simultaneously and the third simply said, his voice tinged with what could only be termed awe, "Holy shit! I've never seen a knot like that in my life!" More than three minutes couldn't have passed since the ball made contact with this 70-year-old's skull, yet, I swear to you, it looked as though some plastic surgeon had lifted the skin of his forehead, tucked a golf ball under it, then stretched everything back down leaving no obvious point of insertion. I wouldn't even have imagined that skin could stretch like that.

"Mister you'd better let us call you an ambulance, or at least let us call your family to come get you."

"I'm fine." He protested. "I just live right over here in the trailer park. I came over to putt some balls because nobody seemed to be playing today. I'll be fine. Somebody got my cap?"

Someone handed him the green and yellow cap and in a move that made all four of us cringe, he hooked the back of it behind his head and holding it by the bill, screwed the cap left and right as he worked to pull the front part down over that skin-covered golf ball like he didn't feel a thing. I was frankly surprised he could get the cap on.

"I'd feel a whole lot better if you'd let us call somebody," I said. But he was having none of it.

"Ya'll have a good day," he said. "I'll be fine. I just live right over here. Ya'll go on now." And with that, he walked off.

We walked back to the tee, played that hole and the next and went on with our lives. Mostly.

For the next week, I nervously checked the local news and obituaries every day, half dreading to read that some old guy in the trailer park had been taken delirious or worse from his trailer with a knot on his head the authorities couldn't explain.

So, knot the size of a walnut? Add a Titleist dimple pattern imprinted on the skin and I know exactly what that looks like.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Better to Give than Receive? Shopdropping & Secret Santas


Here's an interesting thing to be on the lookout for: "shopdropping." I'd never heard of it before a short article in this morning's paper, but I can easily imagine the appeal to the right groups:

Otherwise known as reverse shoplifting, shopdropping involves surreptitiously putting things in stores, rather than illegally taking them out, and the motivations vary.

Anti-consumerist artists slip replica products packaged with political messages onto shelves while religious proselytizers insert pamphlets between the pages of gay and lesbian readings at bookstores.

Self-published authors sneak their works into the “new releases” section; personal trainers put their business cards into weight-loss books; and aspiring professional photographers make homemade cards — their Web site address included, of course — and covertly plant them in sta- tionery-store racks.
Just fascinating. Wikipedia apparently considers it a subset of "Culture Jamming."

Secret Santa Lives On

In a better example (value judgment intentionally implied) of the meaning behind the axiom that titles this post, Dave Ramsey, on today's show, interviewed a successor to Larry Stewart as the Secret Santa. In many ways, Stewart's practice, as I understand it, captured at least the initial element (the performance of an unsolicited act of generosity or kindness) of the idea inherent in "Pay It Forward," a concept at least as old as our nation (see Wikipedia's citation of Benjamin Franklin as one originator) and popularized through Catherine Ryan Hyde's novel, published in 2000. The novel was made into a movie by Warner Brothers. The ideas of the novel find continuing promotion through the Pay It Forward Foundation.

Returning to the idea's more seasonal manifestation, the Secret Santa World homepage offers the following explanation of why these particular elves do what they do:
The compassion shared from one spontaneous random act of kindness is elevating, priceless and not easily explained. It is an instant connection between souls that can change a life forever. This is the experience of being a Secret Santa. Being a Secret Santa has blessings beyond words.
If you're interested, you can find more information on the Secret Santa program at

Don't Almost Give

Lastly, if you're not up to donning a Santa suit and can't afford to give away $100 bills to strangers, but you would like to find a way to give something to those in need, during this season and throughout the year, one more organization has been pretty vocal lately, at least in this area, with a series of radio ads that mildly irritate me with their blatant dose of guilt; yet, they did inspire me to visit the website while this post had me on the topic. The Don't Almost Give web site provides a wealth of suggestions for how almost anyone can get involved through volunteering in something of particular interest to them. It's worth a visit.

And while you're there, you can view/hear some of the "Public Service Announcements" and decide for yourself if they're hitting below the belt, or if the end, in this case at least, justifies the means. I'd be interested to hear, through comments on this post, what others think.

Merry Christmas to you all.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

The Service Gap; One Clerk Too Many; The Most Important Job You'll Ever Have

Everything I know about service, I learned as a teenager, from my father and grandfather, working in our family store. I mean that literally. I can't think of a single thing I've learned since. I've been reminded of one thing or another over the years, but always with the reaction, "Oh yeah, I knew that."

Greet the customer when they walk through the door. Smile and say hello. Always ask if you can help them find something--even the folks you know probably know the store better than you. If you don't know the answer, tell them you'll find out--and do. If you're busy with something at the moment that you can't stop, acknowledge their presence and tell them you'll be right with them--people will wait patiently longer than you would think possible so long as they know you're aware of their existence. There is always something to do--stock shelves, pull items to the front, dust, sweep, put away carts, clean windows--in most service industries, you are paid for your time, not the tasks you accomplish; the sooner you learn this, the more valuable you will be. Employers, whether you know it or not, are constantly keeping tabs on what your time is worth versus your co-workers. And finally, the customer is always right.

The nuances of that last one are hard for many to grasp. Someone gives you a five, and as you count their change, they protest that they gave you a ten. Maybe you're dead certain it was a five. Maybe you're certain they're merely confused, or maybe you're certain they're scamming you. You have only one question to answer: Do you want them to continue to be a customer? If yes, then they're right--no questions asked. If no, then the rule that ended the last paragraph doesn't apply anyway does it? The awareness is key. You need to be aware that contradicting them, sticking to your guns on that five spot, may very well mean they're no longer a customer. Is it worth five bucks? Not likely. That applies to almost any situation where you and your customer may disagree. Giving in may cost a little in the short run from time to time, but it will almost always pay dividends in the long haul. This rule was the beginning, I think, of my awareness that truth will often fight its own battles, and that allowing it do so, after you've stated it quietly and clearly (see the previous post on Prof Kirkpatrick), will almost always raise your estimation in the other person's eyes far above what your skills at debate might. The next time you disagree, they will remember the outcome, and they will give your words more weight. If they don't, then they are simply slow learners and their opinion of you should have no bearing on your opinion of yourself.

The Service Gap

What, you may be wondering, got me started before I'd even finished my second cup of coffee this morning? An article on the front page of today's Gazette put a name to a frustration I and others have been experiencing more and more lately: "the Service Gap."

If you’re older than 50, you’ve probably had this experience:

You’re standing at a checkout counter, ready to pay, and the twentysomething behind the register is talking on her cell phone. So you wait, and wait, and wait, and when the clerk finally finishes her conversation, she offers not an apology, but a grimace that suggests you’ve interrupted.

Sound familiar? It has a name: the Service Gap. It’s business-speak to describe a phenomenon fueling plenty of holiday-shopping frustration: the difference in the way baby boomers and members of the “millennial generation” define the concept of customer service.
I disagree with just one thing. I think this has little to do with differences in definition. I think the clerks we're talking about here, the frustrating ones, have simply never been introduced to the concept at all.

This disagreement extends to the article itself. There are older persons quoted, both consumers and managers alike, who seem to blame it on the younger generation as a whole. Then there are hard working younger folk who disagree:
“They’re clueless,” said Franni Segal, 55, a travel agent with a degree in retailing. “They’re more interested in talking to their friends.”

When she was in her 20s, working on commission as an assistant manager at Bonwit Teller, she recalled, she and her colleagues eagerly courted customers. “Today when you go into a store, they’re not interested in your needs . . . With the kind of service you get now, you might as well be on the Internet.”

But Sarah Collier, a 20-yearold Arcadia University junior who has worked in retail sales, said she thought her peers’ customer-service skills depended on their background and training, not their age.

“I don’t think it’s necessarily the entire generation. I think it’s just the individual,” said Collier, a hard worker who now sells time-share vacations for a Poconos resort. “I know how to give good customer service.”
Folks, Franni should just retire now. Sarah is going places. Sarah is going places for at least two reasons. First, if she's right and she does give good customer service, then she has a leg up on many of her peers. Second, her attitude recognizes that the Service Gap is fixable--Franni's fatalism is damning. I'll hire Sarah to supervise Franni in a heartbeat. Sarah will train her peers. Franni will just whine in the break room about how "untrainable" Sarah's peers are.

Franni has lots of company though. The world is full of whiners and fixers. The whiners drag us all down; the fixers help make it a better place.

My world is no different. I work at an institution of higher learning that likes to bill itself as "The nation's premier institution for developing leaders of character." Every program, every class, every activity gets examined for, must justify its existence through, its contribution to that goal. The problem with placing such intense focus on programs, classes, and activities through this "lens" of character development is that we lose sight of the most important factor of all: the people holding the lens. Leadership suffers from a belief that if we just keep raising the lens itself to the status of holy touchstone, and keep tweaking the programs under finer and finer focus, then eventually we'll get the output we desire: "leaders of character." Sorry. It will never work that way.

Leaders of character are molded through example and correction. All those classes and programs and activities matter, but they mean nothing without daily exposure to the right examples and daily correction and explanation of why what matters, matters. It takes me twice as long to walk across our campus as anyone else I know. Why? Because I am busy, as I walk, teaching. A salute is not a thing to be rendered silently. Proper courtesy demands that it be rendered with "an appropriate greeting." Being absorbed in your own thoughts or in a conversation to the point that you don't notice an approaching or passing officer is not okay. Lack of situational awareness in battle or flight will get you killed. The same lack, crossing my path, will simply get you an opportunity to have a conversation with someone much your senior.

Does that make me an ass? William Withers, "a communications professor at Wartburg College in Iowa who, with his colleague Patrick Langan, has spent years studying customer service," would argue that it does:
What’s the answer for peeved holiday shoppers?

Adjust your expectations — down, Withers said. Or be willing to pay more to shop and dine at establishments that have the time, interest and money to train their employees.

Nobody should waste their breath berating a young clerk or waiter, he said.

“Calling over the manager isn’t going to matter,” Withers said. “The server may still not look you in face. And they’ll be texting their friends about what an ass you are.”
Well, yes, if my conversation with these future leaders or current clerks took the form of "berating" then I would have to agree, even I would look in the mirror and see an ass. But as the candles on my birthday cakes more and more resemble a small bonfire and as the testosterone levels in my blood taper off, I find myself finally able to have conversations with clerks and cadets alike where my vocal cords don't tighten, my blood pressure doesn't change, and in consequence, my young charges defenses don't immediately swing to red alert. A significant factor in that capability rests in recognizing that the problem doesn't lie in the person, as fatalists like Franni would have us believe, or in the culture, as Withers would have us believe. We are the culture. We make it.

Culture is shaped by our own expectations and what we are willing to accept. If we follow Withers' advice and adjust our expectations down, then culture will head the same way, down. Is there anyone who believes that minimized human contact and interaction is an improvement? That interfacing with is preferable to the smiling face and twinkling eyes of the young clerk who made my eggnog latte the other morning and asked how my day was going? Maybe she really cared; maybe she didn't. Maybe she watches Rules of Engagement and took a lesson from the waitress at the corner diner who rebuffed Adam's hilarious rejection by telling him, "I'm a waitress. I work for tips. I flirt with all my customers." I tipped my barista well. If you tip servers who give you gruff service (the rules are different in NYC, I know, which is why I hope I never live there), then for God's sake, stop it! You're in the same class with those other officers who walk across my campus or through the halls of my institution and plop into a chair in the break room and complain about how cadets never greet them properly any more. "What did you do about it?" I ask. "What do you mean?" is the response I get.

Do something! Don't be willing to accept poor service. Do talk to the clerk, nicely, if you're the kind of person who can. Talk to the manager if you're not the kind of person who can talk to the clerk without feeling like an ass. If you're not the kind of person who can do either, or if you talk to the manager and get a blank stare, then talk with your feet and shop elsewhere. But don't complain and do nothing. You have the power to change your world. Use it. Whining just drags mine down too.

Listening to people complain is actually my job these days. It's not just tolerable; I even like it. Why? Because it doesn't stop with listening. If the injustice is real (and it isn't always), I get to fix things or to help people through the steps of fixing things themselves. Give a man a fish vs teach a man to fish. Sometimes the fish is a whale, sometimes a shark. That's okay too. I have a rack of harpoons. But, as usual, I digress . . .

One Clerk Too Many

Two final thoughts, mostly for whatever young readers I might have, beginning their journey through the world of employment, whatever form it may take. First, one of the best lessons my grandfather ever taught me in that family store came one day when I was leaning against the soda box chatting it up with a classmate that Grandpa had hired (probably against his better judgment because he would have anticipated exactly the scene before him). He came over to us and said simply, "You know, when I was a young man working in a shop over in town, I was talking to another clerk one day when the owner came over, looked at us both, and said simply, 'You know, I was told long ago, if you've got two clerks talking to each other, you've got one clerk too many.'" Grandpa walked away. Keith and I found work to do. I never forgot that line and all that it conveyed.

The Most Important Job You'll Ever Have

Lastly, I lied, when I said everything I learned about service was learned in that store. At some point after I'd left to don the uniform I still wear, I did pick up one other line that has stuck and is worth repeating here. Either as a cadet or as a young butter bar, I must have complained about the futility of some Mickey Mouse "additional duty" I had been assigned--pubs monitor, unit historian, who knows. "Let me tell you something," the mentor had said, "the most important job you will ever have is the job you have right now." Clichéd? Maybe, but I think not. By definition, a cliché has "lost originality, ingenuity, and impact by long overuse." That particular little nugget of wisdom, it seems to me, isn't used enough. It may even be that it needs explanation here, but I think I'll just let it simmer. You either get it or you don't. And in a society where "authorities" like Withers would argue that our disappointment is a result of unrealistic expectations rather than lackadaisical performance, maybe it's not useful anymore in society as a whole.

I can only tell you this. It's been useful for me. It was useful for my grandfather and father before me. I hope it will be useful for my daughters. And it will damned sure be useful for anyone who ever works for me.

“I’m not seeing the Service Gap,” said Susan Magee, an adjunct professor at Chestnut Hill College who has studied the millennial generation. “I just think they’re kids.”

Remember, she said, it’s the holiday season, and store clerks of all ages are busy and stressed like everyone else. “I think at Christmas, if the person can manage to say, ‘Hi,’ get my item in the bag, and not forget my gift receipt, I’m satisfied.”
She's right and she's wrong. They are just kids. No one is born knowing what customer service is. But if we're willing to accept poor service and call ourselves "satisfied," nothing is likely to get better. The world and the people in it have a way of living up to or down to our expectations. I'm pretty sure that's what The Secret is all about, albeit centered on our expectations for ourselves. It works that way for others too. By expecting more of them, you can help them become better. What's difficult to master is the subtle difference between expecting things to be better from the outset and finding them so versus thinking they should be but not being surprised that they aren't. There's your homework. Good luck.

Update: Here's a link to the original article by Jeff Gammage, published in The Philadelphia Inquirer on 20 Dec. All block quotes above are from that article.

Robert Galloway Kirkpatrick Jr.

In the course of attempting to find the proper term for the phrase, "These aren't the droids you're looking for," Barry (over at Enrevanche) and I discovered a common friend in our past. Friend, teacher, and mentor. Robert Galloway Kirkpatrick Jr's name appears on the title page of my bound MA thesis in the library of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill because if there is much value in it, he is largely responsible for it. And I have to say that he is largely responsible for more than that in whatever I may ever have contributed to any classroom in which I sat facing students.

Barry happened to witness our old teacher in what wouldn't even have been an atypical moment, as his quiet good sense reduced Bill O'Reilly to not much more than sputters. He was, in my recollection, one of the finest examples I've ever seen of the effectiveness of simply allowing the truth to do its own work against falsehood and wrong-headedness. The transcript of that exchange is available here, but I'll warn you that the hosting site is, rather sadly, on the side of O'Reilly, and posted the transcript by way of rebutting a Washington Post article (the link for which seems to have expired) that itself is written in admiration of Professor Kirkpatrick's exchange with the talk show host.

One of my own favorite memories of the man (and there are plenty to choose from) comes from a conversation we had one day, over lunch in the shaded courtyard of his Chapel Hill home, during a pause from the detailed attention he gave my thesis from start to finish. We were talking about the wonder of children's acquisition of language and he used a recent example from his own life to illustrate how idioms work, being constructions whose meaning is markedly different from what the literal meaning of the words might imply to a non-native or very young speaker.

The example centered around a recent train trip he had taken with his family, and while I'm sure I won't remember it perfectly, I think I can convey the gist. As the time to board the train approached, he had sensed the growing nervousness of his young son. He reported that when he finally pressed the young man as to the cause of his growing apprehension, the answer created one of those indelible memories that form the center of family stories to be told and retold, and also gave him an important insight into the nature of idioms. "If we're going to ride on the train," his son asked, "how will we get up there and what will keep us from falling off?"

I was deeply saddened to hear of his passing three years ago. 64 seems young to me now. If there is one thing abundantly clear in the recollections of him published in the faculty newsletter and the campus newspaper, it is that he touched every life he encountered with a depth that was rare and very nearly universal. I wouldn't even be surprised to find that, after a little time, the professor's words sank in through even Bill O'Reilly's professionally thick skull. Quiet truths, meticulously laid out and supported, have a way of doing that. And that, in itself, is probably one of the most important things I ever learned from Professor Kirkpatrick.

That, and how to make a really, really good tuna salad sandwich.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Firefox Browser

The reaction to this post from a number of my friends is going to be, "What took you so long?" I feel like one of those characters in a movie who resists and resists and resists assimilation, only to learn that life is actually a whole lot better once you yield and become part of the hive. The hive, in this case, is composed of folks who've already woken up and moved from Internet Explorer (IE) (any version) to Mozilla's Firefox browser. Last night, after it took me hours in IE6 to compose a simple post that should have been a half hour's work, I made the switch.

IE had this nasty habit of taking forever to load most pages. I'm running cable at about twice T1 speeds (you can check your speed here), so I wasn't buying that it was my internet connection. And every time I loaded a YouTube video, CPU usage would go to about 100% and stay there, even after I'd closed the video, even after I'd closed the video page. Only way to get my processor back? Shut down IE completely and re-open. That's a serious pain if you're putting together a blog post with links to any video. I typically work with a half dozen browser tabs open at once. Save the blog draft, close all open browser windows, log in again (which I also no longer have to do, since "remember me" finally functions).

I've been using Firefox for just under 24 hours now. I'm happier than a kid on Christmas morning. So to all of you holding out, come on in, the water's fine. All my favorites are still there. Learning to do the same things with Firefox that I was able to do with IE6 took all of about five minutes--about the same time as re-opening windows after one IE6 brain seizure.

My only regret: that it took me so long to switch.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Andy McKee, "The Friend I Never Met"

While we're on the topic of music . . .

There were a couple great discoveries in my life today. The first was that I work side by side, every day, with one very talented musician. For months we've toiled together at righting wrongs, answering queries from inside the beltline, making life better for some, ending careers for others, and now and then explaining to people that nowhere in our job description does it say anything about protecting them from the justifiable consequences of their own poor judgement. It's only half in jest that people say IG's have no friends. But I digress . . .

Just yesterday, for some reason or other, I ended up introducing my co-worker to this blog, explaining that, for the most part, what I do with my ever dwindling spare time is write, here and elsewhere. This morning, when I arrived at work, he'd brought something to share in return: a CD of tracks he'd laid down at home. Turns out he plays just about anything, and his oldest son and friends sing. I ripped all eight tracks to my computer and let them play most of the day. You can even hear some of them for yourself at his MySpace page. It never fails to amaze me the talent that can surround us without our ever knowing.

The finding out, and the discussion that ensued, led to today's second cool discovery for me. At some point, we were talking about musical experimentation, and he mentioned trying alternative tunings on his acoustic guitar. I asked if he were familiar with Michael Hedges. Of course he was, and he asked if I were familiar with Andy McKee's "Drifting." As he began to describe it, I recognized it as a video a friend had sent me a link to a few months ago. Turns out my co-worker is working on learning that piece himself. To quote Keanu: "Whoa!"

So tonight, I looked the piece up on YouTube again. For about the next hour or so, I ran through most of the Andy McKee offerings there. Candyrat Records understands viral marketing. Owner Rob Poland posts high quality videos, lots of them, of Andy doing his thing. I will own several Andy McKee CDs very soon. For more than a quarter of a century, I've been a Michael Hedges fan. The video at the bottom of this post, "The Friend I Never Met," is McKee's tribute to Hedges.

I never actually met Hedges, but I did see him in concert. It was sometime between 1989 and 1991, and it was in the auditorium at UNC Chapel Hill. It was every bit as awesome as you would expect it to be. And though it was at least 16 years ago, Hedges gave our family a phrase that we've been using ever since. Mid-show he took a quick break to down a carrot juice on stage, following it immediately with a can of Coca Cola. His explanation, grinning, "It takes the purity edge off." And that's been our excuse ever since whenever the person having the tofu for lunch reaches over and snags a fry; or when standing on a Colorado hilltop, watching the sun set from well above any hovering smog I pull a cigar from my jacket pocket. You get the idea. "Helps take the purity edge off." Once you get the hang of it, you'll find it's a phrase that comes in handy to explain a lot. You can thank Michael Hedges. But, I digress again . . .

McKee is, quite simply, a rather incredible guitarist. And although Hedges had died in a car crash a few years prior to McKee's coming into his own, I think McKee is quite right to think of Hedges as "The Friend I Never Met."

In keeping with the theme of yesterday's post, and the post elsewhere that inspired it, I think the following exchange from an interview with McKee, conducted by (it's not a link, and I don't suggest trying to enter it as a direct URL because it's crashed my browser three times now), and published on the bio page from McKee's own website, does a pretty good job of capturing, from the musician's point of view, that mnemonic quality we've been talking about here and over at Enrevanche.

IC: Do you have any advice for aspiring young guitarists who want to make a living as a musician? (Other than, “upload some songs to YouTube!”)

McKee: Well, I actually just posted a blog on my Myspace page yesterday about this topic. The main point of that blog was to remind guitar players to not get caught up in the technical aspects of music. It's a good idea to try and become fairly skilled with your instrument of choice, but don't let it be your focus. If you are going to begin writing music, don't focus on the accuracy of your sweep picking, the speed of your alternate picking, or the skill involved in your tapping. Unless you want to write music that only appeals to other guitarists, then that's fine. But if you want to really touch people with your writing, your focus should be on expressing something to your listener. Something they will feel. That's what music is about.
So, without further ado, I give you a video, only one of many available over on YouTube, of Andy McKee, playing "The Friend I Never Met."

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Of Authors, Readers, Music, & Memory

I've noticed something of late: it's the more personal entries on this blog that seem to spike the readership. I find that fascinating and about 180 degrees out from what I expected. I had thought that it would be the posts on more current events or movies or some such, but no; it's when some single current event inspires a more original meditation that suddenly the number of hits tracked by Google Analytics spikes. And I'm beginning to understand why.

Over at Enrevanche, Barry's posted a riff on "Music as a trigger for memory." Though the list of blogs I read on a daily basis has slowly grown, it's still pretty small. But reading daily and being really moved by what you read are two different things. I was reminded by Barry's post on music and memory that it was my cousin's ability to sometimes strike a genuine chord in my own soul that attracted me to his blog in the first place, and it was his blog that eventually inspired me to crank this one up.

So, I'm going to guess that this is really how those spikes occur. We can get news of current events anywhere. But it's the human connection we feel when someone who writes on a daily basis manages to put into words, sometimes better than we could find on our own, something that we feel about those events. I've said all along, as an English professor, that the authors we're attracted to are those who can describe what we've felt or thought all along, but better than we ever hoped to. That's why I love Cormac McCarthy and someone else loves Rod McKuen. Same for blogs, I'm learning. It takes a while for a blog to find its own audience. What I'm becoming aware of though is that my audience, however small or large it may be, mostly isn't here for links to news or even other cool things on the web. Guys like Glenn Reynolds pretty much have that covered. More power to them. It's not what I created this space to do anyway. The point is, recent trends in hit tracking seem to indicate that what I did create this space to do has more validity than I'd realized. I'll try to blog with more consciousness of that in the future.

Meanwhile, pay that blog entry of Barry's a visit. It's worth the read. And be sure to take in the comments too. Here, for what it's worth, is an excerpt from mine:

Chap & Barry: I have to say, "the fullness of deep and involuntary memory" and "memory, like vinyl, has grooves that wear out" actually make pretty good bookends, though I have to say that I think the mechanism functions in reverse--the grooves of memory, unlike vinyl, are kept fresh by use. It's more like their sides melt into one another if the needle of remembrance doesn't pass through them from time to time. Best entry in a while, Barry. Thanks.

As for music, I've no doubt Barry has been my most faithful reader from day one, so I'm sure you'll remember "Adagio for Strings" back in September, about a pretty much similar topic. More apropos though is the passing of Dan Fogelberg last Sunday. Two nights ago I went to sleep with pretty much all my Fogelberg in the playlist, piping in through earbuds. What I remembered was why I don't listen to him that much any more. I remember too much when I do, and too much of what I remember is too laden with regret to be good for me. Again, beautiful post, Barry. Thanks.
And I don't say this very often, but if you are reading this blog, then thanks. And if you're getting anything out of it, feel free to leave a comment now and then. Blogging is largely an exercise in Narcissism anyway, but it's still done with an awareness of an audience, and it's nice to hear from that audience from time to time. In some ways, a blog and its comments is the ultimate expression of reader-response theory, so, jump on in there.

Cayenne Pepper

I couldn't resist.

Your Score: Cayenne Pepper

You scored 75% intoxication, 75% hotness, 75% complexity, and 50% craziness!

You are Cayenne! You're known for your dry wit, saucy remarks, and ability to stimulate (take that however you want). People in hot climates like you for your ability to make them sweat, but you're also quite good for people all over the world. Just don't mention your cousin, deadly nightshade.

Link: The Which Spice Are You Test written by jodiesattva on OkCupid Free Online Dating, home of the The Dating Persona Test
Of course, I'm not sure about that whole cousin comment at the end. I could have sworn Barry was Saffron.

What spice are you?

The Golden Compass

Just came from seeing this movie with my daughter, home from college for the holidays.

The local paper wasn't that kind to it, but this is the hometown of the Magisterium. On the reviewer's behalf though, I have to say that they were pretty well-balanced and accurate in what they had to say. The main objections had to do with depth of character and coherence of storyline. I think, though, that maybe the author of that review may have actually been hampered by having read Philip Pulman's book, The Northern Lights, and therefore knowing more than was good for him. That review did not raise the sorts of objections that the Vatican did, as summarized in an E! Online article today:

"Hope simply does not exist" in the world created by British author Philip Pullman, read part of a long editorial printed Wednesday in the Vatican newspaper l'Osservatore Romano, in which the Roman-Catholic body takes the big-screen adaptation of Pullman's fantasy novel The Northern Lights to task.

Quite the contrary, the local review, over a week ago now, pointed out that much of the book's anti-religious rhetoric had been toned down for the movie. I can only say that if what I saw was toned down, I can hardly imagine what a full frontal assault would have looked like.

Issues of dogma and anti-dogma aside, it's not a bad movie if you need an escape. A little overly melodramatic in places. At least once, I did wish Sam Elliott would just go ahead and French kiss the bear and get it over with (if you see it, you'll know the moment), but all in all, it was a good escape for a couple of hours. The willing suspension of disbelief didn't require enough effort to be distracting. I guess I'd give it a B/B-.

Oh, but whatever you do, hang around for five minutes or so of credits. At least enough so that you get to hear the song at the end. A good mile from the theater we were still laughing at the song. And it wasn't meant to be funny. Britney Spears probably wrote better lyrics in kindergarten. So, if you need a good laugh, don't be the first ones out of the theater, whatever you may have thought of the show.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The Future is Now

With digital billboards, police can now display a suspect's face to thousands of people, sometimes almost immediately after a crime is reported.

"We can be up in 15 minutes" of getting a suspect's photo, said Troy Tatum, general manager of Lamar Advertising, the Baton Rouge, Louisiana-based company that provided free use of the billboards in Mobile as a public service.

Back in August, I commented on the how rapidly science fiction becomes reality these days. In that post, I cited the movie Minority Report as being particularly prescient with regard to some aspects of our future.

This recent article from on the successful use of digital billboards as wanted posters is just one more illustration of how rapidly such "futuristic" concepts from recent films have become reality.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Dan Fogelberg, Dead at 56

And just like that, the world becomes a poorer place.

Photo from

If James Taylor was one half of the soundtrack of my young life, then Dan Fogelberg may well have been the other half. One thing Fogelberg had in common with JT was that he sounded much the same in a solo acoustic setting as in a studio production. There are few artists of whom that can be said. He was very definitely one.

I recently put together a compilation that I thought pretty much summed up my life this fall. Two Fogelberg tunes made the list: "Souvenirs" and "There's a Place in the World a Gambler." (I left off "Dancing Shoes." That song has more meaning to me than I can bear.)

Most of the news coverage I've read today has consistently mentioned "Leader of the Band" and "Same Old Lang Syne" as two of his best known works. I'm sure though, that for at least a while in the mid-80's, "Longer" would easily have made a list of top ten wedding songs.

It's sad to think that he's gone. I would be remiss, if I failed to include here a link to his personal message to the rest of us men about getting checked regularly for the disease that killed him.

Here, for anyone not familiar with his music, are two selections from YouTube. Just Dan, a guitar, a microphone, and an audience. Enjoy.

"Leader of the Band"

"Believe in Me"

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Which Way Does Your Head Spin?

A more important question than, "How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?" may be "Which way would they spin while they danced?"

The image below, like so many other optical challenges, can be seen as spinning either way. Which way you see it, according to the source I lifted it from, says something discernible about how your brain works (see below).

The following text is lifted from The D-Ring:
The Right Brain vs Left Brain test … do you see the dancer turning clockwise or counter-clockwise?

If clockwise, then you use more of the right side of the brain and vice versa.

Most of people see the dancer turning counter-clockwise though you can try to focus and change the direction; see if you can do it.

uses logic
detail oriented
facts rule
words and language
present and past
math and science
can comprehend
order/pattern perception
knows object name
reality based
forms strategies
uses feeling
“big picture” oriented
imagination rules
symbols and images
present and future
philosophy & religion
can “get it” (i.e. meaning)
spatial perception
knows object function
fantasy based
presents possibilities
risk taking

Update: Here is a hint if you want to try and make her switch, but can’t. Look at her lower foot and/or the shadow of her lower foot and see if the woman switches direction.

If you are anything like me, you stared at it for quite a while in an unsuccessful attempt to visualize it turning the opposite direction. I was about 100% certain that it could only be seen turning one way until I looked away at the text. Out of the corner of my eye, I could tell it had switched. WTF. I began to wonder if retina tracking had been installed on my computer when I wasn't looking and used to reverse the dancer's direction the moment I looked away.

Hat tip: Lex, who got it from Mike, who got it from The D-Ring.

Convergence: Houses

I'm telling you, you can't make this stuff up.

That house that began the whole meditation on convergence? My friend will close on that later this month. I never really had much doubt about that one.

I'm not sure what to do with this though.

I'll need to move soon, I hope. The sign went up in my front yard yesterday, holidays and all. So, I've done a little looking around lately. Made a few calls today--five to be exact. Spoke to one person, left messages for four others.

Tonight, I'm at a squadron Christmas party at a golf course clubhouse. Met the Executive Chef, whom good friends think the world of. After dinner, I did too. At one point during the evening, while the emcee was giving out door prizes, my phone rings. As I was sitting up front, I didn't answer it right away, but I did pull it out to see who was calling. The number was from an exchange that could only be a land line from somewhere in the immediate vicinity of the golf course where we were. Odd. I could think of no one who should be calling me from that area. I walked out of the room and returned the call, running over different scenarios in my mind for how someone in the rowdy crowd I was with could be playing a practical joke on me. I got the answering machine for the golf course . . . the golf course where I was at that moment. I became even more certain that someone was having me on. I looked back into the dining room and one of the wives smiled and waved. What the hell were they up to? Then the voice mail indicator beeped. Someone had been leaving a message while I was returning the call. I listened to the message. The message was no joke at all; it was from one of the four people I had left voice mails for earlier in the day about houses. But here comes the good part: the name matched the name embroidered on the white chef's jacket of the man I'd met only a couple of hours earlier. I was already standing outside the dining room where the festivities were, so I walked on back to the kitchen. As I was asking one of the staff where the nearest phone was, the chef walked out. "I think you just called me," I said.

We spent the next ten minutes talking about the house. I'll see it tomorrow morning at nine. Who knows if it's the house I'm supposed to live in for the next month to a year. I can tell you this though--you don't have to hit me over the head with a two by four for me to know I at least owe it a look.

You can't make this stuff up.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

"These aren't the droids you're looking for."

Early last week, I was visiting the best writer I have the good fortune to know personally, and in the course of the conversation, I think he suggested, tongue-in-cheek, that the department in which he teaches might be getting just desperate enough to want even me back. (Desperate because I was merely the first in a wave of people who, for their own mental health, continue to dive over the gunnel and take their chances in the open sea rather than sail one league further on the Pequod.) My response was a slight wave of the hand as I said, "These aren't the droids you're looking for. He can go about his business."

To my amazement, I got a blank look and a quizzical, "What?"

"You're kidding right?" Still the blank look. "You don't know the Jedi mind trick line from the original Star Wars? You've never heard that?"


I was so shocked that I asked my family about it that night. Their response: "We didn't know where it came from; we just know you're fond of saying it." Fine. Maybe it's just me, I thought.

No. It's not. Try Googling "aren't the droids you're looking for." You'll find that the phrase is deeply embedded in American speech as a signal, when used properly, that someone is attempting a Jedi mind trick on someone else, or on an entire subset of the population, especially when the person being accused of it is a member of the government. Wikipedia uses it as the Ur example of the Jedi mind trick.

So, for those of you out there who have never heard it, or for those who've heard it, intuited its meaning, but weren't really sure where it came from, I am providing the short video below as a public service. Chalk it up to the English professor in me educating my friends on the roots of an allusion that has moved past allusion into some other form of figure of speech for which I can't find the exact word. It began as an allusion, certainly, but when the person using it understands its meaning, yet has no idea of its source, it seems to me that said person can't properly be said to be alluding to anything. Hmmm. If anyone knows the proper term for such a linguistic phenomenon, please, by all means, chime in with a comment!

Friday, December 14, 2007

Perspective Helps: 3400 Christmas Ornaments

I have a good friend who really doesn't look forward to this time of year. The problem? A spouse he thinks goes a little overboard with the whole decorating thing. Perspective is really all important here. This story on a local Colorado Springs resident should help.

John Kerr’s tidy house near Wasson High School is festooned with outdoor holiday lights, with handpainted angels and bears and wise men. But that’s just a hint of the Christmas riches inside.

Kerr has more than 40 Christmas trees that hold more than 3,400 ornaments, and he’s inviting the public to tour his house at 2516 Fairmount St. when his sign is out.

“If we’re home, we let people walk through,” Kerr said. “We put a sign up that says ‘come in and count trees.’"
What I always wonder is just how obsessions like this begin. The article tells us that too:

Now retired from his post as assistant superintendent of Colorado Springs School District 11, Kerr still has the one that started it all, a Santa ornament he bought when he was 10.

That’s the year his mom put up a metal Christmas tree because “she just didn’t want to be bothered by the fuss and mess,” and he didn’t like it.

So, he walked to the S.H. Kress & Co. five-and-dime store at 23 N. Tejon St. and bought himself an ornament. The man working at a nearby tree lot gave him a branch from a tree, he put his ornament on it and marched home.

He’s been collecting ornaments ever since.
I knew there was a good reason, other than the wonderful smell, that we always have a live tree.

Of course, those come with their challenges too, like the first Christmas after we married, when we brought a tree home from the tree farm only to find the next day, after we had finished decorating it, that somewhere in its depths had been a spider web, complete with egg sacs ready to hatch in the warmth of a human abode. Hundreds, hundreds of tiny spiders greeted us the next morning. I think we had to bomb the apartment to get rid of them. That was 3400 ornaments we could have lived without.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

An A Cappella Christmas: Straight No Chaser

A couple of weeks ago, I had the good fortune to attend the winter concert of the a cappella group "Back Row" at Colorado College. I posted a short blog about it, with a link to a video from that very concert. That may well be why a good friend sent me a link to this a cappella group's awesome rendition of "The 12 Days of Christmas." If you give a listen, I promise you won't be disappointed.

Convergence: John Holiday

For those of you new to the blog, who may need an explanation of what I call "convergence," go here.

Only my closest friends (and a few new acquaintances on the way to becoming real friends) know that from late August until Thanksgiving I spent a little time looking for someone I'd completely lost track of. Those same friends also know that, like several other instances of deflating memories, I'd have been better off to leave that one undisturbed--and how.

But those are other stories. This story is about John Holiday. "Doc." Go figure.

I dine during happy hour at least once a week, sometimes several evenings a week, at Plate World Cuisine, about a mile from the house. Bar none, the best food on the north end of Colorado Springs. On an evening about six weeks ago, I stopped in there after a short errand I'd run on the way home from work. That errand was the first effort I'd made in weeks to discover what had become of that old acquaintance. The "search" was a good two and a half months old at that time, and I was, frankly, running out of ideas on how to find this person. So, I stop in at Plate, and Michael, the General Manager, escorts me to a seat at the bar and introduces me to a nice lady named Judy. Judy and I, both pretty naturally gregarious, are getting to know one another when in walks another guy Judy knows. She waves him over and he introduces himself to me as John Holiday, "But friends call me 'Doc.'"

"No kidding. Well, you're not going to believe this, but a lot of my friends call me 'Doc' too." And thinking that the coincidence might stretch credulity just a little, I fished out one of my skydiving cards, complete with callsign, and passed it to him. He returned the favor.

Now keep in mind that I had just come from the first real effort at tracking someone down that I'd made in a couple of weeks, and that I was running out of ideas, that I was, in fact, about ready to concede defeat. Enter convergence. On John's business card, just below his name, was printed, "California Licensed Private Investigator." I wish now that someone had taken a photo of my face. I can't even imagine what my expression may have been. I swear to you, the things that happen in my life, if you put them in a book, an editor would say, "No one is going to believe this." I'm going to put them in the book anyway.

One thing led to another. John gave me a few brief pointers. Persistence and time eventually led to success. I almost wish it hadn't, but again, that's another story.

This story is John's. During our conversation that first night, he mentioned that there had been a story about him in The Gazette a few years back. It was when he mentioned that he was also a collector of rare books and had owned a book store that I remembered having read the article, and thinking even then, "Now this would be an interesting person to meet."

Nor was I wrong. I look forward to conversation with this other "Doc" as much as anything about the whole Plate experience. Last night, for instance, I expected to make a quick run to Plate for dinner, and ended up spending over three hours at the bar in conversation with John. I've been an English professor. I still hang with English professors. But it took an evening with John to make me look forward to picking up James Joyce again. I was not a fan of Ulysses my first time through it, but I think I may have a new appreciation for it this next time around. Go read that article. Like most of the instances of convergence in my life, if you were to write John Holiday into a book as a character, an editor would most likely say, "No one's going to believe this." Believe it.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

"It Ain't Conceit If It's True"

Way back in high school, in the Old North State, where Driver's Ed was (and still is) a required course and paid for through your taxes, I had a teacher who said basically two things that have stuck through all these years. One was, "I'll let you know when I quit rockin'," always said in response to, "All clear," at an intersection following a stop in which too heavy a foot on the brake caused too sudden a stop. Sarcasm, you see, is a tool in almost every teacher's bag. It stuck. Thirty-two years later, I remember Mr. Stikeleather as I patiently wait for my own daughter to master the gentle lessening of pressure on the brake that produces a smooth stop.

The other thing he was fond of saying whenever we young bucks gave him a hard time for his surplus of self-confidence was, simply, "It's not conceit if it's true." That stuck too, and oddly enough, I've had occasion to use it once or twice in my life.

It comes to mind tonight though, in a corollary form.

This is going to be, without a doubt, the most profoundly sad Christmas of my life thus far. (I'll not say "ever," because I know better than to tempt fate in that way.) I've been a little worried about myself lately, and about one of my very closest and dearest friends. I think, though, that Stikeleather's Maxim should serve to put my mind somewhat at rest, and likewise, the minds of my friends. I think that my cigar-chewing, Old Spice-wearing driver's ed teacher would argue that it ain't clinical depression if there's an acute external cause for it. We are entitled to our sadness, that close friend and I, even more thoroughly than our normally abundant self-confidence. She even more than I, on both counts.

I have held this post for days, wondering about the propriety of revelations so personal, both to myself and to, quite probably, the best friend of the opposite gender I am ever likely to know in this lifetime. But I am a great believer in the power of (insert your own word for it here). For some, the word is prayer--they credit the intensity of one person's supplications or the overwhelming volume of many simultaneous pleas with somehow bending the will of the Almighty to give divine attention to a mortal purpose that He might otherwise not have deigned to notice. I choose not to believe His purpose so malleable nor Him so needful of our efforts to direct His attention where most required. I choose, instead, to believe that our own wills and attention have power we are unaware of, and that our lack of awareness lessens that power not one whit. I believe that when many of us are concentrating on a single outcome--as when many people pray (genuinely, with great focus and earnestness) for someone's deliverance from a thing, be it sickness, addiction, or grief--that very real energies are contributed to bringing that outcome about. Call me a flake if you wish, but I will point out that no good Christian, Muslim, or Jew doubts the power of prayer to bring these things about through such efforts. The primary difference between my view of how it works and theirs is that I give both God and Man more credit than those who believe He can be thus bargained with. The result is the same, only the conception of the mechanism differs. I explain all of this because I am going to share what I do for a reason I will explain at the end.

In my case, the sadness to which Stikeleather's Maxim entitles me is grief for the end of a 20-year marriage. Even more than the disintegration of romance that causes my own heart to ache, I grieve the disintegration of stability and concurrent uncertainty about the future that weighs on my children's hearts. Every single thing in this holiday season that should be a source of joy is become a heavy thing instead, bathed in a finality that partakes of every memory back through two decades and shrouds each event or task in a pall far more bitter than sweet. Only one thing lessens that effect: because I knew a year ago that my oldest daughter would be leaving for school this past summer, I was aware even then of a certain finality about most events a full season ago--last time choosing a tree together as a family; last Thanksgiving all at the same table, for years at least. But I did not expect last year's yule to be even the penultimate Christmas morning waking under one roof. That, I expected to fend off a few more years yet, until marriage or engagement drug one or both of my children to some other hearth hung with stockings. But, it was that penultimate thing nonetheless, and that makes this one . . . sad.

But my grief pales, even in my own mind, next to my friend's. In a span of mere months--a span far, far too short--her healthy, active mother was diagnosed with a disease that my friend, the real doctor, knew would end her life. But used to being exceptional in every way, in no small part by virtue of coming from exceptional stock, my friend expected her mother, I know, to enjoy the generous end of that range oncologists give in answer to the inevitable, "How long?" But this time, it wasn't to be.

And because it came suddenly and in stark contrast to what I know she had expected, my friend is lost now, stuck in a place between worlds like Neo at the beginning of the final installment of The Matrix. There is the world that was but is no more. That world included a mother's comforting touch and voice and assurances--things even we nearly-half-century-old folk still need to lean on from time to time. And there is the world that will be, eventually, where my friend embraces her own assumption of that role, and recognizes that in every kind word or deed however small, in every child's injury attended, in every young mother's doubts assuaged, in every fine thing that she does for her husband that makes him aware of and grateful for her love, in every quiet secret, unrecognized as such, passed to her daughter or her sons about what it is to be a woman or a man, in every moment of considerate counsel, gracefully given or received with friends--in all these actions and moments, her mother lives on through her, and will live on through every life she touches. That world and her embracing of it, will be, but it is not now, not yet.

Now is the dark time, the lost time, the time of grief and inward wandering where all the things that she will one day recognize as her mother's continued presence are now the sharp and painful reminders of her too sudden and too new absence. This dark time, this place between worlds is a boundary that must be crossed. Even those who seem to deal with the loss of a beloved parent without passing through this valley eventually come back to it. The danger is in stopping, in looking back with such intensity and regret that one ceases to move forward to that brighter place where the person we loved so much and miss so much becomes, finally, a quality of the light in our smile, an overtone or harmonic in our laughter, and the breeze that rejuvenates our soul in our silences. Sometimes, making it through that valley requires more strength than we think we possess. It's those times when the prayers of all our religious friends and the concentrated attention of all our spiritual ones sustains us.

And that is why I'm sharing all of this here. For my religious friends, this amounts to a prayer request. For my spiritual friends, this is an invitation to focus your meditations on a heart that needs them. For my friends who are neither, this is an invitation to practice a new skill you may not have known you had. And it is not for myself I ask. There are gullies in my path these days, but few that I can't see over the edge of. My friend, though, is journeying through a darker vale with tall, steep sides, and I'm not sure the light at the other end is visible yet. Pray for her. Think of her. Send energy her way.

There was an episode of the original Star Trek titled "Requiem for Methuselah," which ended with Spock easing Kirk's grief through a mind meld and a single word, "Forget." I would not wish forgetfulness on my friend. What I would pray for, visualize, will into existence is not forgetfulness, but a different character of remembrance--one in which joy is the dominant emotion, in which the bitter no longer overwhelms the sweet, but serves as foil to deepen it. One which recognizes that remembering with joy is the greatest honor we can do those we loved and the greatest lesson we can teach to those we love still, for in doing so we school them on how to remember us, because our time will come, and sooner than we think.

Don't hesitate in this holiday season to reach out and touch one another. And I mean that literally. Shake a hand, wrap a friend in a full-bodied bear hug, hold a face in your palm while you tell someone that you love them. Life is short, and the only immortality we can be certain of is woven from the lives we touch.

I've said it before, but I'll say it again. I have never been so grateful for my friends as I am just now. Thank you all.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Your biggest problem as a superhero

Your Superpower Should Be Mind Reading

You are brilliant, insightful, and intuitive.
You understand people better than they would like to be understood.
Highly sensitive, you are good at putting together seemingly irrelevant details.
You figure out what's going on before anyone knows that anything is going on!
Why you would be a good superhero: You don't care what people think, and you'd do whatever needed to be done.
Your biggest problem as a superhero: Feeling even more isolated than you do now.

Hat tip: Enrevanche

Monday, December 10, 2007

"Things can always get worse." -- Cormac McCarthy, in Suttree

I had drafted a post on a very personal sadness today, but I think I will defer to a more public and profound one that unfolded only two and a quarter miles from where I sit typing this in my home:

Sun Dec 9, 9:28 PM ET
DENVER (Reuters) - Three people were shot to death and six were wounded in Colorado on Sunday in two church-related shootings in the U.S. Christian heartland.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Hell and back: Before the Devil Knows You're Dead

This really isn't going to be as dramatic a post as the title implies. Hell was a new film by Sidney Lumet: Before the Devil Knows You're Dead. This film was reviewed by the Gazette and given a solid A. Nonetheless, I somehow knew from the brief synopsis printed with the review that it probably wasn't going to be sort of film I would enjoy. But, I was downtown last weekend, and it was only playing in the local art theater, and it did get the best review of anything in town, so . . .

Here's my take on it: Coming out of the theater, if I'd had a gun handy, I might have blown my own brains out then and there. It was that depressing. Don't get me wrong. Wonderfully acted, but OMG! I've seen depressing movies before, movies that just made me sad; but, this was the first movie I've ever seen that really made me just want to step out into the street in front of a bus. So, unless you like feeling that way, skip this one.

There was redemption before night's end though. Happily, Colorado College's Back Row, a men's a cappella group, was having their winter concert at 10 p.m. that night. I went straight from the theater to the concert hall. Redemption. Sitting in an audience filled with mostly college girls there to cheer on the guys, it wasn't possible not to smile pretty much steadily for a solid hour. The video from YouTube below is from that concert. The quality's not great, but it'll give you an idea of the atmosphere. The sound was great if you were there, but the concert was really more about showmanship than musical quality. Small hall, small crowd, and I'm guessing that better than 90% of the people there knew someone in the group. To get a better idea of how good they sounded, try going to their website and listen to the sampling there.