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Monday, February 25, 2013

Thinking Thoreau -Quiet Desperation

"Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them". This is one of the best known quotes of Henry David Thoreau. It comes from his masterwork Civil Disobedience and Other Essays. Like many, if not most, of the men of my generation, I have led a life of quiet desperation. Recently my desperation has been noisy. I have lived my entire life with fears. Prominent among them is the fear of failure. I have been striving to do more with the myriad of ideas that cross my cluttered mind. I treat all my ideas the same, I hold them, I enjoy them, and then I cast them aside. Some have taken root here and there. Some should not have been allowed to take root. Many have simply died for want of attention.

A recent editing project has inspired me to be more purposeful with my ideas. Instead of simply casting my ideas to grow or perish as chance permits, I will  take more solid action on my ideas in the belief that doing so will help me get out the "song" still inside me, before I go to the grave. With that in mind I am beginning a new project. Thinking Thoreau will be a series of daily micro-posts about passages or quotes from the works of Thoreau as I come across them. I will be reading the following works by Thoreau in the following order:

Civil Disobedience
Wild Apples
A Plea for Captain John Brown Read to the Citizens of Concord, Massachusetts

All of these works are available as free E-books from Amazon as they are now in the public domain. I do not know how long it will take me to complete the project. I welcome comments and disagreements about my ideas and interpretations of Thoreau. I am not a scholar of Thoreau, or poetry, or the English language. This idea just appealed to me. I have read Civil Disobedience a few times, and enjoyed reading the play, The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail, in high school. Otherwise, I am a novice on the subject.
I will continue in my efforts to post 1,500 to 2,000 word posts on a close to weekly basis separate and apart from my Thoreau project. I hope to use this project to learn and grow. I hope to put effort into this project such that even if no one ever reads my posts, I will be glad to have made the effort. All my posts in this project will start with Thinking Thoreau in the title, so no unsuspecting reader will be tricked into reading something they would rather not be exposed to.
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Saturday, February 16, 2013

Beauty is in the Eye of the Hoarder

Hoarders, on A & E, is a show I cannot bring myself to watch. My mother is a hoarder. I have been involved cleaning out my parents garage and house too many times as an adult. I just cannot handle seeing how other people with this mental malfunction live. My mother’s case was not as severe as the people I saw on the commercials, but unchecked her trajectory would have far outpaced the two featured in the promo I saw. Recently, it occurred to me that there might be another reason I cannot watch; maybe I am a hoarder too.

The idea that I might suffer from one or more of the same maladies, (physical, mental, and moral), that my parents do is not a new paranoia. (Is it paranoia if it’s true?). The fear is also not unique to myself. What sentient being approaching middle age doesn’t occasionally glance in the mirror and recoil in horror at the presence of their same sexed parent staring back at them? Clearly I am not a hoarder on the scale that would draw the attention of a reality show production crew, but I may be either on the threshold of a serious episode, or well into my apex as a mini-hoarder. Only time will tell.

The first piece of evidence of my hoarding I have to present is my writing jacket. I used to call it my smoking jacket, but no longer do so. This article of clothing is actually not a jacket at all, but thick 50% cotton and 50% acrylic button-up shirt my father brought back for me from Mexico. Many years ago he went to a resort in Mexico with some previously unknown friends. I was already married and out of the house at this time. He brought back several souvenirs for the family. He brought me back this shirt. It is warm. That is its only redeeming quality. It has tri-colored stripes of non-uniform sizes. The colors are a vulgar imitation of the colors of the Mexican flag. The white is accurate enough but the red is not the rich, dark red of the flag of that proud country, but instead a red that is almost pink, like a shade of cheap lipstick. The green is the worst of all. It is not really green at all. The only way I can describe the green is that it is the perfect match to the color “cyan” in the old Commodore 64 color palette. The stripes themselves are vertical on the body and horizontal on the sleeves. It appears to be made of wool and the outside feels coarse. However, as mentioned previously, and is confirmed by the tag, it is not wool. It is soft on the inside. I never liked the look of the thing. I don’t remember what everyone else got, except what one of my brothers received. He, always being father’s favorite, received a soft, handsome, blue and white blanket poncho. I coveted the poncho, but ended up with the shirt, or jacket.

I have always had a difficult, and often tense, relationship with my father. Even though I hated the shirt, I kept it and called it my smoking jacket. I don’t smoke. I never have, and likely never will. I actually wore it upon a few disparate occasions and found it to be warm and cozy. This did not endear me to my father or the garment, it just made me despise it all the more. Despite several residence changes and spring cleanings, the jacket survived the purges. Once I had children I had to stop referring to it as my smoking jacket as I realized they asked enough difficult questions without being prompted. Having a smoking jacket when no one they know actually smokes would be too much.

I recently pulled the jacket out of my closet to keep warm while I was writing because I did not want to turn on the heat. Thus, it became my writing jacket. I have approximately one million hooded sweatshirts or hoodies, thousands of sweatshirts and sweaters, and more than a few actual jackets, all of which are more comfortable, more aesthetically pleasing, and less fraught with emotional baggage than my writing jacket. Why do I still have it? I could have some Puritan in me and feel the need to punish myself for my unworthiness. More likely, it is the hoarder in me coming out. Any sentimentality, even what may be termed anti-sentimentality is reason enough to keep a piece of clothing I loath, but still sort of like.

The second exhibit in my hoarding case are my books. I own a lot of books, I do not know how many. Lots of people have more books, but I do acknowledge owning a lot of books. We do not have room for my books. Several years ago I fashioned a reading nook in our upstairs bonus room. Upon the birth of another child the bonus room was turned into a children’s bedroom. I understood and accepted this as logical. The room, including the contents of the large double bookcase, was boxed up. It is too much to say that the books were boxed without my knowledge or consent, but the purveyors of the home redecorating project wisely managed their work when I was not around to interfere.

A few books were saved from archiving. I have since that time acquired many other books, some I have read, and some are simply in the queue. I have been recently thinking of my boxed books, of two in particular. One was relatively new at the time of the great book box massacre. I had not had a chance to read it. It is an anthology of American writings about the ocean, called directly enough, American Sea Writing: A Literary AnthologyI am very interested in reading several great writers explore a common theme. A theme I love but have difficulty artfully articulating.

The other book is a paperback book I have had since my senior year in high school. I received this book in the mail when I joined a paperback book of the month club that promised three books for a penny if you agreed to buy several more, perhaps five books, over the course of a two-year period. One of the books I selected for my penny was, Six American PoetsI had suffered a secret admiration of poetry since seventh grade. The movie Dead Poet’s Society only fanned a flame that was already burning inside me. I had not ever truly studied poetry. The required coursework of my high school required hardly any poetry at all. Only the spinsterly, and brilliant Miss Tagart exposed me to poetry in any meaningful way. My exposure at her hands to the Transcendentalists changed me forever. But, I did not have a lot of access to the stuff, and was not about to ask for it.

The yellow paperback captivated me. I read the book often. I am sure I read every poem in the book at least three times. Some poems I read close to a hundred times. I never read it cover to cover like some novel or history book. At first I would simply flip the pages and read what caught my eye. In this way I was introduced to Robert Frost’s “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening” and Emily Dickinson’s “ Because I Could Not Stop For Death “. Later I would read the section of an entire poet. I found I really got a sense of Langston Hughes only by reading scores of his rhythms at a time. Walt Whitman’s work was inaccessible to me as a high school senior, but deeply meaningful as a young man just four years later.

The box of books, along with everything else that used to be in the room sits in storage. I have been pinning for these two books, and had decided to go and fetch them at my next chance. I found a reason to go to the storage to try and find some document for my wife. I knew this was my chance. I was foiled in my errand on behalf of my wife. The document was nowhere to be found. I next commenced opening boxed labeled books. The books had clearly been boxed by shelf where possible, but every box exterior remained nondescript. I opened every single box. Halfway through the boxes I had not found, part of a theology series by Hugh Nibley some members of which had escaped the earlier boxing, and my copies of Foucault’s Archaeology of Knowledge and Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.

 The last two books I freed because I had never read the entire Foucault classic[1], and I wanted to reread Kuhn because I felt I would have a different reaction to him after having lived a little life. I eventually found (Sea). However, (Six) remained elusive. Maybe I had saved the book from the boxes and just lost it somewhere. Maybe there is a box of books that lay undetected. I already own and have access to the complete poems of Robert Frost and Walt Whitman (e-books are a hoarders delight!), but I just wanted to see that book again. I wanted to flip through its pages like I did when I was a callow youth looking for answers to questions I couldn’t even begin to formulate yet.

I was disappointed, but hardly devastated. During my search I did have reason to reconsider my passion for books. I remember as a kid, maybe only 9 or 10, looking through a bunch of boxes my parents were moving out of the “storage room” that was soon to be my own room. I discovered three boxes of books belonging to my mother as a child. The books were mostly a series of books with selections of great literature and what was deemed age appropriate stories in the 1950’s and 1960’s. I loved her books. My sister and I read them voraciously. I felt somehow I had connected with my mother because I had some of her books. That was the moment when I really became a lover of books and reading.

As I grew older I pulled my parent’s books from the bookcases downstairs. These were exclusively non-fiction books, mostly religious, history, or self-help. My parents never censored what I read. Every time I read a book that had belonged to one of my parents, even if I found it boring or wrong, gave me an insight and connection to that parent. I want a lot of books around because I want my children to make accidental and surprising intellectual discoveries. I want them to gain some insight into my mind, my soul, that I do not know how to give them. I think that is the real reason I wanted my old copy of (Six). My kids are growing older and growing more curious. I just wanted that book to be around to be stumbled upon.

My twisted emotional reasons for keeping the jacket and the books must mark me as a hoarder. What I really want to hold onto are not the things, or even the memories the things trigger. I want to hoard all the emotion and thought these things evoke. I want to hoard these pieces of my soul so others can find them and perhaps unlock a part of me for themselves.

[1] I aced the exam on the book in my Philosophy of Political Science course. This was less a testament to my powers of intellect than my uncanny ability to understand what my professor thought was important and what he thought things meant. I less wise owl and more clever myna bird.
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Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Tough Love

February was the month my wife and I went our first date. It was on the most romantic holiday, President’s Day. Becky and I had known each other for a few weeks. This was actually remarkable, as our entire lives we seemed fated to almost meet. We had gone to church in the same building since we were eleven, but part of different congregations that met at different times.[1] We both ended up going to the same small college in southeast Idaho[2], but never connected the entire first semester. We were both present at the same event a few times, but never met.

Over Christmas Break we finally met at a party back in California. She found me obnoxious and arrogant, and I thought she was stuck-up. Once back in Idaho, she and her roommates invited my roommates and I to hang out a few times. She was supposed to be paired up with my roommate and her roommate was supposed to be paired up with me. We attended a Club Dance at the school, where the various clubs try and recruit new members. Becky and I danced and talked all night. We talked about our hopes and dreams, our future lives, and everything else. It was the best conversation I had ever had, and one I like to think we have never stopped having.

Over President’s Day weekend my roommates were all gone. I felt a profound loneliness. It was not so much that my roommates were gone, as I felt incomplete. I was a freshman at college with a clear direction in life, concrete plans, and still had not “found” myself yet. I suddenly realized whom I wanted to be with at that exact moment, Becky. I called her and asked her out to Hogi Yogi. At least I thought I was asking her out. Becky and one of her roommates both showed up. In what would not be the last time in our relationship, I had thought I was communicating clearly, but events proved otherwise. I did not have enough money for three treats, and so I bought Becky and Jenny frozen yogurts and the three of us hung out. Jenny, to her everlasting credit figured things out quickly and made an excuse to leave. I didn’t have any other plans for the date other than the frozen yogurt. We walked around scenic Rexburg and talked. It was amazing.

Many events transpired between that first date and today. I had the same realization that the only person I wanted to be with at any given moment was Becky a few more times. We of course eventually got married. We had four amazing children. We experienced triumphs and endured tragedies. We currently are going through the worst year and half of our lives, and there is no end in site. I am still not sure if I have “found myself” or know what “my calling” in life is. I do know that Becky and our children are my life and what I live for.

Last week I spent the night in the Emergency Room with Becky. She had horrible abdominal pain. We went to the ER at 3:30 in the afternoon. It was packed.  There was some problem with the triage process, because even though she presented with classic appendicitis, we waited. I eventually had to go home to attend to our children while she waited by herself. When I came back around 9:00, she had just gotten back to a room. Tests were run, scans were made, radiation was absorbed, and a surgeon came in to announce she indeed had appendicitis and would be having surgery. I said goodbye to her from the surgery staging area at 3:30 am.

The surgery was to take an hour to an hour and a half. I had the entire waiting room to myself. Nurse Carol had warned me that the coffee shop closed at 4. I wandered down and ordered a venti hot chocolate and a cordon blue sandwich. I received a venti luke-warm chocolate and a horrible southwest style chicken sandwich with wilty lettuce. I had to laugh on the way out of the shop as I glanced at the hours. It was open from 6:00 am to 4:00 am. I guess the two hours of closure saved the coffee shop owners hundreds of dollars a year.

I went up and waited. I had a book to read, but was too tired. I thought about sleeping, but was irrationally afraid that the surgeon would not see me if I was asleep, or would not wake me. This was comical since I was the only person in the waiting room. I laid down on a bench and listened to infomercials. I got up and shut the televisions off. I thought. I pride myself on keeping a level head in a crisis. One of my secret coping mechanisms is to coldly evaluate all of the possibilities and decide on a plan of action for every contingency and mentally explore how I would react. Evaluating all of the options of what might happen to my wife during surgery at 4:00 in the morning after having been up since 6:00 in the morning the previous day was surprisingly calming.

I did not worry about the routine surgery until the two-hour mark. At 5:30 I wondered what could be taking the extra time. I began to rethink the contingencies. The one anchor to my exhausted brain was how much I love Becky. I thought about the many times I had thought I loved her previously: Our first date, our first kiss, our wedding day, and the births of each of our children. During each of those moments my love for her had grown so much from the precious moment. At this particular moment I wondered how I could have thought the puny feeling I had at the time of our first kiss or even later at our wedding was love. I felt a feeling so much more powerful and complete now. It was not that I had previously taken her for granted, but our connection, or my dependency on her, was reaffirmed. I began thinking about her having this mysterious organ removed. It occurred to me that she was an organ, a vital organ that kept me sane and alive. I realized I could plan for many of the consequences of her sudden removal from my life, but could not imagine how I could actually live without her.

Right before 6:00 the surgeon came out. He said the surgery went well, but that the appendix had been perforated prior to surgery and her body had been growing new tissue around the appendix to encapsulate it. He told me something that I already knew. “She must have a pain tolerance that is off the charts. She is tough”, the surgeon said. Later members of the nursing staff and surgical team would remark that the appendix was in bad shape, and been perforated for around a month. The phrase “perforated to bursting” was used more than once.

I have been writing this blog for a few months now. Becky has not made many appearances. The reason is I have the most difficulty in scribing my feelings about her. I lack the skills to describe my feelings for her in a form worthy of her and our love. I do not want something merely sentimental or sappy. I want to write something transcendent. However, I also want to leave some record, some digital trail, of how much she means to me. Even though I cannot yet write the poetic transcendent tribute to Becky that she deserves, I realize she loves me and appreciates my efforts no matter how short they fall. Everyone else should know how tough she is, and how much I love her.

[1] For LDS readers we were not only in different wards, but different stakes and regions. My ward met in her stake’s building.
[2] Rick’s College, now Brigham Young University Idaho
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Thursday, February 7, 2013

Starry Night Reflections

On the way back up to the house one recent evening I pointed out Mercury in the sky to the kids. They were politely fake in their enthusiasm. (I had no idea they had already mastered that most adult of skills). They had no idea what Mercury was. Once I explained that it was a planet orbiting the Sun, they became genuinely excited. Well, three of them were excited, Fourth, my almost two year old daughter just wanted to go inside and watch Gullah Gullah Island[1] on the DVR. Second, my almost six-year-old daughter, put her arm around my neck and pulled my ear down to her lips and whispered, “Daddy, I want to go there sometime.”

In that instant my mind flashed back to all the times I had seen the stars. A composite of hundreds of night skies flashed before me. I was raised a suburbanite, and often the night sky was interesting, but difficult to see. However, two sky watching experiences stood out in my brief flashback. The first was watching the night sky over the desert of South East Idaho from our family’s dark gray Chevrolet Astro mini-van. We were driving from Blackfoot to Arco between sets of grandparent’s houses. We usually traveled at night because our family rarely got it together enough to leave on a trip before 5:30 pm. This trip had started particularly late. I remember having just turned eleven and leaning against the window in the back seat ands seeing more stars than I had ever seen before. It was the first time I had ever seen a sky where the points of light seemed to take up more of the sky than the dark spaces. It was the first time I had any ability to comprehend how big a number a billion was. There were no city lights to outshine the stars.

The second night sky that stood out in my flashback was one from just last year. I took my older two girls camping at North Santiam State Park in August. That night was gorgeous. The sky was a thick dark quilt with shimmering, twinkling glitter spread out over the surface. Some of the specks were spread out, some in bright clumps close together, some of the specks were large and bright, some were tiny and faint. Each pinpoint of light seemed to have its own measure of glory. I wanted my girls to really see the night sky as I had over the desert. I walked with them away from the campsites down a trail to a clearing with some picnic tables. They were a little afraid of the complete darkness at first. But, once they looked up they actually gasped. We sat there looking at the edge of the Milky Way and talked about stars and planets and God.

Suddenly Second let go of my head and I returned to the present. The flashback had taken only a second or two. I smiled at my daughter and said, “I want to go there too.” She smiled back and ran inside. Watching my children look up at the sky over their shoulders as they filed into the house made me realize what I want for my children.

I want them to be dreamers and doers. I want them to be stargazers and readers. I want my children to become responsible adults that never grow-up all the way. I want them to be kind. I want them to love and be loved. I want my children to laugh. I want them to make others laugh too. I want my children to seek after the mysteries of the universe and still be awed by the beauty of a flower. I want my children to be leaders. I want them to be followers. I want my children to be free thinkers. I want my children to question authority. I want my children to understand freedom. I want them to understand the freedom of obedience. I want my children to be believers. I want them to be skeptical and critical of anyone who tells them how they must believe. I want my children to be each other’s best friends. I want my girls and boy to know how to cook, bake, play the piano, change a tire, and find their way in the woods. I want my children to know its okay to be afraid. I want my children to go ahead even though they are afraid.

I want my children to have their own children. I want them to love themselves. I want them to never hesitate to help others. I want them to be wise and spontaneous. I want them to be careful and a little bit crazy. I want them to go to college. I want them to never stop learning. I want my children to find someone who loves them as much as their mother loves me. I want them to love someone as much as I love their mother. I want them to know that true love requires sacrifice. I want them to find someone they are willing to die for, and choose to live for them. I want them to someday have a flashback filled with a composite of hundreds and thousands of times they knew they were loved. I want them to want all of these things for themselves. 

Mostly, I want my children to know that even if they don’t want any of these things for themselves, even if they should reject everything I believe and hold sacred, that even if their choices are an anathema to me, even if they feel that I have failed them, as surely they will someday see that in some ways I have, that I love them. I respect them. I will always be their father; they will always be my children. Between us should only be love.

[1] Gullah Gulllah Island was a children’s show in the 1990’s that my daughter has become addicted to. Here is a link about the show, and here is a link about Gullah culture. Justice Thomas of the U.S. Supreme Court is of Gullah ancestry. Someday soon I will devote an entire post to Gullah Gullah Island.
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