Thursday, May 24, 2018

Wow!


            I’m at a loss for words. What do you exclaim when you experience surprised delight? A couple of four-letter words have served me well for surprising misfortune, but the positive side has proved elusive. 
            
            I confess that I watch HGTV and the occasional series on Netflix where homes are shown to customers or remodeled for their owners. Kim watches them for decorating ideas, or for how to design our cottage, while I’m more interested in watching the people and listening to what they say, hoping to learn something.

            On Fixer-Upper, the prevailing exclamation when the couple sees the amazing remodeling transformation, is “Oh, my God!” Occasionally – Waco, Texas, being where it is – we get an “Oh, my goodness!” But “Oh, my God!” appears to be the default exclamation. And I’ve heard it frequently in other contexts as an expression of surprised delight – American Idol(now that grumpy Simon is not a judge), Ellen(when she gives a good person a gift), and even in real untelevised life (when I gave my granddaughter a computer). I’m not sure how God figures into this. Is the happy exclaimer suggesting that God had something to do with the surprise? Is it an expression of thanks to God for creating a universe where such surprises can happen? Is the word “my” significant in the expression – if you had a God like mine, you would get a similar kitchen remodel? How does God feel about the expression as He looks up from laying some bathroom tile? This is all mildly troubling to me, but as a non-religious person, I can let it go. Being abbreviable as OMG makes the religious dimension an even more difficult stretch.

            We recently saw a Canadian series where in each episode, a couple would look at three homes, each featuring the “view” (golf course, frozen lake, vineyards, California beach, lighthouse – you get the idea) that the couple was seeking. Half of the properties were in Canada, half in southern California. But no matter where the episode was filmed, the response was the same: “Wow!” After a while Kim and I got the giggles each time someone said it, and we ventured guesses how many times “Wow!” was exclaimed in each 28-minute show: I guessed 50, Kim 80, but we could not stand to re-watch and check.

            The word “Wow!” has an interesting origin. When you witness something amazing, as a reflex you have a sudden intake of breath in anticipation of engaging in the spectacle you witness. This intake makes a sound like “Wow!” When writing was invented, the sound was given a spelling. (Come to think of it, this might actually be true. Google was no help, being preoccupied with World of Warcraft (a role-playing game).) (Nice punctuation move!)

            When I was in college in the early ‘60s, nobody said “Wow!” because, at our male bastion, nobody wanted to be thought a vulnerable fool who actually experienced emotions and therefore could be ridiculed. So instead we said, “All right!” with the protection of ironic understatement. The idea was not that All is Right in God’s World (see above), but rather that the event was just all right, a step above “Not bad.” This was when buttoned-down shirts were invented.

            What else?

            “Brilliant” is not an exclamation of delighted surprise, but an evaluation, as when our waiter, a Lithuanian working on his British accent, pronounced my choice of beer as “Brilliant!”

            “Awesome”? Spoken so often currently as to be almost meaningless. As used today, the word means “not entirely boring.” As in, “These potato chips are awesome!” On the other hand, if one is highly sensitive, one might respond to a potato chip with awe . . ..

            “Shut the front door!” has considerable appeal as an expression of delighted surprise, largely because the imperative has nothing to do with that emotional response. Those of us who are in the know understand that the sentence is a euphemism for an expression with the same rhythm, which also has nothing to do with delighted surprise. Perfect! Except Kim says I don’t say it quite right – something off with the accents.

            After way too much thought, I have come up with an explanation that works for me – though I don’t believe I’ve ever said it in the context of surprised delight: Yes! It seems to be just right, but I won’t know for sure until the right event comes my way.

            I recall a philosopher (Schopenhauer?) arguing that the sentence “I love you” is never true at the time you say it, for when you say it you are not actually loving – you are analyzing your feelings. (Makes me wonder, by the way, what this philosopher’s love life was like . . ..) I fear that when I experience my next surprised delight, I’ll be trying to remember how I am supposed to respond. Those experiences are supposed to overwhelm your thinking, but maybe the thinking will overwhelm the experience. I hope Kim sees this as a challenge . . ..

            

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Targeting Disorder


            First we received a message on our local BirdAlert: “A nice show of warblers yesterday evening at Port Oneida: 40-60 palm, 20-30 yellow-rumped, 6-10 black-throated green, 2 blackburnian, 6-8 magnolia, 1 black and white, a couple of redstarts. Also, a pair of green-winged teal, kestrel, merlin, a pair of sandhills, 4 kingbirds and a wood duck.” Kim and I decided it was a good day for birding in Port Oneida.

            Google told us it’s in Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore – less than an hour from here. Further research told us that Port Oneida contains a number of turn-of-the-century farms (that’s 19th turning into 20th). All the better.

            Our birding was pretty much a bust. We saw no warblers. We may have heard some, but since recognizing bird songs was my commitment to our birding enterprise, we did not recognize any of them. Kim got a shot of a very distant male American Kestrel in bright breeding colors, 


and we saw some White-crowned Sparrows darting through the underbrush, but that, except for some Canada Geese, was about it for birds.

            We almost succumbed to Targeting Disorder. I remember hearing an unorthodox business leader argue that it’s a bad idea to have goals because focusing on goals can limit your achievements and blind you to opportunities you didn’t think of when listing your goals. We went to Port Oneida looking for birds. We didn’t know exactly where to look, so we drove around, looking out our car windows –not the best way to see birds. We passed a few trail heads, but we did not know which ones had the birds, so we, probably foolishly, didn’t hike any of them. Birding was a bust.

            I experience a version of Targeting Disorder almost every day. Yesterday’s version: I was looking for the butter. We keep it on the right side of the third shelf of the pantry, right next to the salt and pepper. Well, I couldn’t find it! Someone, probably me, had put it on the second shelf, maybe 8 inches away from where I was looking. My target was only about 4 inches wide, so I missed it. Kim found it for me.

            We did hike down a long flight of stairs to an isolated Lake Michigan beach. We weren’t at this point, expecting to see any birds – we were mainly eager to get out of the car to stretch our legs and see the lake. (This is where you are expecting me to say we saw these great birds when we were not looking for them, but that’s not what happened. We saw none.) We did find some cool rocks that we brought home to place around our cottage when it is finally finished. We would have brought more, but we would have had to carry them up all those stairs. Our landscaper had said we should have a place where our grandkids could deposit all the rocks they bring up from the lake, but Kim and I know that most of those rocks will be our finds.

            Kim, fortunately, does not suffer from Targeting Disorder. We were driving along this steep road through the woods when she cried out. “Dutchman’s Breeches!” Momentarily confused, I slammed on the brakes – her tone was urgent. She then pointed out the window at a small wildflower by that name, so she got out and snapped some photos, even though she only had her birding lenses. 


Something similar happened with Trilium, though when she shouted I knew that was a flower.


She also photographed Wild Oats, which someone had sown in the woods, and which she could only identify when we got home and could hit the guidebooks.


            While I was scanning the woods and fields for birds – not an easy task while driving – Kim was noticing barns, so she got a few.





Not really a barn, but we like the the Monopoly-house simplicity.
We are not sure if any of them are the barns that make Point Oneida relatively famous – we saw no sign or plaque. But we love barns, even when they are not the target of our outing.

            I remember Keith Taylor, friend of mine, responding to someone’s asking him where he gets his ideas for poems: “Keep a line in the water. You never know what will bite."

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Bull***t

Bullshit

            I was going to write a post about assholes. My original question, which a few years ago I asked a few not-very-interested friends, was whether the term only applies to men, or whether any women have been or could be given the label. The word may be difficult to define, and I’ll go with Supreme Court Justice Potter, who could not define pornography, but, “I know it when I see it.” Being an asshole has something to do with arrogance and a lack of respect for others, with the volume turned up to an annoying level. I recall taking my young sons to a Michigan football game, and one of the male students took off his shirt and started some sort of drunken rant. Immediately hundreds of his fellow students started chanting, “Ass-hole! Ass-hole!” They knew one when they saw one.

            Can women be assholes? I suppose it’s possible, but rare. This may be because women have a nobler and kinder nature than men, as Kim might argue. I suspect, however, it’s because so few women are in positions of power that it’s not safe for them to behave like assholes. We’ll see what happens when women attain more power, a trend that I am looking forward to, provided I do not have to relinquish control of our tv remote.

            But I’m not writing about assholes. I’m writing about bullshit. So please disregard the above bullshit about assholes.

            I recently purchased brief book entitled On Bullshit, written by Harry G. Frankfurt, a “renowned moral philosopher” at Princeton. I have not yet read the book, as I do not want his academic wisdom to cloud my thinking. (This is why I prefer blogging to researched-based writing – I’m a product of the post-truth society.)

            So – what is bullshit?

            First of all, it’s a great word to pronounce. It starts with that explosive “b,” then moves to the sinister snake-like “sssshhhh,” and then closing with the sharp “t” that appears to end all debate. The word also has a choice of cadences: accent on the first syllable, or, as a forceful accusation, strong accents on both syllables.

            [Pause here to let readers experiment aloud with different pronunciations . . .. Feels good, doesn’t it?]

            If you think of bullshit simply as a deliberate lie, you are wrong.  Many people are capable of bullshitting themselves, so there is more to it. Perhaps it’s closer to the mark to see bullshit as an unsubstantiated statement presented as if it had some sort of link to reality, through science, logic, or a trail of evidence that folks could check if they wanted. In fact, one of the characteristics of bullshitters is that they feel that their voice, or their personality, is all that is required to have a claim accepted. This may explain why so many bullshitters are assholes. Bullshitters are not simply liars because they are not concerned with the truth, either stating it or misrepresenting it. They are mainly concerned with magnifying and promoting their own egos – the narcissistic assholes!

            Let me digress here into personal experience. In my freshman year at Amherst, the second paper I submitted to my English 1-2 professor earned me a one-word comment: “Bullshit!” I felt the exclamation point a bit of overkill. (My first essay, three paragraphs long, earned the comment, “You should have omitted the first two paragraphs and rewritten the third.” Later in the semester: “When, oh when will you write something I can praise?”) Professor Baird was no doubt right that my early bullshit writing had no concern for the truth – what does a college freshman know or care about the truth? – but I was not massaging my ego, unless I was giving CPR to my ego in an attempt to get a pulse.

            Years later, with Professor Baird’s “Bullshit!” still ringing in my ears, I set up my own gentler version of the comment by custom-making two rubber stamps to use on my students’ essays. One said, “Prove it!” and the other, “Bull!” (Yes, with exclamation points.) I used them sparingly and deservedly – I know it when I smell it. I suspect that some of my students were trying to collect my stamped comments as trophies.

            You are probably wondering how the word “bullshit” came to be associated with the Bullshit Phenomenon. The term goes back to a ritual practiced in a small village in northern England, located at the edge of the Fecal Mountains. Every year, on the spring equinox, villager elders would select the person, usually a man, who had been most obnoxious in presenting blatantly unsubstantiated claims. This person would be placed in a pen with the fiercest bull that the farmers could find. Trembling with fear, the man would most likely shit his pants while the villagers shouted, “Bull-shit! Bull-shit!” As the practice evolved, villagers would use the term in anticipation of the ritual, directing it at offenses as they occurred. The word caught on, and it is now known worldwide with no translation needed.

            Now – on to Professor Frankfurt’s book. A quick thumb-through revealed references to Plato and Pascal. This won’t be bullshit – it will be philosophy.
            

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Work


            I recently heard a cynical definition of work: what you are doing when you are not doing what you want to be doing. That definition does not work for me because I have always enjoyed the work I have done – camp counselor, high school English teacher, Starbucks barista, and freelance writer and editor. I agree, however, with the definition’s emphasis on “doing.”

            I remember from my high school physics class that “work” is defined – I’m paraphrasing here – as moving shit. You measure how much work is being done – how much shit is moved – in terms of something called the “joule.” This has nothing to do with being paid for doing work by being given precious stones. I do think that some work should be compensated as “jewels for joules” – but I digress.

            Moving shit. I’ve experienced several different post-retirement versions of this kind of work: Ten years ago I was mowing the weeds and grass on a hilly lot we had purchased. It was hot, I was tired, and the property had been on the market for over a year. I was not being paid for this work unless you see mowing as a way to increase the apparent value of the property. I was not a happy man, until I somehow managed to flip the moment by realizing, “I am 65 years old, and I can still do this.” This has also occurred to me when shoveling snow or carrying heavy boxes up and down stairs. What I was doing was work – “moving shit” – but it also became a form of play, a competition: How long can I do this without dying in my tracks? If “work” has negative connotations, then find a different word for what you are doing. Workout? (“Job” has similar negative connotations, except when it's the second half of a compound word . . ..)

            My son once complained to me about his job. My smart-ass response: “That’s why they pay you to do it.” True, he does not have a great job. For Christmas one year I got him a book with a title something like 100 Jobs that are Worse Than Yours– you know, things like porno movie projectionist or septic tank cleaner. My son’s job, telephone tech support for a cable company – was one of the 100. Pay would not make up for that. And there are days when I left my classroom thinking, “That was a blast – I can’t believe they pay me to do it!” It’s not about the money.

            My response to my son was unsatisfactory because I neglected what I had learned from my own experience and from working with my brother, Bob, on his books dealing with organizational psychology. Bob suggested I read Edward Deci, whose analysis shows, among other things, that extrinsic motivation, whether in the form of marshmallows or dollars, actually decreasesintrinsic motivation, along with performance. 

            And, of course, the sources of intrinsic motivation vary from person to person. Bob’s writing typically used the research of Harvard researcher David McClelland, who identified three primary sources of motivation, or “needs”:
·     the Need for Affiliation
·     the Need for Achievement
·     the Need for Power

Each of the three has a set of circumstances, or culture, that arouses action in individuals with that need. This works for business: Create a culture that activates different people’s needs so they do what benefits the business. (It’s a bit more complicated than that, believe me. Bob has written several books about it.)

            I wonder, though, about an additional need – the Need for Meaning. How can you make work “meaningful”? What does that slippery word – uhm – mean?

            It may have to do with helping others, whether it’s your team or family, or humankind as a whole. Doing “meaningful work” doesn’t feel like work. At its best, it’s a calling.

            A zen perspective: "Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water." I take this to mean that the way a person does one thing is the way they do everything, and if you are fully present and aware, your labor is no longer a burden. It becomes meaningful. I learned to mow a lawn or wash dishes that way.

            I also think that work also sheds its negative connotations when you are good at it. Some people just know when they are good, some require acknowledgment from others – I don’t think it matters. A writer, whose name I forget, when asked why she writes, answered, “Because I’m good at it.” And Mike Rowe, host of television’s Dirty Jobs, was told by a security guard that he loves his job. He went on to explain,“But I’m not good at it because I love it. I love it because I’m good at it.”

            Chop wood, carry water.
            


Thursday, April 26, 2018

Defiance


            I think it started when I was in high school. I would borrow the family station wagon for an evening with friends, detouring traffic. The first stop would be a place where there was road construction, complete with Detour signs and sawhorses with blinking lights. We would throw them into the back of the car and set them up again to detour traffic into the driveways of our friends. Funny, right! And what could go wrong? The entertainment came to an end when, within a week, we were chased (half-heartedly) by the local police, and at a Christmas party be asked by some parents if I wanted to put some blinking lights on the tree.

            I suspended this kind of activity when I was in college – too busy studying, playing sports, and I can’t remember what else. There was a good effort from some classmates when Walker Hall, a large neo-Gothic building, was being demolished to make way for the Robert Frost Library. Somebody, somehow, arranged the large stones into a replica of Stonehenge, though Professor Sale complained that it was not lined up properly for the Spring Equinox. And then there was the Chapel Dash, won by the person who could leave breakfast at Valentine Hall last and still make it on time to our required-but-non-religious chapel service. I rented a gorilla suit to harass the runners, but a bad case of poison ivy quashed my plans.

            I continued my efforts in this vein when teaching high school in Ann Arbor, though at this point I was in a position of authority. Students, led by Sarah, asked me to sponsor the Armadillo Club. We researched armadillos and gave presentations at our meetings. (They cross rivers by holding their breath while walking across the bottoms, and they may carry leprosy and are therefore useful in research.) We had a University of Michigan professor give a talk, and we watched a video of armadillo races. Kim designed t-shirts and stationary with our logo and motto: “Tough on the outside, tender on the inside.” Why armadillos? It was the 70s. The Armadillo Club, by school policy, had to have a Mission Statement. Our mission: To be the largest club in the school. We managed to defeat the Ski Club by declaring that every student in school was a member, and they had to petition us to leave the club. We knew we achieved our goal when we pretty much emptied the school for the outdoor yearbook photo. The Armadillo Club ended after one year when Sarah graduated.

            A couple of years later some students and I started the Apathy Club. I’d heard colleagues complain that high school seniors were apathetic. One of our rules – our only rule, come to think of it – was that if you came to an Apathy Club meeting, you were kicked out of the club. Our idea for the yearbook photo was a shot of an empty room, but the photographer lost interest and didn’t show up. The Apathy Club did not last very long.

            The A.P. Pep Rally, however, had a run of 5 or 6 years. Huron High School had a lot of students take and do well on Advanced Placement Exams, so I thought we should celebrate our efforts with a pep rally, mocking the football pep rallies. Instead of a marching band we had a girl with a violin and a guy with a flute. Isabel, our A.P. French teacher, held forth with great enthusiasm in a language few could understand. A girl recited pi from memory for a minute or so. A chorus of A.P. Chemistry students chanted Avogadro’s Number. I led a cheer encouraging students to “Think Good!” A parent complained to our Principal that one of the school’s teachers was using incorrect grammar. Our Assistant Principal suggested to the A.P. leadership that the Pep Rally might explain why Huron High School did so well on the tests. 

            What’s the point? A large part of the pleasure, I confess, derives from being on the inside of the joke. This gives me a feeling of power, perhaps missing in what passes for my Real Life. But there is more to it than that.

            It’s is a form of theater. In my first year of teaching, I was assigned to teach “drama,” and to me that meant giving students and awareness and appreciation of audience – just as it is with any writing. So I assigned them to perform “happenings,” improvised street dramas that, for my students, involved such things as clown suit, a pig on a leash, and a telephone cord connected to a girl’s navel. (My Principal’s response after a newspaper photo: “Very creative. Don’t do it again.”) My efforts were a lot like happenings. I was creating a form of theater as distinct from the Real Life going on around me. And in that theater, I was a character as well as author.

            Real Life these days involves cancer, aging and mortality. In the face of that, Kim and I are staging a drama, or at least a happening, that involves building our home on the lake, planning for our life there, signing up to do a butterfly survey, and taking an Audubon trip to the Upper Peninsula to photograph warblers. We like the element of defiance involved. Yesterday Kim asked how my balance is, thinking we should probably get a paddleboard for our summer fun, and we are talking about the rocks we will move to create a courtyard. And the audience for this drama? I suppose this blog creates an audience of sorts, but our real audience is ourselves as we watch ourselves appreciate each day. And the awareness of looming Real Life makes the drama, and the defiance, even sweeter.


Thursday, April 19, 2018

Wonderful Peeps

   

       Kim's photographs typically reveal here love and appreciation of the natural world - birds, butterflies, landscapes, skies and water. But once in a while her artistic eye goes to people, many of them strangers.

Kim reminds us that there are so many cool people in the world, waiting to be seen and appreciated.


This free spirit was dancing across the sand at Estero Beach, Florida.

Bicycle Charlie was a familiar sight in Saline, Michigan. He camped out on a piece of property he owned (there's a story there), and he made his way around town on his bicycle. Bicycle Charlie died a couple of years ago.

Kim took this photo from our car when we were in Titusville. The man has a story, but we don't know what it is.
What are we to make of the little notebook on the sidewalk?

We met this guy at a coffee shop, maybe in North Carolina, and Kim thought he looked pretty cool. Kim sent him the photo, and he replied by giving Kim one of her best nicknames, "Gram with a Cam."









Solitude - St.Marks National Wildlife Refuge in Florida's Panhandle

Solitude - Alligator Lake, which is not in Michigan

A new father out fishing with his wife and baby.

When we traveled back and forth between Florida and Michigan, we would sometimes get off the Interstate, either to see a park or distillery or just for the change of pace. In South Carolina we stopped for what we thought was an historical museum and instead found a barbershop. (The barber chair itself might count as historical.) The five guys inside were mainly just enjoying each other's company, but they agreed to pose for some barbering action shots I'd heard a TED Talk about how places like this are where guys come to share medical advice because they trust their long relationship with their barbers. We stopped by again six months later to give them prints of the photos Kim took.


Our Reilly

The technique Kim used in this photo is called "creative blur": slow shutter speed and move the camera on purpose.
The term "creative blur" also describes what it sometimes feels like to live with an artist.

Those could be your shoes, or mine . . ..



Thursday, April 12, 2018

Reboot


            Kim and I have been married almost 29 years, and during that period we have moved 9 times, with #10 due in May or June when we hope our new cottage will become our home. That sounds like a lot, and it is a lot.

            Why do it?

            If left to my own devices, I probably would never move. But Kim is an artist, and she craves change. One way she expresses her creative energy is in creating our home, an art that involves, in her case anyway, much more than the old-fashioned term “homemaker” suggests. I suspect that if she does not feed that craving by creating homes, she will feed it by dumping me.

            Don’t get me wrong here. Though I probably would never move, I am always glad, and grateful to Kim, when we do. Sometimes I just need a boot or a nudge to get me going, much the way Kim has to get me out the door to go birding or exploring. I love it, but my general stability of character brings with it some inertia. As in, “inert,” which my dictionary defines as “having no inherent power of action, motion or resistance.” My lack of resistance serves me well, though, because I benefit from going along with Kim’s creative energy and direction.

            Why move? I looked out the window at the fresh snowfall this morning. The world was transformed. OK, so it wasn’t transformed all that much since we had nearly a foot of snow two days ago, but still – it looked fresh and new, and that was exciting, and the suddenness of the transformation was part of the thrill. (Gradual transformations, such as getting old, are not so thrilling.) My excitement dimmed a bit when I scraped snow off of my car and got some up my sleeve, but my main point remains: transformations can be energizing, and moving usually means a dramatic transformation.

            The kind of move that we have experienced, and are anticipating, is a bit like rebooting a computer. While I admit that I don’t really understand what happens when a computer reboots, Wikipedia tells me it means: “To cause a computer to execute its boot process, effectively resetting the computer and causing the operating system to reload, especially after a system failure.” I’m not aware of any “system failure,” unless you count cancer, but I do like the idea of reloading the operating system, which I take to mean our deepest values and the activities that go with them. We love living in our condo here in the old asylum – and it has been an asylum – but Who We Are involves stepping out the door into the woods, working in the garden or whatever landscape we come up with, seeing and photographing our birds and butterflies, and watching the light change during the day. On our last visit to the construction site we saw coyote tracks in the snow, and we know we have a resident fox.

            And we will enjoy the energizing – though probably exhausting – process of rebooting: getting our stuff out of storage, arranging our furniture, setting up office and studio spaces, placing all the kitchen gear, creating new patterns routines: reloading our operating systems.

            I think of what Woody Allen said in Annie Hall: “A relationship, I think, is like a shark, you know? It has to constantly move forward or it dies. And I think what we got on our hands is a dead shark.” Kim and I may be a lot of things, but one thing we are notis a dead shark.