Friday, May 30, 2014

Never. Gets. Old.

Some days just call for a burst of inspiration to get the blood flowing. Maybe the day gets mired in deadlines, frustrations, setbacks, misunderstandings, and plain ol' fashioned bad juju. It happens. It happens to all of us. We each find our ways to cope, our ways to coax ourselves out of the funk. A two-hour escape into the screen (cinema or television) with a favorite selection is a sure way for my attitude to crawl out of the ooze that is a bad day. Each speaks a lesson to me. Each one never gets old. Sometimes, all I need to do is watch certain scenes to receive that all-important attitude adjustment.

1. The Tango Scene, Scent of a Woman (1992). The brilliant Al Pacino plays a blind man, who, in this scene, dances a tango with a stranger. Who would not want to be in this scene? Pacino explains that there are no mistakes. If you get all tangled up, you tango on.

2. A Barbaric YAWP, Dead Poets Society (1989). Ethan Hawke plays an introverted student at a boarding school where he encounters an unconventional teacher, played by Robin Williams. Hawke is begrudgingly pulled to the front of the classroom to recite a poem, pushed by Williams, and in the pushing, Hawke reveals his hidden creativity.

3. Rooftop scene, Eat Pray Love (2010). Richard Jenkins plays the unlikely philosopher, Richard from Texas, as he tells his story to Liz Gilbert, played by Julia Roberts. Sometimes, even the most lost person can see their mistakes and try to find forgiveness. We all have a story, and those who have earned the right to hear our story, should listen. Every story, and every person, has value.

4. Not Enough Rocks scene, Forrest Gump (1992). Jenny (Robin Wright) and Forrest (Tom Hanks) have been friends since childhood. On a leisurely walk one day, they pass Jenny's childhood home, a place of bad memories for her. It's good to have a friend who knows the rough parts of you and is willing to sit with you until the pain goes away.

5. Death Crawl scene, Facing the Giants (2006). A football movie for all to enjoy because of the great motivation it gives. In this scene, a disheartened player is challenged to a seemingly insurmountable task. Everyone needs a coach like this. If you don't have one, keep this guy's voice in your head.

6. Swordboat Captain scene, The Perfect Storm (2000). George Clooney plays Billy Tyne, a swordboat captain out of Gloucester, Massachusetts, who was unfortunately lost at sea. This scene, shared with actress Mary Mastrantonio, reminds us to find something to love and do it with passion. Capt. Billy Tyne knew what he was meant to do in life, and that was to spend his life on the sea. Find the passion in your life and give it everything you have.

These scenes remind me of some important lessons in life. What does it for you? What gives you a boost? What is your go-to for staying on track?

Thursday, May 22, 2014

The Pursuit of Connection

Being the movie buff I am, I watch an eclectic range of movie genres. The weirder it sounds, the better. Last weekend I watched Her, starring Joachim Phoenix as a recently divorced man who so desperately wants to feel connection to someone that he begins a relationship with the voice of his computer operating system. The movie takes place just a few years in the future where an operating system (e.g. Windows and Mac) has been developed that not only has a voice, but the disembodied voice can learn. The voice learns the user's likes and dislikes as well as learns to develop its own personality. It does not take long before lead character Theodore falls in love.

Our increasingly digital population is not that far off from this, I fear. The hunger for connection used to be sated by a trip to the local watering hole with friends, where a few laughs were had, a few problems were solved, and maybe a new friend was made. The last ten years, with ever-growing digital means to communicate, has seen a slow degradation of real, person-to-person, conversation. In 1990, when an event occurred in someone's life, they gathered around the kitchen table or ran across the street to tell their friend. Today, a significant event would be immediately followed by hands searching for a smart phone and a quick condensation of feelings into 140 characters or less so it could be tweeted to the world. The same goes for insignificant events. In fact, let's be honest, most social media posts are insignificant events.

We are hungry for connection and in all the wonderful advancements of technology, we are slowly losing the art of how to talk to each other, how to look into someone's eyes and sense their emotion. We speak in acronyms and hashtags while our beautiful language becomes as diluted as our relationships. We keep ourselves shrouded behind touch screens and keyboards, always just out of reach of the real emotion, the real connection.  No better place can this be seen than in the upswing of online relationships.

Now, I am not about to bash online dating. Some of my most favorite couples met online. The difference with them is while they met online, they developed their relationship in person. The anonymity of the internet can hide a myriad of woes, and it can become too easy to stretch that little white lie into a big fat falsehood. The increasing occurrence of this has launched an interesting television show entitled Catfish on the MTV Networks.

The premise of Catfish is that a person involved in an online relationship -- who has yet to meet the person on the other end of the relationship -- contacts the show's hosts with suspicions the other person may not be who they said they were. But there is the hope that they are, too. The hosts, Nev Schulman and Max Joseph, investigate the other party and arrange for the two online love-birds to meet. It usually ends badly. A viewer might be quick to say the person should have known better than to believe the story given by the other party. Yet, in this technological age when we crave human interaction, we can feast on some of the most unassuming nibbles of affection. Before you know it, we have followed that trail of emotional crumbs into something we did not expect, but still hope will lead us to our happiness. It does not only happen online. 

I sat with my sister one evening, having dinner at a local restaurant. While we waited for our order, I could not help but watch a family at the next table -- Mom, Dad, and two energetic, well-behaved, elementary-aged children. The little girl was excited to tell her parents of her day at school, surely filled with drawing pictures and reading stories. Quite animated in her recitation of her day, her mother listened intently, looking at the youngster as if she were made of pure gold. The little girl directed her conversation toward her father with the exuberance only found in the spirited souls of children. The father, eyes permanently fixed on his smart phone, did not look up. He spend the entire dinner focused on a piece of machinery while his life was sitting right in front of him.

I said to my sister, "He's missing the best part." Technology has made great advancements in communication, true, but it can also get in the way. 

This week, I learned of a young man named Greg Hindy who is walking across America. A photographer, Greg is not only walking across the country to develop his craft, but he also took a vow of silence. Beginning last summer, his trek started in New Hampshire and took him through the south and across the southwest, where he turned north and traversed the Rocky Mountains. He is currently walking through the Pacific Northwest, eventually making his way to California where his journey is scheduled to end this summer.

Hindy's journey began as an art project with his stated intention of compiling his photographs afterward to present to the supporters of his Kickstarter funding project. The vow of silence is used to direct him to use the photographs as his voice, to take better shots, and to connect with his surroundings more fully. Other than his camera, Hindy has no technology with him -- no cell phone, no GPS, no music. He communicates with a notebook and pen, telling people of his silence through his written words. The people he encounters often take photographs of him and post them to the Facebook group managed by Hindy's father, Carl. Some even call Carl to let him know how Greg is doing. Carl tracks his son's progress by the use of his debit card, marking the places on a map, and sharing it on the Facebook page. Greg has garnered quite a community without uttering one word or typing one tweet.

The pursuit of connection can lead us to some unexpected places. The use of technology can as well. Somehow, I think Greg has found more authentic human connection even without his voice than most people will ever find in their lives with their voice. Or their iPhones. Or Facebook. Or Twitter. As with so many things in our lives, it is about quality, not quantity. Quality communication between people will build quality connection. But I would be hard-pressed to be convinced that anything could replace looking into someone's eyes and seeing our words reflected in them.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Lessons in Sawdust

A lot can happen in 25 years. Fashions change, technologies change, and people change. Yes, people can change, despite the old adage of "leopards don't change their spots" and numerous other sayings of similar sentiment. On this day 25 years ago, my father slipped away from this world, leaving me at 22 years old, scared of what the world held and armed only with the lessons he taught me during the uncountable hours we spent together in his woodworking shop. These conversations, surrounded by table saws and sanders, were not always easy for this hard-headed kid to absorb, but they were necessary. I never knew how much the lessons meant until later in life when I realized how accurate they were . . . helpful . . . timeless. And he thought I wasn't listening!

It is a strange feeling when someone so important to you has been gone from your life for years, and you realize you have crossed the midpoint where the person has been gone longer than you knew them. That year for me was 2011. Admittedly, it was a difficult concept to accept -- my father had been missing from my life for more years than he was in my life. What began as a tough thought to accept -- this crossing of the meridian of time -- evolved into a new view from a place of, dare I say, wisdom. The lessons from the wood shop were always with me, but only in the last few years did they all gather and whisper, "Write me down."

So, I did (because that's what I do).

Each one has a story or two (or more) to accompany it, but that will have to be for another day. Today, I just hit the highlights, knowing that these lessons, imprinted on my past, are still guiding me in my present and future. Dad sure knew what he was doing.
  1. Never lie to me. Everything else we can work out.
  2. Save for your wants; spend for your needs.
  3. Keep your wants in check.
  4. Panic never solved anything.
  5. Anger never solved anything either.
  6. Never miss a good opportunity to shut up.
  7. He helps those who help themselves.
  8. If you don't have time to do it right, when will you have time to do it over?
  9. Don't tell me you are a good person. Show me.
  10. Pay attention to the small stuff. It is the best stuff.  
  11. Remember your responsibilities.
  12. Prepare then play.
  13. Life is better with laughter.
  14. Measure twice, cut once.
'Nuff said.

Friday, May 9, 2014

The Little Things

Raindrops on a tin roof.

The soft flutter of pear tree blossoms on a spring breeze.

Laughing so hard with a friend that we cannot catch our breath.

Driving the back roads on a summer day, windows down and radio up.

The sound of snowfall on a crisp winter night.

Receiving a handwritten letter in the mailbox.

So much of my life has been focused on the big moments -- graduate college, get a promotion at work, take a vacation to a faraway place -- all worth the work to achieve, though the shine wears off rather quickly, leaving me searching for the next hurdle to conquer. It has been an exhausting pursuit, pushed so hard and so fast at times, I took no opportunity to see what I rushed past in the day-to-day. Those small moments, like the ones listed above, waiting along the daily route of our lives are were the nectar is, the sweetness to life, and can fuel our spirits along our paths. 

Saturday mornings are my favorite part of the week, thought an outsider might view it as unexciting. The dogs awake me early -- at the same time as we wake during the work week because they do not know the difference -- and we all answer the call of nature. I prepare their breakfast, get them fresh water, and clean the sleep from their eyes. Still dark outside, I head to the couch, fluff a pillow, turn on the television, and lay down for a couple more hours of rest before beginning the day. I settle into the couch where the dogs soon join me, and as if choreographed, take their places in our Saturday morning nest. Stella curls into the crook of my leg while George lays lengthwise along on my side, resting his head on my shoulder. It is quite the sight. We flip to channel 28 and watch Law and Order reruns, knowing Sam Waterston will keep the bad guys at bay.

Goals and big moments are wonderful and necessary, and when achieved can give us a feeling of accomplishment known only few times in life. But life -- the beautiful tapestry of life that happens every day -- is made in the small moments. It is made when we share a laugh with a friend, hold the door for a stranger, enjoy a sunset, and hug someone we love. In my house, the most important time of the week happens in those few hours on the couch with my furry children, spending time, catching up, and knowing our connection to each other. We recognize the little things, and in that recognition, they become the biggest things.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Because We Do

Why do you live there with all the tornadoes?

It is a question I have heard more than once in my life and usually after a week similar to this one. Unless you do not own a television (or you are reading from a place outside the United States), you have likely heard of the strong thunderstorms which have traveled across the midsection of our country, spawning tornadoes, and leaving heartbreaking trails of debris and broken lives in their wake. It is our stormy season here, and while not every week has a storm and not every storm has damage and not all damage is caused by tornadoes, when luck runs out and a tornado hits, we remember it clearly.

Most tornadoes are small, striking a few structures in a small town we only know as the place we drive through to get to somewhere else. Occasionally, a large storm hits nearby and we remember much more: the eerie green haze outside that signaled something bad was coming,* the sound of the storm sirens, the ominous clouds above, or the moment we first heard of the damage. If we are lucky, we are not affected. When we are lucky, we count our blessings, say a silent prayer, and thank the cosmos for saving us. This time.

Three years ago, an EF5 tornado hit Joplin, Missouri, leveling one-third of the town called home by roughly 50,000 residents with winds in excess of 200 miles per hour. It was a Sunday night, and though my home stands 75 miles southwest of Joplin, many of us still recall the green haze we saw that night as the line of storms moved through our Ozark Mountains. A small tornado here or there is not unusual, but when the Weather Channel's storm-chasing reporter is reduced to tears on air as he steps from his vehicle amid the destruction so fresh that emergency personnel has not yet arrived, you know this one was big. And you remember the night. You hold your loved ones a little tighter. You say an extra prayer. You promise to call your mother.

Joplin changed us. After 40+ years of living in or near tornado alley, I bought my first weather radio in the week following the Joplin tornado. Though anywhere I have lived I have always had a place mentally selected for an emergency -- the hallway, the bathtub, the basement -- only after Joplin did I physically prepare a safe place with blankets, emergency supplies, and extra clothing. We take it more seriously now. It happened just down the road from us. It was only 75 miles away. My co-worker lost his mother-in-law in the Joplin storm. We found photographs and paperwork from Joplin homes in our yards, blown by the ferocity of the wind so far away. It was all too real this time. It did not just happen to people in news reports. It happened in our backyard. All of it was so close to home.

But why do we live here?

It's home. It's what we know. We are accustomed to storms and realize that not every storm is destructive, not every storm will turn our world upside down. If we moved anywhere else, that place would have its equivalent. California has earthquakes, Florida has hurricanes, North Dakota has blizzards, and the list continues -- flood, drought, quakes, shakes, shimmies, shivers, freezes, and blusters. No place is perfect, and wherever you live, you prepare for your area's equivalent. It's what we do.

We weather the storms. We pick up the pieces and figure a way to place them back together again. We hope we are stronger afterwards. We are born with a natural resilience that prompts us to stand up after we are knocked down.

Last Sunday night, a line of heavy storms moved overhead. I gathered my dogs on the bed, put the weather radio nearby, and watched the television coverage. We took note of the green haze as it appeared just before sundown, as it told us it would be a rough night. The evening was spent monitoring the signs and signals for a moment that would tell us to move to our safe place.  Luckily, we did not have to go. Our hearts ached for those when we watched the television coverage of the damage only 120 miles south of us in Mayflower, Arkansas. We were lucky. This time.

What we do not share, because the timing would seem odd after a night of destruction, is how beautiful the sky is the next day. We do not comment on it normally, but we notice it. The blue of the sky the next day is clear and rich and compelling. So compelling is its beauty that I stopped the car on the way home from work just to admire it. So compelling was its color that I forgot to take a picture. We rarely talk about it, but we never forget how beautiful the sky is after the storm.

I guess that's what it's all about: getting through the storm, knowing there will be something beautiful again, even if its just one blue sky. It's what we do. We stand up after being knocked down. We build again. We put the scrambled parts back together again and create a new normal. It will not be the same, but it will be. It will be a life again -- different, but life. Eventually, we will see beauty again, something so beautiful that it stops us in our tracks.

*Not always, but often there is a strange green haziness to the air when a particularly bad storm is approaching. I have witnessed it a few times. It is indescribable, but if you have seen it once, you will never forget it.