Saturday, October 31, 2009

The Ghost in the Gabled Window

Ghost below the Sunset?
It was becoming a recurrent dream -- what was it, five nights in a row? In it he was asleep and then awoke hearing footsteps in the bedroom upstairs. Not heavy ones, but unmistakably, someone was walking around up there. He lay in bed, listening, following the steps as they moved from the north end to the south, passing directly overhead. He couldn't remember anything else nor was he certain there was anything else to remember. But each time, it was the same. Soft, steady, footsteps, as if someone was walking on tip toe.

Gazing out the window at the fog that looked like an opaque mass of grey cotton candy stretched out over his hayfield, he poured a second cup of coffee and contemplated his dream. "Downstairs is the unconscious," he said to himself, "and upstairs refers to, I don't know, maybe depending too much on reason instead of trusting my intuition?" Yet, he couldn't think of a situation in which that might be true and so he felt baffled.

The rest of the day went by as predictably as his nightly visitation was becoming. He worked on his book, spent some time raking leaves and picking up stray apples -- Black Oxfords he'd recently discovered they were, a winter variety that should be absolutely delicious after a few more weeks in the root cellar. A late supper, reading by the fire, then bed -- with sleep a somewhat less than welcome prospect given the nature of things lately.

The dog had just begun to snore comfortably when he heard the footsteps again -- only this time he was awake and he switched on the light to confirm it. Yes, I'm definitely awake he thought, glancing round the room and placing his hand on the gently rising and falling canine rib cage next to him. And at that instant, the footsteps stopped. He took his hand away and they began again, moving characteristically across the room.

He threw back the bad clothes, slipped on his robe and taking the battery-powered torch he kept in the nightstand, proceeded to climb the stairs, hopefully as quietly as his nighttime intruder pacing the floor. It was an old house by nearly two hundred years, and despite recent remodeling, it creaked and groaned in the wind, and the floor in his study slanted at an odd angle because of shifts in the soil beneath the foundation.

Anticipating a mouse or simply the physics of aging architecture, he nevertheless felt he had to know what or who was about, if for no other reason than to resolve the mystery of his dream. Gripping the brass doorknob with a slightly trembling hand, he pushed the door open and swept the room with light.

It was enough to make Stephen King's hair stand on end and he was certain his was, too. At the gabled window to his left shimmered what he told himself later over a rather large glass of Macallan Scotch, was the faint figure of a woman in what appeared for all the world like a dressing gown and in her arms was an infant. She turned, looking at him with eyes like moonlight, and when she smiled he felt his heart was pierced.

Then she was gone.

Not absolutely sure he trusted his feet to take him downstairs, he leaned against the door jam, then startled like a frightened hare at the presence of his dog on the landing. Chest pounding, he asked "And where the heck have you been?" Smiling, tongue lolling, his tail wagged the obvious, "Sleeping, and why aren't you?"

For good reason, he thought, sipping the Scotch a few minutes later while searching the archives of local history online. Not that he expected to find anything -- she didn't eactly introduce herself. Besides, ghost stories are as plentiful in New England as liars in Congress and despite the testimony of his senses, he was still reticent to admit what he'd seen. And that's when he noticed the calender, and the date. It was the end of October.

Of course.

(Image "Ghost in the Sunset?" by Scott M Duncan via Flickr)

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Friday, October 30, 2009

In A New World

I suppose every high school student has to read Ethan Fromm. When my turn came I recall feeling disappointed -- I don't know what I expected, but whatever it was, Ethan Fromm wasn't it. Later on, in college, I took a course entitled Nineteenth Century American Intellectual History in which we read The Education of Henry Adams. Unlike Moby Dick, there was no Cliff Notes version and the best I can say about the experience was, it cured my insomnia.

I never have quite understood why dull is equated with meaningful at a time in our lives when the gossip at the back of the school bus is more interesting t

The Headless Horseman Pursuing Ichabod Crane (...Image via Wikipedia

han anything between the covers of the assigned reading. Is it because teachers presume our hormones are so out of control that we need the stabilizing influence of boredom to calm us down? Surely The Legend of Sleepy Hollow could be substituted for Evangeline or Poe's The Fall of the House of Usher for The House of Seven Gables, especially in October.

I freely admit, I was an adult before I learned to appreciate Emerson, Thoreau, and Walt Whitman. Louisa May Alcott I loved;
she stole my heart during fourth grade -- ah, yes, an older woman -- when I found Little Women sitting on the library shelf. Then came Little Men, but when Harriet Beecher Stowe stood nearby with Uncle Tom's Cabin, I was only two pages past the entrance when I began wondering if there wasn't a back door.

What made Louisa any different from the rest her generation? It's hard to say; I had no idea she was the one I was looking for until I'd found her. We have different needs at different times and predicting what those will be is difficult. With all due respect to John Locke, children aren't blank slates awaiting the scribble of just any piece of chalk. Finding the right one is a process of discovery and education should be about blending experience with inexperience as student and teacher wade onshore together, each planting their own flag in a new world.

(Image of the Headless Horseman (1858) via Wikipedia)
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Thursday, October 29, 2009

To Leaf or Not to Leaf

Early Autumn Lift

To leaf or not to leaf, that is the question. Sorry, Hamlet, I realize it's not as existential as the decision you contemplated, but it works nonetheless. Every year it's the same: do I get out the rake and leaf blower, and like a domesticated cowboy, herd the exponentially falling leaves, scattered like cattle after a stampede, into a pile or do I indulge myself and let them accumulate?

Doing nothing will choke the grass eventually, so there's that. On the other hand, I love the effect that comes from a yard full of leaves, especially the maples and oak. Here in Maine, much to my surprise, we have Magnolias -- I thought they were only seen down South -- that contribute large, semi-ovoid shaped ones to the mix.

I guess my reticence stems partly from a sense that this is autumn's natural self-expression and I hate to interfere. Part of it is simply the kid in me who loves the scent of fallen leaves and the sound that comes from kicking your feet as you walk through them, sending dozens flying with each step. And the more leaves you have, the more fun it is.

I'm also enough of a kid, though, to have fun with the leaf blower. Last year I raked, and with a yard the size of mine, it was enough to make Sisyphus shudder -- this year is no different. Blowing is still work, as my muscles remind me at the end of the day, but it's also play, and that's a good thing. Work -- any kind of work -- that is the equivalent of adult play has the potential to become a creative expression of who we are as persons. All you need is the right playground.

(Image of autumn in Maine by Just Us 3 via Flickr)
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Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Seeing is Believing?

If I'm going to leave the computer unattended, it's obvious just about anything can happen. Actually, it's not surprising that I should find my guest authors' entry posted yesterday; both of them have been paying awfully close attention while I write lately. Naturally, I assumed they were simply being polite and well-mannered. What's that saying about assumptions?

It just goes to show you can't be quite certain things are as they seem. Reality is more fluid than fixed, something Einstein tried to tell us and, of course, we thought he was talking about physics. Little did we know.

Speaking of which, I've known people who construct fairly elaborate fantasies about the way life is supposed to unfold and then behave as if the rest of us are pieces in their private puzzle. When things don't quite fit together, they either conveniently ignore th

The Emperor's New Clothes
e fact or attempt to manipulate people or circumstances to suit the fantasy. They remind me of the Emperor who had no clothes, and it amazes me how they don't realize there's a breeze.

Instead, they go along, exuding an aura of denial, indifferent to their impact on others, all the while acting as though they are the nicest people in the world. If you challenge their world-view or simply refuse to play the game, they appear genuinely astonished. Why, how could anyone not wish to play?

Fairly easily, especially once you realize their version of reality isn't congruent with ours. It might look attractive, feel flattering, and seem genuine enough, but like my sleeping pets on a fine afternoon, you can't be sure one eye isn't partially open and things will turn out to be far different from what you imagine.

One more thing: the dog and cat wanted me to say they appreciated your indulgence and they'll try to stay away from the computer from now on. I'll believe it when I see it.

(Image by ~LiLi~ via Flickr)
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Tuesday, October 27, 2009

It's a Secret

(Will you get your paws out of the way -- now! I can't see the screen and I have to in order to write. No, that's not a bug, so stop trying to play with it. Yes, I'll share my treats with you when we're done.) Oops, hi there! (Stop that, can't you see someone's reading us?) Anyway, ahem, hi there! Beggar's taking a nap and we decided we'd give him a surprise and write his daily post. I'm the dog, the one on the right, and the cat's the one on the left. I guess you knew that already.

So, I'll bet you're wondering how a dog and cat can do this -- type on the computer, that is. Well, it's like this, you use your paw claws and hit the keys one at a time and everything shows up on the screen. It works the same way when Beggar does it only he doesn't use his fingernails. I have to use my claws because -- wait, I get it, you want to know how we can use the computer! Oh, well, that's different. Can't tell you that, nope, it's a (whispering) seeecret.

Most of what we do is that way, so I can't explain all the things you'd like to know about cats and dogs. I'd like to -- it's not like I'm trying to be mean or anything -- but we promised not to tell and we never break a promise. I can say that Beggar and I took our walk in the hayfield today. Usually we go down the lane and that's fine because there's lots of dog mail to check. But I like the hayfield better because there's room to wander and I don't have to worry about cars passing. I've got the whole thing to myself and it's fun!

Today we stopped and looked at orange and red oak leaves -- I know, someone said dogs are colorblind. Don't you believe it -- oops, that's a secret, too. You didn't get it from me, okay? Then we walked down by the river and that's cool because it's big and looks like my bowl when Beggar overfills it, kind of sloshy and all wet. Boy, did it ever make me want to have a drink! And then we walked back home and I got a Milk Bone which is what I get after I take Beggar for his daily walk.

That's one of my jobs, making sure he gets his exercise, because exercise is good for him so that he stays Fit and Trim, like the dog food. I also take care of the car when he goes in the store and tell him when someone's at the door. It's not a lot but it's enough to keep me busy between naps and playing with the cat. And eating -- right, I forgot about that. Let's see, it's about dinnertime by the you-know-what on the mantle...he he he, you thought I was going to tell you how I knew what time it was, didn't you? Sorry.

That's a seeeecret!

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Monday, October 26, 2009

Lions, Tigers, and Bears, Oh My!

My veterinarian-friend and I used to chat about the implications of treating animals ethically and the criminal penalties for their mistreatment, and she made a point one rarely hears. What if a hit and run involving a squirrel (a common victim, it seems) carried the same liability as a similar case involving a human? Or what if animal cruelty was regarded as equivalent to child or spousal abuse? The impact on the criminal justice system alone would be overwhelming.

Not that she is opposed to strict enforcement of existing laws and she volunteers (where she gets the time, I'll never know) as a medical expert in animal rescue efforts. But she doesn't allow her passionate love for animals to cloud her professional judgment about the ethical complications inherent in sharing the earth with members of other Kingdoms, Phyla, Classes, Orders, Families, Genus, and Species.

And I think that's the conception that lies at the core of the discussion, namely, that we are truly late-comers on the biological scene -- other creatures were here first. Now, that argument in and of itself has never been a persuasive one. Consider the
westward expansion of our own country. The fact that Native Americans were "there" first, didn't prohibit the settling of the West. Nevertheless, my point is we aren't alone on this planet, and the presence of other creatures necessitates adaptation if we're going to think and behave ethically.

But adapting to changing conditions is difficult at best and we're not always very good at it. At various times there are those among us who've not only been resistant, but downright oppositional to the idea of full social equality for non-Caucasian races, women, and Gay persons. It's not just Spotted Owls, old-growth forests, or the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge -- some of us have a real problem treating other h

Mountain lion.

umans fairly.

The mindset that regarded Manifest Destiny as a sufficient reason for imposing our will on the environment is long past its prime. We never really had the luxury of pretending our actions had no lasting consequences. They did and they still do. The community of creatures living in adjacent spaces requires me to use good judgment in my relations with them simply because I can. It's not reasonable to expect mountain lions and bears to read a no-trespassing sign and if I'm going to live in close proximity to their habitats, I've got to be prepared to take some risks: they shouldn't have to pay the price for my pleasure. Living ethically sometimes involves as much common sense as it does philosophy.

(Public domain image of a mountain lion via Wikipedia)
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Sunday, October 25, 2009

With the Tongues of Men or of Angels

What makes it hardest is he's forgiving. My cat, I mean. He could have held a grudge or at least been angry and scattered his food or some such thing, but instead, having lost the mouse, he crawled into bed with me this morning. I still feel badly, not because the mouse got away per se, but because I ruined my cat's evening. He's been on the hunt for days and just when he's got success firmly grasped between his teeth, I come along and, well, if you read last night's post, you know the story.

I know, this sounds a bit like anthropomorphizing -- attributing human em
otions to animals -- and I can see how it might be taken that way. But I've learned my animals have lives of their own. Sometimes they seek my company, sometimes not, and I'm the same way. They have habits and preferences and within certain limits I'm determined to respect them. If the dog wants to chase a squirrel into the forest through a bed of poison ivy, that's not okay. Better to stay on leash.

But the whole question of emotion is another issue entirely. One of my closest friends is a veterinarian out in Colorado and she fully agrees, animals have the same emotion-producing centers in the brain as humans. Now, whether their feelings
are as nuanced as those of humans is difficult to say, but that doesn't mean animals don't feel sadness, anger, or love. Nor does it mean we shouldn't use those words to describe them.

PhotonQ-Homer' s Evolution Theory

I wonder if the tendency to minimize animal emotion (and cognition) stems from a misinterpretation of human significance. It may be that humans aren't so much the pinnacle of evolution as simply one path among many. With greater capability comes greater responsibility.

If I may speak theologically for a moment, the Latin Vulgate version of the Bible translates the word dominion in Genesis, where it is said God gave humans dominion over the creatures of the earth, as servant. President Obama encourages us to embrace a new commitment to service because thereby we not only improve the lives of others, we raise ourselves to new levels of humanness. Speaking for myself, I think it's time to take on the mantle of servant-leadership with respect to non-humans as well. Time to take care rather than take advantage. Time to be a voice for those who cannot speak with either the tongues of men or of angels.*

(Image of "Homersapiens" by PhOtOnQuAnTiQuE via Flickr)

*Often quoted at weddings, "Though I speak with the tongues of men and angels, if I have not love, I am but a clanging brass or tinkling cymbal."
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Saturday, October 24, 2009

Carpe Diem!

Cat and Mouse

You might think my last late night escapade attempting to intervene in a game of my cat and his mouse would have taught me something. Apparently not, because I did it again this evening. There really is nothing like doing the same thing over and over, each time expecting a different result, to make a person question their sanity. I have no doubt my cat would agree completely.

I was writing my daily post, playing catch up with a to-do list gone bonkers, when I heard not exactly a rumble but more than a loud bang coming from the bedroom. By the time I'd gotten to the hallway, the cat was making a beeline for the living room. Once again, the dog was on my heels as we came upon the scene of the crime, namely the cat trying to avoid being caught and the mouse in his mouth wishing he hadn't been.

I had a bag in my hand, intending to either dispose of the remains or better, release the little guy back into the wilds of the front yard. I don't know what made me think this was going to be like Androcles and the Lion -- I save the mouse and out of deepest gratitude he becomes my closest companion in a 21st century version of Ben and Me. Okay, I'm a softie when it comes to animals, even the ones I wish would stay outside, what can I say?

Now, try to picture this if you can. I crept around the big chair -- my chair, the one large enough for me, the dog, and the cat on my lap, all sound asleep, that chair -- and nabbed the cat and by extension, the mouse. Just as I was about to gently relieve him of his prize, the cat opened his mouth -- to argue over ownership, I'm sure -- and the mouse fell to the floor. Carpe diem! I could swear I heard him squeek, and he dove for cover.

So, what's happening now? Well, appropriately ashamed of myself, the dog and I have retired to my study and left the cat in the living room. The mouse is still there, of course -- I saw him in the heating register next to the wall, safely ensconced and out of harm's way. At this point, if the cat can't get the job done, no one can and I'm not about to try. Making a fool of myself once in an evening is quite enough, thank you, especially in the presence of someone who actually knows what he's doing.

(Image of cat and "mouse" by Keith Marshall via Flickr)

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Friday, October 23, 2009

A Little Bit of Sunrise

One of the reasons I often write about watching the slow waking of the world from the window in my study, is because so many cannot. I have a friend who may, just now, be looking out a hospital window after a long night on-call, weary and bleary-eyed -- she would like this view. Too tired to sleep, too much to do to contemplate it anyway, the coffee in the nursing station might as well be water for all the good it does, so she settles for a window and a little bit of sunrise.

She checks her watch, hoping her replacement doesn't oversleep and arrive late because she still has notes to write and there are six ER admissions waiting for transfer to the medical floors. One is in restraints, having been convinced by PCP he was invincible, an argument none of the seven who held held him down for sedation found persuasive. His wildly flailing fist narrowly missed her jaw before a security officer nicknamed Andre the Giant -- for obvious reasons -- grabbed it in mid-swing. That was exciting, she thought later, while rubbing hands that had begun to ache from performing Osteopathic treatments on another dozen patients with pneumonia or H1N1. And when did they call that cardiac code? Was it before or after Mr. PCP? It all runs together after 3 AM.

That's the worst time, from three to five. If you're really lucky, things have wound down to the point where a nap could be more than a figment of your imagination. If you've been a team-player, worked hard, and earned their respect, the nurses will try just as hard to make certain you get a couple of hours. If not, they'll manage to wake you every fifteen minutes for medication orders that could easily have waited until shift change. It's a good lesson some have difficulty learning.

It's really my conscience that refuses to allow me to sit here on the edge of morning as though it was my private possession. It's too good not to share anyway, but even more so when you think about those who'd enjoy seeing it but have notes to write and admissions to process. Oh, there's fresh coffee in the nursing station, did you know?

For all the good you will do.

(Image of early sunrise by the author; note to the reader: while I've used the female pronoun in this post, I could have just as easily used the male -- both are out there doing the work, each as well as the other.)
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Thursday, October 22, 2009

Snowflakes In Their Hair

In the Old Port, Portland, Maine, 16 Nov. 2008

It's early -- not too -- but earlier than I anticipated by about thirty minutes. I woke up hungry and decided to heed the siren call of maple muffins, just now out of the oven. The coffee pot, stuck on under-dribble, needs a healthy dose of vinegar. Not with the coffee, but to clean it. Balsamic vinegar on salad is wonderful, but white vinegar with coffee sounds like mixed messages. The cat is on the prowl despite having fresh food -- it's as though he's up too early as well, but is sufficiently awake to complain about it.

Speaking of vinegar, there's a little cooking shop near the wharf that offers balsamic in a variety of flavors. I didn't realize there was more than one, but they offer blueberry, raspberry, as well as some that have been aged like wine. It's a delightful place with glass-topped jars filled with dark, milk, and maple chocolate malt balls lining the shelf near the register like the candies in a nineteenth century general store. You've seen what I mean if you recall Open Range.

Little is definitely the descriptive word for this place -- many of the shops lining the cobblestone streets that run next to the harbor are on the smallish side. It's in a section of city that is older and especially on snowy days at Christmas I feel like I've tripped inadvertently into a Dickens novel. Any second I expect to bump into Mr. Pickwick or Pip and Estella walking arm in arm, eyes only for each other, snowflakes in their hair. Clad in down jacket and boots I feel out of place and I want to pardon myself for intruding.

Perhaps this is why it's easy to remain inside, despite the crush of too many people crowding into a store where one false move can send cascades of china crashing to the floor. Where the air is filled with the scent of orange-tinged coffee from New Orleans, cinnamon boiling in apple cider, and a tiny bell, decorated with red and golden leaves, ringing each time the door opens, then closes. Strangers enter, sample and sniff, speaking in smiling tones. It's autumn, the Holidays lie in wait, and there are no strangers here. Not really.

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Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Looking Everywhere, Going Nowhere

The Tingler

I was up late last night doing one of the things that is best done late at night: watching an old horror movie. It was called The Tingler, starred Vincent Price, and it scared the dickens out of me as a kid. As an adult and medical student, I thought it was hilarious. All those hours in the anatomy lab finally paid off (please don't tell my professor I said this) as I visualized the muscles Price was conveniently ignoring in the course of his dastardly surgery. Naturally, the entire premise of the film was about as anatomically correct as most of us feel after the Holidays when it's diet and exercise time again.

The story involves Price theorizing that fear originates in an organism called -- you guessed it -- the Tingler. I don't know if it's a remnant of prehistoric alien abduction or just some bug that crawled up out of the primordial soup, but it resides on the surface of the spinal cord and the more an individual experiences fear, the larger and more powerful the Tingler grows. The only way to overcome it is to scream, and, yes, there was a lot of screaming in the film.

In case you're starting to feel a little creepy -- maybe you're reading this later in the evening -- and you find yourself glancing at the windows or rubbing the back of your neck, I'll tell you straight off: I've been where the Tingler was supposed to be and you can stop worrying. It's only your imagination. Well, it's not the Tingler, anyway. Spooks, goblins, and things that go bump in the night aren't covered in anatomy, so I make no claims in that regard.

But, like most stories, even this one has an element of truth. In and of itself, fear is a healthy emotion and it's a darned good one to have in case you need to get out of the way of danger. When it dominates our range of emotional expression, we create problems for ourselves. It can inhibit our capacity for love, generate physical symptoms, and make us completely miserable. Worrying over what might happen (and usually doesn't) is like standing guard at the base entrance, day in and day out. Life is too precious to spend one's entire "tour of duty" pacing back and forth, looking everywhere, going nowhere.

(Copyright holder for film poster presumed to be Columbia Pictures, 1959, Image via Wikipedia)
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Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Being Like Bond

What is it about James Bond? I know, what section of the left field bleachers did that come from? I don't know yet -- just because I'm writing this doesn't really mean I know any more than you do. Writing is a process of discovery and what's coming round the next bend is anyone's guess. So, back to my original question, what is it about 007 that fascinates us enough to keep the franchise going since the Cold War? You're thinking I have an idea or two, huh?

Okay, well for starters, women like the fact that he's rugged, handsome, charming, and sexy. Kind of ironic, isn't it? I mean, he's everything men aren't supposed to be -- except for the rugged, handsome, charming, and sexy part. He sort of has a
steady job but you'll never know whether to count on him for dinner. He drives a three-hundred thousand dollar Aston Martin but it's unlikely you'll get to spend any time behind the wheel. And it seems like every time he falls in love, something happens and sooner or later, she gets killed. Mm, that's not good.

For men, he's confident, daring, in control, and has no problem obtaining female companionship. And did I mention the Aston? Something like zero to light speed

2004 Aston Martin DB9 coupé
in fractions of a second? Don't tell anyone I said this, but it's the car that gets us. The confidence, the control, the women -- those are all secondary. We want the car -- and all the other gadgets, for good measure.

The best thing of all, James always gets out of whatever trouble he's managed to get himself into. He's resilient. The bad guys can't beat him up enough to make him quit. Dangle him over a pit of hungry sharks by a nearly burnt through piece of rope and he'll find a way out. And not only does he survive, he comes through with his sense of humor intact. 

You want to know what I think? I think we love him because we'd like to do the same thing. In whatever circumstance, we want to be someone you can depend on, who doesn't abandon hope, who doesn't become bitter, and who makes you feel glad you know them. I could live with that, couldn't you?

(Image pf 2004 Aston Martin DB9 Coupe via Wikipedia)

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Monday, October 19, 2009

Drowning Prohibited

The stubble in my hayfield is like an unshaven face and walking through it barefoot is about as inviting as a morning kiss -- ooh, you're scratchy, said she -- before an encounter with Mr. Gillette. I feel that way this morning after having spent the past two days trudging through chapters that only three years ago were like tall grass, soft, fragrant, cool between my toes.
Reading proofs is not reading for pleasure. It's more like a relationship gone sour and all you can see are flaws, faults, and good intentions gone awry. I'm supposed to be looking for someone else's mistakes -- the unwitting typesetter's -- and the one's most glaring are my own. For every irritatingly misplaced paragraph there are a hundred words I wish I'd never spoken. And a hundred more I wish I had.

But the time for regrets is long past. You can drown in the re-grets, yeah (thank you, John Rzeznik). It's time for discipline and the down and dirty. Forgiveness comes later with the grace of selective memory, like all the mornings spent face down in the sink, the swollen ankles and aching back, in that precious moment new life is placed on a mother's belly.

Still, I don't see only the what we're we thinking? And there are smiles in recognition over lines we erased only to include them anyway because they were right in the beginning. The ideas are just as vibrant as they were those long, late nights over enchiladas and too much coffee (we couldn't trust ourselves with Ticate and lime). But, that's what I miss the most, the conversations interspersing esoterica with what it was like growing up, what's happening at home, and how will it feel when we exchange our hopes for a handful of book pages.

I guess now I know.

(Photo by the author; a nod of recognition to Sympathy, words and music by John Rzeznik)

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Sunday, October 18, 2009

Inside Voices

Happy Children Playing Kids

Time marches on. When I was a kid there was a television show in which the announcer, with a deep, dramatic voice, would say those words. And, since I was at the stage of concrete operations, I imagined Father Time literally marching down the street. Oops, there I go again, using psychological terms without defining them. Concrete operations is one of Jean Piaget's stages of development and it describes a period when the child's brain can't grasp abstract concepts. Instead, a child thinks literally and takes a phrase like "time marches on" to mean just what I thought.

Concrete thinking is normal in a child under the ages of twelve or thirteen. The reason for this is, the connections in the brain that make abstract thinking possible haven't developed until then. The brain takes time to grow just like everything else. As a result, when adults expect even exceptionally intelligent children to think like adults, it "ain't gonna happen." It's not a matter of rebellion or stubbornness, it's about biology. Mother Nature has her own timetable and no matter how many "A"s are on the report card, there are some things a child just can't understand.

This can be frustrating for parents who expect their children to grasp concepts they themselves assume to be obvious. The kid who runs out into the street after a stray frisbee may remember to "look both ways before crossing," but the idea that danger is waiting in the form of a passing car is an abstract one. "Don't you know that's dangerous?" goes right over the kid's head. But, to say, "You could get hit and that would hurt very, very badly -- worse than when you fell off your skateboard and cut yourself," makes much more sense to them.

Sometimes, concrete thinking persists into adulthood. When it's presented on stage, we call it comedy. Says one comedian, "Please, lower your voice." The other drops to his knees and says, "Is this low enough?" While most of the audience is laughing, a few are thinking, what's so funny? The children, of course, think it's hilarious and they'll repeat the routine to their parents for what seems like forever.

With adults, it can be a matter of education, genes, and social environment. With kids, it's primarily biology and parents do well to be patient. Our children grow up far too quickly in the normal course of things anyway. It cuts back on the stress if we can remember they're kids. Give them time. Eventually they'll get "the point" and stop wearing holes in the knees of their jeans while trying to use inside voices.

(GNU free documentation image via Wikipedia)
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Saturday, October 17, 2009

Pardon My Spelling

PDF 1.5 specification

As of yesterday, the proofs are done and in my hands. What are proofs? Also called page proofs, nowadays they're portable document format (pdf) files that depict how a book will appear once it's been printed. Prior to the advent of the personal computer, they were probably paper copies that arrived by post in a manila envelope. Mine were delivered by email -- it saves the mailperson the trouble of avoiding the dog at the door.

At first I was a little reticent about opening the file -- I felt like I imagine someone would after cosmetic surgery. The bandages are off and they're about to look in the mirror for the first time. At last, curiosity overcame my nerves, and I started to prowl hesitantly. First the title page with the publisher's emblem, then the copyright page and date (whew, this really isn't a dream), and finally the text. I'd been so accustomed to seeing it as a WORD document, I was startled by the fact that it really looks like a book.

Now the work begins. My job involves proof-reading every page to see if there are any errors in spelling, grammar, or formatting. Fortunately, there's also a professional proof-reader out there somewhere doing the same thing, so I've got a backup. But this is an important phase in the process because any errors we miss will be incorporated into the final version. It's even more so when you remember that neither of my coauthors are living -- any mistakes I make are out of their hands to correct.

Interestingly, this feels rather like an archeological dig. It's been a long time since my college course in archeology, so I won't bore you with what I don't recall. But I know it comes down to examining a site layer by layer -- even if you dig a trench in order to view history in cross-section, you only dig it in one place. The rest of the site is examined like an onion, pealed away one sliver at a time.

Some parts are easy -- the preface and introduction read like letters from old friends. The first chapter, though, is a lesson in humility and I can only hope readers become so engrossed they don't see what I see. It's too late for last minute editing, though, because we're on a deadline and the printer is drumming his fingers. Nope, I've got to be a good boy and take my medicine. In a sense, it's just like therapy and also a lot like life. Ultimately, we learn to accept who we are and have faith that others will too, spelling errors and all.

(Image by rillian via Flickr)
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Friday, October 16, 2009

Two Minutes From Tomorrow

There are times when I feel so much like Michael Martin Murphy's Boy From the Country it's not even funny. Down home, raised with dogs, horses and well water, we fought the battle of frozen pipes in winter, and as a fifth grader, I attended a virtual one-room schoolhouse. I've only been outside the United States once and that was to cross into Canada to see their side of Niagara Falls (it was worth the trip).

I'm thinking like this today because it's two minutes from tomorrow in northeastern Australia, where my friend and fellow blogger Crystal Mary Lindsey is at he

Locator map for Australia

r desk. For anyone fascinated by time travel, the International Dateline is a gift from heaven. I realize, like Annie, it's always tomorrow somewhere, but the idea that there's a person on the other side of now who's already at then makes my head spin.

It gets even dizzier when you realize it's as though her words are hanging in mid-air, fifteen hours away, waiting for me to lasso them as we pass by. The image would have had my cowboy great-grandfather thinking I'd spent too much time in the local saloon. I could ask that of myself, except that I'm stone-cold sober and my coffee cup is freshly full.

People shed their innocence gradually. Some become cynical in the process, but most manage to hold onto more than enough to share a child's smile of delight at the first sight of Santa Claus in Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. Call it cock-eyed optimism, naivete, or plain foolery, it would be a shame to lose a sense of wonder even over those things we can explain. Blaise Pascal wrote, "the heart has its reasons (of) which reason knows nothing." In other words, while my brain calculates the hours from Maine to Brisbane, my heart still says, wow.

(Public domain image via Wikipedia)
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Thursday, October 15, 2009

She Had Me From Hello

Cupid's Arrow 
(What follows is a writing exercise I gave myself recently. Having come across a wonderful song title, You Had Me From Hello by Kenny Chesney, I couldn't help but wonder where it would take my imagination. So, I began to write, incorporated an element from my youth, took some creative license with it, and this is what came out of the blender. I hope you enjoy it! )

I'd seen her around, of course, but her boyfriend was as omnipresent as ants at a picnic and his smokescreen was impenetrable. Every time I thought my moment had come at last, there he was, running interference. I don't think he was possessive, but he sure wasn't taking any chances, either. Then one afternoon, as fortune or fate would have it, he was drawn aside the very instant I was walking past. I stopped in mid-stride, looked at her, and in what seemed like slow motion, my hand reached out and I introduced myself. She didn't say a word -- she didn't have to -- she just smiled and her eyes sparkled like none I'd ever seen.

I don't know what she felt; my feet didn't touch the ground for hours after. I've always wondered what she thought. Surely she knew, she must have known, she had to. I couldn't have hid what I felt if my life depended on it. Still, it's hard to tell about these things, especially if you're a guy. I suppose it's hard for girls, too, but never having been one I can't say first-hand.

All I know is, she had me from hello. It might have been love at first sight -- it does sound that way from here. But it was a long time before I could say it. I'd fooled myself before and there was something about her that made me more serious, deliberate, even careful than I'd ever been. It was as though she was so flesh and blood nothing short of absolutely certain would do.

I think that's why I knew, eventually. Because I didn't want to rush it. Because I was willing to wait. Take a step, or two steps or even ten, backwards -- "it will either grow or die," my father used to say, "and if it grows, it was meant to," and he'd smile.
Neither of us was going anywhere (nor was her boyfriend, for that matter). What harm could it do?

I feel like I'm writing the final climactic scene of the season's hottest new show and making you sit on the edge of your seat until next September to find out what happened next. The truth is, I don't know myself. Sometimes even the main character is in the dark until the final curtain falls.
(Image of Cupid by Sylvanfeather via Flickr)
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Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Not Just Another Story

Just to let you know, this is not another one of those "How I Overcame X, Y, or Z and Went On to Achieve Success in Life" stories. That's not to say I don't en
Rudy album cover
joy them, because I do, very much. I love filmographies like Rudy that depict someone going after a dream when everyone else says it's senseless. I've lived my own version of that one and all it takes to reduce me to tears is a few bars of Jerry Goldsmith's soundtrack -- even if they're only used in a commercial.

No, this morning I'm thinking about a quote by W. Somerset Maugham
, who authored Of Human Bondage and The Razor's Edge: "What has influenced my life more than any other single thing has been my stammer. Had I not stammered I would probably...have gone to Cambridge as my brothers did, perhaps become a don and every now and then published a dreary book about French literature."

Maugham wanted to be a writer but, apparently, that wasn't the career path his family had envisioned. Having a speech disorder rendered the ministry out of the question, so he was sent to medical school. Although he appreciated what he'd learned about human nature from his education, after graduating he continued to write. By his comment he seems to be saying, had it not been for my stammer, I might have ended up doing something conventional. As it was, I became myself instead.

Curiously, to a certain extent I'm having a difficult time identifying with Maugham, at least literally. I can think of relationships I'm glad never blossomed, jobs I'm relieved I never took, relationships and jobs I'm grateful to have gotten out of, but not any one thing that prevented me from making a fatal mistake. Most of the time I've wished there had been something that stood in the way of my getting into situations I've had to extract myself from. I have an idea I'm not alone in this.

So, what's the solution? Maybe we have to rely on the accumulation of experience to do for us what a stammer did for him. That's a lot harder, because it means we have to understand what we've gone through and to do that, we can't pretend it's irrelevant because it feels unpleasant. Foresight is earned as well as learned and while it's not exactly a stammer, it can serve us just as well, if not better.
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Tuesday, October 13, 2009

I Cured Myself (From the Inside Out)

1966 Ford Mustang Coupe.

My first car was a light blue 1966 Ford Mustang High Country Special that I bought my first year in college. I'm not sure what made it "special" except the little badge on the front quarter panels depicting the mountains against the sky. That was enough for me, though, and I've never forgotten it.

Technically speaking, it wasn't exactly my first. That title is owned by my father's 1967 Ford F-100 pickup truck. Top half red, bottom half white, it had class. With a bench seat, it was tailor-made for snuggling with my girl friend while cruising down the road with the AM radio turned up full blast. FM was not standard equipment in those days, nor was stereo. As a result, it wasn't until years later that I began to actually understand the lyrics to many of the songs I loved.

Louie, Louie notwithstanding, the nature of rock music is such that sometimes it's still difficult to decipher the lyrics. For example, one of my favorites, Sympathy by the Goo Goo Dolls, has what I've thought is a wonderful line: "I cured myself from the inside out." Imagine my surprise when I checked it out on the web only to discover it was really, "I killed myself from the inside out." There is a slight difference, don't you think?

"Killed" makes more sense because the songwriter is describing how he's lived his life falsely. My mistake, however, isn't so far off the mark, since he also tells us where he went wrong: "I was in love with things I tried to make you believe I was, and I wouldn't be the one to kneel before the dreams I wanted, and all the dark and all the lies were all the empty things disguised as me."

By refusing to respect and revere the dreams of his life, he left himself open to be misled by those things which held no ultimate meaning for him. Yet, the fault doesn't lie with family, teachers, or friends, but within himself. And that's where his cure begins, as it does for all of us.

(Sympathy, words and music by John Rzeznik, copyright 2002 by Warner Brothers Records; Image via Wikipedia)

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Monday, October 12, 2009

Oh, Please, Tweet Me

tweetie pie wheel cover

Sometimes the change is scarcely noticeable. You go along, minding your own business, being yourself (so you think), and then it creeps up on you. Like a tip-toed footprint in the deep late night pressing down just so on that one loose board and then, creeeeak. Was it his chuckle, her stage whisper, or the dramatic pause that drove you crazy? It's hard to say, but it's them all right, not you. Or it wouldn't have been you not so long ago. But there it is, and you can't deny it.

It's one thing when it's a partner, but it gets kind of weird when you notice it and a couple hasn't been together very long. Maybe there ought to be a rule about taking on a partner's idiosyncrasies. It's okay after twenty y
ears or so but not before, something like that. I mean, we've got to have time be certain whether we even like it in the other person. After that we can play double your pleasure, double your fun, look out world, here we come.

It's worse when it's our parents. We spend the first half of our lives (ever notice how that number gets bigger all the time?) trying be uniquely us, only to discover we're channeling them in the second. One careless comment and you sound like your mother. Not the words -- no, it's the words, and the tone, and the manner of speaking. OMG, it's her.

I don't know if Twitter will help or not. What's Twitter got to do with it? Well, I'm thinking that if we tweet more and talk less we might develop more of a personal communication style (it could happen). And that would lead to fewer occasions when we feel like we're going into shock and where's the AED (automated external defibrillator) and would somebody please call 911! That will reduce the demand on emergency services, our taxes will go down, and we'll sound like ourselves.

That is, until our parents find out about Twitter.

(Image of Tweetie Pie by Leo Reynolds via Flickr)
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Sunday, October 11, 2009

The Light of Welcome

Pumpkin patch in Half Moon Bay.

Well, I could see my breath this morning as my dog and I stepped outside. There has to be some ice on the pumpkins in my neighbor's garden -- or there was, since the sun is nearly high enough now to target any lingering evidence of Jack Frost's mischief. Even though, as a kid, September meant school and the end of summer fun, autumn was different and I loved it.

I used to take long walks in the afternoon down a dirt lane near our home that, by October, was awash with huge yellow leaves that dribbled from the Cottonwoods along its path. If I timed it just right, I'd have the sunset over the Rockies as my companion -- sometimes ragingly vivid as though a forest fire out of control had been lifted into the sky.

Often as not, there wasn't a cloud to be seen and sunset was a subtle dimming of autumn light, less like a rheostat turning down than the sun itself reaching out and drawing the light behind it as it fell into the mountains. And then, the sky a wonderful blue hue fading to midnight, Venus appeared, and I wished upon her.

I can't really explain it -- maybe I'm still a kid at heart -- but for me autumn is a time of coming home, of supper with acorn squash brimming with maple syrup, of woolen sweaters and a lamp in the window. It's a time for laughter and news from far away.
It's a fire on the hearth, tea on the stove, and the light of welcome streaming through an open door.

(Image of pumpkin patch on Half-Moon Bay by J.R. Conlin via Wikipedia)
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Saturday, October 10, 2009

A Taste of Forever

Unraveling motivations is tough business. Always confronted by the complicated collaboration between conscious and unconscious, verbal and non, visible and intuited, what makes someone tick is the question we ask. Like a grandfather clock in the hallway, some click away noisily, obvious every second until we're so accustomed that we notice them only when they're silent. Others are quiet quartz movements, their presence constant, a soundless consistency, comforting like a warm quilt on a cold night.

Some need daily attention. Their stem has to be wound to keep the internal processes working. Too loose and they run down quickly, too tight and they stop completely. It's an intimate, romancing, cheek-to-cheek between too much and too little. Their automatic counterparts, spring tightening imperceptibly with every
motion of the wrist, are models of perpetual activity. Slowing down only to change direction, we wonder where they get the energy.

One has buttons, little extensions of the casing that switch on multiple processes, making them seem like grown-up versions of songwriter Tom Paxton's Marvelous Toy. They practically go zip when they move, bop when they stop, and brr when they stand still. We never quite know who they are and question whether we ever will.

Another is plain, their face revealing only the essential two arms while one hand sweeps by each second. No date, no-nonsense, they're pragmatic, task-oriented, they get the job done. Held in place by a responsible buckle sewn to leather, they project predictability, stability, determination. We always know where they stand.

Vintage Banded Watch

And then there's the jewel in the collector's window. A remnant from another time, casing burnished, crystal scarred, they've lived and labored, loved and learned the lessons of life. Only a few are wrapped in their well-worn embrace, having willed to leave behind the glamor of the newest best thing for a taste of what seems to last forever.

(Image of vintage watches by alexkerhead via Flickr)

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Friday, October 9, 2009

Narcissim and the Decade of Dorian Gray

Dorian faces his portrait in the 1945 The Pict...

Every few years it seems we have at least one popular version of psychopathology. In the 1990s it was Dissociative Identity Disorder (Multiple Personality
Disorder) followed by ADHD (Attention-Deficit HyperactivityDisorder). In yesterday's post, I mentioned the current discussion about self-centeredness and social networking websites. This leads me to wonder if the next ten years will be something like the decade of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde's character who sold his soul in exchange for perpetual youth and beauty. But we'll call it the decade of narcissism.

Narcissists would love it, of course, for all the attention they might rec
eive, but ironically, they couldn't enjoy it because they wouldn't realize it relates to them. As with the person about whom Carly Simon sings, "You're so vain, you probably think this song is about you," the narcissist would delight in thinking they were the reason for the song, but they'd never get the point of it. 

Outward appearances notwithstanding, narcissists are plagued by a tremendous sense of inner worthlessness. It might even be argued they lack any meaningful sense of self at all. So, where do you begin to give someone a core of self-hood? Anyone who's lived with a narcissist knows first-hand, it's not a matter of giving, because they've given everything over and over, and it's never, ever enough. And how do you develop something that is so essential to life that most of us take it completely for granted, in someone who denies it's absence in the first place? How do you persuade them to face what lies within, when they've spent most of their lives trying to avoid precisely that?

It's hard for most of us to imagine what it's like, being narcissistic, because we're not. We're accustomed to feeling empathy for others, to admitting our mistakes and assuming responsibility. Because we have the inner wherewithal that enables us to be truthful, modest, and real, it's incredibly difficult to believe someone can seem so appealing on the surface and still be as empty as the hollow tree trunk that came crashing down on my power lines two days ago. Yet, they are, and it scares them to death. And they don't even realize the reason why.

(You're So Vain words and music by Carly Simon, copyright 1972)
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Thursday, October 8, 2009

Becoming the Persona

Mac SE
My first real computer experience occurred while writing term papers in graduate school on a Macintosh in the school library. Was that ever back in the day. I had to use a boot disk to start the thing, store my data on another, and print documents in dot matrix. I think it had 64 bits of RAM. But I loved that little Mac and it worked like a trooper.

A couple of years later, still enamored with Apple, I bought a Performa and discovered the incipient entity known as the World Wide Web. Since my computer came loaded with America Online, getting connected was fairly straightforward and it wasn't long before I was hosting chat rooms in an area called Issues in Mental Health every week.

Compared to Facebook and Twitter it was rudimentary, I suppose, but we managed to create a sense of community among people who, for the most part, might never have met otherwise. The anonymity helped (everyone used virtual identities) and comments seemed spontaneous and disingenuous. What fascinated me was how the group dynamics were similar to those I'd observed face to face. Some members were mostly silent -- "lurkers" we called them -- while others carried the conversation and encouraged the timid to join in. If a member became rude or unruly, others would set limits. It was really quite healthy, overall.

Looking back, I found the experience of creating and fleshing out an online personality to be genuinely refreshing. For one thing, even though it was still me, it was me in a way that was more confident, comfortable, and frankly, more interesting than the person I felt I was in daily life. He was definitely smarter than I was and a better writer. But, since I wasn't conjuring this persona out of thin air, he had to have come from somewhere. And the better I got to know him, the more like him I think (I hope) I became.

I'm bringing this up today because there's a growing dialogue in psychiatry about the impact of online social networking, especially on teenagers. While I'm not ready to weigh-in on that yet, I thought it might be a good idea to share my own history as a starting point. If you'd like to read more, I've added a link in the sidebar to one of my favorite sites (Psychiatric Times) where you can begin.


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