Thursday, December 31, 2009

Intention: Conscious or Unconscious?

The West Wing

Our life is what our thoughts make it ~ Marcus Aurelius Antonius

If I was a motivational speaker or cognitive-behavioral therapist, I'd probably be more inclined to agree with the Emperor than I am. As it is, I believe conscious awareness is often a terribly poor judge of character, especially our own. The Stoics, of whom Marcus Aurelius was one, believed self-control and virtuous choices could overcome the influence of negative emotions. My problem stems from the fact that even well-intentioned, well-behaved, and reasonable people can act in the most irrational of ways.

They do so because consciousness and intentionality aren't always linked. In one of my favorite episodes of The West Wing, Josh Lyman crosses the line in the oval office and says to the President, "You have to listen to me, please listen to me!" Called aside by chief of staff Leo McGarry, a recovering alcoholic, Josh admits he wasn't at his best just then. Leo responds, "Josh, I'm not sure you were fully conscious of what you were saying."

As the episode (Noel) continues, it's revealed that Josh is suffering from PTSD, resulting from a recent shooting in which both he and the President were wounded. His remarks to the President were fully intentional but not, as he consciously assumed, about policy. "Listen to me," says in effect, "notice that I'm not doing well, hear the meaning behind what I'm saying, I'm in trouble, I need help."

The truth is, we don't always know what we're doing or saying or why. Like Josh, denying his symptoms and rationalizing his behavior, we're so involved in damage control that we can't see our way clear to anything else. The decks are awash and all we can think of is, "where's the mop?" At that point, most of us need a "Leo" to summon us back to reality, someone who remembers what it's like to be in pain.

We think of unconscious intentionality in relation to damage because that's what it often seems to inflict. That wasn't the case with Josh, though if it hadn't been for Leo's intervention, the outcome might have been very different. The things we hold inside, bury deep, and cloak with conventionality, come back to haunt us until we stop telling ourselves there's no such thing as ghosts. Once we can do that, whether at the beginning of a new year or somewhere down the road, we have an opportunity to make a change, try something new, or at least stop doing the same old thing.

(Creative commons image of the west wing of the White House by alykat via Flickr)

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Kingship in the Coming Year

Fifteenth-century miniature depicting the Batt...
I was just listening to the opening title sequence for the Kenneth Branagh version of Henry V (1989) and realized I've never written about this film. Branagh is probably far better known to my medical school peers for his role as the flamboyant Professor Gilderoy Lockhart in the 2002 film, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. But I think he's at his best when playing Shakespearean characters and in Henry V, he is awesome.

The setting for the story is the English invasion of France in 1415 during the Hundred Years War. The capture of the city of Harfleur as well as the Battle of Agincourt are key events that reveal the leadership capabilities of young (age 29) Henry. At Harfleur he rallies his troops crying, "Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more, or close up the wall with our English dead," and leads the charge into the city. Prior to engaging the more numerous French forces at Agincourt, Henry delivers what has become known as the St. Crispen's Day speech in which he declares, "He who sheds his blood with me this day, shall be my brother, be he ne're so vile."

Henry V provides us with a visual image of healthy kingship, a concept which functions psychologically in humans, both female and male, to bring about self-organization, calm determination in the face of stress, and the willingness to assume responsible leadership. Children whose parents are unaware of, or unable to access, their inner king or queen, grow up in environments that tend to be chaotic and stressful, where limits are either unknown or extreme and boundaries often non-existent.

Parents who model kingly and queenly virtues, demonstrate self-control, healthy coping skills, and encourage their children rather than acting as obstacles to the achievement of their own unique potential. Even in the absence of children, couples who access kingly energy create an atmosphere of welcome and peace within a home, making it a place where you feel good just being a guest.

Faced with a new year and all that it may bring, being mindful of the inner king or queen can exert a stabilizing influence on our lives. Imagining ourselves as capable, centered, and adequate to the tasks ahead helps free us from feeling uncertain and overwhelmed. We don't know what Henry felt that day, seeing thousands of mounted French knights charging toward him across the Field of Agincourt, but we know he didn't lose his nerve and we know he didn't run. Accessing our inner royal presence can have the same effect on us.

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Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Ten Years Later

Wait and Hope

As if it weren't enough to have one year to look back on, the news media tells us we should take the opportunity to reflect on the last ten. I suspect marketing has something to do with this, but aside from that, they actually do have a point. While every year, technically speaking, is ten away from another, we tend to think of decades in terms of the years that end in zero. For most of us, that covers a lot of territory, even though CNN hasn't been breaking down the door lately to ask what I've been doing with mine.

If they were, I'd have to begin by saying it was a decade of memorable and enduring friendships, not the least of which involved Lynn Smith and culminated in the publication of our book. I completed premedical studies, started working as a psychiatric clinician, and eventually entered medical school. I moved twice, once across the country, sold both my vehicles and bought another. I mention the latter because one of them was my father's 1989 Cadillac Sedan de Ville and, I'll tell you, it was one sweet ride.

It was also a decade -- I'm hesitant to use this phrase, but it's accurate -- of death. My father, two aunts, an uncle, two good friends, three dogs, and two cats. In addition, there were those of five patients with whom I had varying degrees of contact. I realize soldiers in the field or physicians involved with the terminally ill can experience even greater losses, but it still felt like a lot. By the time I entered medical school, I was sick of death.

In the long run, though, I guess you could say it was a decade of growth. I learned to cope with loss and appreciate the present moment in ways I'd never known previously. I discovered medical school wasn't going to be anything like what I expected -- it would be much harder and much more enjoyable at the same time. But what I think I got most out of the past ten years was a deeper knowledge of who I am and what truly matters to me.

Over Thanksgiving, a good friend of mine and I were discussing my interest in child and adolescent psychiatry. He reminded me that medical school is a time for exploring what we want to do "when we grow up," and to give my curiosity free rein. If I were to reveal my age (which I'm not), it might be tempting to ask about the wisdom of that advice, but from my perspective, he was exactly right. If the past decade has done anything, it's convinced me that life is too precious to be spent doing anything other than what we love the most. Frankly, I can't wait to see what comes with the next ten years and the ten after that and the ten after...

(Image by Pandiyan via Flickr)

Monday, December 28, 2009

The World on Our Own Terms

Night at the MuseumImage via Wikipedia
It's a wonderful example of reaction-formation. Larry Daily (Night at the Museum: The Battle for the Smithsonian) and Brandon the security guard are having it out over whether or not Larry can touch one of the Smithsonian exhibits. In a demonstration of flashlight twirling skill reminiscent of the encounter between the Ringo Kid and Doc Holliday (Tombstone), Larry gains the upper hand. As he walks away, we see Brandon attempting similar moves and muttering to himself, "What a great guy!"

Reaction-formation is a one of the ways we try to eliminate anxiety by replacing unacceptable feelings or behavior with acceptable ones. For example, a parent who unconsciously tends to favor one child over another, will make up for it by being even more attentive to the child they are less inclined to favor. In Brandon's case, he can't allow himself to consciously indulge resentment toward Larry, so he conveniently exchanges anger for admiration.

Despite being in a position of responsibility, Brandon is uncertain about himself and his
uniform and flashlight provide a way of compensating for feelings of inadequacy and low self-esteem. As long as he's able to assert his authority over those who would feel impressed or intimidated by it, he's fine. Confronted by someone who is intent upon challenging him, his confident facade breaks down.

If you've seen the film, you know the scene between these two characters is intended as comedic and it succeeds very well. I'm drawn to it because I've met Brandon before in the guise of persons who've felt belittled or teased. Instead of finding a way to express themselves uniquely, building self-esteem, and enabling them to transcend their past, they adopt a defensive stance and try to appear invulnerable.

English clergyman and poet, George Herbert, said, "Living well is the best revenge." Living defensively only sets us up for defeat because it ignores our strengths in the attempt to cover up our weaknesses. Living well means acknowledging both and combining them creatively to render us capable of meeting the world on our own terms.

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Sunday, December 27, 2009

Leaving It to Scott Hamilton

Top of the World

Here it is, Sunday, December 27, latitude 46 degrees and some odd seconds North, and it's raining. I realize that's a mere five degrees south of London and it's probably raining there, too, though Londoners are used to it in the winter. No doubt it's been that way since the days of the Roman Conquest when London was founded (43 A.D., and called Londinium, in case you're curious). I'll wager the Romans wished they'd brought their rubber Wellingtons along. Except for the fact that rubber wasn't invented until 1852. Sometimes you just can't win.

Anyway, we expect snow in Maine. Sure, we complain about it come spring, but when you've endured six months of white, a little green is a welcome thing, even if you're colorblind like me and green looks red. But the rest of the time, we're strapping on snowshoes and skis, climbing onto snowmobiles, starting up the snow blower, and thoroughly enjoying the absence of billions and billions (thank you, Carl Sagan) of tourists. Winter in Maine is pretty cool, no pun intended.

Admittedly, the rain is only today's forecast and tomorrow is supposed to get us back on course, but that also means our misplaced April showers are going to turn into a sheet of ice overnight. I can hear some wag now, "Since you ski and snowshoe, why not put on the ice skates?" I tried skating once, the kind with rollers, and I spent more time on my seat than on my feet. Maybe if they made ice skates with the equivalent of training wheels I'd be okay. Until then, I'm leaving it to Scott Hamilton.

Which brings me to the one regret I have about Christmas. While window shopping at Eastern Mountain Sports, I came across these great ice creepers. Strap them on your shoes and you've got a set of metal teeth between you and Jack Frost's latest efforts at creative self-expression. Resisting the temptation to buy for myself, I thought about them as a possible after-the-holiday treat. Tomorrow morning, when contemplating taking the dog out, I'm going to wish I'd done otherwise. Then again, maybe I should have simply asked Santa for a pair of skates and given Scott a run for his money.

(Creative Commons Image of figure skater by Lou Musacchio via Flickr)

Saturday, December 26, 2009

The Morning After

This morning after Christmas Day, I'm sipping coffee from a Black Dog pottery mug given me by my dog and cat. How they manage to get out and do any shopping always amazes me. People often comment, with a smile, when they see my dog sitting in the driver's seat of the car, "Who's your chauffeur?" Either there's more to this than a joke or the two of them have figured out how to call United Parcel Service.

What's even more amazing is their choice: it's precisely the same mug I admired a few days ago and said nothing about. The Black Dog is a tavern located on Martha's Vineyard, a little island off the coast of Massachusetts, and you can purchase a variety of items, including sweatshirts like the one they also gave me, emblazoned with their logo . I'm assuming, however, that both came from the Black Dog store located in the Old Port. The cat gets sea sick enough just driving in the car -- I can only imagine what he would have been like taking the ferry out to the Vineyard.

On the other hand, it's also possible they contacted a more Northern Source. Christmas morning, they're both difficult to rouse and I've long suspected they were up late socializing after I've called it a night. I say this because the eggnog and cookies I left for Santa (well out of the reach of canine and feline snackers) were gone yesterday when I got up. That still doesn't explain how they managed to choose the one I liked.

You're probably chuckling over all of this as am I. But it really has a deeper purpose. If the road to hell is lined with good intentions, as I mentioned a few days ago, then cynicism is its doormat. Disillusionment is not the necessary corollary of adulthood and maturity. We all experience disappointments and loss, but becoming hard of heart and having our vision of life and the world darkened until we watch, suspiciously, for pain and hurt at every turn is tragic.

Any blow struck for goodness is always, always better than giving into despair. To paraphrase the 16th century church reformer, Martin Luther, the devil flees in the face of our laughter. Obviously, humor alone isn't going to solve the world's problems, but the optimism that lies beneath it and suffuses into our ways of thinking and dealing with one another can be transforming. Speaking for myself, I can always use more of that.

(Photo of Black Dog pottery mug by the author)

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Friday, December 25, 2009

Pumpkin Pie a la Therapy

Pumpkin pie, from

It all started out harmlessly enough. I thought I'd get a head start on Christmas cooking last evening, so I made cranberries and then dove into a pumpkin pie recipe. I laid out the ingredients, had a nice crust, and shared my progress with friends on Facebook. This morning (I wrote this post on Christmas Eve afternoon, even though it's dated 12/25), while my dog and I were finishing a few last minute errands, I ran through my recipe for maple chocolate chip cookies, a treat I like to leave for Santa. All of a sudden, I had a terrible thought: what if I had left the sugar out of the pie? Oh, no.

Since the grocery was our last stop, I decided I'd better pick up cans of pumpkin and fat-free evaporated milk on the off chance my creation was unpalatable. When we got home, I took a bite of what I hoped would be the crowning pleasure at tomorrow's dinner, warmed up and accompanied with a dollop of pumpkin ice cream. A quick turn around the taste buds and, you guessed it, no sugar. Talk about bland. So, now here I sit, listening to a marvelous CD, John Denver: Christmas in Concert, and waiting for another crust to chill. Mm, there goes the timer. I'll be right back.

Okay, now that the pie is in the oven and all's right with the world, where were we? Oh, right, so I was going to say the good thing about all this is it's given me something to write about. If you've ever been friends with, dated, or had any kind of relationship with a medical student, you know we tend to be slightly preoccupied most of the time.

It's not that we're going around thinking "medical thoughts," as the fact that there's only so much a person can stuff into their brain at one time. As a result, a few things get shifted to the periphery: birthdays, anniversaries, today's date (unless it's for an exam), and what season it happens to be. Seriously, I've heard (or made) the comment, "It's winter already? What happened to September?" As a result, leaving a key ingredient out of a recipe is par for the course.

It could have been worse. I might have remembered at the moment we were about to eat. Exactly what excuse I could have offered is beyond me. Maybe, "The blandness is all in your head. Would you like a little therapy to go with that instead of ice cream?"

May you have the merriest of Christmases and the happiest of Holiday Seasons (and please, don't forget the sugar when you make your pie)!

(Image via Wikipedia)
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Thursday, December 24, 2009

A NORAD Christmas

Christmas Moon 2007

I can't help it -- oh, I guess I could, but I don't want to -- Christmas is my favorite season. Somewhere around Halloween I come down with a serious case of "holiday fever" and don't recover until well after New Year's. Each holiday brings a spike in my temperature until, by December 25th, I feel more alive than at any other time of the year. It's as though I'm caught up in something that has a life of its own. A season of changes, a time for new birth, a time for starting over, and filling Life with mirth.

One particular Christmas Eve forces itself into my memory each year. It beg
an as most did when I was a child. Early in the evening, my parents and I gathered presents, bundled up against the cold, and drove to the home of my maternal grandmother, miles away in the city. We lived in the country and the city lights formed a dim halo about the crest of the hill that rose slowly from our front door. The night sky was clear and moonlight glittered on the newly fallen snow that coated the farms and wheat fields along our way.

My grandmother lived in a two story, white stuccoed survivor of the Roaring Twenties, with a huge arched window facing the street. In anticipation of our arrival, she kept the house dark except for the lights from her tree pouring through the window and onto the flagstone walk at its feet.

I had scarcely gotten out of the car when my maiden aunt burst breathlessly from the house. She had not-quite-flaming red hair, and when I think of her now, fire engines come to mind. My aunt displayed incredible energy in all she did and whenever a problem threatened to burn out of control in my life, she was always there with her "fire hose" to lend a hand. Sweeping me up in her arms, she asked, "Did you write your letter to Santa? Did you mail it in time?"

"Yes! Did you?"

"Oh, yes, I mailed mine a week ago!" she replied, her eyes bright with laughter.

Greeting my parents, she ushered us into the house, then rushed from lamp to light switch, flooding the old house with light. My aunt loved Christmas and spent days preparing for the holiday. The dining table would be laden to overflowing with cold cuts, marshmallow salad, peanut brittle, almond bark, and my favorite, spearmint ribbon candy. With carols playing on my grandmother's aging Telefunken stereo, a gift from her youngest bachelor-son, we visited, snacked, and opened presents.

Finally, my grandmother growing festively weary, we gathered our coats and stepped out into the night for a final glimpse of the stars before driving home. My aunt leaned down and whispered, as always, "Do you suppose this will be the night we see him? I'm listening for sleigh bells..."

The long drive home made me sleepy and I'm sure I must have dozed because the next thing I knew, my father was carrying me into the house. The hour was late, but we stayed up to watch the news and relax. I sipped hot chocolate and read the comic pages from the morning paper when my father nudged me.

"Listen to this!" he said.

I stopped reading and looked up as the announcer reported that an unidentified flying object had been sighted over the Arctic and NORAD, the North American Aerospace Defense Command in Colorado Springs, was tracking it. I became immediately excited because I loved science fiction and was certain it had to be an alien craft.

"Just wait," said my father, "there may be more."

Sure enough, moments later, the announcer interrupted the weather segment with an update. "NORAD reports the object sighted over the North Pole has been identified by Air Force jets based in Alaska. It is, in fact, Santa and his reindeer, and the pilots have been instructed to escort him safely into United States air space."

I looked at my father with what must have been absolute rapture. Not only did my aunt and I believe in Santa Claus, so did the Air Force -- more than that, they'd actually seen him! If I might have ordinarily had difficulty sleeping on Christmas Eve, you can be sure I had even more that night.

A long time has passed since I've spent a happy Christmas with my aunt and grandmother. Both of them are years gone and those evenings live in memory. Thankfully, however, some things don't change. After Christmas Eve candlelight church services, my wife, our children, the dogs, and I curl up with hot chocolate by the fire to watch the late news. When the announcer faithfully reminds us that NORAD has sighted a sleigh in the northern sky, the kids turn to face us with eyes like starlight and smiles even brighter.

And every year, once the house is quiet and the kids asleep, each one snuggling a well-loved dog, my wife and I step outside for a final glimpse of the stars, and we wonder, will this be the night...?

(Note to the reader: A NORAD Christmas was written in 1999, and has previously been read by only a few of my closest friends. It's based on a factual event that took place when I was young that I've never forgotten and hope I never will. The house, my aunt and grandmother, are real, of course, but many of the other details are fictional. Nevertheless, I hope it gives you a smile.)

(A NORAD Christmas, copyright 1999 by Patrick W. Conway, all rights reserved; Creative Commons image by Doblonaut via Flickr)
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Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Heart Sings Unbidden

Luciano Pavarotti in VĂ©lodrome Stadium, 15/06/...
I've never known a single person who sounded glad when admitting they couldn't sing. Many have joked about it, covering over their off-key efforts with humor (a healthy thing to do, by the way), but no one has ever said they were happy about it. They've all loved music and I'm sure they sang privately, but in public, they refuse. I've always wished I could wave my Harry Potter wand (or its equivalent) and put in what nature had left out.

Sleigh bells ring, are you listening? I have a strip of them hanging on my front door and my dog has one he loves to wear around his neck. A beautiful sight, we're happy tonight, walking in a winter wonderland. Unable to sing doesn't mean musically disinclined. Ever wonder why so many lead guitarists avoid the microphone while playing? Uh huh, that's right. I've heard some great songwriters perform in concert and found myself wishing I'd never bought a ticket.

But whether Luciano Pavarotti or the poorest of imitations, there are times when we can't do anything else but. Even if, on our best days, we couldn't "carry a tune in a bucket," as my father used to say, when experiencing joy, we want to sing. More pervasive than pleasure and far deeper than happiness, joy fills us up until there's no room at the inn for anything else. It's what my friend was feeling yesterday when she announced she was pregnant and it's what I felt as I read her news.

A frosty Christmas Eve, when the stars were shining, I traveled forth alone, where westward falls the hill, and for many, many a village, in the darkness of the valley, distant music reached me, peels of bells were ringing. It was 1913, on the eve of war, when poet Robert Bridges left the warmth of fire and home and journeyed into the night. Then spread my thoughts to olden times, to that first of Christmases, when shepherds who were watching, heard music in the fields. And they sat there and they marveled, for they knew they could not tell, whether it were angels or the bright stars a singing.

In the presence of joy, even if the voice is silent, the heart sings unbidden.

(Noel: Christmas Eve 1913, by Robert Bridges, adapted by Lee Holdridge; Walking in a Winter Wonderland by Felix Bernard and Robert B. Smith)

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Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Family, Friend or Foe?

Charlie Brown Christmas Tree Shopping
Like Charlie Brown, most of my friends and family this year will peer into the mailbox and call, "Hello in there," only to find I haven't sent them a card. The reason is I've pretty much gone exclusively to using e-cards. I still love sending and receiving Holiday cards, but the electronic versions can be so magical, they're hard to compete with. Consider, for example, those produced by Jacquie Lawson. An English artist, Jacquie got my attention with the Chudleigh series, a collection featuring an extraordinarily clever Black Labrador. Once I saw him, as you might suspect, I was sold.

E-cards are not only environmentally-friendly, frankly, they're cheaper. The annual fee to use Jacquie's site is less than the cost of a nice box of paper cards, there's no postage to worry about, and I don't have to stand in line at the post office. I can write my own message, append an email address, and off it goes. No fuss, no muss, no sticky tongue syndrome to deal with after licking stamps that are supposed to be mint-flavored and instead, taste like glue . Wait, I guess most of them are the peal off variety now, aren't they? Well, they used to require licking.

When I was growing up, my mother bought presents for family, baked loaves of banana nut bread for friends, and sent cards to everyone else. Come Christmas morning, it left no doubt where you stood, as far as she was concerned. That worked fine except on those occasions when we received a similar loaf from my paternal grandmother. If we were family and yet received a gift intended for friends, did that mean we'd somehow gotten knocked down a peg?

And then there was the ever-expanding list. For some reason, my mother insisted on sending cards to everyone who'd sent us one the previous year, as if people keep track of these things. Furthermore, she charted whether our recipients celebrated Christmas, Hannukah, or should simply get the old non-denominational stand-by, Seasons Greetings and Happy New Year. It was quite a project and took weeks to complete.

It's probably no wonder then, that I prefer the e-type and, to play it safe, send them to everyone, family, friend and foe alike. I cover my bases and no one feels left out. Of course, this could produce some genuine confusion. If anyone's counting on a present, banana nut bread, or card in an envelope to inform them whether or not we're related, they're going to be in big trouble.

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Monday, December 21, 2009

Not Just For Children

Chef Gustav's motto: Anyone can cook!

I think my favorite scene in the Pixar film Ratatouille, is the one in which the restaurant critic, Anton Ego, takes a bite of ratatouille and is transported back to his childhood. It's this experience that renders him capable of accepting the fact that the chef is a rat, not a human. If his senses had not been engaged and then coupled with imagination and memory, I doubt he would have been so receptive.

The theme, a return to childhood, is a recurring one in many films and stories related to the Holidays. From Ebeneezer Scrooge to Scott Calvin (The Santa Clause), characters are placed in situations that force them to consider how far they've drifted from their potentially very best selves. Even taken as entertainment, they raise serious existential questions: What would my life be like if I had or had not done ______? Has my living made any difference? Why am I here at all?

What brings these issues into sharp relief is usually a crisis, the resolution of which requires not a little bit of self-examination. George Bailey's Uncle Billy misplaces an important bank deposit on Christmas Eve. Losing his visitation rights forces Scott Calvin to question what he truly believes. Scrooge is confronted by the reality of death. Redemption begins as each one takes a long, hard, and usually long overdue, look at himself.

I think we love stories like these because they allow us to experience redemption vicariously and in so doing, remind us it's never too late to recapture the person we would like most to have become. True, we might not get to be Santa Claus, but we can give unselfishly. We can't turn back the clock, no matter how badly we may wish to, but we can still love. Maybe we haven't found the cure for cancer, but that doesn't diminish the significance of what we have accomplished.

We look to children at this time of year, whether their eyes reflect candles burning in a Menorah or the lights on a tree, because we were once like them. Life was full of anticipation and our prospects seemed unlimited. We want to know that we haven't outgrown being infused with the spirit of possibility and that believing is meaningful even if it contradicts common sense. Someone once said, Christmas (or whatever Holiday you celebrate) is for children. If that's the case, then it's truly for each one of us because, as adults, we need it all that much more.

(Free Art Licensed image of Chef Gustav via Wikipedia)

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Lost in Translation

Hope Christmas Pagent

"Peace on earth and good will to men" may have worked in 1611 when the language of James the First of England was popular, but nevertheless, it's not quite accurate. The angelic host appearing to shepherds that night on the outskirts of Bethlehem actually said, "Peace on earth to men (understood as 'persons,' i.e. female and male) of good will." Lost in Translation expresses more than the title of a Bill Murray film.

It's one thing to bestow "good will" and another to be its possessor. What exactly does it mean, to be a person of good will? Well-intentioned seems kind of weak to me. It's hard to imagine the phrase reading, "Peace on earth to people with good intentions," especially since the road to hell is lined with them. It seems to me there should be something deeper, something stronger, something more demanding of our best, than merely to have meant well.

Paul McCartney said, "I still believe love is all you need. I don't know a better message than that." As much as I'm prone to agree, realistically it's hard enough sometimes to love the lovable, much less those who aren't. It might be better to begin with compassion and focus on what we do rather than how we feel.

If we look at it that way, then peace on earth to those determined to treat others as though they had value, takes on greater significance. Peace is the gift for those who refuse to remain uninvolved when witnessing suffering and injustice. Peace is granted to those who offer encouragement rather than criticism. Peace is the blessing enjoyed by those who would be peacemakers.

Good will should be more than a passing phrase spoken by children in a Christmas pageant. It ought to inform the ways we live, the ways we interact, the motives behind our behavior. It ought to be who we are, all the time, and not just in the closing days of December.

(Creative commons image by dgroth via Flickr)

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Saturday, December 19, 2009

Avoiding the Naughty List

Today is my day for Christmas shopping. There
~ List Inspector ~

was a time when that meant squirming my way through the crowd at the mall, but no more. The mere thought of it summons images of Dante's Seven Circles of Hell and I run, not walk, the other way. Instead, I'll spend most of my time in the Old Port, a gentrified section of downtown Portland, within walking distance of the "new" port. During the summer months, cruise ships dock and tourists flock like geese fleeing the Canadian cold into little shops stacked to the ceilings with calenders, post cards, and plastic models of Maine light houses.

Now, exactly where I'll go is anyone's guess. Ordinarily, I wander and try to le
t my imagination take the lead. Aside from a few ideas I've mulled over and "old reliables" that please every year, I'm looking for something new and unexpected. Hopefully, spontaneity won't let me down.

Parking is the only problem. Since it's mostly the on-street variety, you have to feed a meter every two hours, but that provides some structure to the process and helps keep me on track. At this point, I'm thinking I should go, so I'll finish this when I return and let you know how it went.

All in all, it was a good day. I can't tell you what I bought because this is a public forum and those who should be expecting surprises on Christmas morning may be readers (sorry, no hints). One thing I will say, I was touched by the consideration people show each other this time of year. Folks almost seemed to compete for the privilege of holding a door open for strangers and even in stores with a line for the register, they waited patiently. Maybe it's because Maine is rural and Portland has the flavor of a small town that you see this.

That's one explanation, I suppose. But, there's also another one -- you didn't get this from me, by the way -- and that is (whispering) everyone I met believes in Santa Claus and they're diligently trying to avoid the Naughty List at the last minute. With a week to go, who's taking chances? Not me, that's for sure.

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Friday, December 18, 2009

We Were Like Kings

Three Wise Men with Jupiter and Venus
It was ten below when sunrise turned my hayfield the color of a burning match this morning. Closer to the coast, it was warmer by fourteen degrees, but when you're playing footsie with zero, you've got cold toes either way. Not that I mind it. I love the kind of weather that causes your nostrils to stick together and snow to crunch like sugar frosted flakes on the ground. When I was a kid, winter days like this made February feel like Christmas again.

Today's Red and Rover depicts a boy and his dog walking home after dark with a single, bright evening star to guide them. It reminds me of the other day. I'd just walked out of the grocery and happened to be following a father and son on the way to the car. Their dialogue went something like, "Daddy, what's that light up there?"

"Oh, that? I guess it's a planet or a star." He glanced at me with a question mark on his face and I responded, sharing the moment with a stranger, "It's a planet. You can tell because it's not twinkling."

He mentioned not having taken astronomy while getting junior into his car seat and since I wasn't sure if it was Venus or Jupiter, I let it go at that and put my bags in the seat next to my dog. Before leaving, though, father and I looked again at that solitary, bright point hanging mid-way between earth and eternity, to which his son had drawn our attention. You have to love little kids. While we're preoccupied with what we think is important, they have a habit of pointing out what really is.

We were like kings, the three of us -- ancient Babylonian astronomer-kings -- gazing into the evening sky and wondering. There are times when two thousand years really makes no difference at all.

This was one of them.

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Thursday, December 17, 2009

Midnight's Wayne Gretsky

It started way too early this morning, the scratching, the scraping, the sounds of someone making bank shots on an ice rink. Except for the fact that my stairway hasn't iced over in a century. I threw back the covers and crept stealthily (you didn't know I could be stealthy, did you?) around the corner, stopped still, reached for the light switch, and...nothing. Midnight's "Wayne Gretzky" was nowhere to be seen.

But there it was again, only softer, like the distant padding of gloved fists against a punching bag, paddita, paddita, faintly echoing off the wooden bedroom floor and out the space beneath the door. Aha!, I thought, starting onto the steps in slow motion, I've got you now! At that moment, the c
at joined me, bounding up two at a time before I could urge caution.

Suddenly, it stopped, and I stopped, and the cat froze, as though by ESP we became aware of each other at the same instant. Then, almost level with my left ear, I heard it again. Pummeling, lightly pounding, then heavier and more rapid. Sounds of leaping up the inner wall space, once, twice, and then more pounding. It was like a scene from The Premature Burial with Edgar Allen Poe at his best.

I turned to the cat and mouthed, "It's a chipmunk between the walls." He looked at me as if to say, "I
didn't quite get that, would you speak up a bit, please?" and made pawing motions of his own. I may be thick but I can take a hint, so I began scratching on our side of the "tomb" to see what would happen. Silence. I scratched harder, off and on, up the wall, side to side. Nothing.

I even tried what I thought might be the chipmunk equivalent of Morse Code, tapping out an SOS: dot dot dot dash dash dash dot dot dot. Hey, it couldn't hurt, right? No response. Sighing, I looked at the cat who, I'd swear, sighed in return, and we headed back to bed.

We'd just gotten comfortable when it started again, only this time much, much louder and accompanied by scampering (or "skating," if you prefer) back and forth. Certain the little guy wasn't trapped after all, the cat and I ran up the stairs with me shouting
, "Beware evildoers and late night disrupters of sleep -- Mr. Incredible is here!" I guess that was enough, because I heard paws scrambling madly from one wall to the next, into the attic and I'm sure, out the ventilator.

Once more in bed, the cat doing his "Good job, Beggar," paw thing against me and the dog snoring happily, I imagined the conversation at the local Chipmunk's Bar and Grill going something like this: "Give me a stiff one, Charlie. You know that guy in the house everybody says is so nice? He lights up the fireplace and it's all warm and cuddly? Lemme tell you, he's not so nice."

(Creative Commons vector illustration of Mr. Incredible, done in CorelDraw, by dpencilpusher via Flickr. "Mr. Incredible" is property of Disney/Pixar)
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Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Until the Cows Come Home

If there's a book you want to read but it hasn't been written yet, then you must write it. ~ Toni Morrison

Every now and then someone asks me why Lynn Smith and I wrote a book in the first place, and it really comes down to a desire to read. In his own way, each of us had thought about how mind and body interact to produce illness, but neither had discovered an explanation that was really satisfying.

Now that we're getting down to the wire and I'll actually hold a copy in my hands fairly soon, it's all starting to sink in. We really accomplished something, but why this particular thing? Well, for years, Lynn had done research, asking why some people recover from surgery rather easily and others, having had the same procedure, experienced ongoing difficulty. Sure, we're talking about people, not Chevys, but there's enough similarity under the skin that we don't have to rewrite the text on anatomy every time we do surgery.

For my part, I was fascinated by the ways in which the body served as a metaphor for what was going on in the mind. A therapy patient complaining of tension headaches, for example, might describe their boss as a "pain in the neck." There wasn't always a direct correlation between psychology and physiology, but the concept was intriguing and I felt something was afoot.

A chef knows the best recipes may result from accidents in the kitchen. As much as science likes to present itself as a deliberate, linear process, it can be just as unpredictable. You never know what's going to come out of the oven.

And that's what happened with us. We were two guys bouncing ideas off each other like pasta thrown against a wall to see if anything would stick. Our shared experiences told us something was happening that didn't fit neatly within the usual disease classifications and clinicians were forced to treat symptoms instead of the underlying cause. If we wanted to read the book on mind-body illness, we had to do more than talk about it.

The truth is, all of this makes me want to blush and cover my face, it really does. Describing the mechanics of writing and the quality of the friendship between Lynn and I is one thing. Give me an opportunity and I'll bend your ear about him, especially, until the cows come home. But the rest of it reminds me of a scene from the film Chariots of Fire. Harold Abrams has just won the 100 meter sprint in the 1924 Olympics and his closest friend wants to toast his victory. Another character restrains him, saying, "Listen, Aubrey, one of these day's you're going to 'win,' and you'll find it's pretty difficult to take." I think I'm figuring out just what he meant.

(Creative Commons image by
e r j k p r u n c z y k via Flickr)
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Tuesday, December 15, 2009

On the Other Side of Wherever

Neon music sign
I haven't understood a bar of music in my life, but I have felt it. ~ Igor Stravinsky

This from the man who composed The Firebird Suite, can you believe that? Reminds me of something songwriter Paul Simon said about Graceland. When asked what the lyrics meant, he said he had no idea, they just came to him and they worked. There have been times when listening to Lady Smith Black Mombazo I'm convinced some piece of my soul must be rooted in Africa.

Music separates or at least, distinguishes one generation from another, less because of its content and more because of its form. The lyrics of John Dowland's Flow My Tears reflects the culture of 1596, but heartbreak transcends language and culture. So does love, liquor (and its variants, e.g. Purple Haze by Jimi Hendrix), and lust. People are people and we're going to write about what we feel no matter where or when we live.

And, as each generation enters adolescence, the intensity of feeling that finds expression in music is so exquisite that it seems utterly unique. When feeling finds a form, it becomes infused with our desire for self-expression, which leads us to believe we're saying something that's either never been said before or not quite in this same way. Although mom has felt Lost in Love (Air Supply) with the poignant memories to prove it, her daughter, listening to Gotta be Somebody (Nickelback), cries angrily, "Haven't you ever been in love?"

In a sense, the medium becomes the message rather than its bearer. Understanding is rooted in our ability to enter into the musical experience and participate on an emotional level. My Life (Billy Joel) and Second Chance (Shinedown) have nearly identical themes, i.e. leaving one life in pursuit of another, but they're miles apart in the ways they communicate it. Their power lies in the emotions they evoke. We all yearn for liberation, no matter who sings its anthem.

Finding common ground is an empathic process. It entails taking on the spirit of Stravinsky and admitting we don't "get" what's going on within music, but recognizing that we don't have to. What really matters, especially when establishing a basis for relating to teenagers, is whether we can let go of our inhibitions about feeling. We don't have to give up being ourselves, we just need to learn to listen and let the music take us where it will. It won't hurt, and we might be surprised to find our children waiting for us, just on the other side of wherever.


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Monday, December 14, 2009

See One, Do One, Teach One

Roger Rabbit Pin
There ought to be a law against being a teenager. Of course, if there was, and we were teenagers, most of us would break it for sheer pleasure. But aside from that, what I mean is, there ought to be a way to leapfrog from 12 to 20 while retaining the lessons learned from the in-between years. And that's precisely what they are. No longer children, not yet adults, we're neither fish nor fowl nor good red herring.

To keep things simple and assuming hormones have nothing to do with it (th
at's a laugh), let's say the change begins at the point when we can add the suffix "teen" to our age. We enter a world that is only marginally similar to the one occupied by the rest of humanity. It's like Bob Hoskins in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, driving into Toon Town, and sometimes it feels that crazy. We don't know the rules, most of those who have been around long enough to teach them aren't interested, and we're at the bottom of the social pecking order, anyway.

If we're lucky enough, as we get our sea legs, we find a group with which to connect and help us survive. If not, we're on our own and that only makes things worse. Identifying with adults renders us untrustworthy and regressing to childhood makes us the object of derision. So, we do what any self-respecting teenager would do, we withdraw or act out. And we do one of these because we haven't yet learned other, more effective ways of coping. It's really tough.

It's even harder being the parent of a teenager, but not for the reasons you might think. Seeing them go through all that we experienced, it can feel like we're reliving our own teen years. If they were pretty good overall and our kids are having a difficult time, we may come across as less than empathetic. If we had a similarly difficult time, we may not wish to visit those memories and inadvertently communicate disinterest or unavailability.

Believe me, I don't have all the answers, not even most of them. My own experience with teenagers has shown me they generally prefer adults to be adult. They'd like us to remember our own "Summer of 69" and, while they chomp at the bit and mutter explicatives behind our backs, still set reasonable limits on their behavior. They need us to do so because they don't quite yet know how to do this for themselves, despite their insistence to the contrary. They want us to cope effectively with the stress they generate because, in the process, we demonstrate how they might better cope with the stress they experience.

"See one, do one, teach one" in the field of medical education involves modeling, reproducing, and passing along good clinical skills. In the field of parenting, it's about being the kind of person I wish my children to become, clarifying meaningful expectations for their behavior, and applauding their efforts at sharing them with others. It's important at every age, and especially, when they're teenagers.

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Sunday, December 13, 2009

The Cost of "Everything"

Long's Peak Dihedral

You'd think mountain climbing would be so adventurous that Hollywood just couldn't stay away from it. According to my memory, though, there really haven't been a great many films that did the job well. For one thing, climbing is something you do and then talk about later. Movies need plot and dialogue -- watching two guys crawl up the face of The Diamond on Long's Peak in relative silence for an hour has limited audience appeal.

So, filmmakers create stories that include enough climbing to make things look dangerous. For example, The Eiger Sanction (1975) has Clint Eastwood as a professional hit man qua art professor scaling the Eiger in Switzerland. Cliffhanger (1993) depicts Silvester Stallone struggling with guilt over a failed rescue attempt of another climber. K2 (1991) with Matt Craven and Michael Biehn is loosely based on a real-life ascent of the world's second highest peak.

I like K2 very much and not simply because it does a pretty good job with the mountaineering aspect. I like the dynamics between the characters, one of whom is a wealthy attorney and the other a scientist. Best of friends, they are opposites as

K2 in summer.

one might expect. The attorney is an extroverted womanizer for whom success comes easily while his friend is introverted, married, has a son, and values stability.

A key point in their relationship occurs when Craven's character has broken his leg on their return to base camp after gaining the peak. Fearing he must leave his friend to die on the mountain, Biehn laments having built his career on things that possess no real significance: "I go climbing with you in order to have some dignity in my life." Fully expecting to die, Craven responds, "I got everything I wanted, but I had to give up everything to get it."

True, the dialogue may sound melodramatic, but that doesn't eliminate its truth. There are those who seem naturally suited to achievement and who accomplish it with ease. Some of us, however, for reasons eluding reason, find the path crooked and frequently blocked by obstacles no one could anticipate. We have to pause, regroup, find alternate routes, reinvent ourselves, and in the process discover resources within that we never knew existed.

I have a dear friend who has said recently, it's not the struggles themselves, but the way we meet them that defines our lives. We might envy those for whom, like Biehn's character, life appears incredibly straightforward. But I admire those who, like my friend, meet challenges with determination and the persistent refusal to stop trying. Instead of assigning blame or cursing fate, they're all heart: they dig deep and accept responsibility. They may have to give up a lot in the process, and perhaps it does feel like "everything," but what they gain is incomparable.

(Image The Diamond on Long's Peak by eggheadsherpa via Flickr; Image of K2 via Wikipedia)

Saturday, December 12, 2009

The Inside Wreath

Christmas Wreath,Chatsworth House

“I want a wreath for the house this year,” she said.

“Don’t we always get one?”

“Sure we do, but I want one to put in the house, too. I'm going to hang it on the wall in the dining room so I can look at it without having to go outside to see the one on the door.”

So, that’s the person I married, he thought. She likes the idea of having a wreath on the front door to welcome guests at holiday time, but she also wants the pleasure of seeing one whenever she likes. Actually, I hardly blame her; I like wreaths myself and I especially enjoy coming home and having one hanging on our door, but I never thought of putting another inside. That’s how she thinks: While I’m following an idea in a straight line, she picks it up in the middle and makes a circle. Next thing I know, we’re somewhere entirely new.

“We can do that,” he said, “but we’ll just have to keep an eye on it since it’s going to dry out.”

“I’m way ahead of you: I plan on spraying it lightly with water every day through the Season. Afterward, we can hang it on the patio so the Finches can build nests in it,” she responded.

Just in case you’ve ever wondered, that’s how traditions begin, or at least how this one did. And sure enough, five months later when the Finches made their annual pilgrimage back from wherever they spent the winter, the wreath became a hot prospect in the nesting real estate market. Several potential tenants looked it over before one couple decided humans could be sufficiently trusted to raise a family around.

So it went, year after year, the inside wreath that was the subject of conversation at Holiday parties became the home for one family of Finches after another. I was a guest at one of these casual gatherings and asked what made them think of sharing the spirit of the Season thusly. I was told the idea came from the words of Alfie, the Christmas Tree: “In your Christmas prayers this year, say a prayer for the wind, the water, and the wood, and those who live there, too.”

I thought it was a fine idea, indeed.

(Image by kev747 via Flickr; Alfie the Christmas Tree by John Denver)
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Friday, December 11, 2009

The Promise

"The weatherman assured us we'd have a white
Christmas this year," she said.

"You think?" he replied, smiling at the sight of her, arms up to the wrists in bread dough, face and apron powdered with patches of light brown stone-ground wheat flour. How did I ever get so lucky? he wondered.

She laughed and said, "I know, I know, after five straight days of snow, prediction is easy." Then, noting his boots and jacket, she added, almost scoldingly, "Tell me you're not thinking of going out after a tree in weather like this."

"If I don't, we may not have one at all. The snow's letting up a bit, I think -- I hope -- and we won't have to go far, just up the Sally Mae Mine road a mile or so. Sam's going with me." Hearing his name and the word "going," the dozing Black Labrador lifted his head and thumped his tail on the red and green braided kitchen rug.

"All right, but just remember: if you make me a widow, I'll take your insurance and spend it on bikinis and Leonardo DiCaprio. You may be in heaven, but you'll be sorry," she said, her eyes sparkling, but her tone deadly serious.

"Oh Lord, not Leo, anybody but him. Okay, if it looks really bad, we'll turn round and head for home. I promise."

With a warm floury kiss still fresh on his lips, he and his dog climbed into the cab of an aging four-wheel drive Ford pickup and drove past his church through the tiny, ghostly quiet town that virtually buckled under the weight of tourists after Memorial Day. A quick right off the Million Dollar Highway sent them up a steep hill toward the legendary Sally Mae Mine. A grand dame in 1875, the Sally Mae created fortunes during the gold and silver boom, and while locals swore up and down there was still wealth to be found deep in her shafts, her timbers were rotten and no one dared venture past the ruins of the mill that crumbled into history at her feet.

They'd driven nearly a mile up the hair-pinned gravel county road, when he pulled the truck to the side. "Seems like it's snowing a lot harder up here than it was in town, isn't it?" Sam, who loved sitting in the front seat of anything, grumbled in the apparent affirmative. "Well, if we're going to find a tree, this will have to be the place, because we're not risking going any farther. You stay here -- if you don't see me in ten or fifteen minutes, call mountain rescue -- there's an extra cell in the glove box."

Axe in hand, he walked through the maze of trees and drifting snow, mentally kicking himself for insisting on doing this by hand each year when a chain saw would be faster. Yeah, yeah, yeah, I feel like I owe it to the tree to put forth some effort. This is one heck of a day for a conscience. There were plenty of trees to choose from, but most were either towering monsters or their diminutive offspring. He was at the point of calling it quits when, like Goldilocks, he spied one that was "just right" in a small clearing. It's more a Charlie Brown than anything else, he thought, as he laid his axe to the trunk.

Even though they'd only been gone a little over an hour, his wife waiting at the door. "There are avalanche warnings out for the entire area," she called, as she rushed outside to meet them. "Red Mountain Pass is closed -- I was worried."

"Me, too," he said, stepping out of the truck, "and I suppose it was crazy, but you know me and Christmas trees. Besides, Sam had my back, didn't you pal? Anyway, the thought of you and a bikini -- well, let's leave it at that." He smiled and kissed her, remembering their first on a day quite like this. Only now, the scent of her cologne was replaced with the aroma of freshly baking bread, streaming through the open door.

(Creative Commons image of Ouray, Colorado by squeaks2569 via Flickr)
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Thursday, December 10, 2009

Searching for the North Pole

Peary Sledge Party and Flags at the Pole. Orig...

My horoscope this morning suggests the heavy issues of Wednesday will give way to lighter ones today. Ordinarily, I'm inclined to think the stars and I speak different languages, but this time the translation may be pretty accurate. In the course of yesterday's storm, all that light, lovely, fine snow -- Maine's version of Colorado Champagne Powder -- turned to rain. What had been easy to shovel at first, became sheer labor. It paid off, though, because now all I have is a thin layer of slush to remove before an tomorrow's Arctic front transforms my yard into a glacier.

I grew up having a love affair with snow. We lived in the country -- how "country," you ask? Well, the street in front of our house was a dirt road, how's that? In the summer, my mother dreaded passing cars because they stirred up a cloud of dust that managed to settle, naturally, on every level surface in the house. Pledge was always on the grocery list.

A dirt road in winter has its advantages. For one thing, when your tires start spinning, sooner or later, they're going to strike the gravel beneath and gain traction. We also had less traffic because fewer people were inclined to "take a drive in the country." That was fine with me because it meant crossing the road to the wheat field beyond didn't require permission. My dog and I could go at will and we often did.

Trudging through the drifts -- "trudging" was one of my favorite words as a kid -- it was easy to imagine she and I as companions of Robert Peary, searching for the North Pole. Of course, one or both of us usually got cold, so the "discovery" occurred at the point we decided to turn for home. It's funny how the Pole seemed to shift it's location with each successive snowfall.

As an adult, common sense might suggest the wisest thing to do on days like yesterday, is stay inside by the fire and wait for the plow guy to come. But I can't resist going out and clearing a path to the barn or a place for my dog to do his business (even though he prefers to romp through the snow). With the flakes falling around me it doesn't take much at all to stop, catch my breath, gaze into the forest, and wonder if the North Pole still lies somewhere, just beyond, after all.

(Public domain image of Robert Peary at the North Pole via Wikipedia)
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Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Nutcracker

Well, with snow falling at a rate of a couple of inches per hour, I think we're safe in saying winter has finally arrived in Southern Maine. The hayfield is a sheet of white outside my window, bounded by a cloud of tiny flakes falling as though they had a deadline to meet. The city snow plow has yet to pass my house, so it's one of those days that makes a person appreciate four-wheel drive.

With New England White Pine burning in the fireplace, my dog happily asleep on his bed, and The Nutcracker streaming from Denver's classical station, KVOD, I'm taken back to a Christmas I'll never forget. My mother's older sister was childless and she always called me her "pert-near son." I've mentioned her before and will again, as the Season progresses. She loved everything about the holidays and her joy and anticipation were contagious.

I was in my late 20s and gratefully recovering from a long-overdue divorce when she decided my present would be tickets to the Colorado Ballet's performance of The Nutcracker. Prior to this, the only time I'd seen it from beginning to end was on television with Mikhail Barishnikov in the lead role. Except for telling me what we were doing that evening, she kept everything else about it a secret.

I didn't care where we sat, simply being there was enough for me, but as the usher led us closer and closer to the stage, the excitement I had been feeling for weeks was growing to epidemic proportions. Turns out, our tickets were for the second row, center stage. We arrived early, long before members of the orchestra appeared, and as they entered and took their seats, I couldn't contain myself. I'd always admired classical musicians, but never had the opportunity to speak with them. I got out of my seat and approached the orchestra pit, feeling as though I was about to pull the ribbon from the "package."

They were wonderful and seemed unaccustomed to being regarded as stars in their own right, though for me, that's precisely what they were. I could easily have spent the entire evening chatting with them, but they had work to do and music to play. There was one, especially, a beautiful oriental girl who was a violinist. Our eyes met and she smiled, then blushed, and my heart warmed.

I don't remember many of the details of the performance itself, but in my mind I can still see the Russian dancer, a mere fifteen feet away, and it felt like I was the only person in the audience. To say it was magic is so inadequate as to be embarrassing, but that's the only word I know that even comes close. At a time in my life when I was coming out of a deep, cold, and barren darkness, that evening was all about hope and rebirth.

My aunt was so smart.

(Photo by the author)
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