Secular Trinity

You live, and you grow, and you change. At some point you realize you’re an adult (for me, around age 25). You feel at that point you are not going to change anymore, although it still remains difficult to imagine yourself as middle-aged (and forget about “old”).

You feel “done” maturing, as if at 25 (or whenever) you will simply lock into place and be the “you” that you are now for the rest of your life.

There’s some anecdotal truths around this. For example, artistic tastes. I believe they tend to form as part of childhood and adolescence, and of course one’s taste matures and is refined by experience. But at some point, usually late adolescence, you have kind of “decided” what kind of art, music, film, philosophy, etc., that you “like” or identify with, and this gets rather chiseled in stone for many people. This is why, for example, Journey and Foreigner are still touring.

(Artists are an exception. They are always looking for the new. But given enough time, even they may lose their taste for the now.)

We’re amazed at how richly detailed our childhood memories are, our adolescent and post-adolescent memories. The time between age 6 and 21 seems a lifetime in itself, a kaleidoscope of change, when recollected at age 50. But the time after that, and all the way up to the present, seems a fleeting moment, punctuated by memories of only the most obvious junctures of change (career start, marriage, children, deaths of relatives, new job, big vacation, etc.). Personally, I can barely remember anything that happened between age 25 and 35, but I have a huge catalog of incredibly distinct memories from childhood and adolescence.

Science now has good evidence that there is a reason we have such vivid memories of childhood and adolescence—our brains are wired to create more permanent memories during these years. It would seem to go hand in hand with our greater ability to learn at a younger age.

And, as science has also proven, as you get older time does literally move faster. At least from the individual’s perspective. Gyp!

I’ve also noticed that physical aging is not a steady degrading of one’s appearance from “youthful” to “codger.” It’s a process with fits and starts. Nature, in her wisdom, seems to be most “interested” in us between the ages of 12 and 40. This makes perfect evolutionary sense if you think about it. And so, I don’t know if it’s by design or just a function of human aging, but it seems I did not age at all, physically, between age 20 and 40. I remember, when I was about 31, I walked into my first college class as an instructor. Some of the students laughed, and as I took my spot at the podium and smiled at them, some of them told me to quit fooling around and get a seat before the instructor arrived. I looked about the same as I did at 18. They ended up being a good class. (And that’s another thing – youth relates to youth. It’s not fair. A lot of things aren’t.)

Why this variability in physical aging, memory creation, and perception of time? I believe it’s because Nature has great use for us between the ages of 12 and 40 – to create and raise the next generation. I’m not saying that’s anyone’s “duty” by a long shot. Every life is valid. I mean that that is our usefulness to Nature, which is insistent that life will succeed, and indifferent to what happens after we help in that task. It is our “golden” time, the time when we are most vital, most animated, and most attractive. It’s all useful to be thus, in terms of evolutionary success. And when we get past that period, we are, I’m afraid, no longer so useful to Nature. We are free to stick around, perhaps to advise, but we’re largely relegated to being observers in the continuous cycle, the generational game that is center stage.

And then, when we aren’t looking, the fun begins.

There used to be an old joke about how when Dick Clark reached age 75 he was going to age all at once. Yeah, he was youthful for a long time. But then he wasn’t. And many are, as I was, slow to age. But to quote my old bud Robert Frost: Nothing gold can stay. Time is, as they say, the great destroyer. Or, if you’re a Jim Morrison fan: No one here gets out alive.

So now I do age. My face is fatter, my hair is thinner and coarser and grayer. My middle is more of me. My skin was perfect, now I’ve got more “character” in my face. I have a crown on what used to be a molar. I’m allergic to everything. My eyes are less bright and can’t see menus in dim restaurants. My body is, in general, less cooperative than it used to be. And I’ll be honest, it gets to me sometimes. All things being equal, it’s better to be young, healthy and beautiful. Right? Sure.

But all things are not equal.

Lately, I have felt a very odd transformation occurring. I can only describe it as being less “me” and more “us”. For my entire life, and largely based on my lifestyle, I’ve been a loner, even an outcast. It was always “me” and “everyone else.” It felt right, it felt safe and contained, and my personal philosophy had a lot to do with the idea of the “sovereign individual,” beholden to no one, bowing to no creed and no nation. I was (and am) a devotee of that famous iconoclast William Blake’s iconic statement: “I must create my own system, or be enslav’d by another man’s.”

That’s changed, at least in part. I would like to say it changed the day I married, but that would be dishonest. I was 28, still in Nature’s grip. I was not done figuring out who and why I am. I had a long way to go, and perhaps that was mutual. I suspect it was, and that’s fine. Nothing important is easy, nothing valuable happens in a moment (well, a couple of things). Building a life – an identity – I find it’s a lifelong process. And once I had decided upon my identity, way back then, it felt sound, but now it has shifted again.

Marriage is complicated, as the divorce and single-parent statistics attest. It’s not always worth it. And, most of all, the future – and our future selves – cannot be predicted, they will come to pass as they do, not as we will them to. So some fail. Marriage is a planned sacrifice of sorts, a giving up (eventually, if the union is successful) of a part of oneself, in order to accept being part of another self. I didn’t really understand this when our drunk minister, Reverend Fred, said the words in October 1990, that we were now “one.” I thought I did, but I didn’t.

Now I do. And not only do I feel I am truly not one person anymore, I’m not even limited to being two people. I can look at my daughter now, hear her words, witness her mature identity growing, and it grows like the acorn into a replica of the old oak. Really. She is a true part of the “us” that we are now, and there’s no competition regarding whom she is “more” like, because in a rather profound way we all seem to be the same person. Of course we are physically independent beings, with as much free will as anyone may have (or think they have). We have our own likes and dislikes, etc. But we do not go it alone, not at all. We are “in it” together, the “it” being life. We share it, as I have never before understood sharing.

No, it’s not readily explained.

But I know this: I’m no longer me, and it’s no longer me against the world. I’m us, and we’re us. And we are a world, within a world. And it feels better than anything I’ve ever felt before.


It’s 2010 – Now Shovel!

Another new year, fresh like a just-opened jar of peanut butter with that pristine swirl it feels so good to dig your knife into.

Oh I could talk about how this marks the first year out of the “0” years and what we might call them now that they’re gone – the “aughts,” or the “naughts”,  or the suckiest decade since the 1930s if we’re being honest.

Or I could, blogger-like, conjure up some best-of-the-decade lists, for movies or records or porn stars or something.

Or I could lament, in full middle-aged fashion, the sheer lack of originality and freshness in all things media-rich, the repetition of styles and endless remakes of vintage culture  – the sequels and prequels and boxed sets – a sure sign that the one so lamenting is himself not so fresh anymore. (“If you are tired of London you are tired of life.” )

Or I could remark, as a side note, on the failed Christmas underwear bomber. But perhaps what’s more interesting is that this attempted terror attack is, according to the media, merely a side note. This may be the year we warm up to terror as the English and the Israelis have – relegating it to the ordinary risks of life, as it should be, rather than the sole focus of the government’s efforts (hello – jobs?). Me – I’m much more convinced I will die not in a conflagration of Islamist vengeance but at the hands of a sober, inexperienced and wholly disinterested teenage driver staring at a cell phone.

Mark those words – I’ve seen it in a vision.

Instead, though, I’ll just talk about the weather. Because it’s the most remarkable thing about this year so far. At least around here.

It began in mid-December. We were all feeling fine about the news from the meteorologists that it would be a mild winter. But before winter had a chance to get here and be mild, we had about 11 inches of snow dumped on us.

Mild snow, I guess. And mild zero-degree temperatures. And mild fatal car wrecks.

Then, a couple of weeks later on Christmas eve, an old-fashioned, Laura Ingalls Wilder type blizzard rolled in. Whiteout conditions, and another twelve inches of snow. We had to eat the horses.

OK, we didn’t eat the horses. I wanted to, but there was plenty of peanut butter.

Nobody moved – Christmas was effectively cancelled (a small bright spot) – the city froze solid for a few days while everyone either looked out the window and marveled or – we the unlucky ones – were marveled at as we lifted endless shovels full, tried to find a place to put the four-foot snow drifts that had collected in the driveway. Turned our faces from the biting crystals as we blew them aside and the North wind blew them back at us.

As the gutters filled with pounds and pounds of ice, a solid wall of it gushing a freeze-frame cascade of watery stalactites.

I had to buy a roof rake and actually shovel the snow off the roof. It’s just not natural.

But hey, we’re plains folk. We’re hardy, or so I’m told. So we got the job done, got the walks shoveled and the roofs raked, and the cars unstuck and the snow blower gassed up again.

Because here it is next week, and the forecast is for snow, snow, and snow.

Here on the plains.

Nature is a Tsunami

I was in a discussion the other day about Melville’s leviathan. The question at hand had to do with what Ahab thought of the whale, and I became pretty thoughtful on this myself.

What I concluded was less relevant to this log than what occurred to me as part of that conclusion. To wit: Ahab feels he can enter into a contest with Nature, as represented by the whale.

This belief, of course, is not rational at all. Yet look at our world – some of us do believe we have enjoined the battle, and that we will somehow “win” against Nature. It reminds me of “anti-environmentalists.” The term itself is absurd. How can someone be “against” protecting their own environment from destruction? Yet so many on the right profess this very notion in their philosophies. They see the environment as a foil, something standing in the way of their goals. It is an outside force that, more often than not, mucks up our plans.

Much of what has gone on in the world of nation states in the last couple of hundred years or so has contributed to this notion of the universe consisting of “us” and Nature–us and “everything else.” You don’t see that division in native societies. You don’t have all of this effort to remove people physically from their environment, to externalize the earth, trees, grass, rocks as “outside.” Certainly no one in such a society has ever contemplated the relative merits of “saving” the environment versus “gaining” personally from poisoning or destroying it. They could not have conceived it: nature was not that place outside their home–nature was their home.

This removal is evidenced to me in how the two main categories of fact reported about a natural “disaster” are deaths and injuries and the “damage” in dollars. It’s reasonable that that is what we see as the “news” of the event. But the implication one can perceive is that nature “did” a tsunami to us, rather than Nature “is” a tsunami even though we “are” as well (though we “are” in a less significant way hierarchically).

That’s the thought that struck me – Nature “is” a tsunami. I hadn’t really thought in these terms before. I of course realized that Nature is capable of producing a tsunami, an earthquake, a cyclone, an ice age. But I had not before escaped the cause/effect chain that humans are so fond of in analyzing events. Discovering the “cause” of a natural disaster provides some satisfaction. “Oh,” we think, “it’s OK because now we know why it happened.” But what we call the cause–the plates shifting, the asteroid falling, the disease spreading, or whatever–is no cause at all. It “is” Nature. The asteroid falling is Nature, the plate shifting is Nature. I don’t think there’s any point in trying to distinguish what Nature “does” from what it “is.”

To anthropomorphize nature is to denigrate it, to demystify it unjustly, to bring it down to the level of one of its mean components–us. The key elements are hubris and the perceived dichotomy of Man/Nature. It takes an irrational amount of exaggerated self-importance to place oneself outside the confines of Nature; or to relegate Nature to a mere equivalence, something “other” and possibly opposed to our interests or even hostile to our existence. It takes a kind of mass insanity to perceive Nature as anything at all separate from us.

We “are” Nature, but Nature is much more than us. Yet ironically, its purpose is less complex than the “causes” and effects we describe in it, the “actions” which we erroneously assign to it. It simply is. It is all. All days and nights, all centuries, all people and their ambitions, all matter and all motion.

Spring and Hope, Together Again

The sap rises in my newly shorn trees. Buds poke out of the stems I have been warily watching, dreading  they may have died over the winter. But they didn’t. Nor did I. Another spring, another promise.

My daughter has progressed with her bicycle riding.  We will buy her a bigger one this summer, so her knees don’t hit the handlebars. We’ll finish reading her Lemony Snickets book to her, then we’ll start another. Fairly soon the three of us will head off to Niobrara for a therapeutic weekend away from the city, a needed diversion from all of these same days of work, school, and the rest.

I’m trying to punch up my own activity level. Last weekend I took a huge pile of branches from an overgrown shrubbery to task, bending and twisting and finally splitting the green wood, which needed tearing away from its supple bark to make the complete break. It was a Herculean task, one that didn’t really need doing, but I did it anyway. Then I broke them further and spent the afternoon burning the twigs and branches in my outdoor fireplace while drinking a beer.

Very satisfying, but my winter-soft muscles were sore for days afterward. Next week I will plant grass.

I need to get my own bike down off its inverted perch in the garage and put it to use again. I need to get on the trail, feel my legs again. Lately, all I feel of them is the pain from sitting too long, working too long, twisting my impatient legs in knots under my desk. I told my daughter we’d ride the trail together now that she’s a good rider, which scared her a little. But she’ll be fine.

She says she wants to cut her hair short for the summer. That’s a good idea.

We’ll take her to Colorado in June, to the Rocky Mountains. She can climb, breathe the thin air with us, pan for gold in the little stream beside the cabin. We’ll build fires at night, watch the stars from the deck. We’ll eat well.

My house is in order. My trees are trimmed. My clothes fit. It’s a good spring so far, and my home is happy. We are of this Earth, and we belong here. I was made to enjoy these things, and not to wonder at joy’s quotient.

Wordsworth lamented, “The world is too much with us.” And it is. The idiocy of the world won’t stop just because I’m in a good mood. But he also knew that being at one with the real world–nature–was something to aspire to, even as the world of men continues to vie for our attention and tries its best to demonstrate to us our soul’s corruptibility, our body’s corporeality, and our great grand experiment’s utter futility.

Frost knew:

So was I once myself a swinger of birches.
And so I dream of going back to be.
It’s when I’m weary of considerations,
And life is too much like a pathless wood
Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs
Broken across it, and one eye is weeping
From a twig’s having lashed across it open.
I’d like to get away from earth awhile
And then come back to it and begin over.
May no fate willfully misunderstand me
And half grant what I wish and snatch me away
Not to return. Earth’s the right place for love:
I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.

Here’s to the futility of grand things.  I too am a happy swinger of birches these days.

Stern Nature

I’ve let half of July expire. Well, good riddance.

The real storm came amidst the storm inside me. Holiday weekend, the fifth of July, we raced home from Niobrara after only about 24 hours in that lovely country. We had been visiting the family homestead, perched atop a promontory above the confluence of the Niobrara and Missouri rivers. It was a peaceful visit. About three and a half hours driving home (love that Lewis and Clarke rest stop near Sioux City), then quick get ready to join more friends and family at one of our signature Italian steakhouses.

It was not an unpleasant evening. But somehow my insides were rebelling from all the activity, the stress and strain of fast travel and holiday fun mingled with workplace chaos. I had been feeling sick, for weeks, from some unknown cause, and I was tired of it. My sister was among our party, visiting from Atlanta with her husband, and her presence also puts me on edge these days.

After the restaurant we gathered at our home for some congenial conversation, but my stomach and head would have none of it. It’s really too bad, to have a holiday weekend–and the first time off from the job in months–spoiled by a queasiness and uneasiness that won’t dissipate.

About midnight I drove a friend visiting from California back to his hotel downtown. It was just another calm, humid summer evening on the Plains. But on my way back the wind came up. That’s not so strange, but then I noticed the small trees blowing across the streets and the traffic lights swinging to horizontal. Lightning, torrential rain followed.

I made it home, and the button on my garage remote told me the power was out. I parked and ran up to the front door. My wife was relieved to see me. Then I looked out the back window to see the reason the power was out–our mature Bartlett Pear had been split by lightning, and half of its venerable body lay across the power lines. The main line carrying power had snapped. All was darkness and fury.

We were without power only for a couple of days. We kept staring out the window at our yard, now exposed to the neighborhood. My wife’s brother brought over the chain saw and we proceeded to autopsy our fallen friend. Half of him still stands, but not for long. This winter, when he’s bare of leaves, we’ll take the rest of him down.

We kept coming up with “bright sides” during this time. “Well, at least we won’t have to pay to have the whole tree taken down,” or “Well, at least it didn’t fall on the house.”

I still felt sick, now sick at heart. It was like the death of a family member. We mourned that tree.

We’ve planted others; in fact a small young pear tree stands beside the dead trunk, waiting to grow into the new sunlight exposed by its absence. We planted it knowing the old one would not last forever. It had been struck before, probably by the early snowstorm of 1997, and was ailing already.

I’m feeling better now. Let re-growth begin.