How To Beat Anxiety

How To Beat Anxiety

The only thing I can control is how hard I work at something I believe is good.

After law school a lawyer I know told me studying was a great stress reliever.  I’m sorry, what?  I was prepping for the California bar exam.  Wouldn’t half a day of Seinfeld reruns be a better stress reliever?  Shouldn’t I give myself a break, forget about the exam for a while, and get back to it rested and ready to go again?  No.  It doesn’t work that way.  Avoiding the dragon does not make it go away.  It makes it grow bigger.

Not committing to take the bar exam is not the same as committing and, then, pretending the exam doesn’t exist, even for just an afternoon.  They look similar, especially in the moment.  But they are two very different things.  I blur this line all  the time. I’d made the leap and studying made it less likely I’d fail.

The potential for physical or spiritual destruction is at the root of evil in our lives.  Sometimes we put boulders in our path just to feel the manufactured bliss of overcoming them.  Whether self-imposed or unavoidable, how I handle the possibility of destruction is what decides whether or not evil will manifest.  There is nothing special about 2018.   In a few months it will join 2,017 other years of recorded history as being decidedly in the past.  The following passage, only a few decades old, will always be apt:

“It was granted me to carry away from my prison years on my bent back, which nearly broke beneath its load, this essential experience: how a human being becomes evil and how good. In the intoxication of youthful successes I had felt myself to be infallible, and I was therefore cruel. In the surfeit of power I was a murderer and an oppressor. In my most evil moments I was convinced that I was doing good, and I was well supplied with systematic arguments. And it was only when I lay there rotting on prison straw that I sensed within myself the first stirrings of good. Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either – but right through every human heart – and through all human hearts.”

—Aleksander Solzhenitsyn (The Gulag Archipelago)

Pretending bad things aren’t real is the number one way to succumb to fear.  It’s a cruel trick of nature.  Salvation is just beyond the ugliness we must face, even if it kills us.  Well, then.  Ugliness is melted by the light of your own gaze.  If its root cause proves unnecessary then don’t repeat it.  But don’t avoid the dragon after it’s already here.  That’s capitulation.

Now, though, a bit on confrontation itself.  It is a funny thing.  Some claim to thrive it.  I don’t believe it.  It’s true some confrontation is unavoidable but most is unnecessary.  We live lives of finiteness.  We can’t have it all.  Can you be at the beach and in the interior of Alaska at the same time?  No.  If you “thrive” on confrontation you’ll become hard, bitter and cruel on the inside; paranoid and fearful.  If I “thrive” on confrontation and then flip you off in traffic, or have a melt down every six months with someone I care about, I’m not thriving I’m triaging my life.    That’s letting some things die so that others may hobble on.

Can people be happy all the time?  I guess we can’t.  Physical pain happens.  Emotional pain happens. I can’t control that.  Indeed, another source of pain, altogether, is trying to control all outcomes.  We live this life without any assurances at all.  But what are the alternatives?  Does life feel like a blessing all the time?  We are summoned here.  It happens slowly.  But here you are.  You weren’t even brought here by your parents.  Not really.  Because, you didn’t exist when they “decided” to have you.  But you get to decide how you’ll spend your time.

So, What, Then, To Do?

Work on something good because we can’t control what will happen to us physically or emotionally.  Someone gave me a great idea. Do the thing you did all the time between the ages of 8 and 12, when no one was paying you but you did it anyway.  I understand your material needs were cared for but you get the idea.  My bliss was my imagination and fascination with heroes and dramatic figures.  (Crazy Horse, Geronimo, Daniel Boone, Magua from The Last of the Mohicans, Blue Jacket, Civil War soldiers, Revolutionary War soldiers, Martin Luther King Junior, Moby Dick, Captain Ahab, Ishmael, the list goes on, Bo Jackson, Jerry Rice, Earl Campbell, Barry Sanders, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig).

I read books, learned to play music, learned to hunt, garden, raise animals, and basically strive to live like Daniel Boone so I could, more accurately, pretend to be a character in a story I’d invented for myself.  Then football came along and I fell in love with that because it was real, not pretend, drama.  It was something I could act out while idolizing real life versions of that story.  Then, I lost that and I forgot all the things I knew, without a doubt, as a kid.  Now, I wish I could tell those stories with words, the way I used to with imagination and hobbies.

Take It Easy

Why?  Because that is what the ones having all the fun and success are doing.  It’s the ones trying to copy them who are miserable.  I know.  I tried.  The odds that the thing that makes them skip to work every day (Warren Buffet’s famous claim about what he does for a living) would do the same for you are very bad.  Don’t go that way.  Go your own way.

“If you follow your bliss, you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while, waiting for you, and the life that you ought to be living is the one you are living. Wherever you are — if you are following your bliss, you are enjoying that refreshment, that life within you, all the time.”

—Joseph Campbell

Your bliss is built on a philosophy of one.  You.  What else are you going to do today that matters more than that?  Who knows, maybe your bliss is working a nine to five job to give your kids a great start in life.  Maybe it’s a sense of duty you’ve found in serving your country.  Who knows?  Only you do.

The only thing I can control is how hard I work at something I believe is good.

 

21st Century Man

21th Century Man

The truck broke down and the desert stretched for miles in all directions, as far as they could see.  The two men doubted they’d be rescued after their water ran out and had decided to try and walk out the way they’d driven in.  But they hadn’t driven in straight, or anything close to it.  Survival was possible if they could reach a 7-11 at the crossroads.  Civilization, lost at the point of the broken down truck, was now at the the corner of a highway and the dirt road which had taken them into the bush.  As the crow flies it was possible.  They debated eyeballing this route, short as it was and possible to reach in time.  But the tire tracts were a dead certainty and so they’d chosen what sounded like a sure bet.  But halfway along the tracks a wind picked up.

Great thirst cannot be imagined and can only be felt and when it is nothing compares.  Anything short of the 7-11 and they were dead.  They walked along their fading tire tracks.  The wind was covering them.  Each man saw this but neither dared comment on it.  All they carried between them was a fifth of whiskey they’d saved for the ride back.  It was a $40.00 bottle of good whiskey which the shorter man had pointed out as a joke when they were preparing to hike out.  He’d laughed and tucked the whiskey into his belt and was now carrying it.  He didn’t know what desert survival protocol called for regarding an empty water jug and a bottle of booze.  He knew booze dried you out and he knew their position was a bad one, though this was slow in catching up to him consciously.  Protocol be damned.  Maybe there was a protocol regarding your last act of existence.  The taller one, by half a foot, had asked for the $40.00 bottle an hour or so into the walk and took a heroic pull of the savory smooth stuff and began talking thus:

“A great, big, award-winning, famous and stupendous writer once said compare yourself to no one other than who you were yesterday.”

“So simple, it’s obvious,” the shorter man said.  His easy participation along this line of conversation unexpectedly terrified the taller one.  He’d expected a rebuke to his out of place remark.  That hadn’t happened.  They were both gone.

“Yesterday I was a man waiting for nothing.  You can spend your whole life waiting for nothing.  Now I’m wasting and drunk under this big ‘ole sky.  And it’s not obvious, it becomes obvious when you hear it,” said the tall one.

“Churchill?”

“What about Churchill?”

“The writer was Churchill.”

“Oh.  No, reach higher, pupil.”

“Lincoln,” the short one tried again.

“Lower, but you’re hot.”

“T.R.”

“Speak softly and carry a big stick.  No, higher.”

“Grant?”

“U.S. Grant?”

“Is there another?”

“Writer, not butcher.”

“Oh boy, the brainwashing of our youth.  There were none higher.  Read his memoir.  Hand me that.”

“Hemingway,” the tall one said handing over the $40.00 bottle.

“Lincoln with booze added.”

“Now you’re talking.  Circle back with that.”

“Seems reasonable, the Hemingway thing.”

“And truer.”

“Why truer?”

“Suffering, mostly.”

“I read his little book with the bulls,” the shorter one said.

“Read Islands in The Stream.  There was the war he fought in and the one he wrote in.  That’s the one he wrote in.”

“I’ll get right on that.”

“But I like where your head is.  Uncle Abe and Ulysses.  Master and commander.”

“Lincoln was no trigger puller.  He preferred a gentleman’s quarry,” said the short one.

“He didn’t need it, he got it all by himself.  The stuff you need to write.  He wrote through his ordeal.  He didn’t wait.  It served his purpose.”

“Hemingway went looking for his trouble,” the short one said.

“Who comes by it honestly, anyway?  Are we out here for our health?”

“Grant and those guys.”

“The little man from Galena Illinois.  He’s on the $50, or is it the $20?” said the tall one.

“He was fond of the bottle.  I know that.  And fought like a pit.”

“’Ol Hem would have disapproved of his imbibing intolerance.  But he would have done so with great pity.  A perfect drunk or Hemingway, the dashing drinker of fortune.  You either hold your stuff and write about it or send thousands into the fire, drunk the while.”

“Churchill drank happily and often, but well.  Lincoln didn’t touch it and no one knows why.  T.R. hid his and was probably an addict if he didn’t control it tight around the waist like everything else.  Grant couldn’t hold his shit.  He was pathetic after two.”

“You prove my point.  Hemingway was the mensch.”

“You seem so sure.”

“It comes through the work.”

“For Grant too.”

“The writing or the slaughter?” Asked the taller one.

“Both.”

“Hemingway.  Heir to Grant?”

“Heir apparent.  A book idea.  Cheers.”

“Neither man had God.”

“They had philosophy.  That philosophy was duty, first to work and then to an ideal of honor.  Hemingway would have been on Grant’s staff had they coexisted.  They’d have found each other.”

“Can you live with yourself? was his credo.  That’s two people,” said the tall one.

“I do it all the time.  But they quarrel something fierce.”

“Grant the butcher.  A hundred thousand under his watch and I have to drink to watch just one go,” said the tall one.

“Nineteenth century man had a good God under him.”

“Hemingway.  20th century man.  Doubt loosed on a generation lost.”

“He faced his Evil,” said the short one.

“You think him evil?”

“Evil is in the ether and it rises and falls in the human heart.  I can’t fault him for holding up a mirror,” said the short one.

“There’s your legacy, poet.  Scratch it down on this rock and pass the hat.”

Scratching, the short one looked up.  “A man could cut a deal with a 7-11 owner and put an RV right next-door and live in it till 80.  You could write your novel in that RV.  You’d need a desk and a chair and an account with the manager inside for water, sewage and the hotdog counter.”

“Regrets?”

“It sure is easy to let it all down, right now, and think so.  Send it over.”

“You are like a frightened child who would hide in a closet to escape a fire.”

“That’s the mirror talking.”

“Beware a philosophy of annihilation.”

“What made the mensch so great, anyway?  The final analysis.”

“He wrote himself a line just before the end. ‘There aren’t any answers,’ it said.  ‘You should know that by now.  There aren’t any answers at all.’  Then he put his toe on the trigger.”

“Courage.  What else?”

“Nothing.”

Good Fiction Is More Important Than Ever

 

Good Fiction Is More Important Than Ever

This time it’s different.  The next time you think you’ve been here before, remember that you haven’t.  It’s different this time.  This goes whether you are satisfied or disappointed to be where you are.  Maybe you are making a career move, or facing illness, or losing something important, or gaining something wonderful, or whatever is new and exciting, or familiar and dreadful.  Stop and remember this:  you do not know what will happen.  You may think you know what will happen.  But you don’t.

We’re inclined to think, often, that we’re right back where we started from.  We aren’t.  It’s always different.

A Greek philosopher, Heraclitus, who died in 470 B.C., “maintained the perpetual change of all things.” (The Random House Dictionary).  He famously wrote, I’m paraphrasing, that “all flows, all is flux…that one never steps into the same river twice.”  By relating the reality of our lives to a river he points out that the river, like reality, maintains only the illusion of sameness.  The form of the river appears to be the same, but that is all.  The river itself has changed and is, in fact, an entirely different river.

The water, and everything in it, is different.  The undercurrents and logs, and sticks and danger points, and fishing holes have all changed beneath the surface, moved location, or disappeared, altogether.  But, he says, something remains the same.  It’s the “orderly principle, according to which the change takes place.” (The Random House Dictionary).  In other words, the only thing which doesn’t change is change itself.

This can be scary, especially to a child, but when accepted–usually by adults–it can be exhilarating.  Of course, we have no choice whether it’s true or not, only whether we accept it as true or not.

Stoic philosophy is popular today, especially in the podcast universe.  Perhaps, because most podcasters are entrepreneurial and this philosophy comports well with entrepreneurial edicts of persistence in spite of difficulty.  The best summary of Stoicism I’ve come across is the following:

The reality of life is comparable to being chained to a horse drawn wagon (the predominant means of transportation when these ideas were being hashed out), which has suddenly taken off down the road.  It seems that the stoics are saying we are without choice in this brutal reality we call life.  But they aren’t saying that.  They are saying we do have a choice.  We can choose to run with the wagon or be dragged along the ground by it.

The novel Crime and Punishment was written by Feodor Dostoevsky in 1866.  It’s dark in a subtle, meticulous, everyday way that makes it, somehow, all the more unsettling.  I read it over a decade ago and it seems to have darkened with age.

If it’s so depressing why, then, do I, and many others, still read it?  One reason is that I’m aware of its status as a classic.  I’m inclined to suffer through it simply because others have.  The other is that it is simply gripping.  Being drawn into such an expert telling of a story so that you actually shudder for the main character, and the unfortunates being wrapped up in his warped existence, is so real that it is undeniably a work of something like genius.

Still, though, why read a book as dark and depressing as this?  Why do we read novels at all, whether heavy or light, for that matter?  Why do we engage any art (films, books, paintings) that remind us of human frailty?  I don’t know, but somehow, I believe, it’s an ancient, primal drive inside each of us—to get the story.  One so primal that it’s evolved into a pleasure of its own, separate from the undeniable utility of the lessons held in them.

Imagine the hunters back from the weeks long hunt into the wilderness or upon the plains interspersed with rocky, low ridges.  You are a child.  You are hungry.  You haven’t had meat in weeks.  This isn’t exactly abnormal.  The only normal is the abnormality of your eating habits.  You eat meat when it’s available and, in the winter, it is almost never available.

They return with leather leggings and leather coats and fur hats matted with frozen mud and blood.  The smell, so foreign and strange, is both horrific and exhilarating, like adults reeking of cigarettes and liquor returning to their children and the sitter after a long, rambunctious night out.

Not all of them, however, have come back from the journey.  It’s cold and windy out on the plain.  A few, hopefully talkers, have that faraway look in their eyes.  You weren’t there to see what they saw, but this is less important than the promise of meat soon to fill your belly.  The wind howls and it’s getting dark, the moon rises and a big fire is being stoked to celebrate the return of life to the clan.

The only evidence of the drama, the terrible reality which beheld the returning hunters is stove away inside their skulls.  The smell of burning meat begins wafting through the camp as fire light flickers from between tents and huts all scattered about.  The feast, once done, has the hunters beginning to unburden themselves of what lay out there, beyond the light of the fire and the rocky ridge flickering in the fire light across the plain.

Now your hungry mouth is becalmed and it’s needs replaced by your greedy eyes and ears absorbing every morsel of information, invective, inflection, eye roll, and shudder for the facts, nay more, the truth!

That’s why stories grip us, whether happy or sad.  Because they serve as wonderful images of what is out there, beyond our visionary reach, but no less real.  The blood on the hunter’s blade is the prose of Dostoevsky’s pen dripping from page to page, and as real as it gets.

In the 19th century, it was popular to both indulge in novels, and criticize them as ridiculous wastes of time; in much the same way social media is both widely indulged and criticized today.  Novels were seen as frivolous distractions, perhaps inefficiently educating us at a time when information was not readily available to anyone with a smart phone.

Now, however, it seems the scarcity of information is emotional rather than factual.  Facts abound while truth becomes correlatively more and more scarce.

Ambition is the human decision to make a meaningful picture of life.  It is to maintain the premise that life has value and that building and creating is the magic that will unfold the world to us.  I believe gripping stories help us participate in this faith.  Faith says, “I do not know the potential of this world.  I will proceed and let the magic unfold before me.”  It does not waste time in judgment.

To be human is, as Colonel Chamberlain says resting under the tree in the film Gettysburg, to have the “divine spark.”  It is to be given God’s power for deliberate discernment of what will be given value and what will not be given value in our lives.  But, unmercifully, we are denied precious control over our lives.  We are limited; fundamentally marked for destruction and tragedy, or the loss of the ones we love.

It is an act of faith, of religion, to proceed in spite of these gross limitations, fundamentally inherent in our existence.  I think about the author of this novel as I read it and wonder how one who has the awareness necessary to craft such a thing could be, yet forced, as we all are, to endure, nonetheless.

It’s the double-edge of the life we are born into.  If it’s painful to read, what must it be like to write?

The story, as best I can tell, is about a single idea.  A man, seemingly miserable and self-loathing beyond endurance, is imminently capable of making matters worse for himself, which he does.  He digs deeper and finding no bottom, scratches further.  That is the summarizing idea of the book.

In sum:  Things are always changing.  Don’t be afraid of this.  Maintain your poise, go with the flow and stay alert for opportunity.  Don’t make things worse while they are in flux.  If anything, it will make for a good story.

Maybe This Is True

 

Maybe This Is True

“If change happens easily, it’s easily undone.  This is good when it is good and bad when it is bad.”

“Health should not be squandered.  Each day of health is a gift to be taken advantage of.  If you don’t extend your line of battle on good days what will you do on bad ones?”

“On the sunniest days, out of nowhere, a cold chill can sweep in and change the whole scene.”

“First there was intelligence, then there was morality.  Intelligence is much older than morality.”

“Laughter is the teasing-out of our intuition.  It’s already there we just didn’t see it.  Hemingway did this for us.”

“You are a child of god and you were not put here to suffer.  You were put here to acknowledge suffering, alleviate it where possible, and accept the lessons of suffering with gratitude.”

“Maturity is knowing that what you have is very good indeed, and that not having it is much worse.  Maturity is gratitude.”

“Who are you, where are you, what have you accomplished, and what does it mean?”

“In Politics, left and right exist to balance we who move forward from the middle.”

“To be at once so alive, so sentient, then to be utterly obliterated into sheer extinction is seemingly our fate.  We cannot, on our best days, comprehend this.  We rationalize into this feeling by imagining afterlives that are similarly waking and sentient as we cannot imagine its total opposite.  But what if we have it in reverse.  What if this waking state of ours is much closer to total darkness than we think?  What if we are already barely awake and that reuniting with that from which we came is not much different from this, not much of a leap?  What if the difference between being alive and being in the dark is not that great?  What if this state of sentience we call our waking state of aliveness is a 1 on a scale of 1,000,000.

“Total oblivion, then, back to zero, would not be much of a leap after all.  Which is, in the very least comforting, for change is what we fear.  Or it may be in the direction of the 1,000,000.  What if we are like a bubble of water on the crest of a wave preparing to melt back into the ocean at any moment.  Some bubbles live twice as long as others, but twice as long as a moment is still just a moment.  Did the bubble enjoy itself?  Did it matter?  What if we are completely asleep already and this waking state is the cause of our ignorance rather than a small victory over darkness?  What if we return to knowledge?  Would this be a comfort?”

“That which is perfectly random, such as the suitable conditions for the creation of life on earth, followed by the absence of things like obliterating asteroids, long enough for the eons of evolution to occur, proves that consciousness, the “you” and “me” beneath the flesh and the fear and the happiness or sadness, is an expression of universal consciousness, with the flesh and the fear and the happiness or sadness and the bodies that express it only the portals for this consciousness.  You and me, awareness, is the consciousness that inhabited us as an opportunity for expression which is no doubt happening somewhere else where conditions are suitable.  Therefore, we are related to consciousness wherever found throughout the universe, the multi-verse.  One consciousness.”

“The object of your anxiety is interchangeable.  Notice this and understand that what you are momentarily fixated on as the cause of your anxiety is not actually the cause.  The anxiety and fear are a priori rather than posteriori.  Be with it and do not associate it with things outside of you for they are not the cause, your ego is, or the animal inside of you trying to pass along genetic material with least cost or evolution in this time.  Evolution is for those who may never come, creations in the moment are for the living.”

“Ideas in our minds (people, places, things) are temporary houses for our fears, chosen at random, the way people are houses for consciousness or spirit.  They are not one and can and will be separated now or whenever you so choose.  They will and can be set free.”

“God is not unreal only because he exists in our minds.  Our minds are real and exist in the world.  Everything exists in the world.  Everything includes God.”

Traveling Light

Traveling Light

There is a place in America that feels freer than the others.  It’s an escape and it’s far enough away that it feels strange.  The summertime Mountains of Colorado.

Maybe you can get there when you still have your youth.  Nothing can replace the smell of the air when you are breathing your bones in for the first time.  If the air is scented, as the summer mountains are, it’s a magic that never comes back and if it does you’ll always compare it to that feeling.

The flowers bloom then and a man will see them and want to cry or look at it and think ‘how come this is so beautiful, I just want to run into the hills and be free.’  But as soon as you get out of your car the boulders are so big you sprain an ankle or fall on a rock and you learn that beauty is in the eye and that’s enough.

Tim had driven into town, down from the mountain where he was working for the summer.  He’d seen the fella trying to hail a ride back up the mountain from the understood pick up point.  This was common in ski towns in those days, before CNN, the true precursor to the iPhone, a CNN in every pocket, killed things built on blind trust.

Not everything, though.  Restaurants are built on blind trust and have survived.  You can know a restaurant but you can’t know every member of the hot-line.  But consider whether this is a good idea, anymore, a CNN in every pocket.  Who will bring back the beeper?

After buying groceries, the fella was still there and Tim offered a ride.

“How old are you, brother?” the rider asked.

“21,” Tim answered.

“Aw, man, you’ve got the world by the balls.  Let me tell you something, man,” he began after getting situated and Tim flooring it for the higher altitudes they sought.

The stranger had an easy, gregarious manner, much like Tim.  Though generous, Tim had a short, quick, and sometimes rude way about him that hid nothing.  There was no lying in him.  Similarly constituted folks picked up on this and took advantage of the opportunity to save time, say what they had to say, dismissing nicety and getting to the point.  Some people have a point of view and see time slipping away.

Being a hitchhiker means you have no past or future, professionally.  Now, hitchhiking is a matter of course, with ride share, but then it was a matter of social contract.  That contract was killed and it was CNN that pulled the trigger, long before the iPhone.

There is no reputational basis for hitchhikers to stand on, as individuals.  All business is built on appearance alone.  Whether or not you’re friendly and a good conversation has no bearing on your likelihood of being picked up again.  This makes it one of the most honest conversations you’ll ever have.  It’s why no honest conversation takes place in an uber with its rating system, like it did in cabs.

The man was healthy and well fed, looked like he cut trees down for a living with an axe.

“After 35 we’re all the same age.  We’re all on borrowed time, by then, and everyone knows it,” he said.

The man looked to be about 40.  Tim considered what he said, looked sternly at the fella and did not comment, eyes burning.

“Youth is gone at that point, it takes a few years for this to set in, which means once it does it’s even further in the rear view,” he went on.

Tim looked in his rear-view mirror and saw the valley, green, red, blue, and yellow with all that sunlight, receding as they climbed the gorgeous mountainside that trailed a boulder strewn river full of clear water, towards higher and higher epiphanies of sun-splashed freedom.

“If anything, a 35 to 40-year-old is a man without a country.  If he has any brains, he’s mourning the loss of his youth, praying he used it wisely.  He hasn’t yet been invited to any other party, if you know what I mean.  He is in the wilderness, alone, man.  Build up steam right now.  Build up a head of steam that will get you to the other side, or just burn out like a meteor; your choice, both ok.”

“Where are you headed?” Tim asked.

“The Berm, to get a beer.”

“Getting loose?”

“No, man, just thirsty.  But as I was saying, if you show promise, the graybeards will open up to you and stop granting you all the exceptions of youth, the way you didn’t grant me the exceptions of a stranger, which is good.”

Tim looked at him with the same sternness and questions attached.  He looked hungry for information.  The mountain awakens in you the humility and knowledge that you don’t know much; can’t know anything in the shadow of the awe-inspiring thing around you.

“Yeah, man, you’re just seen as either unlucky or stupid for any lack of accomplishments, it’s no longer granted the exceptions of youth, as I’ve already pointed out.

“And this has nothing to do with money, man.  And don’t worry, no one is all the way there.  I’ve never met anyone accomplished in all areas of life at any age, but most poignantly, this one.”

The word “poignantly” hung there for a moment in Tim’s brain.  He didn’t want to get too lost, left behind, like the valley in the rear-view mirror.

“If it’s not love its money, if it’s not money its intelligence, if it’s not intelligence it’s empathy, if it’s not empathy it’s happiness, if it’s not happiness it’s meaning.  The wilderness finds everybody.  ‘Only the good die young.’  No one has all the bases covered.  That’s why you can’t compare yourself to anyone, man.  The wilderness finds all of us.”

Tim couldn’t imagine this.  He was Tim; 21-year-old Tim from eternity and alive in paradise.

“But it’s better to have made it to the wilderness than not to have made it at all.”

At the top of the mountain the fella insisted on leaving a 20 on the seat, quite a bit of cash then, and hopped out the car, said “I’m thirsty, think I’ll head for a beer,” and walked on down the road.

Fishing For All The Feels

 

Fishing For All The Feels

It used to be that the way you got famous was by catching a big fish.  The world was wide and large.  The small towns that made the world had newspapers.  And those newspapers were farm teams for the bigger newspapers.  Sometimes, something horrible would happen and that was reported.  But good things would happen too; a boy fishing with his father would catch a giant, world record swordfish in the Gulf.

People would want to read about it and everyone understood why and everyone would read about it together.  You couldn’t find as many, or more, articles a click away or right next to that one telling you why to catch a swordfish was bad.  Of course, there were no clicks, then.

But I still think it’s ok if we aren’t sure what’s going to happen with the loss of universal acceptance of what’s right or wrong and the invention of everything that is right being equally as wrong.  When everyone was certain what was right they were less likely to negotiate with what they knew was wrong.  So, great wars would happen after a period of tension building.

About 20 years of relatively peaceful tension preceded The Civil War, after which war broke out killing 600,000.  Then, about 20 years of tension preceded WWI when war broke out killing 10 million.  Then about 20 years of tension preceded WWII before war broke out killing 10s and 10s of millions.

Now we seem to just fight all along the way and we don’t get the times in between where everyone is happy and agreeing in big groups together.  We’re probably back to the future, here.  This is more similar to human history.  If human history were closer to the above description of massive wars every 30 or 40 years there wouldn’t be much humanity left.

I read one of Hemingway’s stories this morning.  The one in Islands in the Stream where the main character’s son fights a giant swordfish in the Gulf for six hours, nearly breaking him in the process, before the big fish gets away right as they went to gaff him.  Afterwards, the characters joke about how it would have made the boy famous to catch the big fish and them famous just by association for being on the boat and doing the other little tasks that helped out like driving or pouring water on the boy’s feet when it got hot or serving up drinks.

It’s exaggeration and part of the story, I know, but it’s funny because it’s both true and unlikely.  It’s not really true that everyone would come together today over a boy catching a great big fish with his dad.

Times are always getting more complex but right now they’ve outpaced our ability to make them seem ordinary.  This happened on the Battlefield too where technology outpaced the Generals’ ability to deal with them tactically resulting in the aforementioned unprecedented slaughter rates in battles.

Socially, there are lots of casualties happening right now in our public discourse.  But I think this will pass.  The technological leaps made in warfare that lead to all those casualties are now being experienced within everyday institutions and politics.  Historically, war has lead the way, outpacing society level innovations and the law’s dealing with them to catch up.  This has been the case throughout human history.  Law is conservative, slow and reactionary.  It does not set the pace or the tone, it deals with it once it has been established, in the best way it can.  Survival—war, sets the pace.  Let’s hope we don’t have any more big ones.

I think the back to normal is happening already at the society level.  Communities are slowly being built back up again, but they have an online life and a community life, the way people have public and private lives.  The online portion is even starting to mirror geography, towns.  The number of people a person can know and trust hovers around 150 which is about the max number of Facebook or Instagram likes an average person will peak at with any given post or picture or life event noteworthy enough.

As much as people like to believe their era is unprecedented, it’s all normalizing just as fast as the wheels came off.  And better off.  It’s better when life is simple and we get back to living and dealing with life being hard enough as it is, with universal mortality rates and all.  No need to make this any harder than it already can be.

Hemingway is great at dialogue.  The easy banter between six characters or so gives each one personality and makes each of them known in their own way and of a type the average reader can relate too.  This is incredibly hard.

He describes action in a way that creates feeling, like you were there.  He does not describe the feeling for you because feelings can’t really be described or remembered but must be had for them to be real to us.  Like music, it’s another tool we use to have feeling.  Music is like code or a language we all understand but which only a few know how to read or write.

It’s all different ways to get at the same feeling.  Music, film, literature, or experiences and adventures all aim at the same emotion and feelings as their byproducts.  That’s what we pay for.  As someone trying to learn how to play upon these same emotions it’s useful to understand these things.  Mastery of any craft is more about doing than merely enjoying it or studying it.  But those are certainly necessary.

Hemingway was writing this story around the time that he was finishing what was arguably his best work, Old Man and the Sea.  Someone around that time commented that the main character from Old Man reminded them of Shakespeare’s King Lear.  Hemingway said in reply that while Lear was wonderful the sea was already “quite old” when Lear was king.

It’s that kind of wisdom and the ability to record it down in stories, letting the reader imagine it for himself, that made him such a great writer.

Things are always changing in detail.  Music and sports have taken the place of philosophy that, for many, was once gotten through organized religion.  Stories are still consumed but more from movies and the more realistic movies have gotten more interactive with things like video games, which itself is a common substitute for adventure to get the feeling.  Its all about the feeling.  No matter how the delivery system changes the subject remains the same throughout it all.  You and me.  That can be a comfort.

A Close Read of Melville

 

A Close Read of Melville

What I like about writing is the complexity teased out and wrestled with in seemingly ordinary, everyday subjects.  Mystery, discovery, and detail surrounds us if you can train your eye to see it.

I read Chapter 58 of “Moby Dick” by Herman Melville this morning titled “Brit.”  It’s only 1000 words, or so, and takes the form of an essay rather than a continuation of the book’s plot.  Melville makes comparisons between the natural world and the nature of man, you and me, everyone’s favorite subject, when you get down to it.

How, in those 1000 words, does he manage to weave insights of such magnitude, I wonder. Simple.  He is a genius.  But genius is just another word for discovery.  That’s true.  However construed, it’s fun and constructive to observe a master at close range.  And where else but writing do we get to see into the mind of the great ones; get to look over their shoulder, discerning each thought, each insight and connective effort; every single line of code that conjures the greatest of master works is on display in the pages of epic books.

This is what I force my untrained eye to look for in the chapter’s opening line.  It reads:

“Steering north-eastward from the Crozetts, we fell in with vast meadows of brit, the minute, yellow substance, upon which the Right Whale largely feeds.”

Here, in essence, is a sentence containing the subject of the entire following essay or chapter.  Topically speaking, for Melville never stays topical, the passage include three things: the brit (seaweed substance), the whales that feed on the brit, and the ocean itself.

He takes these topics in order, going from big to small; namely food, animal, and environment.  The unspoken topic is the audience, human awareness, in the book the protagonist and in us our understanding of the written word as the telepathy of Melville’s mind carried forward to 2018, if you believe Stephen King’s theory of the written word.  Each topic is, in effect, swallowed by the other as the chapter proceeds.

First, Melville tells us what is physically happening to his observer on the boat.  The boat and its crew, are headed along a deliberate direction when they chance upon a grove of seaweed.  The purpose of the voyage is, of course, not the discovery of this seaweed.  The stated purpose, as dictated by Captain Ahab, is to hunt and kill Moby Dick; the whale that bit off his leg.

But the end state of any journey, chosen freely, is rarely the stated endpoint itself; the value is in the experiences that arise along those chosen roads to practically nowhere; if we are open to them that is.  And they carry meaning if we look.  Melville looks.  He sees, tells, and, in telling, discovers anew.  A positive feedback loop of discovery naturally occurs.  The lesson is to pick a path and stay on it.  No path is boring when our senses are engaged and our minds open.

Then he tells us a certain type of whale, the Right-Whale, not the sperm whale which the Pequod hunts, when not hunting Moby Dick, of course, is seen feeding on this particular seaweed.  So, what I see is a simple action describing the position of the observer.  Then I see what the observer sees; whales feeding.

Melville then describes the right-whale, and the impression the feeding makes on the senses.  He has not yet begun to do what is so incredible and which is why the book is so great—draw comparisons from this simple scene to universal truths; the kryptonite of emotion diving and surfacing, diving and surfacing, in every human heart.  For this, finally, he turns to the sea itself, pointing out how odd it is that, though some comparison can be made between creatures of the land and those of the ocean, the sea is truly unique in its capacity to create and destroy.

The sea, he shows, is unknown and mysterious, pointing out the numberless worlds traversed, unseen, and unwittingly crossed over by Columbus himself, in route to finding and exploring the great, new world of America; all the while, the sea lay hidden and untouched by the science and genius of man, which Melville mocks, not to disparage us, but to show the limits of our ordered lives and, rather, the benefits of increasing humility, discovery, and wonder, as we proceed through life.

For the sea, he shows, is neither the totality of the creatures which inhabit it nor the humans who play upon it, but the thing that “dashes even the mightiest whales against the rocks, and leaves them there side by side with the split wrecks of ships.”

Observe how no politics could be construed in this line, noteworthy in our era politicizing everything.  For, long after we, the sea, and everything in it disappears, if ever that should happen, the sea will still contain the forces carried in that line.  Immutable truths are what this book is about.

Now, Melville is in full stride.  It’s as though each chapter, at once begun on the physical plane of boats, water, men and fish, here seaweed, is just an opportunity for transition (segue) into greater and greater flights of fancy, like any journey, really.  Have a sense of wonder and instill a sense of wonder in your children.

Melville spends the remainder of the essay (chapter), showing the connections we have, all the way down to our divided souls, chaos and order, with the natural world.  So, here, he has shown his protagonist continuing along his chosen mission, tied as it has become with the will of a tyrant (Captain Ahab), but even that is a decision we all choose in the end, and this is a book about ends, the tyrant usually being our own self upon our very selves.

I picture Melville deep in thought now, sweating with excitement, in full stride, really enjoying himself, in full flow state as he writes this, discovering the universe in real time as his pen scratches across blank space, drawing from past experience as the impressions combine in his fertile brain.

He is marveling at the greater mystery of the thing holding the ordinary subjects along an ordinary passage, the great sea herself, the most tactile rendition of the universe held up on the earth’s surface, outside our very souls that is.

He wonders at the power and mystery of the ocean depths of which these whales are only messengers and people simple guests.  He describes the awesome destructive power of sea.  Finally, lest we become judgmental of that power of destruction, Melville points out our own similarities with this force, as we are mere microcosms of what we experience in nature.

By the end of the chapter he is able to write:

“For as this appalling ocean surrounds the verdant land, so in the soul of man there lies one insular Tahiti, full of peace and joy, but encompassed by all the horrors of the half known life.  God keep thee!  Push not off from that isle, thou canst never return!”

Melville, in 1000 words has taken us from “the minute, yellow substance,” to the “soul of man.”  If you’re like me you’re a little bit curious about how he does this.

Things Fall Apart

Things Fall Apart

“If someone ever asks you what you’ll be doing at some given time tell them, instead, where you’ll be.  The details of what you’ll be doing are unimportant, and unknown.  The importance of what you’ll be doing is implied.  You’re living your life to its fullest.  Namely, you’re observing nature, cause and effect, asking questions, and learning your way towards the ever-improving sacrifice of your gift of awareness of world as a creature of God.”

As he finished scribbling the passage, the rider shifted in his saddle to calm the big brown horse under him.  It snorted and blew air out and whinnied.  It stomped its feet and the heavy, thick sod deformed under the blows.  It made a heavy suction sound in the deep deltaic mud.

The rider had bright eyes but his face was expressionless aside from the movement of his facial muscles massaging the tobacco wad inside his lip where it creased upwards to his cheek.

He replaced the notebook in his saddle bag.  It was leather-bound and had an elastic band to keep the pages together.  He eyed the herd that swarmed in circles, growing panicked by his presence.  He wanted to put them on edge as an act of dominance.

Now, he could no longer see them but felt their movement vibrating up through the saddle.  The fog gave the impression of being in a dream.

He was down in Louisiana.  He was way, way down in old, old Louisiana.  It is older than the old world because the people from the old world came here and made it older in their nostalgia for what they missed.  They immortalized and idealized and finally fictionalized the place they’d had to leave.

He pulled the notebook back out.

“Two wrongs do not make a right.  Deterrence, therefore, does not work because any deterrence is offset by the lifelong brutalization of those administering the deterrent—society ends up right where it started.  Crime and punishment.”

Like an artist, he felt all acts were forgivable in context.  This placed him beyond good and evil and is isolating.

He placed the notebook back in his saddle bag and spit a line of spittle into the air, arching perfectly, catching a breeze and spreading like a wand before landing in a splash in the dewy grass, sodden and wilting with spider webs in the morning haze.

It was not a bright day, because of the haze, but the sun was full up.  It neared 10 a.m.  They were at least two hours behind schedule.  Twenty species of birds lifted in and out of the silence made by the fog.  They made strange noises that were displeasing.

It was a day to work cattle.  I was a boy and watched the whole scene from a distance, unnoticed.  I had no courage to speak of.  It was too warm and too damp and you could imagine dying on normal day like this with no beauty.

These cattle did not walk up and eat hay from your hand.  They ran to the opposite end of the field after seeing us with our deliberate movement that portended danger for them.  Their terror reminded you of your own worst qualities and was defended against with a newformed shell of anger.  Herds move together the way blackbirds will, or fish in a swarm at sea will.  They transform their shape according to the lead animal’s position.  They follow the most willful and brave of their flock; the one overcome with the most fear, which, as a cattleman, you hope stops short of panic.

The herd chose their leader.  The responsibility was put on her and it had made her crazy.  She’d rejected the lone bull after one calf; had killed his spirit and he hung back sullenly from his own herd which she’d commandeered.

All eyes were on her.  We’re not so different from nature.  Her size and beauty had drawn the attention of the other animals.  Beauty, alone, is never enough and is a tragic quality.

At the first surge of panic she’d forgotten her calf.  Far too much responsibility had been put on her.  She was isolated by her stature.  The instinct to protect her calf was the trigger for her fear, but in the tumult, she’d been separated from her calf and was left with only the fear, which unmoored from its source could not be dealt with logically by the cowboy.

She had forgotten the herd, too, and treated them as a long tail that wagged as she moved in swift stretches that we’re more like locomotion than physical exertion; head and neck up and erect for maximum vision.  Her blind will was their command.

The man on the horse groaned about the horns he’d wished he’d cut last year.  He always had other things to do, some of which included a cold beer after a long day. Anyway, he regretted not de-horning these cattle last year.

He pulled the notebook out.

“This moment is the ‘why’ to the ‘what’ of the past.  There is no deeper lesson than this.”

He put the notebook back for the last time.  That animal is dangerous, he thought.

The man in charge, and in whose interest this all pertained, was back at the corral entertaining company.  He was cutting a map in the mud with his knife; making the contours of the field they stood in.  With his map made, the others gathered around.

“We’re here.”  He said, pointing to the map he’d drawn.  “The corral is here and that is true North.  Most of the cattle have herded into this corner here.  Pete will flush them out.  Pete?”

“When, exactly did we learn these men from the State were coming to immunize the herd?” Pete said, riding up.

“Couldn’t we have been feeding them in the pen until they all came and just closed the gate one night?”

“We could have Pete, but these men are here now.  That’s my fault.  Pete, I want you to start here,” he said, pointing to the map, “and push the herd this way.  Once they hit this fence, if you have the right angle, they will turn and come down the path, fenced on both sides, and into the corral.”

Pete saw the whole thing unfolding, and thought how disaster would make little difference in the overall behavior of the one engineering all this.

Yet here he was, as always.  Something binds the philosopher and the artist.  Some unreasoning thing which reasons for us.  Between those two poles is life in general, the poles bearing all the strain as the world turns between them on its axis, breaking the two in the process in one beautiful display of fireworks.

It is good when an artist accepts his art and the philosopher accepts his philosophy.  But an artist who strains for philosophy is ineffectual.  A philosopher who strains for art is a monster.  When either of the two are themselves you get what is good and we all benefit in between.

As the cattle stare at our preparations, a thrill rises in them.  For the human observers this is unpleasant while it last and is only a thrill after.

The goal was to get the cattle into the little corral.  It was a wooden system of fences; small, the footprint of a house, with neat trap doors and levers, all hand-made and ingenious.  This was the only one of its kind.  The last one built by the man who built this one was also the only one of its kind, as each subsequent one built by the same man would be.

Away from the small talk of men looking around, motioning, discussing and orders being given and received, and separate from the communal life of this party, Pete sat on his large brown horse.

He leaned forward with his elbow on the horn of his saddle and the other arm crossed over that arm at the elbow.  He spit tobacco onto the ground and did not care for the others the way you would want if he was driving the cattle for you.  Patience was his one talent. His horse reflected this and the effect is immeasurable, really.

Pete wore a baseball cap where a fat, braided thread ran across the crease made by the bill of the hat and the square forehead; relic of the days when men wore tassel and rode on parade.  He wore wrangler jeans, a tee-shirt, and well-worn cowboy boots with spurs that were not kid gloves.

“He ain’t wrong, he’s just different and his pride won’t let him say things to make you think he’s right”, is what Willy said and it’s hard to improve on that, really.

As a ride wore on through a day this horse pulled harder and become more difficult for his rider to handle, inverse to any fatigue.

“Why?” I had asked.

“Because, he’s a man.” Pete had said.

The man in charge did not have boots, wranglers or a hat.  He wore old tennis shoes and dressed like a self-employed plumber.  But that was his house on the hill and these were his cattle and this was his enterprise, generally.

The sun beat his bare forehead but he never wore a hat or glasses or gloves or anything that was supremely practical. He was totally unpredictable.  These were his cattle.  He was not an artist.

He wanted to get the cattle into the pen because he decided to do this a long time ago.  It was not certain whether this was a necessary operation.  This frustrated the artist who, like all artists, vaguely feels the constant death of relevance.

The artist and the philosopher can work together, but it is rare.

Also, sixty healthy bumble bees can probably be fit into a mason jar with enough effort and resilience.  How did they get into the jar?  It cannot be said.  Now we would administer medicine to the bees.  The same attempt would be made with these cattle.

After much trouble on the part of Pete, the cattle were gotten into the small pen and quickly became as bumble bees in a mason jar.

The man with philosophy, but no skill at this particular job, got into the pen with an ax-handle and went to work.  The onlookers thought he must be insane.  Philosophy makes a man extraordinarily brave if it’s real.

The wild leader of the herd looked at him with what must be bovine disbelief; there is a kind of intelligence in fear that all mammals speak to one another and it’s clear as a bell on a bluebird day.  This lead animal, disbelieving of the man’s audacity, was a shiny calico color—she was like a wild cat on your porch, fat from eating rats but ready for a handout and not asking politely.

Her coat was very short.  The contours of the muscle and the dark calico rippled in the sun and sweat.  She had white, softball-sized circles around the eyes with smaller, black, baseball-sized rings inside those surrounding the eyes.  This gave her an evil look.  It looked like she wore some kind of bovine mascara.

She charged.  The man in the center of the pen stood in place, not running and I felt, keenly, the difference between man and boy.

Some cattle would be coaxed into the shoot where they would be single filed into a squeeze.  There, whale-sized syringes were brought out of canvas bags by men from state’s A&M college, here to ensure state’s cattle were properly rid of economically deleterious threats to state’s population at large.

The man with philosophy obliged and was not ashamed of his wild cattle; possibly proud, even.  The main apology he extended to everyone for his unnecessarily wild cattle was to not ask anyone into the pen with him.

Then disaster which the cowboy had expected happened.  The wild calico animal that could not believe, and thus could not accept, her capture and the man with the ax-handle’s disregard for her size, like a challenge, did what every cornered animal can be expected to do.

For a second I thought of Spielberg’s boat and Jaws straddling up and onto the boat where the shark should not be.  The cow now managed to climb up and onto the high aluminum pipe fence until, in slow motion, under her weight and girth, it collapsed to earth in a jerking motion.  It was strange to see her above us as it would be to see a car upside down or floating in a flood instead of driving underneath you in the order of things.  The fence accordioned down to earth and the way was open for her, and by random extension, the herd. Victory.

They all ran out behind her into the big pasture.

Bloody, covered with mud and holding, still, the ax-handle in the middle of the ring where no one else had gone, the man stood and watched, looking like the plumber of wisdom.  The artist looked on muted.

We waited as he turned to us, smiling a true smile, as the cattle fled across the field.

George and Bill

George and Bill

[George and Bill sat on George’s back porch drinking lemonade, looking out over a Texas tank pond, surrounded by the mesquite and willow trees, late on a warm summer afternoon.]

“Question, Georgie boy.”

“Yeah, Bill.”

“They say you don’t remember what a person says, you remember how a person made you feel.  What the hell does that mean, anyway?”

“It’s a cliché, Bill.  It means it’s both true and false.  All at the same time.”

“Speak the King’s English, George.”

“Well, the fact is you’re remembering neither what the person said nor how the person made you feel.  You’re remembering the person him or herself.

“You see, we don’t remember feelings, Bill, we have feelings.  What we remember are people, places and things.  The feelings flow from the memory of the thing.  Remembering a person can be just like meeting them.  We put them back in our mind and the feeling flows from that. Our minds are awful powerful.”

“Ha! You can say that again, Georgie.”

“Bill, people are complete.  They are, as the French say, ‘petite mondes’—little worlds.  They are true phenomena; universal; Godlike, with free will and everything.  Bill, that produces feeling, regardless of what is said or done.

“Ask yourself this question Billie boy: If you were going to describe how someone made you feel would you describe the feeling, or would you describe the person?  Friend, I submit to you that if you wanted to be effective, you would describe the person.

“We remember the person and the feeling flows from that.  Being human is an act—short for action—and acts trigger emotion in us.  Human existence has meaning and purpose, in and of itself.  At least as much purpose as life can have, anyway.  People feel that, especially when they’ve forgotten it about themselves.  Consider the movie industry.”

Bill was looking at George, biting his lower lip, and grinning.

“Now I know what you’re thinking Bill.” George started again.  “‘King George has lost his marbles!’  Well, hear me out, amigo, to leave a lasting impression you must focus, not on the impression you want to leave, but on the act of being human.  It’s the only shot you’ve got of making an impact.  Life is nothing if not counterintuitive.  And don’t worry about being good or bad.  This goes beyond good and evil.”

“Georgie, Georgie …. pass the pitcher.”

[A pair of mallards lit on the tank pond in front of them]

“…. I try to paint that way.” George went on.  “A painting does not describe.  A painting simply is.  A painting is not a reflection of nature, a painting is nature.  It’s what was in my mind and my mind is a part of nature, grew right out of nature, just as yours did.  A painting, if done truly, will make at least one person on the planet cry.”

“George, you never fail to surprise me.  I think I’ve had this same conversation with myself before.”

“Well that’s what a friend is, Bill.  It’s the friend who helps you have that conversation with yourself.  They allow that conversation to flow more freely and they do it without judgement.

“A few people can have this conversation with themselves.  We call those people writers.  Anyone can write.  Most people just don’t bother to.  They have friends.  But, sharing ideas is like stacking wood on a campfire.  To grow the fire, you have to stack on the wood.

“You can’t be afraid of smothering it.  Friends aren’t afraid of smothering your fire.  They find it an acceptable risk.  That is human nature.  And thank God for it.  If you wait for a flame big enough to handle the extra wood you’ll never grow the fire.  You’ll grow old and this has nothing to do with age.

“As a young woodsman starting my campfires I used to fear I’d smother my fires when trying to start them.  Then my brother came along and started stacking wood on the trickle of a flame I had.  I thought I needed a large flame to build a bigger fire.  I had the ‘cart before the horse’, since you like clichés so much.

“That’s the value of a friend.” George went on.  “They stack wood on your fire before you would have the courage to do it yourself for fear of smothering what you’ve got.  They see what you have before you do.  It’s like playing with the house money.  A writer is someone dense enough to play with his own money and get away with it.”

“I see,” said Bill.  “I think we tell stories for that reason.  It’s stacking wood.  People are creators, in the image of their creator.  What is the act of creation?  It is bravery.  It’s going ahead when you don’t know exactly what’s going where.  It is leadership.  It’s not about you and me.

“It’s: did I do things I can be proud of?  This being human is an act, you say.  We create the events we think should be in the world.  Our little worlds, where we are as God.  To put the action in the mind of people is an act of creation.  And you’re presence is, itself, an act, unavoidable.”

“Exactly,” said George.  “The world is in our minds.  Novels are ‘new’ worlds.  Novels are new creations.  Nature is always combining anew in our hearts.  People are one-part God and one-part nature, and one part bull-shit.  That’s the part we make up since we’re really throwing mud against the wall to see what sticks.”

“George, I’m a writer and I’ve never written a word.  Picture a dog running through six inches of water in a flooded field on a frosty morning.  She’s chasing a downed mallard whose green head sparkles in the sun, barely cracking on the horizon.  The water rolls over her as she proceeds apace, with steady, satisfying, relentless locomotion, through the breaking sheen of smooth water, chasing down her fleeing object.

“Her relative speed closes the gap.  The bird’s predicament was moments ago unforeseen.  Like you and I, it did not live its entire life with the expectation of this final chase.  And thank God for that.  When God comes, it is a total surprise.”

“Amen, compadre,” said George.

Sergeant and the Sir

Sergeant and the Sir

They’d just finished each an MRE.  Then they sat on each a rock.  They were high on the mountain and the sun was nearly set.  The valley below, straight down, was red.  Everything was red, or chocolate brown.  It must look like Mars.  There are parts of the green and blue planet that resemble Mars if you’re willing to go to those parts, as a few people are.

This ritual, after dinner and before dark, sitting on the rock is helpful for thinking differently about familiar topics.  The sun gets low and big and shines bright on the whole valley that in the day is harsh and filled with responsibility.  Then it cools and falls down to bed relaxing for a minute between the harsh reality of the day and the cold disappearance into night.

“Sergeant, what do you think is the root cause of all this?”

“Sir, it’s just life.  I never want to overemphasize life.”

The sir was always struck by how easily the sergeant partook in these discussions.  Like he’d already been sitting there contemplating a topic at least touching on the random thing asked.

“It would be like discounting your truth.  All this creation we can see from this rock is a product of faith in the value, inherent, in life.  Life, you and I included, and the dead life we just ate, is just another element.  Like tungsten.  Tungsten must have traveled from somewhere to get here.  It traveled through space and time from ancient facts.  Life is a combination of forces that themselves carry histories a bazillion times a bazillion units of time in the making.  I think we’re here to do our part in the perfection of life the way a little fact did its part in the creation of tungsten somewhere sometime.”

Inverse to the sun’s demise a wind picked up reminding the sir of the harsh facts of life as he pulled his beanie down tighter and farther.

He believed the sergeant was right.  He also believed that nature, in creating life, responded to stimulus, favoring negative stimulus.  Positive stimulus was only reinforcement and thus holds no genius, which is just another word for discovery.

“What will you do after this?”

“Sir, I try not to think about that.  I got word a good friend of mine lost his leg yesterday morning.  I just try to focus on what I can do to help him by doing my job and being as good at it as I can.  It’s great if I’m enjoying what I do.”

The other members of the small unit were getting some sleep before the night operations.  The sir was the odd man out.  His job was like a rule that is useful only in that it sets boundaries.  He was a walking chalk line, requiring only the awareness that he could do infinitely more harm than good.

“Not that I think my job satisfaction will make one iota of a difference in the completion of this training op.  I would trade a lot for happiness but not that.  I like my job, I like it a lot, but not that much.  The mission comes first.  I sit here trying to think about my buddy and his wife and family and how he lost a leg two days ago and I’m here sitting on this rock and I try not to feel like a piece of shit.”

“You’re doing your job.  And I would be lost with these guys without your expertise.”

“I appreciate that.  I know my buddy did his job.  I know it couldn’t be any other way.  But it’s funny to think that the way things are couldn’t have been otherwise but at the same time realizing that the way things will be is somewhat in our control.  That, sir, is life in a nutshell.”

A massive explosion breaks the oppressive silence of a purple sky and the sergeant picks up the radio and rogers up the eyes-on.  The moon breaks out and all is quiet again from the dark valley below.