Saturday, June 27, 2009

Our Town Momments

Most of the time, I’m oblivious to the magic moments of life. But every once and awhile, however briefly, I come to and appreciate the beauty of a moment. Rarely, I try to capture the moment. I think of them as “Our Town” moments – analogous to Emily’s experience in the Thornton Wilder play when she’s given the opportunity return from death to visit and really see the beauty and love packed into what just seems like an ordinary day.


*******


Written: September 9, 2000


At the football game last night, I realized this was Sarah’s first high school marching band experience. I don’t know why, but I got all choked up. Marcia asked me a question that, had I tried to do more than grunt an answer, I would have ended up blubbering. I don’t know why it affected me this way. Perhaps it’s because my little girl’s growing up. Or maybe it’s just the beauty of ordinary things like playing in a band at a football game. At the time you don’t realize how precious these moments are. I certainly didn’t realize it when it was me on the field. What’s happening now that’s just as precious and just as unnoticed? Whatever. All I know is my emotions were trying to tell me something important.


*******


Written: April 11, 2003


Sarah and Marcia went to Myrtle Beach for a band and chorus contest last week. Howard High bands and choruses came in 1st place in about every category. When I went to pick them up, I got choked up. Why?

It just seemed like one of those magical moments Thornton Wilder talks about in “Our Town.” An ordinary moment so beautiful you can’t stand it. The return of the conquering heroes -- oblivious to how proud they’ve made the hometown folks.

I also realized that I was the one on the bus 35 years ago. My parents and grandparents were the proud hometown folks and I was the oblivious one. Except for my mom, the hometown folks are gone. How sad we don’t appreciate these extraordinary ordinary moments.

Sarah, I’m so proud of you. You take your talent for granted and don’t realize how special you are. I hope I find the right moment to tell you this soon. A moment when you’re not oblivious, as I was. And a moment while I’m still here.


******


Written: May 30, 2003


Here I am in West Lebanon, New Hampshire sitting in Emily’s new apartment.

The move-in is tomorrow at 10:00. After packing the truck with two hired guns (high school boys friends of Sarah) last night, I left for the 500-mile trek at 6:00 A.M. this morning. I made good time and everything went well until I tried to park the car at Emily’s house. I dinged her (my) Stratus with the truck and busted out the taillight. Oh well, it could have been a lot worse. I’m just thankful that, my truck, my load and I made it up here with no major incidents or speeding tickets.

It may be a stretch, but there’s a rough parallel with my own graduation. My Grandfather Brown got into a fender bender trying to turn onto Green Street after my graduation. I wasn’t even around, but I felt guilty for “causing” it by graduating. I’m sure that thought never even occurred to Granddad Brown

The toughest part of the move was earlier though -- packing up Emily’s childhood. I had no idea she saved so much stuff. The treasures she saved brought back a flood of memories. For example, the fish stick. I had no idea she had saved it. It was a stick I carved when we camped out at Greentop with the Indian Princesses. Emily must have been six or seven. The stick ended up looking like an eel. Emily had painted it bright colors like a totem.

Besides the fish stick, there were special rocks, the plastic Halloween pumpkin (used to collect candy), stuffed animals, dolls, the heart shaped candle I brought back from California (with Sarah’s one-year-old teeth marks in it – she thought it was food), and books – tons of books.

The sad part is her childhood is gone forever. And so is mine. It seems only a short while ago that I was packing up my own childhood to move into an apartment with my brother, Dennis. I’m sad for the end of Emily’s beautiful childhood, of the passing of her little girl laughter and of my fleeting memories of it all. I’m sad for the accelerating passing of time. And I’m worried about Emily starting out in the world without her training wheels (but we’re still holding the back of the bike even if she doesn’t know it). I pray above all she will be happy.

The sadness will be there, but it won’t take center stage in the coming week. Tomorrow should be a blast unloading the truck with Emily and her friends and setting up her apartment with a truckload of furniture. And then, graduation next week. It’s family time, and time to be proud of Emily. She’s turned out to be a beautiful human being. What a joy for Marcia and me. Who could ask for anything more.


******


Written: June 9, 2004


There are times that I can’t talk. There are times that I get so overcome that I can’t say what I want to say without breaking up. So, I just don’t say it. What sets me off and what is this trying to tell me? Somewhere there’s a clue in these emotional triggers.

This happened to me twice recently. Last week I was talking to Emily about her visit to Grafton Vermont to the school where she will be teaching first grade. She talked about meeting the kindergarten class who will be her 1st grade class next year. She spoke of seeing her classroom for the first time. Most important she expressed her sense of awe in the realization that she has job and will really be teaching next year. I think the last part hit is what hit a nerve. It’s part pride in Emily that she’s got a great start in life. And I think it’s part remembering the experience of another 23-year-old -- me.

Talking about awe, 30 years later I’m still amazed that I got the BSO job. It was an incredible feat for an underdog to win a blind audition against experienced players. I guess Emily’s start brings back those memories and makes me realize just how special and life changing that time was.

Sunday, I was talking to my cousin, Tim Brown, at Uncle Earl’s viewing (he died last Friday at age 80). I related to him how Dad worshiped his big brother, Earl. This brought forth a flood of emotions. Simultaneously, I could hear my Dad’s voice telling me, when I was about five, how important it is for me to be a good big brother, to have my little brother look up to me.

I could hear my father tell his favorite uncle Early stories: “I’d walk a mile for a Camel. Warren, walk up to the store and buy me a package of cigarettes.” “Where do you want me to dig?” (Dad points with his foot, Earl shovels on the top of Dad’s foot resulting in a bloody foot soaking in a pail of water – Grandma Brown’s universal remedy.)

Most of all, I could feel what a good and simple man my Dad was, I could hear his laughter and I guess I missed him. Maybe this is a simplified and romanticized memory. But it tells me, I’m still mourning. All in all, I don’t think this makes me an unusually emotional person. And I don’t think these emotions are inappropriate. But it makes me realize that I do have them. And it’s not a bad thing.


*******


Written: May 28, 2007


We’re back from a visit north to hear a Sarah’s symphony concert and spend some time with Matt and Emily. It was a very nice weekend and a great thing to do a little more than a month prior to Matt and Emily’s wedding.

Related to the wedding, I feel I should try to capture some thoughts in a letter to Emily at this milestone in her and Marcia and my lives. But somehow, it doesn’t feel right. She’s had 26 years of me and I don’t think I could say anything except how proud we are of her and happy for her. Maybe that’s enough and worth writing. I’ll give that a try at some point prior to 7/7.

Thursday prior to the trip to Vermont and New Hampshire, I took a field trip to visit my company’s property in Monroe, NC. An interesting thing happened in the Charlotte airport. A group of young air force personnel returning home from Afghanistan and Iraq were on my flight. No one even noticed them at the BWI, the departing airport. But when we “deplaned” (boy, I hate that word) in Charlotte, it was a lot different.

I was in the last seat of the plane and they were right around me. As I left the plane and started walking down the terminal, I heard spontaneous applause break out. As we progressed toward the main terminal, it sounded like a quick moving spring shower following the small troop's progress. I couldn’t see them, but I knew where they were by the tracking applause.

How simple and how wonderful a display of appreciation. It takes me back to a, perhaps mythical, simpler time when people appreciated those who risked their lives on someone else’s behalf. It made me well-up. I don’t quite know why that got to me, but it did.


******


Other things like this move me:

• The graduating class at Dartmouth singing the school song, arms around each other’s shoulders and swinging side to side with the music
• The description of the spontaneous salute Lee’s troops gave him as he returned from surrendering to Grant.

There’s a common thread to explore here somewhere. Perhaps it’s simply the un-noticed, unappreciated and, sometimes, unbearable beauty and joy of the gift of life. Thornton Wilder got it right.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Slow is Good and Good is Fast

Written: March, 22 2005


Slow is good and good is fast.

The first time I heard this said, I had to stop and think. It’s a mind bender!

I was working with my glass-blowing partner, Robb, trying to make an incalmo piece for the first time. He brought me his side of the piece too hot. When I tried to join it to my side, his part sagged out of shape and made it impossible to get a seal. I heated the resulting mess several times and finally got a seal. (I think I primarily did this because Robb said it would be impossible.) The resulting piece was a mess.. I went on to put a foot on it, fold over the lip and spin it out. I learned a lot from it, but the most important lesson was after the piece was done.

Michael, a former sheet metal worker and amazing glass artist provided a little coaching. He relayed something someone had said to him in his prior profession. “Slow is good and good is fast.” By that he meant, if the piece is too hot, send it back and let it cool. If it's not the right shape or size, heat it up and tune it up. By being hasty, by rushing, by hurrying we make mistakes and lose time. That's more than a glass blowing lesson for me. My tendency is to try to do things fast. Too fast is half fast (if you get my drift).

Slow down, take the time, savor the moment. It reminds me of something Dr. Higgins, a music education professor used to encourage his students to do. “Waste paper,” he used to say. This was heresy after 12 years of public school teachers exhorting students to do just the opposite. But it made sense. The most important thing was the musical creation, not that it was done on a single sheet of paper.

Waste paper, waste time. Slow is good and good is fast. The dichotomy is that in slowing down, in wasting time you actually save it. You're fully present in the moment -- whether you're by yourself or with another. After all, what are we going to do with all the time we're saving, anyway?

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Employability at 50

Written: September 17, 2000



Next week at this time I’ll hit the big 5-Oh. What does it mean? Really nothing. It’s just a number.

Having said that, I admit, I’ve spent a lot of time fretting over this “just a number” this year. Yesterday, I realized why. It’s not so much it’s meaningful to me, but that 50 (and beyond) has a connotation for others that affects me in the employment market. So, it’s not what I think about it, but what I think others think about it and how I think their thoughts can affect my employability.

Having said that, I have to realize that what others think is out of my control. My employability is affected by many things I can’t change -- height, race, sex, baldness -- and things I can change, but don’t want to -- my philosophy of treating people with dignity and respect and developing people in their jobs.

So, as long as I can find work in some capacity to meet the needs of my family, the age thing just doesn’t matter. 50, 60, 70 -- 90, 100 are just numbers. What matters is health, love, spirituality and intellectual curiosity. As long as you have these, you’re still living vigorously. Without any of them you’re dead regardless of the number of chronological miles on your odometer.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Patience

Written: November 4, 2003


A month or so ago, I forgot my headphones to plug into the TV monitors at the gym. It was interesting to watch the five monitors, each tuned to a different station, while I worked-out. The emptiness, and shallowness of program content was startling clear.

Most programming was simply advertisement. Even with 60 or so cable channels, there's no content worth its while. News channels are really just entertainment. The big story one morning on every news broadcast was Madonna giving a passionate lesbian kiss to Brittany Spears at some celebrity awards ceremony. Who cares! This is news?

The popular press, TV and radio are filled with sex (we'll I guess it's not all bad), formulaic quick fixes for every problem and blatant commercials. I know I sound like a really old fart, but it all seems pretty valueless. The popular culture is shallow and has no attention span.

Ten years or so ago, I used to go to the monthly men's breakfast at church to (even though I didn't know it at the time) soak up wisdom from the older guys. Mac Whittamore delivered one program that stuck with me. He talked about our impatient, instant, society. Instant coffee, instant breakfast...instant answers. That's what strikes me today. There's a (something less than 10-step) formula that offers a quick, simple solution for every complex problem under the sun.

I'm a product of my times. I lack patience and want instant results. Yet, in my saner moments, I know there are no short cuts, no quick fixes. In the long run, slow, patient tenacity produces durable results.

So, patience, Dan. Savor every day. A little less connection with mass media will help!

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Irritants

Written: January 28, 2007


Irritants irritate. Right now it’s the plumbing system. We lost water pressure Saturday. It’s amazing how much that affects – heating, hot water, cleaning, bathing. It sure makes you appreciate the invisible convenience of good plumbing.

Oh well, I found a work around the problem (by bi-passing the water softening system where I think the problem is) and we’ve got a call into the plumber. Meanwhile, all I can do is to wait for things to be resolved.

Seems like there’s always something to worry about. Seems like there’s always something to fix. Seems like there’s always some complex problem. I guess that’s just life.

My illusion, is that there would be no plumbing problems, complex bureaucracies to deal with (medical insurance claims, building permit mazes, IRS, you name it). Life would just be a series of deep thoughts, relaxation and fun. That’s unrealistic, of course, yet there’s a part of it that isn’t.

Life is about encountering and solving problems. That’s the way it’s always been. The difference is today, the problems aren’t as life threatening as they were for our ancestors. Advances mean that we live longer and better than generations that came before. Our worries are typically, not a matter of survival, mostly, just inconvenience. For the most part, we deal with complexity and bureaucracy, not carnage and brutality. So, the false part of my illusion is there will be a time when there are no more irritants, no more trivial problems -- just peace, deep thoughts and joy.

But the true part of my illusion is that I can recognize irritants are inevitable. My insight is that I make them worse by failing to recognize this and by adding time pressure and by trying to resolve them as soon as possible – muscling them to resolution. There’s almost always more time to fix something than my mental model says there is.

So here’s the advice. Irritants happen. Give them time to fix themselves on their own schedule. Don’t rush your life. Meanwhile, don’t delay the peace, pondering and joy of daily life. It’s not when the irritants are gone that joy happens, but during all the irritants. It’s not sequential, but simultaneous. It’s not when – then, but right now. There is time.

Peace.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Life Stories

Written: January 31, 2001


I’ve been meaning to capture this observation for a while -- how we encumber ourselves with unnecessary stories. It came clear to me at the Clarity session I went to last November.

I was in a room with eight strangers for three-and-a-half days. The interviews didn’t start with “tell me about yourself.” I realize now that starting there just tees up all the well-rehearsed, justifications, rationalizations, explanations and excuses we make for ourselves to explain what is in many ways a random series of events leading up to today.

Instead, Michael, the seminar leader, just started with something like “I’m Santa Claus and can give you anything you want. If you could have anything you want, including all the money you need, what would you do.”

It cut through the crap. We didn’t dwell on the past or try to rationalize how we got to where we were. We took the self-imposed barriers off our dreams and looked at them freshly.

The ironic thing is, I probably got to know those folks faster and in more depth in a shorter time than I would have had we done the “personal history” bit. And they got to know me in that same way.

For me it’s freeing, knowing I don’t have to talk about my history, what I do for a living, how I got to where I am or any of that stuff. It’s nice to just be who I am in the moment. And it’s enough.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Dad's Snowman

Written: 1/12/2007


Last Christmas, my nephew, Brian, pointed out a paper snowman hanging on the wall of my brother’s house. It was just a simple set of glued together circles that most of us probably made in kindergarten. The teacher would have cut out everything in advance, given the class instruction, and then (with a lot of adult supervision) let everyone at it to make their own customized creation.

Refrigerator art par excellence.

But this snowman was not built by a kindergartner; it was made by my father at age 74. At least we think it was.

At 74, Dad was pretty far along in his Alzheimer’s trip. He was getting up early (like 3:00 A.M., so he wouldn’t miss the bus), dressing himself (in two pairs of pants and two or three shirts) and spending the day in adult daycare. One day he came home with his shirt stuffed with paper snowmen. We don’t think he made them all. He just saw that they were available and took advantage of the situation.

Taking advantage of free stuff was in Dad’s nature and nourished by his job as a DC policeman. I don’t remember all the free stuff he brought home, but even though he was a teetotaler, we had bottles of hard liquor in the house. (And one time, a bottle under the front seat of the station wagon which inconveniently broke right before a church camping trip.)

So this paper snowman has value far beyond its function as a simple decoration for the season. It reminds us of Dad. It reminds us of his delight with bringing home free stuff to pass out. And it reminds us of his best moments – filled with humor, laughter and joy. So, we no longer have Dad, but his snowman lives on and with it our memories Dad and of times gone by.