Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Top 10 Things I'm Thankful For...

10. The Internet & Electronic Social Media – What did we do before we had the internet when we needed a trivial answer to an obscure question? Sure, for important stuff, you had your World Book or the Britannica. But you could dig for a week and not find the name of, say, the owner of the Cavern Club where the Beatles got their start. (Just now it took me exactly 33 seconds to find out it was Alan Sytner via www.ask.com) As if Wikipedia wasn’t special enough, along came Facebook, Linked-In and Twitter. Although I still don’t tweet (I predict that Twitter will go the way of My Space,) FB and L-I are sites I am on multiple times every day. It all started a year ago when I got laid off and realized that I had been woefully inadequate about building a network. I joined FB and L-I to help myself find a job. What I found instead was that the people I had either brushed aside or forgotten in the past, I now have more in common with than some of the people I thought were my friends but now find they have disappeared. Now, connecting with friends is the main purpose of my social networking, and the job hunt is secondary.
9. My Teachers – My Dad, who taught me the value of the dollar and that if a thing was worth doing, it was worth doing right; My Mom, who taught me to love and laugh and be a peace-maker; Archie Devitt, who taught me that music was not only fun to listen to, but fun to produce; Cleon White, master geek, who taught me to love math – including trig and slide rule; Barb Cain, my first female boss who not only taught me to manage people, but to do it while smiling even though I thought I was too cool for that; Steve Ortiz, who taught me that I could give up drinking and still survive; Doug Snyder, who taught me how to separate my emotions and write objectively, and challenged me to learn more every day. Being a college drop-out hasn’t hurt me as much as you might think and I believe that is because I had teachers in my life that taught me to be curious and questioning, so even without school, I kept learning.
8. My stove and refrigerator – can you imagine catching a chicken, wringing its neck, plucking and gutting it, and starting a fire with two sticks so that you could eat that chicken after turning it on a spit over that pile of embers for so many hours that you missed lunch and now it's time for dinner? It’s hard to envision the hassle of people who lived a hundred years ago when I’m able to go to the freezer, grab a chicken breast, throw it in a pan and toss it in the oven to cook while I google a recipe for peach cobbler.
7. Life – what an amazing coincidence! I look out my window and see deer and coyotes and porcupines and elk and red-tailed hawks and blue jays and rabbits and lizards and spiders and ants and snakes and big black beetles that walk with their tail ends lifted high in the air. This all evolved from the primordial slime?! What a coincidence!!! And then a monkey evolved into me!? Wow, am I lucky! I’m also thankful that I am at the top of the food chain and recognize that I must occupy that position with nobility and concern. I must be a steward to the lower creatures. I must not take a life lightly. I’ll eat a cow or a chicken or even that elk, but I’ll do it with gratitude and reverence.
6. Living in America – where else can you vote your conscience without fear, berate the government officials without reprisal, buy anything and everything you need at a Wal-Mart or on Amazon without standing in line? And where else can you go out and drive on 4-lane highways and bridges across the flat prairies and majestic mountains of this great country, and do it all while you drink Mountain Dew, eat a Slim Jim and listen to Stevie Ray Vaughn? No country comes even close to America!
5. The view out my window – it is a privilege to live in Colorado. Clear blue skies, white snow, bright sun, majestic Ponderosa Pines. God is good. Colorado is where he lives. I'm grateful that he shares it with me.
4. My racquet-ball buddies – men need other men to bond with. We need guys to laugh with; to talk politics with; to talk smack to; to compete against. My racquet-ball buddies are all that and more. They are my best friends.
3. My sense of humor – I love it that I can laugh at anything, including myself. I love my silly streak. I like to cut up, especially with my siblings and parents, who taught me and nurtured my odd sense of humor. You should see us around the holiday table – napkin rings around ears, spoons hanging from noses – no utensil is safe from this bunch of comedians.
2. My health – My parent’s passed on their strong genes and taught me a healthy lifestyle that has kept me mainly healthy my whole life (along with a little luck and the fact that I used to eat dirt as a kid and thus built up some keen resistance to germs.) As I grow older, my body doesn’t always want to cooperate the way I think it should, but for the most part, it’s in pretty good shape.
And the number one thing I am thankful for is
1. My Family – I know that I am the luckiest boy in puppet-land because of the family I have. I’ve seen families that can’t agree and snipe at each other about all things, big and small. Though we certainly have our differences, we are as tight a family as you can imagine. My parents, my brothers and sisters, my kids, my aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces, nephews and all the peripherals and step-relatives and extended families – they are the best and I love them all! And most of all, I love my wife, Marcia. After 35+ years, the spark is still there and the love is still strong. She is my rock and my foundation. She’s given me a very good life and I’ll be eternally grateful.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Giving Thanks

I saw a man on You-Tube last week who was born with no arms and no legs. He had a grotesque and only slightly-functional flipper that grew out of his hip where the legs, but for a damaged gene, should have grown. He was not ashamed of his flipper. In fact, he brought attention to it and made everyone laugh instead of cringing when they saw it wiggle. He “stood” like a weeble on a stage in a High School auditorium and played the drums for the teen-agers with his flipper as he told the kids his story. He asked the crowd if they had ever felt like they couldn’t go on. Then he purposely tipped himself over and proceeded to tell the school how long it had taken, and how much work it required, for him to learn to get back upright on his own. Then he showed them what could be done by a man with seemingly no hope and after a rather amazing struggle, was standing upright again. As the cameras panned the auditorium, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.

I saw a man yesterday standing by the freeway on-ramp whose leg was missing just below his knee. He held a sign asking for help: “Homeless Vet, anything helps.” He had crutches that helped him hop around while waiting for handouts. His rounded stump stuck out of his rolled-up jeans. He looked like a man with little hope. I was past him so fast I didn’t even think of pulling out a bill until he was getting smaller in the rear-view mirror. I should have gone back and given him something. I almost did. But almost won’t pay for his cot tonight. I heard later on the radio that there are 1600 homeless veterans in Colorado. That is certainly not right.

I saw a man today inching across an abandoned parking lot in a paraplegic’s wheelchair. His deformed hand was struggling with the joystick control of his motorized chair. No one else was in sight, so I had to applaud him for being out on his own, even though it was obviously difficult for him. He seemed to be heading somewhere with a purpose. I wonder if I were in his position if I could even maintain a purpose. I like to think that living is purpose enough, but tragedies like this can make you question a lot of beliefs.

I saw a man tonight on TV with no legs. A Desert-Storm warrior, wounded by an IED – the cowardly, impersonal weapon of choice of the radical jihadist Muslim – adjusting to life with prosthetic limbs and phantom pains. He didn’t speak of his problems. He only bemoaned the buddies who didn’t survive the blast and came home in a box. He gave himself willingly for our freedom and I thank him for his sacrifice and honor.

My grandson, Ethan, was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes two days ago. He’s only 6 and doesn’t totally understand the magnitude of the diagnosis. He will have many challenges ahead of him – for the rest of his life – as will his parents and little brother. We’ve all cried a lot the last 48 hours and my heart still bleeds for him when I think of the trials and hassles he’ll have to go through as he makes adjustments to what used to be the perfect life. But, he hasn’t been blown up. He still has all his appendages and he’s not paralyzed. I’m pretty sure we’ll all be OK. In fact, in the larger scheme of life, his is still pretty perfect.

After seeing the sights of misery and despair that I described above, I resolve to buck up and not spend even one more minute bemoaning his fate. As I write this, I will shed my last tear. The pity party is officially over. I have a job to do to help him. His Mom & Dad have a job to do. His Grammie and his brother and his Aunt TT and UncaKev have a job to do. Ethan will eventually be able to do that job himself, but for now that job belongs to his family. The job of keeping him healthy and happy, and not allowing him to despair is too important to get sidetracked by negative thoughts ("Stinking Thinking".) And in those times when I start to feel sorry for him, or for me, or for his parents, I’ll remember these other sad souls and count my blessings. I’ll remain thankful for all that we DO have and not cry about what we no longer have.

I hope I can keep this purpose – I want to do that for Ethan. To show him what can be done when you don't give up. We give thanks today for all that we have and pray for those that have less.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Memories from the Road - Things that make you go "Hmmm."

I have seen a few sights on the road that were so bizarre that my eyes-on-the-road-and-my-hands-upon-the-wheel-focused brain couldn’t adjust to the improbability of the drive-by hallucination before it was past and I had to refocus on the next highway warning sign. Some of these little vignettes now play like some whacko movie trailer in my mind, as the scenes of my life might if I were seconds from death. No context, no meaning, just a scene that flashes by my memory like a subliminal message across the matinee theatre screen. A couple of these have been replaying in my head recently – California memories. Probably since I’ve spent the last 3 weeks basking in the California sun and breathing the trade winds. Or, it could just be the effect of 20 days of exhaust inhalations.

Driving the Pacific Coast Highway with my best friend and soul-mate a few years back provided a cornucopia of visual delights that produced both “oohs & ahs” at the natural beauty of the flora, and Olympic-quality synchronized double-takes at the unnatural splendor of the local fauna from the two of us. We stared, we laughed, we puzzled, we shook our heads in wonder. Honestly, I’m not making this stuff up…

Schwinn Vader
As we started our drive up the coast, we rounded the corner just out of the LA metropolis and had to slam on the brakes to avoid the bicycle. Well, kind of a bicycle. It resembled a bike towing a trailer, but it was so much more. The 2-wheeler was festooned with bulging saddlebags, mirrors, a squeeze-bulb horn and handle-bar streamers. (So very “PeeWee’s Big Adventure!”) The trailer was loaded up with what looked like the entire contents of Aniken’s pod-racer spare-parts shed from Star Wars 1. The cyclist was dressed all in silver – silver shoes and socks, silver shorts, silver shirt. But it wasn’t the silver uniform of a racer. It was more the silver clothing of a live manikin at Caesar’s Palace. All he was missing was the silver makeup. His getup included a silver helmet that was strangely familiar – a Darth Vader-esque mask! But wait, that’s not all. In his silver-gloved hand, he carried – I kid you not – a silver jousting lance.

On the narrow PCH, with California traffic snaking in front and behind for miles, you can’t stop and stare. You can only try to retain the image in your unbelieving mind and wonder (sic) on down the road. Until the next strange sight appears…

Quick Change Artist
Santa Maria is a small agricultural community halfway up the coast. We had stopped at a fast food joint – not for food, but for the easy-in/easy-out, relatively, and predictably, clean restrooms that come with a limited service chain restaurant. In this Burger King, I saw a man changing clothes in the restroom stall. Not all that strange actually. I’ve adjusted my ensemble several times in airport stalls when out on the road and no one ever thinks twice.

But this incident is unusual. Waiting by the car, I see the man come out of the BK with 3 grocery bags of his old clothes, and then see him stuff them and an old backpack into the drive-thru' trash can. Then, he shoulders his new backpack – recently in one of the grocery bags – and walks off in his clean clothes. He seemed to be walking with a purpose. I like to think he was not just changing his clothes. I believe he was changing his life and moving on down the road…

Aphrodite in Morro Bay
In her sandals and diaphanous sky-blue evening dress, she had just walked out of the shadow of the viaduct carrying Highway 1 over a side street of Morro Bay and into the bright sun where she stood at the corner to the on-ramp. She was tall and carried herself with a regal grace that belied her grimy surroundings. There was the tiniest squirrel of a “yip-dog” leading Her Majesty and tethered by a leash she held in her pinky-extended right hand. Her left hand she held oddly but purposefully at eye level, palm up and perfectly flat, carefully (and somehow sensually) holding a pink Walkman that she had plugged her ear buds into. From the spinning CD player dangled a yellow rubber ducky she had hung by a loop of string. It swung gently as she stepped off the curb. She kept the Walkman flat and at perfectly at eye level as though she was sighting the horizon along its top.

She smiled dreamily and sweetly at no one in particular - she didn't seem to see us watching her – as if for the cameras on the red carpet. We stared, mouths agape until the light changed. And then, we were through the underpass and on our way to Monterey.

As we found on this trip, there are more reasons than the scenery at Big Sur to take the road less traveled. Seeing those odd exhibits of human behavior juxtaposed against the backdrop of the endless waves of the Pacific has rendered that journey into more of a surreal memory than something that actually happened to me. Writing this, it also occurs to me that these little snippets of experience may act like subliminal messages on the celluloid record of our lives. Each daily occurrence we view affects our future thoughts and actions, however slightly. Have I become odd because I’ve seen so much odd behavior? These are the kind of things that make me go “hmmmm.”

And, as Schrödinger’s Cat will attest, our observance of these events changes the events and the players, too. I wonder: if we hadn't been there to see him, would Schwinn Vader still have held that lance?