Reconstructing Self

Late night thoughts.

How does one really re-create theirself?

What is identity?

If it takes three weeks of repetitive behavior to create a habit, is that enough to create a new personality trait?

Is there a desired order to doing these things that works better than others?

How many things should one attempt to change at once?

Who should be aware of these efforts?

I’m almost 55 and I am thinking about what my future holds. It seems I have time for a little personal reconstruction and have a different perspective and impact. Of course, our shared future seems tremendously uncertain, and it might be a waste of time and effort. I prefer to be a bit more optimistic and engage in a few changes.

I learned last week that a dear friend thinks of me as a constructivist. I pretty much wasn’t aware there really other options. At least not for me. So I wonder if that might give me a leg up on a defining a new reality for myself.

There is ever-growing list of people I want to know, or know better, and a much shorter, but growing, list of things I want to do. In the case of both lists, I want to do better than I have done in the past.

what would you choose?

Every day we are confronted with choices, big and small. I’ve made a lot of choices in almost 55 years. A few were pretty darn good. Most were pretty ho-hum and I gave little thought to them and I often wonder if some of those were huge mistakes after all. Some choices were pretty clearly huge mistakes. Clearly huge.

Choices between two or more options. Choices for good or ill. Choices for yourself and/or others. How does one make truly difficult choices?

In the Peter Straub novel, “Shadowland” the antagonist, an aging magician tells a story to the boy he hopes will be his successor. It is a fable as to why frogs jump and croak. The gist of  the story is that sparrows of a kingdom make a deal with a wizard to save a sleeping princess and the rest of the kingdom. The wizard exacts a trade from the sparrows to save the princess. He offers them the choice of their wings or their song. After discussion, the sparrows offer up their song.

When the wizard fulfills his end of the bargain, and the sparrows see the princess and the people of the kingdom begin to awaken, the sparrows change into frogs. Clearly, the wizard has tricked them. Perhaps. The author seems to suggest this. It seems to me though, that without their song, the sparrows have lost the one thing that is at the core of their identity that sets them apart.

The magician stood, put his hands in the small of his back, and stretched from the balls of his feet. “Think about one thing, Tom. What would you give to save a life? Your wings, or your song? Would you be a sparrow…or a frog?”

Choices.

Loss of one’s wings. Perhaps making this choice does little more than nail you down where you are at in life. Or perhaps nails you to a personal cross.  It’s kind of hard to know. Giving up your song may or may not be worse. It seems to me that the choices frame nicely as a choice between your freedom and your passion. Choose one.

Aren’t these two things inextricably tied together? Can you give up your freedom and still have your song or passion? I keep thinking you can’t. The sparrows were going to become frogs either way (after all, you can’t really trust wizards, they are subtle and quick to anger). Such choices are a bum deal. But we make them all the time.

I consider choices ahead of me. Will I choose my wings, my song, or refuse the deal? If it comes down to choices, I do know this, I will always consider the Badger’s question in “The Once and Future King” by T. H. White.

“He would go to war, if King Uther declared one. Do you know that Homo sapiens is almost
the only animal which wages war?”

“Ants do.”

“Don’t say ‘Ants do’ in that sweeping way, dear boy. There are more than four thousand
different sorts of them, and from all those kinds I can only think of five which are belligerent.
There are the five ants, one termite that I know of, and Man.”

“But the packs of wolves from the Forest Sauvage attack our flocks of sheep every winter.”

“Wolves and sheep belong to different species, my friend. True warfare is what happens
between bands of the same species. Out of the hundreds of thousands of species, I can only
think of seven which are belligerent. Even Man has a few varieties like the Esquimaux and
the Gypsies and the Lapps and certain Nomads in Arabia, who do not do it, because they do
not claim boundaries. True warfare is rarer in Nature than cannibalism. Don’t you think that is
a little unfortunate?”

“Personally,” said the Wart, “I should have liked to go to war, if I could have been made a
knight. I should have liked the banners and the trumpets, the flashing armour and the glorious
charges. And oh, I should have liked to do great deeds, and be brave, and conquer my own
fears. Don’t you have courage in warfare, Badger, and endurance, and comrades whom you
love?”

The learned animal thought for a long time, gazing into the fire.

In the end, he seemed to change the subject.

“Which did you like best,” he asked, “the ants or the wild geese?”

****

“But don’t they fight each other for the pasture?” (Wart asked Lyo-lyok, the wild goose.)

“Dear me, you are a silly,” she said. “There are no boundaries among the geese.”

“What are boundaries, please?”

“Imaginary lines on the earth, I suppose. How can you have boundaries if you fly? THose ants of yours – and the humans too- would have to fighting in the en, if they took to the air.”

“I like fighting,” said the Wart. “It is knightly.”

“Because you’re a baby.”

I’m old, not a baby. I don’t want to be with the ants, but with the geese.

Mr. Pain

For some people, pain is almost a being. It is a character in a play;  an annoying, uninvited houseguest that lingers on well past the time of stinking fish. But chronic pain is far more than annoying, it is life-changing, life-destroying. When Mr. Pain moves into your life, it is transformative in a very bad way.

For the last four years, my wife was been  on a pain management contract. One doctor overseeing all her pain meds, including  those involved following any surgery (of which there have been many). She started on increasing doses of opioids, and then two years ago moved to morphine. So think about that. Two years on morphine. Two years before that on opioids.

For two weeks now she has been off morphine completely.

This has been big. I manage her meds. It has been long, long road getting to this point. It took many weeks of slowly reducing her morphine to get her to the point where we could drop it and her not notice it’s absence in her life. I was biting my nails that first week.  Fortunately, it all went well and according to plan. Everybody that knows her can see a difference in her affect.

Mr. Pain is gone, for now. But the pain she suffers is not. It’s just different. It’s manageable with stack of remaining prescriptions that is quite extensive and mutes the different kinds of pain and discomfort.

Pain is real. I shouldn’t have to say this, but it is. It is easy to disbelieve another’s pain when you can’t see a cause for it. But that does not mean it is not there. Nor is it a sure thing that you can see the fact of pain in a person’s face. Many people become adept at trying to hide the presence of pain. Chronic, unrelenting pain is the worst and patients will try to adapt to its presence and attempt to hide their misery from strangers, if not their caregivers.

Caregivers have incredibly difficult path to negotiate when their charge is in unrelenting long-term pain. First, they want to help with the pain. They want to minimize the pain. Doing such is often out of their hands. When it is not, they have to be careful not to do much to help, as the patient needs to be own as much of the decision-making and actions as possible. Second, over time, caregivers become desensitized to the pain of their charge – it is the only way to deal day by day with the sense of powerlessness that one feels in this situation. Watching someone you care about suffering in pain daily is horrid. Thinking about their pain levels is horrid. Not being able to do much about it is worse.

Living with someone  you love, and providing their care, is not a great life when morphine is involved every single day. Reaching this point is a real improvement in lifestyle.

 

Unbundling the Stories

Each life is made of stories. A person’s life can be viewed as a long, often boring, novel, or an anthology of far more interesting short stories.  Often the only thing these stories have in common is the main character (and often supporting characters).

Short stories are written to be the telling. Life stories exist just because life happens. Many go untold, perhaps even unreviewed by the collaborator. Some stories must be told but told only to the right person when they come along. Why? Because the stories simply need to be heard, acknowledged without comment, so that teller can free themselves of the burden of the story.

The listener just needs to listen. To comment if asked, but otherwise their role is to witness the telling. To add a thereness to the telling.

A Sense of Touch

A good sense of touch is an imperative to many things. I think that one of the hardest things to develop in any endeavor is a sense of touch. Parallel to this is a sense of feel. And because I don’t believe you can have a good sense of touch without a good sense of feel, I’m going to treat them as the same thing for this post because I think they are the same thing.  You might disagree (and if I try really hard, I might care about that).

In golf, if someone makes a great chip shot into the hole or very softly around the hole, or a really long putt up to the hole, a playing partner might say, “Nice touch!”  In this example, the touch referred to is the combination of speed, acceleration, and line resulting in a very soft finish. There really is no touch or feel involved in the physical sense. Such shots are results of practice, technique, and experience. However, if we accept that that touch and feel are the same thing, but slightly different aspects of the thing, then it makes sense. It is being able feel the slope and its changes across the green through your feet, feeling also the softness of the green, and the thickness of the rough around the green. It’s also knowing the difference in response of a very dry green versus a very wet green, and the range of possibilities between.

If we take the same thought to a guitar or banjo (let’s use the banjo as guitars have an unholy number of strings) and start with the concept of technique we find that a banjo is a hell of a rhythm instrument. (Yeah, yeah, rhythm is important to all stringed instruments, and all music.)  The various techniques of three-finger picking, clawhammer, the Seeger-style strum, and all other other techniques and variations rely on rhythm and technique. Being that banjos are very loud instruments by default, it takes changes in touch to play softer while maintaining rhythm. So it is a sense of controlled touch that makes a difference here.

But playing banjo is not just about picking and strumming. It is also about the chording, the pull-offs, the hammer-ons,  the slides. These are the nuances that make the music rich and deep. These things require a sense of feel and touch like few other things. One’s fingertips develop calluses that dull some of the feeling of the strings and frets, but that feel is still necessary to know where you are, to touch the strings just right, to know that you are in the third fret and able to pull off the string in way to make it resonate before hammering down on another.

A third example  is pottery. When throwing a pot on a wheel, one works the clay and shapes the pot using pressure inside and outside the formed pot to create its shape. You simply don’t just push your finger against the clay. You have to feel the clay respond and respond accordingly. A machine can be created to move a tool against a spinning object. It can respond to a predetermined pattern and reproduce that countless times, but it is not art. It is not art because the machine cannot feel, it cannot touch, it cannot do these in response to each other…without becoming a much more complex machine.

Having a sense of touch is not just about softness. It is about touch in response to feel, feel in response to touch. It is the continual adjustment of physical factors in response to feedback. A sense of touch is about awareness and response. It is about being there.

 

 

 

In the suburbs of Hell

In the suburbs of Hell, the only fires are those in the barbecue pits of the Pleasant Valley Sunday people who fire them up at 4:30pm. The hissing of propane is covered by the inane chatter of people with no depth to their souls. Music without discernible tempo fills the air. No one moves to the music or against it, it is a separate thing, unliving.

Married couples quarrel behind closed doors. Their voices never raised, the cadences never change. It is a language of despair and desperation, tinged with personal neglect.  When they make up their differences, the surrender is only pretense.  The next battle is always close to the surface awaiting the next perceived slight.

Hidden in plain sight, lovers twiddle on smart phones. Making love in back channel communications on Twitter and Facebook, surrounded by ads for mythical vacations and home STD tests. They sit at dinner tables, or on couches next to spouses or offspring, texting their undying passion in fewer characters and less grammar than a Shakespearean sonnet.

In the suburbs of Hell, despairing children play without amusement on playgrounds of chopped tires, recycled for the purpose. The smell of rubber and vehicular death pervades the air around the swings and slides.  The structures are brightly painted with images of clowns with darkly deep-set eyes and slightly pointed teeth. Children are more likely to sit listlessly on the merry-go-round kicking at the shredded rubber.

These are the discomfited people, many of which who voted a certain way.  They want change, any change that will bring more change. They just want change. They are unhappy. Bored. Unchallenged. So they want change.

Unless the change doesn’t look or sound like them. Then they want it unchanged. They want retreat to a half-remembered time when things were better. Only things weren’t really better, it just that the unpleasant change wasn’t present.

 

Don’t Misunderstand

If you don’t know that I live a life of passion and anger, then I have done a good job. Make no mistake, I am not happy about how things have turned out. The anger rages, but where I can make a difference, requires more temperance than anger.

So…

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

We do not have to grow more conservative with age. We can choose to fight for everyone. We can choose to let our old prejudices die. Prejudice and hate are merely the results of lazy, sloppy thinking; habits carried out of fear. We really don’t have to be fearful of difference.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Have no regrets. Fight for right. Fight for the rights of all. Don’t leave it to others. Do you really want to die knowing you stood by and did nothing? Or worse, that you actively supported the subjugation of women and people of color?

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

–“Do not go gentle into that good night,” Dylan Thomas

I will never go gently into that good night. You will have to take me kicking and screaming. I won’t just stand by.  Rage, rage  against the dying of the light, against the dying of rights.