About C.A. Rooker

Annoyed at having to re-edit my posts for punctuation, etc. when Wordpress changes. Not fond of too many visual images cluttering text space. Worried that I am inches from being “cynical and drunk and boring someone in some dark cafe”. Convinced most, if not all romantics meet the same fate (if you know the reference, good). If you want to know more about me, read my posts. Feel free to share, but cite me. Thanks.

That thing in my head

An adjunct to the previous post:  this thing called consciousness.  The first question humans are faced with when considering this thing, this ability, this function: are we special?  Not a question anyone seems to be at ease with.  There seem to be varying forms of consciousness in many animals, and judging if they are “like” us, and how much alike, is difficult and definitely a value judgment as well.  But we can ignore this aspect, and simply revel in consciousness- for lack of a more nuanced definition, the awareness of self in the world- and still find that it is quite an amazing thing.  The human cognitive power to imagine, to see one self in the mirror and know it is the “I” (a classic test for consciousness), to rotate objects in our mental space, to predict, to hypothesize, to consider the past, to synthesize our senses and interpret meaning, to understand absurdity, to laugh, are all quite amazing really. 

 I will not oversimplify the vast work of so many philosophers, neuroscientists, artists, and religions.  They are all there for you to explore if you take the concept of consciousness seriously. 

 But today, again I am reminded of the sheer variety of ways humans react to this knowledge- which is amazing as well.  What strange and creative patch-works Scientology, all stripes of Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Hindu, Shinto, and all the rest makes if we consider them reactions to the knowledge of self in the world.  No one really seems to like the hard core Atheist position- it inspires such fear that many even equate it with “evil”, they are so unable to respect that it is actually a valid position given the evidence in life because of the fear that it might, just might, be right.

 I come down on what I think of as the Bill Maher point of view- I don’t know, and you don’t either (an old-school agnostic saying).  His film “Religulous” is a fun exploration into the strange and oddly self destructive about organized religions that offers little more than extreme fantasy for people to buy into in order to avoid a fear of death.  If taken as simply complex reactions, instantiated throughout long periods of time and tradition thus offering some comfort when faced with existential questions, if one can be that detached and rational about observing, then there is a lot about these responses to consciousness that can be interesting.  I don’t get into the angels-on-the head-of-a-pin arguments anymore, because the premise always demands a. agreement that god exists, and b. that my idea of god is better than yours.  I start my questions a bit further back from those assumptions.

 I am not arrogant enough to say I have answers to the great existential questions posed by consciousness:  Why do I exist?  Is there any part of me that exists after death?  What goes on?  Why?  Is there a god (I have made peace with definitions of moral, ethical, and spiritual that work for me, and apply to being alive NOW, or functionally)?  What is reality?  Forgive me a little blurring of philosophy here- I tend toward more psychological groupings.

 It seems so much of being human is to be fascinated, to be curious about other humans, and ourselves (in the extreme, this can make for solipsistic, or narcissist driven people).   We put humans at the top of the food chain, and all our narratives are about humans, or anthropomorphized humans (applying human characteristics to animals or other objects in order to tell a story, or attempt to understand them, or ourselves).   We have lives made up of responsibilities, needs, wants, desires, actions, and when we take a moment, just a moment, to draw aside the demanding curtain of all these and look around, think, feel, and consider ourselves- our consciousness turned to consider itself- I think them we have a chance to, as the current Dalai Lama has said, really see.  There is fear and comfort both in this act of considering, and it is not a paradox. 

 My first reaction is always to laugh.  For example: while I know so much about adornment is to achieve explicit and implicit satisfactions, to communicate, to clothe, etc.  Looking at this one feature of humans continually strikes me as funny; to look at how people adorn themselves.  Everything from tattoos, to shoes, to hair, the cloth used, so many levels of analysis possible! 

 John Berger wrote “Ways of Seeing”, a book (based on a series of TV episodes) that has become something of a piece of the “canon” on this topic, particularly as it applies to art (but subtly as it applies to all seeing, or learning).   I find his focus on the necessity, while also the impossibility of detachment in this process useful.  We can’t ever get away from who we are, this thing that is “I”, the filter for everything we experience (loads of philosophy on this one), or the contexts that bound us, but we can be aware of ourselves, or what is called the “meta” self, the conscious awareness of being human, in all our specific idiosyncrasies, contexts, and be self critical about how that filters our perceptions, creations, knowledge, and beliefs.  At its best; I think this is what post-modernism offered philosophy.  At its worst, post-modernism can be badly reductive and extinguish the joy, the fascination with consciousness to an existential dead end.  One has to work with this dialectic to get into what comes after, and it’s been a fractured affair at best in the past 40 years, a patchwork of resurrected modernism, structuralism, and contemporary ideas to suffice for a trajectory into consciousness and all the related issues, and sub-topics.

 But I wander.  That’s also a feature of the human mind.  I have not met a truly creative person yet (and I have known many, in all arenas of formal activity) who did not know themselves to have a “wandering” mind.   My favorite Calvin and Hobbes cartoon, that I used to keep on my office door and still have in my home office, has Calvin looking at his mom saying, “I let my mind wander and it didn’t come back”, to which she replies “I thought you’d lost your mind years ago”.  As a mom, I’d change the last line to “Really? I thought I’d lost my mind years ago”.

 I don’t believe anyone can truly be creative and not consider the issue of consciousness from time to time.  I’ve said before curiosity is a core feature of creativity, add the freedom from fear to consider consciousness.  Not to be without fear, but to be able to be free from letting it control (but perhaps still motivate) the consideration.

 If nothing else, it pulls us out of the everyday and offers us a chance to take a breath, survey all that we are doing, and laugh.  I know, I know.  The dishes won’t get done by themselves, as much as some sci-fi writers have created visions of reality where they could.  Sci-fi as a reaction to awareness of consciousness is another thread worth discussing, call me if you are in the mood for some wine and shared blather about it.  For now, there are the dishes, and the ever-present cat somewhere in the steel box that will never be opened.

It’s NOT simple

 

Worst offense against human consciousness: bad oversimplification. Great art simplifies small and/or large ideas elegantly; crystallizes with beauty of form and content. Communication in all forms can strive for elegance, and often-necessary simplification. Otherwise anyone- even experts in any field- are just babbling schizophrenics to those who attempt to listen. It leaves the listeners only the construction of their own minds (with respect to post-structuralists, communication does/can happen), and encourages ignorance.

Advertising has elevated the business of lying to sell a product or service to an egregious degree, such that we watch ads now during events such as the super bowl for the ads themselves, not to find out about a product.  High entertainment indeed.   It is communication without content, only form.  Marketers do not want people to know content such as what is in a product, or the hidden costs of a service, because that might dissuade a potential sucker- er, customer.  Obfuscation, the intentional bad oversimplification, the appearance of truth within a lie- is what is expected now days to sell anything.  It is the opposite of enlightenment, of learning, of being informed.

This reality of accepting, even expecting bad oversimplification has transmogrified with the cult of celebrity, of instant tech celebrity, and of superficial, fleeting appearances over any other form of being.  While what I am considering is not new, the critiques began long ago I admit- it is the lack of outrage and even boredom with cynicism that does seem to be new.  Some have said they observe a sticking the head in the sand, hands over ears and eyes approach to the overwhelming presence of what I am calling the wash of bad oversimplification (bad in moral, as well as aesthetic meanings), but I find it much more a perverse boredom that does not want to be aware, and while some may ignore the cracks in the veneers of culture, allowing oneself- yes, choosing- to chase the next over stimulating lie in order to feel engaged, it is a drug of such power few ever dreamed of.  Many of those peddling bad oversimplification in all arenas of human activity tend to ignore it.  Mediocrity?  No real communication or exchange?  Grades as a reflection of how well one can cheat, and jobs having no meritocracy but for your age, looks and temporary utility?  The very idea of elegant simplification- of terse, beautiful and informative communication seems not only an unfair expectation, but something for which we have fewer and fewer models and hence any cultural memory for it is evaporating. 

Art that sells because it is obtuse, and the maker has disappeared up his or her own arse hole usually with a mind numbing string of unrelated words or written inanity (substituting verbosity for content) compounds a general expectation that the experts know more than anyone else ever will, and what is not understandable is therefore good and important.  Or as the evangelical christians have marketed so well: in the face of feeling overwhelmed accept your own stupidity and the authority of others- you’ll just never know, and to inquire is blasphemous.  Oh, and you must enjoy the bad oversimplifications given to you.  Ironically, this message can be masked in the sale of simplicity!  Think of the yoga-vegan stereotype of goodness and simplicity, that encourages a degree of happiness and tranquility by ignoring as much as one can, and simply purchasing the right product, eating a particular food, and “not over thinking”.  Bad oversimplifications all.  

It may seem paradoxical yet consistent that only after considering the complexity of an idea, act, or object one might arrive at good simplicity and elegant understanding.  I can’t recall the exact quote, but Twain is noted for saying when asked to give a speech, that it took him about an hour to write a three page speech, half a day for a two page, a day for a page, and a week for a paragraph.  Good simplicity is an art to be appreciated in all forms; a scientific abstract, a research design, an essay, a novel, a film, architecture, design, a policy, a curriculum, an assessment or evaluation design, and any other activity one can imagine, especially speeches.  Or as Bob Stake has put it: simplicity is often a marker of quality (certainly of clarity); and even on the best day, quality is damned difficult to define.

 

Note: Tackling this concept requires a display of my own bumbling over-simplification, I admit- I never said I was efficient at simplifying, just frustrated at being able to identify the problem.  And yes yes- “bad over simplification” is redundant in a sense- but there can be oversimplification that is simply a structural mistake, and does not fall into the moral and aesthetic category of “bad”.  Not  therefore good, but benign perhaps.

As a friend recently said, watching Fight Club is a good way into thinking about the problem, and with humor.


Sleepy stories

All kids have ticks, weirdnesses, and their own idiosyncrasies.  In essence, there is no perfect kid- and sometimes those very strange things turn out to be advantages under the right conditions.  I think as parents we just hope they don’t turn out to be factors in anything like becoming sociopaths.  Anything above that baseline, and I think we learn it’s all good.  

Sometimes those things turn out to be learning disorders of one kind or another, and Number One Son (or Primo, as opposed to Segundo, or number two- no less important, just older and younger) has been dealing with his share since he was born.  For such a bright kid to try to understand why some things take so much longer, or feel impossible to accomplish, or seem easy for his little brother- has been hard for him to assimilate into his identity.  He’s the bright, funny, always cheerful kid who wakes up singing, has a big squishy heart, and kicks himself way too hard when he fails.  In honor of this wonderful, complex child I am posting his new short story (without the five illustrations on black construction paper he drew with it), and he was limited to 150-350 words:

The Sleepy Ghost 

Tick is his name and he lives in a grandfather clock.   He is a sleepy ghost who is always dozing off, and forgets his job to set the clock.  His brother Tock has to polish the clock so everyone can see it.

 The other ghosts in the old mansion get frustrated when the clock does not remind them to get up at night.  They can’t get their chores done on time without the clock running well!

 So Tick asked his mom to make him some cobweb and dust bunny ear muffs to block out the sound of the clock and maybe he could sleep.

 She zoomed around the mansion collecting her supplies.  She adjusted them so they fit just right and soon Tick fell fast asleep in his spot in the clock.

 He wakes up regularly now and grabs his tools.  He keeps the clock on schedule and makes sure it always says tick-tock!

 This was all Primo’s work.  He loves to write stories.  I wondered if the one above was influenced by the knowledge of his father’s narcolepsy, but he said no.  He has been purposefully making up stories since he could speak, and I guess I am partly to blame for that.  Instead of reading, I still tell them Primo and Segundo stories at bedtime with the lights out.  The quality can vary, depending on how tired I am, but they usually seem appreciated and I try to make the stories novel and exciting, and they always have the same five sentence introduction, which seems to be something they like to count upon hearing.

The only time I crashed and burned was a story I’ll never forget when I tried to use the nightly story as a teachable moment.   We were all over tired and irritated, which I should have paid attention to.  Before bed, I tried to get them to pick up something- anything- and put it away.  I felt like I had been nagging about it for days.  So I told a story about alternate universe boys, with different names, who did not pick up their things and how they disappeared.  Well, you would have thought I had threatened to burn down the house or something.  Crying and yelling ensued, much like I imagine bad plays went over in the Theater of Ephesus.  “Boo!Boo!”  “Stop it!”  “I hate this story!”  “Change it!”  rang out and there was much jumping up to grab as many stuffed animals and toys and cram them into their beds, under the covers.  Then wails of despair followed, such sadness and despair as I have ever heard.  I grabbed my two terrific kids and hugged them, promising to never tell a story like that again.  It took half an hour of hugging and promises to calm them down, and the next morning Primo told me he knew what I was trying to say with the story, and that I did not need to do that.  They still didn’t pick up their toys (or shoes, or books. . .), but we have since worked out better means of motivating and rewarding for when they do.

It’s funny how many things narrative can accomplish (intentional or not) such as reveal, instruct, and even cause fear.   There is a reason humans love the call of stories, as Robert Coles has put it.  Even in the most blighted places, they still have stories.  They still have voices.  I only hope using narrative helps Primo better find his with time.

Of the difficult and stupid

Opening nuts can be a challenge.  The nut cracker either bursts the tough ones into tiny inedible pieces, or not at all.  We try our teeth, but chipped teeth are not a best case option.  Inordinate amounts of time are spent trying to crack just one nut.  But when we eat shell fish the tough unopened clam or muscle causes an uproar of “No no!  Don’t open it!”.  Some things are not meant to be opened, especially bad shellfish. At this point, I wish I were Paul Harvey (if you do not know who he was, look it up) and could make some strange, spurious, homespun connection to a deeper level of meaning.  Global warming is causing more bad shell fish?  The EPA is not using enough oversight to check our food for contaminants?  People are too stupid to eat easier or less risky things?  Nah.

Contemporary humans also rock climb with their bare hands and no ropes; hike altitudes that cause them bodily harm to the vascular system, try to make friends with large and dangerous wild animals, sit in the sun until their skin withers and changes color, use all manner of pesticides and poisons to make their food and hair look “good”,   dance wildly to all sorts of sounds, try to control and punish other humans for everything from recreational weed smoking to looking at other naked humans in magazines and liking anything as banal as art they do not agree with, pluck/shave/and depilitate random body hair, and wear the strangest fibers in various shapes and colors on their bodies.  Truly, an alien would observe us and think us unendingly funny and tragic I think, for all the expressions of our daily lives.

There is so little profundity associated with all our activities, to the point of willful ignorance.  The consequences of our stupid random choices seem to be beyond us most of the time, and like the hamster on the wheel, we just keep jumping on without thought.  No matter how many anthropologists and sociologists you can get to stand on the head of a pin and argue about the orderly meaningfulness of any human actions, it is all rather strange and meaningless I think.  Just a way to stay part of the pack.  Some call what we do “desire”  (Oh those French theorists!), and claim it drives everything from core human instincts to complex capitalist machinations.  It is THE reductive force against which everything else can be measured.  That seems rather pat, and leaves out the just plain bored and stupid elements of life.  Watch any group of college students on a Friday night and you’ll have a good sampling.

But as I have said before it is the curiosity of the human that has made us a very populous and mobile species.  Desire may have had nothing to do with it, even environmental pressures can’t explain all of human migration and experimentation.  Watch small children on a rainy Sunday afternoon.  Curiosity drives a lot of action, and the challenge of opening a tough nut, digging a hole to China in your back yard you know will never reach there but you like to imagine it can,  curiosity and imagination can alleviate a lot of boredom, even with the ensuing stupidity that can often occur.

Funny and tragic, 2017 looms very near.  The uber wealthy have no interest in any aspect of continuing the species.  They are hell bent on partying until they can’t ingest or compete or exert their power any more.  To hell with the rest of us, we are an over populated planet anyway and all the island sized ships being built now for them (with the understanding that theoretically they can stay on an ocean for ever- with their own power sources, gardens, and water desalinization machines, etc.) will allow them to just hop off and get away from the impending strife that will occur.  Or go to space.  See, the rich can be curious and stupid too.  2017 is a year that most scientists agree is the tipping point for all sorts of climate abuse.  At this point, no one seems too terribly concerned.  Heads in sand, fingers in ears singing “lalala”, big-eyed porcelain figures with heads upturned to heaven expecting the giant sky pixies to live up to religious fantasies of apocalypse,  what ever image you want to call up, that all seems to be so much more engaging that actually trying to avert the destruction of the earth for most mammals.  The few who try may be using cups to bail a ship mostly underwater.  What the heck.  Maybe it is more diverting that watching reality television for them.   Someone had to be the first person to try the bad shellfish that taught the rest of us not to eat it. Right?

Good

People say things like, “I am good at (fill in the blank. Playing piano, guitar, golf, typing, you name it)”.  A qualifier, such as “I worked really hard to learn it”, usually accompanies the statement; or, “I still have a lot to learn” or, “I could not have mastered it with out a mentor, a friend,” etc.  The point is most people will admit, even if just to intimate others, that they are good at something.  Yet never, never in my life in any book, media statement, casual conversation, overheard discussion, or drunken revelation have I ever heard anyone say, “I am a good parent”.  More to the point, “I am a good mother.”  Not a great mother, not a superior mother- no those would be value judgments that seem even more taboo.  Still, I have never heard anyone say that they are even just a good mom.  You think people might feel that way at some point.  But it seems they don’t.

I had to ask myself why.  Is it because we too readily conflate parenting with life, and no one would say, “I am good at life”, which is grammatically awkward at best, and conceptually infinite at worst.

Is it because we have no taught, explicit evaluation and assessment standards for parenting?  No ruler by which to explicitly judge others and ourselves?  Well, it’s true- there is no parent certification course required to have children (despite the shelves of books available claiming to instruct us).  But we do have standards. Oh, we do.  I hear people say all the time “I am a BAD parent”, or “I was a bad parent that day”, or “He/she is such a difficult/demanding/etc.=bad parent.”   So we have some type of internalized standards by which we judge ourselves and others, but it seems only to reflect a baseline and everything beneath it- very little over and above the baseline of adequacy, even though we may envy someone’s organization, another’s cleanliness, or still another’s patience with their children.

We only have our own parents and sometimes those of others who showed us what parenting is; we also have sound bite utopias from television, but that seems to enter in very little except to make us feel uneasily inadequate.

I have heard moms say “I am so glad I/we got through the diaper stage!” and they will also smile and talk about the achievements of their children, yet they do not willingly take any credit for such achievements, but will often take responsibility for the failures of their children (I/we did not work enough, did not get the right things to eat, enough sleep, read the right books, go to the right summer camps, etc.).

In the US, people usually are a little reticent to boast, or to take credit for their own accomplishments anyway.  Especially women, or so all the business-psych articles tell us.  We have precious little language for expressing our self-satisfaction, or our own goodness, much less understanding it.  Is it because pre-kids, we have only fantasies of what parenting is?  Being a mother is one of the most vilified as well as over-romanticized activities on the earth.  Reality is such a different story; there is a chasm between people we know who have kids and those who don’t and it seems so difficult to explain why.

What would happen if, as we lay down to sleep every night, as moms we reviewed our day and were willing to say to ourselves “I was a good mom today, and this is why I think so”, and be aware of the mistakes, consider them soberly, but move them to a different list?  What if we told people we know well when they were a good parent?  Told them we appreciated their example, to us and for our children?  And perhaps most difficult, what if we could accept the compliment for ourselves when someone, without manipulative intent and with sincerity, tells us the same?

I have been wrestling with a birthday that is a few years off and reviewing my life.  Right now, and I know it is partly the blues-  I can find little about which to feel good; little I can say “I was good at that” or, “I am good at that” about.  I am starting to wonder if this is what moving towards old age is about; realizing most of life if not all is in retrospect an area of gray.  The highs and lows sink and rise, but in summary fade to gray like the rest of time spent.  Not especially unique, not especially valorous, not especially successful, and sometimes completely failed, and hugely disappointing.  If this is true, I have the option of saying “Oh well” and finding things to make me happy on a smaller scale, on an everyday basis and just get on with it- or get depressed.  I think I’d rather work on trying to be a better parent, and hope I can someday feel good about it when I go to bed at night.  Oh, and tell others when I think they are good too.  Maybe someday, I can help my own children be parents and not have to fall back on the crap shoot that is the real-time learning curve they are/we are currently suffering through.

We only get one shot at raising our kids.  I want to try to make the best of it, warts and all.  But I also want to be good at it, and that is a whole different matter.

 

of an age

When we speak of our children, we sometimes say, “They are of an age. . .” indicating that a level has been achieved in which they can be trusted to do something themselves, or when we expect booger and poo jokes to be in full bloom.  I have been thinking about the former this week.

It seems I have griped for so many years about feeling put upon, and when I said it immediately felt guilty, for the constant attention from my children.  The neediness, the must-keep-an-eye on, the do they need food-liquid-medicine-exercise and moment to moment care required for small children.  Now as if by magic, I have had several months of both my children in full time elementary school.  I had such grand ambitions at first.  All the lists of things I would get done, and try to do.  Much of that evaporated for one reason or another.  My fault entirely.

But there was also the unexpected loneliness.  There was no one to dance or giggle with when I played They Might Be Giants, no one to eat lunch with.  It was strange. 

This past week has been Christmas vacation.  One child has been sick (inevitable) and the other off working with Daddy.  I do not know what I expected, but it has been a let down.  This morning, for the first time in about eight years, I took a magazine into the bathroom for a sit.  I could hear the boys outside watching PBS kids and playing on the floor, being good brothers.  I knew I could trust them to answer the phone if needed, not kill each other, or destroy body level objects.  I got through much of the thin magazine.  I was both surprised and pleased, because I realize the experience would have been dramatically different if I had not had the accompanying sound on the other side of the door.  I miss the boys, and having them around is a pleasure- even if the occasional glass of juice still gets upended, toys litter the floor, and a whine for something to eat will arise.

Being a parent is a constant revelation no one ever is instructed on how to appreciate, and the experiences are so personal I am not sure adages and tips ever fully apply.  I did not want anything for Christmas that required cash, and told Husband as much.  I wanted him to help me figure out the video camera and download mechanisms, I wanted the kitchen ceiling finished, I wanted everyone healthy.  What has surprised me is the gift of time and everyday happiness I have.  The world can swirl in chaos outside, but for now, I am grateful for just this: my family and our simple stability.   They boys may be of many ages at many times, and I don’t want to miss any of it.   I think it will be all I ever really want.

Merry Christmas.

Clean

Clean is an idea, a concept.  In practice though, what is clean?  To be more specific, how can two small people make such huge messes?  I have given up on my husband.  He cleans when he gets irritated, and usually goes a little bananas on the laundry and his studio.  But in daily life, I have given up hoping the ten feet from the table to the kitchen sink would ever become a worn path from people-especially husband- getting dishes to the sink.

It’s the necessity every day, often more than once, of having to sweep under and around the table that amazes me.  There is a direct correlation between how messy the floor around the table is and how messy the top of the table appears.  Two people shorter than I am, who weigh at least half as much, but the messes they can create in very short spans of time are shocking.  Can they use utensils?  Yes they can.  Can they use napkins?  Yes, yes they can.  Then why is it after a simple cereal breakfast it looks like Tony the Tiger got in a cage match with the Natures Organics lady while trying to sell product?

After seven years of male kids, I have acclimated to the Legos- I don’t like it, I still complain, even rage when I get one into the arch of my foot.  But acceptance is the first step, right?  The Legos will never fully be cleaned up.  Ever.  Nor will they stay cleaned up, once a pick-up blitz has occurred.  Legos will always litter my house.  As long as they do not get into the sink or toilet drains, as long as they do not get lodged in a child’s throat, as long as the insinkerator does not chop them up, the dishwasher melt them, or the lawn mower make them into shrapnel, I am good.  Time teaches us things you see.

I have accepted after six years of DIY home renovation that it will not ever be completely finished.  I accept my responsibility in this- is the wallpaper fully removed from the stairwell?  No it is not.  Are the corners under each step swept?  No.  Are there continual piles of papers (and I know what is in each one of them so no one dares move them) on the piano, and on the guest bed (which is ostensibly in my “office” work space?)?  Are there piles of fabric for long ago conceived projects pushing the closet doors open in my office, calling to me?  Yes.

But then, will the last of the floor trim ever be fixed and put back in place?   Will the ceiling ever be complete?  Oh the drama.  Peyton Place never had such questions!  Because in TV Land, everything is clean.

I had a friend once tell me (also a mom) that there is a distinct difference between clean and unhygienic that people do not truly understand until they have children.  I was mortified when Husband recently pointed out the old crusty vomit flecks at the base of the pantry door (which is usually hidden by the bedroom door that opens in front of it), I would have cleaned it with all the rest of the incident months ago had I seen the splatter (Tiny people also have a way of producing copious projectile vomit that can not be believed until you have kids).  THAT was unhygienic, and I cleaned it after he told me.  Sweatshirts of all sizes littering the floor?  Just messy.  Par for the course.  Toys everywhere?  Standard daily life.  The compost bowl buzzing with fruit flies?  Unhygienic- why? The child responsible for the daily task slacking off, and the Husband who borrowed my stainless steel compost pot (an ingenious reworking of a salvaged food service piece and an old Pyrex lid that fit it perfectly) not returning it. 

But I have to ask, why does the first floor bathroom ALWAYS have to smell like the monkey house at the zoo?  I grew up believing that being male was such a urinary advantage- the whole standing up, no need to fully undress one’s lower half thing especially.  But as a parent, I wonder why they can’t aim properly.  And yes, the mess annoys me on many levels, especially hygiene related.

Clothes will be wrinkled; and as my children are still under 12, I will put clothes away.  But can’t they get the ones off their bodies down the steps at least NEAR the laundry room?  Smelling worn clothes thrown together with clean- that is always a risky prospect, as any parent will tell you.  Clothes left in summer camp bags, under beds, or in gym bags- that is down right haz mat territory.

So when a dear friend (who has been single all his life, and who not only has impeccable taste but feels he requires a cleaning lady at least once a week- and what for still stymies me) comes to visit and is more than a little unnerved by all the mess; he judiciously wonders about the definition of clean as it applies to us.  He admits his comfort level is somewhere, oh light years away from ours.  He also has never been married, or had children.  ‘Nuff said.

Do I get nervous when we have people over?  A little.  We laugh with self-deprecation and try to make explicit our embarrassment at the unfinished construction and daily mess.  Most people with children nod and laugh too, some share anecdotes about the height of the dirty laundry piles hidden in the basement, or the unidentified crud on a spoon from a dishwasher going on the fritz.  Most shake their heads over toys, and admit to just “closing the door” on their children’s rooms.  We all know we have battles to pick; we have check mark boards, we have reward tiles, we have poker chips as cash.  We have designated family cleaning time every week (our is Saturday AM until the boys get into weekend sports), and know what can be accomplished and what cannot in that span of time.

Are we clean?  Sometimes.  Are we dirty?  I would not say so, but that is a whole other rant I think.  Is there a continuum of clean that we have to manage and know intimately in order to function?  Yes.  Survive, even, I will say- your blood pressure and sanity depends upon it.  In sum dear reader, nothing is simple- not even the definition of clean.   Life has taught me that, and life will go on even if robot origami, a handful of Legos, spilled salt, and returned homework are still on the table tomorrow morning.  Yes, life will go on.

Heroes and leadership

Is it embarrassing to have an epiphany at such an age (all I’ll admit to is being somewhere under 50)?  I have groused for years about the lack of a youth movement in this country, and the tech-centered protests that pass for youth movements in the rest of the world.  But I have also been grousing about what passes for leadership.  When one is young, it is good to have heroes.  People who set the bar, provide examples.  As we age, we revisit these heroes, see their weaknesses, and hopefully mature enough to forgive them their faults and let them be human again.  Maybe we even learn to forgive ourselves our weaknesses, and with good humor realize what we are both capable of in extraordinary times, but more importantly how we operate in practice (not theory) on a daily basis.  Hopefully it humanizes us, makes us more tolerant, and less prone to the black and white simplicity of youth; which is appropriate for that time, it mobilizes energy and focus much more easily than a deep appreciation of the absurd and complex, which usually involves depression when one begins that journey- once out the other side though, it seasons us into adults.  We choose our battles more carefully, and have an overt need to balance personal responsibilities and our public selves.  But are we any less needful of heroes?

I know I have been mourning the loss of Studs Terkel again.  It seems to be a cyclic event for me.  I have humanized him in my mind a long time ago, and I am grateful for his constant self deprecation lest anyone make a hero of him.  Maybe it is the very definition of “hero” that has changed.  The media loves to toss about that word, to sell fathers day cards, to memorialize anyone who ever wore a uniform, you know the patter.  But I do not appreciate such flip use of the word.  Studs is still a hero to me BECAUSE he is human, because the definition is less a monolithic sculpture to perfection than a survivor of life with great soul, panache, energy, social contribution, and goodness.  Not perfection, but a consistent example of humanity I choose to admire, warts and all.

As an adult, a hero comes with difficulty.  I can’t say my parents are heroes anymore, as I did as a child.  It is not that I don’t love them- in fact, I love them more now for knowing them as an adult.  It is something else- the lack of intimacy?  The distance needed to have a hero or heroine?  I am still not sure.  It is in some part because I am not dead, or as Bill Maher recently said about turning 50, you have a lot left you can still do.  Some of the choices they made I do not wish to make, and I want to live long, healthy and as vibrantly as possible.  So I look for people who did, and see how they weathered life, what choices they made, practices they engaged in, and re-evaluate what they achieved and what I want to achieve.  I do not think leaders evolve out of a vacuum, and certainly not a vacuum that encourages a lack of self reflection.  Those people are not leaders, they are props- set up to some useful end by others and easily  manipulated.  We have an abundance of those people in roles leaders should have right now, in public and private arenas.  Leadership is hard- because if one is not to be the willfully ignorant prop of others, then one must make choices about one self, actions, and information.  One must be compassionate (active) not simply empathetic and sympathetic (passive).  One must choose good advisors, and develop complex perspective on issues of responsibility.  School board member or senator, local gadfly writer or Washington Post journalist, the leadership qualities needed are still the same, and only vary by degree.

This begs the question:  are all heroes leaders?  I don’t think so.  The heroes we choose as adults are usually not the ones set up by the media, although an uneasy venn diagram may exist between the two. We might also say our heroes and heroines are leaders in a particular way, that I’ll buy.  But an adult hero is so personal, so chosen, that perhaps they do not need to also be recognized as a leader.  But I think it is useful if they are- it helps us gain courage and example for the kinds of leadership we expect of ourselves, or certainly should expect for ourselves.  Remember, that leadership expectation is a matter of degree not kind.

I still admire Studs, and his wife.  They lived long and well, and in the process made contributions both small and large to our collective social lives.  I will never be as accomplished, but may I stay true to my path.  That is my wish, and why- I suppose – I still need my heroes.  So this fifth-grade essay is complete-  maybe we all need to write on the topic once a decade, as a self check on who we know ourselves to be and who we want to be in the future.  If you do not know of Studs, here is a great link to watch him at about 95 years of age (and several more interviews with and by him are avail. free on the net):

http://www.thedailyshow.com/watch/tue-april-4-2006/studs-terkel

“For Studs, there was not a voice that should not be heard, a story that could not be told,” (Gary T. Johnson), “He believed that everyone had the right to be heard and had something important to say. He was there to listen, to chronicle, and to make sure their stories are remembered.”

And to laugh; always with perspective, good humor, and the deepest of good will.  If you have not read his collection of interviews in “Hope Dies Last”, do.  RIP Studs.

Nighthawks

I was listening again, after a long while, to Tom Waits “Nighthawks at the Diner”.  It is truly a beautiful live album, and an honorable homage to the painting by Ed Hopper (1942).  The song by the same name has a vivid description of a blue-plate special: chopped meat (“Salisbury steak”) smothered in Velveeta and Campbell’s tomato soup.  There are laughs, nervous winces.  Not only for the name of some familiar spot, but for the food itself.  It’s funny what we consider comfort food, the things we seek out to give a sense of place, of self.   The plate in question is not a memory of mine, but I can understand the sentiment.  My mother was a baker, in one of the worst home kitchens imaginable.  She was able to create things I will never fully understand, and that none have ever held up by comparison.  Husband knows the sentiment too; with a jones every couple of years for oven baked “BBQ” chicken.  I can’t stand his version, but for him it is a memory of his grandmother.  It gives him comfort.  The food our our decidedly not wild youth (unlike Wait’s Frank) has little sentimental value, but vague memories of greasy spoons with sour black coffee, “texas” toast, and generic specials do linger.

I remember when many of us were new adults.  College students with vague, naive aspirations.  We recalled watching the original crew of Saturday Night live in middle and high school, just old enough to be jaded about the disco movement and deeply fond of punk for the alternative it offered.  Tom Waits came out with Nighthawks in 1975, a cabaret and club singer from the outside track of music.  A federal government that was represented by images of Nixon leaving office and the end of the Vietnam war, was constantly on the television when we were children.  Ford and Carter passing through, then later, we were suspicious (and rightly so) of the promises of Ronald Reagan and his cronies.  We went from using electric typewriters to the first PC’s, then programming in simple language to the first internet.

 We were midwestern college students buoyed up by our youth and our ignorance, our heart-felt ideas, and knowledge that we were so very far away in both time and space from where the action was.  We separated ourselves from the strivers, the lying basketball players (who gladly got stoned in private), and the bible-readers. 

Many of us migrated to Chicago, then urban points east and west.  I do not have unnecessary fondness for that time, so riddled with insecurity and unease.  Time has taught me that regret is just another form of self-pity, and things not done are just things best left.  There were poets and musicians who captured our fancy, captured our ennui.  Some were trite and passed into history, some linger on and get resurrected by a new crop of young, eager to understand, eager to see.

 There will probably always be some urban diner, some questionable gut-filling food, some young people living out an awkward night of unfulfilled dreams and reckless mistakes.  A right of passage perhaps, and for some of us, remembered best in song; best in a live performance if you can get it.

What’s the cost?

Whom ever discovered the use of borax in the laundry, thank you.  Whom ever advocated for vinegar and baking soda for many household uses, thank you too.  I look at the chemicals lists on the back of various items in the cleaning isle at the grocery and wince.

It’s bad enough that food stuffs don’t have to put where they source/manufacture their goods any more, just where they are distributed from (which tells you precisely nothing- only that the item sat in a warehouse and then got shipped to your store); and what’s in a supposedly edible food stuff can have such descriptive terms as “natural flavoring”, and various terms that again- mean squat-anything they please.  The GOP is trying to decimate the FDA, and various groups cry foul over corruption and payoffs, or not enough inspectors and too many holes in the rules.  It’s a wonder there is anything truly edible or usable that won’t kill us.

After several years, we are finally figuring out how to do our large garden.  This year we built it up over a foot and boxed it in.  We used ground cover and mulch to keep weeds down.  We still got hit by a wicked fungus that took my zucchini and other squash plants in only two weeks.  We are figuring out staggered planting, even of the same plant types.  We’ve got drip hoses under the mulch covered.   Still so much to learn, but the rewards have been gratifying and healthy.  We bought our half a steer from Polyface farms (organic and crazily progressive in their approach to farming:  http://www.polyfacefarms.com/).  We are trying.  We don’t smoke.  We drink alcohol on rare occasions and in moderation. We only eat out if it is worth it- something we can’t make ourselves or is of high quality.  We eschew fast food and chain food.  We have our weaknesses, but try not to indulge often.  We need to exercise more, but still manage to walk the kids to school and the like.

I’d like to think our careful, considered efforts at being healthy are not contradicted by poor planning on the part of local water officials (hydrofracking, farm run off and lack of responsible chemicals use, and pharmaceuticals not cleansed by water filters are some of our concerns).  I’d like to think school lunches are not co-opted by the cheap and easy path (even though we pack for our kids most days).  I’d like to think the citizens of the valley we live in would take more interest in the abysmal air quality we usually have and the industrial and business truck emissions that go so woefully unregulated and unchecked.   But we do what we can.

It comes as no surprise when the latest food or chemical scandal hits.  I also wonder, with all the protein/meat recalls, you would think the largest purchasers of protein- fast/chain food restaurants- would at least once be the subject of these recalls.  Funny how they are never mentioned.  Not just funny, but statistically impossible to go unaffected when compared with the macro numbers.   We do our best- it is a fair expectation that those entrusted with systems beyond our control do theirs too, and not poison consumers outright for sheer greed.

The fight to keep a clean house is constant.  Not just picking things up, but keeping it clean.  Devoid of fungus, mold, dirt, insects, an overabundance of bacteria, and various detritus. The fight to feed one’s family is always tricky, too.  The little mentioned domestic domain is a big cash cow for corporations, and the subject of a large percentage of advertising.  That some of us are dropping back to less expensive, and less toxic methods of managing this domestic space should come as no surprise.  Grandma had it right about a lot of things; how to read quality in clothing, how to simplify, and in general how to judge what is truly important and what is not.  In the midst of all the economic global chaos, I can take comfort in one thing:  maybe a positive outcome will be people learning how to do for themselves again, simplifying, and saying no to the toxic (both tangible and metaphoric).  One can hope.  Some days, that’s all we have.