Be It Resolved (2017 edition)

Damn, another year down the tubes. 2016 has been full of dubious accomplishments and tragic losses. I think Dave Barry captured the year in his usual inimitable way so I won’t recap all of that. My own year was filled with both, but it is ending on an upbeat note, thankfully.

Despite all that happened, I managed to keep all my New Year’s Resolutions for 2016, except for perhaps #4. I now have a string of about 6 years of resolutions I’ve kept, so I guess I should go for another round. Thus, without further ado…

In 2017 I resolve to:

  1. Stop dressing as a clown and visiting schools to try to cheer up the sad children of the world.
  2. Not allow myself — via adoption, marriage, or assimilation — to become a Kardashian.
  3. To give up bidding on Ebay for a tailored, one-piece purple bodysuit — unless I find one available in cat leather.
  4. To continue to be an example of etiquette by saying “please” and “thank you” even after Donald Trump and his minions destroy society and we are living in caves and lean-tos.
  5. No longer demand, while sitting in thesis defenses, that my students cut off their pinkie fingers as a sign of fealty. Usually.
  6. Finally find out what that whole “Game of Thrones” gameshow is all about.
  7. Try to adapt to the changes a President Trump will bring to the USA. First up: learning Russian.
  8. Not strongly urge young children to watch the movie “Alien” to really understand what a Hatchimal is.
  9. Stop saying “How could it be worse?” when talking about TV, politics, movies, hacking, or pretty much anything else. Too many people see it as a challenge rather than a rhetorical question.
  10. Not vote to leave the European Union for 3 magic beans.
  11. Not to insist that I am a “superdelegate” during faculty meetings and demand we adjourn.
  12. I will not build a huge wall around my yard and make my neighbors pay for it — although if I go skinny-dipping much they may do it on their own.
  13. Reduce my training regimen because it appears certain that competitive eating of lasagna and doughnuts will not become Olympic sports.
  14. Not be sick with worry in anticipation of what the new President and First Lady have planned for Moose & Squirrel.
  15. Not to make another deal with the Devil for a win in the World Series that results in deaths of dozens of beloved celebrities.

And finally, #16 — after several years of giving Jennifer, Adriana, Alessandra, Candice and the rest their chance, I resolve to be firm and dismissive if they finally call because I’ve been found by someone better. Eat your hearts out, ladies — you had your chance!

I hope your New Year’s is wonderful and you find a good cave before the rush. May 2017 be another year of wonder, but not “I wonder where I am and whose goat that is?”

Be It Resolved (2016 edition)

Once again, a new year is about to present itself. 2015 sort of flew by, and also similar to a pigeon, it dumped on me as it passed. But 2016 is nearly upon us, and that is an opportunity to make some resolutions for the new year.

I have managed to keep all of my 2015 resolutions (and my 2014 and 2013 resolutions, too0.

So, without further ado, here is my list for 2016. I will:

  1. Continue to not give in to the Dark Side…of toast.
  2. I will not undergo gender reassignment treatments, largely because that would require testing to determine “from” and “to” for my species, and no one is ready for that.
  3. Cut waaaay back on describing myself as “on fleek” in my memos to the deans.
  4. Try to not taunt people with severe moral and mental impairments, i.e.. Donald Trump supporters. Well, not constantly.
  5. Consume more of the 4 basic food groups: Bacon, Scotch, Chocolate, and Coffee. But this year, discontinue attempts at an all-inclusive smoothie.
  6. Strive to be less of a curmudgeon — maybe just dial it back to “crotchety.”
  7. Attempt in get in shape this year. (NB. oblate spheroid is a shape, so I have a head start.)
  8. Overcome peer pressure to take a controversial public stand: Damnit, I’m for the Oxford comma!
  9. Experiment to see if my cat allergy has abated; meatloaf?
  10. Do at least one thing outrageous enough to require an update to my pending obituary.
  11. Not build and claim any islands in the South China Sea.
  12. Try to make some of my hobbies self-supporting. Any idea where I’d market earwax candles?
  13. Continue to avow that it is white and gold, not blue and black.
  14. Not reattempt an “eggnog & gingerbread” cleanse.
  15. Not donate $40 billion to charity instead of leaving it to my daughter (you’re welcome, Elizabeth).
  16. Continue to exercise understanding that Jennifer, Adriana, Alessandra, Kate, Kim, Amber, Miranda, Candice and the rest are still really, really busy and simply have not yet been able to whisk me away. (That must be the reason, right?)

I hope your New Year’s is enjoyable and safe (avoid the meatloaf and smoothies), and 2016 is a year of wonder, but not frequently as in “I wonder who I am and where my pants are?”

P.S. Jennifer, Candice, et al. — I’m free this New Year’s Eve, too. I’ll wait for your call.

Wild life adventures

Some long-time friends of mine live in an old house in Pennsylvania. They have been doing renovations recently, and running into unexpected issues. Some issues are taken advantage of by their cats. Two recent such instances: finding a bird in the basement, and bats in the attic. I take it much hilarity and cat antics ensued with both.

We had bats in our attic this year, too. (And no, I am not using it as a euphemism, although I wish that is all it was.) We had field mice up there 3 years ago, after we had new shingles put on. Apparently, the roofers disturbed some of the soffit panels and didn’t reseat them properly. The mice climbed up (the gutter spouts? assistance of itty bitty spiders?) and nested in the attic over the winter. When that happened, we had the exterminator bait the attic and install some patches to the soffits. That took care of the mice — as far we we knew.

Then, in March of this year, we heard scratching and scurrying noises in the ceiling on the second floor. We thought the mice were back, so we called the exterminator again. He went up in the attic and looked around some; he said the mouse bait was still there, untouched. He thought we might have birds that had gotten in as he saw daylight through a couple of holes. He didn’t think our problem was mice.

(Aside: I don’t go up in the attic anymore. There is only one small hatch to get up there, in a bedroom closet, and there is no way to get an extension ladder in to climb all the way up. A stepladder will go part way, but it then requires a pull-up to get up into the space. Given the ravages of the years, plus the accumulation of…er, heavy thoughts… that is now beyond my capabilities. We should have gotten a hatch in the hallway, with pull-down steps, when we had the house built.)

So, we called in a wildlife relocation specialist because the exterminator only kills insects and small rodents — they don’t harm birds, if they can help it. Chad, the cheerful animal specialist, sealed up the biggest couple of holes he could find from the outside, put screening over others, then set up a trap for birds. In two weeks, only one bird was caught (a hapless, innocent bystander sparrow), which I then released. Chad opined that — given the lack of activity — birds couldn’t be our problem. So he went up in the attic, looked around, and found evidence that either chipmunks or squirrels had been up there. Oh, and bats —a medium-sized colony. The exterminator had missed that — either he didn’t know what to look for, or he didn’t do a complete survey.

Apparently, bats go dormant over the winter, and only really wake when the temps get above 50 for about a week. So, we had to wait to take care of the bat issue, because bats are a protected species, and we couldn’t depend on them leaving until the weather was warm enough. However, we could pursue a solution to the squirrels and/or chipmunks.

He sealed most of the holes, but left a one-way passage for the bats, and a trap for squirrels. He put out poison bait inside the attic for chipmunks. We caught one big gray squirrel in the trap, which was taken to a park far away and released. The chipmunks outside are too numerous to do much about, unless I want to sit in the garden every day with poisoned seed, and a .22 to pick off the ones who aren’t currently hungry. Even with that, we’d only see a slight respite — the neighborhood is full of them, and they are prolific.

(Another aside: bats are generally beneficial. They eat all sorts of flying insects, especially mosquitoes. Considering how wet it has been here this year, we can use the help. However, bat droppings can create problems with diseases and insects, so we definitely don’t want those in the attic. Bats also have a high incidence of rabies, so it is better to keep a distance from them. If the attic was totally sealed, any bats left inside would try to find some opening to get out; bats can squeeze through tiny openings, including tiny cracks between joists and chimneys that don’t necessarily lead outside. That would result in an exciting rendition of “Da Bats Are In Da House!” Thus, the humane, reasonable, and far less adrenaline-inducing approach is to seal up everything but an opening with a one-way contraption so that once the bats leave the attic, they don’t come back in.)

Within a few weeks, the bats awoke, stretched, had coffee or whatever, and presumably left. Chad came back and finished sealing things up. We now have a 3 year guarantee of bat exclusion, and a $1500 hole in our savings. However, the only bats now are in our belfries, and that makes for much quieter nights. As a side-effect, the sealing job means we are unlikely to get any other critters moving into our unfinished penthouse.

(Aside: Chad said the bats have their young in late spring — he can’t seal an attic from then until early autumn, because the young may be trapped inside. Baby and juvenile bats may die without their mothers, or surrogates. Thus, there are two “seasons” for bat exclusion — early spring, and fall. And no, I was not going to nurse baby bats all summer. so we had to move quickly to get the exclusion done. )

Now, the only critters around here are the chipmunks (digging holes in the garden, and under the sidewalks), one remaining small grey squirrel (at least one other was taken by one of the red tailed hawks that lives nearby — much cheaper than the wildlife relocator), lots of bunnies (minus whatever the hawk gets), way too many mourning doves (minus… you got the idea), and other wildlife. We live in a suburban area, but seem to have plenty of wildlife, including a family of shrews that lives in my compost heap, raccoons that keep knocking down our birdfeeders (I think they are in a gang), some ducks that tried to nest in our pool, toads and tree frogs, and sometimes flocks of starlings, which we try to dissuade. We also see many robins, red-wing blackbirds, chickadees, hummingbirds, cowbirds, goldfinches, house finches, cardinals, and the occasional grackle visit our feeders, as do the mourning doves. We hear bluejays in the distance, but we are too far from the woods to get them to visit up close. Last year we had an oriole visit, but we’ve seen none this year. In the general neighborhood, we also see Canadian geese, several varieties of ducks, and heron near the ponds, and swifts occasionally at dusk.

At our previous house, next to the woods, we had also wild turtles, garter snakes, a fox, a family of owls, several deer, moles in the lawn (grrr), and a few coyotes, all within a short distance of the house. I sort of applauded the coyotes because they helped keep the feral cats in check that were preying on the birds.

It is very depressing to realize that I have reached at least middle age: when someone asks me for a story about my wild life, instead of a tale of parties, drinking, and romance, I talk about birds, bunnies, and bats in the attic.

Father’s Day Memories

[This is mostly personal musings and a little history.  It is probably more for family and a few friends than general interest, but you are welcome to read it.]

Last year, I blogged here about Father’s Day, along with some other issues. I’m a little surprised, and sad, that a year has gone by so quickly. A lot happened, but it also seems that so little happened, too. Where does the time go?

I am on a business trip on Father’s Day. I’ve got the day free, and my thoughts turned to my father. I realize that the images that come first to my mind is when he was old and infirm, a month or two before he died. Yes, those are the most recent memories, so that is perhaps why they seem the freshest. Yet, for all the years he was alive, my father was generally a picture of health. He never seemed to get ill until he reached his 80s. I wish I could have those memories, of him hale and hearty, be my primary ones.

As a child, I spent more time with my mother and grandmother, because my father worked during the day, and when he came home he was tired and had things that needed doing around the house. Weekends meant cutting the lawn and running errands that my mother have saved up for him. I can’t recall many memories of him day-to-day — only on vacations and holidays. Then, as I grew older, time was taken up with school, clubs, and eventually, girlfriends.

My father lived a life I can’t imagine, and I feel guilty about not trying harder to understand it when he was around and I could ask him questions. He was born at the end of WWI and lived his teenage years during the Great Depression. As a child, he was truck by a truck and in a coma for some time, not expected to live, then very ill with scarlet fever (which contributed to his infirmity and eventual death 70 years later). Thereafter, he wasn’t quite as outgoing as he used to be…at least, that is what my uncle told me. With what we now know about the effects of head trauma, I am not surprised. I have often wondered what he would have been like had that not happened to him?

Dad volunteered to serve in WWII (he had a deferment because of work he was doing — he waived it), although my sister and I never heard him talk about it until we were adults and he was in his 60s. Little wonder — he was in one of the first units into one of the concentration camps. As a result of that experience, and others, I ma certain he suffered from what we would now call PTSD for quite some time, and there was no real care for his generation of veterans.

Dad’s twin brother died at 49 from cancer (I wrote a little about him and his wife, Elsa, when she died in 2013), and that affected him deeply. A few years later he unexpectedly became unemployed; age discrimination meant he was only employed sporadically thereafter, and that was a deep wound to his pride and sense of fairness. I know there were may other things that meant life was never quite what he had hoped it would be. In his later years he developed heart problems, cancer, and had several strokes. But he never gave up. He was stubborn!

Dad suffered many a setback in life, but kept on trying. I know I learned a certain amount of stoicism from him. He never got awards or public notice, but he was heroic in many ways. He believed in doing the right thing, no matter the consequences, and he didn’t shirk tough or difficult jobs.

I realize that I was a bratty kid, too. When my father decided in his mid 50s that he was going to focus on getting back into better physical condition, instead of cheering him on, I made jokes, maybe because I was so far from athletic I couldn’t understand. Dad went on to run in the senior class in marathons and did well (even winning once, as I recall), but rather than laud him for his success and his will, I think I ignored it; I was too wrapped up in my own pursuits. How dearly I wish now that I had attended at least one of those marathons and cheered as he crossed the line!

My father wasn’t really outgoing. He couldn’t tell jokes very well — he could only remember two or three, and kept telling them over and over. He was not mechanically inclined — if anything, he was 90% thumbs. He didn’t read a lot, but loved historical TV shows and movies. He was brilliant with numbers. He was a planner, who liked to follow a schedule, and the unexpected often threw him for a loss. Meanwhile, I was a jokester, into science fiction, and dead-set on taking everything apart and putting it back together again to see how it worked. I’ve always been a spur-of-the-moment person who can’t seem to notice the time. Dad and I didn’t seem to have a lot in common, so I don’t recall many things that only he and I would do together. We never had many heart-to-heart conversations, either. I regret all that now.

I never got to meet either of my grandfathers as they both died young. My mother’s father died from after-effects of being gassed in WWI, we believe. My father’s father died on the original day of Mom & Dad’s wedding. I am so happy that both my parents lived to see their grandchildren. It was clear that was a joy for them both. Their lives were hard, but towards the end they had a sense of accomplishment.

The years continue to pass for me. I no longer see an unbounded future. I don’t feel as old as I look, but I can no longer take the stairs two at a time. I find myself reflecting on the past almost as much as I do daydreaming about the future.

Although my daughter is named for my mother (who was named for her grandmother, who was named for her grandmother), I see echoes of my father in her. She is quiet, stoic, and loves history. She is fiercely stubborn, and smarter than she gives herself credit. She doesn’t have the affinity for math, but she dislikes my spur-of-the-moment approach to things. She’s not much into the engineering aspects of the world around her, so rather than leave all my tools to her I need to encourage her to keep a rolodex of good mechanics. She’s had her own health issues that have shaped her young life. She’s definitely not a fan of most of my humor.

I realize that Elizabeth’s memories of me will be like mine of my father: she spends lots more time with her mother than me. I am away for work a lot. Our interests don’t intersect much, so there aren’t many things we do, just the two of us. She doesn’t really get quite what I do in my career, or the scale at which I do it. I know she is focused on her own future, not my present. I don’t begrudge her that — it should be a bright future. 40 years from now she may think back to me on Father’s Day. Perhaps the memories she will have of me will be of me decrepit and forgetful (i.e., as I am right now!). If she has children of her own, that will give her an additional lens thru which she may see me a little better, as my being a parent has helped me understand my own parents. I simply wish I had reached some of these realizations when they were still alive.

I’ll close with some of the lyrics to the song “The Living Years” by Mike (Rutherford) and the Mechanics that always move me to tears if I really listen to them:

Every generation
Blames the one before
And all of their frustrations
Come beating on your door

I know that I’m a prisoner
To all my Father held so dear
I know that I’m a hostage
To all his hopes and fears
I just wish I could have told him in the living years

Crumpled bits of paper
Filled with imperfect thought
Stilted conversations
I’m afraid that’s all we’ve got

You say you just don’t see it
He says it’s perfect sense
You just can’t get agreement
In this present tense
We all talk a different language
Talking in defense

So don’t yield to the fortunes
You sometimes see as fate
It may have a new perspective
On a different date
And if you don’t give up, and don’t give in
You may just be O.K.

Say it loud, say it clear
You can listen as well as you hear
It’s too late when we die
To admit we don’t see eye to eye

I wasn’t there that morning
When my Father passed away
I didn’t get to tell him
All the things I had to say

I think I caught his spirit
Later that same year
I’m sure I heard his echo
In my baby’s new born tears
I just wish I could have told him in the living years

I remember, Dad.Father's Day 1956 I never said it enough, but thank you. I wish I could have told you more often, in your living years.

And to all the other fathers out there — a Happy Father’s Day to you.

Letting Go

Several things all crossed my path recently that have a common theme: letting go. For some people, moving on is simple. For others, it is difficult. And for some people, it is impossible. So, for Father’s Day I thought I’d jot down a few thoughts on the topic.

What do I mean by “letting go”? Many things. Accepting change. Accepting some things have passed. Getting over the death of someone close. Ending a relationship. Leaving a stage of life. Embracing now-grey hair. Saying goodby to hair itself. Accepting getting winded going up the stairs. Giving up seeing your toes while standing. No longer getting through a day without a nap. Selling a family home. Replacing a favorite car. So many other things fit the theme.

By nature, some of us get so used to people and places and states of being that the disruption of change is painful. We also have emotional ties that can make it more difficult. It seems to be the human way for many of us, although a few of us seem to relish change, and there are times in our life when we long for it.

I remember when I was in my early 20s, I was eager to get out into the world, on my own, and start to “live my life.” I didn’t realize until many years later how much I’d miss the actual life I was living, surrounded by my family and close access to places where I had cherished memories. I have new memories, and new cherished family & friends that I did not dream of then, but I cannot help but miss those times. I had to let go — in my case, while driving from NY to Atlanta to begin grad school — but I have never really turned away. I miss those times and people and places, and on the (very) infrequent times I get back to that part of the country I am sometimes overwhelmed with memories triggered by the smallest things (mentioned in one of my earlier posts here). Later, as I left Atlanta to move to Indiana and start at Purdue, I had some of the same “letting go” pains from my time in grad school. And undoubtedly, if I leave Indiana and Purdue for something else, it will be traumatic — maybe more so, as I have lived here longer than any other place — yet it will require letting go to move to something else.

We all handle letting go in different ways, and a lot of that depends on what it is we think we are relinquishing.

I was reminded of this on news of an acquaintance’s much-beloved wife dying, and his hostile reaction to some expressions of solace from others. He didn’t want memories — he was not ready to let go. She is gone, but he has so many memories and such a different life because she was there; she is not really gone in every sense, but he doesn’t yet understand how to let go of the part of her that is no longer there.

I was reminded of this with discussion with a good friend, who is having difficulty coping with his daughter’s pending departure, first to travel, and then to college. He is having trouble letting go of his not-so-little girl. I was reminded how that same situation moved me to tears a year ago….although a chronic illness has brought her home indefinitely, and I will have to suffer that departure yet again. There is a sense of loss at the routine, at the things that I wish we had done together or could do again. Yet, there is a certain pride about her independence and dreams, and a realization that — at some point — she will need to be on her own. But dammit, does it need to be so soon?

I was reminded at Memorial Day of how many people had to let go of someone before their time should have been done. Yet, how different our lives (and the lives of millions of others) been had they not stepped up to the unknown.

Last week, I ran across a gift from a past girlfriend, and I was reminded of the good times we had 40 years ago. She and I are still friends, and I wish there wasn’t such a distance between us because she still makes me smile.

I realized when I stumbled across a picture that my high school graduation was 40 years ago this month.

I was reminded of a former dear friend who, a few years ago around this time seemed to have lost her mind and become a different person. I had the hardest time letting go until I discovered she had been lying to me about a great many things — the person I thought I knew may never have existed. It was difficult to let go of that imaginary person.

I was reminded of several friends who have drifted away in time, and a few special ones who died too soon — LinkedIn and Facebook recently prompted me to remember their birthdays, and a whole set of memories came flooding back. I miss some of the laughter and solace and insights. Some of them are only a phone call away, but we have had to let go because of time and space, and making that call too often would mean having to let go all over again.

I was reminded of this as something caused me (yet again) to think of my own mortality, and the question of whether I will do all I hope to do before then? Some things already slipped from my grasp. Am I ready to let go of some of those dreams?

Letting go is necessary for each of us, to provide “room” for new experiences, and to help us grow as people. There is a saying (Zen, I believe) that anything we cannot bear to lose, owns us; the goal of life is to be free of all owners. Perhaps none of us really requires anything beyond ourselves, but the reminder of the richness that people and routine bring to us makes it difficult for some of us to let go. People who are eager for each new thing can’t quite understand that, it seems.

I know that one of my own faults is that I don’t move on easily enough, at least in my personal life. I get too comfortable with things around me that may not be as good as they could be, but I don’t want to expend the energy to change to something less certain. When I was dating, I was seldom good about break-ups — I couldn’t accept they were over, and (in retrospect) that probably made them worse. I am not good at dealing with the inevitable, either — the cancers that took my grandmother and mother, for instance, or my daughter’s chronic health issues. I react with continual searching for some “fix” and hold out hope for a miracle (not in the religious sense). Again, in retrospect, I probably hold on too long. I know I am not alone in this.

I wonder if there is something genetic in this? When I was blogging about some genealogical research on the Spafford family line, I noted “… family motto has been rendered as Fidelis ad extremum or ‘Faithful to the extreme.’ Another version has been “Rather Deathe than false of Faythe,” which is rather the same thing. I gather that my forebears were not particularly good of letting go, even of lost causes.

Father's Day 1956May 2007

In one sense, a failure to give up is a failure to surrender to adversity. It is a testament to hope. The people who refuse to let go of hope, of life, of success, of love — they may not always succeed, but sometimes they do simply because they persist when others would have surrendered. There is survival benefit for some of us who don’t let go so easily — there is some chance we may yet succeed. The key is understanding when to continue, and when to let go. As one aphorism goes, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. But then, give up so you don’t look like a damn fool about it.”

Today is Father’s Day. I remember my father, sometimes clearly and sometimes not. I lived under the same roof with him for 21 years, and another 30 years in relatively close touch. He worked so hard to make a good home for us, and to provide whatever he could for my sister and me to succeed. Yet, I seem to have only a few memories I can summon up at will — there are many buried, but I need something to jar them loose. I haven’t let go — time has taken a toll. I realize it will be this way with my daughter, who apparently hasn’t yet realized it is Father’s Day today, and I am a little saddened that I may not be much of a memory to her. Yet, I think about how much of who I am was shaped by my father in all those years, and I know that my influence will be there as long as she lives, and maybe even passed down to any children she may have. Given the nature of life and time, I really can’t expect much else.Me & Liz

Letting go doesn’t mean forgetting.

Happy Father’s Day to all the dads out there, and to the children who have been shaped by them. Don’t let go of the memories or the opportunity to yet shape them. If your father is within reach, give him a hug. Or heck, if any father is in reach — to let go, sometimes you need to embrace, first!

An Epiphany on Time, and Loss

Prologue

15-20 years ago, I wrote a regular series of essays, mostly on my travels, but occasionally on other items. These were shared via a mailing list — this was waaay before blogs came on the scene. I have them buried on my WWW site, but not many people search them out. I may repost a few here over the next few months.

Most of those essays were intended to be humorous, and a few might actually have been so. One in particular was not. I haven’t slept well the last few nights, and for some reason, I remembered this particular post last night as I lay awake around 3:30. Perhaps it was because my sister’s birthday was this weekend. I don’t get to see her very often, which is unfortunate, because she’s a wonderful person. I didn’t appreciate her that much when we were growing up, but time gives new perspectives. That is what this essay was about, written in early 2000, about something that happened in 1978.

The Story

I used a word last night in some email I don’t use very often: epiphany. One dictionary definition of the word is “A comprehension or perception of reality by means of a sudden intuitive realization.” Yeah, that is a good definition. There are times in our lives where some encounter or experience gives us a realization of something that forever alters our view of reality. Sometimes they are sad moments, as when you realize that your parents may be fallible, or you really comprehend that death occurs to everyone — even those you love. Sometimes it is exciting and opens new vistas: the first time I really recognized that girls were different in a nice kind of way, for instance, or the first time I rode my bike without training wheels (I’m not sure which occurred first :-). The moments don’t have to include huge events or grand revelations, so long as they reveal something of reality.

I had the strangest flashback today. I have absolutely no idea what triggered it, but it was of an epiphany of mine back in about 1978. And it has enduring influence today, more than 20 years later.

I had this friend named Mark. I haven’t heard from him in almost a decade — he stopped responding to my email and letters at some point. Not that I blame him for that, because we haven’t seen each other in maybe 15 years, and there is little in common there now but memories of a time when we were much younger and saw each other regularly. Life manages to be full as it is, and the days pass.

Mark was in my classes from at least 4th grade on. We found we had the same birthday, so that gave us an immediate bond of sorts. And we also discovered that we had offbeat senses of humor, and were a little quicker on the uptake than most of the other kids in our classes. So we hit it off. I have a picture of Mark and me in the playground in 4th grade with our arms around each other. Buddies.

So, as the years went by, Mark and I found ourselves in many of the same classes. We were in Cub Scouts together, then Boy Scouts. We shared some of the same clubs and interests. And in our senior year in high school, we ended up as two of the five officers of the student council. We weren’t the best of friends (I was too much of the nerd for anybody reasonable to want that), but we were friends, and often hung out together. After graduation, Mark and I sometimes went out to bars together, or ran into each other at parties. (To make things especially interesting, Mark’s brother-in-law became my academic advisor years later when I was an undergrad at SUNY Brockport, and I still keep in touch with him!) Mark and I kept up our casual ties even after I left for grad school — we’d visit when I returned home, and together we planned our high school class’s 10th year reunion. After that, the time and distance gradually eroded the ties that had bound us together.

Anyhow, Mark came from a family with several brothers and sisters. They were all smart, funny people (as were their parents). Almost all the kids in the family had red hair, which was especially amusing and opened them all up for teasing. I didn’t often visit their house, but a few times when I did, I recall that we often were shadowed by his younger sister, Beth (something little brothers and sisters often do). Beth was several years younger than Mark, and had freckles. I remember her as a little kid who was skinny and a bit of a tomboy. I vaguely recall that we would tease her about her freckles, or being skinny, or sometimes simply tease her about her blonde hair (the other kids in her family had red hair, as I noted above). Our teasing wasn’t really mean — we liked her, but it was our job to tease her (I was a big brother, too, so I understood the role). It was clear she was disappointed and maybe a little hurt, but I don’t think it really made a big impression on us; every elder sibling probably knows the scenario.

As time went on, and as Mark and I were finishing high school, we all had different social groups and I am certain several years went by before I saw Beth next. In fact, I think it was several years later after Mark and I had graduated from high school. We were both attending college in the area, and I recall stopping by to see him one weekend.

The small moments when life changes occur often seem innocuous at the time, but are preternaturally clear in memory. I recall being somewhat preoccupied as I walked to the door and rang the bell. The person who answered the door took me completely by surprise. She was tall, with beautiful blonde hair. An awesome smile. Such cute freckles and a lovely complexion. And at about 19 years of age, she was lithe and extremely lovely to behold — and in her halter top and shorts, I definitely beheld. I am sure I was awestruck, and a little embarrassed as I realized — this was Beth, the “little” girl we used to tease and ignore. Now, she was absolutely stunning. I now knew what I wanted Santa to bring me for Christmas. 🙂

I croaked something inane like “Hello. I haven’t seen you in a long while.” She said something nice in return, laughed gently at some lame joke of mine, and called Mark. I’m sure she could tell how flustered I was (I didn’t hide it well), and I hope she found it amusing — and a little payback for some of the teasing she had endured in previous years. I don’t remember now why I was visiting Mark, but I do recall saying something like “Beth has really grown up.” His response: “I guess so. I haven’t noticed.”

The encounter gave me several things to think about in a new way, and I actually remember spending time mulling them over. I was initially incredulous that he didn’t notice the transformation. Then I looked around me and I was transformed, too.

The event was an epiphany on several levels. First, although I had frequently seen caterpillars turn into butterflies, it had never really sunk in — viscerally — that it could apply elsewhere. (Of course, sometimes the change is not in the caterpillar but in the observer!) I have had it reinforced time and again that judgements based on surface impressions sometimes miss the changes that time can make. I have tried ever since to not fall victim to those first impressions. How much different our lives would have been as children had we all known that at an early age! And how different the world could be if we all understood that now as adults…..

The second was the awareness that sometimes you get so close to a person or situation for so long, you don’t notice the slow changes that occur because they are so subtle. In the same time that Beth had blossomed, my own sister had gone from a little kid to a lovely, mature woman and I had barely noticed the change. My parents had grown older and developed grey hair and I didn’t really see the differences. I remember spending several days thereafter looking at the familiar things around me, and trying to see them with “new eyes.” It is something I try to do periodically to this day. We should never get so comfortable with the world around us that we cease to really notice the changes that are occurring.

I’ve had some of the same sense of revelation since then. I especially used to notice it when I would return to the house where I grew up, when my parents still lived there (my father sold the house and moved in 1997 after my mother died). I would notice the trees. They had the same placement as in my memory, but I remembered them as trees from 20 years before when I would see them each day and not really notice them. Now, they are taller and fuller. In my later visits, there was a visual dissonance that made me understand that I was not quite “home” as I recalled it.

In particular, I remember while growing up that every day I would sit at the kitchen table and eat meals while looking out the window. Several houses away were some tall trees with a notable fan shape to the branches at the top. I would watch them sway in spring winds, birds nest in them in the summer, leaves turn golden and drop in autumn, and snow encase them in winter. They were as familiar to me as the faces of my family.

In 1997, when I helped my father pack to move, I remember sitting in the kitchen and looking at those trees. They had grown so much taller (as had I) that I could no longer see the tops from where I sat. And when I went to the window to look out, I noticed some branches missing from what I remembered, where maybe age and ice had taken a toll (on the branches — not on my memory). I sometimes still see those trees in my dreams, as I sit at the table with my parents and sister, a young boy of 8 or so unaware of what time could — and would — do to us all.

The lesson of time is one that we seem loathe to learn, but is fundamental to understanding our lives. I see my daughter at 7 and wish I could hold her again at 5, and 3 and the day she was born. It is the magic of time that is slowing turning her from fuzzy duckling into swan, and all too soon she will be writing of her realization that her dotty old dad is getting on in years. How I wish I could stop the clock for even a few days!

Postscript, 2000

I don’t recall that I ever saw Beth again. Sadly, she died several years ago from aggressive breast cancer — a tragic loss. But I recall that small, revelatory role she played in my life, and although I haven’t remembered that moment in over a decade, it certainly had a major effect on me. I wish she were around now so I could tell her….I think she would find it amusing. (And if the mood strikes you, you can make a donation to fight breast cancer at the American Cancer Society site.)

By setting down this story, maybe it can play a role in your life. Embrace the moment, and embrace those around you. Time moves with stealth, and the present becomes the past, often without our notice. Our memories are the only way for us to travel in time, so ensure yours are full of happy times with those you care about.

Postscript, 2014

My dream last night was of those trees outside the kitchen window. In that dream, I returned to visit, and the trees were gone. I wonder what that meant?

In the time since 2000, I have lost my father and my uncle, and I am one of the last of my generation in the family. I wish I could return to a time to see them again, and listen to some of their stories, especially the ones I can’t quite remember now.

I wrote about how I wish I could hold my daughter at 7, and at 5; now she is nearly 21, and has transformed beautifully as did her aunt. I still wish I could embrace that 5 year-old at times, though.

And as I look in the mirror, I seem the same as I have every day, but to look in a picture from 2000, or 1987, or when I graduated from high school in 1974, and time has definitely taken its toll.

Embrace those around you. Time is fleeting, but memories are a great treasure.

Peace.

Random Thoughts on Time -or- Damnit, I’m Not Done Yet!

I have another birthday coming up. They seem to come closer together as I get older. And I can’t help but reflect more on what age has brought, beyond the obvious grey hairs (where I still have hair). I’m not even 60 yet, but I feel … old. Events going on around me add to that. The historians at the Charles Babbage Institute decided I was old enough to have my oral history collected, along with computing pioneers who have retired and died. And several organizations have — with good intent — recognized me with “Lifetime Achievement” awards. I protest that I don’t think I’m finished yet…there is more I hope to do. But it does not change the feeling that so many people think I am nearing the end. And that rubs off a bit.

With age, things change. Where once there were visions of unlimited potential, time brings a sense of limitations and finiteness. Where youth provided a sense of unlimited potential for friends and love, age brings a sense of friends lost and limits on who would want to start any non-trivial relationship with someone no longer young. Many, many things no longer seem feasible. Where did all that potential go?

Books I knew I wanted to read “someday” pile up, and I have no time to read. Places I wanted to visit remain unvisited amidst a hectic schedule and a world that seems somehow less safe for travel. Skills I wanted to master, great deeds I wanted to accomplish…all now seem beyond my reach. Some days, the biggest goal I have is getting through a day with matching socks and no compulsion to take a nap!

Age and experience often bring wisdom and insight (but obviously, not always). Youth is brash, but age can temper action. Sometimes, that’s viewed as conservatism and undue caution, and sometimes it may be…but that is often judged through the filter of impatient youth. And that sometimes creates a gulf that isn’t easily bridged, if even recognized. Some of my students listen politely at things I say, then promptly ignore them; my daughter doesn’t even listen politely. If any of those young people remember what was said, decades from now, they may get that funny déjà vu sensation. A few may suddenly realize that the old guy had some idea what he was talking about. Trying to bridge the gap of years and perspective to pass along hard-fought wisdom isn’t easy…but it almost always takes years to realize its value.

There is an ongoing sense of discovery in all this. Over the last few weeks, I have noted many of my students grousing about the weather — about how it has never been so bad. I recall bad weather 20, 30, 40 years back that was as bad — or worse — than this. To me, it is unusual but not unprecedented. Most of them were not even born yet. Comments about geopolitical issues, people around us, even “new” trendy items all don’t seem so new or surprising to me because of the benefit of a long perspective. Perhaps that difference in perceived surprise is valuable. Perhaps not. Sometimes, having a sense of newness is a good thing.

As a professor, I see more of this in a somewhat odd way. Every year, the new students are the same age, but I find the stairs a little steeper. The men look like the ones I used to study with as a student, and the woman look like the ones (I wished) I dated but never had the courage to ask. None of them seem to be aware of things I think are fundamental: they know little of history, of literature, of Monty Python routines. They have not seen the movies that moved me, nor know the lyrics of the anthems of my youth. Some of my peers view this phenomenon as callow ignorance; I recognize it simply as a different set of choices executed over their finite time to date. Still, it is a struggle to avoid a sense of judgement about those choices — I clearly never had such banal and trite pursuits when I was their age! 🙂

Sigh. They are all so young. It is difficult to conceive of how the time passes, especially as I continue to age while most around me do not. However, my profession also provides a means of touching a future I know I won’t see, because my influence here as a professor will extend for many years after I am no longer around to exert it.

Ultimately, aging occurs, and I simply hope I can maintain my capacity to reason. Memory sometimes fades, but oddly, some of the most painful memories never completely recede. Thankfully, neither do some of the most joyous. Another birthday? Bring it on. It means another year of experience that few will value, but that does not mean I will stop valuing it, for me. And what I will celebrate is not another year for me, but the friends I had, the friends I have, and the friends I might possibly still make.

A few of the many apropos quotes found online:


“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.

“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring


“It’s being here now that’s important. There’s no past and there’s no future. Time is a very misleading thing. All there is ever, is the now. We can gain experience from the past, but we can’t relive it; and we can hope for the future, but we don’t know if there is one.”

George Harrison


“They say time heals all wounds, but that presumes the source of the grief is finite”

Cassandra Clare, Clockwork Prince


“It is the time you have wasted for your rose that makes your rose so important.”

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince


“How did it get so late so soon? It’s night before it’s afternoon. December is here before it’s June. My goodness how the time has flewn. How did it get so late so soon?”

― Dr. Seuss


“Time takes it all, whether you want it to or not.”

Stephen King, The Green Mile


And from one of my favorite songwriters and a great song about getting older:

“Can’t pretend that growing older never hurts!”

Pete Townshend lyrics in the song “Slit Skirts

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