Category: ramblings

On Friendship and Time

As I was driving to Augusta yesterday on my birthday, I found myself reflecting on what’s changed in my life over the years. Specifically, I was thinking back on all the birthdays I’ve spent with my family, both when I was growing up and after I’d married Denisa. There’s been a lot of change over the years, and that led me to thinking about the friendships I’ve made over time, and how they’ve changed as well.

I’ve had a few “best friends” in my life. Of the ones I had growing up and in college, I no longer have much chance to communicate with any of them. Now and then I’ll get an email or a Facebook message or a Like on a post, but for the most part, those friendships are no longer a functioning part of my life.

I remember the summer before I left on my mission, my best friend from college, Sue, came out to stay at my house in Pennsylvania for about a week. We had an absolute blast. Went into New York City to see The King and I on Broadway. Drove to Amish country to check things out over there. Just hung out and spent time together. But over all of it was this pallor, because I knew it would come to an end.

At last I had to take her to the airport. This was back in the days when you actually walked out with the passengers to the terminals, and you sat together waiting for their plane to board. In many ways, I prefer the modern approach. I’m terrible at long goodbyes, and those old airport goodbyes were the pits. I remember sitting there just feeling sick to my stomach, because this was it. The End.

I already had enough experience with friendships to realize that they can drastically change as your circumstances shift. My friends from high school had all gone different ways. We still saw each other now and then, but life moved on. We weren’t as close anymore, and I knew we would never be. And here I was in an airport, saying goodbye to yet another stage of my life.

Sue and I kept in touch while I was on my mission. She was gone to Honduras on a mission of her own when I returned. Honduran postal service leaves much to be desired, speaking from experience. By the time she was home, I was engaged (secretly) to Denisa. (Though I told Sue about the engagement. Not many people knew. Less than a handful. Sue was one.)

Close friendships like that have a real rough time lasting through one of the friends getting married. Which is as it should be, honestly. Denisa is my best friend now, and there’s only so much room in a person’s life.

One of the things I’ve always valued and prided myself in was loyalty. I don’t necessarily make really good friends that often. I am a friendly person, and I’ll happily talk with many many acquaintances, but close friends take a while for me to develop, typically. Once someone’s in that “close friend” circle, though, it’s generally for life, as far as I’m concerned. If one of my close friends from high school or college were to reach out to me for help, I would try to do whatever I could to help them. Not necessarily for the person they are now, but for the friend they used to be, if that makes sense.

And generally, I’ve found those old friendships have deep roots. They go into hibernation, and when I have the opportunity to see old friends and interact with them, I’m often so relieved and happy to see everything is still there, and it’s like we never stopped being friends at all.

And now this post has gotten far too reflective for a Friday. I’m not even really sure where it was heading. It was more this package of thoughts that occurred to me on a drive home from Augusta, and I wanted to somehow give voice to it. I’m not tragically sad about old friendships that are no longer thriving. My personal feeling is that they will one day be resumed, each one of them. Of course, that gets us onto theological ground, and I think I’ve wandered far enough afield in today’s post to stop short of going there.

But I’ll end with a final thought. I used to actually write poems. True story. My favorite to write were classical Elizabethan sonnets. I loved the constraints the poem’s form put on me. Trying to pack as much meaning into such a structure was a fun word game.

And while I was on my mission in Germany, still reflecting on the aftermath of that goodbye in the Philadelphia airport, I wrote this one on friendship. I can still recite it from memory, and I still feel it sums up my feelings very well on the subject. And so I present it to you.

Have a pleasant Friday, and here’s hoping I’m back to my normal peppy self by Monday. Thanks for reading.

On Friendship

Is friendship’s flame so soundly smothered out
By hushed good-byes that slip through silent lips?
Can certainty be made to mimic doubt?
Does anchor chain the ocean or the ship?
Toy boat that burst and bubbled down the brook
Abruptly stopped. Caught. Tangled by the twigs
That lurk beneath the sunny surface. Shook,
Then merrily resumed its zags and zigs.
Great Neptune never changes for a chain,
And knowledge never dawdles doubtingly.
The silence of goodbye is mute in vain,
For friendship’s fire shouts out eternally.
The current rest may last three beats or four,
But rest assured: the song will play once more.

Resistance Fatigue

There are days when I wonder how in the world the Rebel Alliance ever managed to keep it together long enough to bring down the Emperor. I mean, it’s one thing to have outrage and anger against something the first time it happens. And the second. And maybe the third. But there comes a time, sooner or later, when you’ve been fighting the same fight over and over and over, and you don’t see any real change happening because of that fight. And that’s when you start to wonder why in the world you’re bothering.

Some of it comes from there being so many different arenas to fight in. At the moment, I feel like there’s the clear national arena, but there’s also plenty to be worried about for me at the state and local levels too. And the craziest thing about it all is that I feel like people on both sides of each one of these fights feel this way. I read articles by Trump supporters who are just aghast that the poor man can be so misunderstood. The same goes for LePage supporters at the state level here in Maine.

Some of the cause for all of this is that the people on the edges keep pushing those edges further. If the country were a plate, balanced on a point, then the Republicans and Democrats running all over the plate, rushing to the edges and stomping on them as hard as they can is putting that balance in danger. And sure, right now it’s the Republicans who seem set on making the whole thing shatter, but I do believe it’s a series of cause and effects. Bill Clinton was in power, and Republicans clamored against him. Bush came to power, and Democrats were appalled. Obama came to power, and Republicans freaked out for eight years. And now we have the result of that imbalance: Trump was able to be elected.

Sigh.

But what really brought this all into focus was the local level shenanigans this week. Constant blog readers will recall my school district’s budget is under fire. There’s a vocal group in the community who are upset with the school budget. They’re sick of it getting bigger every year, and they’ve done their darnedest to get it shrunk. And I accept that. I accept that people in a community will disagree about how much money should be spent on various things in that community. If that were all it were, then I’d be fine with the whole thing.

Except it doesn’t stop there, a fact best illustrated by describing the most recent development. One particular member of the “No” side has been more than outspoken about her views. She’s sent spiteful letters to the school board, accused the “Yes” side of lying, created a series of inflammatory signs around town, and even pulled up to curse and yell at school supporters (including children) on the day of the vote. This came to a head this past week when a member of the school board resigned, citing this person as one of the main reasons. The local online  paper wrote an article about it, and I made the mistake of reading the comments section.

It’s beyond disappointing when you see a person bullied to the point of resignation from the board, and the response from some community members is “The bully was just saying what the rest of us thought anyway. Good job bully! We support you!” Really? We can’t even agree as a community that using hateful, inflammatory language and personal attacks should be off limits? Not just that, but we double down on the rhetoric when we’re called on it? That says far more about the people who use and agree with such tactics than it does about any claims they make about their opponents. It’s one thing to lob barbs at people far off in government, but these school board members are part of us. They’re our community. People we see and interact with. If we can’t behave at a local level, what have we come to?

As I believe I’ve said before, I feel like this is a disagreement where one said is willing and open to hear arguments and evidence against raising the budget. They’re ready to implement reasonable solutions, regardless of where those solutions come from. They want to reach and and unify the community and come to a compromise. And the other side has people willing to do the same. But the loudest contingent of that side just seems to want to “win” at any cost.

It’s even more frustrating when they appear to change the definition of “winning” at the drop of a hat. For the second year in a row, town school budget assessments will be at a 0% overall increase, meaning any increase in property taxes for the last two years won’t be from the school budget. And yet now we’re hearing that the “no” side wants taxes to not just not increase, but to go down. I honestly don’t believe they’d be satisfied unless the budget went back to the amount it was at five or more years ago. When you’re trying to negotiate and reason with a group that takes those kind of tactics, you begin to wonder why you should even have a conversation.

And that’s the thing. You get tired. I pushed hard for the budget to pass last month. Last year I did the same. I rallied against Trump during the election. I’ve spoken out on various topics, from health care to gun control to basic human decency. And after a while, it all just wears on you. You wonder if it’s even worth it, and the very thought of standing on the proverbial street corner and shouting out your message just makes you want to slink back to bed.

There’s another school budget meeting tonight. I’m on a deadline for MEMORY THIEF 2, I have a slew of chores to do around the house, and I’m just plain tired. The thought of dragging myself to another one of those time sinks is just depressing.

But I’m going to go.

Because as soon as you start to give up, you’re letting the Empire win. You’re tossing the One Ring to Sauron. You’re saying Death Eaters really aren’t that bad. Yes, it’s tiring. So what? Often the tiring things in life are the things most worth doing.

Tonight, I’ll be the guy in the back, typing on a computer, wearing noise cancelling headphones in an effort to not let this suck more of my life away. Denisa’s going to prod me when I need to vote, and I’ll raise my voice with the rest. Come join me. 7pm. High school auditorium.

Commenting on Others’ Appearances: The Beard Factor

As a linguistics major in college, I got to learn all sorts of facts about the way we communicate with others. Stuff I still think about, decades later. For example, the effects of pausing preference (the amount of time we wait before we assume the person we’re talking to is done speaking, and we can speak). Men’s pausing preference is shorter than women’s, which leads to men speaking more often in a conversation. Not just that, but women walk away from the conversation feeling like they were constantly interrupted, but men walk away thinking everything went smoothly. All because of pausing preference. (The same is true for northerners vs. southerners. Southerners have a longer pausing preference than northerners. Generally speaking.)

For more information about this, check out conversation analysis. But today’s post isn’t about that. It’s about a segment of sociolinguistics, the study of how language is used in society. Today, we’re talking about “things you can talk to strangers and acquaintances about.”

It’s been a while since I had my class, but this is what I remember: in English, there are certain topics that are considered “safe” conversation starters. The weather is the old go-to. You can talk about the weather with just about anyone you’d like. Go up to a person in the park and say, “Lovely sunshine, isn’t it?” and you might have a brief chat about today’s weather, tomorrow’s weather, and the like. Similarly, you can talk to strangers if they have a dog or pet with them, or a baby. As long as you’re saying nice things, of course. There’s a big difference between telling a person, “What a lovely baby!” and telling a person, “Your baby looks seriously messed up. Did you do something to it?”

Compliments are safe. Critiques are not.

With acquaintances, there’s another category of safe conversation starters: change in appearance. If you see someone is wearing a new dress, or has a new haircut, it’s totally fine to go up to them and compliment the new dress or haircut. Or even just observe that they look different, with the implication that it looks nice.

Sure, you’ll get people from time to time who don’t fully understand this. They might comment how much they dislike your haircut. Or how ugly that dress is. But these people are generally socially awkward. They’re trying to follow the norms, and failing. They’re the exception.

Interestingly, I’ve observed this all fall apart in one specific area of appearance: beards. If you have a beard (particularly if you’ve just started growing a beard), people seem to feel entitled to say exactly what they think about that beard, regardless of how well they know you. “You look like a mountain man.” “Hey there, Grizzly Adams.” “Your beard looks so shaggy.” “When are you going to shave?” “I prefer beards that are neatly trimmed.” “Your beard is too gray.” “That’s ugly.”

When I was growing a beard, and for several years after I first had one, I had all of these things said to me. Exact quotes. (Well the one about being gray is something that’s a new addition to the mixture.) But I’ve seen the same thing happen to friends who have beards. Somehow, it seems that society or certain people in society believe that not only are beards safe to comment about, but they’re safe to critique.

Imagine for a moment if I went up to a woman and made some of these same observations about her dress, or her hair, or her general appearance. “You look ugly.” “Didn’t have too much time to get ready this morning, did you?” “I like you much better with more/less makeup.” “That haircut is hideous.”

As I write those, it just now occurs to me that perhaps those are all things women have to put up with all the time. Not being a woman myself (and generally being a polite person who doesn’t comment on my personal opinion of others’ appearances), I might just not get exposed to that. But I’d like to think that if women get those remarks, it’s a sign that the person making the remark is a sexist jerk, or fairly petty. Correct me in the comments, and my apologies in advance if I’m just not better informed about that.

The people commenting on my beard (and my friends’ beards) are generally people who I don’t think would go up to a person and insult their appearance. Somehow, however, they feel like their personal preference for or against facial hair is something they should share with as many people as possible. Certainly with people who have facial hair.

To those people, might I just say that this innate feeling to critique a man’s facial hair is . . . misplaced? Misguided? Unwanted? I’d like to see more people lump beards in with hair cuts and new clothes. You can comment if you think it looks nice, but otherwise . . .

Just don’t mention it.

Lessons Learned While Biting My Mouth

Look. I’m a thinker. Sometime the thinks come to me when I’m pondering profound mysteries of the universe. Sometimes they come to me when I’m failing at a task I’ve done every day almost since I was born. Right before my vacation, I bit my mouth. My lip, to be exact. Hard. And then I bit it in the same spot the next day, and once more time that night.

It was a bad bite. Bloody. Painful. Hard enough to draw tears, and deep enough to hurt for about a week afterward. It hurt to talk. Hurt to move my mouth at all, really. And I only remembered this last night when I bit my tongue while eating. Not a bad bite, but enough to make me sigh inwardly. Here we go again.

So this morning as I was getting ready for the day, I wondered what I would blog about, and I thought about complaining about biting my mouth and now my tongue. (Yes. Sometimes I contemplate making really stupid blog posts. Aren’t you thankful I don’t actually write them?) As soon as the thought occurred to me, I dismissed it. What in the world would I write about? It would just be long and whiny, and what would be the point? It wasn’t like I could come up with some neat comparison to the experience that would make sense on a broader scale, right?

Except then I did, and so I’m writing the post after all.

Here’s the thing: we all bite our mouth or our tongue from time to time. It just happens. We have a ton of experience eating. We almost always successfully chew things without letting our cheek or tongue get in the way. I don’t know of anyone who actively goes out trying to bite parts of their mouth instead of biting that delicious brownie or piece of bread or whatever else they were actually trying to eat. And yet it still happens. Do something enough, and you’re bound to make a mistake now and then.

And I think the same thing happens when we speak. There are times all of us do or say something that we didn’t mean to do or say. Maybe we didn’t think things through enough before we said it, or maybe we thought it would sound one way but it came out another. But it happens.

In today’s “gotcha” culture, it seems like people want to ignore that fact. Speaking as someone who blogs on a regular basis, even the occasional blog post will go awry. Some of them don’t age well over time. Something I wrote years ago might not read as smoothly in light of changes to society. I’ve seen people’s old posts brought out from a decade ago and used to beat them over the head. It’s not right.

I believe everyone should get some slack when it comes to what they do and say. I’m not saying they should have immunity, or they should be given a Get Out of Jail Card or anything like that. If I say or do something that’s hurtful, even if it’s unintentional, I’d like to think I’d apologize for the hurt caused. But I’d also like to think that apology would be accepted, and we could all move on quickly.

This is something I need to remember. It can be tempting to get upset because of something you read or hear. Tempting to hold it against someone. But we all have those moments when our words bite us in the same way we bite our mouths.

And that’s my deep thought of the day.

Avoiding Fear

A few weeks ago, I read a Micheal Crichton novel about global warming: State of Fear. It came out in 2004, and it was based on the premise that global warming was basically a big hoax. That it wasn’t nearly as cut and dried as “everyone” wanted you to think.

It’s a tin foil hat book, basically. Though it did raise some interesting points and made me think about how research is presented and consumed. (But seriously, the book came out in 2004. Here we are 13 years later, and the arguments it makes don’t really hold up so well over time.)

However, one part of the book that appealed to me and which I still think about is how it argued that politicians and leaders prefer a populace that’s afraid. Fear is a big unifier, and if there isn’t something to be afraid of, people will manufacture it in order to gain leverage. I believe this is true, and I’ve tried to stop falling for the technique when I can.

I have one great example from my life where I let fear rule me. It was during the auditions for district band in high school. I was playing bassoon, and I was terrified of that audition. I went in, and I did horrendously. My fingers were shaking uncontrollably, I couldn’t breathe, and I flubbed pretty much every part of that audition. When we got the results back, I was so low. Low enough that my score would have been dead last in pretty much any instrument in comparison, no matter how many people tried out. The other three bassoonists who auditioned had scores over 100. I think mine was an 8.

It was bad.

But I still got in. Why? Two reasons, I think. First, they needed 4 bassoonists, and only 4 tried out. But I also believe my music teacher pulled some strings. He knew my skill level, regardless of how poorly I played. I have to think he reassured the other judges that I was much better than those few minutes of audition would lead them to believe.

Fear makes us perform poorly. It gets in the way of our thinking. It makes us doubt our abilities. It can skew your viewpoint. It’s one of the worst motivations to do something I can think of. And yet it’s also one of the most effective motivators, and it’s used all the time.

It’s used in religion, to frighten people out of sin. It’s used in the workplace to keep employees in line. It’s used in politics on both sides of the aisle. Trump wanted (and continues to want) Americans to be afraid of the future and the present. Others want us to be afraid of Trump. But fear, while an effective motivator, is also one with the shortest duration. Remove the active fear, and you remove the motivation.

On Sunday, President Uchtdorf, second counselor in the First Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, gave a great talk about the evils of fear, and that made me think more about the subject. It’s a great talk (and not just because he officially endorses falling asleep in church), and I encourage you to give it a listen.

I took away three things from the talk:

  1. I should not let myself be motivated by fear in any sphere of my life. I should try to do my best to be working for something, not against something. In other words, pick the things I love in life. The goals I want to achieve. Strive to achieve them. Strive to make the world, my family, and myself better by improving the things I love instead of trying to extinguish the things I fear.
  2. I should avoid using fear as a motivator for others. I’m not sure how often I do this, but I’m going to try to pay attention to times when I seem to be making threats instead of promises. I know I do it as a parent from time to time. It’s hard not to. But I certainly don’t want my kids to be scared of me, though sometimes that seems like the only way to get through to them. I think it’s the easier way, but not the better way.
  3. I can control those two points. How fear motivates me and how I use fear to motivate others. Beyond that, I can speak out against using fear, but I have to recognize how other people are motivated is out of my control, as well as how they choose to motivate others. I can speak out against fear, but ultimately it’s up to other people to decide how they want to use it in their life.

To me, the opposite of fear in these situations is love. To do things because you want a particular outcome, not because you’re afraid of its opposite. Perhaps one solution, when you feel you might be letting yourself be governed by fear, is to take a step back and look at what that fear is driving you towards. Sure, you’re fleeing something scary, but if it’s taking you in the direction of something you also don’t like, what good is that doing you? And if it’s taking you in a direction you want to be going, why not choose to strive to reach that place, instead of just trying to get away from the place you fear?

The best way to get someplace is to know where you’re going, not to know where you don’t want to end up. That seems like a statement that should be self evident, but I think it’s easy to forget when you’re in the trenches. I believe politicians love fear because it gets people moving. Moving away from their opponents, and never mind where they’re ending up instead. And when you believe passionately in a cause, and other people don’t share that feeling, it can be very tempting to try and resort to fear to get them to agree with you. But unless that fear is constantly present and immediate, it’s too easy to forget.

Anyway. I’m out of time for today. To sum up, I’m going to try to pay attention the next while to see when fear is being used against me or against people around me, and I encourage you to do the same. (Seriously. I’ve heard if you don’t, then you’re going to get torn apart by rabid wolves.)

%d bloggers like this: