Archive for category Life

From the Mind of Minolta

My companion to Detroit, Italy, Germany and beyond – the Minolta SRT MC2

Sounding very much my age, I was talking to my kids about what photography was like when I was young.   The idea of not seeing the picture right away seemed odd to them, as did the notion of developing film.   I got out my old camera to show the boys and let them see how it feels/looks.    I tried to explain how you had to try to get the right shot at the start since it was expensive to develop film.    They learned to change the lens, focus (they’ve only used autofocus), and how film worked.   They attached the flash and played with that.   I tried to explain all the complex settings on the camera and the flash.   While they were interested, it was obviously a relic to them.  I may as well have been explaining Gutenberg’s printing press.

Ryan trying to get the feel of what “old fashioned” photography was like — and with that uncombed hair, he’s definitely on the right side of the camera!

One thing about my generation is that we’ve seen a large range of technological change.    I still remember dial phones, black and white pre-cable TV and adding machines with a pull handle.    When I was a kid flash cameras had these nifty little flash cubes.   Each cube had four flashes (one on each side) and the camera would turn the cube a quarter way each time.  That means you didn’t have to replace a flash bulb with every picture.

Who can forget the blue bulbs in the cubes – perfect for light new convenient cameras in the 60’s!

I’m not sure when it was, perhaps my first year of college, but I decided I wanted to get a real camera.   One where you could control the shutter speed, set it for different film speeds, determine how much light you wanted to let in, and replace lenses for long range or wide angle.

I already had a Polaroid, which despite giving instant pictures, was low quality.   I still have some in my old albums – a lefse making project in northern South Dakota and pictures of friends.   But as I saw the kinds of photos others were taking I realized I wanted something better.

So at K-Mart on the east side of Sioux Falls I bought a Yashica for about $100 (in today’s money that’s about $200).   It was nice, but I soon became dissatisfied and bought the Minolta shown above.   It cost nearly $300, which was a major investment for a college kid!

I learned to be very good with that camera.  I could frame the shot exactly how I wanted, adjust for different kinds of lighting, play with different settings, and as soon as I clicked the camera the picture was taken, exactly as it looked in the view finder.   If I set the shutter speed high enough on a sunny day I could get someone running full speed to look perfectly still — no blurrs.

The camera case is a story in and of itself.   Given the politics I present in this blog it my shock readers to find out that in college I was a college Republican (even South Dakota state PR Director), and I went to the national convention in Detroit that nominated Ronald Reagan in 1980.    I was even on the convention floor when Reagan gave his acceptance speech.  With me was my Minolta camera of course.

But at Eastern Michigan University where we “Reagan youth” were housed, a party atmosphere was the norm.   I hung out with two girls from Maine (I don’t recall their names), and traded a big “South Dakotans for Reagan” pin (at least 6″ in diameter) for a little Maine lobster sticker which I put on my case.

You can see the red Maine lobster sticker on the right hand side

I would carry that camera case with me for the next decade – always with the symbol of Maine, even though I’d never been there and had no clue that I would end up living here.  An omen?

I lived in Bologna, Italy for a year attending Johns Hopkins SAIS.   I’d travel to visit friends in Germany, taking the overnight express train to Munich through the Brenner pass (trying to sleep in the compartments – .   The villages there were picturesque in the Alps, and I made sure to take a day train once just to get photos.   Two nuns were in the compartment and pointed out photo opportunities.   Even though it was from a train chugging through the Alps one of the photos was so good that my parents had it framed.   With that camera, it was easy to take an excellent photo.

The last year I really put the camera to use has a sad ending — it was the year I lived in Germany.   First, the camera started to have mechanical problems and didn’t work well.   Second, I decided not to develop my film in Germany because it was much cheaper to develop it in the US.   So I packed the film and other things in a box and mailed it to my US address.   The box never arrived.   Dozens of rolls of film from a year in Germany gone.

Then digital photography came.   At first I hated it.  There was always a pause between when you pushed the button and when the picture got taken — or a pause afterwards as it stored it.  I found I lost my ability to take good pictures.

I finally have a digital camera I can use — a Fuji Finepix.  It has a real camera feel (though light), but at a cost of $200 it’s still far lower quality than my old Minolta.   I find my Iphone can take good pictures.   Meanwhile Minolta and Yashica are both out of business, and rather than striving for a few quality photos to save film now people snap numerous photos figuring the law of averages will give them a couple really good ones.

High end digital cameras are becoming as easy to use as the old film cameras — easy as in taking instant shots and being able to manipulate settings.   And the fact that photos are now “free” – once you buy the camera and the storage card you can take as many as you want and download them – is definitely an improvement on film.  After the experience of my lost German photos, I certainly like being able to download and save them!

And though society belongs to the youth, I count it as one blessing of getting older as having the memory of things like taking photos with my old Minolta.


My Father and Me by Ryan Erb

My son Ryan is in the third grade, and as an assignment he had to write something about his father to give me for Father’s Day.   Needless to say, it made me feel real good, even if he does emphasize buying things a bit much!  This is what he wrote:

My Father and Me by Ryan Erb (for Father’s Day)

My father has (many times) gone out of his way to help me.  Most recent of all, he spent FIFTY dollars to fix my favorite video game.  Also, he is understanding when I can’t go ghost hunting (new hobby) and I get mad.  He listens to me when I have something to say.  He helps me on everything.  And he never gives up (except homework).  He has bought a lot of stuff for me and he’s still buying more.  Like ghost hunting equipment.  Life is good.

I think my father (Scott Erb) is the best father ever.  It’s like he knows the future of what will happen and what I want to happen.  I also love that if I fail, he doesn’t regret having me as a son.   He taught me a lot of things over the years, like riding a bike or using a video camera.  There ain’t nothing he can’t do!  His attitude is so strong that if he were falling out of an airplane to his death he’ll say “Wow, it’s a nice view up here.”   Life is good.

So I thank him for all that and much, much more.  It’s like I was given super luck or something to have him.  He’s so nice.  He is going to take me ghost hunting at Nordica!  Yes.  He literally reserved Nordica for me to ghost hunt.  Yes, a real haunted location.  He’s even letting me drive his car!  And we use ghost hunting equipment!  (You already know).  He tries everything to make me happy!  He took me (when I was five) to Chucky Cheese when our cat died.  Life is good.

I am like way too lucky to have him as my guardian.  I appreciate everything that he did for me.  Our bond is UNBREAKABLE.  I mean literally.  Thank you so much Father.  Life is good.

You comfort me Dad and when I need it, you do everything you can.  Sometimes I feel like you’re magic, you’re so good.  Life is good.


You comfort when I need it.

You help me when it happens.

You bring joy and happiness right into me.

You come under, and over obstacles for me.

You are more than just a father.

You are mine.


Atheism, Spiritualism and Science

The curvature of space-time, digital art by Ricardo G. Silviera (–time-ricardo-g-silveira.html)

Modern physics is only touching the big questions about the origin of the universe.  Do black holes spawn universes?  Are we in a multi-verse with parallel realities less than an atom’s length away?   Perhaps — those are the kinds of theories occupying modern physics these days as scientists probe the nature of the big bang and what may have caused it.

So what should we humans believe?   Clearly scientific knowledge is uncertain at best.   We know we are in a space-time universe, space-time appears to have come into being at an event called the “big bang,” and if we take quantum physics seriously, the world is probabilistic and far more weird and indeterminate as most of us would like to believe.   The old determinist Newtonian world of clear laws and causality is long gone, even though in every day life that is still the approach we take.

Nils Bohr and Albert Einstein – two early 20th Century physicists who helped shattered the old deterministic Newtonian reality

Consider: Since we live in a space time universe, we are incapable of comprehending or even imagining reality outside space time.   Something outside space-time has no beginning or end, since those are merely temporal markers.   If something is outside space-time it has no location, that is a spatial marker.   Yet there is no way to dismiss the possibility that reality includes entities outside of space-time.   We just can’t comprehend what they would be like or how they operate, it is beyond our cognitive capacities.   Just as an ant in the White House can’t comprehend the politics going on around it, our frame of reference and mental capacities are limited to the space-time reality we inhabit.

Many find solace in a well defined set of religious beliefs. Although the religions are often exclusive, there are vast similarities in core values across all faiths

For religious folk, this opens up the possibility for the existence of God – an existence that is not in denial of science.   If God is outside space-time, then we cannot imagine God’s nature.   God need have no beginning or operate under causal laws like we do.  This fits Buddhist, Islamic and Hindu conceptions of God well, though Christians and Jews have tended to anthropomorphize God and give it human traits.

That said, claims about God that can be tested in the material world are fair game.  The idea that the earth is 6000 years old, for instance, can be falsified.   But for those of us who are not religious, the real question here is what the term “God” means.   Is it a source for this reality from beyond space-time?

There are a few ways to deal with this question.   First, you can dismiss it as irrelevant.   There is no way to test any hypothesis about reality outside space-time, so contemplating it is at best a playful intellectual indulgence, at worst a waste of time.   This is generally the atheist/materialist reaction.   Speculation about something we cannot know is meaningless and beliefs about it are irrational and potentially dangerous.    Better to stick to trying to figure out the world we have access to and can study.

For Atheists the most rational approach is to focus only on what can be tested and experience – religious faith and spirituality is too mushy and uncertain

A second way to deal with this is to simply choose a religious faith and believe it.   We can’t know, but maybe a benevolent God gives us access to knowledge through the heart, with faith the key to achieving that kind of enlightenment.    Supplement that with emotional satisfaction about one’s perceived connection with God, and religious belief can be very satisfying, it can create a sense of meaning in life.    The trouble is that this is true for a vast variety of diverse and often contradictory religious claims.    Either people are choosing to believe in myth and fantasy, or they all grasp aspects of the truth but build human stories around it that can conflict, or (to me unlikely) one group has it right and the others have it wrong.

Others (like myself) believe that we can at least sense a deeper meaning to life through openness to a spiritual side of life.

A third possible reaction is to consider subjective experience and intuition as evidence to explore connections to a spiritual side of reality that may not be testable in the scientific/materialist sense.   That would involve consideration of dreams, feelings, meditation, and efforts at deep empathy.   The idea here is that we may be connected to the God/spiritual world outside space time, but not in a way that exhibits itself through what we can measure and test within the confines of space-time.    Any knowledge gained from such explorations is subjective and personal.

It seems that spiritualism of this sort would have to deny dogma, since dogma rests on claims of certainty.   Instead, ideas would be judged by how well they work in the world or each individual, or whether or not they ring true inside.   I can believe that I draw to me all my experiences through my state of mind and my choices, but I can’t prove it or demand others believe it.

Despite the uncertainty there is a sense of liberation in this approach.   If one takes a purely atheistic/materialist approach to life, there is a  kind of meaninglessness and emptiness to existence.   We all will die, the sun will eventually go nova, the universe will dissipate and everything we do and achieve will be forgotten.    Nothing truly matters, except for our transient and fading experiences.  These experiences can be very meaningful, to be sure, and atheists can find meaning in rational materialism – but to me a reliance on the material side of life seems incomplete.  I cannot look at the world that way.

For the very materialist, the meaning of life is secondary to ones plans and achievements

If one takes a religious approach, there is some heaven or judgment one looks forward to or dreads, with hope for some kind of paradise, be it union with the whole via Nirvana or a heaven of spiritual delights.   For a spiritual approach there is uncertainty and a sense that it is most important that one live true to oneself and ones’ beliefs and reflections.   Success or failure in the material sense are less important than spiritual living.   The idea of judgment seems absurd because how can one be judged when our knowledge is so ambiguous?    Rather than judgment day there’s karma – our actions and choices create our situations.   And that’s where I end up.  I can’t prove it, but I have a sense that there is a unity to all experience and that there is deep meaning.    Living with a spiritual perspective works for me, and that’s ultimately all one can hope for.

Of course, the answer is really in knowing what the question should be!


Social Media and New Thinking

Facebook is wonderful.    Friends post news stories, funny links, and often inspirational gems.   One link someone posted purports to be the secret to happiness; if you can do what this post says, you will be happy!   All you have to do is give up 15 things:   15 Things you should give up to be happy. 

1.  Give up your need to always be right.
2.  Give up your need for control.
3.  Give up on blame.
4.  Give up your self-defeating self-talk.
5.  Give up your limiting beliefs.
6.  Give up complaining.
7.  Give up the luxury of criticism
8.  Give up your need to impress others.
9.  Give up your resistance to change.
10.  Give up labels.
11.  Give up on your fears.
12.  Give up your excuses.
13.  Give up the past.
14.  Give up attachment.
15.  Give up living your life to others’ expectations.

Most of these are pretty self-explanatory.   Giving up attachment, the post points out, does not mean giving up your love for others and your desire to help.   To me it’s the capacity to detach from the context and understand it all in perspective.

Yet as I contemplate the list I started to think about how these sorts of ideas and messages are being spread on Facebook and other forms of social media, and where that might lead.  I went to the website for “purposefairy.”    It turns out that it is the work of a Romanian born woman named Dana.  The last post appears to be almost a year old (the one linked above).    Other posts are mostly lists, like this one detailing what happy people do differently than unhappy folk.

The comments on the most recent post are almost all from within the last couple weeks.  There are 189 comments, only five seem to come from a time close to when the list was posted.  That means that her post on happiness probably started getting spread on Facebook just a few weeks ago — most of them were just in the last week.  She’s shifted focus from a blog to social media, and the ideas have taken off.

The purposefairy’s facebook page is liked by 16,557 people at this point.   The image atop this blog post was taken from her facebook cover photo.   She often posts links to past blog entries, keeping those messages alive,

There are similarities between the purpose fairy and “Empathic guidance” a woman named Sharon who also has a facebook page.   I’ve been reading her blog for some time.   She mixes inspirational facebook ideas with a more sophisticated commentary about the state of the world/humanity on her blog.

She has inspirational images like this:

With more “political” messages like this:

Empathic Guidance sees the world starting an era of transformation, and she connects personal change with global change.   It’s a powerful mix.   Purposefairy is more focused on advance on relationships and personal well being.   Whereas Empathic Guidance is listed under “community”, Purposefairy is under “health and wellness.”  Empathic guidance is liked by 1195 people, less than Purposefairy, but her facebook page started recently, January 24, 2012.  Purposefairy’s began on February 23, 2011.

My point?  I think Empathic Guidance (or Empathy 2012) is right that something is changing.   I also believe that Facebook and other forms of social media are only starting to have an impact by spreading ideas and connecting people across boundaries.   The boundaries can be geographical, cultural or temporal — across generations.   Empathic Guidance alikens this to an “awakening,” and that seems a good metaphor.  People are starting wake up!

Most of the time people think about the political or community/social aspects of social media.  You stay in contact with friends, you can build connections for political action, and campaigns tweet and twitter.   But spreading messages about psychological well being, seeing the world from a different perspective, and emphasizing human ethics is a powerful counter to the way messages of consumerism, envy and blame have created self-defeating thinking.

People have started to see themselves as victims in a cold world where one struggles to find meaning and contentment.  Discontent and dissatisfied, unable to find true joy in the competitive materialism of the modern world, people too often try to find something to blame for perceived deficiencies in their lives.    People blame their boss, their job, their spouse, their kids, the ‘system’ (the right blames big government, the left blames capitalism), big business, the poor, the rich…everyone but themselves.   Yet where we have real power is in our own lives, and our own thoughts.

So I’ll finish by quoting Purposefairy:

Everything that happened to us until now, happened because of the choices we made, because of our actions, and everything we have felt, we felt because of how we chose to process everything that came our way, because of our attitudes toward everything and everyone, and whatever we choose to focus our attention in this moment, and whatever actions we choose to take, will eventually determine how our life will look in the next days, weeks, months and maybe years. It’s not faith, it’s not bad luck, it’s not the horrible people that keep showing up in your life… it’s only you. You and your perceptions, you and your attitude toward life, and toward every single person you encounter with. You see, our attitude toward all of them will eventually determine their attitude toward us, and how they will choose to treat us, while at the same time, our attitude toward life will determine life’s attitude toward us.

Though my blog focuses on politics, I think there is more going on.  Even if the economic and the political news seems distressing, there is also a growth of positivity, the rumblings of an awakening that can change the world for the better.  That gives me optimism for the future.

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Pure Beauty

I haven’t posted much lately because I’ve been exceedingly busy.   However, busy need not mean stressed out or overwhelmed.  Today was an example.

At 2:45 PM Tuesday afternoon I got to Mallett school to pick up my sons Ryan and Dana (third grade and Kindergarten) to head to the local mountain, Mt. Titcomb.   Dana’s doing a program put on by the University called “Snow Cats,” teaching kids grades K through 3 to ski.   Ryan skied on his own with his friend Avery.

We had to wait for Avery to arrive by bus (he’s in 4th grade, at the school up the road), and with the snow falling we had a slow drive to the mountain.   Once there it was a bit chaotic.   Get the kids stuff together, make sure we have everything, lug it all to the lodge, stash the skis and poles outside, and then get equipment on.    The lodge was buzzing with activity and kids clomped around in their ski boots and got dressed.    I first got Dana to his group lesson, made sure Ryan and his friend were all set, then I got my equipment from the car so I could ski.

I enjoyed two runs, only to have Ryan and Avery tell me they were hungry and wanted to go in and get a snack.  So I went in, helped them get situated, and then went back out to ski.   “Dad, I need six dollars, and Avery only has $5 and needs one, can you loan him a dollar?”   They were in line and I opened my billfold and handed out the money.   The guy behind the counter laughed, “that’s a good way to get popular.”   Ryan beamed, “I’ve got the best dad.”   I smiled, and convinced the boys were set, went out to ski.

It was marvelous.   I especially enjoyed going up the slow T-bar.   Light snow was falling, but that phrase doesn’t do it justice.   The snow was a pure white, glistening in the lights designed to illuminate the trails.   It was twilight, lending a beautiful bluish aura to the trees, snow and lights.   Alongside that were the sounds of kids having fun, talking, laughing, sometimes screaming…perfect.   Pine trees covered in snow, a layer on the trails, the views…how can it get any better than this?

I would see Dana with his group, just turned six but master of the mountain.   Ryan and his friend Avery would go over jumps or trails through the woods.   I’d ski down, enjoying the mix of speed, control and beauty all around.

The light puffy snow kept falling the whole time, a fairy tale like atmosphere.    No wind, reasonably warm temperatures (mid 20’s), an absolutely perfect evening.   Part of the atmosphere was the sense of community that defines Titcomb.  It might be going up the lift with Pete who was there with his family, or Clarissa who was there with hers, or with a stranger carrying a huge drill bit, joking he was a dentist  (He had a walkie talkie and was apparently heading to repair something).   There were hellos and quick exchanges with other parents, and then a quick financial transaction with Niki to support the PTA fundraising effort (among other things I’m chair of our PTA fundraising committee).    She caught me taking equipment back to the car at the end and in the falling snow wrote a check in the parking lot before we went to coral our respective kids.     Farmington, skiing together.

At 6:00 it was over.    Chaos again, get the kids together, lug equipment to the car almost falling in the icy parking lot, dealing with rambunctious kids full of energy despite over two hours of skiing.   Then after leaving I had to turn around and go back because in the haste I’d left my helmet in the lodge.   It was there, the cleaners pointed it out to me.    In the car the talk turned to video games, Pokemon trades, and the like.   The mood was happy though, the kids had fun.

Those four hours from 3:00 PM to almost 7:00 PM were perfect.   Not that nothing went wrong…sometimes the T-bar stopped because a young kid fell off, my toes were a bit cold at times, and lugging equipment can be a pain.    It was perfect because it was such a joyful experience.  The pure beauty of the evening, the snow, the woods, the mountain, the people.

As I was going up the T-bar on one run I thought to myself, “there is nowhere I’d rather be right now, and this moment is as good as it can get” – even though objectively I was simply being hauled up the mountain by a t-bar.   “This makes life worth living,” I was thinking cruising down the mountain, even though it was just one of many runs.  I can’t explain the emotion, it comes from all the ingredients together – community, beauty, movement, friends and family.   They permeated every aspect of the evening, even granting magic to a boring t-bar ride.

Sometimes life is just absolutely wonderful.


Nothing Matters and What if it Did?

Only once have I bought a record album or CD solely on the basis of the title: John Cougar’s Nothing Matters and What if it Did?  It is a great album.    Ain’t Even Done with the Night is a classic, and To M.G.  and This Time are also excellent — a spur of the moment purchase that I never regretted.

But why would that album title cause me at age 20 to pick the album off the rack and buy it?   John Cougar was not that well known yet (though this album helped push him to the next level), I just liked the title.

One question I think about when I want to tie my mind up a bit is “why is there something and not nothing?”   The idea that a universe exists is far more outrageous than the notion of complete nothingness.    Something can’t come from nothing, at least according to the laws of physics (well, particles can zip in and out of existence borrowing energy from the universe, but quantum physics covers that).  Positing a God is a logical but incomplete conclusion.   Why is there a God and not no God is just as puzzling a question!

Speculation about that question leads me to believe that material reality as we experience it must be a secondary form of experience.   While my description and reflections on reality now are much more sophisticated than they were when I was twenty, I think my gut intuition remains the same – this world is not the true world.

Hence the appeal of the question: Nothing matters, and what if it did?  The 20 year old Scott liked the rebelliousness of that question.   How dare someone say that poverty, war, child abuse, rape, genocide and murder don’t matter!   The suggestion seems disrespectful of the experience of millions of humans.   The 20 year old Scott rather liked creating discomfort in that sort of way; thirty years later, though, I still find the question appealing.

…and what if it did?   What if it did matter, what happens?   Would that make reality any different?

Even at 20 I saw the impossibility of truly embracing the idea that ‘nothing matters.’    Of course things matter to me, and to everyone else.   My children matter to me, my students matter to me, even my blog matters to me – it’s a recording of my ideas as they develop over time.

But let’s be honest.   Nothing we do here will be remembered or make a difference far into the future, except as a minuscule part of creating the world that will be — any of us might never have been born and the world would have gone on just fine.   Others would have filled our life roles, be it as a hero, a parent, or worker.    In a “real” materialist sense, our lives are meaningless.   Nothing material matters.   The sun will eventually go nova, humanity will die out, the vanity and arrogance of our brief dance on this planet represent nothing but impotent egos trying to assert that they have value.    The value is subjective and transient.

Yet what if it did matter?   Consider: all we experience is sensation.   That is a product of our brain.   It interprets the world and that interpretation is what we experience as reality.   It’s based on a small bit of reality that our senses can perceive.   Even though most “solid material” is made up of empty space — atoms are almost all empty space, the nucleus 1/100,000 of the atom’s size, yet containing all its mass — we experience solids as, well, SOLID!  It’s what our brain creates for our experience.

And while we might be real bodies walking and moving around through a universe that has three dimensions, we could also be receptors, taking in data and turning it into experience that simply seems like it takes up space and time.    That’s an old meditation, be it from Plato’s cave or more recently The Matrix, but there is nothing about human experience that gives cause to believe that reality is as we experience it.   We only know experience.

If that were the case, what matters would not be the physical world we believe exists.   What matters might be the emotions, connections, and what we learn in our hearts through living.    A person who struggles through difficulties to develop true happiness and a capacity to link meaningfully with others may be far more successful discovering useful knowledge than the most brilliant scientist or inventor.   One who lives in a state of engagement with the world of emotion, intuition and social connection may be far more better at life’s challenge than one who amasses a material fortune.   We know the material stuff perishes and may not even exist as we experience it.   But that spark of consciousness and life, that sense of spirit — that seems real, and it seems untethered to matter.

But why — what would the point of such an existence be.    Why is there something and not nothing?

“Oh yeah, life goes on, long after the thrill of living is gone” – John Cougar Mellencamp, from Jack and Diane.

John Cougar Mellencamp’s next album, American Fool, put his career into the stratosphere with songs like Jack and Diane and Hurts so Good.    He also reclaimed the last name his record company thought too boring for a rock star.

But think about – life goes on long after the thrill of living is gone.   To me, that’s a key idea.   At some point living is a thrill, a joy, there  is excitement, anticipation, plans and goals.   One dreams, explores ideas, and the horizons seem limitless.   Then the routine kicks in, and at some point the future seems short with limited possibilities — one might be stuck in a job, stuck in a marriage, dealing with commitments, and unable to achieve earlier dreams.

But that’s true only if life is about the material.   Life becomes limited and the future more narrow if one looks only at material ideals — those do get limited over time as one lives and makes choices.  But if the spiritual and emotional matter; if connections with others are more important than individual material achievement, then life can be thrilling up until the last moment; the thrill of living need never fade.

The more I reflect on it the more real those ephemeral aspects of life and my existence become, and the more illusory the material world I experience seems to be.   I find that thrilling!


Second Wind

Thursday was a snow day and as I did laundry, peeled carrots and potatoes for the roast I’d cook in the slow cooker, and did the dishes I felt proud of the kind of role model I was for my two sons.   Dad does the housework while mom’s out working!   I think at least once I muttered, “what would mom say about this” as I reached down to get an apple core Ryan carelessly let fall.

Unfortunately I’m often much better at “women’s work” than “men’s work.”   When I fix something around the house it arouses incredulous amazement from my wife.     An average 8th grader in shop class handles tools better than I do.   Now, when it comes to hooking up computers, stereo systems and things like that I’m good.   I do handle the lawn mower and take pride in my shovel/snow blower abilities.   When we go somewhere, I’m usually the one behind the wheel.   But beyond there the stereotypes end.  I tend to take care of the children more (my wife’s job has far more stress), get up at night when they’re sick, drive them places, and I’m the one active in the PTA — a predominately women’s world.

My inability to handle the more manly chores is obvious to everyone.   I know that because a few years ago I reluctantly bought a chain saw because of the need to clear some small trees in our back yard.   I mentioned this in class and a student looked at me with shock, “don’t do it yourself, let me come and help, it’s dangerous!”   If you’re imaging a rugged woodsman like student you’re off base.   Her name was Addie and her concern was real.

“Don’t say that,” another student started, apparently worried about my masculine pride.   I however was suddenly nervous.   “Why,” I asked, “what can happen?”

“Well,” she began, “the big problem is kick back.   You have to know what you’re doing and how to hold it…”   I got home and read the safety manual carefully and then took a hatchet and got rid of the offending trees.   I’m no Ronald Reagan with a hatchet but at least it’s not a motor driven chain threatening to rip open my head.

Of course, everyone here has chain saws and uses them.   I’ve seen people with no goggles or head gear cutting down small trees as if they were simply wiping a table.    But I took Addie’s warning to heart.   My father in law and brother in law have gotten good use out of that chain saw when they’ve visited, but all I’ve used are the goggles that came with it.

It’s not like I’m lazy.   I’ve actually kept myself in pretty good shape and exercise.    I used to run seven miles a day, in fact — but when I turned 37 I hit a barrier where my knees and feet said, “OK, we’ve let you abuse us for half your life, we need a bit less stress.”   Since then most of my exercise has been on machines…step machine, bowflex, nordic track, etc.     Now my legs are starting to rebel against the step machine, I can no longer use it in ski season!

Growing up I worked in restaurants.  I was a hard worker.  I bussed tables, did dishes, made pizzas, prepped food, stocked salad bars, and did books for years.  I also worked for a law firm running errands — an experience that pushed me away from law school.   My talents are in the kitchen, cleaning, figuring out books and research.   I’ve also always been a teacher — even at age 17 I was in charge of training at Village Inn Pizza in Sioux Falls.

My dad was handy with tools and had been a carpenter before he became a businessman.   He also was a damn tough football player who despite being small might have had a decent college career if he hadn’t flunked out of Augsburg College his first year and joined the Navy.   He renovated the house and I’d help some.    Mostly I avoided it, and he didn’t push me.   He seemed to realize I really didn’t want to learn how to do all the stuff he was doing and I’d only slow him down anyway.     No question from a child gives a parent such mixed emotions as “can I help?”    It’s so great you want to, but it’ll double the time the task takes!   So beyond  steaming off wall paper and a few small projects, I didn’t learn what I should have.    I wasn’t into playing team sports, had no interest in the navy, and when I became a ‘professional student’ he tolerated it with grace.   As the son of a German Luthern Minister, he didn’t want to put me under the pressure to conform that he grew up with.

In cities you hire people to fix your car, renovate your house, repair a leaky toilet, cut down rouge trees, landscape the yard, install flooring, and do just about everything beyond what requires a screw driver and hammer.   That made sense to me — that’s capitalism right?   You specialize in something, earn money and hire people to do the things you’re not good at!    Here in Maine, though, that sticks out.   Doing it yourself is something people take pride in.   And, I grudgingly admit, it seems to produce well rounded pragmatic people who understand life a bit better because they do more of the every day work.

I also neither hunt nor fish.   I wouldn’t mind killing the animals, mind you.   A former girlfriend told me she imagined that ground beef came packaged in plastic that you could pluck from some kind of tree — she didn’t want to think about the slaughterhouses.   I don’t harbor such illusions.  But to take a dead animal carcass, cut it up, deal with the blood, the internal organs…no way.   Same way with fish.  I wouldn’t mind pulling them out of the river, but actually handling them?   Yuck.   I’ll just get my fish wrapped up at the store, eyes, bones and internal organs long since removed.

It’s not like I couldn’t do these things.  If I were with a group of hunters and one told me, “cut into that deer,” I’d be able to handle it.  I’d probably feel proud of myself and say “that’s not so bad.”   My wife’s told me how easy it is to gut a fish.    But I set up barriers to getting to the point where I actually do such things — why leave my comfort zone?

And that’s the problem: I’m stuck in my comfort zone.    I work on my classes, read blogs and books, follow the news, play with the kids, struggle with my research and do housework.   When looked at that way, I come to the awful conclusion that I’ve become a boring person.   I do participate in travel courses almost yearly to Germany or Italy — nice, comfortable destinations that I know well.  Even my global travel is solidly in my comfort zone!    When the semester is not in session I’m teaching overload classes and my hobby is this blog.   It’s not that the comfort zone is bad, but it’s become too, well, comfortable!

So this year one resolution is going to be do force myself to engage in new activities.   I may not skin a bear, but perhaps I’ll go out and fish, build something or even use my chain saw.   I need to get back in the mood I was in graduate school, exploring new ideas and ways of doing things; I need to find my second wind.

When I was younger spending some time in my comfort zone was a luxurious break from building a life.   Now that I’m over 50 it’s a dangerous addiction that could cause me to miss out on the things I’ve not yet done.   That has to change!


Finding and Seeking

I am good at finding things.   When the remote is missing, my wife can’t find a book she’s been reading or one of my sons is missing his left shoe, they ask me where it is.   They often don’t bother looking for things themselves, I’ve heard my eldest say “dad where is the remote” as he walked down the hall to the living room.

The reason I am good at finding things is that I’m even better at misplacing things.   I’d like to blame getting older, but I’ve always been this way.   When I was 16 I would lose my car keys at least once a day.    I am absent minded and always have been.   That simply means that my mind tends to be thinking about ‘what’s coming’ while I’m finishing whatever I’m doing.

My wife is not that way.   This was made clear to me the other day while we were looking for part of a defective video game we needed to return.    As I was looking for it I started opening a drawer on the entertainment center.   “Why would it be there,” she demanded.    The question left me speechless.   She repeated it, not without some irritation.

You see, she’s not absent minded.   When she’s done with something she puts it where it is supposed to be and double checks to make sure it’s there.   She’s orderly, she knows where each object should be and can tell if it’s even slightly out of place.   “Why is the salt shaker on this said of the oven?” she might ask.   Oh yeah, I think, we do have a salt shaker, don’t we!

The question “why would it be there” struck me as absurd.   One thing you learn when you misplace things often is that you almost never will know why something is where it is until you find it.   “Oh yeah, I walked into the boiler room while talking on the phone, that’s why the phone’s in there.”   Once you’ve checked the places you think an item should be, all you have left is places in which you have no clue why they might be there.

One time I was finishing up an egg and cheese sandwich when I walked to the refrigerator, sandwich in hand, to refill my water.   The phone rang.   I put what was left of my sandwich on top of the refrigerator as I walked over to the phone.   After a nice 10 minute conversation I went back to the table with my glass of water and saw my plate was empty.   Odd, I thought, didn’t I have some sandwich left?   Looking around the kitchen there was not a trace of an egg and cheese sandwich so I figured I must have downed the last piece before answering the phone.

Two days later I hear “what the heck is THIS doing on the refrigerator.”   My wife is giving me an accusatory look, holding a small bit of an old egg and cheese sandwich.

“What’s that, that’s not mine,” I protested.

“Really,” she said, obviously not believing me.   “It was on the top of the fridge, did the boys put it ther?.”   This was a few years ago when the oldest was probably about 4 so I did find it unlikely that they would have stored a sandwich there.

“Well, I didn’t…” I started indignantly, irritated about being falsely accused.    Suddenly I stopped and sheepishly added, “oh wait, that is mine.”

My wife didn’t congratulate me for acknowledging the obvious.   Instead her face said “why would someone put a sandwich up on the fridge and if they did choose to do such a strange thing, why wouldn’t someone remember?!?”

Like I said she’s not absent minded.

Yet on those rare occasions where she’s distracted enough to actually not put something in the right place, I’m usually the one to find it.   I’ve had practice finding things.   The first rule is “it’s probably under something.”   Most people look for things by looking around the room.   Many times a sheet of paper or a napkin might cover a set of car keys.    The second rule is to check out the ‘usual suspects.’   For instance, I misplace my glasses about twice a week.  OK, twice a day. Sigh, to be honest, twice an hour.    So I check – by my computer, downstairs at my desk, on the dresser, on the telephone table near the entrance…90% of the time it’ll be at one of those places, often under something.

Another rule — and this is something that orderly people don’t get — is that getting irritated about not finding something only makes it harder to find.   I think it’s up there with the law of karma in cosmic importance.   When my son angrily stomps around looking for his DSi he fails to notice that it’s on the edge of the table he’s standing beside.   Not that my son is orderly — he has my absent mindedness along with the temperament about misplacing things as an orderly person.   But  he’ll learn — we absent minded people do, in time.

In the end this means that if something is missing, I’m usually the one to find it, and I’ll often be working downstairs and hear “dad, where’s my DSi Pokemon game” screamed out.   I run up and find it.  That’s my role in the family.  I’ll mutter the fatherly, “you really need to learn to look for and find things yourself,” but I like feeling useful.

Yet sometimes even as a finder I fail.   Last August I finally went in and had spare car keys made — two sets.  I had lost my spare and had gone three months with just one set of keys.   That’s dangerous for an absent minded misplacer of things.   It cost $100 to get the new set ($25 for a third), and it didn’t even have the buttons to unlock the doors or open the trunk.    That’s a scandal in and of itself; when I was first driving I could go to Ace Hardware and have a new key made for 75 cents!

So I now had three sets of keys, one with the buttons and two new ones without.     I decided to use a key without the buttons as my main key, just in case.   Now I cannot find the FOB – the key with the buttons.  I only have my two spares.   That means I’ve now lost two FOBs and I have no idea where they are.   Moreover, it seems I lost the second shortly after I had the new spares made, a weird coincidence.  I believe with slight confidence that somewhere in this house two of those key FOBs are hiding from me.   I believe with a tad more confidence that they are somewhere in this universe.

I could ask my family to help me find them, but I suspect the response would be “where did you put them” or “why aren’t they where they’re supposed to be?”   Meanwhile, I’d best get a couple extras made, just in case.


Live Every Moment

Live every moment
Love every day
Because before you know it
Your precious time slips away
Kevin Cronin, REO Speedwagen

Back in college I wrote a poem “Now Lasts Forever.”  I was intrigued by the idea that it is always now.    Time is an elusive concept.   Physicists tell us that time and space are really two parts of the same thing.    Photons — those particles of light illuminating the world — do not experience time, only speed.   For them now is literally all they experience.   That seems incomprehensible but we’re really in the same boat.   We experience now, even though the world changes around us.   My best definition of time is change – you know time has passed when things change.   Now lasts forever, change is constant.

I’ve argued before that it’s important to ‘live awake,’ to see beyond the kind of fog that society and culture can impose as we go through the day doing what we are supposed to do, caught up in various little battles and problems.   Angry at the traffic jam, snapping at the kids, fretting about work.   It’s easy to get caught up in that kind of parade of emotional noise, exhausted at the end of the day from the constant push and pull — or as a line in a different song puts it “overwhelmed by everything but wanting more so much!”

Live that way and days can pass in apparent meaninglessness.  Every battle or issue that arouses emotions and causes frustration gets forgotten, replaced by others that distract one from really living.   Then at some point it ends, and for most of us everything we’ve worried about and focused upon is forgotten faster than we  think possible.   Even those who make it to the history books do it in a caricatured manner.   People remember some deeds and details, but most of the daily concerns and activities are lost.   Now has changed, that past is gone completely.   We perceive left over traces in memory and artifacts, but little more.

No wonder some philosophers see the human condition as one of suffering and pain.   Wanting and yearning, desiring and struggling for something utterly unobtainable – a world that makes us happy.   When you depend on the world for happiness and contentment, the world will always disappoint.     Especially modern humans, stripped of the meaning community, faith and tradition provided in the past, face tremendous psychological difficulties coping with trying to make sense of this world and ones’ place within it.

The answer, it seems to me, is to take now seriously.   It is now.   Always.   Now lasts forever.  Change flows through the now.   It’s not that time is passing, now is simply changing form.    It’s not that we’re aging and gaining wisdom, we’re simply changing along with the world around us.

That lends perspective.   Why let ourselves be tied down by daily drudgery?   The reason things seem frustrating and boring is we create temporal cages.    We see time as well defined and important, and thus in any battle or fight the stakes are high.

What I try to do is appreciate the now whenever it occurs to me to do so.    When I put my six year old to bed he wants me to lay there and cuddle him.   The part of me wanting to build temporal cages thinks “I have to grade papers, I want to read a book, I don’t feel tired, he’ll keep me in here a half hour, he should fall asleep on his own…would my dad lay with me and cuddle…fat chance…”   If I do that my mind gets caught up in drifting, thinking about what I could be doing and the time passing.

But if I look in his eyes, hug him, look around the room and think of its beauty and how it will change, I appreciate being with my six year old son in his bedroom with the moon light flowing in, his soft skin against mine, or his little feet kicking my back, and it’s bliss.   I’m appreciating and living this moment, keeping my mind from wanting to leap out of the now.   After all, fretting about what one could be doing accomplishes nothing yet keeps one from appreciating what one is doing.

Walking downstairs through the rec room to my office I look at the wall colors.   What a beautiful house!   Where others might see a messy room, I see toys that someday will just be memories.   It’s here now, I’m in a point of time that has great joy if I let myself simply experience.    When I read student participation in discussion board for my on line course I realize I’m part of their education, they’re learning, taking time to write at something I constructed (this course and its structure) and we’re engaged in a real learning relationship.   It’s not “damn, I have to grade,” but WOW, I get to read these ideas and respond.   How cool is that?

Focusing on now is also helpful when one is irritated.  If I think, say, my son was treated unfairly in some situation I could fantasize everything from law suits to angry confrontations.   Those won’t happen, I’d just be wasting energy due to my own lack of satisfaction with the situation.   So instead I pause.  Look around.  The beauty of the place where I am at, the things around me, the joy inherent in this moment.    Last weekend skiing I had to go up the T-bar with my six year old.  One time towards the end of the day my legs and shoulders were in pain and the ride was excruciating.  I was dwelling on my poor aging aching body then suddenly thought…wow, Dana and I are going up the T-bar together, that is so great…look at the snow, the trees, the sunlight, this is such a beautiful place, so magical.   And it was – as I engaged in that celebration of the moment the pain didn’t disappear, but it didn’t register.

We joked and laughed going up the mountain.   That laugh.   So delightful.   Today after school Dana comes out and it’s the first really cold day this year, about 10 degrees Fahrenheit.   He takes off his jacket, “wow, it’s really hot out here,” he says.  (Note: I take full responsibility for that kind of behavior, he’s acting like me in that sort of instance.)    I try to get him to put his coat on but to no avail — though he does move quickly to the car.   Other parents might struggle and get mad “how can you take your coat off, you’ll catch your death of cold, get your coat on NOW!”   I just smile and watch the stubborn and independent little guy run to the car laughing.   The moment is beautiful.

The more I manage to appreciate each moment as it goes by, the better I feel, the more I find life truly beautiful and wondrous, the more magic seems to occur.    Monday was trash and recycling day.   We recycle monthly, so I had a whole bunch of Christmas boxes I got ready to go Sunday night.  I usually leave things up there Sunday nights but it was raining – and freezing rain is not a friend to things left outside.   So I knew I had to wake up Monday early.

I did – at 7:41.  The rest of the house was asleep.   The recycling people come early and I was afraid I’d missed them.  I rushed to the garage still wearing my lounging around the house pants and headed up to the road.   It’s about a quarter mile up to get to where I have to leave the stuff.   The recycling truck is there.  I get out, “glad I caught you,” I say as I hand the guy my broken down boxes.   He smiles, takes the stuff and I head back.

But as I do I have a huge smile on my face.  What a moment.  I woke up just in time!   Can that really be coincidence?   And I got the maximum sleep possible without missing it!   The air is crisp, the sky clear, and the world full of magic and beauty.   Living in the moment works.


Twisting Time

For a moment everything was clear, and when that happens you see the world is barely there at all.  Don’t we all secretly know this?  It’s a perfectly balanced mechanism of shouts and echoes pretending to be wheels and cogs, a dreamclock chiming beneath a mystery-glass we call life.  Below it and around it?  Chaos, storms.  Men with hammers, men with knives, men with guns.  Women who twist what they cannot dominate and belittle what they cannot understand.  A universe of horror and loss surrounding a single lighted stage where mortals dance in defiance of the dark.
Stephen King, from 11/22/63, pp. 615-16

Finals week when I have stacks of papers and exams is usually not the time to start a nearly 850 page novel, the first Stephen King book I’ve ever read.     I found his style engaging, the story riveting, and the gentle weaving of drama, deep philosophical ideas and social commentary to be subtle and effective.   However, this is not a book review, and except for obvious bits you’ll get from any description, there are no spoilers.  Instead this is a stream of consciousness reaction to a powerful and intriguing novel.

First, the length.   Someone wanting a fun read may be put off by 843 pages and a book which will build your arm muscles just by holding it while you read.  It has to be that long; the reader has to feel like years have past, that the man from 2011 is fully living a life from 1958 to 1962.   You lose yourself in that era, his identity there is real.   Second, it’s definitely not a horror novel; it provokes thoughts and theories, ties up the loose ends enough for the story, but leaves enough open for one to contemplate — especially the larger issues of time, life, reality and love.

I’m left contemplating the nature of existence on this planet.   There is a truth that most people neither mention or spend much time thinking about.   Every life is full of twists and turns whereby chance decides whether one dies early, finds love, gets a lucky break, or has everything fall apart.    Moreover in the grand scheme of things most lives are forgotten not long after death.    The daily dramas and emotions we perceive are part of a tapestry that lingers forever as a moment — a fleeting, ever changing moment.

Therein is the part hard to grasp.   Now lasts forever, we’re always “now,” even though we categorize experience as past, present and future.   If you believe modern physics, space-time is an entity whereby past, present and future are mere illusions caused by how we experience the world in which we find ourselves.  At the very least each moment is nothing but a series of sensations that we somehow make sense of as we move through them.

Life is therefore ephemeral and fleeting.  It feels real enough as we experience it, though even our most intense experiences are gone as soon as they happen.   The world changes slowly, but completely.  Each individual life seems meaningless along the current of time, yet all we have are individual lives and moments.   We contribute what we can, and never really know the impacts it has, the “butterfly effect,” as King calls it, as each choice we make sends ripples that ultimately touch multiple lives, imperceptibly yet fundamentally changing reality.

I think about this as I watch some of the TV shows I’ve mentioned in this blog, including Pan Am, which takes place during the very era King describes, or Banacek, whose early 70s perspective shows the start of change, as chauvinism, ubiquitous smoking and conservative social norms start giving way to the impact of the counter culture movement.   I think about it as I watch my children get irritated at a hotel when the TV won’t pause.   To them, TV is DVR.   A show not being able to pause or be recorded, well, they haven’t heard of such a thing!

And why not?  My five year old has never wound a watch, but he can go into “Gameboy” and get on a display XBOX 360 and figure out a game that stumps me.   And we don’t even have an XBOX!   I see students connected to friends and parents on facebook, e-mail getting dismissed as old fashioned while texting while driving surpassing drinking while driving as a main concern for teens, and I realize how quickly one era has folded into another.   The streaking, disco and concept album period of the seventies is gone.

Life, existence and reality feel fleeting and unreal.  Reality isn’t hard matter blasting its way through time with Newtonian certainty, but complex ideas uniting and igniting change with quantum complexity.   Unlived pasts exist in some portion of the universal mind; at some level of reality all possible choices have been and are being explored.    The idea of past, present and future is a psychological orientation to allow us to navigate the world in which we find ourselves.

That’s both humbling and inspiring.  For while each individual life or moment of existence is not as important or central as we experience it to be, we are all an integral part of a reality weaving through and around us, with birth and death just moments in this vast experience.    Those moments my bind the experience each of us has in an individual existence, but probably don’t delineate our entire being.

After finishing the novel I was exercising to the Moody Blues, and the following stuck with me:

“Isn’t life strange
A turn of the page
A book without light
Unless with love we write;
To throw it away
To lose just a day
The quicksand of time
You know it makes me want to cry, cry, cry –

Wished I could be in your heart
To be one with your love
Wished I could be in your eyes
Looking back there you were
And here we are” –
 The Moody Blues

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