Tag Archives: Henry David Thoreau

#188: On A Birthday Weekend Alone

 the-milky-way

“Why should I feel lonely? is not our planet in the Milky Way?”—Henry David Thoreau

My brother asked me
through a facebook comment,
are you spending the weekend alone?
And I wasn’t sure what the question
meant, whether or not it contained
a sub-text of surprise or dis-belief:
really, on your birthday, you want
to be alone? I could just be reading
that in, because my brother the pastor
must understand how the creative
work we do needs the quiet
of solitude to bring it forth; but
perhaps, for him, a quiet study is
enough without miles and mountains
between himself and the world.
I tend to require the miles and the
mountains. Mountains aren’t
necessary, but miles, yes. It helps
to have distance, to have a space,
a space that is unfamiliar
and possibly even beautiful. Here,
after a weekend of heavy rain,
on the morning of my departure,
finally the sun peaks through,
beckons me outside before it’s time
to pack up and leave this place
after a birthday weekend alone,
not lonely, on a planet in the Milky Way.

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I’m Turning 50!

number-50-800x450_1741199

Oh fuck. I’m turning 50. Beginning with the expletive that seems most fitting for the occasion, I begin this project of reflecting on just what this whole thing means to me, how it feels, how I’m coping, if I’m coping, what might be learned as I crest the top of the hill and begin to dance or skip or speed or skid or trip or tumble down the other side. And the whole purpose is to be conscious of these things. 50 is super-fast approaching. It’s almost exactly somewhat less than two days from the day I begin this writing. So let the consciousness begin, please, and in a hurry.

First, perhaps, a meditation on why it matters: what’s so special about 50? It can’t be all that different from the years immediately preceding or the ones after. It won’t, perhaps, feel any different than my current 49 year-old status or my future 52 year-old status. So who cares? Apparently, humans put a great deal of stock in even numbers, especially those that begin a new decade, you know, the usual suspects, 20, 30, 40, and then this mother. Why we do this, I’m not entirely certain. But each of these big numbers divisible by ten mark out, I suppose, at least psychologically speaking, a new beginning, a new era, a new opportunity, new expectations, and conversely, new fears, new kinds of dread, and lots of hand wringing and teeth gnashing. At 50, in particular, we can be pretty certain that we are more than half way through. Depending, of course, on some randomly wild concoction between pure dumb luck and taking good care, we have this new clarity, this new knowledge that our days are now officially numbered. Maybe that’s why 50, more so than any other significant birthdays before it, feels–weighty.

The good news is that I am not afraid of dying.  I mean, I’d rather not.  Don’t get me wrong: I’m in no hurry.  I’m just not afraid of it.  If there is fear, and I freely admit that, yes, indeed, there is plenty of fear, it’s not about the end but about the time spent between now and then.  Have I made sufficient good use of a life?  Have I accomplished the shit I set out to do? Why haven’t I written more? Why are there so many great books I’ve not read? Why haven’t I found success as a writer or a musician? Should I stop rocking out in the basement and making records? Why am I still growing my hair? Why haven’t I figured out yet how to be the educator I’d like to be? Why am I not the father I hoped I would be, or the husband? How can I possibly afford to retire in four years time? Why haven’t I been sufficiently naughty? Or sufficiently good? I guess, at 50, there emerges a persistent and nagging perception that I have fallen short of nearly all of my ideals.

Whoa.  That sounds terrible.  But wait, says my better devil, you’re only 50!  And look at you!  You’re still walking around completely upright, riding a bike, playing the drums, influencing young minds mostly for good, improving your craft as a teacher even at the cusp of being able to walk away, raising a strapping young lad, raking the leaves, making new friends, writing poems and blogging, thinking dirty thoughts. You don’t look a day over 40.  And there is much hope, says my better devil,  for the future, even though there is perhaps more behind than ahead. All those things you’re disappointed about not having done, once you retire you can just knock them all back one right after the other.

And then, finally, in this mostly one sided conversation with my better devil, I have to butt in.  Look here, I say.  I understand that it’s folly to imagine all of the things I’ll be able to do when some distant or not so distant moment arrives that supposedly frees up all of this time for reading, writing, being, relating, and thinking. Tomorrow I could get hit by a bus. Herein, perhaps, lies the greatest fear and the biggest challenge to all of us half centenarians. We can’t be waiting and longing for a retirement that may by some freak accident (or devious design) never occur. We can’t be pining for the future to give us more leisure time to do the things we want to do. We can’t be yearning for any time better than the moment we have right now.  The challenge is to have the commitment and the courage not to wait; the difficulty is in doing the best I can do right this minute, tomorrow maybe, and to release into the ether the self doubt and regret about falling short; the trick, as it has always been, but now ever more urgently, is to live the life I want as I am living it. And what Rilke has said and Thoreau has said and countless other sage voices from antiquity right up to yesterday have said about living in the present moment–it’s all true, right, and correct, easy to say, but really, super, extraordinarily difficult to do.  As I turn 50 this week and move, I hope, gracefully into this next stage of my life, I endeavor to do what Henry David Thoreau urged us to do some 160 years ago, to advance confidently in the direction of our dreams, to live the life we have imagined in each day–somehow–and thereby “meet with a success unexpected in common hours,” especially in those common hours when anxiety about becoming an old guy of 50 is most tenaciously tugging.

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#104: Lunes for the Loon

Today’s poem is a variation on the Japanese Haiku, but instead of counting syllables, 5-7-5, we count words, 3-5-3. A lune can be, like a haiku, a single one stanza poem, or lunes can be strung together to form a longer poem. For no better reason than for the sound of it (which is as sound a reason as any), I have chosen a brief meditation on the word “loon.”

Lunes for the Loon

I

You’re a bird,
a swimming, diving, wild bird,
and noisy, too.

An entire section
of Walden written for you,
Thoreau following close.

Hide and seek,
a game childlike Henry plays,
you laugh, dive.

You elude him
entirely, now ahead, now behind,
disappear in rain.

II

You’re a nut,
crazy, off your rocker, bonkers,
over the edge,

off the deep
end, around the bend, a
certifiable goof, genius,

you are misunderstood,
marching to the beat of
a different drummer,

like the bird,
loon of a feather, you
laugh at us

as we try
to chase you down, enclose
you in cages.

You defy us
as well you should; sing
to the moon.

6-15-12-common-loon-and-chick-img_4162

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Why I’m Thinking All The Time About Tiny Houses

The Gifford from Four Lights Houses

The Gifford from Four Lights Houses

Every few years or so I adopt a new obsession, embarrassingly, around some kind of thing I’ve come to believe will change my life in all kinds of positive ways.  I say embarrassingly, because usually the obsession revolves around some material thing.  Let me give you a quick run down of the last decade, for example: musical equipment (recording gear, drums–can’t make or teach music without this stuff), a high end stereo system (because life is too short for shitty-sounding playback), the smart car, an Airstream travel trailer, folding bicycles (Dahon or Brompton), cargo bicycles (box or longtail), and finally, my most recent obsession–the tiny house.

Time and money being limited the way they are, only a few of these obsessions have resulted in some kind of acquisition in the material world.  A modest home recording studio is up and running; the stereo is sweet; the Airstream was indeed purchased (and then sold two years later); and the Dahon, the less expensive of the two folding bike options, is in the garage and ready for riding.  The smart car was a bad idea.  The jury is out on the cargo bike.  But the tiny house beckons.  What’s up with that? Why am I thinking all the time about tiny houses? Oh, let me count the ways.

Tiny houses appeal to my sense of aesthetics.  They are marvels of design and almost without exception extraordinarily beautiful.  Typically, they use the finest materials and/or workmanship to create a living or working space that is perhaps more expensive per square foot to build, but because of their tininess, sometimes as tiny as 100 square feet, they are relatively cheap.  An exquisite attention is often spent on every detail, whereas, in a large modern home, a house is framed and slapped over with sheet rock and cheap-ass vinyl windows and fake wood floors and there’s tons of wasted space. Go to Portland Alternative Dwellings, Four Lights Houses, Tumbleweed House Company, or Zyl Vardos, and see, if you couldn’t see yourself living in such a space, that you don’t at the very least go crazzy gaga over the design aesthetics.

Tiny houses appeal to my desire to simplify my life. The lessons taught by Henry David Thoreau in Walden are fundamentally applicable in the here and now.  I am decidedly not a hoarder, but for me, I find myself surrounded by shit I don’t need.  Where did this stuff come from?  Why is it here? How much money did I spend acquiring it?  How much space is needed to store it? How much time does it take to maintain all of this space, to keep it clean, to keep it in working order?  Economically speaking, how much does it cost to heat and send water and electricity through all these thousands of square feet? And could a person not be “happy” with less?

Tiny houses are green and sustainable, which appeals to that part of me that would like a planet for my child’s children to live on.

But I will never live in a tiny house.  They are completely impractical.  Where would I put my wife and my child?  Where does the dog go?  What about my books, records, and cds and the rest of the stuff I don’t need but can’t live without?  What about the baby grand piano and the drum set and the recording gear? I can’t put a recording studio in 120 square feet and still have a place to hang my hat.  And the tiny house, and all or most of the above reasons for acquiring one, represents for me this nagging contradiction that often exists in work, in parenting, in relationship, in the way we live, between what we believe is right and what we continue to do.  It’s terribly disconcerting.  So, why don’t I just dismiss outright all thoughts of a tiny house?

For all of the reasons listed above, perhaps, and for the persistence of other thoughts about how acquiring a tiny house might be a good deal even if I didn’t live in it.  Writing retreat?  Vacation home on a little piece of property in the woods?  A guest house in the back 40?  I could be the suburban proprietor of a tiny house hotel like the one in North Portland!  The possibilities are endless–and so are the depths and lengths of my obsessive brain.

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Of Likes and Comments

Some people like and don’t comment and some people comment and don’t like. Some people don’t like to like, think it’s somehow a lame effort or no effort and therefore stupid.  I don’t like that.  I like things all of the time.  I like it when people like.  I like it when people comment, unless they make a comment I don’t like.  And then I don’t like but sometimes I comment because it’s hard to keep my proverbial mouth shut.

I don’t like it when I’m writing and someone’s looking over my shoulder.  It’s odd, sometimes, what people don’t like.  I recently read someone venting about generic birthday wishes, as if it would be better to say nothing than to say, simply, happy birthday; probably these are the  same people who think it’s lazy to like without comment. It seems to me that a birthday wish is a birthday wish, a like is a like, and sometimes the simplest thing is often the simplest and therefore the best.  Granted, it takes more effort to type the words “happy birthday” than it takes to point and click on the like button.  I’m not saying that they’re equal gestures.  I’d rather have someone say happy birthday to me, like my friend Curtis does every time he sees me, than to simply like a post of mine.  But I got 80 plus likes once on a post I made of a stupid picture of me, and that made me feel good; it made me feel liked, more liked, perhaps, than would a single birthday wish.  In Death of a Salesman, Willy and Biff Loman’s lines  have so much more meaning now than they did in the 1940’s, that Charlie and Bernard are both liked–but they’re not well-liked, and somehow that’s a problem.  After I posted that photo, I felt well-liked.  If only Willy Loman had Facebook.

I wonder how I would have felt had no one liked my photo.  I’d feel, perhaps, like Willy and Biff think Charlie and Bernard feel, but of course, they’re wrong about how Charlie and Bernard feel, and maybe I’d be wrong–Willy’s biggest problem is that he puts too much stock in whether or not people like him and that sends him into a psychological tailspin: he believes he is well-liked–and he might be–but he’s a terrible salesman and no one’s buying his shit. So he fails.  Charlie is shrewd and wise and Bernard is a hard working nerd, neither of them liked too terribly much, both of them successful.

What I realize, and like, about this blog post so far, is that (I’m guessing) four years ago this would make absolutely no sense to a great many human beings.  I like how it still might not make a lot of sense to a great many human beings.  I like, and don’t like simultaneously, how Facebook has changed our language, how a friend is no longer a friend, exactly, how both friend and like have become actions, how to comment is now about the same as it ever was, which I like, by the way.  And I like how I managed to talk about a play.  And I like how, in doing so, I might have landed on an idea.  Remember how Henry David Thoreau, in that one book, talked about how most letters were not worth the penny post it cost to mail them?  That was awesome.  I know Thoreau would absolutely hate Facebook–but he might appreciate how little it costs to send someone a message, less than a penny.  And Arthur Miller, and his tragic hero Willy Loman, might appreciate how the word like has become so absolutely pedestrian so as to mean almost exactly nothing.  I can’t believe I just wrote 632 words on this topic.

Thank you, Jim Thornburg.

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The Technology Is Killing Me

I’ll begin by patting myself on the back, railing against the machine–and I’ll conclude with a number of confessions and some serious hand-wringing.  I might even gnash my teeth together regarding the various ways in which technology is killing me.

I congratulate myself for abstaining from cell phone use for a very long time.  I purchased my first cell phone ever in the summer of 2011–and I bought a shitty 3G iPhone for fifty bucks.  Most of the calls I get I miss because the phone is rarely on my person.  It’s no big deal.  People leave messages, just like they used to do on those crazy answering machines with the little micro cassettes, and when I get their messages, I call them back.  Because it’s a shitty 3G, it does only what I really need it to do: it functions as a telephone and as a message sending device.  There are no games or fancy apps.  Every once in a while I’ll check the weather or use the calculator, but rarely.  I feel pretty good, smug actually, about my propensity for resisting the smart phone siren call–and the siren call of half a dozen other technological advances that tend to use humans more than they are used by them.

This is what I’ve seen.  People walking together in public places, each with a phone in use, carrying on conversations with people who are not the people they are walking with in public places.  I have seen students in my classroom who cannot, literally, be without their phones in their hands, in their faces, in their ears, or on the desk in front of them.   They are attached to these devices as if they were appendages to their actual bodies.  If you removed the phone from the possession of many of these children you might expect to see them break out in cold sweats, convulse, maybe even vomit or bleed, or at least get out-of-control angry.  One student told a colleague of mine that if he took her phone her mother would kill him.  I’ve seen couples in clubs or in restaurants who sit together snuggly while they each surf the web on their phones.  I’ve seen students of mine on the road, driving and texting. Did you hear the story of the young couple in a fatal  auto accident who turned out to be texting each other in the car?  Moving from phones for a minute, I’ve seen kid after kid at my high school at the boy’s restroom urinals with their iPods blasting dub-step, metal, hip-hop, power pop, yes, blasting.  These kids can’t even take a piss without the stimulus of technology.  I hope to some day see a kid who’s pissing accidentally drop his phone or his pod into the toilet.  This would bring joy to my heart. I have countless times seen groups of kids in a standing huddle all simultaneously wearing ear-buds and trying to talk to each other over the noise drowning out the noise in their heads.

I worry that smart phones are making us dumb. We can’t find a place on a  map.  We can’t look up words in dictionaries.  We can’t wait.  We must have instant gratification.  We are constantly distracted.  We can’t be in a room by ourselves.  We can’t do ANYTHING without telling someone about it in a text or a post, and yet, we can’t look each other in the eye.  We can’t listen. We cannot endure silence.  We can’t do simple arithmetic. We don’t need to remember anything. Wikipedia will immediately answer all of our questions and we will immediately forget those answers. Twitter has reduced social discourse to a sound that birds make.  Henry David Thoreau was suspicious of the post office and the railroad.  Henry David Thoreau would hate us.

Okay, all you smart-phone-Mp3-player-kindle-reader-game-player-you-tube-facebook addicts: don’t you feel terrible?  Well, I have some issues of my own.  To wit:

Confession #1:  I got the dumb phone, but I bought my lovely wife a smart one.  She can’t stop playing with it.  I wish sometimes that her phone was as dumb as mine.

Confession #2:  I joined Facebook.

Confession #3: I bought an iPad.

Confession #4:  I got a Wii for the boy.

Confession #5: I fantasize about getting a new computer so I don’t have to carry the laptop up and down the stairs from the studio to the study.

So while I criticize from my lofty blog all these problems I see in our culture with the abuse of technology, I can’t leave Facebook alone for a day.  I go to the Huffington post several times in an hour.  It’s difficult to get my lovely wife and my sweet boy to stop playing with their devices.  Most of the daily cravings I have for new ways to improve my life come from images or toys or trinkets I’ve seen advertised in some way on the internet.  The web is an ever-present almost omniscient beast of distraction:  It keeps me from reading books, it keeps me from writing more often, it keeps me in a state of anxiety about what I must be missing–and while I could brag a blue streak about how great I am for not watching ANY commercial television for nearly a decade now, I know it’s true: the computer has replaced the television.  It’s no different.  It’s influences are deeper and more pernicious.  I would love to be able to unplug, but I can’t unplug.  I’ve got to see if I have new friends, find out what stupid things Republicans are doing, check out the bicycle I’ve been drooling over, look at tiny houses, see if anyone new has read or commented on my blog, stream some late-night TV, or, yes, I still do this, check to see if I have any email.  So old school.  The technology is killing me.

I’m not so far gone as some people I know or some people I see every day.  After all, my phone is dumb and I’d like to keep it that way.  But I worry  about my son.  I fret on a daily basis whether or not the iPad or the Wii were not the worst purchasing decisions I’ve ever made in terms of the health of my family.  But then I say to myself, dude, the technology will not go away.  The best you can do, perhaps, is not to abstain, but to learn and teach how best to live along side of it.  The greatest victory is perhaps that you’re still reading and writing, you’re still engaged in other endeavors, and when the weather is good, you’re still outside playing badminton or having light saber duels with your six year old.

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