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Wind in the Trees

Today is the first notably windy day of the year.  It is still cold out, but I could feel spring starting to elbow its way into Central Michigan.  When I went out to start my car, the great pines I parked near were slowly swaying back and forth as they were hit with powerful gusts of wind.

I thought to myself that perhaps I should start parking somewhere else, what if one of the trees gave way and fell on me or my car.  I felt more and more nervous the longer I sat in my car waiting for it to warm up.  The wind seemed to get stronger every time it belted the trees and they bent a little more with each assault.

My mind drifted to an experiment I’d heard about that took place in Arizona–I  believe.  The goal was to create a bio-dome that was completely free from the influence of human beings.  The experiment didn’t go so well at first, the trees and plant life were weak and the scientists weren’t sure at first why.  Then they decided to introduce wind into the enclosed habitat.  It turned out that the vegetation needed to be physically pushed around in order to grow strong.

The pines swaying violently next to me and my car had been pushed around their entire life.  They had been baptized in the strong spring winds every year.  Unless the wind kicked up to a level that can only be characterized as extreme, these tall pines weren’t going anywhere.  Even the occasional tornado in Michigan only uproots a small number of shallow rooted trees and breaks apart sick or dying trees.

When I lived in Brooklyn, there was a massive elm tree near the corner that, one day, a large branch just broke off and fell on top of the car that was parked underneath it.  The city later came by and determined the whole tree needed to be cut down.  You could see from the stump that remained, the whole center of the tree was black and rotten.  Sick trees fall apart when assaulted by the wind.  Sickness, like other calamities of life, comes on suddenly and often without warning.  Thus, it is almost always a waste of time to worry about predicting such things.

The pines next to my car were healthy, green, and still quite young.  If there was any sickness in them, it hadn’t compromised any of them yet.  In their healthy state, the wind made them stronger.

I found comfort in this idea.  Recently, my life has felt as though I am being assaulted from every direction–as though I am a small plane in a hurricane–just getting tossed around by powerful forces.  Physically, there is nothing wrong with me.  I am in great shape, I eat…moderately well, and I am in the prime of my early thirties.  However, being a human being, unlike a tree, I have an emotional aspect that also factors into my life.

Like the physical body, a mind that becomes sick or that you don’t take care of will not be able to withstand the heavy blows that life throws at you.  If you let your situation get you down, that big strong body of yours becomes useless.  

So, I assessed myself.  How’s my moral?  Am I in good spirits despite the painful circumstances that I am working through?

Well, it sucks that I couldn’t afford to live in NYC anymore.  It sucks that I had to transfer schools and that all of the great friends I made at New York Law are still in New York and not in Michigan.  It sucks that I’m having a hard time making new friends.  It sucks that I have to commute 90 miles each way four days a week.  It sucks that I lost my best friend in New York.

Though I don’t know what will happen in the future, I’m getting my classwork done and pushing myself to do it well.  I have been very successful at keeping myself honest and continuing to work out, even when I get home and I’m tired.  I’ve been trying new things, like longboarding, and reclaiming old things that I used to like to do, like writing.

I guess you could say I’ve finally reached that point in life when you stop worrying that every strong gust of wind that comes your way will knock you down permanently, and I kind of expect trials and tests to come my way.  This isn’t the first time I’ve had to move.  Not the first time I’ve had to make new friends.  Not the first time I lost a best friend.  These are the storms of life.  And like the pines that I park next to everyday, I am getting better at leaning back and forth avoiding what I don’t need to get hit with and taking what I can’t avoid with a purpose–to grow stronger.

Back in October when I was still living in Brooklyn and I realized life just got turned upside down, at first I did wish to be spared the pain–to exist in a bubble free of external pressure–my own private bio-dome  But now, the thought of living in such a safe space is terrifying.  You don’t get strong from hiding from the world or engineering your life to be as comfortable as you can possibly make it.  You get stronger by getting pushed around and knocked down, never knowing from which direction the next blow is going to come from, and by somehow finding your footing when everything seems to be trying to take your legs out from under you.

After this morning, I will never think of the wind in the trees quite the same.  You have to stand your ground and take the indecencies and tough times life gives you.  That’s why those pines are so strong, they are rooted and have never once avoided anything that has come their way.  This is a good lesson.  It’s also important to be mobile in case of, oh I don’t know, a forest fire.  And this is one of our toughest tasks as human beings, knowing when to lean and when to get the hell out of the way–however, I’ll tackle that conundrum in another post.  Today, just weather the storm and don’t worry if it comes up on you without warning.  Every storm you’ve been through has prepared you to weather the next one.

Sink Holes

Legends and stories of sink holes are salted throughout human history.  They are something we can admire from a distance like The Great Blue Hole off the coast of Belize–the pictures are absolutely stunning to look at, I imagine seeing it in person would be an incredible experience (I might even like to take a dive in it).

But the truth about sink holes, is that they terrify us.  The idea that suddenly, the ground beneath our feet could give way and we could find ourselves tumbling less like Alice down the rabbit hole and more like a rock careening into the impromptu gullet of the earth–it is the stuff of nightmares.  And it is real.  One opened beneath the bedroom of a Florida man a few years ago and I don’t believe his remains were ever recovered.  It is as though he disappeared without a trace.

Our fear of sink holes, then, is not unwarranted.  This fear reveals a lot about us as human beings.  Hardly anyone is attracted to the idea that as any point in time, we could simply disappear and no one would ever see us again.  I’m not sure which is more terrifying to most people, that you personally could vanish or someone you love could.  Neither are outside the realm of possibility.

I’m writing about sink holes because they have fascinated me since I looked them up after the Florida man made the news.  I read up on how scientists explain their formation and recently, while on vacation in the Great Smokies, I happened to glimpse a spot on the paved two-track that was beginning to crumble.  The road curved in a series of switchbacks, which led up to the cabin my wife and I were staying in, and at that particular bend in the pavement that I observed, I could see that rain water had washed out a lot of the dirt underneath the pavement and that was why it was crumbling down the side of the mountain.

This is in line with what I read from scientific explanations.  Now, I’m not taking sides.  I have many dear friends who would explain sink holes as an act of God and a signal that the end of the world is coming.  I won’t dispute that.  It is also neither mutually exclusive with scientific explanations.  The scientific explanation simply states that in traditional sink holes, water in the ground erodes the bedrock that the dirt rests on and with no support, a sink hole is created.

Man induced sink holes happen when–essentially–bedrock (or pavement) is set on top of the dirt and the ground water underneath washes away the dirt–leaving only a shell that is now unsupported by the dirt that once made it secure.

What intrigues me about both of these explanations is how metaphorical they are of us as human beings–and this could be why we find sink holes so scary.  If the bedrock is our character–the hard inflexible thing that guides us–the dirt is the flexible filler in our life–our choices–and the ground water simply represents external forces, then we can draw a lot about ourselves from sink holes.

In the case of a man induced sink hole, when we form a bedrock over a patch of dirt, we believe we are sealing in that dirt and permanently creating a structure–say a road or a sidewalk or a foundation of a house.  In our lives, we could parallel this with a decision to cement our identity to a political party or religion or any organization.  Allowing that top layer to harden removes us from having to deal with what is being coved up–the dirt, aka individual choices.

This can be good and bad.  Good when we think about laws like “don’t murder” or “don’t steal.”  It can be bad when the cement that is set does not encapsulate the policies that are right and just–think Nazi Germany.  The good news for the case of a bad top layer of cement is the bad news for a good top layer of cement: external forces can erode the dirt out from underneath the cement, and in time, it will fall in on itself.  Good policies are not immune to erosion and good people are not exempt either.

In the case of natural erosion, where the cement is buried under layers of earth, we can imagine how the underlying bedrock can be dissolved and how a person’s inner character can as well.  The water in the soil has to get down to the bedrock.  It burrows through the dirt, arrives at the front door of the bedrock, and lays a slow and gradual assault.  As human beings, this is like a stress fracture.  It is hard to point to the moment the breaking actually happens, but we can usually point to the moment we noticed that our performance was significantly impaired.

What is scary is the idea of external forces in our lives either wearing away the ground we stand on or getting down and eroding our deepest held principles.  When this happens, collapse most often follows.  If I had to point to what specific thing that is responsible for the anxiety we feel–I would point my finger at control, or lack of control.  That something outside of ourselves can impact our lives so dramatically as to cause it to implode.

The good news, however, is that unlike the stagnate cement or bedrock, we as human beings are free to push back against invasive external forces.  I, and many others, are very fortunate to live in America–a place where our right to free speech is protected, among other rights.  I am free to say “yes” and free to say “no” to the various propositions that crop up during my day.  Americans–and all of humanity–should challenge those ideas that make them feel uncomfortable rather than accept them with out reason.  One’s bedrock should be sacred and defended.

However, like the top layer of cement or the natural bedrock in the soil, neither stays the same.  Old roads are removed and replaced with better ones and as the earth shifts and the soil fluctuates, bedrock can be dislodged or folded under other bedrock.  What I mean to say is that that hard substance is constantly in a cycle of improvement.  We should be too.  If we aren’t getting better, if we stay the same, then I can see how the fear of the end of times could surface.  Any road or bedrock that does not change or get replaced will–over time–wear away and become a sink hole (where water is present).  We are no different.  When we refuse to change and better our character as human beings, we join the waiting room–waiting for our bedrock to suddenly give way and our lives to implode.

Something Permanent (II)

I’m getting ready to turn thirty in about two weeks.  Thirty is a significant milestone for a man–I say man because men live, on average, shorter lifespans than women.  So, it makes sense that thirty is a reflective year for a lot of men–myself included–especially when the average age of death for a man is about 68 years old.  That makes thirty-four that halfway mark for a lot of guys out there.

In this reflective time in my life, I can admit that my feelings toward physical things is also carried through to my feelings of my physical body–I want permanence.  I wish my body came with a 100 year guarantee, but the truth is, it doesn’t.  At thirty, I am already beginning to see that this body of mine is not a permanent home for my soul.  So, I’m not going to even try to bury my head in a bunch of actions that will lead to immortality–the body just doesn’t last forever.

In the last year, I have had more members of my family pass away than ever before in my life.  My uncle’s liver literally wore out and he died–and we miss him.  These bodies we have are very fragile things, when we think of them over the span of time.

It seems when we are on the verge of losing something that we appreciate it the most.  I now appreciate my eye sight more than I ever have.  About two years ago, I noticed something in the peripherals of my vision–it always seemed like it was a gnat buzzing around my head–you know how annoying they can be.

It wasn’t a gnat.  Early one afternoon, as the sunlight was beaming in through the sliding glass door, I squinted and I could make out what looked like some kind of micro-organism with a long tail–like from biology textbook.  It didn’t move until I moved my eyes, and even then I could tell that it was being jerked around by me and not making any independent movement on its own.

They are called floaters.  They occur naturally to almost everyone, if they live long enough.  They are simply pieces of protein that accumulate and break off inside the eye.  They float in the liquid and get in between the light coming into the eye and the retina that receives the light–think solar eclipse, but with really small moons.  They are harmless–annoying–but harmless.  In very rare cases, they can prelude retinal detachment–you go blind–but if you immediately go to the hospital, they can reattach your retina.  So, I just have to keep that in mind.

The problem is, until my vision gets worse with age, I will continue to notice these floating proteins for years.  I am a little younger than the average age for typical floater onset (ages 50-75), but I now see it as a good thing.  It is a humbling experience that I needed.

I say this because at twenty-nine, moving toward thirty, I am just coming into my prime.  I feel physically and mentally better than I have ever felt in my life–yes, even better than when I was a teenager.  My feelings tell me that I will feel this good for the rest of my life–my dad told me that it doesn’t last forever.  From experiencing the invincible feeling of my prime, I can understand why some men take such huge risks when that feeling is coursing through their body.

Seeing these flecks of protein bounce around in my vision is a constant–and likely permanent–reminder that I am a human being and my body is not permanent.  I don’t have to wait through a life of eating double and triple portions at each meal, smoking a pack of cigarettes a day, or not getting my heart rate up for thirty minutes at least three times a week to find out I had control of my health after all.  I can see clearly now (you see what I did there–oh, I did it again), that there are things that will begin to breakdown without my choice being a factor.

As much as I want this body of mine to last, like my prime, I know that–even if not every part of me truly believes–it doesn’t last.  So, if I cannot have physical permanence of the body, I should strive to have the best functioning body I can have while I  am in control of it.  I don’t want to use a poorly functioning body for the next thirty-eight years.

You really do have to take care of what you’ve got.  Maybe some of you out there are in your prime–male or female, we both go through it–and you got an unobstructed prime.  I would encourage you to talk to someone you respect who is ten years older than you are, just for the sake of gaining perspective.  Your body is super important–it sounds dumb to say it–but it’s true and we take our bodies for granted.  Yet, our bodies are the vehicle that let’s us do all of the things we like to do.  You really only get one and you can’t count on science to figure out how to make you a new one in the next twenty years.

I hope that anyone reading takes away that they are in control and they do not have to let anything erode their body that is within their area of control.  You don’t have to drink energy drinks and put that stress on your heart–drink water instead.  You don’t have to eat fast food everyday for lunch, if you are near fast food, you are near a supermarket ,99% of the time.  Buy a fresh baked roll of bread and a little block of cheese–I kid you not, that is what Ben Franklin survived off of and swore by for years–at least 5-7 years (it’s also cheaper and leaves you feeling better).  You also don’t have to listen to others if you ask you to put your body on the line–don’t do it.  Hulking that 200 pound box up three flights of stairs by yourself is a one time event–waking up with back pain will last the rest of your life.  And back pain is a very special kind of pain–I would put it in the category of pain that causes people to contemplate suicide, seriously.  Ask a friend with back pain to describe how they feel.

Anyway, thirty, here I come.  I may have a few annoying flecks in my vision, but I know what my goal is.  Tim McGraw said it pretty well in a song he wrote a few years back: My Next Thirty Years.  As good as I may have been in my first thirty years, I want to be even better in the next.

Something Permanent (I)

This is an issue in my life that is deeply embedded into how I think and interact with the world.  So, I am going to devote a few posts to the subject.

I am interested in permanence.  I acknowledge that the culture, society, and the generation that I exist within are not as interested in permanence as I am, as previous generations have been.  What I am referencing, when I reference permanence is nearly everything I can think of.  I want to start by examining material permanence.

Common knowledge testifies that the physical products available in America define us as a disposable society: fast food, bottled water, single use cameras (not as popular anymore), text messages, one-night-stands, Keurig, Facebook, TMZ, diapers, batteries, sanitary wipes, cereal boxes, cell phones…  Many products even start with the word “disposable.”

I guess I’m different.  I’ve always known it–and I have never been interested in trash.  That’s what you throw away, trash–things that don’t last.  I don’t like jeans that feel thin.  I won’t buy boots that aren’t both glued and sewn to the sole.  I won’t write with a pencil, if I write in pencil I use the oversized mechanical pencil my dad gave me when I was eighteen.  I buy hard cover books and remove the dust jacket when I read them.  I love leather.

As a kid, I was very fortunate in that my great grandmother bought me and my three brothers school clothes twice a year all the way through ninth grade–until I got a job.  As a growing boy, it’s easy to get swallowed up in constant consumerism.  Even in college, I echoed the behaviors of my childhood and purchased clothes–which I didn’t need, at the time–at the beginning of each school year.

I didn’t critically assess my buying habits until a graduate professor of mine, Dr. Desmond Harding, was lecturing about a new idea that came about in the early twentieth century: replacing items you own before they wear out.  When I really thought about it, if it weren’t for vanity, in my college years, I wouldn’t have purchased new school clothes every fall.  I didn’t actually need them.

I felt I needed them because mine were out of style.  So, I began to imagine purchasing a wardrobe that would be immune to style.  If I could buy a wardrobe that was always in style, then I could wear my clothes until they wore out–and never replace them prematurely.  Popular fashion fads became clear to me very quickly after this.  I developed a bitter distaste for every fashion commercial I saw.  After all, 99% of what is being crammed down consumers’ throats is simply recycled from years gone by.

I wanted a classic style.  It had to be timeless, yet also me.  I quickly realized that such a thing is not built in a day–as a popular wardrobe can be.  A long-lasting wardrobe takes time–one piece at a time.  Let me tell you about one piece of my wardrobe that should make a statement about the rest.

When I was teaching 6 courses of composition between the University of Cincinnati and Xavier University, I found the limits of the leather messenger bag my mother had bought me before I went off to Knox College for undergrad, over 400 miles from my hometown.  All of the books I had to carry were becoming too much and I worried that the strap would suddenly snap and the bag would fall and my laptop would smash to pieces when it hit the sidewalk.  Fortunately, this never happened.

But, I preemptively bought a new satchel–or rather a briefcase with a strap.  I spent a few months looking for the right bag.  I finally found it–listed on Amazon as “the bag they will fight over when you are dead.”  I ended up going to the seller’s website: Saddleback Leather.  It was a bag that spoke to my soul.

It was thick leather–so thick that it had to be broken in.  It was stiff when it arrived in the mail, so stiff I had to wrestle with it.  It also came with a no-nonsense 100 year guarantee.  My descendants are allowed to send the bag to the owner’s descendants if anything goes wrong with it.  I’m set.  I never have to buy another bag again.  I can use the bag my mom gave me to carry light books and not worry I am going to wear it out with heavy loads.

This is the type of permanence in material things that I am looking for in my life.  Once upon a time, things like clocks and watches came with guarantees to entice people to trust the maker and purchase them.  We simply don’t see as many guarantees as we used to.  There is a growing sub-culture in our society that really does hunger for long-lasting material possessions.  Guarantees would be a great way to not only attract customers and help the environment, but to initiate the change of the culture from think-little-disposable to well-reasoned-long-lasting.