Archive for the ‘truth-telling’ Category

It’s a funny thing. When you hear the words “mental illness” the first image that pops into your head is someone’s head. Yours, or the stranger on the street, gabbing away incessantly to no one.

Yet, when you experience it yourself, the symptoms often don’t occur in your head. (Or in my case, at all)

It hits you like a cold. You don’t go looking to catch a cold, and you sure AF don’t go looking to become mentally ill either, despite all of the innocent phrases that start with “I must be going out of my mind!”

Mine came right out of the blue. My boss had asked me to take over for him for a week – something I’ve done countless times. The work is easy, even though it’s more high profile and you get the big bosses asking you things. It was what I’ve always done, but at a lower level: boss asks you for something, you go looking to your subordinates to provide answers. The people working for you are the real experts, so you learn to depend upon them, and you promote the hell out of them whenever you can, because you know how valuable they are to pretty much everything.

It’s no different when you’re a higher level boss. Like I said, I’ve done it many times before. There just was no reason for this time to be any different. Yet it was.

I made a comment in a Facebook discussion group about how I was having trouble sleeping because I found it hard to breathe.

One guy, a retired doctor, responded “dude, I’m not going to try and diagnose you here or anything but if I were you, I’d check with my doctor.”

I appreciated his concern but didn’t take it seriously until the following afternoon, when I found I was having trouble breathing during my waking moments. The more I thought about it, the worse it seemed, so I hastened down to the emergency department of the hospital. After a day of testing and prodding and poking and ultrasound, the emergency doctor said “Are you feeling anxious about anything?”

I had to wrack my brain. It took me a while to figure out it was the upcoming acting manager gig that triggered the anxiety. Which frankly, I thought was stupid. There really wasn’t anything to worry about. But there we were, and that’s when it all started, last summer.

The last time I wrote about anxiety (Looking for Sunrise), I hadn’t yet started any meds. I went about six weeks suffering multiple panic attacks, as the meds took their time kicking in. The days were so dark, I was afraid of everything. I was housebound, and even within my apartment I refused to open my balcony door. I knew if I did, there was a good chance I would look over the railing, and thought would become action.

There was darkness everywhere. I couldn’t escape it. I couldn’t talk about it and I didn’t know how to handle it. I prayed for death and at times thought about how to do it.

The first med I tried – Zoloft – only made things much worse. The second one was better but it took about six weeks – all of which was spent away from work – before it finally began working.

My team noticed immediately. “Wolf, you’re sounding like you’re back to your regular self. Do you feel better?”  I said “Yeah, I really do.” And I did.

Gone was the darkness. Gone were the suicidal thoughts. I was back to normal, with one important difference: I knew this was because of the meds.

Also, I didn’t realize how resilient I’d considered myself to be, until this all happened. And now that confident sense of resilience is gone. I’m aware of how fragile I am.

So there you have it: my mental illness showed up as an inability to breathe properly and as a very warm hollow feeling in my stomach. There was no cerebral symptoms at all. The mental illness showed up everywhere except in my head. Weird.

There’s a lifetime of valleys and drama and death that I know have contributed to this newfound fragility. I have to address them, which is why I’m now seeing a psychologist. And it’s why I’m now looking hard at retiring as soon as I possibly can.

One other thing. You know how all of those commercials and PSA announcements about mental health involve telling sufferers to reach out to various people, phone lines and the like – all in an effort to avoid suicide?

Yeah, that doesn’t work. People like me who suffer from this stuff have zero ability to reach out to anyone. All we’re looking for is a way to get the darkness to stop as quickly as possible.

The thing that worked for me was that my loved ones reached out to me. They could do that. I couldn’t do the opposite. I couldn’t reach out to them. My brain just wasn’t in a place to allow me to do that.

Instead, all I could do was turn inward and curl up mentally, buffeted by the winds of my nightmare.

fetal

It’s late on a Thursday night, and I should have known better. Too late. A generous amount of Ravenswood Chardonnay has completed its magic, and my head is doing that bob-bobbing thing it likes to do, as the bus trundles along on its merry way home.

I allow one foot to precariously follow the other as I weave my half-snapped way to an empty seat. There’s an attractive woman there, and she’s thoughtfully moved closer to the window, all the better to help me avoid having to climb over her to the only vacant spot left.

I plunk myself down in relief and prepare to slumber my way toward the final few miles to my home bus stop.

Only…. My nose twitches. And twitches again. Something is seriously amiss.

I look over at the woman next to me, who at this point is now obstinately staring face-forward. Desperate. Afraid. Anxious.

No. It can’t be.

But it is.

A more heinous ambience can’t be imagined.

This veritable tulip, this rose of the fairer sex has emitted a soulful and delicate silent backfire, no doubt hoping against hope for the gain of anonymity.

Yet it was not to be. For I, the seeker of lost passions and artifacts of renown, have found her out. She is but a ghost to most, but is to me she is as the stop sign to eternity’s perfume.

Still, gallant man that I am, I labour to keep her dread secret, if only to preserve my status as gentleman and appreciator of all that is good and right in the world. My nose has other ideas. My nose is offended.

I open my drunken mouth, and hesitate.

Then, “ew.”

oops_sorry

“What?”

He looked over at her. She frowned and hugged herself. He reached over and turned up the heater.

Her question filled the silence between them. He watched the streetlights flicker by, separating the moments of darkness. Light, dark, light, dark, light…. Not for the first time he wished he wasn’t driving.

He repeated himself. “I’m looking for magic.”

“Well what do you mean? What magic?” Despite her shivering, she had to know.

They were returning from a group coaching session, the first one he’d ever attended. They had done several group exercises, all designed to help everyone figure out exactly what they wanted out of life. The session had been illuminating, particularly for him. He’d been so restless for such a long time, not knowing why. The coaching exercises had helped.

“I’m not sure I can put it into words,” he began.

“Try.”

He drummed his fingers on the steering wheel, staring out at the salt-stained roads, thinking.

“Ever have one of those moments when there’s sudden brightness? You can be looking at a light display in a busy downtown section. Or you notice the way the sun hits a particular tree in the spring…..You get this feeling, this sense of a world beyond this world, one where anything’s possible. There’s a mountain of treasure, a kind of…..” He thought hard. “Kind of like a never-ending orgasm, just out of reach.”

She snorted abruptly. “WHAT?”

They both laughed.

“I don’t know” he grinned. “I’m having a hard time trying to explain this…”

“Yeah, no kidding.”

“I’m pretty sure that when we were kids, we had a sense of wonder about the world, and about all of the possibilities. Long before we got taught about responsibilities, and our duty to the systems of employment, payments, mortgages, cars, gifts and taxes.”

“As we got older, and we took on all these burdens, that wonder got snuffed out. We forgot what it meant to explore.”

She stared straight ahead. He could tell she was processing.

He waited, silent.

After a while she looked back at him. “So tell me, what do you see when you envision this magic? As an adult, I mean.”

“I-”

“Wait. Is this what you were talking about tonight? California? Being around creative people?”

He smiled. “Yeah, I’m pretty sure that’s part of it. I mean, I know I can get there and do everything I talked about: writing, performing improv comedy and maybe acting. But I know there are people who do that, who don’t connect to the magic. That’s the risk, I guess.”

She shook her head. “I don’t get you. I thought you wanted these things….”

“Oh I do, I do. And I’m going after them. No doubt about it. I just don’t want to fool myself into thinking any of it’s going to bring that elusive magic.”

He was grateful for the mostly empty street. It really was a beautiful night, despite the cold and the wind. The streetlights played over the road in a way that hinted at the sparkling existence of the magic for which he longed.

He had always had a love affair with light. As a kid, he recalled having a plastic game figure that lit up with a soft red glow. He remembered being mesmerized by it, as he played out on the street with it, in the twilight of a summer evening.

Later, he recalled taking his first trip to Toronto from Oshawa, and marvelling at the city skyline, with the thousands of building lights all creating their unique dance. Each one was so different, and each seemed to invite him.

“I’m not sure there’s a single point where I’ll say ‘this is it’. I think this magic requires me to keep moving, keep exploring.” He was onto something, he was sure of it.

“I need to keep creating. Keep experiencing. Whether it’s writing, or acting, or playing piano or whatever it is….I won’t be able to stop. I can’t stop. When I stop, I’m pretty sure the magic will be hidden again.”

She nodded.

“I know how cliché it sounds…”

“Don’t” she said. “Don’t apologize for this. For any of it.” She hesitated. “I mean, I can’t pretend to understand everything you said, but I get that it’s important to you.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. I haven’t heard you talk like this for a while. It’s definitely a good thing, this whatever it is you’re after. Not sure I’d call it magic but….it’s definitely something. How long have you been thinking about it?”

He scratched his head. Sighed. “For a long long time.” He eased the car to the stoplight. “I think it’s why I haven’t been able to feel settled in my apartment. Or for that matter, my job.”

The light turned green. He gave it some gas. “What’s worse, I could feel myself starting to stagnate. It was starting to feel like hell. Like a living hell.”

“Yeah, I noticed you weren’t laughing as much. You seemed so serious all the time. Even when we went to comedy shows, you sat there just watching the stage, like you were lost in thought.”

He nodded.

“So what changed?”

“Well for one thing, I think I’ve recaptured some momentum. I’m signing up for improv comedy classes again. Just need to get my foot back in the door again, hang around creative types.”

He smiled, mostly to himself. “And then there was the coaching thing tonight. It really helped open my eyes. I was in danger of forgetting so much.”

He didn’t mention that he didn’t think he was out of danger, just yet. It’s one thing to talk about it, but he knew he had to act or would it all go away again.

He would get old. He would lose out to complacency, comfort, and rot.

No way. No fucking way. No.

Blue-City-Skyline-At-Night

The hospital room had low summer lighting.  I think that’s what they call it, anyway.  Summer lighting.  It meant that the lighting wasn’t harsh or hard on the eyes.  “Muted yellow lighting” would have been more descriptive.

Anyway, it was calm.

Much like the patient in the bed.  He was calm, too.  Peaceful. Apologetic.

In the last few months, he had made an effort to talk with everyone.  His kids, his brothers, me.

In each case, he had offered up an offer of peace.  His way of saying he was sorry.  Sorry for the way he had treated us.  Sorry for the angst and anger he had vented on us.  Sorry for the hurt.  Sorry for the pain and the worry and the overwhelming fear he had provoked.

He told each of us that he loved us.  It seemed important to him for some reason.

I vaguely recall the time he told me that too.  I accepted what he said, politely.  That’s what you do, when someone says they love you.  Especially when that someone has been a vision of horror for such a large portion of your life.  You smile and you say “me too”.

Whether you mean it or not is another thing entirely.

I didn’t.  I couldn’t.

I damned well did not love him.

When he breathed his last breath under that summer lighting in that hospital bed, I breathed a sigh of relief.  And I felt marginally guilty for doing so.

melody

I went home that night.  My daughter was in the kitchen, doing something.  I don’t recall exactly what.  Probably doing dishes.

Leaving the lights off, I sat down at the piano, and started to play.  I didn’t have a song in mind, so I created one.  Arpeggios came to mind, and I followed through.  Minor keys, major keys.  A rhythm.  It coalesced into…..something.

It was at once stark, painful and hopeful. It was peaceful, and sad.  I decided to make it a song about my dad.  I called it “Hope of Glory”.

When the time came and we had the Catholic mass for him, I sat at the front of the church and I played that song.

Interspersed with the melody were the vibrations of memory.

My father, drunk and angry.  Wrapping a chain around his fist.  My mother yelling at him.  He had been pulled over by a cop earlier that week and by God he was going to go hunt for the cop and repay him.  My mother threatening to call the police the moment he left the house.

My fingers caressed the keys, plinking away at the foundation of the song.

My dad, drunk once again, looking for a fight.  Hearing me say something at the top of the cellar stairs.  I don’t recall what it was, but I had made the mistake of disagreeing with him.  “ARE YOU CALLING ME A LIAR?”

“But..” I started to say “that’s not what——”   Then I heard him running to the bottom of the stairs.  I turned, opened the door and bolted outside.

His 350 pound lumbering gait was no match for my lithe 140 pound sprint.  I could at least outrun him.   He roared in frustration at the door.  “DON’T COME BACK”

My fingers picked up the melody, to counterbalance the bass line.  The rhythm began.

My dad, raising his voice.  The first sign of a rage that would be repeated each weekend, and eventually every other weekday for years.

A series of thumps and scrambling and grunts.  My mom, crying out.  My grandmother yelling at him to stop.

My fingers played eloquently on the keys, calmly following through on the variation.   The silence of the church.

My dad, now sober, unable to relate to me.  We’re sitting in the living room, a show on TV.  He says something.  I say something in response, politely.  Awkward silence.

The song I play now building in volume and depth.  Searching…searching….

My father, laughing now with his brothers at a picnic.  Relating to them, and to a few of my siblings.  But not to me.  My mother, close-lipped and patient.  Me, just wanting to get away.

The song now slows, and I bring it to an end.  Finally.

—————–

On the night I first play the song, my daughter comes to my side.  Puts her hand around my shoulder.   “What’s that, dad?  It’s beautiful.”

“It’s just a song I made up, sweetheart.  It’s for my dad.”  She squeezes my shoulder.  My head is bowed, and my tears drop quietly.

—————–

He’s been dead for at least a decade now.  A little while ago I had a dream.  It was about him.  We were talking and laughing and I think we played some baseball or something.  I regret not writing it down when I woke up.

The only thing I know is: it was good.  And, apparently after making a concerted effort time and again over the years to forgive him for his drunken violent rages, I’ve finally made peace with him.

Hope of glory.

I sat there, in the dark movie theatre, surrounded by hundreds of patrons at a sold-out playing of “Les Miserables”, squirming uncomfortably.

When you’re not used to openly showing emotion, this movie is painful to watch.

If you don’t know the story of “Les Mis” you shouldn’t read further:  spoilers abound.  Many theatre-lovers have seen the stage production at least once.  Many – like me – have seen it multiple times, which is the only reason I feel comfortable using the story to illustrate something.

A while ago, I had a conversation with someone about the story of Christ and his crucifixion.  The question was specific:  why?  Why – if the story is true – did it need to happen?

Years of church-going and catechism knowledge could have provided an easy answer.  But it wouldn’t be logical – it would be rote repetition.  I think this movie brought me a little closer to an understanding.  Perhaps not all of the way though.

In “Les Mis”, Inspector Javert pursues a prisoner who has broken his parole, by the name of Jean Valjean.  The latter serves as the protagonist in the story; a man who was convicted of stealing bread to feed his sister’s children.

Throughout the story (and there are many subplots – this is only one of the main ones), Javert pursues his charge with the ferocity of the truly righteous.  There is no variance with him, no nuance.  Things are either good or evil, black or white.  There is no room for maybe, for grey, or for any other colours.  Javert is immune to the notion of mercy, or of pity.  Those who do wrong are to be despised, without exception.  He labels them confidently as gutter rats and scum.  The only motives for such despicable creatures are entirely selfish, whatever their objection, whatever their explanation.

Later in the story, Jean Valjean saves the inspector’s life.  When revolutionaries want to kill Javert, Valjean intercedes, begging permission to kill him himself.  Instead of doing so, he tells him to flee, and then fires a gun so that the revolutionaries think he’s done the deed.   Incredibly, and still full of his self-righteousness, Javert promises to hunt him down anyway.   Valjean understands and says “we’ll likely meet again”.

Meet again they do, and when Valjean asks for just an hour more, so that he can bring someone to the hospital, Javert points his gun and says “one more step and you’re dead”.  Valjean turns around and walks away with the injured man.  Javert doesn’t fire.  Instead he drops his gun.

He understands that he has shown mercy because he has been shown mercy, yet his righteousness – the thing upon which he has built his life – can’t parse it.  He can’t live with the dichotomy, and so he commits suicide – the ultimate despair.

The author has captured a truth about human nature.   How many of us, having read stories of criminal activities, have stated our heartfelt desire to visit retribution upon the miscreants?  I know I have.  This is perhaps one of the key human characteristics that separates us from the animal kingdom.  We have this keen sense of righteousness – a need to right the wrong, to achieve a balance.  We truly aren’t all that interested in fixing what’s wrong with the criminal.  What we want is payment.

It goes beyond a logical understanding.  It is visceral.  I assure you:  if anyone brought serious intentional harm to anyone I loved, I wouldn’t care what the reason was.  I’d want blood.  I’d want payment – even knowing that no amount of punishment would right the wrong, as if it never happened.  I’m guessing the same is likely true for you too.   It’s universal.  We understand it instinctively.

The thing is:  we also believe it to be true of ourselves.  We are our own harshest critics and judges.  Oprah once said that the thing all of her guests had in common was a belief that they didn’t deserve anything good in life.  Most of us know of women who continually go back to abusive mates:  the core of this is a belief that they somehow deserved the pain of those relationships.  It’s twisted and wrong, but it’s visceral again – and it takes counselling to break free of it.  Stephen Chbosky said “we accept the love we think we deserve”.  I think he’s right.

If there’s a word that describe’s Jesus’ life and teaching – other than life – it would be “freedom”.  He came to set men free (he said).  Free of what?  I think it involves freedom from the internal judge, the one that holds us back.  He said he came so that we could live an abundant life.  For years I thought he meant “after we die” – but he used the present, not future tense.

If there’s a God, and if he truly loves us as unconditionally as we love our own children, and so wants us to live according to our potential, instead of our perceived limitation, then something has to be done.  The crucifixion sort of answers that, to a degree.  Back then especially, there was a severe moral structure in place.   The old and new testaments are filled with Javert-types:  people for whom there are no shades of grey.   It was endemic in religion.

Back then, as now, people wanted to be seen as good, and so they subjected themselves to all kinds of self-inflicted punishments.  Many used whips on their own backs, not satisfied until they drew blood.  This practice still exists in places today.

I can think of no better way to bring a message of universal acceptance, where people could feel they they deserve a good life, then to set up the crucifixion story.  Jesus “paid the price” for all of our sins.  It’s pretty genius really.  If he has paid the price of our wrongs – according to our own human visceral sensibilities, which we ascribe to the universe and ultimately to God – then we don’t have to go around in abject guilt and self-recrimination anymore.

This is not to say we don’t suffer guilt still.  I know that we do.  It’s just that it’s unnecessary.   Again I come back to our kids.  We watch them make mistakes, from the first time they stumble when trying to walk, to getting into fights at school.  We don’t condemn them.  We’re disappointed – but that’s a different thing entirely.  At the end of the day we understand that these are all experiences for growth.

Maybe the message of “Les Mis” is that we need to give ourselves  a break.   One thing I know for sure:  if we are merciful to ourselves (and you know I don’t mean in a narcissistic way), then we are more likely to cut others a break too.

At any rate – Merry Christmas!

Sometimes you just have to speak up.

The oldest social rule is:  “never talk about politics or religion”.

There’s a reason, obviously.  Both topics tend to bring out the ogres in so many of us.

Never has that been more evident than in the recent American election.  Liberals and conservatives were both guilty of demonizing each other.  I don’t mean mild condemnation either.  I mean full-out balls-to-the-wall judgement and condemnation.

The bright spot in all of it was the number of undecideds who adamantly refused to be pigeon-holed into one mindset or the other.

I suppose at one point I was just as prone to demonizing those who disagreed with me as anyone else.  So it’s not like I can claim purity here.

Eventually you get to realize that the world maybe isn’t as black and white as you thought.  Kind of scary, isn’t it?  Undependable.  You want your villains to wear black hats, and your good guys to wear white.   You detest those guys with the multi-coloured hats (what?  You expected grey?  Grey is muddled and muddy and undefined.  Rainbow – besides being indicative of gay – is a little more invigorating and alive)

Recently someone close to me has introduced a thinker named Miguel Ruiz – in a book entitled “The Mastery of Love”.   He talks about the fact that we are subject to a hell of a lot of guilt.  Unnecessary guilt.  It comes from so many sources too.  Religion is a big one:  both Catholic and Jewish children are subject to it.   Fundamentalist Christians (Baptists, some Pentecostalists) believe that we are born depraved and icky and pretty stinking awful and that it’s only through the grace of a benevolent being that we have any worth at all.  And those who don’t believe in that benevolent being are utterly lost and depraved forever.

It doesn’t matter if they hold love in their hearts for others.  Or if they indulge in charity or look out for strangers.   They’re lost and depraved and so very very icky.  Probably beat up their cats too.

The dichotomy of atheists’ loving attitudes and what we were taught about unbelievers always bugged me on a subliminal level.  I learned not to question it though:  my mind decided that a lot of deception was involved and so I likely wasn’t seeing them as they truly were.

My mind was right:  there *was* deception.  It was an innocent one though, and one based upon a lot of wrong assumptions.

Assumption #1:  that any one man or religion has all of the answers.

So not true.  I think the universe, or God or whatever you want to call it, has indeed created a force for curiosity.  It’s how we grow at all.  It’s how we progress in the sciences.  Curiosity – the nemesis of the complacent and rigidly correct intelligentsia.

I think that a true appreciation of reality will result in a humble realization that it’s not possible to know everything.  Such paucity of assuredness fertilizes the ground of curiosity and questing.   When your feet sink deep into the sod of uncertainty there’s a heightened expectation of wonder.  A “what’s next?” that keeps your heart racing.

Assumption #2:  that those who think differently have a devilish agenda.

This assumption is born from a belief – not a fact – that one’s experience is normal, usual.  And so anyone who’s had the same experience as us necessarily must have evolved the same way.  It’s that core.  It seems to be visceral to a great number of people.

What if you met someone who didn’t have any of those preconceptions?  What if you met someone who had joy and not a whit of judgement toward anyone else?  Someone who was excited and joyfully apprehensive, looking for something great to happen?  What if that person infected you with his or her excitement?

You wouldn’t judge him or her.  Neither would I.

In fact, you’ve met such a person.  I’m positive that you have.  I know I have too.  At the time I didn’t know whether to believe she was real.  Maybe there was a screw loose.  Who goes around so happy all the time?   But then I realized she was real.  He was real.  He was curious, so he asked questions.   And he/she invited me to the party.

I remember sitting with such people, late at night, in a condo, with the music playing quietly as we drank and talked.  It’s so clear in my mind:  the moment was magical.  It felt like anything could happen.  There were zero prejudgments about anything.  Judgement wasn’t even on the radar.  We were, in effect:  People of the Moment.

That’s certainly my desired end state, for all time.  I have no tolerance for intolerance.  *grin*

I think it’s a worthy goal.   What do you think?

“You know, George Burns smoked all his life and he lived to be 100” she said, as she puffed away on her cigarette., squinting at me through the haze of smoke.

It wasn’t the first time I’d heard my mom say that.  She always drew on his example whenever one of us complained that she was shortening her life with her habit.   I don’t think any of us were feeling the need to get all up in her business about it though:  she lived a hard life with a cruel and vicious husband.  So what if she had this one vice?  This was something she clearly enjoyed, so who were we to cause her any angst?

Though she died at a young age (71), I’m still not sure I’d change anything.    She knew the score.  She was an intelligent woman, and she knew full well that George Burns was the exception not the rule.  She knew she was playing a form of Russian Roulette – which she ultimately lost.

I wonder though:  if she had known that 71 was her magic number, would she have changed her mind?   There was so much left that she wanted to do.  She was fascinated by computers and the internet, and never got a chance to have one or get on the other before she died.  She expressed interest and I had promised to get her set up.   It didn’t happen.

Spilt milk.  Barn doors and horses.

The past is done.

Enter the present.

I was on Facebook and the subject was Chris Christie.   He is one of the few die-hard Republican for whom I hold a hearty respect.  (No worries, I’m not here to talk about politics.  You can stay and read on.)

Christie

The group was mostly conservative, though there were a few independents there, including myself.  We all seemed to like him, and a few of us thought that maybe he’d be a good candidate for a future Presidential election.

One guy – we’ll call him “Ace” said:  “well u should like christey cause he will be prez in 2020, and rubio as the vip”

(Naturally my spelling and grammar Nazi hackles went up after reading that.  I stifled those reactions, repression being the healthier choice.  May have sprained something though.)

“Peter” said: “I frankly wouldn’t bet heavily on a 300lb 50 year-old seeing 2020.”

The conversation went back and forth between them.  Ace thought it was unfair to pick on the man because of his weight, and I jumped in with a note that the weight thing wasn’t a political or partisan slam; that it was a real factor.  Quite apart from the politics, being morbidly obese has a number of highly probable consequences.  I felt that his running for office in 2020 would be an exercise in optimism.

Then, “Ace” came back with this erudite observation:  “hell i am obesed and 54 and I am very much alive”

I don’t normally comment on anyone’s health habits, whether it involves weight or smoking.  And I am loathe to comment on anyone’s cerebral faculties:  the written word is not always the best indicator of a person’s mental capacity or resources.  A person might have learning disabilities or a mental condition which precludes accurate and graceful discussion.  This is also why I refrained from commenting on Ace’s spelling and grammar.

However, using one’s own obesity to bolster a point that Chris Christie’s morbid obesity does not pose a health risk struck me as slightly obscene.

I said “well you should be worried too.”

“In addition to heart problems, there are potential health risks to be considered, such as stroke and diabetes”, I added.  “This isn’t a personal shot against you though:  it’s just a reality.”

The man replied “i am not ignoring anything ohave the heart rate of a 20 year old and the b/p of a 20 year old, so yes i plan on being here along time” (sic)

To say I was amazed would be an understatement.  The more I argued with him, the more he denied any potential issues.  It was like talking to an emo teenager.

I said “do you even know what being ‘morbidly obese’ means?  Or for that matter, do you understand the meaning of the word ‘morbid’?”

Eventually though, I gave up.  There wasn’t any point, especially after he bragged about being a smoker too.

It just amazes me that anyone can be so neck-deep in denial as to honestly believe that he can live that way and not suffer consequences.  The hospitals are filled with denial-based consequences.  In fact, doctors will say that most patients aren’t in there for exotic or unusual diseases; most are dying from preventable behaviour-based illnesses.

I would have understood if he had argued the way my Mom did. If he had said “look I know all of the statistics and the dangers, and I’m okay with them – just shut up about it”, it would have been easier to drop the topic.  The fact that he used his own stupidity-based beliefs to justify his stance that Governor Christie has nothing to worry about seemed bizarre beyond belief.

I finally said “You’re insistent upon your march to the grave. Eat as much as you want and smoke as much as you want. It’s not my business, Ace.”

It really isn’t.   I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to tolerate obstinate stupidity or wilful ignorance though.   It’s the itch you can’t scratch, or put balm on.   And you can’t take a knife to it, and cut it out of your psyche.  It’s there and you have to pretend it isn’t.   Like foreign matter dangling from the boss’s majestic nose.

In a recent interview, Stephen Colbert had this to say:

“I believe that people, more often than not, act with the best possible intentions.”

In the current American upheaval and angst present under the flag of politics, it can be disheartening to see all of the potshots flying out, smacking not only into the candidates, but to the followers of those candidates.  Anonymous critics, drawing into open question the intelligence of others, intellect and personality and experience unknown.

The thing that strikes me is that none of it is real.  Not of it has substance.  It’s ashy and dusty noise, cacophony and scratching blackboards, without heft, without significance without meaning and without value.  Chickens, squawking uselessly at each other, pecking the air and shedding feathers of dearly held dogma and baseless opinion.

Yet, in the midst of all of this caterwauling there’s a core of music, a steady thrum of insistent music, composed of questions more than of answers.  Voices of honest childlike curiosity.  You can spot these jewels of oasis easily: they want to know.  They challenge the noise often; and when they do, the noise tends to die down.

“Why do you think that Presidential candidate is a liar?  Why do you think he intends nothing but evil for the country?”

At the end of the day, any logical answers fall short.  The only conclusion anyone can come to is “well I suppose he means well.”

And that’s when the other shoe drops.

A chorus of “buts…” doesn’t negate from that foundational finding.  “Yes, but if he’s voted in, he’ll…”  “Yes but he’s rich and….”  “Yes but he’s not realistic and so…..”

Whatever the argument from there, the foundation remains.   “He means well.”

And by extension, so do his followers.

All of a sudden, it’s not nearly as simple as we originally thought.  The black and white isn’t quite as black or as white as we thought.  Motivation means so much, yet it seems to be the first thing we often judge  – often wrongly – and dismiss.

I suppose over the years, I’ve had to learn that opinions and motivations are more complex than I originally thought.  Now, I feel like I’m at the same point as Colbert.

“Oh you’re pretty good then” they’ll say.  “You don’t like to judge.”

I say “not at all.  Of course I judge.  All the time.”

They say “yeah, but…what you just said???”

And I’ll say “but I find my need for answers kinds of outweighs my impulse to judge.   I need to know.  It’s a selfish thing.”

I’ll add:  “I’m really worried I’ll miss something important.  It’s why there’s such a need to ask questions.  My assumptions have proven wrong one too many times.”

That guy over there – the one who’s frowning at the unassuming family in the row in front of him.  You can read his body language.  It’s like he hates them.  And they’re just sitting there quietly, occasionally whispering with each other.

I want to know what’s going on.  I want to know what motivates him.  What’s his story?  What’s his history?

I see where he is now, but that’s not enough.  How did he get there?

Why is that woman smiling?  I mean, I’m glad she is – that grin is infectious.  What’s the root of it?

There’s a need for clarity.  In the accumulation of clear thinking, there is a kind of shared harmony that is almost musical.  There is freedom too – to experiment, to listen, to smile and to understand what fellowship is about.

If ever you’re interested in a musical representation of all of this, check out any of the multitude of Bobby McFerrin videos on YouTube.   This one in particular caught my imagination:  it’s an hour – a full hour! – of improvised music.   Unlike other musicians, Bobby’s instrument is his voice.  And he uses it to abandon.  He’s like a kid with his voice – going up and down the register, adding beats and breaths and clicks.   After the first seven minutes of solo, he begins to improvise with others:  singers, musicians, even the audience.

There’s a joy inherent in the whole thing, and you get the sense that there really is no limit.  The man’s spirit has been captured in his music, and I am in awe.

Check it out when you have a while.  it’s the equivalent of a musical meditation.  The ironic thing:  he once considered becoming a monk because he values the quiet.  I don’t think that’s changed:  I think the man is all about pure notes.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FXhz_7v49DU&feature=relmfu

It certainly is a major shift away from the bragging vehemence of emphatic oppositional political noise isn’t it?

I think the human spirit is kind of beautiful like that.

I rang the bell.  They keep the doors locked because of thieving opportunists: on more than one occasion the consultants have all been busy with clients, and someone has walked in, helping himself (or herself) to the contents of purses and shelved products.

I heard the buzzer and, just as I was going to open the door,  a smiling woman wearing a Mary Kay badge opened it and held it for me to enter.  I thanked her and we both sat down, while the receptionist said “your consultant will be with you in a moment.”

“Hi there!” said the Mary Kay lady.  “I’m here to showcase cosmetics to the ladies here.  But we have some products for men as well.”  She paused, smiling.  “Also, we’re giving out free hand treatments to everyone, including men.  Would you like one?”

I grinned.  “No, I don’t think so.  Thanks.”

Her eyes sparkled in amusement.  “Yeah, I know how it is with you guys.  Too tough for that kind of thing.”

I nodded.  “Yup.  Check out the freezer bags over there that this place is selling.  A little too flamboyant for guys.   A little too…..*fabulous* too.

She laughed.

She was delightfully unreadable.  And, as it turns out, married too.  Not so delightful, maybe.  Blue eyes, auburn hair, pretty much perfect.  I figured she was perhaps in her late forties.  An amazingly attractive woman.

“So what do you do?”

I answered and reciprocated the question, which she answered.  And then we got into it.

“I meet a lot of people who don’t work out the details of their financial grind.”  She thought for a second.  “Like, you know how it is when you spend all that money getting back and forth to the office and you spend all that money to make yourself presentable, and by the time you’re done, you’ve actually only made a few hundred dollars clear every month.”

I nodded.  She was speaking my language.

“I know what you mean.  You’re feeding The Machine.” The Machine is my favourite descriptor of the whole process.  “You spend money to buy a car and insurance so that you can get to your job so that you can afford the money to make car payments and insurance and gas so that you can get to the office….”

She agreed.  “It’s okay if you love what you’re doing but….you only go around once.”

“Exactly.  I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve regretted every moment doing something I have no interest in doing.  I know it’s a cliché but – damn it.  Life is too short.”

We sat in silence for a moment.  Then, I posed the question to her that I’d been asking a number of people.

“I’ve been thinking about starting something up.  It occurs to me that I’ll only do well if I create something of my own, which I control.  I’ve realized I can’t really be happy working for someone else.   It has to be something *I* do.

I want to create a place.  A forum.  Or an in-person group of some sort.  The attraction would be that this would be a place where self-aware people could gather, outside of The Machine.  Don’t know whether to call it ‘Missing Spokes’ or ‘Wayward Wheels’ or what.”

I felt the familiar frustration welling up in trying to explain it.  “I don’t even know what the thing looks like, and am hoping for some ideas here.”

Unexplained, because of lack of time, was the fact that in fact I hate most conversations.  I’m too easily bored.  And so, discussions about gossip or everyday stuff – what cute little thing Sally said today – make my eyes cross.   The easily distracted out there (present company included) are just too easily distracted, if you follow.

There are some conversations though which I find thrilling.  Discussions with people who see a little beyond the immediately apparent – like this Mary Kay woman, or like so many commenters on my blogs.  Folk who truly have a story to tell, or a truth to relate.  Meaty stuff that gets the blood boiling, and the thought processes pinging like pinball machines.    I know there’s an appetite for more of this, and there are people who are starving for this kind of compelling company.

Whenever I think of a vehicle to bring us together though – there’s a blank.  I’ve thought about creating a Facebook group, and I think that would be a good first step.  I don’t imagine it could end there though.  Maybe it could be a compilation of areas, like TheBloggess has:  she’s on Twitter, a number of other key sites, plus her own blog site. (P.S. If you haven’t already checked out her blog, do so. )

I believe there is a groundswell of thinkers and lovers of truth, many of whom have been disgusted by the pigeon-holing and demonization of the party politics in the U.S.  People who refuse to adopt common assumptions, preferring instead to examine each issue on its own.  They often refer to themselves as “independents”, and for good reason:  there is no one party which represents all of their values.

I see the same thing in the Christian religious community too: people who have abandoned settings which encourage traditionally immovable white/black dogma, preferring instead to examine thoughts about God on their own.  Seeking to reconcile what their hearts are saying with what logic tells them, and doing self-examination in an attempt to come to a conclusion that might not be church-sanctioned.

“We’re ready for you, sir.”  My consultant stood there, smiling.  I looked at the Mary Kay lady and smiled sadly, disappointed that we couldn’t finish our conversation.

“Nice to meet you”, I said, shaking her hand before turning to follow.   I meant it.

“What the hell are you all doing?”

The assembly line had stopped, and about seven or eight men were standing around in a circle, watching while another man rolled back and forth in pain on the floor.

Mike spoke up:  “Tan, Jerry here just collapsed and we don’t know why.”

Tanner shook his head in disgust and stomped over to the control switch.   Abruptly, the assembly line jerked and then the products resumed their slow maddening journey.  “GET BACK TO WORK” he barked.

The guys all shook their heads in disbelief and scattered to their work areas, leaving Jerry writhing and alone.

——

I suppose my fascination with Tanner had its roots in the fact that he seemed an awful lot like my dad.  Both had big guts and slick-backed hair; both were angry, abrupt and rude.  They could have been brothers.   The differences were key though:  while dad was constantly drunk, morose and unwilling to engage, Tanner could talk – if you caught him at any other time than when he was doing his job as the assembly line general foreman.  Also, I don’t know if he was an alcoholic.  I doubt it.  If he was, he was a highly functional one.

I didn’t like him.   Tanner, that is.  He exuded a “don’t fuck with me” mien, full of scowling and menace.  His constant angry frown served to provoke diligence in the workplace, which is probably why he stayed in movement.  He knew full well that motivation through brutish fear meant greater productivity.  And the man was all about that.   Once, when we had a plant meeting, he asked “what is the goal of General Foods (*1)?”   I said “to make snacks.”  He shook his head.   “IT’S TO MAKE MONEY” he roared.    I got it.  We all got it.

He brooded over the plant like an angry storm.  Yet, for some inexplicable reason I felt the urge to talk with him whenever he came by my workstation.  At first, his responses (much like my dad’s) took the form of single-syllable grunts.   As the years droned on, they eventually became full sentences.

Then one night, he surprised me by asking for a ride home.  “Don’t have a car right now, and since we’re working overtime, my ride is leaving earlier than me.”    In hindsight, I suppose I was likely the only one there who didn’t fear him as much as the others seemed to.

“Sure” I said.

After the final bell blew at 2:30 a.m. I made my way to his office, and he grunted, turned and locked the door and we left.

Once on the road, Tanner opened up.

“You married?”

At the time I was, and said so.

“I used to be married.”  He stared straight ahead.  I glanced at him, then watched the road ahead of me, as the car zipped through the pools of light cast by the intermittent streetlights.   This was all new, and I had no idea what to say.  Just knew I needed to say something.

“How long ago, Tan?”

“We just split up a few months ago.   I took it pretty hard.  We were close, and I still don’t have any idea why she left.”

“Really?  None at all?”

He glanced over and I was sure he was going to hit me, or yell or something.   His look was one of sadness however.

“No.  None.   I’ve thought about it a lot too.   She was an angel and I adored her.   We used to do everything together.  We used to go out every weekend, dancing, partying, antiquing.  And we laughed a lot too.”

I could not for the life of me picture this guy laughing, ever.   Or going antiquing.  The dichotomous gap between Tanner the inhumane, angry general foreman, and Tanner the loving, laughing broken-hearted guy was too wide for easy comprehension.

“I never never understood it.  I guess maybe I didn’t understand her as much as I thought I did.  I mean, we talked quite a bit about everything.   We discussed our plans for the future, and we talked about politics, and we covered a lot of deep stuff too.”  He shook his head.  “It just doesn’t make sense.”

I cleared my throat.  “Is there any hope at all?  Can you talk to a marriage counsellor or something?  Would she be up for that?”

He shifted in his seat.   “I don’t know if I’ll ever find out.  I’d like to.  After getting over the shock of coming home and not seeing her there, I thought about that.”  He glanced at his watch.  “But I don’t know if it’ll ever happen.  I can’t ask her, because I have no idea where she is.  I don’t even have a phone number for her.”

“Wow” I blurted.

“Yeah.  ‘Wow’.   Unbelievable isn’t it?”

The whole conversation was surreal.  “Yeah, it really is.”

He went quiet.  I wondered:  why was he telling me all of this?  Why was he spilling his thoughts?  I had no idea.

We pulled up beside his apartment building and he got out.  Turned back around and leaned down.   “Listen” he said.   “Thanks a lot for the ride.”

I wanted to tell him how sorry I was. Wanted to say that if he ever wanted to talk again, or get a ride home or whatever, it’d be okay.

“No problem” I said.  “Take care.  See you tomorrow.”

He grunted again and shut the door.

——-

*1 – all names, including that of Tanner and General Foods, have been changed out of respect to him.

Clearing your PVR is an exercise that is at once both satisfying and sad.   Every now and then you spot an upcoming movie or TV show that you just *have* to watch – only, you know you don’t want to dedicate the full 30 minutes or hour doing so, as a good chunk of that time is devoted to commercials.  AMIRITE??

So instead you plan ahead of time and schedule the PVR (Personal Video Recorder) to capture those shows for you, knowing that when it comes time to watch them, you can ultra-fast-forward through the commercials and watch “Breaking Bad” in its allotted 40 minutes of Real Time.  In fact, I can’t recall the last time I watched a TV show in real-time, and had to suffer through the commercials.  (I’m lying of course:  I did watch Breaking Bad last night during real-time only because there was an internet event going on at the same time, where the show’s producers polled its audience on an event within the show that just took place.  Not sure I’ll do it again – though it was fun.)

99% of the time though, it’s true:  I won’t watch a show in real-time.   The PVR has spoiled me.  I have to say, out of all of the peripheral unneeded stuff I’ve purchased, the PVR has more than made up for itself in value.  It’s still not  a need but man oh man is it ever a “nice to have”.

A lot of friends will say “you know, I don’t have a TV set at all.  Haven’t had one since I was married/divorced/the kids moved/I became enlightened.”   There’s usually a disapproving snit in their voices and body expressions which hint at the thought that “anyone who watches TV is an unthinking Neanderthal, content to be a voyeur of life, instead of living it themselves.  Not only that, what they’re watching isn’t real.  They’re voyeurs of *fantasy* life – unless they’re watching ‘reality TV’ which again isn’t representative of true life anyway.”  (You can hear the haughty sniff, right?)

They could be right.   But whenever I catch wind of that snootiness, I like to play it up a bit.   “Yeah, if I didn’t have to work every day, I’d sit there on my lounge chair, wearing nothing but my boxer shorts, with one hand comfortably ensconced in my waistband, and the other hand drowning in a bowl of Cheetos.  Used to do it all the time actually.  Not sure if it was that, or the excessive burping that went on because of all of the beer but the upshot of it all is that my wife and I are divorced.”

Watching the painful polite nod is worth the effort of the lie.

The truth is: I enjoy creativity in the arts.   Hence, I won’t watch reality TV, nor will I watch most mainstream predictable fare either.  On the odd occasion, I’ll watch something I’ve already seen, because it’s that good.  It’s entertaining, and it tickles a part of my own creativity that thirsts for the flight of imagination and thought.

Yesterday, I finally cleared my PVR of all the programs that were on there.   The last one, which I’d recorded and kept for a few weeks, was the classic Meg Ryan movie “You’ve Got Mail.”  I know that if I had posted this on Facebook, there would have been one friend who would’ve sent me a mock-horror cyber punch in the arm:  Tommy Blaze has been known to leave such one-word comments on my Facebook updates.  Usually that word is “homo”.   Once when I revealed my knowledge of bed sheet thread-counts, he flung that word at me.    He and I have always kidded each other about one thing or the other so his fake-disgust is sort of expected.   Also, it’s good for the shock factor – with which professional comedians like him have a long-standing love affair.   That word is – you know – *SO* unpolitically-correct, as everyone knows.  At least he knows enough not to use the “F” word.  (Which *everyone* also knows is “Fabulous”).

Anyway, I don’t know the meaning of the expression “male shame” when it comes to romantic comedies.  I’ll watch them without apology or regret, providing that they’re good.  A great many of them are lame, such that I find my testosterone levels depleting if I watch one for too long.

Anyway, “You’ve Got Mail” is a great film that I’ve seen a number of times.  Partly because I can’t get enough of Meg Ryan, and partly because the message is actually pretty cool.  Nora Ephron – who wrote this one as well as a bunch of others in the same vein – was excellent at communicating some interesting truths, some of which weren’t (in my opinion) true at all.   Her wisdom shows up in the dialogue scenes between the leading actors.

There is one “truth” that came out in one of her films that caught society by surprise.  It showed up in an exchange between  Billy Crystal (who played “Harry”) and Meg Ryan (who played “Sally”) in the movie “When Harry Met Sally”.    It was summed up in his statement to her:  “…..no man can be friends with a woman that he finds attractive.  He always wants to have sex with her.”

Her followup volley and his response to that was nothing short of hilarious:

Sally:  “So, you’re saying that a man can be friends with a woman he finds unattractive?”

Harry: “No.  You pretty much want to nail ’em too.”

Don’t know what it’s like for those reading this, but in my neck of the woods, the debate continues.   Women were astounded by it, and many asked their mates if indeed that was true.  Guys everywhere shrugged their shoulders in disbelief, just then realizing that the more powerful sex – women – didn’t already know this.   Some of the more frightened weasels among us said “of *course* it’s not true, sugar dumpling.  How could you think that?”

As for me, I think the truth of that statement is a sliding scale.  When I was much younger (14) I was head over heels attracted to a married woman whose husband had moved to the opposite coast to get their new home set up.   She was a 20-something friend who introduced me to alcohol.   She had an infectious and sexy laugh and sparklingly bright teasing dark eyes.   I had zero experience, so figured my attraction was a one way street, only to learn later that it was not.  The fact that I didn’t follow up with her on it is both a blessing and a curse.   Probably more of a blessing than anything.

Today, I’m friends with a few married women to whom I’m attracted.  Now, however, I know that part of what makes them attractive is the fact that they’re happily married.  The minute that changes (say, by cheating) is the minute they change and become different people.   The logic is there:  endangering that marriage is equivalent to chopping down a beautiful tree, just so that you can bring it to your yard and prop it up against the wall to admire.  You’ve changed the tree, and it will start to die, right away.

Also, there’s an important distinction:  I may want to be with them in a carnal sense, but my sense of personal integrity will never allow me to indulge that attraction.  So in that sense, Nora Ephron’s “truth” is not true at all.   One can be friends with someone who isn’t available, only if one’s behaviour is informed by one’s ethics.

The scale of attraction has changed over the years too.   There are a great many physically attractive women out there who I find are anything but beautiful.   The women who truly sparkle have a sense of humility, charm and serenity to them.   The haughty rude and entitled women (and men too, I imagine) are the opposite of attractive, in the most emphatic sense.

Yet, that’s my story – which means it isn’t everyone else’s story.  There are countless examples of attempted friendships between people who are attracted to each other where they’ve ended up in each others’ arms.   Anecdotal evidence – in this case – fails completely.

I’d like to know:  have you had this discussion with anyone?   What do you think about it?   Did you reach a conclusion?  Can guys be friends with women to whom they are attracted?

There was a time when ….

We were limited to our interactions with just a handful of friends.

When the sum of what we “knew for sure!”  consisted of what our teachers said at school, and what our parents said at home, and what our priests said at church.

We unknowingly carried prejudices, and assumptions.   We were arrogant and obstinate in our ignorance, and we were sure we knew it all.

The fact that our immediate circle of friends and acquaintances shared so many of the same beliefs reinforced our assurance of exhaustive knowledge.   The passion of our parents and teachers put an exclamation point on our dogma.  And we were fine with it.

“Catholics go to heaven.  If they confess before they die.  All others probably go to Purgatory if they’re lucky”

“Eat fish only on Fridays.   Go to Mass every Sunday.   Confess your sins on Saturday.  Take communion on Sunday”.  These were the building blocks for salvation.

There were variations on that theme in other churches, involving the “Four Spiritual Laws” et al.

Not to worry though:  I have no intention of wandering down those paths.  There is no intention to complain about them or brag.   This is all just background.

The internet did not yet exist.   We had no reason to even imagine there was more.  We played outside until it was dark, and our mothers called us in for bed.  We laughed, and played and we felt comfortable.

It’s an amazing thing – how this paucity of awareness seems so real and true.  It was innocent too:   how can you know that you’re missing anything, when you have no point of reference?   When the gas gauge always reads FULL, only because the gauge doesn’t know the capacity of the tank itself?

Then, to coincide with college and university courses,  the internet came along.  We were shocked.  Appalled.  Amazed.

Some of us realized we had a wick, and a limitless well of kerosene that looked suspiciously like curiosity.  And we had a match.

We struck the match – and like THAT – Pandora’s box was opened.   Eve bit deeply into the apple.   New thoughts flooded in – and we discovered we could never go back to our innocent ignorance.

But then, we didn’t want to, did we?

We looked up into the sky of knowledge and found we couldn’t see the end of it.   Just when we thought we saw the boundary  – marked by a flicker of light that we assumed was the northern star – we realized that *just beyond it* was another star.  No, a bunch of stars.

No.

A galaxy.

——–

Like many of you reading this, I really and truly believed that movies and television were mostly there just for entertainment.   I would never in a million years imagine that any TV program or movie would have an element of the spiritual to it.  A meaningfulness that went beyond ratings.   I guess that was part of my prejudice, which was born of cynicism.   TV shows – like major corporations – existed solely to make money.

I remember being in a meeting in a car factory.  I remember when the general foreman – who was probably the biggest bigwig the factory grunts would ever see – stood at the front of the room and asked “why is our company in business?  What’s our purpose?”

Several hands shot up, and one guy proclaimed “to make cars!”

The general foreman shook his head.   Then said “no!  We’re not here to make cars.”

He waited while we looked at each other.   Then he added “we’re here to MAKE MONEY”.  He shouted that last part, just to be sure we got it.

We did.

I have long assumed that was true for the entertainment industry too.

Until one day when I saw a completely irreverent film, by Kevin Smith, called “Dogma”

Up until the film came out, various religious groups campaigned and complained about it.  They thought that he – Kevin Smith – was being sacrilegious and disrespectful.  And they had come to that conclusion long before the film even played in a single theatre.   I went anyway – I was a bit of a film nut.  Plus I wanted to see what the fuss was about.

I *never* expected to get blown away by it.

The film was crass, and it was filled with swearing and adult situations and ……

God was in it.   God had several forms though.  In one scene, God was an old man.  In other, He was Alanis Morissette.

I squirmed, a little uncomfortable with the idea of God as a woman.

But then she – God – noticed a bunch of flowers near a tree.  And She went over and sniffed them.  And then she got down and balanced Herself into a handstand, feet up against a tree.

And I fell apart.  Completely overwhelmed and done in.  I sat in the theatre, tears streaming down.

Kevin Smith (the guy who wrote this film), in my opinion, had been touched by God.  He freaking *knew*.

God is not a construct of dogma (despite the film’s name), nor is He/She limited by what our pastors had to say.  He/She is beyond our imagination.  Yet He/She is right there, mixed up in the little things that make our lives so joyful.   He/She is inextricable from those things that bring us joy.  He/She defines our tears and laughter.

I realized that we don’t have to go to astounding lengths to get His/Her notice.   The things that bring us laughter do the same to Him.

It took me years to figure out that the DNA that comprises our makeup is the same as His/Hers.   “We are wonderfully and fearfully made” goes the verse.   “We are made in His image” goes another.

It takes time, energy and effort to throw off the chains of our ignorant assumptions about Him/Her.   (Let’s just leave it at Him for now, shall we?  It’s easier, and traditional and I don’t want to distract from the thoughts here)

If we throw out everything we thought we knew about God and started with just the basics – that we are made in His image – where does that take us?

When we throw a baseball and our son hits it – or doesn’t – is that Him?   Sure it is.  I think He laughs when we swing and miss.  And I think He sorrows when our beloved cat dies. And I think He sits there with us, when we struggle over a science problem.

And I fucking well KNOW He sits and closes His eyes and drinks in the notes we play when we soulfully strum our guitars or play our piano.   I think He smiles when we dance, all alone in our living room, when an awesome, driving song comes up on the playlist.    I think He covers his ears, laughing, when we hit a wrong note while singing as we drive down the freeway.

He’s not offended when we have sex.  Alone or with someone else.  He’s not shocked.  And He shakes his head ruefully when we tell jokes.  I imagine Him chuckling when we bite our lips to keep from laughing when something awkward happens at a funeral.

That’s the God I know and love.

I think that questions of sexual preference (gay or straight) or politics, or a host of other things doesn’t matter at all to Him.   I think He looks deeply at our souls.   When we decide to live life instead of just enduring it, putting in time until we die, I think He pumps His fist in the air.   He knows we GOT IT.  We freaking well GOT IT.

Attention

When I was a little boy, I used to watch a couple of my dad’s brothers with curiosity.   They were so outgoing and carefree.  And drunk too most of the time.  The beers just enhanced who they were though – something I believe is true for all drunks.

They were huge men and they truly didn’t care about how they appeared to others and didn’t try to hide much of what they thought.  They were irreverent and loud and loved to laugh – unlike my dad who, though he was just as large as them,  was the polar opposite in character:  angry and belligerent and always spoiling for a fight.

As I grew up, I could never picture myself being as free as my uncles.

While riding your bike up and down the street as a child, the idea of inhibiting yourself in any way doesn’t even cross your mind.  You have fights with your friends, you make up, you play “flying saucers” with them (always you get to be the captain, and they are your underlings, if you have any say about it) and together you go through a full range of emotions every day.  And the next day you forget what the previous day was about.  It doesn’t matter.  You are in the now.

Kids don’t seem to have a sense of nostalgia, even for a moment.

Flashes of memory:

Scene:  teenaged me on a stepladder, applying paint to the eavestrough of our house.  I don’t even recall the colour.  Though lost in ADD-addled thought, I was intent on ensuring the paint went where it was supposed to go.  The sun was shining in the west, and my dad was out on the front lawn scowling as he watched me work, an ever-present bottle of beer in his hand.  I was a little unfocused while my brain processed yet another shiny ball piece of inspiration.  He could tell, because he would say something and I would provide one-note replies.  In exasperation he bellowed “you’re always in your head.  You never talk.”  He barked “so what the hell are you thinking about?”

That was a surprise.  I knew he was right but it was the first time I remember being forced to be a little self-aware.  I probably turned red – I didn’t like being in the spotlight.  Not his, anyway.  As I struggled to reply, he huffed again and walked away in disgust.   A more mature me would have been able to analyze it:  I didn’t think I mattered to him.  At least, he didn’t show it, in amongst all of the anger and shouting and drinking and swearing and hitting people.  So why would it would occur to me to talk with him?  I was afraid of him.   I was slowly building a belief in his hatred of me.   Hindsight reveals so much.

Not being mature, I had no sense of all of this at the time though.  I just knew I had somehow angered him, and I was afraid of what that might mean.  I had no idea what the consequences would entail.  Would I be beaten up?  Was he going to use this as an excuse to come at me?   God knew.   I kept painting, fearful and shaking inside.

(Nothing happened)

Scene:  a dark night, my best friend and I were in a camping trailer in his parents’ front yard, talking about something.  This was probably within the same year as the painting scene above.    I thought Joe was a genius: his marks in school were excellent and we both kind of knew he would end up becoming some sort of an academic.   The guy was linear and logical, and we talked about a great many things.  This night, however, it was me doing most of the talking. I remember really enjoying the time, until I realized that he wasn’t saying much at all.

“Joe, what’s wrong?”

He looked at me.  Shrugged.  Put his head down, staring at the floor.  “Nothing”.

Being around a drunk father for most of your life, and being taught how to read him in order to survive, I had developed somewhat of a sense about people, even then.  I landed right on the problem.   “You think I talk too much don’t you?”

He hesitated.  Then nodded.

Shock.  Teenage immature revelation.

I shut up.

And then, like many teens, I made a point of fitting in by keeping quiet, and making sure my image was intact.  There was no way anyone would ever have to become disgruntled about my saying too much ever again.  I had learned my lesson well.

Such behaviour, once learned, becomes hard to unlearn.  It becomes your new “normal”.  You get used to it.  You think this is what you’re supposed to do.  This for you is social conditioning, and though marginally disappointing, you’re happy to have learned it.  Now you can fit in, and not stand out or become the focus of anyone’s attention.  It doesn’t occur to you that “focus of attention” can be a positive thing – you’re only used to seeing it as a negative, ranging from the disdain of your friends to the red-eyed drunken and raging stare of violence.

Scene:  I’m an adult, sitting in the basement of a building in the heart of the downtown Toronto entertainment district.  A bunch of people – maybe fifteen or so, all different ages and backgrounds – are assembled.  All are paying attention to the teacher.  Only, it’s not a lecture.  He’s giving instructions.

“Never say no”.  He starts.  “You may think you have a better idea, and maybe you do.  But if someone gives you an offer, take it, and leave your ‘better idea’ in your back pocket.  You may get a chance to use it later.  It’s more important to follow the lead of the other guy.   Think instead of how you can help build his idea.”  He smiled.  “Or hers”.

It was a comedy improv class.  The objective was to tap into our “inner child” and play pretend with each other.   It was entirely positive, and it involved taking the focus, and becoming the center of attention, if only for a few moments.

It was exhilarating.  I was the guy on a fishing trip with a friend, and we were discussing my getting a job at his company.  And all the while we were sitting in an imaginary boat, casting our lines and winding the reel back in.   He built on my idea by presenting an offer:  if he could have a date with my wife, he’d see that my job application was approved.  My instinct was to immediately say “no” but then I remembered the teacher’s instructions.    “You know – that might work.  I’m going to need more than a job though. ”  I thought for a moment, while casting the line once again.   “Maybe stock options.  And your cool new car.   That would be my price.”  We dickered back and forth, adding conditions and treasures, until we finally ended it by reaching an agreement.

So odd, playing that scene.  We had became oblivious to the fact we were both the center of attention – except for the brief moments when the class laughed.

In another improv exercise, we were learning about adding dimensions to our invisible props; to be aware of them.   The teacher said “very often you’ll see some actors on stage, sitting in a car.  One of them will get out and walk to the other side – RIGHT THROUGH THE IMAGINARY ENGINE.  It irks me every time.  It destroys the scene.  I want you to be aware of your scene, and everything in it, and respect it completely.  Make it real.”   He looked at us, intently.  “If you can make yourself believe everything in your scene is real, your audience will follow you and they’ll believe it too.  Every time.”

To illustrate that point, the teacher chose an imaginary thick heavy door that didn’t open too well.  One by one, classmates went up to the door, used big heavy keys to unlock it, and then struggled to get it open.  Then they would struggle just as hard to pull it closed behind them.  Then they would sit down, or go to an imaginary fridge, grab an invisible drink and open it.   Or read a newspaper.  About four or five of them went up.   Then I had an idea:  I walked up, struggled with that same door, got inside and closed it.   Then, with my back ramrod straight, I looked around at them in disgust.    “One, two, three….” I counted them all.   “All five of you are in here… ”  I raised my voice in anger.  “….and there are 1,500 prisoners out there, all unsupervised.”   Their eyes all widened and they got up in a rush and scrambled to get out the door.

The class laughed.   That did it.  The seed was planted.   Attention.  Positive attention.  Instant addiction.

Scene:  a sports bar in a small town.  Noon hour.   About seven colleagues and I sitting around a table, having lunch.   A TV set was situated on a shelf  that was close to the ceiling, and it was tuned to a music video station.  The theme was 90’s music, and we were enjoying it, and discussing the songs as they came on.

Then the Divinyls’ song “I Touch Myself” came on.   Anyone who’s ever heard it knows the lyrics fairly well.  It features a woman singing to her lover about how she masturbates when she thinks of him.

The conversation around the table stopped abruptly.  Most of us were guys, and we couldn’t even look at each other.   For some reason I found this hilarious.   My improv-enhanced mind whirled with possibility.

I cleared my throat, turned and looked at the guy next to me (who, aware of my gaze, elected to stare with apparent focused and fascinated attention at his plate of fries).   In the deepest voice I could muster I growled “kind of embarrassing isn’t it?”

The table exploded with laughter.

—————–

I didn’t know it then, but I was reprogramming myself.   Detoxing from a lifetime of self-repression.  Learning that embarrassment should be reserved for honest mistakes, not for honest behaviour. Not for speaking out.  Not for truth-telling, no matter how ridiculous or outrageous the truth, or even whether it was couched in humour or bold straight talk.

I brought that dynamic to my workplace, often blurting out wild-eyed stuff to the disbelief and laughter of my friends and co-workers.   Safety doesn’t seem that much of a factor anymore.   And even when there is the possibility of violence – like on a crowded subway or busy mall – it’s better to face it head-on, with truth.   People truly don’t expect that.  They expect fear, and hiding.

I was learning that you get a lot more done, accomplish more, find more satisfaction in throwing off the safety of quiet, and replacing it with risk, and attitude and laughter.

To this day, I still have to coach myself though.   What about you?  Do you find yourself, as I do, having to repeat “what’s the worst that can happen” to yourself?   Do you find what that is, and then say to yourself “to hell with it – I’m doing or saying this, and if they don’t like it, or me, that’s too bad”?

“I DON’T BELIEVE YOU ALVIN!!!”  Teacher barked in clear frustration.  “You’re acting.  Stop it!”

Teacher sat back in his chair, face all red, incensed.   “Bob, sit down.  Let me work with him.”

Bobby quickly made his way to his seat and Teacher stood up at the front of the room and faced Alvin.

“You’re acting”, said Teacher.

“I’m acting” replied Alvin.

“No.  You’re acting.”

“I’m acting” said Alvin, puzzled.

“You need to stop acting”

“I need to stop acting”

Teacher exploded.  “YOU NEED TO STOP ACTING”

Alvin mildly replied “I need to stop acting”

“GET OUT OF YOUR HEAD!’  Teacher blasted the words right in his face, spittle flying.

“Get out of my head” replied Alvin, still mild.  Still controlled.

Teacher was anything but controlled.  “GET OUT OF YOUR HEAD!!!”

This acting exercise, of repetition back and forth between the two, went on for some time.  The rest of the students watched the two, entirely rapt, tense.

Teacher was getting angrier by the moment.  His fists clenched, the veins in his neck were bulging.   Alvin remained a shining example of control.

“YOU NEED TO GET THE FUCK OUT OF MY CLASS”

“I need to get the fuck out of your class”

“YES I WANT YOU TO GO, NOW!!” he barked.

‘Yes you want me to go now.” Alvin replied, seemingly obvious to the dangerous rage.

“GET THE FUCK OUT ALVIN!!!”

“I….”  Alvin faltered.

One of the students jumped up, walked over to Alvin.  “Dude, the exercise is over.  You need to leave.”

Alvin finally realized the Teacher was serious.  It was apparent to everyone in the class except Alvin that he was not cut out for this work.  He was somehow blocked, and there was no way around it.  He could not express emotion, which was what the exercise was all about.  Teacher sat back down, face still red, while Alvin got his stuff together and made his way out.

I sat there, a little stunned.  My problem was similar to Alvin’s though not so acute.  I’d been able to express true emotion in this class, except for one:  anger.  Every time I tried, Teacher called me on it.  “Stop.  You’re acting.  Stop acting.  Now, try again.”

The difference between a good actor and a bad one is that the good one is telling the truth.  The bad one is lying, but trying to convince that he’s being sincere.

Truth-telling truth-tellers.

It took me a long time to realize what that means, or to find the label to something I knew to be true.

For the longest time I wondered why I was so irritated with phone calls.  Maybe I was being snobby?   That didn’t ring true.  If anything I was more accommodating than the average guy.  Or the average Canadian for that matter.  (And you KNOW Canadians are pretty damned accommodating, often bending over backward to help you out.  It’s not a wild stereotype when I say that many of us will say “sorry” when you step on our foot.)

Yet, when I received a phone call, I couldn’t wait to put the phone down.  What was that about?  It really bothered me.  Some of the people I loved and respected would call, and almost always I couldn’t wait to get off of the phone.  There have been times when I gave serious thought to getting rid of all of the phones in my life.  There’s a phone at my workplace.  Maybe I could make do with that, or with pay phones.

Yet, this revulsion for phone calls wasn’t universal.  There were maybe two people who would brighten my day when they called.  And I knew I could spend hours on the phone with them without giving thought to ending their call.

Finally I realized what it was.

Truth-telling.

Any guy who’s in a relationship with a woman, will attest to the fact that the lazy practice of apologizing to his woman in order to get back into her good graces (especially when we don’t know what wrong we’ve done) doesn’t work.  Invariable, our women will ask “what are you sorry for, exactly?”    They are looking for specificity.  They want to know that we know exactly what we’ve done wrong, that we recognize it, and will attempt to change our behaviour in the future.

Truth-telling.  They’re interested in our truths, more than our blanket apologies.

Phone calls, or conversations in the office that revolve around trivial stuff might be of interest to some people.  Not to me though.  I could give a rat’s ass about so many trivial things.  I have no interest in polite and pointless discussion.  Pretending interest is the opposite of truth-telling.   For me, it is creative suicide.  Hanging from the patter until dead.

Hence the hated phone calls.  Except for ones received from a few people .   The difference with them?   They delved deep into things.  They were curious, and alive and passionate.  We didn’t talk about the obvious.  Not about the weather (unless it was stormy, and a tree fell down, and an adventure ensued).   Nor about what we ate that day (unless it was monkey brains, and it tasted just like squid, and was delicious, particularly with tartar sauce).

We compared notes on discoveries.  The warp and woof of universal truths.  Things we’d observed – in each other, and in other people.  We were people watchers.  We were empaths.  Anything that threatened to take us down the path of the verbal rut was jettisoned quickly, with relief.

It’s an extension of our takes on life – whether the intent is to grow, to find freedom from expectation, with the ultimate intent of flight.

Truth-telling.

It removes you from social niceties.  It gives you an appearance of danger.  Truth-tellers are generally not that predictable.   They don’t fit into the expected, the norm.  You don’t know what they’re going to say, or do.   Henry Rollins – truth-teller.  Unpredictable, dangerous.   Clint Eastwood.  Another truth-teller.   I think Bono is one too.

My acting teacher – the one I mentioned at the start of this blog.  He was a definite truth-teller.

I remember one bright shining moment of truth-telling at one of his classes.

It was my turn to get to the front of the class.   Whenever it was our turn, Teacher would pair us up with another student.  The only direction was to say something.  Anything.  And the other guy had to repeat and reflect it back.  The intent was to tap into real emotion.  So we never knew where it would go.  It was exhilarating, exciting and just a little bit scary, because it meant being vulnerable.

This time, Teacher paired me up with…..his girlfriend.

I shook my head, startled.  And then I settled in.

The first thing I noticed was that she was beautiful.   It crossed my mind that if I said my truth, Teacher might not like it.   Teacher was unpredictable, and could switch on real emotion at the drop of a hat.   One real scary dude.   Still, I thought, it’s risky but I have to do it.  I have to be real.  I can’t pretend.

So …..I smiled at her.   Teacher’s girlfriend.   She smiled back.

I gulped, because her smile affected me so much.

She started the exercise.   “You gulped.”

“I gulped” I said, nodding.

“You gulped”, she said, teasing.

“Yes, I gulped” Now I was grinning, from ear to ear.

“You’re happy” she said.

“Yes, I’m happy” I said.

Then before she could reply, I inserted a new phrase.  “You make me feel silly.”

“I make you feel silly”

“Yes” I was smiling so hard I could feel a tear of joy starting at my eyes.  It freaked me out a bit, but I had to let it go. “You make me feel silly”

“I make you feel silly” now she was grinning hard.

We went back and forth for a while, venturing a new phrase now and then, as the passion slowly built.  It took a while.

Eventually, I got to:  “you’re so bright”

“I’m so…..bright?” she asked, a slight frown at her forehead.

I corrected myself.  “Your eyes are so bright”   And so help me God – they really were.  Her eyes were shining.  I can still see them, even now.

“My eyes are bright”  she smiled, hearing the truth.

“Your eyes are bright”

She smiled and said nothing.   Teacher jumped in immediately.  “Continue!”

She cocked her head, and, still smiling, said “you’re messed up”.

Wham.  Truth.

“YES.  I’m completely messed up.”

“You’re completely messed up”

I took the next step.  “You’re messing me up”

Her face gained colour.  “I’m messing you up.”

The room was completely quiet.  Every student was leaning forward on their chairs.  I didn’t look at them, but knew exactly what was going on.  Except for Teacher.  I had no idea what he was doing.  I didn’t even want to think about him.

“Yeah, you’re messing me up.”

“Yes I’m messing you up”.  She smiled so sweetly.  (And when she did that – it *completely* messed me up)

“I want to get close to you”

I heard the class gasp.

She repeated it back, a little more quietly.  “You want to get close to me.”

“I really want to get close to you.”

“You—”   Teacher jumped up, interrupting.  “Wait a minute”

I thought “ok this is it.  He’s putting us out of our misery”  Only, he wasn’t.   He grabbed two chairs and brought them to the front of the room, facing them to each other, only a few inches apart.

“Ok” said Teacher.   “Sit there.  And continue.”

We sat.

I looked closely into her eyes.  We weren’t smiling anymore.

“We’re close to each other”

She said “we’re close to each other”

“So close” I almost breathed the words.

“So close” she murmured.

Back and forth, looking deeply into each other’s eyes.  We repeated and repeated.  It was all truth.

Finally, I whispered “I want to kiss you”

She stayed close, looking deeply into my eyes.  “You want to kiss me.”

“I want to kiss you.”

We stayed there, silent.  And we let the silence take over.  The class was silent.  I’ve never felt such stillness.

And then Teacher stood up and walked over to us.   “Well done.”

I heard the class let go of its breath.  And then they applauded.

Truth-telling.

There was an emotional after-glow to that truth exercise.   I could tell she felt it, because I saw it in her quick smiles and glances in my direction.  I could still feel my heart pounding too.   Teacher knew it to be truth, and he knew that’s as far as it went.

Once you dive into the ocean of truth-telling, anything less is a rip-off.  A facile and pointless exercise.   A spiritual hotdog when you’re craving a thick juicy peppercorn steak.