Wake-Up Calls

What does it take to make a profound change in one’s life? Good intention? Standing back and objectively seeing what you’re doing wrong and announcing, “Oh, I get it…I’ll do X instead.” Unfortunately, for most of us the mother-of-all wake-up call comes in the form of something traumatic happening to a loved one or a threat to our own mortality.

alarmclock.gifI remember one particular movie, “The End” in which Burt Reynolds plays a terminally ill man trying to commit suicide but something botches every attempt. Since he’s determined to end it all, he hires a schizophrenic hit man to do him in, played by Dom DeLuise. Not trusting that DeLuise’s character can pull it off, he decides to drown himself by swimming out far enough where he can just relax and drown. But as he’s floating there waiting to drown, he starts thinking about all the reasons he wants to live, even if for only a few more days. So he begins to swim to the shore, a seemingly impossible distance away, and as he swims begs God to help him make the distance. The funny part is he promises anything at first to God if he’ll only let him make it back, pledging huge donations and promising to attend church every week, etc. But as he gets closer and closer to shore he keeps modifying what he’ll do if God will help him make it back. And by the time he drags himself up on the beach, his promises are down to a singular “maybe I’ll go to church once in a while.” I won’t spoil the end, so rent this wacky, black comedy if you want to know.

That’s how a lot of people act when they get a true wake-up call: either make promises they’ll never keep, or roll over and figuratively hit the snooze button. It’s not always easy to understand why a wake up call happens, but easy to recognize one when it happens. The body has a way of finally getting your attention when the mind has missed the hints through the years.

So what does it take to see a wake-up call as a harbinger of change? In my case, I’d already been in the process of mulling over some significant changes and beginning to understand how important they were when my wake-up call resounded what my body was trying to communicate: do it now or pay dearly. After the ringing in my ears stops from the wake-up call (my euphemism for what I’m going through now), I know pretty well what and where I need to change, although it’s not a simple process. But unlike Sonny, Burt Reynold’s character in “The End,” I won’t be altering my commitment as I get nearer to the shore. This time I know I need to just do it.

Winter Projects

With temperatures soaring into the 90s here in South Texas, seems like a strange time to mull about winter projects doesn’t it? When I moved into the new apartment, I yet again recombined several boxes of loose photographs carried forward through the years and thought, “sorting and culling these photos into albums would make a great winter’s project.”

It’s been years since I’ve used that phrase. While growing up in various northern climes I remember having projects I found to do in the summer, but not in lieu of romping in the sunshine or cruising around the neighborhood. Such tasks were then labeled “winter projects,” a project put on hold until snow storms stranded us inside for days on end with little to do. I’d then remember back to fairer days and recall those albums I wanted to catalog, or the box of postage stamps to sort and hinge into albums. And so I’d spend a delightful couple of days snowed in, happily working away on my winter project.

I’ve never lost the habit of seeing some tasks as good winter projects, yet the term has long lost the same meaning and portend it held when I lived in the winter snow worlds of Chicago or Boston. It’s no secret that I’d love to live in snow country again (so long as I didn’t actually have to commute in the stuff and could earn a living at home), and so I think I’ll keep alive the tradition of labeling less-than-important tasks as “winter projects.” Perhaps one day I’ll look out my study window onto fresh fallen snow and realize I’m house-bound for days, then nostalgically declare, “it’s time to work on that winter project.” Not a bad thought to hold on to, especially now when reality is a 96-degree sauna just seconds on the other side of my front door.

Hippie Hollow

Ever notice how things occassionally appear in the news that trigger a memory of one’s youth? It makes me wonder if life isn’t a big, circular event like an enormous merry-go-round, eventually coming full circle to witness experiences of youth, yet changed by the passing of time and the infection called commercialism.

I spent my college years around Austin, Texas while attending The University of Texas at Austin. I actually lived near Lake Travis, a large man-made lake that is part of the Highland Lakes chain of dammed lakes. Lake Travis was a most excellent lake for water skiing and sailing, but one of the more interesting distractions was to cruise by the legendary Hippie Hollow. Back in the late 60s early 70s, Hippie Hollow was a loosely designated part of the steep hills surrounding the basin, the largest portion of Lake Travis located immediately behind the dam. Not only was the basin the best place to ski or sail, it was also the best place for sightseeing, thanks to those immodest hippies routinely offing their clothes for a dip and subsequent sunning on the rocks at waters edge.

All things sadly, eventually, succumb to commercialism. And Hippie Hollow (conservatives beware: nudity shown) is one example of this inevitability. Originally a word-of-mouth location where hippies and other free spirits could sun au natural, it quickly attained a cult-like status, surviving largely because local police looked the other way, probably thinking it’s better to contain them in one place versus all over the lake. We used to go skiing in the basin and cruise by Hippie Hollow, sometimes offering to take a few of the nature buffs skiing. It always seemed to me rather insensible to ski naked, given the obvious dangers of falling at full boat speed.

It’s been a couple decades since I’ve been in a boat on Lake Travis, and I assumed Hippie Hollow went the way of most things of those free-spirited years, but a [no longer available article at ananova.com] showed me otherwise! The article reports the capsizing of a sightseeing boat on Lake Travis. A concern, but nothing particularly notable, until I read that it capsized while moored at Hippie Hollow. Apparently, for obvious reasons, all the passengers moved to one side causing the boat to tip over. Wanting to find out if Hippie Hollow continued in the manner I remember, I Googled it and found the Hippie Hollow Nudist Park Web page, thus witnessing another free-spirit memory gone commercial. There aren’t too many unfettered memories of that decade left! Given time, I’m sure they’ll all melt away, either disappearing completely or like the legendary Hippie Hollow, suffer a hostile capitalistic takeover.

Springtime

plant.JPGAh, springtime. I love watching the new, lush green vegetation come out…those wildflowers blooming forth from a winter’s slumber…frisky squirrels and birds preparing for the mating season…and then there’s the lawn. I hate yard work, and more specifically, mowing lawns. I did enough of that in my youth to feel like I should have a lifetime exemption from that dreaded chore. It’s not that I don’t like the process, its that the process doesn’t like me or more precisely, my allergies.

We have an underground sprinkler system for our grassed yard, and that’s a good thing except it makes the grass grow really fast. And the owner before us took great care to rip out the wild-as-weeds St. Augustine grass and install a proper subsoil system topped with Zoysia grass, the same stuff they put on golf courses, and that’s another good thing except it’s incredibly thick grass. But this dang fancy grass grows faster than any grass I’ve seen, which is a bad thing! But don’t fear, we have a standing deal with a mowing-loving neighbor who takes care of our yard in exchange for cases of exotic beer. A fair trade in my mind, and he’s yet to complain.

fungus.JPGWhat I do, or rather, did enjoy was working the rough areas of the yard, cleaning out old undergrowth and making our lot looked like lived-in wilderness. We only have grass along the front curb, while the rest of the lot is forest floor. But even natural forest floor surrounding a human residence requires maintenance to a degree. If I’m not keeping the 3′ barrier around the house cleaned and poisoned to keep the insects out of the house, I’m sweeping pine needles off the roof or gathering up storm-felled branches from the many tall pine trees that grace our lot.

Those of you who know me understand what I’m referring to when I mention “did” enjoy in the preceding paragraph, since I’m now banned from doing any work whatsoever in our yard. Two summers ago I removed our old, rotting wood deck at the side of the house. Not a huge chore, but demanded the usual guy-induced mess that spanned over several weekends, and took up twice the amount of yard to stage the task of de-nailing and recycling the old decking. What I wasn’t prepared for was how I would spend the next two months recuperating from a world-class case of contact dermatitis, courtesy of my new friend, that lovely green ivy shown in the photo at the right. Yes, mom, that’s what poison ivy looks like, the innocent plant that put me through hell that summer!

pivy.JPGI’ve never reacted to p.i. before, but in doing research about the plant I learned that most of what people think about poison ivy is not true. For starters, no one is naturally immune to the reaction-causing oils of this lovely green ivy, which yields very pretty purple berries in the spring. You can go for years and years and never have a reaction then BAM, one time and you’re singing the calamine lotion blues. In fact, our first summer here I cleaned out the side yard and pulled up bags of this stuff from around the deck with nary a blister.

I wish my exposure that fateful summer could have been treated with a simple dose of calamine lotion. Unfortunately, I went well beyond that into the land of superman steroids that turned me into a mood-swinging joy to be around. Picture a bad case of PMS and no chocolate in the house. Everyone wanted to move temporarily to a motel until I got better. But thanks to some serious bribes to keep people around to help, several rounds of super steroids, and many weeks of bath wraps with some prescription steroid cream that comes in an industrial-sized tub, I finally emerged healed from the experience. I missed a lot of work, was really uncomfortable, and looked like a reject from a sci-fi makeup convention for weeks. And no, I didn’t manage any pictures of my legs, which fortunately took the brunt of the attack, sparing my face. Small consolation, but at the time I was very grateful for that small favor.

So as you might suspect, this is why I use the past tense, “did” enjoy, to describe the yard work that I’m permanently banned for life from, and for obvious good reason. The photo of the poison ivy was taken this weekend at the same time I snapped the other shots. And yes, I was careful where I stepped as I snapped digital pictures. I now automatically scan the yard as I walk around and steer clear of the dreaded ivy. Since the oils is what we humans are reactive to, stepping on or brushing the leaves will release the oil onto your shoe, jeans, whatever, and then by touch can be transferred to your skin. But the oil is only organically active as a poison certain times of the year. Also, if you know you’ve been exposed you can use a special cleaner to get rid of the oil before it gets into your system, if you do so within an hour of contact. And contrary to what some people think, once contracted, it is not contagious to anyone else.

The pinnacle of this whole experience was when I finally went to see a dermatologist after chasing down some natural remedies which naturally only made things much worse. You know you’ve got something really special when your doctor comments that it’s the worst case of poison ivy she’d ever seen. Terrific, one for the record books. Was that my fifteen minutes of fame? I sure hope not.

Change

> “It’s not so much that we’re afraid of change or so in love with the old ways, but it’s that place in between that we fear…It’s like being between trapezes. It’s Linus when his blanket is in the dryer. There’s nothing to hold on to.” – Marilyn Ferguson

change.JPGGot a couple of fins for a sawbuck? That kind of change we deal with easily; but change as a disrupter in our daily lives is not quite so simple. Yet change is as constant in our existence as the breaths we take and the mists they make upon exit.

Some delight in change and live well in that perpetual high of constant motion, while others are emotionally ripped asunder every time change disrupts their placid lives and well-wished plans. Change is with us every moment of our lives, from the constancy of molecular motions to human decisions to disruptions from outside our periphery. Change is life; life is change.

We all have moments in our lives we wish could go on forever in perpetual joy. But that is not the human way, even though those acme moments seem like there could be nothing better. While death awaits all of us in due time as the final change, we spend our moments up to that time trying to coax change for our better. Change follows us like a shadow our whole lives; ever present, ever active. Those that accept and work with change tend to prosper more than those who fight.

When I think about change, I often wonder…am I changing away from or changing towards something? Like the opening quote stated, the only moment of fear in the process is during that miniscule moment in between. Whether we’re driven to change by perspiration (hard work; positive; towards something) or desperation (drastic; negative; away from something) doesn’t really matter as long as the intent is to better ourselves. A change for the better may set our course into uncharted waters with no guarantees, but at least that direction offers a horizon of possibilities. The trick with change is not to look too far ahead and thus completely miss grabbing the trapeze bar.

> “We cannot become what we need to be by remaining what we are.” – Max Depree

Consequences

consequences.jpgTrue freedom is a life lived in full control over one’s choices. But when you think about how this really works, it becomes obvious that few of us enjoy freedom to that extreme. Attached to every “choice” is a parasite called “consequence,” that tangible aftermath of any choice, good or bad. Want your neighbor’s new Cadillac? You can choose to simply steal it, but the obvious consequence of that choice — a charge of grand theft auto — is not particularly pleasant.

The phrase “freedom of choice” is a promise without a backbone, essentially an empty philosophical phrase because the real determiner of action is not choice, but consequence in any situation. What steers our course in life is not so much whether we have choices but our acceptance or declining of the consequences of those choices. I have blathered several times here about my desire to work while traveling. The choice to do so has always been there. What’s kept me from shucking it all and heading off are the consequences of that choice. For instance, my older son lives with me and will continue doing so as he begins college this fall. And my younger, 14-year-old son lives just a few miles away with his mother. And then there’s my current job and its benefits that require me to live here. The consequences of what would happen to those three important things in my life, and not the choice, is what keeps me from vagabonding or even becoming a vagabum.

To look at this another way, consider that “choice” is a box on our flow-charted lives, whereas “consequences” are all the boxes and arrows and lines and decision points that originate from that box labeled “choice.” The challenge lies not in examining the choice box, but forecasting how everything flowing out from that box in different scenarios will look, and either accepting those scenarios or leaving the “choice” box alone, vowing to revisit it sometime later.

Some of you will remember the old TV show, “Truth or Consequences” where contestants answered silly questions correctly or suffered the “consequence” of a wrong answer by performing some funny or embarrassing stunt. Unfortunately in real life accepting a bad consequence emanating from a given choice is far from funny. I mentioned in a post a few days ago the quote from Danny DeVito’s movie character, “The choices we make dictate the lives we lead.” How I really see that phrase now is “The consequences we willingly accept determine the path we take.” Choice is but the siren, luring seafarers to the dangerous rocks, while seeing and either accepting or declining the consequences of that choice is what will sink or float the boat.