stariron.jpgI turned on the tv tonight looking for some mindless distraction from life’s annoyances (and nothing works as well as tv), and found the movie “Renaissance Man” starring Danny DeVito. I’ve seen the movie before, but tonight the main character said a simple, yet profound statement I never picked up on before: “The choices we make dictate the lives we lead.”

What that statement says to me is that we are ultimately responsible for where our lives take us. We can’t blame anyone else nor whine about the results because life isn’t “fair.” We exercise free will when we decide to take this job, or marry that person, or buy this house. These paths are unpredictable where they’ll go, but in hindsight we can easily create a flow chart of how we arrived at a certain place. In retrospect, this chart could a useful tool to assess our lives and perhaps strengthen our will in choices of the future.

The star in this picture of ornamental ironwork is the lone star, a symbol of the great state of Texas. I moved to Texas over 30 years ago, a long time to spend in one place while being fairly vocal about living elsewhere. Why am I still here? Have I let the choices of others dictate the life I’ve lead? The answer is obviously no. I’m the one who’s made the conscious choice to stay here all these years, and I’m responsible for all those decisions. Certainly during the many times I’ve made a change to move elsewhere within the state I could have said no, and made a conscious effort to go elsewhere. As creatures of free will we always have a choice. That is an absolute, even though at the time the harder choice may appear disastrous, it still is an option.

I continue to ponder the choices I could make that might finally give me the choice on living I talk about, but I’m realizing more than ever that it’s not one or two decisions that will conspire to make this happen. It will be a series of choices that could eventually lead to my goal of being geographically independent, thus able to have full choice on living elsewhere. And I’m comfortable that it will happen when I’m finally ready, and not before.


joeshark.jpgPain: even the word looks like it hurts. Well-meaning athletic coaches continuously extol a “no gain without pain” mentality on moldable young athletes until they actually believe it’s a noble path. And have you ever try to explain pain to someone who’s never experienced it? How do you capture in words that elusive sensation that is at once both universal and specific, only surfacing to our consciousness when something’s wrong, the body’s equivalent of an S.O.S. code tapped out through countless nerve endings.

The human body is an amazing machine whose wonders and methods we’ve yet to fully understand. Our minds are conditioned to react to pain, the warning light on our body’s dashboard, and take the necessary, immediate steps to get the body out of harm’s way. In a normal challenge to the body, as the pain announces itself the mind reacts to avoid, sending signals to muscles to react. But pain is a clever mistress, frequently misguiding the mind as to the real source of the problem. When you have a problem in your back, frequently the pain occurs somewhere else, such as the legs. Like some odd creature whose markings disguise its eyes, pain diverts attention away from the true problem area. Why? Is this some sort of survival mechanism? Not sure anyone knows, but I can tell you from first-hand experience that it’s frustrating as hell to try to resolve!

Trying to describe pain using words or colors is obviously inadequate, and it’s hard to be truly sympathetic towards someone in pain unless you’ve experienced an identical injury. In the meantime, most humans survive the pain through the wonders of pharmaceuticals. Ah, the wonderful world of pain suppression drugs, those wonders that plastic coat everything and make the intolerable deceivingly tolerable. Gone are the days of “take two aspirin and call me in the morning.” Now modern synthetic opiates nuke your pain quicker, faster, better. My yet-unresolved spinal stenosis is rendered aptly into numbness through the magic of an all-inclusive drug cocktail: a pain suppressor, muscle relaxer, inflammation negator, and for icing, an ass-knocker of a codeine-laced nighttime “lights out” pill. Yet, through this drug-created plastic sheet I wrap myself within, I can still function.

How do you describe what it’s like to be on pain meds to someone who’s never been there? If you can, imagine a thin, impervious yet insulating plastic layer form-fitted over your whole body and isolating you from a first-person existence with the real world. You can poke through the coating to connect, but such touch is slightly vague in feeling. You feel liquefied inside a solid form; fluid and possibly coherent but randomly detached. If the pills are good enough, then you my friend are on a legal high, a trip that would bring a twinkle to the eye of a 60s-era hippie.

One of the downsides (and there are several) of pain meds is that eventually the blanket wears thin and you begin to reconnect with the very place and sensations you strove to forget. Now in order to remain in the desired isolation, you have to increase the dosage. Fortunately for me, I’m beginning to work out of this problem so I’m comfortable that I’ll avoid addiction issues. But for some people the “take a pill if it hurts” mentality our society supports versus searching for why it hurts means the cure is often worse than the disease. The doctor I’m working with believes in finding the root cause or causes more than treating symptoms. This approach requires more work on my part, but when we’re through it should result in a permanent resolution. And this time, the gain will be no more pain, and no more pain meds…until something else screams for attention.

Naturally Yours

flower.JPGSometimes in spite of our distracted vision, beauty blooms unnoticed. These flowers appeared out of nowhere last week blossoming from some potted plant whose name escapes me at the moment. You might understand the irony of this image if you knew me well. To state that I’m not a gardener by nature nor putterer flitting about in the yard on weekends to make things pretty would be a divine understatement. My usual modus operandi is to let nature be nature and what grows grow.

I’ve always preferred natural yards, although I will admit it’s partly from an avowed laziness to things resembling yard work, but also from a desire to let things be as they were original intended. During my youth, taking care of other people’s yards was the only way for a boy to make summer money, so I had a handful of customers for whom I’d mow yards, pull weeds, etc. Parents are always trying to instill “character” in their children through such pursuits, but I think that lesson was largely lost on me. I do remember being less than diligent in my attention to these yard duties, yet had enough clients kind enough not to fire me for at least a few weeks, so I managed to make a little pocket change.

My favorite yard client owned a riding lawn mower. Being male and of a pre-driving age, taking that baby out for a spin was the highpoint of that otherwise mediocre summer workfest. I confess to mowing that woman’s yard beyond the call of duty (as defined by multiple passes over already cut areas), just for the experience of driving something, anything. She probably knew I was over mowing the yard and why, but was kind enough not to say anything, although she would comment frequently that I seemed to use up more gas than the previous lawn boy and wondered out loud whether the mower needed tuning. Being the sharp, intelligent, inquisitive 16-year-old I was meant, of course, that these hints never found their intended target.

Even without the thrill of speed my imagination and I did our best to make the time spent atop that stinky beast worthwhile. Part of the mowing ritual was the obligatory yard search for any objects that would either ruin the mower blade or ruin the object should they have a too-close encounter of any kind. These times spent mowing for a living were long before the now-ubiquitous personal stereos so I had only my thoughts to keep me company, and always heard immediately when I ran over something. One time I missed a hose during my pre-mow yard sweep and as I ran over that hose and it wound around the blade’s shaft, choking the beast to a sputtering stop and making the coolest of noises, I knew my mower-driving days were in jeopardy. It was the only time I’d damaged anything valuable, and as I recall, the only time I mowed her lawn for free to compensate for the now-useless hose.

Through the years I did various landscape duties from laying sod to building retaining walls, but nothing as memorable as that first experience driving something with an engine, four tires, and a steering wheel. And at the time I didn’t realize those moments atop that riding lawn mower way back in the late 60s would portend a love affair with all things motorized that would last another 10+ years. But that, as they say, is a story for another day.

Masked Writers

Photo by Gary. All rights reserved.

Picture the scene: nefarious men in determined chaos intent on inflicting damage and unspeakable horrors on the citizens of some nondescript country village. Just as they’re about to have their way with the women, run off with the goods, and kick a few dogs in the process, from the safety of the darkness gallops the masked rider to save the day. While the vermin flee, vowing to revenge their humiliation another day, our unselfish hero who’s modest to a fault, says nothing, tips his hat and disappears into the dark while villagers murmur among themselves, “who was that masked man”?

The explosion of Weblogging offers an intriguing opportunity to observe human behavior, both good and bad, in both bloggers and bloggies (avid readers of specific blogs; think online groupies). Much like the masked rider of American TV fame, blog writers spin their tales and abuse language under the guise of an online identity. Do we know who these people really are? Except for the rare occasion of an in-the-flesh friend who happens to blog, you’re dependent on what a blogger chooses to present as a virtual extension of themselves.

We all grew up play-acting, becoming characters we weren’t nor were ever likely to become. Cowboys, Indians, pirates, it didn’t matter who or what, only the chance to experience different personas and unleash our imaginations mattered. And we were told this exercise was healthy for our mental development. Then as we aged, it suddenly became taboo to explore those fantasies, that it was “high time” we grew up and forgot the games of youth. Like all compliant adults, we were expected to deal with our unhappiness while grabbing reality by the short hairs and hanging on. So much for creativity and expression. Artistic types, whether in tangible or thespian arts, were fortunate and able to continue working outside their own realities under the blessings of society towards such gifted ones. But normal folk who simply enjoy donning a mask to explore a different persona are subject to cruel abuses by the rest of society; viewed as “having a problem,” or simply struggle their whole lives to fit in.

Zoom ahead to the early part of the 21st century to the Weblogging explosion. Suddenly there’s a new, accepted outlet for being “other than yourself,” a way to publicly adopt as strange a persona as your imagination can scrape from that your mind’s dark corner that you’re conditioned to pretend doesn’t exist. For many bloggers, the opportunity to online journal was simply an extension of their already active, yet private, paper journals. But some preferred to open the barred door, enter the forbidden room, and in a defiant act of burning the bridge, flip on the light switch illuminating everything without judgment.

A recent article from The Observer has some interesting examples of these masked writers. Especially interesting was the woman who, as a fiction exercise, adopted the persona of a 13-year-old boy living with his uncle. She crafted a world of an individual so convincing that her growing following absorbed everything she wrote as gospel. When at one juncture she/he mentioned being spanked by the uncle, concerned bloggies wanted to intervene and thus began the unraveling of her secret and the unmasking of another false blogger. There are many stories like this, some with tragic conclusions to the fantasy played out past a dangerous conclusion.

In reading these very words I share, can you really come to know me, or moreover, is this the real me I’m projecting? Sure, there’s a link to my home blog where there’s the obligatory About Me page and certainly there’s my voice and revealing facts threaded throughout, but can those be combined to see a complete picture of the real me, or do they merely reveal the person I want you to see? And how do you know they’re not the bored imagination of someone else? Are you so sure I’m not really a woman, some bored housewife craving to live another’s life? Or could I be someone under a witness protection plan hiding from a once-conviction of a horrific crime against society? Certainly, given the gist of what’s written, I’m hardly controversial or show any signs of luring young men or women into bad situations, or even dare I say in these unsure times, threatening the American Dream. Perhaps I’m not the best example of this theory, but still, you must wonder whether it’s all just a grand show, an experiment in fiction with no purpose other than to “pull the wool over your eyes.” And then there’s the ultimate question: If we were to meet and I take off my blog mask, would the same perceived person be standing in front of you? Or would there simply be another mask underneath?

This is a reprint of the post I wrote as a guest blogger on Thinking Out Loud.

My Life as a Duck

Way back during my dark ages (affectionately known as high school), I had a girlfriend who was obsessed with figuring out what animal everyone emulated through their personality. She spent countless hours studying people and assigning them their well-earned animal monikers, at least as she saw them. She quickly decided that I was a classic turtle: cautious, no unnecessary motion, and unwilling to extend from my protective shell until I was good and ready. Bingo.

duckie.jpgYears later the turtle in me slowly shed its shell and through the marvel of environment-influenced behavioral changes, I can say that I’m not longer the turtle I once was, at least for the most part. During certain times I probably fall back to that comfort zone, but in recent memory I have to confess to changing animal identities. I’m now convinced that I’ve spent most of my adult life as a…duck. Quack.

Why a duck, you ask? Consider the image of the typical duck: lazily floating on the surface of a serene lake, seemingly oblivious to concern or worry as he drifts about seeking an occasional bit of food or an impromptu meeting with a female duck. Life looks good, easy, and in control for the duck, or at least that’s the way it seems above the waterline where the world sees Mr. Duck as the epitome of calm. But underneath the surface, where few can see, those little duck feet are furiously kicking in a constant effort to keep things moving, or more pointedly, to not sink.

As I work on some personal issues and try to examine my own behavior, I have realized that I’ve done an Oscar-worthy job of looking to the world every bit like a duck above the surface of things. Yet underneath, I’ve furiously worked to keeps things hidden, to not let the turbulence of life disturb my serene image above the waterline. Effective? Hell, yes. Healthy? Do you even need to ask?

Each of us ultimately finds our authentic self, the one we want the world to see that matches up fairly well with the one we live internally. For some of us, it takes draining a lake or two before we understand what’s really been happening and can then make corrections to create a better balance between both worlds. I may still feel like a duck at times, but I’m working on switching to a new animal persona. When I figure it out, you’ll be the first to know. In the meantime, I’ll look for you at the zoo of life. Just heed the “don’t feed the animals” sign if you please…I don’t usually bite the hand that feeds, but you never know. Even ducks have teeth.

MG Days

The weather here lately has been nothing short of glorious. These are truly our halcyon days here in south Texas and we have to appreciate every scarce, non-humid moment. Soon the pleasant, light breezes that lazily toy with puffy clouds will wilt before the tropical sauna we all know and love (not).

garymgb.jpgIn my college days, I had my own name for this kind of weather. At the time I owned a joy-to-drive MGB convertible and I’d relish every opportunity to drive sans convertible rag top. I called these gorgeous moments “MG Days,” a term that also signaled my intent to blow off classes for the day and cruise around instead. How could one resist? Compared to the oppressive heat typical for Austin, MG Days were cool temperatures combined with light breezes and crystal blue skies, and rightly should have been declared state holidays. Not that I ever needed much in the way of an excuse to skip class, an MG Day was not to be wasted inside. Top down, clutch in, I’m gone. Where didn’t matter, only the doing mattered…which in retrospect was quite Zen like, but I didn’t connect to that at the time.

The MGB in this picture was really my second car, although I was only 18 at the time. My first car was an older, more finicky (translation: had character) 1963 MGB, which cost a whopping $550. As you may remember in a previous post, I’d cut my hair in exchange for Dad’s note co-sign, then paid the note off with summer jobs. I was proud of that first car, despite the fact that not all body parts were the same color. And I didn’t care if it was a little rusty here and there, it had wire wheels! I’ve often wished I had kept that ’63 MGB and restored it somewhere along the way, but I don’t think I even saved its picture. I drove that clunker from a suburb of Chicago down to The University of Texas in Austin that summer of my 18th year. My brother made the trip with me, and although I don’t remember a lot about the trip we did make it despite losing not only first but second gear as well, and nursing the throttle the last few hundred miles to keep the radiator from going dry. I soon traded what remained for a shiny new 1971 MGB, the one in the photo. While it lacked the character of the older one, it did excel in one important area: everything worked! (although in the spirit of all British sports cars it always leaked whenever it rained, even when brand new).

The only close call I ever had driving the ’71 MGB was the night I drove home in the rain after playing a tennis match, with my girlfriend following behind in her car. I went out of a curve a bit too fast and slid dramatically off the highway into the grass and down a short embankment. When the girlfriend finally got down to me she was hysterical, but I was hysterically laughing. While I hadn’t hit anything nor hurt myself, the 100 or so tennis balls I had behind the seats in practice hoppers had simultaneously flew forward when I braked, and during the slide bounced around the interior like ping pong balls. Between the noise and the pounding I received from the tennis balls flying in every direction at once, I couldn’t do anything but laugh. It was then I discovered that women get mad when they think you’re hurt, but you’re not, and you’re laughing about something, but they don’t know what. I would have been better off had I been bleeding instead of giggling. Go figure.

The other fond memory of MG days were the times I’d drive home after dusk down Bee Caves Road. Since I lived about 30 minutes outside of Austin at Lakeway, my drive to school was a delightful chance to work the gears through some hilly and curve-laden roads. About two-thirds of the way home this one particularly long stretch of open road began at a high point and gently dropped to flat run for a little over a mile. With the top down, radio off, and the moon casting a faint light everywhere, I’d switch off all the car lights and cruise using the center line as a guide. I can close my eyes and still remember that distinctive MG engine purr in my ears, the cool, clean night air through my hair, and the dreamy combined sensation of floating and flying. I never did this driving fast, since the rush of sensations under a steady, cruising speed was the pleasure. A natural high if ever I remember one.

I traded that car for something else later that year and many more since, but nothing has had the magic and symbolism of that MGB from my first college year. And while there were many more MG Days, they were never the same without their namesake. In past years I’ve often toyed with the idea of finding a similar-era restored MGB and revisiting that long stretch of road some night when the moon’s full and bright. But what once was a delightfully narrow, two-lane country road in the middle of ranch land is now a six-lane behemoth with subdivisions on both sides. Progress is never aware of the memories it paves over, but I remember…and now you know as well.