Friday, July 25, 2008

Human Beans

There are days and there are days. Today I am in a relatively good mood, yet my opinion of the human race is rather low. This is not always the case. There are days when I can look at the mass of humanity writhing around me and not wonder how they all got to be so fat, ugly, stupid and/or any combination of the above, but today is not one of those days.

It's unfair, of course, but one of the frustrating things about being the crazy old man I am becoming is that, despite my youthful attempts to deny, ignore or explain this phenomenon away, my observations of humans, after nearly fifty years, reveal this salient truth: we are the problem.

Yet, it is virtually all I think about. As interested as I am in science the the nature of things, it is the nature of humans that I contemplate most. Of course, the humans I think about are most often my own family and friends, but my love and affection for these people means that I separate them from the rest of the herd, choosing to focus my anger and frustrations on the unnamed mass. It makes for an easy safe target, but this is no reason for me to stand back.

In fact, I cannot stand back. I cannot simply take my place, let's say, on the bus, or in a meeting, or in a line anywhere without feeling like I am being overwhelmed by the rude, the inconsiderate, the selfish and the self-serving. Everyone takes more than they need, as much as they want with no consideration of the previous or the next. In situation after situation, people stand in my way, cut in front of me, reach for things I am looking at. I must stand aside for the morbidly obese as they waddle down the aisle and take it all, for the group of students locked arm-in-arm on the sidewalk, for the bicyclist who rides in the crosswalk, for the motorist talking on the phone who turns in front of me.

I know, I know, this is just more whining. We all feel this way at one time or another. But why not get over it? Why this screed?

Well, what I wonder is this: Since I take the time to step aside, why doesn't the fat guy on the telephone in the middle of the cereal aisle do the same? Why doesn't the cyclist recall that they too walk on the sidewalk from time to time and would appreciate not being run over? Is it too much for people, when gorging themselves on another three to five thousand calories that they most certainly do not need, to think that the consequences of becoming fat and stupid reach beyond their own bloated bodies?

Apparently not. It would seem that certain members of society (a majority, no doubt) are prepossessed with a unchecked desire to please only themselves. These people are blissfully unaware that the pride of excess that they so shamelessly display is like a large red flag waving with disdain at those of us who might take the time to consider the consequences of our actions. They addresses the world with a singularly selfish message: 'I don't care'.

If you think I am wrong about this, look at some of the messages of consumerism, excess and generally offensive language that these people wear on their clothes, if in fact, t-shirts count as such. This aggressive display is often dismissed as a mere casual lack of concern on the part of the wearer, but in fact, that is just the point. If you don't care that you are advertising for some beer at the expense of your dignity and those who are forced to look at you, then you are the problem.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Portland Homesick Blues

I wanna go home with the armadillo.

Jerry Jeff Walker
London Homesick Blues

Oh yesterday was a tough day. Not for me, but for Maddie. It is safe to say that after three weeks, the excitement of living in Portland and going to school at the WCI has morphed into a mixture of boredom, trepidation and homesickness.

I tell myself that heartbreaking as it may be for Valery and me, her situation is no different than any other new freshman off to college. I tell her that too, when we talk, but boy, it sure isn't easy watching her suffer. She's had to go through so many changes all at once, it is easy to understand why she is feeling a bit overwhelmed right now. Nonetheless, this difficult experience is also something that she will just have to go through, no matter how painful it is for both of us in the near term. Paying your dues.

In the long term--which is to say long after culinary school is over--she will benefit from these tough days. Of course, knowing this doesn't make it any easier when I see her sad about being away from home and frustrated with her progress in school, but it does help me keep things in perspective. This is important when I am about one mouse-click away from booking a flight for Valery to return to Portland and watch over her. No, I promise I--we--won't do that, not only because we can't afford it right now, but because we really believe that letting her tough this out is the right thing to do for her.

Why? Well, because we've spent so many years protecting her and providing for her, it seems to make sense to protect that investment by doing more of the same. However, now that she is becoming an adult, there's no better method I can think of for teaching her the skills for coping with adversity than to let her experience some actual adversity. Because the investment seems so much more valuable now, it seems terribly risky to to let her go so far so soon, but I repeat: I can't think of another way to liberate her and give her the independence she is seeking in a way that doesn't stifle that independence with rules or set her up for failure with goals that she hasn't personally selected.

I remind myself (and her) that the goals now in place are hers; she chose this path. Allowing her to succeed means allowing her to follow the path herself. Of course, if she fails, she won't have to blame us, but it this negative reasoning doesn't adequately illustrate the point. A better way to say it is, when she succeeds, she will affirm her decision-making ability and be in a position to do it again as she chooses the starting point for her career sometime next year.

Oh I suppose, given my rather grim track record, I've lost all credibility when it comes to talking about the 'right' way to raise a child, but with usual Phillipoid (new word) delusional foolishness, I am undeterred by my failures or inadequacies. In fact, I am encouraged to learn that my inabilities are actually diminished in scope by Maddie's resilience. I am impressed with her emerging ability to cope and above all, hopeful, not just because I am her Dad, but because there is every reason in the world to be so.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

New Look

Well, just for the sake of variety, I've gone and changed the layout of this journal.

Actually, it is not just whimsy; my intent is more complicated than the desire to simply make a change. The move to pull the videos and slide shows out of the main body of the journal is designed to make them more easily viewed and to reserve the center space for words as much as possible. This new layout also 'stretches' if you decide to change the size/shape of your window.

I'm still experimenting with the form, so I may post a slide show or video in the center for a few days then move it over to the right in case anyone wants to see them again.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Bus Riding

One of the biggest changes I've made in my life lately has been a small one. Instead of taking my truck to work every day, I now ride the bus. It's a small change, to be sure, since I don't actually leave the truck in the driveway but take it up to the bus stop and park it across the street in a shopping center parking lot. In my defense, the bus stop is over a mile away, and to walk it first thing in the morning would just wear me out. Plus, when I get to my destination, it is actually about the same distance from the bus stop at 24th and Lamar to my desk in the heart of campus. It takes me almost as long to walk to my building as it does for the bus to get from South Austin to UT.

In spite of these compromises, it is a big change because it has much such a positive impact on my well-being. It was astonishing for me to see, once I was able to step back and look at it, just how stressful the drive to work actually has been. Now, I actually look forward to going to work because the stress of driving no longer gets in my way. It is sort of like a fog that has been lifted from my vision, allowing me to see clearly the fine details of life that used to be invisible to me.

Now, though I am often prone to daydreaming, I can feast my eyes on the world of the street that rolls past my picture window. Lamar is a busy, active street, and even though we are taking advantage of the light summer traffic to roll effortlessly down the boulevard, there is a lot going on.

The automotive shops are busy already, of course, while most of the restaurants are still dark, with overturned chairs on tables visible through the windows. The car wash is hopping and so is the bicycle shop. Sadly, there are long lines at McDonalds and Taco Cabana, but there is also a good crowd at Maria's Taco Xpress.

Construction abounds. The old Binswanger glass factory is gone, replaced by a high rise, and the last and biggest of the new condominium towers, the Spring, is going up right on the corner of Lamar and 1st Street. They've been doing groundwork there for about six months, so you know it is going to be enormous.

On the bus there is as much to look at as outside it. Once I became a 'regular' rider, I began to observe others like me, who take the same bus every day to get to work.

Others, though, are riding the bus in the morning for other reasons. Yesterday it was the father of two small children, obviously going to return them to their mother after a visitation. Today it was the three homeless guys who emerged from the park to pick up the bus to ride out to their various street corners. Folded cardboard signs tucked into soiled backpacks smelling of ripe cheese are the telling signs of their profession. They are remarkably happy for this time of day and in their state, but then, I suppose they're already a little drunk and not all that concerned with the daily concerns that occupy me.

I wonder, sometime, if anyone looks at me, and tries to figure out what my story is, but then I realize that I am just an ordinary guy who is likely invisible to anyone who isn't looking. Certainly this is the case when I am not on the bus. Why would it be any different now? The anonymity is at once both comforting and unsettling, but real and quite simply unavoidable.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

First Day

Well, it is only a few hours away, and doubtless I have more butterflies in my stomach than does Madelaine, for today is the first day of class at culinary school. She's ready. She's got the uniforms, the shoes, the hats, the apartment, the roommate, the internet and a confident attitude. Today she gets the knives and the books and her first taste of what will hopefully be a long and rewarding path for her.

In her stage the other day, my hope was not that she learn skills, but that she would see what it is like to work in a kitchen. The die has been cast, so to speak, so I have no room at the moment for second guessing or doubts, but I do know that, to continue with the cliche, the path of life has many twists and turns. I am pleased she picked a direction that is in my territory, so to speak, but I realize that at any time in the future, near and far, she can go somewhere else.

So far, Madelaine has shown that she can seek out and step up to challenges in life. Given the choice to remain in her grade school one more year or move up to middle school, she moved up. Even though she's had some obstacles to overcome in the classroom with dislexia, socially it was a time of growth. She made several good friends while in high school, and, like so many others, escaped with a diploma. Finally in spite of the best efforts of the system to sap her strength and dampen her spirit, she emerged with energy and a plan for the future, which is more than I started with, and I think I've done ok. Just ok, but that's another matter.

The time difference has me over-anticipating the event, and it will be hours before I know how went this oh-so-important 'first day'. More later.