Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Night of the Laughing Stars

One night, not so long ago, I went outside to the backyard, just trying to distance myself from a particularly irritating set of mundane household frustrations. 

Seeking relief, I looked up at the stars. 

These were the same stars I used to look at with wonder as a child, when I would spend hours imagining all the possible worlds that orbited distant suns out there, all the strange variations of life, and the fantastic civilizations that might exist.  When I was a teenager, I used to stand under the stars and beg for something to happen, for an alien spaceship to come out from amongst those stars and get me, take me away from the small, boring, insignificant life I had, break the chains I could already feel binding me to an ordinary, tedious future, and show me all the wonders of the universe.  Then, once I was out and on my own, I stopped looking up much at all (far too busy making a paycheck for that), and the stars receded into a beautiful, but flat, backdrop.  Years passed, and I finally reached the point where I would look up at the stars, and found that I resented them.  They represented the universe, after all, and the universe was no friend of mine.  Not a universe that kept me trapped and feeling miserable, not a universe that did nothing while I struggled so pathetically, not a universe that I had actually come to believe was conspiring against me.  It felt like the stars were only there to mock me, make fun of my pain, and taunt me with the reminder that I was stuck down here, hopeless and alone, while they were up there, far beyond my reach, living it up. 

But this night was different for some reason.  Oh, I was still frustrated and feeling empty inside and at a loss for what to do, where to go.  I had exhausted my ideas, and exhausted myself.  I looked up at those stars and felt the same old remorseless laughter in response to my puny human problems.  But I remembered how I used to see the stars so differently, how they had once been filled with so much hope and wonder, and it made me ask a question I had not yet dared to ask myself:  So, who was wrong?  The me I used to be, or the me I am now?  The stars themselves hadn’t changed; they were almost the exact same stars in every measurable way that I had been looking at all my life.  Clearly I was the one that had changed.  But had I changed for the better, or for the worse?   After all these years, had I grown wiser, or had I only grown more foolish?

Of course I knew the answer, even without admitting it.  And that led to more questions.  Was it possible that my whole way of looking at the world was fundamentally flawed?  Could it be that the pervasive sense of lack I was experiencing in my life was merely a perception, and didn’t represent the actual working reality of the universe?  Was it possible that I was wrong, and all those things that I felt I lacked:  work I loved, the opportunity to do the things I wanted to do, money, and most of all, the time to do anything about it, were really the result of a terribly misbegotten focus, a choice I had somehow unknowingly made, instead of the natural order of things? 

And if I was wrong, what did it mean to be wrong?  If the universe wasn’t my enemy, if it wasn’t actively seeking out chances to thwart me at every turn, or to punish me for continuing to cling to my ratty old dreams, if it wasn’t responsible for the helpless sense I had of things never going my way, then what kind of universe did I live in?  A neutral universe, empty?  The kind that doesn’t pay attention to you, and conversely doesn’t require that you pay attention to it?  In other words, the universe of my twenties, when I believed that I made myself, and that my will, my mind, and my hands were responsible for everything good that happened to me?  The stars as simple stage scenery?  Or was it possible that I had it right as a kid, when I saw something more out there: hope and wonder and beauty beyond my ability to encompass?   Was it possible that I lived in a universe that was not forlorn or expressionless, not antagonistic or cruel, but seething with boundless life?

Friday, September 21, 2012

Damn Passion

Walter Isaacson, the biographer whose book on Steve Jobs was such a sensation last year, made an interesting comment the other day that got me really cranked up at first.  He was recalling a conversation he once had with Jobs about passion.  “We talked about the fact that it isn’t just about your damn passion,” Isaacson reportedly said, “it’s about doing something larger than yourself.  It’s about serving this world, helping others.  So if you have a whole generation of people [who’ve been] told, ‘Oh, just follow your passion,’ they’re going to forget that there’s some purpose in life.”  

Of course, when the story was released, it went out under the somewhat misleading and certainly manipulative headline, “Isaacson:  It’s not just about your damn passion.”  When I first saw that headline, I was instantly incensed and had to know more.  Which goes a long way towards explaining why the media likes to be somewhat misleading and certainly manipulative. 

I haven’t read Isaacson’s biography of Jobs yet, although Elizabeth bought me a copy for Christmas last year (curse you, Dark Tower!), but I did read an earlier biography he wrote about Benjamin Franklin, which I thought was absolutely terrific.  In fact, based on that biography, I wrote an essay in which I compared Franklin to the game of baseball.  I know that probably sounds weird, especially seeing how Franklin predated the game by fifty or sixty years, but trust me, it was a good essay, and it made a valid point somehow about the balance between individual and community.  If anyone’s interested, I’ll clean it up and post it sometime.  I should do it anyway, if only because I find the visual image of Franklin in a Phillies uniform holding a bat irresistibly entertaining. 

Anyway, for the record, I agree completely with Isaacson when he basically equates serving others as being a person’s highest purpose in life.  I actually believe that.  But I also believe that passion has a place, an absolutely necessary and integral place, in how to best serve others.  Let me give you an example from my own experience.  I spent four years as a teacher.  I changed careers at thirty-eight because I thought I was finally ready to respond to my highest calling, which I believed was to teach teenagers how to improve their reading and writing.  For those four years, I served those high school students as best I could.  I loved and cared about the students that I taught, and I loved and cared about the people that I worked with.

Yet, by the end of those four years, I was more miserable than I had ever been in my life.   It took a lot of soul-searching, but I finally figured out that, without passion, serving others can still lead to unhappiness – profound, existential unhappiness.  Even though I loved almost everyone I was around, I was miserable being a teacher.  I had no passion for teaching.  Not in a classroom.  Not that way.

My passion lay elsewhere.

Now, maybe there’s just something wrong with me.  Trust me, I’ve considered that possibility often.  But from that experience I learned that you can’t force yourself to serve a higher purpose; it has to be done willingly.  In fact, pure passion is about the only thing that will get me to willingly do more than I absolutely have to. 

During an interview I did with Dorina Groves a few months back, she showed me a tattoo on her arm which says, “Purpose produces passion.”  I think many of us, Mr. Jobs and Mr. Isaacson included, would agree with that basic premise, if not perhaps the idea of stitching it into your skin for all eternity.  But I also think the opposite is just as true, that passion produces purpose.  I think the two are inextricable.  I think that passion exists to lead us to our purpose, to lead us to a greater awareness of our unique reason for being here, and to lead us to discover the work that is ours to do.  Whether you start with passion or start with purpose isn’t anywhere near as important as just starting. 

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Don Bluth and The Front Row Theatre

The man met us on the porch in front of his house.  He was lanky, compact; his thin silver hair skimming far above a vast expanse of forehead, a matching silver moustache lying pencil-straight across his upper lip, and clear blue eyes that regarded us warmly as we advanced up the gravel driveway.  His face broke into a broad, embracing smile.  Somehow, it was the smile that convinced me that I knew who he was, for we had never met before.  As Elizabeth and I reached the landing, I leaned forward eagerly and extended my hand.  “You must be Don Bluth,” I said, smiling myself.  We shook hands.  “Yes, that’s me,” he said, nodding as if sheepishly admitting his culpability in doing a good deed.  Then he ushered us into his house. 

Just like that, I had met one of the great artists and most respected names in the history of animated movies. 

Two weeks before, I had no idea he even lived in the Valley, let alone was opening his home on a regular basis to complete strangers.  What an act of faith, I thought as we stood in the entry hall, next to a temporarily abandoned table.  After welcoming us, Mr. Bluth asked us to wait in the foyer while he attended to some last-minute details.  A woman soon stepped out from behind a curtained archway, and pleasantly welcomed us again.  She asked us for our names, checking them against a list, while a tall man who appeared at almost the same time affably accepted our $40 donation, and handed us two folded pieces of paper in return.  The pleasant woman then guided us through the hall to the living room, and delivered us to our seats.

We had arrived at The Front Row Theatre. 

The Front Row Theatre is an aptly named place.  The seating consists of one full row of chairs which corrals, on three sides, a very modest, two-tiered stage in the center of the room.  There is a partial second row of chairs, except on one side of the room where a wet bar has been converted into an audio/visual control booth.  There are about forty seats altogether.  We were sitting in the front row, seats 4 and 5, just to the left of center.  The edge of the stage was not three feet away. 

The show that night was “Barefoot in the Park,” the Neil Simon comedy about two young newlyweds, Paul and Corie, who move into their first place together in NYC, only to discover that the differences between them are underscored and exacerbated by the challenging conditions of the apartment they find themselves in.  Much conflict and comedy ensue before a happy ending.  The 1967 movie, with Robert Redford as Paul and Jane Fonda as Corie, has long been one of Elizabeth’s favorites.  It’s a movie she introduced me to when we were dating twenty-however-many years ago. 

Primarily for this reason, I wanted our destination to be a surprise for Elizabeth.  Leaving the house, all she had known about the night ahead of her was that I was taking her “to a show.”  When we pulled into a residential neighborhood off of Shea Boulevard in Scottsdale filled with capacious, stately homes on large, professionally landscaped lots, she was instantly suspicious.  “Where are you going?” she kept repeating.  “We don’t know anyone who lives in this area.”  When we pulled up in front of Mr. Bluth’s house, she was tilting dangerously toward ill-humor.  “Who lives here?  I thought you said you were taking me to a show.”  Then she noticed the cars parked along the street and in the driveway, and gave me a barely restrained glare.  “Who’s house is this?  Are we crashing someone’s party?” I feigned as much stupidity as I dared for as long as I dared, but was finally forced to confess that ‘the show’ we had to come to see was going to take place inside this particular house.  It was the only way I could get her to leave the car.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

A Bug's Death

It’s Wednesday morning, and we’re running late.  I’ve got about five minutes to get Maria dressed, brush her hair, and get her to preschool.  Luckily, the school is only four blocks away, and it is preschool after all, not a job interview; but still, I don’t want her to be late. 

By the time we rush out the door, I have one minute to get her to school.  With an automatic expertise born of endless repetition, I click her into her car seat, close the door, and hustle around the back of the car.  As I whip by the plants that line the side of the carport, I happen to notice a strange, dark spot on one of the white lily blossoms.  By the time the blot has registered in my mind, I have already opened my door and lifted one leg to step in.  I stop in mid-motion.  

What was that black thing on the lilies?  To ask a question like that, in a situation like that, is one of the things that makes me me.  Another is my inability to ignore the question. 

In spite of the pressure to get Maria to school, I step back, leaving the car door open while I take a look.  It was probably just a bit of trash that the wind lodged there, or a piece of foliage burnt to a crisp by the wicked sun.  But I have to verify; my innate curiosity has been aroused.    

I back up until I can clearly see the stunted white flowers of the lilies, which have sprung up unexpectedly because of all the recent rain.  The blossoms are anemic and tightly bunched; they look like small groups of geese being throttled, bills open, heads lolling.  On one of these flowers is a bug.  It’s a pretty big bug, easily the size of a thumbnail. Its body is elongated and flat, its head small and black.  Legs jutted up and away from the body before angling acutely down at the joint, reminiscent of a spider.  They are streaked with bright yellow and red.  The colors are striking, and for some reason the yellow, red and black pattern has a streamlined quality to it that reminds me of a football uniform.  And not a bad-looking one at that. 

I have never seen a bug like this before, and I’m the kind of person who keeps track of these things.  I get excited.  I immediately come to grips with the fact that Maria will be late to school; nothing matters more at that moment but getting a picture of this exotic-looking insect.  I hurry back into the house, where Elizabeth is in the kitchen, watching me quizzically as I pass through the dining room.  “What’s wrong?” she asks, but I don’t stop to explain.  I just say, “Need a camera,” and then grab one from the desk and rush straight back out the door.  I snap a few quick pictures of the bug, which hasn’t moved, then hop in the car and zoom off to school with Maria.  I’m hoping the creature will still be there when I get back, so I can take more carefully composed pictures.

Yes, I am one of those people who takes pictures of weird-looking bugs.  Now you know this about me.  It was bound to come out sooner or later.  I’ve been taking pictures of unusual insects for a while now.  So far, I’ve contented myself with photographing the ones I see around our house, in the front or back yard.  Some of insects I find are alive and well, like the one on the lily blossom Wednesday morning, but oftentimes I discover them only after they’ve shuffled off this mortal coil. 

Friday, September 7, 2012

Kev's Really Gnarly Meat Sauce Recipe

Generic picture of spaghetti
with meat sauce

Last Thursday I made spaghetti for dinner.  It turned out to be an inspired decision, but at the time I was just trying to do something with the two pounds of cooked hamburger meat that had been sitting in the fridge for several days.  Exactly how many days I can’t say, but I’m using the word several in its highly elastic sense.  It was long enough, at least, that I was close to losing my nerve and throwing away $7.32 worth of 80/20. 

I also had a veritable heap of pasta left over from dinner the night before, which is why spaghetti was the obvious choice.  I don’t do all my menu planning this way, but when you can kill two birds with one stone, you should do it, right?  Anyway, I thought if I made a meat sauce from scratch to put over the noodles, maybe no one would notice that we were eating old hamburger mixed with old pasta. 

So I found a recipe online for a homemade spaghetti sauce whose ingredient list matched what I was fairly confident we already had in the house.  Many times I will come up against a recipe I would love to try, but then discover we’re missing a key ingredient or two.  In these situations, there are a few things I can do:  make forced substitutions, or order pizza.  This is why, in our house, when we’re not eating pizza, chicken parmesan is sometimes made with canned tuna. 

Another generic picture of
spaghetti w/meat sauce
The option that is unequivocally not on the table is to make a special trip to the grocery store for that one missing ingredient.  Oh, no, not on my watch.  I’m a man, dammit, and we can make do with what we’ve got on hand.  As with most men, I pride myself on my resourcefulness.  In fact, resourceful is my middle name.  Well, actually it’s Jon, but that just shows how resourceful my dad was:  he found a way to give me that name using only 75% of the necessary letters. 

After several minutes spent trying to memorize the recipe off the computer screen, I concluded that it would be easier, and quicker, to just run back and forth between the kitchen and my desk as many times as necessary.  I focused only on the first step, which was to cut up one medium-sized onion, and four cloves of garlic.  For some reason it’s always the little ambiguities that get me when I cook.   I know what an onion is.  But do I really know exactly what constitutes a medium-sized onion?  How big, exactly, is medium?  I lined up my three suspects on the counter, and pondered each carefully.  Yes, they were definitely onions.  And they were all almost identical in size.  But were they all medium, or were they all something else?  I was already at a definite disadvantage working with old hamburger and pasta; I didn’t want to compound my problems by over-onioning or under-onioning the sauce.  I stared them down, hoping one of them would crack and spill the scallions.  After several long moments, I realized that my youngest daughter was watching me, so I pretended to be examining the onions very carefully for blemishes.  After the kid wandered off, I selected the most average-looking one, and then, so I wouldn’t be tempted to second-guess myself, hid the other two in a nearby cookie jar.