Leading and Following

The Narnia books were one of my favorite, and most often read, stories of my childhood. Many of the life-lessons were easy to understand as a child, and of course my imagination went wild with the fantastical talking beasts and the adventures that the protagonists, which were children my age, went-on.

I’d like to take a moment to reflect on two specific lessons from those books that I now see in a different light than I did at nine years old.

First consider Professor Digory Kirke. He was a kind and quiet provider, and mentor, to the four children. I never thought before of how difficult it must have been for Digory to hear Lucy’s tale of Narnia, and to not grow jealous in that moment. It was a great favor given to Lucy that Aslan opened the door for her to find her way into Narnia. Digory no doubt yearned his whole life to return to that wonderful place, and it would have been hard, maybe even painful, to hear that someone else in his home had been invited – while he had not. And yet he was never jealous, he was never selfish, he never tried to steal Lucy’s invitation from her.

Lucy’s adventure is the next lesson that resonates with me more and more as I grow older. In the second book, Prince Caspian, the four children find themselves in a Narnia greatly changed since they had last visited. It’s a world much older, and now groaning under the weight of conniving, backstabbing, power-hungry rulers and the harsh oppression of its most vulnerable, and magical, inhabitants – the talking animals.

The word’s of film Trumpkin are harsh and true “you may find Narnia a more savage place than you remember“. In the midst of this pain, while lost and still not sure how they are going to be able to help Prince Caspian, Lucy sees Aslan bidding her up the ridge. Lucy excitedly tells her siblings, and Trumpkin that they should all go up the ridge and follow Aslan. Edmund supports her, but all the older members of the group decide to go the safer route down toward the river.

The downward route into the gorge ended in a dangerous trap and the entire group had to retrace their steps back up the ridge. Aslan gently admonishes Lucy for not following Him alone.

I thought this would have been a scary thing to do when I read this as a youngster, to break away from the group and follow the path you saw – even when the others didn’t see it. In some way it feels like it would be even scarier now that I am an adult. I think there is a tension here, between being bold enough to follow your calling, as was Lucy’s challenge, and mature enough to know when you should listen to someone else, as Edmund did.

The Leaf

A fallen leaf, once was green and growing. Then it showed a flame of orange and a wave of red. Stately in form and strong in its season. Now dry and perched on the ground. It is still, and only a memory from summer.

A smile across his face, the cold Autumn breeze turning his nose and cheeks red, and with the magnificent wonder carried by all young children, the boy runs down the lane. Life itself is new to him and he delights in it all.

A single stride, only one footfall in so many the boy has already taken, and the proud leaf is crushed under the treads of his sneaker. A gust carries the chaff away, and the leaf is remembered no more.

Before and After

I remember those wild summer days in Ohio.

The afternoon air dared not move. Chocked full of humidity and burdened by heat of the day, it was thick with the smell of pollen and cut grass. Squirrels moved around their trees with a special laziness, and the only songs to be heard came from a handful of determined red-winged blackbirds. Looking west you could see the cumulus clouds, the harbingers of heavy rain, reaching high into the atmosphere.

This was the calm before the storm.

Inside the house, with the air conditioner running, and physically separated from it, you could still feel the pregnant pause and bated breath carried by the whole of the outside world. Likely as not, the TV was tuned to Channel 3 news, and Tony Cavalier was standing in front of a projected map of our region. Overlaying the state lines and the names of cities were large swaths of green, yellow, and red. He would imitate the prevailing winds and push the boundaries of the storm in their projected directions, all the while listing the threat of flash floods and wind gusts.

Then it began to change.

The lacy-fingered leaves of the water maples started trembling and showed their silver underbellies. The oppressive heat quickly faded away in light of the cool breeze. This was last call. The few birds that had been singing now headed for roost, and the low and long thunder could be heard rolling over the hills.

Sometimes the weather warnings were dire enough that we went the cellar, other times we would be trying to finish work in the field and would run into one of our barns at the last minute. Wherever it was you took shelter, there was only one thing to do.

Wait.

Within the next 15 – 30 minutes, an incredible amount of energy was released from the heavens. In those times of outburst, I’ve seen panelling ripped off a roof, old limbs tore from their trunks, and sheets of rain so thick that they seemed to swallow up every barn and tree as they sped toward the house.

And then it was over. The raging and the magnificent release of energy was born in full. Stepping outside and breathing the fresh air was beautiful, it was much cooler than before and always smelled so clean right after a storm. You could see the many rivulets gurgling across the hills, and the flat places in the lawn had been turned to small swamps. This too only lasted a few minutes. Soon the excess water would find its way to now swollen creeks and pasture ponds. Water was dripping from the branches of old trees, and even though you could see where a few branches had been lost, the trees themselves were no longer trembling. They looked strong – and now clean to boot.

This was the calm after the storm.

When You Can’t Abstain

I’ve heard it said that you don’t get to complain if you didn’t vote. I think that idiom distracts us from what is really important, and what is really happening in our minds and souls. The opportunity to complain with impunity isn’t what we most care about, and this post isn’t even about voting.

No, I think we are more scared of unintended consequences from our choices, and of suffering for our choice. It’s much more comfortable to let someone choose for us, to let things happen to us rather than to make things happen.

Take fire doors.

I remember one thing distinctly from my onboarding into the union of the Ohio Valley Electric Corporation, and that was to not tarry below a fire door. Up until that day, I had no idea what a fire door was. These were massive steel doors hung over key doorways. In the event of a fire (a fire in a coal power plant could turn into an unimaginable inferno) these doors could be released and come crashing down in the doorway – effectively separating the two regions of the power plant.

Ok, step one is don’t stand under the fire door lest it crush you. That’s an easy enough way to save yourself from an unfortunate death.

It’s the question about step two that makes us uncomfortable, which side do I stand on?

And that’s the crux of it all – you must make a choice. When disaster comes calling, you better be on the right side of that door. That same steel curtain could be the protector standing between you and a painful demise, or if you’re on the other side and running from the flames, it could be the end of your road. As Colin Meloy sings in Rox in the Box “and it’s one, two, three, on the wrong side of the lee. What were you meant for?”

There comes a time in life when you cannot abstain. A time when you must act, and I think now is a good a time as any to ask that question. What are you meant for?

Pontius Pilate sought to abstain. He tried to abdicate his responsibility for murder. He washed his hands and told the mobs that Jesus death and blood were on their heads, and not his. When questioned by God on whether he ate forbidden fruit – Adam said that Eve ate, and she gave him some to eat.

Esther bucked that trend. In her place of security, she had ample opportunity to hide behind the laws, to hide behind the status quo. She chose to risk all of that, to risk her very life, for the good and right cause.

We so often look for someone else to make the choice, someone else to hold the reins of responsibility. Let us not wait for those in power to make things right, for those with the authority to make it easy to do the right thing.

When we come face to face with the time that we are meant for, may we all choose, and take action, as Esther so beautifully did.

Echoes

I think it was about this time of year, five years gone now, that I sat with Dr. Krakowka in his backyard in Columbus Ohio. Over a beer or two, and the course of an evening, we talked about pathology, and philosophy, and life in general. I don’t remember all of our conversation, but I remember him insisting that I should read a certain book, one I had never heard of, Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

There was an abundance of reading material during that time in veterinary school, so I was in no rush to add yet another title to the laundry list of things I ought to read.

Several months later, while collecting my cap and tassel from the University bookstore, I saw the very same book Dr. K had spoke of. I had a few extra dollars left on my school account (useful for paying for printing, but I wouldn’t need much more of that as I was graduating) so I purchased the text.

I at first found it to be rather boring, so I only read a couple chapters and gave up. But because Dr. K had spoken so highly of it, I opened it again and engaged with it.

It seemed disjointed to me, like it lacked direction, because that is precisely the plight of the protagonist. He is lost. He is tired. He isn’t sure whether he can connect to the world around him anymore. Fragmented memories haunt him and he often sees the “ghost” of who he used to be.

It’s been one decade since I first went to The University of Idaho. Ten years can seem like a very short time, but at this point in my life – setting off for the north was nearly a third of my entire life-experience ago, and I’m no longer the same person.

In the last couple years, I’ve had a few of these ghostly experiences. It always happened after some particularly strong memory was triggered. I experienced a wave of emotions, the very same emotions that were with me years ago during the formation of that memory. What made the experience strange, was becoming aware of how much I have changed since then. Not in an overbearing way, but just seeing that the choices Daniel made then, are not always the same choices I would make now, and by extrapolation – everyone else in those memories has also gone extraordinary change in the same time.

Will I even remember writing this in another ten years? What will I think then of how I choose to interact, or not, with my son Ivan, who not able to do much of anything right now at only 2 months old. What about my eldest Katarina, turning 2 years old in just a couple weeks and full of joyful fire? How will today’s choices carry through the next short decade, during which we will all change again?

Your Choice

My friend and I were daydreaming about leaving Moscow Idaho. It was a sunny spring day, as we drove the Moscow Pullman highway east into Idaho. I don’t remember if we were in my Silverado, or in her Subaru, but we talked of how beautiful it would be to visit the National Parks in Utah right at that moment.

As our discussion covered the Colorado river, the red rocks, the abundance of open land, and incredible places we could visit – it was as if the idea became tangible and began to take shape. We both grew quiet. She quietly said “but we can’t go yet, we have finals next week”.

I don’t remember exactly what I replied, but I was often truculent those days, and I challenged her perspective.

Why couldn’t we leave? Of course we would miss the final examination next week, and maybe we would fail the class, but what was really stopping us from doing just that? Why not just head for the mountains right then, and figure the rest out on the way? Does the fact that we had already completed three years of college mean we have to finish our final year? What was really stopping us from dropping our plans then and there, on the Moscow Pullman Highway, and just continuing our drive across the continent?

It’s a choice that keeps us.

I think this was the message of The Truman Show, when our beloved protagonist chose to leave – there was nothing that could stop him. Storms, false-friends, and the entire community organized against him wasn’t enough to keep him there.

There is a great freedom that comes with the realization that we have the power to leave, that we are no trapped, that we have a choice – and that very same breath of freedom also brings the mantle of responsibility.

If we choose to stay, we also choose to accept the consequences of staying. If we leave, we bear both the good and the bad that comes with that. As it is written in Galatians 6 “for whatsoever a man sows, that shall he also reap”.

Funnels and Flow

Pouring of liquids has mildly fascinated me for as long as I can remember. I think it’s the grace that is in the flow of a small stream, the way it bends and bubbles around the rocks, and especially how it maintains a shape as it falls short distances.

Haliburton Forest, overflow of Lake Havelock

I remember one occasion where my chore allotment was to wash dishes after dinner. I was dreading how long it would take (it was always longer than sweeping the floor or clearing the table) and rather than buckling down and washing, I began playing with the water. I poured cup full after cup full of water into the plastic drying basin (looked like this) and watched the water flow from the little holes in the cutlery pockets.

The water at first flowed straight, and fast, from those little holes, but as the tub emptied, the angle changed and the point-of-impact of the three little streams changed as well. I spent so long playing like this that the water grew cool, and dad came in the kitchen and asked if I was ok. It was bedtime and I still hadn’t finished my chores.

I had opportunities to pour more fluids than just dirty dishwater as I grew older, and they all pour a little differently. Cold milk flows quite a bit differently than hot tea. Engine oil and and gasoline are vastly different. And of course, the lip and shape of containers I poured from had a great impact on how the fluids flowed.

Over time this became a game for me, and watching my dad, a chemist with a steady hand pour exquisitely well, I always tried to free-hand it.

I went out to spray some ant-hills yesterday, and as I went to transfer the solution from one half-full container to the other half-full container, I felt like using a funnel. I’ve used funnels many times before, when the costs of spilling solution were higher than a little cleanup of milk or petrol, but this time I didn’t really need the funnel – it just seemed natural to use it.

It struck me in that moment that something has changed in me, and I can’t pinpoint exactly when it happened. Maybe it is the influence of the woodworking, and conscientiously taking extra time and effort to use the circular saw “just so”. Maybe it is an effect of fatherhood, and watching my daughter uncannily imitate my motions and words. Maybe it is from owning a business and being aware that seemingly insignificant choices, and changes, amplified over time, can influence a large ship.

Whatever may be the cause, my lifestream will continue to change as it flows through shallow sandy beds, turbulent stoney outcroppings, and quiet pools.

There is no going backward in this flow. There is no stopping of this river.

There is the chance to prepare yourself. The chance to train and be ready for the many rocks that lay ahead. The chance to move lithely through those terrors rather than smashed and broken upon them.

Bitchin’

I honestly don’t mean to be controversial, nor inflammatory, with that title.

I’ve thought, off and on, of writing this post for a few months now, since Independence Day 2019.

July 4th 2019 was the release date of Stranger Things Season 3, and that expression was used several times that series. It didn’t strike me as vulgar when it was said. The more I have thought about it, the more I think it fit with the story the Duffer brothers had been telling since the first season.

Stranger Things again, and again, challenges us to stand up for what we believe is right. Even when everyone around refuses to believe, despises, or even outright persecutes – each character is still expected to carry their convictions through.

In the first season, Joyce has to stand up to every single person in her life about her belief that her missing son yet lives. Hopper takes on the state police force. Steve calls out the manipulative and abusive behavior of his closest friends…. the list goes on for each person who must personally face significant pain, or danger, to follow through on their convictions – and the one glaring cautionary tale is the gentle Barbara Holland.

Barb isn’t into mischief, and he seems to be doing OK at avoiding trouble in her life. She is trying to be a friend to Nancy, but when Nancy heads for clear trouble, Barb allows herself to be talked into a bad idea. She knows what is right for her to do, but she allows herself to be talked into taking a road that deep down she knows is wrong. Her compliance to Nancy’s enticements ends up costing her very life, and she’s one of the only named-characters to get devoured by the Demogorgon.

So going back to the word bitchin’. I had a bitch, an Australian Shepherd with two beautiful blue eyes, and she was fierce, vigilant, and attacked both raccoons and coyotes that came too close to our farm. Eleven and company were a lot like that in Stranger Things. Each person was called on to be fierce, to be vigilant, to fight evil…and in that way, bitchin’ seemed like the perfect term.

Caring For Storm

Katarina was playing in the backyard, by herself, while I worked in the garage the other afternoon.

She’s only 19 months old, and in that short time she’s shown much independence and an understanding of the world around her.

I heard an excited yipping, that sounded almost like the squeaking of our puppy Perry, but not quite. I figured it was the neighbors’ puppy, Storm, barking at Katarina from across the fence, but to be sure it wasn’t an escaped Perry, I went out on the porch to check.

Sure enough, it was Storm yipping. I expected that Katarina might be frightened by that, and that she would be crying, or come running my way for me to pick her up, but she was doing the very opposite. She was walking right toward the fence that separated her and the excited dog across the fence.

Katarina didn’t notice that I had walked out on the porch, so I just watched her quietly. She was holding something shiny in her hands as she walked toward the fence. I was wondering at that moment if I should intervene, because maybe Storm would take whatever was in her hand and carry it away. Just as I was about to call out to her, she said “water?” in a questioning voice (when she says water, it sounds more like the word wire, but we still get the meaning).

Then it all came together for me.

The shiny thing in her hands was Perry’s stainless steel water bowl, still a quarter full of water, and she was offering it to Storm. It was beautiful to see her offering him help.

The Path

I thought this was a new path. I had to find a way of my own in the wilderness. Like Bilbo, the hero from my childhood, the steps I took led me deeper out of my comfort zone, farther and farther out of what I had expected my life to look like. Even as I took those steps, I suppose that I thought I would find some place to call home.

I don’t remember the last time that I played hide and seek in the backyard with my friends, I remember playing that game so many times, but I can’t remember the last time. That last time came, the last game I was ever to play with them, and I didn’t know it for what it was.

Each step I take makes my history longer and leaves me with yet more memories of things that once were, but will not be again for me.

My grandparents have all moved on. I have memories of Grandma Jenny, Grandma Elaine, and Grandpa Carl – but my daughter will never know them. Her world is one that doesn’t have them.

And yet.

Yet these roads are well worn. Generations upon generations have walked this way and have asked the same questions. I understand more of why Jacob said to the Pharaoh “The days of the years of my sojourning are 130 years. Few and evil have been the days of the years of my life, and they have not attained to the days of the years of the life of my fathers in the days of their sojourning.”

The fact is, I never will find my home in this world. One day I’ll write my very last blog post, one day my fingers will hit these keys, now worn smooth by my typing, for the last time. The last line of code, the last words, the last thoughts. I don’t know when that day will arrive, but I know that this time I have been given is an incredible gift.

Later, some time after Jacob had spoke to Pharaoh with those tormented and heavy words, he reached the end of his journey, and summoning his strength one last time, he knew it was his final chance, he sat up and spoke a great blessing on his sons.

Enough Data

I am finding that most of my decisions are made with enough data, and this is a different perspective on a trend I have been aware of for a handful of years now.

I want more data for my decisions, and I have continually wanted more data since I graduated veterinary school. Honestly it started before graduation. I was working as a Kennel Assistant (caring for dogs and cats, and cleaning their kennels, on Saturdays and some holidays) for a successful veterinarian in Columbus Ohio.

He took time to mentor me, making my work in the kennels much more valuable for me than just learning how to pill cats and dogs, and getting paid $9 an hour. Discussing the bloodwork on a case, and the unknown factors, I told him how I felt.

I felt like I was in a dark room, and I could see just past the end of my nose. I was looking for something, and the only way to find it was to reach out into the darkness, beyond how far I could see, and take hold of it. My mentor’s response suprised me – he said “don’t worry, after a decade in practice I still feel that way”.

Ah, I was hoping that he was just trying to make me feel better about my ignorance of many things. I was hoping that feeling would subside over time, but nearly 4 years into this arena and it hasn’t gone away. It’s kind of like a shapeshifter. Every time I solve a problem, every time I learn a system, every time I grasp the issue, I find a deeper level of meaning waiting to be understood.

So now I am learning to follow the rest of my mentor’s advice and to abide that uncertainty and make the best decision with what I have, and then learn more, and decide again. Wash, rinse, repeat. Iterate.

Don’t let the uncertainty paralyze you. You may have enough data.

What is the story I want to tell?

I see a scene of late summer, early afternoon and the air dry and restless. The grass has grown long and the weeds tall across the hills. Kneeling on the ground, near to a scrub oak, she carefully considers the remaining supplies in her pack and takes a bearing. She knows she needs to make a couple more miles before nightfall, and she’s being deliberate. She’s young, maybe twelve or thirteen years old, and I don’t know why she isn’t with anyone else. Something terrible has happened and this is her way forward. She is not in immediate danger, but she knows she is not in a place of safety either. She must be vigilant. There’s a seriousness to the situation, but she is not panicking.

I’m not sure where she came from. I don’t know where she is going, and I’m not even sure why it matters. When I tried to write about her story it seemed so jumbled, so scattered, that I didn’t enjoy reading the few lines I put down.

Maybe I will put down some more lines, and this story could yet reveal itself.

Spaces

I was incredibly fortunate to be a child with open spaces all around me. There was a pile of old haybales in the loft of our horse barn. I rearranged the pile in such a way that there was a space for me to sleep with soft hay below me, and walls of bales all around me. Occasionally during the January winter nights, I would go sleep on that hay pile. I can still remember one night in specific. My dog Esther was with me, and we could occasionally hear the rustle of one of the goats in a stall below us, or the gentle bellow of of one of the cows (yes we let our beef cows use the beautiful horse stalls). On that night it was snowing, and when the wind picked up, I can still see the way the flurries came dancing and gliding under the eves and settled on the cold oak floorboards.

This was only of the many spaces that I had claimed as a young man. There was also the massive limb of a giant white oak tree that grew on our neighbors’ hill. That one limb was as large around as many decent trees ever grew to be, and it had a perfect bend and arch to it that let me lay on it and watch the woods from a short distance up. I once asked a dendrologist about the possible age of those oaks. From their location, size, and history of logging in that region of Ohio – he said they could be around two-three centuries old.

When I went to University, I found the available spaces to be much less common. My alma mater had an absolutely delightful Arboretum (the other “Old”, and mostly forgotten, Arboretum had a rich history, but I’m talking about the “New” Arboretum here), and I spent oh so many evenings there with my thoughts to accompany me. Many times I went there with my closest friends, and other times it was the place to find solitude. On one occasion, there was half a dozen of us that went up late one Friday or Saturday night. When the dawn drew nigh, we climbed the hill and sat on the roof of a small storage shed, that was situated under the campus water-tower. This shed was a stone’s throw from a hedgerow that lined the backyard of the President’s house. We sat there and watched the sun rise up over the city.

I was some months later at a dinner with President Nellis, and I told the First Lady (Ruthie) that I loved the Arboretum tremendously, and how once I was with some friends sitting on the roof of the old shed and I apologized if we ever got too loud when we were so close to their home. She said “oh we can hear you students in the middle of the night, but it doesn’t bother us too much, we love and enjoy the arboretum too”.

But the UI Arboretum wasn’t even the space where I had my most memorable moments. That most precious space was Alice’s Room. Way up on the fourth floor of the Commons building (now called the Student Union), Alice’s Room was a small place of beauty, with wood panels and a wall of glass that looked out over Phinney Hall. You could see a long way from up there.

In the cold winter nights, the air was crisp and clear and there were a thousand points of light out in the night. There was also a steam plant down below on Line St, and the floo gas rhythmically drifted up and curled out into the night. It was mesmerizing. Sitting in that room, always in silence, gave me new perspective. When the tempest raged in my head, I could escape to Alice’s Room and ride out the storm of emotion and the chaos of thoughts. More than once I desperately hoped the janitor would forget to check the room, and instead just lock the door. That way I could spend the entire night in there, but just a few minutes before locking the building down, he would always find me in there and kindly tell me he was about to lock up.

I don’t know if I’ll ever get back to any of those spaces, and if I do, they won’t be the same. My memories are not of simple physical places, but of the stage I was in and how those spaces were interwoven with my life. Those spaces are part of my story now.

Aging

You’ve changed and it took me a moment to recognize you. Your hair once thick with the hue of a late autumn forest, is but a thin forgotten gray.

They speak of the years being kind and of the days pleasant, but on your face the years have drawn deep lines, and on your cheeks the days have worn long.

Yet I see the same old friend when I look into your eyes. The life-flame within you grows still strong.

Overwatch 2001

This has nothing to do with the incredibly popular video game Overwatch. This post is about the game I first played in 2001 – “Halo: Combat Evolved”. It was an incredible experience for me. The first night I had played it, when it came to go to bed, sleep eluded me. I am one that often has no memory of turning the light off (in fact I frequently have fallen asleep with the light still on). On that night, sleep eluded me. Instead I had eidetic memories of battling grunts and jackals.

I had never played a video game with such a responsive enemy before. The intelligence was creepy. Yes the NPCs had their starting positions, but they moved and responded to me in such a way that it felt like I was really there. I got lost in the game for a while, they had at the first passed my Turing test.

Eventually I traversed the uncanny valley and the game took a much more mundane role in my imagination. The AI was scripted and bounded. It was, after all, hollow and dead inside once you had dug deep enough.

And yet there was still magic to be found in that game, not by the games designers, but within our own imagination – in recreating a moment that had impressed me as a boy a couple years before.

This scene.

An excellent story of honor, love, sacrifice… I recommend watching that film in its entirety. It will move you.

Anyway, that scene had especially impressed me and my younger sister, Elizabeth, and in cooperatively replaying Halo many times over, we had found a way to recreate that scene. In fact I can still remember exactly how we did it,

We would sit in the room upstairs in my mom and dad’s house, the old room with pink carpet and thick walls, that had once been part of the original log cabin. I had an alarm clock that was also a CD player. It had a cracked screen. It had a function to increase volume until the snooze button or shut off was pressed, and it would occasionally get all the way to maximum volume before waking me up. Unfortunately for my dear family, it would wake all of them up at that level. On one occasion, I finally woke in a panic because my family was yelling at me to shut it off, and in my haste to do so – I knocked it off the table and cracked the screen.

Elizabeth and I would play together, over an hour through one of the longest stages in the game, Two Betrayals, and make it to the Final Run.

Two Betrayals. Halo: Combat Evolved

A legion of enemy warriors, including even two armored tanks and a dozen dug-in infantry troops, waited for us at the other end of the valley.

We would then put, into that old CD player, the soundtrack (that we probably had downloaded from Napster) of the “The Last of The Mohicans”.

Most often I, but on occasion I would allow my little sister to do it, would sneak out ahead and steal one of the flying ships from the enemy. Ideally one would use the powerful weapons of the flying ship to bombard the entrenched enemy position, or at least to take out the heavily armored tanks, but in this case we would park our vehicled on a very high ledge and instead pull out the sniper rifle.

The other player, previoulsy watching and patiently waiting, would now arm themselves with the shotgun and an assault rifle, and with the Last of the Mohicans Music resonating in the room, the person on the ground would let out a battle cry and charge the enemy position. The trick of that person was mainly to avoid the massive cannon blasts from the enemy armor and to charge straight for the door on the far end of the valley, all the while the person up on the bridge sat in overwatch.

Up on the bridge I could see the full battlefield and I would use the sniper rifle to protect my friend from the attacking infantry. We made believe that we were the legendary Uncas and Hawkeye while we provided cover for our brave hero that was face to face with the enemy.

That is a most precious memory of a shared experience with my sister Elizabeth, and one I will continue to treasure.

The Foreignness of a Newborn Babe

I have seen hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of newborn Holstein calves over the last 3 and a half years.

Back in veterinary school, I saw a black calf with white spots, or vice versa. Now I see so much more in a calf.

I see chest and hip shape, muzzle curve, ear angles, neck length, elbow rotation, fetlock breakover, craniolateral position of the eyes and more. I am not even trying to look at those things, I just see them now. It fascinates me because it was happening over time without my full knowledge.

There is some part of my brain that collects, stores, and compares those measurements and observations, without me even aware of it, and it is working all the time. It’s a process that builds, and even as it conitinually ran in the background of my brain, I never really noticed it until my daughter was born.

Katarina taking her first of many naps

In that moment that I saw her present to the world, I realized, like Jon Snow, I knew nothing. It was humbling to see this little life and not know anything about how a brand new human looks. It was a token moment, feeling like the moment the window pane trembles, and the walls shudder, under the lashing rain and burgeoning gusts of a thunderstorm. In that instance, you realize just how much the window and walls mean to your survival.

Seeing her for the first time told me very clearly that my life had crossed some threshold and would never be the same.

Our ship had found itself in new waters.

I Found You!

Parenthood has forever changed me, kind of like marriage did.

Back when I was a single man, I had so much time alone. Evening after evening, if I didn’t have plans with friends, I went to sleep in silence. I often ate my supper alone. I watched the television program that I wanted to, or listened to the music that I wanted to (I must have played Emotionalism a couple hundred times). My bathroom cabinet was stocked only with products that I used. The blankets and sheets on my bed were the blankets and sheets that I chose. Yes I was limited by budget and location, but other than that I had full autonomy. I could get anything I wanted from the local Salvation Army, and decorate my apartment in the best way I saw fit.

After marrying, I found a forever date. Dinner out – now always for two. I get to consider someone else in every decision.

Now that we have a baby, the dynamic has changed again.

It’s a whole new level of taking another into consideration.

Even when my wife and I step out on the porch for a few minutes of coffee and contemplation, and our little one is happily playing with her cousin and auntie Emily, she will find us. She is not easily dissuaded.

Made a Mistake

I made a mistake last week.

A friend set up a training session for some fellows in our new church plant. These guys have signed up to volunteer on a specific team, and they need to go through the training before they are cleared to volunteer.

I am the coordinator for that team in our new church, and we are very short handed, so it was a great help to me that my friend set up the training. An older fellow agreed to do the training, and I had two guys on my team who said they could go to the training.

As we got closer to the date of the training, Sunday at 9:00 am, I confirmed the RSVP with the two guys on my team. I had hoped for more guys to be able to make it, and I didn’t want to waste the time of the older fellow.

Everything looked like it was going to turn out well, and then Saturday morning I got a message that no one showed up for the training.

The training was Saturday morning, not Sunday morning.

I had misread the message and put it on my calendar on the wrong day. I had told those fellows the wrong day!

Because of my mistake a significant amount of time was wasted. I felt so bad, I called the fellow that was to lead the training and apologized, I called the fellows on my team and explained the mix-up.

Still I felt bad.

I felt like I shouldn’t have stepped up to coordinate the team, like they would be better off without me. I felt like I was the reason for much pain in these fellows lives – but that isn’t true. I made a mistake. I did not intentionally cause these men any trouble.

If this had been the other way, if someone had stood me up because they misread my message and they had the wrong date, I would understand and I would not think ill of them.

So why do I feel so much worse, about myself, than I would about someone else?

“Hello Beastie”

Those two words have meant much to me over the last decade.

You can watch the clip that contains that quote here. It’s a memorable point in the somewhat forgettable second installment of Pirates of the Caribbean – The Dead Mans Chest.

Captain Jack Sparrow has spent two and a half hours of screentime running from cannibals, pirates, the English Navy, and Davy Joneses crew of fishmen. In the end, it was our plucky pirates own lusts that caught him up, and then he goes on to deliver that line that gives me chills, as he looks unquestionable death right in the face. “Hello Beastie”.

There’s no way out of this one for Jack. There’s no one to be guiled, no rope to swing away with, and no tricks left. It’s the true end.

Yet, even in those very last moments, when all else is taken away from us. When the future and the past are both forgotten, when all our hopes and our fears are swallowed up by the magnitude of the present, we still have a choice.

On one hand we can give up, let our pain make the decision for us and say “it’s too much, what could I possibly do”? On the other hand, we can take what we have been given, look right at what has come our way, and give even our final breath to the right course.

The Lighting of the Trees

My interest was captured by a beautiful invitation on the door of the donuts shop this morning. It was advertising a fundraiser for the Tulare Hospital Foundation at $125 ticket price. Hors d’oeuvres, cocktails, networking, awards, and a silent auction were all promised as part of the evening’s experience.

I stopped for a minute and looked at the flyer, and I found myself surprised that a posh event like this would even be of interest to one such as myself. I began to daydream about Tiffany and I dressing to the nines, sipping wine and enjoying the gala. Yes Christmas is our favorite holiday (thus our daughter has a French middle name – Noelle), and yes I am happy to support the hospital, but I think the real allure… was status.

I believe the attraction I felt, in that moment, was the chance to feel high-society. At such an event, I could tell myself the story of mystique and sophistication, and I would have the chance to play the role of a wealthy elite.

I don’t know why I felt this today. Perhaps it is because I watched a couple episodes of Frasier last night, with all of it’s tongue in cheek refinement and erudition. Perhaps it is because I am adjusting to the life I now live with a 14 month old, and the regular public displays of goofiness I provide. Perhaps I am feeling rather unrefined.

As an aside, when my daughter, seated next to me in her carseat while I drive to town, hands me her WubbaNub Baby Giraffe (pacifier), what am I to do except for to begin sucking on the pacifier? When I can so easily delight her, and make her smile, a smile which is like a thousand gold sunsets, how can I not accept the gift from her – no matter how much posterity I give up? And when someone driving the other way seems to recognize me and gives me a very questioning look, what can I do except wave and smile?

I still feel it

I thought that, by now, this would be easier. I expected that after a hundred public posts, I wouldn’t feel any more fear sharing my thoughts.

Kind of like preg-checking cows. I thought that the pain was going to go away from that too. My arms were bruised, sore, and swollen for the first few weeks on this job. Early on, every next cow was yet another stab of pain. In the same way, the first posts here made me sweat a little, made me second guess myself at every little sound of an incoming email or text. It was that thought, way in the back of my mind, saying it would be someone angry at me for something I wrote, saying it would be someone telling me how wrong I am.

I don’t feel like I am injured on every cow anymore. Sometimes it still hurts, sometimes my wrist has still ached, and my forearm occasionally tender, but it is manageable. The pain doesn’t prevent me from doing my job anymore. The pain is there. The pain is real. There are even many things I do now to prevent injury ….but the pain is not what guides me.

And also with these posts. The fear must still be addressed. Like a feral dog just outside the light, the temptation to hide, to mince my words, to water down my thoughts, to avoid saying the hard things, to make everything a little softer than I truly believe it should be – is still there.

There is a time for soft words, and there is a time to speak the hard things. Proverbs 27 says that “as iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another”. That isn’t a very pleasant picture to my mind – two pieces of iron grinding against one another. I don’t find it comfortable to think about being one of those blades, and yet as I mature, I find good coming from that place of conflict. Not always comfortable, not always pleasant, but good.

Washing machine woes

The laundry didn’t get washed last night, and I still don’t know the root cause. We loaded the machine as normal, set the cycle like we have hundreds of times before, and then nothing exciting happened.

The drum began to spin gently, the lid locked tight, the pump tried to push out any residual water, but the new never filled the basin. It was such a lackluster breakdown. A quiet spin that went nowhere, a couple sad beeps, and a soft reset.

I checked the water pressure – good. I checked the water filters – looked good but I didn’t get them out of the line yet.

I went to handy Google, and found quite the plethora of similar complaints. The one that is most exciting is right here. It’s an in-depth technical walkthrough of troubleshooting. Yes there is a warning about needing the necessary expertise to go through it…but I have a voltmeter (which up until writing this post I thought was spoken as vol-timm-iter) and I have a basic understanding of electricity.

With time and patience, I think this could turn out to be like the auto-mechanical projects I’ve taken on, very rewarding at the end!

Taking Hold

I’ve been holding onto a hundred different ropes. Every one of them is a thread running to something in my life – something that I believe has potential. Something wild to be taken and tamed. It’s high time to let go of some of those ropes.

All this time, I am eagerly anticipating that day when I defeat a Bengal tiger at the end of one of those ropes.

Anyone can subdue a lamb. Many have tied up a calf. It is nothing extraordinary to catch a squirrel.

The future belongs to the one who bears the gaze of the tiger, and then binds it.

I’ve been waiting and preparing for that life or death dance with that proud beast.

The myriad of squawking chickens and noisy toy monkeys on the end of my ropes are distractions. It’s time to let them go.

It’s time, with both hands, to take hold of the line that leads directly to the snapping jaws.

Are you OK being with yourself?

I am always with myself by necessity, but I am learning that I can also choose to be with myself.

In the same way that I can be, physically present, with my family, and at other times I can choose to be present emotionally and cognitively.

A family member once told me they were in between jobs and had been asked by a friend to care for their friend’s home over several weeks one winter. This home was a small mansion that sat on a lake in Minnesota, and my family member’s responsibility would be watching over the home and taking the family Golden Retriever out for regular exercise, and they would be paid to boot. I was starstruck at the thought of that. What a glorious winter that would be. No deadlines. No expecations. Just the chance to be present, in a luxury home, in the glorious Minnesota winter.

I pictured lots of hot tea and cider, beautiful snow all the time, a warm fire and good books. Oh what a dream. My family member said they didn’t know if they would take the opportunity because “I don’t know if I like myself enough to be with alone with myself that long”. He went on to say that he didn’t think it would be as much of an issue for me, but that it was a real struggle for him. That comment made me think deeply.

It’s been a decade since that conversation, and as each day passes, I am learning more about present with myself and being OK about that. I am not the same man I was yesterday, and tomorrow will be a new day again, but the beautiful gift and the only place I can ever be, is right here, today.

You are not a mistake. You are loved more than you’ll ever know. It’s only life, enjoy the ride.

False Dichotomy

I had a long conversation with a friend today. We covered politics, evolution, finances, college experiences and more. He would throw false dichotomies at me in jest as we got into a debate. I thought there was a single word, or a common expression, for a false dichotomy, but I couldn’t remember it right away. As almost any other 21st century westerner would do, I went to Google and searched the term.

I found this elegant piece on the importance of false dichotomies in programming. I immediately realized that I have relied entirely on constraining the inputs to my system, and I haven’t built in any handlers for when those inputs are novel. This gives me yet another way to make my next project a little more robust and a little more flexible.

Anyway, this conversation got me thinking about all the false dichotomies I have thrown myself into.

I have to do exactly what the client wants, or they will hate me forever.”

If there is any kind of setback, I must be going the wrong way.”

I have to excersise for a full hour, or it’s not worth exercising at all.”

When the brakes needed changed

I spent a good portion of one long Ohio summer at my best friends house. I was 18 going on 19 that year. Josiah and I spent countless hours playing ping pong, hunting, and riding four wheelers that year. One evening some of his parents friends were over, and one of the ladies brought two new brake pads for her oldsmobile and she asked if Josiah’s dad, Chris, would change them out for her.

Chris said “sure, we will change them for you” and looking at Josiah and me, he said “why don’t you two go ahead and do that”.

I had never changed the brakes on a car before. He knew it wouldn’t be very difficult for us, since they were just disk brakes. Plus Chris had all the tools we needed; a nice floor jack, a compressor, and an impact wrench with all the bits we could want. It seemed scary at the start, because the brakes going out from a mistake we made would be devastating, but we got right at it anyway. We soon saw that it was just a series of little steps, and we had the capability to do it. So we went right to town, jacked up the car, took the old disks off and replaced them with the new ones. We made sure the calipers were freely movable, we bled the lines to ensure there wasn’t any air left in them and we checked the brake fluid up top.

It really didn’t take us too long, and then we asked Chris if we did it right. He said that sounded about right, so we took it for a test drive. I drove real slow at first. Pushed the brakes hard. Pushed them soft. Felt them bite and release. It was a fantastic experience. No one actually showed us how to change the brake pads.

We only used our previous experience from changing tires, and the stories we had heard about replacing pads (always bleed the lines), and figured it out. That experience encouraged me to take on more challenges.

Where does the pressure come from?

I spent a month living in a hunt camp in Haliburton Forest. 14 students, 3 techinicians, 2 cooks, and 2 proffessors lived together without running water or much electricity (a single solar pannel and bank of old car batteries gave us a lightbulb at night for a couple hours). We worked long hours (often 14 hour days) and slept in bunk beds with cheap vinyl mattresses. We had an experience that I think will stick with me forever, and I will write more about that in days to come. What I am reminded of most about that experience, was the lack of pressure.

Sure we had plenty of drama living in such close proximity to one another. We had problems. We had sickness and at times we had unhappy people, but I don’t remember anyone saying they “under pressure” or that they “couldn’t relax” .

Even with small clouds of mosquitoes in the evenings, it was an unbelievably cathartic experience to live as intimately as we did with the circadian and estival rythm of The Living Forest.

Many days I yearn to be there again.

Failed Again

I failed a few more times today.

I dropped the ball.

I missed the target.

So what now? It seems that I’m facing a dichotomy.

On one hand I want to play it safe. Back off the challenge, turn the pressure down, go back to the place I was comfortable. Before I go any farther in writing this, I want to make it very clear that I don’t believe that is the wrong choice. Sometimes that is exactly what should be done. In every football game there is a time to play defense. There is a time to focus on preservation over increase. Consider if you were at this moment on the mainland, awaiting Dorian, this is not the time to be casting nets. This would the time to bunker down, to play defense, to retreat. Heading for safety is the right thing to do.

But I am not facing Dorian. I am not staring at a catastrophic force of nature. I am under no imminent threat. No, I am only feeling the sting of my injured pride at making a false step in this dance. I am feeling the embaressment of shooting my arrow off mark. In this case, it wouldn’t help if I ran for safety. If I bowed out of the game now, I wouldn’t have the chance to grow. I wouldn’t get the full experience.

So instead I am facing the target, raising my arrow, and drawing my string. Exhale. Release.

Elizabeth ready to release her arrow

How can we fail?

I once reviewed some promotional material for LASIK surgery. The video was from a partnership of opthamologists that specialized in that type of surgery. One of their biggest selling points was the hefty years of combined experience of the group.

They went on to even brag that no one on their team had less than some number of years (I don’t remember for sure but I think it was at least 5 years). I thought it was great they could have such an experienced team, but I grew concerned when one of the senior partners said, on the video, that he believed you should never get LASIK surgery performed by someone who did not already have years of experience.

I thought this was a strange thing to say. It angered me.

How could someone ever get any experience, in a world where only those with prior experience get the chance?

How did this fellow talking justify his early days, his first experiences? Should those patients have never let him perform those first surgeries? Taken one step further, why should someone ever let a surgeon with 5 years of experience operate on them, when there is a surgeon with 6 years of experience also available?

Can’t we culturally make room for people just starting out?

Can’t we allow others into the game, even if they are going to make some mistakes along the way?

Where is the novice in our cultural story? Where is the space for the person showing up, failing, and still showing up again.

We need a retelling of Rocky, of someone going the distance, irrespective of whether they win or lose.

A Coat Too Large

When I had only 17 years to my age, almost half a lifetime ago for me now, I spent a day volunteering at the District 4 Headquarters for The Ohio Department of Natural Resources. There were three of us, and we were taken in the employees’ only section to an empty conference room where several boxes sat full of papers on the large wooden table. Our supervising officer showed us how to take a paper from box 1, fold it into a paper from box 2, slip them both into an envelope from box 3 and then use the little sponge to make the sticky stuff sticky and close the envelope.

For the next several hours we did just that. Fold, stuff, seal, repeat. Those little envelopes would be picked up later by the postal service and sent all across the state to former patrons, asking them all once again for their money and support to the ODNR.

There was no glamour. There was nothing exciting. It was simply something that needed done, and we were willing to do it in order to make the connection with the district officers. I even felt like I was contributing to a distasteful part of our society (junk mail) but I convinced myself these letters were much less junky than all those that were simply selling something. Yes we were asking for money, but it was for a good cause.

At one point, we took a break and spent a few minutes peaking through the nearby rooms. Its true that we were “in the back” in the employees’ only section, but we figured we sort of classified as temporarily in the employ of the ODNR, plus the rooms were on our way to and from the bathroom.

Well my friend Jerrod noticed a coat rack in the one of the other rooms, and hanging up on that rack was that unmistakable symbol of the Ohio Wildlife Officer, a forest green jacket. This one was the winter model, complete with the fur lining around the neck. We stood in awe for a second and then Jerrod took it and put it on. One by one we tried it on, the coat worn by those select few who had achieved what we all dreamed, to be a game warden.

I was suprised at how I felt when I put it on. I immediately knew that it was too large for me. I wasn’t ready to wear that coat. I was just a kid, and someone in that position had a heck of a lot more experience, wisdom, and age than I did. I was an imposter. Now at 31 years old I am learning more and more that I can never, ever, be ready for every situation.

I am learning the art of navigating troubled waters. I am learning to live with the flames close by. I am learning to walk in the light that I have, even when all else is dark around.