Friday, March 30, 2007

In like a lion, out like a sonuvabitch

It's been a rough week.

And it shouldn't be this way, really, because the weather is turning beautiful (it seems like a whole month early), and I see more and more people walking in the park. It's like when the geese return, honking their way back North: people "come back," too, as do the robins and the daffodils and the blue sky.

The trouble started first thing Monday morning, when I woke up with an itch in my throat and arrived at work to find my Dell Dimension 8400 was DOA. Two strikes in the morning that not even that first cup of coffee can fix, no matter how strong.

It's crushing to a creature of habit, finding his home or his workspace or his main instrument of art in disarray. I seem to crave stability as much as the Red Chinese, and having my good friend and companion since the winter of 2004 fail due to a corrupt hard drive...well, I sympathized with Job.

Our IT department's scorched-earth policy ("It's junk - we'll set you up with a pitiful replacement") didn't fly, so I grabbed the diagnostic discs and ran Repair multiple times - my shirt sleeves rolled up, my dress slacks dirty from crawling under my desk - to no avail. My hard drive failed all the tests I could throw at it.

And so has my health. That scratch I felt early Monday morning turned into a full-blown Nuisance. Not even a warm-night's walk with Katie to the Parlour for ice cream helped. There were some nights this week I couldn't swallow, my throat was so closed, and I would wake up with terrible fits of chill and heat due to fever. I couldn't understand what my body was telling me, so I drowned it in expired prescription drugs - hold-overs from a 2003 ear infection my first summer on the job.

Then my dad called. It seems my only stable childhood home, my grandmother's house, was bein sold. My dad bought it after my grandpa died, paying off all four of his siblings for the right to keep the house in the family. Now he can't afford it.

I remember spending endless summer weekends there, catching butterflies and going fishing and riding the old, creaky bikes my grandpa repaired and sold on the front lawn. He earned enough extra money to keep him and my grandma comfortable, and they even afforded an annual trip to Ocala, Florida, every winter.

After my grandparents passed, and my dad bought the house, I felt like I still had at least one thing from my childhood I could hold on to. It's the one thing in my life that has always stayed put, no matter how much I moved around, but now my dad was selling it because the other house he bought and fixed wasn't selling. "I can't afford two mortgages," he told me on the phone. "So we're going to try to sell the old one."

Unlike his son, my dad never was a sentimental man. Nor did he have the bond with that old one-acre farm house property I associate with so much happiness. So I can't imagine the decision to sell my grandparents' home was a tough one for him. And the worst part is he wants me to help him move.

"Don't do it," my grandma said. "You don't want that to be your last memory of that house."

She's probably right, but how can I say no to a man I see maybe once a month?

But maybe things are turning around. I woke up this morning and could swallow effortlessly, with little pain. The green tea and honey help. Today I got my old computer back - with a new hard drive. Really, anything would better than the measly 256k RAM machine I worked on this morning.

Tomorrow friends are coming for my annual birthday bash, and that makes me feel good. I tend to celebrate my birthday for an entire week, and tomorrow will be the kickoff. Andrea and Jimmy and Cowboy and Sarah are all due at 7 p.m. Then I have next Friday off, and Don and I are traveling to see Type O Negative at Harpo's. The week after that will be Orlando.

So maybe this is a trial period; I'm going through a tribulation so that my soul will be cleansed as I hit the big two-six. March is a terrible month, weather-wise. Maybe it should be life-wise, too.

This week I've gained great new friends, perhaps lost one, had my emotional life mixed in a blender (on "HIGH"), reached out to coworkers and Rotarians in the never-ending quest to Get Things Done, and laughed out loud at the story my grandma shared about my mom getting her ass kicked out on a busy Jackson street.

It's the little things, right? They can lift you up, but they can bring you down - much like everything else.

Hope springs eternal. Here's to a better week.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

By rail or by road?

There's a great big country out there, and I'm trying to decide how I want to see it all.

After doing some research on Amtrak, I've found that traveling by rail to Seattle would be comparable in cost - and only a bit lengthier in time - than hoofing it by road. Do I sit and lounge in comfort, watching the countryside pass me by? Or do I zoom out across I-94 and I-90, stopping and seeing what I want to see but risk the health (and possible beauty) of my car?


Also, if I took the train I couldn't venture up into Canada for the Great Trek Back East. Plus, I think it would take me a bit longer for the cross-Canadian stretch. Who knows, I might get picked up by the RCMP.

Part of me feels like the train ride would be a lot smoother, hassle-free way to go. I could just sit back and get there. And by driving, I'm not sure I'd have as much time as I'd like to explore, say, Glacier National, Yellowstone, or Mount Rushmore. I'd be hauling ass either way, and would probably have to take off immediately the morning after Keith's wedding.

(pardon me as I think through this as I type...)

It's sad that this trip doesn't hold the allure of last year's trip. Not even close. Instead of taking my time for a whole week to get to the coast, I'll be rushing just to get to Seattle so that I can enjoy a few days of the Jet City.

But it IS a part of the country that I haven't been to, and I'll be traveling through some unique terrain to get there. Does it matter how I get there?

I'm worried that the financial part of the decision is the heaviest, because after the Orlando trip, the Chicago trip, Keith's wedding, and who-the-hell-knows what else comes up along the way, things will be tight. I'm saving up to get out of debt, after all, and blowing my savings on a cross-country trip doesn't exactly help the cause.

My spring trip, however, is tradition, and damn it all - there are parts of this country I have yet to see, and I mean to see them.

Grandma, for her part, votes for the train ride - mostly because she worries about me driving so much.

"All that driving, you're going to be tired."

"Grandma, I drove for 10 straight days last year, without much a break. I think I can handle three days each way."

"I don't know, I just worry about you..."

This from the lady who - last year - told me I would only make it to Arizona, give up, and turn back for home.

I guess there's something old-fashioned about the idea of riding by rail. In the 19th century, of course, the choice was easier: train or covered wagon? I suppose I should count myself lucky that I have two not-bad modes of travel to pick from.

Half the fun is just in the getting there, right? Seeing the sights, seeing the country, realizing how big the idea of Manifest Destiny really was.

I've got some time to mull it over. The train isn't leaving just yet...

Sunday, March 11, 2007

On desire

"He who binds himself to a joy
Does the winged life destroy."

- William Blake

Ginny asked me, simply, "What more could you want?"

If only the answer were as easy as the question, because lately I've been thinking a lot about the things I want. Out of life, out of myself, out of a relationship.

Desire is not an occupation, but it's a helluva way to pass the time; a search for some grail that will have us - not immortal - but keenly wishing for something else.

And that's where it gets us: the wishing. The "what-ifs." The damned desire.

It never seems to spawn anything worthwhile (except for, rarely, love). Look at the poor, doomed Angels of the Old Testament. They saw the Women of Earth, prostrate, and desired them completely. God doesn't allow his first-born the benefits of sex in Heaven, so they fall to Earth, have their way, and get banished for their efforts.

The result? Giants who terrorize the ancient world.

Recently I've experienced my own misgivings with what I want. I think about how much time I spend thinking about some sort of "plan" for my life, and what would make me happy, and it all feels like such a waste of effort. What good can all that thinking do for me? Can I really run my life through my thoughts?

Mr. Keillor put it pretty well a few weeks ago, speaking about the sneakiness of desire, and how simple it can be:

I am an American in headlong pursuit of happiness and here was a lady expressing an older and earthier philosophy that my aunts would not have disagreed with: Better than happiness is acceptance, a gift of God. You wake up every morning and pull on your jeans and make coffee and look at the newspaper and pour bran flakes and milk in the bowl, and as time goes by you realize that this is preferable to what you once imagined would make you happy.

Madame Larina was quite pleased with the line "Instead of happiness, heaven sends us habit." And she sang it several times. I put my hand on my wife's knee. She was sitting next to me in the dark. It was snowing in Minnesota, a gray blustery Russian sort of day, and when we walked into the theater, a multiplex in the suburbs, we were in the mood to see "Eugene Onegin" live on high-definition TV from the Met, starring soprano RenĂˆe Fleming and baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky.

Keillor notices that, surely, our sense of want and need for plans change over time, like everything else. Simple is usually better, he finds. But his advice is lacking for a twenty-something guy who feels like he's on the edge of...something. Teetering, just waiting to fall, or land safely. Especially when he tells the story of the play he's watching:

It simply was the most moving thing I've seen at the movies in a very long time. Mr. Hvorostovsky is tall, cool, handsome and everything that Elvis was hoping to be, and Miss Fleming's bare left shoulder is more erotic than Madonna naked and when she puts her hand to her bodice, she makes my nostrils twitch. She plays Tatiana, who goes crazy for Onegin and writes him a letter and agonizes over it and plucks at her bodice and finally sends it to him.

He coolly rejects her. He doesn't believe in marriage. He is in search of happiness, not the life of habit and dailiness. The chorus gets to sing and dance, and he shoots and kills the tenor, which I suppose we've all wanted to do now and then, and years later he meets her again -- she is married, and now he is wild for her, and after a passionate duet, him on his knees, tugging at her, pleading, sobbing, pulling her down on the floor, she decides to be faithful to her husband and walks away, leaving Onegin tortured with regret.

...For three hours on a Saturday afternoon, everything that had been on our minds faded to black and we lived as in a dream with a handsome man in search of happiness and a beautiful woman who found satisfaction, and then we walked out into the snow and started our cars.

The search for happiness. The torture of regret. It seems like those raw emotions make life what it is. But to experience them firsthand, in the now, makes you long for something else. There's that desire creeping up again.

What is desire? Imagine there's a hole in your spirit. Now imagine you want to do something to fill the whole. What do you do? What do you fill it with?

For Christians, they say it's a God-shaped hole. Fill it with Jesus, and you're set. Buddhists say the hole is self-shaped. Be content with your self (or yourself), and your desire will end. After all, we have limited control over our environment, so why not settle our mind and emotions - the few things in life we can control?

But what happens when you try to fill the hole with other things, like alcohol, or drugs, or sex, or relationships, or material things, or money, or power, or knowledge? Most say it's folly. Stuff can never fill our hole, but we try anyway.

And maybe that stuff does make us happy, at least some of the time. I know nothing in this world makes life come into sharp focus more than a hot cup of coffee.

But suffering comes from the realization that those moments are fleeting. What can last forever? What shape is your hole? William Blake knew what he was talking about: enjoy the fleeting moments of joy (since, really, who can fault you for it?), but try to chain the joy to desire, and it's not going to be much fun at all. No sir.

Just letting things happen. Ever try that? It seems like a sure-fire way to beat the big D, but it's harder in practice. I'm learning, though. There's little in this world I - or you, or anyone - can actually control.

Why not focus on those things you can control, and let the rest...just happen. Shit, why not?

It sure beats the tortured regret and all that nonsense.

Thursday, March 1, 2007

Dave Lawrence, award-winning graphic designer

So today I got good news.

I won a credit union industry graphic design award, first place. I won $1,000 toward the trip to pick the award up. And I get to head to Orlando for a four-day weekend on the company.

Yes friends, things are looking up today.

It all started back in July of last year, when we kicked off our Visa Gold campaign. We spent a lot of time preparing for the launch, and I thought I did a decent job of preparing all the promotional materials: posters, postcards, web site, newsletter articles, etc.

Every year we head to a Visa conference in Florida, where we learn about all the latest and greatest. When my boss, Kristi, and I received info on this year's conference, they included information about a marketing award. All you had to do was submit your recent Visa campaign, so I gathered all the materials and bought a nice binder (I learned a lot about award entries in college, when I entered all the journalism categories during my College World days), and sent everything off. Kristi and I had a good feeling about the whole thing: she felt the campaign was a successful one, and I felt good about all the pieces I had designed.

Today, when I got the mail, I saw the envelope from CSCU, the company that held the contest.

And you know that feeling you got when you opened your college admissions letter and found out whether they had accepted you or not?

That's what I felt today.

I climbed the stairs back to our office, tearing at the envelope, and lifted the letter out far enough so I could see the results.

And I screamed.

I showed the letter to my co-worker, Liz, and she gave me a big hug. It must have been good timing, because our president walked out of his office, and I showed him too. Handshakes and hugs all around.

Tears in my eyes, I called Kristi to tell her the good news.

"So do you want to go to Orlando to accept the award?" she asked me.

With the award, CSCU sends you $1,000 toward the trip - registration, airfare, the whole thing.

I hesitated, because the trip is April 12-15, which means I'd miss the Tragically Hip concert I've been looking forward to since 2004, and I'd miss a big event at work. Plus I'd for sure miss Founder's Day.

But you know what? It's $1,000 and a trip to Florida for a long weekend. How the heck could I say no?

I remember a story about Harry Truman, when he won his re-election bid for Senate after a hard-fought campaign. When he returned to Washington the following January, he received a standing ovation from all of Congress on his accomplishment. When an interviewer asked him about it later, the former president started crying.

That's kind of the feeling I have about this whole thing. It's like my hard work, after almost four years of being at American 1, has finally paid off.

The things I've learned and the friendships I've made their are worth their weight in gold, but to have something that I can call my own, something that I've earned...

Well, let's just say I was a wreck at work today.

I have two big things I've always held up as my big accomplishments in life. One is winning the student body president election sophomore year at Adrian after a helluva campaign. Two was winning the Outstanding Senior award a month before graduation, and Dr. Renner giving a speech about my college academic career.

This can be number three.