July 2010

On Laughing With Karen.

It’s been observed that funerals are for the living. Life, or rather how a life was lived is recounted. The relevance of that life is assessed. Their virtues extolled. Tears are shed. Goodbyes finalized. The doors inevitably open and the mourners trek out. And on.

I recently attended the funeral for Karen Plunkett, a friend and colleague who died at age 57 of cancer. While listening to the speakers recount what Karen’s life met to them (to us) I was reminded of a quote by Norman Cousins, “Death is not the greatest loss in life. The greatest loss is what dies inside us while we live.”

I thought it ironic at the time to have such a thought cross my mind, just as Karen’s life was being eulogized. But it briefly occurred to me that of all the people I know, Karen had had the Sword of Damocles over her head virtually her entire adult life. She battled cancer since she was 25. Yet she lived life with such a joy, such a joie de vivre that is rare even among the lifelong healthy. Karen Plunkett showed us how to live. Every day.

Karen had to two qualities that exemplified who she was and how she approached life. We worked together in an office for 18 months but I had known her since 1986. There was an “Aw, shucks” quality to her demeanor. My slant on life and work is to approach it from the perspective of laughter. Life is all about serious, we intuitively understand that but with Karen I found a collaborator in foolishness, in humor, in irony, in just plain silliness for the sake of silliness. We’d sit in her office and yuck it up about people and events. And eventually the work would get done. It always does.

But it is the sound of Karen’s laughter that is irreplaceable. I gravitate to people who do not take themselves or events seriously (or at least too seriously) and Karen was that in spades. She had a laugh that started as a giggle and then, if continued, could become a full-throated guffaw. We could get started and she would roll with laughter.

Laughter, humility and intelligence. It is said of eyes that they are the gateways to the soul. Little illuminators that shine and reveal the inner person. I look in a person’s eyes to see who’s home and if the lights are on. Karen’s eyes radiated intelligence. They sparkled with life and when she laughed, her eyes laughed, too. Karen had that wonderful quality of being in the moment; her personal circumstances no doubt an influence. Her demeanor was accepting and generous. She was a gracious woman. And, boy, could that gal laugh!

My heart goes out to her husband, Stephen and to her parents, too. There is no bigger sorrow in life than attending your child’s funeral. But Karen is never gone so long as her laughter resounds in our souls, in our minds. And it does. A gift, Karen’s gift.

Change Your Art.

While riding the NYC subway system (the A-train) on July 4th, I spotted the following advertisement above the seats. Actually the car had several of them throughout the length of the car, lest, per chance, you missed its message. Which was, “CHANGE YOUR LIFE.” Indeed. And just how you might legitimately ask? By “Parking Cars in Manhattan!”

The sign read: “Change Your Life. Get A New Job Parking Cars in Manhattan!”

I was immediately struck by the ludicrousness of the assertion. It was the exclamation point, as “they” say, that put me over the top. Parking cars is going to change your life!?! I reflected on it and concluded I was being a snob. Why couldn’t parking cars in Manhattan be a step-up in life? And who am I anyway to judge anyone’s life.

But I’ve been in enough parking garages (lots) to know that after the initial rush of a new job in a new environment, parking and retrieving cars just might lose its bloom as “life changing.”

Parking cars, however, does require a certain discipline and skill set. I do think it would be a “gas” to race a customer’s just dropped off BMW X6 M up the twisty turns of a sooty six story Manhattan parking garage at full throttle, leaving rubber and smoke as I slid a 550 horse powered Beemer into a slot so small as to leave me sweating and breathless.

Anything that leaves one breathless has its appeal. Agree? I first became aware of parking cars as “a” job from reading Jack Kerouac’s “On The Road” in 1965. That book at that time in my life left me breathless. Kerouac’s story of uninhibited sex and hitchhiking across America was manna to this boy’s 16-year-old virginal ears. After Heller’s “Catch-22” it has had the most impact on my life as any book I’ve read. That’s a tough call. I love Whitman, Emerson, Dickens, Tolstoy, Cather, Twain and Rorty. All these authors (and more) have composed specific words that have left me breathless. But “On The Road” came along just as I was about to hit the highway myself. Serendipitous.

One of the primary characters in Kerouac’s story is Dean Moriarty. He’s this larger than life character who loves girls (they have, ahem, that little, ahem, sump’in special), loves life and loves learning. Dean is an indefatigable raw force of life (of nature).

And for a while he parks cars in New York City. And Kerouac captures (creates) the precision, the beauty of his frenetic “parking.”

The only other “parking” episode I recall is from the John Hughes’ 1986 movie “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.” In it, two parking lot attendants surreptitiously take a red convertible 1961 Ferrari 250 GT California out for a joyride. It’s a hoot of a scene. Actually the movie holds up quite well. It is a quintessentially American tale.

Which is it? By the way. Art imitates life? Or, rather, life imitates art?

Go ahead park those cars, fella! Change your art.

Tyranny From The Right.

How important is consistency (of thought and action) in one’s (your) daily life? If, for example, you are a vegetarian because the idea of eating meat is repugnant (killing animals) do you then not wear leather belts or shoes? To be consistent?

We’ve all read Emerson’s maxim that consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds. There is an element of “truth” to that statement. I, for one, like consistent people. If you are irascible one day and then sweet as flowers in May the next, it is difficult for folks to know how to approach and deal with you. Better for those around you for you to be consistently one-way or the other.

What prompts this discussion is the idea of abortion as a personal choice. Now there several ways to approach this conversation but let me acknowledge that an abortion is a termination of life. To label it as murder, however, one would have to have a broad interpretation of murder and, two, be consistent in one’s own life that the murder of a human being is wrong in all instances.

It is a familiar lament of the anti-abortionists that “some” women use abortion as their preferred form of birth control and isn’t that morally indefensible? Two observations. One, as a man I am not going to have an abortion. Ever. Arguably, I question whether any man has a legitimate say in this “particular” discussion because abortion is so strictly a female issue. That opinion expressed, I have not encountered many women who have indiscriminately, willy-nilly, had an abortion. As a matter of fact, I haven’t meant any. Have you? Do they exist? Sure.

The women I have listened to explain why they had an abortion all found their situation(s) untenable and that they were not prepared to bring a life into “that” environment. And who am I (or you) to judge their decision making? Or, any woman’s for that matter. Do you know what is in any (a) woman’s heart and mind, let alone dictate the course of her life? It would make me extremely uncomfortable, as a man, to have anyone telling me what to do with my life and body. Are women different in this regard? Do they take to the metaphorical “whip” (bridle) better than men? I don’t think so.

The trajectory of the West, from Greece on, has been an inexorable push to/in recognizing the rights (freedom) of the individual man (male). In the past 200 years, women, too, have actively pursued the same freedoms as males. Only reluctantly have men acquiesced and allowed women the same prerogatives as men. Reproductive freedom (birth control), of not being burdened with bearing child after child after child until your teeth fall out has helped level the “playing” field of life for women.

Consistency of thought would have Americans, both men and women recognizing and applauding the inherent rights (and responsibilities) of acting freely as individuals. To suggest to 21st century American women anything else is tyranny. Why then do Republicans advocate repression of women?

The Wandering Mind

I was trying to daydream, but my mind kept wandering.
~Steven Wright

Ah, tangents. The stuff of dreams. But that we all might be. But that we all are. Lost in a distraction.

I have a journal entry from May 13th that reads, “I was lost in a distraction. Some of my generation have, for the lack of a better description, mind fog.” I was attempting to amuse myself with that categorization. Mind fog. But in a recent New York Times article (06/29/10) titled “Discovering the Virtues Of a Wandering Mind” (by John Tierney) suggests there is both virtue and benefit to daydreaming.

I went to high school in a time of study halls. Unlike today’s school curriculum, yesteryear’s school day had whole periods of time devoted to nothing. Of course, the better students, ones with discipline and scholastic ambition used their study halls for just that. Studying. Not I. Quite candidly, I had neither the interest nor the discipline (maturity) for studying. I always hoped for a study hall seat by a window, so much the better for a wandering mind.

The Times article described mind wandering, “as a subcategory of daydreaming, which is the broad term for all stray thoughts and fantasies, including those moments you deliberately set aside to imagine yourself winning the lottery or accepting the Nobel. But when you’re trying to accomplish one thing and lapse into ‘task-unrelated thoughts,’ that’s mind wandering.”

Mind wandering is a good thing. Don’t fight it. Just imagine how many marriages wouldn’t exist today but for mind wandering. Your spouse get’s going, yet again, on some familiar lament and off you go to the islands (or wherever you mentally go during such diatribes). “Yes Dear. Of course, you may be right.” The Times article used an example of being caught in horrendous traffic with your mind wandering three-fourths of the time.

Another way of putting it is “zoning out.” But you don’t really do so completely. Zone out. According to psychologist who study such matters your mind is/may be working on other subjects while you’re off wandering in the recesses of your mind. On tangents. On whimsy. Fantasy. Dreams. And BINGO! that problem you’ve worked on for weeks is resolved, the solution floating forth seemingly from nowhere.

We’re only now beginning to understand the complexities of the human brain. But one thing for sure, daydreaming and mind wandering (experiences I labeled as mind fog) are being recognized as an “evolutionary advantage.” Regardless of how you categorize it, daydreaming is a quintessential human activity with many more upsides than negatives.

For after all, what’s a study hall for but to daydream? Algebra held no interest. French but a foreign language. Literally. Biology? Well now, there was a subject that surrounded me in all manner of beguiling feminine form. And to put one’s head down, encircled by that lush fragrance of life and to wander mindlessly upon the passing clouds but one window away was the stuff of dreams. Of life. Dream on!