Thursday, May 26, 2011

Reaping What We've Sown Over 12 Years

Given that this weekend will mark a dozen years since my bride and I emerged from St. Andrew's Episcopal Church in Ann Arbor as husband and wife, I've given some thought to reflecting on what has transpired in our lives, our trials and tribulations (whatever a "tribulation" is. Not sure I've ever had one.), our travels and shared experiences, and our growth as two grown people sharing everything that comes along in life.

Then I thought ... naaaaah. 

But this morning I was in our front yard, pruning away at a couple of the trees we planted 10 years ago when we moved in to our new-construction house. Much like the day we walked out of St. Andrew's, our move to a new house in 2001 offered a blank slate. So we began the process of planning and planting, envisioning a blossoming future.

We started with sod to cover the vast majority of the quarter-acre lot. This was roughly the equivalent of painting a empty canvas a very nice color. Not a lot of imagination involved, but it kept the topsoil from washing away. The grass was a foundation, allowing us to trod our property without being either dusty or muddy, and it looks a bit different now than 10 years ago. It's just there all the time, seemingly never flourishing or dying. Our kids have crawled, then walked, then played ball, then looked for bugs on it. A little fertilizer, some sun, water and regular mowings keep it a base a solid and comforting as the families from which we came.

Shortly after the birth of our first child, Thing 1, we planted three trees in the back yard: a white birch, a red maple and some kind of oak. I can't remember the oak because it was dead in less than a year. The red maple is towering, easily visible from our family room though it is planted 10 feet below. The white birch cozies up to and skies over the deck. At about 25 feet tall, it will provide shade for us to enjoy al fresco meals in the heat of summer. Like our two children, the trees are remarkable, growing and flourishing in their own unique ways. 

A dogwood tree in front was my idea, as my parents were ardent fans of those we saw blooming all over Tennessee during the spring trips of my childhood. It's been a challenge, like my messy side of the bathroom or the spouse's shoes that always seem to be in front of the door. But just when I'm ready to uproot and relocate the annoyance, its scattered blossoms emerge and leaves sprout. Instead of the bare branches that confound me, I choose to enjoy the white flowers and reflect on the Smoky Mountains. 

The flowering apple tree next to the dogwood was planted at the request of a neighbor who had one in her yard and needed the cross-pollination. Once a skinny little seedling, it has filled in to be a dominant feature. Its springtime blossoms can be awesome, and some years it even yields a fair number of delicious apples, if the bugs don't get to them first. I can see my wife in it, looking better now than 10 (or 12) years ago, at times radiant with flowers, other times offering protective shade and sustenance. Sometimes, it appears to be going in 12 different directions at once. It's a bit like the tree we planted a decade ago, and in some ways it isn't at all. Nature causes it to grow and change for different times and different seasons. But if you are around our house, you have to take notice of it.

There is a pear tree near the street. Like my friends and hobbies and her friends and hobbies when we got married, it came along with the house. We didn't ask for it, not sure we wanted it, but everyone else got one, too, so there was no refusing it. And what do you know ... it's one of the best parts of the property. It's a wonderful shade tree that sports enormous white flowers in the spring — just as the neighbors' trees do to make a spectacular springtime show. At first a delicate sprout, it can now withstand two tree-climbing boys. Just like sailing and going to Michigan football games, you just don't know what you may grow to enjoy until it gets inextricably dropped in your front yard. It's a friend we felt we've known our whole lives, even though we've only been acquainted for a fraction of the time.

And then there's the pine tree. It was the first Christmas tree we had in our new house, a potted tree that joined the family six months after Thing 1. I don't know if we thought about or understood how this tree would grow through the years, just as we can't envision how the years will affect a marriage, our relationships, and the people around us. And there is good and bad in all of it. While the tree rises some 15 feet above the sod and seems created specifically to sport dozens of yards of colored Christmas lights each winter, some of its branches fawn over a matching pair of burning bushes that thrive despite the horticultural competition a few feet away. 

So there I was this morning, head and arms getting scratched up while trying to prune away the intrusive lower limbs. No one told me owning a pine tree could be so painful. And it was raining. At times, I thought it was be easier to just call someone to dig it up and haul it away, but I really just wanted the tree, and the whole yard, to look good. You don't envision such hassle when you pull a 2-foot tall tree from a pot and drop it into a hole coated with peat. But it's nice to watch things take root and make their own place in the world. Considering it was a tree I planted, its my job to make sure it has every chance to grow and thrive, even when it seems like scratchy branches and rain and cold and dull saws and pokey bushes conspire to make you wish your landscape was still plain, flat dirt. 

Those saw marks on the pine tree will heal in time. The branches got removed, dragged to a brush pile. A hot shower and a grilled cheese sandwich cleaned my sticky body and filled my growling tummy, respectively. 

The rain beats down on the pine tree and the pear tree, the apple tree and the dogwood, the birch and the maple, and all of the surrounding grass. Safe and sound in the house we came in to 10 years ago — and the life we moved in to 12 years ago — all of the plantings around us still make it feel like a beautiful spring day.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

If This Is The Age of Information, We May Be in Trouble

On the Salon website, veteran airline pilot Patrick Smith pens a column called (wait for it...) "Ask the Pilot." While an occasional column answers readers' queries, most of Smith's work revolves around recent news involving airlines and, unfortunately, plane crashes.

One of Smith's most common mantras about major airline catastrophes came to mind this week — the bigger the story, the more likely it is that the first reports on it will be factually incorrect. 

For all of the media that can be employed to learn what is going on in the world around us, the accuracy of fast news delivery does not seem to have taken many great steps forward since "Dewey Defeats Truman." This week provided us with a host of evidence to that end.

On Monday morning, a team of highly trained U.S. Navy SEALs stormed the residence of one Osama Bin Laden — the Most Wanted Man in the World — AbbottabadPakistan, and killed the leader of the notorious terrorist organization, Al-Qaeda. This is what we know, or at least think we know, as fact.

Just how the storming of Bin Laden's "luxury mansion" went down and how the wacko Muslim met his demise seems to be a point of contention, even several days later.

Early reports from the "firefight" between the SEALs and Bin Laden's bodyguards said that Bin Laden was armed and shot only after he resisted the SEALs incursion (who didn't see that coming?). Turns out, the SEALs thought he was reaching for a weapon. Bin Laden's wife reportedly was killed in the attack when she was was used as a human shield. Except that she wasn't. That is, she wasn't used as a human shield, and she wasn't killed.

President Obama announced Thursday afternoon that the White House would not release a photo of the dead Bin Laden, although such a photo was reportedly already shown on Fox News. The president made this announcement less than 24 hours after CIA director Leon Panetta told NBC News that photos would be released.

Perhaps the most telling moment of the week came from White House press secretary Jay Carney. Paging through notes at Wednesday's briefing when quizzed about the number of floors in Bin Laden's compound, Carney confessed, "Even I'm getting confused."

And if the White House is having problems keeping its story straight, is it any wonder the rest of us get flummoxed like Carney. 

How did the U.S. get the intelligence about Bin Laden's whereabouts in Pakistan? Former Vice President Dick Cheney (and others) asserted the knowledge came as the result of "enhanced" interrogation techniques that qualify as (or border on) torture. Those not so enamored with waterboarding and the like countered that, no, not so much.

After the rowdy college students finished their preening for the cameras in Washington, D.C., and New York City on Sunday night, greater thinkers were conflicted about Bin Laden's death. Some flatly refused to dance on his grave, including Obama.

Things also got a little sticky when well-meaning folks tried to cite Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Mark Twain to defend their moral stand. While the quotes from those two great orators were appropriate for the moment, the words would have held more gravity if the two men had actually, you know, said them.

Of course, all of this discussion about what happened in Pakistan early Monday morning would be moot if, as some believe, Osama Bin Laden might not be dead after all.

In a week of mis-information, that tidbit would certainly top the list.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Where does the time go?

In the course of attending the recent Michigan Spring Game, my sons and I had the good fortune of seeing former head coach Lloyd Carr outside the stadium. 

A more gracious man there never has been, and he immediately inquired about my sons’ names and ages. The poor little dudes (ages 8 and 9) don’t even remember Carr strolling the sidelines, so the moment meant much more to me than them. I asked the retired coach and associate athletic director whether or not he was doing any traveling and what he was doing with his time.

“I’m not doing much, but I’m very busy,” Carr said in his familiar raspy tone.

The statement instantly struck me. I could relate all too well. I approached my time in between positions as an opportunity on many fronts: get in better touch with my spouse and children, find a job that I truly desired, and get a lot of things done around the house that I have wanted to do for so long but — recite the refrain with me — “never had the time.”

How often have we said that about a given idea? “If only I had the time.” This is, of course, a bogus excuse. We all have the same amount of time. Twenty-four hours in a day, seven days in a week, “five hundred twenty-five thousand, 600 minutes” in a year, as the cast of “Rent” famously sings. But how we spend that time and why we spend it as we do are questions that deserve some inspection.

Work is the primary time-eater for most of us. Two thousand hours a year if you work 40 hours a week, 50 weeks a year. Although the time away from it might be somewhat negotiable, its necessity generally is not. Money must be earned so mortgages, car payments, utility bills, credit cards, tuition and other loans can be paid.

But I have been amazed, impressed and sometimes depressed in my time without employment just how fast hours and days just evaporate. Some folks feel that staying busy makes the days go faster, and I certainly felt that at my previous job. But the longest and best days now are those in which a tangible accomplishment can be seen — like last Saturday when my family and sister spent an afternoon weeding and planting at my mother’s house. 

Yesterday, the need to move a couch motivated my wife and me to re-configure the family-room layout and do that joyful this-couch-hasn’t-moved-in-three-years-just-look-at-what’s-under-it cleaning. Those days felt long not because they dragged on with 5 p.m. seemingly a pipe dream on the horizon, but the impressiveness of the task at hand and the want to have it finished.

This topic makes me wonder about my mom, almost 80 years old, living with Parkinson’s for more than 25 years but, for the last three-and-a-half months, widowed from the man with whom she shared more than 60 years. She has nowhere to go and no partner to go with, so much of her time is spent rooting through piles of papers and pictures, organizing and moving them to one shelf or another, only to return to the same pile a day or a week later to re-organize and move again. 

It’s a routine than can be maddening for caregivers and family to observe. But that’s what she does to get through her hours, her days. I have a feeling she does not see time as flying by any more. But those 60 years probably went pretty fast.