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.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

This Is The Title of This Blog

Why “The Troubled Fish”? Not too many folks inquired as to the logic of the name after my first post, possibly because I had promised an explanation at a future date. While I’m not 100 percent sure why this blog is named what it is, herewith is an attempt at an explanation.

We have had fish in an aquarium at our house for a few months now. Fish generally make very good pets, especially for youngsters, since they are relatively low maintenance. A few flakes of food each day, a good cleaning of the tank every once in a while, and your fish should grow and remain healthy until some fateful day when a) you put them up for sale on Craigslist, or b) they die and get flushed. Most of us are far more experienced at b).

Fish do not offer the usual drawbacks of furry pets, in that they will not chew up your kids’ toys or shed their adorable fur all over your house or bark at ridiculous hours of the night because they need to relieve themselves in a snowbank. Of course, you also can’t hold fish on your lap or throw a ball for them or scratch them behind their ears while they nuzzle or purr.

Maybe the best part of fish as pets is their therapeutic value. Watching fish wander around a tank can be very relaxing. A former roommate of mine had an enormous saltwater tank filled with very colorful fish. He would pull a chair up in front of the tank and simply watch his scaled friends for half an hour or more. I did this sometimes when he was not around and felt the soothing effects of watching the fish. While the fish seemed to not have a care in the world, they often appeared incredibly busy.

Were they happy? Were they distressed? Did they know enough about who they were to be either of those things? It’s the same for us dog or cat owners who walk by the sleeping animal when we leave for work, then see them in the same position when we return 9 or 10 hours later. “What a great life,” we  may mutter. The scenery is a lot more consistent (or repetitious) for the aquarium-bound fish, their routine broken only when those food flakes hit the surface.

And so it goes for many in the grown-up working world. Wake up in the same bed each morning, share breakfast with the same people around the table, drive the same car over the same roads to the same job. After 8 or 9 or more hours, hop in said car and reverse the process to wind up at dinner with the same people at the same table (unless we go out for dinner — Woo-hoo!). And are we happy? Are we distressed? Do we know enough about who we are to be sure we are either?

I would guess that, like the fish and like me, we often aren’t really sure. While there is monotony in sameness, there is also consistency and security. And every once in a while, the proverbial food flakes appear as a special treat. And we are not always sure when or if they will show up again. We’d be wise to take a cue from our scaled buddies and devour.

Who knows if those pets of ours in the tank are any more or less happy than we are. I’d like to think they are content to swim with their friends all day and that those flakes make their day. Just like I hope that all of my family, colleagues and friends are okay in whatever tank they may reside. I’m not saying I’m the one fish in the aquarium who looks out of the glass walls and wonders, “Is there more to it all than this?” because I love my tank-mates. But I think it’s worth taking a closer look at ourselves and each other to throw a few extra flakes to those troubled fish.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

This is where it all begins...

“I’m going to start a blog.”

This declarative conjures up as many instant visceral reactions in people as “I’m pregnant.” The most logical follow-up to both statements would be “So, what now?”

What now? I’ve given this statement a lot of thought since my position was eliminated at my previous employer early in March. (Yes, I was fired. No, I was not surprised, nor was I terribly upset. Someday, I will share with you how a “good guy” can be canned four times before he turns 46. But not today.) There are a lot of factors that go in to “what now?” One of the most prominent in my mind is financial. Whatever comes next, it should probably pay me something. 

My wife Charlotte and I have a mortgage, two cars to maintain (both paid for but starting to get up there in years and miles), a sailboat that needs to be docked, and (most importantly) two sons who need three squares a day.
She runs a daycare business out of our home and has designs on being a therapist one day. I have designs on having a job again one day. In the meantime, as my sister (who is also unemployed, as is her husband) has recited, life is what happens while you are making other plans.

Starting a blog was one of the first thoughts I had when I lost my job. It should not have taken that event to get me to do it since I’ve spent a good portion of my life writing professionally. I’m like a photographer who woke up this morning and thought, “I should probably stop using film and start shooting digital pictures.” So I am late to the Big Blogging Party. My tux was at the cleaners. An old friend came in from out of town. It wasn’t my fault. But here I am.

Making money doing this would be nice, but I really just need to write. I have had people tell me they like my writing, and not just my mom and my wife. OK, they are the ones that have said it most, and their two opinions matter to me more than anyone else’s, so there you go. My writing muscles have not been exercised nearly as much as they should have been over the last 10 years. Attending five workouts a week over the last six weeks has gotten my physical self in the best condition of my life. But I feel a need for a little more intellectual stimulation than an occasional political back-and-forth on Facebook or a Twitter war with someone who disses my alma mater (Michigan).

So, I pledge to you, gentle reader, to get something coherent in this space at least twice a week (maybe three or as many as five days as events and schedule warrant). If you’ve come this far, perhaps you’re willing to go a little farther (yes, I will be dropping some movie references). Follow me on Twitter (@UMphd) if you aren’t already my friend on Facebook for update notices. (Sorry, but if I don’t know you or can’t remember you from third-grade Sunday School, I won’t accept your Facebook friend request.)

As for the name of this endeavor, "The Troubled Fish," I'll get to that another day. It just kind of came to me. Think about it and conjure up your own interpretation.

I’m starting a blog. And just as I thought when my wife informed me she was pregnant, I hope I don’t screw this up.