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.