Who Needs Aspirations?

History is littered with aspirational guidance. Aspirations are essential only if you want to get somewhere other than where you are, literally or figuratively. Otherwise, who cares?

There are some who prefer to stay in one place. For example, Marilyn Monroe was quoted as having said, “Dreaming about being an actress is more exciting than being one.”  Maybe that says something about her fate. She finally found her way back to a serene complacency—a womb that reality couldn’t pierce; death can be a safe haven for dreams.

Although, aren’t dreams typically associated with aspirations? Each dream germinates a seed for future realizations. I’ve been nurturing one of those seeds for decades. My strongest aspiration came to me when I was fifteen. It was the summer of 1967. The forecast was for hot and muggy, a typical day in late July for Michigan. It was mid-week, and I was counting down the remaining days of summer vacation.

I decided to get the backyard pool maintenance out of the way early. Our pool was sixteen feet in diameter and above ground. It wasn’t luxurious, but it was the perfect place to keep cool during the day and hide from mosquitoes at night. I made quick work of recharging the pool filter’s potbelly drum; and didn’t waste time replenishing the chemical mix; but I took my time when it came to vacuuming.

My gaze followed the lazy slide of the brush-head across the pool’s lumpy royal blue bottom as I drifted from one daydream to the next. My thoughts were random, but never pointless. I happily studied the refracted aluminum pole guiding the vacuum brush, its skinny shadow rippling through the surface. Any hope of using what I had learned in geometry to calculate the converging angles was out of the question, so I simply pondered the seductive imagery.

Vacuuming the pool became my safe haven for dreaming. I had to go slow to avoid kicking up the sand that had drifted to the bottom. Each time the debris swirled upward I made a mental note to revisit the spot. Sure enough, on my return I’d find a lonely patch of grit settled into a depression. My dad and uncle had prepared the sandbox base for the pool several summers earlier. It had started out free of impressions, but eventually turned into a vinyl lunar landscape of heel and toe shaped craters.

The meditative ritual of scrubbing the floor of the family pool was a time for teenage contemplation. No matter what floated through my mind, I eventually looked to the future. This day was like most others. The sky had started out without a cloud only to slowing decay into a hazy baby blue. I had finished my chores and was setting up the chaise lounge when the notion of being twenty-five came to mind. What would I be doing? More specifically, what did I want to be doing?

I wanted adventure. I wanted to be traveling the world, sitting in smoked-filled cafes, scribbling my thoughts for future reference—for future publication. I wanted a Hemingway life. That’s what drew me to San Francisco at the age of twenty-three. Ferlinghetti’s poetry sent me in search of my own kind of Coney Island. It took several tries before I planted myself firmly, but by the time I turned twenty-five, I was comfortably roaming the cafes and bars of North Beach.

As I approach double-sixes, the bohemian still resides within despite having lived a life of quiet desperation; a life of having put aside a teenage aspiration. Who needs aspirations? Everyone—that is if you want to go somewhere other than where you are or where you have been. As I settled into the checkered red and white webbing of the chaise that day, I thought, “I’m going to be a writer.” Now that I’m done dreaming, I’ll get on with being one.

 

Gardening

“Plants do for you what shoes do for me,” says my wife.

I wouldn’t call myself a gardener. I don’t study plant life beyond what I’ve planted. I have no need to memorize horticultural identities. When healthy, plants seem to be at ease with what they are. They don’t need me to remind them. If I like their appearance, they stick around. Otherwise, there’s always more at any given nursery. I guess I view the plants in my garden as pets in a detached sort of way. They serve no purpose, but I need to have them around.

Plants are no more adaptable than humans. They seek what’s most comfortable whether it’s flowering under a high noon sun or tucked in the shade of a fuchsia. They know what they like and don’t do well with change. Plants are like cats. They’re fiercely independent. Just provide water and a familiar home, and they’re yours. We can have a change of heart and come closer to another’s point of view. Plants could care less.

At least they don’t discriminate. Genus and gender mean nothing to plants. They’ve mastered propagation without needing to know their mates. They go about their business without any care for what others are doing. Is this the detachment of oneness that mystics write about?

My patio is my place of indiscriminate worship. I find a comfortable spot and swim in the silence. My eyes attend to the variegations of green and creamy white, the red tipped spindly leaves, the blood red petunias, and snow-topped alyssum. I try to slip into the carefree existence of greenery. Although, it’s hard enough just to emulate the ivy’s contentment.

Yes, I guess plants do for me as shoes do for my wife. She’s elated each time she steps comfortably into an exceptionally stylish pair. They reflect her refined taste. I find my reflection in our garden. Its serenity is what I want to be.

Before You’re Dead

I awoke to my wife pumping my chest and frantically call my name, “Jeff, Jeff, what’s happening!”  My only recollection was the shimmering ivy along the back fence, the muffled clarinet of Benny Goodman, and the submerged splashing coming from the water wall. Everything else was pleasantly blank, except that I suddenly felt woozy.

The paramedics were professional and personable. They hooked me up for the ride to the hospital. A fellow San Leandran took the lead and kept me talking. He had good reason to distrust my consciousness. I was still struggling to use it myself. All along the ride I tried to recall what may have happened. Once we reached the hospital it really didn’t matter. The staff was immediately on a mission to test, test, and test.

Ten thumping minutes in the CAT scan tunnel confirmed I had a brain. They seemed to be happy with how it functioned. The results weren’t shared so I’m assuming at least a passing grade. Once back in the exam room, an annoying beep kept going off randomly from the heart monitor connected to the nodes scattered across my chest. The beep was a missed beat and it was me. At least there wasn’t any fear of flat lining—or was there?

I spent the night in the hospital under the care of a motherly Philippian nurse. After disconnecting and reconnecting me to a new set of nodes, she softly assured me that I was plugged-in and set. Then she dimmed the lights and left the door ajar. It was odd to have someone accessing my heart via Wi-Fi.

I was bent on getting released the following morning, but I still had to dodge the concerns of Dr. Padma. She cited blood clots at least two or three times. The notion seemed reasonable but the thought of being plugged-in again started to take on a sci-fi feel. I envisioned myself spending Saturday afternoon plugged-in to a web of wires while stretched out on a stainless steel slab. That wasn’t happening.

I passed a couple more tests during the following week as I began to feel normal again. I suppose it was also normal to be shocked by suddenly being reminded of mortality. “Live for today and drink lots of water,” was the jest of repeated medical advice. Combine those two gems with, “Breathe in and breathe out,” and you have the Farmer’s Almanac secret to a long life. Although, once you’ve had a sip of death, you’ll consider most any advice.

Just Follow Instructions

Some consider it sensible to follow instructions and never give up. For me, instructions can be problematic. And I don’t mind walking away from a problem. It’s easy to rationalize rebellion. My current problem has to do with recipes; as in how-to-read-them. Actually the question is, “why read them?”

After several weeks of chicken-to-chicken and fish-to-fish competition, my wife settled on the winner of our subscription dinner contest. Gone are the days of frozen fried chicken in a bag and bottles of curry sauce that no respectable Hindu would eat. It’s now taboo to even contemplate sloppy joe in a can. And there’s no thought of tilapia now that we’ve tasted barramundi. I’d be worried about becoming so bourgeois if it wasn’t for the fact that we were saving money.

Plus we’re eating well. We’re no longer stockpiling spoiled vegetables. Leftovers no longer serve as hosts for flowering molds. Best of all, I’m no longer worried about the expiration dates that I tended to ignore. My wife tics off her choices online once a week. All of my impromptu planning that used to take place at the end of each grocery aisle has gladly ended. I was pretty good at it but there were never any surprises. Now there are variations of cod stew, seared chicken atop glistening pasta, and cheesy enchiladas to look forward to as old favorites.

There’s only one problem: I’m stymied by the meticulous organization of peeled garlic cloves neatly tucked into dimensionally precise bags and the miniature plastic specimen jars that hold exactly enough of whatever is inside. The engineering that went into constructing the measured mix of flavors is impressive. The ingredients have been perfectly rationed. The pressure to follow the recipe is immense. Success depends entirely on how one chops and when one blends. The guesswork is gone and so is the chance of combining extraneous herbs and spices. Since I’m neither a chef nor a gourmet, the closest I can come to being either is when I cook freestyle.

I’m basically a practitioner of food jazz. I scan the recipe to get a feel for where it’s headed, review the ingredients to make certain I have most of what I need, and quickly note the suggested temperatures. After that, it’s just a matter of listening for the splash and sizzle to get me on a roll. Every move stems from muscle memory. Every flavor is a familiar recollection.

However, thanks to Home Chef, I’ve been rendered powerless. I just try to follow the fine print and shut up. Inevitably, my wife rescues me. She swoops in with, “Okay, okay, let me do it.” I hide my relief by offering to help, but by this time she’s had enough of me hovering over the minced shallots while muttering about the needless work. Is there really any reason why a guy who never needs to ask for directions would ever need to follow a recipe? Yep, I thought you’d see my point. The conscientious quietly go about their cooking while recipes handcuff food slingers like me.

Heaven, Hell, or Hoboken

Beyond its evil aspects and its tragic results, I know nothing about war. I’ve never spotted an enemy platoon, fought my way to freedom, or stepped over a dead body. I’m like everyone else who’s been lucky enough to sit along the sidelines. Just knowing of war is enough.

I was born during the Korean War. My father fought in WWII and his father fought in WWI. My war should have been Vietnam. I was spared. It remains the only lottery that I’ve ever won—number 265. Anyone my age was anxiously sorting through their options. I considered leaving the country. My father was originally Canadian so I hoped they might let me in. The UK would have worked, too. Anywhere folks spoke English and their government minded its own business would have been just fine. It was a time when going to college had a payoff beyond the higher education. It could save your life. 2S draft status was coveted. I lost mine when I became a father at 19.

How the U.S. can sustain armed forces comprised of volunteers is beyond me. I’ve never had the urge to kill, nor be killed. Whatever educational or retirement benefits may come along with the uniform, I can get them on my own. Killing as a career has never crossed my mind. I can’t help but wonder what goes through the minds of those who do consider it. To me, patriotism is a misdirected trust and an excuse to be belligerent. Each war starts within. Patriotism can be a pathway for revenge or salvation or both. However, most of us understand that nothing good ever comes from killing.

Earlier this week I stood on a pier in Hoboken, surveying the skyline of New York along with the evening parade of joggers, young mothers pushing strollers, and aspiring Wall Street financiers headed home. I read the placard commemorating the ships and soldiers launched to sea from that site. Hoboken hospitality provided what might be a soldier’s last supper and last chance to stumble from one of its saloons to a back alley social club. Row after row of three-story brownstones could just as well serve as headstones for the men and women who never returned. Death and destruction are such strange things to commemorate.

Being Male

It’s nice to be the privileged gender. It has a bunch of benefits. I’m not gloating. I had nothing to do with it. My parents started the whole thing and I’ve managed to maintain it. It’s like being born rich, after a while you take it for granted. Being male came naturally for me so I don’t usually give it much thought. In fact, I had second thoughts about writing this.

At times, I question the good fortune of being male. Being on the top tier of anything is difficult. Life under a patriarchy is harsh enough, but being part of the ruling class brings risks. No, this isn’t where the woe-is-me starts. I have no complaints. It’s enough to have shared in the soap operas, periodic cramps, and nine months of excess estrogen to know being female is not for me. I have nothing against guys who think they should be. There are always defectors, just as there are wannabes. Beyond physical distinctions, gender is just a state of mind, anyway.

There’s no debate. Men are expected to be the stronger gender. Money and power are perfumes for us. They’re the scent of strength and success. That’s how we keep one another in check. Once you have these two fists, you welcome any fight. When you’re male, aspiring to superiority and wealth just makes sense.

It’s also true that being male can be boring. Maybe that’s why many men aren’t very interesting. At least that’s what many women say. Although, I think this is part of the natural selection process. To be female is too weed out the losers. A male with merit stands a chance of being transformed into whatever a female sees in him. It’s the fate that most males fight. But I suspect that most males realize they can’t do it alone.

In essence, being male is about not being female. I can list all the attributes of every female I’ve known and still not comprehend their gender. The same, of course, holds true for any female. Each gender is dependent on the other for their identity. What we are is also what we are not. What has being male done for me? In as many ways as it made my life easier, it made my life more difficult. The grass isn’t greener, girls. It’s artificial turf.

Trump and The Abstract

According to Dictionary.com, the meaning of ABSTRACT can be “a work of art, especially a nonrepresentational one, stressing formal relationships. Also, of or relating to the formal aspect of art, emphasizing lines, colors, generalized or geometrical forms, etc., especially with reference to their relationship to one another.”

Two and three dimensional artworks produce tangible abstractions. The image is simplified in order to represent generalized, yet distinct, relationships. Ironically, outside of the arts, ABSTRACT has a quite different meaning. Again, Dictionary.com:

“The act of considering something as a general quality or characteristic, apart from concrete realities, specific objects, or actual instances. An impractical idea; something visionary and unrealistic. The act of taking away or separating; withdrawal: The sensation of cold is due to the abstraction of heat from our bodies.”

This one word embodies two opposing meanings. The practical perspective on the abstract is to write it off, render it “visionary and unrealistic.” The aesthetic perspective allows possibilities to flourish. Nothing gets written off. Every element is worth consideration. Without the willingness to explore ideas, we’d lead narrow lives that cling only to what we know best – whatever it may be. We’d avoid the impractical. We’d willingly reduce our world to be only what we see and hear for ourselves. We’d leave the abstract battles, the conversations considering things “apart from concrete realities,” to our surrogate leaders – whoever they may be – lawyers, doctors, academics, scientists, priests, pastors, rabbis, politicians, etc.

Without intellectual exploration driven by an interest in ethics and ideals, simply succeeding at what’s considered to be immediately practical becomes our obsession.  That’s how Mr. Trump got elected.

People who have hit several dead ends, unable to see multiple possibilities, are looking for hope. They are especially susceptible to his message. He promises solutions that sound better than what they could have provided for themselves. But he doesn’t only play to the downtrodden. The abstract complexities of the world, the circumstances filled with subtle relationships, are actually beyond the grasp of much of Middle America, the working poor, wealthy entrepreneurs, and all the other demographic segments of our society. Admittedly, we all disdain the abstract to some degree because it evades our immediate comprehension. That’s why we willingly seek and follow leaders. We’re hoping that as a collective, leaders will allow relationships to evolve in order to establish cooperation and make sense of the world.

Mr. Trump is missing the fact that there are millions of people capable of comprehending abstract circumstantial relationships, opposing political concepts, and many of the details he dismisses. It’s up to us to voice our perspectives and beliefs. There are other possibilities beyond Mr. Trump’s. He’s caught up in a tit-for-tat, shallow mindedness that reduces the abstract spectrum of colorful possibilities to black and white for those who are easily overwhelmed.

Mr. Trump can only control us if we let him. I offer this advice to those of us who are comfortable with considering multiple perspectives, allowing the underlying relationships to form a whole greater than its parts: IT’S TIME TO RESIST.