Saturday, June 25, 2011

Angel follow-up

Just a follow-up to my post about the rock band Angel...
I was in a Half-Price Books on Thursday and there, proudly displayed on the front counter, was a collection of Angel 7-inch vinyl singles. Just when I thought no one knew who this band was, somebody out there thought there was a collector's market for vinyl versions of their "Hits."
Who knew?

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Reflections on my first half century: What I've learned so far.

So I turn 50 today. Fifty years old. Half a century.

Holy Crap!

Actually, I'm not that weirded out by the whole thing. 50 is the new 30, blah blah blah. The truth is I feel pretty good about it. Last winter, when it first hit me that this milestone was approaching I had a moment or two of angst. I was tempted to just ignore it, or acknowledge it and move on. But as the day approached I became more and more convinced that I wanted to celebrate it. I like my life and don't really feel my age. Most people who don't know me well, or haven't known me for that long, are surprised by my age. I get a lot of “No you're not!” responses when I tell them. Now I'm pretty aware that I don't look 18 any more (and those of you who knew me then can confirm that). But overall, I feel pretty good. I'm overweight, my blood pressure is a little high and I have bifocals now. My hair is receding but I have more of it than I thought I would by this age. I've accomplished many of my life goals and have failed at some others. I'm a published author and artist. I've taught at a college level. I still can't play the guitar.

I guess the good news is that I still have life goals to strive for.

I grew up with a generation that has become increasingly youth-obsessed. Old people aren't valued in our society the way they used to be. My lifetime has seen the most concentrated expansion of technology in history, and it continues unabated. We are so obsessed with the new, with the things that replace the old, that it is increasingly easy to move on and forget what came before. Unfortunately, this seems to apply to people as well. Fear of old age and death is part of that, obviously. I also think it's because none of us really know what it means to be old. We have images, of course, and the evidence of our own declining physical reality. But in our heads we feel the same.

So here I am, caught between still feeling like a young man, the person I have always been, and recognizing that I am fully ensconced in middle age. I have deeply held beliefs. There are days when I feel at peace with the world and there are days I still struggle with anger and melancholy. So, what have I learned?

  1. I don't know anything and I still have a lot to learn. The first half of that statement is directly related to the second half. Obviously, I know stuff. I have a brain full of stuff. More stuff than a lot of people. But I'm very aware of all the things I don't know, and in the grand scheme of things, the vast infinite nature of the universe means that my little percentage of knowledge is nothing compared to what is out there. The good news is that I love to learn, so I still have my work cut out for me.

  2. The most important lessons can't be taught or talked about. Whatever I have learned about living I can't convince anyone of until they learn that lesson themselves. The words we use for the most profound elements of our lives are, at best, limited metaphors. As a writer, as someone who love words, this is endlessly fascinating and frustrating. I think we write because on some level we believe that if we find just the right combination of words we will perfectly communicate our deepest truths and finally, finally be understood. But something is almost always lost in translation. If you know what I'm talking about, then you know. If you don't... I can't really tell you.

  3. Life's too short. Too short for a lot of things. Love the people in your life. Right now. While they're here. Petty stuff can all too easily distract us from what's important, sometimes to the extent that we start to believe the petty stuff is the important stuff. It's not.

  4. People come and go. That is not meant to sound cynical. Quite the opposite in fact. There have been many, many friends in my life, some for a long, long time now. There are others of more recent vintage. Some very important people in my life simply aren't anymore, not because they died (though that's true in far too many cases), or we have fallen out, or are fighting, but simply because life moves on. We would still be friends if they were here, and I still love them and the roles they played in my life. They taught me lessons and brought me joy and gave me gifts. They are all still part of my life. But, I have also continued to find new friends. There was an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer where Giles said something along the lines of, “I don't think people in their 40's really make new friends.” I disagree. Old friends are wonderful and know parts of you that new friends can never know. But new friends get to know the person you are now, after all the mistakes of youth. Refer to #3... Life's too short. Love the people in your life and learn the lessons you can from them. Life can take them out of your sphere as easily as death. Embrace and value your old friends, but open your arms and mind to new ones as well. Refer to #1... Life still has lessons to teach you and everyone you meet is a teacher.

  5. If there's music on, dance to it, in your own head if nowhere else.

  6. Not everyone thinks like you do. As a matter of fact, no one else thinks like you do. We all live in a story of our own choosing. Be willing to listen, really listen, to other people's stories and even more importantly be willing to change the plot of your own.

  7. Defending your beliefs is very different from attacking someone else's. Try to know the difference. Though there are always exceptions, the shield is more important than the sword. Win or lose, know when the fight is over.

  8. Of course the path can be lonely... You're the only one on yours.

  9. In our earliest years we are programmed to learn by playing. Never stop playing. Never stop learning (See #1).

  10. Try everything. If you still don't like beets, don't eat them. This applies to everything you try, but try everything.

  11. There are positive things in the universe. There are negative things in the universe. At the end of every day ask yourself, “Today, did I contribute to the sum total of positive things, or the sum total of negative things.” Decide what kind of world you wish to live in, then contribute to that world.

  12. Love is not a limited resource, but you really do have to give to get. It's been my experience that love has the best interest rate available.

  13. Happiness is not a state one achieves. It is an ongoing process, and a decision we make. We have no control over what the world brings us. We do have control over how we perceive and interpret what the world brings us. Neither rose-colored glasses nor “through a glass, darkly” is completely accurate, but we can choose what lessons to learn (see #1 and #11).

  14. Joseph Campbell famously said, “Follow your Bliss.” Easier said than done, but good advice nonetheless. If happiness is not common in your life or a decision you can easily make then perhaps the path you are following is not the one you should be on. Change it. Once again, easier said than done but, positive or negative, what do you really want in your life?

  15. You are a part of everything, and everything is connected. The Eastern tradition of bowing is an acknowledgment of the sacred in other people. Tat tvam asi, or, in English, Thou Art That. What you see in everyone and everything is a reflection of yourself. The things you admire and love? That's you. The things you hate and despise? That's you, too. See #11 again for deciding which part of the world you want to be a part of, and #4 for recognizing the lessons the world is trying to teach you.

  16. Be brief.

Okay, so I'm not so hot on that last one. Maybe in the next half century I'll work on that.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Flea Markets

I went to a Flea Market in Waynesburg yesterday. They have one every Tuesday and Saturday at the Greene County Fairgrounds. Over the years it has dwindled to very few set-ups and not much reason to go. Dad and Mom go to hang with friends, drink coffee and, in Dad's case, trade pocketknives with his cronies.
I've gone to Flea Markets with them frequently over the years. I enjoy the experience but with rare exceptions I don't really search them out on my own. I'm never really looking for anything specific, and in spite of my collection of books, comics and music I don't really consider myself a real "collector" of anything. When I'm at a Flea Market I scan the tables for those sorts of things and hope to find something cheap to read, or a CD to fill a hole in my collection that I want but would never spend full price on.
There was an extra attraction yesterday. A separate building at the fairgrounds housed a different Flea Market. All of the proceeds went to support the Greene County Humane Society. There was a bunch of donated stuff on quite a few tables and more people wandering the aisles than usually seen at the Saturday sale.
I'm not proud of this, but I spent time looking at the cheap plastic flower arrangements, the lamps shaped like clowns, the knick-knacks and bric-a-brac and wondered who had spent money on all this crap in the first place. Tacky and cheap, most of it could have been marketed, when new, as future flea market fodder or landfill. I simply couldn't imagine anyone wanting to own most of this stuff when it was new, let alone now that it was used and beat. The building felt like a graveyard of wasted money.
I found a table full of books and went to look for something to read. I found a copy of Bones of the Moon by Jonathan Carroll, one of my favorite contemporary authors. This surprised and pleased me since this is an author very few people I know seem to have heard of. I own several of his books and have read more from the Library. I couldn't remember if this was one I owned or not, but for a quarter it was worth picking up (turns out I do own it already, but now I have a gift for someone).
While thumbing though it I remembered a quote from another Carroll novel, Outside the Dog Museum, about flea markets that I had saved quite some time ago;

"Flea markets remind us of how narrow and fixed our values are: What unimaginable things can have meaning to people! A man bought a bent and rusty 1983 Nevada license plate for one hundred schillings. One woman did a brisk trade selling single used, unmatchable shoes, and empty record album sleeves. Astonished, I turned to Nicholas and asked, “How much do you think she charges for that stuff?” He said nothing, but a moment later the thought came that valuing something meant understanding it better than the next guy. To me, it was absurd buying an old license plate­–but what if the man who bought it knew better? Knew more about it, even if that knowledge seemed spurious or even insane to me. And even if it was worthless, didn’t his wanting it make his imagination broader and grander than mine?"

I like that idea, and felt immediately abashed at my prior judgement. No matter how bizarre or meaningless I personally thought an object to be, at some point someone had looked at it, bright and shiny and new on the shelf, and thought, "That's awesome... I want that." Some of the items would make the imagination incredibly broad and grand, in my opinion. But every item in this graveyard, every bent, tarnished, ratty, well-used piece of it, had once enchanted someone.
There are bits of magic all around us. We just need eyes to see it.

Sunday, June 5, 2011


My Dad, Keith Wise, turned 92 years-old on Thursday, June 3rd. To save you doing the math, he was born in 1919. There is no way I can do justice to the life he has lived, so I won't even try to tell his whole story here.

I love the roguish look on his face in this pic.

I don't see much of my looks in him. I take more after Mom's side of the family, at least in terms of hair color and body type. My brother and his kids and grandsons look more like Dad than I do. My grandfather, Jim Wise, who I never met, had bright blue eyes. My brother and his kids all inherited those. My grandmother, Ida Wise, passed her dark, dark brown eyes to Dad and me.

Mom tells me she knew when she was 5 years old that Dad was the man she would spend her life with. They grew up in the same hollow (the one I wrote about a couple of posts back). I've heard stories of both of them dating other people, but they always came back to each other. This is Mom's high school senior picture.

Dad went into the service during World War II. I'm not sure of the exact dates and neither is he. He went through basic training and saw the country. He was in the 7th Armored Division in General Patton's Third Army. While in California he got the job of being driver for company Captain Milton Borcherding (and if this name rings a bell or if anyone can tell me anything about him, please do. Dad lost track of him after the War and would love to know). Even with the difference in rank (Dad was a private for most of the War, though he was promoted to Corporal at some point), he and Borcherding developed a friendship.

Dad doesn't talk much about his War experiences, and when he does it's more about the good things he remembers; Playing baseball in France as they were waiting to be shipped back home, the German girls he still likes to tease Mom about. But, he was on the front lines. He went to Europe in August of 1944, missing the D-Day landing by 2 months. He drove his Jeep across Europe, escorting the tanks of the 7th Armored. He tells stories of working as a liaison, which meant running messages between camps in the dead of night in the German countryside. He slept in his Jeep in the freezing cold of Christmas Eve at the Battle of the Bulge. He shared cigars with Soviet soldiers on the Russian border.

And he came home, unscratched. Before he went into the service his Dad gave him a silver dollar to carry for luck. It must have worked. At the end of the war, in Paris, he had the silver dollar made into a ring with his initials, KW, inscribed on it. As I was growing up the ring was always on his finger. I never saw him take it off. Sometime in the mid-90's, in his completely non-ceremonious way, he pulled the ring off his finger, handed it to me and said, "Do you want this?" It's been on my hand ever since.

He came home and went to work. He drove a dump truck for 25 years or so, then worked at a Limestone plant in Benwood West Virginia until he retired. That was 25 years ago. He hasn't stopped moving since.

It took me a long time to recognize the traits I have in common with him. I have always been more of my Mother's son than my Dad's (and I think it's fair to say my brother has always been more of Dad's son than I). That's based more on personality types than any real differences between us. Dad lives in this world. He is a man of the earth, based on the here and now. I've always lived in a fantasy world of some kind or another. Dad never really understood the comics or the books or the art, or to be honest, most of the things that drove me. To his credit, he never actively discouraged those things either. It was always more of a bemused shrug than a blockade.

Over time I realized it was easier for me to go to his world than it was for him to come to mine. In my teens I got heavily involved in his world of Field Trials. In brief, these were dog races. Not the Greyhound around the track kind. These grew out of the coon and fox hunting traditions. I can't really describe what these were in this post (maybe that will be another blog). Suffice to say, we had a lot of different dogs when I was growing up. Taking care of them and training them was something we shared. At a time when fathers and sons are typically at odds (and Dad and I had our share of flare-ups, though nothing that was ever really serious), no matter what else we may have disagreed on, we always had the dogs in common. Every Sunday, from March until October, we would get up early, load up the truck and drive somewhere together to a race. It was a bonding experience I treasure.

This pic is from a few years ago. Dad and Mom are still together (she's 88), and they are, for the most part, still in good health. Dad takes a walk of a mile or two through the woods every day. Two weeks ago he had a cataract removed, the first serious medical procedure he has ever undergone. He still drives, and drives well. He was forced to renew his license last year because of his age and passed with flying colors. He has lots of friends and is loved by everyone who knows him. He is a Zen master, though he wouldn't know what that meant if I said it to him. He is a force of nature. As different as we are he taught me how to be a man. He loves more quietly than I do, but just as fiercely.

I love you Dad. Here's to another 92 years.