Nature Boy

I’ve always been an indoor kind of guy. When I was a little kid in grade school, I wasn’t good at socializing or sports, so I hated recess. Kids knocked me down. I was good at my school work, which was, of course, indoors. At home, I did have a friend or two in the neighborhood and we did things outside (including, apparently, terrorizing the fat lady who lived  down the street, but that’s another blog entry – I promise), but I spent many summers at my grandmother’s house where there were no kids. I’d do word puzzles and jigsaws, walk with my grandma downtown, and spend countless hours sitting on the neighbor’s front porch while she and my grandmother gossiped about everyone on the street (mostly an Italian and Polish neighborhood, until a notorious family of hooligans moved in. This was the 1970s, and I heard words for African Americans I had never heard before).

As a young adult, I continued to prefer indoor activities to outdoor ones. There were some practical reasons for this (I was very fair-skinned, I still didn’t care for sports, and I was allergic to grass and pollen), but truth be told I often felt too exposed outside. I liked to keep to myself, and didn’t want the world watching me or talking to me. Many days I stayed inside with the blinds closed, safe in my little cocoon yet often feeling very isolated. I loved rainy days because they normalized my indoor preference. I felt threatened by the outside, and quite possibly was a little too reminded of how the rest of the world was out there having fun and being boisterous and socializing and doing everything that I condemned myself for not doing. I didn’t understand that I was an introvert, and that quiet and solitude were normal states of being for me. Granted, I may have had other issues too (agoraphobia?).  I’m sure it is quite possible to be introverted and love nature, but my point is that to me, the outside was the domain of extroverts and I didn’t belong there.

As I got older I became a little more adventurous outdoors, but not very. I would never sit on the grass or god forbid lay on it, I never went swimming, and walking the dog around the block was a big deal. I had a fabulous house in a high-class neighborhood with a big gazebo in the backyard, but I rarely sat in it. It looked nice from my living room window, though.

When I moved to a resort area of Cape Cod and bought a house right on the main drag of the business district, thousands of people passed by my front sidewalk daily. What was I thinking? My very gregarious friend would sit on the stoop of the shop next door and schmooze with the locals, but I rarely joined. I conveniently had to work all the time, and preferred to stay inside with the very non-threatening dog.

Now, five years and two homes later, I live in a house with a fabulous yard, a front and side porch, and  a large back deck. I’ve spent more time outside here in the past few months than I ever did at my other homes. I frequently sit on my porch reading or web surfing and enjoying the view of the yard. I’ve done lots of landscaping, tree cutting and stump digging, and am trying to get my pond set up.  I love it here, and I’ve been trying to figure out what triggered the switch in my behavior. Is it the yard? Perhaps. It is very inviting and pleasant, there is lots to look at (the prior owner won an award for the landscaping and flowers), and there is enough of a buffer between me and the neighbors that I never see them. And yet, there is much activity in the neighborhood – sounds from the nearby playground, lots of people walking by, barking dogs, traffic – but none of it requires my interaction, and it’s far enough away that it doesn’t threaten my space. It’s comforting that the commotion is there because it makes the place, and me, feel less isolated, which I think was a problem with other places I’ve lived. It’s a beautiful noise, as Neil Diamond put it, the music of life.

This space just feels right for me. My only regret is that it’s taken me thirty years and nine homes to find it.

The meaning of life

Socrates

Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.” – Albert Einstein

I’m currently taking a philosophy course, which, of course, involves pondering the big questions. Some people don’t concern themselves with such things (they’re the ones blathering on cell phones in the checkoout line). Me, I’ve always pondered life pretty heavily. It’s my nature, and I like it. Sure, it can make me seem a bit arrogant at times – and I suppose I am to a degree – but things have to make sense to me. It’s a classic trait of those with my personality type (“INTJ” on the Myers- Briggs scale, a topic for another time). If it doesn’t make sense to me, I can’t get behind it. This is no doubt why I have so much trouble at work, following the often non-sensical dictums of a corporate retail giant that often doesn’t have a clue as to how things go down in the real world. But I digress…

I found myself criticizing the arguments of Socrates in class this week. Yes, the Socrates, the founder of philosophical thought. The one so famous that he can go by one name, like Cher or Liberace. Everyone in the class was kissing Socratic butt, yet I was finding fault with him (so like me at times!) I figured either I was a genius, or a moron, and the professor would either love me or hate me. But something about Socrates’ arguments just wasn’t making sense, and I don’t care who he is (ha! that’s so like me, too: question authority!).

He was on trial, at age 70, accused of “impiety” (denying the gods of Athens) and of corrupting youth by teaching blasphemous things (like encouraging them to ask questions and not believe everything they’re told). So far, so good. Bogus charges. He mounted his own defense in the courtroom, though many were already against him. You see, he had a habit of going around asking lots of questions that made people really think about their beliefs, convictions and assumptions. Often, this had the unfortunate result of making them look stupid (and Socrates look smart). Not a good way to win friends (the arrogance factor). Yet Socrates was the first to admit that he really “knew” very little, but that he was smart because he was aware of his ignorance while many others were not. Hmmm… OK, that’s a good first step on the road to knowledge, I guess.

Where I started to have trouble was in his claiming one thing, yet seeming to act in a way that suggested he believed something else. He claimed to have no fear of death, arguing that while many see it as a “bad” thing, there is absolutely no evidence of this (something I also have often considered). It may be, he argued, the best thing since sliced bread (which they didn’t have in 400 BC). Yet he was in court defending himself to avoid death (which was the penalty he knew he would get if convicted). So, apparently he was uncertain, which is one reason I didn’t believe his claim to not fear death, or to not be a super smartypants, or several other arguments he made.

Apparently, the jury didn’t believe him either, because they convicted him. He was indeed put to death. This was over 2000 years ago. And at 70, he would have died soon anyway in an age when the life expectancy was much lower than it is now. This got me thinking about the importance we place on things. I used to have a fortune cookie fortune taped to my desk at work that said “will it matter a hundred years from now?” No. It gave me perspective on the dozens of things I could stress out about daily at work. In a hundred years, nobody will remember you or I (well, maybe me, because I’m arrogant and will make something of myself). Seriously, the things we worry about today will not matter one whit in a hundred years, or ten, or even one. Do you remember what you were worrying about a year ago? If you do, does any of it matter now? Probably not – at least not in the same way. Everything is subject to change. Even the thought that any of us “owns” anything is absurd. The possessions you see around you will all likely be gone a hundred years from now, and the ones that aren’t will be “owned” by someone else. Nothing is permanent. “Heaven and Earth shall pass away,” as the good book says, just as everyone who has ever lived has, or will. Personally, I find this quite comforting. Because what we’re all really afraid of isn’t death, but of being alone in it. And you couldn’t ask for more company than the billions of people who have already died ahead of you. If you don’t find that comforting, well, maybe I need my head examined. But FDR was right, you know. About fear.

But this post was supposed to be about life, not death, you say. Well, it is. They’re very related. Did you ever wonder why a baby cries when it comes into the world? I mean, hasn’t that ever struck you as odd? If the world is so great, why come into it all upset and ornery? What kind of way is that to start out the journey? People don’t leave the world making a big fuss like that. No, I think there is something much better outside this realm we call life – always have. I’ve never believed in the concept of hell, except that maybe we’re living it now compared to what lies ahead for us.

There is a teaching at the beginning of “A Course in Miracles” that explains how nothing has meaning in and of itself. Everything in your life – from objects to people’s actions to your dinner last night – has only the meaning you have ascribed to it, and this meaning is based solely on your experiences with those (and other) things. They may mean something totally different to someone else. So, what I’m getting at is (and here we get back to Socrates): ask questions. Examine your beliefs about things. Why do you believe these things? Just because you believe them, does that make them true? What would happen if you believed something else, how might your life and attitudes change? (according to your belief, so be it unto you). Are you even aware that you always have a choice what to believe about things and people (remember, they have no independent meaning, just what meaning you give them). In Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, Hamlet comments to his friends that Denmark is a prison. His friends strongly disagree with his assessment, to which Hamlet replies (and this beautifully illustrates my point here, and is one of my favorite quotes) “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so” (Act II, Scene II). How easily we forget this; that we have a choice how we see things. Even death, the ultimate “bad.”

Which brings me full circle to my stated topic, the meaning of life. My favorite spiritual teacher is Eckhart Tolle, who wrote a most amazing book called “The Power of Now,” a work so profound that I couldn’t read more than a few pages at a time. Every other sentence was packed with such wisdom and mind-expanding thoughts that I had to sit with them for a while. In that book, he says that life has no meaning. We bring meaning to it. This is just like we discussed – things have no meaning in themselves, even life. We give them meaning. That is our power. We are the spin doctors of our lives. Perception is reality. So why are we so nearsighted most of the time?

Alex, could I have “Create Your Own World” for a hundred?

…and through the woods

The spooky road through the woods


Had a pleasant drive to North Conway, NH today to leaf peep. While the foliage wasn’t very impressive (I’m starting to think this is one of those crappy, off-years for it), the mountains are a very nice change of scenery. I like mountains. I liked them in Nevada, and I like them here. They make for a nice backdrop, the air feels cleaner and the sky looks bluer. So basically that impressed me more than the trees. Maybe Vermont will be different.

Stopped in a Walgreens (my employer) in N. Conway just to scope it out. Picked up a few souvenirs, including a moose bobble-head for my dashboard (ha! Picture tomorrow, I promise). I didn’t see any moose yet, though had plenty of opportunity (see below). The Walgreens sold beer and wine, which is something we’re slowly implementing all over the country, but it’s the first one I’ve seen. Liquor seems to be big up here. Maybe people drink all winter.

Picked up some provisions in a Hannaford grocery store, which apparently is this area’s Stop & Shop. It was laid out and decorated very bizarrely, though it was huge. Things just seemed to be arranged very haphazardly (maybe they were drunk). It was hopping though, and this at 7pm on a Sunday.

When I left Hannaford it was dusk in the valley, which was spooky but kind of romantic. I cranked up the showtunes and headed for Waterville Valley, which is where my first night’s stay is. GPS tells me 1.5 hours. No problem. “Climb evvvvvvry mountain……

After about an hour, I took a slight wrong turn. GPS recalculated my route (I’ve only managed to take two wrong turns so far, and quickly recovered my route). It redirected me and all was going fine – until that ill-fated turn onto a dirt road (how utterly rustic…) This seemed a bit odd, but hey, when in Rome….. GPS hasn’t let me down yet, so I proceeded confidently. Little did I know what I was in for.

This “road” – and that term is generous, it was more of a dirt path – is the “Sandwich Notch Road” (I’ve since learned that I should avoid any road with “notch” in the name). I think they call it Sandwich Notch because you’ll be on it so long that you’ll need a sandwich. It is an EIGHT MILE, WINDING, HILLY, RUT-FILLED DIRT PATH THROUGH THE FOREST. Literally. There are no lights, no signs, no turnoffs. No going back. Nothing but trees, dirt and pitch blackness (it was 7pm). It wouldn’t match any civilized person’s idea of a road. The “road” was so incredibly bumpy, hilly, and full of huge ruts that you could sink a bowling ball into that I couldn’t do more than 10 mph. My bobble-head moose looked like he was having a seizure. When you’re doing 10 mph for 8 miles, you’re looking at almost an hour of drive time. Harrowing, nerve-wracking drive time. Then I began to wonder if this “road” was two-way, and what would happen if it were as there didn’t seem to be nearly enough room for two vehicles to pass each other. Some of the hills were so steep that when you approached the top of one, you couldn’t even tell if there was any “road” to meet you on the other side or if you were just going to fall off a cliff. The side of the “road” dropped off steeply in spots, so if you did try to pull over to allow a car to pass, you’d likely be stuck in a ditch, or worse, roll over.

I traveled like this for about 40 minutes, feeling like I was in a bad horror movie. I watched the distance calculation on my GPS tick down – slooooowly, in painful tenths of a mile – to mark the end of this sorry excuse for a road. 6.5 miles. 6.4 miles. It seemed eternal, like watching the timer on a microwave when you‘re really hungry. Aside from fretting over how much damage I was doing to my vehicle’s suspension and tires, I couldn’t help but wonder if I’d encounter a woodland critter. A deer. A moose. A bear. A crazed woodcutter. It was dark, I was alone, and I hadn’t seen a car or any sign of life or civilization for over a half hour. Nothing but trees, dirt, stones, ruts and darkness. Nobody knew I was here. What if I got a flat tire? Or hit a moose? (granted, I was going so slow it wouldn’t have done much damage to either of us). Or ran out of gas. Cell phone likely wouldn’t work. What the hell would I do? Walk? Ha ha. Not a chance in hell. You couldn’t pay me enough. There’s nothing that could have gotten me to step outside of that vehicle except for a fire, and even then I’d have to think about it. This was a forest. I was the one who didn’t belong, and any self-respecting moose would know that. And who the hell put a road here anyway? Why??? I can’t imagine anyone intentionally taking it to get somewhere unless they had a death wish.

Then an unexpected thing happened. Headlights. Not behind me, but in front of me. A massive truck, like one of those Ford behemoths your car could slide under that you see in monster truck rallies (“the Pulverizer!”). I wasn’t sure whether to be relieved or more nervous. Maybe they were going to crush me like a bug! Instead, when they saw me, they backed up and pulled over to the side to let me pass. Alright! And I was the little guy! How neighborly! (people do seem friendlier up here). I flashed my lights and gave them a thank you wave. But then I realized that in slasher movies, little niceties like this always happen just before the gory killings. It makes them all the more tragic. And you thought you were safe! Ha!

Nevertheless I continued on, feeling slightly more confident now that I knew there was another fool in the world who was doing this little-red-riding-hood-in-a-car thing at night. Then, a short while later, I actually saw a HOUSE! Like, in the middle of the woods (maybe it was Grandma‘s House? Why does she live in the middle of the woods, anyway?) And it wasn’t a little house either, but a big one, setting pretty much right on the road. “Who in their right mind would live out here?” I wondered. Paul Bunyan? And would you be able to sleep at night? Would you walk from your car to the house in the pitch black darkness where nobody would hear you scream should the occasion arise? And how did they get electricity way out here? Generator? Or black magic? It was like something out of a Stephen King novel, but this wasn’t Maine. Or was it…..

As I pondered all this, more headlights appeared (and I was in it for keeps, six miles deep now, two more to go). But this time they were behind me. Where the hell did they come from? That house? The extremely odd thing was, they were doing a pretty good rate of speed. What the heck were they driving? Here I was – chugging along in my SUV as fast as I could to get the hell out of the woods, yet being forced to obey a 10 mph limit due to the unforgiving ruts in the road that turned my vehicle into a Home Depot paint shaker – and here this joker behind me was gaining on me, and fast. As this was making me nervous, I decided to pull over and let them pass. Go ahead, ruin your suspension pal. As they pulled up beside me, they stopped. Stopped! Great. I’m going to be murdered in East Butthole New Hampshire in the middle of the woods. Why else would they be stopping? As I didn’t see any other choice, I rolled down my window, with grave apprehension.

It was a high end car, maybe a Lexus or an Audi. Can you believe this, taking a vehicle like that on this road and driving it like it’s a four wheeler? (And why do I care when I’m about to be bludgeoned?) An attractive, cultured-looking woman was in the passenger seat. She and her mate looked like they just drove in from the suburbs. They didn’t seem the least bit shaken. This was fun for them! (maybe they were drunk, too). Could this get any weirder? They behaved like this kind of thing was natural to them.

“Are you lost?” she asked me. Inside, I was laughing at her presumption. Why else would I be out here in the middle of the woods at night unless I was lost? A perfectly logical question. “No,” I said, because I wasn’t really. Peeved, yes. A little wigged out, yes. But not lost.

“Does this come out onto 49?” she asked. Ha. THEY were the ones who were lost, and were looking for company. OK, Mr and Mrs Misery. Oddly, I spied an in-dash GPS in their Batmobile. Maybe this was another of those calm-before-the-storm moments. I glanced at my GPS and informed her that this road ended in 2 miles, at Route 49. At least, if there is a God it does. She acknowledged me and they sped off, their high-end suspension sailing over the ruts like butter. (They were joyriding!). In a flash they were gone, and I continued my convulsive trudge.

A little ways up, I saw a roadsign that made me really question my sanity. “Watch for Children.” Huh???? How about “Watch for Moose?” or “Watch for Bears?” Or “Watch for Serial Killers?” Children were the last thing I was concerned about, and I can’t imagine what any would be doing out here anyway, unless maybe they were Children of the Corn.

Then, I began to see signs of civilization. Another house. Then two. Then some actual tar. Hoorray! I’m saved! The ordeal is over! I emerged from the woods, triumphantly, and turned onto Route 49 – speed limit 55! – and felt like I was just let out of prison. Like the freeing feeling you get after you’re in a huge traffic jam and can finally hit the gas. Hotel bed, here I come!

But… I’m not out of the woods yet. My GPS doesn’t recognize the name of the road my Best Western is on. Ha! No wonder, it’s in a ski resort area in the middle of the forest (except with real paved roads). It’s dark and the roads are windy. And there are all kinds of ski lodges and resorts nestled amongst the heavily wooded properties with poor lighting and signage. The roads are short but many, and they all circle in on each other and change names quickly. Great. I couldn’t pick a Motel 6 or something right off the highway. Finally I stumble onto my road. Imagine my delight! Problem is, I STILL couldn’t find the place. What the hell? The road was like not even a mile long. I road up and down it twice. The third time, I spotted the Best Western sign. Not at all what I was expecting – more upscale, kinda ski-lodge looking. Blended in with the others. When I checked in, a bit harrowed, I told the clerk of my dirt road adventure. Seems it wasn’t the first time he’d heard it, but he sure sympathized (I got the impression some never made it out alive). He told me there are three ways into the area. The one I took was the worst one. Ya think??

Next time I come, I’ll bring a pack mule.