Friday, September 21, 2012

You have time for what you make time

This is part 3 of a 10-part series on a small book of sayings from Amy's grandparents: "Wise Words from Eleanor and Eugene Becker."

In my early 30’s I decided to take piano lessons. My piano teacher was a young guy, about my age. He was good. Really good. I once complimented him on his ability to sight read anything and to improvise on the spot. "I wish I could play like that," I remarked.

He then told this story:
“When I’m playing a wedding, or some event, and I’m just there playing whatever songs people want, someone usually comes up to me and says, ‘I’d give anything to be able to play the piano like you. ’Then I say, ‘Would you give 8 hours a day for the rest of your life?’”


Though it stung, I love that story. I love that story because of the way it puts into context something I struggle with all the time. Something so basic. I tell myself that family is most important. I tell myself I want to be a writer. I tell myself I should finish reading one of the half dozen books I have started.  I tell myself these things as I mindlessly scroll through pages of Facebook updates, clicking into an "intriguing" article on Huffington Post then to video postings of the Colbert Report that lead me to to someone’s Amazon review of a book, and then to a NY Times blog, and then to videos of sledding mishaps on YouTube. Before I know it I’m trapped inside some Internet pit looking for a rope.  In fact, one of you, reading this right now, may be similarly afflicted!

Wondering what Gene Becker would have made of all this, I asked Bonnie:

One effect of living by the maxim "you have time for what you make time" is that it forces us to be honest, particularly to ourselves.  Often when we say "I don't have time for ‘something’" the true feeling is "I don't want to do that ‘something’ but I don't have the courage to say so and thus will use lack of time as an excuse." Of course, always saying "I don't want to do ‘something’" sometimes sounds selfish, blunt, uncooperative, etc.  I prefer to think that when Gene Becker reminded us of this credo, he was trying to encourage internal honesty rather than rough relations with other people.   Perhaps we were supposed to say it to ourselves first, and then adjust the public pronouncement as necessary!

Hmm.  Internal honesty? Be honest with ourselves first? Sorry, Bonnie, I just don’t have time for that.

But to expand on her words and recollections of her father, I’d like to add, in addition to the lack of interest or desire, the power of fear in all this. If I commit the time to something and I fail at it or it breaks, what then? Not having enough time for something is a convenient way to avoid failing. Or at least avoid that fear.

I reported some months back a mini-awakening to how I spent time, or rather, avoiding spending time with my boys. I was there with them, but not really. Within this context I was avoiding them. Avoiding being a dad. Being a dad is hard work. Sipping scotch and surfing the internet? Not as hard. I like to think I am doing better, some days, but it is and I imagine, will be, a constant struggle. How much of that was avoiding being a parent because, well, it’s really hard some days? Or maybe it was because, as a newly made single parent, I was afraid of failing at it? Failing, as a father, is terrifying, yet avoiding it was leading to that failure I was avoiding.

Few things come to us humans instinctively. Unlike other animals we have to be taught and take the time to practice everything. When my boys were younger and one just beginning toilet training, I joked with a fellow parent that it is amazing that humans, as a species, have been so successful. “Because we have to be taught everything. Even the basics that all other animals know instinctively,” I said. “We don’t know how to sleep, eat, shit, or make love until someone teaches us. It’s a good thing we know how to breathe or we’d be dead.”

He replied, “Well, in eastern medicine they believe that many of our chronic ailments are related to how we breathe.”

Well, there it is. We even need to make time to breathe. That might be a good place to start. That, and piano lessons.


For others in the series please see:
Wise Words from Eleanor and Eugene Becker.
Nothing is Ever Simple
A Littlelunchalong

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Fare thee well, digital shadow

Funny thing, our post-modern lives. All that is now attached to us: financial records, credit ratings, email, facebook, iTunes accounts, and the many databases containing our names. In the weeks after Amy died I scrambled to get some of these databases updated. Ones that are used by life insurance companies, the Social Security Administration, and the state Motor Vehicle Administration, to name a few.

Re-titling a car.  How emotional is that? Very, it turns out. There it was, a piece of paper with her name on it. Testimonial to her existence. Or her existence in an electronic file somewhere. And I had to exchange that piece of paper for another piece of paper that showed her name removed. I was now an active player in her administrative and electronic disappearance.

Yes. For real.
I still get mail with her name on it. Items addressed to her, or to both of us. A reminder that she is gone, but that she was here. That she was real and still remains a digital memory. Many years ago we joined the Sierra Club, separately, before we knew each other. After we moved in together and married we were getting two of everything from them. I called them and went through the machinations to get us consolidated into one account. One record in their mailing database. Thus today I receive email and magazines and petitions addressed to John Robinette and Amy Polk from the Sierra Club. I imagine someday I’ll call them up and tell them … Tell them what? Tell them Amy is dead? Please take off her name of our database record?

The electric bill, water bill, catalogs, still come in her name. Just the other day Amy received mail offering to refinance her mortgage. Hmmm.

And phone calls. Occasionally I get calls asking for Amy. Two and a half years later it’s certainly a solicitation; old-school spam. But now that we are in the high drama of an election cycle the frequency has ticked up. Amy was an active member of the electorate. She volunteered for the League of Women Voter’s as a polling monitor and donated to several causes.  I’m sure she is in more than a few of their databases. I try to be polite when they call but I’m mostly just curt when I ask them to remove Amy from their call list. Why? Well, because she’s been dead for over two years, I say. I can hear the wincing on the other end as I hang-up. But they must get this from time to time, so I don’t worry about it too much anymore. But I'm also aware that her name is removed from one more list.

Email. I still get email for her. Right after she died, to manage her affairs and deal with a few things, it was easiest to start with her email. Credit cards, a bank account, paypal. Simple things like the credit card she used to auto-fund the kids' school lunch account, and the credit card attached to our EZPass. That was a while ago. The accounts are long closed, the kids' school lunches are paid for by a different card. Bnd she was on a number of listservs. And there is always some spam. So still email to Amy comes. Or at least it did. I had no reason to keep her account. Well, there was a reason. Somehow getting Amy’s junk email kept her alive in some strange way. She was still known in a few corners of the digital world. She was still known to a few social and political causes she supported.  She was still eligible for large sums of money from West Africans who died with no heirs. I actually would read some of that spam. It offered a strange comfort. But that was a while ago and no longer did I read them and every so often I’d just delete them all.

A few months ago I went to the email provider's website to see how to delete her account.  All I could find was info on how to add an account, so I gave up.  Then the other day something got out of synch. I had to re-enter her password. Not a big deal but I thought again, maybe I should just delete her account.  I looked at the online help again and found no help so I sent an email to customer service asking “how to delete an email account.”

I received this:

Hello John,

Thank you for contacting RCN's Email Support Team.

I have deleted the email address for you. If you have any questions, please call us at 1-800-RING-RCN (746-4726). An agent will be glad to help you. Agents are available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Thank you for being a valued RCN Customer.


First, let me say that I really like RCN. Really. This prompt attention to a problem from their customer service was typically. But that was too prompt! Though I told them I wanted to delete the account I really only wanted to know how. So I could do it. Later. When I was ready. I wanted to take a baby step. Slowly pull the Band-Aid. But they ripped it off for me. And after the initial shock and sting, well, I saw that it was okay.

It’s a curious thing about when someone dies these days: how long it really takes. How much lingers in the digital world. A friend of mine told me there is saying that when we die, we die three deaths: Once when our body dies, once when we are lowered into the ground, and once when our name is last spoken. As the jagged edge of heavy grief is gradually replaced by subtler emotions I’m aware of all the ways I, and others, keep Amy alive. Pictures, a scholarship in her name at her alma mater, University of Michigan, stories we tell, honoring her birthday by letting go of balloons, and so on. But to think she also lives on in facebook, spam, catalogs for women’s clothes, and political donation solicitations is an odd thought. But this is how it is now with each of our post-modern, digital, social-media personae. When we are alive, it's a way for people to know we are, in fact, alive. Participating in this world and that we matter. And perhaps it's also an opportunity to remind others, after we die, that we were here in the first place. That we were here. Even if it is through a piece of third class bulk mail.

Regardless, for me, it's an opportunity to speak her name.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Spring Cleaning

I’ve been doing some Spring Cleaning. It started with my office, which had gotten out of control, then moved to culling clothes and clearing out the laundry room. Spring Cleaning feels good. The feeling of motivation that turns that inner voice from “I really need to,” to “I will.” Then the satisfaction of getting it done. I really love Spring Cleaning.

I imagine some of you are thinking to yourselves, “John, it’s September. It’s turning to Autumn, not Spring. At least not in the hemisphere you are in.”

And I guess you’d be right. But, what I say is true, for me at least. I’ve been doing my Spring Cleaning the past couple weeks. I can’t explain it, and it’s not that I don’t clean or cull in the actual Spring. But there is just something about Autumn. With Autumn comes the right feeling for spring cleaning.

I like Autumn. It is my favorite season. Autumn begins, this year, on September 22nd, but here, in the mid-Atlantic, it started last week. The skies were clear and blue, with a chill each morning when I woke up. I noticed the first suggestion of red on the top of a maple tree.

I like the holidays. I really do. And this year, I’m looking forward to them again. I confess, I do like to dress up on Halloween. And watching the boys with their sacks full of sugary loot is, I hate to say it, kind of cool. Christmas? Well, it is overdone and now signifies all that is wrong with our unsustainable consumerist culture. But I like the story of Christmas: New birth and new hope in the darkest part of the year. I like the songs, and the Grinch, and Charlie Brown, and the smell of a freshly cut pine tree in my house. And between Halloween and Christmas is my favorite: Thanksgiving. I like Thanksgiving the most. For me, still the purest of the holidays. It still means what its name is. Giving thanks, and the love expressed through the sharing of harvest with family and friends. And I like that it is always on a Thursday and we tend to also take off Friday. Our only nearly sanctioned 4-day break.

I like weather. I really like the way the weather changes. Summer’s heat and humidity start relaxing their grip while the faint smell of cooling air and drying leaves fill the air. And those first nervous and exciting days of school. How will it go? Will I like my teachers? Will that girl I flirted with last Spring, that last week of the semester, be in any of my classes this semester? The excitement of football games and parties. And the initial motivation that I’m going to do really well this semester. For real! I’m going to really study and buckle down, not like in the Spring. And I like the new feeling that accompanies all this. An uneasy confidence. Optimism. Starting over.

Strangely this Autumn-feeling ought to belong to Spring, shouldn’t it? That feeling of renewal and newness. Shouldn’t Autumn be a time for finishing, for preparing for that harvest, for shutting down for the cold and dark of winter? But it doesn’t work that way.  Not for me, at least. I imagine it is something socialized over the years with how we’ve set up our school calendar. A calendar, by design, to allow for the needs of the land and the farm to operate by its seasons.

Perhaps had I lived on a farm, and now lived in real connection with Earth would my emotional seasons match better her real seasons. But modern society with school and work through the colder months, and vacation in the summer, has reversed this.  I’m not saying this is wrong or bad; it’s just an observation. But for those of us in the developed world the need to align the academic calendar opposite the agricultural calendar is no longer so relevant.  We could shift all this if we wanted to. I wonder what that would be like? I wonder what life would be like the other way around: Working and learning though the warm and bright part of the year and sleeping and relaxing in the cold and dark part of the year. How would that change things? For sure some wouldn’t like it, like those relying on beach tourism to survive. But I wonder what it would be like to live in closer synchrony with Mother Nature? What it would feel like to approach Spring with the feeling of newness and excitement like I do now with Autumn? I wonder what Spring Cleaning feels like in the Spring?