Theoden’s Horse

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When in conversation, we sometimes lose the thread.  To lose the thread means to unconsciously stop following the conversation. You’ve done it.

Maybe it’s a boring conversation and so you’ve started doing other things with your mind. Like when your boss turns to you and asks, “What do you think about that?” in the middle of a meeting and you realize you’ve been daydreaming about Justin Bieber. Or perhaps there are other times that you’re giving an honest effort to track the conversation, but the subject matter is outside of your grasp. As many times as I read Tolkien (long may he reign), I still get lost when it goes into the history of Theoden, son of Thengel, son of this guy, son of that guy, and how his horse Snowmane was in the battle of whatzis where the sword was forged that ended up getting melted and forged into this other sword……. I desperately want to follow the kajillion subplots, but I lose the thread. I just know Frodo needs to get to the mountain.

A similar thing happens to me as I walk through my life. There are so many subplots and so much to pay attention to. I’ve got to cook healthy meals and reach out to friends and keep plants alive and  monitor the work email and meditate and maintain a budget, but be sure to relax so I can write…and aren’t we supposed to start thinking about babies? Some days I lose the thread and can’t remember what the original point of it all was. I’m certain I set out to accomplish something. And that something is more important than daily minutiae.

I give myself permission to let a few things slip. If I miss an email or eat some fast food it won’t do any irreparable damage. And I forgive myself for daydreaming from time to time. It’s okay to skip ahead a few pages. Frodo needs to get to that mountain.

The Ethereal Languor, Chapter One – Mise en place

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The chirp of the door sensor startles him. He glances up at the antique clock on the bookcase. Right on time, as usual. She knows Halder hates surprises.

He double checks that everything in the room is in its proper place and waves the door open to see Administrator Alondra framed in the entranceway. Her thick chestnut hair is in its typical Kythirion braid and she is wearing the mint green dress with the gold trim that Halder thinks shows off her bust so nicely. He has decided that there is a thirty-five percent chance it’s been (tastefully) augmented.

She’s carrying a small potted tree this time. That’s odd.

“Hello, Halder.”

“Administrator. Please, come in.”

He watches as Alondra proceeds to the small table, stopping to bend down and place the tree on the floor. Forty percent. Halder moves a stack of paper from the chair across from her and sits down.

She studies him for a moment. “Halder, how are you?” She always starts that way.

“Going well. My latest tweaks to the algorithm are promising…maybe as much as a one percent increase to the…”

“No, I mean you. How are you?”

“Oh.” Something is off. She usually takes notes during these official check-ins. “I…I’m well?”

“I hope so. Listen, Halder.” She pauses. “There’s been a change. To the onboard automation project.”

He knew it. “If this is about the incident the other day with the freight scrapper, I can assure you that the system acted well within acceptable parameters. It was those boneheads in docking that don’t know how to read a fucking training manual!”

“No. The system acted perfectly. It always does. That’s what I want to discuss today. As you know, I’ve been sending summary reports to the station leadership board. They are quite pleased with your results and with the current state of the project.”

He waits, categorizing Alondra’s last few sentences as stalling.

She continues, looking down at her lap as she adjusts one of her silver bracelets. “In fact, the board feels that the system is performing so well that it might not need any further enhancements. At this time.”

Blood rushes to Halder’s head and his stomach drops. “But the enhancements! I’ve come up with a way to lower the response time of the ventilation unit to half a second!”

“And what is it now?”

“Almost a full second.”

Alondra lets out a sigh. “See, this is what I mean. The board doesn’t care if it takes a second for the air to come on. No one does, Halder. You’re so focused on the problem of efficiency that you don’t realize there isn’t a problem at all. You’re chasing your tail down here.”

Halder starts to feel unmoored from his chair. He grips the table and mumbles his next words. “You don’t understand my work.”

“I don’t. And neither does the board, which is a problem. When they asked me what tangible result-”

“You don’t think I’m important?”

“I do. I need help explaining why.”

“I built all of this! The whole system!”

“You did. And we thank you. And now? What do you do now?”

“I maintain it, every single day.” Halder rises from his chair and walks to the sink, leaning on it with a scowl.

“Okay, today for instance. “What did you do today?”

He glances at the wooden cabinet near the living room. “I made sure there were no problems.”

“And were there?”

“No.”

Silence hangs in the air before Alondra clears her throat. “Halder, I want to ask you something personal. I hope you don’t mind.” She takes the continued silence as permission, “When was the last time you left your quarters?”

Halder considers. “Well I’ve been…It was probably…” He couldn’t recall. It was surely more recent than last month’s State of the Ship formations, though he couldn’t think of a specific example. He liked to rely on the ship’s automated supply delivery conveyance. He’s proud of it.

“Am I the only person who visits you?”

He ignores the question, staring at a dish in the sink.

Alondra closes her eyes and takes a deep breath, getting back to business. “Halder, you were chosen from many qualified applicants and you hold a very privileged position as a member of this ship. As your commanding officer I am required to present justification of your commission renewal. Your review is coming up in less than two months.”

“You’re going to release me?” Halder’s eyes are wide and unfocused. He disappears into his mind for a moment, considering the implications. Non-renewal means going back to the war. Back down to Chimeria. To poverty and death.

Alondra rushes her words, “I don’t have to release you as long as I can prove you’re providing  tangible value to the mission. It would look fine if you wrapped up this successful project and immediately picked up another. It would probably even earn you some goodwill come ration adjustments.”

“But I’ve been working on this system for two years. What else do I do?”

Alondra stands and walks to the door, waving her hand to open it. “That’s up to you. I’m not going to hand you a project- everyone on the ship creates his own agenda, you know that. I’ve added value by serving as the liaison between the board and our crew, and that’s what I intend to continue to do at your review in two months. Please give me something to justify you staying. Please, Halder.”

Her face softens into a warm smile, then she turns to go through the door. He watches the mint green dress walk down the hallway, the door left wide open. “The tree is a gift, Halder. Water it.”

 

Queen’s Gambit Declined

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My problem is that I’m always too many steps ahead. I know that sounds like a humble-brag that’s light on the humble,  but it’s a real problem.  I can’t be here while I’m absorbed in potential futures. My fixation with efficiency and preparedness paralyzes me from doing anything noteworthy. I get overwhelmed by too many variables.

Imagine a world class chess player sits down for a fresh game at a tournament. She surveys her options and starts to reach for her white king’s pawn to move it to e4. It’s a completely standard opening move — more games start with it than don’t.  It allows you to free your queen and bishop and gives you control of the middle of the board. She of course knows all of this, and she knows that her opponent is likely to march his own king’s pawn down to e5 in response. Or possibly his bishop’s pawn in the Sicilian defense. That would be tricky of him. He could even pull out his knight and go with the Nimzowitsch Defense if he’s crazy. He looks kind of crazy, she decides, so she pulls her hand away from the king’s pawn. Better to think this all the way through.

The next option would be to open the game by moving her knight to f3, the good old Zukertort Opening. Of the twenty legal moves on this opening turn it’s one of the most popular, the strategy being to maintain flexibility and get the powerful pieces out early. And what would happen then? In response, the black player may play it safe by moving his knight in a mirrored response or go for a power grab in the center of the board with his queen’s pawn — or even move his bishop’s pawn in an attempt to shoehorn her back into the Sicilian Defense after all. But what kind of Sicilian, open or Najdorf? Fischer and Kasparov built empires on the Najdorf, an unstoppable chain of attacks and reprisals. How many pieces would she lose? What if she lost this tournament using the same opening as Bobby Fischer? Would that mean she’s not as good? Could she face coming home with nothing to show for it?

Suddenly everything on the board is not so black and white. Better to just walk away without making a move at all. And now you know why I don’t play chess.

Woke

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I really like the word ‘woke’ as people use it today. It’s a relatively new slang- it couldn’t be more than five years since I first heard it. People who use it knows what it means, but I’d have a hard time describing it clearly. The closest synonym is probably enlightened, which is itself a word that is difficult to define. If you know, you know.

I had a conversation recently with a college student who came into the gallery to see my wife’s art. He was one of the ones who “got” her work, if that makes sense. They are the ones who stand for minutes in front of the same painting while everyone else is milling through the room around them. They find themselves speechless with a lump in their throat or they explode with a million questions or look for someone to hug. It’s amazing to watch- they recognize something magical and powerful in her art as it reaches in and triggers their emotional centers. This guy was one of the talkers.

Being an artist himself he marveled at the craft, recognizing that each of these pieces must have taken months, if not years, to create. He peppered me with technical questions about her process and technique that I could only answer with a shrug and a blank stare (“Black magic, maybe?”). He gaped at that painting for a good ten or fifteen minutes as we talked about art and my job and his school work. He wasn’t in a hurry, didn’t think about whether he was bothering me or taking up too much of my time, wasn’t looking for anything more than the experience of standing right there, right then. He even shared with me a very personal story about his family that the painting had made him think of before he hugged me and moved on.

That dude was woke.

Year After Year

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I live in a state of disbelief. Year after year I convince myself, in the absence of any evidence whatsoever, that the Cleveland Browns have finally turned it around and could make the playoffs. I did it last year, I did it this year. I promise I’ll do it again next year, reality be damned.

We finally have a quarterback, I say. The offensive line was vastly improved this offseason. We’ve piled up valuable draft picks- that rookie is the real deal! The schedule looks easy. The division looks weak. The fans are thirsty. We finally have a quarterback (for real this time)!

And year after year I sit in stunned disbelief as my optimistic dreams crumble before me, one interception at a time. The rose colored glasses turn a depressing brown and orange as the losses continue to stack up. We haven’t sniffed the playoffs in a decade and a half. We haven’t celebrated a single victory since last Christmas. As of this writing, the team has lost 37 of the past 39 games with no predictable end in sight. This level of ineptitude is frankly unheard of outside of federal bureaucracy or a Three Stooges marathon.

But it will work this time. If Corey Coleman can stay on the field and Josh Gordon can stay off of drugs we’ll have a shot. If Joe Thomas doesn’t retire and Brian Sipe suits up and Lou Groza comes back from the dead. History gives me absolutely no reason to believe, but that just means we’re due. Right?? Hand me my rose colored glasses!

In the scientific world, this behavior is known as confirmation bias- the tendency to interpret information in a way that backs up what you already believe (or desperately want) to be true. You notice all the things that confirm your predetermined hypothesis while simultaneously refusing to see anything that refutes it. It’s honestly not all that different from today’s political discourse, where we fault the “other guys” for acting a certain way but then act oblivious when a member of our chosen team commits the same sin. We make excuses, we grasp for any reasonably logical explanation of why it’s different this time. We don’t notice how our attitudes depend so much on whether there’s an ‘R’ or a ‘D’ next to a name. We just know that our team is the one who will make the world a better place if we can get them in office and keep them there, reality be damned.

But let’s face it. The Browns suck.

Time is Broken

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I realize now that I have been absent for a long time.

My sense of time is bizarre. I can remember things that happened to me, but they are not moored to any reference points. Did I live with Mark a decade ago, or two? How old was I when our cat died? It’s all a jumbled mess of things that I think I did. Sometimes I can piece together enough context clues to anchor the memory to a timeline, often not. Things just happened.

There are pieces of my life missing. Memories that should be there but don’t seem to appear when summoned. When people walk up to me and act like they know me, I just play along. When people ask if I remember something, I say “Yeah, that was great.” I almost always get away with it.

I can’t judge how long I’ve been like this. Maybe since childhood. Or after college. I’m certain it got worse about five years ago.

I made a giant mistake and I’ve been terrified of making mistakes ever since. So I stopped making choices. I let my sister pick out all of my clothes. I buy the tires the sales guy recommends. The wife is obviously in charge of anything related to color or decorating. I’ve been gradually abdicating responsibility over pieces of my life. With nothing left to do, I fell asleep.

Fast asleep, I wake up and go to work, staying there only as long as I absolutely have to before I rush home to space out in front of the television. I don’t notice the people around me or what they are saying. I’m not sure what my dinner tasted like or who won the game I was watching. Time marches on without me and I can’t understand how everyone’s memories sound so clear. I’m caught on a ride that doesn’t seem to end.

But then one day I bump into a stranger in a book and he tells me a secret. There is no right and wrong. We are all one. I am important.

I start making choices that bring me happiness. I give away any t-shirt that doesn’t have a superhero on it. I buy the cheaper tires because I don’t care how long they last. I still don’t stay late at work- I come home early and choose to write. I build new memories. And I awaken.

Like a time traveler from god knows when, I open my eyes with no sense of what has happened between then and now. I step outside, blink a few times, and look around with fresh eyes.

Has the whole world gone mad, or is it just me?

Changing

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Dear Self,

You struggle with the great distance between who you are now and who you used to be. You remember being so strong, brave, effortlessly happy. You had so much fun. It pains you that this current version of you seems flat, detached. Broken. You don’t know what happened.

Something changed you. When the struggle became overwhelming, you disengaged. The world obliged and disengaged as well. Now you feel lonely as well as broken. You miss your old self.

You are not alone. Not broken. You are changing.

Your current self has bright spots too, if you’ll see them. There are paths available to you now that were not before. In taking a step back, you gave yourself room to make choices. You were one thing, now you are another. Having seen both sides, you have learned to recognize the differences.

But none of it matters when you remember that there aren’t two sides. There aren’t two people, the old you and the current you- there’s only you. And the new thing you are becoming.

Love, You.

Ganesha

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I love my wife. She made me a painting.

It’s a framed piece, about 30 inches wide and 40 inches high. Yes, I just measured it. That’s a substantial size, big enough to take up half a wall. Its large wooden frame is cracked and dented from being dropped over the years. It was painted on paper, using watercolor, acrylic, pencils and who knows what else. I wouldn’t be surprised if she used markers, dye, egg yolk and voodoo as well. I couldn’t possibly explain her artistic process but I can attempt to describe this painting. My painting.

The subject of the picture is an ethereal white figure of Lord Ganesha, the Hindu god. The breaker of obstacles. My wife swears he wasn’t part of the original painting, he just popped out of the abstract one day sitting in yogic posture and gazing serenely ahead. What makes the entire thing so arresting is that Ganesha himself is more suggested than outlined, an elephant man in flowing robes who is made of paint. Paint that is escaping his body and dripping toward the sky.

The background of the artwork is primarily a kaleidoscopic blue field of many shades. Mingled across it are shadows of greens, yellows, whites, and the stray rivulets of Lord Ganesha. The entire thing is chaos- dark blue splotches on light blue ponds with bright yellow circles outlined in thin white pencil. No patterns, just a free-flowing explosion of creativity. Every inch holds a surprise of color or fade or figure or beauty. Underneath the god’s crossed legs is a bed of yellow and white circles that make me think of flowers or straw or sequined pillows depending on my mood. Along the right edge the paint gradually thins and the baby blue gives way to speckles of untouched white paper. I could stare at this painting for the rest of my life and never feel I know it. Always Ganesha stares back, tendrils of energy encircling one outstretched hand and a look of calm knowing in his steady eyes.

I don’t think the she originally knew she was making it for me, but that was its fate. The painting sat prominently on the front wall of her little studio from the day we opened it six months ago. We positioned everything else around this piece, ensuring that it was the first thing visitors saw when they walked in and that it was visible from all the way down the hall. We typed what we thought was a bold $475 price on the small placard with her name. I stood proudly next to this painting month after month, watching people’s eyes light up as they came in the studio door. I got to share my admiration for it and hear others express what it made them feel. I was happy to see that I wasn’t the only one who could see the importance of this treasure as more people lingered than walked by.

After we realized it wouldn’t sell, my wife took it down to make room for her newer pieces. The painting ended up on the wall of my meditation room, sometimes known as the guest bedroom. Every morning at five o’clock I sit in front of a breathtaking work of art, breathe slowly, and feel my heart swell with love. I even hung the $475 price card underneath it to complete the visual.

It is the most beautiful thing I have ever owned and it is not for sale.

Streaks of light

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Some moments swim around in the back of your memory for a long time, coming up for air every now and then to make you smile or laugh or cry. Sometimes all three.

One year ago today, I was standing in a rest stop parking lot in Arizona with my new wife at three o’clock in the morning, staring into the night sky. The car was filled to bursting with suitcases, pillows, empty water bottles, two cats and a dog. We had woken up early on the final day of our trip to get away from city lights so we could see the largest meteor shower in years. We were half asleep, exhausted from travel, excited to lay eyes on our new house. We were nowhere. We were free.

And there, in the dark desert sky, was a trailing line of brightness. And another. Streaks of light appearing sporadically across our field of vision before fading back into night. Pieces of an ancient comet, now become something new and beautiful and ephemeral.  We would catch one out of the corner of our eye and try to point to it quickly so the other person wouldn’t miss it. Every now and then one would appear right where we were looking and our faces would light up with it.

We held hands and gazed silently into the heavens, halfway between our old world and our new. It was one of the most magical moments of my life.

Named

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I could be writing. Right now. That’s the thought that has been bothering me from the back of my mind whenever I’m at home lately. It’s the thought I’ve been trying to name for months now as the nausea and restlessness have intensified. I figured maybe it was stress about the debt or anxiety about work. Or maybe it was more personal; Was I afraid I wasn’t living up to the ideal of a man or that my wife deserved more from me? But I know it’s not any of those, really.

I could be writing. Right now.

It pops up when I’m watching Netflix or reading a comic book. It’s even louder when I’m absorbed in some silly game on my phone or disappearing into the internet for a few hours. I could be writing, right now, and instead I’m doing something that is conspicuously not writing. So why don’t I do it? Why does that last question bring tears to my eyes every time I ask it? I say I want to write, I dream of being a writer, I have so many fantastic story ideas already sketched out. So why don’t I write?

There’s pain. I haven’t worked out yet where it comes from, or if I have I’m doing a great job of feigning ignorance. Did something happen in my childhood that has me spooked? Did my recent business failure scar me more deeply than I realize? Is there some ingrained belief that doesn’t allow me to express my creativity and show it to the world with my name on it?

Is this what a failed writer feels like?