Friday, December 17, 2010

Christmas Greeting, 2010

Merry Christmas, December 2010

Last Christmas was my hardest Christmas ever.  Two weeks before Christmas, Bethel University administrators told me they were cutting my job due to budget cuts.  At my age, that almost certainly would mean the end of my career as a college professor.  I felt like a deer in the headlights.  I was pretty numb for quite a while.  I applied to about 140 jobs.  Five were senior-level faculty positions; I was a finalist at one (they hired an inside candidate), and the other four withdrew their searches.  Twenty-five were beginning level faculty positions; none of them showed interest in me, in part perhaps because I was a senior candidate.  About twenty were in non-academic careers: sales, marketing, fund-raising; a few showed a little interest, maybe just because of the peculiarity of a Ph.D. in Philosophy applying for those jobs.  Over eighty were in lower-level academic administration positions at smaller colleges or community colleges: chairs of departments, deans, provosts, vice-presidents for academic affairs.  A handful showed some interest, for example by asking for more information, essays, administrative philosophy statements.  In April I had a telephone interview for a dean’s position.  In May I had an interview for a chairperson position.  After the chairperson interview, I got a call-back for a second interview.  By around July 4, I got an acceptable job offer as Chairperson of the Humanities and Performing Arts Department at Lansing Community College.  I started my new job August 2.

Beth and I left Vadnais Heights, MN on July 26, leaving behind Kevin and Jayne.  For just over two weeks we lived in a travel trailer behind my sister’s house, 145 mile round-trip commute to my job in Lansing.  We moved into our house on August 13.  Just like three years ago, we are paying two mortgages, waiting for our house in Vadnais Heights to sell.  We hope it sells soon, and for more than we owe on it.  We love our new house, location, and job.  We miss our kids terribly.  When the house sells, they will likely stay in Minnesota.  The job situation there is much better than in Michigan (MN unemployment rate is 7.1%, MI is 12.8%).

We now live within about an hour’s drive to most of our relatives.  That is wonderful.  Being in Michigan, I know some good places to fish and hunt.  I am just over a two hour drive from one of my favorite places in Michigan:  Hoxeyville and the Pine River.  I have a 16 mile round trip commute to work; I commuted by bicycle all fall, up until our recent snow storm which made the roads icy. I will be back on my bike as soon as the ice is off the roads.  I play hockey with my brother and nephew on a team Sunday nights.  We found a good church, just over 2 miles from our house.  We are blessed.

My job is fully administrative, no teaching.  I loved teaching, it was my passion.  But that career was ended for me.  Not being a professor, the time I used to spend reading for my classes and for research I now spend reading good fiction and a lot of Michigan history.  I like my new job, and have good people to work with.  It is meaningful and important work.  I am grateful.  A year ago, I could have never imagined things working out so well.  It isn’t perfect.  Because of the two moves over the past three years, with trying to sell houses in a declining market, we find ourselves pretty much broke, living paycheck-to-paycheck.  And we are grateful, because we are living pretty well.  My standard of living is in the top 1% of the world’s people.  I’d like to think that the quality of my life is also in the top 1%, but there is still a lot of work to do to get there.  I yearn for Thoreau’s “simplify, simplify,” or Dick Proenneke’s wilderness, except that I want access to books, to be with Beth, to have good food and health care, to spend time with family and friends, to have a reliable vehicle to drive to Hoxeyville, maybe even to have a cell phone to talk to my kids regularly, a good bike, and the list gets long.

You probably know what I mean.  I want it all, and the all I want is often not the all I need.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Can Ride Meditation

It was in the mid 30s, with patches of snow across the medium brown clay and sandy dirt out back.  There was less than an inch of snow covering the small pond behind the house.  The morning was quite hazy, warmer air above the colder ground.  The haze lifted just before noon.  Initially I got my mountain bike ready to ride, then realized I wanted to pick up cans on the ride and it would be much better to take my single-speed commuting bike with saddle bags.  So I switched the heart rate monitor to that bike.  The temperature was such that I could wear knee warmers under black tights; I didn’t need to wear my more insulated and completely wind-proof tights.  I could also wear my thin, blue windbreaker, not the warmer black jacket.  Under my helmet, I could wear a thin skull hat, not a full balaclava.

The roads were clear and mostly dry.  There were occasional wet spots where trees on the south side of the road shaded snow that had been blown onto the road.  As I headed east, intending to turn north after half a mile, I felt a strong east wind, enough to make it difficult to go much faster than 13 mph on the flats.  I was going to head north for a mile, and then west for seven or more miles.  That would have meant having to come back into the headwind.  I decided to continue on eastward into the wind.  I find it easier to go out into a headwind than to come back into a headwind.  I went five miles into the wind before turning north.

Since I decided to pick up cans and bottles, my focus and thought when riding was on the side of the road and the ditches.  I was attentive to glimmers of silver, blue, red, and green.  Most beer cans are blue, medium to light blue.  Many also have significant amounts of silver.  Plus when they are sitting on their top or bottom in the grass or snow, the ends sticking up are silver.  Only a few beer cans are red; Coke cans, of course, are red.  Mountain Dew are green.  I get a few bottles, rarely a brown glass beer bottle; more often a Coke or Mountain Dew plastic bottle, and about a third of them had been used for chew spit juice.  Most cans and bottles had contained beer.  Almost all of them still contain an ounce or two.  When it is freezing cold, the beer becomes chunks of ice or slush in the can.  I try to get it out, but some is too frozen.  They make a mess of my panniers.  I did collect 36 over a 100 minute ride, and all but six were beer cans.  My saddle bags, or panniers, were full.  I don’t think I could have collected one more.  Over the last two miles on dirt roads, they rattled and clinked together, almost bouncing out.

Usually when I ride my bike, I think about people, work, events, tasks.  During this ride, I was focused on only one thing: sighting cans in the ditch.  Sure, I heard traffic coming up behind or approaching from ahead.  That seemed significantly in the background.  My attention was on one thing.  My attention was focused.  It was meditative.  One meditation technique involves focusing on a single idea, word, thought, image, phrase, sound.  The aim is to still the mind; it is mental exercise.  When I awake at night and my mind is racing over events, difficulties, challenges, things I need to get done, and planning on how to get things done, I cannot get back to sleep and get frustrated by it.  One image that has helped still my mind and enable me to get back to sleep is to focus on a grain of rice.  Not a bowl of rice.  A single grain.

Riding my bike focused on trying to catch glimpses of colors that might indicate a can seemed very relaxing and meditative.  Instead of my mind wandering all over my life, it rested.  By concentrating on one thing, it rested.  I have heard people talk about being “fully in the moment,” and I thought it was woo-woo new age religious code language that made someone sound profound when it seemed to me they were just goofy.  It is analogous to what I take to be the sometimes empty church-talk, for example when someone tells me they had a quiet time, or spent time in the word, or communed with the Lord in prayer, or am under conviction, or that the joy of the Lord is their strength.  Imagine someone who had never before hung out with church folk going to a church and hearing people talk like that.  What images might come to their mind?  Had they hung out enough with church folk, and acquired a cynical edge, they might think that “having a quiet time” is a way to indicate particular piety, much better than saying that you read some religiously meaningful paragraph or two and spent some time thinking about how you hoped to conduct yourself that day.

Being fully in the moment.  What is that?  Given my experience on my can ride, I think it might be to be fully focused upon, fully attentive to, and fully given to one thing.  To be undistracted.  When done right, I think a lot of sport and athletics is like that.  So too is making love, when done right: fully focused upon, fully attentive to, fully given to one thing.  Perhaps the fullness of focus, attention, and giving is why one seeks silence and solitude in order to meditate.  For me, silence and solitude usually do not lead to meditation.  They lead to thoughts about all that distresses me, all that I need to get done.  But there are times when silence and solitude can put me “fully in the moment.”  As I think about it, as I scour my memory, I recall times fishing when, if someone were to ask me what I was thinking about while I spent three or six hours wading in a river and casting for trout, my answer would have honestly been “nothing.”

Or the twenty-five hours I spent inside a 42” x 42” x 72” wooden deer blind in mid-November.  From the outside, the blind looked a lot like an outhouse with a six inch high opening all the way around at eye height.  I walked out to the blind in the dark, an hour or more before sun-up, a moonless predawn, clear sky revealing more stars than one deserves to see.  Open the door and flip on my headlamp.  Set my rifle barrel on one opening with the butt of the maple stock on an opposite opening.  Wiggle out of my backpack.  Set my thermoses, one containing coffee, one containing onion soup, on the floor in a corner.  Set my water bottle in another corner.  Set my pee bottle in another corner.  Hang my rattling antlers and grunt call on a nail.  Unbutton my shirts to cool off.  Replace my hunter orange stocking hat with a dark blue wool hat.  Take a seat on the stool.  Flip off my headlamp, take it off, and hang it on a nail.  Raise my binoculars to see if anything is visible: it is too dark to even focus the binoculars.  I sit back, resting my back against one wall, staring out into the dark.  Every five minutes or so I look to the eastern sky to detect the first hint of coming daylight.  Coyotes yelp and bark.  Cooled off from the walk to the blind, I button up and add a layer.  After thirty minutes or more I stand for thirty minutes, then sit and repeat.  Daylight comes.  I might see a deer, or a part of a deer moving through the woods.  The first noisy blue jay announces itself an hour after sun-up.  Nuthatches scoot head-first down a tree, and land on the window sill of the blind.  A couple of crows, and a raven appear around 10 am.  A few hours after noon the Pileated Woodpecker passes through.  I see a Flicker, and a Downy Woodpecker.  I hear cars and pick-up trucks carrying others to and from hunting locations or work.

I was in the blind, never exiting (except to search an hour for the buck I shot), Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday 6:15-11:30 am, and Monday and Tuesday 2:30-5:30 pm.  70 cubic feet of space of a monastery, voluntarily confined for twenty-five hours.  I recall that I thought about nothing; I was only attentive, straining to hear anything audible, and to see anything visible.  My mind was still.  I belonged to the world.  Put me in a shopping mall and I am exhausted after an hour, two at the most.  Put me in a river or a deer blind, and I seem to grow into it.  I become part of it.  Separation from it is an amputation.

Too, this time of year a 60 minute bike ride is about as long as I ride.  I was out 100 minutes.  Apart from the full, almost over-flowing panniers, I could have gone another hour or more.  The average effort I put out was not easy.  I wore my heart rate monitor.  Average heart rate for the 100 minutes (the heart rate monitor was actually running about 110 minutes or more; I didn’t stop it when I stopped to pick-up a can) was 129 beats per minute.  In the summer, that heart rate during a 100 minute ride on my road bike would allow me to average over 20 miles per hour.  My can ride was not easy, in spite of making 36 stops and getting those short rests.

After heading east five miles and turning north, I went four miles north before turning west.  Now I had a tailwind.  Riding my single speed, I was spinning at a high rate.  There were a couple of good hills where I could stand and pedal, give my sit bones a rest, and grind up the hills.  I continued west for eight miles.  Along the way I stopped at the St. Francis Retreat Center in DeWitt.  I had driven by it several times in the car, and ridden my bike by it a few times.  I rode in and rode around it. It looked quite peaceful there.  They host contemplative retreats.  The grounds have several tall and large pine trees.  I used the seclusion of the large pines to stop and pee downwind.  After heading west eight miles, I had four miles to go south, and three miles east to get home.  It made for a very peaceful, relaxing ride.  Contemplative, attending to one thing.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Hemingway Story Telling

I read a book last week Hemingway in Michigan published in 1966.  In it the author explores aspects of Hemingway’s biography as it relates to Michigan locations in his stories.  The biography part was fascinating.  I learned much.  For example, I thought he lived in Petoskey quite a while.  He only lived in Petoskey a short while (much less than a year, if I remember correctly).  His family had a cottage on Walloon Lake, just south of Petoskey.  He had spent several summers there growing up.  After his short stint in the ambulance corps of the Italian army in World War I, where he had gotten blasted with shrapnel (the author seems to wonder if he took one in the weenie, and if so whether that was a motivation for the manly bravado Hemingway often exhibited in his life and writing), he rented a room for a few months in Petoskey.  I also learned that he had been a newspaper writer, before the war in Kansas City, after the war in Toronto.

Part of the book was annoying to me.  At times the author seemed concerned to discern which parts of Hemingway’s fiction were factual, which parts were factually-based fiction, and which parts were “pure” fiction.  Some of the factually-based fiction seemed to have deeply annoyed folks, thinking that “Ernie” was telling lies about them.  They failed to grasp that he could only be telling lies if he was meaning to do something like newspaper reporting.

One section that was quite fascinating was where the author was hinting at Hemingway’s transition from reporting to story-telling.  The author dissected a report Hemingway wrote for the Toronto newspaper about his camping and fishing trip to the Fox River near Seney, Michigan in the Upper Peninsula.  She put parts of it in one column, then dissected  parts of “Big Two-Hearted River” and put them in the second column, with the aim to show two things.  One was how the newspaper report, or at least the events it reports, seemed to have been the basis of the events narrated in “Big Two-Hearted River.”  The other was to show the transformation in Hemingway from report-style writing to imaginative narration.

For the past 35 years I have regularly written a letter to my parents.  Over the past half dozen years or more it has gotten to be a weekly, two-page single-spaced letter.  I think that my letters used to more tell stories.  They were factual stories, but still stories.  Over the past few years, it seems the letters have become more journalistic reports of what I did on Monday, on Tuesday, on Wednesday, and so on.  Or for variety, I sometimes start at the most recent day and work backward.  Or I might report something my son had done, then something my daughter had done, then something my wife had done, then something I had done.  Actually, I probably usually started with ME FIRST, then gave a passing notice about their lives.

So now I am thinking about telling stories again in my letters.