Why Can’t You Be More Like Your Brother?

Somehow, people got the idea that they were supposed to be at a certain place at particular stages of life. When we started forming words by so many months or walking by whatever, the “norms” were thrown at our parents with high expectations. We were all at the same place, more or less, the moment we were born. And then things changed. Our paths diverged. I went one way, following and leading many others of my ilk and some that were very different. Others went down other paths to different places – places that are mysterious and frightening. Why am I here? Where am I supposed to be at this very moment in my life?

Yeah, that’s where I’m going with this, so have a seat and pour yourself a drink.

I’m 47 years old now, here in the waning moments of summer of 2014. I’m at that point in my life – call it a midlife crisis, if you wish – where I’m looking straight down into the bottom of the long descent. I’m not old, but I can see where it goes. I can see myself failing to bounce back as swiftly as I used to. I don’t listen to new music much, holding onto the 1980’s firmly. I work with people who were born after I graduated from college. And I have a doctor.

Life here in the middle is kind of mundane and pathetic. The Baby Boomers keep telling me with a discernible degree of envy and disgust how young I am. The truly young look on me with pity. Nice. But I am not old, and I surely have many years ahead of me, even if those years are bound to be more miserable than every one preceding. When I see someone in their late 70’s, I see varying degrees of decrepitness – many barely able to get around and others looking fit and spry for their age, even perhaps in better shape than their 30-year-old contemporaries. In essence, they are in better condition than their kids.

As I look down that bottomless chasm of my future, I can’t help but thinking about where I’ve found myself here on my timeline at age 47. While it’s easy to go down the path of self-deprecation when comparing oneself to others at the same age, we do find ourselves going there often – at least I do.

But before I convene a self-pity party, I should change my perspective for the moment, probably a healthy thing to do once in a while. I look at myself often very subjectively, and I worry too much about what others might think of me. I’ve asked myself, “where am I supposed to be right now in my life?” The answer is simple, I should be exactly where I am. The choices I made and the path I selected ultimately make up the person I am, along with some genetic predisposition and cultural positioning. I can’t be a Sherpa. A Sherpa can’t be Usain Bolt. We’re told all our lives that we can be anything we want, as long as we believe in ourselves. While this sentiment is encouraging, it is absolutely false. Yet, this is not to say that a person can’t change his or her own destiny. But I mean, we are who we are born to be. Sure, I could aspire to be the Governor of Texas or an astronaut, but those destinies are more up to chance than the goals we might more realistically set for ourselves. Don’t get me wrong, I dream of being published and recognized as a writer. That’s not unrealistic. It is lofty. But I already possess the talent for writing, and most of my ability came after much practice.

My destiny is not fixed. But if I want to become something, I have to reach for it. No one is going to knock on my door and tell me I’ve been selected to write the next in the series of James Bond screenplays. If someone does, I call bullshit.

I was watching X Factor and [insert nation]’s Got Talent auditions on YouTube last night, and I noticed that many of the contestants were very young. There are a few older participants, and the judges piss me off when they go slack-jawed when the person on stage tells them he is 48 years old. Like being over 40 renders a person incapable of impressing a jury panel. Susan Boyle, for one, was publicly derided and mocked right there by the Britain’s Got Talent celebrity judges moments before sealing her fate. If I were her – well, I’m not, and that’s the point (yes, I’m getting to that.)

Where Susan Boyle was exactly at that moment of her life was precisely where she ought to have been. She was ready, and she succeeded. A few of the contestants that night were more than 20 years younger than she. They were also where they needed to be at that moment in their lives. Whether a person graduates from high school at 16 or 31, that should not be an assessment on their worthiness to achieve that goal. When most of us, statistically, graduate at age 18, that by no means translates to either the present or the future that we are in the median, or maybe it does. But when I was 18, I was a colossal imbecile, and sometimes that fragment of my being emerges to this day. At 47, I am still finding my way, still discovering who I am and what my purpose is. I know some of it, but not all. I believe there is some truth to all faiths and beliefs of the path to enlightenment, made manifest by the steps we take each day, by the choices we make.

If you are 26 years old, and you are reading this feeling that you have not arrived, and you descend into self-pity because your younger brother completed his masters thesis already, and you are underemployed and marginalized, remember that people reach their milestones at different stages of their lives. They begin college after forty, and they change careers at fifty. Back when people did not expect to grow old, they defined “old” in terms of going gray and having grandchildren. They sought to achieve anything by the time they were thirty, and many people never knew what possibilities lay before them. How sad that many people still see life this way!

Although I still struggle to accept that my life is pretty damn good, I think I’m not a hopeless case. I accept that there are younger people making a hell of a lot more money than I am. I accept that my 70-year-old dad can outrun me. I accept that writers like Bret Easton Ellis and J. K. Rowling got lucky on their first try. Jealous, yes. But I’ll use that to fuel my drive to keep writing. Even with the successes of those with the Midas touch, it’s important to believe that we will have our day. Besides, I didn’t know I wanted to be a writer until a few years ago, and I only started singing when I was thirty. My photography, on the other hand, has not been remarkable in the 36 years I’ve been taking pictures. Perhaps that will take off unexpectedly in the next decade, and the young photogs on the next shoot with me can call me “old timer”, but who knows where they will be in twenty or thirty years. I hope they have already found their way, but I also hope they haven’t stopped searching.

 

 

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In Keeping With Tradition

If you grew up in the US during the last half of the 20th century, you were brainwashed – er, educated about the first Thanksgiving, where English pilgrims arrived in 1620-something in what is now the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. These were what amounted to religious refugees, fleeing the volatile political climate of 17th century England, where holding dissenting religious views could land you in prison to be tortured or, if you were lucky, beheaded. Sound familiar? Yech! Sorry, I should move on.

Anyway, these intrepid settlers made the treacherous voyage across the Atlantic Ocean to arrive in North America – before there was such a place – and founded the Plymouth Colony. They quickly realized they were in way over their heads, and decided to enlist the help of the native inhabitants, the Wampanoag or Massasoit people. With the help of Tisquantum (Squanto), most of the early settlers survived the first New England winters and learned to adapt to their new habitat. Out of this came the “First Thanksgiving” that we modern Americans so cherish that we reenact the event on a yearly basis on the fourth Thursday of every November.

Ever since the Continental Congress declared an official Thanksgiving, Americans have observed this holiday as sacred as any other, even eclipsing Easter and Christmas in its reverence and solemnity – especially now with the uber-commercialization of practically every other national and religious holiday. Even though Thanksgiving nowadays is viewed by many Americans as the official start to the onset of the festive Christmas season – where we go completely nuts and purchase as much ephemera as possible while the sales last, even queueing up on cold mornings to be one of the “lucky” ones to manage to buy that latest electronic device, as if we can’t possibly wait one week, if only to save $13 – The holiday endures. But I digress. I’m soon to publish my “Why I Hate Christmas” post soon in any case.

Thanksgiving is rife with high expectations of fulfilment to the traditional themes, even, and I am neither ashamed nor proud of this, to the point of donning “Pilgrim” and “Indian” costumes for full effect. Whether or not the Massasoit people actually brought to the table roasted turkey and maize and cranberries, we are no less entitled to recreate that legendary feast with so much kitch, and we’re guaranteed to violate some rules of anachronistic boundary, and yet this has become our most sacred nationalistic celebration (save Independence Day, but that’s another story, and you probably won’t like what you read.)

Thanksgiving

I have thrown myself wholeheartedly into this tradition, even – as I have admitted – becoming that Pilgrim. Don’t judge me quite yet, however. I’ve cooked Thanksgiving dinner for groups ranging from a handful of folks to a small crowd. I make homemade bread, sauces and gravy from scratch, and I cook the turkey and all the other standard accoutrements with my full range of technical skills. I’m quite proud of my ability to pull off a classic New England feast, down to the presentation and carving of the bird. This would be perfectly fitting and expected if I were a New-Englander. But I live in Texas, and I am only half-English, as well as half-Spanish.

My Mediterranean half has been sorely underrepresented over the years. While my English ancestors were celebrating the harvest of northern climes and seasons, my Spanish forefathers were exploring and exploiting and conquering the Caribbean and Central and South America -all while those English do-gooders were spreading smallpox among the Native Americans, but the Conquistadors have a lot to answer for. Indeed, Thanksgiving, if the Spanish celebrated such a holiday, would surely have looked very different. It is likely that in the absence of a harvest season, they made feast days according to other markers, and these days a late November feast probably makes little sense. Be that as it may, I’ve decided to forego the usual celebration and observe the American Thanksgiving holiday the way my Spaniard ancestors might have done here in the New World. Instead of cooking up a storm at the house, roasting a bird, proofing dough for dinner rolls, and making giblet gravy, we’ve decided to pitch a tent on the beach and roast marshmallows. Really. Actually, the plan is to spend Thanksgiving at one of several National Wildlife Refuges or state parks in the subtropical borderlands in South Texas. Camping is allowed on the beach, and the trails cross through the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge make it possible to encounter javelinas, bobcats, deer, and alligators. Nights on the beach with the sound of the surf promise to bring peace and settle my mind.

For those who might think this is a crazy idea, let me ask you, if you had no children and you were fit enough and able to take off during Thanksgiving and truly get away from the crowds and the insanity of midnight madness and Black Friday and then cleaning up the kitchen after dinner when you would rather languish in your tryptophan-induced stupor, all while dealing with your in-laws, might you reconsider your definition of “crazy”? Is this tradition so sacred a thing that you would rather dive in, avoiding a clash of convention, and straying from the path would go against the accepted norms of society that you might become ostracized? Who wouldn’t want to escape those societal constraints? I say, fly! Go! Escape!

I certainly will not miss television. I might bring a radio, but perhaps not. I plan to bring binoculars. The crescent moon will set at 10:58 pm on November 27, and it promises to be a good night for stargazing. To combat the cold, we’ll have a nice fire going, but I’m not worried. The 27th parallel isn’t likely to freeze. Thanksgiving will always be special, but I reserve the right to make new traditions when it suits me.

You’ll find us enjoying Thanksgiving under a beach umbrella, sipping on sangria, as my Spanish cousins would do on a warm November afternoon, not missing the football game or the messy kitchen or the horrible traffic. Say hi to Squanto for me, if he’s not down here enjoying the sun next to us.

Friends

I have many friends – about 80. I know this because they are counted on Facebook. While this number might seem low, by Facebook standards here in the information age, it is actually quite large considering the rule I adhere to in adding a contact as a Friend. Certainly, there are many social media users have gathered so many “friends” over time, simply by clicking “add”, with so little effort and labor. But what does it mean to “friend” someone? Are you certain you can really call them friends?

Friends Celebrating

Even before the emergence of the web and internet, before social networking as we know it, I struggled with the definition of “friends”. Years ago when someone would ask me if this or that person was my friend, I might just say yes. But thinking about it, I had to consider what that meant. And later I began making the distinction between acquaintance and friend. Indeed, some of my closest friends were elevated to “confidant”. Without social media, it was all about my interaction with everyone I knew, how I spoke to a person, how often we met, what particular activities we engaged in, and so on. It was not the activity that defined the level of friendship, rather, the other way around. And it was obame my wife. Even now, there are no words to describe what she means to me.vious if you were one of my closest friends. There was no label or lapel pin or decal to wear on your hat. You knew who your friends were, no question. It was so clear that I had to develop new language to describe it. One of my friends bec

When you look on your Facebook page, you can see what your friends are up to. You can click to see a list of them and even see which ones are “following” you. )That last one is a touchy subject with me, but when I take it out of its context, it becomes meaningless. In the days before social media, if someone was following you, you would call that person a stalker, not a friend.) Looking at your list of contacts, you might notice that there are a few that don’t really qualify. They are friends of friends, and many social networking sites have algorithms to suggest people you might be interested in based on people you already know, shared interests you might have with a person, or a connection such as school or work. I see suggestions all the time to add someone who worked at a company where I was employed years ago, or someone I went to high school with, but usually, I have no connection with these people. In fact, I have no memory of them in most cases. Just because I went to school with a person doesn’t mean we should become friends.

Getting back to my initial statement, I have 80 friends on Facebook. One of my nieces has over 600.

But I have a rule by which I click: A friend is someone I have spent time with in more than one setting – beyond work or church – someone who has been to my house, or whose house I have visited. I have a lot of “work friends”, but I haven’t spent time with them away from work, save one. He is my friend. Period. There are a few people out there like this. One or two from each company I’ve been with. But I’ve lost touch with a few. I still see comments they make on Google+ and elsewhere. But I don’t keep up with major events like moving or becoming a grandparent (yeah, that one’s a little hard to swallow).

Living within this constraint doesn’t limit my ability to network, in my opinion – my not-so-humble opinion. By the way, I wish people would stop using that phrase. Opinions are not a manifestation of one’s humility, just the opposite. Your opinion is often an expression of the super-ego, something you are not likely to let go of.

Going on, I sometimes think about those 600 or so individuals. I asked my niece if she really knew all of them, and she assured me that she indeed was acquainted with each and every one of them. I remain skeptical. And I seriously doubt that she could fit them all within my particular constraints for defining friendship. But this is for her to figure out, and I’m sure she will in time. In the meantime, I need to send an email to a group of friends. We’re going to sit together and drink and talk about our plans. Incidentally, and rather ironically, we don’t usually use social media to communicate. We gather at someone’s house and rehearse songs and tell jokes and bust balls. That’s what friends do.

A Little Sumpin’ Sumpin’

When I was a kid, a ridiculous little kid, I wanted to be someone important. I wanted nothing more than to be so needed and respected, maybe the boss or the chief or the captain. It consumed me, inasmuch as I was ten years old, and I had no idea what the world had in store for me, or that the world had no idea I existed yet. But the 1970’s provided a person more information regarding the other side of the planet than any age before. Nightly, we would see footage from Vietnam, showing us how the North Vietnamese Army was now encroaching on Saigon, and very soon, according to some, a domino-effect would ensue, causing nation after nation to fall inexorably under the influence of communism across Southeast Asia and beyond. The Soviet Union was ramping up production of nuclear weapons, as so was the United States, and practically everyone in the world was convinced that the only way the escalation would end was annihilation through global thermonuclear war.

If ten-year-olds were not privy to this information directly, it certainly was learned through osmosis. My brother and I, no doubt, in looking to be important types, most likely acted on subconscious anxiety emanating from the ether to our quite impressionable and expanding brains. Anything manifest on our part was likely driven by the need for amelioration of our national fear.

Over 35 years later, my need to be something or someone of importance has subsided, although I sometimes find myself daydreaming of fantasies (or delusions) that I am more than just a number. But being an anonymous cog in the machinery of 21st century civilization does have its benefits. Keeping one’s head down and just getting by is a great way to not get noticed, or blamed, for that matter. Sometimes, you just want to be the beige, expendable unit of humanity, a statistic in an actuarial spreadsheet.

But this is hell. Hades, to be more precise. The place of the dead. My momentary drab existence is like being in the void. Thankfully, I still have the occasional desire to make my mark. That’s why I maintain my photo business website and my musical endeavours. I haven’t achieved anything remotely close to fame and prestige, but my brother’s band has a second album out, and they seem to be coming up quickly (after many years together). It’s as close as anyone I personally know who approaches stardom.

I feel important at my job. It’s not completely evident how important every individual is, even in a big corporation. But I feel important – about as important as I care to be. I’ve rejected the idea of becoming an executive or middle manager. Yes, there is a bigger paycheck, but who really wants to sacrifice their soul for money? Well, many people have, which is sad. At my position in my company, as a highly specialized technical person, and only one of a handful of workers at that level of expertise (shit, I am full of myself), I do realise how vital I am to the organisation. And one might think this would be very gratifying to the ego, and it is, except that the strain and pressure from being in IT wears on people, and as a result, turnover is high.

There is a price for everything. The price for being a peasant is very low, except that you might be squashed by the next army to roll through your village. But no one knows your name or face, and you can simply disappear if you want. In contrast, being recognizable to everyone on the planet means you have absolutely no privacy. You may have more money than you can spend, but money doesn’t buy happiness. Don’t let people tell you any differently. This is a truth. Fame and glory and feeling important are ostensibly a source of great joy. They are not.

(Along with the fantasy of being a world-famous photographer, I conversely daydream about moving to a mountain village with no internet access and one landline phone at the post office. But I was born in the city, and I can’t imagine living in anyplace that doesn’t have at least one major freeway passing through the middle of it.)

I am important. I am critically important to many people, even though I currently believe most of them hate me. I could be wrong, but I have been painfully right about things.

Sometimes I think I would like to gather in one room all the people who need me. I would close the door and let them come to a resolution. The person left standing may have my undivided attention.