Thursday, September 30, 2010


I recently read a novel by the Portuguese author Jose Saramagos called The History of the Siege of Lisbon.  It was an interesting read because of his style.  He writes incredibly long sentences that are the length of paragraphs and he only uses three punctuation marks, periods, commas, and apostrophes.  It is a little hard to get used to and takes more mental energy to read than a book that has more traditional formatting.

As I started this essay I decided to write in his style, which I am told is called stream of consciousness (or something like that) which seems like it would be easy to write (i.e. write things as you think them) but it turned out to be more difficult than I thought.  For what it's worth, here it is.


I have noticed that there are different types of drivers, as I am sure everyone who has sat behind a steering wheel has observed, so I am not saying this to differentiate myself, nor is it the point of what I want to communicate insofar as motorists are concerned, only that there is something to be gained from the mental distinction of different driving styles that are the result of the type of person that is controlling the car, that is simply a shell to the creature inside, which goes a long way in drawing conclusions about the driver himself, or of course, herself as it applies to the situation.

I have noticed that an attitude can be interpreted or distilled from the relationship of the use of a turn signal and the actual process of changing lanes, from the current position to the place of desired occupancy, while methods vary the result is the same, one position to another, yet here the differentiation is not of the end but of the means used to arrive there.

The first type of driver uses the signal of the flashing orange light as a question, as if to ask, May I please get where I want to get, only to continue at the present pace and wait for the conditions to change, so the question essentially is, Will you yield to me to accommodate my desire to get something without making it happen myself, but rather to let you take the necessary measures.

The second type poses no questions with their signal, they instead use it as the name implies, a comment of future events as they will unfold as stemming from the dictates of the desire of the conductor of the car, Here I am, they silently say, And this is what will happen next, they then act to make it happen, either with assertion or, as is not uncommon, a certain degree of aggression, not because they are mean or selfish but because they set a course and follow it without deviation, letting others adjust to their fancy instead of the other way around.

The last type of driver, in contrast to the second type, is indeed selfish, or perhaps a more appropriate word, to describe things relationally, is self-centered, they place themselves at the center of action and relevance, and consequently place everything and everybody further and further from that center, relevance diminishing with distance from the point they occupy  that is their being, which because of its paramount importance cannot be bothered with such trivialities as a turn signal, which in all frankness is no chore to use at all, being as easy to operate as flicking the wrist, but since it is not the action that is in question but the implication, the signal is most commonly left unused because it is energy exerted, if even ever so little, for the benefit of creatures that are not at the center of the concentric circles of relevance, when this third type of driver uses the signal it is as an after thought that often reeks of such superior, condescending magnanimity that it is like rich spoiled brat tossing scraps of unwanted food to a starving dog.

From the first to the last there is distinction in technique, from timidity to confidence to arrogance, which represents quite a span of personality, but I wonder if drivers are really locked into one of the categories or if they bounce around depending on mood or situation, or if instead of three hard set categories the three points mentioned are merely markers along a spectrum, whatever the case balance is what really matters, it is as they say, One can go overboard on either side of a ship,  though changing from cars to watercraft is straying from topic so it must be time to end this brief thought with a question, What can people tell about you by the way you drive.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Excerpt from my Journal

When someone says, “You never cease to amaze me.”   What they are really saying is, “You consistently outperform the expectations that I set for you, which are too low.”

Next time someone tells me that I never cease to amaze them I will say, “Quit underestimating me.”

Sunday, September 26, 2010


People have prices. It is the point where they are willing to trade in their beliefs for something else. That something else is usually in the form of money, power, or recognition.

To become acquainted with a man's price is to know to what extent he is to be trusted. Integrity, I fear, has become diluted to mean someone with a very high price. But that is virtual integrity. And virtual means, "not actually". To approach integrity is not sufficient. There is no rounding up in this case. Integrity cannot be diluted and remain integrity, it simply becomes a very weak form of dishonesty.

Integrity means being a man without a price. It means that there is no persuasion, bribe, temptation, desire, will, or lust that is stronger. It is the impregnable citadel that holds what is right and true. I know men of integrity, men who have no price.

To be a man without a price is to be powerful.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Favorite Book

A chunk of the cover was ripped off and taped back on, but despite the tear the words are easily readable.  There at the top in small fine letters are the words. 

Over 1,000,000 copies in print.  That’s Dandelion Wine.

But that’s not true.  It must be a lie.  There is only one copy and it is mine.  I am holding it in my hand right now.  How many times have I read it? At least half a dozen.  And it belongs to me, it is my story.  Yes, there is only one and it is in my hands.

The cover is worn and ready to fall off.  It will not last through this reading.  The worn green and yellow with its black writing will be sloughed off like a leaf from the trees in fall.  For as summer leaves when leaves fall.  But this book will become bare and coverless before summer has expired.  But that is alright. The cover is ugly.  I won’t miss it when it goes.  It is ugly.  What artist thought, in his pride, that he could capture the innards of this book and put it into one single frame on the front?  No picture nor photograph merits the prominence of the front of this book.  A picture may be worth a thousand words, but not here.  The magic that is in this book can’t be seen with the eye nor be captured with a brush and feeble faded paint.  The colors of the imagination are more vivid that the plain color of human invention.  A picture is perhaps worth a thousand words if that picture is painted on the gray canvas of the mind.  It is in imagination (or memory for those lucky enough to have lived it) that the true pictures are made and hung.  The words unfold in the mind a thousand moving scenes complete with sounds, smells, feelings, and life.  No photograph could replicate that. And certainly no painting.  The cover is ersatz.  It is cheap, and if this book is judged by this cover that I hold in my hands then I pity the shallow mind that loses forever the treasure for the packaging that holds it.

A million copies and then some.  All printed and shipped out to a thousand cities and countless devouring eyes and hungry imaginations longing for a reminder of the past, for the good times that made and defined character.  My copy though—the only real copy—is twenty six years old.  It was printed in the same year I was born, 1982.  How many more copies printed in over a quarter of a century?  None.  There is still only the one.

We are the same age and it tells the story of my childhood.  The names are different as is the setting.  But the truth of childhood is universal and it is mine.  I am Douglas Spalding and he is me.  Crack the pages and they come to life.  An invisible hand reaches out and pulls you in and you are held captive by the power and the page.  It holds you and the world around fades into nothingness.

It is a dream but more real than life.  Living momentarily in this dream makes the real world seem the creation of a sleeping mind.

So as the smell of summer returns I again pull from my shelf, and from hibernation, the book that I love.  It wakes up to a new summer holding the promise of adventure and mystery.  It comes alive and so do I.  And I hold the power in my hands, the only copy of a book that belongs only to me and a million others.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Drifting in Ambiguity

Part of life is dealing with the ambiguity that arises in our relationships, interactions and dealings. There is a frustration that comes when answers don’t. Or when the answers aren’t as clear or clean-cut as we might like them to be. We often demand to know if something is black or white when it happens to be one of a million shades of gray. That degree of inability to know something with certainty is unavoidable even though we may curse ambiguity.

And yet there are areas where we find great comfort in the same sort of inability to know. Far more often than we may notice we will navigate into the comfortable murky gray waters of the indefinite. This blindness however, is self imposed and is curable. Rather, it could be cured if it were seen as a problem. But the sickness is such that we don’t even recognize the illness.

Take the average person for example. He will likely be neither hideously ugly nor wonderfully handsome. If he is average he will know this. He will accept that he is not movie-star-handsome by using the justification that he is also not an unfortunate creature with disfigured features. The thought is something like, “I’m no Brad Pitt but at least I’m not ugly.” The average man will sigh with relief that he is on neither extreme of the spectrum. The black and the white cancel each other out—but in doing so make the gray.

Intentionally staying in the gray gives leverage to self-deception because it’s not absolute. Light gray and dark gray aren’t distinguished. Why should they be? They’re both just gray. The average person tells himself, “I’m not ugly.” What he doesn’t ask though is how close he is to being ugly. Is he the difference between white and very, very light gray, or white and very, very dark gray? That question will not be answered because it is more comfortable left unanswered.

The ambiguity that is most easily dispelled is the kind that is most welcome, even desired, in life. The kind of which we would love to rid ourselves is much more difficult to remove.

My fear is not that we sometimes take comfort in our ambiguous self-deception. My fear is that we start to dream in the gray. Dreams that are ill defined and lack details, plans and action are doomed to fail. For a dream to turn to reality it must be an absolute in the mind of the dreamer. Otherwise it will forever remain in the realm of the nebulous.

There is only so much comfort in ambiguity. It is not enough to fill us and if we glut ourselves on it we will be left feeling sick with a bitter aftertaste in our mouths.

Friday, September 10, 2010


Fall is here.  And so is mine.  My downfall rather.  I found something out about myself today.  The kind of thing that would better remain unknown, elusive or hidden in the shadows.  I am unfaithful.

I walked out the door this morning at 10:30.  It took less than a hundredth of a second to realize that the air was different.  I was expecting a welcome from a constant friend. Everyday that friend had been outside to greet me as I went about life.  I had grown accustomed to the consistency.  It was a part of me.

And then this morning, no friend.  Summer, that has greeted me daily was not around.  The heat, the bright sun, the smell and feel—gone.  In place of summer was something altogether different.  I knew it by the feelings invoked.  Autumn. 

Then I found that I was happy for the arrival of fall.  The sun was still shining and the air had a new quality and a new smell.  I liked it.  I found myself excited for the change.  I looked forward to what fall had to offer.  But then came the guilt.

I love summer.  Sumer is my love.  What does it say of me if I am so fickle?  The first day that summer fails to appear I try to replace it with a new fancy.  One morning without summer and I am suddenly enamored with fall.  This new figure who shows up as if out of nowhere.

If summer is my love then autumn must be my mistress.  Exciting for the moment and yet wrong.  I knew that summer would leave to spend time in the south, for me it would end.  I felt remorse even while I enjoyed the last of the season because I knew it was soon to end.  But shouldn’t I be mourning now?  Isn’t it too soon to find a replacement that makes me laugh and smile?  I’m sure there will be the inevitable awkward moment when summer shows up again for one last goodbye before leaving for good.  In a few days summer will be back and fall will skitter off to a safe distance.  What will I say?  “Oh, it’s you.  Why are you back? No, I’m not disappointed to see you.  Yes I still love you.”  Pause.  “But there is someone else…No, nothing like you.  Not better.  Just different.”

Summer, I love you.  If I could keep you here I would.  But I know you have to leave.  You always do.  And you leave fall.  You know I can never really be happy with fall.  Fall’s friend winter is always close behind and I don’t like winter at all.  Winter and I have never gotten along.  We just are too different.  I have tried to change, but it’s never enough.  Winter is cold and heartless, unchanging.  But I’ll put up with winter so that I will be ready and appreciate summer when it again returns.  

Until then summer, know that my heart is yours.

Excerpt from my travelogue

July 8, 2009
            We made it to Spain.  All three of us flew first class both to New York and then to Barcelona.  That was about the greatest thing ever.  There was so much more space and luxury.  They treated us like kings.  The international first class seats were much more spacious that the ones to New York.  They gave us hot towels to freshen up with.  The drinks kept coming and they fed us so much.  The food was fancy and kept coming.  We had real napkins and chilled silverware.
On the first leg I turned to Brad and said, “I know this is totally irrational, but I feel like a superior human being for being in first class.”  He was drinking a glass of orange juice at the time (yes it was really a glass and not a plastic cup) and almost choked on it.  We laughed and laughed about that.  It was funny but I think mostly we were giddy for lack of sleep.  I had only three hours after working two days at the ranch.  Since then I still haven’t had much time to get good rest, just the restless kind on a plane, car and bus.     First class over the ocean was classy.  The seats were like recliners and had all power controls.  There was so much space that sitting in my seat, belted in, I was unable to reach my things stowed in the back of the seat in front of me.  That gave plenty of room to fully recline, which was made all the more comfortable because they gave us full size pillows and blankets.  We had individual screens at our disposal to watch movies and TV and nice headphones.  Each passenger got a little hygiene bag that had slipper-like socks, eye mask, pen and notepad, and toothbrush and toothpaste.  On that leg I turned to Brad and said, “That feeling of superiority I had on our first flight, well it’s even bigger now.”  There really was no end to the jokes about the poor fools in coach.  Also fueling the fire was the fact that the section was called Business Elite.  That’s enough to make someone feel top notch, call them Elite and exclude hordes of others who aren’t enjoying the same benefits.
            It did make me think of the economics involved in different degrees of services.  One comment that I overheard was by a woman who said, “I should have done better in graduate school.”  I took that to mean that she wasn’t making the big bucks and was therefore flying the cheaper class.  Allocation of goods and services by price has never seemed so silly as when the contrast was so stark.
            I was also surprised at the dramatic and almost immediate change in my way of thinking, all due to my circumstance.  I was about to take a nap.  I was reclined and snuggled up in my full size blanket.  I had kicked off my shoes and glanced down to where they were laying in front of me.  I had a momentary concern for their safety as they were my only pair of shoes.  If they were stolen I was out of luck.  I immediately became suspicious.  A thought jumped into my head so quickly that I didn’t have time to check myself.  I thought, “I bet somebody from coach would steal my shoes, that’s exactly the sort of thing they would do.”  As soon as it popped into my head I was shocked at myself for the broad, general, and unfair judgment.  Being elite will do that to you.
            Ironically on my return journey I was not so lucky as to get a first class seat.  I was back to the real-lifeness of coach. Luckily, I found that I didn’t have any urges to steal anybody’s shoes.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010


I believe in friendship.

To me friendship is sustaining power.  Not for what can be taken, but for what can be given.  My sister, in jest, once said of relationships, “Don’t ask what you can give, ask what you can take.”  It was funny because it was such a silly notion, but was said with such seriousness.  We laughed and shrugged it off as a joke, but perhaps at some level we believed it at the time.

True friendship often comes when it is least expected and least looked for.  It will sometimes catch us off guard and one day we will realize that a friendship has blossomed where we scarce knew a seed had been planted.  We might find ourselves thinking of doing things for people because we know that they will appreciate it.  The feeling is not of what will be earned in terms of future favors, not about the image that is being created, and not even about the feelings that come by doing something nice.  True friendship is knowing that a friend will appreciate what you have done because it helps them progress and become better.  And while the friendship isn’t about what we gain it is often the case that the result of a true friendship is a benefit to us, because friendship is mutual.  It grows as it reciprocates.  As you seek their interest and they yours you both are made better off.

I remember feeling alone and isolated.  I thought that there was no one like me, no one that thought and felt like me, no one that could understand me.  But then out of the normal and mundane there appeared a friend, then I found another.  Others soon followed.  In striving to love and serve them I have found I have been loved and served back. I trust my friends and sacrifice for them.  I want them to be happy.

I am who I am because of the friends that have come into my life.  Some of them I rarely or never see again.  But while their presence is not a part of my life, the impact they made will always be a part of me.  It is through friendship that I have become better and happier and helped others to enjoy the same.

No one is an island and nobody can be truly happy without friends. I believe in the power of friendship and that is why I try to be a friend to those I know.

(I wrote this in May of last year.  It was at the invitation of a friend to write an I Believe piece.  I just came across it and decided to post it.)

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

When the Summer Sun Sets

The rain was Mother Nature’s myriad fingers drumming restlessly on the roof of the cottage.  For hours the sound had droned on.  At first it had been exciting as a few shy pings had landed randomly on the roof and on the ground outside. 

A small face was pressed against one of the windows in the room that acted as the study and library.  The small boy had dashed over at the first sound of rainfall.  He watched as the large drops hit the dry ground and shattered into a hundred smaller pieces.  It didn’t take long for the pace to increase and soon the ground had turned from the light brown of dirt to the darker color of mud.  The scene had lost its interest, the boy found himself once again in his chair.  He was restless and wandered from his chair back to the window to see if anything had changed.  It was as he had left it, nothing changed—it still wasn’t exciting.

With a sigh he pulled his face back from the glass and looked at his reflection.  His hair was the color of the dry dirt before the rain started.  As it soaked into the ground the rain changed the color of the dirt to match his eyes.  He smiled at his reflection.  It smiled back.  His face didn’t look like his grandpa’s though people were always saying that.  He turned from the window bench and looked at the old man that he was supposed to resemble.

The man sat in a tall wingback chair.  The chair’s colors were faded and the fabric worn from much use.  His grandpa looked faded and worn as well.  But the boy knew better than that.  His grandpa had a deep hidden well of life and energy somewhere behind the gray hair and wrinkled face. No, thought the boy, he doesn’t look like me.  He walked back to the chair he had been occupying and plopped down into it with another sigh.  He threw his legs over one arm and rested his head on the other.  He rested one arm on stomach and let the other hang off the front of the chair.  It played idly with a book that he had given up on reading.

“You know, Marcus, you’ll wear a path in the carpet if you keep pacing back and forth like that,” said his grandpa.  His head was still angled down toward his book, glasses at the end of his nose.  His eyes were raised to see over the tops of the rims, his brow furrowed.  There was a hint of a smile on his mouth. 

“I’m bored grandpa.  Will the rain ever end?”

“Yes, very soon.  In fact, it ends…” here the man paused.  Then with a nod of his head he finished his sentence, “…now.”

Marcus was shocked when the rain stopped almost as fast as it started.  Wide eyed he gaped at his grandpa.

“How did you do that?!”

“I didn’t do anything and I didn’t make it happen.  I was just listening, and the rain told me that it was finished.  You might not be so bored if you learned to listen.  You boredom is over now because there is something that I need to do and I think today is the day.  I will need your help.”

At that all prior boredom was eliminated at the prospect of something to do filled Marcus’ with the energy that precedes action.  “What are we going to do?” he asked.

“There is a bottle on the shelf behind my desk.  It’s labeled ‘SSS’, bring it to me.”  Following the instruction Marcus went around the desk and faced the wall that filled with odds and ends.  One section was devoted to bottles of various types.  He scanned them until he found the one with three curving letters written in black ink on the parchment label.  It was tall and rectangular and he had to use both hands to carry it to his grandpa.  His grandpa took the bottle and removed the cork.  He inhaled a deep breath, closing his eyes and obviously enjoying the aroma.  He extended the bottle to his grandson, held in one of his large hands.  The boy smelled what looked to be an empty bottle.  Tendrils of an aroma crept into the boys nostrils.  He was surprised at the fragrance.  It was warm and smooth and sweet and harsh all at the same time.  It smelled like power and wisdom.  It smelled old and young.

“Wonderful, no?”  said his grandpa holding the bottle up to the light.  Marcus saw that the bottle he judged empty actually was not.  There in the bottom was the remainder of what had once filled the whole bottle.  It was a bright pink shiny liquid that was almost creamy, creamy but not heavy.  It shimmered in the bottle.

“What is it?” 

“You’ll know when you see it.”  He said heading for the door, motioning for his grandson to follow.  They put on coats and headed out into the warm afternoon.  In the time since the rain had stopped the dark cloud cover had dispelled and the blue sky was again visible.

“Follow me.”  Said the man as he sloshed through the mud.

*          *          *

Half an hour later they stood in a meadow.  In front of them the sun was a huge glowing disc of orange and red sitting just above the horizon.  The blue of the sky was being replaced by other colors—every color and shade from yellow to red and beyond.  The old man pointed and the boy followed his finger and saw in front of them puddles of water that had accumulated from the rain.  The puddles were reflecting the colors of the summer sunset

“It will take a moment, but I think today it will come together.”  It was warm outside and the air smelled of the past rain.  There was a slight breeze that couldn’t quite dispel the humidity.  The sunset was one of the magnificent end of summer displays that were truly breathtaking.  The whole of the sky was a part of it, spreading from the west were the sun was sinking, all the way to the eastern horizon where it had risen.  The few remaining clouds were orange and pink with purple edges.

“What will work?  I thought we were going to fill your jar.  What are we doing here?”

“We are filling my jar, this is the place.  Now, that one there is the one I want.”  He pulled from his shoulder bag the jar and a wooden ladle.  He handed them both to Marcus.  He held the jar with one arm holding it against his body.  With the other hand he took the ladle.  “Go to that one there, yes the one that looks like a perfect circle.  Unstop the bottle and when I tell you, I want you to fill it.  When you scoop don’t go deep, take it from the top”

“But it’s just water—” he started to protest, thinking of the fragrant pink liquid that he had seen and smelled.  But his grandpa only cut him off.  And with a wave of the hand directed him to the round puddle.

“Be ready, when I tell you, fill the jar.  Get as much as you can but when I say stop, stop.  Even if it’s not full.”

The boy went to the puddle and unstopped the bottle and crouched waiting.  He was little confused and wondered what his grandpa was getting at.

“Ready?”  his thoughts were cut off.  His grandpa waited a moment until the reflection off the puddle was the right color, the exact color of what was already in the bottle.  “Now.  Fill it now.”

The boy scooped water from the puddle into the jar.  From where he crouched it was just clear clean rain water.  He filled and emptied two dozen scoops before his grandpa shouted that it was enough.  He stoppered the container and stood.  In the moment it took to do so his grandpa was at his side.  The man lifted the jar and held it high.  It caught the last rays of light before the sun slank behind the horizon.  The boy was shocked that the liquid was not water at all but the same pink liquid from the study.  It glimmered and shone, it danced and moved.  It was a bottle of the color of sunset.

This should be enough for another year, for another winter to come,” said the man.  And the walked in silence back to the cottage. 

Sunday, September 5, 2010

From up Here

I was at Best Buy recently I was looking at a computer at a display counter.  There was a kid next to me.  In a way only children can get away with he tried to make an estimate of how tall I was. Very conspicuously he used his own height as a starting point.  From there he counted off feet as he gauged visually with his hand.

He concluded with a nod of the head that the giant he was measuring was ten feet tall.  He turned to his had and said, tugging on his shirt tails, “Dad, that guy is ten feet tall.”  His dad, absorbed in the particulars of the piece of technology he was examining, just grunted in agreement confirming his son’s discovery. 

I just had to smile as I left the store, being careful of course to stoop under the short door jams.  They’re only 7 feet after all.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Into the Wind

I remember a game of Ultimate Frisbee that I played some time ago.  It was with the regular crowd at the regular place and the regular time.  What was different was the weather.  There was a cross wind that seemed to meddle with every throw of the Frisbee. 

The short throws were only marginally affected and the receiver could usually make up the distance between where the disc was intended to go and where it actually went.  The real difficulty came as long distance throws were attempted.  Over longer flights the displacement was amplified, as the wind had more time to do its work.

Early on I realized what the wind was up to.  It was a nuisance but at least it wasn’t maliciously fickle.   The wind was a steady and consistent southward force.  So as I threw I would throw into the wind to compensate.  To me it followed logically.  If my throws were regularly flying to the left of their mark I shouldcounter that force by aiming to the right of my desired destination.  I changed my behavior and the result changed.  The Frisbee got where I wanted it.

What was really frustrating was that the need for the change in behavior was not obvious to all of my teammates.  I would watch as, time after time, they would throw the Frisbee and have it always veer right.  Every throw was a shock and surprise to them.  They could not fathom a reason for the occurrence.  It was truly a mystery for them.  They didn’t make, what to me was, a simple connection.  I tried to explain to them that they needed to modify behavior.  But the advice didn’t penetrate.  I couldn’t help them understand. 

Eventually I also changed my behavior as a receiver.  When the Frisbee was thrown to me I would run to where I knew the Frisbee would get carried by the wind, not stay idly where I knew it wouldn’t come. 

To me it was natural to see a change that needed to be made and then act accordingly to effect the necessary adjustment.  And I was frustrated at those who couldn’t.

The real question is the one applied to life.  Can I step back in my life and see my behavior that is consistently resulting in unsatisfactory outcomes?

I was once told by someone, a guy five years my junior as well as a stranger, something that was very keen.  He said, “The only consistent factor in all your failed relationships…is you.”  It turns out in life I am the Frisbee thrower that doesn’t get why my throws never get where I want them to.  

The wind isn’t the problem and life factors aren’t the problem.  They are part of the equation, we can take those for granted.  It is up to us to see, understand and act accordingly.  We can’t be successful in life until we make that connection and learn the principle. 

If we are constantly failing the fault may be ours.  There is hope however because the power to change is also ours.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Money isn't Time

A man recently made a comment that saddened me.  He said, “One of my adult children just told me that growing up it was easier to get $100 from me than ten minutes of my time.”   He said it in a tone of remorse.  He came to a realization after the death of his wife.  He looked around at his life and all there was to show was money.  He didn’t have memories shared with those he loved.  His memories were of deadlines and all nighters, not tee-ball games and BBQs.  He had missed out on so much.  After having that realization he began trying to change his way by giving his time to grandchildren, but how sad that it skipped a whole generation.

For me, as a child, it was just the opposite.  To get money from my dad was not an easy task.  I essentially had to present an invoice for labor preformed and then exhibit my work to certify that it was up to standard.  But as a contrast to the money-dispensing-man I knew that my dad would make time for me.  He actually went quite out of his way to spend time with me, to be involved in my life. 

We weren’t rich growing up but we were happy.  I had a dad who cared and showed it not with cash handouts but with himself.

Turning time into money is impossible for some, while it comes naturally to others.  My dad is smart, honest, and hard working.  He could easily turn his time into money.  But among his qualities is wisdom and he knew even as a young father that money isn’t what it’s all about.  While he needed to provide he also knew that making money was not enough to fill that requirement.  He knew that his time and love was vital.  And that he gave.  He forwent money, position and prominence to be with his children.  Instead of filling a bank account he filled emotional accounts, he invested in relationships.  He made memories—built a tree-fort, a rocketship, and countless wooden swords and shields.  But more than what he built for me was what he built with me.  He helped me make a plastic model airplane, a pencil holder for grandpa, a desk for my room, and countless other projects.

I am glad that he taught me how to work for money.  I value that lesson. 

More than that I value the time he freely gave. 

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Turning off the Lights

The Rio Tejo is the longest river in Portugal. But its beginning is in theAlbarracin Mountains in Spain. From there it flows over a thousand kilometers ever downward through Portugal and then into the sea. Before it finally empties into the ocean it passes its last view, the capital of easternmost country ofEurope. It passes under the gaze of Castelo São George atop the mountain that rises from the Alfama. It passes past Rossio, the plaza built after the devastating earthquake of 1755. It passes under the Bridge 25 de Abril, twin sister to the BayBridge in California. But before all of that it meandered past a thousand lazy towns and villages.

One such town was Baixa de Banheira situated on the southern bank of the river in what is known as the Ribatejo. It is a small place leisurely, like the flow of Portuguese life. There is a train station with blue and white tiles, called azuljeiros, adorning the walls. The hand painted tiles depicted scenes from the country’s glorious past of exploration and conquest. There is also a waiting room, a ticket booth and restroom. The platform usually stands vacant, except for the time just before and just after, the train thunders in and then thunders out.

The tracks extend in both directions. Two twin paths of rusted iron snaking across rough hewn timbers. The tracks running to the north will eventually take the noisy train to the noisy capital. Winding off to the south the train will pass through more quiet dusty towns, through the ancient cork forests, and the golden seas of wheat fields. Finally it arrives at the southern coast where the beaches are some of the best in the world.

One view from that train just past the station in Baixa de Banheira caught my attention out of the blur of mingled colors. At the convergence of an inconsequential tributary and the Tejo itself the tracks make a lazy curving turn. At the turn I saw the flash of an image.

The first visible part of it was the tall red brick chimney. It rose some 20 meters into the sky. My eyes followed it down to where it connected to a gray factory roof. The roof rested on steel rafters, ribs of an industrial carcass. The ribs were connected to red brick walls that were reinforced by steel. It was an old building and showed its age. Not that its age was sufficient to justify its condition. There are many buildings in Portugal in much better condition whose age far exceeds that of the factory. The dilapidated structure fell into disrepair as a result of neglect.

The roof was no longer a shield from the elements. Sunlight and rain could find its way in through the gaping holes that had opened up in random parts. The walls, while solid in some areas, had crumbled in others. One whole side was nearly completely open to the elements. The wind could find its way in and bring in countless layers of dust and grime. There were rusted out remains of what once were powerful machines. The floor, once busy with workers’ feet, was now covered in trash and rubbish of varying aspect.

I pictured myself standing in the center of what used to be great. I imagined the smell of the river carried on the wind through the open walls, dancing with the smell of dust, rust and mildew. Far off in the distance there would be the sounds of tractors in the fields. An occasional seagull would give a cry. How different it was from the day of the factory’s full operating glory.

Back then the sounds would have been of the clanking whirring of machinery clicking away in full fury of output. There would have been the sound of voices shouting instructions over the roar of the metal beasts. There would have been the smell of machine oil and burning coal, maybe leather or wood shavings and sap. Back then it would have been alive. I tried to image the process. I wondered about the story from beginning to end.

Many years ago there was a piece of land. It was near a river and populated with long grass. It had once been a field but hadn’t been used for that function for some years. Little did it know that it would soon house something important. Men came and visited the place. They were men eyes that could see. Not only what was, but what could be. They were those who could see how things were made, the things that came together and how. They had a plan and they moved forward to turn their vision into reality. Men and machine came to occupy the land. The plot was cleared and the grass removed. A foundation was laid. From the concrete footings walls rose and then a chimney. A roof was added carving a piece of outside and taming it, moving it inside, housing it. The space captured was not to remain empty long.

The new factory was filled with guts. Machines arrived in large wooded crates. They were taken into the factory and assembled. Form was being filled with substance.

People from the town came to work the factory. The train came with materials. All the inputs needed to create, to manufacture. Then with a jolt it became alive, like Frankenstein’s monster who, after the long work of assembly, was finally brought to animation. Smoke issued from the chimney and goods from the loading docks. The vision of the men with seeing eyes had turned to reality.

Nothing changed quickly. Routine was established and the work went forward. But change did happen slowly, not in the factory but in the times. The factory wasn’t keeping up with the trends and with technology. Other factories were built that were more efficient and produced more and cheaper. There was the opportunity to keep up, to change with the times. But the opportunity wasn’t taken. That also became the pattern. Avoid change and modification. Avoid improvement and upgrading. The factory fell behind.

Neglect followed avoidance and the facility and its machines—no longer new and shining—fell into disrepair. The roof began to leak and window glass was broken. Again there was the chance to fix things. It wasn’t too late to catch up and compete; it was only harder now because of procrastination. But still nothing was done.

Finally the time came when the factory was limping along and the cost of operation could not be sustained by its output. The workers were let go and the inflow of materials from the trains stopped. One day the manager turned off the lights for the last time. There was no sound from the machines only the silence of emptiness. The lights would turn on again but not on a factory, they would turn on to illuminate the remains of a factory. They would give light to the body of a carcass in a butcher’s house that was being dismembered and taken apart piece by piece, each going to where it could be used. The remains that could not be used would be left to rot.

Now the factory was forever beyond the possibility of reclaiming, it was too late to ever be anything but a ruin.

Sitting in my seat on the train, long past the old factory the one image that persisted in my mind was the foreman turning off the lights for the last time. There was certain finality to the action. No doubt that it was done with a tinge of remorse. It must have been a depressing moment. I thought that perhaps the idea of turning off the lights may be very common.

Our dreams may be just like the factory; they start as the vision of what can be and then from the ground rises something beautiful. But we fail to give them the attention they require and demand. At some point we find ourselves turning off the lights for the last time and abandoning what should have carried us into the future.

How sad to feel the pain of switching off the lights. I would rather keep the lights on in my dreams.