Thursday, August 14, 2014

One Thing Remembered

essaysbysean.blogspot.com

Question: What is the one thing that you want to be remembered for?

Preface
A dear reader posted “The Question” above, a reader who can be found reading the web, as he put it, over “a delicious cup of hot coffee” instead of shallowly, franticly skimming. He’s my kind of reader.

Being Remembered

Does that Question interest you? Scare you? Perhaps you hope to hear my own answer. You will have to wait. I’m not trying to wiggle out of answering, like a fish trying to wiggle off the bright dock back into dark water, but then but again I’m only human.

I suppose many folks wouldn’t be scared or excited at all by the Question. In fact, they’d be bored. And they’d also be the ones who never accept the challenge to Answer.

The Question in a good one, according to business guru Peter Drucker. Back in school in Europe they were all asked that Question. He tells of attending his class reunion. The party was limping along until someone said, “Remember that question?” Instant energy! Down the years, the Question had seriously mattered. As boys, the silliest answer was from a lad who said he hoped to be known as a famous horseman and ladies man; other students had answers a little more worthy of them.  Now, here they stood, casting grownup shadows. Long before Drucker had invented Management By Objectives, the boys-to-men had lived an experiment on themselves about the power of setting goals.

Drucker tells this story in his autobiography, Confessions of a Bystander. I don’t think he tells what his own Answer was. As for coming up with answers and goals, an executive once said his favorite tool was a paper and a pen, to focus his words and thoughts. Experts say our goals must never be composed in point form, but must be deliberately written out as proper sentences.

As you know, a goal is usually long term and not easily measurable, while an objective is short term and very measurable. An objective is a nice tool for managing employees; a goal draws men to lead themselves. A goal means more freedom, not less: In a world of endless possibilities, uncharted and chaotic, a “goal star” gives me constraints, leading me to a feeling of freedom, and feeling more productive.

In everyday life, when it comes to goals and philosophies, many of us do not have our “consciousness raised” enough to be able to trap our wispy thoughts onto paper… Yet, I’m sure I could tap into my deepest, noblest self if I dared to pose the Question, “What one thing do I want to be remembered for?” Maybe I’m ready, here before you, to stop swimming around and, as a human, just set my hook for my “one thing remembered by” goal.

Of course, the definite term “one thing” can be awfully challenging, nevertheless I need to say “one” in order to focus. Thinking won’t be done quickly. Here’s my pen, here’s my paper: Whatever easily pops into my head can be jotted down, and set aside, allowing time for pondering. Here’s where a lifestyle of frantic skimming would be fruitless; here’s where stillness pays off.

Telling you my own answer would be better for us both than my being modest. I know this from my Toastmasters club: (public speaking) At the beginning of every meeting we have an “introduction question,” where we go around the tables and everyone gets to speak. My essay Learning to be Nice (archived May 2013) came from the intro question, “What are you known for?” No modesty—we love hearing each other’s answers. Without escaping into modesty, I will do my best to sneak up on the Question.

“Being nice” might be my Answer: Let me jot that down, and park it over in the corner of my blank page, encircle it with a dotted line, and call the area the “parking lot.” I’ll park “being nice” to be considered later. With thoughts at the scribble stage: Obviously, as I mentioned last week, I was once a soldier, and at the time I tried to be the best I could, but I never aspired to be remembered as obtaining the ultimate rank of the regimental sergeant-major. Years later, I was once a good university student with good school spirit, but at the same time, I never aspired to be remembered as being a popular, straight-A student. As it happens, I was known to my professors, had a good time, and had my name in the campus media. But if I had set “to be remembered” as a goal… then maybe I would have been more involved in campus life, helped my fellows, set up a campus charity, innovated a new student celebration, planted a garden, and more. I didn’t. Cross out soldier and scholar.

It’s good to cross out; it’s good to “pick one,” like choosing to take a cat home from the pet store: It would be so sad to put off getting any cat at all, indecisive, holding out for a dream cat, forever. Better to let all other store cats become wavy dreams, while a warm heavy Schrodinger purrs on my lap.

Intersections

A productive way to postpone answering the Question would be to take a satellite’s camera view of the land. At the “intersection of everyday life” I live on “the lonely prairie,” nestled up to the Rocky Mountains, among young people pioneering new lives out here, attracted by jobs. I wonder what my international readers would think? Many of us have to leave our families back east. Or overseas. I guess older people on the bamboo side of the Pacific must find it strange that we here could live so far from our families and the cemeteries of our ancestors.

Across the Atlantic the Europeans used to find it queer that we settled our gun duals alone, under the harsh light of high noon, not with our “seconds” and our family and a good doctor standing by in the morning. For us, riding into town alone, so far from clan and family, we had to fight alone. Settling here, we had to depend on each other, on government and community. No wonder we amazed the French athletes who came here to observe our Calgary 1988 Winter Olympics: Such citizenship, such community spirit! The French for their own Games could not duplicate our sheer numbers of enthusiastic volunteers four years later.

On our own continent, since my blog is at “the intersection of citizenship,” I had better note that down in the United States, to my regret, volunteering and citizenship seem to be in decline. From what I can see: People are withdrawing from scrutinizing and participating in their government. They tell themselves, for example, that market forces will suffice for the public to realize the greater good. They are mistaken.

Consider their current war. Market forces, such as the contracted Blackwater armed security, made insurgency in Iraq increase, undoing all the goodwill of other Americans. And yes, at least one individual, in his book Fiasco, spotlighted Blackwater to his fellow Americans, but to no avail, not for years. Meanwhile the Iraqis, while on paper less democratic, knew enough to massively participate, rather than leave everything to their leaders and regular army. And the U.S. people? Not so much. The goals of their occupation? Developing Iraq and teaching democracy to the Iraqis. Their result? A fiasco—what a waste! This was in part because although U.S. citizens would still go off to Africa in the Peace Corps, no level headed engineer who liked development, no American housewife who liked speaking Arabic, would go over to help the war effort. (see Imperial Life in the Emerald City:Inside Iraq's Green Zone) Instead, as streetlamps flickered from dying engines, U.S. soldiers figuratively “recruited” for the insurgency, terrifying people by kicking down their doors in the dark, with no language but a roar. Too bad they had no housewives. (Only local males) Back home, I wonder if “The market knows best” morphed into “Hands off! The White House knows best!” For a nation at war, reversing the practice of WWII, turning active citizens into passive civilians, is not proving to be a viable strategy.

A Good Life

In my car this August morning, on CBC radio, in clear sight of the still snow-capped Rockies, I heard about a community spirited man know as “Crazy Larry” who, over the last 25 years, has never missed a public event in the Banff and Canmore area. For years, behind his bike he towed an air compressor so he could blow up balloons to give to children. Crazy (“not just Larry”) Larry lives alone at the YMCA. But now he must miss every event. He was in a bike accident; he lies in hospital. Now what?

How nice that thousands of dollars have been raised for him, partly from former kids who knew him; meanwhile kids of today have made lots of “get well” cards. He is touched. The money will come in handy. Of course Canada, just like the lands across the Pacific of New Zealand, Australia, Japan, and just like all the nations of western Europe, has “free communist-style medicine,”—scrutinized by the public. Accordingly, the money raised for Larry is not for medicine: It’s for getting his life back on track when he gets out, starting with buying a new bike helmet. A nice story. I doubt Crazy Larry ever asked himself the Question, but it’s obvious he will be remembered for enriching children’s lives, and for his community spirit… even if he is “only” a poor civilian, unvalued by the marketplace.

…As a child I had an impression “the good life” meant doing a bit of everything, ideally being a renaissance man, while specializing in nothing: Specializing was for monks and scientists. I suppose I got that unkind impression from handy farmers, and from the “everything in moderation” Athenians. And from the educated British, where, except for the armed services, the various professions were supposed to be indistinguishable from one another during evenings in their social clubs.

Certainly I think our children should be exposed to the full spectrum of life. And of course, in the child-to-adult zone of university (for those who attend) there should also be a worthy spectrum. College can change lives. As for the campus years, I remain skeptical of Spartans who would, say, change a business major into a business conservatory. Especially after Peter Drucker noted that in Canada the evidence showed that bank managers performed just as well whether they had come from a lengthy university or from the shorter college system used in the province of Quebec. Maybe university is best seen as a scouting mission for “life, the universe and everything.” Soldiers know: “Time spent in reconnaissance is seldom wasted.”

I saw my years in school as being comparable to a stint on the streets, or in the merchant marine or the peace corps: Not time ripped away from life, but a genuine part of life.

I am still pondering, “What is a good life?” even now in my early autumn years. As satellites built by skilled technicians orbit overhead I believe living in the space age means interdependence. … specialization… Now then—despite distracting myself with admittedly important matters of citizenship, the personal challenge of the Question remains. Needless to say, my profession is my specialization, but that doesn’t mean that any aspect of my career has to be my “one thing.” Besides, as I said in Art or Business, (archived September 2010) I want my “top of mind” thinking, the “stuff my subconscious pops up” when I am showering, to be about my art, not my day job.

Aptitudes

If my art, meaning my writing, is to be my “one thing to be remembered for,” then I could work on cracking the publication barrier. That could involve objectives of man-hours worked, people to consult, books to read, classes to take, and more. If I set out to publish essays then I would have to look at the works of fellow essayists, and at their careers too.

If my one thing is “being nice” then I could develop a lifestyle of focusing more kindly on my fellow beings, being less closed off, more vulnerable, more skilled at current events and small talk, being large minded, never petty —and hey, learning to juggle or do card tricks, sing or play piano. And, as well, being of service and cultivating “an attitude of gratitude.”

Another goal could be around my interest in citizenship.

Sure, I could do essays and do being nice and do fiction and do other things too, all at once… but the challenge of “one thing” is meant to “up my game,” to a level surpassing the rest of my life, a level that’s “memorable.” Maybe it would be just common sense, and not postponing my Question, if I took time to consider: What do people say to me? Human nature being what it is, several people commenting the same thing is quite significant… Except for all those ladies who call me handsome: they are just being friendly.

Let me think: I’m told that I see the world differently, for example, in evaluating people’s speeches in Toastmasters I see things others don’t see, while my own speeches are of things unseen. Yes. I suppose I set an example in being different. But in everyday life I like to push on the envelope, not break it. I always like to gently know my own strength for what people can handle. I’m really not interested in being noticeably free of my culture.

People say I’m knowledgeable and well read. That’s because I wanted to know enough to be able to write interesting novels like my favorite authors. I can’t think anything else to use my broad knowledge for, except being a schoolteacher in Asia.

People say I’m funny. Yes, but—my humor depends on the setting: I believe in helping working groups who need to relax to get on with their job, and in helping the people I love if they tell me they want to laugh. On the other hand, my Freefall writing class is not a “setting,” because my “audience” is not the writers present in my class. Nevertheless, my impromptu fiction, when I read aloud, is often funny. Often, my fellows don’t need to give me a “writer critique,” for by the time I finish reading their wordless laughter has said enough.

If being remembered for humor was my “one thing” goal, then it follows I could read funny essays and study serious books on the craft of humor. And observe “standups” and situation comedies on TV. In a small way I am doing that now, but not with intent to “up my game.” At my convention this past weekend, When Words Collide (a pun on the old Philip Wylie novel) I found a fascinating panel on using humor in fiction. One of the folks on the panel had just won a crime novel of the year award, for a novel that used humor. Crime and humor! Together! It can be done.

I loved the wealth of writing knowledge that people shared all weekend; maybe I could be known as a writing teacher—if so, then I’d have to be one of those who can “do,” and “do well enough” to teach. Wow. Another goal. I won’t list the steps, since now I have the concept: Any worthy goal, consciously held, means a rewarding series of steps along the way…

I’ve enjoyed thinking this through; I’m almost ready to announce my “one thing;” I hope I’ve provided a little inspiration for you to join me in stepping up to the challenge. If you and I are up to it, we have an exciting life stretching out ahead of us. To be continued…

… … I’ll do fiction, without directly focusing on humor.


Sean Crawford
Calgary
August
2014

Footnotes:
~At the Words convention, as I bought my ticket for next year, I was asked to fill in: Reader, Writer or Other (with a blank), pick ONE. (Perhaps so they can give feedback to invited guests) So, as part of my new plan to do fiction, I picked “writer.” I have made several sub-goals requiring a lot of words between now and next year.

~The convention is not out to take your money or pay big bucks to professionals; (they volunteer too, receiving a token stipend) the con is run by and for volunteers. The next con is already “three percent sold out.” We’ll be moving to a bigger hotel so we can raise the cap on attendance, and maybe not have anyone needing to stand in the back of the seminar rooms.

~This summer the newspapers are reporting how music festivals across the land are having deaths by substance overdose. Last night, Sunday, we bookworms and writers partied in several hotel rooms on the second floor past midnight, with one room for magic cards, ingesting only soda pop.

~Tomorrow night my autumn years get frostier: I go for a free-in-Canada MRI scan—a reminder to face the Question and live the Answer now, for we can take nothing for granted. (Magnetic Resonance Imaging)

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Happiness

essaysbysean.blogspot.com

Proposed topics:
Happiness, defined?
And
If no one ever read your blog, or knew that it existed, would you continue to write?

Preface
In mid-July I said I am open to suggestions for topics. That month, on two separate posts, someone proposed the above two questions. I do enjoy the challenge of combining topics.

Happiness
Happiness … wondering how to be happy … is such a vast topic, a topic that even the women’s magazines, like Oprah’s, don’t tackle directly. Indirectly though, besides her articles and tone, I like how on the last page of her magazine Oprah always tells “something I know for sure.” I think a writer could only sneak up on the happiness question with many essays on what the writer knows, or better yet, with many chapters in a book, preferably a book written by a thoughtful Nobel Prize recipient, such as Bertrand Russell. Happily, it’s been done. Back back in 1930 Russell wrote The Conquest of Happiness.

It’s been decades since I read the book, but I still remember a lot. Strange, to think we live in an age when bookstores have entire sections for Self Help, yet Russell’s book is not well known. If you are interested, then I know you would like the book. It’s worth any number of modern written-for-a buck best sellers. Russell was a member of the aristocracy, with much less need for extra money or status symbols than the rest of us.

Russell was the first and only writer I have found to say that boredom is necessary for a happy life, a concept unheard of by todays text-skimming, short-attention-span, “readers” of the Internet. Too bad “you had to be there” to “get it” because Russell, despite being a minority of one, is quite convincing about people needing boredom time and some quieter pleasures.

I remember well, back when I was overly serious, reading Russell about “zest” being a part of happiness. Perhaps he inspired a chapter dropped into my favorite novel, William Saroyan’s The Human Comedy. Saroyan’s book has a scene where young Homer is in an empty field, practicing his high hurdles. An old man comes over and talks to Homer, saying there’s rabbits in that field, somewhere. Homer sees neither hides nor holes, but he keeps silent, as the old man seems happy to think of rabbits. In Russell’s book, he writes of an old illiterate man who keeps up a battle against the critters. It’s an unwinnable battle, as the beasts keep multiplying like rabbits, yet the old man keeps up his zest for life, and it’s “them rabbits” that keep him going.

Back when I found Russell’s book I was desperately, feverishly, trying to get my act together. Like the youth addressed by Billy Joel in his song, “Slow down… When will you realize Vienna waits for you?” Only when I had reached Joel’s age did I realize that “Vienna” symbolized the Vienna school of expensive psychiatry, while also symbolizing a common counselor.  Maybe I didn’t get counseling, but at least I was able to benefit from Russell’s metaphor. He explained how a sausage machine would run just fine… until it got too interested in studying it’s own innards… and then it would somehow not be as productive. Meaning: If I tried too hard to analyze my efforts and myself then I would not be as zestful in life, not as productive. Later I came across the biblical quote, “Can a man by taking thought add one cubit to his stature?” Again, the message of “Don’t try too hard.”

Among the folks most desperate to self-improve, or at least improve enough to stop their drinking, are the ones in Alcoholics Anonymous. There you find a classic story, which happens again and again, all across the land: Someone is desperately close to a relapse, to “reaching for the bottle.” He cries out to his sponsor, “Help!” His sponsor orders: “Start helping out after the AA meetings by folding and stacking chairs and washing ashtrays.” Such a simple thing, but the desperate man tries it… and it works wonderfully! He is relieved of the urge to drink. It works, I’m sure, besides other reasons, partly because the recovering drunk must think less about himself and more about others. When we help, when we look outwards, we are in a position to transcend ourselves. The bible again: “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”

As for “blessed to give,” back when I was young I noticed how one of the “strongest” soldiers I knew, during breakfast, would fetch his toast back to our table and then ask whether anybody wanted some. When I asked if he was getting himself “extra” toast for that purpose, he smiled, “Yes.” Looking back, I would have been age 20. If I were able to notice and ask, then I guess I was becoming an extra-strong soldier too. Thinking about that man, Corporal Patterson-Burton, reminds me of something I’ve often read: happiness cannot be sought directly. There’s no simple western-style cause and effect. No “share your toasted bread and you will be instantly happy.” No, something as transcendent as helping others cannot be pinned down.

You can’t control the daily weather, but as you come to “know thyself” you can at least use certain principles, some quite transcendent, to set the climate. At the start of this piece I noted it would take many essays to cover the topic of happiness. The rest of this essay is about just one principle.

Being True, for the long haul

For the last decade I’ve been thinking about the principle of being deeply true to myself. A clear example: My old best friend Susan, whom I wrote about in June in Guns, God and a Gay Mother told me, “To be gay and in the closet is to be in a constant low-grade depression… and not even know it.” And in the dark 1990’s a young man said, “I’ve noticed that men who come out (of the closet) have a certain peace about them.”

Another example: Steven Pressfield was non-happy for years until (from memory) one day, with dirty dishes piling up in the sink, he dusted off his typewriter and at last started writing some pages. All Steven’s pages that day went into the garbage, and it would be years before his efforts were publishable, but… now his life felt fitting and peaceful. And it was suddenly easy to wash the dishes, too. I think Steven was in a low-grade depression until he answered his calling to be true to his noblest, deepest self. You can read all about it in his book The War of Art. For me, his book has been life changing. (If you read it, please don’t feel Steven thinks you “have to” do the mystical part, not right away, because I don’t think he does)

When I say, “A writer writes” I mean you earn feeling like a writer by your actions and efforts, even if you are never published. Van Gogh, deep inside, was an artist, although he never sold during his lifetime. Emily Dickinson, I’m sure, quietly thought of herself as a poet, although she was never published while alive. They found her collection after her death—and now her poetry is classic. Surely it is by our diligence that we are happy. There is a reason why lean animals in the wild are so beautiful: We were never meant to be pampered in a safe cage, we were meant to strive, each to seek his own meaning in life. For mystic readers, here is a link to Steven Pressfield and his successful rich friend talking about directing their whole lives to following a “pole star.”

As for me, among close friends I am a journeyman practitioner of Zen-stuff, but publicly I’m too embarrassed to be mystical on the page. That said, although the first chapter of Sting’s autobiography is mystical, I totally skipped it, but then I devoured word for word his realistic chapters. I thought, “Wow.” Living in poverty for years, Sting kept up his truth, his craving for learning music. Did you know he used to play in a weekly house band? Did you know that out of a sense of responsibility to the regular patrons he wrote, practiced and performed one new song every week? —Unlike the house band of my youth—No wonder he became a good songwriter. Meanwhile, I started cranking out “an essay a week” a few years before I read Sting’s example. Back when the entire blogging world was saying “you need to post daily to have worthwhile reader stats” (statistics) I knew daily wasn’t for me: I wouldn’t get any better at my craft unless I sweated for about a week on each a piece. Besides, my topics required longer pieces than what the bloggers were doing, back then. So I was ignored. Like Van Gogh, I wrote on my own terms, not to the blog world’s expectations. It takes some grit to work hard while being ignored, but it’s worth it.

“Being ignored” leads to the opening question of: Would I still write if I were unread? Would I still be transcending myself by thinking of helping others, by expressing and creating? My roommate told me, after he helped put on a world Martial Arts tournament here in our little town, “You don’t practice to go compete, you go compete to help your practice.” Yes, and my practice of writing isn’t solely to go get published, of course not, but I ask: Would I have the grit and courage to keep practicing my art, unread, to reach publication quality? Yes. My truth is: I must write, and I’m a hopeful optimist. Napoleon said it first, “Courage is like love, it needs hope to sustain it.”

Recently I found a TED-talk on “grit” linked in a post about her own grit by a young lady, Little Rivkah. She’s a published manga/comic book writer/artist. I’ve been following Rivkah’s work for years, since she was newly an adult, living on her own. I think Rivkah has “true grit.” I met her once, at a comic-convention; I liked her. On her “grit” post she observes the price of her daily diligence of improving her craft, a price that includes turning down jobs that would interfere with practicing her art. I can relate. I told her I believe in her.

As for me, decades older than Rivkah, it isn’t painful at all to produce my art knowing I may be in a rocking chair before I am publishable, because: A true life is a good life. Besides, this gives me chance to quote my favorite painter, August Renoir: When asked why he kept painting despite really awful arthritis he replied, “The pain passes but the beauty remains.”

In closing, here is a piece that Emily Dickinson must have felt a zest to write, about helping others:

If I can stop one heart from breaking,
I shall not live in vain;
If I can ease one life the aching,
Or cool one pain
Or help one fainting robin
Unto his nest again,
I shall not live in vain.

Sean Crawford
Calgary
August
2014

Footnotes:
~ I thought of the phrase “I haven’t seen hide nor hair of him” when I saw tufts of deer hair caught in tree bark.

~I like Renoir because of his human warmth and nice pretty colors. How nice? You won’t find his paintings on any book cover of classic literature! He is like a dead favorite novelist: It’s such a pity I won’t find any new pieces by him.

~My local big box bookstore has Self-Help near the front; I found Russell’s book way in the back, over in the Philosophy section. I also found a small shelf of essays, a shelf not important enough to be labeled.

~Did you know how Sting got his name? He showed up for rehearsal wearing a striped yellow and black sweater. My impromptu fiction at my weekly freefall group is striking, a couple peers have asked, “Have you been published?” And I say, “Yes, but I haven’t been published for money since the 20th century, for feature articles.” … I won’t go back to features, but I may be ready, after this weekend, to turn my disposable man-hours towards fiction. Hence in July I asked for final essay topics. At my book-lover’s convention, starting at one o’clock tomorrow, everybody will be stinging their pens to notebooks, buzzing up high with excitement over fiction and poetry.


~The first essay I ever read that combined two topics was In the Shadow of Captain Bligh where Hugh MacLennan combined the world of Captain Bligh with the world of classical composers. I found it in the basement as a child, and it quite delighted me. The piece was not to compare and contrast, but to explain each world, and make a point. So few essays are like that. During high school, while being taught to dislike the very word “essay,” as being so much academic dust, kids are taught to only appreciate mono-topics, never a montage. Unless they escape to film school. As a grownup, if I want to read double-topic essays then I have to write my own.