Thursday, August 29, 2013

Grave Things Not Undone
...In the eyes of the world it is not our majority liberal government that sent overseas our armed representatives...
... Afghanistan. It seems that after every single casualty there is a media hullabaloo with some people wanting to "re-evaluate" meaning: pull out pronto. That's no way to run a business: If a project has choice points, stages, built in then you don't need to re-evaluate every single work day. For we Canadians, the most prominent choice point will be around the 2009 ending of our NATO mission mandate...

No, I won't decide about Afghanistan today although I realize, like you, that we need to think about our involvement in that dusty country. This essay is about the process of making our decisions, both our war ones (little slices) and others (the whole pie).

Last Saturday a fluke prairie rainstorm caught me. I was the only patron in that little triangular art gallery beside city hall. During the deluge the volunteer, Verna Mah, got out the tea and cookies. She asked me about Prime Minister Stephen Harper's announcement regarding combat in Afghanistan. She wanted to know if he was "being sneaky or spin doctoring or something." A fair answer required more than a overly simplistic "No." You may recall he said Canadian troops would pull out unless the other Canadian political parties also agreed to stay.

...It rained, and Verna poured us another cup of green tea. To answer her regarding the prime minister, I reflected on how Verna is Chinese and on how the old Polish Combatants Association (Legion) hall on Kensington road has just been sold. Then I "assayed" (essayed/attempted) to answer...

Those Polish veterans, as idealistic young men, had fought alongside the Canadians against the evil Axis, fighting their way up Italy, hoping to one day enter a free Poland. Meanwhile the Free French army was also fighting, and they were the first of the Allies to enter Paris. As it happened, France stayed democratic and Poland went communist. And the Chinese, well, what can I say? A few years after the war, they put the "E" in Escape. Instead of just the inner cabinet and a few palace guards escaping, or instead of just a big army escaping, a tsunami of refugees managed to escape the communists. Those people life changed their lives forever.

The closest refugee equivalent, here in Calgary, is how the people who escaped the communist take over of the Republic of South Vietnam still refuse to call any of their laundry mats or cafes after Ho Chi Minh City, the communist name for Saigon. A few years ago, during an all-heritage civic day march, city hall provided free national flags but no Vietnamese wanted to carry the communist flag of Vietnam, and they resented the city hall's expectation that they do so..

(Olympic folly)

The communists of Red China, or Mainland China, flew the flag of the People's Republic, while the republicans who escaped to the island of Formosa, or Taiwan, claimed that they were the legitimate government, in exile, and they too flew a Republic of China flag. The situation may have frustrated the rest of the world, but it was too tragic to be funny. If you were a wife of a UN secretary, and you wanted to put on a state dinner, where would you seat the various Chinese? And if you wanted to host an Olympic games, complete with opening ceremonies, you could be sure that both sides would want to show up to march, complete with flags. What do you do? As it happened, Taiwan would refuse to participate if Red China was involved. And so Mainland China would not be invited.

(...The U.S. did not recognize China until during the Nixon administration. I remember going out with a boy fresh from Hong Kong, Wallace Chan, to see a Hollywood satire of that state recognition, using nuns, called Nasty Habits. The Kissinger nun smoked...)

This state of affairs continued for two or three decades until one year, 1976, the summer Olympics were hosted here in Canada. Our prime minister for that year, Pierre Trudeau, was not a red but he was, I would say, a pinko. When Trudeau died one of his pallbearers would be a communist barred from the U.S: Fidel Castro. Trudeau reminded the Taiwanese that we "recognized" China as being a legitimate country with a legitimate government. That was the last year of Taiwan's Olympic posturing.

(...footnote: A decade and a half later, in 1991, Taiwan formally renounced any ambition to conquer mainland China by military means. Their armed forces are strictly for self-defense...The communists have yet to reciprocate)

So then what? What of the horrified capitalist businessmen, the horrified idealistic students, or the opposition parties? I wasn't very upset myself, but I wasn't impressed, either. As a boy I had played around the air raid tower at my elementary school pretending it was a spaceship. I had listened to it wailing like a banshee out of Irish legend, a creature who wailed to predict our deaths by communist inter-continental missiles. And now we were recognizing a communist state that was established by violence.

Did the opposition parties in parliament, and the rest of us, demand the very next year to RE-evaluate whether or not we recognized China? No... It depends: A local by-law is something you can relax about, because you can change it every year. A matter of grave national interest? No, you can't, you have to get it right the first time.

When a serious change is coming down the road, when politicians are arguing in parliament while Canadians are debating in beer parlors across the land, then, as everyone is discussing, everyone must know, in the backs of their minds, that once the grave thing is finally done it may not be undone.

(Talking of change)

One day I was out west, in Vancouver, on Granville pedestrian mall, in a tourist store, looking at an album cover. The clerk was nice enough to remind me there would be a sales tax. "Thank you," I said "I had forgotten." He said he often reminds customers from neighboring Alberta and the Yukon Territory.

It was a year later that the progressive conservatives (PC) who had the majority of seats in parliament, brought in a federal nation-wide compulsory sales tax, the infamous GST. (Goods and Services Tax) Every time I had to count on my fingers and dig for change I said, "Goddamn Stupid Tories." The old liberal members of parliament promised to scrap the GST; one of them promised to resign if they did not scrap it. In the next election...—pow!—The PC prime minister lost her seat, as did every tory except for two. And those two liberal promises?

That liberal MP stayed in office; the GST was not scrapped. I wasn't surprised. We all should have known in advance that grave things are not to be undone. This the liberals had surely known: they were just being "ethically challenged" all along.

The plan is to keep the liberals honest this time. Harper, with a minority government, has proclaimed that Canada will not stay in Afghanistan, not past Canada's self proclaimed 2009 mandate, not unless the majority of parliament agrees, meaning: the liberals must agree. Harper is not bluffing. Those old men can't have back seat driver privileges, not for this, not when the lives of our idealistic, innocent too-young-to-vote soldiers are at stake.

In the eyes of the world it is not the liberal majority government that sent overseas our armed representatives... It is not our conservative (C) minority government that keeps us there. It is Canada.

Just as with capital punishment, even if I personally voted socialist, the fact remains: My hand, and the hand of you, and of all my neighbors, is on that fearfull gun switch. There is a reason why kids are sheltered from voting. This burden of aggressing against the Taliban is not one I can shrug off onto a Chairman Mao or a Muslim Ayatollah. This is a democracy and you and I are the adults... May God help Stephen Harper.

Sean Crawford 
(August .22)
out on the lonely prairie
summer 2007

Footnote regarding China:
China claimed that Taiwan is "an inalienable part of the People's Republic of China" at the time of Trudeau. According to  former foreign service officer Jahn M. Fraser of Ottawa, writing in the letters section of the Globe and Mail: "Mitchell Sharp, secretary of state fro external affairs, told the House of Commons "takes note" (what Canada officially wrote as part of establishing relations) meant we "neither challenge nor endorse" China's position."

As I see it, if black children of "guest workers" can love South Africa more than their ancestral home, then the children of refugees can love the Republic of Taiwan more than China. Just as a Canadian of Chinese ancestry, even if he believes in communism, is still Canadian. 

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Ex-Convict Bill Sands and Me

Picture a young soldier: clean-cut, wholesome and harmless looking; short, slim and no tattoos. That was me in my early twenties. One day, accompanied by a younger taller man, the general’s driver, I went to the city’s worst skid row bar… because the beer was cheap. The driver was a smooth faced bright guy. How bright? I was the only one on the base to discern that he had once attended—and failed—officer candidate school. His secret was safe with me; when he later shipped out to Germany I told him precisely how many NATO fall maneuver seasons he would finish before either reapplying to be an officer... or leaving the service.

We entered the bar and there I spotted a soldier, in civilian clothes like us, whom I will call Charlie. Charlie was a highly respected guy, big and broad shouldered, who was often alone. We joined him.

We talked. I happily announced that in a few months I would be going off to the community college to study rehabilitation. The conversation flowed for a couple minutes before the penny dropped. “Oops! Oh yeah, I should say I’ll be studying rehab for people with disabilities, not people in the prisons. I’m well aware that guards and cons have no use for social workers.” Charlie slowly grew a huge grin. “This is true.” And sometime during the evening he told us of being molested in prison. It was bad. …This isn’t something young heroes ever talk about. Guys have a blind spot for male rape, even today when they are serving in Gomorrah: the Arab world…. He told us of how he got his revenge, final and permanent. After Charlie left the driver was bug eyed. “How do you know him?” Charlie and I had come to solidly respect each other in another place and time—but that story is for another essay. My point is that a drab guy like me could hang around with a colorful guy like him. This I owe to an ex-convict, Bill Sands.

I’ve been thinking lately about how Bill Sands had such a big influence on my life. Bill was incarcerated in the infamous San Quentin prison in California. While doing his time Bill lived up to the harsh code of the convicts: He had a good reputation as a solid con.

I attended an unhappy junior high school. Later I went on to attend the senior secondary in which, despite having two feeder junior schools, the population was no greater than in my junior high. In other words, my junior high had included a lot of frustrated future dropouts. How bad was it? When some of us went to a rock concert in the big city, some city teens were seated nearby. Then, upon hearing what school we were from, they got up and sat somewhere else… At our school the girls were as bad as the boys: in the girl’s main central washroom every single stall door—made of steel—had been ripped off its hinges. The central boys washroom, doors intact, was the only boys washroom where the mirrors were not totally smashed. Here the bad boys with their jean jackets (none of us could afford leather) could comb their long hair and smoke. The room was always crowded.

Half of the students at school were on the “academic program,” which meant taking French and algebra for college. Of those smart kids, there was only one boy who would venture into that central washroom. As I emerged other shorter-haired academics passing by would whisper to me, “What were you doing in there?” Being a boy of solid principles I wasn’t about to go out of my way just to use the can. Besides, I was too stubborn to be afraid. So there I’d be, with short hair and no jean jacket, elbowing my way past other guys in the washroom. Always someone would challenge me. “What are you doing here?” But I never had to fight. Always some one else would reply, “He’s OK, Sean’s cool.”

My memory has blurred, but I guess I would have got to know various “bad boys” in various non-academic classes such as shop. Perhaps the boys were touched that a smart student like me had no arrogance. You may ask: Why would I bother to get to know them? Easy: I like people, and I had Bill’s example, friendly and unafraid, to follow.

Bill Sands, being a solid con, was able to befriend a lot of scarred up older wiser cons. This despite Bill having attended a ritzy high school with a swimming pool, and despite having the second highest I.Q. among the inmates. Bill’s father was a rich judge, his mother a socialite. Unfortunately his mamma used to beat him until her arms were too tired. This may explain, but not excuse, his being a criminal. (I was scathed too.) Bill became a very twisted-up violent guy. Yet, in his life among cons and others, he set me an example not merely in friendly behavior but in philosophy: He knew that most cons, and most people, have some good somewhere inside. When I meet people I don’t focus on the bad.

One of my fellow writers, Louis L’amour, must have had a similar philosophy. As a young merchant mariner Louis had knocked around rough Asian seaports, including the port that has given us the verb "Shanghaied." As an old writer of westerns he displayed a keen sympathy for the not-so-bad outlaws. And only contempt for the ones who were “poison.”

One of his westerns, Kid Rodelo, has an illustrative scene. Three ex-cons are crossing the desert, weak from lack of food and water. They are hoping to come across a rumored natural water tank in the rocks. They find it. Water! They drink it all. Then they look up and see how the tank will never be refilled, not the next time it rains, because a rock slab has fallen across the inlet channel. So Kid Rodelo, despite his weakness, struggles and strains and at last succeeds in shifting the slab. The other two just watch the hero, passively, without lifting a finger. The hero goes on to “get a life,” while the others die by the gun. I think Louis would have liked Bill.

Bill proclaimed, “Consideration for others!” That’s what he said to parents at a Boys’nGirls club dinner. He said something like, “If your boy has consideration for others, what law can he break? What crime can he commit?” That makes sense to me as none of my brothers, despite their associates, are criminals. None of us would speak of any crimes openly at the family supper table. As for showing consideration, I grew up on a country road. Occasionally a big grader would come by to smooth out the gravel and reduce the potholes. Meanwhile, our parents would set us an example on that road by picking up nails and by moving rocks. And of course they would encourage consideration by saying, “How would you like it if you—“

Between his prison years and giving that talk to the parents Bill had a “real life,” a life that included going off to the merchant marine and being a coach in Asia. Back here in America he became a successful capitalist. He married a good lady. She had a past too, being a former alcoholic. I am sure Bill needed a wife who would know that a man could be both very bad and very good in one lifetime.

Bill was an excellent Master of Ceremonies, or MC. …I can’t resist saying that last Christmas, at a huge  company party one evening, I thought of Bill as everyone said I was a “real good” MC. I had never been one before.

 One day, to Bill’s surprise, he set aside his prepared MC act. Instead, a burning message just poured out of him and he “came out of the closet,” as we would say today, revealing he was an ex-con. It was quite an experience.

Later that night, sitting in their luxurious house, he and his wife agreed that helping others would be, for Bill, the real meaning of life. (Me too.) Back in prison Bill had succeeded in doing something as difficult as giving one’s self a haircut: he had rehabilitated himself. (Without help from any stupid social workers.) Now, emotionally supported by his wife, with the help of straight Johns and convicts and ex-cons, he set up a system of seven steps whereby cons could rehabilitate each other. (Alcoholics Anonymous uses 12 steps) The system is far, far harsher than AA, but it has to be.

I once interviewed the North American head of the Seventh Step Society. He lent me a tape of a talk of Bill speaking at a Boys’nGirls club dinner. Hearing his voice is the closest I’ve come to Bill. My buddy Charlie, though, once got to see Bill Sands in person, "at an AA thing." I’m jealous. A few years after our night in the bar Charlie’s life took a turn and he had to leave the army. I have hope that Charlie’s life turned out OK because he once told me how his father, despite painful arthritis, arthritis so bad he would be laid up all the next day, would sometimes walk Charlie’s trap line with him. I sometimes think of how a tiny memory like that, tucked away, can help a man get up when he stumbles.

Today I have respectable work, life is good.

Earlier I noted I was short, and I mentioned the school workshop. I have a few memories of tough boys helping me there… for I was about as unconfident with my hands as any typical bookworm. And I’ve one illustrative memory: One day a very foolish academic kid must have thought he had found someone smaller to vent his frustrations on. He grabbed me. I just happened to know to how to break that particular hold. So zip-zip I was free and not backing down at all. So he backed off…  I say “very foolish” because of what would have inevitably happened if we had fought. Win, lose or draw—the tough boys would have “cleaned his clock” (taken him apart). They liked me and they had a high regard for my solid credibility. Everyone knew I would never fight for any selfish reason. I went on to lead the same charmed life among big soldiers all through my army years.

Thank you, Bill, wherever you are.

Sean Crawford,
City of Calgary, on the prairie,
August, 2013

~Bill wrote two books, My Shadow Ran Fast and After the Seventh Step
~I brushed off this essay, never before posted, because my niece, a 2013 university graduate, has a job, working not with cons but with ex-cons: The difference is critical, as the latter are volunteers—the light bulb "wants" to change.
~In my current administrator's page of 25 titles, I guess the most related essays are Real Men and Me and Learning to Be Nice, both archived in May of 2013. 

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Public War Decisions

Chairman Mao once said, in effect, that to know a slice of the apple pie was to know the whole pie. He said this in his essay On Contradiction as he was trying (I think) to build the Chinese villager's self confidence for making decisions after the mandarins (officials) were all gone. In our national village, where we have never felt dependent on mandarins, our national decisions are something to be pondered at the level of the individual citizen... and of these decisions our national defense ones, a small slice of the decision pie, are perhaps the hardest, most fearful decisions of all. But if we citizens don't take this responsibility, however scary, then who will? The federal bureaucrats? The generals? "War," said the poet "is too important to leave to the generals."

The generals, it is said, always train to fight the last war, not the next one. At least the armed forces are aware of this, and take steps to mitigate their retro tendency. Many civilians are not so aware.

I believe if the only war you know is Vietnam, then you don't know war. You don't know that Nam was a blip, and not the usual course of waging war. And you may not understand the usual course of ongoing democracy, either.

Unfortunately, since for many people Vietnam was their "last war," they try to repeat it. It is as if they see a big boulder marked Decision, with ropes for a tug of war wrapped around it, and it is being tugged over the war/no war line by a slim slice of the public. They think that to combat this slim majority a series of protests and strong opinions are constantly needed. For them, if the temper of the times does not allow them to protest by peace riots, marches, or occupying buildings, then they will ratchet down their protest to writing columns in the media, being quoted, and constant questioning, even unto obstruction. This is even though the war has already started, and even though there is a natural choice point, the end of our mandate, that must be renewed if the troops and the development workers are to remain. But what if the "protest-machine" they were trying to ratchet down was a civilian model for their last war, Vietnam?

It helps to have a bird's eye view of democracy. It really helps to have a perspective on capitalism, for in a business, as in a village, people try to steer by consequences, feedback and reality.  Businessmen will be open minded and brainstorming at the start of a new account, but not when halfway through a campaign. Then "you must stop brainstorming and just get on with it." The people who try to steer us by daily protest do not share my view of how the wheels go around. The  media is functional now: I don't feel so angry. When I wrote my Afghanistan Decision essay, back when after every casualty there was a media storm, to combat the decision to go intervene,  then I felt a reply was sorely needed.
Afghanistan Decision

Part II
Everyone knows that Canadian NATO troops are the keystone to sheltering civilians in Afghanistan. Our U.S. cousins are present too, of course, but their (changing) priority is Iraq. I don't know all the facts; I don't know anyone who does. To learn more I suppose I could go over to the university; I could ask the smart professor who taught me anatomy in the Physical Education building. Adjoining it is the Olympic Oval, constructed for speedskating at the 1988 winter Games. As it happens, I have interviewed the man who designed the Oval, and have published his plans, but for the following "thought experiment" please imagine another man.

Please imagine that a phys ed professor in some prairie city has been tasked to build a campus ice hockey rink. As with a software project, he would consult future users as to their desired (building) features and then get to making his plans. Perhaps a delegation of students comes by his office and asks that the building include a speed skating oval around the rink. The open-minded professor will stop, re-evaluate, and probably begin redesigning his plans. Perhaps some alumni ask that he include provision for summer indoor soccer on the rink, with removable green turf. (The Oval has this) The open-minded academic will stop, re-evaluate, and begin drafting his plans anew.

At last comes the big day. The professor will put on his best tweed suit. The first shovel full of sod is shoveled. Flashbulbs flash. Hands clap. Builders fire up their machines and get to building. Perhaps a week later people come to see the prof and ask that a new feature be added, curling sheets perhaps. Now, if he is politically astute, the man will start to polish his spectacles, saying, "Er, perhaps the sheets could be added after the building is finished, er, as an annex." Once that first sod is dug, the open-minded academic must close his mind like a steel trap.

Meanwhile, back in the classroom, his students have permission to RE-evaluate anything at any time. Nothing, not even religion, should be sacred to a student. The phys ed students of my youth went on to innovate such "un American" things as girls on a high school wrestling team, little league without score keeping, and bust-a-gut competition, right up to the international level, for ultimate, without using any referees.

Obviously I'm saying, "Let's get on with the job" until, say, 12 months before the end of the mandate. This is better than being constantly confused, weak and shaky, starting from a few years before the choice point.

Sean Crawford
As "times change, but they don't change,"
On the eternal prairies

Thursday, August 8, 2013

About a Friend

I think I was always able to love... in my uptight real man way. Perhaps you know what it's like to try to dance without being too graceful, or to try to be affectionate without showing too much natural feeling. (It's easier to banter and put someone down.) It takes a lot of energy to be uptight; it took a lot of love to get me free.

I met a woman who was genuine. By her love I blossomed and grew staight towards the sun as God intended. In a zillion ways she showed me how to love. (Guys take note: when your lover touches you or suddenly snuggles with you, it does not always mean you have to rush to "do it." Ask her yourself.)

Can you believe in a woman who will say the L-word to more than one person under heaven? One who will say "I love you" without premarital sex? How I rejoiced in her fun and laughter. I like to imagine her skipping down the ramp at church, or leading the Sunday school kids in a lively game.

But it will never be.

One day, scared and trembling, my friend who loved me said she was gay... gay! She waited for my response, pale, breathless, all her color and sparkle gone, and I felt in my heart a mighty anger. I wanted to bellow, "Who did this to you?" My friend looked like she had seen a specter. That specter was society. "Who hurt you so badly?"

How could anyone ever tell you that you were anything less than beautiful?

We held each other tightly and the sun came out again. But now there was a small cloud, and there always would be. Somewhere out there are people who hate my friend.

How dare they?

Sean Crawford
in a bible belt city,
north of enemy territory,
Summer 2013.24

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Competence by Getting Centered

…Competent folks have skills...

One of my most treasured skills is being “grounded,” more specifically: “centered.” Seldom do I hear people speak about these skills, rarely do I come across these words in print. Certainly the army doesn’t cover it in leadership training; I don’t recall reading the concept in any book on business management. Perhaps the concept of centering is too new, too “Southern Californian.” But I know this much: Getting centered has been one of my most fun skills to learn. And it makes other skills fun to learn.

For fun, as a boy, I relished the rip-roaring young adult novels of Robert A. Heinlein. Usually Heinlein’s teenage protagonist, on the moon or in a struggling Mars colony, would know a skillful elderly person who was very competent. (One time an adult helped a teen be centered by noting any sentence that starts, "I really ought to—" is suspect) This gave each novel a subtle sub theme: One day the teen would himself be one of the competent ones of his generation. Dared I hope that one day I too…? Today, true to boy I was, I’m into growth, although not relentlessly—after all, I live in peaceful times, unlike, say, Gerrold’s hero.

David Gerrold is writing a science fiction masterpiece about North Americans battling an ecological infestation: The Chtorr War series. Gerrold once described his connected series as showing on-the-job training for a hero, James McCarthy, who starts out as a spoiled adolescent. Truly committed, over the years McCarthy learns from others, and he even takes special human potential training—He learns to be centered. I can’t help smiling: Gerrold, a native of Southern California, has imagined such training becoming a part of the war effort. No doubt as a boy, just as I did, Gerrold read about Heinlein’s skilled heroes.

"Centering" is an inner skill: While mechanical skills can be “swiftly taught,” inner skills are “slowly learned” over time.

 A tutor can swiftly teach the equation for a triangle; learning to think logically like Pythagoras takes longer. Alas, we all know someone who goes through life illogical and scatterbrained. A “teacher,” such as Heinlein’s elderly person or a colleague at work, can be a role model, raise awareness, and be exasperated when you fall short—and then your learning continues percolating inside over time. For me, looking down the years, I think being centered has “leveraged” all my skills into being more productive.

Years ago my college teacher, talking about our jobs after graduation, professed: “You can be competent, or you can be incompetent.” I would hope we all resolved to do the right thing. Years later, at a workshop for managers, the trainer explained to us how the simplest way to increase our job performance is to change our attitude. Again, inner learning. But of course, as we well know from tales like A Christmas Carol and stories from recovering alcoholics, an attitude change all too often won’t happen until after a painful wake up call. I guess many hear, but few are called.

I’m sure “doing” overlaps with “learning”; the “mechanical” connects to the “inner.” Classically, the Buddhist monk “hews wood and draws water” while the apprentice painstakingly copies the masters. The apprentice may think copying is a “chore,” but of course something else is going on too. Tobias Wolff, in his essay Civilian, about his life post-Vietnam, expressed an insight into that “something else.” He appreciated doing his daily writing, even though he knew his prose was a long ways from being good enough to send out for publication, because his writing was clearing his head, sharpening his thoughts, and increasing his self-discipline.

I don’t remember when I learned of centering. Probably I first noticed the concept back in my mid twenties, when I was in college digging into Outward Bound just for fun. I read of a leader at Outward Bound, a lady wearing a bandana and baseball cap. When facing a problem she would briefly gaze at nothing and look inside herself, and come back with the best answer. I was inspired. Hey, I have to say, being into personal growth: I was pleased as punch when my college Outdoor Pursuits teacher said I could be a leader in Outward Bound.

I suppose centering is something to be modeled and “learned.” …If perchance I could describe “getting centered” on a page, then how might I do so? ... Happily, to start off my description, along with the resurgence of yoga, there are now some slogans:
“Don’t panic; first stop and take a breath,”
 “Notice your breathing,”
And in the words of a country song, “Just breathe.”

The breath concept goes part of the way to getting centered, going as far as be still… the purpose of the focus on breath is to achieve distance from the problem, and take a blessed moment. I suppose the “blessed moment” is like what I feel for long stretches at a time when I am serving as an ego-less judge or as a meeting chairman. Those are times for straight thinking by centering.

Being still is only a part. I remember how back in my youth I always tried to be fair and conscientious, even if this meant over-thinking a problem. So I would figuratively walk around the problem, seeing it from both sides. Back and forth, seeing first from one angle, then the other, repeat, repeat, like a silly teeter-totter. And my eventual solution would not be the best. It would take time for me to walk around, quite unlike that lady with the bandana—who would just fly! Getting centered, then, has a swift Zen to it, far above my poor left brain plodding. My old way, although better than any uptight impulsive decisions, felt slow. My new way, getting centered, is timeless and peaceful, as if several planks of a teeter-totter were spread out around me flat on the grass, like so many decision-paths, and I need not, with any deliberation, think-it-out by walking along any of them. No. Instead I’d be still, balanced, as my better brain would make its calculations unknown to me … I’d then know the best plank to walk. No second-guessing, because my decision would feel right.

And no going against my better judgement while an alarm rings franticly and dimly in the background.

Centering is a nice skill to know; on the other hand, there are those special occasions in life when I have the luxury of time, times when it is very handy to draw a line down the center of a page and consciously write pros and cons. (Maybe I bought my new car that way) But even then, a little centering helps.

One of the joys of “being centered” is a blessed de-coupling of the ego, a momentary separating from any inappropriate “should” and “have to,” free of family, subculture and society. Of course these heavy considerations could all come rushing back, but at least, for a few shining moments, I am free. Looking back into the past, I wonder about the scatterbrained folks, the tense impulsive ones and the ordinary people who were known to made an inordinate number of mistakes: Surely they were never centered. I think they were all driven by forces they were unaware of, forces unseen of family and culture and hang-ups, just like in physics class where so many force arrows combine to move a rocket off at an angle.

I know silent forces exist. Sometimes I think advertisers and playwrights know more about unseen forces than do the scientists in the white lab coats. Maybe David Mamet would agree. A well respected playwright, Mamet’s collection of essays, Writing in Cafes, contains a piece where he and his middle aged friends get together to play poker once a year. They find their playing has really improved since they were young. Not from practicing or taking lessons in poker, since they only play with each other. No, just from living their lives and the lessening of unseen forces. Mamet makes a credible case for people dealing with issues over time, issues they don’t even know they have. The proof is in the playing.

And life goes on. … In my cozy evenings, while reading books from my youth, I count my blessings. By day, in the hurly burly of work, I always take a blessed moment to get centered before I act. That’s automatic for me now. As for what my life would be like if I had never learned to be grounded… I shake my head; I just can’t imagine living my old life.

Sean Crawford
Cozy in Calgary,
Summer 2013

~Looking to popular culture, for “breathe,” I always think of Faith Hill’s song, or Anna Nalick’s: “2 a.m. and she calls me and I’m still awake, can you help me unravel my latest mistake… Cause you can’t jump the track, we’re like cars on a cable, and life’s like an hourglass, glued to the table.”

~In the “real world,” in my reading and in keeping my ear to the ground, I don’t come across much on centering, while there is a lot of stuff posted in that “other world,” the Internet. Stuff by “real experts”… Nevertheless, I am confidently posting my essay, because it is true for me, and because it comes at the concept from a different angle than others do. …

~What do you think?