Category Archives: Personal Reflections

Profile in Courage: Winston Churchill

Anyone who knows me knows I have a deep admiration of Winston Churchill.

Not for the obvious reason that he led Britain against Germany in the darkest times of World War II (though that is definitely admirable).

Rather, it’s because I feel a lot of affinity for the man. He battled moods that would cripple lesser people (he referred to it as his “black dog”). Indeed, prior to returning to lead Britain in World War II, he’d spent a decade in what he would call “the wilderness”: rejected and on outs because no one wanted to hear the unpleasant, inconvenient truths he was speaking. This was a time of great depression and difficulty for him.

He also was a gifted writer and speaker. Indeed, he won the Nobel Prize for literature for his history of World War II, which he wrote after once again being unceremoniously dumped out of office by the very people whom he saved.

Churchill understood the need to struggle and fight and never give up. As a master of the turn of phrase, he described the sort of daily struggle I sometimes feel very eloquently. “When you’re in Hell,” he said, “you might as well keep moving”. He also would describe the importance of forward motion in hard times with the phrase “KBO” for “Keep Buggering On”. Again, meaning that you keep moving forward.

When I was in graduate school, I had a classmate who was older than me and British. He talked about a conversation he has with his mother who had been in Britain during the war. He asked her about the speeches from Churchill on the radio, asking if they were as inspiring then as they are now. No, she said, they weren’t inspiring: they scared the hell out of her. Because they didn’t know how it was going to end, unlike us.

That is a telling thing: it underscores the strength and courage he had: to look into the abyss where there is rightly no hope and to continue onward. I myself believe that ultimately that strength was honed first and foremost in the crucible of himself and his struggles with mood.

My wife got me a bust of Churchill many years ago. Actually had it shipped from Britain. It sits on my desk. It’s the only statue I have. And it’s a reminder to me that strength and courage come from not giving up, from geting up every day and battling onward. And it reminds me that writers can be warriors too. Indeed, some of the best writers are warriors of a kind.

In writing this, I happend on a lovely homage to Churchill as a role model for leadership and life courage. It’s a nice article but most of all, it’s about the importance of having the courage to look square on at the scary things and not flinch, but instead to move forward. Much like I wrote before, the importance of moving towards your fears.

In closing, it seems most appropriate to let the man speak for himself. This is the famous “We shall fight on the beaches” speech.

But before you listen, try to put yourself in the place of my classmate’s mother. Pretend that you hear this not knowing how this will all end. Understand that this speech was to tell the people of Britain of the disaster of Dunkirk and the ejection of all British forces from the European continent. Realize that the next step everyone thought was coming was the German invasion of Britain. And so, when he says”we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills” you hear the real possibility that within six months time, you and your loved ones will be seeing German soldiers marching through London, York, Manchester. And there will be fighting and blood and death in those streets. And all you know and hold dear may be at risk of loss and death.

Paint that picture and then listen. And see if it doesn’t scare the hell out of you. And see too if you can better appreciate what what strength it took to look at that, speak truth to it, and yet end on a note of hope and defiance by saying “we shall never surrender”.

8400 Days

On this day and date, Thursday April 21, in 1988, I lost a friend to suicide.

I think it’s important to remember those who have gone: we who carry their memory ensure a part of them is still alive.

So, I always try to mark the date of her passing (as I do all those I have lost). Being a bit superstitious about days and dates, I consider anniversaries that fall on the same day to be particularly special. This year, the day and date coincide with that day twenty three years ago.

In reflecting on this, I realize that she’s been gone now longer than she lived. And I find, interestingly, that it has been exactly 8400 days that have passed since she passed.

I note this here not out of sadness, really. As I get older I am more and more reconciled with death as a reality. My readings in Buddhism over the past year, my experiences of multiple hard losses in the space of a year: all of these have made me find a new accommodation with death. I take very seriously the idea in Tibetan Buddhism that at the end of each day we die when we go to sleep, and at the beginning of each day we are born anew when we wake.

And so today I reflect not just on Kathy’s passing twenty three years ago: I reflect on the 8400 times I have died and been reborn since that day. I reflect on the unknown numbers of deaths and rebirths that await me yet in this form. I work to look forward rather than backward, for I have lived my life in a melancholy past for much of my life and want instead to live in a joyful present and a hopeful future.

I am listening to Arvo Pärt’s work for organ, Trivium I – III. Its sparseness has the proper reverent tone for a reflection like this. But, too, it has a delicate beauty that mirrors life. Beautiful, fleeting, passing in the blink of an eye.

In addition to keeping alive the memory of those who have gone, perhaps the greatest honor we can do them is to simply live and feel all that beauty that life has.

Perhaps the most poignant statement to that effect is made by Kevin Spacey at the end of American Beauty.

So today, I honor the memory of Kathy: I think back to her dark and blasphemous sense of humor, her beautiful dark eyes, the skirts and the hat she always wore, and I celebrate it all. And I celebrate the joy of my life, all the good in it, all the joy and pain and aliveness I have been gifted with these 8400 days.

If you want to understand someone….

….look at the magazines they get.

Here’s what I get (in a somewhat logical grouping):

  • Parabola (got when I was in high school/college, let it lapse and restarted it last year)
  • Snow Lion
  • Shambhala Sun
  • Buddhadharma
  • Tricycle
  • Gramophone (got in the mid 90’s, let it lapse and restarted two or three years ago)
  • BBC Music
  • Listen
  • Military History (going to let this one lapse soon)
  • MHQ (going to let this one lapse soon)
  • The Atlantic (likely going to let this one lapse soon)
  • The Economist (the one I’ve gotten the longest, nearly 20 years)
  • National Geographic (gotten for years but don’t actually like it anymore, someone keeps getting it for me for Christmas and it’s easier to get it and not read it)
  • PRSA Tactics (work-related)
  • PRSA Strategist (work-related)

The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway: A Reflection and Memoir

Music.

Memory.

For me the two are inexorably linked. There is no easier way for me to go into the closet of my life and pull out an old version of my self, put it on, remember what it was like to wear that self every day, and feel where and how that self does and doesn’t fit any more than to put something on from the past. In particular with pieces that become part of my emotional history like I talked about in Mood Music.

One album (and I use album specifically because it’s so tied to that now-archaic form) that falls into this category is the last full album by the Peter Gabriel-fronted GenesisThe Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. For me, this is an album that I associate very closely with winters during both my freshman and sophomore years of college at Oberlin. I happen to be listening to this today and as I listen to it, all the history and meaning associated with this album come back to me.

When I talk about this blog as a travelogue about my experience of music, the story of how I came to be listening to the Lamb Lies Down on Broadway so much during those years is an example of what I mean. The path to those days tromping through the snows of Oberlin, listening to Peter Gabriel regale us with the fantastic tale of Rael and his experiences in a nether-world copy of mid 1970’s New York City on my cassette Walkman is a round-about one that passes through so much of my personal musical history.

To get to those days, you have to start even further back and understand first, that up through seventh grade, under the influence of my fairly strict Catholic upbringing, I was convinced that any music other than classical music was, truly, music of the Devil. Ironically, my mother was a huge Beatles fan: this was a case of me being more conservative than my mother like Alex on Family Ties (though I would secretly, guiltily listen to some of her Beatles albums when home alone, but that’s another post). Even once I had drifted some from the Church, that bias was sublimated and transformed by way of some classical music snobbery to conclude that while it may not be the Devil’s music, non-classical music, most especially Rock and Pop forms, had no redeeming artistic merit.

My stance on music would be changed by the chance meeting one day on a bus from summer school classes between seventh and eighth grade. I was taking a class on computers (itself a foreshadow of my later life) and happened to meet a kid named Chad Clark. Chad has since gone on to a successful life in music starting several bands over the years including currently Beauty Pill and running his own studio. This meeting though was before Chad started to pursue his interest in music seriously. Even so, he was much more familiar with non-classical music than I was and found my outright rejection of it all as closed minded and rather silly.

Chad was a very important person for me: after that meeting he became my best friend and was the first non-Catholic friend I ever had.  He would also go on to be best man at my wedding. He challenged the bedrock of pretty much everything that I believed at that time. Not least of which was my rejection of non-classical music.

Over the course of the next few years, as Chad’s interest in music increased and my mind opened up, I would be receptive to more and more possibilities around non-classical music. I could come to accept that at least some of it could be fun to listen to. But my stance on the artistic merit of it compared to classical music was still intact.

And then, sometime around my freshman or sophomore years in high school (it was over 20+ years ago so dates get fuzzy) Chad introduced me to Peter Gabriel’s solo work and made the case that here was someone that put real thought and gravity into his lyrics and music. The first album I ever heard of his was Security. Peter Gabriel’s lyrics are always deeply thought out and the encounter with Peter Gabriel would have deep and profound effect on me in many, many ways (again, for future posts). Here, the key thing is that Peter Gabriel convinced me that there could be intellectual and artistic merit to non-classical music, though I generally considered him to be the only one to merit that gravity and respect.

During the next couple of years, I would collect all of Peter Gabriel’s albums (and even use his haircut as a model for my own!). I would eventually come to understand that he had been the singer for Genesis before Phil Collins. But it was a real brain-cramp for me to understand how someone this smart and who thought so deeply about things could have been the singer for the band that was at that time fronted by someone inflicting Sussudio on the world at that time.

At some point, though, Chad started to tell me how “Old Genesis” was very different from what we were hearing now. He told me how when Peter Gabriel was part of the band, they would do concept albums with underlying themes and that Peter Gabriel would narrate, tell stories, play roles and be in costumes. Sometime during these talks, he introduced me to the phrase “progressive rock” to denote Old Genesis and other rock groups who were trying to make meaningful, mature music that had more in common with the classical tradition than with Sussudio.

Taking a chance, I went ahead at one point and bought a cassette of Nursery Cryme. As the tape started playing “The Musical Box”

and I heard the detailed guitar work, the flute, the lyrics with their echo of legend and myth, and a full story being told, I realized that there was something new here, something far more thoughtful than Sussudio.

I would continue my explorations, learning about King Crimson and collecting as much of their stuff and Old Genesis as I could lay my hands on, building a decent (though hardly complete) collection by the time of my freshman year at Oberlin. I even had bought a cheap keyboard off of Chad to take with me to school, with vague thoughts about composing music along the lines of Peter Gabriel, Old Genesis and King Crimson.

As my first semester at Oberlin came to a close, I finally got myself a copy of The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway at Sarge’s Records, the one record store in town. I bought it on vinyl, one of the last actual vinyl albums I would ever buy. I promptly recorded it over to cassette and added it to my walkman walking music around campus.

While an extremely odd album, I was in love with it nonetheless. Songs like Carpet Crawlers

and Anyway

had a certain lyrical quality and delicate quality that suited them well to the cold, snowy winters at Oberlin. Many was the time I would put the 120 minute tape in my walkman and walk, thinking about life and love now that I was nineteen and through my first semester of college and life on my own.

The coming twelve months would turn out to be hugely transformative for me. I would lose a friend I cared about deeply to suicide, see my last high school romance end (even though we carried it on while I was in college, it was still a high school romance), and start my first adult romance. I  shed my vague thoughts about pursuing music (going to a school with a professional quality conservatory will burn any such thoughts out of you quickly) and decided to make a shift in my path and follow my bliss (as Joseph Campbell would say) by becoming a comparative religion major (which itself was somewhat influenced by Peter Gabriel).

Another change was that this was actually the last new material from Old Genesis I bought: everything else I’ve gotten ever since has either been live albums, my replacing albums in new formats, or getting the post-Peter Gabriel albums that still had Steve Hackett on them (A Trick of the Tail and Wind & Wuthering which lack the lyrical depth but still are musically interesting and not yet the pop nightmare that would mark the Phil Collins era of Genesis). My period of progressive rock exploration would downshift in its importance for me after this.

Certainly, there were many other changes during those twelve months too: you grow up a lot fast those first couple of years of college.

By the time winter rolled around again the next year, my sophomore year, my natural sense of nostalgia returned and I found myself playing The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway once more to mark the changes of the year. I had a very real sense when listening to it of what had changed, of how late adolescence had closed and early adulthood had started somewhere in the intervening twelve months. The music was still wonderful, lovely, still had that winter quality I loved. But now, it wasn’t alive and vibrant like it had been: now it was rather a reminder, a museum piece.

Today, twenty two years later, more time has passed than I had been alive when I was listening to this and marking those changes. As I’m in the midst of changes in my life, as I have a very real sense that adulthood is becoming true middle age, I find myself listening, feeling the memories of those early freshman days, feeling the memories of those sophomore days, recalling the sense of nostalgia I felt that sophomore year for my freshman year and understanding now that I had no idea what the press of memory and nostalgia can really be like.

I still love this album, but it will always be a marker of the past, of two different selves that I can go back to when I want. But there are no more memories to be made with this album, it’s already carrying all the memory it possibly can.

The Fall

It has been some time since I’ve written and to say that much has happened is an understatement of the highest order.

At its simplest, I finally accomplished what I set out to do: I walked out of that poisonous, abusive, unhealthy work environment on my terms, my timeline, with my head held high, much love and support from friend inside and out, and no small amount of envy from those left behind.

For the past eleven days now, I’ve been coming to terms with the separation, learning what it is to not check e-mail every 30 minutes unless on vacation. Most of all, I’ve been recognizing that a number of issues I had when I was younger haven’t really gone away: they were just pushed to the back of the closet. When something takes up nearly 90% of the available space in your life and your mind, you shove a lot to the back of the closet.

I expected that what I feel now is what I would be feeling. In a way this reminds me of my skydiving experience. You’re falling from a great height, fast, the air is rushing loudly and feels like water, you’re thrilled and scared all at once, you’re flying and falling and so alive and could well be dead if it all goes wrong.

And then….

…you’re on the ground, it’s quiet, there’s no movement, no danger, no excitement, no sound. It’s just you, where you are, with what you have with you. That’s it.

I’ve been watching the scene in the new Galactica where Adama enters the boxing ring and fights well to a point, at which point the fight becomes just a beating, a punishment, something that shows how much he can take until finally, he can’t take any more. And then, he falls.

The idea of falling is very prominent in my mind as I grapple with the new reality. I have had to cope with the idea that I have fallen, that I had to leave that job because I took it until I couldn’t take any more.

I always said that the difference between a setback and a failure is whether you get up again. And I am determined to get up again and move on.

But first, I have to heal. First I have to gather my strength before I try to stand once more. But I will, and I will move on to new and better things.

For now though, I am taking stock of where I’ve landed, what I have and who I am. That last perhaps is the biggest thing to work out, because I am free for the first time of the conditioning and conforming expectations of others. And while that’s wonderful, it means that it’s up to me now to fill all that space myself that others were happy to fill for me.

Magister Ludens Irae

or: Master of the Game of Wrath (with tip of the hat to Herman Hesse’s Glass Bead Game)

I have been thinking rather a bit about my posting talking about how angry and resentful my work has made me.

It was one of those posts that was written quickly, driven by the energy of realization and the power of the underlying emotion realized.

It is in some ways one of the most open postings I’ve ever made. Unlike other postings about myself, it’s me showing something I’m not proud of or happy about. It’s me showing how my circumstances have made me other than I want to be. And that’s a very vulnerable thing. It’s natural after sharing something like that to have worry and regret: should I not have posted it, will people like me less now that they see this side of me.

But as I thought about that all, I realized that my feelings about this post is misdirected. The post only shows what’s already there. If I’m going to feel worry and regret about this at all, I should feel it for those feeling being there in the first place and not for talking about it.

And so it was that I found myself feeling worry and regret about the anger and resentment that I find in myself from work after the post.

But then I started to think about the post before that, The Game where I closed by saying:

So, yes, I do desire this all once more and innumerable times more. Yes, thank you, for all of it, I wouldn’t change a thing. Yes, I can’t wait to do it all again, and again, and again, and….

How can I say “yes” to what I had been thinking about in that earlier post and yet feel worry and regret about my work. Shouldn’t I be saying “yes” to what I’ve been through? Am I being a hypocrite?

Well, to a degree, yes, I was. Though more accurately, I would say that when I wrote Dies Irae I was still focused on the acknowledgement stage in coping. But having taken the thesis of Dies Irae and had it collide with the antithesis of The Game, I realize now there is a synthesis of the two pending. And I realize that synthesis is of critical importance for draining off the poison and the venom. For the synthesis is going and looking at this whole painful, damaging experience and learning how I am better for it, how the me that is emerging from it is so much more than I was before, for the better.

It’s not yet time for that. I need to close this chapter. But there will come a reckoning of what I’ve been through and out of that will, eventually, come the realizations of why I’m better for all that’s good and why I will say “yes” to that all again and again and again.

Dies Irae

The post title is taken from my favorite part of the requiem mass, the Dies Irae which translates as “Day of wrath” and is based on a twelfth century poem by Thomas of Celano that details the Apocalypse.

Yesterday was a dies irae for me. I had a rather stark and sobering realization. My work situation has deteriorated to such a degree that I am angry and resentful about it. I realized this as I was reading about the launch of a new product yesterday and realized that I was getting angry with some of the reviews of the product for not hating it. I realized that I’ve moved from being a morbid spectator watching the disaster that is this work to actively wanting and rooting for the disaster to be ever worse. I haven’t moved so far as to actively take steps to move the disaster along. But still, for me, this was a very stark and sobering and not pleasant realization.

I am now nearly a month past when I had planned to leave. And I still lack a clear exit date due to a number of factors. I know it will be no later than the winter holidays. But that’s still well over two months away and this clearly indicates that my mental health is worse than I’d realized.

It is interesting though, as I’ve turned the past couple of months into a bit of an self-administered psychology test, trying to carefully watch and catalog all of the bad aspects of my work and understand their impact on me.

For instance, I have come to learn that feeling overwhelmed is a killer for me. It makes me the most stressed and angry and unpleasant the most quickly of any sort of stimulus.

Boredom is also a killer for me and is something that I’m struggling desperately with even as I write this. Once I drop below a certain level of engagement and activity it becomes nearly impossible for me to do anything, really. I just sit and get progressively more low energy and ultimately depressed. Indeed, I find serious boredom to be far more physically and mentally draining than being being overworked.

I’ve also come to realize how merely being in this office affects negative changes on me. I recently had several days off and as soon as I was back in the office, I could feel how unhappy, frustrated and stressed I was by simply sitting at my desk.

But, realizing on top of that all how truly angry I am is a new insight. And now that I’ve realized it, I think I understand why I feel that way. It’s the way in which I’ve been treated with little regard, belittled, humiliated, told constantly how I’m wrong, and generally made to feel that all problems are my fault.

I am very angry. I am very resentful. But I am this way because of my circumstances. And in the end, I am changing my circumstances. And when I do, I will drain off the poison and venom they have pumped into me here, find the me I love once again, and resolve to never let anyone do this to me ever again.

p.s. In a fitting “cherry on the top”, I find that due to unknown networking issues here at work, I can’t easily publish this post from my editor but have to copy/paste from my editor into my browser. As my mother would say, some days you just can’t win for losing.