Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Slurping Slushies by the Seashore- Finding Meaning in the Meaningless

It is really easy to find meaning in powerful words or images. Every day we are bombarded with information whether it be on television, radio, newspaper, internet blog, water cooler gossip… or by our own wander through life.

We are often told to stop and smell the roses, coffee, whatever. Slow down. Life is what happens when waiting for something else to come along, etc. ad naseum.

To a large extent 95% of our days are just routine. Of that time spent in routine, I would hazard a guess based on my own experience that 99% of the 95% goes by with nothing worth remembering happening. It is no wonder then that it takes something happening outside of our own life to spark our attention.

The entire news and entertainment industry is successful solely because we are drawn to things that snap us out of our routine existence.

The domination of stimulating our minds by seeking out the fortunes and misfortunes of others has created a large dull section in our brains. We want and need to be told of other people’s “big stories” to have something...anything to think about except what we want for dinner. We regard out own lives as unthinkable. Not in a too bad to contemplate sense but unthinkable in the not worthy of thinking about sense.

Hearing, the old adage “don’t sweat the small stuff, because it is all small stuff” makes us pause briefly, ponder its truth for a second, then move on to the next big thing, like making sure we hit the brakes at a red light so we don’t plow into the car in front of us while we are lost in thought. If we paused for a more than a second (say 20 seconds at the red light waiting impatiently for it to turn green because we are late for an appointment) and got our mental arms around this adage we would reflect longer on the universal truth to this statement and cause the person behind us to honk their horn.

What is a beach? Seriously… define a beach. (pause tape here)
My definition of a beach is: ______________________________________

Finished? You probably defined a beach by recalling mental images of your most memorable experiences at the beach. Warm days frolicking in the surf. Getting broiled by the sun. Watching hunks or babes getting broiled. Drinking beer and boogie boarding with your buds. Digging a big hole, throwing your little sister into it and covering her up to her neck in sand. Making love by the moonlight. Sunrises at the beginning of vacation and sunsets at the end. Solitary sitting on a wind swept dune. Sipping slushies at a tiki bar. You get the picture.

Yes, you get the picture. A mental image of events that you experienced at the beach. But my question was, “what is a beach?” A scientist would have a different definition than a tourist. A scientist would say that a beach is a type of earth comprised of jillions of rock and shell particles that have been deposited on the edge of a land mass by the action of the waves ( or something like that.. I am not a scientist so I am just making up what I think a scientist would say).

Where is the mental stimulation of that definition? Yet, if it wasn’t for the zillion grains of sand piled on top of each other, we wouldn’t have a physical beach to sip a slushie on. The point is, we think of the beach as a memorable event, not a stretch of pulverized rock.

Our personal beach is made up of goobillions of grains of daily experiences. While squishing our toes through life’s granules, we occasion upon items that draw our attention. We might find something that pleases us like a nice seashell, a pretty babe (or hunk, to keep this gender neutral)(Okay a hunky babe to really be gender neutral!). Or we might find something that disgusts us (like a dead whale), saddens us (like a dead whale), or even hurts us (falling into a big hole some kid dug to throw his sister into). The total beach itself does not draw our specific interest except that it acts landing place for life's notes in a bottle. Yet, we talk about going to the beach, not we visited a stretch of land by the ocean made up of gazillions of pulverized rock particles.

I guess you know where I am going with this. We need to pay more attention to the everyday, mundane, taken for granted minutia of our lives. Well, yes I am going there, but if we paused to examine every grain of sand in our lives, we would never get to the tiki bar. Our brains are obligated to record and respond to every second of every minute of every hour of our lives. Thankfully it sifts out all but the significant events and lets the rest settle into the cull pile of forgotten time.

The upside is we don’t have to sift through tons of meaningless beach to walk through life. We just keep the pretty sifted shells and avoid the dead whales. The downside is we allow the holes in the sifter to get bigger and bigger until we let some meaningful moments fall through. If the holes become large enough, almost every pretty shell ends up in the cull pile and we avoid the dead whales because they are too disgusting to be around, not to mention how big the sifter would have to be to deal with them. Then our lives consist of only the cull pile and the meaningless is so mixed up with the meaningful we become coverd by a dune of despair, not knowing what life is all about.

When we are frantically sifting sand and finding no seashells, we find tired old clichés like “stop and smell the coffee" meaningful. But even then it is only for a second (especially if it is that stinky old dead whale). Then it is back to shaking the holey sifter and I don’t mean this in a theological sense… but it does apply sometimes. Hmm, I’ll have to stop and think about this (pause tape here)

Where was I? Something about shapely Shirley sullenly sifting shells and slurping a slushie down by the seashore. Shirley was sullen because she only sifted seven seashells and considered the day at the beach a wash. But, she was creating quite a nice pile of sand under her sifter.

Shortly shapely Shirley saw shabby Shawn sitting sorely in sandy shorts near the surf. Shawn was sore because the sand in his shorts chafed his bruised butt he bonked while boogie boarding.

Sullen Shirley sauntered over to sore Shawn to see if he had any seashells she could sift. Shawn said he didn’t have any siftable sheashells with him, but he had some back at his shack. Sullen Shirley was no shill and gave Sore Shawn the short shrift when Shawn showed Shirley his sore spot in his sandy shorts. Shirley, shocked by Shawn’s schtick, showered Shawn with her slushie and they fell in love.

Life lesson: It is short-sighted to shunt sullen seashore sifting or sandy short sores.

a robservation

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Squeezable Ketchup* – These are the good ‘ole days

What is the most important invention since sliced bread? The squeezable ketchup bottle, of course. Or is it?

We like squeezable ketchup because we like our French fries hot. One quick squeeze and the fries are doused, ready for munching. We don’t have time to wait for the red guck to glug out of a glass bottle anymore.

The classic TV commercials for Heinz (or was it Hunts) played the Carole King song “Anticipation” while showing ketchup moving with agonizing slowness down the neck of a glass ketchup bottle.

what made that commercial work was sticking together a feel good song and taste good condiment which made us forget the hassle of getting ketchup onto fries in a timely manner by a fault in condiment container design and implementation. It wasn’t a problem of lack of technology. You could go into a restaurant and squeeze your ketchup (and mustard) from a plastic bottle that the waitresses would slowly fill every morning from the original glass bottle. Let her wait, I want it now! It took the cold fries of some ketchup container engineer to eliminate the waitress and sell ketchup in a squeezable plastic bottle. Eliminate the wait. Clean your plate. No time to hesitate.

If ketchup, mustard, mayonnaise (yuck) and even grape jelly are available in such quick and easy to use squeeze bottles why would they even to bother selling glass bottles of the stuff? It goes back to Carole King’s song, "Anticipation". Even in our hurry up I need it now lives we still like to anticipate some things. Take Christmas for example. We wait all year for Holloween to hurry up and get over with (unless you are a pagan) so we can get on with anticipating the arrival of Christmas. We order junk we don’t need through catalogs, the internet or on TV so we can anticipate its arrival in a box on our doorstep.

Usually the anticipation of something feels better than the actual item or event. We anticipate the new 52" high definition plasma TV Aunt Martha is going to give us for Christmas, but we get socks instead. We long for the arrival of the E-bay auction only to find that Elvis' gold ring is actually Elva's old bling. There are, of course, exceptions. For Christians, being in heaven is far better than the anticipation of it. If you are sick, being well is better than getting well.

When we are obliged to wait we make of it what we can, but when we have a choice, why wait, even if we are sentimental about 70’s love ballads. Getting ketchup onto our fries leaves us options. Why would I choose to wait for ketchup to slowly sludge its way from a glass bottle when I have the choice to take a shortcut with a quick squeeze?

Waiting can have its own mental benefits, even if we don't always have the choice. If you obsess about your fries getting cold while shaking a bottle, then anticipation is detrimental to your mental health. If, however, you enjoy the time you spend waiting on Christmas relishing how happy your nephew will be with a new 52” plasma TV you are mentally healthy.

Given a choice between enjoying the wait and can’t wait to get it over, most people choose to get it over with quickly and lose out on any missed benefits of embracing the wait. Take for instance revenge. Revenge is a dish best served cold, is it not? How about getting old? We can’t avoid it, but aging gracefully is better than worrying about something we can’t avoid… (unless we burn up before we burn out) but that takes me off the subject… as if I was sticking to the subject anyway!

But sticking to the subject, or sticking to the bottle in this case, is really what sticking it out it is all about. Carole King says, “Anticipation, is making me late, is keeping me wai-ai-aiting”. Ketchup stuck in a bottle is making me wait. FedEx is making me wait (but not more than 24 hours). Christmas is December 25th, not tomorrow (unless it is Dec. 24th and then it still seems like it takes forever to get here).

But, good old Carol has obviously spent some time with French fries and put her sticking time to good philosophical use when she finished the song with,
“And tomorrow, we might not be together
I'm no prophet, Lord I don't know nature's ways
So I'll try and see into your eyes right now
And stay right here, 'cause these are the good old days”.

So, the next time I am sticking it to my ketchup bottle by pounding on the little Heinz logo on the neck of the bottle to make it flow faster like the urban legend contends, I will let my fries cool a little and anticipate the virtue of sticking it out.

A Robservation

* The word ketchup comes from the Chinese kêtsiap, meaning a fermented fish sauce, probably via the Malay word kechap, now spelled kecap, which means soy sauce. The word was brought back to Europe by Dutch traders who also brought the oriental sauce itself.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

My Bathtub Drain - Life Lessons Learned

I live in an old house, with old plumbing. So, I accept certain things like drains running slowly. No amount of plunging, cussing or caustic cleaners has cleared my pipes enough to let my bathtub drain completely at the end of a shower. There is always a pool of water and soap froth left in the tub. The water eventually recedes like the tide, but the soap sludge accumulates creating a high water mark of muck and discarded beer cans (just kidding about the beer cans).

This has not been a problem for me since I am the only one who uses the shower and I didn’t really care about the soapy tide line around the tub that revealed my bachelor liaise-faire attitude between cleanings (which, of course, is a semi-annual event).

Recently I placed my house up for sale. This meant I had to keep it spotless; as if I didn’t actually live there. I have become my own hotel maid. Every morning before I leave home I have to make sure it looks like no-one lives here. Potential buyers would not feel my slovenly presence and thus could dream about making the house their own free from the wreak and dross I have tainted it with. (Hey, I was able to use the word dross in a sentence not related to a church hymn!). Forbid it that I should burst their bubble of delicious soapy showers free of corroded pipe induced soap sludge trauma.

Keeping the bathtub dross free (yet another dross!!) was just one hassle. At the end of a shower I had to impatiently wait while the water waited to trickle down the congested pipes like people queuing for relief after a hurricane. Then I had to wipe up the residual soap foam with my towel to make the tub spotless again. (Another issue was what to do with the wet towel. I couldn’t leave it hanging over my shower rod as usual, so I resorted to folding it back up, wet, and sticking it back in my newly neat and orderly linen closet).

I imagine that you, like me, have a showering ritual/habit. Some may wash their hair first and the body second. Others do the opposite. And others have rituals that I do not care to conjure up in my mind.

My ritual is hair first, body second. Don’t ask me why. It is like different ways of tying shoes or putting on pants or shirt first. Each person has their own automatic way of doing everyday things.

Yesterday, in one of my many shower inspired world saving ideas, I came up with another plan. Instead of washing my hair first, I decided to wash it second. Don’t ask me why. You might as well ask a mouse why it turned left, not right in a maze after 3,000 right turns. It just happened.

After finishing my new shift in showering order and turning off the spigot, I glanced down and saw only water waiting to leave the building. There was no soap bubble meringue left. “Hey”, I exclaimed to no one but the cat, who was somewhere else in the house. “I don’t have to wipe out the tub this morning!”

Upon careful analysis of my ritual reversal I determined that my shampoo left less foam in the tub than my ocean breeze scented body wash did. Plus, the act of rinsing my hair (which, by scientific shower head placement) occurred directly over the drain which broke up the soap slag and left only water to meander down the semi-clogged pipes.

The simple act of reversing my habit solved one of my house selling problems.

Life lesson? I need to examine my rituals and habits from time to time. By simply re-arranging the order by which I habitually do things, I may be able to solve a problem without resorting to throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Maybe tomorrow I can figure out how to dry off with a towel without getting it wet…

A Robservation

Monday, January 09, 2006

Moving Out, Moving In, Moving On

Moving Out, Moving In, Moving On

-Moving Out-

Moving out of a house is easier than moving into one, or so it seems. Just reverse the process. Instead of unpacking boxes, pack them. Wad it all up and cram it into generically labeled boxes like LR, DR, BR, etc. and figure that I will actually remember what items are in which box. The goal is to get it all boxed so the movers, who get paid by the hour, will efficiently and cheaply transfer my belongings to their new destination.

As the movers unloaded the boxes into the new house reality set in. Boxes started getting stacked on top of each other in the pre-designated rooms. As the rooms filled up to the point I couldn’t get into them I decided that it would be better to just pile most of them in the big empty garage and sort it out later.

Before the move I had good intentions of having a mammoth moving sale to whittle down all the years of accumulated stuff. Since much of it is the dander and memories of my path through life and not things that someone else would actually want to buy, I just put it off dealing with it until the 11th hour. Panic set in and I figured, what the hell, I’ll just move it and hold a moving in sale later.

When I moved out (like most people) I had more stuff than when I moved in. When I moved to Tallahassee in 1976 all I had was the bicycle I rode in on and a pack of clothes strapped to it. Eight years later when I left Tallahassee for Birmingham it took an 18’ U-haul truck to get my stuff moved. When I moved from my first house in Birmingham to my new house 13 years later it took two 24’ moving trucks to get all the major stuff transferred plus 3 loads of miscellaneous dross in my Tahoe. As I wandered around the mainly empty house on my second day of grabbing the things I hadn’t put in boxes for the movers I thought, “hey, I can get this crap into my Tahoe with room to spare".

-Moving In-

Well, this is a photo of my last load. As you can see there was only enough room for me to squeeze into the drivers seat, and maybe room for just a wafer thin mint. (see photo)

Bring me a bucket! I am going to throw up from all the crumbs of “I might need that someday” fodder I have filled my house’s gut with over the years.

My story is not unique. It is repeated by countless other material possession addicts everyday. I promised myself that I would stop. My new house is already full of boxes of things from my past life that lay forgotten and useless until I had to cart it all to my new house and will probably stay forgotten and useless unless I stick my finger down my throat and purge them.

As I pondered how quickly my new house’s voluminous 2 car garage filled up with my old life’s cling-ons, I drove by a shopping center and the lure of the buy something stimulant came rushing in and I told myself that I would just look around. After all, I have a new house and a new house needs new stuff. No harm looking around for something I might need. The storefronts lured me with their windows displaying the new life and new times I could have if I just owned a new (fill in the blank). I thought back to all the trouble I got myself into and how hard it was to withdraw from the last 13 years of buying binges I went on. But this time it is different. This time I really needed (fill in the blank). I could handle it.

No, I told myself, even as I was drawn closer to the door. I don’t have to have (fill in the blank). I already have 2 of them at home, someplace. But, I don’t have a green one. Besides, the green one in the window is new and my blue one didn’t really go with the yellow one I already had.

Before I knew it I am clutching the green one in my hand. Reaching into my pocket for my credit card, the clerk gives me a suspicious look. Did she know of my problem? Did I look like an addict? My head spun with guilt. I overcame my hesitation to indulge by rationalizing that this one would be the last one I would buy. I swiped my card, signed my contract to pay and slinked out of the store like a trick leaves a brothel.

Back at my new house I stumbled through the maze of still unpacked boxes and pushed aside a pile of newspaper wrapped bri-a-brac on a table to unwrap my new purchase. Ahhh, the green one. Its siren song lured me to hold it up and drink in the warm feeling of a new purchase. I wanted to feel the warm burn in my gut. But something stopped me. I wondered if the new green one would go with my old yellow one. Where is that box I put it?? I frantically rummaged through box after box. The labels blurred. DR, LR, BR… where was it? Finally, frustrated from my furtive search I plopped wearily into my big boy recliner to think. Maybe I put it into the miscellaneous junk box. No, I remembered specifically hanging onto the yellow one when I was packing and pondering whether to toss it or pack it. But I couldn’t remember my decision. What did I do with the blue one? Why wasn’t it with the yellow one? There was so much stuff to decide on and the movers were just over the horizon.

Oh well. Now I had a green one. I didn’t need the yellow one, or the blue one anymore. I got up and walked over to the table where the green one beckoned me. I picked it up to admire it when it hit me. I remembered that I tossed the yellow one because the blue one was busted and both of them held bad memories and tough times that I wanted to forget about. In my new house I wanted to get a fresh start, a new life, new memories, better times.

I looked down at my new green (fill in the blank). It didn’t look as pretty as it did in the store. Why did I even buy it? It was just like the other ones but a different color. I look around at all the other boxes that surround me. The stack seemed to get higher, closing in on me, stifling me.

What had I done!? Nothing has changed, except my location. All I have done is transfer my old life into my new one. I was afraid this might happen. Before I moved, I projected that a change in latitudes may not bring about a change in attitudes. Dejected about my realization I decided to take a shower to clear my head. As I took off my clothes in my new bedroom I glanced out the expansive windows and saw a panoramic vista of woods and mountains. Much nicer than the dismal view of the alley at my old house. I began to throw my clothes on the floor like I did in my dingy old house. Then I looked at my big, new, light filled bedroom and flashed back to how depressed I felt every time I walked through the musty darkness of my old house. Throwing clothes on the floor and watching dust bunnies scamper around only seemed natural and added to the dismal decrepit aura I had created living there.

-Moving Ahead-

In mid sock toss it hits me. I don’t have to feel that way anymore! I can actually walk around my bed without hitting the walls. Now I can make my bed without banging my shins on the bed frame which means I might actually make my bed instead of leaving it a rumpled heap. The dust bunnies won’t have a chance to breed since I can actually run the vacuum cleaner without snagging the cord on my chest of drawers which are now across the room and not crowding the foot of my bed. The dreary closed in feeling dissipated like clouds revealing the sun after a storm. I throw my clothes into the previously un-used laundry hamper, drift over the soft, warm carpet into my new bathroom and turn on my new high velocity shower head in my new sparkling white shower stall and not the old rust stained tub with its drizzly spit spigot of my old one. As the steam envelopes me, I reflect on how much different it feels to be in a new latitude. The shower spray is hot and strong. The drain actually drains. My faucets don’t leak. I have an expansive vanity with 2 sinks (though I have no use for 2 sinks it feels good that if I get lucky and snag a gorgeous loving mate she would have her own sink and places to put her lotions and potions).

I get dressed, I am feeling invigorated. I walk into the kitchen to make some dinner. My new refrigerator is not full of 6 month old food (well to be truthful some of my old fridge contents were becoming vintage, and I am not talking about wine). I can dispense filtered water and ice by merely pushing my glass into the fridge door. "Iced tea anyone? Would you like your ice cubed or crushed? No, no problem. All I have to do is push this button." I relish the feeling of opening the silverware drawer that actually glides open and closes without a shove. I have plenty of new un-cluttered cabinets. Maybe now I won’t have the convenient excuse to just stack all the plates in the sink because I don’t have a place to put them. My oven is clean and even programmable. No more pulling out pizzas that are charred and smell more like burned food than bubbly cheese. I actually have a vent hood over my stove that sucks in all the smoke from cooking a steak and doesn't let the whole house fill with smoke to the point that I had to disable the smoke alarm in the old house. Now I have a garbage disposal so I don’t have to scrape the dishes clean before placing them into a new dishwasher. One more incentive to keep dirty plates from piling up because it was too much of a hassle to wash them.

I am getting excited. I decide to wash some clothes. In my old house I put off doing laundry because it meant dangerously carrying a heaping armload of wash down my steep, not built to code, stairs into the dungeon I called a basement. Now, all I have to do is carry it 10 feet from the bedroom to the laundry room. Maybe now I won’t go out and buy new underwear just because it was too much of a hassle to get to the washing machine.

As I carry my dinner into the living room I once again look out the windows to the vista outside as the sun paints the horizon purple as it travels West. I plop down in my big boy chair feeling rejuvenated. Yeah, I still got a lot of old crap in boxes still laying around me, but now it doesn’t seem as if I am just a stumbling bum weaving wayward with a shopping cart full of cast offs . I’ll get to it later with a new attitude about holding on to my past life as I toss the majority of the baggage I brought with me into the dumpster.

For now, I am just going to relax and wrap myself into my new attitude. I turn on the TV and settle in. I forget about the new green thing still lying on the table. Now I am staring at my 7 year old 27” TV and thinking about how nice it would be to have a 42” plasma screen to get lost in.

The cycle continues…