Thursday, July 29, 2010
The True Self
In retirement I’m again more easily able to get in touch with my true-self. Without the responsibilities of household, work and career life takes on a lighter more playful quality. In the 90’s I read a book called Silencing The Self, Women and Depression by Dana Jack. Her theory was that when the natural exuberance of the self comes out in young girls, it is often put down by the adults around them, at home, at school etc. Consequently it gets buried and covered over by a false persona. This leads to problems including depression and unresolved anger. I think this phenomenon happens to all children to a greater or lesser extent. Not only does our true-self get squashed by the adults in our lives, life experiences often produce disillusionment and consequently our enthusiasm for life gets lost along the way. When I worked as a counselor, I noticed that in an atmosphere of total acceptance and validation, some clients again feel safe enough to let their true-selves emerge.
When I was sorting through some old family slides, I ran across a picture of my self at about age 10 or 11. It was taken on a sunny, crisp fall day. I am standing next to my dog with my Daisy BB rifle in one hand gazing at some horses in a dry pasture. It was taken on a family outing at a farm in the Ozarks. At first I thought the reason I liked this picture was because of the way I was dressed. I am wearing a baseball cap with the bill curved just the way I liked it, a kid’s WWII bomber jacket with a fake fur collar, blue jeans and boots. I do like the clothes, but what really attracted me to the picture was I am closely reflecting my true-self. I loved wandering in the hills around this farm with my dog. Even though I carried my BB rifle, I wasn’t a hunter. It was more for the Daniel Boone feeling and effect. I did like shooting at old cans if I came upon one. You can tell by the picture that I am attuned to the natural world around me and feel happy and free.
On my desk is a picture of Ben, our son, who died at age 28. He has on one of his favorite baseball caps, an exact replica of an old St. Louis Cardinals team, and his long sleeve Navy Academy shirt. Over the shirt he is wearing farmers’ overalls with one of the shoulder straps falling away. He usually had one of them unhooked altogether because that was ”rad” at the time. I think he reluctantly hooked it for the picture. I questioned my choosing this picture for my desk instead of a more recent picture. After thinking about it, I realized that when he was the age of the picture, we still did a lot of things together. His parents weren’t totally “nerdy” yet and he enjoyed hanging with us. He was an integral part of the family at this time and contributed his creativity, humor and thoughtfulness to the group. I’m not saying there weren’t problems, there are with all kids, but at this age his true-self was less hidden.
At about this time we tried getting into baseball together. Neither of us had the time nor interest to watch many of the very long games, so instead we started collecting cards. We would spread them out in the living room and spend hours looking at them and reading the backs out loud to each other. At this time in the 80’s, they had just begun to market big league baseball hats for the general population. Ben and I loved the hats. We went back and forth on which big league hat we liked best. I finally settled on the Mets hat of the time because it was a combination of the old Brooklyn Dodgers(the blue color) and the New York Giants(the orange NY). Ben decided he liked the Texas Rangers hat best. One of his favorite players, Nolan Ryan, was on that team and he loved the big “T” on the front.
When he got older and things got more complicated, I loved to see his true-self shine through when we were together. He thoroughly enjoyed being with friends and family, especially his little nephews. He was playful, light and funny. There was an openness and excitement about life that came out in a gentle and loving way. That true-self is captured in the picture on my desk. After his death we discovered pictures his friends had put of him on their facebook and myspace pages on the internet. I see that light gentle spirit in these pictures too. This is what so many of his friends talked about at his memorial. One young man said what he really liked about Ben was when Ben introduced him to people, he would put his arm around his shoulder and refer to him as “my really good friend” and the young man said he knew that Ben meant it and it made him feel good.
I like to think that this true-self is our Spiritual nature and it is what goes on after the body dies. There was a great woman Saint from India named Anandamayi Ma. She was an Avatar, an enlightened person from birth. She stated that she would eternally be a young girl, and she lived into her 80’s. Even in old age she retained a childlike innocence and playfulness. The great religions tell us that to become enlightened, or to awaken to our true nature, or to enter the kingdom of Heaven, we must become as little children. Ben helped me get in touch with my more innocent playful side. I look forward to our true-selves being and playing together again.
Sunday, July 25, 2010
The Crumpled Karate Master
(This story is dedicated to Tom Tolliver a true Karate Master)
When our son, Ben, was six, he and I enrolled together in Taekwondo classes. Ben took to it right away. He had great flexibility and learned the moves fast. But, like his dad, he was not very aggressive and so we both needed help and encouragement when sparring. Taekwondo training requires students to do a lot of sparring and it definitely helps if one is aggressively competitive. At exhibitions Ben and I would demonstrate the forms along with the other students. Ben was often used as a model student to demonstrate flexibility. He could do a side kick way up above his head. To my surprise, I was used to demonstrate a spinning heel kick where I broke a board with my heel. Neither of us was ever used as examples in sparring.
Taekwondo is a regimented sport. The warm up exercises are always the same, the belt system has prescribed techniques and forms for each level and the students have to learn all aspects of the system to advance. The head instructor or Sabonim made sure all the kids had time to do their school work and could demonstrate passing grades by bringing in their report cards. The higher the belt, the more responsibility was given the student no matter what age. Neatness and cleanliness were the rule; uniforms were to be kept clean and pressed and belts properly tied. All equipment and clothing were stored in their proper place. Correct martial arts etiquette was expected of everyone, lower belts bowed to higher belts. When classes began, everyone lined up according to their rank, quickly and with no talking. Drills and exercises were performed by the Korean numbers with the students echoing the instructor. This particular Taekwondo studio or Dojang ran like a well oiled machine. The students were motivated, happy and proud.
I first noticed the Karate guy one day when I was stretching before class. He was in the corner talking to Sabonim. Our Sabonim was in superb shape, his uniform always neatly pressed and stark white. The Karate guy really stood out standing next to him. His belly bulged out so that the black belt around his waist angled down in front, his uniform was the color of old teeth and it was all wrinkly. He appeared to be in his 40’s or 50’s and was balding on top. During class Sabonim introduced him as a friend and a Karate Master. We were told he was some kind of champion fighter and would be helping out with sparring. I think a lot of us thought at the time, “Yeah right, this overweight frumpy looking guy.”
When my turn came to spar, I did a good job of blocking my opponent’s kicks and punches, but had trouble landing any of my own. Sabonim pulled me aside and said that Mister whatever his name was (the crumpled Karate guy) was going to help me. The Karate guy and I walked over to the corner of the room. He said he had watched me and could tell I had a lot of natural ability and some training, but that I was not staying grounded. He said I was so busy defending myself, I was missing many opportunities to score against my opponent. “You’re bouncing around out there losing your focus and doing all kinds of techniques that aren’t effective.” He said that when he learned to spar in Karate, he was only allowed to use one or two techniques. “I would hold my ground, wait for an opening and then execute my technique with total focus and complete dedication. If the technique was effective, the fight would immediately stop, and I would bow to my opponent.” And for emphasis he bowed to me as if I were his sparring partner, “My opponent would bow back.” I bowed to him, why not play along? “And only then would we resume the match.” Then he said something that has stuck with me all these years. “When you’re out there on the mat, sometimes you’re the teacher and sometimes you’re the student. Bowing to each other reminds us that students need to be grateful and teachers humble.” After being tutored by the crumpled Karate guy I never again had problems with competition or with the concept of winning and losing.
After our class was over I stayed to watch the black belt sparring class. I wanted to see this Karate guy in action. The Taekwondo black belts were good fighters; I’d watched them many times before. Sabonim made sure each black belt had a chance to spar with the Karate guy. By comparison, the black belts did a lot of bouncing and jumping around keeping a good distance between them and the Karate guy who just shuffled back and forth, easily blocking the kicks and punches that came at him. But then all of a sudden, he would shuffle in close to his opponent placing a punch, kick or push that usually sent the black belt tumbling to the mat. I couldn’t believe how fast this chubby guy could move. I watched as he patiently waited for the moment when the black belt was vulnerable and easily put off balance, usually when they were spinning, jumping and/or kicking. After a while I noticed the black belts began fighting differently. They looked a lot more grounded and focused and were careful not to take their eyes off the Karate guy for one second. And they stopped throwing those fancy kicks. I also noticed Sabonim standing on the sidelines enjoying the whole process.
Wednesday, July 21, 2010
In the dream I am a new employee at an office. It is a large room filled with people. I’m unclear as to what I’m supposed to do, so I begin asking questions of those around me. They all seem to know me and are glad I’ve come back. A young soldier named Jake comes into the room. He is on active duty and currently fighting in a war. He needs to report to someone the information that earlier today he killed 21 enemy soldiers. I recognize Jake as one of my former Marine clients from when I was a veterans’ counselor. I want to help him, so we go around together and ask several people in the room. We are told that the person he needs to give that information to is in the next room. Together we walk through the doorway and into the other room, a crowded noisy office also filled with people. I figure it must be dress up Friday because all the women and men have on traditional Arab head coverings. It looks like they put sheets on their heads held in place by headbands like hippies used to wear with the rest of the sheet flowing down their backs. The atmosphere is party-like. I can tell Jake is tired and just wants to give his information to the right person and then go get some sleep. I ask one of the women if she knows whom Jake should report to. She looks around and points across the room. She is laughing, reacting to something someone else said.. Jake has a blank tired stare in his eyes. We work our way to the other side of the room, but no one there knows who handles that kind of information. As the party continues, I see Jake leave by the side door. I assume he has given up and is heading back to his bunk to get some rest before having to go back out on another killing mission.
Dreams contain an abundance of symbolism relating to our personal histories. Often in my dreams there are 3 people or entities. One is the witness, who I identify as myself in the dream and who is watching the other opposing entities. The two opposing sides in this dream are Jake and the party people. There is a big difference or gap between them. The office workers are totally preoccupied with having fun in their dress-up Arab costumes. The office work seems secondary to the party. Jake doesn’t care about the party at all. He needs to find the right person to report his information to. He then needs to get some rest. But no one in the office can help him. In his numbed out exhausted way, Jake is totally focused on what he needs to do.
Jake is like so many of my former clients and represents a side of me that can’t relate to the general population because of the awful knowledge of the reality of war. He is still a soldier and has developed a way to live with the brutality in his daily life, but this reality is so far from the world of the office workers. They represent the civilian population and that side of me that wants to fit in and feels compelled to play the game. The office workers are oblivious to the reality of the awful information that Jake needs to report. To them it’s just a matter of his finding the right person to report to. In a strange way Jake has also reduced the awfulness of what he has done to a simple bureaucratic problem as well.
While the office people are having fun dressing up and playing like they are Arabs, Jake is doing their dirty work which they have very little interest in. One of my Korean veteran clients used to say the Marines turned him into a killer monkey. This way of being changed him forever and set him apart from the general population. He knew that he could never again feel that he is a part of society. He wasn’t suicidal, but said many times the only way out of this dilemma was death. Many war veterans harbor a deep sense of guilt, not necessarily for their personal behavior, but for participating in the awfulness of war. They can never again be who they used to be. And what they have done and experienced can’t really be understood by the general population.
When I returned from Vietnam in 1968, I had trouble relating to people. I felt like I didn’t belong. For a time I concluded that in some ways being in the war made more sense than being in the civilian world. But I hated the war and being a soldier, so I tried to join the Merchant Marines. There was a long waiting list. I entered college instead. I remember those first days and weeks after returning home. The people on the street all looked distracted and in a hurry. They seemed obsessed with things and activities that to my mind were of absolutely no consequence. If I related one of my experiences from the war to a fellow student, chances are they might say it reminded them of a show they saw on TV or ask me how many people I killed or they might try to enlighten me about their political beliefs, but very few people knew how to listen to the kinds of experiences I needed to talk about. I also felt that no one really wanted to hear about it anyway. It made them uncomfortable.
I went to the college counseling center and the psychologist put me in a Gestalt therapy group with other students. There were no other veterans in the group. We worked on our dreams. The recurring dream I shared was that there were people with guns who were after me, trying to kill me. I was constantly running in fear for my life. After I was caught and the person was standing over me with a gun to my head ready to pull the trigger, I would wake up in a cold sweat. The group leader asked me to become the person with the gun and go around the room threatening to blow the heads off the other members. I attempted to do this, but after the first one, I broke down and started sobbing. The group didn’t know how to handle this and I was told to go back to my seat. They gave me a little time to compose myself and then went on to next person’s dream. I didn’t go back to the group after that. The psychologist who led the group had no idea how to help a veteran. The group was not veteran friendly; in fact to many students veterans represented the government and the war machine that most were protesting against. I never could figure that one out. At this time in history most soldiers were forced into service by the draft. I would much rather have stayed home and joined the party. I probably would have even dressed up on Fridays.
Jake is able to survive because he is still a working soldier. He still has structure and purpose. He knows that the office people could be killer monkeys just like him, but the office workers don’t know that and probably would deny it if it were suggested to them. We all have the potential to be either the assailant or the victim, the hero or the coward, the saint or the sinner. Jake can never join in on the party. All he can do is give his report like a good soldier and then go get some rest so that he can continue to function as an alert, reactive, killer monkey. The office people put on their costumes and play the game of life, trying to have a good time, pretending that suffering, death, and cruelty don’t really exist.
There is wisdom on both sides and desperate aloneness too. Carl Jung advises us to become aware of each side of our nature and work to integrate them. I need Jake to help me focus on what is real and do what needs to be done. But I also need the office people to help me live a more connected and carefree life.
Friday, July 16, 2010
Halleluiah, The Monsoons Are Here
Finally after weeks of excruciatingly hot weather, the monsoon thunderstorms arrived the other day. We watched and waited in anticipation , peering out the windows of our closed up air conditioned condo. Large single well-spaced drops began bouncing and sizzling on the concrete. Tree Leaves nodded up and down and the birds vacated our bird feeder. The sound started to build. Those big heavy storm clouds that have been teasing us for weeks, lumbered overhead and like B-52 bombers, dropped their payload on a grateful desert and its dwellers. We flung open all the doors and windows, went outside and sat under the eve of our patio to experience the show first hand. The hard falling rain drowned out all other sounds except for the occasional rumble and smack of thunder. Neighbors began to appear, some we haven’t seen in weeks. The thin little old lady who lives directly behind us appeared from her back door, still in her housedress and slippers, walked right out into the downpour, turned her face toward the sky, opened her arms, and in a high pitched screech hollered “Halleluiah!”. She gave all of us neighbors a big toothless smile and then returned to her tightly closed up condo.
Sheltered from the muggy heat, we again wait for the next well deserved summer soaking.
Saturday, July 10, 2010
Stumbling Into Paradise
To understand why Port Bou was so wonderful, I need to give a little background. When we stumbled off the train into that small border town by the bay, we were probably about a month or more into our trip. We definitely had had many wonderful moments up until this time, but there was a frenzied, pushing ahead and seeking quality about our travels and this lifted after we reached Port Bou. It wasn’t quite as dramatic as being lost in the desert and finally stumbling upon an oasis, but that’s the quality I’m talking about.
Amsterdam was a beautiful place with old buildings and canals, but for Paul and me, it just wasn’t our scene. It was crawling with young people from all over; most were ecstatic about the abundance of marijuana and hashish. As a Vietnam Veteran I didn’t feel comfortable around groups of people and once it was known I was an ex-soldier, I often didn’t feel welcomed anyway. At that time, Europeans associated Americans with the war. More than one young American traveler talked about putting the Canadian flag on their back packs just to reduce the hassles. In general, however, the locals were gracious to Paul and me.
We walked around Amsterdam looking at the canals and beautiful buildings, and wandered into the red light district where prostitutes sat in picture windows hiding their boredom by trying to look seductive. We weren’t tempted. I felt sad for the young women who were caught in this lifestyle.
And then an obnoxious guy named Cliff took a liking to us. He decided he wanted us to become a threesome. We couldn’t get rid of the guy. He was traveling alone, and we were hesitant to hurt his feelings. We felt sorry for him and probably even identified with him a little as well. Sorry or not, we decided he wasn’t our responsibility and wasn’t going to ruin our trip, so one of us had to step up to the plate and confront him. I don’t know whether we flipped a coin or what, but I ended up doing the deed. Cliff got angry and hurt, as expected, but we were glad to be rid of him and the guilt passed quickly. The weather in northern Europe had been overcast and cool much of the time which helped us make our next big decision which was to head straight south for the sunny, warm beaches of the Mediterranean.
We rode the train nonstop to Paris, and only spent one night there. We knew we would be returning at the end of our trip, and besides, we were pushing ahead to the beaches and the bikini clad babes we knew were on them. The French trains were fast, smooth and comfortable. We were making excellent time, but then we crossed over into Spain, switched to a Spanish train and everything slowed to an excruciating pace. The Spanish trains were not only slow, but were noisy and uncomfortable. We had planned to go all the way to Portugal, but only made it as far as Alicante, a sea side town about halfway between the French and Portuguese border. We got stuck in Barcelona on the way, spending one night shivering on a park bench. There were absolutely no available accommodations.
Not wanting to extend our time traveling on Spanish trains, we turned around and began heading back up the coast. Many of our fellow travelers were going north to Pamplona and the running of the bulls. We could imagine ourselves being trampled. Besides we thought we needed to get out of Spain. We were still in the pushing ahead mode and searching for who knows what. We headed back toward France along the sea-coast the train slowly crawling along. When we got to the border, bone weary from travel, we hefted our back packs, exited the train and wandered down into the Spanish border town of Port Bou.
Located in a Spanish town on the border of France, the hotel specifically tried to attract and cater to French travelers. The signs were in French first, then English and then Spanish. Right around the corner from the hotel was a French ice cream cart. We became regular customers, I remember specifically being fond of the glace’ au chocolat.
In the morning we were awakened by the sound of canaries. The locals placed cages out on their patios early in the mornings. The birds seemed to be talking to each other and welcoming the new day. There wasn’t much to do in Port Bou, but after our previous time of dashing about, we allowed ourselves to be seduced into the state of just being. We hiked the surrounding hills, sat in the hotel reading or hung out at one of the local cafés. On our final evening at dinner, we were joined by two attractive French girls. Neither of them spoke much English and as they struggled to communicate with us, Paul and I were smitten. I knew a little French and we spent the evening eating slowly, sipping wine, laughing and flirting until it was time to turn in--very European. We all knew this one evening in the café courtyard would be the extent of the relationship. In the morning they were headed to Madrid and we were taking off for Nice and the French Riviera, so we savored our evening together.
As Paul and I continued our travels around Europe, we hoped we would run into them again, but we didn’t. We did, however, run into Cliff again in Rome.
Saturday, July 3, 2010
We Paused Five Minutes To Watch A Race
I can't say that I knew him. The U of O was a big school, but I'd seen him around campus. On a few occasions I’d even sat up in the stands and chanted “Pre! Pre! Pre!” with the rest of the crazed fans as he took his signature victory lap. Everyone knew he loved his celebrity status. Some said you either loved him or hated him. To me he was similar to Muhammad Ali. I was initially repelled by Cassius Clay’s large ego, but once I saw him fight, I was hooked. When Pre ran he was all guts, heart and charisma. I had to love the guy. Besides he was our guy at the U of O.
One afternoon he came into the men's sauna when I was in there relaxing after a work out. He was handsome, in a California beach boyish sort of way. His hair was long and bleached by the sun and he had a dark well-earned tan. His body was thin, but muscular. He definitely had the world by the tail. I generally don't last too long in the sauna, but on this day, I forced myself to endure. I guess I wanted to be around him a little longer. He was talking to a couple guys. I can't remember what he was saying, nothing of any consequence. He talked fast, all the while performing pushups, sit-ups and all manner of exercises. It was so damned hot in the sauna, I thought he deserved some kind of medal just for this exuberant display of calisthenics in the intense heat.
Dave Wottle had won the gold medal for 800 meter race at the ’72 Olympics. I remember watching it on TV. He held back throughout the entire run and as the pack rounded the last bend, this goofy looking guy in a baseball cap came out of nowhere and flew past all the other runners. And it was at Hayward Field on this very track that Wottle set the world record for the 800 meters at the Olympic trials, again holding back and then winning in the last few seconds. He had one hell of a final kick.
Prefontaine did not usually compete in the shorter length races, but was a master strategist in the longer ones. Time and time again I watched him pull ahead of the pack early and set a pace that would totally wear down his opponents. Most races he crossed the finish line alone well ahead of the other runners. He could push himself to the edge of pain and exhaustion and sustain it with sheer will power longer than anyone else.
I have since read an interview with Wottle. He said that two weeks before this first Hayward Field Restoration Meet, Pre had gotten the idea of their both going for the mile record and invited Dave to Oregon to compete. Pre told him that he would bring him around to the beginning of the final lap at a world record pace of 2 minutes and 56 seconds. Then after that, each man was on his own.
I think I was in love that summer, so stumbling upon this race just moments before the starting gun fired did not seem like just a lucky coincidence. You know how that is, for a while anyway the world becomes a magical place. We had spent the morning studying and sitting out in the warm Oregon sun and felt like we needed to move around a bit, so we were headed over to Mama’s to sit there for a while. But there we stood for just a few minutes looking through the chain link fence at the row of runners shaking their arms and legs in preparation for the race. Prefontaine’s golden hair shone in the sunlight like a crown and Wottle's baseball cap didn’t look goofy anymore. I guess Olympic champions can wear whatever they want. The gun fired and as expected, Prefontaine took off at a grueling pace leaving the rest of the runners behind. The fans were ecstatic as their hero once again ruled the track with flare and determination. He stayed in front of the pack until rounding the final bend, when Wottle made his move with that amazing reserve of energy that won him Olympic gold. He closed the gap and just before the finish line, passed Prefontaine. The historic showdown was over. As the rest of the runners crossed the line, there was clapping, but the anticipated roar of the crowd didn't happen. Neither runner set the world record that day, but both Wattle and Prefontaine ran their own personal best mile; Wottle in 3.53.3 and Pre in 3.54.6, just 1.3 seconds behind. When they came around to the beginning of lap 4 they were clocked at exactly 2.56 minutes as Pre had promised. This race placed Prefontaine at 6th fastest miler in the world. Wottle is quoted later as saying about his friend and this race, “Not bad for a 5,000 meter guy.” The next year at this same meet Pre would beat Frank Shorter in the 3 mile race and set an American record. By the following year he would be dead and the meet’s name changed to the Nike/Prefontaine Classic.
My girlfriend and I didn't wait around after the race. There would be no victory lap by our local hero. The sun was hot and we knew it would be cool at Mamma's where we could get a couple of iced coffees.