17 October, 2011

A cow, a dollar bill, and a memory of the past

A red wooden pedestal, measures approximately 2.5" x 1.25" x 0.5". Rising up from the pedestal is a thin red post, about an eighth of an inch in diameter, and 3" tall. Atop the post, a quarter-inch thick wooden cow, white with brown spots, black eyes and hooves, and a black nose. Skewered by the red wooden post, a single dollar bill. It's upside-down, so I cannot see the vintage. But if I lift it up, and examine the other side, it reads L-series (meaning it is from the San Francisco Mint), serial number L86314752M. Series 1995. Robert Rubin was the U.S. Treasurer at the time. But this is not the first dollar bill to grace this ornamental and sentimental object that I have had in my possession for 25 years, and about 5 months. The first dollar bill to grace the cow remained in its throne from 1986 until sometime, I would estimate, in early-1998. The one that is presently in its place has likely been there since. And there's a story behind that, but I'll come back to it.

The "Cow and a Dollar Bill" (as I have always referred to it) came into my hands from my sister, when I was in the hospital, recovering from minor surgery that had been the result of a car accident. It was just a silly gift. That's the kind of person my sister was. Funny, random, clever, sarcastic. It was not something that necessarily needed to have any significant meaning, but it ended up having very significant meaning because I attached the meaning to it. I am not sure if the cow traveled with me to college, or if it remained in my bedroom at home. It's been too long for me to remember. But the cow traveled with me to Seattle, where it now sits in front of me.

So why did it have so much meaning? Well, the events that wound me up in the hospital, which I will not share here because they're not really relevant to the story at hand, led me to do some existential and philosophical pondering about truth, honesty, life, and the importance of many things. Somehow, because the cow and its dollar bill showed up in this time window, I ended up making a proclamation: The day I need to use that dollar bill is the day that I know that things have become really bad. Or, the flip side, I'm never going to use that dollar bill, but I'm going to keep it right there on this cow, as a reminder of what it is like to not be in need, and to keep the entire ornament with me everywhere I go, as a reminder of the same.

Yet, you might ask, "What happened to the dollar bill that was on it originally?" (which I might note, was tattered, and very fantastically antiquated, even though the currently positioned crisp bill has actually been "in office" for a longer period of time; I guess the original must have started off in a more worn-out state)

That, too, is a different story and, as it turns out, the bill was not spent in a moment of need. Rather, it was something I chose to release, in a moment of what I had believed to be personal growth and "letting go" of the past. It was donated, in a sense, to a cause that I briefly believed in, but ultimately to which I did not cling. In fact, one of my slight regrets in life is that I parted with that dollar bill when I did.

Sadly, the cow and the dollar bill have come to take on a new symbolism. And the loss of the original dollar bill feels eerily poignant. See, my sister who gave this to me is not the same person she was, just as the dollar bill is not the same dollar bill. She's had a neurological condition for most of her life which, until recently, did not have any noticeable cognitive effects. But in the last 5 years or so, she's unfortunately undergone a gradual decline in her cognitive abilities, particularly when it comes to memory and analytic reasoning. It's been significant enough that she is now really not the same person she was for most of her life. She doesn't really engage with people anymore, and is uncomfortable in situations where it is necessary. Her long-term memory seems to be well-preserved, but she has difficulty forming new memories. She's withdrawn, and sad. She's somewhat aware of the loss that she's suffering, and that probably makes it even worse for her.

When I look at the cow and the dollar bill, much as when I look at my sister, I am reminded of the person who gave it to me, and everything that she represented in my life. But when I see this imposter dollar bill, not the one that my sister gave me, I feel like something is lost, and I know that it can never be regained.

One thing that troubles me is that, while there's no way I can ever imagine myself parting with the inanimate reminder that I keep, I have already distanced myself from the person of whom I am reminded because, while it's possible for me to look at the cow and the dollar bill, and have everything it has ever been and ever meant evoked in my mind, the same is not true for my sister. Communicating with my sister now reminds me only of what is lost, and what she is no longer, and will never be again. I feel like she's gone, but she is still here. And I have a hard time with that. I suspect I should probably be trying to make what connection I still can, while she is still here at all, rather than lament what is not. I am a little bit afraid of that. I think it betrays a problem I have with mortality. I'm trying to deny it. But as I come of the age that more and more of those dear to me will become frail, ill, or die, it's going to become increasingly unavoidable. I need to face it.

Perhaps I should see if she remembers the cow and the dollar bill.

06 October, 2011

Why everyone should keep a journal

Last night, I spent almost two hours rereading journal entries from 2008. I'm speaking of a "diary" that happens to be online, as opposed to this blog. From time to time, I go back and start rereading what I've written. And it's never easy to be reminded of where I was before. I don't often write about fluffy topics in the journal. It usually is about self-exploration, or venting the struggles I'm having with various situations happening in my life.

The hardest thing for me is when I see huge sections of my emotional history that have repeated themselves. I can find a page from 2008 that could just as easily be written today. New situation, different year, different people involved, but the same me. And, consequently, the same struggles and same questions. Sometimes, reading those excerpts leads me to question whether I'm growing at all. Am I truly repeating the exact same mistakes as I was three years ago? But there's a tendency to latch on to the negatives, the similarities in plight, without recognizing the small, but significant differences.

In 2008, I had written a little "vision statement" for where I wanted to see myself heading in the future. It was originally intended for this blog, but I'd moved it to the journal instead, because I was worried it would be a little too sensitive for people who may have felt "involved" in the birth of that vision. I think enough time has passed that I can post it here:

There are ways in which I wish I were more capable.

I wish I had the discipline and motivation to drive my career toward productive ends.
I wish I had the wisdom and restraint to not engage in commitments that I cannot keep.
I wish I could be a hero.
I wish I would realize that being a hero is a commitment I cannot keep.
I wish I could decide to focus on exercise, and it would last longer than a week.
I wish I could learn to keep promises to myself.
I wish I would never cause anyone pain ever again, myself included.
I wish I would set for myself more realistic wishes.

When I look at this now, I realize that I've grown a lot more than I thought. Certainly, I experience many of the same feelings and fears as I did three years ago. And certainly I have made some of the same mistakes. But when I look at the list above, I realize that, by and large, I have achieved every one of these goals. But the unrealistic wishes that I had then, to some extent, still persist as an Achilles' heel for me. I still battle with wanting to be a hero. I still labor over the fear of being hurt, or hurting, in such fashion so as to render me rather risk-averse.

It's a good thing to see that I set these goals for myself three years ago. Going back and reading it in a journal is a helpful way to realize who I was, who I am, what's changed. And it serves as a reminder of the direction I've set for myself. Definitely something I would recommend to everyone.

I've got a ways to go. But it's getting better.

How surfing is like dating

I was sitting on lava rocks, in Kona, at a beach named "Magic Sands," watching the surfers on the water in front of me. I was on my cell phone having a conversation about relationships. And suddenly, the combination of the conversation and the visuals in front of me, brought about the following metaphor:

Surfing is a lot like (online) dating.

I add the term "online" in parentheses because I think it is probably a nearly obligatory modifier.

So, how does it work?

Simple. Let me explain. You sign up for an online dating site, and you've essentially grabbed your surfboard and decided to enter the water. Easy enough, right? And then, you watch and wait. For something with potential to come along. Sometimes there's nothing. Sometimes there's plenty. Finally, a wave comes along that looks like a good one, so you decide you're gonna have a go at it. Of course, one of the most critical things, no matter how good the wave is, is that you need to time it right, and use the proper technique for picking up the wave. Sound familiar? Much the same as online dating, where you need to read that wave, and start off with the right kind of communication, or else you never even get a date.

So, getting a date is sort of like standing up on your board and starting to ride the wave.

What happens next, of course, is completely unpredictable. Sometimes the wave disintegrates immediately, and you fall right off your board. Sometimes the wave gets too big too fast, and swallows you. That's like when you discover on the first date, or shortly thereafter, that it's not what you had hoped, and you either abort, or get tossed. Or sometimes people come on too strong, and it's necessary to run away.

Occasionally, you get off to a good start, and you're on that wave, reading the changes in it, and feeling like everything's completely under control. That would be "steady dating." Even then, sudden twists and turns, or missteps, or interference from other currents in the water throw you off sooner than you might have expected. The failed relationship.

Rarely, almost never, you ride that perfect wave, handling every nuance of it, and eventually find yourself still standing, well clear of the surge, and coasting gently to shore. Ah, commitment.

Much like surfing, you usually take on plenty of waves of highly-varying quality and duration before finding that one that takes you home. The metaphor breaks down for me a little bit when I think about the fact that there are various ways to leave the game of surfing. You could get injured. You could have so many bad waves that you finally decide to leave the water on a less-than-optimal note. Conversely, one could be so obsessed with the novelty and rush of every unique wave that comes along, that you never want to leave the water.

Do we have the capacity to know when we're on the most awesome wave we're ever going to see? Or is it only in hindsight that we look back and think about an amazing wave, perhaps idealizing it to have been bigger, and more perfect than perhaps it actually was?

I do not know.