Monday, July 28, 2014

#171 - Friends, Family, and Fun

We just got back from making the annual 800-mile round-trip pilgrimage to the event that is known in our family as Hickfest. It's a chance for friends and family to eat, drink, and be merry or Mary (although, I don't think I saw any cross-dressing this year - unless dressing as Richard Simmons counts).

This year's event was, as always, graciously organized and hosted by my cousin. Each year for the last several, he has opened up his house, his freezers, his ice chests, and who knows what else to attendees. This was our third Hickfest, and, as with the first two, I wished it could have lasted longer.

A small part of that has to do with the distance we travel. Even though we stayed four days, it felt like we'd only just arrived and suddenly it was time to go back home.

The bigger reason for wishing this get together lasted longer is the fact that this is the only chance I get to see most of my family, so I try to make the most of it. This year was the first time in five years for seeing some members of the family. Even after all that time, it was amazing to me how quickly we fell into old conversation patterns - as if we'd seen each other just last week.

In our family, that familiarity is perhaps both good and bad. I honed my sarcasm skills in this family but never really learned to talk seriously about much with them. Our family can be volatile at times (that would be the Irish from our grandmother's side of the family), and grudges can last years. On the other hand, most of our family will bend over backward to help another member of the family in need. What we don't often do, especially the men in the family, is talk about how we feel.

Maybe we don't know how. Maybe they, like me, don't always know how they feel. In the past, I think it is safe to say I have loved and perhaps hated members of my family. Some, I suspect, may not know why I felt the need to pack up and move hundreds of miles away with only the occasional visit. I'm not sure I know why, except to say that I did it because of me and not because of them. Because our family is full of strong personalities, and I knew I would never find mine if I stayed. 30 years later, though, I think I'm still looking.

As I look back at the last few paragraphs of what I've written, I get the sense that I am still avoiding what I need and want to say to my family. So here goes. I love all of you. You are a part of my past, my present, and my future.

Bill and Sandy, it was great to see you again after all these years. Bill, I don't think I ever told you, but you were perhaps my best friend growing up. I just wish I could have kicked your butt a few more times in any of the athletic endeavors we tried. Sandy, 35 years later I still remember the conversations and cups of coffee we shared. Those times remain a treasured memory.

Although I'm not much good around children (I get that lack of talent from my mother), it was good to see so many kids enjoying themselves again this year. The next generation of this clan promises to be just as ornery, stubborn, and opinionated as the current and the previous generations. Which means future family gatherings should remain energetic and lots of fun.

Families can be a blessing or a curse. Over the years, I suspect my family has been a bit of each, which makes it in many ways an average family, I suppose. Personally, though, I don't think there is anything average about them. And, while there have been times a part of me wanted to kill one or two of them, I wouldn't trade my family for any other.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

#170 - Catching Up

This morning, I spent some time visiting the Boise Farmers' Market. It was my first visit of the year to the market, although I'd been telling myself I was going to go ever since it opened for the season back in April. Why do today what you can put off until next weekend, I guess.

The market was nice enough, but it was really only an added plus to my real reason for going downtown. My real reason for going downtown was to visit a friend and have a chance to catch up on what she's been up to.

Even though we live in the same city, we haven't seen each other in months, something that probably isn't all that unusual in our hectic paced world. I suspect most of us have trouble connecting as often as we'd like with friends - unless we happen to be lucky enough to work together in the same general location. Which she and I no longer do, although that was how we met in the first place.

I think we had a nice visit, talking about what we've been up to, what her future plans are, our families, etc. You know, the kinds of things friends talk about. I think perhaps we also discovered some additional things we have in common.

Tonight as I write this, thinking back on our conversation, one big difference between us really crystallized for me. I'd always known there were differences, in large part because of the difference in our ages, nearly 30 years, in fact. Of course, I've always been aware of that difference. Actually, I think most of the people I get along best with are much younger than I am, primarily because I don't feel old inside, and I'm not ready to be old outside.

Looking back on today's visit, though, the one thing I am most struck by is the real difference between us in terms of our stage of life. In some ways, I am marking the days until I can retire, at which point the next real adventure for me begins. She, on the other hand, is in many ways just getting started in life, even though she has already had more experiences than many people will have in their lifetimes.

In the last couple of years, my friend has mapped out a career path for herself and has embarked on the educational path necessary to be able to traverse that path, even while continuing to hold down a job. It's something that many people choose or feel they have to do these days, but the fact that many people do it does not make it any less difficult.

As I'm thinking about my friend, I realize that, because of school and work, she has to basically compartmentalize her life in order to make it all work. Everything - work, school, play - has to have its own box, its own cubby in order for everything to fit together, in order for her life not to fall into utter chaos.

Keeping it all together as she has done requires tremendous discipline. It's a word that came up a number of times during our conversation, and it's something we both professed to have difficulty with. I think she is selling herself way short.

The discipline that has allowed her to balance life, work, and school will also, I have no doubt, allow her to be very successful in her chosen career path, and the people she will be working with in her chosen field will be lucky to have her.

I am grateful she was able to make a space for me today in her busy schedule, and I do not say that lightly or sarcastically. It was a wonderful conversation and a wonderful morning spent catching up with a good friend. I'd have to say that most days, life doesn't get any better than that.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

#169 - Maybe We Can All Get Along — Or Not

“Right and wrong - do you know the difference / Right and wrong - do you know the difference /
'Tween the right and the left and the east and the west / What you know and the things that you'll never see”
Joe Jackson “Right and Wrong”

According to a new paper published in the journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences and discussed in numerous articles, including this one in Mother Jones, our political beliefs – whether we identify as liberal or conservative – may not be so much a product of how we are raised as it is a product of our physiological and genetic makeup. That’s right, political beliefs may be different because we are different physiologically and genetically.

According to the study by John Hibbing of the University of Nebraska, political conservatives “have a ‘negativity bias,’ meaning that they are physiologically more attuned to negative (threatening, disgusting) stimuli in their environments.” These included things such as the image of a dazed person with a bloodied face. As the Mother Jones article puts it, ”the conservative ideology, and especially one of its major facets—centered on a strong military, tough law enforcement, resistance to immigration, widespread availability of guns—would seem well tailored for an underlying, threat-oriented biology.”

What to me is equally interesting is that the paper’s main premise found almost overwhelming agreement among the 26 researchers invited to comment, with roughly 90% of them accepting the general idea of a conservative negativity bias. On the other hand, it also appears from this and other papers that conservatives tend to be happier and more satisfied with the lives than are their more liberal counterparts.

At first glance, Hibbing’s paper might appear to suggest that there is no hope for ever bridging the gap between the left and the right enough to accomplish much politically. The current situation in Washington would seem to support such a pessimistic view which would then call into question the bottom line usefulness of what Hibbing and his colleagues have written. The Mother Jones article, however, concludes on a more hopeful note:
All of this matters, of course, because we still operate in politics and in media as if minds can be changed by the best honed arguments, the most compelling facts. And yet if our political opponents are simply perceiving the world differently, that idea starts to crumble. Out of the rubble just might arise a better way of acting in politics that leads to less dysfunction and less gridlock…thanks to science.
If I had stopped reading there, I might have allowed myself a hopeful feeling about the future politically. Unfortunately, I then read some of the comments on the  Mother Jones website and comments and responses such as the following:
“Assimilation is certainly more of a liberal trait.”

“Liberal trait? That's funny. It's always conservatives that insist people follow their religious dictates, their ideas about what marriage is, what a legitimate relationship is, how women should be treated (always by their own tightly bound rules)...conservatives are the ones that want everyone to be the same, that get nervous when everyone isn't just like them. They are hardly accepting differences in others.”

“Wrong. Liberals I've met are far more in lockstep on all issues from abortion to gay marriage to gun control. But you wouldn't call them in lockstep if they are right, right?"’In lockstep’ likely because they're more open-minded, or liberal, on those issues. And I don't discount your personal experiences, but you need to look beyond them.”

“I know more liberals than conservatives. From my experience, the conservatives are more diverse in their views (libertarians, objectivists, tea party advocates, laissez faire capitalists, isolationists, nation builders, etc.)”

“Describing the difference between conservatives 'groups' like trying to argue the substantial difference between swiss chocolate ice cream, dutch chocolate ice cream, and plain chocolate ice cream...”
After reading several dozen comments in the same vein, I am forced to conclude that while Hibbing may be correct in his thesis that political ideology may be at least partly genetic in nature, the optimism set out by the Mother Jones author appears to be premature. Based on comments such as those quoted above, dysfunction and gridlock will continue to be the order of the day for some time.

Some liberals accuse some conservatives (and vice versa) of having their heads in the sand with regard to various issues (insert favorite hot button topic here). Based on the comments I read after the Mother Jones article, keeping my head in the sand doesn’t sound so bad. It certainly seems a friendly and safer place to be these days than either Washington, DC or the internet. *sigh*

Thursday, July 3, 2014

#168 - Happy 4th of July

As I write this, I am sitting at my desk at work, watching the clock, and waiting for the magic hour when I will be independent of the responsibilities of work and free to enjoy the holiday weekend.

Just in time for the Fourth, the weather has decided to treat us, not to fireworks but, to some of the hottest temperatures of the year thus far. The phrase “hotter than a firecracker” comes to mind. Whoever came up with that phrase must have been sweltering on a Fourth of July not too unlike the one expect to experience this year in Idaho.

Speaking of firecrackers, for many people, I imagine the Fourth of July conjures up visions of massive fireworks displays staged by whatever city they happen to call home. For others, I suspect the Fourth is an excuse to drink too much and then shoot off either their illegal fireworks or their guns or both. I also suspect but cannot prove that the probability of someone doing something really stupid increases exponentially come the Fourth of July. Because of all of these things, I expect to read and /or hear of several fires starting over the holiday weekend, most of which will eventually turn out to be caused by fireworks.

For me, the Fourth of July usually means getting out of town and away from the fireworks. I’ve never really been a big fan of fireworks or of fireworks displays. As a result, I usually try to schedule a camping trip to a location where such things are not allowed. The fourth of July, aka Independence Day, is also an opportunity for me to be independent of city life, the 9 to 5, and rush hour traffic.

Of course, The Fourth of July commemorates America’s declaration of independence from the British and the founding of our nation, even though technically, America as we know it was not truly formed for almost 12 years after July 4, 1776. The nation as we know it actually dates to 1788, and we would have – if anyone had thought to do so – celebrated the nation’s 226th anniversary June 21, the date New Hampshire became the ninth state to ratify the Constitution.

The nation has changed in many ways in the years since its founding. For one thing, despite our independent streak, it could be argued that America is more dependent than independent – things that happen halfway around the world do eventually affect life in this country, especially when they impact the flow of foreign oil on which we heavily depend. Living in cities, as most of us do, we are dependent on city services – police, fire, water, etc. The nation itself is built on a structure that makes us dependent on one another through our elected representatives to get things done. (o, in the case of the current Congress, not get things done.)

Nature, too, makes us dependent on one another as it does not recognize state or national borders. As a result, environmental issues and events in other states and nations can and likely will eventually affect our own environment, just as such issues and events here where I live can and will affect other states and countries. Witness the water disputes of recent years between Georgia and Alabama and between states along the Colorado River. As the old Disney song states, “it’s a small world, after all.”

In spite of the troubles of the world – both in and outside these borders – the fourth of July will be for most people a time of celebration. I hope your holiday is an enjoyable one – independent of any issues or concerns you currently face. They’ll still be there Monday. In the meantime, enjoy the holiday and the weekend.