“I, state your name,”…

I always laugh at certain Mel Brooks jokes, and “I, state your name,” is one of them.  This factoid seems like a good intro to this post, which is based on today’s WordPress Daily Writing Prompt, “Say Your Name.”  Here is the full text of the writing challenge:

Write about your first name: Are you named after someone or something? Are there any stories or associations attached to it? If you had the choice, would you rename yourself? 

To answer the last question first:  when I was a kid, I longed to be Joe, or Billy, or Bob (I was a Yankee, so Billy Bob wasn’t an option).  Somewhere along the line, Morgan began to fit.  I think what really cemented it was my years in the hi-tech world.  Before I left, it was so diverse that if you include international teleconferences, in a given month or even week, I might interact with people from China, Japan, India, Pakistan, Italy, Israel, England, and Arizona.  I learned that there is no such thing as a “common” name.

I was named after my mother’s father, and this is where family history takes a turn toward the novels of Thomas Hardy – a single tragic event that rippled through many lives.

Grandfather Morgan and my mother, 1923

Grandfather Morgan and my mother, 1923

Grandfather Morgan was the son of a Dutch immagrant who became a paper tycoon. Not one to rest on family privilege, at the age of 17 he lied about his age to enlist in the war to end all wars.  Fortunately, WWI ended before he could get “over there.”

Back home, Morgan married my grandmother, June, a schoolteacher.  The couple moved to Richmond, Virginia to manage a paper mill.  My mother was born there in 1923.

In the 20’s, baseball fever was rampant, and Morgan pitched for the company team.  Sometime around 1928, a line drive caught him in the groin.  It hurts to even think about, and after a series of operations, he developed tuberculosis of the bone.  The family moved west, first to Tucson, then Prescott, Arizona, and finally to Albuquerque, where Morgan died in 1930.

My grandmother nursed him during that time and said that on his last night, he was joyous and smiling and said, “The worst is over now, I can feel it.”

My grandmother became quite the cowgirl.  Most of the roads were single lane, and the rattlesnakes could easily grow to six or seven feet long.  Coming upon them, Grandmother June would run over them with the model A – repeatedly – then climb out to cut off the rattles.  My mother had a snake phobia and was frightened even of rattles in the trunk.

Another time, when she was six, my mother climbed a rock spire in Prescott known as, “Top Rock.”  Once on top, she set up a wail, crying that she couldn’t get down.  Without a fire department to come to the rescue, June put on her boots, hiked up her skirt, and learned what she had to know about rock climbing on the fly.

In the end, the death of my grandfather, Morgan, affected everyone badly.  Grandmother June developed TB and spent several years in a sanatorium in Colorado.  Though she recovered, the disease affected her inner ear balance, so from her mid-30’s on, she had to use a cane.  She saw a psychiatrist for depression, something I never learned until she was gone, for at the time, it carried a stigma.

My grandmother believed there is only one true love in a person’s life.  Though men courted her well into middle age, she refused all offers, in order to “be true” to Morgan.  At the end of her life, when she lived with us, her depression returned.  She believed her life-long loneliness was a judgement from God.  This compassionate and adventurous woman died believing she must have sinned in some way that lay beyond atonement.

Understandably, my mother suffered from depression too.  Sometimes it manifested as a “sense of impending doom.”  If a picnic was planned, she’d be the one to look at the morning sky and say, “I hope it doesn’t rain.”  Both of these are tendencies I have to battle.

I never knew either grandfather.  Though there were uncles to teach me essentials like how to play poker, I know the lack of “wise old men” in the family contributed to what Robert Bly calls “Hunger for the father.”  Perhaps this helped nudge me toward the arts, where we learn that hunger can work like the grain of sand in the oyster that leads to the forming of pearls.

Sometimes I think about ancestor worship – not in the literal sense – yet some primitive part of me seems to believe that what we do now can affect those who came before.  That the effort to live well may carry some kind of redemption.  My grandfather Morgan’s story is filled with life unlived.  His name is a good one to carry – it reminds me that what I do matters.

The first time I went to a Zen sesshin, we ended each day of meditation by reciting this “Evening Caution:”

I beg to urge you, everyone:
each of us must be completely awake:
never neglectful, never indulgent;
life-and-death is a grave matter,
all things pass quickly away;

By the time I got there, I already knew that.  These truths lie embedded in family history.

Kit

She answers to Kit, but her real name is Kitsune, the Japanese word for fox.  That’s because when we adopted her four years ago today, she looked so much like a fox.

We’d been looking for a second dog for over a year and had even spent six weeks with a foster animal with the option to keep, but it didn’t work out.  We’d put the word out, and one afternoon it paid off.  The owners of a mom and pop kennel called concerning a year old animal that needed a home.

Kit had been rescued by a roommate from a couple who mistreated her and were planning to dump her by the side of a highway.  She was frightened of men, and at first ran away when I tried to pick her up, yet by the end of the day, she was at home in our home, and after a walk in the park the next morning, she was my new best buddy.

First walk in the park

She was just over eight pounds when we got her, and her ribs showed. Now she has the opposite problem – she’s on low fat kibble. Officially, she’s a Chipom, a Chihuahua / Pomeranian mix, although we suspect there’s something else in there, because she’s bigger than either of those breeds. We’ve wondered how much the dog DNA tests cost, sometimes wondering if she really might have a fox in the family tree.

Kit is foxlike in more ways than appearance, not all of them good.   Rescue dogs often carry baggage and hers manifests as aggression, which can be very sudden.  Work with a trainer has helped moderate it, but we’re still not done.  Kit is smart like a fox too, not always in healthy way.  Everyone thinks their dog is brilliant; let’s just say that this one, among other tricks, has learned how to paw the button to lower the backseat windows while driving.  We have to put on the lock as if she was a kid.  And an instant after such indiscretions, she’ll turn on the charm that makes strangers ask, “What kind of dog is that?”

Like any complex creature, she’s full of contradictions. She’s as brave as a dog twice her size, and the unquestioned alpha to the others, and yet she’s a wimp when it comes to rain. With tail between legs she’ll duck for cover if the drops start to fall on her arctic quality fur.

In the end, it’s like William Stafford said in his poem, “Choosing a Dog:”

“It’s love,” they say. You touch
the right one and a whole half of the universe
wakes up, a new half.

Of Football and Family

I’m anything but a diehard sports fan, but I’ve noticed over the years that certain sporting events become unforgettable when they mark key moments in my life or our collective life.  Do you remember how moving the Super Bowl was in Feb., 2002?  Our nation was still hurting after the 9/11 attacks, but here was proof that we were not going to let anyone stop us from celebrating life.

I thought of my father yesterday.  Football was one of the ways he and I connected.  Thirty years ago, he and I talked on the phone with growing excitement as the season progressed, and this new quarterback, with the unusual name of Joe Montana, led the formerly hapless 49ers to their first ever Super Bowl victory.  The best game of the season, however, was the Division Championship game. Montana won it with an 89 yard drive after the two minute warning, and a justifiably famous touchdown pass to Dwight Clark with less than a minute to play.  This wasn’t just a persona moment; it set the entire region on fire after a difficult decade.

Montana to Clark, with 59 seconds in the game, Jan, 1982

My father moved up here to be with us in 1999, after he was diagnosed with a wasting illness. Mary and I spent most of our Sunday afternoons with him during football seasons. First lunch and then the afternoon game. My father died in 2007, and we haven’t watched much football since. Until this season. Until our “formerly hapless” 49ers took off so dramatically you couldn’t help but notice and want to follow along.

Yesterday it happened again, 30 years later, almost to the day. The niners won the Division Championship game with another spectacular drive and touchdown pass, this one with only seconds left. Another on-your-feet, unforgettable moment. Hopefully, something to rouse all of northern California after a difficult decade. My father would have loved this game.

Smith to Davis, with 9 seconds in the game, Jan, 2012

I don’t go in for sentiments like, “Maybe he was looking down from heaven.” Hopefully those in the afterlife have better things to do than peer over our poor shoulders. But I do believe – and I’ve heard various spiritual teachers hint at this – that the ancestors and those who are gone can pick up our prayers and love and kind thoughts. That’s a pretty good deal. And if football is the occasion, there is nothing wrong with that.

As the poet Lu Yu put it (quoted in The Tao of Pooh):

The clouds above us join and separate,
The breeze in the courtyard leaves and returns.
Life is like that, so why not relax?
Who can stop us from celebrating?

Humbug Revisited: A Brief History of Christmas

It’s coming on Christmas
They’re cutting down trees
They’re putting up reindeer
And singing songs of joy and peace
Oh I wish I had a river I could skate away on
– Joni Mitchell

I can’t get the name of Walter Vance out of my mind.  He was the 61 year old pharmacist, with a history of heart problems, who collapsed in a West Virginia Target store shortly after midnight on Black Friday.  Witnesses told MSNBC that many shoppers ignored Vance and walked around or even stepped over him as he lay on the floor.

When NPR held a call-in show to ask about listeners’s Black Friday shopping experience, one caller reported that a woman had grabbed an item out of her cart, saying, “It isn’t yours until you’ve paid for it.”  The incident mirrors a scene in a commercial that ran incessantly in the days leading up to the event.

Sales receipts were no guarantee of safety either – just ask the shooting victims in several parking lot robberies.

Exhausted after an all-night shift, one Target employee drove her car into a canal.

All of these reports emerged after the infamous pepper spray story that had the media wagging its head – the very same media that helped whip crowds into a feeding frenzy during the previous days

None of this is new.  Christmas has always been the church’s most problematic holiday.  The Hallmark version we know today was in part, carefully crafted by early 19th century merchants, in a manner not different in essence, from the effort to persuade millions of seemingly sensible people to spend Thanksgiving night in big-box stores.

Santa Claus by Thomas Nast, 1865. Would you want this guy roaming around your home late at night?

The Bible does not give a date for the birth of Jesus.  Apparently, birthdays were not a big issue back then.  Origen of Alexandria, a 3d century theologian, wrote that “only sinners like Herod and Pharaoh celebrate their birthdays.”  December 25 was not fixed as the date of Christmas until the 4th century, and the nativity was largely ignored until the 9th century reign of Charlemagne.

Through the early middle ages, Christmas was overshadowed by Epiphany, which commemorates the visit of the Magi.  It was not until the high middle ages that Christmas emerged as a popular feast day.  “Feast” is an understatement.  In 1377, Richard II’s guests consumed 28 oxen and 300 sheep.  Caroling became popular then, though chroniclers complained of lewd lyrics.  The same writers blamed pagan holidays like Saturnalia and Yule for the “drunkenness, promiscuity, and gambling,” of the celebrations.

In 1645, in an effort to rid England of decadence, Oliver Cromwell and his Puritans banished Christmas in England.  The Pilgrims on the Mayflower were even stricter.  From 1659-1681, Christmas was outlawed in Boston.  English customs were shunned after the revolution, and Christmas did not become an official American holiday until 1870.

We can read on history.com that, “The early 19th century was a period of class conflict and turmoil. During this time, unemployment was high and gang rioting by the disenchanted classes often occurred during the Christmas season.”  The New York City police force was organized in 1828 in response to a Christmas Riot.  History.com continues:   “This catalyzed certain members of the upper classes to begin to change the way Christmas was celebrated in America.”  

In the absence of television, one thing 19th century chambers of commerce used to push their version of Christmas was Washington Irving’s, The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, a series of stories of life in an English manor house.  “The sketches feature a squire who invited the peasants into his home for the holiday. In contrast to the problems faced in American society, the two groups mingled effortlessly.”  Historians now claim the book does not describe any actual customs, but ones that Irving wished for and thus invented.  

Even more important to the evolution of Christmas was Charles Dickens’s, A Christmas Carol, with its strong message that celebrating this holiday can make you a better person.  Dickens’s book meshed with the Victorian emphasis on family , as well as a new appreciation of children.

Referring to the 19th century upswing of Christmas popularity, history.com says: “Although most families quickly bought into the idea that they were celebrating Christmas how it had been done for centuries, Americans had really re-invented a holiday to fill the cultural needs of a growing nation.”

The optimism of “a growing nation” that we see in historical prints and Christmas cards seems as quaint these days as the cards themselves.  For a sense of the collective mindset this year, I look at this photo of students at the Charles W. Howard Santa School in Midland, MI.  This year the Santas are learning to gently lower children’s holiday expectations.

Photo by Fabrizio Constantini, New York Times

I wonder what Santa said to the boy who showed up with a multi-page spreadsheet, cross referencing all the toys he wanted to different stores and prices. (What was he doing on Santa’s lap to begin with)?

***

Even a little research reveals that there is no “right” way to celebrate Christmas.  This holiday has been re-invented numerous times.  If individuals and families opt out of what no longer works and try to create saner traditions, no one will ever miss them.  I’ll go ahead and lead off with a clip from my favorite Christmas movie of all time, in the scene that inspired this post, and leads me to wonder if the pre-repentant Scrooge isn’t due for re-evaluation.

Meanwhile, Be Careful Out There, and in case you were wondering, I’m off to see the new Muppet Movie today.  I’ll soon be back with a report.

Going to the Canines

Today is the 20 year anniversary of several important events.  For starters, I had managed to last seven years in the corporate world, so on Friday, August 30, 1991, I was starting my first sabbatical:  ten weeks paid time off.  The tech industry was booming then, and they did things like that.

I was also finishing up a masters’s thesis for a degree in psych I’d been working on in my spare time – I did things like that.  But the most important thing we did on this day 20 years ago was bring home a dog.

Charis negotiates a step - Aug. 30, 1991

We had her picked out and all the arrangements made ahead of time, but that day – leaving work for ten weeks and bringing home a puppy to celebrate was one of the most memorable of my life.  It was just a bit less memorable for Mary.  Charis was riding in a crate in the back seat, howling because she wasn’t used to cars, so Mary thought she might be happier riding on her lap, where the puppy promptly peed.  We laughed about it then and now – nothing a little soap and water couldn’t fix.

Mary and Charis, fall, 1991

We have shared every day for the last twenty years with one, or two, and recently three dogs (which is really too many but at the time we couldn’t say no).  We started this anniversary day with a walk in the park for our two rescue dogs, and then another class.  We’ve discovered that rescue dogs are analogous to foster kids – they have issues.  These two are doing pretty well with extra training (which I sometimes call, reform school, depending on their behavior).  A side benefit of the class is, it tires them out.  As I write this, they are sleeping like little angels.

Which is what they really are.  As William Stafford put it in his poem, “Choosing a Dog:”

“It’s love,” they say. You touch
the right one and a whole half of the universe
wakes up, a new half.

A few years after we got Charis, I spent some time as a volunteer for the Folsom City Zoo Sanctuary.  Vixen the fox had come there when she was four weeks old, so she got very used to humans.  So used to humans that she could milk it really well, and as a result, she was getting rather pudgy.  For her own health, some of the keepers and volunteers would leash her up and take her for walks.

Vixen the Fox, ca. 1995

Once or twice a week for several years, I would get there at 7:00 am and take this little wild animal for a walk through the rising dawn.  That was an unforgettable way to start the morning!  One day, someone at an 8:00 am meeting who hadn’t had his coffee said, “What the hell are you smiling about?”

“Long story,” I said.  And kept on smiling.  Through all of it, all of the ups and downs, the joys and the losses, that’s what it’s like when you share your life with dogs and their wild kin.

Father’s Day Musings

About ten years ago, a woman from the U.K. told me that in a British poll, Homer Simpson had been voted “the most influential living American.”  One thing hasn’t changed much over the last decade:  men don’t get a lot of respect in the popular media.  Best case, they come off as lovable though horny goofballs like Joey and Chandler on Friends.  Worst case they are portrayed as liars and nincompoops who couldn’t survive a day without the steadying hand of a woman.  Without Carl’s Jr. bacon cheeseburgers, some guys would starve.

If you believe the marketing experts who layout the Father’s Day advertising supplements, the male imagination is limited to Docker’s shorts, socket-wrench sets, wide-screen TV’s, and golf balls.

When I was in the first grade, my bus used to stop to drop off a boy at a corner then turn uphill toward my house a mile away.  One day that boy’s father shot himself; it was clearly accidental.  He was a WWII veteran who brought home a German luger, and as he was cleaning the gun, he forgot the round in the chamber.  The details were discussed all over the schoolyard and the kitchen table at home; how the man had tried to reach the telephone before he died.  I lay awake quite a few nights with this reminder of my father’s mortality.  I think of that boy every Father’s Day and wonder what thoughts he has.  It may be that no one appreciates a father as much as those who have lost or never had one.

Father’s Day is a nice time to celebrate the expressions of men’s generosity as they have appeared in our lives.  It’s a time to celebrate every man who ever told us, “You can do it,” and made us believe we could.

Tough Love, Math, Software, and Writing

One sunday afternoon, when I was in the second grade, I learned a key life lesson because my mother got tired of hearing me whine.  I had some difficult arithmetic homework.  Plus the afternoon was gorgeous, and I could see my friends playing baseball up the hill.  My mother was trying to show me how to work the problems, but I was having none of it.  “I caan’t,” I said.  “It’s too haard.”

My mother finally had enough, and said, in her no-nonsense voice, “Sit here, and do not move, until your homework is done.”

“But….”

“No buts!” I don’t want to hear another word until you’re finished.”

After a quick review of alternatives, such as rafting down the Mississippi, I realized I was trapped – nothing left to do but figure it out.  I remember how delighted I felt when I did, but I didn’t begin to understand how important that lesson would be.  How often I would be faced with similar situations, especially in the world of work – critical problems that no one else knew how to solve – and what a boon it would be to think, “Let’s take a look,” instead of, “I can’t.”

There were times when I was younger when “practice situations” arose, and I remembered and took inspiration from that day in the second grade.  I fought a similar battle to learn formal calculus proofs as a freshman in college.  Another time my van broke down in Bakersfield, and I didn’t have enough to pay someone else to fix it.

I joined the high tech world before the phrase, “cutting edge,” became a cliche – when we really were trying things that hadn’t been done before.  Through luck and interest, I spent some years doing early work in a specialty sort of software.  That made it exciting, made us kind of important, but also meant when we were stuck, we were stuck.

In the second grade, my mother forced me to learn what it meant to do my best – really do my best.  In the world of math and software, it’s rather easy to gauge.  You pretty much know when you have a solution, and the harder you work, the quicker you get there.

It’s not so clear cut in writing.  Sometimes white-knuckle effort pays off, and sometimes it’s counter-productive.  The quality of the my work does not always correlate with “feeling inspired,” and I can’t really judge it until weeks or months go by.  Sometimes it’s best to sit at the table and and hammer away, and sometimes it’s better to go outside and play.  What works one day may not work the next.

I’ve said before, I love the image Joseph Campbell gave for the way the Knights of the Round Table set out to look for the Holy Grail.  Each of them entered a trackless part of the forest, for it would have been “shameful” to follow the trail made by another.  In trying to find my own way, charging ahead is probably not the best way to proceed.  Rather, it’s time to take my time, pay attention, listen especially to the strange hunch and “crazy” idea.  Watch what happens out of the corner of my eye.  Learn to enjoy the forest and let it go, for as T.S. Eliot said, “The rest is not our business.”