Living in the Now

Posted in Books, Life After 50 on February 21, 2010 by Thomas N. Schenden

If there is one thing that middle-aged men and women can agree on, it’s that their memories of childhood are powerful. For me, just a whiff of orange blossoms can bring back waves of emotions long buried under a lifetime of clutter.

But if your experiences growing up were painful, some of those memories can haunt you and hurt you decades after they should have faded away. Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now deals with this subject very effectively. But not all of us have read the book, and even after reading, we forget. A bitter memory creeps in. We slip, we fall, and damn it, it hurts all over again.

And twice in as many days, I have met people who are, from time to time, literally prisoners of their memories. Did you think, as I did growing up, that life would get easier and easier? Did you think that middle age would be free of problems and that the sweet golden glow of retirement would begin to loom bigger and brighter? It’s not working out that way for me.

I am in no way any kind of expert here. I’m looking at my eleventh month of unemployment and had almost convinced myself that I was an expert in pain. But I have a couple of friends who have been dealt more than their fair share of trouble. When you see friends in pain, you want to help, you want to do or say something that somehow would make it hurt less, but often that isn’t what they need. Often all they need is someone to listen to them and perhaps provide a shoulder to lean on.

Nonetheless, I think Tolle’s advice is useful. No matter what kind of hurts and difficulties we are dealing with right now, they can be lessened if we remember that the past and the future are illusions. When we feel longing for that idealized past or that shining future, we are imagining constructions to which we are comparing the present. But the present is real, and it is alive. We are alive right now, and we need to focus on that.


Thomas Wolfe Is Always Right

Posted in Life After 50 on February 17, 2010 by Thomas N. Schenden

A few weeks back I was out on a drive with my son, burning time with no destination, and I subconsciously pointed us in the direction of my mom and dad’s old house. My brother, sister and I grew up there from 1965 through the mid-80s, and my folks finally moved out in ’97. Dad passed on 10 years later. I’ve been back a dozen times since my folks moved out, but this time it seemed different.

It was evening and already dark when we pulled up in front. At the time that these spacious homes were built the neighborhood was perched on the edge of several orange groves and strands of gigantic eucalyptus trees, but inside the neighborhood you’d never know it. The huge, hulking homes were all painted dazzling white. The slumpstone block wall, enclosing the neighborhood as though it were a fortress, was also painted white with silver sparkles. On the ever-creeping edge of suburbia, our neighborhood was an alien, an interloper, and was impressive in a way that paid no homage to ranch style living. It would never fly today, but in the 1960s the pretentiousness of the name “Meredith Acres” suited the up-and-coming defense industry executive perfectly.

But that was the 1960s and things around the neighborhood have changed. My dad was aghast at the way the new owners so quickly countrified the place with picket fences and gnomes and all forms of bric-a-brac. Nonetheless, our old home was plainly visible through the new decor. My son idled the car in front as I sat there in silence, drinking it in. There was something about my dad being gone that made it resonate more, but I looked at that front door with the big quartz rock wall, the steps going up to the front door, the wall of windows and the mature white birch trees and it just got to me. I felt like I was savoring a steak — you want to close your eyes and deny yourself any other sense but exactly the one necessary to take it in. I was in a loop, feeling a memory, conjuring up images, feeling another memory, conjuring up more images, feeling another memory. . .

I could see myself lurking around, long haired, maybe listening to Bowie or Iggy in the garage, my dad tending to the lawn that he was so proud of, my little brother pulling wheelies on his red Schwinn Sting Ray; feeling all of it at once and at the same time thinking of nothing at all specific.

I don’t want to go back — no thanks — but I do treasure the things that I remember. Of course there were good times and there were bad times, but as I age it seems as though the bad stuff is bleaching away into a shade that is much brighter than I originally experienced it. And as for my dad and my mom and our old home, Thomas Wolfe was right.

Mark Twain’s “The War Prayer”

Posted in Books on February 16, 2010 by Thomas N. Schenden

Here’s an animated version of The War Prayer, published posthumously in November of 1916.

Man, when you hear that prayer spoken, it has an ageless, timeless resonance that is just beautiful.

Coincidentally, I am reading a book called “Mark Twain’s Wound.” It’s an assembly of essays in response to a book written about 10 years after Twain’s death called “The Ordeal of Mark Twain” by Van Wyke Brooks.

At first, the very idea of being critical of Twain’s life and his output irritated me. The structure of the Wound book is to present Van Wyke Brooks’ idea, and then counter it in essay form from writings of the era. Brooks thesis was that Twain was damaged goods; that because his father was weak and died early in Twain’s life, Twain hid behind his mother’s skirts and then transferred that relationship onto his wife. Brooks grants nearly no quarter for Twain and complains that he didn’t use his talents for greater and greater achievements. Brooks was eastern establishment, and had no use for the West and what it meant to men of the era.

Brooks is not without insight, but does rely too heavily on Freud. I just don’t think all the psycho-mumbo-jumbo bears up under the weight of day-to-day Western experience. I read about what his life was like in Virginia City, and it was not a place for psychologically nuanced analysis!

So the best of the book is the criticism of Brooks from his contemporaries, who seem to understand the man much better:

— we’re fallible
— we all have our strengths and weaknesses
— we all live with our own contradictions
— life can make you cynical and sarcastic
— you never really escape your youth
— etc.

And more than anything else, Twain wrote to Americans about America. He didn’t write to be a part of a literary establishment (although he did revel in the adulation).

It’s an interesting topic. The more I learn about Twain, the more I respect him.

SpamBots Prey on Unemployed

Posted in Life After 50 on December 8, 2009 by Thomas N. Schenden

Just what they’re getting out of these messages I cannot quite figure, but they are annoying!

From Danang to Pho 99

Posted in History on November 12, 2009 by Thomas N. Schenden

It was 1975, the war was coming to its awful conclusion, and I was in my junior year of high school. We’d been watching newscasts from Viet Nam for as long as I could remember. There were daily body counts, stories of skirmishes and battles and peace talks and protests and war crimes. It went on and on and on, year in and year out. Finally there were those awful television images of helicopters making their last departures from Saigon, desperate refugees hanging from the runners. There were scenes of Navy men pushing helicopters over the sides of their aircraft carriers. The mission had changed; we needed room for our new passengers.

Three years later, in college, I met my first Vietnamese refugee. He was Hmong, actually, and couldn’t speak a lick of English. Not one word. My friend and I did our best to communicate with him, but we didn’t have even the smallest fragment of common language to share. Nonetheless, we managed to get across to him that he was welcome at our school and that we were glad to have him.

As the years went by and our new Americans came into Southern California in increasing numbers, they began to fill the colleges and start businesses. Today Vietnamese Americans are moving out of their little Saigons into the suburbs just like any other Americans on their way up. They are an impressive people, having achieved more in a half of a generation than many native born Americans will achieve in their entire lives.

Today, I make it a point to stop in to Pho 99 from time to time. Pho 99 is a Vietnamese restaurant chain in Southern California, and my particular haunt is not much different than any other Vietnamese restaurant. After eating there ten or twelve dozen times, the food no longer seems exotic or foreign. I look into their faces and can’t imagine the warriors of a generation ago.

A couple of days after September 11, 2001, I was at Pho 99 having lunch, reading a Newsweek recount of the mayhem in New York. The manager came over to me, and seeing what I was reading, looked into my eyes and said in a quiet voice, “It’s so sad, isn’t it?” Her accent faded away.

The American Healthcare Debate

Posted in Healthcare on November 12, 2009 by Thomas N. Schenden

In high school, Pete was an athletic, gregarious and outgoing student. In college he sustained a major back injury that was never treated properly and caused him continuous pain. But Pete managed, and went about his life with his wife, children and career. As his pain became a larger and larger obstacle, his use of pain medication turned into abuse. Thus began Pete’s slow decline, first with marital separation, then job loss, then divorce, then more job loss and then the loss of his health insurance. When Pete’s struggle with pain meds became too great to bear, he visited the emergency clinic at his local hospital.

But on his most recent visit to the clinic Pete appeared to be OK. After some testing there were indications that Pete might need help, but it was also discovered that he had no health insurance. Instead of admitting him for additional testing, Pete was sent home. Two hours later his sister found him dead in his apartment.

There is a great debate underway in Congress to solve this serious problem. But when discussing the subject of health care in America, it is as if our political landscape is defined by caricatures. Democrats will have you believe that Republicans are selfish individualists, interested only in riding around inside the well-lined pockets of pharmaceutical companies and insurance providers. Republicans, on the other hand, see Democrats as wild-eyed socialists, intent on using their President to marshal through an anti-capitalist healthcare system that will ruin Medicare and bring down the entire economy, or what is left of it.

The result is a stagnant debate that objectifies the most vulnerable Americans into broad categories of either the useful or the costly.

One common protest is that our government is incapable of designing and operating such a complex system as national healthcare. But there are many examples of efficient, well-run systems without which our public life would come to a screeching halt.

The Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways, commonly called the Interstate Highway System, was developed in the mid-1950s. This system of roadways is both the largest integrated highway system in the world and the largest public works project in history. Besides its unquestioned usefulness as a transportation system, our interstates have become a unifying factor in our national life, making neighbors of distant strangers.

Similarly, our public school system ensures that a consistently high level of education is available to all Americans. This government requirement makes education affordable for the needy and even provides a kind of egalitarian mask that makes most students look like each other, regardless of their economic background.

These are not impersonal systems designed by a bureaucracy. Our schools, our highways and many other national initiatives were painstakingly built by Americans who wanted a better future for themselves and their families. These systems draw our nation together and unite us in ways that are often invisible.

Those who see only politics in the healthcare debate do so at their own peril. While we like to believe that we are masters of our own destinies, calamities can get the best of anyone, requiring more from the individual than he or she has left to give. At what point will we realize that our humanity – this living, American organism – requires vigilance? When will it become clear to us that our national health depends on the health of all of our citizens?

Die Mauer, Zwanzig Jahre Weg

Posted in History on November 9, 2009 by Thomas N. Schenden

The Wall, Twenty Years Gone

I’ve always been fascinated by the whole Berlin division thing. Yesterday my friend had a conversation with a woman who grew up in East Berlin. She described for him what it was like to drive back into her neighborhood after being gone for 15 years, seeing avenues where there had been only dead ends.

In contemplating this anniversary, I found myself musing on a similar thing morning. I wondered how many Ossis had a sense of vertigo and agoraphobia on their first visits to the West. After living in a society with so many understood and expected privations, and then to wander headlong into a place where anything goes, everything is available, and it is all out of reach financially would be really disturbing. You live this compact lifestyle, totally connected to the state, and then suddenly, it’s just not good enough — and in fact, in no time at all, it’s not even there.

I think a lot of people must have struggled with coming to terms with materialism and consumerism. I’ve lived in a consumer society my whole life and am becoming more irritated by it every day. Imagine the culture shock of being plunged into it in one fell swoop.

You grow up thinking that the Wall is the end of the world. Like the ocean. . . something that defines the edges, something you can’t enter. . . and then that barrier is lifted. Dead-ends become avenues and all the new avenues lead AWAY from your home.

My guess is that a lot of quiet contemplation happened as East Berliners reprocessed their places in the world. . .