Tuesday, December 30, 2008

I'm hardly even here anymore

It fascinates me that I still have readers here (from Massachusetts mostly). I don't know why you come here (I wish you'd give me a clue) to a blog that I hardly ever use.

I'm here now because of that comment from Robin. Robin, I don't see an immediate return to the sea in my future (if ever). Though the world economy bashing is probably going to take much of the wind out of my sails, I still feel that there's a ghost of a chance that I can get some Things accomplished over the next few years. Unless publishing completely caves in 2009, I've a book coming out. Unless funding of universities completely collapses in 2009, this may be the year that sees me able to do some work that actually makes a difference.

It's funny. Many years ago, when I was awarded tenure (by the skin of my teeth I expect, though one is never told those kinds of things flat-out), I promised myself that I would use what still seems to be holding up as an iron-clad job-for-life guarantee to do something good for the world. Though I'm not even fit to polish his shoes, I kind of had the idea of Noam Chomsky in the back of my mind. It seemed too far a reach that anyone whose specialty was the evolution of visual systems in odd little critters could make a positive difference in people's lives, so I thought I would make my contribution as he has -- by using my ability to communicate in writing to sway opinions, make people think, urge social action. It might only amount to letters to newspapers, perhaps a publication or two in a small press alternative journal, but it would be a way of justifying my existence. Well now, unexpectedly, I have that chance. It came from the sea -- you're right about that -- but I think the sea still needs me right here for a bit.

The timing of all of this is not great. I've discovered that one of the great liabilities of late-blooming is that one's physical body is entirely unwilling to tolerate much abuse without biting back. The worst of this year is that I've had several stern reminders that late middle-aged men cannot spend 18 hours/day 7 days/week sitting at screens or behind desks without suffering some consequences. I've developed some chronic conditions that will probably be with me forever now. I've caught them early enough that I'm fairly certain I can ride things out for a couple of decades -- I'm no longer counting on more, but if not for a few lucky warning signs and a vigilant family doctor (not to mention an insistent wife), I might have been down to my last few useful months on the planet. I've learned that I'm mortal, that things will not continue as they always have forever, and I'm trying hard not to respond with a quickening panic that I must get everything done quickly. It's been a transition. In May, I was in Vegas walking the streets with a Margarita so big it required a shoulder harness. Here in December I count (almost) every calorie and gram of refined carbohydrate, I actually have a little etch mark on the kitchen cabinet to keep me honest about the size of my wine pours, and I'm popping a variety of vitamins and dietary supplements just before I climb aboard the treadmill for my daily hour of hamster simulation.

But it's not all bad. At the same time that I'm letting go of a few of the entries on my life list that seem vanishingly unlikely now -- I'll probably never go high-altitude trekking in Tibet; it doesn't seem in the cards for me to have a guiltless hedonistic romp in the sack with a couple of smooth-skinned nymphomaniacs; I'll never have a six pack -- I'm learning how to love what's around me even a little more. There's nothing like the faint realization that some morning in the future you're not going to wake up to make you stare even more deeply into the jet-black five-year-old-eyes of a child who's just told you for the sixteenth time how much she loves you. When you've just waited about 2 seconds longer than you should have for your heart to take its next beat, there is no memory more vivid than that last glorious in-rush of cold winter air into your lungs.

It has been some time since I first tried to teach myself to live life as a succession of exquisite moments. But that's what it is.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Letting the days go by

I've been wondering today: when did I decide that I had to be the one to do absolutely everything? Why do I have to do every experiment that occurs to me. Why do I have to write every article? Why is it so important that I have a chance to write another book? Is this all really about the fear of death? Or is it about something else?

No clue.

Life is just too difficult to understand. I want to be everywhere, think everything, taste everything, say everything, sleep with everyone, experience every sensation. None of this makes much sense, nor is it doing me much good.

I want everything to stop. Just even for 15 minutes. I want to stand under old hemlock trees again. I want to go to Mali.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Still breathing

I have to say that it fascinates me to see that there are still regular visitors to this more or less moribund blog. Just so you know, I'm alive and well and living here now.

I doubt that I'll post on this old blogger site very often -- there just won't be time to keep it up. Eventually I think I will just take the whole thing down, but not until I've had time to archive all the posts as I think there was some good writing here from time to time.

But here's one bloggerly navel-gazing reflection while I'm here and thinking about the years that this site took me through. A week or so ago, I was walking a little blearily in the city with an old friend of mine. We were on our way to buy a bottle of something good, and we happened to pass the building that used to house a meditation group that I attended fairly faithfully for a couple of years. I mentioned this to my friend and was surprised by his surprise. Somehow at the time I had thought it was fairly common knowledge that I had fallen in with a group of rowdy nogoodnik Theravadan Buddhists who took me over to the dark side. We talked a bit about what I thought I had learned there, and he surprised me a second time by telling me that both he and his wife had noticed that I had changed a great deal in the past 3 years ish. He said they had put this down to my having lots of new entertainment and success at work, the book, and so on but now asked me to reflect on whether I thought the mindfulness training had had anything to do with my transformation. I had never really thought about this before, but now that I have, I really wonder -- was this chance encounter with an entirely different way of engaging with life really the beginning of what has happened to me and not, as I've always thought, the combination of having the luxury of a sabbatical year to reflect on who I was and what I wanted and some unexpected successes at the conclusion of that year?

I often tell people who are interested that for me I thought the great turning point in my life was the day when I dared to think about not going on with my career but instead making a dramatic break to do something else (some crazy thing like growing grapes or making beer). But perhaps it was the meditation that had really laid the proper groundwork for my being in a position to entertain that crazed notion. Perhaps without having worked hard to get the tiniest glimpse of a greater truth and my own insignificance, I wouldn't have been able to even see the possibility of an alternative future. And then, having reflected on making a complete break, I returned to my old place in the world with a fresh pair of eyes and the conviction that if I were to continue with a life of study and research it would have to be on my own terms, looking at problems that mattered to me, and not simply doing the things that I thought would help me maintain a little bit of funding and drift happily and in a state of partial anesthesia to a comfortable retirement.

From my present viewpoint, remarkably, this all seems to have worked out fairly well for me. But on the other hand, the way that I've gotten here helps me to remember that everything that I've built up over the last couple of years could fall down again in an instant. The big difference now is that I understand that if it did I'd still be ok. And the world around me wouldn't even sigh.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

We plan. God laughs.

Not the weekend I had planned. Not by a mile. After a fabulous day spent at the market and the park, patting ourselves on the back for having extended our vacation for one more carefree day, I received a devastating email with the news that a close colleague and collaborator had died of a sudden and unexpected heart attack. Yes, this just a few days after my own scare.

My initial response, I'm a little ashamed to say, was to become quite drunk. Now I'm feeling tired, wrung out, confused, and anxious. In terms of my work life, this is the biggest setback I've had for over 10 years. Now to see whether I have the resilience and grit to get through it.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Another new leaf. Another one.

Just back from vacation and catching up on all the things that were too hard to cope with on my tiny ASUS EEE screen. I love that little device, but sometimes i just find the touchy keyboard and way too stiff mouse button thingie makes me want to put it away and read a book. A good thing, of course.

I could whine and complain about all the crappy weather and non-fun on the vacation, but that would seem ungrateful. Two weeks off work is two weeks off work (even if I had to spend on average 1-2 hours/day online keeping both jobs in order).

The most significant event of the entire vacation, and completely in keeping with the slow but sure turn in the aging/mortality/fear of death bent that this little neglected personal blog has taken of late, actually took place about one hour into what ended up being a 4000 km drive. I took first shift at the wheel and before we'd even reached Toronto, I found myself suffering from so much dizziness and slightly 'off' sensations that I had to pull over and let Karen drive. She asked me all the right questions to lead me to understand that she thought there was a decent chance I was having a TIA or a heart attack. After about another hour, and a long cold drink, we came to the conclusion that I had been suffering from some dehydration, sleep deprivation, work burnout and mental exhaustion -- not a happy way to begin some time off but a sure sign that some is needed.

Over the ensuing few hours, and really in the background for the whole vacation, was this growing awareness of the immensity of the importance of my health. At that moment, on the highway, feeling feeble, stupid and unwell, the overwhelming thought I has was "fuck, if I am headed for the hospital, and especially for something really serious, Karen and the kids are really screwed." And then, as the drive went on, that thought transmogrified into "fuck, if I keep living the way I have been, then I am certainly headed for the hospital and the great beyond, perhaps in fairly short order."

Incredibly selfish as it might seem, I think that too many of my mortality thoughts up to that point had had more to do with my anxiety about not getting far enough down my "list" than about what kind of mess I would be leaving behind me if I popped off prematurely. Now I've had this epiphany. I have to look after myself not only because there's much left for me to accomplish in this world, but perhaps even more so because I have this immense responsibility to help these incredible little beings along the way to a half-decent life. I've got kids under the age of 5. Unless I stop screwing up right now, they may not have a dad through their teenage years.


Boring as this may be, I'm now determined to make some serious changes to my lifestyle, in hopes that it isn't too late to prolong my life a little, and improve my ability to deal with everything lying directly in my path. I'm tired of waking up tired, and feeling the ache in my knees from carrying so much fat, and feeling like there's a risk that if I step off a stair awkwardly I'm going to break and ankle, and all of the million other things that follow from the fact that I eat and drink too much and don't move around enough.

It's got to change, and -- sorry -- it's going to get talked about here.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Emptying the nest

Sad to see my last post was about galumphing on the trail given that shortly after this I tore a calf muscle (dancing) and have not been able to galumph at all since then.

Summer proceeds apace, though it was great to have a server in a restaurant yesterday tell me we're not at the halfway point yet.

Emptying the nest. Oldest offspring just got a job in Toronto. Only for 4 months but still....

Second oldest going away to university.

So in September we'll be down to a household of only SIX. I'll be rattling around empty hallways like Kierkegaard.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

hot as hades

And yet still I've galumphed down the trail and earned the beer I'll sip tonight at the James Taylor concert.