Saturday, July 25, 2020

Waking up in a Helicopter

I was inside my head, ruminating over circumstances, and I was definitely feeling down. With about an hour to go before sunset, I finally convinced myself to haul my body out of a chair and at least get out for a walk. Three miles down and a cool shower later, I was lying on my bed anticipating the next pass of the oscillating fan, thinking that my sense of self-worth had racked up at least one accomplishment.

Seriously. It was that kind of day.

At some point, my wife interrupted: Dinner would be ready in about five minutes, son was in his wheelchair headed for the table, and daughter’s boyfriend would be joining us. It didn’t matter that I was still full from my pandemic sedentary one-meal-a-day and it didn’t matter that I didn’t feel like I’d be particularly good company. “I’ll be there.” The next act of will was just sitting back up and getting dressed.

Again, yes. Seriously. It was that kind of day.

I don’t know who was talking or what the context was, but I somehow woke up at the table hearing someone mention “helicopters.” So listen: I have no particular love of helicopters – I’m not really an aficionado; however, the sights, sounds, and memories of them sometimes take me back to my service in the Army with the 101st Airborne Division. While helicopters were not a specific part of my daily life there, they were certainly part of the ambiance ~ and, yes, I do have a few good personal stories guest-starring Hueys, Blackhawks, Chinooks, and even Apaches. Before I knew it, I found myself at the table, sharing a few of each.

In recounting each story, one after another, I was transported back to another time and into another set of circumstances. In one place and time, maybe there was just something funny to see; in another, some obstacle to overcome; and in yet another, a reminder of who I was or a clue of how I came to be.

Looking a little to the left and a little to the right of each event, there were reminders of how I found myself in that situation and perhaps how I was changed by it. That pattern became even more clear with a little more altitude. Looking a bit to the left and a bit to the right, I recalled myself a wandering aimlessly in college before my father died. Working different jobs wasn’t moving me forward or getting me back to college, so one day I hit the eject button and joined the Army. While there, I had a basic plan. It was routinely confounded, sure, but I remained on course – right until it was confounded. Once I was injured, the Army – and all the things I intended to do therein over the next 20 years or so – were no longer an option. Over the next year, I worked to remain honorably engaged with the mission In an environment hostile to the “invisibly broken,” and I accumulated quite a few stories – and quite a few hours with the helicopters. I also remained mercifully distracted from not knowing what I’d do next with the rest of my life.

That was more than 25 years ago… and this day felt very familiar. What comes next? Who knows? What I do have now that I didn’t have then are those stories reminding me that this isn’t the first time my world’s been turned upside-down… and in this instance, I had the nice distraction of sharing some of my stories with my kids and with a young man who may have known little to nothing about me except through hearsay.

No helicopters this time ~ but maybe I picked up a worthwhile story for another day. In the meantime, for the first time in a while, I slept peacefully.

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

I Was Thinking

It’s 1:30 in the morning, 77-degrees Fahrenheit and 79% humidity. After a few days with afternoons near 100-degrees, it's the first time in maybe three days I've ventured outside for more than a minute or two at a time… and at this hour ~ in this season ~ the songs of the toads and crickets and the quiet itself are overwhelming.

With the family asleep, I thought I'd enjoy some mint tea on the patio and maybe write a little. Settling into my chair, I relax and ask a quiet mind for topics to consider. Somehow, though, circumstances such as they are, the only visions appearing from just inside the fog are dark and bitter. I don't want to feel like that right now, nor do I want to post that poison for others. So I don't.

Instead, I pause for a breath... and then maybe another… and habitually return to my tea and consider what this all may mean and what I should do.

Acting on instinct at a time like this may well collapse all of what is possible into a much smaller universe of negative outcomes. What do I mean by this? Well, first is a practical matter, and that is that I may be noticed. If the universe is on the fence about what to do with you and you start playing the fool, your action pending an outcome may affect that outcome. The second is not such an obvious matter of cause and effect, but it may be more important: If your mind is poisoned with a negative view and you dwell on assuming ill intent or the worst case scenarios, you may be blind to any positive options offered or works in progress. Either way, the end is the same: You may only have whatever solace comes with an "I was right" or an "I told you so” after the fact.

So what about all of this thinking itself? All thinking is “wishful thinking,” isn’t it? If I’m on the lookout for a positive outcome or a negative outcome, I may well find it – after all, I do like being right, even if it’s about something terrible… and if I’m focused specifically on this outcome or that outcome, I may well be blind to others. I conclude that I might as well focus on who I’d like to be should a positive reality happen to come along.

… either that or I limit myself to outcomes that can only be compatible with a worldview that is not compatible with me. For instance, if I have to force or to trick an outcome that feels positive to me, do I want to live with the reinforced notion that I am separate from all of this and somehow above all of that, and that to succeed or to maintain the result means more force or more trickery? Certainly that would mean expecting that everyone else is treating me in that same way. Would people really enjoy a lifetime living in that world?

The temperature of the psyche is visible everywhere, even in the quiet in the middle of the night ~ even against the croaking and chirping of invisible toads and crickets. Half of my thoughts are true while the other half are lies while the truth itself ~ if it exists at all ~ is far from where my attention lies. So instead of examining the details of this conversation with myself, maybe it’s enough to realize what it’s saying about me.

So let that be my writing for tonight ~ the most positive thing I can say given my circumstances and given my experience, presented from the perspective of the person I will become.

Monday, June 29, 2020

On Showing Up

Symposium Thursday…

A question, from somewhere near the back: “Who’s talking? What’s the topic?”

First there was the glare, and ~ just in case the glare didn’t say enough ~ then came the lecture.

On Thursdays, after core hours, the halls would start to buzz as the crew shuffled from the informal coffee reception in the faculty lounge, the offices, and the classrooms, and that buzz would move with it’s own peculiar energy toward the third-floor’s small, auditorium-styled classroom.

There were faculty and there were grad students ~ and depending on the topic, there may have been some inspired undergrads or folks from other academic departments too. We’d be in there for an hour, maybe an hour-and-a-half, in a show of support for the speaker, the department, and for mathematics itself.

Well, at a minimum it was a show of support: I mean, there’s no question that the symposium was an opportunity for us to come together professionally as a community. But in reality, and more often than not, there would inevitably be something of interest for you.

The guest speaker was often a peer of a faculty member, likely a collaborator in some research. Sometimes, the speaker might be from industry or another department, highlighting some application of mathematics or an open problem they’re facing ~ a potential opportunity for research… The speaker might be a visiting alumnus, describing experience after graduation, and maybe even opportunities to join in. The speaker might be a graduate student highlighting an interesting problem or a prospective approach, or maybe practicing a talk to be delivered elsewhere, or maybe practicing standing at the podium and addressing an adversarial audience in preparation for a doctoral defense or even a teaching assignment.

The symposium was a lightweight way of introducing students to the foundations of academic community. There, we bring our thinking out from the shadows to see how it fares in daylight. There, we raise questions and we consider approaches. There, we solicit insight and find inspiration. There, we examine solutions with adversarial scrutiny. And there, we share and celebrate both individual achievement and collaborative successes.

For many, the symposium is the first glance into a world that exists alongside and a bit beyond the core curriculum, the exams, and the degrees.

But none of this happens without instilling the tradition.

None of this happens without celebrating the culture.

None of this happens if the doors aren’t opened for us.

And none of this happens if we don’t show up.

The cultures we create ~ and the cultures we ignore ~ will all be as present as you were as you take your place today at the podium.

Having set the stage, your time ~ begins ~ now.