Life lessons remembered

Too much of my life has been spent in the pursuit of pie.
Too much of my life has been spent in the pursuit of pie.

When did you figure out this whole  “life” thing was going to be complicated? For me it came in the fifth grade.  I have no idea whether that’s early or late in one’s life for it to happen. Heck, maybe it doesn’t happen in a single event for most people. I honestly don’t know. I know how it happened for me. Maybe this has potential to be the worst party game ever.

This would have happened sometime in the 1974-75 school year. It was our second year living in Colonial Heights just outside Kingsport, TN. We moved there after we’d lived in Asheville, NC for three years and we spent two years there before we moved, for the last time as an intact family, to Houston, TX after school got out that year. My oldest brother was a freshman in high school and moving around as my dad’s contract engineering positions expired wasn’t going to cut it anymore. I’m guessing this incident happened early in the year before we knew we’d be moving.

We typically didn’t get a bunch of warning when we were going to move. We’d know something was up when Dad brought his briefcase home. Dad wasn’t a briefcase guy. He had one, but he kept work at work. If the briefcase came home, it meant his current contract was running out. The process of choosing the next one was on. I don’t think any of the “OK kids, we’re moving” announcements ever came a surprise. We always knew we weren’t staying where we lived when we moved in. The only question was where we were going next. It wasn’t until I hit the fifth grade that people outside my family weren’t just kind of moving wallpaper. That probably set me up for what happened that year.

I love trivia. I always have. I remember when Trivial Pursuit came out in 1979 that it was kind of a life affirmation for me. But the game didn’t exist in 1974, so I had to be satisfied with those times that my teachers decided to do the quiz bowl thing in class. My fifth grade teacher really liked the quiz bowl competition technique, and I adored her for it. In order of preference, I loved social studies, reading, science and (slightly below the flu and mandatory vaccinations) math. Social studies was well-suited to dividing the class in half and throwing out questions to earn each team points. Nobody ever wanted me on their kickball team, but I never heard anyone complain about me being on their team for class quiz games.

This was all a long time ago and I’m pretty sure I’m fuzzy on some of the details. I remember the names of some of my friends from those days, but I’m happy to say I don’t remember the name of the antagonist in this story. It’s irrelevant, really. As I recall it,  our teacher divided the class for a quiz bowl. There was a prize involved, as I recall, Extra recess time or something like that. I may not be remembering it right, but there was something about this particular match that was pretty important to all of us.

Something happened and time ran long. It was time to go to lunch and the score was tied. Our teacher apparently missed how close to the bell we were, so she actually asked the tie-breaking question just before the bell rang. We weren’t allowed to take books or anything down to lunch, so we knew what the last question was going to be. And I knew the answer.

I wish I could say I remember what the question was. I don’t. I think it was a geography question.  We moved around a lot and traveled around from wherever we lived.  Most of the kids I went to school didn’t. To them most places were just names in a book. Some were for me, too, but a lot weren’t. What ever this question was, I knew it immediately and it seemed like everyone understood that I probably knew it. The thing was, I assumed everyone else knew it too.

I was — and still am — confused by what’s considered “general knowledge.”  It’s taken a long time, but I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s no such thing.  If I assume everyone knows something and act accordingly I’ll find out it’s not and I’ll become this weirdo who knows that thing no one else knows. Or I assume someone doesn’t know something and they actually do so I’m a jerk.

I’ve learned to love silence. Except on trivia night at bars, but I digress.1

So anyway, I go to lunch knowing what the answer is and figuring the only issue is going to be making sure we got our hands up first because, of course, everyone knew the answer, right? That’s what I talked to my classmates who were on my team about. Some said they knew, some said they didn’t but trusted that those of us who said we knew really did. The Answer was not spoken aloud. For them it was operational security. For me it was “why say something we all know about?”

As cons go, this one wasn’t very sophisticated. This guy on the other team didn’t know the answer, but he knew I did. He came up to me as I was throwing my lunch bag away and said something that reinforced my belief that we all knew the answer and the only suspense was who’d be able to answer first. I don’t remember what he said exactly, but whatever it was, the next thing I said contained the answer. Then he laughed at me and thanked me for giving them the game. As I recall, he was really quite an asshole about it. My team was not happy with me.

I went to the teacher. It’s kind of embarrassing to tell a long story like this and not actually remember what wound up happening. I think she threw out the question once it was established that the other team had suckered the answer out of me. Or maybe she didn’t. There were probably 10 or 12 kids on each team, and the jerk who suckered me was part of a subgroup who didn’t know the answer. There’s every reason to think someone on the other team did know. This was fifth-grade geography,not tensor calculus.

I definitely don’t remember who won the game (if indeed she didn’t call a halt to the whole thing right then and there). I was in shock. I didn’t know people could act that way. I didn’t know until that moment that people were perfectly willing to use what you know for their own advantage at your expense.

It’s never left me. I still don’t like it.

Worst party game ever? Yep.


1Like that ever happens.

A love letter to my wife on the occasion of her birthday

My honey
It’s always cold and often snowing on her birthday. I can’t change the weather, but I can change the place. I need to do that.

Carla Elaine Gesell-Streeter was born on this day in 1962 in Urbana, IL to John and Carol Gesell. It was a Monday. “Peppermint Twist” by Joey Dee and the Starliters was the #1 song in the US.  “Gunsmoke” was the most popular television show. “Franny and Zooey” by J.D. Salinger was #1 on the New York Times Best Seller list. Her father’s occupation is listed as “herdsman” on her birth certificate. What he actually did was run the Experimental Swine Farm at the University of Illinois. “Herdsman” sounds 100% more awesome, though.  I’m going with that.

I was still 16 months and two days from existing. Promptness has never been my strong point.

Things happened after that. We spent more than 30 years wandering around. I did it obliviously. She had panache. Then we were introduced by a mutual friend for no reason stated other than (and I’m not making this up) “You’re both tall.”

She had a point.

In July of 1998 I took advantage of a terrible lapse in judgement on her part and we were married. Being the sappy people we were, we celebrated our one-month anniversary. Being the sappy people that we are, we’re still doing it 17 years later. Though for practical purposes we quit counting the months a long time ago. Like in August, 1998. But it’s a rare 10th of the month we don’t acknowledge.

Normally on her birthday I embarrass her with a post on Hoperatives. This year I decided to do it here because I’m posting here every day. This will be her first opportunity to regret my goal for 2016.

Pick your favorite rom-com movie cliché and it applies to us:

  • “You complete me.”  Check.
  • “To me you are perfect.” Yup.
  • “I’ll have what she’s having.”

I should probably stop there.

She is my best friend. She’s the person I’d rather be around than anyone. We can sit for long periods of time and not talk and then complete each other’s sentences when we do. She understands me better than I understand myself.

It’s weird that I’m calling this a love letter because I’ve been referring to her in the third person the entire time.  Why? Partially because I clearly have issues with the concept of a love letter. But mostly because my idea of a love letter is standing in front of everyone I know and everyone I don’t know (and given that this is the Internet, people posting pictures of cats) and declaring to one and all that today is my wife’s birthday. She’s the most wonderful person in the world, and no gift I give her can ever be even a fraction of the gift she gives me merely by being in my life. If any sentiment deserves a run-on sentence, it’s that one.

Happy birthday, hon.  I see the world differently because of you. And it’s a better one.

I love you.

What MLK means to me

I only have one story where Martin Luther King touched my life. I was five years old when he was assassinated in Memphis. The efforts of his life have undoubtedly made the life I’ve lived better in ways I haven’t perceived, but there is one time his words had a profound influence on me. I think I can honestly say I wouldn’t be the person I am today without them.

In the late 1980s I was a newbie Ph.D. student in Athens, GA at the University of Georgia. It was the first time I’d been more than three hours from my family, which at this point pretty much meant my mom. I’d kind of wandered through undergrad studies and my master’s.  Being at UGA to work on my Ph.D. was the result of the first choice about my life that wasn’t either forced on me or  just the easiest path at the time. The day I was accepted into the program I’d been offered a research job at WXYZ TV in Detroit. I went to Georgia. Both paths terrified me. I knew more about being in school. I went to Georgia.

I had been waging a personal war on organized religion since my father died in 1979. Raised Roman Catholic, I couldn’t reconcile a belief system that was willing to dictate personal behavior to a very specific degree, but when asked “So then why does this bad stuff happen?” all you get is a shrug and something about God’s Will. This is me describing what the 25-year-old kid I was thought. I’ve got no complaints now about the priests who spent a lot of time with me back when my dad died. They were good guys and they did the best they could. But knowing that came years later.

Not too long after I got to Athens I read a story in the local paper about the Episcopal priest at the University Episcopal Center.  His name was Ralph Marsh, and I cannot begin to describe the effect that man had on my life. The Last Temptation of Christ had just come out and, as you might expect, it was a real shitstorm in the Bible Belt. Ralph was quoted as saying how much he wanted to see the movie, and then went on to describe how the original novel was consistent with a lot of gnostic stories and he thought it was great that the movie had been made.

“OK,” I said to myself, “this is a church I need to check out.”

And I did. Any you might notice a lack of anything in this story about Martin Luther King. I’m about to clear that up.

So right after church got out, the campus radio station WUOG ran a show called “Martin Speaks.” It was recorded sermons and speeches by Dr. King. What was interesting is that the shows that ran tended to follow the Revised Common Lectionary. That meant that I’d hear Ralph preach on some topic and then when I was out in my truck deciding where to go get lunch, I’d often listen to Martin Luther King preach on the same topic. It wasn’t sermons every week, but it was a lot of the time.

Even though I was in my first year at Georgia, I was beginning to wonder what I was doing there. Most of my time was spent studying people who seemed to have some purpose in their lives. My teachers seemed to have real purpose.  My fellow students were mostly older and left careers to come back because they wanted to do this thing. I was still trying to figure out why I was there.

So it came to be one Sunday that the Gospel for the day was from Matthew 25 where the parable is the one of the servants who are given money by their master. Two of them invest and get rewarded, one buries the money and is basically screwed.  The actual passage isn’t the most important part of this story.

So Ralph preached on this topic and I’m sure it was good. He undoubtedly primed the pump. Then I listened to Martin Luther King give a sermon on the same passage. This was the MLK who’d come out against the war in Viet Nam. This was post-Poor People’s March MLK.  Still non-violent — possibly even more, if there is a way that makes sense — but speaking more and more about how the poison of injustice didn’t stop at how whites treated blacks. And in this sermon he asked what the powerful would say when called before God and asked “What did you do with what I gave you?” What would LBJ say?  That he killed how many Vietnamese? What would McNamara say?  What would Dean Rusk say? I had learned just a few weeks before that Dean Rusk maintained an office in a little building on the quad, and it was not unusual for a student to go upstairs and ask him a question.  I regret not doing that. But that came later.

There was something about that sermon on that day at that time in my life that has never left me.I still don’t know that I have a purpose in life.  I know I do not talk about the theology that guides me. Judge me on what I do. But I will say that, because of the words that Martin Luther King spoke, I do live my life preparing for whatever day I’m asked “What did you do with what I gave you?” No matter who asks. I think I’m a better person for it.

It’s not why his birthday is a holiday. But it’s why I celebrate it.

Purpose

Everyone should find their porpoise.

I often say the purpose of my life is to serve as a cautionary tale to others. It seems to be how it’s working out, so I’m going with it. I think about the notion of purpose more and more  as the time for me to leave the security of a salaried job behind draws closer. I know what I’m walking away from, but what I’m walking toward is still a mystery.

Maybe it’s the times we’re living in. There are big questions out there being asked on a global level. Are we all really alone in this journey through life, or does our basic humanity require us to help one another to lift the common condition? How do we reconcile the power of great wealth with the needs of great poverty? Will we ever  know for sure who it was who let the dogs out? It’s been more than 15 years, people. Can’t we at least find this answer?

I’ve come to the conclusion over the years that people aren’t very good at articulating why they do what they do. My favorite example of this is mentioned in a lengthy 1977 Psychological Review article by psychologists Richard Nisbett and Timothy Wilson. In it, they describe an experiment where people were asked to judge the quality of different items. What the subjects didn’t know is that the items they were judging (nightgowns and stockings) were actually identical. People had no problem choosing one.  They tended to pick whatever item was on the far right, even though the items were mixed up between tests. When asked why the item they chose was better, the subjects would give all kinds of answers — except the fact that they picked the last item they looked at. That was the only thing the items chosen actually had in common. When this was pointed out to them, the subjects would deny it as a possibility.

I wonder, but do not claim to know, how often this runs in the other direction. I say “this is what I’m about” or “this is my purpose” and then proceed to act in ways that may or may not have any relationship to that purpose.  When asked why I did what I did, I attribute it to that larger purpose. “Why are you leaving your job?” is another way of asking “What purpose does it serve to give up the security of a regular paycheck to make a living project to project?” I really don’t have an answer for that. Somewhere inside me I have a feeling it’s what I have to do, but I’m loathe to try to articulate it any further. I don’t know that anything I’d come up with would really be accurate and it might send me down a rabbit hole I could avoid by not overthinking it.

On a more mundane level, I am a mere 12 days into what is supposed to be 365 consecutive posts. The fact that I was willing to go “purpose/porpoise” with a Baja Men reference in just 12 days tells me I think I’m probably going to make it. I have demonstrated beyond any reasonable doubt that there is no depth to which I am unwilling to sink in order to make a stupid joke.

Maybe that’s my purpose.

Gaydar

I have the worst gaydar in the world. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve said “[So-and-so] is gay? Huh. Who knew?”

The answer to that is always “Um. Everyone but you, apparently.”

I’m OK with that. I also can’t tell who is left-handed without seeing them write or throw a ball. I don’t know why I’d want to be able to know someone was left-handed. Just like I don’t know why I need to be able to tell someone is gay.

Here is the comprehensive list of things that change once I learn someone is gay:

There is no #2 unless you happen to be holding a pencil. That’s why my lousy gaydar doesn’t bother me. I care if you’re happy. I care if you’re doing things that fulfill you. I care that you’re comfortable in your own head. I don’t care if you’re gay.

Hai Nguyen (left) and Mark Streeter are married by Deputy Marriage Commissioner John Pleskach at City Hall in San Francisco, California, shortly after the Supreme Court’s ruling in favor of same-sex marriage on Friday, June 26, 2015. The Fourteenth Amendment requires a state to license a marriage between two people of the same sex. Mark’s mother, Linda Streeter, is seen in the background.

Photo and caption courtesy of Loren Elliot.

I didn’t know it until just a few days ago, but I hit the grand slam of obliviousness last June 26. You remember last June 26, right? When the Supreme Court ruled that same-sex marriage was legal in all 50 states?1 I thought it was a great thing. I remember being happy about it. I wasn’t nearly happy enough.

That’s my nephew Mark there in that picture. I remember the day he was born. I had no idea this happened. Families are complicated and that’s all that needs to be said about why I didn’t know at the time. I didn’t, and that’s cool. The plan was for them to have a nice quiet wedding that day and then have a big reception and party later on. They picked June 26. I don’t know all the ins and outs of how that day was picked, but having the Supreme Court of the United States make a landmark decision definitely wasn’t on the schedule. Having news media descend on San Fransisco City Hall wasn’t the plan. Click on the picture and you’ll go to the web page of the talented photographer who covered the story for the San Francisco Chronicle. Where pictures of his wedding ran. Apparently footage of the his wedding ran on the CBS Evening News. How awesome is that? Sure, it was making a very personal and private moment an international spectacle, but no one had to hire photographers. I think it all evens out.

To be honest, there are a couple of things about this whole situation that bothers me. First, it’
s been six months! We haven’t sent a gift! And apparently the whole you-have-a-year thing is a myth! I’ve got to get this figured out.

Then there’s the fact that I was hoping to participate in my family’s first same-sex wedding. “Er … How? What?” you ask, remembering my incredibly happy marriage with my clearly opposite-sex wife Carla? Easy! And not at all what you were just thinking! My cousin Lisa asked me to be her best man when she marries her partner Jen in October. Lisa is family and I’d get to participate. I thought we had it sewed up! And now I find out we weren’t even in the running. Sorry Lisa. I’m sure we’ll all still have fun at your wedding. We just can’t keep up with that darn younger generation.

I’ve not had the honor of meeting Hai yet. I have to admit to being a little nervous. Mark’s an aerospace engineer. Hai has a Ph.D. in Robotics. Newlyweds living in San Francisco and working in Silicon Valley. Carla and I are these older, married … liberal arts majors. WHAT ARE WE GOING TO TALK ABOUT?2

All kidding aside, I’m so very happy for them. My big brother Jim, rest his soul, never got to see the day. My sister-in-law Linda is in the background of that picture. I just saw her the other night and the smile on her face is every bit as big now talking about that day as it is there.

My smile that day wasn’t nearly big enough. I’m making up for it now.


1I know Roy Moore doesn’t think it applies to Alabama, but he’s wrong. It applies to all states, even the one that involves having your own head up your own ass. Which is the state Roy Moore is in perpetually, but I digress.
2Completely a joke. We’re going to completely nerd out. And there will be beer.

Real Life

Carla and her dad
Carla and her dad
Today we get back to real life. And it’s pretty real. That handsome gentleman next to my lovely wife is my father-in-law. They’re on stage at the Grand Ol’ Opry standing on the circle of wood from the stage at the old Ryman Auditorium. Seeing a smile on his face is not unusual, but being with Carla at that particular place probably made the whole exercise a lot easier.

We get back home today. I’ll be surprised if Carla spends more than a couple of hours there before she gets in her car to drive to her hometown in Central Illinois. Dad’s having some health issues. He landed in the hospital last Saturday and her brother has taken the vast majority of the load this week. Carla is heading up immediately.  I have some work stuff to deal with and won’t be able to get up there until Thursday sometime. The whole family will converge over the long weekend.  That’s how we roll. It’s a good thing.

Dad’s going to be OK. That’s not in doubt. Living arrangements are going to have to be different, but it’s all very do-able. In many, many ways we are all fortunate. It’s all going to be very busy, but, in the end, things will be OK. It’s impossible not to be thankful for that.

Both of my parents are gone, as is Carla’s mom. My father-in-law is the last parental figure we have left. There’s no reason to think we don’t have several more years left with him, but it’s important to us that we do everything we can. There is utterly nothing unique about the situation we’re in. Anyone our age is either dealing with something similar, will be dealing with something similar soon or has already been there and done that. We are luckier than most. Plans have been made and nothing has happened to ruin them. The financial meltdown was a bump, not a chasm.1

Usually when we get back from a trip there’s a little time to decompress. That’s part of the function of the long drive. There’s something about getting into a metal tube in one place and getting out in another a few hours later that’s both miraculous and disconcerting. The drive helps you maintain a sense of place even as it changes constantly. This time our usual routine will be interrupted. Things will not go as they usually go. We’ll make it up as we go along and do the best we can.

Oh. And it’s apparently snowing back in Cincinnati. That ought to be fun. 

That’s life. And we’re back to it.


1Thank God the bankers weren’t inconvenienced by the whole financial meltdown. That would have been awful.