At the Intersection of Life and Dreams

A Soul of Destiny

Growing up, I always suspected that “dreams came true” for other people only. My formative year were spent in a small town in central Iowa, where everyone knew everyone else. Literally. Everyday life played out matter-of-factly on a flat canvas in beautiful (if predictable) colors, for everyone to see.

My family was neither particularly prosperous nor poverty-stricken. Vacations, if any, were to exotic locales as the Wisconsin Dells (before the Water Park). More often, a vacation was the family reunion in another Midwest town. Life was stubbornly prosaic. But I whenever I reflected on the future, I concluded my life must have a purpose. I just needed to find it.

One of the most consistent influences in my life was my grandfather, an Associated Press reporter with his own byline. He was, in fact, the only male influence I admired without reservation. His command of the English language was matched only by his precision of its use and his perceptiveness. Though I only saw him once or twice a year, due to our geographic separation, his influence on me was disproportionate to the time we were together.

“Gramps” answered every letter I sent, so I wrote to him, and looked forward to the penetrating insights invariably wrapped up in his replies. They inspired me to think and because he never talked down to me in them, I found myself resorting to the dictionary—a lot. I attempted to write with his fluency and dreamed of becoming a writer. I attempted short stories and a novel or two, even at the young age, but my own writing came out flat and unimaginative. I was just perceptive enough to realize it and rarely finished them and would never have considered publishing them, even if the thought had occurred to me.

Eventually, by accident more than anything else, I discovered I was faster in the water than almost anyone else I knew. I was—a Swimmer! From age of 9 until my junior year in high school, I labored toward an Olympic dream. The spurt of growth I needed never materialized and I settled for a swimming scholarship, becoming, in the bargain, the first college graduate in my family. I still went through a few bouts at writing and took a couple of creative writing classes and while my writing wasn’t bad, in places, the stories were still flat, lifeless.

Distant Horizons

At an early age, I used to follow meandering creeks or rivers, for no other reason than to see where they went. I envied people in travel documentaries on television who’d had the opportunity to climb mountains explore deserts or swim in tropical waters.

The Insistent tug of the horizon

For me, the insistent tug of distant horizons grew a little each year. Finally, I combined a desire to serve my country with the urge to see parts unknown. Looking back on it, I don’t believe I ever reflected on possible consequence. I just chose and that choice dominated the next twenty-plus years of my life.

I have never regretted that choice. Over the course of that period, I met an incredibly diverse range of fascinating people, I could never have met any other way. I learned use chop sticks and to see Americans to some degree through the eyes of others. I learned to surf triple overhead waves breaking on reefs fragrant with the scent of the live coral beneath. I served with moderate distinction alongside hyper-competent men and women, some of whose names you would recognize instantly, if I were to be so self-serving as to namedrop.

Given a choice, I would do it all again. But like my swimming “career” years before, it was bound to end. I retired and after a two-year sabbatical for a Master’s degree, I rolled into a second career in corporate management and training. This path, like the others, proved rewarding both financially and in terms of the personal contributions I was privileged to make. Also like the others, my second career ended; this time when the company in whom I invested efforts with pride, sank into Chapter 11 during the financial collapse of 2008. I was cordially invited to leave and not return.

West of Tomorrow

In theory, I should be able to find other rewarding work, I thought. I had contributions to offer any number of perceptive hypothetical employers. All I had to do was figure out how to articulate the contributions I could realistically make. But absent a truly esoteric skill for which employers were desperate, no one was hiring. And no matter how I parsed my résumé, there was no hiding my age. Networking produced leads and some interviews, but no offers.

Marine officers do not surrender, so I perservered. At least I had the satisfaction of not giving up, or retreating. But gradually, it became apparent that my practical choices at this stage were to settle for any job, just to say I had one…or to retire.

If we are defined by our choices, then I am now a writer and author. I chose to retire and write. But what? Fiction, or non-fiction? I rejected the notion of a memoir as too obvious. And who would care, anyway? My career was neither that distinguished or eventful. But could I leverage those experiences and what I had learned a people in fiction? I decided I could, and West of Tomorrow was the result.

Out of the Fire...

The words, characters and thematic elements that were so elusive when I was younger seemed to come to mind almost unbidden. After reflection, I believe it’s a function of having lived, loved, lost and bounced back. The essence of humanity, I have come to believe, is the curious blending of optimism and angst. No matter how bad it gets, the true nature of man is the Phoenix, rising from the ashes of our yesterdays.

Is this actually true, or do I believe this purely as a matter of choice? A little of both, perhaps? Ask me again, in a few years. But at a time when the paradigms are all shifting at once, I choose hope. Fear and despair can only become a self-fulfilling prophecy, it seems to me. I choose optimism tempered by reality because it’s the only way forward.

Through the shadowed forest.

In the end, we are what we dare to dream and are prepared to bring to life. It would be inaccurate to say I don’t suffer through bouts of cycnicism, the news being what it is. But we are not what happens to us. We are what we do about what happens to us.

A Modest Lesson From My Road…

It’s almost an article of faith, today, that we are a nation divided by conflicting identities and most of the evidence supports that conclusion. It’s hard to find commentary from either side of the political spectrum that does not extoll the virtues of “Our Side” & “Our” particular take on truth at the expense of the opposition.

Factions identified as “The Right” peddle alternative realities and conspiracy theories, rail against the “Deep State” or shadowy “Fifth Column” movements bent on bringing down capitalism self-reliance and rugged individualism. Factions typically identified as “The Left” seek to demonize everyone who doesn’t share their vision of a brave new inclusive world in which everyone loves everyone else, even if they don’t, really. Everybody should love everybody, after all…well, shouldn’t they?

Seriously...think it over.

Tribes and Tribulations

The Brotherhood of Marines is a lesson to us all. The Citadel Hue City, during the Tet Offensive.

People who know me well know my first adult identity was as a Marine. It wasn’t a popular identity in the early years of my service. The military’s reputation was at its low ebb, in America, during Vietnam and for years thereafter. There’s room for debate with respect to how much of that contempt was earned, but most of us felt we were under siege in our own country and no where was this more evident than in California, where I was stationed after my first tour.

As a result, we turned inward. Many of us became Marines not simply first, but exclusively. Our haircut, our posture and an indefinable something others sensed set us apart, even out of uniform. Because we could not hide who we were, we wore our identity with tribal defiance, many of us choosing to opt out of “main stream society,” with whose views and values our own conflicted.

But lazer focus on identity in a society as diverse as ours is simply not sustainable. Like it or not, we own our society…all of it, not just the part we agree with. As the memories of Vietnam and the divisions it evoked receded, so did the animosities. Gradually, all of America came to realize a nation that continued to despise it’s military would eventually have a despicable military that lived down to its reputation, earned or not.

Unconsciously, we all came to realize this, though it took time. At first, Dirk the Marine officer, and “Otter” the surfer/shaper were different identities, inhabiting different orbits in the same geographical space. But over time, those identities merged into one, with neither identity  conflicting with the  other contextual realities that had come to define me. A surfing Marine was no longer out of place in the waves, or on base with surf racks on his/her car.

The zen zone - a world unto itself...

Road Songs...

Over time, my merging identities as Marine and surfer symbolized broader kinship. As permanent changes of duty station and my own incurable restlessness pulled me repeatedly across this great land, the inevitable stops along the way pulled me into conversations with other drivers. On one cross-country drive, I pulled a horse and trailer, stopping to stable my horse overnight and found kinship with other horse people whose take on things didn’t always dovetail with mine.

This divergence of opinion repeated itself with relatives in Texas, one of whom referred to my home as “la-la land.” But mixed in with the sediment of opinion, most of the people I came to know well revealed a generosity of spirit, even a nobility I could not help but admire. It’s a sensing we all would do well to recapture.

This did not change after I retired and traveled not as a Marine, but as a corporate trainer. Repeatedly, I was reminded of what I had learned earlier in my career as a Marine officer. Nobility, honor and generosity are not functions of class, race, origin or ethnicity. They are rooted in attitude. Ironically, I often noticed this nobility and generous-hearted love of country was most evident in immigrants who had come here by choice, rather than accident of birth.

Specialization and Synergy

Toasts and fines can get a little wild...

Many years ago, I attended one of many Marine Crops mess nights which (like some mess nights) got a little wild. In the toasts immediately following dinner, a “toasting war” broke out over which Military Occupational Specialty (MOS) was or should be most valued.

First an infantry officer stood to make his case for the superiority of the infantry…to agreement by other infantrymen and numerous catcalls from everyone else. Then an artillery officer stood and said his piece, followed by a tanker, a fighter pilot an engineer, a communications officer, etc. Finally a quiet, bespectacled officer stood, and was recognized by the president of the Mess. He paused, waiting for silence, then spoke these words:

There is always an empty table for fallen comrades...

“To all the numbers! Together we’re invincible.”

(For those of you who might not know, all MOS’s have numeric designations). Tables were pounded and glasses drained to roars of approval. As every officer knows, he (or she) won’t last very long without the other. The fusion and synergy of joint warfare as practiced by the U.S. military today is legendary for a reason. We rely on each other and know that our brothers and sisters in arms would sooner die than let us down.

E Pluribus Unum...

My wanderings across this country have led me to understand what has made America the great nation it has become isn’t what’s different about us,either internally or externally. It’s how each of our self-images inform our individual actions.

In this age of swirling change and shifting paradigms, we would do well to remember this. I am convinced much of the disunion we see today is a spin-off of change greater even than the paroxysms of the Industrial Revolution. We should be unsurprised by the divisions those changes are tearing in our social fabric. Change by definition destroys nearly as much as it creates. And hidden in this maelstrom of change is unharnessed energy is both hope and rage. It is for us to choose what to do with it.

Just a thought...

I now have way more runway behind me than is left in front of me. I’ve lived a rich life in terms of experiences. I’ve learned to question almost everything I think, because my first thoughts are often wrong…or at least out of balance. But this I know.

When we choose to divide ourselves…or allow others inside or out to do, we place all we value at peril. We should be suspicious of identity politics that seems calculated to divide us, rather than pull us together. We’re a contentious, rambunctious collection of differing opinions. That’s who we are but in that diversity there is great synergy, beauty, wisdom and resilience. And in the end, that’s exactly what we need.

Individuality Vs. Society

Art and the Slippery Slope...

Last night, I had the pleasure of attending the latest reading sponsored by “Lit-Up, A Conversation Between Local Authors and Readers.” Sponsored by Pure Fiction League & thoughtfully hosted by Maddie Margarita, it’s one of the true highlights of my month. I never willingly miss it.

One of the readings, Hard Bite, chosen by Book People/Mystery People as one of the five best debut novels of 2013. this month was given by Elaine Ash, under one of her Noms de Plume, Anonymous-9. 

In Hard Bite, a crippled man nearly killed by a reckless driver takes it upon himself to become an avenging angel for people he deems worthy of an awful death, using a Capuchin Monkey as his weapon of choice.

Lit-Up Orange

For this reading, the avenging angel has selected a target whose crime is to have sideswiped a mother of four, killing her and orphaning four children in the process. The law has been unable to locate him, but our avenging angel has connections and secures “justice” the law has been unable to provide.

A quick word on Elaine’s writing before I cut to my point. Her command of language, artful manipulation of readers’ empathy couples in  this novel with a delightful sense of humor to render an otherwise outrageous and (in places) macabre story both thoughtful and  entertaining. The reading, however, did spark a discussion and I’m going to share it with you.

Elaine’s skillful manipulation of readers’ emotions was noted, which in turn led one of the folks in the audience speculated that author’s sympathetic treatment of the vigilante murderer could be construed by some to be tacit approval and his observation raised (obliquely), the question of an author’s ethical responsibility. Some, he opined, might conclude as a result of her treatment of the murderer that it was somehow okay to take the law into our own hands when the law itself failed. 

Setting aside for the moment that Hard Bite is a work of fiction designed to entertain, does the question raised remain valid? What if any lessons do readers take away from the works they read in books or see in films? Scientific inquiry into the correlation between viewing violent content and a propensity toward violence in any form is mixed. An APA study spanning a fifteen year period showed a positive correlation between violent content viewed during the formative years 6-10. But as Psychology Today notes in one of their posts to their online magazine, correlation between ideation and action remains an open question and stories of lawbreakers with altruistic intent are literally cultural bedrock.

Leverage-an updated Robin Hood

Whether it’s the story of Robin Hood or the long-running series starring Timothy Hutton and Co. in “Leverage,” there’s a persistent theme in western liberal democracies that organizations (business in particular) cannot be trusted. The time-honored traditions  of organizational mistrust are often well-earned.

 And it is that same organizational mistrust that attaches naturally to our ubiquitous federal government. It’s not hard to understand why, if you’ve been paying attention. A pretty strong argument can be made suggesting we have the president we do precisely because of that same organizational mistrust.

The Donald speaks...

Depending on how you view “the Donald,” that’s either a good or a bad thing. As a  retired Marine officer, by whatever metric I use, he comes up short. Admittedly that’s just my opinion, albeit an informed one, I think. Quite apart from unproven allegations of conspiracy to influence the 2016 election, Mr. Trump’s choices for his cabinet, his abandonment of our allies and his sophomoric rants on Twitter the fiscally disastrous tax cut leave me in little doubt as to his legacy in the arc of history. 

Which brings us full circle to my scare-head, “Art and  the Slippery Slope.” As an author and (hopefully) artist, I am fundamentally opposed to formalized (or worse) institutionalized censorship, for the same reason I oppose censorship of the press, even in the face of the (sometimes) grotesque abuse of truth. If you’re guilty, you know who you are. But as with anything that attaches to the public good, we all have an obligation to safeguard it. 

Artists believe we are entitled, even “obligated” to show our readers or viewers truth as we perceive it…even when it is uncomfortable or offensive. I hear you, agree and support you. To that support let me add a couple cautionary thoughts. If your truth has power, are you quite certain of their target? The more powerful the truth the more potentially destructive. And what, pray, will you replace what you are potentially eroding? Just a thought…