Facing the Kobayashi Maru

  Known to Star Trek geeks everywhere, “The Kobayashi Maru” is the name of a civilian space vessel (or “wessel” as Chekov would have said).  In Trekkie lore, this simulated ship was the focus of a test by the military for it’s prospective commanders.  In the simulation the tested officer would face a “no-win” situation in which his or her leadership decisions would be scrutinized.  The intent was to see what the candidate for captain was made of – whether they had the “right stuff” to see it through till the end, if that time ever came.

Of course, Captain James Tiberius Kirk, of sci-fi fame, ‘beat’ the test by cheating and so became a legend among those characters of the fiction series.  Those of us who have watched and longed to merely be able to make a Vulcan “V” with our fingers cheered his every conquest.  There is, in many of us, a little bit of Kirk.  Often, we don’t believe in “no-win” scenarios where circumstances won’t budge.  Life suggests that we are clearly in denial.

So, what’s a puny mortal to do?  The opening stanzas of the “Serenity Prayer” intone:

God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference….

–Reinhold Niebuhr

There is wisdom and a certain contentment in acceptance, but the temptation to be fatalistic is always with us.  Surely, for the Christian at least, trusting that God will make it all right in the end is a significant source of comfort.  It is the traditional view and carries the endorsement of the scriptures.  However, if a “fix” is not always within reach, what then constitutes a “win” in the here and now?

This life isn’t science fiction and we are not Kirk.  Even if we manage to avoid all other tests, it seems reasonable that we all will face growing older and the wearing out of these bodies we occupy.  We exercise, we moisturize, we tan our thighs, but in the end….. we realize.  If moving the immovable is what we are all about, then all is indeed vanity.

These days we live in are often difficult and discouraging, but I have come to see that it is just “life.” In my time of testing I have been cast into a meditation on being an adult.  It is remarkable how slowly the romantic notions that we entertained in childhood are replaced by the cold, hard realities of responsibility and duty.  Yet, in the midst of struggle,  there is a secret life that is offered by Jesus that is a “spring of water welling up to eternal life.”  That life, defined in the Bible as “knowing the Father” ennobles our existence, not by a cheat, but by fulfilling the end for which we were made.  The pointless, from the human point-of-view, suddenly brims with meaning as we see Eternity all around.  That, James T., is winning.

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Working at the Museum

Writing.  It can be a real time of soul-searching.  An idea occurs to you and you begin to put it down on paper only to think….  “I’ve heard this before.”  You can’t remember where you got it from but you know that it’s not really original.  Now it seems that you have a dilemma.  Do you go ahead and publish it without attributing it to someone?  What if I can’t remember the original wording?  There is a thin chance that you had this as a semi-original thought.  The problem is: It just sounds so familiar that you are sure you’ve heard it somewhere before.  Sigh.

This is the problem with knowledge.  We humans must store it up and pass it on.  If we had to start from scratch, we would get nowhere.  We stand on someone’s shoulders. Those peeps are standing on older shoulders ad infinitum.  It turns out that we are curators of knowledge.  Just like those folks who work at museums and come up with displays for the different exhibits, we re-present chunks of knowledge that we have accumulated.  Not just any old chunks, but the good stuff…the prime cuts off the daily bull that is presented to our minds.

Somehow these pieces of life, these distillations of thought become blessed/tainted with our distinctives.  Those of us who aspire to be creative, hold sacrosanct those times when we can take a thought and reformulate it with a semi-important difference.  This is what we hope to give.  We were here and tasted the world and “this” is what it reminded us of.

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a stack of opprobrium

you ignore, yet eyes follow me

across the vacant room

how your height chides and

your lovers lobby for you

impatient patience taunts me with

promise of winged thought and

safe adventure taught through

narrative shot with truth

your bindings fast and loose but

handled before with caress and then

rough laid away and thought

understood. laughing you scorn

you have not forgotten my

promises made in the sunlight

“when there’s time” I lied

and left you waiting. unread

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don’t cheer me up

Those words came out of my mouth and a very concerned look wrinkled my wife’s lovely face.  I suppose it would bother me, too, if I heard this from someone I loved and weren’t entirely sure what they meant.  Weirdly, however, I had already been thinking about this very thing.

I realized that I was uncomfortable with emotions at a very young age.  Even though they had a power to lift up, as well as lay low, they seemed to favor low-laying.  I have watched emotions do strange things to people and it began to occur to me that perhaps feelings weren’t entirely safe.  Perhaps people with strong emotions weren’t safe either.  I had some experience with that one.

How this works out in everyday life for me can be most clearly seen in how I respond to a speaker.  It might be someone who is addressing a crowd or merely sitting across the lunch table from me.  I remember watching a DVD of John Eldredge (the “Wild at Heart” guy) who is very dramatic and animated in his presentation.  All around me men were transfixed by this guy’s passion and message.  All I could focus on was how his eyebrows made a little triangle when he’d really get worked up.  ADD.  I used to think that it was just my ADD that caused me to withdraw from someone who was highly expressive.  I thought that I just couldn’t process all that input.  I imagine there is a healthy dose of that working but, by itself, the ADD doesn’t tell the whole story.

Strangely, I sometimes come across passionate people who don’t make me uncomfortable in the least.  It is this oddity that propelled me into a meditation of the difference.  In face to face communication there is the content and there is how the content effects the speaker.  There is also what the speaker is attempting with their communication.  For me it turns upon which is the cake and which is the icing.  If the speaker is, himself, animated by the import of his own thoughts and words, then the expression, however passionate is simply an invitation to enter in.  This is very different from one who would seize me by some exposed place and drag me to their point.  For all my suppression (repression?) of personal emotion I actually am a very passionate person and maybe that is what I don’t want to be available to the general public.

Christ taught that we should let our “yes be yes” and our “no be no” and whatever was beyond that was evil.  If we move people with our words, let it be on account of the truth in the words.  Let us not become clever at finding an emotional handle on others by which we can work our will.  Even our admirable desire to see others feel better should look past their expressions of heart to the heart itself and its needs.  For my money, love, truth and perspective beats humor, distraction and manipulation in restoring the languishing soul.

So I guess is it’s OK to cheer me, but not my feelings, up.  Let he who has ears to hear……

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get up, Trinity!

In the 1999 science fiction-action film The Matrix, written and directed by Larry and Andy Wachowski, Carrie-Anne Moss’s character “Trinity” is being chased by a deadly foe called an “agent.” Finding herself trapped on a rooftop with no obvious place left to run, she spies a window in a building across the street.  Trinity takes a running start and dives 100 feet or more across the intervening space and through the glass. (Those familiar with the physics of the Matrix will not be bothered by this gymnastic absurdity.)  Her jump further tumbles her down a flight of steps onto her back where she lands poised with 2 guns trained on the stairwell. Her fear tells her to keep the guns pointed at the spot where her pursuer will likely appear.  Trinity’s reason screams the futility of a confrontation and tells her that her only chance of survival is to flee – now! Her reason speaks to her fear thusly: “Get up, Trinity.  Get up!”

Owing to it being the first of the new year, the sound of well-meant resolutions fills the crisp air.  Varieties of sofa dwellers rouse themselves to proclaim all manner of fresh beginnings.  It seems that there is a small voice that will let neither sleeping dogs nor pudgy suburban dads lie.  “Entropy is working” it whispers in a voice that sounds like that English teacher you had in the fifth grade.  The tone is mixed amusement and concern.  We, of the couch, would never rise for only the concerned voice, but the one that laughs cannot be easily tolerated.  “Why, my dignity is at stake here!” I assert as I reach into my nearly empty bag of potato chips for the absolutely last chip I will ever, ever eat. I mean it.

It is probably a good thing that we don’t have to consciously think about all the little actions that make up our daily routines.  We have the knowledge of all these mundane movements and turns, not in the front of our minds, but in our hands and feet.  We really are creatures of habit but it is fortunate, even if aggravating, that few habit are impervious to changing conditions.  Many perfectly simple sequences from my 20s, such as the carefree jumping down onto the ground from the bed of a pickup truck, are now carefully choreographed to minimized the chance of pain and injury.  Pain aversion is a powerful modifier of action.  I am thankful in my fairer moments for its lessons.

Time, once a lazy river, has turned into swift water.  Although I still cannot hear the inevitable sound of that final waterfall, the roar of the rapids ahead remind me that to fail to arise soon will be to fail to rise at all.  Life beckons all around me and there may still be much time for love and deeds.  I am guaranteed nothing except that I never go alone. God, grant that the fairer moments are more frequent and strength to look in the mirror and say “get up Mark!”

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a stitch in time

A stitch in time may save nine

This saying, first recorded in Thomas Fuller’s Gnomologia, Adagies and Proverbs, Wise Sentences and Witty Sayings, Ancient and Modern, Foreign and British, (1732), came to mind this week while trying to remedy a clothing problem.  The lining of my beloved 21 year old Hein Gericke leather jacket has begun to fall apart.  I have had it patched several times but the fabric has developed a general weakness that tears at the smallest provocation.

I don’t know if you have ever had to get this kind of work done but it is a real bit of craftsmanship that cannot be accomplished by just anybody with needle and thread.  I asked around my circle of friends to find that no one knew of a business that catered to this need.  The name of a large Dry Cleaner here in town finally was offered and I gave them a call.  “No, we don’t do that kind of work.  Call this number and leave a message and the gentleman will call you back.”  Without much faith I dialed the number and left a message.

In a few hours I received a call from the owner of the small alterations business.  His voice betrayed his somewhat advanced age and he spoke with a slight stutter.  “Sh-sure. I’ll t-take a look at it.  Bring it on by.”  He gave me the street address and in a few minutes I rolled up in front of a narrow rented space on the south side of town.  The door was locked but there was a call button to push.  I was greeted by a weathered but pleasant face that smiled convincingly.  He invited me into his shop and we passed by a room filled with industrial-looking sewing machines and related paraphernalia.  “Let’s look at it in the light.” he said as he lovingly laid the old jacket on his work bench and examined it.

I glanced around the room to see that he did a good bit of business, if the rows of coats and such were any indication.  I was given a choice of fabrics that could be used for the job.  I had no idea what would be best so I asked him to choose.  “Satin” he said.  “No more expensive, very durable, and will match just fine.”  I agreed to his choice and we made a deal for the price of his work.  It was, frankly, a lot less than I thought it would be. “How did you learn your trade?” I asked absently as I was starting to leave.  “Well” he sighed, remembering.  “I lived in Spain for five years when I was young and an old man who did this kind of work taught me.”  I acknowledged this with a nod, took my claim ticket, and went back to my truck.

Later I began to reflect upon my visit with the old gentleman and how it felt to be enfolded in the presence of such competency.  He was clearly the master of the subject matter and yet its willing servant.  He had found his place in this world and it seemed to bring blessing to him and, no doubt, to all who entered his door.  I suspect I will have a well-done piece of work when I pick up the jacket.  This person clearly thought that reputation was made or lost upon such things.

I cannot help but believe men and women, like my new alterations guy, have played a preserving role in society.  A renewed interest by our young people to learn what the old ones know might keep alive a vital ingredient in culture. A real stitch in time.

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the future of the past

When I form a picture in my mind of a Buddhist intoning “ommmmmm” as he/she/they meditate and then I form another picture of a Modernist speaking the word “progress,” I kinda get a similar vibe.  The ideal is being sought.  It is the sense of the transcendent being invoked.  It is that act which connects life to the really “real” – that by which meaning is sought.  One seeks to empty the vessel of thought that it might know the good of being fully aware, the other seeks to avoid the obligations of the past that they might know the good of unfettering their present.  Enlightenment/Progress.

So many of the endeavors of we humans are not covered by what we would call, in the lower animals, “instinct.”  A caterpillar builds a cocoon because he is a caterpillar and that’s what they do – mechanistically and without reflection. I suppose there are some naturalists who might contend that our more complex actions are just a fancier version of the same impulse.

I spoke with a friend today who has a child in their twenties who is typical of his generation. They have rejected the values and goals of my generation and have decided accomplishment is not all it’s cracked up to be. It is almost a point of pride to discuss accomplishment in derogatory terms and snide phrases. As with my generation, the universe remains singularly unimpressed. Time marches on and the one instinct that I do not doubt we have, meaning, continues to call out to us. Where do we turn to get started? Most of what we know is taken upon some authority and even those great ones among us stand upon the shoulders of past work and effort. We humans must store and pass on what knowledge there is.  This is our “progress” given the finite lives native to our specie.

So, on the one hand, the past is littered with failure, hypocrisy, and ignorance. On the other, who among us would have reliable food, clothing, shelter, art, philosophy or anything else we enjoy except that the past handed them to us. There is no culture out of nothing. The Modern man decries the failings of the past and then partakes of her bounty at every turn.

The Modernist project continues to preach that the past is not a reliable guide to the present and with such a sword hacks the umbilical cord of natural continuity. It would only take one generation’s total adoption of this madness to plunge us into night.

What is the future of the past?

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