Thursday, June 21, 2012


Kindness

Next time you are having a really bad day, try this: kindness. It really works for me.

It can be something as easy as a smile and a hello to a stranger, telling a joke to a friend, paying a compliment to someone, or lending a sympathetic ear. It can be kindness towards a human or an animal. It can even be an inanimate object. I know my 1991 Mitsubishi appreciates an oil change and a good washing. Ok that might be a stretch but you get the idea.

The smile and hello to a stranger is a remarkable one, as it carries a small element of risk. It seems as if we have a slight fear of this act in that it may not be given back to us in equal measure. Much less risky to avoid it all together. It is true that every now and then a smile and hello is met with no reaction or even a negative one. In this case the whole thing seems like a loss, but really it is the victory of one smile rather than the double victory of two. You've made an effort to change a small part of the world and good for you!

And now I've just turned into some kind of motivational speaker: "YOU have the power to bring joy into your life and into the life of those around you and YOU have the power to reach for your dreams and achieve the financial independence that YOU have always wanted! Just call my toll-free number below and I'll send you my FREE(*) kit that describes how to turn DEFEAT into VICTORY and DEBT into WEALTH and LEFTOVERS into a TWELVE COURSE GORMET FEAST!!!"

(*)Shipping and Handling charges of four easy payments of $29.99 payable via most major credit cards.

Sorry I got carried away.... oh yes, kindness.

I am fortunate to have been raised in a kind and loving home where I was taught to feel the reciprocal joy in giving kindness to others. In this sense it is a very easy thing to do as I get nearly as much benefit as the person who is the recipient of the kindness. Perhaps more. The mechanism that provides this is empathy. It is the ability to sense in others what they are feeling and to relate to it. It is something that I cannot remember ever having been without.

But that is not to say I always act with kindness in all cases. Sometimes I will give a handout to a person on the street and sometimes I won't. I can't really explain why. I'll almost always approach an animal that appears to be lost, but if the animal runs away, a part of me will feel relief that I can't catch the animal and "I did everything I could" but I don't have to deal with the responsibility of the animal at that point and hopefully it is not really lost and it will find its way home or someone else will pick it up and so on.

I can imagine the best of us do this now and then. We all fail, so to speak, and that is ok. I think humans might naturally be selfish and uncaring, and empathy might require a certain nurturing environment in which to grow. Or perhaps empathy is present in very young children but society pressures us to abandon empathy and therefore it needs to be actively encouraged in young children by grownups. Or perhaps empathy needs to be encouraged in grownups by young children.

In any event I am also aware that there are people who don't have this empathetic mechanism or they cannot feel this reciprocal joy that comes from kindness in all cases. Most of these people seem to reside in Kansas these days. 

** And now, the tone of this essay will turn slightly dark **

Hatred is, to me, the exact opposite of kindness, and it seems that Kansas generates a regular supply of news stories that places us in the center of the "hatred for those who are different" national spotlight. The latest is a piece of state legislation that would allow open and willful discrimination of gays, lesbians, bisexual, and transgendered people under the guise of "religious freedom."

The bill (HB 2384) is called the "Kansas Preservation of Religious Freedom Act." It was adopted by the Kansas State House by a vote of 89 for and 27 against. It had popular support in the State Senate but was effectively shut down by public outcry from civil right groups before the Senate brought it up for voting. Still, three out of four of our elected representative in the House felt ok voting to legalize the active discrimination of a certain class of people who are "different."

Perhaps empathy needs to be encouraged in grownups by young children.

I hesitate to jump on the "Christian hypocrisy" bandwagon, and of course I know that all Christians are not like this, but it really is just too big and obvious to avoid, especially when there is such a concentration of them here in Kansas. Without actually naming Christians in particular, it is obvious that Kansas House Bill 2384 is legislation that would have allowed the legal discrimination against the LGBT community by Christians.

I wish I could say that this is all some sort of political slant, but I downloaded the document, and after several hours of careful investigation, I came to this conclusion. The document contains very careful wording, and it references several other state and federal laws and other legal documents, but at the end of the day it has the effect of exactly what I describe above. I may get challenged on this but it is simply not open for debate. Sorry. It is simply a document that legalizes hate.

And since this essay is all about kindness I will try to avoid an angry and accusing tone, and with that in mind I must ask these hateful Christians, what would Jesus do?

I was raised Christian so I have studied the philosophy of Jesus. I no longer practice the Christian faith or any other faith or religion for that matter, but I do admire the man who was Jesus for the values he promoted. And wasn't Jesus the champion of kindness? Didn't he associate with the lowest of society? Didn't he seek redemption and renewal and ACCEPTANCE for all people? Wouldn't he advocate for the protection of ALL people EQUALLY under the law?

And let us be realistic about what the phrase "under the law" means in a practical sense. I get that laws aren't going to change people's true feelings. Someone who feels discomfort around another person for any reason will continue to discriminate against them and our laws cannot change that. But should we have laws that openly encourage it? Shouldn't the person who wants to discriminate be forced to do so in secrecy and with shame? Shouldn't the victim of discrimination have some semblance of legal recourse if they can in fact prove the discrimination?

And we can easily descend into a quagmire of "what about this" and "what about that" and rules and exceptions and how do you really define discrimination and why can't I, a 40-something-pale-hairy-man-with-skinny-legs-and-love-handles, get a job as a server at Hooters? Isn't that also a form of discrimination? And all this really goes to show how difficult it is to legislate morality and how sticky these issues are.

And so I come back to the notion of kindness. All legislation and local ordinances and federal mandates aside, how about we just consider simple kindness?

To those traditional folks out there who are opposed to the gay-lesbian-bisexual-transgendered lifestyle, consider what it might be like to just simply be kind to these people when you encounter them. You don't have to agree with their lifestyle or even understand it, but what about just being kind to them? And I'm not talking about just being kind to their face, but in allowing them to exist in your mind as fellow human beings. Try to imagine that they are just as happy and fulfilled and productive in their life as you are in yours.

A good friend of mine once admitted that he is a bit homophobic in his reaction to gays, but yet he understands that they are fellow members of our society and they have every right to the pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness that we all do. I'll have to admit that there is a tiny part of me that feels the same way. A hesitation towards people who are different or unknown is natural. That is why it is sometimes difficult to even smile and say hello to a stranger on the street. There is an element of the unknown and it causes us all some level of discomfort.

But we have to get past this.

Once you take these small risks and see how a small gesture of kindness can do so much, it really does start to change your world. Once you understand that the different people you encounter actually have some similarities to yourself then you start to understand what I believe Jesus was really all about. The Muslims and the Hindus and the Jews and the Christians and the Democrats and the Republicans and the poor and the rich and the young and the elderly and the bold and the beautiful and the trekkies and the nerds and the jocks and the gamers and all of the different ways that we categorize people... it all collapses once we see them as being similar to us in some small way.

Of course hatred has been a staple of humanity in all parts of the world throughout all of history, but yet there are examples here and there where groups of different people can get along and exist side-by-side. I imagine that there were constant challenges to any peace and harmony that might exist between different groups of people, and that maintaining peace and harmony took lots of work and compromise and it was never perfect. But at the end of the day you would have to imagine that it was worth it. Just to get on with life. Just to not waste so much time and energy to suppress those who are different. Just to accept others and forget about it. Just to imagine that you are not "better" than they are.

I've met people who are very rigidly set in their ways and they won't be turned. Any effort to get them to see a different perspective and act with kindness is a lost cause. I've engaged these people in drawn out debates and it nearly always ends with not even the slightest budge. But I do see rare examples of people stepping out of their frightened shell. It is a difficult thing to turn someone away from their own fear and persuade them to be kind, and I often fail, but still it seems worth it. Kindness, folks. Give it a try.


"So many gods, so many creeds, so many paths that wind and wind, while just the art of being kind, is all the sad world needs." - Ella Wheeler Wilcox


** And now, the tone of this essay will turn slightly more light-hearted **

My Muslim friend of mine had to put new brakes on his car and he was asking me about the possibility of doing the work himself. I told him that I generally like working on cars, but brakes are a drag. Sorry. Engineer joke.

A Christian friend and I were discussing our favorite places to dine. I asked her if she had heard about the new restaurant on the moon? She hadn't. I explained that it had great food but no atmosphere.

I once asked a Jewish dentist for his best piece of wisdom. He said, "Be true to your teeth and they will never be false to you."

A Democrat and Republican were relaxing by the pool at a nudist colony. They were both interested in economic theory but obviously had different opinions. The Democrat turned to the Republican and asked, "Have you read Marx?" The Republican replied, "Yes, from these wicker chairs!"  (Have you red marks?)

A piece of string walks into a gay bar. The bartender looks at him and says, "We don't serve your kind here, you'll have to leave." The dejected string walks outside. He then splits and frazzles his ends, and loops himself around and goes through his middle and pulls himself tight. He walks back into the gay bar. The bartender looks at him and says, "Aren't you that piece of string I just threw out?" The piece of string says, "No, I'm a frayed knot."

Wednesday, June 13, 2012


Simple Pleasures

Somewhere along the way I learned to enjoy the simple pleasures of life. These include, but are not limited to: sharing good conversation with friends in a restaurant, sitting in a coffee shop on a chilly afternoon, gazing out a window, enjoying a glass of wine after a busy day, scratching a cat behind the ears, and sleeping late on the weekends.

I am the type of quiet person who does not like change and my simple pleasures reflect this. I get into my routine and I'm happy there (Coffee is at mid-morning, about 10:30 AM). I do enjoy new experiences, but don't bring them at me too quickly (I bought a sports car in 1999 and then a small plane in 2002 and I still have them today). I enjoy seeing new places, but getting there is such a bother (I went to San Francisco once in the late 70s and then again in 2008). I should try different items from the menu at my favorite restaurant, but many times I just order my favorite dish (I liked the greek pizza last time so I'll probably enjoy it again).

I suppose one of the reasons I have such affection for cats is that they are also creatures of habit and they are natural experts at simple pleasures. Oscar will spend a good portion of each day staring out the window, Ginger will absorb any amount of scratches and ear rubbing, and all of them will nap for hours. Zoey seems to indulge in sleep the most, but Ginger and Oscar are very good at it, too. Their lives are so filled with these simple pleasures that I wonder if they ever get weary of it. There is a risk of dissatisfaction in too much of a good thing, but many of us would like to sample the life of luxury they enjoy.



While I am a creature of habit, that is not to say that I don't take risks and try new things. In my life I've devoured many different hobbies including swing and salsa dancing, aerobatic flying, guitar, writing, video production, theater, and simple music composition. I've also enjoyed building a wide variety of things from model airplanes when I was a kid to sets and costumes for my videos now that I am an adult but still a kid. I've been on a horse, a pair of skis, and one of those old-timey bicycles with the BIG wheel in the front and the small wheel in the back. I've been in a helicopter and a Ford Model T, and though I've never ridden in a balloon I will someday.

While many of these hobbies are involved and difficult, they often have simple elements buried in amongst the noise and the drama. Take flying for instance. This is perhaps one of the most complex activities that humans can do. Indeed we were not meant to fly, and doing so requires tremendous ingenuity, time, resources, and money. I am incredibly lucky to be able to fly for the simple joy of flying, and while I'm up there I am aware of both the power and quiet of the experience. I'm busy with the task of operating the plane, but I also feel a sense of calm when I'm suspended motionless high above the world. If you are crammed into a large metal tube with strangers, this motionless suspense can be tedious. If you are alone in a small red biplane on a summer evening it is bliss.



So many simple pleasures work nicely alone, but some are best shared with friends. Girl watching is a perfect example. Eldon is a good friend who shares my enthusiasm for this fine sport. Turns out we are actually somewhat unlikely friends as he is a Mennonite Pastor and I am agnostic and our lives are different in many respects. But on the other hand we share similar philosophical views and opinions, we both love good coffee and good food, and we both love to admire the ladies from afar. He and I make a regular habit of visiting a number of coffee shops and restaurants around town and secretly checking out the ladies therein. Without shame we combine the simple pleasures of food, conversation, and female visual splendor wherever they may be found.

Eldon and I have developed a secret code whereby one of us can alert the other to the presence of a lady in our midst. It is similar to the code that military pilots use to indicate the position of other aircraft relative to themselves. You may recall movies where one pilot calls out on radio to the others, "bogeys, twelve o'clock high." This would indicate the location of other aircraft immediately ahead and at a higher elevation. In the same manner Eldon and I will quietly call out "three-o'clock" to indicate a nice lady to the right, or "nine-o'clock" to indicate one to the left. If we are both seated facing the same direction then this code works easily and nearly without fail, but if we are seated in different orientations then we must indicate the proper frame of reference such as, "YOUR six-o'clock" to indicate a target "behind you" or "MY eleven-o'clock" to call out a visual contact in front of me and slightly to the left. So far we have avoided detection by any ladies who might be the object of our admiration. It is possible that we have both been caught with our eyes askew, but no one has ever called us on it. For now we remain free and at large. 

Of course the best thing about most simple pleasures is that they require so little effort and are easily grasped by anyone. Who doesn't know how to savor the taste of good food or get swept away in the spontaneity of laughter? Few things have the immediate effect of a favorite song, and what else is easier than an afternoon nap? In a world that loves to measure profit margin and return on investment, the simple pleasures have it over just about any other human endeavor. With little effort you gain so much reward and it is a shame that more people don't seem to understand this. We all rush forward each and every day to further our dreams, and I am certainly in that race, but I'm always ready to step back and watch it all go by for awhile. Isn't that what looking out a window is all about?


Friday, June 8, 2012

My Neighbor and My Lawn

I've recently become good friends with my next door neighbor, Nick. We've lived in the same neighborhood for quite a few years, but somehow we never really got to know each other 'till just recently. The event that brought us together was a tornado. That is how people meet in Kansas, via some natural calamity with a tornado being out first choice. Anyway the night was dark and the storm was howling and I was hiding in my basement with another buddy TJ and our respective cats. Nick was watching the whole thing from the comfort of his front porch.

To make a long story short we all survived the tornado, and while roaming the street in front of our houses after the tornado we decided to start drinking. That is another way people in Kansas meet each other - alcohol. It turns out the tornado actually did hit our houses but it was down to an F1 class which means lots of wind and drama but nothing of real importance. Kind of like Kim Kardashian. (DANG!!! Did I just lower my literary standards here? Oh well this is only my second blog so I guess I should keep the bar low to reduce future expectations...) But yeah, Kim Kardashian and F1 tornados both make me want to drink, and I'm really not that much of a drinker.

So Nick and I are an interesting study of misfits in a world that encourages conformity. We both live alone, we both have cats, we are both kind of employed but not really at the moment, and we both have a horrible lawn. None of this bothers the rest of society except for the lawn part, or at least Nick and I perceive that the rest of society is bothered by the lawn part. Probably most people don't care but we imagine they do. But just so everyone knows: for the record, we do care about the appearance of our lawn. Sort of.

Nonconformist Lawn
I like to think that we are doing a service for the rest of the neighborhood with our lawns the way they are. Actually it is just the one patch of lawn directly between our houses that is really bad. It seems as if our apathy for yard work is cancelled out by the good efforts of our other adjoining neighbors so that some portion of our respective yards looks OK, but the spot between our houses seems to compound our laziness for all the world to see. And by keeping this patch full of weeds and other "undesirable" elements, we are making all of the other perfectly green monolithic lawns on our street look good in comparison and the neighbors should thanks us.

Not to mention that we are also very eco-friendly in our approach to lawn care. We embrace a biodiversity in the variety of plant life that we support. Dandelions, crabgrass, clover, and a wide assortment of... things that I cannot identify flourish here. Isn't diversity the thing these days? We have it in the work place and society at large and all are welcome in this country. America is a melting pot and so is my yard.

And while I'm talking like a hippie I should also bring up evolution. Many people in Kansas develop a severe facial twitch when contemplating the pure evil that is evolution. They also have a good bit of distrust towards evolution's unwashed half-brother known as natural selection. What? You don't believe in science? Just look at my lawn! The evidence is right there! Come back and have another look again this time next year and it will be a little bit different. It will have evolved! Call me lazy but I'm really just trying to improve science literacy here in Kansas and God knows we need all the help we can get.

At the end of the day if we both mow at the same time the patch of biodiversity doesn't look half bad. It's all level and kind of uniform, and at this time of the season it's all green even though it's a few different shades of green here and there. A famous frog once said, "it's not easy being green," but he apparently never lived next door to Nick. Doesn't seem too hard to me.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012


Favorite Places

Everybody has their favorite place in the world. Or at least their top 5 or 10 favorite places. Amongst my top favorite places in the world is the New Belgium Hub Bar and Grill at the Denver International Airport. I often fly through Denver on my way to and from Kansas, and this is my favorite place to park as I wait for my next flight. Today I'm flying up to Bismarck, ND for my Grandmother's 104th birthday. This has become an annual tradition as my family gathers to celebrate what must surely be Grandma's last birthday. Each year we say to ourselves, "...better get to ND this year to see Grandma one last time. She won't last much longer." It has been this way for better part of a decade.

Grandma is pretty sick of this whole living thing. She is ready to go and has been for many years. To heck with it! You'd have to imagine that living in a 104 year-old body is no fun, but she sure does have a good attitude about it. Her eyes and hearing are not so good but her mind is sharp, and wouldn't you know it she is still one of the most spontaneous people I know. We can show up unannounced at her room at the rest home, invite her out for pie and coffee, and heck she'll put her teeth in and join us! She clearly doesn't catch much of the conversation at the noisy diner, but she eats most of her pie, drinks her coffee, and enjoys being with the gang.

At some point on this visit I'll get to enjoy another one of my favorite places, the kitchen of my Aunt Fran and Uncle Don. My father was in the Air Force when I was growing up, so we moved around quite a bit and I never had one place that was always my childhood home. The home of Aunt Fran and Uncle Don is the closest thing I've had to this and that is why their kitchen is such a cool place. We will all gather there for good hearty North Dakota food and good hearty North Dakota conversation. The guests will often include my parents, sister and her husband, aunts and uncles and cousins, Grandma, and even a childhood friend named Michael McMerty. I have not changed Michael's name to protect his innocence. I knew Michael growing up and there is not much innocence to protect!

Many other kitchens also make my top 5 list. My parents have a lovely kitchen in Lafayette, IN. Another aunt and uncle live in Longmont, CO and as much as I love their kitchen I actually prefer their back patio as it affords a view of the mountains to the west. I can view these same mountains now sitting in this little restaurant at DIA. I'm tucked into a specific corner that affords the best view of the mountains directly in front of me, a panoramic view of the airplanes as they taxi by on my left, and easy viewing of any attractive ladies to my right here in the same restaurant.

Shady Guy at Denver International Airport
It is rare that I get an opportunity to enjoy so many visual delights at one time. And wouldn't you know a lovely lady is seated directly in front of me now. Her back is to me so I can admire her without violating the social mandate of minimal eye contact. We all must obey this rule, particularly if one of us is an attractive lady and the other is a scruffy forty-something guy with shifting eyes sitting in the corner of an airport restaurant. But never mind for I have all that I love at once for my viewing pleasure: airplanes, mountains, and a beautiful lady.

Lovely Lady Admiring the View While I Admire the Lovely Lady

I don't recall whether I first admired ladies or airplanes as a child. It was not mountains for sure. My first home was in Oklahoma and there weren't any mountains around. I probably admired ladies first, but at a very young age my father introduced me to airplanes and it was love at first sight. They've always fascinated me and I've been an airplane nut as long as I can remember. And now going by is a Boeing 777, or as we say in the industry, a Boeing tripple-seven. It is a ship that represents elegance and utility, speed and efficiency, form and function. With just a little bit of pride I can say that I've helped design parts on the cargo version of that plane.

As a young military family, we only lived in Oklahoma for about two years and then moved to Fort Collins, Colorado where I developed a love for mountains. For some reason a panaromaic view of the Rocky Mountains is one of the best things I know for lowering my blood pressure and renewing my spirit. They seem to be so impenatrable and unmoveable. While humans come and go with their trivial bothers and worries, the mountains stand sliently watching over it all, reminding us that we will only alter the landscape so much. We will clear trees and build roads, but we will never reshape the horizon to the west of Denver. 

And now the lady in front of me takes leave to catch her plane. Or perhaps she can sense my attention and decides to leave as soon as she has finished her lunch. Either way she manages to avoid direct eye contact. It is not just her but everybody who does this. It is so hard to make ourselves vulnerable by the risk of a small hello. Better to avoid it and maintain our modern American sense of awkward social interaction. Or lack thereof. We are all traveling to places where we will meet people with whom social interaction is a joy, or at least not uncomfortable, but in the mean time we must endure these hours of social avoidance along the way.

If not for the hassle of standing in line, fighting the crowds, and the uncomfortable proximity to total strangers, flying would be pure joy for me. I really could do without all of the bother, but once the engines of the plane come to life, and we rush down the runway and into the sky, I am once again a kid looking out the window as the ground falls away. It is the same when I am the pilot of a small propellor airplane. Lots of work to get to the point where I'm about to fly, but once I push the throttle forward I am as alive as ever. I am on my way to visit the sky once again and it never gets old.

And now it is time for me to go. I must leave the view of the mountains and the planes and the ladies. I pack up my belongs, pay my tab with a generous tip, and I'm on my way. The kitchen of Aunt Fran and Uncle Don await at my destination, as well as the non-awkward people I am eager to see, Including 104 year-old Grandma. I leave this little favorite spot and continue onto another.