Reflexns on 50

Closed my eyes, and fifty years went by.

My 15-year-old son asked this morning whether my young self would have been surprised that today’s world is not more technologically advanced?

Still no flying cars, for instance.

My young self would have been astounded by iPhones. A device which serves as television, camera, phone, clock, stereo, map, flashlight, video recorder, calculator, credit card, radio, mail service, and so on … that would have seemed like pie-in-the-sky, Dick Tracy bullshit.

Today I see my two children grinding away at their high school studies.

At least 99% of the information I packed into my own teen brain has vanished. Oddly, the only pieces I do remember are philosophical observations telling me to chill the fuck out.

A passage at the end of Voltaire’s Candide said it was futile to rush around the world seeking the meaning of life or the secret to happiness. Better to stay home and work in the garden. I remember underlining that passage in 11th grade.

And then there was the Tao Te Ching by ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu. We read that during senior year. Lao Tzu suggested I might want to consider, I don’t know, maybe just … shutting the hell up for a minute? Since ‘those who know, do not speak?’

That wisdom, too, seems more and more true (even though I keep yapping away).

Lao Tzu said there was no point being anxious about anything, since we all just return to the same primordial nothingness from which we came.

My guess today is, yeah, that’s probably true.

Not that reading Lao Tzu at age 16 did anything to reduce my anxiety during the next 34 years. I still spent years grinding away at school and office jobs; scribbling newspaper articles; scribbling unpublished fiction; going back to school; becoming a lawyer; and on and on.

In hindsight … eh. What was the point?

Another line I remember from my early reading – and which I now use daily – is from Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi:  “I was gratified to be able to answer promptly, and I did. I said I didn’t know.”

My children ask me stuff all the time, whether about French grammar, English punctuation rules, science, history, whatever. It’s both a sad reality, but also a liberating state of affairs, to be able to sing out reflexively, “Don’t know!”

Now at this point, readers may be thinking, Oh crap, it’s this poor asshole’s birthday. Is he … asking for a gift?

Nope!

Already got my gift in June!

The Washington Capitals won the Stanley Cup. That was literally the only item on my bucket list.

For years, I had been prepared to request that my eventual pallbearers wear Capitals jerseys when they lowered me into the earth.

So that I could be “let down by the Caps one more time.”

But now I can return to the primordial nothingness without forcing friends to purchase a Caps jersey or carry a corpse. Cremation will be fine.

True, scientific research suggests that any event which we process as either great news or horrible news actually recedes quickly from our experience, and we return to just about the same level of happiness as before.

But for me, the Stanley Cup is an exception. The victory was months ago. But when a friend asked recently how I was doing, I said, “I’m walking on air!”

Absurd, I know, especially for an outcome I played no role in.

Absurd, but true. Like the iPhone.

Happy 50 to me!

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WHAT ARE YOU SCARED OF

Good old Dr. Ford.

She knew she was stepping in front of a train. But she went ahead and did it anyway.

Well, here’s to courage.

As my friends know, I’m a podcast junkie. I listen to a jillion of them, some on stunningly boring topics (e.g. fossil-collecting on the shores of Chesapeake Bay). Two recent ones got me thinking on the topic of courage.

One was an episode of The Intercept featuring an audio clip of Muhammad Ali.

In 1966, Ali announced his refusal to fight in the Vietnam War.  His remarks that day are well-known, but as I listened again, I was struck by his calm courage and plain-spoken wisdom. Listen to the young Ali explain his objections. (His comments are also transcribed below.)

“My conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor hungry people in the mud, for big powerful America,” Ali said.  “And shoot them for what? They never called me nigger, they never lynched me, they didn’t put no dogs on me, they didn’t rob me of my nationality, rape and kill my mother and father. … Shoot them for what? How I’m gonna go shoot them … poor little black people, little babies and children, women. How I gotta shoot them poor people? Just take me to jail.”

Ali was stripped of his championship and banned from boxing for three years. He was subjected to widespread vitriol, hatred, and condemnation.

He took it like a champ. He said: “To those of the press and those of the people who think that I lost so much by [refusing to serve in Vietnam], I would like to say that I did not lose a thing. Up until this very moment, I haven’t lost one thing. I have gained a lot. Number one, I have gained a peace of mind. I have gained a peace of heart.”

Muhammad Ali 1970

Another example of bravery is evident in the podcast In the Dark, a remarkable series about the disturbing case of Curtis Flowers. He has been tried six separate times for a quadruple murder in Mississippi which, it seems increasingly clear, he had nothing to do with.

I’ll leave the details of the case for a future blog post. Suffice it to say that in small-town Winona, Miss., those who have spoken up about the case have suffered repercussions.

Pastor Nelson Forrest discussed these repercussions at the recent funeral of Flowers’ mother, Lola. He challenged his audience to look past their personal fears and find a center of strength:

“I’m sick and tired of scared folks,” Pastor Forrest said. “Jesus didn’t die on no cross for you to be scared! He wasn’t scared. What are you scared of? You stand for what’s right.”

Of course, the grandaddy of all these righteous expressions of steadfastness is Dr. Martin Luther King’s speech in Memphis, Tenn., the night before he was assassinated. I was reminded of it while listening to the “We Came Through” episode of the StoryCorps podcast (Jan. 17, 2017).

Dr. King had traveled to Memphis in solidarity with striking trash-haulers, whose miserable working conditions are well described in the StoryCorps podcast. That night Dr. King gave to the sanitation workers not only his presence, fame, and energy.  He also gave to them one of the greatest speeches in U.S. history.

“So I’m happy tonight,” King said.  “I’m not worried about anything! I’m not fearing any man! Mine eyes have seen the glory. Of the coming of the Lord!”

Yes, the next day King was killed.

Yes, Curtis Flowers still sits on death row for murders he didn’t commit.

Yes, the Kavanaugh confirmation will be jammed down our throats.

Speaking an uncomfortable or unpopular truth doesn’t lead to quick victory. More often it leads to public condemnation and scorn, or even imprisonment.

Well, so what? These startling moments of truth-telling also show human beings at their best. These moments inspire the rest of us. I’m reminded of lyrics from “The Trapeze Swinger” by Iron & Wine.

I heard from someone you’re still pretty/And then/They went on to say/That the pearly gates/Has some eloquent graffiti/Like ‘We’ll Meet Again’/And ‘Fuck the Man’

Hahaha. Exactly right.

You might not win this time, Dr. Ford. But in the long run, you did. Big time.

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HOW DID I GET HERE

Do you remember the old Talking Heads song, ‘Once in a Lifetime?’

You may find yourself
Behind the wheel of a large automobile
And you may find yourself in a beautiful house
With a beautiful wife,
And you may ask yourself, well,
How did I get here? …

This is not my beautiful house!
And you may tell yourself
This is not my beautiful wife!

I had a similar, disoriented feeling this morning.

First I picked up my phone and was greeted by roughly 1,100 texts between my brother-in-law and my daughter.

They were discussing the #metoo and #timesup movements, especially sexual harassment in the workplace. My daughter was ticked off.

Never mind that she is 16 years old and has never held a job.  More pressing to me was — it was 8:10am on a Tuesday.  Wasn’t she at school? Was she texting from the classroom? What the hell?

And these weren’t short breezy little texts, either. They were angry, well-organized declarations. From the tone, you’d think she had been passed over for promotions for 20 years.

One message was so strident, I quickly scrolled up to see what was going on. Was she angry at me?  Had I myself done something wrong?

Let’s see … Oh, okay… This is a political discussion.  She and her uncle are trading ideas, making arguments and counterarguments.  That’s fine … I guess.

My wife interrupted my scrutiny of the phone to say that she and my son had an idea for my vegetable garden out back.

The garden? Oh, sure. No problem.

“Now don’t get defensive,” she said.

Defenses, engaged.

“How’s the garden doing?” she said.

The truth is, my vegetable garden is pretty sparse.  Not a lot of actual vegetables result from the enterprise.

But that’s okay.  I don’t do it for the vegetables.  I do it to try to relax.

“What about pot?” she asked.

“What about it?”

“Under the new law, we’re allowed to grow six plants.  Maybe you’d have more … luck, with that plant.”

“Okay, first of all,” I said, “it’s not summer anymore.  So what you’re seeing with the garden —  wait, what?”

“Marijuana.”

“Where?”

“In the garden.”

“You and Jesse want me to grow weed?

In the old days, it was definitely a bad sign if your 14-year-old brought up weed as a topic of conversation.

But:

  1. It’s not the old days; and
  2. I know my son inside and out. His angle was financial.

When he was about 10, he and I were driving north along the Malibu coast.  He looked out the window and said wistfully:  “Do you ever wish you could go back in time?  Like to the 1960s?”

“Mmm,” I said.

“These houses would be worth nothing.”

Huh?

“You could have bought these for nothing. Look what they’re worth now. You’d be RICH.”

Not the vision of the ’60s I had been conjuring. I had not realized we’d be buying real estate on our time-travel voyage.

I looked over at him.  His eyes were bright with the imagined yield on investment.

Sometimes I really do look at my children and wonder where the fuck they came from.

My daughter blowing up my phone with feminist rage…

My son dreaming of the day he corners a market…

Who are these people?

How did I get here?

What ever happened to just going to school, doing homework, maybe watching some TV in the evening?

Lately, even the slightest interruption from my wife or request from the kids causes me to protest.

“Everybody just CALM down. Including me. Let’s do one thing at a time.”

It feels like events are overtaking me.

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ON THE OTHER END OF THE LINE

It’s thrilling to feel a fish tugging on the line.

After all the waiting around, your heart jumps at the first sudden jolt, followed by the frantic pulling, diving, and darting.

The drama unfolds underwater.  The anticipation builds as you wait to see what you hooked.

I thought of this recently while walking my dog, Boomer, a big shaggy 100-pound goldendoodle.

Despite years of scolding from my wife, I never did train him properly.  He still tugs on the leash when we walk.

Eleven years ago, he was so strong and so excited for our walks, it was easier just to give in and jog instead of walking.

Win-win situation.  He and I both got exercise.

Occasionally I even fastened his harness to a long rope and tied that to the yellow electric Jeep which my son Jesse used to drive around our neighborhood.

plowdoodle

That too was a win-win situation.  My son was delighted by the increased speed, and Boomer got a great workout.

Nowadays, the dog is older, and my son is, too.  The Jeep has long since been given away.  In another year, my son will begin driving real cars.

Boomer has less energy now.  He still occasionally pulls on the leash, and sometimes it annoys me.  But my new habit is to try to remind myself of the life-force on the other end of the line.  It’s not as exciting as fighting a fish, but I mean, it’s on the scale.

When Boomer is pulling, I tell myself to be grateful.  This dog has given my family so much love, kindness, and devotion.  We are lucky to have him.  Thank God he is still here pulling the leash!

Fishing wise, my family has done its share.  My father, Tom Troyer, a Nebraska native, caught this 8-pound-5-ounce Brown trout in the early 1950s on the Straight River in Minnesota:img_7535-e1504204370867.jpg

My sister’s son, Bruno Zicarelli, caught this 23-inch Brown trout in Montana last week:
img_7714.png

And my brother Bob Troyer, who is the U.S. Attorney for Colorado, spent a week of vacation last month working as a deckhand on a salmon fishing boat in Alaska.

And then there is my other brother, Ken Troyer, who eclipsed us all, fishing wise, by devoting his entire professional life to the creatures.

Ken is a fisheries biologist for the federal government.  Based in Boise, Idaho, he studies and helps manage our nation’s native salmon populations.

Almost 30 years ago, when he was based in Alaska, he was nice enough to invite me for two summers of fish work north of the Arctic Circle.

The first summer, we traveled from lake to lake by small airplanes.  We set gill nets in remote wilderness lakes to gather data on fish populations.  If you think it’s exciting to reel in a line with a single fish on it, imagine slowly pulling up from the dark, hidden depths an entire net full of them.

The next summer, after my first year of college, we worked by ourselves on a single big lake, Walker Lake.  We netted Arctic char, trout, and every other kind of fish in the lake, including a burbot, a species I’d never even heard of.  (Long, slimy, prehistoric-looking things.)

We tagged these fish and released them.  For years afterward, anglers were still catching some of the same ones we had tagged, and were reporting back on the size and age of the fish. 

That was a magical summer in 1987.  We were by ourselves in the middle of truly remote, pristine wilderness.  We were so far north, the daylight seemed to last forever.

In recent years, I have cut back on fishing.  At some point I started to feel guilty.  Even though our family has always practiced catch-and-release (unless we plan to eat the fish), I started thinking about how terrifying and painful the whole ordeal likely is for the fish.

I still go fishing, but I stop as soon as I have enough to eat.

There’s a song Bruce Springsteen wrote after the Sept. 11 hijacking attacks.  One verse goes like this:

May I feel your arms around me
May I feel your blood mix with mine
A dream of life comes to me
Like a catfish dancin’ on the end of my line

It’s a hell of a thing to be connected to another living thing, whether a fish, dog, or human being. 

It’s not always a happy tension, like a dog excited for his walk.  Sometimes it’s the fish fighting for its life.  Sometimes it’s your teenaged child straining for more freedom or independence.  Or your spouse with a different idea about how things ought to be done.

When possible, I try to remember the ancient Buddhist saying about winning the war by losing the war.  I drop the leash and let Boomer roam where he wants.  Or I concede the argument and let my kids do what they want.

When I fail to do this, which admittedly is most of the time, I tug back, sometime hard.

Instead, I should be reminding myself:   Isn’t this amazing?  We are alive, and connected.

 

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STUPID SMART PERSON

One of the more humiliating moments in my life occurred around 1997.

I was working as a waiter at Jimmy Armstrong’s Saloon in midtown Manhattan.

It was lunchtime.  The place was packed.  I was scrambling to get the food out.

I noticed a man leaning over a table.  He was an older man, African-American.  I could only see his back.  He was wearing a faded, olive-green military jacket.  He appeared to have flowers in one hand.

I thought he was selling them.

I tapped him on the shoulder and said, ‘Sir, we’re not allowed to have solicitors in here.’

He turned to face me.

“Excuse me?” he asked.

Immediately, I knew I had screwed up.

He wasn’t selling flowers.  He knew someone at the table.  He had stopped to say hi.

Now that he was facing me, he wasn’t the guy I’d expected.  Instead of someone hustling to make a buck, living at life’s margins, this man was wearing office attire.

“Because I’m a black man.”

Fuck.

“Who do you think you are?”

Fuck, fuck, fuckity-fuck.

As his voice grew louder, the restaurant din subsided.  We had the floor now, just the two of us.

“I am so sorry,” I said.

“Do you have any education?”

“I’m really, really sorry.”

“Yeah, we heard that part.  Now I’m asking you a question.  Education?  You got any?”

It was an unholy, slow-motion disaster.

I nodded, head down.

“What kind of education?”

“I really apologize.  Please forgive me.  I didn’t – ”

“Did you go to college?  Just answer me.”

I exhaled and nodded.

“WHERE did you go to college?”

I was fucked anyway.  Might as well just roll down hill and let it be done.

In the quietest voice ever, I said, “Harvard.”

Perfect silence in the restaurant.

The man smiled.

“Harvard???”

My body was still in the restaurant, but the rest of me had already crawled out to find a place to curl up and die.

“Harvard.  Huh.”

I shrugged.

“Well, I guess that makes you just about the STUPIDEST FUCKING SMART PERSON I ever met!”

Even right then, in my agony, there was a tiny sliver of me that actually appreciated the phrase.

Indeed, when he said it, I think he and I actually both smiled, at least a little.

Customers went back to their food.  I went back to work.  The man bid farewell to his friend and left.

As awful as the afternoon was, I’ve always liked the phrase.

Over the years it would even pop into my head as an appropriate tagline.

For instance, I thought of it when Donald Rumsfeld was discussing the brand-new wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, when he pontificated about “known unknowables and unknown unknowables.”

Stupid smart person.

Or when Bill Clinton was musing on possible interpretations of the word “is.”

Stupid smart person.

It’s a great phrase.

Cosmically huge bummer, of course, that it was christened at my own expense.

But credit where credit is due, the guy got it right that day.

 

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PERFECT INSTINCTS

I’ll say this for Trump, his instincts for fascism are perfect.

Single out immigrants as source of nation’s problems?

Check.

Brand journalists as “enemies of the state?”

Check.

Threaten to throw opponent in prison after election?

Check.

It remains to be seen how far he is allowed to stroll down the path which Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin walked.  But for a rookie, he’s an absolute, breathtaking natural.

Encourage supporters to beat up protesters?

Yes.

Orchestrate meetings so that ministers take turns praising you?

Hell yes.

Hire your family for top jobs?

From day one.

Label as traitors those who disagree with you?

Daily.

Tell police to forget about civil liberties and rough up suspects?

You know it.

Ridicule the weak?

Why stop there?  How about disabled people!

Trump even has the trademark aesthetic flourishes of a dictator, including the weird, affected, almost effeminate pumping of fist to signal strength and victory

All of it … the overwhelming narcissism … the perennial nursing of grievances … it’s all there.

Let’s stop for a moment and contemplate this.

Right off the bat, just days into office, he was complaining about his treatment.  First it was the press coverage of crowd size at his inauguration.  Then it was leaks to media regarding his phone calls with other heads of state.

This is a (supposed) multibillionaire, just elected to the most powerful job in the entire world.  He is wealthy, he is powerful, he has the world at his feet.  He has won.

And what does he do, right from the start?

Whine.

Has any leader in recent memory whined longer, louder, more passionately than our president?

Who uses a Boy Scouts meeting, of all venues, to air grievances, threaten subordinates, and make fun of foes?

That’s not strong.  That’s pathetic.

President Trump has just two areas of interest:  himself, and accumulating power.  He was born for the dictator gig.

Just a matter of how far we let him explore it.

finger

 

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WHAT JUST HAPPENED?

We usually have little idea, immediately, how significant a moment is.

The first time I became aware of Armenia, I was listening to an announcement during a school assembly in 10th or 11th grade.

A younger student stood up and spoke briefly about the yearly anniversary of the Armemian Genocide.

I don’t remember what he said, though in hindsight, I can guess.

At the time, his words barely registered.  I wasn’t sure whether ‘Armenian’ was a race, nationality, or religion.

If anything, I just thought, Ah, this sucks for the guy.  He probably has to get up and do this every year.

I didn’t give Armenia a second thought.

A few years later, on my first day of college, I met a girl and her mother.

It was the girl’s first day, too.  She was assigned to a room across the hall from me, on the fourth floor of the dorm.

The mom asked if I could help carry some bags and boxes upstairs.

No worries, I figured. It would give me something to do.

Easy way to meet a girl anyway.

The girl and her mom were Armenian. The mom spoke about the country and its people. She mentioned the genocide.

I listened politely, finished helping, and moved on with the rest of my day.

All the things I thought were important that day – where I was attending college, what classes I would take first semester, whether I would play soccer for the college – none of it turned out to be remotely as consequential as what had just happened.  I had just met my wife.

Oh, Armenian… interesting… no problem … happy to help.

So now here I am, 31 years later, sitting on a plane waiting to take off from Yerevan, Armenia. I’m heading home to Los Angeles.  The trip will take roughly 17 hours.

I know plenty about the country now.  I have traveled here, made friends here, and dropped off my daughter for a 3-week youth program.

I even speak the language, albeit badly.

For my wife, Armenian culture and heritage are hugely important.

And my daughter, 15, has always gravitated toward Armenian people, stories, and experiences.

So I’m hauling luggage again, but this time for my daughter.  And this time in Armenia.

My own impressions of the country aren’t unique or important. As thousands of travelers before me have noted, it’s an ancient place with stunning vistas, fascinating artifacts, and many kind people who are willing – excited, actually – to show you around.

The place can be a pain in the ass, too, in the same way that any faraway, less developed country can be (or any country, for that matter).

But mostly, I am just startled, looking back, at the total … nothingness of those first, throwaway moments.

A school announcement.

Carrying boxes.

Nothing is happening.

Except, of course, it is.

I guess if I had paid closer attention, I might have heard the first faint whispers of what life had in store for me.  It probably would have saved me some time and heartache and needless wandering around.

Instead, I was just bumbling along, worrying about all the other stuff I wound up not giving a shit about.

God only knows what hidden, pivotal moments I am traipsing past today, heedless.

Time will tell, I guess.

 

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