An Eye for an Eye or: What a clumsy head rub taught me about success

    Meg and I started watching Chef’s Table this week.  Good heavens is that series a revelation in so many ways.  It should be understood that I adore cooking.  I love the planning of interesting meals.  I love the feeling of leaving the market with everything we need for a week and paying less than I would for one decent meal out.  I love the scents of a bouquet of spices lending savor and depth to a dish.  I love it all.  And I’d consider myself decent at the practice.

    Well...only compared to some.

    The chefs featured in the series are truly masters of the craft.  Their creations give my appetite a life of its own.  As I watched I felt it catch a hint of the imaginary fragrances wafting over my brain. It proceeded to float like a starstruck cartoon toward that culinary promised land on the winds of parmigiano-reggiano.  Its eyes welled up at the radiant presentation of the sustenance we so often take for granted.  My appetite was overcome.  My brain was right there with it.

    There’s something wondrous about watching people devise such beauty from something that’s also so deeply necessary to our survival.  Food can blandly sustain us for another day...or it can challenge us, uplift us, and enrapture us.  There’s a metaphor for life in there somewhere.  Maybe food is always a metaphor for life.  Yeah.  We’ll go with that for now.  I’ll have the steak and I’ll have it abundantly.

    People who are so passionate about food can teach us a lot.  Passion, after all, is the twin sister to care, and the roots of care rarely produce just one fruit.  The first episode of the series was about an extraordinarily passionate man named Massimo.

    I won’t go into all the details.  You should really watch it yourself.  But the moment that captured me most fully wasn’t about food at all.  One of the other chefs that works in Massimo’s kitchen described dropping a lemon tart that took a significant amount of time to prepare.  The tart cracked into several pieces and was obviously beyond repair.  The chef was devastated.

    But Massimo looked at the tart and saw possibility.  He redecorated the plate and served it gorgeously flawed.  Now every lemon tart served at his restaurant, the third highest rated in the world, is purposely cracked.

    What a genius way of handling the situation.  The repurposing was indeed unique and spectacular, but even more astounding was Massimo’s attitude in the heat of a trial.  He had such control of his mind and character that his FIRST instinct was to create something out of destruction.  To polish the disaster into a gem of victory.

    Now that is an exceptional person.  I can see myself growing towards a lot of positive qualities.  I can at least understand the strengths of a lot of amazing people.  But that sort of beautiful self-control is entirely alien to me.

    Later that same night my self-control was, shall we say, prodded.  As we were going to bed Meg reached over to brush my head at the exact moment that I was looking over towards her.  The landing strip of hair and scalp was replaced with my horribly vulnerable eyeball and before I had time to say “patches” the rout was on.

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    She felt terrible, of course, but was giggling because I obviously wasn’t mortally wounded (as far as she knew) and because it was a rather funny situation.  I couldn’t continue reading until ten minutes later.  So I sat there biting back frustration and trying not to think of how much my eye stung while holding it closed.   Nothing positive happened in my brain or with my time.

    Shortly after my visual function returned and I was back to my night, I realized how much I’m NOT like Massimo.  My first instinct when something goes wrong is to be frustrated, overwhelmed, and angry.  Even in a best case scenario I can only manage calm damage control.  I don’t have that fundamental creative positivity.

    Our culture craves success and personal improvement.  I genuinely believe that this creative attitude towards trial, this rulership of one’s mind, is more important than any amount of talent or intelligence.  I know a ton of exceedingly talented people, but I don’t know a lot of world changers.  I know I’m certainly not a world changer at this point.

    The world changes when the rubble of catastrophe is cleared by people who can see the future in the mess.

    I want that.

    How does it look to get there?  I’m not sure yet.  So I’m going to train my mind through my trials, big and small.  I’m going to forge things out of my struggles until it becomes second nature.

    Eventually I’m going to be the guy standing there with a garden ready for fertilizer when the crap hits the fan.

    And then I'll make some killer marinara sauce.

Ring Around the Rose or: How a supermarket line embodies true love

    It’s been a sparse handful of days since Valentine’s and part of me is already dreading its inevitable return.  I’m just not good at the lovey-dovey stuff.  People always called me A romantic and maybe I am in an intellectual sense.  But I really struggle to BE romantic.  Basically, if love is like syrup, I’m certainly no Vermont maple.

    My wife, on the other hand, is exceedingly romantic.  I’m convinced that her blood cells look like those little candy hearts inscribed with floofy phrases.  She’s sentimental, emotional, and appreciates all things ooey and most things gooey.

    She’s my dearest love...and she’s my worst nightmare.

    Not really, of course.  She’s everything I could ever want and the furthest thing from a nightmare.  Her desires simply put me in some spooky situations a couple times a year.  And Valentine’s is the witching hour for those who struggle with expressing their inner Romeo.

    One cannot be ruled by fear, however, so I eventually made the pilgrimage to my local Safeway alongside a host of other dutiful husbands and boyfriends.  It is a long and arduous journey and few live to tell the ta...fine, it’s a five minute drive.  Whatever.

    Upon arriving I walked timidly up to the glass maw of the doorway.  The dull windows leered at me as I approached, mocking my feeble efforts to appear confident and composed.

    Inside the store was even worse.

    The door was guarded by a hundred lovethirsty cupids, bows drawn tight with amorous anticipation.  They were flanked by, and in some instances rode astride, monstrous pink creatures of every description.  The scene was overrun by fur, scales, and shells bearing hearts and countless feverish hues of red.

    I braved the guard to reach the flower section, a jungle of thorns and confusion.  I shared horrified glances with the men to either side as we considered the repercussions of picking white roses over red, red over orange, orange over pink, or some combination thereof.  Before the sickly sweet aroma could overcome me, I picked a dozen of the simplest red variety and fled with just a few scratches and a minor haze of dizziness.

    As I approached the register I saw men being whisked away by flirtacious balloons the size of dragons, too large and powerful to be corralled by mortal strength.  I tore my eyes away from the horrors surrounding me, thought of my damsel, payed for my flowers, and made my escape.  And this doesn’t even include the separate quest for the veritable golden fleece of her favorite chocolate.

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    Women will never understand what we face for the reward of their delighted giggles.

    I’m beginning to realize why we face them, though.  It’s not just “WOMAN WANT NICE THING.  ME GET WOMAN NICE THING.  WOMAN GIVE ME NICE THING.  HOOBA HOOBA.”  It’s really not.  I must at least give the ladies more credit than that.

    Love is for ALL times.  I count myself among the men who are more comfortable with love in adversity.  I don’t mind doing hard things for Meg.  It makes the relationship feel real and deep and true.  But thankfully life isn’t entirely composed of adversity.  We have joy and bliss and romance.  We have birthdays.  We have Valentine’s.

    Even though those moments don’t have the gravitas of resolving conflicts and facing difficulty together, it’s just as important that I love Meg well in the happy moments.  Limiting my efforts to the hard times robs us of a massive segment of our relational fulfillment.   It’s counter-intuitive to have to say that, but I think a lot of us guys need to hear it.

    In the end, it’s not about the flowers or the chocolate or the cards or the handmade lasagna (that’s right).  It’s about loving your significant other in the way they receive best.

    Not only that, it’s about how meaningful it is to them when you love them in a way that’s uncomfortable for you.  People are more perceptive than we think.  Meg notices when I take steps to meet her where she is, especially when those steps take me through gummy-shark infested waters.  And she deeply, passionately appreciates those steps.  That’s love.

    So there it is.  I guess that just because something looks like Hallmark love doesn’t mean it’s shallow or affected.  Love isn’t all fun and games, but dang it there needs to be some of that.  Play a little!  Poetry a little!  Flower a little!  And do it even if it doesn’t come naturally.  Maybe especially if it doesn't.

    Join me in committing not to be a love hipster.  Sometimes waiting in line for an overstuffed bear and a gargantuan bouquet is the realest love there is.

Cat Scratch Fever or: How a wooden man taught a real one a lesson

    As I mentioned in my last post, we have cats now.  Brent Leaders and wife have cats.  With all the meowling, scratching, yarfing, furniture-tearing, clothes-and-surfaces-and-somehow-food-in-the-fridge-also-overrun-with-furring implications attached.  I never saw this day coming and now that it’s here I can barely see any of the fabric in my house.

    It’s not all bad, though.  We named them Algernon and Ernest, so that’s a plus.  They can be super cute when you look at them right.  They have personality.  Besides, my theory is that cats are entertainment more than pets.  They do stuff and we get the privilege of watching.  Mostly the stuff they do is Andersonian quirk at its best.

    Sometimes it’s sheer horror.

    Ernest recently learned how to jump onto our mantle from the television cabinet.  The mantle is sparsely populated but enticing in its height and scratchable content.  It is also the home of this blog’s wooden avatar.  He sits quietly in whatever pose he was most recently given, content to mind his own business until he is needed again.

    The wooden man never asked for adventure.  His home, however, was invaded by a monstrous ice-eyed feline.  His home that sits over a fireplace.  His home consisting of only one wall and a precipice on the other three sides.  His doom was written when the first padded paw touched the stones.

    I feel like I watched the inevitable conclusion in eerie slow motion.  Ernest attempted to scramble onto a picture that was leaning on the wall.  The picture tilted painfully, loathe to release its tenuous position of decorative comfort.  In the end, the cat was too heavy and the whole mess of cat, picture, and model came tumbling down.

    I watched the wooden visage as it plunged haplessly to a sooty demise.  I could almost see the single tear slide down the begrained face.

    The cat and the picture were fine, of course.  Cats are always fine.  But the man did, indeed, take an unlucky bounce that resulted in some minor black stains.

    Minor my arse.

    I was already in a bad mood towards my animals that day and the aforementioned disaster felt like the last straw.  They’d violated a safe place and injured yet another of my possessions, this time a possession that was moderately hard to fully replace.  I was really, truly mad.  I was ready to nip some cats.

    But then I stopped for a moment and thought about why I was mad.  The cats hadn’t killed any of my loved ones.  They hadn’t given me a wasting disease.  They hadn’t even cost me anything.  They never have, really, outside of the basic care and feeding that one expects when taking on a pet.  So why was I angry?

    They’ve invaded my space.  They’ve taken my time and attention and required my protection and investment.  They want my attention.  They need me.  And I hated it.  Who’s the monster now?

    In stereotypically masculine introvert fashion I’m inclined to isolate myself.  I want the most time possible to pursue my own desires and the least possible distraction therefrom.  But real isolation opposes any sort of sound judgement.  It leads to nothing but escalating selfishness, shriveling openness to new ideas, and growing tendencies towards confirmation bias.

    Giving in to isolating myself shows that I care less for those around me than for my own desires.  No matter what I say, that action speaks for itself.

    The kind of isolation my ugly side wants is the enemy of love.  Love comes into contact.  It draws towards.  It reaches out.  It helps those in need.  And it LOOKS for them first.  I started to realize that I’d done none of those things with our cats.  And if I can’t be strong and selfless when little is asked of me, what will I do when much more is required?

    So I decided to make the cats part of my family.  I’ll treat them with care and learn to love their flaws.  Fluffy bastards.  They’re not so unlovely.  Not nearly as unlovely as some of the people I’m called to love.  And they’re not that difficult.  Not nearly as difficult as a headstrong child or a struggling young student.

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    The scarred dummy kept doing his job.  He modeled for me just today, no grudges held.  He now gladly shares his home and still doesn’t seek isolation.

    If a dummy can do it, so can I.



    ....right?

Open Door, Close Door or: For the days when I forget how to use a cookie sheet

    When I was a baby I had an obsession with doors being opened and shut.  I could sit with one of my parents or any other unlucky bystander for extended periods of time and request that the door’s function be displayed to me again and again.  From the perspective of my young mind the door’s function was to entertain me, not to block the cold or keep out intruders.  Older people’s function was to do my bidding until I bored of them.

    This simplistic perspective is understandable and even expected from a small child.  Repetition and speculation are the tools of developing brains.

    Unfortunately, they’re also the banes of hard-headed thirtysomething know-it-alls.

    You’d think I would have outgrown the narrow-mindedness of youth.  Well, I’m in the process.  A continuous, frustrating process.  An example of this process takes the form of a humble cookie sheet.  I’ll get to that in a minute.

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    Meg and I have cats now.  Two of them.  Given that their primary concern seems to be eating everything I possess, my hands and arms included, I’m not sure why we have them.  They can be entertaining, I guess.  And they’re more patient cuddlers for my dear wife than am I.  But my narrow mind has difficulty seeing as much purpose in cats as in dogs.  And their narrow eyes seem to see right through me.  It’s an uneasy truce and a story for another time.

    Not too long ago the cats added garbage to their list of insatiable desires.  Meg and I are possessed of a lidless garbage can and I am loathe to replace it and admit that my intelligence isn’t enough to overcome a baby cat.

    I decided covering the can with a cookie sheet was the best option.  So I did.  I weighted it down and it was a satisfactory answer to our dilemma.  However, I always replaced the cookie sheet facing downwards.  This caused awkward gaps, relatively high difficulty in removing the sheet, and some bowing because of the weight.

    After a few days Meg flipped the cookie sheet over and thereby rocked my world for the umpteenth time.

    It had NEVER occurred to me to flip the sheet despite the seemingly obvious flaws in my method.  As far as I was concerned, that was the one and only way of ever using my impromptu lid.  The lid had one function and it was accomplishing the function well enough for me.  

    I guess there’s something to be said for the fact that I quickly accepted that Meg’s way was better.  But I never would have sought out her input or a better way.  I was satisfied and proud of myself and willing to overlook my design’s limitations.

    Open lid, close lid.  Open lid, close lid.

    I wish I could say that my narrow perspectives ended there, but they don’t.  Most things still have a very set function in my mind.  Sadly, so do many people

    Not only that, but I have a wickedly hard time accepting ideas from people I’m not already inclined to respect or agree with.  Sure, I’m “open minded” and “tolerant” when challenged by people who have the exact same values as I and who look like me.  I can even consider difficult topics...as long as I’m prompted by comfortable sources.

    Simply put, this makes me a simpleton.  Thoughtfulness isn’t qualified by one’s ability to think about the same things in the same ways forever.  Open-mindedness isn’t best represented by the ideals we’re able to consider, but from whom we’re able to accept them.

    So I’m in the process of becoming thoughtful and open-minded during a time in our country when it may be more important than ever.  I’m trying not to be a hater of knowledge or a mocker of uncomfortable things.  An active pursuit of external thought is necessary for a healthy interaction with the world.  A lot of difficult people are worth listening to.  

    I wish I was further along in my process.  Stakes in the real world are much higher than garbage stank and bent cookie sheets.  And the people from whom I must choose to receive are generally much less gracious and lovely than my wife.

    But as long as I try to ignore baby Brent and keep from pressing people and thoughts instantly into my own function-molds, there’s hope and growth.


    Open door...open mind.

Sneaky Snobbery or: What I decided when I realized my ears were only for show

 

     I am an arrogant bastard.  Sometimes I’m well aware of this fact but sometimes it comes as news to me.  Which isn’t news.  I think my emo-psycho-ovo-lacto-beefo-chicko-porko RSS feeds are backlogged.  

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    But when the bulletin reading “EXTRA!  EXTRA!  MAN REFUSES TO THINK, THINKS HE’S PERFECTION INCARNATE” reaches my noodle at long last, it often surprises me.  I guess egotism is like that.  It’s hard to really care about the bodies surrounding me when I’m too busy being my own little prince peering down at them from on high.  It’s even harder to really care about them when I’m convinced they desperately need my tender, loving benevolence.

    My benevolence.  What a bunch of hogwash.

    So there I am, wallowing in the fragrant sludge of my own self-importance.  I’m spending more time plotting my next response than listening to my wife’s earnest pleas to simply be heard.  I’m feeding the hungry to glut myself.  I’m rooting for the underdog because it makes me look cooler when they win.  Pretty disgraceful, huh?

    READ ALL ABOUT IT!

    I’ve done this my whole life.  For many youthful years I “liked” Sigur Ros and experimental jazz and earth toned tee shirts and being socially aloof because that was my idealized existence.  But gosh dang it, I’m a shameless EDM man!  I adore tasteful floral prints.  And being aloof with people does NOT make me unattainable and sexy.  It makes me a painfully awkward sillyboy.  

    And yet it took me an entire young adulthood to realize that I was doing acceptable things for unacceptable reasons.  It took me years to realize that I was just listening to a really loud, really invasive social mixtape.

    These days my idealized existence is more properly focused.  I don’t just want acceptable things, I want good things!  My desire is to deeply commune with those I love and assist the weak and needy whenever I can.  I like Chopin because I LIKE IT!

    But the desire to do right by the world doesn’t go hand in hand with the ability to do so.

    I start doing the “right” things.  Doing these things deserves a pat on the back.  I proceed to pat myself on the back with so much satisfied gusto that I’m flung deeper down into that putrid self-soup.  Now I’m doing good things for bad reasons.  And after a couple more years I’m starting to realize what a snob I am.  Again.

    You’re probably wondering why that’s not ok.  Good things are good things, right?  Nobody else knows you’re an egotist pig on the inside.  Maybe that’s true.  But I don't think so.  Why?  

    Because I don’t determine what’s good.

    I don’t know what’s best for my wife.  I don’t know what’s best for my friends.  I certainly don’t know what’s best for the country or the world.   My internal concept of good might not look very different from real and meaningful good, but those small differences become chasms when dealing with infinitely complex and exceptionally intricate human beings.

    Soooo the answer is to just stop trying to do good things.  Kick back and listen to Miley Cyrus.

    OK, I won’t do that.   The answer isn’t to stop doing good.  The answer is to stop and figure out what IS good.  And not just once.  For each situation.  With each person.  On each social platform.  And in each conversation.  The answer is to listen before speaking.  The answer is to admit how arrogant it is to think that I have all the answers and to start paying attention to the painful but beautiful abundance of questions.

    News flash:  It’s a lot simpler to see the sadder and realer parts when kneeling next to people than when sitting on a dais overlooking them.

    It’s a lot more possible to love and do right by someone when my thought process doesn’t start and end with myself.

    It’s a lot easier to hear when my ears aren’t permanently doing the mannequin challenge.

 

A Beginning or: How I’m finally learning to get off my bum and get on my horse

 

    Let’s start with forever.  Regardless of what history may try and teach me or other people may tell me, the only existence I’ve known comes from inside my own mind. And inside my own mind it’s hard to do things.  According to my brain, all of humanity is painfully passive and paralyzed by procrastination and always has been. This is the long and short of my experience.

    Now I know objectively that my mind is not representative of the whole of mankind.  This is a very good thing.  There are men and women that are more driven than sled dogs in the Iditarod.  Another very good thing.   And maybe many of you are like that.  I applaud you!  Don’t run yourselves too ragged making the world a better place one project at a time.  My wife is one of those people and her dedication and proactive mindset challenge me every day.

    Then there are others of you that are more like me.  I can subsist quite happily, thank you, on abstract possibilities.  I can converse ad nauseum on the goings and doings of great people and spout urbane paraphrases of classic truisms.  I have potential.  I can do anything to which I set my mind.  I’m infinitely intellectual and capable.  Or…

    I’m frozen in fear of failures that would harm my self-worth far more than I’d like to admit.

    I’m hazy with comfort; resting on a future aglow with my inevitable success.

    I’m lazy.

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    Those latter three resound more clearly than I wish they did.  But they resound.  I’m starting to see myself for who I really am.  And I’m starting to see a few things much more clearly.

   First, possible achievements are no more real than Monopoly money.  My dreams can’t be exchanged for influence and they sure can’t be exchanged for that nice espresso machine on my Amazon wish list.

   Second, talking about concepts of greatness and change does not lead to greatness and change.  A couple of beers and some willing ears around a circle makes me the greatest man alive in my own mind.  But it makes me a hypocrite when I spend year after year pursuing better ways of talking about things rather than becoming less bad at doing them.

   And third, the people that affect change in this world have always shared one quality regardless of their other talents and visions: diligence.

   There’s nothing wrong with knowledge.  There’s nothing wrong with dreams.  And all good things come from some sort of potential goodness.  But if you’re like me, and some of you are, that can so easily feel like it’s enough.  But it’s not.  Potential alone leads to poverty, financial or otherwise.

   Success demands action.  Victory necessitates battle.  Change requires investment.

   Becoming aware of all of this is painful.  But it makes stagnancy a choice.  And I will no longer choose it.  I now see my “potential” for the smothering force it is.  I now see diligence as the excruciating rehabilitation of my engagement with the things I love.

   This blog will chronicle my progress in pursuing real change, real victory, and real success.  In fact, blogging is in itself a discipline.  I hope to learn a great deal from writing and I hope that some of you will be able to learn and grow with me.  It won’t always be this heavy, I promise.

   We’ve had potential forever.  But our flawed perception of forever only stretches backwards.  Looking forward there is a clear end for each of us.  Let’s not get there with only potential to show for our lives.  As my former university’s fight song says, I’ve decided to fight like hell.  I hope you'll join me.

 

   And win.