Thursday, January 29, 2009


If, as a child, I had discovered what I now know about myself, I would have had a glorious career in espionage. Sadly, the CIA will have to mourn its loss, for it wasn’t until I was well beyond my twenties that I realized the significance of all those strange symptoms of my disjointed life: the fact that I’m invisible.

The first clue I had to this malady was a vignette from my junior high school years. Madly in love with music, but hating the tedium of all other classes, I often would cut class in favor of long practice sessions in the music suite. One day, during an after-school lab make-up session (for which absence I truly had a viable excuse!), my biology teacher struck up a conversation which meandered into the realm of students’ differing personalities. Comparing me with a fellow musician, she mentioned that if this girl were to ditch class, this teacher would have immediately noticed the absence owing to the girl’s personality. As for me—well, she wouldn’t have noticed. There was nothing outstanding to call attention to even my existence.

Time and again, people would mention—sometimes be startled into noticing—the shock of realizing that “someone” was there. That someone would be me. Even standing right next to the focus of attention (a six feet, nine inches tall man, specifically), I would be as surely not seen as if I were just so much more air. If, for some reason, people were astute enough to recognize that that thin air did indeed comprise a person, the person they saw would be labeled with every imaginable contortion of the pronunciation of my name (Kathy, Jeanie, Angie). When the labeling reached beyond phonetic semantics to creations exceeding excuse (Barbara, Genevieve), it became obvious that people see not what is there, but what they wish to see. For some reason, I never became what people wished to see, so for them, I became invisible.

Life has predictably followed a full course of invisibility. Tucked away in suburbs franchised by mass-production economy, I follow the scientific reality of cause-and-effect demands: schedules, bills, roles, obligations. And yet, I struggle to break out of the box of invisibility. The struggle is not because I can’t get out of the box; it is because no one can see me stepping out of the box. I struggle because I want to be seen.

The Gordian-knot approach to this dilemma is not to untie other people’s psyche, but to cut myself free from the thought that being seen is key. Importance in life does not need to be predicated upon only those things deemed valuable by their visibility. There is a world of invisibility, inexplicable but approachable, imbued with values measured only by eternity and the souls that eternity can receive. Invisibility as a cloak can become a blessing.

The ruling paradigm in demanding, modern life—the philosophy of Science—requires, among other things, that to be recognized as measurable and thus real, an entity must be part of an independent, external world; that that world must have a knowable, uniform and orderly nature; that it must be observed by those in possession of reliable cognitive and sensory faculties; that those observing must be in possession of language that can adequately serve to describe that world; and that those observing must also be in possession of numbers and mathematical truths to model those observations. If anything is not in the external world; if anything is not observable; if anything is not apparent to those deemed to possess those reliable cognitive and sensory faculties; if anything is outside the realm of descriptive or quantifying language; to science—and thus, modern life—it is as if it didn’t exist.

How, then, can one measure love? Or any of the virtues? Do they, then, not exist? How, if they do not exist, are we to pass them down, generation to generation, so that our children may not only thrive, but stand on our shoulders and exceed our reach? Is life only about what is visible? Measurable? Is the visible life alone worth living?

What is achieved in the invisible world, immeasurable yet invaluable, often endures. It leaves behind the logic of the scientific and real, but enters the realm of the spiritual. Works of that spiritual realm, some of them creations of beauty, were often invisible—and designed to remain invisible—to secular stations.

Over one thousand years ago, an artisan fashioned an object incredibly ahead of its time for its attention to detail. The Ardagh Chalice, described by historian Thomas Cahill in How the Irish Saved Civilization as “the most extraordinary metalwork of the early Middle Ages,” had one tantalizing salute to the invisible. Used in communion, the chalice would briefly be turned upward as the communicant drank the wine, and “there would flash skyward the Chalice’s most thrilling aspect: the intricate underside of its base, meant to be seen by God alone.”

Why take all that time, that effort, to work a work that would never be accredited to any measurable benefit? It is because there is a world that counts those things invisible as visible.

“With admiration for the greatness of what you are building when no one sees.”

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

His Little Life

It all started with an animal rescue mission gone awry. Our previous dynasty of cats no longer ruled the mouse-ridden turf outside our abbreviated country estate. To save ourselves, we needed a renewed feline presence.

“Dad,” our Darling Daughter intoned in her best darling daughter voice, “could we get a kitten?”

It just so happened, at that time, a feral outcast skulking around the outbuildings at her dad’s work—the county jail—had given birth to a brood of kittens. To save the pitiful urchins from a destiny akin to their mother’s, a secretary in Chris’s office had arranged to have them captured and brought to her home, to nurture (which included frequent bottle-feedings), tame from the wild, and of course, ultimately give away to good homes where in their adult lives they would be prevented from casting off future litters of feral cats.

In due time, we visited that cat-rescue center, where Darling Daughter managed to exit with not one, but two, kittens. Perhaps in a token nod to the location of the kittens’ birth, or perhaps in recognition of the line of duty of that workplace, one of the four kittens ended up being a black-and-white. Law enforcement being so closely intertwined with black-and-whites, it was not the last we were to see of that motif.

Life progressed admirably with the proper adoption and training of our two new residents. Once away from their humble origins, they took on the comely aura bestowed more by heritage than happenstance. Spoiled as only children, they had the aristocratic air of an Abyssinian, and commensurate with their newly-acquired lofty position they knew no common life. Shot histories immaculately recorded, visits to the vet dutifully kept—until one day at about six months, our vet kindly reminded us that it was time to think about having the little cherubs fixed.

“But they look so young, so small,” we thought to ourselves. “We’ll wait a while.”

“And wouldn’t it be fun to let them have one bunch of kittens?” our Darling Daughter intoned in her most darling daughter voice. After all, our property was best maintained at its mouse-free status with about eight cats. And Toes, the doddering spinster aunt from the last passel of cats, though still hanging on to her neurotic crotchety life, was well beyond hunting age. We could use the additional help.

Dad, predictably, caved.

And so, in good time, Tux and Macready each became proud moms with their own four kittens—kittens which, incidentally, Darling Daughter’s Dad fully intended to give away to good homes, just as had happened to their mothers before them. And, of course, once the moms fulfilled their duties of motherhood, it was to be off to the vet to insure this was the end of our cat procreation.

It took us until after we discovered one of the “babies” had birthed her own litter to realize that this breed of cat was genetically disposed to either tinyness or precociousness. At any rate, black-and-white Tux had given us, among others, black-and-white Waders, who quickly produced a runt litter of two more black-and-whites. The reproductive rodeo, as Chris dubbed it, was now in full swing.

Other than producing runts, you could say Waders had achieved the ideal family: one boy, one girl—except that there was something unexplainably wrong with the male. While the girl, Checkers, grew to be cute, perky, and irresistibly charming, the young boy seemed to be suffering from the feline version of “Failure to Thrive.”

One day, we accidentally noticed that his mom had actually rejected him. He was shunted off into a corner of the kennel, and she wasn’t nursing him. Ever the animal lover, our daughter bought equipment and formula to bottle-feed him. That earned her his eternal gratefulness, which he signaled by lawn-mower-loud purring every time he thought he’d be brought inside for another feeding. But it also became a manmade circumvention of Mother Nature’s brutal eugenics program, most commonly dubbed Natural Selection.

“I could so easily snap his little neck and save him from his suffering,” Chris observed one day. As we watched him grow, it daily become more painfully obvious that this little kitten had been the victim of inbreeding—a private curse he never asked for, but one which became his lot before he ever knew life.

By this point, we were discovering that the market for free kittens had dried up just as surely and concurrently as had the housing market. Meanwhile, our Reproductive Rodeo had yielded more cats than we could manage to name and we defaulted to generic descriptors. Since surely this little guy was not going to make it, though, we hadn’t bothered to name him.

Yet in his own pathetic little way, this kitten wormed his way into our hearts. One day, as we opened the kitchen door to the garage where we kept the kennels, our pitiful guy revved up his purr-motor and leapt up the step to charge into the kitchen. Our Sealyham Terrier, barging down the hallway from the opposite direction, met him in a near-head-on collision, and, as Sealyhams are genetically programmed to do in the chance meeting with a rat-sized object, nearly gulped the poor guy whole! We saved him from such a catastrophe, of course, but from that point, he was dubbed Tidbit.

It is horrible and mean-spirited to laugh at another’s handicaps, of course, but something about the pitiful but endearing Tidbit brought us great mirth as we watched his growing-up antics. Though he hardly could figure out how to exit the garage through the cat door, he did learn how to romp and play with the other cats sometime in the late summer, well beyond the time his age-mates had learned to do so. It was sweet to watch him discover the joy of running, especially in the grass. Something short-circuited in his brain, though, and he often would get stuck in tight loops, running in circles when he became anxious or excited. He’d become so excited at dinner time that he would run in circles until well after most of the other cats had finished eating. Of course, he never forgot the possibility of that wonderful time of bottle feeding, and the merest touch to the back of his head to pet him brought on gales of purring, and the loudest, most plaintive meows as he pled to be let inside for another treat.

One day, as Tidbit was still puzzling over getting the hang of using the cat door, unbeknownst to him, we had just pulled in the driveway and opened the garage door--the panel to which the cat door was affixed. Tidbit must have just convinced himself it was okay to put his front paws on the threshold of the cat door in preparation to exit, when, out of nowhere, the door began to lift…and lift…and lift. In our front-row car seats to this comedy, we saw the garage door move, and then a kitten begin to dangle from the uplifting panel—much in the manner of the “Hang In There Kitty” posters of years ago—and we couldn’t stop ourselves from laughing. Of course, we halted the door’s advance immediately, and went to tenderly—and carefully, as this poor creature was also incontinent—rescue Tidbit from his predicament.

As sorry as his life was—this is where the Quality of Life Cops demand the upper hand in pronouncements—it was a life, and we wanted to respect that. We did what we could to make his life comfortable, sweet, and manageable. And really, what are these little concessions in the face our own life’s demands? Giving him a cozy bed and a heating pad in the midst of winter’s cold snaps, or a nibble of something he deemed tasty, cost us little in the midst of all our competing schemata of Life. Life with Tidbit was not a zero-sum game. We did what we could for him, and it in no way deprived us of our own lives. On the contrary, Tidbit became one of those small blessings in life that enriched our own lives.

And so, as incredible as it may seem, when we returned last week from an out of town trip to find Tidbit stretched out lifeless on our garage floor, it warranted a wave of melancholy in seeing his passing.

He had his little life, we had always said. His little life. But it was a life—and that was what really mattered.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Word. Economy.

Spoiler alert: this entry will include another Twitter rant.

There seems to be, with the eruption of multiplied sources of word content, a coincidental and inverse action upon the sources of value content. While the word count goes up, the dollar count seems to go down. The more the world talks, the less economic value the world seems to enjoy.

On the one hand, we have escalated from mechanical typewriter to IBM Selectric to word processor to personal computer to fax and cell phone to Blackberry to…well, you get the idea. In the meantime, the more we Twitter, the less we produce. Sometimes, I wonder at the negative covariance of the two trends.

There are many who will argue I’ve got it wrong. The fact that we can fling words from one corner of the world to another in nanoseconds is sheer proof that we don’t have to wait, anymore, to finish our assigned tasks. That alone, Boss, should qualify for the Worker’s Nobel Peace Prize.

Words even have leverage now. What I used to key into a device to text a friend now can be broadcast, thanks to Twitter, to multiplied anyones who care to know my mundane daily musings.

There is something diametrically in opposition to the fluff of multiplied communications, and that is the pre-requisite of productivity.

I remember working on a genealogy project years ago—something I’ve always enjoyed as a hobby—when I found an online group suited to tackling the particular research aspect I was stuck on at that moment. While I can’t even recall whether the group helped me unstick from my dilemma, I do remember someone commenting on the frustration of not being able to find genealogical answers in, say, those church records of the 1870s in Prussia. Someone else was kind enough to provide the reality checkpoint that people in past time frames might have been a little busy with something other than wondering who their great-great-grandparents were. Say, something like whether there would be enough food to take them through a particularly chilling winter season. Point being, when it takes all you have to give to get food on your table, you don’t spend a great deal of time expounding on the virtues and values of much besides what will get that food on your table. We, on the other hand, can dally in luxuries of little consequence. Our productivity requirements have amply been over-exceeded.

Today, we have all sorts of commentators spouting off all sorts of opinions, recycling and passing along all sorts of tidbits of information, which dutifully get tossed everywhere but on the trash-heap of internet forwards. Perhaps these talking heads (well, now we don’t even get to see the heads!) are paid well for their participation in the chain of communication. But they aren’t really producers.

And it is the true producers that provide the value in a society. At least at the bedrock foundational layer. If someone on the bottom weren’t doing the sustaining work that provides our needs—with plenty of profit to spare—none of us would enjoy that spendy gift of gab. That bedrock productivity fuels our divergence into the countless iterations of thought—or thoughtlessness—that we enjoy.

There is a phrase I found once in an ancient writer’s work which has stuck with me, concerning the point at which value is actually created. It from a warning by the revered Hebrew prophet, Moses, who was reminding his people that, though they became wealthy and felt self-sufficient, they still needed to remember the source of their abilities. The concept I bought from that passage was “the power to produce wealth.”

I took a look at the original language (with lots of help from reference books) and isolated three key words.

The Hebrew word for “Power” came from a root word meaning “to be firm.” It had the idea of vigor or force, the connotation of a capacity or means to produce.

“To produce” was from a root word meaning to work, labor, or toil, and gave the sense of making, creating—especially building or constructing something. It often was linked with a sense of ethical obligation. Over the years, it came to be understood generally as “to do” or “to make,” but the creative implication was not lost on me.

“Wealth,” however, was the most interesting in this emphasis on creation. It originated from a verb whose two main ideas were spinning, and twisting—as in labor pains before giving birth. To bear a child, to be strong: those were the main messages of this word’s history. From this sense of causing to bring forth, word usage evolved to include concepts of multiplication: “army,” “strength” and “wealth.” Once again, it involved something tangible, and something which required strong effort to produce. And it yielded something of value.

The take-home message from Moses’ lesson for his followers was: Don’t forget the one who gave you your ability. Today, that message reminds me that true wealth comes from creative, productive effort—the hard work of creating something from “nothing.” All talk does is redistribute wealth. And the more we try to redistribute someone else’s wealth, the less it is worth for the ones who didn’t work to produce it.
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...