etc.

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I made a list that started with dancy melodies from the 1940’s, Belgian waffles, Charlie Chaplin, tuxedo tee shirts, freshly blossomed daffodils, golden delicious apples, live New Orleans jazz, cotton candy-flavored bubble gum, a baby giggling at passing gas in the bathtub, misspelled tattoos, grownups who skip, freshly mown grass, hot air balloon festivals, sparrows drunk on fermented berries doing acrobatic flying, elderly nuns who snort when they laugh, a bag of bright blue jelly beans, a plaid graduation gown, convertible cars, flash mobs of preschoolers, old fashioned hat shops, triple scoop ice cream cones, and balloon animals made from rubber gloves.

Soon the list included Bugs Bunny cartoons, public trees wrapped in white twinkle lights, political activists who mispronounce “nuclear”, steam locomotives, old blue jeans that still fit, racing the meter maid to pop a quarter into a parking meter for a stranger’s car, the aroma of hickory smoke on a rainy day, Christmas tree farms, fireman poles in fire houses, life size bronze statues of horses, Pez candies, and making your own popcorn over a camp fire.

Finally I wound up with a loveable rescue dog of undetermined breed, bare feet in warm sand, two snails on a large rock whose trails have been side by side turn for turn for 22 and three quarter inches, a row of twelve Jack O’lanterns none of which have been carved with the same face, Bad Wig Day at work, riding bicycles into the supermarket, a photo of yourself at nine that looks exactly like a photo of your father at nine, balancing your checkbook, teaching yourself to juggle three raw eggs, and inventing a crazy new dance that involves wearing a really big hat and not moving from the waist up, etc.

I love et cetera (etc.); and so on, and so on.

Things that make me smile,…. etc.

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Cosmic Forces

Someone asked me today what sign I was born under.

I used to make fun of people who gave serious consideration to astrology. It always struck me as somewhat naïve and juvenile that otherwise intelligent people would not only put stock in the movements of the stars and the planets, but also relate those movements to substantial goings on in their own lives. It seemed incredibly silly to me.sundial-8657-1920x1080

And yet, at the same time, I very much enjoyed being asked. Especially when an attractive woman was doing the asking.

It doesn’t have to mean anything in particular, but somehow the question itself delivers me back to a time when your position in the zodiac became an automatic symbol of sexual inclination. Kind of like a foreplay to foreplay. Those three simple words were rife with possibilities of free love. And in the post-hippy atmosphere of the late 70’s your astrological sign seemed to have real romantic currency. That’s the feeling that comes back to me when I hear someone ask, “What’s your sign?”

Any more in polite society, those words are little more than a conversation starter. For me, and for the longest time, astrology had lost its sex appeal, which isn’t really fair since I never gave it its due in the first place. Astrological stuff had always struck me as just plain gimmicky.

From 1983 to 1995 I worked in the space program. Twelve years of my life spent in close quarters with some of most levelheaded, pragmatic, and even-tempered thinkers on the planet. I was in my element. No frivolity, no specious reasoning, no whims of fancy. Everything was predicated on absolute logic. So I find it ironic that NASA is where I started to notice how the mathematics of orbital mechanics might actually affect my daily mood.

Putting mysticism aside, let’s take a look at the purely physical aspects of the question. Consider if you will how the moon’s relationship to the earth directly affects the ocean tides, which by extension affect atmospheric pressure. When the moon is full, the overall barometric pressure of the planet responds accordingly. And when pressure goes up, people’s fuses get shorter. That’s what people do best—respond to pressure. We can’t help ourselves, or our instincts. Statistically there really are more traffic accidents and crimes of passion during a full moon. These are physically demonstrable and proven phenomena.

We all know that a variety of people react in a variety of ways because of our distinctly unique makeups. And still there are unifying elements. For example different people operate best at different barometric pressures, which is probably why women’s menstrual cycles start on different days—but still most every woman’s cycle runs like clockwork every 28 days, which by the way is the exact cycle of the moon’s orbit of the earth—28 days.

No coincidence. Like it or not, as residents of this globe we are bound by its physical laws. But if we remain conscious of those laws and the cycles in which they run, then we have a bit of an advantage.

I firmly suspect—and if tested I believe it would prove out nicely—that if researchers were to track any number of male subjects over a period of several months, they would discover that men too have a 28-day cycle of their own. And for the exact same week every month, men probably exhibit their own PMS-type symptoms, although not in the physical way that women do. We men experience our own moodiness, short tempers, irritability, and so on—some weeks more so than others—and if you chart them, I am convinced they will map out perfectly in 28-day cycles.

In other words, yes, I do believe men have periods too. Scary, right?

No one can be constantly in top form. For instance, I know I am never at my best in extreme heat. I can’t abide it. My parents on the other hand were born in the Deep South and have always loved Florida weather. I however happened to be born in Ohio in the middle of winter and am convinced the climate into which I first arrived imprinted me with a distinct preference for cool air and a somewhat chilly geography. While my work has me in California for the time being, one day I dream of retiring well north of here.

So, considering the time of year you are born, as well as the physical and emotional environment into which you’re born, all these cosmic and atmospheric alignments may actually have a profound affect on your moods and inclinations. Then add to that mix the crazy cocktail of your own unique body chemistry, and you can really begin to see how the position of the moon, and perhaps the planets and stars, have a not insignificant bearing on how you feel and operate in this world. And perhaps, just perhaps, might it have some small impact on who is likely to gravitate to your personality, and to whom you may be attracted yourself?

A reasonable fellow like myself has to take pause at the prospect of such emotional alchemy.

These days when someone asks my sign, I have to think twice before dismissing its possible significance. After all, who can say when love may finally find me, wide-eyed and marveling at the stars? It’s one hell of a human circus we’re all part of. Why not enjoy the show until it’s your turn in the spotlight?

Somehow lately I’m feeling a little more interconnected with the world around me. Trying to keep an eye out for the rhythms and cyclical aspects of the physical world and how it relates to my moods and my life. And I’m trying to pay some small regard to my good days as well as my bad ones. But despite all this wary enlightenment, I still find myself amused when asked that leading question. Because that’s not the question they’re really asking, is it.

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Restraint

In our youth the best of our teachers encourage us to reach for the stars. Still others caution that a man’s reach should not exceed his grasp. Personally I am all for star reaching, otherwise heaven no longer seems possible.

I believe we should be guided by our goals, to be strong and push ourselves into the world with enterprise and audacity.

But all ambition aside, where is the wisdom in relying solely on the forceful thrust of unbridled drive and forward momentum? None of us wants to come across as the proverbial 800 pounds of angry pot roast gracelessly slamming through a china shop. A degree of restraint is wise in every endeavor, professional and personal.

Police actions have much to learn from the tragedy at Kent State. Anyone in a position of power owes as much of their leadership ability to strength as they do to a coolness of temperament. When strength is moderated with restraint, civility invariably prevails.

My daughter has remarked that she is drawn to bad boys, though it hasn’t always worked out to her advantage. I would offer the best kind of bad boy attitude would be one of potential. If the potential were the dominant factor, then perhaps the restraint behind it would carry the sex appeal. There’s something alluring in the awareness of someone’s danger and intensity while trusting they have the self-possession not to act on it.

It breaks my heart that few of her bad boys have possessed that restraint.

I agree that balance is very much the fundamental factor in deciding between discretion and zeal. A charitable organization asks why we do not give in all directions? Might it be for fear of losing ourselves? As Henry Miller noted, “Until we lose ourselves, there is no hope of finding ourselves.”

On the other hand, I have to smile at Mae West’s observation that, “I like restraint — if it doesn’t go too far.”

Of course the old adage still applies — that the secret to being a colossal bore is to tell everything. One of my favorite authors, Orson Scott Card, said, “Among my most prized possessions are words that I have never spoken.”

Though a sparing tongue will serve you well, the human heart has only so much wisdom when it comes to what to say — or more importantly, whether to say it at all.

I hesitate to offer advice to anyone when it comes to matters of the heart. But I did write this poem as a cautionary tale to myself that restraint is a scalpel and a sword with the power to both heal and harm.

UNSAID
(© 2013 Michael J. Cahill)

Benny Beluga
Thought brevity nice
If he queried you once
He would never ask twice

Bonnie Belinda
Was painfully shy
Though she wanted to speak
She would let it go by

When Benny met Bonnie
They both felt the same
That Beluga-Belinda
Would make a nice name

But Bonnie and Benny
Were never to wed
Though they both loved each other
It was always… unsaid

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Levity

Respect is a pretty big deal in anyone’s book. Respect for a person, an environment, a life style or institution. Even a situation.

Levity is an appropriately satirical remark in an inappropriate environment.

A whispered bit of observant humor at an overblown funeral is one thing. But when an assailant sticks a weapon in your face and says, “You respect me now, don’t ya!” — are you really going to tell him the truth?

“Just because I respect what a gun can do, doesn’t mean I respect the fool holding the gun.”

No. That’s the kind of pithy reply that gets your vital organs shut down for you.

Extreme instances aside though, I actively seek out any and every opportunity for levity. My desire to illuminate the ludicrous or ridiculous is surpassed only by my need to laugh. I can’t resist poking fun at those who genuinely deserve it.

However, I would never make a joke at the expense of someone else’s dignity. That is cruelty, plain and simple, and I should not want to stoop to that kind of humor.

But when an inconsiderate, self-important individual or entity presumes it’s okay to behave in a manner disrespectful of others, I am compelled to react.

A couple years back, one such popular and still-too-common practice inspired in me a bit of satire. It resulted in my creating this fake commercial. As of this writing well over three and a half million people on YouTube have approved. It’s called “Cell Phones In Church”:

Like I said — appropriate response in an inappropriate environment.

Across the board, ordained clergy of every stripe have praised this bit of satire and many ministers and pastors have asked for their own copy to play for their congregations. I am always happy to accommodate and have received some lovely responses.

By the same token, I’ve also been hit with a good deal of hate mail for this bit of fun. There are those who have protested this video so vehemently and scorchingly with cries of “Blasphemy!” — really, blasphemy — that I am left to imagine these poor souls must either have been born without a sense of humor or had it surgically removed.

This video in no way disrespects the church or religion. It does however satirize the disrespectful nature of people who blithely ignore the courtesy of silencing their electronics in a public forum, whether it be a church, lecture hall or movie theater.

It’s not about religion — it’s about rudeness in any environment.

To be clear, I do not disrespect their negative points of view and I have not censored these scathing tirades. Indeed every comment that is fit to print, both pro and con, has been clearly posted beneath this video on YouTube. Only those remarks containing foul verbiage have been removed, and there have been quite a few. I never imagined church folk to be so handy with vulgarity.

I do however take issue with some viewers’ ludicrous accusations that this video means I must hate the bible. My NIV is a marvelous collection of 66 books containing a nice mix of history, poetry, literature, and life lessons. It is a volume I happen to read regularly and admire greatly. Though for some passages, I still prefer the more poetic translation of the King James. But no, I do not hate the bible.

It baffles me to receive such dire and serious comments such as, “Jesus wouldn’t allow such things”, “It’s unchristian to send people to hell”, and “You shouldn’t be doing that!”

Frankly I can’t decide whether to recommend these people put more fiber in their diets, or just thank them for their conviction that I can manage what the video suggests.

Levity is a tricky animal because when you pull it off you often run the risk of upsetting a portion of the populace.

I remain convinced that it’s not only important, but actually our duty, to observe some degree of vigilance — to draw attention to injustice and demonstrate the ridiculous nature of those who thrive on abuse at the expense of others.

For my money though, laughing at ourselves is the finest kind of laughter. When our own folly is made clear we can finally acknowledge we are not more important than the next guy. It’s what George Carlin called the laughter of recognition — things that are funny because they make us see the same failings in ourselves.

One of my favorite quotes happens to be from scripture. It urges us to “make a joyous noise.” What more joyous noise can there be than good-natured laughter?

In the spirit of levity, another of my favorite quotes is from the writings of Hunter S. Thompson:

“When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.”

Folks, when dippy fundamentalists are convinced I possess the power to actually send people to hell, it doesn’t get much weirder than that.

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Kindness

For years I’ve seen bumper stickers that promote random acts of kindness. I absolutely get the concept they’re going for and the phrase moves well across the palate….. “Random Acts of Kindness.”

But from a strictly clinical perspective, an act of kindness is anything but random. Real kindness requires genuine consideration and the very deliberate execution of a heartfelt deed.

To me the words “Random” and “Kindness” constitute an oxymoron. The two terms are mutually exclusive, kind of like “Blind Faith” or “Microsoft Works”.

Maybe I’m too much of a literalist but all these phrases have troubled me for years. Yet everyone still embraces their core concepts — as well they should. Kindness and faith are always well worth promoting in any form, although maybe not so much the Microsoft thing.

Being kind falls squarely within the province of the human experience because it demands compassion. Other animals in nature can be nurturing by instinct but behavior-wise, the similarity ends there.

Only people can be truly kind, or for that matter truly cruel.

I think I identify easily with kids because I recognize their compassionate behavior more readily than I do that of grown ups. That’s not to say adults are unkind. I am personally acquainted with many sweet-tempered, accommodating folks who are the very soul of kindness. At the same time we’re so much more concerned with how a considerate gesture might be misinterpreted.

Adults are just too weird to get an honest read on them when they’re being nice for no apparent reason. Modern Americans have sadly devolved into a rather untrusting breed, which makes grown up kindness a little harder to spot, and a bit more of a challenge to pull off, even though it’s still very much alive out there.

Kids on the other hand, have no problem being candid with their feelings, which is really the essence of being kind. Still, when you teach them to share and they want to offer the neighbor’s Rottweiler a lick of their lolly pop, that’s when you have to start reining them in a bit. The impulse is right but it has to be tempered with sound judgment.

Although I missed getting to know my older daughter until she was grown, I dearly enjoyed teaching my younger one about being kind when she was small.

Children mimic behavior instinctively and are adept at learning by example. So demonstrating kindness as an adult is critical to a child’s interpretation of how to treat others — and how to be kind to themselves as well, an equally crucial part of their upbringing.

Occasionally kids take our lessons too literally. Once when Courtney was four, she wouldn’t let me apply a plain band-aid to a cut on her elbow.

I didn’t want to force it but I didn’t have time to explain about bacteria and infections. I wanted to be gentle — gentility is a big part of how kindness works.

“Why do I need that sticky thing on me?”

“Band-aids hold the kisses on, sweetheart.” She loved that idea.

Of course she knew where we kept the band-aids and the next morning I found she had applied six or seven of them to her cheeks and forehead — every place we had kissed her good night.

When she didn’t want to eat cucumbers I sliced some up and told her, “They’re garden cookies.” She’s almost 28 now and she still calls them garden cookies.

Kindness. It’s the great convincer that you really do want the best for them.

I suspect all of us are born with the germ of kindness already inside. It only requires the encouragement of expression and a positive direction.

Though I’m not particularly a fan of her novels, many years ago I did enjoy a slender volume of philosophy by Ayn Rand titled “The Virtue of Selfishness”. One of the key precepts of the book is that, when we do something inherently selfless for another person, like bringing flowers to your mother or girlfriend, your true goal is to make them happy so that you can enjoy the feeling of wellbeing that comes from their happiness about your thoughtful act. This is a good kind of selfishness. And while it can be construed as a bit self serving, there’s really nothing at all wrong with the enjoyment we derive from being nice to others. It’s healthy.

Following that logic, sort of, I also endeavor to be kind to as many people as possible for no more reason than to simply confuse them. You provide a welcome service, exercise a Christian value, and entertain yourself all at the same time. It’s great fun, especially if it’s someone who’s been really mean to you and knows they don’t deserve it. They get all perplexed and start looking around like someone moved their food dish.

Ultimately, I thoroughly enjoy going out of my way for someone very deserving who didn’t see it coming. That’s the best.

Now that I think of it, perhaps I was wrong about random acts of kindness. Could it be it’s not the kindness that’s random, but rather the person, time and place in which I choose to act?

Wow.

I love it when I talk myself into this stuff.

But I’m standing my ground on Faith and Microsoft.

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Jest

In accordance with the military code of conduct, it is a prisoner of war’s sworn duty to attempt escape and, if possible, to help others to escape also. I believe that should be our own personal maxim as well. When held at the mercy of our own anxieties, we must obligate ourselves to flee to an internationally recognized safe haven — laughter.

Human beings are among my all time favorites when it comes to carbon-based life forms, and amusing ourselves is something at which we excel. Entertaining others is even better. While it is commonly accepted that everyone who wishes to should be able to enjoy themselves equally, I know of a few syndromes that prevent some people from the physical demonstration of joy. Since I am so deeply reliant upon my own need to laugh, I was immediately struck by, and sympathetic to, this little-known portion of our populace.

In the spirit of the jest, I have chosen to explore this topic through verse.

DEADPAN THE JESTER
(© 2013 Michael J. Cahill)

There once was a boy unable to smile
With his features all frozen in place.
From birth, though his family prodded and tickled,
A frown would remain on his face.

As a child he was pleasant and always polite
Never crying or making a fuss.
But likewise he never could manage
A happy demeanor like any of us.

Believing that he was the saddest of souls
No one tried to make friends with this boy.
And yet, though his face could not possibly show it,
Inside he was bursting with joy.

The world as he saw it was brimming with fun
Yet people were so disenchanted.
How many, he thought, of these unhappy souls
Take the gift of a smile for granted?

It’s true that what’s awful and hurtful and sad
Is never that far out of reach.
Yet one thing that few of us manage to learn
Are the lessons a smile can teach.

Simply choosing to chuckle or let go a grin
Or to laugh right out loud at a joke —
The joy that is shared by a happy expression
Can brighten the saddest of folk.

As a young man he threw himself into the role
Of a fool on the people’s behalf.
Never mind why the people were laughing at him.
All that mattered was he made them laugh.

As he grew he perfected his gags and his stunts
And improved with each pratfall and jest
Yet, despite all the laughter his antics inspired,
The reaction inside was the best.

For any who wanted a reason for joy
There was much to be found as he’d seen it.
Deadpan swore that if ever he managed to smile
He would do so each day — and mean it.

Through the years he would learn how to easily turn
All his foes into sisters and brothers.
By bringing such joy to the saddest of souls,
He had smiled….. through the faces of others.

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Harmony

My brother is a professional magician. He’s very good at it too. Back in the 1970’s he was Master Magician at Busch Gardens Florida. I visited him one summer.

Between engagements, as he sat with me in the arena stands watching an elephant act, something remarkable happened. In mid-performance a crew member rushed on stage, positioned a snow shovel under the animal’s tail and, as if on cue, the elephant deposited a load of dung into the waiting scoop. The fellow curtsied and disappeared with his catch. The audience roared their approval and the act went on.

I sat there baffled. “How did they know to do that?”

My brother just smiled. “Let’s go ask ‘em.”

Back stage George introduced me around. When I met the elephant performers they shared their secret. Not to be indelicate, but it seems there’s a hanging pocket of loose skin circling the outer rim of an elephant’s rectum. About ten seconds or so prior to relieving himself, the pocket firms up and juts outward. This puckering is a clear physical cue that a delivery is imminent.

Makes perfect sense. But here’s the part that slays me — during every performance there is one crew member whose entire job it is to watch the elephant’s anus. If a delivery is forthcoming, he’s there in a flash. For the rest of the day I couldn’t get my mind off the shovel bearer. What kind of job is that for a person? How do you even write the resume’ on that?

At this point let it be said I am primarily a visual thinker, as well as being ever on the lookout for a life-elevating metaphor. Sure enough, a winner showed up — “If you don’t want to get dumped on, keep your eye on the a**holes.”

Perfect analogy.

I used my snappy new line on all my friends until one of them replied, “How much does your life suck if that’s your best view?” I was 23 and thought I’d been so clever. But he was right. The elephant’s anus analogy was fun in an adolescent sort of way. For about ten minutes. But it had no value beyond that of a raunchy bumper sticker.

Is it fad, fancy or simple desperation that diverts us to the darker things in life, when all the while we are up to our bow ties in blessings? Our planet is a stunner. And the people on it are a staggering spectacle of high-octane personalities more flamboyant than any African sunset. How do we not marvel in that every waking minute of our day?

I think of such miracles and balance the many stupidities and missteps of my youth against the good people and good things around me today. Any real quality I may enjoy in my life is found neither in perfection nor perdition. Somewhere in the middle of it all, suspended between the despicable and the divine, if I look for it, there is harmony.

These days I no longer dwell on the shovel. Rather I am simply happy that I can appreciate the elephant.

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