Exit 130. An outside perspective.

A friend of mine who lived in California until about a year ago, and who has been known to call himself a music snob, recently made a Facebook post in which he said something like “Since nobody else is saying it, I will: Lynyrd Skynyrd was just okay.”  They’ve never been my absolute favorite, I only have a greatest hits album of theirs, but I still think they’re better than “just okay.”  I made some snarky comment, probably a little more rude than I should have been, about how nobody else is saying it because everyone else has good taste in music.

One of his other friends said that he is only saying this because he is not from the South.  He replied something about how sometimes you need an outside perspective on things.

And then I realized that he’s right.

Lynyrd Skynyrd formed in Jacksonville in the late 1960s.  I once heard someone say that Florida is the upside-down state, in that the farther north you go, it feels more and more like the South.  Jacksonville is about as far north as you can go in Florida, just a few miles from Georgia, and the music of Lynyrd Skynyrd has often been considered one of the major examples of the “Southern rock” genre, blending classic rock with blues and country influences.  My friend’s point was that Lynyrd Skynyrd is so iconic in Southern culture that many Southerners never think to question whether or not their music is actually good.

I’ve had a few outside perspectives in my life.  I started college the same year that a TV show called Friends premiered on NBC.  Friends was huge among my peers and classmates.  It was the show that everyone related to and aspired to, with their groups of people they hang out with at home and at the coffee shop, sharing each other’s lives and gossiping about their significant others.  But not me.  I tried to get into Friends, but I came from an outside perspective.  I didn’t have that kind of group of friends in real life; having friends in the first place was new to me in my late teens, and I still didn’t have much of a social life.  All six of the main characters of Friends reminded me of the kind of Cool Kids who bullied and rejected me all through childhood.  I don’t want to watch a show about them, unless it’s about them dying horribly painful deaths.  And I couldn’t even relate to the coffee shop thing, because from my perspective, coffee tastes like crap.  I always felt that my social life was stunted being a university student in the Friends era who did not drink coffee.

A couple years ago, I also remember having a conversation with an acquaintance in which I said that I don’t particularly like romantic comedies as a genre, although there are a small few that I’ve enjoyed.  (Like this one, even though it’s not real.)  She asked why, and I said because I can’t relate to romantic comedies.  She said something like, “Really?  I would think that love is something universal that everyone can relate to.”  Maybe everyone she knows, but from my outside perspective, love is something that only happens in movies and books and other people’s lives.  I’ve experienced all of the heartache associated with relationships with very little of the good times, and even the few good relationship moments I have experienced have not usually involved the awkwardly sweet giggling, long walks on the beach, or having sex with someone you just met a week ago that seem to characterize romantic comedies.

So maybe an outside perspective is necessary.  And a good thing, so that people who aren’t living breathing stereotypes don’t get forgotten.  And if my friend from the first paragraph is reading this, I’m sorry for insulting your taste in music.

Exit 97. This year I welcome the rain.

It rained hard last night.  It was windy too.  It has been dry so far today, at least since I woke up, but I noticed when I left for church this morning that my garbage cans had been blown over at some point since I had last left the house (which was late afternoon yesterday, to get the mail).  I’ve always told people that I don’t like rain.  I don’t like being outside and having to dodge this wet stuff coming from the sky, and I don’t like the cold, gloomy feeling that comes with gray skies.  Many people say that cold, rainy days are perfect for snuggling indoors with your significant other, enjoying a cup of hot chocolate while watching movies.  Yeah… like that’s something I can relate to.  That’s as relatable to me as a billionaire telling me that he loves weekends because he can go wherever he wants in his private jet.  Of course, that’s different, because I love weekends too, but still.

This year feels a little different, though.  California has been in a severe drought for the last several years.  California has very dry summers, so most of the rainfall happens in the winter.  Some communities get their water pumped out of the ground through wells.  The high elevations get large amounts of snow in the winter, and as the snow gradually melts through spring and summer, it flows into rivers, many of which have dams and large reservoirs trapping much of the water.  Over the last few years, the water in the reservoirs has slowly drained as the mountain snowpack has reached its lowest level in centuries, and overpumping of groundwater is causing part of the San Joaquin Valley to sink.  The drying pores in the ground may eventually turn this rich agricultural region into a desert (I have written on a related topic before).

Since last summer, long-term weather forecasters have said that an El Niño weather pattern in the central Pacific has a good chance of bringing a wet winter to California this year.  December and January brought much wetter winters than the last few years have seen, but February was dry, warm, and spring-like.  A spring-like period of a couple weeks in February is fairly common in this part of California, but this year it seemed to last a little longer, bringing the total precipitation and snowpack totals for this year back below average.  Last night was very wet, though, and forecasters are predicting a wet March.

All of this talk of drought has made me appreciate rain much more than I ever did before. I am actually enjoying rain this year.  It’s kind of scary to think about a possible future without enough water.  In previous years, rain in the forecast was a disappointment to me, but this year I welcome the rain.  And I still say that my computer can read my mind… I have my music on shuffle, and this came on as I was writing this.

Exit 59. An ace that I could keep.

I’ve had a lot going on in the last couple weeks, and of all the things I’ve had on my mind, none of them are really coagulating into a Highway Pi post yet.  So I was looking through some things I wrote in the past, and I found one I wrote five years ago, almost to the day that feels true given all that has been going on.  So you get a rerun this week.  I wrote this in June of 2010 and made some minor changes to it right now so it still makes sense.  The title of this post, of course, is a quote from Kenny Rogers’ “The Gambler.”

I didn’t really pay much attention to country music before 2005, but this song (Kenny’s version was originally released in 1978) was always well-known enough that I vaguely knew of its existence before then. But I remember paying more attention to this song before 2005… I guess it was in the early 2000s when I discovered Carbon Leaf*. Although they never recorded a version of The Gambler, they often played it at live shows in their early days, and it briefly made a return to their setlist in 2005, including at a show I attended.

* [When I wrote this on Facebook in 2010, I had a note here reminding my friends that Carbon Leaf would be in Sacramento in July and that they should all come with me.  That show, of course, was five years ago.  But they will be in San Francisco in September 2015, and I am still of the firm belief that all my friends should come with me.  If you aren’t local, check their Web site for tour dates near you.]

Anyway, I’m all for works of art being open to interpretation, but I’m pretty sure the writer of this song didn’t intend just to write a song about an old man passing on advice for how to win at poker. The song is meant to be taken metaphorically.  Let’s look at the the gambler’s advice. Know when to hold ’em, when to fold ’em… some things are worth fighting for, and some things are better let go. Never count your money while you’re sitting at the table… take life as it comes, and don’t worry about the future. Every hand’s a winner, and every hand’s a loser… the outcome of life isn’t determined by what happens, so much as one’s reaction to it, and how one uses what he or she has. And, at the end of the song: In his final words, I found an ace that I could keep. The two men are just talking, they aren’t even playing cards, and if the gambler somehow gave the narrator a literal ace, that would be cheating. The gambler, who has just passed away, has passed on to the narrator useful advice (the metaphorical ace) that will help him succeed in life, with that advice being everything else he just said.

I feel like I haven’t been playing my cards well lately. I’m off work for two months. I should be using this time for, well, pretty much anything other than that the sad amount of time I’ve spent the last few days moping around being bored. I have creative projects to produce, boxes to organize, people to hang out with, places to go, books to read, old video games I’ve never beaten to finish… and I shouldn’t be worried about whether there is a right decision or a wrong decision. This is my time to enjoy, not to be sad. And more important, I shouldn’t be letting little things get to me, as I have repeatedly the last few days. Sometimes I just need to fold, to let things go and focus on what’s more important.

Furthermore, while every hand may be a winner, and every hand may be a loser, I have to say that some hands are easier to win with than others. And I’ve been dealt a pretty good hand. While the last few days may have felt like every little thing has gone wrong, I have to admit that it could be a lot worse.  A lot of people I know have some very big things going wrong in their lives. That all puts things in perspective… I really don’t have it that badly right now. I have a lot of things to be thankful for… so it’s time to start playing my cards right.

Now, in 2015, not much has changed.  A lot of little things have gone wrong, and I still haven’t been very productive with my time off.  So, once again, it’s time to start playing my cards right.

Exit 22. All in my head.

I had a strange dream recently.  In my dream, I was sorting through a bunch of boxes, just like I need to do one of these days in real life, except I was at my parents’ house.  I decided to take a break and turn on the TV.  ESPN was on, or maybe ESPN2 or ESPN8 or whatever, and they were showing water polo.  Remember, my dreams are pretty weird sometimes.  Problem #1 with this dream: I don’t follow water polo at any organized level, and I certainly don’t know why I was so interested in that game.  It was a big game, though, like a championship or something like that.  They were about to do the coin toss.  Problem #2: Correct me if I’m wrong, but I’m pretty sure there isn’t a coin toss in water polo.  Anyway, the announcers gave the names of the water polo-related celebrities that would be calling heads or tails. Problem #3: Why are celebrities making the call instead of players?  This makes no sense.  This dream keeps getting more and more messed up.  But as they were announcing the coin toss callers, much as they would announce who was singing the National Anthem, I thought, “Hey, Vega the Nice Ex played water polo.  I wonder if she’s there?”  Just as I had that thought, the announcer read her name; she was the second of the celebrity coin toss callers, having attained the status of water polo celebrity by virtue of having won a gold medal in water polo at the last Olympics.  They read her full name, with the full version of her first name (she normally goes by a shortened version of her first name, or at least she did when I knew her) and a hyphenated last name (I don’t remember the other last name, except that it had three syllables), implying that she had gotten married since we last spoke.

Problem #4: To my knowledge, Vega the Nice Ex never played water polo.  She may have at one time, and I may have just forgotten–we broke up in 2006, and I last spoke to her in 2011, and at that time it had been a few years–but she certainly didn’t win an Olympic gold medal in it.  I would have known about that.  For that matter, maybe it wasn’t the coin toss at all; maybe she was actually singing the National Anthem, and that’s why they were introducing her.  That would make a lot more sense, since Vega is a classically trained soprano.  But I know that in the world of this dream, Vega had played water polo in the Olympics.  Nothing ever makes sense in my dreams, after all.

Vega being married is not a problem in this story, since she was in a serious relationship last time we talked.  But I do remember feeling a spark of some awkward negative feeling go off in me when the announcer read her new last name.  I felt like a failure.  Even though in real life we broke up mutually and on good terms, I was presented with this clear picture that she was an Olympic gold medalist and had a husband now, and the whole episode made me feel like I would never be good enough to attract an accomplished and successful woman like that, or any woman for that matter.  Then that got me thinking about something that someone else said to me a couple weeks ago, and how the contrast of these two settings would make a perfect topic to write about for Highway Pi.

Shortly after that thought, I woke up and realized that I had been dreaming.  I found that kind of frustrating, because I couldn’t use my idea for what to write about if it wasn’t a true story.  But then I got to thinking about how the fact that this dream was complete fiction actually ends up making the point I was going to write about even stronger.

All that crap about not being good enough, it’s all in my head.  Just like the dream.

I mentioned above something that someone else said to me a couple weeks ago.  She told me that she enjoyed reading my Facebook posts about my job and my students, because of how I have a career that I enjoy.  With where she is right now, at a part time job that is not a direct stepping stone to her career, and having to take a lot of classes before she can start her master’s in a field completely different from her bachelor’s degree, it is nice to read about someone with an established career who enjoys his work.  My gut reaction when she told me that–and now that I think about it, it was my out-loud reaction too–was that it felt kind of odd for someone to see me as an example of someone with his life together.  I certainly don’t feel like I have my life together.

Now I’ll admit that getting this new job took away a significant part of the reason I tend to feel like I don’t have my life together.  For the first time in a while, I actually have enough money at the end of the month to save something, and I’m finally making more money than I made in 2003, with actual opportunities for advancement.  But I’m still 38 with no wife and no kids, and I’m probably farther from the wife-and-kids goal than I ever have been.  I’m still confused about a lot of things, as well as what I want in the first place, when it comes to that.  And my house is a mess.

But it’s all a matter of perspective, and my perspective when I see myself as a failure for these reasons is distorted.  My perspective when I see myself as a success because I make more money now is just as distorted.  All of that is in my head.  It is based on false premises that a high paying job and a traditional wife and 2.3 kids living in the suburbs is a universal measure of success.  It’s not.  That is a flat-out lie, just like Vega’s gold medal in water polo was a flat-out lie.  And even if I were to become acquainted with an attractive single Olympic gold medalist, why would that automatically disqualify me?  Why should I feel less worthy, of less value as a human being, because I don’t have these great accomplishments?  That goes against everything I believe and stand for.  And yet it’s so hard to change those thought patterns.  But it must be done.  Those thoughts, those destructive lies, are completely counterproductive in every way, far more so than the actual counterproductivity values of having a low paying job, not being popular with the opposite sex, or not having a gold medal.

I am a beloved child of God.  I have a pretty awesome job and great friends.  And I refuse to let lies control me.