Ghosts

July 1st, 2018

Photo by Michael W. Gos

By Michael W. Gos

Terlingua Ghost Town, Texas

If you spend a lot of time in any place, even as a tourist, you get to know some of the people there and come to call them friends. I go to Big Bend country a lot, and when I am done with my day’s hiking, I head to Terlingua for some laid-back fun. As a result, I know quite a few people there.

I’ve talked to him for about seven years and this was the first time I’d seen him without his wife. He was sitting on the porch of the Trading Post when I pulled up.

“Hey Don, how are you doing?”

“Hanging by my finger nails, like the cat on the poster.”

“Where’s Jules?”

“Not sure; she and I split up a couple of months ago.”

That really took me by surprise. They seemed like the perfect couple. I never saw one without the other and they always seemed to be having fun together.

“What happened?” I asked.

“She wanted to get married; I didn’t. I guess she got tired of waiting. She said eight years was long enough.”

This was the first time I realized they weren’t married.

I went in and bought a beer and took it out to the porch. We talked for the next hour. He told me about how he was crazy about her and wanted to live with her for the rest of his life, but he refused to ever get married again. He said his divorce years earlier had turned him off marriage for good.

Apparently, that wasn’t an acceptable situation for her. I asked if he was really willing to lose her because of something that happened many years ago. He said he didn’t have a choice; he couldn’t marry again. That made me think about a time in my own life.

I remember the day like it was yesterday, and it ruled my life for the next 15 years. In my football days the coaches drilled into my head that my job on sweeps to either side of the field was to stay in the middle of the backfield. Under no circumstances was I to pursue the ball carrier. Then one day, it happened.

At the snap, the running back ran to the right as the quarterback dropped. The handoff was made and the play went away from me. Not thinking, I took off in pursuit. The ball carrier had a lateral head start of about seven yards, but in order to gain yardage he’d have to turn upfield. I was sure I could catch him; I had the angle. I was already past the center and in a dead run when I saw it happen. The running back handed the ball to the split end on that side, who reversed back to my left. The action froze me in my tracks!

Thoughts flew, but my body remained frozen. I knew I needed to turn back and pursue the play, but it took an eternity to get my rather large body to stop, turn and follow. Finally, word got to all appropriate body parts and I was running up the line again, this time to the left. It didn’t take long to realize that I wasn’t going to make the play. I looked ahead to the corner to see who was there to help, but the corner was empty. Only the left tackle and I were to be on that side of the field, and no tackle would ever catch a wide receiver. I looked up just in time to see the ball carrier run right over the spot I was supposed to be occupying. I could only watch as the play went all the way for a touchdown. I went back to the sidelines, chin against my chest.

“How many times have we told you to stay home on that one?” the coach yelled. “You think we tell you these things for our health? You have a (expletive) job to do here! We told you exactly what it is! How much sense does it take to do what you’re told? You cover on reverses! If you pursue, we lose!”

For days I ran that play over and over again in the theatre of my mind. I had always believed it was best to play inspired — that emotion and enthusiasm would win out over cold, calculated logic every time. Now it looked like, at least in some cases, cold, rational control was far more important. After all, football is a brain game. That is why the intricacies are so hard for most people to understand. But that day I took away a very important, and life-changing lesson. I learned that there are sound reasons for the things we are told to do.

For the next 15 years, that lesson stayed with me. I did what I was supposed to do, stayed within the limits I was given and lived a quiet life. If I had any ideas that could even be remotely considered “wild,” I would always bounce them off someone I trusted before acting on them —and it kept me out of trouble.

Then one day, about 10 years after I finished college, my mother and I had a serious discussion about what I wanted to do with my life. I had been drifting somewhat aimlessly for a long time. I told her what I really wanted to do was to go back to school, get a couple of advanced degrees and become a professor. She laughed and told me to get serious. That was a dream for rich kids, smart kids. She said I should go to work in the steel mills. With my degree, they would probably make me a foreman. That conversation made me start to question the wisdom of living my life “within the lines.”

Both the man at Terlingua and I had fallen into a pattern of letting ghosts from our past limit and even disrupt our lives today. Traumatic events can indeed sometimes have strong effects on us, but when they start to limit our possibilities, our futures, it is time leave them behind. It makes no sense to keep stumbling over objects that are behind us.

It took a couple of years to complete the change. It wasn’t easy; I had a lot of false starts, but I stayed at it and eventually I stopped doing what I was “supposed” to do, went on to get those degrees and to get that life I wanted.

I hope when I next go to Big Bend, Don will tell me he did the same.

Magnetism

May 1st, 2018

Photo by Michael Gos

By Michael W. Gos

Round Top, Texas

We came out here because my wife was in the mood to do a little “antiquing.” As you can probably guess, doing the “shop till you drop” thing doesn’t sound like fun to me. So, I figured I’d take the chance to go visit the Round Top Festival Institute. Over the years I had heard about the concerts and the poetry institute, but mostly I’d heard it was a beautiful place. I figured, why not? It sure beats going through dusty barns full of old furniture that we had no room for at home anyway.

If you haven’t been to the Festival Institute, you should make the trip. It is absolutely magnificent. Whether it is the enormous concert hall on Festival Hill, the chapel, or the gardens, the campus has to be one of the most beautiful man-made environments in Texas.

I spent most of the day outside, enjoying the gardens. I saw no one for a couple of hours. Then I came across one lone woman. She was sitting with her eyes closed, cross-legged on the stone floor next to a fountain. She appeared to be meditating. I had a feeling I knew what was going on.

I used to think people meditated to feel more relaxed—maybe to try to clear their thinking. But as I studied the workings of the mind over the years, and especially in some of my courses in grad school, I learned that there are much more “lucrative” uses for the practice. The one I find most interesting is because we want stuff.

As kids, most of us are taught that if you want something, the way to get it is to work hard to achieve it. Later, we were given more detailed information—such as directions on formulating goals: what a goal should look like and how it should be worded. You may have encountered motivational speakers like Tony Robbins or Zig Ziglar, who dealt with the subject in great detail. While I was certainly impressed with their work and found them useful at first, over time they began to seem a bit superficial. I guess that happened because I had the opportunity to see some more interesting, more powerful, approaches—approaches that most people would think were, well, ”unusual.”

I studied cognitive science in grad school and learned that there are two “sides” of the brain, the conscious and the subconscious. The conscious part allows us to think about how to do things and to learn new stuff. The subconscious part does things on its own, without our knowledge—makes our hearts beat, governs chemical reactions, etc. The subconscious also stores repetitive skills once we learn them. When first learning to walk, we had to think about every move we made, even more so in learning to run, or play the piano. But after we have practiced long enough, the skill was moved to the subconscious part of the brain and we no longer had to think about it. Remember when you were first learning to drive a car? You were squeezing the wheel so hard your knuckles were white. The cars parked on either side of the road were so close you were sure you’d be bouncing off one or the other—or both. And what about today? You drive with one hand, roll the windows up and down, talk on the phone, slap the kids in the back seat and drink a coke. You never give any of it a single thought. That’s a good thing. Just imagine what would happen if, in the midst of running, we had to stop to think about what we should do next with the left leg.

The subconscious cannot tell the difference between a vividly imagined thought and reality. If a thought gets into the subconscious part, the brain assumes it is real and goes about its business accordingly. It makes it happen. The problem is, how do we get the idea there? The two parts of the brain are separated by an electronic “curtain” that ensures whatever you are consciously trying to do enters only the conscious side.

I first saw this problem addressed back in my sports writing days. I noticed how sports psychologists used mental tricks to lower that curtain and plant in a player’s subconscious an idea that will improve performance on the field. One method I found particularly intriguing was having the player count from one to ten and ten to one, forward and backward at the same time. It sounds easy, right? One, ten, two, nine, three, eight, four, seven… but when you reach the five, six, six, five crossover, the brain boggles, and the electronic curtain falls for an instant. At that moment, the psychologist tells the player what he wants him to do and the player usually goes out onto the field and does just that. I have asked several players about the experience and they usually claim they never heard the instruction.

Both Taoism and Zen Buddhism tell us that mind is most powerful when it is quiet. They call this state “non-mind.” When we can shut down thoughts (usually in the form of language—talking to ourselves) we can lower that electronic curtain that separates the conscious from the sub-conscious for maybe a second or two and we can then plant in the now-clear mind the idea of what we seek. That is one goal of meditation—to quiet the mind so we can plant an idea directly into the subconscious. Need financial security? Plant the idea “affluence” in the gap between the thoughts. Once done, the mind goes to work to produce it with no effort on your part. When we turn off the electronic curtain, even for a second, we turn on an electromagnet that pulls the things we want to us.

It was beautiful there in the shade by the fountain and I would have liked to sit on the stone wall and spend a little time there listening to the water and the birds. But I was afraid my presence there might disturb her, so I moved on. After all, I had a lot more of the festival grounds to see before lunch.

To this day, I don’t know if the woman by the fountain was after affluence, someone to love, or simply a good day. But it seemed to me she was on the right track. At the very least, she was spending some quality, private time in a magnificent place. That sure beats antiquing.

By the way, when you do go to Round Top, Be sure to stop at Royers for lunch. Although they are known world-wide for their pies, I recommend the jalapeno cheese soup.

Happiness and Success

March 1st, 2018

By Michael W. Gos

Parker, Texas

We were up around McKinney for a Saturday night wedding and had the better part of a day to kill until the ceremony. Having researched the vicinity to discover any natural areas that might provide us a brief respite from the city and suburbs, we found none we hadn’t already visited. So instead we decided to head down to Parker to see the Southfork Ranch of TV’s Dallas fame. Like most people who visit the ranch, my first reaction was surprise at how small it was. But that was only the start of what would transpire there.

I am, without a doubt, the least likely person to ever tour Southfork, having never watched even a single episode of the show. Still, it was hard to be alive in the ‘80s and not hear about the show constantly— at work, on the radio, on other TV shows, even at home (yes, other family members watched it religiously).

From what I saw and heard, my impression of the show was that it was a soap opera about a bunch of very rich, and very unhappy people. And for some reason, being at the ranch and thinking about those characters reminded me of an old Brooks and Dunn lyric I once heard: “Happiness isn’t just for high achievers.” But, of course, as a natural follow-up on that thought, I realized that, at least in the case of this show, even high achieving did little to provide true happiness. I know the show was just fiction, but it still got me thinking.

Over the centuries, there have been lots of ideas about what makes us happy. Some people believe happiness comes from external sources, like having wine, women and song; lots of big-boy toys; wealth; power; etc. We often call these people hedonists. And there are some who believe that, while all the goodies are fine, that’s not enough. To be truly happy, we must also do all we can to avoid pain. That great party on Saturday night is less fun when you know you are going to be sick Sunday morning. These people are called epicureans. Others say happiness is simply a matter of truly appreciating the things you have. I certainly know several unhappy people who are always needing more and more new stuff, new places to go, even new houses, and they never really do come to appreciate the things they already have.

But there are also those who believe happiness is an internal thing, that we create it by the way we think and the decisions we make. These people are called stoics and I think theirs is probably the correct reading.

Over the years I have come to see that everyone has the ability to be happy. It is something we choose rather than something that happens to us. The stoics say happiness comes from the way we see events rather than from the events themselves. An event in our lives has no inherent quality, good or bad, in and of itself. It is only our opinion of that event that gives it a value, positive or negative.

If the stoics are correct, if we are able to choose to make ourselves happy through our decisions, it stands to reason that we should also be able to make ourselves high achievers in the same way. After all, our level of achievement, like our level of happiness, is merely the end result of the decisions we make. Do we want to achieve or not? How willing are we to work for it? Each time an opportunity comes up, how do we respond? If we follow that line of thinking, Brooks and Dunne appear to be wrong. After all, personalities tend to be consistent. It would stand to reason that someone who is a go-getter in the realm of happiness would be equally competent in the area of achievement and vice-versa.

Yet, we all know of highly successful people who are miserable in their lives, like the characters in Dallas. Most of us also know very happy people who have next-to-nothing by today’s standards. These two examples would seem to support Brooks and Dunn’s position. So how do we explain this apparent contradiction?

While standing in the living room of the main house at Southfork, I decided Brooks and Dunn have missed the mark. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying you need wealth and fame to be happy…but I firmly believe that, to be happy, you do indeed need to be a high achiever.

I’ve talked to a lot of really happy people. Every one of them saw themselves as high achievers—even the ones who are living from paycheck to paycheck. They just define success differently than the rest of us. When I think of the things that I believe make me successful in life, I don’t think about degrees earned, jobs held or books published. That’s all just “stuff.” Instead, I see success in the friends I maintain, the appreciation I have for the people and the world around me and the fun I have each and every day. All the other happy people I hang out with feel pretty much the same way.
And even those happy people who are seen by most as high achievers tend to see their success in different ways than the general public might assume. As one friend said when I asked him his opinion on this subject, “Forget my bank account! Let me tell you about my new grandson!”

After we toured the main house, we walked around the ranch for a couple of hours. We toured the stables and even sat out under one of the enormous oaks that lined the driveway, enjoying the autumn afternoon. You know, it is a good thing the characters of Dallas weren’t real. If they were, one could become really depressed sitting there thinking about their lack of happiness—and of success.

Lost

January 1st, 2018

Each of the little rivulets had carved out a whole series of potholes that held pools of water. Photo by Michael Gos

By Michael W. Gos

Colorado Bend State Park, Texas

It was about 20 years ago, when I was still a newbie to Texas. I had spent the morning in Fred with some friends who came down from West Lafayette for a week-long bicycle rally. Being a bit of a slug myself, when they decided to head out for a 100-mile afternoon ride, I decided to try to find Llano and experience Cooper’s Bar-B-Que for lunch. I had heard about this place many times over the five years I had been in Texas but had never had the opportunity to experience it. This seemed like as good a time as any.

So I headed north toward Llano. A colleague had told me it was in the northern, old section of town, just off the main road. He said I couldn’t miss it. What he failed to tell me was it was hiding behind a grocery store and couldn’t be seen from the highway. So I drove through town, looking, but never saw it. Eventually I came to open country and it was clear I had left Llano. Determined to turn around at the next intersection and try again, I sped up and headed out into the country.

But there was no next intersection, at least not that I saw, until I hit the tiny town of Cherokee. There I saw an east-west road. Because it was a town, I figured I could surely make a couple of rights, circling the block and back to highway 16. From there I could make the return trip to Llano.

But there wasn’t a next street. Instead, the street I was apparently now destined to follow became a very narrow, country road. I suppose it was meant to be two lanes but there was no way two cars could pass each other without both of them driving two wheels off the road onto the shoulder. Fortunately, I never had to test this. I drove for miles without seeing another car. Eventually, realizing I was getting way off my intended route, I decided I would take the first county road I saw that headed south and try to hit 71. This time I would approach Llano from the east. But that road never came. Instead, the road I was on turned to gravel and went on for a few more miles, finally dead-ending into a dirt road that was marked with a tiny sign that said “Colorado Bend State Park.”

Colorado Bend is not like any state park I had ever been to. There is no gatehouse or any signs of civilization anywhere. That dirt road just continues—and continues. What seems like several miles later, it dead-ends in a canyon carved out by by a river. The area has only a mobile trailer for a headquarters and an outhouse. Figuring I was now a long way from Cooper’s, and lunch was probably out of the question, I decided to have a look around. After all, I was already here.

I always begin my exploration of a new park with a trip to the visitors’ center to find out what the top attractions are, where I can go to see no other humans for a few hours, where to get the best photos, etc. Since this place didn’t have a visitors’ center, I went into the trailer to see if there was someone there who could give me some information. There was. A park volunteer there told me about a cave and a waterfall, both accessed from trailheads several miles away, and about a cascade just down river that empties a small creek up above into the river below. Since it was close by, I decided to take a look at it first.

As I was leaving, she called me back and added that there were no concessions and no water anywhere in the park. If I wanted water, I’d better fill up right here. I went out to the Jeep, got my always-ready canteen and did just that.

As it turned out, the cascade was amazing. What started at the top of the canyon as a small stream passed through a series of small waterfalls that moved the water down the rocky hillside and then spread it into a number of rivulets that worked their ways down eight or ten different pathways. The truly wondrous thing was that this had been happening for so many centuries that each of the little rivulets had carved out a whole series of potholes that held pools of water. It was absolutely beautiful.

After spending about an hour there and then walking along the river as far as the rock canyon walls would allow, I headed back to the Jeep to drive to the trailhead for Gorman Falls. That hike was rougher, only because the first couple of miles were on a hilly gravel road. But the last mile or so, when it entered the woods, was spectacular. There was a lot of downhill climbing with rope handholds to facilitate a safe descent down to a river that I suspected might be the same one that carved out the canyon I had just been to. At the very bottom, was a small deck with two benches, one that faced the river, the other the waterfall. I sat down for a quick breather (like I said, it was a hard hike) and to maybe get a few photos. I got both done—in about three hours.

As the sun was setting and I was leaving the park, I started thinking about how my getting lost that day led me to a terrific set of experiences—experiences I never would have had if I knew where I was going and had indeed enjoyed some great brisket for lunch. Not finding Cooper’s, followed by my inability to find a way to turn around, sent me on a journey that I wouldn’t have missed for the world, and probably would not have ever taken otherwise.

It seems to me that in life, when things seem to be going badly, we sometimes reach a point where we feel lost. We no longer know which way to go, or what to do next. Sometimes we even begin to question who we are. When this happens, it is always a traumatic time for us. We feel confused, troubled and frustrated. But almost invariably, this is the point where our lives take a turn for the better. (I know…“it can’t get any worse,” right?) But if you think back on the really wonderful life-changing experiences you have had over the years, I would bet most of them began with just such a discomforting moment.

Perhaps the contrast between the bad times and the spectacular times make us really appreciate the latter. But I am sure there is more to it than that. When we reach a point in our lives where we no longer know what to do or which way to go, our journey has truly begun. Life will never be the same. And journeys invariably turn out well in the long run.
By the way, I did eventually find Cooper’s—many, many times.

Who Defines You?

November 13th, 2017

By Michael W. Gos

Houston, Texas

We’ve all seen the pictures and watched the drama of hurricane Harvey unfold on our TV screens. Some of us, unfortunately, were a part of it and are still suffering as a result.

Like most people, during the storm I was glued to the TV watching the flooding and the people being evacuated from the devastation. Most carried only the clothes on their backs and their dogs. But in those five days, we also saw those in boats, high-clearance trucks and Jeeps going into the water again and again to help out total strangers. And some people just didn’t understand that.

I was particularly struck by the Weather Channel’s comparisons between what they were seeing during Harvey and the scenes from New Orleans after Katrina. They expressed amazement at the difference. Other media seemed shocked, confused and totally dumbfounded by what they were watching. Why were these ordinary Joe Sixpacks taking matters into their own hands? Why didn’t they wait for FEMA or other government agencies to come in? After all, that is what we are supposed to do, right? Some of the “usual suspects” finally came to the conclusion that Texans were just different, in a bad way—renegades, if you will.

Most of us saw it differently. Texans are different I suppose—but in a good way. I would never question the exceptionalism of Texans. That is one of the reasons why I will never leave here. But I don’t think the actions we were watching those five days were unique to Texans. What about the “Cajun Navy” coming in from Louisiana, or the college students from North Carolina who trailered their fishing boats all the way to Houston to help out? Deep down, I can’t help but think, it’s not just Texans; it’s most of us.

 

Probably the most dominant philosophy of the last century, and still so today, is existentialism. This philosophy holds that man is born without an essence, be it what it is that make him human, or what it is that makes him the individual that he will become. Take a newborn horse for instance. Within minutes, he stands. A few minutes later he walks, then runs. Within 24 hours he can do virtually everything an adult horse can do. That is because he is born with his “horseness,” the essence of what a horse is.

Humans aren’t like that. For months, all the human baby does is scream and poop. He is helpless—more like a blob of protoplasm than a real human being. That essence, his humanness, comes later. One of the tenants of existentialism is that, as a result, we are all responsible for creating, then declaring our own essence—defining who we are. To the existentialist, it is in this self-definition process that we find purpose and meaning in our lives.

Yet it is surprising how many of us abdicate our responsibility and allow others to define us—to impose on us their ideas of what we will become, of who we are. Traditionally, this imposed definition came from family or from religion. However, recently we have begun to see a change in this. Sometime in the last few decades, we have allowed ourselves to be defined by total strangers—people outside our circle of friends and family who tell us who we should be. One of the most powerful of these external forces is the mass media. For years they have told us that America is a divided nation.

The divisions they impose on us are by politics (left versus right), race, social class and residence (coastal versus fly-over-country). Some people have actually accepted these definitions as fact and behave as if they are true. But Harvey shot holes in that idea.

During Harvey, no one asked about politics. Race was irrelevant. It was simply people helping people. We were all in this together. If we needed help, it was offered. If we could do the helping, we did. The only group we were members of was “neighbors.” To the media, this was a completely alien concept. They didn’t know what to make of it; it didn’t fit their pre-set narrative. Normally, if something doesn’t fit the narrative, they just don’t cover it. But this time, they didn’t have that option. Harvey was too big of a story to ignore.

I think what we learned from Harvey is an important lesson for us in many ways. It was great to see so many people simply refuse to be defined by anyone but themselves. We didn’t care what the media or the politicians thought. We knew exactly who we were—who we are—inside. We knew what was right and moral and we acted on it. We knew none of those things they say about us were true and we didn’t care that the talking heads were shocked and confused by it all. We went about the business of being who we are.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we could remember this lesson—if we could apply it in the future whenever we are tempted to let someone else tell us who we are or who we should be? Why do we force ourselves to fit into the little boxes the world insists we must occupy? Perhaps it is because when we hear something again and again, for a long enough time, we actually start believing it ourselves.

Most of the time we certainly act like we are compliant. It is almost like we are semi-comatose and just follow the pack. It seems easier than bucking the flow.

In spite of that, in times of stress and tragedy, our true selves come out. Something touches us deep inside and we are reminded of our true natures. And we act in ways that are consistent with our true identities. Why can’t we always know, and act on, our own self-definitions?

Sometimes I think we just get lazy. When things are going along smoothly, we relax and just go with the flow. If someone tries to impose his definition of us, we just accept it; it is easier than fighting. That may be innocuous in the short term, but over time, we start to be more and more compliant until we lose track of who we really are. Then it takes an event like the tragedy of Harvey to wake us up and allow us to again find the true self within us.

And isn’t it beautiful when we do?

Identities

September 4th, 2017

By Michael W. Gos

High Hill, Texas

We were spending a part of our Christmas break exploring the painted churches around Schulenburg. The last on our list was the one I found to be the most amazing, Saint Mary’s in High Hill. Because my wife grew up in a world pretty much devoid of Catholics, I spent a good part of the day answering questions. She marveled at the difference between these little churches and the one she was raised in. While the outside architecture was similar, the insides were as different as night and day. While sitting there, we also talked about church music. I grew up on Bach and plainsong (chant), she on gospel accompanied by a piano.

And then we discussed the changes in the church over time, a sad topic for me. I explained to her about the differences between the mass when I was a kid and what she would see were she to attend one today. Back then, the altar was turned around, with the priest facing the same way as the congregation. And the Latin! Even as a kid with no particular liking for religion, I thought the mass was beautiful.

We sat for a long time—she taking in the beauty around her, and me thinking about the distance between my boyhood and today.

 

We all started somewhere. For most of us, it was somewhere different from where we are today. For me, there is the obvious distance between Indiana and Texas for a start. But the far greater distance is from a working-class steel mill community to academia. As is the case with most of our lives, it has been a long journey—a journey of change.

Many of my working class students are just now beginning to attempt a similar journey in their lives. They are starting with education but will quickly discover that is not enough. They must also work to change social class markers—speech patterns, critical thinking, etc. I always feel sad for them when they first start to feel that inevitable separation from friends and family as they make those changes. For a long time, the evolving student feels like a man without a home. He no longer fits in the old world he grew up in, but he has not yet found his place in the new one either. He feels rejected by the people in his life because they just don’t, or won’t, understand what he is trying to do. Meanwhile, family and friends in the old neighborhood feel left behind by someone who is getting “uppity” and thinks he is better than they are. It’s sad, but inevitable.

There is an old saying that you can’t go home again and I suspect that is true. Once we begin our independent journeys in life, the die is cast. And yet, at many stages along the way, we get frustrated and start asking ourselves questions like, “What am I doing? Who am I, really?”

And that never changes. Even now, decades later, I often feel insecure in this new world. I wonder, did I really change as much as it appears, or am I still that same working-class kid who’s now playing dress-up to impress the grown-ups. I often feel like I’m just bluffing my way through this new world, constantly worried that someone might catch on. What if they find out I really am just an imposter?

I suspect I’m not alone in that feeling. You may not have made a class border crossing, but there are lots of other changes we go though in our lives that carry the same burdens. Some of us change cultures, moving to other regions of the country or even to other nations. Others go on a different career path than the rest of the family and friends and are stigmatized as a result. And frankly, some of us are the black sheep of our families for one reason or another. Whatever our circumstances, change is inevitable. Life is change.

And with this barrage of changes, sooner or later, we become overwhelmed and start to question everything. Am I still the person I started out as all those years ago? Or am I really the person I seem to be today? Perhaps I am neither of those people but rather someone else entirely different? And probably the hardest question of all—is it all worth the cost? That’s a tough one to answer. But it doesn’t really matter; we can’t unmake the decisions from the past.

The old adage is right; we really can’t go home again. The places we knew back then have changed, the people are different and some of them are gone, so why even try? And yet, we can’t just forget about who we were back then either. It is important to never lose sight of that, if for no other reason than to be able to fully appreciate how far we’ve come over the years.

But it seems to me that remembering where we came from and being aware of where we are today doesn’t leave us that much closer to understanding who we are. It’s not enough to just appreciate how far we’ve come. Who we are is really a more complicated issue.

To really understand our true identities, we need to see the bigger picture—where we came from, where we are today, and most important, every step that occurred along the way. It is the entire journey that identifies who we are. Aristotle argued that you can’t measure happiness in the moment. It must be evaluated over an entire lifetime. Identity has that same essence. It is the sum total of every instant of our existence. To look at it any other way would be doing ourselves a disservice. More important, it keeps us from ever understanding who we really are. And that understanding is a key to happiness and satisfaction in our lives.

We are all the changes we have made or experienced throughout our lives. We’ve all come a long, long way. When looked at that way, I can’t help but be excited about who I am…and about who you are.

Friends of the Heart

August 1st, 2017

Photo by Michael Gos

By Michael W. Gos

Palisades, Texas

I like old things. That’s good because I’m no spring chicken myself. I love old furniture, old books and especially old cars. But most of all, I like old buildings. I once gave a lecture in an Oxford dining hall that was built in 1090 A.D. I can’t begin to tell you what a thrill that was. When I travel in Texas, I prefer historic hotels, but the ultimate thrill for me is to stay in a Civilian Conservation Corps building.

If you’ve ever been to a state or national park anywhere in the U.S. that opened prior to the 1940s, you’ve probably seen the work of the CCC. You can’t miss the style: gray limestone rocks stacked flat and a wood-shingled roof. Since they are generally located in the woods, each wall, building or stair set looks like it grew naturally out of the forest floor.

We were in Palisades, a tiny village of 325 people a few miles south of Amarillo and east of Canyon. The area was an early Texas state park located at the north end of Palo Duro canyon. It was later replaced by a much larger and better-located park a few miles to the south. The entire area of the old park then passed into private hands. The CCC building that used to be the park headquarters has been divided into two cabins and turned into a B&B that was our home for the next four days.

We were here to meet my best friend, Kevin and his wife, who came down from Indiana to join us for a few days in canyon country. I left Indiana 25 years ago this month and even though Kevin and I see each other only about once a year, we always pick up right where we left off without missing a beat. It is uncanny. When I first saw him drive up in his rental car, it was like we were together just yesterday.

 

A long time ago, a wise man explained to me that there are two kinds of friends you will have in your life, and it is important to know the difference. Now, I’m not talking about that absurd notion of “friend” pushed by Facebook (400 people you wouldn’t recognize if you saw them on the street). I’m talking about real world, flesh and blood human beings.

The first variety is “friends of the road.” These are people we meet and get close to because we share with them a portion of our lives. They are people we work with, know from a club, hobby or other social situation, or that we live near. These people are important to us because they share an important chunk of the journey of our lives. We share our thoughts, feelings and free time with them. In many cases, they provide the fun in our lives. In others, they are the only thing that gets us through the hard times.

The problem with friends in this category is, eventually we part ways. Someone changes jobs, drops a hobby or moves away. We stay in contact for a while, but over time, the relationship fades away. Even if we had been friends for years, the separation in space creates the inevitable result. That is not to say these friends are less important. Quite the contrary, they are indispensible. They make life worth living. But eventually, our roads do part.

The other group of friends, those “of the heart,” are different. While they always start out as friends of the road, somewhere along the way, something changes. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure out what the change is and how it happens. I still haven’t figured it out completely, but I have some ideas.

At some point in the relationship, geography ceases to be a factor. It doesn’t matter if the two of you live next door to each other or a thousand miles apart. The connection switches from one of proximity to one of souls—not souls in a religious sense, but more like a matter of our essence.

We often hear the term “soul mate” used in reference to a romantic relationship. Some argue that two souls travel lifetime after lifetime together.

Others claim we each have only half a soul and our soul mate is the one whose half soul fits ours perfectly, forming one complete. I find this view a bit more reasonable but still not quite right. My problem with both notions is that they assume we all have but one soul mate. I know that can’t be right because I’ve had five: my wife, my best friend and over the last 40 years, three dogs. Each of them completed me.

I think the reason that removal in time and space doesn’t affect friends of the heart is because they are operating on a plane where time and space just don’t work the way they do in “normal” reality. Just as the DVD of a two-hour movie defies our idea of time and space because it holds every scene, every place and every second of the movie on that one disk at the one instant, friends of the heart transcend the traditional linear views of time and space as well. They just are.

When Kevin and I were discussing this, he added another, slightly different view of friends of the heart. It has to do with what he called “refrigerator rights.” The friend of the heart is someone who can, at any time, go into your refrigerator, look through it and take out anything he wants and no one thinks anything of it.

After some thought, I began to measure each of my “soul mates” against his rubric, starting with him. When he comes down here, he of course has full refrigerator rights. He also has free range of the wet bar and the liquor cabinet where I keep the good stuff. That may be even more important. He clearly passes the refrigerator test.

We’ve now been best friends for 37 years. For 25 of them, we’ve lived over a thousand miles apart. It hasn’t made a difference.

Like I said, I like old things—especially friends.

Juxtapositions

May 1st, 2017

By Michael W. Gos

Shiner, Texas

From the time we are very young, we experience juxtaposed sights, scents and touches that always remain in our minds and hearts as pairs.  I will forever couple that magnificent smell of cigars with sunny days with my dad at Wrigley Field.  Hearing a British accent always takes me back to that summer at Oxford and church always brings the thought of beer.  (What??  Yeah, you read that right.)

On our spring break trip a few weeks ago, after a couple of days at King Ranch, we headed north toward Flatonia.  We had spent this particular morning touring three more of the painted churches of Texas—one in Praha, one in Moulton and the last in Shiner.  After lunch at a fried chicken joint there in town we decided that, since we were in Shiner, why not hit the brewery?

Since it was an absolutely perfect day, while we waited for the next tour to begin, we sat outside at a picnic table and drank our four free beers in the sunshine.  I was enjoying a lemony brew that was new to me when it hit me—it was almost like being a kid again, this juxtaposition of church and beer.

Growing up Catholic, beer was a part of most church-related activities.  Sure, in the mass itself the priest used wine, but we were a poor working-class community so beer was the libation of choice.  Every Friday night my family would have fried fish at home and it was always clear to us as kids that this was for religious reasons.  As early as I can remember, my brother and I got a tiny glass of watered-down beer with our fish.  Church socials, especially potlucks, always featured beer.  And my favorite of all, the annual father and son trips to the Purdue-Notre Dame football game featured a bus full of coolers of beer.  While beer was always around, I was in my twenties before ever I saw someone drunk.  Beer was a part of life; overdoing it was not.  Still today, the smell of beer alone makes me think of church.

I sometimes wonder why these juxtapositions of seemingly unrelated, sometimes incompatible images are so important to us.  They stay with us long after the memory of events themselves seems to be gone.  Today, I don’t remember a single individual Cubs game, but I remember the cigar smell meant Wrigley Field.

Recently, at a restaurant with friends, someone brought up the song “Elusive Butterfly” by Bob Lind.  Inevitably, the question was asked, “When was that a hit?”  While the quick-on-the-draw cell phone expert in the group began to look it up on the Internet, I searched my memory for juxtapositions.  I had no other choice since I only have a flip phone.  (I don’t want a phone that is smarter than I am.)  Still I had a powerful tool at my disposal.  What could I connect the song to?  I remember having a discussion with my then-girlfriend about the fact that the song was unique because it had no rhyme.  We were outside in the snow.  Simple.  If there was snow, I knew it was winter and because of who I was with, it had to be my sophomore year in high school.  I announced the answer: winter of 65-66.  About two minutes later, our smart phone master informed us the song was released in December of 1965 and hit number five on the charts in January of ’66.  The entire group talked among themselves marveling at my fantastic memory, allowing me a chance to sneak a peek at the address on my driver’s license to refresh my memory on how to get home.
There is no question that these juxtapositions we have stored are powerful tools once we learn to use them.  But not all of us know how to do that.  Many of us, because of training or the job we hold, can look at something analytically.  We are very adept at breaking the whole down into its component parts.  We can even analyze how those parts interact.  But how many of us can go in the other direction, that is, to look at the object as a part of a larger system and then study how it interacts with other things in the world to form a whole?  Even those of us who can do this as part of our jobs seldom transfer this skill to everyday life.

And yet, that is a critical skill. We need to be able to see these subtle connections.  As humans, we tend to view the world in dichotomies.  We need to do that to really understand life around us.  Think about all the pairs we take for granted: work/play; healthy/sick; hot/cold.  Many of these are opposites and we see a scale running between the poles.  We measure things by their position on that scale.  Other dichotomies are less clear.  We see the pair of love as hate, yet they are not opposites, but rather two sides of the same coin, a strong emotional attachment. (The opposite of love is indifference.)  And sometimes, part of the dichotomy is invisible.  According to Aristotle, this is the case with happiness/unhappiness.  He says happiness is like air.  We are only aware of it in its absence.  Perhaps it is these difficult juxtapositions that make us less willing to rely on them in our daily lives.  If it is too much like work, I’d rather not do it.

Some juxtapositions just jump out at you when you least expect them, like beer and church did for me in Shiner.  Others, like Elusive Butterfly, are more subtle; you have to work for them.  But it seems to me, they are such powerful tools that it is worth the search.  I am always amazed at the power they bring.

For the next few weeks, every time I thought of something in my past, I looked for its pair.  That has opened up a surprisingly rich collection of memories and new ideas that I never would have been able to enjoy otherwise.   Some have lain dormant for years—like the way beetles remind me of the day my best friend and I went to school wearing long underwear and gym shorts.  But that’s a story for another day.

The Unexamined Life

September 13th, 2016

bobwillsbus

Photo by Jill Coe Gos

turkeytx

By Michael Gos

Turkey, Texas – Socrates purportedly said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”  I say purportedly because we don’t really know for sure if Socrates said that, or anything else for that matter.  You see, we don’t have a single written work of his.  All we know of him comes from his student Plato.  In his dialogues, Plato has Socrates leading discussions and presenting his views on life and the world.  The fact is, we don’t really know that Socrates said any of the things Plato attributes to him.  It is entirely plausible that Plato could be presenting his own thoughts and placing them in the mouth of Socrates to give the ideas more credibility with his ancient Greek audience.  (Okay, call me a cynic.)

I guess it doesn’t matter who said it first, though; the idea is powerful and stays with us today.  In fact, it is this quote that became the basis for the entire field of philosophy itself.  It has been accepted as a universal truth since the fifth century B.C.  But frankly, I think whoever said it missed the boat on this one.  At best, he told only half of the story.  I believe the half that is being ignored is absolutely critical.

We were in Turkey, a town barely big enough to hold the six letters of its name.  We came to see the Bob Wills museum.  Growing up in Indiana, I was never exposed to country music, let alone old time western swing.  I had not heard of Wills and his Texas Playboys till after I had been in Texas several years.  I was a little behind in getting “cultured up.”

The museum itself looks like an old, elementary school building that has been repurposed.  But the item that got my attention most was not in the museum at all.  It was a bus sitting in a small grassy field across the street, next to the ruins of a 1920s-era filling station (we call those things “gas stations” today).  The paint on the bus was a kind of mix between purple, brown and rust and it had a white roof.  Across the sides of the roof was written “Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys.”  I’m not sure why, but I had a feeling this had to be the most valuable item in the museum’s collection.  And yet, it wasn’t in the museum at all.  It had been abandoned to the elements in this weed-filled lot.

I was sorry for all the things he never saw, and never would see.

I thought about how much of the lives of these men played out on this bus—and about the history that was made in it.  I wondered how many songs had been written in it and what role it played in the development of the western swing genre itself.  And yet here it sat—neglected and decaying.  It was really depressing.

My favorite escape from depression is a good meal, so I decided to try to forget the neglected bus and get some lunch at the only eatery I could find in town, a little breakfast and lunch place called Galvin’s.  I ordered a large bowl of red and a diet coke.  The only other person in the place was an old man, I’d guess around 85, who was eating a chicken fried steak.

As you might expect, we got to talking and he told me he had ranched on the edge of town for as long as he could remember and that his daddy and grandpa did the same before him.  His wife had died about seven years ago and now, being too old to ranch himself, he leases out his land for pasture and comes here for breakfast and lunch every day.

I asked him if he had travelled much.  He said he was too young for WWII so he never had to leave Turkey.  The furthest he had ever gone was Amarillo, just over 100 miles away, and he did that only one time because his wife wanted to see the big city.  They were both overwhelmed by the sheer volume of cars and people, and especially all the traffic lights.  He said he never left Hall County again.

I got to thinking about the life he led.  For me, there has always been something romantic about a family homestead, especially one with a substantial amount of land and a multi-generational past.  That sense of being grounded—of having a home—is something I have always coveted but will never experience.  Add to that, this was my fourth multi-day trip in eight weeks and I began feeling homesick for even my little postage stamp of ground in Clear Lake.

Before I could get too carried away by nostalgia for something I never had, I found myself looking at it from a different perspective.  The old man had never been to Yellowstone, or the Grand Tetons.  More tragically, he had never seen Big Bend, Hill Country, Luckenbach or the Big Thicket.   And my envy quickly turned to something closer to sympathy.  I was sorry for all the things he never saw, and never would see.

Certainly Socrates is correct in his contention that our lives must be examined in order for us to enjoy the maximum rewards.  I understand the importance of evaluation and assessment in everything we do.  How else can we tell if things are going as we planned?  If we examine our performance regularly and find that we are not measuring up to our goals, we can immediately make changes in our actions in an effort to improve the outcome, be it at work or in life.  Later, we can reassess whether the changes are working.  If not, we can do further tweaking.  Every examination, and every change we make in response, leads to a more rewarding life.

So there is no question; Socrates is correct when he says, “The unexamined life is not worth living.  But I think when it comes to our happiness and satisfaction in life, he misses a far more critical point, or perhaps it is a corollary—the unlived life is not worth examining. 

I don’t know.  Maybe the old man in Turkey would be satisfied with what he saw upon assessing his life.  But my guess is, he’d more likely be devastated.  In looking back when the end is near, we seldom regret things we did.  We are far more likely to regret the things we didn’t do.

Maybe Brother Jimmy summed it up best when he said, “That’s why we wander and follow La Vie Dasante.”

The Measure of Riches

August 1st, 2016

IMG_1479By Michael W. Gos

Jefferson, Texas

We are a time-poor society.   It wasn’t always this way.  In fact, many of us are old enough to remember a time when we were much more prosperous in this regard.  But I’m afraid those days are gone.

We were staying at a great little B&B in Jefferson.  It was spring break and we planned on exploring Caddo Lake.  Jefferson is one of two or three towns with good lodging options in the area and I had heard they had a Carnegie Library, something I’ve always wanted to see, so there was no question this would be our “base camp.”

The first morning, we set out for the lake only to find that all the roads into the area were closed due to flooding.  When we got back to the B&B, we called our outfitter, then the tour boat company and the train depot to check on trips we had scheduled for later in the week.  They all gave us the same answer—Caddo Lake is closed for the next few weeks.

So with four days on my hands and a now empty schedule, I decided to just hang out.  I spent the first morning at the library.  Then in the afternoon, my wife delivered me to husband daycare (in this case, a wine bar called The Corkyard) while she did the “shop till you drop” thing.

Normally, this works out fine for both of us, but on this rainy day, for some reason, I wasn’t enjoying it.  I was getting antsy sitting there and in the process of fidgeting in my seat I happened to notice an ancient-looking store across the street called the Jefferson General Store.  There was a sign in the window saying “Root Beer on Draft.”  I knew where I had to go.
I walked across the street and immediately entered a time warp.  Directly in front of me as I entered was a huge, candy counter with all the treats I enjoyed as a kid—circus peanuts, Neccos, those little wax bottles with a Kool-Aid-type liquid in them, and even the paper straws filled with Kool-Aid powder and sugar.  The selection was enormous and most of the items I hadn’t seen in nearly 50 years.

I took a long time exploring the rest of the store and the vast variety of old timey things they had.  I bought a jar of mayhaw jelly, a book about the town and some pickled garlic.  Then, onto the main event—I took a seat at the lunch counter.  It was the same as the one I remember from my childhood in Indiana.  I ordered a root beer from the large wooden barrel and the day’s special, a chili dog for 50 cents.

All those years ago, my mother, an aunt, and in some cases my father, always seemed to have time to take me to places like this—or to a park or playground.  It was a part of our everyday life.  And then I thought about how today; no one has time for this.  How did we get from there to here?  It may sound strange, but I believe the cause of these changes is the introduction of labor-saving devices.  Let me start with life as I remember it as a child in the 1950s.

We lived in a “poor” neighborhood but we always had kids to play with and our moms were always home if we needed anything.  Often we’d stop for lunch at a neighbor’s house because his mom was serving something that sounded better than what we could get at home.   Basically, our homes were interchangeable.  Since everyone knew everyone else, the moms would call each other and exchange information on the location and activities of their kids.  We would be disciplined by a neighbor mom just as quickly as by our own.  In fact, we even called many of the neighbors “aunt” and “uncle” even though we were not blood relations.

Our moms were home for two reasons.  First, they were there for us, but they also had a lot of work to do.  I remember my mom’s old ringer washer in the basement and the clotheslines both in the basement for winter, and in the backyard the rest of the year.  She washed dishes by hand and Dad pushed a non-motorized mower once a week.

But then things started to change.  It began when the first labor-saving device entered the picture.  In my house, that was a clothes washer, but the pattern was universal regardless of the first device.

When we bought that first machine, we had to pay for it.  No problem—Dad just worked a few more hours and eventually we were caught up again.  But those extra hours at work meant he had a bit less time at home.  To compensate, we bought a power lawn mower.  It saved Dad a bit of time and effort, but it had to be paid for.  So he worked a few extra hours.  But as he began working more hours (at least one overtime shift a week in my dad’s case) we needed more labor-saving devices.

All across America, it was not long before the inevitable happened.  We couldn’t keep saving time (buying more devices) on our fathers’ incomes alone.  The responsibility began falling to the women.  Let’s look at some data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (Report 1052).  In 1950, only 32 percent of women were in the workforce.  I think it is safe to assume these were mostly unmarried women or women with grown children.  By 1960, the number had risen to 35.5 percent.  In 1970 it was up to 40.8 percent and by 1980, 47.7 percent of women were in the workforce full-time. And that was just the beginning.  In 1990, the number was up to 54.3 percent and for the first time, more women were working than not.  In 2000, the number was 57.5 percent and rising.

With the women at work instead of in the neighborhood, several new costs arose.  First there were the inevitable child-care costs.  Soon after, safety became an issue.  Without the neighborhood moms at home, the kids lacked supervision.  There was a myriad of ways for them to get into trouble and eventually it was no longer prudent to let them roam outside the way we did as kids.  We had to keep them busy.  That meant non-stop after-school and weekend activities—with parents as chauffeurs.  Soon we even had to drive kids to and from school because it was no longer safe for them to walk or bike.  The result was we now needed even more labor-saving devices so moms could keep up with the chores at home in addition to working.  And the spiral continued.

What was the result?  Today we are all working 40, 50 and 60 hours a week, serving as chauffeurs in our off time and raising a generation of kids who think this pace of life is normal.

As I sat at the lunch counter at the Jefferson General Store, I found myself longing for those days long ago when we could go to the library for a couple of hours, then head to the playground or the “five and dime” for a root beer and a bit of our favorite candy.  It was fun—an adventure.  And we had a different adventure every day.

We may be richer dollar-wise today, and have a lot more “stuff” to show for it, but we have definitely become time-poor.  Which is more important?