Vacations

November 1st, 2018

By Michael W. Gos
King Ranch, Texas

We learn a lot of valuable lessons from our parents. Work hard. Don’t tell lies. Never punch out a moose. And most of those lessons serve us well in life. But we also learn some, shall we say, “less helpful” lessons. One of those is about vacations.

We were spending a bit of time on the King Ranch. For me it has always been a place with a two-fold draw. First, of course, is the historic angle. It was the largest ranch in America and it still is the most famous one today. Most of us have heard the stories of “Captain” King and how the ranch got its start. He bought the first grant (15,500 acres) at just under two cents an acre and then grew the ranch into the 825,000 acres it is today. Imagine, a single ranch larger than the entire state of Rhode Island.

King Ranch gave us the first American cattle breed, the Santa Gertrudis. King’s cowboys (the kinenos) also worked with the mustang horses they found roaming the Wild Horse Desert and through steady improvement of the breed, the ranch became famous for quarter horses and thoroughbreds. In 1946, they even had a Triple Crown winner, Assault, who is buried there at the ranch.

But there is also another, far more important reason I love this place. Out here I can just sit for a while in my boots and cowboy hat and feel like I belong. This place suits me. I wouldn’t mind just staying here for a few days, or months, hanging out in a small cabin and just spending my days ambling around the back forty. In many parts of the ranch there is no cell phone service. I could drive here (with a cooler of beer, of course), park my Jeep somewhere where I can’t see it, and just do whatever felt right at the moment. For a month of so, I would hope to see no signs of the 21st century urban world at all. That is my idea of the perfect vacation.

My wife wants to take a trip to Italy. I am okay with that. I’d love to see the art and architecture of Rome and Florence. Like everyone else, I’d like to do the gondola ride under the Bridge of Sighs in Venice. But I don’t want to do a two-week Grand Tour. I want to experience life there. Tuscany might be a good home base, but I’d want to live there for at least a year. Clearly, I am not—and never will be a tourist by nature; I am a vacationer…a long vacationer.

Unfortunately, that is often not how it turns out for me. More commonly, when it is vacation time, there are flights involved. I don’t particularly enjoy flying even under the best of circumstances. Even worse than the flight itself are the airports. Parking issues, hauling heavy luggage, long hours sitting and waiting, and eating very bad, over-priced food are all less than pleasant. And then, of course, there is the ultimate depravity: security. Every time I enter an airport I think about that morning, sitting nude (well, bottomless anyway) for a half hour on a cold metal chair in a tiny “room” at the Hobby Airport security area, my cell phone confiscated while the screeners were off somewhere doing something with my knee brace. It was beyond unpleasant. None of this matches my idea of a fun way to spend some time off.

But that is just the start. Once you get to your destination, there is travel from the airport to the hotel. Do you go through the hassles of renting a car or do you look for a shuttle? Then there is the hotel check-in process. Don’t even get me started there.

Of course, once at your destination, there are all the “sights” you came to see. The travel to them, the long lines and the fact that I am getting grumpier by the minute make this not only unpleasant for me, but for all around me. (Poor Jill. When you see her, give her your condolences.) And when it is all over, you return home exhausted and needing another week’s rest before you can even face the prospect of going back to work.

I do understand that many people have jobs that are not only unpleasant but also demanding in terms of their time and attention. Sometimes we just have to run away. Taking a week or two off and staying home is often not an option. Even if you can walk away from work (and most of us can’t), work will find you. The phone calls and emails don’t stop just because you are “on vacation.” No one cares, or even believes that you are truly “away from work.”

For many of us, our daily life is unpleasant enough that we will spend thousands of dollars and endure the inevitable indignities the travel industry forces on us just to be able to spend ten or twelve days beyond the reach of those responsibilities.  Our lives have degenerated into 50 weeks of unpleasantness, or as Curley said in City Slickers, “getting knots in our rope.” Then we try to do all of our living in the two (or three, or four) weeks we call “vacation”.

This vacation business is tough, but before you say it is worth it, think again—you’re not going to get off that easily. Before you can leave on this vacation, you get the inevitable bonus of increased stress due to the need to get extra work done before your exodus. The whole time you are gone, you are entertained by worries about what a mess you will return to when it is finally over.

What I find most amazing is that this problem is ubiquitous. Somewhere along the line, it has become the norm.  What I described is not surprising to anyone; we all live it—and do it, willingly. You, and just about everyone you know, are doing it. How did that happen?

They say the best way to impose an idea on someone is to start when he is still a child. I suspect that is what happened here. We grew up seeing this vacation scenario as “the thing we do.” Just as brushing our teeth, sleeping at night or taking a bath are normal because they are what we grew up doing, this mode of vacationing is what we were taught was normal. Many of us never considered an alternative. I remember the novelty of the “staycation” when that word was first coined a few years ago. We found it interesting because “we never thought about that.”

Yes, some of those lessons our parents taught us turned out to be extremely valuable in life. But some are less helpful. At the top of that second list is the way we vacation. It sort of makes you question other things you were taught growing up.

But I still won’t punch out a moose.

Prairie Dogs

September 1st, 2018

By Michael W. Gos
Caprock Canyon, Texas

We came to Caprock Canyon State Park up in the panhandle with the intention of seeing the State of Texas buffalo herd. We spent the better part of a day driving and hiking to the various spots where the park rangers told us the animals tended to frequent. However, it was already nearly sunset, and it was looking like that wasn’t going to happen for us. As we made our way back toward the visitors’ center, we had a stroke of good luck. While still not finding buffalo, we did stumble across a prairie dog town.

Most people think a prairie dog town is one large unit with lots of connected tunnels and numerous entrances that houses the entire colony. The fact is, the typical town is more like a subdivision full of single family homes. The prairie dog family generally consists of one male and four or five females. (Should I be jealous?) In some cases, there may also be a kid or two living at home till the old man decides they are old enough to make their own way in the world.

From the outside, what we humans see is a collection of cute little critters that pop up out of holes, look around, and then pop back down. It is a non-stop frenzy of activity not unlike a game of “whack the mole.” Nothing is ever done, however. They never pick anything up and seldom stray more than an inch or two from the hole. It is just a mass of non-productive up and down energy that we humans find both cute and fascinating.
Even if you have never seen a real prairie dog town, you are probably quite familiar with this concept. One need only look around at our fellow humans to see this behavior modeled. Next time you are in a crowded atrium of a large office building, a shopping mall or any place people congregate, watch what is happening. You will see non-stop random movement, constant energy. But what are these people doing? More important, what are they accomplishing? This seems to be a universal trait of the human condition: non-stop frenetic energy spent with little or nothing to show for it.

I have been a writer for more than 40 years. In the early days, my work habits resembled the prairie dogs’. I would begin by writing the first sentence, in hopes that by the time I had it down on paper I’d have an idea for a second sentence. Needless to say, before a piece was ready for publication, it went through dozens and dozens of revisions. In the process, I was particularly bothered by the fact that I often spent a lot of time revising sections that wouldn’t even make it into the final version. It was time and energy expended with little to no result. But, nevertheless, I felt good about it. After all, I was getting something done.

But still, I was uncomfortable with the process. I was busy, sure, but was I really accomplishing much with all that activity? It seemed I was spending an incredible amount of time and effort given the magnitude and quality of the final product that was produced. I felt there just had to be a better way.

One day, it hit. What if, instead, I did all that planning and revising work in my head while sitting outside in my rocking chair next to the fountain? What if I didn’t get anywhere near a pen, paper or a computer in those early stages? What if I just sat, smoked my pipe and thought? I spent a good deal of time analyzing that idea and, in the end, I was still uncomfortable with it. It didn’t even seem possible.

But I found I couldn’t put the idea out of my mind. Its implementation seemed inevitable, so eventually, I gave it a try. I admit it was uncomfortable at first and I felt guilty just sitting around and calling it work. But eventually, it all came together. I began to understand how this work thing is really done.

Today, I don’t put a single word on paper until I have the entire piece worked out. I know the beginning, the end and everything in between in great detail. I even know what photos I will use. The result: far fewer revisions and much less time and work expended. Best of all, I can enjoy a certain smugness when I am sitting in the sun with my eyes closed and someone asks what I’m doing. When I reply that I’m writing, the looks I get are priceless.

I’m not suggesting there is anything wrong with a “go-get-em” work ethic. After all, in those early years, that process did lead me to some limited success. And today, if a student comes to me with a great work ethic, I can overlook a lot of shortcomings. It takes hard work to get to the point where you start to understand how to do any task well. No one plays concert-level piano on first sitting down to the instrument. But at some point in time, we need to realize that so much more can be accomplished if we just slow down and think things through before we take any action. That not only means less work for the same results, it also makes us less likely to become victims of the calamitous law of unintended consequences. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could teach this to our politicians?

Life is a game. We keep score by results achieved, not by effort expended. Most people confuse activity with accomplishment. When judging their progress toward success, they are often measuring the wrong parameter. I now realize it was obvious all along; I just didn’t see it. The secret to success is to work less but accomplish more.

While all of that frenetic energy is wasted in us humans, it does have some real value for prairie dogs. It provides us two-leggeds with great entertainment and, after all, the little critters are awfully cute. But frankly, I’m not that cute. You might not be either. And I don’t think entertaining others would be high on my list of goals in life. I prefer to use my rocking chair method.

By the way, we never did see the buffalo.

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.

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.

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.