Reflections on life

Life is interesting… and too damn short.

When I wrote most of this post I was off the grid on an Eastern Sierra trip. I had started writing on day 4 of the trip. On day 5, I had a cell signal for a short time and got word of the deaths of a colleague’s wife – someone about my age – and another colleague’s husband. I was standing on a mountaintop with a vast panorama all around me, when the news came through.

If you are going to learn of someone’s death, I suppose there are worse places to be than surrounded by nature. At over 9,000 feet, surrounded by ancient mountains and trees, the insignificance of our individual lives in the scheme of the universe is pretty apparent.* But our lives are significant to us and those we encounter – some even for just a moment. Even on this trip, I encountered people whose memory will stay with me.

I have had many friends and colleagues die over the last few years – almost all of them dying young by most standards – and those deaths have had a profound impact on me. Some helped pull me out of my post-divorce depression and led me to focus more on me. And they led me to realize I needed to spend more time living in the present, rather than just focusing on my future. I started checking things off my bucket lists and decided to go back to school with certain goals in mind.  And this moment was no different – at another turning point in my life, it made me stop and think.

My friend and I stayed in Tuolumne Meadows in Yosemite National Park’s high country. We drove separately (for logistical reasons), which had the pleasant side benefit of giving me plenty of “me” time and space. It was time when I was free to go at my own pace and do whatever I felt. I could crank up my eclectic iTunes playlist and just drive. My time was mine, with no one to answer to (although I enjoyed texting with someone when I would stop for a break).

The last time I was in Tuolumne Meadows (a decade ago), I was one day removed from a breakup that hit me hard. Hindsight being 20/20, it probably shouldn’t have impacted me that significantly. But I was blindsided and my heart recklessly opens itself too wide to people. He would later tell me that he chose the timing because he knew I was going on vacation and he thought I would be able to take my mind off things. But that’s the thing up here – it’s pretty off the grid and it’s really easy to get lost in your thoughts. My memories of that trip aren’t great. I was absolutely miserable and I regret that I made things unpleasant for my aunt (who I was traveling with) because I was in a funk and pretty unmotivated to do anything. And dining in Tuolumne is at communal tables, so I’m sure there are others who were impacted by my mood.

This trip was better for me, albeit very different. Things happened, as if the universe was sending a sign that things in my life are moving in the right direction, tho now I have had to reconsider the meaning I imputed to them. There were dragonflies, in particular, and a butterfly that came out of nowhere and landed near me for a moment before flitting away. Both have long symbolic histories across cultures – the dragonfly of courage, strength, and happiness and the butterfly of transformation and change. I took them as signs of what was, but perhaps they were actually harbingers of what was to come.

The first afternoon in Tuolumne, I was along the river bank with not another person around. As I turned to go back up the bank, I caught sight of a mother deer and her fawn, grazing less than 50 feet away. She looked up and saw me, we shared a momentary acknowledgment as if she recognized I wasn’t a threat, then she went back to what she was doing. I didn’t have time to pull out my longer zoom, so I zoomed my lens to it’s max and shot a few photos. Then they moved on out of sight.

I climbed back up the bank, crossed the bridge, and started up the trail when I saw the deer cross the river and then cross the trail in front of me, just as close. There was still not another human around. I fired off a series of photos as the pair crossed the trail and then went off out of sight.

Maybe it’s a little cheesy, but I felt that moment was special. It was something all mine – just me and the deer – with not a single other person having shared it. It felt like it was a message, of sorts, from the universe. The deer is seen as a messenger and a symbol of  harmony, happiness, peace and longevity, particularly in Buddhist tradition, and it felt like a message.

But, while the message was mine alone, I had a feeling that I actually wanted to share it with someone – not a stranger, not my friend, but a partner. I’ve had those feelings with increasing frequency and intensity, especially in my travels. Perhaps therein lied the message?

I enjoy being single, particularly the freedom it affords. But, sometimes I do find myself missing having someone in my life, like in moments such as the one down by the river. I thought these were signs that maybe the timing was right to find someone. I thought it could be a sign that maybe I was on the right track with the person I was texting during my trip.

But my first foray back into dating convinces me otherwise – that maybe the timing isn’t right and that I still need to focus more on myself. As I mentioned, my heart is reckless –  I wear it on my sleeve and it opens itself too widely, even when my brain screams for restraint. Whatever the relationship – whether trusted colleague, friend, or a possible romance – once I let my outer barriers down for someone, my heart takes that as an invitation to fully welcome and embrace them. I don’t trust easily, but when I do it is with little reservation. For this reason, I maintain few truly close friendships. I also don’t date much and I try to maintain some emotional distance for as long as possible when I do. But I slipped this time and found in someone a degree of familiarity and comfort that caused me to let my guard down early. My reckless heart took the opportunity to run amok as my logical brain made a futile effort to restrain it. As is typically the case my heart found itself battered and bruised from its escapade, with many wounds it might have avoided had my brain prevailed.

Which brings me back to my earlier comment – life is interesting and short. There was a time when I thought I had my future planned out, with certain goals and even plans for the future. But planning rarely leads where you think it will. I spent 3 years planning around a single goal, only to have someone else’s actions destroy everything I had been working toward. Ultimately, interests change, opportunities change, people come in and out of your life.

Maybe my future won’t be what I “planned” but I’ll roll with it and embrace it because life is short and we need to make the most of the time we have.

 

* A couple of my tattoos reflect this concept, one in particular. On one shoulder I have a dragonfly surrounded by fallen cherry blossoms, being carried by the flowing water. In Japanese literature, cherry blossoms reflect the impermanence of life and beauty – the blossoms are beautiful in bloom, but they only last a few days until they fall. The dragonfly is symbolic of courage, strength, and happiness. On the other shoulder, I have a frog – symbolic of returns – and maple leaves, another symbol of time passing.

A different hard lesson learned

This post has been sitting in my drafts for a while…

In May I spent two weeks in France where my rental car was broken into and my laptop and iPad were stolen. Despite being tech savvy and regularly working with my IT department on data security issues, my personal laptop hadn’t been backed up in a couple years. In fact, I had recently moved several years worth of photos onto it in order to organize them and then back them up. But I ran out of time. My life was on that laptop.

Yes, they say not to leave stuff visible in your car. But the trunk was too small to hold everything. We were also in a small town off the standard tourist path and it was Mother’s Day in France, so we let our guard down.

I can’t begin to explain the sick feeling that hit me like a punch in the gut, as I realized 1) someone had access to some intensely personal information on that laptop and 2) it was all gone and I no longer had access. I also feared insult would be added to the injury when I returned the rental car and was hit with the bill for the repairs (I had coverage through my credit card, but it’s a reimbursement type of coverage so I’d still have to go out of pocket). There also was the ordeal of filing a police report in a foreign country (thankfully, a local couple went out of their way to assist us, coming to the police department and translating – be nice to strangers, folks, because sometimes it comes back around).

Within 24 hours, I had calmed down. My laptop was password protected, so I realized the odds of someone accessing my data was limited (besides, it was a gaming computer, not a business one, so it didn’t look like it would have a ton of valuable data). I also realized that the thieves were likely looking to make a quick buck, which meant they would likely sell the laptop for scrap/spare parts or they would simply wipe the drive. It was an old laptop and I needed a new one anyway (although I wasn’t prepared to buy one yet). My iPad and some other items in my backpack still bothered me more – most particularly my Agent Scully Funko Pop which has traveled with me and been the subject of some interesting photos (and would cost me over $40 to replace).

The worst part was losing all the work I had done editing photographs from my prior trips. My entire Lightroom library was gone because it had only been backed up locally. On the positive, I still had the SD cards from my most recent trips and I was able to recover older trips from my old computer.

So, it was a hard lesson learned that I should have learned long ago – back up your computer regularly.

Bucket lists (travel)

Eight days ago, I returned from a trip to Iceland where I checked some boxes off my travel bucket list. Chief among those was a chance to see the northern lights / aurora borealis (they were oddly underwhelming in person – they looked more like thin, barely visible clouds than the bright green you see in photos – until I looked at my photos and realized I got some good ones).

The other day, I was thinking about bucket lists and, for a short moment, I thought I had put a serious dent in my bucket list over the last three years – Yellowstone, Rome, Venice, Pompeii, Florence, Iceland, the aurora… Why the sudden burst of travel? After my divorce, and after a few friends died too young, I realized I needed to do a little more to enjoy life today and to do things for myself.

I have been at my current job for over 17 years and have been working at a below-market salary (for many years it was quite significantly below market) for all those years. I have been doing that, in part, with an eye toward my future in the form of a fairly generous (particularly by today’s standards) pension and also toward the present in the form of above-market benefits. Among those benefits is very robust vacation accrual, which I rarely took in my first 10 years.

My future was accounted for, but what was I doing in the present? In 2010, I started taking advantage of my vacation time, with a 2-1/2 week trip to Japan, a place that feels like a second home to me. My next trip was 2011, to see the Kings open the season in Berlin and then to travel around France with a friend. And it was around that time that I met my now-ex, who lives in Stockholm (yes, Sweden).  For the next 3 years, my vacation time was spent almost exclusively visiting my ex or spending time with my ex here in LA. But that was okay, because I was planning a life with this person – a life that would eventually be based in Europe where, I thought, I’d be close enough to many of the places I hoped to see someday. Plus, my ex and I had some of the same places on our bucket lists and had planned to visit them some day, as well. I figured I had plenty of time to whittle down my list. But then my marriage ended and, with it, so did those plans for the future.

About a year and half later, an opportunity presented itself in the form of a conference in Rome. I had the chance to both check Rome (and a few other cities) off my bucket list and to learn something. So I took it. And I realized around that time that I could make my own opportunities. And when some friends passed away suddenly, I realized life was short. I had been working hard to ensure my future, but I needed to start considering the present. So I started checking places and travel experiences off my bucket list.

But was I really just down to just two more, one of which I anticipate knocking out next year, after just a few years of travel? As I started talking about travel I realized there were so many other places and experiences still on that list.

Among the remaining bucket list items:

  • Cambodia and the Angkor temples
  • The Galapagos Islands
  • The ancient ruins in Greece
  • Israel (with a detour to Petra, Jordan)
  • A safari in Africa
  • The Scottish Highlands
  • Stonehenge (yes, I know it’s underwhelming), Bath and other sites in England
  • Castles throughout Europe
  • The rain forests in Costa Rica
  • Snow monkeys in Japan and the Sapporo Snow Festival
  • The pyramids and Sphinx in Egypt
  • Iguazu Falls
  • Auschwitz (not so much a bucket list item as something I feel I need to see in my lifetime)
  • The national parks and national monuments in Utah

I am sure there are others and new ones will replace the ones I check off. But it looks like I have some busy years of travel still ahead…

 

 

Be good to each other

This afternoon, I had one of those reminders about life.

As I was leaving the sushi restaurant where I had lunch, a guy coming out of the 7-11 next door said hi and exchanged a little small talk. I got the sense from his demeanor that he was having a rough go of it, but he didn’t ask for money. A guy came out of the 7-11 and he asked him “can you share some change, my man?” The guy never even acknowledged him and kept walking. I asked “can  you use a few dollars?” He very humbly acknowledged that he did but said he didn’t want to ask me.

I gave him the few singles I had in my wallet and he was humbly grateful for the little gesture. As I was about to walk away, I stopped and turned back. “I don’t have much cash, but do you want something to eat? I can put it on a card.” His eyes lit up and he asked for some chips or something like that. I was about to go inside 7-11 when the McDonald’s next door caught my eye. I offered to walk over with him and buy him an actual meal. He was taken aback and gratefully accepted.

“I just have to get my phone inside,” he said. He then quickly added “it’s an Obama phone, it’s free.” I told him I didn’t really care – someone with a brand new iPhone could have been struck by a tragedy and found themselves having fallen on hard times. He explained that when people see the phone (it looks like a smartphone but it has very limited features), they sometimes respond “you have a phone.” Huh?  “You can’t eat an iPhone,” I said.

As we walked over to McDonald’s we talked about how we all should have a little kindness, especially in our current political climate where the ruling party would like public assistance to go the way of the dinosaurs (you know, those giant lizards that kids used to keep as pets a few thousand years ago). He excitedly said he was going to order a Big Mac value meal, that he hadn’t had a Big Mac in a while. I had just spent $35 on sushi and here was someone who was excited and grateful to be having a Big Mac.

He told me his name was David and that he was struggling to get by. He lost his job and that meant he couldn’t pay his rent. He went through a divorce. Family who he had helped in the past weren’t there for him when he fell on hard times. He was working temp jobs and doing his best to get by while he tried to find a job. But it was a struggle.

He ordered the large Big Mac value meal and I told him to add a dessert or something if he wanted it (how can you pass up those pies?).  I paid for his meal and said my goodbyes – I asked him to pay the kindness forward to someone else once he gets back on his feet – and rushed off to my car before my meter expired.

It isn’t the first time I’ve bought someone lunch at that McDonald’s, nor even the second. I’ve been struck by the gratitude each time I’ve done it – no one has ever declined saying they just want money or taken the gesture for granted (well, one person sort of did – it turned out she wasn’t alone and her friend was hungry too). Maybe it’s something about that store? I spent less than a third of what I just spent on my lunch (and little more than the cost of the indulgent Unicorn Frappuccino I haven’t had a chance to try) but to him it meant a  lot.

Many of us live just one unfortunate incident away from finding ourselves in similar situation – a lost job, an accident, an illness, divorce, a family tragedy.  In this climate, with an administration that would gladly cut the supports of what is left of our social safety net, it’s sometimes worth stepping back and contemplating.

Studying…

I started this blog to talk about things like my experiences going back to school, interesting issues that happen in the news, and my travel adventures.

Well, I’ve failed miserably.

My second semester of school is winding down and I have yet to post anything about it.

The United Airlines fiasco was a good opportunity to talk about contract law, but I kept my comments to Facebook and Twitter.

And travel… well, I guess I can salvage that – I am taking my next trip in two weeks. I was talked into attending the ACC Europe Conference in Cascais, Portugal, so I am taking some extra time to travel. I’ll head first to Edinburgh, so I can see my school in person. Then it’s off to London (which I have been hesitant to visit because of painful memories tied to the city/region) for 4 days. Then I head down to Portugal. After the conference, I’ll spend a few extra days in Lisbon.

So we’ll see… I’ll try to be better at finding time to do this blogging thing. For now, I’ve got an exam to work on…