Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Random Thought for the Day: "I finally get the meaning of "commencement:."

As I was driving,
that ribbon of highway,
I thought of a conversation I had been having earlier that afternoon.

I had expressed some mild displeasure about an inability to make space for what someone else was saying because I felt that I had so many personal things stored up that I could only squawk for attention like a baby bird waiting to be fed.

The other person had been offering an interpretation of my father's behaviors, which on the surface, appear helpful and selfless - many have told me so, repeatedly, over the years. I, on the other hand, being the occasionally ungrateful son that I am, have experienced them as frustratingly interfering and oddly (if not profoundly) confusing, and I think it is because of his tendency to just go ahead and "fix" situations in which others are involved if they upset his need to have things under control and appear "proper" and "nice", rather than own the feelings he has and work to get control of them.

At the time of the conversation, I nodded curtly a few times and thought, "Yeah, I know that already, what else do you got?". But, with the comfort afforded by a softly bouncing car moving along at a steady speed - an adult version of a stroller ride, I guess - a thought entered my mind: Why not ask the other person something in response, like, "What does a person do when someone acts like that - i.e., nice, but controlling?" It would have been a way to begin a conversation rather than dismiss it.

My guide for Gemini North Nodes says that being open to all the possibilities of not knowing what the answer is will make my life feel satisfying and complete. My social anxiety and obsession with figuring it out must have blocked me from simply continuing a conversation based on something another person said. Well, that's the pattern I learned from my family, after all.

After all this, I remembered something about a speech made at one of my commencement ceremonies - might have been high school or college. The speaker was saying, "we are commencing, which means beginning." I've never talked to others about this, but I'm pretty sure I was not alone in being solely focused on the fact that seemingly endless years of work and doing things for others, free of charge, was finally over and done with. Aside from a list of things to do that week, I wasn't thinking much about any big futures or great plans. That attitude has created a lot of problems in my life, but that's another story.

This afternoon, I think I realized why graduation ceremonies could rightly be called "commencements." And the reason is, that when you expand your horizons beyond the fear of getting something wrong and the compulsive need to get this, that, and all these other things "right," - which is largely what "school" can be about - you open to the possibilities of the future rather than being consumed with going over and over the closures of the past. Opening a dialogue can be like commencing a new chapter in your life, without the usual expectations and tyrannies of the past.

Well, it made sense when I was thinking about it in the car.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Using the Buffalo

I have a handout from a graduate school history class that listed everything a Plains Indian made from a single buffalo. Not any part was wasted. It wasn't the first time I had heard about this, but probably the most recent. After an analysis session last week, I decided I was trying to be like a Plains Indian, too. There were many things I was trying to be like, and with this one, the buffalo was my past, and I was trying to use every bit of it.

I was trying to use what I learned in college and grad school. I was trying to use what I learned driving around Pennsylvania and reading books about the region. I was trying to use what I learned in my volunteer work for Bowman's Hill Wildflower Preserve and the Tree Tenders and a former Scout and Macalester alumni. I was trying to use my "life experience" as a teaching assistant and instructor, temporary employee, and counseling, therapy, and analysis client. I was trying the use my experiences as the son who came back to clean up his parents' house and figure out a way to feel okay about life, the universe, and himself while becoming financially and emotionally independent.

This all became apparent in the geography class I was teaching over the last month. I was trying to describe the history of Native American inhabitants in the region, and my ability to articulate thoughts was working hard to keep up with a mind that was remembering something from a college class, from childhood, from a recent trip through the region, from a distant trip through the region, from grad school, and from last week, when I spent all day reading internet histories of the tribes. As this was going on, I was simultaneously trying to coordinate the ideas I wanted to convey with the power point slides I had spent the rest of the day creating. Being so scattered used to seem kind of fun and daring. Herding the thoughts seemed like an expression of skill. But it all seems a little child-like in a way that maybe needs to be adult first. It also kind of like walking a dog you can't control - or maybe taking a sugar-hyped kid to the mall after he's been watching cartoons and advertisements all morning. Sooner or later, it gets into something that causes you embarrassment or trouble. Or at least feels like it did.

I've been mulling over the alternative to being so "anything goes" with my hard work and passion. What's been formulating along these lines is a new way of looking at commitment. I guess I've approached commitment as throwing myself at something until I broke through whatever barrier I needed to, reached whatever goal line was ahead, and I didn't really care about the consequences to others or the pleasure sharing the experience, except as it supported me and accomplished what the "important people" said I had to do. Needless to say, this was not (and still is not) a satisfying or pleasurable way to live life, though I give myself some allowances for old habits being hard to break.

What changes me in the way I approach commitment? There was one point last spring during the first census project, when I was with a my team copying information onto census forms in a nursing home, that I decided to respond to a question asked by one of my coworkers differently than I would have if I hadn't thought about how I was going to respond. I don't remember what question it was, but I hadn't been taking the work too seriously. (I should add that I nevertheless was simultaneously very anxious about doing a good job, the correct job, which was obviously what was expected in this kind of work.)

In any case, I decided to respond to the question as if what I did, no matter how simple or mundane it was, was worth responding to with a measure of self-respect and simple humility. This was how some of my co-workers seemed to be responding, and it seemed like not that bad of a thing to decide that, despite my doctoral degree and my vast interests and competencies in lots of high-falutin' stuff, it was worth treating this mundane task with a measure of respect. (I should point out that quite of few of us had advanced degrees and it made for interesting conversation while filling out those forms).

The change in attitude was quite simple and for me at least, revolutionary. I mentioned it as an aside in an analysis session later that week and didn't think much of it until a few months later, when something happened that made me think of it again, and I realized that the moment was a seed of self-respect that had been planted and was beginning to germinate, sending out roots and a few exploratory leaves.

I had articulated the idea a few months earlier - grasping it in terms of a "healthy sense of responsibility," and I think this was a conscious application of the concept I was struggling to "wrap my mind around." (It's fascinating to note that the part of the brain in humans used to "grasp" abstract concepts is the same part that other primates use to grasp things with their hands. The metaphors obviously seem to reflect a subconscious awareness of evolutionary history.)

I used to think Frank Sinatra's song "My Way" was an egregious, if somewhat sophisticated, ode of self-inflated ego. I was very surprised to see it mentioned by one of my astrology friends as a good example of a healthy understanding of the self, which was a necessary precursor to healthy relationships and effective work. Having some self-respect must be the first step to carrying forward in life on your own path without becoming a pompous, self-important ass - or a pathetic buffoon.

I think I'm used to being the lone, star performer. It's an ideal I wanted to emulate - the magician who could do it all with flash and pizazz and become well-liked and respected because of it. I can say that my early childhood career as a magician ended badly at one of my own birthday parties, when a neighborhood friend exposed my trick and ruined the performance. Another relevant memory is the part I played in an elementary school play. I was to be the north wind - I donned a thin blanket we had around the house as my cape and tried my best to be full of big air, but my lungs didn't have the heart for it. I was applauded nonetheless, and didn't do a bad job. It just felt like I was trying too hard at something I didn't believe I could do in the first place. Kind of the same way I felt after graduating college or deciding to teach a class. It takes patience and a subtle touch to work through these feelings. The right thing has to be supported, while other things have to be taken down a notch, or dismantled completely. Knowing which is which can be very confusing, especially if you take a holiday from working on it.

Astrologically, I think of my natal North Node in Gemini (rules the lungs, arms, and nervous system), a twelfth house Sun (takes work and self-understanding to shine), and Jupiter (expansion and faith) being the ruler of the south node (an old way of doing things) and also in Gemini (lungs, arms, and nervous system again), in the fifth house (the natural house of the sun - personality and creativity). Jupiter is in detriment in Gemini, and I once read (in Kevin Burke's basic astrology text) that planets in detriment (that is, a planet in a sign opposite the one it normally likes working in) often express themselves with a degree of worry over how that energy is expressed. I actually do always seem to be worrying whether I'm overstepping my bounds when I express myself.

So, self-respect tones down some of the need to be important and admired. It inspires a quiet faith in my direction in life, and in the process of getting to where I'm going, even when I stumble and bumble along the way. And as that faith becomes stronger and I act on it more confidently, I start to see some positive results and it becomes a little bit easier to align myself with the way of doing things that seems right for me. If I start singing the Frank Sinatra tune loudly, though, I'm probably headed down the old path. Maybe some day.

With the quieter confidence comes some greater willingness to commit to "being there" and to respecting whatever work one is doing. I was trying to explain my new understanding of commitment to a psychologist the other day and I couldn't get the feeling across in words, perhaps because I hadn't talked about it in conversation before. So I worked over it on the drive home and decided the proper metaphor was a ship putting down anchor. Instead of using up the whole night trying to find the best place to anchor, because "only this will do" or "only that is worthy," I think commitment is about making a reasonable choice at a reasonable hour (unless you decide you need to keep looking) and casting anchor.

As long as the anchor is cast, you experience what is there and use it to add to your knowledge. You agree to "being there," whether "there" is a calm port with good fishing and welcoming natives, or a nursing home filling out census forms. It doesn't mean you're stuck there forever or that you'll do things skillfully the whole time. You'll weigh anchor and go to other places, do other things; you'll make mistakes and have to work things out - but while you're there, you keep the anchor in the sediment at the bottom of the harbor and let go of the winch.

Juno is the asteroid that deals specifically with commitment and in my natal chart, Juno is in Pisces, a water sign known for its mutability - the shape-shifting fog, the variable conditions of the sea. Saturn, the planet of work, restriction, and boundaries - as well as respect and authority - is also in Pisces in my natal chart. The metaphor of a boat on the water is a good one for a person with these things in Pisces.

The title of this piece is Using the Buffalo. I think I've been afraid to use less than every bit of the buffalo - the buffalo being my life and the expectations others have had for it. I'm afraid that I would be less than perfect - and worse than that - if I failed to live up to the admirable, but rather arbitrary expectation of living in the spirit of a good Plains Indian. He (or she) is one of a horde of "them's" that I think I've been aspiring to be like. If there were a reason to live this way, a community where such a feat or lifestyle was valued, perhaps then it would be a worthwhile endeavor, but it seems too much like skipping around on the lake without setting anchor.

Juno in my natal chart forms an exact square (less than one minute past exact) to my natal lunar Nodes, which dictate the path a person walks in life from the old and overly familiar (South Node) to the new and satisfying stage of development (North Node). Flitting from one new idea to the next while trying to be like "them" seems to me like the square between Juno and the South Node, while setting anchor, "being there," for the time you're there, feels like the productive square between Juno and the North Node. It doesn't have to be the right square or the right answer (that's so Sagittarian, anyway). It's just important to remember there is an alternative when one gets stuck doing the same, unproductive thing over and over again. Chiron just transited my natal Juno, which means it also just completed a square to the Nodes. Maybe this new idea is Chiron's gift to the process of personal evolution. I'm not sure I've been successful in tying together all these ideas. I'd like to hear from others if they have any ideas about this topic or making the writing more coherent. There's always a first step and an honest effort, and I want to try to do both with the respect for the effort they deserve.

Monday, April 4, 2011

On writing a letter for my alma mater

This morning I developed a blog idea in my journal, the one I keep on the round kitchen table at the end of my bedroom opposite the sleeping area. Now I'm going to copy it into this format. No doubt there will be some changes.

My fingers ache from working late on the computer. My shoulders are tense, my eyes blurry, and gut feels sluggish and clumpy. Okay, part of that is from the bottle of beer I opened at dinner. Still, this is often the way I feel in the morning, and its why I don't like to get up to go to a job or answer a phone call. I wait until my body is ready to get up, unless there is something I've agreed to do that morning which is not part of a routine or I get an idea or an outing that fills me with enthusiasm.

Why not just relax before heading off to bed, you ask? Why not step away from the computer or television when it would be the common sense thing to do? Well, I've read something about 19 degrees of Virgo and that's where Uranus is located in my natal chart, and it's right next to Pluto...In plain English, though, I have this kind of mental predilection for sticking with something despite the hardship and the lack of need for it all. Yeah, that's it. It's an addiction. I can't do anything about it. ;)

An example. When my dad would dutifully head off to bed in the middle of a movie, I would stay up and watch the whole thing, despite his comments to me about how things have to be done. It became a hallmark of independence and a weird kind of way to pay respect to something that didn't need it. Maybe I thought I would get something for my efforts - is there some heavenly reward for having watched the network television version of Burt Reynolds in The Longest Yard? I think I actually wanted to do it in spite of a lack of return or maybe even because there was no return. That could have something to do with Neptune or Saturn in Pisces. Oh, what does it matter? I'll study my astrology later.

"Above and beyond the call of duty." That's what the ex-navy officer's widow whose dog I walked in my high school years called it when, incredibly enough, I showed up in two feet of fresh snow and took her golden retriever for a walk one evening. I got a dollar for each twenty minute and usually made five dollars a week. "That's okay. I don't expect anything extra for the effort," but that's not really what I felt. Dog walking money wasn't enough to pay for my trip to Germany with the exchange program that summer, but I was used to my parents paying for things, a problem I'm still dealing with. And now I'm going to take a short break from the computer. Maybe it'll become a habit...

....There's something about going "above and beyond" so often that it becomes something you're known for, which is, that it becomes a burden and leads to inner resentment and maybe even depression. At the least, it gets a little tiresome when there really isn't a good reason for doing all the extra work, for making the sacrifice.

When I act this way, there is an honest, somewhat radical desire to do what others gloss over and prove it's not difficult, which has more than a little in-your-face, I'll-show-you edginess about it. I enjoy using it to figure things out my dad and other people would just blow off without really considering, like a watching a movie through to the end or figuring out a way to do something around the house yourself instead of calling a professional and paying more money than you need to. Sometimes this makes me look weird, but I'm learning how to employ my attitude patiently, and it's led to proficiency in some new skills, like creating native plant gardens where once there was only a lawn or a pile of junk. Other times, it backfires and leaves me feeling the way I do this morning.

It's a cool thing that I'm feeling energy freeing up in my gut and my head as I write this. It's really cool. I mean, for years there was nothing I could do about it. It gave me insomnia and feelings of frustration. Now there are some cracks in these monolithic lifelong patterns.

So, what was I doing last night on the computer that was high above and way beyond the call of duty? Every spring for the last five or six years, I've been contacting prospective f...first year students for my alma mater, Macalester College. I almost said freshmen, but that would be sexist, and if there's one thing I drilled into my psyche at Macalester it was not to be sexist! Which is probably why I spent the last ten or fifteen years working through my desire to research a tremendous variety of internet pornography sites deeply and thoroughly. Anyway...

It takes a lot to overcome my social anxiety in order to fulfill these requests, and I have to do that or I'll feel like a failure, which is death to a Capricorn. Some years I really don't feel up to making a phone call, so I drop a line. Or several...pages. Which might cause me to end up feeling unpleasant because I did way more than was expected, and might not have even done it very well.

I guess it comes to down to the fact that I also have a predilection for Herculean efforts, as if to say, "this doesn't faze me" or, "wow, look at what I just did!" And some things are meant to be something other than Herculean efforts. Knowing which kind of effort is appropriate in which situation might help one get along better in the world, and prevent more than a little resentment and stress from building up in life. Sometimes it's not just choosing big or little efforts, but building up to a grand climax in small steps, while eliciting feedback from others who might already be skilled in what you're attempting to master, or might have a head clear of the predilections that fill your own.

Not that I would stop writing. After feeling like I was emotionally inarticulate for so many years, being kept from expressing what I thought, felt, or was merely interested in, I can't not put thoughts and feelings to paper. When I write, I can take the time to revise things and when I watch the thoughts flow onto paper they come so readily. One idea opens into several others. I feel compelled to pay some attention to every detail, and I feel the pleasure and satisfaction that comes with filling pages so easily and productively.

Sometimes the pages fill with puffed-up words in ways that I don't need them to but am loathe to resist, an issue I think I've started to turn a corner on. The writing has become part of my routine and other areas of life become a little clearer. I'm finding the set of brakes for my overly focused intellect and the behaviors it generates. But they don't always work. And I don't always want to use them. Which is okay. Except when they make me feel the way I do this morning.

In fact, I've decided to listen to that feeling I had this morning, and the embarrassed, remorseful, and self-critical thoughts that preceded it. I've decided I'm just going to revise the first paragraph to send out in an email instead of print the whole thing on letterhead stationery and mail it to their addresses. They've already heard much of what I have to say from the paid recruiters, and while my letter is a pretty heartfelt reflection of my time at Macalester and a darn good advertisement for the college, it's not the kind of thing that is expected and would probably just make me feel like an overwrought weirdo. Which isn't cool by me anymore. It's too much of an effort to merely discard, though - there's something so satisfying about challenging yourself to finish a piece of writing and then being able to review it in its entirety. So, I'll post it here at the end of this blog. What do you think? Is your interest in Macalester piqued? Does it resonate with your college experience? Cheers.


My name is Paul Kelley, and I wanted to write you a short letter as an alumni representative of Macalester College (class of 1988) who lives in the Philadelphia suburbs and has been contacted by the admissions department to follow up on early and regular admissions. Even if you have already chosen a college, I hope that you will take the time to read my letter and consider the things it has to say about my college experience. I would guess that ten years from now, you might feel the same way about some of the experiences you are about to initiate, regardless of the school you choose to have them at. Before I go any further, though, I want to congratulate you all for being accepted to a highly selective school that I really believe has a great deal to offer, and I want to lend you my ear and my experiences should you have any questions about Macalester that might help you in your decision-making process. You may contact me at the address and phone number listed below.

You've probably heard this next part before, but if it's become a familiar litany, it's only because the average Macalester alum is genuinely enthusiastic about the campus and its surroundings. I'm still surprised by how fond I am of the Mac-Groveland neighborhood, and the campus itself. I was there for a reunion in 2008 and, like many, enjoy being kept up to date on the improvements to the campus and the programs being offered there. It is also surprising to realize how many of my college friends - people who arrived from all parts of the country and some even from overseas - still live in the neighborhood or in ones nearby.

As much as we all tire of chamber of commerce-type postcard descriptions of campuses, you'd probably agree that the setting is pretty important if you're going to be spending the better part of the next four years there - which usually means working, studying, sleeping, eating, and socializing all in the same setting. And perhaps you'd also agree that a college which recruits long-term residents for the community must have something going for it!

Let me draw on my background in geography and make this a quick recap. Macalester is a relatively compact, self-contained campus located in a residential neighborhood of modest older homes and mature trees about two miles from the Mississippi River in one direction and downtown St. Paul in the other. It is also about a mile and a half from the commercial corridor of University Ave and I-94, which lies to the north. City buses run in all directions, and one of the nice things about finding your way around, especially if you are from the east, is that most roads are oriented to the cardinal directions - north, south, east, and west.

It is situated along Grand Ave, which features coffee shops, small restaurants and stores, and next to Summit Avenue, with its shady, grassy boulevard ideal for walking or running to the river, where it connects to the boulevard parks and pathways. Several colleges and universities are located nearby, contributing to a relaxed, collegiate "feel," while the small businesses and variety of neighborhoods remind you that you're still part of the everyday world.

St. Paul is, in fact, a city of neighborhoods and parkways, and even when the weather gets horribly wintery, you'll find that people love to get out and do fun stuff. I thought it just added to the sense of community when you could go cross country-skiing or take in a Winter Carnival ice sculpting contest with newly befriended, heavily bundled, fellow Minnesotans. Since Macalester encourages, if not requires, students to get involved with "the community," everyone gets to know a little of this world beyond the campus boundaries. The metropolitan area is economically and ethnically diverse with a reputation for progressive innovation in governance and business, so there is almost always an avenue for involvement that suits the individual's goals and desires.

All that having been said about the cities and the neighborhoods around Macalester, there was almost always something to keep me one hundred percent occupied on campus, and I'd bet that's only become truer. The school does not empty out on the weekends, as many universities do (I spent ten years as a graduate student at one of those places), and even on the holidays there were a few students around to keep each other company.

During my stay at Mac, I was involved with the symphonic band, literary magazine, geology and outing clubs, peace and ecology interest groups, and, at one point, the pipe band. I frequently listened to guest speakers and shared the ideas they generated with my journal or among friends. I was involved with various other informal student groups, such as the international student friends I made, whose quiet parties I found relaxing and enjoyable. I took time to help new students move in at the beginning of the school year, and shared time and space with prospective students who were seeking a bit of the Macalester experience before deciding on a college.

When the world of student housing got to feeling a bit claustrophobic or intrusive, I sought peace playing the drums or reading a book in the fine arts building. Some of my friends worked on sculptures or composed pieces on the electronic pianos. Sometimes I attended a literary function or theater performance - dance was my favorite. The same purpose might have been fulfilled by time in one of the science or cartography labs or libraries, as odd as that sounds, or in some other scholastic mini-retreat I had fashioned for myself or perhaps shared with others. Most of my friends had their favorite retreats and guarded them possessively. When we needed to get away completely, a walk or run to the river was an excellent break in the routine. Buses were quick ways to get downtown, even in the middle of a snowstorm, and an occasional outing to a theater performance or ethnic restaurant reminded us we were regular folks, too.

This past year, I rediscovered a collection of programs from events I attended or participated in during my four years at Macalester. As I sorted through them, I became thoughtfully engaged with the vivid memories they brought back. I realized these documents charted the emotional chronology of my college experience more deeply and effectively than the folders of class notes and records I had kept. Through them I tracked my interests in various activities as they waxed and waned and the friends with whom I grew closer to and farther from. They highlighted challenges and frustrations that arose as time went by, and ways that I addressed them. The entire exercise seemed to reawaken half-forgotten values that were important to me then, and it brought a sense of appreciation for the experiences I had allowed myself to have.

Again, these experiences meant something valuable in addition to the conventionally recognizable academic achievements that I had anxiously pursued. The latter were defined by goals that I mapped out carefully, with great effort - and occasional bouts of frustration over conflicting schedules and uncertain direction, though they gradually fell into place, and I worked diligently to bring things to a close in my fourth and (almost) final year.

I was given an opportunity to take some courses later as an alum and complete a second major (not something that is done anymore), but those first four years were the defining ones. My Macalester friends and I sometimes have conversations about whether we would "do it again" and "would it be different?" I think back to those times and wish I could have made it simpler, more enjoyable, more effective (if only I'd known myself better, I say now). And yet, the experiences probably couldn't have been anything other than what they were - one stage on a journey that began long before college and has continued long after. And if you had said something like that to me as I was frantically finishing my senior project or figuring out my junior year's schedule, I would have looked at you like you were irresponsibly deluded.

After commencement in May 1988, I lived at addresses in the neighborhoods around Mac for another six years before enrolling in a graduate program at Nebraska, where I eventually completed a PhD in geography. I returned for two reunions and began contributing to the annual fund drives as soon as I could see beyond my own particular needs of the moment. I realized that I wanted to support the values of the Macalester community - I feel "right" about encouraging them with whatever I can offer. To me, these values - beyond the obvious ones, like internationalism - are things that foster the development of community through open, inclusive debate among faculty, staff, students, and community members. They are also values that empower students to have an effect on their world right now by giving them the opportunity to engage in collaborative research with faculty, create internship experiences for themselves, and develop their own entrepreneurial or educational ideas that might go beyond a classroom and help others in the community or on the campus.

As an alum, my perspective on Macalester isn't going to be as accurate or as balanced as a current student's, but I also know there is something to the Macalester experience that carries on from one class year to the next, and from what I understand, the things that made Macalester a great school twenty-five years ago have continued to improve. I would guess there is less cynicism, more effective engagement, and probably also better academics, though they were excellent when I was a student and I was well-prepared by my education at Haverford High School. I hope that you've decided or will choose to have the opportunity to find out for yourself, if it feels like the right choice for you. And if you've read through my entire letter, I really thank you for your commitment of time.

Sincerely, and with best wishes for a meaningful college experience,

Paul Kelley
Class of 1988