Temporal Window

Monday, January 6, 2019
7:05 EST

Anyone who catches my Facebook postings has probably experienced some version of the shot above. That’s Rehoboth Beach of course, as seen through a webcam placed atop the Atlantic Hotel shooting south down the boardwalk. Clearly a wide angle, this shot is masterful in its own way, offering a very clear sense for the state of the water, the clouds, the sunrise, the presence of people (or not), and this wonderful perspective of the boardwalk and lights receding stage right toward seeming infinity. It also wonderfully offers an honest depiction of our round world, bending the horizon as it does. Sitting here at my desk in the bay area of California, I absolutely love having access to this shot, and visit it most days just to get my little fix of Rehoboth.

7:13 EST

See how the light has changed now just 8 minutes later. Sailors take warning!

Literally a window onto now at a distant elsewhere, this view offers me time travel as well, given the great reach of my history at Rehoboth. I see what’s happening there now; I experience emotionally what I’m seeing as moved through filter upon filter of experience. I have such love for this place; I am pulled into the scene while watching, hearing its sounds (ocean lapping, birds cawing), smelling the swirl of food/salty wind/boardwalk, feeling the thump of the boardwalk as I pass over it. I have left my own here, with all its mundanity, stresses, to do’s, etc, and am transported to that here, with all the essential freedom that is life at the beach.

7:22 EST

Well, hello, you!

Time travel isn’t, however, only backwards now, is it? I can’t deny that there isn’t a bit of a haunting for me about this image, the fact of my ability to see this scene every day, any time. At 55, I become slightly more aware all the time of my mortality. Its whisper is still faint…but it is there. Knowing that this scene will continue after I’m gone–the waves crashing yet, new gulls spiraling on the wind, that old reliable sun cresting the horizon in all manners of glory–I am at once both happy and sad about this. It is only as it should be, of course, while I am able to anticipatorily miss not being a viewing contributor to it, one who gives to these moments a slice of personal relevance. Hundreds of other folks will continue to do so through their own portals scattered hither and yon, but my view and my voice will be silent, ultimately as evanescent as any one wave, any one wind, any one sun rising.

16:30 EST
What a lovely soft landing to this day.

A Quiet Launch

Once upon a time my current modus operandi would be driving me batshit. “Okay, so here’s the deal, McWright.  You’re going to start this summer—for the first three weeks (of your 10 weeks total summer vacation)—doing…nothing.  Ann will be around the first of those three weeks then it’s just you and Blue, at home.  With nothing going on. Have at it!”  Batshit ensues, with thick slabs of resentment throughout.  As it is, however? It’s really been quite…pleasant, I’ll say.

I would have never guessed there’d be room in my world at this point for pleasant, frankly.

Conceptually, retirement is a funny thing as you approach it.  It manages simultaneously to be this great chilling out (“Do less!”), but also this yawning void that prompts a panicky impulse to get going with things already (“Do more!”).  It’s this GOLDEN OPPORTUNITY to DO ALL THOSE THINGS YOU’VE ALWAYS WANTED TO DO.  Hang out at the house and walk the dog or play fetch with her?  That’s it?  I hear the Family Feud buzzer barking out in response to a bum answer.

But this is a different summer, of course—the summer that has no end.  So to be biding a bit right now—all of which of course is preamble to Maisy’s and my trip abroad in a few days—is just fine.  No qualms in sight.

One of the little things I discovered in my sobriety these past four and a half years is the capacity to approach getting ready for a trip differently, and better.  Whereas once upon a time I’d leave the packing until just before leaving then scramble to make it happen, then living with the consequences of hits and misses out on the traveling trail.  As a sober guy I actually bother to think about my affairs in advance, then slowly and steadily I pull everything together. More effective, less panic. There’s a bit of that feeling in my time these days.  As this imminent trip to Paris and London has its many and various moving parts, it’s nice to have this time and lack of distractions to think all of that through.  That I return for less than 48 hours before heading off to High Sierra Music Festival, which involves an altogether different set of considerations and materials, is hugely helpful. What little time I’ll have at home between adventures will be spent focusing on Ann and not my jaunt north for music.

So this is how the great adventure of my retirement begins:  rather quietly.  In no time it will be immersed in the sort of glamour one might otherwise expect (Paris!  London!).  For now, I’ll take the lightness, the easygoing simplicity, the carefree sense, the space.  It’s a lovely thing. 

Handymanliness 101

It just so happens the entire story of my life of “handymanliness” (copyright pending) is captured in one incident. Here’s how that went:

Matt (on phone): Yeah, Dad. I need some help with the toilet in my apartment. I think I need to replace the flushing thing inside the tank. Can you help me?

Dad: Are you in the bathroom now, Matt?

Matt: I am.

Dad: Do you have your tools in there?

Matt: I do.

Dad: Okay. I want you to pick up your tools and get the hell out of there and call the building super for help.

The end.

It’s beyond remarkable—and as pure a case for nature over nurture as exists—that I grew up in a household wherein my father could have built the place and I ended up incapable of fulfilling the relationship that exists between hammer and nail. You think I’m kidding? Another story, this one from college.

Randy (my roommate): Okay. To build this loft, we need to cut these boards with that handsaw. I already drew the lines, you just need to saw them. Got it?

Matt: Got it!

Matt: Oww!

Randy: What happened?

Matt: I cut my damn self!

Randy: Okay. New plan. See these boards here, with nails in them? We need those nails removed so we can reuse the boards. Think you can do that?

Matt: For sure! But what about the nails that are hammered all the way in? How do I get them out if I can’t slip the hammer’s claw under the nail head?

Randy: Just flip the board over and pound the nail out a bit.

Matt: Got it!

Matt: Oww!

Randy: Did you hammer your finger?

Matt: Fuck! Yes!

Randy: Okay. New plan. Here’s $20. I want you to drive across town and buy us some beer while I build this loft.

Matt: Got it!

The end.

If you’ve ever taken the Myers-Briggs, then you know one of the four dimensions is Sensing-Intuition (or “S” and “N”). People who score as Sensing are practical, prefer data and hard facts, and see the world in its more concrete and tangible terms. Those scoring as Intuition are more abstract thinkers, prefer big ideas and grand notions, preferring that others worries about the devil in the details. My wife Ann is pure Sensing, while—surprise, surprise—I’m pretty pure Intuition. Story time, round III:

Ann: How was your day, hon?

Matt: Ah, you know: some days you’re the bug, some days the windshield. Today I was the bug. Yours?

Ann: Well, after I walked Blue, I went to work out, then stopped at the grocery stores where the pluots were too firm while they had some Pink Lady apples that were….

Eventually, the end.

In fact, I’ve often envisioned (there’s an Intuition word for you) Ann’s and my partnership using a kite metaphor. I’m the kite, flying hither and yon up above, while she’s down below, holding the string and preventing me from getting caught in the power lines. I’m all, “Hon, we’ve gotta visit Katmandu at some point, and get a place with a view somewhere, and are you worried about voting machine’s being hacked in the upcoming election, and…” And she’s all, “Hon, you need to take the garbage out and look over the credit card statement.”

So Ann doesn’t exactly run to me when a household malfunction occurs somewhere. She’ll mention it, give me a half second look of “ya’ got anything?”, then quickly pull out our reference list of service providers and start searching for the right one (we’ve even developed a shorthand language around this. “Think this is a Bob issue?” “I’d go Hank.”).

Which makes all the more noteworthy that yesterday I constructed a platform across which dozens of young thespians at my school (my own daughter included) will eventually traipse during their upcoming production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, surrounded on stage by a balsam wood forest the pieces of which I cut out a few weeks earlier. A rigorously constructed stage, the delicate intricacy of trees, wholly constructed out of mere blocks and planes of wood—moi? Que se passe-t-il ici??

I read Zen and the Art of Motorcyle Maintenance, that’s what happened here. I mean, I read it back in 1989 while in grad school, but one of the book’s main points definitely stuck. It’s not the task at hand nor the task demands that matter so much as it is the relationship the doer has to those demands and skills involved that makes or breaks success. It’s your attitude, in other words. If I approach set building with a mindset, “I suck at this and nothing good will come of it,” one can already see the ruined boards from poor cutting strewn about, not to mention the band-aid wrappers necessary to stem the flow. On the other hand, if I get instructions, take it slow, observe the relationship between X-behavior and Y-effect and incorporate that into my next action, I do that remarkable thing we call “learn” and make my way forward toward proficiency. I even end up being able to help and teach others. So simple, yet alchemic to me in this medium.

By the way, having a zen-like teacher nearby makes a world of difference. The guy who runs our theater tech department, Matt Roth, is preternaturally gifted in this regard, able to work with people from 6th grade through old farts like me and calmly, patiently, position us for success. Perhaps his neatest trick is knowing exactly when to look over at you, as you’re encountering some unforeseen challenge in the task at hand, as you’re about to launch your own inspired (and terrible) plan for working your way through it, and saying, “Hey, Matt—hold up. Let me give you an idea there,” which of course works much better, and to the benefit of the integrity of boards and fingers alike.

I still have zero intuitive sense about any of it. Everything I know about material or machine must be told to me, shown to me, or learned through trial-and-error. It just is what it is (it’s not for no reason that I’m a psychologist, after all)—and that’s okay. I now have the confidence that these tasks are learnable, and when I show up to help Matt, I do so with my faculties wide open and listening (versus before, when I would do so with fear of ruinous outcomes and shame at my incompetence). I’ve even replaced a few worn out flappers in the toilets at our house. You see that, Pops?!

The UnChristmas

I’ve written about this before but decided to have some more fun with it this time.  Do excuse–though hopefully enjoy–the rehash.

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In the pantheon of holidays, it’s hard to argue with the fact that Christmas always occupied the throne in light of its epic proportions. People traveled for Christmas as extended family gathered. There were a million songs attached to it, and they played everywhere you went. Suddenly the pantry held whole bins of colorful cookies and treats, while proscriptions against overindulging in them were miraculously suspended. The classic Christmas specials on tv. Employment stopped, school stopped, the world altogether seemed to stop. The parties. The snowmen, the snow angels, the sledding. Beginning on Christmas eve, the television channel out of New York City gave itself over to 24 hours of nothing but a yuletide log burning there on the screen. And of course, the presents—the presents! Indeed, all-consuming Christmas was king.

But that’s not what this piece is about. It’s not about King Christmas, nor many of the other characters to be found as well standing in the light in that pantheon—your favorite uncle, Thanksgiving; your prim and saintly aunt, Easter; boisterous July 4; nor those remote cousins about which you didn’t know much—Memorial Day, Veterans Day—but were happy to play with given it meant the day off from the usual fare.

No, this piece is about a character lurking back in the shadows of that family portrait, encloaked, its gaze laughing and sinister, a gaze to transfix the attention of the children. You got it: I’m talking Halloween here. The children’s holiday where I grew up.

While Christmas was certainly “visions of sugarplums dancing” in our heads, none of us knew what the hell that meant but smiled accordingly at such happy hokum if that translated to another stocking stuffer. No, it was Halloween, that delicious dark night of the soul, that commanded our imagination. Think about it. The great lament of parents and educators alike is the deficits in executive functioning that characterize young people, right? Well, with Halloween, with the weeks of deliberation around the exact right costume, the gathering of materials to execute its construction, the planning for with whom to ransack the neighborhood that night, the plotting of routes, all of this done with a military degree of commitment and precision, we put the lie to any notion of executive functioning deficits. We frankly showed that we had fucking superpowers in the stuff—at least for Halloween.

I imagine everywhere did Halloween pretty well, but I’m just going to say, in my sleepy town in upstate New York, we crushed Halloween. Our neighborhoods were compact so efficiency in trick-or-treating was a given. Houses got decorated, pumpkins carved and candled, and about every other house had a window open through which poured the sounds from Halloween’s signature soundtrack in my town: Disney’s Chilling Thrilling Sounds of the Haunted House. It was usually cold this night at that time of year, and that too was right, because cold is what you are when flirting with death. Brittle leaves skittered across roadways, a sound not unlike a skeleton scratching at your window. Nobody carried around a goofy plastic pumpkin with which to collect treats: we used pillow cases. And God help you if you gave us apples for a treat—you got applesauce on your garage door for a thanks. Oh, and your cutesy dialogue? “Now, what have we here? Are you a ghost?” Lady, stuff it and give us the goods, wouldja? We’re on a schedule here!

Indeed, as the piety and solemnity of what underscored Christmas bore down on us, as parents prepared to up their attention to our good behavior as a threat against our Christmas booty, as we saw the day coming when we’d have to interrupt our fun to get gussied up and go to church—“It’s not even Sunday!”—Halloween was this last paroxysm of pure id abandon before all of that. Before all of the “Yes, ma’am” and “amen” and “no, please, after you” of Christmas, there was the unadulterated “Eat shit and die!” of Halloween. The opposites between these holidays abound. Christmas was mostly indoors, surrounded by family, it was warm, it was orderly, the outside world was white and bright. Halloween would have none of that. It was dark, it was cold, it was parent-less, it was outside, it was chaos in the streets, it wasn’t about giving (except shit, endlessly, to your buddy with the lame costume)—it was about getting, getting, and getting some more (we always carried around burned corks in case a house gave out regular sized candy bars. We’d strip off our masks, cork up our faces and double back to those houses. Fer sure, dude!). Oh yes—if Christmas brought out the best in you, Halloween brought out the rest in you.

And frankly? The candy booty in the end was almost the least of this holiday. I mean, sure, you got home, dumped out your stash, sorted it, threw the stupid Dum Dum lollipops straight in the trash, searched in earnest (and, inevitably, in vain) for the suburban mythical razorblade embedded in something, swapped all of your “I hate this but you like them”’s with your siblings, then augmented your diet for the next two weeks with a moderate extra 10-20 piece of candy a day. Sure, you did all of that, but it still wasn’t really about that. It was about letting your little freak flag fly for a night, about the freedom and abandon you felt out there on dark streets with your parents nowhere near, your very own good little boy self left behind on the shelf as you decked out in your favorite Planet of the Apes character costume.

Wait. Did you just give me shit about my Planet of the Apes costume?

All You Cannot See

In photography, you have your favorites. They may or may not measure up to the prevailing standards of what is a great photo, but you don’t care. At all. The photo speaks to you; it sings, even. And that is more than enough.

This is one of my favorites. It was when I first saw it, my first year of really trying to do photography, and it remains so to this day. Objectively it’s a pretty good photograph; most anyone would at least pause a moment looking at it. The perfect stillness of the water, its unlikely placement in what appears otherwise to be an arid, desert like setting. The impending sunrise. You can practically hear the quiet of this moment, and you wouldn’t be wrong if you heard as well at least a bit of wind blowing (though that surface suggests if it is blowing this pool is escaping its touch). Somewhere on the edge of your awareness there plays the notion that you are out in some vast nature and yet the photographer opted to stop here, and capture this scene, distilling for a moment all of that nature into this one specific, small slice of it. That notion too vaguely feeds your interest.

All of these things appeal to me as well, though it is that last element that opens a door to my appreciation through which an entire universe of deeply rewarding reality exists. For as with any photography, only the photographer knows fully the backstory to the photo at hand. And while any good photo will serve to inspire a sort of projective recreation in which the viewer imagines what went on that led up to the photo (much as songs inspire the narrative imaginings we conjure to explain them), the photographer knows the true story. In fact lived that story. And so for me, this photo represents a culmination of a story, a good story in this instance, that makes of the photo much more than its pictorial elements.

This photo was taken high on a mesa deep into the southeastern corner of Utah, not far from Bears Ears. I was there with a group of supporters linked by our passion for the conservation of the Colorado Plateau. Our guides were two staff members of the Grand Canyon Trust, a nonprofit devoted to the same. They had proposed this tour of the area given the momentum currently in play at the time for this entire area to be designated a national monument. The tour was intended to raise our awareness of and appreciation for the area, that we would further support the GCT’s lobbying efforts to the ends of the national monument designation.   When President Obama subsequently granted this designation, I cried in happiness. When his successor, in a move of savage indifference, dramatically clawed back the dimensions of the monument to feed the greed of the environment-despoiling energy industry, I thought about rifles, and assassination. But I digress.

That I was on this trip had also to do with my celebrating my nascent sobriety then, and all that came with that (there of course are entire worlds of experience and reward inherent in “all that came with that”). So that is not an insignificant element to this picture of which the casual viewer would have no clue.

This is a photo taken on public lands; you and I share ownership of what you see here. Everyone knows that there are public lands, and everyone has I suppose a slightly different relationship to them. The Manhattanite’s relationship might exist almost altogether in the abstract, while the Midwesterner may have a deeply intimate relationship to them, a place where he hunts, or hikes, or teachers his children about the seasons. Prior to this trip for me, I had never given much thought to public lands and couldn’t have told you about when or where I was ever even on them. Where are the nearest public lands to the home in which I grew up? Couldn’t tell you, couldn’t begin to. By dint of this trip, I now became much more fully aware of them, and dazzled by them, at least as they exist here in southeastern Utah, a place of such topographical wonder.

I learned that, if you knew where you were going, had the right provisions, and had the means to get there (in this instance that meant a few hard charging quarter ton trucks), you could go so far beyond the usual access to American natural splendor as found in our national park system and discover entire worlds of relatively pristine beauty that were altogether unencumbered by the presence of the masses. It almost becomes a national park just for you and your friends to explore. What an outrageous gift our public lands are to us!

Thus this photo represents all of that to me, our national bounty, in all of its raw, beautiful guise.

Finally, that I was there and then to take this photo speaks also to qualities of my own that make of this photo a more personal expression of me. It’s probably around 5am when this photo was shot. The site of this photo is some distance from our campsite. It is brisk out, almost downright cold. Who is out and about at that hour, not simply standing there to behold the whole of what’s around him, but trekking hither and yon across the mesa’s top, camera slung around his neck, and seeking out its potentially delicious particulars? Well, that’s me of course. So this photo is also about curiosity, and commitment, things that had gone deep underground over the previous years of my drinking.

What’s behind this photo, then, is a profound sense of mission that existed just then in me—for a better me, for preserving our natural heritage for everyone and into the future.  That is all you cannot see in this photograph.

And then, right after I took this shot, the sun crested that far horizon. And it warmed me.

 

 

Rock Lobster

Ann and I enjoyed the company of two other couples for dinner this past weekend and used the occasion to break in a new paella pan.  I then saw where two friends posted photos of their own paella efforts from this weekend, all of which I’ll take as a sign that I should post a story about an amusing paella moment from another dinner party a few years ago.
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So Ann and I decide we want to make a paella for a dinner party, and to special it up, I decide to add lobster.  In fact, I decide I’m going to add whole lobsters, not just go the easy lobster tail route.  I figured split in half, cut side down–that would make for a very cool presentation, let alone a great meal.
This next part isn’t the point of the story but it was so comical it’s worth telling.  I go to the grocery store for the lobsters and tell the guy what I want.  Some butcher this guy was.  When I explained I needed three live lobsters split down the middle, he blanched!  After a moment of uncertainty, he excuses himself and proceeds to approach the other “butchers” seeking a willing executioner.  They all looked equally horrified at first before then laughing at him.  “No way, man–that one’s yours!”  He finally finds a guy in the back who’ll do it (I half expected a hunchback to shuffle out, clothes besmirched in blood, a dripping cleaver in hand).  By now even I’m feeling queasy realizing I’ve basically asked them to perform a vivisection on the little beasts.  At any rate the courageous one earned himself a ten spot for his troubles.
I get home, Ann’s got the paella well under way, our guests start arriving, and at one point I sneak out to the grill and place the lobsters on top of the paella to cook in the final minutes.  As expected, it looks awesome (there are truly few food sights to rival the variegated tableau of an artfully crafted paella).  It looks so fun, in fact, that I decide to make a quick show of introducing our meal to our guests.  I gather everyone around the grill and lift the lid for the big presentation….
Can you guess?
The fricking heat of the cooking has literally ENLIVENED the freshly killed lobsters, and they’re now all WAVING AT US with their claws from the bed of paella.  They’re doing this slowly…creepily.  I kid you not: while my first reaction was one of confused alarm (“They’re alive?  How can they be alive??”), some dormant tripster in my head definitely also thought: “lobsters at a rock show”!  One guest gasps, another says, “Jesus!”, a third immediately averts her eyes.  My poor guests, they don’t know what they’re looking at, thought I’d just taken live lobsters and slammed them onto the paella, thought they were looking at lobsters in death throe.  This is not a meal they’re looking at–it’s an execution chamber.  I’m, like, “No, no–they’re not alive!  That’s just a nerve reaction!”  Which calmed people not a jot.  Hell, they weren’t even looking at me, those who hadn’t turned away at this point helplessly transfixed by the image of the Frankenlobsters.  One guy finally said, “I don’t know.  I think that’s kind of cool.”
In the end I closed the lid and did my best to explain what was happening.  Needless to say, not many stuck around to see if the show continued when I eventually lifted the lid again (it did not), but I did manage to lose a few otherwise lobster fans for the spectacle they’d seen.  Was I seeing things later as we ate, a certain lack of eye contact with me (“Murderer!”)?   I know for sure I caught a few sidelong glances at my plate, the looker wondering, I suppose, if the thing would kick there, or perhaps even leap up and seek its revenge at my throat…

Yosemite 2018

e-Homecoming

The internet is obviously many things to many people. To me, at its best, the internet is a time traveling dog, one you let out in the morning and by day’s end it returns and drops something from your past at your feet.

About four summers ago I was sitting poolside listening to music and thinking about nothing when my phone pinged. It was a hello from my fifth grade girlfriend (via Facebook), a relationship ended by her father’s career move out of state. Hadn’t heard from her since then, always wondered what became of her. Good job, little internet! Good boy!

Another reconnected-friend-via-Facebook recently sent me a link to her Pinterest board on which she’s tacked all these cultural references to the ‘70s, products and television shows and all manner of ephemera from back then that is simply flashback brilliant. Take a look:

 

 

All that being said, we’re obviously in the early stages of a come to Jesus moment (arguably overdue) where the internet and digital era is concerned. Given the omnipresent threat of hacking and identity theft, the polarizing potential of spending all of your time online among people who only think like you, the ready dissemination of fake news, and all of what comes of providing young people rampant access to pornography, vehicles of violence, and the capacity to flame the living shit out of each other, to name just a few, we’re now seeing both on the individual and societal levels the deep, dark, underside of such rich interconnectedness. It will certainly be interesting to see if and how we can evolve this beast in a positive direction. J’ai mes doutes.

Because of all the sturm und drang in the air these days over the internet, I want to highlight one of its little neighborhoods where the best of the internet plays out day after day, where the air is still pure and sweet, where people treat each other wonderfully, and where a community of people no doubt of various values and persuasions checks all of that at the door in order to get along in a really loving fashion. A “goodness preserve,” you could call this place, though what we all call it is Vintage Vestal.

Vintage Vestal is a Facebook group of people all from my hometown in upstate New York, the town of Vestal. (I’ll wait while you make the expectable joke. Good one!) VV is the brainchild of a guy I’ve never met, but am a huge fan of because of his simple inspiration in creating this group. Tim created the group for the purposes of providing a forum for Vestalites to reconnect, swap stories, share memories, ask questions, get updates, and basically reminisce wildly about our collective experiences growing up in this town. The success of this group—and it’s truly been a wildly successful effort—is based on a few simple rules that Tim put in place and which he polices, God bless him, like a military grade Rottweiler. No selling anything here, no talking politics, and no being nasty to anyone. You transgress once, Tim removes your comment, and you from the group.

About 8000 people have opted to subscribe to Tim’s rules and be a part of Vintage Vestal, and of these I’d venture about 98% of us are perfectly fine with them (and that may be lowballing it). About 3 or 4 times a year Tim has to deal with a transgression and remind everyone about the rules, which, given that the site must draw over a hundred posts a day, is testimony to our collective buy in. Frankly, VV and its code of ethics has been a discovery for many of us, certainly myself, we who feel exhausted and filthy by the usual run of on line experiences and interactions. If you simply declare, “Be nice and you can stick around,” damned if people won’t do exactly that. There’s hope for us online after all!

I would want everyone—everyone who enjoys a good look to the past—to have your own Vintage Your-Hometown. Not only is it fun and easy to spend time there, not only does it allow you to fill in some gaps about things that happened in the past, I’ve discovered it’s even helped me clean up my online act in general. Who among us doesn’t allow our inner a-hole to rage a bit here or there online? I simply do less of that anymore, having learned how to be a better neighbor via Vintage Vestal.

As a younger man, I used to puff myself up by mocking my little hometown in upstate New York. As a middle aged guy now, I have come to cherish the safety and the sanity of where I grew up. I learned a lot growing up in Vestal that’s left me a pretty grounded person. And lo and behold, via Vintage Vestal, that town is still teaching me about being right in this world.