Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Here is Not Yet There


Although I don’t write here nearly as much as I used to, I find a great deal of value in rereading my recent posts (and sometimes much older ones) to gauge where I was compared to where I am. It can be a little bittersweet as I am always ultra-critical, thinking I could have said this or that better or uncovering the occasional typo, but generally I’m pretty happy with the writing, and even happier with most of the content being history. Sometimes I’ll re-energize emotions that fed a particular piece, but it never lasts more than a moment or two. Time is a curious thing. As it passes, things become clearer and much easier to look at as they are, not as they were.

I am currently in a pretty good place, maybe too good. I find myself in a situation in which the completion of my doctorate is, for the most part, self-directed. Everything but my prospectus and dissertation are complete, but the prospectus should have been done some time ago. My general exams, commonly referred to as comprehensive exams, or “comps,” are finished - and I passed. That was a huge hurdle and one I faced filled with self-doubt. However, it wasn’t nearly as bad as I imagined it. I don’t “time out” (a seven-year window is allowed from the beginning of course-work to the completed dissertation) until 2018, but it would be foolish to think that I would complete it that late. If I drag it out beyond the next year, it will never get finished. That doesn’t mean my time would have been wasted, but it would leave the big prize on the table, one that is absolutely within my grasp. That is not the plan and I don’t believe it will happen, but at the same time – this time, right here, right now time – I am struggling to motivate myself to write my prospectus, a document that is really not all that difficult, especially compared to what I have done and the circumstances under which I had to perform.

So what is it? Probably a little burnout, a little fear and a little of just me being me. My modus operandi has never been that of a go-getter, the super-achiever, the “let’s do this” guy. Even with the numerous obstacles I have overcome in the last 10 to 15 years, and even with the achievements I’ve earned, I always seem to have to do it the hard way. Apparently, for me, that is the only way. The long short of it is that although I am stressing a little, I am not freaking out like I was going into my comps. Indeed, the pressure to “git ‘er done” is just about at critical mass, I can feel it coming. Soon, very soon, these words will be replaced with those I am here to write; the most ambitious challenge (I really look at it more as an adventure) I have ever undertaken. I know I can do it, but to do it, I have to actually do it. Rocket science, I know.

But as I write, conjuring up the next characters to spill out onto my screen, I can’t help but come around to an all-encompassing question, one that has plagued me not since coming to LSU, but rather one that materialized after my engagement/marriage turned into an ugly divorce. What next? Now as I look upon these words I think that part of my stalling (like I really need a excuse) could be hinging on that question. It’s not as though I always need to know what’s coming down the pike, or where I’ll be in x number of years, but rather that I had things pretty well nailed down before the rug was yanked out from under me. Could I still be seeking to regain my balance? That divorce also changed some very personal dynamics such that I don’t necessarily want to go back “home” to Sacramento, yet at the same time I know Baton Rouge is not going to be my long-term home either. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I am “homeless,” but slow-motion transient isn’t too far off the mark. And finally, at less than a month away from my 52nd birthday, I am feeling an overwhelming need to be somewhere, but I have no idea where that is. And I feel all of that while fully acknowledging that where I am is pretty damned good place.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Fine, Part Deux


My last entry in this ongoing life-journal, this blog, this open, public and world-wide virtual airing of some of the things going on inside my head, was more than two months ago. Titled Fine, it explored the nature of “finedom” and where I envisioned myself in relation to it. I concluded that not only was I decidedly on the not fine side of the scale, but also that I had been there for a while. Since then, a lot has happened and much of it, maybe even most of it, was pretty good. I set a sort of a benchmark in my last musing and from there I can clearly see that I am more “fine” than I was then. Much more.

Without going into a lot of unnecessary detail, some things in my life have worked themselves out. My outlook is much improved and as a result, my life in the present, right here, right now, is fine. The future has the potential to be much finer still, but the weird thing is that looking back I can readjust my level of finedom – a retrospective retuning, if you will. This is not a new revelation; I have been able to reassess large segments of my past and re-remember them in a different, much more positive light. It would appear that this is yet another example of things appearing much worse in the moment than need be. I’m not saying I overreacted, I believe that my feelings at any given time are valid; they are based upon what my experience is and has been, but part of that experience is that things have always gotten better, even when I couldn’t see it.

I was stressing over a lot of things last June. I was filled with doubt; I was exhibiting a profound lack of faith. Because I could not see a clear path in front of me, I felt as though there was nowhere to go but back. While I never threw in the towel, I sure wanted to. Several things carried me through that time – as well as the two or three years that preceded it. Among them was a 51-year track record of not dying. This may seem silly, but the mere fact that I am still alive despite events (one in particular) that challenged that reality gives me a baseline worst-case scenario. As bad as I felt things were, they weren’t that bad. Beyond that, I have these friends and family who love me and showed me the faith in myself that I did not have. I really didn’t think I could “do this,” they consistently told me I could.

But it pissed me off – no one really understood what “this” was. As it turned out, neither did I. “This” isn’t necessarily succeeding at earning my Ph.D., it isn’t necessarily succeeding in a marriage that never should have happened in the first place… it isn’t necessarily in the “achievement” of anything. “This” is navigating through life, simply doing my best, honoring my commitments and living with honesty, integrity and respect. That is the “this” I was not taking into account, that is the “this” that my friends and family knew I could do, and that is the “this” that, for the past 10 years plus, I have been living in and through - successfully.

All I have to do is stick one foot in front of the next and gradually things change. I didn’t want to. I wanted to quit and I didn’t even know what it was, exactly, that I wanted to quit from. School? That was the easy target, but it was far more than just that. The last three-ish years have been a pressure cooker – shit was coming at me from all sides - and I was just done. While much of that pressure is now released, it is not gone yet. I doubt it ever will be. But now I have yet another experience, another “past,” that I can look back to when things get all fucked-up again. Because, eventually, they will. Life is funny that way.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Fine


It’s been a weird day. Some days are like that, but today is different, the stresses I have in my life, the recent past, the distant past, the immediate future and the distant future… everything is weighing heavily upon me. It’s Father’s Day, 2014, and I am far away from my boys and my father, but that’s not it, either. We have had formal Father’s Day celebrations in the past, but it is hardly a yearly tradition. This year the day was marked with a call to my father this morning, a call from my middle son this afternoon and text messages from the other two. I didn’t expect or not expect anything more or less; we all talk to each other all the time, we all love each other all the time, and as much as I miss them, I know they miss me, too. There is nothing about this day that changes any of that. From a Father’s Day perspective, it was fine.

But this life I am living today is not fine. I am not fine, though if I asked I would say I am. I am not in any danger, I am not “unhappy,” per sé, I am not deprived of anything, I am not in need of anything. I should be “fine.” But I’m not. Some days I am finer than others, but for the past year or two anyway, I haven’t really passed the midpoint on the “fine” continuum. And today I can’t even see it from here. Is it depression? Demoralization? Frustration? Regret? Overstimulation? Understimulation? I have not a clue, but whatever the cause, the result is decidedly not fine. So much has happened in the recent past, so much will never be the same. I went from the high of highs, from looking forward to a future filled with new hope and possibilities to having the rug yanked out from under me in what feels like one humungous “what the fuck?” moment. Maybe I haven’t quite caught my balance yet. Maybe I never will.

And maybe I never had it in the first place. Maybe that’s what I’m feeling – the loss of something I never could quite grab ahold, something that was once again within reach only to see it fade into a nonrecoverable past – the loss of something I’ve never had. That process turned my entire world on its head – more than just one relationship was permanently destroyed. Although I can “go back home,” home will never be the same. And as much as I have a home and feel at home in Louisiana, that was not the plan as recently as one year ago. I would have been back home by now, teaching and working on my dissertation from there. Now there is no “there,” not even physically; my old home is now just a house, an asset, it makes me money, that’s all. Little things like trading in my (California) motorcycle for a new one that is registered in Louisiana, changing my car registration over to this state, no longer getting any mail forwarded from my old home, getting used to the weather here, a divorce proceeding that is finally proceeding, hearing from some of my old friends less and less frequently - and a hundred other little things – none of that was ever part of any plan I had.

And now I am faced with a very unsure future. It’s not unsure in terms of whether I will “make it” or not. Even if I can’t overcome the two very large hurdles between a PhD and me, I will be “okay.” I have sufficient credentials to be able to work and earn a decent living almost anywhere. That is not the issue. The issue is that I am tired of starting over again all the time. I am tired of not knowing where I will be even as little as one year from now. And I find myself wishing I didn’t try to take on so much, wishing I didn’t purposely complicate my life so much, wondering why I am doing this and, sometimes, who I am doing it for. In a nutshell, I can’t seem to figure out what the fuck happened and why it is so hard for me to find any real stability. And, it’s not really even that, because, technically, I am “stable” and have been for a while. Sometimes I just wish I had a regular old job where I went to work Monday through Friday with maybe a little overtime on the weekends; one where I could come home and forget about it until I went back to work the next day; one where I knew, exactly, what my job would be and what it takes to get it done. I have enough “adventures” under my belt to fill two lifetimes; all I need is the time to write the book… I’m just tired of it all. I want off this ride.

Tomorrow will be better, but probably not fine.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Of Eggs and Baskets


Last night marked the end of my third year of graduate study at Louisiana State University. It also represented my worst performance to date since going back to school in fall 2003. With the exception of just two semesters, I have been a full time student since then – a total of exactly 10 years of full-time college now under my belt. Along the way I have earned a BA in government-journalism and an MA in communication studies, both at California State University, Sacramento. Although my performance and dedication throughout the entire span has been ebbed and flowed, it has never been as poor as this past semester. Ironically, the coursework I was enrolled in was not even required – I finished my required coursework last fall. In other words, these courses that I performed so dismally in were my choice. I made that choice for a few reasons, but key among them was that they are both subjects that interest me.

Those who are familiar with my journey know that there has been nothing “normal” about my three years at LSU. That is true even considering that there is little normal about doctoral study at any legitimately accredited university. Just getting accepted was a feat I never thought possible, but managing to balance the teaching and the study along with my “other” life proved to be quite a trick. At first, that “other” life, the one I still had back in Sacramento, was beneficial. It held a supportive, energizing function. It gave me more to look forward to than just a PhD. But that life started to fall apart almost immediately and what was, briefly, a support system became a major distraction.

Over the rest of that first year and all of my second year in Baton Rouge, I was a commuter. I returned to Sacramento on average every three to six weeks, spending anywhere from three or four days to several weeks over the summer and winter breaks. I thought that if the distance between my two lives was the problem, then my presence would be the solution. Not only was the distance not the problem, but commuting so often was creating more problems in other areas. One of them was my attention to my work at LSU. But I still managed to get through, losing sleep and sometimes my sanity trying to keep two extremely heavy loads balanced. It could not be done.

Yesterday also marks the end of my first school year at LSU in which I have been a full-time resident. That “other” life in Sacramento went through a major disruptive metamorphosis and the fallout continues to this very moment. While the day-to-day, hour-to-hour and even minute-to-minute distractive power has been eliminated, the negative aura, the residue, the intermittent but persistent invasion of my serenity and my psyche is still very much present. I have been claiming that I am stricken with plain old-fashioned burnout, but I think that is much too simplistic. I’d go along with burnout, but it has to be more of an overall physic variety rather than just being tired of being a student.

Looking at my situation from the outside, it could not be better. I am free of a toxic relationship that almost killed my academic career. I am in much better shape financially than I have been in many years. I have established a network of friends in Baton Rouge that I have much in common with. I have a beautiful house to live in and I am on the verge of completing something few do (and that means a lot to me, despite my recent claims that it no longer does). And yet, my attention span, my perseverance, my dedication and my ability to think deeply or at length is lower than I can remember it ever being.  Grades do not get posted for another 48 hours or so. This is the very first semester that I do not know if my work was good enough. Seriously. Grad school grades and grading is not like undergrad, the professors have much more latitude in determining how a student’s performance is assessed and codified. It is entirely subjective. I hope that I have shown that I benefited from these two courses, that my efforts are worthy of passing grades. If not, I will have to formulate and implement a “Plan B,” because right now all of my eggs are in this one basket.

If I make it past this milestone, some things will change in a significant way. First, I will no longer be sitting in a classroom as a student – my coursework, as far as this degree is concerned, is finished. Second, I will not be returning to Sacramento, to home, to what is left of my “other” life at all this summer. I will be living in Baton Rouge, teaching at LSU and studying for the next extremely high hurdle between my degree and me – 15 hours of comprehensive examinations. Everyone says I can do it, and although I believe it is not beyond my capabilities, if my level of dedication and perseverance does not improve, it will be beyond my reach. I am banking on this shift in focus in my graduate work to bring about a similar shift to a focus on it. When all your eggs are in the same basket, that basket must not break.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Angels


It’s near the end of April, 2014. I used to go to a particular cemetery this time of year and visit an old friend. She was a passenger in a car that was driven by a drunk driver when it collided with another car, also driven by a drunk driver, 32 years ago. Of the two drivers and three passengers, Michelle was the only one fatally injured. She passed on April 3rd, 1982, never regaining consciousness from the wreck that occurred about two weeks earlier. The accident happened on Friday night, March 20th, 1982, but I didn’t find out about it until the following Sunday. I went to go see her at Stanford Hospital, I held her hand; her mother told me that she would never wake up. I was mad. I was mad at both drivers, I was mad at Michelle and I was mad at a god I didn’t even believe in. I was just 19 years old and never experienced the death of a close friend. We thought we would live forever…

Michelle and I both graduated high school in 1981. We didn’t go to the same high school, but we lived very close to each other and her school, Gunn High in Palo Alto, was actually geographically closer to me than my school, Los Altos High in Los Altos. At the time there were no cell phones, no pagers, no Internet and no personal computers. A few of the kids were fortunate enough to have their own telephone extensions in their rooms, but a handful of us took a “geekier” route with the CB radio. Her handle was “Snow Bunny” and mine was either “The Unknown Comic,” “Joe Cool” or, towards the end of my CB days, “Power Mike.” Hers came from her ties to Grass Valley and her love of skiing (something we had in common, though she was much, much better than me) and mine from decidedly more stupid shit – the Gong Show, Snoopy’s alter-ego and, because I had an amplified microphone for my CB, a “power mic.” We met each other “on the air” some time in 1979 or 1980, and in person not too long after (when one or both of us got cars).



At the time, virtually any girl who was a friend had “girlfriend” potential and Michelle was no exception. She was smart, funny, confident and beautiful. We kissed just once – it wasn’t magic - but in a short time we formed a friendship that would last forever. While forever was cut tragically short, in a sense forever continues to this day. And that was and still is magic. She had her boyfriends, I had my girlfriends, but we always remained close friends. She was my date to my senior prom. She took up an entire page in my junior yearbook and two in my senior yearbook. In both she said that she would always be there for me. Little did I know how wrong and right she would be.

I don’t know why today was the day she decided to come visit. Maybe it’s been a while. I don’t think about Michelle everyday, but she has never wandered far from my consciousness and I believe she has firmly rooted herself in my subconscious, my soul, and/or my spirit – take your choice. It could be because I happened to be at Stanford Hospital on Sunday, because my parents’ home is practically a stone’s throw from the Alta Mesa Cemetery and Gunn High School is just across the street from there. I don’t know, but the last of my yearly pilgrimages was many, many years ago. And even all these years later it just seems so very wrong – that the one person I knew who had so much to offer the world, who was so genuine, who was on her way to accomplishing so much would be snatched away just like that.

Michelle was accepted to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. We hung out and did a lot together the summer after we graduated, but she was growing up, and going away. I had no plans, no aspirations, and no motivation other than seeking my own pleasure. I just wanted to stay a kid and keep the party going. She came home from time to time, we hung out, but she was always going to go back. Michelle would ask me, “What are you going to do after Foothill (the local community college)?” I didn’t know and probably said exactly that. Maybe I said something stupid like, “Roll up a joint!” or “Take a bong hit!” I think she saw much more in me than I ever did, but she never pushed me towards anything and she never pushed me away. She never became "too good" for me.

The newspaper said that she was home for Spring Break, but I don’t remember it that way. As I recall,  she came up from San Luis Obispo that weekend kind of undercover. I don’t remember it being a school holiday or anything, but she was close enough that driving up for a weekend was feasible and… ZZ Top was playing that Saturday night at the Cow Palace. I got us tickets and we were going to meet up Saturday afternoon. She was out with her old boyfriend that Friday night and I was out hanging around somewhere – the strip, the mall, a party, who knows? I was not the most ambitious 19 year-old kid around. Saturday I waited for Michelle to call, I tried to call her and it was getting late. The concerts back then were “free-for-alls,” or “festival seating,” it was all first-come, first serve and we needed to get in line. Besides, that’s where the party was, in line. I finally gave up and called my buddy, Rich, to see if he wanted to go. That night I was pissed. I thought she stood me up, but I got over it fairly quickly – ZZ Top was on their El Loco tour and they nailed it.

The next day Michelle’s mother called me with the news. I didn’t realize the gravity of the situation until I got to the hospital and even then I was in some sort of shock, in denial. It couldn’t be, it just couldn’t. Rich went with me and on the way out to the car all I wanted to do was “beat the shit out of something big” (my exact words) and get stoned. While I didn’t beat anything up, I am quite sure I got very stoned. I felt guilty for being angry, I felt like I should have done something, been there, saved her - somehow. The next few days were a blur, I don’t know when the decision was made to disconnect life support, but I got to see her one last time before they did. I still, all these years later, feel like I was someone else, like the memory is a movie of someone else visiting one of his best friends who was, for all intents and purposes, already dead. It still doesn’t feel real.

I had a 1973 Honda 550 Four and at the time it was my only running transportation. I didn’t have to ride it to the memorial, but she would have wanted me to. She liked me for me - and that is saying something because it would be many years before I discovered who that was. She not only was able to see the real me, I think she saw a potential that I could not. She liked my old, loud, obnoxious Honda just fine, and I rode it proudly. I was asked to drop a handful of soil into her grave; as I worked the dirt between my fingers and let it drop, a sudden and profound sense of loss came over me. It has been with me ever since.

As the years wore on, Michelle occupied less and less of my waking thoughts. My life was becoming a very busy and hard – there were times when I envied her and wondered how much different than mine would her life have been. Then, in October of 2000, my life nearly came to an end. After five weeks in a medical coma, I came to with some very vivid and profound memories. And she was there. She was more than there, she was my guide, a soothing, friendly presence in a strange place. There are those who will say that I did indeed experience those memories, but they were due to the nature of my injuries, shock and pain medication – they might be right. They also might be wrong. I don’t care, because in either case or by some other explanation, the memory is based on reality, a presence who, had she not once been so connected in my life, could not have reappeared in my time of greatest need.

Since then, now almost 14 years ago, Michelle has materialized here and there, now and again, to check up on me and to be that ear she always promised she’d be for me. Michelle passed away when she was just 18, she would be 50 now. I wonder what her husband would have been like. I wonder what her kids might have been like. I wonder what sort of impact she would have made on the world. I can’t imagine what my life would have been without her in it – even though she left so soon. But she promised she’d always be there. And she always kept her promises.


Tuesday, March 11, 2014

The Writer Cometh

It is 6:00 am in Baton Rouge. I woke up a half hour ago, an hour before my alarm was set to go off.  And even that allowed for another half hour of the snooze-button dance, staving off the persistent, droning alarm tone for a few minutes at a time until I have to get up. In fact, it is now still an hour before I have to get moving and even that is about an hour or two before I like to get out of bed. It is still dark outside. I am not a morning person.

However, it doesn’t matter when I prefer to get up, whether or not I am a fully functional human in the pre-dawn hours or what kind of temporal person I am. I wake up early when I have to; not every job or every day is tailor made to fit my sleep preferences. I think that God must have created coffee for this very reason. Now wide awake with the first cup down, my alarm set to go off soon, I find myself doing something I haven’t really done in a long time – write. Not just write, not just the mechanical, required, “part of my job” writing I do all the time, but rather the brand of writing that comes with inconvenience, at the oddest of times, often in the predawn hours, and for no apparent reason.

I think I’ve always been a writer. Not defined as “one who writes,” but rather in a much more expressive sense, in a more instinctual, or genetic sense, or in terms of “God-given” talent (for those so inclined). I mean, even if the alphabet and written language did not exist, I would still be a “writer” in much the same way musicians are always musicians and painters are always painters and sculptors are always sculptors and actors are always actors and any number of other artists are always artists – that art is embedded within each of us and externally expressed somehow, someway, eventually. It was many, many years before the writer made himself present and irrefutable. Maybe it needed to be that way; maybe he needed more to write about.

I used to do this more often. I used to give the writer free reign to weave together whatever words came to him, to write “straight out of my head,” so to speak. It happened whenever it happened and it was not uncommon to find me in my darkened office when the rest of the world was asleep, lit only by the glow of my computer screen. Then life got busy. Those moments of free, unrestricted and uninterrupted inspiration seemed to slip away. Even the moments such as the one I am in at this very moment were not taken as the opportunities they were – as moments of escape, of literary freedom. Actually, it’s is even more than that. It is pure, unadulterated, unmediated, unconstrained, unadorned, pure freedom. But it will not last much longer.


March 11, 2014, a Tuesday this year, is about to begin. This semester, Tuesday is one of my two “early days” every week - it usually requires an alarm to be sure I get up in time. However, this morning the calling to begin my day was quieter, earlier and much more insistent. This morning I could not ignore the writer. He hasn’t written in a while. He would wait no longer.