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.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Happily Ever After

It has been a while since I have sorted through my thoughts in this space. It seems that short Facebook “status updates” have relegated these longer blog posts to big fixes rather than daily maintenance issues. And there are some things that I can filter to specific audiences on Facebook that I cannot say in a blog post that is open to everyone and anyone. But I am getting to the point that I just don’t care anymore. Much of my life is an open book – and maybe someday, if I can ever get to that place mentally and physically – it will become a book. Those who have taken the time to read what I have written over the recent past know what a mess my personal life became, know what kind of pressure cooker my professional life is and knows that all of it entails more drama than I ever wanted in my life. I am wondering what my limit is. I am thinking the edge must be near, however I am painfully aware that I will never know how close the edge is until I have gone over it.

I am in the second half of my third year of a Ph.D. program at Louisiana State University (LSU). I still wonder how the hell I ever got in here, but those who made the decision thought I was worthy, smart enough, that I would add to the program and cohort… something. I was suppose to have finished my MA at California State University, Sacramento (CSUS) by the end of summer in 2011, before I actually went to Baton Rouge for my first semester at LSU. For a variety of reasons, not the least of which was a love affair with my girlfriend who would become a long-distance girlfriend who would become a long-distance fiancĂ© who would become a long-distance wife who would become a long-distance ex-wife – all in about three years and none it due to the “long-distance” part of it – combined with my tendency to do things by myself and push myself out to the very limits of feasibility, I didn’t actually finish my MA until I was almost done with my first year at LSU in spring 2012. I was going to write a thesis as my culminating experience for my MA, but I ended up forcing myself into a corner that only allowed time to take comprehensive exams to get my degree in time. I was on my last extension at LSU.

I wanted to write a thesis because that’s what I am good at. I can research, gather sources and compile them, blend them, analyze them, gain insight and clearly explain it and then, if necessary (as I would for a thesis defense) present what I found. However, I am not very good at estimating my ability to handle multiple and very different tasks (such as personal and professional) at once, not very good at responding to the world as presented as opposed to the world as I wish it to be and I can’t remember shit. This last part has been one of my primary deficiencies; it has been a huge handicap for most of my adult life and probably before. So why is this a problem? Well, to get a Ph.D. almost anywhere, I have to not only write a dissertation, but before that I have to take another set of comprehensive exams. Everyone tells me “you got this,” or it’s just a “rite of passage” or “nobody fails comps” or other words to that effect. But there are three professors at CSUS who know better. I barely passed my comps there. Barely.

In my defense, and those three professors might say so as well, I was very poorly positioned to study for my exams. However, that, too, was my fault for a couple of reasons. First, I overestimated my ability to perform at the necessary level at LSU and finish an MA at CSUS. Second, I pushed myself into a corner in which it became necessary – and let’s not fool ourselves, I was at the 11th hour, it was do or die. Added to all of that, and perhaps part of the reason for all of that, I was madly, deeply in love with someone who would turn out to be the devil in disguise. Again, no one to blame but myself, but if I am to assess my current situation accurately, it is important to assess the past accurately, as well. While the personal bullshit is behind me, the remnants, primarily in the form of resentment, remain. And I have 15 hours of comprehensive exams coming up in about a month. I am also taking classes and teaching two. If it sounds a lot like that spring semester two years ago, well it does to me, too. Except the ante is much higher this time.

And I still can’t remember shit, even under the best of circumstances. How do I know? Most of my cohort has already gone through comps. I have an advantage in that I can glean from them their experience and even get an idea of what my questions will look like. I got some of that yesterday. Some of the questions my advisor asked were along the lines of what he told me to study for – and I have been. One question in particular is something that I will likely be asked. It is something I just got finished reading about, something I have had more than a couple of classes on, something that I should be able to give a semi-coherent answer on right now. I mean, I just fucking read it. But without referring to the sources I can’t. I can’t remember who said what, I can’t remember when they said it or what the temporal context is, nothing. And this is not even under the pressure of the examination room where I will have only myself, a computer that is not connected to the Internet and a headful of “I can’t remember.” 

On top of all that, I am getting too old for this shit. I need to get on with my life. If I can get through the comprehensive exams, I am much more confident that I can write a good dissertation in a year and get my Ph.D. Then I get to start looking for a job, will probably have to move somewhere new again and start all over. Again. But it can be the last time; it can be the horizon finally. Maybe I can finally “settle down” whatever that means. But the fucked up part of that is I like where I am. Before all the drama that came down from my engagement/marriage/divorce, I used to like where I was… I don’t want to have to learn to like where I am all over again. If that sounds like future tripping, it is. If it sounds like whining, it probably is that, too, but I am not a fucking kid who can just go where the wind blows me. How I wish I could. Everything is upside down, everything is all fucked up, but everything looks so good. It’s not. I often wonder if “happily ever after” ever happens. I guess my story will end where it ends. It’s not over yet, happily or otherwise.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Poor Jimmy

Calling all spiritual gurus, good Christians and all others who fall into the non-judgmental, forgive everyone, we are all “God’s children,” everyone deserves another chance, camp. This is a warning - and maybe a challenge: If you don’t want your belief system rocked, if you can’t stand any challenge to your world view, if you are so set in your “spiritual” ways that you cannot be bothered to rethink them or at least defend them, go away. Do not read any further. Seriously, just don’t do it. Run, do not walk, to the nearest exit. Go back to your comfortable, head-in-the-sand, don’t bother me with reality, existence. And have a nice day.

But for those who have a pair, for those who are willing to engage in actual, reasoned thought regarding their beliefs and their defense of them, welcome. As my friends all know, I do not adhere to any specific religion, but I do have a spiritual grounding that is in a constant state of flux. It morphs regularly as my journey through this life goes here and goes there. I suppose it’s possible it could one day transition into what is recognized as some form of organized religion, but I would not hold my breath waiting – I prefer to think for myself. However, despite my resistance to organized religion, I am on board with many of the professed tenets of most of them, essentially the idea that I am here to contribute, I am not to do any harm and that love is all powerful. I also agree that forgiveness is important and that all people are equal - to a point. Until something happens to change that. I also understand, from personal experience, that resentment is poison. These last points and those similar to them are the ones I struggle with.

And maybe y’all do, too? Lets see…

First, many of you are familiar with my recent past and the domestic disaster that defined it. For those who are not, the brief recap is that those who were trusted violated that trust in epic proportions – some might even say biblical proportions. There were only a handful of people who had a direct hand in it, but through the social place that the world is, there are far more mutual “friends” who have been caught in the crossfire. Some of them have been stuck in the loyal-to-my-friend/but he-is-a-dirt-bag quagmire. That sucks, but I get loyalty and I totally understand how we can much more easily forgive a friend for serious transgressions – especially if said transgressions do not affect us personally. But some of you feel it necessary to continue to proclaim how “nobody is perfect” and that “you must forgive to attain freedom” and, my personal favorite, “we must not judge.” This is the “empathy” you desire from me? I bet it would be a far different response if your “friend” did to you what he did to me, but lets not make this personal – lets explode it. Lets make it global.

Have you forgiven Adolf Hitler? How about Mussolini? To distant? Okay, how about Osama bin Laden? Can you find it in your heart to forgive him? Is he one of “God’s children?” Is he just misunderstood and deserves a second chance (if he was not already dead)? Was he treated unfairly? How about Jeffrey Dahmer? Charles Manson? Child molesters and woman beaters? Do you judge them? Does your God? Y’all shaking your heads right now thinking that I have just taken the argument to a ridiculous extreme. Okay, I'll grant that. 

Then tell me, where do you draw the line. We can step back from mass murderers, terrorists… what about lesser crimes? How many “second chances” does one get with you? How many people have to be hurt? Where are you going to draw the line and to what degree does friendship and loyalty influence where that line is drawn. Some of y’all want me to find forgiveness, but really you don’t care about me or how I feel. You just want me to leave your friend alone. My friends want me to find forgiveness, too, but because they care about me. Same forgiveness? I think not. And despite what this rant might sound like, I have found a definition that has allowed me to put it all in perspective and move on. Still a little pissed off? Obviously, but in a good way. But this is not about me anyway - this is about you spiritual high-roaders, something I never claimed to be. Many of you chose up sides a long time ago (despite your claims to “neutrality”). That’s perfectly okay.  Friendship loyalty is powerful and can be an asset, but do not expect me to be some spiritual giant when it comes to him. He is a fucking dirt bag lowlife piece of shit and no matter how “good” or “spiritual” or loyal his friends are, that will never change. It’s much more than a judgment; it is a fact. Someday I might leave “poor Jimmy” alone. Today is not that day.

Friday, January 03, 2014

For Zak's Doctors: What to do When You Don't Know

My Alma mater for my BA and MA is not exactly football powerhouse when it comes to collegiate sports. California State University, Sacramento  (Sac State) joined the Big Sky Conference in 1997 and while its website trumpets, “20 intercollegiate teams that compete at the NCAA Division I level,” football subdivisions are different from other sports and Sac State plays in what was formerly known as Division I-AA (now Division I FCS) while the more prominent teams play in Division I FBS (formerly Division I-A). There are exceptions and variations, but let’s just say that Sac State is not exactly a “football school.” My current school (where I am working on my PhD), Louisiana State University (LSU), competes at the upper levels and places in the national top 10 most every year – and it has won it all more than once. Our arch-rival, Alabama, has an even better record. We don’t like them and they don’t like us. It’s a football thing, nothing personal.

Which is why I can tell a non-football story about Alabama’s star quarterback, A.J. McCarron. Do I like him? On the football field, no, although I certainly respect his talent. As a person? I don’t know him; I have no opinion outside of what I’ve read. And there is one story that, while inspirational in and of itself, would not necessarily inspire me to cite it or write about it. However, just before last Christmas that all changed. Just before Christmas, a dear friend’s eight-year old son was involved in a serious accident that has been an overriding concern for many (myself included) for more than three weeks. His mother, my friend, has been on an emotional rollercoaster no one should have to endure and her strength throughout has been nothing short of amazing. Her continued strength is the reason that A.J. McCarron’s story should be told. But first, a little background…

The boy, Zak, was a passenger in a single vehicle rollover accident. He sustained significant head trauma that has had him in a medically induced coma since the accident. His prognosis is… unknown. And that is the point of all of these words. The seemingly irrelevant first paragraph (it’s designed to get my readers’ attention, but that’s not important right now), to the McCarron story set-up, to where we are right now and though the words that follow, they are designed to paint a picture of hope - hope despite some doctors’ penchant to “prepare families” for the worst. The point is that they simply do not know and, more importantly, that they should be stressing that they just don’t know. Telling a family what “might” happen in a worst-case scenario is not helpful. It does absolutely no good. I cannot imagine how losing a child might be easier in the slightest if a parent was informed that it could happen. They don’t know and there are literally thousands of examples that prove they don’t know. I am living proof of one of them. So is A.J. McCarron.

In October of 2000, I was involved in a serious accident that put me in the hospital for a long time. At first, they did not know if I would live or die. The doctors “prepared” my family for the worst. All but one, that is. The trauma surgeon on duty that day was not so sure. He never gave up and even when it was clear I would not die, he continued to make medical decisions based on the best-case scenario – that I would make a full recovery. He fought my insurance company to give me the sort of care such that when (not if) I made a full recovery, I would still have the same quality of life. I was out for most of all that, but I got the distinct impression that this doctor’s optimism was infectious. It gave my family hope. There were many others who did just the opposite. One of them felt it necessary to tell my young boys that when I “woke up” I might not remember them. The word “might” is indication enough that this “professional” did not know – and therefore should have kept his or her fucking mouth shut. It caused my sons more anxiety, trauma, grief, sorrow, etc., it did not help them in any way.

A.J. McCarron was in a serious jet-ski accident when he was a five-years old. He, like Zak, sustained serious head trauma. It might not have been as serious as Zak’s, but at the time the medical professionals “prepared” his family for death, cognitive and behavioral problems, seizure issues and blindness. All of those things could have happened. You know what else could have happened? He could have recovered, gone on to play football at Alabama, won two BCS National Championship rings (once beating LSU) and go on to what will be one of the top picks in the NFL draft. But the doctors didn’t tell his family that, they only felt compelled to tell them the worst that could happen. And they were wrong. They didn’t know. And Zak’s doctors don’t either. A.J. McCarron, myself, and thousands of other examples are all the reason in the world to have hope that Zak will make a full recovery. He might even win a Super Bowl. That could happen, too.

For anyone compelled to help Zak and his family, there is a Facebook page set up for him:

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Don't Let the Door Hit You on the Way Out...

I usually look forward to this annual reflection. This year is different. On December 31st, for the past several years, I have been able to look back on the year and assess it as one of the best years of my life. While there have been many really good events that have occurred in most any given year of my 51 years on the planet, one, or even several great events does not necessarily make for a good year. The years in which my children were born, for example, are forever memorable, but for a year to be a good year, there must be a consistency about it; it should be marked by steady forward momentum that carries into the next year. While forward momentum certainly exists today, and 2014 holds much promise, that promise exists despite a dismal 2013. It has not been a good year.

Exactly 365 days ago, the signs were already there. Still a “newly wed,” that marriage was already experiencing trouble, but I had no idea that it would disintegrate into the divorce that is in process right now. By the time New Years Eve night rolled around, my wife and I were at odds about what the plans for the evening should be. She wanted to go to the casino – a place that recent experience had shown to be a bad idea – I didn’t, because of the problems gambling had already caused. She got pissed. Happy New Year. But the gambling was only the tip of a very large iceberg, one that slowly revealed itself as the year progressed. Before we got to our one-year anniversary, I could no longer trust my wife in any capacity. Any capacity. As much as commitment means to me – and marriage is a commitment of solemn proportions – I could no longer carry the burden myself. My commitment was not enough to overcome her lack of it. It also meant breaking a commitment I made to her kids, but again, it was one that I could not follow through on by myself.

It was not the only commitment I have made in the recent past. I also committed to complete an education that was once beyond what I ever thought myself capable. That commitment is ongoing, but it was nearly derailed by the turmoil that was present in my personal life. My wife and I were separated by considerable distance for weeks at a time, a hardship for any couple, but not an insurmountable one. Many couples – especially when one partner (or both) is in the military – experience much longer and more difficult separations. At least we were able to be together every four to six weeks, for five weeks over the holidays and for the entire summer. Not the best situation, but better than many – and temporary. In addition to that, she lived in my house in California (with the utilities paid by my parents), had the use of my car and did not have to pay for insurance or many other monthly expenses. Meanwhile, I lived in a shit-hole apartment in Baton Rouge. I guess we all have sacrifices in life to make…

As a result of lie after lie, financial mismanagement, infidelity and other “issues,” my head was never really in Baton Rouge, at LSU, where it needed to be. It nearly killed my career, but thankfully I had a lot of support and the wherewithal to pull through. My work was not stellar by any stretch of the imagination, but by whatever grace I was granted, it got me through. I would say it is remarkable how this relationship could turn my whole world upside-down the way that it did, but in a way I am glad it did; I’m glad it meant that much. There was nothing superficial about it to me. I was in it because I was in love and I wanted to spend the rest of my life with her. I was committed to helping her raise her boys even though my own kids are grown. I wanted to make this new, “blended” family work. But there were too many obstacles – and the external influences of so-called “friends” – that prevented it from even getting a start. And the signs were there even before we got married. I am not a victim, I volunteered.

The end result is a shitty 2013. I am glad to see it go. The good news is that 2014 is poised to be another record-breaking good year. While not 100% entirely “past” it, I am close. I am far enough past the bullshit that I can now focus on what is in front of me rather than what has happened. The reality is that if I want to go there, it only takes a few seconds before I get pissed off, sad, wistful, emotional… whatever, all over again. In have shed enough tears, and it helps knowing that the feeling isn’t and likely never was mutual. I am free; free to pursue whatever my heart desires. It looks as though it will be a happy new year after all.