Friday, April 24, 2015

Late in the Fouth Quarter


This blog will see it’s 10th anniversary later this year. In the past nine-plus years, I have written far more than I ever did in the previous 40+ combined, and (conservatively) more than half of that was written for no other reason than to write. Although writing became a regular, integral part of my life just a couple of yeas before for the inception of The 25 Year Plan, I did not consider myself a “writer” until about ten years ago. By the time I fully embraced this defining art, this veritable core of my aesthetic essence, I was on a roll. I wrote a lot and the number of entries in my archives over the first couple of years are an indication of just how gung-ho I was. I still enjoy writing immensely, I am improving and while I do not do this type of writing for anyone else, I do appreciate the feedback I receive. I don’t know that my luster has faded, but my output certainly has.

Since sometime in early 2003 and continuing to this day, I have also written quite a lot for others. I have written for money, for class work and as favors for friends. I would say that I love that sort of writing as well, but the truth is that I don’t; I never have. Even when it was for money, a motivation that should be sufficient, I can now say that it is really nothing more than part of the game. That is not to say that I hate it or even dislike it, and in most cases I derived a lot of satisfaction from it, but I am much happier writing for myself and only myself. There are a number of reasons why I do not do this sort of writing as much anymore, the fact that my required writing is much more demanding is only part of it. I think a much bigger part of it is that my overall mood, my general contentedness or my baseline “happiness” is not what it was in those earlier years. The subtitle of this blog, Perspectives, Purpose and Opinion, is an indication of what one will find here. My perspective, while still positive, is now less so, my purpose, while once focused, is now fuzzy and my opinions regarding the outside world are no longer informed enough to document them in sufficient journalistic detail.

I am on the edge of not caring about much of anything anymore.

Disillusionment? Maybe. Disenchantment? Perhaps. Frustration? Likely. Futility? Probably. And all of that applies not to just the sorry state of affairs in the world generally, but it also, especially, applies to my own internal state. It very well could be that my early writing was not so much a reflection of my general content, but rather a cause of it. These internal reflection pieces explore who I am, not to explain myself to others, but to discover more about me. Maybe I gained so much insight in the beginning that I feel I have learned enough? I don’t know, I didn’t explore that facet of myself in writing, so, paradoxically, I have not arrived at “enough.” I suspect I never will. I don’t know about anyone else, if others are constantly fighting to understand themselves and I don’t know if those who appear so confident and self-assured really are. I’m only know that I am not.
 
I am staring down the barrel of another monumental failure. I’ve had quite a few in my life including a recent short-lived marriage that was a foreseeable mistake from the start. This particular potential one is professional in nature, is probably tangentially related to the recent turmoil in my personal life, but as far as failures go, it is different. If it goes that way, it only means a failure to complete a journey that was necessarily marked by significant success. Like the team that gets to the Super Bowl, it had to win its conference just to be in the game. However, no member of any team that ever came in second place, especially in a close game, felt like a success. My PhD is a dissertation away, but at the moment it might as well be on another planet. That could (and hopefully will) change, but I am already feeling the sting of second place even though that hasn’t happened yet and despite that fact that the “season” has produced a BA, an MA and, if I fall short on the PhD, a second MA at LSU. Those degrees all spell “success,” but placed in context, it is still second place. I haven’t lost yet, but it’s late in the fourth quarter and I am behind. And if I don’t get the ball back soon, I will not win.

Monday, April 06, 2015

Faith - Revisited



In August 2005, almost ten years ago, I wrote an essay titled, “Faith.” I posted the essay in my blog in February 2006 and, today, I do not remember why. The piece predates the inception of The 25 Year Plan, and most of what I wrote for my blog was actually for my blog. That is, they were usually new essays written with the intention of publication in my blog. Of course I was writing well before my blog’s birth on December 18th, 2005, and it is likely that I pulled some prior work into it on occasion, but my blog fundamentally dictated the type of writing I did for it. With a only a few exceptions, its genre of choice is the so-called “personal essay.” It is essentially a more formal version of a journal.

The fact that I wrote that sort of writing prior to my blog should come as no surprise (to me). I did and I even kept a hand-written daily journal for about six months in 2003. But I typically do not go back into my archives – electronic or otherwise – and, in effect, plagiarize (not really, I did source it) myself. I cite my older pieces sometimes, I quote them sometimes, but I don’t often reread them in their entirety and, when it comes to pre-blog/Internet material, I think the “Faith” essay might be the first one that has been so appropriated. Since my blog’s inception, since MySpace and then Facebook, I have re-posted things through hyperlinks, but not a total cut-and-pasted essay in its entirety. That I found - and posted - "Faith," was a weird happenstance that is even more so today.

This morning I got to thinking about faith in much the same way I must have ten years ago. I was experiencing a lack of it and it got me to thinking about writing something about it. Writing almost always helps when I am uneasy about something – anything. I figured it would be blog fodder, so I searched my blog for the keyword, “faith.” I was pretty sure it was the title of a past post and indeed it was. I didn’t plan to do more than scan it to see if my views have changed much and, more importantly, to see if I have anything new to add to the discussion. And although it is among the longest essays posted to The 25 Year Plan, it sucked me in… and I remembered what it was that inspired what are some of my more profound reflections. It’s one of those pieces where I’d say, “Man, I wish I’d written that,” except with this one, I did.

At the time I was emerging from a particularly dark period in my life. I was 42 years old and the past three to four years were chaotic, to say the least. It painted a picture of emergence, an enlightenment, a point in my life in which I finally got past much of the denial that was ruling me. I finally accepted my world as I had created it. No more finger pointing, a huge reduction in ego and some much needed humility were all key components to that particular “awakening.” In that old essay I went to great lengths to qualify faith; I looked at many things that faith might or might not be. I sincerely attempted to look outside the box, to view the world from a more metaphysical perspective. I believed what I wrote.

Ten years later, my beliefs have changed. It’s not that I no longer have faith, indeed, that faith is stronger than ever. However, it is far less metaphysical than it once was. Regardless, my faith still wavers sometimes and this morning it did just that. I was looking at circumstances - my distant past, my recent past, my immediate future and my distant future – and I became profoundly ill at ease in the present. And it hit me. More often than not, when I am feeling that sort of uneasiness, it is precisely a lack of faith, but I rarely ever know it. I am much more likely to identify this thing that happened or that thing that didn’t and from that project into an inevitability, or at least a likelihood, of what those things foretell. Obviously, if the “signs” point to what I want, I’m cool. But if they point to an (imagined) outcome that is not what I “want,” I am decidedly not cool.

The revelation? Simple enough, even if it did take 52+ years to come to it. Life itself is a gamble. Everyday the world is out to get me, the things that can stop me, the things that can kill me, the things that can shatter my dreams are literally everywhere. Yet, everyday, I get up and go on. I move about my day knowing the real risks involved – something is likely to go “wrong” and the chances that I might not survive the day are real. I make a bet everyday. I bet that I will survive it and, more importantly, that in the long run it will be worth it. It is a bet I could not make if I didn’t believe that I had a good enough chance of winning.

I used to gamble at casinos a lot. I did it not because gambling is so much fun, but because I believed it would be worth it – I believed that I would win. I had faith. Sometimes I did win, but after losing enough over a long enough period of time, I no longer have any faith that casino gambling will pay of. I have lost my faith in casinos. As a result I rarely ever play anymore and when I do I am done at $50 – and often not even that. I don’t believe I will win and once it stops being fun (again, $50 tops), I’m done.

I think that if I ever felt that about life, I would no longer be here. In that respect I think that even those with very little faith must have enough to go on one more day. The risk must be worth the gamble. So what is faith? It is much simpler than I ever thought it was. It is simply the belief that no matter what happens, I will have enough reason to place that bet another day. That does not mean that any specificity in that bet will necessarily pay off. It does not mean I’ll get that job, that house, that contentment, that love, that relationship, those friends, the health or even the serenity I hope for. It simply means that I still believe I could and it is worth one more day of trying.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Half-Assed


I feel as though I should write something. It’s almost like a pressure in search of relief, an escape, someplace to go so that something else isn’t forced to adapt to the presence of whatever it is. If that path is not too twisted, not too restricted, the words will flow out almost – or seemingly – effortlessly. If the path is too direct, however, they will explode forth with little rhyme or reason. Anyone who writes with any regularity, with any experience, with some acumen, knows both extremes. Likewise, anyone who reads enough can usually feel when writers are in the zone. This so-called “zone” is certainly not unique to writers or even other artists. And it is more than just confidence, more than just acquired skill, more than just comfort with one’s craft. It can be elusive, but it can also be a place we find ourselves for longer periods of time. It is, in the simplest of terms, the perfect pathway for controlled release.

Benjamin Zander, the conductor of The Boston Philharmonic Orchestra and the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra, touches on this idea in a 2008 TED talk about the power of classical music. While the overall point of his presentation is not about getting into a zone, in his introduction he presents a narrative of the progression of a student pianist. At first the student’s musicianship is labored, choppy and viscous. Later, as lessons, practice and time elapse, the student becomes more fluid, smoother and more comfortable with the keys. Zander shows how the student moves from placing an impulse on every note to one on every other note to every fourth, and then every eighth note as time moves on. Finally, Zander portrays the student placing just one impulse on the entire passage at which point the music actually “pushes” him over - into a zone, if you will - that he calls, “one-buttock playing.” I get that. There are times when I am writing that the piece seems to just write itself; I am simply a conduit that gets the already arranged words out of my head and onto paper. There is no “composing,” the piece comes already assembled.

In fact, there are times that I can’t get the words out fast enough. The words are actually pushing me over – I am “one-buttock” writing. And as I think back, I might mean that literally. I would go so far as to say, and I think Zander would agree, that this zone, while always elusive to a certain extent, is there and available. And there is no question that the more I attempt to get there (translation: the more I actually write), the easier it is to find. That is no guarantee that it will always be at my fingertips, but the more I write, the more I find myself at the edge of my seat, hanging on as the words crash over me. I would not say that these words are that, I don’t feel I am so inspired, but I am dancing on the edge and that is at least a necessary point of departure.

It seems that there are some people who, when doing what they do, are always in a zone. I’m thinking of sports superstars or popular musicians or other artists – maybe particularly in-tune investment bankers who, it seems, never guess wrong. But I think that even though that’s what we might perceive, the reality would reveal much more miss than hit. The simple truth is that rising to an occasion still requires an occasion and some of us possess honed skills that are typically on display in public. Obviously, there is a whole lot of non-zonal stuff that goes on in private. But for most of us, it’s not a public thing. It’s all in private or, at least, not public. If we are performing on just one buttock, no one else knows it, they only see the results. For all they know, it might not be one-buttock at all… it might be half-assed. One can scroll through my archives and find plenty of that, too. And then there are those groups of words that found no clear path, those that read as semi-disjointed ideas linked in a hodgepodge of gibberish, those that read half-assed but are really much closer to the zone than they appear. Words like these...

Friday, March 13, 2015

The Truth


I was inspired to write today. I want to say that I haven’t been inspired like that in a long time, that the reason why my dissertation is in limbo, the reason why I haven’t written anything substantive in some time is due to the fact that I have not been sufficiently inspired. I’ve been burnt out. I have not been able to find the right words. I can’t get what’s inside my head onto paper. It has been suggested that I am suffering from “writer’s block,” though I am not sure those suggesting it know what it is anymore than I do. I have even denied that it is writer’s block, saying that it must be something else holding me back from writing what I am ultimately here at school to write. I rationalize, “But I can write other stuff.” And that is partially true. I’ve written some letters of recommendation, I’ve written some commemorations, I’ve engaged in rational debate and I’ve even used my powers to flame a cyber-bully who needed to be taught a lesson. But that writing is like this writing – it comes more or less naturally to me. When it comes to really serious writing the likes of which I cannot seem for the life of me to do right now, I am lost. I have writer’s block, whatever the fuck that is.

So diagnosed, what do I do about it? The kind of writing that I cannot seem to do is the kind that takes organization. It must, in the end, be neat and orderly. It must make sense. It has to be perfect, not just pretty. This “stream of consciousness” stuff is, for me, fairly easy to write. Also, judging from the feedback I get, it is interesting to others (maybe because they can relate - I know this sort of introspection, when written well, interests me). I am no stranger to balking in the face of daunting tasks – it is a battle I have fought my entire life. It’s not so much lazy as it is a specialized kind of lazy and at the root of it is fear. It, whatever it is, is the sort of thing that has to be perfect. This might not be an external requirement – indeed, it rarely is – but my head has me hesitating if I cannot see my way through to perfection. And it happened today.

The Communication Studies Department at LSU hosts an annual lecture that commemorates the late Giles Wilkeson Gray, professor emeritus of the Department of Speech (what would become Communication Studies) at LSU. It is an honor to be invited to deliver the lecture and since the series’ inception in 1984, numerous leading scholars in the field of communication studies have come to LSU to discuss their research. This year, Dr. Carole Blair with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill was our distinguished lecturer. Dr. Blair is also the current president of the National Communication Association. Her lecture, “World War I and the Expatriation of American Memory” was held Thursday, but, for reasons that aren’t important, I missed it. However, on Friday our department held a colloquy with Dr. Blair and, also for reasons that are not important, I did make it to that. At the end of the colloquy, I was inspired to write something really important. I resolved to go home and do just that.

The colloquy took the form of a question and answer session with Dr. Blair.  Our department faculty and grad students were given the opportunity to pick the brain of not only a preeminent scholar in my field, but also the president of our national organization. I listened intently, but the most interesting question and answer came right at the end of the session. While I don’t remember the question exactly, it had to do with the health of our discipline both within the humanities and in more general terms. It is no secret that public university funding nationwide is getting cut at an alarming rate. Tuition and other fees for public universities are skyrocketing as fast as the administrators’ salaries are. Tenure-track professorships are few and far between and the hardest hit areas always seem to be within the humanities and social sciences. Communication studies, like some other disciplines, can fall within the humanities or the social sciences. According to Dr. Blair, within the larger academic division of “the humanities,” communication studies is among the strongest. This is nice to know, even encouraging, but it must be tempered with the fact that humanities generally are not considered “career path” majors unless one wants to go into teaching, research or other jobs not known for making a lot of money.

The idea that those with communication studies degrees, or other degrees within the humanities, are people that can do a multitude of jobs is one that is again gaining some traction. These “well rounded” college experiences (otherwise known as a “liberal education,” but the term, "liberal," has such an negative connotation with so many I hesitate to use it – but suffice it to say that it doesn’t mean what they think it does) are what good citizens are made of. This is why those “general education” courses that so many view as a waste of time and money are required. And thankfully they still are, but although the world still needs scientists and engineers and chemists and physicist and all of the other disciplines that fall within the hard sciences, we also need those well versed in the classical knowledge of the ages. The histories, the philosophies, the cultures and all that has been learned that got us where we are today – all of it – is still fucking important.

Those of us sitting in that room and countless others like it all know that. The question was how do we get that information to those outside the walls of academia. How do we interest kids in majoring in areas where they might not achieve the “new” American Dream of striking it rich (because simply owning a home, providing for our families and saving for retirement is no longer a big enough carrot). One place that was suggested – and I don’t remember by whom – is the parents. We need to sell parents on the value of raising good citizens who are well versed in history, in philosophy, in ethics, all components of critical thinking. Successful democracies have always depended on educated demos – a citizenry that is capable of thinking critically. I don’t know what has caused all the polarization in the last 20-30 or more years (it’s not as new as some would like to think), but it seems that part of it is this willingness to swallow whatever is thrown out there.

And before I forget, I need to say something about this so-called “liberal indoctrination” of your children when they get to college. While it is true that college faculties tend to lean towards the left, it is not a universal truth, it is irrelevant in some fields and it doesn’t matter anyway. Your kids had 18 years of your influence before the ever got into my class. There is very little I can do to undo the influence you have had, even if I wanted to. Are there some professors who try to push their views on their students? Sure. But they are not the norm and again, it doesn’t matter. And if your kid comes home with a “radical” thought he or she learned in school, hopefully it is an opportunity to enter a discussion rather than a war. Maybe your kid – who is smart enough to get into college - gave this radical thought some serious consideration. Maybe you should respect that and maybe you can shed some light - though an intelligent, rational conversation - that your kid’s professor might have missed. You kids are not robots and we cannot program them. We can, however, give them the tools to think clearly for themselves. And you can help, if that’s what you want for them.

So that’s what I was inspired to write about today. But it wasn’t going to be like this. I thought that I would try to use my command over the written word to present some good reasons why education should be more highly valued, more robustly supported. I personally think that a public college education should be free – call me a radical, but I think an educated population is good for everyone and as such, everyone should pay for it.

But that’s not what this is all about anyway. This was supposed to be in the form of an op-ed piece and I was going to submit it to the New York Times. I read their Opinionator, I read the other editorials, and I know I can write as well as some of those commentators, and I know I can write better than some, too. But that kind of writing is precise, it has to be closer to perfect than my level of confidence would allow me to get. I balked after just two lousy paragraphs. I would not be able to just sit down and whip it that out no matter how inspired I was. Never mind that one does not just “write for the New York Times” (even at 52 years old, I have a childish naïveté that is probably no longer cute). I am beginning to think there is much more to this “writer’s block” than meets the eye. And despite the 1,500-plus words I just puked out, I am still balking at the daunting tasks in my life. I do know this: This is not good enough for what I was inspired to write. And that is the truth.

Monday, February 02, 2015

Stuck


I don’t know what it is. I seem to be suffering from some kind of cerebral paralysis; something as impenetrable as the proverbial brick wall is standing between where I am trying to get and me. I’ve been here before, but never at this level. The irony in that statement is simple enough – whatever it was before, I overcame it or went around it or some other way moved past it. “This level” means I have moved beyond where I was when I got “stuck” before. But at some point the bottom will fall out. At some point, stuck is where I stay. I will have maxed out. The problem is, although I have climbed a long way up the ladder, I can’t stay here. And now it’s a long way down.

I hate this shit.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Home... Again


It feels somewhat appropriate that I am writing these words at one of my old stomping grounds, at the nearest coffee shop to the house I purchased more than nine years ago… so close to what used to be home. That house is now rented to someone I have never met, it is now home to a complete stranger, but this place still familiar, even nostalgic. I’ve written here many times before; undergraduate term papers, much longer term papers as a graduate student and several of the reflections that this blog serves as a repository for. Finding myself right here, right now with a few spare moments to reflect is yet another instance of unplanned perfection.

With just a little more than a day left in 2014, I am compelled to look back at not only the last calendar year, but also the last few years. While distinct lines of demarcation are not common in one’s life story, in many ways a new chapter in my journey began a little more than three years ago. I could never have predicted all that would happen, nor am I able to know what might come next. Indeed, this particular chapter was not even on the radar just a few short years ago. As little a six months ago, I did not know where I would be in a year, but now I do. I will be coming home.

But for any of this make any sense, a very abbreviated recap of the past several years is probably in order. About 17 years ago I hit a figurative brick wall. I moved from Silicon Valley in the San Francisco Bay Area to Truckee, California. I moved to where I always wanted to live, away from the hustle and bustle, away from all those people to what was still a sleepy little tourist town nestled near Donner Summit in the Sierras, not too far from majestic Lake Tahoe. I thought I had arrived; I was living in a four-season paradise. But it would not last. A near fatal accident in October 2000 changed everything.

After a long recovery and rehabilitation, I ended up in Sacramento, went back to school in 2003 and in a very literal sense I started over at the age of 40. I had no idea where the path would take me, but at least I was finally doing something again. I transferred to California State University, Sacramento in 2005 and graduated with honors in 2007. It was academic success the likes of which I never experienced before. After trying to make ends meet as a journalist in what was a crumbling economy, I went back to CSUS to start work on an MA in communications studies. I figured that I could use that degree to get a job teaching at the community college level and secure some stabile, long-term employment.

Towards the end of that degree, however, my professors at CSUS persuaded me to apply to doctoral programs at PhD granting (R1) universities. I did not think I was PhD material (sometimes I still don’t), but I applied anyway and got accepted to two schools. One of them, Louisiana State University, offered me four years of funding for teaching two undergrad classes each semester; it was similar to the deal I had at Sac State, except LSU also paid my tuition. A few months before starting at LSU in the fall of 2011, I got into a relationship that turned into a long distance relationship that turned into a long distance engagement that turned into a long distant marriage that ultimately turned into a long distance divorce… and the distance had nothing to do with it. The warning signs were there long before I took the leap, but I ignored them thinking “love will conquer all,” or something equally naïve.

How I made it through school with all that external shit going one is still beyond me, but I did. Now, with just one semester and only a prospectus and a dissertation left, my time at LSU is coming to an end. This chapter is coming to a close. It is time to move on again. While I could go virtually anywhere, it is the draw of my children and grandchildren (mostly), other family and some very close friends that is calling me back to Sacramento. And it is pulling me away from the friends I made in Baton Rouge. I used to joke around that I needed a clone of me to handle all I had to handle, but it is no joke anymore.

But that word – home – has taken on a new, perhaps deeper, meaning. The old cliché, “home is where the heart is,” doesn’t quite do the term justice, but the idea that home is a physical or geographic location is no longer prominent. True, I have a specific or primary place that I operate out of (currently Baton Rouge), but I now have strong ties to many different locales, and now one of them is outside of California, my “home” state. Coming back home to Sacramento means leaving home in Baton Rouge, and I find that idea unacceptable. Somehow, home has to be more than just where I reside.

As I reflect back on where these last several years have taken me, and as hard as it has been, I can only come away with a feeling of gratitude. I did not feel that way at the end of last year. Last year was not a “good” year, but in retrospect it was for reasons I could not see then. I cannot say what the coming year will bring or where it will take me, but at 52 years-old, my life has a newness, or maybe a freshness, that makes me feel at once much younger and much older than I am. And maybe that isn’t such a bad place to be. I have never been one to take the easy path, or the well-traveled path, or the “conventional” path and often enough it has made life harder than it had to be, but at the same time it is never dull. Moreover, it is the life I have and in the big picture, it is worth every second of it.