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.




Saturday, December 06, 2014

No Big Deal

Today I “celebrate” the culmination of my 52nd journey around the sun. I feel like I should have something to say about almost 19,000 days of survival in what is often a hostile world, some profound reflection about being a 52 year-old fourth-year doctoral student, some words of wisdom about what it has meant to negotiate the curves life has thrown at me, but I’m afraid I don’t. I just checked the archives of this blog that is itself almost nine years-old and the last time I wrote a reflective “birthday post” was five years ago - for my 47th birthday. To say much has happened in these past five years would be a monumental understatement. Indeed, too much has happened. Yet I m still here, beat up and scarred but all that much stronger for it. Would I do it again? Probably not, but the question is moot.

I’ve been asked a few times if I have anything “special” planned for today. The answer is not only, "not this year," but, really, not ever. Of the December 6ths that I can remember, even when there was something “special” planned, it never really was. Part of that can be blamed on the time of the year, something I am sure many of those with December birthdays can relate to. Mine is early in the month, the holiday “season” doesn’t have a huge impact, but since many of those years (maybe most) have found me in school, the end of the fall semester comes right about the same time as my birthday. This year December 6th falls on a Saturday, but it is smack-dab in between the end of the semester and finals week. I have work to do - lots of it - and that, while no different than most other days, is special enough for me.

As I get older, other special dates have been added to my life, and as I get older still, some of those have faded back into the nothingness they were prior. Some of those anniversaries, to me, have far greater significance than that of my birth. I am not really sure why this particular day always leaves me so underwhelmed. Four years ago, a good friend threw me a surprise party for my 48th birthday (and it almost worked, I was surprised until just before I got there)... it was the first time anyone every threw me a surprise party. But even that, not through any lack of sincerity on his part or of those who attended, felt odd, uncomfortable and more than just a little weird. Two years ago, for the big 5-0, there was a profoundly unforgettable dinner celebration with friends that I’d give almost anything to forget. (That is a different story for a different day and one, I am quite sure, some wish I would not tell at all). Two days later my family came to celebrate, and that was nice, but any excuse to get the entire family together these days is nice - I was happy to provide one.

This morning I met some friends for breakfast. It was not a “birthday breakfast,” it’s just something we do from time to time. It just happened to fall on my birthday today and as such, in addition to in-person birthday greetings from those friends, one paid for my breakfast. That simple gesture may well be the highlight and the best gift I receive all day - and I mean that with complete sincerity. Because, as it turns out, it really is the simple things that mean the most; the relationships I have built in my life and especially in the last few years mean more to me than any compulsory birthday greeting or present ever could. While I appreciate those who took a moment out of their day to wish me a happy birthday, I am far more grateful for those who have been there every day.

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Guest Post?

I occasionally get requests from others to post a "guest post" to my blog. Usually the solicitation is accompanied by words like, "We think this would be of interest to your readers," or "you may use this free of charge as long as you link it to our site," etc. They are almost never of "interest to my readers," certainly not of interest to me, and I can write my own stuff "free of charge," I don't need the graciousness of others to help me fill my blog.

The link I am posting is not a "guest post," but rather a story written by someone else about me in a new online magazine called Asphalt and Dirt. It is a magazine designed to appeal to all facets of motorcycling and the motorcycle lifestyle. I offered a story from this blog, but the publisher wanted to go beyond just the road trip story I wrote in 2010, An Epic Journey, and delve deeper into what could best be viewed as the "lifestyle" so many riders identify with. This story, Crossing the line, does that. Enjoy.