Thursday, June 18, 2015

When Things are Cool


I have been back home in California for about two weeks now. I retook possession of my house in the unincorporated Sacramento suburb of Fair Oaks a about a week ago. Although I have been home for some time now, the moving-in process has taken - and will take  - a while. This is a luxury – most moves have a finite window where all stuff must be packed, transferred and unpacked within a certain (usually short) time frame. I have time. Time to resettle. Time to reestablish connections. Time relearn the lay of the land. Time to assess to the various and sundry interpersonal dynamics that I am connected with. Time to observe those I am not connected to. Time. For the time being, lots of it.

This time, however, does not come without its costs. It feels like an undeserved vacation in some ways. And, as far as vacations are concerned, this would be a “working vacation,” except that I do not have a job. I have work to do, plenty of it, but it is not work in the traditional sense – traditional meaning that I get paid for it. I am unemployed by design (in part), but uncomfortably so. It’s been a while since I have been so gainfully unemployed and I didn’t think it would feel like this. And “this” is, at best, uncomfortable.

But it is temporary. Soon enough I’ll be working full-time in some as yet unknown capacity while working on completing my dissertation. For those who have been following along – yep, it’s not done yet. It’s really hardly even started. I’ve gone from being excited about doing it to not even wanting to do it to where I am right now - needing to know if it’s even in me. For better or for worse, the only way to know that is to do it. But there is more to it than that. Completing a PhD is, for someone like me, a veritable miracle. It wasn’t supposed to happen. It was not not in the cards, the deck didn’t even exist. It is my personal holy grail – and I can almost touch it.

I spent the entire last year not writing my dissertation. It’s not entirely unheard of, but the odds are that those who do not finish while they are at school (as opposed to those who go elsewhere or home to “finish”) are much less likely to ever complete. I don’t have those stats handy, I cannot offhand cite any studies, but they do exist and, moreover, it makes sense. But there are those who do finish despite the odds. My guess is that they are the ones who have been regularly defying the odds their entire lives. I know I have. We are the ones who are forever presenting researchers with those pesky “outliers;” we are the ones who prevent them from saying things like “all,” “always,” “none” or “never.”

So, as I reflect on what I just wrote, I wonder what it is all about. I mean, I am the author – I should know, right? I don’t. I am trying to get a grip on life, a life that at present is unusually calm, drama-free and serene. I don’t expect it to last (we odds-beaters tend to do everything the hard way), but for now things are cool. Maybe that’s all this is about.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Blind


Words, for me, are powerful. They are not just powerful in what they do, have done and are capable of doing, but they are also my power. Putting words together with punctuation in a way that makes sense is art. There is beauty in writing such that words can be assembled in near infinite ways that mean essentially the same thing, but those that are beautifully arranged carry much greater impact. And in the big picture of writing, while this craft is the one that picked me, the one I hold some talent for, my ability falls woefully short when compared to the great writers of our time and throughout history. However, I read recently that it does not do to aspire to be the next great Hemmingway, or Maugham, or even Shakespeare, but rather I should aspire to be the first great me. Of course, actions still speak louder than words and what people do say more about their character than what they say, but history shows in ways both great and small that it is often words that inspire people to act – and they often inspire them to greater versions of themselves than they thought possible. I know from personal experience it is true for me. I have been inspired into action by the words of others.

It is a double-edged sword, however. This “gift,” this super-power, my very strength can also be my downfall, my greatest weakness. Some of that is a necessary evil, a curse, if you will, that with art there will be some who view those versed in that art with disdain. That exists, and it might even be truer of the “academic” arts, but it’s not the norm. The larger problem comes from within; it comes from me. It is also a problem that mirrors denial – part of the problem is a blindness that says there isn’t a problem. And it’s not that my writing isn’t thoughtful, it’s not that there is not an inherent truth in everything I write, but like any other art, it is very reflective of where my mind is at the time the work is produced, and depending on the type of writing it is, the oversight process varies from extensive to none at all. My Facebook posts tend to be extremely temporal, they are produced on the fly with not a lot of scrutiny – in a way they are the most truthful in terms of my psyche in the given moment. The essays I write for The 25 Year Plan are, by their very nature, more scrutinized; they are intended to be more detailed and as such I review them and edit them and, often, soften them – to a point. But, like my Facebook posts, they are more reflective of my internal state than the professional or academic work I produce. I believe that, by and large, the best art is spawned from trouble, it reflects the universals of the human condition as portrayed in specific and individual life experiences. I have had some of those, and I have written about them.

Up to about three or four years ago, the general theme in my personal essays (most of which can be found in my archives here), was positive. While they document certain life experiences I’ve had, for the most part those experiences are of a redemptive nature. Even when I’ve struggled, I found a way through it and came away with some nugget, something that added to my life in a meaningful way. Beginning sometime in late 2011 or early 2012 that optimism started to fade. Although I held onto it for most of 2012, by early 2013 I had life experiences I wouldn’t wish on anyone. My writing started to take a darker turn. It wasn’t any less artistic, and what I wrote about was absolutely real, truthful and as universally indicative of the human condition as can be, but that darkness enveloped all areas of my life to one degree or another. The one that came home to roost is this apparent need to condemn not only those who crossed me, but also others who, in my view, acted in certain ways that were less than honorable. I transferred my indignation for a very limited few onto many others – usually namelessly and in abstraction, but nonetheless I entered a period of justification and condemnation.

Perhaps if I call it what most others do, it would make more sense. I tend to stay away from the word “judgment” because it is more ambiguous than condemnation. But for the purposes of this, and very much in keeping with one of the more common connotations of the word, “judgment” is appropriate. And even in making this qualification, it could be viewed as arrogance that, up until very recently, I did not feel I deserved. But I’ll just go on the record and call it what it is – judgment. And through my justification I was blind to it. I can be assertive, I can even be direct and sometimes I can be an asshole, but when I am those things as a result of looking down on another person because of that person’s behavior, I am in judgment. While I never claimed to be perfect, I would insinuate that because I never did “that” or because I have “progressed” beyond doing it anymore, I am better. I don’t consciously believe I am better than anyone else, but for certain “anyone elses,” because they did certain things to me I that I felt I would never do... yes, I went there. The problem is that, while I have a right to hold certain opinions about those who did directly and intentionally harm me, I expanded that to those who did not. And while it is obvious in hindsight, I didn’t know I was doing it at the time.

And here is the really fucked up part. I do not truly believe that I am a better human being than anyone else. While I do certain things better than others and others do certain things better than me, and I have behaviors that could be viewed as more honorable and some that can be viewed as less so, too often I still come up short by my own assessment. And I am certainly as subject to being (and have been) judged as anyone else. It does not mean I have to appreciate those who entered my world and fucked it up, it does not mean I have to trust them, but it also does not mean that those things done - be it to me or anyone else - make anyone necessarily a “bad” person. Bad to me? Sure. But just bad? That’s not for me to decide. Really. If others were to apply the same standards to me as I have to others, even though they would have to pick a different poison because my terms do not apply to me (that’s what makes judgment possible), there are terms available that do apply. And, truth be told, I often judge myself negatively against those applicable standards, too.

This entire revelation has been as enlightening as it has been painful. With the clarity of hindsight, I can see the effects. I have pushed some people away. Also, because of this ability to use words so effectively, I might have made it extremely difficult for anyone to approach me and say anything about it. I’d surely have a well-articulated justification for my view. While my self-righteousness might have been a defense mechanism (and, in certain isolated cases, justified), it is no longer serving me. Although I do not excuse the indiscretions done to me, I am in a place where those acts can no longer justify my arrogance. They say “hurt people hurt people,” but I didn’t see what I was doing as that. I see it now and, fortunately, this curse I have been gifted with works equally well to make me a better person today – compared only to who I was yesterday.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

One More Time


I used to write this sort of writing a lot. Not once a week, not twice a week, but more like every two or three days, on average. Furthermore, I was doing it when I also had quite a lot of other writing to do – first (and continuously) for school projects that became increasingly more complex as I moved from undergraduate to graduate study. But I was also writing here as I was writing (from 2006 to 2008) as a newspaper staff writer, reporting and writing for a weekly local newspaper. In 2006 and 2007 I wrote more than 250 original blog posts – essays, really – that were mostly about my experiences, perception, revelations and opinions. Or, as this blog’s subtitle suggests, “Perspectives, Purpose & Opinion.” In the next three years combined I produced less than those first two combined and from 2011 to right now my production has been sporadic, at best.

The overall blog content for this online journal never had a defined plan. I wrote (and write) mostly about what is on my mind – some of it so bad I’m embarrassed to claim it, but some of it so insightful that I am honestly surprised it came out of my head. With rare exception, however, it all remains (though when I catch typos in older work, I do fix them). It isn’t about producing excellence in isolation, but more about an ongoing narrative, the near real-time telling of a story that now spans more than nine years. To put that into perspective, I have publicly documented part of nearly 20 percent of my private life. And this year, so far, while not nearly as productive as those earlier years, is off to the best start since 2011. No plan, still, but I’d like to pick up the pace.

And what better time? So much is going on, so much is about to change, so much work is left to do and so much of that gets sorted out right here. I didn’t know that was what I was doing when I started this project. I don’t really know what I was doing. And that is nothing new; it is, for better (sometimes) and worse (too often), a defining factor in why my life has turned so many times. Starting over has been a living place for me and, to be perfectly frank, I am tired of picking up the pieces and reassembling myself. To be fair, this last reassembly has been much more thorough, yielded far greater success and is not finished yet. The changes coming down the road are positive (if, to some degree, heart-wrenching) and build upon what I have already established. In other words, I am not starting from scratch this time nor have I burnt any bridges. But… it’s a lot of change all at once and while I don’t exactly feel as though I am facing it alone, a significant part of it necessarily means just that.

I’ve been on a bit of an emotional roller coaster. There is some trepidation, some excitement, some anticipation and some dread all taking turns at the front of the line. I am torn between two places that are more than 2,000 miles apart. I have friends and family who love me and whom I love very much in both places. My decision to move back to Sacramento was based on numerous factors, but there were absolutely pros and cons – it was not a slam-dunk by any measure. And, to inject a little more honesty, I had no idea that I would develop the intimacy I have with the friends I made while living in Baton Rouge. These friends mean as much to me as do my close friends do in California or anywhere else and I wish I could have them all in one place.

I have learned so much in the last four years in particular; what I have studied as a doctoral student is only the tip of the iceberg. I have learned more about life, about me and about love than I ever knew I could. It wasn’t always easy, in fact, it rarely was. I have a restored faith in humanity not because I have read so much about it, but because I have seen it in action amid all the destruction, all the despair, all the hate not just in the world, but also in my very own little piece of it. I would not go so far identify as an optimist, but I have moved far away from pessimism, through idealism and maybe, just maybe beyond realism. What I have, especially after the weekend I just had, is hope and love. And today, that is enough rebuild one more time.


Monday, May 11, 2015

The Phoenix


Today is a defining moment in my life. Today marks the end of my eighth semester at Louisiana State University. Although I will still be enrolled for another two semesters, and while I am still technically a student, I have come to the end of both teaching and taking classes at LSU. I will be enrolled because I still have yet to clear the final hurdle standing between a PhD and me. That is largely due to the fact that I have pissed away the last year doing next to nothing in writing that dissertation. I have researched (not enough), I have consulted (also not enough) and I thought about it (maybe too much), but I have not written anything. And I was about to throw in the towel with a monumental “fuck it.” I changed my mind. I will make the effort and that decision was also a defining moment. In this period of defining moments, there is another big one – soon I will be going back to Sacramento, I will be going home.

The fact of the matter is that a PhD does not do all that much for me professionally. It isn’t worth nothing, and it even has some monetary benefit, but at this point in my life, considering my “non-traditional” status (traditional being a student who is 20 years younger), the doors it would open are logistically closed for me. It helps in some ways, to be sure, depending on which direction I choose to go, but too many of those directions involve sacrifices I am not willing to make. I am not willing to relocate outside of Northern California to where a tenure-track assistant professorship position might be; I am not willing to jump through the significant hoops involved in landing such a position and I do not have enough career years left to climb the ladder even if I was willing to do everything else.

But the PhD has become important to me – again – for the reasons that it should have been all along. It is my personal Mount Everest. It is a challenge I undertook that just 10 years ago wasn’t even a fantasy; it was so far outside the realm of possibility that to even dream of such a trajectory could be considered nothing more than delusional. Yet here I am so close to the top that I can see it. It has not been an easy road. The last 10 to 15 years have seen a complete rebuild of a life I almost completely destroyed. And “completely destroyed" means dead. Starting over doesn’t even begin to describe the journey of where I was to where I am. For me to leave the biggest prize on the table without even reaching out for it is insane.

But even with a PhD, the Phoenix has not finished rising again yet. There is still the little matter of getting a real job. I have been on the periphery of gainful employment since a near fatal wreck in October of 2000. That is not to say I haven’t been working all that time, but much of that work has been on my education. As an undergrad, I worked part-time writing news and full-time on getting excellent grades. As an MA graduate student, I worked as a teaching associate at California State University, Sacramento while I also worked more than full-time earning my MA. As a doctoral student at LSU, I also worked part-time as a TA and much more than full time on my own coursework. A nine to five, 40-hour workweek not something I would even recognize anymore. There has not been a single moment in my graduate studies when there wasn’t something on my plate, something I could be doing… something I should be doing.

I have spent most of the last four years in Baton Rouge. I have never been that far away from home for that long in my entire 52 years on the planet. Had I logically thought about the practical implications of a doctoral degree, I probably would have decided the effort is not worth the payoff. But there is a payoff that defies logic. Hell, I defy logic. I do and have done lots of things that I probably should not do, but in the grand scheme of things, at least this thing has some merit. And when all is said and done, I will have climbed that mountain. The key, then, is to not fall off it. I don’t know how many flights the Phoenix has left.

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.