Monday, November 14, 2016

Whose President?


One of my favorite lines from the film version of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring comes towards the end when Captain Boromir, with his last breath, accepts Aragorn as the heir to the throne of Gondor and, as such, pledges allegiance to his “king.” Aragorn would be, of course, a good king, a literary manifestation of Plato’s “philosopher king” who would, ultimately, rule over utopia. Indeed, once the army of Sauron was defeated, Aragorn returned to white city of Minas Tirith to assume his lordship over the kingdom. Middle Earth entered the Age of Men; peace, good fortune and good will followed. All was well. King Aragorn was wise and strong and benevolent – he did not need to demand allegiance. It was freely given.

Of course, so long as good, benevolent philosopher kings are plentiful, there would be no need to overthrow such a regime. Unfortunately, although absolute power does not corrupt absolutely right away, ultimately it will, absolutely. A long-term or permanent succession of benevolent totalitarian leaders is never a safe bet. Absolute power corrupts (eventually) absolutely. That is why the founders of these United States of America put together such wonderfully enduring representative republic. We, the people, are in charge and sooner or later, when power begins its march towards absolute corruption, our founders gave us the ultimate weapon – our Constitution.

When a new president is sworn in, he (or, someday, she) swears to defend and protect the Constitution. He or she, essentially, swears loyalty to us through the document that puts the power in our hands. We never swear any allegiance to the president. Ever. We do swear “allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands…” But that is far different than Boromir’s acceptance of Aragorn as his king. In terms of our constitutional democratic republic, Boromir would be accepting the US as his country and through that acceptance, it’s laws and power structures. It might seem subtle, but the difference is important.

Donald Trump, less than a week ago, became the president-elect of the United States of America. I did not vote for him. I believe that he is the least qualified president that “we, the people” have ever sent to the White House. But what I believe is not important – we, through constitutional authority, have decided. With a razor thin popular loss and a more decisive but still thin Electoral College win, Trump’s election is hardly a “mandate.” In some respects, however, it is. The Constitution allowed those who hold the real power in this country to give Washington DC and politics as usual a great big orange middle finger. We, the people, have spoken.

But what about all those who cannot fathom a Trump presidency? I get it. In many respects, I’m right there with you. But… for those who are claiming “He’s not my president,” I have some perspective. First, this is not new; many, many never accepted President Obama as their president either. Maybe you feel your reasons are more legitimate? I’m not going there. But there is more. No president has ever been “my president.” I don’t serve any president – they serve me. All presidents have been President of the United States of America. All have served to defend and protect the Constitution. In other words, they have pledged allegiance to us. They are serving us. None of them are or ever will be “my president” the way Aragorn is Boromir’s king.

In Gondor, King Aragorn is the law of the land and so long as he lives and remains uncorrupted by absolute power, I guess that works for everyone. In this country, our founders decided the best bet was to just keep the power to ourselves – we, the people. Trump will be the president of the United States next January, but he, like every other president, works for me. He is not “my president,” he is only president of my country. And he is only that because we say so, even if I didn’t. It’s been working for a good long while now, I’m not ready to try anarchy just yet.

Peace

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Odds

Yesterday I had what could be described as a "close call" while riding my motorcycle. It didn't really feel that way then, and it's only in retrospect that it feels that way - a little - now. It's not the first close call I've had, and it's not even the closest. Indeed, my closest call wasn't even on a motorcycle and it wasn't close; it was a direct hit. But these potential life-altering or life-ending instances are both uncommon and, at the same time, frequent enough that it makes me wonder sometimes how anyone ever manages to survive more than a few years. While it is true that the ladder that blew off the trailer in front of me could have taken me down at freeway speed, it seems that it is more likely that it would not. And, of course, that's what happened.

The whole ordeal lasted way less than a minute. It felt and still feels like it was much longer. It feels like time slowed way down and that I had ample time to make decisions and adjustments, and I did have to make some decisions and adjustments. Panic very well could have killed me. We hear about "freak" accidents all the time, usually only when someone dies due to them. But how many occur in which the end result is nothing more than a ladder sliding along the freeway and off onto the shoulder? A freak accident where the greatest injuries are a few scuff marks on an aluminum ladder is not news, but those results are far more common.

The long short of it is simple enough. If I choose to allow the possibility (remote or not so remote) of something happening, if I choose to live my life in fear, then I would never leave my house. There are things that can happen no matter how careful I am, no matter how much caution and precaution I exercise. At the same time, even though I was totally innocent yesterday (and a few years ago when I hit a deer on my last bike, same thing and, luckily, same result), there are things I can do to reduce (but never eliminate) the odds of that kind of thing happening again. I try not to ride in deer country at dusk. I will, as much as possible, no longer be as close to any vehicle with equipment that could escape. However, those little things probably will not save my life - freak accidents are freak because they are unusual and defy prediction. Staying calm in the face of these things is far more important.

Friday, July 01, 2016

Planets


On Thursday, June 23rd, I loaded up my 2014 Harley-Davidson Street Glide Special for a trip that, ultimately, had no destination. The “excuse” for the ride was to attend an old friend’s wedding in Southern California last Saturday, but I didn’t need to be gone a week or log the miles I did to do that. The easiest and, probably, most cost-effective way to meet that end would have been to fly down, spend the night and fly back to Sacramento. It should come as no surprise that “easy” and “cost-effective,” while both noble ends in and of themselves, are not necessarily the stuff of legend. I decided to take the long way around. I decided to take my time. I decided to do something many dream about, but comparatively few ever actually do.  And although my six-state, 3,100 plus mile trek was not record-setting by any means, it is also true that these sorts of things are not competitive. My “opponent” is me, Mother Nature and/or other variables. There is no winning, there is only doing.

Briefly, my ride went from Sacramento south to Pacheco Pass and over to Monterey where I picked up the Pacific Coast Highway and rode it down to Santa Barbara where I spent the night. PCH is one of “those” roads - epic in every respect. This time was no different. Friday morning, I met up with a friend (also no stranger to these sorts of adventures) who served as my local tour guide. She took me through not one, not two, but three different local canyons, including Malibu Canyon and culminating with Topanga Canyon. In Chatsworth, we parted ways. This would be the only day I rode with someone else. For a ride that consisted of very little planning, meeting up and riding together that Friday was one of the few planned events. Saturday was the wedding (different than any other wedding I’ve ever attended or been in, but that’s a different story for a different time) and Sunday I headed down to Anaheim to see my eldest son, daughter-in-law and grandsons. After dinner, I left Anaheim for Blythe, CA. I wanted to ride later in the day because that part of the desert can be unbearably hot this time of year. When I arrived in Blythe well after dark, the temperature was still near 100 degrees. I left early in the morning for Tucson, AZ (again, to avoid the heat) and stayed with a friend in Tucson Monday night.

So far, except for the PCH and the canyons near Malibu, the ride would have to be classified as utilitarian. Good, but nothing to get too excited about. That was about to change. Tuesday I rode north through Arizona, into New Mexico and ended up in Durango, CO. From Anaheim on, this was all new motorcycle territory for me, though I have driven many of those roads in the past. There were some notable exceptions like the Salt River Canyon in Arizona. It was magnificent - even more so on a bike. From Gallup, New Mexico all the way back to Williams, AZ, it was all new for me. From Durango I went north on the Million Dollar Highway to Ouray, CO where I picked up the San Juan Skyway to Placerville and Cortez, CO. Then I went south and west to the Four Corners, the Grand Canyon and into Williams for the night. From Williams I rode through Las Vegas and through the eastern Nevada desert before coming west around Lake Tahoe and home. The last day was about getting home and doing a little “endurance” riding - it could be described as utilitarian, too, but it was more a battle against my own psyche. The last day came in at just more than 740 miles, most if it through the desert.

The prior two paragraphs are only there to very briefly describe where the ride went. It doesn’t even begin to explain what it was. Those two paragraphs were, to be perfectly frank, a chore to write. It doesn’t say what I saw, what I experienced, the elements I faced and both the negative and positive aspects of the solitude involved. Some of that will be told as I continue, but this ride, as much as it is always about the machine and riding it, isn’t even about the ride itself. This was about escape. Escape from what? More like “from whom?” I was escaping from myself and a cycle of negativity that was eating me alive. Indeed, this ride became what it was… this ride became for that very reason. Let me see if I can put that into words.

I mentioned how many would love to do something like what I just did, but few actually have. The ones who don’t are not just day-dreaming out loud, they are not just blowing smoke; I firmly believe they are absolutely sincere and their intention is to do just that. It doesn’t have to be a motorcycle ride (solo or otherwise) it could be any kind of cross-country trek - a major hike, a bicycle ride, sailboat voyage or any number of things that involves some kind of physical long-distance journey. When I was filling up my bike in Tonopah, NV, a gentleman said to me, “someday…” I said, “Don’t wait too long, someday might never come.” He understood. For a split-second I saw in his eyes a determination that probably surprised even him. It is not uncommon when stopping for gas, food, water or for the night to see others see me with a form of envy that is not born of maliciousness. They don’t “want” my bike, they want to experience the world in a certain way and perhaps the most quintessential way is on a Harley. The metaphor, “steel horse,” could not be more appropriate.

It takes a lot of factors coming together to make something like this happen. As much as people can envision themselves heading out on the open road (or open whatever), more than just a couple of planets have to align. I own a motorcycle and I have for many years; I know what is involved in terms of physical, psychic and financial determination. Yet, this is just the third time I’ve taken such an adventure and the first time I’ve done it solo. I remember very clearly the first time six years ago. I rode with a friend to Butte, MT on an 11-day odyssey. It wasn’t going to be just the two of us - a larger group of friends all started to plan the ride months earlier, but as the date grew closer everyone else dropped out. I came close to dropping out myself. I kept thinking about how far it was, all the things that could go wrong, who would mind things at home - planets, all of them, that I was pushing out of alignment. At one point I realized that I was in the process of sabotaging my own “someday.” If I did not go then, I never would have.

More people have the tangible resources than they do the intangibles. Imagining oneself out on the open highway or being taken in by a canopy of trees lining the road or feeling the spray of the ocean while riding along the coast is the easy part. Those imaginational renderings never include the sweating butt, the twinge in the shoulder blade, the cramps in the hands or the miles of abject nothingness riding through the desert or across the salt flats. All of these terrain and geographic features are magical, but that magic can fade after 100, 200 or 500 miles. And if not a solo ride (if the vehicle of choice is a motorcycle, all rides are solo to some extent), what about the committee decisions? Where to eat, stop, sleep, and when to pee? These things are not what comes to mind when envisioning the romantic “open road.” Committees of one are the easiest, every decision is necessarily unanimous. But the solitude does have its downside, and many do not factor that into the romantic vision, either. This last trip was very intentionally a solo ride. I did not “invite” anyone, I didn’t want anyone else to go.

All of the friends who wanted to go both six years ago and last year all have their own motorcycles. All are part of the “biker” lifestyle (not to be confused with what is portrayed on TV - that is not what we are about). They all had planets that fell out of alignment. For some it was the time. For others it was the money. For still others it was family or work obligations. It doesn’t take much to throw a monkey wrench into something like this. And while I cannot say for sure, it is also possible that some were subconsciously pushing planets out of alignment. It is a much larger commitment than just a vacation. When envisioning how great it would be, those little details need not be entertained. When the departure date is looming, however, those details can become all-consuming.

Some say I am “living the dream.” This means different things to different people. It means different things to me depending on where my head is at the time. A little more than a week ago, my head could not see any dream. It was wrapped much too tightly around a notion that has haunted me my entire life - justice. When I was a kid, it was much more localized as fairness. As I grew and became more aware of the world I live in, I was able to see justice or, more often injustice, in people and places that were not directly tied to me. Bad things were happening to good or innocent people so much that I grew numb to it. It was a form of accepting that the world is not fair. Okay. Got it. But when good things happen to bad people (defined in numerous ways, it doesn’t have to be serial-killer bad)? That is a much more difficult concept to accept, for whatever reason. But it comes and goes. And when it touches my life in a very direct way it has a very direct effect on my serenity. In those times, I am living no dreams. In those times I am again five years-old and it is once again “no fair!”

It is exceeding rare that I am not in a profound state of gratitude for all I have. Whether it is by grace, by work or by luck, I am almost always in amazement at the life I get to live. In some respects, one could say I paid the price, but the truth is that I am one lucky SOB, too. The problem is that where I have worked hard to get much of what I have (luck and grace, while not a direct function of effort, are still affected by it), others seem to get what they want by doing little to nothing. I know, life is not fair, but when it hits very close to home, it devalues not the stuff I have, but what it took to get there. In other words, it diminishes the intangibles. And that - that - is on me. I should not and, in fact, do not need anyone to place any value on the things I know are good and true about me. The bottom line is simple enough, no none else can make me happy and, much more importantly, no one else can make me unhappy. And life isn’t fair. It’s not supposed to be.

Eight days, 3,130-ish miles though the desert, the heat, the rain, the dust and the mountains riding some of the most magnificent roads this nation has to offer gave me that. A sense of peace. I encourage anyone who intends to make a similar journey to stop intending and do it. Push the planets back into alignment and go. It is romantic, just not like you think it is.


Friday, June 03, 2016

An Ounce of Prevention


From my earliest memories up to my mid-30s, I never had any serious medical issues. Sure, I’ve been stitched up a time or two, broken an arm and I have been pretty sick a handful of times, but nothing really all that serious. Even when I had my wisdom teeth pulled at 18 years-old, I was only mildly sedated and given a local anesthetic. I remember it clearly; I was awake the whole time. It wasn’t until much later in life that I was in a position to need fluids intravenously (anaphylactic shock due to an allergic reaction to over-the-counter medication). I was in, fixed up and out within a couple of hours at a clinic. But that’s the extent of it. Until I was 37, I had never spent the night in a hospital as a patient.

All of that radically changed on October 17th, 2000. I was in a terrible automobile accident that should have killed me. It didn’t, but the hospital and all that goes with it became a real, constant and integral part of my life. I’ve written extensively about that wreck in my blog (this link has links to most of those posts), this is not about that, exactly. But it is about medical procedures and some of the nuances that never meant all that much to me prior. Among them is a simple revelation that only those who have been in the hospital for a sufficiently long period of time get it. We are the people who understand what the hospital means more intimately than anyone else. It’s not the doctors, the nurses, the x-ray and MRI techs, it’s not the family members who come to visit. Everyone else - everyone else - gets to go home. We don’t. We are there 24/7 and there is nothing we can say about it. We, who have been hospitalized for long periods of time, know it in a way no one else can. And it sucks.

I was there for about three months, five weeks of which I was in a “medically induced coma.” That’s pretty much a euphemism for being sedated into oblivion. I spent those five weeks in la-la land, somewhere between totally unconscious and semiconscious. They were the easiest weeks. After they brought me out of it, I was still put back under general anesthesia regularly for various procedures related to my recovery. When I was finally released, my hospital days were not over yet - I had to go back for procedures that took anywhere from a day to more than a week. Thankfully it’s been about 15 years since I’ve been hospitalized or needed a general anesthetic.
When I was conscious and I knew I would be “going under,” I found the experience not at all unpleasant. The unpleasantness either preceded whatever procedure I was going to have or came about a day later in the form of pain (or both), but I came to enjoy the “going under” and waking up part. Often, when I woke up, there would be new stuff about me (external fixator removal and the reversal of my colostomy were two procedures that made huge improvements). It was kind of exciting and not at all unpleasant. If nothing else, it was a break in the routine. Of course, by this time I knew hospitals and I knew what to expect.

In two days I will be “put under” for the first time in 15 or so years. It’s nothing serious, in fact, it’s a good thing. I am getting a colonoscopy because at my (ahem) advanced age, it’s considered a very good idea. It is not, however, the first time I have been “scoped.” Because my injuries in that accident resulted in a temporary colostomy, I was scoped fairly often. The procedure was never a problem and going under was, as I mentioned, something I had grown to enjoy. The prep for it is similar to what I have to do for this one. I’ll be drinking a ton of “purging fluid” and dealing with the, um, fallout. For those who have been there, you know, but imagine if you will what that looks like when the “exit” has been moved to your abdomen. No fun, but then they put me under and I was in my happy place again.

It’s been a long time. It was more than 37 years before my first hospital stay and it’s been around 15 since my last. I don’t know what I liked so much about going under and I am not exactly looking forward to it. The procedure itself? It is what it is. It’s an ounce of prevention. I can say with conviction that, although I know hospitals like only those who have lived in one do, and while I am not going into anything remotely unknown, I can also say, unequivocally, I do not like hospitals. That year or so of spending almost as much time in one as out of one was enough. To this day it takes more and more effort just to go inside one, let alone admit myself. I guess to those who have never been in one for a long time, this sounds like no big deal. And the reality is that it’s not. But it kind of is, too.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Soap Bubbles


I left Baton Rouge a year ago today. Although it would be a couple of weeks before I was able to get back into my home in Fair Oaks, it was the end of my temporary stay in a city that became my home. In fact, it became my fifth home in the short list of geographic regions that I ever spent enough time in to call home. But home is more than just geography, it is more than just where a job is, it is more than just where a school is. It turns out the old cliché is right on the money - home is where the heart is. For that to happen, for me, it means not only that I have to live in a given place, I also have to establish long-term emotive connections with people who also live there. In have done that in exactly five places, four in California and one in Louisiana.

Now about one year back in my Sacramento area home again, I don’t feel “at home.” Yes, I am all moved back into the same house I moved out of two (or three+, depending on how one defines “moved”) years ago and it’s the same house I have owned for almost 11 years. Yes, I still know my way around. Yes, I am gainfully employed in a “new” job, but it’s at the institution I spent five years working on my BA and then my MA before starting my journey towards a Ph.D. And, yes, I have a lot of friends here from before. But… things changed while I was gone. The circles have intersected, merged, dissolved and been reincarnated as new circles. This morphing of groups and alliances and loyalties occurs everywhere and amongst all groups and subgroups of friends - but when one is in the midst of it, it is hardly perceptible in real time.

Try moving away and then come back. The familiarity I have with this place is almost deceiving. A lot has changed and after the initial “hey, we’re so glad to have you back,” reaction by a whole lot of people (not all are “friends” in the pre-Facebook sense), that novelty has, apparently, worn off. I am not part of the circle(s) I once was. The evidence, while subtle, is becoming more and more convincing. Where I once was always “in the know” on various different happenings, gatherings, excursions, and the like (some of which require an actual invite, others are open to everyone who shows up), I now find out about such things (often on Facebook) after they have happened. This is not to say that my event folder never gets the telltale red blip indicating an invite is awaiting a response, but I got those kinds of invites when I was in Baton Rouge, too, 2,200 miles away and without a chance of making it. Blanket invites to blanket events are not among the subtleties I am referring to. It unfolds more in the unofficial, in the impromptu, in the circles circling that I am now decidedly on the outside of.

A lot of shit went down while I was gone. That disaster marriage and my now ex-wife took a toll on who is who and what is what. The fallout for all those who were either directly or tangentially affected is over - life has moved on. However, speaking for myself, I am still trying to find my place. The terrain has changed; this is not the same home I left. It was predictable, but I didn’t see it coming. It feels Twilight Zone-esque sometimes. Where the fuck am I? Who the fuck are y’all? Who the fuck am I? It’s like waking up from a dream but it was the dream that was real. This, this real, has become more surreal.

The circles, apparently, are not circles at all. 
They are more like the soap bubbles blown by a kid with a bubble wand. 
They are fragile, short-lived and exceedingly fluid.




Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Now What?


My first year of full-time professing (which, I must assume, is the act a professor performs) is in the books. It is not my first rodeo, however. Indeed, I have been professing semi-professionally, without the title, for some time now. Now with the nebulous title, “adjunct professor,” I can lay claim to a vocation that is as enigmatic as it is intuitive. Enigmatic because so many, including many of us, cannot say what, exactly, it is we do. We are more than just teachers; we are more than just researchers; and when it comes to professing, speaking for myself at least, the ambiguity of language itself leaves me questioning what that actually means. While I do, for the most part, know what I am doing, I am often not as good at doing it as I wish. My dissertation advisor at LSU once told me that his job extends well beyond mentoring his advisees through grad school. He is part counselor, part friend, part colleague and part many other things, as necessary. That’s the intuitive part - we know we are more than teachers and we can feel that what that is is an important distinction, but I cannot articulate with any more precision what that “more” actually is.

I am also left with a monumental “now what?” One of the benefits of this job is the several blocks of “free” time we are given during the year. Some outside of academia see that as more “vacation” than they get (or more than we deserve), but the fact is that many professors never stop professing through the summer and other breaks. If we are not teaching summer classes, we are researching or preparing for upcoming classes. Although the life of an adjunct professor (or visiting professor, or part-time faculty, or lecturer, or temporary faculty - all of these terms are relatively synonymous) does not entail the rigors of attaining tenure or reaching other non-classroom goals, we are still charged with being ready. And being ready means preparation. For me, this summer, that means doing a significant amount of preparatory work to be ready for the fall semester - to fill the shortcomings revealed in my first year in order to be better next year. It’s not all “vacation,” but it is self-directed. There is no clock to punch, no one to answer to, no students and no superiors. That’s not just me, anyone who takes this job seriously does not look at summer as “summer vacation.”

But some of it is. That’s where the “now what?” comes in. In the past eight years, my summers have been loaded with an abundance of “free” time, but not all of it was and, depending on which summer we’re talking about, it might have been difficult to differentiate it from the preceding spring or the upcoming fall. This is the first summer since 2009 in which I am not a grad student. My graduate career officially comes to an end in August, but for all intents and purposes, I’m done. I threw in the towel on the Ph.D., but I am coming away with another MA just before I time out on it. What that means is more time this summer. It doesn’t mean I have all summer, but a much larger proportion of it belongs to me. Now what? Part of that what is this - writing. I am also going to be reading for my own entertainment, enlightenment, interest, etc., too. But I will be reading for “work,” as well. I’ll be reading a new edition of a textbook and creating curriculum for one class in the hopes I will get a section or two next fall (adjuncts rarely ever know what we will teach until just before we get to teach it). But even with that, I have a lot of time on my hands.

Years ago - at least 10 years, probably more - I discovered something in me that I kind of knew was there, but never paid too much attention. Very broadly defined, it can be called “art.” Or artistry, or an artistic nature, or artistic talent (aren’t all talents artistic?), but to be as clear as possible, let’s just call it “art.” I found art in me. I always wished I had art in me, but felt that when it came to such things, I was not so blessed. I could not sing, I could not play music, I could not draw, I could not paint, I could not sculpt, I could not write poetry. I still can’t, but I can write. I don’t know how or why this “gift” found me, but for a long time I wished a different one did. I am not exactly a “voracious” reader, but there have been long periods of my life that I could be described as such. I don’t know if there is a genetic component and I can’t (nor will I) say that some definition of “god” bestowed me with this ability. Despite all this, I finally acknowledged and embraced not only the fact that I have this artistic talent, but, more importantly, that I have art in me. Furthermore, I believe everyone does. Some are obviously more gifted than others (I am among the “others,” not the “some”), but we all have it.

There is a much larger work of art, larger than anything I have produced thus far, lurking somewhere inside of me. It is painfully obvious that it is not a dissertation, but there is something. There is a big piece of art struggling to get out. It is, perhaps, serendipitous that this urge coincides with the first summer in a long time that I have the time I do. I have a “now what?” and the “what” occurring at precisely the same time. So, I will be writing - and this is the start. It is not a bad start considering today is the first day into the now what/what collision. I have a lot to say, I have a lot of ways to say it and, now, I have a lot of time to get it said.

That’s what.