Monday, December 20, 2010

Mountain Song


TRUCKEE, Calif. – Off in the distance the muted roar of a diesel engine combined with the intermittent warning tones of a snowplow backing from a driveway sing their plaintive duet. As this industrial calliope fades to silence, making its rounds into the next valley, around the next turn, the Sierra winter returns to pristine post-storm silence. The only sounds are coming from nature herself; the crackling of new snow, the drip-drip of water dropping off the icicles and an occasion breeze rustling through the trees form a very different movement… from a very different orchestra. Even the sub-freezing temperature adds a steady cadence that maintains the rhythm of winter in the high Sierras. And through the passing storm clouds the crisp starlight shines all that much brighter.

From 1998 to 2003, Truckee was my home. Although my current home is only about 100 miles to the west, it might as well be 10,000, for this winter song takes more than a short visit to reveal its beauty; it demands immersion. For the past two nights and again for the next, I am immersed - there is only acquiescence and submission, nature always calls the tune. The parallel to life in the grandest scheme is apparent and as usually seems to be the case, this has become unavoidably apparent when the world outside is at its quietest. Perhaps due to the volume of this particular brand of silence, this song of dominance and renewal, it has stirred me from my sleep. And the words will not wait…

This blog debuted five years and two days ago, give or take a few hours. I am not sure why I did not mark this particular milestone with some words of reflection, but it is quite likely I did not have much to say. It seems to be the case, at least as far as this project is concerned, more often of late. Busy? Sure, more than ever, but it usually doesn’t take a major commitment of time to write these posts. It very well could be that the novelty of life’s unexpected turns and twists has worn off… it is not as profound as it once was. That is not to say that life is any less profound, only that I notice the multitude of ironies, complexities, connections and interconnections with such frequency that it does not surprise me as deeply – and that sense of wonder is often a source of inspiration.

Thankfully it is not the sole source as this post clearly demonstrates. I am tempted to say that my life has come full circle without really understanding or caring what that means. I am beginning to believe that there is only one way to truly come “full circle” and I am not ready yet. But in many respects this colloquialism makes sense. These mountains and this little tourist town marked a line of demarcation in my life. The one side came to a violent end while the new one had its tenuous beginnings right here. Since leaving Truckee about eight years ago, that tentative new beginning took root and flourished, although I did not and could not know it then. This is the first time in a long time that I have returned and stayed long enough to allow the mountain’s winter serenade to engulf – and awaken – me.

In five years much has happened in my life and most of it was not planned. It did not just happen, it took effort on my part, but the results are beyond anything I could have imagined. The same is true of the many relationships I have formed and it is this unpredictability that has me thinking about that parallel I mentioned. Snowflakes are each unique in their creation. As they fall to the earth they combine with others to form complex and beautiful relationships. There is no blueprint, they come to earth and do what they are supposed to do. They cannot fail. As long as I can do the same - what I am supposed to do – then what is supposed to happen does not matter. Only then can I experience the same harmony that the mountains are singing now.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Not Good Enough


I have not posted anything here in the entire month of November (so far), and it has been more than a month since my last posting. Actually, there was a rant I posted for a day or two, but it served its purpose and I took it down. It reflected a rare moment of anger and thankfully that moment morphed into proactive engagement such that it no longer takes up space in my head. The ball, so to speak, is no longer in my court. But even if that one short-lived post is included, this has been a dry spell the likes of which this blog has not seen since its inception almost five years ago. And since diving into this medium, I have seen other blogs come and go for a variety of reasons - my circumstances are likely not unique. I am busy with other things; it takes a great deal of motivation to start the writing process; I feel as though I have nothing more to say. This last reason is probably the most difficult to accept, but it is what it is.

Life is challenging. My life has been particularly challenging due to my own choices and sometimes just because that’s the way life is. And this is true in both the negative connotation as well as the positive. The challenges I face today are due to choices I have made that are absolutely positive, but to realize my goals, there is a great deal of work to do. I recently shared with a friend how these hurdles often look overwhelming from the front side, but my experience has proven that as daunting as they appear, these challenges can be met if the effort required is applied. But like everything else worthwhile, success does not come overnight – it takes time. Here again, this is something I’ve said before. My pearls of wisdom regarding perseverance, patience, positive-thinking-glass-half-full insights are nothing new… I feel like the proverbial broken record.

For the sake of documentation, I’ll update where my recent path has led me thus far. This blog was created so that I could keep my writing fresh during the five-week winter break at California State University, Sacramento. It was just after the completion of my first semester there (I transferred as a junior) working toward my BA in government-journalism. Blogging was a suggestion from one of my journalism professors, but I never imagined it would continue this long or that it would have spawned more than 500 posts. I have not only documented my educational and professional path, but also many of the insights I have had along the way as inspired by everything from family to friends to politics to our society in general. The subtitle of this blog, “Perspectives, Purpose and Opinion,” turned out to be prophetic indeed – I had no idea that it would be the common thread that ran throughout, it just sounded good at the time.

Very early in my archives, I explained how “The 25 Year Plan” got its name. In 1983 I was a first semester freshman at San Diego State University. At the time, many of the students there accepted the reality that finishing a degree in four years was unrealistic. When seniors were asked what their standing was, many would say, “I’m a senior, but I’m on the five-year plan.” Today, the term “super-senior” has replaced the euphemism used at SDSU to denote a second (or more) year senior. I never made it past the freshman level at SDSU. I was placed on academic probation after my second semester and after my fourth I was disqualified – another euphemism; I was kicked out. College, apparently, was not for me.

In the intervening years between 1985 and 2003, I reentered post-secondary education (some college, some vocational) many times for different reasons, but the common denominator was that my path had come to a dead-end and I needed to regroup and start over again. My success at these various attempts was remarkably better than what I experienced at SDSU, but I was never in it for the long term. I stayed just long enough to get the carrot and then moved on. When it means being satisfied with the bare minimum, “good enough,” at the time, was. But things changed profoundly with the new millennium and by the fall of 2003 I found myself once again staring over, this time at American River College in Sacramento. If I said that my perspective had changed as a result of the events that had occurred between October 2000 and fall 2003, I would be lying. In some respects it had, but not regarding my propensity to put forth minimum effort to get by… good enough still was.

How I ended up at Sac State is a long(ish) story, but for whatever reason, I got excited about school again. My grades were better than ever before and though I had no real plan this time, circumstances serendipitously led me to that journalism professor, this blog and an education path I am now pursuing. I graduated with my BA in December 2007 – a full 26+ years after my 1981 high-school graduation. That’s how this blog got its name – “The 25 Year Plan.” I know, it’s not exactly 25 years, but “The 26 ½ Year Plan” didn’t have the same ring to it and if the clock is started in 1983 at SDSU, it’s 24 ½ years. You get the idea. The point here is that my best intentions are what led me to this point – always. That is, I have always intended to succeed – everyone does. Who would set out with the intention to fail? But good intentions, like “good enough,” were not enough.

Jumping forward, I am now almost finished with an MA in communication studies at Sac State. I have only a couple of assignments left to complete this semester’s work and next semester I am only working on my thesis. It did not take long before I was not satisfied with what a BA could do for me – good enough no longer was. And I am not stopping at an MA either. I am currently in the process of applying to eight different doctoral programs in the hopes of earning a Ph.D. I do not know whether I will be successful at getting in yet, but the only way to guarantee failure is by not trying. Some might say, “Okay, but I know the college thing is not for me, what’s any of this got to do with me?”

The answer is another question: “Are you satisfied with good enough?”

Monday, November 08, 2010

Pit-Fighter


I almost never use profanity when I write. It is rarely ever necessary to make my point and although it can be used effectively for emphasis, it is at the cost of credibility. I know what the words mean and I am well versed at using them, both grammatically and rhetorically, but again, it is not necessary. Usually. There are, however, exceptions and this particular post represents such a case. I am highly agitated by an anonymous letter some punk sent me today. Before I continue, please take a moment to peruse the following scanned image of the letter and the envelope so that we are all on the same page.

Regardless of whether or not the so-called mess actually exists (it does not) is beside the point. Being called a “white trash pig” does not bother me in the least – I have been called worse. The demands, relevant or not, are not the issue either. There are many ways of communicating one’s desires – this is not the most effective, but small minds have limited capacity for realizing their desires anyway. No, everything up to the capitalized “or” is fine with me - it is what occurs afterward that has my pissed-off meter off the scale.

“Fuck up my cars?” Really? Including (but I would assume not limited to) broken windows, cut radiator hoses and flat tires? That sounds like a threat, and just to be clear, this little justification-for-abortion declares that he (probably, or she) attacks late at night. It is clear just from the addressee on the envelope that this evolutionary anomaly does not know my name, or really much about me, for if this box of rocks did know me, said box would likely take into consideration how important the sanctity and security of my home is to me. The idea that someone might come onto my property with the intention of causing me harm removes all restrictions and inhibitions on how and to what extent I will defend myself.

“Pit-Fighter,” if you have the capacity to even turn on a computer, let alone navigate to this page, take a very broad view of that last sentence.You might attack late at might, but consider who might also be up that late. I warned this post would contain profanity and so far it has only been quotes from my new adversary, so let me fulfill that promise with words of my own:

I’m not fucking around fuck-head. You want to play? Bring it – we’ll see who fucks up what.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Negotiation


Sometimes I’ll write simply because I haven’t written anything in a while. Sometimes that feeling is just that, a feeling. The fact is that I am writing every day and some days I am writing quite a lot, but it is not the sort of writing that I would post here. So that aforementioned feeling probably stems from not doing this kind of writing in a while. I just abandoned a piece of garbage that will languish in my documents folder titled “unfinished stupid shit.” I can’t bring myself to delete it, but it will likely never be re-opened again either. There are not many of these files on my computer, but there are those rare occurrences that I have written myself into a corner with no hope of return. I am trying to redeem myself at this very moment…

When it comes to writing for this blog, I only have to answer to myself. Nothing is ever “due;” I have complete freedom to write or not about anything or nothing. My archives are full of anything and nothing, some of which I am quite proud of, some not so much. But writing for me can serve as a window into my soul, as a way of exploring those areas of my psyche that I am otherwise too preoccupied to pay much attention to. And it always comes back to the words. Words are random; meaning is arbitrary, if we have not agreed to a large extent what words denote, there is no meaning whatsoever. But that is only a start. Our language is in constant evolution and the connotative meanings of words bring life to them – and often become denotative in time. However, language in all its infinite flexibility and variety is still restricted by our ability to come to agreement.

Yet despite all our differences and seeming inability to agree on much, especially in the polarized society in which we currently find ourselves, the ability to come to terms on terms is astounding. Despite the butchering of the English language that is found in the explosion of textual communication in recent years, correct grammar is still the rule – the gold standard – one that is still acknowledge even by those who do not, cannot or choose not to practice its tenets. Changes in the rules of grammar have been few - the structure of our language has remained largely static even if the vernacular evolves daily. Yet the proliferation of willful violations of those rules in places where they are still paramount does not bode well for the continued agreement of this most basic requirement in communication.

But it begs the question: If communication is about the sharing and creation of meaning, does it really matter how that is done? In other words, does the response, “But you knew what I meant” hold any validity. I would argue that in discrete, isolated and informal circumstances, the resultant exchange and negotiation of meaning is sufficient to satisfy that communication did in fact occur. But in a more global context, this is a non-fallacious slippery slope. If the rules of formal communication, mass communication, research and the like are made up as we go along, relying on the sole criteria that “You knew what I meant,” then the already imprecise nature of communication based upon agreed norms becomes nothing more than a crap-shoot. It leaves too much open to interpretation and a return to textbook postmodernism that takes away any universality to what is true, good and beautiful. Furthermore, what if I “don’t know what you mean?” Then what?

My world is self-admittedly about communication. It is what I study, what I practice and what fascinates me every time I stop for just a moment to ponder it. Our ability to communicate has transformed the world, for better and for worse. The power of communication is undeniable. No other species has come close to the accomplishments ours has and the one and only factor that separates us from them is our ability to communicate symbolically. It is more fascinating than our technology, our mobility, our arts and our sciences because communication makes all of that possible. It seems that as a species we disagree on more than we agree on, often violently so, but we could not have become who we are if we were unable to effectively negotiate meaning – to communicate.


Saturday, October 16, 2010

Ten Years


A lot can happen in 10 years. Adolescent children pass through their teens and into adulthood in 10 years. Some investment accounts and US Savings Bonds can reach maturity in 10 years. And a 12 year-old Scotch whiskey need only an additional two years to make it so. But in all seriousness, 10 years represents a considerable stretch in the context of one human life. If we lived to be 100 years old, 10 years represents a solid 10 percent of that life – it is not insignificant. Ten years is also a nice round number to do some reflection, perhaps a targeted self-assessment and acknowledge that I am but one man and I cannot do this life thing alone. The last part of the preceding sentence would be the likely answer if one were to ask, “Which one of these things does not belong?” Read on, it more than belongs; it is pivotal.

I wrote a post in January 2006 titled “Five Years.” In October of the same year, a sequel of sorts was written titled “Six Years.” In October of 2007 and 2009, the predictably titled “Seven Years” and “Nine Years,” respectively, graced this space. What happened to “Eight Years?” I am not exactly sure, but despite the absence of a dedicated anniversary installment, the theme was picked up in other posts. I hyperlinked the "n Years" series for a couple of reasons: First, I do not want to rehash what I have already written. Indeed, in rereading those posts, I see that has happened too much already. The details and the “facts” of this particular event have not changed. Second, this anniversary is likely the last in the “n Years” series – not that there is nothing left to write about, but from this time forward this anniversary will be remembered with some quiet reflection and contemplation. Words will flow from that, but not in dedication to the anniversary of my death.

Yes, death. Those that know the story and/or hit those aforementioned links before reading this already know the details. For those that don’t know, I was involved (okay, I caused) a head-on collision with a logging truck on October 17, 2000… at about 9:00 a.m. Or so I’m told by very reliable sources – I have no recollection whatsoever. I fell asleep at the wheel of a Jeep Cherokee while driving my then 13 year-old son to school near Squaw Valley, Calif. My son and the truck driver suffered relatively minor injuries – mine killed me. And then I stopped being dead. Repeat. I don’t know how many times. The records are a little unclear – not surprising considering the nature of the emergency medical attention I required. I guess they did not spend a lot of time writing things down in those early moments. For the details on my injuries and what some of that surreal “near death experience” (I hate that term) was like, hit the above links (and this link). This is not about that.

In less than 12 hours, it will have been 10 years since I should have died. Whether or not one believes in being at death's door, or crossing over and coming back, or the ubiquitous “near death experience,” one fact is indisputable: Based upon the nature and extent of my injuries, I should have died – but I didn’t. I am not only still here, but by a sizable margin – 10 percent if I live to be 100, a higher percentage if I miss that mark. In the context of one human life this is a considerable length of time; in the context of my life it is virtually an eternity. It should be quite obvious that without the help of many, many others I could not have survived or recovered. And many of those who helped I’ll never know.

But that whole idea of not being able to walk this life alone has become so much more prescient as I have navigated these last 10 years. It’s way more than thanking all those who stood by me (especially my family), and it is way more than being grateful for every single day since waking up in the hospital some time just prior to Thanksgiving, 2000; it has become apparent to me that constantly pulling away from and creating barriers between myself and humanity (as impossible as totally succeeding at such a plan is) had become my life’s perspective. I was becoming socially antisocial. And the crazy thing is that getting into that wreck and even recovering (mostly) from my injuries was not enough to make me grateful for the people around me, to say nothing about having my life spared. I was alive, but not all that happy about it.

That attitude began to change – slowly – when I finally came to the realization that life is a team sport… and I was not a team player. I’d like to say it hit me like a bolt of lightning, but I’m not so sure my psyche could have handled that much truth that fast. It happened over days, weeks, months and, in some respects, years - since the day I was born. I guess I had to come around to it on my own – maybe it had to be my discovery, who knows? But I finally figured that if I went along, followed some rules and became a team player, I would be, at the very least, less agitated (read "angry") all the time. I found not too much later that the team I joined was the winning team. Together it appears that we cannot lose. By this time I was around 40 years old and losing was a living place for me. Now almost 48, I have not had a losing day in many years.

I can’t begin to relate or recall all of the people who have come into my life and touched it in some way. The relationships I have even with strangers have an authenticity I could never fathom, and the relationships with those close to me? Absolutely priceless. Friends, colleagues, professors, family (not exclusively, some fill more than one category) all play a pivotal role in shaping who I am and what my life is. And life is good. All I had to do was join the winning team… and participate. Perception is everything.

Queue the music…

We are the champions, my friends
And we'll keep on fighting - till the end
We are the champions
We are the champions
No time for losers
Cause we are the champions - of the world*

*Freddie Mercury, 1977


Sunday, October 03, 2010

Apples and Trees


Tomorrow my youngest son turns 21. Actually by his clock, in the time zone he is currently stuck in, he is already 21, but in Afghanistan it means far less than it does in most of these United States. He will not go barhopping with friends; he will not go out for a nice steak dinner; he will continue to protect this nation because the employer he chose is the United States Army. And I could not be more proud of him. It was not an easy decision to make, he knew the odds were very good that he would end up on a combat mission and that it would not be pleasant. He accepted the risks and the discomfort for a number of reasons – some included the opportunity that comes with military enlistment, but he also felt a sense of duty and patriotism such that the sacrifices he makes and the inherent danger he faces on a daily basis are worth it.

I can’t help but remember him as a small boy. These milestones permit a window into the past - more than an opportunity to reflect, it is an obligation. It has been 21 years since Matthew came into this world and much has happened in that time. For him personally, he has moved from an adventuresome, highly independent boy to a young man who carries those qualities into adulthood. These are absolutely factors that influenced his current career choice. Whether he decides to reenlist or not, it is safe to assume that he will remain on a quest for adventure. Matthew’s older brothers posses strikingly similar characteristics, though they are manifested in other ways. And that old saying regarding apples and trees? There appears to be some truth in it. But this is not about Matthew’s brothers or me – it is his birthday and for reasons that have been instilled through our cultural history, it is a big one.


Even if those reasons are not recognized in the hellhole he is currently residing in. Matthew will be done with his yearlong deployment in just about a month and I can’t think of a better birthday present. He will return to Germany where he can properly celebrate his birthday, abusing his new freedom in the traditional manner. Although there are risks involved with that, too, at least there will be no one shooting at him. And no one is happier about that than I am. He will have some time to collect his thoughts, relax and determine how the next chapter will be written and where it will take place. Although the options available at this point are almost limitless, it is virtually guaranteed that he will surprise me with the next turn – he seems to have a knack for that.

Apples never fall far from their trees.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Concrete Symbolism


I often feel that I am on the verge of some great insight, something that will reveal to me what this thing we call life is all about. It seems that whatever it may be, it is always just out of reach – sometimes at my fingertips and other times more than an arm’s length away – but it’s always there. Since beginning my study of communication in earnest, that feeling is more profound than ever, but at the same time the frustration of not being able to grasp it has become more pronounced. How does one describe what is beyond definition? Words, for all the robustness and versatility they hold, are painfully inadequate.

Yet this is what we have. Symbolic communication – via words and otherwise - is the hallmark of the human enterprise; it separates us from the rest of the living. We are connected by the ability to think in and communicate those thoughts symbolically with each other. But the thoughts are not symbols – they are real. Our representations are abstract images of what we think, they are not the same as the substance of thought. Since symbols are the product of a process of encoding, and interpretation one of decoding, vast rifts can form between intention and interpretation. For all our ability to communicate, we still fall woefully short in transmitting and receiving messages. The greatest achievement of our species, therefore, is wrought with infinite variability in how what one says is turned into meaning by another.

Despite it’s imprecision communication has given rise to human domination of the planet. We have climbed to the top of the food chain in very short order. We are not the biggest or the strongest; not the fastest or the longest lived, but through our intellect and the ability to symbolically share our view of the world with one another, a degree of cooperation has occurred sufficient enough to have mastered our environment. Indeed, we have created it. Yet for all that communicative prowess, when someone looks at us the wrong way we read into it all the evil the world has to offer. For all the civilization we have created, we too often act with abject savagery. Differences of opinion beget personal affronts and peace, the very thing we (all humans, all the time) say we strive for, is lost in the destruction of what we have built.

Perhaps we will master the art of communication someday. Maybe that is what is just out of reach, a formula of encoding and decoding that leaves no room for interpretation – concrete symbolism might be the next great achievement of the human race. Computers can do it – digital instructions are followed to the letter (or number) without variation, without judgment. But if and when that day comes, what will be left for us to say? It is the very nature of six billion visions of the world, six billion symbolic representations and six billion interpretations that makes life the dynamic experience it is. With no variation, there is no humanity - even when some of those variants seem so very inhumane.

Monday, September 06, 2010

It's Not About the Boobies

A local high school student, Hunter Cooper, 15, is getting more than his allotted 15 minutes of fame. It happens sometimes when the planets align just so and the event, the social climate and decisions made by certain authorities combine into the perfect public relations storm. And Cooper has found himself in the eye of it. His claim to fame? He wore a rubber bracelet to school emblazoned with a slogan deemed offensive by administrators at Rocklin High School in Rocklin, Calif. The bracelet is part of Keep A Breast Foundation’s breast cancer awareness campaign. The slogan, “i [heart] boobies,” is aimed at raising awareness among young people and if the current media bonfire is any indication, it has done that and more. The uproar in this case, however, has less to do with a school’s right to limit certain freedoms of expression and more to do with the reasoning behind the disciplinary action taken against Cooper by school administrators.

According to a Sacramento Bee story that ran today, Cooper complied with his physical education teacher’s demand that he take the bracelet off, but when the teacher asked him to hand it over, Cooper started to ask questions regarding his teacher’s reasoning. He was told the slogan was demeaning to women and that there had been complaints. According to the Bee, Cooper responded, “If girls feel that way, then why are so many wearing the bracelets as well?” The response he received was a one-day suspension for being defiant. Other news sources tell essentially the same story, including quotes from Rocklin High School Principal Mike Garrison that establish the school’s rationale for the policy and the authority behind it. Schools do, in fact, have a great deal of authority regarding disruptive or offensive expression that would otherwise be protected under the First Amendment. This is not about that; this is about the so-called defiance.

Cooper raised a legitimate question – one that could have easily been answered in a dialogue that would have taught him far more than blind adherence to authority. Granted, this case could well have occurred in such a way that Cooper’s attitude was in fact defiant, that he was not legitimately seeking clarity and he was inviting a confrontation, but as reported none of that is apparent. Cooper is, by most standards, still a kid. But he is at an age when he is beginning to think critically and that should be encouraged. The answer to his question is simple and if it had been provided in a mature manner, he would have learned how thinking critically is applied in one of a lifetime's worth of real-time situations. They could have pointed out his glaring logical fallacy; that just because some women do not find it offensive, that does not make it inoffensive to all women. They might have followed up by citing case law that gives schools authority to limit certain First Amendment rights – or at least the rationale behind those limitations. If Cooper then refused to remove the bracelet (which, by all accounts he already had), they could have concluded the lesson for the day and issued the appropriate disciplinary action. To a young adult, the answer, “Because I said so,” should no longer be sufficient. They should be asking “why.”

Cooper engaged in a losing argument, but the way in which it transpired he could never know it. Indeed, he never got to lose his argument; it ended by force before it began. And force should only and always be a last resort. The school played its trump card way before it was necessary and lost out on an educational experience that could not easily be simulated in the classroom. In the classroom of life the consequences are real - the very foundation of our nation was represented by this single exchange. At some point kids need to be treated as real, thinking adults and when adults in authority squash their questions in an egotistical application of power, what does that teach them? Cooper may well have been motivated by an opportunity to be defiant – to exert his power justified by the righteousness of his cause. Or he may have legitimately wanted to know why he was told to remove what he believed to be nothing more than a sign of support. Either way, the school missed a golden opportunity to do what it is supposed to do – teach.

Friday, September 03, 2010

The Good Old Days

My middle son turns 23 today. My youngest will be 21 next month and my eldest, now 26 has a son of his own with another child on the way. All this has happened before I turn 48 later this year. I guess that means I’m getting old, but I don’t feel old. And except for the grandchildren, this was all foreseeable – one only need do the math. But I don’t recall ever putting in the effort to do that math… it kind of catches me off guard every time one of these milestones rolls around. My kids are not kids anymore and have not been for some years now. Sure, they’re kids in the same respect anyone 25 years my junior is, but at the same time, these are adults we are talking about. And each has made some very adult decisions that carried with them both negative and positive consequences. It was not that long ago that I was their age – I didn’t forget.

In some ways, however, it seems like a thousand years ago. So much has changed in the world in such a short time. My children never played a record or actually “dialed” a phone. They have never been subjected to black and white TV and the handful of stations that came into the home from an antenna. And this, we are told, is progress. They grew up with the Internet and are as used to it being an everyday part of their lives as my bicycle was in my youth. By the time they were in the latter stages of grade school the paper route had gone the way of the dinosaur and afterschool daycare was a necessary evil. Although technological evolution is inevitable, it feels as though it is moving at a logarithmic rate… or maybe it’s because I have a larger frame in which to view it from. Perhaps mine is no different from every other generation in the recent, post-industrial, past, each looking back from a half-century of experience to the “good old days.”

My life will come to an end well before this century comes to a close. If I live to be 100, I’ll see 2062 and no more, and that is a big “if.” But my kids should see the latter part of this century and their children have a good shot at celebrating the turn of the next; I can only imagine what kind of world they will be living in. The human race is unique among all the species in that we plan not only for our own future, but that of our posterity as well. We have been working to make the world a better place for millennia all the while knowing that the immediate and short-term benefits we realize pale in comparison to what we are building for generations to come. The ever increasing pool of knowledge we have been filling for the past several thousand years is not just ours to benefit from now, but to contribute to for those that come long after we are all gone. Why?

And to be clear, it is not just the technology that is advancing at an alarming rate. We are also growing culturally into a world-society, though with the wars and conflicts that we seem to pass through with great regularity, it could be argued that we are still somewhat primitive when it comes to getting along. Still, great strides have been made when it comes to tolerance and equality even if the current status is a long way from ideal. I am hopeful that with advances in human communication – and with the help of technology – there will come a time when my offspring will not be faced with conflict resolution through force. A lofty dream perhaps, but it is what we, as humans, have always worked towards – even if that security, at various points in our short history, was reserved for certain humans and not others. As the world grows smaller and as our population continues to grow, our children will have to find a means to work together – and I believe they will.

I have great hope that a better world awaits my young sons. I don’t know of any parent who feels any differently. But it won’t just happen; we have to continue to show the way even when that journey is an uphill climb. I have a vision of a world in which conflict and differences of opinion can be worked out by human communication, leaving the need for force as a lesson in the history books. It can happen – it’s going to have to or there won’t be anyone left to read those history books just a few generations down the line. The dinosaurs ran the store here for millions of years, we have been at the wheel just a few thousand. If we want to last as long as they did, we’d better learn to live together. Nothing can wipe us out faster than we can.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Apathy - Revisited

It’s odd how some thoughts can pop into my head that, in a split-second, appear just as insane as they really are. That I recognize them as such as quickly as I do speaks volumes about how my view of the world has changed, but it also speaks to the vision I had of the world for many years. I have referred to my generation as the “age of apathy” in the past. Although I realize this is a gross generalization, like most generalizations there is an element of truth in it. I came of age in the late 70s; a decade that could be characterized in a number of ways, but one that I remember most profoundly is that there was no real drive. There were some major events that came to a degree of resolution – the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement, Watergate and other forms of civil unrest seemed to come to some sort of closure towards the end of the 70s. And then things got pretty good pretty fast in the 80s. A sense of entitlement settled in and the work ethic that had already begun to take a beating in the 60s was dying a slow death. Generalizations, yes, but the sense of apathy from those days is real.

At least it was for many in my generation. Although much was left to fight for or against, no one felt much like fighting anymore. It was a time of harvest and some, like myself, who were to entering adulthood and the workforce had no sense of priority. It’s not that the previous generation did not show us the way, but to a certain extent that age-old idea that parents want their kids to have a better life than they did was perceived by many as a sense of entitlement to the good life. Tom Wolfe described the 70s as the “me decade” and for this product of that period, it certainly proved to be so. Although this attitude inflicted many, many of them eventually grew out of it. I, however, profoundly confused the good life with the easy life and worked harder at avoiding the necessary work to attain it than the work to attain it would have been. So when the thought that I can just say, “screw it” to my work pops into my head, the insanity of where that will lead me is readily apparent. The good life is not easy – it isn’t supposed to be.

I wrote the following essay for Prosper Magazine back in 2006. It is almost four years old, but it still applies…



The Apathetic Revolution


“I'd love to change the world - but I don't know what to do,
So I'll leave it up to you.”

These lyrics from the 1971 hit by Alvin Lee and Ten Years After turned out to be prophetic indeed. It was the beginning of a time in this country’s history when so much would be redefined. The political and socio-economic fabric of a nation had been unraveled and rewoven, catching many by surprise and leaving others by the wayside. The decompression following the 60s became the time of the hunter, the hunted and the silent.

The uber-morality of the 60s, with the civil rights and equal rights movements… even the peace marches which finally brought an end to the Vietnam War was replaced with a paradigm shift toward the “self-center.” The “good fight” had been won and it was time to regroup, relax and reflect. We fell back into our collective cocoons - and stayed there. Tom Wolfe’s “me decade” of theb 70s became the “me generation;” a status quo that has endured for more than 30 years.

Perhaps it was the ultimate success of these popular uprisings that harkened the coming of the “apathetic revolution” - its battle cry, “It’s none of my business!” We stopped noticing things. Life was comfortable, at least for the silent majority. We wanted to trust our leaders in the face of irrefutable evidence to the contrary. Nixon got us out of Vietnam, made nice with China and nearly got away with Watergate. Had it not been for two nosey reporters… well, no one else paid much attention.

The problem is not that we didn’t learn; some did - too well. Business at every level began to play “follow the leadership.” They added qualifiers, justifiers and rationalizers to redefine that which is right and wrong. The age-old robber-baron practices of days gone by were dressed in new garb only to become the savings and loan debacle turned Enron scandal. Even the recent shenanigans of the likes of Congressman Randy “Duke” Cunningham went unchecked until he finally tripped over his own greed.

Standard operating procedure is now based on risk assessment. Dirty dealing is nothing of the sort if no one finds out – or if can be lobbied and legislated into law. Morality has become a game of chance; not black or white, but rather shades of risk. It’s ok if the consequences are personally inconsequential. In the quest to obtain wealth and power, anything goes and everyone is fair game. Lawyers continue to argue the letter of the law, never minding its spirit.

Today, news of corruption is virtually a daily occurrence. We’re barely moved when an elected official, civic leader, businessman or even a clergy member gets caught with his or her pants down. Only recently has the punishment begun to fit the white-collar crime. And only then when the sheer magnitude of the offense elicits an outcry. For the vast majority, the risk has proven worth taking.

It’s time to wake up. Our political and business leaders need to know that we, the people, expect them to take the moral high road - and that we are watching. The idealistic visions of utopia of the 60’s have yielded to the all too real apathetic myopia of Lee’s lyrics 35 years later– “So I’ll leave it up to you.”

Who? In his 1961 Inaugural Address, President John F. Kennedy answers: “In your hands, my fellow citizens, more than in mine, will rest the final success or failure of our course.”

I believe he was talking to you.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

The Will of the People

There have been a couple of recent events that are, although seemingly unrelated, both centered upon the sort of government we operate under and the inconsistent views (often based in misunderstanding and misinterpretation) some hold our form of democracy to be. First, we are not a pure democracy, but rather a representative democracy - entirely at the federal level and mostly at the state and local levels as well. We elect representatives who then make our decisions for us. It is impractical, probably impossible, for a nation of this size to make every decision via a popular vote. We elect those who we feel best represent our views and (ideally) entrust them to carry out the action we elected them to carry out. It is still the will of the people, but in a more manageable (again, ideally) form. Our views are communicated to our representatives in a number of ways, and the First Amendment guarantees our ability to do so… and then there is the ballot box.

But in some states a form of direct democracy exists. In California we have the initiative, the referendum and the recall. These are vehicles that allow the people to directly dictate law and public policy. But there is a catch: the laws must still adhere to both the state and federal constitutions. And constitutionality is determined not by the executive or legislative branches of government, but by an independent judiciary. It is part of the system of checks and balances that our founders so cleverly set in place to keep the majority from oppressing minority views, groups and positions. If the majority were to exercise its will by a simple vote, then all sorts of civil liberties that we take for granted might never have come to be. Indeed, if the will of the majority were always allowed to prevail, we would be living in a much different country than we do today.

Those two events? The overturning of California’s Proposition 8 and the proposed construction of a mosque near the site of the massacre at the World Trade Center. The word “massacre” was chosen carefully, it represents the depravity of those who perpetrated it and the senseless loss of so many innocent lives. I want to be clear that my stance regarding those who planned and executed the terrorist attacks of 9/11 is nothing short of disgust. But what could a planned mosque near the site and Prop. 8 possibly have to do with one another? Both hinge on the constitution. The United States Constitution guarantees, above all else, freedom - freedom for all and freedom from oppression. It is not a perfect system, but over time it has proven to prevail even when majority opinion would have us do otherwise. In the case of the mosque, the gut reaction is to penalize an entire religion for the acts of a few extremists operating under its name. All groups have extremists and some perpetrate heinous crimes, but to oppress the entire lot is not only unconstitutional, it is anti-American. I know this is an unpopular position when it comes to Islam, but it is true nonetheless. The proposed mosque near Ground Zero is a bad idea, unwise and even insensitive, but it cannot and should not be determined by the masses simply because it is the majority view.

California’s Prop. 8 is another even more clear-cut case of the majority limiting the rights of a singled-out minority. This time it happens to be the gay community, but it could just as easily be women, an ethnic group or lefties. And whether the court is correct in ruling against the proposition is not the point; the court is performing its role as an independent check on the majority’s right to impose its will on a minority. The case will now proceed to the US Supreme Court where the ultimate adjudication will take place – hopefully. It is quite possible that the court will side step the controversy by making a very narrow ruling that will not settle the matter. Regardless, the will of the people in this “democracy” is not now nor has it ever been the final word. Our founders were wise beyond the world as they knew it; they were acutely aware that tyranny could come from the masses just as easily as it can from an autocracy. These two issues demonstrate that our system of checks and balances is not designed to quench the thirst of the majority, but to protect the rights of all – even if exercising those rights violates common sensitivity or the majority's idea of morality. It might not be a perfect system, but so far it has mitigated a host of injustices ranging from women’s suffrage to civil rights to the rights of the disabled. The lesson here is to be careful which causes are championed under the guise of “the will of the people.” Next time the minority might include you.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

2,190 Days

Six years ago, my life was a wreck. There was little to look forward to, I had burned much of what was good in my life to the ground. It didn’t happen overnight, but over the course of too many years my world gradually spiraled out of control. I was at the end of the line, some things were going to happen… and then I had some decisions to make. Without really knowing it, I finally quit fighting. I had no other choice. I gave up my idea that I was some kind of exception; that I could live life on my own terms; that the universal rules that apply to everyone somehow did not apply to me. I could no longer allow my ego to keep my on a crash course that had already nearly killed me and now was making living more unbearable that death. If I had it in me, suicide would have been a viable option, but that took more courage than I had.

I don’t reveal much here regarding the specifics that led me to this defining moment in time, but it doesn’t take much to read between the lines. My story is not unique and those familiar with this particular form of desperation know exactly what it is like. Nothing was working out, if it wasn’t for bad luck, as the song goes, I would have had no luck at all. Failure time and time again was a living place for me – and I couldn’t understand why it was always happening to me. Of course, I placed the root cause of it all outside myself. I had to, if it was my own doing then I could only conclude that I was wrong – and I was never wrong.

But I was seriously deluded. It’s not that I was evil (though I had myself believing that sometimes) or that I ever intended any harm to others or myself, but my entire outlook was so self-centered that I was incapable of seeing outside the box I had created. It took being broken down – beaten by the same system that I spent so long fighting so hard against. I had to surrender – which is not the same as giving up or admitting defeat necessarily – it meant that I had to just stop. Stop fighting. The battle I was waging, as it turned out, was against myself and I could not win. Ever.

Although the turn-around started almost ten years ago after a near-fatal auto wreck, that was only the beginning of the end. The final round took place on August 6th, 2004. I didn’t think there was anything significant about that day – in fact, it was worse than normal and normal at the time was pretty bad. The next many days were not much better, but I was in a situation in which my physical needs were met and I had little to do but rest and reflect. It was not a pretty picture, but very slowly the days started to get a little better and over a period of about six months, my anger subsided significantly. And more importantly, my whole outlook on the world and my place in it gradually shifted – it was a huge shift in perspective, but at the time it happened so slowly I didn’t even notice.

I was not in every respect an irresponsible man, but in many I was. I was not responsible for my own feelings and in large part that dictated my actions, which, by extension, were also not my responsibility. As my attitude became more rational and my outlook changed, so did my fortune. But it is not nor was it an action/reaction, punishment/reward paradigm… I was looking for some peace between my ears and the only way to achieve it was to take a good hard long look at how I viewed things. As much as my lot in life has measurably improved, many things are no different now than they ever were. Where my reaction to those things was often met with defiance, anger and rage, it no longer is. Things that used to turn my world upside-down no longer faze me – I just watch them pass on by.

There are so many people who were and still are instrumental in this process. There are those such as my parents, my kids and other family members who were witness to the worst of times and never gave up on me, loving me unconditionally through it all. There were the nameless and faceless who, through the course of their lives intersected mine and systematically prodded me along the way. Then there is my current core group of friends, colleagues and professors (not exclusively - some fill all three roles) who believed in me even when I did not. I could not have done it alone, but no one could do it for me.

In the past six years my life has evolved from one that was barely tolerable to one in which I look forward to every new day. At almost 48 years old, I am more content, more serene and more valuable – both to others and myself - than I have ever been. I embrace every new challenge life brings and meet them head-on despite the presence of the same fears that used to paralyze me motionless in place, often for years at a time. Things that I would not attempt for fear of failure are no longer roadblocks in my life – and that does not mean I always succeed – but I never shy away from trying. I get the satisfaction of not only trying my best, but more often than not that satisfaction is sweetened by having succeeded.

At six years into this journey, I have only just begun. The tunnel’s end is too far away to have any idea what waits there, but the light shines brighter than it ever has before and it grows steadily brighter with each passing day. It took an unimaginable amount of personal (and self-inflicted) suffering to arrive at this point, but I wouldn’t trade any of it knowing what I know now. Regrets? Sure, I have many. I wish that I had not hurt the people who loved me most along the way, but I am graced with six years so far, and hopefully many more, to make it up to them. Some day I’ll recount the story in all it’s unedited detail, but for today the message is that no matter how dark it gets, there’s always a new day just around the corner. Seize it.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

An Epic Journey

I have not taken a real vacation in quite some time. Yes, I have been to some (and some new) places in just the past year, but none of those excursions could be called, in a primary sense, a vacation, though secondarily vacation-like characteristics were present. But a vacation is more than just going some place or sightseeing or experiencing historical, natural and other wonders; a vacation is an escape and if there is an ulterior motive other than the journey itself, the entire experience is compromised. In this respect, I have not taken a vacation in a very long time. Earlier this summer, Stephen Gamboa, a friend who has a passion for motorcycles similar to my own, floated the idea of an extended ride across several western states over the period of a week to ten days. Originally there were more than a handful of friends who signed on, but for various reasons (money, time and other conflicts), all dropped out but Steve and me. On Monday morning, July 19, 2010, we hit the road not knowing what to expect or even exactly which route we would take to get there.

We had a destination, sort of. The first half of our journey was to culminate in Butte, Mont. Steve’s cousin, Doug, and his cousin’s wife, Diane, live in Butte; they extended an invitation to us to stay for the weekend - to see the sights, ride their horses and generally recoup after riding for four or five days. Neither of us has had any experience with riding that far, riding horses (a couple of times for each of us, but not really), with Butte, with Montana or with most of the roads that would take us there. As an added bonus, the 9th annual Evel Knievel Days festival was also taking place in Butte that weekend, an event that turned out to be far more fun than I imagined it would be. Butte is not exactly a tourist town, but like any old city it has a colorful and rich history. Our resident tour guides showed us Butte like only a local can. In many respects, Butte’s founding on copper mining is not unlike Sacramento’s history based in the California gold rush. And Montana’s geographic beauty is equaled only by its expansiveness – indeed, the view from Doug and Diane’s deck is enough to earn the state’s unofficial nickname – “Big Sky Country.”

But getting to and from Montana was where the true magic of this vacation took place. Because it was just the two of us, we were free to make route decisions on the fly – and we did so regularly. The plan was to stay off of the major interstates and freeways as much as possible, but as far as plans go, this one was seriously open-ended. We left Sacramento going east to Truckee, Calif. on SR 49, SR 20 and old US 40, hopping on Interstate 80 occasionally before heading North on SR 89 towards and through Lassen Volcanic National Park, finally arriving in Klamath Falls, Ore. via US 97. We were delayed by road construction at various points throughout our 11-day odyssey and this initial leg was no exception. After getting some much needed overnight rest in Klamath Falls (our initial day was a 400-plus mile ride), we headed north on US 97 to Bend, Ore. before turning east along US 26 though numerous small towns scattered in and around the Ochoco and Malheur National Forests. This route took us through largely empty roads, long sweeping turns and magnificent scenery. Our second day took us nearly 500 miles and into Boise, Idaho for the night.

We left Boise the next morning with the intent of riding through the Sawtooth National Forest along SR 21, but our original plan changed several times along the way, taking us to what turned out to be some of the most exciting riding, challenging roads and breathtaking natural landscapes so far. We missed the portion of SR 21 that would take us north and altered our northward byway to SR 55 and then east to Banks-Lowman Rd., which took us through the Boise National Forest. Our missed turn turned out to be one of the greatest surprises as this little road offered not only some of the most challenging twists, but also some contact with other motorcyclists and their emphatic suggestions to take a mountain pass that lay a little out of our way. The same suggestion came from one of my Facebook friends and the decision was made to alter our route to access Beartooth Pass – but that would not take place until two days later on our way (and a little out of our way) to Butte. As we approached Idaho Falls, the weather towards the east was threatening and we saw lightning strike in the mountains we had yet to cross to get to our next destination, Jackson Hole, Wyo. We managed to miss the bulk of the thunderstorm, but still hit a little rain and very wet roads as we descended SR 33/22 into Jackson Hole where, just prior to our arrival, the city received ¾ of and inch of rain. We had light rain as we crested the summit, but the view of the dusk sky and clearing storm clouds over Jackson Hole was worth every ultra-cautious mile on the rain slicked road.

Day three came in at more than 400 miles. We were ready to find lodging and rest our weary bodies and minds after a day that ended in extremely dangerous riding conditions. Descending into Jackson Hole was slow and painstaking and at this point our plan (that was not a plan) revealed a major drawback: There were no rooms to be found in Jackson Hole during the mid-summer tourist season. Fortunately we found a lone vacancy, it was pricey, but so is everything else in this tourist mecca. The next day we headed north through Grand Teton National Park before entering the south entrance of Yellowstone Nation Park. At less than 200 miles, this would be our shortest riding day. We did not plan to camp anywhere along the way, but brought sleeping bags and a tent with us just in case. Somewhere between Jackson Hole and Yellowstone, we decided that camping in the park was an opportunity that should not be missed. Our intentional lack of planning again presented an issue in that the campgrounds were all full, but a ranger suggested that we check with the people who run the reserved campgrounds for a cancellation and one came in moments before I arrived at the head of the line. We pitched our tent and road around the park for the remainder of the day.

In both Jackson Hole and Yellowstone, congestion – the kind of congestion we were trying to escape – was present everywhere. It was not until we left early the next morning, before most of the sightseers hit the road, that we escaped it and headed for the northeast gate of Yellowstone towards Beartooth Pass on US 212. We gassed up in Cooke City, Mont. and started our climb up to the summit of almost 11,000 feet. Although the ride up Beartooth Highway was everything we heard it was, we did not fully understand why so many so strongly recommended it until the descent towards Red Lodge, Mont. The grade, the switchbacks and the desolation were beyond description; the terrain surrounding the road was surpassed in grandeur only by the road itself. At one point, the road (which is closed in the winter due to snow) passed the top of a ski chair lift. We were literally on top of the world. Once we arrived in Red Lodge, we mapped a route to Butte that would take us on more empty and easy riding roads, many that went for miles without a single turn... or another vehicle. Montana is somewhat liberal when it comes to speed limits – you can fill in the rest. Day five was another 400-plus mile day.

After two days of R&R in Butte, we decided to completely alter our plan (again, that wasn’t a plan) and go back north, west and south rather than south and west through Utah and the Nevada desert. Although we wanted to ride back through Utah, we were not at all looking forward to riding through an entire Nevada wasteland to round out our ride. We headed north to access US 83 through the Rocky Mountains to Kalispell, Mont. and then east along US 2 to the Idaho panhandle before turning south onto US 2/95, just 13 miles from the Canadian border. Our goal was to reach the Harley Davidson dealership in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho and then spend the night in Spokane, Wash., but just prior to an eastern detour into the city, a phone call revealed that the dealership was closed on Monday, so we just went straight to Spokane for the night. Crossing the Washington state line, we reversed a small celebration we enjoyed so many days earlier when we crossed the Snake River from Oregon into Idaho – we put out helmets back on. Every state we rode in except Washington, Oregon and California does not require adults to wear a helmet – a form of respect for personal liberty that the nanny’s in these Pacific states don’t recognize. Our eighth day away and fifth day of riding yielded more than 500 miles.

From Spokane we went north on US 395 into the Cascades. We spent the bulk of our day on SR 20 riding again on some extremely challenging roads with nicely banked and well-marked turns. At many points on this journey I had felt as though I was one with the bike, a Zen-like state where everything falls perfectly into a naturally balanced rhythm in which the mind goes quiet and the senses are tuned to the road and nothing else; on this particular leg, that experience was at its most profound and seemed to never end. I rode my Harley Davidson Road King - sometimes in front of Steve and his Heritage Deluxe, sometimes behind - like it has never been ridden before. Some of these series of linked turns on this magical day reminded me of my younger days on my (much smaller) Kawasaki GPz 550. More than an individual oneness between us and our machines, the two of us were in tune with each other such that our coordinated attack of the road resembled a intricately choreographed dance… beauty in both form and function. We finished the day by crossing the Deception Bridge to Whidbey Island on Puget Sound and crossed the sound by ferry to stay in Port Townsend, Wash. for the night. At just more than 400 miles, it felt like much, much more.

We got a slow start the next morning – by this time we had been gone for nine days and ridden hard for seven of them. We still had more than 1,000 miles to go and planned to reach Coos Bay, Ore., by nightfall. Part of what slowed us down was the number of other vehicles occupying the road with us down the Washington and Oregon coast. We also made a small detour to Tacoma, Wash., for a short visit to Steve’s mother and graciously accepted a homemade lunch from her and her husband. Although this detour did not cost us many miles, it did eat up about two hours of daylight. In addition to the congestion, the temperature along the coast was just south of tolerable – we had to stop in Tillamook, Ore., not for the cheese, but for some long johns to keep our legs operational. We fell about 100 miles short of Coos Bay, stopping for the night in Newport, Ore. Our room was cheap, but nice, and it was within walking distance of the waterfront and world-famous Mo’s seafood. It was one of many fabulous meals (along with too many consisting of fast food), but this one was at least as good as those that cost twice as much. Despite the slow start and the less than comfortable temperatures, we still managed to cover more than 400 miles on what turned out to be the second to last day.

But for the last day to be the last day, it would mean our longest riding day of the entire journey. From Newport, the only reasonable route was to continue south along the coast on US 101. Our plan for the day was to continue down the coast along US 101 to California SR 1 and turn east at Fort Bragg on SR 20, but by the time we arrived in Crescent City, Calif., we had had enough of the cold and, furthermore, we decided that we would finish the ride that day. We had to change our route to accomplish two goals: Get inland where it was warmer and cut miles (and time) off our last leg. That opportunity came in Eureka where SR 299 cut east to Redding; we would finish the final 150 or so miles on Interstate 5. Darkness would fall before we arrived home, but this route did not present any danger from deer or other wildlife intersecting our path after dark (bugs do not count as wildlife…).

One of the things that struck us during the many miles we rode the inland states was the fact that the roads were generally in excellent condition, extremely empty and went on for not just a few miles of uninterrupted serenity, but, in some cases, for hundreds of miles. We couldn’t help but notice that in California, where these quintessential motorcycle roads exist, they are either crowded, in sad shape or short. Though I realize this is a generalization and that there are exceptions, it is also true that those roads in the other states were not some kind of hidden gem - they were everywhere. Imagine our surprise when we found SR 299 to be long, in excellent condition, largely empty and as challenging as anything we had ridden up until that point. And what better way to finish off this journey than to ride like the wind on a road in our very own home state. That Zen-like state found me once again. By the time we reached Redding, the temperature was beginning to cool from a high of around 90 degrees making for perfect t-shirt riding weather all the way back to Sacramento. The final day of riding was by far the longest, coming in at a little more than 630 miles and a total of 13 hours on the road.

When Steve approached me with this ride, I was apprehensive, skeptical and not sure if it was something I really wanted to do. As time wore on and the others who said they were in dropped out, my mind was reeling through numerous excuses why I could not go. None were valid, but the uncertainty on many levels had me questioning the wisdom of taking on such a long ride. Steve shared that he was experiencing some similar sentiments, but he and I share something else besides a passion for riding: we both have sons fighting for our country in Afghanistan. Steve explained it this way: If our sons are brave enough to go to war and be shot at, we can walk through any apprehension we might have about this ride. Besides, I made a commitment and I surmised that if I didn’t do this now, I might never ever do it – and it has been a dream of mine for some time.

As little as 10 years ago, both Steve and I were not only not in a position to attempt anything like this, we probably were not even able to dream it. I know it was out of any realm of possibility for me. In the ensuing years, we have both found that elusive purpose and value in life that makes dreams like this a reality. This was a lifetime experience that, if not for some major life decisions I made about six years ago, could not have happened – and Steve’s story is similar. I think I can speak for Steve… we are definitely doing this again.

Maybe Alaska next year?

Don’t bet against us.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

The Saga of Steve Miller and the Photonazis

Anyone want to buy some Steve Miller pictures?

No?

Sure? There are some great shots, and they’re only a few hours old.

Still no?

I didn’t think so, but apparently Steve Miller or someone within his organization, his promoter or someone within the hierarchy at the concert venue, Raley Field in West Sacramento, thinks there is some kind of demand for pictures from his concert tonight. How do I know? The following concert review-turned-rant should explain. But first, I promised a concert review, so here it is.

It was a good show. Miller played many of his hits, spewed some political opinion and made a lengthy solicitation for donations to his pet charity. All in all, his show lived up to my (lofty) musical expectations and went well beyond what I expected in those other two aspects. I didn’t pay $75 (including service fees and parking) to be solicited, no matter how worthy the cause. But at least Miller delivered when it came to the music. It was a good show.

Okay, now that the review is out of the way, here is the rant. Although Miller’s show probably deserves more words than the highly abbreviated review above, it is lucky that I was able to write anything at all. I almost had to leave before the show began - you see, I was carrying contraband. I didn’t sneak in any alcohol or outside food nor did I try to bring in any drugs, although judging from the odor wafting through the air I must have been in the minority. I was not armed and I was not fighting. I had a camera. Not just any camera, but a so-called “professional” camera. Nowhere on any of the numerous signs listing the items not allowed was the fact that cameras, professional or otherwise, were not allowed. The security guard who checked my camera bag for all those other banned items didn’t say anything and, furthermore, if you include cell phone cameras, virtually everyone had a camera and was taking pictures.

When Miller took the stage, I pulled my Canon 30D out of my bag and squeezed off four shots before an oversized security guard stopped me. He wanted to know where my photo pass was. I didn’t have one. I didn’t think I needed one. I wasn’t working for anyone; I was shooting because I take pictures. My camera is a notch above a consumer model, but it’s not exactly a professional model either. Regardless, after explaining how no one said anything about this policy to me, how it is written nowhere and if I had known I certainly could have obtained a photo pass, the guard told me that if I took my camera out of my bag again he would take it. I put my camera away, but I was not about to leave it at that. Unfortunately, I couldn’t tell you what the next three or four songs were because I was pissed off and trying to figure out who was going to answer for this.

My opportunity came when another patron found himself in the same predicament. He was shown to a supervisor and I made my way over there to plead my case as well. This particular photographer had his press-pass with him (mine is no longer current and I didn’t have it with me anyway), but he too was informed that he needed the necessary photo pass to use his “professional” camera. I didn’t see what he was shooting with, but it was a DSLR, not a point-and-shoot like most everyone else had. When I explained my situation to the supervisor, she informed me that, though not publicized, the lens I was using was not allowed and that I would have to leave. Leave? Things went from bad to worse; then I realized that their concern was the size of my lens. I told her I had a smaller lens and would be happy to switch it out. Bingo. But I did have to check in my “large, professional” lens with guest services.

Reluctantly (not because I thought I would need it, but because I was not too keen on leaving my lens with anyone) I handed my lens over to guest services. But I safely retrieved it after the show and the people working in guest services understood my frustration, though they had no control over whatever policy was in effect. It would appear that the score is now photonazis-1, Mike-0, but appearances can be deceiving. The lens I gave up was a 28-135mm zoom with an aperture range of 3.5 to 5.6. It’s a good lens, but not particularly effective in low light – and the sun was just setting. The “smaller” lens I put on was an 85mm with an aperture of 1.8. It was, in fact, a shorter lens, but in terms of the size of the glass – the determining factor in how much light is let into the camera - this lens is much, much bigger. And it was the lens I planned to switch to once the sun went down. Score change: Photonazis-1, Mike-2.

Now I was free to take pictures at will; the jumbo-sized security guard was informed and left me alone. And I got some good shots – several hundred, in fact. Once edited and compiled, there will likely be a good deal more than a handful that are worth keeping – but not worth anything more. There is no market for Steve Miller concert pictures. Furthermore, a Google search will turn up more than any die-hard Steve Miller fan’s heart could desire. Forgetting about egotistical paranoia for a moment, I’ll concede that Steve Miller has a right to limit or restrict photography, recording or any other use of his likeness, name or image and that the “professional lens” policy is a legitimate way to control such use, but not arbitrarily and not without notification. The policy, as my “small” lens use proves, involves a complex array of parameters not understood by those enforcing it and regarding the total lack of informing the audience of this policy, there is no defense.

I went ahead and edited a few shots for publication here. They are copyrighted – if anyone, especially Steve Miller, wants to use any of them, it will require my permission. For Steve Miller, that permission is available – at a price.









Friday, July 16, 2010

Antennagate

I am a Mac. Those who know me know that I have been sold on Apple technology for several years now. It was not always the case – I was deeply entrenched in and committed to the Windows family of products and to Microsoft – some might even say arrogantly so. That arrogance also caused me to swallow some large slices of humble pie, but I have learned from my mistake and that mistake was… Microsoft. Ok, I am a little less arrogant as well, but I’m afraid my commitment to Apple products and services resembles arrogance so much that it can be easily confused with the blind allegiance I formerly held towards my first love, Microsoft. There are, however, some valid empirical differences that back up my loyalty to Apple and due to some other less tangible factors (such as maturity), I can look beyond the hype to the product itself. For example, I do not own an iPad. Unless or until the iPad becomes something more than an oversized iPod Touch, I will not buy one.

But I love my Macs and iPhones, past and present. I don’t have to ever think about my Apple AirPort wireless router. AppleCare has always delivered on the rare instances when I did have a problem and even though my iPhone also serves as an iPod, I still use my original iPod Shuffle MP3 player when engaged in certain activities where I’d rather not expose my phone to any unnecessary risk. Every one of these products has worked for me over a considerable length of time with almost no problems, and when contrasted with the comparable non-Apple products that they replaced, the difference in reliability, durability and performance is noticed on a daily basis. Although the empirical evidence supports these claims, my own considerable experience is the clincher.

To those already on the Apple bandwagon, I’m preaching to the choir. For those who are Windows devotees, nothing I say will make any difference and I know too well the arguments they would cite. For some, there are technical reasons that keep them bound to the Windows platform. And when it comes to the service structure of the various hardware brands that use Windows, the service aspect ranges from one similar to Apple’s excellence to nonexistence. But as a package and as a company, Apple is a one-stop shop for this exceedingly average user. None of this is new and none of this will likely influence one towards Apple or away from Windows or, in the case of smart phones, from Android. Furthermore, Apple does not need my help. This is not about that, but it does lead into a particularly interesting public relations phenomenon that Apple is currently facing.

Despite Apple’s success of late, the Mac OSX market share is still relatively small compared to Windows. True, it is gaining ground, but in the big picture Windows is still the dominant operating system and this is true despite the Windows Vista debacle. One of the reasons for this is also a key pro-Windows argument – ubiquity. Windows is everywhere and has been for a long time. It is also not hardware dependent – everyone except Apple makes Windows machines (since Apple changed over to Intel processors, Macs can now run Windows as well). Despite (and perhaps because of) its control over its products, Apple has become the technology industry darling, and as a result a backlash has occurred over the most anticipated technological device since the original iPhone, the iPhone 4.

Maybe because Apple has never faced a PR challenge of this nature, the company was ill prepared to deal with it. For three weeks, the response to what has been termed “antennagate” has varied from inadequate to dismal. In today's press conference with Apple CEO Steve Jobs, those issues should have been put to rest. But it is naive to think this will end the controversy. However, Jobs did succeed at putting the issue into context and focused attention to solving customer complaints – not media reports or quips like, “It looks like the iPhone 4 might be their Vista, and I'm OK with that” from Microsoft COO Kevin Turner. How many complaints? Of more than three million iPhone 4 customers, only a little more than one half of one percent (16,500) have complained about anything regarding reception, signal strength, dropped calls and all other antenna related issues since the phone’s release. The return rate to AT&T is less than one third that of the iPhone 3GS and a presentation of internal and external data showed that the iPhone 4 is no worse than any other smart phone on the market. Forgetting all of that, just try to get one - the demand still exceeds supply.

But the really noteworthy thing about this press conference is that Steve Jobs and company, only 22 days into what has become Apple’s biggest PR challenged, has learned a few things very quickly. They did not role over, but at the same time they took responsibility not so much for a hardware issue, but for the happiness of their customers. Apple is far more than a hardware manufacturer and much more than a software developer – it is a customer service organization. Apple is in the business of making and keeping its customers happy. Where do you think this almost cult-like loyalty comes from? Rather than gleefully bash Apple for some perceived hardware glitch, those in the business of serving customers might follow their lead and treat their customers appropriately. They just might try a little harder to make their customers happy.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The Quest

I haven’t written anything for this blog in a while. I have no good excuse. It’s not that I owe anyone anything, and I have not broken any sort of commitment or exceeded any deadlines, but what I do is write and although I have written some small pieces here and there, I feel as though this is where I stay accountable to myself. This blog will reach its five-year anniversary in December and there is a great deal of evidence that it has evolved in a number of ways. Externally, it is clear from my archives that I was far more prolific early on than I am now. Delving a little deeper into each archive individually, there are signs of evolution in terms of content, style and substance. But one lasting characteristic remains – these words, though publicly aired, are primarily for me.

I used to thrive on how many hits this site received, how many comments my writing generated and how my thoughts inspired reaction from others. It would be a lie if I said that was not still important, but at the same time this type of external validation comes and goes – an evolutionary process is present in the Internet community itself and the rise and fall of various platforms has a key effect on how our thoughts are distributed. I have become far less attached to how and whether my thoughts are received than I used to be. I used to sit down and force myself to write even when there was nothing really inspiring going on in my life and in many of those instances what came out surprised me, both in terms of content and insight. Writing, like other artistic expressions, can produce introspection and revelation not ordinarily accessible in my day-to-day life. But I rarely ever force myself to write just for the sake of writing anymore. These words, however, are an example of such a rarity.

In some respects, I feel as though I have said it all, though I know that can never be. When I title these pieces, I usually have to do a search of my archives to be sure I don’t replicate a past title. It seems that I have used up all the common “catch” phrases, but there is always something unique about every new set of words that can be captured in an equally unique title. And I almost always write the title last. I have written about writing, about publication, about politics, about life, about nature, about spirituality, about education and about everything else that strikes me as needing further exploration and that happens most effectively right here. These literary assemblies help me understand the world I live in and, more importantly, my place in it. The extent to which others relate to my musings has clearly become a bonus, not a goal.

It is odd how certain past events dovetail with current events. Not so much on a geo-political scale (although that certainly happens as well), but on a personal level. New bits of information come to me that help explain or expand on prior experiences. In some cases it sheds new light such that some old, almost forgotten life event becomes brand new again. It happens all the time and the best way for me to process these epiphanies is to write about them. One such experience is founded in the act of writing itself. Although the vast majority of my work has been produced in the past ten or so years, writing has been with me for my entire life. Through a series of life-altering events, I rediscovered this latent ability to string words and punctuation together in a mosaic that conveys more than just a collection of dictionary definitions. And, perhaps more importantly, I found much greater value in all manner of artistic expression... and artistic expression in places I never expected it to be.

As much as I have recently found myself at a loss to compose, it is still very clear that the well has not yet run dry. Indeed, I am far from tapped out – what is left to say far exceeds what has already been said, by others or myself. The pool of human knowledge, of human experience and of human understanding is infinite. The process of discovery will never end. It comes not just in words, but also in a vast and ever expanding array of media that is conveyed with the diversity reflected in each and every individual expression of what it is to be. Though far more is unknown than known, today I feel just a bit more enlightened.

Saturday, July 03, 2010

Independence Day

Today is July 3, 2010. The last year of the first decade of the new millennium is now half over. Our nation’s 234th birthday comes tomorrow. It is a big deal. In just a very short period of time, our country has risen from surviving a precarious balance between existence and dissolution to the world’s undisputed and sole super-power. Like any story of growth, this country has perpetrated a number of injustices along the way, but my purpose here is not to dwell on the negative, but rather focus on the inconceivable prosperity the United States has brought to not only her citizens, but also to the citizens of the world at large. Again, for all the steps in the right direction, we have stumbled back a few and there are those who might be prone to claim the best days of these United States are behind us, but I say the evidence does not support this notion. Indeed, we have seen far darker days than those we are facing now and come through even stronger and more resolved for it.

Our founding fathers would likely not recognize the nation they created as it is today; however, I doubt they would be surprised at the prosperity we have experienced. That is, no one 200 years ago could have foreseen the technological advances that this world has experienced, but it would not surprise our founders that the United States would become the engine for much or that advancement. It is, in fact, how they set it up. This nation was founded on the principle of freedom and although there have been considerable inconsistencies with that principle and the actions of our government over the years, the foresight in the structure of our constitution with the overarching principle of equality and freedom has always, eventually and ultimately risen to the top. The dance of the three branches of government with its checks and balances is at the same time complex and beautifully simple in that the power that rests with the people cannot be easily wrested because of considerable and potent oversight.

And it’s not as though some individuals and groups of individuals (referred to by our founders as “factions”) have not tried. It continues today; political parties, interest groups, labor unions and many other organized and disorganized groups have tried to impose their will on others and have done so with varying degrees of success, but the structure of our government has an innate way of weeding out what is right and what is wrong, even if the process takes some time. Corrective measures have created not a perfect union, but absolutely a “more perfect union,” one that enjoys the kind of peaceful diversity and equality that even 100 years ago was only a dream. And although there are very vocal groups that would have us a racially pure nation, those groups are spitting into the wind – we are moving more towards our founders’ words in the Preamble than even they could have foreseen.

In my 47 years as a citizen of this nation, I have lived through a number of potential crises – all of which threatened this county’s very existence, but the strength of our founding documents have bound us by a principle of freedom that, at the end of the day, we all embrace. And prior to my time, the obstacles we have overcome are written into our heritage. We are currently facing another time of trial, but I am not one to say that this nation is “heading in the wrong direction.” We are, however, experiencing growing pains and if history is any indication, we will emerge stronger and more evolved, more experienced. In 1776, no one expected this experiment in democracy to succeed. Allowing the seat of power to rest with the people was considered folly - it could not last. And in the big picture, 235 years is relatively young for a nation, but the end is nowhere close to near. This is still the United States of America and for all of our warts and scars, we are still that “shining city upon the hill,” a beacon of freedom that still epitomizes what our founders so painstakingly set out to make us.

I leave this tribute to my country with a quote from the Ronald Reagan, acknowledging the sacrifices of my son and all the other men and women of our Armed Forces who are celebrating our nation’s birthday in far away lands - protecting our freedom:



"Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn't pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same, or one day we will spend our sunset years telling our children and our children's children what it was once like in the United States where men were free."