Tuesday, May 02, 2017

On This Day...

Facebook's "On This Day" feature is probably one of the most interesting things they've ever added to the platform. I know, like most everything else, they did not come up with the idea, but now that it's incorporated into the platform itself, it sure is a handy way to look back. This time of year - the end of the school year - has been enlightening to me since before Facebook, let alone any tools it usurped to look back. I can find similar enlightenment from this time of year, years past, in my blog, which also predates Facebook. There were some common denominators, among them a sense of relief of having made it through another year and a sense of optimism and anticipation at having made more progress towards my ultimate goal, the latest of which was a Ph.D.

However, prior to around 2010, that ultimate goal was not even on the radar. It didn’t really become a possibility until near the end of my MA program at California State University, Sacramento. And even that ultimate goal (which I finally, officially, achieved in 2012) wasn’t on the radar until after I finished my BA, also at CSUS, in 2007. So, this ultimate goal, as ultimate goals tend to be, was a moving target. But at some point, I would have to top out and change gears - again. That moment came slowly, agonizingly so. From the time I entered the Ph.D. program at Louisiana State University in the fall of 2011, that goal would only be realized when I could place the salutation, “Dr.,” in front of my name. It is a lofty goal and certainly one that I never saw myself even considering. More than that, it wasn’t just not on my radar - ever - it was beyond my capacity not in terms of what it would take to get there, but beyond my capacity to dream it. That level of excellence was not in my cards and it wasn’t until it was that I realized how little credit I had given myself.

Although I did achieve moments of excellence and while I did advance to doctoral candidate, I cannot and will not be placing any new letters in front of my name. My ability to do what was required to get there is no longer in question - I have proven I am capable of achieving dreams beyond my dreams. What I lost was the willingness. With “only” a dissertation standing between me and that ultimate goal, I found myself in a series of moments of inspiration and dedication that deflated into desperation and disinterest. My motivation waffled from one extreme to its polar opposite, it would be all “let’s do this!” or all “fuck this!” Finally, last spring, “fuck this” won out, but putting it that way discounts the unbelievable amount of soul-searching that took place before coming to that decision.

There were three things I could have left LSU with a Ph.D., an MA or nothing but the experience of attending such a prestigious school at such a high level. To be clear, even the “nothing but” scenario would have been thoroughly worth my time there. But since I had already endured the boom or bust cycle of attaining this one last “ultimate goal,” at least (no exaggeration) 10 times, I saw a pattern that was likely to continue until option “nothing but” would catch up to me. I had enough coursework and had passed my qualifying exams for the Ph.D., and that was more than enough (much more) to be awarded another MA, this time from an R1 (doctoral) university. But I had to get it within a five-year window. The Ph.D. would allow me two more years, but I had come to the conclusion that I was, in fact, done with school. The willingness and the gung-ho attitude I maintained for more than ten years of full-time student-hood had left me. I was done and I still believe that nothing would have giving me what I needed to finish that “only” thing I had left.

Of course I talked about it before making my decision. I spoke with my family, my peers, my mentors and my friends. All were supportive, but not all felt abandoning the Ph.D. was the best idea. Fortunately, I was looking for input and support, not necessarily direction – that I had to arrive at on my own. Some felt I would have moments, be they short or extended, of regret. That was accompanied by an appropriate level of concern for me and how I would deal with that. The truth is that I have had many moments of regret, but that doesn’t translate into my decision being a bad one. Indeed, even with those moments, those unavoidable moments when I wished I could muster the willingness, I still firmly believe that was not going to happen. Would it have in the next year or so before I would run out of time? No one knows, but the past did not point in that direction.

More directly, my career would have benefitted in ways both known and not. But the other side of that coin is the stress of not doing what I needed to be doing was weighing heavily on me, too. That stress has manifested in a few ways, some of which I am only now realizing. One was that I used to write – a lot. I also used to read much, much more. Since completing my coursework in the spring of 2014, my output has steadily declined. It is only now, a year after I plucked the dissertation monkey from my back, that I am again beginning to enjoy both. I am also becoming a better professor, even if my lot in academic life would be better with a Ph.D. And I am beginning to really feel what freedom from all that feels like. I often regret the failure, but I never regret the experience. And, lest anyone forgets, being awarded a BA and not one, but two MAs is no small achievement.

With just a little more than two weeks left in my fourth semester of full-time professorship, I finally feel as though I am hitting my stride. I am feeling once again motivated to do some things, maybe even great things. I have a palpable feeling that all that back-burner shit is finally coming up to the front. Indeed, I feel like it’s time to get some things cooking again. Re-reading all about the many fits and starts I experienced bovver the past few years, I am happy to be free of the pressure. That is not to say I regret not achieving that ultimate goal, sometimes, but I am at peace with the decision I made. It was not one taken lightly. One cannot live life as long as I have without some regret along the way. Today is a good day.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

With a Whisper, Not a Bang

It’s been awhile since I’ve written anything really substantive. That’s really just another way of saying that it’s been a while since I’ve written anything really good, or worthwhile, or compelling or beautiful or [fill in the blank]. True, I’ve managed to stir up some shit on Facebook, and it might even be true that some of that shit needed to be disturbed, but when it comes to writing something - really writing something, it’s been awhile. I can’t explain why, entirely, but there are some factors that likely come into play. None of them are particularly important, however. If I wanted to write badly enough, I would have. If I was sufficiently motivated, if I had something compelling enough to say, if my “creative juices” were flowing, I would have put it down on (virtual) paper. But I did not. I used to all the time, but for the past couple of years my output has been minimal. Good, perhaps, but minimal.

I think I’d like to have something to say about what has been happening politically in recent years. I mean, I do. I have thoughts, opinions and stances. I still get outraged and encouraged. But it seems that anything I might come up with that helps me (and, if written well enough, others) to get a better understanding of the word we live in, has either been said, is unsayable or, most likely, futile. People are rarely moved by much anymore. I guess changing one’s view, or opinion, or belief or any modification of one’s world-view constitutes a sign of weakness. It seems that only belligerent steadfastness, a refusal to acknowledge or admit that one’s position is not in line with reality, that only the most rigid are strong has permeated not just the body politic, but all bodies. It is exhausting to put together well thought-out, beautifully written prose only to have them dismissed as partisanship, fake facts or worse.

It can’t last forever. Something’s got to give eventually. At some point the truth, reality, facts, and all other iterations of the Universe in its universality will win. At the end of the day, only what is gets the luxury of stubbornly remaining what it is. Facts are not influence by what anyone thinks about them, they simply are. Being is its own evidence. Science, for all that  humans try to interpret it in one way or another, is still about discovering what is and, sometimes, what is not. Scientists might care, might have an angle, might be egotistically invested, but science itself does not care. It will win, whether we are here to document it or not.

George Carlin had a bit that poked fun at the environmentalists. It, too, could be interpreted in a number of ways, but if one knew how Carlin used his art to move people (persuade them to see things in a different way), they might come to the same understanding that I did. He was not an anti-environmentalist, but he was attacking how the environmentalists were framing a real scientific reality. He took issue with their “Save the Earth” mantra. Carlin pointed out that our planet was just fine before we evolved and it will be just fine after we are gone. We should not be worried about saving the Earth, we should be worried about saving ourselves. And, to carry that a step forward, we needn’t worry too much about saving any of the people who are alive today - we (as a species) will also be just fine, today, and for at least the immediate tomorrows. The planet’s ecosystem will not collapse upon us. It is the generations not yet born who will have to deal with that fallout.

So, why should we care? Seriously - why should we? It is painfully obvious that many of us do not. Many of us are all too eager to dismiss science - invoking the same human liabilities I mentioned earlier - as proof that there is no problem. After all, we do have to take some of that research on faith; we all cannot be scientists, we have our own jobs to do. But it’s not just scientists we must have faith in, we have to extend that same faith to all sorts of things we do not, cannot or don’t have time for. I have to trust that my HVAC person knows the ins and outs of heating, ventilation and air conditioning. The same goes for any profession that requires specialized training, education or experience.

I am not trying to change anyone’s opinion about whether we are fucking up our world or not. I am not trying to persuade anyone to be a more critical consumer of information. I can’t. I have tried and failed. The point of all this there is a wall that prevents anyone from doing that. We don’t need to build a fucking wall, we already have one. There are plenty of people who know how to look at a variety of information and form opinions about it - but the sad fact is that no matter what evidence of what is is put in front of too many people - educated, smart people - if it means altering in any small way what they already believe, it somehow constitutes weakness and therefore no such alteration or modification will even be considered. And that - that - is weakness. That is what our downfall will be.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

A Twofer

It’s hard to believe I haven’t written anything for this blog so far in 2017. It is not as though I have had nothing to say, quite the contrary. Those who are my “friends” on Facebook know that since the end of last year - since the presidential election, precisely - I have had plenty to say. And plenty more on other topics, too, from the innocuous to the important and everything in between. Sadly (or, maybe not), Facebook has taken the default role in my online presence. This is nothing new and was not going to be the subject of my musings today, but it is ironic that just last year I was I the midst of a Facebook “hiatus.” I didn’t just abstain (which is difficult when everything that happens regarding my profile generates some kind of notification), I suspended my account. I was in Facebook never-never land. And it was good.

But not so good that it left any kind of lasting impression a year later. In fact, were it not for Facebook’s little features that keep track of my activity, I would not have remembered my stop and start dates or even whether it was two weeks, six weeks, or more. And upon my triumphant return it was clear that both my presence and my absence had no impact on the medium. Sure, some friends missed my online friendship (particularly those whom I only have an online “friendship” with, but also a few with whom I have a history of friendly debate), but in the world of Facebook and social media, whatever I have to add is lost in the noise. It’s not just me, far more “famous” people contribute, too, and their impact, when compared to the whole, is negligible.

Still, if it didn’t do something for me, I wouldn’t do it. What Facebook does for me, primarily, is simple enough. It is what my blog did early on - it gives me a means of publication and the opportunity to build an audience. At one point, I had several thousand “hits” on The 25 Year Plan every month. Since I have not been publishing there regularly, my hit counter has spent more time not counting than it has spent counting. But I get a fairly good amount of response, feedback, “likes,” shares, etc., from Facebook. Why? Because unlike my blog of late, I “maintain” a presence on Facebook. But I have expanded beyond Facebook, too - linking my various profiles in a cross-posting manner. I guess I could do that on my blog as well, but it’s not really for that. It’s more for what I am doing right now; It’s more for this.

So, after three paragraphs of talking about what I was not going to talk about, I probably should write about what I came to my keyboard to do.

A few years ago, I started fooling around with video from these new, so-called, “action cameras.” About the same time, the iPhones and their knock-offs (sorry, the Samsung Galaxy and all others did not innovate, they imitated) were gaining traction. The video from cell phones, smart or otherwise, was not as good as these new purpose-built cameras, and between me and my kids, we tried a few. My boys mostly used them for snowboarding and four-wheeling, I stuck to mostly recording motorcycle rides. The video in all cases was only so-so. It was not, at first, anything remotely resembling “HD” and as far as the editing software available, it was clumsy and/or expensive, usually both. But despite the obstacles, they showed a great deal of promise. Today, the stunning quality of smart-phone video and the rise to the top of the action camera heap by GoPro is evidence of the promise the technology held.

We all, my boys and I, kind of got on board early, but our enthusiasm faded. We all learned a lot and much of that is still applicable. However, the time needed to produce video that entertains and informs without boring the audience to death is considerable. Even today, with the abundance of editing software and the extremely high video quality (my latest GoPro Session measures about an inch and a half square and captures video at a maximum of 4K resolution), making movies takes time. Enter the iPhone and its progeny. With tools like iMovie and other built-in software “apps” that deal with the video footage all on one small device, shooting, editing and producing video became somewhat simpler. Not exactly easy, but considerably easier. While I was in Baton Rouge one day, riding my 2007 Harley Road King home from the local shopping center, I had an idea that resulted in what is now known as “ShirtPocket Productions.”

But first, a few words about the entity, “ShirtPocket Productions.” It is not a real production company, at least not yet. It consists of one unpaid employee - me. It has yet to make a single dime; it has never submitted an invoice of any kind. We have never had a customer. Our expenses are not zero, but excluding the price of the cameras (currently three GoPros and an iPhone), there are none. Travel expenses, gas, food, lodging, etc., are all part of a whatever I was going to do anyway. That I ever decide to record video is an add-on, it is never the purpose. It is a fantasy company, a fun third-person entity I use to talk about myself when putting videos together. It is sort of Warren Miller-esque, but not really that, either. And, while it is not “real,” I have used the terms, “ShirtPocket Productions,” “SPP” and “ShirtPocket Short,” sometimes in conjunction with “the good folks at…” often enough, long enough and publicly enough to be able to claim the copyright to the names. In other words, although today it is a game, in the future it might be something more. Therefore, when it comes to ownership, the names are mine.

Where did the name come from? That ride home from the shopping center was warm - it was what one might call “t-shirt riding weather.” It just so happened that the t-shirt I was wearing had a shirt pocket. I was using an iPhone 5 at the time and for those who remember, the iPhone 5 was no wider, but considerable taller than the iPhones 4 and 4s were. When placed in my shirt pocket, the camera lens stuck up above the top of my pocket. I wondered, “what would the video look like if I started it, dropped the phone in my shirt pocket and rode?” It was not only pretty cool, it was the birth of ShirtPocket Productions. It didn’t become like it is today all at once. In fact, it didn’t become anything at all, it was just a passing thing, a funny play on words, a clever caption. Over time, however, the name and the enjoyment I’ve had with this "company" has grown into something that has become an expression that supplements the art of my still photography and writing.

It has become all too apparent that my interest in such things ebbs and flows. Actually, my interest in most things does, but these are sustained interests that I return to regularly, if not often enough (remember - this is my first post of 2017). ShirtPocket Productions goes through periods of dormancy, too. As I get better and more creative at assembling video (editing, soundtracks, etc.), I am able to do it more efficiently. But it is still time consuming. ShirtPocket Shorts are short - usually one to two minutes long. To create one, with music and fades and titles - even as amateurish as SPPs are - takes at least an hour, usually longer.

And I have learned some things along the way. For example, to use copyrighted music - which is most everything on the radio, in my iTunes collection, etc., it takes the permission from whoever owns it. Even if it is coming from the radio on my motorcycle as part of the ambient background “noise,” it gets flagged by YouTube, by Facebook and others. For my last two ShirtPocket Shorts, I didn’t even try to wiggle around the restrictions (doable, but temporary and I don’t want to open myself up to litigation - SPP doesn’t have a legal department). It turns out the Apple’s iMovie has a bunch of royalty-free music and other sound-effects that do not get flagged. While it is not the recognizable soundtrack I would like sometimes, it is good quality and, oddly enough, tends to refocus viewers on the video itself.

In light of all of this, I am using this return from a de facto blogging hiatus to post SPPs last two ShirtPocket Shorts. In an effort to include this blog more prominently in my online presence, it might be the perfect place to expand the storyline with words and, perhaps even dedicate some longer videos that are beyond the attention span of a Facebook “news feeder.” At any rate, with spring just around the corner and summer coming soon, the raw footage will be piling up. It might be time to give ShirtPocket Productions’ CEO a raise.