Monday, January 18, 2021

Rounding the Bend

The past few weeks have been a veritable whirlwind. Where did it go? So much has happened so fast. Hopefully, finally, we are starting to settle down. The turbulence, while likely still somewhat bumpy (keep your seat-belts fastened), looks as though it will become less so. We can hope.


At California State University, Sacramento, like other colleges and universities around the country, the spring term is about to begin. Instruction at Sac State begins one week from today, although we do not officially go back “on the clock” until the 20th. I learned long ago that what the university designates as “work” time and the actual time I have to allocate for doing my job are often vastly different. In fact, as “non-tenured faculty,” I don’t even have my semester contract yet. That’s normal, too. Weird, but normal.


Image for postHowever, what is not normal is also, unfortunately, beginning to become normal. Since midway through Spring 2020, all of Fall 2020 and this coming Spring 2021, most classes at Sac State and throughout the entire 23-campus California State University system have been and will be online, distance, virtual, instruction. Prior to last spring, that was not normal for the vast majority of courses throughout the system, and certainly not at Sac State. If the reduced anxiety and increased comfort I feel going into the semester at just a week out is any indication, normalcy has gotten at least its foot in the door. And, no, I do not like it.


I do not like the distance between my students and me. I am a “present” teacher, I establish a rapport, a relationship with my students that constitutes a kind of a deal. It’s not spoken, but, rather, an understanding based on each of us doing our part. Being there to uphold our end of this “bargain” is part and parcel of how I present myself and my material. I didn’t plan it that way, I didn’t learn that in “professorin’ school,” that teaching style is an evolution of my style poured into my teaching — of my personality — and is based on who I am; it is a version of myself that is part of every relationship I have with everyone. As a result, I present an authenticity that is best conveyed in real life. It can be done virtually, but it is challenging and takes a great deal of attention to varied, scattered and often difficult to read inputs from students. Presence, virtually, is different — and, so far, not normal.


Today, the batch emails go out. For most of my 100-plus students, this will be my first contact with them. That old cliché about first impressions has proven itself many times over; I am a believer. While I have learned quite a lot about how to better navigate and utilize this online environment over the last two semesters, I am hopeful this will be the last one. That said, I expect it also to be the best. I will be focusing my energies in the areas where students seemed to respond well and eliminate areas they did not. Ultimately, I want them to engage — with me and with each other. The best way to foster that is in a classroom, but there are other ways and I have some experience now that will help guide me. This is, despite the “distance learning” model we are forced to work with, an exciting prospect. I can say, without (much) reservation, that I am looking forward to the new semester.


Every new semester, especially the first week, brings with it a version of all the fears and insecurities — the trepidation — of that very first semester. It is the kind of adrenaline producing fear that is almost intoxicating — it is exciting. Last semester it felt more like dread. Dread can be described in many ways, but one thing is sure, there is nothing exciting about dread. That sense is gone, the excitement has returned. The online model leaves too much to be desired, but it very likely will be over by the fall semester. When it is all said and done, for me, for my students, and for everyone else, we will have learned to get through yet another of the trials and tribulations of living a human life. We will look back and remember those we lost, marvel at how we managed to get through it all, realize and remember that we are strong.





Thursday, December 31, 2020

Hell in a Handbasket


I feel as though I should write something. I am tempted to say, “I don’t know what,” but the genre of New Year’s Eve writing is pretty standard, in general terms at least. It is a reflective effort. It places what has transpired into some greater context. It sets the stage for what is coming in the next year; it looks both back and ahead. Although no year is, in isolation, “normal,” this past year falls so far outside normal that reflecting upon it, as well as looking ahead from it, is not so routine. The task this year is far more daunting, the dynamics involved are broader and have many more facets. This is not nearly so personal.


But that’s probably as good a place to start as any. The personal. Personally, it has been a trying year, but not devastating. However, devastating is one of those words that, when applied in individual cases, one’s circumstances could be described as such whereas another’s similar circumstances might not be. One of my best friends contracted and, after a long battle, succumbed to COVID-19. That was devastating
to his family, certainly, and to me personally, in many ways. But in the big picture, my life, overall, for 2020, was not “devastated.” I know I am splitting definitional hairs here, but it is important to illustrate the finer points of what the fallout 2020 meant to me at a very local level. Art’s passing was (and still is) a major blow, it hurts, still, I miss him a lot, but my life in the big picture goes on mostly the same. And, in his memory, he would want that. But – and this is kind of where I am going – currently there are more than 340 thousand others who have suffered the same fate this year, and their families are permanently and significantly altered because of it. In that respect, my life has not been “devastated.”


And in many others it has not, either. I am in solid financial shape, my immediate family is safe and most of those I am close to and care about are well, too. Of course there is the psychological toll, everyone has been thrown into a discomfort zone; dealing with the unfamiliar, for many, has not been easy. And we like easy, don’t we? Our entire society is built on convenience, on ease, on comfort. But it’s also built to a large extent on community and the social nature of our species. Ironically, the technology that fosters both the ease and the community has made much of the trudge forward in the past year possible. Social media, virtual meeting software, delivery of goods and services and the like has made the isolation that so many despise workable. The very technology that makes us even more social has maintained our sociability and our functionality through this pandemic.


Of course technology cannot replace real human contact. Even though we were heading that way in very real terms – voluntarily and unwittingly – when forced to rely on technology exclusively, we have found it has significant limitations. Good. But one of the overtones I cannot help but notice, one that existed before and was already starting to bubble to the surface, went into a full boil. Incessant, wholesale and, frankly, embarrassing whining. When confronted with hardship, in the past, the people of this nation buckled down and did what was necessary. They did not whine, they did not complain, they did not bitch and moan about how hard it was or how inconvenienced they were. They did the work and they did it together. Not this time. Now we are a nation of whiners. And if nothing else, I hope 2020 shows us that and that we never succumb to it again.


So much for looking back. Looking forward, much about 2021 will be different. The pandemic will, in all likelihood, come to an end sometime mid-year. The political landscape will change; hopefully some level of decorum will return. Lessons to be learned are everywhere, lessons in courage, lessons in perseverance, lessons in empathy, in patience, in humanity and compassion, lessons in understanding one another. All of that and more are available if we, enough of us, are open to them. Our children and grandchildren will be taking the reigns and running this nation soon – many already are – and I am hopeful. More than 200 of them have been in my “virtual classrooms” this past year. They are bright and inquisitive, they are, more than ever, engaged. They care about their future and they care about their predecessors, too. They care about us. To those who have been bagging on the “millennials” and otherwise looking for a scapegoat in the younger generations, I have two words for you: Fuck off. They know who they are and, more importantly, they know who you are.


Like many of you, I am tired. Not so much of the isolation or the other hardships we must endure to get past this medical emergency – I can deal with that. I am tired of the attitudes. But I am hopeful that not just the end of this blip in history is near, but also that a paradigm shift is upon us. These “kids” have had quite enough and soon enough, they will be calling the shots. Those of you who feel that they are going to destroy the country, that because of them we are “going to Hell in a handbasket,” take heart. You needn’t worry so much. You and I will be dead before we get there.



Sunday, December 06, 2020

Forty Years of Adulthood


Forty years ago, at this moment, I was looking forward to being magically transformed into a legal adult. That happened, of course, and certain things changed - my attitude did, certainly, for a while anyway - but besides that intangible change in legal status, I remember nothing “special” about that birthday. On my 16th birthday I got my driver's license, but beyond that, again, nothing special. The same goes for all prior birthdays except my 5th - on that day my parents gave me my first bicycle. I'm sure there was cake, too, but as far as celebrations go, I don't remember. My 10th, 13th, any others, I have no recollection. Moving forward, with just one exception, I cannot recall anything noteworthy in terms of celebrations for the yearly anniversary of my coming into this world. I remember quite a few for other decidedly non-celebratory reasons, but except for one strange, but nice “surprise party” 10 years ago, I remember the celebrations for others, many of them, but not my own.


There are a lot of possible reasons for that. I know that my 21st birthday fell during finals week while I was attending San Diego State University. Even Playboy Magazine's “#1 Party School” wasn't partying that week. It's not as though I ever passed up a chance to party, but my 21st birthday did not present such a chance; a pitcher of beer and a couple of enchiladas with a friend at the local Mexican food place was my big shin-dig. Although my birthday has never been a big deal, there have been a few that I sort of wanted to be, that I felt like they should be, but they never were. Turning "The Big 5-O," for instance, is supposed to be kind of a big deal, but as it turned out, it kind of wasn't. However, I am mostly content letting them pass quietly by - especially considering those that were not so quiet. This one - 58, or 40 years since my 18th - is only noteworthy because it has been 40 years since the privileges (most of them) and the responsibilities of adulthood have been thrust, or bestowed, upon me.


What am I going to do? Nothing special. Nothing different than most any other Sunday at the end of most any other fall semester. I'll answer a few phone calls and texts from friends and family wishing me well and I'll "like" a shitload more from Facebook friends (not judging - I do it, too), when I get to them - maybe I'll take my Harley for a little ride to get some wind therapy (and I have a nice cigar I've been saving, too), but the reality is that it's just another day. It's been coming for a while and until a couple of days ago I haven't really given it much thought. I don't need or want a “birthday month,” and, to be perfectly honest, I feel a little disingenuous even writing this - drawing attention to what I say I don't really care about. Some will say, “You must care a little or...” And they are right, to an extent - there is some truth in that. But I also process shit this way - I write about it - and those who really know me know that.


I have a lot of friends who have passed this mark and I have a lot who are still years away, but none of that helps me understand what 58 is supposed to feel like. I know how I feel physically and, considering what I've put my body through, I cannot (and do not) complain. But the very idea that I turned 18 years-old 40 fucking years ago is hard to wrap my head around. There is a lot to be said for experience - far more than my 18 year-old self would ever grant. I use that experience And when I can, I try to share it. I remember stuff first-hand that my students learned about in K-12 history classes. And although my earliest memories, sketchy as they are, predate that 5th birthday, I distinctly remember that day 53 years ago when I got a brand new red Sears bicycle for my birthday. That birthday is still the best one.



Tuesday, November 17, 2020

What If...

It seems that everyone passes through a “reflective” time of year. Okay, maybe not everyone… I should qualify that; everyone who has lived long enough to have some years to reflect upon. And that time of year can span several days, weeks, even months. It tends to be centered around some major milestone, often one’s birthday, but we collect other major mile markers as we move through life, too. To the extent that they will “cluster” at some point in the year, that seems to be the place where an ever increasing cascade of reflection takes place. That process, for me, began in early August and will culminate on my birthday in early December. By the time the holidays and New Years Day come around, it will have been processed – no “new year resolutions” for me, ever.


As I am currently in that period leading up to my 58th birthday, the warehouse of reflective material is full. It is not just due to surviving nearly six decades, but also due to nearly not surviving. But I have hashed and rehashed that and much else of my “new life” that began with the violent beginning of the end of my old life twenty years ago many times, most recently on the 20th anniversary of that specific date. Today, my musings took me in a different, much less foreboding (and, consequentially, much less climactic) direction. Today it has to do with “what ifs,” my nature, and would it have mattered.



Briefly, I wasted many years of my life wandering aimlessly through it. I had no real direction, no real goals, no real plans – I don’t remember ever having an answer to, “what do you want to be when you grow up?” I didn’t think anything of it, I was just a kid, but that aimlessness eventually manifested in a lot of unhealthy behaviors that included drug and alcohol abuse. I worked, I even had careers (plural), I was a husband – briefly – and a father and, if asked, that was my purpose, my main job, and the only thing that really meant anything to me was being a father. However, addiction is more powerful than love and eventually even fatherhood came in second. Obviously there is much more to the story, but that sets the stage of aimlessness and highlights that, while lifestyle played a part, it was more symptom than cause.


That part of my life literally crashed in on me a little more than 20 years ago and the life I lead today took hold for good a little more than 16 years ago. The transformative process took some time – hence the beginning of the end was not the same as the beginning of the beginning. Suffice it to say that I have been completely abstinent from all mind and mood altering substances, “clean and sober,” for more than 16 years now. It is a point of personal pride for me, but it also moves this story along to our next plateau. Prior to that line of demarcation, while I had many jobs and many of those jobs constituted what could be called careers – and I went to school for some of them – none of them “stuck.” Usually a personal crisis of one sort or another would conveniently coincide with a subconscious, “I’ve been doing this long enough,” and I would jump ship. Long-term commitments were not, apparently, my thing.  


But that is likely only partially true. The fact is that there are several areas in my life in which I enjoy some very long-term commitments. And, since 16 years ago, one of those has been of the career/educational variety, too. I went back to school, but this time it was to finish my bachelor’s degree. After that was a master’s and after that I attempted a PhD and, although I only managed to advance to candidacy – never completing my dissertation – I was awarded another MA degree. Furthermore, I have been teaching undergraduate university students since my first semester in graduate school in 2008, a job I have now been doing full-time since 2015. That is, by far, the longest I have ever stayed in one job.


So much for the Reader’s Digest of what got me here. My musings for the past couple of days have been based around “what ifs.” I know it’s just a mental mind-fuck and if I am not careful it can take me down a rabbit-hole to a place of self-loathing for all the time I wasted, but it need not be so dark. I wonder, what if I had found this prowess for academia when I was in my 20s? What if the dedication I was able to muster in my mid to late 40s and early to mid (now late) 50s was available to me when I was younger, when I had more energy, when I had more memory, when I had more drive? Worthy questions, all. What I really want to know… would I have made it to Dr. Althouse? Would I have had more success in earning that PhD? There are several factors driving this question, but one is a subtle but distinct change in attitude of certain others once I decided to not go through with the final step of writing a dissertation. That decision, the one that essentially awarded me the conciliation prize of another MA degree, seems to have disappointed certain others – but disappointed is not exactly the right word. The right word denotes action – it’s an attitude that captures the feeling. I am not sure a good word exists – it’s not ostracized or shunned, neither of those words are accurate, but a lesser version, perhaps? Knowing what I know now – and forgetting stupid lottery scenarios – would it be any different?


I think yes – and no. In terms of the destruction and dereliction I ran my life into, and in terms of much (but not all) of the wasted time, yes, some of that could have been avoided and my life would have benefited. Indeed, not just my life… However, I cannot discount my own nature, those core things about me that make me who I am. Some things I can deal with, modify, work around – and I have, in many respects, but others are just there, characteristically me. The questions about that “drive,” the energy to pursue a longer-term goal, to be see things past “good enough” to absolute perfection – in most cases, I can’t see it. That wasn’t me before the drugs, it certainly wasn’t me during and it has not been me since. Even when it comes to this – writing clean, clear prose – something I know, now, that I am good at, that I embrace and nurture, I will not pour over endlessly striving for some standard of perfection. True, my line for “good enough,” for this, is much closer to perfect, but I am not nor will I ever be – or was I ever in the past – that guy. About that PhD… I have no fucking idea, I really don’t. And regarding how others feel about my failure to achieve their dream. I’d suggest they read that last sentence out loud.


So “what if” I could go back and do it all over again, knowing some of what was in my path ahead. Well, first, regarding the danger signs of addiction, take them seriously, get help early and have 35 or 40 years clean and sober by  the time I turn 58. Next… nothing. I don’t think that anything I could do, knowing or not knowing what my future held, would provide me with the necessary motivation beyond what I found in my later life. In other words, my success would likely be similar, perhaps aided by the increased energy and memory of youth, but perhaps hindered by the distractions of youth, sans drugs. While musing about what might have been is somewhat entertaining, it is, when put in proper perspective, also gratifying in that I might not have wasted as much time as I think. And, unless someone invents a working time machine, it only matters in the here and now anyway.

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Over-Celebration: National Holiday Day — rev. 2020


I wrote the following essay for a column writing class more than a decade ago. While it remains one of my favorite pieces, there are parts of it that reveal just where I was at the time — as a writer, as an observant member of society, as a member of the human race. These overtones would not be apparent to anyone else, save perhaps those who know me personally and have read me closely over the past many years, but there is one theme that was emerging and is apparent to me. The idea that we, as a society are so very grandiose about so much. We “celebrate” everything, all the time. And often, many times. How many times have we heard (or have you said), “this is my birthday month.” Seriously? Like one day isn’t enough? Although that’s an easy target, it speaks to this penchant we have in America, and in the west generally, to par-tay. And why, not — we’ve earned it, right? Well, yes — and no.


We absolutely should celebrate our achievements, our milestones, our victories and the like. There is nothing wrong with that — in proper moderation in relation to the event. A 50th birthday party? Kind of a big deal. A 44th birthday shindig? Not so much. And I am not here to dictate what the “right” amount of celebration is — I have no fucking idea — however, it is clear that we do push the boundaries regularly. Proof? Easy.


Today is a Wednesday. It is also Veterans Day. A lot of people have the day off, with pay. It is a federal holiday and all government offices are closed. It is a day to recognize the men and women who have served our nation in the U.S. armed forces. Memorial Day is for vets who have passed, Veterans Day is for those who have served. They are both solemn days, days of reverence, days of respect, days to reflect and be grateful to those who made our cozy lives here possible. Veterans Day was originally on November 11th, but is was part of the 1971 Uniform Monday Holiday Act that moved its “observance” to a Monday, thus creating a three-day weekend. Guess what happened. The vets saw it and pretty quickly had had quite enough “celebrating.” In 1978 Veterans Day returned to being observed on November 11th, no matter what day of the week that fell on. Go ahead, have a Veterans Day barbecue at the lake, break out the ski boat, crank up the music and have too many beers. On a Wednesday.


The celebrators hijacked Veterans Day. They have also hijacked a lot more than that. Think about all the major holidays, their origins and their current Madison Avenue made images. Never mind the “made for TV” holidays that have emerged just to sell stuff. We have all bought into it. And why not — it sure feels good. It felt good when it was all much smaller, when I was much smaller. And now that I have turned many calendar pages, those holidays have grown more massive, their preceding seasons are longer and more is certainly better, right?


And now the rug has been yanked out of nearly a year of celebrations. By the time it is over, everyone will have lost out on something to COVID. The whining is, at times, almost deafening. We sure have gotten used to our celebrations. Then there are, as of today, 240,040 souls who will never celebrate anything ever again. In the meantime, today is Veterans Day — go thank one for his or her service - and party some other day.



October 18, 2007


Christmas is nearly upon us once again. Many would call it the undisputed heavyweight champion of all contemporary holidays. It has it all - decorations, gifts, a grand, multi-course meal, family tradition, religious undertones, symbolic icons, parades, music and extreme consumerism. And, like only a handful of other holidays, it has an “eve” to welcome its arrival. It even has its very own season with its very own greeting... "Season's Greetings." Yes, Christmas might just represent the pinnacle of what every holiday aspires to be.


If Christmas sets the bar, all other holidays are lacking by comparison. Where’s the justice? Why should one holiday receive all the glory while others deserve only a footnote on the calendar?


There are other holidays that have religious overtones, perhaps even more so than Christmas. Take Easter, for instance. Not just one day, but actually three starting on Thursday night, through Good Friday (aren't all Fridays good?) and ending on the evening of Easter Sunday. Talk about holiday potential. Instead of one day, there are three solid days for gift giving, parties and festivities. Imagine the commercial build-up. Imagine the spectacle. Throw in a Monday and it can't lose.


But no, all we get is a cheesy bunny. He somehow lays multicolored eggs and then cleverly hides them. If we’re lucky, he pushes out some that are made of chocolate (don’t ask) and puts them and other candy in a basket with plastic grass that gets everywhere. But there is a parade. And songs. And apparently Easter bonnets, though I cannot recall ever seeing anyone ever wearing one.


Speaking of candy, what about Halloween? Here’s a holiday that’s not a holiday. There are the parties, sure, and decorations second only to Christmas (yes, second, again...), but there has never been a day off work. Any self-respecting holiday simply must come with a paid holiday day. Halloween is so disrespected not even banks and the government give it deference.


There are holidays better known by the dates they fall on like the Fourth of July or, hijacked from our neighbors to the south, Cinco de Mayo.


Then there are the “Monday” holidays. These are the holidays that are on one day, but “observed” on another. In 1971, the Uniform Monday Holiday Act moved Veterans Day, Memorial Day and George Washington’s Birthday (before it was given an identity crisis by combining it with Lincoln’s Birthday into “Presidents Day”) from their original date to a convenient Monday so federal employees would have more three-day weekends.


The act also created Columbus Day, the dumbest holiday of all time - glorifying a wayward sailor who got lost and discovered… India. No. America. No - India. No, ok, America, but let’s call the people there “Indians.” Oddly enough, there is no nationally designated Indian or Native American Day. It wasn’t a “new” world to them, they knew it was here all along.


After protests by veterans groups, in 1978 Veteran’s Day was moved back to its original November 11th date. The vets felt it had lost its importance and had become nothing more than just another three-day weekend.


Lost its importance?


Well then, let’s move on to some of the more innocuous holidays. In no particular order and with no particular importance, some of the most pointless are: Groundhog Day, Flag Day, the afore mentioned Presidents Day , Pioneer Day, Patriot’s Day, Valentine’s Day, Saint Patrick’s Day, and the ever-popular Grandparent’s Day.


And just when you thought it couldn’t get any worse, here are some of the “unofficial” holidays created to commemorate who knows what: Bloomsday, Buy Nothing Day, Friendship Day, Husband Appreciation Day, Wife Appreciation Day, International Talk Like a Pirate Day, International Kitchen Garden Day, Mole Day, Monkey Day, National Gorilla Day and a day that needs no description - No Pants Day.


Yes, seemingly there is a holiday for every occasion. Not yet mentioned - Mother’s Day and Father’s Day. I have one of each and I am a father - these are among my favorite holidays. It was not always the case - when I was young, there was the perennial question children always ask, “How come there’s no Kids’ Day?” The reply, always the same, “Every day is kids’ day.”


And so it is.


That must be why adults need so many damned holidays.

Saturday, November 07, 2020

Ground-Breaking & Ceiling-Shattering


While we either celebrate the win or lament the loss of yet another old white guy for the highest office in the land, let's remember something that occurred the last (and only) time an old white guy did not win. In 2008, a younger guy with dark skin won the presidency for the first time in our nation's history. Many, myself included, felt it was about time; it was way overdue. And that sentiment was shared even by many who were not Democrats - people who genuinely feel that one’s character is sole the measure of the man. Of the man… Hold that thought. Of course, systemic racism combined with a hidden undertone of personal covert racism was still lurking beneath the surface, every so often peaking its head out with seemingly innocuous enough questions like, “Is this nation ready for a black president?” The answer was, obviously yes. And no.


But this is not about that. Barack Obama remains insanely popular and at the same time, his very name raises the hair on the backs of some of our less evolved fellow Americans. Racism is dying a slow death, but to the extent that we can hasten it along – that I can push it over the cliff – we should. But what about this notion of character being the measure of the man? We have just elected the first female to the second highest office in the land, a “heartbeat away” from the presidency. Character measurement is, apparently, no longer limited to men. Kamala Harris has made history not only by being the first female to be elected to be Vice President of the United States, but she, like Obama is also happens to have darker skin.


Disclaimer: At nearly 58 years old, I am an “old, white male.” I am also fiercely independent — long without party affiliation. The terminologies used to describe various groups, including my own, have changed over the years. Keeping up has sometimes proven challenging, but in every case I try to respect how those I am referring to wish to be referred. My own perspective is and always has been based on character.


Like Hillary Clinton being the first woman to be the presidential nominee for a major party, Harris winning the vice presidency is ground-breaking – or, more accurately – ceiling-shattering, regardless of whether one supports her politically or not. It is also reason to celebrate for anyone who, like myself, celebrates and champions equality. Many of those on the left see the recent loss of seats in the House as a defeat, but hopefully they will see that many of those seats lost were won by women – yes, Republican women – but still women, and further progress for equality. Because, like racism, sexism is not dead. It is still systemic, institutionalized and lurking beneath the surface peaking its ugly head up every time a comment as innocuous as one regarding her “outfit” or “her face” makes the news.


Kamala Harris is the Vice President Elect of the United States of America. Whether you like her or not, whether you support her policies or not, whether you are liberal, conservative, Democrat or Republican or something else, if you are American and embrace the ideals and values enshrined in our Constitution, you should be happy that women and those who are not white are being taken seriously for our highest offices. That should be good news, even if you are against the person who won the office. If it is not, I challenge you to examine what, exactly, your values are – and then go find a nation that matches them. Because it’s not the good ole USofA.