Sunday, December 01, 2019

Facebook Charities

I was just scrolling through my Facebook newsfeed (not really “news;” what it’s actually feeding us is open to debate – some other time) and I was solicited by well-meaning friends and strangers (though, still “friends” in Facebook’s world – again, a debate for some other time) for some worthy cause. No sarcasm, I mean “well-meaning” and “worthy” in their purest sense. Both consist of real, live people who are trying to make the world a better place – the former through solicitation and the latter through organization and activism. There is nothing inherently wrong with either nor is there anything wrong with seizing upon some opportunity, like one’s birthday, to stoke the “giving” fire.

Facebook, however and sadly, has made the act of giving, of altruism itself, a promotional tool. One cannot, apparently, simply ask others to give. Facebook, of course, knows my birthday is coming up. I have been solicited to solicit my “friends” numerous times over the past couple of weeks. Now, less than a week out, those “prompts” are coming daily. It tells me who among my friends have done so, who among my friends have donated and even makes suggestions as to which causes might be worthy of my promotion. It sounds like Facebook is, with our help (like, we’re a team, we are in this together) making the world a better place. But mostly we are making Facebook a bigger place.

Further, and getting beyond, and, in some respects, before Facebook, why do we need a “special occasion” to be altruistic? Why is there such a big push to donate Thanksgiving turkeys and other fixings this time of year when people are hungry all year? Why does it take a celebrity passing from some disease for us to care about everyone else suffering from it? Why does doing charitable acts need promotion and, even more so, why is anyone besides the recipient of the aid benefiting?

Okay, some of the answers are obvious. The “business” of raising money costs money. There are some charities that do a very good job reducing and minimizing those costs, but even they rely on people who do the work for pay so that they, too, will not need the aid of the charity they work for. Get it. There are others on the opposite end of the spectrum that are nothing but scams. Due diligence is important and, to some degree, the advice (or solicitation) of our friends serves that purpose. We trust our friends. They care, so we care. But Facebook has altered what the term “friend” means. I have more than 2,000 Facebook “friends.” I know several people who have hit their 5,000 friend limit. Absolutely no one can maintain that many friends. Period. So let’s just establish that of those friends, many if not most, are not really friends.

But taking a step back, do we really need the push of our friends or family to give? I would hope not and I would further hope that we are not waiting for opportunities to come along, but rather we are  actively seeking out those causes that are important to us. If we happen find out from a friend (a real friend) about some need that appeals to us, so much the better. But you (and I am speaking specifically to my own friends here) don’t need my suggestions or prodding to give. You also don’t need my birthday. You (everyone) can do it every day. It’s not even hard to do.

I am dead set against promoting my charitable acts. The power, for me, comes from my anonymity. I have made rare exceptions when a need is immediate and someone close to me is involved (usually through posting a GoFundMe campaign link – as much as that giving “service” goes against the very idea of charity). Generally, when I give, only I know about it. When possible, not even the recipient will know. Since I can’t give enough to affect my taxes, not even the IRS knows who got how much. And that is just the way I like it.

So, in six days I will turn 57 years old. For my birthday, give something to someone less fortunate. But don’t stop there. Do the same for your birthday. And the other 363 days? If you can, if you could find it in your heart and within your ability, give then, too. Give whenever and where ever you can. Make the world a better place. Don’t do it because I am having another birthday this year, do it because it is needed. You got yours, you worked hard, but you also got some luck. Maybe you can share the luck part, at least, a little. Do it for a birthday. It doesn’t matter whose, anyone’s is fine. Someone is having one today.

Monday, November 18, 2019

Angels, Again

Way back in January of 2014, I wrote an essay to help support my friend whose young son, Zak, suffered a traumatic brain injury in an accident. The essay was intended to offer hope. Unfortunately, in Zak’s case the injury proved to be too severe and after fighting for some time, he passed away. My friend, his mother, suffered the unimaginable agony that only a parent who has lost a child could possibly comprehend. While no one “deserves” such agony, there are some who are so far removed from the “bad” end of the good/bad continuum that it recalls every single one of those cosmic questions of fairness. Kimmie’s light was bright, so bright that everyone who came into contact with her knew they mattered and counted in some significant and unique way.

Was? Yes, past-tense. Not long after Zak passed, Kimmie was diagnosed with breast cancer. She fought it, won some battles, but eventually the disease took her. She passed away last week. Ramp up that unfairness, call back into question those big cosmic truths, wonder why someone so good can be struck with so much hardship and pain – all of that. It makes no sense. Yet it is only those ethereal notions of what comes next, what is after life, that makes any of this even palatable. We can say that she is back with her youngest son who was only allotted such a short time. It helps, but it flies in direct contradiction to any semblance of fairness. It doesn’t address the pain of those left behind to say nothing of the biggest question: What is the fucking point?

I don’t know. Kimmie was special to me. Our relationship began on a certain trajectory that was deflected when Zak’s accident occurred. I remember the exact moment. However, throughout it all, every day she was in my life, I felt as though we shared something special and unique. I have since come to realize that she shared that with everyone in her life. Each of us was unique, each was special to her in our own way – she had that way about her. We were all special - and felt it. Not everyone can give that, indeed, most cannot. We used to talk about a lot of philosophical stuff, about what, as a species, we don’t know and what we, as a species, think we know, but really don’t. I don’t know about the hereafter, I don’t know if there is one and to date, no one has convinced me there is. But that does not mean there is not.

At most points in my life, not believing in the cosmic, in the unproven and, so far, unprovable, serves me just fine. I don’t need to explain anything beyond what science can. Yet, there are times, like now, when it is comforting to imagine that there are angels. I have written about one such angel before, one whom I choose to believe helped guide me. She, too, was taken too soon and for no good reason. She, too, was a very good person. And she, too, died leaving a whole lot of pain behind. I could not understand it then and I really don’t now. If this is the big preordained “plan,” it is a bad plan. However, some iteration of what might lay beyond is comforting, like it was many years ago. And if such an alternate reality does exist, I can take comfort that there is another angel in my life. And I do not have to “know” anything to know that.

Friday, November 15, 2019


The Facebook “Memories” (formerly, “On this day”) tool is one of just a few of Facebook’s redeeming qualities. Ready access to these snapshots of my life, even though they are filtered and skewed through the medium, is beyond interesting. It is cathartic. It is enlightening. It is profound. They are triggers that remind me not only of where I was, but also offer me a definitive retrospective of where I was going. In those moments, of course, anything that was going to happen was only speculative. Looking back at that look forward removes the speculation – I know what would happen, because it happened. One year ago today, for example, I found myself at a crossroads. I was forced to reckon with a reality that would change some of what I thought defined who I am.

A year and two days ago my youngest son, who was 29 at the time, was involved in a serious motorcycle accident. He wasn’t at fault; an inattentive motorist (and that is the absolute kindest description I can offer – everything else is much more, deservedly, derogatory) turned left into my son’s path and his Harley Davidson hit that idiot’s car (okay, I went there, sue me…) at about 50 miles per hour. His injuries were severe and life-threatening, but after weeks in the hospital followed by months of rehabilitation, my kid can walk and function again. He went back to work 10 months and four days after the wreck. In other words, as I write this, he has recently returned to work. He is not 100 percent yet, he might never be, but he has progressed through significant injuries and a bunch of surgeries to get back to self-sufficiency.

But this is not about that. I have written about this over the last year a few times. The anniversary of his wreck did not take me by surprise and I did not need Facebook to remind me. The past year has been one in which we have spent too much time dealing with multiple bureaucracies. I could go on and on about the problems with medical industrial complex, insurance companies, etc., but this is not about that either. Facebook’s “Memories” triggered something else, something I have thought about over the past 12 months, but never really dwelled on. Until now.

My son expressed interest in getting a street motorcycle about three years ago. I have had and/or been around motorcycles most of his life – dirt and street. He rode on the dirt when he was young, but had no real experience on the street. I offered to pay for the California DMV sanctioned motorcycle safety course that would also provide him with half of the testing needed for a motorcycle license. It would also reveal how serious he was. I was and continued to be “worried” (for lack of a better word) when he rode partially because he lacked experience, but mostly because of other drivers not paying attention and not seeing us. I wanted to support him not only because I support my sons in their interests, but also because riding motorcycles is something I am passionate about. Doing it with my kids is, as I’ve written before, real bucket-list shit.

Fast-forward to a year and two days ago and my worst fear was realized. Everyone I know who rides regularly has had an incident or two and some have been serious. I’ve had friends who were killed on their bikes. It is a risk we all take and accept. Lots of things – hobbies, jobs, other activities – are dangerous, motorcycle riding is one of them. I’ve wrecked, too. I could not help but feel some guilt in my kid being laid up in the hospital in so much pain. A year ago today it was still early and it was still really bad. While fault for the accident was absolutely on the moron driving the car, I wondered if, with my years of experience, I would have foreseen the potential ahead. Of course there is no way of knowing, and the only way to get experience is by experience, so the question is somewhat irrelevant. Except that it is not.

I have been riding street bikes since I was 18. For most of the ensuing almost 40 years I have owned and ridden motorcycles on the street. For the past 10 or so years, my riding has escalated quite a lot. Until this time last year, I was logging around 20,000 motorcycle miles per year. Most motorcyclists log 5,000 or fewer miles. In my much younger years, that was probably where I was, too. My current motorcycle, a 2017 Harley Davidson Street Glide Special, has 47,000 miles. She turned three years-old just a couple of months ago. So why not 60,000 miles? There are two good reasons. The first is simple enough – she was involved in a wreck that put her on the sideline for about three months a couple of years ago. It was not that serious and should not have taken that long, but the miles that would have gone on that bike were put on a 1996 Harley that I bought to ride while I waited. It’s a long(ish) story and not pertinent to this conversation.

The second reason is really where all this is going. My kid was taken out by a car being driven by someone who had no business behind the wheel, but fully one third of drivers have no business driving. That is no exaggeration. We who ride sit above you who drive. When we go by you, we can see into your car. We can see what you’re doing. Too many of you are not doing what you are supposed to be doing – driving. In fact, it is the only thing you are supposed to be doing. Some of you are eating, some of you are fiddling with the radio, some of you are doing your fucking makeup, some of you are “sight-seeing” and way too many of you are on your fucking phones. Yes, one third of you – one out of every three are distracted by something – you are not paying attention, you are not driving.

I ride hard, sometimes I ride fast and I take chances, when appropriate. What is appropriate? Things like how fast can I attack that turn, how much throttle before the rear wheel breaks loose, how quickly can I slow down before cranking back up on the throttle? All these things involve me, my machine and my abilities, they don’t involve or endanger anyone else. And, I don’t consider that kind of riding dangerous anyway. I am well within my abilities and my bike’s capabilities. Some disagree, so be it. However, I don’t like having to drive for you and when I am in traffic, around a lot of other cars (like when I am commuting to work), that is exactly what I have to do. I have to anticipate every idiotic thing every driver might do because I don’t know if you are the one out of three until it is too late. Doing that has saved my ass more times than I can count.

But it is exhausting and no matter how good I am, and even if my experience might have prevented my son’s wreck, eventually someone is going to surprise me. My vigilance will crack ever so slightly and in that split-second one of the one third will take me out. It is just a matter of time. Two days after my son’s wreck, as he was screaming out in pain, I considered, seriously, selling my motorcycles; I was, for only the second time in my life, thinking about hanging my helmet up for good. I had three bikes at the time and I was ready to get rid of them all. It was just a matter of time. Someone was going to get me. I was almost done.

It is still true. It is just a matter of time. Someone is going to get me. But there are some things I can do short of selling my bikes and quitting. And that is the other reason my high-mileage 2017 Harley doesn’t have more miles. I still logged around 10,000 miles in the last year, but most of them came in relatively short periods of time. Where most of my rides used to be short, commuter rides and my daily average was 30-50 miles, last year most of my daily totals were in the hundreds of miles and one was almost 1,000 miles. My motorcycle is no longer my “daily driver,” she is not my commute vehicle (my Lexus GS350 has “softened” that blow). I have limited my exposure to the one third significantly. I can’t eliminate it, but I sure don’t have to invite it. My motorcycle is now, 90 percent of the time, a recreational vehicle.

So have I done enough to protect myself? Definitely not, there is no “enough.” But under the circumstances, I have likely extended the time it will take before someone gets me, statistically, anyway. Statistics are not facts, they are just likelihoods – the chances are statistically remote that I will be struck by lightning or win the lottery, but both happen to people regularly. Motorcycles are still dangerous and we all need to take whatever lever of caution or precaution we feel is warranted. My greatest risk involves people driving cars. By taking myself out of that world, to the extent I can, minimizes that risk, but risk still exits. And you don’t have to ride a motorcycle to be exposed to risk. It is part of life and although I have changed some of how I express it, I still embrace risk.

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Deal With It

It’s early. I am not now and have never been a “morning person,” yet there are occasions when I must get up before the sun. My schedule this semester has me teaching on Mondays and Wednesdays at 7:30 a.m. On those days my alarm goes off at 4:30 and I am out of bed by 5:00. Today is Wednesday. It is 4:00 a.m. and I have been up for an hour. I don’t know why I awoke so early and so completely, but after about a half hour of trying to go back to sleep, I gave up. I am awake and that is that. Now what?

Coffee? For sure – I am on my second cup. Prepare for class? Sometimes I will get up earlier than usual to do that, but today I am already ready. Think too much? That’s a given – at 4:00 a.m. or 4:00 p.m. – it doesn’t matter, if I am awake I am thinking too much. But that should not necessarily be taken as a negative connotation, despite the “too much” qualification (or would that be a quantification? I digress). While I cannot say with any specificity what woke me up or why I am awake this early on this day, it is also true that today is one of those days that holds some significance. It didn’t happen yet, it would not until later in the afternoon, but one year ago today I got one of “those” calls every parent dreads.

“Those” calls come in different levels of severity, this one was up there, but it was not the worst case scenario. It is not the first such call I have received, either. This one involved my youngest son who was 29. The call came from an off-duty first responder who happened to be “first responding” when my son was cut off by some moron in a car turning left in front of him. Had my son been driving his Jeep, there would be very little to write about. He was not in his Jeep, he was on his Harley. The impact was violent and my son suffered major and potentially life-threatening injuries. Exactly one year ago from right now, no one had any idea that this day would be so pivotal.

When I got the call, I was driving my then girlfriend’s daughter home from school. I was told enough to realize the severity, but while the guy who called was honest enough, he did not indicate the actual extent of my kid’s injuries. He said something like, “He’s got a broken leg and a broken arm.” It turns out that my son’s broken leg was an open left femur fracture and an open tib/fib fracture, both likely occurred on impact. His broken arm was a nasty longitudinal fracture of his right humerus, likely occurring when he landed 25 or more feet from his bike. All required surgery and weeks of hospitalization followed by months of rehabilitation. But he did survive.

Ten months and a few days later, he was cleared to go back to work. He was not and is not 100 percent, but he is walking and able to care for himself completely. It was a long road back, but I never doubted his resolve. More importantly, he never did either. It is somewhat ironic that after I got the call and got home, I jumped on my bike to get to the hospital. I did not do that to make some sort of “motorcycle loyalty” statement. It was not in defiance towards every idiot, inattentive, cell phone using driver out there (and easily one third of y’all fit into that category – we who ride can see you, we can see into your cars as we ride by you – we can see what you’re doing and too often it ain’t driving). I rode because it was the fastest way to get through the traffic that the afternoon commute placed between me and my kid.

The nature of this day, a before and after kind of day, is probably not why I am awake so early. It’s not like it has been weighing on me; it’s not like I have seen this day coming and was tripping over its significance. Lots of things changed in my life and in his life since that day, some are a direct result of one moron who should not be driving and some are not. One of the few constants in life is change. If there is even a point to all this (and a point is certainly not a requirement), it is that no one is exempt from the inequities of living. My son was simply coming home from work. That’s it. He did not “have it coming,” he did not “deserve it,” it was not some kind of karmic retribution, it just happened. Furthermore, that idiot driving only had the legal minimum insurance coverage – nowhere near enough to compensate for his actions.

And life goes on. I am less than a month away from the completion of my 57th trip around the sun. That I have survived to see this day is amazing, maybe even unlikely, yet here I am. Shit happens, sometimes because of what we do or what we don’t do, and sometimes it just happens. It isn’t always “fair,” sometimes it is abjectly unfair, but it is upon us to deal with whatever it happens to be. I am still here. And so is he. His brothers, too, have had their share of incidents – defining moments, before and after moments – and they are still here. Life is not only not fair, it never has been and it isn’t supposed be. We will deal with it, how we deal with it is up to us.

Friday, October 11, 2019

The Key to Success

Every semester I have a handful of students who are like I was when I was an undergrad at San Diego State University in the early 80s. They come to class anywhere from irregularly to rarely, often show up late and are not too concerned about turning in assignments on time, or at all. Some of them simply disappear before the semester is over. I was that student and my success, or, rather, lack thereof, reflected my level of commitment. Why I was so nonchalant about school is a question I have asked myself many times over the ensuing years, but for many and related reasons, I did not place my education as a top priority. I was unmotivated to succeed. There are students who enter the semester with sufficient motivation and then become distracted by events outside their control, but for me and for the majority of students who do poorly, those unforeseen outside events are not the problem. We are.

Since finding the necessary motivation and returning to school many years later, I am acutely aware of not only what it takes to succeed, but also what it takes to fail. My grade point average after two years at SDSU was 0.7 – a low F+ to a high F, depending on where the line is drawn. Either way, it was not because I was not smart enough and it was not because my best was not good enough and it was not because I intended to fail – quite the opposite. I was always, perpetually, going to “get my shit together,” right up until the end. I did everything I could to fail, my GPA was, in fact, earned, despite the many excuses I formulated in my head. I did not purposefully fail, but I failed because I did not purposefully succeed. My experience with failure is extensive.

But so is my experience with success. After returning to school many years later, I found the motivation I lacked when I was in my early 20s. I did the things necessary to succeed. I went to class every day. I paid attention and took notes. I read the required material, did the required assignments and turned them in on time. Because my education was a top priority, I succeeded. On purpose. The action I took when I finally earned my BA and both of my MAs was the key to succeeding. It’s not rocket science. I now get to see my much younger self in some of my own students and it is painful. I do what I can to stoke the fire, but I cannot give them the motivation to succeed any more than anyone could give it to me.

I could list a number of factors that contributed to my early failures. The social and fraternity life at SDSU was certainly a distraction. My inherent introversion and inflated sense of pride prevented me from asking for help or even acknowledging that there might be a problem. I was, in fact, in denial that I was actually failing school. I was always going to straighten out and get it together next semester. Finally, in the spring of 1985, I was informed by the powers that be that there would be no next semester at SDSU. While it might have been possible to petition for another chance – claiming some real or perceived hardship – I did not even try. College wasn’t for me; I threw in the towel.

The circumstances that led me back to college in the early 2000s are many and varied, but suffice it to say that I had run into a dead-end, a veritable brick wall. It wasn’t as though I really wanted to become an “academic” (a label I accept but don’t particularly like the flavor of), but going back to school did serve, at first, as a refuge. It was the giant reset button my life required at the time and it gave me something worthwhile to do. Because it felt like something of a last resort (it wasn’t, but it was the path of least resistance), I poured myself into it. But I was not convinced that anything would change. I was not convinced that I had changed – yet.

After my first semester at a local junior college, my entire outlook on not only school, but also on myself radically changed. It actually started happening a few weeks into the semester. I went to class every day, I did the work assigned and turned in my assignments on time. I was participating in my education… in my life. I was getting good grades, mostly As, for the first time in my life. I didn’t feel any smarter (and today, I know I am not any smarter), but I did begin to see what most people (and most of my current students) see much sooner in life – doing the work precedes success. Those early successes were my motivation. The better I did, the more motivated I was to continue doing well.

I try to motivate all of my students. I share my extensive failures with them in the hopes that those who are walking the same path will see where they are going and change course. At the very least I hope that if they do end up failing, that they do not berate themselves for it. While it is true that not everyone is “college material,” it is also true that virtually everyone can be. It has very little to do with intelligence and for those who truly are not a good match for college, these same lesson regarding motivation and putting in the work apply to all things and all success. Putting in the work, whether that work creates the motivation or the motivation creates the work, is the key to success. It is the only key necessary.

Do I regret my failure at SDSU? Yes and no. If I found the motivation and did the work, I would have graduated with a BS in computer science (my major at the time, my degrees today are only tangentially related) in the mid to late 80s. That degree at that time could have made me a very wealthy man today. I could have been successful. But that not only did not happen, it could not have happened. What I have instead is a great deal of experience, some of it unpleasant and painful, that helped form me into who I am. I do not recommend taking the path I took, even though I eventually prevailed. However, I am grateful that my experience might help someone else see that oncoming train and take appropriate evasive action. My inaction guaranteed my failure. Action always precedes success.

Saturday, September 14, 2019

On Quality and the War on "Not Good Enough"

To be perfectly honest (if there even is such a thing), I have no idea what I am about to write. I know why I am writing, but I don’t know what. I guess that’s a good place to start, however. I am writing because that is a big part of who I am – I am a writer. Writers write and we don’t always have a plan. Art is often like that. There are infinite inspirations, some stronger than others, but inspiration is not always required – or, maybe more accurately, it can manifest as part of the creative process. I don’t paint, but I would bet that painters often stare at a blank canvas with no idea what they are about to paint. How many musicians have sat down with their instruments just noodling around when a song emerges? We are driven to create and I firmly believe that everyone has a capacity for creative works.

But… not everyone trusts his or her instincts, believes he or she is creative or, worse, that his or her talent is worthy of expression. I fight that demon on a regular basis. That is another reason why I am writing. The internal battle that tells me “I am not good enough” is an ongoing struggle, but I have been doing this long enough to know that if I don’t fight it, I lose. I write, therefore I am, yes, but when I write I also matter, even if no one ever reads this. I means something to me.

It took a long time to embrace this particular creative expression. I knew I could communicate using symbols arranged in some specific order to create meaning long before I appreciated that ability. I wished I had talent is some other art, I wished I could play the guitar or piano or that I could draw or sculpt or otherwise create beauty that was visual or aural or tactile. Maybe with sufficient training and practice I might have been able to develop one, but it is clear my where natural talent, my propensity to create, is: Words.

I am not the best writer I know of, not even close. There are many whom I admire and who can write in ways I can’t. Poets and lyricists are among them, but there are prose writers, too, living and dead, whom I admire as icons, their writing lives on some lofty plane that I strive to reach. That, too, is why I write. No amount of talent or drive is enough, art, like anything else, improves with practice. Since about maybe 15 years ago, I have had the drive that compels me to improve. Raw talent alone, for me, will not win the “I’m not good enough” battle, even though most of us are, objectively, good enough just as we are. It a two-edged sword. One the one hand, there is an external measure of “quality” that I have accepted as a defining part of who I am, and on the other hand, I produce something by which that quality can be judged.

Beauty, it has been said, is in the eye of the beholder. While that is certainly true to an extent, there is also a timeless, consistent and universal essence of what is and is not beautiful. Quality, is another form of beauty and quality, like beauty, is uniquely difficult to define. We know it when we see it, hear it, touch it, smell it, taste it, read it...  experience it in some way. Is quality, then, also in the eye of the beholder? That is a damned good question, but I think, intuitively, it exists outside of us. I strive for quality in my writing, I want it to be beautiful and… I know it when I see it. Could this be better, more “beautiful?” Undoubtedly. But it is good and it is certainly “good enough.”

One final thought on why I write is one that I am hesitant to admit, even to myself. It is certainly not the only reason and absolutely not the primary reason (that being a drive to create), but it is a factor, nonetheless. While my primary target audience consists of just myself, I do enjoy knowing that others have read and appreciated my work as well. It comes from a deeper place than the appreciation being represented by dollar signs. In the past I wrote for a living, but the acknowledgement that my pay provided paled in significance to the real words others expressed about mine. Whether the feedback had to do with the content, the style or some combination of both, the external validation gave me ammunition in the “I’m not good enough” war. Therefore, as much as I try to keep my ego in check, I would be lying if I said what others thought did not matter.

Now, several hundred words later, what I would write about is clear. It turns out that the “what” is the “why.” I did not know it going in and it is not the first time I have reflected my thoughts on what I do in what I do. My primary audience is satisfied. If that is all I get from this then that, too, is enough. Peace.