Sunday, July 27, 2008

The way I like to write.

Resisting the compulsion to write has become something of a habit. There was a time not too long ago that I would drop everything when a thought blossomed into more than just a couple of lines of prose. It is not all that uncommon, still, for me to write as much as an entire paragraph or more in my head, but the urgency to commit it to actual text has not held the same priority as it has in the past. I’m not talking about a discrete moment in the past, but more in terms of phases… like the ebb and flow of the tides though not nearly as regularly or predictably.

Although I write a handful of stories for my employer every week, and that is important in its own right, it’s not the stuff that I generally gain any real insight from. True, the experience of gathering information and the actual work involved in reporting the story and how it all unfolds often renders an “aha” moment, but the process of writing the news is bound by rigor. There are some hard and fast rules that can rarely ever be broken. I enjoy the results of the writing I do for work, but the actual writing of the news is often a challenge. I want to blame it for my apathy when it comes to the writing I have historically enjoyed so much more.

So, this piece was supposed to explore the creative elements in writing. Not so much, for example, in the worlds that novelists conjure up and not so much the discoveries the new-age author might relate to us, but in the actual creation of strings of words and punctuation. I was going to draw a distinction between the writing I do for work and that which I create for this space. I had intended to place the (rule) free-writing I do here against that of AP Style news writing I do at work and label news writing as less creative. But as I explore that premise, I can no longer say it is so. Just as visual and audio artists deal with the advantages and limitations of different media, writing within the rigid rules that news demands is a creative endeavor as well.

However, all artists have a preference. Being curious by nature, I refuse to take “no” for an answer; assertiveness is an excellent quality for a reporter and in that aspect of my job I couldn’t be happier, but news writing is not the type of writing I enjoy most - probably because of the rules. That is not to say that I despise news writing - quite the contrary, it is just my least favorite aspect of the job whereas the writing I do here isn’t a job at all. And perhaps that is the difference. Regardless and for whatever reason, my resistance to committing words to paper (or the electronic equivalent) is real; experience tells me that writing about it often produces realizations that simply thinking about it never will.

There is something to be said about action. Although I am quite sure that pounding on a keyboard doesn’t burn many more calories than deep thought would, it does result in a product… something more than just a memory to show for it. Even if the permanence is fleeting, these words actually do (or did) exist. This is going to be published, but if my computer crashed and it all went away in an instant, it was still created. The work was done. Maybe it all went into cosmic energy, maybe the wiring in my brain holds it differently or maybe these words in and of themselves mean nothing at all other than another end of not writing the way I like to write. Another changing of the tides.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Buckeye Flat

There is no Internet access. Cellular service is at least a few miles away. Running water? The Marble Fork of the Kaweah River is a little closer than the nearest faucet, but neither is more than a short walk away. The sound of the gentle wind blowing is melding seamlessly with that of the cold rushing river as the grey light of dawn illuminates a new day. It’s 6 a.m. at Buckeye Flat.

In 1983 I was 20 years old and in my first semester at San Diego State University. Although it would turn out to be a disastrous two years academically, I did gain much intangible life experience and some very close associations. In fact, both experience and the friends gained through it were generated from the same source that was, in part, responsible for my academic failure. It was, however, only a small part - more a distraction and hardly an excuse; my failure to perform at SDSU was due to my unwillingness or inability to do the work. But I digress...

San Diego State is a very large school. When I arrived in late 1983 there were 35,000 other students enrolled. I was 500 miles from home and didn’t know a soul. It was frightening in ways I had never experienced prior. I was late enrolling, late in acquiring housing and way too late to get into the dorms. I had no car and although I had a little money, I didn’t really have anything to spend it on. I managed to rent a room in a home very close to campus and because it is a very compact campus, I was within walking distance to just about everything I needed, like a social network.

The Greek letter fraternity and sorority system at SDSU was and is a big part of campus life. Although the vast majority of students don’t belong to one, these secret Greek societies are a dominant presence. In the fall of 1983 I knew absolutely nothing about them save what I learned from the National Lampoon movie, “Animal House.” Although I’ll admit that some of the parody hits uncomfortably close to home, there is far more depth to Greek life than the movie portrayed. But I’m getting ahead of myself…

Rush week is when all of the fraternities throw parties to attract potential new brothers. The sororities have a different mechanism, but sorority sisters are often closely associated with a particular fraternity, so in that respect they are unofficial participants. At the time there were something like 17 different fraternities on campus and most had a fraternity house. Among them were local, single chapter houses as well as the largest of the national fraternities. Each held a party every night for a solid week. For someone who was alone in the world like me, it was perfect.

At first I was just party hopping, I didn’t really know what was going on. It seemed to me that everyone was very friendly, wanting to meet me and asking a lot of questions. Where are you from? What’s your major? Any brothers or sisters? Where did you dad go to school? They really wanted to get to know me. In the process, I met a few guys that I clicked with and by the time rush week came to an end, I had been extended an invitation (a bid) to join two. Delta Chi and Kappa Sigma. I chose Kappa Sigma, one of the nation’s largest and oldest fraternities.

Partying is a big part of fraternity life. At the time, SDSU was ranked as Playboy magazine’s Number One Party School - a dubious distinction that was helped in large part by the fraternity system. It was a time just prior to the national focus on college binge drinking and the role fraternities played in it. Speaking from personal experience, it was a significant role. And although the seemingly non-stop party atmosphere did distract me from my studies, it was also a convenient excuse to not put forth any effort into growing up. Although I was not alone, I was in the minority - most of my fraternity brothers managed to find their way to a degree in a reasonable amount of time.

But the bonds I made during my two years in Kappa Sigma at SDSU have lasted for 25 years. I don’t see these men very often, but we stay in touch via email. Over the years we have lost a couple (one very recently to cancer), but we relive the memories when we gather every year in Buckeye Flat. Created and promoted by one very dedicated brother in 1989, Sequoia National Forest has been the reunion site for those who were initiated at SDSU from about the mid 70s to the mid 80s. Informal, unofficial and with varying degrees of participation, this is our twentieth year - and more than 20 brothers are expected.

This is my fifth trip to Buckeye Flat. The Kaweah River with its rapids and its falls is just as pristine as it was when I first came here 19 years ago - the second annual alumni camping trip. Although we are all looking a little older, the campground remains virtually unchanged. Twenty years ago, there was no cellular service, no Internet access, running water was just a short walk away and… the wind and the river sang the same song.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Oh Deer!

I seem to be leading a charmed life. I didn’t always think so; in fact, I had figured it was anything but. Sometimes it was simply perception - measuring my insides against your outsides and losing every time. And then there were times when my circumstances were just plain bad - there was no need for a relative yardstick. Sometimes bad is bad enough all by itself. Regardless, if that’s what it took to get to where I am today, right here, right now, it’s a good deal. In direct contrast to a life where nothing ever seemed to go right, when luck (or perceived luck) was always bad, today I get lucky (or blessed, or however you wish to define it) when I don’t even think I need it or want it.

Some examples? Ok, but a first warning: I have no idea what conclusions can or should be drawn from the following. Your interpretation, like mine, is entirely personal. What I am laying out are some experiences and, likely, a thinly veiled idea of what I think it might mean. But I really don’t know. Perhaps by the time I finish this piece I’ll have some better insight - experience tells me this is a distinct possibility. But if I don’t get started, I’ll never finish…

Once upon a time, there was a deer.

Driving on country and mountain roads presents a host of hazards not usually present in city or urban settings. These risks, however, are not manifested frequently. For example, hitting a deer while driving on a mountain road is a very real possibility, but not a probability. It doesn’t happen very often and only appears to when compared to city driving where it virtually never happens. The point is that although a serious and sometimes deadly hazard, the odds of hitting a deer with one’s car are remote. They are so long that some of the stories have become the stuff of legend. The reality is that it is never a pleasant encounter for the driver or the deer.

The animal is usually killed or mortally wounded and the vehicle usually suffers serious damage and sometimes there are no survivors - deer or otherwise. Tragic, rare, but true. My encounter between my 1999 Ford F-250 and a good-sized buck several years ago on Interstate 80 between Reno, Nev. and Truckee, Calif. was a head-on collision that left my truck and it’s occupants unscathed. It was, unfortunately, a very bad night for the deer. Perhaps it was Darwin’s theory in action - thus one deer with its mutant truck-charging gene will not be breeding more like it. But I digress.

I did not consider our survival lucky; I did not think I was “saved” by some kind of “Higher Power.” In fact, in the moments prior to the collision, I was cursing my luck after yet another unsuccessful night in the Reno casinos. Moments after the collision, I was again experiencing some particularly bad luck in that there was a hysterical female passenger sitting to my immediate right. I was trying to assure her that there was no reason to go back and “check on the deer,” that it was not "alright,” and, furthermore, that it never felt a thing. How lucky I would have been if she would just shut up, I thought.

A similar encounter with a logging truck almost eight years ago produced some tangible “bad luck” in my life. I will not re-hash it here other than to provide this link. It goes into some detailed history about that period in my life and includes links to two news stories about my near-death experience. Suffice it to say it was a turning point and one that ultimately changed my life in some very profound ways. It was, essentially, the close of one life and the start of another.

Since then much has changed, most of all my perception. No longer looking to the outside, my peace comes from within. It didn’t happen overnight and as one can imagine, a long-term hospitalization does not easily produce gratitude. But looking back, it has created exactly that. So was I lucky (or…)? You tell me. Since processing the revelations gained from that experience (a process that took several years), I have been exceeding lucky in most of my endeavors. Not necessarily lucky in the supernatural sense, but as Samuel Goldwin once said, “The harder I work, the luckier I get,” kind of way. A change in perception combined with action has made me a lucky man.

Ok, so what about those things that appear to be pure chance. They are often referred to as coincidences, or miracles, or just plain luck. Things like that chance encounter with someone special; being in just the right place at just the right time; what about that close call - that brush with death that left me alive and (eventually) well? Could it be attributable to experience or is there something more at work? Consider this:

Some say there is someone for everyone - that each and every one of us has a “soul-mate.” Others have been deeply and profoundly in love many times, but never found the compatibility to form any kind of lasting relationship. I don’t know about all that, but I do have a series of experiences, (or perhaps more accurately, mistakes) to draw upon. All were typified by an initial attraction followed by an untested yet unflappable assurance that “she” will be the one. Commitments ranging from cohabitation to marriage (once) usually ensued… and the pin was pulled. It was always just a matter of time before... BOOM.

Following my hospitalization in 2000 I endured a very long period of rehabilitation - finding “her” was not a priority. Slowly, very slowly, my hat found its way back into the ring. Recently, I started seeing someone who I was initially attracted to. However, early on it was clear to me that there was no “spark.” If there is such a thing as a “soul-mate,” she was definitely not the one. Yet I entered into this very shallow and largely superficial relationship not once but twice, causing a considerable amount of pain in the process. It was not my intent, but the short-term relationship I bailed out of was more than that to her. But in the soul-mate game, it is always a two-way street.

After an awkward and unpleasant break-up, I allowed that I would not be looking for another “her” for some time to come. I rationalized that there were some things left for me to accomplish, things that could best be handled as a single entity… I decided that I liked my life better without any baggage. One of my female friends was experiencing the aftermath of her own recent break-up and we started hanging out together. We have been pretty close ever since we first met many moons ago, but always as friends. This time, however, things started to happen. It has been an extremely slow burn ever since. And… it is like nothing I have ever experienced before. For the record and not that it’s anybody’s business, it is just as innocent as it sounds. There will be no further updates.

Which brings us back to the deer.

As rare as it is for a four-wheeled vehicle to strike a deer, it is even more so for two-wheeled vehicles. As you can imagine, the deer stands a much better chance of surviving while the downside risk for the motorcycle rider is much greater. At 50 to 60 miles per hour, on a dark and winding mountain rode, there is little a motorcyclist can do when a deer decides to jump onto the road. Last Saturday night, at about the 6,000-foot level and just after dusk, a deer came out of nowhere from the hillside on my right and directly into my path. Its head struck my handlebars on the brake lever while its body wrapped around my crash bars and struck the right foot and knee my passenger (that “slow-burn her” I just told you about). My friend riding his bike behind me said my rear tire road over the hindquarters of the deer, but it happened so fast I have no recollection of anything past the initial impact.

The bike did not go down. Neither of us was seriously hurt and my Harley only sustained very, very slight damage. I don’t know how well the deer faired, but it could be just fine as well. It left some blood and hair on my bike, but my friend riding behind me (who had to take evasive action himself) saw it hobble off the road. It was a big doe; a full-grown, probably 150 pound deer. We were doing about 55 to 60 miles per hour - that deer should have taken us down - and out. But it didn’t. I would love to take credit, but I can’t. I just reacted - and we rode right through it. We pulled over as soon as we could to recompose ourselves.

I guess I’m just lucky.

Road King - 1, Deer - 0

Friday, July 11, 2008



I am experiencing some difficulty expressing myself via my preferred medium. Not that it is unusual to have trouble gathering my thoughts; indeed, getting started has always been difficult. It is odd, however, that at this very moment I am in what I can only describe as the best possible writing posture. It is a place that has, historically, produced some of the most biting sarcasm, the most intense ridicule and cast a brilliant light on the inconsistent statements, moronic acts and idiotic ideologies of our time.

Yes, I am pissed off.

But this time it is personal. It has nothing much to do with the society in general, with establishment… the world is not going to come to a grinding halt. No, this time I am not coming to the rescue of the little guy and it is not some institutional injustice towards the downtrodden I am addressing. And although I might be “the victim,” I am so voluntarily. I am more than capable of retaliation and would stand up for myself if it were - well, cost effective. In this case, a good offense would have to include better defense - I am not holding all of the cards.

If this all sounds overly vague, it’s because I am being overly vague. I do not want to arouse the kind of attention a recent piece here (which has since been taken down) once did. I will not provide specifics - not because I am afraid of the potential consequences, but because it is not in my best interest. Although largely voluntary, I have been effectively squelched - censored, in a word. I can name names, give dates and produce publicly available evidence to support my case, but there is no prize. I can’t win anything more than public opinion, and I can’t spend that.

One day, maybe soon, I’ll lay it all out. But for now, I’ve said enough.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008


20 June 2008

Supplemental Purpose Statement
Communication Studies Master’s Degree Program

Realizing a BA in government-journalism does not directly correlate to a communication studies Master’s degree, I am providing this addendum to the purpose statement included with my original application to the California State University, Sacramento graduate studies office. Also, as my undergraduate major was not communication studies, this statement acknowledges the potential shortcomings in my curriculum and makes a commitment to fulfill any undergraduate coursework required as part of my postgraduate education. I am confident that my love of education and communication (specifically written communication) will make this part of my educational experience at least as rewarding as my time as an undergraduate at CSUS.

Although it is true I have only recently (since mid-2003) embraced my ability as a writer, I have always enjoyed sharing my knowledge and insights with others. I have had numerous opportunities to fulfill the role of mentor, trainer and even, for a brief time, as an instructor. Of course, in my capacity as the father to three now adult sons, the role of the teacher cannot be understated. The common denominator is a true and unconditional love for helping others improve their knowledge and, as a result, their self-worth. With respect to written communication, there is an appalling lack of basic skill among many college students - not just in the mechanics, but also in the clear and logical presentation of thoughts and ideas. I firmly believe that if given the opportunity, and with the extended education a Master’s degree will provide, I can help others to help themselves.

The CSUS communications studies program, with an emphasis on organizational and instructional communications, is attractive not only for all the reasons CSUS is in general, but also because the curriculum includes practical teaching experience to adult learners. Because my ultimate goal is to teach at a community college, a Master’s degree is essential. And from everything I have been able to ascertain from American River College, Sierra College, Folsom Lake College and the other institutions in each school’s respective district, a curriculum consistent with that offered at CSUS is invaluable to an aspiring instructor.

My commitment to education has never been stronger. My recent and very positive experience with both the community college system as well as the California State University system has left me with an acute sense of gratitude and an overwhelming desire to contribute to the institutions that have meant so much to me. Although my undergraduate major reflects a deep and long-term affection for journalism, a return to academia was always, at some point, the place I wanted to land. Circumstances are such that the time is now - opportunity has presented itself. By getting accepted into the communication studies postgraduate program, I will be that much closer to realizing my goal.


Michael K. Althouse