Thursday, December 31, 2009

Still a Seeker

I made a New Years resolution (sort of) last year and it fell victim to the same fate most do. I was not a big deal and I certainly didn’t lose any sleep over it. I do, however, still believe it to be a worthy goal and although I am not resolved to do it this year, I still might. And compared to what I have accomplished this past year, what I didn’t is insignificant.

A yearly reflection, however, is still in order. But to confine such a reflection to just the events of 2009 is futile; a little more historic perspective will add clarity. I started this blog a little more than four years ago to fill some idle time between semesters at California State University, Sacramento. I was entering my second semester as a junior and I didn’t really know where this blog – or life for that matter – would take me.

I was awarded my BA in December 2007 and entered grad school in September 2008. I am now half way to a Master’s degree in communication studies. In just three semesters I will be graduating again, this time with many more accoutrements adorning my cap and gown. When I returned to school (American River College) in 2003, my goal was only to gain some new skills and an Associates degree to legitimize those skills – I did not intend to transfer to Sacramento State; I did not intend to attain a 3.8+ GPA; I had no aspirations to obtain any sort of post-graduate degree and now I am well on my way to the first of two. Yes, I do plan on exploring the possibility of earning a Ph.D.

Of course, if I were to reflect on just this past year in terms of academia, it would look like the completion of another year of grad school - pretty staid, pretty foreseeable, no real surprises there. Of course there is life outside of academia and it has thrown me a few curves. I became a grandfather on Easter Sunday. My youngest son joined the Army and is now serving in Afghanistan and my middle son is working on his place in the great fabric of life as well. And then there are my parents who have seen me through some rather grave situations and although I am not traveling the path I now travel for anyone but me, it gives me great pleasure that is pleases them.

My life is two stories, but both culminate in the here and now. I might be getting accustomed to success, but it doesn’t take much effort to remember the not so distant past when my life almost came to an end, both literally and figuratively. I could not have planned what came to pass before or what is coming to pass now, but I know this: Happiness has little to do with anything external - it comes from within. All those years of wondering and waiting for it to come to me were perhaps necessary to get me to where I am today, but at the same time, it didn’t have to be that way. Do I regret it? No. I am content with my place in the world today. I am still a seeker, but now I know that what I seek can be found.

Happy New Year

Monday, December 28, 2009

On the Metaphoric Road Again

I don’t usually wake up this early; I only went to sleep just a couple of hours ago. But it happens and there comes a time when laying in bed, tossing and turning, trying to get back to sleep becomes an exercise in futility. Actually, first it becomes an exercise in futility - then I realize it. When I stop fighting and go with whatever it is and let it take me wherever it wants to take me, I will benefit. I know this, but I’d rather be sleeping. This morning, it would appear, I will benefit whether I want to or not. This morning I get to contemplate... things, and stuff. This morning will not begin in the afternoon. This morning I will write and whatever it is that has me up at this solitary hour will show itself – it always does.

In recent weeks I have experienced and expressed some degree of frustration in my ability to communicate. That frustration is necessarily amplified because my art and my area of study both are communication – this is not only what I do, it is my area of expertise. Writing (specifically) is not just a gift, it is also a responsibility and although I have not exactly been shirking it, it is also true that I have not kept on top of it as I should, either. Indeed, I have put aside many dark mornings just like this one in favor of not answering the call. It is always easier to stay wrapped up in comfortable ignorance and a warm bed than it is to open up to the unknown, face the darkness and welcome the early morning light. This, again, I know.

It is forever a choice between stagnation and comfort, on the one hand, and growth and enlightenment on the other. It is, once again, a question of journeys and destinations. “Are we there yet?” The answer always has to be “no.” Ultimately, there is only one destination. It is final and I am in no hurry to get there. The journey, however, is another story entirely. So what about these moments of complacency? How does one overcome the comfort of the destination, however temporary it necessarily must be? When is it time to get back on the road again?

Maybe it happens when, no matter how dark, how silent or how solitary a morning might be, the light is still too bright, the noise is deafening and the muses will not leave me be. When the discomfort of comfort becomes too much to maintain, the journey must resume again. And so it is again this dark, silent and solitary morning that the muses have woken me with their siren song, taken me away from yesterday and thrust me into the now. The journey begins anew; the destination is too far to see. It has always been this way for me – how much comfort can I stand before the road beckons me back? I know only too well that if I get too comfortable for too long, I will reach my final destination before I am due.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

A note to concerned passerby...

If you are here because you hear a puppy whining inside my house, you need not worry about her. She is adorable, she is a baby and she is not yet house trained. She is in a LARGE dog crate and she is not happy about it. Not at all. But she is safe, she is not in any pain and she has plenty of water and chew toys. She doesn’t need food, she just ate and I’ll be back well before she needs to eat again. If you feel compelled to just absolutely, for sure and beyond any doubt know that she is safe, then please feel free to call me on my cell phone - (916) xxx-xxxx. I will drop everything and rush right home to allow you to appease your conscience and know that you did the right thing – no matter how much hassle you caused me.

If you are planning to break in, either to check on the puppy or to rip me off, rest assured my alarm functions quite well and in addition to me, a rather large “safety” committee will be greeting you.

Merry Christmas,
Michael Althouse

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Just Words?

For about the past two months, I have been experiencing some strange form of writer’s block. It’s not the variety that prevents one from writing anything at all (that would be much worse), but it is preventing me from writing anything good. And maybe that’s not exactly it either; maybe it’s more like this odd strain is keeping me from writing anything really good. And as far as I’m concerned, if it’s not really good, it’s crap. For the last many weeks, in my overly critical opinion, everything I’ve written is crap. Add one part partial writer’s block and two parts perfectionistic tendencies and it all gets wrapped up into a perfect storm of self-perceived crap.

I have been here before. In fact, although it feels more prolonged recently than it has in the past, the reality is this is my default. When it comes to my own writing, I like far less than what I don’t like. This is not to say that there is no value in the projects I fall short of what I believe to be perfection (or good) - there is value in everything I write, whether anyone else reads it or not (and believe me, there is plenty that never travels beyond my hard drive – some of it gets deleted before it even gets that far). It has more to do with style and flow and the artistry in the words than the words themselves – and lately I just have not felt as though I’ve nailed anything.

But I also know that in time, some of that might change. I have written much in the past that has come to mean something much more profound and enlightened than it did when it was written. So, too, I have written prose that I imagined rather brilliant at the time of conception that later come across as naïve – or even foolish. Yet the writing must continue for a number of reasons; perhaps the most important is that I have little choice. This is obviously true from a career perspective, but it is also true for more primal reasons. Writing is not only what I do best - it is what I do. It is my telos, it is among my primary purposes.

One of my professors boiled down the art of writing to simply this: “Know what you want to say and say exactly that.” He readily admits that this is much easier said than done. Language is so imprecise; there are myriad ways of lacing words together that say the same thing, but mean something entirely different. It is so much more than just the proper use of grammar, correct spelling and proper contextual definitions because the ways in which the words are assembled also convey logic, emotion and credibility. If that sounds familiar, it is because Aristotle told us of logos, pathos, and ethos around 2,500 years ago. What we say is every bit as important as how we say it.

At the moment, I must write and I must write some very specific words to transmit the results of the research I have conducted. It matters not if I am “feeling” it or not, the words must be written. They will meet half of the communicative goal – they will convey what I have discovered and hopefully they will support my premise. If the magic returns to me, however, they will also convey the passion of my ideas, the importance of the research and my commitment to my profession. All that must also be said with words, without actually saying so.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

17,166 Days Toward Eudaimonia

After 17,166 days, one would think I’d know a thing or two. And though it is absolutely true that not a day does goes by in which I have not reaped some wisdom, I am quite far from “there.” Tomorrow - day number 17,167 - will also conclude my 47th year. It would appear as though I have been graced with an entire weekend to celebrate, and indeed, the celebration has already begun. I have scheduled the bulk of this weekend and the next two weeks to the completion of two term papers so that I can successfully complete this semester of graduate study. In this respect, my birthday is just another early December Sunday in Sacramento, just as today is another early December Saturday. Fall semesters have been coming to an end during this time of year for way more than 17,166 days, this year is no different.

I graduated high school in 1981, but I didn’t go away to college until the fall of 1983, turning 21 that December. It was finals week at San Diego State University (SDSU) and the serious students were preoccupied with their studies. Although I aspired to be and thought I might yet become one, I was not a serious student. I had not the capacity or introspective capability to realize it, but retrospectively it is painfully obvious. Regardless, that seminal birthday was somewhat anticlimactic, but I understood why. It was nobody’s fault, I did not hold any resentments – I just got drunk at a local watering hole with my fraternity “big brother.” The 26 years since that night have been enlightening in so many ways and among the outcomes has been a demotion of the importance of celebrating growing old.

So this year, like more than a few in the recent past, the focus of the days surrounding December 6th are not on celebrating the beginning of another year in my life, but continuing on the path to eudaimonia – loosely translated Greek for “happiness,” or “the good life” or “a fully formed (or informed) inner self.” It is a balance of reason and passion, the ability to wisely decide what the right thing to do in any given situation is. It is about knowing truth, beauty and goodness. But what does it means as far as the celebration of my 47th birthday? What kind of celebration could the grind of schoolwork possibly be? Interestingly, it is only through the wisdom gained from those 47 years – all of them – that I can answer those questions.

I could, and probably will take some time tomorrow to relax and reflect… maybe ride my Harley to my local Peet’s Coffee enjoy a leisurely cup of joe. But the real satisfaction I derive from these semester-end days will come from a celebration of a different kind. It is a deferred celebration, but like anything really worthwhile, these are the things that have lasting value. Aside from the fuzzy memory of getting drunk on my 21st birthday, there is little I could relate about that day or those surrounding it.

By the time this calendar year comes to a close, there will be real, substantive and perhaps even important work finished that I will be able to point to. Moreover, that work is part of a far loftier goal and one that I could not even imagine just five years ago. In other words, I am doing what I need to do to celebrate success that is much greater than simply staying alive for another year (although my history shows that is no small task, either). It is the practical balancing of reason and passion. It is not yet eudemonia, but the next (and only) best thing is the continued striving for it; like perfection, it is never fully attainable. In that respect, today (and tomorrow) I am celebrating my birth - and my life. And the celebration occurs regardless of any particular box on the calendar.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Stuck In Decision

All is not right in my world, yet there is nothing wrong. While I have everything I could possibly need, something is missing. My motivation is waning, the pressure is building and though there is no real danger looming, there is trepidation… over nothing and everything. Time is short, but enough remains. It is not a matter of whether or when or even if, the responsibilities will be met, but it is a question of what, and often, why. What is it I seek? Where can it be found? How will I know?

No matter how much knowledge I acquire or how much experience I log or how much life I live those questions still remain, more or less prominently. Obviously, now they are more prominent and the timing is at least a little bit curious. Currently I am at the end of another semester replete with all it entails; I am less than one week away from yet another birthday; each of my distinct and largely separated worlds are undergoing profound, though certainly not “bad” changes; and I am inexplicably drained.

But the needed impetus is with me; I will succeed in the tasks assigned. Time is short, but it is a familiar working place for me - uncomfortable, sometimes painful, but familiar. Even that looming, gnawing feeling that something is missing is one I have grown accustomed to. It can (and probably will) be a motivating force, but at the moment it is keeping me in a holding pattern. Soon enough the fear of missing something because I moved ahead will be replaced by the fear of missing something because I didn’t. And it very well could be that all this profound questioning of the unanswerable is representative of the transition.

Or not. Regardless, it has been quite a little while since I have felt like I was walking this path alone – but it is a fact. Again, not a bad or good thing, it takes a firm assessment of all other circumstances to make that kind of value judgment. But it does feel more than appropriate – it feels necessary. The near and intermediate future is promising but in many respects, solitary. In many other respects, however, I am decidedly not alone. It’s that duality, again, that has me spinning my wheels - not wanting to move, but anxious to get going. One thing is absolutely sure – stagnation is not part of the story.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009


It’s that time of year again. But before the commercial spectacle that has come to define the coming weeks begins in earnest, tomorrow we are given a brief opportunity to reflect on what there is to be grateful for. And there is always something to be grateful for. Instead of thinking about what I think my life needs, Thanksgiving gives me a societal mandate to enumerate that which it does not. When framed in such a manner, it is very difficult to feel like I have somehow been shortchanged, as far as material items are concerned anyway. The non-material, however, is a much more complicated picture.

It is all too easy to confuse desire with need. It could come from a primal, perhaps instinctual impulse, but often feeling good, or fulfilled, or complete in oneself requires the participation of others. In other words, we are social beings, we need one another to validate who we are… and that can be a very tricky thing if we are not sure who that is. And it could be even more difficult when we do have a good idea of just what it is we are made of. Inconsistencies are more apparent. Compatibilities are more closely scrutinized. Balancing rational decision and instinctive desire becomes much more precarious. Perfection is forever elusive.

Yet my life is still full; it might even be complete. I might even be complete. That I am still around to think about these and other phenomena is a place I can find a certain degree of gratitude in. I know only too well that nothing is constant, nothing is guaranteed and when nothing is ventured – nothing is gained. I can sit safe and secure in my little comfort zone or push the boundaries of what I believe to be possible, and maybe, just maybe I’ll find that what I want is also what I need. If I don't walk out to the edge, I'll never see the other side.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009


This blog, on rare occasion, receives spam comments. When I receive an email alert to such a comment, I delete it immediately. I do not write and post this stuff for profit - especially someone else's profit. These comments are generated by "bots" and usually appear on a post that is deep within my archives. It is not an issue that has become so much a problem that I feel the need to install measures to block them. Those precautions always inconvenience that vast majority of my visitors who are actually people.

Less frequently, I'll receive an inquiry from a business - one with some sort of web presence - that wishes to advertise by placing a banner or some other kind of link on my blog. The vast majority of these are generated by real people, although their requests were likely written by someone else. Regardless, these are not malicious attempts to hijack my readers, they are going through the proper channel - me. Although I am not philosophically apposed to advertising on my blog, I am resistant. I don't want to endorse anything that I do not believe in and the few inquiries I have received so far have not satisfied that standard.

How do I know? The following is the most recent example. The name of the firm and the contact information is left unidentified as it is not my purpose to harm their business, but rather to identify what I look for when selecting a firm in which to do business with.


I am working for a marketing firm and so I spend my day reading and looking at blogs-- I know your site is valuable to you; and I am sure you are suspicious as I would be if I opened this email. But please let me tell you what I am looking for blogs and other websites that may be will to host a text link. In this economy I know that everyone needs some extra money. So I am emailing you to see if you would be interested in hosting a link on 25 year plan.

Also let me say I know it may not be something that you have done or considered in that past; using your site for advertising but I think that this would benefit both my affiliate and yourself. I will be offering you monetary compensation to host a link. And I only would want you to host a VERY small link on one of the internal pages of your site. I can answer any questions you may have. I hope that we can work something out. Let me know what you think. Thanks in advance!

Cheers, M_____

I would ordinarily just hit the delete button and go about my business, but I guess I was looking for a momentary distraction. The firm has a URL that was not identified in the body of the email, but it was in the address itself.


I decided to visit just out of curiosity. You no doubt noticed that my blog contains absolutely no commercial content - that is, I do not advertise anything except my own work and that of those I feel are worthy. I do not receive any financial incentive or income from anything on my blog. This is not to say that I am forever committed to non-commercial content as I have explored the possibility with solicitors such as yourself in the past. So far, however, I have not found anyone that I wish to associate my blog with.

After visiting your site, I must inform you that, unfortunately, my stance remains unchanged. But since you made the effort to explore my humble blog, I will go one step further in your case and identify (free of charge, for these services usually come at a price) what I found on you website that dissuaded me from associating with your firm.

There are a number of spelling and grammatical errors in the text on your site. If you are to be perceived as professional, everything about you must also be professional. You might counter with something like, "We are computer experts, not English majors." Fair enough, but consider this: If your customers are also computer experts and thus feel the same way about the proper use of English, why would they need your services? They are, after all, in the same business. No, you are more likely catering to a large cross-section of the consumer and business market and thus are likely to encounter those, like myself, who judge professionalism on more than just what you say, but also on how you say it.

And speaking of the technical content of your site, I must say that for webpage, networking and computer experts, it is rather plain. And for a firm that has been in business since 2007 and expanding as your site claims, I would expect more than just what appears to be a standard template that anyone could assemble out of a box. Indeed, even my blog, which is nothing fancy, is far more appealing - and it is nothing more than a standard Blogger template with a custom header.

I extend this information to you in the spirit of sincerity. I am not one who is accustomed to wasting my time for no other reason than to tear down the work of an entrepreneur who is just trying to make a buck. I attack when provoked - your's was not a provocation, but an opportunity to educate (which is my profession).

Best regards,

Michael Althouse

Saturday, November 21, 2009

New Tricks

In about two hours, my youngest son will be leaving the safety of a U.S. Army base in Germany and deploying to Afghanistan. He will be serving there for the next year, defending U.S. interests by (hopefully) playing a role in bringing stability to that region of the world. Although I have a far different position regarding our presence in Afghanistan than I do about the war we waged on Iraq, that doesn’t reduce my anxiety about my son being placed in harm’s way. The world, it seems, has turned to the U.S. to deal with this mess, but it is far more complicated than just finding and killing bin Laden. However, hunting bin Laden like an animal is at least a mission that has solid justification. That’s all I want to say about this at the moment – I have purposefully avoided thinking about it, but the time is soon to come…

The things that have pressed themselves upon mind recently are still not much more than barely defined abstractions. They are feelings, or thoughts, or perhaps just the bio-electro-chemical firing of synapses… it is either human sentience based on the purely scientific or something more that creates our self-awareness. The coding of thoughts and feelings into words is a process not unlike a picture slowing coming to view while developing; the image is there, but it is not yet fully visible. That image is slowly beginning to reveal itself…

In less than three weeks I will celebrate the 47th anniversary of my birth. About two weeks later, this blog will celebrate its 4th anniversary. Although I am a far less prolific blogger this year than in years past, that does not mean the world has lost its wonder – it does mean I am getting more used to it. This is not necessarily good or bad; in this case, it just is. This "new" life I have stumbled into is not so new anymore, but it is still every bit as profound. I write here about many different and loosely joined topics, but in reality much of this is about discoveries I probably should have made years ago. But I didn’t and if the feedback I get is any indication, I am not alone.

The world is in a rapid state of change – one that will not fully be appreciated until generations have passed – when our culture is under their microscope. We are living through a major paradigm shift such that we are still grappling with huge questions about what it all means and how it affects us. Not unexpectedly, there are good and long overdue changes in attitude, but there are also some decidedly “bad” things that come along with all this “progress.” And it has been like that for at least the last 2,500 years; our time is not the first to experience a period of accelerated change like the one we are in the midst of. Our great grandchildren, their children and their grandchildren will understand it better than we possibly can.

Prior to the turn of the millennium, I lived in blissful unawareness. I was content with the world as it came; I had no real desire to understand it. Or so I thought. In retrospect, much of my discomfort was spawned by confusion and misunderstanding… I didn’t get what we (humanity, life, sentience, cosmos, take you pick) were all about. There had to be a telos, a purpose… some reason other than some happy accident of chemistry. Science has given us so very much, but it could not explain, to my satisfaction, just what the point of all this is. As it turns out, the happy accident was mine, but I had to learn some new tricks.

Which brings me back in a round about way to where I started. These neuro-impulses that have now developed into words are part my telos, that is, I believe my purpose here is simply to understand. As much as I can. I am not a kid anymore – that childhood inquisitiveness has long left me, but my desire to know what we are all about has not faded. Over the years it has manifested in a number of different pursuits, interests, forms and means of education, occupations, vices… and virtues. My wanderlust now embraced, this “old dog” (actually, in dog years I’m not yet seven – middle aged even for a dog) must learn anew what I might have been better equipped to learn in my younger days. But that I did not, and by all I can conclude could not, is in part the frustration I feel expressing what I now want to say. That is, it appears to be as it should be - something else I do not understand.

Perhaps that inquisitiveness never left, it has only grown into something more defined, more disciplined, more… real. C.S. Lewis wrote in The Abolition of Man that if there is not something real about the abstract idea of right and wrong, about beauty, about truth and about goodness, then value is meaningless. Goodness, for instance, cannot just be a matter of opinion. If all that exists is the observable and measurable... the "proven," then how can one judge heroism? Chivalry? Kindness? Compassion? Loyalty? Patriotism? Love? It all becomes stupidity and... weak. Our sentience, our self-awareness and everything else that makes us human becomes nothing but another part of nature – and nature only does, it does not care. There has to be something else…

And there is. What that is and what it becomes is still being discovered, or perhaps as Lewis feared, created.

And what can be created can also be abolished.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Two Worlds

CHICAGO - I live in “the city.” To be precise, I live in the suburbs of a city. But Sacramento really doesn’t rank as far as what many would call a city… and it is most certainly not a big city. This is not meant to be in any way derogatory towards Sacramento; it’s just that after spending five days in the concrete jungle of Chicago, humble Sacramento looks like the cow town it once was. Chicago is all grown up; Sacramento is but a mere adolescent – if that. Although each is charming (for lack of a better word) in its own way, and both are world renown for different reasons, this is more than simply a matter of scale.

Or is it?

That is, do population densities and vertical versus horizontal habitudes really matter? Sure there are distinct cultural differences between living in a big city, a small city (like Sacramento), the suburbs or the country. Modes and means of transportation differ greatly as do social activities, business and education. But when comparing the elements of any two big cities, these and other differences can also be easily identified. Though it is true that we make distinctions categorically between different living environments, that the genus “city” is different from the genus “country,” the same animal inhabits both.

And people are people, everywhere.

For the past several days, Chicago was the host city for 95th annual conference of the National Communication Association. Attending were 8,000 or so communication scholars – those whose passion is the study of how we communicate. Since all human interaction is by definition communication, the study of communication captures pretty much all other human knowledge. This is not meant to open the age-old debate of what it is, exactly, that makes communication studies a distinct area of scholarship, but rather a segue into the sort of writing this blog tends to be focused on – another leg on the introspective journey of life.

People are people, everywhere.

We, as a species, share a genetic makeup that renders each one of us virtually identical. There is far less about each of us that is different compared to what is the same, exactly the same, much to the chagrin of the many and sundry ethnocentrists amongst us. As much as I would like to think I am somehow unique, the truth is a much different story. But my circumstances and history are unique, just like everyone else. Each of our journeys is entirely our own, no matter how much we share with others. But similarities among experiences can be uncanny, almost eerie. As we share our stories we come to realize that we are never really alone.

People are people, everywhere.

I lead a dual life. I have one foot in one world and the other in a decidedly different one. This is hardly unique; many if not most can recount similar experiences. Even in my own past, this dualism has been more or less apparent at different stages of my life. Currently, however, it is far more pronounced and it is causing a certain amount of discomfort. My “professional” life, which is also my academic life, and my personal life have almost no crossover. There are a couple of tenuous links between the two worlds and social elements to each, but for the most part they are separated by something more abstract than even time and space. Until recently it did not present much of a problem, but as the universe expands, so too these worlds drift farther apart.

With one foot in each, balance is difficult to maintain. Each world has a claim on me... and my time; to each I give willingly and as completely as is humanly possible. It is not as though I feel there is not enough time (usually) or that I somehow have to choose one or the other, it is more of an identity crisis. And the culprit is academia. She is the newcomer, the upstart… she has drawn me into a new and exciting direction. It has been a struggle to assimilate, to find my place in what is, in all seriousness, a new world.

But people are people everywhere.

In Chicago, the best and the brightest from my field converged to share what they have discovered. I felt very small. What do I know? What do I have to contribute? Am I just along for the ride? Not much; not much – yet; and ultimately, no. But there is a long road ahead and I am still scrambling to catch up. Chicago has shown me it is not just around the corner or over the next hill – it is a lifetime journey and a lifetime away. The moral? This time, I’m afraid there isn’t one. I live in two worlds that might never get any closer than they are right now. But both are inhabited with the same animal that inhabits Sacramento and Chicago and everywhere in between.


Monday, November 09, 2009

Not That Important

I am not, nor have I ever been a conspiracy theorist. When I put two and two together I always get four, never more, never less. I make observations and ask, “Does that make any sense?” or wonder, “What could possibly be the purpose for that?” The answers to those questions and similar ones will keep me in reality when observations filtered by emotion tell a different story. And I am a believer in the genuine kindness of people; that most people do not purposefully set out to hurt others. I know, the headlines tell us a far different story, but how often does the headline say, “Somebody didn't do anything to anyone today.” The reality is simply that when I feel slighted, it is almost always unintentional, an oversight, a coincidence of unrelated circumstances – nothing more.

That is not to say that I have never been excluded and it is not to say that everybody likes me. I know better and for the most part, today, I really don’t care. I have a large circle of friends that I know like me for who I am and that is enough. I know this. I also know that within intersecting sub-groups of friends, there are some who would rather I was not there. It’s okay, although I tolerate everyone, there are some I’d prefer not be subjected to either. But in the world of mutual friends, there are bound to be uncomfortable intersections where the fondness amongst friends in a given cross-section is not shared by all included in a given slice. This is hardly news; not everybody likes everybody. And not everybody likes me - fact and circumstance number one.

Over my nearly 47 years, I have cycled through a number of “friends.” Most were not anything of the sort; they were associates who cared more about what I had than who I was. To be perfectly fair, that’s what I cared about most as well – what I had, I had no idea who I was. It should come as no surprise that if I define my essence in such superficial terms, I would attract superficial friends. I was lucky enough that a few of those friends saw through the façade and are still my friends today. Most, however, moved on when the party was over and the well had run dry. It was not uncommon to be the “odd man out” for any number of reasons ranging from economic (not enough money) to social (too much drama) to logistical (too much trouble) or simply because no one thought of me. I am not referring to just myself, it was a cycle in which virtually everyone had a turn in the barrel. Sometimes, for reasons either malicious or unintentional, we are left out – fact and circumstance number two.

Two facts. Two circumstances. What conclusions can be drawn? What if I throw a party at my house and in my considerably large group of friends, somehow someone doesn’t get the word? It has happened and my response has always been a profuse apology with a reassurance that it was nothing intentional. What else can one say? It has to be enough and in fact it is. There is no conspiracy. Two plus two equals four. What about when the same thing happens to me, when I incidentally discover that I am the only one who doesn’t know about something I should have been in the loop on. What then?

Then two plus two starts to look a lot like five and it takes everything I can muster to stay logically centered. The perceived slight (for, these are the worst) casts a different light on what was, until moments before, the normal intercourse among a close-knit group of friends. Words begin to take on new meanings and that little glance? Nothing innocent about it now, right? But I cannot act on what my emotions and my senses are telling me – it is a lie. What is going on is a simple, albeit unhappy, coincidence and nothing more. To act on these perceptions based purely on what a temporarily wounded ego dictates would sooner or later create the very reality that my imagination, fueled by incomplete information, has figured out - all by itself.

Finally, now that the smoke has cleared, two plus two is once again firmly rooted in four. The lesson? Even for one who has conquered those demons that kept me away from myself for so long, the demons will not die. They will seize upon every opportunity to weaken my perception and step back into the insanity that they love so much. The truth is far less diabolical, less exciting and brings with it certain humility – I am just not that important to go through any exclusionary effort. Really.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Just Lazy

Okay, this must come first. It would appear that clearing thoughts from my mind, today, is not an idle luxury to be engaged when time is plentiful. Time is not plentiful (a status that is becoming increasingly common) and yet until I clear some space for the work I must accomplish, nothing much will happen. And in many respects it all ties together – reading enlightenment era scholars, weaving their insights with those from the classical period, the middle ages and the Renaissance while dancing with the image of my upcoming thesis... truth, beauty and goodness (oh, my!)… and these two old men chatting at my local Peet’s coffee. But it’s the two old men that kicked this one off.

Studying communication is fascinating, frustrating, invigorating and irritating… often all at the same time. It is impossible for me to listen to any message, especially mediated messages, without taking them apart. It’s almost as though I have been cursed with x-ray vision except when I see though messages, I see the (often ugly) truth. “But what about… Except that… You forgot to mention… You mean like when...” and so on; my usually silent but ever-present rebuttal, my skepticism, is never far away. Sometimes I can turn it off and other times… other times there are two old men sitting near me at Peet’s coffee.

One is doing far more listening than talking because the other is obviously much more knowledgeable about pretty much everything. Just ask him, he’ll tell you. Now I know that in the great big picture, two old men telling lies at a coffee shop doesn’t amount to anything. The “smart” one likely feels some sort of inferiority and his ego has found his passive friend a willing victim. So what, right? The friend has probably listened to his pal boast for years. The fact that his stories are so clearly false shouldn’t mean a damned thing to me. And it doesn’t in the particular sense, but more generally it is a somewhat disturbing sign about who we are as a species.

Why is the truth so unpopular? Even amongst those who ordinarily carry high standards and are probably in fact “virtuous,” the truth is becoming less and less important. It has become nothing more than a means in a world of ends. If selective non-disclosure is of greater benefit or if a flat-out lie will bring instant results, what is the harm if, in the end, the goal is reached? Better that those two North Western pilots were in heated argument – no, now they were engrossed in their laptop computers - than to tell the embarrassing, but honest, truth. But what is more embarrassing, does anyone really believe them? That’s their story and they’re sticking to it because we can’t prove otherwise.

But we know.
I know.
You know.

My thesis will take a good hard look at what we as a species are willing to settle for. There are far more things that cannot be proven than can, but with the power of communication, good reasons can be provided that do not necessarily prove anything, but they can and should determine what we will believe. Some say the human race is more gullible than ever. I disagree; I say the human race is far lazier than ever. At least in the industrialized world, we are not starving anymore, the diseases that used to decimate our populations are historical footnotes, we have manipulated our environment to suite us to the point that we really don’t work to survive anymore, our labor is for our comfort. I’m afraid that comfort is extended to accepting just about anything anyone has to say – without question or regard.

No, we’re not gullible, we’re just lazy.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Hearing Voices

I hear things. Not just occasionally or under certain conditions, but all the time. And I’m not talking about inanimate objects or things that are not real. These are not just voices in my head, but rather those that come from others’ heads. These are not figments of my imagination; they are real sounds. And I hear them. Furthermore, as I am becoming increasingly aware, I have little choice but to interpret them. It would seem as though it has always been the case, that at some level I have always been interested in deconstructing messages to try to figure out not necessarily what they say, but what they mean. And I often don’t like what I hear.

I am not unique; most people have heard something sometime that just didn’t feel right. Sometimes it is a bald-faced lie, but usually it is a far more subtle approach… the snake oil sales pitch or the get-rich-quick scheme. The vast majority of the time, however, there is nothing for sale, no money changing hands and nothing tangible at stake. Most often it is an exchange of much softer goods like pride, ego and self-importance. It is about not being wrong or, if caught in error, only admitting as much as is necessary – never full disclosure. It is not about absolute Truth, but a shared reality in which certain things are so while others are not – whether everyone knows or no one does, that reality remains unchanged.

So I hear things. I listen to the words and I interpret what they mean. Am I casting judgment? Perhaps, but it’s not about goodness or badness. For nearly all of this planet’s six billion or so residents, I couldn’t care less. It is very much about what is real and what is not; what to believe and what I cannot. It’s about what is just. And since I can’t possibly know anything absolutely, I have to make judgments. I have to weigh the evidence and much of that evidence is based in my experience about what makes sense and what does not. And I listen to the words. Of politicians. Of business leaders. Of academics. Of family. Of friends. Of acquaintances. And I decide - what is so and what is not.

And it never doesn’t matter.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Nine Years

I don’t really want to write this. I don’t really want to write at all. And truth be told, that's usually the case. Writing (pretty much anything), for me, is an act of exposing part of myself. It is never comfortable, but always worth it in the end. It just feels that the end is so very far away sometimes. Not in terms of the number of words or pages, but in terms of just how in the world I will get what I want to say out so that it says what I mean. When that consists of writing longer academic pieces, it is more about organizational logistics than anything else; but when it is what I am working up to right now, that is an entirely different story. But this story is the same story, just another year later. I first told this story in January 2006 when I wrote a piece entitled “Five Years.” In October the same year I wrote “Six Years” and in October 2007 it was “Seven Years.” Although the story was recounted in other ways in 2008, there was no anniversary edition, per se. But this year the series resumes with this predictably titled piece.

Nine years represents a little less than 20% of my entire life. That may or may not seem like a lot, but the truth is that some of my best days and most of my worst have taken place in this one segment. Nine years ago I was approaching my 38th birthday... I almost didn’t make it. Nine years ago today my life nearly came to an end and, though I survived what should have been by all accounts a fatal auto wreck, there were days early on that I almost wished I had not. But those days did not materialize until I awoke from a medically induced "coma" five weeks later; until then the nightmare was not mine, but my family's. To say I was confused when I woke up would be an understatement, but some things were unavoidably obvious. I could not talk, walk, eat… I was totally dependent upon others for everything. I was a mess.

My injuries included an open pelvic fracture, multiple fractures to my left femur, a lacerated kidney, liver and femoral artery. By the time the life-flight helicopter landed at Washoe Medical Center in Reno, Nev., I had already taken 16 units of blood – I was loosing it as fast as they were putting it in. Of course, I didn’t learn of any of this until weeks later, I recount it here only to place the magnitude of my situation into perspective. I wrote extensively in those past pieces about the early days of hospitalization, recovery and rehabilitation. I will summarize it here by saying that other than a small collection of very large scars and a rod in my femur, nine years later I am about 97% recovered – and that is about as good as it’s going to get. It is way more than good enough.

This year I will attempt to boil down what my life looked like before and after that fateful day, October 17, 2000. I was living in beautiful Truckee, Calif. I had one of the best jobs of my life – I had independence and a large degree of control. And I was successful – maybe too successful. Over the years, a number of serendipitous opportunities just seemed to fall into my lap. This job was the most recent instance of fortune smiling upon me. Each time a new opportunity presented itself, I was aglow with good intentions. But eventually, and every time, the flame went out. It was no longer good fortune – it was entitlement. I always wound up just coasting... to the end. Little did I know that there is only and forever just one “end.” I almost got there, too.

In the hospital and for a long time afterward, serendipity once again graced me – I was given a great deal of time. Not more time to live my life, although I got that, too, but time in those many, many days to think about not only what life was all about, but what my life was all about. It took all that time and more as I’m still thinking about it nine years later. I hope I never stop. Although I don’t have a definitive answer (that is, I don’t know exactly what I am doing here), I do have a more general idea. I used to think in terms of what the world held for me whereas now I think in terms of what I have for the world – or perhaps for humanity. It seems like such a simple shift in perspective, but it took nearly losing it all and then some before I realized it.

I’m not saying that it was all about me prior. I had concern for others, chipped in from time to time, but in the end the value of my life was measured by comfort. My comfort. Now comfort is a byproduct. Writing these words is not comfortable, but I do believe they are contributing something to humanity. When I am done, it will likely bring me a degree of comfort – and it has nothing to do with a cushy chair or a nice car or a “significant” other. It has to do with peace. I have added something to the world and maybe - just maybe - that’s why I’m here.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Who We Are

My license plate reads “WRDSLGR.” Although there are perhaps a handful of different interpretations, the intended translation is “word-slinger.” It is among the characteristics that define me. I am a writer. I am also a human being; what I write about is, very broadly, human experience. I am not sure which is more compelling - the experience or the words I sling to tell it. Regardless, the sum of human experience is based not upon those experiences per se, but rather the telling of them. The vast majority of what I know is not a direct experience but the re-telling of others'. Many others have said it, as have I, our use of symbols - words and otherwise – separate humans from all other known life forms. It is a huge separation.

More than just a communicator (primarily through the written word, my preferred medium), I am also a communication scholar. I study communication and I do it through communication. It is the only way to study anything. We build upon what was learned before us as we cannot directly experience the vastness of human knowledge. But in a way, the study of communication is direct experience because I am studying the use of symbols to transmit information from one to another – and like any other discipline, it is learned through symbolic interaction. I am, in fact, directly experiencing the very symbols (words mostly, but not always) that I am studying. When I read Aristotle, I am reading and interpreting what he wrote, I need not have been present while he was actually writing it. If I was studying ancient Greek history, or philosophy, or archeology, or any other discipline besides communication, the experience has to be indirect. But I study the words and they are complete; they are still here – they can be experienced and re-experienced directly as the symbols that they are.

Recently I read the writing of a friend regarding her experience with matters of uncertainty. She wrote of pain and safety and comfort and although I certainly could not literally see the world from her eyes, her words conveyed in stark terms the feelings she was experiencing. Words, well-slung words, can do that. They touch us in a way that conjures up our own experiences, making the words real. Human symbolic communication can move us to greatness or treachery, provoke sympathy and anger, move mountains and create molehills. Communication is the umbrella under which all other knowledge exists, for without it the very nature of reality can only exist in a single and instant moment – gone forever as the next second ticks by. It is power, one that is created and understood by the only symbol-using animal. So integral to our species that communication is arguably the most important field of study. It is what makes us who we are.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

No More Teens

In less then an hour, I will no longer be a parent of a teenager. My youngest son is actually celebrating his 20th birthday right now in Germany, where he is currently stationed, although at just after 11 p.m. PDT, it is not quite here yet. His older brothers, of course, have already crossed this threshold. And although it is a milestone that carries some significance for both of us, it is not among the most significant. Crossing into adulthood at 18 was bigger and his 21st will be too, even though he will likely be celebrating it in Afghanistan where that milestone holds much less cultural impact. Still, he is no longer a teenager and I no longer have any teenage children. It is significant enough to cause me to pause… and reflect.

I was almost 27 when Matthew was born. I was already a parent twice over and it was a time in my life when the future looked pretty good. It was not to last. By the time he turned one, my marriage had dissolved and I found myself a single parent. It was a challenge like none other, but I kept moving forward not really knowing where I was going and, to some extent, what I was doing. All my eggs were in one basket; my vision (actually, not mine so much as my perception) of the American Dream was shattered, but I had to stay in the game. I had these kids to take care of and despite all the other chaos I invited into my life over the ensuing years, the idea that I had this sacred responsibility was never lost.

But I was a kid myself. Even in my late twenties, in many respects, I never actually felt like a grownup. True, I was playing the role, and succeeding sort of, but it always felt like I was playing house - except I was using live ammo. I didn’t know why, but for whatever reason I never felt like I had any direction; my only purpose, it seemed, was to see these kids into adulthood. And although that is enough in the larger scheme of things, I didn’t have a clue as to where I was going in the now, in real-time. I was never satisfied with where I was and every time I got “there,” it moved. In a sense, my life, as chaotic as it got sometimes, would have been far worse had it not been for my boys.

My own childhood was almost like a storybook. I had the stability of a nuclear family. Almost from my earliest memory, my home was the same home my parents still live in. That kind of stability was becoming increasingly uncommon in those days and it’s almost unheard of now. It was what I wanted for my family, but for myriad reasons it was not to be. Finally I have attained some semblance of it and for the past four-plus years, our home is our home – we are not going anywhere. Although my youngest attended three different high schools, his sophomore, junior and senior years were all at the same one – just down the street.

And not coincidentally I have felt like a grownup the entire time. It is not because I am more dedicated to fatherhood – that is not possible. It is not because fortune fell my way yet again and this time I was just lucky enough to hang on to it. It is not because of some B-vitamin complex, a new workout routine or a “significant other.” It is because I have learned to stay in the moment, and to a large extent, my kids taught me that. As much as I always tried to find our place and was always looking toward the end, they were content to just be with me in the moment. They walked with me through uncertainty always trusting me, but as much as I raised them, they raised me. And now I know that although my purpose was (and largely still is) to be their father, that is not the entirety of what my purpose entails.

I still don’t know, exactly, why I’m here. But there is a reason – a purpose – and I don’t need to know specifically what it is, just that it is. It doesn’t make me a more dedicated father, but it does make me a better father. It drives me; it keeps me focused on today. Doors have opened and I walked through them. And along the way, others have closed behind me. Now 25 minutes past midnight PDT, 4 October 2009, I officially no longer have any teenage children. I can look back on all the good and not so good and know that as chaotic as some of those years were, we made it through and that sense of purpose that was once a nebulous sacred responsibility has now blossomed into far more. I do not feel “old,” but I do feel like a grownup.

My kids raised me good.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

On Virtue and Happiness

Life is all about balance. The ancients defined happiness (loosely translated) as virtue - and virtue is attained through balancing desire with clear thought. In other words, the blind and reckless pursuit of happiness driven by desire will not bring happiness and, consequently, virtue. Although I have always admired the virtuous and would say that at some level of consciousness it is a quality worth striving for, it never was my aim. Indeed, I never saw it as a quality that need be built; one either had it or didn’t. And I always believed I did. My pursuit, however, was happiness - driven by passion and desire. Balance was not part of the equation.

But it has turned out that the regulation of passion with clear thought is the only way to attain lasting happiness. Virtue is the result of acting responsibly and happiness has become not just the acquisition of that which makes me happy, but from a careful and often precarious balancing act. My wants do not define my needs – ever, however, the confusion between want and need drove me right to the gates of insanity. Pursuing my every want without regard to consequence, though I was often successful in attaining what I sought, never rendered long-term happiness; it only left me “needing” more. There was no balance.

I used to manage my time around my leisure for I thought that was where my happiness could be found. My wants never included the necessary effort to acquire those things I wanted; yet I would chase them regardless. I wanted the result, not the effort. I wanted the afterglow, not the sweat. As much effort I put into attaining happiness, it always proved, at best, fleeting and elusive. My perspective was such that when I was necessarily busy (with important things, not busy doing nothing), I felt as though I was not enjoying myself – that I was not experiencing happiness. So warped was my outlook that I could find little satisfaction in a job well done and consequently I tended to ignore the link between earned leisure and the effort that created it.

That perspective no longer blurs my vision. It didn’t happen overnight, but prominent and life-altering events serendipitously occurred in my life such that the only way forward was to look back. Nothing much in the world has changed, the same can be said of the “stuff” that my life is made of, but life is different today. Enumerating the various and sundry details could (and probably will) fill a book, but the little epiphanies along the way are easily enough recorded in real time. The essence of this one is not entirely new, but it’s not exactly a re-run either.

As a grad student and a teaching associate (TA), I am arguably busier than I have ever been before. More than last semester, more than as an undergraduate, more than any time I can recall in the last several years at least. My leisure time is not abundant – I find it in little chucks along the way. Sometimes it comes as a surprise, sometimes I know when it is coming, but it is always welcome. I schedule and plan on the things I have to do - my responsibilities, but I am not perfect; I still have a procrastination streak a mile wide. The tasks I am charged with today, however, cannot be done “just in time.” These are, for the most part, long-term tasks that will not be completed unless started well before they are due. Like weeks before…

But that’s not the epiphany, not a new one anyway. It is more the idea that I am no longer “scheduling” my work. Work is always on the schedule; it is the default condition. It's the leisure time that is penciled in – and often subsequently erased. I am no longer staring at my calendar looking at gaps and how to fill them… I am looking for gaps, filling them is never a problem. There’s more to it than that, though. My changed perspective makes work (either as a grad student or as a TA) a rewarding experience in and of itself – it needs no pay-off; it is its own reward. But that is an entirely different nugget for some other time. Maybe the next time I can carve out a little leisure time.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Not Just My Opinion...

This space has fallen victim to hiatus, inconsistency and neglect in the past, but only rarely as long as the recent past. Other than a re-run posted Wednesday, I have not written anything new for the 25 Year Plan in more than two weeks. A friend noted last week that, judging from my dearth of creativity, I must be very busy. And in fact I am, but there have been moments where, although tight, time is available. Further, when sufficiently inspired (i.e. pissed off), I’ll make the time. Such was the case recently. I was outraged about a unilateral policy implementation at a local mall. This is not the first time this particular mall has drawn my ire, but it is the first time I have chosen to invoke the power of the press to do something about it.

It was refreshing to put on my journalistic hat again. Although I am working on a Master’s degree in communication studies with an emphasis on rhetorical criticism, I am still a journalist. I ask questions, verify information and report it. When it comes to column writing, I get the added pleasure of saying what I think it all means and what I think about that. But it’s still journalism; opinion in this case is actually a misnomer. I am making an argument, backed up with evidence, such that a reasonable person can see where I’m coming from. One might not agree with my conclusion, but my argument is sound. It is far more than just my “opinion.”

I did some research and interviewed some people – some of whom did not like what I was asking. The conclusion I drew was, generally speaking, that there are some who will make a little power go a long way. This particular mall has a manager who can’t see beyond her blinders and has instituted a policy that unfairly restricts mall access to a specific group. Based not on what mall management told me, but on what all other evidence shows, this mall is profiling, although mall management absolutely denies it. Its policy is unique among all other area malls and provisions that the manager insisted are in place to mitigate the effect or impression of profiling (my words, she never admitted to profiling in the first place) could not be substantiated – at all. Management was lying to cover its collective ass.

Since doing the footwork a week ago, it appears as though the mall has stopped enforcing its policy. Other sources tell me that those mythical provisions are being instituted. Perhaps they are worried what I will write? Where it might be published? Am I serious? They should be, locally, and yes, I am. So where is this wonderful column? It is being considered for publication and as such, it cannot appear anywhere else – including here. It will eventually, but for the time being it has to remain it under wraps. The power of the press has already trumped that of mall management, but it’s not over yet. People need to know and I’m going to tell them. Then they can decide if my “opinion” is valid.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Buy a Car, Get a Check

This is a (very slightly edited) re-post from Home of the Free, a blog that has been even more neglected than this one has of late, but still full of interesting tidbits that have not appeared anywhere else. Enjoy...

Robert B. McCurry, Jr., former vice president of sales and marketing for Chrysler died almost three years ago.

So what?
Never heard of him?

Perhaps not directly, but because of a marketing ploy he developed more than 30 years ago, retail advertising has never been the same.

McCurry holds the dubious distinction of inventing the factory (or manufacturer’s) rebate.

The gimmick was originally introduced in a half-time TV commercial during Super Bowl IX. Former professional baseball player turned sports commentator turned advertising pitchman Joe Garagiola announced that those who purchased a brand new Plymouth Duster or Dodge Dart would receive a $200 check directly from Chrysler.

“Buy a car, get a check,” Garagiola said, without one single wardrobe malfunction. It proved to be pure genius. Sales rocketed the very next day as Ford and GM scrambled to catch up.

Today that pesky rebate has inundated every area of consumer and retail life.

Googling the term “rebate” returns no less than 36 million hits. There are sites dedicated to tracking rebates, finding the most attractive rebates and even locating those products that are “free” after the rebate. There are rebates for electronic gadgets, garage door openers, laundry detergent and pharmaceuticals, just to name a few. Some products even carry multiple rebates - a combination of offers by the manufacturer, the distributor, the retailer and others. It’s enough to drive even the most conscientious shopper insane.

Surely if McCurry knew how his creation has evolved, he would be rolling over in his grave.

According to data collected by Brian Grow for a November 2005 article in BusinessWeek, fully 40 percent of all rebates are never collected. The data, supplied by the market research firm Vericours, Inc., goes on to conclude that roughly $2 billion in extra revenue remains with the manufacturers and retailers every year. And that was in 2005.

It’s no wonder the rebate is such an appealing marketing strategy. The customer is sold the product based on the advertised “after rebate” price, but 40 percent of those customers never realize their discount - they have actually paid the full price. And even those who are able to navigate the exceedingly narrow path to redemption, often they are so thrilled to have won the prize that they have forgotten who paid the sales tax on their rebate. Furthermore, they fail to realize who has been earning interest on their money during the weeks and months spent waiting for the check to arrive.

I avoid rebates. The labyrinth set up between me and my money most often renders the victory hollow. Occasionally the rebate is sufficiently large or perhaps it is offered through a retailer or manufacturer that I know and trust. Sometimes it’s worth the risk, but as a general rule they only serve to make me take my business elsewhere. Once in a while, just for grins, I’ll go through the motions and jump through the hoops for the $5 or $10 rebate. Sometimes they actually come, but so long after the fact that I can’t even remember sending off for it. Like finding a five spot in a parking lot, I feel as though fortune has smiled upon me. There is no telling, however, how many checks are still languishing in rebate purgatory.

California Assembly Bill 1673 is currently sitting on Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s desk (update: AB 1673 was vetoed on Oct. 14, 2007). The bill is an attempt to make retailers truthfully advertise the price of merchandise with rebates. The bill would give them two choices: Either emphasize the full, un-rebated price or process the rebate instantly - at the time of purchase. Of course, those on the business end of the continuum say the fine print is clear enough and that consumers are aware of how rebates work while those representing consumer interests say the rebate claims process has become so convoluted that advertising the “after rebate” price with the details in the fine print amounts to false advertising.

This bill goes a long way to reeling in the rebate monster. The manufacturers and retailers can still offer their rebates, but the price featured in bold print will have to be the full retail price. Or, if they really want to advertise the discounted price prominently, they would have to assure that the customer actually pays the advertised price by giving the rebate at the point of sale.

Maybe then McCurry could rest in peace.

Monday, August 31, 2009

First Steps

Today was the first day of school. It is that time of year… the first day for most schools is about now, give or take a couple of weeks. For California State University, Sacramento – my current school – today was that day. Although first days of school are vastly different depending upon grade level, all have in common those anxious moments where one doesn’t really know what to expect. Perhaps not as profound as that very first first day of school more than 40 years ago, that newness is still with me. I remember the excitement and the trepidation when I set foot in my kindergarten classroom for the very first time. Some of that is always with me, still, even after the countless first days of school since. I sincerely hope it never fades away.

School, like life, is a series of hierarchies. We enter at the bottom and climb to the top, only to encounter another first rung of yet another ladder. There are certain grades where the first day and all it entails is far more pronounced; kindergarten/first grade, middle school, high school, college and postgraduate study are the major lines of demarcation. However, at the start of any new academic year, there is always the unknown and the anticipation it brings. Although this new school year has those all too familiar elements, this time it is different and for the first time in some time, there is a resurgence of those feelings approaching the magnitude I felt so very many years ago.

As a second year grad student and as an instructor to undergrads, the facets of the first day are multiplied. I have served as graduate assistant (GA) for a year (two semesters and a summer session) and in that capacity I was responsible for most of my students’ grading and some of their instruction, but they were not “my” students. The instructor of record was the professor I was assigned to assist. She bore ultimate responsibility for her class. As a teaching associate (TA), I have my own students and the autonomy that comes with the position. And the responsibility. Being a GA has more than adequately prepared me – I know that I know what I am doing and I know the subject matter inside out, but it is still new. And exciting. And that semiconscious, indefinable and ever present anxiety – that fear – is part of it.

It is good to know that those butterflies are still present. I have not become so jaded that I am no longer taken by the experience… that the newness of the journey can still spawn that sense of wonder that I felt entering kindergarten all those many years ago. It takes me back. From the aspect of a third semester grad student, I have passed the initial wonderment – I am not lost, I am no longer the intrepid explorer. I know the landscape. But from the perspective of an instructor, this is new territory – territory I know from a distance, from viewing the map, as it were, but I have yet to walk it. Today, I took those first tenuous steps. Nothing makes me feel more alive.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Ride to Ride

Many of my regular readers and virtually everyone who knows me at least externally knows that I am a “motorcycle enthusiast.” I have been riding more or less (lately more) for more than 25 years. For the past four years, my steeds have been Harley-Davidsons. Ever since I first became enamored with motorcycles and even before I knew the difference between the brands, it was this iconic American motorcycle that was calling me. Ever since that first bike, my “next" bike was always going to be a Harley. For reasons that are as varied as they are complex, it was not until about four years ago that my next bike finally was a Harley.

And now I ride more than ever. Mostly because I have a motorcycle to ride – indeed those “less” times were actually “not at all” times as I did not have a bike to ride for periods of those many years since my first bike. But I am not a brand elitist – my preference is Harley Davidson, but I still share a bond with anyone who loves the two-wheeled freedom that a motorcycle brings. We pass one another on the road sharing a knowing nod or a wave, acknowledging the freedom we experience through the same psyche. We come from all walks of life and perhaps ride for very different reasons, but at our cores there is a common thread we all share.

It would be more economical than driving if I road my bike everywhere. Based on that factor alone it might seem like the ideal mode of transportation, especially when considering how much I love to ride. Of course, there are many instances where that just isn’t feasible; rain, room for passengers and the ability to transport “stuff” are the most obvious. Still, that leaves many more opportunities to ride than I take advantage of. Why? It is a question I ask myself from time to time and although I can’t say with any degree of certainty, some of the aspects I enjoy most about riding don’t seem to manifest under certain circumstances. That peace and freedom… the clarity I almost always find when on two wheels just doesn’t come when commuting to work.

But that still doesn’t begin to explain why. Part of it, to be sure, has to do with the commute itself. The vast majority takes place on U.S. 50 between Folsom and Sacramento. Even when my commute occurs during non-commute hours (which is not uncommon), it is an altogether less than inspirational ride. This section of U.S. 50 is a multi-lane freeway with little variation from mile to mile. And when the ride occurs during commute hours? I am usually more stressed when I get there than when I left. Driving for everyone else is a necessity when riding a motorcycle – when there are literally hundreds of motorists to look out for it can be downright exhausting.

There is more to it than that, though. When I embark on a ride such as the one I took this morning, it has a purpose – not necessarily to get anywhere, but rather about going somewhere. My ride this morning was a loop I have ridden many times before and most of the 75 or so miles were not on the freeway. I entered it with a certain mindset with no timeline whatsoever. On this particular ride, I was with many other like-minded souls who gathered for a charity poker run that ran through urban back streets before coming to the rolling Sierra foothills. I knew what to expect from the road and I knew what the ride would give me… it never fails.

To commute on my bike negates what I ride for. Moreover, it can almost counteract the benefits of rides like the one today. Although I have ridden to work and I most definitely will again, it is usually not my preference. My car serves that purpose better most of the time. I typically don’t ride to get anywhere. I ride to ride and when the purpose entails anything more than that, it can only take away from the experience.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Senator Edward Kennedy

The end of an era came with the passing of Senator Edward Kennedy last night. Although no one really talked about it openly, since he was diagnosed with brain cancer more than a year ago his days were numbered. Sad yes, but certainly no surprise. Similarly, the wall-to-wall coverage of his death and his life comes as no surprise either. And it is entirely appropriate. Like him or not, agree or disagree, one cannot discount the sacrifices that he and his family made for this country. This is not a time for politics; it is a time for reflection, for history, for legacy and for gratitude. It seems as though most of the partisans get that, but not all.

As expected, there is a flood of statements, sentiments and remembrances of not only Edward Kennedy, but also of the entire Kennedy clan. Although I am not captivated by the need to know just how everyone feels about this history in the making, I have been exposed to a smattering – a large smattering – of the various and sundry reflections. They are coming from everywhere, all the time, and from virtually every position along the political spectrum. Almost without exception, these post mortems note the large body of service Kennedy was committed to and, friend and foe alike, they tend to stay away from politics – past and present. Friends and political allies speak of his ideals and his work ethic while those on the other side of the aisle speak of his tenacity – and his work ethic.

Kennedy entered the U.S. Senate at a time when reaching across the aisle to work together was considered admirable. Those from the same era remember. Even those newer to the body have commented on his willingness to compromise, an ability to find common ground – even in a day where politics is more about winning and losing than serving the nation. There are a few, however, who have taken his death as an opportunity to spin their agenda, and it comes from both ends of the political spectrum. It is unfortunately predictable that some view politics as the be-all and end-all, as a game in which the rules are made up as we go along. In other words, there are no rules.

From the left, we have Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. In her statement, she said, “Ted Kennedy's dream of quality health care for all Americans will be made real this year because of his leadership and his inspiration." Translation: In order to properly honor Kennedy, we have to pass healthcare reform. This thinly veiled guilt trip is inappropriate at any time, but especially in a statement that should be honoring a longtime public servant. Did Kennedy want healthcare reform? Absolutely, he has for many years. Did he favor this yet to be finalized proposal? It looks like it, but it is not a done deal yet and no one could possibly know if he would have supported the final version. But to use his death to forward it less than 12 hours later is shameful.

On the other side, I offer as an example the one and only Rush Limbaugh. Admittedly, I expected as much from him, but I still held out hope that he would offer some kind of short but sincere acknowledgment of Kennedy’s legacy – and then go about whatever he had on his agenda for the day. I hoped that he would just leave it alone, perhaps save it for another day. I know… I’m a dreamer. Of course his spin was in response to the other pundits and politicians, thus absolving Limbaugh of any blame. It is his all too familiar battle whine, “Well they started it.” His response was, in a nutshell, that honoring Kennedy by passing this legislation would in fact be a dishonor to him. The implication being, of course, that Kennedy would not support such legislation. His evidence, in this case twisting Kennedy's own medical issues into a string of logical fallacies, is the usual myopic hyperbole Limbaugh is so well known for.

Although it is reassuring to hear the many sincere statements from those who worked with, for and against Kennedy, at the same time it is disheartening to see a few use his death as political opportunity. It comes neither as a shock nor a surprise, however, that some would view it as such no matter how well rationalized. It is at once a glimpse into the nobility that public service on this level can be and the disingenuousness it too often is. The Kennedys, like them or not, served this nation admirably and paid a tragic price. When one takes into consideration that which is most important, their lives were not charmed by any stretch of the imagination; but serve they did. Edward Kennedy is the second to the last of an important generation of Kennedys – we should remember what he did, not what some still want to do.

Friday, August 21, 2009

PhotoSource, Sacramento

I did not plan on writing anything today. Actually, when I write for my blog, it is usually unplanned. However, I did plan to write on this topic sometime in the very near future, but with a decidedly different point of view. What would have been and what is are in some respects two sides of the very same coin. I thought I would be inspired to write about the other side, the much more positive side… and later. But the time is now and the inflection is not my creation; it is what it is, I am merely documenting it.

This weekend, starting tonight, will be one full of “Kodak” moments. My camera and I will be working closely together shooting a concert, an NFL preseason game and a rather large motorcycle rally. Although my equipment is more than adequate, these three days present a golden opportunity to try out a lens that is a notch above the “pro-sumer” lenses I own. These professional Canon “L” series lenses are well beyond my current budget, but can be rented for an affordable sum. Although renting on a regular basis can be an expensive proposition, the planets have aligned this weekend – I would get my money’s worth. If only I could find a local vendor…

There are a number of companies that provide rental equipment via the Internet. If I had planned far enough in advance, this might have been a viable option, though still not my preference. For this sort of transaction, given the choice, I prefer it to be in person. In this case it is the only choice – there simply isn’t time to receive a shipment. I called my local camera store, Action Camera in Roseville, Calif., already knowing they don’t rent equipment. It was both a shot in the dark and a hope that they might know somebody who does. They are uber-helpful like that - and they did not disappoint. (Not this time, not ever. It is the reason I buy everything camera related there). Action Camera directed me to (the terminology here is important, I did not say recommended) PhotoSource in Sacramento.

I called PhotoSource and they do indeed rent lenses and, specifically, the very lens I wanted to try. At $50 per day, it is a bit pricey, but for $75 I could have it for the entire weekend… for all three events. Deal. I told them I’d be there in a couple of hours. When I arrived, I found it to be a large and multi-faceted photographic service center. The building houses not only camera equipment, but also a darkroom, processing services and a host of other products and services. I think to myself that I’ll have to come back when I have more time to explore. After being greeted by the counterperson, I briefly explained my telephone conversation with what turned out to be different employee and got ready to fill out the paperwork to rent a lens.

“She told you about the credit card authorization, didn’t she?”

What credit card authorization?

“We authorize your card for the full price of the lens in case you lose it or break it.”

No, she didn’t mention that. How much is it?

“For that lens, $1,200.”

Well, there isn’t that much on my card.

“Do you want to try it anyway?”

No, I know there isn’t that much, and now I’ve wasted an hour of my time and 35 miles to find out what you should have told me over the phone.

“Oh, I’m sorry, she’s usually pretty good about that.”

Usually? Pretty good?

Now, to be fair, I am not so naïve to think that they would just let me walk out with that lens for only $75. I figured they would hit me for all kinds of information and hold my card number just in case. But I did not think that they would actually authorize it for well over $1,000, which, if I were fortunate to have it at my disposal, would have been frozen for more than just the three days of the rental. Furthermore, I rather imagined there would be some sort of insurance I could purchase that would cover both parties – like many of these Internet companies offer. And I don’t have a problem with the policy they put in place - it is their right. But failing to inform me until I walked into the store is inexcusable.

I was looking forward to writing about being able to rent lenses locally. I wanted to write about how I could try before I buy and perhaps buy from where I tried. But PhotoSource committed a cardinal sin in the world of customer service: Never piss off the customer. It is a mistake they won’t have the opportunity to make with this customer again.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Win, Lose or Draw

I used to be an angry man. I used to take things personally. Almost everything. For the most part, the circumstances either had nothing to do with me or were at least partly (if not entirely) my own creation. Although I felt justified and in a few cases might well have been, it never served me. No matter how hard I fought and even in the instances where I actually “won,” I always emerged just as miserable or more than before. In my myopic version of the world, it was always me against it… I never stood a chance.

This is not to say I will no longer fight for what I believe to be right. My last entry in this journal is evidence that even when the payoff is nothing more than a moral victory, the fight is sometimes still worth it. But the personal element no longer exists. It is not me against the world or, in this case some faceless institution. Indeed, one cannot win when the opponent has no soul; it can feel no shame; it knows no right or wrong; it possesses no morals; it does not care. Although comprised of people, there is no person accountable - the buck just gets passed into obscurity. The collective conscious leads to no conscience, it can never be personal.

If I am vested emotionally then I can only lose, even if I win. The institution expends no emotional energy, it will not remember. The fight today does not involve the sort of emotional investment it used to have. I have learned that this is not personal and though the fight still needs to be fought, there is no scorecard. The institution does not care, and now, I don’t either. For the most part I am not angry, my pulse does not race, and I do not raise my voice. None of that serves me, yet I still must pick my way through the bureaucratic morasses from time to time. Victory, however satisfying, is always temporary. The institution cannot lose. It doesn’t care.

When it comes to personal relationships, where no institution exists, it might appear as though a conflict is necessarily personal. I guess that, by definition, this must be so, but that does not mean that I need to take personal affronts personally. It is not necessary, often counterproductive and, like the fight against an institution, does not serve me. In both cases, this is far easier said than done, however, after more than 40 years of battle scars I have found it essential not only to my peace and serenity, but survival itself. And let me be clear, I am not by any means perfect – I still lose it, albeit very rarely. I am not some Gandhian image of peace – in a sense perhaps, but not with anything remotely resembling consistency.

But I try to remain detached as much as possible. Not because it makes the world a better place but because it makes my world a better place. The fight, when engaged on a personal level, never ends when it ends. There are always scars left behind… always “the past.” Forgiving is one thing, forgetting another entirely. As long as I know who I am, as long as I know the truth about what I’m all about, nothing needs to be taken personally. If I can stay with the issue at hand (personal or institutional), know when to step away and remember that it is only personal if I allow it to be, then I get to come out the other side with peace in my heart.

Win, lose or draw.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Microsoft Xbox Live

17 August 2009

Attn.: Renee/A15609

RE: C0906xxxxxxxx, C0906xxxxxxxx, C0906xxxxxxxx

Dear Renee,

I am writing to re-dispute the charges of $7.99 in each of these three cases. The charges were made by Microsoft’s * Xbox Live service without my authorization. The details are as follows:

My son, Matthew Althouse, had a Microsoft Xbox game console. This console has the capability to operate through the Internet to facilitate gaming with others around the world, for a fee. That fee is collected and the service is administered through Xbox Live. Prior to March 2009, I authorized my son to provide Xbox Live with my Orchard Bank Mastercard information to pay for this service. In late February 2009, my son entered the U.S. Army’s basic training and is now serving our nation’s armed forces protecting our freedom (yours, mine and Microsoft’s). Upon his entrance into the Army, he sold his game console to an unknown third party and I canceled his membership with Xbox Live. I thought nothing more about it until June when I noticed that a monthly charge for Xbox live was still appearing on my Mastercard bill.

I called Microsoft Xbox Live to get my money credited back. I confirmed that his account was indeed canceled per my instructions, but it was reopened shortly thereafter. Neither my son nor I authorized Microsoft to reopen this account – he was (and is) in the Army and I do not have the required equipment to create such an account, i.e. a Microsoft Xbox game console. I was informed by Microsoft Xbox Live that when I canceled the account, they retained my credit card information – information that was linked to the serial number of that specific game console and that if I wanted that information to be prevented from being used in the future, I was to inform them at the time of cancellation. However, at the time of cancellation, I was not given this information. Microsoft Xbox Live refused to issue a credit for the fraudulent charges, but did assure me that my credit card information would not be used in the future. That assurance is not very reassuring.

Furthermore, it is reasonable to assume the opposite condition – that the default position would be in the interest of protecting the customer’s credit card information. I had every reason to believe that Microsoft would delete this information – especially considering that ownership of any electronic equipment is not a life-long commitment. These units are commonly bought and sold… and stolen. To keep my account information at all, let alone to keep it linked to a specific game console, is irresponsible bordering on fraudulent and to fail to inform me about this upon cancellation should be criminal. Maybe it is; it is an avenue I have yet to pursue, though I remain open to the possibility.

We are talking about a total charge of less than $24.00. I have already expended more time than it is worth to recover these charges. I am fighting this multi-billion dollar behemoth on principle alone and I would not be surprised if there are many, many other instances where Microsoft Xbox Live charged their former customers for services that were not authorized. The fact that they would stand by these obviously dubious charges is arrogant beyond belief. I trust that my credit card provider does not share in that arrogance. Hopefully this will be the end of my fight, but if I have any influence with Orchard Bank and credit card issuers in general, I hope it is not the end of yours.

Michael K. Althouse

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Just Another Game

In the very early years of the current millennium, I had what I imagined to be an adequate health insurance plan. It was not a “healthcare” plan necessarily, but rather one designed to protect my ass(ets) in case of some sort of catastrophic illness or injury. The $1,500 yearly deductible virtually guaranteed that, baring such a catastrophe, all expenses would come out of my pocket, and indeed prior to late October 2000, my insurance provider rarely ever paid anything on my behalf. On the morning of October 17, 2000, all that changed in an instant. Catastrophe struck in a big way.
I have written about that transformative event on several occasions. It was much more than life altering; it completely tilted the axis upon which my life rotated. I woke up in a Reno hospital five weeks later not knowing much, but soon found out. It would be an educational experience that was heavy on experience. The various aspects of how that cool October morning touched my life are numerous and when multiplied by nuance, infinite. One of the tiny threads in this complex fabric, however, has current relevance; it has to do with a debate that has turned away from what it is all about to everything it’s not: healthcare reform.
I’ll not rehash here the need for some kind of healthcare reform. Conservatives and liberals alike largely accept the idea that our current system is seriously dysfunctional. Almost everyone agrees that we need to do something. I was lucky; I had insurance, but that $1,500 deductible is a myth – one that is well hidden in the techno-legal mumbo-jumbo that I could not decipher on my best day. And those in late 2000 and most of 2001 were not my best. In simple but decidedly accurate terms, there are three players in the game: The patient, the doctors (collectively, and the hospitals and the clinicians and the x-ray techs and the anesthesiologists, and, and, and) and the insurance company. Of those three players, two are seasoned professionals; they know the lingo and the bureaucracy… it is their game. The amateur is the patient, but only the patient can lose the game. Only the patient bears the legal responsibility for the cost of his or her care – a cost ultimately determined by the pros.
Suffice it to say that my cost far exceeded my deductible, and for reasons that have not yet, still, been adequately explained. I’m not even sure they know themselves and there is no one person accountable. Except me, by law. And if I can’t pay, we all do. But I cite this only to personify what healthcare (or lack thereof) has become in the greatest and most prosperous country in the world. What gives? Why can’t we fix it? We have identified many of the problems as well as possible solutions many, many times and over many, many years. What could possibly be standing in the way? This should be a rhetorical question, but it is becoming increasingly obvious that it is not, so I’ll answer it: Partisan politics.
And in today’s culture, that really means dirty politics. This is not about helping the people of this nation get covered or reforming what has been for far too long a broken system, it’s about winners and losers. Many of the arguments presented – and accepted – are so ridiculous that reasoned, valid and legitimate debate is no longer taking place. Although it is not at all surprising that the extreme right-wing demagogues would perpetuate these fallacies (death panels? Please…), it is somewhat surprising that so many otherwise rational Republicans (or conservatives) do. Their not so thinly veiled goal is to beat Obama and the Democrats and it has become so pronounced that the concept of reforming healthcare has fallen off the agenda entirely. It is just another game, but the losers remain the same.
If something isn’t done soon the opportunity will be gone. The Republicans are so bent on seeing the “other side” fail that serving this country and the best interests of all of her people comes secondarily, if at all. Can we afford to wait another 20 or more years for another window to open up? If this reform effort fails, what does the right have to offer other than the status quo? Our elected representatives have long forgotten for whom they work – this is not news, but when it comes to something that is so pivotal and fundamental, wouldn’t you think they could pull their collective heads out of their ass(ets) and put this pettiness aside?
Maybe I expect too much.