Monday, April 27, 2009

Grasping At Straws

For the past several weeks, at least, I have been uninspired. Oh, sure, I still come up with the little insights here and there and once in a while I am even compelled to share them with the world. But more often than not, I have not been sufficiently inspired to put down the words and on the occasions where it was forced, the results were not exactly profound. Of course, profundity is best left for others to judge, but inasmuch as I know it when I don’t see it, well, that has been my story.

Until very recently this dis-inspiration has spilled over into my academic writing as well. In fact, it might have been one of my research papers that provoked it all in the first place. Until earlier today, I was grasping at straws trying to find just one strong enough to hold on to. Finally, I have found one that is solid enough… still tenuous, as straws tend to be, but solid enough. It has inspired much more than a flow of words – in this forum and others, it has given me the motivation to pour it on, to read all that boring theory with renewed vigor because now I can see how it all fits into the puzzle. And the best part? It got the words moving again.

Prior to finding this path, everything I did felt futile, as though I knew it was likely not going to be of any use anyway. Although I know that this is never the case – that the work will be profoundly useful sometime, and probably at just the right moment – it is difficult when I knew the time I was using could have been used toward my task at hand. And there’s the irony; it was being used toward that end. It should come as no surprise (but it always does) that this is my way… it’s how I do a great many things, especially where creativity is concerned. Suffice it to say that the floodgates are now open; I am running hard with a distinct direction.

Actually, I have several distinct directions. It seems as though once that mental roadblock was removed, it allowed all my other energies to be focused once again, albeit in very different directions. But each is now much clearer and, though there is a mountain of work to do, I can see the path now and I know where it all leads...

Just over the next hill.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Trial by Fire

As much writing as I have done and, specifically, as many college research papers as I have written, I should know the grind by now. Not just the ramp up in semester-end pressure or the procrastination that is always with me, but rather the rigors of the research process. I should have it down by now. I should have some sort of routine – a boilerplate, if you will. It should not feel like I am reinventing the wheel every time I have a new project. Or should it? There are perhaps a couple of reasons why it does feel this way every time I set out to write a new paper, but knowing it doesn’t make the process any less stressful. Okay, let’s just be honest here. Painful. It doesn’t make it any less painful.

True, it is the “no pain, no gain” variety, but it is pain all the same. The creative process is like that for me and although I can’t say I know what it’s like to give birth, in a sense it is like that when something inside is trying to spring forth. Because it is new every time, it is different every time and even though I can say that I have acquired a great deal of skill in researching and writing over the years, the process never gets easier. And I think that is as it should be, for if it were easy, what would be the point? That isn’t the only reason why this feels brand new all over again. It feels that way partly because, in many respects, it is brand new.

I am only in my second semester of grad school. I have only written two papers of this size in my life and both were last semester. Writing on this scale is still new to me. True, I have ample experience writing 10-page research papers (which is only a little less than half the size of what I am charged with now), but the difference between what was good enough then and what is now has much less to do with the quantity of the words as it does with the quality. No, I am not speaking of how they are chosen and arranged, but what they say and how. The research involved doesn’t mean just finding some sources that support my point, but finding virtually everything written that has to do with my research. It is exhaustive.

And I am exhausted. The sheer amount of work that will never appear in my paper is staggering, but to get it right, that’s how it has to be. There is no way to prepare for this; it is trial by fire. It is not a surprise, but it still feels brand new. My guess is that from here on out it always will. Such is life in the postgraduate world.

Friday, April 24, 2009


It’s hard to believe sometimes. Glancing back. Looking around. Peering just ahead. The road that brought me here, right here in this very moment in time and to a place surrounded by not only material comfort, but also (and far more important) one that is engulfed in peace, has been a long one. It is a lasting peace, or at the very least, peace that has lasted for a number of years now. That’s right, years… not months, not weeks, not days or even hours, but years. That might not seem so amazing or unbelievable to some, but I have to put it into words and read them to remember, sometimes, that I have lived it.

And I wasn’t supposed to make it. Or maybe I was. The fact is that due to decisions I made both directly and indirectly, my life very well could have come to an end on many, many occasions and very nearly did a couple of times. So maybe I am supposed to be here. I am, after all, here and for the past few years not just alive, but very well. I guess I could look at this good fortune as just that – luck. Nothing more than that. It was my turn. I paid my dues. I suffered long enough. It could be that. But it also might be the total and complete desperation that led me to make the changes in perception and action that led me to this point.

I really can’t say. I know that my perception and my attitude did change and the desperation I felt was real. It was do or die, quite literally. But it would be hard to deny the fortune that has shined upon me. That fortune, however, very well could have been there all along. I might have been just too busy, too self-absorbed or too materialistic to notice. I could have been so preoccupied seeking external gratification that I was missing the magic that was with me all along. Maybe that was it. Regardless of the specifics, I am where I am and I couldn’t be more satisfied.

Actually, that’s not true either. I could be more satisfied and, moreover, I know how to achieve that satisfaction. As a matter of fact, it will get better still. I know it. Not in the kind of specifics that an instruction manual or self-help guide might contain, but more of an intuitive knowing that if I continue with the same outlook, the journey never ends… the rewards are ever greater and that inner peace is the only result that holds any real value. And it continues to grow stronger. It has become part of who I am and I can only hope that one day it completely consumes me.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009


One of my colleagues recently asked me how long I’ve been writing. As grad students in communication studies, we are all required to write often and at length and we have necessarily become quite good at it. But for some, writing is a more intimate encounter – more composition than arrangement. I guess it has always been that for me, but it wasn’t until a relatively short time ago that I realized what the written word held for me.

I wasn’t exactly sure how to answer the question. It was a simple question, really, but it stumped me. There is no discrete line of demarcation… it is a question that just begs for context. If I go back far enough, technically I guess I could say that I’ve been writing since the first grade – about 40 years. But that’s not what she was looking for and I knew it. She meant writing, like seriously. I thought for a moment and suggested a re-phrased question: How long have I enjoyed writing?

I hated English all the way through school. My fort̩ in grade school and high school was math. I thought I liked math, but I now know that what I liked about it was that I was good at it Рnothing more. Numbers held no magic for me; the mystique of their manipulation, coordination and cooperation was lost on me. I get that the magic is there and I understand how numbers and their relationships can enchant some, but math just didn't do that for me. I could understand it, but I could not feel it. I could apply the rules and get the results, but when it came to abstract concepts - to application - I was lost.

It was just the opposite for me in the language arts. I didn’t get the rules, or at least I could not articulate them. It seemed impossible for me to absorb the mechanical processes and regurgitate them on demand. I tried, but try as I might it seemed as though I just couldn't understand. About half-way through high school, the nature of the English class changed such that, because the study of the rules that govern the process had largely been dealt with, we were left with the more abstract principles of word arrangement. In other words, we wrote.

For whatever reason, aside from spelling errors (there were no word processors and no spell checker to look over my shoulder), my writing never failed me. My grades when it came to essays, reports and the like were consistently good. Even before high school when longish written works were not common, my grades on those assignments were better than the routine grammar, spelling and vocabulary scores I earned. By the time that sort of work became the primary source of grading and my grades improved, my beliefs were already firmly set. I didn’t “like” English any better and, more so, school in general was becoming a pain. But retrospectively, the signs were there.

Over the many years since, I have found numerous occasions to write both personally and professionally. I always viewed it as a necessary evil, however pleased I was with the finished product. I never liked to write – I still had it fixed in my mind that English was not my thing. I was a math guy, a science guy… none of this “soft” stuff for me. Ironically enough, as my use of math gradually evaporated, my skills faded as well – so well that today all I have left is what would probably amount to high school algebra at best. But the writing never did – it was always there. Even when dormant for long periods, it came right back.

After a series of both eventful and non-eventful events (and the non-eventful variety can be just as tumultuous), I found myself at yet another crossroads. Although I had some major life decisions to make, I cannot discount the role of serendipity. Opportunities materialized that, combined with a great deal of help and personal effort, propelled me to this very point – and more directly, to answer this question. (My colleague received the Reader’s Digest version. She merely inspired this expansion – she was not subjected to it.) I had to sort some things out and I had ample time to do it.

It all started with the simple journaling of my day’s events. Most days were uneventful, but my mind had the time to begin to make some sense of it all. It wasn’t much – maybe 400 or 500 words, hand written in a spiral notebook. This was just about six years ago and predated my return to school by several months. In fact, I had no idea where to turn next, but at just 40 years old I was at the end of the road… I had to figure something out. That journal continued until my return to school where my writing began to take a more formal role in my life…

And it happened. I made perhaps one of the most profound discoveries in my life. I found my love, my passion, my purpose… my gift. On that discovery I have built what has become a direction that will last a lifetime. I am no longer lost and although I don’t know what serendipity holds in store for my future, I am sure I am capable of pursuing the opportunities it presents. And affirmation comes from the strangest of places. It came in a quote from a grade school teacher for a story I wrote while working for a small newspaper in Rocklin, Calif., “We all have our gifts, we just unwrap them at different times.”

And so it was for me.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Cold-Hot-Cold, Part Deux

I wrote a piece a little more than a year ago entitled Cold-Hot-Cold. I chose that title for a number of reasons, but the gist of it was to capture the many nuances of life in a metaphor that had its roots in the very real physical sensations on that cold January day. It was New Year’s Day, a day in which many of my friends and I don our cold-weather gear, fire up our Harleys and go for a ride. Cold day, the warmth of fellowship, of camaraderie and the effects of the adrenaline that always comes with riding, and the coming back to earth.


That day, however, produced much more than just the buzz of our annual ride. And although I am quite sure I would have written about the day’s events, I likely would not have titled the piece as I did. A day that typically holds so much promise, so much optimism and so much hope was muted by the tragic accidental death of a child close to most of us and very close to a few. It left us grappling with the senselessness of it all – it brought new meaning to the cold we felt that day. Although the other factors that produce that special kind of uplift in one’s spirit were still present, they had to be taken in combination with a tragedy that no one could explain.

Fortunately, perhaps, that dichotomy of emotion does not often occur at the same time. Good things or bad things are, I think, best left to be dealt with in isolation if at all possible. Of course, that is not always the case. The same extreme swings of fortune that affected those close to me hit again last weekend. On the very extremes – the result was both life and death, but the continuum was sprinkled liberally with both good and bad fortune and, for many, simultaneously.

On of our friends - one who was an integral part of my friendship network - was admitted to the hospital about a week ago with breathing complications. He passed away Friday night. Cold. I don’t know what the details are, but I do know that when I saw him recently, he was as alive (and animated!) as he always was. He was just fine. That he could fall ill and die just like that is still boggling my mind. It hasn’t yet sunk in. And that’s how it is for me; many of my friends were far closer to Tony than I... I can only imagine how it is for them.

At the same time, my eldest son’s lady was expecting a baby. This was not a surprise, my grandson was due in late May or early June. He decided that he has waited long enough and yesterday he chose to make his entrance into the world. Although he is many weeks premature, he appears to be doing just fine. Weighing in at about 4 ½ pounds and breathing on his own, there appears to be no major complications – he is a healthy baby boy. Hot. His timing, of course, couldn’t be worse as I am about as busy as I can be, but I will make the time to take a trip to Southern California very soon. I have a grandson down there, after all.

Those are the extremes. The cold and the hot. But there are many other important things going on in my life, some affecting me directly and some only because they affect those close to me and all are hot or cold or some variation of the two. I am experiencing all the pressure that grad school promised and all the while the world is doing its thing right along with me… unpredictably, often in a very sad way and sometimes in a joyous celebration, the world is doing what the world does.

And so am I.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Write and Wrong

Last week was remarkably unproductive. I did not plan for it to be so, but there it is. It is not as though I didn’t do anything, but considering I had the entire week off, what I completed doesn’t look like much compared to what is left. I should have accepted what I already know to be true and just enjoyed my time off. Self-imposed deadlines work to an extent, but by definition, self-imposed can also be self-modified and self-removed, all of which occurred last week.

But this week is different. This week there are real deadlines with real consequences and with all that comes the controversy and conflict that I believe has been the driving force in human evolution. Mine is in an academic setting, but individuals and groups of individuals in our species have been trying to be “right” ever since we could think. Regrettably, that need was often manifested in force – might equaled right for much of our history – but in more modern times words have proven to be far mightier than the sword.

But it is not due to some kind of grand utopian ideal that some believe is possible. Indeed, there are those who believe we are somehow “meant” to achieve world peace and harmony. Inasmuch as peace means an end to the sort of physical violence that is still represented in events as large as multinational wars to a simple bar-brawl, sure, that is a worthy goal and, though perhaps unattainable, it is certainly worth striving for. But other “conflicts” are not only not possible to eliminate, they are necessary to further our advancement as a species.

In most issues there are varying viewpoints… probably as many different views as there are viewers. Of course, these viewpoints can be culled into categories of similar views thereby creating groups with a commonly held conviction. This conviction is based upon a number of factors and those factors, too, will vary greatly. Some might feel as they do because a similar belief is held by someone who is greatly respected – a parent or hero perhaps. Others might want to be part of the same group his or her friends belong to. Still others are prone to look at the arguments on all sides and decide based upon the evidence presented who is right…

And who is wrong.

Yes, unfortunately and often these conflicts will produce a winner and a loser. It’s not always looked at in such stark terms, but it is what it is. That does not mean the winner is awarded some kind of prize or that the loser must accept his or her view is wrong, but it does mean that when taken in total over thousands of years of evolution, our species's collective victories have delivered us to the top of the food chain. What about when wrong beats right? It could be argued that we have learned from that as well, and it further raises the question that if wrong won, was it really wrong? Please, I know that the Holocaust was wrong; I know that genocide is wrong; I know that slavery is wrong; I know that many of the great human accomplishments were built upon “wrongness.”

And today, many of those conditions still exist – and many do not. The point is that history is contextual and to an extent, so is rightness and wrongness. Justice is another story and a philosophical question that has been debated for thousands of years. It will likely continue to be for thousands more – but not here. This essay is not about the avoidance of conflict but rather the embracing of it. We need it. Utopian harmony is a pipe dream and furthermore, it is not good for us. We need to disagree about whether the world is flat; about what the moon is made of; about quantum theory; about the nature of God; and about whether or not we should all just get along. If life becomes for us one big vacation, nothing will get done.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

A Week of Wednesdays

This problem is not uncommon for me. For much of the past few days I have been thinking - thinking about what I want to say. Although I have committed several pages of thoughts into words, this term paper is still very much in the formative process... which means it is likely to change direction at any given moment. Briefly, I am trying to look at the civil rights movement through the lens of feminist theory and then, maybe (a big maybe), applying that perspective to the gay rights movement. If it sounds more like a thesis than a term paper, that’s probably because I still have too much on my plate. I will eliminate much of it once I find the clarity I seek. As far as that “maybe” is concerned, it will likely not materialize in this paper.

That does not, however, make research in that direction wasted effort. Although it is true that it would be more efficient if I concentrated my time on what I need rather than what I might, it is the totality of the picture I am trying to form that will lend the clarity in what I write. In other words, I cannot accurately describe the part without being familiar with the whole. And though that is absolutely reason enough not to try to manipulate my research in the interest of expediency, there are others. The most obvious, perhaps, is that in the not too distant future, I will be writing a thesis of sufficient length that I might indeed be able to pursue the threads I have to abandon here. In this light, I am investing my time towards a future work.

But that is not a sufficient reason, in and of itself, to compel me to do research that is not of immediate value. As I already indicated, my modus operandi is well entrenched, but that alone would leave me fighting – looking for shortcuts. There must be more for this process to be anything more than useless tedium. As it turns out, it is as simple as it is profound – it is about education. The reality of this particular term paper - of any term paper, really, is that a finite and not particularly large body of research is all that is needed to complete the assignment – and if carefully arranged - complete it with high marks. I know this; as an undergrad, I know it from personal experience.

But in the forum I have placed myself, every assignment is about much more than it appears on the surface. I am digesting more than will ever directly appear in the graded work for a given class. So much more that, to be tested on it all in some fashion would be so time consuming there would be little time for anything else – like absorbing the material in the first place. And it is not as though we are charged with memorizing each and every theory or even every major theory ever presented in the study of communication and its related fields (which is pretty much everything), but that we will become familiar with and gain the ability to understand what these theorists are proposing.

As I do all that, I gain the ability to think about what they are saying and, further, make determinations as to the value of the theory. Is it any good? Does it apply here? Is it contradicting itself? What does it explain? And since I am working towards a Master’s degree in this subject, doesn’t it make sense that it hold some interest for me? Since it not only holds my interest, but fascinates me as well, it also makes sense that my curiosity will seem to slow me down at times. But it is my MO, it is an investment and, in the end, I love to find things that make no sense and poke holes in them - or things that serve to explain and support them. And since there is still a bit of time left, the panic that is so useful in sharpening one’s focus is still days away.