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.