Monday, March 29, 2010


After a string of sunny days and mild temperatures, the weather here in Sacramento has turned dark and gloomy again. Rain is immanent and another dose of snow in the Sierras will be applied over the next week or so. Ironically enough, today marks the beginning of spring break. For me, the break is only in the day-to-day duties that are routine for a grad student/teaching associate. I am not required to be on campus for the classes I teach or the ones in which I am enrolled, but that is where the “break” ends. In an effort to avoid the semester-end crunch that has been part of my graduate experience thus far, I plan to take a few days of my week "off" and disappear with my reading so that when I emerge, the heavy lifting will have been largely dealt with. It will not entirely relieve the anxiety that comes naturally with the close of the semester – they are heavily end-loaded – but it will give me the time that I historically lose to what is perhaps my greatest nemesis – procrastination.

And the truth is that I need to get away anyway. As much as I cherish my friendships and the deep relationships I have with those friends (and my family, too), I feel that in some respects, I am losing touch with myself. And I am afraid that feeling of discontent is externally manifested in some odd and impossible to explain intuitions. Although these feelings are based only in some interrelated perceptions, it is the perception of interrelatedness that has me wondering in some cursory and often fleeting way if I really know whom I present to others. That’s an overly complicated way of saying that there is a disconnection between that which I perceive myself as being and how others perceive that same person. And though much has changed in regards to my self-perception, my self-esteem and how I view my place in the world, this disconnection I am feeling now has been a recurring theme throughout my life.

Experience tells me that it cannot be explained, it will pass and that it can be endured. It is nothing to worry about and, furthermore, it is likely nothing anyone else can necessarily perceive. It is just a feeling. I used to want answers – answers that existed outside myself and, in the extreme, existed within others. But no one would or could answer questions that are not really questions in the first place. No, this is part of a process that I am inclined to believe will continue until the day I die – who am I? Who could possibly answer that question better than I?

I have found that key areas of my life – areas that are not particularly connected in any other way – strangely dovetail with each other. And maybe that’s not so strange – the common denominator, after all, is me. My advanced studies in communication have touched every area of my life – past, present and future – and in large part my current quest for knowledge doesn’t just inform me, it forms me. It helps me to understand the why questions and, of course, with every answer comes ten new questions. So it is fitting to take a little excursion to be alone with my studies and myself; this is no time to let a lack of confidence derail the arduous work I have put in over the past few years. The person that emerges will be essentially the same, but I will have a better understanding of who that is. Will that change anything outside myself? Probably not, but it should change my perception of what that is.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Politics as Usual

There was a time not so very long ago where the possibility of working closely with a governmental legislative body was a very real possibility for me. I was actually looking forward to being able to help my state and my country by plying my skills toward the noble and necessary role of the public servant. Not as an elected official, but in service to those who are. It could have been from the inside as a staffer or the outside as an analyst or lobbyist, but in some capacity I thought I could make a difference. Through the series of events and opportunities that have directed me instead to academia, I have serendipitously avoided what would have proven to be a very frustrating existence. The body politic is, by its very nature, adversarial, but it seems more and more that it is much more than that – it is down right hostile.

It might have always been that way, or, it’s possible that continuum is always in flux and we are currently just experiencing the flow towards the hostile side while the ebb of peace and harmony is only a matter of time. And then there’s this bridge in San Francisco I’d like to sell you… All cynicism aside, I have come to the conclusion that it takes a special variety of patience and perseverance to last very long in that role and although the strength of these qualities has grown as I age (as evidenced by my soon to be completed Master’s degree), these are not inherently my strengths. I admire more those who are working in the background than those for whom they are working – our elected officials. Those officials, presumably, are working for us. I would argue that they (as a body, all of them) have not done a very good job.

So instead of contributing in this more direct manner, my path has taken me down the road of education. I don’t teach my students what to believe, but how to form their beliefs. I don’t want them to think what I think, but I want them to think critically. Too many are buying the quick and easy, blindly parroting what on even cursory examination does not pass the smell test. They are jumping on board a bandwagon that is becoming more and more intolerant of dissent. We have a two party system in this country – it wasn’t designed that way, but that is how it evolved. Regardless of how it came to be, it serves a purpose; it is another form of checks and balances. The problem is that the evolution is moving away from compromise and toward an all or nothing paradigm. You’re either with us or against us – there is precious little middle ground. Politics has turned into a game of winners and losers and in the end we all lose.

There is plenty of blame to go around. Republicans blame the Democrats; Democrats blame the Republicans. Here’s the dirty little secret – it’s all of them, and, it’s all of us. Ultimately we have the power to send the whole lot of them home, but we need to be able to think critically. We need to be able to filter fact from fiction and make decisions not based on an “us vs. them” mentality. We have become so polarized that decisions that are literally life and death are being made based on party affiliation – an affiliation that often does not even reflect the ideology that a given party supposedly identifies with. I have said it before and although it is admittedly a gross generalization, there is some truth in it: The only difference between the Republican and Democratic parties is how they spell their name. So when is it going to end? When are our elected officials going to get back to work for us?

Obviously, this is a very simplistic assessment of a very complex problem. As the size and power of government grows, the structural intricacies that perpetuate and exacerbate the divide grow right along with it. The money involved is unimaginable and our debt, equally so. As optimistic as I usually am, this is not a pretty picture. There are signs that some things might be improving, but I don’t believe that a healthcare reform bill – one that I am not particularly happy with – is any kind of indication that the root of the problem has changed. The chasm is still there as the party line voting on pretty much everything shows. They don’t seem to be able to agree on much of anything and increasingly, we, the people, are following blindly along. We’ve got it backwards - we should be showing them how to behave, not the other way around.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Same Old Song and Dance

I think maybe it’s time to grow up. It’s time to bring in some adult supervision. The petty school age shenanigans going on in Washington are exactly what drove the Republicans from power in the last two elections… and what drove the Democrats from power before that. It goes beyond the handful of less than discreet elected officials caught in their indiscretions – on both sides of the aisle. That sort of behavior is to be expected from a small minority of any population and congress is no exception. But the juvenile antics of a sore loser gets to be tiring and the only place left to rebel is at the ballot box. I think we are fed up. I know I am.

Lets start with some misconceptions first: The passage of the healthcare reform package was perfectly legal and perfectly American. We have a democratic republic – that means that the “people” don’t decide which laws are passed and which are not, our representatives do. We decide who they are. And if I am not mistaken, they (enough of them to be successful) promised to do just that - and they passed a law that addresses our healthcare system. There is absolutely nothing un-American about anything in the process. If anything, it was ultra-American; too much like it’s always done… with all the unnecessary complexity that comes with two parties that cannot play nice together. Healthcare reform was a major campaign pledge, and this time it was a promise that was actually kept.

But there’s more. Because the Republicans have lost the argument with any appeal to credibility (ethos) and the reasoning used is politically biased at best (logos), they have resorted to the only appeal they have left – an appeal to our emotions (pathos). This stuff is 2,500 years old and every bit as valid today as it was in Aristotle’s time. And arguably the most powerful appeal to emotion rests in what is arguably the most powerful emotion – hate. So now we have the mischaracterizations: Obama is a socialist? A communist? Godless? A Muslim? Not born in the United States? I left the racial epithets out, but there's more than a little of that, too. And, of course, he is out to get us… to control every minutia of our lives – and it starts with an attempt to fix a system that is famously, notoriously and seriously broken. True, it remains to be seen how effective the plan will be, but if it is only marginally successful, it will be a success. Healthcare is already “socialized.” We all pay for those who cannot afford their own care and we do it in the most expensive way – at the emergency room. Death panels? Please.

The most radical are intentionally (and effectively) propagating fear, and that invariably turns to hate. And the less radical are cosigning it. In a comment regarding threats and acts of violence against supporters of the healthcare reform package, House Minority Leader Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, said the acts are “unacceptable.” Really? Unacceptable? How about reprehensible? How about illegal? How about, dare I say, un-American? And Sara Palin has the Democrats' districts that she views as vulnerable in the mid-term elections marked on a map with gun sight cross hairs, urging her followers to “take aim.” Real big-girl talk.

What blows my mind is not so much what passes for day-in and day-out behavior for so many of our elected public servants (and not just because it’s the Republicans who are taking their ball and going home this time - it’s a not very long walk down memory lane to where the Democrats were acting like rotten kids, too), it’s that so many people have bought into the outrageous hyperbole, either by acquiescence or by actually jumping on board the bandwagon. Some actually seem to enjoy it. Many are currently receiving “socialized” (meaning we pay for it) government aid – healthcare and otherwise – while they are arguing against the same for others. The hypocrisy is palpable. Our government is operating just as it is supposed to and it has for a very long time – in good times and in bad, regardless of the party in power. This is still the greatest, most prosperous and freest nation on Earth and no single president has the power to destroy it.

Just ask Nixon.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

"Religious Views"

Facebook has a category under in its profile information area titled “religious views.” Like all of these informational categories (such as age, political views, relationship status, etc.), it is entirely optional whether one wishes to provide that information and/or make it public. These are standard questions asked on any number of profile surveys (both official and not) and I have always struggled with these seemingly very simple questions. Race or ethnicity is always one that makes me think of my heritage before finally answering (if required) white or Caucasian. But my heritage, like perhaps most Americans, is more diverse than could ever be captured in a single term or categorization. But that’s not what this is about. I did provide an answer to my “religious views” on Facebook and that answer, though it is only a single word, says much about me and perhaps humanity in general.

First a qualification: I have absolutely no religious (in the formal sense) upbringing, whatsoever. Church of any kind was not a regular or irregular part of my childhood; it was completely absent. Although there are likely both advantages and disadvantages to this lack of indoctrination, it is what it is and for reasons that are not important here I am satisfied that I did not miss out on much. However, it would cast some doubt on whether or not I am qualified to answer a question like what my religious views are. Other than answering “none” or just leaving it blank, what could I possibly say that was not born of ignorance? And though it is true that in the West and in our current era the definition of the word “religion” has expanded well beyond what it typically used to mean, that definition still carries certain de facto components - church, ritual, sacred texts, etc. – and there is a wide range of interpretation within each disciple.

So in the context of Facebook, I felt qualified to provide a single word that best describes my “religious views” using a decidedly broad definition. I am a “seeker.” As it turns out, that term also has roots in a particular denomination of Christianity, but I did not know it at the time. And it does not mean that I am in search of an established religion to call my own or even to define a new one that works for me. It simply means that I am always in search of answers to the unanswerable. It is arguably a common thread that runs throughout the history of humanity, consciously or not. It is always in the background and although many believers and nonbelievers alike think they know (oversimplified, either physical reality was “created” or it is just a natural phenomenon), no one can know for sure. Science and theology, to a certain extent, are trying to answer different aspects of the same question: the former asks how we got here and the latter asks why are we here?

And I suppose, as a seeker, I ask both. In theory, we can discover as much as we are capable of in the physical universe. All “things” consist of matter and/or energy – we know this. We are limited in discovery only by our means and as much as we have learnt over just the recent past, what we know pales in comparison with what we don’t. Within the lifetimes of every person alive today, this will not change. As a practical matter, those answers to the questions that lie outside our lifetime are unanswerable. Yet we seek these answers anyway. Why? On the other side of the coin, we have the unprovable - the infinite and eternal - and many seek those answers, too. The methods are decidedly different, but I would argue that the motives are the same. We all want to know and it matters little if that knowledge comes in our own lifetime.

Believer or not, we are all seeking answers. And those answers are, for reasons either by design or practicality, unanswerable. Yet we seek them anyway.

Friday, March 12, 2010

The Game of Life

Once upon a time, I was an avid gambler. More than avid, actually, my diversion ultimately evolved into much more than a hobby or a pastime; it was to the point that every time I went, I was on a mission. And living in Truckee, just a short drive from the gambling mecca across the state line, I went to the casinos regularly. Too regularly. Where it was once a delightful distraction, when winning wasn’t everything, it became all about winning… and winning big. The odds being what they are, that sort of winning was irregular and infrequent and as a result, most of the time gambling was not fun – not like it used to be. The parallels to my life then and now are startling.

Some say life is a game. If so, it can be won and lost with the roll of the dice or the spin of a wheel. But if it is simply about attaining a score or toppling some worthy competitor, what does that say about the human race? Are there rules? Strategies? How does one actually win in the Game of Life? A popular saying some years ago declared, “He who dies with the most toys, wins.” “Toys,” I presume, is a catchall term used to mean stuff – physical stuff that can be acquired and lost, bought and sold. It was a notion that I bought into for quite a long time. After going through a series of boom and bust cycles, the evidence appeared to be squarely in support of that saying. Until the last bust cycle, I would never have thought any differently – life was indeed a game and I was losing.

But something was different that time. As I started to refocus my life and reassess what it had become, I started to gain a sense of peace. I didn’t have much, but perhaps because fortune regarding the physical can be so fickle, I was becoming strangely acceptant of the very real idea that there just might be more to this whole deal than the senses can account for. I was still losing, but I didn’t feel like a loser. I started to make distinctions between what I needed and what I wanted. I came to the amazing insight that I have always had what I needed and usually much more. Even in my “depreciated” state, I was doing far better than surviving. Furthermore, I was beginning to see value in the non-monetary and to my surprise, I discovered that I possessed some of it. I had (and have) value that is not connected to anything external.

My perspective did not change overnight and I often catch myself slipping into the mindset that I do not have enough. But it doesn’t last long. By the standard set five or six yeas ago by the bottom of that last bust, my score in the game has improved much, but there is always another level, someone wealthier and always more wants than needs. Some might say that it’s easy to have a positive outlook on life when I have all that I do, but they fail to recognize that the outlook preceded the stuff and no matter how much stuff I have ever had, I have never been more at peace than now – or than I was five or six years ago. But in one respect, they are right: It is easy to have a positive outlook on life when I have all the things I do – but those things don’t weigh an ounce; they cannot be purchased at any price; and one can neither give them or take them away. These are the things that I need.

I have already won.