Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Passenger in My Own Mind

I will often find myself in quiet reflection. After nearly a half-century of life, I have considerable experience to draw upon – far too much to digest in a single moment, but the web of interrelated memories that, on their surface, have little to do with one another still coexist in the same head and they often link in unforeseen ways. For the past several years these moments of silent contemplation have produced overwhelming feelings of gratitude not only for the fortunate turn my life has taken, but also for those who have played a role along the way. While many have had direct involvement and others have touched my life indirectly, the bottom line is that nothing I have made of my life today was a result of some singular effort on my part nor did it take place without any effort either; it was not luck. Life is a team sport.

I am often asked to share what my life used to be like, what happened and what it’s like today. My “story,” as it is often referred, is unique in the particulars but not nearly so much in its substance. It is familiar to those who have been where I’ve been and done what I’ve done – all the good, the bad and the ugly. Not physically necessarily, but substantially. I was trapped in a downward spiral that nearly killed me and all things considered, death was not looking so bad. I was not suicidal, but I was not at all thrilled with life either. Although I was constantly seeking for gratification externally, it is also true that I found the source of my suffering there, too. I know now that the vast majority of my pain was self-inflicted, but to admit that then would mean accepting something my ego would not allow me to do. It was the world against me - and I hate to lose.

But I was losing. The reality is that the world had nothing to do with it. I was fighting myself and it was a fight to the death. The only way to come out alive was to quit fighting. It took a long time to come to the realization that everything wrong in my world was a result of how I perceived it – it was not the world itself. There are numerous books and other guides to enlightenment and many tell of the power of positive thinking. I sought the magic formula for a long time before I realized that there is no secret formula… no quick fixes, no shortcuts. I was convinced that if I only had enough money I would be able to find happiness and I did not see how any psycho-babble positive thinking crap was going to change my lack of resources. A friend recently shared that he felt like a passenger in his own mind, and this is a friend who, like me, has experienced great darkness in his life. His particulars are different, but that substance he shared with me is something I can relate to only too well. I was indeed a passenger in my own mind.

In the coming weeks and months I will be passing some significant milestones and, later next year, I will come to the crest of another mountain – one that was far too much to climb not that long ago. Those looking at my external life might say that it’s easy for me to find gratitude - look at the car, the house and the motorcycle. What they fail to realize is that my gratitude for life itself preceded all those things – and those were things that I had (and later lost) in those darkest days when no amount of anything was ever enough. Looking past the external, those tempted to say it’s easy for me to find gratitude because of the intangible things I have would be correct – it is easy to be grateful with the relationships I now enjoy, the integrity I now possess and the value my life holds. Those are things that not only eluded me, they are things I never placed any value on - they seemed so unimportant… a nuisance, even.

It’s hard to know whether a positive outlook has created the reality or if the reality has created the positive outlook. It is likely a bi-directional effect where the two aspects play off one another in a beautifully synergistic melody. It didn’t happen overnight; in fact, it kind of snuck up on me. One day (now every day) I realized that I had not been unhappy for any sustained period in a very long time. I have not raised my voice in anger in a very long time. Those numerous little things that used to drive me insane no longer get a first thought, let alone a second. I have friends I can count on and (probably more importantly) that can count on me. It turns out that the world is not such a bad place after all, one just need to live with it rather than against it.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Facebook "Friends"

I currently have 880 Facebook “friends.” I placed friends in quotations because it is unrealistic that anyone has that many friends in the traditional definition of the word. True, many are friends in the classical sense, but most are associations made based on some other paradigm. My criteria for Facebook friendship is relatively loose – the connection must be made through some channel other than just Facebook, that is, I do not accept random friend requests. I get them often, usually based upon mutual friendship; once I discover where that outside connection is, I’ll accept those requests. In other words – I need to know who the requester is beyond a profile picture and a status update.

Some of those friends are friends I have never met; yet I have a personal connection based in private correspondence such that they are considered actual friends. Perhaps not exactly close friends, but we are not talking about casual acquaintances either. Many were forged through this blog, well before my participation in the style of social networking that Facebook epitomizes. My involvement in these social networks (Myspace, Facebook and now Twitter) was not a natural extension of my social network, indeed, my joining each network can only be characterized as reluctant. However, once on board the benefits proved numerous and obvious. Take my Facebook high school network, for instance. Most of those old friends were long lost and likely would have remained so if not for a means of ready access and Facebook provides a forum for regular, albeit sometimes superficial, communication. In some respects, it is not unlike the sort of communication that actually took place in high school, but I digress...

Interestingly enough, my path has taken me down the road of academia and my area of study is human communication. Although this is a wide field of study and my specific area isn’t necessarily social media, all areas are intertwined and the pursuit of an MA in communication studies requires extensive study in all areas. Communication is, in fact, the umbrella under which all other knowledge is formed – symbolic communication elevates us above all other known forms of life and makes possible the civilization we find so convenient. The world as we know it does not come to be without the ability to communicate symbolically. However, as robust as our tools of communication are, they can be woefully inadequate when trying to relate what is really going on with us and nowhere is this more pronounced than in personal interaction.

When we communicate on a face-to-face basis, we are privy to communicative symbols that extend far beyond the verbal. Body language has been studied extensively, but so have other forms of non-verbal communication such as appearance, intonation, pace, and word choice (not what the words themselves mean, but which are chosen and how they are arranged sends a signal, too). When communication is limited to text only, much of that is lost. We have attempted to make up for some of those non-verbal cues with emoticons, abbreviations and even our choice of a profile picture or avatar, but those measures only make up for a small piece of what is lost. Some of the same sense of loss was experienced with the invention and proliferation of the telephone, but at least then the audible cues were still there. With a purely text-based conversation – especially when that text is limited to Twitter’s 140 characters – there is precious little to go on.

Friendship, like all personal relationships, requires maintenance. The social networking platforms give us an ease of maintenance never before available. It gives me a means of maintaining a relationship with 880 “friends.” But there is no way to maintain any degree of closeness with that many friends under any circumstances. The best I can achieve is to stay in contact with a few – however irregularly or infrequently – on a deeper level. It can be done through computer-mediated channels, but not through the simple posting of status updates. There was once a time, before the telephone and even before the telegraph, when written communication was the only way to maintain relationships with friends and family over long distances. Electronic communication did not supersede it: Facebook, for example, provides a means of private and in-depth communication beyond instant messaging, wall posts and status updates. And there is always email.

But the best way is to stay close the old-fashioned way - face-to-face (and the phone, due to its ubiquity and entrenchment in our society, can be included). By availing ourselves to the richest communication experience available – one that goes beyond mere short messages, status updates and wall posts – we can receive a message in all its fullness. Technology has been incredibly useful in helping me to stay in touch with a vast network of associations, to rekindle old friendships, to forge new ones that never would have been possible without it and to gain the insight from those well beyond my geographic limitations. But where the quantity comes easy, the quality takes effort. Nothing can replace face-to-face communication, but with a little effort computer-mediated communication could become just as robust as telephone-mediated communication has. And over the vast distances in this global village the world is becoming, short of teleportation electronic communication is the next best thing.

Saturday, June 12, 2010


I received this in my inbox very early this morning. I get these invitations from time to time and on rare occasion one will spark some interest. This one was not one of those until I started to compose a short note declining the invitation…

Hi Michael,

We would love to share with you an article that we just posted on our own blog! Top 10 Con Artists In Academic History would be an interesting story for your readers to check out and discuss on your blog, so we hope you will consider sharing it!

Thanks for your time!

Lauri Xxxxxx


Although academic cons are nothing new they are still worth discussing as, unfortunately, they are still ongoing. If I were to approach the subject on my blog, it would be from a different angle than just reproducing news accounts of what has already happened - it likely would dig more into a discussion of ethics, of morals and of the personal benefit of not cheating as this is ultimately the only way to persuade those who are prone to "short-cutting" the process to realize the person they are hurting the most is staring back in the mirror. For this same reason, I do not endorse "alternative" colleges that generate degrees based upon "real-world" experience. It is not the education per se, but what these schools call it when completed. An associate's, bachelor's or master's degree means much, much more. (As an aside, I am also philosophically opposed to the for-profit model of education). A university degree should indicate that the holder has learned far more than the technical knowledge required for accounting, or engineering, or programming, etc. - it should indicate a willingness to be open to the varied requirements of university education, a commitment to the time it will take and the sacrifice it takes to see it through. A BA or BS degree should take at least eight full-time semesters - for the brightest and most disciplined, maybe six, but that is still three full years at the minimum. It shows potential employers and everyone else who understands what a degree of this magnitude represents - that the holder has not only the ability to perform a job in a specific area of expertise (one's major), but also the ability to think clearly and critically with the insight of those who have gone before over the past many thousands of years.

The blog you referred me to is a tool for those seeking online education. As I am sure you are aware, this is a trend that is increasing in popularity and even traditional universities are offering online courses in an attempt to serve a larger student body and save costs on both the universities' and students' ends. I am not, in principle, opposed to a wide variety of instructional formats, but when one is used to the exclusion of all others - especially to eliminate the classroom, or lecture hall, or lab - then a huge part of the academic experience is lost. It does not appear to me that your blog advocates this position, only that it offers those in search of online education a resource. However (and this is a big however), because many for-profit institutions are for profit, the best way to maximize income is through cost-cutting and where those reduced expenditures are used to attract students in the form of lower fees and "degree equality" with a traditional university education, we end up with an online course market that is polluted with these institutions (University of Phoenix, DeVry, and the like). And to my dismay, your home page is plastered with links to these schools. There are a number of accredited (really accredited) public and private universities that offer online courses (and some) online degrees.

My plan was to write a simple response declining your invitation because I do not want it to appear that I endorse these schools as equivalent to the comprehensive traditional universities that provide well-rounded education to their students. I believe that vocational education has a place - an important one - and it has as much value as a university degree, but it is not an apples and apples comparison. For these schools to portray their degrees as equal to one from a real university is borderline fraud. Try getting into a PhD program at University of California, Santa Barbara or Harvard with a University of Phoenix master's... or into a master's program at any of the California State University campuses with a bachelor's from DeVry - let alone a teaching job at such an institution with one of these degrees. My planned response has now changed, this correspondence has become that discussion of ethics and morals I mentioned above; it has become a blog post. I therefore have little choice but to link your blog post... but as the old saying goes, there is no such thing as bad publicity.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Angels and Near Death Experiences

I’m not one to entertain thoughts of fantasy or fiction as though it could be real. My mindset is thoroughly scientific - thoroughly, but not entirely. The “facts” are not always easily grasped, especially when evidence is circumstantial or coincidental. Sometimes the observed outcome, real as it is, has a source that can only be described as surreal. Creativity, inspiration, beauty... these things have an origin that cannot be nailed down. Doors open and they close, demise is sometimes a fore drawn conclusion, fate does not always manifest in what happened, but rather that the inconceivable did happen. Granting that astronomically long odds do not eliminate anything from occurring, when something so unlikely does occur it leaves one wondering…

Some time ago, I bought a book about near-death experiences. I bought it because I experienced one and I wanted to find some empirical or experiential information by which I could contextualize or perhaps reify my version of it. Although the writing was horrible, that was not the main problem I had with the book. And it might not have been the book that was the problem so much as the question I was trying to answer. I did not realize at the time that my question was not answerable. There is no way to know what I experienced, what it meant and whether or not it was “real.” I still only have my convictions – there is no evidence. The book was much more certain than I, however. It had answers and I could not help but continually ask, “How do you know?” It spelled out in rather certain terms what those who experience death – and then did not die – all saw (for lack of a better word). There seemed to be some hard and fast rules and my story did not fit the mold. Yet I know I was there.

Not all books have value. Though the entire incident could have lasted anywhere from a split second to several weeks, the actual time spent flirting with the hereafter could not have been very long. However, a virtual eternity passed – and not without notice. The accident I speak of is one that I have written about many times before. Now nearly ten years ago, the specifics are all but gone, but the profound nature remains. The question or questions I have were answered but the answers are forgotten. Maybe by design. I believe there is more to all this... this everything... but I am no closer to proof than I was prior to coming to this conviction. I believe I was not alone – a guiding force, an angel, was my constant companion. But I can barely translate the experience into words, let alone prove it. And I cannot say what others might or might not experience in a similar brush with death.

But I can say this – I know what I knew. I know what I forgot. I know what I know. And that is enough.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Political Cues

Today is “mini” Super Tuesday – Election Day. And in California that means it is time to vote in the primaries to determine who will represent each party in the general election next November. It also means that we will determine the outcome of a number of initiatives that we, the people, supposedly put on the ballot in an effort to do what the legislature cannot or will not. Of course, there is very little of the “people” involved in the initiative process anymore. For some time it has been an instrument of special interests to get custom tailored laws on the books that are portrayed as benefiting the general good, but in reality specifically target a much narrower interest. Among the most egregious to date is Proposition 16, euphemistically named “The Peoples Right to Vote.” Almost entirely funded by PG&E, if passed this measure would solidify a near monopoly the utility has in the state.

My purpose here isn’t to weigh in as for or against this or any other proposition (for the record, I will be voting against it), but rather to address the argument that those who do not take the time to get informed should not vote. The predicted turnout for this election is characteristically low with estimates as dismal as only one third of those registered taking the time to cast a ballot. I am also not going through an exercise that argues the much-trumpeted call that those who do not vote have no right to complain. Comedian George Carlin turned this argument upside down, but I would argue that every citizen who is affected by the laws of our land has the right to complain – it is, in fact, a constitutional right. But I do believe that voting, even if “uninformed,” is a sacred responsibility and that the daunting amount of propaganda should not be a deterrent – there are many avenues to getting informed.

Most people voting do not research the issues as thoroughly as I do. Most people take their cues from other sources and I would hope that those sources are at least a little deeper than the 30-second spots that those with a vested interest provide us with relentless fervor. There are other cues that can be much more reliable reflections of how a voter would vote if he or she had taken the considerable time it takes to be “informed.” The most common is one’s political affiliation, though with the disarray and inconsistency the two major parties display in their platforms – or perhaps more in their actions versus their rhetoric – this is not as reliable a cue as it perhaps once was. This is nowhere better evidenced by the growing trend of voters registering “decline to state.”

But there are other cues that voters can and do utilize that reflect their ideology without having to go through the tedium of researching the issues directly. They include columnists, analysts, peers and friends. I have had many a political discussions recently with a number of friends who know that I make it my business to stay on top of the issues and that I can see through the deluge of propaganda. I have no idea if I have influenced their vote and I never advocate for a particular decision, but I can answer questions with a balanced perspective. If I am asked, I will indicate how I intend to vote, but that question rarely comes up – those friends are seeking information, not advice. And I am interested in their views as well because I do not come up with my perspective out of thin air – I cannot see a given issue from all possible perspectives.

The bottom line is that I reject the idea that those who are not informed should not vote. Essentially I reject the idea that they are not informed – most are far more than they realize. Stephen Colbert ridiculed President Bush at the 2006 White House Correspondents' Association Dinner for relying on his gut to make decisions, and while making decisions such as waging war should be far more informed than a gut feeling, a feeling is more than sufficient for casting a ballot. Even relying only on the advertising can be sufficient to form an opinion if one pays attention to what is not included and listens to opposing arguments. But perhaps the best way is to bounce ideas off those whom we already respect – our friends. That can be the most accurate cue available.