Friday, October 11, 2019

The Key to Success

Every semester I have a handful of students who are like I was when I was an undergrad at San Diego State University in the early 80s. They come to class anywhere from irregularly to rarely, often show up late and are not too concerned about turning in assignments on time, or at all. Some of them simply disappear before the semester is over. I was that student and my success, or, rather, lack thereof, reflected my level of commitment. Why I was so nonchalant about school is a question I have asked myself many times over the ensuing years, but for many and related reasons, I did not place my education as a top priority. I was unmotivated to succeed. There are students who enter the semester with sufficient motivation and then become distracted by events outside their control, but for me and for the majority of students who do poorly, those unforeseen outside events are not the problem. We are.

Since finding the necessary motivation and returning to school many years later, I am acutely aware of not only what it takes to succeed, but also what it takes to fail. My grade point average after two years at SDSU was 0.7 – a low F+ to a high F, depending on where the line is drawn. Either way, it was not because I was not smart enough and it was not because my best was not good enough and it was not because I intended to fail – quite the opposite. I was always, perpetually, going to “get my shit together,” right up until the end. I did everything I could to fail, my GPA was, in fact, earned, despite the many excuses I formulated in my head. I did not purposefully fail, but I failed because I did not purposefully succeed. My experience with failure is extensive.

But so is my experience with success. After returning to school many years later, I found the motivation I lacked when I was in my early 20s. I did the things necessary to succeed. I went to class every day. I paid attention and took notes. I read the required material, did the required assignments and turned them in on time. Because my education was a top priority, I succeeded. On purpose. The action I took when I finally earned my BA and both of my MAs was the key to succeeding. It’s not rocket science. I now get to see my much younger self in some of my own students and it is painful. I do what I can to stoke the fire, but I cannot give them the motivation to succeed any more than anyone could give it to me.

I could list a number of factors that contributed to my early failures. The social and fraternity life at SDSU was certainly a distraction. My inherent introversion and inflated sense of pride prevented me from asking for help or even acknowledging that there might be a problem. I was, in fact, in denial that I was actually failing school. I was always going to straighten out and get it together next semester. Finally, in the spring of 1985, I was informed by the powers that be that there would be no next semester at SDSU. While it might have been possible to petition for another chance – claiming some real or perceived hardship – I did not even try. College wasn’t for me; I threw in the towel.

The circumstances that led me back to college in the early 2000s are many and varied, but suffice it to say that I had run into a dead-end, a veritable brick wall. It wasn’t as though I really wanted to become an “academic” (a label I accept but don’t particularly like the flavor of), but going back to school did serve, at first, as a refuge. It was the giant reset button my life required at the time and it gave me something worthwhile to do. Because it felt like something of a last resort (it wasn’t, but it was the path of least resistance), I poured myself into it. But I was not convinced that anything would change. I was not convinced that I had changed – yet.

After my first semester at a local junior college, my entire outlook on not only school, but also on myself radically changed. It actually started happening a few weeks into the semester. I went to class every day, I did the work assigned and turned in my assignments on time. I was participating in my education… in my life. I was getting good grades, mostly As, for the first time in my life. I didn’t feel any smarter (and today, I know I am not any smarter), but I did begin to see what most people (and most of my current students) see much sooner in life – doing the work precedes success. Those early successes were my motivation. The better I did, the more motivated I was to continue doing well.

I try to motivate all of my students. I share my extensive failures with them in the hopes that those who are walking the same path will see where they are going and change course. At the very least I hope that if they do end up failing, that they do not berate themselves for it. While it is true that not everyone is “college material,” it is also true that virtually everyone can be. It has very little to do with intelligence and for those who truly are not a good match for college, these same lesson regarding motivation and putting in the work apply to all things and all success. Putting in the work, whether that work creates the motivation or the motivation creates the work, is the key to success. It is the only key necessary.

Do I regret my failure at SDSU? Yes and no. If I found the motivation and did the work, I would have graduated with a BS in computer science (my major at the time, my degrees today are only tangentially related) in the mid to late 80s. That degree at that time could have made me a very wealthy man today. I could have been successful. But that not only did not happen, it could not have happened. What I have instead is a great deal of experience, some of it unpleasant and painful, that helped form me into who I am. I do not recommend taking the path I took, even though I eventually prevailed. However, I am grateful that my experience might help someone else see that oncoming train and take appropriate evasive action. My inaction guaranteed my failure. Action always precedes success.

Saturday, September 14, 2019

On Quality and the War on "Not Good Enough"

To be perfectly honest (if there even is such a thing), I have no idea what I am about to write. I know why I am writing, but I don’t know what. I guess that’s a good place to start, however. I am writing because that is a big part of who I am – I am a writer. Writers write and we don’t always have a plan. Art is often like that. There are infinite inspirations, some stronger than others, but inspiration is not always required – or, maybe more accurately, it can manifest as part of the creative process. I don’t paint, but I would bet that painters often stare at a blank canvas with no idea what they are about to paint. How many musicians have sat down with their instruments just noodling around when a song emerges? We are driven to create and I firmly believe that everyone has a capacity for creative works.

But… not everyone trusts his or her instincts, believes he or she is creative or, worse, that his or her talent is worthy of expression. I fight that demon on a regular basis. That is another reason why I am writing. The internal battle that tells me “I am not good enough” is an ongoing struggle, but I have been doing this long enough to know that if I don’t fight it, I lose. I write, therefore I am, yes, but when I write I also matter, even if no one ever reads this. I means something to me.

It took a long time to embrace this particular creative expression. I knew I could communicate using symbols arranged in some specific order to create meaning long before I appreciated that ability. I wished I had talent is some other art, I wished I could play the guitar or piano or that I could draw or sculpt or otherwise create beauty that was visual or aural or tactile. Maybe with sufficient training and practice I might have been able to develop one, but it is clear my where natural talent, my propensity to create, is: Words.

I am not the best writer I know of, not even close. There are many whom I admire and who can write in ways I can’t. Poets and lyricists are among them, but there are prose writers, too, living and dead, whom I admire as icons, their writing lives on some lofty plane that I strive to reach. That, too, is why I write. No amount of talent or drive is enough, art, like anything else, improves with practice. Since about maybe 15 years ago, I have had the drive that compels me to improve. Raw talent alone, for me, will not win the “I’m not good enough” battle, even though most of us are, objectively, good enough just as we are. It a two-edged sword. One the one hand, there is an external measure of “quality” that I have accepted as a defining part of who I am, and on the other hand, I produce something by which that quality can be judged.

Beauty, it has been said, is in the eye of the beholder. While that is certainly true to an extent, there is also a timeless, consistent and universal essence of what is and is not beautiful. Quality, is another form of beauty and quality, like beauty, is uniquely difficult to define. We know it when we see it, hear it, touch it, smell it, taste it, read it...  experience it in some way. Is quality, then, also in the eye of the beholder? That is a damned good question, but I think, intuitively, it exists outside of us. I strive for quality in my writing, I want it to be beautiful and… I know it when I see it. Could this be better, more “beautiful?” Undoubtedly. But it is good and it is certainly “good enough.”

One final thought on why I write is one that I am hesitant to admit, even to myself. It is certainly not the only reason and absolutely not the primary reason (that being a drive to create), but it is a factor, nonetheless. While my primary target audience consists of just myself, I do enjoy knowing that others have read and appreciated my work as well. It comes from a deeper place than the appreciation being represented by dollar signs. In the past I wrote for a living, but the acknowledgement that my pay provided paled in significance to the real words others expressed about mine. Whether the feedback had to do with the content, the style or some combination of both, the external validation gave me ammunition in the “I’m not good enough” war. Therefore, as much as I try to keep my ego in check, I would be lying if I said what others thought did not matter.

Now, several hundred words later, what I would write about is clear. It turns out that the “what” is the “why.” I did not know it going in and it is not the first time I have reflected my thoughts on what I do in what I do. My primary audience is satisfied. If that is all I get from this then that, too, is enough. Peace.

Monday, August 19, 2019

Love, Argumentation and Rhetoric

I have not written much of substance in some time. Additionally, with the exception of way too many Facebook/Instagram updates that were spawned from my most recent motorcycle pilgrimage, I have, mostly, maintained “radio silence.” It is not easy to keep my (virtual) mouth shut in the face of so much misinformation, half-baked truth and justifying interpretation, but I am, for the most part, succeeding. And I am for a couple of relatively simple and related reasons. Before I get to that, I should clarify that this has nothing to do with political or public goings-on. It is far more local than that. This has to do with the fallout from my decision to end a three year relationship, a decision that was somewhat complicated because we were living together for the last year of it.

Whereas I have spoken about the situation privately with friends, I have refrained, except in the most general and nondescript way, from making any public statements about it. That has not been true of the “other side” (which is who my once lover, soulmate, partner and best friend has devolved into). She has made certain claims regarding me and the situation that I will neither repeat or respond to, correct or otherwise mount a defense against here or anywhere else. At all. I ended the relationship for what I am even more convinced were very good reasons, not because there was no love. While those reasons are still present, it seems the love is not. It begs the question, but that’s not what this is about.

The simple and related reasons I alluded to earlier, the reasons why I will not rebut the claims made are not because they are not refutable. They are, and easily. If I wanted to “win” the argument, on technical grounds, I could, and not just because I am good at it. But, as should come as no surprise to anyone who has experienced these “matters of the heart,” logic, reason and winning mean very little. I have an overarching goal in life, one that is always achievable but often elusive. It is usually within my power to create… or at the very least, foster a climate for it to flourish. That goal is peace. Drama-freedom. Mounting a defense, or worse, a counter-offensive will not bring me towards that goal. It would do just the opposite. Reason number one – it cannot get me where I want to be, “winning” this argument will not get me peace. 

Related to that is reason number two. It is also simple but is grounded in the very essence of what I teach and study - rhetoric. Aristotle’s definition is still the most widely cited, perhaps due to its beauty and simplicity. He wrote, “Rhetoric is the faculty of discovering in any particular case all of the available means of persuasion.” While its simplicity opens this definition to many interpretations, from the wholesome to the nefarious, Aristotle framed his treatise as an indispensable tool for democratic society. As such, rhetoric, used appropriately and ethically, is a means to achieve the common good, justice and cooperation. Persuasion, then, is part of the democratic decision making process, whether it’s a group of friends deciding what movie to see or the US Senate deciding what is the best course for the nation. Both decision processes involve people attempting to convince – to persuade – each other what would be best, what is right, how we should proceed. Each presents his or her reasons why we should go see the latest blockbuster or the tiny, sub-titled indie film from Greece (keeping with the Aristotle theme)... or even whether we should go to the movies at all. The hope is that all involved are persuaded because the reasons are good, that the little indie film is, indeed, a better choice and all will benefit from it. Unlike an argument, rhetoric is not about winners and losers. Ideally, everyone wins.

Lloyd Bitzer
For my current situation, there is no decision to be made. There is no way to proceed and as far as what is right, those who are important to me already know. I do not need to persuade anyone of anything and even if I could, to what end? While there is certainly a series of claims and counter claims – the makings of an argument - there is not a tenable rhetorical situation. In 1968, Lloyd Bitzer wrote that a rhetorical situation is an “exigence” (a concern, problem, or emergency) that could be remedied by the collective action of an “audience.” The rhetor would have to overcome any "constraints," or obstacles, that would prevent his or her persuasion from being effective. In public relations, the art of damage control in the face of a PR disaster is an exigence that can often be mitigated with effective rhetoric. While the “common good” is sometimes a limited group of people, it  might also be the public at large, especially when the charges are unfounded.

I am not experiencing a rhetorical situation. While the misinformation, half-baked truth and justifying interpretations are bothersome, even irritating, the only audience is one that does not have any direct effect on my life and is one that cannot be convinced anyway. There are constraints in place that prevent any rhetoric from being effective. What that leaves me is an argument that I can win, but will gain me nothing. My ego wants to mount a defense, but my soul desires only peace. In this battle, the soul has convinced - persuaded, for good reasons - the ego to let it go. There is nothing to be gained and only peace to be lost.

Friday, July 19, 2019

Artists, Bikers and Pendulums

It has been long enough and regular enough. It has become a tradition for me. This time of year, for seven of the past nine and again this year, I have been in the midst of a multi-state, several thousand mile motorcycle ride. And for the sixth year in a row (leaving in less than two weeks)  that ride coincides with the Mecca of motorcycle rallies, Sturgis. Riding to Sturgis was not my first extended motorcycle ride, and riding 500 miles or more in a single day now feels like a walk in the park, but there was a time when that sort of adventure was intimidating as hell.

I’ve been riding street motorcycles since I turned 18 years old. But for much more than the 38 years since, the allure of riding on top of two wheels attached to a motor has been irresistible. Although my active participation in that life has ebbed and flowed with the realities and responsibilities of life, at this point in my life and for the past decade-plus, I have owned at least one Harley and ridden as much as I could. That changed somewhat when my son had a serious motorcycle wreck late last year (I no longer commute on my bike), but I still ride – a lot.

A huge part of the allure is an image burned into my memory from some time in the mid to late 60s. My family was traveling from our home in the Santa Clara Valley (now more infamously known as “Silicon Valley”) to Southern California in our 1966 Chevy Impala station wagon. Somewhere on CA-99 (before I-5 was built) a pack of black leather clad, long-haired bikers came roaring by us. The details of who they were and what they were riding were more than I could absorb at that age, but looking back it isn’t too difficult to put the pieces together. It was the “Easy Riders” era, they were likely Harleys and it was likely some club ride.

I didn’t see any of what so many attribute to “one percenters” or “outlaw” motorcycle clubs. And I am not here to defend them or slam them. I know enough to say that we don’t know everything, it is not like “Sons of Anarchy” and, that like all other stuff of legend, there is some truth in it. It would turn out that what I was attracted to had nothing to do with the “pack,” it had to do with the machine itself. It was and is both a tangible and intangible representation of freedom. The actual tactility of being one with the machine, directly encountering the elements and the flooding of all the senses are the physical manifestations of freedom; but the attraction of non-conformity, the personal and varied expressions in terms of appearance and the pride that comes from the confidence of giving the middle finger to “middle America” who so often condemn such expressions is equally compelling. That moment left an indelible impression on my psyche, but it did not create it. I was, shall we say, predisposed to rebellion.

There are some people, probably a majority, who are okay with following establishment. There is nothing inherently wrong with “establishment” in the abstract – indeed, it is, by definition, established. However, simply because something is established, it does not necessarily follow that it is “good.” The truth of the goodness of most things established lies somewhere in the middle. The pendulum swings, slowly, back and forth along infinite planes – societal, social, fiscal, fashion, expression… ad nauseum – but it is the fringes that push it. We, the “bikers” (and artists, and adventurers, and other contextually, socially defined “extremists”) represent what is possible, what can be, because we live it.

Okay, I do not live it every day. In terms of attitude, my appearance, my transparency, sure, I live a non-conforming life. I, refreshingly these days, say what I mean and mean what I say. Interestingly, 25 years ago I would be viewed as even more extreme, based upon the “establishment” of the time. Such is the nature of pendulums. But I am also not some mid-life crisis “Wild Hog” or a “weekend warrior.” I still log around 20,000 motorcycle miles per year. That might sound like a lot, but it is on the low end for most “hard core” motorcyclists. I log most of my miles in the summer and most of those come in a relatively short period of time – my one long summer ride. However, in the interest of full-disclosure, my first trip to Sturgis in 2014 was not a ride. It was a drive and my motorcycle was on a trailer. While there are legitimate reasons why I could not ride, and although I thoroughly enjoyed myself anyway, I could not help but feel I had somehow betrayed myself. And I knew more than half of the experience is in the ride there – it’s the journey.

However, my street cred is not only solid, it doesn’t matter. We – all of us who push the edge, exist on the fringe and otherwise thumb our collective nose at convention are not doing it for recognition. We do it because we have to, it is who we are. Whether a “biker” (an establishment label that still does not sit well with me) or anyone else who is attracted to not just the edge, but what’s on the other side of it, we are the energy that moves that pendulum. We keep it interesting, stagnation fears us. That attraction I felt at five, six, seven years old? It was real and I never forgot it.

My university professors would be asking, “so what?” Where is the “so what?” I agree, it is time to get to the ultimate point in all this. I’ll do it with an example:

My first long ride on a motorcycle was planned for July of 2010. While I had several overnight - maybe two or three night – rides under my belt, this was the first really long one. There were many friends who were “going to go.” All but two of us dropped out for various reasons (maybe excuses). We were now looking at a daunting trip without the strength of numbers or any experience among us – neither if us had attempted anything like it before. The questions washed over me: What if I can’t handle it? What if my bike breaks down? What if it rains or even snows? What if I crash? It was almost enough to stop us. We both had sons in the Army fighting in Afghanistan at the time. We pushed past our fear (because that’s what it was) by comparing our journey to theirs. When put in those terms, we could not not go.

It was magical. We were gone 11 days, rode seven or eight of them, covered six states and almost 4,000 miles. I was finally living an extended version of the freedom I witnessed so many years before. It was eye-opening. Despite my non-conformity in many areas of my life, I was still unwittingly stifling myself, almost buckling under the crippling fear of “what if?” Since that trip, I’ve made many much longer rides – in terms of both distance and time – and although I have experienced my share of “what ifs,” they did not stop me. Ultimately only one “what if” ends it all, and it is the same for all of us. As far as we known, we only get one shot at this… why limit myself?

Monday, July 15, 2019

Real Reality

I opened my Facebook account in May 2006. It was not yet available to the masses, but at the time, many college students were able to create an account. The social media powerhouse then was My Space. I was active there briefly, active enough to not use Facebook at all until my first post in April 2008. I was again Facebook silent until October that year. With the exception of a couple of brief hiatuses, I have maintained a presence on Facebook ever since.

However, my Internet presence predates the World Wide Web (before the “www” prefix was part of any URL). I was active “online” in the early 80s with my Commodore 64 connected to a telephone line via a VICMODEM that transferred data at a screaming 1,200 bits per second (Bps) – today data transmission is measured in thousands of bps (Mbps) or even millions. A recent speed test on my home internet just returned a download speed of about 300 Mbps – that is 300,000,000 bits per second, versus 1,200 in the early 80s. Technology is a wondrous thing.

But even at those, by today’s standards, unacceptably slow speeds, the early Internet brought the world into our homes. I had an account with Compuserve which allowed me to communicate through my modem with other computers. Often they were campus mainframes, but more often it was one of a few “Bulletin Board Services” (BBS). Those virtual bulletin boards, I believe, formed the foundation for what we call “social networking” today. By the time closed networks like America On Line (AOL), the larger World Wide Web and browsers came around, the future was becoming clear. And it would be vast.

Fast forward to today, midway through 2019. I still have some old ties to those early days, though some time ago I dissolved one of my first. I had an early email account through Earthlink that still carried “.ix” in the suffix. That now obsolete designation stood for “Internet Exchange.” It was a designation that meant “email” before email was called email. It was costing me $10 per month to keep it and for simple nostalgia, it was not worth it. My associations with what would become a juggernaut, a little start-up in Mountain View, CA called “Google,” predates most everything since the fall of AOL. My gmail and Blogger accounts are the oldest, but YouTube is likely not far behind. In fact, both my Blogger and YouTube accounts might predate Google’s acquisition of them.

So what? Nice little slice of recent history, but so what? My journalism and English professors would be cringing – “You took how long to get to the point?” Yes, well… call it artistic liberty. The point of all this is not so much our history, but rather, my history, as preserved in these digital archives. For the past 10-plus years, much of what I’ve been up to, what I have done, things I have seen through pictures and videos, and, although some might see it as a lost art, my writing about what it all means, is all still there. Facebook, through its “Memories” tool has capitalized on this fascination with retrospection. Never before have I been able to garner such a clear picture of where I was one, two, five, eight, etc. up to a little more than 10 years ago.

Of course what is there, what has been preserved, is not all of the reality. It is the reality I have chosen to archive. But even with the actual digital record only reflecting what I want it to, the detail that is there is so fine that I can still almost feel what I was feeling then. Again, when these are good things, that is good, but even the bad memories I chose not to archive, or the ones that even at some later date I choose to delete, are triggered by the detail of what is there.

For example, I was married to the mother of my children on Feb. 7th, 1987. I was there, I remember when it was, where it was and much about it. I even have a photo album and a VHS video of it around somewhere. However, I don’t remember it every time Feb. 7th rolls around. There is no reason to relive it, nothing anywhere outside my own thoughts triggers that memory. The same cannot be said of July 15th, 2012 – the date of my second wedding. That was a disaster and among the dumbest things I’ve ever done. It, like so much else documented in my Facebook archives, remains as a very prominent part of my digital record – even though I have gone through great pains to eliminate key elements of it. Deleting it all is not so easy, however. Real friends and family gathered in numbers that had never happened before and probably will never happen again. The pictures and memories of the party (which is what I prefer to call that wedding and reception) are important to me. I can and did delete her, but the occasion remains. And it will come back next year, the year after that and as long as this digital archive survives. Indeed, the memories will outlive me.

Like so much else that has to do with “progress,” there is both good and bad. While I learned quite a lot from that fiasco seven years ago, I can internalize those lessons without rehashing them every year. Some things were meant to be forgotten, others benefit from the permanence of digital storage. The last three years are filled with wonderful memories with my now ex-girlfriend. There is nothing about her or them that in anyway “taints” those memories. There were absolutely genuinely good times I do not want to forget. I looked back on today’s with fondness, disappointed, perhaps, that things couldn’t be different, but grateful for the time we had.

Finally, the line between virtual reality and real reality is further blurred by how we remember. Like the public portrayal of ourselves in the present, the archival portrayal is not entirely real either. It is partially so, but it doesn’t ever tell the whole story. But that doesn’t mean no one knows what that story is. When I access my archives – even though I leave things out, I know and remember what those things are. I’d venture to guess that I am not in the minority – I’d bet that most people have that awareness. But it is wholly personal – no one else can really know the real story – in real time or by looking to the past. That burden and/or privilege is personal; it is ours and ours alone.

Coming full circle, the only real differences between what is recorded reality (history) and real reality (news) before and after the age of information are quantity and access. The sheer volume of information flooding our senses combined with the availability of access to anyone has changed the game. And it is a game. And games have winners and loser. More days than not, I am choosing not to play. Because better than a notch in my win column is peace. Peace is the ultimate victory. When I reflect back on this day a year from now, whatever I might be going through then, I will know and remember the peace I have today.

Friday, June 28, 2019

Irreconcilable Differences

Writing - writing anything – is hard, sometimes. Sometimes it just flows like a river, but right now the river is blocked. I am tempted to say that I’m not sure why, but I have an idea. It’s stress and the source of that stress is also known. Different people will phrase it in different ways, but there are some unpleasant things in life we all must navigate from time to time. Some of those things are universal, others are not, but the disruption and stress that comes from them is unavoidable. We all have to face it. Right now, I am in that mix, a “life on life’s terms” moment. This time it is the end of an almost three-year relationship that included a little more than a year of cohabitation. The specifics of what happened are not anything I need to, have to nor am I willing to talk about. It’s not important. Navigating it is.

Since we combined two households into one, the logistical issues of untangling a year-plus of entanglements is only part of the induced stress. This is not the first time this has happened. My ill-advised and ill-fated marriage ended in the dissolution of our cohabitation in this same house. That situation was significantly different than this one – that relationship ended due largely to many manifestations of dishonesty. It was also different because I moved out (and half-way across the country), too. This house was vacated and rented out for two years. Moving back to this house or back to the Sacramento area was never a sure thing – indeed, at that time it was a pretty sure non-thing. The passage of time softened my perception of what “home” is.

While there is no shortage of pain and hurt this time, there are also no “bad guys,” at least not from my perspective, I cannot and would not speak for her. And what others think or believe is not only none of my business – it’s none of theirs. Regardless, suffice it to say that I did not enter this relationship (or any relationship) with the intention of it ending it at some later date. I did not go through the considerable time, work, expense and compromise of making my home our home simply to go through more considerable time, work and expense to undo it. It begs some obvious questions: Was cohabitating a good idea? Was getting into the relationship at all a good idea? Further, if I was happy alone, or single, or unattached, or however one wishes to categorize anyone who is not in a romantic relationship, why take a risk with establishing one?

The answer to the first two questions is the same. Yes. It was a good idea to both get into that relationship and cohabitate. When applying the same two questions to that train-wreck marriage some years ago, the answer to both is not no, but hell no! Those were decidedly not good ideas and the signs were there. This time that is not the case. It was a good relationship, but there were issues that became intolerable. What those issues are, specifically, is not important. What could have been done to ameliorate them before it became too late is only important inasmuch as how it affects future actions and decisions. But that last question is a good one. Why would I get into a relationship if life was so good? If I was indeed “happy,” why take that risk (because entering any relationship always has risk)?

First, there are numerous kinds of happiness, contentedness, fullness and all sorts of other “nesses” that make up the substance of life. While I was indeed very happy with my life prior to this relationship, and especially in contrast to the storm I emerged from not too long before, I felt that happiness could be enhanced, or take on a new dimension, with a partner. It was a known risk. I thought long about whether I really wanted to make that commitment again. I dragged my feet, I stalled, I had some serious reservations about exposing myself to that kind of pain again. Perhaps due to the caution and slow progression, I had time to notice that we always had a good time when we were together. Ultimately, being together was good and made my otherwise good life better. It extended the level of whateverness and created a newness. Almost two years later, when the idea of living together was approached, I didn’t even think twice about it. It seemed obvious.

I should have thought twice, at least, about it. That doesn’t mean it was a bad idea, it doesn’t mean I regret the decision and it doesn’t mean I would have come to a different conclusion. It only means that I let emotion and the false narrative of “love is all you need” take an unwarranted precedence over the decision. In fact, if I had entertained the thought process of what could go wrong, it is possible that what went wrong might have been avoided or, perhaps, effectively mitigated. There are new and unknown factors that will necessarily materialize when such foundational elements of a relationship change. But that still doesn’t entirely address the last question.

There are two different ways of looking at what arrives at the same paradigm of the “family unit.” We are “supposed” to be connected in a romantic way to someone else. Where that comes from is likely part human biology – an evolutionary response that secures the proliferation of our species – as well as a social construct that drives us towards some connection. Indeed, isn’t that where so much homophobia comes from? This idea that men and women are “designed” to be together, to procreate, and anything that subverts that social tradition represents some kind of threat. Of course, there are numerous traditional relationship examples that contradict that “standard,” but the tradition persists.

Maybe I was looking for my own place myself in that tradition, too. I can’t count how many times, when I was unattached, someone would say, “you’ll find someone,” as though it is some kind of ultimate goal. As much as I think to think myself independent, a “loner,” and as much as I genuinely enjoy my solitude, having that one special person to share life with, combined with that social expectation, had an allure that was impossible to resist. Yet, to make any union successful, certain sacrifices, compromises, concessions and adaptations must be made. Unfortunately, even with a lot of foresight, planning and thought, unknown and, ultimately unacceptable situations can arise. That happened and although the positives were, in fact, positive, the negative could not be brushed aside any longer. I thought I considered all the potential “deal-breakers,” but this one I did not see coming until it was too late.

Unlike my short-lived marriage in 2012, I do not regret this relationship at all. It added richness to my life. We had a lot of fun, too many good times to list. It is sad that this fissure proved to wide to cross. It seems the official cause of so many divorces bares the label, “irreconcilable differences.” Usually that is code for something much more nefarious. Not this time. Our differences are not evil, they are not deceitful, they are not malicious and they are not adversarial. They are just incompatible. I wish they were not.

Friday, June 21, 2019

Self-promotion, Ego and the Interwebs

This essay will probably go largely unnoticed, unread and will ultimately be forgotten. It will fade into obscurity not because it is poorly written, not because it is not relevant, and not because it is not insightful; I’ve been doing this a long time, that combined with perhaps more than my share of experience packed into my 56-plus years gives me the confidence that this essay is all of those things. While there are a number of reasons why good writing, relevant thoughts and insightful prose slip through the cracks, one of the more prominent is dilution. The Internet has provided, but it has provided way too much.

Through technology generally and the Internet specifically, now all people can be all things. Photographers used to have to know a little something about how exposure and shutter speed and many other factors including how different film made different images – and that’s to say nothing of the magic that happens in the darkroom. Filmmakers – same thing. And writers, too. All of the arts have been enhanced by technology to the point that the artists need not be talented. The means to produce it and consume it is, literally, at our fingertips. Fifteen minutes of fame? Warhol had no idea… It used to require more than just “followers” to get exposure, an artist had to have actual customers of some sort. And to get there, it took a little luck, a lot of dedication and it took skill.

Kenneth Webber Jr. - 2012
There’s a lot of really good art floating around on the interwebs. We have access to more truly good art than we ever have. Ever. In the entire history of humans, our collective creative output has never been greater or more available. There is no filter, however, and a lot of shit comes with the gold. True, there are some places where we can count on a certain level of quality – we still have legitimate publications that do not publish bullshit, but there are enough either look-alike “quasi-legitimate” publications and/or a general lack of discernment regarding what is real and what is not that even those once clear waters are now muddy.

This essay will appear on “The 25 Year Plan,” a blog I created way back in late 2005. I don’t have many “subscribers” or regular readers. I have never been “popular” in Internet terms. Even on Facebook, I only have just north of 2,000 “friends.” I will also publish this on an online publication called “The Medium.” I found it when Jeff Bezos published his confessional in response to the attempted blackmailing by David Pecker and The National Enquirer. As fascinating as all that story was (and, forgetting the infidelity that got him into that pickle, can I just say how much I admire Bezos for firing back as he did?), when I dug just a little deeper, I found gold. A lot of it. Maybe too much.

To that, I am adding this. It will likely not receive even the very modest attention I sometimes get for one reason: I will not link this to Facebook. Facebook and I have been having issues for quite some time now. I even canned it for a few weeks recently. I brought it back for reasons which I’ve already hashed and rehashed, but the bottom line is that Facebook has made itself necessary. It is not life-and-death necessary, but there are connections that I value housed within the platform that are either impossible or not easily replicated elsewhere. For the past few days, I have gone on a “post strike.” It was not intentional at first, but it is now. This might be that happy medium I was looking for.

Copyright:©tashatuvango -
Of course there is a downside. Since my Facebook profile has more “followers” (euphemistically, “friends”) than I have anywhere else, I will lose that exposure. Why not just post links to my writing and forget the rest? Because it feels dirty. Not in a dishonest or cheating way, but in a “like” groveling way. Self-promotion always runs the risk as coming across as pandering, and often it is. I don’t want “clicks” just because a friend sees that I published something and thinks, “That’s my friend, Mike. I’m going to click ‘like’ to show my support.” Even if that friend actually reads it, I’m not doing it to collect “likes.” Or am I? And maybe that’s where all this is going. Maybe the war I am fighting is against an enemy as old as we are. That enemy is ego.

I write for a number of reasons, one of which is simple enough – I am good at it. I, like anyone else who practices his or her craft, get pleasure from the production of that craft. But I would be disingenuous if I said I don’t care if anyone else finds it as compelling, as beautiful, as thought-provoking, as interesting as I do. I do care. I want others to read what I write and find something in it that is at least worth the time spent engaging with it. Like any other artist does. But that isn’t the be-all, end-all. It can’t be. If it was, I would have quit a long time ago. Something else calls me to it and whether or not anyone else ever sees it, it is worth my time. My ego tells me to promote the hell out of it, but something else is fighting that.

Maybe it’s a sense of confidence. Maybe I have been around long enough, been through enough shit, hit the restart button so many times that I do not need or crave external validation. And I think “need” is the key word here. I don’t need it, although it “feels good” when I get it. I do want it, but I want it organically. I don’t like where the social media and virtual reality is going. It’s a place where being famous is reason enough to be famous. I don’t want fame, I want to understand and be understood. To that end, I write. Even if no one ever reads anything ever again, I would continue to write. At the very least, it interests me.

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Empathetic Perception

I was recently refered to as “one of the cool kids.” This, of course, is the current colloquialism for being part of the “in” crowd, the “popular” people and the like. Funny thing, though, I have never felt like I was in the “in” crowd, never felt like I was popular and, despite having had a few “best friends” throughout my 56 years, I have never felt as though I was someone else’s “best friend.” Granted, much of that feeling is just that, it might not be reality, but my perspective of always being on the outside looking in, sometimes longing to be in, is real. In the past 15 or so years, I have done a lot of work on myself, a lot of self-examination, some reflection and quite a bit of writing just like this and, as a result, my self-perception has changed.

Perception. It is much more than just the framework through which I see the world. It is also the framework through which you see yours, and through which you see me. And how I see you. And how everyone sees everything and everyone else. Each one is wholly unique. I guarantee that they way I view Sally is not exactly the same way anyone else views her. Not in terms of appearance, character, personality, privilege, luck and thousands of other ways we see things, each another sub-frame, or perspective. The number of ways in which we construct reality is mind-boggling. How I am receiving the world — right here, right now — is only my perception; it’s not like anyone else’s, and it never will be.

Empathy differs from compassion or sympathy in that it is not an emotion, per se; rather, empathy seeks understanding, the ability to “walk a mile in another’s shoes.” However, despite our efforts to imagine what it must be like to wear those shoes, we cannot actually put them on. Still, similar experiences can get us remarkably close — in isolation. But the perspective, that frame we are forced to looked through is not only influenced by a wide range of variables - and experiences are not only just one variety of variable; all of our disparate experiences work with and against each other, rendering each a distinct element, a new variable, in just this one area. When factored all the way out, the number of things contributing to our perception is infinite. Groupings and similarities aside, each one of our worldviews is totally unique.

That means that whether I am a “cool kid” or not depends on the perception of others. It is a tenuous place to be, teetering on the edge of coolness. There was a time when my image – that version of me that I present to the world – was constructed to create a perception that would allow me access to that which I desired. Friends, of course, but also other human connections that would validate who I was. There was a problem, however. I did not know who I was. To say that my self-perception is unaffected by what others see would be a lie, much the same as saying, “I don’t care what you think.” I do care what certain others think, and I am very much affected by how others view me. I contributes to how I see myself. But it doesn’t have to dictate who I am.

So how do others view me? I actually have a little insight on that. It took more than 50 years to get it, but I’m a little slow out of the blocks. I am one of the “cool kids.” To those who were like me earlier in my life, who saw those who looked like me and did some of the things I do, who see a veritable “free spirit,” my life looks pretty fantastic. But there are those, too, who think I am arrogant, obnoxious and, frankly, an asshole. Nothing cool about any of that, but for some I can come across that way and their perception is that I am an asshole. And it is perfectly valid, I do not discount it. For others I am a professor – some think I am a cool one, other’s think I am anything but. I am a father to three boys and although they share many similarities in their lives, each their perceptions of me as a father and as a person is also unique – they each see me as an entirely different person. Again, the variables are infinite, the result cannot be anything but unique.

And that brings me to me. Who am I? Really, who the fuck am I? I see myself in a way that has been built on my experiences, my interactions, my environment, an infinite number of variables have contributed to the way I see myself and where I fit in the world. The answer today is not the same as it was last week or last year. It will not be the same next week or next year. Are there constants, certain static aspects of what makes me, me? Maybe, or perhaps aspects that change very slowly, but there are also plenty that can change me and my viewpoint violently. Who am I today? I am me.

But I know that the way I see myself – in all my various and sundry roles, is not the same way anyone else sees me. My perspective and that of others could be so different that I would not recognize the person described as me to me. Indeed, that has happened. And the way I see others might not remotely resemble who they think they are. It’s a humbling thought that the “poor, misunderstood me” routine can and probably does apply to everyone. We are all misunderstood by a lot of other people, but we are also very closely understood by others, probably far fewer. Some perceive in a way that is very close to how we see ourselves. By keeping all that in mind, I can come closest to putting on someone else’s shoes and lacing them. They might end up hurting my feet before I get a mile, but I’ll be that many steps closer understanding. And understanding is what empathy needs to realign perception.

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Life in a Bubble

Last November 13th, at about 3:00 p.m., my youngest son, Matthew, was involved in a serious motorcycle accident. The motorists who turned left in front of him was wholly at fault and entirely underinsured, with just minimum liability coverage. His coverage didn’t even put a dent into the financial cost of my son’s injuries, injuries he is still very much being affected by today, months later. In two days he will endure another, hopefully final, operation to repair his left tibia, again. His other injuries, combined with extensive physical therapy ever since, are responding well to the surgeries he had right after the wreck. He has not been able to work and will not be for weeks to come, at least. At just 29 years old, this has been a serious interruption in his life.
The reality of this is not lost on me or him – he was lucky to survive at all. It was a violent wreck forceful enough to beak every bone in his left leg and his humerus in his right arm. The humerus break also caused some damage to his radial nerve, but even that has been slowly getting better. It is the tibia (which, like his femur, was an open fracture and now has a rod in it) that is not healing correctly or fast enough. The operation is going to, hopefully, get his leg to finally mend. He is ready to put this all behind him, and the chances that he will be able to are still good. We are optimistic.

Riding a motorcycle is dangerous even for the most experienced riders. While Matthew is a good rider and had a great deal of road awareness, his experience is limited. When he approached me about buying a motorcycle, I had some reservations – the same reservations I am sure my own parents have about me riding mine. Although it would be hypocritical not to support him in his decision, that is not why I supported him. I did so because of one simple word: freedom. And in Matt’s case, it’s freedom that he literally fought for while in a Hell-hole called Afghanistan.

Do I feel partially responsible for the situation he now finds himself in? At first, yes – a lot. But that was a knee-jerk reaction. The truth is that I could do little to stop him from riding even if I wanted to. Still, when seeing my son splayed out in a hospital bed, enduring unimaginable pain, it is difficult not to feel somewhat responsible. It was also difficult not to exact retribution from the idiot whose fault this really was, the moron who was, in fact, 100 percent responsible. There is nothing there, financially, and to take it out of his hide would be counter-productive, illegal and only briefly satisfying.

What we are left with is dealing with the unfairness of life. We are not the first nor the last who, through no fault of our own, have consequences that must be dealt with. Again, in the big picture, he is lucky – life could have been significantly more unfair. While the physical rehabilitation is work that no one else can do for him, with the help of an attorney and a pretty good social safety net through MediCal and the VA, Matt will not fall into crushing debt.

He is nowhere near a decision regarding whether he will ride again when he is able, or at some point down the road. He’s pretty sure he will at least go back to his roots – dirt and off-road riding – when he is able, but street riding is, appropriately, a big question mark. Me? I still ride, but not the same way I used to. I was averaging about 20,000 miles per year before he wrecked. I rode everywhere, all the time. My motorcycle was my primary means of transportation, it was my “daily driver.” I rarely ever commute on my bike anymore. That’s what he was doing when he wrecked – nothing out of the ordinary, he was just going home from work, like any other day. I still ride a lot of miles, but now it is primarily for recreation, not utility.

Although I have had a couple of relatively minor wrecks, this time, despite it not being my wreck, it came much too close to home. Every time I throw a leg over my bike, I think about the very real risks like I haven’t in a long time. It doesn’t make me more vigilant, I am already ├╝ber-careful, but it is always on my mind. Even with my experience, considerably more than Matt’s, I am very conscious that some idiot behind the wheel of a car can surprise me. In other words, I am not exempt, it could happen to me.

On the other side of the equation lies actually living life. Risk of all kinds exists on a continuum. Being more or less careful, limiting one’s exposure can move the level of risk one way or the other, but no matter how careful one is, there is no “zero-risk” place on the scale. How much we are willing to expose ourselves to is a personal matter and should not be limited by laws or regulations unless my risk exposure affects someone else’s. Lot’s of things in life are dangerous – life itself is a crap-shoot. By limiting how I live it based on someone else’s aversion to that risk is not living. Freedom is not easy and it is not always “safe.” But living life in a bubble is not living – it’s dying a slow death.

Thursday, June 06, 2019

Divide and Conquer

Facebook’s ability to “remember” and then recall events on a particular day in years past (not all of them, even for me, a Facebook “old-timer,” it’s just a 10-year historical record) is, arguably, one of just a very few of its redeeming qualities. Of course, it wasn’t Facebook’s idea – like so much of the platform’s functionality, it was a “borrowed” idea. However, it is now an integral and useful part of the social media platform. While it only remembers what we post, and what we post varies from the extraordinary to the mundane, and not all of it is necessarily rainbows and unicorns, Facebook takes the family photo album and puts it on steroids. It can be, depending upon how extensive one has utilized Facebook, a powerful tool.

For example, 10 years ago today my youngest son graduated from high school. He was the last of my three boys to venture out into the world; the 10 years of my life since that milestone have been eventful indeed. Many of those events are also memorialized in my Facebook timeline, but not all. And some I have deleted – permanently. They are experiences I’d prefer to just forget, remembering only the “essence” of them imbedded in my psyche as one of many “lessons of life.” The others, however, even the more innocuous postings from years past, serve as more than just a reminder of where I was two, three, seven or nine years ago. They serve as virtual bookmarks. They are the dog-eared pages of my life, an index to not only what was happening in my world (and nowhere near all of it documented on Facebook), but also what was happening in the world.

After his high-school graduation, my youngest, Matthew, decided to enlist in the U.S. Army. He wasn’t ambushed by a recruiter (although they tried – another memory indexed by this one), we did discuss it. I wasn’t crazy about the idea as the odds of him being deployed to fight an ill-defined war in Afghanistan were likely. However, he made a rational decision and followed through with it. In the coming months, memories of his Basic Training and AIT will be coming alive again on Facebook. So, too, will be the pictures and other interaction I had with him while in that Afghan Hell-hole. While these are not the type of memories one looks upon and smiles fondly, they are, nonetheless, important historical landmarks in our lives.

I have wrestled with the power Facebook has. I have struggled with its monopolistic ubiquity. I don’t trust it – even as a place to secure, remember and catalogue my memories (I archive it all to my hard drive regularly). Facebook absolutely warps reality, feeds hate and cares nothing about the truth. Although they say they do now, it is only damage control. Facebook willingly takes money from anyone who wants to buy access - whether the content is true or not, whether it fosters hate or not - Facebook does not care. It fortifies and intensifies the already generally anonymous nature of the Internet and turns the safety of a keyboard bunker into a fortress. Time and time again, whether I am just fed up or, on rare occasion, actually pull the plug, I have come back. And it is largely (though, not entirely) due to the “Memories” function (formerly known as “On this Day,” stolen from the app, TimeHop) that I come back or stay.

In August, memories from my first through my fifth trips to the annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally will begin popping up in my memories (appropriately, while I am at my sixth). In July there will be blanks in 2012, the days around my ill-advised and ill-fated marriage. Similar blanks in the memory bank will be present from February 2011 to June 2013, the two-plus year life span of that train wreck relationship. I deleted a lot of it. The lessons I learned do not need to be prodded by beautifully fake wedding pictures – I remember, thanks. However, not all of the memories from that time and even the wedding itself are bad. Friends and family gathered for it in numbers the likes of which will probably never happen again. It many respects, it was the party of the decade and, taking the actual reason for that party out of the equation, the rest of it was a good time. The pictures from that day are in a Facebook album titled, “What’s Left.” They are the pictures of the good times with friends and family, not the ceremony itself.

And then there are my grandsons. I get to see my youngest son’s boy, in person, a lot – almost every day in the summer. But my eldest son’s boys live about 450 miles away, I don’t see them often. Facebook helps, a little. But the memories of when they came into the world are special, I like seeing them pop up. Finally, my middle son and his wife are expecting a baby in early August. If Facebook doesn’t implode and if I can stomach its bullshit – because Facebook dances on the edge of my tolerance all the time – in ten years’ time I’ll be looking back at baby pictures of my newest grandson.

We used to pull out the family photos from time to time and reminisce around a table, in the den, maybe, or perhaps during a summer barbecue, talking about the memories those photos triggered. It wasn’t every day, it was never a scheduled thing; it was organic, it would just happen. But rarely ever did we do it alone. Social media, and Facebook in particular, has taken that and many other communal activities and reduced them to a one-on-one interaction, except one of those “ones” in the pair is Facebook, the medium itself. McLuhan was certainly onto something, he just never realized how big, multi-faceted and ubiquitous one single medium could become.

It is dangerous for the simple fact that even though we recognize its very real evils, we/I/you – most of us, statistically – have become accustomed to the very warm and fuzzy. The protection and care of these things that are so precious, unique and personal – the very essence of who we are – is in the hands of an entity that uses us to sell things to others. And we know it! But it is warm and fuzzy and, now, much more than convenient. It is routine. Even if we don’t regularly click “Memories” on the sidebar, Facebook will show us one of our memories on our timeline and ask if we’d like to see more. Of course we would. Warm and fuzzy. Curiosity. How much better or worse we are. It is interesting, it is solitary and, when engaged, Facebook has us, each of us, individually, all to itself. It’s the ultimate manifestation of “divide and conquer.”