Monday, May 20, 2019

Believe in Magic

These photos are from my Master's Hooding Ceremony At California State University, Sacramento, eight years ago. Although I was not yet quite finished with the degree requirements (my degree was actually conferred one year later), I was well on my way. I had six years clean (and/or sober, for those so inclined), I was in a new relationship and I was on my way to Louisiana State University  in the fall to begin work on my Ph.D. The future looked bright indeed, however, there were dark clouds on the horizon and the storm that came was not only predictable, it was predicted - I saw it, but ignored it.

I remember, as I approached my seven-year recovery anniversary (August 6th, 2004 was the first day of my continued abstinence from all mind and mood altering chemicals), I was "warned" by those in recovery of how “hard” the seven year mark was. I didn't believe it then (I still don't - we only hear the horror stories, most "seven years" are perfectly mundane), but seven to 10 years clean was, for me, a monumental struggle on several levels. It seemed everything in my life was way harder than it needed to be, that everything was falling apart and that the Universe was out to get me. That “new” relationship turned into a 2,200-mile Sacramento-to-Baton Rouge “long-distance” relationship turned into a long-distance engagement turned into a long-distance marriage and finally into a long-distance divorce, all while I was working on a Ph.D. at LSU.

In the moment - many moments - I questioned the purpose of my very existence in ways I had not done since before getting clean. It was not the 24/7 type of gnawing that it was in the past, but those questions persisted. By the time my coursework at LSU was finished and by the time my funding ran out at the end of the 2015 spring semester, and despite the fact that the storm had largely blown over, I had already spent a year not writing my dissertation. I cycled through several "I'm gonna do this!” moments of inspiration, always followed by more and deeper procrastination and... then nothing. Sometime in late 2015 or early 2016 I decided that despite my ability, I did not have the willingness to complete and write what is typically a year or more research project. By that time I was employed as a “lecturer” at my first alma mater, CSUS.

However, I did have enough coursework and I did complete my comprehensive exams (I was a "doctoral candidate"), and that was more than enough to be awarded another MA at LSU. I took it before my early coursework started to "time-out" and moved that last, ultimate academic goal, the Ph.D., off the “back burner” and over to the "almost made it" category. It's not the only thing that lives there among my many failures in life, but that one, more than all the others, comes with a significant level of recognition; it represents much more success than it does failure. I am still very much proud of the work I did, despite not doing it all.

Do I regret missing the big prize? A lot. And I knew I would. That I did see coming, and I accepted it. However, my decision also placed me where I ultimately wanted to be. Although my job title and responsibilities differ in some ways (as does my pay) from tenure and tenure track professors, I am doing what I wanted to do. I love school;  that is something I never thought I’d say when I was young. When I came back as a “non-traditional" student 15 years ago, I used to joke that I wanted to remain in school for the rest of my life. I get to do just that. I teach "Rhetoric and Social Influence," "Argumentation," "Public Speaking" (both lower and upper divisions) and other classes in the qualitative arm of communication studies at CSUS. As such, I am always "in school."

That storm, that train-wreck relationship for which I volunteered, was not solely responsible for derailing my Ph.D. Did it play a role? Certainly, but there were several other factors that also played a role - some foreseeable, some not. And my (ahem) advanced age definitely contributed to a mix of factors that ended in failure... and success. My life today is rich. It is fulfilling. While I would love to have earned the right to put "Dr." in front of my name, the fact is that I did not earn it. What I did earn, however, has made my life a magical experience. I have a quote tattooed on my left forearm from a children’s book called “The Minpins.” It is the last line in the last book ever written by Roald Dahl, published posthumously in 1991: “Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.” There are all kinds of magic. I found one I can believe in and because I do, I have, indeed, found it.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

The Pursuit of Happiness

I might have had it all wrong. I might have deluded myself into thinking in a way that would always leave me lacking. I figured I was entitled. Not to fame or wealth or prestige or anything materialistic, but my frame of reference led me to believe that those were the things that would bring me that which I was entitled to. I thought I was entitled to happiness. I actually believed I deserved to be happy. As a result, every time I was not happy, I felt unhappy. Further, because I deserved to be happy, I was also entitled to do whatever was necessary to achieve it. While that pursuit materialized in a number of ways, eventually it led me to chemical substances that created the illusion of happiness.

This is not so much about drug and alcohol abuse as it is the mindset that contributed to it. And, to be clear, the ultimate cause of my years of “happiness” through chemistry, while no longer important, is not so easily identified. It could be genetics, it could be environment, it could be the time and place I grew up and it is likely a combination of factors. Regardless, substance abuse was by far the most destructive manifestation of my pursuit of happiness, but it was not the only one. In the nearly 15 years since I found recovery, since I abstained from the use of chemicals to alter my consciousness, I have also changed my perspective on many things, a key one is this “right” I had to be happy.

First, some hard, cold truths. No one has an inherent right to anything. True, societies have created conventions that do enumerate certain rights (and they did not start with the good ole US of A), but the fact that we have any rights at all is a result of hard fought battles and many great thinkers. Our ability to communicate symbolically, abstractly and cooperatively has propelled us to the top of the food chain. We are not the strongest, fastest, toughest or most adaptable species on the planet. We are the smartest and because we evolved these huge brains, we are no longer prey. But without our predecessors paving the way we should treat each other, no one is entitled to anything – even life itself.

However, we do have rights. The framers of the Constitution, in the Preamble, declared that we are endowed with, “certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” And while the framers believed these rights are endowed by our "creator," whatever their source, they are enforced by societal conventions. So far, so good. So what about this so-called pursuit of happiness. Apparently even the creator did not grant happiness, only its pursuit is granted. However, from the 1960s and on, while I was coming of age, I must’ve decided that if the pursuit of happiness can be endowed upon us, then actual happiness was simply the logical extension. In other words, why not just bypass that silly chasing it stage and grant it as well.

The second and ancillary problem with that attitude is the conflation of lack of happiness with unhappiness. As it turns out, not being happy is not the same as being unhappy. In fact, it turns out that happiness is rather elusive and unhappiness is also not usually a long-term or prevalent condition. Indeed, what I was after is not achievable. No one can sustain happiness 24/7, but I can be content most, if not all, of the time. What I should have been seeking is contentedness. If that is what I seek, the only time I need take any real action is when I am feeling discontent. Happiness and unhappiness are situational and fleeting. When I thought I was unhappy – when I was feeling a lack of happiness – I was quite probably still content. But, by framing that lack of happiness as unhappiness, my contentedness, that very well could have been, necessarily became discontentedness.

This entire insidious pattern plagued me for years. In my pursuit of happiness, I felt I had a right to do whatever was necessary to get back to that place I had no right to in the first place. Even contentedness is not a right, but it is achievable by simply shifting my perspective, my priorities and what I actually need. As it turns out, I already had everything I needed, and I never knew it. And, of course, once the instant gratification of substances found its way into the picture, that twisted perspective became even more entrenched – and the insidiousness took an ugly, and potentially deadly, turn.

Once the “fixes” were removed, I had to find some way to be okay with myself. That took time, it took work and it took a conscious effort to change the way I looked at the world, to reevaluate what I “deserve” and what it takes to be content. As it turns out, contentedness is not all that hard to achieve. In fact, if I would have just stopped long enough to appreciate who I was, where I was, what I had and who was in my life, I would have been content long ago. Temporal happiness – the occasional, euphoric, natural highs - will come… and go. But I need not become discontent or even discouraged when it does go. And a lack of happiness is not unhappiness. I cannot be “happy” all the time, I am not entitled to it and, furthermore, I don’t want to be. If I was, where could I go from there?  

Saturday, May 11, 2019

Not a Motorcycle Story

This is a motorcycle ride story, but it’s not just about motorcycles. I became profoundly aware of some “life things” during this particular ride. I expound upon them towards the end. It’s worth pondering, even for those who never have and never would ride a motorcycle. It’s not as much about riding as it is about living.

Last weekend I decided to take a break from everything and go on a three-day motorcycle ride in Central California. It was not my first solo multi-day motorcycle excursion, I’ve made several such trips, but most were part of a bigger picture – some destination or other “reason” was usually part of the deal. Once I rode to Southern California for a friend’s wedding and then took several more days traveling through Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah and Nevada. More than once I’ve used the journey to and from the annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally as an opportunity to log several thousand solo miles. While I like riding with others (two to four, not a lot of others), it’s not the same as riding by myself. Nothing is more relaxing, more meditative and more energizing than just me, my machine and the open road.

My route last week took me on many roads I’ve ridden before, I knew what to expect - great roads, little traffic and pristine scenery. Although I didn’t have any firm plan as to the route I would take, I did have a list of possibilities that are based on experience. I live near Sacramento and there are numerous ways I can go to get “there.” I chose US-50 up into the Sierras toward Lake Tahoe, CA-89 over the Monitor Pass to US-395 and south from there towards Death Valley. These are roads I am very familiar with and rendered exactly what I expected; it was Nirvana. I spent the night in a motel that would be a sub-one star rating if ratings went that low, but it had a bed and a shower, which is all I really need. From there I took CA-190 into Death Valley, another road I’ve ridden before and, at this time of year, the weather is perfect.

While at the summit getting ready to descend into Death Valley, I had a decision to make. I could have continued through Death Valley National Park or take Panamint Valley Road to Trona-Wildhorse Road into Trona and Ridgecrest. The road condition was a big question mark, but I had the option of turning back and going to Stovepipe Wells and Death Valley Junction, winding my way around to I-15 before attempting to reroute back to roads less traveled. I took the chance. The road condition was not great, but good enough to navigate my 2017 Harley Street Glide Special at a decent clip. And there were sections that easily fit into my “must-ride” category of motorcycle roads. It also took me out to Lake Isabella and CA-178 through the Kern River Canyon, a route that I would have bypassed had I gone around.

I had a minor mishap on CA-178, a bump in the road took out my kickstand spring. I was able to fix it temporarily, but I was also lucky to find a small shop in Weldon that could fix it for me. I could have made it without the repair, but since I could get it fixed, I did. While I was there, shooting the breeze with the other bikers hanging around, I was informed about just how spectacular the road through the canyon is – and how dangerous it can be. I found it to be spectacular and only as dangerous as any other winding mountain road would be. That was, after all, why I was there. That road flattens out in the Central Valley as is enters Bakersfield. I stopped for gas at the CA-178/I-5 interchange and was content to let my GPS guide me to San Luis Obispo where I would stay for the night. That route put me on I-5 north for more than 20 miles, not a ride I was all that into.

As I was riding, thinking about the I-5 and 20-plus miles of straight, flat, boring riding, I remembered the route options I saw on the map days before. The fastest route was indeed I-5 to CA-46 to US-101, but the more direct route is CA-58 through the Coastal Range right to San Luis Obispo. Google maps indicated that there was construction on that highway, but it was not only a Saturday, but late in the day at that. At the last moment I took the CA-58 offramp, and away I went. Through the valley section, it was not anything to write home about. It had it’s moments, but it was mostly Central Valley farmland. However, when I hit the foothills, the ride took a serendipitous twist.

There was indeed construction going on – they were resurfacing the road. But most of the many miles I traveled on it were already done, and recently. The road condition could not have been any better – it was smooth, fresh and sticky. The section they were still working on was short and construction was already done for the day. No one-way traffic controls (despite the warning signs to the contrary), no personnel and no equipment hampered me in anyway. But the best part of that section of road was that it was virtually abandoned. I saw maybe fewer than 10 other vehicles on the road during the best part of it – for miles and miles. When I arrived in San Luis Obispo, I was walking on air. I rolled the navigational dice all day and I won every time.

As I was unwinding in San Luis Obispo, in a much better motel room, I was contemplating which way I would take to get home. If the journey is really about the journey, the only logical choice would be to ride the world famous Pacific Coast Highway up through Big Sur, Monterey and points north. I’ve done it before, I’ll do it again. It is a ride that never gets old. However, there was a chance of rain in the forecast along the coast and I was not too sure about riding that road in the rain. I’ve ridden in the rain many times, in many places, but I avoid it if possible. However, avoiding it meant riding inland several hundred miles on perfectly mundane roads. I deciding to check again in the morning. When I did, the chance had decreased, but was still there. I rolled the dice, again.

It turned out to be another win, and it was decision I made due to a revelation from the day before. It was what I now call a “motorcycle decision.” (For those who have endured the ride thus far, this is where I get to the “life stuff” I teased at the top). A motorcycle decision is one that best fulfils the purpose of the ride – any ride. While this ride had no destination, it held no utility, it was largely uncharted, the route was always in flux, it did have a purpose. There was a goal, a reason I set out on what turned out to be an almost 1,100 mile circle. That purpose, while difficult to define in certain terms, can be looked at as an extended meditation session. Prior to the ride, I was stressed. I had some internal pressure gnawing at me. I felt not myself. My ride was meant to take me out of the here and now for long enough to get my feet back under me, and it did just that.

That goal could have been derailed by a number of factors – decisions made that were not directly aimed at achieving this goal. For that, I had to know why I was doing what I was doing and how that mechanism works. When I am on a ride, and there could still be utility or other purposes beyond just getting out on two wheels, the destination is not what it is about. Ever. Even when I am going someplace, if I am riding, the way I get there is a factor. That revelation goes for virtually every decision I make in life. It is never just about “there;” it is about how I get there. Sometimes expediency is a factor. If so, an airplane would be a better decision. Sometimes other people are factors. If so, the best way to connect with them is a better decision. Whether it’s work, school, family, recreation, fitness… whatever the destination is, there is a path to it. If all I ever consider is “there,” I could overlook factors concerning what the best way to get there is.

We seemed to be so goal oriented these days. Although there is nothing wrong with goals and focusing on them, if I get so focused on getting there, I'll develop tunnel-vision; I will inevitably miss so much along the way. Last weekend, my goal was to get out of myself by doing the kind of riding I enjoy most. That riding does not involve traffic, straight, flat roads or a bunch of people. The decisions I made, unwittingly at first (CA-58) and then very purposefully (the decision to take PCH after all) made it a truly magical experience. If I take the time to consider things I wouldn’t in my effort to "arrive," I won’t have to just endure the journey. I can truly enjoy it.