Saturday, February 15, 2020

Serendipity Passed


Prior to a near-death experience that was probably closer to actual death than it was near, my life was a series of seemingly random occurrences. I thought myself in control, I wanted to believe that I was going somewhere, the reality was that I was adrift. I had no direction and very little control. That experience, now almost 20 years ago, was the beginning of the end, but the beginning of the beginning would not really take place for another three or four years. But that was the first domino.

There are a couple of concepts that sort of described what has transpired since. One is what is sometimes referred to as the “butterfly effect.” Essentially, the idea is that something as small as the flap of a butterfly’s wings on the other side of the world will disturb the air is such a way that the disturbance – and just that disturbance – will start a causal chain that results in virtually everything else that happens from that point forward. Of course, taken to an absurd extreme, everything is the result of the first flap of the first butterfly’s wings, but the broader point is much simpler. Little things done now can have profound and unknowable effects much later. The other is serendipity, which is defined as, “the occurrence and development of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way.” While the butterfly effect has no positive or negative valence, serendipity necessarily does.

That near-death experience was the very large flap of a very large butterfly’s wings and the things that have been presented to me since, the opportunities, the ways in which I have approached life and the paths that have appeared before me have proven serendipitous, indeed. This is not some new revelation, I have experienced profound moments of gratitude and equally profound realizations of the presence of serendipity in my life many times over the past many years. It is upon me again, but this time is not a moment of rejoice, but one of sorrow. It is a time for gratitude, for sure, but also one of loss and in some respects, regret. However, if not for that first domino falling and certain events unfolding as they did starting nearly 20 years ago, I would not be writing this today, even if I had survived.

Without writing a book-length memoir that accounts for the unlikely path that led from there to here, part of that journey included a return to school as a “nontraditional” student.” Nontraditional in this context is commonly translated as old – old compared to the average college age student. In my case that was well into middle age, well after screwing up my actual college age years and making a mess of much of my life in the years following that failed attempt at college. It was not as though I never experience success; I did, but it was always fleeting and never with any solid plans or goals. It was incidental success, accidental success or, perhaps, opportunistic success. It was the kind of life that might have predicted the end that almost happened.

The path that took place after almost cashing it all in led me through a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree at California State University, Sacramento before I continued on to a Ph.D. program. I applied to a number of schools all over the country, among them was Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. Two schools accepted my application, one was, serendipitously, LSU. Why serendipity? Because I have not just connections in Louisiana, I have family. Blood family. My mom’s sister, my Aunt Nancy, my cousins and other direct family all live nearby. While I had never been to Baton Rouge prior to visiting LSU before accepting my invitation to study there, I visited family in Southern Louisiana and Mississippi many times over the years since I was a child. While not close on an “everyday” basis, they were still very close and the “home base” that I had there, generations in the making, made my relocation much easier.

But it was far more than that. Sure, the practical implications of a middle-aged grad student having a complex, fully integrated family support system in place was an advantage that certainly made the transition smoother. Anything that removes external stresses could only be beneficial to my studies. It doesn’t take a great deal of intuitive power to see that. But the 2,000-plus miles between our homes meant that, aside from some holidays and other “special occasions,” we really didn’t spend a lot of time together. My living less than an hour north for the better part of four years eliminated that distance both physically and personally. It was so close, in fact, that I often took it for granted. No longer was it a major event to visit my Louisiana kinfolk, I could go just anytime. And although I did, in retrospect, I didn’t often enough.

I entered LSU in the fall of 2011. That year, before I knew I would be attending LSU, my Uncle Sonny, Aunt Nancy’s husband, passed suddenly. His memorial was one of those “special occasions,” though that word, “special,” feels somewhat dubious. However, as it was a celebration of his life, for a memorial it was pretty special. He and my aunt were married for almost 60 years. Yesterday, after a relatively short battle, my aunt followed him. From the fall of August of 2011 until May of 2015, I spent much, much more time in Louisiana than I did in California. The vacuum left by Uncle Sonny’s passing was still very real, but Aunt Nancy’s strength was the stuff of legend and, truth be told, I needed that, even if I didn’t know it or would never admit it. There were times, many times, when we would find ourselves, just her and I, alone just chatting about this and that – important stuff, trivial stuff, family stuff from an entirely different perspective – just stuff, and sometimes an hour or more will have passed in the blink of an eye. Although I built new closeness to my cousins and other relatives there, too, it was with Aunt Nancy I grew closest to. With my own mother, her sister, so far away, she was that to me, too.

I realize that I said a whole lot about me before I got to her, but this isn’t meant to be a memorial. I could not do it justice, anyway. One of my cousins will do that much better than I ever could, and rightfully so. This is more a reflection on the little things in life and how important those forks in the road can be, many miles and many years later. While I regret not taking the opportunity to visit more often when I could have, I am forever grateful for the time we had. My aunt was more help to me than she knew, more help than I knew, especially considering so much more that was going on that I didn’t write about here. I will truly, truly miss her.

As I was perusing my Facebook memories today, pictures of Mardi Gras popped up. Prior to LSU, I’d been to a few, but while at LSU, I felt more part of it than ever before. But those memories, while nice, are not unexpected or particularly profound. One, however, was; it was a comment from her on one of my posts. She was more a Facebook “stalker” than a participant, so her commenting is kind of a big deal, that it would pop up today, two years ago one day after she passed, is… touching, in a way I can’t describe. It reads: “I have no comment on the content of your post, but I see genes appearing. Grandad would be proud of you. There's nothing like a good argument to keep life interesting. Good job.”



Friday, February 07, 2020

The Radical Middle


There is, seemingly, nothing that the far right and far left agree on. In fact the one sure thing that they clearly do agree on would get push back from both sides if it was even suggested they agreed on it. Both sides constantly lament, no, whine, about how juvenile the polarization, the mudslinging, the back-biting and the sand-kicking has become. However, as much as they would bristle at the fact that they actually do agree, they do, in fact agree – we are a nation divided. I became politically aware at the beginning of Nixon’s second administration – yes, that Nixon – and in the past more than 45 of my 57 years, I have never seen this nation so set against itself. It is a domestic threat that looms far larger than any foreign threat that exists.

Both the left and the right, fueled by the extremes, blame each other; both say it was started by… pick a president, pick a Republican or Democratic House and/or Senate, pick a personality or a network or even “the media.” The reasons, the personalities, the policies, the attitudes, the generations change with the election cycles but the common denominator is blame. Vote for me because they did this to you. I love America, they want to destroy it. I represent American values, they are fascists (if on the right) or communists (if on the left). And everyone is stupid. Nice.

The reality is that most of us have a complex mix of both conservative and liberal ideals. Most of us do not have a straight party line ideology that is consistent with any political party platform. We make our decisions based on who best represents what is most important to us, every time giving up some things that we must concede. The only political candidate for any office who completely represents my interests is… me, and I’m not running. In every election we make compromises with ourselves regarding who the best candidate is, not who the perfect one is. Like us individually, our collective society, reflected in our government, consists of a melding of these liberal and conservative ideals – it always has. Everyone gets something, no one gets everything, by design. Somehow we seem to have lost sight of that. The is nothing inherently wrong with conservatism or liberalism so long as both extremes are checked by the give and take of debate, cooperation and compromise. When that works, democracy works.

While our democratic republic is still working, it is not working well and if something doesn’t change, it will, eventually, stop working at all. The only power that can destroy this nation is the power that created it. Those on the extreme are fine with reforming our policies and our institutions in their visions of the extreme – in that respect, accusations of communism and fascism are well-founded, but they don’t represent the vast majority of us and they don’t even represent those in congress, despite the partisan claims to the contrary. The vast majority, Republican, Democrat and independent, love this country and are patriots just like you and I are. However, they also love their jobs and to keep them they must (or feel they must) pander to their base – and that base tends to be on the extremes. But just the “extremes” isn’t even the problem, it’s those on the extreme edges of the extremes who are driving the division, and it is no accident.

A careful reader might have noticed by now that I have not accused or otherwise called out one side over the other for instigating or being the aggressor in this quagmire. A not so careful reader might be reading in Rs and Ls where I have not placed them. Please, please, don’t. And please do not internalize this because no matter how you feel about the left or the right – and even if you don’t believe those in congress “love their country” (I’ll even go so far as to say they might love their jobs more), the vast majority of your friends, family and neighbors are just like everyone else – a complex mix of conservative and liberal ideals who must balance their interests with those running for office and choose who best represents them. All we can ask of them is that they do the same when they get to office and debate legislation and policy. When we demonize the general “other side,” we are also demonizing our friends, family and neighbors who happen to identify with the left or right of center.

President Nixon resigned in disgrace. He screwed up, got caught and paid the price. It was a dark time in our nation’s history, a veritable Constitutional crisis. But despite that, he was no dummy. One of the things he saw was similar to what we are experiencing today – a political middle that is caught in the cross-fire. He recognized the non-political, hard-working Americans who had had enough of a whole lot and he mobilized them. He gave them a voice, and a name – the Silent Majority. They didn’t want to march, they didn’t want to protest, they didn’t want to be berated with mudslinging, with accusations, with bombast – they just wanted the government to work for them. And they showed up – at the ballot box.

It’s time for the middle to rise up again. We don’t have to march. We don’t have to protest. We don’t have to post or respond to stupid memes on Facebook. We just have to vote. But who do we vote for? It seems that they are all the same – each side pointing fingers at the other, each side taking credit here and placing blame there like it is some kind of game and the side with the most points wins. Aren’t we, the people, supposed to be the winners? We win when they work together. This election cycle, I will be voting not for any candidate who thinks most like I do on any given issue, I will be voting on the candidate who pledges to work together with his or her colleagues to do the work that we sent them there to do – our work. Those who can show me they have the backbone to rise above the partisanship and work to find compromise on the issues that face us will get my vote, and I don’t care what party they are attached to. It is time for the radical middle to be heard. Indeed, it is our only hope.

Tuesday, January 07, 2020

Ink on My Fingers

January 7th, 2020 — one week into the new decade. It has been 20 years since the now infamous “Y2K disaster.” It has been almost 40 years since President Reagan was inaugurated. It has been about 50 years since I was old enough and educated enough to have some sort of awareness of the world, though it would take most of those years since to find my place in it. At this time in 1970, I recently turned eight years-old and was halfway through 1st grade. I was reading, doing math, learning history and geography and, due to the network news broadcasts my parents watched every night, I had an acute awareness of what was going on in the world, specifically Vietnam and Cambodia. I learned that the years were numbered in 1969 and, if memory serves, learned to tell analog time (because no one had digital clocks) around then, too. My sense of time and space were becoming established, but I might have learned about Southeast Asia much too young.

It was more than just the news — everyone had someone in Vietnam. Everyone had someone who died there, it seemed. For my age group is was mostly older siblings or older cousins or older neighborhood kids who came of age during the draft. It wasn’t as though it hit very close to everyone — it did not to me — but it was always close enough to feel it. I did not know who the president was in 1970, I did not know much about politics or our system(s) of government yet, but that would radically change in the presidential election of 1972 — Nixon vs. McGovern. My parents, both Democrats, supported McGovern — I did not know why, but because they did, I did, too. I remember making red, white and blue McGovern campaign paraphernalia. Although I did not know why I was supporting McGovern, I learned quite a lot about the process. Nixon won in a landslide, carrying 49 states. I am not sure whether my parents were more for McGovern or more against Nixon. But their “intuition” regarding him proved prophetic.

The Watergate scandal culminated when Nixon, who was certain to be impeached in the House and removed from office in the Senate, resigned in disgrace. He quit before they could fire him. He was the first ever and so far only US president to resign the office. It was a big fucking deal. I remember it very clearly. In August of 1974, I was not quite 13 years old. It was also during my “paperboy” days. I started by delivering my hometown weekly, but soon moved up to the larger, six days per week “Palo Alto Times.” While folding my newspapers, I was reading them — everyday. I was fascinated by not only what was happening nationally and politically, but also by what was happening locally and globally as well. We didn’t have cable TV or 24-hour news channels. Most households subscribed to at least one daily newspaper, but probably not many 13 year-olds read them as voraciously as I did.

I’d like to say that my passion for journalism continued to flourish, that I recognized early on that I had an aptitude for not only reading, but also writing. Had I recognized and embraced those things that are defining elements of who I am today, my trajectory would have been much different. However (and it is only through the lens of more than 50 years that I can see this), that does not mean it would have been better — or worse. It only would have been different. I still would have preferred to understand and embrace what my talents were earlier on, but only because the chaos in my life might not have affected those who are close to me. But, maybe different chaos would have. Chaos, it seems, does not discriminate.

My story left off with Nixon’s resignation. President Ford was sworn in and lost reelection to Carter in 1976. After Nixon, the Republicans didn’t stand much chance in 1976 anyway. Carter was (and still is) a good man. However, due to a combination of the way the world was at the time and his “nice” persona, he lost to Reagan in 1980. I could talk a lot about the national political scene in those years, but a US history lesson is not the point of this. Google will provide much more than I have here (and, ironically, soon this will be added this to it). Newspapers, still, uniquely engage us. The detail and depth they provide exceeds almost everything that can be found on TV or the Internet, unless it is the web version of — you guessed it — a newspaper.

The recent attacks on journalism are only the latest blow to an absolute necessary component to any free society. Technology has also dealt print journalism and, specifically, newspapers, a crippling blow. First it was cable TV and the 24-hour news cycle, but what cable started, the Internet finished. The “Palo Alto Times,” for example, after consolidation with its sister publication, the “Redwood City Tribune” in 1979 as the “Peninsula Times-Tribune,” finally shut its doors in 1983 — before the Internet was around to archive its rich history. Not that many years ago, the local newspapers I wrote for were still important and relevant. They exist in Internet masthead only now, regurgitating stories from other sources and other places by writers who have no clue where the town I used to write for is.


I have purposely left about the last 40 years out. A lot happened then, too, both globally and personally. Buy the book, if I ever write it. That hometown weekly I delivered for? It’s called the “Los Altos Town Crier” and it survived. It is not delivered on subscriber’s lawns or (if they were lucky) porch by pre-teen newspaper boys anymore, but it still lives and its archives are preserved. So many that went under, especially those that folder pre-Internet, have faded into nothing. While I still prefer the tactile sense of reading a physical newspaper, I have grown accustomed to their electronic equivalent. Although the ink doesn’t get on my fingers anymore, the important words, enough of them, are still being written. We should still be be reading them. Freedom depends upon it.