Tuesday, November 17, 2020

What If...

It seems that everyone passes through a “reflective” time of year. Okay, maybe not everyone… I should qualify that; everyone who has lived long enough to have some years to reflect upon. And that time of year can span several days, weeks, even months. It tends to be centered around some major milestone, often one’s birthday, but we collect other major mile markers as we move through life, too. To the extent that they will “cluster” at some point in the year, that seems to be the place where an ever increasing cascade of reflection takes place. That process, for me, began in early August and will culminate on my birthday in early December. By the time the holidays and New Years Day come around, it will have been processed – no “new year resolutions” for me, ever.


As I am currently in that period leading up to my 58th birthday, the warehouse of reflective material is full. It is not just due to surviving nearly six decades, but also due to nearly not surviving. But I have hashed and rehashed that and much else of my “new life” that began with the violent beginning of the end of my old life twenty years ago many times, most recently on the 20th anniversary of that specific date. Today, my musings took me in a different, much less foreboding (and, consequentially, much less climactic) direction. Today it has to do with “what ifs,” my nature, and would it have mattered.



Briefly, I wasted many years of my life wandering aimlessly through it. I had no real direction, no real goals, no real plans – I don’t remember ever having an answer to, “what do you want to be when you grow up?” I didn’t think anything of it, I was just a kid, but that aimlessness eventually manifested in a lot of unhealthy behaviors that included drug and alcohol abuse. I worked, I even had careers (plural), I was a husband – briefly – and a father and, if asked, that was my purpose, my main job, and the only thing that really meant anything to me was being a father. However, addiction is more powerful than love and eventually even fatherhood came in second. Obviously there is much more to the story, but that sets the stage of aimlessness and highlights that, while lifestyle played a part, it was more symptom than cause.


That part of my life literally crashed in on me a little more than 20 years ago and the life I lead today took hold for good a little more than 16 years ago. The transformative process took some time – hence the beginning of the end was not the same as the beginning of the beginning. Suffice it to say that I have been completely abstinent from all mind and mood altering substances, “clean and sober,” for more than 16 years now. It is a point of personal pride for me, but it also moves this story along to our next plateau. Prior to that line of demarcation, while I had many jobs and many of those jobs constituted what could be called careers – and I went to school for some of them – none of them “stuck.” Usually a personal crisis of one sort or another would conveniently coincide with a subconscious, “I’ve been doing this long enough,” and I would jump ship. Long-term commitments were not, apparently, my thing.  


But that is likely only partially true. The fact is that there are several areas in my life in which I enjoy some very long-term commitments. And, since 16 years ago, one of those has been of the career/educational variety, too. I went back to school, but this time it was to finish my bachelor’s degree. After that was a master’s and after that I attempted a PhD and, although I only managed to advance to candidacy – never completing my dissertation – I was awarded another MA degree. Furthermore, I have been teaching undergraduate university students since my first semester in graduate school in 2008, a job I have now been doing full-time since 2015. That is, by far, the longest I have ever stayed in one job.


So much for the Reader’s Digest of what got me here. My musings for the past couple of days have been based around “what ifs.” I know it’s just a mental mind-fuck and if I am not careful it can take me down a rabbit-hole to a place of self-loathing for all the time I wasted, but it need not be so dark. I wonder, what if I had found this prowess for academia when I was in my 20s? What if the dedication I was able to muster in my mid to late 40s and early to mid (now late) 50s was available to me when I was younger, when I had more energy, when I had more memory, when I had more drive? Worthy questions, all. What I really want to know… would I have made it to Dr. Althouse? Would I have had more success in earning that PhD? There are several factors driving this question, but one is a subtle but distinct change in attitude of certain others once I decided to not go through with the final step of writing a dissertation. That decision, the one that essentially awarded me the conciliation prize of another MA degree, seems to have disappointed certain others – but disappointed is not exactly the right word. The right word denotes action – it’s an attitude that captures the feeling. I am not sure a good word exists – it’s not ostracized or shunned, neither of those words are accurate, but a lesser version, perhaps? Knowing what I know now – and forgetting stupid lottery scenarios – would it be any different?


I think yes – and no. In terms of the destruction and dereliction I ran my life into, and in terms of much (but not all) of the wasted time, yes, some of that could have been avoided and my life would have benefited. Indeed, not just my life… However, I cannot discount my own nature, those core things about me that make me who I am. Some things I can deal with, modify, work around – and I have, in many respects, but others are just there, characteristically me. The questions about that “drive,” the energy to pursue a longer-term goal, to be see things past “good enough” to absolute perfection – in most cases, I can’t see it. That wasn’t me before the drugs, it certainly wasn’t me during and it has not been me since. Even when it comes to this – writing clean, clear prose – something I know, now, that I am good at, that I embrace and nurture, I will not pour over endlessly striving for some standard of perfection. True, my line for “good enough,” for this, is much closer to perfect, but I am not nor will I ever be – or was I ever in the past – that guy. About that PhD… I have no fucking idea, I really don’t. And regarding how others feel about my failure to achieve their dream. I’d suggest they read that last sentence out loud.


So “what if” I could go back and do it all over again, knowing some of what was in my path ahead. Well, first, regarding the danger signs of addiction, take them seriously, get help early and have 35 or 40 years clean and sober by  the time I turn 58. Next… nothing. I don’t think that anything I could do, knowing or not knowing what my future held, would provide me with the necessary motivation beyond what I found in my later life. In other words, my success would likely be similar, perhaps aided by the increased energy and memory of youth, but perhaps hindered by the distractions of youth, sans drugs. While musing about what might have been is somewhat entertaining, it is, when put in proper perspective, also gratifying in that I might not have wasted as much time as I think. And, unless someone invents a working time machine, it only matters in the here and now anyway.

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Over-Celebration: National Holiday Day — rev. 2020


I wrote the following essay for a column writing class more than a decade ago. While it remains one of my favorite pieces, there are parts of it that reveal just where I was at the time — as a writer, as an observant member of society, as a member of the human race. These overtones would not be apparent to anyone else, save perhaps those who know me personally and have read me closely over the past many years, but there is one theme that was emerging and is apparent to me. The idea that we, as a society are so very grandiose about so much. We “celebrate” everything, all the time. And often, many times. How many times have we heard (or have you said), “this is my birthday month.” Seriously? Like one day isn’t enough? Although that’s an easy target, it speaks to this penchant we have in America, and in the west generally, to par-tay. And why, not — we’ve earned it, right? Well, yes — and no.


We absolutely should celebrate our achievements, our milestones, our victories and the like. There is nothing wrong with that — in proper moderation in relation to the event. A 50th birthday party? Kind of a big deal. A 44th birthday shindig? Not so much. And I am not here to dictate what the “right” amount of celebration is — I have no fucking idea — however, it is clear that we do push the boundaries regularly. Proof? Easy.


Today is a Wednesday. It is also Veterans Day. A lot of people have the day off, with pay. It is a federal holiday and all government offices are closed. It is a day to recognize the men and women who have served our nation in the U.S. armed forces. Memorial Day is for vets who have passed, Veterans Day is for those who have served. They are both solemn days, days of reverence, days of respect, days to reflect and be grateful to those who made our cozy lives here possible. Veterans Day was originally on November 11th, but is was part of the 1971 Uniform Monday Holiday Act that moved its “observance” to a Monday, thus creating a three-day weekend. Guess what happened. The vets saw it and pretty quickly had had quite enough “celebrating.” In 1978 Veterans Day returned to being observed on November 11th, no matter what day of the week that fell on. Go ahead, have a Veterans Day barbecue at the lake, break out the ski boat, crank up the music and have too many beers. On a Wednesday.


The celebrators hijacked Veterans Day. They have also hijacked a lot more than that. Think about all the major holidays, their origins and their current Madison Avenue made images. Never mind the “made for TV” holidays that have emerged just to sell stuff. We have all bought into it. And why not — it sure feels good. It felt good when it was all much smaller, when I was much smaller. And now that I have turned many calendar pages, those holidays have grown more massive, their preceding seasons are longer and more is certainly better, right?


And now the rug has been yanked out of nearly a year of celebrations. By the time it is over, everyone will have lost out on something to COVID. The whining is, at times, almost deafening. We sure have gotten used to our celebrations. Then there are, as of today, 240,040 souls who will never celebrate anything ever again. In the meantime, today is Veterans Day — go thank one for his or her service - and party some other day.



October 18, 2007


Christmas is nearly upon us once again. Many would call it the undisputed heavyweight champion of all contemporary holidays. It has it all - decorations, gifts, a grand, multi-course meal, family tradition, religious undertones, symbolic icons, parades, music and extreme consumerism. And, like only a handful of other holidays, it has an “eve” to welcome its arrival. It even has its very own season with its very own greeting... "Season's Greetings." Yes, Christmas might just represent the pinnacle of what every holiday aspires to be.


If Christmas sets the bar, all other holidays are lacking by comparison. Where’s the justice? Why should one holiday receive all the glory while others deserve only a footnote on the calendar?


There are other holidays that have religious overtones, perhaps even more so than Christmas. Take Easter, for instance. Not just one day, but actually three starting on Thursday night, through Good Friday (aren't all Fridays good?) and ending on the evening of Easter Sunday. Talk about holiday potential. Instead of one day, there are three solid days for gift giving, parties and festivities. Imagine the commercial build-up. Imagine the spectacle. Throw in a Monday and it can't lose.


But no, all we get is a cheesy bunny. He somehow lays multicolored eggs and then cleverly hides them. If we’re lucky, he pushes out some that are made of chocolate (don’t ask) and puts them and other candy in a basket with plastic grass that gets everywhere. But there is a parade. And songs. And apparently Easter bonnets, though I cannot recall ever seeing anyone ever wearing one.


Speaking of candy, what about Halloween? Here’s a holiday that’s not a holiday. There are the parties, sure, and decorations second only to Christmas (yes, second, again...), but there has never been a day off work. Any self-respecting holiday simply must come with a paid holiday day. Halloween is so disrespected not even banks and the government give it deference.


There are holidays better known by the dates they fall on like the Fourth of July or, hijacked from our neighbors to the south, Cinco de Mayo.


Then there are the “Monday” holidays. These are the holidays that are on one day, but “observed” on another. In 1971, the Uniform Monday Holiday Act moved Veterans Day, Memorial Day and George Washington’s Birthday (before it was given an identity crisis by combining it with Lincoln’s Birthday into “Presidents Day”) from their original date to a convenient Monday so federal employees would have more three-day weekends.


The act also created Columbus Day, the dumbest holiday of all time - glorifying a wayward sailor who got lost and discovered… India. No. America. No - India. No, ok, America, but let’s call the people there “Indians.” Oddly enough, there is no nationally designated Indian or Native American Day. It wasn’t a “new” world to them, they knew it was here all along.


After protests by veterans groups, in 1978 Veteran’s Day was moved back to its original November 11th date. The vets felt it had lost its importance and had become nothing more than just another three-day weekend.


Lost its importance?


Well then, let’s move on to some of the more innocuous holidays. In no particular order and with no particular importance, some of the most pointless are: Groundhog Day, Flag Day, the afore mentioned Presidents Day , Pioneer Day, Patriot’s Day, Valentine’s Day, Saint Patrick’s Day, and the ever-popular Grandparent’s Day.


And just when you thought it couldn’t get any worse, here are some of the “unofficial” holidays created to commemorate who knows what: Bloomsday, Buy Nothing Day, Friendship Day, Husband Appreciation Day, Wife Appreciation Day, International Talk Like a Pirate Day, International Kitchen Garden Day, Mole Day, Monkey Day, National Gorilla Day and a day that needs no description - No Pants Day.


Yes, seemingly there is a holiday for every occasion. Not yet mentioned - Mother’s Day and Father’s Day. I have one of each and I am a father - these are among my favorite holidays. It was not always the case - when I was young, there was the perennial question children always ask, “How come there’s no Kids’ Day?” The reply, always the same, “Every day is kids’ day.”


And so it is.


That must be why adults need so many damned holidays.

Saturday, November 07, 2020

Ground-Breaking & Ceiling-Shattering


While we either celebrate the win or lament the loss of yet another old white guy for the highest office in the land, let's remember something that occurred the last (and only) time an old white guy did not win. In 2008, a younger guy with dark skin won the presidency for the first time in our nation's history. Many, myself included, felt it was about time; it was way overdue. And that sentiment was shared even by many who were not Democrats - people who genuinely feel that one’s character is sole the measure of the man. Of the man… Hold that thought. Of course, systemic racism combined with a hidden undertone of personal covert racism was still lurking beneath the surface, every so often peaking its head out with seemingly innocuous enough questions like, “Is this nation ready for a black president?” The answer was, obviously yes. And no.


But this is not about that. Barack Obama remains insanely popular and at the same time, his very name raises the hair on the backs of some of our less evolved fellow Americans. Racism is dying a slow death, but to the extent that we can hasten it along – that I can push it over the cliff – we should. But what about this notion of character being the measure of the man? We have just elected the first female to the second highest office in the land, a “heartbeat away” from the presidency. Character measurement is, apparently, no longer limited to men. Kamala Harris has made history not only by being the first female to be elected to be Vice President of the United States, but she, like Obama is also happens to have darker skin.


Disclaimer: At nearly 58 years old, I am an “old, white male.” I am also fiercely independent — long without party affiliation. The terminologies used to describe various groups, including my own, have changed over the years. Keeping up has sometimes proven challenging, but in every case I try to respect how those I am referring to wish to be referred. My own perspective is and always has been based on character.


Like Hillary Clinton being the first woman to be the presidential nominee for a major party, Harris winning the vice presidency is ground-breaking – or, more accurately – ceiling-shattering, regardless of whether one supports her politically or not. It is also reason to celebrate for anyone who, like myself, celebrates and champions equality. Many of those on the left see the recent loss of seats in the House as a defeat, but hopefully they will see that many of those seats lost were won by women – yes, Republican women – but still women, and further progress for equality. Because, like racism, sexism is not dead. It is still systemic, institutionalized and lurking beneath the surface peaking its ugly head up every time a comment as innocuous as one regarding her “outfit” or “her face” makes the news.


Kamala Harris is the Vice President Elect of the United States of America. Whether you like her or not, whether you support her policies or not, whether you are liberal, conservative, Democrat or Republican or something else, if you are American and embrace the ideals and values enshrined in our Constitution, you should be happy that women and those who are not white are being taken seriously for our highest offices. That should be good news, even if you are against the person who won the office. If it is not, I challenge you to examine what, exactly, your values are – and then go find a nation that matches them. Because it’s not the good ole USofA.

Thursday, November 05, 2020

Aunt Sally


Depending on which [old white] guy they voted for, around 70,000,000 (give or take a couple million) of your fellow Americans voted for the guy you despise, the one you think is any number of the worst qualities ever to be exhibited in one human being. A good percentage of you truly believe that anyone who would support such a person does not represent America, American ideals, American principles or American values (as though the good ole US-of-A invented virtues such as liberty, equality, opportunity and such - please...). Indeed, I have seen many of you, hiding behind a veil of quasi-anonymity from the safe distance of the Internet, armed with your trusty keyboard accusing your fellow Americans - and, indirectly your own friends and family - of being un-American for daring to vocalize support for anything that ventures outside of your own tiny world view.
Based on... what? Your own extensive study of the history of our nation? Your own philosophical inquiry into the work of Hobbes and Locke and, the Articles of the Confederation and the Federalist Papers prior to the contentious drafting of our Constitution? Is that it? Is that all it takes for you to unleash your shotgun blast vitriol on groups of people that contain your own friends and family who happen to think somewhat differently than you? Oh, you didn't mean "them." Well, you'd better add a disclaimer list:
"You're all libtards! Except you Aunt Sally, I didn't mean you ~heart emoji~"
There will be a winner of this presidential election soon. He will have won the number votes necessary - just like Trump did four years ago. When the dust settles - and it will settle - all your friends and family members are going to remember what you said about them. Yes, we know you were not naming names, you did not "mean" Aunt Sally, but that's the thing about shotguns - you don't aim them - you point them. And there were a lot of shotguns pointed indiscriminately at a lot of Americans. You might not like Trump or Biden - you might even despise them, and you might not understand how anyone could vote for one or the other, and you might not think much of those who do - you might even despise them, but if you do, you have cast the same judgement on HALF of the electorate, around 70,000,000 Americans. A lot of them are your own friends, family and neighbors - even if you don't know it. Every time you denigrate supporters of the "other guy" as being any of the derogatory terms on the hit parade today, you are saying it to Aunt Sally - and no amount of disclaimers will take that back.
Chew on that.

Sunday, November 01, 2020

Power & Peace

In a little more than a month, I will turn 58 years old. I don't really like to think about being that “old.” I certainly don't feel “old;” I don't even know how I am supposed to feel. To say my perspective on how old "old" is has shifted is a monumental understatement, but besides my body showing some wear and tear and some difficulty recalling some things (names seem to be becoming an issue - that might be a blessing in disguise), I don't think about myself in terms of being “old.” But as little as 10 years ago, people who were my age now, were old - or at least very close to it. And 20 years ago? We were all ancient and about to die. I guess at 30-something I was going to live forever. Funny story - I almost didn't make it to 38.


 Anyway, I am not looking to begin some sort of “birthday month” or anything like that. In fact, I'm not interested in celebrating it at all - my track record of birthday celebrations has been pretty dismal. My 50th – the “Big 5-O” – was a big 5-zero. No sense in rolling the “will this be a good birthday celebration/party” dice - pass. Hard pass. And, in all seriousness, it’s not my get-down anyway. But that perspective shift I mentioned earlier does have a couple of other dimensions, or dynamics, that I hadn't thought much about before today. I was inspired by a particular Facebook post that really has nothing to do with where it led me, but such is the nature of inspiration. And Facebook. 

I mentioned that I don't really “feel” my age. That is only true is some respects, important ones, but only some. I don't feel old in terms of my mental vitality. In fact, I have greater mental acuity and energy than I ever have. I also have a more heightened awareness of what is going on around me in my immediate circle, locally, nationally and globally. I am paying more attention to my surroundings than I ever did when I was younger. These are important aspects of living and to the extent that I AM living, I do not feel as though I have lost either a step or a beat. The physical aspects of aging are important, but less so, at least in terms of the kind of “feeling” I am talking about. I feel those aches and pains and I pay a daily price for the abuse I put my body through, but while it is inconvenient and annoying, it is not debilitating. Not yet, anyway. 


 But there’s more. There are some things I desire more now – much more. It’s not “love” or “companionship” or “someone to grow old with” or a “life-long partner” or any of that other fairytale, pie-in-the-sky romantic bullshit. Those days have come and gone, if I was going to have that – if I really needed it – I’d have it. That stuff might be nice, but I’m not looking for nice. I am looking for peace. And it’s more than just a search – it is a demand, because with my age and the place I have both found myself and worked toward, I have a certain amount of power. I choose to muse that power to eliminate, to the degree that I can, drama from my life. Maybe it is age, but I simply do not have the patience for it anymore.



 Related to that, I suppose, is the ability to let so much more go. Our egos… Check that: my ego – has not been my friend. Maybe yours is, I don’t know, but mine has caused me to hold onto “truths” and ideologies long past their expiration dates. I don’t need to be right and don’t care if I am wrong. If age brought me that, I wish I got old faster. It makes my life much less stressful, much more peaceful and eliminates the drama from at least one source – me. When push comes to shove, there is a third choice. Walk away. It’s so easy I don’t know what took me so long to figure it out.



 A little more than a year ago, I was had to make a choice. I chose peace. I chose drama-freedom. From that moment to this day I have no second-guessed that decision nor have I regretted it. It was the right decision. It could have been made in a better way, it could have transpired with less drama, but it also might have been the best way. Rip the Band-Aid off quickly and let the healing begin. I have made numerous decisions, consciously, since then with the same simply criteria in mind – does this potentially or likely introduce drama and conflict into my life? If the answer is yes, it doesn’t matter what the upside is. Indeed, there is no upside – the price is too high. I have lived enough years of conflict and drama, as much as is within my power, my remaining years will be peaceful and as drama-free as is within my power. Fortunately, with those years, I have amassed considerable power to be able to do just that.