The theme of this Summer was already going to be "Re-beginning." That was before I graded so many papers I couldn't think straight. That was before I got a three-week flu that drained my body and soul halfway through the semester. And that was before cancer struck my (full disclosure: "sort of" my) beautiful great dane, Mister.
So now that we have officially entered Summer, I shall re-begin. This involves a few rebirths: meditation, exercise, singing, and writing. By the end of this Summer, I hope to have accomplished the following things: 1) 40 hours of meditation; 2) drop 10 pounds; 3) record my first jazz album; 4) find an agent who sees potential in my work; and 5) complete my third novel.
Biting off more than I can chew? Perhaps. But a re-beginning is what I wanted, and a re-beginning is what I will create.
More to come...
Stripped Down and Battered Raw
I've come to believe that it's good to be utterly shaken at the core from time to time.
I mean this in a number of ways: emotionally, spiritually, philosophically, and even physically. This is why solid workouts feel so fulfilling -- if not excruciating -- afterward.
But over the past 24 hours, I've been reduced to my most humble human self on two occasions. Those of you who know me personally probably realize how much of a task that can be -- but I am not exaggerating: twice.
While I can't thoroughly describe either with mere words -- they both require the guttural, raw reaction of actually feeling the sensations -- I can summarize briefly.
After having months of angst, about the future, the present, my wants, my needs, my status, you name it, I had a good friend whip me into shape. The best part? This friend never once used the words "you" or "Louie." We both knew the content was aimed at me, but there was never an ego to latch onto and build a defensive reply. I simply sat back and had a mirror staring at me, forcing me to stare at my own arrogance, denial, and stubbornness. There are certain times when realizing I'm not perfect -- and I don't need to be -- is both the most difficult and most refreshing thing to do.
Then today, feeling tender and ready to "start over," I received a phone call alerting me that one of my former students had passed away. Seizure in her sleep. Twenty-one years old. Tragic.
And again came the mirror. It made me look at the time I waste, the meaningless stressors I allow to take me away at their whim. And it, added with the humility-bomb of last night, led me to consider the ways in which I could be a better teacher, a better friend, and a better man.
Will I heed all of the beautifully rugged reminders of my impermanent, fragile self? Likely not. But as I said in the beginning, it never hurts to be reminded that we're just babies, figuring this whole existence thing out one breath at a time.
I can at least do my best to recall that from time to time.
Forgive the Chaos
After one of the more hectic semesters of my lifetime, I have once again devoted a portion of time to writing each day. My website does not reflect this quite yet for a host of logical reasons. I shan't delve too deeply into details, but let me just give you a quick rundown on facts you may need to know in the future:
1) Web hosting is different than domain name and DNS
2) Domain names can get bought out by people all over the world
3) Getting your website back can take a lot of patience
Suffice it to say the updates will be coming a lot more frequently now that I have my space back. In the meantime, follow me on Twitter -- the social media site that never (fix: hasn't yet) dies (fix: died).
The more I teach rhetoric, the more I consider this issue.
Almost every student I teach sees the distinction in theory, but listening to arguments between loved ones, friends, politicians, and everyone else, I have begun to notice that few seem to see the distinction in practice.
A debate is healthy. It is open-minded. Its goal is to achieve understanding -- not that one's view is "right," but that one's view is valid. It does not require a consensus. It does not need a winner.
A fight is everything that a debate is not. It is spiteful. It is limiting. It takes grey areas and tosses them into the wind in favor of a black and a white, a true and a false, a good and a bad. Its goal is to dominate, humiliate, and defeat. In a fight, it does not matter if both sides are respected -- it matters that you score points and win. It may not require consensus, but it does need a winner.
Yet all too often, I hear people turning issues that are rife with possibilities for debate into one-dimensional fights.
Why are Jimmy and Janie fighting? Because she wants to be able to hang out with her male friends but he feels threatened. Discussing a solution -- in the future tense -- to these feelings is an argument, a debate. Telling Janie, "You are not allowed to do that" or telling Jimmy, "I should be able to do whatever I want"? Now we have returned to demonstrative language. It's less about solving problems and more about being right.
What is your goal?
How can you attain your goal?
If Janie wants to do whatever she wants, then perhaps being with Jimmy is wrong. If Jimmy wants to control a person who clearly doesn't want the same arrangement, vice versa. However, if the two want to work out a problem and maintain their relationship, the language must then shift. The goal is bigger than "being right" at this point.
So I guess that's what I am considering more and more lately. How can I assess my goals and work toward achieving them when interacting with others instead of settling for "scoring points" and winning fights?
This is my challenge to myself. I urge you to take it upon yourself, as well!
As a rational human being, I try to espouse one of our nation's oldest mantras before tossing around accusations: "innocent until proven guilty." I think it is a beautiful notion that we, as people, should not be jailed or punished arbitrarily. Evidence must exist to incriminate us to such an extent that an unbiased jury of our peers decides beyond a shadow of a doubt that we must be held responsible.
This is all fine and good.
But I'm also a believer in common sense.
A few months ago, I was proctoring the Basic Writing Exit Exam at UCSD. Students who either do not speak strong enough English to succeed at the college level, or simply do not know how to organize their thoughts into coherent writing, must take this timed writing exam to prove they have acquired enough command of their own rhetoric to function at the university level in the USA. We can debate the merits of such an exam at another time, but one thing that appalled me was the story of a fellow colleague (whose name I will omit -- let's call him Socrates).
Socrates proctored the exam in a room that contained 30 students. As all teachers were instructed to do, he waited until 8:00 am to distribute the prompts and sat quietly as students completed their essays. Regardless of their level of completion, all written pieces must be collected no later than 10:00 am.
The Chair of the Basic Writing Department had also offered the following warning: "If a student goes to the bathroom early in the exam and then goes a second time late in the exam, be sure to hold their Blue Book. Odds are they have hired someone on the outside to write their essay." At the time, I found this warning ridiculous. Who would do such a thing?
Answer: One of Socrates' students.
Here's the thing: Socrates was ready. He caught the student red-handed. Instead of merely collecting the essay when his student departed for his late bathroom trip, he actually paged through it and read it. When the final products were collected, this student turned in a COMPLETELY DIFFERENT BLUE BOOK.
So, proven guilty, right? End of story?
Ultimately, Socrates brought the case to the department and was presented with two choices: 1) take this case to the Academic Integrity Board and plead a "my word vs. his word" account (sacrificing his own time, but also making him and the department vulnerable to a defamation lawsuit from the student!); or 2) let it go. Since he did not have video or a witness, the case of cheating was dropped. A student who BLATANTLY cheated and even got caught was able to pass through the course. ("I know you're not lying," said the department chair. "But what if you WERE?" This is the kind of logic that intellectual people must now use in such circumstances.)
Which brings me to my next point. Read the following excerpts from student papers:
A) "These words are even more meaningful to me today given the chaos presently occurring in America with regards to violence being perpetrated around race. The media is our conduit to information. Yet, daily TV shows, songs, news reports and ads shape how we feel about our society and our communities. One of the topics in the news today is that of equity and race..."
B) "I will help you leran differnet stageies for paper's. Make paper more in moner time period to suck in the students. the header the you the better writer you become."
The first example comes from a prompt that asks students to examine the rhetoric of media figures in manufacturing "truth" for a democratic society such as America. The second example is my personal course evaluation form, completed in class, and asking simply, "What recommendations would you give the professor to improve this course?" The responses came from the exact same student.
Now, I'm not saying the student definitely cheated. There might be other reasons at play here. Perhaps there is a learning disability of which I'm unaware. I admittedly do not understand a lot of processing deficiencies, so maybe for this particular student the act of writing is something that vastly improves when he/she is given the opportunity to take it home and revise. I also understand that many students have the benefits of tutors for longer papers. Those resources are wonderful and should be utilized.
But it's hard to deny the stark differences in those two products, no?
Listen, I want to help students. I don't want to zing anyone. I take my job seriously and I do my best to communicate as often as I can with my students in order to identify ways in which their learning process can be facilitated. But this student never once visited my office hours. In our few one-on-one encounters, our conversations had no more complexity than what I became accustomed to at the middle school level. Furthermore, this student also spent a considerable amount of class time prodding and swiping an iPhone (note: since the semester in question, I have gone from a "Be cool" rule about electronics to a "Zero tolerance" policy in present classes). I just cannot help but feel justified in believing that this student received more help than is reasonable on the outside papers.
I cannot see any way that a student who speaks to me at such an elementary level, struggles so immensely to compose a single sentence, and has not once interacted during class discussion can suddenly piece together coherent, sophisticated compositions for research-based papers. "Conduit"? "Equity"? These are words that show up on the SAT. Spelling/Grammar check also isn't as thorough as many believe. It doesn't add up.
Ultimately, I'm left between the proverbial rock and hard place. Making this an issue would require my time, effort, and patience. Without any evidence that the papers were borrowed (I've checked all reasonable websites and plagiarism outlets), it would essentially be an "I just have a feeling" defense that would likely fizzle in the face of our "innocent until proven guilty" protocol. More importantly, it would not be putting my efforts toward what I believe is my most important task: educating students.
My solution, at present, is to adjust my assignment sequence in the future. From now on, students will have to complete TWO major in-class assignments in addition to their outside work. This will force them to prove what they have acquired in a multitude of manners. My only hope is that students realize that my goal is not to punish them, but rather to truly assess if they are ready to succeed at the next level.
After all, education shouldn't be about "doing things to get them done" and "moving on."
It should be about learning.
At least, I think...
"…baby step into the elevator…baby step into the elevator… I'm IN the elevator…" -- Bob Wiley
If there's one thing I've learned in my adult life, it's that there is simply too much time in our lives to expect change to occur immediately. This has to do with our professional lives, our relationship lives, our political lives, and nearly every other facet of our existence. Sure, actions can change immediately -- but habits and trends take time.
As a former baseball player, it reminds me of players who had hitches in their swings. Reminding a batter once that he was dropping his hands might change the next swing, but it would likely return within a few more. It was about constant reminders, a couple of good reps, and eventual change.
This is similar to personal changes. About six years ago, I remember feeling that I had a deficiency in sincerity -- an overabundance of cynicism -- that permeated my worldview. It made it nearly impossible for me to enjoy life's simplicities. I forced myself to begin practicing gratitude daily -- just listing a few things I was grateful for every time I caught myself engaging in a negative thought pattern. I might thank the universe for my family, for The Beatles, or for the laughter I would get from someone tripping and falling. Anything. Years later, I feel transformed due to this slow, steady process.
I'm reminded of a conversation I had with a good friend Roy Zimmerman many years ago. Roy is a political satirist who writes witty songs about social and political change, and I was fortunate enough to garner up the funds to have him play a show at my college in 2006 and 2007 (please check out his catalogue on YouTube or at www.royzimmerman.com). Over the course of these visits, we talked about the state of the world at great lengths. As a wanna-be activist, young-minded college student, I remember expressing my dissatisfaction with the state of our society. My calls for change probably sounded more like complaints and demands than hopeful, positive ideas. I won't forget how Roy responded:
"When you think about how far we've come in such a short time, though. I mean, 40 years ago we were still segregating bathrooms. Your generation wouldn't even consider doing such a thing."
I thought that was some beautiful perspective. In other words, had progressive minds in 1964 demanded IMMEDIATE change -- not only in policy but in practice -- they would have felt like all of the activism had failed. Looking 40 years into the future, however, the notion of separate bathrooms had become so foreign it was comical.
I have a feeling the same will be said in another 40 years for gender pay equality, same-sex marriage, climate change, and many other issues we all feel are somewhat hopeless in our current social and political landscape. Things may never eventually be perfect, but it's hard to deny the constant growth going on around us.
So in conclusion, I urge everyone to exercise some long-term perspective when it comes to the changes we want to see in each other, in ourselves, and in the world around us. Systemic change takes time -- it's irrational to put a countdown on when something should happen. So be vigilant, be patient, and be hopeful. Things are getting better.
The "Right" to Riot
*Note: This piece is not taking into account the fact that much of Baltimore's protesting has been peaceful. My intent is to comment more on the notion that rioting (whether in Baltimore or anywhere) is "good" or "bad."
When people get angry, they often act emotionally. Essentially, this is what a riot is: large scale anger put into action. And that's what is happening in Baltimore after the death of Freddie Gray, another unarmed black man who suffered the ultimate price at the hands of a police department.
And once again, as always happens when rioting begins, people are asking the same question: is a riot the most appropriate response?
There are infinite nuanced views on the validity of rioting as a civil protest, but I want to focus on the two most popular polar defenses. The first tends to think that rioting is irresponsible, ineffective, and ultimately reinforces the stereotypes that are exploited in such racial dichotomies. In other words, "if black people keep rioting, then white people will keep seeing them in negative ways." On the flip side, we have the view that, when pushed, a riot is one of the only ways for the oppressed to have their voices heard. As long as the goal of the riot is to break glass, vandalize property, and not to harm human life, isn't it a more effective way of getting a message across than supporting the status quo?
The former message is perhaps overly idealistic and the latter is often presented with a "people-just-don't-get-it" attitude. In short, like much political rhetoric, each tries to function as a sort of obvious, certain response.
This is where I must interject and try to offer some perspective.
Let me start by saying that I am in no way an expert on race relations. I have never been discriminated for my race or creed. For all intents and purposes, I am "privileged." Let me also emphasize that, in terms of pure ideal conditions, I must side with those who believe the trivialized members of society must be allowed to have a voice.
However, I am someone who understands the rhetoric of actions and words. I can stand between two warring sides and, with a decent amount of success, explain to each how their message is being perceived. That's all I intend to do here. I won't suggest a hard-and-fast solution, but I will certainly mention why I think neither the "status quo" nor the riots is a good idea.
The status quo believes that if communities resist the urge to riot, they will appear more civilized and thus earn the respect of those who oppress them. This is not "non-violence"; it is passivity. Standing back and saying, "Hit me again!" is not going to prove a point. There needs to be some agency. This is why the criticism of the riots in this regard is naive.
On the other hand, many who support the "right to riot" quote Martin Luther King, Jr. who once stated, "It is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society… a riot is the language of the unheard." This quote, to many who believe in the efficacy and necessity of riots, is a sort of rallying cry that seems to be utilized as validation for the acts. In other words, if MLK says riots are okay, then they must be.
However, when MLK said that he wouldn't go so far as to condemn riots and that "riots are the language of the unheard," I do not believe he was endorsing the act. Look closely at his words. He is saying, essentially, that riots are equally right (and equally wrong) as the "conditions" present in our society -- which seems to imply both are wrong. He's simply saying that it would be wrong to condemn one side without also pointing out the conditions that created it.
If you've taken logic, you know that "not A must be B" is a flawed conclusion. That's what pro-riot people are doing wrong with this quote (often used out of context). If King isn't condemning riots, that means he must support them, right? Not exactly. Analyzing his rhetoric, I think he was simply saying he understood why people would naturally resort to such behavior. "I get why you are doing what you are doing, because you are being treated unjustly." It was a statement of empathy -- not action.
And equally salient is his notion that "a riot" is a sort of language. Doesn't this imply that, since it is "the language of the unheard," it is a foreign language to those in power? This is important.
I do empathize with the desire to be heard, but I must ask if speaking a "different" language is really the best way to get through to authority. One of the reasons that MLK got so much done was because he translated the "language of the unheard" into the language of his oppressors. He started dialogues that those with the agency to make changes could understand. He knew his audience. I'm not sure that rioters are aware of this.
What I'm trying to say is that the best option for change is not standing by and taking more punches to the face -- but it also isn't screaming and smashing things until you get noticed. What America really needs is someone with perspective, patience, and intelligence to lead the movement for civil treatment of minorities from police departments because -- whether or not people have a "right" to riot, which they do -- this "foreign language" will not enact long-term change. It would be like walking into an American courtroom and screaming at the judge and jury in German; you will call attention to your cause in the immediate, but you likely won't get the end you seek.
Perhaps a better King quote to use as a battle cry is the following: "Means we use must be as pure as the ends we seek." This requires dialogue, discussion, and discourse. It means that someone who stands in defense of the minorities must make him- or herself represent the "ends" we seek as a country. They must walk the walk by leading civil protests, but they must talk the talk by speaking the language of the oppressor. This would seem to be the way toward enacting change.
It is sad that we must still deal with racial strife in 2015. I understand both arguments with regard to these protests. However, something I always like to remind people is that the truth doesn't need you to defend it. Our country -- and our world -- can often be unfair, unjust, and flat out ugly. This doesn't mean that we have to stand passively by while it happens, but it also doesn't mean we need to physically express our anger.
Now, more than ever, we need words. Words of strength; words of wisdom; and perhaps most importantly, words that can be understood by two groups of people who don't seem to understand each other.
Thoughts After a Two Week Break
Random thought of the past two weeks: Baseball may not be the most fun sport, the most exciting sport, or the most interesting sport, but I have decided after watching the first few weeks of the Major League season that it is undoubtedly the most important sport. There is no other sport that combines so many layers of thought, planning, and strategizing with the virtues of PATIENCE, PERSPECTIVE, and SELFLESSNESS. In what other sport must you wait for your turn multiple times per game, without ever being able to "jump" in the order (through a turnover)? In what other sport must you wait 162 games for a result? In what other sport can you actually "sacrifice"?
There is no sport more human than baseball. While I understand the current generation's desire for fast-paced activities that appeal to a short attention span, I contend that baseball can save our children, can save our minds -- if we have the patience to let it.
So why the two week break? Here's why:
Spring Break: Took a trip to Arizona to watch my Cubs.
Finishing Grades: End of the quarter brought a massive amount of grading on.
Writing Fiction: Trying to actually finish something worth publishing!
Here's the upcoming plan for the blog (to my dozens of readers):
- Mondays/Tuesdays will get one blog devoted to either random thoughts or crooners.
- What I'm Reading Wednesdays will be once a month, so I can actually have something different to read!
- Thursdays/Fridays will get one blog devoted to PHILOSOPHY
Three blogs a week are much more readable for anyone who may want to follow, and I can focus on my off days on writing fiction -- my true passion.
'Til we meet again...
Often on Mondays, I will try to think of something related to learning that might be of value to write about. Today I’m taking a different tack. I am going to pass along one of my favorite anecdotes. This story, told by Buddhist monk Ajahn Brahm, who resides in Australia, puts into perspective the nature of the human mind in a tangible, amusing fashion. I urge you to relate this to your life once you’ve read it – it can lead to greater equanimity and happiness.
Many years ago, Ajahn Brahm and his fellow monks bought land in Australia to create their monastery. The land was vast, the resources plentiful, but there were no structures or buildings. Being a group of Buddhists – and having just spent quite a lot on land – they didn’t have enough money to simply pay for the construction. In lieu of that, they had supplies donated and set to work building their new homes.
Ajahn Brahm, who had studied Theoretical Physics in college, was now put to the task of bricklaying. He was in charge of constructing walls. For those of you who have never laid brick, it is a tedious process that most people want to do perfectly. I mean, you’re building a wall – you don’t want cracks, holes, or ugly deformities.
So he would lay bricks and, if one of them went askew, he would scrape the mortar, fill in the crooked area, and adjust the problem to perfection. This was a painstaking process that took days, but at the end of his project, he looked at what he had created. Stepping back, the first thing he noticed was that there were two bricks near the center of the wall that were off-kilter. There were two bad bricks.
He tried to scrape the mortar, but it had dried. He went to the leaders of the monastery and asked if he could destroy the wall and start over. “Do we have a bulldozer? Dynamite?” But they simply said there was not enough money and he would have to leave the wall is it was.
This tormented Ajahn Brahm. For several months, he dwelled on the fact that the ugliest wall in the monastery was the one that he had built. If people came to the grounds for a tour, he often volunteered to lead them – just so he could skip going past that wall!
One day, though, he saw a group coming back from a tour with another monk. One of the visitors raved about the quaintness of the buildings and made a comment about a singular wall that he particularly adored. Naturally, it was Ajahn Brahm’s.
The monk looked at the guest and said, “Are you serious? Are you blind? What are you talking about? Couldn’t you see the two bad bricks?”
What the man said next puts the inherent nature of depression and obsession into perspective.
He said, “I did see those bricks. But I also saw the 998 good ones that surrounded it.”
Too often in life, we focus on the two bad bricks instead of looking at the many wonderful things around us. It’s incredible when you think about how the cancer of a relative, or the unrequited love in our life, or the debt we are under can make us forget about the many fantastic things that are a part of our life. We focus on the one or two bad bricks and conclude that our life must be miserable.
This is absurd! When put into proper perspective, our problems are all, in some way, temporary. There is nothing so consuming – even our own illnesses! – that we cannot appreciate the “good” we have. I once heard someone say, “If you are alive, then more is right with you than wrong.” Think about that – it’s true.
Years later, when Ajahn Brahm told this story to an audience, a man came to him afterward and said, “Don’t worry, I do construction and make mistakes all the time. Only in my line of work, when we screw up, we just call it a ‘feature’ and let people know it costs more!”
So from now on, when things go badly in your life, try to think of them as “features,” things that make you more valuable. And don’t forget to pay attention to all of the parts of your body that don’t have cancer, all of the people in your life who do love you, and all of the things you can experience that don’t cost money. Because they far outweigh the two bad bricks.
Inspired by Uncertainty
If there's one thing I've become certain about in my adulthood, it's that I will never be certain about anything. This is a truth that I handle better on some days than others.
Our society does this confusing thing to us as we grow up where it presents black-and-white "facts" as reality. Think about it: nearly everything pits good versus evil when you are young. In movies, there is a hero and a villain. On TV shows, there is a good guy and a bad guy. At school, there are right ways to behave and wrong ways to behave. And at home, there's a nice way to talk to people and a mean way. Rarely is there anything in between.
Obviously, I see the practical reasons why this binary construct must exist. The brains of children are not complex enough to view the many gradations of truth. Telling a child that lying is sometimes okay is like handing a loaded gun to a lunatic. Sure, you might explain what to do and what not to do, but that gun is probably going off eventually. Better to hide the gun.
But this presents a particular problem for critical thinkers as we reach adulthood: we struggle with our expectations of static, consistent feedback from our actions. We're told if we get good grades all the way through college, we will get a good job. If we treat people with kindness, others will treat us that way. And we hold the falsity to be self-evident that dotting all of our "i"s and crossing all of our "t"s will eventually lead us to a plateau -- where we've "made it" in life. This simply isn't reality.
Reality is a world where the guy that speeds past you and cuts you off sometimes makes the yellow light instead of you. It's a world where lazy, unmotivated people can come up with a single idea that makes them fabulously wealthy while you work 10 hours a day to live paycheck-to-paycheck. But even these are not certainties.
There is no map in the corner of your screen telling you where the end of each level is going to be. There's no statistical analysis that can optimize the decisions you make. There's just moving forward into a future shrouded by the leaves of trees along your journey, and there's just doing the best you can to make choices that don't hurt anyone.
This realization used to frighten me. On some days -- and regarding certain circumstances -- it still does. But I've also accepted that this complete and utter freedom has the best kind of utility for an artist: inspiration.
Writing allows you to play out every situation, every uneasy fear, and every "what if" possible. You can fuck up, and the worst consequence is tearing up the page and starting over. But the best kind of writing is the kind where you explore these uncertainties, these arbitrary decisions we make, and you make readers realize they are not alone in feeling the way they do.
I think that deep down, we all believed that one day we would "feel" like adults. That never happens, as far as I can see. Unless you have a blessed ignorance or cursed apathy about existence, most of us get the sense that we aren't "ready" for a lot that comes our way. I called someone this past week and told them I was refinancing my condo. "Refinancing" felt like such an adult word. How could they let a child like me "refinance" a condo? Wait, how did they let this same child buy a condo? But the irony is that the very people who approved my loan, signed off on the deed, and collect my property taxes all have moments where they feel like children in grown peoples' clothes. We are all babies playing dress-up and house. And sometimes it's harder than we expected.
But that makes writing so much more vital (and reading, too). It allows us to wear another's shoes, or glasses, or brazier, or dominatrix costume, or whatever. We can play out our hopes, our dreams, and best of all, our fears -- all for an audience to relate to. Sometimes it leads to a sense of what we really want. Other times it just stirs us up even more. But it offers catharsis; it offers a sounding board. It has led to some of the best literature, film, and music of all time. So instead of feeling overwhelmed by this uncertainty, I try to turn it into new worlds.
Imagine a world where Poe's darkness had no need for an outlet, where Beethoven was just a deaf guy content without challenging himself, or where David Lynch decided to keep his red-room to himself.
How terribly ordinary the "certain" life would be.
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