Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Remembering Epiphanies

It's amazing how impotent philosophical epiphanies can be. Like, they are not enough. They are the moments when we decide to plant the tree. They are the energy behind digging the hole and dropping in the seed and covering it up. Plants, however, need to be watered, or they die.

I'm talking about issues as straight-forward as weight-loss: "Today I am going to begin exercising and eating properly because I don't want to die..." But I am also talking about deeper ideas. Those ideas that we know are a key to our personal happiness; a realization that we need to have in order to make sense out of existence. For instance, in 2011, I wrote a song called "Kaleidoscope." This is the chorus:

Could it be the soul is a kaleidoscope,
Changing shape and shifting colors --
Lit by different kinds of light
From one day to another?

In subsequent verses, "day" turns into "year" and then into " decade to another..." You get the picture.

It's based on the realization that we humans tend to look for that thing that fulfills us in life, as if is (or will be) one constant thing. As if even if it were a few things, that those few things would please us equally at all stages of life. It seemed to me, when this occurred to me, that the soul (human spirit; mid -- however you want to say it) must be too complex to respond to the same thing forever and (especially) at all times. Sure, there must be truths to what pleases us, but, even if we are deeply pleased by, say, swimming, swimming might not always please us -- not forever and not every day.

Seems like a solid idea. But the key is to remember it and to call it to memory at the right times; or before it is too late. (One must water the tree.) If one finds himself doing the same thing that used to give him joy, will he do it for months or a year or for a decade in dissatisfaction before it occurs to him that the kaleidoscope that is his soul might have shifted? That he needs to seek a different light? Will he make adjustments before he concludes that life, itself, is unfulfilling?

The epiphany is one thing, but one must remind himself to act when it proves true. That's harder.

(Here is "Kaleidoscope," if you care for a listen.)

Monday, December 28, 2015

Tunnel-vision Writing

I've heard countless old people complain about being "forgotten about" in various ways; sometimes literally and sometimes in terms of "the world." As I transition into my fifties, I begin to understand more what they mean.
A guy you might not have grown up with.

I just read an article online and it referenced Jessica Biel. It said something about "the girl we all grew up watching on 7th Heaven."  I don't know about you, but I was twenty-eight when that show came out. (I was also in a stage of life at which TV almost didn't exist for me...but that is not relevant to my point here.)

So, the the thing is, "we all" did not "grow up" watching 7th Heaven.

Now, I am no Yale student who needs to be made to feel comfortable and cozy and "included" in everything and I am sure not going to call for an end to exclusionary writing and the resignation of the writer because he bwoke my widdle hawt, but I sure as heck am going point out the tunnel vision of many writers, especially when it comes to popular culture.

I could use this as an opportunity to lambast the self-indulgence and self-centeredness of "kids today," but I won't. [Insert sly grin.] But I do wonder if young writers are thinking, at all, of "audience" when they write. Because they are doing one of two things: 1) not thinking and being short-sighted enough to not imagine an audience outside of their peers or 2) deliberately excluding a wider (and older or younger audience). Number two really makes no sense. Why would any online writer deliberately limit his audience unless he or she were writing a very focused blog -- like a blog for ham radio enthusiasts? (Granted, though, that certain sites cultivate a certain demographic...but when a subject could be universal, what's the point of limiting things?)

If I wrote a piece about Happy Days, I sure would not refer to it as a show "we all grew up watching" -- not if my blog wasn't called, Middle-aged Daily.

I'll be okay. Don't worry about me. But writing, unless it is in a personal journal, should not be an intellectual form of intellectual auto-erotica. Either writing teachers are doing a lousy job of teaching "audience" or parents are churning out kids who think only of themselves. You decide.

Monday, December 21, 2015

The Value of Ugly Christmas Trees

Here's an idea for the parents of young kids. I blew my chance. I could do it now, but my boys are a little old to get the full impact.

It's not a new idea, exactly. Charles Schulz presented it to the world in his Charlie Brown Christmas episode, but in the episode, it happened sort of by accident: Charlie Brown messed up and got an ugly little tree (though, he did intentionally choose a real tree in a sea of aluminium ones). The Peanuts characters discovered, as a result of this accident, that they could make the ugly beautiful.

How great an idea would it be, though, for parents of young kids to purposefully pick out the ugliest Christmas tree on the lot and to bring it home to make beautiful?

I wish we had done it. I can see us standing on the lot, the boys' little eyes searching around. I can see myself saying, "So, what about this tree? It has a big hole on one's crooked on's kind of a weak green. No one is going to buy it, but I'll bet we can make it beautiful..."

Imagine the educational value; the creative power it would have given the boys; the visible evidence of what a family can do together; the acceptance of the idea that life is never perfect but that is can be made more perfect; the lesson in the value of optimism; the conveyance of the message that there is beauty in difference and that there is even beauty in ugliness. "Beauty is truth, truth beauty," after all.

In my mind, I see, nestled in a branch-less gap turned unashamedly toward the front, a little cluster of Nativity figures, gently lit to a buttery yellow by surrounding string lights and I wish that our tree, this year, had such a deformity in it.

Alas. Maybe you can do it with your kids.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Either/Or Stupidity

Maybe it is because I am currently teaching the American transcendentalists,  but it occurs to me that there is a space between faith-based thinking and pure intellectualism, and, that this place is the right place to be. Sadly, few people seem to live there because the idea of not committing to either "realism" or "faith" has been made to seem weak.

The famous skeptic and illusionist, James Randi, once said: "I have absolutely no belief in an afterlife...I am a realist." On the other end of things, there are those who quote the old saying by Stuart Chase: "For those who believe, no proof is necessary. For those who don't believe, no proof is possible." I'm not sure of the exact context of Chase's quotation, but I have seen it used by religious folk as a defense of faith. Used in that context, I think both Chase's quotation and Randi's are equally foolish.

I have addressed the idea of fence-sitting before. There is an extreme anger toward those who wait to declare an opinion until they had thoroughly reasoned it through. While eternal fence-sitting is non-productive, the view from the fence is the best one to serve as a prelude to the drawing of a conclusion.

Octave Taessaert
I have spent a lifetime, for instance, considering the subject of abortion. I have never written about it because I'm not sure what to say. I know how I feel, but how I feel is not as important as what I understand, when it comes to arguing. And one must not speak until his words are in perfect order and all possible arguments and counter-arguments have been considered. I feel I am almost ready to write about abortion. Almost. I'm 47.

The assumption that the unexplainable is untrue is not realism; it's stupidity. As I have said before, there are a lot of things in quantum physics that can't be explained, yet they are. Granted, I don't believe people sit on clouds and play the harp in heaven, but for one to write off a belief in the afterlife while living in a world full of scientists who believe in the probability of alternate universes just strikes me as asinine.

The transcendentalists believed that intuition was the path to truth -- that it overcame the limitations of the senses. They did not believe that reason through observation was useless, but that it can only take us so far. Intuition was the way to the deepest of truths. Intuition does for the understanding of the natural world what poetry does for the understanding of the human condition: It does not tell us how the joints of existence are connected, but gives us an emotional understanding of its life-force.

The world should not be an either-or place. James Randi has done some great work, but it's as foolish to say that being a realist precludes the idea of an afterlife (of any kind) as it is to say that heaven is a big cartoon full of people lying around on cumulus chaise-lounges.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Identity and Reality

There is a famous adage made even more famous by Star Trek: "The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one." Many take this to be incontrovertible. Morally, most agree that it is better to, for instance, save the lives of five people rather than to save one, given the choice.

Of course, given circumstances, if I had to choose between saving one of my sons or five other people, I know that I would save my son. Is that right? Maybe not. Maybe many people would say that is a selfish decision. Selfish or not, I know what I would do. All this goes to prove is that sometimes instinct -- especially the paternal instinct -- drives us harder than social morality does.

Regardless, I would argue that the adage above is, at least logically and ethically, pretty true. If I were a fire chief, I would hesitate to send fifteen of my firefighters into an out-of-control inferno in order to save one man who was probably doomed. (Of course, if I were a fireman and the person inside were, say, a small child, my instincts might -- as they have done for many a heroic fireman -- send me headlong into the blaze, regardless of orders...)

So, it is clear that the idea of the many being more important than the one does have its "hinge," so to speak. Nevertheless, because it has become a generally accepted adage, many people who are in the extreme minority have been (sometimes unbeknownst to the rest of society) pushed to the fringes of social existence. We seem to have, in the past, adopted the notion (unconsciously) that those who are different are inconsequential; even (and this is a conscious thing, when it happens) loathsome.

Recently, we started lauding sensitivity toward those who do not fit the mold of what it ordinary --which is an unqualified good thing. No one should have to feel worthless or completely outcast, or, at worst, depressed and/or suicidal... But, have we lost the valuable anchor of the old adage? Have we begun acting as if the needs of the "one" outweigh the needs of the many? Are we overcompensating? Has the pendulum swung too far?

I recently heard a news report, on NPR, of a school situation in Illinois, in which U.S. Department of Education has decided that a district: violating the rights of a student who identifies as female by not allowing her unrestricted use of the girls' locker room. The district now has a month to change its policy or risk losing millions of federal dollars. 

One study indicates that 0.3 percent of the total population are transgender. Other studies seem to fall in a similar range. (These studies are of adults, but, it gives us, at least, a sense of the range.) 

With this in mind -- with this tiny percentage -- how far should we go to make transgender folks feel comfortable? Is it discrimination to tell a person who was born male that he needs to change in a private room rather than among young women? That he can't play on a girls' team?

Is it okay just to say: If you are uncomfortable changing clothes in front of boys/girls, then use the bathroom to change? Is it okay to say that, because you are physically male, you need to play on male teams (for gender-divided sports)? 

I think the number of girls who would be made uncomfortable by a biological male having "unrestricted use of the girls' locker room" is much greater than the number of those who might be comfortable with it. I admit it: this is me guessing. I think it is a reasonable guess, though. (Anecdotally, in discussion with a class of high school seniors, of mine, not one girl said she would be comfortable with a biological male changing in the girls' locker room.)

I also believe that every human deserves respect, friendship, love and dignity: gay, straight, transgender, Muslim, Catholic, Jew, disabled, etc.  I do not, however, think every human always deserves for the circumstances to be changed in order to make him or her feel comfortable; therefore, I think it is okay for a boy who identifies as a girl to have to change in the bathroom. I really do. I don't think, however, that that boy needs to be tortured as a result of his sexual identification. If a reader thinks that making that boy change in a bathroom is torture, we must agree to disagree. 

We all want to fit into society, somewhere, but it is equally important to embrace our own differences. In doing so, one must, it seems to me, accept certain levels of inconvenience (and, perhaps, even, some pain) as a result. Maybe it is okay for a boy who identifies as female to have to deal with changing in the bathroom until he is able to (or decides to) make the physical transition. 

In the end, it amounts to a question: How much do we change for a group that is at an (estimated) 0.3% of our population? I would truly love for every person to be happy, but we all know that can never be. We have come very far and I hope we will go farther, but perfect social harmony is impossible. 

We have proven that society's attitudes can change. Only a few decades ago, interracial marriage was a real issue of contention. Now gay marriage is legal and homosexuality (though still not "mainstream" in its overall acceptance) is no longer a life relegated to the shadows. These things resulted from a change in ideology; from a wider acceptance on both a personal and social level. 

To me, though, simply shoehorning someone into "the norm" is not real acceptance. To that boy who identifies as a girl, I would say: "I don't want you to change in the same room as my daughter. Sorry. I do, however, want you to know that this does not mean I don't value you as a human being. You are welcome to eat at my house and be friends with my kids, but, if you are uncomfortable in the boys' locker room, I'd rather you change in private than undress in front high school girls. Unlimited access to whatever you want can be an infringement on the rights of others. If it comes down to an infringement on the rights of 0.3% of the population, I will err on the side of the majority, as long as the majority treats you with sensitivity and respect."

This is, of course, attack-able. I know it full well. It's easy for someone to say that what I said above contradicts the notion that I value the person in question as a human. Again, I simply disagree. I think, at some point, the comfort of the many needs to outweigh the comfort of the long as the one is safe and is treated with civility. 

Another possible counterpoint to this is that I am downgrading by using words like "comfortable" and "convenient" and "inconvenient" -- that a transgender boy having to change separate from all of the other kids is more than an "inconvenience." If humans treat each other well, though, these words are really all it would come down to if a transgender boy had to change in a bathroom. If the reality is that kids would give him a hard time, then insensitive parenting is to blame...which seems always to be at the base of every problem.

Friday, December 11, 2015

The Uses of Humor

It's good to be funny. Funny can help in a lot of ways.

I suppose it can be considered conceited for one to simply say that he is funny, but, after all, I was voted most humorous in my eighth grade class. So, there is some documentation that I am, in fact, a knee-slapping, laugh-riot.

That said (you be the judge) I have found humor to be a wonderful tool in various like situations.

As a kid, for example, I used to dread going out with the family to get the Christmas tree. It always turned into a verbal brawl as to which tree to get. This went on for years, until, around the age of fifteen, I started saying, "Well...time to go fight overt the Christmas tree..." Everyone laughed and, strangely, everyone stopped arguing. We satirized ourselves into harmony and tree-picking became a pleasure again...

When once asked to speak to the students at the school (in which I am the vice principal of academics) about uniform dress codes, I surprised a former principal by doing what amounted to a stand-up routine that satirized kids for thinking they are being rebellious by not tucking in their shirts. The students laughed through the whole presentation; then a documented decrease in uniform infractions occurred.

I have used satire and humor with my sons to make lasting points about life. For instance, a previously mentioned episode in which, after my son -- ready to go into seventh grade -- heard an adult say that "after seventh grade, the real problems start..." I broke into mock sobbing and lamented that fact that he would stop being my friend as soon as the school year started. We both laughed about it then; we still laugh about it; we are still close.

As recently as yesterday, when, in class, one of my high school juniors threw a container of Mott's applesauce across the room, I used humor as a tool. Did I yell? Did I "write him up"? Did I express outrage? No. Using the dramatic silence presented by the thrown fruit treat, I quietly and circuitously lamented the fact that my life -- a life driven only by the desire to teach literature and to help the youth of our country -- had come to this. A monologue followed, concluding with a speculation about how I would tell my wife how my day went: "Well, there was one incident in which a sixteen-year-old threw applesauce, but other than that..."

The class laughed; the missile commander was sufficiently satirized (and affected) and the class went on...with no further problems...

Perhaps we all jumped to the serious too fast. I know a lot of parents and teachers do so. sometimes a good joke is your best lesson, your best illustration; or, even, your best punishment...

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

An Open Letter to God: Part 1

Dear God:

I think that if I said that I understood you I would be committing one of the most heinous acts of egotism possible. So many people seem to do that every day, without even thinking about it. It seems obvious that, if you exist, then I have even less chance of understanding you than an ant has of understanding me.

I can't explain you; I can't see you; I can't logically (without acrobatics) support your existence, but I can feel you. I feel you in the love I have for my children and for my wife. I feel you in the most profound works of art and music. I feel you around me.

The only thing I know for sure, is that when I feel you there the most strongly, it is in the presence of the beautiful and the profound. And when things are ugly or painful, it is as if you are holding up a lamp for me, in the dark distance, ready to show me the way out -- just a glow in the fog. I don't think a prayer equals an immediate solution, but you sure don't feel like you're the source of the darkness and you sure don't feel like you've gone away to leave me on my own, ever.

It seems as if people have felt you forever and that they have tried to understand you in their own ways. Whether they were nomadic ancient tribes or villagers cowering under the might of a thunderstorm, they have done their best to understand you; to name you; to envision and to depict you...even to pidgeonhole you...

...but, they felt you, just as I do. This, at least, I know.

I'm supposed to be smart, so people think it is really foolish of me to keep believing in you. If I am smart, though, I recognize that it is as foolish to be sure you don't exist as it is to profess to know everything about you. Impossible and inexplicable things happen every day. They happen, whether we can reason them out or not. You've been happening in the minds of humans for millennia. You must be, then, in some way -- if in an inexplicable and intangible way -- real.

Just as electricity illuminates rooms, you light things up in the minds of people. And, like electricity, you can't be seen, but you definitely can be felt. I'm not willing to argue about the whys and the particulars. I'll never take part in a "form" argument about whether, for example, you are "male" or "female." To me, the argument is irrelevant -- even silly. To me, you are the same source of life and wonder you have been to everyone from the caveman to the computer programmer.

I can feel you and that is enough to keep me looking up. It's also enought to keep me constantly curious.


Friday, December 4, 2015

Pelted By Info's just that I think that I am getting tired of my information finding me. I liked it better when I had to go find out what I wanted to know.

The worst thing about paradigm shifts is that they are a little like continental drifting: you don't feel the shift happening until you are able to take a giant step from the Jersey Shore right onto the beach in Portugal.

All of a sudden, I don't need go out to do research in a library. If I want information, on say, drums, my Twitter feed throws it at me all day long, every day. No need to go to the music store or to subscribe to Modern Drummer magazine. News creeps up in the margins of my Facebook page. News just...stands there...waving its arms around and trying to get my attention. And succeeding.

It's like standing in the middle of a gymnasium full of people who are throwing ping pong balls at me, every waking hour.

It's just now starting to sting a little. How long before it actually drives me mad?