Visit me at (Click here for link) I have "moved" some older posts to this site.

2010: What Will Be Remembered?

I just wrote an overview of 2010, speculating about what future historians will consider to be the most important events of this past year. I published it on Hubpages. Here is the link.

The Tax Compromise: Who Won?

I just published an article with the above title on Hubpages. Click here for the link. I'll publish these "little posts" for a while in case any followers still visit here.

I'm "Moving"

A few months ago, I started an account at a site called “Hubpages,” posting past blog entries to see if they could find some more readers. Click here for my Hubpages profile page. Recently, I have been getting more traffic with my Hubpages account than on this site, so I have decided to shut down this blog and publish exclusively over there. Some of these “hubs” will be (slightly revised) past blog posts, but I plan to keep writing new stuff as well.

If you scroll down on my Hubpages profile page, you will find a list of the articles that I have posted, with some of them arranged by general topic. You can also search my profile for certain topics, follow me, and subscribe to an RSS feed just like you might be doing with this blog. I also appreciate any comments, and if you click on ads or buy stuff from Amazon through my site, I will still make a little money. As always, thanks for reading, and I hope to “see” you over at Hubpages.

Christmas: A Few of my Favorite (and Unfavorite) Things

A classic John Lennon Christmas song that I still hear on the radio several times every Christmas season.

In honor of the holiday season, I decided to compile a list of the things that I enjoy the most about Christmas. Also, in the interest of being fair and balanced, and to get a few things off of my chest, I will list a few things that I find somewhat annoying about this time of year. To ensure that this post will not end with me sounding like a scrooge, I will start with the negatives:

1) Christmas music saturation. As you will see shortly, I actually like a lot of the standard Christmas music. Old songs, like familiar smells, can instantly connect me to memories of Christmases past. The problem is that the Christmas season seems to get extended each year, so the songs start to play by early November. So by the time I have heard the 25th different singer break out into “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire,” I have had enough.

2) Advertisements that start too early. This is closely related to the previous complaint. Since Christmas has evolved into a materialistic orgy, and the American economy cannot survive without a healthy dose of winter shopping, the holiday advertising blitz starts earlier each year. So as soon as the Halloween decorations disappear, Christmas trees pop up in department stores everywhere.

3) Taking down the decorations. This made my list for a few reasons. First, I like Christmas, so it is always depressing to see another one pass. Second, I don’t like excess work, and taking down decorations, unlike putting them up, feels like a chore. This pain was especially acute when we still got real Christmas trees. Needles would end up all over the place when you moved the thing out, and there is something inherently depressing about sticking a dead tree out on the curb. When we switched to plastic a few years ago, it made the whole process less painful. At least we know that we get to see our old friend next year. (Although I miss the smell of pine needles in the house.)

4) Stressed out people. Being a guy, I may not be qualified to make this complaint. My wife, after all, is the one who fulfills all of the duties that make our traditional Christmas possible. I still find it funny, however, when I hear people talking about how stressed out they are trying to get ready for Christmas. If the shopping, Christmas cards, cooking, decorating, parties, and all the rest of it are so stressful, then why not drop a few of these activities? There is no law than I know of commanding, “Thou shalt mail Christmas cards” or “thou shalt buy Christmas presents for every friend and relative that thou knoweth.”

5) Shopping. See explanation for “stressed out people” above. I don’t like shopping for any purpose, and gift giving, especially for adults, is the worst. If adults want something, and they have at least as much money as I – which is most Americans, by the way – then they will go out and buy it. So in some cases, what we call gift giving is merely the fulfillment of someone else’s shopping list, a glorified form of running errands for them. And if the shopper has no list to work with, then it is a crapshoot that more often than not wastes money and leads to the accumulation of excess crap in the recipient’s garage. Adults should save themselves the time and stress and limit gift giving to kids. You can’t go wrong with toys and video games.

6) People offended by anything associated with Christmas. People offended by Christmas are usually bothered by Christianity in general. Given the various ways that Christianity has been connected to some horrific events in history, including intense conflicts between Christians and followers of other religions, I can somewhat understand their feelings. It is important to recognize, however, that so much of what is currently associated with Christmas – Santa Claus, wreaths, lights, trees, gifts, even the date of the holiday – is essentially pagan or secular. If not for these non-Christian elements, Christmas would involve little more than some manger scenes, a few religious Christmas songs, and another day on the calendar where people felt obligated to go to church. Christmas is not even a big deal in the Bible. Only two of the gospels mentioned Jesus’ birth, and they can’t even get the story straight. The manger scenes that we see today are a strange amalgam of the contradictory Christmas stories told in the books of Matthew and Luke. So if the phrase “Merry Christmas” makes you cringe, you might want to consider getting over it. The person who said it might not even be a Christian anyway. And when people say “Happy Holidays,” we know what most of them probably mean.

7) People who think that only Christians have a right to celebrate the holiday. See previous item in list. Holidays take on a life of their own, and the secular/pagan traditions have as much validity as the Christian ones. Since Christianity co-opted some pagan elements when the Christmas holiday was established, Christians should not complain if non-Christian traditions often take precedence over their own.

OK, I’m glad that I got those out of my system. Truth be told, the following things that I like about Christmas far outweigh the negatives. Underneath it all, I am a sentimental old sap:

1) Decorating. I like all of the traditional Christmas decorations: lights, trees, wreaths, etc. I do admit that they can get a bit gaudy at times, but I can even live with that. I’d hate see what the electric bill must be on some of these excessively decorated homes. We never go too crazy at our house, largely because I don’t want to put in the time. The tree decorating party, however, is one of our favorite family traditions.

2) Cold weather. Like a guy complaining about shopping, many would argue that a Southern Californian has no right to say anything about cold weather. I love the feeling, however, of sitting inside nice and warm when the weather is cold, wet, and/or snowy outside. If I lived in Montana, of course, I might not be romanticizing bad weather. Of course, if a person in Montana gets tired of the cold, then maybe they should consider getting out of Montana. It’s like me, a resident of Orange County, complaining about an excessive number of Republicans, gated housing communities, breast implants, or mega-churches.

3) Vacation. Winter break is my longest extended vacation of the year. Because I work every summer, the longest continuous break that I get at that time of year is a couple of weeks. In the winter, I get at least a month off, and some of my schools have an even longer break. I like my job, but it’s always nice to recharge the batteries. After teaching for so long, I don’t know if I could ever move to a nine to five job all year round.

4) Watching kids open presents. When I was a kid, Christmas was the highlight of the year. I had a lot of sleepless, Christmas Eve nights, waiting in anticipation for what would turn up the next day. When I had no individual source of income, Christmas, along with my birthday, was the only chance to get a mess of stuff at one time. Watching my kids on Christmas morning is a great chance to relive some of that excitement.

5) Classic Christmas music. Most of my favorites are still the traditional Christian hymns and carols. I don’t believe in the literal truth of the lyrics anymore, but I still enjoy some of the general spiritual truths and desires embedded into the music. They also tap in to the sentimental side that I, as a male American, try to keep hidden most of the time.

6) Traditions. Some of the main things that my wife and I try to provide for our kids are traditions that they can fondly remember as they grow older. As I have grown older, memories closely associated with family have become the most meaningful aspects of the Christmas holiday. I could care less about getting all kinds of gifts any more, although I will take cash if anyone cares to donate to my writing fund.

7) Christmas sentiments. Songs like the John Lennon tune included in this post can sound naïve and sappy, but so what. It is highly unlikely that peace on earth will ever be fully achieved, but striving for a more peaceful world will always be a noble goal. We should strive to prevent cynicism from getting the best of us, especially around Christmas time.

Is the Enemy Human?

I just heard this song for the first time about five minutes ago. I will have to find out more about this artist.

I read a story in the latest issue of Newsweek (December 13, pgs. 31-32) that caused me to be a bit disappointed in myself. It raised the question of how common it was for Afghan insurgents to suffer from some degree of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. This article then proceeded to give some examples of specific Afghan insurgents who showed all of the signs. Strangely, this story caught me completely by surprise. Over the last few years, I have heard and read several stories about American soldiers suffering from PTSD. But for some reason, I never considered the possibility that the “bad guys” might suffer from the same problem.

So how do I explain my cluelessness? Whether I like it or not, it is actually pretty simple. I have apparently bought in to the common American public perception of our enemies in the “War on Terror.” Because our enemies are supposedly all a bunch of religious fanatics looking to die a glorious martyr’s death, these must be people who actually relish warfare. So if you follow this “logic,” then there is no reason why people would be traumatized by an experience that on some level they enjoy. By characterizing the enemy in this way, they essentially become a different breed of human. In fact, they are hardly viewed as human at all.

Dehumanizing an enemy is perfectly natural during war, particularly when fighting an enemy that uses such brutal and nasty tactics. Still, as a History teacher who has read tons of accounts of societies dehumanizing their enemies, I thought that I was more aware of this potential tendency in myself. Apparently, I am not as insightful as I had hoped. You would think that I could recognize that people are people. Regardless of ethnic, ideological, or cultural differences, all human brains react to extreme trauma in similar ways. And all of us, regardless of who may be the “good” or “bad” guy, are conditioned by surroundings and experiences that may cause us to dehumanize others.

This little post, believe it or not, is not designed to make a statement about the war in Afghanistan or about politics in general. I’m not trying to argue that we should somehow feel sorry for our enemies or seek to treat them for mental illness. But whatever your views on our current wars or on war in general, it is important to recognize the danger of dehumanizing an enemy. Portraying an enemy as a different type of creature, a sort of “superwarrior” with no regard for himself or for the lives or others, can lead to excessive pessimism and, possibly, unnecessarily prolonged fighting. After all, how can you defeat, outlast, or negotiate with people who love to fight so much? In addition, it can lead your society to justify acts of violence that might be counterproductive. If you view large numbers of civilian casualties - so-called “collateral damage” - as an acceptable cost of war, then you may create as many enemies as you destroy. It will, after all, give the dead civilians’ loved ones good reason to dehumanize the society whose military did the damage.

John Lennon (and Heroes)

This is an Elton John song dedicated to John Lennon. It was recorded a couple of years after Lennon's death.

I didn’t really get into music until I was in high school. Like many people that I have talked to over the years, high school was, by and large, a lonely time for me. Music therefore became a refuge, a means of both connecting to the world and escaping from it. This is why I would often gravitate toward songs that could be a bit on the depressing side. In both the lyrics and emotions expressed, I could personally relate to both the feelings and the message. Much of the stuff that I listened to, which can be loosely classified as “classic rock,” was already considered old at that time. The fact that some people my age saw it as old and outdated only added to the appeal. It was just one of many signs that I was deeper and smarter than they were.

Like many classic rock aficionados, the first band that I really loved was The Beatles. In my humble opinion, there is no rock band in history that produced such a wide variety of incredibly catchy songs. My favorites then, as now, came from their later period when the music became more experimental, no longer consisting of nothing but catchy love songs. And the most experimental of these songs tended to be written by John Lennon. In both lyrical content and style, his songs had an edge not found in most of Paul McCartney’s music. His voice also had a raspy, soulful, world-weary quality, the same difficult to define traits found in all of my favorite voices: John Fogerty, Sam Cooke, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, etc.

With Lennon, however, it was more than just the music. In reading books about him and The Beatles, I found aspects of his personality that I thought were pretty cool: his sarcastic sense of humor, brutal honesty, liberal (“hippy”) idealism, and ability to recognize the silliness of his ridiculous level of fame. In many ways, he was a perfect hero for someone suffering from “teen angst.” He seemed able to see the stupidity all around him, and he was willing to take unpopular steps to make a better world, particularly with the various “publicity stunts” and songs designed to bring “peace.” As a kid growing up in the 1980’s who somewhat idealized the 1960’s, Lennon seemed to be the ultimate ‘60’s rebel hero.

So like many young people, I looked for heroes and tended to idealize them. Like Lennon, however, my childhood heroes were hardly perfect people: Magic Johnson, Bruce Springsteen, Babe Ruth, Jack London, J.D. Salinger, John Fogerty. Their primary appeal, however, was not the ethical quality of their lives. In an entertainment-crazed culture, my heroes became the best artists and athletes. I admired them for their remarkable talents, not for their general behavior. With Lennon, however, his flaws – drug use, infidelity to his wives, naïve idealism, occasionally foolish public statements – were almost part of the appeal. In his music and life, he could be so brutally open and honest, and agree with him or not, there was no denying the passion of his convictions. He put himself out on display, which was part of the reason why he provoked such strong positive and negative reactions. He made it more difficult for people to put him on a pedestal, a fact that could be annoying to those who did not want their heroes to be human.

A few days ago, people throughout the world were commemorating the 30th anniversary of Lennon’s death. No other entertainer, not even Elvis, can provoke such a reaction decades after his or her death. Some of this is due to circumstances. History is filled with examples of people who have become more deeply immortalized and idealized because they died a “martyr’s death.” If he were alive today, I wonder how much attention Lennon would still receive. How many more songs would he have recorded? Would he have reunited with The Beatles at some point? Would he still be out there today, fighting for “peace”? Or would he have gone back to what he did for most of the last five years of his life, staying at home as a full-time househusband? We will never know. But we can hopefully agree on one point. Whatever you think of Lennon’s politics and music, his murder, like all murders, was an unspeakable tragedy. And in his case, we lost a brilliant individual, a man whose youth could hardly be described as normal, just as he was reaching the age when most of us truly start to grow up.

Soccer Parents

I couldn't find a good soccer song, so I settled on this slightly cheesy tune that can make even the most masculine father choke up a little. Apparently, Darius Rucker, former lead singer of Hootie and the Blowfish, is now considered a country singer.

We just had a strange weekend. My younger daughter’s first ever soccer team was in an end-of-the-year tournament, so we were guaranteed to have two games on Saturday and at least one on Sunday. If her team did well and advanced to the semifinals, we might end up playing two additional games on Sunday. I had some conflicting feelings. My rational self wanted her team – and especially her personally - to do well, but not well enough to advance. After all, I did not want the entire weekend eaten up with soccer games. But then the games started, and my emotional self took over. So as I found myself yelling, jumping up and down, and exhorting her team to victory, it became clear that it is impossible to root against your child. This episode, then, can be added to a long list of irrational behavior carried out on behalf of my kids. It was more evidence that the state of parenthood can be classified as a mild form of insanity.

After winning two of the first three games, we advanced to the semifinals on Sunday afternoon. Her team outplayed the opponent, but the game ended in a one-one tie. The game then proceeded to one of the most unjust procedures in sports: penalty kicks. Five different players per team get one shot each, and most goals wins. For the first time, my wife got to experience what I feel when watching a Laker playoff game. Luckily for us, the other team relied heavily on a couple of great players. So after those two made their goals, the rest of their team missed. Three of our kids scored, so it was on to the finals.

My daughter would now have a chance to play a night game under the lights. And to make things more interesting, it rained pretty heavily off and on throughout the game. In the first half, there were a few close calls, but neither team was able to score. Then, in the third quarter, the other team managed to punch one through. I figured that this was the beginning of the end. Our girls were looking tired. It was, after all, their third game of the day and fifth of the weekend. But then, halfway through the fourth quarter, one of our best players managed to get a ball past the goalie from an almost impossible angle. Suddenly, there was hope again, but that would be the last goal of the day. Believe it or not, it was another one-one tie. This time, because it was the championship game, they decided to play a sudden death overtime period. Five minutes were played, and it was still a tie. Now if this was earlier in the day, it wasn’t raining, and there wasn’t another team waiting to play their championship game, then they might have played more overtimes with various scenarios that would make a goal more likely. But time had run out, so it was time for more penalty kicks. Believe it or not, each team made four of their five shots. So now it was sudden death penalty kicks involving the players who were not as good. Our sixth kicker barely missed, and the other team’s made it, and it was finally over.

So as this epic battle raged, I could not help standing there in the rain wondering what the hell we were doing. I was cold, wet, and my feet hurt from a whole day of standing and screaming. The kids, of course, had to be in more pain than I was. And yet, at the same time, as I watched those little girls playing their hearts out in the mud, I couldn’t help thinking, “It doesn’t get any better than this.” This was clearly a game – and a day - that we will remember for the rest of our lives. And hopefully, both of our daughters will have fond memories of their parents standing and yelling, hour after hour, rain or shine.
After a game and weekend like this, it was hard to see any player in this game as a loser. In sports, however, even with seven and eight-year olds, there can be only one official winner. But even the most chronically hyper-competitive parent had to take pride in the performance of everyone involved. After the game, there was a little ceremony where everyone received her first and second-place medals. And as my daughter carefully clutched her little medal under her jacket in order to make sure that it didn’t get wet, I knew that she would be looking forward to the next soccer season. Hopefully, she doesn’t expect to play in a championship game every year. Games like that don’t come along very often. That is probably a good thing. I don’t know if I could take it.

Can I Still Relate to Students?

A song about remembering our youth. There is something to be said for being young and "impractical."

I have almost reached a point in my life where I have been a teacher longer than I was ever a student. So soon, I will have given more tests than I ever took, delivered more lectures than I attended, and handed out more grades than I ever received. (That last one became true some time ago.) As time passes, it becomes more difficult for me to relate to students, particularly eighteen-year-old freshmen. Sure, I have some vivid memories of my early days as a college student. I remember being very nervous about the first college tests that I ever took, assuming that it would be infinitely harder than those easy high school exams. I remember how difficult it was to adjust to the idea of registering for individual classes each semester, always afraid that I would either sign up for the wrong classes or be unable to get the ones that I needed. And don’t get me started about the standard fears of an eighteen-year-old: What did I really want to do for a living? When will I stop getting zits? Has that girl in the second row noticed that I exist?

These memories, however, become more distant over time. Today, when I look back to my past, it feels like I am reflecting about a different person. I can no longer see the world through the eyes of my former self. And if I am unable to fully empathize with my former self, than how can I view the world through the eyes of modern day freshmen that have had various experiences so different from my own? I had things pretty easy in college. Mom and dad paid most of the bills, and I could focus my attention on classes (along with some other “extracurricular” activities). A lot of these kids are working full-time, dealing with family issues, having medical problems, and wondering how long they can even keep going to college.

I used to laugh at the old people complaining about the youth. Now, I sometimes find myself feeling the same way as those “old” folks. I often wonder what the heck these young people could possibly be thinking. Don’t they understand that skipping classes, ignoring reading assignments, wandering in late (and/or leaving early), and showing up to class without so much as a pencil in their hands will lead to failure? Don’t they realize that drinking oneself into oblivion the night before a test is a bad study strategy? Have they not learned that taking a class that you put no effort into passing is a waste of time? Once you have taught for a while, you can understand why some people in this profession became a bit burned out and disgruntled. You also tend to think that students are completely responsible for their failure, and they should have the common sense to understand what it takes to succeed in college.  It’s easy to forget that there may be many factors contributing to their struggles, and that being a student can at times be exhausting, boring, and extremely stressful.  It’s also easy to forget that we all did some pretty dumb things when we were younger.
Is the ability to empathize with students a necessary quality in an effective teacher? I hope not. As time passes, I will only get older, and young people growing up in a world very different from the one that I knew will seem even more foreign. Still, there are some difficulties faced by young people that are both timeless and universal. If nothing else, trying to remember some of our youthful struggles, and attempting to view our classes through the eyes of students, can reduce the chances that we teachers will get burned out. Remembering that a lot of us old people turned out OK in spite of ourselves can make us more optimistic about the current crop of kids.

Thank You Harry Potter

This post creates another excuse to post a CCR song.

My older daughter has become a bit of a reading machine. Since she is able to whip through children’s literature at her supposed grade level with ease, we decided that she was ready for the Harry Potter series. She quickly became hooked, and she is already halfway through the second book. So I decided that it was about time for me to go through this already legendary book series. I had thought about doing this for years, but I found it hard to justify the time investment. If I am going to use some precious free time to read, then shouldn’t I be reading something productive like History or classic literature?

But once my daughter got going, I now could justify proceeding with this reading adventure. First, it would give my daughter and me something to talk about and, hopefully, encourage her to keep going. Just yesterday, she was horrified to find that I had caught up with her, so she started reading in order to stay ahead of the old man. In addition, reading this series could possibly help me relate a little better to students. Most of my current students, after all, were raised on the Harry Potter series, and based on what I have seen in the movies, I am sure that I can find some stuff in these books that can be used to explain certain concepts that we cover. Plus, any evidence that I may actually be a human being who has not been living under a rock can create rapport with students, increasing the chances that they might listen to me a little more of the time. Of course, it is also possible that they will see me as a dorky old teacher reading kid’s books in a pathetic attempt to relate to their world. Still, even if Harry Potter does little to enhance my teaching, I will, at the least, get a chance to do some reading that is mostly for fun.

J.K. Rowling, along with all of the authors of popular children’s series, deserves a big thank you from librarians, educators, and parents. For decades, many of these promoters of reading have complained that children just don’t read enough. (Of course, I wonder how many books these “older” individuals have read lately?) The Harry Potter books, however, played some role in reversing this supposed trend for millions of young people during the late 1990’s and early 2000’s. Then, when the inevitable movies started coming out, these kids were able to see firsthand that books, by their very nature, are superior to movies. Movies are forced to leave out key details, and many readers may get annoyed when things just don’t look right and characters do not behave exactly as they should. One of the great things about reading, after all, is that readers are forced to visualize events, settings, and characters through their imaginations. Movies, particularly in our age of fancy, computerized special effects, leave almost nothing to the imagination. And no matter how visually impressive they are, movies can never quite replicate the internal world created by the reader. Hopefully, young people will not forget this lesson, and they can carry this love for reading into adulthood. Who knows, maybe some of them will even find History books interesting (instead of just watching occasional History movies).

J.K. Rowling is also a role model for aspiring writers everywhere. A realist, of course, would argue that for every J.K. Rowling, there are thousands of aspiring writers who never even get published. But still, she is the ultimate rags-to-riches story. Her rise to global fame must seem as unlikely and magical to her as the books that she writes. Few will ever experience that level of success, but there must be many other stories of artists who managed to make a living at their craft after years of perseverance. Harsh criticism and rejection can be painful, but it is important to keep in mind that publishers do not always know what the hell they are doing. How would you like to be one of the publishers who rejected the first Harry Potter book? Thankfully, someone eventually had the foresight to see the book’s potential, and young people everywhere, along with parents and teachers like me, will hopefully be reaping the benefits for years to come.

Internet Dependence

If you added some lyrics about computers and the internet, then this song, written about 40 years ago, would still be relevant. Of course, you would have to change the title and chorus to bring it up to date.

My DSL modem died yesterday. May he (or she) rest in peace. It was a good, loyal modem that lived a long and productive life. It saw me through my transition from limited internet user to blogging, facebooking, and downloading machine. By freeing me from the pains of the dial-up experience, it made it possible for me to revel in the joys of the World Wide Web.

Since my internet service only works with certain types of modems, I had some difficulty locating a proper replacement at any local stores. So I went to my parents’ house, where they were still blessed with a functioning cable modem, and found the proper device at Amazon. Unfortunately, it will take a couple of days to arrive.

At times like these, I realize just how internet dependent I have become. For one thing, I cannot do my job properly without web access. All of my correspondence with students, along with any administrative tasks that I have to perform, happens online. And that is just the start. The internet has also become my most common medium for performing economic tasks. I can’t remember what the inside of a bank looks like, and weeks often seem to pass between my use of any physical checks. Having never been much of a shopper, the experience today of entering a physical store is an incredible ordeal. The internet has become my shopping mall. I cannot escape the irony of buying my new modem online, and I can’t remember the last time that I bought a music CD. (I seem to remember something called a record store.)

So as I languish in my modemless existence, I feel like I have been cut off from civilization. It also makes my wish that I had joined the “Iphone” generation. Of course, you don’t have to feel too sorry for me. I still have that early 2000’s technological relic called a laptop, so I can always find my way to “Starbucks” or some other WiFi hub to get my fix.

I guess it’s official. I have now reached a point where given a choice of one of three services – television, phone, or internet – I would go with the web. It’s both fascinating and a little sad to think of how quickly this technology has gone from luxury to necessity. I love the technology, but I am disturbed by my state of dependence. It takes so little, after all, to completely disrupt my life. It was bad enough when a flat tire, power outage, or clogged toilet could completely ruin my day. God help me if I ever have some real problems.

Bible 101 (The Sheep and the Goats)

I am not a Christian in any conventional sense, but I love the simple melodies of many traditional gospel songs. This is a recent version of an old song that asks an even older question.

This blog post was inspired by a Facebook discussion of the Biblical passage in which Jesus tells the parable of the sheep and the goats (Matthew 25:31-46)Here is the key excerpt:

 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.  Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

So does God separate the saved and unsaved on the basis of behavior, as this passage seems to indicate? Or, as many other Biblical passages indicate, is faith in the basic tenets of Christianity the key to salvation?

As people who have read religion-related posts on this blog already know, I do not view the Bible in a conventionally Christian manner. Instead of viewing it as a single book with consistent, coherent themes, I see it as a collection of individual writings. The New Testament, for instance, was not formalized as a single volume until about 300 years after Jesus' death. So I am not surprised when passages from certain Biblical books conflict with verses found in others. The original writers, after all, would not strive to be consistent with other author’s works that they either knew nothing about, disagreed with, or saw as irrelevant to their concerns.

I have always found it interesting that the apostle Paul hardly ever talks about anything that Jesus directly said or did. The only major exception that I remember was when he discussed the Last Supper directly. So was he generally unaware of Jesus’ words and actions? It seems probable that during Paul’s time, the various oral traditions about Jesus’ life had not been formalized, written down, and/or widely circulated. Of course, it’s also possible that he was just not interested in the specific details of Jesus’ life. Instead, he focuses on the general meaning of Jesus' death and resurrection, explaining how Jesus’ sacrificial death makes eternal salvation possible. He emphasizes theological concepts, with faith being the central one, not Jesus’ moral teachings or his behavior.

The same can be said with the book of John, a book in which Jesus spends almost all of his time talking very directly about his identity and the importance of believing in him: "I am the bread of life," "I am the way, the truth, and the life," “I am the resurrection,” etc. Meanwhile, Mark's gospel, generally regarded as the oldest one, says repeatedly that Jesus kept his identity secret from the general public, speaking in parables that he only explained to the disciples. Mark also puts more emphasis on Jesus' actions, not his words. In Mark, Jesus spends almost all of his time in Galilee (the boonies) healing people and casting out demons; in John, he is always hanging out in Jerusalem, giving long, clear descriptions of himself to the religious authorities and the general public. In my view, these books that present two different "Jesuses" can only be reconciled if someone really wants them to be. But if you view these as completely separate works, with each having consistent themes regarding the Jesus that they were trying to present, the contradictions are understandable.

It's funny how often people are forced to argue that the Bible is not saying what it is saying. When Jesus said to turn the other cheek, he could not have really meant it. When he said that you should give a robber your second cloak after that person stole the first one, he obviously did not mean that either. Every American knows – except for those pacifist liberals – that we are supposed to defend ourselves and our property using our God-given right to own a gun. Those seemingly pacifist teachings of Jesus are just so impractical, so they are explained away as being nothing but metaphors. Of course, the scriptures of all major religions have teachings that either seem impractical or just plain nonsensical. This is why many people either water them down or argue that they are not saying what they are saying.

So will God take people into heaven who believe in the right stuff but do little to help others, and will he turn away charitable people who have incorrect theology? The parable of the sheep and goats seems to say no to both questions. Of course, I don't claim to know what God (if He exists) will do, but personally, I judge people’s beliefs and values by their behavior, not by what they claim to believe. As James once said, “faith without works is dead.”

Necessary Drudgery

Here's a song about the difficulties faced by a rock star, one of the most common "dream jobs." 


In the past week or so, I have given out six tests, with four of them requiring students to write two essays each. It is only during these grading binges that a slight part of me wishes that I had either chosen a different career or was a firm believer in multiple-choice exams. After reading more than three hundred essays in a short period of time, and then punching in the scores on the Excel spreadsheet, the job can feel a bit like drudgery.

Now don’t get me wrong. I like just about every aspect of teaching. But like everyone else, I imagine, I grew up with more romantic notions regarding my future career. Truth be told, my dream job is still to be a player in the NBA. I started shooting baskets from practically the day that I could walk, and after countless hours of shooting on my driveway over the course of many years, I was pretty damn good.  I was also very good at inventing scenarios while shooting in which I was the dominant player in an imaginary basketball league. The only problem was that there was not a big market for five foot seven inch white guys in the NBA. So my dream of being a famous basketball player or athlete of any kind was dead by high school.

Of course, when I stop and think about it, there are probably moments when Kobe Bryant or Lebron James has doubts about his career choice. Sure, they get to play a game that they love for a living, are paid obscene amounts of money, and experience amazing moments of glory in front of a live, worldwide audience. Their job, however, is not all fun and games. To maintain their skills, they have to spend countless hours practicing repetitive drills and working out. But the hard work of improving their skills is only one difficulty that they face. They also have to spend countless hours traveling on buses and airplanes, answering questions from annoying reporters, and being away from friends and family. And if you become famous enough, it is difficult to go out in public like a normal person without being mobbed by admirers. In some ways, modern day celebrities are trapped by their fame.

There may be a dream job out there that is nothing but big money, international fame, interesting activities, and/or adventure. But I can’t think of any offhand. Virtually every famous writer, actor, athlete, doctor, CEO, spy, fireman, or any person living someone’s “dream job” had to put up with many hours of drudgery to get to where they wanted to be. Then, even after reaching their goal, they must continue doing some things that they would prefer to avoid. Failure generally results from more than a lack of talent. It comes from an unwillingness to put up with some necessary drudgery. 

So during those moments when I cannot imagine reading even one more essay about Andrew Jackson, I try to remember a few things. First, doing any job well requires the performance of a certain amount of mundane activities. Second, I try to remember why I give essay questions. If I want to teach something that is more than a memorization class, I need to ask the types of questions that do not work in a multiple-choice format. And finally, I think of all the things that I like about my job: the chance to perform, share what I have learned, be creative, have flexible hours, and get the sense of satisfaction that can only come from reading a really good essay response.

Facebook Dialogues (#2): Just How Divided Are We?

Here's a classic song from the 1960's about the social changes of the time. The video is a slide show of images from the Vietnam War.

Writing only comes to life when it finds readers. The most fascinating aspect of this whole blogging experiment is seeing the different ways that people respond to what I write. Every posting is an adventure, and when I read new comments, it’s like opening a package on Christmas day. Positive comments, of course, are always encouraging, but the more critical responses are often the most useful. Sure, I sometimes get a little frustrated and defensive when people either misunderstand what I was trying to say or simply disagree with me. But if I allow myself to “listen” to their comments, I sometimes see ways that my writing could improve, and I am forced to further develop and clarify my thinking.

New blog posts, in fact, have often been generated through dialogues I have had on Facebook, Hubpages, or on this blog. Occasionally, I “borrow” ideas from others and see where they lead. More often, however, in the course of either arguing or trying to clarify my position, new concepts, topics, or techniques for expressing my thoughts emerge. I used to feel that online discussions about controversial subjects were generally a waste of time. But as time passes, I realize just how productive these sometimes frustrating conversations can be.

One of these recent dialogues started a few days ago when I put a link to my last blog post – titled “Individual Responsibility” – on Facebook. Five or six Facebook friends would eventually get involved, and it was not long before the discussion drifted away from the main topic of the original blog post. We eventually had two separate discussions going, with one focused on religion and the other the seemingly intense divisions between political factions in the United States. I decided to include snippets from the political discussion that I had with one of my Facebook friends here. Too often, after all, some thoughtful discussion just disappears into the Facebook void.

Michael Ferguson is someone that I (virtually) met earlier this year. He is a blogger and an ambitious visionary who is starting a new media outlet called “Polymathica” (in which I hope to play some role). Here are links to The Polymathica Institute blog, the Polymathica Facebook page, and the Polymathica website. They are all worth checking out.

Michael:  Paul, you ask in your commentary, "So given this fact, why are there so many people who drift toward extreme views regarding individual responsibility?" Because, Paul, as I have told you before, America, and the West in general, is headed for a divorce. We are at the stage where the husband and wife have abandoned all pretext of reasonable discussion. They are simply flinging outrageously over stated invective at each other out of anger. They polarize beyond any point of reason. The other is no longer just wrong; they are stupid, moral reprobates and evil. Are the two sides overstating their case? You betcha. In both cases, they have a vision for their 'nation' and believe that the other side is trying to thwart them and take it down the path to ruination. In an effort to demonize the other side, they make themselves sound ridiculous. That is the current state of the marriage in America. As most of the world wise know, when it gets to this stage, there is no going back. The irretrievable breakdown in the marriage has already happened and the marriage is simply waiting for the two to get tired of the futile arguments.

Me: …..Fortunately, most people don't spend a lot of time thinking and talking about politics anyway. They have other, seemingly more important things to do. So maybe we should not make too much of the screaming and shouting between the small percentage of people who actually get riled up by political issues. Few Americans are likely to come to blows over this stuff.

Michael: Yeah, I'm sure that is how King George and Louis XVI the got themselves to sleep at night. I'm sure that people are far more complacent now than they were in the sixties. Riots, shootings, assassinations of major politicians and religious leaders….such things won't happen, couldn't happen. Nope, today we are too evolved to find ourselves in those situations again. Ahem....... Actually, Paul, as you may have guessed, I was there in the 60's. I saw it as it happened, more often than I would like, in person. Today is spookier.

Me: I'm not saying that people are more evolved. I'm saying that they are generally disengaged. We have two wars going on which few Americans can give any details about. We just had an economic disaster happen that few Americans have spent much time trying to understand. Most of the students that I see spend their time texting and tweeting, and it is not generally about politics. Times are tough, but the United States is still one of the wealthiest nations in history. (And as you have argued several times, we may soon be getting much wealthier.) Few Americans would even consider the possibility of taking up arms for some type of political cause. If anything, a situation like "Brave New World" seems more probable than violent conflict between different factions. Instead of "Soma," people have Iphones and Blackberries. And as long as enough people stay entertained and can get their hands on the latest materialistic necessities, they won't complain too much. If Americans have any real passion, it's shopping. Right now, a lot of people are just pissed off because they can't buy as much stuff. The only question is which political party they blame for their problems. I am starting to wonder if social networking and the information age in general make the conflicts seem worse. Only hardcore people spend any time debating political matters online. Since these tend to be passionate people, it can make the divisions seem even worse. Personally, I'm still not sure if the partisan divisions of today are all that unusual. We just have more mediums available to vent and to find people who feed the frustrations (Beck, Limbaugh, Olbermann, Maher, etc.)

Michael: I remember the race riots, the civil rights marches, the anti-war riots. My parents never saw them coming. It flabbergasted them. They were stunned and shocked by the assassinations of JFK, Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King. It wasn't that they were saddened. It was surreal to them. They lived in a cocoon of middle class America that simply missed the whole dynamic of cultural upheaval until it blasted into their lives through vivid news images. 30% or so of Americans support the Tea Party. That number is growing and will continue to grow. 6 percent of voters say they have attended a Tea Party meeting, rally or march. That is a huge number. You miss a lot, Paul. You are like my parents. You will wake up one day and be shocked by what has transpired….

Me: Michael, you may be right. I may be missing something. Then again, the Tea Party may become another footnote of history, just like many other political movements of various times. I suspect that if Republicans gain complete control of Congress and the Presidency again in 2012, the Tea Party will fade a bit. It's a movement that thrives on being out of power. As I have said before, governing is much harder than complaining about government. If America's problems magically fade away once Republicans gain control, there won't be so much reason to be angry. If, as I suspect, problems do not magically go away, Tea Party people, like Obama supporters at the moment, will become disillusioned. There may also be some parallels between today and the sixties. Of course, in the sixties, there was a war going on in which any young person could be drafted to go fight it. No one is considering a draft today, which is part of the reason why most young people don't care about Iraq and Afghanistan. Decades of segregation and white superiority were also being challenged, which brought about a predictable effort to resist change. I don't see any challenges to the social system today that quite match that one; although the Obama election has clearly struck some nerves. Also, you had a tremendous generation gap between parents who grew up with the Depression and World War II and their children who were raised in the greatest period of economic prosperity in American History (up to that time). We still have plenty of adolescent rebellion, but not on that scale. Also, there were so many people hitting college age by the mid-1960's due to the Baby Boom. I wonder how many young people today believe that they can change the world? As I said before, they are too busy texting to try.

A Preemptive Election Response

The Who's classic song about political "change," found on my favorite Who album.

I am going to take a risk and start writing this before the election results are in. Based on all of the polling data, along with the simple fact that the President’s party usually does poorly in mid-term elections, I am assuming that the Democrats had their asses handed to them today. The Democratic wave of 2008, an event that some saw as a sign of a long-term political shift in our country, has been short-lived. It seems to be 1994 all over again.

Personally, I believed from the moment of Obama’s election that reports regarding the death of the Republican Party were widely exaggerated. When Obama defeated McCain, and Democrats achieved huge victories in Congress, it was not a sign that the nation had gone liberal. Instead, it was a response to circumstances. Due to events such as Hurricane Katrina and the ongoing Iraq War, George Bush’s approval ratings had been plummeting for some time. Then, when the financial system imploded, public anger was focused even more intensely on him. Republicans, the perceived party of big business, took more heat for the crisis than Democrats, and Obama was swept to the presidency. After all, before the full scale of the financial meltdown was clear, McCain and Obama were running pretty closely. But after the cataclysmic events of September 2008, it was pretty much all over.

The irony, however, is that the same circumstances that brought Obama and the Democrats to power have seemingly done them in. The economy has stabilized, but growth is very slow, and the unemployment rate seems stuck at just below 10%. My sense is that a more significant reduction in unemployment would have made big policies such as the financial stimulus, bank bailouts, and health care reform easier for the public to swallow. Also, more significant economic growth would have made the costs of these programs and the current deficit somewhat less daunting.

So has Obama been done in by circumstances largely beyond his control, the same circumstances that got him the job in the first place? Or would different policies have had a more positive result, and is he deservedly being blamed for failing to stimulate growth and for overstepping his mandate? We will never know for sure. Either way, politicians tend to bear the brunt of the public’s anger. Anyone not in a coma knows that our current mess was largely the result of foolish decisions made by the financial sector and the general public. Of course, you can’t vote out the real estate brokers, financiers, and foolish borrowers who largely caused the mess. So we vent our anger at the ballot box, hoping that throwing the bums out (again) will have some positive effect.

In my mind, however, our problems are largely systemic. We still have an overgrown financial sector consisting of banks that are sometimes even bigger than when they were “too big to fail” a couple of years ago. (At least their enormous recent profits can give us some comfort.) We have campaigns that are even more heavily funded by big corporations and other special interests, due partly to the “Citizens United” Supreme Court decision. And we have politicians on both sides of the aisle who seem unwilling to ask the public to make significant sacrifices in terms of tax policies or government spending. Replacing the current “bums” with the previous “bums” is not, in itself, going to do much about these issues. For today, however, voting is all that we can do. So I better stop writing now, eat a quick lunch, and get to the polling place before work. If I am going to write commentaries on our political system, I better participate in whatever little way that I can. If nothing else, it can be a way to vent.

Happy Halloween

When I asked my kids what video to include with a post on Halloween, they quickly suggested this one. For a kid like me who grew up in the 1980's, there could be no other.

Halloween was one of the highlights of childhood. Virtually every child, after all, welcomes the opportunity to get boatloads of free candy from throughout the neighborhood. The dressing up in costumes and carving faces into pumpkins were just an added bonus. When I became a teenager, however, Halloween started to lose much of its magic. Sure, there would be some good parties and occasionally decent costumes during my young adult years, but nothing can really compare with the joy of getting free candy when you are a child. So Halloween evolved into just another day on the calendar.

But then my wife and I eventually decided to have children, and once they were old enough to walk, the childhood ritual of trick or treating was back. Only this time, I experienced the joy of Halloween vicariously. Like many of the experiences of parenthood, Halloween became a chance to do it all over again.

One of the great things about kids is their ability to become completely absorbed into the moment and become excited about what is happening with every fiber of their being. For some reason, we tend to lose some of this capacity as we become adults. Some of this is the result of self-consciousness. We worry about what other people are thinking, fearing what may happen if we let too much emotion show. This is not an entirely bad thing. Children’s ability to show emotions very freely can be cute when they are happy, but when they get upset in public, it can be a complete nightmare. And happy or sad, the general noise level produced by children can be irritating to those not accustomed to it.

Older people’s lack of spontaneous emotional expression, however, can also be the result of experiences just getting old. When many years pass, many of the simple joys in life can lose their freshness. Thankfully, many of us adults eventually get the chance to have kids, and through their eyes, we can sometimes recapture those moments when everything was new.

Unfortunately, many of us parents can be tempted to take living vicariously too far. Through our children, we may try to achieve goals that we were unable to fulfill personally. So we may push our kids to be great athletes, musicians, students, doctors, or any other number of things. We justify this by saying that we want the best for them, an assertion that is somewhat true. But on some level, our goals can be rooted in selfishness, and we look forward to the opportunities to brag about our kids and show everyone what great parents we are.

If we push our kids too hard, we are in danger of wiping away that natural childhood enjoyment of life. Activities that they may have initially enjoyed become a chore, and they start to become one of us boring adults far too early. So here’s hoping that there are some parents out there, myself included, who are able to step back from time to time and let kids enjoy themselves. We have as much to learn from them as we have to teach.

So tomorrow night, I will do my best to look at life through the eyes of my children. And maybe, just maybe, I can score a piece of candy or two from their plastic pumpkin bucket when they are not looking. Don’t worry. It will be just a little taste. Old people like me get a little nauseous when they eat too much of that candy stuff.

I Might as Well Dance

A song from the time period when I should have been a teenager.

My wife is trying to put together a group of people to go dancing on Friday night. There is a club where they play ‘80’s music on Fridays, and if there is a musical era for my generation, that would be it. (Never mind that I generally listen to music either pre- or post-eighties.) If the DJ at this club does his or her job correctly, I will be transported back to an era of big hair, bad clothes, strange videos, and synthesizers blaring in the night.

Before I graduated from college, I generally avoided dancing whenever the opportunity presented itself. This was partly the result of my inherent whiteness. I also lacked any proper training in dancing techniques, making my ethnic lack of rhythm more difficult to hide. Much of my reluctance, however, was more about self-consciousness than lack of dancing skill. Many of my dancing friends, after all, were not exactly God’s gift to choreography. They seemed less concerned, however, with the possibility of making an ass of themselves. As time has passed, I have become more like those dancing maniacs throwing caution and self-respect to the wind. Part of this is a result of aging. For some reason, the older that you get, the less you tend to worry about what others think of you. It may be a part of the natural process of becoming old and, therefore, uncool. Standing in front of people talking all day also tends to wipe away inhibitions. Screwing up on occasion is unavoidable, and you realize that looking stupid is not a big deal.

I have also learned over time that the opinions of most people are not worth very much. And even more importantly, most people are not paying much attention to me anyway. They are generally too busy thinking about themselves and the details of their lives to notice me for any significant amount of time. And if a person does on occasion think about me or anyone else, he or she is often, like everyone else, self-consciously worrying about the opinions of others. So if the opinions of others have little impact on me, and if they are probably too busy to notice me anyway, I may as well get out and dance. Once I learned to ignore my inhibitions and give in to this urge, I found that it was actually pretty fun. I have always loved music, so if I relax and let myself go, dancing actually comes (somewhat) naturally. Believe it or not, I have actually been complimented a few times for my “skills.” For a semi-self-conscious, uptight, white boy, I’m apparently not too bad.

A Second Amendment Conspiracy Theory

This is one of the stranger songs from The Beatles' White Album.

A few weeks ago, I read an article on “HubPages” talking about the importance of Second Amendment rights. In this article, the writer argued that “power seekers” who want to keep guns out of the hands of individual citizens are manipulating “liberal pussies” that believe a gun-free society will be much safer. I wrote a brief comment explaining why I have no desire to have a gun, and he wrote a response that said, among other things, the following:

 “The establishment -- government, major and international corporations, media, government ‘clients’, etc. -- does not want an armed citizenry. At least two reasons:
1) They are aware of what happened in 1776+
2) They know that a helpless, dependent populace will lead to increasing their power, as that populace will bleat ‘save me’ to the establishment.”

So I decided to write a longer response with my own conspiracy theory.
Keep in mind, however, that I do not entirely believe in the following thesis. Like all conspiracy theories, it exaggerates the ability of the “establishment” to formulate and execute a grand, nefarious strategy to control the masses. In other words, it assumes that the “establishment” is some sort of a single entity, giving the “powers that be” much more credit than they deserve:

I understand both your desire to have a gun for self-defense and your disdain for gun laws that criminals, by definition, will find ways to get around. I also agree that the Second Amendment was largely created in order to prevent the national government from having a monopoly on gun ownership. Like all of the amendments in the Bill of Rights, it was created in order to set limitations on federal power and prevent the national government from abusing individual citizens. What confuses me, however, is your description of an alliance between “liberals” and “power seekers” in creating some sort of a liberal establishment. So I decided to spin my own conspiracy theory. I don’t know if it is entirely accurate, but like your interesting take on things, it may contain an element of truth.

You seem to think that gun-hating liberals represent a grave threat toward individual liberty in the United States. Now from what I can tell, the institutions that represent the greatest potential threat toward individual freedom are those in the security establishment: the military, defense contractors, police forces, and justice system of courts and jails. Officially, they have the function of protecting us. But in the name of security, they also have been given the power to fine, spy, imprison, physically coerce, and even kill. Ideally, these powers are used for the good of individual American citizens. The potential exists, however, for these institutions to become the oppressive central authorities feared by those who created the Bill of Rights.

Few would question the fact that these security establishment institutions tend to support and benefit from conservative political policies. Conservatives are often the ones, after all, pushing the hardest for defense spending, tough sentencing, tight security surveillance, and plenty of cops on the streets. One might counter, however, by saying that conservatives are also the ones who want to protect individual gun ownership. So if, as I claim, there is a conservative security establishment that could be a threat to personal liberty, then why do conservatives want individuals to have guns? Gun owning individuals, after all, are able to defend themselves from central government oppression.

There is a fundamental, practical problem with this line of reasoning. Militias just are not what they used to be. In the late 1700’s, militia groups might be able to resist the U.S. military if the need arose. Today, a battle between militia groups and the U.S. military would be a joke. First of all, few individual citizens are likely to take up arms against the United States. Loyalty and a sense of national identity are much stronger today than when our nation first began. But even if a significant number of people did rise up against central authority, they would not stand a chance. My money would be on the $700 billion dollar a year U.S. military to mop up any modern day “minutemen” in short order.

It is in the interest of the conservative security establishment, however, to let people play the part of “minutemen.” People can then maintain the delusion that they are able to defend themselves against central authority. Also, as an added benefit, conservatives can keep gun enthusiasts paranoid about those liberals who want to oppress them by confiscating guns and restricting future access to them. And in the meantime, the real potential threat to individual citizens can linger and possibly grow even stronger.

The Roman Republic lasted for hundreds of years. But then, once they grew into a massive empire, military leaders asserted control and established a dictatorship. Will this someday be our fate? I hope not. We would be wise, however, to heed the words of Dwight Eisenhower, a man who could hardly be called a member of the “liberal establishment”:

“In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.”

I hope that Eisenhower was wrong. For if the future of our democracy is dependent on an ‘alert and knowledgeable citizenry,’ then we might have a serious problem. And all of those guns, which more than anything else provide a false sense of security to those who own them, may be one of many factors in maintaining the illusion that we are still living in a democracy.”

This Too Will Pass

Here's an old Peter Gabriel song for people in the middle of hard times.

On Thursday afternoon, two days before my brother-in-law’s wedding, my stomach decided to stop functioning properly. I will spare you the gory details, but let’s just say that the idea of food was not particularly appealing for a while. When in that state, even the thought of my favorite foods was nauseating. Of course, I knew from past experience that everything would soon be back to normal. So sure enough, by Saturday, I was able to eat, drink, be merry, and dance as only a white boy can.

Today, it is over one hundred degrees outside. In the valleys and deserts of southern California, this is standard weather. Near the coast, however, extremes of weather are pretty rare, so it does not take much to get us Orange County people to start bitching about the heat. After a few days of this, it can be hard to envision a future in which I will be crazy enough to put on a jacket, wear long pants, or turn on a heater. Of course, in parts of the country where they have actual winters, it can probably be difficult at times to imagine ever being warm again. Even in Southern California, where winter is a slightly cooler version of spring, there are times where I long for a warm, sunny day. When we are in the middle of something, it’s hard to imagine that things could ever be different. This is in spite of the fact that we all know from past experience that life goes in cycles, and no matter how bad things may seem, the only guarantee for the future is change.

Right now, our country is in an extended economic winter. Fortunately, I have been spared (so far) from many of the negative effects of the current recession. Many others, of course, have not been so lucky. And while history may provide little immediate comfort, the fact is that economic cycles have been a reality of life for centuries. This is why you should never get too excited during the good times or depressed during the bad. It will always turn around, one way or the other. Unfortunately, it does not feel that way when you are still at the bottom. Now I could say that I know how struggling people feel, but that would be a lie. Neither I nor anyone else can figure out how someone is feeling at a given moment. Every situation is unique, and no one can (nor should) be talked out of his or her current emotional state. You literally have to be there, and reason in itself is not enough to get you out. But so long as the emotional problem is not physiological, reason can stop the emotions from taking over completely. Thinking back to times when you ate normally, were nice and warm (or cool), and had a (seemingly) secure job can also be helpful. Since life goes in cycles, there is no reason to believe that the bad times will last forever.

100th Postiversary

Here's a happy song - reminiscent of what the Allman Brothers used to do - about moving forward.

A few months ago, a friend of ours called and invited us to go with him and his mom to see his cousin performing in a two-man show. His cousin and a friend had flown in from Chicago to perform in a festival of plays being put on in a bunch of L.A. theaters. Since we had not done anything like this for a while, we decided to drop off the kids at the grandparents and check it out. After fighting the traffic, locating the theater, and figuring out where the heck to park, we walked in a little late. The theater, it turns out, was about the size of one of my classrooms, and upon our arrival, we doubled the size of the audience.

Immediately after sitting down, I wondered what the two performers were thinking. First of all, our friend’s cousin must have wondered who the heck these people were with his relatives. Second, it must have been a little strange and disheartening to travel across the country and be performing in front of almost no one. But still they pressed on, obviously pouring their hearts out in performing this series of skits that they had clearly worked very hard to create. I couldn’t help but be impressed, and not just because it was a pretty good show. In my mind, anyone who is willing to pour out that kind of an effort in front of any sized audience deserves some respect. And the small size of the audience, rather than diminishing their efforts, made the performance all that more impressive. Whether performed in front of eight or eight thousand, there is intrinsic value in the act of performing. There is definitely something to be said for creating art for art’s sake.

This is my one-hundredth post on this blog. Some have been viewed well over one hundred times and others have been read far less. And if anything, the number of views has by and large been decreasing lately. Whatever dreams I had of building a big audience and generating a little extra revenue may be impractical, and there have been times where I have asked myself if this whole enterprise is worth the time. But then I think back to those guys in L.A., and it reminds me of something very simple. Writing in itself is a worthwhile activity, even if only a relatively small number of people get anything out of what I post here. If nothing else, this blog has helped me to exercise a part of my mind that was somewhat dormant for several years, and I have been compelled to ask myself repeatedly what I actually believe about some very complicated political, historical, educational, and philosophic issues. Hopefully, a few readers have been nudged toward reevaluating and putting into words their own beliefs as well.

So the plan is to start working toward my next one hundred posts. We shall see if I run out of ideas before then, burn out, or get distracted by the oncoming basketball season. Whatever happens, I will not base my choices regarding future writing on the apparent size of my electronic audience, and if this blog, like most blogs, never makes anything approaching real money, oh well. I will think of it as an electronic journal, sitting on a virtual outdoor desk, open to anyone on the planet who comes by through cyberspace and takes a look.

Luck: The Key to Success

Here's a "bleeding heart liberal" song from the 1960's, sung by one the great voices of the time.

"I have seen something else under the sun: The race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong, nor does food come to the wise or wealth to the brilliant or favor to the learned; but time and chance happen to them all. Moreover, no man knows when his hour will come: As fish are caught in a cruel net, or birds taken in a snare, so men are trapped by evil times that fall unexpectedly upon them."  (Ecclesiastes 9: 11-12)

For the first time, after about ten years of college teaching, I have a blind student in one of my classes this semester. After each of the first two class meetings, I talked to him for a while in order to figure out what he might need in order to make the class more accessible. In one of these conversations, he mentioned that he had only been blind for about three years. When I asked him what happened, he said that he just woke up one morning blind. The doctors said that it was the result of glaucoma, but prior to this time, there had been no indication of a problem.

A few thoughts flooded through my mind after this conversation. The prevailing thought, however, was that life is basically a crapshoot. Three years ago, without any warning, this man woke up blind. Meanwhile, I woke up on that same day just as any other day. I still get to see sunsets, my children smile, Laker games, and racquetballs flying toward me. He will most likely never again have the opportunity to see the people and things that he loves, and he never got the chance to take one last look around. Now some would say that there is some sort of meaning in all of this. It is all a part of some divine plan, and I should be thankful for my many blessings. But personally, I have trouble being thankful that someone else became blind instead of me, and any claims to finding meaning or patterns in the chaos seem like intellectual suicide.

My good fortune, however, does not end with my continuing ability to see. I was, after all, born healthy to a middle-class, loving, American family in the late 20th century. If you were to change even one of the circumstances just listed, then I am probably not sitting here typing this blog. If I were born prior to the 20th century, then there is a good chance that I would have been dead before the age of five. If I were born to abusive parents, in a poverty-stricken nation, or with a physical or mental disability, then my life today – if I were still around – would be quite different. By any reasonable standard, I won the lottery. And while I have worked hard to achieve a certain amount of success, my fate is largely due to luck, and my future prospects were somewhat determined on the moment that I was first conceived. Of course, as the blind student in my class discovered, your luck can change at any moment.

So what does one do with this not so comforting reality? Clearly, my new student has decided to keep on living by pursuing a college degree. I should take my cue from him. Instead of wallowing in guilt and pity in response to those who are less fortunate, I should take advantage of my good fortune and make myself useful. My new student, along with all who suffer from misfortune, does not need my pity. He needs me to help him learn some history.

So the next time that you see me on this blog complaining a bit too much about the lingering pain in my left arm, my inability to land a full-time job, or a shortage of adequate writing time, feel free to electronically slap me upside the head. There are, after all, a lot of people out there with some real problems.