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My Spiritual Journey (Condensed version)

This could have been my theme song 20 years ago.

A couple of months ago, I wrote and posted a fairly detailed description of the process by which I became a Unitarian Universalist. This is a shorter (somewhat revised version) that I read this morning in front of our church. (Link to longer version)

I was raised in the Catholic Church, and like many young people, I more or less accepted without question the basic tenets of my faith. The only problem was that I did not know very much about this faith that I believed. I knew that I was supposed to be a decent human being, go to church every week, fulfill the sacraments, and pray regularly for forgiveness and guidance. But I never read much of the Bible on my own or spent a lot of time studying Catholic theology, and this was fine with me.

Then I went away to college, and for both social and spiritual reasons, I became involved with various Christian groups on campus. Suddenly, I started to study in depth this faith that I believed but did not know much about. Over time, after wrestling with fear and guilt, I became convinced that certain Catholic Church doctrines and practices conflicted with the Bible. So eventually, I walked away from my childhood faith and was baptized as an evangelical Christian toward the end of my freshman year. Over the next five years, I would lead numerous Bible studies, go on retreats, read and outline the Bible from cover to cover, and even spend a summer on a missionary adventure in Africa. There was a problem, however. Once you allow yourself to question and reject your original worldview, it is tempting to go even further. I had already rejected one version of Christianity for another, but what if Christianity itself was untrue? Had I ever considered that possibility? Did it make sense to settle on a worldview as a twenty-year old, a world view that I had largely been conditioned to believe, without considering other options?

So even as I wholeheartedly devoted myself to various Christian activities, the doubts were always there. I tried to fight them off in various ways - reading books on theology, talking to Christian friends, prayer  – but they never went away fully. Fear and guilt, however, were strong forces keeping me in line. But when I graduated from college and lost close contact with my Christian friends, I was freed up to stare these doubts in the face. After hanging on as a Christian for a couple more years, I eventually concluded that Christianity was probably not literally true.

For the next several years, my wife Sangeeta, who went through a similar experience, and I were not involved in any kind of organized religion. Then something happened that caused us to revisit long neglected spiritual questions: we had our first child. And we both agreed – my wife in particular – that spirituality was good for kids. After a couple of years of pondering spiritual questions without taking any real action, our second daughter was born, and now it was time to get serious. We then turned to the source of all wisdom in our culture – the internet – in order to discover our religion. We found a web site where you could take a quiz that would supposedly determine your spiritual beliefs. For both of us, the test spit out the word “Unitarian,” whatever the heck that was.

So we turned back to the internet, and my wife found a web site for the “Unitarian Universalist Church in Fullerton.” She listened to a few sermons that they had posted, and they seemed promising. So, after years of hardly setting foot in a church, we set off for the good of the kids. There, to my pleasant surprise, we found a place with people who reminded me of me. This church was filled with other doubters and questioners, and instead of discouraging this type of behavior, they acknowledged and even celebrated uncertainty. What a strange concept. Here was a church that saw diverse views and traditions as a blessing rather than a threat. Finally, I found a church where I could actually learn something original from interesting, informed, and uniquely spiritual people. For the first time, I was truly proud of my church.

Our minister has used a great line many times that grows in meaning for me as time passes: “It’s not the facts that matter; it’s the truths.”  All religions, like great literature, express great truths through stories and metaphor. It’s the only thing that you can do when trying to explain the unexplainable. For years, I tried to find straightforward answers described in literal terms. I wanted certainty, but I never came close.

Personally, if I were the creator of the universe, I would have made things easier. I would have identified myself in some clear way and told people what to do. Of course, if I was the creator of the universe, there are a lot of things that I would have done differently. I cannot base my beliefs on how I think the world should be. I have to face the world as it is. And if religious metaphors are the best we can do, and if uncertainty is apparently unavoidable, then I need to embrace this reality and focus on what I do know: that I should do my best to treat others the way that I want to be treated. Spiritual attitudes and behaviors, not theological theories, are what matter. So I thank everyone in this unique church that meets in a temple for showing me through your deeds and words what spirituality is really all about.

Would a Modern American Survive "The Oregon Trail"?

This song from my favorite album by The Who glorifies life on the road. I doubt that pioneers on The Oregon Trail 160 years ago could relate to these lyrics.

In one of my classes, we recently watched a movie and did an assignment about the “Oregon Trail.” Topics such as this always make me realize how much tougher and braver the average person of the past was in comparison to a middle-class American (like me) today. I doubt that I would even last a day on the Oregon Trail. For me, after all, a two-day camping trip is a bit of a grind, and I am usually on a campground with actual toilets and showers! (And I sleep in a tent on a foam mattress.)

It’s hard for me to decide what would suck the most about taking a five-month, two- thousand mile hike to the west coast. First of all, of course, there was the constant knowledge of all of the various ways that one might die on the trail: disease, starvation, prairie fire, injury, Indian attack (which was rare, by the way), nasty weather, getting stuck in the snow, being eaten by a fellow traveler, etc. According to the film that I show to my students, one out of seventeen pioneers on the Oregon Trail died on the trip. How many middle-class Americans today would even consider taking a journey with that kind of a death rate? When we travel by plane, car, boat, or train, we begin with the assumption that we will reach our destination safely. How many of us take off for work or on a vacation crying with our loved ones out of fear that we may never see them again? We live in a world, after all, where people travel great distances for the fun of it. In the time of Columbus, people would have thought you were nuts if you sailed off into the open ocean on a pleasure cruise.

One of the great blessings of the modern world – and some would say curses – is that you never feel like you are isolated and alone. We always have our trusty cell phone at our side. The national weather service can warn travelers of impending trouble. GPS devices can help us to know at every moment our specific location, and if we end up stranded somewhere, all sorts of modern transportation and communication devices can be used to get to us. On the Oregon Trail, of course, travelers were cut off somewhat from civilized society. If you got injured, sick, or struggled to find food and water, there was no way to call for help and no store where you could shop for supplies. You could wait by the trail in hopes that someone might show up, but there was no way to know when or if this might happen. If bad weather lay ahead, there was no warning. And if you ran into some bad guys, you better be able to fight them off. Few people in a modern, industrial society have any concept of what it means to be isolated. For many, the phone is practically implanted to their ear or to their rapidly texting fingers so that they never have to feel anything resembling loneliness and isolation.

I have a feeling, however, that the constant fear of various forms of death would not be the hardest thing about life on the trail. The worst thing, in fact, might be plain old mind- numbing boredom. For a person like me who considers an eight-hour car ride or five-hour flight to be an almost unbearable ordeal, it is impossible to even comprehend what a five-month journey across the plains and through the Rocky Mountain passes would be like. Can you imagine hanging out with the same people, most likely your family members, every day for that length of time? And to make matters worse, you would not have an IPOD, radio, video game device, DVD player or anything else to keep you occupied (and distracted from the annoyances of your siblings.) You would be forced to talk to people, read books, and engage in other non-electronic, archaic activities. Hangman, twenty questions, and the “let’s count the blades of grass game” could only be entertaining for so long.

So why were people of the past able to do this? How did they withstand the physical ordeal, the fears, and the mind-numbing boredom and drudgery of trail life? The simple fact, I would argue, was that trail life was not a huge deviation from their normal, day-to-day lives. In the America of the 1840’s, death could always be around the corner. Before the advent of modern medicine, roughly half of people died by the age of five. If a disease was contracted, doctors could do little to cure you, and some of their misguided practices could play a big part in finishing you off. Many people were still forced to adapt to and deeply respect the whims of nature since they did not have the modern technologies that lead us to believe that we can overcome weather, natural disasters, and time and space itself. Since death was always in their face, their fear of it was probably not as great as modern Americans who often do everything in their power to put their impending mortality out of their minds. It takes so little, after all, to freak us out. Almost every year, we hear the story of some disease that is apparently going to wipe out all of humankind: SARS, West Nile Virus, Mad Cow Disease, Swine Flu, etc. Now while I recognize that these diseases do some real damage, the death rates are microscopic in comparison to the epidemics, plagues, and day-to-day diseases of the past. Would one hundred people dying of West Nile Virus freak people out 160 years ago?

People of the past were also well acquainted with boredom and drudgery. Without modern labor saving devices, they were forced to perform many time consuming, physically demanding tasks that most modern Americans have never had to do. Doing laundry, chopping wood, gathering water, and producing food required both time and hard labor. For me, the ten or fifteen minutes that I must spend on laundry, the half hour at the grocery store, and the twenty minutes spent doing dishes feel like an overwhelming ordeal. I wonder how long I would last on a mid-nineteenth century farm. And when I managed to get some free time, would I know what to do with it? Before Facebook, cell phones, video games, ESPN, and DVD players, what the hell did people do with themselves?

In a sense, people 160 years ago were almost a different species than I. Because their lives were harder, they became tougher. Because they were well acquainted with drudgery, they tolerated boredom more effectively than many of us would, and a good book or conversation was often the ultimate form of entertainment. They were not conditioned to need continuous visual stimulation. And because they knew that death was a possibility no matter how risk-averse one might be, they may have been willing to take more risks. Still, I can’t imagine that the journey on the Oregon Trail was remotely easy. So like the Polynesians who ventured throughout the Pacific, the people who first crossed the Sahara Desert, or the men who were crazy enough to set sail with Columbus, the pioneers on the Oregon Trail deserve the awe and respect of the wimps of modern society. I don’t know if we will ever truly see the likes of them again.

Would Legalizing Marijuana be Bad for the Marijuana Business?

Here's a scene and song from "Woodstock" that I show to my Modern American History class.

A couple of weeks ago, I heard a story on “Marketplace,” one of my favorite NPR shows, that I instantly knew would inspire a blog post someday. (Click here for link. Scroll ahead to 19:45 to hear the story.) The story talked about the potential impact of a proposed ballot measure that may soon make marijuana fully legal here in California. As almost all Californians and many people throughout our nation know, my home state voted a few years ago to legalize the use of “medical marijuana.”  If this new measure passes, a medical referral will no longer be necessary to “light up.” Soon, “Dead Heads” throughout our west coast “Hippyland” may be breaking out into pot-induced songs of celebration and triumph.

So why would a story about marijuana be on a radio show that focuses on economics? It turns out that the legalization of marijuana may actually be bad for the marijuana business. This is particularly true up in Humboldt County, an area that prides itself as the “Napa Valley” of marijuana production. Because marijuana has been “illegal” for so many decades, this has kept marijuana prices artificially high. Its illegality has also added to its novelty status. As the pot-growing center of the ultimate rebel, hippy state, Humboldt County has drawn curious, sometimes weed-loving tourists for decades. If marijuana goes completely legal, its increased availability should reduce prices, and Humboldt will no longer be so unique. Marijuana’s new mainstream status may also lead to increasing regulations, a concept particularly offensive to people accustomed to underground operations. The “freedom” that comes with illegality will be gone. Medical marijuana use has already led to some of these trends, and full legality could be even more “devastating.”

There are so many possible angles for this story that it’s hard to know where to start. So instead of writing a long treatise about one or two key ideas, I am going to mention briefly several topics that could all be the subject of long, in-depth discussions:

1) Who has the power to regulate drugs, individual states or the federal government? It has been a while since I have read the entire Constitution, but I can say with some confidence that drug regulation is not expressly mentioned in the list of Congressional legal powers. Therefore, according to the tenth amendment, this power should be reserved to the states. Of course, the federal government has a long history going beyond the specific powers listed in the Constitution. (The federal government is a big fan, after all, of the “necessary and proper” clause.) So whatever California law may say in the present or future, marijuana is still illegal according to the federal government. At the moment, the President says that he is not going to pursue in an aggressive fashion those who use medical marijuana. In the future, of course, this could change.

2) Drug laws in our country are very arbitrary. Why should alcohol be legal while marijuana is not? You could make a good scientific case that alcohol is more damaging and addictive. (After all, when was the last time that you heard of a fight caused by weed? Bar fights, on the other hand, have a long and rich tradition.)  This seems to be more a product of social convention than of science. If Jesus had turned a shrub into a marijuana plant instead of water into wine, would our drug laws be different?

3) The fact that Humboldt County can pride itself as the “Napa Valley” of marijuana shows that marijuana prohibition is both a joke and a fantasy. If this region’s pot-related fame draws tourists from all over the world, how can that marijuana business be even remotely described as underground? As the experiment of banning alcohol during the 1920’s and early 1930’s demonstrated, people will ignore laws that they do not like (and that interfere with their fun). My grandfather grew up in Chicago in the 1920’s. He says that all kinds of people had stills in their basements. In some neighborhoods, the streets reeked of alcohol, and basement explosions were fairly common. He also said that it was fairly common to see the dead bodies that resulted from the gang warfare between competing bootleggers.  Eventually, the country realized that the negative byproducts of enforcement outweighed any positive effects of (limited) reductions in alcohol use. As any economist knows, if there is demand, suppliers will arise to meet it. And if the product demanded is illegal, it’s often the consumers and general public who suffer.

4) For the “Marketplace” story mentioned earlier, the host of the program interviewed a woman who had long been an advocate for the legalization of marijuana. But instead of lobbying for the passage of this upcoming ballot measure, she spent the whole time talking about the previously mentioned economic concerns of Northern California pot producers. Perhaps the marijuana producers, in spite of their fundamental belief that pot should be legal, should hire her to fight against this ballot measure. After all, they can make more money if the business stays “underground.” If they do this, they will have truly joined the American political system. For decades, special interest groups have been fighting for policies that only benefit themselves. These favors from the government often come in the form of various types of subsidies or of tariffs that protect their businesses from foreign competition. In the mean time, the general public ends up paying higher prices as a result of these policies that few of us even know about. As the host of “Marketplace” astutely realized, the government has been subsidizing marijuana producers for years by keeping their product illegal. If the woman interviewed does not want this job, I’m sure that there are plenty of lobbyists who would be happy to oblige. I wonder if the cigarette companies, pharmaceutical industry, or corn-based ethanol producers can loan a few.
Truth be told, the marijuana issue is not important to me personally. I have never been a pot smoker, heavy drinker, or consumer of any kind of mind-altering drug. I have enough trouble getting my brain to function when it is sober, so the last thing that I need is to pump a bunch of chemicals and crap in there. There are a lot of other Americans out there who also avoid drug use because they think it is stupid. This is why legalizing drugs is unlikely to turn us all into addicts. After all, most Americans today are not cigarette smokers and alcoholics. Others, however, are going to find a way to get high no matter what the government does. I have heard several times over the years that the biggest growth area in drug use involves the use of legal substances. So does this mean that I think that people should be able to buy PCP, LSD, and heroin at the CVS pharmacy? I have some reservations about that idea, although the advertisements would definitely be interesting. It definitely seems illogical, however, for marijuana to be lumped together with these much more dangerous and/or addictive hallucinogens and narcotics.

I can predict with some confidence what Californians will soon decide on this issue. We are, after all, a bunch of liberal freaks out here on the west coast. It will then be interesting to see what both people living in normal states and the federal government have to say about our latest adventure into freakiness.

Would a PHD Make Me a Better Teacher?

In this classic song by Sam Cooke, the singer is both honest and has his priorities straight.

I am not a historian. A historian, as I understand the term, is a person who studies primary source materials and uses this stuff to produce original historical information. This is what a person must do when writing a dissertation to earn the degree that truly signifies his or her entrance into the profession: a PHD. When I earned my Master’s Degree, I wrote only one paper that came close to producing original historical information, and it was not my Master’s Thesis. In fact, I did not write a thesis. Instead, I took a comprehensive exam. And while this was by no means easy, it mostly required the mastery of information that I learned from reading books written by real historians. It was just a tough essay test.

As a community college history professor, my job still involves organizing and attempting to explain information produced by historians. I see myself as a “middleman” trying to relay this information to students who, by and large, will never read any in-depth historical scholarship. Let’s face it. Much of what is called historical research is produced almost exclusively for other historians and for some occasional history buffs. If historical information is to have any impact beyond this small community of history lovers, then we need effective teachers who can make this stuff interesting and relevant for the general public.

While higher education is always a positive thing, the simple fact is that the skills acquired by earning a PHD are not the same as those needed for effective teaching. A teacher needs to be a combination of a performer, organizer, coach, sage, and critic. Knowledge of subject, writing ability, and the ability to find and organize information are all required, but in themselves, these skills that are developed through the earning of a PHD do not help with performance and presentation. Over many years of taking college classes, I experienced everyone from the great teacher to the terrible (and many in between.) The only thing that all of these men and women had in common, by and large, was a PHD degree.

When universities hire full-time professors, they are often more concerned with academic credentials and future research potential than they are with teaching ability. At institutions that view research as (at least) a priority equal to the education of students, this makes some sense. But at community colleges where the primary focus is supposed to be teaching, I hope that fancy academic credentials are not viewed as the most important factors. Instead, they should look for evidence that a candidate has taught lower division survey classes effectively. I suspect, however, without any actual evidence to back it up, that some schools might be dazzled by the degrees. I hope that I am wrong.

I have often thought about going back to school and getting a PHD, but practical issues have generally gotten in the way. It’s hard to earn much of an income, especially when you are teaching part-time, while splitting time with a PHD program. Seemingly, this became even more impossible when my kids were born. Watching my kids grow up has always been a higher priority for me than further higher education. And when you combine these problems with the many stories that I have heard over the years of people with PHD degrees who can’t find full-time jobs, the costs of going back to school clearly outweigh the benefits.

I also have a more philosophic reason, however, for not going back to get a PHD. Since I want to spend the rest of my career teaching at the community college level, I cannot see how a PHD degree will do very much to make me better at what I hope to keep doing. PHD programs require you to study a specific field of history in a great deal of depth. In my line of work, we teach lower division history courses that address a wide variety of topics covering long periods of time. In my one semester Early World Civilizations course, we cover every major civilization that existed over a span of 5,000 years of history. So how could a highly specialized PHD degree help me teach that class more effectively? The most productive thing for me to do is to continue improving my teaching skills. Part of this, of course, is learning my subject matter better. Fortunately, real historians are constantly at work providing plenty of information to help me.

9/11, Terrorism, and the Importance of Understanding Your Enemy.

Here is a song called "Long Dark Night" by one of my musical heroes: John Fogerty. I'll let you figure out what he is singing about (and how he feels about the subject).

Every once in a while, an event will take place within the United States or around the world that grabs the attention of the American people. The ultimate, recent examples of this, of course, were the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. So as people sat transfixed in front of their TV screens watching 24-hour news coverage of 9/11, there was a tremendous opportunity to educate the American public. Many Americans, after all, were caught completely off guard by these events, a fact which revealed their remarkable ignorance. Who the hell were Al Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden? Why would they attack the United States? What is it that these terrorists were trying to accomplish?

After watching some of this news coverage and talking to many students and other Americans over the years, I have concluded that the media largely blew this teaching opportunity. In my Modern American History and World Civilizations courses, I always ask students the simple questions listed at the end of the preceding paragraph. Too often, I either hear simplistic answers or no answers at all. When I ask them about the possible motives of the various Islamic extremist groups that we generally label as terrorists, some students say that these groups are trying to convert everyone to Islam. Others say that they hate the United States because of our secular, sinful, feminist, and freedom loving culture. Others might simply say that these are crazy, evil, religious fanatics who feel that they are carrying out the will of Allah.

Now I am not going to argue that these common responses are completely wrong. The motives for terrorist attacks may vary, and many who resort to these kinds of activities probably do see the United States as a sinful, mostly non-Muslim place that deserves to be attacked. It’s also difficult to dispute the idea that a suicide bomber trying to kill as many people as possible is messed up in the head and/or evil. These simplistic explanations, however, are incomplete and therefore not particularly helpful.

My primary hope, and hopefully the goal of all Americans, is that the terrorist threat can be minimized as much as possible. I am not primarily motivated by a desire to punish terrorists or to exercise vengeance. Now to achieve this goal effectively, it is important to consider as many strategies as possible. Military action and the training of security forces may be appropriate at times, but these are not the only possible approaches. In formulating this comprehensive strategy, it is important to gain a deep understanding of your enemies. If you don’t understand your enemies, and the forces that helped to create them, you might do some things that are counterproductive.

So let’s start with the simple assumption that terrorists are evil. The next obvious question should be, “So how did they become so evil?” Are certain people just born with the evil gene that eventually leads them to become a suicide bomber? Most would argue, I hope, that people in general are not born evil (although some might be biologically inclined toward mental illness). Instead, they might eventually turn to evil acts due to the influence of their upbringing, environment, and/or other circumstances of their lives.  So what kind of an environment produces these “evildoers”? Are there things that the United States can do to alleviate the negative environmental conditions that may produce future terrorists? Are there things that the United States has done in the past (and present) that may have played a role in producing more terrorists?

Some Americans would object to this final question. Others might object to this entire line of reasoning: “If you try to describe the circumstances that are likely to produce terrorists, isn’t this a form of justifying what the terrorist has done? And if you say that the United States has made some mistakes in the past that may have incited the growth of terrorist movements, then you are essentially blaming America for terrorism. The only people to blame for a terrorist act are the terrorists themselves. It’s not our fault that they hate America. We are just culturally different from them, and they are too messed up in the head to accept this simple fact.”

I understand these objections, and I agree that terrorism is ultimately the fault of terrorists. I disagree with the notion, however, that trying to understand a terrorist is a form of justifying his or her behavior. Instead, it is merely an attempt to gather as much information as possible. It is also foolish to live under the delusion that our country has never made mistakes that had negative repercussions. Refusing to recognize mistakes will lead a nation to repeat them.

So why do some people resort to terrorist acts, and why do Islamic extremists hate the United States? There is no single answer to this question. After all, there are many different groups out there who we lump together under the term, “terrorists.” From nine years of listening to and reading the works of many experts on this subject, I think that some general statements can be made. Most importantly, Islamic extremist groups are primarily concerned with events within the Muslim world. Some are local groups trying to shape events within a particular country. Others are international organizations trying to fight a “global jihad.” Their primary complaint is that the nations of the Muslim world are generally ruled by secular, corrupt dictators who do not adhere to either the ethical or legal principles – as these extremist groups interpret them – of Islam. Their goal, then, is to topple these governments and create what they consider to be truly Muslim societies that follow the legal and social system laid out in the Koran. Some even dream of a united Islamic world with a single caliph ruling as in the days shortly after Mohammed.

So what does this have to do with the United States? In the minds of these various extremist groups, the United States has played a role in installing and/or supporting these lousy governments. And like all western nations who have meddled in the affairs of North Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia, they have done this largely to promote American economic interests, namely secure access to oil. Their main reason, therefore, for attacking the United States is not our American culture. What they primarily object to are American political policies. The United States stands in the way of their goals. (So do they have a legitimate complaint? I would suggest that you take a look at the political makeup of the Muslim world, and the history of American actions in the region, and then make your own decision).

What is taking place in the Muslim world is basically a civil war. On one side you have the more moderate, secular Muslims who want the same things that most people want: peace, security, good jobs, family, etc. On the other side you have the Islamists who want a society based on their interpretation of the Koran. The most common victims of terrorist attacks, after all, are the moderate Muslims who constitute the majority of the population. From the beginning, the United States should have actively sought out these potential allies. This is a simple fact that has apparently been lost on many Americans. Too often, we like to understand the world in simplistic terms. Often, generic words such as “Arabs,” “Muslims,” or “terrorists” are used as if there is some single group out there that we are fighting against. By failing to recognize the complexity and divisions that exist within the Muslim world, the United States has often found itself alienating, attacking and fighting against the wrong people. The Iraq invasion, in particular, is the ultimate example of a counterproductive war. By targeting the kind of a leader that Islamic extremist groups generally hate, we essentially did Al Qaeda a favor. We took out a lousy ruler, and we created widespread anger that made it easier for terrorist recruiters.

The Iraq War shows what can happen when you misunderstand and inaccurately identify your enemy. There are signs, however, that military leaders and policy makers have grown a bit wiser over the years. Efforts have been made in Iraq and Afghanistan to find people within these countries willing to work with Americans rather than fight them. I get the sense, however, that too many efforts are still focused on trying to snuff out terrorism through brute force. Presidents, after all, whether Republican or Democrat, do not want to be labeled as soft. I just hope that our new President, as he has been stepping up military efforts in Afghanistan, recognizes that fighting is not the only way to go. The focus should be on results, not appearances of strength. Of course, we live in a democracy. And in a nation with large numbers of uninformed voters, the wisest actions might not win elections.

Why do I Care About The Lakers (and Sports in General)?

This is still the catchiest sports song that I know.

Wow! Tonight’s NCAA tournament final between Duke and Butler was a hell of a game. When I feel no affiliation toward either team, I always root for the underdog. The problem with this tendency is that I am often disappointed, just as I was tonight when a Butler player’s last second prayer barely missed banking in and giving them a one-point victory. This was the only game that I watched in this year’s NCAA tournament, an annual billion-dollar event that has historically been one of the greatest in American sports. In the past, I would have watched many more.

Some of my earliest memories revolve around sports. I was dribbling and shooting a basketball on a miniature little rim before I could write. When basketball was not in season, I would shift to baseball, football, soccer, or whatever game was going on at school or in the neighborhood. Sports were always activities that came pretty naturally for me. I also have early memories of listening to Chick Hearn announce Laker games, of my parents explaining the concept of the Olympic Games, and of following baseball statistics as if they held vital information to explain the meaning of existence. I can still remember exactly where I was when some of the greatest sports moments of the last thirty-five years took place in front of me on the TV screen. Sometimes, I remember exactly when events in my life occurred by associating them with the sporting events of that time.

I still enjoy playing sports whenever I get the chance. It has become a tradition on my birthday to spend most of the day playing volleyball, softball, and sometimes soccer, for old time’s sake, at a local park. I stopped playing basketball, my first love, shortly after our first daughter was born. I badly injured my thumb for about the twentieth time in my life one day, and when I got home, I realized that I could not pick her up. After years of minor and occasionally major injuries that seemed to get more common as I aged, I decided that it was time to pick a new sport. I eventually settled on racquetball, which has proved to be much safer so far. Racquetball is also one of the greatest vehicles for stress relief known to humankind. Running around like a lunatic and wailing on a ball as hard as possible can definitely make you feel relaxed for the remainder of the day. For me, playing sports, along with listening to music, is the closest that I get to a spiritual experience. These are the two things (along with sex) that put me into a state where I am not thinking about anything else. It will be a sad day if my body eventually gives out and I can’t get around the court any more. (Of course, I can then take up golf, or maybe bowling.)

I also still enjoy watching sports, although I don’t follow them nearly as closely as I once did. I lost interest in baseball many years ago. The players seemed to change so much every year, and a few teams, who get to go out and buy the best players, seem to always win. Football is still fun, although the Rams and Raiders abandoned Los Angeles many years ago. (These days, that is definitely a blessing.) But the only sport that I really follow with any passion is my old first love, basketball, and our local powerhouse of a team, the Los Angeles Lakers. I run into a major problem, however, when I watch them, a problem that will only increase when the playoffs begin shortly. I am so emotionally attached to the outcome that I am unable to enjoy watching them. This stress that I experience makes me ask a simple question: Why do I care so much? If these guys that I have never met lose a game, will it have any measurable impact on my life? Of course, I am not alone in getting so emotionally involved in sporting events. I live in a country (and world) where people go into incredible states of ecstasy or blind rage over the results of sporting events. For many people, life would virtually end without “Sportscenter” and Fantasy Baseball. How can this behavior be explained?

The truth is that I don’t have any rational explanations for my emotions and my closely related crazy behavior. Being entertained by sports, however, makes some sense. Live sports may be the earliest example of reality TV. It has all the drama of TV shows, the movies, and literature, but the ending is not scripted. The strategies and statistics involved with sports can also be fascinating to those who understand them. This level of analysis is not much different from the type of studies done by economists, political scientists, or military historians. The players and teams can also become like characters in any play or novel, and sports fans can become as attached to the saga of their heroes as a person wrapped up in his or her mystery novel or soap opera. Any great entertainment, after all, has the power to emotionally connect with its audience.

Sports also have the power to create a tremendous sense of camaraderie. When the New Orleans Saints reached the Super Bowl this year, it was hard to root against them when you saw how passionately this battered city rallied around its team. Some saw this as a great moment of redemption for a city still struggling to recover from Katrina. Any time that you become a fan of the local team, there is a good chance that you will find many others to discuss the latest sports happenings. This is particularly helpful for men, a gender that is not known for emotionally connecting to others. We may not be able to share feelings, but we sure the hell can talk sports. I have personally experienced several moments where the shared love for a sports team has created an instant bond, if only temporarily, between total strangers and myself.

But still, caring so much about the Lakers does not make any sense. Why did I choose this particular team to care about? Is it because they happen to play their home games in the local vicinity? When they win, does it truly benefit me or my local community? Also, since the faces on the team constantly change, why do I root for people with whom I have not had the time to develop any personal “relationship.” The players that I grew up watching are long gone. They have now become coaches and announcers, and some of them are even the parents of current players. Am I really just rooting for the uniform? Last year, Ron Artest was the enemy, but now that he has changed uniforms, I find myself rooting for a guy that I was calling a punk and a thug just a few months ago. I guess that the purple and gold jersey cleanses all past sins.

I could ramble about sports for a long time and continue making fun of myself and other sports fans, but instead, I will make one last point. We human beings are not a particularly rational species. Sometimes, it is appropriate to resist our irrational natures. But there are also times when you should just allow yourself to be silly. Does it make any sense for me to care so much about the outcome of Laker games? Of course it doesn’t. The only problem is that I do care, so maybe I should stop thinking so much and allow a little irrationality in my life. As long as you maintain a certain amount of perspective, it is sometimes fun to just join the mob.