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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.