in search of the promised land

Conspiracy theories abound and I think they always have. The Web allows greater proliferation and spread of conspiracy theories in a way that they flow like water and fill up the empty spaces. But why does this happen?

Some time ago, a pundit or comedian, I can’t remember who it was, made the observation that conspiracy theories are attractive to the religious because conspiracies take the randomness of the universe out of the equation. For example, people who are horrified by the idea that their God would allow a classroom of first-graders to be shot to death find inordinate comfort in the idea that it is a conspiracy of their own government.  After all, believing in the conspiracy, or just accepting it as a possible explanation, avoids having to confront some very hard, very possible realities.

  1. God allows random/evil stuff to happen, stuff that just makes no sense.
  2. If God does have a plan, clearly some of the details are really unpleasant.
  3. The universe doesn’t think you are special.
  4. You, or someone you care about, could be next.

I think it is the last one that really gets people. Dealing with mortality is hard enough as you age. Accepting randomness as part of life is hard. It is uncomfortable. We create narratives to protect us from the random. We tell each other, “everything happens for a reason,” or “it’s all part of God’s plan.” It’s comforting to believe there is a plan, even if we don’t know what it is, or even it’s purpose. Because it is God’s plan, we can tell ourselves that we don’t know the plan because we don’t need to know it. God loves us, and so the plan must be in our best interests. Well, at least for some of us. I notice a lot of people see their God as being rather exclusive. God tends to look a lot like them and has a lot of rules. Kind of like joining a country club in the 1950s or Augusta National today.

He pulls a prayer book out of his sleeping bag
Preacher lights up a butt and he takes a drag
Waiting for when the last shall be first and the first shall be last
In a cardboard box ‘neath the underpass
You got a one-way ticket to the promised land
You got a hole in your belly and a gun in your hand
Sleeping on a pillow of solid rock
Bathing in the city’s aqueduct

–Bruce Springsteen, “The Ghost of Tom Joad”

There’s also the idea from Matthew 20:16 that the last shall be first from the parable likening the Kingdom of Heaven to a vineyard. This verse is most often interpreted as saying that those who answer the call to obey receive the same benefits of heaven, regardless of when they heed the call. In other words, you get the same ticket to heaven if you wait as long as possible (particularly in terms of your comfort with risk) as you do if you heed the call as soon as you hear it. A more cynical understanding might be make sure you understand what you signed up for and the terms of the contract.

10 But when the first came, they supposed that they should have received more; and they likewise received every man a penny.11 And when they had received it, they murmured against the goodman of the house,12 Saying, These last have wrought but one hour, and thou hast made them equal unto us, which have borne the burden and heat of the day.13 But he answered one of them, and said, Friend, I do thee no wrong: didst not thou agree with me for a penny?

For those that dismiss the idea of Jesus the Socialist, they should perhaps pay more attention to this passage. This text though is all about creating a structure to defend against the random. Promising us a place that is ours. Not only that is ours, but that is also elevated from our current position, or that we at least don’t lose anything from our current lot. If our positions in life, or the afterlife, are clearly ordained, we are then protected from the random.

We also create systems meant to protect us from the random. Insurance is a good example. Life, health, casualty, property, all are met to protect us from hurt of random events, since they can’t be completely prevented. Government and bureaucracies fulfill the same purpose. They are an attempt to create orderliness in a disordered world, to create areas of safety. They are also intended to punish those acting outside the intended order. Punishing the random, as ridiculous as it is since it actually has no ability to act a deterrent to the random, apparently feels good.

We’re all searching for a Promised Land, even if the maker of the promise is different. Even if it is ourselves. We look for a place to be ourselves, to feel safe and, quite often, superior. Clinging to conspiracies that eliminate the random, that protect us from having to confront our shortcomings, allows us to hold on to our vision of a Promised Land.  It’s easy to like the idea that deep state conspiracy exists, especially when the contrary point of view is that our own choices lead to the negative outcomes for self and others. If there is a conspiracy, clearly I am not to blame, others are.

And I drove a Challenger down Route 9 through the dead ends and all the bad scenes
And when the promise was broken, I cashed in a few of my own dreams

I won big once and I hit the coast, oh but somehow I paid the big cost
Inside I felt like I was carrying the broken spirits of all the other ones who lost
When the promise is broken you go on living, but it steals something from down in your soul
Like when the truth is spoken and it don’t make no difference, something in your heart turns cold
Thunder Road, for the lost lovers and all the fixed games
Thunder Road, for the tires rushing by in the rain
Thunder Road, remember what me and Billy we’d always say
Thunder Road, we were gonna take it all then threw it all away

-Bruce Springsteen, “The Promise”

For many, it seems it is much easier to believe the conspiracy than to accept the responsibility for your own choices.

Three Songs One Night

It’s been too long since the last time I wrote something and I am feeling it. On the other hand, there really hasn’t been anything to drive me to write.

But I listened to three songs in a row the other night. They weren’t out of the ordinary for my usual playlists, but they did fall in an order that made sense, particularly in the context of a discussion with a friend.

“A friend of mine thought he had beat esophageal cancer, and now a couple years later, he has a brain tumor that’s cancerous. It’s spreading. He’s going in for surgery and treatment (chemo, radiation). I don’t think I could do it unless the odds were really good. What about you? You’ve been through brain surgery, would you go through all that pain and sickness again, or chemo?”

“In a heartbeat, unless it is was pretty clearly pointless.”

“Really. I’m struggling with the idea of even seeing him right after surgery.”

“Do you want to see what I looked like? I’ve got pictures.”

Here I am, the day after surgery, February 14, 2010. More tubes than you can shake a stick at. Next to that is me just a few weeks ago on my way to Orlando. It is amazing, is it not?

Yeah, it will be a long time before I am ready to think about giving up. I remember there was pain, I remember there was sickness, I remember there was weakness. What I don’t remember is any of these things. I only remember they were present and part of life. Because of that, these things don’t scare me. I will never look forward to them by any means, but for now, they don’t scare me.

These were the three songs I heard that night:

There is something compelling about “Hallelujah” whether it’s an argument with God, a song of broken love, or something in between. The lyrics go out of their way to to say everything but ask “Why?” And it is because it just doesn’t matter. Things happen. Too many things happen without explanation, certainly without good explanation. I found one source claims Cohen described the song thus:”It explains that many kinds of hallelujahs do exist, and all the perfect and broken hallelujahs have equal value.” I think this is much the same way that the 300 or so covers of the song all have equal value, but probably none sound anything like the bootleg recording of the live performance by Bob Dylan.

When Johnny Cash covered the Nine-Inch Nails’ song “Hurt,” it was a new creation. Cash interpreted the song into a discourse of aging, failure of the body, and the memories of sin and failed intentions.

I wear this crown of thorns
Upon my liar’s chair
Full of broken thoughts
I cannot repair
Beneath the stain of time
The feelings disappear
You are someone else
I am still right here

My inner world remains unchanged, but everything else changes, including you.  I stay locked within my own head, I see out through my eyes as I always did, why do you look at me so strangely, why don’t you see me at all? At this writing, I am 56, and I don’t feel it. Most days I still feel like I am 20 years younger. What is this aging stuff? I can still do anything, right? (Maybe not.)

If I could start again
A million miles away
I would keep myself
I would find a way

And as “Hurt” ends with these lyrics the music also ends in a crashing finale, the transition to “Absolute Beginners” begins with a swirling escape hinting at something exotic. I’ve loved this song since it came out so many years ago. It’s a great love song, one that works over and over again.

Nothing much could happen
Nothing we can’t shake
Oh we’re absolute beginners
With nothing much at stake
As long as you’re still smiling
There’s nothing more I need
I absolutely love you
But we’re absolute beginners
But if my love is your love
We’re certain to succeed

These lyrics are about beginnings and hope. Ostensibly the song is about being a beginner at love, but isn’t that true each time you fall in love anew? Or at least it feels that way. “Absolute Beginners” gives us the sense of hope that had faded in “Hurt” and returns us to a point of saying “Hallelujah” once again.

It’s a hell of loop. I have to wonder at the algorithm that created it. I don’t remember which Amazon music channel it was on, but I am pretty sure it was the Leonard Cohen channel. Sometimes, just sometimes, I am stunned at how good these sequences are. Most times, not so much. Perhaps though it is just randomization that happened to fall that way on a specific day.

Like what usually happens in life.

Music like this keeps me going when the world seems too much. It reminds me there is no reason to give up while I still have energy to draw a breath, or to get up in the morning. Energy to take a stand.

The Privilege of Self-Care

A friend and colleague shared a tweet with me last week that pointed out a simple truth that there is a certain amount of privilege associated with self-care. In this case, it was the privilege of knowing you need care, what kind of care, and having the resources to do something about it.

“Why do I rally against the rhetoric of self help in academia? It isn’t because it doesn’t work for those with stress or mild anxiety or any other condition, it’s because it puts the responsibility to stay well and get better on those who are too unwell to participate.”

I’ve written before about self-care as capitalist plot, and it is. Capitalism doesn’t care all that much for individuals, save as how they can be leveraged to produce wealth for other individuals. Pushing us all to self-care is along the same lines of creating self-repairing, self-correcting machinery to reduce costs in producing widgets. After all, if a machine is self-repairing, it doesn’t need technicians and mechanics to support it.

Of course, there really is no argument (as far as I can tell you) that self-care is a personally good thing to do. It is definitely a private good and in your best interest. Self-care does take resources, it does take privilege. If nothing else, it takes the privilege to be able to stop and breathe, to stop activities that add no value or are harmful.

When one is suffering from depression, anxiety, chronic pain, or other disabling condition it is next to impossible to self-care your way to a better space. You need help identifying your situation, your needs, and a way to get those needs met. I certainly needed those things.  Having someone point out my depression, the way I was ignoring it, and what I could do about it, made all the difference. I still needed to act on that information, which I did, and I needed the resources (medical care, insurance, counseling) whcih I had. So I got better.

Unfortunately many people don’t have those resources, including a friend or colleague that helps them to identify their problem or needs. That’s why self-care is so often for those with privielege. We need to create systems where everybody has access to the tools, information, and support they need to perform self-care. We can’t just preach about it or write about it and tell people to just do good self-care.

In fact, I would make the point that good self-care is a collaborative effort since it relies on the support and/or input of others. For this reason, we should being about self-care of the community. How do we take care of all of us, by taking care of ourselves through taking care of others? It seems delightfully mutually supportive and cyclical. The only problem is that we would have to give up all the divisions among us that we love to cherish, shout about, and chew on in deep, dark thoughts that are really antithetical to good self-care.

 

 

 

 

It was nothing at all

We didn’t really know each other, Melinda and I. She was a student worker in my father’s departmental office. A mutual friend was having a small birthday party at a local bar and that was where things began. We wound up dancing together until quite late. That first dance was to Heart’s “It was nothing at all.”

I would walk home every evening
Through the pyramids of light
I would feed myself from silence
Wash it down with empty nights

Then your innocent distractions
Hit me so hard
My emotional reaction
Caught me off guard

It was nothin’ at all (nothin’ at all)
Like anything I had felt before
And it was nothin’ at all (nothin’ at all)
Like I thought, no, it’s so much more

It wasn’t love at first sight, nor was it love at first dance. But something clicked that night, sometime between that dance and a conversation that ended about five in the morning. It grew quickly and, despite some rocky beginnings, has survived 32 years.

***

Monday I had the eighteenth MRI of my skull since December 31st, 2009. It has been almost exactly two years since the seventeenth. Fortunately, the remains of Bob the Tumor, appears to be stable and hopefully dead or dying, following surgery in 2010 and radiation in 2012.

When discovered, the tumor was about the size of a golf ball, choking the brain stem. How long it had been there is anyone’s guess. With a typical growth rate of of 1-2 millimeters per year and a size around 44mm , the minor mutation to the cell sheath in the meninges could have occurred between 22 and 44 years prior to discovery. Or longer. Or shorter.

It doesn’t really matter though. What does matter, or at least of interest, is that it was a tiny, infinitesimal thing, almost “nothing at all” that eventually changed everything for me.  Slowly and maybe inevitably, this thing grew inside my head, deep into the cerebellopontine angle alongside the brainstem. If the tumor had not extended along the vestibulocochlear nerve destroyed my hearing, we might not have known it until I fell into a coma and perhaps died.

From nothing back to nothing, almost.

***

Very shortly after my MRI (literally just a few minutes), I saw my neurosurgeon to get the results. (For a great many patients it is not this quick. Too often there is a period of weeks between the MRI and the consult. That’s a long time to ponder the possibility of growth. )  As with any most any medical appointment there is the taking of vital statistics and weighing.  It was pretty cool to see that I had lost exactly 100 pounds since my appointment two years ago.

Losing weight is a series of very small steps. The only big things involved are the decisions to commit to the process and anything you might give up permanently. (I went cold turkey on soda and few other things and haven’t looked back.) Every day is a series of small decisions, almost unnoticeably small, to stick with the program. Most of the changes in weight are likewise small. There’s a need to learn and understand the rhythms of one’s body and how it reacts to food and exercise that helps develop the patience for sustained weight-loss.

There’s a lot of “nothing at all” that seems to exist between occasions of notable progress in the process of losing weight. It’s all trying to do the right things, minimal cheating, and hoping you’ve maintained a daily calorie intake deficit. This is an act of faith and estimation. Faith placed in tools and the work of others and learning to estimate food quantities (unless you carry a scale everywhere) and calorie burn.

***

When I was recovering from surgery, a friend advised me to stop focusing (and dwelling) on the things I couldn’t do at the time, but all the hundreds of other things I could do. This was helpful advice, especially once I realized that most of things I couldn’t do were made up of small things. Movements that were small, seemingly inconsequential, and that I had never really been aware of before. I just had to work on the small things and perhaps the big things would happen.

It was the same thing when I was going to physical therapy last fall and I was performing facial movement exercises that focused on moving one or two muscles at a time. This was challenging. I never thought about how to sneer before, I just did it. However, trying to sneer on the left side was not happening. After many sessions of trying to activate  a dormant muscle, I still can’t sneer on the left, but I have movement and this movement leads greater plasticity (normalcy).

It’s the little things.

It was late one Friday
He pulled in outta the dark
He was tall and handsome
First she took his order, then she took his heart
They bought a house on the hillside
Where little feet soon would rock
Well from small things Mama, big things one day come

-Bruce Springsteen, From Small Things

***

We often tell each other,  “Don’t sweat the small stuff.” It’s good advice as far as it goes. Just don’t ignore the small stuff, pay attention to it. Every big thing starts with a little thing, a change, of something that was almost nothing. Kind of like the butterfly effect where the fluttering of a butterfly’s wings can ultimately lead to a tornado around the other side of the world. Or just the cumulative steps that cause you to end up somewhere else.

 

 

Core Competencies

From a reader comment at InsideHigherED:

“In the business world, it’s common to outsource certain roles and functions in order for your business to focus on its “core competencies.” You want to focus on what’s important, which makes sense. But what does it say that universities outsource labor for what should be one of their major functions: teaching undergraduates?”

One of my first thoughts on reading this was an early Dilbert comic strip in which it is announced that management is going to start outsourcing the the operations it doesn’t do well. The punchline was along the lines, “Wait…they aren’t very good at knowing what they aren’t good at.”

So I’ve been thinking about this a lot. It’s clear to me that a lot of people don’t seem to be aware that they really aren’t very good at the things they are doing. I think I might have always assumed they just didn’t care. Now it just seems more likely that they just don’t know that they simply aren’t good at what they do. Often though, they express great confidence in the rightness of what they are doing.

It seems like self-assessment should be core competency. We need to be able to accurately assess what we are competent at, what we are not, and what we are willing to invest our time and effort into to learn. We can’t do everything ourselves, and once we are no longer toddlers we can’t expect to have everything outsourced for us.

How do we teach self-assessment when it seems most people won’t even engage in self-reflection?

There have been a number of conversations around at work lately about recognizing our own biases. It’s a tough nut to crack. First, one has to grant the possibility that bias exists in our thinking and/or behavior. This is generally not a comfortable exercise, I think, for most people. The next step is to simply pay attention to yourself and critically assess what you do, questioning the reasons for your choices. Perhaps the most important thing is to question the choices for which you feel have no reasons.

So, I’ve lost nearly a hundred pounds and clinic has kicked me out of the weight-loss program into maintenance. I’m not exactly thrilled with this. I feel that that I have a more to lose on my belly. However, I’m told that it is just “loose skin.”

I have serious doubts.

I can tell the difference in layers, what’s skin, what’s muscle, and what’s in between that’s not either of those things. There is still fat to lose.

So, there are two explanations as I see it. One, is a combination of liability and counting a success. A weight-loss clinic loses credibility if it’s clientele get sick (especially if they die) and moving someone from an unhealthy BMI to a healthy BMI is an easy measure of success. On a straight BMI chart, I am just inside the healthy range. Further, looking at various BMI charts adjusted for age and gender, I am either safely in the middle or at the 25th percentile.  In this context, I can see their point.

On the other hand, having heard this loose skin explanation on two consecutive days from two different types of providers, I looked at them and thought, “Really?” It seemed like rationalization to me. One, the likely payoff for their practice was minimal.  Another five or ten pounds wasn’t going to make me any more of a success. Two, admitting that there was still a layer of fat to lose would require them to honestly admit the same truth for themselves.

I admit to the possibility that I am being unfair in my assessment. I may be somewhat obsessive about weight-loss, but given how much I have eaten this week, I don’t think that’s really the problem. I am sticking to healthy balance of calories in and out. I also may be wrong in thinking I can achieve the look I want, but I don’t think I am wrong in wanting to try.

Bringing this back full circle, how can I know what my core competencies are until I create adequate patterns of success and failure? What constitutes enough experience?

 

Critically Examining Life Advice (advanced self-care)

So there was this:

One of the dumber, non-political articlesI have seen this week.

I guess one can say that perspective of the person advocating this nonsense is that  success requires focus, commitment, and intense time management. This is fair. But to suggest that one simply can’t have all five things is somewhat ludicrous.

My biggest problem with this is that it ignores too many possible efficiencies. For example, fitness activities do not have to be done solo. Family members and/or friends can be part of your running, walking, biking, or other fitness activity. Further, fitness is a scalable thing with different levels of participation and effort. I go to the gym with my wife, I play golf with my sons and some of my friends. There is overlap and possible efficiencies.

The fact is, at the moment, I have all five of these things in abundance. And yes, it is hard work, but that’s the nature of a good life. It doesn’t just happen. You work at it, and you use what privilege you have to make it work.

I love my job and what I do. It is surprisingly intense for long periods of time. There are days lately that I feel that I just haven’t ever worked as hard before. But these are good days and nothing to complain about. Plus I have finally learned to go home and NOT work all evening. Unless there is a deadline, the work stuff stops when I leave the office, save for what I consider the requisite effort to maintain a career and profession: ongoing reading, study, and practice. I simply don’t allow those to overtake my evenings or weekends, unless I am having fun or something.

I spend time every evening and weekend with my wife. We have radically different schedules, interests, and abilities, but we make time. After 29 years next week, we are finally learning how to do this somewhat well.

Fitness takes time, especially while I have been in weight-loss mode and working out as if I was actually training for something. I’m not training. At least, I don’t think I am. But there are still a few races I would like to run and last weekend I learned that the nearby state park recently hosted a trail marathon. It would be nice to do another, and nicer still not to do one in the mountains. And as I said earlier, I play golf with friends and this year we are adding hiking into the mix of the activities.

I sleep. Not always do I sleep the full seven or so that I want, but that reflects the fact that I generally like to move slowly in the mornings, so I cut the sleeping just a bit to accommodate that.

Now there are other choices made interweaving these things as they don’t account for all the 168 hours in a week. In fact, there is still a fair amount of slop. I lead a pretty relaxed lifestyle. Our children are grown and gone so I can be more relaxed.

So, what’s my point? That you can have all these things?

Nope.

My point is really that one of the best forms of self-care is to be really critical about any advice you are confronted with. Evaluate the life and lifestyle of person giving advice. Do they live it? Is it consistent? Most importantly, does it appear to lead to the quality of life you want for yourself?

I mean, for all the possible allegories of hell, don’t take my advice if you don’t think my life is working.

Newspapers, magazines, and .com websites exist to make money. No matter what claims they make in the subheading (such as “to help you live a better life”), their first objective is to take money – whether by directly selling something or selling page views for advertisements. As long as this is true, crap lists of what to do, lists of what choices to make (since you clearly can’t have it all), and a bajillion promises to make your life better if you do this one weird thing, will always be around.

However, one thing really is true. There is only so much time in a day, a week, a year. You have to make choices about how to use that time. Those choices will determine if you can have sleep, work, friends, family, and fitness. Of course, the secret to having all five is choosing to do so, and then making the daily choices that allow you to have those things.

Beautifully Human

A friend checked in tonight to say hi and see how I was doing.

“Beautifully human” was my response.

I’m not sure exactly what I meant, all I know is that felt good. Happy. Relaxed. I had just returned from an evening yoga session and everything felt loose and stretched in a way I don’t remember experiencing.

The simple fact is it is getting easier and more natural to feel this way.

A lot of work over the last 16 months has gone into getting this point. Weight-loss, counseling, learning and investing self-care, and working with a healthy lifestyles coach on stress reduction, have all been part of rebooting my life. I’ve lost nearly a hundred pounds and, as of today, am off of blood pressure meds.  (Actually, if you go back to when I started on the meds, I’ve lost more like 125 pounds.) My resting pulse rate is typically in the low 50s, occasionally in the 40s. My cholesterol is great, in fact, all of my numbers are good.

So, I’m healthy and happy. I look good.

***

Personal change happens through choice and action. In November, 2016 I made a choice to get healthy. I also took some decisive actions. And each day for the next 16 months I reaffirmed that choice. It wasn’t always easy, but it got easier to reaffirm the original choice as each day went by.

It’s often said, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.” (There is lot of misattribution as to the source.) I was guilty of this behavior around my eating habits for years. I quit taking a serious look at quantity and calories, or really any look at such things. I think about just how easy it is to have 1500 calories or more just for breakfast and still be hungry a couple of hours later.

Even after 15 months it can be challenging not to fall into the habits again, if only in minor way. Food can be comforting.

***

I’m often surprised at the realization that people don’t really know who I am. I mean, I do play lot of different roles, and at work (outside the confines of my office) I keep my politics to myself and play to the center. When I was a scout leader, I generally did the same thing and the same was true once upon a time a church leader. However, this last week I was twice assumed and declared to be on the opposite side of that center line. In one case it amused me greatly and I put it down to role-playing. In the other case it damn near broke my heart.

So it has me thinking about the necessity of playing different roles and how that can hide the authentic, evolving self. I admit that for years I was closed off to most everyone. Disdaining vulnerability  I rarely let anyone in to my life, as far as my beliefs. So it is unsurprising people that people don’t know.

On the other hand, it is bothersome that who I really am is not always apparent by my actions. And this matters to me. For example, you would never hear/see me declare myself a feminist because if you can’t tell by my actions then it isn’t real and likely just a hollow statement or a con. Actions matter. But there isn’t always an audience for my best work.

***

In yoga classes I am learning that there are places in my body that I never thought to stretch. This sometimes makes me chuckle. Especially in the advanced beginner class…I chuckle a lot. It seems insane the way parts of me are made to stretch. I find it calming though. The basic beginner class has fewer of these chuckles but a bit more sweat. (I simply show up for whatever classes are available in the building.)

I’ve also noticed that my flexibility is bilaterally different. With the exception of my face and jaw (which are opposite), my right side is noticeably stiffer than my left. There are also directions in which I am very flexible and their opposite in which I am not flexible at all.

If I am honest, I admit this same tendency exists mentally. For many things, I am eminently flexible, for others, well, rigid might be the appropriate word. Sometimes inappropriately rigid and I really to have work to find a needed flexibility.

***

None of this is either particularly hard or particularly easy. It’s just part of being human – being beautifully human – in stretching myself in new ways. Trying to be the me I want to be.