Idiocracy

I had this subtle thought a few weeks back and I admit that I cannot for the life of me recall what happened to put these thoughts in my head but the gist of it was that I took the notion that people are definitely getting increasingly ignorant in this country. Scientific analysis actually confirms this theory, by the way, even more so than I’m comfortable admitting. It reminds me of the 2006 film “Idiocracy” where human evolution and natural selection had taken a seriously wrong turn and began to favor traits that weren’t necessarily the strongest, fittest, smartest or noblest. Evolution began to reward those who procreated at the highest rates and left the intelligent to become an endangered species.

To give you some idea of what to prepare for when you rent this movie on Netflix, here is some representative dialogue from the character Doctor and the movies’ Narrator: Doctor: “Don’t worry, scrote. There are plenty of ‘tards out there living really kick-ass lives. My first wife was ‘tarded. She’s a pilot now.” Narrator: “Unaware of what year it was, Joe wandered the streets desperate for help. But the English language had deteriorated into a hybrid of hillbilly, valleygirl, inner-city slang and various grunts. Joe was able to understand them, but when he spoke in an ordinary voice he sounded pompous and faggy to them.”

Oh yeah, now I remember why I had these thoughts. My friend Tony was telling me that he’d read a recent study explaining how a large percentage of PhD’s are choosing not to have children. The same study points to the fact that women of high intelligence tend to have fewer children than women of lower intelligence. The conversation surrounding that study talked of the doom and gloom associated with that type of decision and how stupid people never seem to concern themselves with the logical considerations of having children they cannot afford to support, they just keep having more. Thus, the conversation evolved, sufficient inspiration is galvanized, voila é blog.

Then, when I began doing research for this particular blog I found out all kinds of things that made me wish I’d just wrote about ISIS or politics or anything less controversial. It seems that one of America’s foremost testing agencies, the Educational Testing Service, released a report about ten months ago that was quite shocking for me to read to say the least. It demonstrates that adult Americans, regardless of educational achievement are, as a group, less literate with respect to both words and numbers, and less capable of solving problems, than their counterparts throughout the industrialized world. Despite all efforts and the trillions of dollars we’re throwing at education, if anything, the problem of low achievement has worsened over time despite the fact that formal levels of educational attainment across the board have risen.

America has a higher emphasis on education than it ever has before, but Americans are, relatively speaking, clueless about the most basic knowledge needed to communicate effectively and make decisions in an increasingly complex market economy. Moreover, the millennials (those born after 1980) know less than their elders. To be a bit harsh, in America, we’re led to believe that the dumb just keep getting dumber. States, including Tennessee (my home State) are proposing dramatic changes to higher education including our own Drive to 55 program which plans to bolster the number of Tennesseans with college degrees and professional certificates but will these Euro-styled free educations work here when they’ve been disastrous in Europe?

I say that because in every European country that Emily and I have traveled where free two-year colleges are provided by the government, the locals there repeatedly say that those 2-year higher-Ed degrees essentially become more akin to high school diploma’s – the expected bottom level of achievement – while the value of undergraduate degrees become deeply eroded due to the systematic down-escalator of achievement requirements. Students worldwide are getting educated but are learning less. Higher education in America has mirrored the trend of general education…increasingly inefficient per dollars spent and progressively less effective. The lesson here, if the government gives it to you for free, it’s worth exactly what you’re paying for it.

Whatever is going on, it is having a profound effect on not only the intelligence level of the American population but also its ability to learn, process, reason, and think for itself. Are Americans really getting dumber? Statistics say yes. In 2011, the average American IQ was measured at 88.54. (Average intelligence is estimated to be 89-100.) This means that a large percentage of the American population is now considered below average intelligence! Also in 2011, a benchmark occurrence happened. For the first time in American history our children were less educated than their parents. In other words, as generational families have little by little strived to ensure their children enter and graduate college at higher rates than themselves – throughout the entire history of modern America – for the first time in 2011 the generation entering college shrunk from that of their parents.

Looking at this problem more specifically, among 24 developed countries in comparison, the U.S. millennials ranked surprisingly last in numeracy (along with Italy and Spain) as well as in “problem-solving in technology-rich environments”. The youngest examined, those 16 to 24 years of age, ranked dead last in mathematical ability (along with Italy). Even our “best and brightest” fared poorly. Looking specifically at numeracy, the scores of Americans aged 16-to-34 years ranked in the top 10 percentile of U.S. students taking the test, the score of 323 was statistically below the average of 334, and even more below that of such industrial competitors as neighboring Canada (336) , Japan (342), or Sweden (346).

Worse are those in the bottom 10th percentile. The U.S. numeracy scores for that group for those 16 to 34 were the freakin lowest in the world – no one else was even close. As a consequence, the gap between high and lower performers was far greater in the U.S than in the group of developed countries as a whole, and bigger than in any other nation. Borrowing again from the movie Idiocracy: Private Joe Bowers“…and there was a time in this country, a long time ago, when reading wasn’t just for fags and neither was writing. People wrote books and movies, movies that had stories so you cared whose ass it was and why it was farting, and I believe that time can come again!”

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So, is it because we have this growing inner-city elementary and secondary school problem in America that is systematically denying our countries underprivileged of a decent education? No not really. Our problem is way bigger than that. Our suburban, rural and privileged students in America are doing poorly too. The American phenomenon is definitely not a lack of formal schooling – we are above the average in that regard, even with respect to higher education. The problem is we impart less learning per year of schooling than almost all other major nations in the world and colleges are far from immune to these charges. To quote the report verbatim, “U.S. millennials with a four-year bachelor’s degree scored higher than their counterparts in only two countries: Poland and Spain. Our most educated – those with a master’s or research degree – scored higher than their peers only in Ireland, Poland, and Spain.”

So the problem is not simply bankrupt inner-city elementary and secondary schools, where the educational care of students borders on the criminally negligent. The problem also persists in our colleges and universities, where master’s level students with years of collegiate training are far poorer than their industrial world counterparts in such core knowledge as basic numeracy. It’s not just the Degree-Mart’s of the world where you can get online degrees served hot or cold, it’s our state colleges and our ivy-league universities alike. Our children are bringing home 100’s on tests and our young adults are graduating with honors, just like all the others before them, it’s just that the high grade of today’s education system is irrelevant to whether the student is actually learning the things they need to learn.

My grandfather may have done better in chemistry than I did but perhaps it’s easier to memorize a periodic table with 11 elements than it is one with 118. Maybe he was smarter in the ways of science and math but he also thought it was perfectly acceptable for black people to drink out of different public water fountains whereas I do not. My grandfather lived in an era when we believed that Gay men were these unicorn like humanoids who would come out of their cocoons for a few years, marry Liza Minnelli, then disappear. I’m being ignorant, of course, but I’m trying to point out that there are plenty of areas where I believe Millennials are far and away smarter than the people we’ve coined “The Greatest Generation”. Yes we’re becoming more tolerant and that is a wonderful thing but what important data is being pushed out our ears as all this emotional intelligence is being added to the top.

We have to ask ourselves why America is doing so poorly. It is definitely NOT lack of money. Our spending-per-pupil levels compare favorably at the K-12 levels, and we blow the world away in per-student higher education spending. In part, the answer relates to a growing disdain for learning facts, basic concepts, historical references, etc. It is reflected at the collegiate level in a decline in the relative importance of general education, and of core liberal-arts type learning. The “self-esteem” movement and the idea that we should not say anything “hurtful” to students is a further manifestation that education is increasingly viewed as less about learning and more about “feelings.” Everyone is a winner in my school – not to say that you guys are losers or anything.

We suffer as a country for much of the same reasons. The same political correct movement that teaches us that all children should win every game and that self-esteem is what we give children – not what they give themselves – has become so powerful that we can no longer point out potentially socially divisive situations for fear of being ostracized as being insensitive or an ogre, a bigot, racist, homophobe, or anti-Muslim/Christian/Semitic. We’d rather put our citizens at risk of being a target of terrorism than admit that some Muslims might be taking Quran 2:191-193 just a little too serious.

Does this sentence make my Fatwa look too Mufti? Our government, in fear of ostracizing anyone entering our country from an Arab State, creates a system of torture for law abiding citizens at our airports. Background checks on immigrants might make us seem bigoted so please just remove your shoes and underwear for the gloved inspector.

Some studies indicate that the I.Q.’s of Westerners have dropped 14 I.Q. points on average since the Victorian Era. Other studies say that our I.Q.’s scores are rising at a remarkable rate. Could it be that it’s just our genetic potential that is changing or perhaps that we’re being judged today on antiquated standards? I mean seriously, smarts cannot simply be defined as just one thing. What makes a person clever on the African Savannah could be nearly useless in the financial centers of New York City. It’s not just a matter of intelligence going up or down, different parts of intelligence could be changing in lots of different ways.

A 1912 8th grade test from the State of Kentucky indicates that 8th graders once could tell us “through which waters would a vessel pass in going from England through the Suez Canal to Manila?”, or, “How does the liver compare in size with other glands in the human body?”, or, spelling words such as pennyweight and bequeath. But, wouldn’t 8th graders from 1912 be equally stumped if we asked them to explain a DNA sequence or Supercolliders? We’ve come a very long way from barnacles and botany to nanotechnology and wormholes and who uses the word pennyweight anymore?

Our everyday vocabulary alone is full of neologisms, expressing ideas that we wouldn’t have even imagined a few years ago (i.e., Have you Googled it yet?)(i.e., I’m blogging about neologisms.) Although the standards are a moving target for sure, one thing that can be certain is that we very quickly lose abilities when we no longer need them. A great example of that fact is that my own ability to recall telephone numbers in the 80’s was astonishing. Now that I have a robot in my pocket that remembers thousands of numbers and faces, I no longer have the ability to remember phone numbers.

Comparatively, most of us have lost much of what would have been considered to be common knowledge in the 1920’s but I believe our 1920’s counterparts would be equally lost in today’s world. One would have hoped that we would carry over all that previous knowledge into each next generation only adding and building onto base knowledge as we evolve further. But that is apparently not possible. Perhaps our brains are only capable of carrying around just so much information. The Victorians lost what was common of the Baroque Era and they had lost much of the Renaissance standards and the Middle Ages saw mass exoduses of the intelligence from Roman times and so on and so forth.

Now, neuro-scientists refer to our brain’s Amygdala as the reptilian brain only because we know it to hold all of these deep instinctive and intuitional survival mechanisms that we’ve completely lost all first-hand knowledge about. I.Q. is always going to be relative to the society that we live within. Average I.Q. is always going to be 100 no matter how advanced or devolved we become. It is more a measure of “how” you know, not “what” you know – Megahertz not Megabytes. Said differently, a caveman could have had an I.Q. of 180 simply by being the only one who could start a fire. Fire is of course not considered to be an advanced science today but it once was the 3D printer of the Neolithic Revolution.

All that said, it appears we have dug ourselves into this deep dark education hole that we’re going to have to learn more about then teach ourselves how not to teach. One has to wonder about whether all of the most modern educational benchmarks set on teachers by which we’re supposed to be able to measure their effectiveness has spawned educational programming that is designed to disguise the failures of children and teachers.

An example might be that children are no longer required to learn cursive writing. Another example is that we now teach our children to memorize words without actually teaching them what those words actually mean, their derivatives in foundation languages (Greek, Latin, Germanic, etc.) or how the word can be used alternatively. It seems the common denominator among students using Common Core is remedial studies. In my opinion, Common Core creates nothing but commonness.

Another aspect of this so far unexplored is this growing trend of anti-intellectualism, anti-elite, anti-reason and anti-science that has been infused into the modern political and social fabric of America. The greater emphasis we put on acceptance of everything and the stronger we push ourselves away from traditionally conservative value systems the more we feel compelled to join this cult of ignorance nurtured by the false notion that real democracy means that my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge – my poor conditions are equally as valuable to society as your high standards – my failure to take life seriously has significance that pars your diligence and responsibility to yourself and your community.

We get all caught up in the fight for equality, not realizing that the focus we place on one group shades out the light to other groups. We’ve never seemed to learn exactly how to be kind and respectful to all cultures, groups, ideologies, and religions all at the same time. Today we’re focused on the issue of gay marriage and of course that is an important issue, but, its way more important to gay couples than it is to non-gay couples. That doesn’t mean the rest of us can’t learn and grow as a human being during the discussion. We need to be able to learn, fix things, and then move on without denigrating another’s belief systems in the process.

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Similarly, the issues of race seem to be explosive right now. How on earth, when most white people have no concept of racial inequality, can we be having these kinds of problems in America? I’ll tell you what I believe…education. The collapse of our education system has become the new Jim Crow, incubators of criminal behavior by means of failure and lack of self-esteem. They’re becoming conveyor belts into the nation’s prison system. The stigma attached to felony drug convictions eliminates employment opportunities for those who take this path then we and they are stuck into a life of crime.

So, if you’re black, perhaps you have a different perception of how great things are for black people in 2015. White people are running as fast as they can away from any conversations about race or equality because they’re woefully unprepared and mostly in denial. We just point to affirmative action and ask “what’s the problem?” But, the problem is bigger than that. If things are bad for white kids in suburban schools, imagine how bad it is for black kids in inner-city schools. They’re not the ones using the affirmative action programs. It’s the upper middle class and above black kids that are trying to get into ivy-league schools who are using the affirmative action benefits. Sadly, if you’re reading my blog, I doubt your kids are attending an Ivy-league school so what does it matter?

I’ll admit a bit of cynicism here but doesn’t this breakdown of consensus that the pursuit of knowledge is a good thing actually put this generation in a position to trust least the people who best know what they are talking about? In this new media age, everybody is an expert. Just Google it. There seems to be this universal suspicion of rights, privileges, knowledge and specialization. We don’t seem to be as concerned with educating people anymore. We just train them to get jobs.

Our teachers are skimming through the most basic elements of curricula without focusing on the one thing that turns aptitude into intelligence, a students’ mastery over the basics, before moving on to the next topic. Public schools are the biggest bureaucratic budget item in every city or county. They have little accountability to the general public, and their marching orders come from State and National think-tank’s, not local and regional stakeholders.

History textbooks are badly written and so politically correct that they’re more like comic books than school books. Minor characters that are currently fashionable are given considerable attention while people of major consequence like Thomas Edison are given very little space at all. Pop culture icons and minorities have their sensibilities massaged into the new history which is taught in categories like Women’s History, African American History, Environmental History, etc., so that many students have no sense of chronology, no idea what followed what.

If generations graduate high school not knowing our past, do not know who we are or what we have done as a people, how will they know and love America, rebut her enemies or lead her confidently? We’re more likely to accept the excuse that Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” program overemphasized math and reading so that’s why our children are failing in history. We buy this kind of nonsense when of 31,000 students tested by the National Assessment of Education Progress, most fourth-graders could not identify a picture of Abraham Lincoln or a reason why he was important.

High school seniors given an excerpt from the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision Brown v. Board of Education – “We conclude that in the field of public education, separate but equal has no place, separate education facilities are inherently unequal” then asked what social problem the court was seeking to correct, only 2 percent of high school seniors answered “segregation” when the answer was right in front of them. We can no longer isolate education from politics because we’ve allowed one political party to take ownership in all things education. But, the issues we’re seeing in public education are the fault of everyone and the responsibility of everyone. It’s too big to blame on a party. We have to be bigger than that. We must de-politicize education before we can fix it.

Schools have also become incredibly inefficient with tax dollars, riddled with group-think ideology, and are perpetually searching for ways to spend more without any accountability in terms of success versus cost. What other group could survive these kinds of epic failures yet continually convince the general public that if they just had less portables and higher wages then they’d be able to show us real success? It has become so politically incorrect to chastise the school system so that local politicians have learned to just leave them alone for fear of the whole group banning together to oust them from office. We can’t criticize schools or else we’re pinned as being radical and uninformed.

It is exactly this kind of power that has shielded our education system from all accountability. Like some great big anti-trust violation, school boards have taken the path of big corporate monopolies – starving out ideas and innovation in favor of the status-quo. If you take nothing else from this blog, know that that teachers are not the problem here. Our problems lie in a quagmire of bureaucratic dogma pushed downward from modern idealists desperate to dazzle us with new theories on education when 1912 techniques will do us just fine until we catch up with our Great Grandparents. I won’t even attempt to say why or how because I’m one of those Americans who might be missing his 14 I.Q. points.

Since I’m nowhere near informed or educated enough to offer any solution for all these issues, I’ve decided to let “Doctor” from the movie Idiocracy wrap this blog up as I’m certain he can articulate my fears much clearer than I ever could and potentially entertain you at the same time. Doctor: “…Well, don’t want to sound like a dick or nothin’, but, ah… it says on your chart that you’re fu**ed up. Ah, you talk like a fag, and your shit’s all retarded. What I’d do, is just like… like… you know, you know what I mean, like…? Ditto!

 

 

Still Good, But Not Too Good

If you’ve been paying attention to my blogging for the past 6 months then you’ve likely noticed the wide berth of subjects I’ve written about. It’s kind of all over the place, much like my real life. If you know me personally you’ve probably wondered why I’m not writing about about the things I’m most familiar with…the things I’m sort of known for being best at. I’ve wondered about that myself.

The best answer I can give is that I’d very likely bore the crap out of you because I’m one of those detail oriented people who obsesses over minute details when I’m explaining things that I love the most. I’m that guy that rarely speaks but when someone asks me what time it is will explain the history of Swiss watch making in order you get a well rounded answer. So, if you want to know my opinions on guns and shooting, meet me at the gun range and I’ll be happy to oblige you. If you just want to escape sanity for a few minutes, stick to my blog as-is and we’ll burn a few of those brain cells together.

I actually have a technical training manual I’ve written on the subject of advanced combat handgun shooting based on contemporary neuroscience that’s more than 300 pages. It’s used by certain military training camps – not to teach them anything valuable but to see if they will wash out of training before being forced to finish reading it. Not exactly what I was shooting for when I wrote it but you take your wins wherever they’re found right?

Some writers struggle to develop topics or ideas about what to write about but I’m not really one of those people. I can literally write about anything or nothing, anytime – anywhere. This blog is a particularly good example of that useless ability. It’s probably because big-boy writers take themselves serious and attempt to stay true to a particular style in order they not disappoint loyal followers and fans. Since I really don’t take myself all that serious and have no real audience, I’m not required to filter out anything that might tend to make me look ignorant. There are some things that are so obvious about us that we’d be wasting our time to try and hide it from people.

I guess I fear that seriousness just a little bit. When my son was about 13 years old I came up with this lofty philosophical expression in hopes I would sound profound and worth listening to. I told him repeatedly, “When a man begins to take himself too serious, everyone else stops.” I actually came up with it as a response to a friend at the time who liked to embellish his life to the point of downright dishonesty. Instead of being a volunteer reserve police officer he became, to people not in the know, a CIA agent. Then, after a disability, he became a CIA handler who recruited covert operatives and planned international missions against terrorism right from his bedroom.

My mom, in this same situation, would likely say that he had a great imagination…”If you can’t say something good about someone then you shouldn’t say anything at all!” I hear ya mom. But, I’m a dad now and this man’s inadequacies inspired powerful teaching moments for father-son conversations. My son probably doesn’t even remember how cool I was back then. The last remaining fragment of coolness from my 50 year old existence is a full head of mostly black curly hair. Any other positive attributes are muted first thing every morning by having to pluck ear hair, taking handfuls of prescription cocktails and a sobering number from my trusty blood-glucose meter.

I used to enjoy rappelling off high cliffs, now I fear climbing an aluminum ladder up to my roof. Oh how my life has changed. I barely recognize myself anymore. It’s a great thing I didn’t meet my wife back when I was a real guy. She’d be sorely underwhelmed at how I’ve evolved. But since I met her in my 40’s, and since I do well at concealing my age inflicted inadequacies, she still thinks I’m pretty cool. Just wait till she finds out that it was a fear of heights and not forgetfulness that kept me from fixing the leaky roof.

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Welcome To The Hotel California

Here in Tennessee we are busily preparing for Christmas now that Thanksgiving and all those enigmatic shopping days are behind us like Black Friday, Cyber Monday, and Small Business Saturday. So, of course one can’t really be inundated with all of those marketing schemes and family-friendly euphemism’s without thinking about your own family.

For me – I must say that I’m very lucky to have the family I was fortunate to be born into. Not only the one’s my parents gifted me but also the one’s I’ve had some level of responsibility to create or adopt as my own. This would of course include my wonderful wife Emily and my eximious son Jon.

Enough of the bombastic family descriptions, you’re probably wondering what all this has to do with my chosen title “Hotel California” aren’t you? You guys and gals already know that I like to use creative titles on my blogs and of course why would today be any different. Well, last week I was driving to work in my Jeep and that famous Eagle’s song came over my radio, just as it often does, but instead of just enjoying the song and lyrics as I normally would, I was somehow taken to a place I’d never been before. The lyrics subconsciously enunciated a metaphor that I’d never before noticed.

Now wait just a minute, I know what you’re thinking and it’s not true. At least as far as I know anyway. With the best of anyone’s ability to recognize these things, I don’t think I’m losing my mind and I don’t think that I’m hearing voices. At least not any voices that my own brain waves are producing anyway. The voices I heard were those of Glenn Frey, Joe Walsh, Don Henley and Don Felder talking about an ominous sounding hotel in California.

The song was first released in 1976 when I would have been twelve years old, right about the time most kids really start identifying with whatever the popular music of that day happens to be. And I was no different.

I still love to hear those old songs which kind of take me back to the time when I used to lay in bed with my headphones on, cranking up the volume, and escape all of the stresses of being a twelve year old – you know, like what you’re going to eat when you get home from school – are there any coco puffs left – when will I have the necessary funds to purchase the latest AC/DC album…

Anyway, that song used to evoke an ominous feeling when I listened to it back then. The lyrics artfully play around with phrases like “Heaven and Hell”, “Her mind is Tiffany twisted”, “We are all just prisoners here of our own device”, “just can’t kill the beast”, and of course the last famous line, “You can check out anytime you like but you can never leave.” What do those words mean anyway? They’re not quite as weird as “someone left my cake out in the rain” but they’re not as easily dissectible as “you ain’t nuthin but a hound dog” either.

As I got older I always just thought of these lyrics as a way of describing drug addiction. It makes sense right? Play the song right now and think about drug addiction and tell me what you think. But, alas there is more.

There is always more. What some of you know is that my eldest sibling Cindy lives in California. When the song played last week, and because these are holiday times with family-friendly euphemism’s flying about like blue-arsed flies (creative idiom – √), I started to think of these lyrics as a metaphor for moving to California.

Cindy, my wonderful and lovely sister who used to beat me up when I was a kid…just kidding, actually did not want to move to California when her husband first landed the great job opportunity that led them there. Kicking and screaming, she reluctantly moved there as any supportive spouse would do but I never really thought they would stay there long.

Why? Because we all knew she’d hate it and because her husband is so damn smart that he’s always getting these amazing offers to move – and they always do. Not this time. Nope, they “saw the shimmering light” and “stopped for the night” and now that her husband has achieved everything that he and his family could ever have hoped for, they could “check-out anytime they like” but for some reason they “can never leave”.

Hotel California cartoon

Now, my sister Cindy “is just a prisoner there of her own device.” How many places on Earth could you possibly live that trap you like a drug addiction. You heard it just a minute ago, you know the song is a metaphor for drug addiction right? What about the beautiful State of Tennessee? We got trees and grass and pie for God’s sake. I once was told that they don’t have pie in California. Sounds a lot like hell to me.

This year I’m sending my sister a subscription to “Garden & Gun” magazine and maybe a homemade pecan pie. Perhaps that will shake things up in a palatable way. Anyway, I was just thinking about my awesome sister and thought I’d write about her. I didn’t mean to drag a bunch of innocent people into it, just wanted to do the girl some justice.

Just for the heck of it, listen to the song again. One more time. Now think about the lyrics in the context of a person being drawn to the shimmering lights of a place and being trapped there by its beauty. A place where the weather is almost always perfect. A place where they have shoes. A place with a total absence of mosquitoes (tradeoff for not having pie). A place where you can come and go at-will but never really want to leave. Now what do you think? It’s a different song isn’t it?

Now, whenever I hear that song, I won’t be reminded of my secret heroin addiction, I’ll only think about Cindy and how that someone in that Godforsaken hippie commune of a State has probably brainwashed her from ever coming home to beautiful Tennessee. Just kidding. Merry Christmas Cindy, the magazine subscription is on the way but I might have eaten the pecan pie.

My One True Love & Cracker Jack’s

My whole life I’ve heard about the idea of true love. There are many ways to express it (i.e., real love, made for each other, perfect partners, soul mates, numero uno, love of my life, my one and only, etc.) but how many people among us can really comprehend the idea of such a thing in its full context? We’ve all had our up’s and down’s and most of us end up tied to someone special eventually, but are you truly with your “one true love” or did you just settle for someone just a little less “perfect” than you expected?

Most people can’t wait to get married. Sometimes it’s because they just want to get out of a bad home environment, or sometimes it could be that they just want to grow up and move on with life. Perhaps it’s because all their friends are getting married, having kids, and they think they’re supposed to do the same thing. But when you’re young and fresh out of school, you’ve not really lived and navigated through enough personal relationships from which to accurately judge whether your current person is really the best person for you or not. That is one reason why statistically more marriages fail than survive.

I’ve blogged about the idea of perception-versus-reality several times because I truly believe that each of us have our own special reality shaped by several things including nature (DNA), nurture (parenting and mentoring), and experience (what we do with both of those things). To truly experience something as rare and complex as finding your soul mate, wouldn’t you think we’d first need to live just a little? Aside from the good stuff, we also need to suffer just a little in order to fully appreciate just how low things can get when we’re with the wrong person.

Experience develops our individual perceptions and helps us to recognize not only what is special about a person generally…but what is particularly special about that person from our own personal perspectives – through our own jaded and subjective eyes. These are two distinctly different things.

I’m sure there are a few very lucky people out there who were fortunate to find that special someone on their first try but I seriously doubt the probability of that happening very often. Most of us think we know, then proceed to jump off the proverbial cliff of sanity, directly into a pit of uncertainty, then swim against the current in the river of probability, then drift slowly toward an ocean of insolvency and finality. Those are not great odds. To make it worse, our own ego sometimes refuses to allow us to quickly resolve a mistake and let go before we become so entrenched that leaving becomes problematic or even dangerous.

We fail mostly though not because we hitched our wagons necessarily to bad people but because we had no idea who we were in the first place. Our idea of what a relationship should be is just as undeveloped as our sense of who we are or what makes us happy. How can we begin to address the issue of what we can do to please another person when we’ve ignored our own needs and wants?

That’s not selfish, it’s absolutely critical. If we ignore what’s inside, foregoing that critical component of personal happiness and instead focus on making someone else happy, then we are doomed to eventually implode with anger and expectation of reciprocation. But it becomes unfair to the other person because they’re expectations are based on who you started off as, no matter how unrealistic it may all seem.

Well; I’ll let you in on a secret. When you give yourself an honest opportunity to figure out who you really are, forgetting about the idea of love or marriage, the internal images of prospective mates is suddenly illuminated. Sort of like the secret decoder ring in the box of Capt. Crunch; you suddenly have a magical lens by which you see the world that illuminates that which is good and healthy and filters out that which is…maybe a bit unripe.

That’s a kind way of saying that sometimes people who will eventually become great partners start off with no idea of what being a great partner is, and, as a result will potentially hurt you. We are not all ready at the same time or at the same age. Thus, a great partner for me may not make a great partner for you. No matter how awesome my wife may think I am for her has no bearing on whether I would be viewed as equally awesome to another person.

Cracker-Jacks

We’re all like big irregularly shaped boxes of Cracker Jack’s. We all have a little prize inside. But since we’re all looking for something different, the value of that little prize weighs more or less to whomever it is that gets to open your prize package. Some folks may love that little magnifying glass you have but I might just think it’s cheap. So, here we are, you with a cheap magnifying glass and me with an awesome rubber ball. On a higher note, just because one person doesn’t fully appreciate the value of what’s inside or what you have to offer, doesn’t mean that someone else won’t.

After my divorce, I was single for 16 years. There were moments where I thought I’d be married again and moments where I believed I’d be single my whole life, mostly the latter. I think my son was more worried about me than I was. There were times when I embraced the idea of being single and times when I wept about it. There were girlfriends along the way, some good, some better, but with each failed connection I was forced to excavate the archaeological remains of failure and grow a higher understanding of me.

Initially I had this superficial mental idea of who I was supposed to find, not realizing that there was a real person inside of all that perfunctory shallowness. Then slowly but surely I got to know me better which added some depth to my minds-vision of who I should end up with. The best way I can describe it is like comparing a road-map to a relief-map – with all the mountains, rivers, bumps and valleys to provide some perspective. When you’re ready, your like a blind person reading braille – you can feel your way along the route. For me, it took a little while longer than it does for most people.

When I first met Emily there were no questions and no concerns. I already knew her from my mind. I wasn’t looking for a hair color or a particular personality, I was looking for her and there she was. But even though I had that initial easiness about her, she wasn’t all that prepared to meet me. She believed, like I did, but wasn’t ready to accept it until about a year later. There were, of course, obstacles to overcome and trust to establish but the hard work was done internally in both our minds while we both recovered from previous bumps and bruises. Fortunately for me, she was looking for me too. All I had was this stupid rubber ball but it turns out that she loves stupid rubber balls.

cracker-jacks

I got the better end of the stick. It turns out that her Cracker Jack box was chocked full of generosity, kindness, a sweet spirit and awesome twice-baked potatoes. In my mind, my rubber ball really didn’t really compare to all that but I guess it must have been exactly what she was looking for because it turns out that Emily is my one-true-love. She is the perfect person for me.

Seven years of marriage, some seriously screwed-up butter cream cake-frosting, a job related police-raid, one failed business venture, and a tumultuous local election later and yet we still love spending time with each other. Believe it or not, she is still bringing me breakfast in bed. Not only do I love her immensely, but I can feel how strongly she loves me too. When you have what we have, you never feel jealous and you never feel insecure. No matter how our bodies evolve through age or how many mistakes we make, the love we have for each other is always profoundly present.

True love, soul mates, perfect partners…call it what you want. There are so many bad things that never enter your mind when you’re with the right person. Similarly, there are so many good things that are always on your mind when you find that certain someone. It’s a wonderfully liberating, incredible, and rewarding feeling to be with the one person in the world who really knows you inside and out, loves you unconditionally, gets all your jokes, and still wants to spend time with you regardless. When you read some of my jokes, you may understand just how lucky I truly am.

Of Selfishness & Coco Puffs

I was reminded last night of a time while I was still living at home with my mom when I knew I had been a very selfish boy. My sister Lisa was pregnant with her first child Lauren and I had selfishly eaten an entire box of Coco Puffs for lunch that she had apparently purchased for herself while suffering from some powerful pregnancy-induced food cravings. The chocolate-flavored Deity of American cereals we both loved so much was just too powerful a draw. I mean really, who on this planet with 30 available minutes, a clean spoon, and a gallon of ice cold milk could ignore such a beacon of nutrition and chocolatey goodness? Not me, I’m very sorry to admit.

Lisa, I know it’s been 33 years but I’m sorry. I couldn’t help myself and I didn’t mean to make you cry on the kitchen floor. I hope to make it up to you one day, but I’ve never actually heard of buying make-up Coco Puffs yet, maybe soon they’ll start selling them at grocery stores for people like me who didn’t really know how to appreciate an awesome sister when they were young. I do hope you understand. Lauren, if you’re now suffering from any medical ailments or allergies related to or associated with Coco Puff deficiency as an adult, it’s not your mother’s fault, it’s mine.

Why are we so selfish when we’re young? I’ve thought a lot about that lately because it’s true. I was very selfish back then and from my own personal observations and experiences, I can easily observe most other young people are too. If you’re young and you don’t think this applies to you then you’re probably way more selfish than I was. You can’t recognize it because you lack the empathy to understand just how much you’re disappointing the old folks around you who are busily working to please, feed, clothe, encourage, comfort and bathe you. So, pull that free car over to the side of the road and call your mom on your free cell phone and thank her right now. For exactly what – you can figure that out when you’re 40.

We old folks, and now I’m officially one too, like to sit around and gripe about how disrespectful our young folks are today and how our parents would have whipped us with Hot-Wheel racetrack sections if we’d acted up like that. But the reality is that we were doing similar things ourselves. We just didn’t get caught. It’s not that we were more respectful, it’s just that we were more creative. This is because we didn’t have video games and the Internet, we had to learn creativity by turning tiny green plastic army men into a scene of the Trojan War, OR pretend they were cowboys & indians, OR imagine them as our first idea of what courtship was…all with the same toy. Don’t ask me to reenact any scenes, just go with it please.

On a serious note, I think that selfishness is perhaps a perfectly normal human survival mechanism. We’re all born with it because human children are born and live several years without the ability to do anything for themselves. We are completely dependent on our parents or our parental figures for our very survival, so we’ve been blessed by God with a few personality characteristics which make it completely impossible to be ignored when we need or want something. Since it’s my 50th birthday this week, imagine how difficult it is for Em to ignore me right now.

When scientists compare the brains of children and adults, the brain scans show that a region called dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, located in the left side of the brain toward the front, was more developed in adults. The area is considered to be involved with impulse control and empath. Researchers also report that younger children are more willing to accept unfair treatment than older children.

Science suggests that selfish behavior in children may not be due to their inability to know “fair” from “unfair,” but rather an immature part of the brain that doesn’t support selfless behavior when tempted to act selfishly. This area of the brain matures as we get older thus the majority of us do eventually develop a capacity for empathy…notice I said, “majority of us”. We all know a few adults who could use a steroid shot or two in their dorsolateral prefrontal cortex but that’s another blog.

So, when you look at it that way, how can you really stay mad at your daughter when she tells you she really needs the expensive Matilda Jane outfits after you’ve just been laid-off from your job? Go ahead and just buy the latest video game system for Junior because you already know he lacks the creativity to survive “old school” without it and if he doesn’t get to play, he’ll have absolutely nothing to talk about with his friends or anything to do during family dinners.

So, parents out there should rest at ease and think of two things. First, reminisce a few minutes on the things you’d still be embarrassed about if your mom found out to this very day…and second, know that the guilt of childhood selfishness is what fuels the benevolence of our adulthood. The worse your kids are today, the sweeter they will be to you when you’re old.

Getting The Most From Life…

What a subjective title I chose…somebody please stop me now before I try to explain what color car is best, or which species of animal is most beneficial for the environment. I mean, seriously, what makes my belly quiver in laughter and what does the same thing for my wife can sometimes be miles apart, and that’s just a simple comparison between two people on this planet doing one thing.

Imagine trying to find consensus in what makes the typical American happy versus a typical Asian or Colombian or Eastern European. I know it seems like I’m arguing with myself, but I just wanted to lay a little groundwork first and say out-loud that talking about getting the most from life is certainly not as easy as doing it.

Whether you lived in the 1800s or are living today, the path to getting the most out of life and living on your own terms was/is paved with daily challenges and overwhelming complexities. This includes having to deal with other folks who don’t or can’t understand the concept at all.

Henry David Thoreau, in his book “Walden, Where I lived, and What I lived For” wrote, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.I wanted to suck out all the marrow of life…” Profound as some people believe his writing was, there were those around him, his peers, who not only couldn’t appreciate what he was writing about but who were also openly critical of the ideas and the inspirations behind what he wrote about. It seems that good writing along with good anything generally lie in the eyes of the beholder.

In fact, another popular author of the time, Robert Louis Stevenson, called Thoreau’s journey into the woods “unmanly” and something he “tended with womanish solicitude.” John Greenleaf Whittier wrote that Thoreau would have man “lower himself to the level of a woodchuck and walk on four legs.” I think it is safe to say that neither of those men “got” what Thoreau was preaching about. Instead, they took a much more literal approach to his subject than he would have wanted them to take. Author George Eliot did get it though: “People—very wise in their own eyes—who would have every man’s life ordered according to a particular pattern, and who are intolerant of every existence the utility of which is not palpable to them, may pooh-pooh Mr. Thoreau and this episode in his history, as unpractical and dreamy.”

What? Another intelligent opinion which differs? Actually, you may find it interesting to know that this very wise man and famous novelist of the era George Eliot, was not a man at all. Eliot was the pen name of Mary Ann Evans who authored seven novels from 1859 to the 1880’s. It‘s amazing how wise her words still are today, especially now considering the plethora of accepted alternative lifestyles of today versus that of the Victorian period when she lived and wrote.

The main idea I am trying to convey here is that people around you, including family, will not always agree with the path you are taking and may sometimes be very critical of you. Opinions, no matter how trusted the source, may or may not always be relevant at all to your decisions and choices. We should always appreciate the thought behind a person’s opinions and reasonably consider them, but it is US who find the applicability of those opinions or not and US who bear responsibility for following or not following that advice.

Living deliberately, as Thoreau was instructing us to do, if you’re really serious about it, requires first that you know who the hell you are. How do we really get to know ourselves if all we are ever doing is timidly sticking our toes in the water? Even if you’re taking a road well-traveled, that doesn’t mean that you have to do it in a Chevy just like Paw did.

Perhaps you will invent the next means of transportation? If that is your dream, then pursue it. The only promise I can make you is that there will be lots of people along the way who will criticize every idea, every vision, and every version you have about your dream. Trust yourself when everyone else is doubting you but always make allowances for a person’s doubts because tucked away inside those doubts are another person’s failures that you can learn from.

When we or our loved ones carve life paths that are independent, open, and outside of conventional boundaries, we always run the very real risk of losing people along the way. If you are a doctor and your father was a doctor and suddenly your child wants to be an artist or musician, then everyone stops to offer free advice to the young person which may or may not be all that wise for him/her. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s not well-intentioned, but equally it doesn’t mean that it’s all that wise.

What about college? If you strongly believe your child needs to get that diploma, what do you do when they reject the idea and move on to early employment and financial freedom? What if…OMG, your child wants to marry a person outside of his/her race? What if your child chooses a partner of the same sex? There are lots of scenarios here, not necessarily related to career choices, which can challenge you to rise up and forge new uncharted paths. Trust me, life almost necessitates you filling in one or more of a very broad array of blanks here.

I wish I could tell you that when you take your life into your own hands and create your own path, all your loved ones will be overjoyed for you. That they will excitedly continue loving and supporting you, so very proud that you not only know what you want but are also working your ass off to get there — learning, growing, and confronting challenges you had no idea existed. That no matter what you do in life or where you go, you will always be able to lean on the support network you thought was solid.

But alas I cannot offer this to you. Some of your loved ones not only won’t get it,  but there are some who won’t even care to try. But God doesn’t create perfect humans and never promised any, so we have to work with the imperfections available to us. It’s up to the more thoughtful and intelligent ones to not only ignore the emotional clutter caused by ignorant family members but to also empathize with why they care so damn much about what you are doing.

Guess what, living deliberately, sucking the marrow from life, and creating your own path is not about them and their judgments. This life is always going to be about you, your commitment to yourself, and your vision for who you are or will become. What are you about? Who will you be? Those things are decided by you every time you make a choice or respond to a stressful event in your life.

Will you go down the road someone else took to get to the real you or will your journey to “self” be independent and directed in a way which best reflects who you strive to become? We are all works in progress and the beauty of life is that we can make bad decisions then later decide to make better ones. Screwing up is just a metaphor for a crash-course. So get out your cliff notes and start screwing up…grow dammit!.

We all grow up with certain influences, then we live our lives based on certain pre-conceived ideas mixed with those influences. Then, with those pre-conceived ideas and influences, we carve a path through life touching and being touched along the way.

Those personal experiences add to our realm of reality. That reality, the one we and our loved ones inherit then expand, is different for us all. It governs our consciousness which makes us want to save others from making mistakes that we recognize do not to fit within our own set of parameters. So, don’t take it personal. We just don’t quite know yet that you have a different set of parameters because we can’t be expected to know what we don’t know.

Now let me be very clear. It is completely understandable that your mom may not immediately get why you are suddenly writing incessantly about people she doesn’t know, or if she learns of your plan to spend a year practicing Yoga in India; or, that your childhood best-friend cannot wrap his head around your career change from investment banking for teaching; or, that you’re concerned father is freaked out about you leaving the crappy newspaper you work for to do a stint as a photojournalist in Afghanistan. You cannot make enormous life changes and expect that everyone you know will understand your choices and motivations. Sometimes it’s just love and concern that drive suspicion and insecurity.

But, aside from the concerned, if you are lucky, you will have some people around you who care enough to try to understand. I will…I think.

Throughout your life’s journey, some in your inner circle will prove to be your lifelong connections, regardless of how much you’re stressing them out; they will do so by hanging in there with you even when they question your logic and your sanity. They will talk to you about your life, your goals, your dreams, your decisions, your actions, and try to understand where you are coming from — and hopefully you will reciprocate and keep up your end of the relationship, only enriched by new experiences and a deeper level of understanding. But don’t grow dependent upon adulation. You don’t need it to succeed. Instead, just be thankful you have it. Success stems from many things but hard work and confidence are among the top contributors.

Now, what about those other folks? The ones that cannot bend and will not try? Unfortunately, we all have those other types of people in our spheres of family and friends — the kind who absolutely refuse to try to understand your life as you envision it, or perhaps as you are already living it. These are people with closed minds and strict ideas not only of their own lives but also of yours and everyone else’s. Or as Eliot wrote much more poetically, “…intolerant of every existence the utility of which is not palpable to them.” These folks cannot fit you comfortably into a proverbial box, which means you threaten everything they think they know as absolute.

You thought these people loved you unconditionally, but as it turns out, they only support you when you live life on their terms, according to their plans and expectations. They may or may not confront you about the mistakes they think you are making, but regardless they cannot help but to judge your decisions and withhold love and support based on those judgments, whether they are based in fact or assumption (usually assumption since they do not know enough about your life on which to base a valid opinion anyway).

Continued sanity and lifelong productivity require us to learn who really has our backs and who among our circles will only be there for us when it is convenient or comfortable for them. I call these types of people conditional lovers. The only way to objectively deal with these folks, sometimes our grandparents, parents, aunts and uncles, is to embrace them honestly and accept that they do not have the capacity either socially or mentally to ever understand who you are, and that’s OK.

People who offer conditional love can suck the energy, inspiration, and dreams right the hell out of you if you let them. So do not let them. When it becomes painfully obvious in certain places all you will find is a wall of judgment, condescension, and conditional love, you have no choice but to either avoid it altogether or to confront it with an ultimatum. When you have tried for days, weeks, months, or even years to keep a relationship going, but you get nothing but criticism and judgment in return, offer them a choice of acceptance or avoidance. Let them take some ownership in whatever the outcome.

If you are otherwise living a positive life and someone else is judging or criticizing you, the issue is not about you. It is about them. It is either about their own insecurities, failures, and unhappiness or perhaps it’s about their own inability to move on and forgive your mistakes of the past. If they do not want to make the effort to understand you and your life, that is their loss — and not your problem.

How you react to the actions of others is always your choice, and you can either allow conditional lovers to suck up your time and energy, letting their snide comments, judgments, and lack of a desire to understand, break your heart repeatedly, or you can follow Thoreau’s example and continue to suck the marrow out of life on your own terms. Live-deliberately, be mindful of each and every precious moment, and cherish the wonderful people around you who do love and support you unconditionally.

Casual Observers Need Not Apply

In November of last year, my wife and I, along with my son Jon, vacationed in several European countries in and around the former Yugoslavia. These included Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia and Montenegro then we polished off the two-week trip with a few extra days in Venice, Italy. Along our merry way’s, we were expertly guided by a friendly Slovenian fellow named Elvis.

Not exactly the most popular name in Slovenia, no. Elvis was awesome, of course, and provided us with some particularly informative local-information and history about the areas we were visiting as he had lived and grown up there during the former Communist regime of Yugoslavia. One of the things that made Elvis so great a guide for Americans was that he also watched and lived through the transition (1989 to present) of the entire region from Communism form of government to what I would now consider a quasi-capitalistic country.

Don’t you just love seeing a place through the eyes of someone who is utterly and madly in love with it? Elvis obviously loved his home country, and his colorful stories and self-deprecating style of humor made the trip so much more fun than it would have been with any ole other guide. The travel experience which would have normally been full of uncertainty and apprehension was instead transformed into almost full immersion. I think, as a family, we have come to enjoy and appreciate guided vacations much more than the typical do-it-yourself trips for that very reason. Another unexpected bonus is that my son made friends with Elvis and they’ve continued to communicate long after our return to Tennessee.

While we were there, we stumbled upon a couple who were deeply involved in sponsoring the educations of young women and girls in Africa. Their devotion to this cause was obvious and inspiring. So inspiring, in fact, that Emily decided right then to also sponsor a young African girl. Her name is Peace and we’ve really enjoyed sending and receiving letters from her about her life and the African perspective. I don’t exactly know what happens in a person’s life that causes them to take on these enormous responsibilities such as this couple is doing but it is truly moving and inspirational to watch how their passion for doing good envelopes and captures others along the way to do the same.

I guess paying it forward begets paying it forward which makes for better karma if you believe in such things. But regardless of what we call it or how we frame it, we’re really talking about people who refuse to be normal, who refuse to be casual observers. These are people who go the extra mile, make the extra effort and spread the extra icing on the proverbial cake while they are simultaneously eating it. They’ve found something that they truly care about and they’ve found the passion within themselves to do it 110% and really make a difference in the world around them.

Each of us are deeply moved or affected by different experiences in our own way but one common truth we all recognize is that in life there are few accidents, at least as it pertains to success, failure or opportunity. Great things can happen to you organically, but you must be out there experiencing life in order for them to present themselves to you. Ripe apples don’t fall in your lap unless you’re intentionally sitting underneath an apple tree at the correct time of the year.

On a crisp November day, these kind people stopped what they were doing to make a sincere effort to get to know us. There are some people in this world who God put here for the sole purpose of listening, Dave Thelen is one of those people. At the time, I had just lost my brother so it wasn’t particularly easy for me to open up to a stranger but miraculously I did. He and his wife shared their lives and experiences with us and we were moved enough to do the same and we’re both much better off today because of it.

So many small moments of that vacation were magical, but something that has stayed with me was when Dave launched into a lyrical Aristotelian lecture about how important it is for people to work together in order to bring ideas to fruition, for each person to share his or her talents to work toward a common goal. It is all “a process,” he said, one that requires different perspectives and skills. The greater the width, breadth and diversity of the talent pool, the better the result. But you must be invested, you have to work at it if you expect any real change.

As my wife rattled off sentence after sentence, I said next to nothing during the hour (or was it two?) we walked the road encircling the enchanted Bled Lake. While in full view of the misty snow-capped Julian Alps, the 17th Century island-church in the middle of the lake and ancient Bled Castle on over-watch, I tried my best to concentrate on what was being said. Instead, I just snapped lots of photographs and listened — allowing Dave’s words and the surreal surroundings to wrap themselves around me, seep inside my brain, and make such an impression that I would never forget them even without the pictures.

I am naturally a quiet person and a listener at heart, but I am especially silent when I am in awe of someone, when I know this person has so much to teach me that my best course of action is to just shut my mouth and listen. In those situations, I relish the chance to absorb the information and tuck it all away to process later in quiet moments of reflection.

Now, almost exactly a year later, I realize that during those moments, I was gradually reaching a precipice to begin a new chapter of my life in order to write, blog (in whatever means) and encourage others to find and appreciate simple pleasures, live more deliberately, and to cut out the physical and emotional clutter from their lives.

By that point, I had been considering the thought of writing more seriously for years, but I was at that proverbial crossroads, still unsure of so many things — how would my family and longtime friends respond, etc.? I didn’t want to have one of those “Who are you and what did you do with my dad?” kinda moments, mainly because I’m not generally a vocal person.

Wanting to make a difference, I’ve realized that my greatest natural gift is my ability to communicate in writing. So here I am, doing what I’ve always done best, in order to help, promote, encourage, facilitate, inspire, or whatever. Although I hope that I can eventually achieve at least one of those, it will probably be “whatever”, and I’m completely ok with that.

I love to write, so I took this man’s thoughts about community, humanity and “process,” and applied them here among an already growing population of readers. I put faith in the idea that by writing about what I believe in and feel passionate about, those on the same wavelength will willingly offer up their own talents, skills, and visions, and together we can learn and grow together as a community.

Though my soft spot is for my son and his life’s expeditions and tribulations, I try very hard to write to everyone so that others can benefit from the rare positive energy I occasionally expel at a moment’s notice. I want Dave’s unselfish wisdom to be used and cultivated among anyone who cares to read it and pass it on.

That short visit to Europe reinforced my desire to not only keep this dream of writing and blogging alive, but also to make my ideas stronger, to enrich connections with family and friends, to explore topics and ideas that dig a little deeper, to make us all think and feel a little bit more — and, most of all, to continue to share our positive experiences with one another. Said differently, casual observers need not apply, because being a friend, spouse, parent or member of a community requires real effort, real honesty and real generosity. Not necessarily generosity of things; but generosity of thought, vision, historical and contextual view, passion and advice. To have a friend, you must be a friend.

Today I want to be your new friend like Dave was to me that day. I want to encourage you to get out there and seek connections, overtly enrich the lives of your friends and family by opening up and sharing yourself and your ideas with those who may not know you as well as they’d like to. Don’t just be a parent or a brother or a sister or a spouse. Be real.

Allow the real you to be known and understood. I want my child to really know who his father is, not just that I was his father…not just the parental side of me. I want to plant the seeds of acceptance and understanding so that when I’m gone, I haven’t inadvertently deprived anyone that I love of the one thing they will never be able to know afterward – Me.

DNA You Can Count On

“I scarcely know where to begin, but love is always a safe place.” Emily Dickinson

They say you can’t choose your family. In some cases, the context of that statement can resonate a little louder than in others. But, in rare but glorious instances, we find gems among our own families that make us feel a little cocky about having some of that same DNA. David White was one of those people that could inspire such a synergistic sense of genetic pride and privilege. David could literally do anything!

David, my first cousin and the eldest of my generation of White’s, died on Saturday morning 9/13 at the age of 54. He apparently suffered some sort of massive heart attack but it’s really too soon to know the exact cause. But this blog is not about how David died, but how he lived. Growing up, I looked up to David, who was four years and 363 days older than me; celebrating our birthdays only two days apart. He was just a few months older than my eldest sister Cindy and he had two siblings; Debbie who is a few days older than my brother Mike and Donna who was a few years younger than me.

As children, David’s parents and my parents all four worked full-time jobs so both sets of parents would drop us kids off at our Mamaw and Papaw White’s house in Antioch during the summer months while we weren’t otherwise in school. We all played together every day and every summer until we were old enough to feed ourselves or drive, whichever came first. Some of my most fond memories are of David filming home-made movies with his super 8 reel-to-reel video camera. My brother and I starred in several of his hilarious early-70’s era productions which included the occasional butt-race around his neighborhood or other silly adolescent storylines using the most creative of special effects for the time.

In my younger years I was a musician. I played drums. David, older than I, was an incredibly gifted guitar, banjo, mandolin and upright bass player even as a teenager so we always had that connection with music. Later, when I became a police officer in Murfreesboro and moved out of my parents’ house for the first time, David and I lived together. We both shared a strong interest in firearms, camping and rappelling as well; each of which provided numerous experiences and memories that pop up in my mind occasionally. Each of which can easily generate the energy my face needs to form a random smile now and then.

David the man? He was funny, generous, personable, outgoing, helpful, quick-witted, and empathetic. David owned a smile that lit up his whole face and any room he was in. His mind was always at work, whether he wanted it to be or not, and he was prone to interrupt his own detailed explanations of today’s project as he organically and verbally solved a problem from yesterday’s project out-loud.

David’s back yard was a fun-house of projects. Any frustration he may have expressed about issues which would occasionally perplex his active mind for a few hours was delivered in the most sarcastic and animated fashion complete with anecdotal what-if’s that made you roll on the floor in laughter. It was his way, and you had to love it.

Who could ever forget his mechanical scare-crow? What about the self-orienting pilot wheel on his ultralight? Do you remember the home-made hot-water-heater he made with muffler pipes and a 55 gal. drum to heat his pool water? Or, my favorite “Piẻce de rẻsistance”, the outdoor pool which converts to an indoor pool by means of a track-sliding monolithic quanza hut that easily slides away when not needed. If John Deere engineers would design and build an inferior part, David White would quickly determine the corrective measures needed then build a replacement part which would outlast the rest of the mower.

Oh, so many stories and yet so few people who can relate. The one’s who can relate, you know who you are, will be tattooed forever, spread-eagle on our chests, with his indelible spirit and his enormous heart. The sad thing is that I could never tell a story like him. My stories, the one’s I shared with him, have overnight become way more boring. In fact, we’ve all become just a little more boring today without David around to narrate our lives.

As far as that precious DNA; once I get the sad slump out of my back, I know I will stand just a little taller knowing that I was David White’s 1st cousin. That somewhere inside me lies the ingredients that helped to create David Ray White. That’s DNA you can count on.

Grow!

Spending so much of my off time this year writing about negative things, I decided to begin writing about positive and hopeful subjects in an effort to evolve last year’s sarcasm into a brighter theme for the remainder of the year. Perhaps a new theme every year might be in order, maybe not. Let’s just see where this takes us.

My last blog was about thinking outside the box. Honestly, I was just writing my thoughts on the matter to my son who always surprises me with his intuitiveness. But in the end I thought others might enjoy my journalistic journeys in the same way that people sometimes enjoy watching bloopers on television or turtles getting stuck upside-down.

What I optimistically think I will end up with are short but insightful vignettes of life. The ramblings, mid-life assumptions, and truths of “my-world” honed by my own experiences, tribulations, and incredibly stupid decisions. Since everyone knows I am fond of assigning short and pointed phrases or words that get right to my points or ideas (laughing), I have decided for the remainder of 2014 to have a one-word theme: This one is the word GROW.

At this age, one never enjoys wishing away time, but for me, I couldn’t be more ready for 2014 to end and for 2015 to begin. Adopting this one-word theme may, in some way, help to guide us through the next four months, embarking on a new year with enthusiasm and gratitude for having survived. This year has been one of my most challenging yet — certainly not what I had envisioned when I was thinking about the context of my New Year’s resolution, because I had not bothered to think about this year’s elections. Who would have imagined how I would have been thrust into such a thing, nor how I would have reacted? I guess I must be growing as a person and a reprobate all at the same time.

It seems unfair to me that experience, in some situations, actually does more to stifle a good time than to play saxophone for it. When you’re 20, life is all conga’s and bongo’s; at 50, it’s a tambourine baby. Now even the perpetually young Dick Clark has euphemistically walked-the-plank of the USS Minnow along with dozens of my other childhood benchmarks. All of which are being replaced by their Generation X versions, of which I seem less and less connected. Growth is not always appealing.

While there were some amazing highs in 2012 and 2013 like finally seeing Hawaii with Emily or her and I vacationing with my son in Europe, the emotional investment of an online inquisition has pretty much deflated my hot air balloon. Although 75% of people loved it, 25% are now my sworn enemies. But the canvas of 2015 is yet before us.

Whatever images or color palette that make their way onto the tautly stretched fabric of our lives will come from how well we interpret our subjects and how we position our brushes for the down stroke. The main idea is that we are growing our works. We may have to sidestep or even back up occasionally but we’re moving and improving, nonetheless.

A decidedly up-hill year like this can either break or make you stronger, and I feel confident I will be falling into the latter group. Though, of course, nothing worthwhile comes easy. Happiness, a basic human desire, cannot be obtained without emotional and intellectual growth and maturity. For this type of emotional growth to occur, we need to teach ourselves to be more expressive of our feelings and come to terms with whatever outcomes rise ahead.

Intellectual growth is best achieved by expanding your knowledge through cultural, technical, professional and scholastic endeavors. If you are not pushing yourself into uncomfortable places, you’re probably not growing. Being open to new ideas, learning new skills, considering opposing views, involving yourself in the community, and reading books, or attending lectures, art exhibits or traveling to faraway places to experience alternative cultures, can all provide great opportunities to grow.

How we react to challenges and obstacles can, however thoroughly define us? If you’re unable to rationally respond to a mini crisis, then you could benefit from a broader perspective. Perspective and perception are so important in approaching life’s big and little challenges.

Most of what we hear from others are opinions, not facts. Everything we see is a perspective, not necessarily a truth. So don’t let others control your direction. Grow your perspective through experiences of every kind so that what you see is closer to reality and stop giving other people the power to set your limitations. If you take the time to listen to good and bad, real and fake, truth and lies…you will grow.

I love GROW because it encompasses many different types of improvements — the continued development of our religion, education, relationships with family, our children, grandchildren and spouses, a new or evolving professional direction or talent, or just the intimate relationship we have with ourselves. I also like GROW because the concept is closely related to increases instead of losses. Much as I would love to slam the door shut on 2014 and never open it again, I know this year’s events will continue to influence me in 2015 and beyond . . . and that is never a bad thing. That indeed is the very concept of growth isn’t it?

So bring it on, 2015, because you when you get here, we will potentially be armed with an entirely new one-word theme. I’m just not sure what it will be yet.

An Exercise in Envy

My wife and I, along with some friends, vacationed in the Mediterranean a few years back and while we were touring through the country of Turkey, I kept noticing that the people there were consistently wearing and carrying a small blue and black figurine. Some were like small medallions on necklaces, some were made into rings, and some were just carried in their hands.

Of course, since the bus driver also had a large one hanging from his rearview mirror, I had to ask our tour guide what it was. He called it an “evil eye”. Since the locals seem to use it almost religiously, and since we were in a predominantly Muslim country, I was very curious. His insistence that it was a non-religious icon intrigued me even more.

Now that we are about to vacation in Turkey again in a few months, I thought I would do more research on the subject and I was inspired to dive just a little deeper. It turns out that the Evil Eye is not religious at all but is based instead in regional superstition, similar to how we use a rabbit’s foot here in America, only instead of just bringing good luck it also gives bad luck to your enemies. The evil-eye is one of the most prevalent superstitions in many Mediterranean cultures including our Italian brothers and sisters.

Its roots are based in envy, i.e., someone feels envious of another person, even without a malicious intent behind it, thereby bringing bad luck upon the person being envied. It is believed that the evil eye can manifest itself in the victim physically via a headache and/or general malaise, or it may bring about acts of misfortune. Envy, of course, is a completely natural emotion, and if you happen to believe in the Seven Deadly Sins business, well you know it is one of the biggies. But why? What is so horrible about envy?

Aside from it just not being very nice to covet your neighbor’s job, success, wife, husband, family, looks, life, whatever…, there can be very personal effects turned inward as well. Envy can prevent us from working on ourselves and our own goals.

We can become so fixated on what someone else does or has (or seems to do or have) that we may neglect the importance of working on improving ourselves and our own situations. Or it can simply plant seeds of doubt that we are not good enough, not smart enough, or do not have the right genetics or connections. Literally, envy can be one of the most potent causes of unhappiness because not only is the envious person rendered unhappy by his envy, but he may also wish to inflict misfortune on others.

Possessing malicious envy is like drinking poison and expecting someone else to die. If you allow yourself to swim in materialistic desire, it begins a sort of self-destructive emptiness inside oneself that completely blinds you to the things to which God has provided to you. It can be the root of pride, vanity, narcissism and also mental illness.

In its most malicious form, envy can even lead someone to try to destroy another’s happiness — but that extreme is not what happens with most of us. And yes, I say us. I am certainly not immune to an occasional bout of benign jealously, especially when someone shows up at the gun range with an expensive new rifle or a fancy Hensoldt rifle scope.

Several years ago, I began reading about various different religions and comparing the similarities; I was immediately drawn to a Buddhist concept of acknowledging feelings and letting them pass. I began my life as a Baptist and marriage has proudly made me a Methodist, but even though I’ve been an undeserving believer of Christianity my whole life, I have always been profoundly interested in the teachings of all religions and most especially, their similarities to each other. Lately, in this era of worldwide terrorism, I’ve also focused on some particularly disturbing religious principles too, but that’s for another blog.

In particular, this Buddhist concept speaks deeply to my soul because I’ve always sort of had this innate ability to shrug stressful things off my shoulders. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t believe that you have to accept Buddhism as a religion in order to benefit from some of its beliefs, nor should Muslims be afraid to embrace commonly held Christian teachings. Accepting a positive life principle, no matter the source, is always a good thing and there are lots of commonalities found in many religions. So, let’s get back to this principle I was talking about.

When something stressful occurs or if we have unhealthy feelings like greed, lust or envy, we simply must decide to acknowledge our feelings and then let them pass. If that sounds too easy to you, believe me, I know the feeling. But broken down to its most basic form, I’m simply saying “let it be”. Using mindfulness to overcome anxiety, no matter where the anxiety is centered.

It’s a subtle yet powerful process when you think about it. When something negative comes, you simply acknowledge it and welcome it, recognizing that we are all born imperfect and we all experience the temptation of sin. God made us that way. Having bad thoughts is not what defines us, how we react to bad thoughts or bad things is what defines us.

As human beings, we are all the same so there is no need to build barriers between us that don’t already exist. Whether it’s an issue of race, religion, politics, gender, sexual orientation or whatever, we can all find things that are common among us and we can all easily spot the sins or inadequacies of the other. We all have strengths and weaknesses.

God was careful to create a diverse group of humanity, we just have to look a lot harder to find out why. If we spend more time working on how to release negative energy rather than trying to fuel it, we’d all be better for it.

This release of negative energy has become a vital component of my own mental health. There is much more to this concept for the serious student of Buddhism, of course, but for me, a Christian trying to learn something from Buddhism, recognizing this one little aspect has been a game-changer because even though I already possessed the ability to decompress naturally, now I am more aware of what is happening on the inside which gives me more power over it.

The act of renunciation is not about giving up the finer things of the world, but instead, recognizing that they all go away eventually and being completely content with that understanding. But what do we gain by choosing to let envious feelings pass us? This is the best part.

As a reward of letting go of envy, we receive the gifts of more time and increased focus to keep our eyes on our own prizes, stay in our own lanes, and not worry so much about what other people are doing and achieving. We no longer feel the urge or need to compare what is happening in our lives with what someone else is experiencing. We should measure ourselves on what we have thus far achieved versus our personal goals.

Don’t fall into the trap of comparisons. Instead set goals for yourself which are realistic and complete them one by one. Your own success comes with sticking to your plan, being honest, working hard and then making sacrifices to achieve your goals. A man I respect dearly told me once, “People don’t mind you having things, they just don’t want you having more than them.”

There’s a good bit of truth in that statement due in large part to this issue of envy. People who suffer from envy often have a skewed perception of how to achieve happiness. The true meaning of fortune is sometimes concealed behind a veil of other more tempting but mostly empty packages.

We each have our own unique paths, and that is exactly as it should be. Besides, keeping up with the Jones’ had become so 20th century that someone had to invent the Kardashians. Hey Kim, the 21st Century just called, and we want our Jones’ back…just sayin.

I mean, just watch two episodes of that show and focus on Sir Scott Disick, boyfriend and baby-daddy for Kourtney Kardashian, and you’ll see a poster child for depression, alcoholism and overall unhappiness, only with diamond Rolex watches and expensive sports cars. You can’t cure alcoholism with more alcohol; you can’t cure diabetes with more sugar; and you can’t cure envy with more stuff.

Benign envy, though, is perhaps a good thing so long as you focus your attention on what you want, then work to achieve or acquire it without wishing ill will on someone else in the process. We also shouldn’t isolate ourselves from our friends’, family and colleagues’ successes and happiness — quite the contrary!

I find nothing more inspiring than watching my wife win a sales award, or seeing my sister create beautiful paintings and sculptures, or being there while my son continues to grow in his maturity, confidence, and his career. In that sense, I’m not being envious of my sister’s talent in a negative way, just a little jealous – wishing I could do it too.

Happiness and success come in infinite quantities — there’s no reason to believe someone else is taking your share. If you’re fortunate enough to be the recipient of someone else’s hard work, be content. You didn’t earn it; you were just fortunate to benefit from it. Truly appreciating others’ success and happiness — but not coveting it — opens up your own path to personal and professional growth and fulfillment on your own terms, and not on anyone else’s.

What could be better than that? Hmm, maybe Emily’s homemade cheesecake, but that’s about it.

As for the evil eye, well, since we are not all going to suddenly live in a world without envy, there are a few precautions you can take to combat any envious feelings coming your way. In pure Mediterranean style, you can sprinkle some salt around your house now and again, wear red, pepper your place with hanging pepperoncini – the symbol that protects against the Evil Eye, and also make the “le corna” (sign of the horns) with your hand (pinky finger and point finger sticking up, thumb holds the two middle fingers down) if and when you think someone is envying a bit too much.

Or you can always try my preferred method, attacking the dragon in its lair with a full-frontal assault — though personally, I kind of think the sign of the horns is just too irresistible to ignore.