Bullying and Depression

One of the things I love about blogging is that the format is much more similar to a discussion than it is a story or news or whatever. It’s much more intimate and personal. We can address the things that are going on in our own lives or in the lives of people close to us and not necessarily have to wait for the next big national news event from which to launch our tirades or sweet-talks. Today I want to express my concerns about someone close to us about depression and bullying and offer a bit of advice.

 The biggest problem with being a young adult or adolescent is the fact that you’re, in many ways, an adult with adult brain power. You’re still in school which means you can still do long math, you can probably structure sentences better than most adults, and you can still recite State capitols and quote Shakespeare. All this mental flexibility makes us feel very bright and ready to take on the world. Our parents are the only adults we’re around enough to really compare our own intelligence to and what we see from them at home isn’t always the most representative of the whole person. So, we know we’re pretty smart like our adult parents but in many ways we’re still children, especially so when it comes to emotional intelligence. Your brain is literally wedged between a rock and a hard place.

 What your parents do have an abundance of (maybe…hopefully) that remains mostly unknown to you is the ability to cope with life’s up’s and down’s…a kind of emotional intelligence that we learn from surviving failure, betrayal, disappointments, infidelity, personal attacks, or the plethora of other lessons taught to us in high school and the work place, none of which that can be found in a textbook. Every single time we survive the next disaster, we sort of metamorphose into the next higher version of ourselves, shedding our thinner skins and growing a newer thicker one more capable than the last in defending ourselves or deflecting the danger away.  

 Without these skills, we’re left vulnerable and susceptible to all sorts of dehumanizing feelings that are sometimes strong enough to put us in a state of depression that can be so strong that it blinds us from finding a way out. It’s kinda like the dichotomy of needing a car to get a job and needing a job to get a car; we don’t always have the wherewithal to develop these coping skills when we need them most or when we’re most challenged by the pressures of growing up.

 When you’re gifted and smart, it’s way harder because you’re way more sensitive to right and wrong, you’re way more aware of how destructive the behavior is to you, and you’re way more perplexed at why you of all people cannot figure out how to solve the problem. Smart people have good ideas so you think you’re supposed to be able to solve these problems and yet you can’t. Not only is it emotionally damaging to be in the situation, but you’re simultaneously feeling insecure and unprepared to make it go away, maybe for the first time in your life. You begin to undermine your own intellect out of utter frustration at not being able to manage these feelings or solve your own problems.

 Depression is a humiliating human experience. Whether the result of bullying, stress, medical conditions or any number of other causes, the consequences are the same. Everyone experiences some form or degree of depression in their lives although some of us are better at shedding old skin than the rest.

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So, what we want to avoid is allowing a tumultuous situation to evolve into depression. If we allow it or if we don’t recognize the seriousness of our condition at a time when we can still think clearly, the ravages of clinical depression may creep into your life and take its toll on you and everyone around you. Whether you’re recognizing it or not (and some of us cannot), depression can turn intelligent, articulate and outgoing people into relative sleep-walkers and robots who can’t so much as wash a dish or change their socks.

 Depression can affect your ability to think clearly, to feel anything, to ascribe value to your own children, lifelong passions, and even your relative good fortune. On top of that, the usual medication for depression is usually some sort of psychotropic drug that helps your brain to quit feeling. So, not everyone does well with the drugs. There are both success and failure stories associated with the treatment of depression just like there are success and failure stories associated with the disease itself. I know people from both camps.

 Treated early enough, you can help to file the sharp edges of life away to help you focus on you and what is making you feel things so strongly. That doesn’t let you off the hook to solve your problems. If you’re fortunate enough to be able to reconcile your stress with medical intervention, take your medically induced lucidity serious and work to bring final resolution to the things or situations or people who are causing you problems, even if that means writing that person off completely and moving on.

 If allowed to continue, depression has the ability to scoop out your normal healthy ability to cope with bad days and bad news, and replaces it with an unrecognizable muck that finds no pleasure, no delight, and no point in anything outside of a couch. You may alienate your friends at school because you can’t comport yourself socially, your job may be at risk because you can’t concentrate, and you may live in moderate squalor because you have no energy to stand up, let alone take out the garbage. Sometimes, we’re just not quite ready to grow up and accept all that comes with being an adult and sometimes it’s the opposite, we just need to get the hell out of an environment that might be choking off our air supply. There is no one-size fits all solution when it comes to emotion and life. 

 My deceased brother suffered from depression. His depression was the result of a psychological disorder that limited his ability to cope in many ways but that never stopped him from feeling – just as you and I do. The world, as viewed from my brother’s eyes, was different than it is to me or to you but he was still a human being who felt and loved and innately understood that he was making the people around him uncomfortable. Although he lost the ability to recognize his own responsibility for how he made others feel, he nonetheless understood fully how everyone suddenly became afraid of him. While his empath began to fade, his overall sensitivities were elevated which made him acutely aware of the world, his family, and how he saw himself fitting-in among everyone and everything around him.

 It’s so sad to think about someone with a mental illness who once had full-competency. To live in a world that you perceive as dangerous, but in ways that you alone can solve if people will just give your ideas a chance. To want nothing more than to protect the one’s you love but to then feel the rejection of your ideas and the pain associated with the recognition that everyone thinks you’re crazy. Depression can be the catalyst that manifests itself into this type of mental illness, especially if you have other stressors that are working synergistically against you.

 Sadly, people with severe depression start to become pathetic and they know it. It’s one of the least appreciated parts of the condition. Depression, if untreated, can manifest itself into more serious conditions leaving its victims with little or no capacity to stop the downward plunge they see as inevitable. They begin to lose all perspective, all emotional reserves, and have no faith that things will ever get better. So they begin to feel guilty and ashamed of their inability to deal with life like any regular human, which exacerbates the depression and the isolation.

 Those of us around the depressed grow increasingly insensitive because we don’t understand the logic of it all (There is no logic). We only see how our loved one’s condition negatively impacts our own lives. Our loved one’s problems can be so overwhelming sometimes that we just want to run away to escape what we see as unnecessary chaos. We become desensitized to the whole affair and even duck and evade our troubled loved ones in order to find some normalcy and solace in our avoidance of them. I’m guilty of that myself. The guilt associated with that avoidance can also be overwhelming. You find yourself either victimized by psychotic drama or by self-guilt for not wanting to subject yourself or your family to psychotic drama. No one wins.

 If you’ve never been depressed, give thanks to your DNA providers and back off the folks who need to take a pill just so they can make eye contact with the grocery store cashier. No one on earth would choose the nightmare of depression over a typically turbulent normal life. That said, normal life is typically turbulent and we all take a few fastballs to the chest occasionally; it’s all part of stepping up to the plate of life.

 As I’ve written about previously, if the weight of certain things are dragging you down instead of lifting you up then you should move on to the next thing. Looking straight into the eyes of each person or situation; you must decide if this is going to a part of your history or a part of your destiny. Discovering that you have the courage to move on from destructive forces or people contributes to the cultivation of our super-powers, resilience being one of those. Depression cannot thrive among resilience.

 Recognize that we’re all perfectly flawed. Yes, you’re a kind and sensitive person and you need a pill right now to help you cope. But, alternatively, the bully has way more problems than do you. If you really think about it, what type of false-reality is that person living in right now? How much further toward adulthood or success or realizing your dreams are you right now compared to him/her? That person has a long hard road ahead and reality is going to suck way worse for him/her than it is for you right now. If anything, you should be feeling sorry for them.

 Stop judging yourself unnecessarily. The person bullying you is likely so selfish and full of themselves right now that they don’t even believe they’re a bully, much less able to recognize how destructive they are to those around them. While you’re reconciling the bully, don’t fail to recognize your own responsibility in how these situations evolve and encompass everyone and everything around them. Don’t be guilty of believing that the “high road” is somehow conveyed by your absence or refusal to stand up for yourself. If chaos is met by silence, chaos still exists because it creeps into new places you would have never expected. It’s also not anger or retaliation that defeats chaos, its wisdom and order – which, BTW, also defeats depression.

Depression is not just an incapacity to cope with day to day living in the modern world. It’s an incapacity to function. No one chooses it. No one deserves it. It can run in families and it can ruin families. Most of us cannot imagine what it takes to feign normalcy. But that is exactly what victims of depression do every day. My goal is two-fold; I want to scare you into facing whatever it is that is luring you into depression, and, I want to help you and others empathize with those who are suffering now.

 Bullying is real. Just because you’ve never suffered from it doesn’t make it imaginary. The way you survive it is to confront it and just proudly announce that what is happening to you is hurtful, whether they care about or want to take responsibility for it or not and that you’re done worrying about it. There’s something profoundly powerful about vocalizing your intentions that has a way of making your words come true. If you tell them you’re done…you’re done. 

 

Good Luck.

A Ship Called Censor – History Erased

In quiet observance of some of our latest pop-culture absurdities, I found some useful truisms in an old Longfellow Psalm that I decided to doctor up a little bit with some Chris’isms. The moral of the story is multifaceted. First: Although you may be hurting individually or even as a community, history is always going to have winners and losers. That doesn’t mean we should erase the history so you can feel better about yourself. History belongs to everyone. We and our children learn from history, both good and bad.

Second: Our good history is another’s bad history. What makes you proud, hurts another. What you run away from, other’s run to. If history is hurting you and not healing you, grow up – history cannot by itself hurt you, you are hurting you. If we are successful at erasing the history that hurts us most, we’re putting our children in danger of becoming secondary victims of lessons we’ve already learned – then summarily lost.

Lastly, if you cannot find one morsel of empathy or logic in another’s alternative ideology, you’re not thinking deep enough. Although I may not agree 100% with everyone I encounter, I seldom hear any opinion with which I cannot somewhat empathize. Don’t be afraid to prove yourself wrong. It’s liberating to be wrong sometimes.

 

Tell me not, in mournful mobs,

Lives of past are empty dreams,

For the soul is dead and there are odds,

That things may not be what they seem.

 

History is real! History is earnest!

And the grave is surely not the goal;

Dust thou art, to dust returnest,

And risk forget our histories toll.

 

Not enjoyment, and not sorrow,

Is our-destined end or way;

But to act, that each tomorrow

Find us farther than today.

 

Life is long, and Time is fleeting

And our hearts, though stout and brave,

Bull horns blaring, marches leading

Spray paint tags upon the grave.

 

In the world’s broad field of battle,

In the bivouac of our Life,

Be not dumb, like driven cattle!

Be a hero in the strife!

 

Trust no Future, howe’er pleasant!

Let the dead Past bury its dead!

Dare not stray from living Present!

Heart within, and God o’erhead!

 

Lives of great men all remind us

We can make our lives sublime,

And, departing, leave behind us

Footprints on the sands of time;

 

Footprints, that perhaps another,

Sailing o’er life’s solemn main,

A Forlorn and shipwrecked brother,

Seeing, shall take heart again.

 

Men found great by time gone by,

May fall from favor, his deeds undressed,

Should we erase, exhume, untie;

History then becomes suppressed?

 

Lessons lost, apt be Repeated,

Our future yearns for all experience.

Selfishness prevails the child is cheated,

Insecurity manifests the devil’s deliverance.

 

Leave alone and let be the dead,

The shackles’ keys have long been lost.

Bronze and stone statues are tying threads,

And remind us of that fateful cost.

 

Change a name, tear down a marker,

Erase, redact, our right to censor.

Less enlightened – our world is darker.

Sympathy grows an incurable cancer.

 

Let, us then, be up and doing,

With a heart for any fate;

Still achieving, still pursuing,

Learn to labor, learn to wait.

 

Let your deeds be yours

And not the elimination of another’s.

 

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.

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.

Luck: The Good Choices We Had Nothing To Do With

“You’re so lucky”, how many times have you heard that? Luck — good and bad — plays a big role in all of our lives, right? I know I am lucky — ridiculously, amazingly, fantastically lucky. And I am ever so grateful.

I am lucky to be alive; I am lucky to be healthy; I am lucky to have been born into a family that could care for me, and in a place where I did not have to fight medical odds just to survive infancy; I am lucky to possess the DNA to let my body develop in a way that is acceptable to my mind; I am also lucky that I was born with a decent amount of intelligence and natural tenacity to steer me where my luck may provide advantage; I am lucky to have a healthy and intelligent child who loves me back and who I can proudly observe as he discovers all the things I write about independently of me; I am lucky to have found and successfully trapped a wonderful woman who loves me like crazy and whom I love the same way back; I’m lucky to have a good job when a lot of people are struggling to make ends meet; I’m lucky to have a fantastic mother who has always been attentive to both my physical and mental well-being; I am lucky to have wonderful siblings who have continued to support me emotionally throughout my entire life; yes, I am one lucky SOB.

Every single one of those things, I would say, make me one of the luckiest people on this planet. I had nothing to do with most of those things, partial responsibility for a few, and I am lucky as crap they all went in my favor. Heck, one time I found a McDonald’s bag in a rental car with $500 cash in it…that’s pretty darn lucky huh?

Has everything gone perfectly in my life? Please. We all have bad luck too, but more than that, we all have challenges and struggles and disappointments and just plain ole crappy times. But none of those things – good, bad, lucky, indifferent, or unlucky – are what defines us. We’re way more complicated than that.

The way in which each of us handle good as well as bad luck is what best defines who we really are. If we are willing to learn, the way we deal with good and bad times can tell us quite a lot of what we need to know about ourselves. If things go your way do you get cocky, or appreciative…if things go South, do you pout and feel sorry for yourself, or just try again and again?

The knowledge gained from both situations becomes useful in many situations, but especially when we face hard decisions and potential life-changing opportunities. Because even if you have great opportunities constantly falling into your lap, luck is never going to be what pushes you forward to take advantage of or get the highest and best use of that opportunity. More often, it’s what you’ve learned from failures that will be the thing that propels you forward when an opportunity presents itself. People who don’t try, never fail. If you never fail, what have learned and how will you apply the wisdom from failure when luck avails itself? 

“Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.” ~ Lucius Annaeus Seneca (2 BC-ish)

I drank it

Making the most of any opportunity, indeed, even to recognize an opportunity for what it is, means you have to be prepared. You must do the hard work to put yourself in the mindset that makes you ready to jump when your “luck” shines upon you. When you see that sliver of light, that tiny bit of hope, that opportunity you have been waiting for, which sometimes comes cleverly disguised as the exact opposite of what you had been waiting for, what will you do? Luck has a strange sense of humor; it is a 1st cousin to karma.

What happens at that point is called choice.

No matter our relative luck levels and no matter how dire our emotional, financial, work, or other situations…that choice – that free will — that is what makes us human, right? The ability to step back, look at our lives, and decide what to do next is so very precious. But sometimes we do not notice an opportunity for what it really is. Clarity cannot happen if we are not ready or prepared for it. Circumstances do sometimes limit our choices. But even not choosing — being a chronic non-decider who just lets things happen around them — is too a choice.

Tough decisions, the ones that tend to yield the highest rewards, are called “tough” for a good reason. So how do we become more self-prepared? Well-informed decisions and smart choices are built on a lifetime of getting to know better who you are, what you want, what makes you happy, what makes you anxious, what makes you intolerable — and you do not learn that kind of thing in the Valley of Unicorns and Leprechauns.

In Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Hamlet, Polonius told Laertes, his son, “To thine own self be true.” Timeless advice yes, but the only way to know thine own self is to put yourself out there, try new experiences, meet new people, try different professions, and make lots of mistakes. Through this “trial and error”, you will learn what works for you and what does not. You will discover other people’s methods and decide to take them on as your own. You will learn where you want to be, what you want to do, and an amazing number of other things about yourself that you never knew you didn’t know.

Although that particular line in Hamlet is one of the more recognizable lines, another of Polonius’ lines I find to be equally valuable is, “Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t”. Remember that line when you’re out on a limb doing something unorthodox and people are giving you a funny look.

In case you are looking for some sort of reward for all that hard work – your journey to self-awareness not only becomes enlightening along the way but it WILL make tough choices down the road a lot easier for you. Easier to make, that is. Not necessarily easier to carry through. After that initial choice, you see, comes the all-important follow-through, and that consists of tiny choices every single day to continue the path you have now chosen. And now we are getting to the real important part, Thoreau’s “suck[ing] the marrow out of life” I mentioned in my last blog.

This very blog, the one you are reading now, was written because of a series of small choices made each and every day. I love writing and I love teaching. Making the choice to write more, to teach those around me who I really am inside, to help those I care about navigate life’s up and downs…these are all things that I can do because of decisions I’ve made in my life that allow me to do it – and some good ole luck which provided me with the DNA needed to develop a love for words. The doors we open AND close each day will decide what we become and how we live our lives.

But, sometimes doubt creeps in because I would dearly love to be writing for a living. My failure or lack of initiative or lack of time and money and other distractions in my early life has delayed my own ability to finish what I started with my formal education. I continue to tinker with it but I never seem to find the time to just commit to finishing school. I changed majors 3 times and I finally know what I want to do, I just haven’t done it. That lack of a diploma closes a lot of doors for someone who likes to write…thus some bad choices were made.

Hey, no one ever promised that living life on our own terms would be easy, and sadly, no magic unicorns have shown up to guide me. I never found that pot-o-gold at the end of a rainbow and I still do not have a rocket propelled jet-pack to travel back and forth to work on. Perhaps I would if some rocket scientist out there had taken an unconventional path instead of the NASA path of least resistance.

But, that’s another story. Getting to know yourself and making conscious, informed choices on how to live your life, your one and only life, is based on what you should now know to be true – and that is experiencing life to the fullest without fear of failure. I do not know of any better way to move closer toward Shangri-La, which, by the way, is a moving target if you are doing things right.

Indeed, the learning process, realizing things about yourself, looking at situations from different angles, dreaming up of new ideas, goals, and adventures — those never end if you don’t allow it. How lucky are we? How lucky are people with luck? Well, if we have learned anything at all I think it would be that lucky doesn’t necessarily mean successful. Make choices and make every choice matter – good or bad. Living deliberately doesn’t give you the key to every door, it IS the key to building your own door.

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.