When the Levee Breaks

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I don’t know about you but I often catch myself drifting away from the present with random unrelated thoughts. Many times those random thoughts evolve into blogs like this one. Just as often though my brain might be interrupted by some random Led Zeppelin song lyrics or stupid childhood memories or grilled cheese sandwiches. I should probably donate my brain to science; I guess I should just leave it at that and save the explanation for later.

Having some hearing loss, I probably don’t always hear what I think I hear. I hope I’m not always held 100% responsible for some of the things I think I’ve heard throughout the day then later regurgitated with some slight differences. The combination of my incompetent little brain, malfunctioning ears, and fifty-plus year-old eyes means that you never know exactly what you’re going to get from me. The saddest thing of all is that half of these blogs could literally be reactions to problems that never existed.

I can’t, of course, possibly know how many other people drift away like I do but I have to assume that everyone does it or else I might feel like I’m embarrassing myself right now. It helps me to imagine that for the most part, there’s really only one thing that distinguishes my random thoughts from anyone else’s. That would of course be the arrogance with which I assume that some other person(s) might be entertained by my stories.

One thing I can’t seem to let go of lately is the feeling I get when I hear various people espousing their political views. Political divisiveness is not new, it’s just different, louder, meaner and far more inflammatory than it’s ever been. Today, it’s definitely en vogue to feel utter hatred for political candidates and it’s far more common than uncommon for the media to inundate and indoctrinate negativity and bias than ever before. The divide between Walter Cronkite and Sean Hannity or Dan Rather is like the Grand Canyon; they’re not even in the same industry.

Disclosure: I consider myself to be an extremist moderate. I’m dead in the middle socially but with a fiscally conservative slant. I’m one of those weirdo’s who think we should do everything we can afford for our elderly, invalids, and handicapped and provide a temporary, not permanent, leg-up for those of us who are having a hard time for any reason. I also believe we should be able to afford whatever it is we’re trying to do for people and if we reach a stage where we can’t, we should cut something else less important from an otherwise balanced budget. I do not believe in tremendous debt like the situation we’ve been in now for decades.

There’s an overwhelming feeling of obviousness to me that others don’t seem to share. If roughly half the citizens of the country support one party and subscribe to its core beliefs and roughly half the citizens of the country support the opposite party and subscribe to its core beliefs then logic should dictate three (3) very obvious things:

  • The majority of the members of each party are not as far away from each other as they think;
  • There are very smart people on both sides of each isle so you cannot rule out that each could potentially have good arguments in support for their beliefs; and,
  • There being a wide range of differing levels of intelligence, socio-economic, gender and regional demographics making up the members of each group, we must assume that there really is no specific right answer to all political ideology because examples of each have positively and negatively impacted each group’s members to the point of that groups members wanting to fight about it.

There are incredibly wealthy democrats and republicans. There are incredibly poor democrats and republicans. There are incredibly smart and dumb democrats and republicans. Each group’s members, despite what you hear on television, are essentially made up of the same types of people and both groups make up nearly identical halves of the registered voters in this country – the middle swinging from side to side depending upon the platform du jour.

Said differently, what happens to be the right thing today might not have been the right thing in the past nor the right thing in our future. Generally, most people actually find themselves situated somewhere just left or just right of this imaginary line of right and wrong. Regardless of that center majority, each party is pushed to try and convince its supporters to pick a side and to do their level best to scare the dickens out of those people to the point of polarizing everyone.

What about that Led Zeppelin song, “Good Times Bad Times”? Is it just me or is anyone else confused about the girl leaving him but then he says they will never part?  

Good Bad Times

People pick sides because they fear the extremism represented on both isles – which is the very thing the opposition wants you to know about the other side. The world and America, in particular, is organic – not fixed. We are learning the effects of yesterday’s political decisions today and tomorrow our children will be learning about the choices our elected leaders are making today. It’s our children who are left behind to clean up our mistakes and it’s our children too who are left behind to ride whatever wake of success that trails behind us.

This country has rode enormous waves of prosperity and it has suffered the hopelessness of economic despair. When the country has suffered, we’ve risen to the challenge by creating safety nets. When the country has soared, we’ve invested in infrastructure and added chairs to the table. Along its way, this country has matured and altered the way it treats and represents its citizens. Maybe not everyone of course, but enough to steer the direction of the country nonetheless.

But, regardless of any of that, we should not be surprised to discover that people will always be left behind. No society is perfect and no society, however determined it is to be perfect, will ever be.

We cannot make policy on the fallacy that it will perfect that which cannot be perfected. There is a balancing act between economic prosperity and opportunity for entrepreneurial investment against the weight of humanity itself. If you concentrate on civics then you lose on economics. If you focus on economics, benevolence takes a second seat. It is the way of things.

There’s this Led Zeppelin song, “When the Levee Breaks”… I love the drum licks in that song. John Bonham was an awesome drummer! Oh, sorry. Let’s get back on track.

FeatImage-Bonham2

One problem is that ALL of us are horribly but perfectly made to be biased. It is a human survival mechanism. Our brains are simply built with greater sensitivity to unpleasant news than positive news. Our capacity to weigh negative input more heavily than positive input most likely evolved for a good reason – to keep us out of harm’s way. From the dawn of human history, our very survival depended on our skill at dodging danger.

The brain developed systems that would make it unavoidable for us not to notice danger and thus, respond accordingly. All well and good in the jungle but having a brain apparatus super-sensitive to negativity means that bad-news bias, at work in every sphere of our lives at all times, can alter our realities to the point of insanity.

If you want comedy, OK, how about bad-news biased comedy. You want news, no problem, here’s some bad-news bias for you. How about dinner conversations based upon biased bad-news learned from every source except the real one? One half of the country pays attention to biased news that leans left and the other half of the country pays attention to biased news that leans right. We’re tuned in to institutional bias rather than being tuned in to each other. If we’d just listen to each other, we’d find that we’re really not all that different.

Whatever is said or done by a person from either political party, the reporting agency will edit and peel away the things that doesn’t fit their agenda and emphasize the parts that do, sometimes completely out of context. Whatever gets your attention sells. For the media, that’s all they really care about. Real news can be boring – you can’t run a business trying to sell real news anymore.

As individuals we generally, but not always, will have two opinions about everything. The first opinion we have is the one that we never or rarely share with anyone. That opinion is how we truthfully feel about any given situation. The second opinion we will have is our public opinion which is carefully crafted not to offend and generally, but not always, exactly aligned with our given party. Then, of course, there are those with only one opinion. Just so we’re being straight up with each other, if you always only have one opinion on every issue then you’re probably too ignorant to vote. Just sayin’.

Oh well, I don’t want to put a bustle in your hedgerow but people really need to get a life these days. Whatever is happening in Washington D.C. whether there’s a democrat in office or a Republican, you’re not going to be allowed to know enough about any given subject in order to form a logical opinion anyway. The media is only going to report the part that sells the most copies and they’re going to seriously spin that small part of it in order to sell a few more.

The issue itself will be marred in red tape so that you could never understand why it happened that way and the facts will be muddied by the existence of classified elements which you cannot possibly be told. You’re going to be provided with a smidgen of details which are painted and embellished to the point where it no longer resembles the truth. Therefore, your opinion, no matter how eloquent your delivery, sounds completely stupid to the people who actually do know and possibly brilliant to those others, who like you/me, don’t.

“Dazed and confused for so long it’s not true…Lots of people talkin’, few of them know”. What is it with the melancholy chords anyway? Do you think Led Zeppelin members were doing drugs back in the day or were they like Nostradamus – like, foreseeing the future/present? Hmm.

R.214 LED ZEP PAGE VIOLIN BOW

In the end, none of us are really qualified to question what happens in the District of Columbia. We can have opinions as to whether liberalism or conservatism is a better or worse solution for any given set of circumstances but we’re never going to really know the whole truth about the other stuff. Yes, yes, there are always signs on the wall, but you know sometimes words have two meanings.

Legitimately, either direction can be the right direction depending upon the specific set of circumstances. Likewise, neither direction works as a system in and of itself. Too much a good thing is never a good thing. Push liberalism too far and you get communism; push the right wing agenda too far and you may pull a Nazi out of the bag. The powers are made to be balanced because they need to be balanced in order for our country to work as it was engineered to work. We’ve seen the atrocities committed by both polar extremes – so who wants to give up prosperity and freedom for either of those two bullshit alternatives?

There’s a lady who’s sure, all that glitters is gold, and she’s buying a stairway to heaven. I don’t know her personally but I can tell you that if she’d just focus on the area somewhere between the stratus’ of gold and pot metal, she might make a better investment. It is so easy to deceive. Smear on a little paint and spike it with a little lead and voila. Viewed from a distance the pot metal looks just like gold and it weighs the same too. That is the lure of political parties but it’s just a façade. It’s never exactly what you think.

There’s an enormous effort from both sides of the isle to convince you that their path is the true stairway to heaven. In my world there are lots of stairways and many correct paths. Gold too, is not just an element on a periodic table. It’s a condition, it’s a place, it’s a relationship, and it’s a state of mind. As Alaskan’s are fond of saying, “Gold is where you find it.”

Stairway to heaven

If there’s one thing I could convey here that I hope will resonate with people is that we should try and respect, not necessarily agree, with people who don’t share our opinions. We’re losing our ability to show respect to others who may be different. Deference is no longer fashionable. I want you to respect my views/sexuality/race/identity/etc., but it’s completely unfashionable for me to respect you in return. This one-way street of acceptance will, if not cured, incubate a future filled with hate and intolerance all over again.

If you are allowed to hate me, I am within my rights to hate you back, right? Isn’t that the way of the world today? I would hope that we’ve moved beyond that particular stage of humanity, or is it inhumanity?

On one hand our society has done a great job of learning to embrace people who look or act different, but we’ve completely lost our ability to embrace people who think different. Today, we celebrate differences on television and in movies and even parades. Kids who feel different about their sexuality no longer feel as if they have to conform to anything. Different races and different ethnic backgrounds blend and assimilate back and forth to the point where the word “cultural appropriation” has actually become a subject in college.

In my younger days, culture was something that only old and frightened white people felt deserved protection. Now the majority of people who want to insulate and protect their culture are ethnic groups. The desire to homogenize is no longer as prevalent as it once was. Ethnic peoples used to pray for a day where they could just be called Americans, now they’d much prefer a richer more diversified cultural identity.

Ironically, they have become that way only because they now have the freedoms and the acceptance that allows them to concentrate on themselves for a change, and not a broader more inclusive goal as once was necessary. Coalescence is to the modern American joke what the Pollock was when I was twelve years old. Oh how the world, and I, have changed – for the good.

The irony is that the better things become, the more selfish we’re allowed to be, and the more faults we find in the world because the world is not suiting our individual goals anymore. Things may be great for my community, my state, my gender, my race, or my culture but its not so great for moi. So, I should start a go-fund-me page in order to change all this shit to accommodate my blossoming individuality.

Meanwhile at the coffee shop, I read that Republicans want to outlaw go-fund-me accounts. Should I write another blog about it or just keep my mouth shut and hope they don’t shut down the one I started to buy myself a fishing boat cancer policy?  Why am I so cynical these days?

How are we so systematically being pushed away from each other? What around us is so deliberately tapping into our brains innate sensitivity to fear and danger? I think I know but maybe I don’t. Being that I am not the god of knowledge, I think it’s time for me to ramble on then allow you to figure that one out for yourself. Hmm, this reminds of another Led Zeppelin song.

ramble on

Genesis 2.0

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Everyone benefits from an obsession with family history. Maybe too bold a statement…? I can only speak from my own experiences but if you will allow me to explain my reasoning I think you will agree.

Had I, like many others, not followed my genealogical paths backward, I could never have better understood the whole of who I am in the way that I do now. Knowing what I know about all of the astonishing things that had to occur and all of the remarkable people who were able to survive along the way – all contributing their own DNA along the way, it has helped me to realize just how unique we all are but also amazingly true is how similar we are.

Genealogical research has a way of reverse-engineering our souls. It breaks us down piece by piece, and reveals an honesty about our pasts which is sometimes flattering and newsworthy and just as often ugly or immoral. For some, it can reveal a surprising or hidden truth, blurred by time, exaggerations, or even lies. For the majority of us, what little information we do learn from our ancestors only represents a tiny fraction of the story of us.

I vividly remember my paternal grandfather, Papaw White, telling me that we were Scotch-Irish and that I was named after Capt. John White of early American colonist fame – Roanoke/Croatoan story. I never doubted the Scotch-Irish ancestry but somehow I never really bought the Capt. John Smith story. A couple things just didn’t add up; the Captain was English and, most importantly, after returning from England to discover that his colony was lost, he returned to England and never returned to American soil.

My grandmother, however, shared her family history with me which has turned out to be pretty accurate, albeit scant in detail. She told me her family immigrated to the United States from Germany. What I later discovered was that they immigrated from a tiny hamlet called Mitschdorf, Alsace which is actually in France. Situated on the Rhine River bordering France, Switzerland and Germany, Alsace has a complicated history as it sits just below the traditional French customs border of the Vosages Mountains although the French territories stopped at the Rhine River – just beyond the tiny town of Mitschdorf. The people who inhabited that region were principally of German descent.

The German language and customs of the inhabitants of these French outskirts continued for centuries through the 17th and 18th centuries – including the time when my Neese family immigrated to the United States. Thirty year old Hans Michael Nehs, infant son Michael and his twenty seven year old wife Dorothea along with 266 other Palatines arrived in the port of Philadelphia, PA on 21 September, 1731, sailing on the ship Britannia having sailed across the Atlantic from Rotterdam, Holland. Soon after immigration the Nehs family, either through ignorance of the language or by choice, Americanized the surname to Neese and/or Neece and other similar variations which have since scattered themselves to and fro across the entire country.

So, my grandmother was actually pretty close right? You could say that but only if her story began or stopped right there – but it doesnt. Michael’s father and mother Mathias and Maria had just been living in Rusovce, Bratislava, Slovakia prior to moving to the Alsace region of France.

Cognizant to most of us family tree-climbers is that just four generations up the tree gives me no less than sixteen great grandparents. Another generation beyond that gives me thirty-two grandparents – another gives me sixty-four… each grandparent having his or her own distinct ancestry, some of it quite fascinating. Unfortunately, some is also lost forever to time and insignificance. Perhaps we should expend more energy while we’re alive with the goal of not being so insignificant.

Most of us associate our general lineage and ancestry by our last names. The truth is that you have hundreds of last names, some you’ve never heard about. If I push my ancestry out just ten generations beyond myself, I can personally verify 128 different surnames. This does not include incidences where the same last name repeats from other ancestors marrying cousins which occurs nearly a dozen times in that same ten-generation time span. There are also familial lines where I can’t YET go back ten generations.

Family Tree

I have found a wealth of new names, belonging to me, I’d never even heard before. Some of the oddest names in my lineage: Cazeneuve, Coggeshall and Erchtebrech. The Beaufort, Ragland, Marcell and Simpson are surname lines that I’ve researched heavily while the Pfeiffer, Koch, Emot and Lisbet lines are among the many still lying in wait for me to catch an interest. The gist of everything I’m writing here is that we are all so much more than the sum of two parts, even if you’ve not been formally introduced to the other parts.

While I grew up thinking I was just an average white guy with Scotch-Irish/German ancestry on my paternal side and maternal Welsh/English ancestry, I’ve since learned that I hail from Scandinavia, Spain, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, England, France, Italy, Turkey, Belgium, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Greece, the Middle East, Hungary, Slovakia, Israel, and Belarus. My ancestors were Vikings, Jews, Knights Templar, Spanish conquistadors, American colonists, Native Americans, Revolutionary War soldiers and early American statesmen. They were Frankish kings and Welsh nobles and they were poor farmers, merchants, tin smiths and shoe cobblers.

monty_python__the_inquisition_by_emperornortonii

What my ancestors have most in common with your ancestors is that they were all survivors. They are the survivors of numerous plagues, copious wars, inquisitions, witch trials, battlefield forays, and voyages across unknown and uncharted waters. They survived attacks from neighboring warlords, tribes, and villages. They fought off zealous religious groups, parried political unrest, returned from great world wars, defeated the Nazis, found something to eat under communist regimes, lived through indentured servitude and found freedom after generations of slavery. Our ancestors avoided the horns of Jericho and the plagues of Egypt. Had they not, you and I would not be having this conversation.

flat-world

All of us are extremely lucky to even be here. There were far more opportunities for us to have never been born at all than for us to have ascended from whatever heaven and hell our people endured. If you look far enough and broad enough backward, sideways, and crossways, you’ll find a bit of both.

Since I know that I’m a Gaul, a Latin, an Etruscan, a Greek, a Celtic, a Briton, a Silurian, a Native American, a Jew, an Arab, a Spaniard, a Frank and a Viking, I can safely assume that other people living among me who are firm in their belief that I’m either a deplorable, infidel, heathen, left-winger or right-winger might also themselves be a great many things they never knew about.

Despite our differing features, sizes and shades of skin, we’re very much a homogeneous community of very blessed people of common origin and descent. Not the kind of homogeneity like Hitler envisioned but in the way that if you look deep enough, what you find is me. Hitler didn’t have the ability to know that he himself was a Jew – we, however, do. If we all choose to use our extremist obsessions to peel back the layers of our own ancestry instead of the flaws and faults of others who disagree with us, perhaps we could all realize that we are all many different things…things which would not qualify us to be the judge of all others. Said differently, if I’m an infidel, we’re all infidels; because I am you.

 

News Makes You Fat

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In my lifetime, I’ve been forced to painfully recognize a few of the hazards of living with this so called American overabundance of things. We don’t always recognize it because it’s our ‘normal’, but we’re a very fortunate bunch of people in the big scheme of things. We’re the biggest exporter of food in the world, exporting enormous quantities of corn and wheat and meat; “feeding the world” we like to say. We’re also over-stuffing our own pie-holes as well which is why we are also leading the world in obesity and diabetes. With the advent of social media and news-on-the-go, we’ve simultaneously become the leading consumers of information which has led to all sorts of unintended outcomes.

Most of us do not yet understand that news is to the mind what GooGoo’s are to the body. News can be very addictive and super easy to digest, like Chinese food, leaving us hungry for more in an hour. The media feeds us small tasty morsels of trivial matter, snippets, and tidbits that have little or nothing to do with our daily lives and which require absolutely no brain power to process at all. Unlike reading books and magazine articles which require thinking, we can swallow limitless quantities of news flashes or political innuendo, which are like bright-colored candies for the mind. Today, we have reached the same point in relation to toxic news and information that we faced 20 years ago with regard to food. We are just now beginning to recognize the real toxicity of news.


News misleads, oftentimes intentionally but most often as a result of confirmation biases and group think. We watch the news stations that we know up-front will most likely present or frame their stories in ways that agree with our own views and opinions such that all of the information we consume does nothing but to confirm what we already believe. From the perspectives of someone whose job it is to deliver our news, they know their audiences and work hard to creatively frame their reporting in ways that are congruent with the expectations of their audiences. It’s entertainment, not news.

Actor Denzel Washington recently summed it up for us after the media ran a “fake news” story on him falsely claiming that he switched political support from Hillary Clinton to Donald Trump. “If you don’t read the newspaper, you’re uninformed. If you do read it, you’re misinformed. So what a responsibility you all have — to tell the truth.” Washington exclaimed to the rabid pack of reporters gathered on the red carpet. “In our society, now it’s just who’s first — who cares, get it out there. We don’t care who it hurts. We don’t care who we destroy. We don’t care if it’s true, just say it, sell it. Anything you practice you’ll get good at — including BS.”

We as a society are not rational enough to be exposed to this modern psychology-driven press. Most of us grew up with responsible news anchormen like Walter Cronkite who was touted as being the most trusted man on television. In my childhood, I learned that nightly television news was where I could get my daily doses of reality. But Walter is dead and so is unbiased news. Thus we are woefully unprepared from a psychological sense to qualitatively analyze and filter out the kinds of biases that are common in news reporting today. Today’s news is designed to get ratings, not to educate or inform. 


Watching an airplane crash on television is going to change your attitude toward that risk, regardless of its real statistical probability. If you think you can compensate with the strength of your own inner contemplation, you would be sadly mistaken. Bankers and economists – who have enormously powerful incentives to compensate for news-borne hazards – have historically shown us that they cannot. The only solution: cut yourself off from news consumption entirely.

News today is mostly irrelevant. Out of the approximately 10,000 news stories you may have read or watched in the last 12 months, name one story that – because you consumed it – allowed you to make a better decision about a serious matter affecting your life, your career or your business. The point is: the consumption of modern news is totally irrelevant to you aside from an Amber Alert. But most of us find it very difficult to recognize what is and isn’t relevant.

It’s much easier to recognize what’s new. The relevant versus the new is the fundamental battle of the current age. Media organizations want you to believe that news offers you some sort of a competitive cerebral advantage. Many of us totally fall for that as it appeals to our egos. Some actually get anxious when they’re cut off from the constant flow of news – unable to enjoy a dinner or social situation without constant manipulations of their iPhones. In reality, news consumption is a huge competitive disadvantage. The less news you consume, the bigger life advantage you have.

News has absolutely zero real explanatory power. News items are mere bubbles of air popping on the undulating surface of a much deeper and complex world. Will accumulating tons of news-facts help you better understand our world? Sadly, no. The relationship is inverted. The important stories are non-stories: slow, powerful movements that develop below shock-journalists’ radar but have a transformative effect like Rock and Roll, hippies or frozen food.

The more “news factoids” you digest, the less of the big picture you will understand. If more news information leads one to higher economic success, we’d expect journalists to be at the top of the economic pyramid. That’s not generally the case except for the journalists who tease our imaginations with fantastic works of fiction like Harry Potter or Star Wars.


News can also be toxic to our bodies. It constantly triggers the human limbic system. Shocking stories spur the immense releases of cortisol. This deregulates your immune system and inhibits the release of growth hormones. In other words, your body finds itself in a state of chronic stress. High cortisol levels cause impaired digestion, lack of growth (cell, hair, bone), nervousness and susceptibility to infections. The other potential side-effects include fear, aggression, tunnel-vision, desensitization and weight gain. Now you know; it’s amazingly unfair to be forced into watching sexy news anchors on television with perfect bodies who’s job it is to make us bald and fat by force-feeding us sugar-coated stress balls.

News also increases cognitive errors. News feeds the mother of all cognitive errors: confirmation bias. In the words of Warren Buffett: “What the human being is best at doing is interpreting all new information so that their prior conclusions remain intact.” News exacerbates this flaw of humanity. We become prone to overconfidence, take stupid risks and misjudge opportunities.

It also exacerbates another cognitive error: the story bias. Our brains crave stories that make sense – even if they don’t correspond to reality. Today’s journalism proposes simplistic answers for complex situations. There’s no time to explain, it’s just easier to offer us viewers whatever explanations that both entertain us and fit the agenda.

News actually inhibits normal thinking. Thinking requires concentration. Concentration requires uninterrupted time. News pieces are specifically engineered to interrupt you. They are like viruses that steal attention for their own purposes. News makes us shallow thinkers. But it’s worse than that. News severely affects memory.

There are two types of memory, long-term and short-term memory. Our long-term memory’s capacity is nearly infinite, but working memory is limited to a certain amount of slippery data. The path from short-term to long-term memory is directly through a sort of narrow choke-point in the brain, but anything you want to fully understand must pass through it. If this passageway is disrupted, nothing gets through.


Because news disrupts our concentration, it weakens overall comprehension. Online news has an even worse impact. In a 2001 study, two scholars in Canada showed that comprehension declines as the number of hyperlinks in a document increases. Why? Because whenever a link appears, your brain has to at least make the choice not to click, which in itself is distracting. News is an intentional interruption system. News works much like a drug. As stories develop, we want to know how they continue and end. With hundreds of arbitrary storylines in our heads, this craving is increasingly compelling and hard to ignore.

Most news consumers – even if they used to be avid book readers – have lost the ability to absorb lengthy articles or books. After reading four or five pages they get tired, their concentration vanishes, and they become restless. It’s not because they got older or their schedules became more onerous. It’s because the physical structure of their brains has changed. This phenomenon is constantly proven every time I write a blog that is more than two pages long. Information is no longer a scarce commodity; attention is.

News kills creativity. This is one reason that mathematicians, novelists, composers and entrepreneurs often produce their most creative works at a young age. Their brains enjoy a wide, uninhabited space that emboldens them to come up with and pursue novel ideas. I don’t know a single truly creative mind who is a news junkie – not a writer, not a composer, mathematician, physician, scientist, musician, designer, architect or painter. My own sister, an accomplished artist and creativity sensei, could care less about news. She inspires me to un-clutter my mind all the time. On the other hand, I know a bunch of boring and non-creative minds who consume news like meth-addicts.

Society needs journalism – but in a different way than we’re getting it. Investigative journalism is always relevant. We need reporting that polices our institutions and uncovers truth. We need warnings of relevant danger and notices of pertinent  information like obituaries and 10 mile-long yard sales. But important findings don’t have to arrive in the form of news. Long journal articles and in-depth books are good, too.


News only shows the exception to the rule, never the rule itself. An example might be the Michael Brown/Ferguson, Missouri news story. How many people have been hurt, cops killed, stores looted, cars set on fire and collective property damage calculated as a result of a reputed criminal who robbed a store and died while trying to kill a police officer? The toxic ratings-oriented news of today exacerbates ones feelings of institutional racism and disillusionment with government because its profitable to report the news that way. It doesn’t “pay” these days to report facts.

A car drives across a bridge, and suddenly the bridge collapses. What does modern news media focus on? The car. What direction it was traveling. The driver. Where he came from. Where he was headed. How he survived his near-death experience, his many struggles to cope with his new physical limitations, and frustrated attempts to walk unsupported at his September wedding.

But that is all completely irrelevant. What is relevant? The structural stability of that dang bridge! That’s the underlying risk that has been lurking, and could lurk in other bridges, right? But the car is flashy, it’s dramatic, the injured person is entertaining and it’s news that’s cheap to produce. News leads us to walk around with the completely wrong risk-map in our heads.

No news is actually good news. Perhaps it’s time to hit the scales because you just gained 4 pounds reading this blog.

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

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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!

 

 

Living Outside The Box

Everyone knows I love movies. I have been intrigued with and entertained by movies since before I can remember. It is a passion born from mostly my mother who also loved movie going. I’m often quoted by my wife who likes to mimic me by saying that “I even love bad movies because at least they provide an escape from reality for two hours.” My background in law enforcement draws me to suspense and action movies but my overall nerd-ness loves all things technical too – so you can imagine what my favorite movie genres may be.  But since I turned 50 and my testosterone levels have plummeted to levels deeper than Raquel Welch did in the 1966 science fiction film Fantastic Voyage (look it up Jon), I’ve noticed that the increasingly sensitive side of me is starting to totally dig the chick flicks nowadays too.

I have this amazing memory of my mom taking me and my siblings to see a double-feature film at Harding Mall in South Nashville when I was 10 years old. It was Barbarella (Jane Fonda) and another movie called The Groove Tube which was Chevy Chase’s low budget film debut. I don’t know what my mom was thinking at the time but I think it must have been one of those duh moments because she only let us watch about 15 minutes of the second feature before jerking all of us up and getting us out of there. I distinctly remember the film sequence that instigated our hasty exit; a mock public service announcement for venereal disease that covertly used a real penis made-up with a face as its actor-spokesman. At ten, I didn’t fully understand all of the sexual innuendo but I knew we were watching something we weren’t supposed to be watching which is pretty damn cool if you ask me. I still laugh about that all the time because we had brought along my next door neighbor Wayne and I wonder today if he has the same memories I have.

One of my favorite movie scenes of all time is the testing scene in the beginning of the movie Men in Black. To refresh your memory, let me sum it up as follows:

Will Smith’s character (who later becomes Agent J) is in a room with other candidates so the MiB can supposedly find the proverbial best of the best candidate for the MiB job opening. The candidates are all men from either military academies or elite law enforcement and are squeezed into tiny egg-shaped chairs that barely contain their bodies. They are each given an exam booklet which is sealed in fragile paper that tears easily and a pencil. As they all scrunch up in their pods, twisting, wiggling, crossing and un-crossing legs to find comfortable positions for holding the booklet and writing at the same time, Agent J – after breaking his pencil while trying to open the envelope – stops, looks in front of him, and sees a more traditional looking table across the room.

SCREEEEEEECH! The otherwise silent and sterile room is filled with a deafening noise as Agent J drags the heavy metal table across the floor toward his egg chair. The other candidates shoot him some ugly eyes while trying their best to concentrate on the test while Agent J, oblivious to an unwritten decorum, makes himself comfortable to take the test. He repeats this type of abhorrence to all things status quo later when at the firing range.

At the firing range, these same best of the best candidates have no problem at all accurately shooting all the monsters on the targets but Agent J shoots the little girl instead. When Zed (Character played by Rip Torn) asks J “May I ask why you felt little Tiffany deserved to die?”, J responded with something like this: “When I saw little Tiffany, I’m thinking, y’know, eight-year-old white girl, middle of the ghetto, bunch of monsters, this time of the night with quantum physics books? She about to start some shit Zed.”
In that scene, Will Smith thought outside the proverbial box and instead of following what everyone else was doing. He was not afraid to literally make some noise, free himself from tradition or modesty, and do something bold that may help him achieve his goals. The situations he was placed in were structured to the point of absurdity, which is an exaggerated reflection of how complicated we tend to make life in general when we could just as effectively do things simply. In J’s view, being quiet and conforming to others’ tin-soldier mentality only hindered his ability to accomplish the goal of passing the tests. His ability to think asymmetrically turned out to be his strongest quality.
Now if you are rolling your eyes at the phrase “thinking outside the box,” I completely empathize. The phrase has become trite and jargony and has an honored place on the list of most overused clichés and axiom’s by teachers and professors, which includes but is not limited to (yes, there are others) “seeing the forest for the trees”, “learning to think like a businessman”, or “An ounce of prevention…”, you get the idea. Personally, I am more moved by axioms which make you think rather than one’s which tell a commonly known truth such as: “99 percent of lawyers give the rest a bad name”, or “Madness takes its toll – please have exact change.”, or “It was recently discovered that research causes cancer in rats.”.

But stripped down to its core, “thinking outside the box” says in four words what I believe to be the key to success in almost any venture as well as general happiness in life. To me, thinking outside the box means not blindly following conventional wisdom as well as challenging assumptions about yourself, others, and the world around you. It is a shift from conceptual frameworks and paradigms to free-flowing uninhibited thought that challenges all common perspective. It’s not to say that you shouldn’t educate yourself with all that old-school knowledge, it’s just a theory that examines and explores the things unsaid rather than the things said.

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We live in such a heavily controlled environment. The restrictions placed upon us do much to stymie our creativity and our ability to think freely. Perspective and perception are also powerful governors of our minds. We often view reality through narrow lenses sculpted, polished and honed by years of experience and education. But is my reality the same is your reality? In some cases yes. To you and I, red IS red and the number 4 IS the number 4. Those are constants nationally and worldwide. But what about the organic and obscure? Are we looking at the same things in the same way and coming up with the same conclusions? I doubt it.

If thinking beyond this proverbial box is so great then why do so many people encourage (or implore) you to color inside the lines, follow the rules, and stay inside the damn box? Well they are either inside the box themselves and not sure how to get out, are afraid to get out, or even worse — they are actually selling the box. People often disagree with me about these things, citing the importance of their specific life anomalies, and I am often prone to accept the reasons they espouse because I have the heart of a teacher not a preacher. But the reality is that most of these people are simply afraid. An example of this is that in my car, while alone, I believe I’m an accomplished singer…but I’m too afraid to demonstrate just how great I am in public. Is that a fear of performing or fear of revealing how much I suck at singing? I don’t know; ask Emily, she’s probably heard a few subtle a cappella moans and some interesting intonation going on in the car before. Fact of the matter, I will likely never sing to anyone in public – ever. It’s just not something I’m willing to let out of my box.

That “box”, for those whom are afraid, represents all that is stable and controllable and accepted. I get it. I really do. I understand that the box is rigid and sturdy and comfortable. But, it is still a stupid box and I know of no one who can truly spread their wings and fly inside a box. You can paint the box and decorate it and bedazzle the box with rhinestones or Harley Davidson stickers or whatever it is that you enjoy but at the end of your life, you will move from that one beautifully decorated box to another more simple and tasteful box. But will you have really lived? Ask Bruce Jenner what he thinks about living in boxes. For him, his life was always about making the rest of us comfortable. His box was covered in rustic leather and had spikes and beer stains and cigar burns all over it. But the inside of his box looked somewhat different I suspect.

I’m not suggesting the “box” is about gender or sexuality at all, but I’m neither saying it is not. I think the box is different for everyone and the same rules apply no matter what is in that enigmatic box. The box can contain a multitude of things that have the effect of holding you back in life or in situations. It’s just as important to recognize that your box might contain the elements of shyness as it is to recognize that thy neighbor’s box is full of Pollyanna. Both qualities can hold you back from achieving goals but for entirely opposite and unexpected reasons which are only relevant to that one person.

Look, I love plans of attack and guidelines and goals and milestones and all those things you have read about, and yes, in some areas of life there are definite paths that must be followed to reach a specific destination — i.e., you are not going to become a doctor without going to college, taking the exam, going to medical school, passing your boards, doing your residency, etc. But overall, never underestimate the value of thinking outside the box, figuring out your own way to get from point A to point B, and trusting your instincts along the way. Heck, maybe you don’t even have a point B in mind yet. No problem! Think of your current lack of a point B as already being outside the box. We can be sure that people like Michelangelo, da Vinci, Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg never knew a box existed.

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And look, while thinking outside the box can certainly be about sitting down to solve or approach specific problems, it does not have to be. In fact, I like to think of it more as a way of life. Writing down your ideas or making a vision board is never a bad idea but there is something about saying it out loud that makes an idea sound really stupid or really profound. Don’t be afraid to bounce ideas off the chests of friends or parents but don’t be afraid to execute a really strongly held idea just because that trusted person doesn’t have the same vision as you. Just be honest with yourself enough to recognize when  you’re being stubborn and when you’re being driven.

Be forewarned, however; sometimes when you operate outside the box, people look at you funny, make not-so-nice comments about you and your actions, and maybe even tell you that you are crazy for doing what you are doing because, oh, I don’t know, you are not making any money at it; or, people won’t like it; or, you’re making people uncomfortable; or, you will never get anything out of it anyway; or, no one else cares but you; or, you are too old; or, you are too young; or, you are not being serious enough to really achieve anything… so what is the point?

Well that is just the thing and the most beautiful part of living outside the box, even if it’s just from time to time. Sometimes we do not immediately know the point when we venture outside our boxes. What is the point of doing as you feel? I don’t know, perhaps it is just because it makes you feel good, and what is the point not to do it? Sometimes a small spark of interest ends up turning into a passion and perhaps then into a new life or career. Or maybe your life becomes enriched with a lifelong love of a new author, subject, art, or activity. Or maybe you develop amazing new friendships that remain long after that particular dalliance outside the box is over. Or maybe your time out of the box is special just because it was time out of the box, and there really is no point besides that. You’re going to grow as a person regardless of the reason, the activity, or the point.

And besides that, there is nothing more stifling and frustrating than feeling boxed in, and that is because we are not honoring that part of ourselves that wants, that needs so desperately to get out. Last year I was feeling like I was in a box. A box of social and political correctness. The box grew more and more confining as the accepted conditions of my career held me back from engaging and being myself. So, after suffering as much as I could stand, I decided to leap outside that box of political correctness and even beyond my own normal social boundaries and resolve my situation in the only way my life has trained me to do. Was I right to do it or wrong? That is a matter of perception for others but for me there’s no question that I did the right thing?

So what this blog is really saying, I suppose, is that thinking or living outside the box is not about what others think and it’s not about what’s good or comfortable for everyone else. Living outside the box allows you to shed the layers of social acceptance and just be the person you need to be at the moment. Pablo Picasso once said, “Every child is an artist, the problem is staying an artist when you grow up.” Creativity comes from peeling away the things which quintessentially make us adults, and instead, looking at situations and life from pure naiveté. Living and thinking outside the box is just a cliché way of expressing that same thought. When we strip away those latticed layers of conformity, maturity, shame, rationality, power, ego, reciprocity, and emotional clutter, then we can harness those crumbs of ingenuity floating around in a sub-consciousness that is much less chaotic.

I’m stepping outside my box right now. When I express my inner thoughts about life, love, parenthood, or politics, I’m pushing my own self-imposed boundaries that characterized the first 50 years of my life. While I’m nowhere close to inventing an Alfred Hitchcock character like in the movie “Vertigo” nor could I possibly do justice to a character like Russell Crowe played in “A Beautiful Mind”, what I can do is articulate the things that keep my mind busy when put into a square room and asked to administrate black & white procedures all day. One little dalliance out of the box last year and now here I am carving out the next half of my life, only differently, more honestly, and more deliberately. Maybe the lyrics from “Carry on My Wayward Son” will never resonate beyond the confines of my Jeep but the lyrics of my life and my thoughts will resonate in words on some digital cloud somewhere forever and that is enough reward for me to keep writing, teaching, entertaining or whatever it is that I’m doing these days.

When is the last time you stepped outside of your box?

Welcome To The Hotel California

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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 you can’t really be inundated with all of those marketing schemes with family-friendly euphemism’s without thinking about family. For me – I must say that I’m very lucky to have the family I do. Not only the one’s I was born with 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 sort of spoke out 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, crank 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 a sort of 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 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 a place you can never really 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 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.