Archive for the ‘The World Around Me’ Category

What Are Men Good For?

March 31, 2013

I’ll tell you this much, and of course I speak only for myself.  If you’ve got yourself a dead possum, a good man will pick up the deceased by its tail and drop him into the trash bag.  For this reason alone, I would plead the case for the masculine gender in any court in the land.

I had such good intentions.  I went out to survey the situation.  I located the proper tools for removal.   I had a very nice conversation with the huge turkey vulture whose lunch I was determined to steal away, apologizing for my intended rudeness.

There’s nothing like confronting a dead critter to remind you just where your personal limits lie.  I’m sure there are many women who are tougher about these things than I.  Come to think of it, I know several.   And I would be the last to want to fall back on old stereotypes.  I’m sure there are many men who would be at least as squeamish as I in such a situation.

But really, there’s toughness and there’s toughness, and sometimes those distinctions fall out along gender lines.

There’s been so much written lately about the ragged frontiers between the sexes, especially with the Steubenville case in the news drawing attention (regrettably, yet again) to rape and the skewed attitudes some boys apparently have toward it.

A very brief but fabulous video has apparently gone viral, the gist of which is: What do you do with a girl who’s passed out drunk?  You make her comfortable and cover her up.

There are a lot of points I could make here.  Girls, drinking yourself into a stupor is a bad idea.  Boys, wherever you got the idea that the weak or defenseless are fair game (no matter how poor their judgment), you’ve been wrongly advised.  Some of the people you’re listening to have betrayed your trust.

At a time when equality is advancing in so many ways, kids are still flailing around under the influence of a culture that perpetuates the weird idea that human beings come in only one gender – yours, whichever that may be.   All those other alien-but-attractive creatures out there belong to some “not quite really human” category, easy targets to be exploited, manipulated, or otherwise treated as if they exist solely as props in our own little play.

Here’s a newsflash: the hormones that can drive you to despicable, harmful actions, can also propel you toward humanity, even nobility.  The payoff’s better, and longer lasting.   And no messy consequences, like jail time.

So, I’m rooting for the men, and hoping the boys among us will find some better guides and guidance; that someone will take the time to personally illustrate to them that we really are all human.   And I’m aspiring to man up a little myself, the very next possum that comes along.

Relativity Tango

March 25, 2013

When I was in grad school, I stumbled onto an article about Heisenberg and his Uncertainty Principle. In case you’ve forgotten, Heisenberg was pointing out this sticky little physics problem: in trying to measure quantum particles, the presence of the observer (or more precisely his/her tools and procedures) affects the particle being observed.  In other words, it’s (so far) impossible to measure position and velocity of those little buggers because the observer’s presence will cause those qualities to be something different than they would be (we think) if the observer wasn’t there, observing.

The article, as I recall, was densely technical, but they started out with an emphatic statement as to how they were talking sub-atomic realities which had nothing to do with normal humans and no such comparisons, literal or metaphoric, should be drawn.

Now, I’m no physicist, only a mere social scientist, but I understood what they meant, which I might (very) loosely characterize as, “Now don’t all you regular folk get all excited and think that the whole quantum dance stops what it’s doing just because you showed up.  Stupid non-physicist humans, always thinking you’re so special…”

At first I was properly chastised, but on further thought, I decided those Heisenberg proponents were possibly a bit shortsighted themselves.   It certainly seems commonsensical, from a human point of view, that the presence of an observer affects those things being observed, whether those “things” are, so to speak, animal, vegetable or mineral.   And even though we’re talking here about sub-atomic particles, it’s also true, to the best of my understanding, anyway, that those particles aren’t dancing in some galaxy far, far away, but right here, inside me, inside you, inside everything around us.

Like all spectrums (spectra?), this one has two extremes: those huffy Heisenberg proponents on one end saying, “it’s sub-atomic particles, people.  Don’t you dare try to misappropriate our pure physics for some mushy, touchy-feely conclusions.”  On the other end, we have people like the author of “The Secret”, representing exactly that “human application”, the theory that we all have some vast power to command the forces of the universe with our very attention.  Such advocates claim that “it” is all within our grasp and if you’re not rolling in the dough (or the hay?) as much as you’d would like, you just haven’t believed hard enough.  So just practice those affirmations more, and oh, by the way, buy my book!

Is there any bridge between these polarities, some way of resolving or integrating these two extremes: the grumpy pure scientists who say the sub-atomic world can’t be said to affect us regular mortals, and the blindly chipper new-agers, with their equally emphatic mind-over-matter mantras?

Here’s my modest theory as to what might link those apparently non-overlapping circles, the funky quantum realms and our much more recalcitrant, uncooperative day-to-day world; one word –  discipline.

Sorry.  Not what you wanted to hear?

Yeah.  Discipline.  Commitment to the quest.  The development of a serious skill set that starts with actually opening the eyes rather than squinting them closed and constantly muttering, “I believe, I believe, I believe…”

Not to say we haven’t all been in that white-knuckled hanging-on-for-dear-life state from time to time.  Bless your heart if that’s where you are right now.

I’m just saying there really IS more ‘out there’ than meets the eye (you may take that cliché literally), which we all kind of know, because even the most unbelieving among us have had those moments you might brand as ‘numinous’, which means, according to Webster, “supernatural or mysterious”.

Which in turn really just means ‘not understandable, given our current observational and measurement capabilities’.   Think about it.  Magic has a limited shelf life.  Take my iPad.  A century ago it would have been totally magic.  Quite likely you would have been burned at the stake, just for checking your Twitter account.

Come to think of it, would that be so wrong?

But I digress.

These days Magic doesn’t so much go stale on the shelf, as it gets re-branded and re-packaged as Science Fiction.  Think of Captain Kirk in the ‘60’s with his super-cool flip-top communicator.

So pre-iPhone.  Thus Magic morphs into Science Fiction, which itself eventually becomes The New Reality, and the cycle starts all over again, in some other direction.

Back to my point.  Practitioners of any serious endeavor – yoga or meditation or tennis or cupcake baking – will tell you the real secret: the more you do anything, the better you get at it.

And the other piece of the puzzle is the willingness to get better; the –  how shall I put this? – humility to actually study and hold yourself up to some relatively universal standards that have stood the test of time.  Grumpy scientists take note: yes, that sounds a lot like the “scientific method”.

If there is a way for humans to tune in more closely to that quantum boogaloo, we have to start by admitting just how vast and numinous it really is.  There’s no aisle for this at Walgreens.

There are those out there who feel like wisdom really ought to be free, that it ought to fall in one’s lap, or maybe they’ll find someone who’ll just give it to them, if they ask.

A wise man knows what he knows – and how he came to know it.  A wise man also knows there’s always much, much more to know; that there’s always another horizon to move toward.

Only an idiot believes you really ought be able to see with your eyes closed, just because it’s just too darned much work to open them.

Laws of physics, man.  Laws of karma.  There may just be a point in the universe where everything simply is, all of it, all at the same time, some “place” we can – someday – get to, where there is no place, no time.  Quantum mechanics gives us a nice little hint of that ultimately mind-blowing “mystery”.

But from where we are now, shakily poised in our own weird era of impending mayhem and miracles, it’s still a step-by-step journey.  All you metaphysical couch potatoes out there: yep, the cosmic music actually is playing, but what’s it for, if you’re not ready to dance?


As always, I invite you to visit my website and my YouTube channel.



Life. Death. Life.

January 29, 2011

(Originally published December 1, 2010, in my MySpace blog)

Dear Friends,

I haven’t been in touch for a few weeks.  There’s enough blather in the worlds these days.  I decline to add empty words, devoid of real passion.   I find myself thus challenged to be honest with you.

Someone I know died on Sunday.  Not “immediate” family, but still close.  He was younger than I by a couple of years, and left two kids just entering their teens, and a very frail and elderly mother who has to say goodbye to her youngest son.

How do we carry grief?  This kind of sorrow sits in our bodies like lead in the belly.  It spreads through our brain, our thoughts, in every direction.  We are our own flood-ravaged landscape, no part of our psyche escapes the touch of that tide, even the parts that remained above the flood line are enveloped in the wafting scent of loss.

Beyond this landscape, we can, occasionally, become aware of the great wheel turning, the world spinning, life and death unending, like the proverbial snake eating its own tail, no beginning, no end.  When we walk a path with our eyes glued to the ground, terrified of the inevitable stumbling blocks in our way, all we can see is the dirt that takes us all.

But we can also stop, right now.  Don’t take another step.  Be grounded, look up to where the sun is shining, and see its procession across the sky.  The sun’s progress is our own.  Day by day we rise, work our way across an expanse of sky, and retire at night, to some place below the horizon, unseen.  Life – every little bit of it – marches along the same path; we have our time in the sun, and then we retire into that good night, until it is time to begin again, fresh, full of new promise.  This is Life, and we are all part of the parade, during the sunlit and the obscure times.  The journey does not end.

So I sit with the sadness, share memories with other loved ones, and let this season be what it must be.   Be well, my friends.

Face time, NOT Facebook!

November 8, 2010

This weekend there was a lengthy article in the New York Times about an academic study that was recently done.  It turns out that many college students, even while living on campus, choose to “attend” their courses via the internet.

I’ve been saying for about 20 years now, to anyone who would listen that what we used to call “distance education” has some inherent flaws.  The thing is, it’s been astounding all along to me, the extent to which almost everyone has drunk the KoolAid about the total, perfect wonderfulness of computerized learning.

Stop the Madness!

Stop it, I say!

So, the study in question actually got around to comparing students who live on campus, who either show up physically in class, versus those who also attend class, but do so by sitting in their dorm rooms, watching on a screen.

Everyone was so very, very sure that there would be no difference in the performance of either group.  After all, the computer is beyond questioning, right?  All that convenience, that connectivity?


Turns out that people who actually show up in the physical classroom get better grades in the course.

I’m not even going to apologize for saying I told you so.

Now, I’m not talking here about those of you who are using the computer to get an education because you live far from a college campus, or because you are a working adult who can only fit in an education at odd hours.  To those people, I say, more power to you.  Computer-based education is clearly a decent alternative for those who have such constraints in their lives, and those who have the maturity and self-discipline to stick with it.

The reality is most 18-22 year olds haven’t yet arrived at this point.   Bless your hearts.  Note to 18-22 year olds here:  perpetual youth has become so worshiped in our society, I like to remind you of some of the qualities of maturity that are worth wanting to shoot for.

But I remember, years ago, when this sort of computer teaching & learning was just coming into vogue, one of the math professors on my campus dove in and started a calculus class on-line.

The drop-out rate was… 85%.

My point here is this, my young friends.  There is nothing like face to face interaction.  If I am teaching a course, I stand before you, challenged in every moment by your questions, your attention, your eyes, your body language.  If I am experienced, I know immediately, without anything other than non-verbal feedback, whether I’ve made my point, or just confused you.

The real human contact was always the whole thrill of teaching to me (and I was a professor of instructional technology, so I do know both sides of this.)  Sure there are benefits to computer based learning, for both students and teachers, and I know professors who are excellent in using technology – not to mention the fact that a girlfriend of mine was able to accompany me on an extended vacation once because she could continue teaching her class no matter what country she was in!

But oh, my young friends, the glories of human contact are still the best thing going!  Even in a formal setting, between teacher and student, incredible things can happen.  There is an amazing energy that happens in a setting that is created for, and driven by, curiosity and the thirst for knowledge.

And you don’t have to tell me that the classroom isn’t always like that, that sometimes, maybe too often, the classroom is presided over by bored or reluctant or uninspiring profs, and filled with students who are likewise, all dozing or texting or otherwise zoning out.

But that just shows the reality of how the group creates energy.

So here’s my little manifesto for today: go forth into the world! Put your pants on and plant yourself in that seminar seat, and give your prof a shot at opening new doors.  If he or she isn’t quite lighting things up enough, YOU be the spark.  Bring your full force of curiosity, wonder, enthusiasm, into the room.  You could mutter and complain and slouch out silently, but you can also stir the pot with a positive love of learning.  It can’t help but be infectious, in ways that will never, ever happen while you “participate” from your bedroom, all alone in the e-void.

Really, can you picture the great Socrates telling his young students, “no biggie, guys, you can just phone it in”?

The View from 2020: ’10 Oil Spill started it all

July 9, 2010

Although nobody saw it at the time, the Gulf of Mexico oil spill of 2010 was, in retrospect, the tipping point.  The grand scale of the universe was finally tilted the other way, so that what had been up began to go down.

The change was imperceptible at first (it often is), but surprisingly swift once the momentum took hold.  After a while, it was just one damn thing after another.

Back in ’10, people began by bemoaning the lack of fresh seafood and unspoiled beaches for their summer vacations.  It did not immediately occur to these people that, with the economy already on its own sly slide, they did not have the disposable income to spend on either of those things anyway.

As the Gulf was essentially rendered lifeless, swarms of unemployed fishermen, oil rig workers and service sector employees migrated northward in desperation.  The term “illegal immigrant” started being used in the Midwest to describe native Louisianans.

At first it was only true illegal aliens who were willing to stay on the coast and take the dirty jobs, like shoveling out the blobs of oil that coated Bourbon Street in New Orleans after Hurricane Gordita, so nicknamed for its unprecedented size, and tendency to devour everything in its path.

However, having escaped the worst of the hurricane season, the Mexican economy continued its slight but real improvements.  The major drug lords of Mexico, never ones to let a business opportunity slide, began to expand their reach.  Cannily reading the restlessness of the Mexican people, and bored themselves with the drug violence, they struck an accord between the various cartels and quite easily put up a vapid, attractive candidate for president in 2012, winning handily.  With the on-going infusion of drug money from the U.S. (as the U.S. economy sunk, more and more people sought the solace of drug-induced escape) the cartels had found in politics a new and more amusing way of exercising power, and by 2018, Mexico was starting to claim its place in the pantheon of first world countries, while the U.S., having had its debts called in by China (who needed the money for their own expansion), saw its financial standing go through a shocking slide.

The U.S. economy received a big boost when Mexico bought the entirety of the border fence, to prevent the upsurge in baby boomers tryin to move to Mexico for cheap prescriptions.  It was the biggest real estate deal since the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, and don’t think there weren’t people in Washington regretting that move, either.

The second (or was it third?) wave of the recession hit in 2015, when half the Republican senators and about 20% of the Democrats, were found to have taken huge stock options in several of the banks that were “too big to fail”.  The resulting scandal not only took down those politicians, but the banking industry itself.   Emergency legislation was rammed through and what had been branch banks on practically every corner of every city were turned overnight into independent “home town banks”, with government bailout money, for the only time in history, being shared more or less fairly among them all.  Some thrived, some failed, but there was a mini-boom in the printing of new business cards and stationery.

Meantime, practically all of the “greatest generation” passed on, due to a combination of old age and cut-backs in Medicare, apparently taking their “can-do/make do” spirit and know-how with them.

Young people in their 20’s, who had come of age with an ingrained and total faith in the internet, and their own pre-ordained fame and fortune, at first continued to seek answers online.  Unfortunately, with the shaky economy, all the major internet search engines were forced to start on-line usage metering in order to keep operational, since they were no longer able to make money by advertising.  No one was buying anything.  The 20-somethings were befuddled until the most forward-looking of their generation began to strike out, putting on coats and ties (a curiously unisex ’70’s fashion throw-back) and hitting the bricks to job-hunt face-to-face.  Others, of course, followed.  Many were stunned to encounter humans of other age brackets, who, however inconceivably, seemed to have something to contribute that might be of use.

The period was hard on everyone, as the new reality was still sinking in.  We had lived in a culture where constant new technological advances were eagerly anticipated, and people regarded every new gadget as a life necessity.  Therefore, everyone was bewildered, unnerved and depressed when the flow of these new products slowed to a halt.  Third world countries began to horde the valuable minerals and rare natural resources required for production, so that, over time, used cell phones, MP3 players, laptops and other items, became of greater value, and an unanticipated business grew in technological repairs.

Like Cuba, after the 1959 revolution shut the country down, and old cars were kept going for decades, so now were iPhones and iPods kept alive by “shade-tree techies”, so named because, with the periodic power outages and the rising summer temperatures, more and more people took to moving tables and chairs outside to do their work.

One upside of this was that the obesity problem began to dissipate.  Abruptly un-tethered from their devices (power outages), and from their cars (gas shortages), the hypnotic addictions of the first part of the 21st century were broken, and at least the strong survived.

Of course, this survival of the “fittest” had already begun, in terms of technology, as so many people had been killed crossing streets or driving while fixated on their “smart” phones (not so smart after all).  Another side effect of this shift was that, denied access to constant communication, more and more people came to a shared conclusion, which was that they really didn’t like or care about most of those other people anyway.  A mini-boom in body-language expertise rose to meet the demands of newly-discovered non-virtual communication.

And since life had slowed down so much, there was even less trivia about their lives worth sharing.  Who wants to read a tweet that says, “still sitting under the tree…”?

On the other hand, actually sitting under a tree didn’t turn out to be so bad.
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The Most Interesting Man in the World

June 27, 2010

I love those beer commercials that feature the world’s most interesting man, maybe because I’m of an age to go for that weathered face, those wise and sexy eyes.  But what if there was an actual contest?  What would the criteria be for picking a winner?  And could I please be in on the judging?

Lets start the proceedings right here.  What does it take to be The Most Interesting Man in the World?

I’m going to fall back, for a moment, on a bigger authority than myself:  Joseph Campbell, who was a Pretty Interesting Man himself.  For those of you who never heard of this guy, he spent his life studying myths and their meanings for our everyday lives.  If you’re looking for the meaning of life, you could do worse than reading any of this guy’s many books.  For a taste of Campbell, this is a superficial but lovely sample, with YoYo Ma for musical accompaniment.


One of the major themes Campbell explored was the Hero’s Journey.  The whole concept of the hero has been pretty well dumbed-down these days, but even in the schlockiest blockbusters, there’s a faint reflection of the real journey Joseph Campbell wrote and talked about.

The Hero is found in cultures all around the world, and the tales throughout history are similar.  Here’s Campbell’s definition:  (I pulled this off Wikipedia)   A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man. According to Campbell, this mythical journey captures the essence of the great religious figures across history and cultures and traditions:  like Buddha, Jesus, Moses.

But here’s the thing.  You can go slay all the dragons you want.  But Life isn’t here to just provide you with an endless supply of exciting dragons (and no, we’re not talking computer generated, either!).  The Hero actually learns from all this, becomes older and wiser,  battle-scarred and toughened, in the way that soldiers who have seen actual war are often the ones who are most wary of starting new ones.  Experience.  Wisdom.  Transformation.   This journey isn’t just a fun thrill-fest, either, no video game shoot-em-up.  It’s perilous and disorienting and scary.  It’s having everything you thought you knew about your life ripped away.

You find me a man (okay, girlfriends, I’m on a gender-specific topic today – bear with me) who goes out to face real dragons and finds his own heart and strength and soul in the process, and you’ve got one Interesting Man on your hands.

And so, I’m nominating for today’s Most Interesting Man in the World Award, an often bellicose, difficult, brilliant guy who is up to his eyeballs in dragons right now, and apparently finding his heart, too:

Sean Penn.

Yes, Sean Penn, actor, political liberal, often abrasive and self-appointed rescuer of the world.

Sean Penn is in Haiti.  Still.  He went there shortly after the earthquake, scrounging doctors and medical supplies to take with him.

And he stayed.  And he’s staying.  Indefinitely.

According to a story in TIME this week, Sean got the cosmic 2×4 to the head:  divorce, facing 50 this year, everything he knew, all the old meaning in life,  just falling away.  Whether you know it or not, times like those can sometimes herald the onset of your very own hero’s journey.  It’s just that it’s not a journey most of us would choose voluntarily.  Fate has to give us a little jump kick.  Or a big one.

Fate seems to have jump-started Sean Penn.  He and the team he’s put together are now running a refugee encampment, of up to 50,000 people.  It’s hard and heartbreaking and challenging and frustrating.  And whatever adjectives I can spit out here are insipid compared to the real experience, I’m sure.

It seems like an unlikely turn of events, but sometimes you come across someone who gets kicked out of the rut (or the comfort zone) they’ve been in, and they rise to meet the challenge.  There’s no glory or glamour in such work.  But sometimes Fate offers us a way to find our heart and ourselves, in serving others, in leaving behind the easy and familiar life we’ve lived.

Now I don’t know Sean Penn.  I can’t see into his heart, can’t know if he’s in the midst of a major epiphany, or just a good old fashioned mid-life crisis;  don’t know whether he’s moving toward higher consciousness or just falling off yet another cliff.

But right now, poised in this moment, he just may be the Most Interesting Man in the World.

Signs of Redemption on LOST (3/9/10)

March 10, 2010

Signs of redemption on LOST this week…

I admit it.  I’m a LOST fan.  After a year of holding myself aloof, I finally succumbed, and now I’m thoroughly engrossed as we gallop toward the finale.

The moment that grabbed me last night was one simple line, spoken to Ben near the end:  “I’ll have you”. A line almost thrown away, that summed up what every human in the world wants to hear.

I’ll have you.  That moment of being seen, in all your shabby, tattered, despicable, abysmal failure and despair… and accepted anyway.  It’s as good as when you were a kid, waiting to be chosen in volleyball, every other misfit and geek taken ahead of you.  Then, finally, as you’re wishing you could sink into the floorboards of the gym, someone says, finally, I’ll have you.

Last week the kicker moment was that look of Sayid’s, calm, tranquil, oddly peaceful, as he, too, found his “side”.  The need to belong is strong in all humans, and that basic need plays out everyday.  Unfortunately in this world, too often, the most definable, clear “side”, the one with a hint of glamour, drama, blood-stirring possibility, decisive black and white answers, is the downward side.  That’s the side that says:  Join us! No ambiguity here, by golly, no questions!  You can tear things down!  You can fight against something!

Things that can be fought against tend to be clear.  The field of things that can be expanded, built up, nurtured, developed – these areas are fuzzy precisely because they are boundless.

But isn’t that the ultimate thrill?  Not the certain endgame of doom, but the limitless possibilities of positive expansion?

We all teeter on that knife-edge all the time.  The tension is always there.  Will we fall over on the side of positive, or negative?  Slip just a little either direction, or fall so far that even getting back to the edge seems beyond our reach?

As the characters fall off, to one side or another, during the final days of LOST, the questions – and answers – the writers pose really cut to the heart of life itself,  the biggest unsolved mystery of all.  And, as Art imitates Life, we stay tuned for the next episode.

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