Responsibility

I now have exactly 30 days until the beginning of my highway expedition out of Florida forever. I can hardly contain my excitement at times, but I am not free of my responsibilities yet. What started as a conversation of how to kill the monotony at work quickly became an overwhelming stretch of problem-solving that will probably continue until the end of my tenure. This, of course, is taking place while I must fight my desire to simply sit back and let the days slip by while I serve out the rest of my days. A fellow coworker even suggested that I simply leave now. What are they going to do? Fire me?

As appealing as it sounds simply to go home at Thanksgiving and never come back, I can’t and I won’t because I have an obligation. An analogy to soldiers on the frontline isn’t particularly appropriate here, but this feeling stems from the same psychological phenomenon. We are willing to work hardest for those who are closest to us. I may have no more affinity for my employer or even some of my superiors, but I recognize that I am leaving a couple of my friends to their own devices soon. I feel a responsibility to them to leave them with the best-running office I can.

On a similar note, it appears I have taken on a bit of a new responsibility: I have followers! I’m still in the single digits, but it’s infinitely more than I ever expected to have. i.e. zero. I recognize that I skipped post on Sunday (I skipped out on a lot of things that day), and I got a concerned email from my grandmother that there were no new stories for the day! First of all, I had no idea she was reading, and secondly, I had no idea anyone found these ramblings particularly interesting! Maybe I am jaded by my constant daydreaming of the glorified global adventures on my horizon, but I figured these were a bit mundane. However, I seem to have a followership, and I will uphold my responsibility.

With that statement of commitment, I make another 30-day challenge. This will take me right up to the day I leave on my real adventure, so I will need to use my imagination for now. This next challenge will be one contiguous fictional story. Perhaps I will continue Walter, but I’m not sure I like how the characters have been developing. I have been impressed with the writing style, but Michael hasn’t proven to be the juxtaposition to Walter I wanted to paint. I’ll continue it if I can rewrite some of the dialogue to build his character more fully. If not, I will start from scratch on something that will reach just over 15,000 words if I stick with my commitment. I will brainstorm tomorrow on a plot.

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Homelessness

homeless

This small public park in Mobile, Alabama is beautiful. I always find myself here when in the city. It is called Cathedral Park for the immense cathedral that towers over the west end. On the north side is my favorite breakfast place around here, A Spot of Tea. The park is usually quiet, but this morning the city hosted a farmers market complete with live music. The market was busy despite the unusually cold weather. Now into the early afternoon, the vendors have gone home, public workers have removed the tents, and the usual mix of the homeless has reclaimed the park.

Although I love the area (and the public wifi), I always find myself in the awkward position of deciding how to respond to a request for food or money. The question always surprises me but I’m never prepared to answer because I don’t know where I stand morally on the issue.

In a capitalist economy, there will necessarily be economic stratification. The extreme low end of which will often comprise those who are so impoverished that they cannot afford to provide themselves with housing. This situation causes problems obviously for the ones who are living on the streets, but also for the other residents of the area who are presented with the conditions of these homeless citizens. There are two questions we must answer in response to these problems: 1) How will we as a society through government action address the issue of homelessness, and 2) how will each individual address the problems that they face?

The first question will take a long and detailed policy statement to explain, so I’ll save that for another day.

The second question, however, seems to be far more complex. Let’s start from the initial contact with the situation. Here I sit on a public park bench reading my book in peace. A young man in ill-fitting sweatpants and a hoodie topped with a extra large football jersey kindly addresses me: “Excuse me, sir.” I look up obligingly, and he continues, “Would a nice fellow like you have it in you to help me get something to eat?”

Let’s freeze it there. How did we get to this point? Why would this young man come asking me – an ordinary, average citizen – for food and or money he will presumably use to buy food? Next time I will ask to get a real story, but here is what I imagine (working backwards): last night, this man spent the night huddled up under whatever shelter he could find, trying to stay warm in the freezing air or possibly in homeless shelter that could only provide him a cot or a place on the floor. Every night has been the same for the past several months. He has bounced between different labor jobs, but he can’t get hired for anything stable. His first night on the street was a brutal change. He was evicted from the small home he had been renting with a couple friends because he had lost the last steady job he had and could not make the payments.

I’m stuck. I don’t know where this story begins. Can anyone share what they know?

Commitment Pt. II

The house is nearly empty. I sit against a wall next to the TV, which is now on the floor, because I have sold all of my furniture. I can see just about all that remains from where I sit, a few books, a bookcase that isn’t quite straight, and a few random objects I’m still trying to sell off for some spare cash. I’m in jeans and a winter coat. Florida is experiencing record lows right now, and I refuse to turn on the heat. My unemployment is only about 6 weeks away, and I’m starting to feel a bit financially insecure.

But the day is here: November 14th. Today marks 30 days of writing. I had to bend the rules on a couple days (a double post and a musical post), but I have reached the end with a new habit. Like brushing my teeth, going to bed without putting something into this blog would just feel unnatural now. This past month has shown me how simple it is to change a part of my life. Before this, I hardly put forth any of my writing. Now thousands of words (just over 15,000 from the past month) are available for the world to see. I know many are less than masterpieces, some possibly not even readable, but they exist.

After reading a wonderful film review by the Tropics of Meta, I just watched the 2004 film Sideways with Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church, and, as recommended, I enjoyed it with a glass of cheap merlot. The film is about wine, and divorce, and sex, and friendship, and wild antics. But mostly, the film is about failure. It is about the failure of good intentions, the failure of relationships, and the failure of careers. Just about everything in this film seems to go wrong for our main characters. We really get a picture of two guys whom we can easily call “losers.” Habits of infidelity, alcoholism, and dependence crop up throughout the film. However, the last few moments give the viewer a sense of hope that the right inspiration can lead to a drastic change for the better. I won’t spoil it for anyone who hasn’t seen the film, but I thought the writers captured the hope that comes with new beginnings.

This is an new beginning for me. Many of the things I have collected over the past several years are gone. I am cutting ties with many with whom I had developed relationships over the past year. I am leaving behind a career for which I had prepared myself for as long as I can remember.

I’m not sure how this post is about commitment. Maybe I will continue to post daily, maybe I won’t. Maybe I’ll find a new 30 day challenge to make a habit out of. I like the idea of taking a picture every day. That sounds fun. Maybe I’ll try to meet someone new every day. That will probably work best when I’m out traveling the world. Maybe I’ll try to meet someone new and take a picture with them. I like that idea. We’ll see what happens.

So there it is. 30 days.

And we’ll end with that sort of “oh” feeling.

Sleep

I’ll sleep when I’m dead. Sleep is for the weak. Sleep is overrated. These are the kinds of things I used to tell myself. Sleep was always the enemy, the silent killer of success and great achievements. It represented that chunk of our lives during which nothing was being accomplished. A minimal amount of sleep would get me through the next day so I could get back to work and on to conquering life.

I have since come to learn that this is not really the case. Although we still understand little about why we need to sleep, scientists have come to an overwhelming consensus that a sufficient amount of truly restful sleep is essential to a productive and happy life. Not all of us require the same amount, and we tend to need less as we get older, but those who need less than about 6 hours are a very rare bunch indeed. Research has shown that those who operate on less than this 6-9 hours of sleep each night, are working with a serious handicap. Some studies have shown that losing sleep has a similar effect of alcohol intoxication, especially when operating motor vehicle [NIH]. Others have shown significant decrease in cognitive and motor abilities [Pilcher & Huffcutt]. Some studies have even shown that a cumulative “sleep debt” can lower a person’s IQ [Durmer & Dinges]. On the positive side, we have seen that REM sleep plays a crucial role in converting our short term memories to long term memories [Grohol]. Even outside the psychological realm, we have learned that our bodies produce growth hormones necessary for muscle repair during certain cycles of sleep [Steiger]. So, not only does sleep make us smarter, but it makes us stronger. In order to perform at our peak during our waking hours, we need to use our sleep hours properly.

With all of this data stacked against the late night busy bee, why do we persist? We know we can’t win, yet we keep trying to fight our nature. The problem is that we often do not see these effects. They happen slowly and they happen when we’re not paying attention (i.e. when we’re unconscious). It is easy to attribute our failures and shortcomings to not working hard enough. We can see the results of our work immediately. When we push hard, we are often rewarded with achieving our goal. However, when we fall short, our simple logic tells us that we need to work harder. However, if we passed the peak of our ability, we are only making matters worse. To throw in an aviation reference, we are “on the backside of the power curve.”

But what to do about it? How do we know what our optimal sleep time is? How do we get everything done in today’s helter skelter world if two-thirds of my day is spent unconscious?

I’m not sure scientists have figured out the answers to those questions yet, but I’ll share what I do know:

We sleep in approximately 90-minute cycles. The third stage of these is the final non-REM stage of sleep, the period when our brains are doing most of the repairing and real resting. The final stage is REM sleep, when we have dreams. The old adage “waking up on the wrong side of the bed” is the pre-scientific way of saying you woke up in one of these two stages. People who are woken during this time have been shown to be in a significantly more negative mood and take longer to fully wake.

What does this mean? Set your alarm for approximately 90*x minutes from the time you’re going to sleep, where x represents the number of cycles you want to get. For me, 4 cycles is usually good, but 5 sets me up for a really good day. Tonight, though, I will have to settle for 3. However, I know that will be better than 3.5.

With that, good night.

Anger

Where does anger come from? What things make you angry? Is it the stress of dealing other people? Does the lack of control in your life constantly frustrate you? Does technology make you want to make an Office Space-esque printer smashing video?

What if none of these things were really the cause of your anger?

I met with a woman today who just didn’t seem to have anything going right. She was constantly late, the printer never printed what she wanted, there were too many people asking questions, and no one had the documents they needed. I have not seen this level of stress in quite some time. Most people would say that it is understandable. She is the only person doing her job on the entire base, and she is responsible for helping hundreds of flight students, staff, and civilians employees every day. It’s a miracle she even comes back for more the next day!

However, the frustration I saw in her today made me think that it was all so unnecessary. Have you ever met someone for whom these daily inconveniences were just another situation to adapt to and overcome? I have one man in mind in particular. He was  a classmate from college and probably one of the nicest people I have ever met. He was even mentioned in a good samaritan story on the local news while he was on exchange with me at our sister college! I have seen situations face him that would make others want to pull their hair out. He smiled his goofy smile and asked if their was anything he could do to help the situation.

People often ascribe this attitude to laziness and carelessness. This man is currently completing Navy flight training, probably one of the most stressful and demanding challenges a young adult might face. There is a difference be “care-free” and “careless.” I have tried to emulate this man’s care-free attitude toward life. In most situations, I succeed, but I have my lows.

In thinking about how to accomplish this feat, I have come to the realization that nothing actually makes us angry. It is merely our perception of these things that makes us angry. Let’s take an example: I am driving (I can already feel my blood pressure rising). I planned on getting home at 5:00pm, but this goon doing 35 in 45 on one of the ubiquitous two-lane “highways” of northwest Florida is going to make me late. I could have been home in time to get dinner started and go for a run before the sun goes down, but no, I have to wait for this jerk to pull his head out of his ass.

I think I made you a little frustrated reading that. Let’s try it again:

I am sitting in my car on the ride home, listening to an audiobook of George R. R. Martin’s A Feast for Crows. I left work a little later than expected, but it’s really only a few minutes, and at least I’m not at work anymore. My attention is split between driving and getting lost in the story of Lady Brienne of Tarth on her search for Sansa Stark. I’m going slower than usual. I’ll probably have to adjust my schedule when I get home. It might be a dark run today, but at least it will be cool. I have a good amount of work to get done, but I always seem to manage. I’m really looking forward to the dinner I’m planning though.

How about that? Same exact situation, completely opposite experience. Our perception of our world is under our control, and it affects our emotions. With a simple change of reference, you can erase anger and frustration from your life. It’s worked pretty well for me.

Productivity

It sounded like a race track or a busy highway. I had to turn down the volume in my earbuds because it was starting to hurt. All the while, I was trying to cordially introduce myself to this businesswoman who lives on the other side of the world. It didn’t take long to realize that what I heard was traffic. In fact, it was a busy street in the heart of Tokyo. I was providing a Skype tutoring to a woman who wants to improve her English in order to help expand business across Asia. It is more common for her to deal with Korean or Chinese trade partners in English than learning either of those languages. Despite her busy schedule, she makes time to speak with native English speakers to improve her own English. Today, she used her commute during lunch to speak with me, so she was actually walking during the entire 25 minute conversation.

It is no secret that the Japanese have taken the crown recently for the hardest-working people in the world. They have redefined the idea of productivity, and today I got a glimpse of how they make happen.

The one thing that struck me about her productivity though is that it was not a solitary action. Granted, she alone took the initiative to seek out online tutoring and find a time to practice her language skills, but none of the practice was done alone. I have mentioned in a number of posts the value of simply putting yourself in the right situation to demand your own growth. This is exactly what this woman did. She committed herself to a block of time in which she had no choice but to practice and learn more about a skill that will benefit her personally and professionally. I can only assume that much of the rest of her day will consist of similar cooperative activities.

As I wrote yesterday, I have felt that I have been less than productive in my remaining time in Florida. One of the things I have greatly struggled with is working cooperatively with others. Part of that has stemmed from my frugality (which I contend is justifiable), but much of it has been out of fear. Even for this lesson, I was horridly anxious since the moment I got the notice that I would be having my first lesson tonight. When will I get over this useless propensity for anxiety? It may have served a bit to motivate me to prepare a little more, but in the end, the lesson I went with took me about 12 minutes to come up with. I even had a glass of wine while listening to some Rachmaninov to try to quell my nerves before I made the call.

In the end, the lesson went just fine. I probably could have done better, but for my first real lesson as a first-time English teacher, I will accept this as a good starting point. I was successful in teaching someone something new, and I have begun a cooperative endeavor that will help me to become a better teacher and possibly turn into a lucrative practice!

Waiting

In just over three months, I will get on an airplane that will take me to the other side of the world. I will immerse myself in a culture I have never seen, learn a language I have only just begun to speak, and support myself through a profession I have never attempted. When I think about these things, fear takes over. I want to collapse on the ground and curl up and wait for it to pass. Sometimes I actually do. Yet, with every new challenge, I have had the same type of immobilizing fear, but when the time comes, I perform my role like I always have.

The curious thing, though, is that my first reaction to this anxiety is to just wait passively for the moment to come, as if that will somehow make it better. Why would I do this? Yes, I cannot wait to start this exciting new life abroad. Yes, passing the time with mindless entertainment makes the days tick by faster. But no, neither of these things justify this action.

The greatest challenge over the past few months has been keeping myself motivated to stay productive throughout the remainder of my time stateside. I feel as though I’ve done a pretty good job. I have kept up with my physical training, I am making small but noticeable gains in learning 한국어, and I think I have successfully made this daily writing a habit. I only have one more assignment to complete before I finish my TEFL certification, I am continuing to tutor a student in person, and I will have my first online tutoring session through SkimaTalk tomorrow. I have successfully lived on under half of my paycheck each month to pay down my debts, but I have so far avoided becoming completely antisocial. I have even added a host of things to my daily checklist pertaining to my personal and professional development.

Despite all of these things, I still feel as though I am spending this waiting period unproductively. It may be the idyllic vision of my future life that makes this life seem so mundane. I have reached a point at which I can find enjoyment in just about any task. My current job is less than stimulating, but I find ways to keep a positive attitude throughout the few days I work each weak. Despite this, there exists an underlying feeling of wastefulness, of stagnation, and of longing. I am becoming wary of this feeling because I fear that what I perceive to be the solution will be no solution at all. I have spent many a post here complaining about American politics and my desire to leave this country behind, but I know that a simple change of location will not change my attitude. I have studied enough positive psychology to know that the happiest people find joy within themselves, not in their environments. I will cast off to foreign shores regardless of how I pass these next few months, but there are many ways to pass the time in between. I will not depend on my change of situation to remove this anxiety, but I will hope that I will take a little more satisfaction from whatever I’m doing if it’s somewhere else.

Shorelines

This may be cheating, but I’m putting today’s post in musical form. I already wrote 500 words for a class, so this is just my creative outlet for the evening. This is actually a cover of a song by Brett and Kyle from Hedway (a disassembled alt rock band out of Fort Collins, CO), and I finally got around to learning it. I loved the melody, but I always thought it felt incomplete, so I added a second verse and a bridge. I need to redo it, but it’s good enough for tonight.

Recording really puts the difficulty of being a professional musician in perspective.

Logic

When we present our ideas to an audience, we must do it in such a way that they will not only understand our ideas, but they will seriously consider their implications. In many situations, we aim to have them agree with our ideas. In order to do this, we must lead our reader down a logical path to a clear conclusion. Each step along the way should reinforce the readers beliefs and nudge them in the direction of our own. If we have done our job well, our reader should be able to predict our conclusion before we make it, and they should read our concluding statements with the feeling of, “Ah, yes. I see how he came to that conclusion.”

I have seen a ubiquitous dearth of this ability in recent political writing and broadcast recently. Instead of leading the reader/listener to an understanding, it simply reinforces their current beliefs regardless of any logical conclusion of the argument. I have seen this from both sides of the political spectrum, but I tend to be much more sensitive of it when it comes from the right.

I received from my paternal grandparents a politically-charged chain email pertaining to Islam. Because of our widely different political views, I read the passage with a careful eye for the point at which the argument fell off its logical rails into a mess of neoconservative slander. I expected to see a clear break at which the author left logic behind to reiterate buzzwords and key phrases that resonate well with conservative westerners. With only a few paragraphs remaining, I was beginning to doubt that moment would come. I actually felt hope that my grandparents and I might have all agreed on the same political statement.

However, the gap in the tracks came like slap in the face as the author took the idea in a tangential direction, completely losing the foundation he had laid. I will provide the sound part of the text here:

‘Very few people were true Nazis,’ he said, ‘but many enjoyed the return of German pride, and many more were too busy to care I was one of those who just thought the Nazis were a bunch of fools. So, the majority just sat back and let it all happen. Then, before we knew it, they owned us, and we had lost control, and the end of the world had come.’

‘My family lost everything. I ended up in a concentration camp and the Allies destroyed my factories.’

‘We are told again and again by ‘experts’ and ‘talking heads’ that Islam is a religion of peace and that the vast majority of Muslims just want to live in peace. Although this unqualified assertion may be true, it is entirely irrelevant. It is meaningless fluff meant to make us feel better, and meant to somehow diminish the spectre of fanatics rampaging across the globe in the name of Islam.’

‘The fact is that the fanatics rule Islam at this moment in history. It is the fanatics who march. It is the fanatics who wage any one of 50 shooting wars worldwide. It is the fanatics who systematically slaughter Christian or tribal groups throughout Africa and are gradually taking over the entire continent in an Islamic wave. It is the fanatics who bomb, behead, murder, or honour-kill. It is the fanatics who take over mosque after mosque It is the fanatics who zealously spread the stoning and hanging of rape victims and homosexuals. It is the fanatics who teach their young to kill and to become suicide bombers.’

‘The hard, quantifiable fact is that the peaceful majority, the ‘silent majority,’ is cowed and  extraneous. Communist Russia was comprised of Russians who just wanted to live in peace, yet the Russian Communists were responsible for the murder of about 20 million people. The peaceful majority were irrelevant.

China’s huge population was peaceful as well, but Chinese Communists managed to kill a staggering 70 million people.’

‘The average Japanese individual prior to World War II was not a warmongering sadist. Yet, Japan murdered and slaughtered its way across South East Asia in an orgy of killing that included the systematic murder of 12 million Chinese civilians; most killed by sword, shovel, and bayonet. And who can forget Rwanda, which collapsed into butchery?  Could it not be said that the majority of Rwandans were ‘peace loving’?

‘History lessons are often incredibly simple and blunt, yet for all our powers of reason, we often miss the most basic and uncomplicated of points: peace-loving Muslims have been made irrelevant by their silence. Peace-loving Muslims will become our enemy if they don’t speak up, because like my friend from Germany , they will awaken one day and find that the fanatics own them, and the end of their world will  have begun.’

‘Peace-loving Germans, Japanese, Chinese, Russians, Rwandans, Serbs, Afghans, Iraqis, Palestinians, Somalis, Nigerians, Algerians, and many others have died because the peaceful majority did not speak up until it was too late.’

The author has laid a beautiful groundwork for relating the current situation in the Middle East to the rise of the National Socialists in the 1930s (and the horrific deeds of other extremist ideologues). Where do you expect this story to go? I foresaw a discussion on the need for helping the silent Muslims take back their lives or presenting a way to inspire the Muslim community to rise up and cast off their captors. What I got was much different. Let’s see what’s next:

‘Now Islamic prayers have been introduced in Toronto and other public  schools in Ontario, and, yes, in Ottawa, too, while the Lord’s Prayer was removed (due to being so offensive?). The Islamic way may be peaceful for the time being in Canada until the  fanatics move in.’

‘In Australia , and indeed in many countries around the world, many of the most commonly consumed food items have the halal emblem on them. Just look at the back of some of the most popular chocolate bars, and at other food items in your local supermarket. Food on aircraft have the halal emblem just to appease the privileged minority who are now rapidly expanding within the nation’s shores.’

‘In the U.K, the Muslim communities refuse to integrate and there are now dozens of “no-go” zones within major cities across the country that the police force dare not  intrude upon Sharia law prevails there, because the Muslim community in those areas refuse to acknowledge British law.’

‘As for us who watch it all unfold, we must pay attention to the only group that counts – the fanatics who threaten our way of life.’

Regardless of the veracity of these claims (which I doubt), they simply do not fit in the story. We left off with a presentation of the idea that Muslims have stayed silent for too long. If we were going to go into supporting facts, I would have expected to see a recap of the rise of the Islamic State or the development of other extremist groups (al-Shabaab, Boko Haram, etc.). Instead we got claims about how Islam is taking over the lives of Western Communities? I must have missed a transition here, but I was unaware that the Western world of the 21st century had even entered the picture.

My fears had been confirmed. The piece had paraded itself as a logical argument for just long enough for the audience to buy in, but gave the reader the ol’ bait ‘n’ switch to promote conservative “Christian” values. The author clearly linked radical Islam to Nazism, but he failed to link that spread to cultures outside of the Muslim world. He didn’t even attempt to link the presence of Islamic prayer in schools, symbols on food, or isolated Sharia communities to the threat of spreading radical Islam. It was merely implied because he knew his readership would already agree.

I am continually disappointed with the inability of those with strong opinions to clearly express those opinions. I enjoy entertaining other people’s ideas. I often will not accept them, but I promise to give them a fair shake. However, if I can’t see the progression of your thought process, I can’t take your conclusions seriously. I certainly will not be the first one to endorse Islam, but this piece fell flat on its face in explaining why I should fear it.

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