Wednesday, September 28, 2016

News in Brief

Hello Readers,

My attention is split this week. I will try my best to get something posted this week. I've started a third short story and am spending most of my time putting together a good first draft. It took six months to complete the last one, and that's far too long. Coming up with a unique angle and perspective is crucial to write compelling essays and op/eds. Everyone's attention this week is focused on the Presidential race and the endless media dissection of the first debate.

This is to be expected. I can't compete with the major media voices, pundits, and columnists. Their voices Trump mine. (Did you get the pun?) Those of us in the minor leagues are fighting for oxygen. For the next six weeks, I know that anything I write will fall on deaf ears, mostly unread. Once that used to frustrate me, now I have accepted it.

Please be patient with me. Backing up a bit, I am going to start taking some creative writing workshops in the next few weeks. I am told they are enormously instructive, but also enormously expensive. Creative writing is the new challenge. I've become a strong columnist and blogger, which satisfies and sustains me, but I want to push myself further.

Best to all of you.    

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Quote of the Week

“Every time you mention some guy that's strictly a bastard— very mean, or very conceited and all— and when you mention it to the girl, she'll tell you he has an inferiority complex. Maybe he has, but that still doesn't keep him from being a bastard, in my opinion.”-Holden Caufield, from The Catcher in the Rye.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Saturday Video

Roxanne, you don't have to put on the red light
Those days are over
you don't have to sell your body to the night

Roxanne, you don't have to wear that dress tonight
Walk the streets for money
you don't care if it's wrong or if it's right

Roxanne You don't have to put on the red light
Roxanne You don't have to put on the red light

Roxanne (put on the red light)
Roxanne (put on the red light)
Roxanne (put on the red light)
Roxanne (put on the red light)
Roxanne (put on the red light) Oh

I loved you since I knew ya
I wouldn't talk down to ya
I have to tell you just how I feel
I won't share you with another boy

I know my mind is made up
so put away your make-up
I told you once
I won't tell you again
it's a bad way

Roxanne you don't have to put on the red light
Roxanne you don't have to put on the red light
Roxanne (you don't have to put on the red light)

Roxanne (put on the red light)
Roxanne (put on the red light)
Roxanne (put on the red light)
Roxanne (put on the red light)

Thursday, September 22, 2016

In Real Life: Internet Relationships Then and Now

Today we have broadband internet, lightning fast connection speeds, and smart phones. The pace of technological innovation seems to have no limit. But let's not forget our recent past, the historical record that connects each of us today as surely as it once did then. To wit, in the mid-Nineties, my parents invested in a particularly profitable new company known as America Online, or AOL as most of us call it today. For a nominal monthly rate, we were given the ability to tie up phone lines, annoying family and friends for hours, for the privilege to use the World Wide Web. The technology was Byzantine compared to today's standards, but in those days, it was cutting edge and very much in stride with the times.

Twenty years ago, some called this new technology the information superhighway or cyberspace. The preferred nomenclature for it now is the Internet, and that appears to be sufficient for the duration. In my childhood of the Eighties, samples of Tide laundry detergent arrived in the mail several times a year. In the Nineties, AOL CD-ROMs arrived in suburban mailboxes with the same kind of frequency, but with the persistence of biting insects. I remember making a collage out of AOL discs for fun, as there was never any shortage of them. The decision to flood individual consumers with countless offers to sign up and see what the Internet was for themselves was too good a pitch for many Americans to pass up.

My father thought of the fuss as a frivolous time-waster at first. He had a businessman's sense and logic, and he couldn't immediately smell money in it. Give it time, I said. Now even he has to admit that he might well have been wrong. It is now difficult trying to remember a time before the Internet even existed. I imagine workers on movie sets have to be very careful to preserve continuity, should the film on which they are working be set even twenty or twenty-five years ago. Erasing memory of the future to suspend the audience's disbelief of the past is a chore.  

AOL arrived at the perfect time for me, being that I was a withdrawn, anxious, melancholic adolescent. This kind of extreme awkwardness is typical for the age, but I wasn't the run of the mill lonely teenage broncin' buck. Bipolar disorder first cropped up as depression only, as I didn't experience true mania until I was in my early twenties. If I had been able to keep my emotional problems in check, my high school experience could have been fantastic.

I see now that many classmates tried to interact and engage with me, but turned away eventually, assuming I had my reasons for keeping my distance. Romances could have fallen into my lap, friendships by the score could have been mine, an adolescent world could have been my oyster, but I was too inhibited and ill to take the initiative.

Everything changed when I came home from school and logged in to the computer. AOL was a haven for kids like me. We were a confused and conflicted lot, seeking the companionship we couldn't find elsewhere. Confronting a sympathetic computer screen alone, rather than a hundred judgmental eyes, my reserve and fear melted away. All I needed to do now was be myself, on my own terms.

I met people my own age in chat rooms, those of both sexes, but I had a particular desire to pursue girls. Many were flirtatious, looking for the opposite sex as surely as I was searching for them. Without having to worry about social propriety, the multitude of ways that our society shames and guilts and browbeats women of every age, they approached me with immediate romantic interest. If only it could be this easy in person, I thought to myself.

My first experiences with sexuality started online. I'd always known that I was a sexual being, ever since puberty, but I didn't recognize how common my thoughts and desires really were until I went online. My own private investigations showed me the clinical side of things, but not the warm-blooded, passionate aspect. That takes the presence of another person, even if they are only keystrokes on a computer monitor. That takes feedback and an exchange of ideas.

Not only did I start to understand how men and women pursued each other, it was in this forum that I first expressed the bisexuality that I have somewhat uneasily embraced in my adult life. I appreciated that I wasn't judged by my online peers, and that I was frequently validated for being who I was. I can say with great relief that I only can recall one major incident where I received homophobic slurs. Every generation has its problems, but my own is remarkably proficient at being almost uniformly accepting of those who identify as LGBT.

Of course, I'd be lying if I said that we were all virginal and chaste with each other. Parents might have been upset if they recognized how frequently we engaged in cybersex, which didn't need very much suggestion or prompting. The pattern went a little like this: if one of us really connected with someone else, phone numbers were exchanged. Predictably, this led to phone sex, always conducted under strictest secrecy, often late at night when Mom and Dad were presumably asleep. Remember, this was before the age of cell phones, when land lines had to suffice, a time before we knew at least fifty percent of the time the identity of the person calling us before we even said hello.

If two people were half in love with each other, drunk on infatuation, plans might even be drawn up to visit each other in person. Sometimes meeting face to face happened, often it did not. In the best of circumstances, hands-on parents supervised these visits, which could be very underwhelming. Distance challenges every relationship, and many of my generation learned that lesson very early on.

If we got too overwhelmed, we could always comfort ourselves that what we were experiencing wasn't happening in real life. It was real when we said it was real, and unreal when we said it was unreal. This belief system was supreme deception, self-denial, and longing, wrapped into one. Still, we found ourselves returning to the well when we craved company and companionship. We might swear off of the practice, but we always came back. When the real world disappointed, we found others who could fill the great void.

When parents were not kept in the loop, we sometimes took off on great adventures of our own. Today, I consider it a minor miracle that I somehow made it back from one such event in one piece. On two separate occasions, I made reckless multi-hour trip by car to meet up with internet relationship partners. In those days, I was headstrong, convinced that if I couldn't make connections in my hometown, that surely I was going to take what I could get elsewhere. I knew what my soul longed for, and I did anything I could to not have to be alone in my own thoughts, my own alienation. I cast off for salvation, and sometimes found it, at least for a little while.

A high school friend of mine and I took a one-day trip up to Illinois to meet with a girl to whom I'd been speaking routinely over several months. We were even allowed to go with her to class, one memorable day during her junior year in high school. My friend and I were on a Spring Break a week earlier than her own, which is why we were able to make the journey. A former boyfriend showed that he was very jealous of me, almost immediately upon my arrival, but did not confront me directly. Unfortunately, the friendship ended when an alibi crumbled. Her parents recognized with time that we hadn't actually met in person first, as they had been led to believe for a long time.

About this same time, I flew out to northern California to meet a woman my age I met online, only to find her utterly terrified upon my arrival. We spent five uneasy days together, parting ways at the airport with a great sense of relief. Dreams and reality can be two very different things.

Nevertheless, I formed a variety of friendships online. Next month I will turn thirty-six, and I'm pleased to say that ten or so people from those days have kept up with me over the years. They made special effort to add me to their Facebook accounts and they, like past lovers who have now become warm friends, genuinely want to know that I'm doing well. When someone makes special effort to keep you in his or her orbit, it's plain to see how much you still mean to them. I'm very lucky to have made these friendships, even if the romance of an earlier day has faded away to a gentle fondness.

Those dial-up modem times are gone, likely forever. I don't know what teenagers do these days, how they meet each other and keep away the ennui of their years. The situation I've described didn't last very long, no more than five years. But those of us who are, like me, on the cusp of Generation X and Millennial likely know what I mean. Was it real? Did it really happen? The world may never know.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Student Debt, the New and Shameful Rite of Passage

American rites of passage have been consistent over the last two or three generations. The signs of fully blossomed and confirmed adulthood rest on the achievement of several successive steps. These cultural landmarks include lots of firsts: purchase of a first car, first marriage, first child, and first mortgage. But now, a new, unnecessary, very dangerous mountain to scale is in place. It is the most recent rite of passage and many are stuck in quicksand. Due to the calamity that may soon blow up in our face, it is an issue that must be addressed immediately. Its name is student loans, a perilously irresponsible system that gives thousands of dollars in borrowed money to finance soaring tuition and related expenses.

Last week I received grateful confirmation through the mail that my student debt requirements had been fully met. Though it was welcome news, I felt as though a great crushing weight had been lifted from my shoulders. It was a feeling both weary and grateful, but surely nothing worth celebrating. I suppose one could call it a joy of a sort, but it was mainly a relief, the way you feel when a crushing headache finally fades away. No longer were these financial requirements hanging over my head. I should be happier, but I am not.

I was reminded of the Morrisey song, “The More You Ignore Me, The Closer I Get”.

When you sleep/I will creep into your thoughts/like a bad debt/ that you can’t pay.

It took me approximately twelve years of consistent monthly payments to rid myself of $18,000 in debt. $9,000, half of the original loan, was not interest-bearing. No harm there. But it was the second half of the loan that was the real killer. By the time I’d caught up to the principle, interest had added another $4,000. In totality, I owed $22,000, and I was saddled with a ton of outstanding debt before I ever entered the work force, before I even graduated or interviewed for my first job out of school.

My story is nowhere near the worst example of this kind of predatory practice. I live in Washington, DC, a city full of elite private schools. Georgetown, George Washington, and American University charge yearly tuition at rates three and four times higher than my public college university education. Students without scholarships or benevolent parents have no choice but to borrow money in excess. In addition to being a bad idea just on principle, eighteen or nineteen-year old young adults barely out of high school should never be given extravagant loans in the first place. I don’t mean to sound ageist or condescending, but in my defense, I am not very far removed from those times myself.

I had no clue whatsoever about what it was like to save for a rainy day. In those days, I lived an unstructured existence, swimming with the currents, living for the minute, and expanding my social life. Such is its very nature for many white, middle class kids like me. This is how we have defined what we collectively call “college”.

But nowhere in that narrative is an emphasis on money management. I myself was too enthralled with life on my own out of high school and away from my parents to think about socking money away or being generally parsimonious. If I had it to go over again, I wouldn’t make the same mistakes. But then again, if I could redo college entirely, the first thing I’d do is focus more on academics, and turn a few lazy B’s into A’s.

I was young and made mistakes. Having said that, let’s collectively make a change for the better. Colleges, universities, junior colleges, and community colleges offer advisers to help students figure out how to schedule classes and to intercede when they don’t make the grade. Why can’t the same be done with managing student finances, especially when they take the form of such huge, sprawling loans? Or, to go one better, why don’t high school seniors take preparatory classwork to show them how to manage their money before they even set a single foot on campus?

How did I waste money, you may ask? Lots of ways. Instead of demanding my way and insisting on complete independence, I could have saved money by living in a dorm. Instead I moved in alone to an off-campus apartment where the rent and utilities were twice as much. I partied hard on weekends, spending money on little things that add up, like brunch and restaurant meals, plus more than a few alcoholic beverages that I probably shouldn’t have consumed in rapid succession to each other.

I drove everywhere I went. Along the way, I had a couple fender benders and speeding tickets. Even more expense. This caused my car insurance rates to go through the roof. One auto insurance company even canceled me altogether, forcing me to buy insurance with a second company who charged a much higher rate. These are mistakes of youth, inexperience, and immaturity. My most inexcusable expense was the purchase of an pricey guitar on layaway, an impulse buy that I couldn’t really afford, even on the installment plan. I spent money like water, not understanding the very concept of debt to follow, and was generous to a fault with everyone.

The system of four-year colleges and universities must be radically restructured. Middle management and administration has grown like a cancerous tumor inside higher education. At the same time, they’ve gamed the system in their favor. Colleges and universities are aware that students cannot default on the loans they casually disperse and, as a result, they are unafraid of the consequences or any outside retribution. Even if students who have taken out loans declare bankruptcy, no student’s debts will ever be wiped clean. If they find themselves federally disabled, their loans will be garnished from whatever minuscule monthly payments the government provides.

The only way a person can be entirely rid of student debt for once and forever, aside from paying off all financial obligations, is not publicized much. Too much money is involved to spread the news around freely. This option requires a genuine physical or mental disability, a severe limitation few would wish upon themselves. In that circumstance, a doctor must fill out an applicable form for a patient, stating the nature of total and permanent disability.

If approved, the patient must live at no more than twice the poverty line for three years consecutively. Then and only then will financial obligations be no longer applicable, the loans fully discharged. But who would want to live a pauper’s existence in order to be debt-free? Should a person want to return to school and take on more debt, the fine print states clearly that a full discharge of debt will be a one-time-only affair. For the moment, these qualifications and parameters are the only way to escape the bad choices and unfortunate instances of our past. Who among us would like to hit the restart button on a portion of their life?

This example and others illustrated here demonstrate how much student loans and university systems are out of control. If significant changes are not made and not made quickly, higher ed will effectively kill the goose that laid the golden eggs. Universities and college will have to prune down substantial dead-weight, redundant bureaus, needless departments, and nonsensical complications. But really, we shouldn’t be callous and heartless. Our energies shouldn’t exclusively center on a busted system and the bottom line only. We are preparing our country and the world for future leadership, and if our young adults don’t thrive, we’re the ones who ought to bear the blame.

Quote of the Week

Eat your breakfast, share your lunch with a friend and give your dinner to your enemy.- Russian Proverb


Saturday, September 17, 2016

Saturday Videos

Hey, fellas, have you heard the news?
Yeah, the women in this town have been misused,
Yeah, I seen it all in my dreams last night,
Girls leaving this town 'cause you don't treat 'em right.

Oh, take a train (take a train), fly by plane (fly by plane),
Yeah, gettin' tired (gettin' tired), sick and tired (sick and tired).

All you fellas better change your ways,
Yeah, leaving this town in a matter of days.
Girls are good, you better treat 'em true,
I seen fellas running around with someone new.

Gettin' tired (gettin' tired), sick and tired (sick and tired),
Yeah, leavin' here (leavin' here), leavin' here (leavin' here),
I said leavin' here, yeah yeah yeah, don't want to leave all here,
Be a while, oh yeah, oh yeah, oh yeah, oh yeah.

The love of a women is a wonderful thing (oh yeah),
Yeah, the way you treat 'em is a crying shame (oh yeah),
I tell you, fella, yeah, it won't be long (oh yeah),
Yeah, before these women they all have gone (oh yeah).

Yeah, gettin' tired (gettin' tired), sick and tired (sick and tired),
Yeah, take a train (take a train), fly by plane (fly by plane),
Yeah, gonna leavin' here, yeah leavin' here,
Yeah, leavin' here, ya gonna leave all here now,
Baby baby baby, please don't leave here.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Fleeing the Cross

Then all his disciples deserted him and ran away.- Mark 14:50

Early Quakers, just as early Christians before them, paid dearly for their devotion to a cause. It would have been easy to assimilate and conform, to run to the right, to speak out of both sides of their collective mouth, to take a centrist stance. But they did not. In so doing, the Religious Society of the Friends of Truth, as they initially called themselves, adopted positions that stood contrary to the customs of the day. At best, the first Quakers were seen as eccentric in dress and in speech. Their egalitarian doctrine and reshuffling of the existing social order made many uncomfortable. Some of their detractors were in people in positions of authority. Friends knew that significant stints in jail were likely and pressed forward in spite of it.

By refusing to swear oaths to the Church of England or to join its ranks, Quakers locked themselves out of many vocations. Quakers were pushed into business because those occupations were the only avenues open for self-advancement. Gratefully, that world is not our own. Most religious people nowadays recognize that while they might prefer it otherwise, they are nevertheless living in a secular world that does not demand uniformity in thought and observance. How a co-worker or close associate prefers to worship or not to worship is not nearly as important as it once was.

People who identify as religious are aware of the temptation always present and the possibility of sinful conduct, but most have not taken strict steps to isolate themselves. Few groups have gone as far as the Amish, adopting a rigid separatist approach to guard against worldly corruption. Regardless of what some believe and advance as the truth, even fewer have sought to attack and destroy Western society, following some stated goal to win martyrdom in the service of a grand cause.

In matters of style, Thomas Jefferson once wrote, swim with the current. In matters of principle, he concluded, stand like a rock. The religious skeptic Jefferson was no zealot, but he fought for free expression of faith on behalf of groups like Friends, especially those faith groups that had been aggressively persecuted in earlier times. The nation/states at war in those days were often similarly fearful and suspicious of religious movements that sought to demand membership and discard contrary opinion. The Spanish Inquisition was still fresh in the mind of many Enlightenment thinkers. Shortly after its American counterpart, the French Revolution would toss out religion completely during its radical phase.

John F. Kennedy's 1960 speech about religion referenced Jefferson.

For while this year it may be a Catholic against whom the finger of suspicion is pointed, in other years it has been, and may someday be again, a Jew— or a Quaker or a Unitarian or a Baptist. It was Virginia's harassment of Baptist preachers, for example, that helped lead to Jefferson's statute of religious freedom. Today I may be the victim, but tomorrow it may be you — until the whole fabric of our harmonious society is ripped at a time of great national peril.

I began this post with a tragic and well-known tale, a story of a charismatic religious leader and teacher abandoned by his closest associates. Jesus's death and crucifixion marked the beginning of the persecution of Christians, starting first with its central figure. This persecution continued for centuries afterwards. A new Jewish sect fought for survival, defined itself in different ways, established itself as the official church of the Roman Empire, divided itself between Catholic and Protestant, and continued to splinter from there. The factionalism has not yet stopped. A Quaker audience will no doubt see the humor in that statement, divided as it still remains between quibbling factions.

Fleeing the cross in this context means abandoning one's inward convictions for the sake of safety and personal survival. Prior to a public execution of a radical rabbi, Jesus' disciples and followers fled in terror from Golgotha Hill. For Quakers, fleeing the cross meant discarding the very essence of faith, belief, and practice for personal comfort and conflict. For a time, Quaker worship was against the law, and those who dared to hold secret, so-named conventicles risked fines and imprisonment. And yet, even with the consequences, they continued.

In our past history, where do we see examples of people choosing not to flee the cross? The obvious example occurred, on a large scale, during the Civil Rights Movement. Freedom riders, non-violent protesters, and courageous religious leaders are but three examples of the form this revolution took. They are evidence of the impact the movement made on everyone who lived in those times. The kind of extended commitment in evidence here is rare, but it is absolutely essential if we are to press forward for progress. Every generation seems to produce at least the possibility of one of these paradigm shifts.

Americans today can flee the cross when mean-spirited attacks on immigrants become convenient political fodder and soapbox sloganeering. Americans can refuse to flee the cross when they will not allow every Muslim to be lumped in with a few fanatical terrorists spreading a gospel of hate. American as a country can refuse to flee the cross when it simply will not be satisfied with the political status quo. America must refuse to cut off its nose to spite its face in electing a political neophyte whose shtick appeals to the worst parts of the human experience. But neither should it tacitly accept a career politician who, even among her own supporters, does not always radiate trust and transparency.

The revolutionary spirit that created this nation, sustained it over the centuries, and drove innovation forward has become transformed into a mushy, mealy imitation of its original distillation. Rather than harnessing the great potential and ingenuity of the American people, we have turned bitterness directly inward. What remains is the most cynical Presidential election cycle ever, which will soon conclude, sparing us from additional whiplash and psychological pain.

"To what can I compare the people of this generation?" Jesus asked. "What are they like?"
"They are like children playing a game in the public square. They complain to their friends. 'We played wedding songs, and you didn't dance, so we played funeral songs, and you didn't weep.'"

Election years increasingly take on this character. Ours is merely the worst on record. As a result, we show ourselves to be mere babes doing our best imitation of adults, with every ounce of absurdity and absolutely none of that crucial element, introspection. It is not surprising that millions of Americans are willing to overlook a significant number of character flaws in a major party candidate, instead of drafting a more suitable replacement.

As I know I have said before, we play active roles in our own destruction. To what can I compare the people of this generation? They are group of weary cynics intent on fleeing the cross at the first sign of trouble. They emote no trust. They profess little to no faith in who they might receive as President and what he or she might do while in office.

We have before us few avenues to pursue, no crusades left to fight, no battles worth the effort, no recently cleared paths opening up. What would be the point of having convictions if we didn't intend to live them? Commitment to a cause is the best cure I have ever encountered. The best way to find yourself, as Gandhi put it, is to lose your self in the service of others. And maybe that's the best cross imaginable, the one we don't abandon.