Caught Between Should and Am: Fixing My Writing Problem

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Running and light

Ever since I finished my dissertation, almost 5 years ago, I have been caught in a weird head space where I haven’t figured out my identity as an academic, a professional, and even as a person. I’ve had a few starts on blogging that usually stops after a couple of months. I get distracted by something else and totally lose interest. Why?

At first I thought it had to do with marathon training. Doing this is so time consuming and tiring that I would usually post about starting the process and then do nothing until the result. The fiction that I convinced myself was true is that I can’t write and train at the same time. If I am going to perform at my job, maintain my relationships, and be mentally healthy, I can either run, or write. I have told myself this even though I knew it was total bullshit. Great writers all have parallel obsessive habits from drinking and smoking to running. Telling myself lies to avoid doing something is a deep-seated character flaw. I’ve learned much about how this mechanism works, but this time it had me caught. The real question is not why I stopped writing, but what I was avoiding.

It was last night when I was catching up on Supergirl that a little sisterly advice hit me that freshly out of the closet Alex Danvers gave her sister Kara (Supergirl):

Look… sometimes, you know, in our life, when one part is really confusing, we will pour way more attention than necessary into another.

I started running for very good reasons that still hold. It was to improve mental and physical health. It is still the single best tool I have in my toolkit to maintain mental and physical health and stability and I can’t ever see myself stopping. However, I have poured a lot into it. Challenges are really effective to have in front of you to stay motivated. But at what point do you become obsessed with it to the point that you are avoiding something else? I went from at most running one marathon a year, and last year that was enough. This year I am not only running two marathons, but running 2017 miles which is about 700 more than the previous year, and I want to train to get a Boston Qualifying time which would shave about 5% off of my finishing time this past May. Have I crossed the tipping point where running has gone from healthy activity to obsession I am using to avoid something? I might be there.

I have struggled with my identity as an academic and as a professional since finishing my dissertation in 2013. For a very long time, my religious identity as a person of faith was my central obsession academically, emotionally, and socially. At the time I gave that up, a story I have not yet fully told, running filled the void. I traded one preoccupation with another. But my life as an academic sat hollow. If faith is no longer what I want to be doing, what should I be doing?

I have this theory that confidence in what we do is not something we are born with, but something we learn over time. As we become more competent in something we become more confident in our abilities and that alone builds our desire and drive to do it more. So, if I could just find out what I should be doing and become more competent in it, then I would resolve my confusion.

Well, it didn’t work. The experiment failed because my fundamentals beliefs were wrong. I believed I needed to become competent in what I believed others wanted to read. I focused on what others might find helpful like focusing on life hacks and self-help that I think works. How about something in my professional field that others find interesting? What about lessons I have learned in life that others might find useful? After a few tries, I got bored and stopped. None of that was very fulfilling. That material is all out there written by people who are singularly passionate about it. I am not one of those people. The entire theory of becoming competent got derailed by the one thing that all of these ideas has in common: doing what I think I should do based on what I believe others want. It’s like all that advice from successful writers went right through my head – do what inspires you, not what you think will inspire others.

If I should’t do what I believe I should do, what is it that inspires me or consistently interests me? That’s the real question. My answer has been that no one is interested in any of the stuff that interests me, so who cares? Another lie. Keep running. Today I’d rather run on truth than the bullshit I tell myself. Walking the dog last night, after that little moment from a cheesy TV show that struck me, I found an answer. The question was how these things were related. And they absolutely are.

My academic interests have always been first, in how to teach the whole human subject based on an understanding that it is the relationship between teacher and student that is the most revolutionary and fundamental aspect of human learning and progress. The second is related to it. My dissertation focused on secularization and higher education which is tied to patterns of belief in American society, the policies that both respond to and shape those patterns, and how historians tell that story. Both of these are looking at the dynamic relationship between faith, belief, and knowledge in society and in the student.

My professional interests are about how we can help college and university teachers be better teachers. What habits, programs, and behaviors can we improve as teachers to help students learn more effectively? Right now this is about designing a program of teacher formation through critical reflection to find areas of improvement and to experiment with different online classroom behaviors to help students learn more effectively.

My personal interests have to do with the connection between physical and mental health and supporting pragmatic behaviors that help improve health with scientific evidence. I have many friends who have been in long term recovery from addiction who have thrown themselves into physical activity as an integral part of how they manage their sobriety. I know of runners and other athletes who have traded their obsession for drugs, sex, and body dysmorphia for clean living, even without the aid of prescription drugs.

How are these tied together? Anyone can look at these three areas and find things in common: human progress, the nature of belief, evidence-based living, etc. But those aren’t what hit me as interesting. Instead, it’s this idea:

I am fundamentally interested in how groups of people form relationships that support and cultivate healthy patterns of belief, knowing, and action, and in relationships and ideas that do exactly the opposite.

So… that’s what really interests me and the three ways I look at it. With that, it’s time to stop thinking about what I should write for an imagined group of others out there, and just do what I find interesting. Someone out there has to be interested in this stuff too, right?

Protesting Trump’s Back Door to White Power

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Racist Matthew Heimbach shoves a black woman.

A recent video shows what we now know are members of a white supremacist “white nationalist” group called the Traditionalist Workers Party physically shoving a young African American protester. They are not simply shoving her out of the arena, they are seen giving her extra shots even as others in the mob audience join in. That should evoke our collective ire and disgust. When any man lays his hands on a woman, we should take notice and interrogate what is happening. When it is white men laying hands on a black woman, we need to look closer and demand answers. When it is white supremacists shoving a young black woman, we should demand justice without question. There is no space in a civil society to accept this kind of behavior or to offer any platform in which such beliefs are legitimate.

But this is not how all of the many incidents of people being escorted out of Trump rallies have worked. While some cases looked like this, it is not actually what was happening. The moment Donald Trump got a Secret Service detail as a candidate, his role within our population changed. Where he goes becomes federally restricted ground and that means different rules apply.

Some of the footage of protestors being escorted out is not about about race, but about what happens on “federal restricted buildings or grounds.” According to the H.R. 347, disrupting an event like this can carry fines and/or jail time of up to 10 years. This was a rewrite of a 1971 trespass law in order to give Secret Service a little more freedom to determine what constitutes a trespass. There are a few criteria for those who can be penalized under the law. For example, it is one who:

knowingly, and with intent to impede or disrupt the orderly conduct of Government business or official functions, engages in disorderly or disruptive conduct in, or within such proximity to, any restricted building or grounds when, or so that, such conduct, in fact, impedes or disrupts the orderly conduct of Government business or official functions;

Certainly, we can argue how effective this law is and how well these trespass laws are applied. This includes people who were allowed to protest Barack Obama, the President of the United States, while brandishing weapons. Nonetheless, it means that what we see in a 15 second clip of someone being escorted out of a Trump event by an official, especially the Secret Service, should be measured by what authorities are doing when they are escorting people out of the room. People have been arrested for protesting in these very conditions for decades. Not everyone has an unfettered right to any protected speech at a Trump event, or a Clinton event, or a Sanders event. This is the same when the President is in a designated area or other officials who are federally protected.

I am far less concerned about what Trump has to say on the stage. He is a showman telling people what he believes they want to hear. He says these things to get media coverage, to stay fresh in the news cycle he has mastered over the years, and to convert that spin into votes. His business acumen is up for debate, but his marketing talent is second to none. He is a master of that craft.

My concern is that he does not care who he is fueling with his rhetoric. At this point his failure to immediately disavow any legitimacy towards the support of KKK or David Duke and the significant presence and support he has gathered from the underbelly of American society in its white supremacist and neo-fascist organizations is disturbing. He knows that those votes matter to his campaign. He speaks to angry white men who fear that the minorities and the people of color will steal their property and their power for which there is a significant overlap with white supremacist organizations. Their sole purpose is to reclaim absolute power for the white race and reestablish white power to rule the USA as it did effectively up until 1964. Trump’s protectionism and isolationism support those goals like no other candidate does and as no other candidate has for a long time. When Trump declares “Make America Great Again” they are hearing “Make America White Again.” To give him power gives them power and that is the most dangerous open door to terrorism that might face us if he is in the Oval Office.

Know When to Offend

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White people freak out over Beyonce’s blackness.

Where two or more people are gathered, social rules are there in the midst of them. Those rules are both expressed and communicated by what our bodies and mouths say to one another. As adults we float in and out of social situations that require us to perform different social rules and rituals if we are going to be active participants in the group. When those rules are breached, we risk our good standing with the rest of the people in the group. Offending people is a great way to put our social standing in jeopardy.

Most of the functions of the brain have to do with survival. Language is a tool the brain uses in order to exert desires and will in the world. There are reasons for every word that comes out of our mouths even if we are unsure what those reasons are. In short, language is power. It is one of the engines that makes a society work or crumble. Seen through this lens language that offends can either be viewed as something to take back power someone else has or to exert the power that we already possess.

Some offensive words are reused and repackage in order to reclaim them. Let’s look at the very complex uses of the word “bitch.” “Bitch” is perfectly acceptable when used at the Westminster Kennel Club to refer to a female dog that is ready to breed. It’s also tongue-in-cheek among many gay men to talk about other men almost as a term of endearment or if someone is being cheeky or sarcastic. Even this context has its controversy. But “bitch” is also an offensive term to denigrate women as “whining” or “mean” as in the term “resting bitch face.” Women are supposed to smile and be nice to everyone or they are on par with an angry or needy female dog being prepped for breeding. Not very nice is it?

We have to do better to look at the reasons for the words we use that are unambiguously offensive in certain contexts. When we use these words we are following a set of social rules whether we are aware of them or not. We are also manipulating our power in the world. Getting someone to laugh is an exchange of power. If I use “bitch” in a way that is funny, I am manipulating someone’s emotional responses inside of a social framework by breaking conventions and rules. After people criticized Beyonce’s Superbowl 50 routine as “anti-white” because it broke a set of social rules, Saturday Night Live produced a brilliant parody of those complaints like a court jester mocking the king on behalf of the lower classes of society. Comedy is often used to take back the power that people use in order to protect their standing at the top of a society. Kendrick Lamar’s performance at the Grammy Awards is an example of doing this not to be funny, but specifically to get people talking about race in a way that visually displayed how a once powerful people were enslaved and then imprisoned.

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Whether or not we should be offensive is based on social context, social role, and the reasons behind the use of these words. Most of us aren’t in the place to speak negatively or criticize anyone else. What they are doing is none of our business. If we insist on our right to use words like “retarded,” “bitch,” “lame,” “tranny,” or even “fat” we must first address the reasons for why these words are so important to retain in our vocabularies. To what end are we achieving if we call a gay person a “fag?” The truth is that we are either observing or breaking the rules of the social groups we have chosen to be part of in order to maintain our status within the group itself. We use these words to influence the power in the group and this is a function of our own survival mechanisms. When words that are offensive to others are part of the social fabric of our group, they are used to exert power in a group survival effort. But is it really worth it?

In a free society, we are legally protected to offend people up to the point where the liberty of their conscience is at risk. But just because it is legal does not mean it’s useful or morally upstanding. Socrates is famous for saying “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Before we defend our use of language that knowingly offends someone else or an entire group of people, we would do well to examine the life we are living. To what end is the language we are using influencing the world in which we are choosing to live? And is that the world we really want?

Who Cares What Cam Said

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I mean really, who cares.

He makes an absurd amount of money playing a game for the entertainment of millions and the media freaked out because he didn’t say something like, “I want to congratulate the Broncos for being awesome, I still love you, here look at this cute puppy I brought in the room with me.” Instead he got a dozen stupid questions lobbed at him and left before the media was done lobbing stupid questions at him when Chris Harris started explaining how they made Cam’s night miserable by making him throw the ball in places where there was no place to throw it.

Cam Newton is an emotional guy who admitted that they got outplayed. We all saw that happen. It really was that simple. I don’t think any offense was going to do much against the Broncos defense in SuperBowl 50, do you? Carolina could do nothing all night. No running, passing, whatever.

Could Cam Newton use a PR person to help him craft a public persona? Sure. A lot of public people do that but mainly to keep media writers and corporate endorsements all happy and making money off of their brand. Cam Newton wears who he is on his sleeve and takes no shame in that. I don’t think he cares how you feel about him which is actually an attribute we try to teach our kids, isn’t it? Sure he was mopey as any of us would be. But he did not disrespect his opponent or his teammates. He disrespected no one – not even the media whores looking for something to add column inches in their careers as losing locker room reporters.

Losing sucks. It hurts. These guys work their lives off to get to this game and to get totally spanked on the biggest stage in American sports like that is embarrassing. And yet people feel slighted for Cam Newton not droning through dozens of stupid platitudes? Move on. He’ll be back to play next year and still make millions of dollars just like hundreds of other athletes do – for our entertainment and not for our moral well-being. If you need Cam Newton to teach you about morality, and if his post-game presser is the place to nourish that sense of right with the world, you have seriously got to find another place to feel good about yourself.

Sickness and the School

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I set out to write a post every day this year. Then I got a nasty flu bug. For a couple of weeks I have been foggy, tired, and unwilling to probe my mind for an idea worth writing about. That’s because whatever resources I might normally use to think and write have been sucked up by resting and exhaustion. As a result, I’ve missed a few weeks already.

If there is one theme on my mind these days it is what it looks like if I understand the primary function of my body and brain as survival. How I learn, love, and relate to others is rooted in my primary instinct to survive in this world. If sickness does anything, it sends one’s focus inward. I become less observant and less aware of the things around me. This is partially out of a conscious choice. I need to do things like rest to get my body well. But I also think it is more of an automatic defense mechanism that sets in motion. When I’m sick, I’m less aware of the world outside of my body.

The self as an idea our brains create as part of the most complex set of mechanisms that work for the survival of an animal species becomes most clear when the human system is in danger. Whether it’s a flu, a home invader, losing a job, or breaking up with a lover, the shift of focus inward is both automatic and sudden. Maslow understood this in his famous hierarchy of needs.

If we are considering learning, until we meet the basic survival needs of a student, we cannot expect much in the way of mastery of much of anything. The same goes for the general health and progress of a society. We cannot expect hungry and insecure people to make much progress because all of their resources are being used to see that they will simply stay alive. If we are to make progress as a society, we must feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, and heal the sick. To expect more out of people such as these is to demand that they go against their nature which is an affordance the privileged never have to imagine in their lives.

We could steal time, just for one day

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One of the first vinyl albums I bought was Let’s Dance. I bought it because of the crying guitar of Stevie Ray Vaughn on the title track and the pop catchiness of “Modern Love.” I also knew that the character in Peter Schilling’s “Major Tom” was loosely related to Bowie’s “Space Oddity.”

I completely lost track of Bowie until 1997 when he produced a collaboration with Trent Reznor on “I’m Afraid of Americans” which was a sort of sequel to 1975’s “plastic soul” of “Young Americans;” a tune like Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” that should not be confused with any sort of pro-American sentiment. Great artists have a way of making criticism fun. Bowie made us want to dance as Rome burned around us.

He went in an electronic direction with 1997’s Earthling. It was a transformation that made sense as the late 90’s found itself sharpened by an industrialized edge when it seemed everything alternative was purchased by major labels after Lollapalooza’s financial windfall. He was the first to buck the system by pre-releasing 1999’s Hours… for complete download over the Internet before the official release two weeks later. Radiohead would be the next major act to do this several years later with In Rainbows and change the way we buy music from that day forward.  Napster was changing everything in the music business at the same moment in history and Bowie knew it. He embraced the change rather than resist it like his younger contemporaries and in doing so found a way to make it more real by closing the gap between the artist and the consumer. He used a hyperreality of his own invention in order to drive people to something more tangible and grounded.

I started to listen to everything he created before 1983 after Howard Stern dedicated almost an entire show to Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars in a completely random series of segments. He just played the music. It was the live version of “Moonage Daydream” that locked me in to Bowie for the next several years. I was blown away. His voice and style formed its own nexus that bent musical genres with the same skill as Prince who did the same thing from another angle. But Bowie got there first.

From the dystopian Diamond Dogs to the spaced-out romance with humanity of Ziggy, I totally vibed with his presentation of mixed and ambiguous personae. When he made a conscious decision to put his stamp on inhabiting different characters and merging his love of theatre and performance art with the uncanny ability to craft a solid hook, music changed. But no one was ever able to do the same thing. Alice Cooper did it in his way as did perhaps the New York Dolls or even KISS. Prince came the closest, but there was only one Bowie and his music was his own genre cut from the cloth of everything he loved. He called himself a “synthesist” and was the greatest musical bricoleur to whom we have had the pleasure of listening.

What he taught me is that being strange was cool. Doing what you love is the most important thing. Becoming who you choose to be is perhaps the greatest privilege of humanity. Don’t let systems crush your spirit. The one thing that we all have at the center of what it means to be human is the moment when we are free to choose an end for ourselves. I suppose that his cancer is something of an ironic demise.

In his final album I think Bowie might tell us want he wants us to do in his absence. Don’t stop because he did. Tap into the creative spirit he found to express what words alone failed to do. And then go and do it. Make your art and change the world, because it’s a messed up place. Let’s not make it any messier.

Something happened on the day he died
Spirit rose a metre then stepped aside
Somebody else took his place, and bravely cried
(I’m a blackstar, I’m a star’s star, I’m a blackstar)

Obama: The New Eisenhower

Obama Doctrine, the articulation of a new mode of “smart power” that seeks to manipulate the existing propensities of power politics in the region without overcommitting US military force on the ground, with the full assurance that the threat of power is far more effective that the delivery of power. – Hamid Dabashi

Dabashi criticizes the Iran deal from an opposite angle to the war hawkish version of the US Republicans. For the latter, anything short of hard-core sanctions and total abandonment of any nuclear capability – peaceful or otherwise – is opening a door for terrorists to do bad things and drop a bomb on the US. Despite no evidence that Iran would even have the military capability to do this, the trope continues among candidates for the GOP nomination.

An outcome that it opens that various summaries fail to report is that opening economic relations with Iran allows the US to manipulate Shia militias in order to combat ISIS on their turf. This alone shows why the GOP opposition is wrong-headed and near-sighted. Those criticisms dumb down a very complex deal into fear-laden talking points to appeal to a specific type of voter that buys the proposal that the devil is at the US door step and all of us must arm ourselves against it.

Reading that last line, the Obama Doctrine sounds far more like the Eisenhower doctrine especially with respect to Korea and China. He avoided war with China there – barely – and opened up avenues for diplomatic and economic relations. Eisenhower used the threat of overwhelming power to avoid military conflict and American casualties under his watch. He had seen enough.

This is Obama doing the same in Iran – a place where, ironically, Eisenhower made his greatest failure which set the stage for the crisis in 1979 and today. This began with the joint MI6 and CIA operations to instigate the overthrow Mosaddeq in 1953 and arguably continued with the Atoms for Peace idea in 1957. The former event was largely over oil given that Mosaddeq was planning a nationalization of the Iranian oil market which would have driven out British corporate interests in the religion.

These events set the stage for continued conflict and instability leading up to the Iranian Revolution in 1979 and the current nuclear capabilities of Iran. It also shows us, again, that oil is at the center of everything the US has to do with the Middle East. Both of these political and economic structures are in play with Obama’s deal – a deal that seeks to mitigate their effects not by further isolating Iran from Western intervention, but by opening it up.

As it sits, the deal gives the Security Council 15 years to work on continued negotiations. That is a lot of time. Obama plays a long game which the GOP takes a “score on this play or else” approach. That approach, as recent history suggests, leads US interests directly into the teeth of war. Perhaps that is the intent. But that outcome is bad for US policy overall, does nothing to help combat ISIS, and would further strengthen the current tension the US has with Russia. The long game is to open a diplomatic path to work out all of the issues at once. This deal does that and since 1979 opens a path to work out the instability Eisenhower’s miscalculation created 62 years ago.

It might be a new form of imperialism. But in 20 years Iranians might also be trading in their Saiba Tibas for Ford Fusions running on American petroleum.