The Art of Reflection

Reflection: Such an important part of the human experience. I believe it is through the process of reflecting back on our lives, seeing what we have done, that works to help propel us forward and see what is coming ahead.

This is why near the end of each semester I ask my students to reflect back over the course of the previous months and provide me with the “Top Ten” things they have learned during that period.  These “Top Ten” items can be a theory, a concept, a particular course discussion, interactions, literally anything they may have learned and found helpful, beneficial, important or just interesting…anything at all.  Most students do not really have ten such items (can you remember even two things you learned in a particular course? Didn’t think so) yet most have a least a few legit experiences that academically wooed them in some fashion.

So now, as I near the end of my semester abroad in London, I am challenging myself with this same type of reflection.  My “Top Five,” as it were. With journeys to Spain and Italy still ahead, I’m certain there will be more experiences to be reflected upon. Yet in the nearly 3 months I have been here I have learned a few things, from the humorous and the mundane to the more serious and personal.

First off…

5.  I like to have ample water at the base of my loo. I know this sounds odd but everywhere I travel in Europe the toilets have about a cupful of water at the bottom of the john.  I really cannot explain why, but I appreciate a good water barrier between my “contents” take off and landing.  In the US we have a couple of buckets worth of water making for smooth, enjoyable, delightful and rather peaceful loo experiences.  Ahhhh, the little things we take for granted. While taking a walking “loo” tour of London (it was my daughter’s boyfriends idea…I swear) I explained my loo preferences to our guide when she stated that one can tell a great deal about a culture by their toilets. Without going into detail, in America everything is bigger and more mellow, as the contents can buoyantly rest within the large and luxurious serene water currents. Hmmmmm….something to think about.  Think that’s bad? You should of heard her take on German toilets.

4.  No matter how non-judgmental and accepting we may think we are of other people and cultures, traveling reveals our prejudices and bias.  I am coming to terms with the understanding that I have this self-perceived notion that I am a very accepting person, who does not stereotype or judge others customs and practices, to be highly untrue. It is as if traveling holds up a mirror that we must see our true reflection. I am as guilty of “bias confirmation” as anyone, meaning we tend to see life they way we prefer to see it, not how it really is. We pay attention to only those select experiences that confirm our prejudices.  If my stereotype of Europeans is to be rude, my biased perception will only pick up on rude acts while filtering out acts of kindness -as these do not coincide with, nor confirm, my bias. Traveling helps us to see life, including our self, as it really is, not how we prefer to see it.

3. Britain is our parent while the United States is its rather immature adolescent child. What do I mean by this? Britain is so much more mature than we are, period. I suppose if you look back into history this makes sense. We were the teenage kid who rebelled and ran away from home.  Yes, we struggled to gain independence and get our feet on the ground -and we are doing quite well for ourselves about now, but make no mistake: Britain remains our more mature and wiser parents.  Brits can drink openly in the parks here and no one gets too drunk, acts belligerent and wants to fight outside.  Most of their street police officers do not carry guns. I also think of Britain as remarkably more secular as they have come to find out what America is only beginning to find out: You do not need the fear of punishment nor the promise of reward to be kind, decent, and civil with each other. They are polite, respectful and appropriate –the way my grandmother used to be –well, not really, but you get the point. They have matured. They have figured things out.  We are adolescents with zits on our face by comparison. One day we can only hope to be as grown up and grounded. One of my favorite comedians, Adam Carolla, frequently asks the question concerning the British, “Why are they so much better than us?” Maturity, Adam, maturity.

2. There is no doubt my calling in life is to be a college educator.  I feel as though when I teach I am completely and totally myself. Now perhaps some of my students may disagree with me on this, and believe my calling should be a prison guard or something far worse, yet I just love what I do. Having now had the opportunity to really bond with these young people as they are thousands of miles from home, is an experience like no other. They are old enough to be treated like adults, yet young enough (most of them) that they are still trying to make sense of the world around them. Like a child touching a hot stove, they are experimenting with what they can and cannot do, finding their limits, their boundaries and themselves. They are open and accepting of new ideas- I love that!  An old friend of mine, Craig, a Florida State graduate, once told me that the biggest thing he learned in college was how to drink correctly -and we was not joking- to learn that there is a time and place for everything, how much you can handle and so on.  This is not to say everything is professorial flowers and fairy dust…not by a long shot. This has been one of the most difficult semesters I have ever taught and I am as ready for this semester to be over as any of my students. It is just the good so outweighs any bad, leading me to….

1. I do not know how to grow old. Well, I do know how to grow old year wise -I am doing a splendid job with that, thank you.  I guess I mean more like acting old, or even older. I have always had this notion that as you age certain “things” must follow.  Things like you must dress differently, as in wearing your pants somewhat higher over the belly. Or that you must hate the contemporary music that the kids like. You must be disgusted with new fads and youthful practices as you gain an overall more discriminating and mature palate in life for the finer things.  You should be content with simply smoking your pipe (tobacco, of course) while reading the New Yorker in your living room chair on a Saturday Night. Nope. Does not work for me. My calling to teach college is due to the fact I really love being around young people. I have a lot of friends my age, who are great and I must confess it is quite nice to be able to use the full range of my vocabulary, but the exuberance and energy of youth is electrifying and cannot be compared. A student, Jessica, recently wrote me and said, “I learned this semester that a professor can be genuinely cool.” And the great part is I am just being me. I don’t care about cool. I believe all people are cool when they are completely themselves, no matter the personality or traits.

A couple of years ago another student, Patricia, who observed me at an end-of-class get together at Johnny’s Tacos interacting with students, asked, “So, tell me the truth. As you interact with these guys is that really you or are you just bro-ing it down?”

I had never heard the term “bro-ing it down” before but I knew exactly what she meant.

I was not “bro-ing it down.” That was me.

And as I soon head back for the States, I will continue to reflect on life and all that I learn from it.  From loo’s to life’s calling to “bro-ing it down,” this thing called life can  be such a kickass adventure.

Reflection. Just do it.

Cheers.

10606299_10155129442130131_7947712341639526584_n

Jimmy’s Got A Gun: Thoughts On The Right To Bear Arms

A funny thing happens when you get out of your fishbowl and can experience life outside the water for a bit.

Expanding personal experiences has a way of changing you.

As many of you know I have been living abroad in Europe since late August.  It has been my observation that although many parts of Europe are very westernized, you can still detect very distinct cultural differences when contrasted with the United States. Whether it be driving on the “wrong” side of the street or treating the local bars like we treat our bathroom experience -everyone must go at least once every day to maintain health- there are some cultural variances from the US to be sure.  One area of very strong distinction is a rather fundamental one: The attitudes towards and use of guns.

I never really thought much about guns and have not carried strong positions either for or against their use or ownership. I have reacted to anti-gun advocates who seem to pop up after a school shooting, yet this has far more to do with condemning anyone who would use a tragedy to seize an opportunity to promote an agenda –not to mention living in a country of re-actors as opposed to pro-actors, the latter being my preferred set of people. Yet now I can reflect outside the bowl on the dry, primarily gun-less, lands of Europe.

One could argue America is built on a philosophy of gun rights.  The right to bear arms is as fundamental to American cultural practices as hot dogs and apple pie, and to many perhaps a much tastier and sweeter experience.  When I came to find out that even British POLICE OFFICERS (sorry for screaming, yet this is a biggie) do not carry firearms, I was stunned. Speaking of stunned, not even stun guns….only pepper spray.

Of course this does not apply to all police officers, just the rank and file ones that you and I are most likely to run into on the streets. You know, the ones who roam the blocks, eat crumpets and do the most community policing.

I asked myself how in the world can a police officer do his or her job, even if it is in the less dangerous positions, without a gun?

The truth is that they can…and, in Britain’s case, they do.

This has caused me to reflect long and hard about my personal philosophy concerning guns.  For a large metropolitan city like London, it is exceedingly safe with low crime.  Somewhat contrary to what my intuition might suggest, the criminals are not running amok taunting the unarmed police officers; not having firearms actually works well for public safety in the UK.

I have come realize that I was born into a gun-obsessed culture. Guns are an integral part of the US cultural landscape and are woven into our basic social narrative from a young age. Little boys and girls are birthed into a type of gun mania. Although I never allowed my children to play with fake guns, as soon as they were old enough to point their index finger out with their thumb up and yell, “bang!” they did. Why? Certainly we are not born into this world with a genetic knowledge about guns, rather they are so pervasive through all forms of media that many children are enthralled with them as we marinate them in a violent stew of gun use since day one.

One would be hard pressed to find, let’s say, a tribal African child playing with said pretend gun, in fact, it would probably be impossible.

And so this cultural sheep wandered right into the pen of violent gun culture. As soon as we started having children I went out and purchased a short barrel shotgun for my families protection -due to living in the very dangerous and violent streets of suburban Santa Clarita. Of course, statistically speaking, this shotgun has a far greater chance of doing great injury and harm to myself or family members than it ever will protecting them, but what is sound logic and reason when we have a second amendment ethos with which we must contend?

“I’ll give you my gun when you pry it from my cold, dead hands,” declareth the National Rifle Association. They just better hope they are not one day prying it from their child’s cold, dead hands -which is the far more likely probability.

So now I am rethinking my gun culture. In many respects the gun cat is out of the gun bag in the US, thus following a UK model would likely not work…at first.

“But Jimmy, what about guns to protect us from a potentially tyrannical government and attacks from foreign invaders?”  Well, frankly, if we were to be attacked, nuked or taken over with tanks and heavy artillery, I hardly believe my lil old shotgun will fare well in that battle. This would be like suggesting we should not ban aspirin because Ebola is coming -a mere band-aid for a gushing wound. Good luck with that.

Another major factor in my rethinking of the role of guns in society is the seemingly great rise in police officer shootings of innocent victims.  It seems there are new stories everyday of mentally ill, homeless, and otherwise innocent individuals getting shot by police officers who seem to be looking for any excuse to use their guns.  Perhaps there is no greater example of law enforcements lustful infatuation with their Smith and Wesson then when a manhunt was underway for a 6 foot something, 200 something lb., African American man named Christopher Dorner in Los Angeles in February of 2013.  Eager to use their firearms, police officers unloaded over a dozen rounds of ammo into the car of two innocent victims…both 5’ tall, diminutive female Hispanics, who they mistakingly believed to be Dorner.

Forget the disparity in gender, color, stature, or ethnicity: The vehicle they shot at was neither the make or color of Dorner’s.

Whoops, their bad. Another example of men thinking with their gun and not their brain.

Many (I did not say all) police officers are assholes anyway, and what can be worse than an asshole with a gun? And to my dearly beloved traffic cops, why in the world do you even have a job? Let alone a gun.

But Jimmy, many more police officers are also being shot at these days.” I agree. This gun stuff does seem to be working well for either side now, does it?

I realize statistics are just numbers waiting for an argument, though did I mention the fact that the US has 10.3 gun deaths per year per 100,000 people while the UK’s number is a mere .25? Wow. Only Japan and Hong Kong have less.

So, let me play a little cause and effect game if my math is correct. In the country with guns there is over 10 times more homicidal gun violence than the country (essentially) without guns. So guns are…NOT good for society? I think this to be simple logic a child can perform. I realize we can all perform statistical gymnastics in any manner to obtain our agenda and objective…yet I have no agenda and objective. I just want a better and more civil society and gun proliferation does not seem to be working.

As I observe UK law enforcement, they are quite friendly, helpful and seem to not possess US arrogant bastard type “attitude.” For example, I found myself one day on the bus to Belsize Park when I approached 4 officers to inquire as to if this was the correct stop for my destination. Each of them eagerly assisted and interrupted each other to explain to me the various exits and directions- nice as hell.  Imagine how I felt when I saw a police car nearly hit two jaywalkers when he slowed down, waved and yelled, “Sorree!!” (By the way, London has no jaywalking laws…perhaps another Brit tidbit that would work well in the US of A).

That shotgun has been sitting in my closet collecting dust for about 27 years now. I shot it once, at a can in the desert.  The attack on my family never came, thank FCBE. But if it did, I would have been ready.

But maybe being ready is not worth the costly price we all must pay. And if the UK is any example, it is not.

It is soon time to get back in the water. And this time the water will have one more inhabitant quite critical of its current gun state of affairs.