Christmas 2017: Not Much Has Changed

The following is a blog entry I wrote in December of 2014. Each December I like to revisit and repost this Christmas blog that explains my thoughts on the holiday.

How have my thoughts and opinions changed since this writing? Not much. I still pretty much agree with everything I wrote in 2014, when then a young and spry 51 year-old. I suppose the only difference is that today I am far more apathetic toward the whole holiday. Today I would not waste the time writing the blog as there are a host of other issues that concern me (up next: #metoo). All the Christmas bullshit used to really bother me…not so much anymore. I choose not to give the holiday any salience in my life.

Enjoy and…MERRY CHRISTMAS!

Now that Christmas is over I feel free to write the blog I have felt compelled to write the entire month of December –though did not do so because I did not want to rain on anyone’s Christmas parade and harp on the negative– and then subsequently be called what I have been labeled for many years, “Scrooge,” followed with an insulting, “bah humbug.”

Our family does not celebrate Christmas–nor Chanukah, Kwanza nor any other kind of December holiday. No lights, no tree, no manger scene, no Santa, no presents, and, above all, no stress –and I love it. So what is the point in writing this blog? I am not out to change anyone’s mind, even if I could. Yet, since I get the question all the time by perplexed and surprised people as to why we do not acknowledge this holiday, I will now put my sentiments in written form and when asked the question in the future, I can simply point to my blog.

In my last entry, I explained how we are like seeds in the fields of culture and it becomes very difficult to objectively be critical of that which is literally a part of us. For many, there is no cultural practice more ingrained into our personal and collective psyche than Christmas –to question it is ludicrous and so iconoclastic as to be completely off the critical thinking table. Christmas is the untouchable sacred cow of the masses, I realize this. So, that said, I encourage you to hear my 5 reasons for not celebrating Christmas with an open mind. Again, I am not out to change anyone’s mind, rather, at the very least, promote understanding that there are legitimate and beneficial reasons for not observing the holiday –and perhaps take it easy on those of us who choose the Christmas avoidance route and understand we are not awful people, ie. Scrooge.

1. Christmas is great for the economy though very dangerous for the soul.

I believe we all would agree that for the great majority Christmas is about gift giving. At its face, gift giving is a wonderful and edifying practice that nourishes the soul. Yet when we culturally mandate compulsory gift giving, it sucks the spirit and heart right out of the practice; frenzied, tit-for-tat gift exchanges zap any genuine life right out of the otherwise healthy custom.  Our shopping malls turn into crowded, soulless bastions of bargain shoppers robotically hunting for the best deals after they have fought tirelessly for a parking spot –only to typically purchase crap that no one really needs. But, hey, this comes from a guy who believes a part of his soul dies every time he waits in line at a Wal-Mart. I love meaningful and relevant gift giving, yet it means so much more when it comes at unexpected times, motivated by none other than love. I realize not every activity in life will feed the soul, though it is important to avoid activities that will drain it.

2. It goes against the goal of living an emotionally balanced and healthy life.

Things are never as good, or bad, as we think they are.  Perhaps I am only speaking from personal experience, though I have found that whenever we get too emotionally high we can expect a crash landing into the emotional lows of life shortly thereafter.  If we were to compare holidays to drugs, Christmas would be the crystal meth…on steroids. “The most wonderful time of the year” is frequently the emotional peak time of the year for many.  I do not blame Christmas and the holidays for depression (contrary to popular belief, depression and suicide rates are not higher during the holiday season; they are highest in Spring time) rather I am suggesting it certainly does not help those of us in the quest of living a life void of major high/low swings. Observing the Christmas holiday contributes to a ‘bipolaresque’ type of up-and-down existence as it embodies the manic stage -at least it did for me.

3. It sends the wrong message to children.

I believe we all know this and acknowledge it -we even make movies about this phenomenon, I am thinking “Jingle All They Way” among others. Like the insane person who never learns from her mistake, we continue to engage in creating spoiled, entitled and materialistic children, instructing them to write letters explaining everything they want to a fictional figure. Can I be blunt? That is just plain fucked up. Why are we messing with our children’s minds in such a way? Is this not a mild form of abuse? I realize culture is so ingrained in us that it is often difficult to be critical of it, yet if one can stand back and objectively observe this practice, just for a moment, it is just wrong; I, for one, do not want to perpetuate this practice. The practice of Christmas teaches children that, above all, we are soulless consumers first and foremost.  When will the consumerist madness stop? We buy things we do not need for the things we do not need. Christmas teaches children we should strive for what we want –not what we need. Christmas has become much more a venture capitalist holiday than a spiritual one.

4. The entire Christmas narrative of Santa, elves, the North Pole, etc…is a lie.

no-christmas-yetMost theological scholars would even agree that December 25 is not the birth date of Jesus. Please understand that I am all for cultural myth and ritual. Totally. Myth plays an important part in the process of understanding ourselves and the human condition…but call it for what it is, MYTH. Can anyone explain why we take a perfectly healthy tree, cut it down and bring it into our house?  I didn’t think so. What is the lesson from myth we can learn from this practice? In the case of Christmas, we blatantly lie about the whole thing. I told our children from the moment they could understand my words that Santa is a lie…that simple. People can go to jail for lying yet we encourage it toward our most vulnerable and gullible of society…and for what reason? I am all down for lies that might protect someone from hurt, yet we perpetually, albeit innocently and with good intentions, lie with the outcome of creating false expectations as we set children up for disappointment at some level.

5. It trivializes and demeans Christian-based religious faiths.

When I used to be a pastor many moons ago, I despised Christmas (which may explain, in part, why I was such a shitty pastor) much more than I do now –presently, I essentially just forget about it altogether.  I could never speak for, or on behalf of God, Jesus, Tom Cruise, Mohammed, or any other deity-like figure, yet, something inside me believes even Jesus himself would condemn the practice of Christmas –for all the ethical reasons I have mentioned.

I collect Jesus junk. Thus far I have Jesus duct tape, a Jesus action figure, Jesus T-shirts, socks, etc… I do this as a reminder how our culture has taken that which is to be sacred, revered and honored and morphed these entities into unholy and profane trivial commodities. Christmas, as we practice it today, trivializes the holiness and reverence of a religion’s most sacred event.  I used to find this disturbing yet today I find this more amusing -as these things act as a constant reminder of the culture I am dealing with on a daily basis.

So these are the five reasons why I choose not to celebrate Christmas. Agree with me or not, I have arrived at these conclusions through analysis and reasoned observation. In fact, I am quite certain many of you agree with me –at least in part on some things. Then, why is it when someone asks me about Christmas and I explain these things, I am then insulted for my calculated decision? Scrooge was not calculated, he was just an asshole. Contrary to some people’s opinion, I am not an asshole. I choose not to partake in the, what I respectfully believe to be, irrational, materialistic, unspiritual endeavor and I get questioned? Our culture has done a really good job of creating this illusion –to the point that the free thinking ones, not taken in by the smoke and mirrors of the holiday, get criticized for their sane and logical conclusions. Again, I am not out to change anyone’s mind, even if I could, but please do not disparage those of us who do not see this holiday as you might see it.

I am very proud to proclaim we have raised four very strong, independent, passionate and free thinking children who all have a very different take on Christmas today. They not only survived an, essentially, Christmas-less upbringing, they have thrived. We all live life to the very fullest.

I guess I just rained on the Christmas parade. Not to worry. You have nearly an entire year to recover.

Everything Happens

About a month ago I started to write a blog concerning my strong dislike of the philosophical worldview that, “everything happens for a reason.” Included in my dislike are other such implications of some grand master plan imposed by a mysterious being who orchestrates both wonderful acts of love and horrid atrocities; in other words, providence. I stopped writing the blog because it was drawing out such anger and angst within me that I realized such an emotional reaction was much more indicative of something far deeper within me that needed to be addressed in my own psyche.

Perhaps it was stirring my own self-loathing that I once used to subscribe to this belief as taught to me by those who I thought knew better than I on such matters. I realize I still hold resentment toward those who would be bestow such providential propaganda, as well as toward myself for actually buying it. In classic argumentation, claiming providence is both a fallacy of an “appeal to ignorance” (as one cannot prove it did not happen for a reason therefore it supposedly did) as well as “argumentum ad verecundiam,” aka, an “appeal to authority,” as one can never challenge the authoritative source (read: god) behind the one who makes everything happen for a reason. It is a fallacial argument one cannot win.

To be clear, in writing that still unpublished blog, I realized that I have no issue with one who subscribes to such a belief system, that is their business, rather it is when that belief is imposed without discretion on others, particularly in times of grief, that troubles me so greatly. I find it both incredibly insulting and arrogant beyond explanation; it is like telling a Jew or Muslim not to worry because their deceased loved one is now in the arms of the baby Jesus. It is the flippant public spouting of a personal worldview without regard for the enormous troubling implications it holds.

As I will address a bit later, even if everything does happen for a reason, we could never possibly know what that reason is in the grand scheme of things, so what is the point?

This is hubris to the fullest extent of the law.

So fast forward just a few days later when my 84 year-old, seemingly quite healthy, mom suddenly passes away. It has now been about 26 days since her passing and I have been inundated with cards, gifts and condolences of all varieties, for which I am extremely grateful. More now than ever I can certainly understand why we humans have a propensity for creating belief systems that help us deal with the pain of a loved one passing, as it hurts like nothing else; yet I hold firmly that whatever it is we choose to believe –be it Heaven, Hell, Nothing, White Lights, Spirit Beings, Purgatory or Pittsburgh, it will never change what is.

Yes, the power of belief can be quite strong as illusions can provide the human mind great emotional comfort and solace, yet one cannot believe something into being. Whether one chooses to believe in a god or not, does not change the fact if there is a god or not. Heaven, hell, nothingness…same thing.

Back in the days of yore when I was a pastor and provided spiritual guidance for a living, I held very similar views. Even in the days of my strongest adherence to particular theological belief systems, I realized what I believed was of very little value to what really is. It was this theological and belief flexibility (and not taking myself too seriously) that was the primary root of my ultimate abandoning of the ministry and finding much deeper and greater satisfaction in spreading the gospel of communication and instructing people how to question…everything.

Praise Socrates and pass the plate of uncertainty.

Do I believe my mom’s passing happened for a reason? Do I believe I will see her again one day in some spiritual way, shape or form? The answer is very straightforward: How would I know? How could I know? If it did happen “for a reason” I have no way of knowing what that reason might be so why would I waste my time trying to figure out the un-figureoutable? (I think you can begin to see why I was such a shitty pastor.)

Does this mean I do not have faith? No, it does not. My faith is my business and what my faith is or is not should have no bearing whatsoever on what another’s faith is or is not.

I actually find great peace and comfort in uncertainty. A belief in uncertainty holds out for the possibility and hope that things could be far greater than my faith would have me believe…or worse, I guess. Life is a perpetual anticipation of finding out what is behind doors 1, 2, or 3. Sure, we may get zonked, but we could also get a brand new caaaaaaar.

Perhaps my anger toward the “everything happens for a reason” blowhards was a rhythmic foreshadowing from the universe in emotional preparation for the impending death to come….or not. How could I know? I cannot know, so I can never make such a claim, for then that would have happened for a reason. And in the 26 days since her passing, not one person of the dozens upon dozens of well-wishers has even remotely implied she passed “for a reason.”

Thank you.

So I conclude with the message I have been “preaching” for decades. In the last few weeks one of the very few things I DO know is the power of love, namely loving relationships. I have felt a new license in life to freely and unabashedly love as well as to receive the love of those around me; to tell those around me that I love them; to share tears and hugs; to express thoughts and feelings that typically go unstated when things are “normal.” It has been a tremendously freeing experience. The naked emotional vulnerability brought about by the sting of death serves to let my egotistical guard down and lean on the loving connections I have with family and friends.

I preach the gospel of love. Whether you are a Muslim, Christian, Atheist, Jew or Gentile, we can KNOW love. We can be sure of it. To be the most loving Muslim, Christian, Atheist, Jew or Gentile is the certain path towards true contentment. Love destroys the need to determine whether or not “everything happens for a reason.”

Let’s just say things happen…and love makes them bearable.

Anyone Want To Cuddle?

When I first heard the title, “Cuddle Party,” my mind went to the place that your mind is probably going to now; a very weird, new age-y, ultra L.A. fluff, moderately obscene group of people engaging in a type of pre-orgy, foreplay ritual. Ok, maybe your mind is not as perverted as my own, yet I would wager whatever it is you might think these parties might be, you are not even close to what they indeed really are.

And, yes, they really do exist. I “touched” on them in a blog I wrote several years ago. However, when I first heard about such gatherings, I absolutely abhorred the thought of it, let alone imagined going to one.

Why? Frankly, I was never a big “toucher” in my life. I did have a father who was extremely physically affectionate (for which I am very thankful) yet a mother who was exceedingly non-tactile. As a result, I would never consider myself weird and dysfunctional when it came to touch, yet I was very uncomfortable with it -sans those closest to me.

For example, for my 25th birthday my father gave me a gift certificate for a massage –I said thank you and then promptly gave it away as I was not about to have a stranger touch me.

I came to learn that such parties are not about cuddling per se, rather they are groups where individuals can practice asking for what they want, setting boundaries for those things they do not want, while learning the joy of acceptance and the impersonal nature of rejection. Touch is simply the currency used to practice and learn such skills. Hell, they could use dollar bills, food or just about anything else to learn these same concepts. In addition, and perhaps ironically, we all have a surplus of touch at our disposal in society, yet, for a variety of reasons, many still are starving for it as it is a practice we do not engage in nearly enough.

Not me. I’m good. Or am I?

Fast forward to circa 2011. As I shuttered at the thought of such parties, I have this weird chip deep inside of me that is programmed to try things that are WAY outside my comfort zone.

So I made the trek down to a Santa Monica 3rd Street Promenade yoga studio. I sat in a circle with strangers and a cuddle guru, who spent the better part of an hour instructing us on the boundaries, rules, purpose and objectives of our soon to be cuddle experience.

Long story short: I hated it…beyond hate, it truly hurt. I was neither the recipient nor provider of touch that entire long evening.

It was the long trip back over the 405 that I knew I needed to go back and revisit the touch demons inside of me; tactile apparitions that needed either some desperate attention or a flat out exorcism.

I went to few more, another in Santa Monica, a couple in the Bay Area and one in Santa Cruz. It was after this last Santa Cruz experience, circa 2012, was when I concluded my Cuddle Party experiment was over and my demons were at long last retreated. Me and my cuddles were set to retire.

Make no mistake, I still did not like Cuddle Parties, yet I least mustered the competency to not vomit at the thought of going to one.

Fast forward to 2017.

I have the wonderful opportunity to have good chunks of time off in both the winter and summer, while giving me ample time to experience life outside of my teaching. It was during this season when I once again stumbled into the cuddle world.

For a variety of reasons, I found myself at an outdoor Cuddle “Sanctuary” this past Sunday afternoon on the beach in Santa Monica. I really do not know the history, though somewhere in this 5-year period, “parties” morphed into “sanctuaries” and I must say that I am down with the reverent feel of the latter moniker. After all, in spite of the fact I am not terribly comfortable with it, at some level I do believe touch is sacred as we depend on it for survival. I did commit to going on Friday morning, then promptly spent the next 40 hours or so trying to think of excuses why I should back out.

I couldn’t. It was that damn uncomfortable chip gnawing away at my soul again.

The sanctuary was really no different than the party. We spent the first hour doing exercises and going over the ground rules. One of the things I love about the experience is that no touch is required at all. People attend these events to practice setting boundaries in their lives, learning how to say no. I have really never had a problem setting boundaries in life, yet I have had issues asking for what I want and being cool with the consequent response.

I was in the right place.

So with my slight nervous shake and rapid heartbeat, I engaged once again, now a few years older and, ideally, a wee bit wiser.

I hugged numerous people. Held hands with someone as we talked about our families, used one’s thigh as a pillow, even had a thumb war or two with some folk. Every act of touch needs to be mutually agreed upon and any touch whatsoever requires permission. It is expressly non-sexual, while even the issue of, “What if something suddenly pops up?” is addressed and the best ways to appropriately deal with any “rising” concerns.

I certainly cannot speak for everyone, yet for me, these events are very strange and highly unusual –kinda like me.

I left the event relatively unscathed and realized that I am certainly cementing myself as the “older guy” at many gatherings in my life. I suppose that being the older gent does have its perks…such as really not giving a shit about saving face and caring what others might think. TOFTS (Too Old For This Shit).

However, what did not strike me that day hit me like a sledge hammer later that same evening.

We had a small gathering of people over to watch my son’s film, “Going To Nepal With A Camera On My Forehead.” In this moving documentary about people, cultures and countries coming together in love, in times of both peace and crisis, the film struck me in a way it has never struck me in the half a dozen or so times I have viewed it. My son just happened to be in Nepal and filming when the April 2015, 7.9 earthquake hit the country, and is all documented in this film.

Perhaps it was the intimacy of touch and human connection I experienced that day on the beach that put me in a connected place of insight and vulnerability that evening. I literally reached out and touched others as we expressed our lives, frailties and general bullshit we humans tend to carry with us on a daily basis.

As I watched humanity connect with each other on the screen that evening- people helping people, the healthy helping the sick, the “haves” pouring out their resources on the “have nots,” the resonance of my own day came into focus.

I was connected.

And I felt it.

I cried over the beauty of humanity reaching out and touching each other in love during a time of great need.

And it felt really good to understand the power of both literal and figurative touch.

I knew there was a reason that gnawing chip inside of me would not let me sit this one out.

We all have a surplus of touch currency and what a shame to let it go to waste.

And, on this day, I felt to be a richer man for it.

 

Reflections On The Human-Animal Relationship, Part I

Full disclosure: I began writing this blog well over a year ago and have sat on it all this time. Why? A couple of reasons: First, it is a very sensitive and controversial issue for many, in particular for some that I love and cherish dearly, while having no desire to offend these loved one as I deeply respect their values. Secondly, my thoughts on this issue have been in such a constant state of flux and change over the past year that I wanted to have some level of cognitive consonance on the issue before I posit any opinion -even if it is only a tentative position in my evolving thought process.

I also decided that this blog post needed desperately to be divided into two separate entries as I have so many thoughts on this issue.

In summary, I have, in recent years, reopened my personal inquiry into the nature of the human-animal relationship. I was brought up with the belief that animals were, well, just lowly animals, and humans were a superior breed of species. We always had pets as I was growing up, treated them well, yet, to be sure, our dogs or cats never deserved the types of amenities reserved for humans -and I was fairly “dog”matic on these ideas (sorry).

Yet how we were brought up, while most certainly having an effect on our initial orientation towards any given matter, should have absolutely no bearing on making rational, autonomous decisions as an adult. Overcoming “the way I was raised” argument may be difficult yet certainly attainable.

Consider that many people may have been brought up terribly wrong, perhaps myself included. Blindly following customs simply because they were your customs can be “cat”astrophic (ugh, I can’t help myself). I would now like to offer my thoughts as a free thinking adult.

So allow me to first address the idea of human and animal equality; a sense of equality that a growing amount of people are starting to adopt. Of course this is not a new idea. Many years ago Leonardo Da Vinci is quoted to have said, “The time will come when men such as I will look upon the murder of animals as they now look on the murder of men.

If that is not argument for human and animal equality I can think of no other.

To begin, please allow me to tell you what I am NOT saying: If one makes the claim that humans are in some ways superior to other species, it does NOT infer a reckless abandonment of a code of morality toward all other species. In fact, as I will argue in part II of this series, it implies an even greater sense of responsibility and benevolence towards outgroup species. I encourage you to read to the end of this blog to gain a clear sense of my position.

With this understanding, let’s begin.

Self-Preservation, The Animal Kingdom and Survival of The Fittest

At some very rudimentary level, I believe in the human as the more advanced species as evidenced by our reaching the top of the food chain. I believe in this human “superiority” for reasons to be explained in this blog: First, the instinctual act of species self-preservation; second, the realities of the animal kingdom; and, finally, the Darwinian notion of survival of the fittest and our accompanying moral conscience.

First, the bottom line is if I or a loved one were starving to death, I would have no qualms about killing an animal in order to survive, as I am quite certain said animal would eat my ass if it were dying as well. I am also quite certain most of us would pull a person out of a burning building over the building rats or cockroaches. There is something intuitive about preserving one’s own species -seemingly much more pronounced in the human species- at the expense of others. This is a necessary component in the propagation of a species. If a species is naturally inclined to protect its own, this would infer inequality as each species judges it as more valuable than the others.

I am reluctant to use the word “superior” to describe the human orientation towards animals as this is far too general a term and it is not meant in the universal sense. Many animals have superior skill sets to humans –many run faster, have superior audio/visual skills, can fly all on their own, perhaps even possess far more advanced interspecies communication systems; yet, when it comes to possessing the overall skill set to sit atop the food chain and essentially control the animal kingdom, humans are clearly the unanimous winner through following this self-preservation instinct.

Second, in contemporary society, it would seem many of us have been sequestered and sheltered from the harsh realities of the animal kingdom. Death for the purpose of nourishment is as basic to the narrative of both animal/human existence as breathing –and one species eating another certainly infers a harsh lack of equality as the eaten creature is inferior to the eating creature -in terms of its survival capabilities. The animal kingdom, of which we are very much a part of, is absolutely no theater of morality when it comes to issues of killing and death. Perhaps perceptions that have contributed to the notion of equality have been greatly influenced by the Disney-induced anthropomorphic deification of animals -but I digress.

Take for example in a grassland ecosystem, a grasshopper might eat grass, a producer. The grasshopper might get eaten by a rat, which in turn is consumed by a snake. Finally, a hawk—an apex predator—swoops down and snatches up the snake. We then can either kill the hawk and eat it, or, as the lead proprietors of the animal kingdom, go to great lengths and protect it, which we failed to do for the grasshopper, rat and poor snake -thus pointing to the routinely accepted act of imposing hierarchies of importance toward certain animal species…which goes largely unnoticed and is an accepted practice for many (hence the irony of dog on your dinner plate); yet perhaps this horrid inconsistency is a different blog for a different day. I do believe it does point to a hierarchy in nature that cannot be dismissed: Nature operates most efficiently with a chain of command as the idea of equality in the animal kingdom simply does not exist.

Thirdly, whether we like to acknowledge it or not, it is still very much a dog eat dog world at its core. The animal kingdom already imposes this aforementioned hierarchy of superiority -we are simply following suit. Many animal species even eat their own young pointing to the common practice of death as nourishment in the evolutionary sweepstakes.

Now I have heard it argued that just because a species can or cannot do something, this in no way implies superiority nor gives a species the right to impose its will on another species.  Then why can the rat, snake and hawk impose its will -yet the human cannot? What gives us the right to think we are above these other species and that we have to abide by an altogether different moral code? Ironically, such a position proves the moral superiority of the human being as we quite “humancentrically” project our values onto other species, assuming because they are superior values.

If we claim humans do possess a moral conscience most other species do not possess, there most certainly is no equality. If you are claiming we do not, then it is clearly natural and fine to eat other species.

I contend that in the evolutionary stakes, human beings are the clear winner and have managed to rest atop the food chain rung. In the Darwinian sense, humankind is “superior” (again, I use the term loosely) because it managed to prove being the fittest in the game of survival. I believe if any other species managed to pull this off -be it cows, gorillas, fish, whales, alligators or lions, they would have gladly assumed the top position and I might be an appetizer on some animals prepared dish. Yet, as an Irish-Hungarian, and with any luck, I might be found on some weird European protected species list.

That said, our evolution in contemporary western society has negated the need to enslave animals and use them as our only form of sustenance. One can survive and thrive on a plant-based diet in 2017. Therefore to use the argument that humankind needs to eat animals in order to survive is just not true. Might that change? Of course it could…yet, for now, it is not necessary. Yet, keep in mind the aforementioned rat, snake and hawk, like most animals, have no such conscience. Such consciousness and a distinct moral compass, which at least questions and examines ethics even if they are not universally agreed upon, are other critical factors in separating humans from other species.

Next up: My thoughts on “Speciesism,” factory farming, and my slow transition toward vegan principles.

And I hope my loved ones still love me 🙂

 

 

A Different Perspective On Life’s Baggage

First off, right off the bat let me say I am no psychologist…not even close and do not pretend to be one. What I am is a communication person, one who devotes his life to the study and application of communication principles. It is within the context of this undertaking that knowing the basics of human psychology is imperative.

So, after showing my Small Group Communication class the 1957 classic film, “12 Angry Men” (a movie you kinda have to show that class) I asked the class to examine each character and identify the “baggage” each brings to the decision-making process that may act as a hindrance to consensus.

This got me thinking…I think, therefore I blog.

Baggage. We all have it. It is unfortunate that we often understand the concept of baggage as something of a negative.  If we were take the term literally, I believe most of us would concede that we have some bags that are quite nice and filled with items of great value, as well as possessing crappy bags, filled with crappy stuff. Yet each are bags nonetheless.

Today I would like to shed some light on the notion of baggage, why we have it and need it, types of baggage and how we can use it to our advantage, particularly in the communication process.

One of the definitions of the term baggage—things that encumber one’s freedom, progress, development, or adaptability, ie impediments—is the one we are most generally familiar with when understanding the concept in terms of one’s personal psychology. Yet, how can one NOT have baggage? Even if one were born into an extremely functional environment, living a healthy life without anything extraordinarily wonderful nor horribly traumatic taking place, this would still constitute a form of baggage all on its own accord.

In other words, baggage is unavoidable and must always be discussed in terms of the matter of degree, not whether or not one possesses it.

It is imperative that we understand exactly what baggage we bring to the conveyor belt of life as to better understand our own personal prejudices, bias, and perceptions.

To begin, it is important to understand what baggage is not.  Baggage is not the sum total of our total life experience as a human being. Rather, baggage would be those events that have played a significant role in the shaping of our psyche. For example, what restaurants you may have frequented as a child would not constitute as baggage (unless, of course, some life-altering events occurred during a visit), yet a parental divorce, frequently being bullied as a child, or abuse of some sort, certainly could be.

One may have successfully overcome a particular tragic event, still, as they say, you cannot unring that bell. One may certainly be an abuse “survivor” for example, yet will always have that experience in their psyche.

So, with this backdrop, today day I bring to you the three basic types of baggage all human beings share.

Basic Baggage. This is the basic fundamental baggage in all of us who have not lived a perfect life (read: no one) that we share in common: The garden variety baggage, if you will. It refers to those experiences that we actually remember and that played a role in shaping who we are today. This baggage forms the behaviors and beliefs in our lives that we would consider “normal.” Basic Baggage is typically evidenced and better understood when one first becomes a parent and romanticizes the history of one’s own life to best figure out how to raise a child. Issues such as spanking, yelling, disciplining, religious or non-religious training are examples of issues that we generally extract from our personal “Basic Baggage stew” and somehow allow this baggage to identify what we consider “common sense” and “normal.”

Please make no mistake…it is still all Basic Baggage.

One of my pet peeves is when one opines that a certain action or inaction was practiced and it is justified because, “that is the way I was raised and I turned out just fine.” Or justified because “it is what we have always done.”

Really? Maybe if you were raised differently you could have been the next Einstein, Mozart or Elon Musk; and, well, maybe you and life practices were just done plain wrong.

Basic Baggage can be some of the most harmful as it is disguised as what constitutes normal behavior…and there is no such thing. Which takes us to…

Beastly Baggage. This is the shit baggage and the baggage we typically think of when hearing or using the term. Perhaps one of the worst aspects of Beastly Baggage is that a great deal of it cannot be remembered into adulthood—therefore making it very difficult to identify it and attempt to remedy it as an adult. Either through denial or a means in which to psychologically survive a traumatic ordeal, this baggage cuts deep into our beings. We should consider ourselves fortunate if we recall such traumatic events as then we can best understand the significant role it played in the formation of our persona, and take measures to best understand and deal with it.

I have no idea just how deep my personal Beastly Baggage penetrates my soul, yet I know it must be pretty deep as I have my fair share of shit in this strange mind of mine. One way to gauge this baggage is to attempt to objectively examine our personal emotional reactions to certain experiences. If we have a particularly strong reaction towards a behavior that evokes a powerful emotional response and we are not sure why, my bet is there exists some Beastly Baggage and that best be uncovered. Free the beast….and then head directly to a therapist’s office

Benevolent Baggage. I identify this third category as Benevolent as on its surface it is kind and loving baggage that contributes to our personal psychological health and functionality into adulthood. For example, I could point to the fact that my parents have been together for going on 60 years as Benevolent Baggage…to come from an intact family was and is beneficial to my experiences as an adult—it taught me the value of commitment…then why would I refer to such a thing as Baggage? Perhaps this experience will be the baggage I bring to a conversation with a friend who is considering divorce. My Benevolent Baggage has very little understanding or tolerance for those who opt to not stay committed to each other.  I must identify this Benevolent Baggage and realize that separation and divorce may very well be the best option for a couple…yet my baggage makes this very difficult to understand.

Once we recognize the baggage we possess in our own lives, be it basic, beastly or benevolent, it helps us to better understand our particular prejudices and assists in identifying what we can uniquely bring to the cultural conversation.

There you have it.  What a world it would be if we all could identify our various baggage and understand the prejudicial dynamic each one of us brings to our daily encounters. If so, perhaps “12 Angry Men” would be re-titled to, “12 Understanding and Compassionate Men.” But who would then watch that movie? Unchecked baggage does indeed make life interesting.

But what do I know? I’m no psychologist…I just try to play a communicative one in the classroom.

 

The 5 Things I Learned While Wearing A Dress All Day As A Man

I love to challenge my students in regards to beliefs, societal norms, and cultural expectations.  As a strong proponent of new experiences and change, I frequently find myself encouraging others to try something different in order to gain new perspectives.  I believe this to be of particular importance the older we get—as opening ourselves up to new information and experiences truly helps to keep our minds fresh and challenged.

So, this past week when I challenged a particularly effeminate male student, who basically despises everything masculine, to open himself up to new “macho” experiences in which he may feel uncomfortable, going to an NFL game for example, he cringed.  It occurred to me that perhaps that could be too much, too soon. So I reconsidered.

“Ok, Jack,” I stated, “if you wear an NFL football jersey to class on Thursday, I will wear a dress…all day.”

As a man who has no interest in wearing women’s clothing, I somewhat instantly regretted my offer as he quickly took me up on it. However, I also have no interest in being a hypocrite. If I challenge my students to take on new experiences that go against their natural inclinations, why shouldn’t I?

It turned out to be one of the better ideas I have had in my life

So, the next day, I went with my daughter Tessa dress shopping (at The Good Will…. I knew I would likely never wear it again) who helped me pick out a nice red and black paisley with matching sleeves and a delicious plunging neckline.

And what did I learn from my day dressed as a woman?  5 things. 5 things I already knew at some superficial level, though experiencing it firsthand solidified and greatly deepened my understanding. I realize these lessons are very specifically from the United States perspective of cultural norms.

  • Wearing a dress all day gave me an unusually high level of awareness concerning my, ah, “junk.” A dress provides extremely easy access to the genital area while having to work fairly hard all day ensuring you are not the victim of public upskirt porn or the Marilyn Monroe style blown up dress.  Could it be that we made dresses for women the, essentially, cultural norm in a society that hyper-sexualizes them? I do not claim to be a student of fashion history, yet dresses certainly make women more easily sexually available from a practical, “let’s make this as accessible as possible” perspective. In the little bit of research I performed for this blog, it does appear that the voracious male sexual appetite has always played a central role in determining clothing norms.  Call me crazy, yet when you have to work all day ensuring your genitals do not fall out, a much greater cognizance of their presence is the natural result. As a man with pants we just tuck that bad boy away, zip up, and move on.
  • Wearing a dress all day made me feel somewhat scared and vulnerable.  As I walked through campus and endured the laughs, the dirty looks and even taunts (one young man said, “you wearing that dress makes me want to kiss you,” in jest, to be sure, though it still crossed his mind) I was not sure if I was even safe. Now I am quite certain if I did wear a dress everyday my level of sensitivity would decrease, yet this experience offered me a very small, yet profound insight into the vulnerability some disenfranchised others—such as the handicapped, effeminate males, “bull dike” lesbians or certain out-of-place ethnicities, may feel on a daily basis. Wow. I just wore a dress one day at a college campus as a stunt…while certain people have to live this as a way of life. This experience was surprisingly insightful and has given me a new perspective of cultural outliers.
  • Wearing a dress all day caused me to reach a higher level of critical understanding concerning cultural norms and practices. Why shouldn’t men wear dresses? It is just fabric that covers the body—which is really the entire purpose of clothing. Why have we attached such strong gender specific identification to clothing? It is just…CLOTHING. Who gives a flying f? Who was the council that got together and declared what is for men and what is for women… and what was the logic behind it? It makes absolutely no sense from a strictly “do things rationally for a valid reason” perspective. I realize that some men wear dresses as official garb, such as priests and supreme court justices, yet that is designed to place dress over existing clothing as to not let the outfit you are wearing underneath play any form of distraction in official proceedings. What other bullshit cultural norms do we we buy into everyday? This experience really has me thinking at a higher level of consciousness concerning what we do and why we do it.
  • Wearing a dress all day made me realize society has a double standard: Women can dress like men and it is socially acceptable though men cannot dress like women. Ok, my daughter, Tessa (the one who likes to go dress shopping for her dad)  disagrees with me on this one and I understand her point and do not necessarily disagree with it.  Her understanding is that this double-standard really is not a double-standard at all.  Men are the powerful in society and to emulate one through dress is acceptable; to emulate the less powerful is unacceptable—and perhaps this is true, yet, it still creates the same result —there is a stigma against males dressing as females, whatever the reason. Ruth Greyraven, a card toting member of the “female who dresses as male” club and biology professor at Crafton Hills College, had this to say about gender and clothing on Facebook:

Since 1968, I’ve been participating in a social experiment where I wear “men’s” clothes. I got sent home from school and threatened with expulsion the first few times, even when the outfit was a girlie-colored and femme-cut pantsuit. Times changed for women, but not as much for menwomen don’t get arrested for cross-dressing in this country. And a butch woman is far less likely to be beat to shit by queer bashers than a cross-dressing guy.

Agreed Ruth. In my courses, most female students do not wear dresses, rather, mostly, jeans and a t-shirt…traditional guy clothing. However, to my point above, why does this double-standard even exist? Clothing should not be an issue in the first place. Wearing a dress all day reaffirmed my commitment to continually challenge myself and others to test all cultural norms. Why? Not to be different, arrogant, unwilling or defiant—rather for the purpose of assisting the evolution of culture to be more loving and accepting of others, and, secondly, for the purpose of personal growth. As mentioned above, what else are we doing in 2016 that is traditional though not logical; unacceptable but with no basis; insensitive and for no good reason? Clothing is likely just one cultural contradiction of many.

So there you have it, my day dressed as a woman, in a dress. I had absolutely no idea the profound impact this would have on my psyche.

I dare you. Step out and explore new realms.  You will have no idea of the effects it may have on you, the individual, and culture, the collective. Jack did it…so can the rest of us.

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Why I Love My Partner Rene’

I am not big on the idea of public displays of affection (known in the biz as PDAs). Nor am I too hot on the idea of telling loved ones just how much I love them via social media–when I can just walk in the next room and tell them myself. In fact, my philosophy has long been that those couples who continually post love notes and “lovey dovey” pictures of their significant other on social media are likely the ones struggling the most in their PLLs (personal love lives).

It is as if the posting and public displays will somehow compensate for a struggling connection and perhaps may set the course straight. Or, maybe, we would just like to provide the world with an impression of our relationship that it is ideal when, in reality, it is far from it.  I have known far too many men and women on a personal relational level who I know are struggling greatly in their PLLs…yet one would NEVER know it via their social media. The deeper the struggle comes a commensurate rise in the “lovey dovey,” carefully crafted, impression given in their social media lives.

Ahhh, social media. The king of impression management.

Regardless of the motivation, this is my evolving and working theory in regards to interpersonal communication and technology. Therefore what I am about to write does not fall into this category. Or I do not think it does…at least on a conscious level. What I am about to write is not a description of my loving relationship; rather it is a tribute to the person, my partner, whom I deeply love. It is about her…not me…not us…her and only her.

So why this and why now? Two reasons:

One, I am currently reflective as this month marks the 31st year we have been officially together, 35 years unofficially, and we typically like to honor the other with our thoughts and feelings. Secondly, I would like to go public with my sentiments because we live in a world of divorce, strife and relational hardships…our relationship is a sign that, with creative and outside-the-box problem solving and thinking, long-term love and devotion can indeed exist.

To begin, when I tell people I have a partner named Rene’ they immediately think he is a gay Spanish dude. Far from it, Rene’ is very much a female who is my partner. Why partner? You can read about that here.

Rene’ is a partner in nearly every sense of the word. We partner in parenting, we partner in finance, we partner in domestic duties, we partner in nearly all aspects of our lives. Through mutual support, we even partner in our freedoms.

I have told Rene’ on a number of occasions that her funeral eulogy will be so unfortunate. In a time in which we whitewash and sing the praises of even the most miserly souls when they depart, people will be singing the saintly praises of Rene’ and only I will know that, not only are all the praises going to be true, they will also not go far enough in their exaltation.

She is selfless, deeply caring, deeply passionate, and without question the most loving person I have ever met.  Her life is a devotion to everyone else. When you ask her a “favor” she does not view it as a burden, rather an opportunity to practice who and what she really is…a continual and full-time giver.

Stories? I have far too many accounts that demonstrate the lengths she will go to serve others. If you are reading this and you know her, I am quite certain you do as well. 3am and you need a friend? Rene’s goodness knows no time and place. I guarantee it.

Yet, her hyper-kindness only scratches the surface of her greatness.

She is an impressive professional who owns and operates her own vocal coaching business. Her students will testify to her amazing ability as a professional and vocal coach. Even though her goal is for every student to nurture their inner voice and use it to serve humanity as a whole, this does not mean that many of her students do not go on to professional fame on broadway or television…they do.

She can vocally coach you to be the best singer and performer you can possibly be…you might say she is the self-actualization coach of the vocal world.

In her 40’s she went back to college and earned both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees, not to mention her certificate to teach college reading. I have NEVER met another person with her work ethic…ever…and I know some pretty hard working people.

Personally, she strives to be the best Rene’ she can be. At the age of 50, she took up pole dancing and prances about on the pole like a child on the monkey bars during morning recess. She sings, she dances, and extracts all the youthful exuberance possible out of life. It is of little surprise that many of her closest friends are half her age as her physical years and spirit years are not at all aligned -with the latter being decades younger.

I said this was not about us…and it is not. Certainly I love her with all my heart…though who would not? Loving her is like loving breathing…what is there not to love? It is I who is blessed and showered with her goodness everyday, all day.

Damn did I get lucky. Rene’s is probably the only person on the planet who lets me be completely me…who wants me to be completely me, and if you know me, well, I’m just sayin….

There you have it. Probably my one and only shot at “tributing” the love of my life on social media.

And, hey, if I can find it, I know there is hope for all of us.

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Alcohol

I never was much of  a drinker–“was” being the operative word in that phrase. I did the usual high school-football-player-getting-drunk-bullshit on occasion, (highlighted by passing out my senior year at a party and getting dolls laid upon my limp body by the party goers…sure it was humiliating though that is price you pay for this American rite de passage); yet, overall, I never really drank all that much. So much so, that I doubt more than a drop of alcohol ever crossed my lips in my 20’s and damn near most of my 30’s.  I am not sure what really changed for me, perhaps it was children who were getting older (no more infants) and some additional added stress in my  religious job of yore – a nice cold one at the end of the day became increasingly enticing for me around this time.

alcohol-on-shelvesDuring my 40’s, particularly late 40’s, was when my drinking accelerated – for a variety of reasons -reasons I really do not need to get into in this blog. Let’s just say the last 5 years or so (damn you Jason Robert Brown…you are a hack…but that is a different blog for a different day-“I could shove an ice pick in my eye, I could eat some fish from last July, but it wouldn’t  be as awful as a summer listening to Jason Robert Brown’s shitty lyrics…in Ohio or elsewhere“) I have overindulged. No, I have no DUI’s -actually not even a speeding ticket in 10 years- my relationships are awesome and my work productivity is as strong as ever. Perhaps the most unfortunate consequence of my drinking the past 5 years has been my poor liver…yet even liver blood tests I received back not too long ago were all normal -better than normal, in fact.

Drinking was, and is, fun. It is a delightful way to wind down from a long and productive day. Other than a cognitive awareness of what it potentially can do to my body, I have no good reason to stop…even temporarily. Outside of a drunk Facebook post or two or three or four, drinking life is good.

Yet now I am reconsidering the role of alcohol in my life, just as I have reconsidered the role of caffeine in my life: I enjoy it though I want to be addicted to nothing but the air in my lungs and the ground under my feet.

I guess I just had that voice inside me saying, “Slow down big guy…it’s a marathon not a sprint.” So, a few weeks ago, I decided to slow the hell down. I cut way back (I heard cold turkey was not a great idea) and now have not had a drink in a couple of weeks. Foregoing the evening nightcap is the toughest part of it all. Why? Because my evening nightcap became the mid-evening nightcap, became the early evening nightcap, became the late afternoon daycap. For the time being, I am opting to be sans cap.

Am I planning on drinking again? Well, I have no formal “plans” to drink. It’s not like I’ve drafted a memo that I am going to take a shot of Vodka on September 17 at 5:36pm rain or shine and cc’d it to my superiors; yet, I do not have plans not to drink, either.  I want to treat alcohol the same way I treat Hostess Powdered Donettes, every once in a while it’s an amazing treat…just can’t overindulge.

Yes, I know you AA people (I love you guys BTW, you guys are awesome) claim that there is no such thing as moderation when it comes to alcohol and perhaps you are absolutely correct–in fact, you probably are correct–but, like the child that doesn’t believe the oven is nearly as hot as mama says, some things the individual must find out on her own.

Therefore, it was very strange last week when I was spending the night in Redlands and saddled up to my favorite bar, The Royal Falconer.  At this time, I did something I have NEVER done in my life…ordered a non-alcoholic beer, the infamous O’Douls -the beer I once thought was for losers meandering down the sober walk of shame. The fact of the matter is that I had no idea whether or not bars even serve drinks without alcohol and, though the selection is few and far between, I have come to find out that most do. Nice. I sat at the bar and nursed my children’s drink while eating some fish tacos (Thursday night is taco night…$1.75 per…not bad) when the bartender inquired as to why I was drinking a non-alcoholic beer. I told him I have not had a drink in a week or so and am just trying to slow down.

Then the irony went down. The provider of all things alcohol to a thirsty Redlands crowd became the pious pontiff of prudence and temperance.

The bartender literally sat down behind the bar and began preaching to me his alcohol “testimony” -he has been sober for nine years–no meetings, no AA- a sermon complete with dates, times and details.

“I have no trouble serving anyone and have no judgement,” he explained, “but if I can help just one person who wants to quit, quit, I feel like I have helped the planet.”

Weird. This was like being at a nudist camp and the head nude dude is telling you to put your clothes on (yes, JUST like that). Or the priest instructing you to sin. Or the nutritionist telling you to eat more Hostess Donettes. Or the evangelical pastor telling you NOT to give your money. Or, better yet, Timothy Leary telling you to put away your acid and have some milk and cookies.

Just weird. Ironic, don’t ya think?

After a rather lengthy message, which included his mother dying of cirrhosis of the liver at age 44, the very self-aware, charismatic man offered a firm handshake (and I do mean firm, as in I will break your hand) while offering me the best of luck.

I sat at the bar and looked up at the mugs of some deceased former Royal Falconer patrons who, according to Pastor P. Bartender, essentially drank themselves to death over a period of years: A continual, stark reminder of the poison that those lined up at the well are ready to ingest. Now, I have I heard of buzzkills and boner killers before, but this one took the freakin cake. It is like sitting down and crackin a cold one with both the grim reaper and Jack Kervorkian.

This whole thing reminded me of a Buddhist aphorism along the lines of, “When you are ready to learn, a teacher will appear.”

Of course I have no doubt I will engage in the devil’s brew again, perhaps later than sooner or vice-versa. Yet, I will never forget that evening at The Royal Falconer. It could, eventually, be a game changer.

Well done, Pastor P. Bartender. At least ya got me thinking.

 

 

 

 

It’s Over…Good. Crafton Hills College Now And Into The Future

Each year our school hosts by far my favorite event of the year—graduation.  Every third or fourth Friday in May we celebrate the day with a breakfast in the morning and a wonderfully, positive, high-charged ceremony in the evening.

Not so much this year. Just wasn’t really feeling it.

Normally we faculty members have to scheme ways to beat the heat and the blinding, terrible glare of the late afternoon sun—so much so that the faculty purchased matching yellow and green sunglasses to sport during the outdoor celebration.

Did not need them this year.

Rather, the entire day was cold, rainy and downright gloomy; in retrospect it was actually the perfect weather conditions for a rather down and downright gloomy school year.

It was just one of those kind of years.

For me personally, the academic year began with teaching for a semester in London. Yes, the experience was overall very much worthwhile, highlighted by the fact my daughter and her man Nathan reside there and I could spend copious amounts of time with them, yet it was quite taxing as well and I am quite confident when I say I will never do it again.  The students were entirely disinterested in studying (as I would be); the program was not particularly well-run, and my experience ended with a trip to the emergency room (you can read more about that here).

Needless to say, when I arrived back in California in early December and drove my convertible home from LAX on a bright, cheery, eighty degree Saturday, even the traffic on the 405 was a welcome sight…ANYTHING but the cloudy, dark and rainy London days, crowded tube rides and masses of humanity—everywhere at all times. Some people just love that stuff…just not my cup of British tea.

It was when I arrived back to teaching in the Spring was that the parade of gloom hit the campus. The semester essentially began with a report by the state accreditation commission placing our campus—and the entire district—on “warning.” Having written a large portion of the accreditation report the year prior, I, particularly, was pretty bummed out. The infractions that placed our campus on warning were relatively minor and, for the most part, very easy fixes.  The general consensus remains that we were placed on warning due to some very problematic issues with the District Office…all issues that have, essentially, nothing to do with our campus. But, hey, it takes a village, right?

What was particularly demoralizing about this was that previously there was a sense of positive, growing optimism on campus. The school was, and is, growing in terms of both students and buildings. We were one of the few colleges in the state selected to offer Bachelor’s degree’s in certain fields. Prior to this “warning,” overall feelings of camaraderie and community were at all time highs.

As a result of this status, the school held a number of additional meetings (meetings I personally was a part of) to determine if we should give our current District Chancellor a vote of no confidence. A number of negative, contentious and overall yucky meetings later, we did.

Then the real tragedies struck. A very popular and well-liked student on campus, Adam, who had just been accepted into UC Berkeley, died in a tragic car accident. Just a couple of days later, a beautiful and intelligent young student, Amanda, was found dead.

The entire campus has been grieving these losses for weeks.

So, the campus community sat in the cold and rain on this Friday evening in May fairly exasperated. Tired. Happy it’s over and certainly ready to move on.

Yet something hit me as I sat in the gloom and the cold rain hit my face. Something that just snuck up on me as if out of nowhere. I just looked around and there it was.

I really love these people.

These people -staff. faculty, students- are my family. I really care about them. Perhaps by collectively mourning together and dealing with negative circumstances, we reached a new level of care and concern for each other that, perhaps, we could not experience in any other way.

I realized Crafton Hills College is not just a job, a paycheck and a place to do what I love. It is home to my family, my friends and the people on this planet I care deeply about.

I am quite certain that we, together, will rise like the Phoenix out of the ashes and become bigger, stronger and tighter than ever.

We carried on with our traditional end of the year faculty and staff party after the graduation. Our President, Dr. Cheryl Marshall, was particularly festive and far more gregarious than usual. It was little wonder why. It was very easy to see the pain and burden she has been carrying these past few months…you can read it on her face as easy as a pop up children’s book.

It was just one of those kinds of years.

Her festive and gregarious spirit screamed one thing: It is over—and it is time to move on.

Yet, now we move on stronger in spirit and community. We cry together, we mourn together, we party together, we dance together and we work together.

And it’s over. It’s goddam fucking over.

Good.

Now it is time to rest and get ready to rise out of these dirty ashes.

Together.

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