Saturday, March 15, 2014

The Future

The future could be a white canvas on an easel standing alone in a room, the smell of oil-based paint wafting through the air, awaiting the artist who will dab her brush into a multicolor palette and create a brave new world with thoughtful, magical brushstrokes.  Perhaps the future is a black screen or tabula rasa, a barren field ready to be nurtured into a thriving garden by visionaries, idealists, and others who think big and bold.  For me, the future, or to be more exact, our conceptualization of the future, of its possibilities, should not be any of these things.
 
Whether we’re talking about human nature or the future, I have reservations about the tabula rasa concept.  Edwin Black, author of War on the Weak, which recounts the eugenic movement in Europe and the U.S., wrote: “Mankind’s search for perfection has always turned dark.”  His cautionary words ring true and remind us of the pitfalls of futurist ambitions.  I just finished teaching a couple of modules on the Holocaust and Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge respectively.  If you’re looking for bold visions of the future, look no further!  Hitler had in his mind’s eye an Aryan utopia that would spread across Europe and Russia, while Pol Pot and his comrades sought to reverse the clock to Year Zero and usher in a new blissful era of agrarian communism.  Millions of murders later, the imagined future became a reified apocalypse.  No, let’s not imagine the future to be an amorphous and vacuous blob awaiting our high ideals to give it shape, our pure intentions to spread the gospel, or our social engineering skills to draw up the blueprints.
 
I can hear the objections already: Your head’s rooted in the systems of the past and you simply can’t think outside the box.  As it turns out, I believe in a better future; it’s just that I’m not quite the wide-eyed optimist like my sanguine friends.  One of my favorite contemporary thinkers, Steven Pinker, makes the case that humans have become less violent over the millennia.  His book Better Angels of Our Nature draws upon a vast array of statistics, the historical record, and explanatory models.   I believe we can transform our social consciousness and find a better way to live as a world community.  I’m convinced that we can make our society more egalitarian and just.  We can move on from the sins of the past and forge a new order.  It won’t come easy.  It never has.  And it won’t come about by either neglecting the past or our nature.
 
I do like the image of an artist refashioning the future, as I fancy myself an artist at times, especially when I'm enjoying an alcoholic beverage or I’m sitting behind a piano keyboard.  In my vision, though, the canvas is not pristine.  It’s not a blank slate.  It contains oil stains and other imperfections.  With brush in hand, I’m poised before a canvas that has markings, vestiges of the past like a palimpsest.  The challenge and perhaps fun of creating a better future is to work with or around what we’re given.  Make no mistake.  We need people who are able to peer beneath the thin veneer of the status quo, of tradition, of business as usual, and see new horizons that have yet to be.  But the past and future must always coexist as a continuum in the futurist’s mind—a perfect blend of ideation and context.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Weekend in Early March

My daughter Jessi is on spring break from the Naval Academy this week. I picked her up at the Milwaukee airport Friday evening.  It was the first time we were both in uniform together, as I had spent the day on military orders at Fort McCoy and had driven straight to the airport.  The long drive home provided a great opportunity to have a good one-on-one discussion.  I knew she’d be hanging with friends most of the time, so I’ll take what I can get.  That said, I did have the opportunity to go out to dinner last night with her and her friend Lauren, who came down for the weekend to hang with Jessi.  After dinner the three of us saw the movie Non-Stop in which Liam Neeson kicked some ass.  (There’s a bit of nostalgia here, as I had taken Jessi to see the Liam Neeson movie Taken a few years ago, mostly so she’d become aware of the problem of sex trafficking in Europe; the movie ended up being really good, so it is a fond memory for us.)

Unfortunately I have to teach this coming week, so once I leave here tonight for the other town where I teach, I won’t be able to see Jessi until Thursday or Friday.  I’ll take her to the airport next Saturday morning and have another opportunity to talk and catch up.  Overall, things are looking up.  I was able to hang with Jessi and family.  It’s daylight savings time, so the days will be longer.  Above all, the weather is become more temperate; at least it’s warm enough to do some serious running and outdoors recreation.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

The World in a Coffee Cup

I have had a splendid time these past couple of months discussing with colleagues what it means to bring a global or intercultural perspective into the classroom.  The faculty and staff at the university where I teach are receptive to and candid about this topic, though they come at it from different disciplines, experiences, and perspectives.  It’s been fun and insightful hearing about their teaching strategies, as well as their travels abroad or in some cases their experiences in balancing two cultures as an immigrant or “hyphenated” American.  In April I’ll be presenting a poster at a conference with a Spanish instructor.  Both of us received a stipend to promote a global perspective on our campus, as we’re fellows in an intercampus cohort program on “internationalizing the curriculum.”  Based on the interviews, the poster will (hopefully) provide a springboard for discussion.  I look forward to engaging conversations at the conference, sharing with other academics the wonderful ways my colleagues are exposing students to other cultures and points of view. 

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Just Want to Live

I just want to live.  Here I stand, I can do no other.  God help me, amen.  I’m a wayfarer, just traipsing around this big old globe, which by the way is careening out of control in a seemingly chaotic universe or perhaps being gradually snuffed out under the dark auspices of capricious and sadistic deities—I don’t know.  I’m just taking in data, absorbing phenomena, livin’ la vida loca, soaking up the cathode rays, and drinking in ultraviolet radiation, a foul and pestilent congregation of vapors hovering over this Earth, that is to say, the devil’s playground.  I just want to live!

Monday, March 3, 2014

Urine and Worse

I pee when I laugh, every time.  The funnier the joke that someone is telling me, the more forceful the gush.  Yeah, the wittier the comment, the mightier the amber river (or clear river, depending on how hydrated I am).  It’s like there's a terrorist attack going on inside my trousers and the bomb inadvertently set off the sprinkler system.  Since I giggle so often, and since I evidently have the mother of all urinary bladders, I see pants as nothing more than an ineffective spray-protector.  Colleagues no longer chat with me at my cubicle, for my desk, computer, file cabinet and bookshelf reek of urine.  In fact, my office chair, formerly blue, is now aqua green, which incidentally matches nicely the turquoise stone paperweight on my desk.  The entire copier room is likewise saturated with the stuff, as I once laughed uncontrollably while making handouts for my class because a co-worker walked up to me at the time and started creating weird sounds with her armpits.  Look, I realize that what I’m telling you is disgusting, but there are worse things.  It’s not like I’m a serial killer.  What would you rather have: a serial killer in your office killing people or some splotches of urine here and there?  That said, I must concede that I do have a more serious problem.   You see, dear reader, I defecate when I cry, almost always.  Given my melancholy disposition and bouts with depression, it’s like I’m a permanent resident of Shitsville.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Mud

I fell into a hole a few months ago and, try as I might, could not climb my way out.  Dusk was settling in and the fog was thick as soup.  I was traversing a remote woodland area, reflecting on life’s meaning and taking a much coveted respite from the rigors of mediocre academic and military careers, when the ground gave way beneath me and I plummeted into a pit of mud.  Many people have asked why I have not written in this blog since November—and by “many people,” I mean my mom, dad, and dog. Well, there you go. Some think that I fell off the wagon, so to speak, making love to yet another innocent bottle of whiskey.  Others were convinced that I joined a caravan of Gypsies and became essentially a vagabond or traveling minstrel.  According to another theory, I’m actually living in Peru under a false identity, eking out a living by selling llama cheese to miners while at the same time supposedly operating a meth lab.  No, I simply fell and couldn’t get up.  When I was down there, in the muck and mire, slipping and sliding like a trapped animal, I thought much about life…and of death, but I survived.  The earth came close to reclaiming this earthen vessel; indeed, my spirit is still wallowing in the mud.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

My Service to Humanity

One of my favorite topics to talk about is the Homo sapiens.   I come across this species almost every day: in the coffee shop, at work, under the boardwalk, even in my own home.  It’s sometimes scary to think that these simian creatures are just walking around, unattended, with nothing separating them from you but some sort of unspoken (and tenuous) agreement that harming one another is not in anyone’s best interest.  While I appreciate these biped mammals when I need some help or social interaction, I never forget that this is the same species that gave the world Hitler and Stalin.  You know what I mean?

Anyway, have you ever wondered why people smile at each other when they inadvertently make eye contact in passing?  I mean, why smile?  Who came up with this inane facial expression as a response?  Won’t this social custom only serve to perpetuate the myth of human kindness and empathy and cover up the fact that we’re just angry chimps wearing clothes and a deceptive smile?  Besides, how can anyone ever grow as a person if someone is never challenged but simply smiled at, as if everything’s hunky-dory?  See what I mean?   So I’ve decided that when I make eye contact with someone, I’m going to shake my head, not smile.  You see, my mammalian friend, when people see me shake my head they’ll be thrown off.  They’ll wonder what’s wrong.  They’ll look inside themselves, and maybe, just maybe, they’ll search for a way to turn someone’s shaking head of disapproval into an affirming nod.  The world will be a better place as a result. I won't shake my head merely to flout convention, but as a service to humanity, whatever that word means.