Teachers know the feeling all too well: the natural buzz of summer crashes when fall preparation must begin.  Yes, the August crash is inevitable.  Now, I still have three weeks of break left, but I’m a planner who doesn’t like to leave work until the last minute.  While it might sound strange, I always look forward to a new academic year because it’s full of possibility, and I wonder about who I will encounter or how my life will change.  Some might call me quixotic, but the world is full of cynics hooked on their own emotional poison.  No thanks, that drug kills dreams of a better world.  I’d rather embrace new challenges to move forward intellectually and professionally.  After all, our time on this rock is limited.

This fall I’m teaching POL 107: Introduction to Political Theory for the first time.  Tonight I finished a draft of the syllabus.  We have so much to read and discuss in 12 weeks (e.g. Rousseau, Plato, Emerson, MacKinnon, Gandhi).  It’s rather difficult to plan a calendar when you know that you can’t possibly include all of the great pieces worthy of our attention.  This experience is pushing me as much as it pushes my students.  I’m looking forward to the seminar discussions that await us because I know the capabilities of most who have enrolled.  Aggressive recruiting helped us cross the threshold so the class would make, and the Marketing Department at the college deserves an acknowledgement for creating the provocative flyer that you see above.  Let’s.  Do.  This.

Thunder Mountain

Inexplicably, I’m drawn to the terrain in Kit Carson Country, which is about a hour southwest of Carson City across the state line in California.  So, I chose to explore Thunder Mountain on the edge of the backcountry.  The trail is 8.4 miles round trip, i.e. out and back, with 1775 feet of elevation gain.  It begins in a quiet forest and then ascends above the fir and pine trees to a long ridge that leads to an exposed summit of rough volcanic rock high above Silver Lake (White 2016).  I’ve never seen so many butterflies and grasshoppers.  They swirled around the patches of wildflowers outside of the wooded areas.  There were very few people on the trail that afternoon and I had the summit all to myself where I took in the vast expanse while resting for several minutes.  Solo hikes give me time to think, to process life experiences of all kinds and contemplate ideas about future projects.  I appreciate the opportunity to be all alone for hours while surrounded by incredible natural beauty that will not be taken for granted.

Reference

White, M.  (2016).  Tahoe-Reno: 201 spectacular outings in the Lake Tahoe region, Second Edition.  Birmingham, AL: Wilderness Press

Down into the valley we go…

Why did Yousefi and I move to Carson City?  The answer is simple: housing options.  After deciding that we needed a better place to live this past spring, I researched the available properties on the South Shore.  Let’s just say that there isn’t much for working professionals to choose from.  Many of the apartments and cabins listed didn’t have enough space or begged to be gutted (perhaps condemned?).  No thanks, the graduate student lifestyle is well in the rear view mirror.  Also, there’s fierce competition for anything worthy of consideration.  One property owner told me that she received twenty-two inquiries within hours of posting the advertisement for her cabin online.

Frustrated, we expanded the search ring to include the Carson Valley and a handful of great places appeared.  We chose an 800 square foot renovated cottage just blocks from downtown, which has coffee shops (e.g. Comma Coffee), restaurants (e.g. The Basil), the Nevada State Museum, and the Nevada State Assembly.  Yes, this means we’ll have a commute during the academic year that clocks in at just under forty minutes to campus.  That’s okay with us because we now live in the Great Basin Desert with amazing views of the Sierra Nevada and Lake Tahoe is just to the west in our side yard.  Since I paid off my student loans in May (man, what a financial relief), I’m saving to buy a house down here.  While we’ll miss living “on the hill,” we’re really happy with the rental home we found.

Honestly, I can’t remember the first time I ever heard The Exploited.  Late teens?  Since then, they’ve been one of my favorite old school punk bands along with others acts like Chaos U.K. and G.B.H. The combination of politics, anger, and hooks in their music has long appealed to me, especially when you grow up in vapid suburb that could never satisfy your interests.  Now, you won’t find a profound manifesto on any of their albums (hell, they could never be Crass or Subhumans), so don’t bother looking for one from them.  What you will find is a raucous authenticity that I really connect with.  That’s part of why I’m going to see them play later this month in Sacramento.  The other reason is that they’re celebrating their 40th anniversary.  Yes, we’re all getting older.  Wattie Buchan, their vocalist, suffered a heart attack five years ago during a performance.  Somehow he managed to survive and started playing gigs again.  All I can say is that I have a lot of respect for a guy who can still deliver at age 61 while sporting a red mohawk.  To me, he’s proof that “punk’s not dead” in 2019.  I’m looking forward to hearing songs like “Alternative,” “Cop Cars,” “Dead Cities,” “Let’s Start a War,” and “Chaos is My Life.”  Sound ironic coming from me?  Maybe.  Maybe not.

Click here for the image source.

How do I like to decompress from two busy quarters of writing presentation slides and reading numerous excepts for my classes at the college?  Drive down to Las Vegas to meet up with my friend Joelle and then hike in Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area (click here to see the Visitor Guide and here for a video).  This year I’m looking to push myself with more outdoor activity.  So, Turtlehead Mountain sounded like the perfect challenge.  The trail is only 5 miles round trip, however it has a rather strenuous 2000 feet of elevation gain.  Officials rate it as “difficult” in comparison to others that you’ll find there.  It is, and many steps reminded me that spending too many hours sitting behind a desk has consequences.  Segments of the trail require scrambling and there are even some narrow parts where you feel like you’re walking on a ledge.  That said, we made it to the peak in about 2.5 hours where the views were stunning.  I felt so good during our descent and can’t wait to plan my next outing after I return to the Tahoe Basin.

Click here to see a better view of the mountain that captures its real size.

Last stop: South Lake Tahoe, CA

I’ve been living on the South Shore of Lake Tahoe for over four months now and my life has changed in certain ways.  Yes, I’ve become a Subaru Forester-driving, Patagonia hoody-wearing, mountain and forest-loving Californian.  No apologies.  The choice to move here easily makes it onto the shortlist of the best decisions that I’ve made in my life to date.  This is where I’d like to stay for the rest of my career.  Every day I get to spend time with students and colleagues I really like and I’m able to gaze up at the Sierras that surround me wherever I go in town.  Four states in six years.   Undoubtedly, there’s a lot to process on multiple levels.  That said, I finally feel like I’m home.

When I moved to Arizona in July of 2012, I lived in a serene desert with incredible wildlife (e.g. chuckwallas, scorpions, rattlesnakes), but didn’t enjoy teaching for the college in Lake Havasu City.  Then, some folks in the Houston area offered me a better position that afforded me the ability to grow, but I could not adjust to eastern Texas or a flat, suburban wasteland of strip malls.  After all, I originally left Illinois for something more than what the Midwest could ever offer, and I’m not one to forgo my plans because I act with purpose.  Major life decisions are intentional.  Rationalizations will never satisfy.  Last winter when I saw the job posting for my current teaching position, I didn’t have to think twice about applying for it.  Somehow I always figured that I would end up in Arizona again or maybe Nevada or New Mexico, but no one can predict what opportunities they’ll be presented with.  So, I took another chance and fate brought me to California instead.  No regrets.

The week before last I wrapped up my first quarter teaching at the college.  The final exam and symposium paper scores have been entered and quarter grades have been submitted.  Honestly, I couldn’t ask for a better place to work.  My mentor is a true intellectual with lots of insights to share.  My office mate is honest and direct and likes to ask tough questions of everyone, including administrators.  These are people I appreciate because they embody qualities I respect.  We have a unique mixture of faculty and staff who have gravitated here for different reasons.  In some ways, it feels like a family (my boss hugged me when I arrived).  Our institution is small, so there’s nowhere for anyone to hide.  The students are much like those I’ve taught at other schools.  Most show up and do the work as expected.  This fall, my exceptional class turned out to be U.S. History.  We had numerous thought-provoking seminar style discussions about a variety of topics – from the causes of the Salem Witch Trials to the politics of the Constitutional Convention.

“So we’re leaving here on a less traveled road…”

Without question, South Lake Tahoe is a subculture of committed outdoor enthusiasts.  People hike, camp, backpack, rock climb, kayak, ski, snowboard, snowshoe, and anything else you can imagine that gets them outside.  I’ve lost track of the number of times that I’ve been asked about how I’ll spend the winter months.  Even my doctor told me where I could take ski lessons.  While skiing doesn’t interest me, I may attempt snowboarding sometime in the years to come.

So far, I’ve been able to go on a couple of good hikes near Kirkwood, California, which is about a forty-five minute drive from where I live.  In early September, I ventured alone up to Lake Margaret (5 miles round trip).  I found it to be a great trail to get reacquainted with nature.  Crossing a stream on a long, fallen tree tested my sense of balance.  Then, a gust of wind up on a high cliff reminded me of my own mortality – that a small mistake like getting too close to the edge could be fatal.  In late September, my former colleague from Arizona and I hiked up to Emigrant Lake (8 miles round trip).  Joelle is always great company and I’m happy that we took in the amazing views together.  This trail winds through forest with some rocky terrain before reaching the unadulterated lake, where I saw remnants of last winter’s snowfall high up on a ridge.  Short afternoon hikes like these pushed me because I haven’t done any serious training and I can feel a difference in my breathing at higher elevations where the air is thinner.

One of the issues that has perplexed me about California is the cost of living in comparison to many other parts of the country.  How do people afford to live here?  I asked that question long before I became a resident.  Yes, California is more expensive than Texas, Arizona, and Illinois.  You quickly notice it when you look at the cost of rent, gas, and food.  My rent is about the same as I paid in Houston, but I have a bit less square footage.  Fuel is much higher “on the hill” than anywhere else I’ve seen in the area: $4.20 per gallon this summer and into the fall.  Groceries cost as much as $30 more per week.  Part of this is because we’re in California and part of it is that South Lake Tahoe is a tourist destination.  Now, there is a good way to save yourself some money when you live in the basin: periodically shop in the Carson Valley, i.e. Nevada, for certain items (e.g. teaching supplies, over-the-counter medicine) and fill up your tank when you’re down there because the prices are much closer to what I’ve paid in other states.  Most Californians don’t have this advantage available to them, but fortunately we do given our close proximity to the state line.  Since I live rather simply, I don’t have any problems.  I just bought a new car and will pay off my student loans early.

As for buying property in town, well, that might be difficult.  I’ve done some preliminary research on the local housing market and it’s rough up here because homes are really scarce while at the same time highly desirable (65% are owned by people who live outside the basin).  This drives up the cost.  It’s common to see small (i.e. 700 square foot) renovated cabins with backyards that go for more than $300,000.  I have seen listings for two bedroom, one bathroom condos around $200,000, but they would need new floors as well as kitchen counters and cabinets.  Personally, I don’t have a problem with hiring a contractor to do that kind of work for me if I really like a place.  We’ll see what happens.  I’m also looking at partially wooded, empty lots where I could put a tiny house on a concrete foundation and then have a deck built.  This is a real possibility.  Whichever option I choose, I want to put 20% (or more) down and think I can save this over the next four years.

How else have I been keeping busy?  In the evenings, I’ve been reading to unwind before I fall asleep.  Somehow I missed the publication of Keith Morris’ My Damage: The Story of a Punk Rock Survivor in 2016, so I needed to catch up.  He’s long been one of my favorite vocalists.  Two of the bands he sang for, more specifically Black Flag and the Circle Jerks, shaped the punk-hardcore genre.  Moreover, Off! is so intense.  I really enjoyed learning about the early days of L.A. punk (i.e. the people, bands, shows, clubs) as well as his ability to overcome alcohol and cocaine addiction and the A&R work he did outside of performing.  I’ve also revisited some other great titles that I originally read in my 20s: The Stranger by Albert Camus and Three Lives for Mississippi by William Bradford Huie.  If possible, I’d like to find ways to incorporate them into my classes.

“Rising up from the ash, he’s a phoenix…”

I’ve planned a short road trip to the L.A. area to drop by Amoeba Music in Hollywood (click here for a video) and visit a friend from graduate school in Costa Mesa.  We’re guaranteed to have a great conversation.  Yes, I will probably tune in KROQ (106.7 FM) for a bit while I’m there.  Then, I’m headed to Lake Havasu City, Arizona to have dinner with some former colleagues and hike in SARA Park.  Chuckwallas here I come!  Now, I just have to think about the soundtrack for the drive because it will set the tone for me.  Hmmm.  For some odd reason, both Champion and Broadway Calls immediately come to mind because I know my mood will vacillate between hardcore and pop punk.  Plus, I can’t forget a new favorite that I’ve recently discovered: The Interrupters.  That’s what I’m going to listen to when I roll into Santa Monica or cruise over to Venice Beach.  Don’t ask me why…

Lastly, I have an important life development to share: I have a new girlfriend who I really care about.  Yes, it happened unexpectedly.  Her name is Yousefi.  She’s intelligent, educated, hilarious, thoughtful, genuine, vegan, mature, empathetic, and beautiful.  I’ve had a handful of serious relationships over the years, but this is something very different for me.  We connect, and I knew it the moment we met last September.  This is partly about who we are as individuals, but it’s also about where we’re at in our respective lives.  I feel comfortable with her and I’m cautiously optimistic, so let’s just leave it at that.

The day I drove up Highway 50 from the Carson Valley and reached South Lake Tahoe, all of the inner conflict about my living situation just dispersed.  I felt elated and calm.  You have no idea how much it hurt when I departed Arizona in late 2013 (I still miss the Mohave Desert) or how many times I cursed Texas for a variety of different reasons (Houston, it’s not totally your fault).  The path that I’ve taken has presented multiple challenges, but I’ve overcome the disappointments to continue building a life that I find meaningful.  You have to be relentless if you want to achieve your goals.  I’m 45, so my show is more than half over.  Settling is never the answer when you know in your heart that you want something else – that you belong somewhere else.  Venue matters.  Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.  I feel content that I’m now living somewhere that I’m meant to be.

Photographs: Emerald Bay, Lake Tahoe (November 2018); walking on campus at Lake Tahoe Community College (November 2018); fallen tree across a creek along the trail leading to Lake Margaret (September 2018); Emigrant Lake (September 2018); up on a cliff near Lake Margaret (September 2018).

Goodbye H-Town

“I’m not walking away from here with a bunch of things I still need to declare…” -Bane

On Saturday, I will depart Houston to pursue a new teaching position in South Lake Tahoe, California.  Yes, I’m moving to the Sierra Nevada Mountains!  While I lived in between three mountain ranges during my stint in Arizona, I have never lived in them or at 6237 feet above sea level.  I’m ecstatic about this opportunity for both professional and personal reasons.  First, it will afford me the ability to grow as an educator.  Secondly, I will be able to return to some of the outdoor activities I enjoy.  Over the last few weeks, I’ve been making arrangements, packing boxes, and saying goodbye to the people I care about.  There have been some sad moments.  In addition, I’ve been reflecting on my experiences in H-Town because my time here has made me a stronger, and better, person.

How did I spend the last five years of my life?  Moving.  Planning lessons.  Teaching students.  Collaborating with my colleagues. Questioning ideas and policies.  Challenging myself and others.  Grading papers.  Evaluating instructors.  Contemplating options.  Exploring my immediate surroundings.  Volunteering with local nonprofit groups.  Advocating.  Protesting.  Blogging.  Playing rhythm and lead guitar in a band.  Recording songs.  Remembering.  Self-examining.  Changing my perspective.  Loving my partner.  Visiting museums and parks.  Buying albums.  Buying a new car.  Walking the asphalt paths around lakes.  Observing turtles, snakes, and alligators.  Visiting the amazing oak tree at Glenwood Cemetery.  Escaping the summer heat.  Hiking.  Dating.  Perusing the shelves of book stores.  Listening to punk rock and hardcore.  Listening to Houston Public Media.  Paying tolls.  Skateboarding.  Reading books.  Writing articles.  Talking to people on the patios of independent coffee shops.  Driving to Austin for, among other things, vegan food.  Attending shows at different venues…

“There’s something good waiting down this road…”

Let’s address the negative.  What won’t I miss?  Allergies and regular sinus infections.  Traffic.  Construction.  Miles of banal suburban housing developments that all look the same.  Flooding.  Hurricanes.  Silt laden beaches that people drive their cars across.  Oil refineries.  Tanker spills.  Chemical companies.  Humidity.  Right wing conspiracy theories like Jade Helm 15.  Laws that undermine a woman’s right to obtain an abortion.  State efforts to militarize the U.S.-Mexico border.  Offensive rhetoric and legislation that targets transgender people.  Laws that target immigrants.  Political arguments about the content of textbooks and titles of courses.  Political opposition to the fracking ban in Denton and the plastic bag ban in Laredo.  The inconsistency of state officials who complain about intervention from Washington, D.C., while meddling in local affairs.

So, what am I going to miss?  A handful of my colleagues and students at the college.  Chai lattes with soy milk in the side yard at Antidote.  Vinal Edge.  The deep concrete bowls and snake run at the North Houston Skatepark.  Discussions about teaching methods with Esther and Kim.  Serving as the board secretary of the Texas Wildlife Rehabilitation Coalition.  Hermann Park.  My sessions with Roberta.  Arranging songs at the practice space on the Eastside.  Montrose Boulevard.  Buffalo Bayou Park.  Tea and conversation with Mayia.  Driving through downtown on I-45 at night.  Teaching my themed Honors Texas Government class.  Alligators sleeping alongside the paths at Brazos Bend State Park.  Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.  Continuing education classes at Rice University.  The feeling I get when I browse the shelves at Brazos Bookstore.  Dusti Rhodes emceeing The Moth.  Films at the River Oaks Theater.

“A wasted life is worse than death.  It’s up to you to figure out the rest…”

Dating in Houston has taught me more than I ever imagined it would.  My experiences have engendered a shift in the way I think about relationships.  As a person in his mid 40s who has chosen a nontraditional path, it’s challenging to find someone that you really connect with.  I have internalized important lessons that now inform my thinking when it comes to interpersonal communication.  For example, I need to be more delicate in how I approach certain subjects if I would like to express my concern(s) without upsetting my partner.  Sensitivity and patience are imperative.  Furthermore, you cannot ignore ‘red flags’ such as unhealthy family dynamics, perpetual monologues, victim narratives, and empty rationalizations for poor life choices.  Trust your gut when you know a situation isn’t right.  On a positive note, I’ve spent a bit of time with a variety of highly intelligent, professional women from other countries like Vietnam, Iran, Sweden, and Colombia.  Through some lengthy conversations, I learned a little about each of their respective lives and cultures.  I’m glad we had the chance to meet even if a committed relationship didn’t evolve.

This past academic year at the college turned out to be both productive and rewarding.  I feel thankful that my dean entrusted me with the role of department chair because it allowed me to continue building a solid foundation of administrative skills that started with my civic engagement work.  While I had served on hiring committees in the past, I had never been the person in charge before.  To me, choosing your colleagues is one of the most important responsibilities that you can have beside teaching.  We hired some great people who really fit into the institution.  The members of the committee and my lead faculty made this possible.  I will always be grateful to them for their assistance.  Moreover, I’m glad that I took the time to get to know my colleague, Mayia.  She and I completed a ten week “article marathon” (her term, not mine) in the fall and became friends in the process.  We talked about so much – from pedagogy to social issues.  I’m going to miss her along with others that I respect.  When I drove out of the parking lot this afternoon, I felt satisfied with the contribution that I made to the school in the short period of time that I worked there.

I believe in conscious choices.  We each have agency, and, with that, a responsibility to push ourselves.  Make changes, not excuses.  The next chapter is waiting for us, so it’s time to turn the page to see what unfolds.  We should be looking forward with great anticipation because our stories are far from over.

There’s a good chance that a lot of what we own will one day end up in a landfill  somewhere and take years to degrade (click here and here for tables on the amount of time).  I’ve often wondered about all of the e-waste that we produce on an annual basis.  What happens to the items we discard?  Many people don’t recycle paper and plastic, especially if it’s inconvenient.  I can’t imagine they think about the other items around their house.  We can’t keep putting so much in the ground with an “out of sight, out of mind” attitude because that isn’t in anyone’s long term best interest.  Over the last several years, I’ve recycled a television and a couple of computers along with batteries and cords (click here and here for more information on where to go).  Recently, when I discovered that the CD player in my stereo system didn’t function properly, I faced a dilemma: pitch it and buy a new one or keep it and go to a local repair shop.  I decided to have it fixed largely because I don’t want to further contribute to the growing consumption and disposal problems that we face.  People might laugh at me and say “But it’s less expensive to just buy a new one, John.”  I guess it really depends on how you look at the situation.  To me, the greater cost is the damage that we’re doing to the planet.

Click here and here for the image sources and here for a related article.

After years of controversy, the Texas State Board of Education unanimously agreed to adopt a high school Mexican-American studies course, but then nine members voted to change its name from “Mexican-American Studies” to “Ethnic Studies: An Overview of Americans of Mexican Descent.”  While this might appear rather innocuous, the decision speaks to a much deeper issue that has some upset.  For example, board member Marisa Perez-Diaz from Converse, Texas called it “discrimination” in an online statement according to an article in the Houston Chronicle.

The debate leading up to these decisions and the second vote taken are vestiges of an ugly history that we have yet to fully reconcile – both here in Texas and across the nation.  As much as people would like to forget the unpleasant segments of our past, they will always exist and should never be overlooked.  What underlying attitudes and assumptions propelled Manifest Destiny?  Why did President Polk urge Congress to declare war on Mexico in 1846?  How were the Mexicans in Texas treated in the decades that followed?  If you have a conscience, then you will find the answers to these questions unsettling, in part, because they aren’t congruent with our country’s democratic principles.  Now, even the most iniquitous parts of U.S. history deserve to be examined out of respect for those who experienced them.  After all, racism and ethnocentrism permeated our society and transcend time only to (re-)surface in different forms.

What troubles me is board member David Bradley’s comments to the Houston Chronicle (please see the article linked above) because they’re evidence of the problem that needs to be addressed.  Consider the phrase he used to describe the efforts of people who opposed the name change: “they want to continue antagonizing the board.”  None of the articles that I’ve read indicate that protesters have antagonized anyone.  In addition, he said the following about the course: “it’s become so weaponized.”  Unfortunately, this language fails to demonstrate any understanding of ethnic identity while dismissing valid Mexican-American concerns.  Not only are these phrases insulting, but when read in context they are arrogant, antiquated, and anti-intellectual.

The expression of such attitudes – either in the form of a vote or remarks to the media – present us with an important challenge that begs our attention.  We must use opportunities like this to engage others in a thoughtful conversation about ethnicity – a conversation that acknowledges people of color and builds human relationships in the process.  Here we have a responsibility to listen to other voices and develop an understanding of those who are different from ourselves.  All positive social change begins with the action of individuals.  Let it begin with you.

Click here for image source.

Insecurity is a poison that kills human relationships.  I wish that more people grasped this fact and those who struggle with it had the courage to examine the person they’ve become.  As complex emotional creatures, most of us have felt unsure of ourselves at some point just like we’re inclined to occasionally feel angry or depressed.  Nobody exhibits confidence in every situation no matter how much they’d like to pretend otherwise.  Vulnerability is part of the human condition.  However, a serious problem exists when self-doubt consumes a person and affects (infects?) everything he or she thinks and does.

Over the last decade, I’ve encountered a number of disturbingly insecure people in my personal and professional life.  Most of the behavior I’ve witnessed leaves me with questions about their childhood and adolescence because family dynamics play a major role in shaping us.  Manipulative, domineering mothers.  Alcoholic, abusive fathers.  What happened to them during their formative years?  While I would like to understand them, it’s really difficult when you’re on the receiving end of maladaptive behavior that you find hurtful, even malicious.  Here’s a brief list of what I’ve observed: dishonesty, arrogance, narcissism, paranoia, jealously, and spitefulness.  Toxic, I know.

Reflective.  Apologetic.  Heartfelt.  Learn something from Mike Ness.

What’s more, these folks often engage in a high level of brand management that involves diverting attention away from their own flaws.  They distract with excuses or mislead with outright lies (or lies by omission).  Their unrestrained pride becomes a sickness that blinds them as they spit one rationalization after the next.  Everyone else is to blame when something goes wrong and you’ll never hear them apologize when they make a mistake.  Self-examination might reveal their weaknesses, their inadequacies.  Personal reflection might undermine the false self-image they’ve projected from their cracked foundation.  They can’t admit fault because they’d be forced to abandon the facade and confront who they are inside, thereby uncovering pain that just might crush them.  The path of emotional awareness is too difficult to walk, so they’d rather leave everything buried somewhere that can’t be seen.  Instead, these charlatans masquerade as good people and turn the rest of us into their collateral damage as they scrape through life with their callow theatrics.

Now, a person can change his or her routines, job, clothing, partner, and location, but the pain can only be suppressed for so long.  In time, its manifestations will eventually strain, and then perhaps totally compromise, any bonds established with people they purport to care about.  Relationships will dissolve when the negative behavior escalates because some of it is emotionally abusive.  For example, if an individual finds enjoyment in ruthlessly provoking or disparaging other people, then he or she has crossed a line.  Their defense mechanism is pathological.  While it makes sense for anyone to protect themselves from perceived threats, intentionally inflicting pain on convenient targets speaks to an issue of misplaced anger.  Their insecurity has run amok.

So, how do you handle people like this?  After learning some invaluable lessons, I’ve decided that I will politely confront someone when it’s warranted, and, if my suspicions are correct, then I will immediately distance myself from the person.  Last summer, I dated a woman who exhibited some of the behaviors that I mentioned above.  After listening to multiple stories about her failed marriages, I asked: “What did you do wrong in these relationships?”  Unfazed by my question, she continued with her victim narrative.  Even when I gave her examples of mistakes that I’ve made in my life, she refused to admit any of her own.  As a result, I extricated myself from that situation before she had the opportunity to do me any harm.  I have a healthy fear of emotional vampires.

“It’s how you choose to live your life that counts…”

At the office, I won’t collaborate with these people unless it’s absolutely necessary.  I want nothing to do with their chicanery, ineptitude, or animus.  All of my communication is direct and kept to a minimum.  Any meetings always include another person so there’s a witness to what has been said.  Furthermore, I disengage them because it’s only a matter of time before they say or do something vindictive in a deluded quest for validation.  I’ve seen some people become verbally aggressive to control the conversation, while others are passive aggressive to precipitate a reaction.  Either way, they need to be avoided.  Fewer entry points means fewer opportunities to be attacked.  They don’t deserve your attention or energy.

Unfortunately, we’re all going to meet people like this. In the event that you do, walk away and take solace in the following: you didn’t invest any more of yourself in someone so unworthy of what you have to offer.  Move on.  Happiness is the best antidote for such poison, and, don’t worry, they’ll soon be out of your system (and hopefully your life) forever.  Also, remember that the truth always finds its way to the surface.  When it eventually does, these people won’t have anywhere to hide.

Click here for image source.

Even in the punk scene, thoughtful idealism can be really hard to come by.  The day I found Dissent’s self-titled LP (1988) at Toad Hall in Rockford, Illinois, I discovered a great record that originated in one of the most unexpected of places.  Without question, I connect with the band’s leftist political consciousness and I appreciate anyone who has the courage to champion a cause.  So, what caught my attention as I scanned the record bins?  As you can see, their album cover features Albert Einstein.  Then, I leafed through the lengthy booklet inside.  This is a record of substance.  Some of the issues they address with their lyrics and writing include poverty, hunger, animals, the environment, war, scandal, nuclear weapons, racism, and political prisoners.  Unfortunately, here we are thirty years later and much of that content is just as relevant as ever.  When I read the liner notes, I feel like I’m reading the words of young people who are intelligent enough to know what’s wrong in the world and passionate enough to demand that we do better.  The music is predominately standard mid-tempo punk with vocals that might not appeal to some listeners because the singer sounds more irritated (and sarcastic?) than angry.  Dissent is living proof of how punk diffused from New York and Los Angeles to permeate some of the more isolated cities deep within the country’s interior, i.e. Rapid City, South Dakota. To me, they’re like a beautiful weed growing out of a crack in a cement sidewalk.

Click here for the image source.

They leave, I stay

When each semester winds down, a bittersweet thought crosses my mind: I won’t teach most of my students ever again.  Now, I periodically encounter them in the hallway or at a campus event, but our instructional time together is over.  As this realization sinks in, I wonder what impact my class had upon them.  This is difficult to gauge.  It feels strange to spend all of those weeks together and then watch people disperse to destinations unknown (well, unknown to me).  You hope that they retain some of the knowledge to apply in the future, but you never know how their lives unfold.  While the constant influx of students can be a pleasant distraction because there are always new relationships to build, the story follows a predictable arc with an all too familiar ending: goodbye.  Occasionally, someone keeps in touch and a casual friendship evolves, however nearly everyone drifts away.  As a result, I must do more to enjoy the moments we share because they’re so ephemeral.

Click here for image source.

Love: Elusive, but it will be found

My teenage years will always be an important time in my life.  There’s so much that happened during high school and community college that forged the person I am today.  Looking back, I can plot my own layered progression from adolescence into young adulthood.  One of the more important layers involves the emotional intimacy of interpersonal relationships, which really matter in your formative years.  I recall a number of personal experiences – both platonic and romantic – spread across a broad continuum.  As you might expect, some are more meaningful than others, however all of them compose the foundation of my being and imbue my interactions with people.

Love is an enduring theme in the human condition that many have tried to convey through different mediums with varying degrees of resonance in popular culture.  Film directors like Cameron Crowe depict many aspects of the white, suburban teenage experience rather well in their work.  When I watched Say Anything (1989), I rooted for Lloyd Dobler.  When I listened to Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes,” I ruminated about the girl who broke up with me after she went away to college.  Films and songs like these touched me in a way that very little else could back then.  Consequently, I’ve periodically wondered if they inculcate impressionable minds with idyllic visions of relationships that don’t really exist.  Yes, I question what love is and feel a bit confused.  Can a person disconnect from an internalized cinematic illusion that’s been reinforced over decades with repeated exposure through entertainment?  What do we make of the romantic haze?

“I’ll save my best for someone else…”

In the wake of disillusionment, many of us persist in our quest to find a partner.  This means we have to brave dating.  From my own observations, people appear to have a few different motives.  Some are simply looking for sexual gratification, i.e. a hookup, where they don’t have obligations to the other person.  This is often the fodder of romantic comedies (e.g. Friends With Benefits).  Other people treat dating like a social outlet where they get to meet someone and partake in a variety of activities (e.g. hiking).  This may or may not involve sexual intimacy.  Finally, still others are looking for a connection that will lead to a committed relationship that has the potential to last for an undetermined amount of time.

Contrary to the common stereotype about men, I’ve never had a purely physical relationship with a woman.  No, not even in college.  Emotionally speaking, I’m not wired to have casual sex with an acquaintance and never talk to the person again or pretend that you have a friendship until your next sexual urge.  I’ve never understood how the latter works.  My take is that it doesn’t in many situations (again, see Friends With Benefits).  As for dating simply to socialize (i.e. to get out of the apartment), well, I have tried that on occasion.  I won’t do it anymore because it feels hollow and directionless.  It has nowhere to go.  Plus, I’m not looking for an activity partner to join me at a punk show on a Saturday night because I already have friends who are into that.  Truthfully, I’ve always preferred a monogamous relationship because I like the idea of sharing my life with someone.  The difficult task is finding the right person.

If you’ve done any amount of dating, then you’ve encountered a variety of people who have different levels of self-awareness.  Nobody ends up emotionally unavailable by accident.  One thought that occurred to me is how an individual’s family has a major impact on who a person becomes.  Did he or she grow up in a stable environment where his or her parents regularly demonstrated, i.e. modeled, love and affection?  This is important because households where there are issues such as neglect, physical abuse, substance abuse, emotional trauma, parental absenteeism, and/or codependency frequently cause serious harm to a person at important stages of development.  The damage that results often manifests in maladaptive behaviors that undermine the very human connection we seek in adult relationships.  Perhaps you’ve experienced the effects of this firsthand.  If someone refuses to come to terms with his or her problems, then the likelihood of them bonding with a partner is severely diminished.

Another thought that I’ve had arises from a great conversation with a friend last winter who told me about attachment theory.  She explained its major tenets and then referenced her own dating history to further illustrate certain elements that she has observed.  According to the theory, there are four different attachment styles: secure; anxious; avoidant; and anxious-avoidant (Levine and Heller 2010).  When it comes to dating, my greatest concern is meeting avoidant people because they often dismiss your feelings, intentionally keep you at a distance, only miss you when they’re preoccupied, and then act in a passive aggressive manner when confronted.  Also, they have a tendency to emphasize their own independence, which initially sounds normal until you discover that it’s a means of concealing their inability to be in a relationship with someone.  They can’t get too close because the fear of doing so is too strong (Cohen 2017, September 19).  Now, we each have emotional, social, and physical needs that drive us to find a partner, however avoidant people leave you wondering if yours will ever be satisfied.  In short, the relationship feels off-balance.  To make matters worse, they’re over-represented in the dating pool as you age because their attempts to couple up repeatedly fail.

“And the grand facade so soon will burn…”

At 44, it’s difficult to think about love the way I did as a teenager.  While vestiges of my younger self will always remain, my mindset has shifted as a direct result of all that’s happened over the years.  This is inevitable because our experiences affect us in ways that we can’t always anticipate.  Sometimes it’s a challenge to reconcile our thoughts and feelings in an effort to grow.  Life, in general, and relationships, in particular, can be rather complicated.  That said, I refuse to look at the world through a distorted lens.  Bitterness will never eclipse my heart.  Maturation doesn’t have to render one jaded.  Instead, we need to examine the roots of our behavior to better understand ourselves.  Then, we need to act differently moving forward.  When I think about the relationships I’ve had since high school ended, I’m forced to confront the mistakes that I’ve made.  Here I have to be brutally honest: if I’m single in my forties, then it’s partly (mostly?) my fault.  In some instances, I should have been more supportive and patient.  Other times, I should have been more flexible when it comes to my ideas and values.  What’s more, I should never have dated certain women.  Alas, yesterday is over and gone, but tomorrow is waiting where the lessons can be applied.

So, what do I need from a partner if I’m going to open up myself to the vulnerability that accompanies being in a long term relationship?  Several months ago I adopted a new mantra: I want to be understood, validated, respected, and loved.  This makes perfect sense to me.  I want someone who is emotionally aware.  I want someone who knows how to forgive and how to apologize.  I want someone who grasps the importance of, and knows how to maintain, healthy boundaries.  I want someone who assumes the best about peoples’ intentions.  I want someone who elevates a partner to the appropriate position that he deserves.  I want someone who is genuine, intelligent, mature, ethical, communicative, and thoughtful.  I want someone who inspires me to be a better human being.  She exists; I just have to find her.

References

Cohen, M.T. (2017, September 19).  “Attachment styles: The connection between childhood attachment styles and adult relationships.” Psychology Today. Retrieved on December 29, 2017.

Levine, A. and Heller, R. S.F.  (2010).  Attached.  The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Find-and Keep-Love.  New York: Penguin Group.

Photograph: I don’t believe in accidents.  I believe in physics.  Yes, that happened by chance one morning while making toast.  The knife slipped while spreading the vegan butter.

 

What I appreciate about Houston

Four years.  That’s how long I’ve been in Houston.  I have to be honest, this place never made the list of cities that I wanted to live in when I considered leaving the Midwest.  Most of the people I meet here are from somewhere else and everyone who’s from somewhere else moved here for a job opportunity.  Now, Houston is rather large by way of geography and population.  I have a Houston address, but I live in an area that is painfully suburban because I don’t want to spend hours stuck in traffic commuting to campus.  All of this aside, you have to put your energy toward unearthing the positive about your home, i.e. what you like about where you live, because you never know how long you’ll be there.

Black Hole Coffee House: 4504 Graustark St, Houston, TX 77006.  I really like stopping by after having dinner somewhere in Montrose or visiting the Museum District.  The baristas make a delectable chai latte (with soymilk) and they usually have good music playing (e.g. “Lovesong” by The Cure) at a reasonable volume.  At night, the typical patron demographic is skewed younger given its proximity to the University of St. Thomas and Rice University, but the energy that college students radiate while typing away on their laptops reminds me of a part of my life that I never want to feel disconnected from.  Sit inside or outside.  Lastly, they’re open late.

Brazos Bookstore: 2421 Bissonnet St, Houston, TX 77005.  Despite the fact that we’re well into the era of e-readers, some independent book sellers have soldiered on for those who prefer to turn pages made of paper.  Who doesn’t like to write notes in the margins with a ballpoint pen?  I go in here every several months because they have a variety of brand new titles available for the more cerebral among us.  Just the other day I picked up the following: Daring Democracy: Igniting Power, Meaning, and Connection for the America We Want; The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters; and Live at the Safari Club: A History of Hardcore Punk in the Nation’s Capital, 1988-1998.  The clerks who greet me when I enter are some of the friendliest people I’ve ever encountered while shopping.  In addition, they regularly host authors (click here for a calendar).  I’ve been to a reading and it’s truly an intimate experience.

Buffalo Bayou Park: 1800 Allen Pkwy & Memorial Drive, Houston, TX 77019.  One bright, warm Sunday afternoon not long after I moved to town, I visited this park because I needed to get out of my apartment.  At that point in time, the city had not finished all of the paths and landscaping.  Now, a few years later, it’s a perfect urban refuge where you sometimes catch a glimpse of wildlife like snakes and turtles.  I usually park my car on Memorial Heights Drive.  Then, I walk over to, and cross, the pedestrian bridge to the south side of the bayou and proceed all the way to downtown.  It always feels safe because there are plenty of people around, including families.  I’ve even watched the fireworks on the Fourth of July from a grassy area below the Sabine Street bridge just west of I-45.

Carve Skate Shop: 6902 Long Point Rd, Houston, TX 77055.  This shop is operated by knowledgeable guys who are approachable and helpful.  Yes, they skate, but they’ve never condescended to this middle aged college professor who needs to practice if he wants to develop any skills before it’s too late.  We’ve had good conversations both times I’ve gone in there.  I want them to have my business.  They have a great selection of decks, trucks, hardware, pads, and stickers.  I found a Duane Peters deck from when he rode for Pocket Pistol on the rack.  You bet I bought it.  Their current location is in an industrial area of Spring Branch, which is not where I expected to find them, but it’s worth the drive over.

Houston Public Media: 4343 Elgin Street, Houston, TX 77204.  While relocating to Houston for a new teaching position turned out to be a great move because it brought more focus to my career, departing Arizona left me depressed for a long time.  I credit our local National Public Radio affiliate, Houston Public Media,  for helping me find some normalcy during the acclimation process.  Listening to Morning Edition and All Things Considered kept my mind preoccupied while I stayed current on news developments.  What’s more, HPM’s informative local stories about government, education, and the arts piqued my interest because I wanted to feel more connected to my immediate community.  What continues to impress me is the hour long program Houston Matters.  The host, Craig Cohen, is one of the best broadcast journalists that I’ve heard because he knows how to conduct a thoughtful interview in an effort to explore important issues.

Huntsville State Park: 565 Park Road 40 west, Huntsville, TX 77340.  Just off I-45 beyond the reach of the city’s sprawling suburbs and somehow tucked inside of the Sam Houston National Forest, lies Huntsville State Park.  For those who rarely leave the Inner Loop, yes, the drive is worth it if you’re looking for the solitude that comes with standing alone on a trail in the middle of thousands of pine trees (click here for a map).  What I really like is that you can hike for hours without seeing hardly anyone on a beautiful Saturday afternoon.  Last April, I spotted this baby snapping turtle on the sandy bottom of Alligator Branch.  Usually, they’re elusive creatures, so it surprised me to find him/her just off the boardwalk.

The Moth (at Warehouse Live): 813 St. Emanuel Street, Houston, TX 77003.  When a colleague of mine told me about The Moth (click here for the calendar) a few years ago, I didn’t know what to expect.  So, we went one Tuesday evening during Spring Break.  Let’s just say there are good reasons why I have returned on a number of occasions since then.  We have some truly amazing storytellers in the area.  I have heard incredible stories of personal loss, sacrifice, and triumph.  While some are more compelling than others, not once have a left the venue disappointed.  Dusti Rhodes, the event’s regular emcee, always makes the audience laugh with her hilarious anecdotes about everything from her dating life to her experiences as a high school teacher.

Museum of Fine Arts, Houston: 1001 Bissonnet St, Houston, TX 77005.  There’s something rather unique about the clinical tranquility you find in a distinguished museum like the MFAH that can’t be experienced anywhere else.  As I walk through the galleries and examine each painting (e.g. the work of Jackson Pollock), I visually trace the countless brushstrokes and texture of the canvas and wonder about the origins of the motion required to produce it.  I’ve been fortunate to have seen a couple of limited, yet incredible, exhibits in recent years when I had company in town for a visit: one featuring the work of Claude Monet and the other Edgar Degas.  What I now need to do now is put a film screening on my list of events to attend this winter or spring.

North Houston Skate Park: 12351 Kuykendahl Road, Houston, TX 77090.  While I’ve never stopped playing the guitar since I picked one up in high school, for some reason I can’t say the same about skateboarding.  As a result, I’m much better at the former than the latter.  That said, I’m making up for lost time because I still have the energy and currently live about 20-25 minutes away from the largest, outdoor public skate park in the country.  After buying my Vision Psycho Stick reissue complete last summer, I’ve spent a handful of evenings riding on the banks and in the bowls to develop some skills.  We never had anything like it where I grew up in Illinois.  Right now I’m working on finding my lines in a long snake run that dead ends with a bowl that I’ve managed to carve in a few times.  I credit Steve Alba, Mike Vallely, and H2O for the inspiration to do this again.

Pepper Tree: 3821 Richmond Avenue, Houston, TX 77027.  We’re fortunate to have a number of good restaurants in the Houston area that serve vegan options, however Pepper Tree is exclusively vegan for those of us who would like to patronize such an establishment.  The dishes on their menu and items in the buffet are both good, but if I had to pick, then I would go with the buffet because there are numerous options to choose from.  I really like the curry tofu and pot-stickers the best.  Please note that the seating area isn’t very large and can fill up on the weekends.

River Oaks Theater: 2009 W Gray Street, Houston, TX 77019.  Most people my age witnessed the advent of the multiplex theaters that have a dozen or more screens, preferred seating, numerous brightly lit concession stands, and parking lots with hundreds of spaces.  Situated in a more upscale retail shopping area, River Oaks Theater guarantees a much different viewing experience that takes you back to the late 1930s (click here to read about its history).  Who doesn’t like Art Deco?  This is where I saw Manchester by the Sea in December of last year and the main place in town to catch films, including documentaries, that aren’t widely released.

Vinal Edge: 239 W 19th Street, Houston, TX 77008.  Every city needs a solid music store if you’re into buying records.  I have a small collection that I will never, repeat never, part with.  To me, Vinal Edge’s strength is their punk section because every time I visit I find a new or used album to bring home.  Here’s a list of what I’ve found since I started visiting the shop: Threadbare’s Feeling Older Faster, The Faith-Void split, Discharge’s Why, Uniform Choice’s Screaming for Change, and Bikini Kill’s Yeah, Yeah, Yeah, Yeah.  They also carry a handful of record players if you’re looking for a replacement.  As for the clerks, well, they’re friendly and attentive.

Walters Downtown: 1120 Naylor Street, Houston, TX 77002.  Punk rock (and hardcore) has (have) been central to my life since my close friends introduced me to it in high school.  Walter’s is an ideal venue for the music because they have space to accommodate a sizeable crowd, a low stage without any barriers, great sound, a wall for merch tables, ticket prices are always reasonable, and there’s plenty of nearby parking.  Watching bands play there is always enjoyable.  Even when you stand at the very back of the room, you still feel the energy being projected from the stage over the crowd.  I’ve seen several great shows at Walter’s that I won’t soon forget.  Some of the bands include 7 Seconds, Bane, D.R.I., and Slapshot.

Words can’t describe how I felt the morning that I departed Arizona.  While elated to have a new professional opportunity, I couldn’t imagine leaving the desert behind.  I wondered how my life might change and if I would ever find my way back.  Four years later, I still miss it, however I’ve carved out a place for myself in Houston that will last as long as I’m meant to stay here in town.  I believe that everyone has a certain amount of latitude when it comes to shaping their lives because we each have individual agency.  Sometimes we find ourselves lost in a dark moment, unable to appreciate what we have in front of us.  I’m totally guilty of that in this case.  As a result of this revelation, I resolve to fight a bit less and appreciate a lot more so as to ensure my continued emotional growth because my story is far from over.

All pictures taken by me.  Yes, even the skateboarding shot of myself.

Last Thursday, the Center for Civic Engagement at LSC-CyFair hosted a powerful event featuring members of The Journey of Hope, a non-profit advocacy group that opposes capital punishment.  Two activists, Shujaa Graham and SueZann Bosler, shared incredibly moving stories that captivated the audience.  Mr. Graham spoke about serving time on death row before his exoneration.  Ms. Bosler told us about the horrific day in 1986 when she watched a man murder her father in their family home.  The man also stabbed her multiple times.

How do some people overcome their anger while others let it destroy them?  Anger is a strong emotion that can cause a person to unravel if he or she doesn’t thoroughly process an experience and then let go of the negative feelings associated with it.

We all know someone who is held hostage by their own bitterness.  In all likelihood, they will never be truly happy unless they change their mindset.  This requires some level of emotional awareness that you can’t develop without self-examination.  The problem is that holding on gives a person the illusion of control over a situation when, in fact, it’s an emotional dead end that will never yield any peace inside.  Here you only have one option: forward, and yes, that realization hurts like nothing else.

These activists inspire me to reconsider how I handle the difficulties I encounter because painful experiences should lead to a personal evolution, not devolution.  Moving forward must include forgiveness because if you’re mired in pain, then a victim narrative becomes your creed.  I never want that to dictate the terms of my life.

Click here to read a great piece on forgiveness and here for the image source.