Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Free Speech

Newspapers in Sweden recently announced they would be altering the comments sections of the websites to prohibit anonymous posting.  In an effort to combat hate speech in the wake of the Norway attacks that killed 77 people, posters will now have to log in through the newspaper websites or facebook before being allowed to post their comments to stories.  Not surprisingly, fiery debate exploded over the issue.

On one side, those supporting the decision to limit the comments to those who identify themselves suggest that removing the anonymity will provide a more authentic forum.  By removing the mask and asking their posters to own up to their comments, they believe intelligent debate will be rekindled and the hate speech and personal bashing currently found in the comments section will disappear.

On the other side, detractors of the decision deride the newspapers for trying to control debate and limit freedom on the internet.  They are suggesting that Swedish newspapers are heading in the direction of the many oppressive, authoritarian regimes the world has recently seen fall.  They worry that this so called stifling of free speech defies the reason for the internet and flies in the face of centuries of progressive social development.

I have found the debate interesting, seeing the merits of both sides’ arguments.  I appreciate the concept of free speech provided to me through the Bill of Rights and protected by our government and military.  On the other hand, I subscribe to the belief that if you don’t have anything nice to say, you shouldn’t say anything at all.  Too often, through the supposed anonymity of the internet, our backbone strengthens and we make statements we wouldn’t make in public with our identity exposed.  We feel strong, we feel righteous, we feel affirmed.

In reality, bringing someone down anonymously, hiding behind a tag, a handle, a username, shows that we are weak, afraid, and insecure.

In Sweden, the comments newspapers are working to prevent are primarily directed at Muslims, not related to the content of the articles, and full of hate.  They have no purpose other than to stir discontent among the disaffected looking for scapegoats.  In turn, hate grows, fertilized by misinformation and fear.

Sound familiar? 

Think Germany in the 1930s.  Had the internet been around, I can certainly imagine the Hitler Youth plugging away at the keyboard, filling the comments sections of newspapers the country over with hate speech.

Despite my love for free speech, I am completely behind the newspapers’ decision to limit the comments.  First of all, these are private enterprises, which don’t have to honor each individual’s right to speak.  Newspapers don’t publish every single letter to the editor submitted, do they?  Their content, despite existing under the label of news, is editorialized by a staff of people with a certain agenda.  We see this all the time in the US.  Compare the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal and you will find extremely different perspectives and presentations of the same events.

Secondly, I believe the newspaper is a powerful tool for disseminating information.  I also strongly believe they have a social obligation to ensure their message is conveyed in a conscientious manner.  In this case, users who take advantage of the anonymous forum of newspaper comments to spread their hate and vitriol are abusing the newspaper’s purpose.

Finally, while I disagree with the messages the newspapers are attempting to combat, I respect the individual right to develop and harbor opinions.  Anyone who has a distasteful opinion of white, 30-something, writer/bassoonists is more than welcome to voice that opinion in the appropriate manner, in the proper forum.  I am proud to live in a country that protects that right for all people.

In Sweden, I am proud of the newspapers for their efforts to combat hate while still working to provide their readers forums in which their views can be shared, albeit no longer anonymously.  Perhaps the day will come when it is unnecessary to be scared to attach our name to comments simply because we lack confidence or worry about reprisal.  Maybe too, the day will come when we are able to disagree without letting hate or negativity enter into the discussion.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Three Steps to Happiness

Samantha and I had a couple of pretty deep, involved, conversations this weekend about personal habits.  She mentioned something that stuck in my mind that I can’t seem to shake.  She talked about how she felt that her priorities have become skewed recently; I can completely relate.
The period of my life I generally regard as being the most peaceful, easy-flowing, and - ultimately - fulfilling, was the summer, fall, and winter of 2003.  I was a cast member of the Blast!, Inc. (which is touring again) production Cyberjam, and during this time we were located in Bloomington, IN for six weeks and then London, England for the rest of the time.
In Bloomington, my days were filled with rehearsals and practicing.  I was in the role of swing, so my responsibility was to learn the other woodwinds’ shows.  I had to memorize their music, their staging and choreography, and do my best to imitate their playing abilities on saxophone, clarinet, and flute.
When we moved on to London, my responsibilities altered slightly.  One of the saxophones sustained an injury that took an extended amount of time to heal, so I settled into the routine of performing his track daily.  My days were filled with working out, discovering the city of London, finding myself, and performing in the West End.
Looking back, it would make sense that I would regard this as one of the best times of my life.  Who wouldn’t?  Now that I have seven years of perspective, I can honestly say that I could recapture the same feeling of peace and contentment I enjoyed during that period in any location, doing any job.
How is that possible?
Because the elements that constructed my life at the time are the building blocks of a happy life.  They were not exclusive to London or Bloomington, nor to performing in musical theater.  I am confident if I rekindled the habits I have lost over the years, I could find the same feeling.
So what was it that made this time so special for me?  
I have boiled my experience down to three basic elements anyone can capture.

  1. devotional time
  2. build the temple
  3. an enjoyable career

Devotional Time

My dedication to internal exploration began when I was in college, developed over the time I was on tour with the Blast! show Shockwave, and culminated in my time in Bloomington and London.  Everyday, generally at the same time each day, I made sure to spend some time being still and being quiet.  In Bloomington, my devotional time was immediately following lunch.  I would eat quickly, retire to a shady bench outside Star Hall, sit still, close my eyes, and focus inward.  I would spend about 15-20 minutes this way, then get up and go for a walk.  Afterwards I would practice my instruments.
My routine had to change in London.  My day would begin with devotional time.  After waking, I would get something to eat, make my way to our french doors looking out over the street (they hooked us up with an awesome flat in High Holborn), and meditate.  As consistently as I could, my day began this way for four months.
By establishing some consistency, I was able to promise my body the same treatment daily.  I looked forward to my devotional time, both because of the way I would feel afterwards and because I knew the rest of my day was guaranteed to go better.

Building the Temple
Each of our bodies are different in myriad ways, but one thing is consistent among them all - they react positively to consistent exercise in any form.
Cyberjam was an incredibly cardio-intensive production.  For those of you who have seen marching band and drum corps shows, imagine taking that formula and stretching it out over two hours.  We burned a lot of calories six times a week.  I watched people melt from 250-plus pounds down to a trim 180 in  matter of a couple months.
Aside from the show requirements, we all wanted to look as good as we could, so gym time was a must.  Our gym in London was a stones throw from the flat - Soho Gym.  It was easy to build a regular routine around visits to the gym.  At least six days out of the week I was there, spending time reading while I rode a bike, alternating workouts for the different muscle groups in my body.  My body enjoyed a constant pleasant soreness, reminding me of how good it felt to exercise.  Any stress not combated by my daily devotional exercises was melted away in the gym.
Maintaining a good diet is part of ensuring your are using the right building blocks to construct your temple.  I was lucky enough that my daily calorie burn far exceeded my intake, no matter what I did.  I definitely wouldn’t be able to do that now.  The quality of the food you eat always plays a part in how you feel.

Enjoyable Career
While it might seem that this should be number one on my list, I honestly think it plays third fiddle to the other two.  I strongly believe that if you create a life structure incorporating regular devotional time with temple building any issues with your career choice will instantly be downgraded.  At the time, I was playing music, dancing, singing, acting, working with people I liked, and enjoying my job.
I will admit that even though I enjoyed my job there were stressful moments, as there will be in any career.  Filling my days with devotion and exercise helped me to handle these moments better, so I never stopped to consider the stress areas the job created - they were always secondary and less important.
Ultimately, I do believe the trio together will yield the best results.  Finding a career choice that fits your needs, goals, and personality is infinitely important.  Many times we choose a career based on external motivations instead of those that come from within.  We attempt to serve the supposed needs of society instead of our own.  We sometimes even get stuck in a job simply because we won’t stop to consider the possibility there is something better and more suited for us.

Putting it all Together
I will be the first to tell you that in the almost eight years since I left London, I have abandoned much of what made my life feel so right at the time.  On the surface, my life is vastly different than before; my responsibilities extend beyond myself, I have personal and financial commitments I am dedicated to honoring, and my personal needs have changed.  Despite all this, I think the three elements of a happy, peaceful life have not altered in the least.
I have the opportunity to create new habits every day I wake up.  I can choose to plan devotional time, temple building, and I can work to make my career choice fitting to my needs, goals, and personality.  Ultimately, it is a daily choice to reinforce how I prefer my life to be.
I invite you to follow the same path with your life.  Make the time to be still, pray, or follow whichever devotional practices you prefer.  Create time to take care of your body, whether it is walking daily (which can be devotional as well), running, swimming, biking, weight-lifting, etc.  Decide whether or not your career choice is fulfilling; if not, figure out if it can be or if you need to make a change.  
You are not condemned to a life of dissatisfaction and discontentment.  Find your happiness today.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011


Too often on Facebook, I see the post FML.  For those of you unfamiliar with this youthful acronym, FML is a more expressive way of saying, “boy, I’ve got it bad,” or “shucks, my day isn’t going well.”  These posters are simply choosing a more colorful way to illuminate their immediate quality of life.

Acronyms such as FML represent two individual problems with our online population, neither of which is the constant evolution of the English language.  Personally, I am happy that language evolves, incorporating new and exciting elements.  The Oxford English Dictionary just added OMG and LOL to its arsenal of currently used English, so if you were eager to mix them into your conversation, feel free to do so without consequence.  If we didn’t allow our language to evolve, we would still be throwing around such mouthfuls as tither, wist, trow, and pudh.

The first problem I have with the use of FML is the veiled attempt at profanity in a public arena.  Very few people are comfortable bandying about expletives online, yet many people feel no problem throwing out FML, LMFAO, or WTF.  Most of us know what they mean, but despite that fact, the barrage of F-grenades continues.
The facebook friends I see using these abbreviations are generally in their twenties or younger - they are the digital generation.  Their favorite form of communication is text, chat, or skype.  They think they are safe hiding behind the immunity of the digital world.
But they aren’t.
Many of them have no idea who their audiences are.  In their eagerness to expand their list of online friends, they accept requests blindly.  They might be posting FML for neighbors, parents, grandmas, pastors, teachers, and friends’ parents to see.  For all they know, people have developed an incorrect opinion about their values simply based on the willingness to use inappropriate language hidden inside a couple of letters.
As I would always tell students who dropped f-bombs in the hallways at school: 

"Know your surroundings and know your audience (basically, be aware of where you are)."

Do your best to sound intelligent (even if you are faking it).  While online posters may get attention for three letter outbursts, it is never the right kind of attention, and eventually it might come around to bite them.

The second problem presented with the use of FML is what the statement applies.  Obviously the poster is not happy with something and wants their audience to be aware of it.  They are looking for consolation or a venue in which they can vent.

“OMG, what happened? Text ME!!! :-b”
While venting certainly feels good sometimes, it is never the actual solution to anything.  For me, the best solution is to avoid the upset.  Roll with the punches.  Keep up perspective.  There is always some reason to celebrate your life instead of the opposite.  When something unexpected and unpleasant happens, make the choice to keep your head up, find the place where triumphs are hidden, bring one out, and play with it.  Remember that no matter what, your life rocks.
One of my many teachers over the years, it was either one of my students or Mary Kay, I can’t remember, once said that if you are feeling bad about something, do something for someone else.  It will be impossible not to feel better.  If something gets you down, go buy flowers for a special person in your life.  If you are treated badly, smile as big as you can at the next person you see.  If someone road rages you, let the next driver in with a friendly wave.  If you have the intense, overwhelming desire to open your computer, log in to Facebook, and type the letters F, M, and L, don’t.  Take a big breath, post how thankful you are for the life you have been delivered, and move on.  It is so worth it.

Don't forget to send in your topic ideas!  September is approaching rapidly.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Get Busy Living or Get Busy Dying

One of my favorite movies of all time is The Shawshank Redemption.  Not only is the screenplay masterfully developed out of Stephen King’s short story, but the complete artistic package is exceptionally moving.  From Thomas Newman’s original score, to the cinematography, to the outstanding acting done by Morgan Freeman and Tim Robbins, the piece is a masterwork.

At one point in the movie, Tim Robbin’s character Andy says to Red, played by Morgan Freeman, “get busy living, or get busy dying,” and I have been thinking about that precept this week.

This was Julius in his better days.
Almost a year ago, I wrote a blog about our cat, Julius, who has suffered from kidney failure and its entourage of additional ailments for the past two plus years.  His life has been full of experiences usually reserved for cats twice his age: frequent vet visits, sub-cutaneous fluid injections, a daily regimen of pills forced down his throat.  Julius has definitely been a trooper throughout everything.

In the last few months, he has started a long, slow descent, one we don't think will cycle back upwards.  He has done this in the past a couple of times - stopped eating, taken up residence in the sink or bathtub, refused to use the litter box - but he has always come back from it.  I don’t think this time will be another near-miss.  Samantha and I joke that he has already used his nine lives and now he is borrowing them from his perfectly healthy sister Cleo.

The once pleasantly plump ball of orange fluff is no more than skin and bones.  Three years ago Julius weighed sixteen pounds.  The last time I weighed him, about a month ago, he was down to six; I refuse to weigh him now but I know he has lost more weight since.  Gone with his physique is his energy, mobility, balance, and desire to do more than lay in his bed, or lay on us.

This is why I have been thinking about The Shawshank Redemption.  Andy and Red were trapped in a prison, placed there because of their actions, or the actions of others.  Their lives were determined by the prison schedule, ordered by the prison heirarchy, and easily made into a living hell.  Shawshank Prison was a place where you had to make a choice - get busy living, or get busy dying.  

Each of the characters approached this idea in a different way, some succumbing to the bitter, violent life the prison gangs offered, others made choices that lead to their eventual demise.  Red seemed to choose life of a sort, carving out his own niche with in the community, and Andy, for awhile, appeared to follow a similar suit.

The difference between the two is that Red’s sight was only set as far as the walls of his cell.  He was content, comfortable even, with the circumstances he had created for himself.  Andy was not.  He could still remember what it was like to be free, and he yearned for it.  

Both characters eventually arrive at the same destination, though the course they followed was different, and both eventually answered the question forced on them by Shawshank - they chose to get busy living.

Both Samantha and I have implored Julius to do the same.  We are stuck in a place where we aren’t sure if it is time to take him to the vet one last time, or if we should continue to hope for his typical Julius magic act.  We need him to answer the question for us.  Is he busy living, or is he busy dying?  It would certainly help us by making our decision easier or irrelevant.

The Shawshank Redemption is such a powerful movie because, in a way, it forces the same question into our own lives.  Watching these men trapped in a prison, we can’t help but wonder if we are trapped as well.  While we don’t have the towering ramparts of Shawshank pressing down upon us, we have walls just the same.  Some of these walls we have allowed people to put up around us, while others we built ourselves.  Sometimes what appears to be a protective encasement is nothing more than a prison shell, trapping us within our own fears.

Andy and Red made their choices, choosing to acknowledge the reality of Shawshank Prison, and pursued their unique ways to defeat it.  Their paths were not the same, though the result was.  Each of us has to make the same choice as we go through our own lives, surrounded by our own walls.  Do we get busy living, or get busy dying?  

8/22/11 addition- Julius must read my blog, because he gave us a pretty clear indication of how to proceed last night.  So, this morning, we brought Julius to the vet and hugged him until he passed from a life of pain and suffering. We will miss him very much.

I would love to make September a reader-focused month.  My plan is to build a series on your thoughts and ideas, focusing on issues you see in your daily experiences.  Email me your ideas and I will put together the September plan.
Thanks to everyone ahead of time!

Sunday, August 14, 2011

The Pain of Responsibility

My neighborhood has recently posted a sign notifying the residents on a mandatory ban on outdoor watering.  Apparently, the neighboring water utility has lost their well, and until they can fix it, we are sharing water.  We are faced with up to $200 in fines for each violation of the ban.  The grumbling amongst neighbors commenced.

I was stuck in a tough decision, one that the other 1000 homes in our neighborhood had to make.  Do we follow the mandatory ban and let our yards and plants fry in the record heat, or do we thwart the authorities and continue watering?
Making the decision was hard.  For the past three summers, I have struggled to have a nice looking yard.  The sod the builders used in the front was low quality, fraught with weeds, and thin in areas.  I have spent quite a bit of money and time on bringing my yard up to where I think it should be.  I haven’t quite gotten there yet, but I was loath to allow the current drought situations, and a water utility, to knock me off course.  
On the other hand, I try to be a person of responsibility.  As a teacher, I work to model the best behavior I can given any situation.  The responsible behavior in this case is to turn off the sprinkler system and let my yard and plants suffer for the good of the two neighborhoods.  Would I feel good about myself if the water quality began to suffer or our own well ran dry because I ignored the ban?  I am sure I wouldn’t.
Ultimately, the pain was not in deciding which of the two options I would follow, it came from knowing the damage lack of water would inflict on my yard.  I sucked up my pride and turned the sprinkler system off.
Being a responsible person is difficult sometimes.  Throughout life, we are presented with opportunities to be irresponsible.  Whether we take those opportunities says a lot about our character.  Taking responsibility for your actions after the fact can be even harder.
Families in England are dealing with this aspect of responsibility right now.  Many parents are watching the television and seeing their own child right in the middle of footage from the riots and looting.  I can’t imagine the pain and surprise a parent might feel knowing that it was your offspring who was out on the streets, marauding and causing mayhem.
The BBC ran a news program on whether or not a parent should report their own children to the police and parents lined up on both sides.  Some argued that this would be a great opportunity to teach your child about cause and effect.  If you do something, there is always an action to follow, and in this case, if you broke the law, you should be punished.  Others, fearful of turning in their children, worry that a criminal record could ruin their life.  They also worry that turning them in could damage they parent/child relationship.
This is where the pain of responsibility really comes in to play.  I believe the responsible course is to turn the child in and let the law sort it out.  It will be awkward and painful for you and for them, but it will teach them that there are consequences for actions.  Afterwards, it will take time, but your relationship with them will heal.  The damage inflicted on them by not taking responsibility will be much more severe.  They will learn that their actions have no consequences, and therefore, they are free to do anything they like.  The next time a situation arises in which they have the opportunity to break the law, they will assume they will get away with it, creating more pain and suffering in their life and in the lives of the others around them.
I think in this particular situation, parents need to be reviewing their own lives and actions.  They need to look back on how they raised their children and take responsibility for creating a situation in which they allowed this to happen.  The youth riots in London are not the result of an isolated incident, they are a symptom of a growing problem - parental disassociation from their children.  
The responsible actions of parents involve more than just giving them a place to live, clothes to wear, and food to eat.  A parent needs to be  role model, instilling in their children tenets to live by, creating a responsible member of society.  While I am not a parent, I have been around plenty of people who are, and I can see the difficulties being a good parent presents.  Knowing you are not your child’s friend, but their parent, is hard.  Developing appropriate consequences, creating defined boundaries, crafting an existence in which they have their freedom to develop as a person within responsible limits, are all part of the job.
Responsibility always has a price, and we choose whether to pay it or not at every crossroads.  Unfortunately, the longer and longer we choose the irresponsible path, the higher the cost seems to return to the straight and narrow.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Tipping Over

We have seen some of the top ten drops in the stock market in the last couple of  weeks, leaving many an investment conscious American’s head spinning.  People are panicking, feeling the urgent need to SELL SELL SELL!  Gold has skyrocketed to record highs, oil has descended on the worries of a drop in global demand as the world economy slows.
A passenger in an English cab was killed, shot by police in what was supposed to be a routine stop on the suspicion of gun-possession.  At a vigil protesting what was assumed to be over the top police aggression and mourning the loss of of the 29 year old Mark Duggan, violence erupted, destroying what was supposed to be a peaceful protest.  Now, after days of continuous looting and rioting, sections of London and other English urban centers are struggling to figure out just what happened.  Fear grips the cities as night descends, leaving citizens to wonder if the engorged police presence is enough to deter the disenfranchised youth from taking to the streets again.
The American political system appears to be stuck in deadlock.  Politicians on either side of the aisle have dug in, establishing trench warfare.  They lob grenades at each other from a distance, uninterested in truly engaging the issues, preferring to dodge and feint, hide and watch.  The result is a pensive public, full of individuals who fear they have lost their voice in their future.  The only thing certain right now is uncertainty.
It feels as if the world is about to tip over the edge and descend into chaos and anarchy.  But, it doesn't have to.
I would like to suggest a perspective.  Recently, the New York Times was blasted for including a cover picture of a young Somalian boy suffering from starvation.  The picture is definitely graphic, showing every detail in the small skeleton.  He is curled up, covering his face and his nakedness - here is a link to the photo.  
Why was the Times blasted for the photo?  Because American sensibilities refuse to acknowledge the tribulations others go through on this planet.  We sit inside our windowless towers, ignoring the plight of the rest of the world.  Occasionally we give to an aid foundation or sponsor a mission through a local church, but more often than not we are concerned about mere trivialities in life.  Burger King or McDonalds?  Red Box or Netflix?  Tall, Grande, or Venti?  Paper or plastic?
Our concerns and decisions pale in when compared to the real plight of many within and beyond our borders.  So our stock market is falling.  At least we are eating while this boy is not.
In England, the riots are supposedly attacking the rich, the police,  and the government, as a way to protest their oppression.  While there may be a few rioters with this in mind, many of the news stories coming from London and the surrounding cities illuminate the real cause for the looting - opportunism.  
Many of the youth taking to the streets seek no more than goods to bring home.  They are shopping through broken windows and broken lives.  They attack the stores in their neighborhood simply because the rich might shop there, never giving second thought to the financial situation of the owner.  They set fire to buildings, cars, buses, and whole city blocks, destroying entire livelihoods in the process.  There is no organization beyond the common bond of chaos.  There is no protest.  Many of the youth have responded to the question of why with an extremely hypocritical answer - if the politicians can be corrupt, and the rich can have whatever they want through financial manipulation, why can’t we?
On our own shores, we constantly hear and see accounts of who is to blame for our financial and political situation.  In Washington, self serving politicians take every advantage they can to explain why they aren’t the bad guy.  Many of these politicians started out years ago with a goal to make the United States a better place.  They outlined their hopes and dreams, worked hard to climb the political ladder, and finally made it to the national ladder.  The problem becomes the temptation of power and money.  Washington has corrupted our leaders, causing them to forget the reason they are there.
How do all three of these relate to each other?  They are all symptoms of the same disease - a self-centered existence.  
The recent recession and the budding stagnation of the world economy have been driven primarily by one element - over reaching.  In our attempt to constantly chase the American dream and achieve that life of MORE, the rich strive to get richer, corporations and their stock holders eagerly await higher stock prices, the middle and lower class try to keep up with the Joneses, burying themselves  in debt.  The government of the United States has done the same thing, extending expenditures beyond income.  We are at a tipping point because of our self satisfying actions.
Because of our extreme self-centeredness, we ignore the world beyond us, whining about our own problems as we continue to spend ruthlessly beyond our means.
The English riots are nothing more than extreme instant gratification.  Instead of following the American way and charging the new kicks, they chose instead to break the plate glass and take them.  Their self-centeredness blocks out any concern for who owns the shop, how many workers might be affected by the destruction, and how it can hurt those around them.  They are focused only on themselves and have no concern for anyone else.
Our politicians are the same way.  They have become lost in power.  Their only goal is to be re-elected and gain more.  Through their seat, they have become corrupted, losing sight of the reasons they are there.  They are self-centered and egocentric.
Find a way to break this cycle in your own life.  Learn about the world, help those beyond yourself, behave responsibly, and strive to make the world a better place.  Be aware of how your actions affect others as well as yourself.  Turn your focus outwards, because right now, we are about to tip over and fall into our own greed.  We can change that though, if we just take a step back.

I would love to make September a reader-focused month.  My plan is to build a series on your thoughts and ideas, focusing on issues you see in your daily experiences.  Email me your ideas and I will put together the September plan.
Thanks to everyone ahead of time!