Existential Advising

When I stop to think about it, my job is way existential (as Cher Horowitz once said). My students are in search of what is meaningful to them. A purpose to their own existence. A reason for their place and time. An answer to the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” but more importantly, I believe, an answer to the question “Why?” Why is it something you want to pursue?

Oddly enough, this is rarely explored by students. Should I expect teenagers to know what they want to do with the rest of their lives? Hardly. I don’t expect people in their 40’s to know. You can plan and guess, but it’s only that. As Alanis once sang:

You may never be or have a husband/
You may never have or hold a child/
You will learn to lose everything/
We are temporary arrangements.

How existential of her. But how unexistential of my students. It’s one thing to expect a product from someone, and another to expect a process. And that is where the system has failed. The system being family, schools, communities, and self. There’s not enough questions like:

What fascinates you?
What strengths do you want to enhance?
What are you passionate about?
What do you want to learn?
What kind of problems do you like to solve?

But there are plenty of these “results-based” questions floating out there, muddying up the murky waters of self-discovery:

What do you want to be when you grow up?
What’s your major?
What kind of job will you get with that degree?
Will that make you any money?

And that last question holds part of the answer. Money. Consumerism. We have gotten to think too much about the purchase of a product, the sale of a good or service, and we’ve entangled that ideology with education. It’s become a business, like everything else in the world. People equate earning a degree with becoming a finished product. Freshly minted from the education assembly line, I’m stamped for approval, my work here is done. Time to cash in my degree for a lucrative career. No more learning required.

Too bad we can’t return the unsatisfying portion for a full refund. There are a lot of partial graduates out there.

And I don’t voice this concern merely to grumble. That’s the easy part. I say it because I’m a believer in tough love when it’s needed. And in so many ways, people of this nation need to wake the fuck up. Kids may be so overly active with extracurriculars and after-school lessons and enrichment, but they are mostly for the wrong reasons. It’s for a game of one-upmanship over peers or for self-promotion. Volunteer work is done for selfish reasons. The altruistic hook, as the cynics would say. And this time, the cynics have hit the nail.

I say this because teens haven’t suddenly become more selfless and aware. Oh, that exists, of course. But more often, parents have bullied them into these activities for vicarious and victorious purposes. The bar has been raised. The competition is fierce. Everyone must be a winner. Everyone is above the mean. Everyone is a princess or a little emperor. And if you don’t think so, by god, I’ll call you up and tell you how fucking fabulous my son and my daughter truly are. Because I’ve groomed them that way. I’ve sacrificed my life for their betterment. I’m creating a winning scenario for them. I, I, I… Hmm. Another hook of the individualistic consumer culture we live in? There’s no “I” in “asshole.” So quit being one, parents of the world.

The point is ultimately a positive one. I’m issuing a call to the process of thinking. Oh, it doesn’t sound so fancy or edgy, and it doesn’t pop. But I’m not an advertiser getting paid loads to create fake syndromes and then name the drugs fabricated to cure them. I’m an academic advisor of the existential order. And as such, I urge the parents of the world to ask the real important questions of your children. Find out what they are passionate about. Provide them with experiences that will help them find their interests. Follow their lead on what they like. And my favorite, encourage them to understand there are no guarantees.

That’s right, there’s no insurance policy on happiness. People have to follow their passions and seek experiences in life, and dare I say, fail a time or two. The most successful people in the world have had mega-failures. They weren’t afraid to fall down; they were courageous enough to keep getting up.

As a Japanese proverb goes: Fall down six times; stand up, seven.

We cannot insulate our youth from the trials of life. If we do, they will create their own conflicts and they will be petty ones, trust me. I’ve heard numerous cell phone conversations about “she said that he was all and I was like and he said um well and so like I don’t know.” There’s something to be said about knowing who you are by having to overcome your obstacles. In the olden days, we called this character-building. And it’s a strong character who can dodge the punches, take a few, learn for the next time, and move forward with that wisdom.

We all have the ultimate responsibility for our choices. We cannot fault others in the decisions we make. I preach this axiom every day. But the corollary is this – we must also model the responsibility of choice - both the positive and negative. I believe that leading by example and providing a script for how to make choices can encourage others to do the same. That doesn’t mean they must make the same choices; again, it’s about the process, not the outcome. If we can achieve in this process, perhaps then understanding will become more valued. Now there’s a commodity worth selling. If only I could package it up and sell it for a mint. Think of the disease and disorder that could be treated with a prescription of understanding. And it comes without the laundry list of side effects, spoken faster than the speed of sound.

But where was I… I digress.

When I stop to think about it, my job is way existential. I am paid to help people realize their purpose in life. Sure, it isn’t always glamorous as that. Often it’s routine and verbatim responses. And some students are not willing, ready, or able to have that deeper conversation. But for those who get it or those who I see getting closer to getting it, that is satisfying. The truth is inside waiting to be drawn out. The genie wants to be out of that bottle. But once free, he’s going to take stock of his existence, furrow his brow, and ask, “What will become of me now?” Feel free to send him my way. I have a few things to say…

Back from Arizona!

Hey all -- or should I say, hello to my one reader, Allie!

I made it back from Arizona after an amazing trip. I plan to put together a website to share pictures and experiences that I had during my extended visit. Until then, I hope you enjoy these panoramic shots I put together using the wonderful PhotoStitch. All hail its wonderment!

Grand Canyon

Saguaro National Park East

Splish Splash Therapy

I Like Them Long and Hot

Since my childhood, I have taken long showers. Like 15 minutes long. And I got in trouble by my Mom and Dad because I was wasting water. Which I can't blame them for saying that. Thing is, I wasn't really wasting that water. I was enjoying ever single drop that ran down my chin, massaged my back, and caressed my feet. It was my home-spun therapy.

Oh, I didn't know it as that back then. My entire life, I've been addicted to hot showers. It's my full body massage. A comfy warm refuge. It's my space to unwind. To think. To sing. Yeah, you do it too, so no judging. In fact, everyone sounds good in the shower. Which leads me to a new invention, the Shower Stall Karakoke Booth! Inside that baby, we're all a little Billie, Frank, Janet, or Seal. Every note is in perfick pitch. Acoustics dazzle the ear.

Sometimes I'll be standing under the streaming jets for five minutes and realize, oh! I haven't gotten any business done yet. I've just been standing here. The soothing streams salve the soul. It makes me alliterate. No, not illiterate!

Those Who Need No Showers To Sing

I came across this YouTube link recently by happenstance. Doesn't the internet operate on that principle of randomness? Anysuch, I've never paid much attention to Peter Gabriel, but this song, Sky Blue, piqued my interest.
The voices coming together in the outro are hauntingly beautiful. It gives me chills every time I listen to it. Which has been like 30 times. Take a listen - a worthy 8 minutes of your time.

The Lid Upon My Head

Open It Up and See What's On My Mind

A bit ago I shared my profound interest in visiting my neighborhood head doctor. Or should I say tour guide. Sometimes I think Therapist's living inside my brain, like in that movie "Innerspace" with Dennis Quaid. Then she comes out to tell me what's what.

This time round, we talked about my recent restlessness. This town is killing me. I'm going to flat line. More specifically, the flatness of this place has pushed me over the line. I've realized how much I cannot stand stagnation. In life. In my environment. From me. From others. Sure, I resist some changes like anyone else; but if you know me well, you know I cannot stand routine. I do not like to tell the same story more than once. I get bored telling it. That's how my job has felt. And my life. All's a routine. Mixed in with a February strangle of winter doldrums. It's no coincidence that Seasonal Affective Disorder is acronymed as SAD. Although if they could lengthen the name to call it STAGNANT, that would be more apropos.

Therapist and I have fallen into this parternship -- see, she's big into Gestalt tactics. So when I make a meaningful (yet unconscious) gesture, she'll just mimic it back to me. It's funny. Now I make sure I repeat it back to her and make a comment on it. Had to be there, certainly.

Anyway, as we talk, the connecting lines are drawn - not only am I feeling stuck because of the physical environment, the SAD, and routine of my job, I'm feeling creatively at rest. As it turns out, it's not enough for me to be creative -- I thrive off of it being a participative effort. I feed off the energy of others. I like to bounce ideas and beebop and scat all over the place. Like when I performed in that spoken word event - that was great stuff! Sadly, it's too scattered and random in this town for those kind of events.

So perhaps my trip to Arizona will help me to rejuvenate energy, commune with nature (which is powerful), and gain a new perspective to deal with the realities waiting for me when I get back home. Oh, give me the strength!

Go Figure

I've done a little thinking on a few things. Some ideas are starting to swirl about in the old noggin. One idea comes from "Stranger in a Strange Land" by Robert Heinlein. His main character, Mike, is a Martian-raised human, who has different perspectives than his Earth counterparts. At several points, he tells other characters, "Thou art God." As another character notes, in a way, God is in us, with us, and of us. Hmm. So stay with me here...

My second source comes from my favorite sci-fi show, Babylon 5. Several characters in the show share the idea that we are the universe made manifest, working to figure itself out. We are made of the same matter that composes the stars, the planets, the trees, and water. Another fascinating notion.

I've never felt that a higher power pokes, prods, or tests me directly. To me, it sounds kind of egocentric. But that we are all an element of a creative force... I like that idea. We are a part of a whole that often works alone; but when working together, can accomplish greater achievements; greater understanding. Our quest to understand God is a quest to understand ourselves.

I'm close to starting my own cult religion, you see : )

The Reverend Boss Hog

Sunday evening, I was greeted by the warm Florida air. Where Illinois had left me with melting snow, cloudy skies, and barren trees, Florida offered lush greens, dots of red, violet, and yellow, and a peaking sun (careful to break me in... softly, now).

It was my first time in Tallahassee. As explained to me, it's more like Georgia than Florida when it comes to the cultural landscape. And at the Atlanta airport, I was called "baby" casually, greeted with a smile, and Heintz and I even garnered a "how y'all sweeties doin?" I could take this Georgia-ish Florida town if that was the trendsetting pace to expect.

Enter the Reverend. There's not much imagination to stretch, hear? Picture an older, more portly Boss Hogg from the Dukes of Hazzard. No no, the original one. Yeah, this guy! Now imagine Boss gained some weight, traded in his white suit and cowboy hat for a flannel and foam cap, his Caddy for a Ford LTD. Cigars replaced by the foul stench of cigarette smoke infused into every interior surface, every pore, every fiber of a dirty flannel shirt. Exchange the generic Southern drawl for that of a Southern Baptist minister with a bit more of a pious bass twang. There's our Hog, a few notches looser in the Bible Belt.

When we exit the airport for the taxi parade, there's Hog hanging out the driver's door, hands folded atop his belly. "This'll be fun," I think.

"Y'all need a taxi?" belches Hog.

"Yessir!" I say back. He pops the trunk. Guess I'll put my own cases back here. He manages to Jabba slide back there just in time to tell me, "Looks good." As if loading a cavern of a trunk with two suitcases is rocket scientry...

Inside, the Baptist minister shouts repeatedly from the radio speakers, "Deliver Him unto..." something or 'nother. Hog hops in and switches off the stereo. "Deliver him, deliver him. That all he knows how to say? Where to?"

"The Double Tree Hotel."

"AH, the Trouble Tree! Going to the Trouble Tree." Hog's humor needed a two drink minimum. If he smoked weed instead of cigarettes, I'd have a contact buzz by this time. The cab was a gas chamber. Heintz was so ticked, she said nothing the whole ride! But it gets better.

Hog asks why we're in town. "We work at a university and there's a conference."

"Ah yes, the educated. Mm-hmm. I'm sure the elitists are getting together to tell us poor souls how to run our lives. They talk about religion, but they're preaching they own agenda. That's right." He pauses and serenades us with a little Hog Hymnal - "Doo-doo-de-doooo." That's his own brand of segue.

"Town's got lots of history, if you like that kind of thing."

I put him to task - "How so?"

"Well, firstly, it was the only Confederate flag that never surrendered during 'the War.' You Yanks never were able to capture it..." and he said something more about nothing much of value there at the time, something about the Reconstruction, yada. I always thought 'the War' was in reference to WWII, but apparently to the likes of Hog, there's still a chip on a Southerner shoulder or two about our Civil entanglements. Fortunately, he's moved on from that... He goes own about other interesting historical facts. "Doo-doo-de-doooo."

I ask why this school we pass is completely surrounded by a fence. "Oh, likely because this isn't the best part of town. This is a haven for your underprivileged, down-trodden, taken-advantage-of, uneducated, poor, and minorities. I'm sure they'd say they were owed something. That the blue eyed white devil is responsible. See "they" have their own school over there. It's about 85% black." I think we caught Hog on his way to a Klan rally. This guy was just full of material! Hurray for stereotypes. Again, Heintz sits there with a blank expression. She's a pot under steam pressure, I can tell. "Doo-doo-de-doooo."

Then he gets on politics. Makes another comment about Atheist educators. After that, he says something about the new Republican governor. I hadn't realized ol' Jebby Bush was ousted. Buh-bye. One more to go! So Hog says, "the new governor is a homosexual. Well, he's in the closet, but he's gay. If the Democrats have their way, we'll have a lesbian president and a gay governor. Wouldn't that be PC?" Belly laugh ensues.

I felt it was time to challenge his onslaught. I said, "Yeah, it could be a lot worse than that, right?" He stops and says thoughtfully, "Well, that's true. That's true. We could have some swindlers and crooks in there, that would be worse." Had I successfully reformed Hog's bigotry with my elitist ways?

Not quite. He keeps going on about Hilary Clinton (the lesbian, according to Hog), only he calls her HIGH-larious Clinton, with the emphasis where noted. Score one for the Reverend. We finally make it to the Trouble Tree and Heintz practically jumps from the moving cab. He putters off after I pay, and I bust into hysterics. I laughed about it the whole time - Heintz was simply livid, which made me laugh harder. Eventually she got past his backward bigotry and saw the humor.

Thankfully, The Reverend Boss Hog was our only brush with that old school South mentality. We met some great people at the conference and had a wonderful time on the town. Our cabbie on the way back was Jamar. He was the best! We told him all about Hog and he was cracking up and apologizing for that being our first introduction to Tallahassee. He's been all over the place and is getting ready to leave for South Korea to teach English. We had a fun time with him talking about culture, music, white people, black people, travel, doing what you love, etc. Jamar was our last impression of the place; and while he is a Wisconsiner by birthright, Heintz and I couldn't have asked for a better send-off back to the flatlands. Bless you, Jamar, in all your travels. And bless you Boss Hog, from one Atheist Yank to a salty old Reb like yourself.


Recently I was introduced to the term "two-spirited people." It is derived from Native American cultures in which they believed in a third gender; that of a person who possessed both male and female spirits. This article quote encapsulates nicely what it meant to be two-spirited:

"Traditionally, the Two-spirited person was one who had received a gift from the Creator, that gift being the privilege to house both male and female spirits in their bodies. The concept of Two-spirited related to today's designation of gays, lesbians, bisexual and transgender persons of Native origins. Being given the gift of two-spirits meant that this individual had the ability to see the world from two perspectives at the same time. This greater vision was a gift to be shared with all, and as such, Two-spirited beings were revered as leaders, mediators, teachers, artists, seers, and spiritual guides. They were treated with the greatest respect, and held important spiritual and ceremonial responsibilities."

What an interesting notion, huh? That people who in our culture are openly marginalized and discriminated against held positions of honor in Native societies. They were seen as privileged, not told that they were an abomination, disowned from their families, felt like they had to hide their true selves, or sent to ex-gay camps to rediscover their heterosexual origins. It's difficult enough for people to feel comfortable in their own skin, let alone comfortable in their world. I wonder what both would feel like.

Sadly, this view of two-spirited people is not expressed in Native American cultures any more. So what changed it all? Any guesses? Not surprisingly, it changed when Europeans came in, snatched up some land, did some killing, and pushed their values and taboos onto those who came before. How Christian of them.

It's frustrating how people will say that Native American traditions are Old World, irrelevant, or backward. Then I read something like this and continue to wonder who the inferior ones are. Why are openness to difference, acceptance, tolerance, and understanding underscored in our society? Why does hate and fear get so much top billing?

It is easy to drive technology and call ourselves advanced. To live privileged lives and believe we possess culture. To not reflect on our ancestory and therefore, fail to learn from it. Can you disregard the past, skim through the present, and constantly anticipate the future - do all these things - and ever experience true humanity?

Maybe that level of understanding is the spiritual gift. Progress is change. It can lead to cures and revelations. It can take us further away from ourselves. We cannot live outside of either reality. But that shouldn't stop us from asking questions and learning from our world. It shouldn't stop us from expanding our understanding.

We are never finished products. We are imperfect. But we are capable of much more than we allow ourselves to be. In these truths, I hope for us.