I had a feeling ’21 was gonna be a good year: Psych!

December 31, 2021

Like most people who survived the epic disaster film that was 2020, I had high hopes for 2021. I kept singing that Who song from Tommy; “I got a feeling ’21 is gonna be a good year.” Trump was defeated, the COVID vaccine was coming, and things seemed to be great on the home front. Man, I was wrong on all counts.

January 6 was the first day of winter classes at PCC, Andi’s 31st birthday, and the day Donald Trump staged a coup to flush American democracy down the toilet. As I Zoomed with my sociology students, we split screened in realtime the assault on the capitol, while my wife realized that the folks who have their birthdays on September 11 now had some fellow travelers.

Then the Delta variant busted through the vaccine barricades destroying any hope of kicking off the new Roaring 20s. It took me down in August, as I spent ten days flat on my back, hoping I wouldn’t cough a lung out. I survived thanks to Andi and Cozy dropping food and medicine into the basement. And that wasn’t even my worst moment of 2021.

Much of this early part of this year, this blog was dedicated to thoughtful policy pieces responding to the January 6th insurrection but then it turned personal. Over the summer my bad habits hit a low point, leading to the realization of the impact of a sexual assault that happened to me when I was just four years old. I tried to make sense of how that explained my narcissistic tendencies but it just made things more unstable in my relationship. In October, Andi moved out to rescue her sense of self. It was exactly what I needed to put the pieces together and leave that 4-year-old boy back in 1968. The time we spend together now is more meaningful than ever. You can’t say you love someone and take them for granted year after year. The personal growth the last third of this year has been so exciting, thanks to good reading, great therapists, and a loving wife who lives just down the street.

There were plenty of great moments this year, including our cross country, Atlanta to Portland, road trip. The meandering journey took us to the Arizona-Mexico border where Andi crossed when she was 8, and leading to one of my favorite blog posts of the year. This year I also joined the faculty at the University of Oregon, returning to the physical classroom to discuss racism twice a week with 150 students in Eugene. I read a lot of self-help books, listened to newly released Beatles songs, watched Cozy turn 7, sweeping into second grade (after over a year in remote), and had a hundred amazing dates with Andi. My meditation and mindfulness practices help me navigate even the hardest of moments.

I also managed to get out 28 blogposts in 2021, the most popular being The Barbarians at the Gate: Confronting MAGA Terrorists Post Trump, followed by Freedom Morons: What am I supposed to think about people who refuse get vaccinated? But it was my piece on my sexual abuse that received the most feedback, including many people sharing their own stories of sexual trauma and psychological fall out. I hope that post helped some folks. It’s never too late to heal.

I’m not going to make any predictions about 2022. It could go either way. Andi and I have tickets for a much-needed trip to Paris in March (as spouses, lovers, or just friends, we’ll see) so I hope the Omicron variant doesn’t lead to a global shutdown this spring. I do know I will continue to work on the hard issues and the hardest issue of all is myself.

2021 WTW Posts

The Barbarians at the Gate: Confronting MAGA Terrorists Post Trump – January 12, 2021

There Is A Way To Interrupt Domestic Extremism – January 23, 2021

Bridging the Great American Divide: Stepping back from the cliff that is Civil War II – February 1, 2021

Preparing for April 19th, 2021: Why We Need an International Approach to Domestic Terrorism – February 7, 2021

Two Robots Meet on Mars – A Valentines Poem for My Wife – February 14, 2021

Talking to Your Kid About Black History Month: First Grade Edition – February 18, 2021

Envisioning Our Renaissance at Home: Life After the Pandemic – March 8, 2021

I’m Vaccinated! Am I proud or am I ashamed of it? – March 24, 2021

Witnessing the Witnesses of the Murder of George Floyd: Trauma at the Trial of Derek Chauvin – March 30, 2021

Standing at the Border: Experiencing Xenophobia Through My Wife’s Skin – April 15, 2021

Cancelling White Fragility: Can Progressives Get an Assist from Madison Avenue? – May 13, 2021

Pandemic Nostalgia: Save a Mask, It’s Coming! – June 4, 2021

If You’re Hiring, Just Be Decent to Applicants, OK? – June 11, 2021

The Black Strawman: In Defense of Critical Race Theory – June 18, 2021

Mindful Meditation: Save me, Ringo! – July 15, 2021

The Delta Variant Got Me: Hubris Amid a Pandemic – August 1, 2021

COVID, Climate Change, and Misinformation: How Shock Doctrine Kills American Democracy – August 9, 2021

Freedom Morons: What am I supposed to think about people who refuse get vaccinated? – August 27, 2021

Death By a Thousand 9/11s – September 11, 2021

2028: A Letter to My 14-year-old Daughter at the Half-way Mark – September 27, 2021

I am the victim of child sexual abuse and it made me toxic. – October 22, 2021

Follow Up: Fixing What’s Broken – November 8, 2021

Confronting Misogyny in Family Feud America – November 13, 2021

Taking You Lumps: Remote Gender Work – November 19, 2021

Learning How to Let it Be from The Beatles’ Get Back Film – November 28, 2021

How to not be an anti-racist asshole: Mindfulness and Racial Progress – December 21, 2021

Dad’s Top 20 Discs of 2021 – December 27, 2021

I had a feeling ’21 was gonna be a good year: Psych! – December 31, 2021

Taking You Lumps: Remote Gender Work

November 19, 2021

Blogs are ultimately about personal journeys. I began this blog on November 24, 2014 as a daily chronicle of my life as stay-at-home dad. I intended it to be me channelling the porto-feminism of pioneering house-husband John Lennon. That lasted exactly one day. By November 25th, I was writing about the uprising in Ferguson, Missouri in what would be the first in a long line of posts about the Black Lives Matter movement. In those seven years, my writing has ranged from family life stories to global gender politics and everything in between.

There have been two pillars in this writing. The first is the firm belief that we are all works in progress, never fully complete. We can’t make the world a better place if we are not willing to make ourselves better people. And mistakes will be made. That’s part of the process. The second pillar has been how I’ve benefitted from the input from my wife, Andrea. Her patience, strength, and wisdom have pushed me to be that better man. And her experience as a member of a few different marginalized populations has allowed me to confront my own privileges head on. If I could only give her as much as she’s given me.

So here’s one of those entries about the need to evolve. 

It’s been clear in this year of revelations that I still have a lot of work to do on myself. Uncovering my abuse story has helped me see the roots of some of my narcissistic personality traits, but that doesn’t automatically cure them. So Andrea has moved out so I could focus on that work. She got a studio apartment nearby and I helped her move in. The three of us had dinner there that first night as I let this separation settle in. We talk constantly and she’s endlessly encouraging. We have dates planned and I bring her coffee in the morning. But this is time set aside for me to make my mindfulness practices my natural way of being and for her to figure out if the woman she’s become fits with the man I’m becoming.

I have a pretty heavy lecture in my criminology class about domestic violence and about how battered women who flee abuse are as likely to be killed by their male partners as they are by staying with them. (Then I tell them to watch Sleeping with the Enemy and listen to “Goodbye Earl” by the Dixie Chicks.) Research on wife-killers shows these man can’t handle that “their” women have been rejected and just snap. It’s the ultimate act of patriarchal control.

While the thought of violence has never crossed my mind, I’ve never been very good at break-ups, centering my emotional pain instead of what’s best for my (former) partners. Just ask my first girlfriend who ended our relationship so she could spend a year studying in Paris. I got to Paris a few weeks before her and spray-painted her name all over the city, including on a stature of Moliére at the Sorbonne, where she would be enrolled. I thought I was being wildly romantic, but I was just being wildly creepy, inserting myself into her post-Randy life in the City of Light.

So the evolved version of me has kicked that version of masculinity to the curb. This is about what Andi needs right now and how I can listen and deliver. Certainly 2021 has been filled with examples of me not doing that, including plenty of mad examples of me freaking out as I fell down the rabbit hole of panic and defensiveness that were shaped by a lifetime of acting out the patterns created by my childhood abuse. Putting in the work is under way. I finally feel like an adult and instead of a petulant child and it feels good. I enter this phase with respect, grace, a mountain of admiration for this woman who I will get to know in a completely new way.

My great hope is this process won’t take long. Apartments in Portland are not cheap and it’s coming out of her pocket. We have a trip to Paris planned for this spring and that spray-paint will have long faded away. I’m committed to making that the case for the version of me that took her for granted. Faded away like a lovelorn teenager’s graffiti. 

Follow Up: Fixing What’s Broken

November 7, 2021

I needed to let the dust settle after that one.

When I wrote my little “coming out” piece about my experience with sexual abuse a few weeks ago, I wrote it for an audience of two. I wrote if for myself, because I needed to say these things out loud so I could start the healing. And I wrote it for my wife because I was desperate to mend the damage my behavior had caused in our relationship. I had already discussed it with my parents who were surprisingly tranquil about the news that their four-year-old son had been sexually abused. My mother seemed to separate herself from any of the events and my father thought it was a good explanation for how I treated my little brother. Now, as then, they didn’t seem concerned for my emotional well being.

Who did care about me were many of my friends. When I posted the link to the story on my Facebook page I got so many wonderful messages, including friends coming out about their own victimization stories, some leading to failed marriages and life-long challenges. It meant so much and also let me know how many of us are struggling with the adult effects of childhood trauma. We are a statistic (1 in 7), but we are also pieces of the story of humanity. The narcissist in me could be seen as saying, “Hey, look at me! I’m an abuse victim, too!” I thought about that before I posted it. But I think it just needed to be said and I’m glad I did. It was like taking a breath.

The hard part about this is the realization of brokenness. I was pretty cool before, just bopping along, blaming all my problems on other people. I had a poem called “Psycho Chick Magnet” that I’d perform at readings in the 90s to laughter and a lot of dudes saying, “Me, too!” I now see that I was the psycho. My fucked-up defense mechanisms gas lit them. They were crazy. But they weren’t crazy. I was deeply damaged.

Now that I know this, it’s endlessly frustrating. I know what the problem patterns are. I know what the root cause is. I know the behavioral shift to make everything work like it should. Sounds super simple, right? This pattern is fucking up your life, so just stop doing it. This the part where I tell you that I am so completely broken that I’m not sure I can fix it. These patterns have evolved over a half century and I was a fool to think I could snap my fingers and be a different person. That the wirings of my brain that were the result of trauma in a 4-year old boy could just be switched off and I would forever be in the green zone.

Since I posted my story, I’ve fallen off the “Grown Up Randy” train a dozen times. Here’s just the latest example. I thought it would be fun to spend a rainy Sunday at the movies, so Cozy, Andi, and I went to go see Addam’s Family 2 at the Kennedy School. Cozy had her popcorn and lemonade. Andi and I had our beer and held hands and cuddled during the movie, which meant a lot because there had been some me-caused tension (surprise!) earlier in the day. After the film, Andi commented that it would have been nice if I would have put my arm around her. I should have just listened and said I would next time. But instead the four-year old me, who was stuck defending against endless attacks, popped up and ruined everything. I got defensive and felt like nothing I did was enough. I became the asshole that I swore I wouldn’t.

Our therapist warned against expecting immediate results. That changing patterns was like a snake shedding its skin and that old skin was sticky. That makes sense but tell it to my wife who is past her tolerance level fo sticky snake skin. But the feeling sinks in. That I will never break the patterns that were created in me by an entitled babysitter in 1968. It’s nearly unbearable because I see the harm it causes. I should be smart enough to figure this out.

I’ve been doing some research on Polyvagal Theory and how trauma rewires the nervous system. I now understand the my reactive nature is pretty much baked into my body. More great information but still doesn’t get me out of this loop I’m stuck in. All the enlightenment in the world doesn’t carry you out of the darkness.

The only point to this blogpost is to report on how hard this work is. There’s a good chance I will have to do it on my own, but I do it for that little kid who I was and the man I hope to become. You can only shoot yourself in the foot so many times.

Afterthought: I was listening to the news of the world leaders in Glasgow trying to kick the can on the global climate crisis. We know what the problem is. We know what the cause is. We know what behavior change is required to fix things. You can only shoot yourself in foot so many times, earth people. (I am the world. I am the inner children.)

I am the victim of child sexual abuse and it made me toxic.

October 22, 2021

I have a few clear memories from when I was four-years-old. I remember the birch trees in our front yard in Parma Heights and turning my tricycle upside down, pretending it was an ice cream machine. I remember doing the Tarzan call over our back fence, hoping my neighbor, Sharon, would climb over to play. I remember my breath becoming condensation on the inside of my Secret Squirrel Halloween mask. I remember the Christmas tree and learning that I could swallow SpaghettiO’s without chewing them. I didn’t remember being molested.

This might be the hardest thing I’ve ever written but I have to. I have to because I remember now and that memory has allowed me to connect so many dots in my life, a series of dots that includes a trail of tears full of damaged relationships with family members and other people I supposedly loved. Two failed marriages and a third that is hanging by the tiniest of threads. All connected to one weekend in 1968.

Over the years I’ve trumpeted the benefits of therapy as a place of self-evolution and fixing broken patterns. “I worry about the people NOT in therapy,” I’d tell my students. Since my first drop into clinical depression, that I fictionalized in my novel, The Mission of the Sacred Heart, therapy has been a place to put out the emotional fires. But it’s often just tinkering around the edges and not getting to the root. The root takes time to dig down to, maybe years.

I was in couples counseling about a dozen years ago when I had a very clear childhood memory that stopped me cold. My young parents were looking for their American dream and got involved in some of those “multi-level marketing schemes,” like Amway. They would take weekends to go to sales seminars and drop me off with an older couple that lived down the block. While sitting on our therapists couch, I remembered my parents picking me up at the end of a weekend away and me crying uncontrollably, thinking they had left me with these people forever and being so relieved they hadn’t. I chalked it up to a root cause of my vague abandonment issues and moved on.

This pandemic has offered us an opportunity for self work. My patient and loving wife has helped me to identify my tendency to center myself instead of her in our marriage. (Something I’ve written about in this blog.) She was strong enough to name it; narcissism. She gave me reading list on the subject so I could continue my work. I was reading one of her recommendations, Why Do I Do That? Psychological Defense Mechanisms and the Hidden Ways They Shape Our Lives, and I began to see a lifelong pattern that started with endless fights with my younger brother and my tendency to be in perpetual “battle mode” in my romantic relationships. But I was puzzled about why I could see this pattern and seemingly be powerless to stop it.

Then, one day, because I really wanted to know, I was reading about theories on the origin of Narcissistic Personality Syndrome. And there it was in black and white, that one root can be child sexual abuse. It was like great whooshing enveloped me. I suddenly remembered why I was crying so hard when my parents picked me up from the neighbor babysitters. I had a crystal clear memory of being in the guest room, window facing the street, with the man, maybe twice as old as my 25-year-old father, standing in front of me, staring, with my clothes in a pile on the floor in front of me. The memory gets a little hazy after that, but I know I was crying because I needed my parents to rescue me from how that man was hurting me.

Realizing this literally stopped my breath. I began to hyperventilate and then sob. The timing was not perfect because I was in the middle of a me-caused crisis with my wife. I had shared an intimate detail of our lives with a friend (who was really just a local bartender) that she had asked me not to share. I had betrayed her trust in the most callous of ways for no reason other than momentary titillation, wounding this person I claim to love. This realization shed light on that and so much more. My hyper-sexuality, my narcissism, and probably why I never had a best friend. 

That 4-year-old didn’t have the skills to stop this abuse so he erected a wall around himself for protection. I entered into a world where I constantly had to be on guard and defend myself. Everyone was a potential attacker, including my little brother, who I was endlessly cruel towards. I would see his efforts to emulate me as sinister attempts to take the things that were unique about me for himself. At age 10 I remember freaking out because he said he liked Elton John. Elton John was mine! I should have just said, “Yeah, Ronnie. Elton is awesome. Let me play you some of my favorite songs.” Instead I beat him up. That hyper-defensiveness and self-centering (and fortunately not the violence) followed me into adulthood and sabotaged every single romantic relationship I entered. I can provide you a list of women who will testify that was not a very good boyfriend or husband.

That 4-year-old also didn’t have the skills to process what was occurring. How could my parents let this happen? So all that trauma got folded into my subconscious and came out in my toxic personality traits. That’s where it hid until I was 57-years old, and by then those brain pathways were pretty well-worn grooves.

I found a new therapist to help me work on this psychodynamic that has only hurt people I love. She’s a hypo-therapist, so much of the work has involved talking to that 4-year-old who has been in control of my mind and behavior since 1968. I can take care of him, acknowledge his pain, and move forward as the adult version of me. But that kid is strong. He doesn’t want to let go. One thing that is painfully clear is that alcohol, something often abused by adult abuse victims, lets that kid out with a vengeance. So as of today, I’m going back to my straightedge tendencies. No more Portland benders. I can’t let the child cause more pain. And he’s caused a lot pain.

The research is clear, people who experience trauma tend to traumatize others. Veterans with PTSD have higher rates among domestic abusers. So many of the hate criminals I’ve studied over the years have histories of abuse in their background. Roughly one in seven American children experiences abuse, and you can bet that many of them are going to turn that pain outward, creating an endless cycle of trauma.

One of my favorite novels is Nick Hornby’s 1995 book, High Fidelity. The protagonist, Rob, is going through another break-up and decides to write all his ex’s to ask them why they broke up with him. I’m tempted to write all my ex’s to tell them that I know why they broke up with me and to apologize. Profusely. But my work has be in the present, being ever-mindful of this hurt 4-year-old that lives inside me. His need to lash out and erect walls has destroyed so much. I want to give him love and protection so he, and the other people I love, can finally feel centered and safe with me.

I know two things. What happened to me wasn’t my fault and that this internal dynamic that my abuse shaped is not an easy thing to change. Wish me luck on this path. It’s not going to be a straight line. And also that I’m sorry that I didn’t figure this out sooner. So sorry.

Freedom Morons: What am I supposed to think about people who refuse get vaccinated?

August 27, 2021

“Medical tyranny!”

My capacity for empathy is really being challenged in 2021. The Delta variant is raging across the country, now putting children in hospitals. ICU beds are filled to capacity with unvaccinated COVID patients who are not vaccinated because they didn’t have access to immunization. They chose to be unvaccinated. Over 80 million Americans are still unvaccinated. A recent poll found that 29 percent of Republicans refuse to get vaccinated. (Side note: I’m old enough to remember when Republicans were private school snobs and Democrats were knuckle dragging factory workers. Now Democrats are the over-educated Volvo drivers and Republicans are the Neanderthals who believe whatever noted white supremacist Tucker Carlson tells them to believe. “The election was stolen!” “Tom Hanks is an alien pedophile!”)

Variants rage through America and kids are on ventilators because of these people. A North Carolina study found that the unvaccinated are 15 times more likely to die of COVID-19 than the unvaccinated , but there’s an anti-mask rally coming to your town. We’re 10 minutes away from another economy-crushing shutdown because MAGA Mike hates the CDC and thinks Dr. Anthony Fauci is out to destroy America. I’m not talking about cancer patients and other immunocompromised people who can’t tolerate the vaccine. I’m talking about people like Marjorie Taylor Greene who equate mask mandates with the Holocaust. I’m talking about people who claim they have “medical research” to back up their positions, but none of it is in peer reviewed science journals.

What am I supposed to think of these people?

The sociologist and educator wants to see these people as victims. They’ve been manipulated by right-wing media and self-serving politicians, like Florida governor Ron DeSantis. They’re the result of 40 years of defunding education that’s replaced scientific research with something you saw on YouTube. (Reading is hard.) We have failed these people and they are dying because they think the FDA’s full approval of the Pfizer vaccine is “fake news.”

Or maybe they’re just idiots.

These people don’t trust the “the science.” That is until they get sick and show up at the hospital asking those same medical scientists to save their assess. Heaven help you if you have a stroke or a heart attack right now. The hospital is chocked full of covidiots, who can’t say they were wrong because they have ventilators shoved down their necks. There is always prayer, I guess. Good luck with that heart attack! I’m praying for you.

I want to be compassionate, but I’m just angry. I’ve seen these Mensa Society members at town halls and school board meetings screaming about FREEDOM! They want to be free to unmask their kids in school and go to Dairy Queen for the Flamethrower Combo with their face uncovered. “I’m not anti-vaccine. I’m pro-freedom,” they robotically say. They’re dooming their children to the ICU and the rest of us to an endless pandemic. I’m free to walk down the middle of I-5. That doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. Freedumb!

Of course, there are endless stories of these folks ending up in the hospital, wishing they would have gotten the vaccine. A whole lot of them die. Should we laugh? Tweet, “I told you so!” Make a comment about Darwin and the thinning of the herd?

There’s an old adage in comedy that says, tragedy + time = comedy. It’s probably too soon to laugh at the anti-vaccine people who have died. That includes the pathetic conservative radio host Phil Valentine who regularly spread lies about the coronavirus and the vaccines on his syndicated show. He died last week of COVID. They say God has a sense of humor and I’ll just leave it at that.

I wrestle with this issue because my mother is one of these covidiots. I generally think of her as an intelligent person, but, now in her late 70s, she’s become influenced by whatever crap she reads on the internet. Her mother, once a psychologist, fell under the spell of televangelist and prostitute funder Jimmy Swaggart in her later years and gave the family inheritance to the Jesus Man on TV. Similarly, watching my mother’s magical thinking being exploited by internet based mis-information is just heartbreaking. “Well, I heard…” You know what I heard Mom? People like you are dying right and left.

While I was in the basement, making it through my mild case of COVID earlier this month (I had the Johnson &. Johnson vaccine), she was a comforting voice, calling from Georgia. She had refused to get vaccinated and I tried to explain to her that the reason I was sick was because the unvaccinated have created a petri dish that has allowed the much more deadly Delta variant to spread. I begged her to get vaccinated. Being 78 in Georgia and living with her (also unvaccinated) grandson puts her at high risk. Finally, out of frustration I told her not to call me until she was vaccinated. I haven’t heard from her since. She chose the lies over her son.

It’s like America is taking a national IQ test right now. I used to joke there were two types of people in the world, those that love cilantro and idiots. Just replace “love cilantro” with “got the vaccine.” I’m cool with you willing to die for your “freedom,” but I’m not cool with you putting the rest of us through hell to prove your stupid point; that you’re stupid. And your stupidity is upending my freedom to dive into a mosh pit or know my daughter is safe in her classroom from your disease (excuse me, I mean “hoax”).

Like I said, I’m wrestling with this. I’m 90% fed up with these idiots and want to deny them entry into the hospital when they get sick and realize they need some of that science. But 10% of me still is looking for ways to reach these folks. And that includes my mother.

NOTE: Within 24-hours this post had already attracted the righteous wrath of the QAnon bozos. Lordy.

The Delta Variant Got Me: Hubris Amid a Pandemic

August 1, 2021

OK, I’m gonna be brief, because I feel like absolute crap. I have COVID-19. I tested positive yesterday after three or four days of coughing that turned into headaches and a fever. I thought it was a summer cold. My wise wife took one look at me and said, “You’ve got Corona.” So let me lay it out in bullet points so I can go back to sleep.

  • I received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine which, some sources have reported, is not as effective against the Delta Variant.
  • When the vaccines rolled out at the beginning of the year, the science said the vaccinated are near 100% protected and also unlikely to spread the virus. That was BEFORE the Delta variant arrived.
  • Science changes as incoming data changes.
  • The end of the state mask mandate had many of us vaccinated people thinking we were back to life as normal. I pretty much stopped wearing my mask and was back at the bar and other indoor places with people who may not have been vaccinated.
  • There’s a whole bunch of people at Lollapalooza in Chicago right now who are about to get a very sobering telegram from reality.
  • As much as I want to blame this on the people who are not getting vaccinated, it’s my own damn fault, pretending that I was fully protected while I heard the daily horror stories on NPR.
  • I’m pretty sure I’m not going to end up in the ICU, but this version of COVID has still knocked me on my ass.
  • I worry that I may have infected several people before I know that I had it. I’m most worried about my 6-year-old daughter.

This thing is far from over. We have to get vaccination rates up. Get your mask back out. Wash your hands to “Happy Birthday.” Stay home. The 1918 flu pandemic didn’t end in 1919. It took a couple years. But then we had the Roaring Twenties. So hunker down. Our roaring twenties is coming.

Mindful Meditation: Save me, Ringo!

July 15, 2021

Let’s be honest, the pandemic has brought us some good things. For example, there are people who will deliver vanilla lattes to your home and text you when they are on your doorstep. The 2020-2021 lockdown was also a great time to work on ourselves and our relationships. Besides the long conversations with my wife about what I might need to tweak in my own psychodynamic, I read a lot that put me on a path of internal work. Books like Get Out You Mind and Into Your Life, and You Might Be a Narcissist If…, and (currently) Why Do I Do That? Psychological Defense Mechanisms and the Hidden Ways They Shape Our Lives. As an educator, I want to de-stigmatize the effort to do self work. Let’s be honest, we all could use a little help to be better people

But what really changed the game was meditation.

As a Beatle maniac, I was always enamored with how the practice of transcendental meditation changed the trajectory of the Fab Four’s career. John, Paul, George, and Ringo were in Bangor, Wales in August, 1967 attending a seminar in TM held by the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi when their manager, Brian Epstein, suddenly died. Seeing how they handled his death with calmness was a bit shocking to Western sensibilities about grief. Those seminars and their extended trip to India the following spring to study under the Maharishi set them on lifelong paths of meditation (and vegetarianism). Ringo Starr just turned 81 and still meditates every single day. So does Paul McCartney.

My first personal experience with meditation was when I was about 12 and taking karate classes. As a child I suffered from intense insomnia, my mind racing with fantasies about dinosaurs and Spiderman. The meditation practice at the end of each karate class promised “astral projection,” but really taught me how to calm my mind and I’ve used it as a tool to get to sleep ever since. (I often focus on images under the sea, so when I started scuba diving in 2016, it was like I manifested my dream world through deep thought.)

This latest chapter was born from intense frustration. I could read all the “self-help” books in the world but my impulses were still getting the better of me. My need to be confrontational likely stems from my early family dynamic. I like to fight. Me vs. You. I could be a road rager, given the right traffic jam. Often in my marriage, while I “know” Andi and I are on the same team, sometimes I act like we are opposing forces. This is especially true in emotional moments. Even if it’s something stupid, like me wondering, “Why do I always have to be the one to wash the dishes?” My emotional self takes over my intellectual self and I say something stupid. There have been a thousand apologies after I get my head back on straight. I do plenty of trainings on implicit bias, but the greater challenge is teaching people to not let those “unthought thoughts” turn into bad behavior.

So, if some of this is hardwired into the subconscious, how can you ever get in front of it?

Starting a daily meditation practice has provided the answer. Just ten minutes each morning. I sit in the backyard, under an apple tree, and pop open a guided meditation video on YouTube. (The ones by Calm are amazing.) The focus is first on the breath, and seeing any incoming thoughts as clouds floating by, there and gone. The cackling crows and planes landing at PDX are just part of the ambient symphony of my environment. The rest of the time is focusing on not being my thoughts. Thoughts and emotions are not real. They don’t have to control me.

Today’s meditation focused on alleviating worry. Occasionally, I’ll get in a sour mood because of something stupid I did in the past, or something I imagine going on in the present or future, and it’s down a little black hole. The meditation focused on how there are three parts of this process. First is the image of the situation, like remembering some micro aggression I committed in the past or some upcoming event I’m not looking forward to. The second part is the emotion that thought brings up and the third is how that emotion impacts the body. The physical response could be the muscles tensing up or (worse) being more impulsive. Mindfulness says if you can witness this process, you can interrupt it before it gets to Step 3.

It was perfect timing to focus on this as just a few days earlier I totally did this spiral. It was Andi’s turn to prepare dinner but she stopped after work to have drinks and do some career planning with a mentor. Based on something that happened to me nearly 25 years ago, my head went somewhere stupid, I got frustrated and angry, and my fingers sent some pretty snarky texts. My subconscious kicked my ass. Again. If I had been more mindful, I would have identified what that emotion was about and it wouldn’t have gotten anywhere near the Send button. Meditation helped me to see that flow-chart so I don’t repeat the mistake.

The great thing about meditation is that you are literally retraining my brain to be more thoughtful. Andi has commented on the dramatic difference in my demeanor. I no longer start stupid fights (that I later have to apologize for) and center her needs as a part of my normal behavior pattern. I see challenging thoughts like leaves floating down a stream and then I hear Bono sing, “Let it go!” It feels like a rebirth. It feels like embracing thankfulness instead of anger.

Meditation has come into the daily practice of Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, and LeBron James, who meditates on the bench in the middle of games. Our active culture has a hard time “doing nothing” for 10 minutes. Before the pandemic, my yoga class would end with 5 minutes of meditation, cutely referred to as corpse pose (Shavasana). There are always a handful of people who bail to spend that 5 minutes on the Stairmaster. They’re really missing out. Filmmaker David Lynch has a foundation that brings meditation into schools and seen mediating students become less violent and more productive. Meditation is being used to treat trauma and improve the quality of inmate lives in prisons.

I had hit a wall in my self work, battling with my subconscious programming. Then I thought, well, if Ringo Starr can mediate 10 minutes a day and be so “peace and love” all the time (and be married to “Bond Girl” Barbara Bach for 40 years), maybe I should give it a try. Starting each day with 10 minutes, quieting my mind and reminding myself that I am not my emotions has transformed the quality of my life in a palpable way. I can only encourage you to start your own practice under your own apple tree. And thank you, Ringo.

If You’re Hiring, Just Be Decent to Applicants, OK?

June 11, 2021

We’re hearing a lot now about how employers can’t find workers to come back to their crappy low wage/no benefit jobs. Shocking, I know. We’re not really hearing how things are still rough for mid-range workers who are trying to return to salaried positions with some health care. I’m one of those people and there is no desperation to hire us. Slave labor, oh sure there are plenty of opportunities! A living wage that supports a family, not so much.

It’s no secret that I left my secure tenured position at Hogwarts when I learned the school had been taken over by trolls and goblins. It was time to try something else after two decades of institutional loyalty. So, as a stay-at-home dad, I focused on my writing and growing my consulting business. But that baby just finished first grade and it’s time to bring more revenue into the household. So scanning indeed.com and writing the cover letters began.

I’ve had some great experiences as a job applicant, including being flown to places like New York City to interview. I know it’s competitive and there are a lot of qualified applicants, some who are willing to work for cheap. I’ve had interviews in boardrooms and on Zoom and I get it if I might not be the right fit. I’m not a cookie cutter applicant. But that’s not what this about. This about one aspect of the hiring process that is a reason so many jobseekers are frustrated, the lack of contact.

I was on a lot of hiring committees at Hogwarts and here’s how it went. When we advertised for a position, we’d get a ton of applicants (usually around 50). We’d end up interviewing three or four people and hopefully having a “successful search.” (You’re hired!) But everyone of those  applicants got a call or email that said thanks for applying but you we won’t be advancing your candidacy. It was just being decent. Putting applications together takes a lot of work. Let those folks know they’re not in the running so they can move on and spend their job-seeking time wisely, instead of sitting by the phone like chumps.

The norm for hiring officers now is to be a dick. This has happened to me numerous times. My first sociology professor was retiring and he encouraged me to apply and step into his shoes. It seemed perfect. I became a fairly renown expert in my field because of the impact he had on me as a college freshman. I even flew in to have lunch with him and discuss how the college had changed so I could best frame my application. I prepared a solid package and began imagining moving my family across the country and becoming a sociology professor at Oxford College of Emory University, where I started in the field. And then I waited.

And I waited. And waited. Finally my wife said I should contact them. I sent an email to the chair of the department to ask about the status of my application and he casually replied that they had hired someone else.  I let him know that the CUSTOM (something sociologists should understand) is to let applicants know when they are no longer being considered. Asshole.

There are jobs I’ve applied to where I know it’s a complete long shot, like the position to be the equity director for Macy’s in NYC (Hey, I love a parade!), but even those should trigger a “Thanks, but no thanks” email. How hard can that be? Can’t you hire a bot to do that job if you’re too lazy to do it yourself?

So much of my work is built around how concepts like racism, sexism, and ableism dehumanize people. They’re not thinking, feeling people, they’re things to be used. While it’s not as historically traumatizing, jobseekers get dehumanized too, just a name on an online application. Just another PDF of a resume taking up data space. Not worthy of a, “Hey, this position is closed but good luck to ya!”

There’s an equity director position at my credit union that applied for. Twice. It’s still being advertised. They must have had a few failed searches, but they never bothered to let me know I was not in the running. Aren’t credit unions supposed to be “more human”? Do I have to be Arnold Horshack? “Oh! Oh! Pick me!”

This isn’t just me complaining. This is something so many jobseekers are going through. Even Toby on This Is Us! You totally think you’ve got an interview for a gig in the bag. You start imagining your new work life. You mentally pay off your credit cards. You buy pants. And then there is the roar of silence. Maybe their email is in the spam folder! Ah, shit.  It makes you appreciate when someone actually takes the time to turn you down, like this email that came while I was writing this paragraph:

“Unfortunately, at this time, we decided to proceed with our selection process with another candidate. The interview committee was impressed with your credentials and experience and it is a decision we didn’t make easily.

We will keep your resume in our talent database, and in case that we have a job opening that better fits your profile, we will make sure to get in touch with you.

I wish you the best of luck in your future endeavors.” – Email received on June 11, 2021

It’s been a rough year. A ton of people have drained their savings accounts and maxed their credit cards. If you are in charge of hiring, or just on a hiring team, think of the people on the other side of that application process. Please. They are both stressed and hopeful. Don’t just let them dangle. It’s not cool. Mental wellbeing can be fragile, especially in a pandemic. If you don’t want someone on your payroll, have the decency to let them know.

Now back to Indeed.

Pandemic Nostalgia: Save a Mask, It’s Coming!

June 4, 2021

We social scientists love to come up with sharp names for social phenomenon. I’ve written a lot in this blog about anomie, Emile Durkheim’s 1897 term for the sense of normlessness that’s helped to explain the backslide into Trumpism. There’s been a lot of talk about Naomi Klein’s 2007 concept of shock doctrine again. But there are some phenomenon that still have no name, like when your walk into a bookstore or record store and immediately forget what you were looking for. Or when vintage t-shirts for a band that you know and love are being sold at Urban Outfitters to posers who never listened to the damn band. (“Name one Motorhead song! I dare you!”) There should be a name for that!

There’s another phenomenon as yet unnamed – feeling nostalgic for really horrible times. I just finished reading The Volunteer, Jack Fairweather’s epically researched 2019 book about a Polish officer who snuck into Auschwitz in 1940 and spent the next two and half years sending out reports of Nazi atrocities and organizing the camp resistance. Then when it became clear that the concentration camp had transitioned into a mass death camp, he escaped. When he was out, with good food and free from Typhus-infected lice and the stench of burning bodies, you know what he wanted to do? Go back! That world made sense, unlike the blasé attitude (that’s Georg Simmel’s concept) towards the Holocaust he found outside the camp.

I first experienced this weird feeling about a year after 9/11. The 2001 terrorist attacks had unified the nation. Republican and Democratic congress people stood together on the steps of the Capitol and sang “God Bless In America.” I was in Atlanta where locals covered their “Yankees Suck!” T-shirts with “I Love New York.” Sure there was some serious Islamophobia and a spike in xenophobic hate crimes, but there was also a powerful sense that we were all in this together. I miss that. Do we need another slaughter of civilians to get that feeling back?

As the COVID-19 pandemic wanes, I can already feel that old itch coming back. As of today, 136 million Americans are fully vaccinated (About 41.5% of the US population). Kids are wrapping up the last of their remote learning and we even saw a movie in a movie theater last weekend! There are nearly 4 million souls worldwide to mourn (with deaths spiking in India and Vietnam) and a mental health toll that will take generations to fully see, but, at least here on the home front, you can lay off the mask-making, feverous hand-washing, and crossing the street to avoid a panting jogger. Happy days are here again.

So what’s that tinge? The dread of having to jump back into the endless rush hour commute or the race to get the kid to school on time? Not having an excuse to not hang out with boring people? Having to find your pants? (Or buy new ones because you were binging on Love Island while devouring countless mole burritos, delivered by GrubHub?) The earth got a year-long break from us as the drop in our carbon footprints let us see the horizon for the first time in a generation. (“I didn’t know the Himalayas were right there!”) Although, I imagine landfills exploded with take-out containers in 2020. Are we ready to say goodbye to those random whiffs of fresh air?

Around mid-March 2020, when it started to be clear we were going to have to hunker down for a while, I said goodbye to some life-sustaining activities, like seeing live music and being belly-up to the bar with a whiskey ginger and set of great songs cued up on the jukebox. But I also thought of the things I’d have time to do, like read for fun and work on fixing up the house. Andi and I even started writing a screenplay. Most of that fell by the wayside as we found solace in the endless stream of Hulu and Netflix. Maybe we’ll finish the screenplay during the next pandemic. (Jinks!)

So I never got around to reading War & Peace (but I did spend way too many hours dissecting the new Dylan album). However one wonderful thing that came out of the lockdown was the opportunity to work on my marriage. There was really no escape, so it was either that or build myself a shed in the backyard. With ample supplies from the thank-god-it-stayed-open liquor store, we stayed up late into the nights, talking about how to build a stronger connection that was as beneficial to her. Zoom therapy sessions helped me identify some useful tools and Andi gave me a reading list. The book You Might be a Narcissist If…: How to Identify Narcissism in Ourselves and Others and What We Can Do About It turned my whole head around within two pages. There were some rough moments when I thought Donald Trump wasn’t the only thing that was going to get canceled by COVID, but she encouraged me to do the work and not fall back on old lazy habits. Without the 9-5 and the call of the nightlife, I could focus on what was and is important.

Perhaps everyone found a silver lining during this mess. So many of us, fearing for older family members, brought people together through Zoom sessions. I talked to my mother on the phone this year more than I have in the last 5 years combined. Neighbors began looking out for each other, making masks and hot meals and checking on that crazy old man nobody ever talks to. There was an explosion of book clubs and cocktail parties on Google Meet

As I craved live music, online concerts from home became a lifeline. (Ben Gibbard and Kevn Kinney, thank you.) And all the free webinars plugged me into global community of peers. We spent plenty of time over the last year in the streets, but there was plenty of activism that was happening in front of laptops. Just the fact that† my first grader spent this past February digesting amazing stories for Black History Month gave me hope that consciousness raising can happen on a keyboard. I know I wasn’t the only one who used the down time to plug into the whole wide world via webcam.

No doubt around 2030 they will start throwing 2020 socially distanced parties, and people can go to the costume store and buy face masks, sweat pants and “Got My Fauci Ouchie!” T-shirts. We can not invite anti-Asian hate criminals and the phony militia men protesting public health mandates, as we dance alone to oldies by DaBaby and/or Lil Baby and pretend we don’t know what day it is. Me at this moment, I’m just trying to come up a name for the strange feeling that I’m a little sad this nightmare is ending. Just a little.

I’m Vaccinated! Am I proud or am I ashamed of it?

March 24, 2021

I got vaccinated about a week ago and I don’t know if I should shout if from the rooftops or keep it on the down low. Never has getting a shot more been more fraught with social complexity. As of today, 127 million Americans have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine and about 14% of all Americans are now fully vaccinated. Is everyone who is vaxed as vexed as I am about how to respond? Let’s weigh this out.

On the one side, after a year of living in fear, according to the scientists, I am fully protected from the coronavirus and, apparently, the more infectious variants.

On the other side, those scientists can’t tell me if I can still pass COVID on to others.

On the one side, the more people who are vaccinated, the fewer hosts the virus has, slowing the pandemic down to something that starts to look like the mythical herd immunity.

On the other side, it’s really clear that the social inequities that marked higher infection and death rates for some populations are all reflected in who has access to the vaccine. My white privilege pays off in white life expectancy.

On the one side, I can stand as defender of science and encourage other intelligent people to get their shots as soon as possible.

On the other side, I’m aware there are a large number of idiots, including at least 50% of Trump voters, who said they won’t get the vaccine because they think COVID is a hoax. And those un-immunized idiots will birth mutant variants and put immunocompromised people (2.7% of Americans) at risk of infection and death.  (Dear idiots, Trump has been vaccinated and has said you should be, too.)

On one side, I don’t have to panic if I actually use a pen from the “dirty pen” holder when I’m signing the check at the coffee shop.

On the other side, these vaccines came out awfully fast. As a scientist, I’m bothered when corners are cut. And am I going to need another booster shot in a year? And when can my kid get vaccinated? And any info about long-term side effects? And…

I got the Johnson & Johnson vaccine on sunny Saturday afternoon at the Portland Airport Economy Parking Lot. It was an impressive set up, like driving into Disneyland, with hundreds of volunteers donating their time to help put a dent in this pandemic that has killed nearly 3 million people on the planet (most here in the dirty USA). My first thought was about how people who didn’t have cars were going to get their shot in this very car-centric vaccination effort. (I didn’t even have to get out of the RAV-4.) Actually, my first thought was how lucky I was to get a spot so soon. K-12 educators are just getting vaccinated now. I think college educators like me are scheduled later, somewhere between Jiffly Lube workers and TikTok dancers.

A friend in the military had a vaccine opening and was already full of Moderna, so he offered it to me. I passed up on one of these “jump the queue” openings a month ago because I knew there were more deserving recipients. But, after hearing Dr. Anthony Fauci say, “If you have a chance to get a shot, get the shot,” I decided to play my educator-parent of a young child-I’m probably older than you and therefore at risk-card. This decision was made easier by the fact that there are reports that large numbers of vaccines have gone unused because of a disjoint in the demand and supply chain.

But it’s been clear that there is massive inequities in this vaccine rollout. African-Americans, who make up 12% of the U.S. population, are only 8% of those who have received a vaccine, according to the CDC. Since most vaccine scheduling is done online, the technological divide is hitting the offline hard. This includes the elderly, poor people, people with physical and mental disabilities, the unhoused, and those that live in rural areas with limited internet access. Those low vaccination rates will translate into higher infection and death rates.

I thought about this as I was on the wild ride of my “one and done” Johnson & Johnson poke. Eight hours after my shot, I was hit by the Corona Express, a quick trip into the “this what you get” black hole of side effects. I had the chills so bad I thought the teeth were going to bounce out my head. It all passed later the following day, and I felt ten feet tall and bulletproof. I had a great support system to hold my hand. The rumors of heavy side effects might make some folks who live a lone a little more vaccine hesitant. I know I was lucky, but it didn’t feel like it while I was sweating bullets.

I lecture a lot about privilege and how privilege should engage a sense of responsibility, not guilt. But there is a part of me that feels guilty that I got the vaccine when I know there are more deserving people who don’t have a friend who can put them on the immunization guest list. But maybe my shame should be reserved for the system that creates so many institutional injustices that play out in human suffering. It’s not an exaggeration to say that, in America, the best predictor of your life expectancy is the zip code you live in. I’m ashamed of that.

Ultimately, we’re all taking it on faith that the mass vaccination experiment will solve this new health problem. It’s already done a good job of adding to an old one.