Summer Update

It’s been a long spring quarter, and I’m glad it’s over. It’s getting up in the 90s here in Portland so everyone’s in their underwear dancing around beer fountains as the smell of pot fills the sunny air. And though the smell is better than the B.O. or Patchouli which normally wafts though the air, Portland city council decided to ban all smoking in parks and nature areas.

I’ve been busier than usual, so I haven’t been able to write as much, but I think that’s been good. “Less is more” is the cliché. And the essays I’ve posted lately have had higher readership than years past. Plus, I haven’t had much time to read anything other than a textbook and some chunks from The New Yorker during my lunch at work–if I’m not reading, I’m not writing. And while the articles have been great I’m very happy I’ve finally found a book to read.

I wanted to dedicate part of this summer to breaking down misconceptions and bad thinking surrounding prison systems, specifically here in Oregon. So to kick off my research (and potential future blog) I’m reading The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander. Last year someone attacked my friend while he was out drinking, and he opened fire, wounding his attacker, but because of Oregon’s mandatory minimums he’s forced to do time in prison–while his attacker received no sentence. Sadly, mandatory minimums have overwhelming support, so it’s going to take a lot of work to change people’s minds on prisons. I firmly believe a shift from typical incarceration to mental and social rehabilitation will benefit everyone–except the companies who use prisoners as labor.

In between summer reading and researching I’m also working on communications for Retail Workers for a Democratic Union (RWDU). We came together after some of our grocer union’s best representatives were “laid off” by upper leadership a couple of weeks before this last Christmas because of their protest against our union president’s priorities–none of which are relevant to the members. When we gave the president the vote of no confidence petition we spent the past winter collecting signatures on, he sarcastically applauded us out of the room. That was after spending over an hour trying to awe us over our mediocre dental and prescription plan, drooling over the prospect of pot money, and making every effort to dodge or dismiss our questions about our contracts and bargaining. We have a lot of work ahead of us.

It would be a terrible time if summer were entirely work, which is why my wife and I have purchased tickets to see Modest Mouse at the Waterfront on August 23, and we’re also attending the Rose City Comic Con. I plan on having a box set of Nightmare on Elm Street signed by celebrity guess Robert Englund. And sometime in between all this I hope to squeeze in a camping trip to the coast, then it’s back to school.

Thank you for reading, commenting, and following.

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When did commercials start exploiting and misrepresenting the disabled community? Just tell us about the fucking product. Mass-produced anything is just inauthentic lifeless stuff, its profits only benefiting a few people, who need no more benefits. Not every commercial has to be a spiritual fucking journey.

I’m Everything Because I’m Nothing

I grew up in south Texas, the crotch of the “Bible Belt”, raised by a broken family. Three generations whose core social theme involved two things: god and politics. Today, I’m only writing about one, God. My step-dad was very open about his faith and his conservative leanings. He and my grandmother fought constantly over politics—she was very liberal. When I was young she read me the Bible, and after I learned how to read, I read it, in all it’s King James glory. But above all Christianity for us was social–God and country. My parents where “Christian” and they also collected porn, drank, and smoked weed and tobacco.

Things changed when I moved up north thought. Due to some family issues I went to live with my dad and sister in Michigan for four years, until I graduated. And he had some radical ideas about the bible, to say the least. The world of the Evangelical Christian is bizarre. Buzz words like faith healing, prophesy, chastity. It was never uncommon to see someone literally rolling around or convulsing, people literally going out of their minds “in the spirit”, and as a kid I had no idea how crazy many of these people really were. To be fair, they’re a very small amount of Christians—most people aren’t as extreme. Largely, what I discovered is that Christianity isn’t so much a religion, but a social value system (Aslan).

People naturally seek meaning and purpose, it’s part of what makes us human. We need meaning because it allows us to fully master our environment—this is the premise behind a lot of the popular psychologist Victor Frankl’s work. In an article by Neel Burton on Frankl, he quotes the following:

We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms—to choose one’s own attitude in any given set of circumstances—to choose one’s own way.

The problem is practical application.

Religion works for many people, and it has its place in culture. It didn’t work for me because I’m the type of person to comb over every sacred word looking for flaws. But now the question is how does one be ethical without a book of ethics? For me, ditching the bible was a great start. The fear of hell-fire over every little sin becomes very stressful. I’ve seen a lot of Christians break down over “sinning”. Jesus does make a few good pitches about love, life, and money (my personal favorite), but he also told his followers he’d return before they had died. Jesus talked about sacrificing his life, but if you come back to life, three days or not, isn’t so much a sacrifice as it is hiding around for three days, and surprising everyone who thought you’d died. Jesus then made sure to bash “doubting” Thomas for making sure he wasn’t full of bull—that’s anti-intellectualism.

As for biblical ethics, I found I did what many other Christians did, pick whichever rules and rituals to follow–there are many to choose from. The ethics didn’t come from the book, they came from me. Otherwise I’d have to use all my time burning offerings to God and other strange things modern living simply doesn’t accommodate. So I walked away from religion and started a journey I began before I moved to Michigan, the pursuit of myself. And to get there, I used the philosophy of Existentialism.

Ultimately, the problem of trying to find meaning is that there just isn’t any. We get a few years, maybe, then we face the abyss of nothingness. That really freaks a lot of people out. Religions reconcile this with the idea of a heaven, or reincarnation, but those ideas break down under critical examination. So why do anything if nothing matters? If this spinning rock is just some strange accident and if we’re doomed to simply fade out of memory, then why try? Try, because in the absence of real tangible meaning, the only thing left is the meaning you make.

Religion, Christianity, I think in particular has come under a lot fire. Richard Dawkins believes religion breeds extremism. But everywhere you look, be it the church, the senate, or the battlefield, there are extremists. No matter what you believe, it’s going to seem like a delusion to someone else, and there’s nothing wrong with a bit of delusion either (Popova). Each of us has a self-enhancement bias. In his book How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie, he describes talking to prisoners, all of whom talked of themselves in a very positive light, people who’ve killed others in cold blood, to show that we all view ourselves in a unrealistically positive light—and that helps keep us sane.

Dwelling on the “The Nothing” as the Never Ending Story put it for kids, renders us fearfully incapacitated—religion can do the same. I believe our ethics boil down to the “golden rule” because we can’t stay alive unless we help those around us do the same, and I think most people will do just about anything to say alive. The difficult part is find our own personal meaning in the midst of all the chaos around us.

Existentialism’s answer to that is to shed the thing you believe you are, and to accept what you really are, and what you really are depends on what you really do. So many of us try to express ourselves with labels. I’ve made use of labels throughout this entire essay: existentialism, Christianity, god, good, evil; all really more like Plato’s forms—abstract ideas that can’t be articulated—like trying to describe love, we all see it differently.

As I stripped away the vanity, the malice, and the mindless distractions, I began to see myself as complexity rather than an embodiment of ideas of which can either hinder life or progress it (because to do nothing is to hinder). A complexity can’t be reduced to single, simple, stereotype or idea. I think that makes life inherently beautiful, and to maintain that beauty we must maintain ourselves, and consequently each other.

Work Cited

Aslan, Reza. “May 13, 2015 – Reza Aslan” The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. By Comedy Central. 2015. Web.

Burton, Neel, M.D. “Man’s Search for Meaning.” Psychology Today. Sussex Publishers, LLC, 24 May 2012. Web. 26 May 2015.

Popova, Maria. “How Our Delusions Keep Us Sane: The Psychology of Our Essential Self- Enhancement Bias.” Brain Pickings. N.p., 04 June 2014. Web. 28 May 2015.

PCC Says Farewell to President Brown

On May 18th, Portland Community College announced the departure of President Brown, who joined the school in 2013, replacing Preson Pulliams. The board acknowledged Dr. Brown’s success with fund-raising and strategic planning, which will carry over as the board gets ready to find a new president.

Before Brown came to PCC he found himself in a similar situation with the board of Dowling College when low student enrollment and looming debt went unresolved. When he took office in 2011 the school’s deficit was $977,000. The month his departure was announced that debt had grown to 60 million—the school wouldn’t release Brown’s salary.

That’s a far cry from his previous experience at Edinboro university, which had this to say about him: “Brown will leave behind him a legacy of growth, accomplishing what would take many other institutions upwards of 15 years to accomplish.” But that’s nothing compared with a few of his other credentials: a doctorate in physics, he served on the faculty of Princeton and Rockefeller, and has published over a hundred scholarly articles.

Dowling’s settlement is unknown, but PCC is giving him a $300,000 settlement. That’s enough to pay for 90 credits for 34 students. I contacted Executive Vice President Sylvia Kelley, who promptly provided a link to the board’s public statement. I asked students how they felt, but many simply weren’t aware there was any issue.

Trouble began when “Willamette Week” put out an article confirming Brown had applied for a chancellor position at Mid-South Community College in Arkansas. A week later the paper reported that the board was unhappy with Brown, and was negotiating a severance package. Word spread among faculty that Brown went on leave after the news broke, but it’s unknown whether it was paid or not. Brown’s contract officially expires next month.