Friday, October 29, 2010

Stopping Short

Is there a Doctor in the House?

I have a masters degree. I also have a fair body of original research reviewed and approved as a dissertation submission. What I am missing from completing a Ph.D. is going back and sitting through some classes: paying the money and doing the time.

Does this make sense? After all, the hard work is already complete. Why not finish?

This has been an absurdly difficult question to answer at times---I know because I'm asked often. The underlying facts add some structure: I had a one-year-old child, I was working a summer job, and I had the opportunity to convert to full-time employee by converting a research paper I was polishing into a Masters thesis. As time went on, there was certainly no financial incentive to advancing my degree; I was fast-tracked as an effective generalist rather than a specialist, and taking the title at that point might actually have limited my prospects. Taking time off to take the classes and pay tuition while not earning income would likely prove to be a hardship and did not seem like it would provide a reasonable "return on investment."

So, yes, it's a good rationalization---and it is true---but is it the entire truth?

Another Story

This new job interrupted longstanding practice of Aikido. Now with the job and little to no leave or savings accumulated, I was invited to return to take my black belt test. I hadn't sought out a new dojo for local practice yet; I was concerned I couldn't prepare. I sent along my regrets; I didn't feel I would be ready. Sometime later, a visiting friend brought me the belt from my teacher with his instructions to put it on when I felt ready.

During the ensuing years, I practiced as an Aikido nomad, showing up here and there with some talent and a white belt. It's detailed elsewhere in the blog, but somewhere after around 15 years of practice, I did spend a year within another organization and made the first-degree black belt "official."

Again, the circumstances are true and the decisions were rational, but there is something eerily similar to the Ph.D. story, no?

What is Going On?

Set side by side, the two stories would seem to show "stopping short" of some intended goal. The self-helpsters might even speculate that there's an underlying "fear of success" leading to these situations. Honestly, I wondered the same myself for a bit---I mean, it makes sense on some level, no? But there are enough other unrelated stories to point to a different conclusion. We'll string them together in time, perhaps, but for now there are these:

Balance and Pride

Technically, there is only balance---pride is part of the equation. There is a certain pride in having the talent, the skills, the knowledge, and so forth, and to prove it without having someone else certify it. But the attraction of pride is married with a peculiar aversion to the certification itself. In my personal experience, this aversion has not been unjustified. Consider, for instance, that when my own ideas differed from my last Aikido instructor's, he threatened to have the parent organization revoke the certification of my rank---and this is not a lone example... It is sufficient to say then that when I am fortunate enough to sense when systemic manipulation is directed toward me or toward others, I have an instinctual distaste for it. Going a bit further, it seems that I have a slight distaste toward being "typecast" as well.

What Does it Mean?

Without any thought at all, I essentially drifted quite comfortably into studying mathematics in the university and Aikido in the dojo. When other needs pulled or other other boundaries pushed, life's trajectory changed on its own quite very naturally and always remained in balance---however chaotic it may have appeared from outside or even, in retrospect, from within. All thoughts, emotions, actions? They are always in balance.

Once it begins to become clear, I think we can begin to reflect.  We can discover things such as an inherent aversion to being manipulated that played a role in my arriving here. Moreover, we can examine such an aversion, and if we choose, we can move through it when next we encounter it. After all, are there not times when being typecast has its advantages? And are we not typecast all of the time anyway---as a spouse, a sibling, a child, a parent, an employee, a boss, as a customer, ...? When it serves us, we can go along with it; when it hinders us, we can deal with it; but, we do not have to be blind to it.

Well, what does that mean? If I remain focused on making sense of this, this entry will never end---skipping meals, ignoring family, sitting inside when it's beautiful outside, ... Everything is in balance, at least given my intention.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

What is Not Seen?

Those who know me in person would be hard pressed to recall a time they've seen me without a small notebook in hand. In general, they look identical, but there are many of them. Some are filled up requiring a new start while others hit an abrupt end requiring a new start. Either way, there it is.

The notebook is more than an organizational habit. Yes, there are to-do notes, meeting notes (for little things, when the project itself doesn't require its own notebook), sketches, plans, hypothetical calendars, and anything else. More often these days, though, the personal notebook has become the outlet for what would have ordinarily appeared here.

I don't know if there's ultimately value in that aspect of the practice. Giving some blend of the conscious and unconscious access to pen and paper may be therapeutic, making an active process of self-reflection, or it may just be self-indulgent---who knows? If all things are ultimately in balance, it's not really necessary to question that the thoughts will go somewhere; sometimes that's a chat, sometimes that's a walk or a trip to the gym, sometimes that's a blog post, and sometimes that's sitting at the coffee shop or lakeside with the notebook. Either way, sometimes it's private, and sometimes it's not. For when it's private, there's the notebook.

And when there's the notebook, there's also the match...

What the notebook lacks is the ability to connect. Socially, I interact with more people through writing than I do in person. Consider it another inadvertent act of natural balance: within my circumstances, the enjoyment of connecting, the availability of the Internet, and ability to write come together naturally. Given all of this, what balance am I maintaining by channeling thought onto burning paper instead?

Self-reflection says that this post is a hiccup in that private process. The question wouldn't have arisen without it.

We'll see where it leads.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

MDA Volunteering with Safeway


The period leading up to the end of summer is busy for a number of reasons, but in our case it coincides with the major MDA fund-raising period that leads up to the Labor Day Telethon. Part of our volunteer duties include visiting Safeway grocery stores in the area, raising awareness,participating in different events, and even bagging for the cashiers who are actively requesting donations at the registers. Sometimes it also includes thank-you letters from us to corporate leaders such as the one below. 

Nationally, Safeway raised over $11 million, of which nearly $700 thousand came from our region. The money is imporant---we understand this intimately---but there is a deeper level to our own involvement which I occasionally try to convey.

The Letter, 2010

I was reluctant to tell Joby that it was that time of year again. Since we participated last year as guest baggers, Joby’s strength has predictably declined: While last year he was able to stand and move about, loading some smaller bags into patrons’ carts with a simle, this year Joby cannot stand on his feet for more than ten or fifteen minutes before complaining that his “feet are getting tired.”

One evening at dinner, however, Joby surprised us, telling us that when he grew up, he wanted to be a bagger. After hushed giggles, we asked him why? His response was simple and direct: He wants to live with us, his parents, when he grows up, but he does not want to be considered a “freeloader.”

Everyday, our work with the MDA reminds me of one thing perhaps more important than any other: It is never my role to limit my son’s desire or will to be part of society, to interact, to contribute, to exchange, to grow, to enjoy, to love, to live. In this most significant respect, Joby is no different from any other child, and in this same respect I am no different from any other parent.

So I asked and my son answered, and we did commit ourselves to Safeway’s campaign this year as you committed yourselves to us. In each of our store visits, Joby did his best to help as a bagger, and in each case he did tire after ten or fifteen minutes as I knew he would and he returned to his wheelchair to rest. What I did not anticipate---though perhaps I should have---was what would happen in the remaining time: the spirit shared between Joby, the Safeway staff, the Safeway customers, and me, his father, was lifted.

In truth---my truth---the opportunity to share time with my son like this and to work with people who genuinely care is collectively worth more than any money anyone or any organization could possibly raise. In reality, though, we know clearly that the money raised as a result makes opportunities like this possible for us---all of us---hopefully over many more years to come. So today I will leave it to MDA to tell you about how my family and others have benefited and continue to benefit from your generosity; I on the other hand will offer no less than all I have: my family’s heartfelt thanks for this renewal of hope.