All posts by Dr. Ken

Songs From Crystal Ball

Thoughts on Las Vegas 10/2/2017

It cannot be argued that a man who uses a fully-automatic rifle and hundreds of rounds of tactical ammunition to shoot into a faceless crowd is anything but insane. But what makes him insane is not the weapon. It is festering rage.

What happened in Las Vegas is unique only in its scale. It is one of many tragedies that play out so often we debate changing the definition of ‘mass shooting’ because it requires only four deaths. How numb we’ve become.

Still, it is true that this latest tragedy could not have been prevented. We value our freedom to purchase things that are not good for us far more than we value the mental health of others or even ourselves. More such incidents will follow of course. Of that there is no doubt.

I am not insane. But if I WERE….
If I were unable to accept that life is unfair and people will take advantage of me if and when they can, I would be unable to control my rage and I would lash out. What if I suddenly lost it? What if I totally lost control and no longer felt constrained by the bonds of social norms? The result would just be a tantrum. The damage resulting from such an outburst would be minor and likely comical. Wholly unsatisfactory to me. That is why I don’t lash out. I would look foolish, perhaps receive mandatory counseling or spend a night in jail and then I’d be back to where I started.

Mankind generally behaves much like any other species in the animal kingdom. When we get pushed, we push back. When we are wronged, we want justice. When we are threatened, we resist. When we are cornered, we attack.

What sets mankind apart from the rest of the animal kingdom is the science and technology of efficient death.

I am at least as flawed as any man. I have known rage. I have lost control and acted irrationally. I have surrendered to blind panic and attacked when I believed there was no other option.

I am likely to lose my temper again.

But, I am a small man disinclined to pick fights I will not win. If I am carrying a gun, I don’t feel so small. I am less likely to back down. But, being armed is not enough to feel in control when everyone is armed. The only advantage is the element of surprise. Act first. Shoot first. Kill first. Vanquish. These are the stakes of a life or death scenario and every scenario involving a gun is a life or death scenario and may last only an instant. No time for reflection. No time for discussion. No time for debate.

Would I ever so thoroughly lose my way as to kill indiscriminately? No.
Could I get drunk enough to be the angry guy who shoots his friend in the face? Possibly.

We arm ourselves for defense, but we forget that the opportunity to shoot in defense requires not getting shot. As more and more people arm themselves, the advantage of having a gun goes away. For what it’s worth, I am past the tipping point and I now assume that everyone is armed rather than assuming a given individual is not. That assumption shapes my words. Shapes my actions. Shapes my fears.

As the saying goes, ‘God created men of all shapes and sizes. It was Colt who made them equal.’ But guns don’t make us equal, they just make us equally deadly.

Sparrow: Paul Simon 1964

Who will love a little Sparrow?
Who’s traveled far and cries for rest?
“Not I,” said the Oak Tree,
“I won’t share my branches with
No sparrow’s nest,
And my blanket of leaves won’t warm
Her cold breast.”
Who will love a little Sparrow
And who will speak a kindly word?
“Not I,” said the Swan,
“The entire idea is utterly absurd,
I’d be laughed at and scorned if the
Other Swans heard.”
Who will take pity in his heart,
And who will feed a starving sparrow?
“Not I,” said the Golden Wheat,
“I would if I could but I cannot I know,
I need all my grain to prosper and grow.”
Who will love a little Sparrow?
Will no one write her eulogy?
“I will,” said the Earth,
“For all I’ve created returns unto me,
From dust were ye made and dust ye shall be.”

I am not asking you to share this. I am not asking you to ‘like’ this. I am not asking you to cut and paste this. I am taking the time to compose and share MY OWN words.

Many of us know this is a difficult time of year and many of us struggle with depression or know someone who does.

This year has been particularly difficult for many of us (including me) and this season is a particularly difficult time of this particularly difficult year.

Amidst the turmoil, division and hateful words of our leaders, the economic struggles we all face, the violence that desperate people inflict on one another, the on-going loss of our next generation to opioid and alcohol addiction and the seemingly limitless sorrow and misery here at home and abroad, we must find a way to stay connected…before it’s too late.

I don’t want to mourn the death of someone I love and I, me, personally will do anything to prevent that. But it has to start with a connection.

I believe lots of people think about suicide. As an artist, it fascinates me. I can feel the tug of hopelessness and fatigue, imagine the relief of ending the pain. But then what? What if your last thought was about the mess you left for the people who love you? This has always been the natural resolution of my internal narrative.

I still find this  poem difficult to read although I wrote it over a year ago. It makes me cry. I publish it now, because I cannot imagine a better time.

But, I wrote it because I believed I had something worthwhile to say…and to remind myself that I really should cry occasionally.

AND THEN-Ken Miller©

And then…
I look at it in profile. Slowly turn it from side to side.
It is heavy and I draw a heavy breath.
It’s not as if I’d never felt like this before. I know this feeling well.
But, now my strength is gone. I’ve no more will to fight.
I want nothing. No one.
And then…
I lean forward and rest my head on it.
The forward sight digs into my skin, but it feels good.
I smell the oil and I summon the will to be angry.
Dammit! Fuck it! I quit!
I sigh and, with quiet reservation and determination, again I say, “I quit”.
And then…
I pull the trigger.
In an instant, the pain is gone.
I am flooded with an ecstasy I’ve never known.
An incredible cascade of…
And then…
Nothing.
And then…
I look down on the room and see the mess I’ve made.
And then…
I feel the hearts of everyone I love breaking.
And then…
Yes, only then, do I truly understand the finality of what I have done.
Cannes 2004

What I’ve learned about myself and about the USA this week

I am a white man, but I am a minority in the USA. I am coming to terms with this fact. I am coming to terms with the fact that the USA will never be the idealistic, inclusive, land filled with citizens who appreciate the planet, science, and unqualified compassion in the way I do. I am coming to terms with the fact that the USA cannot be the place I had hoped it would be. I was wrong about the USA. I own that. Truth.

I’ve come to view US politics in a new way: This most recent contest came down to a choice between two senior executives. It is a scenario I have watched unfold before and know a bit about (but a selection process I never got the opportunity to participate in). To my mind, this was a fight (I struggled with that word, but can think of no apt alternative), a fight between rival business executives to take control of our corporation. Both corrupt. Both flawed. Both repugnant. Both with long and well-documented public histories.

But, none of that really mattered in the end. In the end, we picked the loudest, angriest, most focused CEO. We picked him because he is as angry as we are even though he has never experienced the struggle of his most avid supporters. We picked him because he gives us things to be angry at and provides the emotional release we’d been told was beneath us. We picked him because we do not want anyone, anywhere to think we are weak or indecisive.

The voice of the people who spoke loudest is the voice of fear. A cry to band together in the name of survival. By contrast, the voice of moderation, inclusion, and broad-based social programs is comparatively soft. If we give our vote to those who promise to keep bad things from happening instead of those who seek to make good things happen, the former will always occur for someone and the latter will never happen for anyone.

We are not one country, but we already knew this. What is difficult to conceive is that the triumphant voting bloc are the locally ensconced, less educated, white, agrarian citizens and they are mad as hell and not going to take it anymore. But their anger seemed blind and undirected to me despite decades of conservative opposition to things like vaccines, scientific evidence of global warming, maintaining standards for our drinking water, enforcement of environmental regulations, and this perverse notion that individuals are free to choose surgery to augment their bodies, yet must cede control of their reproductive genitalia to the government. That is why the USA selected an angry, confrontational, litigious, morally ambiguous, xenophobic new leader who effectively channels this anger and gives us purpose in a way his predecessors never could. He is a one-man angry mob. He is catharsis personified.

Our Democratic party tends to appeal to younger, culturally diverse, metropolitan, college-educated voters. Our Republican party tends to appeal to older, white, rural, less-educated (blue-collar) voters.

I’m not making that up. Look at the red and blue map from Tuesday night. Large, culturally diverse metropolitan areas and university towns vote Democratic. Small, rural towns with generational heritage and fewer college-educated people vote Republican.

I can conceive (or concede, if you prefer) that it really is better for everyone that Donald Trump is our next President. Sure, there are sporadic protests, but these will subside in time. On the other hand, I shudder to think what sort of protests a defeated Trump nation might have mounted.

I can continue to hope for humanity, but I cannot continue to expect the USA to come together as a world power and represent itself as something other than the alternative authoritarian power to Russia in the Middle East. I cannot expect the USA to awaken with the epiphany that it is accelerating down a dead-end path with a beer in one hand, a joint in the other and our collective sense of entitlement riding shotgun. We produce less and less, consume more and more and complain about the cost of things. These are not unique problems; every country faces them. What makes the USA unique(ish) is that we have convinced ourselves we are indispensable and eternal. It is true that the world wants us. But the world does not need us nearly so much as we’d like to think.

History is written by winners. No matter what happens next, political victory will forever be recorded as being won by the righteous. Future political initiatives will either be seen as successful (their outcomes attributed to their authors and proponents) or failed (victims of unfair opposition and obstruction against the righteous establishment). There is no other category. There is no middle ground.

I will no longer defend the USA either here or abroad. It is what it is.

I am preaching to the choir, I know. Speaking to those who value travel and education. Those who remember being “huddled masses yearning to breathe free”. Those who are not struggling to survive so desperately that they can still recognize there is personal opportunity in social change (perhaps with a dash of altruism).

Given the horrors we (as a species) are not only capable of, but routinely carry out every minute, of every hour, of every day, I believe that we are under-evolved vicious animals first and socially-conscious, compassionate, care-givers second. Beyond the local communities that define our peer group and directly sustain us, aid is a luxury. Therefore, it is something of a paradox that the only way to get everybody to help everybody is if nobody really needs it.

I’m not really so misanthropic; Perhaps, we just need to rise a little from our current condition (whatever it is and however we measure it) to appreciate that we now have a capacity to effect positive change in a way that we couldn’t before.

I believe it is too much to ask a being that believes its existence is threatened to look up, out, beyond the next fence, the next town, the next state, the next country. It is ridiculous to ask a struggling person to help the less fortunate. After all, we cannot help anyone else if we ourselves do not survive. It’s a kind of trickle-down socialism that works as well as the other kind and for the same reason.

I mean; the struggle to survive is the struggle to survive, right? There are no degrees. There is no mechanism within the human psyche to temper (or regret) any means we use to survive. The thing is though, we can’t all win…but, we can all survive.

Why do we feel this way? Why do we reject science and embrace faith? Why do we feel entitled to special status among the global community? Why are we obligated to control how our neighbors live? Why do we feel the world should serve us instead of the other way around? Why do we define freedom so narrowly that it now means the right to defend our way of life against those who seek to live like us?

It’s really very simple. It’s what we’ve been taught.

This brings me to my point (finally). The answer is education. I’ve never been in a conversation with anyone who regrets having a college education, but I’ve been in lots where someone regretted not getting one. Yet, we follow leaders who routinely dismiss the opinions, evidence and, in some cases, the entire life’s work of college-educated experts. It is natural to be suspicious of things we do not understand, but shouldn’t the most advanced, sentient species on the planet seek to learn stuff instead of hiding behind faith or being so suspicious as to ignore information rather than considering it and appreciating the work that went into it? How odd it seems to me that we demand qualified teachers for our children, save money so our children can go to college, expect qualified professors to teach our young adults…. And yet, we don’t trust the professors and we don’t trust other people’s college-educated children.

Who betrayed us? What intellectuals lied to us?

I know capitalism lies to consumers because its function is to make money (not goods, they lied about that too). And it gets its money from us by persuading us to buy stuff. It was corporate-sponsored ‘spokespersons’, it was the act of selling you something you didn’t know you needed. There is always someone trying to convince you to buy something and the scientists and physicians they hire lie (or at least they vigorously promote the position they’re paid to). Businesses can and do co-opt scientists and physicians in order to sell their products or defend their interests. It is right and prudent to view sponsored opinions with a jaundiced eye.

So, who do you trust?

We used to trust universities as independent bastions of learning, but that is becoming less and less accurate. At one time, research was conducted by universities and sponsored by tax-funded government agencies or philanthropic organizations that could not specify how their money was used. That’s no longer true. Funding from government agencies like the NIH, NSF, NLM, NASA, NEA, etc. have all but dried up (budget cuts) and the few, remaining philanthropic donations universities receive are often earmarked for specific uses. This makes operating a university without going bankrupt a tricky thing to do (even when it has new chairs in the student lounge, a new practice facility for the tennis team and fresh mango is now available in the cafeteria every day).

Corporations are responsible for the lion’s share of the research that’s done in US universities and they are looking for their own very particular outcomes. Not surprisingly, the sponsors expect to get what they pay for (wouldn’t you?).

We used to trust the media, but media outlets are businesses too. They vie for our dollars just like any other business and they seek out markets they can exploit. Network newscasts used to be a line item in a local station’s budget. The station sold commercial time, but the news (per se) did not. Now, cable news networks rely on commercial sponsors to pay for their news shows directly. If you agree with the positions of the journalists on a particular network, chances are you like the products that are being advertised. The two go hand-in-hand.

OK. The media is influenced by its advertisers, the government is corrupted by PACs and corporate donors and universities are compromised by corporate sponsors and donations that have strings attached. What have we missed? Where do we get a “handle” on this? Oh yeah. The one handle that everybody can pull: vote. But I’m not taking about turnout and I’m not interested in getting anyone to vote for anything in particular. I am suggesting that we give serious thought to whether we want to continue to allow corporations into our homes, into our houses of worship, into our wardrobes, into our bedrooms, into our bodies and into our minds. Let’s not let them pick our choices. Let’s not let them dictate our loyalties. And for God’s sake, let’s not let them educate our children!

I am not happy about the outcome of this most recent Presidential election nor am I angry. I am ready to accept it. But, I am still feeling the inconsolable sorrow and frustration of a son watching his mother die.

ON THE TOPIC OF: MARIJUANA LEGALIZATION

I am getting really tired of the overly-dramatic political ads with teary-eyed parents warning me that I should vote against marijuana legalization because of the potential for impaired driving (I’m looking at you @AAAauto). That position is disingenuous and insults my intelligence.

There are any number of credible reasons to oppose marijuana legalization, but it is hypocritical to cite DUI as a reason to maintain criminal penalties for marijuana and not be equally devoted to reinstating prohibition.

I confess, I am not objective and I’m cranky because my back hurts. Then again, my back always hurts because a drunk driver broke it 30 years ago…..I don’t care how you vote (much), but DO vote.
 
Now, can somebody get me a drink or something.

With all the deaths of iconic musicians that have occurred since 1/1/2016, I can’t be the only one wondering whether we’re finally experiencing The Rapture. Buckle-up, bitches.

  • Paul Kantner (January 28th)
  • Black/Colin Vearncombe (January 26th)
  • Margaret Pardee (January 26th)
  • Denise Duval (January 25th)
  • Leif Solberg (January 25th)
  • Jimmy Bain (January 24th)
  • Zarkus Poussa (January 24th)
  • Cadalack Ron (January 23rd)
  • Lee Abramson (January 20th)
  • Glen Frey (January 18th)
  • Pablo Manavello (January 18th)
  • Else Marie Pade (January 18th)
  • Blowfly/Clarence Henry Reid (January 17th)
  • Mic Gillette (January 17th)
  • Dale Griffin (January 17th)
  • Carina Jaarnek (January 17th)
  • Ramblin’ Lou Schriver (January 17th)
  • Hubert Giraud (January 16th)
  • Gary Loizzo (January 16th)
  • Pete Huttlinger (January 15th)
  • Franco Oppo (January 14th)
  • Elisa Pegreffi (January 14th)
  • Bern Herbolsheimer (January 13th)
  • Anti Marguste (January 12th)
  • David Bowie (January 10th)
  • Hernán Gamboa (January 10th)
  • John Berry (January 9th)
  • Cielito del Mundo (January 9th)
  • Jānis Vaišļa (January 9th)
  • Otis Clay (January 8th)
  • Red Simpson (January 8th)
  • Brett Smiley (January 8th)
  • Robert M. Cundick (January 7th)
  • Kitty Kallen (January 7th)
  • Jit Samaroo (January 7th)
  • Troy Shondell (January 7th)
  • Alfredo “Chocolate” Armenteros (January 6th)
  • Pierre Boulez (January 5th)
  • Nicholas Caldwell (January 5th)
  • Elizabeth Swados (January 5th)
  • Long John Hunter (January 4th)
  • Achim Mentzel (January 4th)
  • Robert Stigwood (January 4th)
  • Paul Bley (January 3rd)
  • Brad Fuller (January 3rd)
  • Jason Mackenroth (January 3rd)
  • Michel Delpech (January 2nd)
  • Gilbert Kaplan (January 1st)
  • Mark B/Mark Barnes (January 1st)
  • Gilberto Mendes (January 1st)
  • Annie de Reuver (January 1st)
  • Natalie Cole (December 31st/January 1st)

Thanks to @MikeBarre for letting us know the USNS Fall River was making its way up Mt. Hope Bay yesterday afternoon. I snapped a quick pic with my phone and Tweeted it and it was picked up by a number of local Tweeters (Twits?) as well as both the Herald News and the Providence Journal. I also forwarded the better quality photos I took with the SLR camera to my friend @prcotter at the ProJo who were kind enough to print some of those in today’s edition (if you hadn’t already seen them).

Go figure!

Here is the entire sequence of photos as the USNS Fall River made its way past our little corner of the world.

DSC_0051 DSC_0052 DSC_0053 DSC_0054 DSC_0055 DSC_0056 DSC_0057 DSC_0058 DSC_0059 DSC_0060

Politics and Friendship

I have a childhood friend with strongly held political convictions. They do not align with mine.

However, he is (and always will be) my friend.

We got into an intense debate about an issue (it doesn’t matter what it was) and in the process of whittling down our respective dogmas, I realized that the reason he was so thoroughly entrenched is because he already felt beleaguered by those with the opposing opinion even before I’d vomited up a thesaurus of eloquent rhetoric.

I, like a lot of kids, grew up in a neighborhood where you had to fight…it wasn’t an option. Some kids fought more than others and I’m sure I fought the least, but I couldn’t avoid it altogether. I didn’t win very often, but when I did, I felt guilty.

I now had that guilty feeling again. I didn’t want to beat down my friend, I just didn’t want to lose when I believed in what I was fighting for.

So, I gathered up my thoughts and tried to put them into words to express my acceptance of him just as he is and why I think America is so fucking cool.

I can relate to your feelings of persecution. In fact, I’ll bet lots of people can. But it’s not OK to just put one’s fingers in one’s ears and shout “la, la, la, la, la I can’t hear you”.

And while you can’t believe this is happening (to you) in America, I think it’s all baseball, hot dogs and apple pie. Disagreement, dischord, and dialog like this is exactly what America is all about. From the First Continental Congress right up to the John Roberts Supreme Court.

And the reason is very simple: If you find yourself on the minority side of an issue when the votes are counted…you lose. So we argue to change minds and convince others to agree with us…so we can win!

The beauty of it is that when we lose, we don’t have to give up. We can keep arguing. But if we want to stay as one country, the UNITED States of America, we have to accept that change at a national level takes time. So much time, in fact, that we may not even notice that it’s happening until we reach a tipping point.

If you are caught up in the groundswell movement, it’s a victory. If your side is being overrun, it feels like your country is coming apart…it’s not.

God, it sucks to lose. It sucks to lose at anything, but at least the contest isn’t over.

 For the record, my friend and I never fought as kids.

I’d’ve lost…very quickly.

Ooo, shiny!

Chapter Eleven: The Sunshine State

Continued from Chapter 10: Alone No More

It is a curious fact that a graduate student can actually be at two different universities at the same time. Such was the case for me.

Although I had finished all my coursework in the spring semester of 1988 and passed the oral defense, I hadn’t yet completed the written thesis. This meant that I wouldn’t graduate until December, but wasn’t going to be drawing any stipend without registering for classes, so I had to get started on my next degree in the fall semester to keep paying the bills (and defer my student loans).

I mentioned in Chapter 10 that I’d opted to go to the University of Florida, but wasn’t immediately accepted. Graduate programs hedge their bets when selecting graduate students. In order to enter the PhD program, you have to pass a qualifying exam. If you don’t pass, the department can still give you a master’s degree…unless you already have one.

For the department, that means no degree, no positive metrics, no publishable research and a boatload of wasted resources.

I fell into the unfortunate category of already being ABD (All But Done) with my master’s degree, but never taking WVU’s qualifying exam (I had no intentions of pursuing a PhD there so couldn’t see the point of studying and taking an exam for nothing).

UF had no guarantee that I’d pass the qualifier and saw me as a risky prospect. Consequently, I had to wait until at least one of the graduating seniors who’d already been accepted…declined.

Another factoid about UF is that they had had so many prospective students ‘interview’ during spring break that they no longer paid travel expenses. That meant that my visit to the campus was on my own (very thin) dime. I flew down from Pittsburgh to Gainesville on the redeye from People’s Express (remember them) and slept on the living room floor of another graduate student’s apartment in a sleeping bag. I’d come to check out the “Center for Surface Science and Engineering”, but learned that it was a center in name only. There was no physical facility; just three labs on the fourth floor of the chemical engineering building.

The director of the program also happened to be the chairman of the department. He was an exceptionally enthusiastic and charismatic Indian named Dinesh Shah.

There was a period during that visit when I had a break between my meetings with the faculty and went back to the apartment to get something. I was running late and was walking as fast as I could. I remember having to stop at a corner to wait for the light to change and feeling light headed in the Florida heat. I had the conscious thought that I would either be late or not make it at all (faint). Forever after, there was always a particular moment in the spring when I would downshift from my northern, rushed pace into my adopted leisurely southern shuffle. This is how I learned to deal with the heat and humidity for my years in Florida.

There were no ‘red flags’ associated with the program and my host was more than accommodating (ever hear of “Gainesville Green”?) so when the offer finally came in the summer of 1988, I accepted.

Earlier that spring, I bought my first car. I had been driving my parents’ tired 1980 VW Rabbit in Morgantown and had made more bailing wire and adhesive tape repairs than I could count by then. Odd to think now that the car was only eight years old and had about 85,000 miles on it, but was, without a doubt, at the end of its useful life. It was impossible (for example) to change the turn signal or tail light bulbs because the only thing holding the lenses to the car was rust. Once disturbed, there was nothing to reattach them to. It looked a lot like this one:

White with blue vinyl interior
1980 VW Rabbit: white with blue vinyl interior

Donna and I talked about what I should get to replace the Rabbit. At the time, the VW Fox wagon was the obvious replacement for the Rabbit hatchback and was so similar to it that I almost forgot it was a demo while I was driving it. We decided, though, that it just didn’t carry enough and started looking at compact pickup trucks (I guess living in West Virginia had shaped my views of automotive utility).

Although I can’t recall the exact details, we liked the Jeep Comanche. It was the right combination of power train, features and price. Unfortunately, the blue, long bed, 4WD, fully-loaded one I tested at the Morgantown dealership was a wee bit out of my price range. We spoke with the dealer and he located one more consistent with our economic situation at another dealership and quoted me a price and offered to have the truck brought down to Morgantown for me.

In the meantime, my mother reminded me that I could use the Pace Warehouse Club program to identify a fleet vehicle and maybe I might get a better deal that way. I only had a day or two to check it out so I went to the designated dealer, spoke with the designated fleet manager, searched their regional inventory system and found a truck that had more options than the one from the WV dealer for a lot less money. The only problem was that it was at a dealership about forty miles away.

I was by myself on that rainy day when I went to that dealership to check it out. It was everything I’d been told it was and even had a few features I didn’t even know were available (and the program price was still the lowest I’d been shown).

Obviously, this was the truck I should buy so I struck the deal and waited for the truck to arrive at the local dealership and get prepped so I could pick it up.

In the meantime, I called the original WV dealer to tell him that I’d found a better truck for a lower price and that I appreciated his efforts and was sorry he had the more basic truck shipped up to Morgantown for nothing.

He was not only angry, but went off on an extended tirade about how he knew I wasn’t going to go through with the deal and that was why he never had the truck brought up and that I wasn’t an honest and trustworthy person (I’m paraphrasing, but you get the gist).

I was completely caught off-guard and could only say over-and-over again, “I’m sorry you feel that way.”

Late in the summer of 1988, I packed all my worldly possessions in the bed of my shiny, new Jeep Comanche pickup truck and headed down the interstate to Florida.

I started to look for an apartment as soon as I arrived, but the rental market in Gainesville was completely different than Morgantown. I was accustomed to older single family homes near the campus being renovated to appeal to the students, but in Gainesville, there were no old homes to rent, there were only apartment buildings. Apartment buildings of every description all over the city. But, it was far more expensive to live in Gainesville than it was to live in Morgantown.

One thing was the same though, finding an apartment was a competitive endeavor. There were no vacancies near the campus and I had to go pretty far afield to find a suitable apartment.

I ended up in a one-bedroom apartment in the northeast section of Gainesville (UF is in the southwest portion), but I had a reliable car to commute to campus so that was no big deal (scroll left to see the apartment complex-my apartment was in the far right, rear corner not visible from the street).

My first semester (Fall of 1988) was spent either on core courses or finishing my WVU thesis in the Mac Lab on the UF campus. I had been given a list of edits to the draft thesis following my oral defense, so the process was pretty straightforward. Still, it took me most of the fall semester to get it together and I just bared got it to WVU before the deadline.

The last hurdle was getting my advisor’s signature. This had been a thorny issue for my roommate (who had the same advisor) because he refused to sign the dissertation until my roommate changed the acknowledgments because he didn’t think it was sufficiently complimentary.

Armed with the knowledge that my advisor was at least as concerned about how he would be characterized in the acknowledgements as he was about the technical merits, I worded my acknowledgment very carefully. Those who know me immediately recognize the reference to “a truly unique learning experience” as tongue-in-cheek, but my advisor was not among the in-crowd.

Since I was in Gainesville and Donna was still in Morgantown, I mailed the package containing my thesis and all requisite paperwork to her so she could hand-carry it to my advisor’s office for his signature and, subsequently to the dean’s office to be finalized and recorded.

Donna received the package at the end of the week and was to deliver it to my advisor’s office the following Monday (which was the deadline for that semester). By a simple twist of fate, Donna and my advisor happened to meet at the shopping mall on Sunday.

Donna mentioned to my advisor that she would be stopping by his office the next day so he could sign my thesis. He said that he had no intention of signing it until he’d read it in its entirety.

Donna explained that there were no changes except those that he and the committee had requested at the oral defense, but he resolutely refused to sign until he’d read the whole thing.

Donna was understandably exasperated and (without thinking) called him an asshole…. Moments later, she called me in tears from a phone booth at the mall to tell me that she had just called my advisor an asshole.

I maintained my composure (although it wasn’t easy) and told her not to worry about it, but to drop it off at his office first thing in the morning and make sure that the acknowledgment page was on top. There is nothing more we can do, but hope for the best.

Donna dropped the thesis off at his office before he arrived as I suggested and set off to her own office across campus.

By the time she arrived at her office, there was a message from my advisor’s administrative assistant that she could come pick up the signed thesis (roughly 15 minutes had elapsed).

I don’t know whether he’d had a change of heart or if he was really so shallow that all he wanted to see was the acknowledgment page, but the rest of the process was completed in short order and I received my MSChE on time in December of 1988.

My first year at UF was a little frustrating because I had to repeat all of the core courses I had already taken at WVU, but their perspective on the physics was fundamentally different. Whereas WVU emphasized the macroscopic world where Newtonian physics applies, UF taught the same courses using quantum mechanics and statistical ensembles. It was as though I’d never taken the classes before because nothing I’d learned up to that point was applicable. It was like having a wrench when you really needed a screwdriver.

I was academically challenged that first year at UF, but I sure couldn’t complain about the weather. In fact, it remains one of my favorite places because it has pine trees, oak trees and palm trees all in the same place. In addition, it has the four seasons I’m accustomed to, but not in the same proportion. By that I mean; there is an autumn (my least favorite season) during which the oak leaves change color, but they don’t fall to the ground all at once so there’s no leafy mess. Winter in Gainesville (by my standards) is nearly ideal. It lasts about a month with about 10 days where the temperature gets below freezing and one day of actual snowfall (which is over almost as soon as it begins). Spring comes early and the days are warm and dry. Summer, well…summer in Gainesville isn’t for everyone, but I rarely minded it. It is what you would expect, I suppose: hot and humid with afternoon thunderstorms that are as intense as they are regular (usually between 2:00 and 2:15 in the afternoon). One is well-advised not to be caught outside after lunch, but any shelter will do and there’s little risk of having to engage in a long, awkward conversation with a fellow meteorological refugee. Oh, did I mention that Gainesville is THE place to go if you want to get struck by lightning?

During my first year at UF, Donna finished up her coursework at WVU and moved down to Gainesville with me. But the one-bedroom apartment I had wasn’t really big enough for two people, so Donna started looking for a two-bedroom apartment (that we could afford).

That’s how we ended up in the fine little town of Melrose about twenty miles east of Gainesville.

Melrose, FL: The Blue Spot in the Red State
Melrose, FL: The Blue Spot in the Red State

Melrose is an anomaly for a couple reasons: It straddles four different counties, so the laws and municipal services are anything, but clear. Also, it was (and still is twenty-five years later) very liberal which might not seem so odd were it closer to a major city or in any northern state. It is for the latter reason that I still refer to Melrose as “the blue spot in the red state”.

Donna and I rented a two-bedroom condominium in Melrose from 1989 to 1992 and in many ways, it was our first, real home/neighborhood/community (scroll left to see the little condo buliding-our unit was the second one from the right).

A curious fact; this was the first period in my life (since the age of fifteen) when I stopped writing music. (That’s why there aren’t any references to songs written in this period yet.) I didn’t complete a song from 1987 (when we were still in Morgantown) until I wrote “Waiting Its Turn” in 1990. Three years seemed like an eternity and I was quite conscious of the lack of desire to write music, so “Waiting Its Turn” was an equally conscious (deliberate) composition about what was going through my mind at the time.

The back story is that Donna and I had decided to go see Paul McCartney at Tampa Stadium in April of 1990 (probably for my twenty-sixth birthday). The tickets were over $100 each (!!) and I dragged my feet for a while, but in the end, we figured it was worth it.

I had never been to a concert that big before. We were in the upper tier of one end zone and the band was in the opposite end zone. We were in the venue, but about a quarter-mile from the band. Thank God Donna made me bring binoculars.

I will never forget the set up with the video screens and Paul’s piano on some sort of fork lift to lift him above and rotate him over the band. Oh, and the PA speakers at mid-field to help minimize the delay between what we could see and what we could hear. As much as I admire and respect Paul McCartney, that was a truly awful concert. But, as I was sitting there thinking ‘what an incredible rip-off’, the idea occurred to me that I hadn’t lost the ability to write music, I was only postponing it.

Anyone who knows me could be forgiven for assuming the reference to “Paul” singing his poem would be about Paul Simon, but it’s not; it’s about Paul McCartney.

With the ice broken (so to speak), I then wrote the instrumental “Twins” in honor of my mother and her identical twin. I don’t remember what the working title was, but the eventual name stuck because each movement in the song is exactly repeated.

The last song I wrote in 1990 was “Jesus Rides a Harley”. I don’t often reference spiritualism and when I do, it’s usually with tongue-in-cheek. So, the song is irreverent (sic) towards those with narrow concepts of faith in general and pretentious fundamental Christians in particular.

Much of the imagery in the song was real. I WAS at a motorcyclist’s funeral in Melrose that year just to show support for a local rider who had been killed. But I didn’t know him personally.

As I mentioned earlier in this chapter, I felt a sense of community in this town and Donna and I rode down to the cemetery to join about fifty or sixty other riders (suitably attired) for the internment.

The weather was also as ominous as the song suggests and I remember thinking ‘I wonder if we’re going to get home before this storm hits’.

That’s where the reality ends though. They were not close friends of mine and I wasn’t leaning on the ‘funeral tent pole’. I was at the back of the crowd and only knew one other person there. I do remember thinking though, ‘does everybody else know each other and, if so, are they wondering who the hell I am?’

That’s when I had my epiphany (sic) and the song pretty much wrote itself-with the following caveat: Donna is responsible for honing the final lyric when I was preparing to record it eight or nine years later. My original version was vague and suffered from ‘pronoun trouble’ that made the story too difficult to follow.

After this burst of three songs in 1990, I again went into a creator torpor that lasted long after I graduated and left Florida.

More about that in Chapter 12: Continental Ping Pong

Last Poem of the Year

SANDCASTLE

Dr. Ken © 2014

 

I am not strong, I do not bend,

My shell is paper-thin.

I look the same as you recall

But I’m not the same at all.

If I survive the day, I win.

I have all night to mend.

 

A million possibilities, like wet sand at water’s edge;

I can take any shape that fits.

But, like a kid’s castle built with pride,

It won’t last past high tide;

Washed away in a trillion bits

For tomorrow’s kid to dredge.

 

I am built again in the morning light

With unlimited potential.

But, these ramparts cannot be defended

Nor these crumbing walls mended.

The façade is ornamental;

Built and destroyed with equal delight

 

It’s true I collapse repeatedly

With no hope of permanency.

I shift, I waft, I rearrange

But, my essence doesn’t ever change

For not even the relentless pounding sea

Can break the grains that make up me.

7 O’Clock News/Silent Night 2014

Just a quick little studio project suggested by Donna. It hurts my heart that it was so easy to find headlines in today’s news to recreate this poignant, beautiful, but sad, sad concept piece from Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme.

I can’t stress that enough: This is not an aggregate, these are all stories from one instant in time: Tuesday December 9th, 2014.

We can do better. We must do better. Be the light that shines.

The current social unrest in the US is not a new thing. Nor is our tendency to express outrage and frustration through humor. I was reminded of this classic Firesign Theatre piece about the systemic (and recurrent) subjugation of Native Americans released at the height of the Civil Rights Movement in January of 1968. To me, this is a reminder that the time we live in isn’t different from the past. Change does not occur according to a schedule, it is always preceded by a tipping point. (Can you feel it?)

If you’re not familiar with the recording, click the player below or listen to it here (Temporarily Humboldt County). Even if you think you remember it word-for-word, I suggest you also read along because it moves rather quickly (Script).

“Be excellent to each other and party on.”