Sunday, November 30, 2008

Busyness and Discipline

My work life is happy, these days. Even though I am still chair of my department (for this year and next year), and am also now the director of our new Peace Studies program, I am fine with all of this. Of course all of this makes my life very busy. Fortunately, however, I have not been busy in a stressed-out sort of way. It's nice to know that this is possible: that one can be busy in a happy sort of way.

Part of what has really helped this semester is the more rigorous discipline by which I have structured my life.

But, having said that, I have to confess that this has been unraveling lately. My running, for example, was interrupted by my coming down with a bad cold. Then, just as I recovered from that, Thanksgiving break came. You would think that break is a good time to pick up on running again, especially since, during break, I have the luxury of waiting until daylight breaks to run, which is far more pleasant during this cold time of year. But I still felt too daunted. Finally I decided to just give myself a break over break, and I plan to resume on Monday, when classes resume.

But, over break, I have returned to regular music practice on several of my instruments. This was something else that paused while I had a bad cold. Playing wind instruments is actually good to keep doing through a cold, but it's frustrating and difficult too, and so I'm afraid I let that drop too. Work had then also gotten especially busy. But I'm glad to be back into regular practice again now.

Anyway, discipline is key to managing a complex life. When you structure your life with practices that keep you healthy, spiritually centered, and in touch with a sense of the meaning of your life, everything else finds its proper place. You are not daunted by your busy life because (a) you are healthy enough to keep up with it without undue fatigue or risk of burnout, and (b) you are clear-sighted enough to remember how each task you must do fits into the overall meaning of your life.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

The Uselessness of Violence

The more I study war and peace, the more convinced I become of the uselessness of violence. I am increasingly bewildered about why people tend to be so impressed with war and violence. It is a blunt instrument, really, that tends to destroy a lot more than it intends to destroy. Its use often backfires, in that it often provokes a retaliatory response and so creates a cycle that tends to perpetuate itself (the cycle of violence). Those closely affected by the violence tend to fixate on the horror of the violence itself, and seldom listen to or care about the reasons for the violence.

The recent events in Mumbai demonstrate these points. The attacks were horrifying and difficult to understand. Who did this, and why? We do not know. Nor is anyone inclined to be that sympathetic. Sure those who instigated this got a lot of attention, but most of them also got killed. A lot of other people got killed too. For what?

If violence ever has any justification at all (which I myself seriously doubt), it would be for the sake of some grander cause. But what cause was served by this? If no one knows, it is hard to see how any cause was served. If a cause is identified, those most hurt by this are the least likely to become sympathetic to that cause. The changes the instigators may have wished for in the world are not likely to come about because of this. When people are violently attacked, or are hurt by those close to them having been violently attacked, they seldom say, "Oh, I deserved this punishment! I'm sorry and will reform my ways and become Perfect (according to everybody's standards of perfection) from now on!" Instead, they are inclined to regard the attacker as evil, and themselves as good and innocent.

So, what is accomplished by violence? Nothing, really, except perhaps increased fear, anxiety, and hatred, but I wouldn't call these "accomplishments" as such.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Ambivalence About Technology

I had a bit of a crisis last weekend. For several years, I've used a PDA to manage my calendar and such, and it died. No, actually, it became terminally ill and was only half functional. Part of what I like about PDAs is that you can synchronize them with your computer, and so you have a backup of your data. I had synchronized mine recently, but I had also made a lot of changes since then. So, this did threaten to be a major crisis.

The device kind of went haywire. The controls were now behaving unpredictably. But with patience, I learned its new, twisted logic, and managed to extract my calendar data for the next couple of weeks, writing everything down. Then I managed to coax it into synchronizing with my computer one more time.

Now I had to re-think how I wanted to do things. I used to use a paper system. At times, I used Daytimer, which I really liked. Through grad school, I made up my own system and printed sheets out on my computer. Did I now want to go back to a paper system? There are three problems: it is vulnerable too, to loss -- and without backups. It's tedious to keep track of regularly repeating events. And it is bulky to carry around.

I shifted to a PDA when I became department chair and my life made a quantum leap into greater complexity. I liked being able to enter in repeating events easily. And I loved how compact it was. I could easily carry it with me wherever I went! And, I could load important documents on it, such as papers I'm working on.

So, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that this is a system that works well for me.

But, can I find a more reliable system? I was miffed at how this one died on me! (And it's not the first one that has done that, alas!) But as I did some research online, I came to realize that all of the systems have problems. The ones with the best reliability reviews are really expensive systems that have bells and whistles I don't need while lacking some of the ones I do appreciate. (This is another thing I don't like about how our economy works: it's in a company's best interest to make things that don't last too long! That way, they sell more of them!)

Then I considered smartphone systems, but I often need to look at my calendar while I'm on the phone, so, while the convenience of having PDA and cell phone all together in one unit is attractive, it doesn't seem functional for my purposes. And, again, there is the problem that many of these systems have bells and whistles I don't want yet lack some features I do want. (That's another thing about our economy that irks me. The apparent "variety" is mostly an illusion. When you find a system in a configuration that really works for you, it will die and then you will find that it's obsolete now and features that you like can never be found again because, while they sold and people liked them, they didn't sell in large enough numbers to justify continuing to produce them. Just selling things is not enough. You have to be able to sell them in large numbers! Thus are we forced by the business world to lose our individuality and go with the crowd.)

With all that's out there, I was amazed at how hard it was to find exactly what I wanted. The only one that really suited my purposes was the one I had before.

So, I ordered a new one.

It arrived. I set it up. I synchronized. And, to my horror, I found most (but oddly, not all) of my calendar gone!

This was the night before the TV crew came to my class. I was already worked up about that. So what I did was took a deep breath, turned everything off, and went to bed. "I have to stay focused," I said to myself. "I can't deal with my PDA Crisis until after my big day tomorrow." Anyway, I had my little slips of paper with my schedule scribbled on to keep me going in the meantime.

So, I got up early the next morning, went for my longest run yet (can you tell I was worked up?), and set forth into my Eventful Day.

That evening, I searched online help files. I realized that the computer I was synching to had Vista, and so I shouldn't have used the installation disk that came with my new PDA, but should have downloaded a new version for Vista.

Since things were about as bad as they could get, I decided that was still worth a try. I downloaded the new version, installed it, and synchronized again. Same problem. Still trying to stay calm, I had noticed that I could run the installation again in a "repair" mode. Why not try that? So I tried that.

To my utter and complete surprise, my calendar was restored!

But there was still a problem. Pieces of it still did not show up on my computer. Since the whole point of synchronizing is to have a workable backup on your computer should you lose your PDA, or should it die, this was still unsatisfactory.

The next night, I returned to online help and was able to chat with a technical support person who helped me solve my problem. Now everything is functional again, and I am so relieved!

Technology can be really helpful, but its unreliability can be almost catastrophic sometimes. This experience had me perceive the complexity of my life in a whole new way. It wasn't so much my dependence on technology that was the problem, but my needing fancy technology to help me manage the complexity of my life. What I mean is that any system would have to be frighteningly complex to manage such a life. The real problem is how complex my life is! The vulnerability is really at that level. The temporary lack of a PDA exposed that deeper problem.

I have two exchange students in one of my classes, one from Spain, and the other from Germany. Both have come to talk with me about how different U.S. university life is from their lives back in Europe. They cannot believe how demanding the daily schedule is. They feel under constant pressure, because they have important projects and papers due almost every day. Each said to me, "I am not a machine! Meaningful learning does not happen this way!" They came to me because they thought I might understand, and I do. But it was hard to know what to say to them. That is the reality of what university life is like here. How do we change it? This is not healthy for our students or the faculty.

Yesterday a bad cold overcame me. This morning I wanted to stay in bed all day. But to let go of what I had scheduled today would create even greater problems down the road, I thought. Postponing it would make my busy week next week impossible. So, I got up and forced myself onward. I showed up at meetings, only to find them sparsely attended because nearly everyone else was sick and overwhelmed. Had I known, I would have stayed home in bed too. After my last meeting, I was going to wrap up a few urgent things in my office and take the rest of the day off. But those few things were really many and took all afternoon.

I started off saying that I was busy but didn't feel terribly stressed, and, oddly, that is still true. My mood is quite good, and that carries me through. But it can only carry me so far, and I know that. The way I pushed myself today is not healthy, and I must not let this way of being develop into a habit again, because that's how I got burned out before.

So, in the complexity of a complex life, a lot of great things can happen, but managing that complexity and living up to its demands is hard.

When I do manage it well for periods of time, I now realize that I'm fortunate in being able to. It's not virtue so much as good fortune: good health, stamina, and support that makes it possible. To some extent, we can foster these things, but they are not completely in our control.

So I have the humility now to comprehend that I live in fragile relationship to the complexity of my life. When I see others around me struggle with their own relationships to the complexity of their lives, I have a lot of sympathy.

Is the slowing economy a sign that we've all had enough? We can't go on at this relentless pace? Sometimes I wonder if that's really what this means...

Friday, November 14, 2008

Other Updates

In other updates:

Yes, I am still running, and continue to make slow but steady progress.

I have been very busy this semester, but I've been handling it very well, and I think the running is part of what's making a difference. But it's not just that. It's also that putting this energy into getting the Peace Studies program has felt like an important part of my life mission, and so putting in long hours has felt satisfying rather than tiring.

I think I've found a new musical group to join. It's a new contra dance band. I went to the first, organizational rehearsal, and it is looking very promising!

I've managed to keep some momentum going on my research. I finished two smaller projects and now can turn my research attention back to my bigger and favorite project. In fact, I'm scheduled to talk about it with our philosophy faculty in a few weeks, so the timing is excellent.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Publicity for Peace

It turns out that our Peace Studies program is getting some good local publicity. At first, a mention in a small local paper; and an interview and a photo of the planning committee for the school paper. Meanwhile, I was disappointed not to see mention in more prominent local papers or my beloved local public radio station! But then, to my complete surprise, we received a request from a city news TV station for an interview! I was interviewed on camera, and then the next day they came back and filmed my class and interviewed some of my students! The segment has not aired yet, so I do not know how it all turned out. But it was all pretty exciting!

In truth, I am very camera shy and would rather stay out of the spotlight, but I knew that this was a rare opportunity to share what we are doing. My students were splendid. They were very excited and rose to the challenge, participating really well in discussion for the camera! They participate well in discussion anyway, but seeing them try extra-hard for this occasion was really wonderful!

In the life of teaching, you work really hard, and are never sure what exactly is sinking in or how all of this may or may not matter in your students' lives. It is faith that keeps you going. But in a moment like this, seeing the students working really hard to show the world how much they value what this means to them -- this class, this subject, but also our college -- really moved me!

The reaction of my colleagues to all this attention has been interesting too. "What was that all about?" they asked. "I was interviewed, and then they came and filmed my class!" I replied., with a dazed and awkward smile. "For what?" they asked, bewildered. After all, I am a quiet type, mostly working hard in the background, never trying to draw attention to myself. "Peace Studies!" I replied, surprised that they wouldn't have figured this out. "Oh," they said. It's old news around here that I'm into that kind of stuff. But I, in turn, am surprised that it didn't really dawn on them that this would make news. I knew that it would make some news, and our university publicity staff was ready and waiting -- they expected it, too.

Of course there are lots of other Peace Studies programs across the country and across the world. But I'm not talking about national (or international) news -- this is a big deal in our local area, because there are several colleges around, and no one else has a program anything like this. And we are near a military base. The whole idea of "Peace Studies" really does take people by surprise here!

So I am grateful to have had a chance to explain a bit what it is and why we find it valuable to study it and teach it here.

Maybe that's it now. I'd actually like things to calm down a bit now...

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Election Maps

This is my favorite election map:



It is from this website: http://www-personal.umich.edu/~mejn/election/2008/

It uses red, blue, and shades of purple in between to indicate percentages of votes, at the county level. And so it provides a more nuanced view of voter choices across the country.

From this other (also fun) map, I found that in the small county I grew up in (but no longer live in), Obama lost by one vote! But Obama still won in that state. In fact, Obama won in all states where I've lived!

I know that not everyone agrees with me, but I am happy about the results of the presidential election, for a lot of reasons. It will be interesting to see how things continue to unfold from here.