The Importance of Tilting at Windmills

Happy 466th birthday, Miguel...

232 years ago, the world changed

America *is* the greatest nation on the planet...

"André is conflicted."

Launching this here thing...

September 25, 1957 - The Little Rock Nine

Quite possibly the bravest kids in American history...

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

From a Thanksgiving heroin overdose to a Positive Mental Attitude

Me and my son Julian (AKA PMAKid)
So, my dad died of a heroin overdose on Thanksgiving Day, 1967.

Ten years later, my step-father bailed on my mom and me after she got cancer.  He wanted a younger and healthier model, I suppose. 

My mom was in and out of remission with 3 different types of cancer for 15 years before she passed away when I was 24 years old. 

These life situations definitely created challenges for me as I was growing up.  There were times when I was angry, struggled with depression and generally was not the person that I wished to be. Seems a wee bit bleak, right?  Perhaps, but I bloody well choose not to see it that way.

I had no power over my dad’s poor choices.  Whatever my step-father’s problem was, there was nothing an 11 year old boy could do to influence his decision. With my mom, all I could do was to be there to prepare her meals, do the shopping, pay the bills, and take care of everything I could when she was really ill.  When she died, I made sure that she was remembered in the best way possible and I kept the positive aspects of her in my heart. It would have been easy to give in to despair and allow my deleterious life experiences to dictate my path.  In truth, there were times when I did tread a little bit down that road. But then I became a father.

Anybody who is a parent understands the visceral changes that alter your psyche once you have a child. As mad as I was at my family members for various reasons, I realized that their poor decisions should no longer dictate the man that I was to become.  I had a son, and there was nothing more important than that I raise Julian to be a strong, upright, and just man.

Three letters define my life: PMA.  PMA equates to the simple – perhaps simplistic – phrase, Positive Mental Attitude. In fact, I have these letters tattooed on my body as a constant reminder to myself.  I have struggled my whole life against these three letters.  The negative experiences of my childhood, and the jealousy I have had of others who perceivably led idyllic lives with parents, without poverty, and without struggle, have been my personal constant bogeymen.

One hears the stories, the research, et cetera about how important it is be positive in one’s dealings with the world. This is most definitely easier said than done. Life constantly throws up obstacles, both large and small. There are several methods I utilize to tamp down on the negative, and build on the positive.  Music and the communities I belong to are bulwarks against the negative.  But most importantly, it is attempting to do good things for others – small and large – that allow me to focus on the positive.
Whatever your central tenets may be based upon – faith or a more humanistic viewpoint – it goes without saying that lending a hand to others is beneficial to relationships and to the soul.  I believe that we have an innate tendency towards selfishness.  To a certain extent, this is beneficial.  We cannot allow others to take advantage of us, and we should always keep in mind our own wellbeing.  If we always act selfishly, however, I believe that our being becomes damaged. By aiding others, we prevent ourselves from descending into perpetual selfishness, and thus loneliness and despondency.

In all the negativity of my childhood – to be blunt, all the shit that I was subjected to – there were also a great number of small positives. In 7th and 8th grades, my mom was in and out of the hospital — a lot.  When she was home, she was frequently bedridden.  I had to work at my mom’s store every day after school and every weekend to ensure that we had enough money for rent and food and the basic necessities of life.  While my classmates were blowing their $50 weekly allowance, I was at work, praying that we hit our sales goals.  At the time it did not feel out of the ordinary, but in retrospect, it seems a little ridiculous for a kid to have to go through.

I have written about this before, in other venues, but there was a wonderful cheese shop in the same building as my mom’s store.  Although I always liked cheddar cheese, this store opened me up to a lifelong adoration of the variety of cheeses available. The folks who owned this store knew what my mom and I were going through, how tight money was, and how sick my mom was.  Several times a week, they would stop by my mom’s store with cheese and bread or crackers.  It was not unheard of that this would be my dinner.  I would carefully wrap some of the cheese to bring home to my mom.  (Her radiation therapy had wreaked havoc on her taste buds, so I was always trying to find things that she could eat that did not taste like crap for her.) I frequently think back on those folks who would give a 7th grader such wonderful gifts.  What they did for us was simple and easy and cost them little, but it made such a difference in my life as a child.

And that’s the thing: their simple, good works have inspired me today to see a positive life beyond all the negative crap.  Now, I constantly attempt to objectively evaluate how I treat others.  If somebody is going through a week of craziness at the office, I will get them a cup of afternoon coffee from Starbucks.  I will get a co-worker a bag of Peppermint Patty’s when I know they are stressed with their workload.  If there is somebody whose mannerisms are annoying me, I will take a deep breath and approach the conversation in a different way.

It takes so supremely little to make somebody’s crappy day a little brighter. I actually view it as a net gain.  Some little thing I do may infringe a little on my schedule or cost me $4.00, but in the long run, it improves the mood in the office or at home. That makes things easier for everybody. Most importantly, doing these things makes it easier for me to keep the PMA. It is no longer such a monumental struggle to seize and hold on to a positive attitude.  I am now actually a positive person – something that I find somewhat incredulous at times.

God knows that I do not always make the best decisions, and I had to learn how to be a dad on the fly due to the fact I didn’t have any great example to follow; but I know that I shall do my best to show my son how a man should try to lead his life.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Dr. Martin Luther King receives the Nobel Peace Price - 49 years ago today

Tattoo by Henry Goldfield
At 35, the Reverend Dr Martin Luther King, Jr was the youngest person to receive the Nobel Peace Prize -- 49 years ago today. Dr King's story is one that most people know relatively well. His "I Have a Dream" speech, "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" and his efforts throughout the southern states are a part of our history that we all learn about in school and documentaries. Politicians take every opportunity to quote him, civil rights leaders invoke him in whatever efforts they are trying to pursue. He has become an archetype. 

My mother believed strongly in archetypes, teaching me that they should be utilized as an example of the best we should emulate or the worst that we should avoid.

But, here's the thing:

Dr King was a man full of self-doubts. Threats against him and his family were omnipresent. There were times (most notably during the montgomery bus boycott) when he was close to being paralyzed with fear. And that -- ultimately -- is why he deserved the recognition that the Peace Prize provided.

The example provided by Mohandas Gandhi's reliance upon satyagraha, and his reliance upon his faith enabled him to overcome his fear in pursuit of a nation which fulfilled the promise of the American Revolution and the Bill of Rights.

People are so quick to invoke this man and lay the mantle of his Dream across their own efforts, but they cheapen the man and his efforts by utilizing him and his words as sound bites without acknowledging the frailty he knew he had.

For me, Dr King's legacy is not that of the man who many perceive almost single-handily turned the tide of the civil rights era. It is that he was a flawed man (as we all are) who powered through his fear and his self-doubts and committed himself to improving the lot of all Americans.

We owe this man a huge debt, but let's not make the mistake of casting him as an archetype because, in so doing, it becomes easy for us to say that there is little to nothing we can do to improve the world.

And THAT is why I have this tattoo on my chest.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

The Importance of Tilting at Windmills

There are a few books that have had a decided effect upon my values and how I approach the world.  The Death of Ivan Ilych, La Peste, The Fountainhead, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, To Kill a Mockingbird have all helped to shape my thoughts.  I have read all of the aforementioned multiple times, returning to them on a regular basis.  To me, they are like old friends that one sees every few years.  Within moments, you are instantly comfortable, and it is as if no time had passed.  But there is one book which had a huge impact on me that I have not revisited in 25 or more years.  I purchased it a few years back, but it has been collecting dust – unread.

Over 450 years ago, Miguel de Cervantes was born in Spain.  By 1605, he had published the first volume of novel commonly held to be one of the greatest works of literature in human history, Don Quixote.

I cannot recall if I read the book for a class or just for my own enjoyment, but I can still recall the joy with which I consumed the pages.  His writing style was a monumental change from contemporaneous styles.  The wittiness throughout the two volumes still elicits a chuckle from people today.

Sadly, it seems that people are not reading this amazing book as much as they once did.  (This observation is purely anecdotal and has a decided grumpy old man “get off my lawn!” feel to it, but nonetheless it appears that such is the case.)

There are two interesting things about this book that we utilize today.

The word “quixotic”
The phrase “tilting at windmills”

Both of these refer directly to the primary character – Don Quixote – and his efforts to bring true chivalry back.  The key element is the fact that Don Quixote is decidedly idealistic – to the extent of impracticality.

So, I have this idealism in my heart.  I am inordinately lucky in that I get to work every day for an ideal – every American kid having the opportunity to get access to a great education.

Prior to every major change in how society operates or in how society perceives certain things, I would imagine that the vast majority of folks would have seen the effort to effect meaningful, transformative change as ridiculously idealistic as Don Quixote’s quest.  If those men who founded our nation were told that in less than 250 years, a black man would be President, I imagine that most of them would have laughed themselves silly. And “certainly, women shall never be given the franchise!”

Without the Don Quixotes of the world, idealism becoming policy that changes the world and gives people greater freedom may never happen.

Don Quixote may have been a rather silly man, but there are strains of the man throughout the modern world.  I like to think you can see elements of the man in Camus’ Sisyphus, Rand’s Howard Roark, Tolstoy’s Golovin and many other archetypes that inspire us.

Reflecting back, I think Don Quixote is a bloody good personification of PMA.  I think is it time that I reacquaint myself with Senor Cervantes’ work.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

232 years ago, the world changed...

232 years ago, on September 28, 1781, the siege of Yorktown, Virginia occurred.

("Gee, great! Thanks for the history lesson, André-Tascha!")

So, why today, in 2013 should you even care about this part of American history? What the hell does it matter, right?  For me, key dates in history serve as a reflection of things done right, done wrong, of opportunities gained and lost.

Let's take it back a few years prior to Yorktown.  There were those in the colonies who were becoming increasingly concerned at the manner in which the business of the colonies was being conducted.  Parliament back in London called the shots, and -- increasingly -- little consideration was given to the wants and needs of those who lived on this side of the Atlantic.  At times, it seemed that the intent was to punish the colonies (at least that was part of the narrative being spread by some who were in opposition to the realpolitik of the time).  When the "Petition to the King" was sent to Parliament by the first continental congress, it received very little real attention.  Relations worsened.  To cut to the chase, we ended up telling King George and Great Britain to take a bloody hike.  We were damned well done with their crap, and it was time for the kids to make their own way in the world.

Now, you really have to let this sink in...

Although there had been various democratic states (I am using the term loosely, encompassing all variants of such) throughout history, these were mostly confined to city-states and the like.  Even in those political entities, citizenship was generally quite restrictive.  (Note the difference between citizenship and the franchise.)

The colonies openly declaring their separation from the British Empire was unseemly, but initially thought by many in Parliament as something that could be relatively easily quelled. When General Lord Cornwallis was sent to America, he had the utmost confidence that his efforts would be victorious and the rebellious colonies would be brought back under proper British rule.  His initial victories certainly made things a wee bit dicey for the Americans, but ultimately, Cornwallis was forced to surrender Yorktown on October 17, 1781.

Cornwallis' defeat to General Washington and the timely arrival of our French allies (whose naval elements provided key support), effectively spelled the end of Round One (the next round being in 1812) of the American Revolution.

So a bunch of rabble-rousers where able to defeat one of the greatest European powers and send King George's cronies running.  Why is this really important today?

The defeat of the British at Yorktown legitimized the rights of the common man vis-a-vis those in power.  Yes, there had been increasing rights provided as a result of the English Civil War, however such rights were held back from a great swath of peoples.  The American Revolution and the Constitution that came after codified the rights of the individual -- not only on parchment, but in people's hearts.  It served as a point of inspiration for the overthrow of the monarchy in France (let's just kinda ignore Robespierre's "transgressions") and democratic efforts around the world into modern times.

Yes, there were problems with the Constitution and Bill of Rights as originally ratified and as enforced throughout the years. The most obvious was slavery, but there were many others such as the limitation of the franchise, et al.  But, we continually have moved forward to fulfill the visceral promise of the American Revolution and of the Bill of Rights.

As imperfect as this country is, I am thoroughly convinced that it is still the greatest country on the planet. Not because it is the location of Wall Street or Hollywood or what-have-you.  It is the greatest, because (no matter how trying things can get), it provides the greatest promise to each and every one of it's citizens that their liberties must be preserved at all costs.  We may hits some bumps in the road, but being the positive guy that I am, I am confident that the challenges presented shall always be conquered.

All this...the hopes of a nation -- and to some extent, the hopes of oppressed peoples worldwide -- are due to the strength of will of a few people who decided to stop getting the crap kicked out of them.

And the French...we could not have done it without them.  Next time one of my friends gives me crap about being french ("cheese eating surrender monkeys"), just know that without the French, America would be fawning over the British monarchy.  Oh wait...

Friday, September 27, 2013

"André is conflicted."

My son, PMAKid singing with Toby of H2O
at This is Hardcore
(Photo by Ken Penn)
Eric Lerum -- the VP of National Policy at StudentsFirst, where I work -- referred to me as "conflicted" once.  He was just teasing me, but since that time, I have utilized his description when I am in some mode of self-deprecation.

At a surface level, one could describe me as conflicted.  I am a Republican -- decidedly so -- yet I have a not insignificant number of tattoos.

I listen to a style of music that is generally lumped into the term "hardcore".  Live shows generally appeared to the uninitiated as riots in progress, but most of those who are into this music -- are a part of this community -- are the kindest and most peaceful folks you could know.

I have friends who are hard right Tea Party members, and I have friends who are so far on the left, they are not adverse to wearing the mantle of "socialist". I am as straight as they come, but I have dear friends who are gay.  I have friends who are Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, agnostic and atheist.

I try my best to be helpful and supportive of others...sometimes I give too much of myself, but at the same time I can be extremely selfish.

I try to always keep the PMA (Positive Mental Attitude), but damn...I can sure get negative at times.

In a word, I am human.

Those with whom I am friends on Facebook are thoroughly aware (much to their own detriment at times, I am sure), that as I am riding the train to work in the mornings, I will periodically pontificate on something that may have struck me.  It may be a political item, some bits of news, my interactions with people.

I decided that I would start sharing some of my rants, my observations, my self-recriminations, et cetera with the wider world, hence, because (as the Carry On song "Rethinking" goes), "this world is f**ked, but I'm still looking up / I broke the rules and now I'm making amends".

Ultimately, all I hope and pray for is that everybody can take the opportunity to make periodic attempts to have a decent level of polite discourse wherein we can all learn something from each other. This site shall be the vehicle for my discourse...