Not all Questions Are Created Equal

questions

Not long ago, I had a very interesting conversation with someone I’ll call “John.”  The two of us talked about many subjects during our meandering dialogue.  At one point, to my complete surprise, John said, “I don’t need to question things.  Why would I want to do that?  My head already feels completely full of all kinds of ideas and knowledge.”

I was very much surprised by what John had said.  I also knew, based upon this single exchange, that he and I were very different kinds of people.

Unlike John, I’ve always been inquisitive.  I don’t accept things at face value and I have this instinctive need to dig deeper.  Though, like him, my head sometimes feels full, I find that I’m still hungry and always up for a bit of intellectual nibbling.

I frequently feel intellectually inadequate and humbled by the great mysteries of existence.  The world (and everything in it) is so big and fascinating and multifaceted and seemingly unknowable.  Those who think of themselves as questioners can never feel like they know or understand enough.

Because I’m an educator, I also try to help others see the value of asking questions.  By the way, there are all kinds of queries and not all of them are created equal.

For example, there are questions that begin with the word “how.”  Life forces us to ask these because we live in a world that prizes getting things done.  “How” questions are often about process, about the steps involved in accomplishing some task, making them very goal-oriented and practical but not very philosophical.  For instance, one might ask, “How are enchiladas made?”  This question is not about finding out why some of us become foodies or others don’t.  This query, when asked and answered, simply helps us prepare a wonderful Tex-Mex dish.

Then there are questions that start with the word “what.”  Like many “how” questions, these are often “closed.”  For example, if you ask, “What is the capital of Latvia?” there is only one possible answer and Riga would be it.  It is not possible to answer Caracas to the question without being utterly wrong.  I called these “closed” questions because once the answer is given, the interrogative has been completed.  “What” questions of this type lead nowhere beyond a correct (or incorrect) response.

Many questions that begin with the word “why” are very important because they can serve to “open” the mind.  “Why” questions are about causes and often provoke profound thought and  analysis.  For example, “Why have I chosen to be an educator?” might lead to the answer “Because I have always loved learning.”  Such an answer might prompt, “But why is learning so important to me?” which would lead to another answer that could then be examined with a “why” question.  As you can see, these kinds of queries force the questioner to burrow down and help uncover important truths about ourselves, the world, and other people.  They provide the questioner with a tool that can lead to new lines of inquiry.

The Problem with Arrogance

the problem with arrogance

When I was growing up, there was a very common euphemism that was used when referring to those who behaved arrogantly.  Such people were said to be “full of themselves.”  I don’t know if folks still use this phrase or not.  Today, because the average person generally spends less time beating around the bush, it is highly likely that he or she would be more direct, saying the following instead: “Arrogant people are full of shit.”

Because arrogant people are full of themselves and they are, by definition, shitty people, that makes them full of shit.   I suppose I’ve just proved, using a kind of syllogistic logic, that arrogant people can be both full of themselves and shitty.  Actually, they are shitty because they are very much themselves.

(You can probably tell that I really get off on playing around with language and ideas.)

I wanted to be sure to start this one off by letting you know, in no uncertain terms, what I think of arrogance and those who display it in their behavior.  Today, most Americans—and I am one; at least my passport makes this assertion—are really getting schooled on arrogance because we have a president who is so effusively self-congratulatory that I actually end up either blushing or cringing every single time he speaks about any subject.  Invariably, no matter the topic at hand, he’ll find some way to brag and then pat himself on the back.  I find such behavior juvenile and off-putting in the extreme.

I want to pivot away from Trump and start talking about arrogance in general.  It was good, though, that I began this blog with him because he is a prime example of one of the main ways arrogance negatively affects a person, so I’ll return to the subject of America’s obnoxious president very shortly.

Arrogance is not one of the Seven Deadly Sins but it should be.  When we behave arrogantly we sin against ourselves and others.  We sin against ourselves by believing, quite falsely, that we are the greatest.  Being the greatest means that we are the most capable, the most intelligent, etc., etc., etc.  It means we are superior in every way and therefore there is no one—and I mean NO ONE—who can tell us anything that we don’t already know.  The arrogant see themselves as the founts of all knowledge.  They see themselves as sages.  They are the enlightened and the experts.  Everyone should listen to what they have to say.  They don’t need to open their ears, though, because there is nothing they need to hear or learn.  There is no one who is capable of teaching them anything they don’t already know.

Arrogance is a form of delusion.  Arrogance is the enemy of good thinking.  Arrogance closes the ears and the mind and opens the mouth.  But what comes from the mouth is pure braggadocio.

Arrogance is causing Trump to self-destruct.  All people who behave arrogantly end up destroying themselves.  They push away people and ideas they need to embrace.  They worship themselves and never realize that they are nothing but false idols.  I’d feel sorry for them if I didn’t despise them so much.

I’m curious to hear what you’ve thought of this piece and the arguments I’ve made here.  The floor is yours…

Is It Dumb to Have a Smartphone?

smartphone

I struggled coming up with a title for this one.  I almost called it “My Love/Hate Relationship with My Smartphone.”

Okay, so I own a Samsung Galaxy Note5.  I know.  I know.  It’s certainly not the latest and coolest model.  But then again, I’m not necessarily the coolest guy either.  Almost nothing that I own is the latest version of anything.  In fact, I’m not exactly what you’d call a “high-end” fellow.  I’m more the sort who snoops around at resell shops and flea markets.

I was raised by a brilliant but eccentric father.  He didn’t believe in telephones.  So we didn’t have one in our house for a long time.  Looking back on that period in my life, I can’t see any sort of way that not owning a phone had any detrimental effect on my life.

I remember what life was like at that time in American history.  It seemed quieter, calmer, more serene.  People could, it certainly seems, be alone with their thoughts.  In fact, it seems that it might have actually been easier to have thoughts in that day and age.  It appears perfectly obvious that to have thoughts one would need to have a certain quietness of mind.  Thoughts are a bit like plants.  They need the proper environment to flourish.  The quiet mind is such an environment.

For many years, I resisted buying a telephone.  This was probably a direct result of the values inculcated by my father.  Then, about four years ago, I bought the above-mentioned Samsung.

This device has certainly allowed me to connect with the world, but I think people are generally mostly incapable of doing things in moderation.  Human beings—of course, it’s hard to generalize—are naturally extremists.  They don’t do most things half-assed.

I’m trying to tell you in a roundabout way that I am sort of addicted to my telephone.  As an educator–as someone who stands up in front of lots of young adults—I know that I am not alone in my addiction.  I’ve taught classes where students spent more time looking at their little screens than they did looking at my little face.  This makes me wonder if we really see each other anymore.  Do you think it’s possible that we’ve mostly become invisible to one another?

And do we hear each other?  Do we know how to formulate well thought out sentences?  I certainly know how to ask my telephone where I might find such and such a place by telling it the address I’m looking for.  When it replies, though, it doesn’t ask me any questions like, “Why have you decided to go to this location rather than stay at home?”  Such a question would turn me back on myself.  It might even make me reconsider.  By the way, as you’ve probably already gathered, my Samsung is a pretty poor conversationalist.

I guess I’m just writing whatever comes to mind here.  But there does seem to be a method to my madness.  In what way am I being changed by my telephone and other technological devices?  What ways are these things changing the world we live in?  Are we happier now than we used to be when the world was very small and everything seemed so far away and interesting?

This blog was first published at Pointless Overthinking.

 

 

No Thanks

banana republic

Two days ago, on a Sunday morning, I downloaded a PDF of the full Mueller report.  I plan to read it, in dribs and drabs, as my busy schedule permits, in its totality, because I feel it’s my patriotic duty to do so.

After downloading the thing, I did what many middle-class dudes do on a beautiful Sunday when it’s been a couple of weeks or so since the mower’s been out of the garage.  I rolled the beast out, filled its belly with high octane gasoline, and yanked the start cord.  The things spurted, then roared.  I commenced pushing it all around my yard.  The sweat rolled down my cheeks as countless blades met their gruesome ends.  In an hour or so, the grass had been decapitated and I was done.  Done.  Done.  Done.

I went inside, stripped down to my birthday suit, and climbed into the shower.  The hot water felt good and I started thinking about politics.  For one to ponder politics while he is soaping his naked body up after a dirty job is likely a sign that said person needs to get a life.  Certainly there are many other more pleasant things to think about.  But my mind delves—nearly of its own accord without my permission–into the political nearly every chance it gets.  I think I’m so into politics because I spent a large portion of my early life dirt poor, raised by a mom who didn’t have a husband or an education.  To say that things were tight during my childhood is like saying Donald Trump is a bit obnoxious.  Those early experiences taught me, in the most visceral way possible, that the poor and powerless get screwed in a million different ways and that it’s the rich and powerful that do the screwing.  It should not surprise a single reader to hear me say that the disempowered frequently become the disenchanted.

Thus, politics, to me, is personal.  I can’t claim ownership of that statement.  In fact, I ripped it off from Mayor Pete, now on the campaign trail along with half the Democratic powerbrokers that reside in this land of the fruited plain with so much purple mountain majesty.  I heard him say it recently, perhaps when he was being interviewed by Rachel Maddow?  I liked it so much I decided to commit plagiarism and stick it in this little ditty.

What came to me this past Sunday (when I was in the shower) is the thought that I don’t want America to become Trumpistan.  I’ve lived in Trumpistans before, and I saw how such places work.  Actually, they don’t work.  They stagger along like zombie nations—not dead, not alive, but certainly rotting.  Though we still claim to be the good ole United States of America, land of the free and home of the brave, we are slowly being corrupted by a corrupting influence.  We don’t want to live in a place where the leader is above the law.  We don’t want to live in a place where racism, misogyny, xenophobia, Islamophobia, and such become acceptable.  We don’t want to live in a place where there’s one system of justice for those with clout and another for those without.  We don’t want to live in a place where nationalism and patriotism are conflated.  We don’t want to live in a place where America gives the middle finger to its international allies and trashes long-standing partnerships.  We don’t want to live in a place that closely resembles a theocracy.  We don’t want to live in a place that devalues education and educators and poo-poos the idea that climate change is real and a threat to our very existence.

That’s why I’m going to read the Mueller report and advise everyone else to do the same.  If we don’t learn as much as we can about the sickness that’s infected our body politic, this place we all claim to love might cease to be the sort of place we can be proud of.

 

A Nomad Returns

bulgaria

I’m back.  It’s not like I stopped writing.  I just stopped doing things here after I was asked to become a regular contributor at Pointless Overthinking, a slightly odd but very international blog that seems to be growing in popularity at a rate that is best described as “exponential.”  Bogdan, the blog’s creator, is Romanian.  Back when I first started writing for him, we exchanged a few interesting emails about the weird train trip I took from Istanbul, Turkey, to Bucharest more than a decade ago now.  I’ve now done nineteen pieces for Bogdan’s PO.

I’m reminded of how much of a wild-haired nomad I used to be.  My trip to Bucharest can serve as Exhibit A.  On a whim, back when I was living in Turkey, I jumped on a bus from Ankara to Istanbul and then climbed aboard a rickety train—there wasn’t a restaurant car or anything of the sort—for a twenty-plus hour zig through mountainous Bulgaria until we came to Sofia and then a zag at the capital that would take us to our final destination.

When I left Turkey, I had no guidebook in hand, no maps of Romania, no list of “must sees,” and not even a room reservation.  I was flying by the seat of my pants.  I was flying while blind.  I was simply flying—high above the clouds—and was probably a touch giddy due to a bad case of oxygen deprivation.

I arrived in Bucharest and somehow bounced around until I took a room in a weird, Soviet-style hotel in the heart of the city.  The place could have been the setting for a Franz Kafka novel.

I spent the next week wandering, stumbling upon things, seeing visions, and was eventually nearly mugged by three bandits posing as police officers.  The three wanted my money, but I wanted it even more than they did.  After a brief bit of wrestling on the sidewalk, I prevailed though I was a bit ruffled and scuffed after the encounter.

I wrote this whole thing because I mostly wanted to come to a point where I could ask the following question:  Why ever travel with a guidebook in hand?  Guidebooks only tell you what others have seen, usually see.  They tell where the herds travel and graze.  Why do what others have done and usually do?

By the way, that’s a very serious question that requires some major contemplation.

December 18, 2018

fist

I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about Twitter recently.  The direction of my thinking on this social media platform is mostly aimed at trying to determine if it’s something I want to continue using.  (As I write this, I haven’t tweeted a thing for weeks on either of the two Twitter accounts I’ve created.)

Though I haven’t come to any real firm conclusions yet, I’m beginning to feel more and more comfortable not tweeting.  In the beginning, when I first stopped, I felt like I’d gone cold turkey and was inches away from clenching up and breaking out in a cold sweat.  Then the days began to pass and it seemed like I was beating the beast’s hold on me.  I could clearly feel its grip lessening day by day.  As I write this, I have almost no urge to read what others have posted on Twitter, and I have zero desire to tweet.

I guess, looking back, I had seemingly fallen into what I’m more and more seeing as a self-destructive pattern of behavior.  Because I am such a political person, I was mostly tweeting political things.  (By the way, if you were to ask me today why I’m so politically inclined, I’d answer that I studied political philosophy in college—as an undergrad—and then moved on to other things in grad school, but that I’m still obsessed with politics because it is one very important way humans expressive themselves collectively, and there is nothing more fascinating than human expression.)

So I am very progressive and I was using Twitter to declare my version of Holy War on regressives.  (I won’t refer to them as “conservatives” because they aren’t trying to conserve anything.)  In fact, they want to take us back to a time when WASPs effectively owned the country because they suffer from a kind of white angst.  Of course, there’s great irony in the fact that political regressives feel this way since they think America suffers from what they call a “culture of entitlement,” meaning that too many feel like government owes them something.  At the same time, they want the rest of us to unquestioningly recognize their preeminence and to behave appropriately subservient.  If that isn’t acting privileged and entitled, then I don’t know what is.

Back when I was still tweeting about politics, I had a few favored individuals I liked to seek out and clash with on a daily basis.  I began to realize, though, that these Twitter wars weren’t helping me to feel better or victorious or good about myself and what I was becoming.  In fact, the more I engaged in these skirmishes, the more spite and anger I experienced.  A kind of red-face rage began to fill me, and I started feeling disgust with both those I was tweeting against as well as myself.  Despite the fact that I often “won” these Twitter conflicts, I didn’t feel like a winner.  I felt hateful, mean, and petty.

I really feel so much calmer now that I’ve walked away from Twitter and have stopped tweeting nasty things to those I disagree with.  I like to think of myself as someone who eschews violence.  But there is more than one way to attack a person.  One can pick up a weapon and inflict physical pain, or one can login to one’s Twitter account and send out hurtful messages which leave ugly scars that are invisible to the naked eye.

The self-reflection I’ve been doing mirrors the self-reflection our nation will eventually have to engage in once it moves past this moment of anger and brutal tribalism.  We will have to come to terms with how we’ve treated our political opponents.  This reckoning is likely to be painful.  It is likely to be instructive as well.  Let’s hope our nation learns an important lesson from this difficult historical moment.

 

 

December 11, 2018

cover your cough

I’m in the clinic, the one I always visit when I need something medical done.  Exactly one week ago I was in this same waiting room, awaiting the commencement of a physical exam.  I was hungry that day because they’d asked me to fast.

Last time I was here my name was eventually called.  I stood up, walked toward a nurse who asked me for some urine which would have been a strange request to make in any other context. (I remember how warm the plastic container felt as I peed into it.)  And then she drew some blood.  She made me walk down a hallway, opened a door at the end of it, showed me a large machine that could peer through my skin and look deep into my body.  She directed me to remove my shirt, stand just so with my arms raised above my head.  She then let the contraption shine its magical light on me so that an image of my inner workings could be captured and studied.  Finally, she attached some electrodes to my body to learn more about my ticker.

Today, I am back to get the results of all those tests.  I am sitting in the waiting room now.  There are others here.  Some are coughing and some, although certainly not all, are covering their mouths with handkerchiefs.  One man has an odd coloration and makes me think he might be a touch jaundiced.  Two young women have comically large bellies on their otherwise insubstantial bodies.  (The way they keep smiling and whispering together makes me they think they feel a special bond and are cherishing the fact that they’re carrying life within their protuberant abdomen.)

I felt persuaded, after no more than five minutes of listening to those folks coughing up their lungs, to move to a more distant part of the waiting room.  Who needs to be near those airborne germs?  If I have anything to say about it, I won’t allow that sort of sickness to get inside my body and fiddle around.  Sitting any closer than I currently am—now that I’ve put distance between me and them—is really asking for trouble.

I have a book with me, so I take it out and start reading.  Its title is The Awakening of Intelligence and it’s written by Krishnamurti, an Indian philosopher and all-around swell guy.  I’m drawn to the words of wise people, mostly because I’m so lacking in the wisdom department myself.  A dumb guy can never go wrong spending a few moments reading what a smart guy has to say.

I tried to concentrate on the book but there was too much coughing and talking and such.  This caused me to put Krishnamurti down and look across the room.  Being around sick people usually makes me think that I’m about to die myself.  This happens because the ill remind me of my own vulnerability.  Actually, we’re all just flesh and blood and gelatinous, pulsating organs inside a wrapping of flesh.  There’s not much more to us than that.  It’s amazing any of us make it any time at all.

I’m reminded of a video that they showed us back when I was in middle school.  It was a videotape of a surgery.  (I still find it shocking that she showed such gruesome footage to a bunch of fifth graders.)  So they showed the patient being cut open and what his guts looked like. To this day, I remember being shocked at what the insides of a human being look like.  I was not impressed and almost immediately became a hypochondriac.

&&&

So I’ve just been called into the clinic’s inner sanctum to meet with my doctor and get what I hope to be good news—that I don’t have cancer or the palsy or the bubonic plague.  I don’t have to wait long.  He comes in and I stand and shake his hand.  (He’ll certainly hose himself down with disinfectant as soon as I take my leave of him and this room.)  He gets right to it and tells me that all my tests look good.  They haven’t found a single thing to worry about.  And then he informs me I’m free to go.

I step out into the waiting room and the coughing people are now gone—perhaps dead?  Despite their absence, I hold my breath as I head to the door.  I get to it, push it open, and step out into fresh, germ-free air.