Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Shenanigans...who'd have known?

--by Mike Adams

I smiled, when first I read that this week’s GBE2 prompt is shenanigans.  This would be fun, a light-hearted topic, where I could revel in youthful pranks and funny memories.  So after a quick trip down memory lane, I went to Thesaurus.com.  There, I learned that the word shenanigan is complex and encompasses a range of “pranks” that include lighthearted, mischievous fun, and vile deceit or outrageous damage.

This piqued my curiosity and sent me to mirriam-webster.com , dictionary.com and etymonline.com in order to learn more about this word that I thought I knew.

I had always believed shenanigan to be an Irish word.  Something that Darby O’Gill would utter with a tinge of affection while recounting his adventures with Ireland’s “little people”.  It turns out that the earliest record of shenanigan is dated 1855 and it originated in San Francisco or Sacramento.  Mark one against my home brewed etymology.  Next, there doesn’t appear to be much information about shenanigan, except that it possibly is derived from “chanada” or “charranada”, meaning trick or deceit.  “Hmmm, chanada, there is a word I haven’t heard in a long time…in fact, I’ve never heard it!”

OK, time to hit Merriam-webster and dictionary.com, both of which define shenanigan as either a youthful and lighthearted prank or a devious and underhanded trick.  Wow, I hadn’t known that shenanigans could be so dark.

It turns out that the list of synonyms for Shenanigan includes: atrocity, catastrophe and devilry.  To my surprise, there is even a book titled “Financial Shenanigans: How to Detect Accounting Gimmicks & Fraud in Financial Reports”.  This book even has a second edition.

This shows me how I've limited my use of the word shenanigan over the years.  I think perhaps I should practice deploying this word in a more diverse venue.  Say, a threat, “Just be aware, no one will like that…if you proceed, you may well find yourself on the wrong end of a shenanigan!” or “Don’t cross him, his shenanigry runs deep and it is filled with vile and heinous deceit.”

Thanks GBE2, you have broadened my understanding of a rather common word.  I’ll use my newfound knowledge only for good though, because as we all know, “with great power, comes great responsibility.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Confrontation - a frightful visage!

--by Mike Adams

Confrontation! ...Sometimes the very word sends a tiny spike of adrenaline racing through my body. It is not a topic that I relish, nor one I would typically write about. In fact, for me, it is fraught, occurring as something to be feared and avoided. However, Ms. Word Nerd has spoken, and confrontation is this week’s GBE2 writing prompt, so I’ll put my head down and proceed.

What first comes to mind when I think of confrontation are the myriad regrets and half remembered humiliations from my life. Times, when I over reacted, or times that I failed to take a stand, each leaving its own chink in the armor of my self esteem.

In this, I certainly am not unique. Everyone regrets certain episodes in life, where they acted foolish either by way of melodrama or by way of cowardice. My first strong memories of this are from seventh grade. Middle School is a tough period for human development and my Middle School years were terrible. By the end of seventh grade, I had gained nearly one hundred pounds easily placing me in the category of obesity. This marked me as a prime target for verbal and physical abuse. My peers relentlessly taunted me to the point where I could barely hold back the tears, which would only have encouraged their cruelty. In class, the teachers did nothing, leaving us to “sort out our interpersonal difficulties.” At lunch, other students punched me, kicked me, spit on me, shoved me and threw me to the ground each day. They smeared ketchup in my hair, held me down and poured drinks on my crotch and relentlessly called me, Fatso, Faggot, Dough boy, Stinky, Indian blood fart, etc...

I hated life—I hated school—but mostly, I hated myself.

Occasionally, I would seek out a weaker victim and pick on them hoping to feel some relief, a sense of power, but this always backfired, leaving me more depressed...not only did I feel like a loser, but I had also been a complete ass, so I stopped.

Thankfully, High school brought reprieve. I was reasonably well liked, I achieved a healthy weight and I joined the swim team, the track team and the cross country running team. On a primal level, however, my self image was unaltered. I knew, with the same certainty that I held for gravity, that if anyone really knew me, I’d be rejected, ostracized, ridiculed again.

Living in constant fear of exposure and disgrace really twists a person’s ability to live in harmony with their own values. So I avoided all confrontation at any cost. My younger sister, had been my best friend since childhood and in high school, she was generally liked but the so called “cool people” didn’t “hang with her”, so I didn’t spend much time with her either. The hardest memories, however, are a few occasions, when I overheard someone make rude or condescending comments about her. I wanted to say “Cut it out! ...that's my sister you're talking about!” But I was afraid, so I looked away and kept quiet. Every time that happened, my spirit died a little...my self esteem took a dip.

Twenty three years later, as my two older kids were approaching Middle School age, I began to worry about how they would fare. I began worrying about how they would navigate the Middle School years. In an effort to bully-proof my kids, I began talking about how all three of us could study Tae Kwon Do together. After some cajoling, they agreed and we all three enrolled in a class at the local YMCA.

Several years have passed since that and today, my middle son is preparing to enter Middle School. He holds a brown belt in Tae Kwon Do. My eldest will begin High School next year and he holds a black belt. I could not be more proud!

What has surprised me most, however, is the effect that studying martial arts has had on me. A few years ago, while sitting in our mini-van waiting for everyone to come out of Target, I had a life changing thought.  Out of the blue, it occurred to me that, I could defend myself if I had to.

With that thought, I found freedom. I shattered the oppressive shackles that had held me for decades...the cumbersome chains that had kept me small fell from me and though I had never been aware of their existence, I couldn't imagine how I had lived with them for so many years.

I began to view the world in terms of what I’m willing to work for and what I’m willing to fight for. Life’s difficulties and challenges have increasingly occurred as a punch or side kick. My job, step aside or block, redirecting the force away from me. Avoid personal injury and react quickly with a well delivered counter.

I no longer cower in some secluded corner waiting for confrontation to pass. I still have to contend with that frightened, beaten, and emotionally damaged twelve year, who yearns for invisibility. But today, I am also a loving and powerful forty year old man, who has earned a black belt in Tae Kwon Do and who carries with him, the courage of conviction.

I have become the kind of person, who can be counted on to say what I think. I can be counted on to try and see others as an expression of their commitments. Today, I try to view people as a reservoir of possibility and potential—as reflections of who they want to be. I try to inspire the best in those around me, because I believe that everyone can be great, that each of us are capable of miracles. Perhaps I'm part fool, but I believe that somehow, I can make a difference in this world, that somehow, despite our perilous course, I and people who believe as I do can leave this world a better place for the next generation.

Today I am generally happy with myself. Though I have many flaws, I am content. This journey has forced me to confront my sense of worthlessness. I've had to confront my tendency and capacity to live in delusion. I've had to speak my mind, especially when I felt terrified. I've had to point out the hypocrisy of people I admire and whose approval I desperately want. Somehow, I have emerged, a burgeoning leader within my own Unitarian Universalist Congregation.

I continue to be plagued with the fear that I’ll be exposed as a loser and be ostracized...laughed out of countenance. However, the gentle warrior, the man, who loves and would do anything for his family, the man who never followed through on anything until his late thirties, when finally he persevered to earn a black belt. The man, who believes we might yet change this world for the better, if we believe and work for it. He keeps getting stronger and he keeps getting more persuasive.

So here are a few things that he wants me to tell you.

1) I believe that human beings are neither inherently good, nor inherently bad. We have a choice to make from one moment to the next. We choose whether to be good or bad. We each have the capacity to be ruthlessly selfish and perform acts of unthinkable cruelty, or to perform human miracles, to inspire the best in others and to extend compassion to someone when they need it most, no matter how low they may have sunk. This is important, because I believe that by ignoring our capacity for evil, we risk being its servant, even while we try to do the right thing.

2) I believe it is simple to make a big difference in another person’s life. Seventeen years ago, when I lived in San Francisco, I stopped one day to talk with a homeless guy, Bob, whom I had seen every day for a year.

Bob surprised me. It turns out, he had earned a Bachelor’s degree in sociology and later became a fire fighter in a small town. He loved being a fire fighter, however one night at a house fire, he had made a mistake and a two year old girl was killed. Bob couldn’t live with this, he tried therapy and anti-depressants but he was haunted by the image of that little girl’s mom collapsing to the ground, wailing in agony, thoroughly inconsolable.

He drank and used drugs to blot out this memory and by the time I met him, Bob had been living on the streets for more than ten years. As I was getting ready to leave and continue with my day, Bob began crying. He told me that I was the first person to and talk with him for as long as he could remember. I was the first person to make him feel human, so he asked if he could call me a friend. Every time I saw Bob from that day forward, his face lit up and he donned a buoyant grin.

So looking back on that day, there are a few things that seem important. First, to speak with Bob that day, I had to confront my own bigotry towards homeless people. Additionally, I had to deal with my own discomfort concerning Bob's personal hygiene. But in the end, I somehow stumbled into making a profound difference for another human being and I got to be a better person for having done so.

So while confrontation is something that I would prefer to avoid at all costs, in the end, it seems that opportunity hides within its frightful visage. So I encourage anyone who will listen to welcome confrontation, to embrace it as an old friend who always offers transformation. Ask the hard questions, the ones that seem impossible to answer.

If you don’t like the answers, ask them again. Why do we tolerate having so many people, particularly young children living in abject poverty? Why do we tolerate the fact that fifteen million children die of starvation each year? Why haven’t we ended slavery yet? In the USA, we have a law called “no child left behind” and yet we are leaving thousands behind each year, for want of early childhood education, proper nourishment, a safe place to learn, etc...why is this acceptable?

I’ll leave you with these words from the preface of a book that I may finish writing some day.

I am motivated to write this book, not because I believe myself a skilled author or profound thinker. Rather, my reasons are very personal, they consume my time and energy, they motivate my focus on career and they simultaneously invigorate, and deplete my personal energy reserves. Regardless of any immediate emotional state I may be experiencing, they motivate my efforts to become a better person and provide a continued reason for my identification as a Unitarian Universalist. In short, they constitute the foundation for my unyielding commitment to try and make a difference in this world.

My motivations are named, Rowan, Devin and Mikalh. They are my three exasperating, inspiring, draining and beautiful children. To me, they embody humanity’s future and they serve as a constant reminder that my generation’s legacy, though still unwritten, may prove a burdensome load for its inheritors.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Simplicity - GBE2 Writing Prompt

--by Mike Adams

This week's GBE2 prompt, simplicity, inspired numerous thoughts, each of which seemed, to me, simply brilliant. So on Saturday evening, in the eleventh hour, when the posting was due, and after having recorded none of my ideas. I realized, with amusement, that had I committed them all to writing...you would be in the unfortunate position of reading a college term paper about simplicity, which charts a course of complexity, that makes Odysseus’ famed trip look like a mere row around the community pond.

Alas, I have been to busy with life’s required tasks to inflict that on anyone, which is a good thing. So my simplicity post, will have to be simple...how appropriate!

Tomorrow morning, my fourteen year old will be completing a coming of age program and he, along with other youth participants, will be delivering their “This I believe” statements at our church service. This has been a long path, filled with intellectual conversations about challenging topics, difficult questions and examinations of personal values, honest reflection on how our youth might react in various morally difficult situations and the logistical equivalent of juggling five bouncy balls, while wearing base ball mitts. In the end, though, it has been worthwhile. Tomorrow, I get to sit back and watch with pride as my eldest son declares himself to this world. He is simply growing up and moving into the next phase of his life. This is exciting to witness, and inspiring to be a part of.

Today my middle son, who is at his dad’s for the week, called to let my wife and I know that his team won their soccer game. Last year, they didn’t win any games, so this was a BIG DEAL. Later this month, I will complete a two year sentence as a board member for the soccer club. Finally my kid’s team is coalescing into a competitive force and this is great. It really fulfills on so much of what I’ve wanted for him as a soccer player. It is deeply gratifying to see him revel in elation over such a simple pleasure.

This morning, my “little boo”, who is six years old, came and cuddled up next to me on the couch. We talked about Star Wars, about how he wishes he could have a real light saber, except that he’d be worried about accidentally killing someone, because he would forget it is real and accidentally cut someone in half. This made me chuckle and love him all the more. Next, he expressed how glad he is that we don’t still have legal slavery in this country...”Things are better than they were before, right Dad!?” He has a brilliant and warm smile. A gentle soul and a streak of creativity, which might fill Claude Monet with jealousy.

These brothers are the source of my deepest motivation in life. They are simultaneously exasperating, inspiring, draining and beautiful. To me, they symbolize humanity’s future.

I love them.