Monday, December 31, 2007

Today's "The Twilight Zone" Marathon

I grew up with the original The Twilight Zone. It was a wonderful series, one of the best to ever grace television. Every week, I would be transported to strange places and exposed to mind-bending ideas, chills, and terrors. I've seen most of its episodes countless times since they first aired between 1959 and 1964, and I'm tempted, so very tempted to tune in to The Twilight Zone marathon showing all day today and much of tomorrow on the Sci-Fi channel. But I'm trying to resist, because I know that if I start watching, I won't be able to tear myself away and do anything else, and I have so much else to do today and tomorrow and so little time to do it all. Watching episodes of Rod Serling's The Twilight Zone, which are virtually inscribed into my DNA after all these years, is like hearing a great old song. It doesn't matter how many times you've heard it. It doesn't matter that you know every note of the tune. You still want to hear it again and again and again.

There are so many unforgettable episodes. When I was a child, I was particularly impressed by an episode in which two parents awaken to hear their young daughter calling out to them from somewhere within the house, but she can't be seen anywhere. Finally, it's discovered that she has fallen from her bed through the adjoining wall into another dimension and universe caused by a rare and temporary intersection of universes. There was something about this idea that lit my imagination on fire and had me feeling the wall next to my bed on many a dark night to see if I could plunge my hand right through it into a Twilight Zone universe.

However, it was only a relatively few years ago that I saw the episode that has left the biggest impression on me, moving me to tears the first and subsequent times I saw it. It was called Miniature and featured Robert Duvall as a bright but extremely self-controlled and almost autistically alienated man who falls in love with a living doll in a dollhouse in a museum. Duvall's performance is so incredibly touching, and I guess I felt special empathy for his character who wanted so little part of the world around him but still deeply longed to connect with someone somewhere. The very end of this special one-hour episode made me weep with joy.

The old expression "They don't make 'em like they used to" has never been more true or regrettable than in the case of the original The Twilight Zone and episodes like Miniature.

The Trial of Bernie Ward

Bernie Ward grew up in San Francisco, was a Catholic priest for two years before leaving the priesthood to marry and start a family, taught theology in Bay Area high schools and in a private school in Washington DC, worked as chief legislative assistant for U.S. Representative Barbara Boxer, became an award-winning reporter and fill-in talk show host for Bay Area newstalk radio giant KGO Radio, and then became a popular full-time KGO host of two programs, the Bernie Ward program on weeknights and God Talk on Sunday mornings. For a time, he billed himself as "the lion of the left" and always championed a politically and religiously liberal perspective both on his radio programs and in his spirited appearances on national television programs. He also raised hundreds of thousands of dollars via his Thanksgiving charities fund drives every year that he was host of God Talk. He was one of my favorite talk show hosts, and I've listened to him regularly on KGO since the mid-to-late 1980's.

However, he was recently placed on paid leave from the station pending resolution of federal charges brought against him for owning and distributing child pornography. Ward admits that he did download several images of child pornography but says that he did it as part of his research for a book he was planning to write on "hypocrisy in America."He contends that when federal officials seized his computer in early 2005, they found no child pornography on it, and I'm not aware of any allegations ever being made against him of being involved in any kind of child sexual abuse. Apparently the federal government offered him a plea deal sometime back that would have meant his spending several years in prison, and he rejected it. Now he's been indicted and could conceivably serve decades in prison if he's convicted.

Everything I've read and heard about Bernie Ward tells me that he's been a wonderful husband to his pediatrician wife, father to his four children, and supporter of the community, especially in his fund raising for agencies serving the destitute. I have seen no indication whatsoever that he had any sexual interest in children or that he would deliberately do anything to harm children in any way. In fact, everything I know about Bernie Ward tells me quite the opposite. Unfortunately, federal law is very clear that if one receives or distributes through any means any child pornography, it doesn't matter why one does it. All that matters is that one has done it, and the penalties for it are incredibly severe.

Although I believe that child pornography is bad and should be illegal, I also believe that the penalties for simple possession of it are unreasonably draconian and that the apparent motives of the accused should be taken into account in deciding whether or not to bring charges. In Bernie's case, based on what I know, the spirit of the law aimed at rightfully protecting children from sexual exploitation seems to have been grossly perverted by slavish and perhaps malicious adherence to the letter of the law with what seems to me to be the likely result of ruining the life of a hard-working and talented man who has been a blessing to his community and family and of doing irreparable harm to his family and many friends. Yes, one could argue that if he's convicted and imprisoned, this will deter others from becoming involved in child pornography in any way, shape, or form. But even if this is true, and I wonder if it is, it seems that this good is vastly outweighed by the harm done in this particular instance.

I don't know that Bernie's longstanding, fierce opposition to conservative political leaders and especially to George Bush has played any role in the federal government's dogged pursuit of its case against him, but I do believe, based on what I've read and heard, that the federal government is morally, even if not legally, wrong to bring these charges against him, and I wish Bernie well in his defense against those charges. I would love to hear him back on KGO as soon as possible.

Bernie debating a conservative talk show host on MSNBC

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Back Pain

I used to suffer frequent bouts of back pain. I also used to play a lot of basketball. When I stopped playing basketball, I pretty much stopped having back pain. Even when I worked as a baggage handler at SFO a few years ago and routinely handled heavy baggage for several hours a day, I seldom experienced any trouble with my back.

But I'm having some back pain now. I've had it for several days. I don't know if my job caused it, but I'm quite sure it's contributed to it. I spend hours every weekday handling heavy medical charts and stacks of charts in all kinds of ways that require bending, stooping, twisting, reaching, pushing, and pulling. I try to be careful about how I move, but I also try to be efficient and fast. It's difficult to be both careful and fast. I suspect that I often sacrifice the former for the latter. I don't want to lose my job, but I can't expect to keep it if I don't get a lot faster at it than I am now.

So, it would seem that I have a real dilemma. I just hope that I don't continue suffering the back pain and stiffness I do now. It's not terrible, but it's definitely unpleasant, and, as far as I know, it could get worse, much worse over time. I can try to be more careful about my movements at and away from work. I can do back exercises. I can try to take better care of myself overall. And time will tell if it helps my aching back.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Meeting With My Job Coach

I met with my vocational rehab counselor and a job coach the other day. It was my first time with the job coach. I tried to explain my situation to her as best I could, but I'm not sure how well I did or how well she ended up understanding where I'm coming from. And even if she understood extremely well, there is still the daunting challenge of figuring out how to help me succeed in the workplace.

What can anyone really do to help me succeed? The absolute ideal would be to simulate a medical records file room in a large health service institution and pair me with a medical records professional who could patiently walk me through all the duties of my job, painstakingly explain to me the hows, whats, and whys of each duty and of the entire medical records system, and then drill me rigorously on accomplishing virtually any task and solving virtually any problem likely to arise on the actual job. There's no chance of that or of getting even remotely close.

Still, I will try to benefit as much as I can from the extra help.

Political Oratory Par Excellence

If this guy could be as good a president as he is a speechwriter and speechmaker, what a wonderful president he would be, and what a critical time this is for us to have a wonderful president!

Friday, December 28, 2007

Reflections on Bhutto's Death

Benazir Bhutto, the former Prime Minister of Pakistan, died yesterday after being shot by someone who then blew himself up, taking more people with him.

I feel both angry and sad. Angry at Bhutto for needlessly subjecting herself and innocent onlookers to totally predictable mayhem and death, and angry at the zealot who inflicted the carnage. Part of me would like to see him burn in screaming agony in hell for a thousand years or two before being consigned to everlasting oblivion.

Yet, I also feel sad that all those lives were lost for no good reason that I can see, and that Pakistan lost a leader who might have helped that country to reform. And I'm sad to see senseless violence motivated by pathological political and religious zealotry just go on and on and on with no end in sight.

Someone might argue that at least the assassin-terrorist died for a cause in which he believed. In what do I believe for which I would be willing to kill others including myself?

I believe that I might well kill an aggressor to prevent him from harming me or others without justification, and I would like to think that I would sacrifice my own life to save the life of a loved one or even just an innocent child or other person I don't even know.

Well, what if the man who killed Bhutto, himself, and the others believed that he was doing it to save more lives from misery and death than he took? How different is that from my killing others or sacrificing myself to save others? There intuitively seems to be a difference, but when one subjects that intuition to the spotlight of reason and tries to explain precisely what that difference is, it isn't so easy.

For instance, one could argue that killing is justified only when done to protect oneself or others against an imminent threat of severe harm or death, and that killing Bhutto didn't fulfill that requirement. But suppose one had the chance to kill Hitler or Stalin and had to endanger or kill innocent people to accomplish the task. Can one definitively say that this would be wrong? Of course, I'm not comparing Bhutto to Hitler or Stalin. I'm merely suggesting that the assassin may have perceived her as an evil person or as someone who could, if allowed to live, end up being responsible for tremendous evil befalling Pakistan, and so he acted to eliminate the threat.

What bearing should a person's motives have on our assessment of his actions?

Bhutto interview

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Christmas Reflections on Faith

"The adolescent is the one who wants to experience everything. The adult comes to realize that you can't experience everything. Mother Teresa never lost her faith, because she kept praying and going for spiritual direction. But she had to live by sheer faith--faith without a lot of consolation. But faith itself is consolation."
I obtained the quote above from an article in the National Post. The man who spoke those words was Fr. Eric Jensen, a Jesuit priest and author and the director of Loyola House in Guelph, Ontario. He and the article as a whole appear to argue that we all must and do have faith in something, because it's impossible to know everything and to live without taking certain things on faith that we don't know; therefore, the theist's faith in, say, the Immaculate Conception and all that follows from it is fundamentally no less well-founded than is a physicist's faith in the existence of unseen quarks or your or my faith that there will be a tomorrow.

I spent years arguing about Christianity with Christians on the Internet, and examples of it can be found in this blog. But not long ago I came to the conclusion that I needed to learn a lot more about what I was arguing against if I was going to make the most cogent arguments possible, and, furthermore, I needed to be more circumspect about my motives for indulging in these arguments.

Having said that, I sorely doubt the soundness of the Christian argument that faith in the Immaculate Conception, unique divinity, and salvific crucifixion and resurrection of the historical Jesus is equivalent to faith in quarks or the dawning of tomorrow, even though I'm not yet and may never be fully prepared to explain why. At the moment, I will only say that it seems to me that quarks and the anticipation of a probable future are more consistent with an intermingling of broad experience and reason than is belief in Jesus Christ. The notion that the Supreme Being of the Universe would choose to reveal Itself to us and redeem us through the historical Jesus and expect us to assent, with the skeptical minds that he gave us, to this revelation upon pain of eternal torment if we don't continues to strike me as ludicrously inconsistent with my experience and with any reasonable understanding of Reality. Thus, my faith is not in religious claims per se, but in my capacity to evaluate the plausibility of those claims.

Thus, Christmas doesn't have the special meaning for me that it presumably does for most Christians. In fact, aside from being grateful to have the day off from work, it has no more special meaning for me than it does for my Buddhist wife and her relatives with whom we'll be spending this evening. Perhaps it would if I had kids or a big family with whom I could meet and partake of secular festivities. But I don't, partly by choice and partly by necessity. My wife's at work as I write this, and I'm home alone. Yet, I'm still happy to be alive and to be able to sit here writing this on my 55th Christmas day.

The Late, Great Oscar Peterson

The technical brilliance, unprecedented speed and hard-driving swing of Peterson's best work inspired generations of artists. But it also drove them to despair, for they knew Peterson's feats could not be matched, much less topped.
--The Austrailian

Oscar Peterson plays the best ivory box I've ever heard.
--Count Basie

I recently wrote about the incomparable Art Tatum, a jazz pianist of stupendous skill and improvisational ability. But, actually, there is one jazz pianist who may have been his equal or at least close to it. His name was Oscar Peterson. He died Sunday from kidney failure at his Canadian home at the age of 82.

When Peterson was growing up, Art Tatum was his idol, but Peterson soon became an idol for countless jazz pianists in his own right and played with such luminaries as Louis Armstrong, Dizzie Gillespe, Charlie Parker, Count Basie, Nat King Cole, Billie Holliday, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, and Itzhak Perlman.

The jazz reviewer Leonard Feather wrote that Peterson could "extract the gentlest whimper, the profoundest roar or the deepest indigo wails from his keyboard." Duke Ellington called him "Maharajah of the keyboard." And, after witnessing a Peterson performance in 1987, reviewer Stephen Holden wrote in the New York Times:

"Mr. Peterson's rock-solid sense of swing, grounded in Count Basie, is balanced by a delicacy of tone and fleetness of touch that make his extended runs seem to almost disappear into the sky...His amazing speed was matched by an equally amazing sense of thematic invention."

The world has lost a great, great musician.

Oscar Peterson--You Look Good to Me

Oscar Peterson Trio--Goodbye

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Buddha's Politics

In this season of political debates and upcoming elections in the USA, I'm looking to understand it all in a broader and deeper way than we see presented in the media polls and commentaries and sound-bite interviews with leading presidential candidates. Below, Ken Wilber discusses the historical development and natures of political parties and perspectives and the importance of an integral politics that transcends and includes all of them.

John Danley Plays Acoustic Guitar

Here is a great fingerstyle acoustic guitarist named John Danley.

Career Choices and Concerns

After I posted my previous entry, someone wrote to me privately to say that it was difficult for him to fathom how a person who writes as well as I do could have the kinds of learning impediments I say I have. However, he went on to suggest that I may want to look for a different kind of job that is better at downplaying my non-verbal weaknesses and at tapping my verbal strengths. But I wonder what that job would be.

He recommended that I try writing for publication. I have to admit that my dream job would be to make a good living from writing. But that seems totally unrealistic. Look at Gagdad Bob. He's brilliant, erudite, and an amazing writer. Yet, to hear him tell it, he can scarcely give his remarkable book One Cosmos away even though it's been praised by reputable reviewers and discussed with him in What is Enlightenment? magazine. If he can't make a living off his writing, how can a far less intelligent, learned, and gifted writer such as myself hope to do so? How many people, no matter how talented they are, make a living writing philosophical or "spiritual" nonfiction or, for that matter, anything else?

No, I need to do something else for my livelihood, even if I can somehow find the time to write on the side. I've chosen medical coding as my career goal for three reasons. First, it's predominately verbal. It consists of analyzing the diagnoses and procedures that healthcare professionals perform with patients and the supplies and equipment they use in their rendering of services to those patients into their appropriate numerical or alphanumerical codes. For example, 43820 is the CPT code for a surgical procedure called a gastrojejunostomy. Coders need to know enough about medical terminology, anatomy and physiology, and the practice of medicine to find these codes quickly and to apply them accurately in the right order and form to any healthcare scenario.

My second reason for choosing medical coding is that I've had an interest in the medical field ever since I was a kid. Ben Casey, Dr. Kildare, Marcus Welby, Medical Center, and much later, St. Elsewhere, ER, and Chicago Hope have numbered among my favorite TV shows. I couldn't be a doctor when I was a boy, but fictional doctors from the small screen were my role models of intelligent and selfless service to humankind during my formative years. Maybe I can't be a doctor now, or a PA or nurse, but I can possibly have some involvement in the medical field by working with doctors and other healthcare professionals in a supporting clerical capacity.

Finally, I chose medical coding because it's a pretty solid job. The pay isn't stellar, but it's not too bad. And if you can work for a big healthcare system like U.C. Davis or Kaiser, you probably have about as good a job security as you could hope for.

However, it undoubtedly comes as no surprise to my handful of regular readers that I have acute concerns over whether I can succeed as a coder. I have several not insignificant factors working against me. First, I'm accurate in my coding, but I'm also very slow. In order to be hired for almost any coding job, one must pass an exam that requires speed as well as accuracy. Moreover, in order to be hired for the better, higher-paying coding jobs, one must pass a national certification exam where, once again, speed is essential. I don't know if I can ever get fast enough, no matter how much or long I practice. And even if I do, I don't know if I'll be fast enough on the job to carry the workload expected of me.

Second, there's my age and startlingly unimpressive background. If I were hiring coders, I probably wouldn't choose me from a pool of qualified applicants. Why would anyone else?

Finally, I don't know if I'll be able to learn the job. If I'm struggling helplessly to learn the system and my relatively simple duties in the file room, what chance do I have of learning the more complex computer and other operations required of a medical coder? Realistically speaking, I may have a better chance of becoming a bestselling author than I have of succeeding at a medical coding career, and the odds in favor of the former seem infinitesimal in their own right. Unless I can grow a new brain that works the way it's supposed to, that is. Or, perhaps, one of my dear readers would like to do a brain exchange with me. No, I'm not malevolent enough to inflict that inequity on anyone.

So, I really don't know what to do other than keep doing what I'm doing and working in the file room as long as they'll let me while studying on the side unless and until I'm able to get into coding. I'll be talking about that with my vocational rehabilitation counselor and a job coach later this week and with a neuroscientist next week. If I learn anything new, I'll probably be writing about it here. In the meantime, I'd like to thank the person who wrote to me privately and Night Stranger for their words of encouragement. And I'd like to wish a blissfully happy holiday season to all.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Naked Reflections on my Naked Reflections

My notion when I began this blog was to 'nakedly reflect' my experiences and ideas. But I have such a poor opinion of my capabilities and I experience so many negative emotions as a result that many of my entries have been bleak and despairing and have probably turned away most of what few readers I ever had. This might not be so bad if I were writing this blog only for myself, but I'm not. While I'm not trying hard to entice people to read it, it would be nice if people liked this blog enough to stop by and read it anyway. But why would they want to if they encounter one depressing entry after another crying about my learning disabilities and their emotional fallout?

On the other hand, my learning disabilities or cognitive impairments along with their psychological repercussions have had and continue to have an enormous impact on my life, and to what extent does a blog that ignores this 'nakedly reflect' me? And if it does so only very little if at all, why not change the name of this blog to something else and write about other things?

Perhaps I could keep my entries impersonally philosophical or "spiritual," or I could write about myself only when I have something "positive" or uplifting to say. I have long thought that it's cathartic and, therefore, good to bare the pains of the soul. Yet, I'm coming to wonder if this isn't like, to borrow an Easwaran simile, wearing an unwanted groove in a vinyl record by tracing the same path innumerable times with the phonograph needle.

I'm reminded of "gangsta rap" or whatever they call it these days, of how its revolting, at least to my ears, concoction of monstrous misogyny, mindless hedonism, brutal machismo, and reptilian sociopathy is often defended as an "honest reflection" of life in the "hood" and of my questioning how people can rise above such an awful life by wallowing in it like a pig in slime. I don't have the answer to that question or to the question of how I can rise above my crippling impairments, self-doubts, and sense of helpless hopelessness by nakedly reflecting them here. Maybe I can't. Maybe I need to take another path with any blog that I continue to write. Or maybe I at least need to be a little more moderate or sparing in "reflecting" negativity about myself. I don't know, but I'm trying to work it out.

In the meantime, below is a very 'naked reflection' of how I felt at work the other night. I wrote it during one of my breaks. Since then, I've had times when I felt better and times when I've felt even worse. Over all, I think it speaks for how I essentially feel about myself and my (and my wife's) future when I allow or force myself to take an unsparing look at myself and at what I truly believe about my prospects.

I'm into my fourth week of my new job, and I wonder how many weeks they'll keep me on until they decide that I just can't meet the demands of the position. Am I being unduly pessimistic? Perhaps. But I struggle every day to understand the blooming, buzzing confusion around me and my supervisors' and co-workers' explanations of it, and I fail dismally.

As for executing certain tasks expected of me in a reasonable period of time, forget about it. One of my co-workers takes only 20 minutes to accomplish what it takes me two hours to do. This is no exaggeration. I can certainly understand how his five years on the job would make him more efficient and quicker at his tasks. But six times faster at such a relatively simple task as filing medical charts back into the wall in their proper places? No matter how long I stay on the job and no matter how much I gain in experience, I don't know how I'll ever be able to perform that particular task significantly faster than I do already.

And that pretty much speaks for all of the tasks I perform and for how much slower I am at most of them than everyone else, including those who haven't been on the job much longer than I have. And I'm referring now to those rare, simple tasks where I know what I'm supposed to be doing. I feel like dead weight in my workplace, and it seems to be only a matter of time until I'm treated as such. Still, I keep doing my best, watching what and how others do, asking questions, and taking notes so that, if it's at all possible, I can do better and stay around longer.

Because if and when I lose this job, how long will it take me to get another? And if I can even get another, how long will I be able to keep it until I'm let go again? I really feel quite hopeless right now. I feel as though I may well be incapable of doing any job that pays enough to help sustain my wife and me beyond a poverty level requiring us to count literally every penny we spend and be consumed with constant financial worries and stress.

I sometimes wish I had never married my wife. Not because I don't love her but precisely because I love her so much that I don't want to see her stuck with a loser for the rest of our lives.

I know I may sound extremely depressed right now, but I'm not. At least not in the stereotypical sense of choking back tears, feeling suicidal, or anything of that kind. It may sound as though I'm being unduly harsh with myself and pessimistic about my future. I don't believe that I am. I believe that I see my future with all too realistic clarity. Of course, Buddha said something to the effect that we are the result of what we have thought, and thinking that I'm going to fail in life could well contribute to my failing. But in my case I think it's likely to contribute about as much as a drop of gasoline to a raging forest fire.

Yet, even if the contribution is bigger than that, what do I do about my pessimism, especially if its based on reality? See a therapist? Been there, done that. It cost me a veritable fortune and did little if any good of which I'm aware. See a different therapist. I don't know how I can afford it. Get a doctor to prescribe me an anti-depressant drug? Will that make me any less incapable of meeting the demands of job and life than I am now? Any less likely to fail? If not, why fool around with my brain chemistry and perhaps mess myself up even more than I am already?

Well, I do plan to meet soon with a neuroscientist from the local university. His specialty is the neural basis and psychological consequences of learning disabilities in children. Even though I'm well past childhood, at least in a chronological sense, I wrote to him about myself, and he immediately wrote back expressing an interest in seeing me and exploring with me some possible research (and, perhaps, clinical) options. I don't want to get my hopes up and have them squashed. After all, what can anybody really do to help me or to help me help myself even if they can pinpoint precisely the nature and location of my brain malfunction and the type and extent of my impairment? Yet, I need to have hope in something, and I don't seem to be able to find it anywhere else at the moment.

Well, my break is over. Time to get back to my snail's pace of work and rock-like incomprehension of what's going on around me.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Can YOU Beat the Chimp?

To Use or Not to Use a Handkerchief?

Dr. Dean Edell says that he's "disgusted" by people using hankies to blow their noses. Apparently he's not alone. The Japanese have a term for nasal mucous that translates into English as "nose poop," and one can well imagine how they feel about people nasally defecating into a cloth that they carry around in their pocket. But what I want to know is, What's a person with a runny nose to do? I wish we humans were never plagued by runny noses, but we are, especially during allergy season and when we have colds.

Some people carry tissues with them, but that can be pretty inconvenient when your nose is very runny and you don't have room for a big box of tissue or there's no wastebasket around. So, I often use a hankie, especially when I'm out and about. Yes, it's not the most sanitary thing in the world, and it's not very pleasing to the eye. But what's a viable alternative?

There But For the Grace of God...

I can't blog much or often anymore. Not that I was doing it anyway. But now there's almost no time for any posting. However, I don't want to stop completely. So, I'll do what I can when I can. I suspect that it will be mostly on the weekends and that I'll keep it mostly short and simple.

I don't know the whole story. I know only what I've heard from snippets on CNN. But apparently he was thrown out of the house at eighteen. He dropped out of high school. He had few friends. He felt like he didn't belong anywhere. He had just lost his girlfriend and his job and believed he was a worthless "piece of sh*t." He wanted to be somebody, to have his proverbial fifteen minutes of fame. So he got it and then some even though I doubt that he's now able to revel in it. He killed nine people including himself in an Omaha shopping mall earlier this week.

When I read about cases like this, I wonder what I would have done in his shoes. I felt pretty worthless and alienated too as a teenager and long after. In fact, I still do at times. But I had a few friends and a family that didn't throw me out of the house. Maybe my family should have been tougher on me that they were and pushed me to do and achieve more. But if they had pushed too hard, what might I have done? I don't think I would have gone into a shopping mall and killed myself and eight other people. But there were times when I felt not only awfully depressed but also very angry about the cold, cruel, fuc*ed up world.

How do I know, how do any of us know exactly what we would do if we were in someone else's shoes? I'm inclined to believe that we would do exactly what that young man did. That is, if we had the same body, brain, mind, and experience as that young man, we would have inevitably acted the same way he did in that mall on that dark day and achieved our own measure of infamy.

There but for the grace of "God" go any of us.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

The Freakish Robert Smith

"If there was one guy I'd want to watch it's Robert Smith. It's like watching John Daly rip a drive — it's fascinating. Robert Smith is like Marshall Holman on steroids. I love watching him bowl...he does things other people can't do."
--Marshall Holman

"Problem is, the nature of the current game doesn't allow Smith to be Smith for long. After a few games, sometimes even from the start of competition, the lane's oil breaks down under the power of the new equipment churning it up. This forces Smith to move first to the extreme inside part of the lane searching for fresh oil, then ultimately he begins lofting the ball way down the lane to avoid the dry early part of the lane. It is spectacular, but these moves ruin Smith's chance for consistency and sink his ship."
--USA Today

Now that I'm working full time and studying as much as I can, I've had to put my bowling on indefinite hold except for a very occasional practice session with my wife or a friend. However, I still regularly watch bowling on TV, as I have for over forty years, and last week I was thrilled to see one of my favorite bowlers of all time win his first championship in more than two years. That bowler was Robert Smith, and I guess the main reason I like him so much is because he can do freakish things with a bowling ball.

I don't exactly know why, but I'm very drawn to people with astounding physical or mental ability, whether it be in sports, intellectual or artistic endeavors, or music. Take guitar players, for instance. I am fascinated by guitarists with amazing technical skill such that they can play mind-bogglingly complex musical passages with blinding speed. Hopefully, they can also appeal to the mind and heart with their playing, but tremendous technique alone will grab hold of my attention. My two favorite guitarists, in large part because of their freakish technical skills, are John McLaughlin and Allan Holdsworth.

I guess one could say that Robert Smith is the bowling equivalent of an Allan Holdsworth. He's a freak. What makes him freakish is the amount of speed and revolutions--i.e., power--he's able to put on a bowling ball and do it with enough accuracy and control on challenging lane conditions to win PBA national tournaments. While the average professional bowler averages about 300 rpms with the balls they throw, Smith averages over 600, and does it with tremendous speed. In fact, I remember reading that he throws the ball with so much more power than other bowlers, amateur and professional alike, that he's the bowling equivalent of a baseball pitcher throwing a fastball around 140 mph while the other fastest pitchers are in the high 90's. Not only that, but when he has to do it because his ball is hooking too much, he will loft the ball way down the lane and still generate tremendous power with decent accuracy and consistency. For those who don't bowl, this may not mean very much. But if you bowl or know anything about bowling, you can't help but be impressed by this.

Anyway, after spending most of last year recuperating from a debilitating injury to a hip flexor muscle, he won a tournament on TV last week and did in in a way that only he could. Below are parts one and two of his victory match.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

My Reluctant Confession of Racial Prejudice

As I walked from my car to my workplace, a woman approached me. She was clearly in distress. She said she'd just learned that her mother had suffered a massive heart attack and was in the hospital somewhere, and could I help her with bus fare or any other way to get there. I'm new to my job. I didn't want to be late. I couldn't take her to her mom or even spend a lot of time questioning her about her situation and get to work on time. I could have quickly given her money. But I didn't trust her to be on the level.

A big reason why I didn't trust her was that she was black. I hate to admit it but have come to the conclusion that it's better to be upfront--at least in a blog boldly titled "Naked Reflections"-- than to hide or sugarcoat it: I'm prejudiced against black people as a group, which makes me suspicious of any particular black person if I see anything in that person's demeanor or behavior that reinforces this prejudice, such as manner of dress or speech.

Intellectually, I agree with Martin Luther King that we should judge people, to the extent that judging must be done, by the "content of their character" rather than by the color of their skin, but emotionally I tend to feel that a hugely disproportionate number of black people are of dubious character and trustworthiness. Not because the color of their skin or the genetics behind it makes them that way, but because a complex series of interacting social, cultural, psychological, and other factors have predisposed black people in this country to have poor character. Certainly, there are many black people of shining character and many others of at least no worse character than most of the rest of us, and I don't claim to have anything approaching unimpeachable character myself. But an awfully large percentage of black people in this country seem to me to be apathetic if not hostile toward improving themselves through education, and they also seem to be involved in crime, substance abuse, or other illegal and illicit behavior and to think that society owes them the right to continue indulging in this way of life.

I wrote that this was an "emotional" "feeling," but actually, as I read what I've just written, it seems to involve more than just the emotions. I am talking about my perception of reality and expressing it in a fairly rational manner, although a rational statement doesn't have to be a true one. I could construct a rational syllogism that says:

All dogs are cats,
Fido is a dog;
Therefore, Fido is a cat.

This syllogism or argument is rational or logical in the sense that if its premises were true, its conclusion would also have to be true. But it's ridiculously false in its first premise and; therefore, in its conclusion.

So, I wonder. Am I intellectually rationalizing, after the fact, an emotional feeling toward black people? And, if so, where does this feeling come from? Or does my feeling arise from experience and intellectual reflection of some kind upon my experience involving black people as a group? If so, is my conclusion or, at least, hypothesis that black people as a group are of dubious character true?

I wish I could say that it isn't. But, in my heart of hearts, I'm inclined to believe that it is, and I don't know what to do about it. I don't want to think what I do about black people as a group if I'm wrong or even if I'm right but have come to my belief without sufficient justification. Yet, first of all, how do I determine if my belief is true, and, second, how do I determine, in the absence of complete certainty, if I'm justified in thinking that it's probably true?

Anyway, I don't remember how this woman was dressed except that it seemed to be rather respectably, but I had the feeling that she might well be lying about her mom, and, given my prejudice toward black people, my determination to get to work on time, and my lack of faith in my ability to think quickly and effectively in situations requiring it, I more or less reflexively said, "I'm sorry, Mam, but I can't help you" and kept walking. As she walked on to approach someone else, I heard her say bitterly, "I'm sorry, Mam, but I can't help you, what is THAT?"

If that woman had been dressed the same way and acted the same way but had not been black, would I have given her money? I doubt it, but I think I might have been slightly more inclined to. The fact that she was asking for money in the way that she was and was black more or less sealed the deal. She did seem genuinely distressed. Her voice sounded desperate and her mouth had an odd contortion as she spoke, but I think I subconsciously made the snap judgment that she was more likely to be mentally ill than telling the truth about her mom and that her being black may have contributed to behaviors that plunged her into her current predicament and that my giving her money was not really going to benefit her but just further lighten my already uncomfortably light wallet.

Nevertheless, I felt guilty as I walked on. Had I done the right thing? Or could I have done better? What should I have done? In so many unexpected everyday situations, I don't know what to do and my mind just goes blank under the pressure of the moment, and I have little confidence in my ability to think on my feet and quickly figure it out. Even afterward, when I have the luxury of being able to take my time and reflect on what I should have done with no one watching me or waiting for my answer, I don't really know what I should have done. But that's another issue too large and complex to address at length here. I've already raised one issue that is more than sufficiently large and complex enough for one post. That issue is my prejudice toward black people.

I remember how I used to argue passionately against what I perceived as my grandfather's strong prejudice against black people. He would rail against the Black Panthers or the blacks rioting in Watts and say things like, "Most blacks are just no damned good," and I would angrily tell him that he's wrong, or I'd make fun of how he'd say that black people were bad except the ones and their families with whom he worked or bowled league. They were all nice people, but other blacks were bad apples. He'd reply that there were a few good apples in the barrel of mostly rotten ones, a few exceptions to the rule regarding black people. "You just keep your eyes open and wait," he declared. "You'll see that I'm right."

And now I see that I think all too much the way he did. I know black people, including my supervisor at work, whom I like a great deal and for whom I have nothing but deep admiration and respect. They're bright (far more so than I am) kind, decent, friendly, hard-working, and scrupulous. But, in my heart of hearts, I see them as "exceptions to the rule."

I'd like to overcome this way of thinking and feeling, because I want to believe that it isn't true, and that, in any case, expecting the worst of a group of people will do nothing to help them do their best. But I don't know how to overcome it except by, for starters, admitting my prejudices to the world and proceeding from there.