Friday, September 6, 2019

Hike for Hesed

In two weeks, I will be participating in the Hike for Hesed. This is a five mile walk to raise funds for Hesed House, the second largest homeless shelter in Illinois.

Why am I doing this? It all starts ten years ago with a man named Gordon.

It was a chance meeting in the food court of Chicago Union Station. I was in the city, killing time before meeting my adviser at DePaul University. While in the Metra station, I saw CPD hustle out two homeless men. 

“They do it to me, too,” someone to the right of me said.

He sat reading a discarded newspaper. He wore a 49ers sweatshirt that had seen the better of days. I saw weathered skin on his face, teeth a deep shade of yellow in his mouth, and detected the slightest scent which indicated an absence of soap and deodorant. We started talking. He told me his name was Gordon. In 2001, his wife contracted cancer. They found it harder and harder to cover the innumerable bills that came their way, despite their having insurance. They wiped out his 401k. They took out a second mortgage on their house. Then the other shoe dropped.

Gordon worked as a machinist at a Chicago factory. The CEO of the business decided he could make a greater profit if he moved the plant to Mexico. Gordon lost his job. He and his wife soon depleted their savings. She died. He lost the house. With no other family to speak of, Gordon went to the streets.

I never forgot that chance meeting. For the ten years since I have reflected on how we are all, in the end, subject to the capricious whims of chance. You never, ever know how someone came into their situation, whatever it is. I am certain there are those who would greet this account with counterclaims, such as, “He should have worked harder and saved more” or “Why didn’t he just get another job?” To those claims, I offer yet another question.

Would you say that to me?

If you are reading this, then chances are you know me, either informally through the ether of cyberspace, or as an intimate friend. You might even be an extended family member. My point being, seriously, would you say those things to me if I were homeless?

Because I easily could have been.

When Saint Josephs’ College closed in May of 2017, I lost my job. As my wife has serious health conditions, I was the sole provider for my family. I sent out hundreds of job applications and went on numerous interviews. I ended up getting two part-time jobs, which still did not come close to covering monthly costs of living. How did we make it?

Pure accident of birth. I am blessed and grateful beyond belief to have been born to parents with both the love and the means to help my family survive…and I do mean basic survival…for that year before I was again blessed and acquired a wonderful, full time faculty position. If not for my parents, my family would have been homeless. Every day I reflect on how few people have such a safety net. I also believe that to whom much is given, much is expected. 

Therefore, I must act.

There are unique pathologies within our society. One of them, I believe, stems from our pioneer times, times which disappeared well over 150 years ago. This thinking goes: “As long as you work hard, you will make it.” Another is a reductive equation which states wealth=virtue. If you don’t have money, then you must be poor in character and morality as well as finances. Thus, I concede the fact that someone out there would still have belittled me for my situation or worse, belittled someone like Gordon for his, with “You should have worked harder” or “it’s your problem.” I posit that those harboring such an ethos are susceptible to the many myths surrounding the human tragedy that is homelessness in America.

“Homeless people just don’t want to work, or if they just got a job, they’d be fine.”
A 2013 study from the Department of Housing and UrbanDevelopment found that 55% of homeless had worked in the previous year. Gordon had worked the year before I spoke to him. I worked in the first half of 2017. I then worked two part-time jobs, just as many housing insecure people do. A minimum wage worker needs to work between 69 and 174 hours a week in order to afford a two-bedroom rental.

“Fighting homelessness is too expensive.”
A study from the Central Florida Commission onHomelessness determined that subsidizing housing for people costs $10,000 per person, per year. If left homeless, then people can cause a strain on jails, law enforcement, hospitals, and other community services that amount to $31,000 per person, per year. If one cannot see assisting the homeless as a moral imperative, then perhaps one might yield to the logic of numbers and finance.

I am also struck by how many young people are homeless. Last March, a student confessed to me that they were living out of their car and were running out of cash for food. I connected this student with campus services in order to change that situation post haste. But this student was symptomatic of a larger and systemic plight. Yesterday’s Chicago Tribune reported that 16,000 public school students qualify as homeless. “I felt very embarrassed to tell people”, was a common comment from those students.
Nationwide, one may see the scope, namely a 70% increase, of homelessness among school-aged children in this chart:

Something must be done.

That is why I like the simply stated mission of Hesed House: “Because everyone deserves dignity.” Every human deserves the dignity of a roof, heating or cooling, and food in their stomach.
Consider the many victories won by Hesed House:

-Over 200,000 warm meals were served to people in need.
-80,766 Warm, safe nights of restful sleep were provided.
-120 children were served over the course of the past year.
-So many people who now have jobs and their own housing via Hesed House training and assistance programs.

You may read of more successes at this link.

So that is why I am participating in Hike for Hesed. Several of my fine colleagues at the college, along with a few of their family members, will be joining me. Our team name is “Waubonsee Walkers.” I assure you none of us are Walking Dead fans, but rather the name comes from my being unimaginative at the time of registration. Because we’re from Waubonsee and we’re…well…walking. If, however, you are a zombie fan and that motivates you to help, then by all means.

I ask that you please consider sponsoring my team in this walk by making a donation of whatever you can afford. In doing so, you will be helping so many people to change their lives. Yes, it is the moral thing to do, but it also just makes good sense.

Everyone deserves dignity.
Everyone deserves to feel like they matter.

I’m going to do what I can to help make that happen.

Thank you all so much and take care.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

RIP Stanton Friedman

Breaking my “blog fast” for what I consider to be another significant news item.

Stanton Friedman died on May 13th. I know it’s one month since then, but end of semester grading and seemingly endless amounts distractions at home have kept me from marking this sad passing on the blog. That is to my own shame and disappointment, but I hope to make up for it now.

Who was Stanton Friedman? He was someone who spent his life, in one manner or another, investigating. I once latched on to the conclusions of his investigations with a wholehearted embrace. Then I came to disagree with him. But I never once lost respect or admiration for him.
Friedman was a nuclear physicist who at one point worked on projects like nuclear-powered aircraft and rockets. He left all that behind in the early 1970s to pursue full-time his own research into alleged UFO cases, particularly Roswell. In undertaking what would end up becoming a lifetime endeavor, Friedman approached ufology, it seems to me anyway, in three ways. First, he wanted to lift what he called “the laughter curtain” from the subject, so that UFOs might be openly discussed without fear of ridicule. Second, if the taint of automatic ridicule could be removed, Friedman made the modest proposal that each case could then be fairly evaluated on its own merits or lack thereof. Third, inquiries into these cases should by conducted according to the scientific method (would you expect anything less from a physicist?)

All of this I saw in Friedman when he first came to my notice on a program about UFOs back in my teens. He was not a hippy-dippy New Ager sleeping in a crystal pyramid, and any certainly was not like any of the “Rockstar Ufologists” we have today, bringing us nothing but
"UFOtainment” on the History Channel. No. Friedman was scientist. He was level-headed, thoughtful, articulate, and while he did believe that extraterrestrial beings were visiting Earth, he believed they accounted for only a small percentage of UFO sightings while the remainder were mis-identifications and mundanity. He was, however, something of a conspiracy theorist. Often Friedman would use the phrase “cosmic Watergate” to describe what he believed to be the government’s concealment of alien contact. The first book of his that I read, Top Secret/MAJIC, was a deep dive into and a thoroughly-reasoned examination of this cover-up conducted by the shadowy figures known as “Majestic 12.” You can read my review of it here from wayyyyyyy back when I first started ESE. The book even included the infamous “SOM01-01” manual, an apparent field guide for covert operatives handling UFO crashes.

Since then I’ve read much that strongly suggests these documents leaked to Don Berliner, one of Friedman’s writing and research partners, were fakes. Friedman continued to hold to his argument that true UFOs are extraterrestrial in origin and they are in fact “nuts and bolts” spacecraft. As you dear readers know, I can’t accept that and I’ve only grown more and more skeptical of UFO claims. I am certainly not a believer in the so-called “Deep State” and many other conspiracy theories or that “disclosure” is on the way.

And despite my disagreements, I still held nothing but respect for Friedman. He was no “true believer” and would call out cases he thought were weak and people he thought were questionable (I’m thinking of his take on Bob Lazar.) He possessed a keen insight on the effect UFO phenomena was having on society and media, an effect that remains real and palpable regardless of the nature of the phenomena. More than anything, I think Friedman just wanted the truth. As the field (if you can call it that) of ufology grows more and more overrun by YouTubers, rock stars, and glitzy reality TV personalities, the more difficult it will be to arrive at that truth.

If there does happen to be any scrap of validity in UFO phenomena…and there just might be…it will take people like Stanton Friedman to find it. Sadly, he is gone.

And he will be missed.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Thursday, April 11, 2019

Our first look at a black hole

Image from the National Science Foundation.

So I said I would break my blogging sabbatical if something big happened.

Well, it has.

Yesterday, in a series of press conferences around the world, astronomers and other space scientists announced that we at last have an image of an actual black hole. The image was obtained by specifically linking together a series radio telescopes located around the Earth, an effort called Event Horizon Telescope (EHT). The black hole pictured is located in the M87 galaxy near the Virgo galaxy cluster, about 55 million light-years from Earth. As predicted by Einstein's general relativity theory, the picture depicts a dark, empty region in the center and a glow of superheated gas and matter being drawn in by the hole's immense gravity.

I honestly didn't think I would see this in my lifetime. When I heard last week that this news would be released, yesterday morning had a certain "Christmas morning" feeling to it.

There's something very human about this news. For a long while now, black holes were something astronomer's believed in, but never saw. Now when I say "believed in," I don't mean that in necessarily a "leap of faith" sense. The mathematics were there, the gravitational effects on nearby stars were there, but we just didn't have the means to see a black hole with our eyes. To see what we always sensed was there, to view it in the most tangible means available, answers so many questions for us. While at the same time, it raises just as many others. Ain't that existence, though?

Additionally, as we go through a time of what looks like great division, it's nice to remember that humans of many nations can still do great things when we work together. One motivation for such behavior is studying the universe...something that is certainly bigger than any of us or all of us put together.

So, yeah. I'm loving this.

By the by, if you're loving it too, then thank Dr. Katie Bouman for the discovery. Her keen mathematical alacrity came up with the algorithm that helped make the EHT possible. Let's hear it for more women in STEM making great contributions to humanity.

Sure wish Stephen Hawking had been here to see this picture. Well, I like to think he saw it before any of the rest of us did.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Friday, March 1, 2019

So my Ancestry DNA results are in...

Always living so close to Chicago, I would marvel at the wild revelries of Irish descendants on St. Patrick's Day. In the city one April, I stood in curious wonder at a parade celebrating Polish pride.

I say "marvel" and "wonder" because I've never had a really good sense of my ancestors' origins. Truth to tell, it never made that much difference in my family and for most of my life, I didn't see it as significant. I would look at the above mentioned groups of people and think, "I wonder what it's like to have such a large portion of your identity immersed in origins?" Marrying a woman who is half Greek only furthered this mixture of bewilderment and detached rumination.

Then last Christmas, my wife got me and her parents Ancestry DNA kits. For the uninitiated, it involves spitting into a vial which is then filled with a purple, preservative fluid. You mail off the tube, the folks at corporate process it, and then they send a full report to your Ancestry DNA app (or email, if that's more your speed.) Two weeks ago or so, I received my results, my "DNA story" as it were. My reaction to it was...unexpected.

Here's the breakdown:

-46% of me is from England, Wales, and Scotland.
-40% of me is from Ireland (specifically Connacht) and the western section of Scotland.
-12% of me is from "Germanic Europe".

Based on that DNA "map", the assessment painted a fairly accurate physical portrait of myself without ever having seen me. The report stated, and rightly so, that I have pale skin, blue eyes, and thick, wavy hair. The only part it was askance on was that my hair color was likely light, whereas it's actually a dark brown. Good news? I am unlikely to ever go bald. It also said that I like cilantro...which I do.

Now if you've done the math, you'll notice that 2% still remains in my DNA makeup. That remainder ended up being something of a shock to me.

-2% Viking.

Now anyone who knows me in real life would look at my slender hips, thin wrists, and ant-like arms and think, "Viking. Sure. First thing I think of." That is a point of view I can certainly understand. Just the same however, I have gotten a particular kick out of proclaiming...and I apologize...
"I'm a fucking VIKING!"

It's given me a sort of odd sense of confidence, even to get through normal, day-to-day challenges. Now that is, of course, purely psychological. I am not any different today than I was the day before I received the results. Yet I cannot help but reflect on that 86% of me that comes from the British Isles, particularly it would seem, Scotland.

Throughout my life, I've been an anglophile. Almost all of my favorite music, writers, and much of the film and television I enjoy come from the many cultures of those lands. In my youth I would see pictures of the English countryside, the Irish coast, and the Scottish Highlands and feel an odd sense of connection, like something was reaching out of the photo and yanking me back...home. Could there be something encoded at the DNA level, embedded deep in me somewhere, that instinctively brought about that connection? Then again, is it just because of what was popular during my "coming of age years"? Both, perhaps?

That Scottish aspect has me thinking...

One of my all-time favorite films is Braveheart. Not only do I own the DVD, if I happen to see it's playing on TV, I will stop and watch it no matter where it happens to be in the narrative.


Let me address two things:

1. I am aware of the derision Mel Gibson has received in recent years, and it is not undeserving. Since I like several of his films, I must now place him with others such as H.P. Lovecraft, Roman Polanski, and Bill Cosby: artists and entertainers who despite having said and done terrible things, I still can't help but enjoy their writing. My relationship with their texts is...problematic to say the least.

2. Were I to be teaching a class on medieval history, the only reason I would ever show Braveheart is so that students could pick out all of the historical inaccuracies. This is fraught with issues for a writer like me who takes the phrase "based on a true story" quite seriously, and that's even with the allowances one must accord an nonfiction writer. In summation, I'm never watching this film as a historical text. As for my views on literary nonfiction, in this case I'm afraid I must exercise my right to hypocritize myself.

That said, allow me to proceed...

Braveheart, even if ficitonalized, is the story of a man and a people who stood up and said "NO" to their oppressors. The clans of the Highlands said to tyrants, "You will take no more. You will grind us down no more. We will fight for our land. We will take back what is ours."

As it is with so much in recent years, I cannot help but think of my experience at Saint Joseph's College. I've even alluded to a few of these thoughts and feelings in last year's post, "Lost Causes."

So often during those final months at SJC, my head overruled my heart. Yes, believe it or not. I wanted to say more. I want to take bold and defiant action. Deep inside I wanted to paint half my face cardinal and the other half purple and lead my army of like-minded Pumas to take a stand and cry out "you will not take this from us!"

But I didn't. I was afraid of damaging my chances at getting another job. I was servile and obsequious to people I now have no respect for, fearing that if I did otherwise I might be dismissed on the spot and lose severance and a few months of remaining insurance.  I kept tergiversating, moving in a frenzied circle of wanting to act but then retreating. I kept thinking an action of the "manning the barricades" sort would surely result in making matters worse.

That was my brain talking. It was similar to the response from Sir Robert the Bruce's father when The Bruce described the leadership and passion of William Wallace.

"And you wish to rush off and fight with him?" the father responds with condescending laughter. "Uncompromising men are easy to admire. But it is the ability to compromise which makes a man great."

It reminds of responses I received to my own expressions of pain and anger in those awful spring months of 2017. "You're being emotional, not rational. Problem solve. Be positive."

How does one compromise on being treated with human dignity? How does one react to an injustice without emotion? At what point do you take the risk, against all reason if need be, and stand up to say "NO MORE." Sometimes the only reasonable choice is the unreasonable choice.

I keep reflecting on Wallace's famous, perhaps now somewhat trite, speech in the film:

“Aye, fight and you may die. Run and you’ll live — at least a while. And, dying in your beds many years from now, would you be willing to trade all the days from this day to that for one chance, just one chance, to come back here and tell our enemies that they may take our lives, but they’ll never take our freedom!! Alba gu bràth!”

Yes. What would I be willing to trade?

I know that I can't help but feel cowardly in retrospect. While I quietly worked to support a resistance, I still wish I would have done more. Much more. What did I learn from it? That may best be expressed by Sir Robert the Bruce in the film: "I will never be on the wrong side of anything ever again."

There may be no scientific evidence for this gut feeling, but I cannot help but feel a deep connection with the Scottish people represented in my DNA mosaic. I know the same can be said of many people and many cultures, but I am the biological product of humans who saw injustice, stood up, and spat back in the faces of their enemy. My physical and emotional reactions in the first half of 2017? They were pre-ordained. They were hard-coded into my biology via the experiences of my Scottish...and maybe even Viking...ancestors, and passed along as epigenetics. They never rolled over and took it. They fought.

Yes, would that I would have done more, but while linked to the past I can only control the now. That brings me to my big announcement.

You no doubt have noticed the decline in the frequency of posts from ESE. That has been due to my teaching five English composition classes, finishing coursework for my terminal degree, and giving my family much-needed attention. If I am to get this SJC book done, I am going to have to knuckle down and just write. After all that's what writers do. They write.

Therefore, we here at ESE have decided to "suspend operations" (heh! Get it?) in order to devote more attention to writing the book. I am not saying I won't pop in now and then for a post if a news development warrants know, aliens land or the Singularity happens...but I really must focus on writing.

So it's goodbye from ESE...for now.

I'm off to buy a Claymore.

Alba gu bràth.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

RIP Opportunity

Sad news from Mars today.

An announcement came from NASA. The Opportunity rover has officially been pronounced dead.

Last June, a sandstorm covered the planet Mars. It was thought that the dust covered the solar panels on Opportunity, causing it to power down. Once the storm subsided, Martian winds might blow the panels clean and the rover might once more respond to signals. Nearly 1,000 command signals were sent to Opportunity since last year. No reply ever came. After a last, longshot attempt went unanswered yesterday, NASA announced it was finally cutting off communication and pronounced the Opportunity mission "complete."

Opportunity first arrived on Mars in 2004. Since then, it has not only broadened our understanding of Mars immeasurably, its very engineering and the undertaking of the mission has granted humanity considerable experience with space exploration. Hopefully, we may parlay this experience into future endeavors and build upon it with more extensive Mars missions. And yet I feel uneasy...

I must admit, I'm feeling a bit sad for the inanimate rover. You see, for as dour as I can be about our future or the tendencies of human nature, I cannot ignore achievements such as Opportunity. The mission and the research gleaned from it stand as testament to what we can do when we work together as species, particularly when we have faith in reason, science, and a dash of imagination. As a writer, I tend to sometimes see things romantically, despite my penchant for bitterness. Opportunity represents the spirit of exploration and the acquisition of knowledge about not just another planet, but our universe. "What's over there? Let's find out."

Where else in our most immediate corner of the universe has inspired more wonder and attractancy than Mars?

Sure, would have been nice if it had come across definitive evidence of life, either past or present, on Mars. I for one was hoping Opportunity just might come across a rock that was a little more than a rock, and instead an artifact from a lost civilization. I can just hear the conspiracy theorists howling, but for the now...we have no such evidence. Instead, we have piles of data collected over 14 years, that scientists in various disciplines will be chewing over for a long while to come.

You have given us so much, Opportunity. We are forever in your debt. Rest easy, little soldier. Your job is done.

Now, a planet solely populated by robots must decrement its population by one.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Thursday, February 7, 2019

I am being haunted by Phil Collins

I play music before class.

Students who have had me before know that I take requests.

"I have a song," one of my guys said yesterday. "'In the Air Tonight' by Phil Collins.

After tossing my pen on the desk and rubbing the bridge of my nose, I played the song.

"Was there something else you wanted?" the student asked, taken aback by my reaction.

"No, no," I assured. "It's not that. It's not you. Let me explain my situation."

I am being haunted by Phil Collins.

It started just less than one year ago. After the collapse of Saint Joseph's College and the loss of my job in 2017, I had to get by with a few part time jobs. One of them was in the Writing Center of a local university. Students would bring in their writing assignments and I would help them either begin or revise drafts as best I could. In April, a student came to me with a dilemma.

She had a paper due for her Art Appreciation class. Page length was a hard maximum of four pages.

This student had close to eight.

Her subject? Phil Collins. Yes, this student was a superfan of the drummer, singer, solo artist, and member of Genesis. Well in order to meet the requirements of the prompt, something we professors are kinda big on, we needed to essentially cut her paper in half.

"How do we do that?" she asked.

"Well, we have to decide on what the most important moments of his life/career are and then ditch the rest," I said.

"Are you kidding me?" she asked, eyes bulging through her glasses. "It's all important."

We talked and wrote for over an hour after that. I argued for the significance of Phil's trans-Atlantic performance at the two Live Aid concerts. She lobbied hard for the inclusion of his starring role in the film, Buster. This was a discussion my grad work in composition/rhetoric did not prepare me for.

Nor was I prepared for what followed my shift in the Writing Center.

I began to hear Phil Collins everywhere. Turn on the radio and I'd hear "Two Hearts" or "Invisible Touch." "Take Me Home" came across the airwaves more than a few times and the lyrics truly resonated with me as I could not help but think of Saint Joe. Everywhere I went, I seemed to hear Phil Collins. I stopped into the vet's office and heard "Billy Don't Lose My Number," which I saw as a somewhat inspired choice by the universe as that's not really one of his go-to hits. Genesis' "Land of Confusion" even made an appearance once. Then came one Sunday when I finally had enough and began to think Phil was coming at me with full force.

On weekends, my wife and I enjoy listening to old Casey Kasem Top 40 countdowns on iHeartRadio. It reminds us of halcyon Sunday mornings of when we, albeit apart and unaware of one another, would listen to these countdowns, anxious to hear the number one song. Last spring, we came across one from May of 1984.

"Oh no, he's still following me," I said.

"Phil?" she asked, for I had told her of my experience.

"Yes," I said. "The number one song will be 'Against All Odds.'"

"How do you know?" she asked.

Sure enough it was. From that point forward, my wife dubbed my recurring quasi-paranormal experience as "The Philnomenon." I started to fall asleep reluctantly, afraid I would jolt awake and just see Phil hovering there next to me in the dark.

There is a concept known as "synchronicity." No, not the album by The Police.

Carl Jung, the famous scholar and psychologist, once described the phenomenon as "meaningful coincidences that occur with no causal relationship, yet seem to be meaningfully related." So in a way, like attracts like. So in theory, I spent so much time thinking about Phil Collins one night that I basically drew his music to me. Jung saw this as an explanation for the paranormal, meaning the human mind manifests these odd occurrences. What we are seeing in these sightings are reflections of what we are thinking, even if subconsciously.

Richard Dawkins blows all that up in his book, Unbending the Rainbow. According to Dawkins, these "uncanny coincidences" are woefully mundane, given the sheer amount of observations and encounters someone has during a day. It's only a matter of time before at least a few coincidences happen. Given that humans have this, at times garish, need for wonder, we attach more meaning and significance to these events than is warranted.

For example, it may be that I attach extra significance to any moment I hear a Phil Collins hit (and believe me, he had a lot of them) because he's just a bit outside of my musical wheelhouse. If I hear Duran Duran, U2, The Cure, or Echo and the Bunnymen multiple times in a day between radio and Spotify, that says far more about my tastes than anything synchronous. Then again, as I said, Phil isn't a musician I've listened to with any real frequency, so in that regard it is a bit strange. I'm with Richard Dawkins on many things, but certainly not everything.

What do I think? Is Phil Collins really haunting me? Probably not.

And yet...

And yet...

I have to admit it's weird. Plus, there were, right around the same time as the dawning of the Philnomenon, a good many changes that manifested in my life and every one of them was for the better. I got an amazing new job at a great college with fantastic co-workers. Home life became happier. Was the Philnomenon a side effect or perhaps a symptom of these roborant vibes? Maybe.

The whole thing has also made me consider just what the criteria in order to call oneself a "fan" of an artist. There are songs by Phil Collins that I think are great ("Take Me Home", "Another Day in Paradise", "Against All Odds") and others that I think all right if you're in the mood ("That's All!", "Sussudio"). Does that make me a "fan"? As I said, there are songs I certainly like, but what's the minimum count of "liked" songs before you reach the official level of "fan"? Then again, does the true definition hearken back to that of "fanatic," of which "fan" is a shortened version? I don't know much Phil Collins trivia, so that probably counts me out as a fanatic. I sure as heck couldn't write eight whole pages on him. Not with doing research on him.

It's not so bad being haunted by Phil Collins. Kind of a happy feeling, really. To commemorate the Philnomenon, my wife got me the shirt that's at the top of this post. It's pretty great, but I rather like this one, you'll excuse the profanity. 


Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets