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While We Still Have Time

In spite of the grimness of the times in which we live, there is still hope. If you feel, like I do, that the usual discourse about matters of critical concern tends to be superficial, misguided, and false, then you might find some solace and inspiration here. I will try to offer insight and a holistic perspective on events and issues, and hopefully serve as a catalyst for raising the level of dialogue on this planet.

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Location: Madison, Wisconsin, United States

I was born in 1945, shortly before atom bombs were dropped on Japan. I served in the U.S. Army from 1968 to 1971. I earned master's degrees in Economics and Educational Psychology, and certificates in Web Page Design and as a Teacher of English as a Second Language. I followed an Indian guru for eight years, which immersed me in meditative practices and an attitude of reaching a higher level of being. A blog post listing the meditative practices I have pursued can be seen here.

Friday, February 15, 2008

The fragmented society

When I heard about the killings at Northern Illinois University I was driving to work. A snowstorm was just starting, and there were already cars sliding off the road onto the medians and shoulders. On the way home that night there was a car upside-down in the median, with two police cars attending to the situation, and an ambulance coming from the opposite direction.

It was a strange juxtaposition of events. The precariousness of life was more apparent for me that day, because Northern Illinois University is one of my alma maters. I earned a master's degree in Educational Psychology there in 1989. I felt a grieving for the victims that was similar to losing a friend.

In addition to grief, I also felt a revulsion for the entire context of the incident. Northern Illinois University is a pretty good school academically, with one of the top schools of education in the country. The school of music is renowned, attracting top students from all over the world. The art department also has a national reputation, and the school of business is top-notch. It even has a highly regarded dance department.

In spite of the quality of the university, I hated the place. DeKalb is a little rathole of a town, and the NIU campus has to be one of the ugliest, if not the ugliest campus in the country. The layout of the buildings on campus can best be described as Soviet. No coordination whatsoever, with buildings facing every which way, a conglomeration of architectural styles that begins with the old campus on the east end, descending to greater degrees of ugliness as the campus grew to the west. A crescendo of sorts is reached at the extreme west end of the campus, with several high-rise dormitories that from a distance look like nuclear plant cooling towers. Feng Shui, the Chinese art of design and space, would have been a helpful consideration, but is conspicuously absent.

The hodgepodge of buildings is likely due to the politics of higher education in Illinois. University officials, as part of their perceived duty to make the school grow, lobby legislators to allocate funds for new buildings. Architects and designers are hired, not necessarily on a merit basis, and the buildings are built, crammed into whatever space deemed usable.

Adding to the depressive character of the campus, the school's colors are red and black, a combination usually associated with demonic forces.

Me impersonating an Economics professor, May 1973. One of my teachers hired me, sort of, to “be” him at the graduation ceremony. The guy was about five foot two, and the gown came up to my knees. It was pretty obvious I was not a professor, and the school officials on the stage were steaming mad. It was great fun.One of my other alma maters, Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, has a beautiful campus, sprawling over 1133 acres, with a woods and small lake providing a balance to the man-made structures. The reason for the difference, I believe, is because of the vision of its longtime president, Delyte W. Morris. Morris was legendary for bringing state elected officials to the campus, and pulling various ruses to convince them to appropriate more money to SIU. The most notorious method was to require students to take night classes at old World War II barracks that were built for pilot training. He then would bring legislators in, telling them that the lack of classroom space was so dire that students had to take night classes in the barracks. Morris was fired in 1969 as a result of his connection to the Paul Powell scandal, but his legacy lives on, and he is credited for making the university what it is today.

Not long after Morris left, a building rivaling the ugliness of NIU was built, stuffed into an area that was formerly a parking lot, and part of the campus woods was removed.

Though I don't have the fondest memories of Carbondale either, I don't look back at the university with revulsion, as I do with Northern Illinois. I can't help wondering what influence the ugliness of the campus had on Steven Kazmierczak, the former student who shot twenty one people, killing five of them before killing himself. Cole Hall, where the shootings took place, is in the ugliest area of the main campus.

Kazmierczak was no longer residing in DeKalb, living in Champaign with his sister and supposedly taking classes at the University of Illinois. He didn't see fit to do his killing a the U of I, but instead traveled to DeKalb, a 144 mile journey.

Whatever was going on in the mind of Steven Kazmierczak, a couple of things seem obvious. One is that it shouldn't be so easy to buy a gun whenever you get a notion to kill someone. The supposed innate "right" to bear arms is a contextual right, amended to the Constitution at a time when an armed citizenry was deemed necessary for the common defense. The fanatics who demand unlimited access to weaponry of all kinds are mentally and emotionally disturbed individuals with neurotic needs in the realms of "manhood" and safety. I wrote about gun-nuttery last April after the Virginia Tech shootings, and the same ideas apply to this shooting.

In the same post I also wrote about the phenomenon of mental illness and alienation in a mass society. Repeatedly in the last few days I have read about how no one had a clue that Steven Kazmierczak would do such a thing. Well, the clues were there, but no one could "connect the dots." In a tribal society, an individual who behaves strangely would be noticed, and, depending on the tribe, would be dealt with in one way or another, varying from healing to punishment and/or removal. In a truly integrative society, alienation would be unlikely, and treated holistically when it occurs - as a community concern, where the well-being of everyone is vital.

Of course, in an integrative, holistic society a campus as ugly as the one in DeKalb would never have been built.
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It's hard to think of an appropriate song, but this one comes pretty close.

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