The Art of Reflection

Reflection: Such an important part of the human experience. I believe it is through the process of reflecting back on our lives, seeing what we have done, that works to help propel us forward and see what is coming ahead.

This is why near the end of each semester I ask my students to reflect back over the course of the previous months and provide me with the “Top Ten” things they have learned during that period.  These “Top Ten” items can be a theory, a concept, a particular course discussion, interactions, literally anything they may have learned and found helpful, beneficial, important or just interesting…anything at all.  Most students do not really have ten such items (can you remember even two things you learned in a particular course? Didn’t think so) yet most have a least a few legit experiences that academically wooed them in some fashion.

So now, as I near the end of my semester abroad in London, I am challenging myself with this same type of reflection.  My “Top Five,” as it were. With journeys to Spain and Italy still ahead, I’m certain there will be more experiences to be reflected upon. Yet in the nearly 3 months I have been here I have learned a few things, from the humorous and the mundane to the more serious and personal.

First off…

5.  I like to have ample water at the base of my loo. I know this sounds odd but everywhere I travel in Europe the toilets have about a cupful of water at the bottom of the john.  I really cannot explain why, but I appreciate a good water barrier between my “contents” take off and landing.  In the US we have a couple of buckets worth of water making for smooth, enjoyable, delightful and rather peaceful loo experiences.  Ahhhh, the little things we take for granted. While taking a walking “loo” tour of London (it was my daughter’s boyfriends idea…I swear) I explained my loo preferences to our guide when she stated that one can tell a great deal about a culture by their toilets. Without going into detail, in America everything is bigger and more mellow, as the contents can buoyantly rest within the large and luxurious serene water currents. Hmmmmm….something to think about.  Think that’s bad? You should of heard her take on German toilets.

4.  No matter how non-judgmental and accepting we may think we are of other people and cultures, traveling reveals our prejudices and bias.  I am coming to terms with the understanding that I have this self-perceived notion that I am a very accepting person, who does not stereotype or judge others customs and practices, to be highly untrue. It is as if traveling holds up a mirror that we must see our true reflection. I am as guilty of “bias confirmation” as anyone, meaning we tend to see life they way we prefer to see it, not how it really is. We pay attention to only those select experiences that confirm our prejudices.  If my stereotype of Europeans is to be rude, my biased perception will only pick up on rude acts while filtering out acts of kindness -as these do not coincide with, nor confirm, my bias. Traveling helps us to see life, including our self, as it really is, not how we prefer to see it.

3. Britain is our parent while the United States is its rather immature adolescent child. What do I mean by this? Britain is so much more mature than we are, period. I suppose if you look back into history this makes sense. We were the teenage kid who rebelled and ran away from home.  Yes, we struggled to gain independence and get our feet on the ground -and we are doing quite well for ourselves about now, but make no mistake: Britain remains our more mature and wiser parents.  Brits can drink openly in the parks here and no one gets too drunk, acts belligerent and wants to fight outside.  Most of their street police officers do not carry guns. I also think of Britain as remarkably more secular as they have come to find out what America is only beginning to find out: You do not need the fear of punishment nor the promise of reward to be kind, decent, and civil with each other. They are polite, respectful and appropriate –the way my grandmother used to be –well, not really, but you get the point. They have matured. They have figured things out.  We are adolescents with zits on our face by comparison. One day we can only hope to be as grown up and grounded. One of my favorite comedians, Adam Carolla, frequently asks the question concerning the British, “Why are they so much better than us?” Maturity, Adam, maturity.

2. There is no doubt my calling in life is to be a college educator.  I feel as though when I teach I am completely and totally myself. Now perhaps some of my students may disagree with me on this, and believe my calling should be a prison guard or something far worse, yet I just love what I do. Having now had the opportunity to really bond with these young people as they are thousands of miles from home, is an experience like no other. They are old enough to be treated like adults, yet young enough (most of them) that they are still trying to make sense of the world around them. Like a child touching a hot stove, they are experimenting with what they can and cannot do, finding their limits, their boundaries and themselves. They are open and accepting of new ideas- I love that!  An old friend of mine, Craig, a Florida State graduate, once told me that the biggest thing he learned in college was how to drink correctly -and we was not joking- to learn that there is a time and place for everything, how much you can handle and so on.  This is not to say everything is professorial flowers and fairy dust…not by a long shot. This has been one of the most difficult semesters I have ever taught and I am as ready for this semester to be over as any of my students. It is just the good so outweighs any bad, leading me to….

1. I do not know how to grow old. Well, I do know how to grow old year wise -I am doing a splendid job with that, thank you.  I guess I mean more like acting old, or even older. I have always had this notion that as you age certain “things” must follow.  Things like you must dress differently, as in wearing your pants somewhat higher over the belly. Or that you must hate the contemporary music that the kids like. You must be disgusted with new fads and youthful practices as you gain an overall more discriminating and mature palate in life for the finer things.  You should be content with simply smoking your pipe (tobacco, of course) while reading the New Yorker in your living room chair on a Saturday Night. Nope. Does not work for me. My calling to teach college is due to the fact I really love being around young people. I have a lot of friends my age, who are great and I must confess it is quite nice to be able to use the full range of my vocabulary, but the exuberance and energy of youth is electrifying and cannot be compared. A student, Jessica, recently wrote me and said, “I learned this semester that a professor can be genuinely cool.” And the great part is I am just being me. I don’t care about cool. I believe all people are cool when they are completely themselves, no matter the personality or traits.

A couple of years ago another student, Patricia, who observed me at an end-of-class get together at Johnny’s Tacos interacting with students, asked, “So, tell me the truth. As you interact with these guys is that really you or are you just bro-ing it down?”

I had never heard the term “bro-ing it down” before but I knew exactly what she meant.

I was not “bro-ing it down.” That was me.

And as I soon head back for the States, I will continue to reflect on life and all that I learn from it.  From loo’s to life’s calling to “bro-ing it down,” this thing called life can  be such a kickass adventure.

Reflection. Just do it.





  1. Warning: This may qualify as point/counter point. On the other hand, I may have taken it somewhere else through projection. But I THINK you and I may be talking about the same thing/s. Bottom line: I don’t get to write much these days so apparently ( without planning to do so ) your wall has become my journal:

    Great article! Yes, I have often said that Britain is our parent. That’s why every last reality show has a British judge- to slap us on the wrist or ‘spank’ us with their superior cadence and wit. But regarding ‘recapitulation theory’ 🙂 I’m not so sure. In my early 20’s during my first trip to Europe, I was well-embroiled in the mindset of questioning everything I’d taken for granted; this included bashing institutionalized religion and revisionist history and seeing the cracks in the facade of the American dream. I was quick to interpret the complete irrelevance of institutionalized religion in Europe as more progressive than our clinging to ( or reversion to ) our protestant roots. Americans were up-in-arms about Monica and Bill, and what deposit may or may not have been left on an intern’s dress, while the French had no category for our outrage. They didn’t understand it; he discovery of an affair is just a rite of passage to the French; one is ‘abyme” when ( not if ) it happens. The term is institutionalized. Are they jaded? Are we immature in our shock and idealism? Or are we just idealistic? When I first visited Paris in the early 90’s I saw a billboard for a radio station featuring a closeup of two men nose-to-nose, arms draped about one anothers’ shoulders, staring into one anothers’ eyes inches apart. I’d never seen anything like it in public in the states. It was not for a ‘gay’ radio station- just a radio station. I read this as progressive. Why then, when I got to Rome, were all the gay bars ‘underground?’ In West Hollywood and Chelsea and the Castro they are loud and proud and visible to the street. But in Rome finding one is the equivalent to rooting out a coup in an occupied country, involving pass codes and secret handshakes. And there are no friendly neighborhood gay bars where one can meet a buddy for happy hour and chat. Instead, while catching up one must try to finish his sentences while tuning out the fisting video about his buddy’s head. This is not progress; this is oppression. I’ve slowly come to believe that all the same cultural ills exist everywhere and simply look different depen ding on cultural context. Take segregation or discrimination- its appearance is quite different even between L.A. and Washington D.C. I’ve noticed. And it’s hard to recognize sometimes in its many forms. Racism is rampant in Europe, as in nationalism. Perhaps, if we are the adolescent offspring, we as a culture were doing what young adults do- sifting through, identifying, digging in the dirt, putting under a microscope and diagnosing and labeling- in our talk shows ( like Oprah, Donahue, Geraldo Rivera, Jenny Jones ) and in pop culture psychobabble. In the self-help and ‘new age’ sections of our bookstores. To me it now seemed we were indeed adolescent in this pursuit and that there was a more mature ‘acceptance’ of life in all its imperfection in Europe. Though surely there are plenty of alcoholics in Ireland and roaming the pubs of the U.K., we are the ones to label it a disease and forge a monopoly on ‘rehab’ as a cottage industry. Anyway, I personally have come full-circle to think we have a good thing going on here-that we are in fact cutting-edge in some ways. And I am gently suggesting that when Europeans are surprised and disillusioned by our ‘backwards’ conservative faction and the religious right, and the prevalence of racism that still persists, etc. etc., that similar phenomena exist everywhere, but it is more shocking to discover in Amerka because it conflicts with the fantasy of Amerka. The Amerkan Dream. The melting pot. The Land of Opportunity. Now…SALUTE!

  2. I honestly thought you were cool, period. Of course, it could’ve been the surfer look when we first met.
    When you told us your age, I admit, I was kind of blown away because you totally acted like a young kid. So good on you for doing whatever you want.

    By the way, German toilets are just like French ones. Just saying.

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