Sunday, November 30, 2014

I Dunno

Are you smarter than you think?

Every day on the Internet, I receive advice. Some of it comes in the form of thinly disguised ads telling me how to get rid of my pot belly in 30 seconds, or the secret food of the ancients that will make me immune to all forms of illness. In fact, I am told quite a lot about what I should eat. Once in a single day I received a post that said I should drink only raw cow’s milk, another post that said I should drink only soymilk, and a third post that said soy was bad for me, and I should drink only almond milk. I have been told obesity kills, and that obese people live longer. Fat, carbs, calories, protein, starches, greens or yellows turn out to be good or bad according to some new study.

There are other kinds of advice I read each day as well: I should only care what a few people think. I should only care what I think. I should not think at all, but let my heart guide me. I should succeed. I should not worry about success. I should be happy. Even if I am unhappy I should be happy. Other posts—which I frankly am more likely to appreciate at this stage of my life—give me license to screw up and be imperfect. I squandered my youth on self-flagellation, trying and of course failing to be “perfect,” whatever that was supposed to mean. Now in my autumn years I am learning simply how to be human. Like many supposedly smart people, I am a slow learner.

All my advice posts come from kind people sharing something to help others. Thank you, Internet friends, for seeing me through rough times. But collectively these posts suggest that we need an awful lot of encouragement, and are so uncertain about life we welcome any little bit of wisdom that gets us through another day.

Many people still remember Grace Kelly, the beautiful and iconic Oscar-winning actress who went on to become Princess Grace of Monaco. Thousands of words were spent calling her a real-life Cinderella, the princess who lived in a pink castle by the sea. A charmed life? Well, maybe in some ways. Yet when Barbara Walters asked her if she was happy, she paused and only allowed that she had a certain peace of mind, or words to that effect. Her answer was qualified; she did not give a simple “yes” to happiness.

The so-called fairy tale princess does not live happily ever after. Neither, it would seem, do you or I. When someone pisses us off, lo and behold we get angry. Sad news makes us sad. Yes, worrying solves nothing, yet no matter how much we say this to ourselves we worry anyway. Our ability to change moods appropriate to the circumstance before us means we are human. It was naïve (to use a polite word for it) to think that through willpower I could alter my DNA. Somehow, self-loathing is separated by the thinnest of lines from self-aggrandizement.

When I was younger, whenever I was happy I thought I’d never be unhappy again. I thought I would and could reach a point where nothing threatened my ironclad happiness. And “ironclad” my idea of happiness certainly was. How glad I am now that I did not become that person! Who wants to be made of iron except Iron Man? (When I was unhappy I likewise thought I’d never feel happy again, but that’s a story for another day.)

It is no accident that there were no self-help books or shrinks until fairly recently in human history. We are the offspring of the times we live in. And many of the assets of today's world also are liabilities:

°Uncertainty: There are so many ideas floating around (and even more because of the Internet) that it gets harder and harder to know what to believe, or even who we want to be when we grow up.

°Impatience: Although our complex social world confuses us, we are supposed to solve our problems instantly. We have Instant food and instant texting, so why not instant happiness? Ever get mad at your “slow” computer for taking 20 seconds to upload?

°Medicine: You may wonder what this word is doing here. Medicine is a good thing, right? But we live in what’s been called a medicalized society. This means that anything we do not like about ourselves or others can be viewed as a condition that can be cured. This in turn implies that self- perfection is possible.

“Life” does not occur merely in the abstract—it is shaped by the surroundings in which it is lived. At times we get frustrated when the answers we are seeking elude us. Yet even believing that radical change is possible is a luxury in terms of human history—or for that matter the world today. Certainly there are a great many disadvantaged people in our society, but globally speaking ours is a fat nation. For example, we use up to one-fourth of the world’s total energy resources, yet we make up far less than one-fourth of the world’s total population—about one-half of one percent, to be exact. How’s that for affluent?

Affluence compels us to ask questions of ourselves that people in other times and places generally did not or do not have the surplus energy—or the need—to ask. And we have the technology at our fingertips to ask away.

I haven’t even mentioned the range of political posts I receive on the internet. Apparently many of us derive a sense of security from believing we know exactly how to fix everything in our country and in our world. God bless freedom of speech. But are the complexities of collective human endeavor as easy to fix as we often like to think they are?

We think that if So-and-So is elected, there will be peace, economic stability, or whatever you think we need the most. Yet in a way, such thinking reflects the uncertainty, impatience and medical model we apply to ourselves. We assume our nation can be fixed, and that we know what being fixed will look like. In effect, we impatiently await the invention of the giant pill that makes everything right in all ways on all levels.

Believing in instant answers where Homo sapiens are concerned is a bit like instant other things: instant coffee, instant pudding, instant mashed potatoes. Don’t you prefer the real thing? And we already have it. They call it life. The recipe is ongoing, both learned and invented as we go along.

As I get older, I am more inclined to agree with Socrates, who said, "I know that I am intelligent, because I know that I know nothing."

Sunday, November 23, 2014

The Red Light Bulb

Beauty may be staring you in the face

I come from a poor family. Not poor by global standards, or even by the standards of some people in the U.S. But for a white kid coming of age in the U.S. in the latter part of the 20th Century, I was poor. Years later as a social scientist, I learned about relative deprivation, which means that given your expectations based on others in your environment, you can be relatively poor.

While other kids in school lived in entire houses and had their own bedrooms, I lived with my family in a series of overcrowded apartments that always needed more repairs than they were given. Looking back, many of the arguments and strained relationships we had might never have happened if we simply had a less claustrophobic living space. 

I did not get an allowance, and Christmas gifts were often relatively few in number and practical. Things that were everyday items for other kids were special treats for me. I only had one birthday party while growing up.  Instead, a birthday meant something like going out for a hamburger. Money given to me by visiting relatives was always put in the bank, though at one point a grownup withdrew money from my small savings account to pay the bills.

I had one pair of shoes. Most of my clothes were hand-me-downs and slightly out of style. I had only one Halloween costume, inherited from my older brother and worn by me each year until it was too small. We listened to the radio rather than buy 49 cent 45s. For overnight trips, we used shopping bags to carry our things instead of suitcases. Public transportation was often the “preferred” mode of travel. 

My ongoing request for a goldfish was denied. At the gullible age of four or five, I was told that a fly in the kitchen was my pet. I thought I’d never hear the end of it when they spent ten dollars on clarinet lessons that I ended up quitting. "Money down the drain," they sadly called it.

Going to the movies was an unusual treat that only happened a couple of times a year, and never involved the whole family. In the summer, the only traveling was to the homes of other relatives. Maybe once every few years we’d go to an amusement park for the afternoon. The women in my family can be seen in photos wearing the same “best” dress to any number of occasions over time. A major social event was the wedding of a cousin, for which my aunt excitedly sewed the dresses for herself and her sister.

When I was growing up, my mother—and later my aunt—always worked outside the home. Unlike the other (white) kids, there was no mom in the kitchen with cookies and milk when I came home from school. The hard-working women in my family were plainspoken, did not employ so-called feminine whiles to get their way, and did not defer to men without a fight. Instead they simply said what they wanted, and didn’t take crap from anyone.

My family was also extremely self-conscious about its relative poverty. I was not allowed to have an after-school job because the neighbors would think we were poor. I also was not allowed to eat at friends’ houses for the same reason (though I regularly broke this rule and never told my family). When a friend’s parents wanted to take me with them to the movies, I was told I had to come home, because I should not “impose” on these other people. Once in the summer I went outside barefoot, and was yelled at because what would the neighbors think?

Yet while they often said they did not want people to think they were poor, my elders never actually owned up to being poor. They never said they couldn’t afford something. In fact, they said nasty things about people who did act “poor”—people who used margarine, bought dark meat tuna, or had what my family considered to be poor taste in clothing and furniture. When, at around age 12, I complained we always had meat loaf and never steak, I was told meat loaf was much more interesting than boring old steak.

I knew I didn’t have as much as other kids, yet my family often was much more snobbish than these other households. The result was that I, like numerous other family members of my generation, spent a lifetime never quite understanding what money was, and unable to figure out if I liked it or hated it.

But there was something good in growing up poor without quite knowing it. I often didn’t know the difference between what signaled the absence or presence of wealth, so I never was in awe of the affluent people whom I occasionally happened upon. I never believed having more money should give you more license in how you treated others.

I also never thought that beauty could only be found in mansions. In my teen years out west, I discovered the beauty of the natural world. But even before then I found beauty in mean factory towns. Until the age of six, we lived in a typically overcrowded walk-up flat that faced a dirt backyard. Hearing the neighbors above and below us became a standard aspect of my life. As an adult I’ve felt insecure when where I was living was too quiet—when I did not hear some reassuring sounds during the day coming from neighbors through the wall.

At night, across the dirt backyard, there was a window in another flat that always had a red light bulb turned on. I used to look at that red light and think it was the most beautiful thing I ever saw. Over the years when I’ve needed to calm down or cheer myself up, I have often recalled that simple red light bulb in the dark. In  a way that is difficult to explain, it has been the seed of much of what I write about in novels and poems.

We later moved to another apartment in a different factory town, and for whatever reason I (and other people) enjoyed looking out the entryway window. It faced the modest house next door, and across the street was a billboard—nothing much to look at, I suppose, yet somehow it lent itself to daydreams.

One of my all time favorite quotes comes from Chekhov: “Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” Many people probably cannot see how broken glass reflecting light at night can be beautiful. But I used to love to walk to the sooty, abandoned railroad tracks and see just that. I am glad and proud that going hungry and doing without informed my youth. I am pleased to find beauty in broken glass. 

Of course, looking up at the moon itself doesn’t cost anything. But anyone can do that. 

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Miss America and Me

A matter of semantics

When I was a little kid, my family always watched Miss America. We tended to be introverts, and on top of that we were poor. So we never all went to the movies, or even ate out often. I looked forward to annual TV events that briefly brought the whole family together. But little did any of us realize that one year the pageant would be a life-changing moment for me.

It was the Q & A segment, in which the top contenders for the crown had to prove to the judges that they were not just another swimsuit in high heels. This particular year, instead of being asked about achieving world peace, each finalist had to pick a word from a glittery board. As I recall, the words were lofty personality traits like dedication or intelligence. Each young woman would select a word and explain why this was a quality she thought was important to possess.

They were making rather predictably uplifting choices when a relative of mine said, “Whoever picks humiliation will win.”  This seemed odd to me. Wasn’t humiliation a bad thing? Who wanted to be humiliated? It made you feel sad and picked on. It even made you cry.

Well, one of the finalists picked humiliation, and sure enough, she won. It puzzled me so that I kept thinking about it— as in, thinking about it for the rest of my life. How could humiliation be good for you?

Working from the assumption that it was—after all, she won, didn’t she?—I came up with quite an assortment of ideas. Humiliation kept you humble. It made you more sensitive to others. It was a necessary pain, a rite of passage into adulthood. Until you experienced humiliation, I decided, you could not truly grow as a person. There was no fire in the belly without it. The soul thrived on the exquisite beauty of suffering. Look at Dostoyevsky. Look at Dickinson or Van Gogh. Look at Miss America.

Thus, I did little if anything to protect myself from humiliation. When ridiculed in front of the class, I sucked it right up. I was reminded of my inadequacies countless times by family, bosses and people who saw me as some form of competition. I never defended myself. With each stinging wound, some inner part of me decided I was becoming a better person. Stronger and more empathetic. Closer to God, if you will. The way to grow was to be cut down to size.

Not surprisingly, I was attracted to outspoken people and group environments that were highly critical. I did not have to look far: my own family was so bitchy it should have been a puppy farm. But with some exceptions I sought out those who were bound to find me lacking. I thought everyone in the world knew more than I did and had every right to tear me apart. When people were kind, I’d test them, acting out my many faults so that eventually they’d drop me.

When I saw other people somehow making progress in life without being constantly hurt and humiliated, I alternated between jealousy and pity. I thought they had no right to be successful without suffering enough, but I also believed they were missing out. In the larger scheme of things, I was the lucky one.

Decades went by.

Not long ago, I happened upon the notorious Miss America clip for the first time since I was little. It turned out that the winning word was not “humiliation” (shame, mortification, loss of dignity) but “humility” (modesty, humbleness, unpretentiousness). I heard it or remembered it wrong for most of my life. Was it just childhood word confusion, or was my self-esteem already so precarious that though I heard “humility” I had to translate it into “humiliation?”

I asked a shrink of my acquaintance if people benefitted from humiliation. The shrink said, “No, never. People don’t learn by being humiliated, they just get depressed and frightened. It makes them not want to listen to the person humiliating them.”

“Well, I’m not like that,” I said. “Some of the most important things I’ve been told in life have been harsh and hurtful.”

“You aren’t like most people,” replied the shrink, which as I think of it was quite tactful of her.

Oh, so this is how human beings are. You’re not supposed to think it’s normal to be constantly put down.

Oops, I just wasted my life. Or had I? What was I to make of my lifetime of humiliation that I thought was so good for me? For always being willing, if not seeking, to lose.

I remember a spelling bee in grade school that was down to me and another kid. I missed the word, and he got it right. Rather than say the other kid won first place and I won second, the teacher pointed at us and said, respectively, “Okay, so you won and you lost.” It was a very “me” kind of thing to happen. I later wondered if I missed the word on purpose, so that I could lose yet again.

But looking back now, I know I was given a greater gift than the kid who won. He always won everything. How boring. I doubt he remembers it. Yet here I am now writing about it, sharing it with the world. Over the years, it’s become a funny story. I’ve used it to cheer people up who feel put down. I’m glad I didn’t win the otherwise forgettable spelling bee.

I’m not a linguist, but Oxford English Dictionary is online, so I looked up both words. Interestingly, though both have Latin roots, “humility” has an older European etymology than “humiliation,” which suggests that people sought or experienced humility for a few hundred years before they recognized the ability to humiliate. But for quite some time the words were considered related; the state of humility was arrived at through humiliation. Thus, for all the ways I bungled it up, there was a kernel of truth in my philosophy of humiliation. I merely was born several centuries too late.

I feel fortunate that my latest novel, Identity Thief, is, according to online reviews, being enjoyed by those who read it. But a couple of people have said they hated it. Someone did not approve of my use of strong language, to which I can only say something that sounds somewhat like “thank you” but is something else. Someone else didn’t like the characters, and indeed no one in this crime saga of deceit, blackmail, and murder deserves the Nobel Peace Prize. Naturally, the few bad reviews occupy my thoughts more than the many good ones.

But I am able to laugh at myself, and even wrote a little funny poem about bad reviews. If everyone liked the novel I’d have a smidgen less self knowledge and had one less opportunity to be creative.

Humility, humiliation, whatever it is . . . It has taught me well. But to keep myself from sounding immodest, arrogant, and pretentious, maybe I’d best quit while I’m ahead.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

The Broccoli Theory

What we see should not be all we get

In case you are among the fortunate few who read my first post, “The Doritos Theory,” please know that your dedicated blogger has not gone vegan on you. Still, what, you may ask with breathless anticipation, is the Broccoli Theory? Stay with me, and it will all make sense.

It’s been said that numbers never lie. But numbers certainly can be exploited to lend credibility to a particular agenda. Let’s take the sad problem of homelessness. According to HUD’s 2013 Annual Homeless Report to Congress, 610,042 persons are homeless on a given night. On the one hand, you can say, “Over half a million people are homeless on any night in the U.S.” This makes the problem sound quite serious. However, since there are about 300,000,000 people in our nation, this means that .002 percent of our population is homeless on a given night. Or, flipping the coin over, 99.998 percent of the population is not homeless. This makes it sound like less of a problem, doesn’t it?

Speaking of percentages, maybe you saw the recent viral video of the woman who walks down the street in Manhattan for 10 hours and allegedly receives 100 or more harassing remarks from men. This would equal at least 10 such remarks per hour. I am not a woman so I do not know how it feels to hear unwanted remarks in the context of gendered dynamics. Women’s comments on the video have ranged from “right on” to “right off.”

A two-minute clip of this 10-hour trek has been circulating the Internet. Two minutes of ten hours is .001 percent of the total film time, which means that 99.999 percent of the film is not being circulated. 

Like anyone else who has not seen all 10 hours of footage, I am asked to assume that these numbers are true, and that nothing was staged. We also are asked to believe that the territory she covered on foot—and the locations do vary—makes for a representative sample of the male population. So far, we have learned from and other sources that the comments made by white men were edited out. Perhaps most telling of all, we also have learned that a marketing firm oversaw the editing of the video. 

About 30 subtitled remarks appear on the screen, though sometimes the same man makes more than one statement. The video moves fast, but I counted about 20 offending men in the clip. Given the subtitles, I am guessing that each remark was added to the total. If instead the number of harassing men were counted, it would average something more like six or so remarks per hour. Also not taken into account are the number of men she passes by who say nothing.

Though certainly this is a subjective process, I counted about 12 of the 30 remarks as sexual in nature. If this is more or less representative of the entire 10 hours of film, more like 40 sexual remarks were made over the 10 hour period, or about four an hour instead of 10 an hour. This may well be four an hour too many, but I find something a little too convenient, too Madison Avenue slick, in the total being around 100 in 10 hours.

Indeed, one is expected to assume that all the remarks were meant to be sexual. At one point, a young man of color says, “God bless you, have a good day, alright?” We then are shown that he walked alongside her for two, then four, then five minutes total. This cumulative editing trick makes the behavior seem that much more invasive. But since the young man’s face has been blurred, we don’t really know if he was looking at her or if he just happened to be keeping pace with her. (In his fleeting seconds of screen time, he usually seems to be looking straight ahead.) Even if he did sometimes look at her, we do not know why. Maybe he was wondering if he should tell her about Jesus, or any number of other things. Yet we are asked to empathize with the fear and loathing experienced by a white woman when a man of color is walking near her. In this video clip, someone saying, “Good evening,” is the same as someone saying, “Hey baby.” “God bless you” is a sexual come-on.

Other people, including men, have created their own videos of walking down the street in Manhattan and enduring the remarks of strangers. Indeed, having lived in both Manhattan and Queens as an adult and child respectively, I can attest firsthand that virtually anyone is approached by any number of strangers who call out many kinds of remarks—some kind, some crazy, some bullying, and yes even to men or boys some sexual. Conversely, when I lived in San Francisco and Portland it was quite common for strangers on the street to be platonically friendly and say hello to each other.

In sum, I feel this video is less about the very real problem of women being unsafe in our society and more about the creation of a product. It is a skillfully edited artifact intended to present as “documentary” one point of view and one point of view only—that of the client paying the marketing firm to create and promote the video.

It seems to me that one problem in our society is how naïve we are—how easily we take what is presented to us as “truth.” But in actuality film is edited, and a published photograph is selected from hundreds of shots that were taken. Any time a story is told verbally or on paper, selectivity plays a role. Seldom does anyone tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

Like the disgust we are expected to feel for a white woman who must endure a black man walking near her for five minutes, we could, for example, learn that someone died choking on a piece of broccoli. We could acquire a sobering photo of the corpse, and post it with the caption: “This person died eating broccoli.” Or maybe: “Think twice before you eat broccoli.” If the person was a child, so much the better. Above the angelic young face we could say, “Two weeks later this child was dead from eating broccoli,” or “Broccoli kills the young.”

Perhaps you have seen or heard of an ad run only once in the 1964 presidential campaign, though it has been credited with causing Lyndon Johnson’s landslide victory over Barry Goldwater. Sometimes called the “daisy girl ad,” it features a child innocently (mis)counting the petals of a flower, and then we are shown a mushroom cloud of atomic hatred. Following a pacifistic quote from President Johnson, we are told that the stakes are too high to vote for anyone else. A little girl and her flower and then an atom bomb—how’s that for manipulation? But substantively, what did it have to do with President Johnson, who is still remembered for his unpopular escalation of the war in Vietnam?

Just because something alleges to address serious issues does not mean it does so honestly. Call me weird, but I believe honesty matters more than intent. We—meaning myself, too—have to think more about what we are shown, and ask more questions about it.  Otherwise, we can end up thinking anything is true, including that broccoli kills.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Happiness is Being Unhappy

The paradox of not-nice stuff

In real life, I’m a total fraidy-cat when it comes to physical injury. Sometimes an online friends posts a video clip of someone getting hurt—often by having done something stupid—and I never find it funny. It just makes me wince. I can’t stop thinking about how much it must have hurt. If I hear that one person out of a million suffered serious injury (not to mention death) for having participated in a sport or daredevil stunt, I add this activity to my list of things I will not do. I avoid watching ski jumping or trampoline gymnastics for my fear that something might happen to the athlete.

On the other hand, there is my writing. I remember the first time I tried to compose something meant to be a story. I was probably eight years old. It was about how in a duel someone got stabbed in the eye, and the blood and ooze that came out as the eyeball shriveled. I proudly showed it to my mother, who for some reason was less than enthused. “Write about something nice,” she advised, handing me back the piece of paper with a slight shudder.

Anyone who knows me knows the best way to get me not to do something is to suggest that I do it. The term, “reverse psychology,” should be carved on my tombstone. All of my fiction over the years has contained at least one murder if not several, with characters who often are not the nicest people in the world. If something nice does happen, I make every effort to un-nice-ify it. I add a healthy dash of vinegar, if not a gallon. Sometimes I even try to make these not-nice things funny. If you have read my fiction, you can blame my mother.

As a reader, I can handle stories, poems and non-fiction on the creepiest, most depressing, biggest downer subject matter. So I guess you can say I give as good as I get.

When it comes to movies or TV shows, I never turn away. I can munch my popcorn and slurp my Coke through the goriest of gore. Even true crime shows are distant enough for me to enjoy. I think to myself: “Wow, a new documentary on Al Capone—what fun!” I am not flippant towards programs about genocide or other forms of sadistic torture. And some real-life murderers or highly disturbed people do upset me. Yet I am drawn to knowing about these things and not avoiding them.

The biggest exception is anything to do with the torture or killing of animals. I have an easier time watching a hundred thugs get machine-gunned to death than seeing one dog get accidentally stepped on. I’ll swat a fly, but if a bee flies into the room I carefully pick it up by the wings and release it to the outdoors.

I know some people say that violence in movies, TV shows, or even songs make people—especially children—more violent. And as a social scientist myself, who am I to discredit studies and experiments that have shown this to be the case?

Yet I have wondered: If exposure to violence de-sensitizes people to violence, why would the same not be true about exposure to niceness? What if every TV show was like Touched by an Angel or Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman? Would we start to shrug at kindness, just as we do at violence? Would we devalue goodness even more than we already do?

What if every movie was like Mary Poppins? In fact, even Mary Poppins is not like Mary Poppins. It’s actually a sad story in many ways. I cried at the bittersweet ending when I saw it as a kid. (And okay, I got a little misty-eyed when I watched it as an adult, too. Are you happy now?) Disney makes many films with unsettling overtones, and even its classic animation features are not all sweetness and light. For all of its “wholesomeness,” The Sound of Music ends with the Nazis muscling in to Austria. The appeal of Forrest Gump escapes me, but apparently it is considered a feel good, wholesome movie, even though it includes such pleasantries as the Vietnam War.

For that matter, there is a new genre of Christian fiction in which the murder mystery and horror story are interwoven with religion. I know little about these books. But it would seem that pretty much everyone agrees that a spoonful of sugar is quite enough, thanks just the same.

What if there were no sad songs to listen to the next time your heart breaks or you get yelled at by your boss? What if you saw Romeo and Juliet, and it ended with the parents blessing the marriage? Or Hamlet makes peace with his uncle, or Hannibal Lecter says he was only kidding?

Somehow, we need to touch base with the tragic, the scary, the disturbing. And judging by popular tastes, we need to do so at least as much as we visit Pleasantville. If all the negativity, violence and unfairness were removed from the Bible, it would be a much slimmer volume. My dog loves to be petted, but he also loves to be chased and play tug of war with his treats. Maybe we humans are not so different.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

My 13 Do's and Don'ts

3D people have 3D needs

I seem to be an unusual person. Well, duh, you’re probably thinking. But seriously, I do not seem to have the same standards other people do for liking someone. Or for that matter, not liking someone. To give you an idea, in order to be my friend here are 13 lucky things you do not have to worry about:

°I don’t care if you’re a red state or blue state person.

°I don’t care if you’re politically correct.

°I don’t care what you eat or drink.

°I don’t care what shape your body is in.

°I don’t care how much formal education you have.

°I don’t care if you take meds to maintain your mental balance.

°I don’t care if you’re into health foods or if you work out.

°I don’t care if you recycle the wire twists that come with loaves of bread.

°I don’t care if you have or want to have a lot of money.

°I don’t care if you’re poor.

°I don’t care if you’re religious or not, or what religion you are.

°I don’t care if you’ve screwed up royally.

°I don’t care what color your skin is, how you define your gender, or what goes on between consenting adults.

In fact, you can vote the same as me, live a similar lifestyle, be of the same economic class, weigh or look the same as me, believe the same way spiritually, or have the same health philosophy, and you still will not be my friend if you are any or all of these 13 things:

°You have never had an original thought.

°You claim to believe certain things only because you think you have to.

°You never think to treat people the same way you like to be treated.

°You argue with pretzel logic rather than admit I may have a point.

°You think how consenting adults conduct their personal lives is any of your business.

°You think that gossiping accomplishes something.

°You refuse to listen to or associate with people who think differently than you.

°You think you have nothing more to learn.

°You claim never to get angry or depressed.

°You think there always is a simple answer to the world’s problems.

°You have no sense of humor about yourself.

°You think you know exactly what God’s will is at all times.

°You have hardly ever suffered.

In other words, unless you have a nasty habit of committing violent crimes, there’s a good chance I’ll enjoy your companionship as long as you are your own person. Someone with an inner life who puts sincere thought into the things you say, do and believe. If you learn to be a better person from the curve balls life throws your way, you can teach me a lot.

I have known people who are functionally illiterate who meet my criteria, and people with fancy college degrees who do not. I have known drug addicts who meet my criteria, and health food fetishists who do not. I have known both conservatives and liberals who do and do not meet my criteria.

I find that over time I make fewer new friends.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Lucky Me

Freedom comes with baggage

When I was a kid, the grownups looked like they just survived World War III when they came home from work. All they could talk about was what a pain in elbow (or some other body part) So-and-So was, who said or did what unforgivably offensive thing, and on and on. Often I was the nearest target for venting frustration, so my feelings got hurt and family life suffered. Yet I also would be told repeatedly: “Don’t end up like me. Go to college and make something of yourself. Don’t end up feeling like you’ve wasted your life.”

I had difficulty understanding these lectures. Like most young people I thought I’d be young forever. Concepts such as “have to” or “should” didn’t mean much to me. Plus it’s hard to take to heart advice that comes from someone who just yelled at you over nothing much. But the thing I truly did not understand—although I wouldn’t have known how to say it—was why so many people seemed trapped and unhappy in the so-called land of the free. I thought it had something to do with growing up, so, like Peter Pan, I’d stay young forever. End of problem.

Well, Fate had other ideas. I grew up and went to college. In fact, I went to college so much I got a Ph.D. Certainly I’ve made something of myself, though the noun that most aptly captures what I’ve become would vary widely, depending on whom you asked. (And this is, after all, a G-rated blog.) As for wasting my life, most of the time I’m too busy to worry about it, which I suppose means my life is not lived for naught. Sometimes I come home in a bad mood, which is an ever-humbling experience. I am reminded how hard it is to act happy when your day has been like one endless root canal.     

All things considered, I like being a college professor. I don’t love it. If I won the Powerball Jackpot I’d be out the door in nothing flat. But, as I predicted would be the case, I like it very much. Though I love writing fiction, I purposefully did not major in English, as I thought it would spoil my pleasure in writing. I didn’t want my livelihood to depend on my raison d'être, as that would be too much pressure. So I stuck with the social sciences because they made sense, they got me thinking, and, well . . . I liked them. A wise person told me once that I would be happier with two careers, and that seems to be true. My inner egghead and artiste called a truce a long time ago.

There have been moments when I’ve hated being a prof. But the storm clouds pass and most of the time I remain grateful for the opportunity, especially when I consider how difficult it is to get a tenure-track job in today’s world. And I am tenured and a full professor. Given all the screw-ups I have committed, I sometimes marvel that I did at least one thing right.

Besides, the things I don’t like about being a college professor are not about being a college professor. Nor, for that matter, are they about how democratic and free our nation actually is or is not. They are things that would come up no matter what I did for a living, and in many forms of government. In more or less order of importance, the things that cause me problems at work are:

1) Other people. We say our society does not have arranged marriages, but in a way we do. Because you often are stuck working side by side for years and years with people you would not have chosen to know. Even if I were an independently wealthy author, writing a book takes a village. There are agents and editors and publicity people and proofreaders and cover artists. There is no such thing as a conflict-free career, probably because there is no such thing as a conflict-free human being.

2) Bureaucracy. Rules, red tape, you have to do this, you can’t do that . . . it’s everywhere. And again, even bestselling authors have to follow standardized procedures and contract fine print, not to mention laws and policies. Social structure turns everyone into a pretzel of some sort. You have to work within limits of time, place, expectation, legality, and any number of other things. The aspects that most appeal to you about what you do for a living may present themselves only sporadically at best.

3) Other people. (See Point Number One.)

As a college prof, I currently am teaching the next generation of leaders—the people I will depend on to keep my life safe and prosperous when I retire. They seem much wiser than I was at their age. They seem to already know that life involves compromise. And even more important, they seem to know that that’s okay.

I spent much of my life thinking that if I did something I didn’t want to do, I was a failure, because true freedom meant never having to conform to the expectations of others. I did not realize that non-conformity could become its own kind of conformity, especially when millions of other people are non-conforming in the same way. I also did not realize that bureaucracy is unavoidable. Everyone follows at least some of the rules most of the time. Most of all, I did not know how relatively spoiled and privileged I was even to harbor such fantasies. Most people who have ever lived, and most people alive in the world today, decide little if anything for themselves.

In short, life comes with a Catch-22: To do what you want to do, you have to spend a lot of time not doing what you want to do. And if at least some of the time you are doing something you like and/or love, you are, in a global sense, one of the privileged few.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Mike The Milkman

Being different can make a difference

When I was a little kid we had a milkman. To those of you too young to know what a “milkman” was, once upon a time milk and other dairy products were delivered to your home. The milk came in glass bottles that you returned to the milkman when they were empty. No one talked about recycling or saving natural resources. It was just the way things were done. You kept your empties outside your door, and you may have had a metal box for storing the latest delivery. Nobody stole someone else’s milk. It just wasn’t something you did. The milk was pasteurized but not homogenized. The cream at the top of the bottle was used for coffee.

However, our metal box didn’t get used much, because my grandmother was always home, and our milkman was Mike. He was our friend. He’d knock on the door of our rundown railroad flat, and my grandmother would invite him in for a cup of percolated coffee. Mike wore a big smile, and he seemed friendlier than other grownups somehow. When I’d see him at the door I always thought he was there just to see me. I never had to work at getting his attention. As a special treat, I’d dunk a cookie in his cup of coffee, which was heavy with sugar and cream. (In hindsight, I wonder if he truly preferred his coffee that way, or if he lightened and sweetened it for my inevitable dunk.) 

I’d show him whatever I was playing with, and he’d commiserate with my grandmother (whom he always addressed as Mrs.) on body aches or rising costs or whatever it was that grownups talked about. Sometimes, I suppose when one of them shared bad news, Mike stared out the window, baffled yet philosophical in a way that hardworking, uncomplaining people often are.

I had surgery when I was four or five, and my mother came down with an acute case of overprotectiveness. She wanted me to stay indoors far longer than the doctor required. My grandmother, whom we called Granny, thought this ridiculous, so when my mother left for work she’d coax me to play outside. However, my mother learned about this, and told me that no matter what Granny said I was not to leave the house. Looking back, I realize the conflict between them was about much more than this one issue. But at the time I simply was confused by these mixed messages from grownups.

However, Granny knew that the one person I’d listen to was Mike. I don’t recall verbalizing how much I loved him, but Granny must have seen the obvious. I can still see Mike looking right at me, saying how much fun it was to run around and play outdoors in the fresh air. As always, it seemed like he stopped everything to talk to me—that nothing mattered more.

It’s hard to remember exactly, but I think over the next few days Mike’s words of wisdom sunk in, and I started playing outside. I already was a secretive, mischievous child who did any number of things I wasn’t supposed to do. But it was always me against everyone else. This was different. It was a mini rite of passage. The matter of my existing in the world beyond my family became an official problem. For the first but hardly the last time in my life, I was expected to choose between two mutually exclusive sides.

When I was six my mother remarried, and we moved away. Granny did not approve of the marriage, and on a certain level, it was as though my mother and grandmother got a divorce. I recall being disappointed when we started buying our milk in a carton at the supermarket. I have no idea what happened to Mike, but I like to think he missed me and thought of me as I missed and thought of him.

Years later, I mentioned Mike to an older relative, and I found out that Mike was a hunchback. I realized that I found him so easy to talk to because the curvature in his spine put his head closer to my little kid level.  And yes, he truly was a warm, nice guy. But it’s that effortless eye contact I remember the most. Maybe part of what made us close was that I didn’t see him the way other people did. I just knew he was accessible in a way other grownups weren’t.

Talking to me about the adventures of the great outdoors had to have been, at best, a melancholy moment for him, but he never let it show. I wonder if he lived alone and if he had family or friends besides us. I wonder if he spent much of his life being made fun of.

He was only the milkman and I saw him for probably about ten minutes a week as a young child. Yet he permanently touched my life. Mike played a role in my learning how to make decisions, and he taught me that being different didn’t mean being inferior to other people. Different can be better. Of course, I realize the latter lesson only in retrospect.

At the time, he was just my pal Mike.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Finking and Theeling

Can you sort out your thoughts from your feelings?

If palmistry is your thing, it’s simple: there’s a heart line and a mind line, and whichever is longer makes you more of a feeling or a thinking person, respectively. For what it's worth, my mind lines are much longer on both hands, an interesting coincidence since all of my life I've been criticized for thinking too much and not feeling enough. Back when encounter groups were “in,” I could not have been more “out.” Like someone needing remedial training, I endured embarrassingly futile efforts to make my anger more angry, my sorrow more sad, before giving up on the whole thing. Flipping the coin over, even as a child I often was the only person in the room not laughing, or not feeling the happy vibe.

Since I am every bit as dull a person as the above description indicates, I will not spend much more time talking about myself. Suffice to say that I actually have spent a great deal of my life laughing, but what tickles my funny bone is a bit off the beaten path. For example, stand-up comics or comedy films seldom make me laugh or even want to smile. But animals make me laugh, as do harmless mishaps or odd events, along with sarcasm at its most sardonic. And people who know me know I am no stranger to tragedy, and obviously these events have left their mark.

I do believe though that people who find it easy to “feel their feelings” often are people who have never had to deal with much. Because if you’ve been through something truly awful you probably prefer not to dwell on it. And it would seem that only certain feelings count as feelings. Being happy or sad over things that do not directly affect the self tend not to be considered part of one’s emotional landscape. Reactions to a news story, an election, a sports event, or who won the Oscar tend not be counted as feelings, even when powerful emotions are present.

Also, less than sunshiny feelings tend to be considered false. You didn’t mean what you said when you were angry—or so you say. But by what criteria is that angry self somehow less an authentic part of you than your non-angry self? Maybe when you were angry you said what you really meant, while your “nice” self is an act. On the TV show, House, the curmudgeony, drug-addled title character was advised to get in touch with his pain over a broken relationship, so he drove his car into his ex’s house. Not an action I recommend, but surely he was feeling his feelings. They were sentiments intended to cause harm to another and had many negative consequences, but that does not make them any less real. Scholars such as Peter N. Stearns have noted that for all the ways our society seems increasingly permissive, we allow ourselves fewer emotional expressions than in the past. Even when no one is harmed, a particular emotional display may be labeled inappropriate for its deviation from the rigid status quo norm.

Something happens to trigger an emotional reaction, but how much of it gets expressed, the way it gets expressed, and how it is labeled is relative to time and place. In the omnipresent debate over healthcare, I heard a political figure accused of not truly caring about the issue because this person seemed angry when talking about it. Another instance of anger being denied a seat at the table of emotions. But even within ourselves, we might think in the moment we are expressing love but then look back and decide we were expressing fear—or jealousy or any number of other things.

Also, we often confuse feeling with thinking, and vice-versa. Our government and criminal justice system frequently are criticized for behaving in a rational way that does not take into account people’s emotions. We forget that justice is supposed to be blind, or that the government doesn’t exist to be “nice.” How a jury feels about a defendant is not supposed to impact its deliberations. Nowhere is it written in the Constitution that the government has no choice but to be charitable.

Much of the confusion about thinking versus feeling stems from the erroneous assumption that these two experiences are polar opposites. In truth, studies have shown that there is an emotional component in what we believe to be true, and likewise our thoughts can prefigure our emotional responses. We do not really think and feel. It is more that we fink and theel. Finking, newly defined herein, is when we believe we have made a wholly rational assessment but in fact reached this conclusion from a place of emotionally-driven assumptions. For example, if you don’t like someone, ever notice a tendency to disagree with what that person says, even if you have to cherry pick to disagree? (Or for that matter to agree, if you like the person.) Theeling is when our thoughts have made us feel certain ways. If you assume certain types of people are good or bad, you will experience warmth or disdain for such a person should you meet.

Yet somehow it is easier for us not to go there. We prefer to keep things simple, and unquestioningly assume our emotional responses are a gut-level truth uncolored by our often limited or biased thoughts. And likewise, that our opinions are wholly rational and have nothing to do with our emotional needs.

I feel—or rather, I theel worried that this is a major problem in the world today. It isn’t always the decisions or verdicts themselves, but the erroneous conviction that we have arrived at this point through a simple and pure process, uncluttered by our many intellectual and emotional inconsistencies. 

Before you say I’m wrong, fink about it for awhile.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

I Remember Brunch

In one of my classes recently, a student timidly raised his hand.

“Professor, what was ‘brunch?’”

“Ah yes,” I replied, wisely stroking my beard. “Brunch. Twixt breakfast and lunch there was brunch. How well I remember it. Brunch, you see, was a way people got drunk on Sunday morning, and it was considered perfectly respectable.”

“How could that be?” asked the student.

“The world was different back then. People didn’t worry so much.”

“But how did it work?”

“Well, on Friday nights you went out and got schnockered. You spent Saturday morning and afternoon dealing with your hangover as best you could. There were all sorts of folk remedies. Coca-Cola with vanilla ice cream. Spicy chili with raw onions. Junk food. Black coffee. Alka-Seltzer. Worcestershire with a raw egg. Aspirin, of course. But the most historically significant folk remedy proved to be tomato juice.”

“Why was that?”

“Because,” I answered patiently, “a group of government scientists were working on a cure for the hangover, and one day someone cried, ‘Eureka,’ which means, ‘I have found it.’ Tomato juice, you see, is an ingredient in the Bloody Mary. And sure enough, if you drank a Bloody Mary on top of a hangover, the hangover went away. Like magic. It was believed that the Worcestershire combined with the fresh-ground pepper was what did it. Though some claimed it was the celery stalk. In fact, two or three Blood Marys helped even more.”

“What does all this have to do with brunch?”

“Patience is a virtue, Young Person. I am about to explain. One way or another, you got yourself ready for Saturday night. Friday night was sort of like winter break at school, while Saturday night was summer vacation, so to speak. By Sunday morning you were in no shape to deal with anything. So you got together with some friends or whomever and went to brunch.”

“And this was in the late morning?”

“Usually. Supposedly. But it could be mid-Sunday morning. In fact, it was not uncommon for people to pass out before noon on Sunday. But sometimes, too, it happened in early afternoon, by the time everyone got themselves together.”

“Would you eat anything?”

“Oh, of course. It was a meal, after all. People ordered fancy omelets with themes, like the Mexican Omelet, the Texas Omelet, or the Tex-Mex Omelet.”

“Were there egg white omelets?”

“Certainly not. People had it rough back then. You had to work hard just to keep a roof over your head. No one even heard of egg white omelets. You might as well ask if there were music videos.”

“So besides the omelets what was the big deal?”

“The omelets came with home fries and maybe refried beans with lots of hot sauce. And of course, toast. You never ordered white bread toast, as it wasn’t as nutritious as whole grain. Oh, and I almost forgot. To drink, you asked for ice water—probably a pitcher for the table—and a Bloody Mary. As was already explained, a second or third Bloody Mary may have been in order. Usually someone had to ‘break the ice,’ so to speak. Like maybe the first person ordered orange juice, and then the second person would also order orange juice, and then say, ‘No, wait a second—I think I’ll try a bloody Mary.’ Then the first person would say, ‘You know, that sounds good. Please change my orange juice to a Bloody Mary.’”

“Screwdrivers are made with orange juice. Did anyone ever order one of those instead?”

“Not often. Something about the Bloody Mary seemed more breakfast-like. Screwdrivers were considered uncouth for first thing in the morning or afternoon or whenever it was. They implied one had a drinking problem.”

“Did you ever drink anything else?”

“Sometimes just to be different people might order champagne cocktails, which also seemed brunch-like somehow.”

“Did they help with hangovers, too?”

“Indeed. Again, it was said to be the Worcestershire that did it. Since champagne cocktails were lighter, you needed four or five of them. Or even six.”

“How long did brunch last?”

“Usually a few hours. By the time it was over, everyone was ready to go home and nap for the rest of the day.”

“Did people wake up with hangovers?”

“Yes, on Sunday evening people awoke feeling terrible. But then it was considered proper to drink something else. Like straight whiskey with a beer chaser.”

“What about Monday morning?”

“What about it? People just plowed their way through it as best they could. It was considered a character building experience to have to go to work after a three-day drinking binge. Or as it was sometimes called, a lost weekend. You kids anymore—you don’t know how hard we had it back then. Xanax and Prozac hadn’t even been invented.”

“‘Character building’—what does that mean?”

“Becoming a stronger person.”

“Huh. You don’t say. Were there cars?”

“Yes, and also TV. But there was no cable, so you only got to pick from three main channels, plus some local networks.”

“How did people survive?”

“It was hard, Young Person. It was hard.”

Sunday, September 21, 2014

The Doritos Theory

Is social anxiety disorder the new normal?

Speaking of boredom, I recently watched an episode of “Love American Style,” a cloyingly listless program from the early 70s that featured tepid vignettes about tepid relationships. It must have succeeded because it gave its audience permission to be lethargic. I know I was. Life, thy name is Doritos.

However, the episode I happened upon featured a young Diane Keaton. She and a man had been corresponding through letters, and finally meet in person. The intimacy of their correspondence vanishes when face to face. So she hits upon the idea to go into a different room, whereby they may slip notes to each other under the door. The End. Keaton lent the story a sweetness that made it more enjoyable than it should have been, and I could see why she became a star. 

But beyond the fair Ms. Keaton’s destiny meeting with my approval, I realized this tale prefigured our current state of high tech communication. What the couple was begging the universe for was email. And, of course, texting, chat rooms, home pages . . . oh, and I guess blogs. 

To show you how old I am, I remember when email first came out. At a university computer lab I would see these two people sending messages back and forth, even though they were sitting next to each other. “How pathetic,” I thought. “I’ll never learn how to do that.” Yeah, right. Just as I’d never get a VCR (remember those?) or a smart phone, or various other curiosities. Why even talk to someone on the phone—let alone in person—when you can just send them a message? Listening to college students talk to each other, I often hear them say things like, “You won’t believe what happened. I’ll text you about it later.”  Sometimes of course the students are in a hurry, but even if they had time to talk, it would appear they’d rather text.  

I don’t like texting—I have big, clumsy hands—but otherwise I have been as seduced as anyone else by our high tech world. I even have emailed someone sitting next to me. Likewise, it is easier to buy things online, or look up information through a search engine rather than go to an actual library. I can publish a book without having to “do lunch” with my editor. Anyone remember gas station attendants? Bank tellers? We can check out our own groceries so that we do not have to interact with a checkout clerk, and the fast food industry is becoming evermore fast—more automated. We are all too busy, too preoccupied, to bother with each other.

We hear a lot about how technology is ruining our ability to communicate; people do not know how to talk to each other anymore, and so forth. I would add a friendly amendment here:  in the pre-Internet universe, people did not necessarily communicate well, or at all.  And in many ways, the Internet makes more communication possible. Still, millions of people day by day communicate as much as possible through technological means rather than face to face, even when face to face is possible.

This posting is actually quite political, so I suppose I should get to the point. On Facebook (see, Internet?) I have made friends with people from a wide spectrum of political beliefs. So on a daily basis, I read both left- and right-wing calls for dramatic social change. Sometimes the word “revolution” is used. On the one hand, the Internet makes possible more political dialogue and exchange of information. I often sign online petitions. But when it comes to social change, the Internet has its limits.

Even the briefest glance through human history shows us that major social upheaval is not pretty. Revolution, for better or for worse, includes violence. The folks in control don’t just say, “You’re right, please take our power away.”  And though my crystal ball may prove to be fuzzy, I do not think virtual bloodshed will replace the real thing. To control a society, you have to control the forces of coercion, i.e., police and the military. We may send drones into battle, but it’s people that get blown up.

Social change of a revolutionary scale would require us getting off our duffs. We’d have to meet not just to organize, but also to form necessary strong bonds with each other. Otherwise, there is no incentive to make sacrifices for a greater good.That means no TV tonight, no chat rooms or Facebook.  And whether one is left or right of center, or even in the dead center (note the word “dead”), I simply cannot envision masses of people doing this. We are not willing to sacrifice our Doritos in front of the boob tube, let alone put our lives on the line.

Karl Marx predicted world communism. In a nutshell, he said that workers would increasingly be replaced by machines, so more and more people would be out of work. And when no one could buy what the machines produced, capitalism would topple, workers would unite, and so on. So far this has not happened. Maybe that makes you happy, or maybe that makes you sad. But one of the things Marx had no way of knowing was how much we would love our machines. They are our best friends.

Machines replacing humans in the work force? We all allow this to be the case about a million times a day. Whenever we use our computers, smart phones, or even now our watches to do something that used to require human interaction, we are making more jobs obsolete. We ask our leaders to “create more jobs,” without stopping to consider exactly what it is that out of work people should be paid to do.

So, is everyone ready to throw their smart phone in the trash? No, I didn’t think so. Religion is not the opiate of the masses, technology is. In fact, one of the things that can seem “weird” about religion is the thought of being part of a community. Spend time with people when I can be by myself? How crazy is that?

Machines do not only take away from the work force, although this of course is nothing to take lightly. They also are eating away at our basic need to bond with others of our species.  And if people cannot even be bothered to say hi to a checkout clerk, how can they be expected to make real sacrifices for the greater public good?

Pass the Doritos, please. And be quiet, my twelfth-favorite show is on.