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.