For the longest time I had trouble analyzing any sort of situation I found myself in without bringing a normative perspective to the table as well. That is, it was never enough that something happened to me (or near me, or by me, or for me, or whatever). There always had to be a “should” or “should not” attached to it if I was going to think about it in any depth. You might think this had to do with my academic background in philosophy and ethics, but I think it goes deeper than that. In fact, it’s probably more accurate to say that my academic background is a result of a previous hang-up on all things right and wrong. So there’s that.

Nowadays, however, I find myself trying to divorce my thinking from these moral underpinnings as much as I can, if only because I’m starting to believe that (1) a lot of things simply shouldn’t be considered in the moral arena, and (2) my analysis is garbage most of the time anyway.

I spent a few years working in a hospital as an ethics associate, and my main job was–other than providing educational initiatives for medical staff–to consult in mediation sessions for patients and families in “tough” situations. Think end of life cases where siblings can’t come to an agreement about what mom would have wanted now that she’s unconscious. That sort of thing. And when I sat in on these meetings, it always seemed completely natural to bring the “ought” statements to the conversation, since that was what we were there for. So I always felt right at home in these mediations, regardless of the difficulty of the situations and the emotion present. I knew what to do and how to handle it.

The problem is, life isn’t an ethics consult. 99% of the time, people don’t need (and don’t want) a commentary on whether what they are doing is right or wrong, and they sure as hell don’t need (or want) it from me. But that fact alone doesn’t stop my mind from veering toward the inevitable “something feels wrong here,” or “this is the right thing to do” whenever I am trying to consider what is happening in my life. So I’m kind of stuck.

Some of the best advice I have ever been given is to look at things as they are, and try and recognize that sometimes–perhaps most of the time–viewing something as it is can be much more important, and much more powerful, that coming to a conclusion about whether it should or shouldn’t be that way. The real depth of the world rests in the “what” of life, rather than the “why,” if only because we so rarely have access to that latter part anyway.

Think about it (as I am trying to do). How many times can you be sure you know whether what you are doing is right or wrong? Putting aside the easy cases like–on the one side–murdering or raping someone, and–on the other side–saving a baby from drowning when it would cost you nothing to do so, the vast majority of decisions we make involve a whole lot more gray than these sorts of easy cases involve. So trying to incorporate normative “ought statements” is essentially pointless. It’s pretending to have knowledge about something that we just don’t have.

I say all of this as though I have already taken it to heart, but the truth of the matter is I am still struggling mightily with internalizing it in my own life. So it ain’t gospel for me yet. But I can say that I recognize the truth behind the concept, and I really am doing my best to make it a part of my daily life now. Constantly wondering whether what I or the rest of the world is doing is right or wrong takes an emotional toll after a while, especially if you find the results to be less than glorious most of the time. I look at those in my life who I consider to be the most relaxed and at peace with themselves, and I notice now that they also tend to be some of the least judgmental people as well. And I don’t think this is a coincidence. So if I can make a delayed New Years resolution to myself, it’s this–live and let live, and leave the small stuff alone. It’s enough to simply observe what is going on most of the time without spending days and nights concerned over whether it should be in the first place. Because at the end of the day, it’s better to be relaxed with my eyes open than anything else.

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Decisions, Decisions

Independence is an interesting concept for me. Not so much in the academic sense–although I suppose it’s interesting there too in other contexts–but more in the way that “freedom” has become a part of my daily routine at this point in my life. I know a lot of people who spent the majority of their teenage years counting down the days, hours, and minutes until they could move out from under the harsh eyes and fingers of mom and dad and enter the “real world” of college dorm life and three day class schedules. That they could develop a daily (and nightly) itinerary that wouldn’t have to be signed off on by their parents was a major deal for a lot of these people, as it signified their first real taste of living on their own.

For me, however, I don’t recall ever being smitten with that sort of independence. My parents never really held a close watch over me when I was a high schooler, primarily because I didn’t do anything that would have warranted that kind of close attention. In addition, my siblings at the time were giving them enough grief with their escapades as they got older, so I sort of got swept under the radar for the most part. I don’t say this as a complaint–I suppose in some ways it helped prepare me for later life by figuring out what I was going to do each day and night and not having to justify that call, but since my decision usually ended up being “staying home, doing homework, watching TV, playing video games, listening to music, going online, and going to sleep,” in retrospect its not like I pushed the envelope much anyway.

Now that I’m older, however, I look back at that period of my life and wonder how it is that I could do all of the things that I did on my own without running it by anyone else. I didn’t have a lot of friends in those days, so me, myself, and I would have been the consulting committee for virtually anything I wanted to do for a number of years in there. Compare that to today, though, and you would think I was tethered to a guidance counselor from birth until my twenties. I have so much trouble making decisions for myself pertaining to normal things like what to eat, where to go, what to do, and so on, that my usual go-to is either to ask someone else, or to base my decision on what I think someone else will think.

Depending on the circumstances, this could work both to my advantage or completely against me. It could make me look like a gentleman, for instance, if I told the person about whom I was basing my decision that I “wanted to do something that I knew they would like,” as opposed to selfishly choosing for myself. On the flipside, though, I could look like an indecisive asshole if I constantly needed to approach someone in order to accomplish even the smallest and most trivial of tasks. I’ll let you guess which one most people had me pegged as.

I honestly have no idea why I am this way, and quite frankly it bothers the hell out of me. Perhaps psychoanalysis would say that I’m craving the things that I missed early on in life, as a sort of over-compensation for my childhood. But that seems too simplistic of an explanation, especially since there were definitely points in my early life where I did reach out for guidance when I needed to make a decision. So what gives?

Interestingly, when it comes to the decisions and choices of other people I have absolutely no trouble offering advice when called upon to do so. In fact, I often find myself seeking out the role of counselor when I have the opportunity. So it’s not like I lack the internal tools and mechanisms to actually come to a rational decision about things; I just seem to lose access to them when it involves my own damn life.

The problem is, my life has reached a point where making my own choices and decisions will be utterly crucial if I am to continue on a positive path for the rest of my days. That much I know. I can’t rely on someone else to take the reins for my world, as it were, especially if I want to have “someone else” there in the first place. If there is one thing I’ve come to grips with over the past few years, it’s that there aren’t a whole lot of people who want the responsibility of my daily minutia on their plates in addition to their own stuff. It’s just too much to handle. So if I’m going to make it going forward, I need to find a way to internalize my own advice the next time I tell a friend to “do you.” Otherwise, I’m going to end up with a whole lot of questions and no answers attached.

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I had quite a bit written in the form of a nice essay as usual, but I bagged it because I don’t want to do that anymore. I want to write from the heart, rules be damned. It is isn’t readable, so be it–it’s whats inside.

Love isn’t something to separate by types or kind. It isn’t meant to be qualified and it shouldn’t be a “sometimes” statement. If you love someone, you should tell them, if only because you never know when you may have the chance to tell someone something that powerful again. Many of us grow up with mixed feelings about our relationships with our parents, and although mothers and fathers (particularly the latter) are being more and more encouraged to tell their children how much they care about them on a regular basis, I would be stunned if there weren’t a large group of people within ten years of my age who wish they had a better understanding of just what their parents thought of them and why. To that end, hearing “I love you” can be the glue that holds all other questions and doubts at bay.

With the exception of my son, saying “I love you” has never been an easy thing for me. I always wonder and worry if the words mean as much as they are supposed to, and if I mean them as much as I am supposed to when I say them. So even in situations where someone expressed their love for me in a completely appropriate, non-romantic setting (think grandmother type or longtime friend), I still would find myself hesitating, stuttering, and mumbling “lvyoutoo” responses because I couldn’t handle the prospect of having love infiltrate my life so easily.

But the older I get, the more I realize that even if we aren’t only here once, I have no interest in wasting the time I have available to me while I exist in the here and now. And because of that, I am so much more willing to allow love–with all of its wonder, and happiness, and fear, and vulnerability–to become a part of me as I move forward into the next phases of my story. And while there is a part of me that will always be terrified at the prospect of loving someone who may decide not to love me back, there is a much bigger part that looks forward to the warm blanket of saying and hearing those three words and meaning them as well.

I always used to think that truly loving someone meant prioritizing them ahead of even yourself in the decisions you make throughout your life. And to a certain extent that still strikes me as accurate. But the more I think about it, the more I am realizing that while putting someone before you can be a wonderful gesture, it is equally amazing to allow someone to share your spot in line and experience the ride together. The concept of sharing is one that I probably haven’t until now embraced as much as I could have to this point, and I definitely see the greatness associated with saying to someone you care about “I want to stand next to you and be an adventurer with you throughout the episodes of our lives, hand in hand.” I can’t imagine a better mantra to live by.

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I remember going for runs in the year leading up to my wedding, which now seems like a lifetime ago, and always wanting to go just a little bit farther than I had the run before so I could “feel good about myself.” This was before crossfit, and PRs, and all of that stuff, or at least before they entered my realm of consciousness, so “feeling good about myself” was the phrase most used in the lexicon of Adam when describing why he did what he did on a daily basis.

But in retrospect, I think I spent so much time running, and in the gym, and trying to eat right not so much because I was trying to feel good in any legitimate health context, but rather because it made me feel good to think that I looked good. And in my mind, it was pretty simple mathematics: if I ran and hit the gym and ate right, I lost weight and gained muscle and clothes fit better. If I lost weight and gained muscle and clothes fit better, people would notice all of these things. And if people noticed all of these things, they would like me more. And if they liked me more, I would be affirmed. For all the right reasons, of course, as you can see.

This sort of ad hoc retrospective analysis of my previous vanity isn’t meant to suggest that there isn’t anything like it remaining. I still care about how I look, I suppose, and I still am conscious of what people may or may not be thinking about me (physically and otherwise). I’m no longer thinking about how I might look in a tuxedo, and in a lot of ways that has allowed me to have realistic expectations for who I am, what I am, and who and what I can be.

So I think about all of this now in the context of other people, since I literally can’t stand saying or even writing the words “I think I look good,” and it never ceases to amaze me how many there are in the world who have no (conscious) idea about what they bring to the table. And not just physically, but with regard to intelligence, and personality, and kindness, and the like. Some people just don’t grasp all that they have going for them, and the more I witness this in the world, the sadder it makes me sometimes. Perhaps because I understand the conflict of wanting the result of vanity without wanting to be considered vain.

My son is a kindergartener now, and God willing, he won’t have to deal with the sorts of insecurities I did when I was growing up. He has the looks and charisma I would have killed for as a teenager, much less as a five year old, and I can’t recall a day in his life when he wasn’t pulling in new friends and making himself the center of attention (in a good way) in all of his circles.

Contrast that with the boy who spent years trying to combat chubbiness, and pimples, and a lack of experience, and all of the above with a stand-offish mentality against the world in order to shoehorn in a “fuck you, I don’t need you” attitude to all of those who he thought might be watching and judging (but realistically probably never were). Contrast that with the girl who grew up with braces, and glasses, and tall, or short, who always wanted to fit in, but never knew how exactly, and combatted that with a “fuck you, I don’t need you” attitude against the boys who she thought never noticed her (but realistically probably always did).

We spend so much of our lives in our own heads trying to assess what other people think of us, and so little time coming to grips with what we actually want to be. Our vanity, then, serves little more purpose than a protective shield against the little boys and girls out there who remained on our minds for all of these years, even as we never thought about them. It helps us get out of bed in the morning, and into our worlds, and then into bed once again for the night so we can rest enough to get up and do it all over again.

But as much as I may have wished I could look good in my school pictures, or at the gym, or even in that tuxedo, I wish so much more now to find the peace of mind to not look for something that I’m not, and for once obtain some genuine comfort in my own skin. I would want that for my son, and I would want it for those closest to me, so I should want it for myself as well. And while I think I’m still probably a ways off at the moment, I am satisfied in the notion that, perhaps finally, I’m on the right road.

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Thoughts on Quiet

I was told to write what I’m thinking about, so here it is, uncensored and unfiltered.

I wonder sometimes how much of what comes out of my mouth is simply a result of being afraid of silence. I know so few people who have the talent–and it really is a talent–to simply sit back and listen to the world around them, and not feel the compulsion to spout off at the hip whenever conversation or noise dies to a lull. For a decade now I have spent the majority of my waking hours in some sort of dialogue with the community, whether it was personal, or professional, or academic, or even just to myself when no one else was around to listen.

The irony of ironies is, at the core, I am probably the most insecure person you will ever meet in that I am terrified of what people think of me. So you would think I wouldn’t have the guts (or I suppose the audacity) to open my mouth at all when I get into a group setting. But somehow the opposite is true, and often I find myself in the middle of some truly asinine conversations where I have no idea what I’m talking about, how I got there, or why I’m continuing to blab. And yet it goes on. And on.

It’s not all bad, though. Truth be told, I’ve had some pretty amazing discussions with some pretty amazing people in my lifetime, and they haven’t disappeared yet. But the difference, I think, is that when I find something I am passionate about, and someone I am passionate to talk with, everything slows down to the point that I get myself out of verbal autopilot so I can spend time thinking not only about what I want to say, but about how I want to say it. Because in the end, I have learned in my elder years that non-verbal behavior can be just as important to understanding the essence of who you are talking to and why.

Those who are able to remain silent in the face of what I’ll call the “talking onslaught” are true heroes of mine, because they have self-control and discipline that I have never been able to obtain. I’ve met some who think they stay quiet often because they can’t think of the right words to say, or because they get tongue-tied when it’s time to speak, but I don’t think that’s it at all. In reality, they simply have an intuitive sense that sometimes–perhaps most of the time–people just need to shut the fuck up and take things in.

So if you’re one of those people (and you should know who you are), allow me not only to tip my cap to you, but also to say that I want to learn from you. Talking for the sake of talking can be great, but the silent, knowing look of someone who manages to stay quiet while I move onto paragraph nine of my diatribe represents the peace, security, and happiness that I know I’m looking for at this point in my life.

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A World within a World

I’m reading a novel called Ready Player One by Ernest Cline, and to say that I’ve been fascinated by the content would be a vast understatement. The thing is, I’ve read a fair amount of books, covering a fair amount of subject matter in my lifetime, and there is a clear (and small) collection of works that have left their forever brand on my brain for a whole plethora of reasons. While I haven’t yet finished the book, I’m pretty sure it’s headed in that direction. Which is cool in its own right, but I digress.

Make no mistake here–I’m by no means a literary snob. Not only do I undoubtedly lack the appropriate qualifications for even wearing a snob costume, I just never understood the point in telling someone what types of books they should like to read. Like with other forms of art, except perhaps movies and video games, I leave my opinion in the “I like what I like because I like it” category. Kind of like “I know porn when I see it,” I just know a good book when I begin diving into it. But I have no way of knowing whether that means anything on the objective scale, and quite frankly, that sort of thing doesn’t really interest me too much when it comes to books and reading. So whether I am combing through the collected works of Fitzgerald, or Homer, or even the latest by Palahniuk, Bret Easton Ellis or some other new writer brat packer, I am just as capable of losing myself in any of the books regardless of their source.

So with this in mind, allow me to return to my initial thought: I find myself most captivated by a book not when it offers the most sophisticated literary mechanics (whatever they are) or the most eloquent prose (word up), but rather when I can open up to the page I left off on and immediately feel as though I’ve fallen into the world of the story without turbulence or toughness. That’s it; that’s enough for me. Give me a chance for easy escape out of reality and into the world of the author, and you’ve got my dollar and attention. Call me a cheap date.

In the case of Ready Player One, I’ve been able to get myself into a story about a futuristic dystopian society where people spend the majority of their waking hours escaping into an alternate virtual reality internet-based environment known as the “Oasis,” and I have to say, reading it feels like nothing less than falling into the deepest and greatest of rabbit holes, with a warm, soft blanket surrounding me on my way down. To put it another way, as a guy who avoids the use of recreational drugs generally, I can only describe the feeling I have reading this thing as one hell of a substitute.

But what is it about the “world within a world” experience that can feel so wonderful, and why do we (I) look for this sort of escape as much as we do? It can’t just be a reflection of the “real life” circumstances of the readers, or else only those people with sub-standard lifestyles would feel the need to pick up a book and lose themselves in it. But we know that isn’t the case–people of all sorts of backgrounds, classes, and ethnicities enjoy reading as much as all the rest. So what gives?

Allow me to perform some pop-psychology to proffer an answer that seems–to me, anyway–plausible given how strange it all looks at first glance. Could it simply be that human beings crave diversity so much generally that, regardless of the quality of their actual lives, they will seek out something else to experience if at all possible? If true, this sort of phenomenon might also help to explain why people with supposedly “perfect” marriages, relationships and even significant others (in the physical sense, anyway) go out and commit adultery with, shall we say, lower status citizens of the universe. Maybe it’s just that no matter how good we have it, the chance to find something new and throw ourselves into it, head first, is simply too intoxicating a possibility to pass up for most of us.

I’m lucky, I suppose, that the limits of my desires extend merely to the pages of a novel, rather than a whole new existence brought on by the worst mid-life crisis one could fathom. But whether we are referring to a new motorcycle, or partner, or work of fiction to surround ourselves with, it’s hard to argue with the notion that–for however long we are able–losing ourselves escaping into the “world beyond” is a feeling unlike many others we can experience here in the real world. And maybe that’s why my bookshelf will always be stocked full.

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A Rant about Parenting

Forgive me in advance for this, because there will be some profanity and informal outrage spouted throughout. I just need to get this off my chest because it’s been bothering me for hours now.

Yesterday, after getting a much-needed haircut, I stopped into the Gamestop nearby that I occasionally frequent to pick up the newest edition of Madden. After shooting the shit with the employees as I usually do (we basically know each other by name at this point), I went out happily to go home and hang out with my family before trying out the game. I mention this in order to illustrate why my mind wasn’t prepared for what was about to happen behind me as I walked through the parking lot to my car.

Just as I reached the door of my car, I heard an incredibly loud, almost guttural female voice literally scream “Get the FUCK out of the car NOW!” Thinking I was hearing a marital dispute in progress I turned around briefly out of instinct, and was stunned to see not a husband, but a (maybe) seven year old son halfway out of the backseat of that car. Again, the same booming voice: “I said get the FUCK out of the car or DON’T. Stop being such a little BITCH. Man the fuck UP.” The son, who apparently was to that point undecided about whether he was going in, bee-lined for the door of the store with his father (who was standing silently by) and they walked in together while the mother circled the parking lot waiting for them. I, meanwhile, got in my car and sat for a minute or two to compose myself before driving away.

Some facts to point out for those who want a better mental image of what I have been describing. I live in a relatively nice, upper-middle class area of Connecticut, and this particular strip of stores is located in one of the more affluent sections of town. The family was in a decently nice car, dressed in decently nice clothing, and was white. In any other context I never would have had them figured for a stereotypical threat for something like this to happen. Just to break down any previously held notions about what this sort of abuse “looks like.”

Yes, this was abuse. There is no other word for it, and it is because of this that I sat in my car, not really sure what to do. And then I made the decision that so many others probably do when faced with this sort of scenario: I did nothing. I started my car, put on my seat belt, and drove away to tell my social worker wife about what I had just witnessed (she shook her head in understanding disgust but didn’t say much).

I’ve been trying to avoid writing too much personal or emotional posts lately, mainly because it seems to cause more trouble that it is worth, but I really needed a way to pour it all out to the masses this time to see if I’m alone in my feelings about this. Because no matter how many “excuses” or “justifications” or even “explanations” my intellectual mind can derive for why this happened (the mother is sick, the mother had a bad upbringing herself, the mother was having a bad day, the son had been a major pain in the ass all the way to the store, the mother and father were having a rift, etc.), none of it satisfies my gut instinct that, for fuck’s sake, MOTHERS JUST SHOULDN’T TREAT THEIR KIDS LIKE THIS.

I don’t have a real reason for why I feel like this, but I do. I can say that much. And I would like to say that I feel the exact same way about fathers, but I’d be lying to you. Don’t get me wrong, fathers are incredibly important components to the proper upbringing of a child in my mind, but there is something extra special about the relationship between a mother and her child (I’m assuming it was hers–I suppose she could have been the step-mother, which only makes it slightly “better” in my mind) that sets off alarm after alarm for me when I see something like this go down.

And here’s the thing–I think I’ve seen a decent amount of dysfunctional shit in my life so far, but I have to say, this one has to be at or near the top of the list of fucked up stuff I hope I never see again. Because honestly, cursing is one thing. Almost all of us curse, and I’m sure at some point or another even the best of parents can fly off the deep end and curse at their badly behaved children once or twice (“What the fuck is going on here?”, “For the last time, put down that video game and clean your damn room!”, etc.). But to place such venom; such direct viciousness to a seven or so year old child, within which you not only scream the worst of the dirty words, but go so far as to call him a bitch because he isn’t sure if he wants to get out of the car….I mean, that just blows my mind.

I could spend time questioning whether it’s fair that I place such responsibility on mothers to be the ultimate arbiters of love and moral support for their children, but I’m not going to. You know why? Because at the end of the day, even if I came up with a perfect formal “proof” for why I was unjustified in making these assumption, it wouldn’t change a thing about how I feel, and the visceral reaction that takes place inside of me when I see such a thing take place.

And for those who think I’m exhibiting some sort of sexism or favoritism or some other ism in putting mothers on these platforms of responsibility, just save it. You can be correct, and I couldn’t care less. Because just as I think mothers should be there for their kids, I also am quick to give credit and applause to mothers who have kids who grow up to be happy, healthy, well-adjusted members of the adult community. God bless them, because I understand how hard it all can be.

But regardless of the difficulty, and regardless of the reasons why this person; this woman; this mother went off the deepest of ends yesterday at her son, I can’t help but wonder how many other times she has done it, and how many other times she will do it again. And you know what? It’s just not fucking fair to ask a child to grow up in an environment like that. Because regardless of whether he will grow up to be the next parents who screams profanity at his kids, the fact remains that right now, in this moment, he is just a seven year old boy who undoubtedly craves love and positive attention from his mother that all of us would, and did. He’s just a child, and he’s being destroyed one maternal insult at a time.

It’s just not fair.

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When Searching Becomes Obsolete

I have a question, and I really would like a good answer to it. How old do you have to be before you can be told you’re too old to search for your dreams in life? 30? 50? Never? I really need an answer, because it could help me mold the next fifty years or so of my own existence.

I understand that we all get to the point–or most of us do, anyway–where the dreaded responsibility rears its ugly head and we begin to base our decisions on rational cognition rather than base desire. Or to put it more bluntly, we think with our big heads rather than our little ones. And to a certain extent, this seems perfectly acceptable to me. We grow up, we find a job, get married, have a kid or three, get a rent, or a mortgage, along with the other bills and obligations that make family life as great as possible. But should that be it? What if we want more?

And don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating for those people (you know who you are) who constantly need to scratch the itch of living the single life in order to handle coming home to the white picket fence everyday. Those people, in my estimation, anyway, probably need to get their priorities checked and see if they made the right decision when they “decided” to settle down.

Instead, I’m talking about the people who, in spite of being genuinely happy with being married, mortgage-paying parents with soccer-playing kids who need help with their homework every night, nonetheless yearn for something else that will give them the completion that their souls constantly crave. And what might this “something” be? I assume it could be pretty much anything for anyone, depending upon a person’s passions. Sometimes, and I consider myself a dues-paying member of this group, the “something” can be completely unknown, even though the craving for it is both real and palpable.

And this is where searching comes in, often at full force. If you know that something is out there, waiting for you to find it and make it your own, how can you not spend at least a little time or energy wondering what that nameless, faceless, but nonetheless essential something actually might be?

Could it be guitar lessons? How about writing that book you always knew you had inside you? Or maybe its as simple as finishing the cabinet that has been sitting in the basement for years, if only to prove to yourself that you really are an artist and a handyman at the same time?

This doesn’t have to be a major revelation, and it doesn’t have to indicate some sort of midlife crisis. It can, however, demonstrate that while a person is truly happy in the life that she is leading to this point, she would be even happier if she were able to find and take on that one final, essential thing that would help to close the proverbial circle of life, as it were. Or at least to get her one step closer.

But getting back to my original question, should we put a stopping rule on these types of searches, and just say if we haven’t found it by __________, it’s time to give it up and move on? In the way that one could say “Time to grow up, buddy,” I could imagine someone looking at a searcher and think (1) how much time must be wasted on this stuff, and (2) how much responsibility is being shirked in the process.

But I think there is a big difference between searching for that special something that you’re really passionate about, and pushing aside everything else in your life in the process. The question is, if we are going to allow for a certain amount of sacrifice in the pursuit of the search, just how much sacrifice should be allowed before things start getting inappropriate by everyone’s standards? And where I would think, at first glance  anyway, that leaving one’s family or job would be too much under these circumstances, I’m also pretty confident that a compromise could be found, even for the most devoted and obligation-filled person. Half hour here, an hour there, no big deal, right?

Someone please come up with a good response here, because this one is driving me crazy. Thanks.



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My Best Friend Is An X: Thoughts on “Isms”

Let me begin with an anecdote, or something similar to one. I used to belong to a fraternity–for about a year and a half. I believe I’ve written about it before, but that isn’t relevant for these purposes. While I was in the frat, I learned a few things not only about the people in that particular house, but also about those in my university more generally. What I learned was essentially twofold: first, while prejudices of the past have indeed gotten better than they were, say forty years ago, they do still exist in my generation, and probably in those that have come after me. And second, in spite (and perhaps because) of this fact, people often like to use personal examples and stories as a way to disarm a potential accusation of prejudice. Hence the commonly overheard, “I’m not a racist. My best friend is Black! (Or Latino. Or Asian. Or Jewish. Or whatever.) And if they weren’t saying it overtly, they were “doing it” by making sure to keep up a quota of minorities who would serve as the token “See? We aren’t bigots. We have so-and-so over there in our ranks. So back off!” people to shield them from that scary pointed finger coming their way.

Ok, so we have all of that set. I assume most people (especially those with any kind of experience in academia) are familiar with the sort of thing I am referring to. What I would like to discuss here, though, is just how much these personal or group examples really matter in the game of calling someone an “ist” or accusing them of an “ism.” In other words, how confident can I be that the two black guys in my group of friends really keep me in line when it comes to the normal standards of racial and ethnic harmony? Or put even better: Am I just kidding myself?

I ask these questions because it occurred to me recently that I myself (one of my favorite redundant phrases) have been one to throw around the “I’m not X, I do/know/hang out with Y” in defense of my own feelings about those unlike me. The only difference is, in my case I tend to offer these defenses more to myself than to anyone in the outside world. That’s not to say I haven’t gone public with my gold star of acceptance–surely I have at some point or another–but for the most part, I tend to have these sorts of dialogues only with me, myself, and I. And let me tell you, I have never hesitated to pat myself (see what I did there?) on the back until now.

Here’s the thing about me. I am a walking stereotype of privilege. I’m male. I’m white. I have brown hair and light eyes. Despite my name, I don’t really “look” like someone Hitler would have hated. I give off the impression (or so I’m told) that I have a history of money, education, and ease. In short, Affirmative Action wasn’t thought up with me in mind. And all of that is fine. It really is. Why should I complain about being a few blond hairs short of a poster child for the Third Reich? It’s not my fault I look the way I look and sound the way I sound, right? Right?

Well, maybe, and maybe not. Because just as I can beg away accusations of my supposed “privilege” by saying I can’t help being who I am, so too can people make similar claims about blacks, and gays, and Jews, and pick-your-favorite-minority who, despite their inability to change their genetic dispositions, nonetheless have to deal with (yes, even now) some pretty awful prejudice and “ism” directed at the very things they can’t change about themselves. So if they have to deal with it, why shouldn’t I?

And therein lies my problem. I know I am, at least in some sense, a true child of privilege. And I also know that, like most people, I undoubtedly hold some stereotypes that, against my better conscious and rational knowledge, nonetheless hang out in my subconscious, ready to pounce if offered a chance. And I say “like most people” because I genuinely believe that the vast majority of those at least with whom I have had contact in my life hold irrational feelings about other people and/or other groups despite their claims to the contrary. It’s just the way people are, for better or (likely) worse.

So getting back to the original question, one thing I have going for me in all of this is that I can make the claim that I am “friends with Xs” without having to struggle for examples. I really can. I have had and continue to have good friends who are gay, black, Jewish, and Asian, four of the most stereotyped and preyed upon groups in the “ism” game. I have them to the point that it would never enter my mind to avoid being with them in public settings, hugging them in front of others, and so on. It just never really mattered to me, and it still doesn’t. And they are “genuine” or “good” friends in that I have spent time with them in both group and one-on-one settings, and I respect them as people with whom I share some sort of common bond. So does all of this mean that I should get a pass from the oft-discussed “ist” accusations that are thrown around so frequently these days? Or are my friends merely exceptions to the general “ist” rule?

To be honest with you, I really don’t have a good answer to these questions. Despite the education I have received on the importance of social equality, and despite my acceptance of people of all creeds into my circle of friends at various points of my life, I still sometimes wonder whether I really am kidding myself with regard to the big picture. Because truthfully, when I really think about how I feel about these groups with whom I have socialized and hugged and so on, I find some interesting potential contradictions to what I previously believed about myself. Like, I think I would be a complete idiot–really, a through and through moron–to make the claim or believe that women (as a group) are anything less than intellectual equals to men (as a group). But at the exact same time, if you presented me with a topic and asked whether I would like a male or a female (all other things equal) as my teacher in a certain topic, I would be lying if I said I was indifferent across the board. And not just on topics involving familiarity with human anatomy. For instance, let’s say the topic is Sports. Give me a guy all day and twice on Tuesday. But change that topic to Parenting, and I want a woman. End of story. Is this fair? Perhaps not, but fairness isn’t exactly what we’re going for here.

See what I mean? Despite all of my education, all of my experience, all of my privilege, there remain certain aspects of the world that I just can’t disassociate with my built up stereotypes, especially when I am speaking off the cuff. Ask me whether I’d rather walk with a white guy or a black guy through a rough neighborhood at night, I’m going with the black guy (despite Dave Chappelle’s astute advice that they’re “scared too!”). Latin or white guy for dance lessons? Gotta go Latin. And on and on we go. You might argue that the “all other things equal” part of the thought experiment makes it all inapplicable to real life, but I think we would be remiss to say that none of it is worth considering when we discuss these matters. And if I’m truly alone in my choices, I’d be surprised.

So in closing, let me offer this insight: Intellectually I usually am able to put aside stereotypes in my analysis of the world, and I think others are as well (not everyone, obviously). I know, for instance, that things like ethnicity, sexual orientation, and gender play zero role in my assessment of a person’s level of intelligence (a friend of mine is one of the smartest people I have ever met, and he is both black and gay). But the fact remains that my instincts often kick in before my brain does. The real question, then, is whether the “isms” discussion should focus on the, for lack of a better term, “first step stereotypes” that people often have before their brains start working, or rather on those who have gotten to “step 2″ and still make assertions or have developed beliefs that attribute unjust inequalities to groups based on characteristics beyond their control. I would like to believe that at very least, one’s selection of genuine friends can be an indicator of where they stand on step 2, even if it is not exhaustive. Step 1, however, remains unclear to me, and I would be lying if I said it didn’t make me second-guess myself a little bit.

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Short and Not-So Sweet

I have tried to write this post now for going on a month, and for the life of me I can’t do it. I can’t find the words to tell the story I want to tell, and even when I find the requisite vocabulary, my prose comes up lacking in every single instance. It seriously annoys the living hell out of me. But rather than give up in frustration for the umpteenth time with the hope that tomorrow will bring the clarity I need to put my thoughts on the page for others to read, I am going to stay consistent with the title of my blog and jot down my ideas in as random a manner as I can before I forget everything or stop caring. So apologies in advance for the upcoming roller coaster. I’ll try to keep it all as brief as possible.

Put simply, I’m starting to think we are doomed as a species. We have access to the lives and stories of more people than ever before in human history, and rather than use this to help those in need, we instead bury ourselves in the warm comfort of cyber anonymity. Take, for instance, the recent tragedy at Sandy Hook, which I would describe as an event that, while clearly on a smaller scale than something like 9/11, nonetheless remains the most vicious and revolting occurrence in my lifetime. But putting aside for the moment the fact twenty families were deprived for the rest of their lives of the beautiful and perfectly innocent existences of their children, we finally find an example of the type of social sympathy and warmth that could take place if we allowed it to more often: playgrounds will be built in the names and honor of each child murdered at the school in Connecticut, New York, and New Jersey over the next year or so. Wonderful, wonderful response to such a terrible, terrible tragedy. Right?

Tell that to the coward who, in the name of “Sandy Hook Truthing,” went to Grace McDonnell Playground in Mystic, CT, stole the fifty pound commemorative sign, called Grace’s mother, and explained to her (anonymously, of course) that he did what he did because she was part of a governmental conspiracy to obtain stricter gun legislation. That’s right: he taunted the mother of a murdered seven year old by telling her that her daughter never even existed in the first place. That she was working with the government. THAT SANDY HOOK NEVER FUCKING HAPPENED.

What in the name of God, or anything else we might otherwise have considered holy, have we become as a society? Would this have happened fifty years ago? Twenty? It seems so unbelievable to me that with all of the technological achievements we have made in the name of “advancement,” we have nonetheless taken multiple steps back against the grain of mutual love, help, and respect. We are regressing. Because with every Ben Sauer where a viral story creates a national outpouring of sympathy for a family going through the purest of tragedies, we find comments on the affiliated message boards asking “Why is this a featured news story?”

I’ll ask again, and again, and again: what is the matter with us? Were we always this bad, or have we allowed these so-called “advancements” in technology and social networking to provide the scumbags of the world with the false courage to make their horrible claims and perform their horrible actions behind the opaque veil of the internet?

Why can’t we just be happy for those who achieve, and sad for those who mourn? Why do we feel the constant need to belittle, and mock, and minimize the accomplishments of those who motivate others to succeed in ways that could not possibly adversely affect the naysayer?

Why must there always be a conditional added to the good of life? A “yes, but….” tacked on to the end of any success story we tell. How much longer can we bear this before we completely self-destruct?

Or perhaps….just perhaps….we have already self-destructed and simply cannot see it yet. For the sake of my sanity; for the sake of my son; I truly hope we can get to a point where we can watch the news without tissues and Xanax at the ready. Because not everyone is as lucky as I am to wake up to the same smiles of innocent love denied to the parents of Sandy Hook, to the parents of Ben Sauer, and to the parents and families of countless horror stories that continue to take place across the country, day in and day out, week after week, month after month, year after year. that But maybe I’m asking for too much at this point.

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