Saturday, July 22, 2017

Why I Stopped Blogging

My long time readers (and I would like to take a moment to thank all three of you, especially you, Mom) will recall that I used to be much more prolific. Nine years and 463 posts, but only four in the last year.

What happened?

I could say that I'm a lot busier, and that would be a true statement, but it would be a lie, because that's not the reason I don't write anymore. There are a lot of factors that might seem disparate, but in the end they are probably not--I think I don't write anymore because I am tired of not knowing who I am.

Take this blog, for instance--what the hell is it? Is it personal journal (a dumb reason to blog, IMHO), religious exploration, political/social analysis, comedy?  One of the problems is that it is all of those things. I've gotten slightly better at this, but when I was younger I was quite content to amuse myself, make inside jokes for an audience of one or two, be deliberately esoteric, etc. Those things are all fine to do in one's spare time--but what's the point of making these things deliberately front-facing? And I would argue that the internet is deliberately front-facing--the whole world can see it! (Sorry for the spoiler alert, for those of you still trying to get to the bottom of this whole internet thing.)

I'll be honest, as the years go on, it gets harder and harder to be a straight line professional out in the real world, but a vulnerable, opinionated, spiritual goofball online. I live in two worlds. Sometimes it's hard to keep a lid on it at work, but for the most part I'm able to keep my real self successfully tamped down between 8 and 5, M-F. I used to be worse at it, but the accretion of years have been successful at taming my soul and true nature. My true nature being the guy who just wants to prank his coworkers and practice stand-up bits on them all.day.long. Identity crisis. It's not working anymore to let my freak flag fly online (oh god do I hate that term). What if a future employer digs up this blog? At 25 I found that idea exhilarating--at 35 it scares me to death. I guess it's having more skin in the game, and less of an excuse for being weird.

And if a future employer did look it up, who would they find? I'm not sure. At 17 I was apolitical but got a girlfriend who made me a firebrand liberal (no questions asked, sounded good to me). That flamed out after a good two years--I got tired of waiting for the capitalistic empire to collapse, so I joined it. In a big way. Joined the Rush Limbaugh fan club and shouted down any liberal scum that got in my way--facts not required, volume and vehemence substitutes nicely. At this time I also would have told you that gays could not marry and that most of humanity would cook in hell for eternity.

Now I am unrecognizable from that person. It took an evolution of many years, but now I believe precious little of what I would have been willing to die for 13 years ago. The political game makes me want to throw up so I don't want to do the label thing, but I've definitely gone "progressive"--although I can't say that or call myself that because 22-year-old me would kill me for saying that, and he's still lurking around down there. I believe white privilege and institutional racism are some of the biggest problems in this country, that the social safety net needs to be radically strengthened, basic universal income might be a good idea; there is probably not a hell and no one goes there unless they really, really want to--and even then God will let them come on home whenever they're ready for it, AND that reading any immorality into same-sex relationships is just bad Bible interpretation. Whoa. And I'm only 35, so that's the problem--I'm genuinely afraid that I'm a rudderless fuzzy head who is doomed to be whipped about by the prevailing spirit of the age, ready to switch teams again when it makes sense to do so...

So right now I'm just not sure who I am--do I ditch the gags, the making people uncomfortable, the crazy, distant but as yet unshakable aspiration to still one day be a song and dance man, and thus fully integrate into the square world where lines are straight, conversation is pleasant and unremarkable, opinions nicely coiffed and diplomatically plotted?

Right now the square world is winning out.











Thursday, April 20, 2017

"What Have We Become?"

I feel like we are losing the thread a bit. Trump's not a cause he's a symptom. These are not original thoughts, I'm just echoing those that are paying attention. We are losing the thread, the thread of our sense and purpose. I am losing my own thread: technology is too much, I have too many choices, I have too many necessary items to consume. I can't watch my kids play because I need to curate the moment it, tag it, post it.

We're getting uglier, courser. All of us, most of us. The political bubbles, the feedback loops—we are receding from common ground and common space, going to the warm places we know—it's getting too easy not to. In the year 2000 we looked around and said, "hey, look at us, we're pretty divided." We didn't think we could get more polarized—how quaint.

This computer in my pocket ensures that my brain is kept as a scattered slop house—endlessly flitting from Hot Take to Hot Take, reading the latest on everything under the sun, taking in the point and counter point, trying to do it all justice and therefore feeling that for sure I know nothing. "Well yes, but what about what he said..."

But I've come across three pieces in the last 24 hours, and they were different. As I read them I felt this sense of being re-membered...humanity being restored. In these pieces I felt like I was reading something from the old country, the old days; not the "good old days" that never were, but maybe a time where civility fetched a higher price at the social stock market than the "thanks for nothing" it can get you today.

Once I had read the third one I knew that I was going to need to do something to preserve them. Preserve the pieces, preserve the sense of restoration, and dare I say, hope, that they provided. They all spoke with eloquence the vague strings and inklings floating around in my mind; the notions that insist that there has to be a better way. Maybe we don't want to hate each other, maybe we don't want to hand over our best hours to our devices, our Netflix, our cult classics, three complete runs through Breaking Bad, periodic viewings of the improbable 2004 ALCS.

So I share these pieces with you. I plant them in this little home, mostly as a reminder for me, but there for anyone else who would like to benefit—we are not our best selves when wrapped up in the cocoon of our technology, or in the soft bosom of like-minded confidants who are more than eager to assure you, "it's ok to hate them, we've got each other." And with each assurance that this is so, our oasis of common ground shrinks a little more.

Piece one: In the age of Trump, can Mr. Rogers help us manage our anger?

"We demonize people when we feel powerless. We demonize when we do not know what to do with our own despair. But mad, we noted, is ever a form of sad, and our channels for engaging it thoughtfully cannot be controlled by nor are they dependent upon any elected official. We can make our own moments of pause together with others whenever we like. Let’s not let the outbursts of one man dictate our emotional lives or the way we address one another. President Trump’s chaos need not be our own. We can choose what we take in. And as we have to do with anyone who would try to reduce the whole world to the size of their own fear, we can respond with thoughtfulness at every turn. We can make of our own speech, our actions and our thinking a neighborhood expression of care."

Piece two: How Late-Night Comedy Fueled the Rise of Trump

"Trump and Bee are on different sides politically, but culturally they are drinking from the same cup, one filled with the poisonous nectar of reality TV and its baseless values, which have now moved to the very center of our national discourse. Trump and Bee share a penchant for verbal cruelty and a willingness to mock the defenseless. Both consider self-restraint, once the hallmark of the admirable, to be for chumps."

Piece three: Don’t Root for Suicide

"It is very easy to crack jokes and feel superior in the wake of Hernandez’s death. I know this because I am a professional Internet heckler. But there is something deeply fucked-up about a bunch of people cheering for suicide, especially a prison suicide. Not only does it reduce human life down to a tax burden (that, again, will not be relieved), but it suggests that the worst of us can never possibly be redeemed and are better off discarded. And then where do you draw the line? How can you tell which prisoners will turn the corner and make some amends for their crimes—leaving a trace of good in the world before standing in judgment before God—and which never will? Who else passes the Suicide Test?... Because when you reduce the worst of us down to mere animals, you become a bit more of an animal yourself."


Sunday, December 4, 2016

Safe Spaces: Sometimes We Need to be Protected

This post is part of my Kindness Project. Instead of criticizing my subject, it seemed like the right thing to do was try to understand it, first.

It's been a few years since this "safe space" term has invaded our collective mind, so this morning I finally sat down to investigate. I was just as inclined as all of us to be fairly annoyed and dismissive of the ridiculous idea...but these days I play the game a little differently. Whenever I hear something that I don't like, or makes me want to ridicule someone, or get angry at them, I instead pull out this little intellectual tool that I try to keep as sharp and honed as possible—I call it Suspending Judgement Until I Know More.

This allows me to move on with my day—I don't have to make a snap decision that what I just heard about is DUMB and now someone needs to be told so. They can be punished with a tweet, a post, a text, a comment—but most often we punish them in our minds, "what an idiot."

The problem is, we don't get to have these thoughts for free. Everything costs something. The judgement infiltrates our mind—it does things to us. Our thoughts are not consequence free. Snap judgments breed more snap judgments. Judgement separate us from those we judge. Which is not to say that it's wrong, we can't survive without judgment—but it's probably a good idea to make sure we are wielding the tool correctly.

So, having Suspended Judgement Until I Know More, I've moved on with my day. If, over the course of time, the need to judge that stupid thing, like a Safe Space, creeps into my brain's need center again, then I am motivated to move on to the second part of the directive—I'm tired of suspending my judgement—I want to know more now, so that I can proceed with getting to exercise my judgement, which just feels so good.

So I did my "deep dive" on Safe Spaces. Let me share with you what I learned:

Not many of us really "get it."

Safe Spaces primarily exist on university campuses. A space that is usually occupied by something else is filled with comforting items—Play-Doe, coloring books, pillows, etc. And usually only people with "like-minded beliefs" are asked to come in.

When they are opened they are not flooded. A few people trickle in here and there. They are not gaining popularity, there is not a wider movement to expand the notion and practice beyond campuses—and nobody really sticks up for them or likes them or thinks they are a very good idea.

For proof, here are a bunch of pieces that critique and criticize the practice, from either mainstream or liberal sources:

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/22/opinion/sunday/judith-shulevitz-hiding-from-scary-ideas.html

http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/college-kids-arent-the-only-ones-demanding-safe-spaces-20160406

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/08/silencing-religious-students-on-campus/497951/

Conservative media is exaggerating the phenomena to get a rise out of you.

If you listen to Sean Hannity (and I do not recommend such a thing), you would think that every single Hillary Clinton supporter after the election was in a safe space during the day (Play-Doe in hand and completing a coloring book per hour), and was protesting in the streets and breaking things at night.

You don't hate the phenomena of safe spaces because the phenomena doesn't really exist. We don't concern ourselves with what perhaps a few thousand people across this country of 300,000,000+ do. We don't think about or criticize crazy organizations like the Flat Earth Society, because we know there are all kinds of ridiculous groups of people that advocate for absurd things, but if their movement is isolated, small and not growing we don't waste our time.

You're not angry with people—you're angry because of a wildly exaggerated phenomena you've been fed by people who benefit in ratings and dollars by fanning the flames of your outrage.

Perhaps you would feel more sympathy for those few people who need Safe Spaces if you realized you flock to them all the time.

Talk Radio is a Safe Space. Rachael Maddow is a Safe Space. Sean Hannity is a Safe Space. Church is often a Safe Space. People frequently turn their home into a Safe Space. This is not to say that all of these things are horrible—just that we prefer to be in the company of people who agree with us. We prefer to hear things we agree with, and we are uncomfortable when our orthodoxy is challenged.

I would articulate further on this point—but I stole the idea from this Rolling Stone piece, and it articulates far better than I am capable of doing.

After spending a little time thinking about it, I started to wonder why I, or anyone, would ever criticize someone who felt like they needed a Safe Space. And I don't think it's so much that these several hundred people are asking for finger-painting, sitar music and Koosh balls, but probably more so that these silly things were offered and the ones who needed it were appreciative of the aid and comfort.

When you decry Safe Spaces, and indulge in the disgust, it's a good idea to remember: You. Are. Talking. To. People. Flesh and blood and feelings and contradictions and fragilities and emotions. You're not talking to a concept: a Millennial, a Conservative, a Progressive, a Political Supporter, an "Other". Acquaint yourself with the radical concept that the person you're spewing venom against is your child, your family, your coworker, someone you love.

Hating people who need Safe Spaces proves why they need a safe space.

So, have I come out in defense of Safe Spaces, or have I criticized them? Yes. 

It's called nuance—you don't really get it from the media you consume, but nuance, vagueness and shades of gray are much more reflective of reality than the black and white diatribes you are assaulted with that stoke your massive stores of indignation and outrage.

This is an example of a failure of imagination: The easiest thing in the world to do is to portray your opponents position as untenable. Your followers won't question you, making it that much more easy, safe, and enticing. This cartoon is a very Safe Place for a conservative.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

My Special Purpose

I think I've finally found it. For years I have tarried and toiled in the intellectual wilderness. Armed with a sense that I need to say something, poised before an open page, ready for gold to issue from the pen--I have mostly felt stifled, empty and desperate to write the words that needed to be written--having little to no idea what those were.

Enter President Trump.

Trump's election has exposed a plague on the American psyche. It's a plague I've been noticing for a long time, trying to move against it, fumbling through the dark, feeling for its edges so that I could wrap my arms all the way around it, wrestle it to the light, so that I could see exactly what it was. I had a vague sense we weren't working--I didn't know why, I didn't know when, I didn't know what much to do about it, but I knew there was something wrong.

Trump's election has fully exposed what many of us have us have been noticing for awhile now--we don't like each other. Liberals don't like conservatives, red states hate the blues, boomers berate the millennials--and we're not shy about returning the sentiment, and we're not kind or tactful about expressing our disagreement. That's mostly what we have between each other--disagreement. Fueling the fire is a fully formed bubble we can step into to have all of our beliefs and biases completely confirmed for us. We can carefully curate our tv/radio station/website/magazine/circle of friends so that we never have to hear or think about anything we don't want to. We are neatly and ritualistically provided with our own facts, opinions and intellectual architecture that we perceive to be cryptonite to those we disagree with.

What do you think that does to us? The extent you find it difficult to understand someone's point of view is directly proportional to your sense of disgust you feel for that fellow human being.


So that's my new mission, my new life's work--I have the humble task of getting us to be kinder to one another, dammit. I must persuade us all to embrace our own inner Mr. Rogers. Mr. Rogers--so kind, thoughtful and accommodating. He's there, lurking in all of us, and with the right media diet and intellectual exercise, he can be coaxed out of the dark internal cave most of us have driven him to.

The goal is perhaps ambitious, but the payoffs are worth the effort. Imagine a people inclined to kindness instead of judgement as their first reaction to something they don't like. What doors does that open? What might we learn about each other if we are more interested in understanding the other than we are in protecting our own pristine worldview? What beliefs might we find we need to let go of, what others might we embrace? What if some of our beliefs are holding us back, hampering our lives, and keeping us from a fuller realization of human flourishing? Spoiler alert--you have lot's of those. So do I.

Liberals, I love you. Conservatives, I love you. Libertarians, I love you. Atheists, I love you. Come, let us all reason and make merry together. We're going to piss each other off, but perhaps, and just maybe, we can keep some good humor about us. Maybe if we know that our interlocutor is not out for our scalp...maybe that can help us relax. Maybe we have the freedom to be wrong, or at least look wrong, and that doesn't have to bother us. It doesn't have to bother us because maybe we realize that all of us are wrong, everyday, about a lot. If that's true, then what's one more errant political stance, false notion or wrong conclusion that was jumped to?

So I'll be over here, exploring and experimenting with my new life's purpose--which is to get all of us to embrace our inner Mr. Rogers, infiltrate him into the confines of your unique personality, and get ready to feel the love.


Monday, October 3, 2016

The Benefit of Treating Your Spouse Like A Small Child

It's ok to just curate some times. If you're married, you won't regret reading this. If you're not married, you won't regret reading this, and tucking it away for future use.

http://www.mbird.com/2016/09/the-benefit-of-treating-your-spouse-like-a-small-child/

Friday, April 29, 2016

A Fowl Takeover



What if the mob were run by an empire of ducks? More to the point, mallards. If we awoke tomorrow to this new reality how would that change the face of the mob industry? Interestingly, no group of ducks, or any fowl, as of this writing, has ever come together to successfully form a shell corporation, such as a cement company, that is actually a front for fencing and other mob-like activities. So this is surely a challenge that should not be taken lightly. Although the mob is essentially by definition illegal, a fair amount of business and legal knowledge is required to affect the appearance of an above the board commercial operation. Mallards are not known as a particularly scholarly animal, so really only the most fiercely intelligent among them would be able to complete the schooling necessary to gain that knowledge. The best they could probably hope for is to truly rally around their brightest one or two, scrape up enough funds to allow them to take a few night classes at a local community college, and hope that the always evolving tax code and regulatory burdens would not be too great to overwhelm the newly enlightened mallards. If the intellectual burden was too much, alcoholism or some other addiction would surely surface within months.

Next to consider is the mallard’s lack of opposable digits. The problem would assert itself in a number of areas: signing important documents, holding a microphone at a karaoke party, or passing the time by twiddling your thumbs while you wait to confirm a car bomb goes off are some that immediately come to mind. Where it would most acutely show up is in the fact that the mallard would find it very hard to wield any type of weapon. It varies by region, but mobsters tend to need to employ the use of the occasional Tommy gun or greased rubber mallet--the mallard has a lot of ground to make up in this tactical arena. Butterfly knives are of course also a weapon of choice, and while the mallard would appreciate the creature reference, trying to operate such a contraption would surely be more than a nightmare for the mallard.

Another glaring obstacle is that mallards, whether rightly or wrongly, tend to be known for their nobility. There is a regality that they either carry innately, or at least project well enough so as to fool their peer species, so infiltrating an organization as dubious as the mob is certainly not a logical conclusion for the mallard, and has a sizable potential to land with a thud.



But getting back to the mallard’s inability to effectively wield a weapon: surely workarounds are possible. The animal kingdom, and all its inhabitants, are endlessly resourceful, but it would seem that there are just some obstacles that are too great to overcome. Even if the mallard could rig up some type of lever and pulley system so that it, and maybe a few of its cohorts, were able to pull the trigger on a Tommy gun, their height is an obvious impediment to the whole operation. When a human shoots a gun it is easy and natural to hold it around chest height, aiming at chest height, to do the necessary damage. The mallard’s natural resting height, however, will have them aim directly at their adversaries ankles, or thereabouts. This would have the effect of achieving some level of menace, but the target will most likely be able to do some fast and not overly complicated footwork to evade the rapid fire assault. It is also fairly simple for a human, if properly squared up, to just pull their dominant leg back, and with a firm plant foot, just punt a mallard a good 15 to 20 yards, of course adjusting that estimate accordingly for prevailing winds and barometric pressure. The mallard will have to be ready for this type of onslaught if he really intends to do a proper ambush-style mob hit. The discerning mallard will probably come up with some type of portable, wrought iron turret it can ensconce itself in to evade angry, vigorous punt attempts, but still be able to poke the muzzle of his machine gun out of the slat, to inflict maximal damage.

All of this is mere child's play in comparison to what would surely be the most challenging obstacle to the mallard’s ability to fully assume the role of mobster: cement shoes. Probably just the mention of the clumsy but devastatingly effective practice would drive any team of mallards to a bout of severe heartburn. Many challenges have been overcome by the mallard, but one would think that the cement shoes would be the great third rail, as it were, of mallard-cum-mobster operations. The heart of the problem lies in the fact that, assuming they were able to come up with some system to make, mix and pour the shoes, the process of picking the victim up, adding to the already large, probably 200 plus pound frame of the quaking victim, are these monstrously heavy shoes. The strongest mallard on record was only able to dead-lift 58 pounds (and even that event is somewhat contested), so a quick estimate indicates that about 30 mallards would be the bare minimum needed to hoist a stool pigeon the few feet needed to get to the end of the dock to drop the snitch to his watery finale. Now this is where things get complicated: mallards are notorious for their lack of teamwork. Nature has bred them to stand out amongst their peers. Their vibrant colors only help to reinforce their desire to set themselves apart, prove their gusto and prowess, and thwart even their own brother if it means winning the affections of the female. Even when not in a mating situation, you can well imagine the posturing and showboating that goes on among a skein of male mallards. Even if 30 or so mallards could be arranged around the blubbering goon, the urge would be too great for the individual mallard to not put forth the requisite effort, so that he could blame his fellow mafiosos for their lack of upper-wing strength.



In the end we find that, although a tantalizing thought experiment, it does not seem likely there will be a shift in the power dynamics of the mob from man to mallard. Although, this has only been a very brief and quite unexamined look at the possibility, so one should not be too hasty in blithely concluding that this will never happen. The possibility certainly warrants more research, but grants would be necessary, and the current culture in academia is surprisingly anti-mallard, for reasons that are not clear upon first glance.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Problems You Can't Solve

When I sit at the keyboard the bad feelings descend. They are roused to combat by me writing. It’s a problem. It’s a big problem. A problem that, in a way, doesn’t exist. I give myself the pep talks. I tell myself that the worst sin is not trying. 

I have to remember that problem solving is often non-linear. Abstract problems are solved abstractly. Abstract problems are not solved by battened down, power right-brain effort. If you’re afraid that definitely monkeys with knives between their teeth are poised to bust through your window, ransack your room and take your wife, then a dissertation on why that couldn’t possibly happen, complete with spreadsheets, probability tables and well-configured diagrams are not going to alleviate the problem.

Staying at the wheel when it’s the last thing you want to do is the only thing you can do. Let the tears flow. Let the darkness swell and the inferiority writhe like a poisoned worm in the middle of your soul.

If I have a problem with my budgeting figures then I have to take a good look at my spreadsheet equations and data entry. If I have a problem of the mind, writers block, what do I do with my life, oh god, what do I do with my life--the solution to the problem, if there can ever be one, will come from a sideways, “oh wow I didn’t see that coming,” angle. If that is true, then it will not occur to you by sheer force of will. You are at the mercy of the pounding chaos of the infinite universe. Wizards and dragons, gods and demons, whatever it is that lies beyond the great veil of your five senses, it is from there that your answers await to tumble forth. You are powerless, in the meantime. 

Well, you are almost powerless. There is power in showing up when you don’t want to show up. It's a little grace you can give yourself, while you wait for the greater grace of the inscrutable beyond to be gifted to you.