Archive for December, 2011

Sharing the Warmth on the Elevator to Hell (or: Altruism Through Self-absorption)

Wednesday, December 28th, 2011

Mixed into the holiday season chaos of consumerism and event-coordination is an oddly persistent, thin, shimmering warble of Good Will. I felt it somewhere beneath the silky choruses of copious Christmas songs, hidden within the standard-holiday-palate advertisements on busses and trains and buildings, and overtly glowing out from the influx of cards materializing in our mailbox. There has been plenty of typical capitalism-gone-wild mania, sure, but there is also this notion that now, during the darkest days of the year, we should come together as human beings and support each other, take the time to tip your hat and smile, recognize that we’re all on the same team.

So every year I wrestle with this nagging notion that I should make some effort to be a better person. And it seems so simple and innocent. Stop judging people. Give them the benefit of the doubt. Put forth the effort of kindness. It’s a great plan, a wonderful theory. And, for me, it always fails.

I am a grump. I believe that people will always look out for their best interests, often at the cost of just about everyone else, so it requires effort for people to be anything other than selfish children. But plenty of folks really do put in that effort, and, for some of them, kindness seems to be a genuine part of their self-interests. So how do I tap into that? How do I stop assuming that everyone is an idiot?

Drugs help. Coffee. Aspirin. Sugar. Anything to remove the edge. Insult and judgment is a sparkly, low-hanging fruit. As with anything suspiciously “too easy,” throwing an insult to someone, using that person as an illustration of some greater absurdity, is ultimately a quick burn-through of empty calories. It feels great to spew out the venom, and might even make you feel witty for all of three seconds, but then it’s vapor, and then it’s nothing. So you have to keep going, keep spewing, all the while internally recognizing that you are just as absurd, and your cleverness is temporary and insubstantial. Cutting people down, laying judgment, just makes me feel worse about myself.

And that makes me lay into people even more. At the root, judgment is an expression of self-doubt. You require juxtaposition simply to solidify your own persona. It’s like making Jello without putting it into the refrigerator. You require this other thing, the mold, constantly. Without the leverage of this other person’s faults, your own definition becomes unmade and just drips out over the counter. So you keep using other people to make yourself feel defined. You do this to feel the intimation of definition, to trick yourself into believing that it enough. More vapor.

So my simple effort of “kindness” requires something quite different. I have to change the way I feel about myself. If I don’t need to leverage my warped perceptions of other people’s shortcomings, then those “obvious” faults flip around and become shared traits. We are all flawed, and the flaws can be glorious.

“I resolve to love myself.”

If I read that, I would want to hit that person in the eyeball. Maybe you should resolve to get over yourself and move on, idiot. Ha ha. But there’s the nagging truth, tucked away, hidden in the mirror reflection of those words. When I am feeling good about my work, my life, my family, I just don’t take the time to pay attention to other people’s weirdness. It’s all there, of course. Quirks and sickness. But it generally becomes inconsequential to my own well being.

So I resolve to recognize the things that make me feel content. There. Nothing crazy or monumental, and no pressure to completely overhaul the way I interface with the world. I might very well continue scrutinizing everyone around me, assuming the worst. But, just as a start, as a step in the right direction, I need to take notice of the moments when I’m feeling happy and normal. And you should, too. Document them in such a way that you aren’t simply counting blessings. The goal is to figure out where to invest yourself. To recognize those actions and moments that deliver the greatest payback, and begin steering your efforts toward those things. The good will and kindness might follow, but, for now, stop pretending that you are exempt from the human condition and the ubiquitous folly.

The Permanent Excuse

Sunday, December 11th, 2011

Now, ah, where was I? A blog entry explaining why I stopped writing blog entries. Typically self-referential to the point of self-negation. Excuses are always easy. There are enough seemingly random elements in our highly patterned lives that you can create an excuse for just about any display of ineptitude. A simple rearranging of events so as to paint certain occurrences as insurmountable, like a boulder on a train track. The truth, though, is that all excuses are transparent lies. The fact is that something else, perhaps the thing outlined in the excuse, perhaps some other unsaid happening, has trumped the thing that you were supposed to do. The excuse is designed to deflect the obvious nature of the trump, to create a complex skein of thwarting fate.

The dog ate my homework.

Yes, that’s pretty rock-solid. Sure, you could have anticipated the homework-consuming nature of said domestic companion, but the mongrel could very well have played its strategy close to the vest, displaying no inclination to woof down (I know, that’s just how it came out) anything other than kibbles and/or bits. So yes, that’s a fine description of an actual event. But that is not a valid excuse. You could have taken the time to re-do that homework, and, if you really completed it in the first place, the second go would probably take much less time. So you should have punished the dog and finished the damned homework.

I was in meetings all day.

Oh yes, plenty of meetings, no time to think or reply to an email or attend to anything other than meetings, meetings, meetings. I have had those days, but, really, there have probably been one or two of them per year. I’m talking about a day where you get to work and go straight to a meeting, and then have back-to-back meetings scheduled up until the moment you go home. Generally, “all day” means that you had a truly disgusting dose of meetings, perhaps two or three of them in a row, and by the time you’re back in your office, ready to either decompress or situate yourself before the plunge forward, the last thing you want to do is reply to my freaking email. In fact, most replies to emails take only a few minutes. But that requires some sort of focused reading of the email, followed by a direct response, while that email is still in your head. It could consume a total of five focused minutes. But it was probably more important to check the rest of the email, perhaps click over to the news and make sure society hasn’t imploded, and just chill out for a few minutes. I get that. The meetings-all-day excuse is often employed far after the fact, some time during the following day or later. It’s a weak excuse. If something is a priority, you find a way to make it happen, and a reply to an email is one of the easiest tasks in modern communication. You were in meetings all day, though, so you deserve a little time off. Just speak the truth, though, and say that the email wasn’t a priority.

I wrote a novel instead of writing this blog.

Yeah, well, that’s it. I started writing this novel back in February, and I finished the first draft at the end of November. Of course, I wrote plenty of Facebook and Twitter updates. I wrote emails, read books, even played a few video games (purely research – honest, the novel includes quite a bit of Frogger, Time Pilot and Galaga). So perhaps I should use one of those other activities as my excuse. I haven’t updated this blog because I was busy playing Frogger. It’s just as valid an excuse as the novel, the dog or the meetings.

Here’s the truth behind it:

My brain assumes that there are a limited amount of things I can do. I frequently feel that I have too much on my plate. So what if I removed a few things from that plate? How about I stop using Facebook and Twitter. Okay, that frees up some plate space, right? No. I will always have too much on my plate, even if there is only one thing. I leverage the expendable item in order to complete the rest of the tasks. So there will always be one item that gets ignored, creating this little air bubble, a space to regroup and tackle the rest of crap.

Here’s an example.

Back when I was an undergrad, I used to get really excited about the Spring term. Spring is birth and life and the flowering of intellect. In the midst of the oppressive grind of the Fall and Winter, I selected my array of Spring courses with hope and verve. Yes, I took that Ancient Literature class, but I also needed to take Calculus and the two Psychology courses. And just add on that other one, too, the Philosophy class, because it looks so cool and they only teach that one in the Spring and, well, yes, that’s a full plate, a really full plate, but what the hell. Go for it. And the first few weeks of the Spring term would be so great, such an eclectic mix. Oh, I have to write two papers at once. Okay, just hang in there. Oh, Calculus is hard. Hmm, okay. A third paper is slightly overlapping the other two, plus more of that math, okay, okay, and, um . . . oh, I had to read ALL of those chapters? Ugh, and Aeschylus. Where’s the coffee? No, okay, I can just skim over this one and catch up later. Skim over . . . Calculus? Jesus, no. But wait, I think I skipped that Philosophy class last week, so I had better use that time to read about Kant. Ugh. Aeschylus, buddy, you’re just not happening.

So I dropped Ancient Literature about three or four weeks into the semester, and the remaining classes just clicked into place. The teacher seemed a bit disappointed, yet understanding. Yes, he understood that I was full of shit and I just used his class as leverage to position my focus onto all of my other classes. What an insult! And I did this every semester for five years. Fill up the plate, then brush something off the plate.

This blog didn’t go away. Not in my mind. I worked through many entries during 2011, from rants to testimonials to motivational heart-stories. Sometimes I would even plan on writing this stuff. After I did something else. When I was in the right mood and wasn’t too tired. Definitely this next week. Meanwhile, I wrote a novel. It’s only a draft, and there is a lot of rewriting and editing ahead, but it’s a full 125K-word story, the real deal. Oh yeah, I also have a two-year-old son. How could I forget to mention that?! The baby is the perfect excuse. People who don’t have kids usually feel that they can’t really judge you. They assume that parents get no sleep, have zero free time, and are basically socially eviscerated. And the rest of them, the ones who are also parents, always sympathize, harkening back to those hell months before the baby could sleep solid through the night, or the tantrum days, sick spells, or whatever child-fueled sinkhole of the moment. The kid-card is a good one, folks.

But the blog had to remain active in my mind. It had to be viable, just out of reach. For most of 2011, the blog was the superfluous item on my plate. Without the blog, I would have had to select another item to ignore while I worked on the book, posted on Facebook, etc. I’m making no apologies. Without this blog, I would have ignored my son, skirted my fatherly duties and folded completely into self-absorption. The blog has saved my marriage, saved my little boy, and enabled me to write a book. The blog is the bootstrap by which I pulled myself into a more productive work year, accomplishing a major programming project and edging into a higher degree of professional communication. The blog has kept me from drinking away my worries or flying off the handle when confronting pesky neighbors. In effect, the blog has kept me out of prison and off the streets.

So remember this. It’s okay to blow something off. Sometimes it is even necessary, so that you can direct your focus onto the things that really matter in life. It would be best if that object of leverage was not a person, a pet or your job (because too many people do actually blow off their kids and friends and spouses and responsibilities). If possible, your object of leverage should be of minimal sentience. This isn’t meant as an overt insult to any truly sentient blog readers out there. Well, okay, it’s going to directly insult someone. Screw it.

The question remains: What the heck did I blow off in order to write this blog entry? What’s that faint warble I’ve been hearing for the past hour or so?