The Misery Contest


Have you ever noticed how misery has become a contest? It seems like no matter where you go, every time you try to tell a tale of woe, someone else has their own tale to tell, and of course it tops yours. Have a rash? They have a burn. Have a cut? They lost a limb. Got dumped? They got divorced and lost the house in the bargain. There’s always something.

I’m not sure if this is supposed to be commiseration or one-upmanship, but either way I’d like to say “you’re doing it wrong.” Commiseration should be something simple, serious, and heartfelt. An acknowledgement of our common humanity, perhaps coupled with words of comfort. “Dude, that sucks. I’m really sorry to hear that.”

While I would prefer not to encourage one-upmanship (I consider it a distasteful habit, like picking your nose in public or voting), if one is going to engage in it should be done properly as well. Save it for when people are discussing something of value, like a house, a car, or a job. The only proper application of such one-upmanship is when someone is being a particular douchebag, for example talking about their new house, car, and job all at once. In such cases a limited amount of one-upmanship can actually be a public service if applied immediately and without mercy.

In order to curb this outbreak of “misery contestants”, I would like to share an idea my wife and I came up with some years ago. It’s a simple little thing that can be done by anyone but, I think, might just help. Just carry around a roll of nickels with you wherever you go. Whenever someone starts in with the misery contest, hear them out. Let them get it all out there. If you’re feeling particularly pernicious, you can even egg them on a little. When they’re done, simply hand them a nickel and say, “Wow, you’re right. Your life is way worse than mine. Here, have a nickel.” Then walk away.

This simple gesture of faux sincerity and honest scorn will hopefully be the antidote to their sincere display of faux commiseration and honest self-aggrandizement.


The Glengarry Evolution


Recently I was reminded of a great article by David Wong on (of all places) Cracked about “6 Harsh Truths That Will Make You a Better Person” (h/t to Patrick Hoolahan). If you haven’t seen it yet you should check it out; great advice and possibly life changing. The part that really got to me the most was “#5. The Hippies Were Wrong”. Wong makes a lengthy point about the well-known and oft-reviled speech delivered by Alec Baldwin in Glegarry Glenross. For the three of you who haven’t seen it, I’ll include it here (also for the rest of you, because it is awesome):

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8kZg_ALxEz0

Wong makes the point that “half of the people who watch it think that the point of the scene is ‘Wow, what must it be like to have such an asshole boss?’ and the other half think, ‘Fuck yes, let’s go out and sell some goddamned real estate!’” I have to admit, I used to be in the former camp. I’ve heard just about every version of this: “What have you done for me lately?” “Have you earned your seat on the bus today?” “What have you done to add value recently?” And on and on, ad nauseum. I used to hate it, because it all seemed like they were picking on me and not valuing me for what I was bringing to the table.  I was a hard worker, with experience and loyalty to the company, and I had big ideas about how to make things better if they would just listen. Sure, sometimes things weren’t perfect, but everybody makes mistakes.

Then I started managing employees of my own.

At first I was the exact opposite of “that boss”. I was the boss I always wanted to have: I was a good guy, friendly, warm, open and nice. If there was something that didn’t get done, didn’t get done right, or didn’t get done on time, as long as there was a reason, I was willing to hear it and give the benefit of the doubt, even if it was insufficient on the face of it or, worse, was completely irrelevant. I finally started to understand that when I thought I was being a good guy, when I was being “nice” to my employees, what was actually happening was they were seeing Uncle Sympathy, The Clown Who Gives a Damn. I wasn’t doing them any favors, because what I was teaching them was the wrong lesson: as long as they had an excuse, they would be excused. I had to cowboy up and start teaching the lesson nobody wants to hear:

Fuck you, close.

You want the promotion, the raise, the bigger office and the better title? Guess what, so does the guy standing behind you. The difference between the two of you is that one of you is going to be the guy who talks to me about what he did for me last month, and the other one is going to be the guy who tells me about the five accounts he brought in this morning and his action plan to bring in five more tomorrow.

Fuck you, close.

I’m not saying experience and loyalty don’t count, I’m saying that they aren’t magic talismans you get to just wave around and expect they matter for no reason other than existing. Understand why and how they’re important, and be able to elucidate that in a clear and concise manner.

Fuck you, close.

If you have personal problems, I empathize, but the truth is I don’t care, because I can’t afford to care. After work, when we have accomplished everything we need to do to get the job done I’ll buy you a beer and we can talk it out if you want, but for right now we have a job to do, and neither of us is getting paid to not get it done.

FUCK YOU, CLOSE.

That’s my new mantra. It’s not pretty, but it works. And the first guy I say it to every morning is me.


Lessons from Night Class


As I may have mentioned before, I’m still pursuing my college degree, mostly out of masochism, but also due to a deeply rooted sense of self-hatred. Due to the fact that I have an actual job (unlike most college students and, apparently, most college graduates from the last few years) this means I have to take night classes. (Online courses? Never heard of them. I go to a school whose motto is “Where crushing innovation is tradition.”) What with the commute from work, parking, and the scheduling of such things, my classes don’t start until after 7PM and run until 10PM. This has given me the opportunity to learn some lessons that I believe would translate well into the business environment, lessons that are more implicit in nature. They won’t show up on any tests, but believe me; they’ll be more valuable than knowing who was the first Roman Emperor.

First, respect my time. This covers a lot of ground, but the first example I’ll give is the guy in class who asks a question (usually at the end of class when everyone wants to go home) that is completely irrelevant to everyone but him. For every minute you are speaking, you are wasting a minute of every single other person’s time in the class. Do that in a meeting in a business environment and you’ll be lucky if you’re politely told to “take it offline”, which is a nice way to say STFU and discuss it later. If you’re unlucky you’ll just be told STFU.

The flip side of this is the professor who keeps the class past the scheduled time. Look, I realize you think your bloviating is the most important thing in the universe, and we’re all paying just for the privilege of hearing it. Let me correct that misperception: we’re paying for the degree. Listening to you drone on is part of the price, not a benefit. In a business environment the guy who drones on like this doesn’t get invited to meetings, which is a great strategy right up until you discover you’re out of the loop, not involved in projects, and oh yeah, no longer necessary at this company and there’s the door.

Second, respect my opinions. I’m not suggesting you have to agree with everything I have to say (lord knows I think 90% of people are idiots), but at least hear me out. And don’t just sit there spending the time planning what you’re going to say when my lips stop moving, actually listen to what I’m saying. Process the information, and form a cogent response. Even more importantly, be aware of whether you are actually adding value to the conversation or if you are only speaking because you feel the need to “get your two cents in”. The guy who has to be heard on every issue is the guy who nobody wants to work with, and believe me when I say that there is nobody who is so highly skilled that they are irreplaceable if they are intolerable.

Third, respect the space. I don’t know what it is about night courses, but people come in with food and drinks all the time (too rushed to grab dinner on the way in, I guess) and then leave their trash lying there when they finish. This kind of disrespect for public space says as much about you as your appearance. Whether or not there’s janitorial staff is irrelevant; that’s the moral equivalent of saying “Mom will pick it up.” Act like an adult and clean up after yourself. There are plenty of public spaces in an office, such as meeting rooms, kitchens, and break rooms, and if you treat them the same way as you treat those classrooms, you’re going to find yourself out on the trash heap next to your trash.

It doesn’t take much, but it makes a big difference. Pay attention to these little details, show a little respect, and you’ll be a better student and a better coworker.


The Dance of Shame


Ladies and gentlemen, despite my vigorous protests to the contrary, My Not So Humble Wife insists on informing you about our most time-honored tradition.

On our first date, I quite matter-of-factly told My Not So Humble Husband that he would fall in love with me and that we would end up getting married. This was really meant more as a warning than an aspiration. I just knew. However, I made this lofty proclamation BEFORE we actually moved in together.

Anyone who has moved in with a boyfriend or girlfriend will know that the honeymoon period soon comes to an end in the face of annoying habits, money problems, chore quarrels, and the long disputed toilet seat position. For a while, I wasn’t sure we going to make it. I thought I might end up suffocating him in his sleep with the dirty socks he habitually left on the carpet; or perhaps that I would die an agonizing death of a thousand dull cuts after shaving my legs with his razor… again.

What helped us finally reach a livable equilibrium was the Dance of Shame. After one particularly bad argument, over something I don’t remember, we had both reached that point where neither one of use wanted to apologize but we didn’t really want to be angry at each other anymore either. Sullenly, My Not So Humble Husband approached me in the kitchen and started rocking back on forth from foot to foot with his hands going up and down in the air in time with his steps. I was so surprised I had to break the after argument silence to ask what in the world he was doing. He replied that he was doing the Dance of Shame. I laughed so hard I cried and nearly peed myself. Thus a new marriage coping mechanism was born.

The thing is, it’s really hard to be angry with someone when they are doing the Dance of Shame. It’s just so ridiculous that you pretty much have to laugh. Also, having been the Dancer of Shame on more than one occasion, I can tell you that it is sometimes easier to submit yourself to the Dance than it might actually be to say the words “I’m sorry”.

Once in my classroom of 8th grade students we were talking about conflict resolution and I made the horrible mistake of telling the students about our Dance of Shame. “Do the Dance of Shame! Do the Dance of Shame!” the adolescent monsters chanted. After making the logical argument that I hadn’t done anything shameful enough to deserve the Dance of Shame, they finally quieted down. Two full weeks later, I made a math error on the board. These same students, who can’t even remember to bring a PENCIL to class on a regular basis, somehow remembered about the Dance of Shame. Eventually I had to perform it for them before we could return to polynomials in peace.

So keep the Dance of Shame in mind the next time you need to break the awkward silence of an argument gone on to long, but also BEWARE ITS POWER.


Reservation for “Pity”, Party of One


I used to read a lot of web comics a while ago, back before I had more important and useful things to do with my free time (like writing this fantastic blog for your pleasure and amusement), and inevitably the same scenario would evolve. Whether it took a few months or a few years (and it was usually closer to a few months), the web comic writer would manage to drop a post, miss a deadline, forget to put something up, or just be unable to come up with something, and they would usually substitute some variation on the “sorry, my bad” post.

This post would occasionally be in the form of a quick sketch, although surprisingly often it would take the form of a lengthy written tirade. Sometimes there wouldn’t even be a gesture at an explanation, just an absence where entertainment used to be, and if you were lucky it would appear again the next time there was a scheduled update, with nobody the wiser as to what had happened. The times when an explanation was forthcoming would occasionally be accompanied with promises of making the next deadline (which might or might not happen), and other times there would be the dreaded “indefinite hiatus”.

Almost universally in these instances the artist attempt some sort of justification. The two most common flavors depended on whether the artist in question considered themselves an amateur or a professional, and to be honest I don’t know which one bothered me more. In the case of the amateur, they would usually invoke “real life”. This one goes like this: “Hi everybody, I’m really sorry to do this to you, but the truth is I’m not a professional cartoonist. This isn’t my day job, and I don’t get paid to do this. I do this for fun, as a hobby and as a way to relax, and I just haven’t found it very relaxing lately.”

My special issue with these guys is that in most cases these “amateurs” have a tip jar right there on the front screen of their comic, usually with one of their characters being all cute and begging for money. Now I may not have to pay for content, but the fact is you are asking to get paid for this gig, so to turn around and say you aren’t getting paid is at least a little disingenuous. A lack of success in achieving your goals is not the same thing as not having tried (otherwise “attempted murder” wouldn’t be a crime). Assuming anybody actually did hit the tip jar means now you’re a liar as well.

Which brings me to the “professionals”. This is their day job (or they at least are trying to make it one), and their approach is something like this: “Hey everybody, sorry, I feel really bad about this but I got nothing today. I’, really trying to make a living at this, and I feel really bad about this, and I know I’m really letting my fans down, and I should be doing better, etc.” They then go on to beat themselves up for another few paragraphs. Here’s the hard truth they don’t want to hear: I don’t care. All those lovely “fans” who write nice things like “hey, take the time you need, we just want a good story”, and those lovely things? They are enabling your first world problems.

The next issue I have in both of these cases is the implication that somehow “real life” suddenly “caught up” to them. Sorry, not buying it. Short of jail, hospital, or morgue, there are very few events that you couldn’t have seen coming and planned ahead for. More likely you ran out of inspiration or got lazy, and the sad fact that you spent time writing out a letter justifying that rather than making at least some attempt to put something up speaks volumes about how you feel about your art. Having spent more than a year churning out over 500 words three times a week, I’ve learned something: creating content, even crap content, is hard. Creating QUALITY content? That’s damn near impossible. But it’s the gig we chose, and nobody forced it on us.

Whether you’re doing is as a hobby and you hope other people enjoy it, or you’re trying to make a living at it, it’s your choice. You decided this is what you’re going to do, this is what you’re going to invest your time and your effort in, and that’s what you should do. If you decide to abandon it, at least have the courtesy to leave a note on the door on your way out in case you did have a fan who drops by now and then, but please, no more self-indulgent whining about how you’re just not able to come up with anything today.

If you’re sick or you just don’t have it in you, hey, that’s fine. It happens. Get somebody to fill in for you. Make sure you have a buffer. If nothing else, sometimes you just have to make it up as you go along and hope something comes to you.

Like I just did.


The Five Essential Things to Do Every Day, In My Not So Humble Opinion


1. Laugh. No matter how bad your day is, no matter what you are facing, you can always laugh. Even gallows humor is still humor, and laughter can make the best day better or the worst day that slightest bit less awful. If nothing else it might throw people off long enough for you to figure out what to do next.

2. Read. It really doesn’t matter what you read, as long as you read something. While I prefer a good book, a magazine can be an acceptable alternative, and there are some excellent blogs out there that are full of sage wisdom (mine, for example). Even if you only read the ingredients on the back of the package your dinner came in, you’ll learn something. Most likely you’ll learn never to read the ingredients on the back of the package your dinner came in, as well as the number of the nearest Chinese takeout.

3. Think. I know this sounds obvious, and people think they do it every day, but the truth is they don’t. Most people, after reaching a certain age, go through their lives on auto-pilot. It is only in the rare moment of panic and confusion that they wake up for a brief second and actually react to what is going on around them, usually long enough to mutter “I do,” put a ring on someone else’s finger, and go back to sleep for another twenty years. Pause for at least a few minutes every day and actually think about something, anything. Consider what it means, the ramifications of it, and the implications of the ramifications. Chase it as far down the rabbit hole as you can. Then get back to work, the boss is looking.

4. Play. While I generally regard people who use phrases like “the wisdom of a child” as having the intelligence of a child, this is one of the few things I would suggest people should emulate children in, at least to some small degree. When children play, they are fearless; they throw themselves into it with the entirety of their being, no reservations, and no concerns. There is no part of them wondering about the big test tomorrow, they aren’t concerned about the mortgage, they simply give themselves over to the moment and play. Finding that same sense of release is good for the soul. I promise those burdens will still be there waiting for you when you are done.

5. Love. This is the tough one, because I am going to say something completely contrary to everything you have ever heard: do not love unconditionally. Love with conditions. Love with requirements. Put essential demands on your love. I do not mean that you should barter your love for trinkets, but rather that you should only give love where you get love back. Unrequited love is not poetic, it is pathetic. Find someone who loves you, and love them in return. Show your love, share your love, and every single day make sure to let them know you love.


Dating Advice from Scientists


Marie CurieMarie Curie

Dear Madame Curie,

I desperately need the advice of a strong woman like you. I have a major crush on this guy at school, and I really want to tell him, but none of my friends like him. I’m also kind of a nerd, and he’s a football player, so I doubt he’d even be interested. Not to mention he probably doesn’t even know I exist. But I really do think he’s great. What should I do?

Signed,

Unclear in Love

Dear Radiant Love,

Here’s the thing: I can see right through all of your excuses. You’re scared, and that’s understandable. What if he doesn’t feel the same way? What if things don’t work out? What if your parents forbid you to see him? What if, what if, what if…? But you need to take risks for the things you want in this world. Is there a chance you could get hurt? Of course there is, but nothing worthwhile comes without a price. If you truly wish to achieve success in life, regardless of your pursuit, you must commit yourself completely. Only then will you attain the prize you seek.

 

 

Heisenberg_10Werner Heisenberg

Dear Dr. Heisenberg,

I have been dating the same girl for a couple months now, and I thought everything was going just fine. Then the other week she started talking marriage. It seemed totally out of the blue to me, but she acted like it was the most natural thing in the world! It’s not that I’m totally against the idea of getting married, but I’m not sure we’re ready for that conversation yet, you know? Which one of us is right?

Signed,

Uncertainly In Love

Dear Entangled Pair,

I understand your uncertainty, but you need to stand by your principles. You need to figure out where you are in this relationship before you decide how fast you want to move forward with it. While it may feel as if your partner is exerting an irresistible force on you, you need to remain positive and understand that you are not merely a neutral observer in this. You have to take charge and decide for yourself what you want, and then communicate that effectively. The release in tension you feel will be massive.

 

 

Albert Einstein

Albert_Einstein_Head

Dear Mr. Einstein sir,

My name is Jenny and I have a problem and I hope you can help me. I was going stedy with a boy at skool and I thout everything was fine and I really liked him and I thought he really liked me and then one day he really didn’t like me anymore and now Im very sad and I don’t know what to do.

Your Friend,

Jenny

Dear Fräulein,

Ach, the ways of love are more mysterious than the ways of the cosmos. It is easier to understand the structure of the universe than the structure of a man’s heart. Sadly, it has been my experience that emotions, much like matter and energy, can never truly be destroyed; they can only be changed from one to another. In this same way it seems as if this young man who once professed to have a deep Liebe for you has now seen it transformed in the crucible of time to its opposite. I can only offer you the solace of knowing that as strong as his passion is now so it was then, and if you can find the source of the change you may be able to turn him back if it is not too late and you are still interested in making the effort.

 

 

 

pythagoras_10Pythagoras

Dear Pythagoras,

I’ve gotten myself into a pickle and I can’t see a way out. There’s a girl I’ve been with for a couple years, and the truth is we only started dating because nobody else would have either one of us. At the time I was kind of chunky, and she’s… well, she’s kind of plain on a good day. She’s a good friend, and we enjoy a lot of the same things, but there’s no real spark. This summer I started working out a lot and I finally got into shape. I also started getting some real attention from other girls, including a girl I’ve had my eye on for a long time. Would it be wrong of me to break it off with the girl I’m dating to pursue the girl I really want? Does that make me shallow that I’m that concerned about the way she looks?

Signed,

Finally Buffed

Dear Muscular Mind,

I would theorize you have found yourself in a love triangle… without the love. It is a shame you do not feel eros for the lady you have, and the theia mania has been granted to you for one you have not, but the gods make fools of us all. Still, if philia is not enough to sustain you, and I have never seen it to be such in any man (and certainly not in a young man), it would be an unkindness bordering on cruelty to continue your current relationship regardless of whether your eye strays or if there are others who suddenly find you appealing. But before you sever the ties you have, consider carefully the value of what you are giving up. As you have changed, so may she; and what you once were you may be again. The alchemy of fitness may have worked wonders on a maiden’s eye, but it will do little to sway her heart, and you may find yourself twice alone and twice bereft before you know it.


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