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.


A Year and a Day

Fair warning: this post is going to be a bit of a downer. If you want something to cheer you up, here’s a video of some baby pandas on a slide.

So yeah. Yesterday was the anniversary of my father’s passing. Which is a nice euphemistic way of saying I lost one of the greatest men and influences in my life, and my entire family and the world was diminished. Not something you want to denote with an “anniversary”, and yet it was something I couldn’t avoid being aware of for several days beforehand and dwelling on for most of the day.

And now today is “a year and a day”. Historically this is a length of time with great significance, with many precedents. Of particular interest to me is the notion of mourning for a year and a day. I actually thought about this (not coincidentally) about a year ago, when I realized very quickly all the holidays and other events that would be coming up without Dad around to see them. Every one of them would be “the first (insert holiday) without Dad”. And yesterday was the first anniversary of his passing, which was the one holiday I never wanted to have, with or without him (although I suppose having it with him would have been odd and more than a little creepy). And so… today is a year and a day. There are no more “firsts” to endure. Everything has been trodden, everything is old hat, or at least as much as it ever will be. Each day that follows will no longer be “the first time without Dad”. So what do I make of it instead?

I have decided that I am going to make this year about reclamation. I am going to take back every single day that I lost. Not that I regret mourning, because I needed to take the time to understand what I felt, to get through it, and be able to move on from what happened. But that time is over, and more importantly so many other times in my life are over, times that had become old and stale and lost their meaning long before I was willing to let them go, and I have at last decided I am ready to let go of all of it.

Starting today, I am reclaiming my life, and I am reclaiming myself. I have let too many things languish, and I have let too many things stagnate. I have decided to give myself a year and a day to make a change, a real, positive, and noticeable change in my own circumstances. Life is for the living, and I am tired of merely existing.

Who’s with me?

Calling Off the Fall of Civilization

There is an ingrained and pernicious belief that the birth of modern communication, and particularly the World Wide Web, has created the ability to form microcosms of communities based around interests, ideas, ideologies and beliefs rather than around the necessity of geography or shared experiences (such as high school). This in turn creates communities that are more extremist in their belief systems, less inclusive and perhaps even xenophobic, and certainly less open to shared experiences than what we used to have “back in the good old days”.

Let’s unpack that a bit and see if there might be some rose tint in those glasses.

Has anyone ever heard the term “northern liberal”? How about “southern conservative”? “Dixiecrat”? Then there’s the notion that “out west is where the weirdoes live”, and we all know about the Left Coast. Then if you really want to get into it there’s the ugly fact of “the black side of town” and other ethnic ghettos (which every wave of immigrants has experienced, including the Irish, Italians, Jews, Polish, Russians, Koreans… and that’s just in New York City), where people would move just to be close to others who were like them (or were “encouraged” to).

It’s not that the internet and other forms of mass communication have insulated us from people like us; it’s only that it’s insulated us from the people we don’t like. It’s enabled us to connect with people that we do share interests and ideas and beliefs with. For example, people would (and still do) go to church…or synagogue, or the place of worship most appropriate to their form of worship… but that only emphasizes my point. You went to the place most like your belief system. Your worldview wasn’t being challenged, it was being reinforced (and if it wasn’t you were being made to conform). In a similar fashion, most sites people visit on the internet will conform to and agree with 90% of their worldview, and the 10% that is being challenged will be a modest challenge at best… just like your place of worship. The difference is that the internet untethers you from physical space; if there is no place you feel comfortable close to you it doesn’t matter, because you can find what you need electronically. Anyone who doesn’t think that’s valuable, or who thinks that what we gain is outweighed by what we have lost, has never been the outsider.

More than that, when people did gather in these geographical or experiential groups of necessity, what was gained in comity and politeness was done so at the expense of real connection. Here’s another older phrase some of you might recognize: “There are certain topics you don’t bring up in polite conversation; religion and politics are at the top of the list.” You didn’t discuss these things (and still don’t at family gatherings) because the neighbors may not and probably don’t agree with you, and unless your intention is to make sure they never invite themselves over again you stick to certain safe topics (usually weather and sports, unless your neighbor is a Browns fan). Usually the goal was polite conversation, for everyone to have a good time and to come back again for more empty conversation and good times and high balls.

The internet has none of these things. There are no high balls, there aren’t many good times, there’s an absolute dearth of polite conversation (although empty conversation still abounds), and trolls lurk under every comments section. But there is at least a chance of having a real conversation, of engaging with another person while everyone else is busy talking past each other, and that chance is better than another night at the Rotary Club knocking back drinks and mouthing empty nothings. Sure, most people just go to places where they know everyone already agrees with them and takes their turn preaching to the choir, but how is that any different than what used to happen in clubs and meeting halls across America before the advent of the internet? Again, the difference is less about the effect and more about the scope; more people talking to each other, mouthing the same words at each other, and a few loners finally finding each other.

Is it paradise? No. But it’s not the end of civilization either.

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.

I Need to Be WoW’ed

It’s been over a year and the cravings are still coming. In fact, of late they’ve been more and more frequent and perhaps even a bit stronger. I think about it at least once a week, and sometimes every day. Sure, it’s worse when I’m bored, but even when I have things going on, it still crosses my mind. “How bad could it be? Just a little bit. I can handle doing just a little bit. I hear they even let you try some for free now.”

Cold turkey sucks.

I’ve quit cigarettes, caffeine, even biting my nails when I was a kid, but somehow the one I seem to be having the most trouble with is World of Warcraft.

Maybe it’s because there’s something missing that I don’t feel like I’m getting in some other way. WoW offers the easy taste of victory early on, with just enough challenge to keep you coming back, and it keeps scaling up to keep the challenge fresh. Sure you can say that about any game, but the folks at Blizzard have it down to a science (quite literally, I’m sure). There’s also a false sense of accomplishment and reward built right in, so you don’t even need to pat yourself on the back; they’ll do it for you. They even let you get something approaching sociability, although the sad truth is they haven’t yet found a way to fix human behavior in an anonymous environment (but they do a better job than most).

Maybe it’s because WoW came to me at the right time in my life (that’s what My Not So Humble Wife suggested). She has a point. When I first started playing World of Warcraft I was feeling lost, alone, and in need of something to make me feel good about myself. I didn’t feel like a success. WoW gave me that. Sure it was an artificial sensation, but Twinkies are full of empty calories and I love them too. WoW gave me so much of that that I spent as much time playing it as I would on a second job, only I paid them for the privilege. Is it a coincidence that a couple months after quitting WoW I started a blog? Not in the slightest. And I still have more free time (most of which I spend with my previously neglected wife).

Maybe it’s because I’ve got an addictive personality. I love to gamble, so I stay away from it. I love to smoke, and I’ve quit more than once (with varying levels of success). I’ll even get hooked on a song and listen to it over and over until I drive the people around me nuts (just ask My Not So Humble Sister; better yet don’t, I don’t need het to be reminded). I’ve thought that if I could find something positive to fill that void (like blogging) it would be enough, but it’s like exercising to get over craving a cigarette. You can only do it so much before you get tired of it, and you still want what you want.

Ultimately I need something to take my mind off of it. I need something that will thrill me, something that will grab and hold my attention long enough to make the cravings go away, I need something so powerful, so wonderful, so fantastic that it’s completely irresistible, to me anyway.

I need to be WoW’ed.

Special Bonus Post: Don’t Just Say It, Live It

Just recently, I wrote about how to address a customer service situation from the customer’s perspective. As luck would have it, I ran into just such a situation these past few days, and I wanted to share it with you all.

I bought a new custom build computer from Microcenter in Fairfax, VA, and there were issues with my order. I won’t go into the gritty details, because this is actually meant to be a positive story. First, let me say that I discovered just how hard it is to follow my own advice. I was angry. I might even go so far as to say livid. So polite and patient were hard come by. I have to give complete respect to almost everyone I dealt with (one technician was a little surly on the phone, but then I was a little surly as well; you get what you give). When I finally went in to pick up my computer, everyone was very polite, and I definitely appreciate that. I did manage to keep my cool, and followed my own rules.

The manager I spoke with, Abdul, was very accommodating, very patient, and very helpful. He listened to my story, he apologized for the inconvenience, and he made things right for me. Let me point out I was very close to never shopping there again after having not one but two computers in a row built there, and he salvaged everything. That’s the power of good customer service right there.

Let me also say this: my old system is going to my wife. I’ve had it for seven years and it still works great. The only reason I’m giving it up is because she needs a new computer. I look forward to my new one. If you need a new computer, or just want new components or anything else and are in the Northern VA area, I suggest you check them out.

Yeah, that’s right. I’m telling everyone I know. Because that’s how happy I am. That’s the power of good customer service, too.

How To Get What You Want Without Really Trying

The other day I was out grocery shopping, and I saw a sweet deal on my favorite soda. I go through the stuff like most people go through water, so I jumped on it. When I got to the counter it didn’t ring up correctly, and I brought it to the clerk’s attention. He said it would ring properly after the sale finished, but it didn’t so I brought it to his attention again. Long story short, the soda was mislabeled. I had to go through a bit of a song and dance, but I got my money back (and the soda too!), which was pretty nice.

The experience reminded me that I’ve had plenty to say in the past about bad customer service, but having been on both sides of the retail counter plenty of times, I’ve also seen plenty of bad customers. While the retail experience has been perfected from art to science (quite literally), the retail customer doesn’t seem to have changed much from the dark days when I plied the trade. For those of you who might find yourselves in a customer service crisis, here’s some tips on how to get the most out of the situation.

Be Polite – I can’t think of a single situation in my life (other than a fistfight) that hasn’t or couldn’t have been improved by being polite. I’ve seen a lot of people try to intimidate store clerks and managers, either physically or socially, and I have to tell you it almost always backfires. Being polite at the least keeps the situation in the realm of negotiation, which means you might get something, rather than demand, in which case you’re far more likely to get nothing.

One of my favorite misconceptions in retail is “the customer is always right”. I don’t just mean this as a factual misconception, I mean this as a misconception in the sense that anyone in retail does or should believe this. Maybe if I only had a handful of customers come in on a regular basis and my livelihood depended on them, then maybe I would consider this phrase, but still unlikely. In this day and age, when most retail is as anonymous as an online chat room and I have no reason to believe I will ever see you again, why should I go out of my way to put up with your crap? Because you’ll badmouth me to all your cheap friends, who are as likely to pull the same stunt as you are? Yeah, that’s a threat.

Here’s another way to look at it: suppose I came to your office one day and told you that you were doing everything wrong. I (very loudly and obnoxiously) explain how you should be doing your job, running your business, and handling every situation, even though I clearly have no idea what I’m talking about, and chances are better than even you saw be stealing some rubber bands from the supply closet fifteen minutes ago. Then, to top it all off, I insist that I know how to run your business because I worked in a similar business for a summer in high school, thus implying that any idiot can do it.

Would you at all be inclined to give me anything I want under those conditions? If so, you’d be the first.

Be Patient – The next biggest sin I see people committing (and I do this too, but I try not to) is that they assume there should be someone ready to help them as soon as they need it, especially if they feel like they’ve been wronged somehow. I get this, I do. You paid good money for a specific product or service, and that product or service was not produced. You want satisfaction, and the longer you have to wait, the more you feel you are being cheated, because your time is also valuable.

Here’s the thing: They’re (usually) not making you wait on purpose. Most stores understand that having an unhappy customer standing around fuming does not make them look good to the other customers. But there are other customers to consider, and that’s assuming someone is even aware of your needs. Then there are certain procedures they need to follow, which if they don’t could mean they lose their job, which means a lot more to them than your displeasure (and trust me, they will never get fired just because you asked to speak to the manager and they were following the procedures).

Most of all, if there’s any flexibility to be had in this situation, you want it to work for you, not against you, and the fact of the matter is you are not in the position of power that you think you are. They might prefer not to lose you as a customer, but the more of an asshole you are the less they care, and there’s no law against not giving in to your unreasonable demands. Even on the (very off) chance they’re in the wrong, what are the chances you’re going to sue over a can of tomatoes or even something as big as a sweater? Slim to none, and they know that. So cool your jets.

Be Flexible – This one’s a little tough to internalize, but it’s important. Most people go into a customer service situation expecting they are there to right a wrong. Not so. You are going into a negotiation, and the rules are a little fuzzy. There may be laws that apply, but do you know them? Do you really think the kid behind the counter does? And does anyone really care? There’s store policy, but that usually has some leeway to it. And then there’s custom and convention, which are pretty weak guidelines at best.

So understand that you are not there to right some moral wrong. You have a situation you want resolved, one were you feel you were not treated fairly, and you have a specific preferred resolution in mind. That’s nice. You might even get that. But be open to the possibility that there are in fact laws, policies, or even customs and conventions that are going to work against or even completely prevent you getting exactly what you want. And that’s even assuming you are completely right about the situation, which I’ve seen all too many times isn’t the case.

So now what? Well, you can resort to screaming and demands and see how far that gets you (usually escorted out of the store), or you can be flexible. Oftentimes unless you are completely in the wrong store managers will prefer to find a negotiated middle ground where the customer walks away feeling satisfied, and you can use that fact to your advantage. If you were expecting a full refund, maybe a partial refund, or a discount on a future purchase or exchange. Be open to alternatives.

Be Firm – This goes hand in hand with being flexible. Unless you are completely in the wrong (in which case you should make as quick of a retreat as you can), stand by your guns. Don’t let the manager or anyone else try to bully or snowball you. I’ve seen plenty of times where they will pull out a circular or ad and say something like “that was last week’s sale” when they forgot to change the signage in the store, even though we both know their own store policy is to honor their posted prices.

There’s no need to be a dick about it, but make sure to stand your ground and be aware of your position. The best thing to do in these cases is to simply refuse to argue with them. If they pull out the circular, nod and say something like “I’m sure that’s the case, but the posted price on the shelf was different.” This way you aren’t engaging them, but you are refusing to be scared off as well. And notice: still polite. Eventually (if you are patient) they will likely offer some recompense. If you’re flexible, you should be able to get something satisfying.

UPDATE: Within a few days, I got a chance to test out my own advice. Check out what happened.

Kicking the Habit

I don’t remember how old I was when I started drinking caffeine. I can’t remember being so young that I wasn’t sneaking Cokes every chance I got, even if it meant finishing off the half-flat cans my Dad would leave sitting half-empty on the coffee table from the night before. It was in high school I started drinking coffee, and just out of high school I started smoking. Of the two, I’ve actually found quitting caffeine harder, although not by much (and not that I’ve tried many times).

I’ve quit smoking three times in my life. Every time I quit I go through the same stages. First there’s what I think of as Queen High Bitch phase. I’m not a nice person to be around for a couple weeks (even more so than usual). Around the third week or so I just get a little jumpy and surly, but I’m at least a little tolerable. By week four I’ve calmed down enough that people can talk to me, and after that I start to slowly adjust to life without nicotine. It doesn’t sound like much, but trust me when I say it’s the longest month you’ll ever experience, and the next few aren’t stellar either. The patch doesn’t help (ironically, it has too much nicotine) and the pills make me jittery (I started smoking more to calm my nerves), so I just have to white knuckle my way through it.

The first time I went a month and a half. I had lost my license (I was a terrible leadfoot when I was younger) and couldn’t get out for cigarettes, so I just gave it up. As soon as my friends started taking pity on me and got me out of the house, that went the way of the dodo. The second time lasted a year and a half. I was doing fine until I lost my job, and even then I did okay for six months until boredom got the best of me. Smoking was at least something to do.

The last time I can clearly remember seriously giving up smoking was the hardest. I quit a little over a year ago, and I was doing pretty good. Then I found out my father was in the hospital, and things were looking bad. I’m not using that as an excuse, mind you, but it was what pushed me over the edge. I couldn’t take the stress. Ironic in a sad sort of way, but there it is. And here I am, a year later, smoking as much and drinking as much caffeine as I was before I quit a little over a year ago.

I was talking with my Mom on the phone the other day, and she asked me to write a blog post that would get her to go on a diet (sorry for outing you, Mom). Here’s the secret to quitting smoking, giving up caffeine, getting more exercise, or going on a diet: there is no secret. Despite what an entire industry of self-help books and many, many weight loss programs, gyms, and “experts” will try to sell you, there is no magic bullet. The only way to do it is to decide for yourself that this is a change you want in your own life, for you, and to stick with it, no matter what.

I know that sounds simple, and that’s because it is. Please do not make the mistake of confusing simple with easy. Rolling a two-ton boulder up a hill is a simple task; ask Sisyphus just how easy it is. Ultimately however there is no substitute; no matter how many pills, patches, or plans you use, it will always come back to that one simple thing, that one choice you have to make every day (and sometimes several times a day). As Master Yoda put it, “Do, or do not; there is no try.”

If you make that change for someone else, you are shifting the burden to them, and sooner or later they will do something that will make you want to “punish” them. If you do it for some reward, you will hold out until you get the reward, and then go back to your old habits. If you set a goal of “I just need to hold out until…” you’ll make it that long and maybe a bit longer, but then what? You have to acknowledge that what you are seeking is real change, and change is hard.

Is it worth it? That’s up to you to decide. But then, that’s the whole point.

Telephone Etiquette

I realize I may seem a bit old fashioned, perhaps even like a fogey when I say things like “people need to learn basic etiquette”, but I prefer to think of it as making reparations for a misspent youth. I wasn’t always the most polite person, and what I demand of others is no less than I demand of myself. I also don’t ask for people to do things that seem (at least to me) to be useless relics of a bygone age, such as knowing which fork to use at the dining table or which side of the road to drive on. But there are certain basic courtesies in a modern, connected age that should hold steady if we are to call ourselves civilized.

The one that seems to be most prevalent of late is a lack of basic telephone courtesy. I’d like to blame this on the wide-spread use of cell phones, but I’ve been aware of it since I was a kid, mostly because it was the only kind of courtesy my parents could seem to drill into me. It transcends generations and class boundaries, so that can’t be it either. It almost seems as if somewhere along the line there was a breakdown in passing this knowledge along, a failure to communicate, if you will. I’d like to take it upon myself to rectify that by laying out some basic rules for modern phone communication.

Identify yourself. Don’t assume I have caller ID, or that I used it. The fact is, I might have several people listed under that number, or I might not even have you listed. Also, some numbers are blocked. If nothing else, I might think someone else is using your phone. Don’t expect me to recognize your voice right off the bat either. It might be noisy where you are, where I am, or we might have a bad connection. And believe it or not someone else might answer. You don’t want to start talking dirty to my grandma and only find out after she starts talking dirty right back (she’s a naughty one).

Establish the purpose of your call. I might have an hour to talk, or I might only have five minutes. I might have answered the phone because I was expecting a call from someone else (which is another reason to identify yourself), and need you to bugger off. You have no idea what’s going on in my world or you wouldn’t need to call, now would you? Knowing why you called helps to establish the parameters of the conversation, and it helps me to determine if I’m ready, able, and willing to participate in this conversation. Maybe I really do want to chat with you, but I have a project due in a half-hour; knowing what your intentions are up front saves me from having to be rude and cut you off mid-sentence.

Don’t violate the established purpose of the call. This one cuts both ways. If someone says they called to share something with you, let them share it, then be ready to clear the line. If you want to have a lengthy conversation, you can ask if they have time to talk, but now the burden is on you to accept a no. Likewise, if you established up front this would be a short call, don’t try to turn it into an hour long diatribe about your life. On the other hand, if they made it clear up front they wanted to have a long conversation and you accepted, get comfy. You bought into this, so settle in.

Be gracious about letting go. Sometimes things come up. Even if someone said they could talk, circumstances change. Sometimes you’re just a lot more longwinded and boring than anyone could have expected (and if this happens to you a lot, think long and hard about what that says about you). If someone tries to cut in and say they have to go, let them. Don’t keep talking over them, and even worse don’t play the “just one last thing” card, because we all know it’s never just one thing. Sign off and call them back another time, preferably a few days (or weeks) later.

Consider alternate forms of communication. We have text, email, Facebook, Twitter, and (god forbid) old-fashioned letter writing. Think before you pick up the phone and know what you need. Phones are best used for one of two things: either you need an immediate response (so the others are out) or you just want to hear that person’s voice. Either is acceptable, but again, establish that up front. It helps to set the tone of the conversation as well as the expectations. If I know you need an immediate response, it means this will be a short call (unless it’s a complex problem, in which case call me to say you’ll email me the details, then get off). If you want to hear my voice, either I’ll find time to talk or, even better, we’ll find time to get together face-to-face. If we can’t do the latter, at least let me do you the courtesy of giving you my full attention, which is obviously what you want and need.

If more people follow these simple rules, the result will be clearer communication in all our relationships, both personal and professional. For my money, that’s the only reason for any kind of etiquette.

Constructing Identity

The other night I was in my “Literature of the Asian Diaspora” class (it’s amazing what qualifies for an English degree these days) when we started discussing the origin of the term “Asian American”. Apparently the first academic use of the term was in the 1970s at UCLA (although it may have been in use colloquially among the civil rights movement in the 1960s before that) as an alternative to the arguably pejorative “Oriental” (I take no stance on the issue, but I understand the argument).

The point I raised in class, and my professor seemed to agree with me, is that “Asian American” is a constructed identity. Setting aside any flippant comments about there being no such place as “Asian America”, there is no “Asian” culture. There is Japanese culture, Korean culture, Chinese culture, Indian culture, and a host of others too numerous for me to name or even be aware of. Each individual named under this broad, constructed identity of “Asian American” does not partake of the same cultural background, any more than every person of European descent comes from the same cultural heritage.

I’ve been thinking about it quite a bit over the last few days, mostly because I find it something challenging to relate to. On the one hand, as I have mentioned before, I come from perhaps the most common of backgrounds, and face few of the challenges that an Asian American or other racial minority would face in America today (although from what I have read it’s a far different story in Japan or elsewhere in Asia, so at least it’s not a global phenomenon). On the other hand, the concept of trying to construct an identity for oneself is something I believe everyone struggles with, and as the world is changing perhaps faster than ever, it is something that we each continue to struggle with.

For myself, I can look back over my life and see how my own sense of self has changed drastically in just a short (or so it seems to me) twenty years. When I was 15, there was no doubt in my mind that I would be a world famous actor, working the stage with both grace and abandon on Broadway and beyond. Fast forward a decade, and after one of the worst years of my life I was burning almost every bridge I had, leaving Richmond and unsure of anything except that I would never, ever be a professional actor. I kept my hand in on a few amateur shows in school after that, but my heart wasn’t really in it anymore. Jump ahead another decade, and I had been married for three years to the love of my life, who I hadn’t even met when last we checked in, and working at the job I currently hold.

Each step of the way my sense of self changed, but it was a gradual change, with the occasional jarring moment of realization. At no point did I wake up and say “today I’m going to decide I no longer want to be an actor”; it was something that accumulated, just like the choices, opportunities, and yes, even the mistakes I have made all along the way have led me to the place and person I am today. Perhaps that is what we call the process of “growing up”, or perhaps it is something more. I don’t know if being a straight white male means that process has been easier or harder for me, because I have no basis for comparison. I can say almost unequivocally that having bipolar disorder (undiagnosed before I was in my mid-twenties) certainly provided its own unique challenges, but again I can’t speak to how my life would have been different otherwise, only that I do not doubt it would have been.

As I have reflected on my life and how it has changed, and as I have considered how I have constructed and re-constructed my own identity, I have only come to one certain conclusion. I do not want to be viewed as a heterosexual, or a Caucasian, or male, or as someone with a mental disorder, or as part of any other group. I only want to be viewed as me; unique, individual, hopefully ever-changing and evolving and yet always recognizably Bob.