Train of Thought

I wonder about the strangest things sometimes.

Example: I was in the restroom at work the other day and I noticed there are three stalls, two urinals, and four sinks. What happens if everyone finishes at the same time? Is there a specific etiquette for this? My coworker suggested it becomes a game of musical chairs (first come first serve), or possibly the guys who were in the stalls have first dibs (let’s face it, they need to wash their hands more).

But this also made me wonder, how do they calculate these things? Is there somebody somewhere whose job it is to figure out the optimum sink-to-stall ratio? Must be a tough job, since you have to account for the overly meticulous guy who’s going to wash his hands longer than anybody else, but you also have to factor for those filthy fellows who don’t wash at all. And then there’s the guys who dash in specifically to wash their hands but don’t need to use the bathroom at all. Do they throw off the calculations?

Clearly this is a job whose time has come, since at school there are two sinks for about 20 “rest stops”, if you will. But then I expect nothing else from my beloved university, where “We Kill Efficiency Whenever It Raises Its Head” was just edged out as a school motto by “You May Drive Here, But You Can’t Park Here”.

And speaking of driving, I will never understand traffic patterns as long as I live. It used to be that back roads were supposed to be the way around traffic on the highways. I moved recently and subsequently have had to change my commute (which is now technically longer) away from back roads to a highway, one of the most popular in the region in fact. Most days my commute time has been the same, and some days it’s even shorter. This makes no sense to me. The only exception has been the first week of school, when apparently everybody went to work and/or drove their kids, before they all let out their metaphorical guts and said, “ah, the heck with it” and went back to their normal routine.

I’m still trying to develop a new routine. Bad enough I had to move to a new house in a new neighborhood, AND I’m back in classes, but My Not So Humble Wife started a new job as a school teacher. Yes, she’s a first year teacher, which from objective observation seems to me to be akin to Purgatory: indistinguishable from Hell except insofar as it will someday end. She’s also in class one night a week, a class composed almost entirely off first year teachers, who all have to be up early enough to wake the rooster on the way out the door. Her professor is aware of this, so naturally he lets them go early every week. Just kidding! She goes to the same school I do, “Where Killing Your Dreams Is Tradition”, and he keeps them right up to the last minute and sometimes after every week. What a swell guy. I need to put him on my Christmas card list.

Speaking of Christmas, I may (finally) be able to put up outside Christmas lights this year. I know that doesn’t sound like a big deal, but for the better part of the last decade I’ve lived in a house with no outside outlets. How does that happen? I grew up putting on the biggest and gaudiest – excuse me, most tasteful light display possible every year, and I’ve looked forward to continuing that tradition in my own home. It saddens me that I have an inflatable snow globe still sitting in the box in my attic, waiting to greet the people of the world. I’m starting to wonder if I’ll ever get to use it.

But like I said, I wonder about the strangest things sometimes.

Things I’m Grateful For

I’ve noticed recently that I have a tendency to be somewhat cynical, particularly in my writing (no need to deny it, it’s true). While I’m perfectly comfortable with that fact, I also decided that it’s time I took a step back and made a list for myself of all the wonderful things I have in my life; a chance to “count my blessings”, as it were. Bearing in mind there will be a whiff of cynicism buried in this list (hey, I’m still a leopard), it’s at least a good exercise in being a better person. And so:

The Not Quite Comprehensive List of Things I’m Grateful For (In No Particular Order)

  1. I’m still relatively healthy (in spite of myself). I’ve tried eating better, exercising, and quitting smoking. None of the above of stuck. I don’t even drink water on a regular basis. At least I don’t drink (much). Despite all of that, I still have all my teeth and I’m not too grossly overweight, and I don’t have any major health problems besides a little acid reflux and bipolar disorder (and hey, I was born this way).
  2. I have the most amazing wife ever. Yes, I know, I talk about her a lot, and occasionally make mock, but she is an essential part of my life. The funny part is she found me. (A fact she never lets me forget.) We met having an argument about Shakespeare, and someday I hope to convince her she’s wrong, but today isn’t that day and tomorrow doesn’t look good either. But I love her anyway.
  3. I’m surprisingly grateful for my Not So Humble Sister. I say surprisingly because when we were growing up I was… less than perfect as a brother, and we’ve definitely become much better friends as adults than we ever were as kids. This may or may not have something to do with how difficult I am to live with.
  4. Speaking of family, I am quite grateful for My Not So Humble Mother. Not to do the whole “guilty son” thing, but I really don’t see her as often as I should. Even so I love her, New York accent and all. (Seriously, it’s something you have to hear to believe.)
  5. I have a pretty awesome set of in-laws. They’re the best kind of people to know: unique, special, and loving. They welcome everyone but they tolerate crap from nobody (including and especially me).
  6. I’m so very happy I don’t have to deal with other people’s children, and conversely that I don’t have to deal with parents of children. I know too many teachers. I hear the horror stories. If you’re a parent, I’m sure you and your children are the exception. I’m also sure you know who I’m talking about.
  7. I’m thrilled I was born in the U.S. Let’s face it, for all this country’s faults (and I do go on about them at length), it’s still one of if not the freest countries in the world, as well as having one of the strongest economies. It matters. A lot.
  8. This may sound condescending, but go with me a minute: I’m grateful to be a white male. I’m not trying to put anybody down, I’ve just been doing a lot of reading lately, and while I still would never go so far as to call myself a feminist, a liberal, or an activist of any stripe, I’ve at least come to accept that white male privilege is real and it exists. Should it? No. But as long as it does I’m not going to pretend I’d be happier if it worked against me.
  9. I’m grateful I’m straight, basically for the same reason. I’ve been married for going on a decade now, which is about a decade longer that homosexual couples have had that option. Does that make it right? Not a chance. But again, anybody who says they would rather do things the hard way is either crazy or lying.
  10. I’m especially grateful I’m still able to learn and grow. If you had told me five years ago that I would have admitted I’ve got it better because I’m a straight white male, I probably would have laughed in your face. At least now I can admit it, and that’s at least the first step toward working for real equality (my working definition of “real equality” may vary from others, but at least I’m open to the discussion now).

So there it is, a little something to brighten your day. If you have something you’re grateful for, feel free to share it with everyone in the comments below.

The Jeffersons, Anthony, and Me

I’ve been away for a while, but it’s been for a good reason: My Not So Humble Wife and I have finally gotten a place of our own. Yes, after seven years with Our Not So Humble Roommates (great guys, I swear), we finally decided it was time to strike out and get a little slice of the American Dream for ourselves. Or rent a piece of it at any rate.

The thing is, I had a vision in mind of what it would be like. Maybe it’s because I was raised by television as much as by my parents, but I was expecting it to be something akin to the Jeffersons. “Moving on up” and all of that. Turns out it’s had more in common with “Anthony’s Song“. Which is not to say I don’t love the place we’ve moved to; it’s a great neighborhood, the people are nice, and the townhouse we’re in is quite lovely. I certainly didn’t have to do much if anything for the move, as My Not So Humble Wife did all the heavy lifting on the preparations, and we hired movers to do the literal heavy lifting.

Maybe it has something to do with the fact I’m basically back in the neighborhood I grew up in (the strip mall I had my first real job in is right around the corner), but I just feel like a bit of a phony. My wife nailed it the other night when she commented, half-jokingly, that she’s waiting for someone to kick open the door and say something to the effect of “you don’t belong here!” It almost feels like we’re just pretending at being adults, playing house until the real adults show up. Given that we’ve been out on our own for quite some time that seems rather silly, especially for a man staring down the barrel of The Big Four Oh, but there it is.

It kind of brings me back to a thought I’ve had more than once since I (first) left school and started working to support myself: when do you become a grown-up? More importantly, when do you start feeling like a grown-up? When does that strange sensation that you’re just faking it go away, and you get comfortable in the life you’ve built for yourself? And do I want it to? In some ways I’m not sure I do, because I’m afraid if I get comfortable I’ll get complacent, but sometimes I long for complacency. It certainly seems like it would be better than feeling like I’m living in a Talking Heads song.

The fact is, I have found myself in a beautiful house, with a beautiful wife, and when I look back on the improbable sequence of events that have brought me to this point I realize there’s no way I could have anticipated any of it, let alone planned for it. In some ways that seems wonderful, but in other ways it’s terrifying. Maybe when I finally learn to accept that as “life” is the moment when I’ll finally be a grown-up after all.

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.