A few months back, I went silent online. Quit sharing, quit writing, quit putting up music on my soundcloud. Here’s why:
There’s such thing as a knowing. Everyone has it. When you know what’s next without even asking yourself what you want. When you hear what you should do about your job, or your romance, you hear a few words of advice. You hear them in your own voice, and you haven’t even formed the question yet.
You just realize that you already know the answer, and it’s completely irrational and absurd. You hold that answer up to the light, and it makes absolutely no sense. It doesn’t pertain to the problem at hand, and it doesn’t satisfy the rational question you were about to ask. You probably toss this knowing out the window, and draw up a list of pros and cons, and ask your accountant, and then proceed with caution. And you get by just fine.
But it still may bother you that you had an answer that felt right for the split second you were hearing it, before you started to overthink it. Ever tried following its advice? I did. Now I’m broke.
In mid-October, I was just days away from launching a new work project. A book. Something that might have actually paid some bills, gotten my name out there as a writer, started something that couldn’t be stopped. I was all ready to go, and something just felt wrong about it. I started to ask myself what I should—
“How on earth is that a solution? I have maybe three months left of savings, if I’m frugal, and nothing to show for all of my unemployed writing time, unless I get this kickstarter project going, and I’m bored to death of—
“…that doesn’t make any sense.”
“Nothing does. Just be.”
So, okay, I gave it a try for about a day. It certainly let me put off the project. But as I sat there worrying over getting back to the project, and still doing nothing about it—
“That’s not being. That’s waiting and worrying. Just be.”
“Wait, let go of this plan? But it was such a good—”
So that night, I did the responsible thing. I went to a party. I set aside all my expectations and goals. No networking allowed, no scouting for dates, no impressing anybody. Every person I talked to was just being, and I was just being, too. We were being together, and it turns out, that’s why people get together. To be together. Hugs felt really good, drinks tasted yummy, and laughing was a complete delight. I’d say something silly, and someone would catch me in it, and everyone would laugh at their jab, and I would laugh, too. There was no face to save.
And I got home stone-cold sober that night (without any new phone numbers, and with no ego-boosting flirtation to speak of, nothing) and felt spectacular. For no reason! Why do I feel so—
“Don’t worry it away. Just be.”
“With pleasure,” I decided. I went to bed. Woke up really early the next morning without an alarm. Sun was streaming in my window. I was pissed off.
“Who are you angry at? The sun? That’s absurd. Just be.”
So I looked out and saw how pretty it was outside. And the weather was all perfect to walk around in (it was October), so I went out. Walked around. Felt like singing, so I sang. Not loud, crazy-man singing. If anybody came close on the sidewalk, I’d take a break for a bit, then sing again when they passed by. Or somebody would come around the corner while I was on a high note. Glad it wasn’t anybody I knew.
Well, I was sold. This whole being thing became the most important mission I could be on. The book project was achieving. The dating game was achieving. The money game was achieving.
“Let go of achieving,” said the self I was beginning to trust. “Just be.”
Let’s be honest — the money was hard to let go of, because everybody says you have to pay bills and have a roof over your head and put food on the table. They’re probably right. But something told me (wordlessly) that I’d be all right if I master this art of Being. I’d figure it out just in time, right before I went broke.
I mentioned I’m broke. Well, I was broke yesterday, and then I found a thousand dollars I forgot I had. I feel like the Mr. Magoo of finance.
But something came up in late November. I got an email from my old agent saying he had some cruise ships to fill, and no acappella groups to put on them. “I’d really like to do that,” I thought. “I could spend a lot of time on a ship just being. And writing. And singing. And traveling. Those are all of my favorite things, and not one of them is achieving.”
“Do it,” said the same voice that says the other stuff (it’s my own voice, but it speaks with casual authority, so I listen).
So I’m doing it. I leave in a month to sail around the world. What will I do when I get there?
Photo by Arrested Decision 2012
Why do politics have to be such a pain in the ass? With each new debate, I try to keep my spirits high, but it doesn’t work. In that silence that lingers after turning off the TV, I feel all the more defeated about my country and its future.
The revolutionaries don’t seem much better off — walk by any Occupy protest and you can feel the simmering, disaffected masses trying their level best to hold back the rage (or at times, expressing it openly). On the opposite end, the Tea Party has forgotten its purpose, its principles, and its game plan; the only thing it remembers is how much it hates… something.
Whatever your personal politics may be, I’m guessing you feel the same disappointment in our dialogue. Not only is the democratic system broken; lately, it’s spewing angst and frustration from every new fissure.
I think there’s a few reasons for this. One, the story of our political process has become reductive and insulting: “one of these candidates wants to ruin the country, and the other wants to save it. Quick, get your hate on.” The story might be false, but it’s no less demoralizing to hear it on repeat throughout the election season.
For another, we’re watching our economy collapse under the weight of enormous debt, defying all our ra-ra team efforts to buoy it back up again. Discouraging as this process is, the way we console ourselves is even less effective: playing the blame game.
Worse yet is our determination not to pick any solutions until we get the Bad Guys out of the room, just to make sure they can’t take credit for the recovery. Neither side is any better than the other at collaboration. (If one side were better, the other side would end up looking equally good at collaboration. That’s what collaboration does: it gives everybody credit).
But the most infuriating thing: we’re determined to stay furious. We’ll be damned if it starts being any fun.
This objection may sound naive, extracurricular, frivolous. And in fact, it is. That’s a value, not a drawback. We can sense that life is not supposed to be this annoying, unpleasant, or unsatisfying. We’re human. We should be having a good time. We should think of politics as play. I think it’s exactly what we need.
Besides diffusing some of the partisan rancor, playfulness would also get better solutions to emerge. For adults and children alike, play is therapeutic. It opens our creativity, promotes cooperation, stimulates our empathy. It relaxes stress, flexes our intelligence, and waylays fatigue. How perfect for our reductive, stalemated, hardhearted, stressed-out, low-brow, tired political discourse — to say nothing of the candidates themselves, who all seemed perfectly capable until the moment they took office.
Wait, is it possible our political process has imposed this ineptitude onto otherwise capable men and women? Did we stifle every last breath of their creativity? I think so. Just look at the structure of the debates.
If you audition for a play or try out for a sport, you’re asked to perform as a singer, actor, or outfielder. Whatever you do in the audition reflects the expectations of the role itself, showing off all the ways you fit that role’s requirements. Shouldn’t it be the same in politics?
Instead, we sit two candidates down as a solitary pair and interrogate them on our most topical issues. Then we require them to bicker over their differences and nitpick details, thereby driving them (and their voter bases) further apart. Sounds like good practice for the modern political career: divide and stalemate.
Let’s ignore the fact that it’s divisive, for a moment, to handle the debates this way. It’s not even productive. In the latest debate, as many have pointed out, there were barely any differences to nitpick. The candidates largely agreed on policies surrounding Syria, Afghanistan, drones, terrorism, and of course, Leadership Leadership Leadership. But since “losing” the debate consists of agreeing with anything your opponent says, each candidate had to find some obscure detail of the other’s record to denigrate. We didn’t learn the slightest thing about either candidate except his rhetorical style, which is one of those seldom-used skills in the average Presidential term.
Some of our best early Presidents were only average speechmakers, but we didn’t mind much. Lately, though, we’ve allowed the growth of mass media to distort the way we interview the job applicants. Our auditions are destructive to our culture, they’re a terrible test of Presidential-ness, and they’re a painful chore.
So how about play? What if we modeled our debates after gameshows — a series of diverse, productive, on-topic competitions for the candidates and their running mates? Here are some example game ideas, complete with requisite cheesy branding. Not only would they unearth some important issues and put candidates through the wringer; they’d also make for great TV.
Game One: CollaboNation
We never know whether a candidate will be able to unite contentious groups, but that’s a huge part of the role. Accordingly, this game field-tests each candidate’s ability to get along with unlikely teammates. Each one is paired up with the opponent’s running mate, forming two imbalanced, split-party teams. The moderator reads them hypothetical scenarios, and each mixed pair has three minutes to co-create a resolution. Ideally, that resolution satisfies both their ideologies, while accomplishing as much as possible for the American people. The whole collaborative process will be captured on camera, after which the teams will have to present their solutions in clear, understandable ways for the public. Without obvious differences in policy to attack, pundits and analysts will need to delve into the ways that each participant connects to others and negotiates creatively.
Game Two: Stumped Speech
This Jeopardy-style debate grills the candidates on questions of greater depth and sensitivity than the current “journalist” moderators are allowed to ask. Instead of demanding the same questions of both, this game presents each candidate with his own individual grid of mystery questions. The catch: questions are written ahead of time by the opposing candidate’s cabinet appointees. Taking turns, each candidate chooses questions by category and difficulty. When a question is chosen, the cabinet member who wrote it comes out on stage, asks the question, and holds a brief debate with the candidate on the chosen topic. Both sides will inevitably submit the questions most likely to expose their opponent’s important weaknesses, leading to a deeper discussion of key issues. No scoring is needed; victory goes to whichever candidate is last to wet his pants.
Game Three: Foreign Brawlicy
Played in multiple phases, this war simulator makes each candidate the commander-in-chief of a virtual army — and has to fight against the other candidate’s army. Scenarios are devised ahead of time by military personell, to reflect realistic situations seen in battle. In each phase, a scenario is drawn at random, and candidates’ roles are given based on a coin flip. One phase might feature an invading army against a small jungle insurgency; the next scenario may position both sides as major industrialized nations with nuclear capability. Victory isn’t declared in black-and-white terms, but journalists will no doubt try to acknowledge the humanitarian, ecological, economic, and diplomatic impact of each outcome.
Game Four: Administration Defenestration
Some would say a President is only as good as the administration he brings with him to the White House. Don’t we deserve to know who they’ll be before election day? This game, framed in the style of Family Feud (but with less smooching of the contestants), requires each candidate to appear alongside an entire team of their choosing. The team would consist of that candidate’s advisors, department heads, and top picks for the Fed and Supreme Court. Each team is presented with debate questions, and one or two members of each team will buzz in to answer on their own specialized issues like health, education reform, and civil rights. After each response, the candidate has the opportunity to agree or amend — but is never first to speak.
Game Five: Legends of the Hidden Temple
Exactly what it sounds like: candidates face off in Legends of the Hidden Temple. I think Biden will look sharp in his Green Monkeys tee shirt and elbow pads. (Okay, game five is optional, but you know it could only help your approval ratings, Mitt).
Sure, it may not look dignified. Games and experimental play may not fit well with our legacy of business suits and marble facades. As major players on the world’s stage, we’d like to maintain a hint of our national dignity, thank you very much — but the dignity of our leadership is already eroding. It’s under attack by petty fillibustering, by Citizens United, by discrimination against minorities, by the failure of education, and by the exploitation of our legal system. Let’s not continue in the pretense that we have much dignity to lose. Would a playful approach to justice and equality somehow finish that dignity off? Or could it help to restore the humility that once graced our leaders and our citizens?
Let’s zoom out from the campaign trail and talk about our years-long political cycle, and the media and political architecture that upholds it. It’s no fun. It’s no surprise that more and more people are turning to the blogosphere, to the Daily Show, and to alternative online news for their political commentary. It’s no surprise, too, that bright-eyed revolutions like Occupy and the Tea Party lose heart after a few short years. The chore of politics has become draining and absolute, but that’s just the habit we’re in lately. It doesn’t all have to be Serious Business.
Next time you’re starting a rally, or steeped in political discourse, check in with yourself and your peers: Are we having a good time? Is this how changing the world is supposed to feel?
Why shouldn’t the revolution be more fun?
Tonight, less than an hour from now, we’ll all sit around TVs and watch the third Presidential Debate, pretending we’re all willing to change our minds over the “information” presented, when it’s a scientific certainty that we’d have voted already if they’d let us, and shot the other guy in the crotch with a BB gun when he wasn’t looking.
In that light, I have absolutely no interest in identifying the winner or loser of the debate, or even picking a team to root for. Instead I want to remind my readers, all fifteen of you, of a fact I often forget myself.
This whole politics thing is only a team sport because we designed it to be. It’s a construction, an agreement between ourselves, our media, the parties, and the politicians. An agreement to pretend that there are only two positions, a good guy and a bad guy. We square off and fight like this because, frankly, our system is as simple-minded as a teeball league. If those other guys were really the bad guys, and we were really the good guys, the sport would have given way to the victor by now. It rages on, but not because evil and good are equally strong; rather, it’s that there are pretty big hearts on both sides, and pretty blind eyes in all our heads.
Just so you know I’m aware, I’m choosing my words to sound willfully naive. I’m trying to radically shake the foundations of this evening’s debate — the foundations that say one of these men has the solution to our problems, and that the next four years depend entirely on which man is sitting in an oval-shaped room. If that were the foundation of our country, it would have failed us over two hundred years ago. We are not that naive.
No, the real outcome of the next four years is decided by how we treat each other in the next four years. Much of that treatment gets decided by this debate, by our reactions to it, by our investment in the outcomes, by our attachment to either candidate.
Remember that the Enemy is not a person, but a story. A story that we are divided, that our foes will be found wearing skin, that taking sides will determine if the next four years will bring us abundance or apocalypse.
It’s a superstition that gains power through belief, like a discouraged farmer after groundhog day deciding not to sow any seed — he gets no yield, blames the groundhog, and feels all the more justified. If we believe this Enemy story, we might just manage to make it true. Then we’d only see confirmation of our beliefs, and continue the blame cycle in the following election. Let’s not buy in, sling mud, or base our votes on targeting the enemy. That’s buying into the superstitious story.
I want to challenge a few other stories, while we’re here:
1. The story that we’re in a crisis of scarcity.
2. The story that money or insurance can fix the healthcare industry.
3. The story that the solution to the education system has a dollar sign, or is even a number — of teachers, of books, of dropouts, of years, of grades or achievements or college loan debt. If it can be counted in numbers, can it really solve something as immeasurable as inspiration, as individuality, as giftedness or calling?
4. The story that without risk of depleting our resources or injuring our health, we can continue indefinitely to increase supply, demand, production, and consumption, forever and ever, amen.
5. The story that a “job” can be created by someone other than the individual. (Not that unemployment should be blamed on the unemployed — I blame the story itself for unemployment, for our unrecognition of our gifts, and for our belief that good work can only be stimulated by the promise of money).
6. On that note: The story that if nobody’s going to pay you to do something, it shouldn’t be done at all.
7. I’m going to catch a lot of fallout for this, but I’ll say it anyway: the story that your legitimacy is determined by whether society recognizes your legitimacy — your paycheck, your youtube views, your right to get married, the number of attendees at the party you threw/the church you started/the concert you played/the play you wrote. If we need a status or a number to make that thing count, we’re playing the game for the trophy.
None of this is saying I don’t care about shifting those number systems and legal statuses to reflect our beliefs. I want justice for all, and dignity for the unseen and unsung. I want us to make the public agreement that these things officially matter to all of us. But let’s not get the game backwards, trying to play to the scoreboard in order to believe in what we’re doing. That’s robbing us of the dignity we inherently have.
You probably had to read A Modest Proposal in school. It’s an old satire piece where Jonathan Swift offered an Onion-esque solution for the economic problems in Ireland and England: eat babies. Weirdly barbaric, but that was the cutting edge of satire back then, I guess, and steeped in this old-school language. I didn’t quite understand it, until I finally read it through a monocle, taking snuff from a snuff-box. Pip pip, wot wot, cheerio.
But I’ve got a different sort of proposal, much more practical than baby-eating. Not that toddlers aren’t (most likely) delicious and tender, and taste great with barbecue sauce. Fact is, I’m just not that into cannibalism (sorry). Instead, I’m calling for a Sensible Parenting Act: legislation that would finally hold parents truly liable for their children’s dumbass behavior.
I’m not talking about some fascist measure to literally keep toddlers from misbehaving in restaurants, because how much damage can they really do? Spill salsa on your shirt? Pollute your peace and quiet? Overhear your conversations about sexy, adult matters? Wreck the vibe with weird, uncomfortable outbursts about their bowel and pee functions? I’ll be honest, I just don’t care. Yeah, kids can be annoying, but they’re mostly harmless. Even if your kid is crying on my flight for eight hours, I’m a grownup. I can put headphones in and tune it out. I’m a little tired of hearing comedians go on about this stuff. If you’re so wise, you should know better than to go on a plane with a headache and no earplugs.
No, I’m talking about reining in the overgrown toddlers we call “corporations,” as though that could dignify their childish bullshit. You hear parents complain all the time about what it’s like to change a toddler’s diaper, and get hit in the face by a stream of the fresh stuff. Though a toddler can only pee a few feet, and can really only poop directly down, a corporation has a range of like, several thousand miles, and with weaponized craploads that would fill more than a few thousand diapers. This has got to alarm us at least a little.
Our government grants them legal status as persons in many contexts — literally, this has been the case since the early 1800s. Court rulings of this style are growing to be an ever-more-generously applied precedent in favor of business, at the expense of the public. Corporations have civil rights to “free speech” (spending money, especially on political candidates) and the ability to file lawsuit (after lawsuit after lawsuit), and be owners of entire towns and islands.
So sure, we give them most of the rights and privileges afforded to adults in society. And yet, the amount of responsibility we hold them to is less than a legal minor. They can’t be jailed or have their freedoms censured, except with fines and evictions, which is not even as harsh as the law gets with teens in juvenile courts. Yes, sometimes district judges play hardball, giving companies hefty penalties, but the worst among them have the legal manpower to fight back indefinitely, like a kid who’s gotten too big to beat senseless with a newspaper. Not that I advocate such things, it’s just a metaphor. We’ve given these companies extreme levels of privilege, and too little accountability.
They do incredibly un-adult things with all that civic power. And we just bend over and take it, like the idiotic parents on some sitcom.
Society tends to mercilessly judge the parents of an actual problem kid, but seems to ignore similar behavior from businesses. Imagine – what would you say to the legal guardian of a teenager dumping garbage in the river? You’d be like, “Hey asshole, I know you don’t live here, and neither does your spoiled kid, but that’s my backyard your teenager just took a dump in. I know, I know, kids will be kids, but your kid happens to be pretty big, and just dropped several thousand tons of chemical waste into my city’s water supply. No, a settlement out of court is not going to be enough. Your child just killed my entire family, slowly and painfully over the last decade or two.”
If you take this parent to court over the cancer his teenager gave you, all that happens is a payout of a few million dollars in a class-action lawsuit (barely a dent in this spoiled kid’s allowance), and it’s back to the dumping as soon as you turn your back. That dumping doesn’t just cost money, but costs lives and healthy bodies that can’t be reimbursed. This is getting absurd.
I know I sound like a hippie, but I’m not saying we should be all flowers and peace signs. I’m making a real proposal here: socially, we should hold the trustees and majority owners of a corporation just as responsible for their company as we hold the parents of messed-up kids. When they go off the rails? Take the corporation away from the negligent parents and tell them, “listen, you’re clearly not fit for parenting, if you can’t keep your kid from experimenting on the general population with cancer-causing milk hormones — or from frivolously abusing our legal system, just to get money for stolen music when you can’t figure out any other way to profit as a legitimate business.” We should, in dire straits, be able to send the entire board of trustees to prison, or have them do really long hours of super-gritty community service. Like personally cleaning up the garbage they’re dumping on our oceans, one handful at a time.
We should be able to not only make them pay huge amounts of money (which they often calculate to be worth it, for the profit they’re able to turn while making the world smell and look like a teenager’s laundry hamper) — no, that’s not enough. These companies still end up judging it as a pretty good idea to take those risks, because they’re still going to get their allowance, and only have to pay a little in damages. We should make them spend as much as it takes to clean up the entire mess they made, just like we’d send a teenager to do ALL the laundry, before letting them go out to a party or whatever.
And if they do it again, take away the tools they keep using to make such a big mess. It sounds harsh, but sometimes it’s just responsible. If you’ve got a teenager working in your woodshop and he cuts off somebody’s arm, you don’t just dock his pay, that’s passive and pathetic. No, you quit letting him use the bandsaw — he’ll have to stick to the easy jobs from now on, like the sanding or the coats of varnish or whatever. He can’t be trusted anymore, because he’s clumsy and careless.
It should be the same with BP and Exxon: sorry to impose such a big salary cut, but you keep sawing off limbs and accidentally setting the building on fire. You’re incompetent at your job, so no more dangerous tools, no more drilling permit for you. We’re updating the rules, letting the job go to the guy who’s next in line, and you have to go take out the garbage for a while.
Same goes for corporate dishonesty. Agricultural giant Monsanto is so clearly a juvenile dilinquent, going around steroiding cows and gang-banging with “patented seed” to take over the small family farmers’ streetcorners, so why do we keep falling for it? Why should we let a kid like that keep terrorizing the high school? Go after the parents (the trustees, founders, majority stakeholders) and make sure they never raise another kid again. Sorry to sound anti-business, but in this case, it’s clear: they simply can’t handle parenting, they’re raising companies to be irresponsible psychopaths with a sick, amphetamine-grade addiciton to money.
At some point, we should quit being so gullible as a society, and take away their rights to raise kids. Yes, everybody should get a shot or two, or ten, at this wonderful free market economy. I love that freedom as much as the next well-fed, sheltered, clothed American. But after Monsanto’s twentieth or thirtieth count of corruption and social dilinquency, it’s clearly our fault for thinking that we’re slapping their wrists hard enough. We should cut them out of the free market, the way we cut individual criminals out of society for indulging in too much general stabbiness.
This requires that we actually DO something about it, though. That’s the annoying part. I’d love to just rant and rave, and let that solve the problem, but these kids are just going to keep screwing us over if we don’t actually start calling for some sensible parenting.
So here’s a really quick, low-hassle way of making some change. I know you’ve got work to get back to, and plenty of porn to waylay you for the rest of the workday, so I don’t want to take up all your time. This’ll take you five minutes, even if you’re a slow typist. Just follow some quick steps:
- Click this link to open the list of current Senators (opens in a separate window or tab).
- Press ⌘-F on a Mac, or Ctrl-F on a PC, to start the “find” function on your browser.
- Type in your two-letter state code, and the “find” function will highlight your two Senators for your state, and show direct links for their email addresses or contact forms. Easy peasy.
- ⌘-click or Ctrl-click both of those email forms to open them in a new tab or window.
- Copy the message below, and fill in the blanks. Or write one of your own, if you feel like being a patriotic snowflake or whatever (here’s a good writing guide I used).
- Right-click this text and copy the permalink to this page directly to your clipboard. ⌘-V or Ctrl-V to paste anywhere. Share it on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, whatever little sharing engine you like best. (Thanks)
Dear [CONGRESSPERSON’S NAME - helps them to know you’re actually awake at the keys],
Thank you for taking the time to hear from me, one [YOUR STATE]’s registered and active voters. [Patriotism plug! Two points]. My name is [YOUR NAME - feel free to include your patriotic alias, like, Tina “The Star-Spangled Seductress” Feinman] and I’m writing to let you know about one of my highest priorities as an active voice in your votership: corporate responsibility.
Specifically, we should treat corporate trustees and executives like the parents of their companies. I believe in holding people just as responsible for their organization’s actions as we hold individual parents for their children’s actions in society. If you want to read more on this basic idea, check out [whatever source you want to share — mine, someone else’s, or your own original].
[“As a registered indepenedent” or “despite my nominal party affiliation,”] I take each policy as it comes, and this one ranks high on my list when I get to the voting booth. I think it’s a simple matter of maintaining an equitable democracy, that we hold all the members of that democracy to the same standard. If we’re pretending corporations are people for now, they should have all the legal accountability we place on real people.
What I’m asking from you, Senator, is consistent representation not on one bill, but on every piece of legislation that seeks to define the relationship between a corporate entity and the public. If these companies are participants in the United States, they should be patriotic and responsible toward all citizens at home, and should bear our national standard with pride and integrity to the world abroad. It’s your job to create laws that hold them to that standard. I’m expecting a movement that starts with your name on it, Senator [THEIR NAME], and never stops until it’s coded into the constitution. I’ve signed up for your newsletter, and I’ll be rooting for all the action that you personally take in favor of this movement. But then again, I’ve sent this same message to my other congresspeople, so I guess it’s a team race to that finish line.
Thank you for your continued responsibility, first to the real individual’s freedoms, and only then to the strong collective that makes us a democratic and free nation. For my part, I’ll continue to inform myself on specific voting records, and loyally support the politicians who represent my nation this way. I hope you’ll be one of them.
[YOUR MAILING ADDRESS - it shows you’re one of their local peeps]
[YOUR EMAIL ADDRESS, if you’re requesting a response]
Bonus points if you send it to your district’s representative, too — just one more copy of the same message. This tool will help you run a quick search for the representative in your district, and give you their best contact info (click the little envelope icon next to their picture, once you run the search).
By the way, writing your own letter is actually a really good idea, if you have time. No need to write a different letter to each one, but having your own personal wording is a plus. Turns out that for elected officials, receiving a few dozen different letters makes a bigger impression than a few hundred copies of a form letter. But if you’re short on time, form letters are still more effective than complaining to the guy in the next cubicle.
I don’t lay out these steps to try to guilt you into some circle jerk of inneffectual, annoying chain mail. I’m just trying to lower the cost of meaningful participation. See, since nobody’s paying us a huge allowance to make our voices heard, we’ve got to get riled up for at least a minute or two, so that we can change some stuff in our favor. The better-than-money payoff comes further down the road, when things change in the legal system, and you find less cancer in your family, less abuse of your privacy rights, less poo on your doorstep.
Maybe you think the system’s rigged, that the politicians are already in the pockets of the giant interest groups. But believe it or not, Senators still rely on votes more than money. Yes, they can get paid quite a bonus by special interests while in office, but they can’t actually hold office and keep getting bonuses unless the majority of us vote for them. Don’t believe me? Watch this awesome video by Hank Green about how the miracle of democracy still works.
And feel free to add other ideas for taking effective action in the comments, or in a blog response, or in a youtube video. The more you make your voice heard as part of a networked group of voters, the more likely we are to make the world’s biggest kids clean up their messes, and quit giving us cancer and lawsuits and stuff.
One last thing, and then I’ll shut up: support the model children, the corporations who aren’t doing the crap. As much as you can, buy their stuff and watch their programming and give them great word-of-mouth advertising. The turdy kids will see how rich and famous the responsible kids are becoming, and suddenly wonder if they should quit being such tools themselves. It’s a pretty reliable system, if we consumers become the parents, not the children.
Thanks for reading. DFTBA.
I can’t express just how much the fame of this film would change our sick thinking. We’re a messed up country with a messed up bunch of priorities, and we need an infusion of something worth hoping in — not a politician, not a regime, but a story of empathy. The Happiest Place is an artistically rendered documentary about a Himalayan country that’s taking steps to rethink their own priorities. We could learn a thing or two.
The film team has reached their initial funding goal, and they realized that with more funding, they could release the film to a much wider audience and spread even more hope and inspiration.
I have a personal interest in this film’s success: I want to live in the happiest world there has ever been. Art like this inspires people to act, and I want us to be a nation that acts. Not in our own interests, as we have always done here, but in the interests of others.
Please help make this film super famous. Give a few bucks to the kickstarter, grab the link, and post it on your Facebook status.
Yeah, it felt really weird.
Some of you may read this title and think, “You were still in your shell, really?” while others may be thinking, “Sweet, shy Robert? I’ll believe it when I see it.” You two groups may both be surprised, but not nearly as shocked as I was. I feel like I just found my real personality in a box under the bed, stored there since I was six or seven years old. It still fits!
I’ve always been on the shy side. I was painfully awkward and quiet in middle school, except with a few trusted friends. I made an effort to build some social skills in high school and college, with some positive results. Even so, being in a room full of strangers could still spike my pulse and leave me sweating. The effect is great for handshakes, calm introductions, and tripping over babies. True story. (Come to think of it, who left that baby there?)
It’s said that true extroverts feel energized in large groups, and drained by solitude. True introverts feel just the opposite, energized by solitude or small groups, and drained by large groups like parties. For either group, there’s no reason they can’t enjoy themselves in any size gathering — or so I’ve been told. I’ve known this little intro/extro theory a long time, but it never helped me much.
I developed a little, though. As a musician and performer, years of practice installed a somewhat faulty Confidence Drive, which would blink on and off depending on the weekday. Sometimes I’d come down off the stage from a smooth performance, and then stammer my way through a couple nervous minutes of small talk before escaping backstage. And after a year in customer service, talking to a good fifty or hundred strangers a day, I still felt like I was flipping a coin when I met someone new. I didn’t know whether I was going to act excited and confident, or draw a blank when they asked what my name was.
And, uh, we can just forget talking to women. Never fun. Not once did I ask for a girl’s number on the first day I met her and not regret it, period. I eventually made a strict rule: never show interest in a girl, unless she made it absolutely clear we were already married. Then I might flirt a little, if I still remember how. Is it cake? Are you supposed to buy her cake?
On personality tests, though, I always score in the middle — actually with a little more weight on the extrovert side, believe it or not. Turns out, I actually love to meet strangers and even crave the occasional party. Well, on paper, anyway — actually going to such a party could sometimes leave me in shambles, even at 25 years old. And with this ass? Hey, I’m as puzzled as you.
Why, then, did my behavior seem so out of sync with my desires? Why was the thought of a huge group, even one where I knew every single person’s name, sometimes a nightmare and sometimes a dream?
I just figured it out this weekend: I’d condemned myself to an extrovert’s hell for nothing. So I escaped by making one single decision.
How Cynicism Made Me Miserable (But Not Permanently)
Welp, if the title didn’t make you laugh, this subtitle did. Not one of you would label me a cynic, not if you’ve heard me talk about romance, politics, or pocket lint. It’s because I hid it so well; in fact, I didn’t even know it myself. Very few cynics really know they’re cynics (and people who call themselves cynics usually believe they’re being ironic. Huh. That’s ironic. Or is it?). We all just assume we’re being shrewd, or guarded.
We so rarely know ourselves for the cynics we are. So let me be a warning to you, like one of those crumpled-up snowboarders you notice from the chairlift. It’s not just a clever ruse to meet chicks from the Ski Patrol. Wait, lemme write that down, that’s a pretty good ruse.
I’d been puzzling all week over the reasons we don’t get along very well in this country, or in the world. The cynical answer is, “people are assholes.” I didn’t articulate it that way myself. As a closet cynic, I’m also an insufferable idealist, believing defiantly (some would say brattily) in world peace, equality, justice for all.
You tend to uncover a crowd of fellow cynics when you venture out to share your lofty strategy for world peace. The most common response I get: “Well, *I* see your point, and I would love to help out, but I just don’t think other people will get it. It’ll go right over the average American’s head.” Another one I hear often: “Yeah, I’m all for it, but most people are selfish assholes. It would never work.”
Now, I’m first to admit my plans are full of flaws, but take a second to read between the lines of those two objections: “I’m the only one who’s going to agree with you, because I’m smarter and better than most of the world.” But everybody thinks this way. We all think we’re the only ones eager to save the world, but nobody else will pitch in, so what’s the use? Oh, irony. Be gentle.
With these conversations holding the mirror up to me, I finally saw my cynicism.
A cynic is someone who believes they’re the only one left in the world who’s got any love or wisdom. They might allow a few others in their inner circle — other democrats, or other protestants, or other Americans. But inner circle or no, the root of that cynicism is the same. It’s mistrust.
I was carrying my mistrust in a different pocket, though. Instead of saying, “The masses are assholes,” for me it was, “Strangers are assholes; they can’t wait to judge me. My own friends are assholes; they can’t wait for me to screw up, and they’ll never forgive me once I do.” These were suspicions I’d never be able to articulate without seeing them first in the mirror.
And what a relief, when I realized that we all carry a little helping of that mistrust.
Back to Naivete?
Of course, throwing away mistrust would have been naive. People still hurt each other all the time, and I didn’t want to paint a bullseye on my back. I felt stuck between two dumb choices:
A) Keep my mistrust. People are out to get me, so I’d better keep my sword drawn.
B) Go back to childish trust. People are nice! (Live in New York for about four or five seconds, and you’ll see the problem with this approach. And nobody will call you an ambulance, except the frazzle-haired man on the subway platform shouting, “You’re an ambulance!” Thanks, guy. As if my stab wounds weren’t enough, now I have body image issues.)
Then there came a voice. Like a shimmering, corporate-lingo talking, fluttering white dove, with sort of a Sam Elliott voice. And a tad soggy on the reverb, if I can nitpick. What the voice said was, ASSUME POSITIVE INTENT.
The phrase nipped at my gag reflex, as it’ll do for my fellow former cogs in the corporate machine. A quick google search for these three words will unearth business blogs, self-help books, and leadership texts a thousand suits deep. It’s kinda awful.
But think about its meaning. Get outside the gates of customer service, out past the cubicle walls. In fact, picture yourself asking out your would-be first date, or at your first audition for a school play, or in your first job interview. Picture the person you tried to make responsible for your happiness in that moment, and imagine them giving you the no you feared.
With each rejection or setback, we tell ourselves a story to fill in the unknowns. We do it unconsciously, filling in the blanks with our assumptions. All I know is that she didn’t want me for the sales job. She just closed her briefcase, handed me back my resume, and said nothing. An experience like that could transform mentally into, “She must’ve hated my musical dance number! She even hated my paisley suit, I could see it on her face.” Well, maybe we’ve picked a more difficult example to start with.
Early in life, I started imputing bad motives to the people who didn’t make me feel popular or special, and I slowly adopted a belief about others’ intentions. Soon I was imputing bad motives in advance, even before facing rejection. Funny, this habit tends to increase my nervousness, which makes people uncomfortable, giving me all the more reason to blame them for my feelings of rejection. Confirmation bias is a real turd.
But with tragic inevitability, my extroversion kept me coming back anyway. Each time, my first impression of the other person would tell me whether to trust them, and my Confidence Drive was instantly set in forward or reverse, not to be changed.
So I changed it.
Just like that. Really. I realized that children get their natural sense of trust (original flavor!) from thinking everyone’s gonna be nice to them, like their parents were. Some of us get out of the house and find the world being mean to us, so we assume people are assholes. Cynics with confidence generally do okay out there, while cynics like me sweat through a few dress shirts before lunch.
But trust can come in a less naive flavor (cooler ranch), one that doesn’t assume everyone will be as nurturing as a good parent. Trusting people don’t have to let themselves get stabbed in the back, but they can face rejection and hold their heads high.
When you meet with ill treatment, it helps to list a few of the good excuses that a rude person might’ve had for treating you so badly. Maybe your dance routine reminded her of her recently deceased husband. Maybe your paisley suit was the same one he was buried in. Or maybe your choice of “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown” simply didn’t fit the role they were trying to fill (lead sales manager). As long as you can find a valid reason to forgive the person, you can keep your confidence and move on. Bonus: you might learn a better approach for next time, instead of blaming someone else for the setback.
Here’s what I did next: I changed my mind about people. I just decided to adopt a new belief and live by it. Everyone has great intentions, and good or bad reasons for not acting on them, or not acting the way I wish they would. And I can easily get over it.
I wish I could say it were that simple. Oh, actually, it’s exactly that simple. You just get over it.
I was on a train, headed to a party when this realization overtook me. Upon arriving, I found I only knew one person there. Two hours later, I had a dozen new acquaintances, and was headed to karaoke (which was a blast). I daresay I was pretty fun to talk to.
The next day, I went to a meetup where I knew three of the eighteen people there. It wasn’t speed dating, but it felt a little like summer camp when I left two hours later with fifteen new friends and a long mental list of all the things we had in common. Four of them even joined me at a friend’s birthday party that night, where for once, I didn’t find myself in the corner wondering who was safe to talk to.
Not one of those conversations went perfectly. I was my real, unprepared, playful, nerdy self, and never shut down when it felt like that last thing I said might’ve come out weird. It didn’t matter if someone paid me any special attention. I got to keep enjoying them, and hold my head high whether it went my way or not.
I can tell you this, from the few dozen strangers I’ve met in the last 48 hours: people aren’t basically good. They’re deeply, differently wonderful. Go enjoy some.
You already knew this? Well, why didn’t anyone tell me? Ah, you probably tried, but I was busy thinking you were out to get me.
Today is 9/11, and I actually had to be reminded of it. I dreaded it coming about a week ago, but forgot once today arrived. A friend of mine on Facebook posted an extremely thoughtful, mournful, and beautiful post that ended with something that sickened me deeply:
The time for talk is over; it is time to (finally) make our murderous enemies pay.
Islamists are at war with us. When will we finally be at war with Islamists?
Let’s leave aside the fact that “the enemy” here is certainly not the entirety of Islam, but a fundamentalist group who claims to believe the same Quran. Replace the word “Islamists” in the quote above with the word, “terrorist fundamentalist whackjobs,” and I still disagree with the quote. I don’t feel that this is a political disagreement, but a philosophical one: isn’t this “make them pay” stuff pretty close to the mentality that was used to plan and carry out the 9/11 attacks? Wasn’t this pretty much what they said about us?
Ever watched a dog biting its own hindquarters? Attacking his own tail, angrily chewing til he’s whimpering in pain? We laugh that he can’t tell it’s him, but we’re doing that same hilarious stunt to ourselves. We, humanity, are chasing our own tails here, by calling the other guy the one that’s after us, or the one that must pay. That’s our own ass we’re chewing on. And no surprise, it kinda tastes like shit.
Don’t think for a minute that I sit on a high horse. I’ve had, and patriotically expressed, the same thought so many times I’ve lost count. I have deeply believed it. That we must make them pay. That the world needs to see that terrorism doesn’t go unpunished. It needs to fear us, to fear Justice Itself.
America was deeply wounded that day. I won’t downplay the tragedy — it was one of the most brutal and evil of all publicized attacks. It was meaningless, and we can’t seem to abide meaninglessness — we have to reconcile it, make meaning of it. It was misdirected hatred, and we can’t seem to abide misunderstanding — we think we have to correct people’s understanding of us. We think we need to get out our ledgers, balance our scales, make the bad guys pay what they owe to the good guys. Make those guys pay for what they did to our guys.
But 9/11 wasn’t the worst or most murderous atrocity to date. It wasn’t even the most recent. It was, however, the most recent time that somebody had the audacity to kill a lot of rich white people from a country with lots of media, lots of money, and lots of defense spending. So we keep on remembering the crime, replaying it for the world, for ourselves — exactly as we ought to do for those victims. Memorializing them is honorable and good. Understanding the event will take years, and shouldn’t be swept away or repressed.
But we cross an important line when we forget that our wounds are not the world’s deepest — or even its freshest. Genocides and slaveries, oppressions and captivities, all surge through the world even now. Nation against nation, creed against creed, race against race. We just happen to be the richest victims, the ones with the loudest megaphones, the ones with the nicest cameras. That does not make it wrong to feel our pain. We are still victims, and yes, our pain is real and immense. Yes, we wish we could get an apology, a reparation paid — whether in dollars or lives — to see the scales be balanced, see the ledgers evened out.
But resolving those debts would take a nuclear winter. It would take not a pound, but a million metric tons of human flesh from the world. There’s an outstanding debt from the nations that were all founded on slavery, the ones that have launched atom bombs on civilians, the ones that have experimented on live humans or exploited events like genocide and mass disenfranchisement to get ahead. To settle all those scores, we’d have to punish a great many people, including ourselves.
I prefer not to add that suffering to the world, not even for the sake of “things being even.” Being even would be nice, but getting even would take an unprecedented death toll from all nations and belief systems and groups. It would look like an apocalypse. I’d rather not make it a fair world.
But going forward, I’d like it to become fair. I’d like to learn better how to prevent injustices. I’d like to make sure that terrorism and hate-in-action aren’t easy to carry out, aren’t encouraged or retaliated against or multiplied. But can we do it without chewing our own assholes to bloody death? I get that they’re assholes, but they’re our assholes, and it hurts our health when we chew them to bits. We need, like, one of those cone-shaped neck things.
I’m well aware that this answer is philosophically unsatisfying. Satisfaction is elusive. Injustice is just that way. Meaninglessness sometimes can’t be explained. Bad things happen to good people. Idiots win the lottery, assholes get the girl, whackjobs kill thousands and then escape into desert caves. And it hurts like a very deep, human hell.
But we need to learn to live in a complex, uneven social environment. We need to make peace with tipped scales and blank ledgers. Maybe satisfaction and meaning are possible, but the whole effort to reconcile them is intellectually dishonest if it’s not carried out on ourselves, too. If we truly settle the score, we all go into negative numbers. Every single one of us on earth except the kids who haven’t taken part in the hatred yet — and even they would certainly learn some new hatred from watching us settle our old scores.
Let’s quit keeping score, quit chewing the wound. Let’s mourn and grieve our losses. Let’s admit our mistakes and injustices. Let’s do it carefully, and then let’s finally move on.
Which is worse: a smart-ass politician who dabbles in comedy, or a smart-ass comedian who sticks his nose into politics? Just kidding. Both are awesome.
(WARNING: this will not be a fair, balanced blog post. You will encounter political opinion that you don’t necessarily agree with. Tough it out if you’re brave, cause it’s kinda funny).
As I was saying, I love political/comedy crossover careers. For instance, John Stewart is getting to be pretty good at the political game. He’s way smarter than he lets on. I know he says he doesn’t want to be a political player, and I believe he means that. But I think he’d be really good at politics if he let himself indulge a little. (C’mon, John, do it for the rest of the country. You know you kinda want to. There’s no shame in actual good people taking an interest in public policy).
And then, there’s This Guy:
Cory Booker. I’d be saying “Cory Booker for President 2016!” right now if I weren’t so scared of how smart he is. Check out this story on the Huffington Post (I know, I know, you may not trust their journalism. Well, don’t worry, they totally missed the real story) about Booker and a little friendly spat with Conan O’Brien.
I’m not sure if I want THIS much of a political genius in the White House. But if he’s that smart and truly a good guy (video: Booker argues very smartly and passionately in support of equal rights for LGBT couples) then, well, damn. I do want my presidents to be that smart and that goodhearted. (I don’t think Obama is quite this ingenious as a political chessmaster, but it can be hard to tell. I think he is that good of a guy, though. Booker just makes him look like an amateur politician, to me). Let me show you why he’s got my attention.
Short version of the Conan/Booker feud: Conan makes a joke at Newark’s expense, about how dangerous and slummy a city it is. Booker, their mayor, takes the opportunity to make a joke at Conan’s expense: he puts him on the Newark Airport No-Fly-List. Seriously (but just kidding, but seriously…) The “conflict” gets inevitably misunderstood by some of the public (it turns out a mayor doesn’t actually have that authority). Soon, people think Booker and Conan are really in a fight. It looks like Conan isn’t sure whether to be mad at Booker, or to joke back. So they both play along, pretending to be in a joke-fight.
Which they totally are, but pretending to be facetious. Sort of. Wait, who even knows if we’re really fighting anymore?
The answer is Booker. Booker still knows. (video: Booker “extends” the coco-no-go rule to all of New Jersey, parts of Ireland, and the nation of Ghana, for some odd reason. Of course, Booker isn’t just trolling Conan with unsolicited aggression — Conan has been taking shots at Newark night after night, and getting a little more mean-spirited every time).
As you can see, the play-fight escalated. It escalated to the point that even Hilary Clinton, actual Secretary of State and a former First Lady, that one, intervened. Again, you may be tempted to see these little jokes as media shenanigans with no weighty undertones, but none of these people are in agreement, and none of them (except Booker) really knows if this is a joke anymore.
Conan is actually trying to get away with a cheapshot joke that he now feels a little sorry for, especially now that so many are pissed off at Conan, whose career is made or broken by his public reception. Booker is actually defending the dignity of the city where he’s mayor, which really is part of his job as a mayor, to stand up for their prosperity and culture. And Hilary is actually embarrassed and wants to save face for the Democrats. And since Booker knows all of this, he actually goes to bat and gets Newark everything it wants. Keep watching — he gets so much smarter from here.
Check out Conan’s own version of the story. Notice how he’s actually a little insistent on how funny and innocent his joke was, and in this clip with Cory Booker himself, Conan’s defensive about the fact that he’s “not the only person” to make fun of Jersey. He even, under the cover of comedy, pleads “why me” with Booker. He acts like it’s just a joke, but under the surface, he’s a little hurt, a little targeted, and doing his best to come out looking like the funnier guy. And yet, Conan still finds the whole thing pretty hilarious, despite himself.
Here’s Booker’s real coup de grace (my snooty use of a french term that means, “final blow that shows off his true mastery” of politics) — he manages to not only turn Conan into a genuine Newark fan (notice how Conan’s choice of buildings is both joking and supportive in this bit), he also gets Conan and his network to donate real money to Newark to end a “joke” feud. Nobody throws real peacekeeper dollars at a fake war, and yet Booker never calls him on the floor, never treats it like it wasn’t a joke. He lets Conan get away with it, as long as he pays cash. I know it’s weird for a comedian to buy his way out of a joke. But it happened.
And basically, Booker just wielded social and political muscle to get a public performer to give tons of money to his city. $100,000, which is not inconsequential for a city the size and revenue of Newark. Cory fought to earn back Newark’s dignity, and he slyly negotiated a cash settlement with a public figure. Conan even set up a running joke where he gets to lovingly make fun of Newark as long as he gives them cash and affection (see the Newark Joke Jar at the end of that clip). And Booker did all of this in a way that helped Conan’s career, and made him look funnier and kinder in the process. Most of all, he used ingenious political power to help the city that put him in office. He defended their reputation, their wallets, and their interests in the future, all by taking part in the public conversation, and doing it with a sense of humor. He’s like Tyrion Lannister, but with a big generous heart.
Watch the rest of the interview on Conan. Even Conan himself admits out loud, as far as politics and feuds go, Cory won. And Cory lets Conan win at Conan’s thing, which is being the funny entertainer. So Conan gets the ego boost and laughs, and Newark gets money and a good relationship with a public figure, and Cory gets… well, good stuff for Newark. That’s kind of an unbelievably selfless good-guy finish. Cory never takes credit for a single jot of this. Probably the biggest David and Goliath political power-play of the century, and David limps off stage right, barely a high-five in his corner.
So I’m going to go ahead and say it out loud. I want Cory Booker for President in 2016. With John Stewart as his running mate. They both understand the public conversation, they both have a ton of experience in policy and politics (combine their experiences in performance, service, private/corporate/entertainment politics and public politics, and they’re a powerhouse). They both have what it takes to run a balanced, dignified, intelligent campaign, and both are actually good guys. When has America had a team like this on deck? Did we keep silent last time? Well, not this time.
Share this post on facebook if you want to see Booker/Stewart on the 2016 ticket. And write your own post in support of Booker, from whatever material you find. Send it to me. I wanna know even more about him. If we spread the word enough, maybe Booker and Stewart will take us seriously. Let’s get these guys into office!
Ambivalence: feeling two ways, strongly, at once.
Omnivalence: feeling every which way.
Every day of our lives, the world tells us to pick a lane. Pick a major, pick a mentor, pick a specialty, pick a department. Make yourself an all-out expert in something; ready, go.
Those who don’t, look scared. The dabblers, the dilletantes, the jacks-of-all-trades. They’re just holding back, right? Fear of commitment, that must be what keeps them from diving in. They make good secretaries, assistants, tagalongs.
Then there’s the ecstatic. The absurd. The quixotic. We won’t pick a windmill; we’ve got to tilt at all of them, one by one. We hate killing time, attempting the possible, calling it a day. We work best with people who steer clear of words like “unrealistic.” We’ve decided that it’s better to fail spectacularly at ten goals than to attempt zero.
We may pretend to specialize, but when the office lights go out and everyone else goes home, we get out the finger paints or point our browsers to yet another neuroscience wiki. You’ll find us there in the morning, passed out on our keyboards, with a flock of scribbled post-its gathering drool ‘neath our little chins.
We’re omnivalent. We can’t help it.
YES IT TINGLES EVEN STILL