Hey Jude

Image result for a little life

I was in Dallas over the holidays, and I made my usual trip to Half Price Books on Northwest Highway. While I was browsing the Clearance section, looking for my obligatory $10 worth of books, I saw a copy of Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life. I was familiar with the book–the cover is hard to forget–and it seemed like a great purchase for $2. I didn’t expect to ever read it, to be honest. It’s 814 pages long, for god’s sake, and I assumed it would take a place next to Atlas Shrugged and Infinite Jest in my collection of “Books I own and can talk about casually without ever having read.” This might sound like a ridiculously illogical view of purchasing books, but that’s a different blog post. Sometime during that day in December, between meals and laughs with friends, I found myself reading the first few pages. There’s nothing particularly stunning or unique about those first pages, but for some reason I remember thinking to myself, “I think I might actually read this book. And finish it.” It’s now February 3rd, and a few minutes ago I finished reading pg. 814 and closed A Little Life for the last time. I estimate that I probably picked up and opened the book somewhere around 100 times over the last month, sometimes squeezing in 1-2 pages between classes, and other times reading in one- and two-hour chunks (which is very long for me). It’s towards the top of the list of longest single works I have ever read (maybe second only to Murakami’s 1Q84), and I’ve got to be honest: I’m sad that there aren’t more pages past 814. Simply put, reading A Little Life was time very well spent.

Usually, when I finish a book, I immediately get online and read reviews (New York Times; Kirkus; The New Yorker). I have not done this yet for A Little Life. Instead, I want to get my own thoughts and reactions down before I’m swayed by what anyone else has said.

The easiest way to summarize the book is that it’s about a group of four college roommates–JB, Malcolm, Willem, and Jude–living in New York City. The novel traces around four decades of their lives, starting as they begin to try and figure out their lives as an actor, artist, architect, and lawyer. Like I said above, the book is 814 pages long, so lots of aspects of each of their lives are covered. Two of them are black; two are white. Two come from affluent families; two do not. They are diverse in their sexuality, their professional successes and failures, and their sense of self-awareness. I don’t mean to imply that the four main characters collectively depict the “Everyman” experience, because this is not the case. Yanagihara does not give us a novel that is malleable to all sorts of American experiences; she gives us a very specific group of characters that have particularly nuanced experiences. All four characters maintain presence throughout the book, but the focus narrows by page 300 or so, when it becomes clear that the central emotional lens of the novel is on the most enigmatic and compelling of the four: Jude St. Francis.

I get teary-eyed whenever I read McCarthy’s The Crossing and re-experience the heartbreak of Billy Parham, and I am still not quite able to handle the emotional realities of the decision that Sethe makes in Morrison’s Beloved, but no character has inspired in me such deep astonishment, sympathy, and sadness as Jude St. Francis. In the first 100 pages of the novel, we know that Jude keeps to himself and walks with a slight limp, but it’s also quite clear that Yanagihara is preparing us for what’s to come in terms of Jude and his past. And what’s to come is, to be honest, some of the most horrific personal baggage you can imagine. Jude’s childhood is belittling, abusive, and destructive in every category, and there are times later in the book where I found myself simply wishing that I didn’t have to learn more about neither the horrible things that were done to him in the past, nor see how these past traumas tangibly affect his daily adult life. A friend of mine used the phrase “suffering porn” when referring to the book, and I’m sure she’s not alone in that assessment. Her take of the novel was positive, but I have no doubt that plenty of readers and reviewers have commented on the extent to which Jude’s life is full of trauma and whether or not a single person could have realistically gone through so much and survived. Does Yanagihara go too far with Jude? A fair question, and there were moments during my reading when I too found myself adamantly denying that any child could go through these things.

Of course, children do go through these things. Adults do horrible things to children, and those children turn into adults that do horrible things to themselves. This is not always the case, but it is the case for Jude. And as difficult as the book was to read at times–as shocking and nauseating and maddening as it was–what ultimately rose to the surface for me was a camaraderie I felt with the rest of the characters in the novel based upon a similar desire: I wanted to tell Jude that he did matter, that he wasn’t disgusting, that he deserved happiness and was worthy of love. This is what Willem wants. And Harold and Julia. And JB and Malcolm. And Andy, and Richard, and the Henry Youngs, and basically every other person in the novel that comes in contact with Jude. For 814 pages, they seek a key to the lock of Jude’s self-hatred, and I find myself still on that same search. I am not happy with how the book ends, nor am I satisfied with what I know–and don’t–about Jude. But it seems as if this is Yanagihara’s point. The most destructive part of abuse like this is the belief it instills in the abused that he or she deserved it. In the final pages of the book, Richard describes Jude as “stubbornly believing everything he was taught about himself.” This is the central tragedy of the novel, and it is one that will not quickly leave me.

All of that being said, the book is full of beautiful moments: moments of hope, and pleasure, and fulfillment. Moments of laughter and simple happinesses with groups of people that love each other. The book is full of touching depictions of the best, most true, and most worthwhile parts of friendship and of romance, of family and of the self. And at the end of this book full of all sorts of horrible things, the last page is one of the most beautiful I have ever read. My favorite line is when Richard articulates how Jude’s impact in his daily life: “And so I try to be kind to everything I see, and in everything I see, I see him.”

For me, A Little Life is a lesson in caring. It is a lesson in relationships. It is a lesson in how I view myself. And, most importantly, it is a lesson in how there are some problems that cannot be fixed by having good friends, but there are many others that can.


Leave a comment

Filed under Books, Uncategorized

The best movie I’ve seen twice in a long time.

I often complain in my classes about the state of movies. Specifically, I echo many other pretentious people like me in their complaints about how hard it is to find a movie in the theater that I want to go see. Instead, my Century and Cinemark and AMC are loaded with comic book movies, tired remakes, or a story about something that’s haunted (a doll, a house, a Polaroid camera, etc.). I get on my soapbox, make my complaint, and continue with my lecture about Emerson or rhetoric. I get it: I’m a cliche English professor, and I am not that original.

There are lots of problems with this too-sure-of-himself professor complaining about movies, but the one that sticks out the most to me is that I have recently realized that my complaints are simply wrong. Yes, my theaters are loaded with movies that I do not want to see, but there are also LOTS of movies that fit my narrow definition of “good” and “worthwhile.” People are still making great movies, just like people are still writing great books and poems and songs. It’s easy to say that Hollywood has sold out, but it’s also lazy and, to be honest, disrespectful to the people out there that are still telling great stories through film. I saw lots of great movies in the past couple of months–more than enough to prove myself wrong. They weren’t all in the theater, but plenty of them were. Here’s a list:

Paterson (on Amazon Prime):

A Ghost Story (on Amazon Prime):

The Big Sick (on Amazon Prime):

The Disaster Artist (in the theater):

The Post (in the theater):

I enjoyed all of these movies for different reasons. Collectively, they offer everything that I look for in movies. Some are serious, others hilarious, others confusing and frustrating, and all of them are well-made and captivating. I loved watching all of them, and I recommend them to anyone.

But there’s one movie in particular that I saw that convinced me more than any other that my complaints about comic book movies are nothing more than distractions from what I should be spending my time on: finding and seeing movies that are meaningful. The best movie I saw in 2017 (and again in 2018) is without a doubt, hands down, Lady Bird.

I cannot say enough about how much I love this movie. I found myself laughing throughout the entire thing, out loud, which is not normal for me, but I also was totally invested emotionally. It’s hilarious, but that humor is matched with serious, deep emotion. There are serious things in this movie, but the movie does not take itself too seriously. It’s organic in the same way that Manchester by the Sea was, but it’s a much more enjoyable viewing experience. I don’t know how else to put it other than it simply feels real. All of the notes that it aims for it hits in perfect tune. The relationships are authentic, the conflicts are all-too-realistic, and the overall tone is one of the best I’ve ever had the pleasure of experiencing. I’ve never been a teenage girl, but I am convinced that Lady Bird‘s depiction of this experience is the best ever captured on film. It doesn’t miss a beat.

There’s a line in the movie where Lady Bird is talking to her teacher, who tells her that she writes about her hometown (Sacramento) with such love. Lady Bird reacts flippantly, saying that she simply pays attention. The teacher responds, “Don’t you think maybe they are the same thing? Love and attention?” What a simple, beautiful thought.

It’s so good. If it’s playing in your town, go see it. If you don’t end up liking it, don’t tell me.

This movie will win Best Picture at the Academy Awards in March. It’s better than Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. It’s not even close. Ronan and Metcalf should win statues, too. And Gerwig. Basically, it should win everything except for costumes and music and the technical ones.

– – – – – – – – – –

Once you get done seeing Lady Bird, I also suggest reading this book:

Image result for go went gone

Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck (translated into English in 2017)

This is a German novel (didn’t realize that when I bought it) about a retired professor in Berlin that gets personally attached and caught up in the refugee crisis. The storytelling is much different than what I am used to, and there were times where I wasn’t sure what I thought about it. But once I got traction, I was into it. It’s a book about important things, and the message it conveys is one that needs to be heard. As a lifelong Texan teaching at a small university, I have absolutely zero understanding of the refugee experience or of what is going on around the world with refugees. This book didn’t change that, but it made me much more aware of my ignorance, and it posed questions that, frankly, I was not prepared to answer. It seems to me like this is what all great books should do.

Cheers to a new semester.

Leave a comment

Filed under Books, Movies

Create Joy

I find myself surrounded by negativity. In 2017, we love to focus on how bad things are, and there’s no shortage of places to point. Presidents, protests, petty grievances. It seems as if one of our central pleasures is talking about all of the things that upset us. We are addicted to it. I am addicted to it. It’s almost as if I feel the need to have my own list of grievances ready at all times, so that whenever I get into a conversation with someone else about “the world” and what they see wrong with it, I will then have my own contributions.

“Can you believe . . .  ”

“Did you see where . . . ”

“Not to mention . . . ”

The above ellipses represent the people, events, and daily occurrences that fill up our laundry list of the various ways we see our cities and our country and our world going in directions of which we do not approve, of the people around us acting in ways we do not understand. I heard lots of this over my Thanksgiving break, and I added my fair share of the complaining. The world is an increasingly scary and messed up place, according to all of us.

But then I see things like this:

This is not the first time that a professional athlete has given an autographed item to a fan in a wheelchair. I know very little about Leonard Fournette. For all I know, he has all sorts of off-the-field issues. Or maybe he’s a respected player who does great things for his community. I don’t know if he kneels during the national anthem, and I don’t know if he has relatives that are veterans. I have no idea. I don’t care. Regardless of who he is, what he stands for, or the reasons for his actions, the moment in that video speaks volumes because of the look in the fan’s face when he realizes that this player is actually signing his cleats and then giving them to him. He can’t believe it is actually happening. And the look on his face is priceless. It is pure joy. If you didn’t see it, watch the video again, and pay close attention around the 18 second mark. This is the look of natural, unadulterated human bliss. It is a miracle.

This face reminds me that the choice to talk about all of the things that scare or worry me in the world is just that: a choice. These things are there. Human beings screw things up, and that will never change. This means that there will always be things in the world that leave people hurting and broken. Cruelty exists. Neglect exists. Vindictiveness and ignorance and selfishness and jealousy and apathy exist. We all know this, and yet somehow we continue to talk about them as if they are new, or as if we are the first ones to diagnose these problems. As if all of a sudden we realize that people act in ways that are not productive or helpful to others, thus necessitating we sit around, talk about it, and then do absolutely nothing except continue the cycle: 1) See; 2) Judge; 3) Complain.

This video reminds me that this is not the only option, that there is another choice we can make. Joy is waiting around every corner, and happiness is always at our fingertips. I do not mean that we can magically snap our fingers and make ourselves happy. This is not possible. But we can, at any point in time during our daily routines, make other people happy. This is what the football player did in the video. It took very little on his part. He gets cleats for free. He did not pay for that Sharpie, and he did not have to ask permission from his coach to take a second to walk over to the sidelines. All-in-all, this took him about 45 seconds and a few extra steps. But the outcome for the guy that got the cleats is worth everything. Getting these cleats doesn’t mean he’s going to get out of the wheelchair, or that his relationships in life are all of a sudden better, or that his life is suddenly going to turn in a different direction. But in that moment at the 18 second mark, he is, to his core, happy. And this type of happiness can only result from someone else making the choice to make it happen. The football player made a simple choice, and that choice created this beautiful, life-affirming moment.

I can do this. It will not make me a hero, nor will it really even change my own life all that much. But what’s stopping me from making someone else’s day better tomorrow? Why not do something like this football player did? In the big scheme of “the world,” I have very little influence. It is minuscule and inconsequential in the context of “problems” and “issues.” But I can make someone else happy tomorrow. I can say something to someone that they do not expect, a compliment or a comment that affirms their sense of self worth. I can purchase lunch for someone. I can send a text to someone I haven’t spoken to in a long time, letting them know I am thinking about them and that I care. I can tell someone that she is beautiful, or that he is more intelligent than he gives himself credit for, or that their friends are lucky to know them.

This football player in the video displayed great power: the power to create joy for another person. We all have this power. We all should live for moments where we create looks on people’s faces like the one the guy in the video makes. I don’t know if I can think of a better goal in this negativity-addicted world: to try, every single day, to do what I can to see that look on someone else’s face.

I probably won’t do it. Instead, I’ll get mad about another sexual harassment story on Reddit, or I’ll spend 15 minutes complaining about the struggling state of higher education, or I’ll complain to a colleague about something Trump said.

Why spend time making joy when I could sit back and complain about this joyless world? It’s so much easier to complain than it is to try and solve. In the meantime, I’ll just have to wait for more videos of someone else doing that good work for me.

Leave a comment

Filed under Life

Patriots, all of a sudden.

I didn’t take the pledge of allegiance seriously when I said it in grade school. It was one of those things we did. The words didn’t really have meaning to me any more than the Texas pledge did, or my school song, or the Bible verses I had to memorize as a child. I just said them, because everyone else did.

I don’t sing the national anthem at sporting events. I put my hand over my heart, because that’s just what you do. I pay attention to the person singing, and I look at the flag, and sometimes I get goosebumps because it’s cool to see everyone stop and do the same thing at the same time. But I don’t sing, and I don’t pay attention to whether or not the person next to me does.

I don’t read the news about military activities abroad. I don’t know how many soldiers have died in the past week, or month, or year. I don’t know exactly where our soldiers are, nor do I know how many of them are there. I take them for granted, and I live my life assuming that I am being protected.

This isn’t a reflection of some sort of conscious rebellion on my part. My lack of singing isn’t because I have animosity towards my country; it’s just that I don’t like to sing, especially not in public. It’s also that I really don’t put that much stock in it. I don’t know where this comes from, and I don’t hate my country. I love my country.

I don’t have an American flag hung by my door. I don’t even own an American flag, and I’m not even sure where I could go in person to purchase one.

Does this make me a bad American? Some people will undoubtedly say this is the case. They have every right to say that. I pay my taxes. I don’t commit crimes. I cheer on USA in the Olympics and World Cup. I’m a relatively productive member of society. And, to be honest, I feel as if my lack of singing or my disregard for the pledge of allegiance fits squarely into the norm, at least as far as I can tell. I’m confident that most of my classmates were like me in that the pledge didn’t mean anything, and I’m also confident that most of the people around me aren’t checking the news about our military or wholly focused on the national anthem when it plays.

That is, until recently, when a group of individuals decided to take a knee during the national anthem at professional sporting events. All of a sudden, we are a country full of die-hard patriots that care immensely about the national anthem, about the pledge of allegiance, and about the flag. All of a sudden we are furious that these individuals would have the audacity to disrespect these national emblems that mean so much. How dare they?!? Who do they think they are? Do they presume to live in a country built upon protest, a country founded on individuals speaking out against their own government? Do they think that this is a country where they are given the freedom to express their own frustrations in peaceful ways? Do they honestly think that our armed forces are protecting their rights to live in a place where dissension against the government and against federal programs are protected? Where in the world did they get this idea?

They’ve got it wrong. In this country, you only have the right to protest in ways that are palatable. Salute the flag, sing the anthem, and put your hand over your heart when you say the pledge–once you do this, then you can make your complaint. In this country, you make sure that your protest doesn’t disrupt our Sunday routine of watching football and being affirmed in our beliefs that everything is great here. Don’t disrupt my Sunday with your political agenda and your victim complex–save that for someone that cares. I just want to watch my football and continue to tell myself that everything is fine. Obama was elected president, thus racism doesn’t exist. Cops don’t single out minorities. Prisons are full of African American men because African American men are more inclined to commit crimes, not because the system has problems. The playing field is fair for everyone, so stop complaining. And, for God’s sake, stand up and respect our flag.

No one seems to care about being patriotic until his or her idea of what it means to be so is challenged. The NFL has been hiring and abetting people convicted of manslaughter, assault, domestic violence, and all sorts of substance abuse issues for decades. Did this bother us? Not at all. In this sense, we’ve been rather gracious and forgiving fans. We didn’t care about what they did as long as they scored touchdowns and kept their mouths shut. But taking a knee during the national anthem? That crosses the line. Killed someone in a drunk-driving accident? Beat your wife and girlfriend and children? Abused drugs and alcohol? Here’s your jersey. Take a knee during the anthem to bring attention to social injustices in your communities? Go find a different job, you anti-American, military-hating, overpaid, and entitled complainer.

In this country, we may not respect our people or listen to what they have to say, but we sure as hell respect our flag.

I guess I’m just a bad American.


Filed under Life

We are dumb [an observation]

Millions of people smoke cigarettes. Hundreds of millions of people are overweight. We stay in relationships in which we are miserable. We go to jobs every day that we hate. We text while we drive. We say the one thing we know we shouldn’t say when we are arguing with our significant others. We touch the plate when the waiter tells us it’s too hot.

Freud calls it the death drive. To paraphrase: human nature has a subconscious bias towards death and self-destruction. This sounds ridiculous on the surface, but I’ve come to believe that it’s spot-on. Freud’s theory goes in directions that are far beyond mine, but the central idea of our bent towards self-destruction is evident all around us. I can give a few examples from my own life:

I never feel better physically than I do right after I go to the gym or walk 18 holes instead of ride. But I always find reasons to not do either.

I feel most alive when I put myself out there and in vulnerable situations. But I go months–sometimes years–before I’ll do it again.

I know the biggest relief in my job is when I finish grading a stack of papers. But I’ll literally walk away from the last two and wait until the next night to finish.

I am aware of the fact that if I simply ate a little bit less and a little bit healthier for a month, I’d probably lose 15 pounds. But I simply keep eating like I have for the past 15 years.

I look forward to that feeling right after I clean my house, or get my laundry folded, or clean my dishes. But I avoid doing all of them.

Each of these examples follows the same formula: Knowing that certain actions will lead to positive results, but still choosing to not do them. This is different from taking risks or going out on a ledge. Quitting a job is scary, because we don’t know for sure that we will like the next one. Breaking up with someone means we might end up with no one. Ordering something new on the menu means that it might end up tasting bad. These are hard things to do because we aren’t sure of the outcome. But the examples I mentioned above don’t involve risk. I know exactly what the outcome will be, and yet I still avoid acting.

Why am I like this? Is it just me?

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone to the gym, eaten a healthy meal, put myself to bed with a book and then woken up the next morning and thought, “Geez, I feel great, I’m going to start doing that every night!” And then, of course, I don’t do it again until the next week, or even longer. This doesn’t make any sense. I know what to do to feel better, to be happier, and to have more purpose in my life. Why do I choose to do otherwise?

The answer is simple: I am dumb. I know how to feel healthier. I know how to make better relationships with my family and with my friends. I know things I could say to other people that would make them feel better about themselves. I know people that need my help, and I know that I would feel great after helping them. I know that when I get my clothes folded, and my floor swept, and my dishes clean, I’m going to feel pleased with myself. I know that telling someone how I really feel is the moment when I feel most alive.

There’s no risk, and only good can come from all of these. But my brain and my body convince me not to. I don’t think I’m alone here. According to Freud, I’m definitely not. Why is this how we are?

If a certain food give you heartburn, don’t eat that food. If one of your coworkers always brightens your day, talk to them everyday. If you feel worthless after watching Netflix for 6 hours, then don’t watch Netflix for 6 hours. If you love that feeling after you’ve mowed your grass, then go outside and mow your grass. If watching the Cowboys lose ruins your Sunday, then only watch when they play the Giants this year.

We can’t control everything in our lives. We don’t know what’s coming our way, and we can never guarantee a good day. But we do know ourselves, and we do know what does and doesn’t work for us. Avoiding this knowledge is something that we all do, all the time. It’s self-sabotage. It defies logic. It’s somehow making a conscious decision to not do what we know is best for ourselves.

Fold more, swallow less.

Honest more, withhold less.

Act more, sit less.

Face more, avoid less.

Smart more, dumb less.

I’m going to stop touching that hot plate when the waiter warns me not to.


Filed under Life

Why I quit social media.

Last semester, I had one of my classes read Dave Eggers’s 2013 novel, The Circle. It’s about social media, and was recently made into a typically-horrible Hollywood adaptation with Emma Watson and Tom Hanks. During one of our class discussions, one of my students asked me if I used social media. I answered with a simple, “No.” Her response:

“What do you do?” (with jaw dropped).

This question was immediately followed by another:

“Do you have friends?”

This was a knee-jerk response based on my students’ unfiltered and unpolished reaction to the fact that I don’t have any social media. For them, the knowledge of me not having Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, or SnapChat was shocking. For them, these media platforms are prerequisites for daily life. For them, the following equations are basic truths:

Having social media = Having something to do

Having social media = Having friends

Not having social media = Having nothing to do

Not having social media = Having no friends

This was eye-opening for me because a) I didn’t realize that these technologies had actually reached the point to where they are seen equivocally with actual activities and friends, and b) I didn’t realize my students could so quickly see me as someone that has no friends. It was a sad moment. But this is NOT going to be a post about how much younger generations are glued to their phones, or how millenials care too much about social media. It’s NOT going to be that post because I think that both of those statements are disingenuous. Younger people are no more glued to their phones than any other group of people, nor do they care more about social media that the rest of us. Go to any restaurant or mechanic shop or hospital waiting room and you’ll see that the infatuation with social media isn’t unique to millenials–it’s everyone. So this is NOT going to be that post.

Instead, it’s going to be a post about my own personal experiences and how they lead to my current status of having nothing to do and having no friends, i.e. having no social media. It’s not going to be a long story about some crazy eye-opening moment where I realized some grandiose truth and found the light. Instead, it’s pretty simple. I woke up one morning, scrolled through Instagram, prepared myself to post my own picture, started picking filters and thinking of captions, and then simply realized that all of that time was a total waste. I had simply spent 90 minutes laying in bed, doing absolutely nothing but mindlessly scrolling through pictures that other people had posted, in preparation to post my own, all of which I really didn’t care about at all. I asked myself: Why? Why look at these pictures? Why post my own pictures? Why care so much about which picture I chose? Why spend so much time trying to think of the perfect caption that would emanate the perfect amount of “I’m irreverent but interesting” mixed with “I’m very witty” with a side of “I’m self-aware but also plugged into my social circle”?


Now that I haven’t been on it for a long time, I feel like I have a good answer: I spent all of that time because that was time that I didn’t have to think about my self, my life, or anything really going on inside of my head. For me, social media was just one big distraction. Even better: It was a distraction that came along with free forms of affirmation and self-delusion. 37 people liked my photo? I got 4 comments on that picture from last week? I have 5 new follow requests? Hell yes, I must be doing just fine. For me, it worked like this:

If I ever felt lonely, or if sad thoughts came to mind, or even if I just felt a bit bored, I had a solution: social media. Why sit around and be sad when I can lose myself in my friend’s cappuccino pictures on Instagram? Why think about being alone when I can join my friends in whatever they’re doing by viewing their Snap stories and then sending a response? Why feel bored when I can literally access the NEVER-ENDING scroll of Facebook? With social media, I always had friends at my fingertips, and I always had something to do. How could this have possibly not been a good thing?

Turns out, it was a horrible thing. What started out as a fun way to connect with friends became an hourly obsession, and what started out as a tool of communication became a mechanism of repression. Every time I checked my Instagram feed, I was purposefully ignoring real emotions and feelings. Worse than ignoring: I was repressing them. These virtual, non-material images on a tiny screen were literally functioning as a sort of trash compactor for my subconscious. And if you’ve ever read any of Freud, you know that repression is not a good thing. Because whenever we shove these feelings and emotions aside, they don’t go away–they are still there, waiting for us. But where the trash compactor metaphor breaks down is that where the compactor is essentially a tool to make it easier when the time comes to throw away your trash, repression turns the trash–the subconscious emotions and feelings and fears and desires that we all have every day–into a much smellier, much dirtier, and much-harder-to-deal-with lump of unprocessed emotion. And at some point, you have to take out the trash. It’s not going anywhere; it’s there, waiting for us.

This might sound like a pessimistic view of the human experience. I don’t think it is; I think it’s a realistic view. Life is hard. Human existence is full of struggle and failure and unfulfilled desires. We all deal with things, every single day. But there’s also all sorts of pleasures, and joys, and happinesses. This mix of both is what life really is, and you can’t have one without the other. The good is only defined by the not-good, and thus we need the not-good–it serves a purpose. For me, social media was a mechanism through which I found myself somehow trying to deny the reality of the not-good in my own life. I knew it was there, and I knew it was there for everyone else, but spending my 1-2 hours spread throughout the day on these apps allowed me to somehow live in some sort of dreamland where everything was great and we were all just floating in a sublime cloud of likes and comments and friend requests. A magical world full of nostalgic filters and 10-second videos of pure bliss. My social media life was an unblemished collage of a world without the not-good, and if I simply kept scrolling, eventually I would fall asleep without having to spend a single second thinking about my actual life and my actual thoughts and my actual emotions. That stuff belongs in my dreams anyways, right Freud?

I’m not saying anything new here, and I don’t claim to have anything figured out. I’m not out to convince other people to delete their Instagram or Facebook accounts. I’m not even out to claim that my life is so much better now than it was when I had social media. I guess, really, I’m just trying to articulate my long-stewing response to those two students that were so stunned by my non-involvement in the digital community. If I could go back to that day, I would tell those students the following:

The person that you are, the things that define you, and the essential qualities that are most closely tied to your being–none of these have anything to do with your social media accounts. Yes, you can use social media to communicate your self to others, and these apps can be used in ways that help you understand yourself and be better in touch with the world around you. No doubt. Plenty of people use these things in productive ways every single day. But literally thousands of years of human experience took place without social media, and those lives were just as fun, exciting, frustrating, boring, sad, happy, and mysterious as yours are today. Don’t for a second think that the attention you get on social media in anyway dictates your value as a human being, and don’t let the time you spend on social media distract you from your self. I’m saying “your self” instead of “yourself” for a purpose. Life is a daily lesson in the self, and no app will ever remove us from the limitations of our own subjectivity. So don’t buy into the illusion that you can escape the same things that people have always gone through: the same questions, the same longings, and the same challenges. Don’t put the job of understanding your self as secondary to hours and hours of focusing on the lives of other people, because this will only make it more difficult to be okay with who you are. A friend request doesn’t make up for a lost friend; a like doesn’t correct a failure; and SnapChat views will never mean that someone actually likes you. But losing friends and failing and being disliked serve evolutionary purposes in our lives. We are resilient creatures, and we have built-in systems to help us overcome these things. Give these systems a chance to function, and don’t deny the natural process of how living works. Let yourself be sad sometimes; allow yourself a moment to be bored. Don’t distract yourself with the bright illumination and the world of filler that comes when you press that little round button on your small rectangular piece of metal and glass and plastic. Just be.

I quit social media because it became one big way for me to forget about my self; I can’t imagine anything worse to forget.

1 Comment

Filed under Life

That month when I lived in Europe.

Tonight is my last night in Europe. It’s been a long day–a long week, actually–full of buses, trains, and long distances on foot. Considering this, the idea of being back home in Texas is actually rather appealing. I look forward to driving a car again; to playing golf; to going 2-3 hours without spending money on something. I look forward to Mexican food and AM Donuts. I look forward to seeing family and friends. And, finally, I look forward to slowing down, getting rest, and resuming normal life.

Of course, I have no doubt that once I’m back, I will almost immediately wish I was still here. There are many things about being abroad that are fantastic, and I will most certainly miss them. I will miss the ubiquitous, daily encounters with so much history and culture. I will miss never-ending options for beautiful places to sit and read. I will miss the peace that comes from, if even for a short and fleeting time, escaping certain worries and anxieties that come with “home.” And, strangely, I will miss walking everywhere. For real.

My students flew home last week, and I’ve spent my time since then on two quick trips in opposite directions. I first went or Cardiff, Wales for the weekend, and then I spent the last couple of nights back in Paris. Some of the highlights:


^ The keep at Cardiff Castle, which is right in the middle of the city center.


^ A view of Cardiff city center from the top of the keep. I got very lucky with the weather, as you can see.


^ The lake at Roath Park in Cardiff. I unknowingly booked an AirBnB right across the street from Roath Park, which is a large, gorgeous, and very pleasant park in the northeast part of the city. This picture is of the lake, which is only a portion of the park. Beautiful landscaping and ample places to sit and relax run throughout the property. This turned out to be one of my favorite places in all of my European travels.

Once I got to Paris on Monday, it was starting to hit me how tired I was from the past month. Summer classes are quite busy, and once my students left I sort of had a moment of realizing that I had spent lots of time everyday doing stuff for the class (as well as the on-line course I was teaching). With that moment came an unexpected onset of fatigue, which really hit me once I got off of my EuroStar in Paris around 9:30pm on Monday night. I still made the most of my two days there, but I definitely didn’t do as much as I had planned.


^ I got an up-close look at the Arc at night, which was so much bigger than I thought it was. I have no doubt that I’m far from the first person to sheepishly say that.


^ The fatigue didn’t prevent me from returning to L’As du Fallafel. This time I went with the traditional falafel pita sandwich; it didn’t disappoint. This will be a place I always visit if I’m lucky enough to make more Paris trips in the future.


^ An illegally-taken picture of me reading my favorite book in my favorite room of my favorite bookstore in my favorite city. This is the copy of The Crossing by Cormac McCarthy in the Sylvia Beach reading room at Shakespeare and Company. I sat down and read the first chapter, and then I realized that I couldn’t wait until I got back home to re-read the entire thing, so I went downstairs and bought another (I think this will be my 3rd?) copy.

I didn’t end up going to any more museums during this trip, but I did meet a few people with whom I shared a few drinks, which was great. Things start and end much later in Europe than in the States, and I found myself walking home last night at an hour that I haven’t seen in a very long time. This might have been the first and only time that I felt a bit unsafe while in Europe, but this is mostly because of how late it was and my lack of any phone service. I made it to my hostel in one piece, unscathed. But I had a few hours yesterday and today of simply walking through the streets of Paris, listening to music and soaking up the city. On paper, how I spent my last few days here don’t look very glamorous, but I’ve found that I’m simply not a glamorous traveler. And I’m totally okay with that.

The highlight of my last week in Europe, though, happened right here in Oxford a few nights ago. I got the chance to have a night of conversation and laughs with the owner of the pub down the street, the Rose and Crown. It’s claim to fame is being Thom Yorke’s favorite pub, which is something I talked to Andrew (the owner) about at length. He had a few stories about Thom and the Greenwood brothers, and he also gave me an eye-opening lecture on why Tottenham is undoubtedly the best team in the English Premier League. I have officially become a Hotspur supporter. At some point during the conversation, he asked me to get him a pint. I wasn’t quite sure what he meant, and then he pointed me behind the bar and told me to pull a couple. I, of course, had him take a picture of it.


^ My proudest Oxford moment: pulling a pint for the owner at the Rose and Crown. He wasn’t particularly impressed with my pint-pulling abilities.

Now that all of the trips, classes, and meals are over, I find myself a bit overwhelmed by the incredible opportunities I’ve had for the past five weeks and of all the places I’ve been and things I’ve done. I’ve made trips to Bath, London, Liverpool, Paris (twice), and Cardiff. I’ve been to countless museums and seen some of the most iconic artifacts and pieces of art in the world. I’ve been to the Open Championship, to the top of the Eiffel Tower, and to the ancient Roman baths. I’ve gotten to talk about Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Baldwin with an amazing group of students. I’ve been to two Oxford productions of Shakespeare plays. And I’ve gotten to sleep, eat, walk, learn, and live in a place steeped in culture and history. It’s been amazing, and I think that it will only become more amazing once time goes by and I truly get to appreciate how great the opportunity has been.

My biggest regret from my college experience is that I never studied abroad. I’ve never heard anyone say anything other than how great it was. Now that I’ve done it myself, I know firsthand how true this is. And part of me is glad that I never went as a student, because I think it made this experience even better. Although I was teaching the course, I was learning just as much about Europe as my students. I was right alongside them trying to figure out the metro system in Paris, or which coins to use to pay for our ice cream, or where in the world to go to find a public bathroom. I loved sharing these new experiences with my students, and I think they loved seeing their professor be as doltish and tourist-y as they felt.

Being abroad changes you. You learn so much about the world, how it works, and how it doesn’t work. You learn about other places, but you also learn even more about the places you know best. In order to really understand and appreciate home, you have to leave it. I am so glad I had the chance to do so. I just hope the lessons don’t fade away too quickly, and that I’m able to come back as soon as possible.

1 Comment

Filed under Favorite Places, Food, Life