Huge shoes to fill.

In the last 10 days, two huge names in American literature have passed away. Two names that I bring up often in my classes. Two names that were influential for very different reasons in my growth as a reader and as a scholar of literature.

Image result for tom wolfe   Image result for philip roth

Perhaps no book in my reading history stands out to me more than Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.

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I read it in college, and it opened the floodgates for a multi-year fascination with the counterculture movement of the 1960s. Reading that book felt like an acid trip–it’s written that way on purpose. It’s a quintessential example of New Journalism; it’s also a seminal text in the history of “hippies,” of drugs in America, and even of the Grateful Dead. Wolfe’s book sent me down so many roads of inquiry that have been influential in my professional and personal life ever since. I never would have read On the Road or Howl if I hadn’t read The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. I never would have spent so much time watching old clips from and reading articles on Woodstock, which means I also would have never gotten so deep into all of that great music. Tom Wolfe was my conduit to The Band, Jimi Hendrix, and Joe Cocker. Tom Wolfe was the matchmaker for my fascination with Hunter S. Thompson and Hell’s Angels. And, now that I think about it, Tom Wolfe was the bridge that lead me to Joan Didion, someone that is second-to-none in my list of reading influences. I was born in 1986, but I feel as if the 1960s have played as much a role in my relationship with American culture as any other. The music, art, literature, and political turmoil of those years has influenced so much of our culture today. I say this all of the time in my classes, specifically on the day in which I have them read the opening chapter of The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. The art that I watch, read, and listen to is totally a result of what I learned about those years, and I cannot think of a figure more integral in that relationship than Tom Wolfe. For over five decades he defined literary coolness in this country, and I do not think we will ever have another figure like him.

My relationship with Philip Roth is different. Whereas Wolfe was a big figure in my sort of coming-of-age as a reader, Roth has been a central figure in my years of graduate school and as an academic. Ironically, my most recent publication (forthcoming this summer) is titled “Roth is Roth as Roth: Autofiction and the Implied Author,” which will be a chapter in an edited collection. My chapter looks at contemporary American texts that play with overlaps between authors and characters; specifically, when authors include characters with their own names. In that piece, I look at Roth’s oft-overlooked novel, Deception. Most of the pieces that have come out in the last 24 hours about Roth’s career have mentioned his most famous works: American Pastoral, Sabbath’s Theater, and of course his most controversial and–ironically–“canonical” text, Portnoy’s Complaint. I have not read all of Roth’s books, and I do not consider myself an expert on his work.

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But the Roth novel that was most influential for me was his work of historical fiction, The Plot Against America, which imagines 1940s America electing Charles Lindberg as president, resulting in the country not joining the Allied Powers in World War II. What I remember most is the vivid reality of the text, which is notable considering how unbelievable the book’s premise is. It’s an astounding achievement, and it’s a book that I’ve given as a gift to many people.

The styles of Wolfe and Roth are quite different. Wolfe’s prose is zany, especially in his early works. Like his subjects, Wolfe’s writing is manic and crazed.  Onomatopoeia and anthropomorphisms are in abundance, and the reading experience feels like what I imagine a serious case of ADHD feels like. Roth’s writing is nothing like this. His prose is expansive. He often has long paragraphs that seem to go on forever. This is not unique in literature, but what is unique is the rhythm and readability of these paragraphs. In all of the Roth novels I’ve read, I’ve consistently been struck by the exactness of his word choice and the seemingly perfect sentence construction. His paragraphs feel like a mix of McCarthy (except without the need for a dictionary close by) and DeLillo (without the emphasis on postmodern linguistic deconstruction). Earlier today I heard Terry Gross describe him as one of the leading voices on what it means to be an American, to be Jewish, and to be a man. That might make it seem as if Roth wrote narratives limited in scope, and while this is accurate in a sense, I feel as if his texts broach universal elements of humanity as well as any. Yes, his characters are usually Jewish American men, but they always deal with existential, sexual, and psychological challenges that resonate with all of us.

Without Wolfe, I don’t know if we would have the type of journalism we are so used to now, or the types of documentaries that we take for granted. Without Roth, we wouldn’t have Michael Chabon or Jonathan Lethem. Without either of these two authors, so much of contemporary culture and art in America is different. Tom Wolfe was 88. Philip Roth was 85. Two huge losses.

But Toni Morrison is 87. Cormac McCarthy is 84. Joan Didion is 83. Don DeLillo is 81. I hope that I do not have to blog anytime soon about the influence these or any other authors have had on me. Will we get any more full-length works from any of them? I have no idea. Stands to reason that something will come out from at least one of them, just as I’m sure some posthumous texts from Wolfe and Roth will be published in the next few years. I’m sure collections of unpublished letters, essays, and even an unfinished novel will come out. This is usually how things go when major literary names pass away. And, unfortunately, those posthumous texts are usually forgettable. Thankfully we have bookshelves full of titles that are going nowhere.

Regardless of how many more are published, though, a dramatic change in the “big names” in American literature is imminent. The names I’ve mentioned have owned those designations for decades; I am not exactly sure who will be the next ones to do so. Two weeks ago I would have said Junot Díaz, but it seems as if I would have been wrong. We have lots of young-ish authors with a handful of great works, but do we have anyone that comes anywhere close to the consistency and prolificacy of Wolfe and Roth? Are the days of “great American authors” behind us? In a world so saturated with text, is it possible for individual authors to write many texts that catch hold of large audiences in this way? I honestly have no idea. I hope so.

In the meantime, I’ll continue to buddy up with the big names I’m used to.

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A big trip on the horizon.

Another school year is complete. No more stacks of essays to grade, no more committee meetings to attend (for the most part), and no more hours each day prepping for class. By mid-April of every year, I simply cannot wait for the semester to end. Then, like clockwork, once June rolls around, I find myself missing the classroom and my students. I don’t say that in a cheesy, sentimental way. I say it more in a “the classroom gives me something to fill my time” kind of way. Sure, I’ll get to play tons of golf this summer, and I always look forward to that first tee shot, regardless of who it’s with or how hot it is outside. And yes, I’ll have plenty of time to work on my scholarly work and to get some reading and writing done, which is a big part of summer life for professors. But neither of these is a substitute for the classroom, and I have to deliberately seek out ways to fill that void.

This summer’s solution: Thailand.

Come June 16, two of my closest friends and I jump on a plane in Houston; 20 hours later, we will be in Bangkok, and we’ll then spend the next 15 days flying around southeast Asia, soaking up as much of the experience as we can. Our plan is to basically stack five different 3-days weekends on top of teach other. Here’s the rundown:

Phi Phi Islands

^Just imagine an overweight American man will bad tan lines weighing down one side of that boat and you’ll have an accurate image of what I assume my experience will be.

Hong Kong

^Looks like a pretty small and intimate city. I’m sure we’ll be to see all this place has to offer in three days…

Hanoi, Vietnam

^How many different types of carbs can I eat on one single street? I plan on finding out.

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

^There’s a very strong chance I will be involved in at least one scooter accident.

Siem Reap, Cambodia

^Apparently they built this new temple there recently that’s worth seeing. Sort of a Universal Studios meets Machu Picchu vibe, I think. I doubt there’s much history there… sure it doesn’t compare to the Alamo.

Five different places that are totally different and removed from anything I’ve seen or done before. Five different places to jump headfirst into culture. My only plan is to keep an open mind and to embrace all that each place has to offer. So, basically, I’m going to eat a lot.

Once the trip is over, I hope to have all sorts of stories to share, which I’ll be able to do on this blog. That being said, I’ve got my fingers crossed that I don’t use my return ticket. Instead, I’m thinking I might just settle down over there. Meet a nice woman, start a family, and have a novelty “American Steak Finger Baskets!” booth in one of the many, many street markets. Sounds like a totally realistic and reasonable expectation for the trip.

– – – – – – – – – – – – –

Also, I turned 32 last week. Here are three new recommendations to start off this 33rd year of my life:

Read: “Cathedral” by Raymond Carver. It’s a famous short story by one of the most famous American authors of short stories, and I have no doubt there are many places where you can find a copy for free online. It’s an unexpectedly tender and beautiful story that is well worth the twenty minutes it will take to read it. Go find it. Now.

Watch: May It Last: A Portrait of the Avett Brothers (2017) – This HBO documentary follows the band around while they worked on their most recent album, True Sadness. It has all of the things I hope for in a music documentary: backstory, candid moments between the band members, and awesome shots of in-studio and on-stage performances. I have been a big fan of the Avett Brothers for many years, and this documentary only made me like them more.

Listen: Ruins by First Aid Kit (2018) – First Aid Kid consists of two sisters, and their harmonies are as good as any. They make music that’s easy to listen to on repeat.

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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.

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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:

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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