Paralyzed by Cynicism

Earlier tonight, I was fortunate enough see Nadia Murad speak at the Paramount Theater in Abilene. Murad was a Nobel Peace Prize nominee in 2016, but you’ve probably never heard of her. I never had. I wouldn’t have had the chance to hear her speak if it wasn’t for one of my amazing former students getting me a ticket. Like anyone who has heard her story, I was blown away. Not only because of the horrific details of her time spent as a captive of ISIS, but also because of her presence on stage. I don’t even know how to describe it accurately. She emanated a sense of raw honesty and unflinching reality for which I wasn’t prepared. It was clear that she wasn’t happy to be on stage, because her presence on stage only came from the horrible things that happened to her, her family, and everyone she knew in her hometown. She wasn’t there to shake hands, participate in banter, and then stress the most shocking details of her story in order to boost donations. She wasn’t there because she had life-long plans of being an international figure or a Nobel Peace Prize nominee. She was there because without her telling her story, most people would have no idea what’s going on every single day in various places in the world. Like me. I had no idea. I’m blown away at my own ignorance. Every new day, our world becomes the most interconnected, networked, and information-at-your-fingertips-with-very-little-effort that it’s ever been. I can literally access more information right now with my cell phone and computer than anyone ever has in the past, and tomorrow I’ll be able to access even more. Yet, somehow, I didn’t know about Nadia.

But this isn’t going to be a “now I’m going to be involved and dedicate myself to being more aware!” post. That post would be a lie, because that’s not what I’ve taken away from Nadia’s story. The part that most impacted me came towards the end of the interview, when Nadia was asked to give her thoughts on what normal, ordinary people in a small town like Abilene, TX can do to help people halfway across the world going through genocide and injustice. As soon as the translator finished delivering the question, Nadia perked up in a way that she hadn’t previously. She gave a long answer, the gist of which was that the small, average, and seemingly ordinary efforts of normal people are what she has the most faith in. She’s talked to world leaders, prime ministers, and presidents, and she’s come to the conclusion that “ordinary people” are the ones that truly make a difference in the world. People just like her family of farmers in Sinjar, Iraq. People like construction workers, elementary school counselors, or even English professors in Abilene, TX. According to Nadia, these are the people that can actually enact justice in the world. This shook me, and it reminded me of an unexpected experience from my own life.

I’ve mentioned this before, but a few years ago my group of friends started a very small-scale non-profit organization, called the Back Porch Foundation (http://backporchfoundation.com/). What started as a group of college friends drinking too much and thinking they were way cooler than they really were has since turned into a grassroots effort based on a simple mission: Doing what we can to provide direct help to anyone that needs it. No checks, and no false promises. A single mom needs a washing machine: we go buy it and deliver it to her house. Another nonprofit needs someone to buy Christmas presents for underprivileged kids: we go to Target, crudely wrap them in corny wrapping paper, and drop the gifts off wherever they tell us to. We aren’t heroes, and we aren’t really all that good at it. But we’re trying. Ordinary people trying to help other ordinary people. A very Nadia-inspired approach to philanthropy.

What’s amazing about my experience with the Back Porch Foundation is that while things have gone well lately, they didn’t start off that way. Specifically, whenever we first had the idea of starting the Foundation, we unexpectedly confronted a very real amount of cynicism. A number of people–some of whom were actually part of our group of friends–were skeptical about the idea. We had to defend our intentions, and we had to explain our motivations. I can’t say I know exactly where these questions came from, but my best guess is that people doubted our ability to follow through, or they were unsure about whether or not we were the type of people that should be involved in the business of helping others out. Regardless of the reasons why, cynicism crept into the conversation, and it had a serious effect. We started asking ourselves those same questions, and we began to doubt our abilities to make a difference. This, of course, was misguided, and luckily a couple of years of diligent work helped us to break through those questions and arrive at a place where people are on board with a group of college friends raising money to do good for others. May sound ridiculous that proof is needed for an intention like that, but it is.

I was in the middle of many of those early conversations, and they have stuck with me ever since. Honestly, I still have a rather deep grudge against that misguided cynicism. I don’t know exactly where it comes from, but I do know what it does: it takes a person willing to help someone else and turns them into a person lamenting a missed opportunity. It takes a potentially-better world and squanders it, instead leaving us in the status quo where we complain and diagnose all that’s going wrong while sitting back and doing nothing about it. It takes Jesus ideas and turns them into should haves and wish I coulds. This should have and wish I could world depends entirely on us convincing ourselves that those people are right: we really can’t make a difference, and even if we try, our small efforts won’t even make a dent in the mass of problems in our world.

Will giving $20 to Global Samaritan end the atrocities that ISIS is enacting in Iraq? No, it won’t. Will giving a washing machine to a single mother in Dallas ensure that her children will get a great education, that she will have a high-paying job, and that her family will rest peacefully at night and know that tomorrow is going to be better than today? No, it wont. Can I personally use my own resources to house all of the homeless, feed all of the hungry, and relieve all of the pain in my home town? No, I can’t. In that sense, the cynics are right: I can’t solve the world’s problems.

But can that $20 feed an entire family in a refugee camp for a month? And can that washing machine create one less thing for that single mother to have to worry about every day? And can my dollar bills passed out of my car window perhaps help people in my town to have a better chance to peace and fulfillment tomorrow than they had today? The answer to all of these questions is a resounding yes. This is important, and I think we are too quick to ignore it. Small efforts do make a difference–a difference that, too often, is the biggest “change” these situations will ever see. In fact, these ordinary gestures by ordinary people are actually the most dramatic types of impacts that are made in our world. This is the message that Nadia reminded me of: the message that changing one person’s life is, in fact, changing the world. We can all do that.

Don’t give into the paralysis that comes via cynicism. Don’t let people’s skepticism convince you that you can’t do anything about the problems you see. Don’t let the doubts of the world stop you from changing it.

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30 and single.

It’s an amazing thing, the variety of reactions you get when you tell someone that you are 30 years old and don’t have a spouse or children. There’s a range of responses, which can quickly be categorized into two groups: Pity and Envy. Both reside under the umbrella of Surprise, but the logistics of each vary widely. First, Pity.

Pity 1: “What happened?” — Implies the assumed inevitability that a) I’m divorced, or b) I at one point was really close to getting married but something went dramatically wrong.

Pity 2: “Oh, I’m sorry.” — Insinuation that I’m missing out, or that my life has less meaning that it would if I was, in fact, married with children. 

Pity 3: “It’s never too late!” — This response usually happens in one of two contexts: a) The person is immediately put off by this knowledge that I’m single and is ready to transition the conversation to another topic or to another person, or b) He/she is trying to set me up with someone.

Next: Envy.

Envy 1: “In another life…” — Hinting towards the person’s own questioning of his/her life choices. He/she is currently in the middle of a life that didn’t turn out the way he/she thought it would, and sees my life some sort of hypothetical, vicarious example of what life could have been like if certain life-altering decisions hadn’t been made.

Envy 2: “Must be nice.” — Revealing a) Life with a spouse and children is hard; b) The speaker has no respect for certain realities and doesn’t appreciate what he/she has; or c) Flippant comments to give a person the excuse to complain about his/her own life are so much easier than listening to someone else.

Envy 3: “Lucky bastard.” — See c) from “Envy 2.”

The Pity and Envy responses make sense to me in various ways, and I am at a point where I’m not surprised by any of them. The problem is that both of them are on the same side of the ledger in terms of Surprise: whether they are based in pity or envy, all of these response are based on a premise of disbelief that someone could be 30 years old and not have a spouse and/or children. “How is that possible? How does that happen? Why hasn’t he grown up? When is he going to settle down and start his life?” These responses of surprise also come loaded with condescension, as if there’s some sort of rule book for what makes a life worthwhile. That rule book exists, but its criteria aren’t about spouses or children, nor are they about career choices, or savings accounts, or zip codes.

Some of the happiest people I know are married. They have spouses that support them, kids that look up to them, and families that create daily meaning and motivation for the work that they do. Some of the most miserable people I know are married, too. They have spouses that belittle them and constrain them from being who they want to be. They treat their kids as burdens instead of blessings. They go to work and happy hours in order to be away from home. I know miserable people that are single, that simply cannot find meaning without other people being immediate parts of their daily lives. And I know single people that could not be happier with their lives, that wake up everyday feeling lucky to have the opportunity to interact with the people they know and to be part of this inherently strange and confusing world. The rule book for making life worthwhile is different for everyone. That might be the most cliche and trite statement I’ve ever written, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t true.

I’m not out to tell someone what is going to make his/her life meaningful. I don’t claim to know the solution, nor do I want to be responsible for defining a fulfilling life for someone else. I don’t know what fulfills you, and it wouldn’t be fair or productive to claim that I do. I can hope for that for everyone, and that is sincerely my hope. Finding meaning in what we do on a daily basis is a crucial part of the human experience; without that meaning, nihilism slowly–or maybe quickly–creeps in and takes over. I’ve seen nihilism, and I choose to do what I can to avoid it, and I hope that if you’re reading this you have found a better option than the postmodern bottom line of meaninglessness. But labeling certain life choices (such as marriage) as necessarily pointing to certain points on the spectrum of meaningfulness doesn’t work, and I wish we were better at acknowledging that.

Some of the statements above resonate perfectly with me. I agree: it’s never too late to meet someone. Of course I have an answer to the question “What happened?” And I don’t blame some of my friends for calling me a “lucky bastard” and being jealous of parts of my life. But when we ask people these questions or make these types of remarks, we are saying more about ourselves than we are about that person. If we are jealous of those around us, what does that say about the degree to which we appreciate–or don’t–the amazing opportunities we have in our own lives every single day? When we question the life choices of the people we meet, which of our own decisions–that we might regret–are we purposefully overlooking or brushing over? And while we remind our friends that it’s never too late to meet someone, what dreams of our own do we still have time to achieve?

Our culture is plagued with a lack of self-awareness. We are really good at seeing other people’s lives, figuring out what they should do differently, and then moving on to someone else and making the same sort of judgments. I am guilty of this as much as anyone. Maybe it’s time to stop picking up on what people don’t have, or only noticing what could be better for them, and instead start trying to be empathetic to who they are and why their life is what it is, and to use that empathy to better recognize ourselves and, in turn, appreciate what we have and why we have it. “Not like mine” is not a valid reason to feel sorry for or to be judgmental of other people’s lives. We all do this, all the time. I think all parties would be better off if we didn’t.

Yes, I’m 30. No, I don’t have a wife. Yes, I play golf more than 98% of the general public. No, I don’t want to be single forever. Yes, I do get to eat Chinese take-out twice a week, sometimes as I watch television. I’m jealous of you and your awesome marriage, and I’m not jealous at all of your crappy one. Sure, I’d be happy to meet your single coworker, or to talk in more detail about arranged marriages…Now, let’s talk about something else.

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Albums I’ve listened to at least 100 times.

When it comes to technology, my life is a paradox. I weekly go on curmudgeonly rants to my students about the current state of the film industry or the soul-crushing effects of social media, but I also own three different Alexa-enabled Amazon products that I use constantly. When I walk into my office in the morning, the first thing I do is say “Alexa: play me music” to my Echo Dot. When I get home from school and start cooking dinner, I say the same thing to my Echo. And when I get in bed at night to read myself to sleep, I bluetooth my phone to my Tap and play some sort of quiet or lyricless playlist. This shows how much I, too, am totally drinking the technology Koolaid (someday the hours and hours of unacknowledged recordings from these devices are going to be used against me, I know), but it also shows how much music plays a part of my daily life. These devices are problematic in many ways, but they set the background music to the majority of my professional and personal experiences.

But listening to music all day long presents challenges in terms of deciding what to listen to. I use the Amazon Music Unlimited service, so I have access to pretty much anything I could possibly want. This sounds great, but it’s overwhelming. I feel as if the all-inclusive and omni-available nature of so many online tools (Google; Wikipedia; YouTube) result in usually drawing a blank: I can listen to ANYTHING I WANT, but I usually just stare at the empty “Search” bar and honestly have no idea what to request. Services like Pandora are great for this, of course, and Amazon has its own version (called “Stations”). I can simply say, “Alexa: play Phantogram Station” and the system automatically engages a playlist of related songs and artists. You can do this with pretty much any artist, as well as genre. “Alexa: play Folk music”; “Alexa: play music for studying”; “Alexa: play Chumbawamba station.” This is what I almost always do, because having the ability to choose anything creates a sort of paralysis for me where I can only draw a blank.

If I don’t draw a blank or request a station, that means that I instead have subconsciously said a band, song, or album that I’ve listened to hundreds and hundreds of times. For some reason I have this weird belief that I need to listen to different music, just like I feel pressure to not simply watch episode of Seinfeld or The Office or read Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy over and over. But I’ve been working on convincing myself that there are no rules about these decisions, and listening, watching, or reading certain things over and over doesn’t show a lack of awareness of what’s new and fresh, but a simple love and adoration for these things that I know work for me.

With that in mind, here’s a list of albums that I’ve undoubtedly listened to at least 100 times:

The Strokes, Is This It (2001)

Mostly orange album cover containing, largely in the right-hand side, random turquoise lines, intersections, doodles, circles, and other abstract shapes. It is captioned "THE STROKES" in the bottom left-hand corner.

This album came out right when I was beginning to get into music, and I can’t even guess at how many times I’ve listened to it since then. From the first few sounds of reverb on “Is This It,” to the frenetic ending of “Take It or Leave It,” there isn’t a song or a sequence I don’t love.

Favorite Song: “Someday”

Favorite Lyric: “We all disagree / I think we should disagree, yeah” (“Is This It”)

The Head and the Heart, The Head and the Heart (2011)

Thehandonheart-LPcover.jpg

I don’t remember who recommended this to me or when I first listened to it, but this album has been played in my various offices at school for hundreds and hundreds of hours while I’ve graded papers, written a dissertation, or responded to countless emails. It’s one of those cds that I pretty much know every word of every song without even knowing the titles of most of them; I listen to it straight through, so it really feels like one long song rather than individuals.

Wilco, Sky Blue Sky (2007)

A white cover with a flock of black birds on it

This is one of my quintessential albums from my undergraduate years, listened to on many long drives and also on various back porches.

Favorite Song: “Impossible Germany,” but that’s only because I’ll never forget seeing the song played live, which included the most kick-ass guitar solo I’ve ever seen. “What Light” and “Sky Blue Sky” are also perfect songs.

Beck, Sea Change (2002).

Beckseachange.jpg

This one is a bit different from others on the list in that there are actually some songs on this one that I don’t absolutely love. But I honestly could listen to the first half of this one on repeat all day long. “Lost Cause” is a perfect song, and the songs before it are so unique and eclectic (two words that could be applied to every Beck album and his career in general).

Favorite Lyric: “It’s only lies that I’m living / It’s only tears that I’m crying / It’s only you that I’m losing / Guess I’m doing fine” (“Guess I’m Doing Fine”)

The Flaming Lips, Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots (2002)

A painting of the backside of a girl facing a pink robot

The whole thing is super weird, but it’s (in my opinion) the least weird of any Flaming Lips album. Most of the songs are intelligible, and many of them are beautiful. I don’t listen to this one as much anymore, but from 2002-2010, it was constantly in rotation in my Ford Ranger’s cd player.

Favorite Song: This one is hard for me, but if I had to choose one, I would go with “Fight Test.”

Favorite Lyric: “Let them know you realize that life goes fast / It’s hard to make the good things last / You realize the sun doesn’t go down / It’s just an illusion caused by the world spinning round” (“Do You Realize?”)

The Beatles, Abbey Road (1969)

The cover of Abbey Road has no printed words. It is a photo of the Beatles, in side view, crossing the street in single file.

The first Beatles album I ever had, and still my favorite. I know that ranking Beatles albums is like ranking Best Picture winners–it’s really not possible. Still, this is my favorite because it introduced me to a 2-year obsession with all of their music.

Favorite Song: “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)”

Radiohead, In Rainbows (2007)

In Rainbows Official Cover.jpg

My only problem with this album is that it reminds me that Radiohead used to use instruments and play rock and roll songs, which makes me sad. Don’t get me wrong: I can get into the electronic stuff they’ve made, and there are great songs like “Morning Mr. Magpie” and “Ful Stop” all throughout King of Limbs and A Moon Shaped Pool. But I miss the sounds of rock and roll Radiohead, and I hope they go back to them for at least one more album.

Favorite Song: “House of Cards”

Interpol, Turn on the Bright Lights (2002)

Interpol - Turn On The Bright Lights.jpg

This one is side-by-side with Is This It for me. Innumerable amount of plays and replays in my car and my dorm rooms, and I’ve revisited it many times since. If you were into indie/alternative music in the early to mid-2000s, you had this album and you loved it. And it still holds up.

Favorite Song: “Stella Was a Diver and She Was Always Down”

Counting Crows, Films about Ghosts (2003)

CountingCrowsFilmsAboutGhosts.jpg

Yes, this is a greatest hits albums. Yes, that might not make me the best Counting Crows fan. And yes, it’s one of the most listenable collections of songs of all time. I firmly believe that you could put this on around basically any crowd and it would work.

Favorite Song: “A Long December.” Not a unique choice, but it’s greatness can’t be ignored.

My Morning Jacket, Z (2005)

A blue and black drawing of three birds dissecting a fourth live bird who has a small city in place of organs

One of my All-Time Top 5 (see: High Fidelity) favorite albums. This is another one that I can listen to straight through and never reach a point where I want to skip ahead.

Favorite Song: “Anytime”

Favorite Lyric: “All that I wanted to say – words only got in the way / But then I found a new way to communicate” (“Anytime”)

There are probably others that I’ve listened to at least 100 times, but it’s hard for me to delineate a certain Pearl Jam album that qualifies or to quantify the amount of times I’ve listened to Local Natives, Phantogram, First Aid Kit, or Dawes via streaming services. Still, though, here are some other contenders: Damien Rice: O; LCD Soundsystem: This is Happening; Incubus: Make Yourself; and any album by The Avett Brothers, TV on the Radio, and the first three from Kings of Leon.

The albums listed above pretty much sum up thousands and thousands of hours from the perspective of my ears. They’ve been quite lucky, in my humble opinion.

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I forgot I had a blog.

Luckily, I remembered.

The best part of forgetting you have a blog? And not posting anything for over a year? You can actually read your old posts with a sense of distance, which is basically impossible to do while you are in the mode of actually writing them. Weirdly, I stumbled back upon my old blog and read through a few posts as if I wasn’t aware that I was the one that wrote them. Of course, this me of 2015 is not the same me of 2017. [Imagine a few sentences here about ontology, Freud, and various psychological studies concerning views of the self]. There are some parts of my old posts at which I cringe, with the stereotypical “Why’d I say that” reaction, but there are others where I am quite fond of my writing. But this is to be expected, and even though a year away offers a certain degree of objectivity, I’m still biased towards myself. That’s what a blog like this is for, I believe.

Things have happened since my last post in 2015:

  • I finished my first full year as a tenure-track professor. I can honestly say that I thoroughly enjoyed that first year, and I am enjoying this second year even more. I know that at some point in the future (assuming I keep my job and higher education doesn’t totally collapse, a possibility some of my colleagues would argue is more realistic than you might think), I will become disillusioned with the job, bitter at my administrators, and outright curmudgeonly. But I’m not there yet, and I still get excited before each class, anticipate the conversations I get to have with students, and simply look forward to going to work every day.
  • I bought a house. It’s small, it’s old, and it’s simple. In other words, it’s exactly what I wanted. When you buy a house in November in Texas, I feel as if you get a 6-month deferment until you actually have to deal with the challenges of owning a home; specifically, growing grass and rising temperatures. So far things have been smooth and stress-free, minus some ants in my kitchen and a front door that sticks. The biggest challenge of being a new homeowner is that this is my first time to live alone. That might be a surprising thing for a 30-year old to say; nevertheless, I’m just now learning what it is to literally be alone. I’m not quite sure how I feel about it yet, to be honest.
  • I met someone. We got engaged. I’m now married.
  • The Cowboys won a Divisional round playoff game and are playing in the NFC Championship game for the first time since I was a small child.
  • Donald Trump was elected president.
  • Unfortunately, the only of the last three statements that is true is the most frightening and seemingly-impossible of the three. And when you consider the other two, that’s a telling statement.

Anyone reading this blog (which now is probably no one, considering my long absence) doesn’t need updates about me, so I’ll stop there. I’d rather spend a few moments talking about books I’ve read and things I’ve watched on various screens. Rather than give detailed responses about each, I’ll instead provide two lists of memorable titles from the past year or so, in ascending order of quality. In other words, I’ll start with my least favorites and end with my favorites.  *This doesn’t mean that numbers 2, 3, and 4 are things I didn’t like; it just means that I didn’t like them as much as numbers 5-10. For example, I really, really liked Underground Railroad, The Nix, and Hell or High Water; but I liked 1Q84 and Moonlight much more.

Things I’ve read:

  1. Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights by Salman Rushdie
  2. Swing Time by Zadie Smith
  3. A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman
  4. Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
  5. The Nix by Nathan Hill
  6. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (first time to read it)
  7. The Catcher in the Rye (first time since high school)
  8. 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami
  9. The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen (second reading–so amazingly good)
  10. The Sellout by Paul Beatty (this text stuck with me as much as any text ever has; what a reading experience)

Things I’ve seen on screens:

  1. Batman vs. Superman (so, so, so bad)
  2. Hail, Ceasar! (not as bad as it’s proximity to the title above may suggest, but towards the bottom for me in terms of Coen brothers films)
  3. Westworld (meh; so many better options out there for AI, alternative realities, Westerns, and HBO drama series)
  4. The Revenant (I have complete respect for the ridiculous effort it took for all involved for this film to turn out how it did, but I have no desire to ever see it again)
  5. Hell or High Water
  6. The Night Manager
  7. Love (Netflix series)
  8. Moonlight
  9. Manchester by the Sea
  10. It’s a Wonderful Life (I sat down last Christmas eve and watched the entire NBC broadcast, commercials and all, and I can honestly say that I had totally forgotten how perfect this movie is. I almost cried many, many times)

I think that pretty much sums up my last 14 months or so. Teaching, reading, homeowning, and watching. Lots of golf, too. And food.

Teaser titles for upcoming blog posts:

“Pet Peeves: Updated and Expanded”

“Places to Get Decent Beer and Unexpected Culture in Abilene, TX”

“My Case Against TruckNutz: A Manifesto”

“‘Why I Quit Social Media’ and other musings from an adult life lived in 21st century America”

“CDs that I’ve listened to at least 100 times”

“Why Dairy Queen is better than Braums: A Qualitative Study”

“Cereal”

I’m sure you can’t wait.

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The Value of Pride

“I wanna have pride like my mother has / and not like the kind in the Bible that turns you bad.”  – The Avett Brothers, “The Perfect Space”

This song came to mind when I recently had a conversation with a close friend. Somehow I’d never really thought about it before, this idea of different kinds of pride. This is not an original idea, of course, and the fact that the word “pride” encompasses various meanings is easily understood in an idiomatic way. We use the word a lot in our world. It’s not a particularly special word, nor is it reserved for special occasions or notably worthy events. Parents speak of how proud their children make them. Professional coaches tell interviewers how proud they are of the effort their players put forth. I tell my students to take pride in the work they turn in. In these contexts, pride is a positive force. It’s a source of motivation, of accountability, and of fulfillment. The existence of pride necessarily means a job well done, or mission accomplished, or hopes fulfilled. These are good things.

But there’s another side of pride. This is the pride referenced in the song above. It’s born from stubbornness and narcissism. It puts supreme value in individual effort and achievement, necessitating a refusal to accept help. If someone helps us accomplish something, then we can’t really take credit for it. Assistance eliminates achievement, at least to a certain extent. This is the pride that, in my opinion, only ends up hurting us. To put it in the non-eloquent terms of the Avett Brothers, this is the pride that “turns you bad.” I can type this and clearly recognize the negativity, but I’ve just recently realized that this pride holds a rather prevalent position in my life. This happens in a variety of ways on a daily basis for me. A few simple examples:

Occasionally, while I’m sitting in my office, a colleague will offer to buy me a coffee or soda since he or she is on the way to grab one. My immediate reaction: “No, thanks.” Regardless of whether I want a soda or not, I’ll always decline. Sometimes I will even immediately go buy my own (after my colleague is out of sight, of course). Other times, I might be at lunch with someone, maybe a colleague or a friend, and he or she will offer to pay. My reaction: “Wait–no. You’re not paying for me. Seriously. I got it. Actually, I’ll pay for yours,” which results in the other person having the same reaction as me, eventually leading to either a) one person paying for the entire check, leaving the other person inwardly planning how he or she can return the favor, or b) each person paying individually. Final example: I might be at the grocery store on a Monday afternoon (which means a full load of groceries for me). After filling my cart and going through line, I answer the same three questions with the following three answers: “Yes, plastic is fine”; “No, I don’t have a rewards number”; and “No thanks, I think I can handle it.” The last answer is, of course, in response to the young high school employee’s offer to help me get my groceries to my car. Regardless of how much I’ve bought, I always say no. Even when I’ve gotten a full two-gallon jug of milk, the oblong and problematic-to-fit-in-a-grocery-bag frozen pizza, and the 12-pack of Diet Coke. Even if it’s pouring rain outside and the attendant is holding an umbrella. Even if I know that my fingers are going to be sore the rest of the week from the strain of the taut plastic bags. Doesn’t matter, because the answer is always the same: “No thanks, I think I can handle it.”

Why are these my immediate reactions? Why not let someone buy me a soda, or treat me to lunch, or help me carry my groceries to my car? All of these are good things that would make my life better. And yet, for some reason, my inclination is to resist and to deny. Letting someone help me means that I need that help; it’s an admittance of a personal lack. By denying this help, I can continue to foster some sense of inherent pride in self, in a very Ralph Waldo Emerson type of way [see his 1841 essay “Self-Reliance”].

But I think that there’s an inherent problem in this type of pride. Sure, there’s really not much at stake in my decision to pass on a free soda or meal, and a sudden worldwide trauma doesn’t rest on my decision to carry or not carry my own groceries to my car. But the fundamental individuality of each of these decisions perpetuates a view of the world–and concurrently a view of myself–that isn’t healthy. This idea of autonomy being towards the top of my value hierarchy seems to be a denial of the blatant truths that my life would be nothing without other people. The idea of accomplishing anything on my own is simply ludicrous. To reference a horribly cliche American ideal: before I was able to pull myself by my own bootstraps, someone put those boots on my feet (so to speak). But redefining the American Dream isn’t my agenda; I have a more personal bone to pick with pride.

Not surprisingly, the phone conversation that inspired this post was one concerning money. It was a discussion about hypothetical amounts of money being given by one party and received by another, and the hypothetical problems this exchange might create. If a person accepts a substantial amount of money to, say, buy a new car, or pay off student loans, or afford high-quality child care, then how can that person feel any sense of ownership or pride in those items? How can someone talk proudly of her new purchase if inside her heart she knows that that purchase wouldn’t have been possible without help from someone else? How can I be self-reliant if so much of what I have is a direct result of things that other people did?

Buying cars, paying loans, and caring for children are clearly more exigent matters than lunches and the transportation of groceries. But questioning ourselves for accepting substantial help is fundamentally similar to my choice to deny simple favors. And just like my fingers would profit from letting the young high school kid carry my overloaded grocery bags to my car, so too will our lives benefit from accepting whatever types of assistance people around us might offer. And if it will make our lives better, then why not accept it?

I’m aware that I’m walking some thin lines here. I’m not making a full-scale call for accepting any and all things that create ease. I’m not endorsing shortcuts, nor am I endorsing some sort of overt solicitation of favors or gifts. I’m not saying that I should sit in my office and hope for someone to offer me a Diet Coke, just like I shouldn’t count on someone magically offering to cover my down payment on a house. There is a sense of personal pride in utilizing individual skills and talents to accomplish goals in life. This type of pride is fruitful; it is something for which we should strive. And that feeling of accomplishment that I get when I frantically release the grocery bags from my throbbing fingers into my trunk is one small example of this. But the point at which this pride constrains us from allowing ourselves to experience forms of happiness, joy, or even small comforts that–in my opinion–are equally worthwhile to feelings of individual achievement is a point deserving of purposeful consideration of the following question: what is the value of pride?

Whenever we say we want to have a life we are proud of, what does that really mean? Does that mean a life in which we can point to the things we own, the awards we’ve received, or the money we’ve saved and draw graphs of causation leading directly back to our own efforts? This can’t be the case, because any attempt at drawing those lines will always necessarily point us to places where other people played a part. Perhaps having a life we can be proud of can instead mean a life in which we have the humility to accept help when others offer it, and offer help in return when others need it. Perhaps we can take pride in the fact that we recognize the limits of our self[s] and embrace the immense blessing it is to have these avenues of assistance, leading us to strive to furnish this assistance to others. Perhaps the value of pride really depends on the nature to which we understand how much of our lives are actually reflections of the various people that had a hand in them. In essence, a life that I can be proud of is actually a life of pride in others.

Although there are exceptions, most human beings take joy in helping others. Creating positivity in someone else’s life is a unique opportunity afforded us as human beings, and I believe that there are meaningful rewards for all parties involved. And grasping at this opportunity is something that so many people do on a daily basis. Yet I seem to be denying them this option every chance I get, and it’s all because of some far-fetched notion that I’m not really doing anything unless I’m doing it on my own. In my life, pride seems to be something that disconnects me from others. It puts up a wall, displaying a sign that reads, “Help not needed.” The wall is rather poorly built; it’s crudely painted and squeaky at the hinges. And although there are plenty of people on the other side seemingly begging to help out, I’m too focused on making sure that they know that this wall–this rickety, wobbly thing–is my own doing. And that’s worth something to me. But, really, how much is that worth?

From now on, I’m going to let that kid carry my groceries to my car.

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11 Years Later: Life as a Professor Begins

It’s been a long time since I’ve posted anything. Not that anyone has been asking about it or wondering where my blogself has been. And I really haven’t even thought about it at all in the past few months. Instead I’ve been, well, figuring out the basics of what it means to be a college professor. So far I feel like I’ve somehow simultaneously learned tons and nothing at all. There are days when I feel as if I don’t belong, as if someone is going to walk into my office and finally reveal that they’ve called my bluff and that, in fact, I really am not a professor. There are days when I truly don’t know how I’m going to get all of the prep and grading done, or at least how I’m going to be able to do it in any sort of effective, responsible way. And there are days when I still feel like a student. I see groups of people that remind me of my friends when I was a student on this same campus, and my instinct is to walk over and join them in whatever conversation they are having about boring classes, lunch options, or weekend plans. And then I have to remind myself that I’m actually supposed to be teaching these students and that, rather than being another face in the classroom looking to the professor for learning, I’m actually the face that’s supposed to be providing the teaching. It’s crazy. But there are just as many days when the routine of classes, meetings, lunches, workshops, and office hours seems almost normal, as if this is simply the way my life has always been. And, really, I guess that’s pretty much true. Although the amount of time and pressure has increased, my normal duties and activities are the same as they were when I was a graduate students. Lots of reading, writing, and thinking on a daily basis.

Beyond all of the minor details, there’s one thing that the past three months have convinced me of: I’m extremely lucky to be doing what I’m doing. To have the chance to spend my days reading, writing, and thinking (like I said above) on a campus fundamentally based on the idea of community and relationships is something for which I am immensely grateful. Things happen on a small, liberal arts campus that don’t happen on other campuses, and I’m allowed–and even encouraged–to interact with my students on levels that simply aren’t possible other places. Is it perfect? No, it’s not. There are downsides to small campuses, and there are aspects of my own campus that are frustrating. But is it still an unbelievable opportunity for which I still get excited each day? No doubt.

I’m also learning that life away from the big city is particularly great for someone starting a new job like mine. Life in Abilene is smaller than life in Dallas. What I mean is that there are less things to take up time and energy. There are less people to see and interact with. Less miles and minutes to get somewhere. Less choices for places to eat. Some of these decreases are sad, such as now being hundreds of miles away from people that were so important to me for so long. This is an undeniable drawback to moving away from one place to another. But beyond the people, all I’ve really missed so far is Half Price Books and a few of my favorite DFW golf courses. But if missing these a bookstore and some golf courses means spending 90 minutes less per day in my car (and about 1/4 the amount of gasoline each month), then I think I’m okay with it. Amazingly that 90 minutes less per day in my car has actually ended up making my days feel so much longer. Even with a drastically increased work load in my new life, I’ve been able to find ample time to do something I wish I had done more in Dallas: read. I’ve read more novels in the past three months than I probably read in the past year combined, and I attribute this to the smaller life afforded by Abilene.

A list of books I’ve read since my move: All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr; The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri; Purity by Jonathan Franzen; How to Be Alone (essays) and Further Away (essays) by Jonathan Franzen; Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle; The First Bad Man by Miranda July; Redeployment (stories) by Phil Klay; Self-Help (stories) by Lorrie Moore; Fortune Smiles (stories) by Adam Johnson; The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins; Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill; and Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng. This reading binge has been great for many reasons, one of which is the fact that I’ve actually been able to incorporate portions of some of these texts into an upcoming class I’m teaching in the spring.

Many of these books were great, including All the Light We Cannot See, Purity, and Fortune Smiles. I wasn’t particularly fond of July’s novel, although there were aspects of the text that I found really intriguing and insightful. I also wasn’t that impressed by The Girl on the Train–it felt like I was re-watching Gone Girl. But my favorite might be the one I read most recently: Everything I Never Told You.

I hate talking about plots of books because I sincerely don’t like it when people spoil my own reading of novels by giving things away in flippant 30-second summaries. But Ng’s novel negates this potential problem, because she basically deflates the main potential point of plot-based suspense with her two opening sentences: “Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.” So rather than spend an entire novel creating a suspenseful journey leading ultimately to a climax, Ng’s novel unravels the story of Lydia’s family: her parents, her older brother Nath, and her younger sister Hannah. It’s a sometimes suspenseful but always gripping story about relationships, individual identity, ambition, failure, and loss. On a more general level, it’s a story about the nuances of familial relationships. It uncovers the ways in which seemingly mundane comments or facial expressions eventually transform into deeply-rooted bitterness, and how individual perceptions too often create ill-formed understandings of the people closest to us. It’s a quick and easy read, and now that I’ve finished it I’m amazed that Ng was able to pack so much emotion and raw coverage of interpersonal realities in such a short text. But I really enjoyed it, and while surface-level interpretations of the book will probably point towards its depiction of Asian American and biracial experiences, it ultimately is a book about how every person–regardless of race, gender, or background–deals with the constant tug-of-war between personal desire and societal expectation, and how this battle influences the individual psyche. My favorite line: “What made something precious? Losing it and finding it” (280). Ng has a direct bead on human emotion, and Everything I Never Told You will stick with me for awhile. It’s a book that makes you want to call the people you love and speak openly and honestly with them, and it simultaneously calls you to be open and honest with yourself.

– – – – – – – –

Other quick thoughts:

  1. The Martian (film) and Spectre were both big disappointments for me. As someone that read the former, Ridley Scott’s adaptation wasn’t horrible, but it failed to capture the magic of reading the book (i.e. the most common criticism of any adaptation ever). And the newest James Bond movie reminded me of the Pierce Brosnan era: horrible one-liners; overly-ridiculous sexual aspects; surface-level and stock characters (that weren’t there in Skyfall). I was really excited about Spectre, and when I walked out my reaction was similar to the one I had about The Dark Knight Rises: Make it one hour shorter and give me at least a little bit of dramatic substance that isn’t overwrought, and I would have loved it.
  2. Two TV series that I surprisingly loved: Catastrophe (Amazon) and Scrotal Recall (Netflix). On the surface neither of them are very promising (or publicized), and the latter might be the worst title of a show ever. But both series end up being quite heartfelt and, well, good. They also each only consist of around six 30-minute episodes, which makes them very easy to watch in a relatively short amount of time.
  3. KACU (ACU’s radio station) streams NPR all day long, and while I always listened to 91.7 in Dallas (the NPR music station), I was unfamiliar with the actual NPR broadcast. It’s fantastic. Fresh Air and All Things Considered are so good that I don’t know how I only just now started listening to them. And on the weekends, A Way with Words is my personal favorite. Yes, I get it: the English professor talking about how much he likes NPR is about as cliche as it gets. Oh well. In this category, I fit the cliche.

Now that the beginning madness of professor life has seemingly subsided, I hope to post more often. Until then, cheers to employment, colder weather, and the upcoming holiday season.

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Harper Lee in 2015

Unless you’re a reader of The New Yorker, it’s rare to see a news story or headline focused on something having to do with literature. If you don’t count instances in which books are banned or highly controversial, I personally can only think of two literary events making the uncommon ascension to popular news: 1) the publication of the first volume of Mark Twain’s autobiography in 2010, which came 100 years after his death; and 2) the publication last Tuesday (7/14/2015) of Harper Lee’s second novel, Go Set a Watchman.

US cover of Go Set a Watchman.jpg

It’s hard to think of an American text that is taught or read more than To Kill a Mockingbird, at least in the United States. As someone that has lots of friends that don’t normally read literature, Mockingbird is usually the one text that I can pretty much assume that everyone’s read. If a question about literature or writing or a certain literary device comes up in normal conversation (which, granted, is an amazingly rare thing to happen), it’s great to have Mockingbird to rely on as a source of characters and references that will actually resonate with most people. “Well, a foil is a character that basically stands as an opposite of another character. For instance, Mr. Ewell is a foil for Atticus, and his role as foil functions as a way for Lee to accentuate the positive aspects of Atticus’s character. Whenever we see the lack of dignity, decency, and goodness on behalf of Mr. Ewell, we are actually further reminded of just how decent and good Atticus really is.” But let’s be serious: it’s a large stretch that the literary use of the world “foil” would ever come up in a normal conversation. Still, the point remains: in this country, pretty much everyone has read To Kill a Mockingbird.

Not only has everyone read it, but Lee also pulled a pretty unheard of move after it was published: she never published anything else. Mockingbird won the Pulitzer, it was made into an Academy Award-winning movie, and–like I already said–pretty much every American kid between the ages of 10 and 14 began reading it basically as soon as it came out. And how do you follow up a book like that? You don’t. At least not for 50+ years. And, honestly, I don’t blame her. How could you possibly follow a book like that? It reminds me of J.K. Rowling following up the Harry Potter series: was there really any way for her to write a book that wouldn’t immediately be compared to HP and, in turn, be shred to pieces by critics and fans? When a text reaches such heights as those reached by Mockingbird, its author undoubtedly reaps all sorts of benefits and also consequences, including forever being compared to their previous masterpiece. Maybe Harper Lee found the loophole: you wait 55 years to publish something else.

Go Set a Watchman is a phenomenon for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the number of copies it’s already sold. The back story to its publication is fascinating in many ways. It was actually written before To Kill a Mockingbird, which is particularly interesting if you’ve read both texts and think about some of the overlaps–and major differences–in some of the characters. For me, the most phenomenal aspect of the text is the unique reading experience it allows considering the incredible things surrounding it, including the various things I’ve discussed above. I can’t remember another time when I’ve approached a text with such an unsure feeling of how exactly I was supposed to approach it. I had tried hard to not hear anything about the book before I read it, but I still knew bits and pieces going in. Most importantly: I had heard bits and pieces about Atticus being a racist, which has clearly been the central topic of conversation surrounding the book since its publication. But even beyond this, I was a bit hesitant about reading it. Did Harper Lee herself really even want the book published? I know the controversy about whether or not this was the case, and this was problematic for me. And, to be honest, my biggest concern had to do with the quality of the book itself. What if Watchman simply wasn’t any good? What if it casted doubt on the quality of Mockingbird?

Now that I’ve finished the book, I’m still a bit unsure of how I feel about it. Fortunately, some of my hesitations were proven wrong: I no longer am worried about the book being bad, and Watchman does not cast doubt on Lee’s skill as a writer or on the quality of Mockingbird. The story of Watchman is not nearly as engaging or intriguing as Mockingbird, and I must say that the book itself almost seems more like a classic dialogue rather than a novel. I use that term lightly, because I don’t mean that it reads necessarily like a conversation between two characters. Instead, I reference dialogues just because the book is so light on plot and, really, any sort of story. Instead, Watchman is a cultural critique and reflection in the form of a short novel. There are characters, and things do happen, but these are clearly secondary to the moral and ethical conflicts that Lee is trying to take head on. With this in mind, I’m not quite sure exactly how I felt about the book as a novel because, to be honest, now that I think about, hardly anything actually happens in the text.

I’m also unsure about how I feel about it in relation to Mockingbird. I don’t like the fact that I’ve compared the two texts, and I told myself that I would read Watchman as its own text rather than a sequel to the other. But it’s basically impossible to do that considering the fact that Scout Finch is the main character of both, that both of them take place in Maycomb, Alabama, and that so many of the characters from Mockingbird play important roles in Watchman, including Jem and Dill (in flashbacks), Calpurnia, and, of course, Atticus. I simply don’t see how it’s possible for someone that has read the first book (which, like I said above, is pretty much everyone) to not constantly think back to it as he or she reads Watchman. And the reason this is problematic for me is that the two books, just like their characters, are actually vastly different. On top of that, the world in which we now live is also much different from the one that existed 50+ years ago when the text was actually written.

And yes, we learn that Atticus is a racist. He is a bigot. The unflappably perfect man from Mockingbird turns into a somewhat typical old Southern man in Watchman, complete with rantings against the NAACP, the inferiority of black people, and a fundamental nostalgia for the traditions–both good and bad–of the South. The book is nothing more than the story of Scout’s realization that Atticus feels this way, along with basically everyone else in Maycomb. All of the people that helped raised her, all of the people that stand as beacons of the love she feels for Maycomb, end up representing this “separate-is-equal” view of race. Her father, her aunt, and even the man she planned on marrying. Theirs is a more typical form of racism: they don’t hate black people, and they don’t support lynchings or deny their humanity. Instead, black people are simply inferior, different, and separate–and that’s just the way it is.  The book depicts Scout’s realization of this, followed quickly by her disgust, and then a few long conversations with the people closest to her, most notably her father.

Watchman crystallizes and solidifies Lee’s views on racism and the South. In Mockingbird, racism and bigotry are just pieces of Scout’s coming-of-age story, and Atticus’s defense of Tom Robinson is secondary in relation to the overall story of a 10-year old growing up in Maycomb during the 1930s. But in Watchman, there is no Boo Radley or bildungsroman; the book is a pointed examination of racism in the South, and its focus is solely on uncovering the realities of the subtle, dangerous ways that this racism actually plays out in the hearts and minds of seemingly good-hearted people. Scout takes Atticus to task head-on, and the last 100 pages of the book produce some rather memorable scenes of Scout confronting Southern racist subtleties.

Watchman walks a dangerous line at the end, and Lee puts her reader in a troublesome spot. What are we to do whenever the people closest to us exemplify beliefs and tendencies that we see as morally reprehensible? To put is simply, what do we do if our sister, or aunt, or father is a bigot? For Lee, you still love them. You hug them, you eat meals with them, and you help them when they need help. And this is the difficult part, because as hard as it is, I think that Lee has the answer right. The only way to defeat bigotry is through love, or at least that how it seems to me. And by the end of Watchman, Scout’s only recourse is to keep loving her father. “I think I love you very much” are the last words Scout says to her father in the book, and it seems as if a certain level of peace has been reached between the two. But this scene isn’t as peaceful for the reader, at least not a reader in 2015. It’s not as easy to confront bigotry with love in our world, and doing so is something that we seem to rarely see. And, unfortunately, the racist tendencies that Lee investigates in Go Set a Watchman–a book set in 1950s Alabama–don’t seem to have changed much 55 years later. I’m not saying that lynchings and flat-out racism are still the norm, because they aren’t. But this isn’t the type of racism that Lee is looking at in the book. She’s looking at the more common types, and these are the ones that are still around. So the questions she raises in the text remain. What are the various ways in which racism takes residence in a person’s heart? How exactly do we, as a society, do the work of eradicating these various aspects of racism, especially when so many of them seem to be so deeply born into people’s subconscious? And how do we respond to these instances of racism? How do we, as a society, find some sort of peaceful outcome between all parties involved, in which individual agendas and preferences are secondary.

My favorite line in the book comes from Uncle Jack, Atticus’s brother. He tells Scout, “Remember this also: it’s always easy to look back and see what we were, yesterday, ten years ago. It is hard to see what we are. If you can master that trick, you’ll get along.” Will Watchman will be taught in schools? I don’t really know, and if it is, it definitely won’t reach the level of Mockingbird. It’s a much different book, and it’s really not even a book for young people. It’s a serious book that looks at serious things in our world. Would it have been published today if it hadn’t been written by Harper Lee in the 1950s? I seriously doubt it. But there are parts in there that threw me aback in terms of how applicable they still are today. And I can’t think of a more astute assessment of human nature’s ability of purposeful denial of present realities as the one made by Uncle Jack above. And it is here where I think Watchman gives us its most important lesson: rather than spending time acknowledging the mistakes we made in the past, perhaps we should be more focused on identifying the mistakes we are making right now. Maybe this is the way for us to “get along,” as Uncle Jack says. Lee was ahead of her time, and I for one am glad that Go Set a Watchman finally found its way to publication.

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