Simple Everything

Late last month, I got mentioned in a tweet from a person/organization/entity promoting Simple Islam.  Not sure how or why they found or mentioned me, but they did.  I followed the link and read the opening article.

I don’t like religion.  I think there is something weird about sitting in a room where one person occupies a full 1/3 of the space to tell everyone sitting in the other 2/3ds of the room what to think, do, and believe.  In every judgement day belief system I’ve ever heard of, we are all destined to be judged based on the merits of our individual behaviors and beliefs.  And given that is the case, shouldn’t you be standing there on something you thought through and questioned thoroughly?  It isn’t like there is a pastor/imam/prophet that is going to put up their hand from the back of the crowd and say “no, no, this one is mine.  I told him what to do, therefore all your questions should be directed at me.”

(Note to self: if you want to know why I’m divorced, start there.)

So I don’t like religion.  I find the need to tell other people how to go about living and believing baffling.  But then maybe I’m easily baffled.  I think it is everyone’s obligation to think things through for themselves and to tend their own spiritual garden.  Worry about yourself.  There’s no need to tell other people how to do it.  Unfortunately, I’m in the minority.  Loads and loads of people find their lives vastly improved by the systematic belief system and community provided by religious structures.  And given that not everyone is content to wander an unmarked path, I like the simplification concept.  Go back to the basics.

Do the details of a religion really matter that much?  In Christianity, people argue and differentiate themselves over interpretations.  How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?  Is it okay to baptize with a splash of water, or do you need full immersion?  Are we born evil?  What is the right day to worship on?  What is the right way to worship?  Does Revelation mean that there is going to be a rapture?  (Did anyone else see that we’re getting a rapture movie with Nicolas Cage?  Someone could have asked me and I would have pointed out, rightly, that this was a totally unnecessary addition to our cinematic history…)

Islam is equally tangled.  Who was the true successor to Mohammed?  Which scholar gets to be in charge?  The Sufi think jihad is an argument with themselves and they dance their way to prayer.  The Wahhabi think jihad happens at the end of a weapon.

What would happen if you cut out all the extras?  Islam means peace.  The path there is submission to Allah.  The five pillars of Islam are laudable.  What else do you need?  Same with Christianity: following the example of Jesus as depicted in the New Testament would make for some really nice, gentle, generous people.  And yet, I don’t know that many Christians that I’d count as gentle or generous.  My big sister is one.  After that?  Yeah, not that many in my personal acquaintance.

I’m unlikely to convince the world that organized religion is weird.  Could I talk someone into considering the radically simplified version of their religion of choice instead?

Ties, Tribes, and Racism

So I commute and I think.  This morning, I was thinking about racism.

It probably started with this article on Buzzfeed.  Someone looked at attraction using a mock Tinder interface.  The most popular man and woman, based on swipes from a demographically diverse sample, were both of color.  Getting into conversations with the people in the study, the author tried to uncover the reasons for identifying that particular man and woman as swipe-able.

As it turns out, the fact that they were attractive was only part of the issue.  It was also in how they presented themselves: the setting of their picture and their respective clothing said solidly middle class.

Socially, we know we’re fundamentally tribal.  For a very long time, we needed to be able to identify who was one of us in a hurry so we could either fight them because they didn’t belong to our tribe or get back to searching for dinner or danger.  We like people who are like us.  The good news is that, at least in certain areas, we’re moving away from identifying who is “like me” based simply on the color of someone’s skin.  That is a kind of progress.

The trouble, of course, is that it makes the legacy of racism harder to address.  Because a lot of us can genuinely say that we don’t discriminate on the basis of race, mean it, stand behind it, and defend it.  But that doesn’t mean we don’t discriminate.

We’re here because our ancestors were good at making snap judgement about their environments and acting on them.  The people who truly were without discrimination didn’t make the evolutionary cut.

This discrimination that we’re all guilty of is more complex than the color of people’s skin.  Yet it disproportionately impacts people of color.  Because of our collective history (that peculiar institution, to quote a ghastly monument at Harper’s Ferry), skin color is often a short-cut to class assumptions.

I started thinking about the class thing when I lived in Scotland.  I was a volunteer with an organization that gave families in crisis a 10-day holiday in a farmhouse in the middle of nowhere.  The volunteers and leadership were all distinctly middle class.  Our families were all receiving public assistance.  Everyone was Caucasian.  Our families didn’t get a free pass from prejudice, assumptions, scrutiny, discrimination, fewer career options, lower expectations, diminished educational achievement, etc. simply because they were white.  Culturally, the perceived path to real success was through sport or entertainment.  Everyone knew of someone who had made it out of the poorest neighborhoods of Glasgow by being a kick-ass soccer player.  All the little boys wanted to be David Beckham.  They were not aspiring engineers, finance geeks, or doctors.  For that matter, the girls weren’t planning on engineering, finance, or medicine either.

So here were the same conditions, the same limited opportunities, the same judgement, all in the absence of race.  It made me think that maybe race wasn’t the issue.

Legitimately, I’ve got to wonder what difference it makes.  There is discrimination, the discrimination impacts people of color disproportionately, why not just call it racism and be done?

The why not is because it doesn’t solve anything.  There isn’t much to talk about once the word racism enters the conversation: it naturally devolves to a back and forth of absolutes.  One party says they are not a racist, the other party says “yet I am clearly being discriminated against.”  What can you do with that?  If the only requirement is to not be a racist, one half of the situation says “done: I’m not a racist.”  And the other half of the situation says “that’s nice, but I still have to change my name to get considered for a job, so I’m not buying it.”  Everyone is telling the truth, yet nothing changes.

Can we all own the fact that we are built to discern between who is like us and who isn’t and just accept that as a neutral remnant of the brain structure that enables survival?

I’ll offer a potentially uncomfortable example from my life.  I was dating a man who was transitioning from the military to civilian life.  He wasn’t white, and he had the most god-awful taste in ties.  I say this as a white person looking at ties that clearly said “not one of us.”  How does something as simple as a tie say “not one of us”?  Color, cut, pattern…  It’s subtle and it is stupid, but I worked really hard to get those ties away from him.  Yes, it is miserably wrong that a mis-chosen tie in an interview could be the difference between a job offer and no job offer.  And it wouldn’t be because he wasn’t white, at least not directly.  It would be because his tie said “you aren’t one of us.”

All the experience in the world can’t compensate for the fact that the workplace is a social enterprise and interviewers want people like them in their tribe.

So I’ll confess:  I discriminate.  I am a discriminator.  I discriminate on things like garish hair: there was a woman in the cafeteria this morning with red and white hair.  I mean chunky streaks of bleached out highlights on top of dyed red hair.  White as white can be, but she wasn’t one of my tribe.  I wouldn’t have hired her, simply because not knowing that the hair was in bad taste makes me think I would be risking something to put her in front of a client.  I’ll be honest, her hair was a tell for class.

When it comes to class, I really do want people like me.  I come from a lower-middle class upbringing with parents who had upper-middle class values.  My earning power right now is more than what my parents made together when I was growing up.  I had an aunt that sent us shoes because my parents didn’t always have the money.  For romantic partners, I want someone who has made that journey.  In my friends too…  none of the people in my world came up with money.  We all have a solidly lower-middle class intolerance for bullshit.  But we also know how to present in the world we live in now, sort of winking and nodding at the younger versions of ourselves, the kids in high school that we were, when we didn’t care about makeup because a $6 mascara seemed super extravagant.

So is it wrong to be a discriminator?

Yes, when you are discriminating over things that people have no control over.  Skin color, disability, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, etc.

But when it comes to presentation?  I won’t rehash this entire argument because I’ve made it elsewhere.  Suffice it to say, the way we present ourselves to the world is deliberate.  We’re telling people we meet on the street our tribal affiliations.  You don’t get a face tattoo because you want to tell corporate america that you belong in their tribe.  You just don’t.  The brands we pick, the colors we wear, our shoes, our hair…  personal style is the visual story you tell to the world about who you are.  When you buy a Coach bag, it isn’t the bag that you’re buying.  You could get one of those at Walmart and be just fine.  You’re buying what it says about you.  Pragmatically speaking, it is impossible to get away from that.

Things like jobs are, for good or for ill, only partially about accomplishment, merit, or the requirements of the position.  They are also about tribal affiliations.  It isn’t so much that discriminating on the basis of tribal markers is wrong, but that it is subjective.  If we can be neutral and admit that we all do it, can we then be neutral and recognize when we’re doing it so we can then ask objective questions to determine if our subjective tribal assumptions are helpful, or fair, or legitimate in the context we’re in?  Does the more nuanced perspective on discrimination make it easier to counter our instincts with an approach that is more inclusive?

Somebody Else

A hazard of being the product of millennia of progenitors who were good at fitting into the social construct is the degree to which the idea of what I’m *supposed to be* refuses to budge.  This would be one of those things I keep to myself, except that I hear it from my friends as well.  They confront relationship challenges (not just the romantic ones) with this idea that they are *supposed* to have a reaction or approach that isn’t natural.  Who calls, how long before you respond to a text, what is okay to give for a birthday present.  You don’t want to give too much, but you also don’t want to be outdone by the other guy.  No one wants to show up at the birthday party with a homemade card when everyone else is boasting Hallmark.  Or whatever.

But here’s the deal with success or failure in your social endeavors (to include romantic relationships): win or lose, wouldn’t you rather it be for who you are, not for some role you’re playing?

Say you go down in flames.  If you crash and burn spectacularly because you were playing games or trying to be someone you aren’t, don’t you then end up living with the regret?  I’d wonder what might have happened if I’d just been myself, gone with my gut, followed what I was sure of, set my fears aside, stopped listening to the voice that told me there was something I was supposed to be, or the relationship was supposed to be, and just embraced what I was, what the relationship was, and what made me happy.  What if I’d just said what I feel, what I want, and let the cards fall where they might?

Come to think of it, I do live with that…  I can think of three relationships that crashed and burned because of the supposed to’s:  my first love in college – that never got off the ground because the difference between what it was and what it was supposed to be was insurmountable.  Part of the failure of my marriage can be blamed on me not being able to move past the gap between what it was and what I thought it was supposed to be.  I’ll not try to characterize the third relationship here.  Suffice it to say that we all struggle with the gap between reality and “supposed to.”

Moving on.  What if you succeed on the merits of being someone else…  Have you thought through the part where you’re going to have to sustain that charade.  Indefinitely?

I’m certainly not trying to claim that authenticity is easy.  It takes a lot of bravery to say “fuck it, this is who I am, this is how I feel, this is what makes me happy, this is what I want.”  It’s even harder to say all of that with complete ownership over yourself and no expectation that the world is going to bow to your will and deliver what it is that you want.  Consider the alternatives, though.  You can fake it and feel safe because you’re hiding behind the mask you think other people want to see, but succeed or fail, the long-term consequences are pretty difficult.

Between regret or sustaining the lie and the risk associated with just going with the best I can do with my authentic self, I think I’m aspiring to the risk.  If I’m going to go down, I can live with going down on the truth.  It’s easier to live with than losing something over an ephemeral “supposed to.”

The only possible caveat here is if your authentic self is a creep or an asshole.  In that case, become a nice person and then be your authentic self.

How to be a Nicer Person

Or how to stop being an asshole.

I keep thinking that it can’t be that hard not to be an asshole.  There has been a lot of stuff coming up about bullies and trolls on the various and assorted social media sites.  I’m lucky, in a way, because I have such a small (and generally like-minded) following that no one has ever been nasty to me in an online forum.  But I read about it happening to other people and for every death threat delivered in a comments section, I have the same thought: when did this become okay?  And how hard is it to just not be an asshole?  Clearly, it’s harder than I think it should be.

Step one: Recognizing if you’re an asshole.

If you have ever threatened someone’s life or physical safety or that of his/her family over an idea, a belief, a game, an opinion, a TV show, a tweet, an article, a religion…  Okay, let’s start again.  If you’ve ever threatened someone’s life, physical well-being, or that of their family (to include pets) you are an asshole.  The only possible exception is if you threaten (or cause real bodily harm to) someone who is in the act of harming you or someone else.  For example, the guy in Texas who beat the assailant of his child to death…  he is not an asshole.  If you are in the military fighting a war, you are not an asshole.  These are the only exceptions.

Losing your shit over things you are guilty of is another good sign.  Road rage over someone not using their blinkers when they change lanes, when you also don’t use your blinkers?  You might be an asshole.

If the only socializing you do consists of tearing other people down, you are probably an asshole.  If you are mean to people you don’t know just because you can get away with it, you are probably an asshole.   If you think someone reacting to offensive language by becoming offended is their problem, you are probably an asshole.

I’m sure I could come up with other symptoms, but that covers quite a bit of territory.

Step Two: Deciding you don’t actually want to spend the rest of your life being an asshole because, let’s face it, the world just doesn’t need any more schmucks.

Are you happy?  Do you have meaningful friends?  Do you have lasting relationships with members of the sex you are attracted to?  Do you feel an incipient longing to create something that lasts instead of just tearing everything down indiscriminately?  It may be time to recognize that you’d like to become a constructive human being.

Step Three: Developing compassion.

Oddly enough, this starts with your relationship with you.  Go easy on yourself.  Stop saying such horrible things about yourself when you make a mistake.  Take a deep breath.  Recognize that you are fighting a hard battle, and credit yourself for making it this far.  Then expand that circle of compassion outward a little.  That guy that just cut you off in traffic.  Probably doing the best he can with what he’s got.  The lady who can’t make up her mind in Starbucks: fighting a difficult battle and doing what she can to make it through.  That person you’ve never met on the internet with an opinion you disagree with.  Probably just wants to make the world a better place to the best of his ability.  Go easy on yourself.  Go easy on other people.

Step Four: Take nothing personally.

See, 99.999% of what other people do isn’t about you, it’s about them.  Unfortunately, this means 99.999% of what you do isn’t because so and so said thus and such.  Taking nothing personally goes hand in hand with taking absolute responsibility for yourself and your words.  No one can make you mad.  No one can make you anything.  You choose your reaction.  We’re all trying to make it through with a collection of challenges and difficulties that are uniquely our own.  We’re all generally so absorbed in our own concerns, we have a hard time seeing other people.  That goes for you too.  Notice it in yourself when you’re getting ready to fly off the handle.  Notice it in people who you disagree with.   Their feelings and how they handle them tell you about who they are, not who you are.  Your feelings and how you manage them tells the world who you are and says nothing about the person you are blaming for your reaction.

Step Five: If you would be mad if someone said it to your mother, don’t say it to anyone else.

I’m pretty sure that doesn’t need further explanation.

Step Six: find something you’d like to build, something that makes the world a better, safer place, and focus on that.

If you don’t like people, do something for animals.  Whatever it is, find a constructive place for your energy, something that benefits someone or something other than yourself.



That’s it.  Practice a little every day and eventually, you too can become a nicer person.  Just start with the no death threats thing, because the fact that someone has to say that out loud is just sad.


We Interrupt Our Regular Programming for this Special Announcement

Bottom line up front: if you want a free copy of my book in exchange for a review of said book, go here.

Backstory: Story Cartel is a place where authors and readers can connect over free books and reviews.  Create a log in, peruse the books on the site, download that which looks interesting to you, agree to write a review, read a free book by an emerging author, and write a review.  Simple.  I tried it out as a reader with a book called Black.  My review is posted somewhere on Amazon – basically I tore through the book and afterwards realized there were serious flaws in the characterization.  What do you do with a book that entertains you, but has some issues?  You review it.

For my regular readers who come here for the parts where I’m addressing the big questions of how to live with integrity in a world that has completely lost all pretense of being solidly black or white, The Camellia Resistance is a fictional exploration of the same basic themes.  It isn’t autobiographical, or even semi-autobiographical, but it does address what happens after the worst thing you can think of takes place.  It is decidedly adult, unequivocally fantasy, and thoroughly dystopian.  If you haven’t already read it, here’s a chance to see what it is all about.  It will only cost you the time it takes to read and 15 minutes to tell amazon how you felt about it.

Basically, it would be a huge personal favor that I hope I can repay by entertaining you for a few reading hours.


The People Problem

You think your job is widgets.  It isn’t.

Your job is people.  Somewhere along the way, maybe when we stopped growing our own potatoes (and even then, there was family to manage), the output stopped being 100% of the point.  Not that output doesn’t matter.  Not that you don’t touch widgets.  But I’m willing to bet that for 99% of people, their daily work isn’t taken up in units moved from the inbox to the outbox.

Nope.  The bulk of your day is spent in people, nurturing relationships, building influence, listening, talking, arguing, managing feelings, going around so-and-so…  Because work is a social enterprise.  It is the primary social enterprise, given the death of small communities and the waning influence of churches.  It’s where we talk to people, it’s where we express ourselves.  It is the venue that excuses our runway walk through the world with this pair of shoes instead of that, this haircut, this beard, this dress, all of which say to people “this is who I am.”

Let’s face it, you don’t worry about all of that when you work from home, you don’t have to tell the dog who you are.  He can figure that out by sticking his nose in your butt.

Economies are changing.  Everything is changing.  From an input/output perspective measured in widgets, our system for working is super inefficient – because of the people.  People are the problem.  At least from one perspective.

From another perspective, we need our work.  Even the jobs we hate, and not just for the paycheck. We need our work because we are social animals.  We need the connection and it is harder and harder to find elsewhere.

To our detriment.


Adults don’t know how to talk to children.  We bend over and ask “what are you learning in school” because once it’s behind us, we think of childhood as a foreign territory: children as being something other.  A separate animal from homoadultus.  We talk to them like we talk to foreigners, slowly and with short sentences.  Occasionally in a louder voice than is strictly necessary.

This is because we were never children.

Sure we experienced learning how to walk, and there was a time when we knew less and our mother called us to get out of bed in the morning and Ms. Johnson spanked us for kicking that dumb boy who said something rude.  But we were never distinct from ourselves, fitting into the category of other.  Maybe you can pinpoint a day when you lost your innocence, but that probably has little to do with your age at the time.

We are the same spirit all the way through.  The same eyes, the same senses, the same memory collection mechanisms whirring away between our ears.  Our experience is continuous.  We are one from start to finish, evolving minute by minute, but never not ourselves.

At three, I could walk into a room and say the one thing that was guaranteed to get everyone with their knickers in a twist.  I talk less in public now for that very reason, because I never know what that thing is going to be and it isn’t good for my bank account, this saying things that everyone is thinking and other people have the good sense not to say.  Sure I’ve evolved.  I talk less in public: that’s growth, isn’t it?

It doesn’t matter when it happened, it happened to me.  The dream of walking up a long flight of stairs in a red velvet queen’s cape.  That was me.  The dream where I found my ex’s cat in a pet store, and the damn thing bit me.  That was me too.  The nightmare of being picked up by a bulldozer and being dumped in a junkyard fire.  That was me.  The reccurring dreaming landscape, a city on a hill and the roads to get there.  All me.

The idea that we are temporarily bodies and permanently ourselves makes sense to me, because the thread that animates this body holds steady and taut, even as the flesh grows around it and then inevitably sags and deflates.

Adults don’t know how to talk to children because there are no children.  We talk to them like monkeys in the zoo: close cousins.  Cute, to be sure.  And they look at us with disdain in return because they know, even if we do not, that we are the idiots who refuse to recognize that they are just like us, just caught in a slightly different bubble of time and mostly free from the burden of paying the rent.