I’m going to see a therapist tonight, which is a little odd because I think I’m doing okay, but I could be wrong. This is the first therapy appointment I’ve made since 2006, when a racist cow of a licensed social worker told me all black men are misogynists. I was dating a black man at the time in a situation that was, admittedly, ill-advised. But not because all black men are misogynists. I never went back. And I didn’t try to replace the cow.
Fast forward to this therapist, who is a member of a practice that I visit for my thyroid issues. I met her a couple of weeks ago, liked her, and thought why not.
Except I’m not sure what I want to talk about. I think I’m fine, more or less. So I’m a little medicated, sure, but who isn’t vaguely depressed by 9-5 normalcy? To quote Queen Bey…
The 9 to 5, just to stay alive
All the people on the planet
Working 9 to 5 just to stay alive
So as I’m wandering the corridors of my workplace, I’m trying to decide what I am going to talk about. And I notice that I’m already curating. How can I present myself so that I can be perceived as sardonic, smart, and reasonably sane? Strong too. I spend a reasonable amount of effort arranging myself to show these traits off. Which isn’t to say that I am a farce and deep down I’m a kicked puppy with my own personal rain cloud and no sense of humor. But don’t we all try to do this? Arrange our presentation so the things we like the most about ourselves are obvious?
But then I have to ask… what am I hiding? The facts of my life – my recent life in particular – aren’t a secret. I’m not particularly ashamed of my failings. We don’t get to pick to be all good and no bad, all light and no shadow. So why the half-formed attempt to arrange it all so carefully?
Maybe because I’m pretty sure nothing is wrong. I’m tired and don’t have myself together to swim regularly anymore and my exercise time has disappeared and the yard is kicking my ass, but I love my little house and I love the company that I keep and my job pays the bills comfortably and I have so little to complain about, sitting down with a therapist seems indulgent.
You have a persona. You perform a polished version of yourself to the world. The real you is an animal that farts with relish, burps like a champ, scratches at will, and has been known to consume an entire box of krispy kreme donuts in a single sitting. In your performance of you, your hair is enhanced by product, your socks match, and you eat with a fork and knife.
The two are not the same.
Your performance of you is sexless (sexy, yes, but sex is sweaty and funny and awkward. The performance you is never undone). The performance you is a fluidless mannequin that always smells of Abercrombie and Fitch. Or lavender. Or patchouli. Or Jo Malone. Or Axe. Or whatever.
But. Always the but.
It is incumbent that you never confuse the performance you with the animal you. Bad behavior happens when these two things get confused. Dishonesty happens when you no longer recognize the difference between the two, and not just that you become dishonest with others… I’m talking about the inability to tell yourself the truth about yourself, which is intellectually fatal.
Your ability to *do* smart (rather than be smart) depends on the honest internal conversation with yourself about yourself. Also known as being self-aware. This is how you know your weaknesses and your strengths, this is how you know exactly how grateful you should be, this is where you squash your own pretentiousness before it gets out of control. This is how you know when you should say sorry. This is where you invest in the relationships that matter most. This is how you remain someone capable of introspection, course correction, and intimacy. This is how you retain the ability to be great.
Look at the people who have bought their own bullshit. You don’t want to be these people.
- John Mayer. Incredibly talented. Bought his own bullshit. Is a totally unironic twat.
- Lindsay Lohan. Incredibly talent. Got up her own ass about how talented and special she is. By all accounts, a complete ass.
- Johnny Depp. Beautiful. Talented. Completely unaware that he’s become a parody of the aging actor; as of this writing, an alleged domestic abuser;has disappeared into the quirks (also unironically); and is gradually becoming more and more ridiculous as the days go by.
People who seem to have avoided buying their own bullshit. You want to be these people.
- Helen Mirrin. Talented. Beautiful. Sense of humor still intact. Aging exquisitely.
- Mark Ruffalo. Avenger. The boy next door. Hasn’t lost touch with the world the rest of us live in.
- Bruce Springsteen. Really, there are no words. Also doesn’t seem to have lost touch with the real world.
Don’t buy your own bullshit.
Words that will never be written about me in the New York Times: Ms. Williams’ debut novel is an astonishing tour de force.
Every once in awhile, someone suggests I pursue an agent and a traditional publishing deal. There’s part of me that longs for acclaim, that aches for that line in the NYT book review, breathless articles about the fairy godmother tale of my discovery. Bidibidobidiboo. (Spell check knows the word, which is a fun surprise.)
But everything costs something. And fame and fortune are no exception. Of course, I’d love to sell more books. I’d be okay with not having to go to work, at least in theory. I’d be ecstatic if I had the money hanging around to buy a streamlined insert for the gas fireplace. But I’m okay doing my own gardening (you should see the size of the wild grape roots I ripped out last night. Like wrestling with a 6-foot black snake with tentacles.) I’m good with the limits my life gives me. Okay, so I could have stayed in bed another hour this morning, but isn’t discomfort what gives pleasure meaning? If I could wake up whenever I wanted, what joy would there be in sleeping in on Sunday?
(Random curiosity: what does Kim Kardashian dream of?)
My vote for the grand unifying theory of everything is that the Universe demands balance. Whatever is given to you comes with a cost. I don’t fly all that high, all things considered. This month’s excitement was getting a new sink and faucet in the kitchen. Next month, there will be an overnight train trip with a sleeper car. But the lows aren’t that low either. I know who my people are. I don’t worry that my friends are only there for the access, for the drugs and the swag bags and the view and the piles of cash laying around. The love in my life comes with expectations: reciprocity, loyalty, consideration, mutual assistance, honesty… but the expectations aren’t monetary. No one is walking away from me because I can’t pay their car note. No one is disappointed because I’m not making it rain.
Too often the cost of material gain is in the quality of your relationships, and if that’s the choice– love for money–I’m sticking with love. So the NYT hasn’t noticed me. I’m not an astonishing tour de force. I’m a slow writer with an infestation of wild grape and a crazy dog and a family that is both crazy-making and indispensable, and love deep enough to swim in like friggin’ Scrooge McDuck. I think I can make my peace with that.
Don’t trust anyone who is attempting to increase your fear.
Fear is well-known among those who want something as an effective way to get it. Salespeople are taught (or learn on their own) that the fastest way to close a deal is to convince the buyer that, unless a decision is made right now, the buyer is going to miss out. (Salespeople tend to dislike it when you call them on this: try it with a salesperson at a gym sometime. I brought this up to a salesman at Gold’s Gym and he got super huffy with me.)
The reality is that they want your money more than you want whatever item they have in front of you. The salesperson will want your business just as badly tomorrow as they want it today. You are in the position of power unless you allow them to make you afraid, in which case the power dynamic shifts over to their advantage. There is always another car, another house, another way from point a to point b.
Don’t give away your power. Fear shuts down your capacity for thinking critically and without prejudice, and that makes you vulnerable to bad decisions.
There are no exceptions to this rule.
Shut out anything that seeks to increase your fear: news programs that are breathless with manufactured danger, advertisements that raise your anxiety about whether you are rich/smart/sexy/pretty/skinny/young enough, politicians pointing their fingers at an “other” who is out to get you.
If you hear a claim that scares you, first ask what the claimant has to gain from your fear. Then do your own research. Read both sides of the argument. Look for hidden motives. Follow the money. Figure out who gains from your fear. Find the evidence. Perform the whackadoodle test: ask what the chances are that the person selling the fear is wrong. A whackadoodle will tell you that there is no chance that they could be wrong about whatever they claim. A reasonable, considered person will allow that there is something that they don’t know that would change their conclusion. Go with the reasonable person’s assessment of the evidence over the whackadoodle.
Now you can decide if fear is a reasonable response and what constructive thing that you can do with that fear. The constructive thing probably doesn’t require that you spend boatloads of money. It may not be as satisfying because real solutions are usually boring and incremental and require sustained attention and hard work.
Bonus thought: get rid of your TV. Its primary function is to mainline anxiety into your brain. Think of how many advertisements want to make you afraid… if you don’t have a viagra-enhanced package, she’ll leave you. If you don’t take this anti-psychotic drug on top of your regular anti-depressant, you’re going to be miserable forever. If you don’t call your Congressman to make sure we don’t bail out Puerto Rico, you’re going to get a huge bill in the mail for your medical costs… it’s a domino effect (that doesn’t follow logically from one thing to the next). There isn’t that much news on a given day to justify 24 hours of CNN, and there is even less news that you can actually do something about, so worry about the stuff you can do something about, and CNN won’t be able to tell you about those things within your sphere of control.
It is my grand unified theory of everything: everything costs something. Every cost comes with a benefit, every benefit comes with a cost. You will have to pay one way or another. Nothing is free.
There is no point in getting worked up about this, it is a universal law. There is no emotional content here, it isn’t personal. Your highs will be countered by lows. Both bring their lessons – the darkness carves out depth, the light provides strength: you will need both to grow into who you were meant to be. Do not rail against the costs any more than you complain about the benefits. Find your gratitude and apply it to the fact that the joys didn’t cost you more. Apply it to the fact that every joy provides double the strength that every sorrow requires.
And complaining about the fact that everything costs something makes you a whiner and a twat. Don’t be a whiner and a twat.
Also: don’t believe anyone who offers you a benefit without a cost. They are either lying or stupid.
My sister has two boys. All the available evidence points to their IQ’s being off the charts. One of the biggest and hardest lessons in front of them is that smart isn’t something that you are, smart is something that you do. It is a way of interrogating the world. Heuristics you use to evaluate information, processes you use to manage your reactions. In short, smart is a function of thinking carefully and honestly.
This started out as my smart girl rules. Some of the rules are gendered, or cis-gendered, and perhaps I will label them as such, but most of them are just the things I’d like my nephews to understand, tools I’d be happy if they used to navigate a strange and complicated world. We’ll see how it goes.
War. Torture. Espionage.
So the Trumpster has had something to say about waterboarding. In classic double-speak, “enhanced interrogation techniques.” Gets its own acronym and everything: EIT. We’re going to do all that, and more. This is a man who knows his audience: all around the country, armchair operatives cheer and then carry on with all the things that they would do were they in charge; were they combatants; were they younger, fitter, or remotely acceptable to the CIA’s applicant screening process.
It’s so easy to know what you’d do, how you’d react, and how wildly successful you would be, just as long as you can keep your tired ass settled into that comfortable chair of yours. Easy to talk about winning, doing whatever it takes to win, including torture or letting India and Pakistan nuke each other.
So what if the extensive study of the data shows that information extracted under duress is unreliable. So what if we jeopardize our own people by walking away from international standards. There is an ache in that place where testosterone used to flow that can only be filled by this fantasy of a world in which inflicting pain on another human being is satisfying. Justified. Reasonable. Defensible. Without negative consequence.
My father. Love him to death, but he’s an armchair operative. He wishes he’d been able to go to Vietnam. He thinks another life where he was a sniper, offing people who needed to be offed, would have brought him a different kind of satisfaction. He thinks he could have taken an “enemy” life and come out of it unscathed. We don’t argue this point, because … why? The point is moot. He’s one vote, one man, one Fox News consumer, and the truth is that he doesn’t own a gun, isn’t a sharp-shooter, never made it to Vietnam… He can believe what he wants to believe, fantasize all he wants about what it might feel like to wake up in a Clive Cussler novel, break a man’s arm for information, then execute him anyway, because that’s what the morally ambiguous good guy does in the books.
Thing is, how many killers do you know? Accidental, convicted, pre-meditated, secret, soldier, spy… Here’s what is missing from the conversation: forget about the suicide bombing mastermind who lived to plan the next attack and got caught. That isn’t a humanity that I’m particularly interested in. The argument against armchair operatives isn’t because said mastermind is defensible. The argument is about what these acts do to the soldier who isn’t in the armchair fantasizing, but is patrolling the halls of a military prison? What impact does inflicting significant pain on another human have, not on the prisoner, but on the person wielding the power?
An individual who can take another’s life without remorse, without empathy, is someone with a pathology. Those without empathy may come out of such situations no different than they were when they started. Everyone else, those who sign up for military life out of patriotism, need for structure, desperation, ambition, or a sense of adventure… what do acts that counter empathy do to those people?
How many real life killers have you talked to? I’ve interacted with three. One might have been borderline sociopath, but that might have also been an aftermath instead of an original condition. Not one of them came away unscathed from an interaction that left one of the two participants dead.
These armchair operatives, warmongering politicians first and foremost, don’t know what it costs. Forget international law. Forget morality. What does it do to the individual inflicting pain? What does killing do to the killer? Killers live with it, forever. It is the psychic equivalent of the Roman torture where a corpse was lashed to a living human until the decay of the corpse ate into the flesh of the live victim. They carry that shit around. Anyone with any capacity to feel empathy carries the memories around: the broken cries, the smell of fresh blood, the literal deadweight of a body no longer animated by spirit. And that memory eats away at literally everything.
My uncle killed his first man in the Battle of the Bulge as a 16 year old. Hand-to-hand combat and he was the one to survive. 60+ years later, he told me the story, his memory as perfectly formed as if the whole event had been caught from multiple angles in high definition video. He killed a German soldier, vomited, and then took the dead man’s coat so he could keep on with the mission.
A friend and once-upon-a-time lover wouldn’t talk about it, but every year around the anniversary, he inevitably disappeared into a black hole of self-loathing. And that’s how he described it.
An acquaintance who talked about how those soldiers who couldn’t handle “the life” were pussies, the further he got from “the life,” the harder he worked to stay distant from himself. The men from his unit were categorically unable to form lasting bonds with anyone but themselves. They lied compulsively, hurt those who dared to love them, drank heavily and dangerously… The acquaintance was not a happy man, his friends were not well-balanced people.
You can’t expect good people to commit violent acts and come out of the exchange unscathed. Nevermind what we do to those who plan suicide bombings or massacres. My empathy and concern is first absorbed by what we do to ourselves in the process of dealing with the monsters of the world. You do not eliminate monsters by creating new monsters.
And any armchair operative who thinks that killing or torture is without consequence, so long as you aren’t the one being killed or tortured… I don’t recommend gaining the experience just to find out how wrong you can be. Ghosts are only a fiction if you have a very narrow definition of what makes a ghost.