Smart Rules: Introduction

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.  

Smart Rules: Introduction

Good Enough

This is something I’ve talked around in various and assorted posts, but not something I’ve ever addressed directly.

Enough is not a meaningful measure.  What is “enough” anyway?  Who gets to call it?  A house that is big enough for me wouldn’t be nearly big enough for a Kardashian.  Enough is a relative measure, entirely subjective, and it moves constantly.  Because as soon as we reach a point where we would have called it “enough” before we got there, suddenly, it is no longer good enough.  Because we’re there and a lot of us (not all, but many) are convinced we’ll never be enough so if we can do it, then the “it” that needs to be done must be a little further ahead.

A year ago, I would have told you that swimming a mile every other day would be more than enough.  Now I’m doing two miles every other day and I wonder if maybe I shouldn’t be pushing myself to do a little more because maybe two miles isn’t good enough.

That’s just ridiculous.

On the other hand, this striving for a target of enough that we move beyond our grasp isn’t all bad.  Doubt is a good thing.  It keeps us open-minded, it keeps us learning, it keeps us growing.

But for functioning in life, for moving forward, for taking a leap of faith, am I good enough is a pretty rotten question.

The reality is that you’ve gotten this far.  You’ve made some mistakes, you’ve screwed some things up royally.  You’re still here.  You’re still breathing.  You’ve survived some shitty days and you still have a sense of humor.  That’s pretty amazing.  Even better, you still have this marvelous opportunity embedded in today (or tomorrow, since it’s late) to show up.  Get the ego out of the way.  Dispose of the judgement and whatever concerns you might have regarding other people’s judgement.  Your gift is your presence, for whatever the task at hand is.  You don’t have to be good enough.  Good enough is a feeling, it isn’t a fact.

You just have to show and you’ll be way ahead of everyone else who is paralyzed by the idea that good enough is a real thing they have to achieve before they can do something great.

Good Enough

Afraid of my Shadow

But I’m not ashamed.  Every fear is a shadow.  Think about it.

Always with you.
Amorphous in shape.
Impossible to pin down.
It just runs as fast as you do when you try to get away from it.
The things you do to cut yourself off from your fears don’t work.

So if you aren’t going to be able to get rid of your fear, what do you do?

You don’t do anything.

If you want it to stop chasing you, you stop running.  
If you want it to shrink, sit down with it.  

Make friends with it.  Accept it.  Get comfortable with the fact that you’re never going to beat your shadow into submission.  See how it shows you yourself.  And then let it do its thing.  Just because you will always carry your fear with you doesn’t mean you have to let it run your life.

Afraid of my Shadow

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?

Simple Everything

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?

Ties, Tribes, and Racism

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.

 

How to be a Nicer Person

The Argument Before the Argument

Words are vehicles for transmitting bits of yourself into someone else.  I bet you can think of something nice that someone said to you ten years ago.  I bet you know that person’s name, maybe what they were wearing at the time, and what their face looks like.  Similarly, I’m pretty sure you can look back ten years and see someone who said something hurtful to you.  Words are immortality, in a way, because so long as someone remembers our words, we live on.

Yes, so many of our words are throw-aways.  We talk about nothing and everything.  We talk to keep the air full of something.  We talk to remember that we exist.  And it isn’t always possible to know which words are going to be kept and which ones will vanish.  Not every conversation is a keeper.

But those conversations that are intended to be kept, the ones that make or break friendships, or love.  I want to talk about the words that we use in those.

Over the past week, I’ve talked to a couple of people contemplating serious conversations with people they love over the state of a relationship.  The pre-conversation conversation starts with “can I say this?” and then something comes out that I know has been considered and edited and rearranged for days, if not weeks, if not years.

And always, these things that we want to say are a hand extended by reaching around the shield.  Comments that give and take in the same breath.  Designed to hedge the bet about how the other guy is going to react, or to manipulate the other side of the conversation.  Part posturing, part supplication.  We’ve all done it, we’ve all been on the receiving end of it.  And it is maddening.

With one friend, we started out with “why do you hate me” and ended up with what she really wanted to say, which was “can we try this again?”  “Why do you hate me” is easier to say.  It is less vulnerable.  There isn’t the possibility of a “no” at the end of it.  It is demanding rather than giving, it seeks an outcome rather than saying what it is.  There’s not much by way of honesty in it, unless you count the honest desire for engagement behind it.  “Can we try this again” is straightforward.  It opens you up for a clear, clean “no.”  It is vulnerable.  It admits a wanting for something that you might not be able to have.  But it is also distinctly lacking in coercion, manipulation, passive-aggressiveness, or attempts to control the outcome.  It’s terrifying.  It’s impossibly vulnerable for someone who has been hurt – and we’ve all been hurt.

I saw some back and forth over text from another friend.  “I know you’ve moved on…” one party said.  Well, did they know that?  Or was that a defense mechanism and a backhanded way to ask “have you moved on?”  And the conversation disintegrated from there until no one knew what the other guy was saying because the words that were being used hadn’t been born clean.  The words were stuck trying to carry too much that was at odds with itself.

We all plan these conversations.  We argue before we argue, working out strategy about how we’re going to play the different aspects of our position, using our real pain in manipulative ways to orchestrate the empathy in our favor. It isn’t like you aren’t thinking about how to have that conversation already.

Unfortunately, the reality is that it is going to hurt either way you go about it.  All of your fancy words and making the meaning double up on itself until no one can tell which is sincere and which is sarcastic; even your manipulations, trying to nudge things in your favor, even that is going to hurt.  Negotiating relationships hurts.  Full stop.  It’s scary.  And there is no way to protect yourself from the terror, at least not if you want an authentic connection.

From a writer.  As a writer.  As someone who thinks about using words well all the damn time.  Really.  All the damn time.  Play that conversation out.  With every iteration, push your words closer to simplicity and closer to the naked truth until you can get to the plainest words there are.  Words that don’t try to shape the other person’s answer.  Just the words.  Remember: this is someone you love.  This is someone you believe you need in your life.  This is someone who makes everything better when they’re in the room.  They fart sunshine and shit glitter.  You can’t stop thinking about them.  It’s been years and you’re still missing them.  They’re still all you can see.  The first thing on your mind in the morning; the falling asleep breath on your pillow holds their name.  Start with the truth, and let the truth set you free.

I miss you.  I love you.  I want you to be happy, and I want to be a part of your happy. What can I do to make that happen?

The Argument Before the Argument