Wednesday, July 17, 2013

People Who Annoy Me -- Part 1

Sooner or later it was coming. Anybody who knows me at all has heard me complain at length about one group of people or another. It's a big list. So we'll call this Part 1 of an occasional feature.

Without further ado...

1. People who spit

Seriously? Aside from the occasional respiratory ailment, I can't think of a single time in my life when I've sat around thinking,

"You know? I think I'm in the mood to spit."

I'm not talking about people who use chewing tobacco or its variants. I don't understand why people use chewing tobacco, but that's not the focus for this post. And I'm not talking about people who do it as an insult. I get that, even though it seems a little too dramatic and cliched. I'm talking about people without anything else in their mouths who have nothing better to do at the moment than spit.

You know what the pavement beneath my feet needs RIGHT NOW? Spit.

I don't want to hear about overproduction of saliva. I don't really care what you say, what stories you've heard, what some underqualified TV doctor says, nothing -- this is not a thing now. Ok? I'm a pretty charitable person when it comes to people's medical concerns. Peanut allergies, gluten intolerance, soy sensitivity, lactose intolerance. I feel for you. But overproduction of saliva is NOT a thing. It's called being hungry or anticipating a meal. End of story. Our mouths are one of the dirtiest places on our body, so when you spit, you're just spreading disease. Stop being disgusting. Stop leaving little puddles of your germ-infested fluids all over the sidewalk.

2. People who talk on the phone in the bathroom

Let me give you a situation. You have a dinner party. You've had a wonderful meal, and you've moved the conversation into the living room. You and a few friends are sitting on couches catching up on the last few weeks, telling jokes -- you get the gist. All the water you drank during dinner starts to do its work, and you begin to hear nature's call. It's only natural at this point to say, "Hey, John, listen. I gotta go to the bathroom. Why don't you come with me and talk to me while I take out my penis and urinate. This conversation is too good to put on hold for even a second."

Nope. In almost 37 years of life, I've never proposed or had this proposed to me.

Even so, a few times a week, I'm in the bathroom in a store or a restaurant or at work and hear guys talking on the phone while they pee or while they sit on the toilet. You wouldn't ask someone to watch you do that, so why do you take someone in with you on the phone? Why don't you make a decision? Which is more important to you right now: finishing your phone conversation or emptying your bowels? If your bathroom situation is so urgent, is it so difficult to say, "Hey, listen, can I call you back in a few minutes? I'm not in a good place to talk right now." And I can't say I've ever heard an interesting phone conversation in the 


This place? Not your office.

"Ok, Jim, let's go ahead and put together an action plan on that one."

"Shut up! Are you serious? He said what?"

"I dunno. I'm thinking about seeing that new Superman movie this weekend."

These conversations can wait.

Oh, and one more thing. It's extremely difficult to wash properly while holding a phone to your ear. Soap, warm water, 15 seconds of handwashing. Otherwise you shouldn't even bother. It's rare enough to see a man do more than splash water on his hands (I call the average male handwashing maneuver "The Wicked Witch of the West" -- wouldn't want to melt from too much contact with water), and I NEVER see a dude on the phone wash his hands. Hey, your boyfriend just wiped his ass with one hand and held the phone to talk to you with the other. And he still has particles of crap on his hand. Remember that when he helps you cook dinner.

3. People who order at the drive through, when they should've gone inside

I think every drive through interaction should focus on convenience. A good drive through order is simple, to the point, difficult to screw up. Because you're going to give your order to some person making $7.25 an hour to do a job they hate. You may think they should do their best regardless of the job, regardless of the pay. Funny thing, though, your expectations don’t translate to their actions. Go ahead, set your expectations. Get too loud about it, though, and you're likely to get their expectorations.

You want a number 3 combo, but with extra pickles, no tomatoes, hold the mayo, oh, and add cheese on the side and some ranch sauce, and on your second order you want a number 4 combo, no pickles, extra tomato, extra mayo, and no ice in your drink -- half regular, half diet, of course. And on a third separate order you want...

You get the point. You know what you're not getting? What you want.

And that guy in the car behind you, the one with 30 minutes for lunch, just trying to grab a quick hamburger? Yeah, he gets to listen to you go back and forth over the tin can speaker at the menu board, gets to wait while you fish through all your bags and argue with the poor sap at the window who's going to spit on your replacement order, gets to inhale his burger before heading back to work.

You didn't get what you want -- an inconvenient situation for you, but one you should have anticipated. The guy behind you is late to work. To be fair, his schedule isn't your responsibility, but I'm just illustrating the chain of events. The manager of the restaurant probably gets to hear you complain about the service at the drive through, something he can’t really fix. The people who would give good service at a drive through don't work at drive throughs. They make more money doing something else, and if you pay fast food workers more money, your extra value menu becomes decidedly more expensive.

Do everyone a favor. If you have a tenuous grasp of English, if you have complicated special requests, if you plan on spending more than, say, $30 -- just go inside.


Since I've spent roughly a thousand words belittling the very people who may now be reading this blog, now is probably the wrong time to express this, but please -- don't get me wrong.

I have friends and/or family who do all of these things, and I don't love them any less. As it turns out, I'm good at separating people's good behavior from their bad behavior. At the risk of sounding incorrigibly rude, if you and I speak on a semi-regular basis, then even if you do the stuff I've listed or the things that will come up in future installments, I obviously think your good qualities outweigh your bad. I'd say I don't want to know the terrible things people think about me, but maybe I need to hear some of them (though this isn't necessarily an invitation). I think recognizing and changing the bad stuff makes us better people tomorrow than we are today.

So, buck up! I might hate most of the things people do, but I still like a few people. Just don't call me from the bathroom.

In future installments:

--People who get "offended"
--People who never left high school
--People who can recite the complete lineups of every NFL team or sing the lyrics to dozens of songs they love or keep track of all the characters and plot lines on their favorite TV show, but can't sort out the difference between "your" and "you're"
--Religious people who won’t take “no” for an answer
--Anime/JRPG Fans (closely related to the religious people listed above)
--Sports fans who keep talking to me about sports even though they already know I don't follow sports
--Geeks who criticize every movie, game, or book they encounter
--People who make lists of stuff that annoys them

Tuesday, July 09, 2013

Do I Know You?

I feel conflicted about people. On one hand, I have a terrific circle of family and friends. We support each other and help keep each other (relatively) sane, and I don't know what I'd do without them. On the other hand, the thought of speaking to people I don't already know fills me with dread, fear, and disgust.

I try to get to work about 20 minutes early. Just in case I get stuck behind an accident or hit the traffic lights in the wrong rhythm, I like to have a time buffer to make sure I'm not late. With my few extra minutes, I'll generally sit in the car and read a book.

On a recent day, I sat reading my book and got a tap on the window from a total stranger. First, I nearly soiled myself. I mean would it have killed the guy to stand in front of the car first and maybe wave to get my attention? Do I need to keep underwear in the glove compartment now, in case of random window knockers? Second, do I look like I'm asking for a conversation? My windows are up. I'm focused on a book. The book should be a clue, but I've learned over the years that people think reading is a last resort. They assume if you're reading, it must be because you can't find someone to talk to, so it should be okay to interrupt you for a conversation about nothing at all.

"Hey, can you tell me where Suite 400 is?"

"Sorry, man, I don't know. I just work in this building behind me in the sales department. I don't really know all the addresses around here."

"But I'm looking for Suite 400. Do you know where Suite 400 is? I'm driving a truck."

"No, I -- I really don't. I just work in this building. I don't know the addresses of the other buildings around here. I'm sorry."

"I'm looking for Suite 400, though. Do you know where Suite 400 is?"

"Look, dude, I can't help you. I don't know where you're going, and I don't know the addresses arou--"

"Fine," he said, as he stuck his hand, palm out, in my face. "Whatever. Have a good day, SIR. Thanks for nothing."

Wait, why am I the asshole?

I didn't walk up and start banging on some random stranger's window. I didn't assume he knows all the addresses and business names of the buildings in the area. I didn't ask him the same question over and over, even after he told me he didn't know the answer. I didn't interrupt him, stick my hand in his face, and treat him like he'd just ruined my day. I was polite. I used an apologetic tone to answer his question and told him I didn't know the answer. As far as I understand it, I followed social protocol, but I'm the jerk.

And this is why people suck. Even when you follow social protocols and pretend to care about whatever crap they're talking about, they act like you owe them something. I mean, am I supposed to get out of the car and walk around with you, helping you search for a building? You're getting paid to find the building -- all I'm doing is missing out on my book. If I'd known where the guy was trying to go, I would have told him. But I'm not going to tell him to hop in the car and drive around with me until we find his place. I may be antisocial, but I don't make people's lives harder just for the fun of it. Well, not unless they deserve it.

Even when people are polite, I don't like talking for the sake of talking. Walking down the hall at work, I see people who work in other departments all the time. I don't know their names; I don't know anything about how they spend their days. I'd rather just look the other way, but instead there's this social pressure to nod and say hi, or even worse, converse about their weekend or whatever the relevant small talk for the day might be. I hate those interactions.

Look, I don't know you, and you don't know me, and we've lived our entire lives pretty content with this state of affairs. So why don't we just stick with the status quo? I've overheard your conversations with other people. You talk about sports and cars and fishing. I hate sports and cars and haven't fished since I was 10, so unless you read Neil Gaiman or J.R.R. Tolkien, or unless you play World of Warcraft or watch Star Trek, I don't think you and I are going to have enough in common to maintain any kind of friendship. Why don't we skip the nod and the smile? Why don't we skip the hello and the small talk? Why don't we just go about our business as though we don't know each other? I've got things I like to think about and work on in my head. When I have to stop and waste time with people I don't know, I lose track of those things. So keep your distance from me.

I've learned over the last few years how little time we get on this planet. I, my friends, and my family are all reaching a point where we really don't know on January 1st each year who won't be with us when the day rolls around again. There's so much I want to do. I want to learn blacksmithy. I want to read all the books on my growing reading list. I want to learn to brew alcohol and distill liquor. I want to watch my kids grow up to become (hopefully) happy, well-adjusted adults. I want to eat better and get back in shape. I want to spend time laughing and drinking singing bad karaoke with the people closest to me. I have so little time.

I need to learn rudeness. Instead of sneering and saying, "Do I know you? No? Go away," I tend to try and help the guy who needs directions or pretend to care about someone's fishing trip or find something nice to say about whatever sports team someone likes. Like I said a couple weeks ago, I'm a liar. I'll even pretend to like you.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

[spoiler alert]

Not really. Well, possible spoiler about the name of one character in one recent movie. Other than that, I won't spoil anything today. 


Fair warning though, if a single character name from the new Star Trek movie is too "spoilery" for you, save reading this post until after you see the movie, since you won't get through the post without finding out.

A Facebook exchange took place after Jessika and I saw Star Trek Into Darkness, and it got me thinking. Jessika mentioned on her wall that Benedict Cumberbatch had done a great job as Khan and sparked a discussion among her friends about how much they've liked him in other roles. The following day, though, she got a comment from a friend who seemed to consider the name "Khan" a spoiler.

Two things.

1) It isn't.

2) Ok, maybe it is, but the concept of spoilers is whiny and narcissistic, so I don't care.

Yeah, you know what he's saying...

First, I should be clear. I'm not actually directing this post at any specific person. Though a single discussion sparked my thought process, I've been bothered by pedantic spoiler freaks for years. Despite the stacks of DVDs on shelves in their living rooms, movies they've seen multiple times, certain people will tell you that a movie is ruined by knowing the ending. I don't buy the logic, nor do I believe there's a perfect first experience for every movie that's somehow superior to all the repeated viewings -- you know, the viewings where you start to pick up on all the things you didn't notice the first time you saw it.

So I'm going to try (and fail) to be reasonable. I understand there was some secrecy on and around the set about the identity of Cumberbatch's character. J.J. Abrams even made an appeal via some outlets for reviewers not to spoil any surprises, but based on the previews and the names of other characters that were not secret, any rational individual should have seen it coming. The same articles I read, speculating about Cumberbatch's character, also revealed that Alice Eve would play Carol Marcus. One of the officially released previews gave a glimpse of a hand pressed against a pane of glass in a Vulcan salute. Do we have to spell it all out in excruciating detail? Anyone who has any knowledge of Khan, any suspicion he might be in the movie, would have to be brain dead to be surprised at this point. Abrams may have used words to ask for secrecy, but his approach to casting and marketing the movie was the equivalent of shouting to the poker table that he had pocket aces and was going all in.

If the character had been a nobody, another Nero or Sybok or Ru'afo or Soran, nobody would have requested secrecy. The act of working in secrecy means there is something bigger happening than the usual. So now we're left with a villain with a generic name, characters and situations closely related to Khan, and a request for secrecy. Do the math and stop complaining. Any possible surprise was spoiled by the very revelation that there might be a surprise.

That's my opinion, though, worked out all inside my own little head, and I realize the spoiler freaks will disagree. 

Which brings me to point number two, and this is extremely important to the discussion -- I don't care. The more you whine about spoilers, the more I want to spoil it just to piss you off. I already went to the movie and enjoyed it. I don't give a crap if you see it or enjoy it or are even aware of its existence. That's your deal. Don't bring me into it.

Don't get me wrong. I don't make special efforts to spoil movies or TV shows for people. I'm not the kind of guy to walk out of the first ever screening of The Sixth Sense, look at the line of people getting ready to walk in and say, "Bruce Willis is dead all along!" I'm not the kind of guy to walk into the midnight release for Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince and say, "Dumbledore dies at the end!" I don't shout plot points to the world just to spite the people who haven't caught up to my reading or movie-watching.

But I'm also not going to waste my time parsing every possible definition of the word "spoiler", just to avoid offending somebody's delicate sensibilities. 

Maybe you want to enter every movie experience in a state of complete ignorance. Good for you. You should do what makes you happy, as long as you don't narcissistically stand back and tell me how I'm supposed to behave to help you make those things happen, because I'm unlikely to help you. I have no interest in pussyfooting around your idiosyncrasies. Your enjoyment is up to you, and it's your job to make it a reality. 

So I'm not going to propose any middle ground. There's no statute of limitations like a week or a month or six months. I won't go out of my way to discuss the entire plot of a movie, but I will say what comes to mind, regardless of your emotional baggage. If that bothers you, you either need to re-evaluate your relationship with me, or you need to seek professional help. Those are your decisions, though, not mine. If your involvement with me in social media makes your goals harder to reach, stop bitching like a child, and mute my feed or unfriend me or unfollow me. Unless you enjoy bitching like a child, in which case, I'll give you fair warning -- I've probably already muted your feed. I don't publicize my decisions to ignore people. I just ignore them. There are fun debates and conversations to be had on any number of topics, but listening to people who whine but who never take action gives me no pleasure.

Stop putting your happiness in my hands, because I promise you, the more you piss and moan, the more I want to take advantage of my power and make you sad.

So [spoiler alert] don't get too attached to any characters created by George R.R. Martin. Keep whining, though, and I'll start spilling names.

Thursday, June 06, 2013

Good Mike / Bad Mike

I'm a bit of a liar.

I sometimes recall a moment, at 7 or 8 years old, when I put a piece of tape on the wall, wondering if it would really be invisible. Some time later, one of my parents (I don't even remember which one anymore) came along and asked if I had put tape on the wall. I said no. 

I'm a parent now, so I can picture the scene in my head. Parent walks down a hallway and sees a piece of tape in the middle of the wall. Three feet away sits young son, looking in another direction, hiding a roll of tape.

"Did you put this tape on the wall?"


"Did you put this tape on the wall?"


"Are you sure you didn't put this tape on the wall? You're not in trouble. I just want to know."

Hmm. This seems like a trick. I thought I would be in trouble for putting the tape on the wall, so I lied about it. Now if I admit putting the tape on the wall, I have to admit I lied about it. Then I WILL be in trouble for lying. Better stick to the plan.

"I didn't do it."

"Ok, you wouldn't be in trouble for putting tape on the wall, but you're about to be in trouble for lying to me,

I knew it was a trick!

so I'm going to give you one last chance to tell me the truth."

As a parent, I'm still not sure what comes next. On the one hand, if young son finally comes clean and admits doing the deed, he's finally owned up and told the truth. But he's also admitting to lying about it when you first asked him. I'm thinking the least trouble would be admitting it in the first place, followed by owning up to the truth after lying about it, then finally, continuing to lie, even after being called out for lying. But how do you differentiate the punishments? You have to punish him for lying, but do you punish him less for admitting he lied? If you do, will he start lying about things, then admitting it at the last second, knowing it'll lead to a reduction in punishment?

All I had to say was, 

"Yes, the package says 'invisible', and I was wondering if it would really be invisible." 

Without trying to ennoble my actions too much, I was engaging in skepticism, in science, testing claims. I don't know how my parents might have reacted, but I know how I'd react now. I'd be glad my kid didn't believe everything people told him. Invisible tape is minor, but everyone has to come to terms with misleading advertising sooner or later, and the process has to start somewhere. Once you discover they've been pulling the wool over your eyes about invisible tape, you might be less likely to believe wearing a magnetic bracelet will improve your health or that the Easy Bake oven will be easy or allow you to bake.

I never learned not to lie -- I just learned to be ashamed of myself when I did. And that's not my parents' fault. They disciplined me when I lied. Common sense (I have more to say about the concept of common sense some other time) would dictate if you punish a child for lying, sooner or later, to avoid punishment, they'll stop lying. But I didn't. I just tried harder to tell better, more bulletproof lies. Ultimately, I just started hiding the things about me that I didn’t want to have to lie about.

I don’t know about other people, but I feel like I have two people inside my head. I have Good Mike. He’s positive, cares about justice and decency, loves his family, and wants to find the good in everything. Good Mike really exists, and he’s the guy who usually writes this blog. He’s the angel on my shoulder who shows up to remind me about the things I’ve learned from all my past experiences. 

But there’s also Bad Mike. He’s bitter, angry, cynical, pessimistic, and doesn’t listen to reason. He’s the misanthrope on my shoulder who tells people the world needs an asteroid to wipe out the human race. He makes fun of everyone’s music. He rages at drivers who don’t understand the function of turn signals. Bad Mike really exists, too, and I can't reconcile Good Mike with Bad Mike.

Because I know myself and my tendencies, I've pushed myself while writing my posts never to say anything untrue. But while my posts have been honest, they don't represent all of my conflicted and strange split personality. I've committed a sin of omission, so to speak, in bottling up Bad Mike. I set out to write every day, to try to connect with people, to learn from my audience and, though it feels a little narcissistic to say so, I was hoping to teach my audience something about themselves and about me. I don't write every day, though. I only write when Good Mike has something to say.

Bad Mike needs to breathe. As it turns out, I think my conflicting sides inform one another. The good little voice in my head only exists in counterpoint to the rude little voice in my head. 

So over the next few weeks, this blog is going to change in format. Bad Mike has some things to say, and this blog, accordingly will change names and formats. 

Bad Mike isn’t always nice, and he's frequently illogical and unreasonable, but I’ll try to make him entertaining. Bear with him, though. I didn't know Good Mike was funny until people told me, so I definitely don't know how interesting Bad Mike is going to be. I'm hoping that when Bad Mike and Good Mike speak to each other, I get closer to my own truths and my own feelings. Time will tell.

There's scotch tape on the wall, and I put it there, dammit.

Get ready for Good Mike / Bad Mike.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013


Jessika finds constant amusement in my need for numbers and specificity. Even for so simple a task as making boxed macaroni and cheese, I follow the directions. But directions aren't enough. Because of whatever strange things happen inside my head, I go a step further. See, the side of the box calls for 4 tablespoons of butter or margarine and a quarter cup of milk. When the kids eat mac and cheese, I always take a fresh stick of butter out of the fridge, so I can measure it more easily (I sometimes even look for the stick where the measurement lines aren't crooked), and I pour milk into a measuring cup. I set the butter and the milk on the counter, along with the torn-open package of cheese. Once the pasta finishes cooking, all I have to do is add my pre-measured milk, butter, and cheese packet. Then I stir. 

Jessika eyeballs her quantities. She puts some butter into the pot, puts some milk into the pot, and she never measures it. I can't live like that. I can't just put "some" of anything into a recipe. I will happily eat food that others cook, regardless of their methods, but I personally have difficulty with the concept of "some of this, some of that" cooking.

So the food I cook often has complicated mise en place, leading me to dirty large numbers of tiny dishes to make simple recipes. You know those cooking shows where professional chefs use countless ramekins to show the TV audience what all the ingredients look like before they go into a dish? I would manage my cooking life like that, if I could. I like to think, though, that the food I cook maintains consistency from one preparation to the next. If you've eaten my baked mac and cheese once, the dish will taste the same each time (unless I don't have a properly-shaped dish or try making it with gluten-free pasta). You know what you're getting. I find comfort in knowing what I'm getting.

So, I've probably front-loaded the punchline for this entire post here, but bearing in mind my need for numbers and my need for mise en place, when Jessika and I took the kids to the beach last week, we had friends and family telling us over and over again to use plenty of sunscreen. For most people, this is pretty good advice, but for the four of us, it was a recipe for fiery pain and copious amounts of aloe.

This is a picture of me from last week. No, look again. The sun temporarily burned away my smug arrogance.

Jessika and the kids had never gone to the beach. They don't know about the sunlight reflecting off the sand or the danger of an overcast and windy day. So they didn't have a frame of reference for how quickly they would burn or how much sunscreen to use. I have a frame of reference, but I have an entirely different set of challenges, which I managed to inflict upon my wife and kids. I don't have any idea how to quantify "plenty". By my reckoning, if I made $60,000 a year in my job, I'd have plenty of money. By somebody else's reckoning, $60,000 a year would barely pay the bills. "Plenty" is a matter of perspective. An NFL quarterback with 4 or 5 seconds to think about where to throw the ball has plenty of time. Give me the same amount of time to throw a football, and I'm still trying to figure out how to hold the stupid thing.

You know what would have helped me? A measurement. Something like, "Apply .25 ounces of sunscreen per 50 square inches of skin." Then the package could give me a helpful infographic detailing how to determine my overall skin area, based on my height and weight. A skin pigmentation graph wouldn't hurt either, just in case there are greater or lesser amounts of sunscreen recommended, depending on skin type. I also wouldn't mind having a couple of pictures of what my skin should look like after applying sunscreen. Should there be a slight sheen to my skin? Should it look normal? Should there still be white streaks from where not all the sunscreen absorbed into my skin? These are pressing questions from someone who dragged three innocents into the world of beach-induced, head-to-toe sunburn last week.

Finally, I need a timeline for reapplication. Based on time of day, cloud cover, temperature, latitude, whatever other relevant factors come into play -- how often should I reapply sunscreen? Again, a handy infographic would help me.

With enough time on my hands, I could even pre-portion sunscreen, creating my own preventative mise en place for the entire family, saying, "Ok, now it's time to put on sunscreen. This is exactly how much you need, in this little squeeze tube. We'll meet back here in 53 minutes and 21 seconds to reapply, unless the sun comes out. Then we'll meet in 41 minutes and 43 seconds."

Then again, Jessika has now completed her first trial run at the beach. And her macaroni and cheese comes out just as well as mine does. 

I probably don't need to pre-portion, after all.

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

You Don't Have to Turn on the Blue Light!

I'm afraid of the police. I shouldn't be afraid, since I stick pretty close to the speed limit these days. I keep my tags current and my various lights working. I always come to a complete stop at stop signs, and I don't run red lights. In fact, in 20 years of driving, I've only been involved in one accident where I was at fault, and in that one, I was traveling approximately 5 miles per hour and the car in front of me had nothing more than scratches on the bumper. So I'm a pretty safe driver, and my adherence to other laws these days is generally as precise as my adherence to traffic laws.

Driving down the road, though, noticing a police car behind me, I always worry about what might happen. Do my brake lights work? Do my running lights work? Is this guy going to worry about 1 mph over the speed limit? My hands start to shake a little, and I can't stop looking at my speedometer and my rearview mirror. A cop pulled me over once for having an expired tag. The sticker had come loose and fallen off, or someone had physically removed it from my plate. Either way, he pulled me over. I didn't get a ticket, but I had to sit on the side of the road with blue lights flashing behind me. The county police pulled me over twice in one night once for a dead headlight. The light must have just gone out, since I hadn't noticed it yet. Two different police officers in one county for one headlight! Seriously? There are no murders happening that need investigating?

Even if I know I'm obeying all the relevant traffic laws at that moment, I worry that the officer behind me might turn on the blue lights anyway. See, I've had a run-in with the police that never should have happened. I haven't always worried about the speed limit as much as I do now. In fact, I used to have a heavy foot. I got a ticket once from a motorcycle cop who'd set up a speed trap. I wasn't exactly flying, but I was over the speed limit, so I can't reasonably complain. I went to the courthouse to pay my ticket. Shortly after walking up to the payment window and presenting my copy of the ticket, a sherriff's deputy approached me. 

"Are you Robert Michael Coon?" 


He also confirmed my social security number. Yep, that's me. I started to feel a little nervous. 

"Did I park in the wrong parking lot or something?"

"No. We have a warrant for your arrest."

Now, I'd obviously sat on the side of the road before with flashing blue lights behind me. I had even testified in court against a guy driving a dump truck who had clipped the back of my car. I had no frame of reference for this. 

"So what do I need to do to clear this up?"

"Well, first I'm going to arrest you."

You know the stereotypical (probably archetypal) movie scene where one white guy walks into a bar full of black guys and says something offensive? You know, there's the record-scratching sound, and everyone just freezes in stunned silence for a minute? Yeah, I felt something like that.

He was nice enough to let me use my cell phone to call Jessika. I told her I was under arrest, and I didn't know why. I told her they were taking me to the county jail. I didn't know what else to say. The officer put me in handcuffs and leg cuffs and led me out to a police van. I got into it, along with some other people, and we drove to the county jail. They booked me, took my photo and fingerprints, all that jazz, and I sat in a holding cell for the next few hours while I waited for an officer from Oconee County, Georgia to come pick me up for transport to their county jail. I don't think I felt anything. I just sat listening to people tell each other their stories, why they were here. People really ask each other that question: "What're you in for?" I figured it was just a movie thing.

Behind the scenes, Jessika had jumped into action. When she called my friend David, he didn't believe her. I'm not the only Mike we know. She said "Mike's in jail," and he thought she was talking about a different friend named Mike. Nobody believed I could do anything to land me in jail. It had to be another Mike. She called my sister and my parents, and they found an attorney who managed to get me out that afternoon. I'm glad he was so capable, because I walked out of that jail at 5:00pm on a Friday. At any point, if anyone involved had moved just a little more slowly, I could have spent the weekend in jail. But everybody came through, and I walked out of the jail to see my parents and my sister and my wife waiting for me outside. I kissed Jessika, and at 32 years old, I walked to my father, hugged him, holding on for dear life, and I cried.

In 2001, while living in Athens, GA, Jessika and I had our radios stolen from our cars. The thief also took my backpack with my college textbooks and notebooks. I can only assume that something in that backpack had my name on it, because a few years later, a man who called himself Robert Coon committed felony credit card fraud in Oconee County, Georgia, near Athens and the University of Georgia. I lived in Athens while I attended UGA, so when an enterprising deputy looked up rental records in Oconee County, he found my name and my social security number. Without making any attempt to contact me or verify my identity, he had a warrant sworn out for my arrest. Fortunately, by the time the crime took place, I lived an hour away and worked for Barnes and Noble. I also bear no physical resemblance to the person who committed the crime, so my attorney was able to get the case dismissed before I was formally arraigned.

So now I can't see a cop without a moment of terror. Every single time I see a police car on the road, I think about the power that they have to change a person's life. I didn't commit the crime in question, but because a sworn officer of the law said that I did, I spent a day in jail. What if I had still lived in Athens when the crime occurred? What if the perpetrator had more closely matched my physical description? What if the defrauded individual in the intervening years between the crime and my arrest had forgotten enough of his features that, looking at me, she had become convinced I was the person who stole her money? I could have gone to real prison, not just a county jail, simply because a deputy said I did something, and I couldn't prove otherwise. We hear the phrase "innocent until proven guilty", but at no point in the process of getting handcuffed, taken to jail, and left in a holding cell for a warrant that never should have been issued did I EVER feel innocent.

Despite our illusions to the contrary, our lives are not always under our control, at least not in the sense we can actively predict. Sure, if we had chosen to live in another apartment way back in 2001, we wouldn't have had our radios stolen, and I would not have been impersonated by a criminal. But what else might have happened instead? We can't see around every corner, predict every outcome.

I just keep an eye out behind me.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Bloody Legs and Broken Printers

As the parent of an 8th grader, I'm beginning to learn about the occasionally incurable sullenness of teenagers, about the difficulty of finding out anything useful about a teenager's life, and about the pain of watching a child seemingly procrastinate his future away.

I get it. The sullenness comes with the age, not from some grudge he bears against us. I expect, like most of us, he'll grow out of it sooner or later. I think the need for privacy has something to do with a desire to have control over his own life, even if he only controls our access to information. And his procrastination probably won't end the world. Most people procrastinate at some point in their lives, and the world still has plenty of doctors and engineers.

Don't get me wrong, though. Procrastination can cause bodily injury.

In my freshman year of college, I had two roommates in an apartment off campus. During that year I got sick -- not just a sniffle, but full on body-shivering, fevered-delerium, can't-get-out-of-bed sick. I had a roommate to help out, and though he'd never publicly admit it, he's actually a nice guy. He went to the store and got supplies for me, and though he didn't minister to me in the way a nurse or a mom would, he really helped me make it through. And seriously, as a couple of teenagers, it would have been more than a little awkward for him to stand over me taking my temperature or rubbing Vick's Vapo-Rub on my chest. Though the realities of dealing with other people's hygiene habits, sleep patterns, and music volumes can rankle, having other people living with you can provide a safety net you don't get when you live alone. 

I found this out during my sophomore year, when I waited until around 1am one night to finish and print a paper due at 8am the following morning. I had decided, after having a year with two roommates my age, to try living alone. Aside from the inconvenience of moving, nobody was really mad about it. I'm still close with one of them, and I'm pretty cordial Facebook friends with the other (despite the probably unclosable political gap between us). I was young and still figuring things out for myself, so I wanted to try something new. I found myself sitting alone in my apartment, at my computer, a mere seven hours before I would hand in my paper. I clicked "Print" and found out, to my horror, that my printer had stopped working. I don't know what happened. The printer quit working, and the campus computer lab had already closed.

Has ANYBODY ever had a printer you could trust?

I called my old roommate, David. Problem solved. I could print the paper at his apartment. So I saved it to a floppy disk, put on a coat, and walked out to the car. Though the date escapes me now, I assume this must have been early to mid-December, since the temperature was below freezing, and the paper was an end-of-term paper. Of course, because this is how these situations work, the car wouldn't crank. Wouldn't even turn over, in fact. I walked back into the apartment, got my bicycle, wheeled it down to the street, and started pedaling. David didn't own a car, so I still helped him out with transportation, and he also did a lot of walking and riding city buses, so he couldn't pick me up. I had about a mile of uphill bicycle travel in front of me.

I'm not a strong bicycler, and as I started up a hill, I needed to downshift to have any hope of making it to the top. My bike hesitated and threw its chain (probably because the bicycle's wheels weren't moving). I fell off the bike and into the middle of the roadway. Thankfully, at 1:30 am, the road was quiet. I fell on top of the bike, and the handlebars bent under my weight. Even through my jeans, I skinned my leg badly, to the point where I could feel a small trickle of blood. Just to recap, I'm now standing in the middle of the road, blood trickling down my leg, holding a ruined bike in sub-freezing temperatures, now with half a mile to walk to get to a place where I can print a paper. Of course, I'll then have to walk home, since David doesn't have a car in which to drive me home.

By the time I reached David's apartment, I was a shivering, stressed-out mess, but I got the paper printed. I think he gave me a hot drink. I walked home. To my credit, I never even considered asking for an extension on the paper. I HAD to get the paper printed and turned in on time. I would not have even TRIED to make excuses to the professor about my tough night. Even as a sullen teenager, I knew I'd had plenty of opportunities before 1:00am to finish and print my paper, which would have avoided all of my trouble. Sure, I would still have needed to deal with the printer and the car, but not in the middle of the night, bleeding into my jeans.

So when I see my son putting off assignments until the night they're due, I'm not just worried about what will happen if I have to drive to Walmart at midnight to replace a printer. I'm worried about the habits he's building, because I don't want to think about him walking a freezing mile through a rough part of town in the middle of the night, dragging a useless bicycle behind him. But if you asked my parents, I'm sure they'd tell you they wanted the same for me. I still haven't completely learned the procrastination lesson, but because of events like this one or my recent issue with a flash drive, I've learned more about the role of planning and anticipation in our lives. We can't prevent the really big, bad stuff from happening someday, but we can avoid the small stuff.  

I don't expect him to learn the lesson any better than I did until he has to endure his own defeats. I think I might learn a little from him, though.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

You Forgot Your Flash Drive

I love The Big Bang Theory. Despite the show's cavalier treatment of geek culture, sometimes getting crucial details wrong and showing the writers of the show are probably more chic than geek, the characters have enough similarity to myself and to the geeks I've known in my life that I can forgive their mistakes (I'm not going to dig into their inaccuracies here, but I'll note -- there are no playable races in World of Warcraft with prehensile tails). I'm thrilled that the top-rated sitcom in America can reference comic books, fan conventions, video games, and string theory without even a whiff of mainstream disdain and still remain the top-rated sitcom in America. Around my house we don't even name the show anymore. On Thursday night, we get my daughter in bed and sit down to watch The Boys. Yes, the girls on the show have taken a larger and larger role over the years, but for us, it's still The Boys.

"There is no more Sheldon! I am the sword master!"

One of my favorite episodes has the boys on a trip to Northern California to attend a physics conference where real-world physicist George Smoot will present a paper. Sheldon has a research paper of his own on a flash drive to give to Dr. Smoot. He expects the professor will love it "because it's brilliant." To his dismay, in the middle of their train ride through California, he discovers he left his flash drive at home, and to his mind, the rhythmic sound of the train's wheels mock him, chanting "you-forgot-your-flash-drive, you-forgot-your-flash-drive, you-forgot-your-flash-drive."

I have read voraciously throughout most of my life, and I studied fiction in college, and in fiction, I believe we find mirrors for ourselves. We find new ways of describing our lives and coming to terms with our successes and failures. By experiencing part of another person's life, we gain perspective on our own. So instead of putting up a new blog post last week, I have spent the past few days repeating to myself -- 

you-forgot-your-flash-drive, you-forgot-your-flash-drive, you-forgot-your-flash-drive

Yeah, I lost my post.

You see, I find opportunities to write at different times during the day. Sometimes, after getting out of the shower and before waking up my daughter for the school day, I will find a few minutes to get some thoughts into digital form. Throughout the day at work I find myself jotting down notes on a legal pad I keep at my desk, and instead of leaving the building or taking a walk on my 15-minute breaks, I will often stay at my desk and get those thoughts into a text file on my work computer's Notepad program. I save those thoughts to a usb flash drive. I do most of my composing in Notepad, actually, because I can edit a plain text file on practically any computer I happen to be near. So I've taken to keeping all of my posts on my flash drive, and when they're ready to publish, I copy/paste them onto Blogger, do a quick final edit to make sure the formatting looks right, add whatever pictures I plan on using, and click "Publish".

So last week, after pecking at it off and on for a couple of weeks, I felt ready to publish. I had done some editing during breaks at work and had the entire post saved to my flash drive. I came home and unloaded my pockets. Then I got sick. Unlike my friend Terese, I didn't become Wolverine, but I was in bad shape. I spent the weekend in a Day/Nyquil-induced haze, and by Monday I had forgotten where I put my flash drive. I can't find it. I've looked in all the places such things end up, even checking the laundry room, on the off chance I forgot to take it out of my pocket (it's happened before -- the thing is pretty durable, as it turns out). I don't think I can recreate it, either. I got it out of my head looking the way I wanted to, and I'm not sure I can get it back in there and back out again. So barring a miracle, my post is gone. Sheldon keeps chanting in my head, over and over and over again.

Jessika occasionally points out my concern, bordering on paranoia, for my way of doing things. I wouldn't say that I suffer from OCD, though. I have had experiences during my life that I would not like to repeat. Ever have a credit or debit card declined in a grocery store with a cart full of groceries? Such an experience might make you more likely to check your bank balance before heading out to the store, or check it on your phone while you're shopping. Either way, you'll verify that you have funds before piling a bunch of stuff on the belt. I've written before about pushing a car up an icy hill because I couldn't be bothered to keep track of weather. 

So I create habits for myself that help me avoid situations I don't want to repeat. Some might call them rituals. I don't care. Call it paranoia. Call it what you want, as long as I don't repeat past mistakes. At work I have a complicated highlighter usage system for keeping track of orders that I take. I made mistakes very early on, and I don't want to repeat them, so my highlighters have helped me create habits that help me avoid mistakes. In public places, I have a habit every few minutes of touching my back right pants pocket. I keep my wallet there. One of these days, if I ever lose my wallet (which is hard to do when you're constantly verifying its presence), I'll have a pretty good idea of the time frame when it went missing.

I have a feeling that my new flash drive, when I buy it, will have a designated location at work, and a designated location at home. I have a feeling I'll become borderline obsessive about checking those locations to verify the flash drive hasn't disappeared. I don't want to lose another post. 

Call me paranoid. 

But my paranoia has a purpose.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

I Am NOT a Sith Lord

A number of years ago, frustrated by my schedule and pay scale as a retail manager, convinced that my natural intelligence should allow me to do nearly any job that I had a mind to do, and motivated by no small amount of shame that one of the "smart" kids from high school dropped out of college and worked as a retail manager, I did something bad. With the help of a friend, I fabricated a job history, taught myself just enough Java to sound like a moron to people who actually know Java, and began applying for positions as a programmer. My friend had successfully pursued the same kind of strategy a few years before and was confident I could do it. He told me repeatedly that HR managers really don't know anything about the jobs they fill, and that confidence and even a degree of arrogance would enable me to walk into a mid-level job. After that, my small amount of knowledge, combined with easily-Googled boilerplate code and a decent mentor reachable on instant messenger would have me up to speed within months. I went for it.

Even then, I knew that I was doing something wrong, and I suck at doing bad things.

I can't even do bad things in a video game without feeling horrible about it. In Fallout 3, when you find the town of Megaton, the one with the unexploded nuclear bomb in the middle of it, you have a choice. You can embark upon a quest chain that leads to defusing the bomb, securing the town against that threat. Or you can complete the quest chain from a rich landowner living in a tower near the town. He thinks the town is an eyesore and wants it destroyed. Through his quest chain you can detonate the bomb and destroy Megaton. It's just a game, and the innocent people in the town don't exist. So in the interest of completing the game in every way possible, I destroyed the town on my second playthrough of the game. I felt bad for three days, then deleted the save file. I simply couldn't deal with the knowledge that I had killed non-existent innocents for no reason other than receiving a virtual trophy. There are Xbox Achievements in that game that I will never get.

I felt a great disturbance in the force, as if millions of voices had suddenly cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced.

In Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, the player can choose to play a good or an evil character, a Jedi Master or a Sith Lord. The game keeps track of what dialogue choices a player makes, assigning light side or dark side points for speaking politely or rudely. The player's actions lead to the accumulation of dark and light side points, as well. In one event, some thieves are shaking down a man for money. The player gets light side points for saving the man from the thieves and even more light side points for refusing his offer of a reward afterwards. Or you can kill all of them and take everybody's money. Or you can save him from the thieves and then bully him into giving you the money. In the game, I always speak respectfully, try to stay on everyone's good side, and save as many people as I can. There are other games where the player makes good vs. evil choices, but no matter how hard I try, I'm not happy being the bad guy in a game.

I think it's relevant here to bring up the choice between Jedi Master and Sith Lord in Knights of the Old Republic. According to the various additional materials available on the Star Wars Universe, the Sith don't necessarily see themselves as evil. I'll admit that some, like Darth Maul, seem like mindless killing machines (and are less interesting for it), but others see themselves as realists. The truly strong do not need such concepts as morality or right and wrong. They pursue their own self interest and think that others should do the same. The strong will prevail, and the weak will fall. My software interview was my attempt to become the Sith Lord of my own life. I should pursue whatever opportunities arose, through whatever means necessary.

After interviewing with an oblivious HR manager (my friend was right about their grasp of technology), I had a second interview with a company. I remember meeting my potential boss and making some polite small talk. It was a panel interview and started out well. What kind of work have you done? I had a great answer for that one. Every faked job history had a detailed backstory. Then I started getting the real questions, specific questions that only a true professional would be able to answer. What were the questions? I don't know. I don't think I understood the questions then, let alone now. I was in over my head, crashing and burning. I could see the interviewers glancing at one another. I was caught. Oddly, they never called my bluff. At some point, I begged off with an excuse about getting nervous in job interviews and being unused to not having my reference materials nearby. I even said that I think memorizing details of procedures was unnecessary with the sheer volume of reference at our fingertips online. Why store information both in my head and online? When you're bombing an interview, why not start spewing arrogant generalizations, too? They thanked me for coming in, and I thanked them for their time. We all knew what had just happened.

Just like on my Xbox, there are some real life achievements I will never get. I'm okay with that.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Wanna Go To the Beach?

Ready for a surprise? I don't like the beach.

In late Summer of 1994, my family took a trip to Jekyll Island, GA. I had taken vacations to the beach before, but this time I ended up at a church event for teenagers. Now, I was a squeamish kid. I didn't like swimming in lakes, because I didn't like my bare feet on the squishy, muddy bottom or getting tangled in seaweed, or whatever you call the stuff that grows out of a lakebed. Also, snapping turtles. And dirty water. And fish poop. If you're swimming near a dock, there are strange plants or fungi that grow on the sides of docks and make everything slippery and gross, too. Despite Hollywood's best efforts, always showing attractive naked people swimming near waterfalls, there's really nothing attractive to me about swimming in a lake. Take away the snapping turtles, and add sharks, stingrays, jellyfish, and getting sucked out to sea by undertow, and you can guess at my feelings about swimming in the ocean.

What about staying out of the water, you know, enjoying the sun and sand? I've gone to various beaches on the Atlantic coast and the Gulf coast, maybe a dozen separate trips over the course of my life. I always seem to end up on the beaches with jellyfish washing up all over the shore, or cars driving on the beach (looking at you, Daytona), or sand that consists primarily of broken shells that cut into your feet. On really hot days, walking on the beach is like walking on hot asphalt. Then there's the never ending parade of people. I mean, I probably like my friends and family even more than the average person does, but I like the general public even less than the average person. I could list the things that I don't like about the public, except that I'd just come off as a crotchety old man, so I'll just fall back on my social anxiety, my complete discomfort at being around large numbers of people I don't know and with whom I probably have nothing in common. Being at the beach isn't like being at Dragoncon. At Con, I can tell by a costume whether or not I have something in common with a person, and standing in line for a panel next to someone generally leads to easy conversations. I can't start a conversation so easily on the beach. "Gee, that's a nice bikini line you have there. Do you wax or do you shave?"

In this case, though, I was a teenaged boy, getting a chance to spend time around teenaged girls in bathing suits. Even if I could never work up the nerve to speak to any of them, why miss the chance to look at them?

Wow, that's not creepy at all.

And one thing leads to another, you know. I started horsing around in the water with some friends. Before I could blink, I was underwater, upside down, rolling along the sand. I could hear the waves around me as water rushed into my mouth and my nose, and I was blind. I don't know what happened. I don't know if I was ever in any real danger, or if I was just carrying on like a Mel Brooks Merry Man. Whatever the case, I found my feet and managed to get out of the water, choking and spluttering and making a fool of myself.

I spent the next couple of days swimming in the hotel pool. At least I can't get wrapped up in seaweed or sucked out to sea. Sure, kids pee in pools, but there's enough chlorine that nothing can live in those places. Well, that's what I thought then, anyway. Since having kids I've learned all about the funky bacteria and viruses that live in public pools. But nasty bugs haven't kept me out of pools for the last decade and a half. I've mostly stayed out of public pools because of my Jekyll Island trip.

Just a couple of days after nearly drowning on the beach, I found myself at the hotel pool diving for quarters with some friends. If you've never dived for quarters before, it goes something like this. Throw change in a pool, and dive to the bottom to pick it up. This passes for entertainment in a swimming pool. One of my quarters landed right down at the bottom of the deep end, 15 feet down, and I jumped right in. As I dove deeper, the pressure of all that water on top of me became stronger and stronger, and I didn't know that I should do something to equalize the pressure in my ears, and as I put my fingers on the quarter, I felt a POP! and a whoosh in my left ear, then pain, horrible pain. After a drive into Brunswick, GA to find a hospital and hours spent in an emergency room, I found out that I had ruptured an ear drum.

I'm about to sound like a paranoid agoraphobe for a minute, but bear with me. Other than a family trip to Daytona a couple of years after that, where I stayed in hotel room and ventured out for meals and for a day trip to Disneyworld, I haven't returned to the beach since then. I've also stayed away from swimming pools. I took the kids to the neighborhood pool a few times, but I avoid putting my head underwater. I no longer have any interest. Don't give my experiences too much credit, though, for keeping me away from the ocean. Mostly I haven't gone back because I don't take very many vacations anymore, not like we did when I was a teenager. We had religious reasons for taking trips every year for big church conventions, and often those conventions were in cities like Pensacola, Daytona, Jekyll Island, or Virginia Beach. I don't do those things anymore. I used the Bill Hicks defense for years. He once remarked that the beach "is where dirt meets water. End of fascination." Not going to the beach became a way to differentiate myself from the drooling masses. See? I'm too intelligent and awesome. I would never lower myself enough to go to a beach.

I do like a couple of things about beaches. I love sunrises and sunsets on the beach, especially sunset, because if the beach is quiet and deserted enough, if the lights of the closest city lie far enough away, I can watch the sky darken ever so slowly and watch the stars fade into view. I've written before about my love of the stars, and only in the mountains do I find more peace and joy looking at the stars than I do at the beach. Sitting quietly on the beach, listening to the waves crashing, watching the stars begin to twinkle, I feel tiny up against the vast cosmos, and I come closer to the spiritual than I ever have (or probably ever will) in a building made by humans.

Jessika has never been to the beach, nor have my children, and we're starting to talk about taking a vacation this year, getting away for a few days and staying in a hotel, maybe at the beach. In fact, I'm the one who suggested the beach, even though Jessika responded by protesting that I hate the beach. I don't think I do. I think I had a bad week and some easy excuses to stay away. I think I'd like it, especially with Jess and the kids along.

But I'm still grossed out by jellyfish.

Wednesday, January 02, 2013

Present Perfect

We've arrived at resolution season again!

Historically, I'm a goal setter. I'm also a goal breaker. I think that most of us set unrealistic goals during childhood. I'm going to be a professional baseball player or an astronaut or a rock star. Supposedly, though, we eventually learn to set realistic goals and make realistic plans for reaching those goals. So we decide to become an accountant and go to business school for an accounting degree. Or we decide to become an engineer and go to school for an engineering degree. We might decide to learn a trade, so we work up from apprentice to journeyman to (hopefully) master in our chosen trade. Point is, by 36 years old, I'm supposed to be able to look into the future, see something that I want to do or own or be, make a plan for getting there, and then execute that plan.

I have learned over the years that I never truly understand a goal until I reach it. To me, long-term goals are a bit like a romantic comedy. In a romantic comedy, usually the male protagonist has to work to convince some girl that he's the one. When we make a long-term goal, we're doing a similar thing. We go through all kinds of awful things to achieve the goal of buying that Mercedes or that huge house in the suburbs. Romantic comedies always end too soon, though. What happens after the wedding? There's a reality to living with one person day in and day out, that you're not ready for until you do it. Then you find out if you can keep doing it. Livable or not, though, there's a world of difference between the beautiful white dress and the socks on the floor. That Mercedes is eventually going to need maintenance, repairs, body work, and replacement. When the goal is to achieve something, we forget about what might happen after we reach the goal.

My goal this year is to stop setting goals.

Kind of.

Don't misunderstand me (or DO misunderstand me -- it's up to you). I don't mean that I'm no longer planning for the future or that I'm actively trying to sabotage myself. I actually see this as a step toward reaching the kinds of things that I used to set goals for. We set goals because we want to be happy, but reaching a goal only provides temporary happiness, until it's time to set and reach a new goal. 

Here's the thing. I can set a goal to be 175 pounds by this time next year. But I don't want to reach 175 pounds so much as I want to have reached that target weight. I don't want to get rich; I want to have gotten rich. I don't want to exercise every day; I want to have exercised every day. In other words, I'm less interested in the future tense and more interested in present perfect tense. I don't think I'm alone in this, either, otherwise I wouldn't spend my time writing about it. I think that I'm not the only person who would rather have the results of hard work than the actual hard work. Even people, like myself, who really do value hard work, if given the choice between doing something they don't really want to do or just having the benefits of having done that thing, would probably take the benefits (up, up, down, down, left, right, left, right, B,A, start -- am I right?). I may value hard work, but I'd rather kick back and have a beer with friends, all things considered.

So at the risk of being far too clever, I've realized that my desire for a present perfect life hampers my chances of creating a perfect present. By placing emphasis upon some future accomplishment, all of the present moments in between here and there become the means to an end. We've heard people talk like this before. 

"The next two years are going to be nearly unbearable, but it'll be worth it in the end."

Will it?

So at the beginning of a new year, instead of taking stock of what I want or where I want to be -- the implicit assumption in both of those cases is that I don't have what I want or I haven't reached where I want to be -- I'm going to pay attention to what I love about what I already have and where I already am. I am already living in a present perfect reality. I have already reached somewhere. I have a wonderful wife, great kids, fantastic family and friends, and a range of interests that never leave me bored. Instead of focusing on where I might go from here, I'm going to focus, every day, on where I am. Instead of looking toward some halcyon future, where my work has paid off, and I've become a successful whatever-it-is-that-I-can-be, I'm going to focus on the present. As new opportunities arise, do I take them? Sure. New positions come up all the time at my company, and if a good one pops up, I need to think about where that takes me. Understanding that the future is coming and planning for some of the possibilities it brings is not the same as placing more importance upon a future goal than on present realities. Additionally, there are certain practical realities that I won't ignore -- how much should we spend on groceries this week, what's the price of gas doing to our budget, how close are we to our yearly family medical deductible, those kinds of things.

I'm headed in a direction, and I'd love to think that it's a good one, but I won't find out until I take the ride. And I'm going to enjoy it.


Thursday, December 20, 2012

Getting Serious

So far, I have maintained a generally humorous and light presence on this blog. I do think, though, that my blog should reflect me, should reflect how I look at and interact with the world. I mostly interact with my world through sarcasm, silly jokes, and, while cooking, silly dances. Life is too short to spend the whole time moping about, and I have to agree with Dave Matthews when he says that he "can't believe that we would lie in our graves, wondering if we had spent our living days well".

But I do get serious from time to time, and I think my blog should reflect that. As much as I hope to make you laugh at me or at the parts of yourself that you see in my little stories, I also hope to influence you in some small way when I do become serious. I hope that I can push you occasionally to think about things from a perspective that you may not have considered.

With that goal mind, I need to say something about Sandy Hook Elementary School. I'm not the first to blog about it, and I won't be the last, but I do hope to say something that doesn't consist of trite or opportunistic assertions about the role of religion in schools, violent media in children's lives, or gun control. My friend Terese wrote beautifully about her reaction as a parent. She echoed my feelings, and judging by the comments she's received, I'm not alone in my agreement with her. 

We've had a remarkable outpouring of support for the victims' families. We have seen disgust, horror, and revulsion over the actions of the shooter. These responses have been nearly universal. I understand that in a nation of over 300 million people, there will be fringe groups like Westboro Baptist who either do not feel the horror that most feel, or who, despite the horror, choose to use the massacre to further their own agendas. There are also those who are considering enacting the same kind of mass killings that took place last week. We don't like to think about those people, but we know that this can happen again. In fact, our knowledge that this can happen again drives the fear that Terese wrote about in her blog and the determination she expressed not to allow that fear to rule her.

Our reaction to groups like Westboro Baptist or to the idea that some individual out there may already have plans to perpetrate their own crimes reaches nearly universal agreement, as well. At a deep and instinctive level, we recognize the fundamental evil not only of a person who could commit such a crime, but also of the people who would take advantage of that crime to make cheap political or religious points. Granted, the shooting will become another example that must come into our national discussions about the availability of guns to people of compromised mental states, about the state of mental health in the country, about the supposed role of violent media in desensitizing children to violence, about the role of religion in schools. These points have already come up in response to the tragedy, and I have my own strong opinions on all of them, but the tragedy should not serve as a tool to use in making broad and unsupported assertions.

I've paid special attention to the public reaction to the shooting because I want to make clear that the public reaction to it has been as nearly universal as is possible in a country with such a large and diverse population. Aside from the already mentioned fringe groups or individuals, nobody stopped last Friday and said, "Wait, I need to think about this. My political and religious background is not clear on the subject of school shootings." We didn't NEED to take time or debate anything. Whether because of our natures or because of our upbringing (encompassing a wide range of religious, political, and educational traditions), or in my opinion, through a combination of our nature and our upbringing, we automatically and instinctively understand the WRONGNESS of what happened last week in Newtown. Whether we believe that religion belongs in schools or not, whether we believe that violent media has an impact on our likeliness to commit violent crimes or not, whether we think that guns should be easier to get or harder to get, we all stand unified in our shock and outrage.

This public reaction gives me hope. 

Despite our disagreements over specifics and over the politics of our choices, our myriad traditions have taught the VAST MAJORITY of us the difference between right and wrong. I find comfort in this knowledge. It means that morally and educationally, we are doing something right. Society is not broken. Some individuals in our society are broken. But this is frightening to some, because it might mean that no single group has an absolute monopoly on truth or goodness, and some groups and public figures are now twisting facts, twisting statistics, and twisting decency to convince the public that their group needs to dictate behavior for all of us. Attacking my lifestyle or beliefs, telling me that my lack of active religious faith makes me in some way complicit in a crime like this is wrong. I've seen versions of this idea pushed by some very public figures over the last few days, and this is not the way forward.

To get through this event, others like it, and others to come, to find a way to prevent tragedies like this in the future, we have to recognize our fundamental unity, not our fundamental differences. I don't know what that means on a large scale. I don't know how that will work, but I DO know that as an individual, I can choose to avoid hostility toward those who disagree with my positions, and I can ask others to do the same. 

We're more alike than we sometimes realize.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

My Dad's Like That Too

A few weeks ago, shortly before I left work for the day, Jessika sent me a text. She knows that I pass a grocery store on the way home, so occasionally she'll ask me to stop and pick up a few things. I'm happy to do it.

This particular time, I walked in, grabbed a cart and started working on the list. Before long, I'd picked up what we needed and hopped into the express line. No worries, I had fewer than twelve items. The cashier was a teenaged girl, maybe seventeen or eighteen years old. You have to understand, once I passed thirty, I lost the ability to distinguish ages below about twenty-two or twenty-three, so my estimate could be off by a few years in either direction. She was friendly. She rang out my purchase, and I left. 

Of course, halfway to the car, I realized that I had forgotten to buy toilet paper. There are two important points here:

1) I was on my way home from a full day at work. In other words, once I get home, I don't plan on leaving again. I'll restate this for friends who, in the past, may or may not have been offended that I've turned them down for weeknight activities. Without significant notice (say, at least a few days), I don't do anything outside the house after I get home from work. Even with notice, I'm likely to turn you down. Unless you have tickets to a Dave Matthews Band show, or there's a midnight showing for something hobbity, I'm not interested in late night activities when all I can think about is the alarm that will go off in just a few hours. Nothing against you. I'm just done.

2) Nobody wants to live in a house with no toilet paper.

Fortunately, I remembered the toilet paper before I had gotten into the car and driven home, so I put the groceries in the trunk and walked back into the store, seeking toilet paper.

As luck would have it, the only checkout lane without a long line was the line I had just used. I stepped up to the register, put the toilet paper on the belt, and the girl said, "Hey, weren't you just in here?" I explained, that, yes, I had just gone through her line a few minutes before, but I forgot one of my items. I also briefly mentioned that I was on my way home from work, and I was glad that I had remembered the toilet paper before I drove home, because once I get home from work, I don't like leaving the house again.

She said, "Yeah, my dad's just like that."

I want to clarify something here. I did not have any desire or need for this girl to see me as a sexual or romantic option. If she's seventeen or eighteen years old, she's young enough to be my daughter. But I had never, up to that point, interacted with an adult (or near adult) who was really young enough to be my child. Sure, considering the age at which a male is sexually mature enough to reproduce, I could technically have a child in his or her 20's at this point, but I'm talking about an adult who I could conceivably have helped to create AFTER I became an adult. So this story is really more about the slow (but shockingly fast) march of time and not at all about how it's gotten harder over the years to score with eighteen-year-olds.

The tale doesn't really end here, though. Just this week, as I was telling my grocery story to someone at work, a coworker from a different department happened to be listening in. Now, as a thirty-six-year-old, I comprehend that I am in my mid-thirties. On some level, I realize that I'm approaching forty, and this is supposed to be a big deal. So as I tell the story about how this girl at the store thought that I was old enough to be her father, a coworker from another department leaned in. I suppose I could also be this coworker's father, but I'd have to have been a high-school dad for her to be my daughter. 

She says, "No way, man! You'd have to be pushing FORTY to be that girl's dad!"

On the one hand, my coworker told me that she thought I was probably in my late twenties to early thirties, so I'm apparently younger looking to some people than my actual age would suggest. On the other hand, I'm apparently one or two years away from forty (which is, by her tone of shock, only a couple of years away from adult diapers and a dirt nap).

Before you get too worried about my self image or my feelings about my slowly advancing age, I need to reiterate that I feel good. I don't feel old (and I shouldn't, since I'm not old), and I don't have any desire to return to my teens or twenties. I'm going to say that again, for good measure. I don't have ANY desire to return to my teens or twenties. I'm simply interested in how it felt to get absolute confirmation that I've apparently moved into a new phase of my life, a phase where the twenty-somethings with whom I've long identified myself start to see me as "older".

I saw a post on Facebook by a friend who has a few years on me. By the way, "few years" is not code for pushing sixty. He's got a few years on me. He recently started a new job and commented on his first Christmas party at the new job. He noticed that he spent his time with the senior management and executives instead of the twenty-somethings downstairs who invariably end up drunk and spreading all kinds of workplace gossip. Rightly, he enjoyed his new position. We all like to have a few drinks, and getting a little soused from time to time doesn't mean you're immature or that you have a drinking problem. But it's nice to feel like you're making some progress.

So, yes, my beard has some grey. My temples are starting to pick up a few grey hairs, too. But I feel like I'm exactly where I need to be. I graduated from college a couple years back. They like me at work. There are opportunities in front of me. I've got great kids and a wonderful wife who listens patiently to all my stories, even the ones she's heard before. It's pretty good to be me right now.

And in fifteen years or so, I'll get to be mistaken for someone's grandfather.