Not Just No, but Hell No

No. Nope. Absolutely not. I’m not doing it. Piss off.

So I did a terrible thing, and I may as well get the confession out of the way. I printed out a quote – from a business author, no less – and handed it out to my team at work. Seriously, this is the lowest ebb of cringe-worthy corporate bossitude, and I did it. I did it, I liked it, and God help me, I’ll probably do it again.

Behold, I am become Michael Scott.

Look, let me take a step back. I can’t justify this thing I’ve done, but I can at least provide a little context. The quote was from Jim Collins, whose made more money than I’ll ever see in one place in my life by writing business and management tomes like the massively popular Good to Great, all of which I’ve actually managed to avoid reading. I come here neither to praise nor bury the guy – I’m only peripherally familiar with his published work and he’s more successful than I’ll ever be, so as easy as it would be to take some rote swipes at the man, it would be a cheap move with no basis other than him being popular. But, I have read a few of his interviews and think pieces over the years, and they’re not empty of good ideas, one of which I’ve actually adopted as a kind of professional mantra. The quote: “You need a laser-like focus on doing first things first. And that means having a ferocious understanding of what you are not going to do.”

See, I manage product strategy and design for a software company, which means that I have one of the most fundamentally misunderstood jobs out there. In essence, people believe that my team and I sit around all day dreaming up cool shit, which we then get to design and implement. This idea is widely held, to the point that an unusual number of people want to come work for me, a phenomenon that I can’t in any way ascribe to my personality. It’s also totally wrong. In fact, it’s very nearly the opposite. My actual job, or at least ninety percent of it, is trying to get people to stop dreaming up cool shit and, if they do so anyway, to at least, please, for God’s sake, not waste time and resources trying to build it.

Here’s a basic fact of business: the world needs cool shit like I need a hole in my head. Designing good products is absolutely, emphatically not about designing cool shit. It’s not about making things that are exciting. It is one hundred percent not about vision. You can’t swing a dead cat in any tech district in America without hitting a broke visionary, usually working for someone else and wryly lamenting the failure of their great idea (it was never wrong, by the way, just early, which is the same thing as wrong but sounds better). Cool shit, in a word, is not how good shit works.

What you have to do in real life, in real business, is solve actual problems, and solving actual problems is a drab, unsexy trade. This is because real business problems, in the main, are drab, unsexy things. Solving them, besides being drab and unsexy, tends to be difficult and expensive. If they haven’t been solved already, it’s generally because there’s at least one meaningful and substantive barrier to doing so, which has defeated smart people before. To succeed, you’ll need to assemble a rare combination of brains and balls, backed by more money than you’d think it possible to need, and an ungodly willingness to endure labor and suffering. And all of this, it’s important to remember, will usually be done in the service of something wildly unglamorous.

All of which is okay, as long as you know what you’re getting into. But it means that the urge to innovate for innovation’s sake must always be resisted. And this is blasphemy in the technology world, where innovation, vaguely defined, is seen as a sort of virtue unto itself, awkwardly stitched into an endless procession of faux-moral narratives about “transformative change” and whatever the fuck ever. But much of this is simply gesture, songs of self-praise raised skyward by the would-be innovator. Innovation without a problem, preferably a problem measured in concrete suffering, financial loss or, in the best cases (at least for me), an abundance of both, is one of the more exceptionally elaborate forms of masturbation. Which isn’t really an issue one way or the other; I don’t care what people are into. It’s just that it also doesn’t sell.

So when I say no, to what do I refer? I refer to the great idea. The exciting new concept. The value-added feature, the thing no one’s actually asked for but everyone will love. The thing you read the interesting article about. The thing the so-called competition is doubling down on. The thing that one guy, that one time, said would’ve closed the deal that was never going to close anyway. The transformative innovation. The game-changer. The Next Big Thing. And this is why I defend my decision, however dorky, however khaki-trousered, to paste Mr. Collins’ pithy little comment around my much- beleaguered team’s workspace. There are reasons that Mr. Collins is rich and I’m not, and while most of them are probably structural I’m willing to accept that his knack for wedging a message into the booze-fogged brains of corporate leaders is at least one of them. That language above isn’t accidental, and I like it. A “ferocious” understanding of what you’re not going to do is exactly right. Because it’s a fucking battle. People love their children, and they love their ideas. Nor are all the ideas bad. Hell, some of them are cool. I would like to take some of that stuff to market and see what happens. But a core necessity of what I actually do for a living is the willingness to ruthlessly strip things down to that which is fundamentally needed to address a meaningful problem. Do that, get it tested, get it built, see where it falls short (it will; it must) and then improve it where improvement is needed. Everyone will hate this, but it’s how worthwhile things get done. And none of it, ever, is cool.

The sad part is that my little quote solves nothing. I’ve got an uphill fight, not because I work with dumb people (I don’t) or serve dumb customers (furthest thing from it). The intractable problem at the heart of my professional dilemma is that I work with a lot of intelligent people who are excited about what they do, and my job is to funnel their fine ambitions down into the hard and grimy work of solving some very unlovely problems. But like most hard and grimy things, that’s where all the halfway good lessons are. I ask myself (without really knowing the answer) what other dimensions of my life would be far better served by the same discipline, the same emphasis on the importance of “no.” My hunch? Nearly all of them.

Oh, and yeah, about that other thing? No.

 

 

Regrets, I’ve Had a Few…

It should surprise no one that I’ve experienced very, very few moments of moral clarity in Irish pubs. I’m not saying none, just not very many. But I’ve also not hung out with many Pentecostal theologians in Irish pubs, nor, prior to the event in question, had I ever ordered a french dip in an Irish pub. And this latter point, among others, brings us to the matter of regret.

I’ve been wanting to dig into this topic for a few weeks, but it’s been a thorny one to get my head around. Important, because regret is a fundamental part of the adult emotional landscape, but also difficult, and relevant. I’m not here to spill out over the side about my personal history – that would bore even me – but as a twice divorced man I don’t think it’s revealing too much to say that my personal library of regrets is rich, varied and extensive. It’s the library of Alexandria. It’s the goddamn library of congress. I can spend hours browsing the stacks, and I do. That part isn’t difficult. What I find much harder in my personal experience is finding the right way to put the library in order. Because what you want, of course (and hold on because I am going to belabor the hell out of this metaphor) is a sort of research library. You want it to be a place you can go to reflect on past missteps and collect data to support your next round of decisions. But it ends up not being quite that easy. The books all move around on the shelves. The card catalog (oh yeah, I’m all-in on this theme) is in disarray. Why?

As an aside, that this is where writing about this stuff gets tricky. That whole library motif is twee as hell, but it worked as far as the idea, or at least I think it did. Still, here I am breaking the fourth wall and layering in the requisite prophylactic, ironic distance, which means that I’m still uneasy with it. And unfortunately for you, I can get away with doing that because it’s a blog, and there’s no editor to make me take paragraphs like this one out. Your patience, dear reader, is appreciated.

Anyway, what is it that so complicates the question of regret, when we try to make use of those regrets in real life? The question interests me, partly because it’s relevant to my own shit, but also because I think it points back to one of the basic tensions in our cultural and intellectual lives. Namely, the friction between our expectation of linear, progressive narratives, and the recursive messiness of actual existence.

A quick thesis: though I’m no expert on Hegel, I’m aware of living in the long shadow cast by his conception of history as a series of necessary actions pointing always in one, progressive direction. And the only difference between me and anyone else is that little detail of being aware of it. Enlightenment notions of progress, of inexorable movement toward a higher state of being, are so woven into the fabric of our culture that nearly everyone subscribes to them without ever needing to have been conscious that they are doing so. We structure our thought that way. We expect the same things from our lives. And we don’t have to think about it that much, so we seldom do.

I have these pet peeves in language and belief, which I’ve discussed here before. One of these is the phrase, “Everything happens for a reason.” It’s yet another of those little markers of intellectual laziness. I interpret it to mean, “I don’t know why anything happens, but I don’t want to think about it, so I’m prepared to assume that there’s some sort of plan that I’d prefer not to have to define.”

Here’s the problem. Made seriously, the assertion that everything – everything – happens for a reason is an astonishing statement of the most profound faith. Something bugs me about so massive a claim being made without any sort of rigor behind it. More to the point, something really bugs me about the idea of a profound and fully invested faith in something that the believer hasn’t bothered to define. This is the spiritual and intellectual equivalent of bungee jumping minus the bungee. And it’s more or less the cultural norm.

I want to be clear here – it’s not the faith part of the equation that bothers me. If it were, drinking with Pentecostal theologians in Irish pubs would be even more awkward than it already is. Faith, thoughtfully arrived at, poses no problem for me. I may be skeptical, I may not share it, but anyone who’s seriously undertaken that kind of journey and gotten somewhere they want to be is fine by me. My friends believe things that I do not, but they got there through hard work (and acculturation and upbringing; all of our intellectual lives are elaborate acts of confirmation bias to some extent). But the far shallower assertion of everything happening for vague and ill-defined reasons, maybe involved with God but perhaps not (in general usage it’s much more likely to be The Universe, which isn’t terribly helpful), has little to do with that kind of faith. It’s just optimism, of which I am no fan at all.

But the idea of all things being orchestrated toward some purpose is precisely the snare that we’re caught in when we try to make sense of our regrets. The implication behind it is that our lives have a linear narrative. We begin and point A, and we move inexorably, my means we don’t always understand in the moment, toward a meaningful point B. For this to work, we’re required to believe that there is a plan for all this which precedes our participation in it, and that this preexisting plan is revealed to us as move along its arc.

We find this, again, woven into the casual language that our culture uses to talk about life. Along the path of our existence, we are expected to find ourselves. We discover our purpose, and our passions. We learn what we were meant to do. And look, if I’m honest, I say all the same shit. It’s how we talk. The narrative of our lives is represented in terms of uncovering, discovery, revelation. All of it consistent with the idea that the narrative was there before we got to it. This is a cultural constant and breaking from it takes some serious thought.

Where it all gets complicated is when that expectation collides with the hot mess of lived experience. The scenarios should be familiar to us all: we break up with so-and-so. We still harbor feelings for that individual, and for a time, perhaps for years, we experience regret. Then we meet someone else. We fall in love. Now the regret is reconfigured, becoming perhaps a lesson, perhaps an error. Our true path now stands revealed, so have to revise. We have to reconsider whatever we thought we had learned, improvise a new narrative and retrofit it to the past. The past itself doesn’t change, but our orientation to it does. We’re now involved in a project of trying to prove to ourselves that the narrative was always true. We simply erred in our understanding of it, which has now been corrected.

And then it all happens again.

In fairness none of this is terribly problematic when the stakes are low. But the stakes for regret aren’t always low, and the big, hairy, serious regrets, the ones that you really do need to be working through in a very meaningful way, can get confusing, particularly when you’re attuned enough to see your relationship to those regrets changing in real time. The big regrets can carry an urgency that doesn’t always diminish over time, and the task of dealing with them can have an impact on the life you’re really living. There may be real project-level work there, long term work, yet you continue to change. The labor of trying to fit it all into a tidy linear path becomes a tax on the work of really pulling that regret into your sense of self and figuring out what the hell to do about it.

But here’s where I was stuck: flipping around the other way is little help. On the one hand it does fit much more cleanly into my a-teleological world view to accept that the path of my life did not, in fact, exist before I created it. Mine is not the march of history. Mine is the march of Paul, and it has been a meandering, Quixotic affair. But at the same time, it’s no help to me (and less help to anyone that I’ve let down along the way) to go full-on deconstructionist and say that, because of this, there are simply no conclusions to be drawn. I want to remedy my assholery where I can, and justify it where I should. Without ground to stand on, that’s difficult to do.

Enter the theologian, the pub, and the regrettable french dip. As my friend has a formidable reputation to protect we’ll simply call him the Doctor. But the thing to know about the Doctor is that he’s an actual philosopher, which I am not. He’s got the credentials, he’s done the work, and he’s an accomplished bareknuckle brawler in the great, academic cage match of philosophical debate. He’s also my friend, and though I imagine that the field of our disagreements is wide, we agree on a great deal. But our exchange at the pub made for a neat summation of the gulf that lies between his learning and mine, because it took him about four seconds to offer a way out of my regret conundrum.

What he suggested, and I quickly wrote down, was that any given regret can be considered through both a metaphysical and ethical lens. Which is to say, it’s one thing to consider what regret is, or the nature of a given regret and whether it’s a regret at all. That’s fine and useful, and yes, the answers will change as you do. But it’s something else entirely to consider the moral nature of a regret. That will change far less. It really shouldn’t be changing any faster than your own ethics do, which is a separate point.

And he’s right. That’s what I was looking for. It allows for method, in that teasing out the ethical component of our regrets for separate consideration is both possible and wise. Given everything discussed above, it may the part of regret that matters most. If our regrets are going to guide us, it sort of has to be.

So the french dip was bad. I mean it was an okay piece of beef, but it was stranded on this dry baguette and accompanied by a sauce that was something, but was definitely not au jus. You will point out, rightly, that this is what I get for ordering a french dip in an Irish pub. You’re right, and I regret this. But there is no ethical component to that regret. There’s an ethical component to the sins of the cook, but they are not my sins. I can take a lesson from the experience not to order nominally French sandwiches in Irish pubs. If I end up by some strange chance doing so again and wind up having a really great french dip in some future pub then I’ll have to reconsider, but that won’t matter very much. That’s exactly as much thought as I’m ever going to give this. I’ve already given it far more thought than it deserves, but I can also know that. The ethical yardstick helps me do so.

God, the sandwich thing’s pretty twee too. Honestly the whole post kind of came out like that. Can I do a post about ethics without twee and facile illustrations? And yet, is forced edginess actually better when I’m getting the thoughts in place without it? Stay tuned.

Hell on a Back Burner

I woke up this morning to find Paradise Lost on the Stove. This isn’t unusual. I sometimes like to read while wandering around the house, and verse of any kind does this to me more than prose. Books wind up all over when this happens, and though Jenn was over last night, it happens even more when I’m alone. When other people are around they tend to want me to sit down, so I do, but on my own I often don’t. I sit in chairs for a living. It seems counterintuitive to me to want to come home from that and sit in more chairs. It seems like if I’m going to be sitting down, I should be getting paid.

Finding Milton anywhere isn’t really a surprise in any case, because I’m kind of a fan, literarily if not theologically (though from what I understand my inability to get my head around John Milton’s theology is a problem not limited to myself). In fact the early origins of that fandom haven’t got that much to do with Milton’s thought at all. It all started with a big, old, fabric-bound volume of Paradise Lost that my father had when I was a kid. I read very little (though I certainly read some), but the thing about this volume was that it had all of the incredible illustrations by Gustave Doré, which I pored over for what seems in my memory to have been hours. Those illustrations were, and are, beautiful and dark, gothic and voluminous with an overload of detail offset against a tremendous sense of space. The characters, mostly male, all had those sort of idealized classical dad-bods. It was all very dramatic, but it was also a remarkably refreshing change of pace from what I had always though of as classical art, because while there were plenty of angels flying around, there was also Satan. And you knew it was Satan right away because unlike the run-of-the-mill angels, Satan had bat wings. Satan was cool.

Which was exactly Milton’s point. Doré, we should remember, as closely associated with Milton as his work has become, wasn’t even close to being Milton’s contemporary. Doré was a product of the high Romantic, and for all the intimations of marble, studied grace and classical form, his was still very much a sexed-up Genesis. He also had a cartoonist’s eye for the telling visual device that establishes scene and character. For Satan, and his minions, the visual device was bat wings. You could tell the wicked characters apart from the good (and, therefore, utterly boring) angels right away. This was also an appropriate character reading, because Milton’s Satan was meant to be exactly that. The most beautiful of the angels, Satan was supposed to catch your eye. Nor, to his eventual downfall, could he avoid catching his own.

An odd bit of context for my early reading was the fact that this was the 1980s, and thus against the backdrop of what’s often now referred to as the “Satanic Panic.” For those fortunate enough to be unfamiliar, that term refers to a period of several years spanning the mid eighties and early nineties during which a credulous public and (in my view) cynical press became caught up in a moral panic over rumors that a phenomenon of Satanic ritual abuse was sweeping the nation. It was ridiculous, and literally every claim that was ever investigated was eventually debunked. But of course it was also exciting  (Geraldo Rivera was all over it), and provided a usefully reductive frame for performative cultural conflict. So it was funny to have at least a basic grounding in Milton’s version, because every side of the panic seemed to be onto something very different from that. Evangelicals and Deeply Concerned Citizens in their large-frame, aviator-style glasses and nervous mustaches seemed clear that whether the arch-fiend was real or not, the scene surrounding him was a salacious distillation of everything they were afraid of, with overtones of desperate and destructive evil. For the heavy metal kids on the other side of the debate (full disclosure: these were my friends in later childhood), the idea was basically the same, only the fear was overridden by fascination, and the several gratifications of making the aforementioned mustaches quiver. Whether you were buying or burning Venom’s Welcome to Hell album, you were basically enthralled with the same horned, gory, fabulous goat lord.

For Milton, of course, Satan represented a completely different idea. I still really dig it, especially now that I understand it a little better. I don’t dig it in the sense of finding Milton’s Satan compelling, but in the sense of finding a huge amount of useful insight into the human condition. Which is a roundabout way of saying that I see a lot of myself in the Lord of Hell. That sounds dramatic, but it isn’t. I see a lot of pretty much everyone I know. And to Milton’s credit, it’s not a great thing to behold.

See, Milton’s Satan isn’t anyone you’d really want to worship, Geraldo Rivera notwithstanding. You might for a minute, caught up in his beauty and force of personality, but as tends to happen, you’d come away disappointed. Not because of his evil, but because somewhere along the line you’d figure out that he’s actually just a fragile asshole.

Look, I’m not going to lie to you. Paradise Lost in its entirety is a pretty heavy lift. Milton was brilliant and insightful, with a clear view into how human beings work, and the thing is full of these rich little vignettes. Unfortunately he was also a devout kind-of-Calvinist, and between those rich vignettes lie mile upon mile of arid and sometimes ponderous iambic verse. Don’t come here for the nimble fluidity of Shakespeare. Milton could hit those notes when he wanted to, but big chunks of his verse lurch and rattle like a city bus on square wheels, and you’re not always going to be caught up in its rhythm and flow. Which is actually good and bad. It’s often heavy sledding, but Milton’s clunking and clanking is arguably a better way of getting you to think about what’s being written. And in contrast to Shakespeare, Milton was writing to be read more than performed. It’s verse intended to transmit ideas more than to be pronounced trippingly on the tongue. But it’s the ideas that I like, in the end, and there are vastly (enormously, titanically) more egregious works to be found out there in prose, if we’re talking ideas.

For these reasons, non-Calvinists could be forgiven for skipping around (I certainly always have), but a great place to skip to is the opening of Book IV. Here, we find Satan, already defeated in his first attempt on the holy throne, on a mission to explore the newly created Earth. Overlooking Eden, he experiences a remarkable moment of very human doubt, coupled with self-recrimination. But it’s not just any doubt, nor any recrimination. The next few sections of verse locate Satan’s misery squarely in the center of his own ego, self-delusion, and resentment. No ravening fiend here; what Milton gives us is a slightly more sympathetic Trump. A malignant narcissist, we get to witness Satan’s last shreds of goodness dissolving in his own resentment and alienation. A single passage, for me, anchors the scene:

O had his powerful Destiny ordain’d
Me some inferior Angel, I had stood
Then happy; no unbounded hope had rais’d
Ambition.

In other words, if only God hadn’t made Satan so incredibly awesome, he might have been able to be happy after all. He could have been a normie, cheerful, dumb and complacent. But no, he was was made exceptional. It wasn’t really even his fault. What can you expect? If God had wanted him mooching around like the inferior angels, God should have made him that way. The resulting lurch into extravagant self-pity is quick and dramatic.

Me miserable! which way shall I fly
Infinite wrath, and infinite despair?
Which way I fly is Hell; myself am Hell; 
And in the lowest deep a lower deep
Still threat’ning to devour me opens wide

Doré’s accompanying illustration has Satan on a rocky outcropping, hand to forehead in classic Romantic lamentation. This vacillation between self-recrimination and self-praise, wild misery and exultant anger is accurate. I do it all the time. The Doré illustration, through modern eyes, is kind of funny, though I doubt Milton meant it quite that way. But Satan’s suffering is real here. His essential shittyness is too, but what happens next is intriguing. Satan, in his misery, actually considers what it might mean to repent. For a moment, he considers, with apparent seriousness, the possibility of prostrating himself before the Almighty and begging forgiveness. But he catches himself in a moment of remarkable self-awareness. Repentance is quickly taken off the table for two reasons. First, to repent is necessarily to submit.

O then at last relent: is there no place
Left for Repentance, none for Pardon left?
None left but by submission; and that word
Disdain forbids me, and my dread of shame
Among the Spirits beneath, whom I seduc’d
With other promises and other vaunts. 

In other words, Satan here recognizes that he’s caught. Submission is more than his own pride can bear to begin with, but more to the point, it would make him look like an idiot. For better or for worse, he’s got a Hell full of followers. Everyone’s looking at him. He can’t just turn around and submit. There’s no chance.

But he goes further. Pride aside, he perceives that the thought of repentance doesn’t arise from any genuine conviction that he’s wrong. It’s simply a reaction to his suffering, and with the suffering alleviated, he’ll only fuck it up again, “Which would but lead me to a worse relapse, and heavier fall.”

Whatever else you want to say about the guy, he knows himself. He may have vast blind spots, but he’s also got a handle on how he operates. So, he realizes, does God, and thus the eternal enmity is locked in, with what may honestly be the favorite lines of the entire epic:

This knows my punisher; therefore as far
From granting he, as I from begging peace

Who hasn’t had an important relationship break down at precisely this point? This is the broken marriage, the estranged adult child, the friendship bitterly-ended, the angry professional resignation. There’s an important human touch point in the forgiveness that I will never ask you for, in the belief that you will never grant it. It’s the severing of ties, the shutting down of communication. And again, we’ve all done it.

It’s also a perfect clunker of a split line, but to me it works beautifully as a setup for the perfect ten-syllable, emphatic, ba-Dum-ba-DUM rhythm of the second bit. But that’s english course geek stuff and well out of my expertise. I’ll say no more about it. But what Milton does give us here is a very real sense of the devil you know. Or perhaps more usefully, the devil you are. Satan’s up to no good from this point out, and we can see why. He’s painted himself into a corner with his own self-serving logic, narrowed his own options down to the course he was already on. I do that too. So, dear reader, do you.

Now Milton’s Satan as an exemplar of existentialist inauthenticity is a bad undergrad philosophy term paper just waiting to be written by someone, but I’ll spare us all. For now. Maybe. Which way shall I fly?

The Happy Hand Grenade

So I was getting my brain erased in this charming little bistro when it occurred to me that I was happy.

No, not in the usual way (though the Malbec was good). My brain was being erased by a small alien creature, little enough to perch on my lap while the deed was done. The effect was achieved with a sinister instrument of technology (actually a pencil with the eraser pressed to my forehead), and my tormentor giggled when I crossed my eyes and pretended not to remember where I was. The alien creature was six, and we were honestly having an amazing time. Nobody bats an eye when you erase somebody’s brain in a Brooklyn bistro. Or maybe they do and we just didn’t care. I didn’t really notice one way or the other, and anyway my memory was erased.

Now in fairness, given my usual peripatetic lifestyle, the uncertainty of memory isn’t particularly remarkable anyway. But though I was on the road, this wasn’t part of the usual grind. It was, astonishingly, vacation – something I don’t do that often. But in order to forestall the flickering burnout that I’ve discussed here before, I actually managed to block out a few days and travel to New York with Jenn. Mostly the goal was to wander around in full tourist mode, but I also dearly wanted to catch up with some friends, a family that I’d originally met on a cruise (shut up) last year. We’d all bonded over not being elderly, angry and British, for one thing. But they’re also legitimately fascinating people – a cartoonist, writer and comic married to an indie record company owner (oh yeah, that’s still a thing). They have to hustle to make all that work, but they do, in style. And of course, somehow in the midst of that they also take care of the wee alien. And with a few days in New York to play with, catching up with the alien was deeply necessary.

Thus the dinner, and the somewhat welcome erasure of my mind. Afterward we decamped to our host’s home for a chat and a nightcap. As you’d expect, they have that terrific little apartment in Brooklyn: a sort of comfort-riot of bohemian coziness, overrun with books and records, artworks in varying stages of completion, spice jars, markers, difficult-to-identify bits of cultural ephemera, all overlaid with the natural, post-whirlwind detritus of life with any good six-year-old. Her room, as it has to be, is the entropic center of it all, stickered, toy-strewn and bedazzled, the whole thing perpetually turned inside out and sparkling like a Broadway costume closet raided by Huns. Nor could it be otherwise, because I couldn’t imagine little Tug turning into little Tug against any other sort of background. Also her name is Tug.

Tug herself is a diminutive madwoman, a smiley-face hand grenade with the pin pulled, enduringly clever and perfectly wicked. She has an obviously churning, busy little brain, which I’m sure is going to yield a cornucopia of developmental drama in eight or ten years time. But she’s also very much just a good, regular kid, neither more nor less of a pain in the ass than any other. Nonetheless, I’m unabashedly smitten, and have been since we very first met. She’s wildly and demonstrably affectionate, known for a deluge of hugs and impromptu lap climbings, and I don’t imagine for a minute that I’m the only person who gets the same treatment. Doesn’t matter though – she’s got me. She’s got my number and there’s nothing I can do about it. Ever since we met we’ve been sending drawings to one another. From the very start, she spelled my name as “Pull,” so we’ve been Pull and Tug ever since. She understands that this isn’t technically correct but she also gets the poetry of it, so Pull and Tug we shall ever be.

Spending time with Tug and her parents, relaxing in their great little apartment in their great little neighborhood, after a great meal at the great little bistro just downstairs, was one of those experiences that I never quite know how to talk about (obviously). I mean, I’m not known for my hugely sunny disposition, but there are times even for me when it’s possible to find myself in the flow of something purely good and deeply, even profoundly enjoyable. That’s kind of my whole conception of happiness, in a way: an inherently fleeting experience that catches you whenever it happens to catch you. And it can be easy to miss – you need a certain watchfulness. It’s possible to drift along, putting every experience through the standard shitty-ness meter and fail entirely to notice that for a minute, a little while ago, things were kind of okay.

When I do catch happiness in the act, when I manage to notice it, one nice side effect is that I also tend to remember it. That also requires noticing that there aren’t a ton of those moments, that their rarity is part of what makes them memorable, but whatever. I can call up a few of those moments in my mind, and they mean something to me.

Take today. I’m writing this at a table in the front of our favorite coffee shop. I was sitting two tables over one of the last times I caught that happiness, and I remember it. I was sitting across from Jenn just as I am now, facing the window that looks out on 17th Street. Like today, it was gray, she was working, and I was doing a close reading of Foucault’s History of Sexuality (shut up), taking copious notes, working slowly. It was warm in there, it was cozy, I was buzzing intellectually, the coffee shop was murmuring, I was okay, not sick, not hurting, nobody I knew was in any real trouble. And for a minute there, I noticed all that, taking note well enough to write my father about it later. And I have that now. As much of a pessimistic bastard as I am, I find that I can use those little moments. Somewhere among them is a useful cognitive strategy against the abyss, because of course the shitty days do come. The brittle, stretched, gone-too-far days that I always manage to go looking for will come round again – I’ll make sure of that. And the rest of the time, the quotidian shit just goes wrong anyway. Then somebody dies. So having a little card to play, something to help you remember that there’s a different kind of experience possible, isn’t a totally trivial thing. It’ll never be enough to turn things around by itself, but it’s a straw to grasp at. You need those.

But I also like the fact that there isn’t anything about those experiences that you can necessarily just go and create. It’s not like you can will them into being, exactly. You can try and create opportunities for them to happen but it’s not some clear, volitional thing. And there’s no way to live there all the time. I’m not there today, even though the circumstances are more or less the same and there’s nothing wrong with today at all. Which in its way is good; like I said, the whole point of being happy is the fact that you usually aren’t.  I’m perfectly okay with knowing that I can only catch it once in awhile, and that the very next job will be turning around and letting it go.

It occurs to me at the eleventh hour here that I started out with having my memory erased and then moved into a discussion of memory and happiness, which I didn’t consciously plan out. There’s probably some graceful way to turn around and make that look like a conscious motif but I don’t have the energy. Like I said, today is absolutely fine, it’s just not one of those days. But Tug’s day was. I’ll remember having my memory erased, and somewhere along the line here it’ll help me. That’s kind of good enough.

 

If I Can Make it There…

I’m indulging a little bit today in writing without any major agenda, but that’s something of a theme for the week ahead. I’ve been off the road for a couple of weeks, which has on the one hand been nice but on the other has forced me to sit down and confront a phenomenal backlog of work. In the grand scheme of things that’s very good. Most of that work is coming from good things that I’m genuinely, in the terribly un-ironic businessman part of my soul, excited about. On the flip side of that, I’m also realizing that the first quarter of this year is not going to yield a lot of what I’d been hoping on that same front. Honestly it’s nothing really bad – it happens – but a couple of big deals have pushed out into the second quarter, and a few of the things on my own docket just didn’t get where I needed them to be, in large part due to the run of travel that kicked off, and consumed, the first two months of the year. They flew by in a haze of airport lighting and Southwest Airlines drink coupons, and I’m just going to have to catch some things up in April. That’s going to cost me a few bucks too, which is frustrating but fair. I’ll make it back up in a couple of months.

Good news though – the week upcoming is spring break for the boys, which means that it’s also a bit of a break for me. Their mother and I have a general structure for vacations and holidays, in which they usually do spring break with her, off at some resort somewhere. I’ll miss them, but it’s also a chance to get away and do something else for a few days. So we’re off to New York, Jenn and I, to see some dear friends, bum around, and introduce her to the city which she has, to my dismay, never visited before.

I’ve visited before, many times, and I’ve always enjoyed being there. The question of whether I’d have it in me to live there or not is academic at this point, though I’ve thought about it. What’s funny is that I remember a very vivid dream about New York that I had twenty-odd years ago. In the dream, I was standing at the end of a tremendously long bridge leading into Manhattan (it didn’t correspond accurately to any of the actual bridges). It was night and the city glowed in the distance. One by one, I was bidding farewell to a number of my friends, who were crossing the bridge and going there to live. I was not going with them, and it was clear why: I needed more money before I could go.

In the year or so after I had that dream, it more or less came true. A number of my friends did move to New York, and established an expatriate beachhead there that I’ve been taking advantage of ever since. The financial admonition in my dream was also basically accurate, but in retrospect there’s a certain irony: most of my friends who actually made the trip had less money than I did at the time. The issue wasn’t a simple question of money versus no money. It was just that they were willing to go and share grimy studio apartments in Dogdick, Queens, and I wasn’t. It wasn’t penury that kept me from New York. It was bourgeois sensibility, the fatal vice of the landed provincial.

So, in that very same provincial bourgie way, I’m off to pay touristy homage. And for the most part I’m okay with that. The adventures and misadventures of my various friends who did go have been varied enough to keep my own decision from being any simple matter of regret. They chose to roll some dice that I did not, and I admire that, but the results were uneven. I have my troubles but a lot’s turned out well for me, not least my brilliant children who are nowadays nestled in the bosom of one of America’s best and most richly-funded public school districts. Why complain?

But I still get excited to go. I was there for the first time in probably 1979 or 80 (my dad would know). We went to visit family near Philadelphia and went over. I don’t remember much, but it was a genuine glimpse of Warriors-era NYC in it’s dystopian prime, and it stuck with me. In the acute sense-memory of childhood, I recall subway cars covered in graffiti, summer heat, pervasive odors of sour spoilage and poo. I think we went another time or two in the mid-80s, though that’s foggier. But we definitely went again in 1988, and that trip I remember well. My uncle (this is really true, by the way) was, at the time, an authority in the park service and actually lived in government-provided housing on Liberty Island. As such, we got privileged, after-hours access to the statue, and actually got to run around inside the lady herself, with the whole thing to ourselves. The next day was equally monumental, as the final stages of the ’88 presidential campaign were in full swing. Dan Quayle came to the statue to speak, where he was greeted by a modest, quiet contingent of Republican supporters, and a riotous army of AIDS activists. I didn’t really grasp what the epidemic was doing, at that moment, in New York and San Francisco, but these guys sure as hell did, and they were going to give little Dan a piece of their minds about federal inaction. Talk about provincial sensibilities – I was blown away. It was great, I took it seriously (at least privately), but it was decidedly new. Later in the day we got on the ferry with the same protesters and went over to Manhattan, spending time in the village. I wanted to find a punk rock shop but when we saw a couple (was Trash and Vaudeville around back then?) I didn’t have the nerve to go in. But it was a magnificent September day and the city buzzed and roared. I saw men holding hands. We went to a Caribbean restaurant. I took a photo of the Marquee for “Vampire Lesbians of Sodom,” the sight of which had my friends back home in stitches for weeks. It all seemed wild and alive.

Like anyplace you visit infrequently (though I’ve been there more often these last couple of years), it’s different every time I go. That’ll be part of the fun. And going with someone who’s never been will be lovely too, seeing it through fresh eyes a bit. And I’m aware completely, writing this, of how naive it all must sound to my hardened New York friends. Any of the ten billion recent immigrants to Colorado could probably write about this place in similarly breathless tones and my eyes would never stop rolling. But you get less self-conscious as you ease into middle age. I’ll gawk, and point, take pictures and eat hotdogs and all the things I usually do, and I regret nothing.

Which of course isn’t true at all, but we get the whole idea of regret wrong anyway. More on that in another post.

Toxic

Okay, bear with me, this will make sense in a minute. But I have this passionate loathing for the term “common sense.” I know a lot of other people do as well, but for me it’s on the (very) short list of terms that actually have the power to make not want to know a person who uses it. It speaks volumes, and the really bitter irony is that it does so by saying nearly nothing.

Like I said, I’m not the first person to feel this way. There’s even an old adage to the effect that is something is sensible, it’s not common, and if it’s common, it’s rarely sensible, which in turn is reducible to the more elegant (if gnomic), “Common sense is neither.” I’m fond of both, but the core of my antipathy to the idea of common sense is that it’s one of those concepts that’s trotted out not to engage in debate or dialog, but to end it. It’s a lightweight rhetorical dodge, intended to stifle further discussion. Who, after all, can argue with common sense? But the idea that some subset of ideas falls under a common consensus, and that these universal principles are so well understood as to need no further argument or elaboration once stated, is nonsense. Have you seen our culture? No such consensus has ever existed, and no such consensus ever will.

No, to call something common sense is to say, “This is a position that I hold, but have not really thought about and am unprepared to defend. Please don’t ask me anymore questions.” Needless to say, I do not like this sort of position.

Anyway, the thing I’m concerned with here isn’t so much the notion of common sense per se. What I’m concerned with today is the weird tendency for certain concepts to obtain a kind of cultural currency without anyone ever really understanding what they mean. Common sense is an example because its very name suggests its improbability, yet most people assume not only that it exists, but that they understand it clearly. It’s far from the only such idea. Empty constructs, inflated with hot air, surface all the time, and are batted to and fro like one of those giant beach balls thrown into the crowd at a bad music festival. And it’s hard, I’ll admit, to stay on top of them. The trap (and it’s genuinely easy to fall into) is to imbue the idea that’s floating around with your own interpretations and assume, however narcissistically, that your interpretations are the consensus. They’re not, but that needn’t be a barrier to you having an opinion, nor to holding forth on your opinion over beers. And believe me, I’ve watched: there really is no fixed time limit on how long two or more people can go on talking about two or more completely separate topics without ever realizing that they’re doing so. The only trick is to talk more than you listen, and that’s as close to a true cultural universal as you’ll find.

Point being that for all these reasons, I’m having a hard time lately with the idea of toxic masculinity. Somewhere in among the several meanings of that term is an important idea, but it’s bugging me that the phrase itself seems to be headed for common-sensical territory. Nor is this strictly an academic exercise: I’m a father of sons, so if there’s going to be a thing called toxic masculinity, the question of whether I’m transmitting it to my progeny is a matter of some moment. The thing is, by some definitions at least, I’m pretty sure that I am.

Let’s get a couple of things out of the way. Yes, there are behaviors associated with certain, traditional ideas of the masculine that are deeply harmful to both men and women, and that need to be identified and addressed. We’re living through an important cultural moment in which a whole bucketful of odious male behaviors are being held up to the light, and a bucketful of odious men are facing long-overdue consequences. This is important, and this is good. Nor do I mean to suggest with any of this that serious people aren’t giving the the whole subject serious thought. My own very significant other is writing a series about this right now, tackling harmful masculine tropes in fiction and film. But what I find frustrating is the fact that for all this, you can mention toxic masculinity in any craft brewery or urban wine bar and be assured of getting a series of solemn nods. But if you ask any five nodding sippers to describe it in actionable terms, you’ll get at least six answers, in varying levels of inchoate and outraged generality. So the fact that it actually does tie back to something cultural and personally important is an issue, because nothing floating around the zeitgeist suggests to me that we’ve got any meaningful, collective handle on just what we’re trying to address. Of course we get the extreme examples of horrific behavior – nobody needs to have Harvey Weinstein explained. But the syndromes behind it are much harder to pin down. Is there a non-toxic masculinity? What would that be like? Sounds like a simple question but try asking a few people. I think you’ll find that there’s no consensus answer.

Let me give an example that’s close to home. One of the more persistent themes lately, in article, blog and meme, seems to be around boys and emotional control. A cornerstone of toxic masculinity, I gather, has to do with teaching boys not to cry, carrying on cultural traditions of male emotional repression. And I get it. I grew up in a reasonably progressive milieu, at least by 80’s standards, but I still don’t remember a lot of healthy male emoting going on. Rambo cried at the end of First Blood; that was about it. So I’m sympathetic, to a point, with the idea that we’re supposed to be encouraging greater emotional openness among young men, and encouraging a wider range of emotional experience than that available to our forefathers. To a point.

But, when we talk about healthy male emoting, we mean what, exactly? See, here’s where we get into trouble, because if I go by what seems to be crossing my Facebook feed lately it would seem that teaching boys any degree of emotional control is automatically a toxic act. If you’re not telling boys to feel whatever they feel and give voice to whatever they experience in real time, you’re forcing them right back into the stone age, turning them into the angry and stunted beasties that terrorize our world. There are only two views: boys don’t cry, which is a damaging idea, and boys can cry whenever they feel the need. Yet I have a very strong suspicion that very few of the people saying this are in any way involved in actually raising boys. I’m suspicious of simple binaries, but here’s where I get into trouble: as a father, I don’t agree, at least once adolescence looms, that it’s always okay to cry.

Watch: I’ll do a trick. Instead of saying, “It is important to teach boys emotional control,” I’ll cleverly substitute the phrase, “It is important to teach boys how to create and maintain healthy emotional boundaries in their personal lives.” The first sentence sits athwart a vicious cultural divide, and lots of well-meaning people will disagree. The second is far less controversial, but the trick is, it’s saying essentially the same thing.

I don’t think many people would seriously argue that emoting randomly, spilling out over the side to anyone who’ll listen (to borrow from Tom Waites) is a healthy habit to inculcate in young people, particularly as they build out their first mature social relationships. On the contrary we would nearly all agree that there will be people in our lives with whom it is appropriate to be emotionally open and vulnerable, and people with whom this is not a good idea. And as we get older, it’s important to layer into this the understanding that not everyone we encounter in our lives will have our best interests at heart. Discerning this, and learning to identify the people and situations around which we should and should not open up our emotional kimonos is important. This is also, in every respect, an exercise in the art of emotional control. Put another way, exercising thoughtful emotional control is the first step in cultivating emotional intimacy. If you can’t get a handle on your emotional responses in some situations, you can’t delineate the really important situations in which that handle can be safely let go. If your innermost emotional life is on technicolor display everywhere, you’re not creating room for the places and people who can help you get your arms around those emotions in a useful and, if needed, healing way.

No one likes this kind of talk. It’s too complicated. It’s so much easier to say that emotional control is toxic, while emotional openness is good and leave it at that. But control was never the right word. Rejecting your own emotional life, that’s a problem. Not being able to recognize and put a name to what you’re experiencing, that’s worrisome. A father who teaches his sons that emotions are girly, and gives his boys no tools for dealing with them, is indeed an asshole. But I’ve not done that. The mantra in my house has always been that it’s okay to have feelings – even angry feelings – as long as we make room to talk about them. And the boys generally prefer to do this in private, which I also support. But I’ve also asked them, at certain points, to pull themselves together. I’ve let them know that certain conversations aren’t going to happen until they’re composed.

Thankfully not many people read any of this, but if they did I would anticipate two responses. First, somebody will read that last bit and say, “but that’s not toxic masculinity!” To which I would respond that I’m not sure who has standing to rule on whether it is or isn’t (if indeed anyone does).  I’m perfectly happy (even relieved) if my behavior doesn’t map to your definition of toxic masculinity, but that’s your definition. I can’t assume that everyone else sees it the same way. Language matters, the terms we choose matter enormously, and this is a powerful term with a lot of cultural weight behind it. It’s also sketchy shorthand for a number of unpleasant ideas, which makes it something of a loose cannon on deck. The second response, of course, would be a reflexive assumption that because I’ve questioned the term at all, I’m an antifeminist member of the alt-right. That’s the opposite of the truth, but it gets to the same point. When it comes to something like toxic masculinity, as currently defined, if it’s hard to be sure that you’re doing it, you may be certain that it will be equally hard to prove that you’re not.

What I want, in the end, is not to have emotionally stunted children. I’d like to have emotionally competent children, able to feel deeply and share those feelings carefully, with the right people, when it’s safe to do so. It often won’t be, and that’s regrettable, but that’s the world as we found it. And I’m just dying right now to close with a little zinger about how that’s just common sense, but as rhetorical flourishes go that one’s too ham-fisted even for me. In effect I just did it anyway, but clothed in just enough ironic distance to keep me safe.

I’m not about to be vulnerable around you people.

 

 

Blast Radius

You’ve seen the video. You probably saw it years and years ago, but it’s been reissued in high definition and gone a little bit viral. I saw it as a child, though I couldn’t tell you when. I’ve seen it many times since, and I’ve seen others like it. What you see in the opening frame is an older bus, like a school bus but painted in a darker shade. The film is in black and white but I assume that the bus was probably some kind of military olive green. It’s parked in the sun on a featureless bit of desert sand, and the camera opens on a static shot: just the bus, sitting there. There isn’t any sound. I don’t know for sure if the shot seems ominous only because I already know what’s about to happen, or if it would seem ominous anyway. I suspect that it would. Just the framing, the stark light. You know something’s about to happen. And if you didn’t already know what it was, I think you’d still assume that it wasn’t going to be be anything good.

And then of course it does happen. The blast, when it comes, arrives in two waves. The first is heat, and the bus seems to go fluid as its paint job transforms instantly into smoke. The bus itself ignites, the tires rupture. A couple of seconds later a second, concussive blast wave flips the bus over and tears it apart, the whole thing disappearing into a cloud of dust. The camera, which faces away from the blast and must, I assume, have been heavily shielded, survives. But there’s nothing else to see. And that specific blast sequence, since first saw the footage decades ago, always struck me as something I sort of wished that I didn’t know about. I mean that the heat comes first. The concussion looks like it could kill you but not before you’ve had a couple really bad seconds to think about it.

Like I said, I don’t know when I saw it first, but I was very young. It was the kind of thing they showed us at school. As I recall they showed us that sort of thing often. It was part of social studies, sometimes, but being the 80s and living where we did, there were also occasional speakers, anti-nuclear activists who would come through to educate us on the perils of nuclear war. I remember in particular one individual who put up a slideshow illustrating the fact that even if we hid in the mountains, the air-blast nature of most modern thermonuclear weapons would ensure our destruction anyway. He was missing the point. None of us cared about that. We had all talked about it, and none of us wanted to survive an attack. The kids were all in agreement about that. As far as we were concerned, the whole post-apocalyptic scenario held no appeal. If it was going to happen, we wanted to be squarely in the blast radius. We even discussed the lucky fact of our proximity to a nuclear weapons plant, reasoning that this probably had us on a soviet target list. We’d get vaporized, and that would be that. Seemed like the best option all around. Did I mention that we were about eleven years old at this point?

The activists, I suppose, were trying to motivate us to get involved, somehow, in the disarmament movement. They weren’t just being sadists, or at any rate not entirely. The scare tactic was supposed to get us up and moving, which was a pretty common idea in the 80s as I recall. But it missed the most basic thing about us: we were kids, and kids understand their own basic powerlessness very clearly. Giving eleven-year-old kids in the 80s detailed information on their own pending incineration was really just doubling down on what we already knew. We knew we were doomed, and we knew that we couldn’t do anything about it. We felt incrementally shittier after assemblies like that, and locked in our shared fatalism a little more. But that was about it.

I have kids that age myself now, and I sense some parallels. Now, before we go further let me be clear: none of this is intended as a polemic in favor of keeping kids in the dark. I don’t know that we needed quite as much repetition on the nuclear threat as we were getting back in 1983 or 84, but it’s not like anyone could have concealed it. It was an existential threat to the planet, and people were going to talk about it. There wasn’t any real way for us not to know what the doomsday clock was set to. When the world is in grave danger, it’s not really something you can sweep under the rug. At a certain point kids may as well know, uncomfortable as that is. But I notice is that the apocalyptic news is coming hot and heavy once again, and I wonder what the kids are doing about it internally. They’re not going to tell me, even if prompted. Death-pondering is inner kid-world stuff, at some level. But I notice that they do seem awfully scared, and fear pops up in strange places. I suspect that it all connects.

My little guy, for example, has been frightened lately, and that’s actually a little odd. Normally he’s a profoundly morbid child, fond of horror games and the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark series. The darker side of experience has a happy sort of pull for him, which I tend to get. I was pretty similar at his age, reading Lovecraft in the corner and delighting in all the ookie bits. But he gets genuinely scared now too, right at the margins of what he enjoys.

The other day (and he’s a very private guy) he actually went so far as divulge this to me. He explained that a girl in his class and been saying scary things, indicating that everyone who knew her was in danger, and telling a scary tale about some voice in the night that force you to stay up until dawn or else. It got to him, where other stuff doesn’t, and he was having trouble getting to sleep. I was glad that he told me, and for the most part we handled it together. The first thing I pointed out was that the girl needed some fresh material, as nearly all of this was old internet creepypasta from years ago. Since he didn’t want to share the kid’s name, I told him that “Creepypasta” would henceforth be her nickname, which made him giggle. What followed was a good, long conversation about the nature of scary things. And woven into that conversation was the fact that there are certain kinds of scary things that are fun, precisely because they’re outside of what’s real. And that’s important, because there are plenty of real things to be scared of, and feeling scared about those things is okay. But we talked about the idea that it’s useful to keep those things straight. Real life offers enough real fear. But it doesn’t include ookie ghosts and accursed third graders.

Like I said, I was glad that he actually talked to me, because there’s nothing easy about keeping those things straight, especially in a developing brain. And especially not when the real scariness is so pervasive, and so urgent. Just like my friends and I understood that we were more or less certain to be randomly immolated some day, my kids are more or less certain that if they’re not the last generation to inhabit this world, they’ll probably know the kids that are. If they don’t see the endgame themselves, they’ll see the beginning of the end, and they’re not jazzed about it. They shouldn’t be. And I’m not really big on trying to convince them that it’s all going to be okay. My talk track, when we discuss those things, is that the next few decades are going to be pretty challenging, but that millions of people are trying to make things better, and they can choose to be part of that when they’re big. But I also like to tell them what they already know. I like to tell them that there’s not a whole lot that little kids can do in the meantime, and there’s only so much worry that they can afford to pour into it now. Unlike those well-meaning anti-nuke activists, I’m not about to shoulder them with the task of saving a world that won’t actually let them do anything at all. If they grow up conscious of the urgency in front of them as adults, I’ve done at least some kind of job. Until then, I prefer to give them hugs, and try to keep their nightmares in the correct categories. Getting away from the nightmares isn’t really something you can do. I learned that from a slideshow, a long time ago.