This is Water

Reading Time: 11 minutes

I was listening to the excellent WTF podcast between Marc Maron and Jason Segel this morning. And at one point Jason became very open about his struggles with alcohol and happiness. He spoke of striving for something that he could never possibly achieve.

While mentioning a movie he has coming up about David Foster Wallace called “The End of the Tour” he called out a commencement address Mr. Wallace gave in 2005 at Kenyon called “This is Water.” I decided to read it and it absolutely blew me away. The insight, and yes, sadness the man had was remarkable. And when he talks about suicide and knowing that he killed himself a few years after this speech makes it is even more devastating. But for those of you (us) who think a certain way, I think this is inspiring. The writing, and words chosen are beautiful and admirable. Enjoy.

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This is Water, by David Foster Wallace (taken from this transcript of the speech, video is here)

There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys, how’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”

If at this moment, you’re worried that I plan to present myself here as the wise old fish explaining what water is to you younger fish, please don’t be. I am not the wise old fish. The immediate point of the fish story is that the most obvious, ubiquitous, important realities are often the ones that are the hardest to see and talk about. Stated as an English sentence, of course, this is just a banal platitude — but the fact is that, in the day-to-day trenches of adult existence, banal platitudes can have life-or-death importance. That may sound like hyperbole, or abstract nonsense.

A huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded. Here’s one example of the utter wrongness of something I tend to be automatically sure of: Everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe, the realest, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely talk about this sort of natural, basic selfcenteredness, because it’s so socially repulsive, but it’s pretty much the same for all of us, deep down. It is our default-setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth. Think about it: There is no experience you’ve had that you were not at the absolute center of. The world as you experience it is right there in front of you, or behind you, to the left or right of you, on your TV, or your monitor, or whatever. Other people’s thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real — you get the idea. But please don’t worry that I’m getting ready to preach to you about compassion or other-directedness or the so-called “virtues.” This is not a matter of virtue — it’s a matter of my choosing to do the work of somehow altering or getting free of my natural, hard-wired default-setting, which is to be deeply and literally self-centered, and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self. People who can adjust their natural default-setting this way are often described as being “well adjusted,” which I suggest to you is not an accidental term.

Given the triumphal academic setting here, an obvious question is how much of this work of adjusting our default-setting involves actual knowledge or intellect. This question gets tricky. Probably the most dangerous thing about college education, at least in my own case, is that it enables my tendency to over-intellectualize stuff, to get lost in abstract arguments inside my head instead of simply paying attention to what’s going on right in front of me. Paying attention to what’s going on inside me. As I’m sure you guys know by now, it is extremely difficult to stay alert and attentive instead of getting hypnotized by the constant monologue inside your own head. Twenty years after my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand that the liberal-arts cliché about “teaching you how to think” is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: “Learning how to think” really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed. Think of the old cliché about “the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master.” This, like many clichés, so lame and unexciting on the surface, actually expresses a great and terrible truth. It is not the least bit coincidental that adults who commit suicide with firearms almost always shoot themselves in the head. And the truth is that most of these suicides are actually dead long before they pull the trigger. And I submit that this is what the real, no-bull- value of your liberal-arts education is supposed to be about: How to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default-setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone, day in and day out. That may sound like hyperbole, or abstract nonsense. So let’s get concrete. The plain fact is that you graduating seniors do not yet have any clue what “day in, day out” really means. There happen to be whole large parts of adult American life that nobody talks about in commencement speeches. One such part involves boredom, routine, and petty frustration. The parents and older folks here will know all too well what I’m talking about.

By way of example, let’s say it’s an average day, and you get up in the morning, go to your challenging job, and you work hard for nine or ten hours, and at the end of the day you’re tired, and you’re stressed out, and all you want is to go home and have a good supper and maybe unwind for a couple of hours and then hit the rack early because you have to get up the next day and do it all again. But then you remember there’s no food at home — you haven’t had time to shop this week, because of your challenging job — and so now after work you have to get in your car and drive to the supermarket. It’s the end of the workday, and the traffic’s very bad, so getting to the store takes way longer than it should, and when you finally get there the supermarket is very crowded, because of course it’s the time of day when all the other people with jobs also try to squeeze in some grocery shopping, and the store’s hideously, fluorescently lit, and infused with soul-killing Muzak or corporate pop, and it’s pretty much the last place you want to be, but you can’t just get in and quickly out: You have to wander all over the huge, overlit store’s crowded aisles to find the stuff you want, and you have to maneuver your junky cart through all these other tired, hurried people with carts, and of course there are also the glacially slow old people and the spacey people and the ADHD kids who all block the aisle and you have to grit your teeth and try to be polite as you ask them to let you by, and eventually, finally, you get all your supper supplies, except now it turns out there aren’t enough checkout lanes open even though it’s the end-of-the-day-rush, so the checkout line is incredibly long, which is stupid and infuriating, but you can’t take your fury out on the frantic lady working the register.

Anyway, you finally get to the checkout line’s front, and pay for your food, and wait to get your check or card authenticated by a machine, and then get told to “Have a nice day” in a voice that is the absolute voice of death, and then you have to take your creepy flimsy plastic bags of groceries in your cart through the crowded, bumpy, littery parking lot, and try to load the bags in your car in such a way that everything doesn’t fall out of the bags and roll around in the trunk on the way home, and then you have to drive all the way home through slow, heavy, SUV-intensive rush-hour traffic, etcetera, etcetera.

The point is that petty, frustrating crap like this is exactly where the work of choosing comes in. Because the traffic jams and crowded aisles and long checkout lines give me time to think, and if I don’t make a conscious decision about how to think and what to pay attention to, I’m going to be pissed and miserable every time I have to food-shop, because my natural default-setting is the certainty that situations like this are really all about me, about my hungriness and my fatigue and my desire to just get home, and it’s going to seem, for all the world, like everybody else is just in my way, and who are all these people in my way? And look at how repulsive most of them are and how stupid and cow-like and dead-eyed and nonhuman they seem here in the checkout line, or at how annoying and rude it is that people are talking loudly on cell phones in the middle of the line, and look at how deeply unfair this is: I’ve worked really hard all day and I’m starved and tired and I can’t even get home to eat and unwind because of all these stupid god-damn people.

Or, of course, if I’m in a more socially conscious form of my default-setting, I can spend time in the end-of-the-day traffic jam being angry and disgusted at all the huge, stupid, lane-blocking SUV’s and Hummers and V-12 pickup trucks burning their wasteful, selfish, forty-gallon tanks of gas, and I can dwell on the fact that the patriotic or religious bumper stickers always seem to be on the biggest, most disgustingly selfish vehicles driven by the ugliest, most inconsiderate and aggressive drivers, who are usually talking on cell phones as they cut people off in order to get just twenty stupid feet ahead in a traffic jam, and I can think about how our children’s children will despise us for wasting all the future’s fuel and probably screwing up the climate, and how spoiled and stupid and disgusting we all are, and how it all just sucks, and so on and so forth…

Look, if I choose to think this way, fine, lots of us do — except that thinking this way tends to be so easy and automatic it doesn’t have to be a choice. Thinking this way is my natural default-setting. It’s the automatic, unconscious way that I experience the boring, frustrating, crowded parts of adult life when I’m operating on the automatic, unconscious belief that I am the center of the world and that my immediate needs and feelings are what should determine the world’s priorities. The thing is that there are obviously different ways to think about these kinds of situations. In this traffic, all these vehicles stuck and idling in my way: It’s not impossible that some of these people in SUV’s have been in horrible auto accidents in the past and now find driving so traumatic that their therapist has all but ordered them to get a huge, heavy SUV so they can feel safe enough to drive; or that the Hummer that just cut me off is maybe being driven by a father whose little child is hurt or sick in the seat next to him, and he’s trying to rush to the hospital, and he’s in a way bigger, more legitimate hurry than I am — it is actually I who am in his way. Or I can choose to force myself to consider the likelihood that everyone else in the supermarket’s checkout line is just as bored and frustrated as I am, and that some of these people probably have much harder, more tedious or painful lives than I do, overall.

Again, please don’t think that I’m giving you moral advice, or that I’m saying you’re “supposed to” think this way, or that anyone expects you to just automatically do it, because it’s hard, it takes will and mental effort, and if you’re like me, some days you won’t be able to do it, or you just flatout won’t want to. But most days, if you’re aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made lady who just screamed at her little child in the checkout line — maybe she’s not usually like this; maybe she’s been up three straight nights holding the hand of her husband who’s dying of bone cancer, or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the Motor Vehicles Dept. who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a nightmarish red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. Of course, none of this is likely, but it’s also not impossible — it just depends on what you want to consider. If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is and who and what is really important — if you want to operate on your default-setting — then you, like me, will not consider possibilities that aren’t pointless and annoying. But if you’ve really learned how to think, how to pay attention, then you will know you have other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, loud, slow, consumer-hell-type situation as not only meaningful but sacred, on fire with the same force that lit the stars — compassion, love, the sub-surface unity of all things. Not that that mystical stuff’s necessarily true: The only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re going to try to see it. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t. You get to decide what to worship…

Because here’s something else that’s true. In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of God or spiritual-type thing to worship — be it J.C. or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some infrangible set of ethical principles — is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things — if they are where you tap real meaning in life — then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you. On one level, we all know this stuff already — it’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, bromides, epigrams, parables: the skeleton of every great story. The trick is keeping the truth up-front in daily consciousness. Worship power — you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart — you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. And so on.

Look, the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful; it is that they are unconscious. They are default-settings. They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing. And the world will not discourage you from operating on your default-settings, because the world of men and money and power hums along quite nicely on the fuel of fear and contempt and frustration and craving and the worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom to be lords of our own tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talked about in the great outside world of winning and achieving and displaying. The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default-setting, the “rat race” — the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing.

I know that this stuff probably doesn’t sound fun and breezy or grandly inspirational. What it is, so far as I can see, is the truth with a whole lot of rhetorical bullshit pared away. Obviously, you can think of it whatever you wish. But please don’t dismiss it as some finger-wagging Dr. Laura sermon. None of this is about morality, or religion, or dogma, or big fancy questions of life after death. The capital-T Truth is about life before death. It is about making it to 30, or maybe 50, without wanting to shoot yourself in the head. It is about simple awareness — awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, that we have to keep reminding ourselves, over and over:

“This is water, this is water.”

It is unimaginably hard to do this, to stay conscious and alive in the adult world day in and day out. Which means yet another grand cliché turns out to be true: your education really IS the job of a lifetime. And it commences: now.

I wish you way more than luck.

Love and Meatballs in Boston, Part 2

Reading Time: 9 minutes

 

(Check out Part 1, which focuses on love and Part 2 on, well, meatballs.)

By the time she had left me for good – 1999 – I had moved out of my hovel in Beacon Hill (though people paid a lot of money for said hovels) and to Brookline. I still had 4 roommates, though different ones. This time, the folks were much more normal and none were actually Emerson students: two brothers – Mike and John Fader – as well as Mike’s girlfriend Stephanie. And their friend Ralph. And Ralph’s cat. I got along really well with everyone except the cat.

To be clear, my roommate turnover wasn’t because I had zero close friends at Emerson or was a terrible roommate (other than sleeping with one). I did have a couple friends but for various reasons never lived with any of them. And of course the aforementioned disastrous relationship kept me busy for most of the time anyways.

I did have a very good core group of friends that I developed earlier while at Bowling Green State University. And one in particular, Jared, I became close with only after graduation. Jared had attended a rival school a half hour away – the University of Toledo*. We had mutual friends but didn’t hang out too much while in school. But after graduation, as it was harder to pin me down as I bounced around to other cities, Jared was one of the friends who visited me the most. With Boston being the most notable and early example.

(*As an aside, Toledo’s mascot – the “Rocket” – literally carried a whiffle ball bat to football games. At one particularly heated game at Bowling Green, the Rocket attacked and beat my poor, helpless mascot – Freddie Falcon – while his co-mascot Frieda looked on in what I imagine was horror. Though her expression externally never actually changed (it was the outfit), she eventually threw herself on top of Freddy in an attempt to stop the attack.)

So it was that Jared came to visit as 1999 came to a close, as real and potential pandemonium was predicted to occur on New Year’s Eve.

On the afternoon of New Year’s Eve, Jared and I along with a few roommates spent most the day playing video games and watching football. The Playstation was particularly utlized – and especially a certain WWF (this was pre-WWE name change) game. Then like today, the thrill of hitting your friend over the head with a virtual chair brought a warm feeling. And the ability to customize your wrestlers – my 400 pound wrestler was named “Cow Patty” – made it even better. I was more of a Sega Hockey player, and arguably one of the best ever at that game and nearly unstoppable with the Detroit Red Wings and Jeremy Roenick. So this was a nice break into something different, and it allowed me to be on equal footing with all comers and not call on my Fred Savage, “The Wizard” level of video game prowess.

At some point we flipped on CNN – which was the biggest news channel at the time – who were dutifully covering the worldwide New Years Eve celebrations as they rolled from Syndey to London and progressively across the globe. And of course the newscaster waited anxiously, and dare I say hopefully, with cameras planted everywhere, for something truly terrible to happen related to Y2K.

As we watched, there was a sudden “Breaking News” graphic that flashed followed by a breathless report on a suspected terrorist plot that had been thwarted. The camera showed two Algerians being escorted into police cars, and I noticed something familiar about the buildings and the neighborhood. Jared walked to the windows and put his head out one and said something along the lines of “what the hell” and sure enough – they were being arrested down the street. Only then did I notice the flashing lights from the street that reflected onto our wall. I was living directly across from a large Jewish temple in Brookline – the Kehillath Israel – and hadn’t thought twice about it until that day.

Unperturbed, we seamlessly went back to playing our video games, and eventually Jared and I took off for our New Years Eve bar where we were going to spend the evening: The Last Drop located in the Back Bay. There wasn’t a whole lot to the bar itself, and it had the inglorious nickname of “The Last Stop” due to the fact that it was regarded as the place you went at the end of the night after hitting up the other, cooler bars (with classier ladies) in the area. But I loved the place.

They were offering all you could drink and eat for like seventy-five U.S. dollars. And this was the late 90s, so seventy-five dollars would be like a thousand dollars today!

He and I actually dressed up a bit – khakis, buttoned up shirt and sweaters – which was normal for Jared but was essentially at the tux level for me. After a cab dropped us off we posed for a picture out front before we entered The Last Drop. We had this great concept to take a picture every hour that night of ourselves as a sort of time-lapsed chronicle of the evening. The first one captured was straightforward, as we were dead sober, smiling, buttoned up and feeling great.

We walked in and began to drink, eat, and have the expected wonderful time. The bar wasn’t overly crowded which was a great sign to me but also could have been an indication that we had chosen the lower end of the entertainment options that evening. But considering I was paying my own way through graduate school, there weren’t many other choices. It was also the reason we were one of the first people there: we wanted to get value for every penny of that seventy five dollar entry fee. Jared and I were quite convinced that the establishment would be taking a big financial loss on our entry fee that night.

The food was the normal, bar food sitting over heating lamp variety – potato skins, chicken fingers but also some frankly extraordinary meatballs. It was if they were somehow lost while being transported from a 5 star restaurant and ended up at The Last Stop instead. Think of a delicious meteorite landing on a bland Earth from some foreign (probably French) corner of a more edible cosmos.

One minus of the bar was that it had one bathroom with a single toilet for both men and women. That wasn’t an issue at first when the bar was mostly empty but once the night got going, the drinks got flowing and we “broke the seal” it definitely became problematic. So it was that Jared and I found ourselves in line a few hours in, and having to pee quite badly but doing our best to be patient while we waited for folks to rotate in and out of the bathroom.

At some point as we waited, a cute, yet sloppy drunk girl in a tight dress started walking to the front and butted ahead of everyone. Her looks allowed her to get away with a fairly onerous party foul since everyone behind us in line was primarily dudes. She reached Jared and I – we were at that point the next two to go – and asked to go ahead of us. Being gentlemen we of course told her to go fuck herself, and to wait in line like everyone else. A wave of obscenities began to pour from her mouth, and they continued as I went to the bathroom, did my business and then opened the door to let Jared take the next turn. The chick shot me a glare as I walked by her and again dropped some nasty words from admittedly lovely lips in my general direction. I just smiled and waited for Jared.

Jared exited a few minutes later, held the door for the girl, cavalierly waved her in, smiled and walked over to me. He then pulled me quickly to a spot at the bar as far away as possible from the bathroom and began to laugh hysterically.

Uh oh.

“What did you do?” I asked Jared both wanting and not wanting to know the answer.

“I pissed on the seat,” he replied.

“Ha! Nice!” I said. That girl probably deserved it. Sadly it didn’t end there.

“And then I pissed on the sink. On the wall. On the floor. Basically there isn’t a single dry spot left in that bathroom!” And then he ordered us both a beer and laughed.

Nervously glancing over my shoulder I eventually noticed the girl who suffered from Jared’s bladder’s tirade walk by us at the bar, give us both the finger, and without a word walk out the door with the rest of her friends.

We found someone to take another picture of ourselves to celebrate our urinal victory. The picture showed two smiling guys, but both of whose shirts were hanging out. I also had meatball stains on my sweater.

We drank more and as the evening wore on I tried to keep to myself and my friend for the most part. That wasn’t easy when hanging out with Jared, who was far more extroverted than me and engaged anyone who would or wouldn’t listen to him in conversation. He thrived on being the center of attention, and would have made a great stage actor if he hadn’t been miscast as an auditor. Still, he tended to be funny, obnoxious and prone to do about anything. Perfect company for a New Years Eve binge.

On yet another trip to the single stall restroom, I literally bumped into a girl wearing a white dress. Luckily I didn’t get any meatball stains on her. Her white dress really stood out. And not in a good way. It wasn’t a smart cocktail-type, white dress. It was more of a “princess at the ball” dress which made her look silly considering where we were. And I told her so.

“You have prom tonight?” I asked, in a not quite inebriated but quickly getting there manner.

“I’m an assistant to the mayor of Boston – Mr. Menino. I just came from a banquet attended by some of the biggest politicians from town. I’m meeting a friend here. Who the fuck do you think you are?”

“Just some asshole,” I said honesty. “Got anyone to kiss when the ball drops?”

“Yes, and it ain’t you buddy, that’s for sure. Piss off.”

Boston girls were pretty awesome.

We didn’t make a ton of friends that night, though we certainly had a number of folks we didn’t piss off (or on) as the night got later and everyone got more and more drunk. But we also didn’t make any additional mortal enemies. And it became pretty obvious to both of us that there would be no female companionship to kick off the millennium. But with Jared sleeping on the couch and the amount of fun we were consuming, it really didn’t matter.

New Years Eve counted down live on a small, mostly green colored television in the corner.

Dick Clark stared into my eyes like a soulless vampire. He was telling me to do something for him. I just wasn’t quite sure what. I assumed there would be a subliminal code word involved that would activate his plan.

Some girls poured champagne into a party hat like a funnel, which at the end contained my mouth.

We took another picture to celebrate. This one showed Jared and I both drenched in sweat and alcohol, my glasses were on crooked and both our shirts were out and unbuttoned showing t-shirt underneath. I had lost my sweater completely at that point.

Later, we decided to catch a cab back to my place and I took an entire container of meatballs off the table nearest the exit with me. It probably weighed twenty pounds and my hands actually got burned a bit as I held the tin catering receptacle. I was beyond fear at that point and didn’t try to hide them (not that I could have) or run. I simply walked outside, strode calmly past the bouncer and the line of folks waiting to get in and straight into the cab.

The perfect crime. And a victimless one at that.

A confession: for some reason when I was younger I had a habit of stealing food at the end of heavy, holiday-related drinking nights. At another New Years party a few years prior, at complete stranger’s house, I actually placed an entire honey baked ham under my arm and ran out the door yelling “Out of my way! Ham!” I’m not sure if it was the theft or the fact I had also fallen into the (covered) pool earlier in the night that caused me to never be invited back. I’d like to think the culinary thefts were because I didn’t have a lot of money in those days. But on reflection I was being less “Robin Hood” and more “really drunk guy who had uninhibited decision making.” I’m happy to report though that it was just a phase, and after a certain point I stopped stealing food and instead just went through a late night Taco Bell or White Castle drive-thru.

Anyways, Jared, I and the still heavenly pan of meatballs all returned to my place in Brookline. Mike, his girlfriend and Ralph were all back as well – and everyone was in similar, late night New Years Eve shape. In fact, as we walked in the door Mike was banging on his bedroom door and yelling through it to Stephanie, who had somehow locked herself in the room.

Acting purely on survival instincts, since, she could probably only survive in there for a week, tops – I ran to the kitchen and grabbed a butcher knife. I then proceeded to chip away at the wood around the door latch. This, surprisingly, did nothing but eventually remove a few hundred dollars from our security deposit. Luckily, Jared had a similarly well devised plan and ran full board from the adjacent bathroom and slammed his shoulder into the door in an attempt to unhinge it.

The door was unimpressed. And Jared crumpled to the ground writhing in pain.

The incident did have a happy ending, as Stephanie eventually simply found the lock that was miraculously attached to her side of the door and unlocked it, thereby setting her free.

When all was said and done, the terrifying Y2K bug ended up not really resulting in mass blackouts, electronic failures or really anything at all. It certainly didn’t effect the Playstation, which we fired back up and played till the sun came up.

Jared’s shoulder ended being only badly bruised. And truth be told the only really horrific injury that occurred on New Years 1999 occurred to Jared’s custom wrestler, who was beaten senseless by Cow Patty with a virtual chair to the head at least a hundred times that early morning.

Love and Meatballs in Boston, Part 1

Reading Time: 7 minutes

 

In 1999, people thought their computers were going to kill them.

Since then, the “Y2K bug” has been a largely forgotten episode but it was a pretty damn big deal at the time. To be clear, since you are reading this – obvious spoiler alert – the world didn’t end, but at that time folks were definitely unnerved and thinking that was a possibility leading up to New Years Eve and the end of the 1990s.

Even without social media and the level of connectivity the world has today there was a lot of chatter and speculation. The press played its normal role of framing the story, instilling fear and generally freaking the more gullible subset of the human populace the fuck out.

And what better story than the Y2k bug? If you recall (and please continue even if you don’t) there was a glitch in computers of all types that would manifest when the internal computing clocks struck 2000. Apparently, in many computers the code was programmed in such a way that only the last two digits in years within the computer’s internal clock would change, meaning anything past 1999 wouldn’t be recognized or the internal clocks would change from 1999 to 1900 and stop functioning. In the run up to New Years that year there were a myriad of other related, horrific, Maximum Overdrive-style possibilities being floated.

(Yeah, that description sucked. Look, I’m not a computer scientist and you most likely have internet access. Feel free to go Wikipedia to find a better explanation, Einstein.)

As my admittedly diluted explanation shows, I (and most people) were never quite clear on the mechanics of how it was all going to go down but that still didn’t stop us from thinking a computer glitch was going to cause ATMs to stop working, transit systems to not function and planes to fall out of the sky. Factor in the timing – the end of the century and millennium – with its typical religious zealots and never-do-wells predicting the end of the world and the Y2K bug story became bigger, and more frightening, than was probably necessary.

For me though, that year was marked not just with all that nonsense floating around in the collective human ether, but my impending completion of graduate school in Boston. Those two factors – and an additional one more personal – resulted in me having a very “fuck it” or, to be more polite, “come what may” attitude as the millennium closed.

To add more color to this wondrous period of my life, I was in my mid-20s finishing up graduate school at Emerson College. Emerson, located in downtown Boston, had a fairly unique set of classes at the graduate level. For me specifically, they offered the relatively rare option of receiving what amounted to a Masters of Arts in marketing. Since I despised numbers of all types (stop staring at me 27!) and my undergraduate degree was in marketing I made the decision that the “B” in MBA wasn’t ultimately necessary to my career. Plus my GMAT scores – a test which I took on two hours sleep and terribly hung over – showed me to be highly proficient in the area of verbal matters, reading comprehension and creative writing. Conversely, my scores in math placed me firmly in the middle seat of the slow bus to Dumdumville.

And honestly, after being out of school for a year and a half and working for a Wendy’s franchisee I decided I wasn’t ready for the real world quite yet. Especially if the real world entailed me sitting in my Honda Prelude timing how long it took on average for a car to make it through the Wendy’s drive-thru. For 75 locations. In 3 different states. With that or graduate school as an option, tens of thousands of dollars in school loan debt didn’t seem so bad.

I was and continue to be aware of the fact that marketing and advertising folks are generally held in about as high regard as politicians and serial rapists and that historically marketing classes tend to attract an “Island of Misfit Toys” collection of castoffs from other, more esteemed curriculums. But for whatever reason, I seemed to have an aptitude for the “art” and theories of marketing. As a result, I enjoyed those classes immensely and almost exclusively, no doubt resulting in the good grades I received in those classes. Those grades then propelled me into the academic virtuous cycle that dropped me like a twister (cyclone not ice cream) in Boston.

And resulted in my story present-time as well as future-tense predicament: a marketing career.

One of the other plusses to attending Emerson College was that at the time they were considered one of the most “wired” colleges in the country. And though the late 90s don’t seem that long ago, when considering the acceleration of technology that has occurred in the past decade plus since; we were at the time closer to rock scraping Neanderthals versus the multi-screen consuming super humans we are today. A “computer lab” with a half dozen computers with Word Perfect installed was a big deal. And the ability to readily access the burgeoning World Wide Web was hugely impressive. And not just for the photos of naked women you could view and/or print out. And all joking aside, that process DID occur painfully slow as the photos revealed themselves line by pixilated line like an extended computerized erotic massage.

In addition to shifting my career toward more digital-oriented marketing, there were a number of big personal events that occurred while in Boston.

Just physically living there was one of them.

I had moved to Boston after getting accepted into Emerson College without every visiting either the college or city. The first time I experienced both was when I pulled up in my friend’s car and moved in with 4 people into a tiny multilevel apartment in Beacon Hill. I had never met any of them before. It was a very real world experience, in a MTV kind of way, too. Eventually I met people from all over the world, of all creeds and politics (okay, well, it being Boston it was mostly liberal), and even became good friends with a number of gay guys – which, for someone who lived his life primarily in small towns in the Midwest was eye-opening.

Very early during my first year in Boston, I ended up in a relationship with one of my 4 roommates. She was smart, beautiful and my first true relationship. She was half Spanish, half Columbian and was at Emerson to be a political reporter. She actually even had her own multi-hour, NPR-like political radio talk show at the school. My father had discussed/yelled politics at me my entire life and here I was at 24, sipping a beer with a beautiful girl and discussing the pros and cons of European-style socialism versus the free market system.

It was a passionate, intense and ultimately confusing relationship for me. It was the type of relationship where we would scream, she would spit in my face, I would break something against the wall, and then we would immediately smoke weed and sleep together. We broke up multiple times and she cheated on me every time she went back home to New Orleans (and of course made a point to tell me about it). And in the interest of full disclosure, I cheated on her as well but only during our “breaks.” She never agreed with the importance of that distinction, but I truly felt like I had some emotional and definitional air cover for my actions.

I wouldn’t trade that relationship for anything. Sure, it was ill-conceived and crazy – as she and I both likely were – but I learned a lot about women and life, even if the primary lesson was that dating a roommate is a poor idea in general. This is in addition to the ancillary, repeatedly forgotten lesson that my intelligence drops in half in the face of real (or imagined) interest in me from females.

We broke up for good a year and a half after it began. We had been running on fumes at that point, and she wasn’t really happy in Boston. We discussed me moving back with her to New Orleans and I actually considered it for a spell, but even with my then emotional naiveté I knew that would end badly. Most likely for me.

One night she took a call from the apartment in Southie she rented while sitting on my lap in her kitchen (she had moved into her own place at that point). She listened, hung up and then began to sob uncontrollably. Her mom had called to tell her that her father had collapsed in the kitchen and was at the hospital in a coma. He had suffered a brain aneurism mid-sentence during a dinner party.

I helped make travel plans for her, and in fact bought her plane ticket on a credit card. She caught the first flight out that next morning. A small blessing was that she ultimately managed to make it in time to see him before he died – though he never regained consciousness. It was a crushing shock to her mom and family, as he was only 50 years old when he passed.

There was a very real possibility that I wouldn’t see her again.

But I did. But only once: when she came back to get her stuff and fill out paperwork dropping out of Emerson.

She had decided to withdraw from Emerson and move back to New Orleans to live with her Mom, and this while needing only a few more credits for graduation. There was no discussion between us because I had zero say in the matter. And I had made the decision previously that I wouldn’t move there. Not that it mattered, since she had started dating her high school boyfriend in the month since our separation. Which (again) she dutifully told me about and who she promptly cheated on…the day she told me.

The next morning, I walked her to the “T” – the subway in Boston. There, I stood with her waiting at the Harvard Avenue stop for the “B” Green Line that would eventually take her to the airport. We ended up quickly hugging but it had as much passion as a hand shake with a stranger.

She stepped on the subway. And I never saw her again…

…But I did trade an email with her once.

A few days after Hurricane Katrina I sent her a quick email asking her if she was okay and if there was anything I could do to help her and her family. Earlier that night, I had been watching hurricane coverage and became concerned when the network anchors explained that Metairie, just northwest of New Orleans (and where she had moved back to) had been particularly hard hit by the storm. I emailed without expectation of a reply. And respond she did (and quickly), thanking me and telling me she had lost everything and was temporarily living in a dorm room at the LSU campus in Baton Rouge. (I couldn’t help but think to myself – with whom?) She also told me she was a reporter and part-time producer for the local CBS station in New Orleans, and had been one of the last to stay on the air that night. She mentioned that she and her family were relocating to Houston and she didn’t know what would happen next.

And I don’t know what ever did, either.

[Editors Note: Well, until…]

Flight from the Shadow

Reading Time: 1 minutes

Heard this on the Reboot Podcast, that was sent to me by a friend after they read my previous post. And it really struck me. It is from Chuang Tzu, who was born in 370 B.C. It again shows the struggle that many people go through…and captures it wonderfully:

There was a man who was so disturbed
by the sight of his own shadow
and so displeased
with his own footsteps,
that he determined to get rid of both.

The method he hit upon was
to run away from them.
So he got up and ran.

But everytime he poot his foot down
there was another step,
while his shadow kept up with him
without the slightest difficulty.

He attributed his failure
to the fact
that he was not running fast enough.
So he ran faster and faster,
without stopping,
until he finally dropped dead.

He failed to realize
that if he merely stepped into the shade,
his shadow would vanish,
and if he sat down and stayed still,
there would be no more footsteps.

Exact text quote courtesy of The Unbounded Spirit.

-AD

Unquiet Minds

Reading Time: 4 minutes

I envy those with a quiet mind. Mine tends to push me, scold me, and process items, angles and obsessions. Promote addictions like the devil on my shoulder. And my thoughts can loop over and over. Anything from an upcoming presentation and running through worst case scenarios, to rethinking sentences that I uttered to coworkers and friends.

Could I have said X instead of Y? What does B think of me? They obviously think I’m weird, an idiot, a fool. Why do I keep saying those things? 

There is also the envisioning of praise from people, and imagining conversations that don’t exist or situations – like compliments from someone who would never give you one – that haven’t and probably won’t, occur.

This is some of the best thinking I’ve seen.

Many people have these kinds of thoughts. Doubt is normal. Periods of minimal personal esteem is not a niche. Light obsession, over an ex- or potential love, a presentation, your body, that first grey hair, your paunch, is part of most people’s life at some point. Misspeaking or saying and doing things you regret, not being able to sleep, as you become frustratingly mindful of the hour of the night, and the decreasing amount of time you have until your alarm goes off – these are parts of the human experience.

“Voices” can just as easily be encouraging as a mental albatross.

You you look like you’ve lost weight. Even at your age, you are exceedingly handsome.

To personalize things, a strong support group of friends and two lovely boys and an understanding wife keeps me – relatively – emotionally even. Without sleep, it is harder to fend off. And when you have two very young boys and a hectic life, you suffer an almost constant deficit of both sleep and mental energy. Overlaying all of this is the stark realization (don’t call it a crisis of midlife) of getting older, which, sure as shit ain’t helping.

Is this really it? This is life? Lose some weight, your fat face is tough to look at in the mirror. 

Now, far be it for me to hide behind science, but, well:

“Social economists from the University of Melbourne have found that happiness levels is the lowest in people aged 40 to 42.”

(So yeah, swimming upstream a bit here with that combo of genes + Father Time.)

This constant mental processing is called thought loops or circular reasoning. For those who can’t relate – and lucky you – its a constant rumination that surfaces repeatedly throughout the day. For me, it’s around particular topics and/or people in my life. Or future potentially stressful moments – airport trips with kids, presentations to clients, upcoming meetings or talks with people who make me uncomfortable. The way it works, you can be sitting at your desk listening to jazz music, and in pops a certain line of thinking. Think of it as trying to drive straight, minding your own business, but your car keeps veering off the highway every few minutes as you struggle to straighten.

You wake up and its there. You eat and look at the water fountains and it’s there.

So many people will be at that presentation. What was I supposed to say. I will blank. I always do. People will get uncomfortable and look downward. My face will turn red.

For the most part, its controllable. For me, I have a tendency for some mild manic thinking anyways. Exercise and yes, a few glasses of wine, help tremendously. Plus, to be perfectly honest, I’ve dealt with such a range of shit anyways throughout my life that I have a pretty good grasp of about every disorder, situation and chemically induced (or otherwise) feeling a human can have. I’ve been blessed/cursed with hyper-self awareness earned through experience. So there is no fooling myself and I look these things pretty squarely in the eye (or write about it at least).

No one will read this. Which is good because, you aren’t a good writer anyways. You voice is not needed.

And to be clear, this kind of stuff – anxiety, depression, insomnia or whatever is mentally stalling you – effects a large swath of the population.

As a quick aside, I was disgusted by the way the media handled talking about the German pilot who took down that plane full of people of few months ago. It was a horrific thing, but the framing and demonizing of his depression was really shitty. (One of the many reason I don’t watch news.)

As the stats above show, these feelings are quite common in people. It’s important though, to understand that looping thoughts are one thing. Thoughts of hurting yourself or others is another thing all together. And I don’t mean light fantasies, I mean, really getting to that point where you plan it out. Please, please get help if that’s the case. Talk to someone. Get on the drugs to even you out. Many people talk to therapists. It is common and effective. I had a spell where I did and it worked for me.

Or did it?

And talk about it with people who understand or at least will listen. For me, in addition to the exercising and the aforementioned battery of “natural” chemicals I have an exceedingly strong support group of friends. Loneliness begets loneliness. Stepping into the light and fighting is the best medicine.

But to be frank, if you are inclined to such thinking – it probably won’t just up and go away completely no matter what you do. There is no “cure.” That should never be the expectation. Spikes will occur. It’s inherent. Always there. And doubt, and some self-criticism to drive you to be better, and getting nervous and having anxiety are actually pretty normal human emotions. Obsession isn’t, nor is deep depression, but its more about smoothing out the peaks and valleys.

I thought this was about you? You are deferring. And pretty obviously I might add. 

Be in the present. Feel. Enjoy friends. Have lunch and conversations with someone you have a connection with – no matter who they are. Your kids. Your spouse. Coworkers. Whoever or whatever makes you feel good. And more importantly, makes yourself feel something real.

No one cares. They sure don’t. He doesn’t and neither does she.

That is by no means to say I have my own shit together. I’m not a self-help guru speaking platitudes and “truth.” But I have learned one truth about myself: I don’t write for readership, I write for my own sanity. That has always been the case.

And maybe you can find that outlet, too. And maybe someone reading this will be helped in some minuscule way…even if it is ultimately, just me.

-AD