Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Body Modification

If I remember correctly, the first big fight I had with my (soon to be) ex-wife was over a tattoo. This was probably 17 years ago, while we were dating and still in college. The tattoo was innocent enough, but the problem was more about her not having a say in me getting it than the tattoo itself. We ended up working through it, and eventually I got more and more tattoos with no issue, as did she. At the end of the day, we agreed our bodies are our own, and we can do to them as we want. That doesn't mean we won't be judged for our modifications, however...

The term "body modification" can encompass pretty much any type of physical alteration you can imagine, a large subset of which can also be called "body art". When most people think of body modification, they think of tattoos and piercings, however I tend to think more inclusively. Very common modifications, in my opinion, include makeup (temporary body art) and circumcision. I would also put breast implants and bodybuilding in the same bucket. In popular Western culture, modifications considered more "extreme" might be micro-dermal, trans-dermal and genital implants, non-ear piercings, tongue or genital splitting or cutting, binding, stretching, branding, scarring, tooth filing, ear shaping, nullification (body part removal), etc. The list goes on and on.

I recently watched the 2005 movie "Modify", and was duly impressed. It featured extremely candid footage, interviews and discussions on the topic and it's history. In my opinion, the underlying theme had as much to do with people's acceptance level and perception of body modification as it did with people's reasons for modifying themselves. I would highly recommend this movie if you are curious, although I should warn you that there are some very graphic scenes (like liposuction surgery and penis splitting). The message conveyed is that everyone has a different mental/emotional/cultural/spiritual line distinguishing what is normal or acceptable, and what is extreme or wrong - or even classified as mutilation. What is attractive to me might be considered disgusting to you. Certainly there were things in the movie which I would never consider doing to myself, but far be it for me to stop them from doing it to themselves.

My perception is that my modifications are quite tame. So far, they only include 4 ear piercings (2 on each lobe) and 8 tattoos. All my tattoos are personal to me, which I think is the best kind. I didn't go pick "tattoo #57" off a wall in a tattoo shop, and I wasn't drunk when I got them. And yes, they hurt a little, and I'm glad they did. A "rite of passage" of sorts. You have to earn your ink! My tattoos include, in reverse-chronological order:
  1. The back of a skeleton, life size matching my shape on my entire back side (head to heals and head to finger tips). So far just the outline is completed.
  2. My sons' names in script on my right forearm.
  3. My daughter and ex-wife's names in script on my left forearm.
  4. A Buddhist endless knot on my left calf.
  5. A vine wristband around my right wrist.
  6. A large crow carrying a Native American medicine bag with an infinity symbol on my chest.
  7. A tribal-like arm band with a guitar in the center around my left bicep.
  8. An accidental right thumb-stab by an India ink pen in high school art class. Yes, it's permanent, and yes, I consider it my first tattoo. ;)
I already have my next tattoo in mind after the skeleton is shaded/darkened/styled, which will probably take quite a long time. The thing about tattoos is that once you get your first (once the ink is "in your blood"), you will start craving your next, then next, then next. After that, I am seriously considering starting to get some branding done. No specific designs yet, however.

The only moral rule I have regarding body modification is that it is safely performed and ONLY at the informed choice of the person being modified. This is why I abhor things like breast ironing and female circumcision in cultures where young girls are being put through such torture. Similarly, although I am a circumcised male, my boys' mother and I chose not to circumcise them when they were born. We felt that if someday - if they choose it for themselves - they can have it done under their own free will. (We feel the same way about not forcing any particular religion on our sons and daughter. It has to be a personal choice of theirs which we will respect.)

Forced modifications aside, why do people choose to modify their bodies? For some, the response might be related to self-image or peer acceptance, for others, affiliation or identification with a group or philosophy, others, remembrance of an important person or event, still others, they find it artistically or aesthetically pleasing, and so on. But there is no one-size-fits-all answer, and I truly believe that to know for sure you're gonna have to ask the people themselves. In most cases, they will be more than happy to talk to you about it.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Surface Tension

It can suck being the nice guy. How do you know you're that guy? This has happened to you, probably a few times in your life: You've gotten to know someone, even a little bit, and you connected. Beyond physical attraction, or the standard "she's smart and funny too." Beyond common interests or even opinions to some degree. We're talkin', "Wow, there's something about this person that just clicks." A compatibility. A synergy. A familiarity. "I can open up and be myself with her." Oh, now you've gone and done it: You screwed up. You are no longer attractive to her (if you ever really were). You will now be viewed as a brother, a confidant even. A shoulder, but nothing more. Congratulations, you're "the nice guy." Who is she attracted to? The bad boy. The guy who brushes her off, who disrespects her, who hurts her. He is selfish, always choosing the needs of #1 above anyone else's. Why is she attracted to him? I can't say; I just don't get it. Maybe because his "toughness" is misconstrued as strength or confidence? Maybe he reminds her of her father, or how men are "supposed" to act, or what she thinks she deserves, no matter how screwed up that is? And where does that leave you? Alone. Wondering how beautiful and rewarding it could've been for both of you if she would've dropped her guard, listened to her gut that she really does deserve something good in her life, bucked the trend, and finally given the nice guy a chance.

Maybe this all makes me sound weak, needy or (gulp) desperate. I don't care. I'm sick of all the appearances crap, trying to act like you don't care when you really do. Not calling someone because it hasn't been enough days, or maybe because it's "her turn" to make the next move. You don't want to seem too interested, after all... If you want any chance in hell of seeing her again, you have to pretend to be the bad boy, at least a little bit. You have to play the game. You know what though? The game sucks. I hate the game. I don't know how to, nor do I want to, play it. I can only be myself, which might prolong my loneliness indefinitely, but at least I'll know that if and when something happens, it will be real.

What I need - what I think everyone needs - is intimacy. Yes, even men. There, I said it. Is that our "feminine" side? No, that's our HUMAN side. It's about feeling connected, understood, accepted, safe, warm and cared for. It is a source of compassion, love and mutual respect. It is also a source of trust, which can open the door for sexual intimacy - a beautiful thing itself and not to be slighted. If you've had the experience of lying next to someone with whom you have this level of reciprocal closeness, you know what it's like to feel "one" with someone else. The phrase "you complete me" is not cheesy - it's real. Spare me the glorified "loner" persona: humans need other humans. Here I am yet again inspired by water, and the property of droplets to naturally want to attract and stick to each other. This is known as surface tension. Appropriate, I think, as it is our natural tendency as well. We want to connect. We are drawn to one another. We want to feel together. To be together.

What keeps us from intimacy? Fear, mostly. We keep our defenses up so we don't get hurt, but the act of doing so makes it difficult to accept others and ourselves. And the longer the wall stands, the harder and harder it becomes to break down. We won't let anyone in because we don't want to get hurt. Again. When my marriage was falling apart, I remember holding out my bleeding heart as the ultimate plea offering, desperate for a shred of hope that the relationship could be mended. I was wide open, exposed as anyone could ever be. But I was rejected. She did not want to accept my love. Love is the ultimate gift, and for someone to turn down that most personal of gifts is devastating. This is the kind of pain that people carry with them. We can never forget it, but maybe we can learn from it? I'm trying to learn from it, to make the changes necessary in my life to be a better person, a better human, a better being. My happiness is ultimately my responsibility, and I admit that for a long time I've had a hard time taking that responsibility on.

Dammit, I want to be happy, and I want to re-experience intimacy. But you know what? I'm gonna keep being a nice guy, 'cause that's who I am - even if it means being alone for a longer time. There is a lot of love to give, but it can wait for the right person. When that time comes, I only hope she is ready to accept it.

Friday, September 4, 2009

You Really Don't Matter

One of the great things I like about living outside of the city is my relatively unadulterated view of the night sky. Even such a mundane task as putting out the garbage becomes an enjoyable experience when I stop at the end of the driveway, look up, and soak it all in. The smell of the trees, grass and water, the feel of the cool night air, the sound of the crickets and frogs, and of course: the seemingly countless stars filling my vision. But it always makes me think, "Damn I'm small."

I've blogged before about the concept of purpose. Specifically, that a man needs to feel like he has made an impact on his environment, that he can make a difference - that his life has purpose. Soberly, I know I will never come anywhere close to comparing to Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr, Mother Teresa, the Dalai Lama, or the like. But even the greatest of people doing the greatest of deeds for the greatest number of beings quickly becomes insignificant in the vastness of just our known universe - or, on a much smaller scale, just the history of mankind within a short sliding window of time. Heck, it's only been less than 2,000 years since Jesus walked the Earth, and millions of people have died disagreeing about what he did or didn't say or do, or even if he was or is what he or others said he was. Even what he looked like is conjecture. (BTW, I seriously doubt he was white.)

Now think about yourself. Do you have delusions of grandeur that you actually matter? Probably. At times we all do. But if you died, what impact would that really make? Your loved ones would be sad, very much so for a period of time, and your friends and co-workers would miss you for a little while. But everyone would get by and eventually move on with their lives. I remember how sad I was when my grandfather died, but now weeks go by that I don't even think about him. I'm not proud of that, but it's the truth. Over the past year, personal events have greatly exacerbated my fight with depression. So much so that there are entire days where I can't seem to shake the thought that there's no point in me going on living, other than to provide a paycheck for those fiscally dependent on me. The only thing that short-circuits that thought is the knowledge that even though they don't live with me anymore, my children do love me, and I love them too much to completely remove myself from their lives. If it wasn't for them, I'm fairly certain I would've emptied that bottle of sleeping pills by now. Still, their importance to me or my importance to them is only a relative concept we have amongst ourselves.

A few weeks ago I was sitting outside a Rochester, NY bar (LUX), people watching. I was literally disgusted, not just with them but with myself. All these people dressed up or down, drinking their cheap beers or overpriced cocktails, chatting away about nothing. Absolutely NOTHING. What kind of life is that? Seriously? And here I am, doing it too. And I'll probably do it again. Why? Because I've got nothing better to do? Grrr. Look at that tree over there. Wow, that's a big tree. Probably a couple hundred years old. A blinking light passes by in the distance. A plane. From that distance, even the tallest redwoods aren't even a spec of peachfuzz to the naked eye. And from the moon, the largest mountains are glassy-smooth on the curvature of the seemingly perfect sphere we call Earth. To our Sun, a mere 93 million miles away, the Earth is barely a circling gnat. And there are billions of solar systems in our galaxy. The Milky Way is so huge, that at the speed of light it would take 100,000 years to cross it. And their are billions of galaxies in our perceived universe. AND, if you subscribe to the "Big Bang" theory as the origin to our universe, then it is conceivably possible that there have existed multiple "big bangs" that have originated other universes. And we're still only talking about our temporal plane of existence, our dimension of understanding. If our sun collapsed and created a black hole, and sucked us all up, the truth is that the cosmos would not even notice. Countless theoretical civilizations on unreachable worlds would never know we ever existed. Hell, if you died today I bet your neighbor one block away wouldn't know, or probably care. Does anybody under the age of 60 even read the obituaries?

But we matter to God, right? Well, first prove to me that God exists. Wait, which religion's "god" or "gods" are we talking about it? The one predominant to our culture? The one that has the most followers? The one that's been around the longest? I guess it comes down to faith, "faith" to me being a best guess or gut feel that this is the correct thing to believe. The thing that makes me comfortable not understanding everything, that makes me sleep better at night, that makes me think that I actually matter.

Sorry to break this to you, but you really don't matter. And neither do I.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

50 Songs for Sadness

I don't know what "most people" listen to when they're feeling down. For some, it might be happy music to try to cheer themselves up. I bet there's quite a few (if not most), however, that do what I do: they listen to music that provides a sort of soundtrack for what they're going through. Something that they can tune in to which gives their mind a point of reference and focus, as opposed to the flurry of random thoughts that might otherwise ensue. The lyrics don't necessarily need to be related; it's the feeling you associate with the music that's important.

Tonight I decided to compile a list of 10 songs that I go back to during such times, with no more than one song per artist (which sometimes made for difficult decisions). Well, the list quickly grew to 50, and I could probably get it to 100 without much more effort! I need get to bed soon, though... They are listed below, sorted alphabetically by artist name - not by preference. I will italicize my top ten, however. I am curious to hear your comments on this somewhat eclectic list, as well any additions you might propose.

  1. Air - "All I Need"
  2. Alice In Chains - "Down In A Hole"
  3. Beatles - "Yesterday"
  4. ? - "Black Snake Moan" (acted by Samuel L. Jackson)
  5. Cat Power - "Babydoll"
  6. Chavela Vargas - "La Llorona"
  7. Clint Mansell - "Requiem for a Tower" (from the movies "Requiem for a Dream" and "Sunshine")
  8. Coldplay - "A Rush of Blood to the Head"
  9. Dead Can Dance - "How Fortunate the Man With None"
  10. Empty Grave - "Under My Skin"
  11. Eurythmics - "Here Comes The Rain Again"
  12. Everlast - "What It's Like"
  13. Frou Frou - "Let Go"
  14. Gary Jules - "Mad World" (from the movie "Donnie Darko"; original by Tears for Fears)
  15. Gnarls Barkley - "Who's Gonna Save My Soul" (crazy video)
  16. Gorillaz - "El Mañana"
  17. Gustavo Santaolalla - "The Wings"
  18. Jane's Addiction - "Three Days"
  19. Jeff Buckley - "Halleluja"
  20. Johnny Cash - "Hurt" (original by Nine Inch Nails)
  21. Kansas - "Dust In The Wind"
  22. Led Zeppelin - "The Battle of Evermore"
  23. Lhasa de Sela - "De Cara a la Pared"
  24. Meghan Coffee - "Nightingale"
  25. Metallica - "Unforgiven"
  26. Moby - "Porcelain"
  27. Neil Young - "Old Man"
  28. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds - "Do You Love Me"
  29. Nick Drake - "One of These Things"
  30. Nirvana - "Something in the Way"
  31. October Project - "Bury My Lovely"
  32. Peter Murphy - "Keep Me From Harm"
  33. Pink Floyd - "Comfortably Numb" (from the album/movie "The Wall")
  34. Portishead - "Sour Times"
  35. Radiohead - "Street Spirit (Fade Out)"
  36. Sia - "Breathe Me" (Mylo Remix)
  37. Sinéad O'Connor - "Troy" (almost chose "Feel So Different")
  38. Steve Baker & Carmen Daye - "For Whom The Bells Toll" (from the movie "Donnie Darko")
  39. Stevie Nicks / Fleetwood Mac - "Landslide" (Smashing Pumpkins does a great cover)
  40. Sting - "Shape of my Heart" (from the movie "Léon"/"The Professional")
  41. The Cure - "The Same Deep Water As You"
  42. The Doors - "The End"
  43. The Future Sound of London - "Papua New Guinea"
  44. The Mars Volta - "The Widow"
  45. The Smiths - "That Joke Isn't Funny Anymore"
  46. The Verve - "Bitter Sweet Symphony"
  47. Tom Waits - "Dirt in the Ground"
  48. Tool - "Forty Six & 2"
  49. U2 - "Tomorrow"
  50. Zero 7 - "In the Waiting Line"

Monday, June 29, 2009


It's raining outside. I love the sweet, fresh smell of it, and the sound of the raindrops hitting the trees and ground. I got to thinking about how impactful water has been - and is - to me. Beyond the obvious physical need, it has played an important role in my life, being a frequent companion of mine in the poignant highs and lows of my existence.

When I was young, water was a medium for fun and relaxation. My grandparents lived on a small lake south of my home town. They had a canoe, a sailboat and a motor boat, and some of my best memories are being out on that lake paddling through the lily pads, water-skiing with most of the men in my family, and a little bit of fishing. On the Fourth of July you would see everyone's campfires dotting the edge of the lake, and you could walk around and have s'mores with pretty much anyone, since there was a such sense of community. You could take a boat out to the middle of the lake to watch the small-scale fireworks show overhead, or just stay on shore and watch the fireflies put on their own show.

As I grew into adolescence, I starting lifeguarding and teaching swimming lessons - a natural early job considering the years of lessons and training I had taken myself, as well as my aforementioned experience in and around water. My older sister and younger brother also lifeguarded and taught; it kinda ran in the family. I remember how much I enjoyed teaching Red Cross-sponsored young childrens' swimming classes every Saturday. So much, in fact, that I think it was way back then that I actually started thinking about having my own children someday.

Of course, water activities can often bring awkwardness, especially during one's teenage years. What guy hasn't been stuck in the pool, because if he were to get out the whole world would see the boner he had after watching the girls in their bikinis? Embarrassing situations involving pools followed me to college - a strict Christian college mind you - where my future wife, best friend and I broke in and went skinny-dipping, only to be caught by the nighttime security guard. For that and other acts of indiscretion, I was suspended from college, but thankfully was able to return the following semester, when I received a 3.9 GPA - "just to prove I could if I wanted to." I didn't maintain it after that...

Getting more serious, water is not only with me during the lighter times of my life, but also the darker. Water can bring fear: ridiculous fear like stressing about sharks, possibly due to watching one too many Jaws movies as a kid (1 was awesome, 2 was okay, "3-D" was bad, and 4 was absolutely horrendous), or parental fear like worrying about my children drowning. If I was a religious person, I might be able to appreciate the symbolic meaning of water. Religion is rife with it, as it can represent a cleansing, an immersion, an act of faith and dedication, or beginning a new life. Baptism is just one example of this. But I don't ascribe to any organized religion, so I can't rely upon such positive symbolism.

Lately for me, water has become more of a channel to contemplate, or possibly escape from, my life. I have had to deal with depression throughout all my years, but it has been near-debilitating in the last 8 months or so. I have been on anti-depressants for a few months now, but honestly I can't tell if they are working. I'm afraid to stop taking them, though. Remember one of the opening scenes in American Beauty, when Kevin Spacey (whilst in mid-life crisis) is jerking off in the shower? It's not the masturbation that's noteworthy in the scene; that's normal. (Note: every guy has done that countless times in the shower; if he says he hasn't, he's lying.) What's noteworthy is that he is escaping. In the solitude and privacy of the shower, he is transporting his mind to some other place, so that he can experience some respite. I can relate to that, because almost every morning I stand in the shower and time stops. I can't focus. I can't move. I just lean up against the shower wall, with a thousand thoughts and at the same time zero thoughts assaulting me. "How can I face this day?" I shut down. Half an hour goes by and I haven't even started washing. "I really need to get going," but I can't. My mind turns to the water streaming down my face, and I look through the waterfall as a distorted lens.

Some evenings I step into the jacuzzi to relax after a tiring day. The hotter the better. It burns at first, but after my nerves give up trying to complain, I slide in the rest of the way. If I submerse my ears, I hear the soothing sound of nothingness. "Is this what it would be like to be deaf?" Sometimes I don't think I'm far off from that. It's almost like a sensory deprivation tank, like William Hurt experimented with in Altered States. Mixing that with an experimental hallucinatory drug, he was able to delve into his "altered states" of consciousness. But I don't need his drug - I have my depression. I turn over, exhale completely, and hit the bottom of the tub. "Is this what it would be like to be dead? It's not so bad. Let's see how long I can stay down here." My lungs are complaining. It doesn't take long for them to start having mini-convulsions. But I don't want to come up for air; I want to stay down in that silence. It is safe there. It is peaceful. It is my cocoon.

What is it about water that has such a powerful effect on us? Is it it's fluidity, how it can dynamically reshape itself to fill in every crevice of what it may envelop, so you can "lose yourself" weightlessly in it? Is it because we cleanse ourselves with it, both physically and often spiritually? Is it simply our natural dependence on it, being the foundation for life on this planet? Does it bring us back to the time we spent in our mothers' wombs? I don't know. All I do know is that it has always been there for me, in the good times and bad. A friend without criticism or condition. One of the few constants in my life.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

How I Listen to Music

I'm losing my hearing, and it sucks. It's not because I went to too many loud concerts, or spent countless hours with headphones cranked up. The doctor says that in the middle-ear of my right ear, the three little bones inside are either fusing together, or drifting apart. Only surgery (which may or may not help, or kill all hearing in that ear) would be able to expose the truth. Whichever the cause, the bones are not moving the way they should, which reduces my hearing in that ear by 70 percent - and it's getting worse. More and more I find myself asking people to repeat themselves, and it's getting frustrating to me and them. The other option beyond surgery is a hearing aid, but waddya know: insurance doesn't cover them, and they are not cheap. It's not all bad, though. I still have "normal" hearing (for my age) in my left ear - the one that does all the work these days. And if I need peace and quiet, all I have to do is lay down with my good ear on the pillow and my bad ear up, and I can't hear a damn thing.

So what does any of that have to do with the subject of this post? Well for starters, I can tell you that it makes me appreciate what I have while I have it. Listening to music is a significant aspect of my life, but how I listen to it might seem a bit strange to some readers. To me, the artist's meaning of the song usually has no bearing on the value of that song. In fact, I very rarely pay any attention to the lyrics, and often enjoy tracks without words even more (possibly explaining my gravitation to electronic music). My wife's skill at remembering lyrics back through her childhood is amazing. I can't think of one song I know every word to, but I don't care.

When I listen to music, I think I am more listening to my stirred emotions and memories more than the actual notes and chords, rhythms and layers themselves. (This coming from a guitarist and former recording studio engineer!) I'm especially not focusing on the lyrics. It doesn't matter if the artist originally intended for the song to be about death and destruction - for me it evoked feelings of persistence and self-discovery. A song written about finding love could instead be interpreted as losing it, or some other disenchantment. You see, an artist can try as hard as possible to convey his or her feelings to the observer, but invariably things transform in the transmission. The difference for me is that I don't fight it. I embrace it.

A few weeks ago I went to a reunion concert where the band consisted of old friends from my college days. It was an evening which started off as one of escape, but turned into one delivering spiritual medicine. I had been feeling at rock-bottom for so long, that I felt I needed to steal away into the night. Not to do anything bad, but to enjoy something for myself, to relax, to breathe. What I received was an infusion of musical healing. For sure, there was nostalgia at play, and hanging out with some long-lost friends was fun. But it was the music that blasted past my defenses and permeated my soul. As cheesy as that may sound, I felt awakened by the music. Energized. Healed. Open to forgiveness and reconciliation. And I don't remember any of the words.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Why Men Love Superheroes

Stereotypes and generalizations can be ignorant and hurtful, however sometimes they can be useful to describe a common aspect of a populace from a sociological or psychological point of view. Take today's topic. Yes, many women love superheroes or will otherwise be able to relate to the points I will describe, just as there are many men who won't find much commonality and couldn't care less. Whatever. I am a man, I love superheroes, my boys love superheroes, and I'm sure many male readers will be able to identify with me. Let's break down this phenomenon.

First, what makes a superhero super? There is usually something special or different about him. Sometimes it takes the form of powers above and beyond that of normal human ability. For example, super strength or speed, being able to fly or create fire, being able to breathe under water, etc. These powers can be innate, like being born on an alien planet and delivered to earth (Superman), they can be introduced via a scientific experiment gone awry (Dr. Manhattan), they can can be based on genetic mutation (X-Men), or other causes. Rarely, albeit validly, the superhero is fully human, but has made himself into a superhero via physical or mental development and invention (Batman - my personal favorite).

What makes a superhero a hero? This can be just as interesting as - or more interesting than - the super abilities themselves. Personally characters like Superman are boring to me because they choose to be heroes out of some unspoken righteousness. More often there is a single, poignant, defining moment in the character's life that has molded his purpose. Peter Parker's uncle was killed by a criminal that he had the opportunity to stop but didn't, and the resultant guilt was a catalyst driving him to become the hero Spider-Man. Batman's parents were similarly killed when he was a child, and he later vowed to rid Gotham of crime and be the city's protector. Without some powerful, internal conviction, these characters would not have a reason to dedicate themselves to heroic deeds. The deeds themselves are often perilous and involve life-and-death scenarios where the hero puts the needs of others before his own personal safety.

So how does this relate to the male psyche? Why do we feel "pumped" after we leave a superhero (or most any action) movie, and for a short while daydream of being that character? Is it simply a matter of feeling strong, powerful, youthful or virile? Is that why we work out at the gym, or even why we sometimes take up a martial art or boxing? Is it all testosterone-induced ego? A little, perhaps, but I think that's short-sighted of the underlying desire.

The real reason lies behind why we put in extra hours on the job, why many of us are so focused and driven to attain perfection in a particular task or trade, and why we get frustrated when we don't feel respected by our family or friends. It's the reason several wars have been fought, but also why important advances in science and medicine have been achieved. It is, quite simply, that a man needs to feel like he has made an impact on his environment, that he can make a difference - that his life has purpose. Nothing is as depressing to a man than the thought that he does not have a purpose to exist - to not matter, to be undervalued, that the world is just going to keep on spinning and no one will remember or care whether he has ever set foot upon it.

Superheroes have a cause - a purpose for their existence and a role in society that is looked up to. They are usually admired and appreciated, but even if they are terrifying, they are still respected. They represent potency and meaning, strength and resilience. They achieve and complete, act with bravery, conviction and (usually) compassion. These are the traits that define a man's man, a "super" man. I think I will recant my previous comment on Superman and his boring righteousness. No, he is what we can only dream to become.

And our obsession with super-villains? Our attraction to the dark and unbound? Well, that can be a topic all by itself...

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Guilt and Giving

I shouldn't have done it. Given, that is. It all started with guilt: I had received, on a handful of occasions, a few "free" mail return address self-stick labels. They come with the hope that in return, I would donate to their cause. I don't even remember what the cause was fighting... Heart disease? Children's diabetes? Breast cancer? I dunno, but I felt bad that I had used these labels before without giving back, so I decided that okay, fine, I'd donate back to one of these causes - just one time - to make up for it. That was a mistake.

Now they won't leave me alone. I am being inundated with more and more of these things. Labels with flowers, American flags and eagles, Olympic symbols, hearts, Ziggy, aquatic scenes, Christmas ornaments, butterflies, etc. "Ding ding ding! We have a winner!" Or probably more like, "We have a sucker! This guy will pay for this type of thing." Now that I'm on the sucker list, how do I get off? There is no "opt-out". I have to just not give anymore, for some indeterminate period of time, until they get the hint. Meanwhile, they are spending more money printing and mailing these things to me - some even with a nickel attached - in hopes that I will continue to give. I feel even more guilty, because the amount I originally gave by no means covers their new expenses. But the positive feeling I first had when I gave is gone. I no longer want to give - at least not to return address label pushers! The experience has been tainted, and I am even a tad bit resentful. Surely this is not what they had hoped for.

Of course this is not the only way groups pull on our heartstrings to get us to give. Everyone has experienced those late-night television ads with the starving children, stomachs bloated and flies in their eyes in some third-world country. Or those cute little helpless puppies in the animal shelter, who have been abused and desperately need your help. You have to be a depraved individual if you don't feel sorry for these less-fortunates, right? Or maybe just desensitized by mass media and over-exposure to organizations - both commercial and charitable - who try to win your hard-earned money? After a while, they all blend together into a blurred noise, "Give, spend, spend, give." But let's skip the topic of consumerism for now; that can be left for a future post...

Now, I'm not implying that many (if not most) of these organizations are not justified in their approaches: they've found something - guilt - that works for very worthy causes, and sometimes the end does justify the means. What I'm wondering is, "Why do people give?" Is it ever a truly selfless act? One could argue that no gift is given without an expectation of something in return. That something need not be physical: it can be gratification, fulfillment, pride, or more. No one else has to know that you gave, but you know, and that gives you some sort of satisfaction. I'm not saying that's bad; I'm just saying that it's hard for me to think of a time I've given without getting something back, even if nothing was asked for or expected in return.

Why do people not give? Often greed, sometimes mistrust (of how their gift will be used or even accepted), sometimes ignorance. Logistically, it would be impossible to give to every cause - much less to every person - so we have to be judicious on how much we can give, and picky about which causes we give to. Lots of people will choose a cause based on personal experience or affiliation. For example, if you have a relative who has battled cancer, you might be more inclined to give to a related charity because you have seen how difficult it is and appreciated when people have helped. Another example, right in my own house, is my eleven year-old son, who has been pouring through books on the environment and feels strongly that it is what he wants to dedicate his efforts toward.

Finally, let's take this one step further. This post has primarily considered the topic of giving money, mostly to charities. However, my musings can be extended to any type of giving, like in interpersonal relationships. When you "give your heart" or "give your time" or "give your ear" to someone, is it likewise ever truly selfless? I believe it comes down to your intent and motivation. If your mind and heart are truly focused on benefiting that other person, then it's okay to feel good about it, to receive a kind of fulfillment in return. To be happy. The more and more I think about it, even as I type these words, I think we shouldn't let guilt get involved. It's good to have a conscience, but if you focus on the guilt of what would happen if you didn't give, you're missing the point. The focus should be on the positives of what would happen if you did give. Guilt should not be the motivation; benefiting others should be.

Monday, January 5, 2009

A Farewell Letter

My grandfather's generation was at a time when there was a promise made between employee and employer, when the employee would promise the years of his life from graduation to retirement to that single employer, and the employer would, in return, promise a stable job and guaranteed benefits - even through retirement. Those days are long gone. Today, people hop from job to job with a "grass is greener" mentality because they have to get what they can get when they can get it. There is no security that an employee can keep his job or his benefits, and no security that an employer's workers will stay. The bond is broken. To that point, I found myself in late September of 2006, crafting a "farewell" letter to my fellow coworkers. Below is that farewell letter, and I share it here with you now because I have recently had a resurgence of the same feelings I had when I originally wrote it. While I do not have immediate plans to quit my current job, I can regretfully say that the hopes I had for this job have not been fulfilled. I welcome any and all comments from anyone who can relate to the thoughts in my email below:

From: Ward, David
Sent: Thursday, September 28, 2006 4:29 PM
Subject: farewell

I have worked for quite a few companies, and, as is customary when a person leaves, have decided to write a "farewell" letter. At first I didn't want to - equating it in my mind to the cheesy, rubber-stamp one or two liners that appear in high school yearbooks. Ah... but I won't let you get off that easy. Oh no, this will not be one of those "it's been great workin' with you guys, I've learned a lot, and I wish you all the best in your professional endeavors" letters. I want to make you think, but not of me or what we worked on together - that would be egotistical on my part and frankly, does not matter. Instead, I want you to reflect upon yourself and your actions, to stand back and take a third-person view of your contribution to yourself, your family, and your society. Is this too much for a "farewell" letter? Is it unprofessional? If these are your opinions, then read no further. You might be too hardwired into the machine...

Excellent; you've decided to carry on. First, let's get one thing out of the way. As you read this letter you might ask yourself, "Who does he think he is to give me advice?" You're on the right track. I want you to be critical. I want you to question everything people try to tell you. As Mary Schmich wrote in her article, "Advice, like youth, probably just wasted on the young" -

Be careful whose advice you buy, but be patient with those who supply it. Advice is a form of nostalgia. Dispensing it is a way of fishing the past from the disposal, wiping it off, painting over the ugly parts and recycling it for more than it's worth. (1)

Truth be told, I don't have any right to tell you what you should or should not do, or try to define what is right and wrong. In fact, I am not even trying to give you any advice, since doing so, as you will read, would be hypocritical of me. I am merely trying to share with you the thoughts that have been heavy on my mind. And who am I, anyway? Am I trying to portray myself as an example for anyone to follow? Please don't. These thoughts I describe as heavy are so because they have built up without me bringing them to personal fruition, and in that lays one of my life's deepest regrets. Sure, everyone has regrets, of things they should have done and should not have done. Most are superficial, like regretting to buy a stock when it was low, or wishing you didn't drink so much at that party last night. Others are more real, like regretting a way you hurt someone you love. Just take a minute and try to define personal maturity. I propose that a person is not truly mature without real regret. How can one consider himself mature without wisdom (wisdom in my mind being knowledge through experience)? In this case, experiencing the pain that is caused from a regretful act? Regret is a powerful teacher.

So what am I regretting in this letter? What do I think is so important as to deem it worthy of sharing with you on my last day of employment? It is, simply but potently, this: not yet finding a way to make my profession benefit society. Think about it - what do we do as software engineers? In the small, our actions are inherently insignificant; we send electrical charges across wires and magnetically "etch" little zeros and ones on spinning metal platters. In the large, our actions are more palpable; we are in the profession of creating tools that help businesses make (or should I say "get") money. I am not pointing a finger at any specific company, as it is what I have done for many companies over the course of my entire career thus far. The capitalist in you might argue that this is not wrong, as it plays an important role in keeping the wheels of modern business turning. Closer to home, you might also argue that it is not wrong to benefit financially from your professional endeavors, to enjoy the fruits of you labor. What I am personally struggling with, and am sharing with you without trying to point blame, is that I do not believe anything I have done with my career has helped anyone other than myself, my employers, or my clients. Not in a way that matters anyway. How about you? As each monotonous day drags on, don't you ever question what you are doing? Is any of it really as important is it is made out to be? Code that component. Fix that bug. Test that functionality. We're not seeing the forest for the trees. Years go by and I ask myself if I have accomplished anything of importance, anything that will have a positive, lasting effect on society. I find myself falling woefully short.

Outside of work I am, along with my exceedingly supportive and patient wife, raising a family. We try to instill in our children good values, tolerance, compassion and honesty. Yes, that task is very important, but a sobering fact is that I spend a great deal more time with my coworkers (and even more time in front of a computer screen) than with my own family. If such an imbalance is going to exist, one that is difficult to overcome in our job-oriented society, than I want to make the best of it. I want to do something with it beyond line items from a project plan. I am reminded of the opening paragraph from Octavio Paz's book, "The Labyrinth of Solitude" -

All of us, at some moment, have had a vision of our existence as something unique, untransferable and very precious. This revelation almost always takes place during adolescence. Self-discovery is above all the realization that we are alone: it is the opening of an impalpable, transparent wall - that of our consciousness - between the world and ourselves. It is true that we sense our aloneness almost as soon as we are born, but children and adults can transcend their solitude and forget themselves in games or work. The adolescent, however, vacillates between infancy and youth, halting for a moment before the infinite richness of the world. He is astonished at the fact of his being, and this astonishment leads to reflections: as he leans over the river of his consciousness, he asks himself if the face that appears there, disfigured by the water, is his own. The singularity of his being, which is pure sensation in children, becomes a problem and a question. (2)

I don't want to forget myself "in games or work" - especially in work. Think about the last time you went to a gathering of people you did not know, like at a party. Between men at least, within the first thirty seconds of meeting someone, the question that is almost always asked - as if to define us - is, "What do you do?" Now ask yourself that. What do you do? Does it define you? With a rebellious tone I'd love to shout out that "No, it doesn't define me!" Then I think about whom I am writing this letter to: my coworkers. Sadly, yes, what I do at work does define me, at least to them (you).

So, what am I going to do now? I have resigned from my current employer and contract position, and have accepted an offer from another company which requires me and my family to move to a new city. Obviously, neither of these things by themselves changes anything I have lamented about for several paragraphs. I'll still be in software development, sitting in front of a computer screen for much of the day. Why? Three reasons, the first two being embarrassingly selfish and hypocritical, yet honest. The third will hopefully (albeit only partially) reconcile the first two:

  1. Software engineering is the only thing I know how to do that will allow me to keep my family at the standard of living we are accustomed to. Writing those words just made me sick to my stomach. It is a comfortable weakness I regret being attached to.
  2. I enjoy the creative process involved in my work, which I believe my new employer can foster more than any employer I've ever had before. Okay, it's not wrong to enjoy an aspect of your work, but that in and of itself does not constitute a meaningful career - not to myself and definitely not as any kind of contribution to society.
  3. I will be able to - actually expected to - work on various open source projects of my own choosing. I might even be able to head up my own projects. It is in this way that there is a faint hope to use my professional skills to create things that are helpful to others. Sure, many things I work on at my new job will be usable by businesses whose aim is profit, but they will not be the focus of my intent. Rather, I hope social organizations like non-profits, philanthropies, charities, churches, and the like will benefit.

That last faint hope is not enough, though. Not nearly enough. I cannot rationalize away the decision I have made, for I am still succumbing to that "comfort zone" that I scorn. Even if my aforementioned hope comes to fruition, I probably won't know if it ever occurred. As I sit comfortably in front of my computer screen, twice a month nice paychecks being direct-deposited into my bank account, I stay irresponsible and fat, in a socio-economic sense. I am haunted by an excerpt from "The Motorcycle Diaries" by Che Guevara, describing a visit he had with an old dying woman:

It is there, in the final moments, for people whose farthest horizon has always been tomorrow, that one comprehends the profound tragedy circumscribing the life of the proletariat the world over. In those dying eyes there is a submissive appeal for forgiveness and also, often, a desperate plea for consolation which is lost to the void, just as their body will soon be lost in the magnitude of the mystery surrounding us. How long this present order, based on an absurd idea of caste, will last is not within my means to answer, but it's time that those who govern spent less time publicizing their own virtues and more money, much more money, funding socially useful works. (3)

Is it actually possible to participate in "socially useful works" as part of one's job? Of course it is, but it seems very difficult to attain in our profession, as it is not the primary goal of the profession. What else can be done? One can donate time, which I have done, although it has proven increasingly difficult to find among work, commuting and family. One can donate money, which I also have done, although doing so feels too detached and aloof from the actual effort. Should I radically throw my current life as I know it away to join a grass-roots organization in an attempt to become socially responsible (uprooting my family in the process)? Seems rash.

So there you have it. I have elaborated - at length - the problem and the regret. There seems to be no easy answer, just a lot of questions. Again, the intent of this letter was not to tell you how to live, as obviously I have not yet figured that out myself. I merely wanted you to think about what you do, and hopefully put some serious thought into the questions I have laid out.

Oh yeah... It's been great workin' with you guys, I've learned a lot, and I wish you all the best in your professional endeavors.

Legal Disclaimer:

Please be advised that the comments of this letter reflect solely my opinion, do not reflect the opinion of past, present or future employers or clients, and are not intended to malign any past, present or future employers or clients.


(1) Schmich, Mary. (1997). "Advice, like youth, probably just wasted on the young" Chicago Tribune. http://www.chicagotribune.com/...

(2) Paz, Octavio. (1961). "The Labyrinth of Solitude" Grove Press, Inc.

(3) Guevara de la Serna, Ernesto "Che". (1951-1952). "The Motorcycle Diaries: Notes on a Latin American Journey" Ocean Press, 2003.